What is a Cthulhu Game?

March 22, 2012 by crew

What is a Cthulhu game?

When we say Cthulhu we’re talking about any of the series of horror stories written by the fantastic 1920’s horror author HP Lovecraft… or any of those poor mad souls that followed him and were inspired by his works.

What were his stories like?

This is the first paragraph from his classic story Call of Cthulhu:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

So what makes a game Cthulhu?

A great Cthulhu game is about storytelling, it’s about building suspense and the sense of strangeness, the fear of the unknown and madness of things that one was not meant to know.

Indeed, that is the crux of Lovecraft’s work and the main thrust of any Cthulhu game… the world you think you know is merely a veil, one that covers a truth much more frightening and dangerous than any conceivable nightmare… and it’s a very thin veil indeed.

One thing required in any Cthulhu game is the cooperation of all players and the Keeper (our… more sinister name… for the Games Master), a level of understanding will immerse everyone into the tale and helps to craft the story. It’s not Jackanory… it’s fun because everyone is in it together… like you were all watching a horror film, or acting in a mystery play, one where you don’t know your lines, didn’t read the script and have to make it up as you go along.

Playing a Game of Cthulhu

As a player you can’t sit back and expect the Keeper to make the it all happen, in the world of Cthulhu, players don’t have amazing armour, laser guns or super-fighting-robots, even if you did they would probably turn out to be ineffective against the monstrous things you’re fighting.

As a character in the game, what you do have as weapons are the ability to affect your surroundings in seemingly mundane but important ways… library skills will help you uncover the ancient words you need to close a mystical portal, money will smooth the process of acquiring tools and equipment, legal knowledge will help deal with the ever intrusive and disbelieving authorities, but fast talk and a ready wit will get you out of more scrapes than a shotgun will get you into.

Characters are often presented with historical knowledge, to help unravel the twisted knot of hints and clues about Earth’s remote and antediluvian past. Stout courage and most importantly – a sound mind will be your sword and shield, while weak will and avarice will lead you to an early grave or at the very least the psychiatrist’s chair.

These are the qualities that will round out a Cthulhu character and with some added merits and flaws, you as a Cthulhu player will have something believable and interesting to role play with.

Playing as the Keeper

With the players each bringing colourful and skilled characters to the table, it’s now over to the Keeper to help them through this tale of dread.

Thinking of the game as a story, play or movie is a good starting point. As a Keeper, you need to set the scene, put in place those characters that will help or hinder your players, and gradually unveil the plot of your story… one dreadful detail at a time!

There needs to be a slow build, a gradual reveal to the story, like any good adventure, you must turn up the tension like the flickering light of an old gas lamp… unexpected encounters, frightening revelations and unexplained plot twists are the mark of any good Cthulhu adventure and the hook that will make an evening’s play memorable for your players.

The most important detail that the Keeper is responsible for is the glimmer of hope. There must always seem like there is a chance to win or survive, something to live for. After all this is a game and there is little point in playing a game you cannot win… even if the deck is heavily stacked against you.

So it is down to the Keeper to decide how dim that spark of hope actually shines. Cthulhu games are not about getting to level 43, with a suit of shiny magical armour and a small castle in the mountains. It’s about enjoying the journey, being part of the story and interacting with it… and living to fight the evil another day…

The end of some of my best Cthulhu games have ended up with every character dead or locked up forever in Arkham Sanatorium… so remember the old adage that pervades any great game of Cthulhu…

I don’t have to be fast… I just have to be faster than you!


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