"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


For decades, the definitive representation of Lovecraft at the gaming table has been Chaosium's classic Call of Cthulhu. While other Mythos-releated game systems have appeared sporadically in its wake, most of them (Trail of Cthulhu, Realms of Cthulhu, d20 Call of Cthulhu, GURPS Cthulhupunk) have looked to Call of Cthulhu for guidance on recreating the genre. Because it is so radically different--in both mechanics and tone--from the Chaosium game, Monte Cook's Cypher System might appear a poor choice for authentic Lovecraftian play. Cypher System characters can take a lot more punishment, have a wider range of abilities, and follow a much more traditional progression in power and options than classic Cthulhu Investigators. But Cypher is a surprisingly flexible tool, and can easily be dialed up to handle four color superheroes or dialed down to portray normal men and women pitted against the titanic, unknowable powers of the Mythos. In this article, we hope to show you how.


The Cypher System system rulebook includes five chapters on adapting the game to portray different genres; Fantasy, Science Fiction, Modern, Horror, and Superheroes. Expanded Worlds builds on these by introducing seven "Fantastical" and "Gritty" sub-genres. None of these, however, is actually right. 

First published in 1981, Call of Cthulhu billed itself as "Fantasy Role-Playing in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft." Later editions would change that to "Horror Roleplaying." Given that Lovecraft's work frequently dealt with alien races or scientific experiments gone wrong, a case might even be made for "Science Fiction Roleplaying." So which exactly is it? If we look to Lovecraft himself, he would have defined his fiction as Weird.

To get a handle on what Weird fiction is, let's look at a few different voices in the genre. First, James Raggi, the author of Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, distinguishes between the Horror and Weird genres in this way;

The main thing that separates a Weird Tale from a conventional horror story is the forces completely out of the control of those who encounter them. A thing that cannot be explained, cannot be defeated, cannot be solved...

Jeff Vandermeer, author of (among many other things) the superb Wonderbook, wrote for The Atlantic;

...the weird tale, or literature of the strange...fascinates by presenting a dark mystery beyond our ken and engaging the subconscious. Just as in real life, things don’t always quite add up, the narrative isn’t quite what we expected...

Both of these place emphasis on inexplicable rather than horrific, If the intent of the Horror story is to scare, the intent of the Weird tale is to instill a sense of having confronted something incomprehensible. Fear is often a byproduct of this, but so is wonder or awe. Lovecraft himself describes this by emphasizing a sense of having left reality behind;

...I believe that weird writing...should be realistic and atmospheric--confining its departure from Nature to the one supernatural channel chosen, and remembering that scene, and phenomena are more important...than are characters or plot. The "punch" of a truly weird tale is simply some violation or transcending of fixed cosmic law--an imaginative escape from palling reality...

So what exactly does this mean for your gaming table? 

First, it suggests that the GM should create a world as realistic and mundane as possible. If everything is Weird, then nothing is. Instead, you want to create a sane and ordered world into which the Weird intrudes from outside, violating sanity and reality when it does. Use the "Modern" setting as your starting point, or better still, the "Historical" setting in Expanded Worlds (most Lovecraftian games are set in the 20s and 30s, though the Victorian Era is another popular choice). 

Second, make sure that all "supernatural" or "paranormal" elements in the setting are in the GM's hands, not the players'. Character Types should all be based on Warriors, Explorers, and Speakers, with no Adepts and no Magic flavor available. It is important for all paranormal elements to be inexplicable, incomprehensible, and beyond mortal control. If player really wants to create a psychic or medium character, have them create a Scholar or Dilettante or Professional instead...but then handle their "paranormal" abilities as GM intrusions rather than powers. The characters are not in control of these extraordinary talents, and cannot reliably call upon them. They never know when a sudden vision or cryptic communication will occur...and when these do, they are probably damaging to the character's psyche (see Mere Mortals below).

Finally, don't feel pressured to define the Weird elements as either "magic" or "science." Don't define it at all! Blur the lines. Clarke's Third Law applies here anyway; any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Are the spells in the dread Necronomicon sorcery, or some advanced mathematical formulas that bend the fabric of time and space? There is no answer to that question--it is beyond mortal ken. 


Call of Cthulhu differs in feel and motivation from other roleplaying games. in many such games, player characters can directly confront and attempt to destroy obstacles and opponents. This strategy typically leads to disaster in Cthulhu scenarios. The majority of the other-world monstrosities are so terrible and often so invulnerable that chasing open combat almost guarantees a gruesome end for an investigator. Even the merest glimpse of some of the more macabre horrors can send one screaming into insanity...

Call of Cthulhu, 6th Edition

While they are capable of great heroism, and even on occasion do manage to drive the horrors of the Mythos back (see The Dunwich Horror), Lovecraft's protagonists are all mere mortals. These are not action heroes or supermen. To get the genre right, and to raise the stakes, the player characters need to be considerable more vulnerable than the average Cypher System character. Physical combat must be deadly, and encountering the alien, incomprehensible forces of the Mythos must be damaging to the psyche.

To simulate this, the optional "Shock" and "Madness" rules in the Horror setting chapter are a good start, and every Lovecraftian game should include them. When a character encounters something Weird or horrific, he or she needs to make an Intellect defense roll, the level of which provides both the Difficulty AND the Intellect damage suffered if the roll is failed. For example, when the intrepid cub Reporter sees a chair move across the floor of a haunted house, he makes a Difficult 4 (12 or better) roll, and if he fails, he loses 4 INT points from his pool. Failure also results in shock; for one round the character panics, freezes, or flees.

Encountering Weird entities--alien races and horrors--triggers the same response. Seeing a Deep One (a level 4 creature) requires a level 4 (12 or better) roll and inflicts 4 INT points of damage. However the gods and Great Old Ones of the Mythos are infinitely worse. Beholding Yog Sothoth or Great Cthulhu is a mind-shattering event. These beings inflict at least three times their level in INT damage. Watching Shub Niggurath manifest in this dimension, might require a Difficult 9 (27) Intellect defense roll, with failure causing the lost of 27 points from the INT pool!

While the optional "Madness" rules model the slow and steady slide into insanity common in long term Mythos games, true Lovecraftian gaming needs even more "punch" in the sanity department. In Lovcraftian games, if any character suffers an INT loss larger than their maximum value, he or she must make a second Intellect defense roll (against the last Difficulty) or go permanently insane on the spot.  For example, our cub Reporter has an Intellect of 16. Seeing Shub Niggurath manifest, he fails his Level 9 (27) defense roll and loses 27 Intellect points...far more than his maximum number (16). He now must immediately make a second Level 9 roll or go permanently insane. 

Another option you may want to consider is to take away the damage track.

If a character's Speed pool is depleted, he or she is paralyzed. If his or her Intellect pool reaches zero, he or she is stunned and helpless. And if the Might pool is emptied, the character is unconscious and at the mercy of the opposition. This will definitely make players think twice about entering combat, and much better reflects the grittiness of the genre. GMs should seriously consider using the "Lasting" and "Permanent" damage rules as well.


It wouldn't be the Cypher System without cyphers, but how do these fit into a Weird game?

To start with, make "Subtle Cyphers" the primary ones in the game. These are the lucky breaks, flashes of inspiration, or extremes of effort characters call upon in their struggles against the Weird and horrific forces of the Mythos. 

Manifest cyphers can be fun as well, but these must take the form of Weird spells, chemicals, or devices and as such should be used VERY sparingly. Further, using a manifest cypher is by definition an encounter with the Weird and thus triggers a Shock test (Difficulty 3 or 4 most commonly).


"Horror Mode" (also discussed in the Horror setting chapter) is a good mechanic, but I think the methods discussed above are sufficient for creating the right sense of trepidation and dread. While Horror Mode does ramp up the tension, it also telegraphs ahead that something Weird is coming. Opting not to use it, and emphasizing that the Weird can intrude any time any place without warning, better suits the genre.


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