Lovecraftian Corruption In Your Role-Playing Campaigns
  • Lovecraftian Corruption In Your Role-Playing Campaigns


    H.P. Lovecraft, the giant of horror fiction who created the Cthulhu mythos, scared his readers in all kinds of ways, filling his works with nightmarish elder gods and a sense of humanity's insignificance in the cosmos. But many of his works relied on the same handful of universally frightening themes, and studying those themes can pay off for RPG adventure designers and game masters alike. In particular, Lovecraft's treatment of corruption as an unstoppable force that rots away the body, mind and the entire world presents adventure designers with a versatile means of getting under a player's skin.


    Fear provokes such visceral reaction in humans that it's no wonder many of the most celebrated role-playing adventures lean on horror elements. Tomb of Horrors and Ravenloft spring immediately to mind. But when it comes to Lovecraftian role playing, Call of Cthulhu is the place to start. The venerable game, currently in its seventh edition, builds on Lovecraft's mythos and plunges characters, called investigators, into mind-bending cosmic plots involving evil deities, extra-planar monsters and murderous cults. The 7th edition Keepers Rulebook contains a fabulous section of advice on weaving Lovecraftian themes into role-playing games, and its exploration of corruption as a universal force that degrades all that is good, pure or familiar is useful reading for any adventure designer.

    The Keepers Rulebook describes it this way: "Many of Lovecraft's stories carry a sense of decay in their surroundings and settings, as well as in the mental and physical decay of the protagonists. The slow, but inevitable creep of corruption can be a useful backdrop to a scenario to inspire a theme of foreboding and dread."

    This sort of corruption presents such a universal source of fear that game masters can use it to great effect in virtually any setting or system they choose. If you want to set your players on edge, present them with a sign of corruption in their surroundings. For example, maybe a familiar city or village suddenly experiences the outbreak of a plague. Or maybe the plants and the animals of a wondrous enchanted forest are turning up dead in surprising numbers. Such corruption of the game world helps game masters plant the seeds of terror in their adventures, but getting those seeds to blossom into something truly horrific may require allowing corruption to spread directly into the bodies and minds of the player characters.

    Call of Cthulhu reinforces this sense of corruption with a mechanic related to madness. Direct experience with horrific events corrupts the minds of investigators and depletes their sanity, increasing the odds they'll sustain some sort of madness-related effect in the game. The 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide contains optional rules for sanity as well.

    Corruption can originate from a range of sources: a political leader handed limitless authority, cursed and evil magic or simply the passage of time. Perhaps the most frightening use of corruption arises from players having to confront the inevitability of death. "Everything good crumbles away and is replaced with a mocking, choking darkness," according to the Keepers Rulebook.

    So maybe Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep don't fit in the game you're running, but Lovecraft can still inform the adventures you design for your players through his use of universal themes such as corruption. A touch of corruption instantly creates a more tense and immersive atmosphere for players. But game masters should take care to introduce these Lovecraftian themes sparingly, lest they drive their players into stark-raving madness.

    contributed by Fred Love
    Comments 15 Comments
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      My group recently played a session of A Penny For My Thoughts - a "recovered memory" cooperative storytelling game - using the Cthulhu/HPL variant. It went pretty well, although we moved into the weird science and alien beings territory more quickly than the typical HPL story does.
    1. Gradine's Avatar
      Gradine -
      I've struggled with this topic recently, as I have a love of aberrations in D&D and the types of stories that one can tell with them (and other Lovecraftian sorts of creatures and concepts), but I'm having trouble squaring that with my experiences as an activist for mental health. See, Lovecraftian corruption is really tied to sanity. Lovecraft's characters were driven insane because what we all fear, universally as human beings, is the unknown, and at that time we didn't really know a whole lot about mental health.

      Now we know a great deal more about mental health, and sanity effects have always to me smacked of being somewhat exploitative. AS someone who has struggled with mental illness and has many friends and loved ones as well, I cringe every time I see our symptoms used as short-hand for "scary" and "corrupted."

      I've tried, in adventures I've written, to steer clear of terms like "sanity" or "insanity" or any specific symptoms associated with them in favor of a more generic "corruption", but even that plays on a fear of the unknown tied directly to the fear of insanity, the fear of changing irrevocably who you are into something you no longer recognize. And isn't that just as exploitative as if I were being more direct and just calling it "insanity"? Is it less so? Or is more exploitative, because it's less direct and more insidious?

      The thing is, even though I experience it, I fear it also. My other friends and loved ones do as well. I think that sort of all-too-real dread is what tends to draw me to Lovecraft in the first place. But does playing it off as some sort of existential, supernatural dread (or possibly worse, tying that to "corruption", as if the mentally ill are all "corrupted") any worse?

      I'm not sure I have any answers to these, but they are things that I've been giving a lot of thought to for a while. Thanks for the article and the topic!
    1. Kramodlog's Avatar
      Kramodlog -
      I thought this would be about Lovecraftian racism* in D&D games.


      * I love the author's work, I even visites Providence Rhode Island to see this tomb, houses, and the library he and Edgar Allen Poe visited. But the man was racist, yo.
    1. Lylandra's Avatar
      Lylandra -
      What kind of kept me away from systems which used aspects of Lovecraftian corruption might be related to what @Gradine said. The idea that fear and exposure to alien influence (or demonic magic etc.) can cause not only irreparable damage, but also starts a process that cannot be stopped. That we, puny humans, are never going to be strong enough to resist this corruption. That we are doomed to succumb to it, one way or another.

      I know where these tropes are coming from, but the underlying view of what a human (or other humanoid creature) is and what they are (not) capable of is a bit too misanthropic and depressing for my taste.
    1. LordNightwinter's Avatar
      LordNightwinter -
      Quote Originally Posted by Gradine View Post
      I've struggled with this topic recently, as I have a love of aberrations in D&D and the types of stories that one can tell with them (and other Lovecraftian sorts of creatures and concepts), but I'm having trouble squaring that with my experiences as an activist for mental health. See, Lovecraftian corruption is really tied to sanity. Lovecraft's characters were driven insane because what we all fear, universally as human beings, is the unknown, and at that time we didn't really know a whole lot about mental health.

      Now we know a great deal more about mental health, and sanity effects have always to me smacked of being somewhat exploitative. AS someone who has struggled with mental illness and has many friends and loved ones as well, I cringe every time I see our symptoms used as short-hand for "scary" and "corrupted."

      I've tried, in adventures I've written, to steer clear of terms like "sanity" or "insanity" or any specific symptoms associated with them in favor of a more generic "corruption", but even that plays on a fear of the unknown tied directly to the fear of insanity, the fear of changing irrevocably who you are into something you no longer recognize. And isn't that just as exploitative as if I were being more direct and just calling it "insanity"? Is it less so? Or is more exploitative, because it's less direct and more insidious?

      The thing is, even though I experience it, I fear it also. My other friends and loved ones do as well. I think that sort of all-too-real dread is what tends to draw me to Lovecraft in the first place. But does playing it off as some sort of existential, supernatural dread (or possibly worse, tying that to "corruption", as if the mentally ill are all "corrupted") any worse?

      I'm not sure I have any answers to these, but they are things that I've been giving a lot of thought to for a while. Thanks for the article and the topic!
      You've put some serious thought in to this, I can tell. Not trying to start anything here but as someone who has closely felt the effects of mental illness I can honestly say that in the end it's just a game. It has nothing to do with real life. Some people have problems distinguishing between the two, which is in itself a mental issue. Not saying you do, don't think that, but in the end it is all just a game. Pretend, make-believe for the sole purpose of entertainment.
    1. SkidAce's Avatar
      SkidAce -
      @Gradine , your points are valid. I feel that it can be done however in such a way that you can use such tropes such as insanity, or corruption.

      But the true answer is what you and your group are comfortable with. Thats the level of such things that should be in your game.

      Semi-side topic.

      Corruption, insanity, racism, sexism,(not comparing these to each other) many things we deal with in the real world, are always discussed how best to be dealt with in game. And those are good conversations, because we explore and entertain viewpoints in a safe and controlled environment. However...

      Adventurers KILL, MURDER, and LOOT, as a general rule. The amount of killing they do (even if "justified" by rp and the setting) is enormous. And would have serious repercussions, PTSD, etc on anyone.

      This is rarely discussed as a concern in game like the issues you bring up. Because (I think) we recognize it is a game.

      Bottomline: It is up to your group, but I think it can be part of the game, if done properly and non-offensively, based on individual group levels of comfort.
    1. Gradine's Avatar
      Gradine -
      Quote Originally Posted by LordNightwinter View Post
      You've put some serious thought in to this, I can tell. Not trying to start anything here but as someone who has closely felt the effects of mental illness I can honestly say that in the end it's just a game. It has nothing to do with real life. Some people have problems distinguishing between the two, which is in itself a mental issue. Not saying you do, don't think that, but in the end it is all just a game. Pretend, make-believe for the sole purpose of entertainment.
      Yes, it is indeed just a game. But then, isn't F.A.T.A.L. just a game? Is Kipling's Jungle Book just a novel? Is the KKK's Birth of a Nation just a series of flickering lights on a wall? My point is that prejudices and biases don't develop in a vacuum. They, quite frequently in fact, develop from popular culture we consume. If I run a game with someone who have no personal experiences with mental illness, and that game presents insanity as corruption, as something to be feared, what am I actually teaching that person about insanity? What are they learning? And how will that impact the way they treat the mentally ill in the future?

      To echo the earlier point about Lovecraft's well-documented racism, but Lovecraft's version of horror was definitely about the fear of the unknown. And for Lovecraft, that included race and mental illness. By continuing to equate the latter with something "unknowable" and therefore frightening, is it possible we're doing harm to people with mental illness?

      @SkidAce probably solves the answer here, in that as long as what we're aware of what we're really talking about, and more specifically what we're not, that there should be a way to present it in game without contributing to anyone's prejudices.
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      I try to put insanity and being overwhelmed by the fear of the alien in my games lately. Its harder to do with D&D editions where you turn into a super hero pretty quickly and Cthulhu is just another big demon. It was part of Out of the Abyss that I ran but ended up being pretty easily dealt with which was disappointing ultimately.

      Part of my attraction to Warhammer FRP I suppose. When the urge to run a RPG returns I'm going to find a better way to mix fantasy and lovecraftian horror to my tastes.
    1. LordNightwinter's Avatar
      LordNightwinter -
      Quote Originally Posted by Gradine View Post
      Yes, it is indeed just a game. But then, isn't F.A.T.A.L. just a game? Is Kipling's Jungle Book just a novel? Is the KKK's Birth of a Nation just a series of flickering lights on a wall? My point is that prejudices and biases don't develop in a vacuum. They, quite frequently in fact, develop from popular culture we consume. If I run a game with someone who have no personal experiences with mental illness, and that game presents insanity as corruption, as something to be feared, what am I actually teaching that person about insanity? What are they learning? And how will that impact the way they treat the mentally ill in the future?

      To echo the earlier point about Lovecraft's well-documented racism, but Lovecraft's version of horror was definitely about the fear of the unknown. And for Lovecraft, that included race and mental illness. By continuing to equate the latter with something "unknowable" and therefore frightening, is it possible we're doing harm to people with mental illness?

      @SkidAce probably solves the answer here, in that as long as what we're aware of what we're really talking about, and more specifically what we're not, that there should be a way to present it in game without contributing to anyone's prejudices.
      Personally I think too many people are interested in educating the masses on their point of view. You're not teaching someone who doesn't know about mental conditions that insanity comes from Cthulhu or that insanity is corruption because when you sit down to play a game, you're playing a game. Especially in the case of a game like Call of Cthulhu which calls for a more mature player base in the first place. In some instances (not all) there is a direct correlation to more mature players being more educated, better versed, etc. I think you're reading in to things way too much. If you're sitting down with people for a game like this they generally know what they are getting in to, and if you're that worried about it you can explain your feelings before hand.
    1. Gradine's Avatar
      Gradine -
      Quote Originally Posted by LordNightwinter View Post
      Personally I think too many people are interested in educating the masses on their point of view. You're not teaching someone who doesn't know about mental conditions that insanity comes from Cthulhu or that insanity is corruption because when you sit down to play a game, you're playing a game. Especially in the case of a game like Call of Cthulhu which calls for a more mature player base in the first place. In some instances (not all) there is a direct correlation to more mature players being more educated, better versed, etc. I think you're reading in to things way too much. If you're sitting down with people for a game like this they generally know what they are getting in to, and if you're that worried about it you can explain your feelings before hand.
      On the contrary; I think a lot people don't read into things enough. The whole point of unconscious biases is that it is unconscious, that is, you develop them because you're engaging in things that might inform your biases without really thinking critically about what it is they're saying and how they might be informing you. I agree, though, that having a mature and critical conversation with a group should indeed be plenty enough to counteract that effect.
    1. rmcoen's Avatar
      rmcoen -
      I have played in one game that used corruption, and written a few backstories/worlds that never got run as campaigns. Generally, "corruption" in those settings was handled more as "mutation" than "lessening of rationality and control" (the definition of "insanity" I'll use here). I've played a couple computer games with that theme too, where the forces of Chaos you battle literally corrupt and change you through the act of killing them, as well as their effect on the world around them.

      In the campaigns (not the nethack-like CRPGs), there is generally a "defense" against this twisting of your physical and mental being. But also, far more insidious, there are corruption effects that are "beneficial" to the average adventurer. Thicker skin, heightened senses, all the class abilities of the 3e Alienist Prestige Class, and so on...

      So I came to *this* article looking for ideas/rules in that vein. I recognize that D&D in the past has treated "insanity" as equal to "blubbering wreck, possibly with grey matter leaking out the ears", whereas IRL "insanity" covers anything outside of normal, including any kind of compulsive behavior (theft, lying, shoe-straightening) or difficulty perceiving what the rest of us call reality.

      Also....

      Quote Originally Posted by SkidAce View Post
      Adventurers KILL, MURDER, and LOOT, as a general rule. The amount of killing they do (even if "justified" by rp and the setting) is enormous. And would have serious repercussions, PTSD, etc on anyone.

      This is rarely discussed as a concern in game like the issues you bring up. Because (I think) we recognize it is a game.

      Bottomline: It is up to your group, but I think it can be part of the game, if done properly and non-offensively, based on individual group levels of comfort.
      This is a telling fact. Most PCs are suffering significant mental health issues - either because of all the murdering and theft, or as a defense against acknowledging it, or perhaps starting out psychotically inclined in the first place!
    1. Lylandra's Avatar
      Lylandra -
      Quote Originally Posted by SkidAce View Post
      @Gradine , your points are valid. I feel that it can be done however in such a way that you can use such tropes such as insanity, or corruption.

      But the true answer is what you and your group are comfortable with. Thats the level of such things that should be in your game.

      Semi-side topic.

      Corruption, insanity, racism, sexism,(not comparing these to each other) many things we deal with in the real world, are always discussed how best to be dealt with in game. And those are good conversations, because we explore and entertain viewpoints in a safe and controlled environment. However...

      Adventurers KILL, MURDER, and LOOT, as a general rule. The amount of killing they do (even if "justified" by rp and the setting) is enormous. And would have serious repercussions, PTSD, etc on anyone.

      This is rarely discussed as a concern in game like the issues you bring up. Because (I think) we recognize it is a game.

      Bottomline: It is up to your group, but I think it can be part of the game, if done properly and non-offensively, based on individual group levels of comfort.
      There's a slight difference between the -isms and the way insanity and corruption are handled in many systems. I can enjoy playing in a biased setting if I can still be a hero or capable person despite these biases. Or if I can actively go against them. There is this feeling of personal empowerment when you can take this stuff that maybe makes your own life miserable and succeed nevertheless. This is why Game of Thrones is a fan favorite for many women despite its cruel themes.

      Now if you could take "corruption" to a certain level where you'd still be a functioning human and just *deal with it* and be an interesting character despite (or maybe because of) that taint. If you could actively fight against what is gnawing at your body and soul. Then these themes would be on a whole different level.

      For the PTSD part: You are right and in our campaigns most PCs only kill sentient beings if three's a reason to do so. Some even suffer from being in a war or reflect what they "had" to do.
      I can see why people love to play happy murderhobos and doing the wit-cracking 80's action hero can have its charme. But in my opinion, these guys are as much a thematic niche as are melancholic vampires or magical girls.
    1. fredlove's Avatar
      fredlove -
      Thanks for this perspective. It's not one that has occurred to me before. Some of Call of Cthulhu's classic scenarios deal with sanity pretty heavily. What are your thoughts on "The Sanatorium," which is considered among CoC's best-loved scenarios? Does it deal with sanity and mental illness in an exploitative fashion? What should adventure designers keep in mind when setting scenarios in mental institutions?

      I'd really like to hear more on this topic. It's got my brain working overtime trying to view an entire game system through a new lens.
    1. Gradine's Avatar
      Gradine -
      Quote Originally Posted by fredlove View Post
      Thanks for this perspective. It's not one that has occurred to me before. Some of Call of Cthulhu's classic scenarios deal with sanity pretty heavily. What are your thoughts on "The Sanatorium," which is considered among CoC's best-loved scenarios? Does it deal with sanity and mental illness in an exploitative fashion? What should adventure designers keep in mind when setting scenarios in mental institutions?

      I'd really like to hear more on this topic. It's got my brain working overtime trying to view an entire game system through a new lens.
      Sanitariums are typically frightening for one of two reasons:

      1) Our fear of the patients, descended into madness, for fear that we too will lose what makes us "us"
      2) Our fear of the practices & practitioners, often exemplified as sadistic doctors and treating horrific treatments as forms of torture (sometimes rightfully so, such as lobotomies, other times more sensationalized, as with shock therapy)

      Sanitariums don't exist anymore more, for a variety of reasons, but I have to imagine that our cultural fears of them were probably a significant factor.

      These days, the largest state-run (or state-overseen, at any rate) mental health housing facilities are the prison industry. So... not really an upgrade.

      Without having read "The Sanatorium" myself I can't really comment on it specifically, just more broadly on a particular negative outcome as a result of more generalized and exploitative fear of the mentally ill and sanitariums.

      If I were writing an adventure set in a mental health institution of any nature, particularly in a horror setting, I would firstly, and most importantly, do what I could to paint the inmates as three-dimensional human beings with serious, but empathetic, mental illnesses, as a start, rather that as less-than-human objects to be feared. If there is anything torturous happening to them, I'd make it was clear that it was a unique feature of this particular institution, and probably a result of some form of corruption (either the supernatural kind, if we're in a CoC-type setting, or just good-old-fashioned evil bastards at the helm that need to be exposed or otherwise dealt with). Finally, I would ensure that whatever is happening to these inmates is neither (a) inevitable or (b) unstoppable. If my players are there to solve a problem I want it to be a problem that they can solve, which, as I understand, does not always fit with the vibe CoC tends to go for.

      To reverse that, I would probably not ever run (or recommend running) a sanitarium adventure in which the inmates represent the villains or otherwise the most dangerous physical threat, as objects to be feared. Nor would I run, or recommend running, an adventure in which inmates suffer at the hands of some threat the player characters are powerless to prevent, leaving the mentally ill little more than targets to gawk at and be pitied. Both of these can be dehumanizing and exploitative.

      Again, your mileage may vary based upon your group. I consume a lot of pop culture and very little of it is fully and completely perfect, but if I can break down what I'm taking in with like-minded people I know that it's a lot less likely to have any impact on my unconscious biases.
    1. arjomanes -
      Gradine, this last post was really great, and good advice for any scenario that involves people or people-like characters. I'm currently running a campaign that is trying to model a more medieval feel, so it involves plenty of petty war and violence—not big wars that end up in history books—the battles that ruin people's lives because a couple cousins are sending their people out to fight over an inheritance. It's good advice to make sure there's agency to impact the lives of the refugees and victims of the slaughter, and that they're not just used as set dressing.
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