Horror in Lovecraftian RPGs often isn’t

Photo by Lan Gao on Unsplash

There’s a “Cosmic Horror” sale on at DriveThruRPG. I was curious to see whether Bookmark Cthulhu made it on the list and am happy to see that it did.

As a designer, I fall into the camp that Lovecraft’s protagonists seldom go insane. Instead, their dread grows toward a breaking point. His secondary characters may be insane. His protagonists face terror.

Don’t get me wrong, the groundbreaking sanity rules in the Call of Cthulhu RPG do a great job of portraying the growing fragility of the human mind as it gains more knowledge of the mythos. But it seems to me that most Lovecraftian RPGs since have mimicked CoC sanity rules only as a sort of mental Hit Points, losing the cosmic horror.

I went with a growing dread that increasingly risks your abilities with each new shock.

It also seems to me that a bestiary of Lovecraftian creatures robs some of the horror—and I couldn’t fit a bestiary on a bookmark anyway. 🙂 So there’s a random table of Lovecraft’s most-used adjectives, resulting in creatures like “an accursed, spectral, fungoid nightmare” or “a blasphemous, irridescent, gibbering thing.” What do those conjure up in your mind’s eye?

Given that its a Bookmark HP RPG sourcebookmark, the more Traits, the more powerful the being as a matter of course.

So, though Bookmark Cthulhu is “merely” a bookmark, I’d suggest that it better conveys Lovecraftian horror than many longer works.

#RPGaDAY2023, Day 6: Favorite game you NEVER get to play 

[I plan to post days 1-5 together here, soon.]

Wow. This is a tough one decision. Ever since I got lured into this hobby in 1979, I’ve been reading RPGs the way other people read novels. Some I’ve had the chance to play; mostly I’ve had to GM; some bring up deep, wistful feelings; and winnowing down the list for today’s prompt has been difficult. All things considered, here’s what survived that winnowing.

#1 Lost Souls: If my feet were held to the fire to pick a single one, this would be it.

Normally I’m unimpressed with d100 games: pure percentile strikes me as sorta lazy on the one hand, and unnecessary on the other. I mean, come on, there’s pretty much never a time when any of them change things by 1%, nor 2%, and once you get to 3% or 4%, you might as well be doing 5%, i.e., a d20. Lost Souls is probably one of only two RPG I’ve seen where a d20 won’t quite do the job.

Okay, mechanics aside, Lost Souls casts players as spirits of the dead, trying to increase their karma, so as to work their way up the reincarnation ladder from literal pond scum to higher being. But forget that backstory. Game play is about playing a random spirit type from a list of 24, each with its own set of 5 powers. Which are the only way you can interact with the mortal world, a realm itself hazardous to spirits. (Stay out of sunlight! And try not to get hit by physical objects.) Want to open a physical door, you probably can’t directly, and will need to motivate or trick some hapless human into doing it, so you can slip through.

This is where the game really shines. No two groups of ghostly characters are likely to have the same set of powers, so they have to be creative about combining them. (I once had a group exit a hotel lobby by levitating a cat, using its tail to dial 911, and escaping when the police came through the door!)

Everything about your character’s mortal background and physical appearance, including ghostly objects they might be carrying, is random, leading to lots of laughter as the group is created. But that laughter changes to chills and even outright terror, once you arrive on earth and start investigating the mystery of your death, or your companion’s, etc.

I think I’m going to have to convince a friend or two to try this GM-less, if I’m to have any chance at all of ever playing again.

Nowadays the PDF is free, with a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license, at hauntedattic.org.

Runners Up, in alphabetical order:

Dungeon Crawl Classics: Teases my nostalgia for AD&D, with the addition of random accretion of physical corruption for spell failures. I’m a sucker for mages, and backlash for excessive spell use adds flavor.

Feast of Legends: Yes, Wendy’s fast food themed fantasy RPG. The game is well designed, and I believe the challenge of actual role-play in this world could freshen up adventure.

High Fantasy: I loved AD&D until I finished reading all three core books and felt like the mystery was over. Sort of a similar feeling to finishing the Lord of the Rings. Then I loved TFT for its skill-based system and tactical combat. In both cases I got started by filling in for our regular GM. High Fantasy was the first RPG I found and introduced the group to afresh, it kept a 2-year campaign running (and would have lasted longer if I hadn’t pushed the characters out of the Free City of Carse—Midkemia Press). A percentile system, but one in which damage directly impacted ability, applying to the ability’s percentage itself. Also a game that got me started noodling with game mechanics. Also, a game with probably the best solo adventures I’ve ever seen published.

Lord of the Rings (Iron Crown Enterprises): Unlike RoleMaster, its demandingly intricate older sibling, the LotR game seemed to be based on the 5-page system in Middle-earth Quest paperback solos (which pages I pressed into service as GM for a mini campaign).

Magicians: If the publisher ever finishes a Japanese version, this’ll top my list. In a nutshell, imagine if Hogwarts were in Korea, and you cast spells in Korean instead of Latin. As in, as a player, you literally learn Korean language, and your pronunciation is graded by an app on your phone. The better your pronunciation and longer your sentences, the more powerful your character’s spells. Also, you’re introduced to Korean mythology. (This another one I may have to try to solo with a GMA deck.)

Star Wars, West End Games: IMO, absolutely the best game mechanics for the Star Wars property. Perfectly captures the high action of that galaxy long, long ago and far, far away. (IIRC, the mechanics actually showed up first in WEG’s Ghostbuster’s game, but in Star Wars it really shone.)

Throwing Stones Fantasy: Technically the first collectible dice game ever published. (TSR’s Dragon Dice—designed by yours truly—was announced first but took longer to manufacture.) Mainly I love TSF for its multifunctional dice faces, and that your character advances by gaining new abilities through new dice. Partly because its mechanics remind me of TFT’s in terms of tactical battles. Its main problem is that the silkscreened images wear off the dice faces too easily. Nonetheless, I have scads of these dice and would love to have had a chance to use them.

Underworld: I yearn to play one of the many character types in this wonderfully inventive mythologies of the world beneath our streets! (One thing that hurt publication, I suspect, is that the title font is literally unreadable.)

Renfield Recommended

Loved Renfield. Much more wry and nuanced than I expected.

Cage commits himself fully to the role of a monster. Hoult plays the perfect antihero seeking redemption. Awkwafina is utterly convincing as the one good cop against a corrupt system. And I don’t think there is a misstep among any of the rest of the cast.

Ridley’s script is spot-on as well. And the over-the-top gore keeps the mood neither too dark nor too light. Overall, I’d say McKay has done a marvelous job of walking that tightrope.

I went in expecting Love at First Bite. This was much more An American Werewolf in London. Definitely recommended.

Treasures of Forgotten Dungeons

If you’re a tabletop gamer with much of a collection, you know how easily small boxed games & card games can be overlooked & forgotten on the shelves. I even have a couple of fancy wooden cases—the kind with glass photo frames on the top & sides—to store the best, & still end up forgetting the excellent little games inside. Big boxed games just draw so much attention.

An Aside: 

It’s a problem that faces publishers, too, & particularly small-press POD publishers. Especially at brick-and-mortar stores.

When I first started designing card games a bit over a dozen years ago, I went to some retailers I’ve been friends with, to ask about stocking the things on their shelves. (Two reasons: to increase my own exposure, but also because brick-and-mortar felt left out of Kickstarters, which sold directly to consumers.)

They were happy to take them to small cons, but (1) in-store couldn’t afford to rob any display case space from trading card games like Magic: The Gathering & Pokemon, with their sales of individual cards, & (2) couldn’t risk putting card games on the shelves elsewhere, because of “shrinkage” (i.e. shoplifting).

They said, “Publish each of your card games in a big box that’ll take up room on the shelf. Stick in a score pad, counters, or whatever to justify all the empty space, & bump up the price. Then I can sell them. Or just don’t design card games.”

So for me, POD online it is.

But back to the topic of card decks getting lost on your own game shelves. The problem is even worse for single-sheet things like Postcard Dungeons—and that’s a cryin’ shame.

Postcard Dungeons started out as just that, a solo strategy dice game representing a dungeon on an oversized postcard. The game design is genius, & the presentation excellent. Since that first dungeon, the line has expanded into multiplayer & sci-fi, & has added some variant designs from world domination ala Risk to a coin-based Postcard Cthulhu.

But I forget the whole group of them sitting there on my shelf, sandwiched between some small-box games, even though they’re stored in a clear cellophane bag.

I’m not sure how to rectify that. With the card games I could maybe get a shadowbox as a wall-mounted mini game shelf. Maybe keep a tiny ring-binder for flat games like this one. Because they deserve to be revisited from time to time.

Here’s the publisher’s website: postcardgames.com