"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."So begins the classic tale of horror by H.P. Lovecraft known as "The Call of Cthulhu". In just the beginning paragraph, it hints at the madness and despair that is yet to come, while not revealing anything of its nature. By the end of the short story, one may not know any more of the mystery that blackens the nature of the world, but they will have come away with a dread foreboding that tugs at the mind, threatening to unravel its sanity.
There are some who believe that the slow and steady pace of macabre horror does not belong in D&D. That the games should focus on their own tropes of high adventure and fantastical magic, and that Lovecraft's work does not lend itself thematically to those tropes. They are correct in that they do not lend themselves to an easy blending, however, I have had much enjoyment and fun in doing so anyway.
Cthulhu represents madness. Insanity. A dreadful truth that man was not meant to know. A truth so vastly big and beyond our conception that merely getting the smallest glimpse of it would break our frail minds. As Lovecraft says, our own ignorance is a blessing, and the more we learn the less we may wish to know. Cthulhu is more than an ancient god, more than the adorable chibi pet he has been turned into by some corners of the internet, and I feel it is important to harken back to what he originally represented when bringing these tales of the strange to D&D. Cthulhu is not to be beaten, fought, or even seen. Cthulhu is a threat. Cthulhu is the thing in the darkness that you were frightened of as a child. He is all that primal man feared, in our caves gazing up into the cold blackness that surrounds our small world, he is what makes us feel small and insignificant. In crafting a dark tale for tabletop games, remember that what we do not know is scarier than what we do.
The key to these tales is often pacing. Starting slow, revealing just enough to keep the players moving forward before a horrifying reveal at the end. I once had a small town that drugged the players and put them inside a giant burning wicker man which was on a boat headed toward a waterfall, obviously inspired by the fantastically creepy 1973 movie, The Wicker Man (let's not speak of the terrible 2006 movie). It quickly turned dark, as the town was covered in a thick fog. Eventually they found a letter written in the style of Lovecraft's stories, warning of the horrors they had witnessed and telling the reader not to go further. The players thought this a challenge and continued on.
They eventually discovered a church built atop a large cliff-face, and found a massive pit that led down into the earth, the walls of which had eyes staring at them as they descended. The build was slow, the horror ebbed and flowed naturally. I played the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" composed by Wojciech Kilar as mood music. Eventually they came into an underground chamber where the doors were very heavy and on winches that required high Strength rolls to open. This was an important detail as would become apparent later.
When the players came into the final chamber, they witnessed six cultists who all looked like the town's leader (who incidentally looked like Christopher Lee) chanting and beginning a dark ritual. Obviously combat ensued, but I had a few tricks left that would change the tone of the adventure. As the cultists died, some had strange brain creatures tear themselves out of their skulls and begin to fight independently. The description was key: showing a picture would dispel the mood. These creatures were intellect devourers, and they alone made the more experienced players cringe. As the fight continued, a tear in the fabric of reality began to form in the room, from which an inky black substance began to pour forth, splashing at their ankles. Soon the nightmare creature would come.
A large tentacles emerged, and a massive being pulled its wet oily body into this world. It slithered and oozed from beyond the stars and stared at the players with eyes older than time. An ancient word came into their minds, a word not used since the universe was young and man lie scared in deep caves beneath the earth: aboleth.
Upon seeing this, my players started to run. But by this time the water had already begun to fill this part of the dungeon, making sloshing through the filthy ooze water difficult. Still they ran, they ran with all their might, fleeing as fast as they could, knowing only that gazing too long into the face of madness would make them lose their mind. The aboleth pursued them, aided by the filling water, but hindered by the tight corridors. It was impossibly large, squeezing through the tunnels to pursue them. They tried to close the winch-doors behind them, but as stated previously they required high Strength rolls to close. Too late, it was too late, the creature came upon them with a horrifying speed and claimed one of them for its own. The others, blinded by fear, prayed to whatever gods they thought existed that the being would be distracted by its kill and leave them time to flee. They ran all the way back to the beginning of the dungeon, climbed up the eye-filled hole, the inky water hot on their heels. As they came back to the fresh air, they were forever changed, terrified beyond sanity. They fled the town in that moment, never to return again.
Though it ended on a down-note, I feel the gravity of the situation was properly conveyed. The players have a healthy fear and respect for aberrations, as well as conveying to the survivors that the threat they face is very real and dangerous. It cannot be left alone to fester. They also heard word that the Christopher Lee look-alike is on his way to open more of these tears into our reality. He must be stopped at all costs!
If you are considering adding a Cthulhu-inspired theme to your campaign, I would highly recommend you search for mood music as well as read some of Lovecraft's great literature. Then I would recommend you go for it, but I would also stress the importance of paying respect to the man's work. I know for myself that I would want to keep with his tone, and not make light of his attempts to create fear. While you're at it, give the great Call of Cthulhu RPG a whirl! Thanks for reading, and stay tuned tomorrow for "D is for Dragon".
D&D 3.5 Intellect Devourer
Pathfinder Intellect Devourer
A is for Aboleth