Lovecraft, Swords & Sorcery, & D&D

In college I stumbled across a book of letters between Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft.  I’d heard, I think, that Howard’s Hyboria was connected to the “Cthulhu mythos” (if that term is legitimate) but had no idea the two had so much in common, despite their fierce differences.  Anyway I was often puzzled about the inclusion of the Cthulhu mythos in the first printings of the AD&D Deities & Demigods, and the blanket endorsement of Lovecraft’s work  in the Dungeon Masters Guide.  What does D&D have to do with HPL?  How do a bunch of adventurers (usually loosely modeled on the Fellowship of the Ring) going into dungeons for gold and glory have anything to do with the eldritch terror, cosmic horrors, and existential angst of HPL?  The various monsters that owe something to the aliens of HPL are obvious enough.

But I just couldn’t see how you might combine these two very different strands of “weird tales” — swords & sorcery on one hand, and cosmic horror on the other, in a way other than the Conan and Solomon Kane stories of REH, where the horror is downplayed and the aliens/gods are mostly on the periphery.

But, recently I learned about Carcosa, which must be the most controversial product of the “old-school revival.”

In brief, Carcosa is a supplement for D&D that introduces some new rules, deletes much of the standard Tolkien-rip-off material and lots of general “sword & sorcery” material, and most importantly introduces a world haunted by terrible eldritch secrets and horror in a Lovecraftian vein.  So, for example, the  player “races” are various breeds of humans (evidently bred for experimentation by aliens), no elves and dwarfs.  The “classes” are just fighting-men and sorcerers, the sorcerers being exactly like fighting men but also dabbling in horrible rituals that involve human sacrifice and worse.

The rituals are the source of the controversy — a few of them mention stomach-turning details, and the controversy, depending on who you ask, is about (1) giving the RPG hobby a bad reputation, or (2) encouraging sociopathic behavior in-game if anyone plays a sorcerer.  Apparently the controversy has led to ugly debates in Dragonsfoot and elsewhere, and inspired this sort of strenuous defense.  Evidently no one who reads it (nor many who never have read it!) can be neutral.  Happily there have been a few sober reviews like this one.  The map and 400+ encounters detailed in the final part sound like a really great resource, and I think I’d find the whole thing fascinating, but I don’t think it would be a game I’d particularly like to run or play in, at least not as a sorcerer or with any player sorcerers.  The whole setting is presented in a “neutral” manner, according to all the reviews, but OF COURSE the players can’t be neutral about aliens that so callously toy with, torture, and destroy humans.  I find it absolutely fascinating that so many readers and admirers of HPL find nothing but hopeless horror in the “fact” that mankind is neither the center of the universe nor protected by benevolent gods.  It is precisely this that makes HPL’s human characters heroic, and which gives players in games like Call of Cthulhu or Carcosa an opportunity to be heroes.  With literally everything stacked against them, the best of them do not surrender to the Old Ones but fight them.

So if I were to go the HPL-inspired sword & sorcery route, I think I’d be much more at home in a setting like the one suggested in Swords against the outer dark, taking elements of Viking myth and sagas and mixing in HPL.  Or perhaps Cthulhu Invictus, which mixes ancient Rome and HPL.  In either case I’d want the PCs to be using human ingenuity (and swords!) to defeat, or at least hold back, the alien Old Ones and their servants.  Naturally, the existential angst would have to be an element — there is no guarantee that the heroes will win, and any victory must be temporary.  On some level I guess that is just the Call of Cthulhu game set further back in history than the usual 1920s setting, but with the level of heroism of the player characters amped up to D&D/Conan levels.

I can see a lot of potential in such games, and no doubt Carcosa would be useful as a source of ideas.   Well, some doubt, I guess — I still haven’t actually read the damn thing!  So yes, this entire post has been a hypocritical, know-nothing nonreader’s response to product I actually know precious little about.  But one that I may purchase, some day, at which point my opinions posted here will magically become valid.

Update 2/18/2009: Somehow I forgot to mention that this post sparked mine.

Published in: on February 12, 2010 at 2:46 am  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Monaco writes about Lovecraft and the controversial Carcosa, which probably will be banned […]

  2. Great post, Mike. As usual. It looks like I’m going to have to track down yet another bit of timeless awesomeness. As a long-time fan of Lovecraft–particularly the sinking knowledge that mankind is doomed–this sounds like something that I have to have. By the way, I posted a couple of comments about genrebending over on grognardia that I reposted with links on my blog at Adventure Materials.

    PS That map is AMAZING. Is it supposed to be the Dreamlands?

    • I fixed your links & deleted the correction post!
      Anyway, the map is a link to a mentioned on another blog but the picture is not too sharp; a third blog linked to mine and that, and I meant to reply to his “pingback” because I couldn’t comment to his site. The map is unrelated to HPL, just a cool old map from some book. Now I’ve made a mess. Anyway thanks for the kind words.

  3. Thanks for mentioning Swords Against the Outer Dark. Its nice to know someone is actually reading my stuff! 😛

    Nice post, thanks!

  4. Shane, I read your stuff regularly. You’re appreciated! 😉

  5. […] little more on Lovecraft & Swords & Sorcery My post on Lovecraft, S&S, & D&D was pretty popular in terms of visits. Every time I go surfing the blogs and web I notice something […]

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