Finding the ultimate horror is a tall task, especially in a well explored genre. Even as I write the word Cthulhu an image in my head emerges of a mutated kraken on steroids wielding nightmarish telepathy and tentacles. It’s a fun image and one that has embedded itself well into modern lore, but is it horrific or even scary? I’m sure with the right CGI it could be intense and probably a great action movie, but after you’ve witnessed the great Cthulhu it loses some of it’s luster. (It’s kind of difficult for a 300 ft octopus to sneak up on you.)
It also loses it’s impact since Cthulhu has been dissected and disseminated. There’s not much of the unknown left to discover about the Great Old One. This exposition doesn’t make Cthulhu an ineffective foil, however the beast in and of itself isn’t enough anymore.
These statements are no big revelation though. There’s hundreds of articles on how to run horror in games or what horror really is, and truthfully they’re all pretty spot on. So maybe I’ll redirect and say here’s what I love about the horror of Call of Cthulhu, and where I find the suspense in our podcast.
As a Keeper my first advantage comes with the setting. That setting is the metaphorical table we’re sitting around, and the roles the players have assumed. It’s powerful and not to be underestimated. We’re not there to build a romcom (though that’s a totally acceptable side story). We’re there to investigate cosmic horror, which will most likely corrupt our characters or lead them to a gory demise. If they do survive, they’ll be forever scarred.
This recognition of this setting is critical. Before you’ve ever cracked a book or chosen a scenario an expectation has been created. (Within this assumption is the genius of A Mother’s Love by Seth Sokrowsky.) It’s also the foundation for all the events that will take place. In our case, Under the Library is a TTRPG podcast rooted in improv. I have no idea where the characters are going to go, or what we’re going to create from episode to episode. However, the players and I are keenly aware the sandbox we’re in is deadly (see end season 1 RIP).
Horror literature and cinema have taught us a major root of the catastrophic is human incompetence, hubris, or ego. There’s nothing new there. In fact, it’s such a part of our cultural lore and such a trope we find ourselves wanting to avoid being the purveyors of it. That desire to avoid being the gateway, to stop the horror, is the frame which we build our story on.
As Keepers, GMS, storytellers, once we accept the foundation and frame that exist before we even sit at the table. Our craft becomes significantly easier. If you’re in doubt, sit in a dark room with someone and say “Did you hear that?”. It doesn’t take long and the other person is straining to hear what you’re describing and possibly finding new sounds in the process. The scare isn’t the reality. It’s the insinuation.
For players, who already expect the bartender to be a serial killer, and everything they drink to be poisoned the insinuation is enough. Their actions become justified because the existence of our very world is at stake. Often they’ll find it’s what they’re capable (not what they fail to do) is the scariest thing of all.
As a group, I know the players are deeply invested in their characters. They’re building hopes, desires, and revelations. I also know they want to make decisions for the betterment of their character (and sometimes those around them). I also know they’re concerned about the environment and wary of what it holds.
My biggest job as the Keeper is to pay attention the wariness, the fear, and the demons troubling a character. Often it’s less what I have to create, and more how I respond. In the most successful moments I’m capitalizing on those concerns, making them ever more convincing, and applying a twist. As these expectations and fears come to fruition a lure is created, a new story is there to be explored and rarely does fear get in the way of curiosity.
The horror of Cthulhu to me is not what we tell our players or even what we subject them too. It’s not the stat block of the big bad at the end of the scenario. It’s something we have no control over, but is an opportunity for us to exploit. The horror of Cthulhu, as it has always been, is what we fear lurks in the unknown. It’s something we bring to the table as group, and if we recognize it, can define a truly memorable night.