It all started in Janyce Hill’s home in Salinas, California, in 1981. Hill and her six companions huddled together in a stuffy bedroom, unraveling the mystery of a family turned into rodent-like creatures by a terrible curse.
“It was hot, it was very claustrophobic,” Hill remembers. “And I think it was the second or third session. We had all these snacks and sodas and things. And right when I had given them some piece of really shocking information for their characters, one of the soda bottles blew [its lid] off and just went boom! And [the bottle] exploded and sprayed all over the room and they all shrieked and it was like duh duh duh!”
Back then, Hill spent her days working at an office supply store. But on the weekends, she ruled an alternate universe: one filled with terror and villains and magic. She and her companions were playing Call of Cthulhu, a table-top role-playing game, or RPG.
You’ve probably heard of its predecessor, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). And, if so, you might be thinking of teenage boys in a basement rolling dice and battling imaginary foes. Since D&D first came out in 1973, publishers have released dozens of other games built around the same kind of collaborative adventure. Call of Cthulhu is one of them.
God of the game universe
The mechanics are simple: There’s no game board — players are in-character, and guided by a referee, in charge of scene-setting and direction. That’s where Janyce Hill comes in. She’s like this game’s omnipotent god.
That night in Salinas was only the beginning. Each game session Hill leads is like writing a new chapter of the same story, featuring a cast of characters invented and inhabited by the players. And the same story is still being played today, 35 years later.
On a recent Saturday afternoon in Hill’s North Oakland dining room, six players sit down to play the next chapter of the story. The table is covered in wax-sealed envelopes, spiral notebooks, many-sided dice and a bag of roasted garlic Kettlechips. The players range in age from their 20s to their 50s, and they’re committed. Darling Butterfly, played by a middle-aged man named Edward Holtz, pleads her case to the group.
“California is nice!” says Holtz, as Darling Butterfly. “As a widow, I think my opportunities are increased now that I’m grieving for my poor dead husband.”
This doesn’t sit well with Henrik Mueller, played by John Kim, a real-life dad and software engineer. “Don’t you need a longer grieving period before?”
Darling Butterfly looks straight through Mueller, and says, in a deadpan voice: “This is the ‘30s. I am a modern woman.”
Janyce Hill laughs. She lives for this. In her late 50s with Bettie Page bangs, Hill holds everything there is to know about the game universe in her head. She knows every character’s motivation, every bad guy’s next move and every moment that has led to every event. It’s her job to set the scene and keep the game moving forward.
“It’s like directing a movie,” Hill says. “Are we at a point where I need to ratchet up the tension? Do I need to pull back? And when I have a player who is head deep in their character suddenly jump up because they’re so angry and pound their fist on the table, that’s when I know I’ve succeeded.”
Things get complicated
Call of Cthulhu is based on a short story by classic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The game world looks a lot like ours, except it’s set in the 1930s. And there’s a lot of supernatural stuff going on: Magical and other-worldly creatures interact with people all the time, like the Mi-Go. They are a crustacean-like race of extraterrestrials with a repugnant moral code. Or the Outsiders, another alien species with a taste for eating and possessing humans.
The storyline gets complicated pretty quick. Especially when you think about how, over 35 years, there have been more than a hundred different players and thousands of hours of gameplay. Hill leads four different groups, with five or six players each, that meet every couple weeks.
Hill says she had no idea that the game she started back in that tiny Salinas bedroom would grow into an epic, world-spanning heroic journey. And exactly how epic is it? There are 16 bankers boxes in her basement filled with papers, documenting the first 15 or so years of the game’s history — and that’s just the time before her first home computer.
“I don’t want to say that it’s almost a full-time job, but it is, most of the time,” she says.
Hill is unusual, and not just because of the longevity of her game. When she started, women just didn’t play these games, let alone rule them. Back then, “It was all about killing monsters and getting loot, saving the princesses,” she says. “And women were extremely rare.”
Not anymore. Hill actively recruits women for the game — even leading women-only groups. And she raised her daughters to love RPGs, too. Her daughter Claire once told her it was the best childhood she could have ever had, because she was surrounded by creative people all the time.
Beer and pizza and smacking on monsters
The same way her family is part of her gaming life, the people in her games have become part of her family. Now-married couples met around Hill’s dining room table. Some players spend holidays and birthdays together. They’ve built relationships around storytelling — just like humans have been doing around campfires for millennia.
“Every game, we're all here to try to experience something where we can be heroic in our own minds — contribute and be part of a greater cause,” Hill says. “Or just have some beer some pizza and smack on monsters and get that kind of exhilaration out of doing something.”
Back in the story, Darling Doctor, Henrik Mueller and the rest of the characters are safe, for now. But everyone knows the stakes. The next alien incursion is slated to hit at the end of the month, and anything can happen in the quest to keep the world safe.