Friday, 22 May 2015

Fun-sizing the Great Old Ones: Azathoth

On there was recently some discussion about why Ramsey Campbell's creations get so much time in Call of Cthulhu. This turned into a discussion of how certain Great Old Ones are more gaming-friendly than others. I've been meaning to write something about this for literally years, so I knuckled down. My first post addresses how Azathoth, the demon sultan of imbecilic madness that writhes at the centre of the universe, can be made a little easier to use in a game.

The starting point for my thoughts, ages ago, was actually the big green himself. Given the entire game is named after him, Cthulhu hardly seems to appear at all in Call of Cthulhu. Meanwhile, Shub-Niggurath and Nyarlathotep gibber on every corner, and Hastur has already bought most of the real estate. Why is this?

I hope you'll accept an assertion that some entities are simply easier to use in games than others. Let me try to outline some of the factors that affect that. As always, there will be bullet points. Sorry, that's just how I roll.

As always, YMMV. Some Keepers will have a particular affinity for a given obscure GOO and find creative ways to use them, particularly if they have a lot of little-known source material to draw on, or have fleshed out the entity in their own games (or imaginations).

Great Old Ones and the End User

Let me step back a bit. Strictly speaking, it isn't difficult to use anything in your game within given parameters. The question is, at what point does it matter that this is the GOO in question? To take an absurd line:

  • if, according to campaign notes, Yig is buried under Birmingham New Street, but the players never learn of this nor encounter any consequences of it, it is irrelevant.
  • if the party encounter Great Cthulhu, but he turns out to be a gigantic purple woodlouse who plays jazz saxophone in a cave in the Alps and petrifies humans with a touch, this is so far removed from the canonical notion of Cthulhu that it is essentially not Cthulhu at all.
  • if an adventure features Hastur exactly as described in the rulebook, but doesn't include any dreams, artists, literature, corruption, the King in Yellow, references to Carcosa or Aldeberan, the Unspeakable Promise, nor byakhees, it isn't a very Hasturian scenario.
  • if an adventure features a serial killer mad sorcerer who grinds human skulls into delicious bread, and at the end the Investigators fall through a mirror into R'lyeh and are eaten by Cthulhu... that's a bit of a diabolus ex machina rather than a Cthulhoid aventure.

Clearly, there must be some aspects of a Great Old One-themed scenario that underpin whether or not it actually comes across as being about that GOO.

  • do the players, and preferably the Investigators, ever learn anything that indicates the GOO's involvement in events? Even a cult can be insufficient if the cult's affiliation isn't discussed.
  • does the GOO largely correspond to the canonical or customary descriptions of the entity, and its behaviour? If not, it is essentially another creature bearing the same name.
  • does the scenario feature thematic elements associated with that Great Old One? These make the involvement of the creature more meaningful. If you're just using a Great Old One as a big monster, why bother?
  • does the Great Old One relate to the events of the scenario? If not, you're tying two disparate elements together, and that leads to incoherent narratives.


You generally want a GOO to be a significant element of a scenario, not a tangent. I mean, you can name-drop Hastur every so often to enhance a general mythosy air, but if you're trying to build a scenario based on a GOO, you want build-up. A Cthulhoid scenario should feel different from a Hasturian one should feel different from a Nyarlathotepic one.

Cues are usually a mixture of set-dressing, NPC archetypes, plot events and narrative themes. Coming back to Hastur: you'll generally find yellow, silks, books, masks and an air of decay; mad artists, playwrights and people suffering delusions; dreams and people driven mad by art; and themes of corruption, the hazy boundaries of reality, and how one place or person can become another.

I think the convenience of cues is one of the major factors affecting the prevalence of certain GOOs over others. We're talking about a creative endeavour here, writing scenarios. Most people, I would think, start out with inspiration for events or themes and then develop the specifics (rather than picking a GOO and writing a scenario for them). Obviously, it's much more likely that one of your ideas will fit a GOO if that GOO has some clear, distinctive themes associated with it.

It's also statistically more probable that a GOO with broad, general talking points will be adaptable for a wide range of scenarios. Nyarlathotep's schtick is, basically, "manipulation and chaos". Those are incredibly flexible - you can virtually stick Nyarly into any scenario featuring mysterious goings-on. Not only can you easily find a way to use him, lots of different people can think of lots of different ways, without getting repetitive. Ironically, this does mean Nyarly has become somewhat ubiquitous and I personally find "A Mask of Nyarlathotep did it and ran away" rather tired, but that's just me. Sometimes he's perfect. In contrast, Abhoth doesn't seem to be associated with anything in particular - it just is.

A strong, broad set of themes makes it easy to evoke and flag up the involvement of a particular Great Old One, and makes it more likely that a scenario will naturally lend itself to using that Great Old One. Narrow themes, or a lack of them, makes it less likely that a Great Old One will suggest itself when you're writing scenarios, and makes it much harder to build up towards them.


Great Old Ones themselves typically sort of hang around waiting for unwary Investigators or to be summoned from somewhere. But things need to happen in the scenario. How can this be?

What we tend to need here is middlemen. Typically, these are either cultists or victims. Cultists actively serve the GOO in some capacity towards particular goals - although whether they have the faintest idea of what they're doing, or what the GOO would actually want, is another question. Victims simply exhibit the GOO's power and presence, either through the ways in which they suffer, or through behaviour forced upon them.

What middlemen do, I think (and bear in mind I'm writing this fairly late at night as stream-of-consciousness) is provide a link between the Great Old One that forms the crux of the scenario, and the symptoms that attract the Investigators' notice. Often they are themselves the symptoms. Essentially, any programme other than "Investigators fall into hole, meet Cthulhu" needs them to encounter something odd and trace it back to Cthulhu. Cultists can do those suspicious things, provide a link to Cthulhu, and as a bonus can be tied into the appropriate themes.


So, you want a Great Old One in your scenario? Then they probably need to have some kind of screen-time, otherwise it's actually a scenario about something else that happens to mention the GOO.

The GOO doesn't necessarily need to show up as such. Of course, actually appearing is a perfectly viable option. Another is the use of a powerful servitor closely tied to the GOO, such as the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath, together with strong hints that the GOO herself is around.

Some GOOs lend themselves more to personal appearances than others, and these are typically the more placid or inscrutable ones. Tulzscha is a pillar of green fire, which can happily hang around and chill. Nyarlathotep has many Masks (sigh) but it's well-established that many of them will wait patiently, and even converse with Investigators and then let them go. Tsathoggua is very lazy and can be observed and then fled from. Investigators might interact with some of these entities midway through a scenario, moving on to take whatever action necessary to escape or stop them. They might even encounter them multiple times.

In contrast, Ghatanathoa turns nearby people to stone, while Azathoth's presence can annihilate anything. While these aren't bad in themselves, it tends to mean that an encounter will be the climactic final scene of a scenario (and, indeed, a campaign), and in particular that failure will be absolute. A summoning ritual is a fairly popular way of handling this, but again relies either on it being the end of the scenario, or on the ritual being prevented.

What about Cthulhu?

So what is it that makes Cthulhu himself difficult to use? Well, let's take a look at what we've got.

Cthulhu is a gigantic green squid-faced monster who sleeps in sunken R'lyeh in the deep Pacific, from where he sends dreams of cyclopean cities, and is worshipped by bands of murderous cultists who chant his praises.

I think that's pretty clear? Let me go over that again, highlighting the problem aspects.

Cthulhu is a gigantic green squid-faced monster who sleeps in sunken R'lyeh in the deep Pacific, from where he sends dreams of cyclopean cities, and is worshipped by bands of murderous cultists who chant his praises.

Cthulhu's form is a bit of problem. He's enormous, and therefore if he appears people are going to know about it. A huge green monster is very distinctive, so people will be pretty confident in what they're seeing. It's also hard to explain away, whereas some of the more nebulous entities (Daoloth, say) can be handwaved as optical illusions or strange gaseous clouds. Whereas some GOOs annihilate matter or crash around like floodwaters, both of which leave minimal evidence, Cthulhu walks on feet that probably leave footprints, and puts flabby clawmarks in buildings. It's hard for Cthulhu to appear anywhere discreetly, so he can't really lurk somewhere for a long time. An appearance in any crowded place tends to undermine the secrecy of the Mythos, so unless it's a serious apocalyptic scenario, you now have lots of witnesses and a fair amount of evidence that giant green squid-faced monsters exist.

Cthulhu's location is specific, and that's a disadvantage. One thing about the popular GOOs is that they're not tied to any location - it's simply more flexible. Hastur is normally in Carcosa (arguably) but Carcosa can be anywhere. These entities can be summoned wherever is convenient. Others are tied to types of location rather than individual ones - both Glaaki and Eihort have been moved into these categories, despite officially having one fixed home. Cthulhu does give us a concrete place to visit, which offers a cue, but R'lyeh is really hard to get to. The middle of the Pacific is a pretty niche market for typical Investigators, so you're not just going to be there by chance (whereas New York? London? easy) and there are far fewer pretexts to bring Investigators there than a town or historic site offers. Once you do get to the middle of the Pacific, you're still stuck. Humans don't go underwater much, and very few Investigators are deep-sea divers or submariners, so getting them to the bottom of the ocean is a problem. R'lyeh can rise, of course, but there's a very strict limit on how often you can do that before it just gets silly. Even if we generalise to say Cthulhu inhabits the ocean in general, it's still remarkably hard to get Investigators there. Conversely, if Cthulhu starts wandering out onto the coast, you're quickly ending up playing Godzilla rather than Call of Cthulhu.

Thirdly, Cthulhu is surprisingly short on usable cues. It must be that smooth, flabby body - very few things to hook onto. Dreams of cyclopean architecture are extremely specific, and don't seem to offer very much gameplay potential. The Sea is associated with... fish, boats, seaweed? 'Orrible things on the ocean floor? But again, these are specific. They're set dressing, but not themes. He has several dangerous cults, but it's noticeable that none of these cults seem to have any particular objectives other than waiting for the Stars to be Right. They commit the occasional ritual sacrifice or murder, but they seem extremely generic as Crazed Cultists.

In a later post (I'll link that too) I'll try to find some more usability for Cthulhu.

EDIT: see Fun-Sizing Cthulhu.


  1. Awesome series of posts (spotted the Yoggie one). Looking forward to Nyarlathotep! Though will that need to be a post per Mask? ;)

    1. Glad you're enjoying it! Just to warn you, I'm aiming to hit the little-used GOOs mostly, and Nyarly is really overexposed, so it's not going to be a priority. But I'd probably go for separate masks, it's more flexible - if you don't like the "everyone is secretly Nyarlathotep" thing it might give some more ideas.