Albany, California: Chaosium, Inc., 1984–2010: in four editions
Masks of Nyarlathotep, the legendary role-playing game campaign (legendary within the Call of Cthulhu gaming community, anyway), celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last year. First published in 1984, the revised third edition won the 1996 Origins Award for Best Role-Playing Adventure. This campaign—a series of linked adventures that are all part of one overarching plot—raised the bar for what an RPG campaign could be. It was and remains important because of this and is still a model for RPG authors and game masters. It is not without flaws, and it is definitely a product of its time; however, it is finely crafted and well researched, given that it needed to be done in one draft without the benefit of the Internet (barefoot and uphill both ways, et cetera). It also demonstrated that one can indeed have an exciting game set not in a purely imaginary world or in a vaguely Tolkienesque magical medieval world but in the “real” world, albeit a world where Lovecraft’s stories are true.
Call of Cthulhu (CoC) was not, of course, the first published roleplaying game; that was Dungeons and Dragons. Nor was Call of Cthulhu the first RPG set in more-or-less our world (Top Secret, the espionage game by Merle Rasmussen, slightly preceded it). However, CoC was almost certainly the first RPG where it was explicitly acceptable to fail. Playing ordinary people against horrors too great for the mind to comprehend is a far, far cry from playing characters in the typical fantasy world setting of the day. (We shall skip lightly over Traveller, an sf RPG where player characters could die before the end of character creation.) And it used a specific fictional setting: Lovecraft’s tales, rather than, say, the generic western frontier setting of Boot Hill.
Where Dungeons and Dragons grew out of the war game Chainmail and slowly created a framework for roleplaying games, Call of Cthulhu grew out of that framework and could build upon it and other early RPGs. Specifically, it was built from RuneQuest, which was set in Greg Stafford’s magical world of Glorantha, and, like Call of Cthulhu, published by Chaosium.
Play of Dungeons and Dragons is built around a system of character classes, levels, and experience points. That is, players of Dungeons and Dragons would decide whether their characters were one of a small number of archetypical roles—warriors, wizards, priests, thieves. Their characters would gain points as they went on adventures, killing monsters, and gathering treasure. When they had enough experience points, they would reach the next level, which meant that the characters would get extra abilities.
Call of Cthulhu, by contrast, used a somewhat streamlined version of the rules for RuneQuest, which dispensed with the idea of levels and classes. Instead, CoC has Professions, defined by and suggesting what skills one takes. Players have two pools of points—one for the professional skills and one for anything else as it is assumed that the player characters (“PCs”) do things outside of work. (NB: “Hobo” is a Profession here, as are “Biker” and “Dilettante.”)
As in Dungeons and Dragons, one of the players of Call of Cthulhu is in charge of running the game. The current general term for this kind of player is gamemaster (GM), although in Call of Cthulhu, the GM is often referred to as the Keeper of Arcane Lore, or “Keeper” for short. Some gamemasters run adventures they create themselves, some purchase commercial adventures, and some do both.
However, early RPGs had (and in some groups still have) one player known as the Caller, a player who is the one who tells the GM when a decision has been made. This tactical clarity is optional in Call of Cthulhu; indeed, the example of play in the Call of Cthulhu rulebook ends with the characters in complete chaotic disarray, their only light source rolling on the ground, and the players all talking simultaneously, asking questions, and having their characters react with fear and panic.
Short adventures, also called scenarios, for Call of Cthulhu were less about finding treasure and killing monsters (although some scenarios did shower surviving PCs with books of arcane lore) and more about thwarting the plans of worshippers of the Outer Gods and Great Old Ones of the Cthulhu Mythos. Masks of Nyarlathotep was originally intended to be a scenario, but it grew to become a campaign.
Masks of Nyarlathotep is a global campaign running from 1925–26, with high stakes, pulp action, and lovely handouts. It gives players great agency. It presents several countries and cultures, and the occasional person from real history who was or would become a great mover and shaker. A “campaign” generally means one of two things. It can refer to a roleplaying game intended to run for a long period of time. This kind of campaign is generally made up of unrelated scenarios, a new one beginning as an old one ends. But “campaign” can also refer to a single long adventure that takes many game sessions to finish or to a series of closely linked adventures.
The first published campaigns of the latter type were, of course, for Dungeons and Dragons. At the time Masks of Nyarlathotep was first published, there was a seven-part campaign for Dungeons and Dragons that was the standard of what a roleplaying campaign could be. Originally published from 1978–80, this campaign was first sold as seven separate commercial adventures, each of which would take at least a day or a night of play, possibly several. It was later published as two omnibuses of three adventures each with the final adventure published separately, and eventually, as one commercially published campaign (the Queen of the Spiders “supermodule”) containing all seven adventures. The first three each took a group of player characters in the fantasy world of the game to a different castle of giants. The PCs had to overcome the inhabitants of each castle in turn and learn about the next. At the third castle, they would find an opening to the underworld, the subject of the next trio of adventures.
The first two of this latter underworld trio were fairly simple, defeat-the-next-menace adventures while the third let the PCs wander as they would through a vast underground city. This kind of scenario design is now known as a “sandbox.” Within the borders of the setting (the sandbox), there are few, if any, limits on where the PCs can go and what they can do, in contrast to a “railroad,” where the PCs are expected to go through events and encounters in a set order as if on a train on railroad tracks. Despite the sandbox aspects of some parts such as the city, the player characters had the straightforward goal of finding out what evil was being plotted and stopping it, generally by killing its perpetrators. At some point, the PCs would presumably find their way out of the sandbox of the sixth scenario to another plane of existence, the setting of the final adventure where their foe was no less than a goddess.
In contrast to adventures about finding and killing enemies, there were more exploratory adventures both in Dungeons and Dragons and in other games like RuneQuest; in the latter game, the world of Glorantha is one of the major features, an extremely detailed fantasy world where much of the fun is in exploring the setting.
But Call of Cthulhu was not generally about exploration, except perhaps in a minor adventure or two set in Lovecraft’s fantastical Dreamlands. Even there, however, adventures or scenarios usually focused not on open-ended exploration but rather on investigation into the strange and horrific truths of the Lovecraftian cosmos. Indeed, the PCs of Call of Cthulhu are formally referred to as “Investigators.” Most CoC adventures, whether single session or multi-adventure campaigns, involve the Investigators trying to find out what horrors are going on and put a stop to them. Masks of Nyarlathotep is about a race against time to defeat Nyarlathotep’s plot to bring the Outer Gods to Earth, fully manifest. However, the investigators don’t start off knowing that this is the situation.
Masks of Nyarlathotep was not the first Call of Cthulhu campaign. That honor belongs to Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, a fairly linear campaign where the individual scenarios do not always fit well into the framework. Others of varying quality followed from Chaosium and from third parties such as Theatre of the Mind’s Eye (tome). However, until Masks of Nyarlathotep, all of these campaigns assumed that the PCs would follow a set path, going from the first scene to the second to the third, and so on until they reached the end and/or went irrevocably insane, or died. Without the common resurrection spells of D&D, players got used to rolling up new CoC PCs—or GMs figured out how to keep the PCs alive and sane.
What Masks of Nyarlathotep created was a structure where, after the initial premise and adventure, the PCs were free to go to any of the locations in the campaign—London, Cairo, Kenya, Shanghai, and in later editions Australia—in any order. They could retrace their steps and revisit locations.
In other words, Masks of Nyarlathotep avoids the classical railroad structure, but it also isn’t using the sandbox structure, where the PCs can go anywhere and do anything. Technically, that’s possible in Masks, but they won’t find the plot anywhere in the world they go, just in the locations detailed.
Dungeons and Dragons, as well as other fantasy RPGs, have an oft-mocked, overused cliché beginning: “You all meet in a tavern....” From this meeting, the group is sent on a quest, whether that involves finding and fighting a dragon or going into an underground complex (the dungeon), killing the inhabitants, and taking whatever loot is available.
For Call of Cthulhu, the replacement cliché is that someone contacts the player characters with a mystery, and they learn about the Mythos as they solve the mystery. Often, a friend or relative is the one coming to the investigators for help. This is how Masks of Nyarlathotep starts.
The premise of Masks of Nyarlathotep is that the player characters are a group brought together to help a writer, Jackson Elias, investigate the true fate of the disastrous (fictional) Carlyle Expedition to East Africa. At least one of the PCs is Elias’s friend. It says so in a handout that player gets, informing the player that if someone were to, oh, murder Elias, his or her character would want vengeance.
If you’re thinking that this bodes ill for Jackson Elias, you’re right. As the astute reader has no doubt guessed, Elias is dead by the time the PCs find him. Vengeance must be had, and the key lies in the mystery Elias was trying to solve: the ultimate fate of the Carlyle Expedition, believed massacred in Kenya in 1919. The investigators need to gather clues, starting with the ones in Elias’s hotel room, figure out what Elias was investigating, find out what needs to be done, and do it. Even the initial clues point to locations all over the world—London, Cairo, Kenya, Australia, and Shanghai. However, investigators must survive events in New York City first.
Except for New York City, the campaign locations may be visited in any order, and it is possible for the PCs to return to a previous location. (In theory, the group could split up and tackle multiple cities or countries, but in practice this is not the best idea.) Within each location, the PCs are free to do as they wish: there is no set order of scenes. There are clues pointing to useful places and people to investigate, but it is up to the players to decide on order and approach.
In addition to allowing a previously unprecedented level of freedom, Masks of Nyarlathotep also organized information differently than previous Call of Cthulhu scenarios and campaigns. As Call of Cthulhu is, in part, about solving mysteries, Keepers need to understand where the clues are, what the clues are, and where the clues lead. Masks organized this information in a chart at the beginning of each chapter. (And, originally, the chapters were all separate booklets with a map on the front of each.)
These two things are probably the innovations for which Masks of Nyarlathotep is most known and praised. These are the things other ambitious authors have tried to draw on for their own campaigns. The ones that seem most successful in this are actually not Call of Cthulhu campaigns at all. One is a Trail of Cthulhu campaign, set in the 1930s and using Robin Laws’s gumshoe system, the recently released Eternal Lies. The other is for another gumshoe game, Night’s Black Agents (think The Bourne Project, but with vampires, and not the nice kind either), and is called The Zalozhniy Quartet. Eternal Lies has a fixed start point and, unlike Masks, a theoretical end point, but everything in between can be done in any order. The Zalozhniy Quartet has neither a set start point nor a set end point. Its four adventures can be tackled in any order although returning to a previous scene is a dubious proposition at best. The authors of both Eternal Lies and The Zalozhniy Quartet have made it clear that they were inspired by Masks of Nyarlathotep.
As a mystery game, Call of Cthulhu encourages game masters to create physical clues. It may not have been the first game to provide physical props to players, but it quickly became known for doing this regularly. Usually, these were printed on ordinary paper at the back of the campaign or scenario book for easy copying and use. The clues take the form of mocked-up newspaper articles, journal entries, and the like. Remember, this was before the Internet made mocking up a newspaper trivially easy. Call of Cthulhu has always been known for its handouts.
Masks of Nyarlathotep raised the bar with a simple prop: a matchbox cover. Keepers were encouraged to paste it (or a copy of it) over an actual matchbox and hand it to players as a clue found in Elias’s hotel room in New York City, one which led to a bar in Shanghai. As a long time Call of Cthulhu player, I can assure you that even something as small as this is goes far to make the game seem awesome—you’re handing me an actual prop? A real matchbox, with real matches that I can light on that box? I am in geek heaven. I gave my players this matchbox when I first ran the campaign. I kept it afterwards, and I still have it. I gave it to a new set of players when I ran the game again, after Lonestarcon (the 2013 WorldCon).
I have seen pictures of the player handouts for the French edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep, and they make me drool with envy. The French edition goes above and beyond what I would consider the call of duty, creating page after page of ledger entries where the American edition is content to give the game master a summary of what the players and their characters are expected to learn from those ledger pages. Alas, the handout is in French, a language I am not sure my players can read. (Nor is it a language these particular imaginary originals would be written in, although I believe there is at least one French tome that might be discovered during the campaign.)
The campaign also did a good job of considering the scope of a world-wide conspiracy and what that meant to the PCs trying to thwart it. It also set the bar for carefully researched, real-world historical settings, walking a fine line between making a setting feel like a painted backdrop and making everyone’s eyes glaze over with a mountain of information. For instance, it introduces Jomo Kenyatta (at the time using the name Johnstone Kenyatta) as an NPC (non-player character, i.e., a character played by the game master). I am not sure that Call of Cthulhu had used a real-world person as a character before.
Masks wasn’t perfect, and over the years, those who have run the campaign have discussed its various flaws and how to address them. This dialogue, spanning years and continents, resulted in the creation of the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, a 570+-page labor of love by fans of the campaign, which discusses several errors its portrayal of the world of 1925. Nevertheless, Masks of Nyarlathotep showed people what could be accomplished and how an appropriate amount of historical accuracy could enrich the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying experience. I don’t think we would have gotten the Invictus or Gaslight settings—Call of Cthulhu set in the Roman Empire and the Victorian Era, respectively—without Masks of Nyarlathotep.
While one of the features of Call of Cthulhu is that it allows for player character death that cannot be reversed, Masks of Nyarlathotep is considered to be a particular “meat grinder”—that is, it has a high mortality rate among PCs. To compensate for this, one Keeper told his players that they should each create a source for more investigators—a secret order, a big family, an investigative agency, whatever—so the players wouldn’t be reduced to recruiting as a replacement the busboy in the restaurant where the most recent PC death occurred.
An additional method of dealing with this, recommended by the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, is to have an NPC with the group who can be played by anyone whose PC died mid-session until a logical replacement can be found or created. The Companion presents 18 characters who might be used as replacement characters on a temporary or permanent basis. Another method is to make judicious changes to both the physical and the mental hazards faced by the PCs. The Companion discusses toning down the lethality in some scenes, and I have had discussions with gamers online about the changes they have made to remove logical but problematic instakill situations.
At the same time, Masks of Nyarlathotep has a very pulp feel to it despite the high lethality rate. This plays better to most gamers, but it does mean that the campaign feels less like “The Call of Cthulhu” or “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and more like the Indiana Jones movies.
There are also certain issues with the content of Masks of Nyarlathotep. These range from simple factual errors to being dated. I’m not talking about being historically 1920s dated but about being historically 1980s dated. This includes some crappy roles for NPC women compared to NPC men (which annoyed me but was hardly a deal breaker) and lots of rapey stuff (which didn’t faze me in the slightest when I first read the campaign) which, as was pointed out in an online forum, is not exactly Lovecraftian. The horror of humans breeding with Creatures from Beyond in his stories is that the humans are willing participants, not helpless victims.
Further, there is no recognition of homosexuality, let alone bisexuality. There’s an acknowledgement of the role race plays up to a point as the text seems to assume that the starting PCs will be white. And, it is also assumed that the vast majority of nonwhite characters who know anything about the global conspiracy are either cultists themselves or are too terrified to do anything about them. Even the wisest NPCs generally choose to confide in the PCs rather than in their own circle of friends and acquaintances. To a certain degree, that is inevitable since the player characters are supposed to be the protagonists, but it is worth being aware of the assumptions the authors made.
Also, while Masks of Nyarlathotep gives much more guidance to the Keeper than previous Call of Cthulhu material, there’s still enough room for questions that there was a large, drooling market for the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, which is more than twice the length of the original campaign. The Companion has been released for free. I note that, even with the Companion, I am still struggling to remember which locations in Egypt have which pyramids and other landmarks and which of these are connected to which plot points.
The plot does have certain inconsistencies. Certainly, Lovecraft’s Mythos tales have inconsistencies of their own, but these are at least partly deliberate and less problematic than the ones in Masks of Nyarlathotep. For example, there is the question of what Nyarlathotep can and cannot do. He can, while imprisoned in a pyramid (as he has been since the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt), transport a priestess from Kenya to New York City and insert in her head knowledge of twentieth-century American culture. Through her, he can tempt four people to create an expedition to free him from the pyramid and set in motion his plan to bring all of the Outer Gods to Earth, the plot that the player characters must learn about and attempt to thwart. Why did he wait from roughly 2600 bce until 1916 to act? Game masters are encouraged to set up a meeting between Nyarlathotep and the PCs where they learn (and hopefully understand) the pieces of his vast plot and where he gloats about how useful their resistance is. It is very clear that he has the power to destroy them; indeed, the authors say that if the PCs have been too successful, he should kill a couple of them, as gods get irate when their plans fail. So why doesn’t he simply destroy them all? A friend of mine helped me come up with an interesting answer after the first time I ran this, one specific to the campaign I was then running, but it’s a very good question. “Just so there will be plot” is a weak answer. So is “well, he’s too arrogant to think these puny humans can pose a serious threat to him.”
Nevertheless, Masks of Nyarlathotep was a milestone for Call of Cthulhu and for RPG campaigns. It expanded our ideas of what roleplaying game adventures could be and raised the standards for the industry and the RPG art form. It established that there was a market for well-researched campaigns set in our world. It influenced writers to build on its achievements and exceed them. It inspired fans to do extra work and to share their work with others. And many campaigns of Masks of Nyarlathotep are still being run today all over the world. One of those is being run by me, and excuse me, but I need to go check a few details about Shanghai in May of 1925....
Lisa Padol lives in Woodside, Queens; Cairo; Nairobi; R’lyeh; and The Lost Plateau of Leng.
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