What Makes A Lovecraftian Apocalypse?

The book project that eventually morphed itself into the (soon to be released) APOCTHULHU RPG had a simple enough goal — to create a selection of game scenarios that were at the intersection of the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft and the Post-Apocalypse sub-genre.

That sounds like something pretty easy to define, right?

Turns out, not so much. While Lovecraft’s fiction is full of non-specific prophecies of the fall of mankind and the return of the Great Old Ones (or other similar future agents of human extinction), they are short on details. On the one hand, this is fantastic when it comes to leaving ample room for game scenarios to paint different versions of the dystopian worlds left after the Apocalypse comes. But it does make it difficult to pin down exactly what features of a Post-Apocalyptic setting would make it resonate with Lovecraft’s sweeping visions of cosmic indifference and the mechanistic inevitability of mankind’s demise.

I mean, does the kind of world that features in your average post-Nuclear Holocaust story have that kind of “Lovecrafty” vibe? Maybe. What about your average “Walking Dead” kind of Zombie Apocalypse? Eh, maybe not so much. And what about the world presented in traditional Post-Apocalyptic RPGs like Gamma World? Almost certainly not.

Dean modelling Apoco-Hoodie

We thought a lot about this point while we were designing the APOCTHULHU game. In particular we thought a great deal about the problem of what might make an Apocalypse feel like it has a connection to Lovecraft’s world view.

Fortunately, while it’s true that the “Old Gent from Providence” dealt mainly in sketchy outlines when it came to describing life after the end of the world, there are two notable exceptions to this rule. Both are “stories” (or more accurately prose poems parading as stories) which describe a heightened version of how the world fell into oblivion and what came next. The first is something many readers will probably have encountered — the prose poem “Nyarlathotep” which HPL wrote in 1920 almost as the first part of (what would eventually become) his “Mythos” cycle. In this short piece, Lovecraft paints an eerie and slightly surreal sketch of how Nyarlathotep came from Egypt, touring around putting on a show demonstrating the modern marvels of electricity. Those who see this show are forever changed by it, while at the same time the world seems to be corrupted by these same forces … leading to a terrifying (if briefly sketched out) demise for humanity.

The other Apocalyptic tale which Lovecraft had a large hand in writing is a piece written in 1935 ostensibly by Robert Barlow (HPL’s young friend who generously hosted him on several trips to Florida late in Lovecraft’s life and who was appointed as HPL’s literary executor only to be somewhat gazzumped by August Derleth). With Lovecraft’s obvious assistance Barlow wrote a story called “Till A’ The Seas” which is a two part piece which is part prose poem and part story. It describes a future world in which the Earth has been devastated by the sun becoming hotter and hotter. In this world a few people survive, and the second half of the piece tells the tale of a few of them … in particular Ull, the man who would eventually prove to be the last survivor of the human race. The story ends on a massive downbeat tone with Ull perishing and the entire planet eventually lapsing into a state of “death.”

The last few paragraphs of this story have such a “Lovecrafty” type of depiction of the ultimate extinction of our world that they’re worth quoting here:

“And now at last the Earth was dead. The final, pitiful survivor had perished. All the teeming billions; the slow aeons; the empires and civilizations of mankind were summed up in this poor twisted form – and how titanically meaningless it all had been! Now indeed had come an end and climax to all the efforts of humanity – how monstrous and incredible a climax in the eyes of those poor complacent fools of the prosperous days! Not ever again would the planet know the thunderous rampaging of human millions – or even the crawling of lizards and the buzz of insects, for they, too, had gone. now was come the reign of sapless branches and endless fields of tough grasses. Earth, like its cold, imperturbable moon, was given over to silence and blackness forever.

“The stars whirred on; the whole careless plan would continue for infinities unknown. This trivial end of a negligible episode mattered not to distant nebulae or to suns new-born, flourishing, and dying. The race of man, too puny and momentary to have a real function or purpose, was as if it had never existed. To such a conclusion the aeons of its farcically toilsome evolution had led.”

Taking inspiration from these two scant examples of Lovecraft’s depiction of extinction of the human race — either at the hands of bizarre alien gods, or just due to the blind and unstoppable processes of cosmic decay — we’ve tried to put position APOCTHULHU as a game that is about less traditional Apocalypses than those found commonly in RPGs.

It’s not really a game that tries to be a Zombie survival horror game, nor is it really one which aspires to look at life after mankind’s own hubris or scientific blunders render the planet uninhabitable. You can probably use the rules in APOCTHULHU for those kinds of games, but it’s not what it’s designed for.

The kinds of “end of the world scenarios” where cryptic forces descend from the stars are, however, quite fitting for the Lovecraftian vibe. As are Apocalypses where ancient things rise up from hidden places in our earth … and yes, also those where the dreams of alien horrors force mankind to bring about its own downfall (perhaps by nuclear or biological blunders). Those are areas we’ve tried to develop in our sample settings as well as in the detailed lists of inspirational movies / TV / comics / novels / stories that form an appendix to the core APOCTHULHU rules (coming later in the year).

We hope that those ideas about what makes for a “Lovecraftian” Apocalypse are broad enough that you can pick up the game and still make a bunch of different types of game settings … but that all of them ooze the same kind of cosmic dread that is central to HPL’s (and Robert Barlow’s) vision of our world’s demise.

2 responses to “What Makes A Lovecraftian Apocalypse?

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