Sunday, March 17, 2013

Your Own Private Mythos

There's much common ground between something like LOTFP (a weird horror interpretation of classic D&D) and Cthulhu Dark Ages, which takes that classic Mythos investigation experience and roots it in a similar world of swords and armor, castles and monasteries. For that matter, we could put Cthulhu Invictus in the same conversation, with it's foundation in Roman history.

I've discussed some of the differences before; D&D characters advance primarily through earning treasure; if D&D guys are encountering eldritch horrors, it's likely incidental to exploring some crumbling place seeking money.  Cthulhu investigations might kick off with a job offer, but the campaigns usually become "save the world" affairs once the characters learn what's going on.  There are some other differences too - ritual magic vs Vancian magic, sanity rules and the sanity death spiral.  Both styles feature frequent character death, and the setting transcends the characters.  It'd be interesting to take a look at how the differing mechanics inform the divergent play experiences.

Today though, how about just looking at the presence or absence of Chaosium's bestiary?  Lovecraft's work is in the public domain, but Chaosium has licensed the creations of many post-Lovecraft writers who have extended the Cthulhu Mythos, providing the Call of Cthulhu keeper a vast bestiary for scenario building.  (See Malleus Monstrorum for an excellent Cthulhu bestiary).

There's a saying writers frequently quote - something like "constraints breed creativity".  It's the idea that it's much easier to launch into a short story on a guided subject than starting with a blank paper.  In the gaming space, much of the reason folks love random tables so much is the inspiration a few cryptic results on a table provide as a departure point for creation.

So I wonder whether the more fruitful exercise is to create Lovecraftian monsters whole cloth, establishing your own Mythos along the way, or building on the preexisting forms and reinterpreting them?  Would it be more fun, say, to find a creative new use for the Deep Ones, or Fungi from Yuggoth, as antagonists in a campaign setting, or start from scratch with an entirely new Mythos race?  There's an inspirational book, Stealing Cthulhu, by Graham Walmsley, that's all about suggestions on shuffling the deck of Mythos threats while reusing the building blocks of Lovecraft's stories and his signature creations.

There's a dynamic in Cthulhu game writing of obfuscating or hiding the tracks of the monsters, since so many of them are known quantities, and the game-within-the-game becomes that moment when the savvy players go "Aha!  We've identified the bad guy!"; the base bestiary is well known after 30 years, and enough peels of the onion are eventually revealed for the players to name the threat.  Using the known bestiary provides that creative framework for the writer, but also leads to a sense of accomplishment for the players when they piece it all together.  But the use of that existent bestiary doesn't further the cause of unknowable horror. It’s perhaps the opposite.

What's the argument against new creations?  For starters, they don't have the gravitas of 80+ years of print history.  Lovecraft's creations have deep resonance.  I denigrated that "Aha moment" when the players realize what they're up against, but it can perhaps just as easily be an "Oh shit!" moment when the players realize what they're up against.  It's asking a lot for professional writers, whether it's fiction or gaming products, to measure up to The Man.  Why recreate the wheel when the building blocks are already there?

Let me see if I can reduce some of these thoughts to just a few bullet points, pro and con.  Please feel free to add more in the comments if there are important factors I missed:

Arguments for using Lovecraft's creations:
  • 80+ years of print lends gravitas and mystique
  • The Aha! moment when players ID the perp
  • The Oh shit! moment when players ID the perp and realize they're screwed
  • Lovecraft's creations already hold deep resonance
Arguments for your own private Mythos:
  • Horror should be unknowable
  • Only Chaosium licenses the whole thing
  • It might be fun to re-imagine it from scratch

I still don't know exactly what kind of custom campaign I'm doing after the Black City run; I mean, I promised the players we'd return to Gothic Greyhawk and pick up with one of the older campaigns for a bit, but beyond that, I'm obsessed with moving forward with a horror-themed campaign.  Otherwise, I'm a hot mess - switching gears between the Caribbean, gothic Yorkshire, colonial New England, and so forth - pages of campaign idea stubs littering my notebooks.  However, I've been catching up on so much Chaosium reading lately, it seems natural to ask - why not just use the Mythos, regardless of system?  On the other hand, I'm a huge fan of Mike Mignola and the Hellboy universe, and Mignola is an example of a creator that's used Lovecraft's themes to create a mythology and universe with wholly new creations to great success.  It can certainly be done.  I highly recommend BPRD and Hellboy if you like pulp horror comics.

What do you guys think?  Seems like a good time for a new poll - Lovecraft monsters are somewhat popular out here on the blogs, are you most interested in a creative use of an existing entity or creating something new?

*The image is Ogdru Jahad from the Hellboy comic, one of the great old one like monsters from the Hellboy universe.


  1. I think it's also FUN to create your own Mythos: but I'm saying this as someone whose hobby is constructed worlds / languages / cultures / etc. -- I don't need it translated into a game for it to be enjoyable to me.

    On the flip side, it is EFFICIENT to use the existing Mythos (or Mythoses?) -- as there is a ton of stuff out there to mine for gaming material, as well as gaming material ready-to-go.

  2. In my B/X campaign I've left out recognizable gods, say, but a lot of Lovecraftianesque Yog-Sothothery stuff goes on, but I'm avoiding straight references/adaptations; I'm going for more of an "inspired by" approach.

    That said, I'm THIS close to dropping Nyarlathotep right into the next adventure, motivated by the pluses you mentioned above.

    1. I'm also a fan of how Mingola's ecumenical approach to folklore in the Hellboy series.

    2. I like to put Nyarlathotep on random encounter tables, even if it's not a mythos game. Just because.

  3. I think it comes down mostly to who the players are and how THEY relate to the mythos and how much they know about it. Do they have any idea what a shoggoth or fun guy from yuggoth even is? If they don't, or don't really, then you might as well use 'em. (Sure, most players are familiar with the stuff, but not all.) If they're bored as hell with byakhee and hunting horrors, then that argues for taking a new approach.

    In either case, given the "it's in there" kitchen-sink approach that D&D takes to monsters, it seems to me that for the HPL stuff to make much of an impression there should be some mechanics-based 'thing' that sets these guys apart. I mean, if you just want to scare the players through storytelling and atmosphere you can do that with goblins or ghouls if you handle them right. No need for yog-sothery on that score. So while I'm not exactly suggesting SAN rolls I do suggest that these things have a unifying something about them.

    Oh okay I'm suggesting SAN rolls, or something like it. I'm suggesting that dealing with these things consumes something that the players don't possess in quantities that are either effectively unlimited (gold) or regenerating (hit points).

  4. I agree "plain" old ghouls and goblins are plenty terrifying if done well. I've also been trying to redistribute monsters so the kitchen sink isn't so obvious--Greek myth stuff over there, etc.

    And yes, it definitely makes a difference if the players don't know Ubbo-Sathla from Shub-Niggurath. You're better off making a given encounter memorable for its own sake; then whatever the critter was, it's "gaming table" mythos is strong.

  5. I always vote for the re-skinning approach. A setting should have it's own in-story cohesiveness and being flexible lets the players also contribute to the mythology of the world they play in (particularly if they start guessing at what something could be, giving good ideas to their DM).

  6. I'm using the Taint rules (mostly from Heroes of Horror) for my 3.x edition games on occasion, but instead of locations/creatures being tainted by evil, they become tainted by Lovecraftian horrors from Beyond. The mechanic might be portable to old-school dnd. The build-up of taint usually manifests via physical degeneration and / or insanity, which seems very Cthulhu-appropriate to me.

  7. I'd reskin from scratch and pull the skeleton from something mythological. Mesoamerican myth or Alchemical tradition spring to mind.

    I don't know why, but "bring on the dancing shaggoths" feels silly by now. I guess I priveledge unknown over gravitas.

  8. Beedo, I've been reading your posts since before you ported over to Blogspot. You have shown a tremendous knack for mixing genres, while maintaining a strong undercurrent of the horrific and the weird. I say, go with your gut, and dampen down any whispers about what you "should" do. Your gut hasn't led you wrong thus far. Also, can I just say that you obviously enjoy and have a deep appreciation for the Cthullu mythos.

  9. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing all the way - I've come around to the idea of building my own. Thanks!

  10. Other than Cthulhu, most of my fellow gamers are relatively ignorant of the mythos (barring my ramblings). They may recognize a few names (Hastur, Nyarlathotep), but none of them are mythos scholars. Okay they recognize the King in Yellow and Yellow Sign, but that's because I'm obsessed (ironic?).

    I've never really thought about creating my own mythos but I might do that for my next game.

  11. When I ran a short modern day Call of Cthulhu game, I wanted to avoid using common and recognisable mythos monsters, but nor did I want to try to make things up from scratch, as I knew I'd probably end up with half-baked knock-offs and if I was going to do that, I may as well have used the originals.

    So instead of basing my adventures around monsters, I based them around spells or mythos tomes and worked back from there. One scenario had no recognisable monster but was based around the misuse of the resurrection spell, for example. The hook for another was the use of send dreams to subjugate a community, so I then came up with an entity that would be powerful enough to do that.

    The end result was a campaign that used enough mythos elements to be recognisable as Call of Cthulhu but avoided the problem of familiarity that sometimes plagues the game.