“It Was Me All Along!”: Cosmic Horror and Mythos Fan Service
Here’s some thoughts that I had lately about scenario design for cosmic horror roleplaying. Specifically, here’s three outlines of three contrasting horror RPG scenario formats – in principle for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, but just as applicable to other Cthulhu Mythos games. The first scenario type kicks off with an initiating event that has very strong Mythos hallmarks. The investigators may or may not know about the Mythos, but they discover more and more about it as they progress. They find traditional myths or historical events in the archives that suggest something of the nature of the Mythos. They encounter relics or mementos of Mythos cults or entities. They find Mythos tomes giving some indication of the type of threat they face and the potential dangers to humanity – as well as possible resources to counter it. They tackle lesser Mythos antagonists that have some fairly credible relationship to the ultimate threat. Finally, they face the ultimate nemesis, which has a suitably unpleasant goal in mind, and defeat it (or not) with the resources they have on hand, or have acquired through the adventure. The complete dimensions of the threats and the challenge have been communicated entirely by the discoveries made by the investigators within the scenario.
In the second scenario type, a bizarre initiating event kicks off an investigation with no apparent logical explanation whatsoever. It may have some strange symbolic resonances but no obvious meaning or point. The investigators start to inquire and are repeatedly baffled. Incomprehensible unnatural events befall them. Strange threats menace them with impossible and inexplicable dangers. These risks and puzzles may have some affinity or common thread with the initiating event or not. Any recorded myths or apparent explanations relating to the events are cryptic and elusive, with no underlying common logic. The investigators may acquire some kind of inkling about how to deal with the apparent gathering menace, perhaps through some imaginative correspondence or other dream-like revelation, but hardly through any process of rational deduction. Finally, they confront the ultimate enigma and vanquish and dispel it (or not), but in any case receive no further clarification about its meaning. There may be very resonant tropes tying all of the elements in the scenario together, but there is no underlying logic that the investigators could ever unravel.
The third scenario type kicks off with an initiating event bearing all the hallmarks of traditional occultism or mythology, and very possibly taking place in a traditional occult or mythological context. All the tropes and set-dressing for the unfolding investigation are redolent of traditional occult lore. The investigators encounter occultists practising traditional occult practices. They experience phenomena and upsets in line with traditional magical and spiritualist beliefs. They uncover traditional occult tomes and grimoires. They encounter lesser threats and dangers completely consistent with traditional occultism and mythology. They may even learn traditional occult spells, and solve puzzles based on traditional magical lore. Finally, they confront the main threat or nemesis, in a denouement totally explicable within the terms of traditional occultism, and defeat it – or fail to defeat it – on those terms, using whatever traditional occult resources and resolutions they may have. Only then does the GM pull back the curtain and finally reveal that the whole setting was Cthulhu Mythos all along, and the key antagonists were actually Mythos entities masquerading as the products of primitive superstition, often avatars of Nyarlathotep. This revelation takes place in the form either of a concluding event that has no obvious organic relationship to the rest of the scenario, or a big data dump, or a combination of both.
It should be obvious what my preferences are out of those three. For anyone puzzling over what might be an example of the second, I’d suggest the classic Delta Green scenario “The Night Floors” – or as someone suggested, much of David Lynch’s output. One of the beauties of the whole Yellow King fork of the Mythos is that there’s never any real explanation of what agenda the King or the court of Carcosa have. They’re not there to wrench the Earth back into another dimension or restore the dominion of the Great Old Ones: they just infect the environment with inexplicable awfulness. Meanwhile, players may or may not find the second structure more intriguing than the first scenario outline, but I don’t think that any players wanting to play a Call of Cthulhu game could object to that first scenario structure. Above all, that delivers Mythos from start to finish, not requiring any player game-world meta-knowledge to up the fear factor or attempt to justify the goings-on, since all the explanation and justification is internal and unfolds from the scenario itself.
That does kind of raise the question of how much Lovecraftian horror is actually cosmic horror in the sense of inexplicable. (Kyle Maxwell recently wrote an interesting post about this.) For a writer with a reputation for hinting at the indescribable with vaguely allusive purple prose, H.P. Lovecraft actually delivered a shedload of detailed explanations in his horror, and I don’t think it suffers as a result at all. In “At the Mountains of Madness,” data delivery almost reaches ludicrous extents, when the explorers gain insights into the history of the Elder Things from their wall art, to a fairly unbelievable level of historical detail. But does the minute anatomical detail of the description of the Elder Things detract from the marvellously suggestive horror of the massacre at Lake’s camp? I don’t think so. Above all, the basic point is that the story gives a full, detailed, rational explanation of itself within itself. There’s some lovely cryptic allusions at the end to something further inexplicable and quite beyond, but those are more like a suggestive coda, keeping open the air of inexplicable wonder. What has really blown the explorers’ and presumably the reader’s minds, meanwhile, is the revelation of historical deep time, and the insignificance of puny humanity in that context. “The Shadow out of Time” hits many of the same notes. And in “The Dunwich Horror,” for instance, we’re left in no doubt of exactly what the Whateleys are up to and what their objective is. There’s an investigation, an uncovering of facts, and a resolution based on those facts – especially since the facts revealed in the Whateley journal and the Necronomicon are exactly what allow the Armitage party to vanquish the last monstrous Whateley.
I’m not trying to detract from Lovecraft’s power to suggest the genuinely inexplicable and incomprehensible, or just to scare people even when he structures a story on a solid investigative footing. There may be plenty of other writers past and present who have gone one step beyond Lovecraft in taking him at his word when he talks about the enigmatic and unfathomable, and actually have actually crafted effective mysteries that have no rational resolution, merely suggestive outcomes often poetically pointing towards the incapacity of the human mind to actually understand and embrace the ultimate nature of reality, or even just what’s going on at the time. I’m very familiar with the Forbidden Planet argument that the invisible monster which people fill in with their imaginations is far more frightening than the visible creation of a special effects budget. Some aficionados may regard this second scenario structure as the more truly cosmic horror, but I don’t think Lovecraft can be faulted for not going all the way to the complete artistic conclusion of his premises.
But the third type of scenario in particular raises a question that I’ve bumped up against while listening to live play after live play of Mythos investigative scenarios with similar endings. Those endings usually consist of the players asking what really happened in the scenario, and the GM giving a long retrospective explanation, frequently with one of the antagonists really being an avatar of Nyarlathotep. Why shouldn’t the investigators actually uncover what’s going on themselves as they actually play the game? Why shouldn’t those bizarre and very juicy Mythos tropes be inserted into the materials that are being uncovered, and point a way towards some kind of potential conclusion or resolution of events that leans on the Mythos? Why should genuinely inexplicable events have to be justified by reference to Lovecraftian tropes, if those aren’t included as an organic part of the scenario itself? What kind of satisfaction are players going to get from a deeper level of meaning if this is only revealed at the very end and does not integrate into the actual play? And as a related point, why should scenarios structured around non-Mythos settings and tropes be hauled back to the Mythos at the very last minute? If that hasn’t organically been part of the scenario from the very start and disclosed in the course of play, what use is it? Doesn’t this bait-and-switch approach leave players feeling rather mystified, disempowered and cheated?
Look at “The Derbyshire Horror” in Masks of Nyarlathotep. Are the players supposed to be led into the scenario believing in werewolves as a potential real thing in the game world? Or are the characters supposed to believe that werewolves could be real – as real as all the other supernatural things they’ve already encountered – while the players go along with the in-joke because they know that Lovecraftian ghouls are “real” but werewolves are just superstition? If the characters don’t have sufficient Cthulhu Mythos skill, why should they know anything about Lovecraftian ghoul lore? For that matter, ghouls are as much a part of traditional Middle Eastern and eventually Western mythology as werewolves (remember that great 1975 Peter Cushing film The Ghoul?), so why should there be a big meta reveal around the fact that Eloise Vane is a Lovecraftian ghoul and not a werewolf? The whole mistaken identity theme could have been worked within traditional folklore without touching on the Mythos at all, even down to fooling around with silver bullets that have no special efficacy.
I don’t get the impression that Chaosium ever required or expected that all products released for Call of Cthulhu should necessarily include Cthulhu Mythos elements. Look at the scenario collection Blood Brothers. Look at “The Haunting,” that classic introductory scenario, which has spooked generations of players without having much overt and obvious connection to the Mythos at all. Advice to Keepers for “The Haunting” specifically states that: “The Liber Ivonis is not central to play, and can be excluded if the Keeper is unready to introduce the Mythos or a Mythos book.” Look at the brilliantly successful Berlin: The Wicked City, whose antagonists and dark forces have only the most peripheral relation to the Mythos. Look at that modern classic The Children of Fear, where Lynne Hardy drops in brief Mythos-related framing material for those who need it at the start of the massive campaign, before unfolding the adventure almost entirely along the lines of Theosophist occultism and traditional tantric beliefs. The world almost comes to an end in that brilliant saga in a thoroughly un-Mythos way. Again, this isn’t to carp at those who do write solid Mythos scenarios – it’s just to point out that no one including Chaosium apparently ever thought that the Mythos was compulsory for the game.
And as for writing the third type of scenario because Mythos deities and entities are more “real” than other mythologies and occult traditions…? Well, it’s an assumption that can be used and mined for its potential value within the game world. But coming to the game setting from the outside as a game setting among other game settings? Accepting that all human mythology, pantheons, supernatural entities etc. are nothing but an appendage to the writings of one weird fiction author in the 1920s and 30s? That’s the kind of fan service that strikes me as doing a big disservice to Lovecraftian fiction and everything else that isn’t cosmic horror. Keziah Mason is a witch who casts spells. Joseph Curwen is a resurrected member of the undead who sucks blood. It’s all equally supernatural fiction and fantasy. There are lots of interesting debates to be had about the position of Lovecraftian and cosmic horror versus the types of supernatural horror that preceded it, but in game terms, they’re all equally fictional alternative game settings, that’s all.
I do think, in short, that there’s a risk of Mythos fan service upsetting otherwise great scenarios, and leading scenario writers astray. I don’t believe that an end-game data dump constitutes a great roleplaying exploration of the Mythos. I do believe that you can have a very frightening and enjoyable scenario that does explain and resolve itself on its own terms as it unfolds, without having to lean on any external layer to provide the actual framework and context. As said, I also believe that it’s possible to have a satisfying gaming experience that is based on the completely inexplicable – but that is a totally different thing from having a meta explanation and refusing to give it until the last second, often after actual gameplay has ceased. There’s a world of difference between a last-minute twist, or the classic horror movie jumpscare where the vanquished horror springs back to life, and a data dump. I suspect that some writers who feel tempted to head in that direction are simply looking to, or feel obliged to, pay fan service, concerned that their scenario will not be accepted in the canon unless it has some kind of Mythos reference within it.
I do think Call of Cthulhu is a great horror game and I don’t see why its scenario writers should feel it needs to be shackled to Strictly Mythos – Chaosium obviously didn’t. And above all I’d just like to see more scenarios written as internally consistent and complete. If you’re going to do a Mythos scenario, then why not do it as one where the Mythos is there full face, up on its hind legs and howling? I have the strong impression that, despite the reams of scenarios published, there are still areas of the Mythos that are way underexploited and underused. How many great campaigns or scenarios have we had about L’mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandum? Why should the scenario writer just have the Mythos show up just as an apologetic afterthought? It’s knowledge, not incomprehension, that hauls us off our placid island of ignorance. It’s the terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that drive us mad, and those can be explained and described, as well as just glimpsed or hinted at. That’s what Lovecraft actually did almost every time.
I rather feel that investigative horror gaming works best as horror revealed by gaming the investigation, not horror given a last-minute tail-end boost by pinning on a load of extraneous material. Fine, there may be a good case for the third style of scenario, but at least I think that reason should be a genuine and conscious attempt to create gaming fun through a solid gaming moment. And I appreciate that this whole screed may have come across as very one-true-wayist, but I do think the underlying point is worth drawing attention to.