Lovecraft Country (or not), and the World at Large

The beginning statements of this entry will be, to most who are reading this blog, the equivalent of my doing a whole paragraph on ‘water is wet’. For that, I apologize, but I’m laying the groundwork for the rest of this entry.

As with many authors, Lovecraft in his writing created fictional towns and cities for the setting of many of his stories, replacing existing cities with these fictional areas, and creating a few out of whole cloth to represent some concepts he wanted to present, usually reflecting a conglomerate of areas he had encountered. Arkham, Massachusetts, as the first example, is a stand in for Salem. Geographic features similarly were invented, notably the Miskatonic River, and the Miskatonic River Valley. Part of the reason for this practice is that it allows you the freedom to add features you want in the location that don’t necessarily exist without worry of contradiction, and on a larger scale, you have the freedom to have some pretty major things happen to said locations without people grousing about wanton destruction of landmarks, entire cities and the like.

This tradition was carried on to other media as well, notably, to my experience, in comic books. The DC Universe went for a large portion of its time with no ‘real’ cities used, though gradually real locations did start to phase in. Metropolis and Gotham both standing in for New York City (the first for the promise of a bright city of tomorrow, the other for the dark and corrupt city that many feared), and each of the major heroes tending to have their own ‘home base’ city. Back to Lovecraft.

Lovecraft’s fictional areas co-existed side by side with their real-life counterparts, but he tended in much of his fiction to avoid the real locations (though not always, he cited real locations in New York City, so it was not through any fear of using real locations that what was to be eventually known as Lovecraft Country was created.

As other writers began to write stories in the shared universe of Lovecraft’s fiction, they often would use his settings, occasionally adding their own. In both his own writing and that of others, not just the New England region would have these additions, but spots would show up all over the world. In addition to Arkham, Innsmouth, Dunwich, Kingsport, we got the Nameless City in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, the City of the Elder Things in Antarctica.

Most other writers would add one or two elements, a town here or there. One of the few who ran with the concept was Ramsey Campbell, who created his interpretation of the Severn Valley in England (in response to some constructive criticism from August Derleth), and in this Campbell created more in the way of new locations than pretty much any other writer.

The actual term Lovecraft Country was a term actively used for a time by Chaosium to describe the fictive locations in New England, and several supplements released in that time frame dealt with those locations, guides to the areas, with setting specific scenarios often appearing in them.

In the game, Chaosium joined in the fun in their modern era campaign, creating a new city in California that they could devastate in an earthquake, Samson, a metropolis located approximately midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The reason for this entry is a discussion of an issue that any Keeper building a CoC campaign has to consider, even if only for a few moments. It is very common for a Game Master in any role playing game set on a recognizable Earth to set a campaign in a local region or at least one familiar to the players (to some extend in a counter to the ‘avoid trashing landmarks’, I’ve had very few such campaigns that don’t take some glee in altering the local landscape a bit in the game world). So the question arises, “do you use Lovecraft Country locations (or their counterparts) or not?”

If you only use local landmarks, then you have to determine which real locations can sit in for any needed locations (is there a local college that can stand in for Miskatonic University, for example).

I have to concede that what I have tended to do is to use established cities (Highly recommending the “Secrets” guides from Chaosium if the city you want is one of their covered regions), and adding smaller fictive locations for towns in the surrounding countryside. To cite an example, I live currently in the Kansas City area, and when that is the base of operations for the characters, they are dealing with real Kansas City locations through the history of the city, depending on what era is being covered (I think I just realized what another entry will go into, huh). But I also tend to pepper in about a dozen manufactures locations that co-exist with other small towns over the surrounding states, standing in for modified versions of Lovecraft’s towns in a few cases, as locations I can add for my own ideas, and stand-ins for prewritten scenarios that I plan on including in my campaign (if I can ever motivate the players into checking them out).

In theory there is no reason I couldn’t use, for example, the real Camdenton (a nice good sized town at the Lake of the Ozarks) for a setting, and in fact, I have done so, but it is nice to add some that you can use without having a gamer turn to you in mid game and go ‘That down doesn’t have that going on there’ if you play fast and loose.

For an example of that last phenomenon, my current gaming group includes three people who have moved into this area from southern California in the last few years, being very familiar with Los Angeles and San Diego, so if I set a campaign in the modern version of either of those cities, I would have to deal with their real memories of the area compared to my limited exposure to the region. I would have less concern about a campaign set there in the 20’s era, because the addition of the different time frame does put some remove from it, but still, their familiarity with the region necessitates a high level of research.

So ultimately, of course, it is for the Keeper to decide how much of the ‘real world’ or how much of ‘Lovecraft Country’ to fit into your campaign. The main decisions are what works for the players, what works for the Keeper, and how willing you all are to stretch disbelief if using familiar territory.

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