Friday, June 06, 2003

Really enjoying Michael Helsem's blog lately. I loved his choice of H.P. Lovecraft as the prophet/creator of the 21st century (he claims Diderot created the 19th century and Nietzsche created the 20th). Back in my hardcore role-playing days the game Call of Cthulhu stood out from the legions of Dungeons & Dragons imitators. In most RPGs, especially their computer versions, the pleasure of the game comes from making your character more powerful as he or she accumulates new skills, magical items, etc. The best games are like living bildungsromans, in which you started a character from nothing and he or she acquired both an education and a reputation in the fictional world you and your fellow players were collectively hallucinating. Cthulhu was different: here was a game where your character (or Investigator, as they were technically called) received an education in horror that led almost inevitably to his or her madness and/or death. The pleasure of projecting yourself into Lovecraft's world was the pleasure of learning the truth of a fictionalized yet historical reality (generally New England in the 1920s), of discovering beyond a doubt that the universe is at best indifferent to humans, at worst downright hostile, and the most you could hope was to temporarily forestall the inevitable destruction of mankind that would come once the hideously evil Old Ones awakened long enough to take notice of our existence. It's certainly an interesting forecast of the Cold War mentality, though it's hard to imagine that Lovecraft wasn't most affected, writing as he did in the 20s and 30s, by the First World War and its aftermath. Titanic forces unearthed by human beings and set into world-destructive motion, and the more your Investigator learns about it, the more likely he or she will become irrevocably stark, raving mad. Every Investigator had a certain number of "Sanity Points" and you would lose them when you experienced trauma. Seeing a dead person could cost you a sanity point, and reading certain books which revealed a portion of the Truth that was Out There could cost you a bundle. If you were unfortunate enough to actually see one of the Old Ones in action, you would almost certainly go mad before they killed you. That was what was so grim, and so oddly pleasurable, about the game. Most monsters in D&D-type games have a certain number of hit points and you at least have a shot at killing them. But when you're in the presence of Cthulhu, a random number of Investigators gets eaten every turn and there's nothing you can do about it except bring a lot of cannon fodder along with you.

Ah, such beautiful memories.

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