Call of Cthulhu: Interview with the Creator Sandy Petersen

Call of Cthulhu: Interview with the Creator Sandy Petersen

CALL OF CTHULHU is Chaosium’s classic roleplaying game of Lovecraftian horror in which ordinary people are confronted by the terrifying and alien forces of the Cthulhu Mythos. It’s Creator, Sandy Petersen, got his start in the game industry at Chaosium in 1980, and recently was interviewed regarding the creation of this RPG masterpiece.

In your opinion, what makes COC so different from the other role-playing games?

Sandy: It is contrarian. Instead of your heroes being superior to average people, they ARE average people. Instead of killing a constant stream of enemies for experience, the very weakest opponent you can face is a cultist, who is just as smart and well-armed as the heroes, and probably better-organized and more numerous. So combat is terrifying. Instead of your heroes getting better over time, they tend to get worse, to accumulate curses and madness. Magic spells are a threat, not a tool. Your rewards are not treasure but saving the planet. The big confrontation is likely to be something along the lines of dropping a keg of gunpowder into a well.  

BUT – here’s the deal. If you want a game in which you have the same old steroid-pumped champions confronting the baddies, every other RPG can provide this. But if you want a game in which the emphasis is far more cerebral, and more dangerous, and in which the enemies pose an existential threat – there is only Call of Cthulhu.

You recently released Petersen’s Abomination, a book full of scenarios aimed at convention play. Could you explain how they came to life?

Sandy: Every year I attend several conventions. Whenever I’m a guest of honor, the convention asks me to run a Call of Cthulhu scenario. Naturally I have to write my own. I will write one up, then use it for several conventions in a row, then write another, and so forth. This way no one ever gets a repeat adventure. Because they’re intended to run at conventions, these scenarios all include pre-made investigators (though they can be run with your own), have pretty weird settings (on an iceberg, inner-city gang strife, etc.) and are all intended to be run in a single evening. Also, they’re super-deadly, because everyone seems to want to get killed by Sandy Petersen in an adventure. That’s another reason to use my pre-made investigators!  

Could you share a few tips and tricks on how you go about writing scenarios, and what makes a good scenario?

Sandy: well some basic tips are:

First, the opponent must be malign. Nothing destroys the feel of terror more than finding out the monster just wants to return to its home in outer space, or be laid to rest, or whatever.

Second, I work visually, so I think of a cool scene from a book or a movie or whatever and try to incorporate that into the scenario at some point. Then I design the storyline so it leads to that scene, or away from it. For example, I designed the MOHOLE scenario in Petersen’s Abominations about the time of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The thought of being trapped on an oil platform during a catastrophe seemed exciting for a plot. So, I posited the concept of an abandoned oil platform in the North Sea, which had been repurposed for a nuclear-powered super-drill as a scientific experiment. Obviously, something goes horribly wrong when the drill starts breaking through the earth’s crust and mayhem ensues.

You have adapted the monsters from the Cthulhu mythos to Pathfinder and more recently to D&D. Do they fit easily in the fantasy world? Are you planning to release scenarios for these systems using Mythos monsters?

Sandy: of course, as monsters they can fit into a fantasy world. Fantasy and horror have long been bedmates. My theory is that you can use the Cthulhu Mythos elements in a high fantasy game in two ways. First, you can simply add them into an existing campaign as more player races, spells, magic items, and opponents. Second, you can base a whole campaign around some element of the Mythos – such as Cthulhu rising from the deep, or Ithaqua bringing an Ice Age to the world.

Do you want to present or discuss any upcoming projects you are currently working on?

Sandy: yes indeed. We are adapting our Planet Apocalypse universe for D&D and that will be made available later this year (2019). And our most exciting new board game is Hyperspace, a 4-X game of space strategy and battle which also incorporates some Lovecraft races. After all, Lovecraft thought he was writing science fiction. 

About Sandy Petersen

Sandy got his start in the game industry at Chaosium in 1980, working on tabletop roleplaying games. His best-known work from that time is the cult game Call of Cthulhu, which has been translated into many languages and is still played worldwide.

He also worked on many other published projects, such as Runequest, Stormbringer, Elfquest and even the Ghostbusters RPG, and was instrumental in the creation of dozens of scenario packs and expansions. He also acted as developer on the original Arkham Horror board game.

In 2013 he founded Petersen Games which has released a series of highly successful boardgame projects, including The Gods War, Evil High Priest, and the much-admired Cthulhu Wars. His games have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, and he has received dozens of awards from the game industry.

How I Designed Planet Apocalyse

How I Designed Planet Apocalyse

Let’s go through the process I followed in creating Planet Apocalypse!

The Idea

Way back in 2013, when Cthulhu Wars had just funded, I was already planning what my next game might be. I’d learned while working on computer games that games have a certain flow. One of the most famous games I worked on was Doom and MAN it had a killer concept. Demons fighting space marines. I wanted to use that idea in a board game. So, what would this entail?

Well, first off, I decided not to use space marines. I felt that if the demons were actually invading the Earth of today, they would be far scarier. So that gave me the setting. Hell, versus modern people.

Next, I decided the game should be co-op, with everyone playing humans. This is because I wanted truly scary demons, and if they are the only enemies, I can have them be as gross and unbalanced and terrifyingly powerful as I like. They are after all just a challenge for the players, and bigger and bigger challenges lay ahead.

Third, I wanted the players to be individual people, leading squads of soldiers. This way I could mix up the gameplay because each hero would get his or her own quirks, bonuses, and tricks.

Early Design

One of the things I often do when creating a new game is to write the rules first! I know this sounds backward, but for me, at least, it helps understand a lot of details about the game. Early in the rulebook is a list of components, so I make a first stab at components. What does the game need, physically? Well, Planet Apocalypse needed a game board. It needed figures for the heroes and the demons. And what should the demons be? I thought “Doom has a hierarchy, and so does Hell,” so I sorted the demons into first circle, second circle, and so forth. I figured the lowest order demons would be easy to beat, but they would be the most numerous.

I tried to come up with a turn structure. Obviously, the players would take their turns, and then the enemies would have a turn. But how would the enemies be controlled on their turn? Well, before making any real headway on Planet Apocalypse I took about a two-year break and created the game Orcs Must Die! (tabletop version), based off a computer game that was part tower defense, part battle. I felt I did a good job on my tabletop rendition, but also thought I could improve on it. So, I applied the tower defense concept to Planet Apocalypse. Now I knew what the enemies would do in-game – advance inexorably down the map.

By mixing up the enemies, the players would be forced to move around the map, dropping off ambushes (which were the “towers”) and taking out particularly dangerous enemies. Plus, they could only recruit new troopers in the start area, which basically forced the players to move back and forth across the map in a general flow.

One of my ideas early on was to add what I called 4th circle demons, which would be uniquely powerful. I made these mini-bosses, who basically changed the entire map by somehow affecting everything. Thus, when a 4th circle demon appeared, the players would focus their attention on it – either trying to kill it as fast as possible or seeking to avoid it. Either way, they were game changers.

So now I had a working game of sorts. Time to create it, so I built a prototype copy with figures from other games, sleeved cards, and maps cobbled together from bits of boxes. I used the color-coded knights from Shadows Over Camelot for my heroes, and Cthulhu Wars critters for the demons. One thing this taught me is that I wanted the different categories of demons to be different colors, so they are identifiable at-a-glance. I also learned that I wanted each different type of dice to be a different color because for an unknown reason some players can’t tell the difference between a D8 and a D10 without picking it up and inspecting it closely. But if the D8s are green, and the D10s blue, there’s no issue.

Advanced Design

I needed an artistic vision. I got in touch with Keith Thompson, who’d worked in film (and still does), also done game art, and had a really interesting style. I flew Keith out to my house, and we met for a weekend together. I made it clear the game look and feel was to be HIS vision, and I just explained what the world was supposed to be like. Keith “got it” and created a look and feel which is unique, distinctive, creepy, and arcanely medieval. Everyone has strong opinions about the art – usually something along the lines of “These are great! But I don’t want my kids to see them; they’ll get nightmares.”

I also needed to start padding out the world. I started working on new maps, new Demon Lords, new 4th circle demons, new types of troops. I had the idea that each map could happen in specific regions of the world – so if you wanted you could play with United Kingdom troopers, or with French, or Russian, depending on where you decided to set the map. This can lead to some odd match-ups, for example if you are playing on the “Washington D.C.” map with German soldiers, but whatever. Maybe the Germans sent a strike force coming to save us Americans.

I also wanted the heroes to advance in power during the game, so I created advancement charts. I had the idea for every hero’s advancement chart to differ from every other hero, and of course this was a nightmare to design and balance. But, also a joy. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the game’s advancement system.

Padding out the game, now that the rules were mostly done, took quite a bit of time. At this point the game was actively in playtest, and playing the game about three times a week, with three different groups. So, I spent a lot of time balancing the heroes, the gift cards, and the troopers. All needed for game polish.

Final Playtesting

The rules, heroes, demons, and other parts were all written up. I go into “final playtesting” when I think these main game parts are done, and then of course as I playtest I keep making more and more changes. So, three times a week, in the evening, I kept playing this game. It became grueling for me over time, but of course each individual gaming group only had to work once a week, so it was fun for them!

I’d watch the games, go home and make changes, print out the changes, modify my prototype, then try it again next week. This kept on going for months.

Eventually I managed to get through several playtests in a row without making any changes at all. This is when I pulled the trigger.

The game was now in final playtesting, and I didn’t need to spend quite as much creative time on it (still a lot of actual time, since it was half of my evenings), I started work on a new game – Hyperspace, which will no doubt grace the pages of this magazine some day soon.


The designer is heavily involved for most of the game process, but eventually it gets handed over to artists, graphic designers, and production managers, and then you are merely on call for occasional questions (“How big is this token supposed to be? Must the map be two-sided? What color is a byakhee?”). For that matter, even during final playtest your creative involvement is limited, and all you do is make sure that game errors and imbalances are caught. Realistically, this means as a designer you can start designing your next game long before the previous one is done.

I went to my production manager, Arthur, and let him know that IMO Planet Apocalypse was as done as it was ever going to be. Time to make it happen, but most of my job as a designer was done. Though the production part of the game is HUGE, involving far more people than any previous stage, it is largely out of my hands at that point. Once the layout was done, and everything set up, we launched the Kickstarter campaign. But by that time, I’d been done with Planet Apocalypse for almost two months.

I had already started moving on to my next game during Final Playtest, and now during Production I ramped the Hyperspace design schedule up to the Advanced Design stage.

Planet Apocalypse 2 Design Corner: New Lord Choronzon

Planet Apocalypse 2 Design Corner: New Lord Choronzon

We’ve added seven new Lords for this campaign, so let’s discuss them!

Choronzon is the demon of madness and inconsistency. Its battle effect is quite odd – unlike other Lords, the heroes don’t get to choose who is attacked. Instead each hero must pick a different number equal to or lower than 10 which is higher than his Toughness. Choronzon rolls 6d10. If ANY of Choronzon’s dice match a hero’s picked number, then the whole attack affects him.

For example, let’s say that Tony, George, Nathan, and Alyssa are battling Choronzon in Hell Time. It’s time for Choronzon’s attack, so each of them must choose a number – boringly, they choose 7, 8, 9, and 10 respectively.

Each week leading up to our Kickstarter campaign this Fall, we will release a Design Corner from Sandy focusing on the new Planet Apocalypse 2 characters as well as sneak peek with art from these new projects.

Choronzon’s roll is 3, 6, 6, 7, 8, and 10. George’s Toughness is 3, while the others are only 1 or 2. Tony, George, and Alyssa each had their number appear in Choronzon’s roll, but at least Nathan is missed. Tony and Alyssa each take a full 6 damage from the attack, because all 6 of Choronzon’s dice beat their Toughness. George is missed by the die roll of 3, so “only” takes 5 damage. That was a tough attack and shows how Choronzon works.

Since a common Hell Time tactic is to pick the Lord’s target from someone who can probably weather it, this makes Choronzon a fairly deadly enemy. You’ll need to drag a bunch of troopers in with you to absorb those semi-random hits! Of course, sometimes he won’t hit anyone, which is the nature of randomness.

Sandy’s Design Corner: Chaos & Daemon Sultan

Creating Azathoth

Quick Note on the Pledge Manager

We had some hiccups in preparing the various credit giveaways for this project (related to backers who also backed the CATaclysm KS so they don’t pay extra on shipping, as well as other ones). Due to this, we will be launching the PM late next week.

NOTE: After the PM launches, it will only be open for a few short weeks (we are looking to close it towards the end of July). This is a major change from how we have normally run pledge managers in the past which normally stay open for several months. This one will be much shorter so we can get the reprint numbers to China faster and get the games to you sooner. 

Creating Azathoth

Let’s talk about how the Daemon Sultan Azathoth was designed (my version). Not the rules, but the actual concept and visuals.

First off, many people have noted that I used an odd approach to naming the avatars. Rather than stages or forms they are actually the three parts of the Fichtean dyad, and this is essential to the concept. You see, the philosophical way these work as as follows:

THESIS – represents some assertion. Example, “The universe is under a supreme entity’s direction.”

ANTITHESIS – represents the opposite of the assertion. “The universe is random and chaotic.”

SYNTHESIS – this reconciles the two previous concepts into a new, correct, whole. “The universe is controlled by a blind idiot.”

This is critical, because you cannot have a Synthesis without both the Thesis and the Antithesis existing. If we instead imagined Azathoth as three stages like a larva/pupa/adult, you could imagine the adult appearing by skipping over a previous stage. But a Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis only works in relationship to each other. Each of the three parts is necessary to the whole (well, technically you could have just the Thesis or the Antithesis by itself, but the Synthesis requires all).

So that is the philosophy of it. How about the appearance?

The Larvae

First let’s discuss the Larvae.

The Larvae are displayed as smaller, weaker, undeveloped forms of their respective adults. But Azathoth doesn’t “breed”. It’s not a species that needs to reproduce. It is a lone singularity, a terror at the center of the cosmos. So what is going on? Quite simply, the larvae are projections of Azathoth to all corners of the universe. A sorcerer can use one of these projections to “suck in” the greater reality that is Azathoth, and bring a real avatar of the Daemon Sultan to his presence. So they are actually more like trigger points, or if you will let me make an analogy from Youtube these are “thumbnails” of Azathoth – if you click on one, then Azathoth’s reality “loads up” and becomes awful reality.

The Thesis

The Thesis is “classic Azathoth” as it is often portrayed. Tendrils, mouths, and raw terror. This is the positif of Azathoth – the aggressive awful form. It grows cancerously until it fills all around it. It can devour, and converts what it eats into itself, growing logarithmically in speed and size until that unfortunate section of the universe is doomed.

The Antithesis

The Thesis, on the other hand, is Azathoth as the Big Bang – the cosmic explosion and destruction. This is Azathoth negatif – the cancellation of reality, the End of Everything. Instead of a growing, replicating mass of life (Thesis), you get a devouring hungry maw with no interior – just oblivion. This is the opposite of the burgeoning Thesis. Instead growing fat on the rest of existence, and leaving a giant monster in its place, this swallows the universe and leaves behind nothing – not even a black hole.

The Synthesis

This is one of the realities behind the growing tentacle-beast of Thesis and the destructive whirlpool of Antithesis – this is the entity whose other aspects are simply facets of the awful whole that is the Daemon Sultan. It has tentacles, yet the bulging spheres on the front in fact are the opposite of eyes – they project destruction, annihilating all that they rest upon, rather than taking in light or images. Thus the feral chaos that is Azathoth rules the cosmos.

But what about the OTHER Azathoth?

Of course we have another Azathoth figure, and it’s not obsolete. What the heck is Sandy thinking?

This is the projection of Azathoth that I regard this as the common form – when a mad sorcerer tries to contact the Daemon Sultan, conceiving of it as a sort of super-monster, this is what he gets – a sort of “shadow” of the Outer God. It has a form, and in fact you can see within the orbs and open “maws” the universe itself roiling, as though it surrounds and engulfs everything, instead of being at the center as it is usually imagined.

This form may take its shape in response to the mind and spells of the sorcerer, but it is a sort of sub-type of the reality that is Azathoth, bringing through a horror and a power that is much more difficult to dismiss than it is to summon.