Interview by Brian Holland.
Cults of Cthulhu is the hottest upcoming release for Chaosium’s world-renown horror role-playing game, Call of Cthulhu.
Despite the ever-present threat of the titular Great Old One, not much is known about Cthulhu and those who worship it – that is, outside of their desire to see the tentacle-maw of their god consume all of humanity.
I sat down to talk with Mike Mason (shown right), line editor for Call of Cthulhu here at Chaosium, about the upcoming title, and why now is the best time to release a book exploring the secrets of the seminal Cthulhu cult.
“The book’s concept had been in my mind for some years.” Mike told me. “Notably, in a game called Call of Cthulhu, there’s few opportunities to interact with Cthulhu and its minions - in terms of previously published scenarios.
“Much of the time, authors tend to focus on anyone but Cthulhu!” Mike laughs. “Or, when it does crop up, it is focused on the Deep Ones. Given how the Cthulhu Cult is presented in Lovecraft’s seminal "The Call of Cthulhu" story, it seemed to me that there was unplumbed depths to the cult that could be realized in game.”
Humans make great opponents
If you’ve spent any time playing or running games of Call of Cthulhu, you’ll know that eldritch beasts from beyond space and time have a tendency to bend and break the minds of player characters. One thing that can sometimes be forgotten are the (very human) forces that allow these monsters to roam free.
“Humans make great opponents,” Mike said. “We understand humans far better than eldritch horrors, so there’s more room to work with when creating plots.
“With the idea in mind, I approached Chris Lackey, who is well known as being a co-host on the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, and asked if he would like to work on a book about the Cthulhu Cult - looking at the human side of Cthulhu worship.
“Chris jumped at the chance and we developed the book together.”
An air of mystery
An old adage in the horror genre is that things remain scary the less you know about them. I was initially apprehensive about the idea of having the secrets of the Cthulhu cult revealed to me. I asked Mike if the book still allowed for an air of mystery and unknown terror to cling to the cultists of Cthulhu.
“There is no canon in Lovecraft’s Mythos stories,” he said, “and not much of one developed by the writers in his circle or those who came later. This is also true in the game. While certain aspects of the Mythos are codified in terms of presentation, these are sometimes deliberately vague or contradictory, as we want each Keeper and group to tell their own Mythos stories.
“Thus, what is presented in the book is mutable and each Keeper can use and take from it as they need.” Mike assured me. “Some Keepers want a ready-made cult to drop into their games, while others will use the material as inspiration for villains of their own design, taking what they like and discarding the rest.
“We go to some length in the book to advise Keepers that what Cthulhu ‘dreams’ may not be the same as what the cultists ‘hear.’” Mike said. “There is much room for interpretation and this ensures no one is confined when it comes to their own games and how they wish to portray Cthulhu’s minions.
“Another important factor is this - understanding the motivations of alien beings is difficult, their alienness makes little sense to human minds.” Mike explained. “Whereas human cultists are human! With understandable motivations, weaknesses, and personalities, which makes them easier to present and easier to develop plots about them.
“While the cults presented have their secrets revealed in the book, these are just that cult’s secrets. There is plenty of room for more secrets and we encourage Keepers to build on these to flesh out more mysteries.”
Cults of Cthulhu isn’t all history and world-building, either. The book contains new mechanics that you can use across any of your Call of Cthulhu games, as Mike explained to me.
“In helping to add further character to cultists, I wrote about Cthulhu’s Blessings, which are special powers or abilities that can be bestowed on Cthulhu’s favored followers.” He said. “There’s a range of these in the book, allowing Keepers to further tailor their villainous character concepts and flesh them out to make them suitable foes for investigators.
“Along with Cthulhu’s Blessings, Chris developed some new monsters, allied to Cthulhu, which we hope will surprise, delight, and scare investigators!”
Five complete Cthulhu Cults
One of the main draw cards for die-hard Mythos fans is the five complete Cthulhu cults on display on Cults of Cthulhu. Each one offers in-depth backstory, motivations, and positions for the cult, serving as both plug-and-play antagonists, and seeds of scenarios of your own design.
While we couldn’t cover the details for all five in a single interview, I asked Mike which of the five was his favourite.
“It’s hard to choose between them,” he said, “as each offers a different tone of play. We have the classic Esoteric Order of Dagon, but also newly created cults, like the Society of the Angelic Ones, which is located in California. I’m fond of the latter, as at its heart is a great villainous cult leader, who is very human and who possesses human weaknesses.
“Chris did the initial work on describing and creating the cults.” Mike told me, “as each is located in a different era, he adapted them to fit the milieu of the period, whether it be a secretive ‘gentlemen’s’ club in the heart of Victorian London, full of upper class types devoting their time to magical experimentation, or a modern-day cult using marketing and technology to recruit new members.
“The idea was to build the cults so they ‘fit’ the time period they are operating in.”
New rules for creating your very own Cthulhu Cult
Cults of Cthulhu isn’t just a book about existing cults and their motivations. One of the most exciting things about the upcoming release is the new rules for creating your very own cult!
“The chapter on designing a cult is a toolkit to help Keepers think about different types of human cults and how they influence the style and tone of the game.” Mike said. “There’s lots of questions and ideas, from considering who runs the cult and its goals, right down to how it’s financed and where the 'weak links’ are in the cult, and who makes up its lower ranks.
“We also discuss things like artifacts, spells, and also how a cult interprets the ‘messages’ from Cthulhu - are they really getting directions from Cthulhu or vague impressions that they are translating into action?”
For those of you who are keen to expand the building of nefarious mortal antagonists into the realm of the other Mythos deities - Mike has good news! “The information in the book, while focusing on Cthulhu cultists, is easily adaptable for the cultists of other Great Old Ones and Outer Gods.” He said.
Three scenario across different period settings
If you’re the kind of Keeper who is always looking for new scenarios to inject into your ongoing campaigns, or perhaps to use as a one-shot this Halloween, Cults of Cthulhu contains three full scenarios.
Unlike many releases for Call of Cthulhu, however, the scenarios in Cults of Cthulhu all have different period settings!
“Given the insidious nature of Cthulhu cults,” Mike told me, “I wanted to present the cults in different time periods, which also meant the book could be additionally useful for Gaslight, the classic 1920s, and modern-day eras, which are three of the most prominent settings in the game.
“Each scenario can be played standalone or be incorporated into a group’s own campaign. Additionally, the way the scenarios are set up, they can each be used to start a new campaign, where the cult in question becomes a long-running foe for the investigators. The idea was to make [the scenarios] as versatile as possible.
“Some groups, however,” Mike went on, “might like to play all three as a sort of campaign - unconnected in terms of the investigators (no time jumping, just using different sets of investigators). For this, we added a small ‘thing’ that loosely connects the three - it’s more of an Easter egg that the investigators can discover as they play through.”
- Brian Holland
Cults of Cthulhu releases as a 368 page PDF worldwide on October 31st. When purchasing direct from Chaosium.com you’ll receive a coupon for the full cost of the PDF off the price of the hardcover physical book when it releases in early 2022.