DNA of a Cthulhu Sourcebook

It’s funny what you find lying around on your hard drive when you go back and “tidy up” some old folders.

Back in 2013 I was asked to take on the job as project leader/coordinator for what would eventually become Chaosium’s “Terror Australis” Revised Edition. This was an exciting, if somewhat daunting, task to take on. The hardest choices that needed to be made were around what types of contents make for a truly great Cthulhuoid sourcebook — sure there are many examples out there, some much better than others. But there doesn’t really seem to be an accepted “template” for what people want so see.

After re-reading virtually every geographical-based sourcebook previously published, I came away with some thoughts about the utility of different types of contents and also about the categories of readers who buy Cthulhu sourcebooks. To try to make sense of all this information (and also apply it to planning for the Australian sourcebook) I wrote a short “discussion paper” on the topic. It was titled: “Call of Cthulhu Sourcebooks: What they contain and how people use them.” I only ever shared this paper with a few people on the project team … but re-reading it now I wonder whether it might be of interest to a broader community of game designers and writers. So I figure I’d release it here.

Call of Cthulhu Sourcebooks: What they contain and how people use them.

Before anyone comments that the final Terror Australis Revised Edition doesn’t exactly match the template described in this paper … that is (to some extent) true. The plan outlined here was, however, the starting point for that book (which went on to eventually take out the 2019 ENnie for “Best Setting”). Obviously much editing and selection of written content from the full original manuscript — about half of which didn’t end up in the final book — took place between the start and finish of that long, LONG process. All of which skewed the DNA of that book to a lesser or greater degree.

As a kind of summary of what’s in the discussion paper (for the TL;DR crew), here’s a quote from the conclusions section of the discussion paper:

This paper proposes that there are four classes of readers for a Cthulhoid RPG sourcebook:

    • Players,
    • Keepers who just want to play the scenarios,
    • Keepers who want to build “homebrew” scenarios, and
    • Keepers who like to tweak existing scenarios, ad lib around existing scenarios or who otherwise want to adopt a “plug & play” approach to creating something original.

All four of these groups have different information needs, although their needs clearly overlap.

A range of ten different forms of information need have been described (four for players, six for Keepers), which is admittedly an entirely arbitrary system of categorisation based mainly on what has been published previously and what people (claim to) want from books.

Using this very simple modelling tool it is conceivable that one could guide the design of a sourcebook by assigning proportions of different types of information based its utility to a specific target audience. An example of this process, undertaken for “Secrets of Australia” is included.


Openness is a Warm Pseudopod

It’s a weird thing, but of all the things I have posted to the Cthulhu Reborn blog in the past year, the #1 most read article — by far — has been my dissection of the Open Cthulhu SRD. I’m not sure how to interpret that: maybe it means that people just like reading about controversial topics, or that my own humble publishing efforts are too niche to be exciting to most.

Regardless, it is still great that so many people have taken the time to read through my analysis. Several readers have also asked me whether I could write a more detailed overview as well … and I’m still thinking about whether I really have the spare time to do that, although I’d like to.

Anyway, my own analytical skills aside, there are a couple of small pieces of news/observation that I’d like to share here since they’re related to Open Licensing, the complications of Mythos IP, or both.

Open Cthulhu Has A Website

An announcement was made today to those on the Open Cthulhu beta-testers email list that the Open Cthulhu team have created a website to host material related to their game. This is a bit of a surprise to me, since things seem to have been pretty quiet on that front for a couple of months.

Looking through their website (www.opencthulhu.org), it currently seems to have not much more than just an open link to download the Open Cthulhu SRD (i.e., a way of getting the PDF without signing up to their beta scheme; something a few folks have asked me about). There does seem to be a suggestion that the site will be used to host original scenarios for Open Cthulhu and translation notes for running pre-existing scenarios with their system. I guess this suggests that beta testers are still running games of Open Cthulhu somewhere … I guess I will keep a watching brief on the site to see whether anything new materializes. I’m not holding my breath, but who knows?

[BTW: it’s worth reiterating again that the Open Cthulhu RPG team has nothing *at all* to do with the closed online Cthulhu community which is at http://www.opencthulhu.com. It’s an unfortunate confusion of two separate things.]

 

A Horror By Any Other Name …

One of the significant points that came up in the conversation about whether it is even possible to have a truly “open” Cthulhu Mythos game is the hideously complex state of actual (and purported) IP ownership of different Mythos names/books/creatures/gods. This has already been discussed here previously.

Recently I have been reading Pelgrane Press’ ENnie Award Winning Fall of Delta Green which hybridizes the Mythos-infused-conspiracy setting of Delta Green with the game mechanics of Gumshoe and then rewinds the clock to the 1960s. It’s a great book, but when I was reading through the section describing Mythos gods and creatures I noticed there are some obvious substitutions of different names for familiar critters and Mythos powers. Then I remembered that something similar occurs in the Delta Green Handler’s Guide. Clearly, when Arc Dream was preparing Delta Green and when Ken Hite was porting bits of it over to Fall, some effort was made to “skirt around” some of the contentious names. Or maybe names that people *thought* might be contentious.

If you haven’t noticed this in either book … an example of what I’m talking about is that neither DG or FoDG seems to want to mention “Ithaqua” or “Cthugha” by name, presumably since both are literary creations of August Derleth. So, a somewhat similar entity is described but given a different name. Hence the god of ultimate coldness is Itla-Shua, and the mindless ball of flame is Qu-tugkwa (also referred to in some places as Kheshthogha).

The table below summarises all the various substitutions that I was able to notice (along with my speculation as to why they may have been seen as necessary). Since the whole topic has been raised as important to future game designers, I figure it’s worth getting the DG/FoDG approach summarised as one data point on a convoluted mandala of misery. I do find it a bit ironic that the RPG hobby is once again moving into an era when euphemistic renaming of horrors seem necessary to get around the voracious appetites of an outside community — only this time it’s not AD&D renaming demons an devils to avoid the ire of 1980s Televangelists, it’s Mythos publishers doing much the same to dodge the complexity of IP ownership in the “shared” universe launched by HPL.

Table 1: Name Substitutions in the Delta Green Handlers Guide (DGHG, Arc Dream) and Fall of Delta Green (FoDG, Pelgrane).

Possibly “Unsafe” Name Why Possibly Unsafe? Delta Green / FoDG Rename
Abhoth Abhoth is a literary creation of Clark Ashton Smith A-Abhi and Obhoth
Atlach-Nacha Atlach-Nacha is a literary creation of Clark Ashton Smith Tleche-Naka
Avatars of Y’Golonac Y’Golonac is a literary creation of Ramsay Campbell Avatars of the Headless One
Byakhee Although Byakhee are based on a description by Lovecraft (in The Festival) it is generally considered that Chaosium/ Sandy Petersen invented the name Byakhee Winged Servitors (DGHG), possibly Ai-Apa (FoDG)
Cthugha Cthugha is a literary creation of August Derleth Qu-tugkwa and Kheshthogha
Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath Although Lovecraft’s stories speak of Shub-Niggurath as being the “Goat with a Thousand Young” some believe that the name Dark Young was a Call of Cthulhu / Sandy Petersen invention Haedi Nigritiae (Latin for Young Goats of Darkness)
Fire Vampires Fire Vampires (at least as they appear in Call of Cthulhu) are the servitors of Cthugha invented by August Derleth. There is a separate invention of Donald Wandrei that uses the name “Fire Vampires” but in a different sense. Ifrits
Flying Polyps Although Lovecraft’s description of the enemies of the Great Race specifically describes their ability to fly and also their “half-polypous” nature, it is conceivable that the name “Flying Polyp” was a Call of Cthulhu / Sandy Petersen invention Muuruup (FoDG, an Australian Aboriginal word) and
Spectral Polyps (DGHG)
Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua The Formless Spawn are a literary creation of Clark Ashton Smith Kythamila (FoDG, referencing a planet mentioned in Lovecraft’s collaboration “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”)

Slime of Tsathoggua (DGHG)

Gla’aki Gla’aki is a literary creation of Ramsay Campbell Giliszta (FoDG) although DGHG uses the Gla’aki name unchanged as well as Eihort and Insects from Shagghai which are omitted from FoDG
Hounds of Tindalos Hounds of Tindalos are a literary invention of Frank Belknap Long Hounds of the Angles (DGHG) although FoDG uses the Hounds of Tindalos name
Ithaqua Ithaqua is a name coined by August Derleth Itla-Shua
Lloigor The Lloigor are a literary creation of Colin Wilson Xin and Lung-Xin (FoDG) although DGHG uses the Lloigor name unchanged
Star Vampires Star Vampires are a literary creation of Robert Bloch Feaster from the Stars
Tulzscha Although Tulzcha is based on a description by Lovecraft (in The Festival) it is generally considered that the name Tulzcha was invented for Chaosium’s “Kingsport” sourcebook Qu-Tugkwa (DGHG)
Y’Golonac Y’Golonac is a literary creation of Ramsay Campbell The Headless One

Stumbling Out of Aladdin’s Cave

As long-time readers of Cthulhu Reborn will know, we started out making high-quality free PDFs of “rescued” scenarios, mostly written by big-name Call of Cthulhu writers from the game’s golden (1990s) age. We haven’t put out any new releases of this type for a bit, although we are certainly always on the lookout for things to give the deluxe “rescuing” treatment. [Downloads of all the previously rescued scenarios can be found here.]

Recently I had the privilege of an extended conversation with Kevin Ross, one of the absolute biggest names in CoC writing in the golden age and an occasional writer of awesome new stuff (e.g., Down Darker Trails and its campaign book Shadows Over Stillwater). In the midst of the chat I wheeled out my standard nonchalant question, “So, do you have any awesome scenarios that never found their way to publication?”

To my sheer delight Kevin said, “oh sure; there’s some things in my filing cabinet that would fit the bill.” And that is how I managed to get my hands on three different Kevin Ross scenarios back from the early EARLY days of Call of Cthulhu. Some of these were old enough that they were typewritten — not computer printouts — but each of them are great examples of Kevin’s style.

So, we will be progressively working on converting, illustrating, and laying out these “lost gems” for eventual release as glossy PDFs. They won’t be finished until next year, but I’m excited enough about them that I felt I had to share it with you guys!

 


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