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Author Topic: Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft  (Read 1517 times)

Shrieking Banshee

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I have come to really loathe "Pop" Cthulu and "Lovecraft Inspired" works as of late. Which I find kinda sucks because I overall love Occultic Horror, and I find Lovecrafts best works fall inside of the genre. In fact his 'Cosmic' horror elements are probably the weakest. By themselves and to a modern audience. 'Cosmic Horrors' are black holes with an angry face. We live in a cosmos of constant horror. I find the attempts to spookify the narrative equivalent of natural disasters to be misplaced.

And while anything can be pop-interpreted and copycatted until people miss the point (Like Tolkiens Elves), I feel that Lovecrafts works have had it especially bad and I feel I can trace it too the Santity mechanic as a whole. Some people really hate alignment in D&D, well I personally hate Santity Mechanics more (outside of abstract simulationist videogames or board games). While stress and sanity are a large theme of Lovecrafts works, its been gimmicked, and I find unlike the Alignment system people don't reject it as much as they do alignment. Not because its not an 'accurate simulation of mental illness' (or whatever) but because it centerfolds the entire fiction on said element.

But I feel thats just one massively misenterpreted element of this sort of horror, there is much more (visuals, themes, the entire idea of a mythos, execution). But I wanted to focus on how I feel at least it should be done right

A: You don't need tentacles. The monsters don't have to be aberrant or all that alien. To a certain extent lovecrafts monsters are not really all that unusual or different. His elder gods are largely just demons. But they took from scary new elements to create something new and at least visually differentiating at the time. Now its overplayed and they look like every other monster. Really any monster works towards occultic horror works in this, even traditional ones. Themes of corruption, or infiltration, or powerful beings being asleep or in control of places you don't want them to be in control works with just about anything. To a certain degree the focus is on mands hubris in relation to these beings, not how creepy they look. Werewolves work as well as deep ones. Vampires work as well as cultists. Anything thats a terrifying explanation for a unexplainable natural phenomena works.

B: It doesn't need to be apocalyptic or unstoppable. Inevitability is narratively boring. If you can't do anything about it, then your just writing a disaster film story with a shaggy dog ending. A horror that cares about the misery its to inflict is much scarier and a much worse prospect because it gives ways of interaction. A room with twisted shadows that play tricks on the mind is generally scarier then a pitch black room where you can't see anything at all. An evil that does have a use for humanity as eternal thralls in great suffering is generally a worse prospect then just being killed.

C: Sanity loss elements have to be used sparingly. Sanity loss causing items in lovecraft exist but work best sparingly and are not really all that different then a wand that makes you evil or something. The core is something that weakens you or corrupts you towards some perpose. Humans are deeply adaptable and adjustable. To a certain extent I find Lovecrafts 'And then a X popped out and drove X person crazy' a really dull narrative element. Works more for a ending zinger then a recurring narrative element.

RandyB

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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #1 on: August 19, 2020, 02:54:29 pm »
Quote from: Shrieking Banshee;1145521
I have come to really loathe "Pop" Cthulu and "Lovecraft Inspired" works as of late. Which I find kinda sucks because I overall love Occultic Horror, and I find Lovecrafts best works fall inside of the genre. In fact his 'Cosmic' horror elements are probably the weakest. By themselves and to a modern audience. 'Cosmic Horrors' are black holes with an angry face. We live in a cosmos of constant horror. I find the attempts to spookify the narrative equivalent of natural disasters to be misplaced.

And while anything can be pop-interpreted and copycatted until people miss the point (Like Tolkiens Elves), I feel that Lovecrafts works have had it especially bad and I feel I can trace it too the Santity mechanic as a whole. Some people really hate alignment in D&D, well I personally hate Santity Mechanics more (outside of abstract simulationist videogames or board games). While stress and sanity are a large theme of Lovecrafts works, its been gimmicked, and I find unlike the Alignment system people don't reject it as much as they do alignment. Not because its not an 'accurate simulation of mental illness' (or whatever) but because it centerfolds the entire fiction on said element.

But I feel thats just one massively misenterpreted element of this sort of horror, there is much more (visuals, themes, the entire idea of a mythos, execution). But I wanted to focus on how I feel at least it should be done right

A: You don't need tentacles. The monsters don't have to be aberrant or all that alien. To a certain extent lovecrafts monsters are not really all that unusual or different. His elder gods are largely just demons. But they took from scary new elements to create something new and at least visually differentiating at the time. Now its overplayed and they look like every other monster. Really any monster works towards occultic horror works in this, even traditional ones. Themes of corruption, or infiltration, or powerful beings being asleep or in control of places you don't want them to be in control works with just about anything. To a certain degree the focus is on mands hubris in relation to these beings, not how creepy they look. Werewolves work as well as deep ones. Vampires work as well as cultists. Anything thats a terrifying explanation for a unexplainable natural phenomena works.

B: It doesn't need to be apocalyptic or unstoppable. Inevitability is narratively boring. If you can't do anything about it, then your just writing a disaster film story with a shaggy dog ending. A horror that cares about the misery its to inflict is much scarier and a much worse prospect because it gives ways of interaction. A room with twisted shadows that play tricks on the mind is generally scarier then a pitch black room where you can't see anything at all. An evil that does have a use for humanity as eternal thralls in great suffering is generally a worse prospect then just being killed.

C: Sanity loss elements have to be used sparingly. Sanity loss causing items in lovecraft exist but work best sparingly and are not really all that different then a wand that makes you evil or something. The core is something that weakens you or corrupts you towards some perpose. Humans are deeply adaptable and adjustable. To a certain extent I find Lovecrafts 'And then a X popped out and drove X person crazy' a really dull narrative element. Works more for a ending zinger then a recurring narrative element.


Agreed on all counts.

I think that the popularity of the SAN mechanic is that it degrades the PCs over time, in stark contrast to the "PC upgrade" model of D&D. The D&D model increases the challenge on the DM, as more capable PCs are harder to challenge. PCs that degrade over time are easier to challenge, as the PCs become less capable.

jhkim

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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #2 on: August 19, 2020, 03:01:51 pm »
Quote from: Shrieking Banshee;1145521
And while anything can be pop-interpreted and copycatted until people miss the point (Like Tolkiens Elves), I feel that Lovecrafts works have had it especially bad and I feel I can trace it too the Santity mechanic as a whole. Some people really hate alignment in D&D, well I personally hate Santity Mechanics more (outside of abstract simulationist videogames or board games). While stress and sanity are a large theme of Lovecrafts works, its been gimmicked, and I find unlike the Alignment system people don't reject it as much as they do alignment. Not because its not an 'accurate simulation of mental illness' (or whatever) but because it centerfolds the entire fiction on said element.

But I feel thats just one massively misenterpreted element of this sort of horror, there is much more (visuals, themes, the entire idea of a mythos, execution).

Games are fundamentally different than written fiction, though. Lovecraft's stories exist as he wrote them, and they aren't ruined. Unlike some media, I find people tend to read the original Lovecraft stories - and later works are at most add-ons rather than replacement. I don't think there's any one single way that Lovecraft-derived games can or should be run. They can vary widely in approach and outcome. Some different options that I've tried include:

1) I ran a Victorian (Cthulhu by Gaslight) campaign as more personal horror, where I focused in on each of the PCs and developed subplots on how their pillars of sanity were being undermined. I adapted material from "The Golden Dawn" sourcebook by John Tynes and others, which I thought went well for these purposes.

2) I played in part of a decades-long set of campaigns that focused on a mashup of Lovecraft's cosmic horror and a home-grown occult picture, where there was a great mystery in the structure of the world and how Outside forces were creeping in on it. A lot was made personal by struggling over the ancient occult order that exists to protect the world, which is not very Lovecraftian, but added a detailed layer for players to engage with.

3) I GMed a game in a semi-post-apocalyptic timeline, where there had been a devastating war with the Deep Ones in the 1940s instead of WWII. The devastation of that war was mostly analogous to WWII. This was more of a post-war shades-of-grey struggle where it focused on the difficult choices the PCs had to make, where there were always greater and lesser evils.

trechriron

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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #3 on: August 19, 2020, 04:10:43 pm »
Quote from: Shrieking Banshee;1145521
I have come to really loathe "Pop" Cthulu and "Lovecraft Inspired" works as of late...

A: You don't need tentacles. ...

B: It doesn't need to be apocalyptic or unstoppable. ...

C: Sanity loss elements have to be used sparingly. ...


You probably need to take a Lovecraft Inspired break. :-)

A: Tentacles are used to invoke "strangeness". My friends who dive in the Puget Sound often describe the world under the waves as alien. Sea creatures of all strange shapes and sizes have been used to convey the alien landscape of the ocean. You don't need them per se, but they are likely drawn on to get a feeling across quickly. I agree that any element used to often becomes overdone. It might be fun to see the next cool horror creator draw on something else for their alien inspiration.

B: This really steers the horror away from Lovecraft. The Elder Gods, et al are supposed to see us as fungus or insects. It draws strongly on the helpless factor of horror. Not saying that other horrors aren't terrifying, just that Lovecraft horror has that backdrop. One thing I believe creators focus too much on is an immediately impending apocalypse, which pulls you out of the slow foreboding into the "disaster" part. I don't believe this is a good representation of Lovecraft. The apocalypse is coming, but not on your time schedule. You don't know. You're not supposed to know. I believe creators jump on that as a catharsis of sorts. Creating the sandbox to play in as a protest to the foreboding horror of the suggested apocalypse. "In your face Lovecraft!"

C: Totally agree. In an RPG it's probably better to demonstrate than inflict more often than not. However, Mental Illness, and the helplessness it invokes, is a strong horror element of Lovecraft's time. Even today, modern media portrays the loss of sanity in a dark light. In the US, our mental health policies are abysmal to non-existent. We treat mental health patients like 3rd class wards. It's an adjunct to body-horror --- mind-horror. The fear of losing oneself. Alzheimer's is a slow painful progression for example; one many of us fear. These themes are horrifying in their own right, and the fact that Things Man Was Not Meant to Know can rip your sanity away, just increases that dread.

Good thoughts! Good discussion. I think you want Lovecraft-adjacent horror more so than full Lovecraft horror. And that's cool.
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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #4 on: August 19, 2020, 08:30:45 pm »
If anyone is interested in Lovecraft-adjacent horror, I most highly recommend SILENT LEGIONS by Kevin Crawford.

It's an A+ toolbox for creating hideous Mythos-worthy monstrosities and unique cults.
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/145769/Silent-Legions

Shrieking Banshee

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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #5 on: August 19, 2020, 09:22:09 pm »
Quote from: trechriron;1145543
You probably need to take a Lovecraft Inspired break. :-)
Cute.

Quote
A: Tentacles are used to invoke "strangeness".
And corn syrup is used as a replacement for sugar in drinks because it bypasses the sugar lobby and skirts around food label warnings.
I know why they do it, Im saying its a lazy sidestep. We have had exploration teams underwater for decades studying these creatures. Any 'Shock' value as had by them as purely an "Alien" element is gone. If not through actual study but through overuse in said fiction. Learn to use it as an element and not as a crutch.
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B: This really steers the horror away from Lovecraft.
Except by and large his writings are not just detailed descriptions of how this evil god is coming and thats it. The focus is usually on the idiots that summon it or bring it to existince or simply about finding out it exists in exploration. The stories actually do feature proactive protagonists doing stuff, I mean there is even a traditional D&D style adventuring team. Thats where the engaging interesting stuff happens. An unavoidable random apocalypse is generally pretty dull. Not all his works even focus on large scale stuff.

As a person who survived a natural disaster up close by the skin of my teeth (2004 Tsunami) I have had more nightmares about the death of the family dog or my teeth falling out then I have about tsunamis or the ocean. Our brain shuts off in such a do or die scenario and literally can't process that scale of a "Horror".
Quote
I think you want Lovecraft-adjacent horror more so than full Lovecraft horror.
Considering he liked his work as an open universe I think thats more in the spirit of it anyway. The first time there is a shoggoth its scary. The 64th time its just a thing to shoot unless you devolve into lazy narrative trops of 'Exudes an aura of madness'. Like any narrative element 'The protagonist finds it X because its a X generating machine' is a dull one. Might as well be a page that says 'This is an interesting book'.

Lynn

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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #6 on: August 19, 2020, 09:49:09 pm »
Although I enjoy Call of Cthulhu, you are playing Call of Cthulhu and not Lovecraft.
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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #7 on: August 19, 2020, 10:08:54 pm »
I'm getting the distinct impression that Call of Cthulhu may not be the right tabletop roleplaying game for the OP.
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Shasarak

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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #8 on: August 19, 2020, 11:29:57 pm »
I agree with Shrieking Banshee, the Sanity Mechanic is lame suitable only for weak willed NPCs.
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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #9 on: August 20, 2020, 05:12:00 am »
Gahan Wilson has hands down one of the best CoC reviews ever. The first I ever saw wayyyyyyy back in Twilight Zone magazine and really sold me on the game.

Pretty much mirroring the OPs, and my own likes for a more measured escalation to the madness. Of late it seems to have been missed this vital point and you see more and more adventures that are practically in your face right out the gate.

SAN loss in CoC though can come from mundane things as well. So dont think you are safe just because the tentacles havent appeared.

One venue that gets it right is the CoC LARP, Cthulhu LIVE which is pretty good and even has a pulp hero supplement. By its very nature of being a larp you want to keep your horrors mundane as long as possible and only bring out the big sanity blasters at the end.

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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #10 on: August 20, 2020, 05:30:10 am »
SAN is no worse than HP. It's an abstraction mechanic that works well in actual gameplay, but falls apart under scrutiny.

RandyB

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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #11 on: August 20, 2020, 09:21:12 am »
Quote from: Spinachcat;1145644
SAN is no worse than HP. It's an abstraction mechanic that works well in actual gameplay, but falls apart under scrutiny.

One key difference. In most games, HP or its analog is a temporary loss, outside of specific exceptions. SAN loss is permanent, outside of specific exceptions, producing a persistent degradation of the PCs.

Thematic? The OP here argues "no", relative to the source literature.

I argue that it represents a school of thought in gaming, one that prefers static or even diminishing PCs. One outcome of that style of play is that it is easier for the GM to contain and challenge the PCs.

Shrieking Banshee

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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #12 on: August 20, 2020, 09:27:59 am »
Quote from: RandyB;1145663
SAN loss is permanent, outside of specific exceptions, producing a persistent degradation of the PCs.
HP as a mechanic can at least represent some narrative aspects of storytelling and shorthand and the like. The SAN mechanic is only a representation of itself.

Gaming logic around hit points is somewhat logical. Acting dependant on how wounded you are is at least mildly accurate. But gaming around sanity is stupid. "Better not look at 5 zombies or I go nuts". It encourages an "I close my eyes and burn everything down" sort of logic.

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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #13 on: August 20, 2020, 10:21:59 am »
Are you not aware that it is spelled "sanity" or are you trying to make some point?

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Make Occult Horror Great again or how the santity mechanic ruined Lovecraft
« Reply #14 on: August 20, 2020, 10:57:51 am »
Quote from: RandyB;1145663
One key difference. In most games, HP or its analog is a temporary loss, outside of specific exceptions. SAN loss is permanent, outside of specific exceptions, producing a persistent degradation of the PCs.

The last CoC game I played my PC with high POW kept getting saner. The Keeper had to arrange the finding of a spell book to force SAN loss. There are ways to recover SAN per rules that are not all that different from recovering HP.