Thursday, January 29, 2015

Placid Islands of Ignorance

I may go quiet for a couple of weeks or so. The reason I am about to go dark is because my awesome editor at Geek Native just bestowed upon me my next reviewing assignment: Call of Cthulhu, 7th edition. It may take me awhile to sift through the nearly-400 page corebook. Additionally, I promised him a feature about the game in addition to the review.

I am extremely excited to do this. I missed out on being able to throw in my two cents on the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Now I have a chance of riding the first wave of reviews on perhaps the next biggest role-playing game after D&D.

For those of you not in the know, Call of Cthulhu is a tabletop roleplaying game based on the short fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. For those of you really not in the know, H.P. Lovecraft is one of America's first, and best, horror writers. His influence can be felt everywhere. If you've ever enjoyed a Stephen King novel, or just finished binge watching HBO's True Detective, then you've had an indirect encounter with Lovecraft.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the lack of all-American culture in tabletop gaming, about how there are hundreds of games that draw on European history but relatively few that draw on American history. Call of Cthulhu is a massive middle finger to that. The "default" campaign in Call of Cthulhu is 1920's America, specifically New England, a small fictional town named Arkham. Over the years, Cthulhu has spread to earlier (1890s), later (1990s), and much later (the distant future) settings, as well as to Asia and, of course, Europe.

Lovecraft's writing, called by some "existential horror," revolved around the idea that there are secrets that humankind is not meant to know. That there are omnipotent, godlike beings out of range of our awareness, and they care about us about as much as we care about a single ant colony in a crack on the sidewalk. The mere revelation of the existence of such beings drives many characters in Lovecraft's stories insane. In a game of Call of Cthulhu, you get to play as investigators who make those very discoveries...and try and live with that knowledge. Sure, you might try and stop one of these ancient beings from destroying the world, and you might even succeed...but they can always try again.

Why would anyone want to play a game with such a bleak outlook? And yet, as I said before, it is probably the next biggest RPG in the world, behind D&D, and just as old. Well, part of it is because of that very contrast to D&D. In that game, you start as mere mortals and slowly, over the course of a campaign loaded with adventure, your heroes gain power and abilities that rival the gods themselves. That progression is what made D&D so popular for 30 years. In Call of Cthulhu, however, survival is the reward. Living (and being sane enough) to make it to tomorrow is your progression. You don't gain any special powers or additional hit points in Call of Cthulhu. Instead, you gain knowledge, knowledge that stretches the boundries of the human mind, knowledge that can just as soon kill you as it can inform you. It's the thrill of horror, that getting in touch with our own mortality, that gives Call of Cthulhu its enduring charm.

And as time goes on, I believe Lovecraft and his fiction will get even more poignant...and horrifying. Today's generation, the generation of Google and Wikipedia and 24-hour news cycles...can they even really imagine the notion of knowledge that's better left unknown? How scary must it be to them, if they think about it, that there might be things out there that they shouldn't try and Google? I daresay the existential horror of Lovecraft is the very arch-nemesis to our entire popular culture. What if we discovered the answer to global climate change isn't a "yes" or a "no", but a who gives a shit? The world is doomed and there is NOTHING WE CAN DO TO STOP IT!

At this point, I have read about half of Lovecraft's entire catalogue, and nearly all of the "really important" stories that have gone on to shape the sub-genre of Lovecraftian horror. And I've read nearly every edition of Call of Cthulhu. Today, I go back into Lovecraft's world to read the 7th edition of what some would call the Greatest RPG of All Time. I may check in every couple of days to give my thoughts ahead of the review. But if I disappear, fear not, Dear Reader. I'm just immersed deep in research. I might even come back...
The title of this blog entry is a reference to the first paragraph of Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu novella. As a dude with two degrees in English writing, I tell you that first paragraph is one of the greatest openings in all of literature, right up there with "Call me Ismael" or "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

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