Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Fall of Cthulhu

(Alternate Post Title: I WANT YOU (to not suck))

To expand on
this... (at least this should piss off an entirely different class of people than last week's pissy rant)

One of the books I got for my birthday was ST Joshi's The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos (in glorious hardcover!). I'm about halfway through, and my oh my is Joshi a raging asshole (I also own his God's Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong so this is not new information to me). Needless to say, I'm loving it. His assholio status is based on a consistent viewpoint rather than just temper tantrums or random antagonism.

It's reminding me of some of the problems I've had with pitches that people have been submitting to me in hopes of getting published. They see the "Weird Fantasy," they see me talk about Lovecraft and Weird Tales, and suddenly I have outlines in my email that look like Keep on the Dreamlands and Descent into the Depths of R'lyeh.

Wait, those might actually be cool if done right. If being a rather tall order and might still being applicable.

No, what I'm getting are a lot of adventure pitches that claim to be Lovecraft-inspired but seemingly differ from standard D&D adventures only because the monster names are taken from Lovecraft rather than TSR, and the dungeon walls seem more out of Aliens (not what these people were intending, I'm sure) than just being worked stone.

It's nice that you've read all the cool books, really it is, a pastiche isn't an automatic dealbreaker given that RPG stuff is about characters doing stuff and not just the quality of the background and trappings, and nods to past work certainly aren't out of line in this neighborhood of the hobby, but something that shows that maybe you have an idea or two of your own would rock.

And for fuck's sake, if you want to pitch me a Derlethian take on the mythos, then say so; telling me you have this homage to Lovecraft you've like to pitch and then sending me something full of Derleth does not give me one iota of confidence that you have any idea what you're talking about.

I think this is one reason why I like Carcosa. It uses the Lovecraft monsters , but what seals the deal to make it horrible is not that it names Cthulhu, but that the monsters are associated with dare I say unspeakable acts. It gives these horrors actual horror rather than being a cool geeky reference that everyone can play with and pretend that it's scary on some hipster meta-level.

But even that reduces the equation to "Shock me with Cthulhu to make me happy," and that's not exactly right either. There's more going on with Carcosa than evil sorcerous rituals that gets the atmosphere right. Remove those, remove the ray guns and the mythos and all the other really strange things, just peel everything back to a short pitch and Carcosa still packs its punch:

"Humans are created as lab rats for the purpose of magical experimentation... now the creators are gone, the humans are free, and that freedom is used to continue these cruel experiments on each other in a farcical imitation of their absent masters for they know no other way."

That's my interpretation of what the whole thing is about. I'm sure I'll be corrected shortly if it's inaccurate.

I'd love to release some horror material (maybe even Lovecraftian) written by other people, but to actually use the names Cthulhu, Necronomicon, etc, frankly sounds the CRAP! CRAP! CRAP! warning beacon for me because they so often are used as crutches and shortcuts to signify "horror should be here!" and spare the writer the effort of actually creating any horror.

How about some stuff that's actually horrible? And intelligently so?


  1. Heh. The Necronomicon was in Army of Darkness and that wasn't scary at all. I love that you know the difference between Lovecraft and Derleth. I think some people seem to think that if Chaosium put it out in a CoC supplement, than Lovecraft wrote it himself.

    I attended a horror in comics panel at San Diego Comic Con ten years ago and some guy there really went off the reservation, focusing more on the Call of Cthulhu RPG as opposed to any kind of comic book horror. While it made the panel kind of suck (for what we wanted it to be), what he said actually is kind of useful for this discussion.

    The guy's point was that the notion of "investigators" embarking on a long-term campaign against the forces of evil are antithetical to what Lovecraft wrote. When you look at the themes of a lot of Lovecraft's works-that humanity is basically being victimized by forces they cannot even begin to understand and that people are slaves to fate, you don't see a lot that really screams heroic fantasy.

    A D&D module that is truly Lovecraftian in nature will not resemble what most D&D players have come to expect. Remember, the closest thing early D&D ever came to horror from TSR was Ravenloft.

    I guess what I'm saying is that I agree with you.

  2. Excellent post. Most of the time HPL's critters are slapped into place as a sort of place-holder--'Insert Horror Here,' much as you say. It's lazy and it's weak and deserves to die a lingering, painful death somewhere cold and lonely.

    People copy the tropes (often badly) and miss out on what HPl and company were actually attempting to accomplish. Carcosa kicked some major a** when it came out. I'm looking forward to where you're going with things now that LotFP looks to be going stronger than ever.

    More Horror, less hobbits.

  3. "...humanity is basically being victimized by forces they cannot even begin to understand and that people are slaves to fate, you don't see a lot that really screams heroic fantasy."

    Really? Because that sure sounds to me like it could be Robert Howard as easily as HPL.

  4. I prefer my D&D horror when the environment makes the characters increasingly vulnerable by fucking up their cosy resource management. No more torches, rations soaked, mapper is lost, thief has his foot caught in a beartrap, fighter has been blinded by gas trap and is covered in oil. Then you bring in the monsters....


    and it still feels D&D - not like we should be using a different system hardwired for horror

    What I don't like is 'hey, let's have a holocaust analogy happening with clerics singing hymns while throwing goblin children onto burning pyres'or 'hey, let's call our 3rd party LotFP cursed item supplement - The Bling That Should Not Be.'

  5. As a reader, I still like Lovecraft.

    As a gamer, I am totally burned out on the Cthulhu gang. I'd like to see new horrible things.

    Also, props to Geordie for The Bling That Should Not Be.

  6. Mr Raggi:

    I think I wrote this comment for your "sexism in (or not in) art" post from last week, and then decided not to publish it. I was surprised to click on the link to it above and see the "debate" went on for 6 days .... Egads.

    My unpublished comment was this: Is this (or was that) the rant you promised/threatened us with after your Dragonmeet trip, or did I miss that one?

  7. That other one was the promised rant.

    And to think I was worried that people would ignore it.

  8. Hmm. For me the "sexism in, on, above, around art" didn't count as a rant, that was more of a ramble, i.e. exploring thoughts and ideas extemporaneously. I think of rants as unrelentingly and unerringly focused on their point of argument. The current post seems more like a rant.

  9. I usually try to stay away from derivative works but some of Ramsey Cambells Cthulthu Mythos contributions really work with D&D.

    I am particulary fond of Eihort, as the monster is described to dwell in labyrinth, it offers faustian bargain that goes quite well together with medieval themes of D&D. It could as well be creature of Hell or some other otherwordly bad place.

    Eihort also has body-horror aspect. It is a thing that can "impregnate" men with it's parasitic offspring, though everyone has seen Alien that often manages to squick even the most jaded metalhead who has grown accustomed to idea of female rape and grown too comfortable that certain bad things could not happen to his male barbarian warrior type character. Eihort is sort of weird and malignant thing you could except to stumble in the depths.

  10. I'm slowly coming around to the thinking that De Profundis is the only RPG(-ish) game published that comes even close to the works of HPL.

    For a nice take on Lovecraftian things without any element of Lovecraft (except possibly a disguised race of Nylarlthoteps) have a look at the background for the Warhammer 40,000 Necrons.

  11. I agree 100% with your take on the existential horror of Carcosa. A lot of horror is conservative and reassuring: "humans are important to the universe, both God and the Devil care about your soul." This is a medieval viewpoint.

    Lovecraft's cosmic horror is existential and radical: "the world humans care about is a meaningless froth over the vast gulfs of true reality, which is utterly unconcerned with human values." This is a modernist viewpoint (non-Euclidean geometries are a touchstone for Lovecraft because they were an example of how the humanocentric worldview, God as watchmaker, was coming apart in his lifetime).

    Carcosa beautifully integrates the two: you get the intellectual horror of the uncaring universe plus the visceral horror of squicky human taboos, with the kicker that *we do this awful stuff to one another because it's what we know, not because it reflects an underlying humanocentric order*. This is a post-modern horror: it's not that God doesn't exist, it's that he doesn't care about you; humans care about God as a justification for the horrible things they want to do to you anyway.
    - Tavis

  12. Nice post.

    I have to agree with you on Joshi for the most part, although even raging assholes occasionally say interesting and insightful things. I picked up Rise and Fall... a few months back, but have yet to read it. Maybe I can get to it over the holiday break.

  13. Heh. For what it's worth, when I go Weird, I have my own mythos - redolent but not derivative of HPL.

  14. How would you make a non-Euclidian dungeon map?

  15. Unfair. I'm busy enough without being given interesting challenges.