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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Lovecraft and What the Shadow Knows...

If you read enough Lovecraftian fiction, you'll start wondering what’s supposed to be so terrifying anyway.  I mean, any cosmic entity more than happy to annihilate us is scary, make no mistake.  But reading about black vistas on Yuggoth or non-Euclidean geometry hardly qualifies as the stuff of nightmares unless there's something else going on in the character's head.  And it’s not like Lovecraft has ever been a Hemingway or anything.  He was far too isolated and antiquarian to write good dialogue or develop characters beyond the situation at hand.  But I love him still despite his inevitable flaws, both literary and otherwise (he was quite the xenophobe), and we can still admire his unique body of work...

That said, Lovecraft was a master in ways that go far beyond his tentacled creations.  He understood that sometimes it’s better not to say too much, and while he couldn’t have possibly anticipated the advent of role-playing games, he did manage to offer some advice for those who play - and as it happens, some good advice indeed. 

Horror thrives on mystery.  It’s a fear of the unknown.  But if there’s ever been a medium more antithetical to mystery, RPGs are it.  These games are simulations, after all, and simulations reduce everything (people, places, and things) to hypothetical ones and zeros; and you can’t stat out a Lovecraftian baddie without describing both it and its assorted cosmic powers.  Chaosium tried hard to preserve the mystery by showing these as black silhouettes in the rulebook, but they still had to explain Cthulhu’s powers and abilities, which gave him (and all the rest) form and structure.  And this is largely unavoidable... 

Hey, we do it too.  Stalkers of the Elder Dark lays out its Elder Ones is statistical detail, although as a rules-lite game, this is suitably minimal.  But a re-reading of Lovecraft offers a few techniques for preserving mystery - and Howard wrote a master class!

First, Lovecraft imagined alien gods antithetical to human understanding.  Sure, we might discern their material forms.  But their psychology was diametrical to anything humans could possibly understand, much less relate to, and to the extent the "enemy" could be engaged rationally, it was always through alien races or human agents.  The dark powers themselves were always kept distant, remote, and inaccessible to inquiring human minds.

Moreover, while Lovecraft described "strange rites" and "non-Euclidean" geometry, he focused more on his character's reactions to said information than the sordid details of the knowledge itself, and the reader was set free to imagine some dark revelation or terrible understanding beyond words to express.  Something felt but impossible to put into human words.  Again, Lovecraft deflects to mortal agencies and leaves as much mystery as possible where his cosmic creations are concerned.  Cthulhu is barely knowable, but his worshipers are another story.  At best, we see these things reflected in humanity.
These approaches are gold for the horror referee.  Yes, the characters may encounter the Old Ones and most likely will.  But any sort of rational engagement should be impossible under the very best of circumstances.  We can do otherwise, of course, but now the danger has moved into something more predictable.  Mr. Derleth ruined Cthulhu by making him conventionally evil, balancing his power with Elder Gods of good (in opposition to Lovecraft's amoral and naturalistic universe), and reducing the bad guys to mere elementals having conventional family ties.  Hastur is Cthulhu's brother?  Yog Sothoth save us!  Now it sounds like an all-too-ordinary family drama.  Dark Gods should never be so ordinary...   

Moreover, while the players will eventually access forbidden books and uncover useful information, it's best to offer only a few nuggets of coherent intelligence surrounded by blurry impressions (consult the literature here) that a character can't explain and can't help but to feel and experience.  Tell them they can't get the visions out of their head but can't describe them either, and maybe salt the whole thing with hints of something they already think is disturbing.  Find out what bothers your players and exploit it!  But always strive to keep as much knowledge as possible under wraps.  The best horror is like watching shadows on the wall.  The shapes are blurry, indistinct, and outline something terrifying!  

Despite the tentacles, Lovecraftian horror is a subjective personal experience that thrives in the dark.  Knowledge is power while mystery is fear (and horror) in its purest form!

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