An often underestimate influence on Lovecraft’s genre is the immensely popular and long time market-sayer, the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, published by Chaosium, Inc. […] The game’s influence extended further than just the gaming community, for Lovecraftian and Cthulhu Mythos authors were quick to discover that Chaosium’s sourcebooks provided a wealth of information, by categorizing and defining Lovecraft’s visions. Soon the game became an encyclopedia, the first point of call for all things Cthulhuoid. This influence is so profound, that new creations which first appeared in the Call of Cthulhu game now appear regularly in the fiction of modern day Lovecraftian authors.
—David Conyers, “Introduction” to Cthulhu’s Dark Cults viii
Tabletop roleplaying games involve many different types of writing and editing. If you were to sit down and write a new game ex nihilo, you would need to first engage in some top-down game design, probably starting with a concept or pitch for the game—who are the player characters and what do they do?
In Dungeons & Dragons, you are an adventurer and you go on adventures! In Shadowrun, you are a shadowrunner, a mercenary criminal in a fantasy cyberpunk future, and you go on shadowruns, which are illegal jobs that can range from smuggling to murder-for-hire to corporate espionage…only with dragons and elves. In Vampire: the Masquerade, you are a vampire and navigate the complex politics of undead society while striving to sustain yourself and control the beast within. In Call of Cthulhu, you are an investigator and you solve cases and delve into mysteries.
The pitch often but not always contains the basic premise of the setting. Dungeons & Dragons is largely setting agnostic; while the default setting is a quasi-medieval fantasy, the basic rules can (and have) been adapted to many different settings, and players are quite capable of creating their own. For games with specific settings like Shadowrun, a certain amount of setting information has to be brainstormed and written so that players know where the action is taking place. Games set in a historical period of the real world like Call of Cthulhu have a distinct advantage in this case because a great deal of raw setting information is widely available—all you have to do is pick up a history book or delve through old newspaper archive and you can find whatever facts you need for playing in the 1920s or 1890s.
Additional writing involves mechanics—the game’s systems, the mathematical and conceptual specifics that indicate how certain actions like combat or magic are to be resolved, tracked, and sometimes abstracted. It isn’t always possible or desirable, for example, to track how much blood a character loses if they get stabbed; the player marks off a couple hit points on their character sheet and moves on. All of that, and how it integrates into the setting and the gameplay experience, is a matter of game design and editing—complicated stuff!
The last, but not the least, bit of work that goes into a tabletop roleplaying game is what most readers would recognize as narrative fiction: short stories and short-shorts which are set in the setting and are told from the perspective of characters that are in that setting. All the rest of the game give the readers—the prospective players of the game—tools and references so that they can play, but the narrative fiction is what sells the tone and style of the setting, free from any considerations of play.
Most games have to create this from nothing. Dungeons & Dragons took inspiration from Robert E. Howard, J. R. R. Tolkein, Fritz Leiber, etc. in creating the game, but none of those authors was specifically writing D&D fiction. Shadowrun added in cyberpunk influences from William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Pat Cadigan, but again, those cyberpunk authors weren’t specifically writing Shadowrun stories—they were writing their own stories from which the Shadowrun authors took inspiration, and then the Shadowrun authors wrote their own stories.
With Call of Cthulhu…the lines are a bit blurrier. What exactly is the difference between a Cthulhu Mythos story, and a Call of Cthulhu story? Is there even a difference?
Unlike Dungeons & Dragons or Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu was specifically inspired by the body of Cthulhu Mythos fiction created by Lovecraft, his contemporaries, and all those who came thereafter. So while D&D wasn’t designed to let player characters actually journey around Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Howard’s Hyborian Age, Call of Cthulhu was designed for player characters to be able to visit Lovecraft’s Innsmouth or Howard’s Stregoicavar, to read the Necronomicon and, if they were very unlucky, to even catch a glimpse of Cthulhu. In that sense, yes, all Call of Cthulhu fiction is part of the Mythos by default—because the game is about playing in that Mythos setting.
However, writing for roleplaying games has very different goals than most narrative fiction. Lovecraft & co. were not obliged to keep any strong continuity between their disparate productions, or to go into detail on the people, places, and objects in those stories. Lovecraft’s map of Arkham and Howard’s essay on the Hyborian Age were, in the 1930s, anomalously deep background for the period, and much of that data never made it into any story—but for roleplaying games, that level of detail is relatively common and expected. More, where earlier Mythos writers were free to be loose or even contradictory with their artificial mythology and how magic worked, in a game things typically have to be more concrete—or at least, the format of the game encourages categorization and specification where narrative fiction favors imagination and non-specificity. You can see this in works like the Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス), which has strong roots in roleplaying gaming.
Beyond the strict game design considerations, there are economic ones. A roleplaying game is typically more than a single book, it is an entire line of products with different subjects which involve the same setting and/or system. Overall development of a game line requires high-level decisions on which books to produce, and how to keep setting material and style consistent between products, because what is written in one book can impact every other book in the line. Line development influences how the setting or its presentation changes over time, and players are often quick to harp on real or imagined discrepancies between rules or setting information between books…and by building on developments from one book to the next, the game setting and rules grow richer and more complex, which often draws readers and players in.
With Call of Cthulhu, this sets a complicated relationship with the Mythos. The game itself takes inspiration and makes reference to a set group of stories and concepts created by Lovecraft & co.—and the line developers, editors, writers, and artists need to make decisions when that material is vague or conflicting. Yet those same creators have no control over what anyone else creates, so while they strive to keep consistency within their own game line, the Mythos continues to proliferate outside of those artificial boundaries…and with many writers and artists taking inspiration from each other, it can be very fuzzy as to whether a given Mythos story is “in” the setting (or settings plural, as it is now) of Call of Cthulhu fiction, or if it is general Mythos fiction that has taken, as David Conyers pointed out, some inspiration from the game and the reference materials it has generated.
For most readers, the distinction is negligible or academic. As Conyers noted, many creators have dipped into or taken inspiration from the volumes of material produced by Chaosium and creators of various related Cthulhu roleplaying games over the years. To take one example, the popular image of Nyarlathotep as a three-legged being with a long tendril for a head and a bloody maw with a long tongue is not referenced anywhere in the works of Lovecraft, Derleth, or other first-generation Mythos authors; it was created for the roleplaying game, but has gone on to become one of the most popular depictions of Nyarlathotep. Some other aspects of the popular Mythos were created or codified by Call of Cthulhu, such as the Order of the Silver Twilight which has featured heavily in spin-off works like Arkham Horror and Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game.
As a roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu tends to be very conservative in terms of mechanics, setting development, and presentation. That is part of the reason that a good deal of the actual innovation in the setting in terms of critically analyzing and rethinking the setting and pitch of how the game is played and who is playing it devolves to related games like Harlem Unbound (2017) by Darker Hue Studios.
This has led to a certain domination of the game by nostalgia. The Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984) campaign written by Larry DiTillio with Lynn Willis, for example, has been revised, re-packaged, expanded, and re-released for six different editions of the game. Because of the strong influence and constant re-publication of Masks, it has tied into many subsequent Call of Cthulhu products and become something of a cornerstone of the identifiable Call of Cthulhu line identity. Fans have created original art, spin-offs, prequels, sequels, soundscapes, and props based on the campaign. The Good Friends of Jackson Elias podcast is a direct reference to the campaign, where the player character investigators are good friends of one Jackson Elias.
Madness is the mark of gods, the response to the whisper of ancient secrets, and the unseen hand that turns the world in its disordered course. With it, I have peered beyond mere dream and pattern, beyond childhood impetuosity and adult grief, beyond the analysis of which other men are capable. Accepting madness, I accept the gods and rule well with their gifts thereby.
—The Masks of Nyarlathotep (4th edition, 2010) 185
Last but not least, Masks of Nyarlathotep has inspired Call of Cthulhu fiction such as “The Whisper of Ancient Secrets” by Penelope Love. The background is a bit necessary because while this story can be read and enjoyed on its own, it is so tied into the Call of Cthulhu setting and Masks of Nyarlathotep and its ancillary materials to such a degree that is fundamentally a product of the game rather than an independent Mythos story that is just borrowing some names or characters.
Pastiche takes as its hallmark a slavish devotion to the outer forms and tropes of Mythos fiction, but this is something much more relaxed and intimate. Love isn’t trying to ape Lovecraft’s style or anyone else’s, it’s a story that demonstrates a profound amount of Mythos lore as codified by Call of Cthulhu over the previous five decades but doesn’t really seek to capture anything of the Lovecraftian tone of mystery or cosmic horror. It is very much a peek behind the scenes, at the kind of happenings that occur off the page in a regular Mythos story or as a result of decisions made by the Keeper or gamemaster as to how the story will react to what the player characters are doing.
Like “Scritch, Scratch” (2014) by Lynne Hardy, to really appreciate what Love does with this story really requires understanding that background of game design and the culture of Call of Cthulhu as distinct from how other Mythos writers approach the material.
“The Whisper of Ancient Secrets” was published in Cthulhu’s Dark Cults (2010). It has not yet been reprinted.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.