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Stealing Cthulhu

By on January 24, 2013
Stealing Cthulhu

Author/Publisher: Graham Walmsley

My name is Neil Gow and I hate two things; Call of Cthulhu and Kindles.

So when I found myself reading ‘Stealing Cthulhu’ on a Kindle, I knew the stars had aligned in a very strange way …

Stealing Cthulhu (or SC as I will call it) is an intriguing prospect. It is a book about how to run the oldest horror RPG in the world – Call of Cthulhu (CoC), using the source material the game is based upon, but with an emphasis on adding new and intriguing twists. I’m not going to presume to guess what Graham was thinking when he wrote it, but what I took away from it (and indeed, one of my major gripes about CoC) is that the genre is quite predictable and spent. You drive into a town and you see a local with slightly bulging eyes and someone is going to start the exposition about Deep Ones, their stats and their mythology. All the possible drama and horror is gone. SC seeks to use the material Lovecraft holds in his writings to reinvigorate your CoC.

There is something else you should know – Graham is not alone in his endeavour. The book is liberally annotated by RPG luminaries Kenneth Hite, Jason Morningstar and Gareth Hanrahan. These annotations add a great deal to the text, making it almost conversational in parts.

The basic idea of the book is that you can ‘steal’ material from the works of H.P.Lovecraft and either change it, emphasise a small part of it, combine it with something else or riff on it. This sounds quite obvious when you just say it like that, but for many people reading and critically digesting the works of H.P. Lovecraft might be tantamount to poking your eyes out with a rusty nail. Never fear – Graham has done an amazing academic job here of reading the stories and deconstructing them into their constituent parts. The heavy lifting has been done already.

So where does the book take you?

We start by ‘Stealing Scenarios’ looking at the structure and content of the stories. Each section is split into a general overview of the subject and then specific story ideas to steal and do with as you will. And there are dozens of these ideas, for eacha and every section. For example, in the ‘Stealing Endings’ section there are subsections on ‘The descent’,’the final horror’, ‘the escape’ and ‘the realisation’ with each section packed with ideas drawn from the stories themselves. This is a book literally jumping with inspirational ideas.

After we have dealt with ‘Scenarios’ we move onto ‘Locations’, ‘Patterns’, ‘Descriptions’, ‘Investigations’ and ‘Investigators’, all with the same methodology.

The latter two categories are particularly impressive as they directly challenge some of the core themes of CoC games. Pointing out that in the Lovecraft stories, the characters are not actually performing investigative actions, nor do they find all of the answers. The investigators themselves are far more limited than their CoC counterparts and there are some CoC skills that simply never appear in the books. Indeed, Graham points out that fights, cultists and rituals – three of the basic CoC flavours – aren’t really used in the same way as they are in the books. I liked this – a lot. It really underlined that this is not just another CoC manual, this is a game changer in all uses of the words.

The next massive section is a monster-by-monster dissection of the Cthulhu Mythos. Oh boy, this is brilliant. There are dozens of mini scenario outlines hidden within this section and it truly and honestly gives a tonne of CoC cliches a good hard kicking. I know I have said it before, but it is inspirational stuff and lays out a very clear path of how to turn even the most jaded game of CoC into something new, different and intriguing.

And then, to top it off, Graham only goes and adds in his Cthulhu Dark game – a wonderfully light yet effective Lovecraft inspired system – because he could.

This book has really hit home to me a couple of things. The first is that there is more to Lovecraftian roleplaying than Call of Cthulhu and indeed, it cements in my head that part of my problem with it could well be more the system than the content. I was blown away by the things that this book suggested you could do with the themes of the genre whilst staying true to the feeling of the books.

The second thing was the almost academic technique that was used to construct the chapters, using a sort of literary deconstruction, could be used in other places too. Stealing Tolkien? Stealing Cornwell? Stealing Howard? Stealing Moorcock? Even if you have no interest in Lovecraft, this tome is worth plundering for the pages and pages of ideas and twists it gives you!

As you can tell, I am totally taken with it. It has done the near impossible and I am wondering how I might be able to run some Coc…. no, sorry, run some Lovecraft, in the future. I would heartily recommend that anyone who is serious about bringing something new to their gaming table should have this in their arsenal.

Still don’t like Kindles though!

Rated 9.5/10 and a load of extra tentacles for Cthulhu Dark

Review by Neil Gow

The print version can be bought from thievesoftime.bigcartel.com/product/stealing-cthulhu.

You can buy this product from DriveThruRPG/RPGNow.

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5 Comments

  1. Per Fischer

    25 Jan 13 at 1:16 pm

    Kindles do suck indeed.

    Great review, thanks Neil, I agree, it also rekindled(!) my lost love for the source material.

    The appropriate title for this book is Stealing Lovecraft, and we should indeed generally talk about Lovecraft rather than Cthulhu.

    The CT game included didn’t really convince me – but I’m happy to try it! – but I guess in connection with the new Tremulus game this could be the bomb.

  2. Kevin

    25 Jan 13 at 3:23 pm

    I’m a big fan of Walmsley’s work, having bought Play Unsafe which is eye-opening, the Dying of St Margret’s and The Watchers in the Sky.

    I bought this in PDF last month, and I found the “annotations” to be annoying, spoiling it for me, and the PDF layout isn’t great for reading on a tablet.

    I ordered the hardback version, which arrived this morning, and I was disappointed to find that it also has the same annotations, which make it really hard to read, they’d have been better as footnotes or something, I don’t doubt their value, coming from real Cthulhu Roleplaying luminaries, just the presentation of them.

    I’ll give it another go reading it, but I have to say I find the scrawls really distracting, which is a shame, because what I’ve read before I give up (around page 9) looks good…oh well, the epub has a non-annotated version…

    At least Graham’s working on something new according to his twitter, hopefully it’ll be a bit more readable…

  3. Graham

    26 Jan 13 at 7:14 pm

    I love the annotations. I’d never change them. I’m really proud of the way it looks.

    And, certainly, some people buy the book just for the way it looks. With those gorgeous annotations.

    Ah well.

  4. Omnifray Matt

    22 Feb 13 at 12:35 am

    I’m planning on getting a copy of this as soon as I actually have the time to read anything – which is a few months away but I’m already keen. Neil’s review has me quite excited at the thought that I can find everything I need, flavour-wise, neatly packaged for me in a convenient location. Will I be able to adapt the material in this book to help run a game with a Cthulhuesque mythos that isn’t actual Lovecraft but just similar in flavour?

  5. TheTurnipKing

    8 Apr 13 at 5:36 pm

    >You drive into a town and you see a local with slightly bulging eyes and someone is going to start the exposition about Deep Ones, their stats and their mythology.
    I think the most important thing to take from that critique of Call of Cthulhu is NOT TO USE LOVECRAFT’S MONSTERS. Or at least, don’t ONLY use them.

    As soon as you’re using something like a Deep One or a Cthonian, you’ve given a name to the unnameable horror and the spell is broken. Do what Lovecraft did and roll your own.

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