Call of Cthulhu is unequivocally the greatest role-playing game ever written. Okay, maybe that’s just my opinion, but I have some people who can back me up on this.
The game, created in 1981 by Sandy Petersen, is based on the works of seminal horror author HP Lovecraft. In the game, player characters discover that our universe is malignant, inimical to human existence, and filled with slobbering horrors. The darkness may be beaten back by investigators willing to sacrifice their minds and their lives to the fight, but inevitably, the stars will roll right, and humanity will be snuffed out by forces older than time and beyond our comprehension. One could consider it horror for atheists, for whom the old tropes of ghosts, demons, and witches have lost their sting.
So why is this game better than any other?
It’s because of what the game teaches us about life.
Every game system is written to promote a style of play. And that style of play, whether consciously or unconsciously, is written with ideas about life in mind.
Dungeons & Dragons, for example, is a game of heroic self-improvement. Characters gain experience, becoming stronger, smarter, more handsome, richer, and acquire magic and special abilities. A character that persists over time, and her improvement, is one of the defining characteristics of a role-playing game.
However, it is also exactly the reverse of what we experience in life.
We do not get stronger, better, and more handsome as we age. Rather, we get flabby and sick, then die. D&D functions as an escape from that reality, and as such is wildly popular.
Call of Cthulhu functions contrariwise.
In Cthulhu, spellbooks drive you insane. Practicing magic results in horrors. And if you engage in straight up combat with the game’s monstrosities, the coroner will be lucky to find enough teeth to identify your ragged remains. It is a game where in all the ways that matter, your character gets worse over time, until her skin is sloughed off by some nickering abomination.
That, my friends, is life.
Writer and game-design master Ken Hite is the originator of this argument. Having written a Cthulhu game of his own, he knows a thing or two about diving into madness. Hite said,
Call of Cthulhu is the only RPG that has to be, when played by the rules, about something besides an adolescent power fantasy… Your character deliberately, and gradually, commits slow, horrible suicide by insanity in order to save innocent people (a few, a thousand, or a billion) from that very fate.
The question then follows, if the game is about confronting terrors, and inevitably losing to them, why would anyone ever want to play this game?
It is because we’ve been telling ourselves stories of loss, woe, and self-sacrifice since the first shaman rattled some dead hero’s bones over the campfire. Hite compares the game to a Greek tragedy, but one where the universe- not the characters- possesses a fatal flaw. The universe’s flaw is that it is inhabited by malignant forces beyond the comprehension of humanity. Hite wrote,
[The game] arouses, in Aristotle’s words, “pity and terror”… The heroic Investigators’ tragic choice is to choose to face the universe squarely, to learn about its truth — the Mythos — and by so doing, go mad. Only by dooming oneself to tragedy can you preserve the illusion — again, per Lovecraft, that’s all we have — of safety and goodness for those innocent others.
The characters in Call of Cthulhu face death and an implacable universe The players at the table face the same, but at a safe remove. Death is a taboo. Call of Cthulhu asks us to touch it.
Playing Cthulhu is a prolonged engagement with death and suffering. While the game has its moments of fear and high drama, you’ll also see players laughing and cracking jokes. Like gallows humor, the jokes domesticate death. This extended interaction with such a painful subject does turn some players off, yet over the decades it seems to have produced loyalty in its fanbase.
Tolstoy’s words about family come to mind:
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
In the same way, other role-playing games can become repetitive. Almost every campaign is the tale of characters growing in power and dominance over a place.
Sandy Petersen’s Social Contract
But by sitting down to a game of Cthulhu, players have agreed to a nightmare shadowplay, in which anything, no matter how awful, may occur.
Call of Cthulhu takes advantage of a sad fact of our lives. Sorrow has more depth than joy does height. Misery and failure are never exhausted as subjects. (Happiness had its loudest and most honest flowering in disco.) As a result, Cthulhu never wants for material.
There are only so many dungeons in the world. But sadly, there is no end to horrors.
You can read more of Ken Hite’s brilliant and blasphemous scratchings in Cthulhu 101. Discover the horrors of bibliomania with his Bookhounds of London book for Trail of Cthulhu.
Intrigued by Call of Cthulhu? You can preorder the 7th edition of the game here!
Disagree? Explain what you think the greatest RPG of all time is in the comments below!
Feature image courtesy Fantasio. Other image courtesy Chaosium.