Monday, February 03, 2014

Cthulhu in popular culture

One of the most curious bits of random Yog-Sothothery was in the d20 Call of Cthulhu book.  In the appendixes, Monte Cook (or whichever of the writers wrote this section, but I'm pretty confident in that call that it was him) talks about doing the obvious--importing Cthulhu and other Mythos monsters directly into D&D, because after all, any iteration of the d20 system back then was still sufficiently similar to any other iteration that it was really easy to do so.  There was a bit of Wayne Reynolds artwork of the early 3e iconics getting trounced by a little Cthulhu cub or something.  This bit of art has become quite popular amongst gamers, and I've seen it reposted numerous times over the years since.

However, I think a lot of gamers just really don't understand Lovecraft, to be honest with you.  In the most recent posting of it, someone posted that picture and the question: have you ever had a team of high level characters fight Cthulhu, and if so, what was the experience like?  One guy responded immediately that if the players won, then something was certainly wrong the system used to run that combat.  And then a moderator on the site, one who's usually fairly intelligent, and who usually posts from a position of knowing what he's talking about, added to that that maybe there's nothing wrong with the system, but it clearly didn't match Lovecraft's writing.

Wait, what?  Says who?  Are you suggesting that high level D&D characters aren't likely to have access to junky old boats?  Because as I recall, what would have been the equivalent of a low-level Expert class NPC bumped Cthulhu on the head with a boat, and sent him packing.  High level D&D characters shouldn't have found that any kind of challenge whatsoever.

This was not unique to Lovecraft's writing.  A posse of federal agents put a decisive end to the lair of the Deep Ones in Shadow Over Innsmouth.  A handful of old professers with access to a banishment ritual of some kind put a decisive end to the monstrous "half-brother" of Wilbur Whateley in The Dunwich Horror.  Randolph Carter flouted the designs of no less a villainous team-up than Nyarlathotep and Azathoth simply by waking up in The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath (although, sure, I'll concede that he didn't kill them in mortal combat, exactly.)

Who says that defeat of the Cosmic Horror is not in line with Lovecraft's writings?  This leads to some of the same inane problems that Cthulhu games inevitably have--unskilled or inexperienced Keepers (or whatever they call Cthulhu GMs) think that if they're not chewing through characters 2-3 or more per session, then they're somehow doing it wrong.  This means that, in my experience, Cthulhu is often viewed as a campy one-shot or convention type game, completely unsuitable for campaign style play.  What a sad state of affairs!  Cthulhu can and should provide some of the best campaigns you can get.  But not if the GM and players don't really "get it."  And part of "getting it" is 1) actually understanding Lovecraft's writings, and not going on a half-baked, second hand interpretation of them, and 2) recognizing the nature of Yog-Sothothery and what it is supposed to be.  Heck, Lovecraft himself expected that his Yog-Sothothery circle would do different things with the themes and memes of the Mythos.  Robert E. Howard wrote all kinds of Mythos stories in which the Mythos was rather heroically handed its rear end by a two-fisted, gung-ho type guy (like Solomon Kane, for instance.)  And Lovecraft thoroughly approved.

The idea that Lovecraft wrote only about shy, retiring characters who were doomed to failure is not supported by "the primary sources."  It's really an artifact of what's come after--long after, in many cases--Lovecraft himself had died.


Joshua Dyal said...

The nonsense continues on ENWorld about this topic. Even when I pointed out that an old sailor--a low-level NPC classed fella, operating on his own, defeated Cthulhu in "Call of Cthulhu," the only story in which he actually appeared, I still had a bunch of silly arguments.

Their position seemed to be that Cthulhu is to monsters what katanas are to weapons if you're a big Japanophile nerd, and about 11 years old. You can't fight him, you can only DIE and LOSE, you big LOSER McLOSERTON!!!11


While it's arguable that the Lovecraftian paradigm, at least as it's become posthumously, doesn't really fit with the D&D paradigm at all (hence my need to specifically hybridize them somewhat in this blog, because it fights against the grain), in point of fact, Cthulhu isn't conceptually OR mechanically much different than any of the many demon lords and other archfiends and their peers that make up a standard D&D cosmology.

It's just that in your standard D&D cosmology, they're balanced by peers on the side of good. And PCs can actually ascend to the ranks of becoming peers with them anyway.

Gaiseric said...

And my earlier characterization of that moderator was much too kind. He's a sanctimonious, smug know-it-all who is actually surprisingly ignorant about most of the subjects on which he likes to hold forth once you scratch the surface just a bit. He's also an argumentative contrarian who likes to argue for its own sake whether he knows what he's talking about or not.