Call of Cthulhu: Things Players Were Not Meant to Know

Along with some version of D&D (lately Pathfinder) and Star Wars (Saga edition), Call of Cthulhu is always one of the top three games I’d like to run, if only I could make the time. Usually my decision depends on available miniatures, the time of year, and whether I’ve seen a terrific fantasy, space opera, or horror film recently. Picking the right game is only half of the battle. You also need to pick the right players.

Is it better for Call of Cthulhu players to be well-versed in the Mythos? Or is it better for them to be ignorant of the familiar tropes? There is of course a middle ground, say those who’ve played the Arkham Horror board game but aren’t otherwise steeped in lore.

Me, I love the idea of players who know a little about the 20s (my preferred CoC era) and are keen on mysteries and the possibility of the supernatural, but who haven’t read much Mythos literature. The idea that they don’t know what to expect appeals to me so much that I’d certainly throw in some non-supernatural mysteries to keep them guessing.

What’s your preference?

4 thoughts on “Call of Cthulhu: Things Players Were Not Meant to Know

  1. It’d be difficult to pull off, and require exactly the right players, but it’d be fun to not even tell them it was a Mythos game at first — just start off like you’re playing Gangbusters, but then discover that Al Capone was getting “help” from beyond the stars or something.

  2. I did this with a modern Cthulhu campaign. It was great for me as a Keeper — they didn’t know much about the Cthulhu mythos, so they drew all kinds of fun conclusions about the Mythos without knitting it together AS the Mythos. But my players didn’t feel the same way. Three years later when we finished the campaign they confessed they weren’t happy with the game. I’d say I picked the wrong players, but I worked with what I had.

  3. As a fan of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, I have had the opportunity to play on both sides of the screen, as an investigator in and as a GM of the cosmic horror themed RPG. In my experience, a moderate knowledge of both the period and the genre adds to the verisimilitude of the game while allowing enough mystery and intrigue to truly touch upon the elements of terror and suspense that lend themselves to a rich gaming encounter. A decent grip on the 1920s time period, the age of pulp fiction where the dark corners of the earth were yet unplumbed and decadent cultist, mysterious islands, and tantalizing arabesques abound, develops the ominous milieu of Lovecraftian fiction. The mythos of the genre, however, should remain arcane and esoteric with regard to the investigators to maintain that sense of the unknown and the cryptic that drives a thrilling game session.

    While many players of Call of Cthulhu may be well-versed in the ghouls, Elder Things, Great Old Ones, and the denizens of Innsmouth, a significant or substantive knowledge of the tropes and haunters in the dark of the mythos can lead to a degree of meta-gaming which may dilute the experience. A gaping maw of teeth, a multitude of blinking, dripping eyes, and swirling tentacles may send the most stalwart players and their characters into fits of unspeakable fear and panic. However, an avid reader of Lovecraft and his contemporaries in the realm of weird fiction make bring unwarranted apprehensions and undesirable insight into a situation that hinges on the unexpected and the unknown.

    When I used to teach Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Dagon,” and “The Music of Erich Zann” to the freshmen in my Introduction to Literature course, I would conclude the unit with a session of Chaosium’s CoC utilizing the Quick Start Rules. The students would create their own investigators, write their own character’s biographies within the context of the 1920s, and play out a modified game in small groups of the sample encounter included in the rules. While the students had a modicum of experience with the setting and the genre, they were neither adepts of the Necronomicon nor scholars of the cosmic horror that preys upon human dread in Lovecraft’s work. Few survived with their sanity intact but all left the table touched by the trepidation that comes with a well-balanced encounter with the mythos.

    In all due diligence, I must confess that I have been a longtime resident of the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island and walked the streets that Lovecraft wandered in his lifetime, including Benefit Street, Brown University, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Similarly, I have visited the Fleur de Lys building, the Athenaeum Library, Federal Hill, and the winding hills of Swan Point Cemetery, the twisting arboretum and final resting place of H.P. Lovecraft bordering the murky depths of the Providence River. Now I reside in Arkham …

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