How many experience points for existential dread?

It was summer break, 1988 Hesperia California. I was 16 years old. We had just returned to my friend Jason’s house from the mall after purchasing the brand new Metallica album, “…And Justice for All”. Listening to the cassette in his room and analyzing the finer points of their discography, the conversation turned to the “Ride the Lightning” album, and an epic instrumental track, “The Call of Ktulu”.

I hadn’t given the song in question much thought, it was a sweeping orchestration piece that held little to interest the mind of an average 16 year old metal fan. But that’s when Jason told me something that I didn’t know, something that would literally change my life in a very dramatic way from that moment forward.

It was based on a book.

I was already an avid reader of horror, sci-fi and fantasy by that time, yet somehow I’d not yet come across this odd pulp writer from the 1920’s and 30’s who, as it turns out was a profound influence on many of my favorite authors of the time. Jason reached over to his bookshelf and pulled from a stack of King paperbacks, Fangoria magazines and comic books, a beat up paperback book with a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories.

The cover art was a collage of skulls and horror scenery, and obviously the reason Jason had bought it in the first place. The audacious title was the second thing that caught my eye, “The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre”. I was sold. While we listened to the rest of the album I found the shortest story on the table of contents “the Outsider”, and read it straight through. I asked Jason if I could borrow the book and then quickly headed home.

That night I devoured the book from cover to cover. Tales of genealogical horrors like “the Rats in the Walls” or “the Shadow Over Innsmouth”, the intergalactic nightmare of “the Colour Out of Space” and the epic nautical occult mystery that inspired Cliff Burton and Kirk Hammett. Dreams of tentacles and forbidden knowledge haunted my sleep for weeks.

cthulhu gif  Some time later, after making a point to acquire any Lovecraft writings I could my hands on, I had the opportunity to visit some old friends in Rialto. These had been my regular gaming friends who’d explored realms of Sci Fi and Fantasy with me for years, some of whom had considerably more resources and access to RPG game stores than I.

I mentioned my new find with the excitement of an explorer describing some terra incognito. Imagine my dismay to find that I was apparently the only person on the planet that hadn’t already heard of Lovecraft. I was also informed that there was an RPG based on his works, and they handed me the brand new 4th edition Call of Cthulhu role playing game by Chaosium.

I asked if they had played it yet, and they explained that they hadn’t yet because no one wanted to run it for various reasons. I was also told all the rumors they’d heard about the game, and the assumptions they’d made based on quick readings of the rules book. “There’s no point” they said. “Your character just ends up insane or dead” they complained. “You can’t possibly ever defeat the ‘gods’”.

Just like real life

See, the thing we were missing was, the game perfectly captured the very nature of the source material. The universe is a vast and uncaring void, and your presence, or lack there of, is entirely inconsequential. This obviously didn’t appeal as a roleplaying game to us at the time, because, well, we’d been H._P._Lovecraft,_June_1934running around fantasy lands killing beasts and acquiring gold for so long that we could imagine any other way to do it.
I eventually volunteered to run it and it quickly became my favorite game. I ran Call of Cthulhu for anyone I could get to sit still long enough. In fact in all this time I’ve only actually played this game a handful of times as a result.

27 years later, on Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s 125th birthday and I have a bookshelf full of horror novels by Lovecraft and his devotees like Lumley and Bloch, Call of Cthulhu game supplements from victorian era to modern day government conspiracy versions of the game and a tattoo of the great old one Cthulhu’s tentacled visage, stretching the length of my entire left arm.