Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a Call of Cthulhu game being run by the Miskatonic River Press guys. Joining in on that session was long-time Call of Cthulhu contributor, author, and editor, Scott Aniolowski, who rounded out the party with no less of an august persona than Professor Henry Armitage. During a break in the game, I discovered that Mr. Aniolowski would be running a CoC session set in Kingsport the following morning (a locale that I have much fondness for) and I made plans to join in. Unfortunately, due to the early start time and a lack of promotion by the convention, Mr. Aniolowski and I were the only two people who showed up the next morning. Although this development robbed me of the opportunity to visit Kingsport again, it did provide me with the chance to talk with Scott about his own career of writing for the role-playing game industry. Having just started my own journey down that path, it was both entertaining and informative to be able to pick his brain and hear some of his anecdotes about his years in the business.
I asked Scott if he’d be willing to participate in an email interview and publicly answer some of the questions I posed to him and more for this blog. With the majority of the OSR blogs out that concentrating on Dungeons & Dragons in its various earlier versions, classic old-school rpgs such as Call of Cthulhu simply don’t get the word count they deserve. And since the OSR includes both fans of earlier titles like CoC and aspiring writers and designers in its ranks, I thought others would be interested in what Mr. Aniolowski had to say about writing, the industry, and how he got started.
What was your introduction to role-playing games in general and Call of Cthulhu specifically? Were you familiar with Lovecraft’s work before you encountered CoC?
My initial introduction to RPGs was, like for so many others, AD&D. That would have been around 1980, I guess. A couple people I knew in high school were playing and asked me to join. Call of Cthulhu came along a few years later when we decided to try other games. My group tried out CoC, 007 James Bond, Champions, Doctor Who, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Chill, Aftermath, Vampire The Masquerade, Star Trek, Ring World and all sorts of other RPGs. Only a few stuck – among them CoC – which eventually became our regular weekly game. I was vaguely familiar with Lovecraft when we began playing Call of Cthulhu, but had only read a story or two up until then. But that made the gaming experience that much more fun – discovering all these weird and unique creatures for the first time.
Your work has appeared in more than three dozen Call of Cthulhu supplements. How did you get your start writing gaming material? Did you have any previous writing experience or was role-playing material your first work as a writer?
Game writing was my first real writing. I’d done fiction writing in school, but nothing serious and nothing came of it. When we finished an adventure which Michael Szymanski had run called “The Temple of the Moon” I said something like “we could write this stuff”. So Mike and I collaborated on putting “The Temple of the Moon” on paper (and doing it on typewriters back then in the pre-PC era, I might add). When we finished Mike sent the manuscript off to Chaosium. Sandy Petersen read it and liked it and after three minor rewrites bought and published it. That’s how it all began – on a lark, really. Neither Mike nor I had any pre-conceived ideas of what Chaosium wanted nor if they would even read, let alone buy, our manuscript.
I imagine that one of the challenges for writing for Call of Cthulhu is that a majority of the game is set in the 1920s. How much research do you do when working on material set in the classic era?
Well, back in the early days we didn’t do a whole lot of research. You’d have to research the basics, of course, but we pretty much just glossed over most of the stuff. Today with the internet a lot more research and fact-checking goes into writing. It’s a lot easier for writers to find the information they need now – but that means it’s also a lot easier for the players to find the same information, and call you out when you are wrong.
You’re perhaps best known as the mind behind the Ye Book of Monsters series which became The Creature Companion and later the Malleus Monstrorum. These books collected just about every known monster, entity, and god that has appeared in either a gaming supplement or in mythos fiction. Did you propose this series and how intimidating was the task of trying to compile a master list of monsters from so many sources?
Ye Booke of Monstres came about at the time when Keith Herber left Chaosium. In the turbulent parting of the ways between Keith and Chaosium a lot of projects were scrapped. At the time I was working on the original manuscript for Goatswood and Less Pleasant Places and a collection of seven modern scenarios entitled The Seven Deadly Sins. Both projects were axed. I had recently done an article on new Mythos monsters for Keith’s first Keeper’s Companion, so I suggested to Lynn Willis that I take that and expand it into a stand-alone book. Thus Ye Booke of Monstres was born. At the time there really weren’t plans to do any more. I don’t really remember how or why the second volume came about. Then later, of course, Chaosium combined the two volumes of Ye Booke into The Creature Companion. The Germans then took that, translated it into German, and created their amazing and beautiful Malleus Monstrorum. By the time the German edition of the Malleus Monstrorum came out there were a lot of new Mythos monsters that had appeared in scenarios, or ones I’d found in obscure Mythos stories, so I suggested to Lynn Willis that we do one massive collection of every single monster we could find. We shamelessly stole the German title, had some of the original German text translated into English, added a whole bunch of stuff, and my version of The Malleus Monstrorum was born.
With such a large body of work to your name, do you have a favorite amongst them? One book or project that you’re most proud of? How about those written by someone other than yourself? Any favorites there or one that makes you say, “I wish I wrote that”?
My favorite scenarios of my own are “Fade to Gray” and “The Eyes of a Stranger”. I’m also very proud of The Malleus Monstrorum and suggest, humbly, that it is the best “monster book” for any RPG. And I certainly cannot take full credit for Malleus – I simply collected and “RPGized” the monstrous creations of a whole lot of very talented writers.
Could you describe what the process was like for writing Call of Cthulhu material for Chaosium? Who was your contact there and did you ever visit the offices in person?
I was fortunate enough to have worked with all the great CoC editors: Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis and Keith Herber. Each had his own style and ideas of what the Mythos should be and what a good scenario was, and each was different to work with. Sandy, for example, had me re-write my scenarios a few times before he bought them. Lynn and I would discuss scenarios in detail and I would just write it the way we agreed upon with maybe a few minor changes afterwards. Working with Keith was sort of a combination – we’d discuss things in great detail, I’d do it the way we agreed, but he’d sometimes ask for substantial re-writes.
And yes, actually I did visit the old Chaosium offices back in the 80's. Kevin Ross and I went with Chaosium back to Oakland after a GenCon one year and we spent several days in the office. It was an interesting experience.
When we spoke, you mentioned that you’ve had the opportunity to converse with writers who were contemporaries of Lovecraft, Robert Bloch being one of the names the jumps to mind. What was their opinion of the Call of Cthulhu game? Did they have a general understanding of what a role-playing game was?
I’ve been very fortunate: through Call of Cthulhu I’ve been able to meet and work with a lot of very remarkable authors and Lovecraft contemporaries. I’ve met, corresponded with and worked with Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley and Robert Bloch, among others. They have all been very respectful of the game, but none really had an understanding or interest in it or RPGs. The one exception was noted author and artist Gahan Wilson who has played CoC. When we met at NecronomiCon one year I was supposed to run a CoC game for him and Bob Bloch one night. Unfortunately, scheduling prevented the game from actually happening. Its too bad as it would have been truly an exciting experience to sit at a gaming table with two legends like Wilson and Bloch!
Who are your influences when it comes to writing game material? How about fiction?
Well, I read a lot and like the works of many people. I’m a fan of both classics and modern horror/weird fiction, from William Hope Hodgson, Poe, H.G. Wells, Washington Irving, Arthur Machen (do I even need to mention HPL and his gang?) to King, Campbell, Bloch, Ligotti, Klein and others. I don’t know who specifically influences my writing, although some friends suggest Ramsey Campbell as an obvious influence on my own style. AS far as gaming goes, I’m a huge fan of Kevin Ross and Keith Herber. Both have been incredible influences on my RPG work as well as mentors and friends.
In addition to writing, you’ve served as an editor on several fiction anthologies. How did that come about and what are your criteria for choosing a good Mythos tale? Of the numerous authors writing pastiches of Lovecraft’s work, who do you think is producing the most interesting and/or genuine material?
While I was working on Goatswood and Less Pleasant Places – a CoC book based on the Mythos works of Ramsey Campbell – I suggested to Lynn Willis at Chaosium that I assemble an anthology of new fiction set in Campbell’s Severn Valley and using his Mythos additions. It was great timing as Ramsey was to be the guest of honor at the upcoming NecronomiCon, so it gave us something to shoot for. I’d already been in contact with Ramsey through my work on the RPG, so getting him involved was easy. The other authors sort of fell into place – some were friends and others were authors I either admired or who were suggested to me. I’m extremely proud of Made in Goatswood, the resulting anthology. Ramsey was wonderful to work with and I was honored by having 9 of the book’s 18 stories make the “Suggested Reading” section of that year’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror!
My next anthology for Chaosium, Singers of Strange Songs, was a Brian Lumley tribute. Working with Brian was a lot different, but still very rewarding. Brian pulls no punches and tells you what he thinks, which makes him very intimidating at times, but I really enjoyed working with him. We mostly communicated over the phone instead of via the mail (this was back before the explosion of e-mail). In the case of his book, Brian made some suggestions as to who I should invite or what stories I should include. Again, it was released to correspond with his guest of honor appearance at NecronomiCon.
As far as authors presently producing the best Lovecraftian fiction, I would have to name Michael Shea and Thomas Ligotti as the top two. Their work is outstanding. T.E.D. Klein is also up there at the top, although sadly he isn’t very prolific these days.
This is strange to admit, perhaps, but for the most part I hate Mythos stories/pastiche. Most of them are crap. What most authors forget is the tone or atmosphere of the piece. Anyone can write a story about Cthulhu and toss is the Necronomicon and Arkham, but it takes a truly talented writer to put his or her own spin on that stuff and produce something wholly original. But most people just don’t get it. To me a good Cthulhu Mythos story is not about listing names of Old Ones and blasphemous tomes or about simply retreading HPL’s steps. You have to tell a good story first and foremost. And most Mythos pastiches simply don’t do that. Anyone who claims to only read Mythos stories and only write Mythos stories is most likely going to be rejected by me when I’m reading for an anthology. I want to see something new and fresh. I want to see a different take on something old. I want a good story. If you take out all the Mythos trappings is it still a good story? If the answer is yes then I’ll buy that story for my book.
What’s on the horizon for you now? Any new material in the works or something you’d like to plug?
Well, until recently I was “mostly retired” from CoC. But with Keith Herber’s untimely passing I’ve stepped in an worked with his business partner at his Miskatonic River Press. I’ve also been called up by old pal Kevin Ross to write a few things for him for projects he’s been working on. One of the things I’m most excited about is a Colonial era sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu that I helped Kevin write. That was a lot of fun and I think its going to be an amazing book. I’m supposed to write a classic era Goatswood sourcebook for MRP sometime in the next year or so. I’ve already talked to Ramsey Campbell about that one and he’s given me his blessing to return to his haunted Severn Valley. I’ve also been developing a Post Apocalyptic sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu. And if something came along I’d gladly edit another fiction anthology. Yeah, so who knows? There’s an awful lot of stuff boiling away right now. We’ll have to wait and see what comes to fruition or in what order!