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.