What makes a story Lovecraftian, part one, or ‘why I have an issue with Dreamlands’

There is a lot of discussion out there about what constitutes a Lovecraftian story. Mike Davis, editor of the Lovecraft Ezine phrases it very well on his web page, particularly in the discussions about movies. I will start by echoing, paraphrasing some of those statements, which are his interpretation of Lovecraft’s own statements, before going into the specific theme of this particular post (though the part one in the title lets you know I have more than one bit to go over on this concept, and it does eventually tie into keeper skillsets for the game) Lovecraftian is, essentially, a story theme underlying the plot that the universe is not a friendly place, that the laws of the universe are more complex than we do understand…and to some extent, more complex than we can understand. That there are places in our world where these less friendly laws are stronger than the laws we depend on. The Cthulhu Mythos stories and concepts are nestled in that concept, races, powerful entities, technologies and magics that are more interactive with that less friendly part of the universe.

I will say that this seems a very non-Einsteinian point of view, but is more inclusive of Einstein if you accept the postulate of parallel universes, which is very much in keeping with quantum mechanics (I promise, the babble will be short term here). It is also worth noting that Lovecraft actually did understand Einstein’s theories as far as they were publically known at the time. He just disagreed with the part about the rules applying universally across the entire universe…which actually anticipates quantum mechanics. I’m not saying that Lovecraft understood quantum physics as such, but that he was challenging the ability of humanity to grasp the full complexity of the universe.

There is also an implication (on which a good part of the game system relies) that ‘mere humans’ cannot retain their full sanity if they grasp the complexity of the universe. This begs a sidebar question that I will present, though I will leave it to readers to ponder (It is a subtext in my campaigns, but not part of any established canon). Given the advances in quantum physics, the greater understanding of the universe, the flood of modern accessible information, and the current sociological complexity and difficulties in interaction while shared understanding is becoming more available begs a question…can residents of the new millennium be considered sane by the standards of the humans of the Victorian Era, or the “Lovecraft Classic” era? Just a puzzler to consider.

The bulk of Lovecraft’s writings include the Lovecraftian subtext, but there are definitely different feelings to parts of it, some stories have more of this feel than others. Some of his writings are clearly works of fantasy, set in a mythic world strangely akin to the writings of Lord Dunsany or the sword and sorcery stories of Robert Howard. Even so they are clearly Lovecraftian pieces, and their strange parallel world built up its own existence even though they rarely cross referenced. The Cats of Ulthar, the Doom that Came to Sarnath, the Quest of Iranon are among these stories, and they depict a fantasy world that is exotic and mysterious but not directly connected to ‘our world’. At least not until Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, the tale in which he tied his fantasy world more firmly to the ‘nearly real world’ that the bulk of his fiction was set in. In spite of the fact that some of these stories are among some of my favorite of his, they are, to me his least Lovecraftian. They are also the stories from which the Dreamlands setting for Call of Cthulhu were drawn, an alternate universe that Investigators can explore by the Dreaming Skill as well as possibly finding occasional gates to physically transfer into that world.

The stories are good, but not horror stories in any general sense, though often the characters face dire circumstance and consequence in them. But it feels like a fantasy setting, and its connection to the ‘regular’ Lovecraft universe doesn’t really work for me. Additionally, there is an ongoing sense of something akin to the ‘dark justice’ of the old EC comics in these stories, people largely suffer when they act out of cruelty themselves. There are exceptions, notably Iranon, but overall, the people in his Dreamlands stories tend to ‘get as they give’.

Lovecraft’s writing style usually showed the Lovecraftian theme, but the Dreamlands stories were where it was least likely to apply, another part of the reason I have issues with the Dreamlands setting for the most part. So, part of the core question “what makes a story Lovecraftian” does not automatically include “written by Lovecraft”. Much of his writing can be included in the Lovecraftian concept, whether or not those stories tie into the Cthulhu Mythos directly. Examples of this include “In the Walls of Eryx” “Picture in the House” and “Cool Air”

A question comes up, was brought up, as i recall, by Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp as they tried to determine which of Lovecraft’s stories (and hence, which of his emulators’ works) qualified as stories of the Cthulhu Mythos, arguing that a story’s inclusion of just some vague reference may or may not put it in the Mythos depending on how significant that inclusion was; case in point, the Nameless City brings up ‘Abdul Alhazred’ for the first time and the infamous couplet. This argues for its inclusion. I remember one of them (not sure which), however, arguing against the inclusion of “the Hound” in spite of it being the first mention of the the Necronomicon, arguably the most popular of Lovecraft’s creations.

Ultimately, it is up to each reader when regarding Lovecraft’s own works to determine if it should be included in either Lovecraftian canon or the Cthulhu Mythos (though I think it is rare for one to be the latter without being the former as well.). Logic says that if this is hard to determine for his works, it should be harder to make that determination for the works of others. Strangely, it becomes easy to apply more criteria when we start looking at others’ works, so we can trim a bit more effectively, which I will start going into with the next post.

Linear, flowchart, onion, and sandbox

Yes I’m back on the scenario structure concept again. But in preparing for campaign play, scenario creation, or adaptation of published scenarios for inclusion in a campaign, these approaches are important considerations.

In role playing games from the beginning, linear structure was largely the format, using the ‘dungeon map’ as part of a means to keep it linear, forcing the players to deal with the scenario in stages as they went from room to room. The complexity of the map could add some variability to the approach, but overall, the progress was from the entrance to the ‘boss battle’ in a fairly linear fashion. Eventually scenarios began to include event sequences ass part of their structures, but again, were fairly linear.

Room a or event a leads to room b or event b, and so on. There can be some degree of variation, but largely the course of events is laid out and limited by how the players can access the events or locations in a linear adventure. There is nothing wrong with linear scenarios as long as the game master, whatever the game system, keeps it from feeling linear. In a dungeon, the linearity is defined by the geography, and while forced by the dungeon design doesn’t feel as forced because the players explore in their own fashion and pace. Events unfold logically, and a good game master makes sure the players’ actions have an effect on events. Being blindly linear or not letting the actions of the players have impact makes the linearity more evident and makes the players feel, however significant their actions, more passive, less a part of the storytelling.

The onion scenario structure has been a part of scenario building for Call of Cthulhu since the inception of the game, and one of the first things that varied from the majority of scenarios for other games that had come before it.   One of the strengths of the onion structure is that it can actually include any number of the other scenario structures in itself as part of its form. In this, the gathering of knowledge, the uncovering of the mystery, the resolution of the storyline as presented so far exposes deeper layers of the story, connections between stories and scenarios, and leads to more complicated scenarios and also to full campaigns more readily.

The flowchart can still be fairly linear, but is more representative of the current state of most published scenarios for most game systems, including Call of Cthulhu. There is an overall flow of the scenario, and events may have a set course of events to some point, but the players’ choices have greater impact, and more flexibility. You have a starting point, and multiple avenues of action to take to explore the scenario, but still leading largely to the end point. This is often fairly close to a linear scenario, just with branches and options that can lead to more in depth resolution. The flexibility of a flowcharted scenario leads towards the sandbox, which is the most open form, and a form that is growing into much greater usage in Call of Cthulhu (as of this writing, there are three scenarios available that were specifically written for the Seventh Edition rules, and two of them are essentially sandbox adventures)

Sandbox scenarios tend to be hard to write because they leave a lot open, giving the Keeper a great deal of room for customization, and a lot of flexibility for improvisation to respond to players’ actions. Seventh Edition has a lot of flexibility for this kind of thing as well, which makes the sandbox structure a fairly natural default structure for this version of the game. A sandbox has a starting point, at least something of a resolution, and a loose structure, but leaves a great deal minimally developed or not ‘nailed down’ the events and their playing out are suggested but not necessarily ‘set in stone’. You have a set of events that precede the beginning of the scenario, the players are brought in, and hve to identify, survive, and if possible resolve the threat without having any of their actions forced on them. This is handy if the Keeper is imaginative and flexible. This is also frustrating to the player if they want more guidance and guidelines.

Having said that, I feel that the best overall style combines elements of all four of these styles. Sandy Petersen has indicated more or less that he tends towards a sandbox approach much of the time in his scenarios. Published scenarios rarely are fully sandbox at this time, nor do they tend to be fully linear nowadays. So far most published scenarios tend to be somewhat linear with some flexibility following the flowchart model, with onion layers as part of it.

I think we will see more sandbox structures put in, but ultimately I think that we will find it as a combination of the others as well in published scenarios as the game progresses.

We will see.

semi apology on a format point, commentary on Seventh Edition.

I have copied the contents of the blog onto a word file (which is where I currently write new entries.), and just recently rereading, was appalled at the state of the typing on the early entries. I tend to post it pretty much as written, stream of consciousness typing, and there are occasional lapses in sentence structure (I won’t apologize for run on, convoluted sentences; that is one of the risks you take) and some of the typos are clearly the result of my fingers not being able to keep up with my mental composition speed.

I plan to start reviewing and revising, at least making them more readable for new readers, and I apologize to those of you who have put up with the weaknesses in my presentation in the past, and my thanks for those of you who waded through it.

I don’t remember the exact point where I started writing it in word first, but will doublecheck until I get back to this point for completion’s sake.

Now…for those of us who signed up for the Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition Kickstarter, the pdf proofs have been made available, the full product hopefully soon forthcoming. (the projected release date of the final draft pdf and the hard copies from the printers is within the next few months, and it seems a reasonable projection at this point.). They have asked for feedback, and at least one forum has been very willing to give that. Some of it is nitpicky, some of it is less so, but this is a labor of love for all involved, including the supporters. We all believed in the product and the project, and it is a great thing to behold. I have voiced my concerns on the forum, and will condense my own comments here, and at least discuss what I see as some of the major issues that I’ve seen come up in the forum discussions.

The Seventh Edition consists of two Rulebooks for the core game, one specifically for Investigators, focused on character creation and gameplay from the player’s point of view. The other is for Keepers and contains the rest of the ruleset, and guidance for play. (yeah, I know 90 percent or more of the people reading this not only know this already, but there is a small chance that some may not). I read both books before I started posting, though I was impressed within minutes.

The art tends to fall into two groupings, the first large, detailed full page (or more, chapters fronted with two page spreads, several single page images throughout as well.) the other smaller images, placed inside the text columns, generally illustrating a point referred to in nearby text. The smaller images have a variability in detail, some of them very low key, and some of the forums postings have responded to these simpler images with negativity. But they are fine for what they are, and I have no problem with them.

The overall layout is crisp and wonderful, I only found one small place where the pdf did not display right for me (it does fine on my computer, but on my kindle fire one of the chapter introduction spreads, the text only displays a few letters). In over seven hundred pages, only one minor graphics glitch on a minor reader, not bad at all, and I expect that to work fine in the final edit).

It is a proof, the index has not been built yet (that is being done at this time), and the cross references in the text are held by placemarkers, all part of the process. A fair amount of the buzz in the forums at this point involves what was included and what was excluded. The removal of the text of the story Call of Cthulhu from the Rulebook has bothered some. My personal issue was with the removal of the classic scenario ‘The Haunting’ from the rulebook. While I could have accepted that on an editorial basis, I find it problematic that it is frequently referred to in the Keeper’s book text for examples of how scenario structure and rules applications work at certain points. The easiest correction to this would be the re-inclusion of the scenario; failing that, a line edit is called for and all of the references need to be changed to one of the two remaining scenarios (I also admit, I like the thought of at least three scenarios in the rulebook, even if one of them is the classic that was an introduction to the game for so many of us.)

Onto the rules themselves. For a large part they look and feel like a refining of the prior rules. The basic concepts are close enough that it is fairly easy to convert most things from the earlier editions to the Seventh. Not, admittedly, quite as easy as between many earlier editions, but it is a very deep retooling at work here. I’m not going to go into specifics here, but there is very little in here that isn’t a refinement. Chase rules and combat rules at first glance seem more complex, but they allow for greater flexibility in allowing for variability of actions. The Sanity rules step back a bit from the leaning towards realism that the game had been taking, going to something a bit more ‘cinematic’ for lack of a better word, but this actually suits the game. Normal insanity is one thing, in life, something not in any way trivial, but the madness the knowledge of the Mythos brings in the game is a madness brought about by awareness of a different functioning of the universe than the human mind can comfortably process, so it is logical that while it may include more conventional mental problems, it does not need to automatically follow those protocols. The resistance table of old has been replaced by a more streamlined system of cross referencing relevant statistics in the opposing target and determining the difficulty level of the roll based on that. Ultimately I will say the new edition is a fit ‘heir to the throne’. I will definitely be shifting over to the new edition, as soon as I can legitimately purchase a few copies of the investigator’s handbook for my players.

Walking on the Highwire Part Two – Pulp vs Purist, with a bit of a sidetrack first

Before the body of this entry, I will make a bit of an announcement. As most of the people who read this are aware, the proof pdfs for the Seventh Edition Keeper and Investigator Rulebooks have just been released, and I have been spending some time reading them. I am very impressed, very happy with the game. I’ve been watching the initial feedback, and for the most part it all seems to be in agreement. There are some issues some have, but they are minor quibbles, and nothing I can’t handle.

Anyone who’s read all of my blog entries will notice that several things I’ve brought up here have shown up in one form or another in the new ruleset. Their venue is a better forum for most of these, and my past entries show that I am in agreement with nearly everything in the new rules. Therefore, I will be stepping back on future entries and cross referencing, trying only, from this point forward, to go into things that are not covered (as well or better) by this work, especially since, as I’ve said, I haven’t run into any disagreement with the new ruleset (nor did I disagree with the old rules, just extrapolating my point of view on interpretation of applications of parts of them).

I will not criticize layout (I like their layout just fine, myself), chapter choices (all logical to me. I can see why some were looking for some different organization, but I think the choices made in the chapter organization were right and logical), or artwork (there is some that is simpler in style, but that is not a problem for me). There have been a few lobbying for the ‘re-inclusion of Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulhu” in the Keeper’s book, and while I can concede that it would be welcome I have no issue with it not being included. The only quibble I have regards the removal of the long standing scenario “the Haunting”. First, this scenario has been in every edition of the game up to this point, and while on that level I wasn’t thrilled with it being removed, I wasn’t too upset about it. Second, and this is the major reason for my bringing it up as a quibble, is that the Keeper’s Rulebook makes repeated references to this scenario for certain parts of scenario construction and gameplay. Since it is being used as an example, it should be included, in my opinion. Failing that, the references to it should be adjusted to reflect some aspect of one or more of the other scenarios in the rulebook.

And now on with the post.

The game Trail of Cthulhu is a very good alternate game to Call of Cthulhu, and not hard to convert scenarios back and forth. But one of its concepts is that scenarios are generally structures with two different approaches, one for the ‘purist’ gaming approach, the other for the ‘pulp’ approach. Call of Cthulhu players tend to lean one direction or the other in this, though it is rare for a scenario to be purely one or the other, the game tends to pull towards the line between the two, particularly for campaign play. I think that I’ve indicated that I favor the purist angle, but would like this opportunity to praise the pulp side too and say that I do favor an approach closer to the middle, even if on the purist side.

The Purist approach is to play the game as much as possible like Lovecraft’s stories, where violence tends to happen in short bursts, where the protagonists are largely outmatched and the violence is something the players try to avoid as much as possible.

The Pulp approach is more violence oriented, and while the violence can be lethal, the temptation to avoid it is less, and there may be a bit of a lighthearted approach to it at times. The pulp approach owes a bit more to ‘the Shadow’ and ‘Doc Savage’ than it does to Lovecraft, Howard, et.al. Indiana Jones fits in very well with the Pulp approach.

To me the drawback of leaning too far in the Pulp direction is epitomized by that statement. The Indiana Jones movies all had horrific elements (I am NOT going to go into any discussion on those films here beyond this point), but none of them were horror stories. Ultimately, the most horrific elements were things that could be confronted and resolved, even if not controlled. This is more the extreme side of Pulp, but it is the direction that the game could go.

The drawback of leaning too far in the Purist direction leads to characters who either are too timid to do anything, making the stories stagnate, or are hard pressed to handle the violence that comes up in the game, and the players risk a higher mortality rate if they are active at all.

The bulk of campaigns lie along the line between the two, epitomized by Shadows of Yog Sothoth, and Masks of Nyarlathotep, two campaigns that send the players all over the world in an attempt to resolve their respective crises.

This is another Highwire act for the Keeper, to make it pulp enough that the characters are able to deal with the threats, purist enough that the threats feel worth fighting, and equally, worth fleeing.

Less a matter of answering this problem, I am presenting this as an awareness of the issue, with the statement that awareness of it gives you a great tool to dealing with it. Find the balance that works for you and your players. And run with it.

All the way to Gray Dragon Island.

Walking on the Highwire, Part one- Resolution

There are a few points of game balance that I want to address. This entry, on resolution. Resolutions of scenarios, campaigns, basic approaches. I have gone on at great lengths about the mysterious aspects, and the fact that a good part of Lovecraft’s work deals with things that can’t be fully understood. And I have stressed how I enjoy these aspects of the game. Having said that, you can’t let the game dwell on that, or you risk frustrating the players immensely.

A scenario, win or lose, should have an ending, a resolution. There should be some feeling of resolution at the end of the scenario; the monsters defeated, the plot of the cultists and/or sorcerer’s thwarted, the people at risk rescued (or the bodies buried). Just as I believe I’ve said that not every scenario played out should be fighting to save the universe, I feel that every scenario should end up with some level of resolution, and with the players feeling they understand at least some of what they accomplished. It’s one thing to beat the ritual to summon the horrid demon that would eat Denver, but it’s a bit hollow if the players don’t realize that’s what they’ve done. Maybe not to understand exactly what they’ve accomplished, but something.

For an example, I am going to refer to one of Michael LaBossiere’s scenarios, the Lozdra. This is a free scenario and is available in the yog-sothoth.com files section. I have commented in my review of ‘The Wrong’ in my scenario reviews blog how LaBossiere gives excellent background in his scenarios and for that purpose this is one of the gems. The backstory on this scenario traces the creature back to a clash between the Mi Go and this creature on Mars, leading to backstory of how it got to earth, how another known alien race got involved, and how the weapons the medieval humans were constructed with no clear idea of how they worked against the ‘monster’. All of this backstory helps the Keeper to some extent, but there is virtually no way for this backstory to get to the players. This is a prime example of how layered the backstory is for his scenarios.

As good as it is, it is open to question if it is necessary for the Keeper to have this much backstory, and this is something you have to decide for yourself. But you always have to balance that to some extent. Unless you spoon feed it, you will often not be able to give all of the background on your scenario to your players (in the built scenario I mentioned a while back, constructed from the Twilight Memoirs journal and the movie Yellowbrickroad, the players in the first time we played it out never quite figured out why the alien threat in question was doing what it was doing, but they did identify the threat, found who they sought out, killed the monsters and got a few people away from the town intact, which is about as well as they could have done without an assault on the alien base itself.)

But as important as what leads into the scenario, what leads out has to be figured and factored. The players want to know they’ve made a difference, and if possible they want to understand as much as possible about that difference. This is, as I’ve said, a balancing act.

In addition, you cannot completely underestimate how much it helps to take some of that resolution and use it for seeds for new stories, or links to other scenarios already planned.