Narrative Structure and Creative Tension in Call of Cthulhu

Narrative Structure and Creative Tension in Call of Cthulhu

Kenneth Hite

Kenneth Hite argues that the long-running, H.P. Lovecraft-inspired Call of Cthulhu franchise differs from traditional tabletop role-playing in its focus on suspense rather than character growth. Hite’s analysis suggests that in its origins and emphasis on narrative structure Cthulhu is a highly literary game.

Ben Underwood:

In his contribution to Second Person Greg Costikyan imagines how to move beyond the beads-on-a-string model of game play.

Ben Underwood:

R. M. Berry’s recent novel Frank offers a variation on Mary Shelly’s overreacher ur-text Frankenstein. ebr contains a debate between Joseph Tabbi and Berry inspired by Tabbi’s review of the novel.


“Puerile though the story was, old Zadok’s insane earnestness and horror had communicated to me a mounting unrest …”
- H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”

4.1) Cover of the Sixth Edition Call of Cthulhu core rulebook. (Chaosium)

Published adventures for the role-playing game Call of Cthulhu have remained unusually successful, both artistically and economically, in the role-playing game industry. Most role-playing supplements contain additional information on game rules or setting, or cover specific subjects such as weapons or genre emulation rather than present pre-scripted adventures or scenarios. Such adventure material is relatively rare, and “pure” adventure books rarer still. The conventional wisdom within the role-playing design field is that Call of Cthulhu is the only role-playing game aside from Dungeons & Dragons (the overwhelmingly most popular role-playing rules set) that can support a continuous stream of profitable adventures.

Like most conventional wisdom, this is not quite accurate. For example, White Wolf Publishing reliably produces one or two “chronicle” books a year designed for the various games using their Storyteller system (the second-most-popular role-playing rules set), and Palladium has four adventure books currently in print supporting RIFTS (the third-most-popular role-playing game rules set). However, for a relatively small company, Chaosium has a large adventure book “footprint.” Eleven of twenty-one Call of Cthulhu supplements currently in print from Chaosium are adventure books; six of the others include adventures, a much larger ratio than more prolific companies such as White Wolf, despite a smaller player base.There is no current reliable player base data, but White Wolf game book sales, for example, are typically five to ten times those of Chaosium. According to a 1999 marketing study conducted by Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, 8% of tabletop role-players played Call of Cthulhu at least once a month, compared with 40% for Storyteller system games (Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse) and 66% for Dungeons & Dragons (Dancey 2000). Dancey’s study, and his summary of its results, have drawn criticism from many corners of the RPG industry and fan base on methodological and ideological grounds, but no better data has yet been released. Further, Call of Cthulhu adventures have won five Origins Awards for Best Roleplaying Game Adventure,The Great Old Ones (1990), Horror on the Orient Express (1991), Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep (1996), Beyond the Mountains of Madness (1999), and Unseen Masters (2001). and three Call of Cthulhu sourcebooks with strong adventure content have won the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game Sourcebook.Cthulhu by Gaslight (1987), Delta Green (1997), and Delta Green: Countdown (1999).” Two other Call of Cthulhu campaigns have won the Games Day Award for Best Adventure.Shadows of Yog-Sothoth (1982) and Spawn of Azathoth (1987).

4.2) Cover of Sandy Petersen's Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. (Chaosium)

Aside from artistic merit, one key factor in both the marketability and the usability of Call of Cthulhu adventures (like Dungeons & Dragons adventures) is their high degree of standardization. Just as standard Dungeons & Dragons adventures present a geographically constricted series of gladiatorial contests in the typical dungeon adventure, standard Call of Cthulhu adventures present a dramatically constricted series of horrific discoveries in a mystery story plot. This pattern holds both in individual adventures and linked campaign series.

The key factor allowing this standardization in both Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu is the assumption of a common motive for all potential player characters. All Dungeons & Dragons characters, regardless of species, alignment, or adventuring specialty, can be assumed (at least by a publisher of Dungeons & Dragons adventures) to want to kill monsters and take their treasure as a means of increasing their own personal power. All Call of Cthulhu Investigators (player characters), likewise, can be assumed to be actively investigating, which is to say seeking out (or at least not actively avoiding) occult mysteries to solve as a means of defeating (or at least stalling) servants of the evil alien god Cthulhu or similar monstrosities.

4.3) Cover of Bruce Ballon's Unseen Masters. (Chaosium)

The Call of Cthulhu rulebook has consistently affirmed this assumption. On the first text page of the first edition of Call of Cthulhu (1981), under the “Purpose of the Game” we read:

Players in Call of Cthulhu will take the part of intrepid Investigators of the unknown, attempting to ferret out, understand, and occasionally destroy the horrors, mysteries, and secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos. (Call of Cthulhu 1981, 4)

Several pages later, under “Working for a Living”:

Characters need to have some reason for investigating the Cthulhu Mythos, and this may be provided by their occupation. (Ibid., 8)

In the “Keeper’s Lore” (“Keeper” is the Call of Cthulhu term for Game Master) section further on, the would-be Keeper is advised:

Your player should always have a motive to investigate a particular scenario. Perhaps it is tied into an old family secret of his? If he is a journalist, your problem is solved: the journal employing him simply sends him to investigate the story! (Ibid., 72)

Over twenty years later, the sixth edition (2004) of the rulebook reiterates similar assumptions:

[Players] take the part of characters who attempt to solve some mystery or resolve some situation. (The rules call these characters “investigators” because that is what they do, not because they are professional investigators - player characters can have all kinds of occupations.) … The game is an evolving interaction between players (in the guise of characters unraveling a mystery) and the keeper, who presents the world in which the mystery occurs. (Call of Cthulhu 2004, 24 - 25)

Both the first and sixth editions of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook offer nearly identical specific structural advice on constructing such a horror mystery story. From the first edition:

Each scenario in Call of Cthulhu should be organized like the layers of an onion. As the characters uncover one layer, they should discover another. These layers should go on and on until the players themselves decide they are getting too deep and stop their investigations. On the surface, the scenario should look like it is no more than a conventional “haunted house,” mystic cult, or even a hoax. As the players delve deeper in the mystery, hints and notes should be given showing the greater significance of this particular haunted house in the scheme of things. (Call of Cthulhu 1981, 71)

From the sixth edition:

A scenario in Call of Cthulhu can be organized like the layers of an onion. On the surface, suppose that the scenario looks like it’s about a conventional haunted house. It might even look like a hoax. As the investigators penetrate the first layer, they should discover another beneath. These layers might go on and on, until the investigators themselves decide they are getting too deep and stop their investigations. As the investigators delve more deeply into the mystery, hints and notes should situate the haunted house in some greater scheme. (Call of Cthulhu 2004, 135)The sixth edition version is slightly less proscriptive than the first, substituting “can” for “should,” and being headlined “An Example of A Plot” rather than the sterner “How to Set Up a Scenario” from the first edition.

The sixth edition also provides a sidebar with step-by-step guidelines for “Building a Scenario”:

Since most Cthulhu adventures are mysteries whose solutions lead to understanding, their structures are progressive and problem-solving, and in outline are much more alike than different… .

1) A mystery or crisis is posed…

2) The investigators become linked to the problem…

3) The investigators attempt to define the mystery…

4) The investigators use the clues and evidence to confront the danger…

5) The mystery or problem is solved. (Ibid., 136)

In The Philosophy of Horror, Noël Carroll (1990) not only notes a similar commonality between horror story plots and detective story plots but provides a very similar schema of horror plot structure - what Carroll calls the “complex discovery plot.” Carroll provides four stages rather than five: “onset, discovery, confirmation, and confrontation,” which map almost perfectly onto the first four steps from the Call of Cthulhu rulebook above (Carroll 1990, 99). (The fifth step, “resolution,” is more essential to a role-playing game featuring continuing characters, than it is to horror stories in general.) This understanding of horror narrative, then, is not unique to role-playing games or to Call of Cthulhu.This understanding of adventure construction is, however, not universal within role-playing, or even horror role-playing. For example, Vampire: The Requiem announces as its intention that the Storyteller “build chronicles that explore morality through the metaphor of vampirism,” (Vampire: The Requiem, 14) emphasizing “Theme and Mood” (Ibid, 16) rather than plot in this introductory section. The discussion of “Plots” comes ten pages into the “Storytelling” chapter (Ibid, 208), well after “Characters,” “Setting,” “Xenophobia,” and finally “Themes” (again). For further discussion of adventure construction in horror role-playing, see Nightmares of Mine (Hite 1999).

The Call of Cthulhu rulebook, which bylines itself as “horror role-playing in the worlds of H. P. Lovecraft (Call of Cthulhu 2004, 3),”On page 1 of the first edition rulebook, the byline reads: “Fantasy role-playing in the worlds of H. P. Lovecraft.” represents horror mysteries, therefore, as paradigmatic of Call of Cthulhu adventures. It strongly implies that such narrative structures are likewise paradigmatic of the corpus of H. P. Lovecraft stories on which the game is based. As an example of such a horror mystery story, both the first and sixth editions of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook adduce H. P. Lovecraft’s novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in nearly identical language (Call of Cthulhu 1981, 71; Call of Cthulhu 2004, 135).

4.4) Cover of Escape From Innsmouth, which contains Keith Herber's "The Raid on Innsmouth." (Chaosium)

Prominent Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi concurs, calling Ward “the greatest supernatural detective story ever written,” further noting that “the whole style and construction of the novel is that of a detective tale” (Joshi 1990, 195). Other Lovecraft stories likewise follow the general horror-mystery outlines of the complex discovery plot and the “Building a Scenario” sidebar. “The Shunned House,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “The Lurking Fear,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” and “The Dreams in the Witch-House” can all be understood as horror mysteries, complete with the successful resolution of the monstrosity at the end, though often not without cost to the viewpoint characters. Charles Dexter Ward, for example, does not survive the novel, although the evil wizard who kills him is defeated.

Another set of Lovecraft stories, however, derive their power primarily from the unsuccessful resolution of the horror, despite the horrifyingly successful solution of the mystery. These include “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Whisperer in Darkness,” “Pickman’s Model,” “The Shadow Out of Time,” At the Mountains of Madness, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” and ironically “The Call of Cthulhu” itself. In all these narratives, the horrors survive, completely destroy the narrator, or both. Still another group of Lovecraft stories diverges further still from the horror mystery model, more closely matching what Carroll calls the “overreacher” plot structure (Carroll 1990, 118). In such stories as “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “From Beyond,” “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs,” and “Herbert West: Re-Animator,” the quest for forbidden knowledge by an overreaching main character boomerangs horribly. There is some overlap; for example, “The Dreams in the Witch-House” can also be read as an overreacher plot, and Carroll reads “The Dunwich Horror” as a combination of the overreacher plot (about the evil sorcerer, Whateley) and the discovery plot (about the good scholar Dr. Armitage) (Ibid., 124). Similarly, a horror mystery that uncovers too much, such as At the Mountains of Madness, can also be read as an overreacher story, in which the act of investigating the mystery is itself an overreaching act.

Although no published Call of Cthulhu scenario of which I am aware casts the players overtly as overreaching madmen,At least two Pagan Publishing scenarios follow discovery plot structures, in which the characters are (unbeknownst to themselves) overreaching madmen. The two are Devil’s Children (1993) and “In Media Res” (1993). Both began as convention scenarios;. the rules work to slowly enforce such a fate on all Investigators in a kind of metanarrative encompassing the entire course of the character’s existence. According to the rules of Call of Cthulhu, learning more about the “Cthulhu Mythos” (whether by reading books, seeing monsters, or casting spells) costs Investigators their Sanity, which lowers permanently as their Cthulhu Mythos knowledge scores increase (Call of Cthulhu 2004, 40, 67, 75 - 76). Thus, every Investigator by definition becomes an overreacher, doomed to the same fate as the hapless narrators of “The Call of Cthulhu” or At the Mountains of Madness. As Sandy Petersen, the game’s designer, writes: “The whole concept of Sanity permeates the game and makes it what it is.” Although some concessions to playability demanded a mechanism to regain Sanity temporarily, “the tendency is still definitely towards Sanity loss rather than gain” (Petersen 1982, 8 - 13).The quote on Sanity appears on page 11. A similar discussion of the inevitable doom of all Investigators appears in “Preparing for the End,” on page 143 of Call of Cthulhu (2004).

That said, individual published Call of Cthulhu adventures more consistently follow the complex discovery plot structure than Lovecraft’s stories do. However, many adventures manage to present overreachers as key elements (usually villains) of the mystery, in much the same way that Lovecraft combined the two forms in “The Dunwich Horror.” An early version of this pattern appears in “Shadows Over Hollywood,” a short adventure included in the first edition rulebook (in which the overreaching cult of Santa Maria de la Sombra Segunda wiped itself out before the adventure begins) (Call of Cthulhu 1981, 91 - 92). The first clear example of what we might call the “investigating the overreacher” plot in a published adventure appears in “The Asylum” (1983). Further examples include “The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn” (1984) and the culmination of the form, perhaps, in 1990 with At Your Door, which enmeshes hapless Investigators in a duel between two rival overreachers. Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green (1997). The Delta Green conspiracy first appeared in “Convergence” (1993), in Pagan Publishing’s magazine The Unspeakable Oath.

4.5) Cover of Delta Green. (Pagan Publishing)

The Delta Green conspiracy first appeared in “Convergence” (1993), in Pagan Publishing’s magazine The Unspeakable Oath. presented a conspiracy of overreachers (Majestic-12) as the Investigators’ standard foes, and derived much of its uncanny frisson from the strong implication that the Investigators’ parent agency, the titular Delta Green conspiracy, was likewise caught in an overreaching spiral. The Delta Green campaign frame (or “narrative structure,” as John Tynes refers to it) (Delta Green, 4) thus manages to dramatically square the circle of complex discovery, overreaching, and noble doom for Investigators’ personal narratives while inexorably linking them into the materialist maltheism of the Cthulhu Mythos.

4.6) Cover of Larry DiTillio and Lynn Willis's Masks of Nyarlathotep. (Chaosium)

Chaosium adventure writers also explored the boundaries of the role-playing adventure form. The horror mystery, as noted before, is dramatically constrained: the characters must discover the horror, uncover clues to the horror, confront the horror, and defeat the horror, in that order. The easiest way to structure such a story is to present clues that each lead to the next clue, like bread crumbs on a trail or beads-on-a-string. Some adventures experimented, instead, with the geographical constraint common to Dungeons & Dragons adventures. All that is necessary in those adventures is for the Investigators to enter the crypt, or haunted house, or ghoul warren; the act of confronting the individual horrors in each room or chamber - the order being unimportant - serves as sufficient clue fodder for the final confrontation. Such “dungeon crawl” design is clearly evident in “Black Devil Mountain” (1983), “The Haunted House” (1984), “Thoth’s Dagger” (1984), “The City Without a Name” (1984), and in Mansions of Madness (1990), a collection of haunted house adventures.

Going another direction, some writers crafted “gauntlet” scenarios in which the characters can do nothing except witness unimaginable horror, and hope to survive to tell the tale. Since these narratives lack much of a role for players, they tend to be embedded in larger campaigns. Examples include “The Rise of R’lyeh” in Shadows of Yog-Sothoth (1982), the Xura sections of “The Land of Lost Dreams” (1986), and “In a City of Bells and Towers” in Horror on the Orient Express (1991).This adventure originally appeared in Dagon 22/23 (1988): 47 - 54. The closest to a paradigmatic example of this form is perhaps “The People of the Monolith” (1982),The original Robert E. Howard story is “The Black Stone.” closely based on a story by Robert E. Howard in which the uncharacteristically passive narrator falls asleep beneath a Hungarian monolith and dreams of an eldritch ceremony.

No discussion of narrative structure in Call of Cthulhu adventures is complete without mention of Larry diTillio’s Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984) and Keith Herber’s “The Raid on Innsmouth” (1992). Although like other campaigns (for Call of Cthulhu and other games), Masks of Nyarlathotep presented a linked set of adventures ending in a final confrontation and resolution, it departed radically from the “trail of bread crumbs” convention. Each adventure contained in the campaign leads to all the other adventures; the Investigators could pursue the adventures in any order.

The villains, meanwhile, were working to a specific calendar, with their great ceremony timed (by the designer) to occur after the Investigators completed all the “confirmation stage” adventures and gained the necessary knowledge to (hopefully) foil the plot. Within each adventure, diTillio combined geographical constraint (each adventure takes place in a single city) with open structure; some of the encounters were simple bloodbaths, others were fiendish traps or puzzles, some were “dungeon crawls,” and still others were complete red herrings. The players could follow their own investigative instincts through a “target-rich” environment, with the extraordinary deadliness of the settings providing the constraint on player action that ordinarily flows solely from the written plot.

For some reason, despite overwhelming critical praise for this model, Chaosium returned to conventional campaign structures thereafter, even going so far as to tweak critics of such “railroaded” campaigns by setting Horror on the Orient Express (1991) on a literal railroad. That year, designer Keith Herber plotted the wildly radical structure of “The Raid on Innsmouth.” This adventure is divided into six mini-scenarios called “objectives.” Each Investigator is assigned to one objective; during the other objectives, his player takes the role of an expendable cannon-fodder character. As the objectives rotate through their arc, the whole story of the raid is revealed to the players, though never to any one character. “The Raid on Innsmouth” is easily the most formally ambitious adventure ever published by Chaosium, and perhaps by any game company.The role-playing game Ars Magica (1988) is built on such “troupe-style” structure within campaigns - players take turns playing dominant Magi, as opposed to cannon-fodder Grogs or sidekick Consors, for each adventure - but no single published adventure that I know of expects players to rotate roles throughout. I do not know whether Herber was familiar with Ars Magica when he designed “The Raid on Innsmouth.” Like Masks of Nyarlathotep, it became an exemplar, but not a model, of the Call of Cthulhu adventure form.

Lovecraft’s major influence on horror writing was thematic and mythic, rather than formal. The discovery plot (like the detective story) goes back to Poe, and the overreacher plot might well be called “the Frankenstein plot” after its most famous example. Although Lovecraft produced masterful versions of both, he did not create a new form. Lovecraft’s great innovations in the genre were the “Copernican revolution” of scientific horror (in which the supernatural becomes, rather, the alien) (Leiber 1980) and his creation of the maltheistic mythology of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth and so forth, the “Cthulhu Mythos,” as a single horrific backdrop that extends through all time and space (Joshi 1990, 190-193).Lovecraft adapted the concept of a mythical pantheon from Lord Dunsany, but transposing imaginary deities to the modern world, and portraying them as unvaryingly dangerous, inimical, or malevolent, was his contribution. In addition to the larger concept of an “anti-mythology,” many of Lovecraft’s contemporaries and successors adopted the specific deities, grimoires, and so forth of the Cthulhu Mythos for their own fiction, often divorcing it from Lovecraft’s stark scientific materialism in the process. These authors also added their own tomes, monsters, and gods to the Mythos, as have published Call of Cthulhu adventures.The Cthulhu Mythos has infiltrated the works of such authors as Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, August Derleth (who coined the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos”), Neil Gaiman, Robert E. Howard, Stephen King, and Colin Wilson. See Jarocha-Ernst (1999), or Harms (1998).

Chaosium and its licensees have used the Cthulhu Mythos more consistently than Lovecraft did; only a very few published adventures fail to invoke one or another of the Mythos’ portentous magic books or alien pantheons. However, not all published Call of Cthulhu materials follow Lovecraft into complete materialism or into complete maltheism. Ghosts, vampires, and werewolves appear in the (non-Mythos) “Beasts & Monsters” section of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook (Call of Cthulhu 2004, 205, 209-210), and Healing spells appear in the “Mythos Grimoire” (Ibid., 237). Likewise, the plots of some published adventures more closely resemble those of Lovecraft’s successors than his own - beginning with the first published Call of Cthulhu campaign, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, a globe-trotting chase reminiscent in pace and flavor of August Derleth’s linked story-series, The Trail of Cthulhu. Some adventures deliberately evoke Lovecraft’s successors, of course, such as Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood (2001), an adventure collection based on Campbell’s contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos.

Less explicitly, Call of Cthulhu adventures, like the larger post-Lovecraftian horror fiction field, have been exploring not just other facets of the Cthulhu Mythos but other facets of, and approaches to, horror. Keith Herber’s portrait of a town far gone in decay in Return to Dunwich (1991) builds not on Ramsey Campbell’s Cthulhu Mythos stories but on Campbell’s bleak vision of social despair in such novels as The Face That Must Die (and perhaps on Stephen King’s blue-collar New England horror). Clive Barker’s emphasis on the physicality of horror is reflected in the themes of body modification (explicit sexuality remaining taboo in a product intended for sale to minors in the United States) and cannibalism emphasized in campaigns like At Your Door (1990) and The Realm of Shadows (1997).

Psychological, internalized horror fiction of the sort revitalized by Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series has steadily informed Call of Cthulhu’s treatment of insanity, culminating with Bruce Ballon’s Unseen Masters (2001), which introduced the “unreliable narrator” to Call of Cthulhu adventure design and received the 2001 Mary Seeman Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Area of Psychiatry and the Humanities from the Psychology Department of the University of Toronto. Ballon also explicitly credits the works of M. R. James, Philip K. Dick, Umberto Eco, and “the child-demon films I watched in my youth” as influences on this campaign (Unseen Masters, 81, 127). Even more explicitly, “In a City of Bells and Towers” (1991) attempts to adapt the surreal, dreamlike horror of Thomas LigottiFor Ligotti’s style and contributions to horror, see Joshi (2001). to a Call of Cthulhu adventure, setting the adventure (a nightmare sent to the Investigators) within a strange, Expressionist vision of the city of Zagreb. The scenario goes so far as to include Ligotti’s short story, “The Journal of J. P. Drapeau,” as a player handout. In short, the degree and diversity of thematic and mythic exploration in published Call of Cthulhu adventures over the last twenty-five years mirrors that of the horror fiction genre since Lovecraft’s “Copernican Revolution” in horror.

It is difficult to assess whether styles of play have likewise changed since 1981, but personal experience and anecdotal evidence would tend to indicate otherwise. Gaming groups do not tend to adopt “Raid on Innsmouth”-style multiple-character play for Call of Cthulhu despite (or perhaps because of) the timid exhortation of the rulebook concerning the utility of multiple characters (Call of Cthulhu 2004, 28 - 29). Even scenarios designed to be run at gaming conventions, while allowing for wildly variant character groups or settings (since they need not support an ongoing campaign) seldom tamper with the established “horror mystery” narrative structure, although they may compress it to fit in a four-hour time slot.One example of radical adventure design in convention gaming is John Tynes’s “In Media Res,” which contains no conventional Cthulhu Mythos elements, and centers on player characters with no memory who have apparently just escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane. I have seen in various convention program books occasional notices of games in which the players take the role of Cthulhu cultists; I cannot say whether the adventure plot structure remained conventional, although I would tend to guess so. See also the discussion of “Tournament Games” in Call of Cthulhu (2004, 146 - 147). Although individual gaming groups may vary their styles, several factors likely tend to standardize and stabilize play styles across the Call of Cthulhu player population at large.

The first is the rapid turnover in the role-playing hobby as a whole. Role-playing gamers traditionally enter the hobby around ages 12 or 13, before high school. They play until age 16 (dropping out with the availability of a car, and the concomitant expansion of available competing activities), re-enter the hobby in college (when mobility and choice are artificially constrained again) and drift out of it after graduation, marriage, childbirth, or other life changes.Again, this data is largely anecdotal, but Dancey (2000) supports them. By this understanding, a typical gaming group lasts only four years at the most; even if the gamers in it play Call of Cthulhu for the entire length of their involvement in the hobby (unlikely), the traditional game structure will not pall.My own experience as a Call of Cthulhu Keeper may serve as an example. I have run Call of Cthulhu repeatedly since 1981, both as standard campaigns (1981 - 1988, 1997 - 1999, 2000-2002) and convention games (1989-1996). Despite my atypical background as a professional role-playing game designer, and my increasing tendency in other game systems to run character-driven dramatically open narratives, my Call of Cthulhu play has remained (with few exceptions in individual scenarios, including my second convention scenario, which was a pure “chase sequence”) ruthlessly formally traditional throughout. From 1981 to 1988, especially, I primarily ran published adventures.

Another is Chaosium’s institutional conservatism. The Call of Cthulhu rulebook, despite having gone through six editions (and numerous sub-editions) since 1981, has changed very little. The core game mechanics, institutional guidelines, and even much of the rulebook text have remained constant (and robust) throughout. Lynn Willis, who wrote portions of the insanity rules in 1981, has directed Call of Cthulhu’s development as editor in chief since 1993, and contributed to virtually every Call of Cthulhu product. Charlie Krank, the product developer and layout artist of the sixth edition rulebook, playtested the first edition rules. No other role-playing game line can make a similar claim to longevity and continuity in design staff. Further, Chaosium regularly reprints and repackages older adventures for new audiences. Eight of the eleven adventure books currently in print from Chaosium are reprints, including a reissue of the very first Call of Cthulhu campaign, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. Two adventures from the original rulebook, “The Haunted House”Not Keith Herber’s scenario, described elsewhere in this volume, but the mini-adventure found in the CoC rulebook throughout its editions. and “The Madman,” are still in the sixth edition rulebook (Call of Cthulhu 1981, 74 - 77; Call of Cthulhu 2004, 250 - 255,In the sixth-edition rulebook, the scenario is retitled “The Haunting.” and 265 - 269).

Still another is the leveling influence of a common, unchanging, and relatively narrow set of ur-texts - Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories - upon which to base adventure games. Although Call of Cthulhu players may encounter Lovecraft by way of Stephen King or other modern writers, or “jump off” from Lovecraft into later (or earlier) horror fiction, the rulebook encourages a natural centripetal tendency to concentrate on Lovecraft’s works as the core and model of Call of Cthulhu adventures (Call of Cthulhu 2004, 135). Chaosium further reinforces this tendency by publishing adventures that are pure remakes of, or sequels to, Lovecraft’s stories, such as “Escape from Innsmouth” (1992), “Return to Dunwich” (1991), and Beyond the Mountains of Madness (1999). The nature of Lovecraft’s work also cements this tendency. Lovecraft’s fiction, of course, was written primarily for pulp magazine audiences, with a concomitantly strong appeal to adolescent males, who today make up the core role-playing gamer demographic.Per Dancey (2000), 19% of role-playing gamers are female. The gamer’s discoveries of role-playing and of Lovecraft quite likely often happen at the same age, which buttresses Lovecraft’s already towering status as narrative scripture to Call of Cthulhu Keepers.

Thus, the standardized form of Call of Cthulhu adventures born in part of commercial necessity is identified with Lovecraft’s narrative structure, which is then invoked (by players perhaps more than adventure designers) to justify standardizing play styles. The words of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook and the publishing choices of Chaosium reinforce all these tendencies, and have done so consistently since 1981. The result is a game in constant creative tension between adventure narrative and larger character narrative, and between standard adventure narrative structure and trends in both role-playing game design and horror fiction at large. Given the longevity and artistic success enjoyed by Chaosium and by Call of Cthulhu, it would seem to be a productive tension.

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël (1990). The Philosophy of Horror. London: Routledge.

Dancey, Ryan S. (2000). “Adventure Game Industry Market Research Summary.” <>.

Harms, Daniel (1998). The Encyclopedia Cthulhiana (2nd edition). Oakland, CA: Chaosium.

Hite, Kenneth (1999). Nightmares of Mine. Charlottesville, VA: Iron Crown Enterprises.

Jarocha-Ernst, Chris (1999). A Cthulhu Mythos Bibliography & Concordance. Seattle, WA: Armitage House.

Joshi, S. T. (1990). The Weird Tale. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Joshi, S. T. (2001). The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Leiber, Fritz Jr. (1980). “A Literary Copernicus.” In H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by S. T. Joshi. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Petersen, Sandy (1982). “Call of Cthulhu Designer’s Notes.” Different Worlds 19 (1982): 8 - 13.

Games Cited

Ars Magica. Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein-Hagen; Lion Rampant. 1988.

“The Asylum.” In The Asylum & Other Tales. Randy McCall, Sandy Petersen (editor); Chaosium. 1983.

At Your Door. L.N. Isinwyll, Mark Morrison, Barbara Manui, Chris Adams, Scott D. Aniolowski, and Herbert Hike; Chaosium. 1990.

Beyond the Mountains of Madness. Charles Engan and Janyce Engan; Chaosium. 1999.

“Black Devil Mountain.” In The Asylum & Other Tales. David A. Hargrave and Sandy Petersen (editors); Chaosium. 1983.

Call of Cthulhu (1st edition). Sandy Petersen; Chaosium. 1981.

Call of Cthulhu (6th edition). Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis; Chaosium. 2004.

“The City Without a Name.” In Curse of the Chthonians. William Hamblin; Chaosium. 1984.

Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep. Larry DiTillio and Lynn Willis; Chaosium. 1996.

“Convergence.” In The Unspeakable Oath 7 (1992): 58-77. John Tynes; Pagan Publishing. 1992.

Cthulhu by Gaslight. William A. Barton; Chaosium. 1987.

“The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn.” In Curse of the Chthonians. William A. Barton and Sandy Petersen (editors); Chaosium. 1984.

Delta Green. Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy, and John Tynes; Pagan Publishing. 1997.

Delta Green: Countdown. Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy, and John Tynes; Pagan Publishing. 1999.

Devil’s Children. David Conyers, David Godley, and David Witteeven; Pagan Publishing. 1993.

The Great Old Ones. Marcus L. Rowland, Kevin A. Ross, Harry Cleaver, Doug Lyons, and L. N. Isinwyll; Chaosium. 1990.

“Escape From Innsmouth.” In Escape From Innsmouth. Kevin Ross; Chaosium. 1992.

“The Haunted House.” In The Trail of Tsathoggua. Keith Herber; Chaosium. 1984.

Horror on the Orient Express. Geoff Gillan, Mark Morrison, Nick Hagger, Bernard Caleo, Penelope Love, Russell Waters, Marion Anderson, Phil Anderson, Richard Watts, Peter F. Jeffery, Christian Lehmann, L. N. Isinwyll, and Thomas Ligotti; Chaosium. 1991.

“In a City of Bells and Towers.” In Horror on the Orient Express. Mark Morrison; Chaosium. 1991. Original appearance in Dagon 22/23 (1988): 47 - 54.

“In Media Res.” In The Unspeakable Oath 10 (1993). John Tynes; Pagan Publishing. 1993.

“The Land of Lost Dreams.” In H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. Mark Morrison and Sandy Petersen (editors); Chaosium. 1986.

Mansions of Madness. Fred Behrendt, Michael DeWolfe, Keith Herber, Wesley Martin, and Mark Morrison; Chaosium. 1990.

Masks of Nyarlathotep. Larry diTillio; Chaosium. 1984.

“The People of the Monolith.” In Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. Ted Shelton; Chaosium. 1982.

“The Raid on Innsmouth.” In Escape From Innsmouth. Keith Herber et al.; Chaosium. 1992.

Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood and Less Pleasant Places. Scott David Aniolowski, Gary Sumpter, Richard Watts, J. Todd Kingrea, Clifton Ganyard, Rob Malkovich, Steve Spisak, Mike Mason, and David Mitchell; Chaosium. 2001.

Realm of Shadows. John H. Crowe III; Pagan Publishing. 1997.

Return to Dunwich. Keith Herber; Chaosium. 1991.

“The Rise of R’lyeh.” In Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. Sandy Petersen; Chaosium. 1982.

Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. John Carnahan, John Scott Clegg, Ed Gore, Marc Hutchison, Randy McCall, and Sandy Petersen; Chaosium. 1982.

Spawn of Azathoth. Keith Herber; Chaosium. 1987.

“Thoth’s Dagger.” In Curse of the Chthonians. William Hamblin; Chaosium. 1984.

Unseen Masters. Bruce Ballon; Chaosium. 2001.

Vampire: The Requiem. Justin Achilli, Ari Marmell, Dean Shomshak and C. A. Suleiman; White Wolf Publishing. 2004.