I began playing the horror roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu in 1986 with a group of friends. They were experienced D&D players, but horror was my interest so I convinced them to put down their swords and heroic personas and to adapt a system that often led to madness and terror. While all but one of the original group has “moved on” (I had nothing to do with it and you’d never find the bodies anyway so let’s not dwell), two of the players joined in 1990 and one in 1992. For a long time we’ve gathered every other Saturday, a companionable interlude from work and home. Chips and soda have been replaced by meals of barbecue pork or crabcakes and usually a bottle or two of wine or beer are downed. But the game remains eternal and cannot die.
One of those keeping the game (as well as the works of H.P. Lovecraft) alive today in the 21st century is probably best known as Paul of Cthulhu. Paul Maclean is a trained archaeologist who resides in Bradford, England with his wife Helen and several cats, including one named Cathulhu.
Paul of Cthulhu with Lovecraftian horror director Stuart Gordon, director of Re-Animator, Fortress and Dagon.
Paul is the founder of Yog-Sothoth.com, the largest gathering of Call of Cthulhu players on the Internet. There, Sandy Peterson, the co-creator of the game, and Keith Herber, one of the most popular authors of game materials, interact with players.
But Paul took the game to a new audience. A few years ago, a digital recorder was accidentally turned on during one of Paul’s regular gaming sessions. They liked the result, made a practice of it, and posted the results online for others to listen to.
One of the first things I did when I got my MP3 player was to type horror into the iTunes search engine. There I discovered Paul’s ongoing recordings of the Call of Cthulhu rpg classic, “The Horror on the Orient Express.” (iTunes link.) Thousands of listeners, many of them commuters like myself, gather around the gaming table as Paul and his friends play the game
Here’s my interview with Paul.
Haunted Vampire: How would you describe yourself?
Paul of Cthulhu: Curious. I’m usually quite curious about things, how things work, what
things were, what’s going on? It’s probably one of the reasons I like archaeology. I’d like to think I’m also quite social. Good company and good friends are some of the best things to have.
Haunted Vampire: Why are so many archaeologists Call of Cthulhu players?
Paul of Cthulhu: There do seem to be more than a few… I suspect it’s the mystery and investigative side of things that attracts. Archaeologists like the past and the default setting for Cthulhu is in an earlier period. As to that, that archaeology in one form or another appears in HPL’s
stories, well, I can see the attraction. In a way this also applies to the number of Librarians who like Call of Cthulhu, and HPL’s forbidden books…
Haunted Vampire: When did you first play a roleplaying game? Was it D&D? When did you first play Call of Cthulhu and how did that game session go?
I first started roleplaying in 1980 (before Call of Cthulhu came out) and like many people, began with Dungeon & Dragons (Basic, then AD&D).
I first played Call of Cthulhu just after the game came out, a fellow roleplayer with rich parents got the game into the UK early on import. Not having read any HPL stories at that time our first several years of Call of Cthulhu were much more like ‘Indiana Jones’ than anything else. Great fun to be had! Like many while I cannot recall clearly I think the first scenario we played was ‘The Haunting’ (as it’s called now).
Haunted Vampire: You’ll occasionally reference other games in the podcasts. How many time a week or month do you roleplay?
Paul of Cthulhu: I tend to play once or twice a week (currently Thursdays, Sundays), the games typically last anywhere from 3-4 hours at a time. We’ll either play at our home or down at the Universty with the Bradford University Roleplaying Society (BURPS).
Haunted Vampire: What is your favorite game and why?
Paul of Cthulhu: Call of Cthulhu, of course! I love the game for its sense of mystery, the romantic attraction of the default 1920s setting, the non-interference and straightforwardness of the BRP ruleset in play, the sense of cosmic wonder and exploration. There are many things I find attractive about Call of Cthulhu. Plus there’s also the rich literary heritage by way of HPL & Co.’s works and of course by now nearly 30 years of high quality adventures and supplements for the game.
Haunted Vampire: What is best about horror roleplaying?
Paul of Cthulhu: Everyone has their preference for what they find ‘Best’. Personally I find the sense of trepidation and the ‘edge of your seat’ experience to be very attractive. The terrible consequences of your actions can make for precarious and highly enjoyable play.
Haunted Vampire: How did you meet Helen of Cthulhu?
Paul of Cthulhu: It was on an archaeological excavation in Shetland just before the turn of the Century. I was the Science Officer and Helen was seconded onto my Team for a while. We met over a flotation tank…
Haunted Vampire: What led you to name your home Innsmouth House?
Paul of Cthulhu: Arkham House was already taken. We’re also about as far inland as we can get in our part of the country, so it seemed wonderfully perverse to mark it as a haven for our sea-loving brethren…
Haunted Vampire: How did you get involved with Yog-Sothoth.com?
Paul of Cthulhu: I started it as a small black background page back in 1998, for my own amusement and interest. I chose the name Yog-Sothoth as someone already had ‘Cthulhu’ (you may be sensing a theme here) and I liked the fact that HPL himself used to refer to his cycle of semi-related works as ‘Yog-Sothothery. I began adding to the site semi-regularly and it just kind of grew, and grew, and… grew…
Haunted Vampire: How cool is it that Sandy Peterson and many others famous in game publishing participate regularly in your forums?
Paul of Cthulhu: It’s wonderful that so many people participate. The Internet provides a way to be in touch with people you never thought you would have 20 years ago. To talk to the authors & artists is a great way of feeling more immersed, just as it is with other fans and appreciators of the
game. As they say “A rising tide floats all boats” people’s enthusiasm for the game, buoys others.
Haunted Vampire: What led to the first recording of a roleplaying game?
Paul of Cthulhu: That was completely by accident back in 2003 with a small MiniDisc recorder, a external microphone and a session of Monte Cook’s ‘Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil’. Further details of the rather strange incident can be read in the April 08 edition of ‘See Page XX': here.
Haunted Vampire: How many times do you re-listen to the recordings?
Paul of Cthulhu: Occasionally for fun (especially the older recordings to see what they sound like after a time), and more regularly in the case of ‘Horror on the Orient Express’ as a reminder of what went on in the previous session, just before playing the new one. A very handy way of keeping
things straight in game!
Haunted Vampire: Tell us something about the Bradford Players that regular listeners don’t know.
Paul of Cthulhu: I’m not sure there’s much left that’s unknown (it can be a bit of a soap opera on audio)! We’ve all known each other some 5-7 years at least. We’re all naked when recording – no, errrr, I can say that we chat a lot before we ever start to play for the evening, it’s a good excuse to catch up on what’s what, so by the time you hear the start of a recording we’ve already been chatting for 30-60 minutes or more!
Haunted Vampire: How many people do you estimate listen to your group’s recording of The Horror on the Orient Express?
Paul of Cthulhu: From the logs & analytics, the number tends to be around 4,000 in the first instance, then creeping slowly up as the archives are downloaded by others later. Some of the audios reach up to 20,000 and more.
Haunted Vampire: As a Keeper of the Arcane Lore, has anything the group done caught you off-guard?
Paul of Cthulhu: That actually happens most of the time. You never can tell what they’ll get up to… The plot book says one way, they go another, then I have to think quickly as to either how to steer them back, or just let them run an see where the trail leads. The latter is almost always
more satisfying barring a complete plot derailment! For a specific instance I think Mrs. Sunderland (Val’s character) contacting a certain NPC was unexpected and that’s having far-reaching consequences in the game.
Haunted Vampire: Is Neil the unluckiest dice roller you’ve ever gamed with? [spoiler removed.]
Paul of Cthulhu: Yes. Neil is the most unlucky dice roller I have ever met in over 1/4 century. Period. *He is not allowed to touch our groups’ dice!* bad, Neil, bad! Ahem, yes, well. There you go. Helen is the most dice superstitious of us, and over time that attitude can become infectious.
Haunted Vampire: What do you do to try to build a horrific atmosphere during a game session?
Paul of Cthulhu: It can be very difficult to build a horrific atmosphere and it’s very difficult to sustain such over a long period of time. The horror tends to be more sporadic in the game, interspersed among the mundanity and humour. Fear comes from caring, if you have players who care about their characters, which can happen over many sessions, then when you do something to them it feels more visceral. Why kill characters when you can mentally and physically punish in the name of the greater good, instead? Killing characters just acts as a reset, if they’re mostly alive, they don’t get that refresh option as easily.
Haunted Vampire: What’s been the most favorite character you’ve played?
Paul of Cthulhu: I enjoyed playing the Goodlights in ‘Masks of Nyarlathotep’ (Son & Father). Members of the ‘League of Extraordinary Librarians’ to a man!
Haunted Vampire: What other podcasts do you listen to?
Paul of Cthulhu: A quick look through my iTunes list shows: All Games Considered, BBC Broadcasting House, Dragon Hearth, BBC Friday Night Comedy, Godzilla Gaming podcast, Green Ronin Podcast, Have Games Will Travel, MacBreak Weekly, MacFormat, Nuketown, Pulp Gamer, TGTMB, That’s How We Roll, This Week in Tech (Twit), 2d6 Feet in a Random Direction, plus occasional one-offs.
Haunted Vampire: And finally, if you could be any supernatural monster or Mythos entity, what would you be and why?
Paul of Cthulhu: Yog-Sothoth. Knowledge of all space/time. Who could resist? Mind you, it would make archaeology a bit less fun, though!
For Curt’s discussion on horror rpgs, see his post here.