About 80 years ago lived an author; a tall, thin American with a strong jaw and thin lips. His name was Howard Philips (H.P.) Lovecraft, and although during his life his tales only made him a very modest income, after his death his works would redefine horror and suspense.
Specially for RPGs, and even beyond the seminal Call of Cthulhu, lets face it, most Monsters From Beyond nowadays have, in some location of their anatomy, tentacles. 50 years ago you had the Balrog: big, demonic, and fiery. Now we have amalgams of flesh, cartilage and tentacles; and possibly eyes.
Now I know that in life HPL was perhaps not the nicest of people, but here I’m merely focusing on his works, and most particularly, why his works are so revered these days and why they keep getting adapted to Board and Role-Playing games.
These games, and there are many, center on investigation and… well… despair. So why do so many people (me included) love the Cthulhu-verse?
Here are my 6 reasons for why most people these days have heard of Cthulhu.
1 – UNDYING.
You can’t kill Lovecraft’s monsters. It would be like throwing pebbles at a mountain. No stakes-through-the-heart, no silver bullets. HPL’s monsters don’t have an off switch. They are, for all intents and purposes, forces of Nature (likely a different one from ours). You can’t stop a tsunami. You can’t stop a tornado. You can run, try and deflect it, evacuate in front of it, but it WILL come. This makes Lovecraftian games different from say, D&D. You can try and shoot it... but I doubt you’ll make any dent in it.
2 – UNKNOWABLE.
To know HPL’s monsters is to invite madness. They are beyond our world, beyond our universe, beyond our understanding. Although some might be worshipped as gods, or god-like, they are no such thing. They are just millions, perhaps billions of years’ worth of evolution distant from us. Arthur C. Clark said, ‘Sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.’ Cthulhu and friends are such, they are so beyond us that if they ordered a latte, it would still come across to us as magic, and the latte would kill us.
3 – UNREACHABLE.
To avoid explaining why we don’t all go mad with Godzilla-sized dragon/octopus/humanoid beings roaming the streets, it turns out that these beings, with a couple of exceptions, do not reside on Earth. Whether they live in other dimensions or the other side of the Universe, there are a number of choices. The bottom line is this: not only can the heroes not reach the baddies (and probably shouldn’t, to begin with), but they will only usually interact with avatars or cultists, making the whole thing much more insidious, as every one of us could be one of them.
4 – UNSTOPPABLE:
These are beings beyond the usual laws of physics. You won’t be able to stop them. In one Laundry game (think contemporary Call of Cthulhu) I played we did stop these horrendous things called Shoggoths, but we used a tactical nuke. Also, for the record, Shoggoths are like 4 levels down in the scale of Lovecraftian power. So... yeah.
5 – UNREACTING:
The ant analogy is used often; you wouldn’t notice squashing a few ants whilst crossing the road. Lovecraftian creatures are like that. They might covet our minds, or our blood, but otherwise, we are like single-cell organisms to them. The works of Man are totally irrelevant to them, and we are ignored as such.
6 – UNSPEAKING:
Would you speak to an amoeba? Would you ask it not to do something? Exactly. We can never be totally sure of these creatures’ purposes, but we can usually infer that they involve mass sacrifices of humans, invasion of our plane of existence, etc. The lack of direct contact, the s-called Silent Enemy, becomes more ominous by several orders of magnitude.
A number (almost all) of Call of Cthulhu’s scenarios have a ‘worse case scenario’ section. As in, what would happen if it all goes belly up. This usually means that something ridiculously powerful, and old, and hungry breaks into our world with understandably bad results.
This is it. For me, this is the key. To continue with my D&D comparison from before, you’re Level 1 and a red dragon just lands in front of you. You’re dead…very, very dead.
However, you can be sneaky, and talk, very fast.
So maybe you’re dead, but you’re going to have a fantastic time trying not to die.
When late into the night you hear chanting, or coalescing smoke in a corner of the room, or an odd shape against the moon....
Pick up a Lovecraftian game and fight to your last breath to keep those tentacle nasties away.
Rui is a Portuguese scientist who, after a decade doing odd things in labs, became a teacher. Then, 18 months ago, RPG’ing came into his life and he is now happily juggling the two. He is currently working on a Cypher system space/superhero adventure and a Fate-based Cyberpunk one (with a dark, secret twist). He lives in England with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants and at least 3 to 4 Adventures across as many rule systems, at different levels of completion. He can be reached at @atomic_rpg
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.