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Call of Cthulhu: Arkham Review


I’m a first-generation role-player and started playing D&D / AD&D in the mid-late 70s. Why am I telling you this when I’m supposed to be telling you about Chaosium’s latest release for the Call of Cthulhu RPG: Arkham? Well, indulge me. Having played AD&D for a few years I was delighted when TSR – then publishers of D&D – released Deities & Demigods, a supplement that gave information on gods and mythologies that could be incorporated into your D&D games. These were predominantly real-world mythologies: Greek; Norse; Indian; Chinese; Japanese; Native American; Sumerian; Babylonian; Celtic; Mesoamerican; Egyptian and Finnish. In addition to this were the details of various knights and characters from the Arthurian legends and details of non-human gods from the D&D world: Corellon Larethian; Moradin; Gruumsh and the like. Also, the book included details of gods and mythologies from three fictional worlds, two of which I was already familiar with: Michael Moorcock’s Melnibonean mythology and Fritz Leiber’s Newhon pantheon. The third fictional mythology was entirely new to me and it frankly blew my mind. This was the Cthulhu mythos, the creation of HP Lovecraft a writer that I had never heard of at the time.

I was bewitched and fascinated by this fictional mythology; it was just so unlike anything I had encountered in fantasy fiction before. It was just so alien, so weird, so other, a peculiar blend of fantasy, horror and science fiction. And so began my love affair with HP Lovecraft. His fiction was not then in print in the UK and – not unlike a Lovecraft character – I found myself scouring second hand bookshops seeking out the odd short story here, the odd short story there in otherwise drab collections of horror fiction. In 1981 I read a review in White Dwarf of the Call of Cthulhu RPG that stoked my fascination further. That weekend I rushed to my local game shop in Manchester and snatched up a copy of what me and my gaming friends would from then on refer to as CoC.

Anyway…. history and fascination with both Lovecraft’s fiction and the CoC game established, I’ll now turn my attention to the Arkham book itself. One draw back of CoC is that games tend to turn into grand epic expeditions to the arctic or Egypt, which is fine and thoroughly enjoyable but does lead to games turning into Indiana Jones rather than HP Lovecraft. The best adventures, in my view, are the low key, claustrophobic and sinister adventures that rely on lurking unseen menace rather than Outer Gods bursting free and laying waste to humanity. This is where Arkham comes into play: it is a sandbox campaign setting / source book that details the fictional city of Arkham that features in many of HPL’s stories. Arkham builds upon and expands material that have previously been available in Arkham supplements for earlier iterations of CoC. Put bluntly it is an amazing piece of work.

The city of Arkham is thoroughly and richly visualised in this book, it is a very believable place and at surface level it appears as a perfectly mundane and not particularly exciting American city in the 1920s. We have details of notable locations from Lovecraft’s stories; such as the Miskatonic University and its staff, but so are unremarkable shops and businesses and individuals that can be drawn upon in adventures by keepers in the construction of their own scenarios. It is an ideal location in which to construct mysteries and threats that dwell and bubble secretly behind the veil of normality.

The physical properties of the book itself are superb. The illustrations are beautiful, the layout is clear and the book is a sold hardback that isn’t going to come to pieces in your hands after a few gaming sessions. There are also maps of Arkham, one for players and one for keepers that are far superior and far more readable than any previously produced by Chaosium.

Although I would not say this is a necessary purchase for CoC keepers, I would say it was an invaluable one for keepers who want to run Call of Cthulhu scenarios in the style of Lovecraft stories such a ‘The Dreams in the Witch House’, ‘The Festival’ and ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ where the threat of the Cthulhu mythos lurks on the threshold rather than erupting into reality.