Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Nyarlathotep Made Me Do It


All my recent business travel has given me a lot of time to get caught up on RPG reading, but not as much time for blogging.  I'll be able to put up more reviews coming in the next few weeks.  One thing that's been strikingly clear re-reading pieces from the Chaosium back-catalog is that many writers suffer from "too much Nyarlathotep" syndrome.

Lovecraft's Mythos is indifferent to humanity - or at least, his most powerful tales express cosmic indifference.  The frightening beings of the Mythos are either powerful aliens or totally monstrous gods that are oblivious to us.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, Nyarlathotep, the supposed Crawling Chaos and messenger and soul of the outer gods, morphed into the boogeyman.   Nyarlathotep is the one that left the toilet seat up, let the air out of the tire, or drank the last of the milk and put an empty back in the fridge.  Every oddball demon is an avatar of Nyarlathotep, and every cultist plot is being moved along by Nyarlathotep like a 4-color super villain.  Muhaha.

And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling investigators.

It's convenient to have a personal adversary for humanity, if you're writing a pulp action campaign and/or supernatural horror.  I happen to love Supernatural Horror; I've been digging the world of Innistrad, for instance, from the Magic the Gathering card game.  It would make a fine D&D setting.  The protector of the world, a powerful angel, was trapped in the selfsame prison she was using to exile demonkind.  Humanity has been left alone to fend for itself in a  nightmare world of vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and things that go bump in the night.  Everyone is a victim.  It's a great set up for all the gothic horror tropes, and the fall of the world's angelic guardian creates a sense of both loss and hope in the setting as humans cling to their lost faith.  No matter how dark the setting appears, players could always hold out hope of learning how to restore the lost guardian and return light to the world.  It would make a spectacular campaign arc for dark fantasy.

Yeah, but none of that belongs in a Lovecraft setting.

It's not particularly easy to run a bleak campaign built around themes of cosmic horror, I get it.  Much easier to write something with two-fisted action and guns blazing, and this is the form of many of the larger Call of Cthulhu campaigns, like The Masks of Nyarlathotep.  (Although I do think it would be super cool to convert Masks to a fantasy rules set and run it like a D&D game - brothers and sisters, can I get a "Huzzah" for a "Lamentations of Nyarlathotep" game?)

So yes, I blame Mythos adventure writers looking for a convenient way to string together their convoluted plots with a supernatural puppet-master pulling the strings and twirling his moustache.  But Nyarlathotep-made-me-do-it is also a problem with trying to be inclusive with all of Lovecraft's writing - does the high fantasy of the Dreamlands really have anything to do with the author's later works, which express a scientific world view and the passage of geologic time?  Nyarlathotep's speech at the end of "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" is the most exposure we get to the being, and he's downright chummy with Randolph Carter in a good-on-ya-chap-sort-of-way, in the final sequence.

Individual referees can apply their own interpretation to reconcile the Nyarlathotep-boogeyman with their perspective on cosmic horror in the campaign, so I realize there are apologists out there; in Trail of Cthulhu, Ken Hite offers a wide range of ideas to help sort the mess, from 'Nyarlathotep is human perception anthropomorphizing cosmic reality' to a telepathic construct of the Great Old Ones, the true form behind all the gods, or even just a powerful agent.  And yes, he can even be The Boogeyman.  If you must.