Everybody Loves Lovecraft?

H.P. Lovecraft's particular brand of weird horror has gone on to influence a wide variety of modern media that is distinct from the vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein's monsters of yore. The tabletop gaming world -- led by Chaosium -- has more than its share of Lovecraftian games. But if past Kickstarters are any indication, Lovecraft's name alone is not a guarantee of success.

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[h=3]Lovecraft Licenses the World[/h]H.P. Lovecraft's tentacled-horror, Cthulhu, and his weird sci-fi premise of mind-blasting truths, are commonplace today but his contributions weren't fully appreciated by the general public until much later. Erica Henderson, who produced Baby's First Mythos via Kickstarter, explained his appeal:

Lovecraft made a world where humans are alone, floating on a rock in a terrifying larger universe that we cannot possibly comprehend because our time in it has been so short and we are so insignificant compared to the horrors from the Cthulhu Mythos. So much of modern horror is based on that idea. We wouldn't have Ghostbusters if it weren't for Lovecraft – and that's the best argument I can think of for his work.


Today, Lovecraft's influence is so vast that it's hard to quantify:

Lovecraft’s influence stands behind many of the key cultural icons of modern Gothic and horror. There would be no Alien series without him, no Species, none of those David Cronenberg body horrors, no Clive Barker, and no Pan’s Labyrinth. (Director Guillermo del Toro has long harboured ambitions to make a block-buster film of At the Mountains of Madness, the last attempt pipped at the post by Ridley Scott’s awful Prometheus.) There is also a whole post-millennial style of fiction, called ‘The New Weird’, which would be impossible without Lovecraft, although major contemporary writers in the mode, like China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, have an ambiguous and vexed relationship to the Old Weird.


Even Stephen King was influenced by Lovecraft. But Lovecraft's influence goes beyond tone and inspiration, because his approach to world-building was uniquely prescient. The two factors that make Lovecraft so appealing to game developers and authors was that he was collaborative -- creating shared worlds that freely borrowed from his peers -- and that much of his work is in the public domain. What would Lovecraft have thought of all this? His work is continuing a messy tradition of borrowing and building through multiple contributors:

He was barely making a living by ghost-writing and doing rewrites of other people’s stories, but through his letters he’d made a lot of friends. He espoused a lot of philosophy about the art of writing the weird tale, and would often send, in his letters, full handwritten novelettes for his friends to enjoy; and this is, I think, the key to Lovecraft’s posthumous success. He’d create a world, and then share it with his friends. He fostered the talent of young writers by reading their work, giving them advice and sharing it with others in his circle. Any of the worlds he created, the creatures he populated them with, and the dread tomes of ancient lore he’d described were open to the public. He’s an author who encouraged others to expand on his ideas, to set their own stories in what would become known as the Cthulhu Mythos. He created an open source, creative commons universe decades before those ideas were to become in vogue. If he did none of this, his work would have certainly died when he did.


Taken together, anyone can potentially use Lovecraft's work in anything, and as a result, his influence has spread its insidious tentacles everywhere. Nowhere is that influence felt more than role-playing games, and Chaosium is largely responsible.
[h=3]Chaosium ❤ Lovecraft[/h]Most gamers are familiar with the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, which diverged from Dungeons & Dragons in important ways:

Rather than the traditional format established by Dungeons & Dragons, which often involved the characters wandering through caves or tunnels and fighting different types of monsters, Sandy Petersen introduced the concept of the Onion Skin: Interlocking layers of information and nested clues that lead the Player Characters from seemingly minor investigations into a missing person to discovering mind-numbingly awful, global conspiracies to destroy the world. Unlike its predecessor games, CoC assumed that most investigators would not survive, alive or sane, and that the only safe way to deal with the vast majority of nasty things described in the rule books was to run away. A well-run CoC campaign should engender a sense of foreboding and inevitable doom in its players. The style and setting of the game, in a relatively modern time period, created an emphasis on real-life settings, character research, and thinking one's way around trouble.


The company also made major forays into fiction. Shannon Appelcline expands on how Chaosium bridged the gap between RPGs and fiction in Designers & Dragons - the 70s:

Things really got rolling when Greg Stafford attended NecronomiCon (1992?) — a Lovecraftian convention held in Massachusetts — and realized that the Lovecraft community of the early ’90s was made up of two classes of people: those who had come to Lovecraft through the fiction and those who had come to it through Chaosium’s game, Call of Cthulhu. There was little overlap. The epiphany that most of the Cthulhu players hadn’t actually read the fiction was what caused Chaosium to take the lessons learned from their first fiction publications and to use them to create a Call of Cthulhu fiction line.


Thanks to Chaosium's fiction and RPG efforts, much of what was murky and undefined by Lovecraft has since been codified in a fashion similar to what Gary Gygax did for fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons -- categorized, quantified, and named (then-D&D-owner TSR and Chaosium have clashed and collaborated before on this topic). By doing so, Chaosium created a particular brand of the Cthulhu Mythos that has loomed large in how Lovecraft's works -- and that of his peers -- are perceived today.
[h=3]Well, Maybe Not Everybody...[/h]Putting a stamp on Lovecraft's work is not a guarantee of success, as Egg's article demonstrates with the numerous Call of Cthulhu Kickstarter supplements that are years late (full disclosure: I'm a contributing author on the very late but soon-to-be-published Punktown setting). There are also issues with Lovecraft himself:

These days, it's not so much his strange hybrid of science fiction and supernatural terror that is the problem as his racism. When the Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor became the first black woman to win the World Fantasy award in 2011, a friend pointed out the fact that the award was problematic – it being a bust of Lovecraft. Okorafor gamely reproduces one of his racist poems on her blog and writes: "I am the first black person to win the World Fantasy award for Best Novel since its inception in 1975. Lovecraft is probably rolling in his grave."


Lovecraft's racism aside, his work has become so commonplace that it's hard not to swing a cat (from Saturn) without hitting some kind of Lovecraft inspired product. There are over 250 Lovecraft-themed projects on Kickstarter alone: sculptures, fiction, movie projects, wrapping paper, Christmas cards, and several children's books.

In the right hands, Lovecraft's work has thrived. Sandy Petersen of Chaosium fame has spearheaded the effort, from his Cthulhu Wars board game (funded at nearly $1.5 million dollars) to his Pathfinder supplement (over $200K funded). But perhaps the most infamous Lovecraftian Kickstarter failure is the The Doom that Came to Atlantic City, a Monopoly-themed Kickstarter that had more of an appropriate title than its creators may have realized.
[h=3]The Doom that Came to Kickstarter[/h]The Doom that Came to Atlantic City was launched as a Kickstarter by The Forking Path on May 7, 2012 and concluded on June 6, 2012 well over its $35,000 goal, surpassing $122,000. The Kickstarter's promised rewards never materialized. Worse, by The Forking Path principal Eric Chevalier's own admission, the Kickstarter wasn't funding a game, it was funding the company to LAUNCH the game. Then the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) got involved:

Chevalier has agreed to a settlement order with agency. Under the agreement, he's prohibited from making misrepresentations about crowdfunding campaigns and failing to honor refund policies in the future. The order also contains a $111,793.71 judgment against Chevaliar, but it is suspended because of his inability to pay. "The full amount will become due immediately if he is found to have misrepresented his financial condition," an FTC press release said. The Post was not able to immediately reach Chevalier, who did not admit guilt as part of the agreement.


In the end, The Doom that Came to Atlantic City was rescued by Cryptozoic Entertainment who gave all backers a copy.

Lovecraft's universe is unforgiving -- for every successful Stephen King and Sandy Petersen, there are dozens of bad novels and failed Kickstarters. For some aspiring authors, the greatest horror just might be humanity itself. Lovecraft would have approved. Happy Halloween everyone!

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
Nicely done! There are a handful of topics related to this that came early to me and were not mentioned here. But I now realize how broad the subject of Cthulhu and gaming really is! You have a knack for keeping the writing focused and researching the material. As always, a pleasure to read your work.
 

chibi graz'zt

First Post
Lessons learned; when it comes to CoC/Chaosium, I'll wait to buy the finished product when it is published; I will not fall for another KS disaster like I did for CoC 7e. After 4 years I have most of what was promised to me, (but not all for my $340 pledge).

Lessons learned.
 


Ghost2020

Adventurer
Yeah never a big fan of Cthulhu personally.

I like the Lovecraft fiction, but the RPG is just something that never connected for me. It should too, as it's right up my alley. Not sure if it's the system or the subject matter with that system. I totally understand the intended result (madness, death, etc), but it's not terribly playable for me beyond one shots.

Although the D20 CoC seemed to work a bit better for me as I didn't feel that my character would die falling down some steps. :p
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Ok King has mentioned Lovecraft has influence his works. But until all the other artists come out and state Lovecraft influence them, I will think the article is over reaching.
 

"China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, have an ambiguous and vexed relationship to the Old Weird."

Oh? Do tell. I love both of those writers. Going to get my tickets for Annihilation ASAP.
 

redrick

First Post
"China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, have an ambiguous and vexed relationship to the Old Weird."

Oh? Do tell. I love both of those writers. Going to get my tickets for Annihilation ASAP.

Nnedi Okafor quotes some of Mieville's reactions to Lovecraft on her blog:

“Yes, indeed, the depth and viciousness of Lovecraft’s racism is known to me …It goes further, in my opinion, than ‘merely’ *being* a racist - I follow Michel Houellebecq (in this and in no other arena!) in thinking that Lovecraft’s oeuvre, his work itself, is inspired by and deeply structured with race hatred. As Houellebecq said, it is racism itself that raises in Lovecraft a ‘poetic trance’. He was a bilious anti-semite (though one who married a Jew, because, if you please, he granted that she was ‘assimilated’), and if you read stories like ‘The Horror at Red Hook’, the bile you will see towards people of colour, of all kinds (with particular sneering contempt for African Americans unless they were suitably Polite and therefore were patricianly granted the soubriquet ‘Negro’) and the mixed communities of New York and, above all (surprise surprise - Public Enemy were right) ‘miscegenation’ are extended and toxic.”

“So where does that leave the World Fantasy Award? Well, in my case, I have always done something very specific and simple. I consider the award inextricable from but not reducible to Lovecraft himself. Therefore, I was very honoured to receive the award as representative of a particular field of literature. And the award itself, the statuette of the man himself? I put it out of sight, in my study, where only I can see it, and I have turned it to face the wall. So I am punishing the little :):):):)er like the malevolent clown he was, I can look at it and remember the honour, and above all I am writing behind Lovecraft’s back. ”

---EDITED TO ADD---
That blog post is actually a great mini-essay on appreciating the work and influence of deeply problematic authors and artists, from Norman Mailer to Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Worth the read in entirety.
 
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Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
I like the Lovecraft fiction, but the RPG is just something that never connected for me. It should too, as it's right up my alley. Not sure if it's the system or the subject matter with that system. I totally understand the intended result (madness, death, etc), but it's not terribly playable for me beyond one shots.

Although the D20 CoC seemed to work a bit better for me as I didn't feel that my character would die falling down some steps. :p
I would recommend any of the various Cthulhu titles from Fantasy Flight Games. Eldritch Horror is my personal favorite, but there several to choose from and match your style of play (i.e. Card, board, dice, or miniatures game). Pick your poison (or level of insanity, if you prefer).
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
I love Lovecraft's work but never could get into horror gaming outside of Chill, where the solution to monsters was a 12ga shotgun, not mewling and running away like some kind of sissy. ;)
 

I’ve really been enjoying the recent Lovecraft reclamation works, like Ballad of Black Tom and Winter Tide. Stuff that addresses the problematic nature of his tales, while still evoking the good parts.

I like to think that even without Lovecraft, we’d still have something similar. Who knows, maybe we’d be raving about Clark Ashton Smith. I think Lovecraft & Lovecraft scholarship blocks out, neglects, a lot of the pulp authors that mined similar territory.
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
CoC really seems to be the RPG other then D&D (or direct spin off of D&D) that has enjoyed a longtime and widespread following.

Part of that is the source material, and part of that is excellent game design, and a focus on what really makes the game distinctive and keeping everything else really simple.

As for HPL: He captured the existential dread of modern times in a way that is probably more accessible then, say, Sartre. But for its clear for him that Hell is other People. His stories are filled with (white) inbred yokels and crass elites willing to sell out the world. I am not saying he wasn't a racist, obviously he was, but his dislike was widespread.
 

M.L. Martin

Adventurer
The answer to the article title is "No." :)

Personally, I'm thoroughly sick of Lovecraft, especially in gaming, due to a mix of oversaturation, philosophical disagreement, and the tendency of some gamers to try and turn everything Lovecraftian. I think the tipping point for me was a thread on another board this summer about trying to introduce Lovecraft into Tolkien.

Now, the concepts of ancient mysteries and the like still work for me, but Lovecraft's tentacles, madness and overwhelming anti-human, anti-rational, anti-theist philosophy? No thank you.
 
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pemerton

Legend
Unlike [MENTION=4086]Matthew L. Martin[/MENTION], I find many of the Lovecraftian tropes reasonably compelling in fantasy gaming. But I find HPL's fiction almost unreadable, and I find his "existential dread" very hard to take seriously. (Sorry [MENTION=22260]TerraDave[/MENTION].)
 

rknop

Adventurer
The problem with the existential dread is that we live in an era where the vastness of the Universe and our insignificance in comparison to it is widely appreciated. Even if you aren't fully up on the expanding Universe and so forth, you have some idea about lots of Galaxies out there and how we're but a speck on a speck in a speck. Also, lots of people are familiar with the idea that the Universe is bizarre in ways that are not intuitive to humans -- quantum mechanics on the small scale, general relativity on the large scale. We're used to this idea, so the bizarre and human incomprehensibility of the Universe is something that we're used to rather than something that might cause cosmic horror.

My sister sort of got it; 20 or so years ago when I was actively working on cosmology, and I'd talk to my sister about the size of the Universe and the expansion and so forth, she'd get a bit creeped out and say "it reminds me of death". Too many of us are just used to it, though, so the cosmic horror thing just doesn't resonate very well.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
The problem with the existential dread is that we live in an era where the vastness of the Universe and our insignificance in comparison to it is widely appreciated. Even if you aren't fully up on the expanding Universe and so forth, you have some idea about lots of Galaxies out there and how we're but a speck on a speck in a speck. Also, lots of people are familiar with the idea that the Universe is bizarre in ways that are not intuitive to humans -- quantum mechanics on the small scale, general relativity on the large scale. We're used to this idea, so the bizarre and human incomprehensibility of the Universe is something that we're used to rather than something that might cause cosmic horror.

My sister sort of got it; 20 or so years ago when I was actively working on cosmology, and I'd talk to my sister about the size of the Universe and the expansion and so forth, she'd get a bit creeped out and say "it reminds me of death". Too many of us are just used to it, though, so the cosmic horror thing just doesn't resonate very well.

I don't think it's so much the geography of the universe, as the vast, malevolent alien intelligences.
 

rknop

Adventurer
I think the appeal of the horror is all part of the same thing, though. The idea is that there are more things in heaven and in earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Yet, nowadays, we have natural philosophy (we've taken to calling it science) that makes highly accurate predictions about stuff that is, to the human mind, completely bizarre.

Vast and hard-to-understand alien intelligences have also saturated the culture for a long time now. One could argue that the whole government conspiracy genre is sort of part of the same thing-- forces beyond our control that are running things in ways we can't hope to change.

Both from a cosmology/quantum point of view, and from a "things are controlling us, we don't have the Enlightenment self-determination we thought we did" point of view, we've gotten used to the ideas because they've been mainstream parts of culture for a long time. It's a cynical age. These things don't surprise us any more, so the cosmic terror of them is harder to grok.
 

I think the appeal of the horror is all part of the same thing, though. The idea is that there are more things in heaven and in earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Yet, nowadays, we have natural philosophy (we've taken to calling it science) that makes highly accurate predictions about stuff that is, to the human mind, completely bizarre.

Vast and hard-to-understand alien intelligences have also saturated the culture for a long time now. One could argue that the whole government conspiracy genre is sort of part of the same thing-- forces beyond our control that are running things in ways we can't hope to change.

Both from a cosmology/quantum point of view, and from a "things are controlling us, we don't have the Enlightenment self-determination we thought we did" point of view, we've gotten used to the ideas because they've been mainstream parts of culture for a long time. It's a cynical age. These things don't surprise us any more, so the cosmic terror of them is harder to grok.
Which is why I assumed that the final metaplot point for Cthulhutech would be that the Elder Gods were our great, great, great, etc., grandchildren reaching back in time to stop us from creating them.
 

Ghost2020

Adventurer
Thanks for the input!
We've tried the Arkham Horror board game, several times even. That thing is terrible.
Witch of Salem is a far superior game.

Anyone play the CoC d20 Nocturnum campaign? Always wanted to try that.

(sorry, i think i'm derailing the thread)
 

pemerton

Legend
I don't think it's so much the geography of the universe, as the vast, malevolent alien intelligences.
HPL seems to think that relativity is, per se, horrific - eg all the references to alien geometry and impossible angles.

Both from a cosmology/quantum point of view, and from a "things are controlling us, we don't have the Enlightenment self-determination we thought we did" point of view, we've gotten used to the ideas because they've been mainstream parts of culture for a long time. It's a cynical age. These things don't surprise us any more, so the cosmic terror of them is harder to grok.
I'm not sure it was horrific even when HPL wrote it. Compare Brave New World - what you refer to as a "cynical age" had one of its masterpieces written around the same time as HPL's "cosmic horror".
 

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