Happy Birthday, ‘Call of Cthulhu’

Thirty years ago today, Sandy Petersen received his first author’s copies of the first edition of Call of Cthulhu, the Lovecraftian tabletop roleplaying game that inspired The Unspeakable Oath.

I came to Lovecraft from a love of Dungeons and Dragons. The first edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide famously included a brief apppendix titled Inspirational Reading, the books and authors that Gary Gygax gave his highest recommendation. Nestled in the middle of the list was “Lovecraft, H.P.,” no book or story titles given. After the list Gygax listed “HPL” as one of the most key influences.

Still one of the best Recommended Reading lists around.

I started playing D&D at 10 years old, instantly became a fanatic, and spent my formative years playing that game and others like it. When my best friend Mike and I heard about Call of Cthulhu, three years later, we were intrigued. I got my mom to buy the game — the boxed first edition — and Mike and I gave it a shot.

We played an adventure called “The Brockford House,” a five-page little slip of a scenario that was mostly about — spoiler alert! — creeping into caves and having a fight with Deep Ones. Speaking as a Cthulhu editor with decades of experience I can say it was a lousy example of Call of Cthulhu adventure design. I would never publish it in the Oath. It was a dungeon crawl. But for me and Mike, 12-year-old RPG fanatics who already were hungry for something more interesting than dungeon crawls, it was a revelation.

Roll for wandering monsters!

The adventure ended with my character, an author, escaping the Deep Ones and writing up his harrowing adventure for his publisher. But then the publisher pulled a revolver from his desk and murdered my character — for the publisher himself was in league with the Deep Ones!

That last twist was all Mike’s. Did I mention we were 12? I thought it was the most appalling and amazing thing ever. Dungeons and Dragons had been supplanted in my RPG-loving heart for all time.

Of course, you never truly forget your first love.

In high school, Mike and I played in a long-running Call of Cthulhu campaign with our best friends. It took us through the adventures in Terror From the Stars, the entirety of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, a few homemade adventures, and a couple of chapters into Masks of Nyarlathotep, which was then only a couple of years old. An apocalyptic encounter in England in Masks killed every player character but one, including two — my shotgun-packing dilettante and my friend Ken’s two-fisted fighter pilot — who had started the campaign and survived everything from South American deserts to an alien temple on the Moon to walking the mad streets of R’lyeh itself.

A few years after that, I discovered The Unspeakable Oath.

Looking at them still gives me a little thrill.

Issue 3 was the first I saw. It floored me. I tracked down the rest. I started following everything Pagan Publishing did. I corresponded with them on America Online, then via email. I playtested and proofread for them. In 1998 I launched a Delta Green fan site, then John Tynes (now John Scott Tynes) asked me to run the official Delta Green site for him. I wrote a little for Pagan; meanwhile I had become a website designer and magazine editor on my own. Then Dennis Detwiller and I took the plunge and launched Arc Dream Publishing.

Years later, after working with Pagan to put out two new Delta Green books, the stars aligned themselves at last for us to bring back the Oath.

And here we are.

I still love Call of Cthulhu more deeply than any other game that’s come along.

It’s been a frightful, wonderful thirty years.

Thank you, Sandy Petersen and Chaosium.

POSTSCRIPT: If you’re reading this, you probably love Call of Cthulhu as much as I do. I’d love to hear in the comments about how you came to the game and what made you love it. —Shane

20 comments for “Happy Birthday, ‘Call of Cthulhu’

  1. November 13, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    I played a few games of C0C in high school, with a team of high-tech consultants based off of the movie Sneakers. But Call of Cthulhu didn’t really take off for me until Delta Green brought in all the X-Filesey goodness.

    • Narylethotep
      November 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm

      I was introduced to CoC in Advanced Individual Training for Signals Intelligence Analysts, at Goodfellow Air Force Base in 1990. My friend and fellow-Soldier, Prof. Philip Wiles, explained it thusly: “Remember all those rumors about D&D causing people to go insane and following through with hack-and-slash fantasy in real life… Call of Cthulu is THE game most likely to cause that.” Being a horror-geek and RPG-player, I was hooked.
      While becoming accustomed to adult life as a Soldier, CoC introduced me to the works of HPL. I talked about ’20s and Modern scenarios whenever I could find more than one of us CoC-geeks in the same room. And there are many of us out there! A professor-turned-Soldier, a friend-of-a-friend’s boyfriend, the guy that used to play Riff-Raff at Rocky Horror… People at work. People who used to work there.
      I played D&D because it was more prevalent, but CoC was always my preferred reading. At 2am, while alone in a secure building in Korea, it was N********p’s name that I haphazardly typed to create my e-mail address.
      As I progressed along my career in Three Letter Agencies (“TLA” is also the Three Letter Abbreviation for “Three Letter Abbreviations”) I was draw to the Delta Green goodness of phrases like “9mm Retirement” and “TPK”. Mass graves in the Former Republic of Serbia and the human-trafficking of ladies to apease the needs of UN Troops there to protect them, all makes sense when it is put in the perspective of cosmic horror.
      As a retired Soldier I still find it immediately humorous when someone in the know points at a CNN Headline and draws the obvious connections. …and I still want to put together a LARP with real (consensual) B&E, lock picking and surveillance used to get the goods and get out with sanity intact…. The HPL Society’s movies, and the LARPS where 40-year-olds run around with plastic Thompson SMGs, are all derivative of CoC.
      Yesterday at camp, the Scouts were talking about next year’s theme. One of the boys said “We won’t be here. That’s after 12/12/12….” Maybe Phil was right.

    • k
      November 15, 2011 at 9:25 am

      I had been playing AD&D when I would look at White Dwarf magazine and there seemed to be a game that appealed to a modern Indiana Jones : Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe that I was feeling. This game was Call of Cthulhu. Fortunately, my local FGLS carried the beautifully rendered 3rd edition further cementing eldritch and pulp connection. Years would pass before I would get a chance to play it.

      But, what Call of Cthulhu led me to Lovecraft which I devoured…my AD&D games became Dark Fantasy and many a Traveller game became tainted with malign influence of Lovecraft.

      Now, my Cthulhu games vary but mostly are investigative horror of civilians being brought into cosmic horror.

  2. November 13, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Call of Cthulhu, 3rd ed., was the first roleplaying game I actually played. D&D came later for me.

    In the summer of 1987, I spent one full month stranded in the countryside, with the sole company of the rulesbook, of a thick H.P. Lovecraft collection, and of my uncle’s 1940s school atlas.
    That was my whole gaming library for years.
    In that month, I read the handbook maybe three times from cover to cover – I loved the lovecraftian horror, the globetrotting possibilities and the 1920s setting.
    So I set up a few games, but getting players together was hard as hell in Italy in the 80s – and it was only in ’92 that I finally got a steady team going.
    Cthulhu hooked the guys from day one.
    We’ve been playing a game a week, 50 weeks per year, since then.
    Plus extras – Halloween, New Year’s Eve, the occasional “long weekend”.
    We are a solid 1920s team – with the occasional detour in Delta Green territory, to bring some variety to the table.

    Next year I’ll celebrate 25 years of gaming, and 20 years of my team.
    We’ll play Call of Cthulhu – and I guess it will be great as it was the first time, as it’s been for all these years.

  3. November 13, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Shane and I are of an age. Call of Cthulhu was my third RPG, after D&D and Traveller. The guy who’d introduced me to Traveller back in junior high (and blown my mind with the idea that RPGs didn’t have to be dungeon crawls!) had just bought this new boxed set, Call of Cthulhu. First edition, baby! We were in high school now, and I was having weird sense of deja vu as I was rolling up my character–that was because I had just read some Lovecraftian fiction by TED Klein (“Black Man with a Horn”) but I didn’t really know who this Lovecraft guy was, and it took me awhile to connect that what Klein was writing about was exactly what this game was all about. This of course led me discovering the Master himself.

    Anyway, suffice it to say that my first character, Mark V. Ogre, ended up in an asylum pretty quickly. We brought him back later on as an NPC who was begging the PCs to spring him from the asylum, and then he disappeared, only to turn up dissected in the basement.

    At grad school (Mizzou!) I encountered The Unspeakable Oath, and after reading an article that laid out the idea of Delta Green, I convinced my friend (the same one who’d introduced me to Traveller in jr-high and CoC in high school) to run a DG-like campaign, years before the actual publication of Delta Green.

    Here in Japan, I still run CoC games now and then, especially around Halloween or Obon (the Japanese equivalent of Dia de los Muertos). I usually do one-shots, but I do hope to get a real campaign going again sometime.

    • Kevin L
      November 13, 2011 at 6:09 pm

      David, when were you at Mizzou? I was there ’87 a ’89. I’d hate to think I missed out on a prime CoC opportunity back then when RPG’s = Satanism in most of Missouri!

  4. Kevin L
    November 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    I stumbled upon CoC back in it’s first edition. It was love at first site! I had read some Lovecraft thanks to King’s Danse Mcabre and could not believe my eyes when I saw the box set at Games By James at the Bonaventure shopping center in Minnetonka, MN. Ever since that day CoC and Delta Geen have been my favorite RPG’s. I even have a note somewhere from Sandy Peterson thanking him for my fawning fanmail back in ’83.

    No long term commitments to your PC. No guilt over killing everyone when they blow their cover. The 1920′s! What isn’t to like? CoC has, bar none, the best atmosphere of any RPG that I’ve ever been involved in.

  5. November 13, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Columbia, MO, like Oahu, HI, marks one of those weird geographic overlaps in the Pagan Publishing membership and fan base.

    Kudos, S.I.! Gygax’s recommended reading list stands up very well, even now, decades later.

    Thank you all for your hard work over the years. Now–about Bumps in the Night…

  6. Ross Bowrage
    November 13, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Read an old issue of White Dwarf when I was about 13-14 (the issue would have been first out when I was 7), and found in it a scenario called The Watchers Of Walberswick. Utterly unlike any other RPG scenario I’d read, and was hooked as a result. Hunted down a copy of CoC and began my RPG career. It also began my RPG reffing career too. Haven’t looked back.

  7. WiNG
    November 14, 2011 at 12:39 am

    I started playing RPGs in general when I was around 10 years old. Back in the days, my pals usually played Rolemaster or the Lord of the Rings game made with the Rolemaster system. Sure, there were other alternatives on the market already here but, when you are 10 and your parents envisioned roleplaying as that obscure thing that created serial murderers, we played mostly what we could. Our biggest local library was a blessing though, as it had a rather nice (back then) selecion of RPG books to borrow. One day, in 1992, I picked this Call of Cthulhu RPG thing and gave it a try.

    It was the third edition (1st and 2nd were never published here in Spain, we made up straight to the 3rd) and I admit I only read the book briefly, checking mostly the “monsters” section. We never really made deep roleplaying sessions back then, so I prepared a simple dungeon crawl to check how things worked (I was 12, ok?). I didn’t really check stats or anything, so I set up a simple place and started with one of these “Yog-whatever” creatures as the drawing made me think it would be simple (I said I was 12, dammit!).

    So, every character instantly became insane except one and, of course, Yog-Whatever crushed him instantly.

    “Hey man, what the heck was this, level 30 monster!?”
    “Actually, seems there are no levels on this book…”
    “And how the hell are we going to kill it?”
    “I’m starting to think you are not suppossed to be able to kill it…”
    “Bleh. Lets be back to a serious game then”

    That is when I actually read the book and decided to check on this Lovecraft fellow. I spent my teen years reading many of Lovecraft’s Circle tales and organizing a few CoC games. For years, I was convinced every party member should die if they ever found such horrible things, that there should be no escape, that Modern CoC was a travesty of the proper 20s setting.

    Now, almost 20 years later, after changing my mind many times and changing players almost as often, I am on nearly my second year of Delta Green Modern Day campaign, with Reinhard Galt one step away of getting absolutely invincible and MJ12 and DG about to engage in a war provoked by Alzis by simply sending a picture to a journalist. I just can’t wait to see what happens next, and I am supossed to be the guy who knows what’s comming next…

  8. Steven Helberg
    November 14, 2011 at 1:39 am

    I have been role playing since 1986, starting with Fighting Fantasy, Tunnels & Trolls and Dragon Warriors before finally encountering D&D in 1988 (there was not much choice in South Africa at the time… or so I thought at least!!).

    I first read about CoC in Dragon magazine – there was some articles on a very intriguing game that I read and re-read and even managed to include some of it in my D&D games.

    My first opportunity to play CoC was at a game convention in 1991 where they needed extra GM’s. At that time I have not even seen a CoC rulebook but jumped in with gusto (and a very supportive group of players) and had an amazing gaming experience – I have not looked back since, running CoC and Delta Green off and on as the stars wax and wane.

    Needless to say, CoC and the Mythos has always been a strong influence in any game I run since that first magical convention game experience.

  9. christian lehmann
    November 14, 2011 at 1:51 am

    1982. March, I guess. I am going with a girlfriend on a skiing holiday and I stop at an RPG shop in Paris before she drives us there, in the Swiss Alps. I find “Shadows of Yog-Sothoth”. I have never heard of CoC, but I’m a sucker for great scenarios and this seems awesome, to one who is growing weary of D&D.
    I buy the supplement.
    I don’t set foot outside of the hut for a week, fiendishly devising plans to snare investigators to their doom.
    The grilfriend learns not to take me on skiing vacations.

  10. November 14, 2011 at 6:33 am

    I first started playing D&D in 1994 when I was in Middle School. My friends were very interested in Vampire the Masquerade and Werewolf but I was not. I read my first Lovecraft stories in High School when I was 16 (1998?). I became aware of Call of Cthulhu soon after that and while there were people in High School playing Call of Cthulhu, they didn’t really like me so I never got invited to play with them.
    I joined YSDC in 2006 when I bought my first Call of Cthulhu Role-playing books. I didn’t play my first game of Call of Cthulhu until 2008 when I finally realized that I’d never play until I hosted my own game (The DG scenario Puppet Shows and Shadow Plays). It was only by listening to hours and hours of YSDC gameplay audio and any Delta Green gameplay audio that I could find that I realized I could run my own game
    It’s only been amazing awesome happiness since then as my gaming group lets me run scenarios every now and then. Eventhough I now live far away skype keeps me in contact with them.

  11. Rob Shankly
    November 14, 2011 at 6:39 am

    My first roleplaying game was at the end of Grade 6, December 1980. A group of kids in my class had done “extended English”, and we spent an hour or so each day for the last week of term playing hack-n-slash warriors. I wish I could remember what the system was – it used d6s for everything. Quite possible the teacher invented it himself. If you’re out there, Mr Hawker, I thank you.

    At high school we played Basic DnD, AD&D, Gamma World, and Traveller, of course. Sometime around Year 11 I became aware of Chaosium- particularly RuneQuest. When I started uni in 1987 I joined the roleplaying club (still a member!) and was asked whet games I liked. Apparently saying “RuneQuest” was the right thing to do. Apart from more Traveller, it was all Chaosium for the next few years.

    I remember my first Cthulhu session – Ian was Keeper (ta Ian), Korny was playing an intrepid lady reporter; who reacted to attck by stabbing her assailant with a hatpin. That hatpin was cool. Not a gun, or a knife – either would have been out of character – but a hatpin.

    Several years later, we were playing through “Masks”. My mate Campbell’s character was Captain Gort, a South Effricen Mining Engineer. Captain Gort mailed a huge box of gelignite and blasting caps from London to Cairo, but died en route to Egypt. The rest of us arrived, got into trouble, and were arrested. It was up to Campbell’s new character to get the explosives and get us out of jail. His new character was an Indian con-man, The Bagwan Gimmiyahmani.
    An Australian, impersonating an Indian pretending to be a South African was… magic!

    Later still, another game (DG this time), the PCs found themselves in custody of two sweet children. The kids had both been resurrected, raised from essential saltes. Five characters, each convinced the others were going to kill the children, all hell bent on rescuing them. Five way Mexican stand-off. The true beauty of the situation was that the players didn’t trust each other either. They all called me outside for private conferences, and told me how their characters would shoot their way clear to protect the kids. The moment when they all realised was magic. What a damn game!

    In the late 90s I met Sandy Petersen when he came to Gloranthacon Downunder. He autographed my rules! Better yet, he autographed my “Sandy Petersen: Steadfast Author” card from the Mythos CCG. He also gave it a Sanity boost, and if anyone could, it’s him.

    Happy Birthday, Call of Cthulhu!

  12. November 14, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    I first heard about Call of Cthulhu from Dave Noonan when the D&D Podcast was talking about horror games. When I started looking for other podcasts about gaming I found Role Playing Public Radio, who was doing their horror gaming episodes at the time (it was October) and they talked about Call of Cthulhu.

    Finally, RPPR published “Dig for Victory”, Adam Scott Glancy’s World War I CoC scenario featuring the RPPR cast and Greg Stolze. What a way to learn. It sets a high bar when the first CoC game your exposed to is run by Adam Scott Glancy and it was over a year before I found an old rule book at the half price store and tried my own hand, mimicing another scenario I’d hear in a seven hour mind bender game. It was glorious.

  13. D.
    November 14, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    My start with Call of Cthulhu was at “Walker’s Hobby Shop” in St. Charles, IL circa ’82 or ’83 when it first came out while I was still in Junior High School. It was (obviously) the old boxed set, and my friends and I were all quick converts (though we still played the heck out of AD&D and Traveller as well). For whatever reason, it was a game that seemed to “neutral” in the various cliques of gamers throughout Junior High School and High School – everybody seemed to like CoC. It was a totally different animal from either of the other two games and the historical aspect was one that really appealed to lots of people.

    In the 90′s I tripped over Delta Green to my great enjoyment somewhat via the combination of Interface Magazine’s CP2020 and CoC crossover issue (I’d run a CthulhuPunk game at GenCon shortly before it come out and was impressed!) and my copy of Blair Reynold’s Black Sands – something which I still associate strongly with DG in my own mind even if it isn’t really connected.

    D.

  14. November 14, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    I was dimly aware that there was a game called “Call of Cthulhu” as early as high school, when I was reading HPL for the first time. My RPG experience by then consisted of some very sad dungeon crawls with one friend, a never-ending attempt to get a MSH game up and running with another, and my own attempts to create a WH40K rpg and then find someone who would actually play it with me.

    I would have to wait until I was a Sophomore in college to have my mind blown. A friend introduced me to my first Keeper, and we were, in turn, introduced to Mr. Corbitt’s house. Something about the atmosphere of the college and the change of the seasons, and the strange, rackety-blam sequence of personal events, combined to make those initial forays into the world of COC outright unforgettable.

    (That and, of course, the excellent Keepering skills of one Todd Moore.)

    I was electrified and captivated. I went and bought the book for myself at the term’s end and set out to spread the word to others. And I’ve never looked back (much).

  15. Celestial Elf
    December 8, 2011 at 4:33 am

    Thought you might like my Cthulhu tribute machinima film
    The Highlander; Cthulhu Enigma

  16. AGLA Studio
    February 18, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Happy 30th anniversary to the hardcover 4th edition!

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