Sunday, February 24, 2008

On Gaming

This sad specimen - once a virtual superman but now a disgraced dissolute and notorious aesthete - demonstrates the unhealthy dangers of refraining from regular boardgaming

A while back back on the yog-sothoth forums, Blair Reynolds made
the following announcement.

In brief, Reynolds bemoans the trivialisation of Lovecraft not only in the field of roleplaying games but within popular culture more widely. One wonders what Blair Reynolds would have to say at the venerable Ken Hite’s recent supplement of Lovecraftian superheroism for The Mutants and Masterminds rpg, or indeed Hite's forthcoming Lovecraftian children's picture book...

No doubt Lovecraft would view much of what is produced in the name of the Cthulhu mythos as a crass commercialisation of his cosmic vision. Perhaps, then, the only genuine route to a ‘pure’ Lovecraft experience is to abandon all attempts at replicating the master’s vision in other media and simply spend one’s time reading Lovecraft in the original.

Needless to say, many respondents on the forums challenged Blair Reynolds' somewhat petulant tantrum, citing the way Lovecraft’s treated his own pseudomythology with a certain playfulness. Indeed, this leads me to ruminate more generally on Lovecraft and gaming. While Lovecraft did not seem to hold much thought for gaming in adult life, his childhood was replete with rich imaginative efforts that many miniatures wargamers and rpgers would recognise (a point I hope to return to in a later post about roleplaying and the occult). Indeed, this leads me to speculate that perhaps Lovecraft’s adolescent roleplaying did continue into his adult life. Yes, you heard me aright. Lovecraft was a roleplayer: as S. T. Joshi suggests, Lovecraft’s ‘Yog-Sothothery’ came to constitute a kind of parlour game and a shared imaginative space which Lovecraft and his literary circle explored - a form of collective storytelling (one might even say proto-geekdom)which I'm sure many contemporary rpg players would not only recognise but also feel a deep sense of kinship with. Indeed, the elements that inform today's roleplaying experience also informed Lovecraft's literary theory (an emphasis on verisimilitude) and his personal aesthetics (the evocation of particular moods - 'adventurous expectancy' - often via the imaginative suspension of natural law).

To push the gaming analogy further, the protagonist in virtually all of HPL’s tales was Lovecraft's own player character - usually an idealised imaginary of his very own self as genteel New England aesthete himself as genteel aesthete. In addition, we can see HPL as engaging in a kind of proto-Call of Cthulhu rpging during his literary exchange with Robert Bloch in their Haunter of the Dark – Shambler From the Stars escapade: each 'player' (Lovecraft and Bloch in turn taking the role of the GM) sought to drive mad and ultimately kill off the other’s player character in the context of an interesting and engaging narrative. Indeed, in a hyperreal twist the kind of literary and epistolarian roleplaying in which Lovecraft indulged formed the methodological basis of an actual rpg (the Lovecraftian themed letter-writing game De Profundis).

On a more personal note, this has led me to reflect on my own experiences of gaming and rpging, which I've been doing for nigh on 30 years now - although more of an occasional activity during the last 15 years or so. 2004 – 2006 was an especially fallow period, during which I set out to uncover the ultimate solitaire gaming experience in lieu of more social forms of the activity. Thankfully, at London's Dragonmeet in 2006 at London’s Dragonmeet I bumped in to a friend from university I hadn’t seen for over ten years, and have since resumed gaming on a quasi-regular basis. However, the kind of gaming that we have both come to involve ourselves in has changed considerably from the halcyon years of rpg all-nighters and non-stop dungeoncrawls during the summer holidays. The gaming industry has also transformed to reflect the changing demographic of its customers: in brief, the kind of games I’ve been playing of late are the Eurostyle and Ameritrash kinds of boardgames and cardgames; in fact, it seems that this 'new' breed of boardgames has become the dominant order of the day in contemporary gaming geekdom: as gamers get older and have less time (and more responsibilities), rpging is becoming less of a viable option (especially those of us approaching - of having surpassed - middle age!). To this end, rpging has also transformed , with game systems becoming more streamlined, requiring less prep time and emphasising storytelling over simulation. This is also mirrored in the structure and content of rpg books, which are often more visually appealing than in the heady days of the now almost mythical D&D white box, emphasising setting, background and plot over rule complexity and the guilty pleasures of killing imaginary monsters and taking their imaginary stuff while exploring an imaginary hole in the ground. Although roleplaying is becoming a distant memory to me, I’m sure I’m not the only person who buys rpg books just for the pure pleasure of reading them (like China Mieville, I’m especially partial to the odd rpg bestiary or two).

Back to boardgaming though. Earlier today I participated in a marathon 7 hour session of Fantasy Flight Games’ Twilight Imperium. Twilight Imperium is Big. Epic even. And in all senses of the word: it covers the sweeping saga of galactic empires in conflict whilst taking an epoch to play (in addition to which, the game is housed in a box of monolithic proportion). Six of us played and, although unable to finish the game, it was (for me at least) an immensely enjoyable and incredibly involving and immersive experience. Fantasy Flight Games are one of the main players in this new kind of boardgaming which offers outstanding production values, tension, strategy and, importantly, theme and setting to facilitate a kind of condensed rpg experience which far outstrips the abstract mechanics at the heart of most of these games (although with the best of this ‘new’ breed of games, the mechanics are often closely tied to theme). Despite the often competitive nature of these games, theya re often rich enough and grande enough that the playing itself - and not the winning - suffices(no, really!).

I might even go so far as to say that boardgaming is the new rpging. Well, perhaps not. Yet this ‘new’ boardgaming milieu maps out the topography of a genuinely unique gaming experience - albeit highly commodified and neatly packaged - which is more immersive and involved, often engaging players (albeit minimally) in forms of rpging. This, of course, is a godsend to those of use who are rpgers at heart, yet lack the time or opportunity for roleplaying. That said, the high production values do offer a lazy way into the gaming experience: the gaming worlds are presented through outstanding graphics which mean that on a visual level the imagination becomes a little redundant. Even so, with the best of these games offer potential for tense and engaging immersion into the themed player interactions.

Bringing this back to Lovecraft, it struck me that there exist one of this ‘new’ breed of boardgames that neatly encompasses a highly immersive Lovecraftian experience within a solitaire gaming medium - and in doing so might even be more ‘authentically’ Lovecraftian than the classic Call of Cthulhu rpg experience. Playing Call of Cthulhu is great fun, but often it does become something closer to a pulpish world-spanning Indiana-Jones-meets-the-Mummy kind of affair rather than evoking the nameless dread indicative of the Lovecraftian milieu.

In any case the boardgame in question is Fantasy Flight Games reissue of Arkham Horror: a cooperative boardgame in which the players take on the cosmic awfulness of the mythos. And usually lose. The game is gorgeous (especially in its first printing - the second printing included a less colourful board) and is appropriately cyclopean (it comes with one of the biggest boards I’ve yet encountered, barring Railroad Tycoon - though add the Dunwich Horror expansion and it probably eclipses the RT board). Where the game excels is in generating a sense of tension and impending doom through the clever mechanic of the, erm, doom track. What this means is that the players are involved in a battle against time and the forces of the mythos. When the doom track is filled, it pretty much means you will be eaten by some Monstrous Thing From Beyond Time and Space and the world will end. This, coupled with a few other clever mechanincs allow a single player to battle against the game system goes a long way to evoking the structure and content of many of Lovecraft’s best tales which, unlike the Call of Cthulhu rpg rarely involve loosing gangs of borderline-psychopathic gun-toting pyromaniacs (i.e. the player characters)amongst the tropes of Lovecraft’s mythos.

Not only does Arkham Horror neatly fuses an elegant and fairly simple system (although it might not seem so from reading the rather poorly organised rulebook), it also ties mechanics to the rich and evocative themes of Lovecraft’s mythos - and in such a way that even loosing the game by going insane or dying horribly (as often the end result of the game as it is the fate of Lovecraft’s protagonists) is fun.

Dare I say it: gaming is dead. Long live the new gaming!


  1. I look forward to your post on RPGs and the occult, especially how such activities may blur the line between role playing and fictive rituals.

  2. Hi Justin

    Nice reading of HPL as rgper. And I have had my own nostalgic twinge recently, tempered by reading The Elfish Gene
    - marketed as a funny book but actually quite wise and sad in places. Though clearly written by someone who regrets much of the time he spent on it...