I had a chance to talk to fellow Gaming as Women designer Becky Annison about her work on Lovecraftesque which is currently being Kickstarted.
Congrats on the early success of the Kickstarter campaign! Can you tell me a little about the project?
Thank you – we are both a bit overwhelmed with the early success and very pleased.
Lovecraftesque is a game which focuses the action of the story on one single protagonist. Much like Lovecraft’s stories do. We both enjoy many of the other Cthulhu RPGs out there but they all focus on a party of investigators and we wanted to write something closes to the stories themselves. We also love games like Fiasco and Microscope and wanted to write a Lovecraft game which uses a similar way of dividing up the creative control between the players.
Lovecraft is a staple of geek culture – much beloved in terms of genre. But it hasn’t always done well by people of colour, women or the handling of mental illness. I understand you’re aiming to find a constructive place of balance there. Can you tell us about your approach?
We absolutely believe you can have a great Lovecraftian story without drawing on painful stereotypes. When we first conceived of this project we knew we wanted to create a game that did just that. We decided to take a really proactive approach because there is a lot of subtle bigotry in Lovecraft’s work (as well as the unsubtle variety!) which is easy to miss. We wanted to give people practical advice to make sure they weren’t unconsciously adopting Lovecraft’s bad attitude without realising it.
We’ve embedded this in the game in a number of ways:
1. Our approach to the art has been to ensure we get a real diversity of characters in the images from the beginning. We wanted the images used to promote the kickstarter to be interesting and diverse and our amazing artist Robin Scott will be taking that approach on rest of the art.
2. We have guidance in the book on how to create a good safety culture at the table and to explicitly discuss your approaches to mental health and racism up front.
3. We’ve tried to ensure that game text doesn’t accidentally replicate any of Lovecraft’s problematic attitudes (although if anyone spots anything we missed please let us know!)
4. Lastly we have sections discussing where we think Lovecraft does fall down and how to avoid adopting that in creating your story. The basic game had two short sections on this but I’m pleased to say we’ve met enough stretch goals that we will have extended essays by Mo Holkar and Shoshana Kessock as well.
In my memories of Call of Cthulhu, the games I played were all about the team of investigators holding a candle against the darkness. How does your design choice to focus on a single hero change the nature of the narrative?
A single protagonist changes the story dramatically. Firstly it more closely models Lovecrafts’ own stories and this is a model which I love because it emphasises the loneliness of the protagonist. As the story progresses and the protagonist uncovers more and more about the alien reality of the world they become more and more isolated – they can’t share that with anyone (since there are no fellow investigators) and I think it makes the narrative much tighter and more frightening.
Can you tell me a bit about how the single hero story works in play? Is there shared character ownership, or does focus shift from one character to another?
The players co-create a single hero – we call that the Witness since they are often just swept along seeing events unfold rather than being an active shot gun wielding hero. The role of Witness then rotates around all the players. You use an index card to keep track of details about the Witness in order to keep the portrayals roughly consistent.
Because there is only one character there is plenty of space in the game for players to narrate the thoughts and feelings of the Witness. I love the fact you get to see the inner mind of the Witness as they process the horrors. It heightens the atmosphere in interesting ways; but in a full party game you rarely get the chance to indulge in that because the airtime is more limited.
What’s the design feature in Lovecraftesque you’re most proud of?
It is absolutely the Leaping to Conclusions mechanic. Josh and I have spent a long time wondering how you could have a satisfying, co-created and improvised mystery without lots of loose ends or endless meta-discussion.
In Lovecraftesque a different player has to introduce a clue in each scene. At the end of the scenes the players secretly write down (or leap to a conclusion!) about what the final horror will be based on the clues revealed. As the game progresses and you get more clues you update your written theory or throw it out and make a new one. When you create clues you create clues which fit with your theory.
In this way you get a conclusion to the mystery which is consistent, has no loose ends and is surprising to the players.
It is so simple and yet so satisfying – you get just as much fun from comparing notes about your theories at the end as you do out of playing through the final horror scene.
What’s it like designing with your partner?
It is brilliant and demanding. It is brilliant because there is always someone around to discuss your ideas with, any time of the day or night. It is demanding because someone always wants to discuss their ideas with you DAY AND NIGHT!We are lucky as well, we have different yet complementary approaches to gaming and complementary skills so we can cover a lot of bases.
So yeah it can be hard to switch off sometimes but I think we produce better games (whether we write them together and or write them alone) because we are always collaborating to some extent behind the scenes.