The Dread Page of Azathoth is the editor’s column that opens each issue of The Unspeakable Oath. Issue 18 was my first issue as editor, so my first Dread Page was all about the excitement of the Oath’s return. It has now been nearly three years since TUO 18 debuted. We published TUO 23 two months ago. Dan Harms, John Scott Tynes and I are reviewing submissions now for TUO 24. The Oath earned its first Ennie Award this past summer at GenCon 2013. And it’s still a shivery thrill to know that the Oath is back.
For only the next couple of days, you can get TUO 18, 19, and 20 in ebook formats for Kindle, Nook, iPad and iPhone as part of the pay-what-you-want Bundle of Tentacles. This is a great way for newcomers to see what the Oath is really like and for old friends to get it in a new format. And it’s part of a bundle with some amazing games. Don’t miss out.
I first encountered The Unspeakable Oath in 1991. Issue 3 sat on a game store shelf in Birmingham, Alabama. It was an eye-catcher. Gorgeous black line art by Blair Reynolds, three cultists with bloody robes and knives staring thoughtfully out; goldenrod cardstock cover wrap, staple-bound, very do-it-yourself.
Those cultists amazed me. You could tell they weren’t just anonymous mooks, easy pickings for heroic investigators; they had depth. They had names and ideas and plans.
Underneath them, the logotype: “ . . . for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game.”
That cinched it.
I hadn’t even opened the cover.
I had been a Call of Cthulhu fanatic since the game first appeared. A D&D buddy ran that first game and I was the sole player; I solved the case and then my character was betrayed and murdered.
I was 13 years old and I was hooked. Fantasy gaming never quite measured up again.
In high school my friends and I played a long campaign, taking the same core group of investigators, minus a casualty here and there, entirely through Terror From the Stars and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. Hardened veterans, we charged into Masks of Nyarlathotep and made it through two scenarios. Then came our private apocalypse: midnight on a cold little island, alien gods seeping down from the sky. Those long-running investigators died to a man. Only one newcomer escaped—and he had murdered one of the veterans.
It takes a certain kind of gamer to go through that kind of punishment and come out begging for more. Most shake their heads and ask when they can get back to the good, clean heroism of a game with affordable resurrection. But my friends and I loved it. The risk itself was a thrill.
And as for heroism—well. As Ken Hite has elsewhere observed, Call of Cthulhu is the most heroic roleplaying game ever played. It’s heroic precisely because of the things that make it so horrifying. It’s a game where ordinary men and women see the worst that the universe has to offer, incarnated in mind-blasting alien flesh, and try to face it down.
I’ve been playing it for nearly 30 years and it still gives me chills.
I could tell right off, the guys behind The Unspeakable Oath were my kind of gamers. They designed scenarios and adventure ingredients with rich details and well-researched backgrounds. They looked for villains with real character, whose motivations, even when insane and irredeemably evil, made a certain kind of pragmatic sense. They rejected the easy answers of the Cthulhu Mythos authors who provided benevolent, or at least accessible, alternate gods as foils to the awfulness of the Great Old Ones. And yet they had a wicked sense of humor.
They clearly adored the same mix of careful investigation and crazy, unpredictable action that so many of us loved in Call of Cthulhu—and in emphasizing meaningful characterization they explored the game’s true depths.
By the time The Unspeakable Oath walked or stumbled to its long hiatus in 2000, I had been working with its publisher, Pagan Publishing, for a few years. I proofread and playtested some of their books and contributed a piece or two; I ran their Delta Green website.
It wasn’t long before I partnered up with Dennis Detwiller, Pagan’s art director, to form Arc Dream Publishing. Dennis and the Pagan crew had applied their unique sensibilities to World War II and superheroes for the roleplaying game Godlike, eventually published by Hobgoblynn Press. After Dennis and I secured Godlike’s publishing rights and stock from Hobgoblynn it became Arc Dream’s flagship property. Years trickled by; we made more games; we were nominated for awards despite barely making a ripple in the industry at large.
Everything Arc Dream did was informed at some level by The Unspeakable Oath. Godlike and Wild Talents are about the nature and risks of heroism, not just the glory of superpowers. Monsters and Other Childish Things features ordinary kids with ferocious, often downright Lovecraftian monsters as their friends and protectors; monsters that give them power but put their friends and loved ones in danger. It’s funny and horrific by turns. We never would have made those kinds of games if The Unspeakable Oath hadn’t convinced us that kind of gaming were possible.
A few years ago Arc Dream got together with Pagan to resurrect another Call of Cthulhu property that had seemingly slipped off to the Dreamlands, one that had its roots in The Unspeakable Oath: Delta Green. Arc Dream put Delta Green: Eyes Only together and Pagan published it, and then we did the more ambitious Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity, which came out this year.
Somewhere in there, Dennis and I started talking about The Unspeakable Oath. After Delta Green, resurrecting the Oath didn’t seem quite so daunting.
We talked about it with Scott Glancy at Pagan, and with John Scott Tynes who founded the Oath; they were pleased with the work we’d done for Delta Green; and then the deal was done.
At one point I remember it suddenly sinking in: Holy shit. We’re bringing back the Oath!
I may be running the thing now, but I’ll always be a giddy fan at heart.
December 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of the first issue of The Unspeakable Oath. John Scott Tynes was a college student when he put that first issue together, writing most of it himself. He kept it going for seven years, then a break, then a last issue—and then a decade’s silence until today. And after all this time, countless gamers still remember the Oath with love. John should be proud as hell.
Roleplaying games have seen a lot of changes in the 20 years since The Unspeakable Oath first appeared, and in the 10 since it last appeared. Several new games have covered the Cthulhu Mythos.
Ken Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu, a licensed variant on Call of Cthulhu, moves the investigations at the heart of the game away from randomized skill rolls. Instead it uses pools of skill points under the player’s control; spend the right kind of point at the right time and gain the clue. In play it has a very different feel from Call of Cthulhu, heavily focused on detective work and careful discovery.
There’s been Realms of Cthulhu, an alternate version of Call of Cthulhu for the pulp action game Savage Worlds; CthulhuTech with a science fiction take on the Mythos; The Laundry, adapting Charles Stross’ excellent stories of espionage, bureaucracy and the Mythos; at Arc Dream we adapted the Godlike and Wild Talents rules to Mythos horror with the free game Nemesis.
And so in The Unspeakable Oath we’ll provide resources for many Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying games. But the essence of the Oath will always be the game that inspired it.
It’s true that games with more streamlined character generation and more tightly focused mechanics can make Call of Cthulhu’s decades-old rules and endless list of skills feel a little fusty and crusty. But the game has been around this long because it works. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a game that does what it’s trying to do.
In Call of Cthulhu there are no sure things. At best there’s only a hint in a grimy old book that you might not even notice on the shelf. The spasmodic pull of an unfamiliar trigger. A stumbling flight from stinking shadows to the false light of day. More likely it’s death that you never saw coming, or a realization that leaves you utterly, permanently unhinged.
There’s no control to be had, narrative or otherwise. Success, when you manage it, is a thrill. Madness and mayhem are often much more fun.
Join us and see if you agree.