Monthly Archives: May 2011

Can You Fight the Mythos, Part IV

More Mythos. More Fighting.

This time, I take a look at At the Mountains and Madness (and other Tales of Terror, which is Shunned House, Dreams in the Witch House (which we took a look at in Can You Fight the Mythos, Part III, and the Statement of Randolph Carter.)

At the Mountains of Madness
Short Spoilery Synopsis: There’s an expedition to Antartica using an experimental drill, and weird alien cadavers are found. Then most of the expedition goes missing (from one of said cadavers, which wasn’t really dead), and the rest goes looking for them, and finds a ruined city with surprisingly informative pictoral carvings. Seriously- these guys have no common language to go on, but are able to extrapolate vast swaths of the history of the Elder Things from their carvings, in the space of a few hours. Lovecraft came up with an interesting backstory, but failed to find an adequate way to convey it.
Then in the depths they are chased by a shoggoth, or a demon subway, or something. The narrator’s partner, at the end, who is stated as strangely reticent, still seems to have offered quite an info-dump of Lovecraft-miscellania.
Textual Effectiveness of Weaponry: The Elder Things are successfully dissected, albeit with some difficulty, having tough hides and unusual anatomy. No real attempt is made to interact with the shoggoth, or really to perceive it.
Can You Fight the Elder Things: Yes. The Elder Things overpower the humans in the story, due to parts surprise and physical superiority. However human implements can inflict harm on Elder Things, and some of the curious scientists may have inadvertently killed slumbering Elder Things, just as they inadvertently woke them.
Can You Fight a Shoggoth: Inconclusive, Leaning No. The Shoggoth is large and consists of “plastic organs.” Even the Elder Things are afraid of it. It could theoretically be possible, with reverse-engineered Elder Thing technology to fight a Shoggoth, but we get the impression that improperly armed, even the Elder Things fall before it.
Although a nuclear bomb would probably work.

The Shunned House
Short Spoilery Synopsis: A house is haunted by the spirit of Etienne Roulet, who drains the vitality of those living in it, and occasionally manifests as unusual lights in the basement at night. Our protagonist and his scientist uncle camp out in the basement of the house overnight, to see if they can find it.
Textual Support of Weaponry: The Whipples are probably the most awesome Lovecraft protagonists ever: they come in loaded for bear, with a pair of flamethrowers, and a Crookes tube, for channeling “vigorously destructive ether radiations.” The flamethrower itself is never used. But the Crookes tube is, to no effect.
After fleeing, the protagonist comes back the next day, digs up the basement, and destroys the gigantic spirit with sulphuric acid.
Can You fight the Thing in the Shunned House: Yes. Sulphuric Acid cleansed the place, and destroyed the physical manifestation. Dealing with the spirit, that’s quite a bit trickier, as the countermeasure specifically for incorporeal beings didn’t work. Fortunately, it’s tied to the place, so you just have to follow the protagonists’s lead.
Interestingly, the presence of the Crookes tube, and the intent to portray the Whipples as competent occulists, suggests that at least some incorporeal beings in the Cthulhu Mythos are vulnerable to radiation (which would probably change a lot of the No and Inconclusive answers to the yes end of the spectrum, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.) It would certainly dovetail with Lovecraft’s fondness for cutting-edge-science as paradigm-shattering-relevations (See Dreams in the Witch House).

The Statement of Randolph Carter:
Short Spoilery Synopsis: This is a pretty laughably bad tale. Randolph is forbidden by his friend Harley Warren from going down into the crypt, and gets updates over telephone over how terrible it is, who at terrible length tells Carter to seal up the place. And then the monster answers the telephone.
Textual Effectiveness of Weaponry: None is used.
Can You fight the Thing in the Statement of Randolph Carter: Inconclusive. We have no idea what it is. Could be ghouls, could be Nylarthotep, could be Warren playing a prank.

The total so far:

Yes: 15
Inconclusive, Leaning Yes: 5
Inconclusive: 4
Inconclusive, Leaning No: 6
No: 6
Irrelevant: 6

Concealing Information

I’ve been doing some thinking recently, about hidden information, and how games use it. Here’s a couple of examples.

All these examples assume the information is something that the players who don’t have access to the information want, for whatever reason. Maybe discovering it is the object of play, or discovery helps achieve other objectives.

Only One Person Knows
One example would be when a Gamemaster in a traditional roleplaying game has some secret or privileged information: the identify of a killer, a secret route through the dungeon, whatever. A non-hobby example would be the mystery object in 20 Questions. Often this information is generated by that person’s imagination, or by a procedure that only that person can see (a random table, card draw, etc.) It might be represented by an artifact, such as a card or written down on a note, or it might just exist in the person’s mind.

To get the information, you’ve got to get them to tell it to you. Maybe the agreed upon rules force them to tell it to you under a certain set of circumstances (“Is it a breadbox?”), or you have to social-fu your way into convincing them you’ve earned the right to be told the answer.

Everyone Knows But One
A rarity in roleplaying, but common in parlor games, every player but one is privy to some secret. In the Psychiatrist, one player asks each player a question in turn, who are all pretending to have some humorous delusion. The ‘patients’ confer privately on what to go upon. In Betrayal on the House on the Hill, when the Traitor is revealed, he leaves the room, allowing the Heroes to go over their objectives and plans. (Note that the Traitor’s information is an example of Only One Person Knows, above.)

What if you want nobody to know, at least to start?

The Information is On a Card
Cards are great. You can have different possibilities on a card, deal them out, put them aside, put them on a deck, whatever. Sometimes, the ‘answer’ card is set aside, and players have to divine its identity by logically proving its absence (such as in Clue, or more complicatedly in Seluth or Mystery in the Abbey)

The Card is Your Identity
Cards used again here: every player is dealt a card showing their team, or even just a hidden objective. (Mafia/Werewolf are the essential loyalty ones, or Battlestar Gallactica or Camelot for boardgames. Mountain Witch is the best example of an rpg that does this.) Generally, determining the nature of other player’s cards is a key objective in play (although not in Mountain Witch), and this is done not by deductive logic (generally), but by study of player behaviors and in-game actions. In Mafia, determining the identity of the Mafia (or hiding, if you are) is the whole game. In BSG, it certainly helps to identify the Cylons, if only to minimize the damage they can do.

Note that Mafia/Werewolf has a gamemaster, and goes through two game states very quickly: once the cards have been dealt, everyone’s identity is secret, but soon after the gamemaster learns all the identities, and the game enters a Only One Person Knows state. (The role of the gamemaster is essential for logistics reasons. The Mafia have the ability to secretly select and ‘kill’ another player.)

Card Position
Cards can be shuffled into a deck and have a position relative to other cards. In the recent D&D boardgames, the location of a certain tile is key to the adventure and is shuffled into a certain portion of the deck; no one knows exactly when it will come up. A card can be given importance by putting it at the top or bottom of a deck. Players can’t gain information about what card is where without looking at/through the cards, or by drawing and removing them.

Dice have different properties than cards, most notably independence. If one card is the four of hearts, we know all the other cards (if from the same deck) aren’t. But if one die shows a four, that tells us nothing about the other dice.
If a die is rolled and put under a cup, it’s identity can be concealed. But there’s no way to tell the result, short of looking at it. Liar’s Dice gives players access to the information of different sets of dice.

The Information is the Game
This technique is largely exclusive to computer games, due to the difficulty of analog implementation. (Mao does it, but essentially requires a gamemaster figure to moderate) In this situation, the game rules themselves are obscured from the players, and determining the nature of the process is a challenge. For example, many MMORPGS have damage formulae that are quite complex, and whole communities exist to try to reverse engineer the rules so they can more accurately determine the impact of certain play choices.
You might have this in a roleplaying game if there are secret rules: players can see their inputs going in, and the outputs coming out, and have to determine how to best choose their inputs to maximize outputs. Deadlands had a number of rules secrets, the goal of which was mostly preserving a feel of mystery and dread. Use this sparingly- I imagine it’s more likely to evoke frustration rather than wonder.

Wayfarer’s Rest Caravan: Renauldus the Malcontent

Six years ago, the people of Urik made a stand against their sorcerer king. They had support from Free Tyr, the Veiled Alliance, and renegade elements from Raam. If the Rebellion had been successful, Urik would have joined Tyr as the second free city state.

But it wasn’t meant to be. The reinforcements from Tyr never came, Raam exploded into violent warfare, and Urik received staunch support from the Kings of Nibenay and Balic. The rebels, despite seizing the outlying farms and mines, made a desperate last stand in the valley of Wayfarer’s Rest.

Renauldus the Malcontent was there that day, a leader of the men standing against the tyranny of the Sorcerer Kings, only to see his allies abandon him due to cowardice. Upon the evidence of his defeat, he led his squad in a daring retreat, rather than see them killed or enslaved by the forces of Urik.

Today, Renauldus leads a rag-tag caravan of drakes and beasts, wandering across the wastes. They avoid the larger City States when they can, preferring to trade with smaller villages, and doing odd-jobs for good causes, especially those that target the Sorcerer Kings and benefit the common man.

Renauldus the Malcontent.