Continuing this week’s theme of cosmic horror, a brief reflection on Lovecraftian characters.
A player in a Call of Cthulhu campaign I’m running noted that they, used to Dungeon & Dragons’ (5e) heroic fantasy with a low likelihood of death, felt like their character was disposable.
They were being asked to prepare their character, through which they would engage with the world of the game, but also accept that it might just be thrown away.
While I myself quite like stories where that is an accepted part of the world (as articulated in this article I enjoy), I recognised the genuine sense of bewilderment amid Call of Cthulhu’s habitual culture of “yeah, we’re all screwed!”
I tried to reframe the approach for the player thusly:
Lovecraftian characters are doomed, not disposable
Players, readers, and other people engaging with Lovecraftian characters do so within a clear set of expectations (unless they are new to the genre, or playing a game that has really failed to set expectations clearly).
One of those expectations is that the character is doomed if they stray beyond safe bounds. They keep pursuing the lead? They go into the cellar? They open the ominous book? They’re doomed.
More particularly, they’re doomed because that’s inevitably the result of living in a Lovecraftian world. They will be whittled away until they are no more.
The character may not know it. But the reader or player does (I suspect this is why Lovecraft is so fond of opening stories with a character explaining that a horrible thing has happened, then going back to the beginning of the story).
In an interactive medium, therefore, there must also be a reason to keep going. There must be a reward for the colossal risk the character is undertaking.
[Another note I made was that Call of Cthulhu does indeed have a clunky, labour-intensive character creation system. It’s much more fun risking your character’s existence if it only takes ten minutes to make a new one, as in Trophy.]
This sense of characters being doomed, not disposable, defines a key tone in Lovecraftian works. It is not an absolute nihilistic anarchism in which characters can be killed randomly (that, instead, is a trope of bad detective fiction that doesn’t appreciate the art of killing a character just before something happens). It is a dramatic irony that endures throughout the work: the knowledge that something terrible is coming.
This is the crucial fact: that the character enters, and will eventually end. We are here to discover how that happens.
The player then asked me why people cared about their Lovecraftian characters.
There are various reasons.
The one I think I enjoy the most is: what's wrong with loving something, just because it will end? Yes, it makes their endings bittersweet, especially if they destroy themselves for something that ends up not being worth it.
Other people might enjoy the style of writing or the game mechanics.
Yet others might focus on the mystery; the characters are merely a tool for slowly revealing the horrible truth.
However, one consequence I have noted of Call of Cthulhu, in contrast to most non-interactive Lovecraftian work, has a focus on a rotating group of investigators. This means the ‘protagonist’ becomes the association (and/or mystery) that unites them, not the individuals.
While some works (notably The Magnus Archives) focus on a group, they rarely have the same level of rotation. They remain focused on key individuals within the group.
By focusing on a group and its relationships, the game ends up affirming a common theme in post-Lovecraft, if unintentionally: that though human life and society is meaningless and brief, we can form something that offers meaning in our deaths, even for a brief while.
Even though these groupings may be doomed as well, they are not disposable. They mean something in how they strive against their inevitable end.