The Name of the Game
Here's the thing: I've played a lot of Call of Cthulhu over the years, mainly as GM; I've also dabbled in the one-player variant of Trail of Cthulhu and even contemplated giving Cthulhu Mythos 5e a try. I've pored over more game supplements and adventure compendia in search of scenario ideas than I'm close to being able to count. And yet there's one element of Lovecraft's Mythos that's been conspicuously absent from virtually every session I've ever run - and it's the one prominently featured in the names of all those games.
Yes, it's Cthulhu himself who's never really had much of a presence in my Cthulhu Mythos-inspired games. And I don't think it's just me: I've seen campaign supplements focusing on Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, Hastur, the Elder Things, and even Ithaqua - but nothing about the entity whom, you would think, would be most prominent, given the games and even the setting are named after him.
Why should this be? Well, it's worth remembering that 'Cthulhu Mythos' wasn't a name coined by H. P. Lovecraft himself; he referred to his cycle of stories as 'Yog-Sothothery', no doubt with his tongue inserted into his cheek. It was his successors who came up with the 'Cthulhu Mythos' title. And one could certainly argue that The Call of Cthulhu, while a solid and memorable story, is no more central to the cycle than At the Mountains of Madness or The Dunwich Horror.
Certainly Cthulhu is a vivid and striking creation, and Lovecraft clearly develops him more fully than most of his gods and titans - but perhaps this lies at the root of the problem. With a being like Nyarlathotep or Shub-Niggurath, there's a lot of useful ambiguity of different kinds: both these beings have a distinct identity, but there's also a lot that's left unspecified, or open to further elaboration. With Cthulhu it's all dismayingly specific. We know where he is, what he looks like, the nature of his human following, how he interacts with the wider world, and what his long-term plan (for want of a better word) is. There's less space for elaboration or creative reimagining with Cthulhu than there is with almost any other major Mythos being.
So the question becomes, what options do we have for inserting a bit more actual Cthulhu into Call of Cthulhu and other Mythos-inspired horror games? I mean Cthulhu himself as a major element, rather than human members of his cult or Deep One servitors. Here are a few possibilities.
1. The Kristen Stewart option. No, come back (and, by the way, you shouldn't let the fact she was in those awful YA vampire romance movies distract you from the truth that Kristen Stewart is a really talented and charismatic actress). Anyway, I am alluding to a movie from early last year which Stewart did, entitled Underwater. It's a kind of James Cameron-derived SF film in which exploration of the deep Pacific trenches meets with disaster, when exploratory drilling wakes up... what? Well, the answer comes at the end of the movie, but the fact I'm mentioning it in an article about Cthulhu means you can probably guess what happens.
In short, take the players to R'Lyeh, somehow: this will probably involve deep-sea exploration of some kind, as geologists or wildlife film-makers or something similar. The problem here is that if you are playing a system with Cthulhu in the title, and the scenario turns out to concern a voyage to the bottom of the sea, any clued-up player is going to know (literally) the name of the game: there's not likely to be much mystery in such a scenario.
One solution, certainly for a one-off, might be to have all the characters on board a submarine that inexplicably loses power while the region of R'Lyeh and starts slowly sinking towards the sea bed where the city awaits them. As the sub sinks deeper, the psychic emanations from Cthulhu begin to affect everyone, making them jumpy and unpredictable. Someone on board is a Cthulhu cultist, but who? A brave GM might even consider making one of the player-characters the traitor, which could result in a very memorable Paranoia-style scenario. The ideal ending would be the 'sane' characters trying to wrest control back from the lunatic, while Cthulhu (temporarily roused by this intrusion into his domain) stalks the sub through the city
2. The God of Conspiracies. More of an approach than a scenario idea, this one - but the thing about Cthulhu, certainly compared to an entity like Yog-Sothoth or Shub-Niggurath, is that he doesn't have many obvious associations or resonances. Yog-Sothoth is worshipped by sorcerers and black magicians, and is arguably the closest thing in the Mythos to a 'god of magic', while Shub-Niggurath is usually aligned with living things and the natural world, albeit as a kind of obscene fertility deity.
So, what kind of alignment can we make where Cthulhu is concerned? There's not much mileage, horror-wise, in making him the god of calamari, and even though he has an obvious association with dreams, this can be problematic in a setting which already has the Dreamlands - an aspect not short of presiding deities already. I would suggest that one of the things that makes The Call of Cthulhu effective as a story is the sense that the Cthulhu cult is everywhere, and has a hand in everything: it's a story about a conspiracy, in other words.
You could riff on this idea and build on the notion of Cthulhu as an entity surrounded by conspiracies, and perhaps with a strange symbiotic relationship to them: conspiracy theories are strange, twisted fictions for the most part, not unlike the dreams Cthulhu evokes in some sensitive people. Maybe Cthulhu seeds conspiracy theories in the course of his dreaming - as people are drawn further and further into these strange webs of half-truth, they become more and more receptive to his influence. In this case the Cthulhu cult itself is almost a meta-conspiracy theory itself, recruiting from all the others. Gatherings of Flat Earthers, Apollo hoax believers, and other dedicated individuals may achieve a kind of 'critical mass' of the right kind of credullity and allow Cthulhu to manifest in psychic or ectoplasmic form.
3. Cthulhu in the Dreamlands. Sort of following on from last week's piece on different takes on the Dreamlands, this is an idea which one of my players (a relative newcomer to the Mythos) inadvertently came up with mid-session. His character had already encountered an offshoot of the Cthulhu cult, who referred to their god as the Great Dreamer. When the character later ventured into the Dreamlands, he made the obvious (but in the canon, wrong) connection and assumed Cthulhu was somehow involved.
My own take on this is that the Dreamlands represent the collective dreaming of the human race, and as an alien being Cthulhu is not a part of this - but, given he does send dreams to sensitive people, is this reflected in the Dreamlands? Maybe Cthulhu's emanations manifest in the Dreamlands in 'physical' form and menace the inhabitants there - meaning there could be brigades or societies of Dreamlanders dedicated to keeping a watch for these intrusions and destroying them when they occur. Maybe one of these groups requires assistance from the waking world, specifically the players - receiving an adventure hook via a dream would certainly be unusual.
Or, you could ignore or reinterpret the general consensus that the Dreamlands are the domain of Nyarlathotep or Nodens, and make Cthulhu himself the hidden master of the place. In this case, perhaps Cthulhu has only taken control relatively recently and is manipulating the Dreamlands to corrupt the collective psyche of the human race. Faced with a rising tide of disturbing dreams and nightmare visions worldwide, it would be up to the player characters to find the source of them and - if possible - a solution to it. This could be the frame for a potentially epic campaign, set in both the waking and dream worlds, with the players seeking advice and powerful artefacts in both realms to break Cthulhu's hold over humanity's dreams and nightmares.
Have you incorporated Cthulhu himself into any of your campaigns or scenarios? How did it go? Do you have an idea of your own for how to put more Cthulhu in Call of Cthulhu? If so, share your thoughts in the comments. Thanks!