Call of the Cults

Cults of Cthulhu is an expansive new Call of Cthulhu supplement spanning over 300 pages, penned mostly by Chris Lackey and Mike Mason. A referee-facing book, it’s a deep dive into the titular subject matter, offering an extensive discussion of the role cults play in Call of Cthulhu, how to design sects for your own games, and some extensive worked examples, as well as offering a brace of scenarios making use of some of the groups detailed in the book.

It’s worth emphasising that the title really isn’t kidding: this is a book about cults of Cthulhu – not Yog-Sothoth, not Shub-Niggurath, not Nyarlathotep, not the King In Yellow, but the big blobby squiddyfriend itself. The “cults throughout history” section, giving brief glimpses of sects ranging from Roman or medieval times to the present day and including fictionalised takes of classic “cult true crime” outfits like the People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Scientology, is a series of Cthulhu cults through history. The five cults given extensive deep dive coverage, ranging from the 1890s to the modern era, are all Cthulhu cults – three are new to this book (and are each the subject of one of the three scenarios here), and then there’s also treatments of the Louisiana swamp cult from The Call of Cthulhu and the Esoteric Order of Dagon from The Shadow Over Innsmouth which do a good job of teasing out the horror whilst dialling back the racist implications as much as is possible with Lovecraft’s original material. (The idea that the Cthulhu cult is directed by immortal Fu Manchu-esque manipulators, for example, is explained away by the character of Castro in The Call of Cthulhu having been recruited in China and assuming all the leaders were similar to the leader he met there.) The examples given in the build-your-own-cult chapter are all of Cthulhu cults, and the spells, creatures, items, and generic NPC stats offered in the system toolkit chapter are all for Cthulhu cults.

If you think Cthulhu is absolutely rubbish and overplayed and are only interested in running Call of Cthulhu games focusing on other entities, that may be disappointing, but even in that instance I still think the book is of potential use. In particular, many of the issues raised in the build-your-own-cult chapter are just as applicable to other cults as to Cthulhu sects, and the examples given in the rest of the book of how to make a cult feel appropriately Cthulhu-y point to ways in which you could do the same for other Mythos entities with suitable aesthetic tweaks and distinctive, entity-specific features. The 7th Edition update of the Malleus Monstrorum would be particularly useful in conjunction in this book, because it not only offers ideas on the types of cults that accrue around particular Great Old Ones or Elder Gods, but also presents example “blessings” given to followers by those deities – a concept this book runs with hard for Cthulhu’s purposes. Take the design-a-cult chapter here, cross-reference with the Malleus Monstrorum entry for the deity in question, and you’re in business.

Moreover, the book goes a long way towards making Cthulhu himself horrifying again. Cults in general are a good thing to focus on in Call of Cthulhu – it means you have human-scale opponents which the player characters can tangle with more viably than almost all Mythos monsters – and cults specifically have a strong association with Cthulhu. Lovecraft wrote two entire stories in which Cthulhu cults were explicitly a major deal (more, if you note that the antagonist in The Thing On the Doorstep is almost certainly allied with the Esoteric Order of Dagon), whereas characters interacting with Yog-Sothoth (as in The Dunwich Horror or The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) tend to be lone wizards, and other entities don’t seem to have much of a specific cult at all. (Nobody seems to be specifically keen on the worship of Azathoth, say.)

Moreover, when it comes to Cthulhu, he’s got these five major distinctive characteristics once you set aside the “octopus-dragon-humanoid” look he’s got going on:

  1. One day he’ll wake up and destroy the world.
  2. Someone bopped him on the head with a boat once.
  3. He spends lots of time sleeping, and specifically dreaming.
  4. He exerts an invisible psychic influence over humanity via his dreams.
  5. These dreams inspire his various cults.

The first of those things is the sort of thing which can happen exactly once in a campaign (and will likely end it), the second is faintly ridiculous, the third is rather passive; and the fourth offers some grist for the mill, but can feel a bit arbitrary if pointed at the PCs directly. That fifth point, though? That’s where the most promising seam of material is when it comes to mining the Cthulhu idea for game-worthy scenarios. Having R’lyeh rise and Cthulhu wake up from his aeons-old sleep might be the flashy, apocalyptic culmination of a campaign, but Shadows of Yog-Sothoth tried it and it didn’t work as far as being a fun scenario worthy of table time goes, and once you’ve gone there, there’s really little way to escalate further.

Cults, though, can crop up over and over again in a Call of Cthulhu game; powerful, well-established cults can be a recurring adversary, whilst disrupting and shutting down a small cult is a nice way to give the players a sense that the PCs have achieved something without making them feel like they can be complacent – particularly if it just takes one person to dream the wrong dream for the horror to come back again, which is the particularly horrifying thing about Cthulhu. The section giving potted overviews of Cthulhu cults through history in this book does a great job of getting this point across, presenting the worship of Cthulhu as a malignancy which can crop up in any culture (thanks to Cthulhu’s dreams being global in their reach) and at any time (because everyone dreams).

In addition, though Lovecraft never exactly offers a deep dive on the internal logistics of the cults he depicts, he says enough about them to give Lackey and Mason fodder to work with. The passing mention in The Call of Cthulhu of “deathless Chinamen” running the cult is latched onto, the “Chinamen” bit is dialled back (perhaps one or more such leader came from China, but they most likely can come from anywhere), and guidance on developing immortal agents of Cthulhu playing the long game are offered up, for example. Producing a more generic cult design book would have meant dialling back on examining the specifics to this degree, and that would have likely produced something less useful all round as a result.

So much for the sourcebook section: what of the adventures? For the most part, they’re fairly good – the first one is a bit too fond of leaning on the players to get to a particular climactic scene, but would be a pretty decent Gaslight-era adventure with a few tweaks to shift away from that, and the others are admirably broad in terms of how they can accommodate player action.

One thing I did notice was explicit tagging of information as “obvious” or “obscure” – the former being details you can get without needing a skill roll, the latter likely needing a skill roll to obtain. This is an approach which has been right there in 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu‘s core book for ages but which adventure materials have been a bit hit-and-miss about picking up on. This strikes me as a more elegant solution than GUMSHOE‘s “investigative skills automatically succeed” approach (as used in Trail of Cthulhu), which is often a bit of a blunt instrument, and shows a good understanding that so long as the player characters have sufficient information to keep the scenario moving an interesting direction, it doesn’t particularly matter which direction the scenario is moving in. GUMSHOE, by contrast, has taken to saying that you need to give the players sufficient information to get them to “the next scene”, a phrasing predicated on the assumption that you have a strong opinion of what the next scene should be.

In addition, GUMSHOE‘s approach tends to assume that the scenario can only progress as a result of PC action, whereas the scenarios here often involve NPCs who can be used to proactively move things along as necessary. This isn’t as railroady as it might be because generally speaking, player characters will be in a better position if they have successfully gathered and interpreted clues and are in a position to proactively take action; if they are dependent on others to help or have otherwise been pushed into a reactive position, that’s disadvantageous to them, and means that they might be getting dragged in over their heads, which is exactly the sort of disquieting situation which a horror game can thrive on. Moreover, any one of the scenarios can viably be just the start of a longer-term campaign against the cult, since “the PCs survive but so does the cult” is a likely outcome of all of them, but the specifics of how the PCs survive, what damage has been done to the cult, and what the logical next step is will likely vary a lot.

Perhaps the best thing this supplement illustrates is that if you have a cult which is proactively chasing an agenda, you don’t necessarily have to have a railroad laid out to begin with: if you’re stuck for what happens next and the PCs aren’t proactively chasing something, think “what does the cult do next?”, if the PCs are chasing off in some direction and you aren’t sure what to do about that think “what does the cult do about this?” Cults are great for the sort of “narrative sandbox” approach which John Tynes has talked about; indeed, as a book giving in-depth profiles on antagonist organisations, the book’s approach has points in common with the original Delta Green supplement series or the Labyrinth release for the current version of Delta Green. (Hell, they even follow the original supplement’s lead in providing a cult which is a spoof of Scientology.)

Indeed, in some respects the book is also useful for Delta Green – pretty much any Call of Cthulhu release is, but this one could be particularly handy for the purpose of designing enemy factions – and could potentially be useful in a wide range of horror or investigative RPGs, much as the AD&D Complete Book of Villains is a generically handy set of thoughts on NPC design or GURPS Illuminati is useful for any conspiracy-themed game. Either way, it’s one of the most substantive supplements released for the game for a good while, and heartily recommended for all referees.

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