When Conan Punched Cthulhu

Dungeons & Dragons has a multitude of gaming and literary influences, but two that stand out are H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and the sword-swinging barbarian character Conan by R.E. Howard. D&D brings the two together in a fashion that's become standard fantasy now, but was revolutionary for a role-playing game.

Lovecraft's D&D Influence

Of the two influences, H.P. Lovecraft's literature had the most immediate impact. Cthulhu himself was formally mentioned in the 1975 Greyhawk Supplement I for the Original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. There would be many more references in the future, from the subtle (mind flayers are obviously inspired by Cthulhu; "ghoul" and "ghast" were lifted from "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kaddath" but are presented differently) to the overt (the Lovecraftian Mythos were covered in The Dragon #12, and later formally included in the 1980 Deities & Demigods rulebook for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons before they were removed in a later printing).

But what's lacking is the sense of dread and cosmic horror that Lovecraft's writing inspired. For an example of how that influences changes gameplay, look no further than Call of Cthulhu. Measureless Eons summarizes the difference:

All Dungeons & Dragons characters, regardless of species, alignment, or adventuring skill, can be assumed to want to kill monsters and take their treasure as a means of increasing their own personal power. It’s the typical idea of kicking in a door, killing the monster, and taking its treasure. In finding treasure, the characters buy cool magical items and gain XP to get more and more powerful. All Call of Cthulhu Investigators, likewise, can be assumed to be actively investigating, which is to say seeking out (or at least not actively avoiding) occult mysteries to solve as a means of defeating (or at least stalling) servants of the evil alien god Cthulhu or similar monstrosities. The goal here is not to gain XP to get stronger. The goal here is simply to SURVIVE.​

The two games have different power arcs, with D&D characters growing in power and CoC investigators losing it (literally and figuratively). Books of Brian puts it this way:

Rereading Lovecraft’s stories, you’re constantly reminded of several things: 1) human insignificance, helplessness and hopelessness in the face of powers, forces and beings we cannot and will never be able to understand nor have the strength and ability to confront and / or overcome and 2) the fragility of human sanity. In his writing, we are, almost without exception, characterized insignificant occupants of a world that does not belong to us and which will eventually be taken away by beings so powerful and advanced that they rarely, if ever, acknowledge us as sentient, meaningful beings. Any attempt to understand, interact, confront or resist these beings inevitably leads to madness – we’re simply too weak as a species to merit continued existence in a hostile world that we can never understand.​

Lovecraft's stories have heroes, but they aren't adventurers by nature. They are often students of the unknown, sometimes prone to fainting, and shaken to the core by what they experience. This is in sharp contrast to how most D&D characters deal with Mythos horrors, and for that they have a barbarian to thank.

Howard's D&D Influence

Co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, cited R.E. Howard's Conan series as inspiration in his "Appendix N." Robert E. Howard, like Lovecraft, borrowed liberally from his fellow authors, peppering their respective universes with references to the other. This shared universe meant that Lovecraftian horror seeped into Conan's stories, but they didn't stay for long. Books of Brian again:

Conan, on the other hand, responds so differently to similar challenges. You can find Lovecraftian antagonists / entities in so many of his stories – the demon in “The Phoenix On The Sword”, Yothga in “The Scarlet Citadel or Yag-Kosha in “The Tower Of The Elephant” – to name just a few. Upon initially encountering these entities, Conan always initially acknowledges the horror that they represent – but instead of freezing or fleeing or surrendering to insanity – he acts. He asserts himself, he refuses to assume that he is powerless, he confronts what he does not understand and, ultimately, he triumphs. This is one of the things that makes Conan durable for me and allows me to go back, reread and always enjoy the stories.​

Much of the spirit of Conan's stories are felt throughout D&D, establishing many of the tropes that are common to most fantasy RPGs today. Tim Callahan explains how much "Red Nails" influenced D&D later:

Besides the general swordplay and combat, there’s also a flight through the wilderness, a hidden city, creepy catacombs, warring factions, ritual sacrifice, and foul sorcery. It’s got it all—in a package too small to even be called a “novella.” “Red Nails” doesn’t just seem like an inspiration for the flavor of D&D, it seems like an inspiration for the very nature of the types of adventures most often undertaken in the game. I’d say the average campaign module or the average home-brew adventure is closer to the events detailed in “Red Nails” than the kind of fancy high-adventure epics of the Tolkien school.​

Of course, the actual barbarian class that epitomizes Conan himself wouldn't debut until Dragon Magazine #63 in 1982, and in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' Unearthed Arcana in 1985. The original barbarian was full of superstition against magic, a trait that gradually disappeared in favor of emphasizing the Conan's rage. With each edition of D&D the barbarian has become more and more a part of a traditional adventuring party, such that it became a core class with Third Edition.

Did You Just...Yep, You Did

In contrast to Lovecraft's diminishing of the heroic individual, D&D embodies the trope "Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?":

This is generally the result of whenever you put an Eldritch Abomination from a cynical world in the same room as a Super Hero from an idealistic world, or anyone or anything else capable of hitting for massive damage. Do not expect this trope to appear in any Cosmic Horror Story worth its salt, except perhaps as a Hope Spot that will most likely end with you getting your arm broken punching out the abomination.​

For all the aboleths, ghouls, ghasts and mind flayers that Lovecraft helped spawn in D&D, it seems his good friend Howard will always be there to lend a helping hand -- or clenched fist -- to get rid of them.

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.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

imagineGod

Explorer
The Robert E. Howard's Conan Role Playing Game from Modiphius Entertainment has done a great job in staying true to the original source literature, with all the famous story characters included with stat blocks in the RPG.

I have both the centenary edition of the stories and the 2d20 RPG core rules too. Truly, impressive, if you can accept a slightly complex rule system with many tokens, that actually plays much simpler than it reads.

And yes, the latest sourcebook is titled "Nameless Cults" and it pays homage to the Cthulhu mythos too.

View attachment 100741
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
One of the unintentionally funniest things I think I've ever read (and a perfect example of the difference between Howard and Lovecraft) came from a collaboration between HP Lovecraft, RL Howard, and several other authors: "The Challenge from Beyond." Lovecraft starts it in pretty typical "helpless human encounters something far beyond ken" fashion; but Howard rewrites it into "By this scalpel I rule!" :) If it were in an improv class, instructors would probably be using it as an example of how to do it wrong.

Text of The Challenge from Beyond

Chad Fifer, Chris Lackey and Andrew Lehman did a reading-review of it that is spectacular to listen to:
http://hppodcraft.com/2012/04/11/episode-108-the-challenge-from-beyond-part-1/
http://hppodcraft.com/2012/04/18/episode-109-the-challenge-from-beyond-part-2/

To me, this is a taste of what spirit bred Dungeons and Dragons. :)
 
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Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
FYI, it’s “Appendix N,” and also that link isn’t working for me.

In the course of his adventures, Conan faced off against numerous sanity-straining eldritch monsters. Yet, as stated, he always triumphed. Debatably, the Howardian Cosmic Horror mode works better for extended play than the Lovecraftian (since for all the horror of Howard’s stories, he never gave up the belief that a person brave enough couldn’t find a way to somehow fight back).

Back in the day, I wanted to do a Call of Cthulhu-Stormbringer mash-up, since they both used the same system, more or less. My brother, who was running CoC at the time, didn’t see the possibilities, shall we say.

Gary Gygax, cited R.E. Howard's Conan series as inspiration in his "Appendix Z."
 

talien

Community Supporter
FYI, it’s “Appendix N,” and also that link isn’t working for me.

In the course of his adventures, Conan faced off against numerous sanity-straining eldritch monsters. Yet, as stated, he always triumphed. Debatably, the Howardian Cosmic Horror mode works better for extended play than the Lovecraftian (since for all the horror of Howard’s stories, he never gave up the belief that a person brave enough couldn’t find a way to somehow fight back).

Back in the day, I wanted to do a Call of Cthulhu-Stormbringer mash-up, since they both used the same system, more or less. My brother, who was running CoC at the time, didn’t see the possibilities, shall we say.
D'oh, I know better, sorry about that and thank you for the catch. Link and reference fixed!
 
That might also be an old school versus new school question... at 10th level, could your PC successfully punch-out Cthulhu? If the answer is yes, then it's assuredly not old school.*

VS

* Unless you're playing a high-gonzo and/or comedic RPG.
 

Hussar

Legend
That might also be an old school versus new school question... at 10th level, could your PC successfully punch-out Cthulhu? If the answer is yes, then it's assuredly not old school.*

VS

* Unless you're playing a high-gonzo and/or comedic RPG.
Really? In old school play, your 10th level party was taking on gods. Nothing in the Monster Manual was even remotely a challenge anymore. I'd say that old school play plays out on a much, MUCH higher power scale than new school where characters don't actually advance anywhere near as much relative to the challenges in the game.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
The Robert E. Howard's Conan Role Playing Game from Modiphius Entertainment has done a great job in staying true to the original source literature, with all the famous story characters included with stat blocks in the RPG.

I have both the centenary edition of the stories and the 2d20 RPG core rules too. Truly, impressive, if you can accept a slightly complex rule system with many tokens, that actually plays much simpler than it reads.

And yes, the latest sourcebook is titled "Nameless Cults" and it pays homage to the Cthulhu mythos too.
I agree that the 2D20 Conan is quite good. While the rules do appear fairly complex they actually run reasonably well and manage to capture a strong feel of dramatic combat that I can't really recall seeing in other games. I'm still getting my feet under me as GM but it's been cool so far. I hope Nameless Cults makes it to hardcover fairly soon.
 

pming

Adventurer
Hiya!

In one Cthulhu game my friend was running a long time ago (like, in the late 80's or early/mid 90's), we played an 'adventure' where the ultimate failure would result in Cthulhu waking and rising up...and then proceeding to destroy and devour the earth. We failed. Anyhoo, I was playing a character called "Sven the Iron-Head" (or something, it was definitely Sven though). He was a huge, 7' tall swedish "wrestler" who had a gimmick of having an iron forehead "cap" held by a couple leather straps around his head. He was in the US for some promotional wrestling and whatnot, and he got caught up in the whole "Cthulhu mythos horror thing".

During the game sessions, I never, not even ONCE, rolled to loose more than 5 SAN. This is hard to do in this adventure, because as it advances the PC's start to have their consciousness ("visions") get drawn towards R'leya (is that the spelling?); in Cthulhu if you loose 6 or more SAN in one "go", you go temporarily insane, as everyone knows. Fast forward to the end. The army is there, battle ships are being sunk by Cthulhu, mass hysteria! Cthulhu starts to stride up out of the ocean onto land...everyone, 1d100 SAN loss. I loose 1. Up until that point I had only lost at most 3 points when "seeing Cthulhu". Needless to say, it was the end of the world, so what do I have Sven do?

"Huh. Yup. Still kinda ugly, even up close. *shrug* I guess I'll wait until he gets close, then I'll head-butt his big toe". I succeeded. Cthulhu noticed because there's this ONE guy who isn't fleeing, or paralyzed with fear, who just head-butted his toe. Cthulhu stops. Looks down, one 'eyebrow' raises a bit...and then he ate me.

But dad-gum it all if'n I didn't leave an image in Cthulhu's immortal mind of some crazy Swedish wrestler head-butting his toe. Sven became immortal...at least in name/memory. :)

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Debatably, the Howardian Cosmic Horror mode works better for extended play than the Lovecraftian (since for all the horror of Howard’s stories, he never gave up the belief that a person brave enough couldn’t find a way to somehow fight back).
I agree. In general, the overall "we're all doomed" of cosmic horror a la Lovecraft is pretty rough for long term play.

Back in the day, I wanted to do a Call of Cthulhu-Stormbringer mash-up, since they both used the same system, more or less. My brother, who was running CoC at the time, didn’t see the possibilities, shall we say.
Yeah i think that would be a bit of a challenge given how cyclical the Eternal Champion stories are. But they sure are cosmic and have their share of horror.
 

Jhaelen

Visitor
Really? In old school play, your 10th level party was taking on gods. Nothing in the Monster Manual was even remotely a challenge anymore.
That's something I often heard about, but it never actually happened in any of the games I participated in. Imho, this was only ever true of munchkin campaigns. Also: You actually have to make it to level 10 first. That was no easy feat, unless your DM was a pushover.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
That's something I often heard about, but it never actually happened in any of the games I participated in. Imho, this was only ever true of munchkin campaigns. Also: You actually have to make it to level 10 first. That was no easy feat, unless your DM was a pushover.
yes in your xp. Nice swipe at other people. I had people with pcs around 9th in about 10 months playing twice a week.
 

Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
I think I mostly just wanted to swing Stormbringer at a Shoggoth. But the Elric saga was filled with horrific moments. And that ending! These days, it’s easy to forget how shocking it was.

Yeah i think that would be a bit of a challenge given how cyclical the Eternal Champion stories are. But they sure are cosmic and have their share of horror.
 

Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
My recollection of OSR play is much the same. By the time the PCs got to 10th level and beyond, they were so loaded down with magic items, HP, and allies that they could take on demon lords, devils, dragons, and gods and come out the other side alive.

That being said, 1e was filled with stuff that could destroy them – a nine lives stealer, a sphere of annihilation, even save or die poison. But to me those always seemed cheap shots. And indeed, once I did throw a kobold with a nine lives stealer at a high-level PC, slaying them. It certainly was a lesson – I learned that it was an awfully hollow victory.

Really? In old school play, your 10th level party was taking on gods. Nothing in the Monster Manual was even remotely a challenge anymore. I'd say that old school play plays out on a much, MUCH higher power scale than new school where characters don't actually advance anywhere near as much relative to the challenges in the game.
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
Really? In old school play, your 10th level party was taking on gods. Nothing in the Monster Manual was even remotely a challenge anymore. I'd say that old school play plays out on a much, MUCH higher power scale than new school where characters don't actually advance anywhere near as much relative to the challenges in the game.
I dunno my last 10-11 party was slapping around Demon Princes pretty easily and they had not much magic to be honest. Not sure what in the MM would challenge them much. Most CR 15-20 stuff, what there was of it, looked like a joke. Not sure any of the editions I've played scaled that well up to the teens though I've been old 4e did better there.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
Not sure any of the editions I've played scaled that well up to the teens though I've been old 4e did better there.
4e is probably the best of the D&Ds at coping with higher level play; it has some hinkiness and there are a few combos that are too powerful. Also they "fixed" the scaling so that by the time you hit 20s (max level is 30) you'd be disappointed to miss on a roll of 7. But it was nice to have pardons and fighters running around in the 20s not being outshone by the casters.

I ran the same group of players over several sets of adventures, starting in 3.0 (red hand of doom), later in 3.5 (lolth / under dark) and then 4e (Sigil based) and overall it felt like the system we changed from was getting unpleasant at that level, and the system they were moving to worked better. I had to throw CR 35-40 challenges at them by the time they hit 30th, but it wasn't a chore to do so.

One day I'll get back to that group and run them in Everway, Fate or something very rules light. When you are pretty much gods, rules seem much less necessary. For the moment I'm running the same players (different characters) in Maze of the Blue Medusa, using AD&D1 rules (no books after 1970), which is a bit different ...
 

Jhaelen

Visitor
I dunno my last 10-11 party was slapping around Demon Princes pretty easily and they had not much magic to be honest. Not sure what in the MM would challenge them much. Most CR 15-20 stuff, what there was of it, looked like a joke. Not sure any of the editions I've played scaled that well up to the teens though I've been old 4e did better there.
I'm not sure what edition of D&D you are referring to. AD&D (1e) didn't have challenge ratings. It had 'Monster Levels', but those weren't used in encounter design, they just indicated the 'xp bracket' of a monster and on which dungeon levels it would normally reside. Notably, random encounter tables for wilderness areas had monsters from the whole range of monster levels, hence it was quite common for a low-level PC party traveling overland to get wiped out by an overwhelming encounter.

Basically, when players from the time report that these things never mattered in their games, it's because virtually everyone used house rules. Our group certainly was no exception. It's therefore quite hard to compare your experience with other groups. I always felt that 2e was a reaction to this and (unsuccessfully) trying to curtail the use of house rules. But it wasn't until 3e that you really had something of a common baseline. Unfortunately, the flood of supplements (and the influence of the internet 'hivemind') quickly ruined that again because of the inevitable power-creep they caused.
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
I'm not sure what edition of D&D you are referring to. AD&D (1e) didn't have challenge ratings. It had 'Monster Levels', but those weren't used in encounter design, they just indicated the 'xp bracket' of a monster and on which dungeon levels it would normally reside. Notably, random encounter tables for wilderness areas had monsters from the whole range of monster levels, hence it was quite common for a low-level PC party traveling overland to get wiped out by an overwhelming encounter.

Basically, when players from the time report that these things never mattered in their games, it's because virtually everyone used house rules. Our group certainly was no exception. It's therefore quite hard to compare your experience with other groups. I always felt that 2e was a reaction to this and (unsuccessfully) trying to curtail the use of house rules. But it wasn't until 3e that you really had something of a common baseline. Unfortunately, the flood of supplements (and the influence of the internet 'hivemind') quickly ruined that again because of the inevitable power-creep they caused.
I wasn't trying to say that 1e had CR, I played it until 3e, then went back to it, then went to 3.5. And yes it was house ruled. I was just saying that IME no edition of D&D scaled that well as you got into higher levels and magic. Versions with CR or not.

In my Swords & Wizardry game the overland monster encounter charts do have some wipe out encounters, in the hills around Rappan Athuck there is an adult Red Dragon and on a roll of 20 after triggering a random encounter they will run into him and they better hope I roll favorably on the reaction chart if that happens or come up with some real sweet talk to placate it.

But in this system a real wipe out encounter is more likely to be a group of 2d6 ghouls. Oh do they fear ghouls. The first actual TPK I've had in 10 years probably was due to 4 ghouls and a ghast vs 6 L3 PC, then a NPC they had turned from chaos to law showed up and was going to be a miracle savior...only to die along with them and his 2 henchmen. He should have stuck with chaos.
 

Jhaelen

Visitor
I was just saying that IME no edition of D&D scaled that well as you got into higher levels and magic. Versions with CR or not.
Gotcha. I can definitely agree with that. 4e probably handled it best.
But in this system a real wipe out encounter is more likely to be a group of 2d6 ghouls. Oh do they fear ghouls. The first actual TPK I've had in 10 years probably was due to 4 ghouls and a ghast vs 6 L3 PC, then a NPC they had turned from chaos to law showed up and was going to be a miracle savior...only to die along with them and his 2 henchmen. He should have stuck with chaos.
Well, the TPKs in my campaigns also often happened in perfectly appropriate encounters. The most common reasons seemed to be bad tactical mistakes (like the group's only fighter charging ahead, out of range of the party's healer(s)) or environmental hazards (falling off bridges, drowning, etc.).
I also try to make it obvious from my descriptions when the party's facing an encounter that's very likely unbeatable. Usually they get the hint and try to flee or otherwise avoid it.
 
Demons are probably not the best gauge of power in 1e, as they were essentially ported over from OD&D, despite AD&D characters being much tougher (at least fighters, with more hit points and improving their to hit every level. 2e buffed them up quite a bit.

Anyway, I think this overstates article overstates things a bit. I mean, in Lovecraft, Cthulhu got punched in the head by a steamship. In another story, The Horror in the Museum, a Great Old One is apparently taken out with a pistol.

Beyond that, it overlooks some of the less remembered of the Lovecraft circle. Henry Kuttner, for instance had a swords & sorcery hero called Elak of Atlantis, who on occasion battled mythos entities, most notably in Spawn of Dagon
 

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