The idea of open warfare in the Cthulhu Mythos feels totally odd because it is “un-lovecraftian” on so many levels... “Nyarlathotep sweeps across western Europe with his hunting horrors and drives back Hastur’s byakhees, but then Cthulhu himself arrives with hordes of star-spawns, and those hunting horrors scatter like flies.”
Pardon me, what?
The entire Cthulhu Wars game looks like a crowded cotton candy LSD nightmare: too many colors, both on the game board and miniatures; if you squint just enough and peek at the table, it could very well be My Little Pony: the board game, or Gargamel & The Smurfs. Instead of pure azure blue / bright red / cheerful lemon yellow, why not gray, purple, forest green, and a sickly dark yellow for Hastur’s boys? I don’t know... Okay, technically, we’re supposed to paint these minis – but what if you’re no good at it?
Figurines are both trending and profitable, and fans must be hungry for them I guess, because Petersen raised something like 4000% of what he originally aimed for; to think that this sum total is hundreds of times more than everything Lovecraft ever earned in his entire life is mind-boggling, to say the least.
Sure I’m gonna buy a hunting horror and a couple shoggoths when they show up on Hoard O’ Bits, but I am NOT coughing $190 for a boxed set. Miniatures are not downloadable (yet), and that’s why they’re such a goldmine these days. If you are a board game designer, create whatever you want – but load it with minis. Anything else can and will be scanned / reproduced / modded.
This post is not an “informed” critique. It is just an opinion. I didn’t give Cthulhu Wars a try, but I suppose I don’t really need to because I’ve played eight or ten games of Chaos in the Old World, which basically operates on the same principle: Khorne, Slaanesh, Nurgle and Tzeentch battle each other over the different countries of the Old World. Each player controls a bunch of miniatures – cultists (lots of them), medium-sized creatures, and one gigantic godling that is quite hard to summon up. Each of the four “gods” have a specific path to follow in order to achieve victory.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Sandy Petersen. His 1988 Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters remains one of my all-time favorite RPG supplements. I continuously used it for the past 25 years. Without Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest, a big fat chunk of my life would have been a boring wasteland of nothingness. Great movie directors do crap once in a while (Scott, Polanski, Allen, etc), and game designers are not immune to that possibility. Don’t worry though, the man will bounce back – his next project will be memorable.
Who wants a prismatic orgy of Cthulhu when you can relish playing the original ugly monster slugathon: Avalon Hill’s Titan!
Apples and Oranges
Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath and Nyarlathotep are Outer Gods, not Great Old Ones: there’s a very important difference between the two. Valar and Maiar. Gods and Angels... Sauron won’t attack Oromë or Yavanna. Medusa wouldn’t dare fight Zeus in a hundred years. Same thing goes for the Cthulhu Mythos: it would be guaranteed suicide for Shudde M’ell or Hastur to jump Yog-Sothoth. Don’t mess with Tawil at’Umr!
Hastur seems to be “in” these days, and I don’t know exactly why. Maybe because the “King In Yellow” was referenced in True Detective – or is it something else? Anyway, Hastur’s “coolness” resulted in his miniature being the biggest of that Cthulhu Wars lot. Bigger than Shub-Niggurath. Bigger than Yog-Sothoth... Still, any Outer God could rip Hastur in two without breaking a sweat. Come on. Nyarlathotep’s ultimate destiny is to (eventually) destroy the world; the only thing Hastur can eventually destroy is Lost Carcosa.
A lot of what we know about the beginnings of role-playing games is a muddled mess. Like most of the world’s great mythologies, the very first chapter of RPGs is shrouded in mystery. I’ve been wondering about this for years, dissecting whatever fragment of information I could get my hands on. Sometimes I understand what those biblical scholars must feel like: “According to Matthew, Jesus said that and then did this, but according to Luke, Jesus said this and then did that – which one is it?” Frustrating indeed. Maybe more frustrating than Blackmoor and Arneson... but not by much.
The year is 1971. The place is Saint Paul, Minnesota. The day is Saturday. The exact date, I honestly don’t know. The usual suspects arrive at Arneson’s house, say hello, get to the basement, and instead of seeing the miniature wargaming replica of Leipzig or Waterloo on the ping pong table, they see bits and pieces of a plastic castle. “What is that?” they ask. “This is the ruined castle of the Barony of Blackmoor,” says Arneson, “and today, you are going to explore it.”
First DM commentary ever.
Those lucky original Blackmoor players were David R. Megarry, David Wesely, Greg Svenson, Bill Hoyt, Duane Jenkins, Pete Gaylord, Ken Fletcher, Cliff Ollila and Richard L. Snider.
Question #1. Did they all attend that first session, or did some of them join in at a later time? Also: is that list of mine missing any names?
Question #2. Is there a picture of that very first dungeon, and if so, who has it? Who inherited Arneson’s papers and stuff? His daughter? Any surviving proto-character record sheets in there?
Question #3. What happened during that historic first game? Why don’t we have a blow-by-blow account of it? There is mention of “magical monsters”, but what were those monsters exactly? What was the first monster ever killed by a party of player characters? Black pudding? Ought to be quite simple, because there were absolutely NO monster miniatures available back then... Did Arneson patiently wrap up a Napoleonic figurine in white sewing thread and say: “You see a mummy.” Did he glue together three lead soldiers, melting just the bottom half of them in a hot pan, thus creating a blob with six jutting arms plus three heads, and then painted the whole thing an eerie shade of mauve, and called this abomination a vorghthock? I’m just speculating – but I’d really, really like to know.
Imagine having an exact and thorough account...
“First room, 30′ x 40′, with two 15-foot pits in the middle. PCs retrieved a golden effigy from the bottom of one pit. Room otherwise empty. Second room, 20′ x 30′, tripwire trap, five crossbow bolts shoot from southern wall, two characters were hit, but survived. First aid a success. Then, corridor leading up to old rusty double doors. Third room, behind double doors, 30′ x 50′, lit by a lone brasero, 3 monsters: 1 vorghthock, 2 mummies...”
Six full pages like that. Wouldn’t that be fucking great?
Physicists would be excited to have a precise account of the Big Bang? I’d be excited to get an account of the first ever RPG sesh!
What I’m really waiting for right now is John Kentner’s completed documentary, Dragons in the Basement, supposed to come out later this year, with interviews of Arneson and his original Blackmoor crew. It’s finally happening, y’all.
The truth is out there.