How Call of Cthulhu Stole My Heart
How old was I? I don't know, really. Old enough to order something through the mail, I suppose. 1984 or 1985, I guess. I saw it in a Chessex catalog, or maybe in Dragon magazine, and it came four weeks later, the boxed set. Call of Cthulhu. A game.
Now, I had already read Lovecraft. I had the Del Rey paperbacks scraped from some used book shop in New York, and I was an addict; I carried them everywhere.
I was more a fan of the ideas than the old man from Providence's writing style (apologies Mssrs. Stolze and Hite), but those ideas. Even then, when I was 13, I could tell they were magic.
I had also played all manner of RPGs. From D&D to Gamma World, I had given them all a spin. We had struggled in Metamorphosis Alpha. Skyrealms of Jorune. Boot Hill. We'd tried nearly everything. We'd enjoyed it all.
But this game. This Call of Cthulhu.
It was different.
I recall our first spin with the system. We played The Haunted House (later, The Haunting) and old man Corbitt gobbled up all but one Investigator with great and horrible aplomb.
All the players in the group had never seen a game like it before. They, like me, were hooked.
We all "got" it. A campaign immediately sprang up. We played what would become the basis of The Fate, as seen in Delta Green. I created the Keepers of the Faith Ghoul coven, and other nastiness which would live on in the next decade amidst the horrors of Delta Green.
At the time though, it was just a game we played for fun on the weekends.
Then, in late 1986 I was in New Hampshire in a book shop and I found it: Masks of Nyarlathotep — the holy grail of RPG campaigns.
The next year or more of gaming was a frenzy of destroyed Investigators, haunted by the memory of their dead friend Jackson Elias, hunting the agents of the Crawling Chaos across the globe.
It. Was. Amazing.
No game has ever come close to the feeling that Call of Cthulhu can still generate in me. Twenty or more years later and I'm still at it. Playing it, writing it, creating it. It's still as good as it ever was.
Why? What's the magic? It's very simple, really. So simple, in fact, that many new players who come to it fail to see it at all. They stumble right in as if it were the same as all the other games, but it is not. The game heartlessly gobbles them up and many never come back.
It's easy to overlook it the source of the power, because its magic is also its greatest weakness.
The magic is this; it inverts the power fantasy found in RPGs, and in doing so, allows the player to FEEL again.
Players in a good Call of Cthulhu session care about a game in a way not commonly seen in other games. Players crowd the table, desperate for information. This is because they never know when it will be the end of their Investigator. Death is omnipresent.
Other games comfort players. Give players a lever with which to shift the gameplay balance in their favor. Call of Cthulhu gives the player character a burning stick of dynamite, a flashlight with a dying battery, and a scribbled map, and sends them off into a wilderness haunted by things.
This is its magic. The system is designed to destroy player characters in all of its forms. Even in its rewards in Mythos Knowledge, Spells and enchanted items, it sets about the destruction of the player character. The entire mechanical system is predicated on floundering, decay and destruction. It is about the mortality and foolishness of humanity.
Some people have no taste for such reminders of mortality (hence, this also being a weakness). However, I love it. I love, love, love it.
Call of Cthulhu stole my heart more than twenty years ago, and it continues to do so even today.
I don't imagine that will ever change.