Why is the world still here? Musings on the Mythos

I’ve been thinking about the Mythos lately while I work on bashing into shape writing up Red Roots of the Rose for publication (initially for The Cthulhu Hack but with plans for a Call of Cthulhu version to follow). One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is the question of why hasn’t the world ended already?

It’s a simple enough question – if those dabbling with forces beyond human comprehension are constantly trying to bring great old ones into the world surely one of them would have succeeded by now. If we look back to the original Lovecraft short stories then the answer is, largely, because people are not trying to. The majority of the stories are about personal revelations as the protagonists stumble across evidence of the Mythos or, alternatively, personal quests for power. The type of large ritual trying to summon ancient powers to bring about the end of the world is relatively rare so why do we gravitate towards it in gaming?

I think the answer is fairly simple: In traditional mythos games we regularly position the characters as heroes. They are rarely the protagonists of Lovercraft who uncover a horror and seek to escape and forgot what they have encountered but proactive individuals that work to unravel the mystery in front of them and stop the great plan that is taking place. As a result games often tend towards situations where the world quite literally needs saving, especially when you’re running a campaign and need to build the threat and tension. It’s the same problem that games such as D&D have – there’s only so long you can murder goblins before you feel the need to murder increasingly bigger foes, slowly working your way up to dragons.

Taking that into consideration raises the question of why, in games where world ending situations are common enough for the characters to consistently encounter, has the world not already been consumed/corrupted/destroyed? These are a few of the explanations that I’ve been considering:

  1. It’s exceedingly difficult, to the point that the people who attempt it would fail most of the time even if the investigators never got involved. Sure there may be chaos and death on a local scale, explained away as mass suicides or a natural disaster but not the arrival of a great old one or elder god that those involved were hoping for.
  2. Humanity is incapable of actually summoning anything powerful enough to end the world. This is related to the above but draws from the idea that to the most powerful entities of the Mythos we’re simply so inconsequential that they don’t take notice and ignore our attempts to attract their attention.
  3. Something, or someone, acts to counter every attempt. While this goes against the concept of a hostile and uncaring universe it does work well with the idea that the various factions and entities are locked in an eternal struggle against one another. Followers of Dagon trying to open a portal? Well maybe Hastur surreptitiously arranges for the PCs to be in the right place to intervene. Combined with 1 or 2 it is the approach that I personally would favour if I even ran a long campaign within the wider setting.
  4. Finally there’s the possibility that they have already succeeded but humanities perception of the world is so restricted that we haven’t noticed yet. Maybe we’re so incapable of handling the truth that humanity has fashioned a collective hallucination of the world we know. This is, perhaps, the most intriguing approach but also the most difficult to fit into the gaming side of the genre. How would you even approach this in such a way as to reveal the truth of the world? Certainly not with the more traditional systems out there.

So which approach am I taking in Red Roots of the Rose? In typical fashion the answer is none of the above. The scenario, while built for ‘heroes’ intervening in a deadly mystery is also built around personal power and what individuals will do to maintain their own small slice of it. It’s mythos with a small m, driven by human greed. Failure won’t tear open reality or summon an endless wave of unspeakable horrors. It may leave the investigators scared, broken or dead but that is all.

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