Cthulhu without monsters?

edited March 2009 in Story Games
Can Cthulhu be run without seeing any monsters? Where the people are the monsters?

I assume it can. Tell me how, please!


  • Posted By: Mark CauseyWhere the peoplearethe monsters?
    Unknown Armies?
  • I'm more looking for techniques than systems, I guess. What works to make monstrous characters, and how do you deliver that big horror without ever seeing the source of the cosmic horror?
  • Posted By: Mark CauseyI'm more looking for techniques than systems, I guess. What works to make monstrous characters, and how do you deliver that big horror without ever seeing the source of the cosmic horror?
    Ok, now I'm confused. Do you want cosmic horror or not? Knowing the source of "the horror" is important to figure out the techniques.
  • edited March 2009
    If you think about something like The Colour Out Of Space, the horror is, basically, in the slow decay of the people and the land. You do see the monster, eventually, but it'd be horrific even if you didn't.

    Another obvious way to do it is to use cultists. They're worshipping something, which might or might not be real, and they want to stop others from finding out about it. They're prepared to go to horrific lengths, too.

    Oh, yeah. In Stunning Eldritch Tales, there's a scenario called Dimension Y. The horror in that is that, after seeing a multi-dimensional cube, people start going mad and seeing the "true reality" of the universe (which, naturally, involves humans being the playthings of unmentionable beings). Then they start killing each other. That works and the monsters aren't a big part of it.

  • Well, the point is that your characters don't see any monster - just the people that are acting like monsters have, and their insanity is affecting everything else. I thought this was a common thing, never knowing the true source of it all, just knowing that it's beyond human ken.
  • Ok, I gotcha. I guess I have trouble latching on because I've never found the mysterious to be as frightening as the cold truth.
  • edited March 2009
    The best way to make people scary is to have them do very terrible things for perfectly understandable reasons. This is why Lovecraft is a hack and Cthulhu sucks.

  • So maybe something like personal horror/body horror?
    Dark Days (my unreleased game) might be a fit, since you can sprout tentacles and such and eat people alive.

    For a more usable suggestion, I second Unknown Armies. Maybe DRYH too?
  • edited March 2009
    Some loose ideas in no special order:
    • Cultists have motivations that the protagonists can never understand as long as they stay at positive SAN. You could do worse than mirror "The Dunwich Horror". The Whateley brothers aren't completely human, sure, but what about old Wizard Whateley and Lavinia? What did they think they had to gain? I ran a really fun campaign translating the premise of "Dunwich" into a cyberpunk setting (with a corp that, for reasons known only to the system itself, was bringing children of Yog-Sothoth into our reality), and while there were monsters in our game, they didn't appear until the very end, and they weren't there to be fought.
    • Cultists can be wrong, of course. A true believer kills a sacrificial victim each week, attempting to summon a thing that doesn't exist. Twist: the investigators come to realize that the thing does exist, and the would-be cultist is just doing it wrong. He may get it right eventually, perhaps when the Stars are Right. Retwist: Your investigators only think that Quiltish-Tipi exists and the rites will eventually work, because their SAN is worn down by their previous adventures.
    • Flip this around: what if there are monsters but they are surprisingly human? Think of Dyer's reaction to the ancient starfish-symmetry beings (Elder Things in the RPG rules) in "At The Mountains of Madness", when he realizes that they were accomplished and civilized scientists:
      Poor devils! After all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them - as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter dig up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste - and this was their tragic homecoming. They had not been even savages-for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch - perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defense against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia ... poor Lake, poor Gedney... and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last - what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn - whatever they had been, they were men!
      Horror here comes from the realization that the character has identified with billion-year-old, barrel-bodied radiates, not from the fear that one will jump through a window to eat him.
    • Have you considered red herrings? If you're playing a campaign, you should sneak in at least one monster- and madness-free session, just to point out how jumpy — and, well, insane — the investigators have become, when they start looking for Mi-Go fingerprints on every prostitute who dies with a needle in her arm.
    • Get Delta Green and DG: Eyes Only, and read about the Fate, an occult conspiracy/cult/crime organization. Non-human monsters are available but not necessary. Eyes Only has a cool idea or two for hiding monsters behind mundane facades.
    Oh, and don't listen to these heretics who want you playing UA! Cleave tightly to the True Faith, roll low on d100, and when the stars come right and our Masters return to clear the earth, we will have our reward! IÄ!
  • I don't know I somehow don't think Moore Villians (Like Ozymundias) are somehow more horrifying than say extradeimenional entities who leave odd 5 toed footprints, cant be seen unless they already have waht they want, can't be damaged, laugh constantly, and share no sense of our morality or understanding while being amazingly smarter than us .

    I think that Hacks is perhaps used to often or too damningly, I think we've had a pretty good list of hacks over time and they produced some pretty good if hackish stuff (Shakespear, Lovecraft, Moore, Tolkien, etc)
  • I guess we differ. I'm more scared of Dr. Sigmund Rascher than I am of some incomprehensible monster from beyond time.

    Anyway, that was a cheap trollish shot at sensitive fanboys and I'm sorry I took it.
  • I can totally see Cthulhu without monsters. In fact, not only can I see doing the game with the monsters always in the background and non-accessible, but I can also see doing it with no monsters in the metaphysics at all. Just imagine: the things making people crazy are not monsters, but invasive memes; they guy who goes nuts doesn't have a concrete reason in the thing on his doorstep, it just happens because he thought wrong. And when the next guy thinks wrong, those two match and now they're an insane pod people cult, except that there are no pod people, there are just insane guys and perhaps their magic. King in Yellow is, of course, big in this sort of thing.

    My only hesitation is that I'm not certain if a Cthulhu campaign where you can't travel to Carcosa is worth the effort; horror fantasy is my favourite part of the game. But perhaps a short mini-campaign of some sort. Or perhaps you can travel to Carcosa, it's just that there are no monsters there - or it's just a state of mind. Lacuna would be the thing here, I imagine.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarThe best way to make people scary is to have them do very terrible things for perfectly understandable reasons. This is why Lovecraft is a hack and Cthulhu sucks.

    I enjoy the setting and creatures of the Cthulhu mythos, but I don't really find them particularly scary. So I kind of agree.
  • Jason, fnord, if you let "scary" go, Call of Cthulhu is fun. "Scary" won't happen at the table, and that doesn't matter because it sucks. To hell with it; it isn't the point.

    The confluence of the Sanity mechanics, and in particular the way that you pay SAN for power, with low character durability: to me, that is the sine qua non of the game. When investigators jump at shadows (investigators who don't jump at shadows die, of course), see the hidden hand of the Mythos in everyday events, recognize their kinship with the alien and their alienation from their fellow men, and trade their grip on reality for the ability to reshape it, you get horror. Who needs to be scared?

    Lovecraft may well have been a hack, but he was a hack with Big Ideas, maybe the first and certainly the greatest postmodern hack (see "Supernatural Horror in Literature"). From time to time, he rose above hackery. More: He was more like us than we might think to acknowledge. He was a proto-PBM GM. He specifically, explicitly endeavored to build a SIS, for Cthulhu's sake! When we tell each other stories inspired by his fiction, addressing his pet themes, we're playing in the oldest and best-supported distributed campaign world there is. That is cool!

    Sorry to continue to derail the thread, but after all the enjoyment I've had from HPL's work, and from the body of technique that's come to bear his name, I feel obligated to defend it from charges that it isn't fun. Sure, expecting it to be scary will lead to disappointment. But you've got several game worlds' worth of furniture in there, and it's a sim paradise. Using it to make the stark contrasts that fuel horror can lead to awesome.
  • Jason, I'd love to discuss why you're wrong, but it'd be exhausting and derailing of this thread. It suffices to say that I've never found the roleplaying profile that's developed from Lovecraft's work particularly fascinating compared to the man's work itself. The monsters are a minor current in that, the Cthulhu "mythos" nonexistent, and the poetic themes searing in their clarity. We should never forget that Call of Cthulhu diminishes Lovecraft's work to a great degree and transforms it into something quite different, and judging the original author on the merits of the shambling monsters that are his inheritance in the roleplaying culture is quite ignorant when those monsters are an incidental detail in the actual stories. But enough of that for now, we have better things to do than geeking over old authors.
  • I would be interested in that thread, Eero. Actually I think Call of Cthulhu as written gets it dead on in a very tightly limited area, like taking a really great picture of a part of a mural. We can fight on the Internet about it!
  • Lovecraft wrote a lot about the loss of sanity as something to fear, but what did the insane actually do in his stories?

    Well, they acted "queer," (referring to unusual, rather than homosexual), had strange gleams in their eyes, worshipped things that seemed nothing more than hallucinations, were unable to follow the proper order of society. This is why dilettante is perhaps the most applicable class in Call of Cthulhu, because only propriety stood between all that was good and murderous madness. Not only that, but madness was like a disease, able to infect through books, rather than a choice made.

    H.P.'s early life revolved around this divide. As a child he was kept hidden from the world and dressed in girl's clothing by his aunt. He was the outsider, the queer, the insane. As an adult writer his work was pulp, the writing that threatened to teach wrong ideas, to subvert proper society with their vulgar and scandalous lack of morals, dragging people away from proper literature and good, upstanding, Christian behaviour (which itself comes from a book).

    So, you've got a few themes there, and they're pretty classic horror themes, so this looks pretty doable. In order to do this type of horror without monsters you'll need to spend some time establishing what is good, and also giving it real value in the game. Just because you don't think etiquette and morals are the same thing doesn't mean they can't be in the game. Once you have the proper order of the universe established, you can violate that order to create tension.
  • How about if the cultists worship one of the PCs? They see him/her as the latest incarnation of some dark power. They bow and scrape from afar at first, watching and insuring the prophesies and auguries are right. Then, they work to bring the Reborn into their fold. At some point, this will open the gate to the PCs investigating who these people are, etc.

    Then, for great cosmic horror, have teh PC find out they are right - he or she was a changeling, etc who was simply raised a perfectly normal human, but something in him/her was twisted, leading them not to the Cults in time, but the Investigators.

    Another neat idea is to have a high holy grimoire found that is entirely in the PC's handwriting - and thousands of years old (but in clear and modern script in their current home language). "As foretold in the sidebar on page 17, Figure 1-2 has come to pass, it is the prophesy!" (OK, you might want to avoid that last part...)
  • I'm not sure if this is quite on point for Mark's original question, but... one of the things I found really interesting about the Trail of Cthulhu incarnation of the game was the discussion of the big monsters as metaphors for less mystical concerns (e.g., Azathoth = the atomic bomb, to caricature a bit). If we're talking about *cosmic* horror, there's a lot of human stuff that you could mine. Why does the world need to be destroyed by Eldritch Things? Monsters from beyond understanding can stand in for destructive human irrationality and narrowmindedness (not that this is the *only* interpretation, mind you). What if the human enemies were pushing the world toward nuclear (or biological, or whatever) annihilation in the pursuit of narrow national interests (Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy of cosmic horror)? What if the bad guys were knowingly allowing genocide, or massive environmental destruction, to make a buck? These are irrational goals, taken from the broader perspective, and possibly extinction-level threats, with no googly-eyed-monsters required.
  • Some of the problem is that Lovecraftian horror is based very much in the idea that humans are neither special or prominent in the Cosmic meaning. What we do or do not do is meaningless in the big picture. That seems to erase the meaning of any part of the struggle, which is why CoC fans do it out of this sense of struggle against the dooming fate. Very zen.

    Eliminate the inhuman and other, or elevate the consequence or meaning of human struggle, and you miss the Lovecraftinan mark and you are just doing horror of some other type.
  • I think you can get a similar emotional/philosophical effect without monsters, though.

    I'm thinking, e.g., of part of what happens in Octavia Butler's _Lilith's Brood_ trilogy [mild spoilers ahead, for anyone interested in maybe reading it]: the humans who don't want to merge with alien DNA think that their rebellion has meaning. But, the aliens keep telling them that they can predict that the combination of human hierarchical nature with sapience will inevitably lead them to another nuclear holocaust that will wipe them out - and, in the context of the fiction, it's pretty certain that the aliens are *right.*

    You could drop the aliens out of that narrative and have the shocking revelation of the meaninglessness of human struggle come from some other source - the horror is that, no matter what I do with my life, the Earth will eventually spin on in the void, a lifeless rock, and all my works will come to nothing. In a purely human context, the "bad guys" might be not servants of Outer Darkness, but people deluded into thinking their cause is meaningful enough to risk hastening annihilation - but even if you defeat them, you just slow it, you can't avert humankind's ultimate fate.
  • Posted By: Daniel LevineI think you can get a similar emotional/philosophical effect without monsters, though.
    Agreed, but Lovecraft put the aliens in as a symbol of the crushing and uncaring fact of human insignificance. It is because of the Other that, like the aliens in the example you gave, the protags KNOW that they are lost, lonely, and already forgotten. Without that external perception to drive it home, it is just a feeling of dread - the supernatural element gives this certainty.

    That tear has to be there - and it can be internal and very personal. Maybe you get cut and see your blood is green, or that there is nothing but sand or sawdust inside you. Maybe you start getting error reports popping up in your vision and you can now hear the whirring of the gears inside you that you were deaf to yesterday. Things fall apart and you have to cope.

    But that push has to come from something outside (even if it is just outside your expectation) and there must be something undeniable in it - you are not human, humans are not unique and special, whatever...as long as you know it and cannot ignore it. Bang!

    A human cult that may be misguided can be easily ignored. They do not have the ability to make the protagnists come face-to-face with an undeniable "something" if the players know they are misguided. The simulacra of the Elder Ones, or the all-knowing alien prophets of doom, or the Time Traveler with a Warning serve the main purpose of showing the score in a way that a simple human with no special gift cannot.
  • You're absolutely right that horror/SF elements help set up the "big reveal" moment (and, Mark, I don't know if this is helpful or if we're derailing your thread) - without something like "no shit, Elder Things," you can always *hope* things will turn out OK, and that's not what we want people doing, right? :)

    I guess part of the issue is why we're excluding the supernatural and how much the players get off on the "no hope" aspect of things - if it's just "I don't want monsters in this game," then maybe a time traveler or some other SF or fantasy element would work.

    There are also literary techniques you might be able to employ, if you want the fiction to have no fantastic content. If you just want to sucker-punch the players, you could have them "win" and then flash forward in an epilogue to everything going to hell and extinction anyway.

    Or, you could use dramatic irony - the main villain in Shadow Hearts [again, mild spoilers for anyone who might want to play a pretty old PS2 game] explains that he's trying to destroy the world b/c he's seen visions of a great future horror that he wants to avert. The game is set just after WWI, and *we* know he's talking about WWII and the Holocaust, the atom bomb, etc. Maybe not truly cosmic, but I could see, e.g., setting a campaign in the British Mandate where the characters believe that the horrors they inflict and suffer are worth it because they will surely usher in peace in the land of Israel... or set among idealistic anti-colonial forces in central Africa. That sort of thing.

    You could also play with the story structure. The final scene of _Irreversible_ is depressing because we've seen the whole story already told back-to-front, and know it's not going to end well. You could run the biggest bummer of a D&D game ever by starting with the whole world getting eaten by the Tarrasque at level 30 and working backwards until you end with idealistic level 1 heroes just starting out in the world.
  • Interesting. That sounds like you could cast the Nazis as trying to avert something even worse than the Holocaust, too.

    Basically, I don't want to get rid of the Things Man is Not Meant to Know - I just want a wholly human face for it.
  • edited March 2009
    One of my favorite Lovecraft stories is the short story/prose poem "Nyarlathotep". It features said Nyalathotep in the guise of a kind of scientist-wizard who travels around the country, staging strange performances. The mood of the story is one of imminent doom, which is effectuated in its second part. I can easily imagine, however, a game that borrows the general mood of the first part without taking it to its logical conclusion, as depicted in the second. A sense of a world which has been, somehow, been deprived of its security measures and is now nakedly exposed to the void. A festering fear, panic even, among the common man. A dark stranger that walks the land, putting this panic to work for his own dark ends.

    I realise now how similar this sounds to America under the last administration.
  • Posted By: JuddGSome of the problem is that Lovecraftian horror is based very much in the idea that humans are neither special or prominent in the Cosmic meaning.
    Isn't it possible to depict this idea otherwise than by big huge monsters from outer space? I mean, after all, Lovecraft's themes did not pop up in a vacuum. He was very much affected by the Zeitgeist. The realization of human insignificance did not come from our encounter with inhuman monsters, but from the quite ordinary progress of natural science.
  • Posted By: Mark CauseyInteresting. That sounds like you could cast the Nazis as trying to avert something even worse than the Holocaust, too.

    Basically, I don't want to get rid of the Things Man is Not Meant to Know - I just want a wholly human face for it.
    Hmm. Making any move towards apologizing for the Nazis makes me a bit queasy, but I guess I invited it by using an example with a sympathetic villain.

    It strikes me that there are two different kinds of story one might tell. One is, "I must do great evil to avoid greater evil." This is Shadow Hearts' villain, your sympathetic Nazis, Jack Bauer, etc. Another is, "even if we avert this great evil, great evil is totally inevitable and we can at best delay it." My take on the Lovecraft mythos is much more the latter. Now, and interesting kind of approach might be a "twist ending" that turns story 1 into story 2 (Jack Bauer realizes that his life of torturing terrorists to save America is rendered meaningless by the fact that Google has been behind the US government and al-Qaeda *all along*).

    One question I would have, from a game standpoint, is: what's the point, and how much railroading/participation are you looking for? Are your players in it just for grooving on the emo tourism of futility, in traditional Lovecraft style? Is the inevitability of total horror intended to drive home the value of transitory moments of goodness that might get lost if there were a grand plan for salvation? Something else? It's possible to have purely human forces annihilate everything worth caring about, and you don't even necessarily need fancy techniques for certain kinds of games. E.g., you might just get away with opening by saying, "On May 13, 2028, a giant asteroid hits the Earth and wipes out all life. This game is about people living in 2026, let's see if you can reconcile with your daughter before your time is up."
  • Posted By: Daniel LevineThis game is about people living in 2026, let's see if you can reconcile with your daughter before your time is up."
    That game is called Death's Door.
  • Now I'm thinking of Snowcrash and Mythos tomes and wondering if the idea above (memetic horror) isn't the hotness.

    The Things Man Was Not Meant To Know® are actually being hacked into Internet posts, children's cartoons (I KNEW fucking anime was evil!!), puzzles on cereal boxes, shitty Facebook games--you name it. What's causing it? The Fnords, maybe. The Old Ones, maybe. Or pimply-faced kids at MIT who've hacked semiotics. Or major corporations, out to sell more mood enhancing and "other-bits" enhancing drugs to a world that terrified of "something" and can't get it up anymore because their partners don't have big eyes, small mouths, and figures that require gallons of saline.

    THAT's horrific, to me. And you wanna know the REAL horror?
    It's all TRUE. (fnord)
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