So it was written, and so it was done—128 years ago to this day, H.P. Lovecraft was born, and with him came the creation of a vast and terrifying world. An ancient place of gods, magic, and monsters. Here’s a collection of some board games and tabletop role-playing games that took inspiration from everything Lovecraftian. Step into the void and savor the delights.
Some of these are classics, others newer entries into the realm. Keep in mind, it’s just a piece of the vast collection of games set within the Lovecraftian mythos—I can’t include them all or this piece would be 5,000 words long, at least. So, if you have a favorite game or expansion that you’d like to highlight, leave it in the comments.
Call of Cthulhu
You can’t beat the classics. Call of Cthulhu is one of the greatest pen and paper RPGs ever created, inspiring decades of stories, expansions, and fan creations. We’re even getting a video game adaptation on Steam this fall! If you’ve played RPGs, chances are you know this one or have even plunged into its depths yourself. But have you tried all of the expansions? Here are a couple standouts:
Cthulhu Dark Ages: It’s exactly what it sounds like—Lovecraftian horror in the Dark Ages. Dark magic, warlords, and terrifying diseases that are most likely preventable nowadays.
Cthulhu by Gaslight: It’s the same premise as Batman’s Gotham by Gaslight, taking place in the Victorian Age with some of its most-notorious inhabitants—both fictional and real. Expect run-ins with folks like Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper.
Pulp Cthulhu: Who doesn’t love a good trashy novel? A seventh edition expansion, this adapts the game as a piece of ‘30s pulp fiction. Another benefit is this game toughens up the heroes a bit, making your chances of dying horribly or suffering permanent madness a little lighter.
Cthulhu Rising: Lovecraft in space. Practically sells itself.
Trail of Cthulhu
Another classic, this investigative role-playing game (which uses the GUMSHOE system) comes to us from Lovecraft expert Kenneth Hite and is full of in-depth knowledge and expertise about everything in his mythical world. It also features two distinct forms of play: Pulp (for a more action-packed adventure game), or Purist (when you want to be scared out of your brains).
A near-future apocalypse inspired by Lovecraftian mythos, this popular role-playing game is currently open beta testing its second edition called The Shadow War (available for free if you want to chime in).
This one isn’t for the faint of heart. Lovecraftian role-playing games are usually intense, but this one takes the knob and cranks it all the way to “holy shit.” Funded on Kickstarter just last year and now available, this one is described as a “bleak horror,” where players are trapped in a survival mode against a dark and forbidding horror that they can barely understand, let alone fight. It’s also very simple with a small rulebook, which means players don’t have to work so hard before entering the RPG’s world itself.
De Profundis is a role-playing game for people with a creative side, especially those who don’t have a regular gaming group. It’s a correspondence-based story played through a series of letters that the players write each other in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s incredibly simple and there are few restrictions on how it can be played—characters can exist in different times, or even in different realities. It’s recommended the letters be handwritten, or at the very least mailed, but again that’s a flexible rule based on need.
And here’s the best part: Since it’s based in letter writing, it’s not a sit-down-and-play type of game. Meaning you don’t have to play together. Rather, it’s something you can do remotely, making it a good option for people who don’t have their own gaming group or have trouble getting a team together.
Another unique story-writing RPG where players get together and create a terrifying story in the vein of Lovecraft’s works. tremulus is designed to be simple and easy-to-learn storytelling venture—great for Lovecraftian fans, as well as novices just getting into role-playing games for the first time.
Lovecraftian games often have players take on the role of people or investigators trying to combat the rise of the Old Ones. But what if you could actually be the Old Ones? That’s the plot of Cthulhu Wars, a strategy game where players take on the role of monstrous aliens trying to take over the world. You can play as individual monsters, like Cthulhu, or as factions like the slithering hordes of the Crawling Chaos. You win when Earth loses.
A’Writhe: A Game of Eldritch Contortions
The best way I can describe this game is Twister meets Lovecraft. In A’Writhe, players team up in groups of two—one playing the Old One, the other the cultist summoning them—and complete a series of pattern challenges using their bodies. It’s not a game where you’re going to learn a lot about Lovecraftian horror, but you will probably get a chuckle or two watching your friends twist themselves into terrifying pretzels.
Mansions of Madness
Now on its second edition, this has been called “the future of board gaming.” The app-assisted Mansions of Madness has players venturing through the homes and streets of Arkham in a desperate attempt to engage, defeat, or simply survive its many threats—in a similar vein to something like Betrayal at House on the Hill. This version uses an app that takes on the role of Keeper, meaning no one has to take on the role of quasi-GM. It’s also got plenty of expansions, adding some excellent variety to the gameplay.
A short, quick card game where two players each try to bring the other to madness. Gameosity’s review rightly pointed out that it’s pretty similar to Rummy, in that players are mostly trying to get rid of their cards (while avoiding madness tokens) before their opponent does. That said, I enjoy a good quick card game, and having it center around torturing my opposing teammate is a nice bonus.
A Study in Emerald
This one is especially interesting because it’s not technically Lovecraftian. It’s actually based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, but it takes place within the realm that Lovecraft originally envisioned. In A Study in Emerald, the Old Ones have risen to power and control the world, as they have for hundreds of years. Players take on the role of Restorationists, a secret group of fighters who are trying to reclaim the planet from the cursed gods. That is, unless they’re actually Loyalists, eager to serve and please the masters by ruining the Restorationists’ plans. Who is playing who, you might ask? It’s a secret, keeping the game intense and exciting.
Lovecraftian Versions of Other Games
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu
This version of Pandemic replaces the global disease apocalypse with the rise of the Old Ones, making it great for people who are familiar with Pandemic’s gameplay style and propensity for complete annihilation. Seriously, who here has ever won a game of Pandemic? I won the first time around so naturally, I thought I was special, but every single follow-up has ended in utter disaster.
I’m a fan of Love Letter, it’s a great short game to pull out if you have a few minutes and want to have some casual fan. This version takes the same mechanic and adds H.P. Lovecraft into the mix—instead of trying to get a love letter to a princess, you’re investigating a mysterious horror that leads you right into Cthulhu’s midst. Though he can actually be a buddy and help you out if you play your cards right. The mechanics on this one are easy, and I really enjoy the design. A fun and lighthearted adaptation.
Pathfinder: Strange Aeons
This was the 19th Pathfinder Adventure Path campaign, which ran from August 2016 to February 2017 and is currently available as a set. It featured a series of Lovecraftian stories, horrors, and creatures, under a special agreement with Chaosium. For those who aren’t experienced in Pathfinder, the campaign is for first-level characters, making it accessible even for newer players.
I still can’t believe this one exists. Cute animated Munchkins face down the most terrifying god of them all, the Great Cthulhu, in the ultimate battle for survival. There are several expansions for this game—one of which even features a Cowthulhu! What? This is seriously amazing.
[Ed’s note: io9 recognizes that while H.P. Lovecraft’s works inspired a lot of good, the man himself was racist and his works deeply problematic. We regret that this post celebrating some wonderful gaming creations came off as a celebration of the man himself.—Jill P.]