Some Musings on the place of Lovecraft in Lovecraftian games in the 21st century.
A little under a week ago, I stumbled across some of the rumblings generated by a recent article published by Cynthia Hornbeck. Hers was not a name I’d heard before, but both Hornbeck’s own blog and the Board Game Geek news article which brought it to my attention, describe her as a former employee of Asmodee North America, (the umbrella organisation who are now behind other big names you might have heard of such as the publisher of a lot of my most-played games, “Fantasy Flight” and the UK distributor, Esdevium).
Hornbeck’s article took aim at the recently released Conan board game, which she cites as being an abysmal example of sexist, racist stereotypes. She also argues that acquiescing to something like this in board games helps reinforce misogynistic, racist norms in society at large.
I haven’t seen the new Conan board game itself, so I’m not going to get in to the details of the claims she makes about the game (for those who are interested, amongst all the shouting, the comments section below this article has a few people taking issue with some of the factual claims Hornbeck makes about the game.)
I did review an older Conan game a few months back, and as I read back through my review, I think I would stand by the main thrust of my argument – roughly: there’s some dodgy stuff in here, but the game is so abstract that most of the time you don’t really notice.
Reading it with Hornbeck’s article fresh in my memory, I can see how people might want me to make more of this aspect, but I think that I’d assumed anyone considering a Conan board game would be sufficiently into the Conan theme that they’d be aware of/ have already made their decision on this type of thing.
Despite that long-ish intro, I didn’t come here today to talk about Conan. If you’re interested in the topic, I’d recommend having a look at Hornbeck’s original article, which is certainly thought-provoking, even if it feels hyperbolic in places, and some of her conclusions seem stretched. There’s also the article on Kotaku which brought the original blog piece to a slightly wider audience, and gives the company behind the game a chance to respond.
What I wanted to pick up on though was a single line near the start of Hornbeck’s article, which struck a bit closer to home.
“Conan is closely based on the books of Robert E. Howard, who was coincidentally a close friend of another highly influential author racist, H. P. Lovecraft.”
As I’ve mentioned more than a few times lately, the second half of this year has seen a heavy Cthulhu-Mythos theme to it in our house. Whilst some of Hornbeck’s conclusions seem a little strong to me, and her comment on Lovecraft felt a bit lazy, I did come away from the article feeling challenged by one of her exhortations towards the end.
“As a gamer, start refusing to purchase or even play a game that objectifies women, excludes women, excludes non-White people, makes non-White people the enemy, etc.”
Am I playing games like that? I don’t think so. But then, I am a white, middle-class man. It would hardly be unprecedented for one of us not to notice this sort of thing. I decided then, to take a look back through the games and see how it felt they were doing at creating a world which captures the mobsters and monsters feel of an Eldritch 1920s without having to import a 100 year-old worldview.
Starting with Lovecraft himself, I think we can say without argument that H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) said, wrote, and (presumably) thought a lot of things that would be considered ignorant, rude and at times, even downright racist in today’s world.
Beyond that, it gets a little more complicated – and people who have done far more research than I, have already spilled many gallons of ink on whether Lovecraft was simply a product of his time, or whether he should be regarded as a bigot, even within his own historical context – overall, it seems to me to lean towards the latter, but there are advocates of both sides.
Personally, when I read Lovecraft, I can wince when a leading character has a cat called “N*gger Man” or at some of the derisive offhand descriptions of Blacks, Asians or other characters, but by-and-large, that doesn’t stop me reading his work – some of it is very good, other bits feel tortured and overblown, and I’d certainly say I’m more drawn to the ideas he had and the world he created than to his particular craft as a writer. Lovecraft’s crimes against women are largely by omission rather than commission – i.e. it’s not so much what they say or do, so much as the fact that they often don’t appear at all.
It’s important to remember that the Cthulhu Mythos is not simply the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself was heavily influenced by writers who came before him, such as Edgar Allen Poe, and also borrowed things directly from earlier works such as Carcosa and Hastur, taken from Ambrose Bierce, via Robert W. Chambers The King in Yellow.
Within Lovecraft’s lifetime, his works interacted with those of others: Robert E. Howard (yes, the Conan guy)’s The Children of the Night, features a character reading The Necronomicon, and there were other writers who interacted with the world he had created. However, it was only really later, and largely through the work of August Derleth that the Mythos expanded, becoming something which numerous later writers could contribute to, and which has seen the setting expand beyond Lovecraft’s original works. In recent times, writers like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore (who would be unlikely to make anyone’s list of bigoted or narrow-minded authors) are among those who have cited Lovecraft and his Mythos as an influence on their writing.
For me, the appeal of the Cthulhu Mythos setting is a little hard to describe, but I think that there are definitely some key elements to it: I’ve already used the phrase Mobsters and Monsters, and I think there’s something about that 1920s aesthetic which has to be there – jazz and prohibition, the horrors of wars past, and the optimistic decadence which looks to a brighter tomorrow. It’s also, as has been well explained over at Mythos Busters amongst other places, the idea of battling cosmic forces too powerful to comprehend: the aim is survival, and a fully triumphant victory is simply never on the cards. Lastly, I think that there’s an element of forbidden knowledge – the idea of things that Man Was Not Meant To Know, that your mind is in as much danger as your body when you look in to these things.
The fact that most Cthulhu games do offer some hope of victory, however hollow, says to me that we are dealing with the wider Mythos, the version imagined by Derleth rather than simply Lovecraft’s starting point. I think that this Mythos has been developed broadly enough that it’s possible to have a game that feels “faithful” to the setting without being dependent upon outdated ideologies.
From Theory to Game
All of that is well and good, but establishing that something is possible and establishing that it has actually happened are different things, and I wanted to move on next to look at the actual execution of these ideas in the game.
Arkham Horror Files
I’m mostly going to concentrate on Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror Files range – this is the umbrella term that covers Mansions of Madness, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, Arkham Horror the Card Game, and various others.
Play the Man
There are 52 different investigators who appear across this range of games – I’ve collated a list of these as best I can, and by my reckoning there are 23 female investigators and 29 male: it’s not a completely even split, but it certainly doesn’t feel like this is just token representation.
In terms of the roles that these investigators play, there is a fair amount of breadth for both genders: yes, the Secretary and the Dilettante are female, but so are the Spy, the Scientist and the Martial Artist. The PI, the Fed, the Soldier and the Gangster are all male, and there is a noticeable tendency for those in the more influential position to be male – the Senator, the Professor and the like, but this is still supposed to be the 1920s and it’s probably more of a stretch to imagine a woman being given that kind of senior academic appointment back then than it is to suggest that there might be ghouls and monsters hiding in the shadows.
Not every investigator appears in every game – in fact there is nobody yet who appears in all of them – but for any of the games, picking up the Core Box (this is Fantasy Flight, all the games have expansions…) will give you a broad spread of options across the genders.
Race is a slightly different question: at a rough guess, only 5 of the 52 investigators are non-Caucasian: Akachi Onyele, Lily Chen, Minh Thi Phan, Rita Young, and Jim Culver. They are respectively a Shaman, a Martial Artist, a Secretary, an Athlete and a Jazz Musician, which suggests a certain amount of tropery in linking race and occupation.
Rita Young is a source of particular controversy: a character whose backstory involves persecution in the Deep South, particularly at the hands of the KKK, pictorial depictions of her have covered a fairly wide range of skin tones, with her pre-painted miniature looking decidedly white.
Personally I went for a skin tone that seemed more in keeping with the bio when I painted the miniature and, whilst it came out slightly darker than I’d intended, it makes more sense to me.
On top of these characters, you can add a few others like Finn Edwards, Marie Lambeau, and “Skids” O’Toole who are still decidedly white, but not Anglo-Saxon, which seems to have been where Lovecraft drew the line.
I think it’s possible to go too far with trying to make characters in a game “representative” – to the point where the designers are more concerned with making sure they’ve got enough of type X or Y, and not enough with an interesting concept / backstory – in that respect, I don’t really mind that I haven’t found an exact 50:50 male/female, and 50:50 white/non-white split. Could they have created more non-white characters? – absolutely! Do I think it would be good if, were they to expand the roster of characters, more of them came from non-white backgrounds? – Yes! Do I think the games as they are feel like they lack options in character choice? Not massively.
Who We Are and What We Do?
If I’m picking a character to play in a game, whether it’s Arkham, Pathfinder, Lord of the Rings (gender in Tolkien is a whole other article, and this one’s already getting long…), or any other, I’m generally a lot less interested in their gender or the colour of their skin than I am in their ability, what they’ll actually be like to play – I’ll confess that in Pathfinder, I’m drawn to the more obscure races (Goblin, Tengu etc) but there’s no real parallel for games set in New England (although if Fantasy Flight want to let me play as a Mi-Go who has decided to side with the humans, I’ll definitely take them up on the offer).
It’s kind of cool that Grazzle, my current Pathfinder character is Lizardfolk, but I’d quickly have got bored with that if it weren’t for his phenomenal healing ability. I am neither a waitress nor (as far as I’m aware) the reincarnation of a powerful sorceress, but that doesn’t stop me from having fun playing as Agnes in the Arkham LCG.
It’s worth noting that the descriptions and occupations are about the characters’ backstories: whilst they will influence their strengths and weaknesses, they don’t limit them in an absolute sense. Yes, in the LCG Daisy Walker sucks at hand-to-hand combat, but she can still toast ghouls with a copy of shrivelling or two. In Mansions, my wife mostly plays as Min Thi Phan – a bookish woman she can identify with – but with agility and observation 4, she can gun down cultists with the best of them.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that this is still a game and part of why we play games is because sometimes the Hail Mary pass comes off: Agatha Crane probably wouldn’t have been our choice to face down the Priest of Dagon, but somehow she rolled the 3 successes on 3 dice needed to slide across the floor through his legs, and whack him in the groin with the pickaxe: that moment, where the little old lady KO-ed the boss monster still stands out months later as one of the best moments playing this game, in a way that it simply wouldn’t have if Michael McGlen the Gangster had rolled 2 successes on 5 dice to cave the monster’s head in with a crowbar.
In terms of what I’m familiar with, there aren’t that many other Cthulhu Mythos games out there which go that heavy on characterisation – Mythos Tales is a very flavourful experience in Arkham, but there’s never really a moment where we’re concerned with who “you” the player are.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu has “roles” – more a character class than any kind of backstory. She may not look like me, but the Hunter is generally my first pick for her un-paralled ability to take down Shoggoths. The Reporter (also female) is another key figure, able to get round the board better than pretty much any other character. As I say, it’s not the most thematic / role-play-y of Cthulhu games, but there are multiple female characters, and they include the most powerful / hands-on.
Obviously, there are dozens, if not hundreds more Cthulhu games out there. However, I don’t know the RPG well enough to comment on it, and things like Munchkin Cthulhu or Smash Up: The Obligatory Cthulhu Expansion are light enough that I don’t feel any real need to go too deeply into their characters.
Overall, whether you read Lovecraft’s work or not (I do, periodically, but I think a lot of the other stuff, including some of FFG’s tie-in fiction, is as good if not better), I think it’s perfectly possible to play Cthulhu games without affirming any of Lovecraft’s more dubious views. In a way that may not be true for Conan, there is enough scope in this world for game designers and game players alike to create varied characters: characters who give everyone an opportunity to play as a character they can relate to, if that’s what they want.
As noted above, I am white and male: it’s possible that I’m not the best person to be making these judgements – that’s why I’d really like to hear other people’s thoughts: are Lovecraft’s views an issue for you when considering a Mythos Board game? Do you agree that the world these games inhabit is a bigger, more creatively open space, an acceptable place for us to game in? Or are there aspects you struggle with? Perhaps you disagree with Lovecraft’s views but are happy that a game is just a game, and aren’t even bothered about how far they carry over to your table-top experience.
I’d be interested to know people’s thoughts in the comments.