Lovecraftian Gaming

The more I think about it, the less I’m sure why somebody (cough Chaosium cough) decided to take H.P. Lovecraft’s style of fiction and make it into a roleplaying game. Not for the obvious reasons that you might think, of course.

Let’s take CthulhuTech, for example; the Mythos works because it fits the “evil outsider enemy” role in a game inspired by Mecha anime (Evangelion comes to mind) and BattleTech (itself influenced by anime), which have precedents for unknown tentacled alien others to arrive and stomp on humans. In Pathfinder, the scattered Mythos creatures fill the same role as other D&D monsters; you don’t change your Pathfinder game to become an investigative one, and instead, end up with tactical battles against shoggoths instead of dragons.

What I mean is that Lovecraft’s fiction doesn’t adapt itself too well to roleplaying games, and in fact run counter to the adventuring party/tactical unit/gaming party and its social, action-based nature.


1.) Most of Lovecraft’s protagonists are individual; there’s rarely a group of people who encounter the strange beings from beyond time and space. When there are, they tend to be unnamed red shirts—members of a large expedition, household staff, rural townsfolk, native bearers, etc.—or, if they’re Name-Owning Proper White Folk, they almost always end up a.) betraying the protagonist, or b.) devoured by the story’s conclusion (“Statement of Randolph Carter” comes to mind).

This makes sense, given the stories’ nature—it’s fringe horror. These protagonists are the few individuals out of millions who’ve stumbled onto something far beyond human understanding, and will never be the same again. If what happens to Lovecraft’s protagonists happened to everyone in Lovecraft’s world, there’d be riots in the street, attempts to prepare defenses, governments would either collapse or become totalitarian bastions of humanity… in short, see CthulhuTech.

2.) Lovecraft’s prose is, to be honest, dull: second-hand monologue retellings of recent events (“Pickman’s Model”), or journal entries (“Call of Cthulhu”), or some other passive story frame. Often, it’s a madman recounting their tale, trying to understand how their mind broke (“Rats in the Walls”), or why you’re now standing over their deformed body (“Winged Death”). Modern authors can break that trend, but Lovecraft himself ends up creating this strange emotional distance through the story’s passive frame; maybe it mollifies the horror, setting it back and away from the protagonist, much less the reader.

“The Call of Cthulhu” is an amazing story, but it embodies all of those problems. It involves one person investigating things that happened decades before, reading a collection of primary source data that he obtained from… someone else investigating those events, decades before.

I’m not sure how that would pan out successfully in a game; there’s no sense of action in reading events that occurred decades before unless you run stories-within-a-story. Which is a stretch; players will forget which character they’re playing, will lose investment with each since they’re jumping from body to body, etc. Never mind that to be accurate to the source material, you’ll have at most five players, and they’ll need to be fine with the reality that all but 1-2 of them will die, and most of the survivors will be insane.

Between the sheer passivity of their frames and prose, and the limited number of protagonists in each one, his tales are something that doen’t adapt itself well into a social, group-based activity.

Not so much a condemnation as much as surprise; I think it’s impressive that Chaosium managed to build an effective roleplaying game that’s stood the test of time on a subject that doesn’t quite fit. And so successful that Lovecraft gaming has become a booming market nowadays: Trail of Cthulhu, Realms of Cthulhu, pulp action Cthulhu, tactical D&D Cthulhu, Cthulhu the video game, Cthulhu the flamethrower…

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