I put out the light and used the windows for loopholes, and raked all around the house with rifle fire aimed just high enough not to hit the dogs. That seemed to end the business, but in the morning I found great pools of blood in the yard, beside pools of a green sticky stuff that had the worst odour I have ever smelled.
‒ H.P. Lovecraft, The Whisperer in Darkness (1930)
It is an article of faith among many Keepers and players of Call of Cthulhu and other games inspired by H.P. Lovecraft that combat and use of guns is un-Lovecraftian.
Lovecraft expert and Call of Cthulhu grognard Kenneth Hite calls gaming with action “pulp” and that without it “purist” (Trail of Cthulhu, p. 7), terminology that has since gained wider currency. The latter term is an unfortunate choice, as it implies that a game without action is purer or more Lovecraftian. Hite’s postulation is that “in the Purist mode, firearms are discouraged” (Trail of Cthulhu, p. 66). However, he actually observes that Lovecraft himself has written many pulp stories or those that feature both themes (Trail of Cthulhu, p. 7). I have shown elsewhere that many of Lovecraft’s stories feature firearms, even some of those that Hite calls “purist” ‒ especially The Whisperer in Darkness, which actually contains the only real gunfight in all of Lovecraft’s oeuvre!
Call of Cthulhu, however, sends mixed messages, with even the First Edition listing a veritable armoury (Call of Cthulhu, First Edition, p. 20), not to speak of later editions and support material like the 1920s Investigator’s Companion, Cthulhu Now, or Fatal Experiments. Game designer Sandy Petersen points out that “the game is set up to penalize those characters relying on firepower rather than brainpower” (“Call of Cthulhu Designer’s Notes” in Different Worlds #19, p. 11), but also states that “I personally feel that the gun section is one of the more accurate parts of the game” (ibid.). The Keeper guidelines are actually rather balanced: “Avoid too much gunplay. Trying to win scenarios by shooting up the monsters and their accomplices will result in bad things happening … Always remember that in Call of Cthulhu, as in the real world, guns are lethal! Avoid overuse of them and try to avoid confrontations involving them” (Call of Cthulhu, First Edition, p. 76). This is not bad advice, even for players who like guns, and by far not as exclusive as many Keepers and players seem to interpret it.
The somewhat pacifistic ideal of engaging in combat only when the investigators are in actual self-defence situations (Call of Cthulhu, First Edition, p. 75) seems misplaced, however. Did the unnamed investigator in Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear” wait for the subterranean degenerates to attack him first? Did Inspector John Legrasse and his coppers in “The Call of Cthulhu” hesitate to strike down the Cthulhu cultists in the bayous? Did the Federal Agents and US Navy in The Shadow Over Innsmouth wait for the Deep Ones to attack them first when they cleaned out Innsmouth and the Devil Reef?
Direct action is a legitimate approach against a threat to the investigators ‒ or to all of mankind. Given the investigators’ inherent weakness against the Mythos, attacking first may even be the only option!
Later editions of Call of Cthulhu make the point that “the effect of more powerful weapons … is progressively to isolate the owners from the events of adventures and the ordinary challenges of play, and paradoxically to limit the range of responses players and investigators feel safe in contemplating” (Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, p. 137). While this section is about heavy weapons, I wonder where the game draws the line ‒ at the flamethrowers in Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House”? At the torpedoes in The Shadow Over Innsmouth? At the dozens of heavy weapons ranging from machine guns to tank cannon that are listed in the Weapons Table (Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, p. 65)?
Discouraging players from arming their investigators is unrealistic given the availabilities and sensibilities in the most common settings (Investigator Weapons 1: The 1920s and 1930s, p. 4, and Investigator Weapons 2: Modern Day, pp. 4, 10). More importantly, it is not how real people behave. It is a natural impulse to arm oneself in the face of Unknown Horrors (Investigator Weapons 1, p. 5). Humans are tool-using animals ‒ and just like pocket lights and excavation implements, guns and other weapons are primarily tools. As well, the hubris of man, proud in his achievements in all fields of technology, is a powerful theme in fiction, ranging from classical Greek mythology to James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). Investigators may well arm themselves with all the latest and greatest weaponry, feeling invincible. The fall is usually hard and sudden. Because the other truth is of course that man’s tools have little impact on the Mythos, and at best can only serve to forestall the inevitable …
I have already talked about the fact that Lovecraft himself was not only not averse to guns, but had quite a gun collection and liked to shoot as a youth and young man.
More importantly, however, guns and other modern weapons are actually rather prominent in his stories. Many of his protagonists carry a gun, and, if opportunity permits, use it. Sometimes, they even work against the Mythos, although often they do not ‒ or are never used in action despite being available. Over time, I will examine a series of Lovecraft stories for their weaponry: