There have been a few recent posts (eg here and here) about Victoriana and the Cthulhu Mythos because those have been the setting and theme of our current campaign. Actually, when the campaign began I thought it was Victorian, period. (Or Victorian Period, take your pick.) All that Lovecraftian stuff came later – presumably because the opening scenario was borrowed from Cthulhu By Gaslight – but it’s in the nature of such things to set a course for the rest of the campaign, so now I’m resigned to facing mi-go and shoggoths every fortnight.
I’ve nothing against Lovecraft, let me say. Quite the reverse. His stories may not be the sort of thing I’d typically read for pleasure, eldritch or otherwise, but I greatly respect him as a creative innovator. Here's the snag: taking a body of literature and reworking it for role-playing inevitably steers the whole thing towards the reefs of parody. Imagine an RPG based on Crime and Punishment, with the consequent thumping emphasis on Ruthlessness and Guilt points. Or a Hemingway RPG which reduced Papa’s entire body of work to just booze, machismo and bull-fighting. So usually when I’ve played Call of Cthulhu (which isn’t often, I admit) it’s felt like nothing more than a lark, a one-off session of light relief for the players in between real role-playing.
But there’s always a silver lining. In that reductive approach involved in distilling a role-playing game out of an author's canon, there are going to be some interesting questions, at least a few nuggets gleaming in the mud. Take Call of Cthulhu’s SAN (sanity) rules. Is it actually the case that coming face-to-polyps with a Lovecraftian monster automatically drives you insane? And if so, why?
In the literature, you see, Lovecraft always starts off with a neurotically unstable lead character. That’s his shtick. He doesn’t pit a Steve Costigan type against the nameless spawn of the cosmic abyss, so we don’t know if they’d end up a gibbering wreck like a typical HPL protagonist or whether they’d wade in undaunted with fists flying and guns blazing. Actually, there is a famous round-robin story, “The Challenge From Beyond”, where Lovecraft brought the plot to a shuddering cliffhanger and Howard continued it, lustily and hilariously jettisoning Lovecraft’s psychic meltdown in favour of some raw, red-blooded action. (When you read it, just remember these guys were having fun with their public images, m’kay?)
But could a hero made of the sterner stuff that flowed from Bob Howard’s imagination face Elder Things with impunity? Or did Lovecraft intend that his monsters radiated some sort of frightful psionic effect that would drive even Conan mad? I found a debate about this online.
“A Lovecraftian monster is one in the style of H.P. Lovecraft's writing, which has a lot of vague depictions of unfathomable, indescribable, alien monsters. You would lose your sanity because that's what usually happens when you see one, like how looking at Medusa would turn you to stone.”Ah, now there we might be onto something. Except… can no one comprehend them? And the degree of unfathomability always drives a person mad? I can accept that a medieval crusader would find these critters freakishly scary, but what about a trained biologist? If you're accustomed to peering down a microscope at unearthly little boogers like dust mites and hydrothermal worms, would you still take one look at a fungus from Yuggoth and start screaming that such things cannot beeeee? Might there not be some scientists who would be more curious than scared? A commenter called ShakaUVM addresses this point:
“I disagree. Medusa turns you to stone because of some kind of magic. Lovecraftian monsters do not inherently ‘cause insanity’, the loss of sanity is something that happens in our human minds because we can't comprehend them.”
“Lovecraft thought that people couldn't deal with the actual reality of the universe. As it turns out, though, people like Carl Sagan managed to [contemplate the reality of the universe and] keep their sanity intact. Ultimately, it's because Lovecraft believed in certain Victorian tropes, like people passing out when something became overwhelming – his heroes faint all the time – and that knowledge could drive people insane.”
“The kind of horror that Lovecraft writes about would come from the realization that there is no God, that the universe is vast, chaotic, undirected, and unthinking.”
“When we have pictures of our place on our world in an insignificant solar system in an insignificant galaxy, we don't go insane from the insignificance of it all. We can comprehend that and still want to wake up and go about our business every day.”
That chimes perfectly well with my own view of the universe. I don’t personally think there’s a God or that the universe has “meaning”, and that doesn’t bother me at all. Facing the realization that we are an insignificant speck in the universe – well, of course we are. Ten billion Earthlike planets in this galaxy, a couple of hundred billion galaxies at least, and the distinct possibility that our universe is a tiny local phenomenon in a possibly infinite metauniverse. “Yes, Z, you are insignificant.”
Anyway, I can’t quote the whole discussion here. Shoot over and take a look at it. I’ll wait…
OK, so the assertion of Call of Cthulhu is that there are some things so completely unthinkable that every single human being, if forced to confront them, would go insane. But maybe what we have here is an observer bias. As a writer, Lovecraft was especially interested in neurotic characters, and may have intended us to conclude that the people most readily drawn to Cthulhu cults and manifestations were psychically the most sensitive and fragile among us. His chosen genre was horror, his intent was to unsettle, his style – let’s be charitable and call it Poe turned up to eleven. His fiction is bound to portray a terrifying, unspeakable, mind-blasting universe the way Hallmark movies always present a saccharinely sentimental one.
Writers flavour the world they create in their stories. They don’t necessarily intend for us to take that as a template for how the universe works, because literature is never intended to be an undistorted reflection of reality. So in drawing inspiration from literature for our role-playing system, maybe we need to be wary of using the whole cloth of an author’s work. Making a universe that’s going to last a whole campaign requires a bigger box of tricks than a set of stories built around a single theme and authorial voice.
And yet... it's a fine line, isn't it? A Lovecraftian role-playing game in which none of the neuroses is baked into the rules mechanics would be effectively indistinguishable from any other 1930s RPG. Which in turn invites the question: does literary style have a place in role-playing? Is it right for the system to impose that kind of prescriptive story framework on the players, or should the themes of a campaign emerge in play from the interaction between the characters and the world? Over to you.