Interview with Sandy Petersen

Welcome once again loyal readers… This time we have a great interview with game designer and Call of Cthulhu author Sandy Petersen.

Shoggoth Network (SN): Call of Cthulhu, Doom, Ghostbusters, Age of Empires… You’ve worked on many successful game projects during your career. Which project has provided your fondest memories?

Sandy Petersen (SP): Hmm. Definitely Doom, because I was able to go back to my former place of business and mock everyone there with the cool game I was doing, while they still toiled away in the drudgery of old-school stuff.

SN: Which game mechanics in the original Call of Cthulhu system were you specifically responsible for?

SP: Everything except the BRP core. I did character generation, sanity, monster stats, skill effects, etc.

SN: How do you think the more recently published Call of Cthulhu scenarios hold up to the old classics?

SP: To an extent I’m not very familiar with the newer scenarios, because Chaosium has not been sending me copies, as they are contractually obliged to do. I am too stubborn to go out and buy them on my own, so long as they are supposed to give me free ones, so most of
the scenarios I play are ones I have to create myself. However, back when Chaosium still honored their contracts, I noticed a definite trend in the scenarios. They were better-written, with better supporting materials. Some of them seemed to tend towards trivializing or
minimizing the Mythos in favor of making it more “accessible”. I don’t know if that latter trend has kept going. In the scenarios I have been creating on my own, my own tendencies has been to get back to basics.

SN: Are you glad to see Shadows of Yog-Sothoth back in print? What is your opinion of the reprint?

SP: Well … I think it’s great that it’s back in print. Wish I had a copy.

SN: My favorite Doom/Doom 2 monster is the Arachnotron, man that thing is creepy. Which monsters did you bring to this game?

SP: I named all the monsters, and provided their stats and combat techniques. The arachnotron, for instance, used to just be the giant spider boss, but I asked for a smaller version of it, so that they could be scattered around the levels more frequently. None of the monsters was a pure invention of my own – the artists & programmers of id Software worked as a team. Probably the one which was most “mine” was the Pain Elemental, but I am just as proud of creatures like the Shambler in Quake, even though I wasn’t the only guy working on it.

SN: Do you have any idea what the total loss of production (in U.S. Dollars) is for folks playing Doom instead of working?

SP: Not that much nowadays I suspect. Unless you’re including Doom 3, which I’m emphatically not responsible for. I must agree that games I’ve worked on have cost the American economy millions of dollars. I wish I had a share of that.

SN: Do you play games in your spare time? If so, what are you playing right now?

SP: I am still a highly active gamer. Not only do I play games during the week, including not infrequently during my lunch hour at work, I have a regular gaming night almost every week at my house when we play old-fashioned table-top roleplaying games. The games I’m playing Right This Moment are:

  1. Betrayal at House on the Hill – a flawed, but brilliant haunted house boardgame.
  2. Mario Golf Advance Tour – a fun little item for the game boy.
  3. Dual Hearts – an old PS2 game that I’ve gone back to recently.
  4. Runequest – I have an active campaign I run most weekends.

SN: Have you any opinion on Blizzard’s newest game: World of Warcraft?

SP: Looks like the best MMORPG so far.

SN: As an accomplished Call of Cthulhu Keeper our readers would certainly like to know how you run your games and what sort of style you have as a Keeper?

SP: I am a pretty visual person, so I often work towards an image I want the players to encounter – often something I’ve seen in a movie (I have a gigantic collection of DVDs – mostly horror-oriented) or a story.

I try to have surprises in the scenarios – things to make the players take a mental step backwards and start thinking, instead of just rolling dice. Example: in one scenario I’ve run a couple of times, the players figured out pretty early that the bad guys were vampires. But then halfway through the adventure they discovered that the vampires were actually led by Count Dracula himself. This brought the player’s progress to a screeching halt while they discussed and brooded on this fact. What would Count Dracula be like if he were real? How would a CoC Count Dracula behave? They were really sweating and I loved every second.

I am also notorious for having the baddies in a scenario try to tempt or otherwise make offers to the players. Quite often I manage to corrupt at least one player, which adds lots of paranoia to the sessions.

SN: What do you think is the single most important thing a Call of Cthulhu Keeper can do to convey a sense of horror during a session?

Not to trivialize the Mythos or make it “humorous”. This is not to say there is no humor in my games. It is my opinion that the best way to apply humor to the horror genre is to play the horror straight, letting the humor come out of the non-horror elements. To see what I mean, look at “Shaun of the Dead” – the zombies are played absolutely straight. All the funny parts come from the people, and it works just fine.

SN: You’ve said in the past that the modern day is your favorite era for running Call of Cthulhu. Making the players feel isolated can be an important element in producing an environment of terror. How do you handle modern communications technology (Internet, cell phones, portable radios, etc…) in your games?

SP: Isolation is a mental condition, not a physical one. If the players feel like no one can help them or no one will believe them or they don’t know who to trust, then they are, in fact, isolated, even if they’re in the middle of a huge bustling city.

My approach to modern times is to always let the Mythos suborn technology. For example – what if dimensional shamblers can “beam”
themselves through a cell phone line? What if cultists are broadcasting their chants through your portable radio – paralyzing or dissolving you as you desperately try to reach the controls to turn the damn thing off! Why can’t ghouls use the internet to communicate with their own, or trick people into going to meet an “attractive white female, age 22” on a dark night only to encounter a toothy monster instead? Could a modern Wilbur Whateley use desktop publishing to make the Necronomicon available to anyone? How many disastrous summonings would occur as a result?

Technology is a dire, dire threat in my games, and players of my scenarios often become Luddites rather quickly.

What about modern transportation? Well, subways are obviously a deathtrap. Airplanes aren’t much better, given the variety of Mythos
entities that can fly. Submarines are an awesome piece of technology for inducing terror and claustrophobia. You get the idea.

I look at technology from the viewpoint of the bad guys. How can the internet help the evil sorcerer trying to thwart the investigators?
Once you think about it that way, there are hundreds of plot ideas just begging to be used, and the players will no longer look at their cell phone (or whatever) the same way again.

SN: Thanks Sandy!

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