A More Detailed Answer

The following article by Sean Branney and Andrew Leman appeared in The Unspeakable Oath 13, published in 1995 by Pagan Publishing.


Sam and I looked up at the wall of sand in front of us. Surely we could not go on foot into the trackless wastes of the Great Sand Sea west of Farafra and expect to survive. Similarly awestruck, Kravat, Allison, and Flo stared up at a 400-foot dune which stretched upward before us. Our Egyptian guide, Ansep Ma Sa, his robes whipping in the wind, was already ascending the tower of sand. I adjusted my pack, and with my heart pounding at the thought of what lay beyond, I began to climb into the desert. Ever since Sam’s screams had shattered my peace of mind the previous night, and in view of Richard’s death and Sir Wallis Budge’s descent into madness, my spirit was sick with fear.

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Sure, it could be an excerpt from any Call of Cthulhu™ narrative: brave investigators storming off into the Egyptian sands to unravel an ancient mystery. The key difference is, it really happened. A real group of flesh and blood Investigators trekked off into actual sand, desperately pursuing the man who held the key to the strange sequence of events which had brought them to the desert. No, it wasn’t Egypt and it wasn’t 1924, but as the weary Investigators sipped water from their canteens and looked out at the vast expanse of dunes, it may as well have been. But if it wasn’t imaginary and it wasn’t quite real, what was it? It was Cthulhu Lives.

Cthulhu Lives is the name given to a particular style of live-action Lovecraftian roleplaying created in Colorado in 1984. Cthulhu Lives is a blend between the notions of free-form make-believe and the carefully planned excitement of roleplaying games. An outgrowth of Chaosium’s CoC, Cthulhu Lives allows players to actually be investigators probing into strange dark mysteries. Rather than sitting around a table discussing breathtaking adventures and sanity-wrenching terrors, Cthulhu Lives players actually experience them, or, at least, convincingly realistic simulations of them. A game might feature translating documents from ancient Greek, but if it does, don’t count on your skill roll to help you: you have to really know Greek, or find a real person who can really help you. You might have a meeting with a creepy gardener in an abandoned boathouse: if you do, be prepared to really hoist yourself into the rafters of the old structure to find some concealed clues. You might have a horrific encounter with a Lovecraftian monstrosity: if so, don’t be surprised when an actual entity actually 18 feet tall moves inexorably toward you. Cthulhu Lives players really travel to the different locations, speak with actors playing the parts of NPCs (non-player characters), and if or when monsters rear their ugly heads, the players really run away. The desert trek described during this article took place in the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in southern Colorado, a vast expanse of sand, in May of 1986. As far as we were concerned, it was Egypt.

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We had gone for more than seven hours overland, each towering dune giving way to another beyond it. For every three steps forward, we slipped two steps back. The wind-driven sand stung. I was glad I had brought my goggles—without them I’d have been blind. I was nearly overwhelmed by exhaustion, the pitiless heat and the relentless pace set by our guide, and was immensely grateful when we stopped to rest and quench our thirst. Flo spoke quiet words of encouragement, sensing that I was on the verge of giving up. As we drank, Tuttle scanned the horizon with his binoculars. He shouted as he spotted something on a dune several hundred yards away. This time it was not a stray clump of dry grass, it was the body of a person, lying motionless in the sand. For the first time, Ansep Me Se looked genuinely troubled.

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Origins

In 1984 Sean Branney, a high school student in Denver, Colorado, invited a group of his friends to play a game they’d never heard of: Call of Cthulhu. They quickly became hooked and regularly gathered to play. Among these friends was Andrew Leman.

Sean and Andrew had met while doing a high-school play, and both planned to continue to study theatre in college. Knowing the power of real physical roleplaying, one day they discussed how much fun it would be to play a live-action version of their favorite game. They decided then and there to give it a try. Sean would write the first game with his friend Darrell Tutchton, and Andrew would organize the players. They decided to call their live-action version Cthulhu Lives. That’s how it all got started.

You can’t buy Cthulhu Lives in a store. There is no published rule book. Although there are certain guidelines established by tradition, and certain techniques that have proven with experience to be effective, each Cthulhu Lives adventure is a unique experience, with its own problems, solutions, and approaches. That is, perhaps, one of the most exciting things about it. Each game is an original creation by the people who play it, and, with very few exceptions, adventures are played only once. Each one is created for the people who play it and for the place where it is played: it is very difficult to replay it with different people or in a different location.

Cthulhu Lives is the embodiment of the word play in all its senses. It is structured, complex, layered, mind-bending, and fun. At its best it is a mental, emotional, and physical challenge. It has evolved over the years, growing from a lighthearted adaptation of a commercial game into something quite new and independent; something which is not easily categorized as a hobby, or as entertainment, or as a form of art. It is without question an extremely potent medium for intellectual and psychological exploration, in which its players constantly find new sources of terror, and joy, and wonder.

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We sat in a tight circle at the top of the dune as our guide rummaged through his bag. He produced some dry, leathery crackers, baked by his wife, and a melon. Without warning, he drew one of the scimitars he kept in the elaborate double scabbard on his back and, in an instant, the melon shattered into hunks. I greedily ate my slightly sandy piece of melon, much relieved that the enigmatic Ansep Me Se saved his swordplay for the fruit.

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Basic Structure

Although Cthulhu Lives is in every way a game, it is not competitive: there are neither winners nor losers. The game is played for its own sake. As in many roleplaying games, play is monitored by a game master, a guiding hand who creates the adventure, drives it forward, ensures fair play, makes things as safe as possible, and who ultimately controls the world of the game. This person is the Keeper.

The Keeper is the person (or persons) who conceives of a (more or less) original plot, almost always involving some kind of mystery or bizarre situation with Lovecraftian elements. The Keeper writes the plot of the adventure, fabricates evidence that will help solve the mystery (in the form of artifacts, documents, and other kinds of physical clues), creates monsters or other manifestations if the story requires them, and is responsible for finding locations to play in, and overseeing the conduct of the game experience. The Keeper usually also plays some NPC (often more than one) in the game. The Keeper enlists friends, and other people with special skills to offer, to play other non-player characters required by the story, and to help make props and find locations. The NPCs have some foreknowledge of the game’s plot, planned events, and the truth behind the mystery. Being the Keeper is quite a large job: having good NPCs is a real blessing.

The other group is made up of the Investigators. These are the people who will enter the mysterious situation created by the Keeper with no foreknowledge of what is to happen, and will roleplay their way through the situation in character. Although sometimes the Keeper will ask them to portray certain specific characters, usually the players are responsible for creating their own characters. Wise Keepers communicate with their players, learn what sorts of characters they will be playing, and then work that information into the plot of the game, taking advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of the Investigators who will be participating. Whether playing his/her own, or a character assigned by the Keeper, each player must flesh out the bare details and create as complete a characterization as possible. It requires a little more “acting” than standard roleplaying, but it’s not a “performance.” Experienced roleplayers with good imaginations and a little commitment are more than qualified. Each Investigator is responsible for his or her own costume and personal things, which can be a challenge, since our games are set in the 1920s. Players frequently haunt vintage and thrift stores, looking for period clothes and accessories. Although it might seem like the Keeper is doing most of the work and the Investigators are having most of the fun, being an Investigator is in its own way just as demanding a job. A game, after all, is nothing without players, and a game of Cthulhu Lives only works well when the Investigators are giving it their all.

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Sam and I had been through dangerous situations before, but as we huddled together for warmth that night in the desert, we knew this adventure could well be our last. In the cold night air I unlaced my gaiters, emptied the sand from my shoes, and crumpled my jacket into a sad parody of a pillow. As I leaned back and rested my aching muscles, I was overwhelmed by the night sky: even my years as an astronomer did not prepare me for the spectacular view of the stars wheeling overhead. I tried to keep up morale by pointing out various cheerful constellations, until our guide screamed out that the moon was in the position of G’harne and it was time we must take action against the Seti.

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Game Preparation

Preparing a game of Cthulhu Lives is a painstaking process—depending on the scope and complexity of the plot it can take months of work. The backstory of the adventure must be created. Plot ideas can come from many sources: in earlier years, many came directly from Mythos fiction, but recently Keepers have developed their own ideas, or expanded on themes and situations from previous Cthulhu Lives games. Often a Keeper will build a story around a particular location, prop, or effect. Some Keepers like to collaborate to develop their plots, and some playtest their ideas in a more traditional CoC-style format with the people who will play their NPCs, to explore options that might come up in live-action play. Once the backstory has taken shape, the Keeper must break the game into a sequence of scenarios: self-contained episodes of playable action, usually revolving around an event, a certain place or object, or a person.

The Keeper must create all of the clues and pieces of physical evidence which the Investigators will need to propel them from one scenario to the next. Much of the evidence is often in the form of documents: old letters, photographs, ancient books and scrolls.... Keepers use whatever materials and techniques will give them the result they desire. Some of the props are more complicated: magical items, bizarre machines, human skeletons, livestock, that kind of thing. Keepers make do as their budgets, schedules, and abilities allow, but all devote considerable resources to the creation of exciting and elaborate props. Sometimes special effects need to be engineered: special makeup, the appearance of a monster, the disappearance of an Investigator, the manifestation of a gateway to another dimension.... Beside their own ingenuity, Keepers make use of time-honored theatrical traditions, borrowed from classic stage magic, Japanese Kabuki theatre, and other sources. Some Keepers have relied on high-technology to produce some effects, schlepping elaborate sound systems and lighting equipment into remote locations, or communicating with assistants via CB radio. And sometimes there is simply no way to safely and convincingly simulate the desired effect, in which case sometimes the Keeper can establish a game “convention” which he or she explains to the players beforehand. (One time, for example, to simulate the effect of a “force field,” one Keeper put up a fence of strings around an object, and told the players in advance that when they saw string they could approach no closer.)

The Keeper needs to find and make arrangements to use suitable locations. The Keeper bears the vital responsibility of ensuring legality and safety for all of the participants as well as innocent bystanders of a scenario. If public places are to be used, and the playing is likely to generate suspicion or screams, sometimes the police have to be notified in advance, so that no one becomes unduly alarmed. Private locations tend to be more desirable, but it is imperative that the Keeper obtain permission to use a location: failure to do so can have unpleasant consequences. If the terrain is difficult, the conditions uncomfortable, or the action dangerous, then the Keeper is honor-bound to do a live trial run to test the action: Keepers never ask players to do something that they have not done themselves. This is particularly important when the consequences of untested actions could be life-threatening: e.g. rapelling, scuba diving.... Another Cthulhu Lives maxim that has developed is: “The Keeper cannot require the players actually to commit an illegal act (e.g. trespassing, speeding, theft, extortion...)” Characters must sometimes resort to criminal activity, but when such activity is required by the plot of the game, a legal way of simulating the action must be devised.

The Keeper needs to brief the NPCs very thoroughly, discussing the characters, plot and anticipated turn of events, and giving them some ideas for what to do in the likely event that things don’t go as planned. And security is always a concern. (The Keeper doesn’t want his potential Investigators to get any hints about what he or she might be planning: nasty surprises should be surprising, after all.) Good logistical planning is also important; in most instances, everyone should be supplied with good maps to locations, and punctuality is essential. Many times NPCs have sat in miserable conditions (tied to a tree, lying in a creek bed, buried under 6" of dirt...) waiting for players who stopped to get a Coke on the way. The game is much more fun when everyone can find the locations and arrive on time.

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Under the moonlight, I removed the Fragments of Celeano from my backpack. Following the obscure instructions, we laid out huge lengths of rope to form the glyph prescribed by the aged parchment. As the Seti loomed on the horizon, we assumed our positions at the points of an Elder Sign, two hundred feet across. We had each rehearsed the words of the ceremony silently to ourselves, to prepare for this moment. Our heads bowed in fear and humility, we intoned the verses of the ritual to summon Nodens, an elder god. Please, don’t let me forget them now! “Yesh shir uma yalkey...”

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Game Play

Once everything is ready, the game can begin. The Keeper organizes the schedules of all the people involved in the game and sets a time and place for the initial scenario. All of the players gather in character, for some purpose dictated by the plot (the Investigators might be summoned by a prospective employer, for example, or get a call for help from an old friend...) and the events are set in motion. The Investigators are presented with a situation, and must roleplay their way through it with no knowledge of what is to come. Each action they take leads to development of the case. They can conduct the investigation as they see fit, although the Keeper will have worked hard to anticipate their likely choices and prepare for them. It’s possible, even probable, that the Investigators will want to do something that the Keeper has not expected, in which case he or she will have to improvise to accommodate them. (Despite the most careful planning in the world, Cthulhu Lives games are one-shot, spontaneous creations, mutually constructed by all participants. Things invariably go wrong: some things work better than planned, others fail miserably. Players have learned to roll with the punches.)

Different adventures have different structures. Some are designed to last only a few hours and take place in a single session of play: others are sweeping epics that can take many weeks’ worth of individual scenarios to play through. The average game consists of several scenarios taking place over the course of two or three days, frequently culminating in a big finale. The most effective games have involved long weekends spent in isolated locations devoted exclusively to playing (one such game featured more than 40 hours of continuous play: the Investigators even slept in character). Some go exactly according to plan, but many are changed on the fly even as they are being played. The give and take between the NPCs and the Investigators can never be completely predicted. It creates a balance of power; the Investigators must respond to the Keeper and the Keeper must respond to the Investigators. Familiarity, trust and respect between all players are key elements of success.

We have never used skill rolls: either you can really do what’s needed or you can’t. In some special cases the Keeper has allowed an Investigator to use a skill he or she does not possess in life (psychic ability and lock picking are the two that leap to mind), but usually this serves the Keeper as much as the players, and in such cases the Keeper and the player in question make arrangements in advance.

In some adventures, magic use has been extremely important, and in others completely irrelevant. When a spell is used, it is usually an integral part of the plot, and is well prepared for. Casual magic use is very rare. Different Keepers have handled magic in different ways depending on their needs: there is no established procedure.

Although sanity is a major issue in CoC, its impact is perhaps more subtle in Cthulhu Lives. Without resorting to Sanity rolls, it’s hard to judge what impact reading a few pages of the Revelations of Glaaki or seeing a relative being dragged to sea by a Deep One will have. Players with some experience, who appreciate the mind-altering power of the forces at work in a game, are trusted to choose for themselves when their characters go mad; sometimes they choose to go insane slowly and sometimes in an instant, whichever seems more fun to them. On other occasions, the Keeper may privately instruct a player that after her encounter with Shub Niggurath, for example, she develops an overwhelming fear of trees. Again, a sense of “fair play” between the Keeper and the players has managed to keep sanity an exciting part of the game. (And sometimes sanity loss is self-evident. In the first game of Cthulhu Lives ever played, the Investigators discovered the disfigured corpse of a policeman in a hidden room. After the game was over, one player reported that, upon seeing the body, he could physically feel what he judged to be about five points’ worth of sanity draining out of him. When your character loses sanity in a game of Cthulhu Lives, you don’t need to roll any dice: you know it. The game has the power to really scare the crap out of you in a way that CoC can’t.)

Combat is a tricky issue in any sort of live roleplaying. Obviously, the chief concern is for the safety of the participants. The Keeper can best protect everyone by minimizing the number of situations where combat is the only means to an end. Gun battles are usually handled with cap guns; rulings on hits and misses fall under the sole jurisdiction of the Keeper. Squirt guns and even paint-ball guns have been used in some situations. Water balloons make excellent bombs/handgrenades. Hand to hand combat is more difficult to manage. Staged fights are accidents waiting to happen, except in the rare instances where the participants are certified Stage Combatants. Although some realism must be sacrificed, prop weapons and guns should always be made of soft and/or brightly colored materials. (Nothing is worse than having a passing policeman mistake your cap gun for the real thing, as once happened to us.) One way to have successful combat is simply to imagine it: by having NPCs say things to players like, “Me and Rocko here just beat you up.” Play can then safely resume with the Investigator writhing in pain in the aftermath of his or her beating. As always, games will go much better when they are uninterrupted by visits to the Emergency Room. In ten years of play, we have never had a single serious injury that was the direct result of Cthulhu Lives activity.

Although it is a live-action game, not every single moment of the story is necessarily played out physically. There are moments in every adventure when the Keeper and players use their imaginations only: when the action in question is simply too dangerous to play live, when the Investigators want to do something which the Keeper has not anticipated and cannot arrange to play live, or when the action involves magic or entities that simply cannot be satisfactorily simulated without spending thousands of dollars. Keepers try to structure their games so that live, in-character roleplaying is as continuous as possible, but sometimes everyone must break out of character long enough to get a Keeper ruling or make transitions to purely imaginary sections of play. And Investigators are free to break out of character at any time if they feel the need to. Even in purely imaginary sections, however, we still don’t use skill rolls. Common sense and the Keeper are the arbiters of success and failure.

The Keeper is usually personally present at all times during play, even if only as a shadowy figure in the background keeping a watchful eye on things. But sometimes the Keeper has to let his or her NPCs handle a scenario on their own, and sometimes the Investigators retreat to their own territory (a car, a hotel room...) to review their evidence and make their plans, in which case the Keeper is not present. To handle such situations, the Keeper needs to establish a system for communication between the Investigators and the Keeper. One of the most common is what has been called “Keeper Central,” which consists mostly of making sure the investigators have the Keeper’s phone number, and making sure that there is always someone to answer the phone while the game is in progress. Many times Keepers have turned their answering machines into Cthulhu Lives information clearinghouses. (People not involved in the game have gotten some inexplicably strange recorded greetings.)

This gives you an idea of some of the technical concerns, but actually playing Cthulhu Lives is far more than the sum of all these parts. To completely describe what it’s like is impossible: it is so fundamentally experiential in nature that the only way to really understand it is to play it yourself. It always operates on at least two levels of reality simultaneously: the “real” world and the world of the game. Keepers can use this to challenge their players by exploring real-life issues in an imaginary context. As a vehicle for metaphorical expression, this two-level structure has a power that no other form of literature or entertainment can match. The levels merge in a fascinating, perception-bending way: when you read descriptions of games we’ve played in the past, it is pointless to try to separate what “really” happened from what was only imaginary or pretend. It’s all both.

At the end of every game, usually immediately following the final scenario, when the Investigators are flushed with victory (or defeat) and the NPCs are covered in mud, or blood or slime or something, all the players and the Keeper have a postmortem debriefing. This usually takes place at a Denny’s or similar restaurant (chocolate shakes and onion rings are the traditional victory snack). During the postmortem, all participants relax and share their perceptions of what occurred during the game, and delight in retelling the story from their own points of view. Keepers get a chance to tell the Investigators about all the subtle and brilliantly-placed clues that they missed, Investigators get to tell everyone how it felt to see the monster, or the cultists, or whatever, and what they were thinking when they did such-and-such, and the NPCs get to tell the Investigators how scared they looked when they were running away, or doing the spell, or realizing some hideous truth. Besides being enormously fun in their own right, these sessions help refine the gaming skills of Keepers and Investigators alike.

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I didn’t hear, so much as feel, the presence of the entity. The silence there in the desert was terrifying: even the wind seemed to have stopped blowing. It was cold, but that’s not why I was shivering. I heard Allison gasp as the thing moved past her. What had it done? I could not open my eyes. Suddenly, I could feel it moving towards me.

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Cthulhu Lives Organizations

In its first years (1984-1987), the players of Cthulhu Lives did not have a name or formal structure. It was simply an association of friends who created and developed their own unique form of live-action roleplaying, based on a commercial roleplaying game. The name of the game was informal, and mostly just for fun.

In January of 1987 the group opted to formally create an organization, called The H P Lovecraft Historical Society. Sean Branney served as President, while Andrew Leman and Philip Bell served as Co-Vice Presidents. The HPLHS began publication of a monthly newsletter entitled Strange Eons, edited by Andrew Leman and Philip Bell, which continued for over two years. The Society also founded the HPLHS Press, which published very limited editions of books of interest to the membership. Game activities continued under the auspices of the new organization, whose membership quickly grew to approximately 80 persons across America and in several other countries, including England, Australia, Germany, Canada, and Italy. Cthulhu Lives games were produced in the United States and in England. The HPLHS Press subsequently issued hard-bound sets of the first two volumes of Strange Eons. Under the direction of Andrew Leman, the HPLHS also produced a short film adaptation of a Lovecraft story in the summer of 1987, entitled The Testimony of Randolph Carter.

The HPLHS went into mothballs in the early 1990s when its three executive officers all moved to different cities, making organized work nearly impossible. Although game activity continued in separate locations, regular publication of the newsletter was discontinued, and membership fees were no longer collected. Presently, the HPLHS is not dead, but dreaming....

Although the HPLHS fell into dormancy, Cthulhu Lives activity continued to flourish. Between 1988-1991, many games were centered in Southern California, where Sean Branney was pursuing his professional theatre career. Sean was able to take advantage of Hollywood resources in the creation of some very memorable Cthulhoid moments.

A large group of eager players also formed at the University of Illinois, where Andrew Leman attended graduate school. In early 1992, Andrew, based in Chicago, and Jamie Anderson formally named the Revisionist Historical Society as an organization for Cthulhu Lives activity in the Midwest. The RHS became the most active group of Cthulhu Lives players in the country. The games of the RHS, while still drawing on Lovecraft for inspiration, tended also to explore historical themes and involve notable historical characters and events.

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Sam and Tuttle seemed to have them on the run. I checked to make sure the women were all right—Allison and Flo were probably handling the onslaught better than I was. I saw the dark shapes silhouetted in the moonlight as they reached the crest of the dune. I pulled out my revolver and aimed, but it was useless. Despite all the precautions I had taken, sand clogged every crevice. I started to run after them. “Sam!” I shouted. “Kravat! Tuttle!” I struggled up the side of the dune. Without my shoes on, it was even slower going than before. “It’s all right, Digby,” Sam’s familiar voice drifted down from above. “They’re gone.”

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In the 16 years since Cthulhu Lives was first created, its players have produced 64 original live-action adventures, involving a total well over 300 people as active participants. The games have been as small as a one-evening dinner party, and as large as a three-part epic lasting for eight months that involved, among other things, a mummified corpse in a hidden basement, 35 live rats, rooting around a mountaintop cemetery, and the midnight banishment of a very powerful deity. Some games have been simple and straightforward, others have involved elaborate special effects, sets, props and costumes, and even (in one notable case) a herd of horses. Games have been played in diverse locations: ghost towns of the Colorado Rockies, the Great Sand Dunes, Death Valley, the Pacific Ocean, a Gothic Mansion in Iowa, the British Museum in London, and on the campus of Cambridge University. Investigators have witnessed the full-scale manifestations of Nodens, Mi-Go, Hounds of Tindalos, Deep Ones, Ghouls, a Yithian, Shub Niggurath, and several avatars of Nyarlathotep. They’ve met Aliester Crowley, John Dee, Rasputin, Harry Houdini, John Wilkes Booth, and an entire village of Native Americans. Investigators have travelled to the Dreamlands, Egypt, the Gobi Desert, Russia, England, and medieval France, not to mention the halls of Miskatonic University. They’ve jumped off roofs, plummeted through dimensional gateways, escaped from asylums, exhumed corpses, crawled down mine shafts, explored tunnels, waded into seaside caves, climbed cathedral towers, dredged lakes, broken into secret vaults, scaled mountains, sailed in ghostly boats, battled some congregations of cultists, and run like hell from others. All for real.

The motto of the HPLHS and the RHS is Ludo Fore Putavimus: a Latin phrase meaning “We thought it would be fun.” And it is.