Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Five or So Questions with Becky Annison and Josh Fox on Lovecraftesque

I interviewed Becky Annison and Josh Fox about their new game, Lovecraftesque! It's currently on Kickstarter and looks awesome!

Tell me a little about Lovecraftesque. What excites you about it?

J: Lovecraftesque is a storygame of brooding, cosmic horror. It recreates the rhythm and style of Lovecraft's stories, and gives you the tools to collaboratively create monsters and other horrors that feel like they could have come from Lovecraft's notebook.

B: I really enjoy the typical model of a Lovecraft story - the single protagonist getting deeper and deeper into a terrible mystery only to find they are already doomed. But the majority of Lovecraft RPGs focus on a party of investigators instead of the lonely protagonist. What excites me is how Lovecraftesque takes the story back to that lone protagonist. I love the fact that the rotating roles in the game mean that everyone is trying to doom that character in their own way.

J: For me, this is the GMless mystery game I've always wanted to play in. I love the fact that I get to put my own stamp on the story, while getting the uncertainty and suspense of not knowing what's going to happen. And the game's rules mean you still get the coherence and direction you'd normally get from a GM, without the need to break the atmosphere to discuss what's really going on.

Lovecraft and associated mythos are, historically, kind of problematic. What have you done as creators in regards to problems like sexism, racism, and ableism?
B: Lovecraft is very problematic and we are approaching that openly. We have done a number of things to try and de-toxify Lovecraft. I think there are 3 main areas we have worked on this.

Firstly we wanted out art to be as diverse as possible and part of the reason we chose Robin Scott was for the amazingly inclusive art in her Urban Tarot series.

Secondly we've put a lot of thought and guidance into how to create a good safety culture at the table. We encourage players to agree up front their approaches to sexism, racism and abelism and ensure everyone's views are heard.

J: The setup phase of the game includes a step in which players can ban specific themes or elements, and we’ve included a prompt to consider banning in-character racism and racist themes.

B: Lastly we've written two guidance sections in the game text, one on mental health and one on racism. In those we explore the stereotypes in Lovecrafts' work and give practical guidance to ensure people don't unconsciously replicate them.

J: The mental health side is handled a bit differently. It’s fair to say we encourage people to omit racism entirely from the game, and we don’t think that will hurt the story in the slightest. By contrast the effect of the horror on the human mind is an important theme of Lovecraftian tales.

We’ve analysed the different ways that the horror can impact on someone’s mind or their behaviour, giving you a set of options for a respectful portrayal that steers well clear of the stereotype of the horror driving people “mad”. The key thing is to portray a character, not a collection of symptoms.

How do you envision a typical session of Lovecraftesque?

B: This is a story game in which the players rotate the role of a single protagonist and share out narration. Everyone creates clues and then secretly leaps to a conclusion about what those clues mean. A typical session should have people inventing clues, building on each other's details layer by layer and dripping atmosphere and tension into every scene.

But my favourite bit is when the players leap to conclusions secretly. Because at the end you not only have a finale which feels like it was planned all along, but you have a the fun of comparing theories at the end of the game.

J: As you near the end of the game, the protagonist begins what we call the Journey into Darkness, where they travel to an old, dark or sinister location where they’ll confront the horror. It’s one of my favourite bits of the game - you ramp up the tension and shift the game’s gears from “I’m sure all this can be explained rationally” to a scene of stark, alien horror.
The Final Horror is the apex of that journey, where all those theories you’ve been building are finally resolved. And there’s always a bleak epilogue where you see what happens after the story ends.

Which Lovecraftian works did you pull from the most for the themes in Lovecraftesque?

B: Our biggest influence was Graham Walmsley's Stealing Cthulhu which does an inspiring job of deconstructing Lovecraft's stories, breaking down their rhythm and structure. His work focuses on a smaller number of key stories which we have expanded on. But we've also looked at the following in more detail: The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innmouth, The Whisperer in Darkness, the Haunter of the Dark, At the Mountains of Madness, Cool Air and Pickmans' Model.

J: I’d add the Colour Out of Space and the Call of Cthulhu to that list.

B: I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite but I do love The Whisperer in Darkness.

For me it’s the Colour Out of Space. It’s such a great example of Lovecraft’s weird blending of the themes of what we’d now call science fiction with a classic horror tale.

If you were to set up the ideal environment for a session of Lovecraftesque, what would you have there? (Props, music, location, etc.)
J: Atmosphere is key for Lovecraftesque, and a lot of the game’s mechanics are targeted on building tension. The gaming environment should support this. Low-key, instrumental music played at a low volume. Ideally play at night (we did one of our playtests on a dark and stormy evening and scared the bejeesus out of each other). You can even turn the lights down or use candles, since the game doesn’t require much in the way of rules look-up.
If I had absolute freedom to choose any venue, I’d choose an old house, old enough to creak and sigh a little. It would be in the countryside, far from any main road or settlement. It would have old paintings on the walls and a fire crackling in the corner.

B: My favourite place for playing Lovecraftesque is our own dining room. We are lucky enough to have a oak panelled dining room which is dark, intimate and atmospheric.

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