On Shoggoths

“At The Mountains Of Madness” just might be my favorite Lovecraft story, period. To me it is perfect: the haunting eerieness of the alien city in the middle of the desolate Antarctic waste is something out of a nightmare. And what I love about it most is that it’s an adventure story without being an action story: most of the narrative is purely about exploring and studying the place, and the deepening horror that it evokes in the characters.

In “Madness” we get our best and fullest helping of shoggoths, and they are truly horrific. And I love it. When a shoggoth shows up at the end of the story and chases th explorers, the tension has already been strung so thin through the novella that it just bursts open, like a freight train (or a shoggoth!) barreling down a tunnel right at you.

The problem with shoggoths–and all Mythos creatures–is that they have been absorbed into geek/nerd culture and by that process have lost all the horror. They’re a pop culture reference, made more often than not by people who have probably never even read “Madness.” Parody musicals and webcomics about shoggoths may be hilarious and delightful, but they are antithetical to the original concept. Taken out of context, shoggoths are just another goofy monster. In context, the idea of shoggoths even existing should be enough to fill you with dread.

Granted, I think it is hideously cute when my little kids say that their gummi vitamins are “Shoggoth, and his friend, Moggoth,” and I’m not about to start lecturing them on the horror of Lovecraft. But sometimes I wonder if we have ruined a perfectly good piece of horror by turning it into just another pop culture trivia reference.

Turning to gaming, how do you run a roleplaying game involving something Lovecraftian like a shoggoth, and keep it from just being a ho-hum mosnter of the week? How do you evoke the opppressive dread of “At The Mountains Of Madness” in a hobby where typically, monsters are just walking bags of XP for the killin’ and takin’? Could you run an RPG that was more like “At The Mountains Of Madness” than a D&D dungeon crawl–all atmosphere and mystery and horror and no treasure or combat–and more importantly, would it actually be fun? How well does something like that actually translate?

Note: I want to add, just for the foul, unholy shoggoth record, that it irritates me that Chaosium grabbed the description of shoggoths from Robert Bloch’s “Notebook Found In A Deserted House”–the scariest fucking story ever written–and used it to describe the “Dark Young Of Shub-Niggurath” in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Just a pet peeve. That’s one horrible monster of a scary story, and I think it is better with shoggoths anyway. But then again, as great of an RPG as Call of Cthulhu is, sometimes I think statting up the creatures and Old Ones of the Mythos like they are D&D monsters is just the wrong tack to take altogether. Even if they do make your character lose sanity points.

6 Responses to “On Shoggoths”

  1. As for the problem of “Shoggoths” being used for “Dark Young”, I have long considered that the entries in monster books or chapters reflect an artificial categorization system, one which is not available to the characters in the game. If I have a scenario in which the word “Shoggoth” occurs, the players shouldn’t be able to just turn to (or remember!) the entry and discover what it is and does. The characters in the game might call the creature a “Shoggoth”, but the stats, description, and so on might be of the “Dark Young”, a “Mi-go”, a homebrew statblock and description, or whatever else I think that a Shoggoth should be in that scenario. After all, the characters aren’t going up and asking the creature, “What exactly do you call yourself?” At least, I hope they aren’t. They should be running by the time such a critter shows up.

  2. That’s definitely fair.

  3. Since I’ve already advocated in favor of Call of Cthulhu once in the last 24 hours, I’ll go ahead and do it again now. How do you make an RPG scary? You give the PCs a lot of knowledge skills but no combat abilities, give them 10 hit points apiece with no chance of ever leveling up, and make sure everyone understands that the question is not if their character will die or go insane, but which it will be.

    As you’ve probably gathered I am, bad prose choices notwithstanding, currently very excited about Chaosium’s Cthulhu RPG.

  4. I don’t think that makes an RPG adventure “scary” at all. The threat of PC death or insanity is purely mechanical. If your character dies, nothing real has happened. I could write a story where another protagonist kicks the bucket every other paragraph and it still probably would not be scary.

    The kind of dread that Lovecraft gets in his best stories comes from careful building of horror through atmosphere, isolation and tension. I”m talking about how to build that in an RPG adventure.

  5. I disagree for two reasons. First, the threat of death or insanity to a PC is not that same as the threat of death or insanity to some random character. the players get invested in their PCs and worry about what is going to happen to them. Second, PCs are the game mechanics whereby players solve problems, whether it’s “how do I kill this room full of monsters?” or “how do I rescue the Duke’s daughter?” By making the PCs very physically powerless, you make it harder to solve the problem of big monsters. This makes the players insecure about their ability to deal with the problem, which causes anxiety (an important aspect of fear). In the same way, high school students can be afraid of taking the ACT or of asking a girl out on a date. It’s a different kind of fear, but it invokes the same anxiety. When playing an RPG you have different tools at hand than when writing a story (specifically, you don’t have as much descriptive prose to create an atmosphere), so you have to use your other tools to assemble the ingredients of proper fear. No matter how thematic or atmospheric your setting is, you’ll find it very difficult to really evoke a feeling of fear in your PCs if they’re not feeling a little anxious, as well.

  6. Hmm, I think you’re right, actually, and it’s the last sentence that seals it for me.

    In order for there to be fear there has to be anxiety, a sense of risk. If you’re playing a game where casual death is constant, there will be no anxiety because there’s no investment in the character. On the other hand, if characters are certain to survive almost any encounter, there’s no anxiety because the players are essentially engaging in risk-free investment.

    On the other hand, if you can get the players to invest in their characters but internalize the looming threat of losing that investment, then you have the anxiety which is a necessary canvas for painting an atmosphere of menace, fear, and terror.

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