[Lovecraftesque] A GMless cosmic horror game.

edited November 2015 in Actual Play
Horror is no easy feat to do in a game.

One central pillar of horror is that the main character doesn't have full control over what happens or is happening. Less an agent of action and more a victim or subject of forces outside his or her control. This goes against most games where you're a player and thus an agent with reasonable control over influencing the world, right?

This to me is why conventional games such as Call of Cthulhu (By no means am I dissing CoC by saying this!) must walk a very thin line. As a player, you're invested in a character and want them to stay alive and succeed! That drives connection and establishes the stakes of the game. But often times these games require a lot of prep and careful planning by the GM! So much is invested and planned and expected in that circumstance. When it works, the prep pays off in dividends, however.

This past week I've been playing a lot of this game called Lovecraftesque which has been recently kickstarted. There's a link in that kickstarter for a free copy of the basic, barebone rules for yourself to try. I first found out about Lovecraftesque from its kickstarter and was immediately intrigued. So what happens when you go GMless? Hell. Even prepless? Can you make a solid horror story?

So, theoretically, yes. Playing a game from less an actor/agent stance and more an author or director stance really allows one to feel more comfortable with the main character having bad things happen to them. This should alleviate that agency/victim conflict, certainly, but, also, having a central theoretical idea and should is far different than whether or not actually playing a horror game like that is actually, well, enjoyable and fun.

What's also interesting about Lovecraftesque is that no one knows what the final horror is until the end! We only share responsibility of creating clues and hints to the final horror, but it isn't until the horrific climax at the end does someone volunteer to narrate the horrific reveal! It's a super cool take on the game and allows for less cliché Lovecraftian mythos monsters and more unique experiences.

The first time I played this game, it was online and it was a 2 person game. The second time I played this game, it was online and 3 player. The third time I played this game it was 4 player and in person.

That two player game ended up being about a remote US Army communications base in Alaksa during the cold war, the three player game was about a dying mining town in Utah in the wild west, and this past game was a modern game about the ancient city of Palmira in Syria.

I wrote up the story of last night's game (the modern Syrian one) as it was, perhaps, one of the best RPG experiences of my entire life. It's pretty long, so instead of copying it and formatting it here, I'm going to just link to my blog write up of it.

If you're more interested in seeing a 2 person or 3 person play through, the online games were also recorded and can be found in embedded in this post here.

My conclusion after these three games is that GMless horror is better than I could imagine or hoped. I strongly encourage anyone looking to scratch a horror itch to try this.

Thank you very much for reading and I'm sorry to have to link to my posts instead of copying them here.


  • I read the write-up for your third game, which was very cool. I wish you had gone more into detail about how the game played, however, and less into detail about the fiction. (After all, my interest in the game is more in the procedures of play than the specific things you came up with when you played it.)
  • edited November 2015
    Hey Paul!

    Thanks for the feedback. I was thinking about that very thing just now at lunch. If I should write more from a fiction perspective or from the experience and thoughts of during/while play experience. This version definitely went towards fiction heavy. I chose that perspective because it's a horror story and didn't want to lose fictional pacing to pause and "look under the hood". I think it was a personal choice of mine because, in this instance, the fiction (since I experienced it first hand) took serious hold on me and its strength and resonance is why I focused so hard on it.

    So let's look at Lovecraftesque. So structurally, Lovecraftesque is like a dance of 3 roles that builds and speeds up at the end. The three roles are Witness (The PC), the Narrator (The GM), and the Watcher(s) (Details/Questioners/NPC players).

    The basic step of the dance is investigating a clue that is tied into the final horror.

    -The Narrator frames a scene that focuses on the goal being the answer to this question "What is the Clue the Witness encounters that hints at the final horror?"

    -The Witness explores the scene with the Watcher complimenting both Narrator and Witness descriptions with evocative language, mystery, and supplementary fiction.

    -The Watcher/Narrator/Witness relationship can be "Narrator uses watcher like a random table of fiction" or "Watcher probes Witness or Narrator about a sight, scene, smell, taste, touch or feelings there which." This relationship of roles, I think, gets easier and better the more times you play this game. Like I mentioned earlier, in a game about horror, uninterrupted descriptions and pacing is kind of important.

    (RE: Roles. I indicated this issue in the notes part of the story where appropriate. I was the initial narrator and, without realizing it, ended the first scene with the two watchers just sitting there not contributing. We went back and talked about it and remedied the situation as facilitator asking the Watcher to ask questions that probe what the Narrator's asking. Prod at senses. How things sound and look and smell. Things fixed themselves pretty quickly. Also, no one had any problem playing the witness. After I became a Watcher, I began asking the narrator questions such as "could you elaborate on how Professor Loreemeer's source of his breakthrough?" and such and that's when we learned it was the dead sea scroll. The watcher next to me followed my lead and slam dunked it with "so what the warning given on the top of the scroll to those who read it?" In the decompression at the end of the game, we spoke about it and mentioned they are players who learn best from example instead of reading. YMMV.)

    We pass our roles to the left after the conclusion of a scene. Scenes must have 1 clue but can have more. This first part of this dance concludes after 5 clues are had. (usually 5 turns). These clues dance and skirt around the horror and should be veiled in rational explanation. Violent reports are heard secondhand. Curses are folklorish and not to be believed. That was simply interference on the radio. etc.

    Following the first 5 scenes, the music picks up and now clues get evermore blatant and less obfuscated by logic and the laws of nature and man. The length of this musical crescendo is dictated fictionally with the Narrator able to transition to the next part after clue 6, and forcibly by rules, by turn 9.

    In the Syrian game, we finished clue 6 (the food on the table in the hall wasn't stale) and decided, fictionally, now's the time to start Part 3.

    So in part 3, the music picks up again even more. Here strict order of roles crashes down. The roles serve as masks we wear and exchange now. We hurriedly describe vignettes of the Witness' actions as they get closer and closer to the horror. At least 3 turns but less than 5 iterations are had by the 4 of us (12-16 descriptions).

    Following along fictionally, this is where she has her crisis of faith and the words shift and bend. She has her visions and the reveal that door opens into her vision was, like everything, provided by a fellow player and it blew. everyone's. mind. when it happened. We were all about it. We continued to weave in the clues from parts 1 and 2 in an increasingly horrific manner the closer we got the final horrific climax with the King.

    In that final climactic scene, roles come back, but it is mostly Narrator with full control. Witness is told to "enjoy the ride" and mostly comment on the horrific experience and struggle in vain.

    Following which is the Epilogue, which is the nice bow on top of this box of lovecraft, once again told by a narrator, where we tell the fates of the witness and how the horror lingers to this day.
  • My conclusion after these three games is that GMless horror is better than I could imagine or hoped.
    Amen to that brother! :D
  • (I've had very good experiences with that, too!)
  • (I've had very good experiences with that, too!)
    And me.

  • OMG I finally played Lovecraftesque yesterday and was thinking, "hey I remember there was a thread about this on Story-Games" and I get on here and realize it's been MORE THAN THREE YEARS that I've been saying to myself, "geez I really ought to play this game sometime." THREE YEARS. Anyway.

    We had a great game. Couple of rules thoughts and questions.

    I love the thing (InSpecters does this too) of having a mystery slowly get revealed through play--no plots no plans, just an ever sharpening narrative. It's not an easy thing to do, and I think Lovecraftesque does a pretty good job of it. Particularly through the scene pacing.

    My favorite thing about the game were the act one scene restrictions--everything weird needs to be explainable by normal phenomena. No violence. Just subtle looming horror. It's excellent.
    (RE: Roles. I indicated this issue in the notes part of the story where appropriate. I was the initial narrator and, without realizing it, ended the first scene with the two watchers just sitting there not contributing. We went back and talked about it and remedied the situation as facilitator asking the Watcher to ask questions that probe what the Narrator's asking.
    We had this issue a bit too. It's hard to not narrate everything... I'm used to putting in all those sensory details when I narrate. So our Watcher (we had a 3-player game) didn't always have a lot of space to contribute.

    I think I'm also a little ruined at being a Narrator from all my story gaming. It's really hard for me to separate narrating the ambient world apart from a person's experience of it. Everyone had to keep reminding me to just say what was there, not what the Witness looked at or did.

    There was also a bit of worrying about stepping on people's toes as the Witness... Like you know the Narrator has a clue they're trying to get you to see, so you don't want to do something that makes that harder for the Narrator to put in the story. That was a little awkward sometimes.

    We had a little trouble at making the final reveal at the end. There was a much better rational explanation for the story than a supernatural one, and we decided to go that route. So our story was a little more magical realism, a little less supernatural horror, but I think that was the best choice fictionally. We had a very satisfying ending.

    We didn't use the Special Cards, which probably led to us not having monsters/curses/that kind of Lovecraft thing. I haven't played with the cards, but think I'd play without them again. I worry about random/contradictory things coming out of them rather than just relying on our awesome brains for the narrative. Anyone have any thoughts about that? When you play do you usually use the cards?

  • Not strictly about this particular game, I'd say cards are there as helpers for when a player is either short of ideas, or wants a new kind of constraint.
  • @Caroline_Hobbs I'm partial to playing Lovecraftesque without the cards, myself, because it makes the game easier to explain to new players as well as much more portable. I think I could facilitate a game with nothing more than about half a page of rules reference and it's one of very few RPGs I managed to successfully facilitate from a PDF on my ebook reader (usually an atrocious device for this, as is anything digital: I rely on flipping quickly through books way too much for anything else to work).

    @DeReel in Lovecraftesque the cards are ostensibly all about lifting constraints by introducing exceptions to the rules; it is however true that, in doing so, they also introduce new constraints in subject matter. Stuff like "from now on you can describe or imply violent acts, but the source of violence has to be animals, not people."

    @Caroline_Hobbs deviating from Lovecraft's trademark style of cosmic horror for the final reveal - allowing for other sorts of horror such as personal horror, delusions or entirely mundane explanations - seems to me to technically be a "hack" of the game, albeit a very simple one and one I've sometimes been tempted to introduce too. There are times adhering to the prescribed style of horror feels more like a limitation than anything else, and depending on how the story unfolded it might even feel like a coup out.
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