Cthulhu Purist How-To

Graham Walmsley launched a preorder for his book Stealing Cthulhu over on Indiegogo, which is the UK version of Kickstarter. I got in on it, and just finished reading the .pdf version of the book.

I like it a lot.

It’s Graham’s ((Is it all right if I call you Graham? Thanks.)) guide to creating Lovecraftian scenarios for roleplaying games. Now, I bought it to use with Trail of Cthulhu, specifically my Armitage Files campaign, but it’s stat-free, and easily applicable to any gaming system where you want to run the types of adventures it describes. The advice is about how to build the right kind of scenario, and how to tell stories that reflect the ideas within the more purist H.P. Lovecraft stories.

This is important to understand. Stealing Cthulhu focuses on what Trail of Cthulhu calls the Purist mode of gaming. Things are bleak, horrific, deadly, and maddening, and you count it as a win if you run away successfully from the monster at the end of the story. You can’t actually win in Purist mode. You can only survive ((And often not even that.)). The stories that inspire this book are things like The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Whisperer in Darkness,  The Shadow Out of Time, At the Mountains of Madness, and, of course, The Call of Cthulhu.

Graham is a perfect person to talk about constructing this style of scenario. He’s written a quartet of Purist scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu, published by Pelgrane Press. I haven’t read them all ((Because a friend of mine is going to run a couple of them, so I’m being a good player and keeping my nose out of them.)), but the ones I have read are solid, scary, and original. So, I’m going to trust his take on the subject matter.

But you do need to know what you’re getting into. This type of scenario is not going to suit all players; some people want more heroic escapism in their games. They want a chance to defeat the bad guy and triumph. If you’re looking for advice for that type of game, while there is some applicable advice in this book, you should probably look elsewhere. This is all about the joys of going mad while being shredded by something with too many mouths and dimensions.

Now, in addition to his advice, he also passed the book around to Gareth Hanrahan, Ken Hite, and Jason Morningstar, three other folks with mad Cthulhu cred, and had them annotate it for him. So, you get Graham’s take on things, coupled with a very knowledgeable peanut gallery tossing in their opinions. It makes for a good read.

Now, in talking about a book like this, it’s hard to keep from just paraphrasing bits of advice from it, so I’m going to talk about it at a pretty high level. If you want more details, go buy the book ((If the ideas I’ve outlined above sound at all interesting, you really should just go buy the book.)).

The main advice in the book is to steal from Lovecraft, but to then twist it to make it fresh again. Now, that doesn’t sound like something you need a whole book to say, but it’s the discussion behind that simple statement that make up the meat of the book. Graham talks about what it is useful to steal – creatures, scenarios, locations, patterns, and descriptions – and how to twist them to make them seem new without sacrificing the Lovecraftian bleakness and horror of the original. To do that, he ((And his annotators, as well.)) talks a great deal about what each of the things discussed mean: what they symbolize, what makes them horrific, and how to strip them for parts. It also talks about how to work in things that gamers like but that don’t often show up in Lovecraft’s Purist stories – things like gunfights, actual mysteries and investigation, magic use, and cultists.

This section leads off the book, right after the introduction, and makes up a little less than half the page count. It is filled with examples and references, and is a thoughtful discussion of how all the moving parts of a story fit together to produce the effect you’re looking for.  Graham points out not only what works, but some common pitfalls to avoid. The tone is somewhat scholarly, which is kind of fitting for a Cthulhu resource, and is offset by the more chatty tone of the annotations ((And kudos to Graham for keeping in the stroppy, argumentative ones. I enjoyed the contrasting ideas presented, and think it ultimately reinforced your theses.)).

The next section of the book cherry-picks some of the best elements of the mythos and shows how to ring them through the changes described in the first part of the book. It’s not exhaustive ((I was sad to see Ghoul left off the list, though the reason for that is explained in the Afterword, and I accept it.)) – there are only fifteen entries – but it illustrates the ideas in the book wonderfully. More than that, you wind up with the skeletons for two or three different scenarios for each entry, ready for you to flesh out and add the stats from your favourite system.

Graham finishes off the book with three appendices: Miscellany, where he lists the notes that don’t fit anywhere else in the book; Bibliography, which again is not exhaustive but very focused; and Cthulhu Dark, his rules-light system for running Lovecraftian roleplaying games.

Final assessment? The book is very focused on producing one type of play experience. That’s not to say that it’s not useful if you don’t want to create the kind of adventure where your investigators die horribly in the ancient catacomb of a bizarre church, but that you will find less useful stuff if you’re trying to do something more heroic. I don’t think this is a bad thing, any more than I think a hammer is a bad tool because it doesn’t tighten screws well. The book sets out to do a very specific thing, and succeeds in doing it very well. But with so many games trying to encompass a multitude of play styles, it’s important to know that Stealing Cthulhu doesn’t follow that path. Buying it with the wrong expectations will lead to disappointment.

I do have one little niggle. I’m hoping the .pdf version I’ve got is going to get another editing pass before it heads to print. There are a couple of typos, and some missing or inaccurate footnote references in it that I’d like to see cleaned up. In general, though, the text is pretty clean.


I have just had a brief exchange with Graham Walmsley. He informs me that there are hidden things in the book, and the typos I have noticed may be part of that. So, it looks like my little niggle, cited above, may just be me not getting the hidden stuff. I shall have to reread with an eye to that.

Thanks, Graham!

If you like the stark, eerie horror of Purist Lovecraftian games, this is the book for you. The advice is useful, and the scenario skeletons littered throughout the text are a gold mine of ideas, assuming you don’t just lift them outright and hang some stats on them. If you want to run a Purist Lovecraft game, in any system, this book will fill you with joy and your players with dread.

Which is how it should be.