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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dealing with Lovecraft's Horrors

To continue with the analysis of types of horror based on social structures: Lovecraft played on the fears of three* of the four society types (Weak, Strong, and Small Groups.) The big deal for Lovecraft was the ambiguity of form or rational systems of thought and the threat to one's own body that frightens Weak Group types; it's pretty easy to use these themes in a CoC-style game and still have your players "get it", although you have work to make sure that it's frightening and not secretly attractive. You have to put the PCs into situations where things happen against their will: no body changes that the players might actually choose, confusion about natural laws, that kind of thing.

* To my knowledge, Lovecraft didn't play around with the fears of bureaucratic societies; few writers do, outside of dystopic fiction, and even those tend to focus on how the other three society types would be afraid of an alienating, depersonalized society, rather than on the fears of bureaucratic ambiguity or double-bind situations.

Lovecraft also used Small Group fears, since at the very least everyone has experienced Small Group societies in the form of their family. For RPGs, the party of investigators or adventurers is also a Small Group, so you can trigger these kinds of fears by luring the party to rural areas, remote locations, campsites in wilderness areas, or abandoned houses outside of town. Dopplegangers or mind control would fulfill Small Group fears, but these are problematic in RPGs; you can still effectively play on this kind of fear by using situations where the frightening, dangerous thing is inside one of the characters. A possessing spirit, for example, that can see through a PC's eyes and cause poltergeist effects (or worse) in the PC's presence would keep the players worried: which PC(s) is/are affected, and how did it happen? How do you fix it? To make it less gothic and more cosmic, make the entity a parasite or other infection.

Fear of the outside getting in doesn't just mean "inside a person"; it also means "inside our safe area". Put something really bad outside in an isolated area. The PCs will retreat to some location -- a house, a cave -- that they feel they can defend. Then, drop hints that something may be inside, with them. Where is it? Is it worse than what's outside? Can they retreat somewhere where it can't get them?

Of course, Daddy Grognard's real concern wasn't how to present Weak Group or Small Group fears, but how to handle Strong Group fears about violations of the social order, specifically the fears of miscegenation and fears about evolution that made so much sense to people like Lovecraft, but not much sense today. One solution is to just pay lip service to things like the Innsmouth taint, but shift focus to the Weak and Small Group fears, which is why I've said so much about them. The other is to shift Strong Group fears away from late 19th and early 20th century fears of race-mixing to the equivalent 21st-century survivals. The Strong Group social structure isn't as strong today, since the old class structure and racial distinctions have fallen away, but there is still a remnant that makes sense even today:
  • economic class distinctions (upper, middle, lower);
  • "polite society" vs. criminal underclass distinctions; and,
  • functioning member of society vs. total dependency on others.
The first distinction might be kind of hard to use for horror. You can play a little on these kinds of fears, however, by threatening the PCs' sources of income and disposable wealth. Investigators need to acquire equipment to deal with the horrific menace; anything that hampers their ability to do so might not frighten the players per se, but it will stress them out, making the actual menace more frightening. Cults worshiping eldritch horrors might have contacts within the banking industry that can freeze the PCs accounts, or might have contacts in city hall that can forge land deeds to take their property. Imagine Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life as a devotee of Yog-Sothoth.

The second distinction can be particularly relevant to the roaring '20s. You have gangsters, many of whom have personas in polite society, but with the lowest class of hoodlum in their employ. Use Raymond Chandler as a guide. Investigative techniques work a little different when you're investigating cultists who are operating outside the law, because being discovered means a risk of a violent response, which the PCs often will not be able to answer in kind.

But the third distinction is probably the biggest one. You have people who are gainfully employed, and people who depend on charity because they cannot help themselves -- and the violation of that category, the people who seem gainfully employed, functioning members of society, but who are not actually capable of caring for themselves.

For a Lovecrafting horror story, this means the insane. Sanity is a big deal in Lovecraft because creeping, secret insanity plays on three kinds of fears: social incapacity, paranoid delusions about the outside sneaking in, and inability to comprehend what is actually going on. Work with that. Instead of having PCs that fail Sanity checks temporarily lose control, keep their current sanity state unknown to the players and feed them information that may be things only their PCs have spotted or distortions of reality. "The others don't notice, but you spot several tiny spiders burst from the man's mouth. Some of them are crawling towards you!" Are the spiders real, or a hallucination? What if the PC starts seeing the spiders every time he's in public? What if the neighbors think he's unstable and ought to be committed? What if your colleague sees spiders that you don't? Can you trust him?

Can you trust yourself?


  1. Or you can use the "liberal conversion" of horror - aim it at organizations that are themselves intolerant.

    The KKK, in the 20's, was in many places as accepted a fraternal organization as the Elks or Kiwanis. Now they are a source of horror and loathing. They would make great Mythos villains - and hypocrites to boot, for their preaching of racial purity.

  2. I would suspect urban and suburbanites of middle to upper class are still quite susceptible to fears of the lower class/rural folk.

    Most of the time in film or literature this is combined with "small group" fears to enhance it, but I don't think that's the only fear Wrong Turn, or Deliverance employs.

  3. @Trey: the reference to class is not meant to imply that higher class people don't fear things that lower class people do; I'm just talking about fears of losing income are a vestigial survival of fears of class mixing in general.

  4. Great posts these last couple of days - you seem to have nailed what I was after, especially that fourth paragraph. It's interesting to see how many ripples my original post caused. Thanks for giving me food for thought.

  5. @Daddy: Thanks! Although now I'm thinking I need one more post in this series. Maybe this weekend...