“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
― H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature
Lovecraftesque is a new roleplaying game inspired by Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s stories and the mythology he created. Lovecraft (1890 –1937) is widely regarded as one of the early masters of horror fiction. The works of the American author have also been criticized for dealing in racist clichés. The British game designers Becky Annison and Josh Fox want to let players recreate the suspense of the original, whilst shedding the reactionary tropes. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of Lovecraftesque is running at the time of writing.
Several roleplaying games have taken inspiration from Lovecraft’s works. Unlike the classic game Call of Cthulhu, first published in 1981, Lovecraftesque has no single Game Master (GM), and there is only one main character.
“We are fans of the existing canon of Lovecraftish games”, says Josh “but they feel different to a classic Lovecraft story. In them, you typically get a party of investigators, who are actively working to uncover the horror. The focus is on them and their struggle to overcome the mystery, and rules-wise you’re focused on their actions and what happens to them. And following on from that, the investigators tend to be part of a campaign, encountering one horror after another.”
“Our game tries to get closer to Lovecraft’s own formula”, says Becky. “There is one main character who stumbles across the horror, and whose personal struggle is of secondary interest to the horror itself. The character should eventually feel as if they have been at the whim of the horror all along, that we are like ants to them.”
This recipe whetted the appetites of several gaming enthusiasts online, and the Kickstarter’s main goals were funded in 48 hours. The campaign page links to a bare-bones version that can be downloaded for free.
One main character
“The focus of the game is the horror itself, which you create collaboratively”, Josh explains. “There is only one main character, the Witness, whose role is to provide a human perspective on the horror, not to defeat or solve it. Everyone works together to torment and terrify the Witness and see them to their doom, and to build up an idea of what the true horror might be.”
One player takes on the role of the Witness, one is the Narrator and the rest are Watchers, with the roles rotating after every scene. For most of the game you’re playing through scenes where the Narrator will reveal a single strange clue. Both the Witness and the Watchers concentrate on adding atmosphere, in different ways: the Witness by speaking out loud the fears and rationalizations of their character, and the Watchers by elaborating on what the Narrator describes, dripping detail and tension into the game.
“Something important for me is that there is only one character active at a time”, says Becky. “This is not a party game and this reflects a vital aspect of the majority of Lovecraft’s stories. They are lone tales of one person stepping into a shifting horrific new world. The gameplay will replicate that.”
Lovecraft was little known during his lifetime, and published his works of horror fiction in cheap pulp magazines, dying in poverty at an early age. He is today regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors in his genre.
“We both love really slow-building, brooding, atmospheric horror stories”, says Becky. “Stories where you don’t see the horror or even come across clear evidence of its existence, but rather you sense its presence through countless small hints, and only really confront it’s true nature right at the end. In contrast a lot of modern horror relies on a number of shocks spaced out throughout the narrative.”
“What Lovecraft adds to that formula is the alien, cosmic nature of the horror”, adds Josh. “Instead of vampires or ghosts, it’s creatures from the stars or from other times or dimensions. We see Lovecraft’s work as an early example of horror with a science fiction flavour to it. And we love the bleak, hostile nature of the universe.”
“A virulent racist”
A controversial aspect of Lovecraft’s works is racism. A recent article in The Atlantic states: “He was a virulent racist. The xenophobia and white supremacy that burble beneath his fiction (…) are startlingly explicit in his letters.“
The game designers are keenly aware of this:
“Let’s start by saying that we’re clear Lovecraft was an unashamed racist whose views about people of colour shaped his stories both overtly through stereotypical portrayals of those people, and subtly through allegory”, says Josh. “Similarly, Lovecraft boiled mental illness down to people ‘going mad’ in a way that is nothing like real mental illness and can be insulting to those of us who live with the reality of it. We’ve written sections on both of these issues which candidly address the problematic nature of Lovecraft’s work, and include advice on how to handle these issues.”
Two stretch goals of the ongoing Kickstarter campaign are funding extended essays on both these topics. The first one, already unlocked, will see British game designer Mo Holkar write a full-length essay on Lovecraft and racism, and ‘how to run Lovecraftian games without replicating his bigotry’. The next goal is an essay by US game designer Shoshana Kessock on the portrayal of mental health issues in games.
“The single most important piece of advice is: talk about these issues with your group, and agree what you are and aren’t including”, says Josh. “If even one person objects to inclusion of a given theme, you should leave it out. So for instance, if you’re playing in a setting where overtly racist views are commonplace and acceptable, don’t just go ahead and include characters who spout such views – discuss it and keep them out unless you’re absolutely sure that everyone wants it in.”
To support this approach, part of setup invites players to ban elements or themes they aren’t comfortable with, with prompts to consider banning racist themes and characters who “go mad”. The authors also recommend using the X-Card safety mechanism designed by US game designer John Stavropoulos. (X-Card link).
“I’m not a fan of including racist themes at all in Lovecraft games”, says Becky. “We don’t tell people what to do, but we don’t see enough benefit from including these themes to outweigh the risk that someone’s play experience is ruined. In contrast, the effect of the horror on the human mind is a key component to Lovecraft’s stories. So our guidance analyses the different ways in which the horror might impact on someone’s mental state, or could influence their behaviour, without falling back on stereotype. Our bottom line is that you portray a person first, and not just a collection of symptoms. What we don’t do is provide any mechanics which would force anyone to portray any particular psychological symptoms, or to include such elements at all if they don’t want to.”
Lovecraft’s menagerie of strange and terrifying creatures have been popularized through comics, board-, video-, and roleplaying games, and even plush dolls. Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep are familiar names to most gamers. The authors of Lovecraftesque want the players to create their own, unique monsters rather than recycling these classics.
“We’re not trying to do away with dead gods and hidden cults – those are staples of the genre”, says Josh. “But instead of Cthulhu, you create your own sleeping god. Instead of Dagon’s cult, you’ll create a cult of your own.”
“Lovecraft is well known for his bestiary”, says Becky. “But there is so much more to his writing and that is what we are trying to bring out. Lovecraft had a particular style for constructing a mystery, starting out by describing something odd but explicable and then peeling back the layers until the whole monstrosity is revealed and yet all the tangible evidence is destroyed. We want to re-popularise that slow burn story.”
To aid the players in creating their own “Lovecraftesque” stories, the authors have included advice on his writing style, together with lists of inspirational material. The game utilizes a special set of cards to guide the story towards Lovecraftian themes. Each card represents a Lovecraftian trope of some sort – a weird artifact, cultists or time travel, for instance.
“Each card enables you to introduce appropriate material for a particular Lovecraftian theme, often allowing you to break the normal rules of the game as you do so”, Becky explains.
Can they kick it?
The Kickstarter campaign started 15th September and runs for 30 days. The main goal is to produce the book and cards.
“We’re raising funds for layout by Nathan Paoletta and art by Robin Scott, as well as the printing and shipping costs, of course”, says Josh. “We’re really excited about Nathan’s layout: the book will look like a tattered notebook that gradually degenerates as you progress through it, with increasingly horror-laden margin notes.”
You can see a PDF version of the draft layout here.
Layout artist Nathan Paoletta is an experienced game designer himself, and recently released the acclaimed World Wide Wrestling RPG.
“Nathan, Robin and other game designers have generously given of their time to provide advice and support to this project”, says Becky. “It’s one of the things we love about the indie design community, and we are very grateful for it.”
The book will be A5/half-letter size, available in softcover and hardcover. An easy-print version of the PDF will go alongside the version described above. The plan is to make the game available from a range of RPG outlets, including Drivethrurpg.
Among the stretch goals are more artwork for the game, quick-start scenarios by several well-known game designers, and the essays about racism and mental health.
“We’ve already raised our initial funding goal and we are making great progress in unlocking stretch goals”, says Becky.
On the author’s webpage blackarmada.com, they have published material about running such a Kickstarter-campaign. They hope this will be a useful resource for other game designers thinking of self-publishing.
The authors about themselves:
I’ve been roleplaying since I was 10, when I played D&D in my lunch-breaks. In recent years I’ve been all about the indie games: my favourite games include Apocalypse World, Dream Askew, Monsterhearts, Dog Eat Dog, Microscope and Durance. Although I’ve noodled around with game design for many years, I’m relatively new to making finished games: previous projects include Disaster Strikes!, a game based on classic disaster movies, and House of Ill Repute, a political playset for Fiasco. In real life I play a 36-year-old civil servant who dreams of being a famous game designer.
Like Josh I started roleplaying when I was 11. I remember taking all my birthday money on my 11th birthday and rushing out to buy D&D. It was amazing and I devoured it. Since then I’ve played in so many different types of games both tabletop and LARP. I’ve been designing for a few years now – I started out designing and running large LARPs (as part of a team) but since the indie revolution I’m hooked on designing indie games. Games which are really pushing design work into unexpected places. Apart from Lovecraftesque the game I’m most proud of is When the Dark is Gone which will be coming out in an anthology with Pelgrane Press later this year.
Our hobby has such an amazing choice of games on offer. My favourite games are probably Amber: Diceless, Monsterhearts, Itras By, A Taste for Murder and 1001 Nights.