By Mo Holkar
This essay was funded by the Lovecraftesque kickstarter and first published as part of the Lovecraftesque rulebook.
“The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles.” H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Horror at Red Hook’
“But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.” 1 John
Prejudice and the period
When H.P. Lovecraft was writing the stories and novels that make up his chief legacy, in the 1920s and 30s, racial prejudice was commonplace among white Americans. The belief that the darker-skinned races of humanity were inherently savage, intellectually backward, and given to strange and distasteful beliefs and practices; and the related assumption that those from other cultures were untrustworthy, sinister, and generally Not Like Us; these could be found at all levels of society, apart from among the most enlightened.
However, Lovecraft took xenophobic prejudice to great lengths, even among his peers. Donald Tyson reports Lovecraft’s wife Sonia as describing how when “walking the streets of New York and encounter[ing] a group of immigrants, Lovecraft would become so animated and enraged that she feared for his sanity”; while Lin Carter quotes Sonia as saying “Whenever we found ourselves in the racially mixed crowds which characterize New York, Howard would become livid with rage. He seemed almost to lose his mind.”
These attitudes of Lovecraft’s are not absent in his writing. While outright racial slurs are unusual (‘The Horror at Red Hook’, quoted above, is perhaps the most obviously racist story), the thread of the danger and horror of the Other, and the ill-advisedness of mixing with it, runs strongly throughout his work.
Lovecraft seems to have been particularly concerned about the results of miscegenation – racial mixing. In stories such as ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ and ‘The Dunwich Horror’, he warns of the dangers of polluting pure blood with that of outsiders – leading to moral and physical decline and degeneracy. This might seem an irrational fear now that we know that all humans are pretty much the same genetically – but this wariness of introducing “inferior” material into one’s own race was widespread not so long ago, and still is far from eliminated.
Furthermore, it’s noteworthy that Lovecraft’s protagonists and heroes are almost exclusively white middle-class American men; while people of other races feature as villains, as comic relief, as dupes, as faceless thugs, as corrupt monstrosities, and in other such generally unflattering roles.
Playing Lovecraftian games in the modern era allows us to take the best elements of his writing – his creative genius for mood and atmosphere, his restless imagination for the disturbingly horrific, his challenging exploration of cosmic and personal alienation – while moving on from those elements that we find reprehensible.
Whether through lack of awareness or reluctance to talk about a distressing subject, earlier Lovecraftian role-playing games have generally not addressed this problematic aspect of the source material. And the pulpy tendency of many Cthulhoid adventures tends to the same effect: dark-skinned tribes as shrieking cultists, foreigners as sinister schemers or emissaries of evil gods, and a general theme of white Westerners interacting with other peoples from a position of moral superiority.
So, for example, in Masks of Nyarlathotep – the Call of Cthulhu supplement frequently acclaimed as the best RPG campaign ever written – we see Kenyans, Egyptians and Chinese people presented as basically depraved and evil cultists. The investigator protagonists criss-cross the globe while picking up the white man’s burden of saving the world from cult conspiracy, in the face of the ignorance or malice of the various peoples who they meet on their travels.
This tone is very much in keeping with the literature of the period when the game is set. But we’re playing now almost a century on, and things have changed. Not all role-players are white: and when creating a game, there’s now the opportunity to make fair and satisfying representations of protagonists and the people who they meet, without having to always reach for the racist clichés of old.
Lovecraftesque provides a wonderful opportunity for creative players to shape their own Lovecraftian experience in ways that the Old Man himself would never have dreamed of.
Because at every stage of the game you’re making decisions about what material to introduce – who is the Witness, what is the setting, what is the nature of the Clues, what Conclusions are you leaping to, what is the Final Horror? – you have repeated opportunities to make sure that you’re not inadvertently drawing on racist tropes, but instead are keeping your game fresh and also respectful in your representation.
It’s not like you have to be obsessively self-critical, or turn every play session into an examination of your own and your fellow-players morals and prejudices. We’re hoping to show that just a little bit of thought can go a long way.
“I have no race prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.” Mark Twain, ‘Concerning the Jews’
On page 96 of the Lovecraftesque rulebook, or on the Black Armada website here, you’ll find a scenario called ‘Darkness Visible’. It’s been prepared to accompany this essay. We’re going to walk through it now, looking at how the simple choices that you make can create big differences in the tone and content of the story that you end up telling together.
As this is a pre-written scenario, some of the choices have been given to you – but even so there’s plenty of room to put your own spin and shape upon them.
Location and era
The small Alabama town of Deacon Fork, in 1964. Built adjoining a former cotton plantation which has been swallowed by the woods. An inward-looking place, where things stay quiet as long as not too many questions are asked.
The American Deep South in the mid-1960s was the scene of much racial tension, with civil rights activity meeting with oppressive policing as well as widespread racist violence, even lynchings. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A game of Lovecraftesque isn’t likely to touch directly on these political developments, but they form the backdrop against which your story will take place.
The town of Maycomb, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is bigger and more civilised than Deacon Fork in this ‘Darkness Visible’ scenario, but it gives you a good flavour of what the range of inter-racial relations and prejudices are like. A hot, slow and lazy small town; but nonetheless a mass of people can get rapidly stirred up when they feel a grievance. To an outsider, life here seems stagnant and small-minded: the inhabitants seem obsessed with their differences, with minute gradations of class and caste being massively important. Family history is remembered and ancient incidents still considered relevant. Most white people will have been brought up to think of African-Americans as quite unlike them – and vice versa. The few people who socialize across the racial divide will be generally mistrusted – as will people of mixed race.
We’ve specified that the town is associated with a former plantation. A century previously, before the Civil War, the plantation would have been worked by slaves. The African-American inhabitants of Deacon Fork today are likely descended from those slaves: although some will have left the area after emancipation, many will have settled to become sharecroppers and suchlike trades.
Think about the tensions and resentments that will have built up in the town. Most of the white inhabitants won’t be directly descended from slave-owners, so it’s not like everyone has a family memory of ordering slaves around. But those of lower income and status may feel even more threatened and undermined by the presence of a free African-American community than do their richer counterparts. They may therefore be resentful of those who seek to improve the lot of African-Americans, fearing that this will be at the expense of poor whites.
Gregory Freeman, would-be writer. Has come to Deacon Fork to research his family history, for a planned book. His strength is stubborn determination, and his personality trait is a charming demeanour.
So the first important question to answer to yourselves about Gregory, your Witness: if his ancestors came from Deacon Fork, were they whites, or were they slaves? Does his surname “Freeman” maybe indicate an emancipated slave forebear? Or is it the fairly-common Anglo-American surname? Or might he be of mixed race?
Your decision is obviously going to make a big difference to how Gregory is received in Deacon Fork, and what kind of experience he has there. Might he have surviving distant relatives among the inhabitants? What sort of lives might they be living now?
If this were an H.P. Lovecraft story, Gregory would probably be a descendant of the plantation-owning family, and we might perhaps expect his degenerate cousins to be secretly living on in their ruined mansion, sunk into perverse and filthy corruption. Imagine his horror when he discovers that he shares their taint! That would be a powerful and interesting story, for sure – it could easily be as good as The Shadow over Innsmouth – but just think about the alternatives.
☉ Descended from plantation staff/overseers – who maybe left town when the estate collapsed after the end of the Civil War.
☉ Descended from former slaves – who went North after emancipation.
☉ Descended from ordinary white townsfolk – who left because of the town’s descent into poverty.
☉ Descended from a mixed-race couple – who left to avoid racial prejudice and disapproval of their union.
Any of those could make for a fascinating and horrific return to Deacon Fork. The beauty of a setting like this is that it can hold unpleasant encounters and lessons for pretty much anyone.
Racism against the Witness
If you do decide that Gregory is to be a man of colour in your game, then the chances are that he will encounter racism from some of the inhabitants of Deacon Fork – directed at him personally, or observing racist behaviour and prejudice.
You need then to think about how you’re going to handle racism in play. Have a look back at the discussion of Lovecraft and Racism on page 62 of the Lovecraftesque rulebook. You should only include this sort of material if all the players are explicitly in agreement about it, and are prepared to treat it critically. (Hopefully they will be, as otherwise this scenario will lose a lot of its power.)
Curt Thompson coined the term “fun tax” to describe the out-of-game impact of in-game bigotry. Are there players who might be prepared to go along with playing racism and its effects for the benefit of the other players, but who won’t enjoy it themselves? If so, that needn’t necessarily rule it out – if people want to make that sacrifice for the sake of the group experience, they should be allowed to – but you need to recognize what it is that you’re asking of them.
And finally, remember the X-Card, which allows any player to remove any recently-introduced element from play. We can’t always predict what will upset us (or what other players might come up with), so it’s important to have this way of protecting players at short notice, without the need for them to explain or apologise.
Leaping to Conclusions
Part of the fun of Lovecraftesque’s mechanism of “Leaping to Conclusions” is letting ideas pop freely into your head. We’re not going to suggest replacing that freedom with a studied and planned approach – that would suck the spontaneity out of your creation. Instead, how about this: once you’ve had an idea that works with the Clues you’ve seen so far, just check it over mentally before writing it down. Have you accidentally slipped into a racist cliché? Here’s a quick checklist of the sorts of things to consider:
☉ Are the villains (or cultists, etc) people of a different race from the Witness – particularly, are they darker-skinned, or “natives”, or of another oppressed group such as Inuit or Roma?
☉ Does the plot involve negative or dangerous effects of mixing of different human races, or of humans with aliens or monsters?
☉ Does your idea carry an implication that people who are in some way “not like us” are typically devious or deceitful or not to be trusted, or some other such negative characteristic?
If you realise that any of these are the case, don’t beat yourself up about it, but take a moment to think again. Is there a different kind of story that would fit the Clues? Or is there a way of undercutting or twisting that clichéd trope, such that it instead carries a non-racist message? For example, suppose that locals suspect that the travelling Roma are up to no good, and the Clues seem to point that way. Perhaps the Roma are being framed, and actually they’re working against the true evil – a gang of ruthless and corrupt businesspeople?
The short version of the guideline is: punch up, don’t punch down. In other words: villainise people who are powerful and established, rather than people who are oppressed or victimised.
Take a look at the example Clues given in the ‘Darkness Visible’ scenario. They include:
A set of iron fetters found, carefully placed, in front of a doorway.
A burning torch planted in the ground during the night. Blood has been dripped around its base.
Evidence of an old crime unexpectedly emerges.
Suppose those three Clues come up in your game of Lovecraftesque. How might you string them together? It seems like maybe some group of conspirators is trying to scare someone, with memories of the bad slave-owning times. And perhaps they’re keeping alive old evils that never actually died out? Who might they be? Two simple possibilities:
☉ modern-day white racists are trying to keep the African-American inhabitants from getting “uppity”;
☉ modern-day African-Americans are trying to get vengeance for the wrongs done to their ancestors.
Of course in a Lovecraftian investigative scenario, things are rarely what they first seem, so there might be another level of conspiracy which you add to your Conclusions when more Clues have emerged:
☉ people are trying to prevent the arrival of an old African-based death cult;
☉ people are trying to prevent actual modern-day slavery taking place;
☉ people are trying to spread confusion around some underlying evil plot that isn’t related to slavery or to race at all.
And no doubt you’ll have thought of further ideas yourself. Each time you develop your theory or add to it, you just need to ask yourself about the story that it’s telling.
So to have the African-American inhabitants of Deacon Fork involved in an evil and savage cult that involves sacrificing white folks to an ancient African deity would be a perfectly good story in the tradition of Lovecraftian gaming, but it would be pretty much falling into the harmful clichés that we’re encouraging you to avoid.
Conversely, you probably won’t want to make it all black and white (as it were) the other way, either. To cast all the African-American locals as noble victims, and all the white citizens as wicked neo-slavers (apart from maybe one heroic one who rescues the unfortunate slaves), is kind of cheesy too.
You’ll want ideally to go for a story where people’s race, while informing their history and background, isn’t the most important determinant of their morality. In reality – and in the most interesting stories – good and bad can come from any origin.
One important thing to bear in mind is that other players in your game may not have read this. If you find that the people you’re playing with come up with ideas or characters that you think are unintentionally including racist themes in the kinds of ways we’ve been talking about, of course it’s up to you how you want to react to that.
We’re not going to suggest that you should alienate your friends by accusing them of racism and generally tearing them a new hole. But if you’re thinking that maybe it’s better to keep quiet and let it ride, we just want to put forward the idea that often people don’t realise that what they’ve suggested may be ill-considered – and they’re glad of someone gently pointing out the potential problems, and that they might like to think again.
The Black Armada team have put this game together partly motivated by a powerful drive towards inclusivity, diversity, better representation, and more general awareness in Lovecraftian gaming. We hope that you’ll be able to join us on that journey. Happy Final Horror!
11 “African-American” wasn’t widely used in the 1960s; instead, people would have said Negro or Black. You may or may not wish to reflect that in your game. Anyway, we’ll use the modern term here.