Sunday, February 20, 2011

REVIEW: Realms of Crawling Chaos

I'm a Lovecraft snob. I hate plush Cthulhus. I think Pokéthulhu is an abomination. And I'm not looking forward to release of whatever the heck that comedy film about Cthulhu is called. You'll be hard pressed to find someone more annoyed by the way that the Great Old Ones have become, well, domesticated and turned into meaningless geek totems rather than being used as symbols of Lovecraft's cosmic horror.

Consequently, I tend to be very critical of most gaming treatments of HPL's work. Even Call of Cthulhu, which I consider one of the finest RPGs ever written and indeed a model for others to emulate, is not immune to my withering gaze of disdain from time to time. So, when I first learned that Dan Proctor was turning his attention to Yog-Sothothery for a supplement to Labyrinth Lord, I wasn't sure what to think. I'm naturally inclined to trust Dan Proctor, given his authorship not just of Labyrinth Lord but, more importantly, of Original Edition Characters and the Advanced Edition Companion, both of which have aided me immeasurably in the running of my Dwimmermount campaign. Even so, Lovecraft's creations are difficult to translate into game form, particularly when the game in question is Dungeons & Dragons. Despite the legendary status that the lost "Cthulhu Mythos" chapter of Deities & Demigods has among old schoolers, I'm of the (possibly minority) opinion that it's only Erol Otus's near-perfect artwork that gives it any worth.

It's worth noting that Realm of Crawling Chaos (hereafter RoCC) has a subtitle -- "Lovecraftian Dark Fantasy" -- that Proctor uses as the subject of a 4-page introduction that lays out his approach to the book's subject matter. In short, RoCC is an attempt to merge D&D's swords-and-sorcery with Lovecraft's horror to create "dark fantasy." The introduction then goes on to explicate the features of Lovecraft's horror, such as "the insignificance of man," "the vastness of the universe," "science as a double edged sword," and so on. Each feature of Lovecraft's worldview is treated briefly but clearly, undiluted by that of his pasticheurs (although a handful of works by Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith have been added to the mix). The result is, I think, a very "pure" vision of cosmic horror that sets it apart from that of many other RPGs treatments of the same subject matter.

RoCC first presents a number of new Lovecraftian races for use with Labyrinth Lord, in both race-as-class and "advanced" formats. These races are sea bloods (human-deep one hybrids), subhumans (human-voormis hybrids), white apes, and white ape hybrids. A number of new spells and formulae -- complex spells dependent on rare material components -- are described afterward, all of them drawn from Lovecraftian tales. The bulk of the book (20 of its 64 pages) are taken up by descriptions of the monsters, races, and beings of the Mythos, including such heavy hitters as Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep. Eldritch artifacts, which is to say, Lovecraftian magic items are treated too, along with an extensive system for randomly creating new ones. Rounding out the book is an excellent psionics system and a clever way to handle tome -- unfortunately misspelled as "tombs" in several places in the text -- in Labyrinth Lord.

Taken together, RoCC provides all the building blocks a referee needs to introduce as little or as much Lovecraftian material into his campaign as he wishes. I think, ultimately, that's the real genius of this book and the reason why I find it so appealing, despite my little quibbles and criticisms of Proctor's interpretations of Lovecraft in places. This is a toolbox, a word that tends to get overused in my experience, but in this case is very apt. Beyond the introduction, Proctor offers no philosophizing, no advice, no campaign setting -- only stuff to use with your Labyrinth Lord campaign. How that stuff is used is up to each referee to decide and he's free to pick and choose what he wants without being expected to take anything else. Want to add the deep ones to your campaign? Here's the stats for them and there's no expectation you'll also include Father Dagon, Mother Hydra, or Cthulhu, though he can, since there's stats for them too -- along with almost everything else you can find in Lovecraft's writings.

Realms of Crawling Chaos is a great book for do-it-yourself referees, who like to have a bunch of resources available to them from which they can borrow liberally. It's not "ready to play," though, since, beyond its introduction, it offers no guidance on how to use its material, trusting each referee to use it in whatever way he deems best for the type of campaign he runs. Personally, I wish more supplements adopted this approach and hope that the release of this product encourages others to release others in its vein.

Realms of Crawling Chaos is available as a PDF for $4.95 or as a softcover print book for $17.95. The book uses a simple, two-column format and is, except for the aforementioned confusion of "tome" with "tomb" in several places, reads well. The interior artwork is by Sean Aaberg and Mark Allen and includes several quite striking pieces, particularly by Allen, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite artists of the old school renaissance.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a smorgasbord of Lovecraftian races, monsters, spells, and artifacts for use in your old school fantasy campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You don't have any interest in introducing Lovecraftian elements into your fantasy campaign.

31 comments:

  1. The domestication and geek totemization of Cthulhu and friends isn't part of their master plan?

    huh...

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  2. You note only Erol's art is of use in the Cthulhu section of the original Deities and Demigods but hail this as a toolbox because of the 'stuff' it gives you? Little confused on that amigo as many GMs I know of at the time did exactly the same thing with the Mythos section. I don't recall that part of the book being big on how to use it, just "here's some stuff to use in your game."

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  3. I was literally just playing with my plush Cthulhu with my daughter and her dragon toys.

    Her: Dragon goes Rawr!!!
    Me: Cthulhu goes RAAAAAWWWWWRRRRR!!!

    /both child and dad crack up

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  4. Thanks for the review, James! The tomb/tome mixup was on the early pre-release you have but got fixed before release to the wider public. I'll send you an updated version.

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  5. I enjoy the book a great deal, particularly the Sean Aaberg art.
    I never had much use out of 'Deities & Demigods' but love the work from Otus within it.

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  6. But Pokéthulhu is *meant* to be an abomination!

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  7. I love all things "Cthulhu" and my FRPGs almost inevitably take a "dark" or horror turn, so this went immediately into the shopping cart. Thanks for the heads up!

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  8. Ry St said...
    "Her: Dragon goes Rawr!!!
    Me: Cthulhu goes RAAAAAWWWWWRRRRR!!!"

    Dragon goes insane...

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  9. I figured that was going to be a pretty good book. On your recommendation, I'm going to pick it up.

    - Ark

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  10. But James, don't you own a stuffed Cthulhu wearing sandals and a beach hat? And doesn't said-Cthulhu sit in a prominent place near your work area? I think he was a present from one of your friends, but if he irked you, why hasn't he been demoted to a hidden drawer or closet?

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  11. But where's the cosmos-wracking horror here? I think the original perception of the Mythos guarded by purists requires a modern, rational and material worldview to be hacked apart in the first place. If demons and otherworldly monstrosities, no matter how terrible, are still considered as parts of possible reality, the tentacled horrors become just bigger and nastier monsters. And if you play a Mythos halfbreed character or use Mythos magic regularly like tossing out magic missiles, don't you become part of the abomination yourself?

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  12. Are Cthulhu and other Mythos-related names Public Domain Characters?

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  13. porphyre77, Lovecraft's works are in the public domain, but other Mythos creations by other writers are not.

    In terms of gaming materials, there's a sort of "gentleman's agreement" that Chaosium hold the "rights" to Mythos material, but I don't think it's an actual licence.

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  14. This is indeed a brilliant book, and I have used it immediately within my new LL campaign. It must be the best book I bought in a very long time.
    The only negative is the presence of typos and editing problems here and there; it should have probably had another editorial pass.

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  15. I bought the PDF as soon as I saw it offered. First rate!

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  16. If you dont like pokethulu, I hate to think of what you'd feel about "Haiyoru! Nyat=ruani: remember my love (craft-sensei)".

    Plot from Anime-Planet:
    Though there are only a few weeks left until the extinction of human life on earth, Nyaruko and Mahiro live as ever with the silver-haired deity making constant advances on the unwilling boy. But while Nyaruko attempts to drug Mahiro’s sausages so she can have her way with him, the house is getting fuller by the minute. With Cthuko flirting with Nyaruko and two more Outer Gods, the unashamed pervert Atsuko and shy megane Nyarle, arriving on the doorstep, Mahiro’s life is guaranteed to be busier than ever.

    It's pretty bad and a little ecchi; the only saving grace is how short it is (and the character design is moe-tacular)

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  17. You note only Erol's art is of use in the Cthulhu section of the original Deities and Demigods but hail this as a toolbox because of the 'stuff' it gives you? Little confused on that amigo as many GMs I know of at the time did exactly the same thing with the Mythos section. I don't recall that part of the book being big on how to use it, just "here's some stuff to use in your game."

    There is such a thing as a bad toolbox, yes? I happen to think the DDG is just that.

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  18. But James, don't you own a stuffed Cthulhu wearing sandals and a beach hat?

    I believe you have me confused with someone else.

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  19. But where's the cosmos-wracking horror here?

    Wherever you want it to be. RoCC is "pure" Lovecraft only in the sense it presents its races, monsters, and spells without Derlethian reinterpretation, but it's not about turning your campaign into a full-bore HPL story unless you want it to do so. It's an "agnostic" book, if you get my meaning.

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  20. Are Cthulhu and other Mythos-related names Public Domain Characters?

    It's a difficult question to answer, but the answer is almost certainly yes -- though Arkham House does its best to suggest otherwise.

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  21. Want to add the deep ones to your campaign? Here's the stats for them and there's no expectation you'll also include Father Dagon, Mother Hydra, or Cthulhu, though he can, since there's stats for them too -- along with almost everything else you can find in Lovecraft's writings.

    Doesn't statting up the Lovecraftian alien monstrosities and dropping them into a dungeon crawl miss the point of 'Lovecraftian' gaming as comprehensively as is humanly possible? In a game where (e.g.) wizard PCs can work up to mind control and power over death - in other words a very on-the-nose power fantasy - isn't the presence of Cthulhu an awkward fit at best?

    To put it another way, isn't Lovecraftian window dressing - like hit points for Nyarlathotep - a much greater affront than anything going on in the CoC game?

    Or, much more diplomatically, have you read Ken Hite's Trail of Cthulhu, which provides no stats at all for the Big Bads of the Mythos, instead offering a dozen thematic/dramatic roles for each, so that GMs can fit them into the campaign without worrying about their firepower?

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  22. I'm with James on the issue of making Cthulhu cutesy and approachable. I have a cuddly Cthulhu and some associated toys, but my feeling about them mingles amusement with contempt.

    There is something in modern culture that loves to water down anything powerful. Many people would even joke about the Holocaust if they thought they could get away with it, because something in us is uncomfortable with respect and dignity. The erosion of manners and the spread of first-name-basis, just-plain-folks behavior shows that we are increasingly losing the capacity to behave like adults, to distinguish between casual and formal, sacred and profane. Our growing inability to respect anything threatens to reduce us to smirking adolescents.

    Now, as fiction, Lovecraft's work falls into a category that moderns can't even imagine showing respect for - if we can't respect Shakespeare, we certainly can't respect Lovecraft - but perhaps it's worth stretching our imaginations a little.

    The concept that we could be completely wrong about the nature of the cosmos, that it could be far older and vaster than we can really comprehend, and that it could be other, alien, even hostile to our preferences, beliefs, and comfort, these ideas are nothing to scoff at. They deserve respect, in part because they are aimed at deflating our overblown hubris, compelling us to appreciate our very very small place in the cosmos. Humility is a prerequisite for compassion, wisdom, and any number of virtues - things we can't survive without as a species.

    Part of what makes Lovecraft's writing so powerful is that he has wrapped up these issues in tangible, comprehensible, original metaphors and situations, thereby providing a necessary service in the struggle against our own egos, even if most readers fail to appreciate the full significance of what Lovecraft was up to.

    That's something worth not watering down, worth setting a little apart, worth respecting.

    It's a free country, your milage may vary, and all the usual caveats, but for what it's worth that's why I agree with James on this.

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  23. To put it another way, isn't Lovecraftian window dressing - like hit points for Nyarlathotep - a much greater affront than anything going on in the CoC game?

    I guess it depends on whether or not one considers warding off Keziah Mason with a crucifix, defeating the son of Yog-Sothoth with ghost busting equipment, or even repulsing Cthulhu with the prow of a yacht to be affronts or not? I think unrelenting gloom and hopelessness of Lovecraft is often over-emphasized, particularly when he himself offers examples of men defeating Mythos threats by means both magical and mundane. Taken in that light, I'm not the least bit bothered by Nyarlathotep having 80 hit points or Cthulhu having armor class 0.

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  24. One of the things I've realized from comments on this book is just how deeply influenced gamers are by CoC and Derleth's cosmology. Since COC has along history in the gaming hobby, I think it sort of set the "paradigm" for what a Lovecraftian RPG should look like. Ideas like mechanics for sanity, total helplessness, it is difficult to separate the concepts of the game from Lovecraft's actual fiction. Why should there be an insanity mechanic whenever we include Lovecraftian creatures? Because there's one in CoC. That logic has been levied a few times but to me it is only a reflection of CoC's influence, not anything that would seem mandatory from HPL's works, especially in a game where the whole premise is to go out and kill things and take their stuff. A fantasy world already involves lots of other creatures, non-human beings, etc.

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  25. @ Dan:

    You make a good point about the nature of fantasy games ("Kill things and take their stuff") but there is precedent or standing for a sanity mechanic in Lovecraft's canon: several stories end with the protagonist going mad and even winding up in a nuthouse, as I recall. It's not necessary in a FRPG, and I don't think "RoCC" suffers from its lack, but the canon does support it, if one wants to model it.

    But I don't think CoC-style insanity (often reduced to "you go bonkers and are useless for [X] hours/days.") fits FRPGs all that well. I liked WFRP's way of handling it: the accumulation of "insanity points," indicating the growing possibility of accumulating some sort of disorder. While doing some harm to the character, the disorders were rarely crippling and provided great roleplay hooks. It wouldn't take too much work, I think, to graft that onto one's home LL game.

    RoCC is very good, by the way; I'm enjoying reading it.

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  26. @Anthony: There is certainly precedent for insanity, but I'm not so sure it happens with enough regularity in the stories to justify mechanics on that alone (or at least none that almost inevitably lead a character to insanity eventually). I have no problem with a sanity system per se, but having one sort of makes it inevitable that insanity is the end road to dealing with the various creatures in Lovecraft's tales, but it doesn't have to be that way. IMHO it should be harder to become insane, particularly in a game that is all about seeking out creatures to kill. I think in the end, when we are talking about LL, it boils down to what sort of game you want to have. The tough part for me at least is finding a way to rationalize why encountering some of these creatures is any more disturbing than encountering some inhuman goblins, or a dragon, etc. If you have half-orcs, half-elves, etc. is the justification for horror at human/alien hybrids justified anymore? Even though Cthulhu is a powerful alien entity, why should he be any more disturbing than Orcus? Lots of details to justify.

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  27. Dammit, James. You and your "reviews" keep making me spend more money!

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  28. I ran a five year long AD&D 2e campaign that had CoC mixed in (Sanity scores and Lovecraftian elements) and it worked out great. Very immersive.

    This book sounds pretty good, I'll have to check it out! Thanks for the review.

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  29. Dan of Earth: My own reading of Lovecraft is rife with antagonists losing their sanity - or at the very least feeling utter terror.

    I liken it to how somebody today can be hit by a car and fear traffic -for the rest of their lives-. And that's just a car. I think Lovecraft understands just what effect coming face to face with an alien horror - that should not exist - really would be. You're scarred for life at best and at worse your perception and belief system is utterly shattered beyond repair.

    This is what the mechanics are trying to simulate.

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  30. Among RPGs and Western Philosphy, Lovecraft is one of my guilty displeasures. I enjoy his tales when the main character discovers something that no one else knows, and that would shake the world if known. But my joy becomes dissapointment because never seems to be any consequences to such discoveries. The main character is left with insights into the nature of the universe that nobody else will ever believe to be true. At the end of the day, Lovecraft takes care that any evidence of whatever is going on has vanished or been destroyed -and so are the withnesses-, so he doesn't need to bother about further consequences.

    Moreover, Lovecraft repeats himself a lot. For example, 'The Shadow Out of Time' is a remake of 'At the Mountains of Madness', which is a remake of 'The Nameless City', which is suspiciously similar to 'The Festival' or 'The Rats in the Walls'. How many times did a Lovecraftian explorer come across a forgotten underground ruin to eventually discover that it was populed by hostile aliens? You can only rise Dracula from the grave a number of times before he becomes more an annoyance than an actual menace.

    Third but not least, Lovecraft's latest work is purely self-referent. It doesn't bring anything new to the table and has lost any touch with reality. New England becomes a theme park in which you can't set a foot in the street without stumbling upon a cultist, you can't throw a stone that doesn't hit a tentacled monstruosity, there's a copy of the Necronomicon in every hotel room, and mankind is on the verge of destruction once a week -meanwhile bystanders, autorities and powers-than-be don't care and don't even notice.

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  31. Among RPGs and Western Philosphy, Lovecraft is one of my guilty displeasures. I enjoy his tales when the main character discovers something that no one else knows, and that would shake the world if known. But my joy becomes dissapointment because never seems to be any consequences to such discoveries. The main character is left with insights into the nature of the universe that nobody else will ever believe to be true. At the end of the day, Lovecraft takes care that any evidence of whatever is going on has vanished or been destroyed -and so are the withnesses-, so he doesn't need to bother about further consequences.

    Moreover, Lovecraft repeats himself a lot. For example, 'The Shadow Out of Time' is a remake of 'At the Mountains of Madness', which is a remake of 'The Nameless City', which is suspiciously similar to 'The Festival' or 'The Rats in the Walls'. How many times did a Lovecraftian explorer come across a forgotten underground ruin to eventually discover that it was populed by hostile aliens? You can only rise Dracula from the grave a number of times before he becomes more an annoyance than an actual menace.

    Third but not least, Lovecraft's latest writings are purely self-referent. They doesn't bring anything new to the table and have lost any touch with reality. New England becomes a theme park in which you can't set a foot in the street without stumbling upon a cultist, you can't throw a stone that doesn't hit a tentacled monstruosity, there's a copy of the Necronomicon in every hotel room, and mankind is on the verge of destruction once a week -meanwhile bystanders, autorities and powers-than-be don't care and don't even notice.

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