Saturday 30 November 2013

Misappropriating the Mythos

With a game as old as Call of Cthulhu, it is no surprise that over the years its adventures and scenarios have fallen prey to cliché. Not every adventure and not every scenario to be sure, but too many end up relying on clichés that see the investigators blaze away with their Tommy guns at monsters and madmen alike; cast rituals with little or no consequences; and unearth, if not deities, then alien beings that are all too often like the last alien being they unearthed… Such clichés detract from the intent of such scenarios – to instil horror and dread in the investigators, if not the players. In a quartet of scenarios – The Dying of St. Margarets, The Watchers in the Sky, The Dance in the Blood, and The Rending Box – author Graham Walmsley has previously presented the antithesis to such clichés. Each of the four scenarios, recently collected in the volume, The Final Revelation, is designed for Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane Press’ clue-orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror and written in the game’s Purist mode, a mode in which survival in the face of the unknowable is unlikely… 

Not content with writing scenarios in this purist mode, Walmsley has gone one step further in presenting a means by which we can also think about writing our own – Stealing Cthulhu. Originally funded through IndieGoGo in 2011, Stealing Cthulhu is not a guide to writing scenarios for Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu, or indeed any one of the several RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror currently available. Rather it is a way to look at writing scenarios, specifically Purist scenarios, for any one of them, for Stealing Cthulhu is completely systems neutral, even right down to not supporting Walmsley’s own RPG which is included in the pages of Stealing Cthulhu – ‘Cthulhu Dark’. 

The concept at the heart of Stealing Cthulhu is suggested in the title, and yes, it does involve the theft of Cthulhu. Well almost, for what it actually involves is the theft of ideas from Lovecraft’s original fiction. The author suggests that the Keeper not only go back and reread Lovecraft’s fiction, but having done so, steal his ideas, and then adapt and reuse them, emphasising different aspects, combining different ideas or swapping them, even developing or twisting them in directions that Lovecraft never considered. To illustrate and discuss how this is done, the author draws on a particular type of Lovecraftian tale. Unsurprisingly, that type is Purist in tone and feel and consists of At the Mountains of Madness, The Call of Cthulhu, The Colour Out of Space, The Dreams in the Witch House, Nyarlathotep, The Shadow Out of Time, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and The Whisperer in Darkness. The author in turn steals creatures, scenarios, locations, patterns, themes, and descriptions. 

For example, what would happen if the incidents described in The Shadow Over Innsmouth are recast in Venice Beach, California or Weymouth (your choice of the original Weymouth in Dorset, or in Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tasmania, Auckland, or Barbados, though the Massachusetts might a bit too close to Innsmouth)? How would this change those events? What if instead of a Mi-Go corpse being found washed up on the banks of a river in Vermont as in The Whisperer in Darkness, it was found washed ashore on the beach at Venice Beach or Weymouth? Then again, what if a corpse was found, not with her brain precisely and surgically removed as in The Whisperer in Darkness, but with her reproductive organs missing in a similar manner? Just by thinking through the switching of details and elements, their theft from the original stories begins to open up new scenarios to explore and run. 

In stealing each of these elements, Walmsley does something more – he analyses them, he places them in context, where he can he shows how they can be reconfigured, and he explains why and how they work. He draws parallels – for example, between Colours Out of Space and Lloigor – between elements to illustrate how they can be interchanged and he also suggests what to avoid, such as fish puns in a scenario involving Deep Ones. Lovecraft’s style is not ignored either, Walmsley also dissecting how the author begins and ends a story, creates and maintains horror before increasing it. At every turn Walmsley gives an example to support his ‘criminal’ process of theft and commingling, such that interspersed throughout the tome are a number of detailed scenario outlines that a Keeper worth his essential saltes should be able to develop further.

In examining the primary entities of the Mythos, Walmsley goes beyond Lovecraft’s creations to look at those of Blackwood, Campbell, Chambers, Lumley, and Wilson as well as Lovecraft’s. He still adheres to the key story where they appeared. Despite Stealing Cthulhu’s remit to explore Lovecraft’s Purist tales as they and their elements can be used in RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the book does not ignore those elements that might be seen as their antitheses. More commonly found in the Pulp style of story and thus many a Call of Cthulhu scenario, most notably Masks of Nyarlathotep, they are ‘Fights’, ‘Cultists’, and ‘Rituals’, what Stealing Cthulhu terms ‘Anomalies’. This is not to say that they do not appear in Lovecraft’s stories, but what the author suggests is reinvent them or replace so that they better fit the Purist style.

Rounding out the volume is a trio of appendices. These include a miscellany, a bibliography, and a complete game, ‘Cthulhu Dark’. A version of the latter has since been republished in The Unspeakable Oath #22, but here is the original version. It is a light story telling system that is wholly Purist and ultimately quite unforgiving in its play.

Lightly, but pleasingly illustrated, Stealing Cthulhu is simply laid out, more written as a set of notes or a journal, one in which the author’s voice shines strongly throughout – even though said author’s voice is mild and scholarly – constantly asking the reader, “What if you do this?”. His though is not the only voice in the book. Almost like a Mythos tome itself, there is a version of Stealing Cthulhu that has been annotated, not by one author, but three. Gareth Hanrahan, Ken Hite, and Jason Morningstar, each an author of Mythos related tomes in their own right, adds their own opinions, suggestions, and even counterpoints to Walmsley’s analysis and reconfiguration, and that in addition to the footnotes Walmsley makes on nearly every page. Their commentary expands greatly upon the author’s and furthers his ideas and their application.

Stealing Cthulhu is not a comprehensive tome. It does not deal with each and every one of Lovecraft’s stories nor does it examine all of Lovecraft’s creations, the creatures and entities of the Mythos – yet so many of them are interchangeable that this is a moot point. It focuses solely on the Purist tale, but that is its remit, and anyway so much of its contents could be applied to the Pulp style, were a Keeper so inclined, that again such an issue is moot. It lacks an index, but the layout and organisation is so light that its contents are easy to find.

In the past, attempts at giving advice on creating and running scenarios of Lovecraftian investigative horror, too be honest never more than mere essays, have invariably approached it from a gaming angle. With Stealing Cthulhu the approach is a literary one, one that begins almost a literary analysis of the source material, but the difference is that Walmsley does more than analyse – he applies it, or at least questions and suggests how it can be applied. In doing so, he does not provide the Keeper with a guide to creating and running scenarios of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but rather he gives us the tools and the prompts to think about the process. It may well be a manifesto, or a love letter to the Purist tale, but Stealing Cthulhu resurrects the essential saltes of Lovecraft’s original fiction from the catacombs that the clichés of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying has oft consigned it. Having done so, Stealing Cthulhu thoughtfully and artfully prompts us to sift those saltes into something playable. 

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