Game Spotlights

May 27, 2022

Devin

Classic RPG Adventures – Part 3: Cthulhu Mythos

This is Part 3 of our ‘Classic Adventures’ series, covering excellent Cthulhu RPG adventures from the past and present!

[ Read: Classic RPG Adventures – Part 1: Fantasy ]

[ Read: Classic RPG Adventures – Part 2: Sci-fi ]


Part 3: Classic Cthulhu Mythos adventures

Our hobby has three pillars: fantasy, sci-fi and horror. The Call of Cthulhu RPG is, without doubt, horror gaming’s foundation. Since its release, the Cthulhu Mythos has spread its tentacles far and wide, so it’s no longer the only game based around HP Lovecraft’s stories.

Here are some of the best campaigns based around H.P. Lovecraft’s horrifying stories.


Masks of Nyarlathotep

masks of nyarlathotep cthulhu rpg box from chaosium
Masks of Nyarlathotep (2nd Edition), from Chaosium
  • Game: Call of Cthulhu (various editions)
  • Publisher: Chaosium
  • By: Larry DiTillio, Lynn Willis. Later editions include contributions from Scott Dorward, Paul Fricker, Lynne Hardy, and Mike Mason
  • Released: 1984

Overview

Someone murdered your good friend Jackson Elias. Determined to find out who, you’re drawn into a multi-part, globe-spanning investigation that will take you to New York, London, Cairo, Kenya, Australia and Shanghai.

With as many twists and turns as a classic pulp adventure and Mythos horror to melt your brain, you and your friends will slowly uncover a plot to open a gate that will allow the Old Ones to return to Earth.

cthulhu rpg illustrated artwork of large, cthulian monster overlooking a burning village

Why it’s a classic

This is it —the Big One. Hovering at or around the top of gamers’ lists of the greatest RPG campaigns ever published (along with The Enemy Within for the Warhammer Fantasy RPG and The Pendragon Campaign for Pendragon), Masks of Nyarlathotep is now in its sixth edition.

Structurally, a simple murder leads the PCs into a complex plot that unfolds around them like a deadly blossom. The books (especially the later editions) are rich in detail, with plenty of notes to help Keepers run the best game possible. And there are plenty of online resources, from Keepers’ notes to discussion forums, to enrich the experience.

Masks of Nyarlathotep is one of gaming’s great peaks—perhaps its Everest. Climb it at your peril!


The Two-Headed Serpent

pulp cthulhu rpg hardcover book, the two-headed serpent
Call of Cthulhu: The Two-Headed Serpent, from Chaosium
  • Game: Pulp Cthulhu
  • Publisher: Chaosium
  • By: Paul Fricker, Scott Dorward, Matt Sanderson
  • Released: 2017

Overview

You wanna punch evil in the face? The Two-Headed Serpent lets you punch evil in the face. (That’s if you believe that Mythos creatures are evil. Which is a debate for another day, right? Right.)

An ancient, evil race (let’s just run with it for now, shall we?) is determined to take control of the world, and only our heroes can stop them. Here’s what Chaosium has to say about it:

Working for Caduceus, a medical aid organization, the heroes will loot a lost temple in the forests of Bolivia, go head-to-head with the Mafia in New York City, face a deadly epidemic in the jungles of North Borneo, uncover the workings of a strange cult in dust-bowl-era Oklahoma, infiltrate enemy territory inside an awakening volcano in Iceland, face the horrors of hideous medical experiments in the Congo, race to control an ancient and powerful artifact on the streets of Calcutta, and ultimately travel to a lost continent for a desperate battle to save humanity from enslavement or annihilation!

Oh yeah.

illustrated artwork from the two-headed serpent, a man and a woman defend themselves with guns against advancing enemies

Why it’s a classic

The Two-Headed Serpent is a great example of a sandbox adventure. Players are largely free to progress as they will – and, being an adventure for Pulp Cthulhu it’s less cerebral than the standard Call of Cthulhu RPG. More punching and shooting and exploding, less library research and chin-stroking.

But don’t be fooled: just because you can go down shooting doesn’t make it any less horrifying. Think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom meets the Mythos. What could possibly go wrong?


Horror on the Orient Express

call of cthulhu rpg, horror on the orient express box set
Call of Cthulhu: Horror on the Orient Express (1st Edition), from Chaosium

 

  • Game: Call of Cthulhu
  • Publisher: Chaosium
  • By: Phil Anderson, Marion Anderson, Bernard Caleo, David Conyers, Carl Ford, Geoff Gillan, Nick Hagger, Peter F. Jeffrey, L. N. Isinwyll, Christian Lehmann, Mike Lay, Penelope Love, Paul Maclean, Mike Mason, Mark Morrison, Matthew Pook, Oscar Rios, Hans-Chri
  • Released: 1991

Overview

From London to Constantinople via Mythos horrors and mind-bending terror! Sorry, via Paris, Berne, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest and points between.

A bizarre triple murder (how can the same man die three times in one night?). A desperate search for a mysterious artefact. Optional excursions into the Dreamlands, Victorian England and the Dark Ages. A modern-era epilogue. The Call of Cthulhu RPG campaign Horror on the Orient Express has it all in a thousand-plus-mile, thousand-plus-year campaign spanning 19 (yes, 19) possible scenarios across space, time and Europe.

call of cthulhu rpg horror on the orient express illustration in black and white of a european cafe with tables outdoors

Why it’s a classic

Horror on the Orient Express is another classic Call of Cthulhu RPG campaign from Chaosium. What sets it apart is its sheer scope and structure. Instead of using the Orient Express to ‘railroad’ players, it uses it as a framing device. This framing helps create a sense of inevitability, of unstoppable momentum towards some terrible end.

The structure is surprisingly open in many ways, with multiple possibilities for side excursions and extra investigations. It’s a grand journey through Europe and … other places. And a great example of how to structure a sprawling, travel-based campaign that remains coherent and terrifying to the last.

But be warned: this ain’t your momma’s magical mystery tour!


The Yellow King

the yellow king box set from pelgrane press
The Yellow King box set, from Pelgrane Press

Overview

the yellow king absinthe in carcosa book
The Yellow King: Absinthe in Carcosa, from Pelgrane Press

The King in Yellow is a play. A forbidden play. Performing or even reading it opens a doorway to Carcosa. Carcosa is an alien world whose ruler (The King in Yellow, better known as Hastur the Unspeakable) is bent on conquering our home. The Yellow King is a ‘reality horror’ RPG that bends timelines and identities into a wild ride through four connected eras:

  • Belle Epoque Paris: where the demimonde abounds in mysteries, gargoyles, vampires and Carcosa’s decadent nobility.
  • The Wars: players take the role of soldiers in the great European conflict of 1947, encountering supernatural mysteries.
  • Aftermath: set in North America following the European conflict after defeating a regime loyal to Carcosa. The fight has been won – hasn’t it?
  • This is Normal Now: in our present day, people slowly realize they may have the key to ending Carcosa’s threat once and for all.

Why it’s a classic

The Yellow King is a complete RPG and campaign in four volumes. Written by industry legend Robin Laws, it’s available in a slipcase edition (which adds a GM screen). It uses the author’s innovative, investigation-focused Gumshoe rules system.

illustration of a bearded man working at a sewing machine

Based on a cycle of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, The Yellow King tells an interwoven tale of extra-dimensional madness and horror. It’s a story of escalating weirdness and the structure makes it a truly unique campaign, created by one of the hobby’s great thinkers and creative minds. It’s ambitious, demanding, rewarding and (perhaps) mind-bending. Do give it a try!


Walker in the Wastes

call of cthulhu walker in the wastes campaign book
Call of Cthulhu: Walker in the Wastes, from Pagan Publishing

Overview

The Franklin Expedition was a disaster. Two ships – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – departed England in 1845 to explore the Canadian Arctic’s Northwest Passage. The ships became icebound, and in 1848 the survivors abandoned them, setting off across the ice.

No-one survived. Later searches turned up corpses, and examinations showed the men did not die well. Starvation, scurvy, hypothermia, lead poisoning and zinc deficiency were all evident. Cuts on bones suggested cannibalism.

A campaign in the Call of Cthulhu RPG, Walker in the Wastes includes 14 linked adventures taking the players from following the Franklin Expedition’s trail to points across the globe, including Baghdad, Anchorage, Istanbul, London, Ottawa, Philadelphia and New York. The race is on to stop an Elder God from being re-awakened. Ultimately it poses the players moral as well as physical and mental challenges: how many lives are they willing to sacrifice to stop the Walker’s return?

black and white illustration of a scared man holding a gun and a snarling reptilian humanoid

Why it’s a classic

Walker in the Wastes is ‘pulp’ Cthulhu before there was a Pulp Cthulhu RPG. A massively detailed campaign, complete with reading list, it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s up-front about the work required to run it successfully, but the effort you spend will be repaid.

NPCs are well-crafted individuals, not stereotypes or throwaways. Locations and timelines are carefully constructed. Cults and their motives are well-explained – and make sense. It’s a masterclass in investigative sandbox design. It’s hard to find, and not available in PDF form, so seek it out if you must – but if you do locate a copy, well then… Don’t say we didn’t warn you!


The Armitage Files

cthulhu rpg book the armitage files
Trail of Cthulhu: The Armitage Files, from Pelgrane Press

Overview

Ten documents. Ten leads. Ten pathways to horror. The Armitage Files is a collection of (ten) player handouts, each rich in clues and information, leading to further adventure in the Trail of Cthulhu RPG.

The handouts are a series of documents from Doctor Henry Armitage (of Miskatonic University). They arrive for the players one at a time. Doctor Armitage has no recollection of writing them. Together, they describe a coming apocalypse.

Can the players avert catastrophe? There’s only one way to find out.

artwork from armitage files rpg campaign depicting a notebook page with scribbled notes and a sketch of a haunting face

Why it’s a classic

The Armitage Files is both a brilliant campaign and a formal experiment—an un-plotted, sandbox-format campaign that leaves the flow of events largely up to the players.

It demands a lot from the Keeper, but it provides much support. Advice on using the handouts (available as full-color downloads), 42 well fleshed-out NPCs, sample scenes, organizations, places and information sources, and more.

It’s a brave design decision, but it’s fully supported by the Trail of Cthulhu RPG rules (themselves a variant of Laws’ Gumshoe system), which will keep the players moving through the situations presented. Both a brilliant piece of design and an engaging, not to mention horrifying Mythos campaign, The Armitage Files is an easy recommendation.


michael butler

Written by Michael B.

Michael’s from Sydney, Australia. Over the years he’s organized game conventions, contributed to magazines, and written supplements for White Wolf and Dream Pod 9. He likes running horror games very much but playing them makes him nervous and afraid.


[ Read: Classic RPG Adventures – Part 1: Fantasy ]

[ Read: Classic RPG Adventures – Part 2: Sci-fi ]

[ Browse all Cthulhu RPGs ]