Cthulhu Apocalypse and the Terrifying Tradition of Horror Role-Playing Games9 min read

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Horror has always been a part of tabletop RPGs—when you’re fighting zombies, blundering into pit traps, and dodging dragon fire, you can’t help but sense some of your character’s peril. You’ve spent hours equipping her weapons and armor, entire days choosing his spells. And yet, the heroic idiom that forms the baseline of Dungeons & Dragons and its many, many progeny dictates that you will win more often than not. There’s a spell to solve every problem, a ranger who understands every monster’s weakness, and a pile of treasure in every dragon’s den.

To truly create a horrific experience in an RPG, you have to subvert all those fantasy tropes. Characters don’t level up, they go insane or just die. You can’t cast spells, only the cultists can do that. You don’t know anything about the monsters you’re facing, you’re an ignorant mortal engulfed in darkness. And the absolute apex of most fantasy games—combat—is often the player’s ultimate failure in a horror game. If you find yourself in a swordfight with Nyarlathotep, you’ve already lost.

That all sounds pretty bleak and terrifying, yet it’s exactly what the Call of Cthulhu RPG did when it was first published in 1981. “Most games up till then were combat-centric. Adventures centered on fighting,” said Call of Cthulhu designer Sandy Petersen when I interviewed him for io9 earlier this year. “It was obvious that Call of Cthulhu needed a different focus beyond combat, so I zeroed in on investigation, which also fit Lovecraft’s characters and stories. I basically substituted investigation and research and uncovering of secrets for the combat.”

Gamers seem to have an insatiable appetite for it—Call of Cthulhu remains in print today, seven editions later. The age-old RPG trope of “Let me tell you about my character” became, “Let me tell you about how my character died.” Were you impaled by a tentacle emerging from the dark basement? Devoured by cannibalistic cultists? Stepped off the Chrysler Building while hallucinating? Locked away in an asylum because you couldn’t stop screaming about the Thing in the Shadows? That sort of ending is the best you can hope for in Call of Cthulhu. Not epic, but perhaps epically tragic. If anyone ever actually defeated one of the Great Old Ones in a Cthulhu campaign, I imagine it would feel like a letdown.

“If you’re using horror as a synonym for investigation, as is often the case, then there’s the thrill of triumph when the odds are stacked against you,” said Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, co-author of the Cthulhu Apocalypse RPG. “In Star Wars or most superhero games, the good guys are going to be put through the wringer, but they’ll come out on top in the end. Horror games are either bleak and uncaring, or genuinely hostile to your characters—if you survive and solve the mystery, it’s an accomplishment.”

There are a lot of different ways to get scared around a gaming table. I asked Pelgrane Press publisher Cat Tobin about her favorite horror gaming moments. “The first time I played Night’s Black Agents, I joined an existing campaign of experienced Agents as a new recruit. My character was alone when she came across a large black dog, who started following her. The GM described it off-handedly, like it was just there for flavour, but the other PCs (in radio contact with my character) started shouting at her to get away from the dog. The contrast between the GM’s nonchalant narration of this persistent, but seemingly trivial, dog and the obvious alarm of the other PCs in her ear (who had all barely escaped this same dog in previous sessions) was really terrifying—I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared of failing a roll! It was a great introduction to the horror of not knowing what you’re up against.”

Dungeons & Dragons has delved into the dark side of horror gaming from time to time, too. Of the many fantasy worlds of D&D, one of the most beloved is a place shrouded in eternal mist, where the land itself turns against the heroes: Ravenloft and the Domains of Dread. Ravenloft is a dimension that consists entirely of a small barony ruled by Count Strahd von Zarovich, a Dracula analog driven to vampirism and eternal madness by his own jealous rage. The 1990 Ravenloft boxed set introduced the concept of the other Domains of Dread, tiny pocket dimensions closed off from reality by a wall of mysterious mist. Each is ruled by a Lord of Darkness, most of which echo Victorian horrors, Universal Monsters, or other familiar gothic horror tropes.

But nothing says “90s horror gaming” quite like White Wolf’s Vampire: the Requiem. First published in 1991, Vampire spawned a whole sub-genre of RPGs that let the players be werewolves, wraiths, vampires, and other supernatural creatures. The ability to “be the monster” combined with Vampire’s other innovation—setting it in a contemporary world that was a gloomy, gothic mirror of our own—helped make it a runaway success, especially among the black-lipstick-wearing, Cure’s-Disintegration-listening set. Today we think of LARPing (live-action role-playing) as battling in the woods with foam swords, but in the 1990s many college campuses were populated once a week by Tremere, Brujah, Nosferatu, Ventrue, and other vampire clans scheming and plotting for dominance.

Rich Thomas, creative director of Onyx Path (the current publisher of the World of Darkness RPGs), was with White Wolf throughout the World of Darkness heyday. “Vampire struck at just the right time to fill a niche people had been looking for: it was a more story-focused game than people were accustomed to, featuring vampires more concerned with internecine plots and social maneuverings within undead society.”

Vampire stands apart from other horror games. Its early incarnations were focused more on political intrigue and melodrama than creating an aura of horror and dread. “Horror means different things to different people,” Thomas explained. “The horror of Vampire: the Masquerade was a bit more inward-focused, with much of it arising from being forced to confront yourself with your monstrous decisions and behaviour just to survive from night-to-night. A lot of the intrigue and melodrama sort of developed from that, with vampires keeping themselves busy with meaningless social warfare so they don’t have to look at themselves in the mirror.”

Those aren’t the only horror RPGs in existence, of course. Kult, Unknown Armies, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, GURPS Horror, Monsters and Other Childish Things, and many others each took on a specific horror sub-genre and achieved varying degrees of success, or at least a cult following. My personal favorite horror RPG, Chill, placed the players in the roles of agents in a secret organization that battles against supernatural forces on humanity’s behalf. It was recently resurrected by Growling Door Games with a successful Kickstarter campaign. In the mid-90s, we used the second edition of Chill to create our own version of the X-Files—strangely, there has never been an officially licensed X-Files RPG. Finally, there’s Dread, which stands out for a brilliant and unique task resolution mechanic—you use a Jenga tower. To succeed on a challenge, you have to pull a brick from the tower without knocking the tower over.

Horror games have certainly changed and evolved over the years. Even the old standbys, Call of Cthulhu and the World of Darkness games, have adopted new ideas in gaming that aim to make the games easier to get into and enjoy with their current editions. “Back in 2011 we celebrated the 20th Anniversary with a giant full-color omnibus: Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition, which contains just about everything fans need to play in the era of the classic editions of Vampire,” Thomas from Onyx Path told me. “We’ve followed that up with a number of V20 supplements, and 20th Anniversary Editions of the other classic World of Darkness games.

“The ‘new’ World of Darkness, designed to enable players to pick and choose which aspects of horror they wish to include in their games, was begun in 2004 and we’ve been releasing new game lines like Mummy: The Curse, Demon: The Descent, and the upcoming Beast: The Primordial these last couple of years. We’re also in the process of releasing 2nd Editions of many of the earlier lines as they approach the ten-year mark, with Vampire: The Requiem and Werewolf: The Forsaken 2nd Editions currently available.”

One of the most interesting innovations in horror gaming in recent years is Robin D. Laws’ GUMSHOE system. GUMSHOE, like Call of Cthulhu before it, is built from the ground up to be about the investigation of mysteries. One of the biggest flaws with older investigative RPGs is that a skill roll was required to find certain clues. That meant a bad roll of the dice could put up an insurmountable roadblock to the adventure’s progress. In GUMSHOE, you always find the clue if you look in the right place. Interpreting the clues you’ve already found will lead you to the next “right place.” Playing the game is more about analyzing the information you’re presented with than succeeding on a bunch of abstract die rolls.

The system has been adapted to several different settings, including the superhero police procedural Mutant City Blues and the science-fiction Ashen Stars. But it’s particularly well-suited to supernatural genres, like the international espionage versus vampires of Night’s Black Agents. Of course, there’s a Cthulhu mythos variant, Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu, which brings us right back to the origins of horror RPGs. In Trail of Cthulhu, the players investigate cults and creatures beyond imagining and often die or go insane. Sound familiar? And yet, the flexibility of the GUMSHOE system allows that basic idea, around since 1981, to be stretched and expanded and turned around in horrible, wonderful ways.

Case in point: Pelgrane Press’ Cthulhu Apocalypse, by Graham Walmsley and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan. Cthulhu Apocalypse has two sets of adventures—one in the midst of an apocalypse, one many years after. In addition to the adventures themselves, it has extensive rules allowing the game master to design her own apocalypse to inflict on the world. Since there’s literally no way to prevent the apocalypse, the game has a unique feeling of dread and fear as the players investigate its causes and try to simply survive.

What’s it like designing scenarios around an inevitable apocalypse? “It was honestly quite liberating,” Ryder-Hanrahan said. “In a regular RPG, you have to put your toys away when you’re done. The underlying assumption is that the players will either succeed and prevent the apocalypse, avoiding any significant changes, or that they’ll fail, their characters perish, and the campaign ends. Here, because we blow up the familiar world on the first page, the adventures could have higher stakes without having to tidy everything away afterwards. The consequences could be more telling, more obvious. Instead of a few grisly murders that herald the destruction of London unless the PCs save the day, I could just kill half the survivors in London to set the scene.”

The Great Old Ones are present, of course, but they loom monstrously in the background, rarely being encountered directly by the players. “The universe doesn’t care about us. Lovecraft’s cosmic monsters are an expression of that—Cthulhu is no more aware of us that we are aware of, say, the bacteria living under the sofa. We’re nothing to him. So, when the Stars Come Right and the Great Old Ones again move across the face of the earth, they’re not going to notice the survivors. They’re just there, vast and terrible, sublimely awful. That’s cosmic horror—falling into the terrible, infinite gulfs of space and time.”

“Playing horror games tends to be a more personal experience,” added Tobin. “They’re designed to directly impact the players more than other games—confusing them to keep them off-guard, so the horror hits with maximum impact; placing the weight of responsibility for the group on a single individual, to keep up the pressure; or slowly revealing an inevitable, crushing defeat, so they play through the dawning realisation that they’re doomed. Horror games operate more in shades of grey …the PCs are often flawed individuals, and it’s less clear what the right thing to do is.”

Ryder-Hanrahan explained how that concept is incorporated into Cthulhu Apocalypse. “Several adventures give the players a hard choice. Their decisions will impact on themselves and those around them. In a regular, pre-apocalypse game, self-sacrifice is easy—if you give up your life to stop the monster, then you at least have the consolation of knowing that you’re preserving the status quo. Here, the status quo is ghastly, so changing it might make things better—or far, far worse. Or both at the same time…”

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