Nihilism, Cthulhu and Me
Call of Cthulhu is a great fantasy game, a great sci-fi game, a great pulp adventure game, and crucially a great investigative game. It is a terrible horror game.
Let’s qualify “terrible”. The enduring power of the Lovecraftian mythos is Cosmic Horror. The sheer scope of cosmic horror makes it a terrific high concept for the GM and author and reader, incredibly seductive as a backdrop. But (I’m going to stick my neck out here) thanks to that scope it’s almost impossible to translate that to the RPG table and call it horror. It’s too far away from any human context to be horrific.
So, CoC (and stablemates) have a reputation on delivering horror on this grand scale, a nearly impossible task in practice. I’m not talking about the horror genre, I’m talking about the emotional response. This is the Paranoia fallacy that because a game is purported to be darkly comedic or horrific, it will elicit that emotional respose. CoC’s mechanism for tackling fear and horror is Sanity, a one-dimensional resource that lacks subtlety or empathy (or respect for mental health issues). More to the point, it doesn’t really reflect the bleak, nihilistic horror that the setting promises — just a slow spiral into subjective madness punctuated by periods of loss of control.
Of course CoC at the time was working with the best tools available. Chaosium’s model was to provide adventures, and that’s where the visceral and spooky thrills would be baked in (much like LofFP does now). Outside of that, CoC was a book of weird monsters and spells, fine for pulp science fantasy but it’s a mythology, not horrific in itself. And as far as I can see 7th edition doesn’t change this formula.
There are better games to communicate the absolute bleakness of existence in a RPG. Two spring to mind:
Unknown Armies has a much more sophisticated take on deterioration. There are five scales of Madness (Self, Isolation, Violence, the Unknown, and Helplessness) but the genius is not only that PCs can become subjected to different stresses with the usual deleterious effects — they also become hardened to them to the point that they become unfeeling, ascetic, joyless agents of chaos. This is Vampire’s Humanity in reverse. This is also a very objective way of looking at things, and objectivity is what makes the nihilistic view horrible. It’s a slow battering down of all the defences against that crushing certainty — all of the mechanisms of family and relationships, societal norms and faith in order being stripped away. It’s delicious.
The other game is Wraith, a much looser and much more subjective and personal view. Wraith’s high concept — the idea that the afterlife is no more than a slow decline, waiting to be consumed by Oblivion and feeding off weaker wraiths, sometimes clawing your way back to the living — gives the Lovecraftian cosmic worldview a run for its money.
Wraith isn’t as mechanically tight as UA but its use of Passions and Fetters — the former being diminished by harrowings — gives a context for the character’s place in an uncaring cosmos. Passions are the defining emotional ties of the character but can be stripped away by Spectres, neglect, or by the environment itself; they rarely get stronger. Hope is a slender thing.
This is a nihilistic storygame about the end of life. I recommend a Lines and Veils conversation up front, as is best practice.
This is a game about looking back over the life of someone and examining all the ways they’ve touched people, the things they’ve built, and the ideas they’ve had.
You will need:
- A deck of cards
- Pencils and index cards or scraps of paper
For as many players as you like, it doesn’t really make any difference.
Step One — The principal
Your principal is old, but they have accomplished much in their lifetime — they have touched many people, had grand ideas, built great things. They are in a place they call home, safe for now, with time to reflect.
As a group:
- Name your principal.
- Decide how the world saw them. Examples:
- An explorer
- A pioneer
- An inventor or researcher
- A philanthropist
- An industry leader
- An architect
- A politician
- Describe their house. Is it in the city or the country? Which country?
Write the answers to the above on an index card, then go to Step Two.
Step Two — Cruft
When a card is drawn, both the suit and the number may be used. See below.
- A player takes the deck of cards and draws one, placing it in the middle of the table.
- With the suit in mind, the player to their right describes an object that exists in the principal’s house. Write it on an index card.
- The next player to the right explains the significance of the object — what event, relationship, place or idea, and who or what it affected. Add that to the index card.
- The next player to the right then explains how that achievement ultimately amounts to nothing in the bleak and baleful eye of an uncaring universe. The numbers on the card are a guide (see below). Add the text to the index card.
- Continue for as many rounds as the players can be bothered. The first player to say “sod this, what’s the point” ends this phase, and has to make the tea.
- Proceed to Step Three.
The suit has the following significance:
- Hearts are about love, emotions and relationships with the principal.
- Diamonds are about the principal’s imagination; ideas and concepts that have been adopted by others.
- Clubs are about physical things that have been constructed (directly or indirectly) by the principal.
- Spades are about people (cultures, groups) that have been influenced by the principal.
Card numbers as a guide:
- 2, 3, or 4: describe how a person or thing came to harm or ruin in spite of the ideals of the achievement
- 5, 6, or 7: describe how this thing was twisted from its original meaning by self-serving opportunism
- 8, 9 or 10: move forward in time (decades, centuries, millenia) to describe how this thing has been forgotten or failed to influence anything
- J, Q or K: describe a pastiche on another world or dimension. It should be brutal, alien, or unfair; it shows how the achievement is ultimately irrelevent.
- Ace: Wild card. This card allows the player to retcon any one narration into something life-affirming and optimistic (if an Ace is the first draw, hold for later). For more optimism, add Jokers with the same function. For less optimism, take the aces out of the deck.
Step Three — Memorial
Together, the players recite the following:
“Here lies (principal’s name), who never amounted to anything in the eyes of a bleak uncaring cosmos.”
Alternative version — if you used the wild cards, append
“except for (Wild Card retcon), that was quite uplifting.”
Afterwards you can sit and stare at each other, if you like