Sunday, June 19, 2016

HPL's Racism & Adding Moral Complexity to Call of Cthulhu

1 Racism & Call of Cthulhu

Howard Philips Lovecraft was a racist.

Even a cursory reading of his stories will produce evidence of his phobia of racial impurity and belief in white superiority. There is the infamous start of Call of Cthulhu:

The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly, as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro who had come from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside which formed a short cut from the waterfront to the deceased’s home in Williams Street.

Lovecraft scholar TS Joshi has commented on this bigotry many times, and HPL's bust was removed from the World Fantasy Awards because of this. A Google search of racism + lovecraft spools out innumetable articles and blogposts such as THIS.

So, point taken and cased closed, right? This doesn't mean we should stop reading his stories, which have morphed into a cultural property that has outlived their creator and his bigotry. For this same reason, Call of Cthulhu is still highly playable, with the prewar setting offering the complex moral dilemnas of the pre-Civil Rights struggle era.

Except that many games of CoC I've played in or run have been set in a pasturized past, an idyllic 1930s where color matters not, and the Good Guys band together to Save the World.

Not only is this the antithesis of the Mythos stories, it is a lost roleplaying opportunity.


2 Race, Class, & the Mythos

Roleplayers, due to the hobby's origin in the black & white moral alignments of D&D, naturally adhere to the polarity of good society versus evil monsters. In Call of Cthulhu, however, things should not be so cut and dried.

Logically, mythos creatures don't care or can't see human difference. Black, white, upper class, labourer, all taste the same to Cthulhu's idiot maw. Some creatures are merely entities stranded on an alien world, only dangerous when people rile them.

Looked at another way, cults are the ultimate Equal Opportunity Bureau. They employ any race or colour, especially those marginalized by White Society. They promulgate freedom of assembly and speech, and are free from the Victorian or Puritan sexual mores that constrain American society.

Conversely, it is the authority figures of White Society who put gay people and independent-minded women into mental institutions. They are the ones sending police into break up assemblies of people based on colour or ethnicity.

In CoC games, this complex moral landscape is too often 'flattened' to focus on the investigators vs monsters element. This reduces gameplay to a monster-of-the-week format, ironically at odds with the advice of Sandy Peterson and other CoC creators, and closer to the dynsmic of D&D in practice.

Here's how to reinject moral complexity into Call of Cthulhu.



3 Adding Moral Complexity to CoC

I suggest that flipping the 'good guys' or 'calvary' hiring or otherwise offering to aid the investigators is the quickest and surest way of recomplicating the moral landscape of CoC. Roll on the following table when PCs interact with authority. Note that there is a 50/50 chance of authority figures either openly show or hide their true nature, but even hidden allegiences should be easily uncovered by determined investigators.

1 National Socialists - In other words, these guys are American Nazi Partyers, intent on promoting American values by limiting immigration to the 'right types'. This movement was accepted by many Americans until Hitler gave it a bad name. This means that in prewar games, any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way to Berlin.
2 Virulent anti-semites - not as political as Nazis, but equally vile. They will downright refuse to listen to, hire, or aid Jewish investigators. As above, any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way to Berlin. Ironically have a ten percent chance of having Jewish ancestors.
3 Slavery apologists - deluded and dangerous believers that enslaving one's fellow man is a god given right. They will hire black people who keep quiet and work, but will refuse to listen to or treat them as equals, and abandon them if things go sour. Any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way to KKK headquarters. Ironically have a ten percent chance of being racially mixed with black ancestors.
4 Misogynists - These people believe the Women's Right Movement is destroying America, and that women are better off at home. They will downright refuse to listen to, hire, or aid female investigators. Any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way into the hands of suffragette breakers, domestic abusers or pimps. Ironically have a ten percent chance of being women policing their own sex.
5 Homophobes - They will downright refuse to listen to, hire, or aid openly gay or lesbian investigators. Any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way to  leaders of churches or public morals committees for use in anti-gay pogroms leading to incarceration or the mental hospital. Ironically have a ten percent chance of being closeted by social or family pressure.
6 Unforgivingly classist - These guys insist people should 'know their place' in society. They can trace their own bloodline to nobility, and only fraternize with people of the same class, of equal or higher EDU or occupational status. PCs with lower EDU or working class occupations will be ordered about and abandoned if things go sour. Any mythos devices or power they obtain will be used behind the scenes to maintain the status quo and stymy democratic reform or equality measures. Ironically have a ten percent chance of being from the lowest clasd of society.
7 Condescending imperialists - military or political types who go on about the civilizing nature of white culture and the barbarity of all others. See non-Eoropean peoples as inferior and treat as servants. Any mythos devices or power they obtain will make their way to the army unit or trading company at the head of a current imperialist adventure in Asia, Africa, South America, or Oceania. Ironically have a ten percent chance of being closeted by social or family pressure.
8 Nothing! These people are refreshingly unburdened by prejudices or hang ups. Expect them to be killed, transferred, or be replaced with one of the bigoted types above.

Flipping the allegience of anti-mythos authorities should provide lots of dilemnas and roleplaying fodder. Investigators should hesitate to get assistance from Nazis for fear of the McGuffin falling into the wrong hands; players of female characters will be frustrated by patriarchal benefactors who refuse to let them participate fully in the investigation; and players should feel the judgmental glare of NPCs on their character's social standing, race, and sexual identity.

Optionally, you could also re-interpret the motives of the cultists to avoid the evil cult kliche, where 'cultist' is shorthand for 'killable without remorse' .

1 Hereditary - Brought up in the Old Faith, these people do what they do out of ritual and habit. Showing them the consequences of their faith may persuade them to give it up.
2 Misguided - Like the above, but mistakenly believe their faith does good. Maybe they see Nyarlothep as Space Jesus, or Cthulhu as the biblical Kraken. Either way, there is a chance that revealing the true form of their deity will cause them to renounce it.
3 Secret protectors - These people know about the mythos and collect its totems to keep them from returning to the world. Their policy of working in secret makes them easy to misunderstand, and they often work in direct opposition to the authority of White Society introduced above.
4 Fakers - They don't believe in any of the rituals or tenets of the faith, but are just in it for kicks. As above, revealing the consequences or true nature of their faith may dissuade them from it.
5 Occultists - Seances and mesmerism were their 'gateway drug', but now they year for magic that truly works. As above, revealing the consequences or true nature of their faith may dissuade them from it.
6 Academics - After decades collecting and studying mythos tomes, these searchers of knowledge have graduated to applying the scientific method to invocations and summonings of things best left unknown. As above, revealing the consequences or true nature of their faith may dissuade them from it.
7 Impoverished underclass - Dominated historically because of racial struggle, these people have been relegated to the precarious edges of society and seek mythos power and aid to redress their plight. As above, revealing the consequences or true nature of their faith may dissuade them from it, or may embolden them to gain more knowledge or power to overthrow their oppressors.
8 Stereotypical cartoonishly evil - Mad megalomaniacs without rhyme or reason. Fire away!


4 Why Bother?

You might well ask why bother adding this layer of moral complexity to your games. If you really don't see any value in this, if you really are satisfied with men-vs-monsters, then carry on. There is nothing wrong with your preferred style of gaming.

However, if you find CoC often devolving into cartoonish Scooby Doo style adventures, you might want to give this a try. The promise of roleplaying is to immerse us in life experiences that are usually closed to us. By setting these in a morally complex universe, we exercise our empathy and understanding of other people.

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