What if Cthulhu cultists ran an entire American city in the 1930s?
That is the question asked by Cthulhu City, a new setting book for the Trail of Cthulhu role-playing game which imagines Great Arkham, a city of factories and mobsters and windowless cyclopean skyscrapers, where the blasphemous Church of the Great Conciliator is the largest religious sect, and the dark shapes that flit through the night sky must be large birds.
They must be, right?
If you are unfamiliar with HP Lovecraft and his horrors, he is a 20th century American weird fiction writer who envisioned a blind and cruelly indifferent universe in which powerful alien beings are slowly awakening from eons of slumber to take Earth back from humanity, not because we’re sinners or evil, but just because they can. (You can learn more about Cthulhu gaming here.) These tropes, memes, and abominations are collectively called the Cthulhu Mythos. Cthulhu City is a new take on Lovecraft because while he always imagined these awful powers working on the fringes, Cthulhu City puts them in control of a major American metropolis.
Pelgrane Press publisher Cat Tobin described the decision to publish Cthulhu City as “easy.” The game “subverts the traditional Mythos RPG in the kind of way we like to do at Pelgrane Press,” and given that Pelgrane sold out of Cthulhu City at Gen Con 2017, Tobin’s instincts appear spot-on.
For aficionados of Lovecraft, the following sentence may tell you all you need to know about the world of Cthulhu City. It was founded by a free-thinking man who was driven out of Salem for being part of a religious minority, a man named Joseph Curwen, and its current mayor is named Charles Ward.
Making the Cthulhu Mythos Fresh Again
But even for those less steeped in the Mythos, Cthulhu City offers something new. It is a Cthulhu setting where a number of preconceptions are turned on their heads. For example, knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos is not hidden in libraries and distant ruins. Instead,
“the Mythos is just beneath the surface. Its spoor is everywhere; the city is foul with supernatural corruption. People have to willfully blind themselves to avoid acknowledging the existence of inhuman horrors in their midst. The Investigators – unable to share in this comfortable delusion – know they are surrounded by the forces of the Mythos.”
There is no retreating to the comforts of daylight, family, and home in Cthulhu City. Otherworldly profanities are always there, right in front of your eyes.
Another example of the inversion of Lovecraft’s ideas in Cthulhu City comes from the fact that it is the player characters who must live outside the law. Instead of cultists having to hide their activities from the authorities, it is the player characters who wish to disrupt the activities of alien gods from beyond time who must keep their activities quiet lest they be wiped from the face of the earth.
Cthulhu City takes Lovecraft’s ideas and first allows them to be rewritten by existentialist philosophers, then drags them through a sewer. Writer Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan has managed to make Cthulhu gaming grimmer, darker, more desperate, and more implacable than it already was.
The book describes the feel of a Cthulhu City game thusly:
“Great Arkham is an occupied city. The game casts the Mythos as the occupying power, with the city authorities as quislings and collaborators, and the player characters as resistance fighters. It’s inspired by the human horrors of mass surveillance and oppression, as much as by Lovecraft. The Mythos can strike without reason, without apparent purpose. Tentacles unfold from the clouds, and grab some unlucky soul off the streets; ghouls steal children from their cribs for sacrifice in a witches’ sabbat; invisible horrors beyond perception infect the pineal glands of the unwary, devouring their sanity like psychic parasites and causing brain lesions. The people who live in Great Arkham did nothing wrong– the city is not Hell, and they are not sinners. There is no cosmic plan for them, just cosmic indifference that manifests through the city’s organs.”
A Setting Book with 21st Century Design
Thick setting books may seem old-fashioned, but Ryder-Hanrahan brings a firm 21st-century design aesthetic to the project, and frankly, it could be run as a campaign with relatively little GM prep. For example, settings can be portrayed by the GM as “Masked” or “Unmasked.” A Masked locale is one relatively untainted by the ravening obscenities from beyond our space-time that pervade Great Arkham, and an Unmasked location is filthy with it. St. Mary’s Hospital, for example, may be on the front-line of the fight against typhoid, or it may be run by a cult of undead cannibal doctors. Similarly, non-player characters are presented as potential victims, servants of the Mythos, or allies.
Ryder-Hanrahan also includes ready to run encounters for the GM. In one particularly pants-wetting example, the player character is at a diner when scraps of overheard conversation, the radio, the words of the waitress, all begin to form phrases, then sentences, which coalesce into a passage from a text the player character knows. “The city is reading [the Necronomicon] to the Investigator, as if trying to reveal some hidden truth through every possible means.”
It is difficult to describe the sheer weight and volume of excellent ideas contained in Cthulhu City. This seems to be a hallmark of the work of Ryder-Hanrahan, whose previous efforts included the amazing Dracula Dossier.
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and the Weight of Imagination
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan describes himself as “a slow writer with way too many projects” who “has no life outside of gaming, other than occasionally listening to way too many political podcasts.”
Ryder-Hanrahan’s lack of a life outside gaming benefits us all, as his gaming output over the past ten years has been impressive in both quality and quantity. Ultimately, every tabletop role-playing game product ever made is an imagination aid; the product promises to help you have more fun with your imagination than standing in your backyard with a plastic lightsaber pretending to be Obi-Wan Kenobi by providing structure and ideas you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. And it is in this ineffable realm of imagination improvement that Ryder-Hanrahan excels.
Reading his work produces a kind of euphoria, as plots, characters, locations, encounters, and opponents percolate in the mind, and to describe what I feel when I read it, I get jazzed about how much fun this is going to be at the table. In addition, he is a lucid and vivacious writer who will keep you reading his work.
Like fantasy? You should check out his fantasy campaign where players go up against a sentient dungeon that swims through the earth and starts hunting down their family. (It was inspired by Moby Dick!) Want more Cthulhu from him? Check out The Mythos Dossiers for The Laundry RPG. And if you want to see what Ryder-Hanrahan describes as his, “magnum opus” check out the Dracula Dossier, which may be the greatest campaign of all time.
Why do you love Cthulhu? Let us know in the comments below!
All images courtesy: Pelgrane Press
Ben Riggs speaks five languages and has lived in four countries on three continents, but still manages to lose his keys in the bathroom. A friend to man, animal, and werewolf alike, you can discover more of Ben’s thoughts on game, the universe, and everything on Twitter, or on the Plot Points podcast. He is also the liberal voice on Across the Aisle, a podcast where a liberal and conservative work together to solve the 21st century’s problems.