Friday, May 8, 2020

a memory about Cthulhu Dark Ages

In 1998 I was well into grad school and no longer gaming, but my gaming days were not very far behind me. I did not realize then that I would be done with the hobby for a few decades.

One of the games I had run most was Call of Cthulhu. I had a nearly comprehensive collection of the CoC books published by Chaosium, not to mention some others by other companies, up until that time. For the most part, the scenarios published by Chaosium were excellent and worked well in actual play.

One idea that one of my close gamer friends and I had kicked around in the early '90s was a new horror game set not long after the disintegration of the Roman Empire. Besides university life and the tumults of young adulthood, we had other games going, including Call of Cthulhu, so the motivation was not there to develop it, but I had started hand-written notes about a new system and setting-appropriate character types.

Eventually I abandoned the idea of an original system and imagined setting Call of Cthulhu in the early Middle Ages. This was a period that several of us studied in depth. I had spent a lot of time on the period in my formal studies. Between Runequest, the Basic Roleplaying mechanics, and CoC, it would be simple to realize rules such a game.

The fun part would be to bridge the exciting historical period and the Lovecraftian mythos, which my friends and I had all learned from the Arkham House hardback editions since our teen years. I imagined bearded warriors in mail with swords and axes dreading to face ghouls in creepy monasteries or Mi-Go haunting ruined Roman temples or a shoggoth in the Roman catacombs. Literacy itself would be a major investigative skill. I imagined a campaign about the origin of the Necronomicon itself and a direct encounter with the Mad Arab.

My ongoing graduate studies fueled my ideas further. A visit back home, again, I think winter 1998-99, led to a one-shot session along just these lines. It was the last game I ran for my last band of players, and I was rusty for not having touched RPGs for a few years. But I was excited to connect my research with my erstwhile constant hobby. In the wake of this, I conceived a concrete idea for an Early Medieval Call of Cthulhu supplement.

From my university e-mail address, I wrote an e-mail to Lynn Willis at Chaosium, who oversaw the Call of Cthulhu line. I pitched to him a game book supplement for Call of Cthulhu in the early Middle Ages, the "Dark Ages." I thought I had the historical knowledge, the ideas, and the gaming experience to pull it off.

I had never contacted a game company to propose a project before, but this was one I was finally excited about enough to act. I had never interacted with anybody from Chaosium before, either, except once I exchanged a few words with Greg Stafford at a GenCon. (At the time of my correspondence, Stafford had just left Chaosium to develop Issaries, Inc.)

Willis did respond to me shortly. He flatly stated that there was no market for a game of this kind. He said it was too much of a niche interest.

In 2003 they published Cthulhu Dark Ages. As I write, the third edition of the book has recently come out.

I have never read a copy in any edition, but it is clear from the blurbs that they put their Dark Age setting somewhat later in the timeline than mine would have been, and theirs seems to be much more about Europe than I would have made it.

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