Monday, April 15, 2013

Howard and Lovecraft. Timeless horror through ages undreamt of.

If I were asked to list my favorite authors, there are two that would top my list; Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. That probably says a lot about the kind of adventures I like to read and stories I like to tell, but this has been an almost lifelong passion for me. Luckily, I am not alone.  Roleplaying games set in the worlds of these two authors have been plentiful and I for one have taken advantage of these opportunities to live in and create stories of high adventure and bone chilling horror.

As many of you may know, Howard and Lovecraft were not only contemporaries, but also friends and penpals.  They would correspond often about their projects and at times would incorporate each other’s ideas into their own works. Elements of what became known as Lovecraft’s “Mythos” or the “Cuthulu Mythos” appeared in several of Howard’s works.  Most notably, Howard’s Kull setting seemed to be tied into Lovecraft’s world of cosmic horror.

My love for these authors has, of course spilled over into my gaming life.  I have run games using the now defunct Conan RPG from Mongoose Games, spun yarns of high adventure using the Savage World of Solomon Kane and have played in several Chaosium Cuthulu games.  Solomon Kane was my first Savage Worlds style game and I particularly enjoyed the simple mechanic of the game, how it rewarded heroic narrative play and how it could be applied to multiple genres.

Open license systems and generic RPG systems have quickly become the norm rather than the exception.  In the olden days, GURPS was pretty much the best thing you had to work with for a DYI RPG. When third edition Dungeons and Dragons opened the flood gates of open license, it paved the way for products like Savage Worlds and the much anticipated Fate Core to set free the imaginations of storytellers everywhere. It’s a great time for people to be creative in RPG’s. Systems design is beginning to lean more heavily on story elements and less on physics. At this point, just about any world imaginable is open to anyone willing to put pen to paper and share stories with friends.

Enamored by the idea of using Savage Worlds for a game based on Howard’s Kull setting I stumbled across an idea. How about running a game that spans Kull, Conan, Solomon Kane and the classic turn of the century Mythos setting? There were several elements that I could use to tie a thread along all of these settings. Almost immediately I thought of the Serpent Men of Kull, the cult of Set in Conan and the monstrous Yig of the Lovecraft’s Mythos.



I started digging.  I re-read “The Nameless City”, all of my Kull Anthology, “The Haunter in the Dark”, dug up my “Children of Yig” Chaoseum supplement and even went through my Savage Sword of Conan anthologies for research and inspiration.  All the pieces began to fit together for me, but I had to come up with a framework that would put characters together that would sweep thousands of years of history and horror.

When leafing through the Savage World of Solomon Kane book I became intrigued with one of the basic concepts of the game.  Characters in this game were all supposed to have met Kane at some point and been inspired by him to become travelling pilgrims of justice.  You would play a person who didn’t necessarily come from the noblest of backgrounds but became a hero to beat back the darkness. In essence they were colored by their adventure with Kane and forever after be locked in a struggle between the light and the dark.

Pondering this, I began to imagine how dark and horrible things would seek out those who would meddle in their cosmic affairs. I was already beginning to craft an image for my game and pictured the following:

I awoke in a cave. It was totally dark except for the flickering flames of a small and dying campfire. A recess in the wall partially obscured what appeared to me at first to be a gargoyle figure. As I began to search for my sword or pistol, finding neither, my eyes began to focus. It became apparent that before me was in fact the figure of old and decrepit man, whose countenance was made more dramatic by the sinister shadows of the dim campfire light.  His wispy beard hung off his withered and worn face like moss off a twisted oak. All he bore upon his small and fragile frame was a filthy turban and woolen loin cloth, bare-chested and unshod.  The man’s eyes were set deep into the recesses of his emaciated skull as the light from the fire danced upon the large black orbs which stared unblinking at my prone form. If he noticed me stirring, I would have never known since he sat there on his haunches, immobile as the guardian statues of gothic architecture whose image his form had conjured upon my semi-conscious imagination.

“Ahh, Christian man. You waken?” He said with a cackle.

Once he called me Christian man I instinctively reached for the Anglican Cross medallion that had been of such comfort to me here in this heathen land. I was glad to find it still there dangling from my neck on its thick silver chain.

“Be not afraid”, said the small creature as he began to shuffle around reaching for something in the fire. “We are all creatures of the God of Abraham.”

He drew a skewer from the fire.  Upon it seemed to be the charred carcass of some rodent or lizard, it was hard to tell in the dim light and I had the feeling that even if I could see it clearly I would not be able to identify the piece of carbon as anything similar to the creatures original form.

“Eat! I have made this for us. Food is scarce here in the desert and you will need your strength, yes?” The old man’s eyes never shifted as he shook the skewer in my general direction. How could I have come to be in the company of an old blind hermit in the middle of the Arabian Desert? I strained to call up the memory of the events that lead me to this place.

I remembered being stirred from my sleep in the middle of the night.  I also remembered hearing horsemen and the screams of battle.  The faint recollection of arming myself with saber and pistol, stumbling out of my tent to see the camp was being attacked by cloaked figures on black stallions. The dull throb and massive knot at the back of my head told the rest of the tale.

“Not to seem ungrateful for your hospitality sir, but you have me at a grave disadvantage. I am afraid that I have no recollection as to how I came to be here in your company, where I  am nor who you are. Before I accept your, ummm generous offer to dine with you, I must insist upon some exposition as to my situation.” Even though my situation seemed somewhat dire, there was no reason to be anything but gentlemanly, at least until I could find out where I stood. After all, for all I knew this man had saved my life and for little reason other than pure charity.

“What is past is past. You are here now and safe. Better than your friends. Many of them are dead now and those who still live would probably wish to be dead or have had their minds shattered by what they have seen from the Dark Riders.  I came upon you, I could only drag one away.” He shrugged as if he was telling me that the milk has spoiled.

“Dragged me away? I weigh a good 220 pounds sir, you look as if you could hardly lift a quill much less a fighting man!” I retorted incredulously.

The old hermit cackled again, this time at full voice.  The sound of it was something reminiscent of a murder of crows. “Judge me how you will ‘fighting man’, but none the less you are here and you will find no-one else for leagues. Now eat.  If you are to survive the next step of your journey, you will need your strength and wits about you.”

I took the charred stick of meat from him and ate. Although this may well all be some sort of dream, my hunger was real enough.

“This is no dream Christian man, more nightmare.” the hermits sinister tone was amplified by the fact that he had seemingly pulled my thoughts from my very mind. I had had enough! I stood to my full height and balled my hands into fists.

“I have no mind for games creature!  You will tell me who you are and what has come to pass and you will do it now or so help me I will thrash you!” My head was hot and my chest beat like a Zulu drum.

The small creature at my feet did not cower. It seemed disinterested in my demands and even less impressed with my theatrics. “Men from your world are always quick to anger at that which they do not understand. Be still and quiet and I will tell you what has happened to you and if it is the will of Allah, you will survive your encounter with me and the Dark Riders.”  He looked up with his empty eyes and stared into mine. I felt cold for a moment.  I shivered like a child coming to grips with his first understanding of mortality. I felt ashamed as my rage washed away from me like a tile roof sheds the summer rain.

“Your people were taken to be sacrificed to the Crimson Spires, by dark servants of an ancient evil. It is not wise to wander this desert, not even be Bedouin travel through here.  I am surprised you could find guides to lead you into these sands. Your people are doomed.  Tomorrow I will give you what water you can carry and point you in the direction of the nearest oasis.  There you will be found by a caravan within a few days and lead to safety.” The hermits tone was very matter of fact. Almost as if he were telling a story of events that took place years ago.

I sat there for a moment and began to absorb the reality of what I have just been told. We had been a group of near one hundred men escorting Sir Reginald’s expedition to some sort of ancient city that was rumored to be buried in the sands somewhere out in this god forsaken country. We were armed with musket, pistol and sabre, veterans all.

Unconsciously, I found more branches of some sort of desert plant to feed to the fire.  My mind was numb at the realization that I would never see my compatriots again.

“You said that some of my people may still be alive?” I asked as I fed more fuel into the fire.

“Mmm. Yes, some still live and some may still be sane, but before the dawn they will all be gone. Impaled upon the spires, their blood feeding the beast below.” The old man began to idly play with the embers in the fire.

“How many of these men… these Dark Riders are there?” I began to formulate hopes of orchestrating a rescue. I was fairly sure that I could not live out the rest of my days in the knowledge that I had abandoned my fellows to such a ghastly and horrid fate.

“There are three things I will say in reply to that question.  First, they are not men.  They come from a time before men rose from apedom. Secondly, it does not matter how many since to face them will be certain doom.  Lastly, since I know that you will not be deterred from this path now that it has blossomed in your chest I must warn you.”

“These things that have crawled their way up from the pit do not act on their own accord. Their masters are dark beings beyond human imagining.  More ancient than the earth itself and ultimately evil. If you choose to act against them or deny them in any way it will put a mark on your soul. Their unblinking eyes will be upon you for all eternity and you will never escape their gaze. Cursed you will be and bound to a struggle that has lasted since before Allah breathed life into the world. There is no way for you, a mortal man to understand the gravity of what I am telling you, but beware before you make your choice. The cost will be excised not only from this flesh but of the flesh that will carry all the forms of you before and after.”

Suddenly I found myself outside under the twinkling lights of alien stars. My pistol in one hand and my sabre in the other.  Below me was a chasm. In the center of that pit, were crimson spires towering from the ground like the bones of an ancient beast. Figures climbed narrow ladders bearing horrible loads.  Writhing upon these men’s shoulders were sacrifices that were next to be impaled upon these spires.  Row upon row of impaled bodies slid their way down towards the sands each one's path lubricated by the blood and offal of the poor victim before them. The screams of the terrified and the wailing of the insane bounced off the walls in a macabre cacophony that will haunt me even after death.

I examined my sword and newly etched upon its blade was the figure of a Phoenix.

So the basic idea is that once you meddle in the dealings of ancient and unspeakable horrors, your soul is marked by the intervention and throughout all time, you will constantly find yourself in conflict with those forces.  In essence you embroil yourself into an eternal war, doomed to come in contact with that horror over and over through the spans of time.

Each character takes the role of one of these poor souls. That opens up the ability to tell stories during the time of Kull, Conan, Solomon Kane, classic Cuthulu etc. because the players will have characters with incarnation in any era that suits the story. The game will be run in Savage Worlds universally throughout, but each era will have unique Hindrances and Edges for each setting.

I plan on creating a larger scale metaplot that will bring all the stories together but not necessarily every story element will contribute to this plot. 

This creates a unique opportunity to bounce around settings in one story and gives the players the unique opportunity to create different incarnations or interpretations on the same character.

 I will post with developments as I start building each era's Savage Worlds incarnation.