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.

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