Archive for the Eldritch Horror Category

On Shoggoths

Posted in Eldritch Horror with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2010 by Kullervo

“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.