State of the Tentacle: Dan Harms

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Here at Cthulhu Reborn we are most delighted to welcome Dan Harms. While some folks may claim that they “wrote the book on the Cthulhu Mythos,” Dan is probably one of only a handful of people for who that is literally true. His Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia (which has gone by several titles under the hands of different publishers, see below) is universally referred to as the only comprehensive summary of the decades of creative collaboration that has led to today’s melange we call the “Cthulhu Mythos.”

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Both because of his all-encompassing 90+ Cthulhu Mythos skill and also because he has been a contributor to the pages of Lovecraftian RPG magazines for over 17 years we are incredibly excited that Dan has agreed to come along and share his views about the past, present and future of Lovecraftian gaming.

Introduction

Dan Harms, noted expert on the Cthulhu Mythos and in particular the dread Necronomicon, has one unique characteristic possessed by no other authority interviewed to date on this blog: he is dead. Well, at least if that most esteemed academic source known as UseNet is to be believed. For, in a most grave and solemn press release issued on 18 August 2001 beneath the byline “NECRONOMICON EXPERT BRUTALLY SLAIN, SCHOLAR WOUNDED” a most heinous happening was recounted. It would appear that during a panel session at the NecronomiCON convention of that fateful year an unknown gunman predated upon panel members shortly after a shock announcement that one panelist had finally unearthed an extant copy of the TRUE Necronomicon. By my reckoning, that makes Dan well over a decade in the grave. The fact that this has not lessened but actually accelerated his mission to spread information far and wide about the Cthulhu Mythos speaks volumes about the true aims of the forces that wait BEYOND.

Of course we may be wrong about some of that.

sott - The-Necronomicon-Files-9781578632695In a less spectral sense, however, there is no doubt about the fact that Dan has been a leading authority on the Cthulhu Mythos since the first release of the Encyclopedia Cthulhiana by Chaosium in 1994. This exhaustive volume, much referred to as the canonical source of information about the Mythos, has been through a couple of subsequent editions and is now titled The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia: A Guide to H.P. Lovecraft’s Universe (Elder Sign Press). It was recently re-released (with surprisingly little fanfare) for the first time as an e-book. Dan also co-wrote a scholarly volume in 1998 entitled The Necronomicon Files which gathers together a wealth of real-world historical information to deliver what has been called “the Necronomicon debunker’s bible,” soundly proving once-and-for-all that Lovecraft’s fictional creation is just that.

In additional to publishing scholarly treatises, Dan has also been an active writer and collaborator in both the analysis of Lovecraft’s fiction and in extrapolating his ideas into new and interesting material for Lovecraftian roleplaying games. The former resulted in the somewhat extensive series of discussion threads “The Shadow Over UseNet” in which most Lovecraft tales came under the knife. Dan’s gaming writing has graced the pages of several key periodicals many of which he has also edited. These include The Unspeakable Oath (old and new incarnations), The Black Seal and Worlds of Cthulhu. The last of these featured a series of articles describing Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne as a detailed and imaginative setting for Dark Ages Cthulhu.

sott - Diggin' Up The WorldDan also has gaming material written and awaiting release with multiple Call of Cthulhu publishers. These include contributions to the soon-to-be-released Tales of the Sleepless City (Miskatonic River Press) and the much-awaited line of Colonial Lovecraft books by Sixtystone Press. Dan also has two books primarily written by him awaiting publication by Sixtystone (Ghouls: Eaters of the Dead and Fury of Yig). A preview scenario from the former of these is available for FREE over on DrivethruRPG.

In real-life, Dan Harms is a writer and librarian.

As with all of the interviews in the “State of the Tentacle” series, all opinions expressed here are Dan’s and are not necessarily shared by any of the companies he has worked for (Chaosium, Miskatonic River Press, Sixtystone Press, and the Unspeakable Oath).

CthulhuReborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

Dan: Milestones: The creation of Call of Cthulhu itself, the Lovecraft Country line of books, Delta Green, Cthulhu Live, and Trail of Cthulhu.

Mis-steps: Globe spanning campaigns in the line of Indiana Jones for a system that doesn’t support Jones-style play, the monograph line. Even those, however, still have resulted in some great offerings.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

Dan: There’s certainly a great deal of material out there for Cthulhu gaming – more than I can keep track of – so that’s much in its favour.

I think that our biggest challenge is to stop confusing the creation of new settings, or mashing up Lovecraft with another genre, with innovation. Much of what I’m seeing seems to spring from someone saying, “Boy, wouldn’t it be fun to play a game/scenario set on a remote geographical location, or in an alternate future, or with mechs!” Those games can be fun, but they don’t try anything different, and I’m not sure how much interest they inspire after the novelty factor has worn off.

That’s not to say that such settings can’t be innovative. Both Dark Ages and the Averoigne setting in Worlds [of Cthulhu] (which I was a part of) tried to achieve that, with limited success. Delta Green does a good job, but I’m not sure how much people really pick up on that. Bookhounds of London is an excellent example – it’s not just set in London in the Thirties, it carries with it a new perspective from which the characters operate.

That is not to say that innovation is necessary for fun, of course, or that it’s common in any genre. Nevertheless, I’d like to see more projects that take Lovecraft’s vision and transform it in interesting ways.

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Dan: The growth of attention to Lovecraft and his creations in the horror, science fiction, and mainstream communities (this is good and bad, especially when it comes to Mythos humour). The acknowledgment that Lovecraft is in the public domain. The continued desire to create new games, and the widespread availability of the tools for one individual to take an RPG to start from conception through distribution.

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

Dan: The large number of people writing for the game, as opposed to the small number of people publishing it. Most of the publishers I know are pretty much one-man operations, and that can often lead to bottlenecks of production, cash flow problems, burnout, etc. Combine this with an RPG reading public that wants something that is an accurate historical work, an art book, a solid piece of technical writing, and suitable for an evening’s entertainment – oh, and some of them are going to download a torrented copy “just to see if they want to buy it” – and you’ve got a tremendous amount of work for very little return.

sott - Sixtystone and MRP logos

I’m also concerned about accessibility. For example, let’s take Call of Cthulhu. Let’s assume that the new player has read Lovecraft, and is familiar with the relatively simple system. It’s set in the Twenties, so that becomes another aspect of understanding. It’s often not clear as to why your characters want to investigate this horrific Thing, or why they’d want to come back and do it again. If you think of it in terms of other media, your characters are too fragile for the game to be comparable to a TV show, but hardy enough that it’s not like a horror movie, either. And if you’re running the game, it’s even more complex, in terms of how to manage all of these.

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

Dan: All of the stuff coming out from the publishers with whom I’m working, for starters. After that, it might be nice to see more support for either campaign play, or one-shot adventures set up like horror movies. I enjoy playing in different eras, but I agree with Sandy Petersen that the best setting is modern.

CR: Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

Dan: Not much, I’m afraid. Even the best material I’ve read hasn’t done much to change the overall trajectory of the genre, and I doubt it will. At least there’ll be more fun stuff to read and enjoy.

CR: Are you happy to field an additional question or two on the topic of Lovecraftian gaming?

Dan: OK

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