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Cthulhu Week: Deconstructing Realms of Cthulhu

Posted on August 22, 2010 by Flames

Throughout Cthulhu Week we’ve discussed Mythos tomes in comic books, fiction, movies and more. We’ve even offered up a Campaign Frame for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG and vivisected elements of the Call of Cthulhu RPG as well.

Yet there is another Mythos RPG and game designer Sean Preston is here to tell us about his dark work on the game called Realms of Cthulhu

Deconstructing Realms of Cthulhu

    Hello there. I’m Sean Preston, and I’m a game designer, writer, editor, publisher, and an avid gamer as well. I like to talk and write about games (when not playing them) as much as most of us in this industry, but before we get going let’s have a compact. Since we’ll be talking about Lovecraft, it’s only natural that blood enters the scene, so let’s make it a blood compact. Shall we? My digital blood is being spilled before you, pixel by pixel. I trust you’ll smear some about at some point or other, so the compact is made. What I’ll be talking about is the philosophy of writing Lovecraftian horror for games. I shall not deviate. If I do, I pray the Hounds of Tindalos find a lovely angle from which to spring upon me in the dead of night. As for you, if you enjoy the article, share it about. Fair enough? Good. Now, let’s get started in earnest. The clock is ticking.

    Let’s start with a brief bit of historical overview to contextualize our discussion. No long lectures or overdrawn overtures. Bringing the Mythos into the world of RPGs is nothing new. Chaosium introduced this to the world back in 1981 with Call of Cthulhu, and it was truly original and groundbreaking. Other horror games beyond the scope of our discussion came and went, but the next one that draws the eye of the Mythos lover is Trail of Cthulhu by Pelgrane Press, which came out in 2008 and has been well received. In 2009, Reality Blurs become a part of the Mythos with its release of Realms of Cthulhu, penned by yours truly, and has carved out a nifty little niche for itself. I cannot speak in more than suppositions regarding the development of the first two games, so I shan’t, but I’ll provide dark insights into how Realms of Cthulhu came about, from inspiration to execution to future plans.

    Inspiration: From Morpheus’ Embrace I Awoke

      In late 2008, I one day awoke and decided I wanted to write a version of Cthulhu for Savage Words. For those who know me, this is odd, yet unsurprising. I like to write original material, but I have a deep-rooted love for the macabre, and Lovecraft in particular. I had done a bit of horror writing for my own company, done a bit of writing for the Pinebox setting for 12 to Midnight, and did horror related True20 development work for Green Ronin. I could not shake this idea, and eventually hammered out the details with Chaosium and Pinnacle.

      Conception: Create a toolbox setting for various play styles without compromising the underlying elements of the Mythos.

        Work on Realms of Cthulhu, by my recollection, began in March of 2009. I had spoken with my crew about the best way to handle certain elements of Lovecraft in the Savage Worlds context. For those of you unfamiliar with Savage Worlds, it is best known for its action-oriented approach to things, and few folks felt that Cthulhu would translate well into such a system—pretty much a square peg in a round hole—and that the Savage Cthulhu book would be straight-up pulp, and lack the necessary gravitas befitting the works of Lovecraft and friends. Several of my friends encouraged me to bow to the collective wisdom of the internet, and give them what they (thought they) wanted—a pulp oriented setting featuring all the familiar Cthulhu beasties we all know and love. I asked them if they really wanted me to write N&N? Nazis & Necronomicons (since it was going to be pulp, why not have lots of the Mad Arab’s book flying around, right?) This took them aback. I told them I wanted to refine the toolbox approach I had been fiddling with for several years with Agents of Oblivion and offer that up to the world. The design decision had been made: who are we to dictate what types of Cthulhu games people want to play? I certainly knew the Savage Worlds fans do love action and excitement in their games, but I also have heard numerous complaints from folks over the years who felt that the Cthulhu-genre (and it is a genre in the 21st century) was for one shots, special occasions, and for those people who don’t care if their characters go mad and die. It certainly is for those folks, but it’s such a rich milieu that it’s also for players who want to develop their characters, drive back the darkness, and save the world time and again.

        Execution: Write. Refine. Playtest. Repeat.

          After the design parameters were set, I began to work in earnest. I wanted to deliver a faithful presentation of Lovecraft’s work, and capture those elements of Call of Cthulhu we all love so dearly—especially the Sanity system—while offering opportunities for Keepers to create sustainable campaigns, something often unheard of in certain Cthulhu circles. Essentially, there were two main elements that we had to fiddle with that made all the difference. In Savage Worlds, you have Wounds—a physical damage track, and we introduced Madness—a mental damage track. In the core system, it’s very easy to shrug off a lot of damage (what we term pulpy in RoC), so we introduced a gritty damage system as a variation (originally developed by Shane Hensley) and created both a gritty and pulpy track for Madness. By deciding the combination of damage tracks, you are able to create a game that can handle all levels of Mythos tales from the Lumley side of things, to the REH spectrum, all the way to the darker degrees of bleakness found in many Lovecraftian tales (Pickman’s Model anyone?).

          The Challenges of Translation: Lovecraftian stories often end in madness for the protagonist, or the challenges are so overwhelming, what is the point?

            At its heart, each Lovecraftian story is a mystery drenched in dread. This dread comes in many forms, and each element that furthers the story often comes at a terrible price. In a story, the writer can be merciless—as game designers we also can, up to a point, but when you introduce random chance, you have to provide some sort of mitigation. In Realms of Cthulhu, even in the gritty play style, you are not going to encounter something that is instantly going to drive you permanently insane. You can come away pretty messed up—if you are able to get away from the slime-oozing tentacles. Witnessing an Outer God is survivable, but will likely wreak long-term psychological damage that requires serious counseling (and with bad counseling or no counseling at all, you could eventually wind up getting worse). The logical underpinnings for this approach follow: first off, no player really wants to get annihilated in one bad roll, and moreover, most Keepers don’t really wants to interrupt the flow of a story when one guy sees a deep one and becomes a gibbering idiot. Finally and more importantly, the more each player plays a particular role, the more invested she becomes in that character—that investigator. Amanda Locke, who’s survived a dozen encounters with the Mythos and has come through only slightly scathed, is far more concerned with her welfare, for she is a part of the Mythos in the eyes of her player and her Keeper, and will roleplay far more seriously than John Smith VI, the continuing line of a player whose investigators suffer a continuous chain of misfortune. When the game gets personal, it resonates far more deeply with the players and makes for a more immersive experience for all involved. For you Keepers out there: patience. You have infinite monsters. The investigators have finite Sanity. Remember: water eventually cuts through rock.

            Expanding the Mythos: A dark promise.

              We love the traditional landscape of Lovecraft’s creation—the dream country is a beautiful rich area that he knew well, and perverted as the stories demanded. However, they are well covered, and that area has been explored many times by many writers. In Realms of Cthulhu, we touched upon the territory we wish to explore, Charleston and its environs of Dark Harbor and Bayhaven. Dark Harbor is just up the coast northwardly from Charleston proper and is our analog to Innsmouth, whereas Bayhaven is a small sea island just off the coast of Charleston and is best known for the mental institute bearing its name, Bayhaven Asylum. These areas are more fully explored in Echo of Dead Leaves, the upcoming setting book for Realms of Cthulhu.

              Why Charleston? It has a deep and rich history, including secret tunnels, pirates, ghosts, churches, and some of the oldest cemeteries in all of America. My mother’s side of the family is from there, and I summered there growing up, and eventually attended college there as well, so it’s an area I know well, and shouldn’t we write what we know (even if we embellish a bit from time to time)? An interesting footnote is that HPL’s favorite southern city was Charleston, so I’m sure he’d approve.

              Sean Preston – 2010

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