300: Pages of Power

Pages of Power

The pages of grimoires like the Necronomicon can control the fate of readers in ways both wonderful and horrible, which is why they make such great narrative tools in games.

Read Full Article

Incidentally, further reading for those interested in the subject: Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, by Owen Davies (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Excellent article. I'd really love if someday there was a game released which implemented that sort of gain vs. risk concept and somehow turn it into a major pillar of the game. Not simply a matter of good/evil as with so many games, but rather a 'how far are you willing to plunge and will you be able to turn back if you go too deep' sort of scenario.

Perhaps it's been done, but I've never played the game yet unfortunately. Again, excellent article.

Was actually reading about the Book of Soyga, Codex of Gigas, and the Voyrich Manuscript just the other day. It's nice to know that although the Necronomicron might be fictional (Or is it? Dun Dun DUHHHHH!) that real life isn't excluded from these sorts of strange mysteries. Makes everyday life just a little more surreal and interesting!

Awesome sort of reminds me of the 'law of equivalent exchange' from Full Metal Alchemist. Or the price system placed in Exalted where each circle of magic costs the mage something to learn, is a role playing tool, and it cannot be paid with a monetary cost! Seems to be a recurring theme in a lot of storytelling: power always comes with a price.

Adam Gauntlett:
Pages of Power

The pages of grimoires like the Necronomicon can control the fate of readers in ways both wonderful and horrible, which is why they make such great narrative tools in games.

Read Full Article

Good article!

I've always had a mixed mind on Sanity meters in games, though. I'm not sure if it's the mechanic itself, or if it's just that it's never satisfactorily explained. On one hand, there's the "this knowledge is so dark and forbidden that it actually stains the soul or warps the mind," which does lend an air of mystery... but it can make the mechanic feel forced. After all, the author is never called upon to actually display knowledge that would have this effect on anyone, it's just a mystical side effect of the knowing.

A better way to deal with this would be working on the emotional impact of the knowledge itself. Knowing that these things exist, and are far more common than you thought, is sure to leave you sleeping poorly, looking over your shoulder, and fearing the dark. Paranoia is far more familiar than "insanity." In fact, most of the time stories reference "insanity," they're really talking about paranoia...

As you become more familiar with the contents of the grimoire, you realize these contents also fill your own waking world. You're aware they exist, you're aware of how powerless you are against them, and you're scared out of your mind that they're coming for you. Part of you wants to shut your eyes, lest you should learn something even more horrible... but another part of you has to keep going, thinking that surely it's more terrifying not to know, and maybe there's still a chance you'll learn how to fight it...

That kind of conflict is more believable than "you're going crazy," and I don't know that it would be any harder to implement...

Bookhounds of London sounds pretty interesting, not only a new look on forbidden knowledge but also on roleplaying in general (for me at least). I'd love to see how it works.

Also, I'd love to see Call of Cthulhu's knowledge vs. sanity dilemma used in video games. The "power at a price" motif has been done, sure, but it's usually "do something evil to learn some kewl powerz you don't really need." Gambling a part of yourself to gain the edge in a seemingly hopeless conflict is way more dramatic.

Cheers for the kind words, guys. This one took a while to get right, and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Susan Arendt for the editorial critique that helped get it to its finished state.

Signed
The Real Adam Gauntlett - accept no substitutes! ;)

Trying to fit a grimoire into a video game for the purposes of risks vs reward is a very tricky thing to do. You could do it as a good vs evil easy enough, but that would be boring. It's so much easier to do it in a tabletop setting for risk vs reward, but even then, you can't always be sure that the players will respect it, especially if the risk is very high.

When I think of magic, and books of power in particular, I think of Mage:The Ascension. That game had a rather large collection of grimoires, from the Kitab Al Alicar, which has a chance of awakening someone(typically in the Sons of Ether) or the Malleus Nephandorum, a false grimoire, which might offer a hint of power, but does nothing but actually corrupt an individual. There are a lot more of them, but I can't seem to find any of my M:TAs books, so I can't seem to recall what they are.

The Great Old Ones like Cthulhu are visages of the unknown cosmos, the darkness behind the veil and the night sky. They were not demons or gods or creatures of magic.
Lovecraft makes this very much clear.
They may be interdimensional beings of pure malevolence, but they are not magic.
The Necronomicon is not a book of magic, at best it is a man trying to grasp the natural horrors of the universe in the only way he knows how, and this is why all those Occultists are doing it wrong.

The Madman:
Excellent article. I'd really love if someday there was a game released which implemented that sort of gain vs. risk concept and somehow turn it into a major pillar of the game. Not simply a matter of good/evil as with so many games, but rather a 'how far are you willing to plunge and will you be able to turn back if you go too deep' sort of scenario.

Perhaps it's been done, but I've never played the game yet unfortunately. Again, excellent article.

Was actually reading about the Book of Soyga, Codex of Gigas, and the Voyrich Manuscript just the other day. It's nice to know that although the Necronomicron might be fictional (Or is it? Dun Dun DUHHHHH!) that real life isn't excluded from these sorts of strange mysteries. Makes everyday life just a little more surreal and interesting!

Were they to use the actual Call of Cthulhu RPG system, your maximum Sanity (SAN) attribute is 99 minus your Cthulhu Mythos skill, which is basically the lore of all things Man Was Not Meant to Know. A few points seem like it's worth it, in the beginning, but when you're approaching 25, 30% in the skill and you've knocked your max SAN down correspondingly, the trade offs become more problematic. Of course, if your SAN was lower to start with, you've got more breathing room. Those less attached to the world as it seems are able to take in more of the world as it actually is, representing the simple fact that not only should man not know these things, he simply can't, in the end, grasp them. Our pitiful animal brains are just not up to the task.

So a game that modeled that would be interesting indeed, essentially enabling a character to make themselves more prone to completely losing it while being able to unravel more of the mysteries she encounters. At what point is it too late to turn back?

I've always been interested in the Lovecraft-themed RPGs out there (despite how much the author wouldn't like them), but I wonder how easy it is to hold on to your sanity when you are voluntarily pursuing starspawn, shoggoths, and every other inconceivable force out there.

Once you start down the path, can you ever regain lost sanity?

Herman Zindler:
Once you start down the path, can you ever regain lost sanity?

In-game, you mean?

The mechanics differ depending on the system, but basically: in Call, it's possible but not easy; in Trail: Pulp it's possible but really very difficult; in Trail: Purist it can't be done.

Good stuff. Any article about Lovecraftian themes is of interest to me. It's amazing pervasive Lovecrafts influence is throughout video games. Even ones you wouldn't think to associate (warcraft being a big one).

Funny I am reading Necronomicon: The best weird tales of H.P. Lovecraft and it pops up a lot. I'm currently reading the Mountains of Madness and it occurred to me that damn near everyone at Miskatonic University seems to have read that bloody book! Do they take it in turns or something?

Karloff:

Herman Zindler:
Once you start down the path, can you ever regain lost sanity?

In-game, you mean?

The mechanics differ depending on the system, but basically: in Call, it's possible but not easy; in Trail: Pulp it's possible but really very difficult; in Trail: Purist it can't be done.

Yes, that's what I was looking for - thanks!

So - speaking theoretically - it is basically a losing battle no matter what the PCs do (in the long run). To press themselves deeper into the books will drive them insane, while eschewing the potential knowledge will lead them to fail (and, I imagine, still take a hit to sanity whenever they encounter that which goes bump in the night). So how effective is it to wage war against an enemy you can never truly understand? In terms of a reward mechanism for in-game mechanics, how do the players win...or is it simply about the rush that comes from trying to survive against impossible odds?

I'm rusty on the source material, but - if I remember correctly - all of the characters essentially have a limited number of options*:
1. Go Nuts - Rats in the Walls, Shadow Over Innsmouth
2. Run Away - At the Mountains of Madness
3. Win by Luck - Call of Cthulu
4. Win (but thank goodness the bad guy failed to get what he wanted before we had to fight) - The Dunwich Horror

I'm intrigued, but can this style of play be appealing to gamers at large? (If applied to a video game that is - I'm afraid table-top RPGs will never break into the mainstream more than they already have.) I loved Eternal Darkness (the best adaptation of the mechanics you describe that I can think of), but it sadly didn't win over a huge audience. I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts.

*An oversimplification, I know.

Edit:

The best strategy I can think of for the PCs to employ would be to do what the Allies did in Monty Python's "The Funniest Joke in the World" - which is at least as dangerous as the Necronomicon. ;)

I've always had a mixed opinion of this kind of mechanic. The reason being is that while I can get behind the entire idea of tough choices, reinforcing them with common sense is also important IMO. The whole "sanity loss" system inherant in reading such books always struck me as being kind of ridiculous and heavy handed, the very idea that nobody could understand or adapt to these kinds of situations or that knowlege at all. I'd also argue that insanity doesn't nessicarly have to be destructive or character busting as it's presented in the game, where Sanity seems to represent a sort of ongoing "hit points" system that ensures a lack of long term characetr development and building.

In a lot of the stories I got the impression that these books might have driven some less than stable people over the edge, but it was more a matter of the kind of person that would seek them out intentionally to gain power than the actual influance of the information to begin with. The antagonists in many cases seem to be fairly sane and rational, it's just they are doing the wrong thing. A perfectly pre-meditated power grab based on the belief by the person doing it that they can control the results of summoning an Old One or whatever.

I understand why the games have been set up the way they are, but at the same time I've never quite cared for the way the sanity mechanics have been presented. Especially when dealing with characters who aren't normal people caught beyond their depth, but investigators making a pre-meditated desician to try and save the world.

Herman Zindler:
[quote="Karloff" post="6.275332.10694075I'm rusty on the source material, but - if I remember correctly - all of the characters essentially have a limited number of options*:
1. Go Nuts - Rats in the Walls, Shadow Over Innsmouth
2. Run Away - At the Mountains of Madness
3. Win by Luck - Call of Cthulu
4. Win (but thank goodness the bad guy failed to get what he wanted before we had to fight) - The Dunwich Horror

I'm intrigued, but can this style of play be appealing to gamers at large?

Technically Shadow Over Innsmouth is a seperate option: Joining the Enemy. That'd make it a six point list.

Appealing to gamers at large? Only inasmuch as anything else ever does. Gaming tastes change. Realism and sanboxes are generally 'in' at the moment, as is multiplayer, but it doesn't follow that they will always be popular. So too here. Heroism as 'typical grizzled shlub makes good' has been doing the rounds for a while, vide Nathan Drake and the like, but as Yahtzee's pointed out once or twice that trope's getting stale. Other tropes may follow. Whether this one will or not anytime soon is a debateable point, but given enough time every kind of story eventually gets told. Gamers should never assume that gaming is one particular fixed trend; it's always in flux, and in such a system anything can happen.

I suppose you could argue that it has already become appealing to gaming at large, in that the same storytelling has given us Silent Hill. Now, that's a whole other story - which could go down the 'Silent Hill is ruined' rabbit hole, or the 'the Silent Hill franchise still has lots to give us,' or 'Silent Hill may be gone, but psychological horror could still come back', or a host of others. Or you could argue that it's roughly the same kind of story being told in shooters like Left 4 Dead, with the main characters always either Running Away, Winning By Luck or Joining the Enemy. Lots to choose from, really. ;)

In any event, you'd first have to define 'gamers at large', and I'm not sure anyone can. There are millions of gamers all over the world. The Japanese have different tastes to the Koreans, while the Koreans don't like the same things as the Germans. Germany and France are both bigger on Cthulhoid gaming - and also boardgames, for that matter - than the USA. And so on and on and on. It's a huge market to sell to, and to pretend that one strategy alone can cover all the bases is crazy talk. ;)

Karloff:

Technically Shadow Over Innsmouth is a seperate option: Joining the Enemy. That'd make it a six point list.

Appealing to gamers at large? Only inasmuch as anything else ever does.... Heroism as 'typical grizzled shlub makes good' has been doing the rounds for a while, vide Nathan Drake and the like, but as Yahtzee's pointed out once or twice that trope's getting stale.... Gamers should never assume that gaming is one particular fixed trend; it's always in flux, and in such a system anything can happen.

I suppose you could argue that it has already become appealing to gaming at large, in that the same storytelling has given us Silent Hill. Now, that's a whole other story - which could go down the 'Silent Hill is ruined' rabbit hole, or the 'the Silent Hill franchise still has lots to give us,' or 'Silent Hill may be gone, but psychological horror could still come back', or a host of others. Or you could argue that it's roughly the same kind of story being told in shooters like Left 4 Dead, with the main characters always either Running Away, Winning By Luck or Joining the Enemy. Lots to choose from, really. ;)

In any event, you'd first have to define 'gamers at large', and I'm not sure anyone can.... It's a huge market to sell to, and to pretend that one strategy alone can cover all the bases is crazy talk. ;)

Crazy talk, indeed. Awesome! Thanks for the feedback. (Can you tell your article left me wanting more?) Joining the Enemy is a valid point that I overlooked.

I don't doubt that the collective gaming interest will continue to shift, change, and diversify ad infinitum, but I wonder about 'gamers at large' because that seems to be the focus much of the industry has dedicated itself to defining and appealing to (which is a far larger issue and discussion than I'm prepared to delve into).

Table-top RPGs are certainly popular abroad (as they are here in the US), but there are very real barriers to play. In my case, I've always had an interest in board games like Cthulu but my wife, friends, and (egad) even cats all seem to have other interests or better things to do - which makes me a group of 1 in games that require more than that. Video games remove some of these hurdles at the cost of missing out on the socialization aspects of play, but then the concern shifts to finding an effective translation of a similar experience to the different medium.

Specific to psychological horror, Silent Hill is an excellent example of several themes (far too many to list) that have clearly found traction in the market at large - despite the series' own specific troubles that you touched upon - but do you think it (or the other examples you mentioned) convey a 'Lovecraft' experience in the way that you advocate?

I always liked that many of Lovecraft's works typically involve curious learned-men (a dangerous combination to him, apparently) who rarely, if ever, even put their hand to a gun. Because, really, if we can't even comprehend the horrors that are out there, what hope do our weapons have?

I've really enjoyed the discussion so far - you may count me as a satisfied reader! :)

I'm surprised no one seems to have brought up the fantastic board game Arkham Horror from Fantasy Flight games.
Ever since discovering this blasted table top game a month or two ago my friends and I have bought every expansion and spent at least three days a week battling the Ancient Ones.
Seriously. This game is addictive as hell.

Herman Zindler:
Table-top RPGs are certainly popular abroad (as they are here in the US), but there are very real barriers to play . . .

Specific to psychological horror, Silent Hill is an excellent example of several themes (far too many to list) that have clearly found traction in the market at large - despite the series' own specific troubles that you touched upon - but do you think it (or the other examples you mentioned) convey a 'Lovecraft' experience in the way that you advocate?

I've really enjoyed the discussion so far - you may count me as a satisfied reader! :)

Cool! I'm glad. :)

You know, if you're looking for tabletop and info about people who play it, you might want to check out yog-sothoth.com. It's probably the biggest CoC fan site out there, has a dedicated and voluble membership, and does a lot of Skype gaming and suchlike for people who can't meet face to face. I post there as Karloff, and I also contribute The Bookshelf audio to Yog Radio, a periodical podcast put out by the guys who run the site.

A pure Lovecraftian experience would be difficult to come by, and I'm not sure I'd want to see one. Lovecraft was writing for a different age, that had a perspective on the sciences and religion that we don't have today. However a nihilistic dilemma, which is often at the base of Lovecraftian tales, can be found in all sorts of places - Limbo, for one, and though I've never had a chance to play it, I suspect the Path is another. In the same sense a shooter like Left 4 Dead emphasises that horror can be a zero-sum game; there is no pure victory, only another mile along the road, and the best tactic is often to cut and run rather than duke it out. While Silent Hill has often played with the perceptions of the player, and Silent Hill 2 in particular emphasises that too much knowledge - in this case, the main character unravelling the real reason behind the events that are taking place - can drive a person to the brink of madness and suicide. Or over it; those bonus endings showed as much. There's all kinds of ways to posit that central idea. They don't have to happen to tweedy academics. A battlefield shooter could do the same, or a fantasy RPG, or, or, or. Take your pick, really. ;)

Ref: Arkham Horror, I'm told it's a great game. I haven't had a chance to play it, not in its most recent incarnation anyway. I don't have many boardgame opponents full stop, and I've shelves full of stuff I bought thinking 'cool!' that now just gather dust. So, though it looks great, so far I've resisted temptation. ;)

Karloff:

You know, if you're looking for tabletop and info about people who play it, you might want to check out yog-sothoth.com....

A pure Lovecraftian experience would be difficult to come by, and I'm not sure I'd want to see one. Lovecraft was writing for a different age, that had a perspective on the sciences and religion that we don't have today.... There's all kinds of ways to posit that central idea. They don't have to happen to tweedy academics. A battlefield shooter could do the same, or a fantasy RPG, or, or, or. Take your pick, really. ;)

Ref: Arkham Horror, I'm told it's a great game. I haven't had a chance to play it, not in its most recent incarnation anyway. I don't have many boardgame opponents full stop, and I've shelves full of stuff I bought thinking 'cool!' that now just gather dust. So, though it looks great, so far I've resisted temptation. ;)

Thanks for the recommendations, I'll definitely check both out.

It is very true that Lovecraft belonged to a different time. Many of the creatures and aliens described have essentially taken revised shape in other, more contemporary, fiction. There were many more unknowns in his time and - while we are a surpassingly long way off from getting a firm grip on Life, the Universe, and Everything - it almost seems like it part of the human condition to pine for fantastic explanations to the mysteries that are left to us as our understanding and knowledge grows...but that's enough existentialism!

The point is that his work still strikes a chord and has obviously rooted itself firmly (though perhaps not as always perceptibly) into popular culture. Thank you so much for choosing such a great topic for this week!

But what's so wrong with tweedy academics? The space marine is as equally tired a character as Mr. Drake and there are more than a few professors out there who could use a good fright. ;)

Herman Zindler:
[quote="Karloff" post="6.275332.10702054"]
But what's so wrong with tweedy academics? The space marine is as equally tired a character as Mr. Drake and there are more than a few professors out there who could use a good fright. ;)

;)

I know what you mean. You never know! Stranger things have happened.

 

Reply to Thread

Log in or Register to Comment
Have an account? Login below:
With Facebook:Login With Facebook
or
Username:  
Password:  
  
Not registered? To sign up for an account with The Escapist:
Register With Facebook
Register With Facebook
or
Register for a free account here