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Designing Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land

Posted on October 19, 2011 by Flames

We have a new design essay from Tomas Rawlings today. Tomas tells us about the work that went into developing the new Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land mobile game from Red Wasp Design.

Designing The Wasted Land

    Hi there! My name is Tomas Rawlings and I’m the designer of the new game Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land. I’m one part of a small indie development team who’ve been working hard for almost a year now on a role-playing/strategy game set in the midst of the First World War. We’ve been working with Chaosium, the publisher of the multi-award winning paper RPG of the same name which, coincidently, this year celebrates its 30th anniversary and we’re aiming to bring the best of paper RPGs and mobile gaming together (and to sacrifice a few goats to Shub-Niggurath in the process).

    Its probably worth a quick detour for anyone who has not heard of Call of Cthulhu. The deliberately unpronounceable ‘Cthulhu’ is the titular being of a series of shorty stories and novellas written by an American horror writer of the 1920s called Howard Philip Lovecraft, the most famous of which is ‘The Call of Cthulhu‘. What lifted Lovecraft’s work above much of that written by his contemporaries was that he managed to tap into the very human desire we have to explore our own mortality. Indeed he took this idea from something we explore at an individual level to flirt with the apocalypse of our species itself. Lovecraft’s stories were the Ragnarok for the 20th century and that status has ensured his work is read, reprinted, re-imagined and replayed over and over. Popular amongst the extensions to his work, was a table-top role-playing game, which became the ‘dark’ alternative. It was something played by those who wanted a little more ‘meat’ with their game than you got from playing the original Dungeons & Dragons (though not to disrespect D&D, it will always have a place in my heart!)

    I’d written a paper supplement for Chaosium, the publishers of Call of Cthulhu a couple of years ago called the Dark Mirror. While working on this I had talked to Chaosium about doing something in video games on a number of occasions but it never seemed to happen for one reason or another. Then, the stars aligned last year, and I found myself in a position to do a mobile adaptation of Call of Cthulhu. Now mobile is not traditionally the first choice as a platform for an RPG especially not a paper one. A core part of what makes Call of Cthulhu such a great game is the people you play with and the role-playing they bring to the table but when faced with a screen that is about the same size as the palm of your hand, re-creating that communal experience is hard. So in deciding how to approach the game I looked back through the many games I’d played, searching for inspiration so we could retain that role-playing vibe yet allow a strong experience that lives as much in your head as in the games machine.

    What struck me is that some of the most intense and enjoyable games I’ve played have been turn-based games; Laser Squad, Xcom and Fire Emblem for example. Their Chess-life strategies and fractured time structure build a tension within the player I was keen to use. We looked to do a turn based strategy game with strong RPG elements. So the core idea developed around taking the compelling universe of Call of Cthulhu, pulling out the core gameplay stats and the like, then overlaying that with my own experience as a games designer. For example this meant keeping the combat system in its broadest form but altering the Sanity system a little to account for the lack of people in the same room as you over-acting their Phasmophobia. On the subject of Sanity, in the paper game of Call of Cthulhu your characters slowly lose their minds over many adventures alongside brief bouts of madness between here and their final asylum of rest. For The Wasted Land, we’ve adapted the Sanity system so that your characters suffer from bouts of either mania, where briefly they become strong with rage before collapsing, or become paralysed with fear yet can recover their Sanity again. This adaptation means you need to ensure that you steal your character’s minds as well as their bodies for the inevitable tentacled-evil they will meet, yet the gameplay never spins away from you and stops being fun.

    As another example of how we’ve adapted a system, lets look at magic;

    “There is unknown magic on Hatheg-Kla, for the screams of the frightened gods have turned to laughter, and the slopes of ice shoot up endlessly into the black heavens whither I am plunging… Hei! Hei! At last! In the dim light I behold the gods of earth!” H.P.Lovecraft, The Other Gods (1921)

    Magic is one of the defining aspects of most paper RPGs, and Call of Cthulhu is no different – it has magic, but a Mythos-like take on it. Magic in Call of Cthulhu is a much more expansive affair than in many other fantasy genre RPGs. In Call of Cthulhu, spells often take lots of time to cast and require considerable preparation. As a result I’ve always felt that magic in the Call of Cthulhu games has an authenticity that means it was almost believable and in-line with occult magic as described by famous historical figures like Dr John Dee. (Indeed Dee is reputed to have translated the Necronomicon into English!) Another important facet of magic in Call of Cthulhu is that is costs Sanity to use; this stops magic simply being an ‘easy’ weapon because this additional cost to your character incurs by their subversion of the laws of nature.

      However to add magic to a mobile strategy game comes with its own challenges to make it fun as a gameplay device; in an environment such as this it can’t take days of preparation before casting a spell nor can we make the process overly complicated with such a small interface. But what we can do is keep the action cost of spells high and keep the cost in Sanity in-place, so that it makes a magic powerful tool during the adventure, but not one used without thinking first.

      Once we’d designed the broad outline of the game genre and its gamic system, next we needed to work on the setting and story. With Call of Cthulhu you’re a bit spoiled for interesting choices; Inviticus, Dark Ages, 1890s, 1920s, contemporary or the far future. I wanted to keep closer to the 1920s but felt it was not quite where I wanted this game to be set, plus I wanted access to bigger guns! When working at Hothouse Creations, I’d pitched them a survival horror set during the First World War. I’d used this setting as it is a war on the cusp of living memory. It had lots of drama; filled with horror for those involved as the commanding generals, more accustomed to dreaming of cavalry charges than the reality of machine guns and barbed wire, leading their men into a storm of bullets year after year. As such, much of the art that came out of that war also had a nightmarish and surreal horror quality to it and again it reinforced the idea that it was a good setting for Call of Cthulhu, so the Great War for Civilisation began to be drawn into our narrative.

      What of the game’s story? Years ago, after I’d seen the now classic 80s gore-fest of Re-animator, I sought Lovecraft’s original text and was fascinated to discover that it was not set only in one hospital but was set over several locations, including in the midst of World War 1. In Lovecraft’s story Dr. Herbert West volunteers his services in the British cause and happily finds himself a ready supply of bodies amidst the carnage. I’d always felt this was a story that could be expanded upon and so looked to this for inspiration. I started thinking; what if West was, far from an isolated operator, part of something much bigger and more dangerous? In The Wasted Land this is the case with a rogue German military cult using the war as cover for a much bigger plan. Sent over to stop them is the maverick academic and occultist Professor Brightmeer. He and his team have to descend into the middle of a human war to face a battle involving much older and darker powers than the German or British empires…

      I hope this journey into the design process for Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land has been interesting. If you want to know more, you can follow us on Facebook or Twitter and also on our blog. Thanks for reading!

      Tomas Rawlings – 2011

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        12 Responses to “Designing Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land”

        1. David says:

          Nice synopsis Tomas and info on your background,
          WW1 is the perfect setting. 🙂

        2. Noe Rudduck says:

          This was a great read. Seriously, keep up the good work.

        Leave a Reply

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