I’d originally come up with this plot device in about a half-hour while guiding a couple of friends through character creation for Call of Cthulhu. This story element could easily be imported into some other situation, but is generally certain to get confused looks from your players.
Cows have a number of fine attributes that lend themselves well to Lovecraftian horror, believe it or not. First off they’re big, and if you’ve ever been to a county fair, you know they smell kind of gamy. Second, they aren’t exactly stealth-oriented animals, especially when you have them walking across something that would make a lot of noise, like hardwood floors. Third, the lowing of cows can easily be mistaken for the groaning of some creature Man Was Not Meant to Know. Mix in a little paranoia, and you’re good to go.
Here are some uses for your friend the cow.
Cults often require sacrificial animals. I’m certain that the last thing Cthulhu wants is an animal sacrificed in his name (“What the heck am I supposed to do with this?”) but it makes cultists feel wanted. Besides, it’s supposed to help with some magical effects. And if you’re living in rural New England, you can be certain there’s a ton of cows available which would be an ideal source of sacrifice for your standard rural cultist. Heck, the cult could raise cows, sacrifice the occasional cow to their dark master, and then sell off some to make a tidy profit.
So picture if you will, investigators brought out to the cliché mansion in the middle of nowhere, they’ve gotten all snug and safe in their bed with their small arsenal tucked away in their steamer trunk. At three in the morning there’s clomping and groaning going on downstairs, and when they go to investigate, their shotguns clutched tightly to their chests as visions of zombies float through their heads, they find no supernatural creatures, just a couple of farm hands trying unsuccessfully to get a cow to go downstairs into the basement (which is where the secret cult temple is located).
The Cow That Came to Dinner
Cows do on occasion get loose and could easily be wandering around in the dark. Investigators could easily encounter a lumbering thing stumbling through the Indian graveyard, the ruins of a house or even a cave the investigators have gone into for shelter from a thunderstorm. In the dark, they wouldn’t know what it is. It smells funny, it’s kinda big. Must be a Mythos critter!
Have the cow approach an investigator, nudge him, maybe even lick him. See if you can get the players really keyed up. If players begin postulating on what sort of horror they’re facing, assume that their characters are doing the same and start assigning SAN checks as their imagination runs out of control. If you get that cow to die in a blaze of glory because the investigators are certain it’s a Hound of Tindalos, then you can just sit back and enjoy your Mountain Dew. You managed to create a horrific situation with a COW!
When Animals Attack!
Bulls are notoriously violent critters. (Just ask Yosemite Sam.) Cows can probably get a little defensive if they feel threatened. Even if you’re not playing up the horror aspect, getting gored by the horns of a cow can really ruin an investigator’s day. And really, I don’t care if it was self-defense, it can be really hard to justify to the owner why you shot their cow. (“Farmer Pickman, are you acquainted with conspiracy theories involving the Mi-Go…?”)
Hey! That’s no cow!
It could also be that the cow really is a mind-bending horror. In FASA’s Paranormal Animals of Europe for Shadowrun, one of the critters listed is called a protean, and is basically 200 pounds of magically Awakened dysentery bacteria that could adopt the form of things it ate. Just like in John Carpenter’s The Thing. In the sidebar of the protean entry one of the commentators noted running into one that looked like a cow, and it ended up eating one of his friends. No joke. So go out, rent The Thing, and consider how many ways you can inflict it on your players. Especially with a cow.
For those who figure there’s a strong chance of players going psycho and having to blow away the “horror”, here are some stats for your friend the cow.
Av. Damage Bonus: +2d6
Weapon: Charge 30%, damage 2d6+db
Armor: 2-point hide and muscle
Skills: Scent Enemy 50%
Habitat: Most continents, primarily in rural areas.
Remember: Call of Cthulhu isn’t about blowing up monsters, it’s about messing with player’s heads. Introducing something as harmless as a cow into a game notorious for its ooky SAN-eating monsters is certain to drive players nuts as they try to puzzle out WHY there’s a COW there.
Jeremy Zimmerman is a teller of tales who dislikes cute euphemisms for writing like “teller of tales.” His fiction has most recently appeared in 10Flash Quarterly, Arcane and anthologies from Timid Pirate Publishing. His young adult superhero book, Kensei, is available as part of Cobalt City Rookies. He is also the editor for Mad Scientist Journal. He lives in Seattle with five cats and his lovely wife (and fellow author) Dawn Vogel.