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Insanity is a provincial thing, and rationality is gauche (CoC 7th podcast)

Texas in August Studio

Texas in August Studio
The podcast is here.

Greetings from the Waffle House in Arkham. This is a strange town. The menu includes squid sausage. And at the table next to me is an angry old man – someone stole his lawn gnomes. I will tell him the thieves are the crew of some other podcast. I will decide which podcast later.

My podcast series explores table-top RPGs as art by diving deep into individual games. This led me to examine influential games – games that enjoy a solid reputation. That is true of the subject of this episode as well. The Call of Cthulhuis the subject this time. We will discuss the game’s mechanics before exploring its themes, nuances, and ludo-narrative. Then I will provide some color commentary.

Basic Role-Playing

This episode examines the 7th edition of the game. I started with the 8th edition that had fallen backward in time owing to unspeakable horrors and some shipping errors on the part of the Great Race of Yith. But that version of the game drove me mad.

Call of Cthulhu uses a modified version of the Basic Role-Playing. Steve Perrin, Greg Stafford, and Lynn Willis created this system for Chaosium. Chaosium uses this percentile skill-based system as the basis for its games, including RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, and Elfquest. Other writers and game designers, including Sandy Petersen, and Steve Henderson, contributed to the system over the years (Ehara, 1984).

Game masters are known as keepers of arcane lore, or keepers for short, in Call of Cthulhu. Player characters are called victims… I mean investigators. The book presents character creation before exploring the rules. This strikes me as a minor error.

The system presumes that characters will fit what appears to be a coherent and rational world – the bottomless horror and madness appear later. The characters have backgrounds, professions that should match that background, and skills that should fit both. Age will modify the values of a character’s skills and overall abilities. The Call of Cthulhu system allows for the creation of characters of almost any age and profession who find themselves pulled into mythos horror. By comparison, characters in D&D – and similar games – usually create young characters designed to become killing machines.

The Basic Role-Playing system uses percentile dice. Qualities come in ratings from 1 to 100. Ratings below 10% are a novice, while ratings up to 90% are masters at the tasks. Players will want to roll low to succeed in the game as a general thing. The list of skills is comprehensive and includes things like sleight of hand, library use, and demolitions.

The book states that a lot of fun in an RPG involves discussing when rolls are needed. The writers also get credit for saying that a game should only roll for some things. The general challenge ratings are regular difficulty, hard difficulty, and extreme difficulty. What this means depends on the skills and characteristics in question. This is a sound system. But its nuances will likely require much checking between chapters five and four until everyone gets familiar. Again, participants want to roll low. Players may push a roll – or roll a second time if they can adequately justify the second roll to the keeper. The system allows for critical success and fumbles. Characters also have luck points which they can spend to turn a failure into a success – but luck points are finite.

The system provides solid rules for humans and the limits of a human. This includes both physical limitations and mental boundaries. This contrasts with (again) D&D – and similar games – where non-human races are available, and there are fewer physical and mental limits. The nature of the characters in Call of Cthulhu is fundamentally different from that of characters in most other RPGs. Here, the characters are just people in proverbial rough seas and treading water for all they are worth.

Related to those points is that combat is hella lethal to ordinary people in Call of Cthulhu. Here the essential health or hit points of a character do not increase as the character progresses. They remain as physically fragile at the end of a campaign as at the start. So, damage a D&D character could shrug off will kill or at least incapacitate an investigator. And there is no magical healing in this system – or at least none you can trust. The system provides a range of combat options, including using improvised weapons, selecting combat maneuvers, taking cover, etc. Fighting schemes require a player to state a specific combat goal, preferably a dramatic one. This is an exciting narrative wrinkle. Pushing a roll, or rerolling a lousy roll, is not possible in combat. Unlike in D&D – and again, similar systems – characters here can use firearms. The book provides a thorough list of them and what they do.

The system provides solid rules for chases. These did appear in Lovecraft’s original stories. This includes Shadow Over Innsmouth, where the locals chase a hotel guest around town. And At the Mountains of Madness, where the shoggoths chase college professors around Antarctic ruins. The rules in this game are solid and comprehensive – they are over-detailed if they have a flaw. But that is a minor issue.

The most significant change to the Basic Role-Playing engine that Petersen made is the Sanity system. The sanity system makes the game Lovecraftian – it is just a skill-based system for a modern setting without the chance for the characters to descend into madness. The investigators possess a sanity score in Call of Cthulhu – this tracks their mental health like the hit points track their physical health. Encountering horrors of all kinds erodes an investigator’s sanity as a campaign progresses. The characters will have a maximum Sanity score. They may face temporary, indefinite, and permanent insanity. Temporary reflects a short-term trauma that an investigator may shake off, and indefinite insanity is more serious but is treatable. Permanent is what it says on the lid – your character does not recover. The system carefully explores different types of mental illness and what these illnesses mean in specific game terms and play. For example, as cited in the book, a character may flee from the site of combat and even the general area of the adventure to seek solace with a loved one far away. Other options include an investigator falling into a hysterical fugue state, suffering amnesia, and so on. This may see an investigator institutionalized for insanity. Permanent insanity means the character is no longer an investigator and is now only fit for a mental asylum or as a political pundit. The system does provide rules for institutionalizing characters (Petersen, Willis, Fricker, & Mason, 2014).

The Call of Cthulhu

Badger McInnes, Charlie Krank, Nicholas Nacario, and Rick Meints handled the book’s graphic design. The graphic design appears in a standard two-column format and conveys information cleanly.

The cover art for the 7th edition is solid enough – but candidly, I prefer the cover art for the 6th edition. Of the cover to the 8th edition, the less said, the better. The good news is the interior art is excellent for the 7th edition. Art comes from Sam Lamont, Jonathan Wyke, Paul Carrick, Rob Gould, François Launet, and Victor Leza, among others.

Most of the art is new. Chapter openings have two-page art spreads. These are all lavish and eye-catching. Scattered around are full-page illustrations – and I wonder how no one in the city noticed the antics on the page 18 image. The images on pages 18, 74, 100 – 101, and 152 – 153 are standout images. Also, the image on 196 looks a bit like Tilda Swinton (Petersen, Willis, Fricker, & Mason, 2014).

This is a game about the alien horrors developed and written about by Howard Philips Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself is a problematic figure. He, and his stories, are sexist. He, and his stories, are also racist. Racism and sexism rarely take center stage. But they are a present. Further, Lovecraft’s undeserved classist obstinacy led to his obscurity and contributed to his death. Lastly, many of his stories need better prose.

Then, why is there a game that uses his stories for the theme, setting, and world-building?

That is a difficult question to answer. To some degree, enjoying a genre of fiction is like enjoying a type of food – you either like Greek food or you don’t. You either enjoy cosmic horror, or you don’t. No amount of rhetoric will change that fact. But explaining some of Lovecraft’s legacy is possible. To be clear, this essay is about the appeal of Lovecraft’s original stories as an RPG and is not an analysis of the man.

Lovecraft rooted his stories in the science of the day and a philosophy that sat somewhere between rationalism and nihilism. Horror moved from the personal and folklore of ghosts to implacably impersonal and cosmic with Lovecraft (Evans, 2005). A long-term consequence is Lovecraft helped create a dire and secular mythology for a scientific age. Elements like extraterrestrials, strange unearthly forces, ancient secrets, science uncovering things that imperil humankind, and even the irrelevance of humanity, already existed when Lovecraft wrote. He consolidated it into an enduring whole (Hite, 2008). This includes elements such as “god-like aliens” and characters conflating unknown sciences with magic.

The emotional core of the original stories and their ongoing appeal is the frisson caused by the cosmic nihilism Lovecraft employs in his stories. This is an existential dread beyond the material fear of being killed by a shoggoth. It is an emotional response to the realization that neither your death nor your life matter. The cosmos spins on with or without you (McWilliam, 2015).

Further, your world might be limited to areas around Providence, Rhode Island, but the planet, solar system, galaxy, and cosmos are large, pitiless, and incomprehensible. Your life experience, education, and vocabulary have not adequately prepared you for the more significant phenomena… they cannot adequately prepare you. In a feeble effort at contextualizing and conveying things, you might use terms like “arthropod” and “fungi” to describe creatures that come to this world and take the brains of the willing to the dark edge of our solar system. You have limited power to describe it, and no traditional power of Earth – not our religions, science, or military – can do anything about these events (Lovecraft, 1931). And that is one of the least malign aspects of Lovecraft’s stories.

These creatures and inhuman phenomena of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror are part of an inhuman and incomprehensible universe. The horror of the stories is not the intrusion of the weird or eerie into the mundane world but the realization that the ordinary is a comfortable illusion. Normal is a lie we tell ourselves and each other over and over until we forget that it is a lie (Miéville, 2005). Charles Addams, who created the Addams Family in his comics for the New Yorker, wrote, “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” Humanity is not the spider in this metaphor.

The nature of all these horrors functionally blows apart the ability of language to describe and contextualize. Further, these alien creatures have predatory existence beyond human understanding – they exist for themselves outside human perception and thought (Harman, 2012). They are old, terrible, and beyond the philosophies of David Hume, Emmanuel Kant, and Saint Augustine. Probably the only philosopher to provide adequate tools for dealing with the cosmos is Abdullah al-Ḥaẓrad – but reader beware. People who do read his works are said to go mad.

Many mythos creatures and phenomena are hyper-objects. The locations are liminal spaces. These terms are discussed in a book in 2013 by Timothy Morton, a philosophy professor at Rice Universe. But Garrison Davis succinctly discusses the concepts in a January episode of the It Could Happen Here podcast (Davis, 2022). It is easier to listen to the episode than to read the book. The crew at Behind the Bastards, a sister podcast, should do an episode about al-Ḥaẓrad.

Anyway, the beasts of the mythos – such as the race of Yith, Nyarlathotep, and Cthulhu – are best-considered hyper-objects. The standard distinctions between an individual, their actions, and their effects cannot apply to creatures of the mythos. Cthulhu is in his city, dead and dreaming, and he is also all the nightmares he pours out into the world. Human evolution and history occurred during a lull period for these aliens. This lull might go back to the twilight of the dinosaurs and still be considered a trivial thing to the horrors of the mythos (Harms, 1998).

Humanity in this milieu is irrelevant. This is humanity in the singular, such as yourself and me. This is humanity in the totality of our species and its accomplishments across history – including those yet to be. The tools of society are only applicable in our little world and our limited experience. This includes our material tools, such as ships and hammers, and our conceptual tools, such as language, morals, and the scientific method. It also includes what we consider rationality (BBC Radio 4, 2019).

Mythos magic is available to the investigators – but it is dangerous to them as any monsters.
Cults of humans out in the world have discovered ancient alien horrors. The people of these cults think they understand the dreadful creatures and forces of the mythos. They are wrong. But they will only realize this after they set in motion the end of the world (Burleson, 2009).

Your character encounters some cosmic horror in the Call of Cthulhu. It could be something you call a monster, for lack of a better word. Maybe it is some cult attempting to remake the world into something better – better for themselves, at least. Or so they think. Your character’s faith will not help them. No conventional tool will suffice, and what you call rationality will only hold you back. There is no straightforward solution. There is no higher power you may appeal to for a way out. Even rationality is unreliable. What do you do (Petersen, Willis, Fricker, & Mason, 2014)?

This is the core and appeal of the Call of Cthulhu the RPG. It is the dread frisson of realization that you do not matter. And it is the tension between that and knowing you are all that stands between your world and horror.

On a related note…

“F is for Fake” is the title of a 1973 short film by Orson Wells. He discusses art, art forgery, and fakery in the movie. This is relevant here because of something he says during this film.

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing’.” (Welles, 1973)

How do you survive in a universe that is utterly not about you? How do you survive in a universe where everything you believe in, from science to religion, is utter tosh? You go on singing. You go on living. You go on fighting. This may be madness – so what of it? Nothing you do is irrational if rationality itself doesn’t exist. That is the answer to the Call of Cthulhu. You go on living and do what humble things you can to help others to live.

I am comfortable in saying Call of Cthulhu is an example of an RPG as art. Call of Cthulhu is thoroughly a simulation game – it works to recreate the setting, tone, and theme of Lovecraft’s original stories. It is also a complicated system and setting – possibly too complicated as the game seems to have rules for everything. That said, the writers and producers of the game have done an excellent job of providing this material that the fans can use.

Lovecraft’s literary legacy outgrew him by a considerable degree. Now, 85 years after his unfortunate death, writers, musicians, movie makers, game designers, artists, and so on are still inspired enough to continue writing in the fictional world he created. Seekers after horror like J. Michael Straczynski, Alan Moore, and William Eubank guide us on tours of strange, far places. Lars Ulrich and John Carpenter lead dances to the music of vile drums and accursed flutes. Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Caitlín Kiernan tell us stories about what they found in the Necronomicon. The Call of Cthulhuis part of this milieu. But the game allows the dynamism of an active story compared to a predetermined one. It is the group participation that makes it a success.

Of course, there is an excellent song to at direct the cultists trying to whistle down the end of humanity. And that song is the “Uncle Fucker” song from the South Park movie.


BBC Radio 4. (2019, May 20). Seven surprising ways H.P. Lovecraft influenced our pop culture. From BBC: BBC Radio 4 - The Lovecraft Investigations - Seven surprising ways H.P. Lovecraft influenced our pop culture

Burleson, D. R. (2009). Lovecraft: Disturbing the universe. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Davis, G. (2022, January). Hyperobjects & our liminal reality. From It could happen here: Hyperobjects & Our Liminal Reality - It Could Happen Here

Ehara, T. (1984, July/Aug). My life and role-playing. Different worlds: The magazine for adventure role-players, pp. 8-9.

Evans, T. (2005). A last defense against the dark: Folklore, horror, and the uses of tradition in the works of HP Lovecraft. Journal of Folklore Research, 99–135.

Harman, G. (2012). Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. Alresford: John Hunt Publishing.

Harms, D. (1998). The Encyclopedia Cthulhiana. Ann Arbor: Chaosium.

Hite, K. (2008). Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales. Chicago: Atomic Overmind Press.

Lovecraft, H. P. (1931, August 1). The Whisperer in Darkness. Weird Tales.

McWilliam, D. (2015). Beyond the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror and Posthuman Creationism in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus . Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.

Miéville, C. (2005). Introduction. In H. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness: The Definitive Edition. (pp. i-xxv). New York: Penguin Random House.

Petersen, S., Willis, L., Fricker, P., & Mason, M. (2014). Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition. Ann Arbor: Chaosium.

Welles, O. (Director). (1973). F is for Fake [Motion Picture].
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Mod Squad
Staff member
Seems a bit over the top to have the entire post be links but all pointing to the same thing, doesn't it?

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