Friday, August 20, 2010

Open Friday: Happy Birthday, HPL

Today is H.P. Lovecraft's 120th birthday. Originally, I was going to make an exception to my usual practice of being offline Friday to post something on this occasion, but, as it turns out, I'm actually going to be out of the house most the day anyway, so that's not possible. So, until I get the chance tomorrow to say something lengthier, I'll leave you all with these questions: what do think is the single most influential idea that gaming has borrowed from Lovecraft and do you think this idea has been borrowed faithfully or has it been warped beyond something that the Old Gent, if he were alive today, would recognize?

See you tomorrow.


  1. The most significant contribution would be his pantheon of gross otherworldly monsters. I'd say it was NOT faithfully represented though, what with them getting hit points.

    Although I will say, it's unlikely that I would have discovered Lovecraft at the age I did without D&D, as at the time, he wasn't very popular, nor available easily in print.

    I remember having to get library books from other branches to write a high school English paper about him. Now you can find stacks and stacks of his books for sale in any given bookstore.

  2. Otherworldly monsters are definitely the win, but I'd also like to present the Fear of the Unknown. I don't know if you could say this came directly from HPL, but it is certainly something that comes up in oD&D games that I run.

  3. I'm on both sides of the fence.
    His biggest contribution to gaming is definitely his catalog of creatures from elsewhere, but I can't decide whether it is faithfully represented or not.
    On the one hand, Lovecraft made a point that most of his creations were not divine, they were just so powerful compared to us that they seemed godlike. This was in keeping with his adoption in the late period of an uberdystopian pure science view of the universe.
    The problem I have with the second question is just that. I think having a bunch of concrete stats to describe these things fits with the spirit of his later writing (the period that generated most of my favorites). On the other hand, Lovecraft being the Coot Laureate of the early 20th century writers, he would probably fill volumes with wordy disses about the infinitesimal gulf of vacuous endeavor begat by the legions of fools to adopt such daemonical algebra.

  4. Quote for the day: "So, happier than I had ever dared hope to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour." [Ex Oblivione]

  5. To the Cosmicist! (raises glass)

    If I had to pick an idea utilized in gaming, I think it would be his view of there being no single, divine presence such as God.

    There are Greater Powers or Higher Beings, but their "divinity" is truly subjective. In Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories, the gods have an indifference to humanity that causes the real terror.


  6. I'm not sure gaming has captured Lovecraft's overwhelming feeling of despair and horror that his protaganists often experience in his stories. I would love to play a game that was truly terrifying, though, hitting me with unexpected twists that rapidly opened up into something that felt as vertigous as a black hole.

  7. I think the biggest thing he added to the scene, so to speak, was the idea that the universe is a cold, indifferent place with hideous monsters who look at the great mass of humanity with the same care and passion that humanity does to the great mass of ants beneath their feet.

    The best part about it is that, sans the monsters, that's exactly the way the universe is, and it really is kind of scary.

    I don't think he'd recognize the way people step up to "fight" Cthulhu and Hastur and stuff. For example, I found some 3.5e D&D art with a wizard and a fighter attacking Cthulhu, who was body-slamming them or something. To me, that's the greatest perversion of Cthulhu I can think of. You can no more fight Dread Cthulhu then you can fight off your own, personal, impending doom.

  8. Unless you hit Cthulhu with a boat...

    Which only serves to underline the actual lack of divinity of these seemingly godlike creatures. But, then again, Cthulhu was actually a priest of Dagon, was he not?

  9. Cthulhu was described as a high priest (of Azathoth?), Dagon was a huge deep one who, I believe, is subservient to Cthulhu.

  10. To echo N. Wright's comments somewhat, I think H.P.'s greatest contribution was to place the protagonist second and the story first. Man is primitive, ignorant, and weak, and his tentative forays into the unknown are fraught will peril, as the universe smacks arrogant upstarts down. But, man's curiosity, obsession, and foolhardiness are still intensely interesting.

    [1] There are things man was not meant to know.
    [2] Man is not the center of the universe
    [3] The protagonists can lose, and still leave you with a good/memorable story.

  11. Something tells me he would have liked the idea of a roleplaying game, but he'd probably be into something like Amber. At a guess, I'd say he'd hate Call of Cthulhu itself, but he'd be wrong. ;)

  12. The protagonists can lose, and still leave you with a good/memorable story.

    Yes, but I think Lovecraft would go farther: mankind will inevitably lose, even if the protagonist of a particular story might have a small, short-term victory.

    I think that's a playable game concept, but I doubt that most people play CoC (or any other RPG) in that way. Even in the alien bleakness of Carcosa (which I haven't fully read yet), the characters have a chance to make a significant difference, albeit at an enormous personal cost.

    So, no, I'm not aware of any game that faithfully adapts Lovecraft's ethos. Most players wouldn't enjoy such a game. And I'm not sure that you can faithfully adapt the mythos without inevitable doom in an indifferent universe.

    But everybody like tentacles and cultists.

  13. The most influential thing that gaming has borrowed from HP Lovecraft is the idea that there are outsiders to this existence who are so alien and uncaring that no compromise can be made with them, and that the only thing that saves humanity is that we are really quite beneath their notice(although that doesn't mean we won't get stepped on). Call them Outsider, Great Old Ones, The Loathly Ones, whatever.

    And I think that dear Mr Lovecraft ["Happy Birthday!"] would be disgruntled to know that there are players who think that their characters could survive contact with such forces unharmed. [Depending on game genre, of course.] Or even the fact of why anyone would want to imagine themselves in the role of one of his protagonists.

  14. The pantheon is definitely the most important contribution, in my book, but not very faithfully. I think Trail of Cthulhu comes closest to doing a faithful job, especially in the way that there are no stats for the monsters and higher entities, and multiple interpretations of each.

    The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.
    -H.P. Lovecraft

  15. I'm going to have to go with the protagonists, but in terms of the idea that gaming actually borrowed, I think it's the idea that the protagonist is not necessarily the most important thing going on. Admittedly, many games ARE about the people who (eventually) run the show, save the world, or kill Thor, but a lot of games are about people who, in the grand scheme of things, don't ever matter much. I think the fact that the latter possibility even exists in an adventure setting owes a lot to Lovecraft.

  16. by some odd coincidence, I just picked up CoC at my local used bookstore today. The stars must be aligned

  17. I don't think he'd recognize the way people step up to "fight" Cthulhu and Hastur and stuff. For example, I found some 3.5e D&D art with a wizard and a fighter attacking Cthulhu, who was body-slamming them or something. To me, that's the greatest perversion of Cthulhu I can think of. You can no more fight Dread Cthulhu then you can fight off your own, personal, impending doom.

    If it is the picture I’m thinking of, it was created to illustrate the part of the CoC d20 book about “just using Mythos creatures as D&D monsters”. It was a very intentional perversion. (And, really, is it any worse than D&D’s perversion of any other idea from myth or literature into a monster to be fought?)

  18. The stuff that most games seem to take away from Lovecraft is the alien cosmology and bleak worldview -- which many gamers immediately corrupt by changing chargen to make their characters superheroes. But what I personally like better is the weird touches to his fantasy setting. I think every archaic fantasy setting should be like that, even if you drop the bleakness and alienness.

    I think the role-playing game that Lovecraft would have been the happiest with is UnSpeakable, Jared Sorenson's Lovecraftian variant of InSpectres. Very simple mechanics, story could go anywhere, becoming more effective goes hand in hand with going over the edge, and the game isn't over until someone goes insane.

  19. I would wager that HPL's greatest contribution to role playing games is not the cosmic world view or even the alien monsters. It is simply the exploration of a dangerous place like a mine, ruin, or abandoned house, but these are typically inhabited with some kind of horror. In essence HPL invented the dungeon crawl. The Tomb, The Transition of Juan Romero, Rats in the walls, The Nameless City, The Hound, The Lurking Fear, The Shunned House, The Horror at Red Hook, In the Vault, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, At the Mountains of Madness, with The Statement of Randolph Carter pretty much laying out the idea of OD&D's "Underworld."

  20. If a civilian ship captain can take out Cthulu by ramming him with a boat, a 20th level Fighter can certainly take him out with a Hammer of Thunderbolts.

  21. I'd stress the importance of scholarship/investigation in HPL's works. Most of HPL's narratives involve information gathering- Mr Thurston pieces together a horrible secret history from his uncle's notes, Professor Armitage frantically researches Wilbur Whateley's code and hunts for a ritual to dispel the Dunwich Horror, even Wilbur Whateley himself is on a quest for knowledge. In one of Lovecraft's most poignant passages, from At the Mountains of Madness (spoiler to follow), the narrator expresses empathy for the Old Ones, seeing them as kindred spirits, persevering as scientists while stranded in a hostile, alien realm.

    The classic Lovecraftian campaign would begin with "you all meet in a library".