I was giving some more thought to what would make a horror genre game Lovecraftian:
- Protagonists are usually normal people or even those more fragile and sensitive than normal. - Needs a dynamic tension between wanting to learn more yet being afraid to learn more. - Horror isn't about killing characters, but scaring the players (building tension/atmosphere/dread). - The climax of horror in Lovecraft stories often comes about from some revelation at the end. - Mind transfer is a frequently used theme. - An obsession with New England architecture should figure into the games somehow (PC/NPC). - An obsession with 17th, 18th, and 19th century New England should figure in also (PC/NPC). - Dreams are a frequent theme often related to lost youth, idealized past and/or other world. - Old age is often related to something sinister or otherworldly/monstrous. - Lovecraft's repulsion at miscegenation gets filtered in as human/monster hybrids. - What may be perceived as insanity may in fact be revelation or enlightenment.
I'm reposting something I wrote in the Marvel Super Heroes RPG thread here, for my own reference:
In the super hero game there has to be some provision for overcoming a weakness or limitation, since that is so central to the archetype. Facing and overcoming your weakness is an important part of the hero's journey. And from a meta-gaming standpoint, a weakness is like throwing the GM a bone to give him more personalized details to work with in coming up with a scenario. So, that is a must-have.
In CALL OF CTHULHU it is a bit more difficult, since Lovecraft's stories are often more about creating an atmosphere of dread and eerieness than they are about the protagonists actively driving the plot along... There a few exceptions, like in "The Dunwich Horror" "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," "The Lurking Fear," or "The Shunned House." But for the most part his protagonists are the neurotic dreamers or sensitive artists or fainting scholars who end up fleeing for their lives ("The Festival," "The Whisperer in Darkness," "At the Mountains of Madness"), getting destroyed ("Dagon," "The Haunter in the Dark," "The Temple"), or finding out they themselves are monsters or otherwise disappearing from the earthly realm ("The Outsider," "Rats in the Walls," "Shadow Over Innsmouth," "The Silver Key"). A lot of times his protagonists merely uncover a story or observe events without making any difference ("The Call of Cthulhu," "Pickman's Model," "The Shadow Out of Time"). So, I think it is inherently challenging to have a game that stays true to Lovecraft, yet also allows the players to be active participants who can make some kind of difference. A way to handle the skill button pusher problem is simply tell the players they cannot ask to use a skill, they must describe what they do and you as the GM will tell them when a skill check is required. So, the game can end up being more about what the player does, how he investigates, where and how he looks for details, making logical connections, etc. than about his character successfully making skill checks.
So, it is should be about immersion in the atmosphere and seeking knowledge ("I want to find out but I'm afraid of what it might be"), not a focus on rules mechanics, skills, big guns, etc.
Last Edit: Apr 28, 2018 14:30:55 GMT -5 by GRWelsh
I’ve cooled a lot on my criticism of the CoC skill mechanic. It’s still something of a bore, but, if used sparingly it is okay. With a big enough group, it at least is a way of deciding who gets to complete the fire drill, and the jams that result from failures are sometimes interesting (force creative solutions) and sometimes funny.
But, I’m also a lot less concerned with the CoC game being particularly Lovecraftian (New England, etc.), let alone the jokey/populist take that Gene encapsulated. I just like the basic setup of, Let’s go see what’s “really” under the Pyramids, or on Easter Island, or in the sewers of New York City. And the flavor can be whatever.
“A man may do both. For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!” —J.R.R. Tolkien
I’m also a lot less concerned with the CoC game being particularly Lovecraftian (New England, etc.), let alone the jokey/populist take that Gene encapsulated. I just like the basic setup of, Let’s go see what’s “really” under the Pyramids, or on Easter Island, or in the sewers of New York City. And the flavor can be whatever.
I agree that a CALL OF CTHULHU game doesn't need to be Lovecraftian in the ways I was describing to be successful. The New England setting and other details aren't essential but could be enjoyable to HPL fans (like it could be fun to go to Arkham, Miskatonic University, Arkham Sanitarium, interact with NPC's from the stories, etc.). But none of that is as important as creating the "weird tale" feeling, and if you can do that, the game can be set anywhere and played by anyone (including those who haven't read HPL). I don't care about the game being a period piece, either -- set in the 1920's or 30's -- except that has the advantage of no cell phones and thus it is easier to create some sense of isolation. But period play can be distracting if there is too much focus on the details and differences. So, it may be best to have things be as familiar as possible to give the game a "this could happen to you" feeling which is the baseline for most horror. This is especially true of the best Lovecraftian fiction -- it doesn't try to slavishly imitate his style or setting, but tries to capture the same sense of eerieness or unsettling revelation, and usually written in the time period and setting the author is most familiar with (Clark Ashton Smith in Oakland, CA, Ramsey Campbell in the UK, Stephen King in Maine, Michael Shea in LA, W. H. Pugmire in Seattle, Joe Pulver Sr. in Schenectady, NY, et al.).* If I were going to write horror fiction, it would be set in Western PA in the late 20th or early 21st century because I wouldn't want to get called out on getting the details wrong!
*The only time I ever thought a Lovecraft pastiche worked was Peter Cannon's "The Madness out of Time" because he perfectly imitated Lovecraft's style and it was presented as a 'lost' HPL story not as a hoax but an homage to the way old stories often had a framing device of "I didn't write this; I found it and as far as I know it is all true."
As an aside: I could swear that new Gaia network is made for CALL OF CTHULHU players... Pyramids in Antarctica? Let's go!
Last Edit: May 12, 2019 16:30:32 GMT -5 by GRWelsh
you suddenly realize that you are not really your character anymore but rather a simulacrum made of "star cheese"...
I had an idea for a story similar to what Gene wrote years earlier (quoted above). As a game idea, if a character gets replaced in a "Body Snatchers" way and the player has to role play the duplicate that's not so different from a player running his doppelganger in D&D. But the twist is: what if the imitation is designed to perfectly mimic the original all the way down to the thoughts and motivations until 'activated'? Sort of like the perfect sleeper agent. So, how this would work is a character may find out he isn't human and it is very disconcerting... He still feels and thinks like a human, cares about his human companions, and so on. Like, he gets cut and there's no blood, and the wound reveals strange matter that appears part animal and part vegetable. In the game, the player can determine how he wants to react upon learning that. In the story, since the imitation never gets 'activated' he helps the other humans against the 'masters' who created him. I just realized this sounds similar to TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY and other sequels like TERMINATOR: SALVATION, except in this case the imitation isn't reprogrammed, but rather his next level programming never gets activated.
Last Edit: May 13, 2019 14:10:59 GMT -5 by GRWelsh
Something else that might work in a CALL OF CTHULHU game is behavior that isn't necessarily threatening, but is odd and therefore eerie or unsettling. Like what if investigators suspect someone of wrongdoing and spy on him and witness him just standing in his house in the dark, unmoving? Or if someone has a neighbor who is digging all the time -- like obsessively. Or a neighbor keeps bringing animals into his house, but they are never seen again. There are probably lots of oddball, real life behaviors that could inspire weird scenarios or stories.
[SNIP]just standing in his house in the dark, unmoving? Or if someone has a neighbor who is digging all the time -- like obsessively. Or a neighbor keeps bringing animals into his house, but they are never seen again.[SNIP]
Seriously, there are a lot of examples in the stories. One of the things that I don't like about "THE EXCLUSIVE GAME RIGHTS OF CTHULHU" game is the insanity being a major part and being functional. Its in D&D but that is not the functional part of the game. Combat in D&D is the functional part of the game which gets extended down to the segment of a spell cast. COC is a game that is D&D derivative with this insanity material piled on top. Its as if D&D was run with an elaborate mental breakdown system and simplified percentile "combat checks".
What is sane? Its ridiculous. Comparatively in D&D, there is all this real armor and real weapon damage and then magic effects on top. What is lost at the end of a HPL story? Innocence, happiness, contentment, complacency, morals, etc. Insanity is almost a non-sequitur of not necessarily happening. If the ancient ones offered unlimited power everything else would be irrelevant. Doesn't sound like insanity.
Last Edit: May 13, 2019 8:39:29 GMT -5 by geneweigel
I get what you're saying since the "sanity as hit points" system doesn't really simulate what happens in most Lovecraft stories. People like it because it reverses the fantasy hero trend of always (usually) improving by creating a system in which you do (mostly) nothing but degenerate and so that emphasizes how utterly doomed you are. That touches on cosmic horror, but not the details of what happens in most HPL stories since they are about revelation or transformation rather than simply going insane. One may act in a way that appears insane to others because of what he knows and they do not. You could easily run scenarios that de-emphasize the sanity point system. For example, if a character discovers he is a "star cheese" simulacrum, instead of having the player make a sanity check, the Keeper (GM) could simply have the player role play the reaction. He could decide this knowledge drives the character temporarily insane since he cannot reconcile his two identities, or he may have him adapt to this revelation and move forward, or live in denial. It's like in the end of "The Shadow over Innsmouth" when the narrator finds out he is descended from Deep Ones, he is tormented by that knowledge for more than two years but eventually accepts what he is.
From that day on my life has been a nightmare of brooding and apprehension, nor do I know how much is hideous truth and how much madness. My great-grandmother had been a Marsh of unknown source whose husband lived in Arkham—and did not old Zadok say that the daughter of Obed Marsh by a monstrous mother was married to an Arkham man through a trick? What was it the ancient toper had muttered about the likeness of my eyes to Captain Obed’s? In Arkham, too, the curator had told me I had the true Marsh eyes. Was Obed Marsh my own great-great-grandfather? Who—or what—then, was my great-great-grandmother? But perhaps this was all madness.
So far I have not shot myself as my uncle Douglas did. I bought an automatic and almost took the step, but certain dreams deterred me. The tense extremes of horror are lessening, and I feel queerly drawn toward the unknown sea-deeps instead of fearing them.
Last Edit: May 14, 2019 10:26:08 GMT -5 by GRWelsh
Post by geneweigel on May 13, 2019 10:31:38 GMT -5
Thats a perfect example, its like contained in a D&D moment that as madness essentially being nerfed works. But in a game centered on HPL it doesn't because everything is then being nerfed so the players start "playing" out an alternative genre hence the gangster games of hit after hit that ruined everything that I worked on for a coc campaign in the mid-1980s.
I have lots of seeds for ideas to fix it but I might just put in my Skulldon adventure which has a few HPL moments and is next on the slate for me.
I ran a CALL OF CTHULHU scenario for my cousin and her husband at my house last night. It went well and we had a great time! The scenario was "Paper Chase" from the new 7th edition Starter Set, a very basic, beginner-friendly game. This was my first time as Keeper and their first times as players of this game, although we've all played a lot of of RPGs over the years. They played rather normal people -- a fake mystic and a dock worker -- starting in Providence and then invited by an old friend up to Arkham to investigate an odd little mystery. I played some Jazz music authentic to 1922 in the background. I used the old supplement ARKHAM UNVEILED (1990) to help detail the town locations and NPCs. I couldn't resist a bit of name-dropping... My cousin's character met Henry Armitage at the University Library, and when they were examining the names on the tombstones in the Old Wooded Graveyard they saw Armitages, Derbys, Pickmans, Wards, Waites, Pabodies, Peaslees, Dyers and Whateleys... They were genuinely scared at the conclusion, and we're planning to play again in a couple of weeks!
I've noticed in CALL OF CTHULHU that one-shot scenarios work better than long running campaigns for maintaining actual horror. In a one-shot, you are just normal people caught up in a weird situation, trying to make the best of it and probably failing. The emphasis is on your frailty and confusion. But in a long-running campaign, once your characters know the supernatural is real and you are actively seeking out monsters or trying to foil the plots of cultists, and as you gain Cthulhu Mythos knowledge, the genre shifts towards pulp adventure. There's nothing inherently wrong with the latter sort of play, but it is a completely different sort of game and not Lovecraftian at all. To put it another way, if Henry Armitage and friends (as player characters) are stopping a monster of the week every game session, then it's no longer horror. Familiarity breeds contempt... and confidence.
"Well boys, we stopped old Yoggy again... but for how long this time?"
Is there a continuing story in Lovecraft? The only thing that I recall is Randolph Carter (Of "Statement of...") running into Pickman (Of the tale of his "Model".) in Dreamquest. Is there some other continuance besides deity/history?
Randolph Carter is the big exception, since he is in a continuing story especially after "The Silver Key" with "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" co-authored with E. Hoffman Price as a direct sequel. If I remember correctly, Price talked HPL into doing the sequel to "The Silver Key" even though he didn't really want to. Carter was also in "The Unnamable," "The Statement of Randolph Carter," and "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." Those all work well as stand alone stories but also do have references linking them to other stories. "The Silver Key" references Harley Warren from "The Statement of Randolph Carter" though not by name, and also seems to refer to the events of "The Unnamable" in Arkham. Randolph Carter is also referred to as someone Dr. Willett knows in "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" but does not appear in the story. And if you count revisions, Carter appears in "Out of the Aeons" in his Swami alias... That's seven stories Carter was in!
The only other recurring human characters that I can think of are Richard Upton Pickman who is in "Pickman's Model" and "Dream-Quest..." and possibly "Out of the Aeons," Kuranes who is in "Celephais" and "Dream-Quest..." and The Terrible Old Man who is in "The Terrible Old Man" and "The Strange High House in the Mist."
So, there was definitely a shared universe for these stories with at least some continuation. But what is unclear is how much HPL meant for these to be considered all part of one over-arching continuing story, or just winks to the readers.
Is that the rpg progression of pure HPL characters to have one cthulhian shock ending adventure then shift to a Dunsanian dream world of shifting fantasy encounters?
Not that I'm aware of, but that is a brilliant idea.
The campaign HORROR ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS at one point has characters riding a monstrous "Dreamland Express" parallel to the real world but more monster than machine. In previous editions, I think there was a Dream Lore skill that helped you enter or know about the Dreamlands. The CALL OF CTHULHU video game that came out in 2018 had some sequences where the investigator thinks he's fighting monsters but wakes up in an asylum, and is confused about what is real, and I like that idea a lot, too, and strikes me as being similar to yours.
One must be careful introducing the Dreamlands into a CALL OF CTHULHU campaign, because it completely alters the tone from horror grounded in gritty, mundane reality to a fantasy genre that is largely unrelatable and at times fanciful or silly (talking cats, nightgaunts that tickle you, etc.). It's undoubtedly Lovecraftian, but there can be risk in introducing it. It might make a perfect ending, however, to leave players unsure just what happened...
Did you go to the Dreamlands, or go insane, or die and this is the afterlife?
I've been trying to remember when I first read Lovecraft. I know for a fact that my first Lovecraft book was THE BEST OF H. P. LOVECRAFT: BLOODCURDLING TALES OF HORROR AND THE MACABRE (1982) with the introduction by Robert Bloch, because I still have the trade paperback with its yellowed pages. My copy says "First Edition: October 1982." I remember buying it at B. Dalton Booksellers in the Clearview Mall in Butler, PA, and I must I have bought it soon after that printing date, because it was reprinted and if I bought it much later it would likely have a later edition reprint date. I think I simply bought this book on the strength of the cover art by Michael Whelan and the recommendation by Stephen King on the front. It's funny how I used to take these memories for granted, and the older I get, the hazier it becomes... Anyway, looking through the book now, I am still impressed at what a great collection of stories it is. I almost certainly began with "The Rats in the Walls," since it is the first story, and I definitely remember reading "The Picture in the House" for the first time, and it is still one of my favorites with that dramatic blood drop. As a kid, I found "The Silver Key" and "The Music of Erich Zann" to be somewhat boring, but now they are among my top ranked stories. I do remember after first finishing this book, I thought it ended strong with "The Shadow Out of Time" because it leaned into science fiction and I was blown away by the high level view and time scales involved.
Another angle is the players being victims (or monsters at the end) doesn't add to the rpg continuance of the Chaosium view of investigators picking up (or rather putting down "the needle".) ala Sherlock Holmes.
Transition to another character where the aware character "wins" and hands off to their next character?