Purism in Lovecraft Gaming: A Rant

I haven’t had a good rant in a while, but I saw the Trail of Cthulhu blurb on Pelgrane’s site and I wanted to comment thereon. Here’s what they have to say about play styles:

It will support both Pulp (for Indiana Jones, Robert E. Howard, thrilling locations sorts of games) and Purist (for intellectual horror and cosmic dread).

That’s something I can get behind. But what about the next sentence?

HP Lovecraft’s work combined both, sometimes in the same story.

This is not to give Pelgrane a hard time, but to point out a paradox in Lovecraftian gaming. A certain proportion of the players of Call of Cthulhu insist on playing what they call a “purist” game or one “faithful to Lovecraft’s vision.” What they’re actually doing, in most cases, is picking and choosing what they want to create a particular mood and then claiming that they’re being faithful to Lovecraft’s vision.

So, let’s set some things straight.

First, it’s likely Lovecraft would think any games were silly.

All these things are, in their superior forms, simply by-products of excess intellectuality – which I haven’t the honour to possess. In their inferior forms they are of course simply avenues of escape for persons with too poorly proportioned and correlated a perspective to distinguish betwixt the frivolous and the relevant…

Thus, barring any sort of “if Lovecraft could see the future, he’d watch our games and start his own company with Robert E. Howard” argument, it’s unlikely HPL would’ve approved of this roleplaying tomfoolery in the first place.

(It’s also possible HPL wouldn’t want people writing silly books on the Mythos.  Still, when I do it, I know I might be ignoring his wishes.  That’s the difference.)

Second, much of what the “purists” call “pure” isn’t really that at all.  For example, I’ve heard it argued that psychic powers are anathema to a “pure Lovecraftian” game.  This is true, if one ignores their appearance in “The Shadow out of Time,” “The Mound,” “The Rats in the Walls,” etc.  Likewise, keeping magic out of the hands of the characters is perfectly consistent with Lovecraft, if we can just pretend that “The Dunwich Horror” was written by Frank Long or someone else.  Sure, Lovecraft didn’t believe in psychic powers or magic.  He also didn’t believe in tentacled monsters, which most people do keep in their games.

And don’t get me started on the topic of how “nobody ever wins” in Lovecraft.

Of course, if you like to keep your characters relatively helpless in your Call of Cthulhu games, ending in shrieking horror, that’s perfectly fine.  What’s not fine is to pretend as if doing so somehow makes you more faithful to Lovecraft’s perspective.  In the end, this attitude wreaks havoc to our understanding of the man and his fiction.  If you want a pure Lovecraftian roleplaying game, you can pretend that you’re trying to get a job in NYC with no resume while surrounded by foreigners after someone stole your new suit.

This isn’t to say that Kenneth Hite hasn’t written what is likely an excellent game.  Due to demands among gamers for “purity,” however, one of its versions might end up farther away from the actual source material than it would have been otherwise.  That’s just silly.

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Published in: on December 13, 2007 at 10:44 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Dan Harms, meet Dan Harms.

    I recognize that the target of your rant is not Trail of Cthulhu but self-appointed guardians of Lovecraftian “purism,” but I would hold, with Dan Harms, that playing a game of philosophical disintegration is different from playing one of globetrotting derring-do. What I attempt to do is signpost rules decisions that Keepers who want to emphasize one or the other can use, while explicitly pointing out, as the Pelgrane website puts it, that Lovecraft used both modes, often in the same story.

  2. […] Asmodeus has been put on the back burner in favor of Kenneth Hite, who writes in response to my anti-purity in Call of Cthulhu rant to point out this anti-pulp in Call of Cthulhu rant I wrote a while ago.  Which one of me will I […]


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