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Adventuring in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft


By Keith Herber

First published in Different Worlds magazine issue 40, July/August 1985, pp.10-12 and issue 41, January/February 1986, pp.16-18

Also available as a PDF Adventuring in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft by Keith ("Doc") Herber (5 MB)
Part I: The Cthulhu Mythos

H.P. Lovecraft was born in 1890 and, with the exception of a short stay in New York, lived his entire life of forty-seven years in his native Providence, Rhode Island. Dwelling with one or the other of his two aunts - his only living relatives - he passed a near-pauper's existence, subsisting on a dwindling patrimony and earning most of what little money he did as a free-lance revisionist for other authors. Over a period of twenty years (1917-1937) he produced, under his own name, a mere fifty stories of varying lengths, a number of which did not even see publication until after his death. Relegated to the pages of the 'pulp' magazines of the era-such as Weird Tales and Astounding Stories - Lovecraft found difficulty pleasing even those editors. Discouraged by their frequent 'rejections,' he wrote less and less as he grew older, at the same time continuing to critique the work of other, less experienced authors while maintaining a regular correspondence with over fifty individuals including Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Fritz Leiber, C.L. Moore, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner and others. Many of these younger writers had first written to HPL as fans praising his work and while a number of them went on to far greater heights of fame and success, they have all at one time or another acknowledged their debt to his work. Even successful authors of the day such as Stephen King and Ray Bradbury speak of their regard for the "Rhode Island recluse". Nearly fifty years after his death his collected works are still published by Arkham House and have been frequently reprinted in the paperback collections and anthologies of horror as his posthumous fame continues to grow. While disparaged by such notable critics as Edmund Wilson and Isaac Asimov, Lovecraft has also been hailed by figures as eminent as Jean Cocteau and Stephen Vincent Benet. In Lovecraft's own opinion, he wrote but one "good" story in his entire career, that single tale The Colour Out of Space. Despite the wide variance of opinion regarding his work, to writers and aficionados of the weird, the phrase is: "Poe and Lovecraft".

In 1981, Chaosium released the adventure role-playing game Call of Cthulhu designed to allow its players to explore the eerie worlds created by H.P. Lovecraft and to uncover the mysteries surrounding what has come to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos. Adventure has a different meaning in this game and refers not only to action and physical risk but also to the danger that comes from delving too deeply into mysteries perhaps forbidden to the knowledge of mankind. There certainly exist many possibilities for excitement while prowling about ancient and sinister houses or while uncovering a secret and degenerate cult armed with the latest weapons, but the potential for a terrifying confrontation with the unknown may lie in a situation as innocent as the reading of a mouldering book recently discovered in the locked, rare-book collection of the local university's library.

Knowledge of the situation facing someone in a Call of Cthulhu adventure is of primary importance, as many of the outre beings and monsters are so powerful as to be nearly indestructible to 'normal' means. A cryptic spell may be required to hurl the being back to its outer realm, or a specific object needed to destroy the thing. More often the investigators will simply learn how to avoid the worst of the situation and may be able to do no more than seal off the beasts' lair or destroy only the smallest, most active part of an insane and inhuman cult. To gain this necessary information the individuals may find it necessary to refer to such ancient and ungodly tomes as the dread Necronomicon, written in 730 AD by the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred; or the forbidden Book of Eibon, attributed to a great wizard thought to have once lived in now lost and forgotten Hyperborea. Still darker secrets may lie hidden in the questionably - translated Pnakotic Fragments, hinted at by some to be of pre-human origin. These books hold some of the vague and near incomprehensible secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos - rumours of alien races and beings that roamed the planet before the coming of human life and prophecies that hint these things will once again claim the Earth their province, slaughtering and destroying all of mankind in a not too distant future "when the stars are right".

This knowledge, while invaluable to those who would explore the Mythos, does not however, come without its price. As an individual learns more and more of the frightful secrets hidden in blasphemous books and among the shards of collapsed, non-human civilizations, the devastating truth of mankind's infinitesimal role in the cosmos and his ultimate fate in time and space begins to impinge upon the person's mind, ultimately affecting his sanity.

The idea of an individual's sanity is unique to the Call of Cthulhu game and is particularly effective in simulating the growing feeling of lurking dread and fear that so strongly pervades all of Lovecraft's stories. As the players discover more and more of the secrets of the Mythos their sanity begins to decrease proportionate to the specific amount of knowledge they have gained. Large sudden losses of sanity can cause a player to lose his mind, the possible results of this running the gamut from temporary insanity - expressed as mildly as a short spell of fainting - all the way up to a major psychotic break. Permanent residency in a padded cell is the only possible future for a character who suffers this last described mental breakdown. Some other, milder forms of insanity are long lasting but can be cured by the successful use of psychoanalysis, one of the many skills available to investigators of the Cthulhu Mythos.






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