Recomposing Lovecraft: Genre Emulation as Autopoiesis in the First Edition of Call of Cthulhu




cybernetics, genre, Lovecraft, Reagan Era, tabletop role-playing


The article examines how genre is emulated in the first edition of Call of Cthulhu (1981 ), analyzing the game's potential to answer social needs during the Reagan era. Genre is understood in the response aesthetic sense, as collections of traits sedimented from authors' and designers' attempts to meet their audiences. Similar to how software can be engineered to replace older hardware, Call of Cthulhu replaces the genre functions underpinning Lovecraftian stories. Previous research discusses Call of Cthulhu as a horror RPG, mostly referencing later editions. This article's analysis, based on systems theory, deals with the first edition and a more complex genre composition. Emulation is described as autopoiesis-a generative mechanism of simultaneous autonomy and dependency vis-a-vis an environment. The role-playing system selects genre elements through structural couplings to its surroundings, and then recombines them in a new way, giving them new affordances.

The result shows the ways in which the first edition of Call of Cthulhu fuses elements from the fantasy role-playing genre with elements from literary horror, detective story, pulp fiction and colonial mystery. The three most prominent characteristics of the game-the characters' mental health, the manner in which they confront Mythos representatives, and their expeditions to remote locations-are solutions to genre tensions, rather than properties of horror. Following the sociohistorical framing of the elements involved, the composite emulation allowed for the processing of perceived threats to the American way oflife during the early Reagan Era. The game offered a colonial fantasy, where real but more diffuse menaces, such as the nuclear arms race of the Cold War or the Iranian Revolution and ensuing energy crisis, could be fictionalized and reconsidered from the perspective of a predominantly white Christian struggle against evil in a 1920s world.




How to Cite

Mehrstam, C. (2022). Recomposing Lovecraft: Genre Emulation as Autopoiesis in the First Edition of Call of Cthulhu. International Journal of Role-Playing, (12), 106–128.