State of the Tentacle: Sandy Petersen

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For the tenth installment of the “State of the Tentacle” interview series we are very pleased to be able to go aaaaaall the way back to the very source of Lovecraftian roleplaying by talking with the man who is responsible for it all, Sandy Petersen. While Sandy left the pen-and-paper gaming industry many years ago to become an incredibly successful video game designer, he still plays Call of Cthulhu regularly. Both because of his inside knowledge of the hobby’s genesis, and also because of his current interests in bringing Cthulhu back to the gaming table (albeit in a slightly different form), we were very eager to have Sandy along to chew the tentacle for a bit. Thankfully he agreed (even before we applied the mind control sorcery :-)).

Introduction

Sandy Petersen is someone whose work should really be very well known to every reader of this blog. But just in case you’ve accidentally stumbled upon this page while searching for knitting patterns or something, here’s a capsule summary of what Sandy has contributed to Lovecraftian gaming. In 1981 he was the original author of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, adapting mechanics from Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying System to deliver a frightening and erudite world in which gamers could roleplay investigators of arcane Lovecraftian horrors. sott-Montage-PetersenCoversThis was at a time when mainstream RPGs were little more than hack-and-slash dungeon crawls, so for a game to propose characters that were physically (and often mentally) frail fighting against odds that were likely to eventually overwhelm them … that was pretty radical. Some would say that it still is.

Sandy remained at Chaosium for the next seven years, acting as both a key writer for Call of Cthulhu and editor of the line. During that period many of the titles that are still regarded as unrivalled classics of the game were published — including the Masks of Nyarlathotep and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth campaigns and the alternate Modern-day, Gaslight and Dreamlands settings. In fact, pretty much every Lovecraftian product released by Chaosium between 1981 and 1989 has Sandy’s fingerprints all over it in some form or other.

Sandy left the world of pen-and-paper gaming, lured to the world of computer games (which was, in some ways, still in its infancy). His first job in this heady industry was with Microprose where he worked on Darklands, Hyperspeed, and even Civilization. He then moved on to a small company called id Software that was just about to launch a first-person shooter called “Doom” that was kind of a horror-story set in space. Sandy brought quite a significant amount of Cthulhu-oid madness to the monsters and levels of Doom, and later applied that to the worlds of Quake. The rest, as they say, is history. But these are but a handful of the highlights of Sandy’s extraordinary gaming credits. He also worked for Ensemble Studios and was a key designer on such genre-defining titles as the Age of Empires series, and Halo Wars.

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On the success of this career, Sandy also spent two years teaching game design to graduate students at Southern Methodist University.

At present, Sandy is again back in the world of hands-on game design. He is a partner in a small startup firm preparing a Lovecraftian-themed boardgame for Kickstarter funding. If the Kickstarter campaign isn’t already active by the time you read this … it will be soon! The game is titled Cthulhu Wars, and it has received rave reviews from playtesters … some folks saying that it is the best thing Sandy has done since Call of Cthulhu. And it’s easy to see why, judging from the initial photos that have been released of the game board and the monstrous miniatures (montaged below … but click on the link above to see more).

As they say … Watch the Skies!

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Cthulhu Reborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game)

Sandy: It might sound self-serving, but the obvious key milestone was the publication of Call of Cthulhu – there really wasn’t any horror gaming before then, and not only was this horror-based, but it was honest-to-goodness Lovecraft, at least as I misunderstood it at the time (I was only 26!).

I think the next big milestone was the development of video graphics and sound to the point that a digital game could be made that was genuinely frightening. This was a gradual process, but certainly by 1993, there were games that creeped people out.

The third important development was the creation of tabletop card & boardgames that successfully channelled Lovecraft. The most obvious success is the Arkham Horror game, but there are others.

Another important step has been the spread of the Lovecraft influence into other genres. There are lots of games nowadays which, while not explicitly Cthulhu Mythos-based, obviously are under the shadow of the Man from Providence.

sott-lucca-cult-cthulhuAnd one of the biggest upcoming improvements I believe to be the continued expansion of Lovecraft LARPs [Live-Action Role Playing games]. While I have played in, and written, several of these, my trip to the Italian Lucca game convention last year was a real eye-opener. Those Italians are hard-core – EVERYONE in the LARP was in full 1930s costume (including Italian police in what looked to me like fascist uniforms, women with fake mink stoles, you name it). They had even hired a live band to play dance music! The culmination of the evening was a guy wearing a complete Mi-Go “costume” coming out of the night to annihilate the other gamers – he had to walk on stilts for his hands & legs, and even had a voice-box changer to make weird insect-like noises. Must have cost a fortune. The guy who invited me to this told me that in an earlier LARP he ran, his job was to lay sprawled out, a bullet-wound in his head, throughout the four hours of the game. Shades of SAW. Those Italians left me in awe.

Sandy delivering a Masterclass at the Lucca Comics & Games Convention

I think the biggest mistake in Lovecraft gaming is the tendency for many designers to try to transform the players into some sort of “special agent” or super-skilled person with access to tools and techniques far beyond the grasp of we mere mortals. Horror, by its nature, needs to be seen to affect normal humans. In retrospect, looking back at my 26-year old self, I salute him for seeing the need to have the investigators be Jes’ Folks – not government spooks, or privately-funded mercenaries, but doctors, private eyes, and the like.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

Sandy: I think the more variety that is offered players in game systems, miniature figures, toys, and fun stuff, the better it is for the entire hobby. I am constantly thrilled when I see something new in this field.

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CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Sandy: You got me, pal. For roleplaying Lovecraft, I pretty much just play Call of Cthulhu. After all, it is, in effect, my own “house rules”. And learning a new roleplaying system hasn’t been attractive to me since my college days.

<in the voice of the Frankenstein Monster> “Change bad!”

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

Sandy: The tendency for humor to start taking over Lovecraftian themes. Look – the Mythos is obviously easy to make fun of (as is all horror). And that is not a bad thing. But I think it would be sad if Cthulhu becomes more of a comedy figure than a terrifying one.

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

Sandy: I want to see Halloween costumes. Get with it, guys.

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CR: Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

Sandy: I think that the game will spread to far more use of Skype-like resources, with people playing over distances. Cthulhu fans tend to be more mature than typical RPGers, and so we are frequently married, with careers and lives, rather than college kids living in a dorm. As a result, we are scattered far and wide, and it is physically harder for us to get together for our Lovecraft gaming fix. Technology is just now able to solve this problem, and I’m happy about it. Now old friends who live hundreds, even thousands of miles away, will be able to get together to play games.

Maybe there will even be a MMORPG [Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game] based on Call of Cthulhu one day. That is a holy grail worth waiting for.

CR: Thanks for your time, Sandy! Are you willing to come back and answer a few follow-up questions?

Sandy: You bet!

[ If there’s something you would like us to quiz Sandy about when we catch up with him again for a follow-up interview, either leave them as comments to this post, PM them user “dce” on either YSDC or rpg.net or email them to questions AT cthulhureborn.com ]

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