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.