The Call of Cthulhu: A lifechanging tabletop experience

H.P Lovecraft was a prolific American writer, of whom is known for the creation of the Cthuhlu Mythos and his Cosmic Horror. Lovecraft himself wasn’t well known in his time, and his work was often pushed aside and highly criticized. Lovecraft passed away in 1937, leaving behind many of his now-famous creations, the biggest of which being Cthuhlu. Cthulhu is said to be a cosmic entity, and is a part of the species ‘The Great Old Ones’. The name is derived from the Classical Greek “of the earth”, being ‘chthonic’. In the short story, The Call of Cthuhlu, the creature is described as “A monster of a vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.”, and is often noted to be a caricature of the human form.

The Call of Cthuhlu is a short story written by Lovecraft in the summer of 1926 and was published in early 1928 within Pulp Magazine’s Wierd Tales. The inspiration of which came from Lovecraft’s own dreams in 1919. Cthulhu Mythos scholar Robert M. Price argues that the sonnet ‘The Kraken’ written by Alfred Tennyson in 1830 was an inspiration for the piece, due to the creatures being similar. The plot summary of the short story, The Call of Cthulhu is that a discovery of a clay figure depicting an octopus-like creature leads an inspector to investigate, and lands him in the middle of cultist activities. The main themes of the plot are the danger of pursuing knowledge, and mankind’s insignificance in the universe, which are common themes throughout all of Lovecraft’s stories, along with hints back towards Cthuhlu himself, which can be found in stories such as The Dunwich Horror, and At The Mountains of Madness. Hence why the universe created and shared in the story was posthumously labelled, the Cthuhlu Mythos. Lovecraftian Horror is a subgenre of Horror, known as Cosmic Horror which refers to the unknowable and the unknown, and are often noted to contain little violence.

The book, The Call of Cthuhlu is set in the 1920s, and as so has some themes which aren’t acceptable today for good reason — furthermore, H.P Lovecraft was noted to be racist. This means that portrayals aren’t currently accurate. This is transitional to the Call of Cthuhlu tabletop game as whilst playing, characters that aren’t white will be harassed by in-game NPCs, and as women’s rights aren’t fully respected in this period, female NPCs aren’t treated well. However, this is done as a timepiece and nothing derogatory is said. As we all openly disagree with this content, it isn’t found in the homebrew version that we are playing.

The Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG created by Chaosium Inc. is based upon the book of the same name and was first released in 1981 — and is now on its 7th edition release. Unlike other tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, Chaosium adds other Basic Role-Playing mechanics such as luck and sanity, both of which are forefront ideologies within H.P Lovecraft’s writings. The tabletop is a mixture of Holmesian [Sherlock Holmes-esque] mystery and the occult. The game can be set anywhere from the 1890s to the modern-day and includes both time and dimensional travel. The players of the game take the roles of ordinary people drawn into the nature of the mysterious events, and throughout the game, as they learn of the horrors around them, lose sanity. Call of Cthuhlu often has a reputation for being a game in which players often die in gruesome circumstances, and may even end up in mental institutions.

In our playthrough of Call of Cthulhu, we played a homebrew version of the tabletop, meaning that we had taken elements of the story, and adapted them to fit a story we had created ourselves, whilst still following the game’s guide and rule books for in-game events, enemies, statistics, money and more. Our Dungeon Master, or ‘DM’ for short, was Aaron and is the title given to the game organiser, and to the person in charge of the story and events of the game — a term taken from another popular tabletop RPG, Dungeons and Dragons [often known as D&D]. He had decided to split the game up into several acts, and have three ‘parts’ an act, with as many acts as we needed to complete the story. Some of us had come from backgrounds in which we had played other tabletops before, even being Dungeon Masters ourselves, and others of us were completely new to the concept. All that we knew is that we were in for one hell of a journey; a very dark and insanity-inducing hellscape, with a countdown until the world ended — 60 days to be precise.

Our characters were all made with a dice roll, determining all our statistics, and what kind of character we’d play throughout the story, and how we’d end up. My character, Red [for ‘redacted’] turned out to be quite intelligent, being just shy of a university degree, being around 6’7 and very muscular, and had been gifted a book that could not be opened, which was used as a plot point later on in the game. This meant I had a damage bonus, but moved slowly. Due to my character’s percentile roles, I also play a somewhat unhinged character, who is however very forgiving of others. As a group, we also decided to implement the ‘GUN’ rule, which gives you the power in a single action only, to do whatever you like, and can only be used a set number of times.

We were introduced to the game by an invitation, taking place in Blackpool Museum in 1926 — and when we arrived, we were accosted by a man titled ‘Mr. Hawthorne’, a historian for the mysterious organisation known as ‘The Eye’, and chief historian for the Museum. Little had we known that he would become a major player in the story. He communicated to us that he wished to employ us to investigate the strange ‘happenings’ around Blackpool; of which we all agreed — and how wrong we were to accept the job is now ever so apparent. From this point on, I will be going through the story so far, as seen through the character that I play as.

We started our adventure with the first quest of the first act [and the tutorial] The Blackpool Bodies, in which several bodies had been found dead surrounding Blackpool Tower, and all end up in the same morgue. Our party goes to investigate, and are confronted by robed figures, who are infected with tentacles, and chant a ‘death siren’. The second quest was to find out how an archaeologist, Raymond Spicer died — which had happened under suspicious circumstances. It was found that he had gone mad and killed himself in Blackpool Hospital.

I then proceeded to lead our group completely of course [to the detest of our Dungeon Master], to an island of the coast of Blackpool, which we had observed to have unusual green lightning and fireworks during the night. This to me meant that we must explore it, so we did what any sane person would and we bought a boat split between the three of us. We ventured over to the island during the day and found it home to a man named Sheamus, who had a particular distaste for his wife and used the island as a hideaway. Due to myself, and those who followed my character out of sheer fear, we forced him to leave the island and destroyed every dock and landing on the island bar one to make sure that no-one could get to the island while we investigated. After exploring the island, and finding little of note besides what appeared to be gunpowder on the beach, we took up residence in Sheamus’s shack for the night, finding his personal diary which I kept. Come night time, we left the shack to find fireworks once again going off, which we had tracked to the beach we had previously found gunpowder on. On this beach, we found a group of 6 teenagers who upon seeing us, flee in shock over my confrontation in their small rowboats over a rough sea, and unfortunately, get dragged under by the current and a mysterious creature. One by one, we hear something that we believe to be the ‘death siren’ that we had heard before, that occurs 6 times, and we assume that sadly they had all perished. Another player, Blair, who plays a ‘Ghost Hunter’ tries to communicate with the potentially perished souls, but instead seemingly summons Glass Spectres that the player tries to touch, and gets hurt. This causes us all to flee to the centre of the island, where the planchette is once again used, and this time summons ghosts within our plane of existence, similar in form to that of Davy Jones’ ghost crew from Pirates of the Caribbean, which in turn causes us to flee further into the centre of the island. At this point, stuck at a dead end on the island, we determine that the ghostly apparitions could do no harm, but the Glass Spectre were indeed deadly, so I assumed the best course of action would be to use my pure willpower to cast magic to banish one of the Glass Spectres. Upon doing this, my book that wouldn’t open decided to open, and to read it I had to cover the book in my blood, of which due to the nature of the island, was now green, and burned to the touch. Reading this allowed me to banish the Spectre, and taught my a little Gaelic, [which benefits my characters stats] along with the learning the ability to summon a being from another plane of existence, but must be summoned in exchange for something returning in its place, and was only useable at night. This action was basically useless other than for what it taught me. Throughout this entire turn of events, the ‘death siren’ had continued to echo through the island at intervals, signalling something, or someone dying. We later found out that this was one of the three Necronomicons [a fictional grimoire of magic] that when together summon Cthulhu himself.

Following this, we had reached the middle of the island, and a character by this point I had employed decided to shoot a tree that had been constantly struck by the green lightning, at the centremost point of the island, which bounced back and struck his character in the shoulder but did however unveil a talisman that we took. we then decided for whatever reason that we should set the tree on fire, which caused a shattering stellar screech, along with lighting the island itself on fire, whilst returning to our boat. Upon leaving, our boat is flung into the air by a large tentacle, hurling towards Blackpool Pier at near terminal velocity when suddenly, everything cuts to black, and we wake up in the Inn. When we wake up in the inn, we find our injuries have been sustained, but are now scars rather than fresh, and discover our boat to he undamaged, and come to the conclusion upon viewing the island to be untouched, that the events likely took place in another plane of existence, meaning I had banished the Glass Spectre to our own realm.

This turn of events causes my character to visit Hawthorne for an explanation, that of which he cannot give, and I also try to befriend a small octopus creature, known as a Wildbeast, which burns my flesh down to the bone and prompts me to go to the library, which leads me to threaten a man called Chris, a librarian, for information, who happens to be a member of ‘The Eye’. When we later revisit the library, he refuses to speak to me in person, only communicating with me and those with me from the spirit realm. My end goal with this character was to befriend Chris and correct my actions.

After this, we take up the third quest of the first act of the story, that of the disappearance of Bojo the Clown [who was definitely not based on Boris Johnson]. This quest took us to the Topp, a circus, where we discovered the disappearance and murder of several of the circus acts due to some ‘tentacle-like’ creatures, that infect Bojo and cause him to try to kill our party. He partially succeeds, crashing the car we were in, after chasing him into and then out of the sewers. Bojo is brought to an end following this as I had used the limp and unconscious corpse of another party member as a weapon, that crushed Bojo’s remains, as he could regrow from a morsel of himself. This cemented the end of Act 1, and so we were rewarded by Hawthorne, my reward being my arm being fixed, and a pen that turned into a sword when clicked.

After being rewarded, Act 2 started with Hawthorne telling our party to visit Blackpool Tower [previously being strongly implied to be an area of malice due to several dead bodies within the vicinity], as there was a group trying to summon one of the beings within the story, known as Abhoth, the source of uncleanliness. We enter the tower to find that many groups of insane people were being rounded up to be sacrificed to summon Abhoth, which we did our best to stop, but to no avail. We enter the ritual chamber and find a man in a unique robe and his followers, who had just summoned Abhoth by completing the last sacrifice, and our party had to defeat the beast. After much damage had been dealt to both our party and Abhoth, I once again decide to use my sheer willpower to banish Abhoth, albeit temporarily, so that we can escape and heal. Doing this causes Abhoth to plummet into the ground, and allowed me to give myself the title ‘Banisher of Gods’, as much as the rest of the party [and I] think that it’s a little daft. Upon the ritual table is a pin badge for a mayoral candidate which then becomes the second quest of the second act. By this point, a third of our time has run out, and we only have 40 days left until the end of times.

In the meantime, I venture with Hawthorne down into the depths of Blackpool Tower where Abhoth had plummeted, and to gain my trust, gave me the ability to become invincible, but to become invincible I’d have to remove an organ or body part and place it somewhere hidden, as my invincibility would be tied to whatever I remove — meaning that should anything happen to that organ or body part, I’d likely die.

The second quest of Act 2 started with our party tracking down where the mayor lived, which was inside a gated community, that was guarded. To get in, we had to convince the guards to let us in — logically, my first thought was to scream in Gaelic, followed by pulling out a hedgehog which I had previously rescued claiming it was the mayor’s, which appeared to work until I was brought inside and hit over the head, and knocked out cold. During this time, my party had managed to blind themselves, almost kill themselves and through the power of Avon [yes, the company] managed to open a magical doorway to Avon HQ. [One of the players, Gustav, had decided to start Avon in the 1920s as a pyramid scheme.] By the time I wake up, I’m tied to a pole above a fire, and my party are sneaking around in the same robes of those who were sacrificing people to summon Abhoth to blend in with the robed cultists, all of which live within the gated community, and are having a ‘sacrifice’ night in which they had become cannibals. I manage to escape and locate my clothes and confront the mayor, who I convince to repent for his sins and to become a follower of mine. From this point, I become friends with the mayor, start a cult known as ‘The Followers of the Apocalypse’, and he pledges to do good to make up for the evil that he has done. Whilst I’m doing this, the rest of my party has seemingly massacred the rest of the cultists, which consist of nearly half a hundred people, in a large ball of fire.

After entering the Library once again, I was confronted by a being made of books, of whom tried to kill me and later was found to be Chris’s protector. I then use my sheer willpower [a recurring theme] to trap the book being within my hedgehog and take the hedgehog to Hawthorne, who crushes it and releases the creature, that is known as an Acadademon [an academic demon]. As an apology, Hawthorne suggests I give the Acadademon a book filled with knowledge, and I hand him Sheamus’s diary, which unveils new information about a temple under the island. I then demand to speak with Chris, and the Acadademon teleports me to him, in which I try to romance Chris. I was sadly informed that Chris had a wife, and the feelings of my character had been shattered. At the end of this process, Hawthorne apologises for crushing my Hedgehog, by bringing new life to it, and imbuing it with some magical power that was unknown to me. I had forgotten by this point that the mayor who I had recently befriended and decided to follow me was watching the entire thing, and likely traumatised. Whilst this is happening, the rest of my party were running around Blackpool Zoo, and were slaughtering tentacle infested animals — the tentacles being that of Cthuhlu.

This is where we last left off, after playing into the late hours of the morning, every Thursday. We had decided early on to counteract the horrors of the game by doing whatever we could to implement some humour, something I think that we had done well. I see this article fitting to end on a quote as proof of this from a friend, who proofread this and only had this to respond. “Yes, instructor, this very risky fan fanfic of me and Chris is essential to my learning and coursework”.

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Dylan Ramsay

Dylan Ramsay

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Journalist at Plymouth Marjon University, lover of art, videogames, reading and Star Wars.