Horror, as a genre, is not something you can portray easily in a roleplaying game.
Often times the frightening nature of the terror is combative instead of frightening. Players play a game so their characters can succeed and live on! The fear of dying/losing is a primary motivator, right? It instills a cost. The risk of death is often times the sole tension of RPGs. I was skeptical if a game without that sort of particular stakeholdership in a character could work, but I'm here to tell you that it does. Swimmingly.
Lovecraftesque is a GMless, Prepless, and Diceless game that utilizes players switching between 3 roles: The Narrator (GM), Witness (PC), and Watcher (flexible detail-filler role). The narrator sets scenes that always star the Witness character that direct the witness to uncover a "clue". A clue is always something weird or alluding to the supernatural. No one knows what the final horror will be until the climax of the final scene, where a player volunteers to play Narrator and give their theory of what the horror was based on the previous clues!
The game's strength comes from its' structured parts. The game is played in 3 sequential parts. The first part of the game has the Witness uncovering clues that only allude to the supernatural and not in danger. The second part is where the heat starts getting turned on. The clues become more overtly supernatural and the Witness can be threatened. The third and final part of the game is the climax of the story where the clues come together and the Witness encounters the horror. The game ends with the following narrator delivering an Epilogue which details the follow up about the witness (if any) and how the horror continues to leave its mark on the world.
So why does Lovecraftesque succeed at emulating cosmic horror literature? Well, from a game design perspective, I think the narrative distance between Witness and player makes it so that the Witness is less agent and more victim the entire game-- as what we come to expect from a Lovecraftian tale. Because the game is also structured around a single particular witness, the game is more intimate than a story of three-plus souls hunting down the occult. What makes the witness tick, what they're thinking and feeling, all get expressed and explored more intimately than a game such as Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG. (Not saying CoC is a bad game, per se.)
By establishing the tone of the game early (Investigative Horror/Heroic Horror/Comedic Horror) players proceed to buy-in to a game with established tropes that should be utilized. Investigative Horror usually ends with the main character unable to defeat the horror and often times dying or being rendered insane by the literal revelations that are entailed. I think this tone combined with the collaborative setting/witness design phase of the game serves a lot like Palette would in Microscope.
I played a 2 player game of Lovecraftesque where neither of us had played the game before. The setting and Witness we constructed was a female communications officer during the cold war stationed in a remote electronics listening post in the mountains of Alaska. Our locations reflected our ideas perfectly: We had our station base, an army resupply center far away, we had a radio/antenna array in a crater, a remote cavern network, and a lake covered in mists.
The entire setup of crafting the era, witness, and scenes laid the perfect foundation for the type of story we wanted to tell. I can tell you my mind was jumping around to ideas about spooky radio stuff, intuit monsters, and strange cosmic phenomena.
The final horror was amazing and the emergent narrative of our game felt very crafted and polished for very little effort.
You can catch the full VOD of this game on my youtube channel. I will be playing this game again this week on Wednesday where I hope to play with a Watcher and utilize the card mechanics to see if/what changes.
Looking back at this game, I really enjoy the game as is. The game has a ton of replayability and depth for being so light on rules. Like any story game, the first few scenes suffer from "player-bearing" syndrome as we try on these fictional clothes, but the game smooths out as our storytelling brains "synch" up. This is a personal plus for me, but this game doesn't do much with the existing Lovecraftian mythos. I think this game lends itself the best to portraying a new set of cosmic horror undefined, but inspired by the original tales. There's nothing stopping you from making the final horror a shoggoth or something, but I advise players that not every monster has to be something you've seen before in literature. This game really can let you create a new, novel horror.
Lovecraftesque is made by Josh Fox and Becky Annison. It was recently funded on kickstarter and will be available for purchase at a later date. I also wanted to personally shout out and thank them for tackling the racism/xenophobic tendencies of their inspiration allowing this game to approach horror with a more diverse and open-minded sentiment.
EDIT: I played the three player version of Lovecraftesque last night and the Watcher certainly rounds out the pacing of the game. Being able to pose questions from the narrator's stance of "what eerie thing was in so-and-so's pocket?" is creatively great. I think a narrator's pacing/cadence of words, allowing pauses for the watcher to supplant additional details without breaking the pace/tension is a skill of the game that will come with further play. After playing with the cards, me and another player did not find them particularly necessary. I could see the ability to jump in as narrator/another role would be useful in, say, a 4 person game.
Here's the video of last night's 3 person game:
(Want to play? Here's a pdf link to the barebones version as hosted on Lovecraftesque's kickstarter page.)
Sources for photos- Bing search and Lovecraftesque kickstarter.