The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

Just a couple of years after its release, the original Deities & Demigods from 1980 became legend. The first copies included sections featuring the Melnibonéan mythos from the Elric stories by Michael Moorcock and the Cthulhu mythos from the tales of H.P. Lovecraft. Every Dungeons & Dragons fan knew the legend: TSR printed the sections without permission, got sued, and now the book was censored. The tale boasted a delicious mix of scandal, arrogance, and justice, and for those of us who owned one of those banned copies, a priceless collectable certain to fund our retirements. Too bad none of legend was true.

Today, the book’s co-author, James M. Ward still works to spread the facts. “I absolutely hate it when ignorant people say TSR and I acted in copyright infringement.”

But how did the the Elric and Cthulhu content reach the book, and why did it disappear?

Deities & Demigods describes gods, mostly drawn from cultures around the world.

When James Ward started the book, he proposed a list of the pantheons he wanted to include. In addition to drawing from folklore, the list included gods created in fiction by three authors: Lovecraft, Moorcock, and Fritz Leiber. Each deeply influenced D&D co-creator Gary Gygax and the game. But to use the authors’ work, TSR needed permission.

Leiber had created the Nehwon mythos for his tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. After Leiber attended Gen Con X in 1977 as guest of honor, he had stayed a Gary’s house for a week. Gary called the author a friend. Surely, gaining Leiber’s authorization proved easy.

The chance of gaining authorization to use the work of Lovecraft and Moorcock seemed smaller.

Lovecraft’s key work suffers from a muddled copyright status. Up until 2019, any stories he published before 1923 qualified as public domain, but his most important stories, including “Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness” reached print later. After the author’s death, two of Lovecraft’s protégés founded Arkham House Publishers to print collections of his work. Today, Arkham House claims Lovecraft’s copyrights. But did Lovecraft’s heirs ever actually transfer the rights to the publisher? Also, prior to 1978, copyright holders needed to renew copyrights to maintain ownership. Failure to renew landed the movie It’s a Wonderful Life in the public domain. Did a once, nearly-forgotten writer of pulp fiction get more mindful handling? Did anyone with legal standing ever file renewals? Decades have buried the answers. This year, Lovecraft’s remaining copyrights begin to expire, year by year, until the last expire in 2032. Until then, his tales may or may not be in public domain.

Nonetheless, Jim Ward wrote Arkham House asking to include Lovecraft’s material. He received a letter back granting permission. At about the same time, the game company Chaosium struck a similar deal. In design notes in Different Worlds magazine, editor Lynn Willis wrote, “I negotiated rights for the Cthulhu mythos from Arkham House.” Call of Cthulhu would not reach print until the summer of 1981, but work on the game started much earlier. “After many months delay, the manuscript of the game was unsatisfactory, and had to be turned down. It was originally was to be a 1980 release; now we were hoping for 1981.” In 1980, Sandy Petersen took over the project and delivered a classic role-playing game.

More than likely, someone at Arkham failed to realize how granting a permission to describe Lovecraft’s mythos in a game-related reference book conflicted with a license to publish a game. How could a game be a book? Granting permission to TSR probably just seemed like a good way to introduce Lovecraft to a wider audience.

In the popular conception of the time, games sold from toy stores for children. Gaming remained a tiny hobby that few even knew existed. No one outside the hobby considered existential horror tales from the 1920s a suitable topic for a game. Requests to use Cthulhu for a game of all things probably puzzled the administrative staff at Arkham. As this story keeps showing, few outside of gaming saw game rights to fiction as anything of value.

Jim Ward wrote Michael Moorcock requesting authorization to describe the mythos from the Elric stories. The author granted permission. In a 2009 interview, he explains his thinking. “It was in the spirit of the 60s/70s when it seemed to many of us that we were sharing in a common culture and the products of that culture.”

But Moorcock proved overly generous. Years earlier, Chaosium had bought the board-game rights to the Elric books. That license led to the Elric game in 1977. After the success of RuneQuest, Chaosium decided to adapt their roleplaying game rules to Moorcock’s fiction, so they returned to Moorcock’s agent and gained an RPG license.

Chaosium insider and RuneQuest designer Steve Perrin explains the source of the trouble. “Chaosium arranged for the Elric license through Moorcock’s agent. Jim went directly to Moorcock, who did not consult with his agent. He just sent back a note saying ‘Go for it.’ So the only person Chaosium could sue would be Moorcock, which is not a good practice between a licensor and licensee.”

Arioch from the 1st printing of Deities & Demigods

Moorcock never expected his tales of a doomed sorcerer and a soul-stealing sword to become valuable for gaming. “I hadn’t anticipated that some people would start turning all this stuff into commercial businesses and so it was a bit of a surprise when D&D and Chaosium, for instance, started fighting over who ‘owned’ the rights to the Elric ‘cosmology.’”

In 1980, Deities & Demigods reached gamers, complete with sections describing the Melnibonéan mythos and the Cthulhu mythos. Meanwhile, Chaosium prepared to publish their Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu role-playing games in 1981. They sent cease-and-desist letters to TSR. “I don’t blame them a bit,” Ward writes. However, Chaosium knew nothing about the two letters authorizing TSR to use the content.

The legal demand put TSR in a bind. Armed with their letters of permission, TSR could have fought. “The company wasn’t rich at that point,” Ward explains. Brian Blume, TSR’s head of operations, “didn’t want to go to California, get a California lawyer, and spend time and money winning the case.” TSR could have stopped selling Deities & Demigods, but it sold great. Pulling the book meant pulping copies on hand, reprinting, and paying new costs. Reprinting the book with fewer pages would take time. During the lapse, some customers would lose interest and TSR would lose sales.

So TSR sought an accommodation with Chaosium. Fortunately, both companies had something to give.

In addition to the licensed role-playing games Chaosium scheduled for 1981, the company planned Thieves’ World, a roleplaying supplement based on Robert Asprin’s shared-world series of books. In order to give the supplement maximum appeal, it would include game stats for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Adventures in Fantasy, Chivalry & Sorcery, DragonQuest, The Fantasy Trip, RuneQuest, Tunnels & Trolls, and even Traveller. But TSR zealously defended the trademarks to AD&D and D&D. If the supplement touted compatibility and named the games on the cover, Chaosium needed permission. In Designers & Dragons, game historian Shannon Appelcline writes, “Chaosium got the rights to use the TSR trademarks in Thieves’ World and in exchange TSR was allowed to continue using the [Melnibonéan and Cthulhu mythos in Deities & Demigods].” As part of the deal, TSR added a notice into the book’s second printing. “Special Thanks are also given to Chaosium, Inc. for permission to use the material found in the Cthulhu Mythos and the Melnibonéan Mythos.”

If TSR had kept the notice and the original content, the story would have ended quietly, with no bogus legends of plagiarism and banning. But for 1980’s third printing, TSR had time to drop the Lovecraft and Moorcock sections and reconfigure the book with fewer pages.

Why did Brian Blume choose to withdraw the content despite trading for permission to keep it? Appelcline cites a desire to soothe the same fears of Satanism that would lead TSR to retitle the book Legends & Lore in 1985. Presumably, existential horror and evil gods might worry parents, and that worried TSR. Other sources say Blume didn’t want a TSR book to fuel interest in Elric or Cthulhu because that would drive players to a competitor’s games.

As for a copy of Deities & Demigods funding a retirement, more copies of the first two printings exist than the legend suggests. According to the D&D collector’s site The Acaeum as many as 15,000 copies reached buyers. In auction, the book fetches more than other D&D hardcovers, but prices have fallen.

In an odd postscript, Fritz Leiber, the third author featured in Deities & Demigods, would land TSR and Chaosium in a second dispute over conflicting licenses. In 1983, Chaosium planned a follow up to Thieves’ World featuring Leiber’s city of Lankhmar. They already had a license agreement when TSR announced that they had a license from Leiber too. “It turned out that Leiber had indeed licensed both companies,” Appelcline writes. “Chaosium pointed out that their license was earlier, but TSR replied that if that was the case, they would sue Leiber.” Gary Gygax may have counted the author as a friend, but Brian Blume ran TSR. To protect Leiber from a suit, Chaosium dropped their claim. In an email, Chaosium founder Greg Stafford explained the decision. “Fritz was one of my literary heroes in those days, and also a terminal alcoholic, and I just imagined the havoc that would ensue for him, so I just dropped it.” In 1985, TSR published Lankhmar: City of Adventure.

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20 Responses to The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

  1. Dave says:

    I have a copy of the 128 page, 1980 edition, lacking the Cthulhu Mythos and the Melnibonean Mythos. However, confusingly, at the bottom of page 4, under the “Credits and Acknowledgements” section, the notice thanking Chaosium for permission is still included. So its unlikely that the reason those sections were dropped was to avoid thanking a competitor. (Or makes it very ironic, if it was!)

    • David Hartlage says:

      Clearly, the production staff who should have removed the notice slipped up. Very ironic!

      To better describe Brian Blume’s likely reason for removing the sections, I should have written that he didn’t want a TSR book to interest players in Elric or Cthulhu because that would drive them to a competitor’s games. I may edit the post to say exactly that.

      Dave

    • GreyOne says:

      I actually have a copy that includes Melnibonean stuff as well as the Cthulhu stuff. I bought it at a 2nd hand book store over 30 years ago.

  2. Kid Kyoto says:

    I have an original with Elrik and Cthulhu and I’d note the copyright info does NOT mention Liebier, Lovecraft, or Moorcock. Only TSR. So there was certainly some sloppiness there.

    • Hank Cowdog says:

      First printing: mythos, but no credit
      2nd printing: mythos and credit
      3rd printing: no mythos, but still p4 credit (oops)
      4th printing: no mythos, no credit

      Sounds like you have a first printing (as do I).

  3. Fractalbat says:

    I knew some of this, but there is a ton of information here I’d never heard. Thanks!

  4. alphastream says:

    Some readers may not appreciate how, back then, books hung around for a long time. We had decades with the same books on the shelves. Not as old stock in a corner, but as an active part of what gamers would buy and use. As an example, check out this Shannon Appelcline article where he shares White Wolf Magazine’s list of top-selling RPGs for 1992. At number 9 is the 1981 Fiend Folio! https://www.rpg.net/columns/designers-and-dragons/designers-and-dragons4.phtml

    Books like Deities and Demigods were a presence for decades, which helped keep this bit of controversy prominent across many years.

  5. Collin Smith says:

    Interesting read, thanks! I was always jealous of my friend who had a version with the extra stuff.

  6. I remember being in a local hobby shop, and a mother and son were looking at the RPGs. The son wanted a copy of the 2nd Ed. AD&D DMG. His mother told him no because “‘Dungeons & Dragons’ is Satanic.” She more than happily bought him his secure choice – 5th Ed. Call of Cthulhu. The store owner and I had a good laugh after they left.

  7. There’s a whole earlier chapter to this story. The Mythos write-up in Deities & Demigods is derivative of the original write-up by J. Eric Holmes and Rob Kuntz that was published in Dragon Magazine #12 in 1978. The bulk of this article was written by Holmes, and the D&DG writeup has the same entries, except for one. Much re-writing but to me they clearly used the original article as a starting point. Read more at:

    Dr Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos Part II

  8. Wierus says:

    Is there a single story about early years of rpg where Brian Blume or his bro does not come out as an asshole?

    • John S. Hall says:

      If there is such a story, I haven’t come across it yet! 😉

      That being said, I’d be interested in hearing the Blumes’ side of things. I’ve always been very curious as to why they’ve remained silent for all these years…

  9. Marv Breig says:

    I would be curious to know about an earlier layer to this — before AD&D there was OD&D, and before Deities & Demigods was OD&D Supplement IV Gods, Demigods & Heroes. GD&H has stats for the worlds of Elric (Moorcock) and Conan (Howard) but not Cthulhu (Lovecraft) or Lankhmar (Leiber). There has to be some reason that Conan was dropped when Cthulhu and Lankhmar are added.

    • Marv, the Cthulhu Mythos wasn’t written up until after a few years GD&H came out – in Dragon #12, Feb 1978, by Holmes & Kuntz. So imagine they decided to add it to D&DG because they now had starting point to work from (see my comment above). I’ve never heard anything about why they dropped the Conan Mythos.

  10. mohrjoe says:

    When I first got my copy of Deities and Demigods I was fairly young and had never heard of Cthulu or Lovecraft or Elric. Naturally I wanted to find a way to include some of these guys in my campaigns but my players at that time had limited attention spans and did not stay in the campaign long enough for that to happen. I did, however, go on to read some Lovecraft. Kind of hard reading for a young kid.

    • John S. Hall says:

      I started reading Lovecraft as a teenager, and even though I was an avid reader who tested well above his reading level, I soon learned to keep a dictionary nearby when I was reading HP’s dense. adjective-laden prose! 😉

  11. Joel Orsatti says:

    Any idea why the Finnish mythos was dropped?

  12. Brent Butler says:

    This is more detail than we’ve ever heard on the subject, but even this doesn’t answer the essential question: Were there contracts, and did those contracts grant exclusive right? And even if it were only letters of authorization, did they grant exclusivity? If not, TSR could have simply told Chaosium to pound sand.

    As David mentioned (I believe in revision), it was VERY short-sighted of Chaosium to object to TSR’s content. It could only drive business to Chaosium’s products. In fact, I watched that happen a few times, as people in our gaming community saw the content in Deities and Demigods, and would show up later with the Chaosium boxes.

    Face it, by 1980 AD&D was driving the bandwagon, and everyone, I mean EVERYONE else was trying to grab a handhold.

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