Days of High Adventure
Behind the Masks of Nyarlathotep: Larry DiTillio

Allen Varney | 18 Feb 2010 17:00
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Larry DiTillio designed Masks of Nyarlathotep.

That single statement is all the introduction DiTillio needs, at least for fans of Chaosium's classic Call of Cthulhu horror tabletop roleplaying game. First published in 1984, Masks of Nyarlathotep (written with Chaosium developer Lynn Willis) is the RPG field's Dune, its Birth of a Nation - a trailblazing epic that pushed its field to a dramatic scale previously unimagined.

In Masks, a routine murder investigation in 1925 New York uncovers a larger mystery, the disappearance of an African expedition and a conspiracy to unleash the Outer Gods' devious messenger, Nyarlathotep. The sprawling, world-spanning adventure includes modules set in London, Cairo, Kenya, Shanghai and the Australian Outback. Through the campaign's pioneering open-ended "sandbox" design, the hardy (and probably short-lived) player characters can investigate these in any order, until repeated encounters with Lovecraftian nightmares snap their minds like garter belts.

After more than 25 years, Masks of Nyarlathotep still enjoys unsurpassed esteem verging on adulation. In's comprehensive Game Index, Masks currently ranks #27 out of 13,671 products; among adventures, it's #1 by a mile. Amazon's user reviews speak for themselves. Bloggers still post loving recollections ("afterwards, every other CoC adventure seemed drab, colorless and somewhat mundane"), months-long actual-play forum threads and impressive campaign websites. A roleplaying group called the Bradford Players released a DVD, Lovecraftian Tales from the Table, featuring an audio playthrough of Masks that lasts 75 hours.

John Tynes, whose company Pagan Publishing produced many great CoC supplements, says, "The Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign was never equaled in Call of Cthulhu for spectacle and flair. It was the pulpiest of them all, with fun villains, exotic locations and very challenging puzzles and threats. While standards of scenario and campaign design evolved and improved in the years after Masks, it remains a high-water mark for thrilling adventure."

This landmark work happened almost by accident. As Larry DiTillio put it, "I missed my Sanity roll badly."

In early 1981 DiTillio had just finished a staff job at Flying Buffalo in Phoenix, where he wrote a large Tunnels & Trolls dungeon, Isle of Darksmoke, and packaged the first CityBook generic roleplaying supplement. Moving to Los Angeles, he wrote several scripts for a children's TV show called Against the Odds, which profiled famous historical figures. Then Chaosium's Steve Perrin invited him to pitch a scenario for their new game.

"To tell you the truth, I was reluctant," DiTillio recalls. "I wasn't that big a fan of Lovecraft's writing style and felt other authors had done better work with the Cthulhu Mythos. However, the offer included a free copy of CoC and, as you know, gamers simply cannot resist free stuff."

CoC's groundbreaking approach hooked DiTillio. He had just researched the life of Kenyan statesman Jomo Kenyatta for a TV script, "so this idea suddenly clicked in my brain - what could be more different than a CoC tale set in Africa? I called it 'The Carlyle Expedition' and made it a tale of an ill-fated band of explorers who had disappeared in Kenya.

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