Paul StJohn Mackintosh

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A review of Malleus Monstrorum: Cthulhu Mythos Bestiary, by Mike Mason and Scott David Aniolowski, with Paul Fricker

Originally published in 2006, Malleus Monstrorum followed the tradition of S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters (1988) in bringing the D&D Monster Manual and Fiend Folio approach to the Cthulhu Mythos. Chaosium has now doubled down on the great tradition of Call of Cthulhu monsters and malevolences: literally, since this is in two volumes. It’s certainly sumptuous. The slipcased two-volume hardcover edition is $89.99; the PDF is $39.99. There’s also a special leatherette hard-cover edition for all of $199.99. The cover and interior art by Loïc Muzy is literally mind-blowing, and the larger colour plates are superb.

There’s no questioning the compendiousness of the volume. You can see on the credits and copyrights page the extent to which the authors have ransacked the estates of various Cthulhu Mythos writers – Eddy C. Bertin, Ramsey Campbell, Lin Carter, Walter C. DeBill, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, T.E.D. Klein, Henry Kuttner, Brian Lumley, Gary C. Myers, Richard F. Searight, Clark Ashton Smith, Donald Wandrei, Colin Wilson – to reframe just about all of their creations as CoC creatures. Every variation on more or less canonical creatures and divine beings is rung.

All this is a summary of the new edition’s many excellences. Those are self-evident, and any problem I have with its approach is purely personal. All the same, I do have very specific issues with it.

For one thing, there’s a certain schizophrenia in its approach. The introductory essays give extensive advice to Keepers on presenting Mythos creatures ambiguously, ringing the changes on their descriptions, ideally never referring to them directly by name unless you want to skip over them with as little time and trouble as possible. Yet you have umpteen specific, concrete articulations of the monsters in the most concrete terms, exhaustively particularized. Is that going to boost Keepers’ imaginations, or channel and tramline them?

Then there’s the more than a little gung-ho approach to Mythos deities and demigods. For some historical perspective on this, way back in an interview with Different Worlds magazine in February 1982, Sandy Petersen talked about the design process behind the original Call of Cthulhu: “At first, I tried to simply write up all the different deities as if they were normal monsters, listing SIZ, POW, and so forth for each different god, along with some brief notes about the cult, if any, of that particular being. I quickly discovered that this approach was unsuitable, since the scores I gave the various monster gods was too completely arbitrary, and the possibility of harming one in the course of play too remote for their statistics to really matter… I listed each god according to its effects when summoned, its characteristics, its worshipers, and the gifts or requirements that it demanded of those worshipers. This approach was eminently workable, and I was quite self-satisfied at its conclusion. Later on in the development of the book, Steve Perrin wanted to re-include the statistics for the deities, and thus the STR, INT, etc. of Cthulhu and the rest are now included in the game again.”

I side with Sandy Petersen on this one. Not only is the prospect of damaging a god just a little bit ridiculous in any context, it absolutely goes against the core Lovecraftian thesis that humanity is less than ants before utterly powerful and incomprehensible deities. Call of Cthulhu, needless to say, does not implement that line of thinking in its system, and Malleus Monstrorum definitely doesn’t. For instance, “Mythos deities are not (in the main) omnipotent.” That isn’t exactly the impression that one gets from Lovecraft’s descriptions of Azathoth, or even hints about Yog-Sothoth. “If hand-to-hand melee with an Old One is what you are going for, then cool – this is your game, so go for it.” Well fine, except that your game is likely to be lacking in both Lovecraftian and horror – something of a problem with a game of Lovecraftian horror. Petersen said about Call of Cthulhu in the same interview, “in the game’s present form, it plays much like an adventure mystery, such as the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Nothing wrong with that, except that it misses out so much of what made Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos so unique and so genuinely terrifying.

The hobby has grown a lot since the early days of Call of Cthulhu and Petersen’s interview, with a whole raft of different approaches and styles. Despite its seven reiterations, I’m not sure that Call of Cthulhu itself has grown all the way with it. Mythos gaming has grown out and ramified in all kinds of directions from its original CoC roots, but Malleus Monstrorum doesn’t seem to have fallen far from the tree. And I wonder if this is going to leave Chaosium with an audience burnout problem, where players take up the game in a flush of adolescent enthusiasm, then drop it later because it has only limited room to grow up with them. Other RPGs, not least Delta Green, are as adult as they come, and supported by robust fan bases. For me at least, Call of Cthulhu still looks to be ploughing the (admittedly well-worn and well-tried) furrow of monster-bashing, and going monstrously monstrous on monster adversaries with a monster volume of material. Powergaming, levelling-up, minmaxing and twinking has worked well enough for D&D, after all, so why not keep pushing those same approaches For those players who game to indulge their wish-fulfilment power fantasies, Malleus Monstrorum provides whole gods that you can squash.

Of course there’s probably a bit of that kind of player in all RPGers, but there are other styles of play too, and powergaming is particularly jarring in a genre that is supposed to be about helplessness. I mean, one of the prime attractions of Call of Cthulhu was supposed to be that the more you encountered the Mythos and its creatures, the more deranged and hence helpless you became. Yet a big target HP total for a god makes it just another end level boss to bash with a bigger bashy thing. Face it, hit point stats are there so you can hit things and grind up. Hitting gods may work in D&D, but it’s hardly recommended in most other less powergaming-focused systems. If you can hit something, you can kill it: ergo, it’s only scary to a certain extent. Lovecraft’s deities and demigods suffered from no such limitation.

Also, look at the sheer crunchiness of Malleus Monstrorum. It’s all compendious stats and detail. So many RPGs now are launched as rules-lite in one form or another, including many independent Cthulhu hacks. Delta Green’s essential system rules run to just 96 pages. Fate Condensed runs to just 68 pages; The Cthulhu Hack runs to 52 pages. And One Page Cthulhu is… well. Yet, CoC’s DNA is solid BRP, just like Delta Green. It just goes to show the different ways things can go.

My feeling is that, if a large slice of the RPG community has moved away from stats-intensive, crunch-heavy systems, it’s for a good reason. But for those whose appetite for sheer crunch hasn’t been satisfied by Warhammer 40,000, we have in 7th edition Call of Cthulhu 288 pages of Investigator Handbook and 448 pages of Keeper Rulebook. And yes, 480 pages of Malleus Monstrorum.

H.P. Lovecraft himself wrote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” But in Malleus Monstrorum, everything is known, known: ground out in stats right down to most exhaustive, exhausting, tiresome detail. Where’s the mystery, the fear, in that? Azathoth has 500 POW, wow! That’s really Powerful! Like, that means that you actually need 50 average human magic practitioners to equal the Demon Sultan principle of all Creation and embodiment of all the forces of the entire Universe. Feel strong, you 50 dudes! And this is supposed to be the world’s Number One horror RPG.

Look at the alternative approach in Trail of Cthulhu: “we have included only two statistics for gods and titans, the additional Stability loss and Sanity loss suffered when they are encountered… Everything else is and should be entirely arbitrary and immense. Fighting a Great Old One is like fighting an artillery barrage. It doesn’t matter how many shotguns you brought.” Sure, the introduction to Malleus Monstrorum also states that: “the Cthulhu Mythos is unknowable to humanity. What scraps of information are known are drawn from rare and fragmentary texts, conversations with wizards and witches, and from life-altering exposure… What “canon” exists is loose and unreliable.” Yet that declaration seems to be working at the very least at cross purposes with the actual contents of the book. There’s an awful lot of very emphatic stats and numbers for stuff that is supposed to be so unknowable. And ultimately players are likely to be most guided by the mechanics.

Chaosium’s recent revival has produced some truly fantastic Call of Cthulhu products: Berlin – The Wicked City springs to mind; or Harlem Unbound. And there’s no denying the sheer material quality of their current reborn product range. But I do have big reservations about a large slice of their approach, and Malleus Monstrorum exemplifies those reservations. For me, it succeeds in being at once both overpowering and underwhelming. Its sheer physical quality, and quantity, masks significant conceptual shortcomings. It’s the Super Size big-box belly-filler for an audience whose tastes have grown a lot more diverse and sophisticated. Sometimes more really is less.

That said, anyone like me who enjoys a lower-key, more complex and nuanced approach to their RPGs has got to face up to one thing with Lovecraft: Is he more famous for his philosophy of pessimistic cosmicism, or for the monsters he created? I doubt he’d have anything like the name brand recognition, or the long tail of RPGs following on his legacy, if it wasn’t for tentacular Cthulhu and all the other creatures he used to embody his fears. Perhaps it’s unfair to beat Malleus Monstrorum up for an issue that starts with the author himself.

Anyway, that’s Malleus Monstrorum for you. It doesn’t incorporate much of the new narrativist developments in RPGs. It pushes the original, traditional, simulationist approach, and 1980s attitude to monsters and challenges, just about as far as it can go. So long as you’re happy with those limitations, this is as good as it can possibly get.

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