Cthulhu in Gaming

Guest article written by Josh Parrish

As with all of our guest articles, the views and opinions of this article are not representative of the Mythos Busters podcast.

When Arkham Horror: the Card Game was announced many people were instantly very excited. Cthulhu has been a hot property in gaming in recent years, and it seems like every popular game out there gets a Cthulhu reskin or reimagining. From Pandemic to Star Realms to Smash Up, we have more Cthulhu than we can shake a stick at. But is that a good thing? And can Arkham Horror: The Card Game do the Cthulhu Mythos more justice than other games? Let’s look, and make some predictions.

First off, we have to ask ourselves about the history and ideas of the Cthulhu Mythos. We have many transplants to AH:tCG from other games, particularly Lord of the Rings (drink), and not all are familiar with Cthulhu. Originally a creation of Howard Philips Lovecraft, the world Cthulhu exists in (known as the Cthulhu Mythos) has adopted the works of other authors into it’s canon, and grown immensely from what Lovecraft originally envisioned. But there is a basic concept of the Mythos that many people get wrong. It is not simply horror. It is a specific sub-genre of horror: Cosmic Horror.

Cosmic Horror is all about humanity being so insignificant that we can not withstand the forces out there that REALLY control the universe. In the Mythos, there are Elder Gods and Great Old Ones operating on a power scale well beyond our ability to imagine, let alone fight. To fight them is pointless, as you are not even a mote of dust to them. This is why Lovecraft was so successful in creating a lasting work in literature. It taps into the base fear all of us have: I do not matter to the universe. But how can a game about that be fun? Don’t we play games to feel powerful? Some of us, yes.

But that is not the only reason to play games. One of the other big transplant crowds to AH:tCG are Role Playing Game fans. Fantasy Flight has promised a hybrid experience that is narrative driven, but still replayable. One that allows you to follow the story of an individual or group as they encounter the Mythos. This has drawn people who haven’t played many (if any) card games to the table to try out something new.

The most well known Mythos Role playing game is Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium, which as of the time of this writing just released its 7 th Edition. First published in 1981, it went up against the likes of Dungeons & Dragons, and picked up a decent market share, despite the fact that you did not play as warriors, mages, or any fantastically powerful individuals. What was my first CoC character? A Librarian at a small town public library. And he was the most combat effective member of the party. Call of Cthulhu took great effort to make you feel like the best you could do was to hold back the oncoming darkness for a little bit. When a new monster was encountered, you didn’t roll initiative, you rolled to hide. The game never made you feel powerful, it made you feel isolated. It made you feel like you (and your party) were alone in the dark, and no one and nothing could save you. And players loved it for the same reason people love reading Lovecraft; You felt connected to the story of a normal person feeling scared, alone, and insignificant.

On the other side of the coin, a couple years ago, hit card game Smash-Up from AEG got an expansion that they named “The Obligatory Cthulhu Set”, featuring new factions for Elder Things, Cultists, and the iconic Miskatonic University among others. The cards featured more frightening art, had an insanity mechanic that had to be accounted for when playing against, and featured popular characters, creatures, and locations from the Mythos. And it fell flat among fans, seeing little to no playtime compared to other sets. It made little to no changes to the base game that was hugely popular, and Cthulhu was hitting its stride as popular among gamers. So why did it fail?

I think it failed for two reasons, which are reasons many Cthulhu based games fail, or (at best) are just okay. First, you can fight back and succeed against the Great Old Ones. To quote an old gamer adage: “If it has stats, I can kill it”. When you make Cthulhu, Hastur, Azathoth, or any of the Gods of the Mythos into things you can fight against, you give hope to the players. And that means it is no longer Cosmic Horror, and is no longer as interesting to many Cthulhu fans. And second, you can play as the monsters. The Mythos features unknowable creatures of fear, death, and destruction. They drive men mad with simply laying eyes on them. And now I can play one?

The traditional game structure needs to be subverted in order to make an effective game that stays true to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and those that built upon his works. So do I think that AH:tCG can do it? Well, I’m here writing for a fan site for it, so it’s a fair bet that I think it can. But why? Fantasy Flight Games has a proven track record with it’s Cthulhu products. Some have been lacking, but the majority are held up as shining examples of what Lovecraftian games can do. And those that haven’t been as good, usually fell into one of the two common pitfalls listed above. Even the board game that this card game is titled after is generally considered one of the more on-tone games for the Mythos.

For AH:tCG, though, they had a chance to take what worked from previous games, and throw out what didn’t. Let’s break it down into two different areas based on the information we have received from previews so far: narrative structure, and game mechanics. For the narrative structure of the game, Fantasy Flight Games chose to have a campaign based, story-driven game. Like many of their Living Card Games, each expansion arc is a story, but unlike those other games, it’s not a story THEY tell, but instead one that YOU do. The stories hinted at so far show that you are a pawn, and you are really only able to disrupt plans of others, and not be proactive. That you are likely going to go insane or get crippled by trying to help others, and that maybe the best result you can hope for is a stay in execution, if you will.

But do the game mechanics support it? First off, while you can fight against the monsters and cultists out there, running away from them can be just as effective, if not MORE effective. The chaos bag (yes, I know many people are not a fan of tokens in a bag, but bear with me…) is actually perfect to match the tone and story presented. Even on the easiest difficulty, the negatives in the bag are far more numerous than the positives. And best of all, YOU are the one that picks the token, but you are still powerless to dictate your fate.

AH:tCG is Fantasy Flight’s attempt to meld story and mechanics in a way they have never done before. They are trying to keep as much to the classic feeling of the mythos, but still give the player a feeling of being part of a bigger story. And since AH:tCG is all about telling stories, ones in which you are just a participant, and not an übermensch (a term for the archetypical peak of humanity), we can hope to see a bleak world, where we look to keep the light lit as long as possible.

We are not far away from the release of the game, and we will see if it holds up to the high hopes that many of us have. But it does seem to be avoiding two of the more common pitfalls of modern Cthulhu games, and is shaping up to be a fun and interesting experience. While many games with Cthulhu are just cashing in on the popularity, Fantasy Flight has shown dedication on keeping true to the feeling, and improving their Cthulhu games to bring them more into line with Cosmic Horror.

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