Ask someone if they’ve ever played a tabletop role-playing game, and their likely answer will be something along the lines of “Oh, like Dungeons & Dragons, right?” But in certain corners of the world, a many-tentacled beast has its tendrils deep in the hearts of tabletop RPGs: Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu.
Call of Cthulhu is a role-playing game inspired by the works of early-20th-century author H.P. Lovecraft, who is widely credited for the popularization of “cosmic” horror. In Lovecraft’s most memorable works, like At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, he suggests that humanity is a very small player in a universe run by huge, unknowable gods and entities.
It’s that eerie premise which some players and creators say accounts for its global popularity.
“Call of Cthulhu is about these giant, scary cosmic gods and monsters against our puny human beings, but that’s not the whole story, because those puny human beings are actively resisting and fighting, although we all know that they’re doomed anyway,” said Sungil Kim of Dayspring Games.
“But they still stand and when they die, other investigators take over and the fight continues, and I find it very heroic, more so than any space captains or fantasy warriors. That moves me and I think it speaks to a lot of other people too.”
Kim and his wife, Narim Park, worked together to license Call of Cthulhu from Chaosium in 2016 for South Korea. Speaking with Polygon, Kim said that the tabletop role-playing market in Korea isn’t large to begin with, but the Lovecraft-inspired game has quickly dominated it.
“I think almost everyone has played with it at least once,” he told Polygon.
“Our usual sales channel is bookstores, rather than gaming shops, because there aren’t any game shops per se in Korea. The [main] rulebook once topped the charts. It was one of the 100 bestselling books, total, in Korea.”
Those sales are also reflected in the data that shows Call of Cthulhu’s growth in popularity over the last decade. In 2014, the second edition of the Orr Report came out, providing statistics in the tabletop gaming industry based on user surveys of Roll20, a tabletop gaming website and support tool platform. It placed Call of Cthulhu in a distant 16th place of its most-played games, well behind the top 10 list that included Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, and, at the top of the list, Pathfinder.
But over the years, Call of Cthulhu slowly crept up the list, breaking into the top 10 2016, then continuing to creep upward before, as the report for early 2018 noted, shooting “up from the eighth most-played game on Roll20 to the fourth.” Call of Cthulhu then rocketed into second place, behind the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons in Q2 of 2019, and has subsequently seen big user jumps, like in the report in Q2 of 2021. That same report also noted a global popularity for the horror RPG, which has seen massive growth in East Asia, in countries like Japan and South Korea.
Roll20 told Polygon that 20% of Call of Cthulhu users play in a language other than English. That’s double the rate of other systems. In particular, 10% of Cthulhu players play in Korean, versus less than 1% for other systems. That popularity is also reflected on the Miskatonic Repository, a segment of DriveThruRPG that hosts community-created content for the Call of Cthulhu RPG. On the website, a majority of the most popular scenarios are in languages other than English, including three out of the top five scenarios as of Jan. 25, 2023, which are all in Korean.
That fan creation community is a vital part of the RPG’s success overseas. In Korea, those communities are known as “keomyus.”
“It’s short for community or communication,” Kim says. “It’s about creating characters and playing without any real rules. The people who used to play that came to Call of Cthulhu and pretty much continued doing what they had been doing in those keomyus. The precedent that made the keomyu people have interest in Call of Cthulhu has a lot to do with Call of Cthulhu’s popularity in Japan.”
The single top non-Jpn RPG in Japan is Call of Cthulhu, by leagues. It's the most common point of entry to the hobby. To put into perspective, the CoC shelves at biggest RPG store in Japan are about the size of all the other RPGs together. Behold, Matt in awe. ALL THAT is CoC. pic.twitter.com/eCxD9Smz23— Andy K (@diamondsutra) June 26, 2019
A Japan-based translator of tabletop RPGs who noted Call of Cthulhu’s market supremacy in Japan is Andy Kitkowski, who tweeted a photo in 2019 of store shelves swamped by Call of Cthulhu sourcebooks and fan material. The tweet was even quote-tweeted by Chaosium, a curiosity that Kitkowski couldn’t help but laugh at years later.
“I was like: are you clear that you understand that only 1/30th of that was the official Chaosium stuff?” Kitkowski said in a direct message with Polygon.
“You go to any game store that carries RPGs and there’s the Call of Cthulhu book, always in the top five weekly, monthly sales. No matter how many years have passed, it’s always there. And you turn to the right and there are three shelves of Cthulhu supplements written by people where not a single penny goes to them or Chaosium.”
He says that in Japan, love of the Cthulhu mythos was primarily spread through a robust fan community sharing “replays” — literally, logs of gaming sessions published as short fiction, often with manga artwork to go with it. In some cases, replays are even animated and become full-on anime series in their own right, like The Record of Lodoss War.
One such creator of video replays (embedded below) and a participant in the Call of Cthulhu gaming community goes by the handle Agata Suisho. She says that “replays” — a word here which stands in for a Japanese term with no literal translation — quickly spread the popularity of Call of Cthulhu, but the rules were also easy to pick up and play. Because the game is based in a system called Basic Roleplaying, which uses simple percentages to decide moves and checks in the game, it can be applied to whatever content a fan desires.
“This may sound strange, but non- (or almost non-) horror scenarios seem to be extremely popular now,” Suisho told Polygon via email. “I believe the number of horror-centric Call of Cthulhu lovers has increased, too.”
This, in turn, feeds back into the game’s popularity among women in Japan. Because the role-playing rules can be applied to any kind of scenario, it’s often a social or even romantic activity in Japan, with one-on-one sessions between a “keeper” (the person running the game) and a player.
“When I look for players on social media, the male-female ratio is about 1:1,” Suisho said. “I would have no trouble in gathering players for a female-only game, at least when it’s online. I’m not sure about the current offline situation, as I haven’t been to such events for two or three years.”
Kim also estimates that over half of the players in South Korea are women, and attendance at a small convention Dayspring Games hosted in 2019 was over 70% women. Kim attributes some of that gender slant due to a misogynistic attack on Dayspring’s initial crowdfunding campaign to license the Call of Cthulhu game. Taking a strong stance against that attack, Kim says, earned the company and the game some respect among Korea’s female gamers.
In Japan, Call of Cthulhu is licensed from Chaosium by Kadokawa. In July, it announced it would be launching a player support app for the game, and revealed that cumulative sales of all of its licensed books and scenarios had shot over 1.1 million. That’s a major jump over its previous sales stat from 2019 of 200,000 copies sold, although that figure only covered the main rulebook.
One Japanese translator of Call of Cthulhu scenarios who works under the pen name Ashinoha says that the game found popularity in his country for several reasons: an accessible and easy-to-learn game system, player-created support tools and accessories, the efforts of Kadokawa in translating and publishing Call of Cthulhu, the accumulation of scenarios online, and dissemination through online videos.
“Various RPGs had their videos published on YouTube, but Call of Cthulhu’s popularity outstripped the others,” Ashinoha wrote in an email to Polygon.
“Video creators created their own scenarios for their videos and published them online. New Call of Cthulhu players could immediately play scenarios they had watched and found interesting.”
Ashinoha has worked on translations of The Mummy of Pemberley Grange and Endless Light, which are listed as two of the most popular Japanese-language titles on the Miskatonic Repository. Alex Guillotte, who created the most popular fan-made Call of Cthulhu scenario on the Miskatonic Repository, Viral: Unredacted, with co-author Bud Baird, says that Chaosium’s team has been helpful and clear in how people can legally create content and distribute it on their platform.
Far from simply aping existing material, though, Guillotte says that because Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos land on a semi-free status, creators are challenged to come up with their own ideas.
“That was sort of what Lovecraft had in mind,” said Guillotte. “He wanted people to not just use what he wrote, but to take his ideas and then expand on them. I think it does help to be more creative, especially if you want to challenge players who are veterans of Call of Cthulhu.”
Viral: Unredacted proved to be so popular that Guillotte received emails from fans of the scenario in Poland, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, and one even asked to translate the game into Korean.
That fan, Hokyung Park, says he has translated multiple English-language Call of Cthulhu scenarios into Korean and is also working on his own pulp-style creation, set in the 1930s in Korea.
“Koreans seem to love the horror genre very much,” Park said in a direct message on Twitter. “As for Call of Cthulhu, I think the genre is divided into two big categories in Korea. One is the fan-scenario field, which was greatly influenced by the Japanese scenarios…The other category is based on Chaosium’s official-style scenarios, and it’s what I tend to prefer.”
In terms of fan-created content, Dayspring’s Sungil Kim is all for it. He says that because fan creations rely on the base game, it all feeds back into his company’s sales of the core rulebook. In his view, the smart thing for companies is to work alongside fans.
“Collectively, they can provide much more product than we ever could,” said Kim. “If you go to Chaosium’s Miskatonic Repository, there are so many scenarios, and half of them are in Korean. That’s a lot. We cannot hope to match that level of output. I think fan creations are good things […] because those fan creations feed back into our core rulebook sales.”
With robust keomyus, communities, video replays, and fan scenarios buoying the popularity of Call of Cthulhu, especially in East Asia — and with certain other RPGs learning the hard way how fans will react negatively to overreach on their communities and creations — Lovecraft’s spawn seems to be here to stay.
You can download the quick-start guide for Call of Cthulhu for free on Chaosium’s website.