Chaosium with Sandy Petersen (yes, the same guy behind Doom) published what I would call the consummate Horror Roleplaying Game. What D&D is to Fantasy, CoC is to Horror. Sadly, there will never be one for my beloved Science Fiction and I have to concede Champions has this distinction for Superheroes even though its utter crap. However, this post is about how CoC helped change the world and RPGs.
Firstly, it definitely widened HP Lovecraft’s audience. Some of his creations had been incorporated into D&D, just under other names due to copyrights. I think what CoC did was get more people to read Lovecraft’s huge body of work in order to get a better understanding on how to incorporate the “horror.” By 1981, Horror was really a tent pole term and the more popular subgenres were monsters picking off people one by one (Alien, Prophecy), people turning into monsters (American Werewolf in London, The Howling) and homicidal slashers (Halloween, Friday the 13th, Prom Night). The Universal and Hammer films covering Dracula, Frankenstein and the gang were boring, passé. Practical effects were sating the public’s demand for gore and realism. Throw in how roleplaying games are a group activity involving the players into working as a team, it’s hard to keep CoC from descending into Scooby Doo with people getting killed.
Secondly, I feel CoC in the right hands paved the way for players, especially long-time D&D vets, to see how the rules or game mechanics have to change to capture the mood, setting or tone. When I was in high school, common complaints about CoC were…
- Characters who are any good at fighting die quickly since they don’t know what they’re up against.
- Characters who are knowledgable, get killed quickly because they cannot defend themselves from the monsters or cultists.
- If you’re not killed via the two previous means, your character will end up insane which is worse than killed.
The complainers missed the point unless they’re running an ongoing story a la Scooby Doo. Characters being picked off is a core element in Horror, otherwise it wouldn’t be very scary. As the cliche goes, you gotta’ have skin in the game to reap the rewards.
The other factor was the CoC’s Sanity attribute. It is the most argued and misunderstood element alongside D&D’s Charisma. Lovecraft’s main point, the ultimate horror to him, was how the human race is meaningless in an unfathomable, uncaring, infinite universe. We are just ants to indifferent, more advanced beings in the cosmos. This is something which would probably make the majority of humans, namely the uber religious, lose their shit, given the steady diet of self-importance our species feeds itself. I think Petersen chose this term over what it really acts as in the game, Fear. Should your character be more fearless than others, then they’ll hold it together better when the Deep Ones suddenly show up and eviscerate your guide who was two days from retirement. The characters who fail the Sanity roll, they’ll be temporarily paralyzed with fear which will exhibit itself in a form of temporary madness. Should they survive enough of these encounters, their Sanity will be worn down. Today we know this as PTSD. That’s my argument.
After 40 years, seven editions, multiple competitors (Ravenloft for D&D, Chill, Dark Conspiracy, GURPS Horror, Dark Matter, and Vampire: the Masquerade) and some crossover help through Savage Worlds, d20 and Pathfinder, CoC has endured. It’s not a wonder to me. Not due to it being first, but how well Petersen and all the successive designers, developers, editors and writers kept molding the game to evolve with the changing times while staying true to Lovecraft’s vision. Hell, it’s even a great Horror game without using Lovecraft’s tropes or monsters. You could do The Walking Dead with it. Living in the world those people have to survive in, one’s Sanity would decline too. Imagine having to give up the hundreds of daily conveniences and comforts we take for granted? Mental illness would hit like a tsunami!
Wish me luck with the game as it enters 41. I’m hoping to run a CoC one-shot event at Austin’s Chupacabracon ’22 with my Scooby Doo Playmobil toys. I have the haunted house which makes a great setting! The plan is to have Scooby, Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy with some possible guest stars: Mr. T, Michael J Fox and Melissa Joan Hart as a few choices; solve a mystery. Being CoC…it won’t be some corrupt real-estate developer in a rubber mask.