in which I finally get hit upside the head hard enough to get why CoC is “gothic horror”
I was going to tidy this up into a proper post, but I kinda like it in ragged form. If you have no patience for a meandering mumble today I recommend you move right along.
If, like me, you didn’t get why CoC was “Gothic” right away, I recommend noisms’ two year old blog post on understandable vs non-understandable fantasy, which he terms “classicist” and “romantic.”
It was this lucid discussion that made me realise that CoC is the most Romantic of games (despite HPL’s atheism and its association with various stripes of “rationalist” readers). The point being, it’s all about confronting the sublime with your empiricist brain and discovering that the said empiricism is inadequate for holding it – that, moreover, the sublime will break it.
Well, it’s not just that. I think I could’ve given that explanation years ago. It’s more that, in the war between Classicist enlightenment and Romantic mysticism, CoC is kind of a steamhammer, repeatedly smashing up the rationalist works and demanding to be placed beyond their power. The Cthulhoid creatures defy cataloguing, characterization through comparison, or even description because they will not be tamed inside your encyclopedia. Characters repeatedly try to do exactly this – find taxa for them and so on, and they are punished with the removal of their reason. Only hubristic villains ever claim to have plumbed the deepest mysteries, and their claim signals their downfall. Experts are useless in most cases: the tablet you found is made of no known metal, the writing on it is in no known language. In fact, CoC pretty much reverses Sherlock Holmes’ dictum: once you have eliminated the possible, you’re starting to engage with the adventure. The sublime is kept conspicuously behind a curtain, we are told, for the reader’s protection, and it is a fundamental precept of the game that this curtain will not be more than tweaked, lest the game itself end.
Well, actually because the DM should (quite explicitly) not be able to show you what the monsters will do if left unchecked, because it’s unmaginable.
So CoC is one answer to noisms’ question: how would you make a Romantic (mysterious, magical, magical-realist) game, rather than a systematized one which is liable to be “superheroically banalifying“? Magic in CoC is for affecting the PCs with – PC use of magic is actively discouraged, because it inevitably banalifies. And if you do get to use magic, you’re not going to understand it enough to use it tactically – it’s all desperate fingers scrabbling at the scroll, or flapping away at the control panel, hoping for a lucky connection.
Like noisms, I am drawn toward fantasy because of the Romantic, the mysterious: I want to be surprised. But surprise is anathema to player agency: what comes within the remit of the player’s ability inevitably has to become tools, not mysteries – the PCs are inevitably, resolutely non-Romantic intruders in the magical world. They have to react to the Romantic as an external influence. But they can get a good time out of struggling to understand the mysterious – in the case of magic, out of trying to figure out a system, so that they eventually get a kind of tactical grip on it. True, that’ll leach the mystery out of the thing so understood, but hopefully your game has many more mysteries behind every one they figure out.
And maybe that’s why I admire Ars Magica (1 and 2e) so much; outside the magic system the world is utterly Romantic: there’s no monster manual, just a few suggestions on how to build monsters. There’s no European Capitals splatbooks (OK, maybe there are now), just a map and hints of what might be out there. But most of all the magic system itself is like that – just comprehensible enough that you might try stuff out, just opaque enough that you won’t be sure if it’ll work or not. Deliberately open-ended, so that research and spell invention are core activities of the game. And also open-ended in terms of power, so that you can know what your own limitations are and plan a little ahead, but you have no idea how far others have gone, or how deep the rabbit hole goes.