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

dragoner

solisrpg.com
Lovecraft's racism is troubling, more so when one reads his letters which were published later on, so like many, I liked the books until I read his published collection of letters, where even his friends such as Howard criticized him for it.

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.

He originally took inspiration from Poe, "the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym", is definitely the precursor to "At the Mountains of Madness". Also Chambers "The King in Yellow", and not merely influences, things directly lifted.

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.

While I may have heard of Lovecraft before, the actual first running into it was through D&D's Deities and Demigods. Though I would say I haven't met very may people who have played CoC, yet never read a story of his.
 

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aramis erak

Legend
While I may have heard of Lovecraft before, the actual first running into it was through D&D's Deities and Demigods. Though I would say I haven't met very may people who have played CoC, yet never read a story of his.

A number of people I know came to the novels via either AD&D (it's in Appendix N), CoC, Elder Sign, or Arkham Horror.

I didn't read appendix N until I'd been gaming a decade or more, and encountered CoC well before that point. CoC got me to try reading it (Mountains of Madness), which got me to reviling HPL's work.

Noting the toxicity of his own beliefs doesn't put me off him any further; it is notable that his racism was extreme even for his time, but I would not care at all if every copy of his works disappeared on the morrow. His influence and racism, both, while not as bad as some other 1930's authors, is a far more insidious pestilence than most of them, simply because the games are quite popular, and many games have his influence.

A partial list of overt homages in RPG's: AD&D (inclusion in Appendix N), WFRP (Mentioned in a designer's note in White Dwarf), Call of Cthulhu (can't get much more open), WH40K (more obvious than WFRP), Sorcerer (in the bibliography)
And in Boardgames: Elder Sign, Mansion of Madness, Arkham Horror, Munchkin (A Cthulhu expansion was done)...

Avoiding his influence in the games industry is nigh impossible.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
I am not defending or recommending HPL to anyone; though there is a certain sadness in finding that out after enjoying CoC where we didn't include any racist or despicable stuff like that. CoC can still be run clean, and I really like the brp system, and that is a shame that HPL turned out to be such a heel.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Noting the toxicity of his own beliefs doesn't put me off him any further; it is notable that his racism was extreme even for his time <snip> Avoiding his influence in the games industry is nigh impossible.

Unfortunately, avoiding the influence of virulent racists from a century ago is pretty hard in general. They were all over the place.

In my own field, statistics, a large number of foundational articles were published in Annals of Eugenics, a journal that changed its name a few years after World War II to Annals of Human Genetics, 'cause, you know. Its founder, Karl Pearson, was an ardent eugenicist, social Darwinist, and anti-Semite. He was also an ardent leftist and supporter of women's suffrage---at the time, racism was widespread across the political spectrum.

Even beloved figures, such as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., had some eugenic doozies.
 
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