Darkness Expanding

Two of the stripped-down aspects of Graham Walmsley’s Cthulhu Dark are having a very limited skill system and not having an experience system. Which makes great sense in a system designed to be bleak enough that there’s a risk of several characters dying or suffering extreme mental collapse in a session. However, a few of Lovecraft’s protagonists made it into more than one story, so I’ve been mulling on ways to tweak without losing the simplicity; after all, what’s more representative of cosmic dread than learning from your horrific ordeal and it still not making a difference …?

Trivial Differences

One criticism levelled at Lovecraft is that his characters don’t represent the gamut of the human condition. However, the prevalence of educated Caucasian male protagonists might actually be a partial virtue.

One of the key threads of the game Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley is having protagonists who are at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to power: children, beggars, working-class women, and so forth. Walmsley – a most YogSothothic name – states that this is a deliberate counter to Lovecraft’s ‘interchangeable middle-class men’ (Cthulhu Dark Zero, p. 21). And a tendency toward low-power characters does make an interesting change from the mighty heroes of some games.

However, the Mythos is a universe of cosmic dread: a world where the threat comes not from evil races opposing humanity, but from entities and laws of reality that annihilate humans without noticing. Consider the lot of the poor and the disadvantaged: powerful corporations and governments reduce your dreams to naught, not because they hate you but because you happen to be caught up in some massive scheme that they’re undertaking and you have no way to make them take notice of you. But consider the lot of the rich and the politically advantaged: either you control those entities or have the wealth and power to cushion you against the negative impacts of their schemes. Which of those sounds more like they live in a world of cosmic dread?

Herbert West, a doctor, with a syringe, against a background of anatomical sketches
©Javier García UreñaCC BY-SA

Clearly, the minorities, the huddled masses, those working two jobs just to keep up on interest on the loan they took out to afford life-saving medicine for their family, the farmers who discover a poison slipping into their fields that disappears when labs try to pin it down. So, what horror is there in them discovering there are massive forces in the universe that destroy not out of malice but out of indifference, and cannot be stopped.

But, the powerful: what horror for them to discover that all the wealth and significance they cling to with every moment is as nothing before a universe that – if it even notices they exist – cannot distinguish them from the most destitute and shunned of humans. The more powerful the person, the greater the dread of a uncaring universe.

Of course, having the President of the Untied States, the Brightest of the Illuminati, the Father of the Rothschilds, as the protagonist of a Mythos tale risks escalation: a story not about the bleakness, but the missiles and machinations; a tale of Godjira rather than Cthulhu. But the educated, Caucasian male forms a solid compromise: possessed of all the signifiers of privilege in Western society, yet not so powerful that the personal struggle is lost beneath the weight of nations.

Lovecraft’s portrayal of characters, both educated Caucasian men and otherwise, does tend to the stereotypical; however, in choosing the “normal” over the diverse for his protagonists, he might have made a better choice than he is credited with.

The Miracle of the Mundane

On Saturday, I played another rather excellent session of 7th Seas LARP. During the course of that, my character ended up in an interesting conversation with a priest over whether miracles were inexplicable and obvious events, or tiny changes deliberately hidden behind rationale explanation to not compromise our free will. The priest remained adamant that they were son et lumière, glorious in their imperviousness to logic, and things moved on.

However, this morning, I went to look up something in my dictionary of quotations and it opened on this quote:

I suspect the truth is that we are waiting, all of us, against insurmountable odds, for something extraordinary to happen to us.

– Khaled Hosseini

Which made me wonder: is the miracle in neither the obvious defiance of natural law nor the hidden influence that we can interpret either way, but in the moment when we are living rather than waiting.

Or perhaps I’ve read too much Colin Wilson.

The Call of Cabbage

Even the most cursory internet search for HP Lovecraft is likely to uncover a fresh-to-the-searcher article or discussion of his racism: he was objectively racist; he was a product of his time; he was more racist than his time; he was a racist but his works aren’t; and so forth. I suspect the broad questions of cultural relativism might never be answers satisfactorily, but what if he objectively wasn’t racist? What if he was actually anything but prejudiced?