Lovecraftesque is a game by Josh Fox and Becky Annison. The game seeks to evoke the creeping, brooding horror of H.P. Lovecraft’s work while getting rid of his problematic racism, misogyny, and inaccurate depictions of mental illness. There’s no GM. Instead, scenes are composed of rotating roles. There is the Narrator who sets the scene, creates conflict for the protagonist, and drops a clue in each scene. Then there’s the Witness who is the main character exploring the mystery being laid out before them. Finally, we have The Watchers who are the players adding flavor to the scenes the Narrator lays out or playing NPCs if asked by the Narrator.
Each scene The Narrator must drop a clue that The Witness discovers. These clues can be physical objects, strange sounds, or even odd behavior. The catch is that nothing overtly supernatural can reveal itself until the third act of the game. The one catch are special cards that are dealt out at the start of the game and, if triggered by a particular condition, can allow a player to actually put something overtly supernatural into the story either as an Interrupt or an Ongoing element. All the clues until then should be able to be explained with mundane reasoning. At the end of each the players, without consulting each other, record the clue and their conclusion of what it means in relation to the other clues revealed so far. Eventually, the story works its way to The Final Horror and whichever player wants can step forward and reveal how these clues add up to something beyond the Witness’s comprehension. As Pamela, one of the players Saturday night said, it’s like the game of Telephone but with Lovecraft horror.
This past weekend myself, my wife, and three friends played an online session of Lovecraftesque. It was everyone’s first time with the game, and as with all new systems, it was a little more about comprehending structure than developing an excellent story. To get us started, we used one of the seeds from the book, The Chateau of Leng written by Renee Knipe. The premise is that Latissha Hall, a black single mother of two has purchased her first home on Nash Avenue in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The story takes place in 2004 at the height of the U.S. housing bubble. The seed presents the players with four possible characters to appear in the story, and we did make use of that.
Our story had Latissha preparing to do some renovating due to buying the house “as is” and inheriting a lot of structural problems. The first clue discovered was a weathered photograph from around the turn of the 20th century, a portrait of a family with individual members faces crudely scratched off. This led to the next scene: an awkward meeting between Latissha and her gruff neighbor Cass. Cass attempted to spook Latissha by telling her about the string of owners who has lived briefly in her new home and were scared off by something. She also noticed him carrying around a cat as he meandered about his front porch in a bathrobe. Scene 3 introduced Latissha to Officer Newhall, a local beat cop who ends up telling her that Cass had gone for prison decades ago for murder but apparently new evidence was presented and he was released. As a misty rain falls, Officer Newhall appears to vanish into thin air leaving Latissha unnerved.
That evening while rummaging around one of the side rooms, Latissha finds a cobwebbed baby grand piano. Stuffed inside is an entire photo album with the pictures sharing a common theme: all the faces have been scratched out. They show different families throughout the century but all missing any trace of who they were. The next morning, Latissha goes to visit Geraldine, the elderly neighbor across the street. She’s lived in her house for decades and Latissha figures the woman might have some insight to the photos. She brings the album with her but finds herself unnerved by strange shadows and sounds in the woman’s house. Geraldine gets very aggressive about putting her hands on the album, and this causes Latissha to back away. There’s also a large number of framed photos of a cat that looks suspiciously like the one Cass was carrying around. That combined with the missing posters for the beast pinned up around the neighborhood has her questioning what is going on. Cass coincidentally comes by Geraldine’s to “check up” on her and Latissha can’t help but notice the gun he has tucked under his belt.
Our protagonist is unnerved even further by her youngest son’s drawings of their family, including her deceased husband his eyes scratched out looking remarkably like the photos she’s found. That night she’s awakened by the sound of glass breaking in the basement and movement. She investigates and find it empty but notices a panel from the wall moved to the side. Reaching into the space, she pulls out an almost identical album to the one she found in the piano. This album contains photography akin to Diane Arbus: portraits of people missing limbs, memento mori, and the visages of just slightly physically deformed people. Unlike the previous album nothing is violently scratched out, there appears to be an attempt to preserve these images. She also notices Officer Newhall driving down the street in his car as she looks out a basement window. He gets out and skulks in the yard between her and Cass’s house. Something about Newhall feels wrong, and she goes upstairs to search his name and the neighborhood online. She discovers very little except for a poorly scanned newspaper clipping about some wrongdoing on his part in a case. The grainy photo strikes her as bearing almost no resemblance to the man she met earlier.
Something compels her to return to the basement, and after searching further, she finds a hidden room. What lies inside finally reveals the horrific truth. The floor is almost breathing as she enters and finds lying across this flesh like floor her youngest son and herself…but proto versions, still growing and not yet alive. Pulsing tentacles, like umbilical cords, attach to them, some substance oozing through them and into the fleshy creatures. Latissha gazes into the dark void these tentacles disappear into, and she is startled when the proto-son finally stirs, blinking his eyes. She lets out a scream and descends into the void, discovering at its roots a great multi-legged multi-armed horror growing in the center of a carved out hollow. The fluctuating blob was surrounded by small hooded figures who turned to look at Latissha. These were the only faces she could see in the scratched out photos, the ones who had been left unmarked, the children. Unaged and without eyes, a dreadful glow emanated from the sockets. Latissha attempted an escape but found herself swallowed by the darkness between this ghastly place and her home.
Latissha finds herself waking up to the sound of her youngest called for her “Mama, mama. Wake up.” She is groggy and not sure what has been real and what was a dream. Standing in her room are her two children and Cass. Cass says that Latissha will be okay, but she will have a difficult pregnancy like she did with her first two. Duh duh duh!
I don’t think we managed to explicitly explain the connection between the clues in the game, but in a conversation afterward we had very similar ideas as to where the story was going. We all pretty much had collectively agreed that Officer Newhall was actually dead and a couple people had pegged Cass’ murder as being that of the cop. In my own notes, the story I was shaping was that Geraldine’s family had been involved in black magic and had done horrible things to the original family across the street. The result was that the house had become an Amityville type of entity, protected and fueled by Geraldine, the last of her family line. Cass had become aware of this fact around twenty years prior and attempted to kill her, but Newhall had gotten in the way. Cass’ methods were tied to very specific rituals and spells and Newhall’s disturbance set him completely back.
I believe that on a second playthrough, now with a stronger sense of the structure of the game and an idea of how it *should* flow and the way clues operate we’d have an even better time with an even more satisfying conclusion. Lovecraftesque is the kind of horror gaming I enjoy, where all players can be held in suspense until the very end. The Telephone style mechanic with the clues is my favorite part especially post game being able to see how others interpreted the story and what directions they would go. With players that have both a good background in understanding creeping horror and improv acting this could be a very magical game.