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Sunday 3 July 2022

Faiths of Fear

For all that the major role they play in so many scenarios and campaigns for Call of Cthulhu and other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the cult is too often, never quite their focus. Whether it is the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight from Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh and Cult of the Bloody Tongue from Masks of Nyarlathotep, or the Brotherhood of the Beast from Day of the Beast (Fungi from Yuggoth), the cult itself seems to get lost in the Mythos itself and its various so-called ‘gods’ and entities and ‘alien’ species. Where such ‘gods’ and entities and ‘alien’ species and their motives lie beyond mankind’s grasp and can never be truly understood, once its secrets are revealed, what the cult represents is an enemy that stalwart Investigators into the Mythos can understand and whose motives can be grasped. For in serving the Mythos and its forces a cult is likely betraying mankind and for whatever reason that may be, it reveals a true, all too human face of evil. In the return, the cult and its members are likely to understand the Investigators in ways that the things they serve do not, and so have ways and means of retaliating against the Investigators. Which makes for dangerous villains—and all the more so because of their lack of humanity.

Cults of Cthulhu is a supplement which at last explores the role of cults in Call of Cthulhu. Published by Chaosium, Inc., the supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition explores a particular type of cult, the signature cult in both Call of Cthulhu and H.P. Lovecraft’s own fiction. That is the cult of Cthulhu, the cult dedicated to “That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.”, the dread alien being which lies dreaming, trapped beneath the Pacific ocean in the strange city of R’lyeh, waiting for that time when the stars come right and he can be released to have dominion over the Earth once again. In doing so, it draws extensively upon H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal story, The Call of Cthulhu, as well as The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and The Whisperer in the Darkness, as well as delving back into the history of Call of Cthulhu, most notably Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and Masks of Nyarlathotep. From this, the authors develop a history of the Cthulhu cult, detail five individual cults, provide a means for the Keeper to create her own Cthulhu cults
,* describe various new spells, monsters, and artefacts, and give three scenarios. The resulting volume is not just for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but also with Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos, and it also carries a ‘For Mature Readers’ advisory because, well, cultists are evil, and do evil things. Cults of Cthulhu is anything other than explicit when it comes presenting the evil of its cultists, but it does not shy from doing so either.

*In the game.

Cults of Cthulhu opens with a discussion of the ‘History of the Cthulhu Cult’. Initially, this is presented as the collected writings of the journalist, Mildred Schwartz, who comes into possession of Professor George Angell’s infamous box containing his papers concerning the Cthulhu cult and continues both his research and that of Francis Thurston. This begins in prehistory, but quickly comes up to date to detail the events surrounding the awakening of Cthulhu in 1925 (as told in Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu) and beyond. Besides describing the beliefs of the Cthulhu cult, the history presents a timeline of Cthulhu worship not year by year, but cult by cult, beginning with the Cult of Sumer in 2000 BC and going round the world from civilisation to civilisation. This includes the now lost city of Iram, as well as other familiar cults such as the Louisiana Swamp Cult and the Esoteric Order of Dagon, also drawn from Lovecraft’s fiction. Mildred Schwartz’s papers similarly discovered in the twenty-first century and continued by David Eberhart, who identifies and describes numerous post-war modern cults, such as the Church of Perfect Science. Cults are also identified as being behind events like the Paradise Massacre and the Oregon standoff. With the modern cults, and in some cases the events associated with them, it is easy to identify the parallels that the authors are drawing with certain organisations and cults.

Five of the cults identified in the ‘History of the Cthulhu Cult’ are greatly expanded upon—Elevated Order of Morpheus, the Louisiana Swamp Cult, the Society of the Angelic Ones, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, and the Church of Perfect Science. Together, these cover the Purple Age of Cthulhu by Gaslight, the Jazz Age of Call of Cthulhu, and the modern age too, with two of them, the Louisiana Swamp Cult, the Society of the Angelic Ones and the Esoteric Order of Dagon being drawn from Lovecraft’s fiction. These all come with extensive backgrounds, descriptions of their goals, structures, financing, and means of recruitment, along with full stats for their leading members, and suggestions as to where and when else the Keeper can shift the cult. Also included is a pair of scenario ideas for each cult, which along with the recruitment means provided further means of the Investigators getting involved, perhaps even getting recruited themselves. The first, Elevated Order of Morpheus, is a classic Victorian Age cult modelled on Freemasonry, whilst the second, the Society of the Angelic Ones, has all the feel of a Los Angeles evangelical church between the wars. Perhaps the one that players of Call of Cthulhu will have the most fun with is the Church of Perfect Science, mostly because it most readily parallels a modern religious organisation begun by a Science Fiction writer. The Louisiana Swamp Cult and the Esoteric Order of Dagon are ones that the Keeper and players have the most familiarity with from Lovecraft’s fiction, and the authors do as good a job of extrapolating from the fiction as they do developing the entirely new cults. Whether new or old, all five cults are well written and thus easy to use.

The five cults are not the only ones detailed in Cults of Cthulhu. Three others are developed as fully worked examples of ‘Creating a Cthulhu’. This guides the Keeper through the step-by-step process of creating an organisation devoted to Cthulhu, whether for a single scenario or for a campaign. At every stage, from the basic concept behind the cult and creating a leader to developing the enemies of the cult, the Keeper is constantly prompted with questions and given three examples. There are tables too, which the Keeper can roll on or pick from, but the end result is that the Keeper three fully detailed and worked out cults, even down to the filled in examples of the Cult Worksheet included in the supplement. Although the questions all relate to the Cthulhu cult, there is nothing to stop the Keeper going through the same process and asking the same questions, but substituting the ‘gods’ and entities and ‘alien’ species of her choice to create the desired cult.

The selection of ‘Cultists, Monsters, & Artifacts’ further supports the cult creation process. This includes numerous examples of Cthulhu’s Blessings, such as Throat tentacles or Give pain, which are as creepy as you would expect. Notable amongst the various cultists given here are the Deathless Masters. Cults of Cthulhu presents its subject matters as primarily being sperate and different. They all have their worship of Cthulhu in common, but how they worship him and to what end, differs. This need not be the case, the authors leaving it up to the Keeper to decide if she wants to keep them apart or if she wants to connect them up in a greater, conspiracy. One way of doing that is through Deathless Masters or Undying Ones, potentially the ultimate villains when it comes to Cthulhu cults, their being able to move from one cult to another and so have a greater idea—if anyone does—of what the various cults are doing and what Cthulhu himself, might want. Full guidelines are given for the Keeper to create her own, but included are stats for Carl Standford, the immortal sorcerer who first appeared in Shadows of Yog-Sothoth.

The three new cults in Cults of Cthulhu are further supported by a single scenario each. ‘Loki’s Gift’ is set in Victorian London in 1896 and has the Investigators as mostly Middle Class or Upper-Class characters asked to look into the apparent suicide of a young composer. The second scenario is ‘Angel’s Thirst’ and is set in Los Angeles in 1922 with the Investigators asked by a young woman to search for her missing father whom she thinks is still alive after seeing him in a dream. Unfortunately, he has been caught up in the activities of the Society of the Angelic Ones. The scenario has a slightly woozy and weird feel to it, but is infused with sense of noir. Lastly, ‘God’s Dream’ is set in modern-day Chicago and sees the Investigators being pulled to look into the strange events concerning a detective friend who suddenly finds himself in Antarctica. It all ties back to strange land grab in metropolitan Chicago. There is a common, physical thread which connects all three of the scenarios and they can be run as a loose trilogy or as standalone affairs. All are good strong horror scenarios which deal with mature themes, and all are well organised.

Rounding out the supplement is a pair of appendices. One provides an overview of the various tomes which might have content pertaining to Cthulhu and his worship, whilst the other is decent little bibliography which should provide entertaining further reading and viewing.

Physically, Cults of Cthulhu is up to the expected standard that Chaosium, Inc. currently sets for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. The book is well written, the illustrations are excellent, and the cartography good.

The first reaction to Cults of Cthulhu is to wonder why it is has taken forty years for Call of Cthulhu to receive a book like this? The importance of the role of the cult and seminal nature of Cthulhu would suggest that such a book—other either aspect—would be very useful, and indeed, Cults of Cthulhu, very much proves the point in providing a much needed exploration of the nature of both together. Ultimately, Cults of Cthulhu takes the Keeper back to Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu to look at some of the roleplaying game’s fundamentals and inspirations with fresh eyes. The result is an excellent examination of both cults and Cthulhu, supporting the Keeper with advice and the means to create her own cults and cultists, as well as backing everything up with examples and scenarios.

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