Why are we still celebrating the worst of Lovecraft?

I’ve always been a fan of classic pulp horror. I grew up reading Edgar Allan Poe when I was probably too young to really appreciate it. In high school and college I got into HP Lovecraft. I’m still into this sort of existential horror, but given modern sensibilities that comes with a lot of asterisks.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, HP Lovecraft was an exceptionally not good person even giving the time he lived as an excuse. All you need to do is Google the name of his cat. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Back with me? Hopefully you are, and I do want to clarify that I’m not here to preach about the evils of a dead white man, or to try and excuse his often racist and sexist writings. Instead I want to talk about how we can do better in the year 2021. Though, to know how we can do better I feel like I need to also talk about how we’re not there yet.

Call of Cthulhu is a role-playing game set in the world created by HP Lovecraft. The game’s most recent edition was released in 2016 and was written by Sandy Petersen, taking much influence from HP Lovecraft’s works and codifying them into a mostly cohesive game system.

Regardless of my feelings of Petersen, I actually love the Call of Cthulhu ruleset. It’s made to be hard on players, and provide a feel of existential, overpowering dread. Unfortunately, it also perpetuates many of the more problematic tropes that are inherent to Lovecraft’s work.

I recently joined a one shot campaign at a local game store. A friend of mine and I were hanging out and they needed more players for the game, so we joined. Obviously I knew the potential problems with getting into such a game, especially not knowing the GM (game master) or other players present. I joined anyway, hoping for a fun few hours nonetheless.

Instead I just got frustrated. The GM was friendly enough, introducing the world for those that might not be familiar with it, and providing some rudimentary content warnings. Props to him for that. Then, he started telling us about the player characters we could play as. Since the game was meant to be a quick intro to the setting and system, premade characters were provided rather than creating our own.

We were a group of mobsters, being sent on a job to secure moonshine from some bootleggers outside the city. There were half a dozen characters we could choose from, but only one of the characters was a woman. I didn’t particularly feel like being the only woman in the game store playing the only woman in the campaign, so I opted for one of the other characters.

After a bit of fumbling around the GM admitted the character that struck my fancy wasn’t in his packets, and he passed me the girl to play instead. I didn’t feel like arguing and just accepted my fate. 

Things got worse when I read my character’s back story. Turns out she was the girlfriend of one of the other player characters. So now I’d have to roleplay being in a relationship. Fortunately my friend that was with me was the other character so it was less awkward but still, not a great start. Reading further she also has a thing for her boyfriend’s brother (another player character)… and was the ex-girlfriend of an NPC (non-player character) that we’d later run into. 

Fine, whatever. She had some cool stats and abilities that I could have fun with and I planned to emphasize those instead.

So we start the game and immediately the GM starts mostly ignoring things I’m saying or having my character do. Instead, focusing largely on the other players. At this point I was getting a little annoyed, but I was trying to stay positive. It was possible the things I was attempting to role-play weren’t very well covered in the materials and the GM might have just not been good at the improvisation of saying “Yes, and.”

Eventually, we get pulled into combat. I got the feeling combat was what the GM was most interested in running, and when I say pulled into it I mean he really forced us into combat for no really good reason. Once again, it’s fine. I can roll my dice and shoot my 12 gauge and kill some Lovecraftian horrors.

Round one and two I use up my loaded shots. Round two, I decided that rather than reload I’d drive the car I was in into the big bad. Cars do a lot of damage when used as a battering ram. I fail my driving check and wreck the car, but still hit my target and do some damage.

The next round, another player lights and tosses a stick of dynamite at the boss. He rolls poorly, and for some reason the GM decides that this means he overthrew the dynamite, which lands underneath the car I’m in, blowing up the car with me in it. I die immediately.

At this point I’m pissed. I didn’t just waste two hours of my time to play a character I didn’t want to play in the first place and to be killed by no fault of my own. The GM just, apparently, wanted to kill me.

By now both me and my friend have been killed, so we move to another table and finish the night off with some Magic the Gathering.

I’m telling this story not to complain about the GM, and not to complain about the oddly sexist only girl in the party, but instead to set a baseline for what it’s like as a woman in a local game store.

As much as I love the idealized concept of the friendly local game store, it’s not something that is easy to find. In fact, the F in FLGS is surprisingly hard to find, and I’d argue the reason behind it is the stereotypes and prejudices surrounding the likes of HP Lovecraft and Sandy Petersen.

Yesterday, Sandy Petersen made two tweets that surprised no one who has been paying attention, but apparently surprised many of his fans. The first was a defense of colonialism in board games, and the second was a transphobic tweet about transgender people in the Olympics.

No, I’m not going to link those tweets. They don’t deserve your attention. I only bring them up, because they further prove the point I want to make.

You see, I strongly believe that the worlds of late 1800s through 1920s pulp fiction can be redeemed. They have been, even, by fantastic designers that care enough to bring those worlds into the modern age while keeping the settings in the gritty stories we want to explore.

Recently, Lovecraft Country aired on HBO and if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend watching it. It’s everything I love about Lovecraft, with a touch of existential horror in a way I could have never expected. The way it challenges the racist and sexist tropes of the typical Lovecraftian stories is amazing. Unfortunately I am unable to personally speak on the book of the same name that it’s based on, but it’s certainly now on my list of “must reads.”

Most of what I want to talk about though are games, and the first one that I want to highlight is Chris Spivey’s Harlem Unbound, a role-playing game built on top of the rules of Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu. This is a game that does everything it can to allow people to explore the horrors of the Cthulhu mythos, while bringing in diversity. What makes Harlem Unbound special is that it’s based in the 1920 Harlem Renaissance. The introduction, available in screenshots on Chaosium’s website, is worth a read. 

Another example of Cthulhu done right is the Arkham Horror Files series of games by Fantasy Flight. Most notably Arkham Horror 3rd Edition, Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition, and Eldritch Horror. All of which worked on by Nikki Valens, an amazing game designer that has embraced the ideas of Lovecraft while bringing diversity and inclusion to their board games. Recently, Fantasy Flight even released the first transgender character for both Arkham Horror: The Card Game and Arkham Horror 3rd Edition. Stella Clark has an amazing backstory that brings her transgender identity into the mythos perfectly. 

The next honorable mention is Eric Lang and Rob Daviau’s Cthulhu: Death May Die. A Cthulhu themed game published by CMON with a wonderfully diverse cast of 1920s characters. While it’s not as story centric as the Arkham Files games or Harlem Unbound, it’s still a worthy example of moving beyond the less savory tropes of Lovecraft.

Lastly, I want to bring up a game from 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube, Eternal Darkness. This is a game that while not directly related to Lovecraft, took the same concepts of unknowable and unspeakable horrors and existential crises. This was a game that not only featured a female protagonist and people of color predominantly throughout the story.

For 20 years we’ve had content that includes what people love about classic pulp fiction horror while avoiding the problematic tropes. It’s a shame that so many creators choose to live by the letter of Lovecraft’s works, rather than evolve them with the times.