Cthulhu and Me
When I wrote the title of this entry, I wondered whether it should really be “Cthulhu and I” but then I remembered how different grammatical cases work.
Ahem. Well, in case it wasn’t obvious from the title, this is a post about the game Call of Cthulhu, and H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction.
First the fiction. The best of Lovecraft’s stories are darkly terrifying, yet absorbing when I’m in the right mood. What fascinates me still is the idea that some knowledge is just wrong– seeing and knowing some things are incompatible with being able to function in normal human society.
As Stephen King says in Danse Macabre, there’s nothing quite as frightening as a closed door beyond with all you know is that something terrifying lurks. No description of the monster could be quite as bad as the fear of the unknown, and a good Lovecraft story opens the door a crack- just the minimum amount that what you know is…what’s seen is so awful it unhinges the mind. It’s not about gore- gore doesn’t scare me, though it can make me cringe. It’s not about making me jump- that works for films, but not prose. It’s about dread.
Further, in the right mood, there’s something horrific to me about, for example, the geometry being wrong, for example the angles of a triangle adding up to something other than one hundred and eighty degrees. Madness inducing. Of course, in the wrong mood, it’s all a bit silly- I’m a mathematician, and I’ve studied non-Euclidean geometry after all. I’ve even taught students such dark arts. And in the wrong mood, Lovecraft’s baroque prose and inability to handle dialogue is hard to cope with. But in the right mood, a Lovecraft story is delicious dread.
When I first came across the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, I was enchanted. It codified the Cthulhu Mythos– the setting for Lovecraft’s fiction- for me, and the Sanity rules seemed to provide the ideal vehicle for Lovecraft-style stories, and something refreshingly different to more heroic roleplaying.
I say different to heroic roleplaying, but my ideal take on Call of Cthulhu is heroic, in the sense that the player characters (termed investigators in the game, so I’ll use that term here) are the ones fighting the horror, and they are doing so without remarkable talents because they are the only ones who are in a position to do so. After all, if the very knowledge of the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos is damaging to sanity, who else can you tell? By definition, no sane authority could believe you.
And fighting the Mythos, while necessary, means putting not just your life, but your very mind on the line. When it comes down to it, what could be more heroic? Another fun thing with a horror scenario is that everything is up for grabs, every victory is hard-won, the player characters are just as likely to lose as to win, and even if they do win, not everyone is likely to come out intact.
My first experience of Call of Cthulhu was running it in a one on one game over about four or so sessions. It was absorbing and horrifying, with a sense of creeping dread. It ended with the half-insane investigator blowing up the Empire State Building before it could be completed, thus prevanting the calling down of the great horror, but dying, buried under the rubble. Maybe I’m idealising it now, but it was perfect.
Since then I’ve played and run a fair bit of Call of Cthulhu, but nothing matched that first encounter, and for a while it hasn’t been the same. Maybe it’s the fact that most groups of players treat it as a black comedy, which rather ruins the atmosphere of creeping dread. Maybe it’s familiarity breeding contempt. Maybe it’s a number of minor problems adding up, such as little bits in the rules that grate and the fact that it’s work to come up with good reasons for investigators to, well, investigate, and to introduce new characters.
Now, the black comedy angle is cut down when the player character group isn’t too big; my personal preference for horror is for no more than three or so players, and based on my first Call of Cthulhu experience it works well one on one. Finding reasons for investigators to investigate is also easily dealt with- though next time I introduce an organisation that employs people to look into strange things, I need to insist player characters belong to it rather than just suggest it. With hindsight, that’s fairly obvious, and another story.
The rules issues are minor. For the record (if you’re familiar with the game), I never liked the Resistance Table, the number of unarmed combat skills is silly, and I don’t like the Luck, Know and Idea rolls. I’m pleased with what I’ve heard about the next edition of Call of Cthulhu.
However, the issue of things being over-familiar is the hardest for me to overcome. I must have played in at least four different scenarios where the Mi Go were responsible for the strangeness. The Yellow Sign is a cliche. Cthulhu isn’t scary when you can buy Cthulhu cuddly toys. The “finding out that the Mythos is real” scene is utterly overplayed.
At the moment I’m enjoying other investigative horror games, which are bringing some of the freshness back. But I miss the feeling I first had with Call of Cthulhu, and haven’t given up hope of recapturing it.