The Cthulhu Mythos is probably the most frequent setting for RPG games next to High Fantasy (excluding perhaps The World of Darkness). The original Call of Cthulhu RPG is still the strong favorite for Mythos games but has been followed by many other beloved games including Cthulhu Dark, Trail of Cthulhu and the Fate of Cthulhu. It’s true that many people enjoy these games without ever touching the source material. Admittedly I myself am sort of a mixed fan on Lovecraft. I enjoy the derivatives of his work, more than his work itself. A large part of this is due to his narration style where he often has a person discussing what he researched which involves him telling the stories he heard of other people, sometimes through an additional detached narrator. I also tend to like there to be some tention between good and evil, in the Lovecraft universe it’s all madness all the time. Nonetheless he pushed horror beyond the merely undead into other realms and created the basis for some of my most beloved games and was a master at worldbuilding. And in reading his stories I can appreciate the setting of the Lovecraftian RPGs more.
So how to learn about Lovecraft? Well if you don’t mind spoilers there is this gem from Overly Sarcastic Productions:
Otherwise here is how to get a whirlwind tour of the Lovecraft universe, I recommend reading these more-or-less in this order. Mild synopsis ahead, so if you want to know nothing before you read stop after the list:
- The Call of Cthulhu
- The Shadow Over Innsmoth
- The Dunwich Horror
- The Whisper of Darkness
- At the Mountains of Madness
The call of Cthulhu
Cthulhu is the most famous abomination in the Mythos and thus is the creature who’s name graces most of the RPG games. The narrator of this tale tries to uncover the meaning of an idol he finds among his deceased relative’s belongings. Like the reader (especially one new to the Mythos) he started his investigation completely unaware of the darker things in the universe. This tale will introduce the many hallmarks of the Lovecraft world – the Old Ones, Cthulhu himself, cultists and R’lyeh. The story consists of three smaller stories that each form part of the narrator’s investigation.
The shadow over innsmoth
This is my favorite Lovecraft story, because it’s narrator is very much “in the eye of the storm” as it were throughout the whole tale and will come to have life-threatening and ultimately very personal stakes in the mystery. I find a narrator who is directly in danger more compelling than a detached researcher. This tale is about the town of Innsmoth, a town rejected by most “civilized” people and where most clergy have fled accept for the worship of Dagon. Rumors abound of a pirate captain and strange nightmares he brought back to the town. I think this is a good “sequal” for a new fan to the mythos because after learning that horrors exist, this story examins how close to us they are.
The Dunwich horror
The previous stories are about people discovering horror. This story, while told by someone who is on “our” side, features an emphasis on a family that is highly involved in the occult . . . and far from fearing it seems to want to go deeper into the nightmare. I think this story should be on any “intro to Lovecraft” reading list because it will introduce the reader to Yog-Sothoth, one of the most important terrors in the Mythos.
The whisper in Darkness
Two investigators look into evidence of strange beings living in the vermont hills. One of the investigators who lives near the area starts feeling as though he is being watched and spied on and buys dogs and more dogs to try and ensure his safety. Are the creatures friend or foe? And if they make an offer should it be accepted? Another story that explicitly mentions Cthulhu, this is my second favorite of Lovecraft’s tales after The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
at the mountains of madness
Possibly Lovecrafts most famous work besides “The Call of Cthulhu,” this one expands the horror to an expedition in the artic. When much of the explorers go missing two of the remaining explorers go to investigate and find things that shatter their worldview. Due to its scale, it serves as a fitting “climax” to your initial journey into the madness of Lovecraft . . .
There is more works by Lovecraft and countless works by others who have adapted his mythos for the modern day. May you not be corrupted by what you find. . .