Call of Cthulhu is a horror fiction role-playing game based on the story of the same name written by H. P. Lovecraft and The Cthulhu Mythos the story inspired. The game, often abbreviated as CoC, is published by Chaosium.
"That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons even death may die."
The setting of Call of Cthulhu is a darker version of our world, based on H.P. Lovecraft's observation that, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." There are three primary eras of the original (non d20) game: the 1920s, the setting of many of Lovecraft's stories; the 1890s Gaslight supplements, a blend of occult and Holmesian mystery and mostly set in England; and modern conspiracy (Cthulhu Now). Recent additions include 1000 AD (Cthulhu: Dark Ages), 23rd Century (Cthulhu Rising) and Roman times (Cthulhu Invictus). The protagonists may also travel to places that are not of this earth, represented in the Dreamlands (which can be accessed through dreams as well as being physically connected to the earth), as well as travel to other planets or the voids of space.
The players take the roles of ordinary people, drawn into the realm of the mysterious: detectives, criminals, scholars, artists, war veterans, etc. Often, happenings begin innocently enough, until more and more of the workings behind the scenes are revealed. As the characters learn more of the true horrors of the world and the irrelevance of humanity, their sanity inevitably withers away (the game actually includes a mechanism for determining how damaged a character's sanity is at any given point). To access the tools they need to defeat the horrors - mystic knowledge and magic - the characters must be willing to give up some of their sanity.
Call of Cthulhu has a reputation as a game in which it is quite common for a player character to die in gruesome circumstances or end up in a mental institution.
For as long as they stay healthy (or at least functional), characters may be developed. Call of Cthulhu does not use levels, but is completely skill-based, with player characters getting better with their skills by succeeding at them.
The original conception of Call of Cthulhu was Dark Worlds, a game commissioned by the publisher Chaosium but never published. Sandy Petersen, now best known for his work on the Doom computer game, contacted them regarding writing a supplement for their popular fantasy game RuneQuest set in Lovecraft's Dreamlands. He took over the writing of Call of Cthulhu, and the game was released in 1981, using a simplified version of the Basic Role-Playing system used in RuneQuest. The game won three major awards in the following year.
Since Petersen's departure, continuing development of Call of Cthulhu has passed to Lynn Willis, who since the fifth edition has been credited as co-author. The game is now in its sixth edition, but the rules have changed little over the years. In 2002, the Call of Cthulhu 20th Anniversary Edition won the Origins Award for Best Graphic Presentation of a Book Product 2001.
- Call of Cthulhu, 1st Edition (1981)
- Call of Cthulhu Designer's Edition (1982)
- Call of Cthulhu, 2nd Edition (1983)
- Call of Cthulhu, 3rd Edition (1986)
- Call of Cthulhu, 4th Edition (1989)
- Call of Cthulhu, 5th Edition (1992)
- Call of Cthulhu 5.5 (1998)
- Call of Cthulhu 5.6 (2000)
- Call of Cthulhu 20th anniversary edition (2001)
- Call of Cthulhu Miskatonic University edition (2001)
- Call of Cthulhu, 6th Edition (2004)
- Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition (2015)
Given its roots in the RPG tradition, many of the early releases for Call of Cthulhu were still based in the framework set down by Dungeons & Dragons. They often involved the characters wandering through caves and fighting different types of horrible monsters. Nonetheless, the emphasis on real-life settings, character research, and thinking one's way around trouble gave it a wide audience.
The first book of Call of Cthulhu adventures was Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. In this work, the characters come upon a secret society's foul plot to destroy mankind, and pursue it first near to home and then in a series of exotic locations. This template was to be followed in many subsequent campaigns, including Fungi from Yuggoth (later known as Curse of Cthulhu and Day of the Beast), Spawn of Azathoth, and the most famous, Masks of Nyarlathotep. Many of these seem closer in tone to the pulp adventures of Indiana Jones than H. P. Lovecraft, but they are nonetheless beloved by many gamers.
Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is important not only because it represents the first published addition to the boxed first edition of Call of Cthulhu, but because its format defined a new way of approaching a campaign of linked RPG scenarios involving actual clues for the would-be detectives amongst the players to follow and link in order to uncover the dastardly plots afoot. Its format has been used by every other campaign-length Call of Cthulhu publication.
The standard of the included 'clue' material varies from scenario to scenario, but reached its zenith in the original boxed versions of the Masks of Nyarlathotep and Horror on the Orient Express campaigns. Inside these one could find matchbooks and business cards apparently defaced by non-player characters, newspaper cuttings and (in the case of Orient Express) period passports to which players could attach their photographs, bringing a Live Action Role Playing feel to a tabletop game. Indeed, during the period that these supplements were produced, third party campaign publishers strove to emulate the quality of the additional materials, often offering separately-priced 'deluxe' clue packages for their campaigns.
Additional milieux were provided by Chaosium with the release of Dreamlands, a boxed supplement containing additional rules needed for playing within the Lovecraft Dreamlands, a large map and a scenario booklet, and Cthulhu By Gaslight, another boxed set which moved the action from the 1920s to the 1890s.
In the early 1990s Chaosium issued the supplement titled Cthulhu Now, a collection of rules, supplemental source materials and scenarios for playing Call of Cthulhu in the present day. This proved to be a very popular alternative milieu, so much so that much of the supplemental material is now included in the core rule book. The supplement is long out of print today.
Lovecraft Country was a line of supplements for Call of Cthulhu released in 1990. These supplements were overseen by Keith Herber and provided backgrounds and adventures set in Lovecraft's fictional towns of Arkham, Kingsport, Innsmouth, Dunwich, and their environs. The intent was to give investigators a common base, as well as to center the action on well-drawn characters with clear motivations. With the departure of Herber, Chaosium's line ended.
Mythos was a collectible card game based on the Cthulhu Mythos that Chaosium produced and marketed during the mid-Nineties. While generally praised for its fast gameplay and unique mechanics, it ultimately failed to gain a very large market presence. It bears mention because its eventual failure brought the company to hard times that affected its ability to produce material for Call of Cthulhu. A second Call of Cthulhu collectible card game is currently being produced by Fantasy Flight Games.
In the last eight years, since the collapse of the Mythos CCG, the release of CoC books has been very sporadic with up to a year between releases. Chaosium struggled with near bankruptcy for many years before finally starting their upward climb again. 2005 was their best year for many years with ten releases for the game and many more scheduled for release in the near future.
Chaosium has recently taken to marketing "monographs" - short books by individual writers with editing and layout provided out-of-house - directly to the consumer. This allows the company to gauge market response to possible new works, though the long-term effects of this program remain uncertain.
The range of times and places in which the horrors of the Mythos can be encountered was also expanded in late 2005 with the addition of Cthulhu Dark Ages, which gives a framework for playing games set in 10th century Europe.
Tatters of the King
The campaign supplement Tatters of the King was set in the late 1920s and drew heavily from the King in Yellow. A well received book in its own right, the campaign has also sprung up a wiki of it's own HERE!
Chaosium has licensed other publishers to create supplements, including Delta Green RPG by Pagan Publishing. Other licensees have included Theater of the Mind Enterprises, Triad Entertainment, Games Workshop, Fantasy Flight Games, and Grenadier Models.
d20 Call of Cthulhu
In 2001, a stand-alone version of Call of Cthulhu was released by Wizards of the Coast, for the d20 system. Intended to preserve the feeling of the original game, the d20 conversion of the game rules were supposed to make the game more accessible to the large D&D player base. The d20 system also made it possible to use Dungeons & Dragons characters in Call of Cthulhu, as well as to introduce the Cthulhu Mythos into Dungeons & Dragons games. The game's reception was mixed, with some rejecting it outright and others, including some who enjoyed the original, loving the d20 version.
The d20 version of the game is no longer supported by Wizards as per their contract with Chaosium. Chaosium included d20 stats as an appendix in three releases (see 'Lovecraft Country'), but have since dropped the "dual stat" idea.
- Delta Green RPG - alternate setting for Call of Cthulhu.
- Ripples From Carcosa - monograph sourcebook on The Carcosa Mythos published by Chaosium.
- Curse of the Yellow Sign - an adventure sourcebook for The Carcosa Mythos written by John Wick.
- Cthulhu Live - live-action roleplaying game (LARP) version of The Call of Cthulhu RPG.