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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.