Call of Cthulhu is Chaosium’s most successful product.
The initial suggestion for it came from a freelancer who shall remain anonymous, due to his having been a major screw up in this (thoh a find fellow otherwise!). He contacted me because he wanted to do a game based on the works of Lovecraft. My first thought was, “That hack?” That is, I was an English major snob, and thought that HPL’s writing was terrible. But nonetheless, I have always admired the debt we owe to him, as one of the “three biggies” of the early fantasy American literature (R. E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft and C. A. Smith) After thought and some discussion, thought, I was happy to go for it.
I figured that since HPL was a famous writer we’d have to acquire the rights to the game. It was pretty easy to get the game rights, since no one was doing anything like this in those days. So I contacted Arkham House for the rights, which we acquired after payment of a huge (for us, for the time) advance payment. (We eventually paid them significant royalties and I am pretty sure Chaosium financed an entire hardback reprint of the HPL works with our royalty payments.)
The original author failed to meet the deadline. Several times. I was distressed at the thought of losing the money, of course. We finally got a submission but it was awesomely incomplete—the only part I liked was the “Noises in a deserted graveyard at night” table.
At that time I was in deep and intense correspondence with a friend named Steve Marsh. We were primarily writing about my grandiose “deeper than RQ” HeroQuest project. He once mentioned that he’d been in a great RQ horror game at college with a guy who had thrown in werewolves, ghosts and Lovecraft monsters for a rollicking fun game. By that time I was feeling desperate about getting a return for my Arkham House investment and so I asked who that person was. “My friend Sandy Petersen,” he said.
Well! Sandy had just submitted a RQ book that was afterwards published as the RuneQuest Gateway Bestiary, which had already included Lovecraft monsters. I already liked that product, and so I hastily wrote (yea, wrote—this was before internet!) and I asked him if he wanted to take a stab at creating an entire game, and he agreed. We sketched the barest requirements of what we wanted, waited, and after some time Sandy submitted the game to us.
He sent it in on time, which I appreciated (later I would learn what a real rarity this was in gaming!) and also well written (another real rarity!) and more importantly, complete! Finally, to our great delight, it was also original in that Sandy had added a new stat to the RQ skeleton which he called Sanity. That was entirely Sandy’s idea. There was an absolutely perverse sense to it that a character’s SAN was equal to 100 (in a d100 system) minus his Knowledge of Cthulhu Mythos. Wonderful! The more one knows, the less sane he is. Brilliant!
We sat down and test played it. We knew the RQ system worked. We wanted to test this setting and is unique SAN. After the first game we all agreed, “OK, this works, but boy are we depressed!” We played it again, and thought, “It really does work, but why would anyone want to play this more than once?”
So we changed one little thing: we made a way to regain Sanity. Then we edited the manuscript, got my friend Gene Day to do some art, Lynn laid it out and we got it into print.
Sandy started working for Chaosium about that time. He was doing typesetting, pounding away at a keyboard to make punch cards (!) hat were subsequently used for laying out a page. We knew it was a horrible waste of his talents but he deeded money, since he was a starving student up in Davis, and we needed the labor; and I didn’t want him to go too far away from us! We planned to hire him as soon as we could, and we did.
In the meantime Sandy was our Gamemaster as we played through the SoYS campaign. It’s where I basked in the glory of Sandy’s brilliance and genius as a GM. He’s a maestro, believe me. I wasn’t able to attend every session, though, so WARNING! Player Character tale coming up! I played an alcoholic Irish hobo who showed up at the doorstep of the game’s dilettante when he needed some dough. At one point Ben was attacked by a Hound of Tindalos that left him with a deep scarred hole in his upper chest, near the neck. Afterwards he kept his tobacco and matches in there to keep them dry. He made it to the very end, when the ship was approaching Rlyeh. He saw Cthulhu rise and went stark raving mad— zero SAN. But we had an artillery piece on the bow and I asked Sandy if Ben could still fire it but he said, “No,” but I can be shameless and I begged and he said, “You’re Zero San!” so I went to whining and he finally said, “OK, you have to roll to see if you can do it,” and so I jumped off my chair and rolled across the floor and leapt up triumphant (I used that stupid trick twice in my gaming career) and Sandy chucked and made a wry face and said, “Oh, OK.” So I rolled the d100, and blasted Cthulthu with a round of 37mm explosive!
“YES!” I shouted, “What happened?”
Nothing,” said Sandy. Which was precisely what I expected but it was just important at the time to shoot anyway.
And at the end Ben survived the adventure because a couple of characters got the Elder sign to do is thing or whatever—I don’t recall. I was mad and had blasted Cthulhu. But he didn’t die and at the end his employer got him some tobacco, a couple of fifths of whiskey and let him go at the RR tracks.
Call of Cthulhu was released during the heyday of RPG growth, but even that hot house of growth sales took off. We used to print product in batches of 5000, and we were happy when the autoship (automatic shipment, or products that were pre-ordered) paid for the print run and he rest of the run lasted for the year. We had to reprint CoC much faster. We were pretty surprised and of course, pleased. In terms of our limited business aspirations, it was quite a commercial hit.
I knew it was an artistic success, though, when scenarios started coming in, unsolicited. Getting publishable material was the hardest part of the job. I was always busy tracking down leads of would-be authors, encouraging people to write, seeking new materials, etc. And once the writers were found the job of acquisition had just started. Getting finished works, suitable for Chaosium editorial standards, always required a lot of work, often downright rewriting.
I would estimate that, over the 40 years I published roleplaying games, out of every 10 people that say they are going to submit something only 3 ever do. Of those 3, 2 will need a lot of work and that last one often needs quite a bit too. So when scenarios began to arrive, unsolicited I knew we’d hit the jackpot.
We began publishing a series of scenario books that were, at first, cobbled together from random submissions. Some books were just scenarios put between the same cover. Sometimes these would be rewritten somewhat, either by the author at our request or just done in-house, so that they fit the theme of the book.
Then came Masks of Nyarlathotep, by Larry DiTillio.
Larry had written some CoC material for us already. He is a Holly wood writer, best known at that time for the fact that he’d written so many of the scripts for He-man and the Masters of the Universe, and was the inventor of Sheera! (Lest you think that this, and his extensive work on Beast Wars: Transformers, indicates the extent of his creativity, note that he was later the executive story editor for Babylon 5.) He was writing a column for us in Different Worlds, called Sword of Hollywood.
Then he did Masks of Nyarlathotep., the biggest CoC supplement done to date and, some say, still the best. It was one single, huge world-spanning campaign that combined the horrors of the Lovecraft universe with a Hollywood scriptwriter’s sense of drama and relentless pacing. It was so big that we couldn’t cram it all into one box (part went into Terror Australis) and still fall within what was, in those days, a maximum price point. It was entirely open-ended as well, so that it had separate game booklets for each of the stages of the game. I remember that Lynn was rather delighted, in his subdued way, at the challenge of compiling the background data (especially Cairo, which was sketchily documented in the 1920’s) that had become the earmark of the series under his editorial tutelage.
Call of Cthulhu barely ever slowed down in its popularity and was always the flagship for Chaosium, since by that time we had scuttled RuneQuest ourselves by making that terrible deal with Avalon Hill. A couple of times other games sold more than it did (Elfquest and Worlds of Wonder each did) but only for a short spike.
Eventually the original 1920’s setting began to feel crowded and used up, and the game expanded into other settings. The first, Victorian England, was based on the desires of the author. One thing which that setting did was to get letters of query sent, probably averaging about one a month, for a Jack the Ripper Cthulhu scenario. I rejected them all because most of them were about jack, and did not integrate the Cthulhu material in.
More to come.