A Horrible Cosmos: Combining High-Fantasy with Lovecraft

A great way to enrich your roleplaying experience is to take your setting and mix it with a new one. D&D and Pathfinder tend to be high-fantasy: a world where no one is skeptical about magic. No one doubts the existence of gods. Humans live beside impossible creatures.

Where the fantastic is normal.

I’m a fan of Lovecraft. I love existential horror – that is, horror that threatens your view of the universe. If we discovered that evil, bloodsucking vampires live among us, I would rejoice. It would be a relief to find something objectively evil for the first time in human history. No moral grey areas – killing a vampire is a good act. Phew. The simplicity would be refreshing.

That’s different from learning that Lovercraft’s vision is true. The universe, beyond the tiny speck we inhabit, is impossible to comprehend. No matter what humanity achieves, no matter what utopias we build, our species is destined for dark, ignoble extinction. There are forces beyond our understanding that could wipe us out without effort. We survive by floating unnoticed as pond scum on the surface of reality.

Now that’s scary.

So, can we add Lovecraftian elements to, say, D&D? The answer is obviously yes, as the official setting has done exactly that. The Far Realms is a Lovecraftian location full of Lovecraftian monsters. But adding elements is easy – can we take it further?

As the Angry GM pointed out recently (and what got me thinking down this path) is that there is a fundamental mismatch in the settings’ themes. D&D is inherently optimistic – all fights can be won, all evils can be vanquished and characters can literally ascend to become gods. Lovecraft is ultimately pessimistic – victories are unlikely, costly and barely delay the inevitable destruction of the world.

When you combine the two, something has to give. Angry gave a great example in the above post about a Lovecraftian campaign in D&D. But, as he said, he compromised the pessimism. The threat was defeated, which means it was beatable. It seems like a small compromise, but it’s a compromise of a core principle.

I liked his setting. It got me thinking. Here’s my take on the same problem.

A Horrible Cosmos

I like to think big. I think of races, empires and major historical events. From these I fill in the details. Some people think the opposite way – starting with a village, they build the world outwards. I prefer to watch as the details spontaneously emerge from the setting.

So it’s no surprise that I’m thinking of the entire cosmos.

A note to players of my 4e campaign: turn back. Here lie potential spoilers.

Within the Cthulhu Mythos, the readers never get a clear picture of how it all works. There are snippets, clues. At best, you get vague and contradictory descriptions of the key players. How they fit together as a ‘society’ remains a mystery. As it must – these creatures are unknowable to us. To gaze upon them would mean death or insanity. There’s no guide to R’lyehian etiquette.

As such, this description of the cosmos is vague by design. And yet it is for the Dungeon Master’s eyes only. Mere mortals (or mere players) could never accumulate this information. Gathering even a few clues needs genius and tenacity, and the cost is your sanity. But the DMs need more info than the players.

So. The cosmos.

My favourite Lovecraft entity is, by far, Azathoth:

“…that shocking final peril which gibbers unmentionably outside the ordered universe, where no dreams reach; that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the centre of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time…”

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Dream-Quest_of_Unknown_Kadath

Azathoth lies churning at the centre of creation; a blind idiot god who created the universe and will one day devour it. I’m going to add with without much alteration. Let’s add some other entities of our own design – the Old Court – so he’s not lonely:

  • Tsoggdan, the Thousand Hungers, the Many Tongues, the Devourer, the 9-Tongued Worm
  • D’ilta, the Veil, the Prince of the Gap, the Shimmer
  • Z’uikl’krerh, the Crawling Swarm, the Mad Cloud
  • Egothl’ki, the Black Goat, the Dark Mother of the Forest, the Bloated Horn
  • Braall’gni, the Writhing Furnace, the Dead Spark, the Twisting Lantern

[The above names are courtesy of the excellent Fantasy Name Generators.]

Naming Lovecraftian entities is a lot of fun. Their true names are unknowable and can’t be pronounced by mortal tongues. This means that mortals choose the above names. They tell you more about the people than the entities themselves. Take the dark mass that will consume reality. It isn’t a god, but those who see it as one call it Azathoth. It isn’t an elemental creature, but those who see it as one call it Nihil, the Void Primordial. Others, closer to the brink of madness, bestow titles such as the Idiot Darkness, the Blind One or the Hollow Corpse.

Azathoth and the Old Court shape reality. The universe, as the characters see it, is a by-product of this.

A Map of Sorts

This Horrible Cosmos cannot be mapped. It is beyond comprehension. The geometry of the Far Realms defies understanding. Mortal minds, let alone paper, cannot render the true cosmos. Still, lunatics throughout the aeons have drawn what they see during their darkest dreams.

There are common themes across these deranged etchings. Some depict the universe embedded in Azathoth’s side, as if plunged there in a fit of rage. Others depict Nihil at the centre of the universe, trapped within the prison of our reality while the Old Court dances outside it. These appear contradictory but remember – these are beings beyond our understanding. Concepts like ‘prisons’, ‘rage’ or even ‘inside’ are mortal concepts that don’t apply to them.

seed_cosmos
Azathoth, wounded by the shells of the universe. The Elemental Chaos is on the outside, the Astral Sea is in the middle while between them lie the Feywild, Material World and Shadowfell.
prison_cosmos
Azathoth, bound by layers of reality. The Old Court surround the Astral Sea – what strange influences do they have on the gods of the world?

Neither map is accurate. But neither do they contradict each other. Azathoth can surround a prison even as he is contained by it.

The Mortal Perspective

As I mentioned above, the players should not learn this information. It is merely context for what they do learn.

Though these entities are horrid and distant, they still influence the Material World. Their cults operate in a level of secrecy that surpasses mere demon-worshippers. Their true motives defy description but, in simple terms: Azathoth yearns to destroy the prison that penetrates his flesh. The Old Court desires to twist the blade and collapse the prison on Nihil’s head. Either outcomes is the destruction of reality.

The entire universe – from the Astral Sea to the Elemental Chaos – is nothing but a tool. One that will be disposed of. This truth is unknown even to most gods – and those that do know dare not speak of it.

This is how you distinguish these enemies from other villains. A dark god might want to conquer the universe. A mighty primordial might want to return the universe to chaos. But only Azathoth and the Old Court want pure and total annihilation. And, in the end, they will achieve that. The best the characters can hope for is to delay it.

Make this clear to them and you’ve done your job. The optimism and the pessimism. This is not pure Lovecraft and it’s not pure D&D. But, really, it’s closer than I thought possible.

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