Cthulhu Inspiration from the Discovery Channel

I’ve been on a bit of a Discovery Channel reality show kick lately — largely because I can watch it on Netflix on one screen while working on something else on the other. For some reason these kind of shows don’t demand as much of my attention, likely because I don’t mind when I miss stuff.

But I recently discovered that most of these Discovery Channel shows are perfect settings for Call of Cthulhu games!

As I talked about before in the Cthulhu Formula, one of the big keys to one-off Cthulhu games is getting the setting right. Ideally the setting should be some place interesting that you can build good, quirky characters around. But the crucial part is that the settings needs to put the characters, who are just normal people going about their normal lives, into a place where they can’t just call the cops or go home when stuff starts getting freaky. As technology progresses this gets particularly difficult — finding ways to get the characters somewhere without internet or cell phone coverage in particular.

Enter the Discovery Channel.

Deadliest Catch


Take Deadliest Catch: what better Call of Cthulhu setting than a crab fishing boat in the middle of the Bearing Sea during a storm?

A crab boat has a crew just about the perfect size for a gaming group. Cell phones don’t work. Radios and sat phones are iffy, especially during a storm. When things go wrong there’s nowhere to run — just endless frigid waters as far as the eye can see.

The characters are just going about their life, fishing for crab, playing pranks on other boats, when they get a distress call… the storms are so bad the Coast Guard can’t respond, or doesn’t even hear the call. The players’ boat is near enough to investigate and they come upon the eye of the storm with the other boat just sitting dead in the water. They go to investigate and find… whatever. Maybe the boat is deserted, with only vague clues as to what happened in its last hours. Maybe the crew were mercilessly hunted and slaughtered by some thing (and maybe that thing has made it onto their boat).

This show is positively filled with possibilities made perfect by the setting. The characters are all alone on the Bearing Sea. Take out their radio & EPIRB through misfortune or sabotage and there’s no chance of calling for any kind of help. And there are strange things out in the middle of the ocean — not to mention the character’s lives are based on hauling up things from the bottom of the sea. Perhaps they brought up something strange, and wonderful, and ultimately horrible.

I can’t believe I’ve never thought to run a Deadliest Catch game. Hell, even the title sounds like the title of a Cthulhu Game!

Gold Rush


Or how about Gold Rush. A small group of out-of-work adventurers heads up to Alaska to try to strike it rich mining for gold. Once again, they’re up in areas so remote that cell phones don’t work. Better yet, a simple storm can make the roads unpassable. Once again, the crew is the perfect size for a gaming group. For more setting interest, there are bears all over the place, and they can be dangerous. During the height of summer the daylight can last for 20 hours (and in winter darkness lasts that long… but you don’t mine in winter, of course. But perhaps wintering over on mining grounds…).

And my favorite part… the characters are literally digging as deep as they can looking for ancient riverbeds. What happens when they dig too deep, and unearth something strange. The entrance to some kind of alien tomb, with the promise of riches inside. Or they trigger an ancient curse, or release some foul entity too ancient and powerful to be killed that was entombed millenia ago.

You can also choose to have neighboring claims with NPCs that can go crazy, or get killed off. Perhaps the initial disturbances you can write off under as the kooky neighbors trying to jump your claim and scare you out of town. But more likely it is raw greed that will drive the characters to push forward in spite of strange happenings until they are in too deep, following the trail of gold farther and farther down until they awaken the slumbering monstrosity below. And now they have to survive those few all-too-long hours of darkness with nothing but their wits and several large pieces of construction machinery between themselves and the gibbering terrors that man was not meant to comprehend.

I love the machinery too! Bulldozers and loaders and excavators are the perfect bits of interesting equipment to give the characters just a chance in hell of fending off Cthulhu monsters. And they have the potential to create all kinds of problems, especially as sanity begins to ebb away.

Of course Gold Rush isn’t a great title for a Cthulhu game — probably have to change that up to something like From Beneath It Devours.

Another similar show is Ice Road Truckers (not actually Discovery Channel, but along the same theme) — also a great setting, though you’d have to work a bit to get a full group into the setting.

I haven’t yet plumbed the full depths of the Discovery Channel offerings, but I have high hopes that they will continue to produce shows that translate perfectly into Cthulhu settings. And I do believe my next Cthulhu game will be set in an Alaskan Klondike gold claim.


The Cthulhu Formula

My extended group of gamer friends are getting together for our annual RPG excess this coming weekend — sort of like a house con, with 3-4 games running per slot and 30+ people invading my house for a weekend. I’m only running one game this year, a Call of Cthulhu one-shot, which I have yet to write.

I know the premise of the game, and I know how it’s going to end (not necessarily with everyone dead, depending) but I don’t yet know how I’m getting there.

However, over the years of running Call of Cthulhu games, I’ve developed the generic Cthulhu formula that covers most good Call of Cthulhu one-shots.

The Call of Cthulhu Progression of Creepy

The key to the game is the slow progression of creepy. You can just jump straight into full on horror — you have to build up to it, you have to lure the players into it slowly, which is tough because of course they all know they’re playing Call of Cthulhu. Here is the progression:

  1. Setting the stage: The characters meet up or interact for a bit, establishing their roleplaying personas and the situation/setting in which the game begins.
  2. Investigation or motivation: The characters are supposed to investigate something mundane — even if it’s a haunted house, they don’t believe in ghosts so the investigation is mundane in nature.  This could also be a simple task that doesn’t involve investigation, as simple as “fly to France” but investigation is the more common Cthulhu plot hook.
  3. Mystery: The investigation or action reveals a mystery — there’s something going on here! Secret doors, clues, the plan is hijacked — this is what gets the plot moving and gets the characters engaged in the plot, rather than just in themselves.
  4. The inexplicable: Something(s) inexplicable happens. There is no apparent logical explanation for this that the characters can think of… this is odd. Around this point — or earlier — the characters must be isolated. They need to be in a location and/or situation in which they can’t just decide to go home or let the police deal with things. They in a plane, on an island, in the isolated haunted house and the storm is causing cell phones not to work. They can also be isolated by motivation — they’re obsessed with the answer to who killed their mother, or the bomb planted in their brain will blow up if they leave.
  5. Something downright creepy and/or mildly horrifying happens, but not necessarily supernatural. A dead body is found, or blood is dripping from upstairs. Something is now very seriously wrong — it’s not just a suspicion anymore, there’s proof — this is the first opportunity and motivation the characters have to bolt, which is why they must be isolated beforehand. This should be something where the characters have to investigate, but they pretty much know the investigation will lead to worse things (like the source of the dripping blood). This builds the tension.
  6. Knowledge and horror: Something else horrifying happens, possibly the reveal from the intro above, possibly something new. Very likely this revelation is directly tied to the investigation/actions the characters are taking — the more they learn about the deep secret of the game, the more horrifying things happen. The dead body follows them downstairs and corners them in the basement, the blood is coming from the bathtub, and in it they find something horrible that attacks. This section can last for some time, or be fairly short. The longer you can stretch it out, however, the more memorable the game is — keeping players peaked in the horror atmosphere that Cthulhu is all about.
  7. The awful truth. The typical end mixes the pinnacle of horror with the final revelation of information: what is actually going on. You’re all infected with the zombie virus, you’re the only ones left alive in the world, you accidentally unleashed an Old One on your home town, etc. Or possibly it’s a twist — none of it ever happened and it’s just implanted memories, or you’re actually the cultists and the “bad guys” were the heroes. Either way there’s a big revelation that ideally has been hidden up until the climax, and is a combination of knowledge and horror.

In my experience with running Cthulhu one-shots, the hardest part is that stretch of horror before the revelation. Mysteries to investigate are easy. Ways to isolate characters are easy. Even the awful truth is easy, because that awful truth is often the original idea behind the game, so it’s the starting point. But building slowly up from inexplicable to creepy to horrifying and then staying at horrifying — that’s the tough part.

And that’s the part that I’m stuck on for my game at the moment. I started with awful truth as the game idea. I have a setting and know who the characters will be. But getting them from the starting point to a point of horror is tough — especially since in this case the characters are all going to be sort of cultist lackeys — the servants to the powerful master cultists, who must guard the home base from the assaults of rival cultists while their masters try to summon the Old Ones. So they’re going to start identifying themselves as evil, which makes it harder to make the horror seem horrible.

Fortunately the characters will have no significant powers or spells — that again lessens the sense of horror — since they’re just lackeys and wannabies. But it’s still rough. And I run the game in Friday. Three days from now. Gulp.

Call of Cthulhu Mood Music


Today I’m going to list what I think are some of the best Call of Cthulhu mood music options out there.

Just about every Call of Cthulhu game is made better with the addition of some nice creepy background music. Some games suggest a very specific kind of music — like period music for a 1920s Cthulhu game — but for the most part just a generic spooky soundtrack will help set the mood.

Unfortunately it can be hard to find good Call of Cthulhu mood music. Too much of the spooky music out there is far too intrusive and in your face, rather than subtle background music just setting the atmosphere and staying out of the way while you play the game. Good examples of this creepy music failure include just about any Halloween sound track, and soundtracks to many movies that you think should be good, like Dracula.

I’ve spent a lot of time slowly accumulating a Call of Cthulhu music collection, and while a lot of it is just one track from this and half a track from that, there are a few gems that provide a lot of tracks of phenomenal Cthulhu music. I’m talking very specifically here about tracks that are generic background music good for most Cthulhu games, rather than big loud tracks for specific situations.

Here are some of my top recommendations.

Atrium Carceri = Cthulhu Gold

Atrium Carceri is a band that produces album after album of creepy atmospheric music that is absolutely perfect for many Cthulhu games. Their CDs are packed full of track after track of perfect Cthulhu mood music that maintains it’s low spooky quality without big in your face moments or surging too-loud conclusions. They have several CDs and literally every one has 80% – 90% of the tracks ideal for almost any Cthulhu game.

Here are a couple samples of the kind of Cthulhu gold that comes from Atrium Carceri:

The only possible concern with Atrium Carceri is that many of their tracks have a slight tech edge to them that could make them sound a little out of place in period Cthulhu games. On the other hand it makes them even better for futuristic horror games, including Eclipse Phase and of course Cthulhu Tech.

Seriously, if you’re going to get only one CD for your Cthulhu background music, get one of their albums.

The Thin Red Line Soundtrack

This is a rare movie soundtrack in which the tracks don’t rise to some kind of horror crescendo, which turns ambient Cthulhu mood music into something intrusive. Not every track is perfect, but there are many awesome Cthulhu background tracks. Here’s a sample:


Soundtrack to The Game

The Game soundtrack is filled with very slow, slightly creepy piano music — the kind of piano music that uses mostly the high-pitched keys. This provides a very low-key and slow counterpoint to investigative games and is particularly well-suited to period games or creepy situations that are just creepy, rather than building up to something truly horrible.

Peter Gabriel’s Passion

This is a bit of a non-standard selection, but I’m a huge fan of Peter Gabriel’s CD Passion, which is the soundtrack for the Last Temptation of Christ. The music is kind of a middle-eastern creepy track. At times the tracks aren’t so much creepy as just very different, something to move players out of their comfort zone, but it can do a good job of setting the mood without being in-your-face creepy. Here’s a sample:

A Few Others

The above are my best suggestions for entire CDs or nearly entire CDs filled with great background music. Some other options that have fewer tracks that are still great include:

Midnight Syndicate is a group that specializes in making gaming soundtracks. They have many CDs of horror music; however, most of it falls prey to the in-your-face crescendo syndrome, and others are just a little too melodic — more like a song than ambient music. There are, however, a handful of tracks across their horror CDs that make good Cthulhu music.

Eyes Wide Shut Soundtrack: yes, seriously. There is one track on here that is perfect for scenes of cultists performing horrible rituals. You can even hear a low voice chanting “K’tulu.” Awesome track.


American McGee’s Alice Soundtrack: this is the soundtrack to the Alice computer game. The nice thing about this is that it provides a different kind of creepy music, kind of a dark fairy tale music. The downside is a lot of the tracks have voice-overs on them, and some have the crescendo syndrome as well. But there are definitely a few nice long tracks of creepy Grimm’s fairy tale music. Another source of this kind of music is the soundtrack to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, Hush.


    That’s all I have today off the top of my head. But I’m always looking to expand my Cthulhu music selection — does anyone else know of any great sources for ambient Call of Cthulhu mood music?


    Cthulhu for New Gamers

    CthulhuEvery now and then when I’m talking with other gamers about gaming in general the question comes up, “What game do you run for non-gamers?”

    There’s always a big debate — when you’ve got a non-gamer that you’ve talked into trying out gaming (and we’re talking RPGs here) where do you start them. My answer is always Call of Cthulhu, and it often brings a surprised reaction from fellow gamers and references to throwing the poor non-gamers into the deep end.

    But really, I think it’s one of the best presentations of gaming to non-gamers.

    Cthulhu for Non-Gamers

    The biggest advantage of Call of Cthulhu is that the rules are incredibly simple and easy to understand. Almost everything that you do is a percentile roll. If you roll under your skill you succeed — it’s not just easy, it’s intuitive. Anyone can grasp it at once and then move on with actually role-playing, rather than trying to understand complex and involved systems.

    Cthulhu has a second advantage, which is that the characters are (usually) just normal people in the real world. It’s easy to grasp — far easier than trying to explain being a dwarf in a world with different deities and magic and elves and everything else. No — you’re just a guy who works at a car wash — that’s easy to grasp.

    This is why I think that something like D&D is about the worst game to use to introduce a non-gamer to gaming. Most gamers tend toward D&D because it’s how we got started… but most of us were gamers at heart even before we knew what gaming was. We read fantasy, we were geeks, D&D made intuitive sense to us in a way that it does not to most of the world.

    The Cthulhu Experience

    I also think that Cthulhu remains one of the best pure role-playing experiences, if done right. When I’ve got a true non-gamer (and not a gamer at heart) who is curious about what it’s all about, I run a one-shot Call of Cthulhu game.

    I make pre-generated characters complete with a brief background and personality tips, explain the percentile system and sanity, and then we’re off. They start as a normal person in the real world who already knows at least some of the other characters. They start off in a real-life situation, doing their thing and getting into arguments or solving some every-day problem.

    Then the Cthulhu horror aspect begins to creep in. Odd things happen, then inexplicable things. The lights are dimmed, the candles come out, the spooky music is on. The scene is set and we descend into horror.

    I think the result is a great example of role-playing and whether the non-gamer enjoys it or not, they’ll at least leave with a good understanding of what RPGs are. And their odds of wanting to come back are greater than if they spent half the night trying to learn about attacks of opportunity and flanking and spell limitations.