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View Full Version : DM Help How to do lovecraft without being generic, cliche or tentacular?



Matinta
2018-10-08, 09:18 PM
So my DM was able to run a very interesting Lovecraft inspired setting.

When we finally came face to face with the horror the cult summoned it was not what we expect, it had no tentacles and it did not come from the sea.

It was truly alien and weird.

At first it showed up as a mass of colorful sand as the cultists touched the cloud it they died, it devoured their skin leaving only bones and exposed flesh.

After that the sand became liquid like and it gathered around form many colorful orbs.

The wizard in the group used to be a member of this cult and had a deep connection with it, so after seeing his former master there he was unable to help himself and used his arcane lore to communicate with it.

As the creature started speaking, the colored liquid it was composed of fleshed in the respective light accompanied by a weird sound as the DM used the song from Annihilation OST called "The Alien".

It was such a weird and exotic concept and surreal experience, I never expected something so original could be done with a Lovecratian plot which I always found boring and uninteresting.

So I wonder if anyone has any advice how to make Lovecrafitian creatures interesting, I may end up taking the Dm spot in this group and want to keep this awesome vibe.

Facing this weird bubble god got to be the most interesting experience I ever had in a RPG and I want to keep delivering.

SunderedWorldDM
2018-10-08, 09:43 PM
I don't have much experience with the genre, and what I have done is relatively... tentacley. But I'd be happy tohelp you avoid my mistakes!

1) Try and add personal stakes. A mass cult across the earth to break a god out of the center of the planet or whatnot is less meaningful then a single farmer the players have known for a long time turning to the cult to feed his family, finally succumbing to madness and slaughtering his family. Makes the stakes personal, not big.

2) Lovecraft wrote a story about a new color taking over a landscape. A color, for god's sake. Look around you. Think of something average or normal and think about how you can make it terrifying for your players. Maybe whenever you try to light a fire, bubbles froth out instead, bubbles that burn the flesh and the mind. Maybe animals around your players are a cult themselves to summon an alien entity.

3) Take the typical laws of physics and causality and upend them. Maybe an entity in this world is helping the cult bring it into reality in some other period of time. Make an entity that stop entropy. Make a monster that is a collection of microscopic particles that can pull the atoms of your body apart.

4) There's a book called Occam's Razor (was on Kickstarter, don't know if it is now) which has a sample of Cthulhu adventures... with no Cthulhu. It's all explained by mundane means- no cults, no magic, just pranks and murder. It can really change your perception of the genre.

That's all I got. Hope it helps.

NichG
2018-10-08, 10:45 PM
Going past the details, the underlying idea Lovecraft taps into is that there are things we take so self-evidently to be true that we don't even think to state or question them - and even so, they may be false. For Lovecraft himself it seems to have been humanity's importance in the universe. But to be effective, figure out what those things are for your players and subtly undermine those ideas. Push in such a way so that other explanations are possible but become increasingly far-fetched - that's where the insanity angle comes in. Do you rebuild your world view abandoning the unstated assumptions shared by everyone else in society, or are you driven to more and more extreme rationalizations or denials of reality?

It can't be just 'random', it should very consistently and strongly suggest an obvious explanation which just happens to seem like it must be nonsense, unless everything else about reality is wrong.

I don't think a Lovecraftian horror should even be 'hostile' per se. It isn't something that wants to kill you or drive you insane. It's something whose existence implies that you will be insane or will die, absent any intention or agency on its part.

BeerMug Paladin
2018-10-08, 11:19 PM
The gist of the Cthulhu setting isn't necessarily dealing with amphibious, batrachian or aquatic monsters. It's dealing with the incomprehensibly alien. Not too long ago, critters of the deep ocean were utterly alien and strange to people and despite the commonality of finding pictures of that strange life nowadays, they're still outside of common experience. Even so, such imagery has been heavily mined for Cthulhu-type content, so the association is fairly expected by now.

Really, you can achieve a similar impact by taking something mundane and giving it some form of agency. It should have a goal or agenda to pursue which isn't immediately clear to the players. It can be pretty much anything you can imagine, but it should also engage in this activity in a way that is harmful/menacing.

For example, imagine a cloud of reddish platonic solids in various sizes just swirling about an area and creating a glittering fog in their midst. When the collection of shapes leaves that area, the region has been altered. Human/Animal corpses are left behind as withered green/blue-ish husks, along with most other life touched by it. Bark is sanded from trees but they otherwise appear to still be living, while insects seem to be alive and well. Some animal pelts are scoured and bloodless while others are semi-intact. Many rocks are brittle and crumble easily while others are as strong as ever. Walking through this area you're liable to fall into a sinkhole, even avoiding those which are already visible. Grasses seem to be fine, those that still have soil to cling to, at least.

Whatever it is you decide on, make sure its effect is described to the players without ever having its underlying explanation elucidated. For my example above, red things have been taken by the described monster. The players don't need to know this underlying connection for the monster's effects on its surroundings for it to be threatening and strange. They only need to encounter its effects and maybe witness it in action.

Usually, it helps if the critter isn't something that can be talked to, as that helps the incomprehensibility of such entities.

supercooldragn
2018-10-09, 12:54 AM
The first thing to do would be to read or re-read lovecraft. He does a fairly wide variety of themes in his work so either pick one of the less popular works and build a campaign around that sort of wierdness instead of the more standard trope. Or mix them up a bit to get something more of the flavor you are looming for

More generally the reading will help you see how he describes the scenes which should help you get inspiration for building your own.

I see lovecraft fundamentally as gesturing towarda that which is beyond reason. The things so strange that it is impossible to make sense of it, so those that try go insane. Go with something along those lines rather than "tentacles and stuff lol" and you'll be well on your way

Drakevarg
2018-10-09, 01:20 AM
As others have mentioned, Lovecraft's actual writings have little to do with the inherent terror of cuttlefish. The man was basically afraid of everything different from himself, and that painted his outlook thoroughly. Really, one of the most vivid things about his actual stories if you read them is how colorfully he could describe architecture. He could describe a shaded New England alleyway in a way to make it feel as foreboding as any forgotten cyclopean city.

However, the underlying message of Lovecraft tends not to strike as hard to modern audiences because what for his day was a dreadful revelation is often taken as simple matter of fact: that the universe is an incomprehensible vastness that could not care less about you, your people, or your entire world. Nobody went mad in his stories just because they looked at a five-sided square or saw a fishman. They went mad because everything they held to be true about their reality was abruptly and violently torn away from them.

Together, these two elements form the basis of evoking Lovecraft;
- A constant, looming air of dread and wrongness. Not something thrust before you, but just an underlying mood. The static in the air before a storm, the sudden quiet of birds. The quiet feeling that, though nothing obvious is amiss, something horrible is about to happen.
- The violation of a self-evident truth, as NichG put it so well. Done properly, even the undead could fill that role. It'd be difficult given their prevalence, but the underlying theme is there. Dead things are dead. Play the rejection of that obvious statement properly - like perhaps things just suddenly stop dying, period, even when reduced to a pulpy mass or a pile of ash - and you can get some pretty effective material out of it. Really, the possibilities are endless.

LunaLovecraft
2018-10-09, 01:40 AM
Google the SCP Foundation if you haven't. I feel like a good amount of the things in that storytelling community rely on a lot of the same alien and weird concepts that fuel Lovecraftian horror. Examine what makes them feel... off, and you might understand how lovecraft would work in a modern setting. Then consider how it might work in a more fantastical setting?

One idea I am playing with recently is this idea of enlightenment...

Monks spend their time hunting for an inner truth, right? They meditation, introspect, and see beyond the human condition. They see truths in the world others don't.

What if Wis doesn't make you better at avoiding eldritch horror-- it makes you worse? That's what's terrifying about it. Ultimately it's the act of knowing something you shouldn't have that begins to gnaw at the fringes of your outlook. An intelligent woman may stumble upon something she doesn't understand in a ruin-- but how did the people in the ruin learn about it in the first place? If it's innate to humanity, is it still there? And does a monk who looks inward threaten to unleash horrors that are the result of nothing more than comprehension?

Eldan
2018-10-09, 02:37 AM
- The violation of a self-evident truth, as NichG put it so well. Done properly, even the undead could fill that role. It'd be difficult given their prevalence, but the underlying theme is there. Dead things are dead. Play the rejection of that obvious statement properly - like perhaps things just suddenly stop dying, period, even when reduced to a pulpy mass or a pile of ash - and you can get some pretty effective material out of it. Really, the possibilities are endless.

Expanding on that, Lovecraft wrote several stories that are at the root very basic ghost or zombie stories. Dead sorcerers rising from the grave to possess people. Dead things rising from the grave to eat people. Ghost houses doing spooky things. Scientist tries to bring back the dead, it all goes horribly wrong. THat kind of thing. Not his best stories, I tend to think, but he did write that too.

Yora
2018-10-09, 04:04 AM
As far as I am able to tell, Lovecraft never used the same monster twice. There are no generic critters in his own stories. To get close to his style, don't use creatures that would be recognizable.

Eldan
2018-10-09, 06:29 AM
Oh yeah, that's an important one too.

And much of it doesn't even feel like it is meant to be in the same world. At least not much of his earlier works. In later stories, he starts to throw in a few names he has used before (Yog-Sothoth, the Necronomicon) but that seems almost more reference than worldbuilding.

(As an aside, I almost found that a bit comical in At the Mountains of Madness, where it turns out that apparently the entire geographical and paleontological faculty of Miskatonic University have read the same obscure thousand-year old Arabic occult text, as apparently, educated people in Lovecraft just do that.)

hamishspence
2018-10-09, 06:36 AM
As far as I am able to tell, Lovecraft never used the same monster twice. There are no generic critters in his own stories.

Some monsters (like ghouls) do recur - or get referenced without being used - but rarely.

AceOfFools
2018-10-09, 09:42 AM
Going past the details, the underlying idea Lovecraft taps into is that there are things we take so self-evidently to be true that we don't even think to state or question them - and even so, they may be false. [...]

It can't be just 'random', it should very consistently and strongly suggest an obvious explanation which just happens to seem like it must be nonsense, unless everything else about reality is wrong.

[...]

This reminds me of a story I read about on these forums where a GM ran a purchased module, but decided for giggles to gender flip all the NPCs.

But the module was written with basically no women in it (save one unnamed wife), so literally every NPC the party met in this town, including politicians, shopkeeps, and guards were a women.

And the PC's started assuming that something must have happened to all the town's men. The (male) players started getting all paranoid, like PCs sometimes do. But there never was anything wrong.

PastorofMuppets
2018-10-09, 09:45 AM
I think a large part of this feel is the tension leading up to the creature or being causing the problems. Investigators tend to follow in the wake of what already happened trying to piece things together or to decipher what a cult is going to do based on extremely old writings of the last time they tried.

I think scene setting is the key here, old laboratories performing nonsensical experiments that somehow created powerful or disturbing outcomes. Maybe an Arcana check success tells the Players that what is written in the old journals has to be a lie because magic doesnít work the way they claim. Resurrection and wish spell writings are found at several locations with writings about ancient powers not all of which are that world shattering in their descriptions and maybe itís discovered that this cult is trying to bring back not a dead god but a dead school of magic to give them A set of powers no one knows even exists.

I also think that simply not explaining everything is a viable method here. Have the knowledge of what is happening be incomplete simply because the world existing as it does means the ritual/presence has so far failed to happen. The only way to know more is to let it win and if you think thatís a good thing then I guess you have become a cultist now.

Hand_of_Vecna
2018-10-09, 12:54 PM
What if Wis doesn't make you better at avoiding eldritch horror-- it makes you worse? That's what's terrifying about it. Ultimately it's the act of knowing something you shouldn't have that begins to gnaw at the fringes of your outlook. An intelligent woman may stumble upon something she doesn't understand in a ruin-- but how did the people in the ruin learn about it in the first place? If it's innate to humanity, is it still there? And does a monk who looks inward threaten to unleash horrors that are the result of nothing more than comprehension?

This is a great idea as it fits a theme of Lovecraft's stories and subverts an expectation of how the game world works. One or two clues given as a "reward" for high wisdom checks are likely to send many characters into a spiral reminiscent of many Lovecraftian narrators. Eventually gaining permanent wisdom bonuses and free uses of divination abilities.

Lapak
2018-10-09, 01:17 PM
For me, the most important element of capturing a Lovecraftian tone - in addition to the excellent advice already given - is to allow opportunities for adventure that do not lead to a clean and permanent resolution.

You can have action and even heroism, but there should never be a sense of 'ah, now the problem is solved for all time. This village is Safe now that the Lurking Threat has been defeated.' Winning is a holding action, surviving until tomorrow, preventing the eruption of a horror beyond understanding today but knowing that something equally ineffable could turn up tomorrow or next week.

A good non-Lovecraft example is The Laundry Files, where the source of the underlying threat is human thought and computation. The protagonists can fight individual fires and suppress dangerous knowledge on a case-by-case basis, but nothing can avert the apocalypse forever short of killing off 90% of the population and kicking the rest back to stone-age agrarianism.

MoiMagnus
2018-10-09, 01:54 PM
I only did one "one-session campaign" in a lovecraft universe (as a player). And that was a success.

Ingredients of this success:
+ We were "everyday characters". Not saying we were "average boring peoples", since we all had some interesting stuff. But we were not character prepared to what happened.
+ We had a story hook. We were all part of the same extended family, and our grand parents were mysteriously dead, and the police closed the case without too much investigation.
+ No "proof" of surnatural before a 3/4 of the session. But a lot of hints before. Which mean that characters can still doubt what they see, and slowly fall into madness. As soon as there is a "monster" seen, it start becoming horror/survival instead of existential horror.
+ No solution. We didn't have any clue of what we should do. There was a mystery that both our character and us were interested in, and "the curiosity killed us". (Note: the scenario was not helpless or anything. If we didn't fall to madness before, we could have succeed)
+ Any metagame is penalised by loss of sanity (up to reasonnable limits, of course). It include:
- Remarks like "well, that's maybe a vampire", or any reference to lovecraft universe. The simple fact that your character connect its knowledge of the mythos with the fact they see is enough to make them insane.
- "No! Don't trust him!" when another player's character in another room is about to make a mistake. The DM said "you hear in your head John saying 'No! Don't trust him!', do you ignore it, or do you aknoledge that John may be able to talk by telepathy with you (which would result in the loss of sanity)"
+ Different levels of madness were ready for all characters (prepared by the DM), detailling:
- How you should change your RP (the DM accept any suggestion of alternative RP from the player)
- What secret objective do you have now, if any.
- What magical power do you have now, if any. (Warning: using it will decrease even more your sanity)
- The last level of sanity is always something "well, you're character is not getting out alive from this scenario, but he still have some time before dying to fullfill its secret objective".
+ We were not using the Call of Cthulhu system. We were using a fully narrative system.
+ Bonus: Sanity points were represented by smarties. When you lose them, you eat them. You can eat them at any moment, and are free to justify why your character is getting a little more insane.

Maelynn
2018-10-09, 02:29 PM
Bonus: Sanity points were represented by smarties. When you lose them, you eat them. You can eat them at any moment, and are free to justify why your character is getting a little more insane.

I love this idea and might steal it. As soon as I figure out how to best incorporate it into a D&D 5e session (that makes use of the Madness rules and Sanity score) while still giving them a good enough chance to defeat the end boss and make it out alive.

M. Arillius
2018-10-13, 11:18 PM
Take the bloodborne route. No, wait, hear me out! Bloodborne had the people using the magic stuff without realizing it was Cthulu blood. Give the PC's a good nation that's discovered a new magical resource that gives them a small but decent power boost and allows for magic to be far more common place. Let them fight for this place over the campaign, save it from constant threat, but have there be hints as time goes on that the threats they're fighting don't seem quite right. Then pull the rug out from them, somehow, and show them that for a while they've been driven mad by the power and have been killing armies of other nations trying to put down the monstrous mad kingdom the PC's live in.

Reversefigure4
2018-10-14, 02:25 PM
I've often falling on describing the monsters differently to each player. One character sees a mass of gnarled ropes, while another sees a melting candle reaching towards them with multi-coloured waxen limbs.

Combine with refusing to name the monsters - it's a "Shadow in the Sky" rather than a "Hunting Horror", because a Hunting Horror is a known commodity with stats - means the players are never quite sure what's going on.

Drakevarg
2018-10-14, 05:51 PM
Combine with refusing to name the monsters - it's a "Shadow in the Sky" rather than a "Hunting Horror", because a Hunting Horror is a known commodity with stats - means the players are never quite sure what's going on.

This actually works pretty well - one of the most memorable encounters I've ever run was just a pack of shadows, but after giving them a backstory, swapping their Strength damage for Fire damage, and calling them "Ash Wraiths," the impact they had on the party was far more than something casually ripped from the Monster Manual would be.

Selion
2018-10-19, 07:59 PM
So my DM was able to run a very interesting Lovecraft inspired setting.

When we finally came face to face with the horror the cult summoned it was not what we expect, it had no tentacles and it did not come from the sea.

It was truly alien and weird.

At first it showed up as a mass of colorful sand as the cultists touched the cloud it they died, it devoured their skin leaving only bones and exposed flesh.

After that the sand became liquid like and it gathered around form many colorful orbs.

The wizard in the group used to be a member of this cult and had a deep connection with it, so after seeing his former master there he was unable to help himself and used his arcane lore to communicate with it.

As the creature started speaking, the colored liquid it was composed of fleshed in the respective light accompanied by a weird sound as the DM used the song from Annihilation OST called "The Alien".

It was such a weird and exotic concept and surreal experience, I never expected something so original could be done with a Lovecratian plot which I always found boring and uninteresting.

So I wonder if anyone has any advice how to make Lovecrafitian creatures interesting, I may end up taking the Dm spot in this group and want to keep this awesome vibe.

Facing this weird bubble god got to be the most interesting experience I ever had in a RPG and I want to keep delivering.

Lovecraftian creatures rarely are tentacles monsters. There is a novel about colour never seen before which plagued a land, read it now! :smallsmile: ("The colour out of space").
By the way, if you are in search of inspiration, there is a horror manga which takes a lot of atmosphere from lovecraftian settings: it's called "uzumaki".
I don't suggest reading it if you are a sensitive person, it's one of the most upsetting things i ever read

Xuc Xac
2018-10-21, 05:25 PM
Insanity isn't random wacky behavior. Insanity is what the ignorant call knowledge.

If you saw a cultist mix up an alchemical paste made from wood ash and animal fat, smear it all over his hands, then burn a piece of meat in a fire before eating the blackened flesh, you'd think he was insane. That's what washing with soap before cooking a pork chop looks like to people without knowledge of germs.

Someone who is terrified of corners isn't insane. That's a rational precaution for anyone who knows about the hounds of Tindalos. If you're the only person in the building who can read the "Biohazard Infectious Waste Keep Out" signs, other people might think you're insane for refusing to go into certain rooms or drink from certain bottles in the fridge.

In a Cthulhu game, picking up mental quirks like phobias isn't the result of your brain breaking. It's just what it looks like when you learn more about how world works and act rationally. Other people think you have an irrational fear of red things, but you have rational reasons to avoid them. If you convincingly explain those reasons, you'll spread the insanity.

Marcotix
2018-10-22, 12:05 PM
Dang this is so much good stuff. Please keep em' coming and thanks all for contributions!