Bringing Lovecraft to Life in Pathfinder – Game Design with Sandy Petersen

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Sandy Petersen’s name is synonymous with Cthulhu in gaming. He is a well-known game designer and horror personality. In 1981, he designed the cult game Call of Cthulhu, the very first game to incorporate the Cthulhu Mythos. He recently launched a Kickstarter for a Cthulhu Mythos for Pathfinder. Sandy talks about what it takes to bring Lovecraft to the table in this article.

Lovecraftian horror is famously difficult to adapt to non-literary sources. You could say that it’s nightmarish. His tales are almost unfilmable with a few stellar exceptions. His stories are hard to apply to a tabletop RPG. Most challenging of all is bringing his monsters to life visually without going mad.

In producing a Cthulhu Mythos themed sourcebook, with figures, for a roleplaying game far more focused on tactical combat than my own RPG (Call of Cthulhu), we had to figure out how to solve these challenges. I’d like to talk about how we approached some of these.

Great Cthulhu – Building Better, Not Bigger

Cthulhu is mountainous in size. For Cthulhu Wars, we produced a figure that was almost 8 inches tall. HorrorClix once manufactured a Cthulhu 16 inches tall! But working with 28mm scale, even these are still far too diminutive for the “real” Cthulhu. In fact, no company has produced a figure of the appropriate size. By my calculations, a Cthulhu figure needs to around six feet tall to match the scale, and perhaps bigger. (My own evaluations have managed to put a lower end on Cthulhu’s size, but not an upper.)

In the tabletop board game of Cthulhu Wars, there’s no problem. Our 8-inch model is easy to see, scary, and makes a great icon for Cthulhu. But in a tactical RPG, sizes are supposed to be accurate. So our figure obviously cannot be Cthulhu himself. We had two problems to solve. First, how could we use our Cthulhu figure in the tabletop game, if it’s not really Cthulhu. Second, how can we portray Cthulhu without a figure?

Many people think of Cthulhu as a giant undersea god. But Cthulhu is actually described as just one of a whole race of creatures, called Starspawn. Cthulhu is their high priest and leader, but millions of other entities like him wait under the sea. It’s likely that he is the largest and most magically powerful, of course.

Image Credit: Cthulhu Wars

In Cthulhu Wars, we produce Starspawn figures which are about 12-15 scale feet long. This is too small even for a normal Starspawn. We’ve renamed the figure as “Larval Starspawn”, and posited that they are newly-budded individuals, still deadly opponents, but defeatable.

Our 8 inch figure we have renamed “the Starspawn”, so in the RPG it is now simply a bog-standard member of Cthulhu’s species, smaller and weaker than Cthulhu, but still extremely fearsome. It would make an excellent “final boss” of a roleplaying campaign or a major dungeon crawl.

But what about Cthulhu? Well, we can’t include a 6-foot figure of the dude, so instead, because of his terrifying size and power, we treat him like an environmental hazard rather than a tabletop enemy. We have rules clearly describing the dire effects of Cthulhu’s presence, but he is not an opponent that you would normally try to battle – instead the goal is to escape his presence. Of course, he can be thwarted, but this is accomplished not through battle, but by assembling the magical paraphernalia needed to send him back whence he came.

Flying Polyps – One Creature/Multiple Bodies

Those familiar with the Mythos know flying polyps are one of the most terrifying species Lovecraft ever described, with a history to back up their reputation. Lovecraft states that they caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, plus other major extinctions. They are genius-level predators with terrifying abilities. Flying polyps shift in and out of visibility, and at any given time much of their existence is on other planes of existence. Their polypous, gestalt nature means that the various parts of their body are not necessarily even adjacent to one another.

In our Pathfinder rules for the flying polyp, the game master rolls 1d8 to determine how many separate bodies that polyp manifests as. Thus, we provide eight figures, but the intent is that these represent a single polyp. Thus, this one monster can surround a party, or try to split it, using its bodies as tools!

Thus, the polyp becomes a dynamic tactical challenge, unlike any other. A creature with multiple bodies, each shifting in and out of existence.

The Children of Yog-Sothoth

In Lovecraft’s story The Dunwich Horror, the interdimensional Yog-Sothoth fathers two children upon a wizard’s daughter. One of the children is able to pass for human, at least when wearing long pants and shirts that button up to the neck and wrists, though there is still obviously something wrong with him. (At the age of 12, he was 7 feet tall.) The other child is an oft-invisible, mix of tentacles and jointed limbs bigger than an elephant.

We wanted these creatures in our game, so to represent them, we placed them in three categories. One is the Mutant, representing the nearly-human hybrid. The Spawn of Yog-Sothoth represents the other end of the spectrum – the colossal, insect/octopus Thing that appears only at the end of The Dunwich Horror. We decided to create an intermediate stage as well, one more obviously “balanced” between the extremes, and we named this the Abomination.

Image Credit: Cthulhu Wars

But really, they all represent the same race – a cross between an Outer God and a human. We reasoned that there is no reason only Yog-Sothoth can produce these, and so in the game version, we state that any Outer God (Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, etc.) can produce these horrors and, furthermore, can create such mutations from any normal life-form. Of course they would normally do so only from an intelligent species, such as humans, elfs, dwarfs, etc.

There is more to these beings than simply gross monsters – they are not created by a whim. No indeed, the Outer Gods spawn them for a purpose – to open the magical gateways that can bring them to the world, where they can rule again. These entities are always acting and plotting and working to bring about this final apocalypse, which means of course they make terrific opponents for a great horror-based campaign, in which the heroes must stop them to prevent the final catastrophe. Thus I believe we have combined horror and heroic fantasy in this way.

About the author:

Sandy Petersen developed dozens of roleplaying games, campaigns, and supplements. In 1988, he moved on to video games and was a designer on CivilizationDoomQuake, and the Age of Empires series, among many other games. In 2015, he released the famous tabletop boardgame Cthulhu Wars, about the conquest of the earth by the Great Old Ones, and now runs his own small game company.

Feature Image: Sandy Petersen/Kickstarter

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