19 July 2012

Cthulhu in RPGs: Too much of a good thing?

Recently, there's a big trend in RPGs, especially the old school "clone" games, to insert massive amounts of Cthulhu-style themes and monsters into otherwise standard swords & sorcery fantasy. While games like Call of Cthulhu, which is true to the era, style and stories of HP Lovecraft and other mythos authors have done quite well, and stand alone optional sourcebooks, such as Realms of Crawling Chaos for the Labyrinth Lord system as fine, I've been wondering if there is a point where too much of this material harms not only the campaign it's injected into, but the material itself.

Two main points here:

First off, the "monsters" and great old ones themselves are supposed to be rare. Shocking and horrifying because they are not things one encounters on a regular basis. By featuring these monsters, curses and the related madness they cause at every turn, I feel a campaign does a grave disservice to them. They become mundane, just another critter to bash, loot and collect xp from. The mystery and horror is utterly lost.

Second, and more specific to a "normal" fantasy world like Mystara (or the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Golarion, or whatever your preferred flavor is), the whole role of the Great Old Ones and their related beings is kind of moot. In the Lovecraftian mythos, the main reason these dudes pop up is because curious and foolish mortal men long for forbidden knowledge and power and conjuring up the unknown powers of ages long past is the only way to achieve their goals.

In a standard fantasy milieu; arcane magic, the binding of magical creatures, pacts with demons and devils, and faithful service to "real" gods and immortal beings who can grant wondrous powers in return all serve as paths to the learning and might the foolhardy summoners of Cthulhu's mad servants seek. So why bother venturing into a no-win situation that holds only eventual madness and destruction when there are actual easier and less risky ways to do it?

I have no issue with throwing in a bit of Cthulhu inspired weirdness now and then, but it should remain properly weird, horrifying and insanity inducing, and it should be thoughtfully introduced into the campaign to ensure you are not only preserving the integrity of the material, but actually furthering the development of your campaign.

Any thoughts? Any experience using the new breed of mythos-heavy material, such as the DCC RPG, which is "chock full 'o Lovecraft-style goodness", as they say?

4 comments:

  1. I think it's overused, and honestly Cthulhu and the Lovecraft Mythos have become sort of a punchline for me. They're in so many different things that they really don't evoke horror anymore. (For me, at least)

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  2. It depents on the execution, I think. If you use mythos beings as just another monster, I totally agree. But if this beings are the ones where the characters have no fighting chance and are utterly helpless before them and the only chance ever is to flee or die, even if you are level 36 and on the brink of ascension, then they have their use.

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  3. I recently read an otherwise splendid little bit of Lovecraft inspired fiction in the shape of the Neonomicon by Alan Moore. The thing that spoiled it for me though, was the ending, where everything was just kind of explained. there were a few loose ends, but only with regard to the plot. Everything that should have mysterious and unknowable was laid out for the reader over several pages of exposition.

    In RPGs where the mythos is overused - without the characters succumbing to madness or death - would almost certainly suffer from the same problem. You're not supposed to know the unknowable, but if it's all over the place, how can you not?

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  4. I totally agree. And it's not just in RPGs, Cthulhu is everywhere. It been turned into a cartoon of itself. For example, the old ones in Mountains of Madness (the winged sponge monsters) were described as being like men; not evil or chaotic. Yet they've been turned into just another Cthulhu monster (Carcosa lists them as a spawn of Shub-Niggurath even!). Lovecraft made a distinction between "weird alien" and "evil monster". Something that is completely lost today.

    Even the Call of Cthulhu game is guilty of this.

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Thanks for your comments!