The Cold War and the Cthulhu Mythos

"Gadget" In December 2008 I first read about Charles Stross’ short story “A Colder War”. Imagine an alternative timeline where the cold war ends in 1984 because the Soviets mistake a joke made by then-president Ronald Reagan for a declaration of war. But in addition to the nuclear arsenal, a hidden supernatural one is used. In “A Colder War” the Great Cthulhu himself has been weaponized by the Soviets and the Iran government tries to summon Yog-Sothoth into our world. The more I think about it, the more I believe a campaign inspired by that short story could be a great project for the upcoming months.

Especially in autumn or winter I love to run horror games and what could be more blood-freezing than combining H.P. Lovecraft’s work with the cold war? I think I’ll pitch the idea to my players and if they show some interest, I’ll start working on that project as soon as I have enough free time.

The question that remains is what system shall I use. The simplest solution would probably be Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. The system is easy enough and allows adventures from the 1890s to modern day with ease. Another possibility would be Realms of Cthulhu by Reality Blurs. Especially if the campaign should feature a good amount of action, it’s probably the best solution because it uses the Savage World rules. Last but not least Trail of Cthulhu by Pelgrane Press comes to mind. This game normally uses the 1930s as its setting, but as the adventure Castle Bravo has shown, it can be used for later centuries, too. Castle Bravo also combines the Mythos with atomic horror, so it can probably be used for inspiration, or even be run as part of said campaign.

Currently I think it would probably the best to set the campaign into the 1950s or 1960s. Most characters might have actually fought in WW2 and may even had their first encounter with the Mythos then. I also think that the McCarthy era in particular could form a great backdrop for such a campaign. Perhaps the players start as FBI agents following some leads on a group of Communists that are in fact cultists worshipping some Mythos entity.

I am not entirely sure about the details yet, but my plan is that things on Earth get increasingly worse during the campaign. Instead of stopping the coming apocalypse the player characters should be uncovering the events that lead to it. This is a big gamble. My players may actually hate it, because they can’t fight the inevitable. But in my opinion that’s what a combination of the Cthulhu Mythos and the cold war should be like. There’s no way out. The bombs will fall, Cthulhu will wake, humanity will be destroyed. But the way there can be quite exciting and even fun to play!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

12 thoughts on “The Cold War and the Cthulhu Mythos”

  1. Have you seen the game called The Laundry? Based on the cthulhu’ish books by Charles Stross? Not sure if they would work, but that is the first thing that came to mind.

  2. There is a short story by Bruce Sterling with a similar idea (“The Unthinkable” maybe? From the Globalhead short story collection) which is worth looking at.

  3. If your players don’t like the inevitable “can’t stop the bombs” idea, maybe you can offer them a little salvation. If they follow the clues, they see the end coming. Their victory isn’t in stopping it, but rather making sure something survives. I’m thinking bomb shelters warded with elder signs, and other technology mixed with magic.

    As a bonus, if you set the game in the 50s, after they survive the apocalypse you can start up a follow-up game based off of the Fallout video game franchise!

  4. actually, the laundry RPG is ideal for a story somewhere within this setting, perfect in fact. Whether set during the cold war era build up using the standard laundry setting or in some aspect of the aftermath (the fallout suggestion being ideal) simply edged closer to the games suggestions for CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

    The book of scenarious ‘Black bag Jobs’ includes some ideas that would help set the scene of Masada and the aftermath but I think I’d probably want to run stories in the build up to armageddon.

  5. I have been itching to play a retro cold war game, this would be a great fit. Evil Michael, putting ideas in my head!

  6. I always find it a hard sell on anything Cthulhu to my players. Some players just don’t like the idea of running away from the monsters. I do love the idea of a cold war mix with the mythos. I would keep it in the 80s myself, since I am familiar with the time. Now if I could just find players for a Cthulhu game.

  7. That short story by Charles Stross is terrifying. Recall the “The Taqrit Horror”? It was oddly prescient of the war with Iraq (though written in 1992). And it is just about the darkest version of what “The Singularity” will bring that I can think of. Nice to see that others, like you, appreciated it. No, I am not a conspiracy theory person! It was a short story only, but a very good one.

    I just read a post by Charles Stross about the singularity. And it was written recently, maybe last month. Y’all might like it. This isn’t link bait, I’ll just write out the URL (I have blogs too, I know how endemic the spam problem is). Crud, I can’t find it and am about to time out on stackoverflow. His blog is great, it is antipope dot org.

  8. If you’re going for action, you should check out Nemesis, which is the horror incarnation of the One-Roll Engine (ORE). Basically, fast combat plus madness meter.

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