The SAN Trap

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest. It is not, however, a review of the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying game, despite the title. It is instead an high-level overview of the game and its affect on both roleplaying and Lovecraft’s legacy.

If you are unfamiliar with tabletop roleplaying games, or have only been exposed to RPGs of the electronic variety, you might equate the entire genre with Dungeons & Dragons: wizards, unicorns, swords, potions, and lots of dice. And that’s not a bad description of D&D, at least insofar as how some groups play it. Players draft characters, form a party, delve into a dungeon, and hack away at the monsters therein, accumulating Experience and losing Hit Points.

“Hit Points”, in the lexicon of D&D and many other roleplaying games, are a measure of physical health, and when they drop to zero or below your character may pass out or even die. “Experience”, on the other hand, is an abstract measure of how much your character has “done” in its life, and is amassed by performing tasks such as killing monsters and completing quests. After you’ve accumulated a certain amount of Experience your character “levels up”, becoming more powerful in the process. As there are many many ways to recuperate Hit Points and few ways to lose Experience, the end result is a game in which characters become ever more powerful and very rarely die.

This model is ill-suited for a roleplaying game set in the world of H. P. Lovecraft for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the entire concept of “Experience”–the rewarding of players for performing tasks–implies that doing things is worthwhile, which flies in the face of the pervasive futility found in the Mythos tales. For another, a game in which death is rare is about as far from Lovecraftian as you can get. And what’s the point of characters becoming “more powerful” when, even at their zenith, they are but specks before the Great Old Ones?

Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu, solved all these problems with one deft stroke of genius. While the core of the roleplaying game is very generic (so much so that it is called the “Basic Roleplaying System)–with statistics such as Strength and Dexterity, a list of possible skills, and yes even Hit Points–it features something that no game before had included: Sanity. Sanity (or “SAN”) works much like Hit Points do, as a measure of someone’s current condition; however it does not track the character’s physical health, but rather his mental health. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to recuperate Sanity in a Call of Cthulhu game. And as the characters (called “Investigators” in CoC parlance) learn more about the horrors of the Mythos, the maximum that their Sanity rating can reach slowly dwindles. In short, the heroes in Call of Cthulhu grow ever more fragile over time rather than stronger, as exposure to eldritch horrors drives them to the brink of madness and beyond.

To the uninitiated this might sound like a clever twist on the Hit Points formula, but not something that would necessarily set the tone for the entire game. But it does. For one thing, players quickly learn not get attached to their characters–after a few sessions they will be dead, or insane, or–best case scenario–retired recluses with a crippling fear of everything. Needless to say, all of this serves wonderfully to reinforce the sense of existential terror. It also has characters acting in ways striking different than they would in other RPGs; when monsters appear in CoC, players quickly learn that the best strategy is not to attack but to turn tail and run like hell. With brawn all but useless when faced with the omnipotent horrors of the elder gods, Investigators can only succeed by using their wits; when they enter battle at all, they typically do so armed not with knives and guns but with dilapidated tomes and arcane knowledge.

The relationship between H. P. Lovecraft’s legacy and the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game is one of strange symbiosis. The sanity rule, inspired by Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic nihilism, has made CoC one of the most beloved roleplaying games of all time; the popularity of the game, in turn, has sustained the interest in Lovecraft’s works, and the company behind CoC (Chaosium) had expanded the pool of Mythos-related material though the publication of fiction and CoC sourcebooks. And when you consider the overlap between those who play roleplaying games and those who work in technological fields, it’s no wonder that the Internet is rife with Lovecraftia. (Wikipedia alone has hundreds of pages devoted to the man and his creations, everything from Azathoth to Roger Zelany …) How odd that the man who described games as “avenues of escape for persons with too poorly proportioned and correlated a perspective to distinguish betwixt the frivolous and the relevant” would have his own relevance extended into the 21st century by a pastime such as CoC.

The Thousand Young

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest.

Cthulhu Mythos, As Imagined By Kids:

“I pitched the idea to [the children] that since it was getting on to Halloween how ’bout drawing some monsters? And not just any monsters but creatures from the writing of H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos. Now, only two of the kids (the older ones) had any knowledge of who Lovecraft was or had read some of his stories. So, I was able to introduce the kids to these creatures pretty much fresh with no previous imagining of what these monsters look like …”


Where to Begin?

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve never read any H. P. Lovecraft. What to do?

Nearly all of his work is available online thanks to the H. P. Lovecraft Archive, so there’s no problem with access. I’m nonetheless going to encourage you to seek out his work in print or, at the very least, furtively send some of those electronic versions to your workplace printer and spirit them away. The pacing and verbosity of his stories is at odds with the 140-character nature of online culture, and considering how many of his plots revolve around libraries it wouldn’t be a bad idea to reacquaint yourself with one before tucking in. Not to mention that there is something fundamentally wrong with seeing the word “eldritch” in Helvetica. (All that said, even I won’t begrudge those of you with Kindles for picking up the entire Lovecraftian canon for free …)

So: books. The single-volume H. P. Lovecraft: Tales is the most comprehensive, containing all of his major works. The three volume “… And Other Weird Stories” set, meanwhile, is arguably the best collection, as it is edited by S. T. Joshi. (The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, and The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, the three of which Amazon bundles together for a smidge over $32.) Or go to your local used book store a pick up a few of the The Rats in the Walls, and it turned me into a lifelong convert, so there’s some strong anecdotal evidence in favor of that one. But the tale I usually recommend as a starter is The Colour Out of Space. (Lovecraft was an unabashed anglophile; hence the “u”). For one thing, “Colour” is distinct from Lovecraft’s intertwined “Cthulthu Mythos” stories, and a new reader won’t find herself stumped by offhand references to “Yog-Sothoth” or “The Necronomicon”. For another, the story contains some of his best writing:

As I walked hurriedly by I saw the tumbled bricks and stones of an old chimney and cellar on my right, and the yawning black maw of an abandoned well whose stagnant vapours played strange tricks with the hues of the sunlight. Even the long, dark woodland climb beyond seemed welcome in contrast, and I marvelled no more at the frightened whispers of Arkham people. There had been no house or ruin near; even in the old days the place must have been lonely and remote. And at twilight, dreading to repass that ominous spot, I walked circuitously back to the town by the curving road on the south. I vaguely wished some clouds would gather, for an odd timidity about the deep skyey voids above had crept into my soul.

For those intending to plow through a whole bunch of Lovecraft, some other good places to start are The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Outsider, and , all of which are brief, archetypal, and fairly early in his fiction writing career.

If you just want to read a single work of Lovecraft’s to find out what the fuss is about, I would refer you to The Shadow Over Innsmouth (my personal favorite) or The Dunwich Horror. These are among his longer stories, but exemplify his style and philosophy. Or, if you’d like your “one and done” exposure to be of novel-length, check out The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

By the way, other people are going to recommend to you as a perfect “first Lovecraft story” either The Call of Cthulhu or At the Mountains of Madness. These people are wrong. They are conflating the stories that are most beloved to people who have read a lot of Lovecraft with those that would be of interest to people who have read no Lovecraft. The Return of the King may be the best book in the Lord of the Ring trilogy, but you wouldn’t want to read it first.

The H. P. Lovefest

As if my nerd credentials were not already firmly established here on this website and elsewhere, I must also confess a weakness for the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

Well not “the works”, per se, although I do enjoy his writing. But what I am really a fan of is his entire deal: the mythology he created; the collaborations with his contemporaries, in which he and the “Lovecraft Circle” freely appropriated samples of each others work in a manner analogous to the hiphop movement of a half century later; his influence on popular culture even to this day (e.g., “Arkham Asylum” from the Batman comics); and of course, me being me, the many great games that have been inspired by the Lovecraftian canon.

My mythosmania flares up annually in the weeks before before Halloween; this year I am going to indulge it by posting H. P. miscellany each day until the 31st, possibly culminating in an essay about Lovecraft for The Morning News sometime around the end of the month.

If you are also a Lovecraft aficionado (as 45% of the Internet seems to be), please feel free to forward to me anything about the man, his writings, or his influence that you think is worthy of inclusion.

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