The Asylum and Other Tales (1983)

I love the fact that something bad is almost always happening, or about to happen, to someone on the covers of Call of Cthulhu products. Just look at that poor guy wrapped up in the proto-shoggoth’s tentacles. That’s a bad day, right there.

I enjoy how this contrasts with brawny heroes of Dungeons & Dragons. That game is all about accumulating power in all its forms. Call of Cthulhu is about frailty. Your characters are weak. The only thing they can accumulate is knowledge, but that knowledge is poisonous and destroys characters over time. Making a Call of Cthulhu character is about inevitable destruction, which means it is actually about meaninglessness, which was the core theme of Lovecraft’s literary work. That might seem to be a strange thing to make a roleplaying game about, but theme and mechanics come together so well here that other horror RPGs have never come close.

The Asylum is a collection of cases designed to make your characters feel cursed. They’re transitional scenarios, intended to make mundane events between larger adventures – a trip on a boat, a short stay in an asylum, sorting out an inheritance – into gateways to unimaginable horror.

As a keeper, I have two conflicting philosophies about scenarios like this. On the one hand, it seems silly and unrealistic to have the mythos show up everywhere. After running these scenarios, it would be only a matter of time before investigators would be afraid to leave the house for groceries (admittedly, one scenario, “Westchester House,” is designed as a red herring to play against those assumptions, but it only one out of seven). Horror on the scale of the mythos should be a singular event in a person’s (likely now shorter) life. On the other hand, I like the idea of introduction to the mythos being a rending of the veil; that even though it is secret, it has seeped into nearly every aspect of the world. That fits nicely not only with the paranoid themes of sanity in the game, but also the experience many readers have when first discovering Lovecraft – suddenly everything’s coming up Cthulhu.

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