One does not need to play Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu or Pelgraine Press’ Trail of Cthulhu to have a game that uses Lovecraftian-style horror. Although the games named above, and many more, all offer the chance to play in Lovecraft’s world and fight against the entities that were born by him, Bloch, and many others, there is some baggage associated with them. You’re going to play something reminiscent of Rats in the Walls, The Call of Cthulhu, The King in Yellow, or many other Mythos-related stories, something inspired by HP Lovecraft or his contemporaries. There are options, however, if you don’t want to play a game that is purely based on Lovecraftian-style myths, and still want to have the style, atmosphere, or even underlying tone and theme of those old pulps. The GM can incorporate specific elements that contribute to the Lovecraftian-feel of isolation and alienism that come as a result of the revelation of cosmic horror.
We should first talk about what we mean when we say, “Lovecraftian horror.” For the sake of this approach to horror gaming, we’re talking about how the player characters may react to the revelation that all of their belief structures are wrong. The universe has no order, no meaning, and their religions, social structures, artistic endeavors, and accomplishments are ultimately meaningless. When characters make this discovery, they are driven mad and, in that madness, commit (what they may consider) atrocities against man and nature, or (in some cases) turn to worship those apathetic beings that brought about their pitiful condition. In a game setting, there’s usually a mechanic to facilitate that downward spiral from productive, valuable investigator to whatever he transforms to (intellectually, spiritually, perhaps even physically). The most common one may see would be a “Sanity” statistic, which is whittled away as the investigator encounters horrific creatures or things that have occurred due to Mythos influences (from a corpse or disturbing crime scene to an other-worldly Mythos creature). As the statistic gets lower, the player may have less control over their character until ultimately, the character becomes unplayable due to their madness.
The final and possibly most horrific result of sanity loss should be the loss of control of the character. No player ever wants to lose control of their own creation. However, the fear of that loss has possibly a greater impact to the player than the character’s death. One expects physical threats in a traditional RPG; the player willingly sends their character deep into a dungeon to face orcs, goblins, traps, and environmental dangers. The worst that happens watching the character die from whittled-down hit points or poor saving throws. It comes with the adventure: physical threats are expected and, most often, dealt with simply (most groups have a potent inventory of healing spells, magical potions, and skills that keep their characters’ bodies together). There is precious little fear of physical harm. The sword-wielding monster isn’t a threat; it’s a challenge to overcome.
There are some games (the Palladium system, for example), that incorporate the risk of insanity into their adventures, and players roll on a random table to determine their mental new mental state. Psychological status becomes another character trait which may, under specific instances, affect the character’s actions. Perhaps they are afraid of a particular style of monster, and may have difficulty in facing it (maybe triggering a fight-or-flight reaction), or the character becomes frozen when facing danger from a particular kind of source (did the character become afraid of fire, or swords, or men in armor?). The least-potent psychological threats come from random tables. However, there is risk. Someone playing a dashing cavalier would not want to run the risk of combat paralysis. A GM who wants to incorporate more psychological horror will use this tool.
There are two approaches when it comes to incorporating Lovecraftian horror into a roleplaying adventure: let the players in on the secret or not? The GM answers this question by looking at the kind of adventure they want to run, what kind of mood they want to evoke, and what kind of group they play with. For example, imagine a group that knows they are heading into a Lovecraftian-style adventure. The players will expect sanity-shaking horrors, loss of control of their characters, and a cold, hostile setting. They know it when they sit down at the table; they’ve agreed, like a kind of contract. The GM may find it harder to surprise the characters. Since they’re expecting the unusual, the uncanny, and the odd, it may be better to give them what they want: a rollercoaster ride of Deep Ones and Fire Vampires. They will look with excitement for the creepy abbey on the hill, and dive into the possibility of being forever changed by the influence of the Old Ones.
The GM may not be able to surprise the players, but maybe they like being scared. Maybe the adventures become more about how they handle the horrific events occurring around them. Maybe, by the end of the adventure, the group looks back and sees they’ve created a story about how the group joined together to become something stronger than just one person, how they relied on each other as they fought to push back the inevitable darkness for just another day.
If the players are unaware that the adventure is featuring Lovecraftian elements, the GM has great opportunities to drop small clues and hints that there are things amiss in the setting. As the players and their characters piece together the clues, the bigger secret is revealed (whether that secret is the influence of a Mythos entity over the local temple, cult activity, or a secret about the origin of the campaign world is up to the GM). Seemingly-normal encounters and scenarios take a more sinister twist as they discover small differences (maybe a monster they’re accustomed to defeating easily suddenly is immune to steel, or every time the player character magic-user casts a spell, they hear a whisper on the air).
There is danger to this kind of approach. The players may resent being surprised by a sudden Lovecraftian twist to an adventure or a campaign. They may have strong feelings and preconceptions about the game and their setting, and could feel like their game is being hijacked by the Mythos.
The GM has to consider the group’s style, likes and prejudices. What does introducing horror to the adventure add to the experience? What are the consequences of these differences? If the group is sitting down to play The One Ring, is a Lovecraftian story-arc appropriate?
How does a GM incorporate Lovecraftian horror into their game? The most effective way, if they are not interested in actually running a horror RPG, is to use small, disquieting clues that hint that there’s something wrong. Initially, the GM should be subtle and not outright horrific. In a fantasy setting, maybe the party magic-user’s spells look different in a particular place, or the cleric’s healing spell doesn't work the first time they try to cast it. In a modern setting, perhaps a PC’s phone rings every night at 3:17AM for just three rings (and, if answered, the character only hears a faint, “click...click…click…click…”).
As the adventure progresses, those small clues become bigger elements. The cleric finds it harder and harder to cast healing spells outside of combat, and can only cast them in an excited state (while being actively attacked, for instance). The detective being woken nightly hears something different over the phone one night (“click…click…click…click…BANG!”). The effect of the clues becomes more sinister, actually making a difference in the characters’ actions (the cleric has to put himself in danger during a big fight to be of use to his party; the detective takes modifiers to some actions one day because of constantly being woken). The GM should use these elements sparsely; overuse just makes the adventure tedious and difficult to play (“Really, -2 again today because of the damn phone?”).
Eventually, the game will draw to the “Big Reveal.” This is the element that will change how the characters see their world…an event that has the potential to change the tone of the entire campaign, or even shut it down. It doesn't have to include the appearance of a big boss-monster, or the discovery of a large conspiracy. The Big Reveal is more about the impact on the characters. For example, if there have already been clues and hints about some of the group’s enemies being influenced by a sinister entity in the adventure, the Big Reveal could be that the party’s company has been infiltrated by that same entity and their safety-net of allies has been compromised. The end result is that the group feels isolated, alienated, and vulnerable. Their world or, at least, their view of the world has been changed.
Using some of the examples from earlier, perhaps the cleric discovers, via an ancient tome found in a treasure-hoard, that the origin of his healing magic isn't from a god of light and honor, but from one of battle and slaughter, and he is likely vexed by the heresy that’s been committed in his name for the past generation. Or perhaps the detective, during the course of his missing-person investigation, learns that the subject was killed in a depraved game of Russian Roulette after being kidnapped by the Yakuza (and the time of death was 3:17AM). The end result of both examples: their belief systems have been shaken. Their sense of normalcy has been shifted. This is not the world you once knew.
And what comes after that? If there is a mechanic for loss of sanity or oncoming psychological trauma, it might be time to roll dice and see what effect is on the character. With the player’s permission, the character may change (develop a phobia of late-night calls, or the influence of the Yakuza?). The horrific reveal has a potentially greater purpose: creating a drive in the character to make things better, or to do greater. The vistas of the world have been opened, and things are bigger than they thought before. Perhaps the cleric fears the re-emergence of the god of slaughter, and becomes a crusader against him. Perhaps now that the investigator knows that there is a world beyond his own, he strives to give the ghosts rest by avenging their deaths.
Lovecraftian cosmic horror is made more powerful when one sees personal effects. Cosmic horror transforms into personal, psychological horror. It can be a story element, making the game into a funhouse-of-terror for the players, if they want to enjoy a wild ride ending in madness, playing the old game of chicken: do we go insane before we die, or die before we go insane. But a stronger use of horror is to change the character’s perception of their world. As they discover more, they can’t help but change, for good or ill. Horror is not just a setting element, a way to make people jump when the big scary eight-tentacle spider jumps out. It’s a tool to potentially make richer stories that incorporate the character’s motivations. Horror can be the catalyst for change.
Next time the Big Reveal. Does it ever have to really happen?