Cosmic Horror at the Dining Table

A few days ago, after writing my post entitled The Dark Waters, I was trawling through my writing archives when I stumbled across a number of scenarios I’d written for the role playing game ‘Call of Cthulhu‘.

Their discovery gave me an idea.

Within The Dark Waters I explain how the weird fiction and prolific correspondence of Howard Phillips Lovecraft prompted a succession of writers to adopt the author’s singular Cthulhu mythos for much of their own work, thereby preserving his legacy.

Since Lovecraft’s death in 1937, hundreds of novels have been written by scores of writers who embraced HPL’s pantheon, weaving it into their own plots. Many even replicated his distinctive literary style, while some – such as British writer Brian Lumley – added their own ingredients to the mythos.

There have also been many ‘B’-movies based on this highly successful genre. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all have flatlined and have fittingly sunk into oblivion. For none managed to adequately depict man’s insignificance in the face of overwhelming cosmic horror. Nor did they portray his utter futility in battling to survive overwhelming odds quite as effectively as Lovecraft’s fiction.

Their dismal failure was an inevitable outcome.

You see, movie audiences need heroes. No such individuals exist in Lovecraft’s tales, only vulnerable, imperfect characters faced with the colossal task of grappling powerful deities and their fanatical minions in a desperate bid to save humanity.

Lovecraft’s writing has, however, spawned a further medium, one far more successful than any of Hollywood’s puerile mythos spin-offs. That medium is gaming – specifically, table-top role-playing games. Sure, there has also been a succession of computer and console-type versions, but the amorphous subject matter of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos lends itself perfectly to the random, unrestricted and entirely chaotic nature of table-top role-play.

… only vulnerable, imperfect characters faced with the colossal task of grappling powerful deities and their fanatical minions in a desperate bid to save humanity.

By now, extra-terrestrial beings occupying the furthest reaches of distant galaxies must surely have some knowledge of Role Playing Games – or RPGs as they are affectionately known here on earth. However, for readers who may have spent their lives either in a cave or on the dark side of the moon, I’ll briefly explain.

The hugely popular ‘Murder Mystery‘ party games, for example, may be considered to be one type of table-top role playing game. Here, players seated comfortably in a lounge or indeed around a table, are presented with a mystery and, through careful investigation, interrogation and the discovery and analysis of clues, must work toward a solution.

The hugely successful gaming franchise based on Lovecraft’s fiction – ‘Call of Cthulhu‘ (CofC) – was first published in 1981. It’s way darker than any murder mystery. But no less fun. Indeed, it is widely considered to be the world’s best roleplaying game of the mystery/horror genre.

In it, players take on the role of everyday people who must investigate strange and baffling events – whether they’re equipped for such a venture or not. And it’s usually the latter.

Characters stem from all walks of life, and the places, people, and situations they encounter are often not what they seem.

The mysteries presented can’t be resolved using rational or scientific means. Instead, investigating them often involves accessing ancient and forgotten lore, shedding light on long buried, sanity-eroding tomes that humanity was not meant to unearth.

Mis-matched, ill-equipped and often highly-vulnerable player-characters are the only thing standing in the way of hellish sects, godless cults and their ruling demonic monstrosities from beyond time and space. Furthermore, unlike the slew of fantasy RPGs on the market, in CofC weapons are generally useless.

So, there’s no pressure.

‘…sanity-eroding tomes that humanity was not meant to unearth.’

Table-top role-playing has been likened to a form of communal radio theatre, in which the unfolding drama is played out by an assembled cast of players such as those described. Aside from a brief background, an objective, and a skeletal plotline, the ensuing quest is entirely unscripted. Once players have been presented with the bare bones of the mystery … off they go. What happens next is entirely unpredictable.

Overseen by an adjudicating ‘referee’, known in CofC as ‘The Keeper‘, players may then work within the loose confines of the pre-plotted scenario to uncover the mystery, achieve the quest, save themselves, save the world or whatever their objective may be.

Note, I said ‘…may work within …’

The ‘script’, such as it is, forms no hard and fast restraint. A player may elect to proceed along an entirely random and impromptu course. The referee must then deal with this as best he (or she) can, by working on the fly to accommodate the action while sustaining the flow of the game and ensuring its laws and rules are maintained. Anything goes.

Unlike PC or console games, in which actions or choices are strictly limited to those written into the programme, table-top RPGs lack such fetters. Restrictions, such as they may exist, are only those of the player’s own creativity. If collective imaginations are unbridled (as is often the case) the game is similarly boundless.

Over the course of play, the assembled hapless investigators improve their skills based on the choices they make. Conversely, encountering strange horrors or alien entities or simply reading forbidden texts and spells of power leave their own marks and scars, thereby testing an investigator’s body and mind to their limits.

On a good day …

On a good day, players work together to solve these mysteries, avoid grisly death, maintain their sanity and save the world.

‘What happens next is entirely unpredictable.’

I began playing Call of Cthulhu in ’81 when the game first hit the shelves – in fact, before I had read any of Lovecraft’s work. For me, the game prompted an interest in the stories. For many, it was the reverse. Whilst I found playing or refereeing the game to be highly enjoyable, it has been the writing of scenarios that has given me greater pleasure.

Like Lovecraft’s own stories, the scenarios in my writing archives have a 1920s setting. There the similarity ends. Rather than adopt the usual obscure or windswept Lovecraftian locations, I based my own adventures in South Lincolnshire. Not only was the landscape a familiar one, I considered that the open fens, mist-covered fields, colossal cloud-stacked skies and bleak coastline were equal to HPL’s traditional New England settings.

I was delighted when one such scenario – ‘Fenland Fog‘ – was not only published in gamer’s fanzine ‘Dagon‘ but was successfully play-tested during that year’s games fair in London. The pleasure of writing, to which I’ve already alluded, is multiplied considerably when that writing is read and enjoyed by others.

For this reason, over the coming weeks I will salvage two of these scenarios from my files and reproduce them on this site. As with my novel serialisation, The Door to Caellfyon, I will also provide a downloadable PDF.

It is only through playing these scenarios that their full potential may be realised. However, as with a film script, a drama unfolds with the turn of each page and, as such, a simple read-through is also satisfying.

Of course, I would say that.

2 thoughts on “Cosmic Horror at the Dining Table

    1. Steve Wand

      Hi Michael. Many thanks. Like you, I’ve long been a fan of RPGs – beginning with Dungeons and Dragons back in the 70s. You may like to watch out for my soon to be uploaded Call of Cthulhu scenarios. Enjoy your writing and I wish you the best of luck with your novel.


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