Call of Cthulhu has been called one of the best roleplaying games of all time. But something that’s overlooked about this classic horror RPG that recently entered its 7th edition is that it’s also one of the most versatile and well-researched historical RPGs around. Aside from the base game setting in 1920s America, historical expansions for CoC range from the Roman Empire (Cthulhu Invictus), the European Dark Ages (Cthulhu: Dark Ages), convict-era Australia (Convicts and Cthulhu), the American West (Down Darker Trails), 1890s Victorian England (Cthulhu by Gaslight), an alternate, occult-powered World War 2 (Achtung! Cthulhu) and even a multigenerational starship (Curse of the Yellow Sign III: Archimedes 7). I mean honestly, you can now play CoC in more time periods than your average season of Dr Who.
So how did this happen? In this listicle Games vs Play comes up with 5 reasons why CoC is actually one of the best historical RPGs around.
1. Call of Cthulhu was a period drama from the start.
And no, by this I don’t mean that CoC is like Downton Abbey with tentacles (although that would make a truly terrifying mash-up campaign). When Sandy Petersen and the other designers at Chaosium were putting together the first edition of CoC back in 1981 (pictured left) they decided to set the game in the 1920s, the period in which H.P. Lovecraft lived and wrote most of his Cthulhu Mythos stories. This might seem like a no-brainer but really it was a stroke of genius. Setting the base game in the 1920s meant that right from the start CoC had to be an historical RPG as well as a horror one. For first generation Keepers and players back in the ‘80s there was a gulf in time between themselves and the game setting, just as there is now. Anyone playing CoC therefore has to imagine two different worlds: the lost world of the past, and the darker world of the Mythos. It’s set the tone for the game ever since.
This is the main reason why CoC has spread its squamous tentacles into so many different historical periods. Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth and the rest of the Great Old Ones are eternal and their power, compared to us humans is, well, pretty much god-like. They shouldn’t really be thought of as alien entities from outside space and time but rather as imperishable constants of reality. I mean, there’s not been one single moment in all of human history that Cthulhu hasn’t been on Earth. Which is terrifying if it were true (and I’m not saying it’s not), but the upside is that it means you can literally set a CoC scenario anywhere and anytime. How’s this for a pitch: imagine a Neanderthal version of “Pickman’s Model,” where a caveman artist from 40,000 years ago sends his entire tribe insane with the ochre painting of that thing he’s daubed on the cave wall. Yeah, this could totally work.
3. CoC is realistic.
CoC is a very realistic game. Sure, maybe not the shoggoths and flying polyps, but when the game first came out in 1981 its mechanics were realistic in a way that hadn’t been seen before. PCs in CoC aren’t thunder-thewed heroes able to take 15 hit points damage in a single blow and still slay a dozen orcs with their “+ bazillion” battle-axe. CoC was one of the first RPGs where combat wasn’t the main course, but was instead more of an optional side dish made from toxic Japanese puffer fish that could kill you as easily as your opponents. And then let’s not get started on that most precious and fragile of character stats, Sanity … In fact you could argue that vulnerability and realism are the key distinguishing features of CoC, and for Keepers this has meant describing a realistic world for the players to inhabit, or be killed in.
In game terms this can be meant literally, like when your Miskatonic University anthropologist reads the first page of the Necronomicon and is suddenly possessed by the undead spirit of Abdul Al-Hazred. But the Cthulhu Mythos as a body of stories, novels, comics, films and games is also a living thing that has been expanded and reimagined many times. Before Chaosium released its first non-1920s period supplement – which I’m pretty sure was Cthulhu by Gaslight in 1986 – horror writers had been setting Mythos stories in different historical periods for decades. As early as 1945 August Derleth set parts of The Lurker at the Threshold (a short novel based on unfinished notes left by Lovecraft) in the 17th century. By the 1950s Robert Bloch was writing a sequel to The Haunter of the Dark set in the atomic age, while in the 1960s and ’70s British author Ramsey Campbell created his own “Lovecraft Country” centered on the fictional town of Brichester in England’s Severn Valley (map shown left). Transplanting the Mythos to other historical periods and locations was already a tradition by the time the RPG came out – but it’s been CoC that’s really taken hold of this idea and run with it, with endlessly surprising and amazing results.
5. Real history is a bit of a horror show.
This might be a bit of a downer on which to finish our listicle, but it’s true – real history has had more than its fair share of horror stories. And although I don’t want to trivialize human suffering, these periods of terror and destruction make for atmospheric settings for a CoC scenario. It kind of makes sense too. Why wouldn’t Cthulhu cultists take advantage of the horror and chaos of World War 2 to further their own nefarious plans? Modern day history isn’t exactly awesome either. Next thing you know there’ll be a Cthulhu game setting for the Trump Presidency! Oh, wait …
So there you have it – this is Games vs Play’s top 5 reasons why Call of Cthulhu is one of the best historical roleplaying games around. Now it’s over to you – what’s been the most unusual or memorable historical setting that you’ve either played or run a CoC scenario in? We’d love to know! Either contact Games vs Play via our website or leave a message on our Facebook page.
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