Last night at Story Games Seattle, 4 of us played Lovecraftesque. Players were B1, D, B2 and E (the facilitator).
This was the first time I facilitated a game at Story Games as well as the first time I ran this game for 4 people.
So Lovecraftesque is a game that simulates the experience of a Lovecraft, Robert Chambers, or Stephen King novel or film-adaptation. It's about coming together to tell a story about a single character's accelerating plummet into the depths of despair and supernatural terror. We will lay a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of disturbing clues that hint at the horror to come, but we will ultimately create, discover and describe this final terror only at the end of the game based on these clues.
The 4 of us came together and decided we wanted a particularly modern era albeit somewhat remote. After some discussion, we decided modern day middle east was what we wanted. We came up with a few locations that we could use in future scenes. We knew we wanted a main location to be an ancient city. We went with Syria’s ancient Palmira. We also wanted a university, an “on the way” traveling scene, and a Syrian village and coffee/tea house.
Our witness to the horror was a brilliant and compassionate Doctor Hafsa Al-Damasqi. She works as an Ancient Cultural Anthropologist at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts.
The Hall of King Aldimir is a game with strong themes of cosmic horror and the futility of mankind's actions against the vast, uncaring universe.
Viewer discretion is advised.
Our game began with a scene at Miskatonic University. Doctor Hafsa has been called into the office of her boss, Dr. Tamasz Skiba. Apparently there’s been a dreadful accident: Their friend and colleague, Doctor Lorremeer Kofka, has been found dead near in his office at the work site. Doctor Lorremeer has been near a breakthrough and found evidence pointing to the location of fabled Hall of King Aldimir, an opulent and eccentric Assyrian king. We learned that Doctor Lorremeer died mysteriously. He was in fine health, but died in with no signs of forced entry or break in.
Due to the tumultuous political climate and the prestige of finding this location, Doctor Hafsa will have to cut her holiday short and fly to Syria to take over Doctor Lorreemeer’s work (Game note: there was questions about what a watched “does” at the start in this first scene.)
On the flight over to Syria, Hofsa was talking to some of her fellow researchers. We learned some backstory about the source of Dr. Kofka’s breakthrough. Apparently there’s a scroll found with the dead sea scrolls that had the key. This scroll supposedly had a “curse” in writing on it, dooming whoever finds the Hall of King Aldimir. Doctor Hofsa begins having restless, dreamless sleep on the plane.
The plane touches down in Syria and we cut to being en route to the excavation site. Some lab equipment breaks. We arrive at the site and during the clean-up/unpacking/inventory check, Doctor Hafsa found out more about the death of Doctor Kafka. The doctor/medical examiner said that the doctor apparently had died days ago, but his body had no signs of decomposing. Apparently no workers would go in here saying it was cursed. She enters his office (and apparent scene of his death) for the first time alone. Doctor Kafka’s notes sat on his desk under a paperweight of a two-headed bull paperweight. (Game Note: the “what does a watcher do?” is long resolved and we’ve found a solid game groove.)
We fast forward a few weeks. Doctor Hafsa is having disturbing nightmares about a strange door. She is exhausted all the time and begun making sloppy requests for items and oversights. Her notes are incoherent. She’s apologizing to a staff member who was wondering why she ordered a telescope (which Hafsa did not remember ordering!) when there’s a loud crash near the dig site. Doctor Hafsa drops her coffee and the spills upward against gravity. She rubs her eyes thinking it’s her brain misfiring from a lack of sleep. Commotion in the dig site is heard. The news is bad—someone’s hurt.
Doctor Hafsa rushes to the site and sees a Syrian boy pinned underneath an ancient column. Part of the antechamber’s pillars has fallen and revealed a strange, circular door behind a broken wall. Hafsa focuses on caring for the boy, praying for him, holding him, as her staff members run to get the doctor/medical examiner. Things look grim for the boy. She closes her eyes and prays for the boy. It's then the boy begins to blabber incoherently in a language she cannot understand. It’s a strange language. Something like Proto-Ancient Assyrian. He then goes silent for a second and looks up at Hafsa. The boy passes before the medical examiner could arrive, but in his final moments, looking in the eyes of Doctor Hafsa, the boy BEGS her to not open that revealed door.
It’s only after the passing of the boy that Doctor Hafsa realizes that this is the door from her dreams! This ornate, near perfectly circular door that defies the normal Assyrian architecture. She forbids anyone from exploring or doing anything with the door as long as she can out of respect for the boy and her own fear..
Few weeks later, on a satellite call with her boss, Doctor Tamasz back in Miskatonic, she learns that her wasteful spending and lack of progress has been noted and if she doesn’t find this hall soon, her funding will be pulled and she’ll be out of job. She chooses her career and this discovery over her own well-being and honor of the boy’s wishes.
It is door opening day and the staff has gathered around this strange door in the antechamber. Doctor Hafsa is afraid of what could behind this strange door, so personally leads the opening of it. She’s too compassionate to risk another death on this expedition.
There’s a strange, square hole near the door that must be the key to opening it. She cautiously puts her hand in the old alcove fearful of what could be waiting for her. Her hand passes through cobwebs and dirt and grime until it finds gears oddly smooth. She sticks her hand between the gears and finds a central turn style which she twists. The door begins to shake. Dust falls from the top of it and she feels a sharp pang in her hand! She forces through the pain and continues to twist. She feels her hand go fiery hot, numb and swell. She continues to turn the gear until a click before she sprains and scrapes her hand out of the alcove, pushing out a small scorpion as well.
The door opens like a collapsing spiral in itself in a clockwise fashion before receding into the ceiling. Behind the door is a gigantic banquet hall with another door at the end. In this hall are dozens and dozens of skeletons in ancient, noble robes. The banquet table looks to be untouched by time. Flowers, serving plates of Fruits, nuts, decanters of dark red wine, and strange meats adorn this lavish golden table along with exquisite silverware. Doctor Hafsa steps through the door and realizes this room, for being so old, has no smell. Nothing smells here. Her hand was definitely stung. She turns around to see her staff and then the circular door shuts behind her sealing her inside. ( Game note: We have now finished part 2 and decided this is the perfect time to transition into the horrific conclusion part of the game. Time to ramp up the horror.)
Doctor Hafsa has a crisis of faith and feels regret for opening the door. What has she done?! She begins moving towards the back of the room near the other door. Ancient Assyrian Cuneiform writing sits above the door, but begins to shift and twist into modern Arabic with the message of doom to anyone who passes through this door, decreed by King Aldimir, Lord of One Thousand Worlds.
She begins hearing whispers in the same language as the boy. Her vision blurs and snaps into sudden clarity. The room is opulent and decadent. Men and women are eating and engaging in obscene sex acts. The meat on the table is human flesh. This is some sort of devilish bacchanalia.
The whispers are getting more and more intense! Hafsa makes the decision and opens the cursed door. Behind the door is the same exact banquet room. Only as her vision saw it.
She rushes through the horrific scene touching as little as possible to the door at the end of the hall. She must escape! She opens the door and is suddenly stabbed in the chest by a man holding a wicked and alien looking bronze spear. She feels her life leaving her as the members of this grotesque orgy begin to feast on her. She opens her eyes and she’s in the banquet hall again as it looked with just skeletons and the fresh food.
She feels the shadowy pain of where the spear would have impaled her. Should have impaled her. She feels the venom coursing through her arm as well. She struggles to the other side of the room and opens the door on the other end of the hallway and winds up in the office of her boss back in Miskatonic University!
In this ornate office along with Doctor Tamasz is Doctor Kofka. Alive. They both calmly ask if Doctor Hafsa is ok. They comment how she looks unwell. She has a class in 20 minutes! She shakes her head and responds confusingly. It’s only then does she realize the three of them are speaking that strange proto-assyrian and understanding each other. She’s sweating and the room is spinning. She’s now standing on the wall and as the room contorts. Her boss and colleague are now standing, from her perspective on the wall that is the floor. Behind her is a large mural which has contorted and covered the mahogany office door. Was that mural there before? The mural is a disturbing perspective of King Aldimir’s banquet hall. The angles of the room are warped and unnatural giving the room strange depth. Instead of skeletons in the banquet hall, the bodies in the painting appear dead, but remarkably preserved. The twisting perspectives cause her to trip into and through the painting into the hall once more.
She tries to regain her footing. The room begins to come alive and ignores her presence. The preserved bodies begin to chant and in ancient proto-assyrian begin to welcome King Aldimir to the banquet. She looks confused since there’s no conceivable exit or entrance anymore. King Aldimir just fades into existence is standing at the head of the table. Looking at it, our poor doctor looses any sense of strength, The king is utterly alien and mentally incomprehensible. Its appearance and proof of existence drains all human conceptual notions of good, evil, religion, and morality out of existence.
The king addresses Hafsa in a posh, brittish accent, questioning her decisions to interrupt this banquet and why. She begs for forgiveness from this awe inspiring being and only wished to discover the knowledge of this ancient culture. It scolds her and humanity’s folly at attempting to learn the universe. Professor Loremeer died because of this fact. He died because he learned the truth: King Aldimir rules every world that exists and does not exist and everything that is and was or could. It invites her to join the banquet.
A middle class family has gathered around a TV after dinner. CNN is reporting how ISIS has destroyed the ancient Sumerian City of Palmira and killed a research team there. The family comments how barbaric ISIS must be to destroy a cultural site like that.
A year later, in Miskatonic University, a prodigious young student is pouring over the scroll and any notes left over from the Doctors Loremeer and Kofka. She spots a mistranslation in her notes. The real site of King Aldimir’s Hall is in Greece.
Black screen. Roll credits.
The four of us had an awesome time with this game. We each count this experience near the top of the charts as far as RPG fun. I know this was the best experience of a horror game I've ever had. 11/10.
After the game we took a break, walked around, until we got ready to get a drink at a local bar and decompress some more about our game and what we liked/didn't. We all agreed that this game would be best with 3 people.
Additionally, we thought the game struggles at the start to find its cadence (as most story games do) but once we found it, the game just opened up and played itself. We also agree the cards may or may not be helpful.
The four of us cannot wait to play this again. The majority of the table spoke about the next time they play, we'll scale back the tempo of the horror. We agreed our game felt more like a Stephen King novel-turned movie than a Lovecraft story. We all still had fun, but now that they've played it once, they would like to try a slower burning style of story.
We all agreed the setup for the game is kind of wonky still. We spent a lot of time discussing locations, but locations weren't really even used that much and went with what the fiction wanted anyways. We think what would be important is establishing the "horror speed dial" of the story early on. We were thinking about alternative ways of beginning a game like this. This is my answer for most setup games, but I'd like to try it with a microscope palette.
(Someone on another forum wished I explained more about the structure and build of the game instead of just the fiction so here we go cross-posting...)
So structurally, Lovecraftesque is like a dance of 3 roles that builds and speeds up at the end. The three roles are Witness (The PC), the Narrator (The GM), and the Watcher(s) (Details/Questioners/NPC players).
The basic step of the dance is investigating a clue that is tied into the final horror.
-The Narrator frames a scene that focuses on the goal being the answer to this question "What is the Clue the Witness encounters that hints at the final horror?"
-The Witness explores the scene with the Watcher complimenting both Narrator and Witness descriptions with evocative language, mystery, and supplementary fiction.
-The Watcher/Narrator/Witness relationship can be "Narrator uses watcher like a random table of fiction" or "Watcher probes Witness or Narrator about a sight, scene, smell, taste, touch or feelings there which." This relationship of roles, I think, gets easier and better the more times you play this game. Like I mentioned earlier, in a game about horror, uninterrupted descriptions and pacing is kind of important.
(RE: Roles. I indicated this issue in the notes part of the story where appropriate. I was the initial narrator and, without realizing it, ended the first scene with the two watchers just sitting there not contributing. We went back and talked about it and remedied the situation as facilitator asking the Watcher to ask questions that probe what the Narrator's asking. Prod at senses. How things sound and look and smell. Things fixed themselves pretty quickly. Also, no one had any problem playing the witness. After I became a Watcher, I began asking the narrator questions such as "could you elaborate on how Professor Loreemeer's source of his breakthrough?" and such and that's when we learned it was the dead sea scroll. The watcher next to me followed my lead and slam dunked it with "so what the warning given on the top of the scroll to those who read it?" In the decompression at the end of the game, we spoke about it and mentioned they are players who learn best from example instead of reading. YMMV.)
We pass our roles to the left after the conclusion of a scene. Scenes must have 1 clue but can have more. This first part of this dance concludes after 5 clues are had. (usually 5 turns). These clues dance and skirt around the horror and should be veiled in rational explanation. Violent reports are heard secondhand. Curses are folklorish and not to be believed. That was simply interference on the radio. etc.
Following the first 5 scenes, the music picks up and now clues get evermore blatant and less obfuscated by logic and the laws of nature and man. The length of this musical crescendo is dictated fictionally with the Narrator able to transition to the next part after clue 6, and forcibly by rules, by turn 9.
In the Syrian game, we finished clue 6 (the food on the table in the hall wasn't stale) and decided, fictionally, now's the time to start Part 3.
So in part 3, the music picks up again even more. Here strict order of roles crashes down. The roles serve as masks we wear and exchange now. We hurriedly describe vignettes of the Witness' actions as they get closer and closer to the horror. At least 3 turns but less than 5 iterations are had by the 4 of us (12-16 descriptions).
Following along fictionally, this is where she has her crisis of faith and the words shift and bend. She has her visions and the reveal that door opens into her vision was, like everything, provided by a fellow player and it blew. everyone's. mind. when it happened. We were all about it. We continued to weave in the clues from parts 1 and 2 in an increasingly horrific manner the closer we got the final horrific climax with the King.
In that final climactic scene, roles come back, but it is mostly Narrator with full control. Witness is told to "enjoy the ride" and mostly comment on the horrific experience and struggle in vain.
Following which is the Epilogue, which is the nice bow on top of this box of lovecraft, once again told by a narrator, where we tell the fates of the witness and how the horror lingers to this day.
I hide in a cubicle all day until the night time where I play RPGs and other games and stuff.