I bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, because, while preparing to review Lovecraftian Tales from the Table, I re-watched video interviews with both Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen, in which both game designers reflected on the creation of Call of Cthulhu. Stafford noted that one of the very few changes made to Petersen's original manuscript was the addition of a way to regain Sanity after having lost it in order to prevent them game from becoming too depressing to play. Meanwhile, Petersen, when asked why Call of Cthulhu has remained so popular after all these years replied that it's because of the game's "optimism."
Now, "optimism" is not a word one normally associates with a game like Call of Cthulhu, where most characters are likely to end up dead or insane. However, Petersen explains himself by noting that Call of Cthulhu allows us to play ordinary people who, through their actions, manage to hold off Armageddon for just one more day. I definitely think there's something to this perspective, as it's one I largely share. On the face of it, Call of Cthulhu ought to be a bleak, nihilistic game and it could easily have been so. But, in my experience, Call of Cthulhu is in fact one of the most unambiguously heroic RPGs ever written -- a game where people little different than you or I risk loss of life and sanity to give mankind another small chance at survival.
Second, I bring this up because I was recently reading a collection of Robert E. Howard's "Mythos fiction" last week. The particular volume I own was edited and introduced by Robert M. Price. I often don't think much of Price's interpretations of Lovecraft (or indeed of many things), but I was intrigued by something he wrote in his introduction to the story "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth."
Howard's tales of heroic adventure, whether Sword-and-Sorcery or Lost Race stories, sometimes make reference to the Cthulhu Mythos, even though they are not really "about" the Mythos. This is because Howard's fiction proceeded from the dark inner cosmos of his own mind and the fictive universe in which he set his tales are an externalization of that inner Sheol. His heroes, even when victorious, as they almost always are, are not merely bottling up the anomalous inkspill of evil which has momentarily put a crimp in a pleasant picnic-world of reality. No, Conan's victories, or Solomon Kane's, are like that of the most pessimistic Lovecraftian anti-hero in that they are but temporary reprieves from the ineluctable fall of universal darkness. Contrary to the anti-Derlethian stereotype, a good-versus-evil plot is by no means incompatible with Lovecraftian nihilistic cosmicism. [italics mine]Leaving aside Price's comments about Howard, it's his last sentence that really struck me square in the face. Thinking about it, I believe Price is correct; there is nothing inherently incompatible about a "happy ending" of sorts in a Lovecraftian-inspired tale. Looking even to HPL's own stories, you'll find that some, such as "The Dunwich Horror" and even "The Call of Cthulhu," conclude on comparatively positive notes, the "inkspill of evil," to borrow Price's evocative phrase, being blotted for the time being. That perspective is at the root of the optimism Sandy Petersen sees as key to Call of Cthulhu's lasting success -- its ability to present confrontations with a dark and uncaring cosmos that paradoxically confirms the enduring value of human heroism and self-sacrifice.
There's little question that Derleth was heavy-handed in his lightening of Lovecraft's cosmic horror, often to the point of parody. Nevertheless, I think it's fair to say that, without the framework provided by Derleth's approach, a RPG treatment of Lovecraft's work probably would have been the depressing affair Greg Stafford mentioned in his interview and certainly not the mainstay of the hobby it became. I think the same is true of RPGs based on other genres. I've never been a big fan of "dark" stories unleavened by even a glimmer of hope. Bleakness for its own sake holds no appeal and I instinctively shy away from media, including RPGs, that seem to revel in it. In fact, it's an instinct that, ironically, only seems to grow stronger as I get older.
The rediscovery of the pulp fantasy roots of Dungeons & Dragons -- and therefore the hobby -- has increased interest in sword-and-sorcery fiction, which many people, mistakenly in my view, see as necessarily bleak. As with cosmic horror, though, there's no necessity for it. From my perspective, S&S is distinguished more by its personal focus than any putative bleakness, which is to say, the struggles of individuals in a world of magic and monsters rather than the epic contests of nations, peoples, or worlds. Indeed, much sword-and-sorcery fiction is surprisingly optimistic, even upbeat, rather than bleak. There is often an attention to realism (or at least verisimilitude) in S&S fiction, but that hardly entails bleakness unless one already views reality in unrelentingly negative terms. Conan's gigantic melancholies were, after all, counterbalanced by his gigantic mirth and so too can sword-and-sorcery fiction -- or roleplaying games that looks to them for inspiration.