A Second Lash at: Dan Harms

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Of all the interviews we have run so far in the “State of the Tenacle” series, probably the one we have received the most feedback about is our chat with Dan Harms, renowned expert on all things Cthulhu Mythos. Spurred on by that interest, we were very eager to get Dan back in the interview seat for a couple more questions. We were lucky enough to grab a little bit of his time the other day … but there were so many questions we wanted to ask that we couldn’t pick just two. He is, after all, an interesting guy to quiz . . .

CR: You mention the Chaosium Monograph line as a “mis-step”, at least in its current form. Could you elaborate a little on what you think does and doesn’t work about this line … and can you see any way the monograph publishing system could work better?

Dan: When I say the monograph line is a “mis-step,” mind you, I’m basing it on what monographs I have read,  the reactions I’ve heard to the others, and my creative philosophy.  Maybe they make a good amount of money, and if so they’re a success from a business perspective.

In my experience, you should believe in what you’re creating, if you’re an author, an illustrator, a publisher, or a programmer.  That’s not to say it’s not possible to get by without it, especially if you’re talented, but bringing that perspective to a project always leads to its improvement.  When you’re just putting a product on paper and shipping it out, without really getting behind it, people will start becoming skeptical about that line as a whole.

To me, the place for a monograph series is between what you believe in and what can be marketed.  For example, someone could write a wonderful Gaslight sourcebook for Buffalo, New York.  No matter how great it is, it’ll always be a product appealing to a very small niche, which makes it suitable as a small-scale Print On Demand book rather than a general release.  If the sales reveal some interest, then the book can be expanded and published on a broader scale.

I do think there are products in the monograph line that meet my criteria – off the top of my head, Machine Tractor Station Kharkov 37, The Abbey, and The Parapsychologist’s Handbook.  It also includes those that simply don’t.

CR: You make the distinction between true innovation and simply “applying window-dressing” to the familiar genre conventions. Do you have any thoughts on ways that a designer might approach the development of a genuinely innocative product line? Do you need to completely throw out or challenge entrenched gaming stereotypes? Go back to literary sources to mine for other narrative voices?

Dan: I think to work with Lovecraft, you have to get back to his writing and accept its viewpoint as a baseline.  That means getting beyond the trappings and asking what the story says about the universe itself.  For example, Pathfinder includes Mythos creatures among its monsters.  Fighting them is probably fun, but their presence doesn’t equate to a Lovecraftian game.

Now, that doesn’t mean accepting an indifferent cosmos, necessarily; after all, Lovecraft’s tales of Randolph Carter are certainly not about that.  Yet if you’re not letting Lovecraft set the vision on a fundamental level, you either have a bunch of ideas thrown together because they’re neat, or you let the other elements set the tone, at which point you’re back to using the Mythos as a monster manual.

Does that mean we’re committed to rehashing Lovecraft again and again?  Certainly not.  The next question is how the genre, or the characters within it, act within that setting.  Both Delta Green and Bookhounds [of London] do that well, with Delta Green working to answer why the characters fight the Mythos, and Bookhounds asking whether it isn’t so bad every so often to make a pound or two off those terrors.  Some answers are easier than others – it’d be much easier to write Lovecraftian noir than Lovecraftian pulp or four-color superheroics – but that’s not to say it couldn’t be done.

I’d also encourage authors to think of this from a campaign perspective – how does that tone come through when the initial novelty of the setting wears off?

CR: One thing that featured heavily in early Call of Cthulhu products, but which has largely disappeared is gaming material themed around travelling to otherworldly or “Mythos” locations. Why do you think that exotic locales for Cthulhuoid adventuring have gradually been replaced by scenarios set in more mundane places, and is there a case for revisiting some of those outre places?

Dan: Why we don’t see more alien settings in Cthulhu games? They’re really hard to write about.  I wrote a chapter for Fury of Yig that used a classic HPL location as the setting.  Going in, I realized that I had to knock that chapter out of the park, or that I had to let it go.  It has to be genuinely unnerving and alien and significant to the plot, and that can be quite tough.  If other writers feel the same way, I’m not surprised they’ve decided to take their writing elsewhere.

image: brezelberg on deviantart

CR: You have a significant professional background in one of the themes that turn up frequently in Lovecraft’s fiction: old books.  How well do you think existing Lovecraftian RPGs embrace the way “eldritch tomes” are used in Mythos fiction? Have you ever tried anything different in your own gaming to better capture the Lovecraftian fascination with research?

Dan: Tomes are used very differently in Mythos stories than in the games.  In the works of Lovecraft and other authors, these books are treated as sources of information.  In Call of Cthulhu, they are rewards, insofar as they provide the Cthulhu Mythos skill and spells after the events of the session are over.   In addition, the adventures and campaigns have not been built to take them into account.  Even in a gripping long-term campaign like Masks [of Nyarlathotep], reading the tomes you find doesn’t tell you anything directly useful to your investigations.

A clear sign that this is a problem are the changes in the rules to get past it.  Back in the day, people would write scenarios with notes like, “Oh, most books take long periods of time to read, but this one only takes 24 hours.”  Later we got rules about skimming and reducing tome reading times, all of which are attempts to mitigate how those rules work.

My quick survey of the other Lovecraftian RPGs on my shelf (and it’s not a complete collection, I should add) is that everyone else treats them the same way, if not in terms of time, then in terms of benefits.  I think this is a major detriment, as it really makes tomes optional to the course of play.  You lose the element of characters saying, “The knowledge in these books is dangerous – but knowing it could be crucial to our struggles!”

Then, of course, you have Keepers who want to keep tomes and spells away from characters because it might make them too powerful.  I suppose you could do that.  In terms of genre emulation, it’s like deciding that soldier characters in a modern battlefield game shouldn’t have grenades and machine guns because they might derail the plot.

If you want to get a good idea of how I think tomes should be treated in games, I’d suggest picking up The Unspeakable Oath 21 and looking at Bret Kramer’s article on “Saucer Attack 1928!”  The tome is Bret’s inspiration, but the format comes from our discussions about how books should be used in the game.  Fury of Yig, when it appears, should give some examples of how they can be placed into a game.

I don’t know if the rules for handling tomes need to be more complex, necessarily, but it would be better if they or the scenarios were geared to encourage a player to behave like a character in a Lovecraft story.

CR: Dan … thanks so much for coming back and offering another great set of answers! Our tentacles are in your debt …

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