Monday, 25 January 2021

Review: Stealing Cthulhu


WALMSLEY, Graham, with Kenneth Hite, Gareth Hanrahan & Jason Morningstar (Jennifer Rodgers & Olli Hihnala, illus.; Harriet Evans, ed.), Stealing Cthulhu, the author, Chippenham Wilts. UK, 2011

Octavo; hardcover, with illustrated boards; 178pp. with monochrome illustrations. Minor wear; spine extremities softened; marginal notations in ink throughout. No dustwrapper as issued. Very good.

I don’t do a lot of roleplaying anymore. In other lives it was all I did, weekends, after hours, holidays. I had a regular gaming crowd and other groups available for one-offs and scratch games. Then there was the convention circuit. I wrote a bunch of adventures for all kinds of systems and genres and I learnt a lot about narrative and refereeing techniques and styles along the way. Nowadays, I don’t have a roleplaying crowd, because life has intruded far too much: what free time I have is used up by other demands and – co-ordinating with other like-minded people and finding say, three hours spare to do stuff in? – forget it. It ain’t happening. I was talking with a friend about this situation the other day and we spoke of ways in which ‘fast and dirty’ games could be generated, allowing time – if time could be allocated – to be used efficiently and with less waste. To this end he loaned me this book.

Graham Walmsley has written a textbook that attempts to tell Keepers of all levels of competency how to prepare and conduct horror games based on Lovecraft’s oeuvre. He wades through some of HPL’s best-known works and drags out the essential qualities that makes these narratives work, demonstrating how they can be re-engineered for a roleplaying format. He breaks down the construction of narrative through-put logically and systematically, covering topics such as Beginnings and Endings, Creating Narrative “Distance” (essential for building dread), and The Investigator. As he proceeds, marginal comments by Kenneth Hite are inserted into the page edges, commenting on – and sometimes forcefully disagreeing with – Walmsley’s material (where these are legible – handwriting styles vary). With this particular copy, there’s an extra bonus: Walmsley has hand-written further marginal material on the pages, addressed to my friend, a long-time correspondent and contributor to the Kickstarter campaign behind this book.

The word “stealing” in the title is a bit annoying. The author’s stated aim is that all sorts of things in Lovecraft’s works can be “stolen” for the purpose of adapting them into a roleplaying context. That’s fine, but the word gets hammered like a brand name throughout the book and it gets old very quickly. Especially when you consider that Lovecraft himself was more than open to other writers taking his concepts and having a play with them: can you steal from someone who’s giving away their stuff for free? What he’s talking about here is borrowing and adaptation, appropriation at some level. Is the loaded word “stealing” meant to imply some kind of cowboy mentality? Some sort of devil-may-care attitude, perhaps? I mean, come on, it’s roleplaying for God’s sake – we’re not getting down with the cool kids here. It was off-putting for me frankly, and I had to consciously steel myself against it before continuing.

Regardless, there’s lots to like in this book, especially if you’re interested in the narrative techniques of HPL. Walmsley breaks down many of the major works in terms of their narrative structures, highlighting what works best and what occasionally operates against the author’s intent, and giving plenty of advice about how to use these techniques in a roleplaying scenario. He discusses plot structure, word use - how to construct descriptions so that they fall into the rhythm of Lovecraft’s material - and, most of all how to turn a story from one of straight horror to one of Cosmic Horror. There are plenty of useful insights to be found here.

Conversely, there’s a somewhat formulaic approach to Lovecraft’s work taking place. Walmsley insists that Keepers not be “afraid” of HPL’s narratives and urges us to simply replay those stories where possible, recycling them for our gaming crowds much as a movie reproduces a print story, putting a personal “spin” on things. He urges us to not treat the canon as something holy, but to take those sacred cows and make hamburgers out of them. I’m afraid this is where Mr. Walmsley and I part company.

I spend a lot – a lot! – of time trying to preserve the canon and to work with it, such that nothing is lost and that all of it makes sense, even when it’s inherently contradictory. It’s a high wire act. Accordingly, when someone pairs Shoggoths with the MiGo, for example, for me they had better make a compelling case for something not supported by the published material. Walmsley doesn’t do this, by the way, but his approach to writing Mythos material certainly has the potential to let it happen. Again, this is a personal gripe which others won’t be bothered by.

In essence, Walmsley turns the bulk of the stories by Lovecraft (and Colin Wilson and Ramsey Campbell) into pared-back frames, into which a bunch of ‘plug-and-play’ tropes and other concepts can be inserted, supporting a number of thematic styles. Thus, if you want to play with concepts of ‘Time’ you run the “Shadow Out of Time” framework inserting the Great Race of Yith as antagonists; if ‘Possession’ is your theme, then your framework is the “Insects from Shaggai” and you stick in the Shan (obviously) or Yithians once more. And the MiGo apparently are our ‘go to’ guys for doing pretty much anything else. Each antagonist has its own array of features: the Lloigor have Minions; the MiGo have Technology; Flying Polyps have Elemental Control. All of these addenda are thrashed out in individual chapters but there are glaring omissions – no Ghouls, for example – although, to be fair, Walmsley clearly states that creatures not covered in the text can be built using similar critters as templates. (There are some that I found odd – my reading of the Colour out of Space is that it’s an effect, a contagion; Walmsley ascribes sentience and will to it – as a species of alien - which doesn’t seem at all appropriate to me, or supported by the text.)

The processes discussed in this book reminded me a lot of an article I read in “Dragon Magazine” way back in the 80s. In that text, the writer stated that he had no advance warning about a gaming session which he was expected to referee. The game was “Gamma World” and in desperation he turned to things that he had in his workspace: a book of old castles provided a working map and a quirky miniature of a carrot-headed creature (possibly a Flaming Carrot gaming piece?) suggested the mutants du jour. In short order – explained step-by-step - he had a game involving the penetration of the secret underground base – an ex-nuclear missile silo – of the Karit tribe (or something like that – it was a while ago!). Walmsley’s treatment of Mythos gaming here is very like this – pick one from column A, take two from Column B. It’s quite formulaic.

Walmsley also encourages Keepers to flip environments and settings, with no regard for the rationales for these things in the original stories. Thus, since “At the Mountains of Madness” is set in Antarctica, he suggests re-locating the story elsewhere – the Amazon, for example – and, accordingly, “Shadow Over Innsmouth” can be dropped easily into the heart of some desert. Now, this may be true, and as a means of brainstorming ideas for a roleplaying game it’s well-travelled ground. But it all seems a bit haphazard here: any story can be pared back to its essentials until it loses all connexion to the original version so there comes a point when you’re not really running a Lovecraft narrative, and swapping in-and-out antagonistic monsters willy-nilly smacks of computer gaming and random “Boss” generation, rather than any kind of considered roleplaying gaming structure. At its most fundamental, this system advocates stuff that is the roleplaying equivalent of the “Howard Lovecraft” animations.

(Pinning down the monsters in this way kind of robs them of their mystery too. Running an “If Deep One (or whatever) then X” protocol for each beastie in question, seems a bit overly simple. Too much like August Derleth trying to ‘explain’ everything with a single (elemental) theory. On top of this, the author states that if your various combinations don’t make sense, then just run with it – the Mythos defies rational explanation. Can you say, “cop out”? Nice try.)

Now, I get it: taking on the role of referee in any roleplaying game is daunting, especially for those who’ve never done it before, so any guide that shows you how the techniques work and makes it seem less forbidding is a good thing. This book is a valuable resource in that regard. However, in terms of narrative construction, it oversimplifies the process unnecessarily, taking a structural and mathematical approach to something that is essentially not able to be – completely – reduced to these terms. Roleplaying cannot be reduced to a bunch of computer game algorithms. I mean, it can, but who wants that? Further, the material reveals the personal peccadilloes of the author which might not have been so obvious except that the commentators have been allowed to scribble in the margins highlighting these biases. Walmsley clearly likes the MiGo, Lloigors and the Colour out of Space and there is an inordinate amount of text provided for them; comments asking where overlooked creatures – and the stories which highlighted them – have gone, only serve to underscore the shortcomings of the text. And, in a post-Trump era, I’ll bet he regrets that snide jab about Obama being a mask of Nyarlathotep too.

This is horses for courses. If you find yourself needing to come up with a “Call of Cthulhu” scenario in no time at all, then this is your first port of call. It’s incredibly useful in that regard. But wouldn’t you rather present a carefully constructed, considered story to your group, rather than just “The Whisperer in Darkness” on ice? Or “Call of Cthulhu” with Azathoth standing-in for the Big C? I know what I’d prefer.

The format of the book leaves a little to be desired also. I get it that someone thought it would be cute to have other notable roleplaying scribes doodle in the margins and make their own comments, but it’s also distracting and some of the comments don’t make a lot of sense – they’re minute and constrained by being marginal, and so some relevance gets lost. But Walmsley also works like this in the main text: there are a lot of throwaway one liners and footnotes that confuse otherwise salient points. An instance of note is how often he whacks out a footnote, or a tangential sentence, stating “this is a General rule…”; I would have preferred a list of these rules and their explication at some point in the main text, rather than having to scrabble through various afterthought insertions looking for them.

I am, frankly, in two minds about this book. It’s a solid resource for anyone who wants to write their own Call of Cthulhu roleplaying material, but it feels a bit reductionist to me and a slave to its cute design concept. If you’re interested in HPL’s writing technique, there’s a lot here to inform about his process. If you’re trying to write a computer game featuring the Mythos, then this is a solidly number-crunchy architectural overview for that project. And if you’re running or writing a roleplaying scenario, it’s a good foundation to work from, although – in terms of writing one - it’s incredibly simplified and you’ll need to finesse your stories in order to make them convincing. That being said, there’s a lot of good material here about improvisational technique, narrative engineering, refereeing tips, and the addition of colour which can be applied to any campaign, new or ongoing.

Roleplaying is many things to many people. For some it’s about mathematical probability and modelling; for others it’s about improvisational theatre; for most, it’s somewhere between these extremes. The main issue that this book has is that it assumes gaming, and the process of writing scenarios, follows a single format when it absolutely does not. Read this book: it has lots of good advice and some great insights. At some point though, your ideas of what a Mythos-based roleplaying game is, and those of the author, will diverge dramatically. Be prepared for that and you’ll still get some value from it.

Three Tentacled Horrors. And "catacomb".

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