By Sandy Petersen
|This article first appeared in the 94 Convulsion convention programme (College Hall, Leicester, England, 22nd - 24th July 1994).|
When I first designed the game Call of Cthulhu, I was 25 years old, a feckless college student studying zoology. Today, I am 38, with five children, and a long-time professional game designer. As I look back, I see many differences between the Me-That-Is and the Me-That-Was. It has been long, cold, at times bitter, wandering through the attic of the capitalist world that moulded Me-That-Is from my forebear, yet, as through a glass dimly, I can discern fragments of the evolutionary process that spawned this peculiar entity.
I've been playing, writing, and running RPGs for almost 20 years. If there's any skill at all involved in roleplaying, I must have matured and improved over the years, if only through practice and watching my peers. If I could travel in time back to the Me-That-Was, trying desperately to produce Call of Cthulhu from the keys of the primitive typewriter I laboured over between class periods, what could I tell my embryonic self? What advice would I have for him? With regards to running and writing Call of Cthulhu, that is! (I'd have plenty of things to tell him about other matters, but they're no one's business but mine own.)
1) Pessimism is more fun. The old CoC scenarios I wrote and ran were heavily doom-laden and exceedingly tough to get through. In those days, I wrote scenarios that way because I felt players had more of a feeling of accomplishment in succeeding in a very hostile environment. Nowadays, I have learned that players don't play CoC for a feeling of accomplishment, but to experience the horror genre. Few care if their character lives or dies, so long as he does so in the right oeuvre. Today, the CoC scenarios I write and run are still heavily doom-laden and exceedingly tough to get through, but it's for an entirely different reason.
2) The background's not the thing -- THE HORROR'S THE THING. When CoC first came out, I racked my brains trying to get the right 20's feel in my scenarios. I still play many of my games in the 1920s, but only because I happen to know that time period well (as a result of writing CoC). Most good horror stories don't try to give you a sense of place at all, or if they do, it's an emotional thing (such as Stephen King's bucolic Maine villages), not a serious attempt at backdrop. That's because the important aspect of horror isn't where it's happening, but to whom it's happening. Today when I run CoC, the geographic and technological background is generally a second thought. The players ask, "Is it the 1920s or the 1980s?" and I respond, "Which would you prefer?", making the minor needed changes on the fly as we play.
3) Steal without shame. No progress can be made without building on previous edifices. Nowadays, almost all my adventures are based around some concept, scene, or imagery borrowed from a book or movie I've seen. Often, the source is nearly unrecognisable because of the alterations I've made, but if you cut away the costumes, background, and subplots, the root idea is still there.