The American author H.P. Lovecraft is still, almost 80 years after his death, an influential figure, not only in literature but also in roleplaying games. The number of roleplaying games that refer to his Cthulhu Mythos have exploded in the last few years. 

For years Chaosium was almost the sole publisher that created games which were based on H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. Call of Cthulhu RPG, which is based on Basic Roleplaying (a system created for the Rune-Quest Fantasy roleplaying games) is one of the most known roleplaying games. Call of Cthulhu RPG was first released in 1981 and designed by Sandy Petersen.

A few years ago Lovecraft’s work became public domain in the EU, though the copyright for his work in the US is basically best described as a minefield. Both due to complicated copyright laws and the fact that Chaosium has registered trademarks on “Arkham Horror” and “Call of Cthulhu“. Arkham House owns the copyrights to a whole bunch of Cthulhu mythos material and claims to have the copyrights on the H.P. Lovecraft’s work.

Lately there has been an explosion of roleplaying games based on Lovecraft’s work and as a Lovecraft fanatic it’s is interesting to see how game designers view his worlds. Still, I can’t help but wonder sometimes, how deeply some of these designers delved into his stories.

So much more than tentacles and non euclidean geometry

In his life H.P. Lovecraft wrote over 100 short stories and novellas (see a good list of his work here). His most celebrated works include Call of Cthulhu, Shadow out of Time, Shadow over Innsmouth and At the Mountains of Madness. His work has had a huge impact on modern writers, e.g. Stephen King, Michel Houellebecq, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. You can also see Lovecraft‘s influence in films, computer games and music (e.g. the song Call of Ktulu by Metallica), even Pathfinder’s publishers, Paizo, refer heavily (both directly and indirectly) to Lovecraft‘s works.

Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos are probably the single most used and overused part of his works. And what’s more, it’s not his creation alone, for many authors added to it, e.g. Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard just to name a few and were often referred to as the Lovecraft circle. Many mythos creatures are therefore not Lovecraft‘s creation, e.g. the Yellow King or Tsathoggua.

Lovecraft‘s work can be divided into three categories; the Dunsanian, Arkham and Cthulhu. His Dunsanian work was mostly fantastical, written in a similar style as Lord Dunsany. Lovecraft‘s Dreamland stories fall into this category. Arkham are the stories that take place in his fictional New England setting. Stories like The Silver Key and Herbert West – Reanimator belong to this category. The final category, Cthulhu, uses the same theme, these are the stories of unfathomable cosmic horrors.

True to Lovecraft or true to Cthulhu?

I can’t help but wonder, when there are some many games published using Lovecraft‘s work, how true to Lovecraft‘s work all these games are. When you have dozens of board games, a lot of computer/video games and so many roleplaying games out there, how true can all these games be, while still being original?

What makes things even more complicated is the fact that most of these games only refer to the Cthulhu part of his work. I think that Chaosium has probably stayed most true to displaying the breadth of Lovecraft‘s works.

The Cthulhu Mythos was to Lovecraft something that he co-created, a setting which all his friends in the Lovecraft Circle could add to. Robert E. Howard refers to Necronomicon in one of his stories and even when Lovecraft ghostwrote he used the mythos. It’s easy to imagine that the mythos was something to play around with and even Lovecraft himself humorously referred to his Mythos as “Yog Sothothery“.

It’s full of stars!

If you read through Lovecraft’s works you will find that almost all of his stories, though their themes differ, centre around the same thing, i.e. discovery of something horrible, even something so alien and mind boggling that you will never see the world in the same light again. Even in the first two paragraphs of Call of Cthulhu the author simply says it outright.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Lovecraft never wrote about, at least not to my knowledge, about a person armed with a Tommy gun chased by mad cultist or about a special force armed to the teeth fighting the creatures of the mythos. He wrote about persons who discover something horrible, even in his early work, e.g. the short story The Tomb, the main character makes a terrible discovery, one that he will never live to tell.

With all the new Cthulhu games being published I sometimes get the feeling that this part of Lovecraft’s work has been forgotten. Even Chaosium, with their latest and 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu RPG, added new rules for chases! No more Francis Wayland Thurston, hello Indiana Jones!

Lovecraft and especially the Cthulhu Mythos are now a part of mainstream culture and with the advent of TV series like Stranger Things and True Detective, it’s tempting to use this to gain players’ attention. After all, the Cthulhu Mythos is something that many roleplayers know or have heard of. It’s accessible and easy for both players and game masters to get in the right mood.

But simply adding Cthulhu, Nyarlatothep or Yog-Sothoth to a setting doesn’t make the setting Lovecraftian, as such. It needs more for that.

So, what I’m trying to say is…

I guess I’m slightly contradicting myself, complaining that perhaps the latest Cthulhu-based RPG’s aren’t original enough and then saying that they should stay more true to Lovecraft’s work. That’s true and a fair criticism.

But what I’m trying to point out is, that the Cthulhu mythos was never the main focus of Lovecraft’s work. It was the path to discovery and I feel that part of his works is being forgotten.

I don’t mind games where you get handed a big weapon and pointed in the direction of the BBEG, but I feel that the point of difference for games based on Lovecraft’s work is the horrible discovery of cosmic horror, not Cthulhu itself or other Mythos beings. The aim of such a game should be having the players gasp and say: “It’s full of stars!” (or some other similar cliches from old movies), instead of going full-on murder hoboing, using as much firepower as possible.

After all, we have D&D for that!

PS. I recommend reading through Helgi’s Campaign Post-Mortem posts, for I think he added Lovecraftian flavour to his campaign with style.