Friday, 30 April 2010

Cthulhu and Me

I was introduced to roleplaying games around my eleventh birthday. I had just left my little village primary school, with its incompetent headmistress and prospect of going on to one of the worst comprehensives in Cornwall, and arrived at public school. It was a completely different world. Soon afterwards, Richard, one of my new friends, informed me that he'd joined the school wargaming society, that it was really fun and that I should come along. I did. Most of the society members had given up actual wargaming and had started playing a new-fangled game called Dungeons and Dragons. It was brilliant. I was immediately hooked. I'd loved fantasy for a long time. I'd devoured all the children's stories like the Narnia series and a couple of years back my mum, who'd been a Tolkien fan since her childhood, had introduced me to The Lord of the Rings. Now I could actually get inside the books. Soon afterwards I acquired the slim blue D&D softcover rulebook with the dragon on the front (providing rules to get to the heady heights of 3rd level) and I was an addict. Not only did I play D&D in the club at lunchtimes, but Richard and I also played in the back of the car on the way home.

Before long we had got tired of the constraints of Basic D&D and progressed to the much more complex Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Richard bought a second-hand copy of the Players' Handbook, I bought a brand-new softback copy of the Monster Manual (which fell apart in a couple of years - I still have it, held together with sellotape) and soon also acquired (I really cannot remember from where) the Holy Grail, a second-hand hardback copy of the Dungeon Master's Guide with the Efreet on the cover. I remember it being a while before we realised that Hit Dice didn't just mean Hit Points, but meant you rolled the requisite number of D8s and added them together - we were wondering why we managed to kill things so easily!

Ever interested in the wider picture, I also acquired (for the same Christmas, I believe) the boxed sets of RuneQuest and Traveller, which were the only other roleplaying games of any significance around at that time (I'll ignore Tunnels and Trolls - I think many other people would like to as well!). AD&D was still the game I played most, but I had a sneaking preference for RuneQuest, with its skill system and percentile rolls. It seemed far more elegant than AD&D's classes and levels and D20 rolls (AD&D, remember, had no skill system at that time). My slightly baffled parents also bought me (again, for Christmas) a subscription to White Dwarf. It may surprise younger gamers, but WD in those days covered every RPG (Games Workshop then only made board games - it was long before Warhammer - and was primarily a distributor of other people's games) and was a highly-respected and exceptionally good games magazine, not the self-promotional organ it later became. In fact, it was pretty much the only RPG magazine except for TSR's Dragon (which always focused on D&D, although that too covered other games in those days). I was thirteen when White Dwarf printed a highly favourable review of a brand new game from Chaosium. It sounded very different from the games I'd played before, featured the strange entities from TSR's Deities and Demigods and had the advantage of using Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying system with which I was already familar from RuneQuest. On a whim, I decided to buy it.

Call of Cthulhu was the first RPG I'd ever bought myself instead of been given as a present. It was expensive (for a not-very-well-off 13-year-old in the early 1980s - probably nothing to a modern 13-year-old used to buying £40 computer games on a regular basis), but it was worth it. It was completely different. It came in a big, flat box with a haunted house on the cover. It was set in the 1920s. I knew nothing about the 1920s apart from vague notions of flappers and Prohibition. It was set in the real world. It was set in a particularly dark and eerie version of the real world. It soon became my favourite game. If I'm being honest, I didn't play it much, as none of my regular players seemed very interested in swapping their +10 plate armour and +19 vorpal blades for almost guaranteed death or insanity, but it inspired me to read and research. I'd always been interested in history, but now I'd spend hours in the library researching the world of the 1920s. I got all three volumes of Granada's H. P. Lovecraft omnibus and read them from cover to cover. I loved them. Yes, HPL was a pretty bad writer, but what an imagination! I still mainly played AD&D, but CoC soon became my favourite game by a long way.

Having spent a rather unhappy year at a college in Bath retaking my A Levels (maybe due to too much gaming!) and consoling myself with spending hours researching the 1920s in Bath's fantastic reference library on Queen Square (now apparently closed, sadly), I went up to Sheffield University to read archaeology. I hated the course, but I did lots of roleplaying. Not much CoC though (I really can't remember why). The Sheffield Uni Not Only Dungeons and Dragons Society (NODDSOC) was, I think, then one of the best gaming societies in Britain and I was elected to its committee and spent my days (and in my second year my life, since I shared a house with several of them) with fellow gamers. In my first year I ran the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It's still one of the best fantasy campaigns ever published for an RPG, in my opinion, and I still love WFRP for its combination of Lovecraftian atmosphere and very British humour - it's a pity that FFG have apparently managed to break it (I wouldn't know for sure, as I have no intention of shelling out that much money for a roleplaying game). In my second year I ran the Traveller Adventure, another first-rate campaign. In my third year...well, I dropped out and left. I loathed my course, so I did very little work for it. RPGs were much more fun.

A few wilderness years of crap jobs and no gaming followed. I lived in London and did manage to get a bit of compensation by buying up a fair few RPG books on the cheap. Highlights included Horror on the Orient Express for a fiver from a shop in Hammersmith and almost the entire MERP collection for a couple of quid each when Virgin Games on Oxford Street stopped selling RPGs and sold off their stock cheap. And I did, of course, continue to frequent libraries.

Returning to university in Canterbury to read history I also returned to gaming. I joined the university's Adventure Gaming Society (AGS) and ran Horror on the Orient Express, which seemed to be a great success. As the only regular CoC keeper in the AGS I gained a bit of a reputation as a Cthulhu guru. Once again, I lived and socialised with other gamers. I got my degree, I stayed in Canterbury to work and continued to play CoC and other games. I had a gaming break for a year while in Aberystwyth qualifying as an archivist. Then I returned to Canterbury and got back into gaming. Eventually I moved to the West Midlands to work and the gaming stopped for a bit. I investigated the Warwick University gaming society (which, as far as I know, no longer exists), but it seemed to be a bit poor and full of rather immature students. Nobody played CoC. Many had never even heard of it. Most of them played either D&D or World of Darkness and nothing else. I was obviously getting old. After about a year, though, I managed to make contact with the group I currently game with. That was seven years ago...

And that's about it. Roleplaying has been central to my life for thirty years, Call of Cthulhu for only a couple of years less. It's inspired me to think, write and research. I game much less than I used to and much less than I'd like to. There are only four people in my gaming group at the moment (anyone in the Coventry area who's looking to play CoC or similar, drop me a line!) and we're all in or approaching middle age, with partners and responsible jobs and kids. It gets harder to find time to get to the gaming table and even when we do we often find ourselves talking about films, TV and current affairs instead of playing. I envy my friends in Canterbury who still play on a regular basis. One of them has been running D&D pretty much every week for eighteen years. I don't have that luxury. I read and research far more than I ever play. But I still love what my partner, Jo, succinctly calls "that dark Gothic shit". There are some great, erudite people writing for the game and keeping it alive. Thanks to them all. It's by far the most scholarly game around and always assumes its players are intelligent, educated adults, and I love that. Chaosium itself may have been struggling to produce anything that brilliant recently (and please, please employ a decent copyeditor!) but the licensees that have sprung up in the last few years are publishing some excellent material and encouraging some of the big names to get back into the CoC writing business. Things are looking good for Call of Cthulhu. Long may it continue.

Now, I just need to finish that bloody Palestine supplement...

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing these memories and nostalgia with us.

    You've touched upon several of the traits that make Call of Cthulhu distinct from, and (for many of us) more attractive than other fantasy role-playing games -- notably that it does not take place in a fantasy world, but in our own, between the two World Wars. Grounded in the reality of a genuine place and time, one we may research rather than imagine, the whole story becomes more solid, even the fantastic elements.

    With the thought that we can travel to Providence or Essex County or the coordinates of R'lyeh comes the counterthought that the evil forces of these stories might travel to our own homes....