Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes


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H.P. Lovecraft’s Weird Body

Kenneth Hite argues that the long-running, H. Lovecraft-inspired Call of Cthulhu franchise differs from traditional tabletop role-playing in its focus on suspense rather than character growth. Hite's analysis suggests that in its origins and emphasis on narrative structure Cthulhu is a highly literary game. Lovecraft, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". Published adventures for the role-playing game Call of Cthulhu have remained unusually successful, both artistically and economically, in the role-playing game industry.

Most role-playing supplements contain additional information on game rules or setting, or cover specific subjects such as weapons or genre emulation rather than present pre-scripted adventures or scenarios. Such adventure material is relatively rare, and "pure" adventure books rarer still. Like most conventional wisdom, this is not quite accurate. For example, White Wolf Publishing reliably produces one or two "chronicle" books a year designed for the various games using their Storyteller system the second-most-popular role-playing rules set , and Palladium has four adventure books currently in print supporting RIFTS the third-most-popular role-playing game rules set.

However, for a relatively small company, Chaosium has a large adventure book "footprint. There is no current reliable player base data, but White Wolf game book sales, for example, are typically five to ten times those of Chaosium. Dancey's study, and his summary of its results, have drawn criticism from many corners of the RPG industry and fan base on methodological and ideological grounds, but no better data has yet been released.

Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and Spawn of Azathoth This pattern holds both in individual adventures and linked campaign series. All Call of Cthulhu Investigators player characters , likewise, can be assumed to be actively investigating, which is to say seeking out or at least not actively avoiding occult mysteries to solve as a means of defeating or at least stalling servants of the evil alien god Cthulhu or similar monstrosities. The Call of Cthulhu rulebook has consistently affirmed this assumption. On the first text page of the first edition of Call of Cthulhu , under the "Purpose of the Game" we read:.

Players in Call of Cthulhu will take the part of intrepid Investigators of the unknown, attempting to ferret out, understand, and occasionally destroy the horrors, mysteries, and secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos. Call of Cthulhu , 4. Characters need to have some reason for investigating the Cthulhu Mythos, and this may be provided by their occupation.

Your player should always have a motive to investigate a particular scenario. Perhaps it is tied into an old family secret of his? If he is a journalist, your problem is solved: the journal employing him simply sends him to investigate the story! Over twenty years later, the sixth edition of the rulebook reiterates similar assumptions:.

The rules call these characters "investigators" because that is what they do, not because they are professional investigators - player characters can have all kinds of occupations. The game is an evolving interaction between players in the guise of characters unraveling a mystery and the keeper, who presents the world in which the mystery occurs. Call of Cthulhu , 24 - Both the first and sixth editions of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook offer nearly identical specific structural advice on constructing such a horror mystery story.

From the first edition:. Each scenario in Call of Cthulhu should be organized like the layers of an onion. As the characters uncover one layer, they should discover another. These layers should go on and on until the players themselves decide they are getting too deep and stop their investigations.

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Narrative Structure and Creative Tension in Call of Cthulhu

On the surface, the scenario should look like it is no more than a conventional "haunted house," mystic cult, or even a hoax. As the players delve deeper in the mystery, hints and notes should be given showing the greater significance of this particular haunted house in the scheme of things. Call of Cthulhu , A scenario in Call of Cthulhu can be organized like the layers of an onion. On the surface, suppose that the scenario looks like it's about a conventional haunted house. It might even look like a hoax. As the investigators penetrate the first layer, they should discover another beneath.

These layers might go on and on, until the investigators themselves decide they are getting too deep and stop their investigations. As the investigators delve more deeply into the mystery, hints and notes should situate the haunted house in some greater scheme. Call of Cthulhu , The sixth edition version is slightly less proscriptive than the first, substituting "can" for "should," and being headlined "An Example of A Plot" rather than the sterner "How to Set Up a Scenario" from the first edition.

The sixth edition also provides a sidebar with step-by-step guidelines for "Building a Scenario":. Since most Cthulhu adventures are mysteries whose solutions lead to understanding, their structures are progressive and problem-solving, and in outline are much more alike than different.

The fifth step, "resolution," is more essential to a role-playing game featuring continuing characters, than it is to horror stories in general. This understanding of horror narrative, then, is not unique to role-playing games or to Call of Cthulhu.


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This understanding of adventure construction is, however, not universal within role-playing, or even horror role-playing. For example, Vampire: The Requiem announces as its intention that the Storyteller "build chronicles that explore morality through the metaphor of vampirism," Vampire: The Requiem , 14 emphasizing "Theme and Mood" Ibid, 16 rather than plot in this introductory section. The discussion of "Plots" comes ten pages into the "Storytelling" chapter Ibid, , well after "Characters," "Setting," "Xenophobia," and finally "Themes" again. For further discussion of adventure construction in horror role-playing, see Nightmares of Mine Hite The Call of Cthulhu rulebook, which bylines itself as "horror role-playing in the worlds of H.

Lovecraft Call of Cthulhu , 3 ," On page 1 of the first edition rulebook, the byline reads: "Fantasy role-playing in the worlds of H. It strongly implies that such narrative structures are likewise paradigmatic of the corpus of H. Lovecraft stories on which the game is based. As an example of such a horror mystery story, both the first and sixth editions of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook adduce H. Prominent Lovecraft scholar S.

Joshi concurs, calling Ward "the greatest supernatural detective story ever written," further noting that "the whole style and construction of the novel is that of a detective tale" Joshi , Other Lovecraft stories likewise follow the general horror-mystery outlines of the complex discovery plot and the "Building a Scenario" sidebar. Charles Dexter Ward, for example, does not survive the novel, although the evil wizard who kills him is defeated.

Another set of Lovecraft stories, however, derive their power primarily from the unsuccessful resolution of the horror, despite the horrifyingly successful solution of the mystery.

Games Cited

In all these narratives, the horrors survive, completely destroy the narrator, or both. Still another group of Lovecraft stories diverges further still from the horror mystery model, more closely matching what Carroll calls the "overreacher" plot structure Carroll , There is some overlap; for example, "The Dreams in the Witch-House" can also be read as an overreacher plot, and Carroll reads "The Dunwich Horror" as a combination of the overreacher plot about the evil sorcerer, Whateley and the discovery plot about the good scholar Dr.

Armitage Ibid. Similarly, a horror mystery that uncovers too much, such as At the Mountains of Madness, can also be read as an overreacher story, in which the act of investigating the mystery is itself an overreaching act. Although no published Call of Cthulhu scenario of which I am aware casts the players overtly as overreaching madmen, At least two Pagan Publishing scenarios follow discovery plot structures, in which the characters are unbeknownst to themselves overreaching madmen.

Both began as convention scenarios;. According to the rules of Call of Cthulhu, learning more about the "Cthulhu Mythos" whether by reading books, seeing monsters, or casting spells costs Investigators their Sanity, which lowers permanently as their Cthulhu Mythos knowledge scores increase Call of Cthulhu , 40, 67, 75 - Thus, every Investigator by definition becomes an overreacher, doomed to the same fate as the hapless narrators of "The Call of Cthulhu" or At the Mountains of Madness. As Sandy Petersen, the game's designer, writes: "The whole concept of Sanity permeates the game and makes it what it is.

The quote on Sanity appears on page A similar discussion of the inevitable doom of all Investigators appears in "Preparing for the End," on page of Call of Cthulhu That said, individual published Call of Cthulhu adventures more consistently follow the complex discovery plot structure than Lovecraft's stories do.

lovecraft in historical context a third collection of essays and notes Manual

However, many adventures manage to present overreachers as key elements usually villains of the mystery, in much the same way that Lovecraft combined the two forms in "The Dunwich Horror. The first clear example of what we might call the "investigating the overreacher" plot in a published adventure appears in "The Asylum" Further examples include "The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn" and the culmination of the form, perhaps, in with At Your Door , which enmeshes hapless Investigators in a duel between two rival overreachers.

Pagan Publishing's Delta Green The Delta Green campaign frame or "narrative structure," as John Tynes refers to it Delta Green , 4 thus manages to dramatically square the circle of complex discovery, overreaching, and noble doom for Investigators' personal narratives while inexorably linking them into the materialist maltheism of the Cthulhu Mythos.

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Chaosium adventure writers also explored the boundaries of the role-playing adventure form. The horror mystery, as noted before, is dramatically constrained: the characters must discover the horror, uncover clues to the horror, confront the horror, and defeat the horror, in that order. The easiest way to structure such a story is to present clues that each lead to the next clue, like bread crumbs on a trail or beads-on-a-string.

All that is necessary in those adventures is for the Investigators to enter the crypt, or haunted house, or ghoul warren; the act of confronting the individual horrors in each room or chamber - the order being unimportant - serves as sufficient clue fodder for the final confrontation. Going another direction, some writers crafted "gauntlet" scenarios in which the characters can do nothing except witness unimaginable horror, and hope to survive to tell the tale. Since these narratives lack much of a role for players, they tend to be embedded in larger campaigns.

The closest to a paradigmatic example of this form is perhaps "The People of the Monolith" , The original Robert E. Howard story is "The Black Stone. Howard in which the uncharacteristically passive narrator falls asleep beneath a Hungarian monolith and dreams of an eldritch ceremony. Although like other campaigns for Call of Cthulhu and other games , Masks of Nyarlathotep presented a linked set of adventures ending in a final confrontation and resolution, it departed radically from the "trail of bread crumbs" convention.

Each adventure contained in the campaign leads to all the other adventures; the Investigators could pursue the adventures in any order. The villains, meanwhile, were working to a specific calendar, with their great ceremony timed by the designer to occur after the Investigators completed all the "confirmation stage" adventures and gained the necessary knowledge to hopefully foil the plot.

Within each adventure, diTillio combined geographical constraint each adventure takes place in a single city with open structure; some of the encounters were simple bloodbaths, others were fiendish traps or puzzles, some were "dungeon crawls," and still others were complete red herrings. The players could follow their own investigative instincts through a "target-rich" environment, with the extraordinary deadliness of the settings providing the constraint on player action that ordinarily flows solely from the written plot.

For some reason, despite overwhelming critical praise for this model, Chaosium returned to conventional campaign structures thereafter, even going so far as to tweak critics of such "railroaded" campaigns by setting Horror on the Orient Express on a literal railroad. As the objectives rotate through their arc, the whole story of the raid is revealed to the players, though never to any one character. The role-playing game Ars Magica is built on such "troupe-style" structure within campaigns - players take turns playing dominant Magi, as opposed to cannon-fodder Grogs or sidekick Consors, for each adventure - but no single published adventure that I know of expects players to rotate roles throughout.

Lovecraft's major influence on horror writing was thematic and mythic, rather than formal. The discovery plot like the detective story goes back to Poe, and the overreacher plot might well be called "the Frankenstein plot" after its most famous example. Although Lovecraft produced masterful versions of both, he did not create a new form.

Lovecraft's great innovations in the genre were the "Copernican revolution" of scientific horror in which the supernatural becomes, rather, the alien Leiber and his creation of the maltheistic mythology of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth and so forth, the "Cthulhu Mythos," as a single horrific backdrop that extends through all time and space Joshi , Lovecraft adapted the concept of a mythical pantheon from Lord Dunsany, but transposing imaginary deities to the modern world, and portraying them as unvaryingly dangerous, inimical, or malevolent, was his contribution.

In addition to the larger concept of an "anti-mythology," many of Lovecraft's contemporaries and successors adopted the specific deities, grimoires, and so forth of the Cthulhu Mythos for their own fiction, often divorcing it from Lovecraft's stark scientific materialism in the process. These authors also added their own tomes, monsters, and gods to the Mythos, as have published Call of Cthulhu adventures. Howard, Stephen King, and Colin Wilson.


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See Jarocha-Ernst , or Harms After reading the document, Thurston visits Wilcox in the present day, finding him a successful decadent sculptor who still remembers the word "Cthulhu" from his dreams. In Louisiana, Thurston interviews the remaining prisoners from Legrasse's raid, and becomes convinced that this far-flung, secretive belief system is of genuine anthropological note. He also openly wonders whether knowing too much about it has precipitated his grand-uncle's death—and whether it will occasion his own.

Some months later, Thurston endeavors to forget his Cthulhu cult investigation, until he finds a Sydney Bulletin article in a museum of Paterson, New Jersey, that features a photograph of the same stone idol from Wilcox's dreams. The article reports that near New Zealand on April 18th, , a freighter named Vigilant had towed in a disabled yacht named the Alert with one corpse and one survivor aboard, with the latter in possession of the idol. The survivor, named Gustav Johansen, alleges approaching the Alert on his ship the Emma , at which point the Emma was ordered to turn back and subsequently attacked.

Johansen and his men abandoned the bombarded Emma , successfully subdued the Alert 's hostile crew, and navigated the ship to a small island where six of Johansen's men died.

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Locals in the article also mention that the Alert , a seedy and infamous vessel, set sail hastily after an earthquake on March 1st. An increasingly-panicked Thurston pieces together that the same earthquake that triggered Wilcox's dreams also set the Alert cruising toward some unholy destination. Thurston travels to New Zealand, and finds Johansen's idol in a museum, where Thurston reevaluates its geologically-foreign origins in light of Old Castro's words about the stars.

He then travels to Norway to interview Johansen directly, but finds out from his widow that he is dead—possibly murdered. Johansen's widow bequeaths Johansen's personal diary to Thurston, who reads it to learn that Johansen and his men actually encountered an otherworldly monolith on the Alert. Johansen's account describes a vast door on the monolith opening, and a horrific creature lurching out to lay waste to the men, two of whom die of shock on the spot.

Thurston reads on as Johansen describes frantically navigating the Alert away from the island, and Cthulhu's pursuit, with one other companion, who eventually succumbs to madness and dies.

Johansen only escapes by sharply U-turning the ship so that it strikes the beast, causing an explosive cloud to shower over the ship and recede. Thurston fears that reading Johansen's diary has now made him a target of the Cthulhu cult, following the mysterious circumstances of Johansen and Angell's deaths. He prays that he will not suffer a similar fate, and begs the executor of his estate to conceal his own papers from the eyes of others.

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The Call of Cthulhu study guide contains a biography of H.

Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes
Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes
Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes
Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes
Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes
Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes
Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes Lovecraft in Historical Context: a third collection of essays and notes

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