Wednesday Freebie: An interview with the creators of Lovecraftesque

Today’s post is an interview with Becky Annison and Joshua Fox, the creators of a game called Lovecraftesque that is currently KickStarting with (by the time you will probably read this) slightly less than seven days to go.
Lovecraftesque is, as the title might imply, a story game about telling stories in the Lovecraft style without adhering to the specific Cthulu mythos. What got me excited about the project is the fact that the creators were both committed to addressing the problematic aspects of Lovecraft’s work head-on in their game, with some very interesting stretch-goals that tackle the issues of race and mental health in Lovecraft’s stories in depth.
They’re currently at a bit more than 200% funding with some very exciting stretch goals in the works. So if what you read here interests, you, I’d definitely advise checking out the campaign, since it’s all gravy from here on out!
1. One of the things that jumped out at me right away is that you explicitly call out H.P. Lovecraft’s issues with race, and are getting Mo Holkar (who has done some really excellent writing about race in roleplaying games) to write about ways to tell stories that have the Lovecraft feel without the problematic racism. This is something that, honestly, I haven’t seen from many Cthulu mythos-inspired games. How much did these concerns affect the design of the game and planning for the KickStarter?

[B] We couldn’t have done a Lovecraftian game without addressing his racism and making a concerted effort to keep it out of our game.  We were really concerned (and we still are) to make sure our game isn’t extending his racism either explicitly or subtlely. But we are also really lucky – there is a huge community of people including Mo Holkar, Chris Chinn, yourself and many others who have been talking and writing about representations of race in RPGs for a long time.  There is a lot of help and resources in the RPG community in navigating this problem and I hope we’ve done the best job we can.

Part of the problem is that, while Lovecraft was bigoted in really obvious ways, he also weaved racist ideas into his stories in much more insidious ways – like, some of his stories look like they’re just about monsters from beneath the waves or ape-gods living in hidden jungles, but they’re actually not-particularly-subtle metaphors for his hatred. We read around the subject to understand it as much as possible.

[J] Design-wise, the game doesn’t copy Lovecraft, but instead attempts to help you to create a Lovecraft-like story, with your own terrors. Unless you use one of the pre-written scenarios available in the final version of the game, the players will be creating their own settings for Lovecraftesque at the table. So we focused on giving players the tools they need to deal with the racism in Lovecraft’s work.

We start with techniques for:

– Putting in place safety measures that allow players to effectively veto racist themes. There’s a step in the game setup where players can ban elements from the game, with explicit prompts in the text and on the play aids to consider banning in-character racism (and simplistic “going mad”-style depictions of mental illness), but also recommending the use of the X-Card technique by John Stavropoulos to catch the stuff that you couldn’t have anticipated at setup.

– Including a section discussing Lovecraft’s racism, how it might come up in the game, and how you can avoid it and diversify your game. We take the opportunity there to encourage groups to discuss these issues, because that’s our bottom line: if anyone in your group will be made uncomfortable by something, it’s best to avoid it, and you only find that out by talking about it. And of course, that’s now going to be supplemented by Mo’s essay which will go into this in more detail.

[B]  This is supported by art and flavour text that attempts to represent a diverse range of people, and which tries to avoid example text from Lovecraft which contains racist themes.

We mentioned all these themes in the Kickstarter, and of course, we wanted the sample art for the Kickstarter to exemplify our approach.

2. As someone who struggles with both anxiety and depression, I also really appreciated the fact that you plan on addressing how to respectfully portray mental illness. Was that something that was difficult to write about, and did it pose any challenges during playtesting?

[J] I guess just about everybody has either struggled with mental illness themselves or knows people who have. Lovecraftian stories are replete with simplistic, offensive depictions of mental illness, which much of the time boils down to portraying characters that have simply “gone mad”, an idea which doesn’t bear any relation to actual human psychology. But of course, the idea that the horrors of the mythos have a baleful effect on the human mind is a pretty core theme in Lovecraftian tales – you can’t completely abandon that and stay true to those stories.

We tried to analyse the ways that mental illness (or, more often, something that looks like mental illness but actually isn’t) might come up in a cosmic horror story. We found there’s actually a lot of ways to represent these themes without being offensive or perpetuating negative stereotypes. Writing about it was a huge challenge because there is far less discussion on mental health representation in RPGs than representations of race.  Shoshana Kessock’s original article is still the most comprehensive discussion piece on the themes – though there’s been a surge in discussion recently which we’ll be paying close attention to.

We both sometimes struggled to describe some of Lovecraft’s themes, such as the worldview-shattering effects of the mythos, or the presence of characters who have been deeply traumatised by an encounter with the horror. It was easy to unintentionally slip into casual ableist language in our game text and we have tried to correct that.

[B] You asked about playtesting. I don’t remember this being a particular problem in playtesting save that it was a new direction to ask people to directly think about using the word “mad” as a descriptor in a Lovecraft game.

There aren’t any sanity mechanics in the game which would push players in the direction of depicting mental illness. There were moments in playtesting when characters justifiably behaved with an element of temporary hysteria. I hope those didn’t come off as offensive and I certainly believe and hope they didn’t cross any lines. But my conclusion from all this is that, lacking an explicit mechanical push, most players will tend to default to playing their character as a person and not suddenly lurch into bizarre stereotypical behaviour.

 On the other hand we provide other routes for people to express their character’s mental discomfort. Because there’s just one central character – the Witness – we ask the players to provide their inner monologue; speaking out loud the Witness’s fears and rationalisations. Every time they do that, they’re effectively saying “fuck, that was scary/weird/what is happening here????”. So, instead of having their character giggle hysterically, you can just have them think appropriately terrified thoughts and/or vainly attempt to rationalise it all away. Again, this encouraging a style of play that portrays the character first, symptoms second.
3. I LOVE the preview pieces of art posted on the KickStarter. Do you have any strategies in place for your art direction to ensure that the art as a whole is diverse and inclusive?

[B] Thank you – we are so excited about the art for Lovecraftesque.

We knew going into this project we wanted to have a really diverse approach in the artwork.  Diversity in the text doesn’t mean much if it isn’t reflected in the art. A lesson we’ve learned from you and others!

When we looked for an artist we asked the RPG design community on G+ for recommendations, and especially encouraged people who were not white, cis, het, men to contact us.  Not that we didn’t want submissions from those men, but we figured we’d get plenty of responses from those guys anyway (and we did which was cool!) but we wanted to make sure we got plenty of other people being recommended as well.  We specifically put a note in saying we wanted to encourage submissions from people who might have imposter syndrome or otherwise assume they weren’t professional enough – because lack of confidence is often a problem for people and we wanted the widest possible pool of artists to choose from.

[J] We were really lucky to have Robin Scott as our artist. Robin was on exactly the same page as us when it came to making our art diverse – we were incredibly impressed with the diversity of models in her Urban Tarot work.

Right from the start, we said to her (and come to think of it, we said this to all the artists we shortlisted) that we wanted to portray diverse characters, from all genders, ethnic backgrounds, ages, sexualities, and levels of ability and disability, with a ceiling on the number of white dudes portrayed in the art. We also asked to avoid portraying all the white men as heroic action types with women and people of colour as passive victims or other stereotypes. Robin’s response was that she would have done that anyway, so it was great to know we were working together on this.

We didn’t stop there, of course. We created a list of concepts for images, and once we had whittled them down to the ones we wanted putting in the book, we went through character-by-character to identify what they ought to look like and make sure we were meeting those diversity objectives. So, while the art isn’t yet done (Robin has just started work on the art the Kickstarter is funding), we already know where we’re headed.

[B] I don’t think we can conclude this question without saying that we took a lot of inspiration and direction from your articles about game art. We have made our own (modest) contributions to promoting debate on this issue over the years, and we are committed to making sure that we practice what we preach to the best of our ability.