In a couple of earlier posts I've described my reaction to my first two role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller. Those two were followed in the marketplace by a whole wave of other games in a variety of genres: Tunnels & Trolls, Universe from SPI, Gamma World, Chivalry & Sorcery, Metamorphosis Alpha, RuneQuest, Villains & Vigilantes, Top Secret, Boot Hill — and doubtless some others I'm forgetting.
I didn't play any of those. I got a copy of Metamorphosis Alpha because it was cheap, and I picked up Universe to get the three-dimensional map of nearby stars that came with it, but that was it. The various fantasy titles struck me as nothing more than D&D knockoffs, and the remainders just didn't interest me. I had to budget my allowance, and a roleplaying game cost as much as three or four science fiction paperbacks.
But then I heard about a new game: Call of Cthulhu. I think I first read a review of it in Dragon magazine, and was intrigued. That was right around the time I discovered the works of H.P. Lovecraft — and that discovery, in turn, was sparked by the inclusion of some Lovecraftian Great Old Ones in the D&D supplement Deities & Demigods. (After Call of Cthulhu appeared, TSR pulled the Lovecraft material out of later editions of that book; I've heard varying accounts of why that was done.)
I must have bought Call of Cthulhu shortly after it came out, possibly with some Christmas gift money in late 1981, or early 1982. It wasn't long before I talked my friends into trying it out. Recall that Raiders of the Lost Ark had premiered in the summer of 1981, so all of us were very enthusiastic about playing a game set in the era of pulp adventure heroes like Indiana Jones. Call of Cthulhu's 1920s milieu seemed perfect.
In fact, the campaign I ran for the next few years owed as much to Indiana Jones and Doc Savage as it did to H.P. Lovecraft. Around that time I acquired a copy of Philip Jose Farmer's biography of Doc Savage, and I shamelessly mined it for ideas. I can retroactively justify this by saying it was a "Robert E. Howard" style campaign, except that I didn't read any of Howard's horror stories until I was 35 years old.
The heroes in my group's campaign were definitely a two-fisted lot. The unofficial leader of the group was hard-boiled private eye Mike Slammer. Mike managed to survive several years of battling Lovecraftian horrors, chiefly due to a loophole in the game's famous Sanity rules. When a character encountered a mind-blasting horror, that character had to make an Intelligence roll before the Sanity check. A failed INT roll either prevented or reduced the effect of the Sanity roll, because the character simply failed to comprehend the cosmic wrongness which could unhinge more sensitive minds. Mike's invincible cement-headedness protected him against any threats to his psyche.
The pulpy tone of the campaign also meant that my heroes alternated between investigating Lovecraftian horrors and battling more conventional pulp villains, like the insidious Inca in Gray. (The Inca, by the way, introduced me to a problem which has bedeviled just about all my roleplaying games: the difficulty of having a recurring master villain when one's players are perfectly willing to shoot him in the face before he can finish his monologue.)
I ran Call of Cthulhu games for the rest of my high-school career, and into my first few vacations in college. Over time, as I read more Lovecraft and grew more interested in the history of "real" occultism, the tone of the games I ran shifted away from pulp adventure to more straight horror. My first winter in Chicago certainly inspired me to adapt Lovecraft's Antarctic horror story At the Mountains of Madness for my old group during summer vacation.
Call of Cthulhu was the first — and, really, the last — game for which I used a lot of published adventures. I had a couple of collections of scenarios, and ran some straight out of the books, while mining others for elements I could use in my own adventures. By the time I shifted to other games, I was already starting to think semi-seriously about submitting some of my adventures for publication.
While many roleplaying games have won awards, spawned licensed products and cross-media tie-ins, I think Call of Cthulhu is the only one to have set off a literary movement. The game got a whole generation of gaming nerds reading Lovecraft, and then reading other writers of his circle. This created a ripple which is still spreading.
Lovecraftian fiction went from being a relatively obscure corner of the horror section (crowded to one side by Exorcist knockoffs, Stephen King, and Ann Rice) to being pretty much the entire horror genre over the course of the next couple of decades. Go to a bookstore nowadays and look for horror stories: you'll find Dracula, Frankenstein, and a few Gothics in the Literature section, the Twilight books in the YA department — and shelves and shelves of Lovecraftian horror in the SF/Fantasy section.
Every year brings out another two or three original anthologies: Swords Versus Cthulhu, Shotguns Versus Cthulhu, Heroes of Red Hook. We've seen steampunk Lovecraft stories, feminist Lovecraft stories, postapocalyptic Lovecraft stories, and I'm sure "Rule 34" applies here as well. HPL himself is now enshrined in the Modern Library imprint from Random House, which is about as close to an official Canon of American Literature as one can get. I don't think any of that would have happened without the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game.
So how did it happen? How did a game based on the works of a (relatively) obscure author who'd been dead for fifty years become an enduring classic? (The game has now had a longer career than Lovecraft himself did.)
I think the answer is that Call of Cthulhu was the first cerebral roleplaying game. The emphasis wasn't on fighting, or even negotiation and problem-solving. The focus was investigation. In fact, in all the game publications the player characters are called the "Investigators." Call of Cthulhu appealed to people who liked finding out stuff, keeping notes, and making connections. Other games let players be vicariously tough or attractive; Call of Cthulhu lets you be smart. (Of course, being smart in that game is likely to get you killed, which means Call of Cthulhu appeals to players who think that's really neat.)
The game has been a steady seller, spawning variants like the X-Files inspired Delta Green or the pulpy World War II-era Achtung! Cthulhu. Call of Cthulhu itself is now out in a spiffy new Seventh Edition. I haven't tried out the new version. Maybe I'll just go dig in my game closet, pull out my 35-year-old boxed set, and try to drive some Investigators insane.