Horror is Complicated
I have a complicated relationship with the Mythos.
Mostly I hate everything having to do with the Mythos and specifically Lovecraft’s work. Besides being racist and gross, it’s also turgid and mannered and boring. To me! To me. On the other hand, I’ve been caught by surprise at how well some of his stuff (Dreams in the Witch House, At the Mountain of Madness, Colour Out of Space) has stuck with me. And some Mythos homage works are some of my very favorite horror pieces (A Study in Emerald, Revival, etc.) .
Cthulhu-based roleplaying has been a lifelong aggravation, one elaborate monster hunt after another, badasses from Delta Green or Laundry File agents or Nazi-punching heroes in Achtung Cthulhu. None of which have ever felt even a little bit like what makes the Mythos genre — I would argue it’s a subgenre of the very large umbrella of “horror” –and all of which feature duking it out. Like any band of common dungeon delvers taking on a slime or skeletons.
Say “Cthulhu” and gamers everywhere high-five each other, chest-bump, giggle, waggle their eyebrows. Open their wallets and buy, buy, buy. Fucking Cthulhu stuffies. It’s a tribal identifier, so far removed from its subject matter that it’s rendered meaningless.
I’ve had endless fruitless arguments with friends who, tribalism aside, have been lifelong fans of the work. The insanity-inducing aspects of the Mythos have largely been at the center of my arguments. As a modern rationalist, I just don’t see knowledge breaking your mind. It’s a gaming contrivance.
And yet here I am, obviously invested in all these things I see that are wrong with the fetishized Mythos. Because the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. And I’m patently not indifferent, yeah?
Like I said, complicated.
Because of that complicated relationship, I backed Cthulhu Dark on Kickstarter. And by God, I think he’s the first one to have decoded the Mythos subgenre.
I admit I was super-skeptical about buying such an elaborately produced and written book based on what I’d heard was a two-page game. Two pages. And it’s true! The core of the game can be thoroughly explained in two pages. It can be synopsized in about four sentences.
So what’s in the rest of the book? A lengthy, loving, and obviously immaculately researched treatise on what makes the Mythos tick. You will not be surprised to hear that it has nothing to do with confronting the Mythos and kicking its ass.
When I gave Trail of Cthulhu a run, there was “pulp” mode and “purist” mode. Pulp mode is lantern-jawed heroes punching cultists and .50-cals blazing into Elder Things. Purist mode is, well…it was meant to adhere more to what Lovecraft was going after: protagonists being pulled into a mystery and falling apart as they discover their utter irrelevance. But in Trail the Purist game is still strapped to all the tools one uses in a Pulp game. It felt like a mismatch, and why wouldn’t players want to bring their best efforts to bear? Why not defeat a Hound of Tindalos if you can?
Cthulhu Dark is built from the ground up giving no fucks about players who want to go toe to toe with monsters. If you fight, you die. That’s it. End of the system. You can use the system to fight past them or to get away, but there is no fighting a Colour or a Deep One or whatever.
The advice on building up the vibe is so good. He goes into great length talking about “creeping horror” and that shit is lab-grade Lovecraft right there. Setting up little sensory or thematic motifs, building and repeating and slowly engulfing the characters. Creating the sense that their world is dominated by and ultimately defined by this awful shit they would never in a million years seek out.
And that’s another important point Graham makes, and it’s so smart: much of what gives Mythos stories their punch is that there’s huge power differential. Protagonists by definition in this genre have no meaningful power. Oh sure, you might be a cop or a survivalist or some other physically self-actualized tough person, but what you won’t be is anyone who can bring real institutional power to bear. You won’t be The President or A CEO or a military officer. It’s politically astute to pull this out of the tangle of Mythos stories: it’s about rubbing plain folks’ noses in their cosmic irrelevance.
Another note: there are a few settings presented in the book as well as a “mystery.” They’re great illustrations of how his mystery-writing methodology works (important point: they are unapologetically railroads, going from lead to lead inevitably toward the final reveal). But they’re also structured to quickly, easily understand the point of the whole thing. Like, it can be your life’s work to decode Masks of Nyarlathotep or some other mega-thing in Call of Cthulhu. Because those games are meant to let the players feel, you know, empowered and authorial and all that shit. Which is not even a little Mythos-y. Get on the train, losers, and watch your sense of self get battered to pieces.
Cthulhu Dark still features a descent into madness and how could it not? It’s such a core conceit. It is still, arguably, a little fast and loose about mental health as a source of entertainment. But for whatever reason, it seems to me less…I don’t know…trivialized? Maybe because the point of the railroad is to follow the degradation of your grasp on reality, rather than mitigate your own mental health as a fungible resource on your way toward smoking some Mi-Gos.
Anyway, here we are, nearly a century out from the original work and decades out from the first efforts at gamifying the Mythos. And he’s finally gotten it right.