The Clarion Call of Cthulhu: How I Learned to Love the Beast, Part 2
Part 1 put Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos in a class by itself: far different in scope and function than its contemporary worlds of Tarzan or Conan. Through the role of investigators we peeled back the familiar layers of our world to get a glimpse of other dimensions, all the while peeking at otherworldly creatures through our fingers. This time we dig into why the Cthulhu mythos is the most fertile of soils for gamers of all kinds.
The Lovecraft mythos destroys the barriers that keep other stories penned in. Cthulhu and his kind are equally at home in any time period. Writing Cthulhu into the back story of popular eras and genres allows the sinister motives of the Ancient Ones to push their tendrils into every last nook and cranny of the past, present, and future. Every game that invokes the mythos can put Cthulhu at the centre of all of mankind’s most treasured myths and legends.
From Egypt and the Incas to faster than light space exploration: cultists, Ancient Ones, monsters, and corrupted humans secretly, but as often openly, push forward an otherworldly agenda knowable only to Lovecraft’s creatures. Consider:
“The history you know is a carefully woven tapestry of lies. Lies meant to shield you from a bleak and hideous truth: this world is under constant threat from beings ancient, monstrous and utterly evil. Mercifully, we have been safeguarded by the valiant men and women of secret organizations that exist for the sole purpose of protecting humanity against this seemingly insurmountable threat.” – From the introduction of the Strange Aeons miniature game
Who’s to say Cthulhu’s cultists didn’t infiltrate The Pyramids, The Roman Senate, The Crusades, The Inquisition, The Vatican, CIA, MI5, or NASA? How about those creatures in the Aliens movies designed by the artist H.R. Giger? Sea monsters of old, The Bermuda Triangle, and Area 51? Things that go bump in the night? It’s easy and a bit of good fun to imagine Ancient Ones and their minions everywhere. In the realm of fantasy and sci-fi, the only thing more entertaining than a good conspiracy theory is when the conspiracy is not of human design. There’s a lot of latitude and fertile soil in Lovecraft to grow fantastical stories bounded only by imagination.
That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die. – H.P. Lovecraft, The Nameless City
Apart from a few trademarked titles and phrases Lovecraft’s work is public domain. With little or no financial barrier it is a matter of course that board and card game titles big and small include some reference to the mythos. It just slots right in everywhere! Three huge sellers – King of Tokyo, Smash Up!, and Munchkin have Cthulhu off-shoot games or expansions. So does Pandemic, Cthulhu Fluxx, Cthulhu Dice, Chez Cthulhu, Cthulhu Gloom to name just a few. We’ll save the long list of games that are specifically about the mythos itself for next time.
Roleplaying games also delve deep and often into Lovecraft to take advantage of the omnipresence of the mythos. Most notably perhaps is the Call of Cthulhu RPG with expansions that rewrite WWII with warring factions believing the mythos can be harnessed. Boy are they in for a surprise! One Achtung! Cthulhu expansion explores – you guessed it – Egypt and the North African WWII theatre. Again, Lovecraft’s children can be born and raised in any time period. Achtung! Cthulhu has a RPG, home-grown fiction, a miniature skirmish game, and a miniature range all in print and selling like hotcakes. With a virtually free IP, companies are able to spend their cash on fantastic artwork, production values, and creative game designers. This is an enormous advantage over, say, Star Wars or other high-cost-barrier IPs.
Finally, Lovecraft has gifted gamers with antagonists, protagonists, settings, and stories that meld seamlessly into every major gaming genre. Popular cooperative games where players work together against the game are tailor-made to pit intrepid investigators against world spanning secret societies and malevolent Ancient Ones. RPGs too are spoilt for choice. Any era, any continent, any level of difficulty, and any sub-genre from pulp to psychological to slasher horror are covered twice over by Lovecraft and other Cthulhu mythos writers. Most notable is the recent re-release of A Study in Emerald board game based on a short story of the same name by Neil Gaiman, in turn a Lovecraftian rewriting of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlett. Yup, there’s even Sherlock Holmes Cthulhu. There are also board games like Cthulhu Wars that play head-to-head and tabletop miniature skirmish games for those who want to collect, paint, and play the vast array of creepy creatures and henchmen across a wargaming table.
Whatever your fancy, there’s a Cthulhu for that.
Got a Cthulhu favourite? Feel free to share you thoughts in the comments.
Next time we look at the array of uniformly excellent Lovecraft based games published by Fantasy Flight. There is a strong argument that they have, in fact, watered down the orignal storytelling in exchange for a more marketable product. I disagree: most games in the Arkham Files series pull no punches!