Supernatural Horror – Lovecraft (1) Lovecraftian Tropes

Originally, I started out writing this for Wednesday (3 February ’11), but thanks to a surprise case of Head Injury Theater and a trip to the ER, I didn’t get past the rough draft stage. Needless to say, I took the rest of the week off recovering. So, I’m splitting up the entry into three smaller parts, looking at aspects of Lovecraft and how they relate to horror roleplaying.

I had a decent intro paragraph that is now long since forgotten, save that it brought up a quote from some random dolt (more on him later) who plays in the game I’m in. The quote is roughly “What’s the point in playing a game [Call of Cthulhu] where you know everybody is going to die at the end?,” an only slightly bitter sentiment following the guy’s first exposure to CoC a few months prior. To be honest, I don’t have so much a problem about playing in a Cthulhu game so much as I can’t comprehend how you can have a “long-running” Cthulhu game. Sure, sure, the protagonists can spend a half-dozen tense sessions building up knowledge of strange cults, leading to extraplanar entities, leading to the eventual madness and death. But since the guys at Chaosium have honed this arc down to the point where you can play it in a three- to five-hour session (e.g., convention adventures, tourney adventures, pretty much all premade Cthulhu adventures)… I don’t see a reason to delay the inevitable and draw it out over several months. Namely, because either the players will have done something stupid and went insane/bumbled into the local Migou/Esoteric Order of Dagon convention, or because the GM would have done something right and driven the PCs mad/into the downward spiral of infighting/straight into a shoggoth hive or something.

One last Lovecraft-related anecdote. After playing in a few CoC games, my roommate decided he should (as a nerd and all) delve into the actual Lovecraft stories and read some of the Mythos. So, with all due attention, he asked to borrow one of my Lovecraft comps (the SFBC collection Black Seas of Infinity, which I’ve been reading again, hence the topic). Some fifteen-twenty minutes later, he returned the book, having read the first story (“The Call of Cthulhu” proper), telling me “It wasn’t scary at all, but I thought it was pretty cool that they brained Cthulhu with a tramp steamer.” No, these are not terribly scary in the campfire tale/ghost story vein; they’re not even spooky or spine-tingling.

Let’s put that up front (along with the fact Lovecraft used prose we now consider antiquated). The Mythos is scary because of the exact tropes I’ve underlined below, namely the first one; it’s a psychological terror, realizing that everything we come to accept as fact, realizing the boundaries of Human Ingenuity, realizing the place of humanity on the cosmic scale are so finite and infinitesimally small that we are nothing more than playthings to beings vastly more intelligent and powerful. Don’t read Lovecraft because you want to jump out of your seat. Read Lovecraft because you want to see human perceptions of the world—namely, the Victorian/Edwardian “humanity is so incredibly advanced right now,” “pushing back the dark boundaries of the universe with the light of civilization and industry” conception—shattered when the smartest and most powerful are put in the Migou’s killing jar.

Anyways, onward.

Eroding the Foundation of Human Knowledge/Human Minutia on a Cosmic Scale

AKA Fear of The Unknown. Lovecraft’s writing can be seen as a scathing, cynical attack on human philosophies: in the wake of Enlightenment, when science was pushing back the dark boundaries of the unknown, Lovecraft’s horrors intentionally broke these principles. In a hardcore Lovecraftian sense, human science, Enlightenment values, faith and religion—none of these matter, as many insane protagonists learned, when they confronted something so outside their understanding. In an age where science was issuing new discoveries daily, and when human inventions—airplanes, autos, electricity, telephones, what have you—were appearing out of the ether, the real horror of the Mythos was being told that humanity wasn’t as sure and safe as it had thought, that there were still things—dangerous things—that the human mind couldn’t comprehend.

This is the foundation of nearly all Lovecraftian horror: science isn’t as exact as we thought, belief can’t protect you against things which don’t share your beliefs in order, faith, technology. Human technology and understanding is not the pinnacle of the cosmos, but an unimportant speck not worthy of the greatest powers to reach out and crush. These things work outside the bounds of science, which should be a horror unto itself. In short, Lovecraft turned the threat of the unknown on its head at precisely the right time: during the industrial age, a time when people thought they were seeing the last boundaries of knowledge broken by scientific developments, an age where people were most assuredly safe from the dark. Instead, humanity is a speck in the playing fields of things so immense that knowing a fraction of their mind snaps the fragile human psyche.

Forbidden Truths

Having eroded the belief system of humanity, Lovecraft then replaces it with forbidden knowledge—things that drive men mad, but which explain the truisms, the secrets of the universe. The quest for power drives some characters to these discoveries; in other cases, it’s finding a cult to the old ones, or a “church” of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, which reveal some glimpse of truth to the characters. There is a much bigger picture of what’s going on, and the characters only see a fraction of it, enough to know there’s more going on—enough to want to know more, or to try to stop it—but enough for their precious faiths and belief structures to start crashing down.

Sanity and Madness

A lot of Lovecraft’s characters have the habit of going insane after glimpsing the unwarranted truth; as such, it’s become a part of horror RPGs—Call of Cthulhu, CthulhuTech, Deadlands. Even Pathfinder has a sanity/madness track, something I’d definitely use if I were running Runelords, or something with Gugs. Seeing something “wrong” or learning a bit about a cult may only cost you a sliver of sanity, but learning more and more can cause the character to lose all concept of reality, or their sense of self. In other cases, they may gain dementias, phobias, depression—all manner of psychological illnesses to go along with psychological trauma. It’s why I love CthulhuTech: the grinning, anime-shaded mecha heroes slowly collapse, mentally, under the weight of seeing and fighting and being neck-deep in Mythos horror.

Nobody Cares; You’re Alone

The first rule of Cthulhu is that nobody believes the outrageous truths you’re telling them. Several gaslight CoC games I’ve played in involved the characters being arrested for something, rambling their stories of horror to a nonplussed beat cop. It goes back to the above point: the Enlightened, rational man will dispatch such things as primitive superstition, and those more religious would discount it as pagan idolatry or point out the protective value of their faith. In short: no matter how much proof you have—which a good GM would limit, by the way—few people, if anyone, will listen to the protagonists. Those who do are slightly off and offer slim “real” help (the ostracized town drunk, the fringe alien hunters for a local cable station), or are somehow directly related to the threat.

Average Joe

Cthulhu protagonists fall into roughly two categories. First is the nobility, smart people, or what have you. This group is well-educated, versed in the scientific beliefs of the day, and of a higher social caste; usually this group falls into the “Blood Will Prevail” trope. The second—and group which resonates most with a gaming group—is the Everyman, the Working Class Joe who stumbles onto something bigger. “The Colour Out Of Space” featured a surveyor as the protagonist, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” a vacationing tourist jumping around New England, “Pickman’s Model” a Bostonian artist.

Mythos-based games work, in a large part, because the players are so helpless—much as humanity is helpless in Lovecraft’s eyes. A lot of the pre-published Mythos adventures include normal people, albeit creepy ones—inbred families, rural villagers, dock workers or bartenders. Even characters with some form of civilian power or knowledge—policemen, journalists, scientists—are generally baffled by what they see. Pull characters from all walks of life, because, somehow, it’ll fit: out first group included a bunch of bar patrons trying to clean up an old house one of the characters had inherited, including The Professor the patron, Senor Lady the homely waitress, Gorki the Dockworker, and Bob the Janitor. It goes back to the sense of scale: everything is scary when playing a schoolmarm, as it should be. When you’re playing well-armed cops or felons or special forces, things are less scary, even though you’re as powerless as an infant.

Your Weapons, They Do Nothing

One of my friends has a regular habit of running Cthulhu games as Halloween specials; for the last one, some chucklehead printed off and brought combat rules. For gaslight Call of Cthulhu. This has become an in-joke in our extended group. First off, see the “Average Joe” part: when most Cthulhu games involve normal (creepy) people, the need for combat rules diminishes greatly. Second. I remember reading a RPGNet thread about which Lovecraft entities would survive a nuclear blast; the list was pretty high. I’ll admit, several mythos entities can be taken down by superior firepower (Deep Ones being a good example, since they only die from “right violent deaths”). But, as anyone who’s played Delta Green can tell you, no matter your firepower, you’re not going to kill that shoggoth with bullets. There’s some overarching belief that the only people who survive in a CoC game are either military or paramilitary, when in reality, giving characters guns is just a quick, easy way for paranoid characters to kill each other.

The big point of Lovecraft was for the Everymen to find something so alien and destructive that they went mad; that something was so powerful and immense that the Everyman’s faith in religion, Enlightenment values, science, what have you, were shattered like the human constructs they are. No matter what tools a character has at their disposal, they have no hope for total victory: the entity which they’ve uncovered exists outside the sphere of human knowledge, and cannot be destroyed by anything within it.

(Hence the point in Cthulhu games, specifically CthulhuTech, of using Mythos constructions—occult knowledge and spellbooks, Tagers and their symbiotes, Mi-go bio-tech—to fight the Mythos. Coincidentally, chucklenuts with the combat rules frequently pointed out that CthulhuTech’s Tagers weren’t Lovecraftian enough and made no sense, because apparently it made no sense for Mythos tech to fight the Mythos.)

Blood Will Prevail

Case in point: “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Somewhere in the protagonist’s background lies a connection to the horrific deeds which have been uncovered, and despite their revulsion or intention, the protagonist slowly becomes enthralled to his past. Like it or not, these people cannot escape the calling of their heritage: “Shadow” is a great example, with the protagonist learning too much about Dagon and the Deep Ones, only to find he’s related to the clan, and eventually wanders off to join the Deep One city under the brine. This isn’t to say there’s no way out: suicide is always an option, as is study and dissection if the character heads to the government for aid.

It’s bad form to just walk up to a player and go “Ok, you’re related to this eldritch abomination by blood and now feel at one with their cause.” Don’t expect much from that method. It requires a slower descent, slowly edging them to follow the conventions of the horror they’ve uncovered, until they’ve fallen far enough that the player willingly takes the final steps. (Again, good horror is always more psychological than anything else, especially in regards to games.) To be honest, it’s not hard to find something the character will want; think Ravenloft and its corruption, where players are offered minor boons in steadily growing numbers for steadily growing downsides. A player might willingly use an artifact or take a power despite a small drawback—the smell of brine, a wheeze—only to see the boons increase and the drawbacks pile up accordingly.

External Forces

The Mythos horrors are almost all extraterrestrial, and those that aren’t are so ancient and hidden that all knowledge of them is lost. All of them wish to push their will onto humanity, manipulating or destroying humans for their own pleasure or gain. Take the Mi-go, for example: they’re frequently shown manipulating humans, breeding them, cloning them, operating on them, simply to see what happens. They also harvest brains, going back to the whole “studying humans” thing. A lot of the Mythos entities fit the same bill, putting humans in the killing jar simply to see what happens, and it gets even worse when they’re fighting amongst each other—or just showing up on the sidelines, attracted by some other Mythos beast. (One of my characters was operated on by Mi-go when our FBI agents were investigating some rural town, where most of the aldermen had been turned into some amorphous hive-mind by some other Mythos contaminant.) The PCs and protagonists, as humans, cannot hope to comprehend how these beings operate—and that’s only partly they exist outside of human rational, Euclidean geometry, three dimensions, etc.

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