You Need Is Lovecraft
How to "Cthulhu Up" Your Dungeons
By Monte Cook
Think that unspeakably ancient, sanity-draining gods don't mix well with good ol'-fashioned hack-and-slash? Well, think again, says Monte Cook, lead designer of the Call of Cthulhu d20 Roleplaying Game inspired by the horror writings of H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, he's mixed them himself in his home campaign.
"I've featured cultists who worship dark, ancient evil gods as villains in my D&D game," Monte says. "Just the idea that you can have things that blast your sanity can be a cool addition to more standard D&D games."
Writing about the meeting of the two game styles was Monte's favorite part of his work on the game, he said in a recent interview. The book's lengthy appendix offers DM tips as well as conversions of Call of Cthulhu spells and monsters for use in D&D games.
Introducing elements from this eldritch horror game produces a much darker resulting campaign. But Monte says this mood can exist alongside the traditional heroic fantasy of D&D.
"You can make it work one of two ways," he says. "If you have a very heroic campaign, you present these incredibly dark forces and madness-inducing perils, but the PCs, because they're heroes, eventually triumph and bring light back to the world. The other way to do it is to refocus the game so that the PCs, in a true Lovecraftian sense, can't overcome the evils in the universe, because they're too overpowering. Then the campaign becomes one of small victories. You can't rid the world of Cthulhu, but you can save the sacrificial victim captured by the cultists, or you can stop the cult's plans for now. Protect the village instead of save the world. There're a lot of different ways to play D&D, and that's one of them."
DMs might start simply by introducing a few Call of Cthulhu monsters into their games. "I can easily imagine a D&D scenario using any of the Call of Cthulhu monsters," Monte says, "but perhaps that shows D&D's flexibility more than anything. I can imagine a very creepy game of D&D where you're dealing with yithians, who of course live far in the past but are able to mentally travel into the future and possess people. Lots of the old standbys, like mi-go and shoggoths, make great D&D monsters because they're just big icky things to fight.
"A few Call of Cthulhu monsters, like the gnoph-keh are really more appropriate to D&D in my opinion, than Call of Cthulhu. When I ran Pagan Publishing's Walker in the Wastes campaign, I had to really go out of my way and do some odd things to make the gnoph-keh scary -- it's really just a big six-legged polar bear with a horn, and if you say it that way, it's not scary. In a D&D game, a creature like that fits in easily among the ranks of things like manticores and lamias."
Introducing Call of Cthulhu monsters is one thing. It's a little more challenging to add an Elder God to your campaign. This picture from the book's appendix was inspired by a playtest session in which Monte sic'ed Great Cthulhu against 20th-level versions of Mialee, Regdar, and the other iconic D&D characters. "There were six players, and if you died you got to bring in a new 20th-level character the following round," Monte said. "Even faced with those odds, Cthulhu killed 13 of them before they killed him. Actually, they didn't kill him, they imprisoned him with an imprisonment spell -- because they just couldn't kill him."
Luckily, you don't have to pit the player characters against Cthulhu himself just to inject some Lovecraft into your game. To help you get started, Monte offers these 10 ways to painlessly introduce aspects of Call of Cthulhu into your D&D games.
10 Ways to Just Add Cthulhu
10. Set an adventure in an asylum, where you can introduce sanity rules to the game.
9. Have an evil wizard cast the shriveling spell.
8. Introduce a mi-go mist projector as treasure.
7. Make the sahuagin more like deep ones: misbegotten creatures of the deep.
6. Stage an encounter with a gnoph-keh.
5. Use the "multiple casters at once" rules to work out a dark ritual of evil cultists whom the PCs have to stop.
4. Treat the Lovecraftian gods as long-forgotten but still powerful demons for the PCs to battle.
3. In a high-level game, a cleric casts earthquake and accidentally stirs up a cthonian: an immense earthbound squid.
2. Start an investigation-heavy adventure using suggestions from book.
1. The mi-go attempt to establish a colony on the PCs' world, and the characters are the ones to stop it.
So, if you're like most DMs -- always on the lookout for new monsters and spells to add to your game -- think of Call of Cthulhu as an interesting new resource. "Even if you don't go the whole dark-campaign route," Monte said, "this book has so many cool monsters and spells, gamemastering guidelines and adventure design tips, that I can't imagine any DM not being intrigued enough to work some of it in and really enjoy it."
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