After starting Arkham Horror the Card Game I have yet again heard the all too familiar comment about not playing true to the Lovecraft’s vision. So on this post I’m going to discuss my opinions about how Lovecraftian games and the stories linked to Cthulhy Mythos are linked.
The first problem of “playing Lovecraft as intended” comes from the fact that the stories he wrote were (usually) written from the narrator’s point of view. They rarely included other main characters as a tool to handle the horror more personally. Video games might come closer to this approach (like the marvellous Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened or Dark Corners of the Earth ). But for table top games this is a little more problematic approach since most games are played with a number of people.
The effectiveness of the Lovecraftian horror has been the subject for many articles. The main part here is the fear of the unknown and the solitude and helplessness of the humans against the beings the consider humans indifferent. All of these are concepts that translate quite badly to games. If your actions have no effect on the story you are telling together or the outcome of the game you are playing it decreased the number of people who might be interested in the product. And since each game that is published is required to meet the demands of a largest possible customer base publishing a game that won’t make the publisher profit is in essence a stupid idea.
This might however be beside the point. The reason why some people like to put down the games with Lovecraftian elements is that they are emotionally invested in the franchise. They (usually) have read the short stories by H.P.Lovecraft and have a distinct image in their head how the stories work out. Of course we each interpret the stories in our own way and thus have an unique idea what they are actually about and what happens in those stories. This molds our opinions and influences the way we see games with Lovecraftian elements.
The most common arguments about “playing it wrong” come from gaming events where the players do combat agains the Mythos creatures in a flashy way. As these events take place in an games where the entertainment of the players is the selling point it might be hard to justify excluding them from the narrative.
But (and right about here we come to the point of this post) since these games are drawn from the Lovecraft’s stories (and from those that joined him to create the Cthulhu Mythos) there must be a reason that these kind of combat events even came to the creators’ mind in the first place.
As mentioned the arguments about “playing it wrong” are usually based on the individuals view on the stories. But when we actually study them we find that even Lovecraft used force against his horrors.
In the epitome of the Lovecraftian games The Call of Cthulhu the investigators travel around the world and manage to not only kill cultists but also ram a ship against Cthulhu’s head.
That is surely a hard thing to pass by. As a story element it might sound a bit funny to our modern ears and I have know way of knowing how it was perceived when it was published. In any case there are a few more examples that come into mind also:
In The Shadow Over Innsmouth the investigators actions lead the Federal government to take actions agains Innsmouth’s vile denizens. And yes, these actions included dynamite. In the Shunned House the investigator tries to overcome the evil with sulphuric acid. And in a short story which name escapes my mind right now (and was probably written by August Derleth?) the two investigators use napalm to clear an evil forest.
There are more examples of this kind of “non-lovecraftian” behaviour but I think we have now established that players dynamiting everything they encounter in a “Cthulhu game” have a precedent.
This surprisingly lengthy post was not meant to disrespect anyone. Saying “you are not playing Lovecraft right” is just so worn expression that I wanted to pour out my thought on the subject.
In fact I wholeheartedly agree that we are living in an era of overfishing when it comes to Cthulhu Mythos. I might even say that I’m quite hesitant to even try any game that deals with it. But to say that they are all inherently bad is just and overstatement.
To conclude I would like to share a moment from a recent Arkham Horror the Card Game scenario. The very same one that spurred the comment that started this post. The card told me that a Nightgaunt attacked my character and moved it from one location to another. But since I was playing with Ville at that moment and we were in a full rpg mode describing what was happening I narrated the event (almost) as follows:
The Nightgaunt swoops down from the sky carrying my struggling investigator away. In panic I try to fight the beast of but in vain. I have no idea where this horrible monstrosity is taking me but it can’t be anywhere good. So as a last resort I reach into my pocket…
My fellow investigator stares in horror as I vanish to the night sky. Then a huge explosion lights up the sky!
I used dynamite against the horror and fall down to the muddy waters of the Arkham River. The Nightgaunt falls with me and burning like falling angels we strike the river. The bewildered monster tries to push me down when I manage to wrestle a knife from my pocket driving it deep into the creatures chest. Emerging to the surface I grasp for air and swim to the docks.
Was this something that could have happened in a story by Lovecraft? I doubt it. But was it an memorable experience that happened just because I was willing to narrate the outcome of a random card draw and the following two (attack) actions? Yes, yes it was.
And in the essence aren’t the shared stories what we are searching from the games? Not an authentic representation of a story that was written a hundred years ago but something that could be shared as an example about having a good time with friends?
To me at least it is. And it precedes “playing it right”.