The simplest metaphor for a game of Call of Cthulhu can be likened to the fairy tale of the Little Dutch Boy. The dam had a crack and the Little Dutch Boy had to stand there with his finger in the hole to keep the water from flooding out and destroying the nearby town. However, instead of how the original tale played out, imagine that on the other side of that dam is a bloodthirsty shark, which is gnawing away at the Dutch Boy. He loses one finger, so he must put another one in. Then he loses another finger, and another. The hole is getting bigger, and he must stick his entire arm in, and the shark keeps biting. But if he fails, if he leaves his post, the dam will collapse, and many lives will be lost. And so he stays, resolute in his convictions. He may die, but humanity will live because of him.
In the mists of countless eons, alien Gods and Monsters fell to Earth and warred over our planet, unleashing cosmic science and inconceivable powers until continents sank and seas boiled. Exhausted or defeated, They fell into a deep, long slumber, and the human race goes about its unknowing business over Their graves and tombs.
But there are those who want to seek out the fragments of the lore They left behind. Those who want to learn the secrets of the stars, and the true names of the dimensions. Those who want the Dead Gods’ powers. Those want to wake Them up.
You are among the few who suspect the truth – about the Mad Gods at the center of the universe, about the Great Old Ones who dream of clearing off the Earth by devouring it whole, about the Extra-Terrestrials who use mankind in their experiments, about the Ancient Legends of undying evil that are all coming true. You have to make sure nobody else ever finds out — or the world will wake up screaming – if it wakes up at all.
You have to keep the doors to the Outside from swinging open – no matter what the cost in life or sanity. You have to piece together the clues from books bound in human skin, from eviscerated corpses covered in ichor, and from inscriptions carved on walls built before humanity evolved. You have to go wherever the answers are, and do what needs to be done.
In Call of Cthulhu, your player character is an Investigator” because that is what player characters do: investigate the occult mysteries that hide the truth of the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Investigators might be professional investigators such as detectives, police, or government agents, or they may be experts in their occupational field drawn into the mysteries of the Mythos. Regardless of an Investigator’s chosen career, uncovering the secrets of the Mythos has become her life’s work or obsession.
During the game, the Keeper (or Storyteller) figures out the what, who, and how before the game starts. She then has to help the other players tell the story of how their heroic Investigators figure out the what, who, and how. The Keeper’s scenario notes are not a story. The story occurs as you, the team of players, bring this skeletal structure to life through the actions of your Investigators. The story proceeds from scene to scene, where you determine the pace, discovering clues and putting them together. Your Investigators interact with locations, gathering physical evidence, and with supporting characters run by the Keeper, gathering expert and eyewitness testimony.
As the Keeper lays out the investigation scene by scene, and you interact with the locations and supporting cast (and occasionally horrific monsters), the story unfolds. The first scene presents the mystery you have to solve. You may stumble onto it, be called in by your old mentor, or just hear about it after the fact.
You then perform legwork: hitting the libraries, buddying up to the cops, collecting local legends, or following suspicious foreigners. Your goal is to collect information that tells you more about the case. Each scene contains such information pointing to a new scene, and painting the details of the horror bit by bit. Certain scenes may put a new twist on the investigation, as the initial mystery turns out to be just one layer of the onion. To move from scene to scene, and to solve the overall mystery, you must gather clues to progress the storyline.
Call of Cthulhu is a thinking person’s game. As you accumulate clues, you figure out enough to assemble them into a course of action and eventually into a solution. And in Call of Cthulhu, the solution to the mystery usually leads to a confrontation with some monstrous Evil. Once the players know where the evil lurks, they can send their Investigators toward it … or flee from it.
“There, indeed, no stolen child was
found, despite the tales of screams
and the red sash picked up in the
areaway; but the paintings and rough
inscriptions on the peeling walls of
most of the rooms, and the primitive
chemical laboratory in the attic, all
helped to convince the detective that
he was on the track of something tremendous.”
— The Horror at Red Hook