Incorporating Lovecraftian Horror Into Your Next D&D Session
The Oldest and Strongest emotion of Mankind is Fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear, is fear of the unknown - H.P. Lovecraft
Tarquin looked about him. The sounds in the swamp seemed so loud, but he could not see anyone about him, save Ves, his dwarven compatriot. Ves’ eyes were dark and her brow furrowed beneath her steel helm. She could hear them too.
Breathing deeply and stepping forward into the clammy water, Tarquin heard it again, louder this time. The sound of his mother's old spinning wheel. It clacked around and around. He breathed in again and now tasted the tang of blood on the air. Tarquin slowly turned to look behind him to ask Ves if she tasted it too. But Ves was gone, her armor rusted and the bones inside bleached from years of decay. Tarquin’s eyes widened as he looked up. Through the reddening fog that began to choke him, the sun split into two and burned black upon the swamp.
What Is Lovecraftian Horror?
Lovecraftian horror is a specific genre of horror that is based on the work of Howard Phillip Lovecraft, an American author who was active within the early 1900s. However, it is more than this. Lovecraftian themes often revolve around cosmic nihilism, a philosophical concept that focuses on the insignificance of humankind when faced with the infinite majesty of the universe.
Why Do I Want This in My Game?
Lovecraft's work has influenced fantasy and horror writers massively for the past 50 years. From Dungeons and Dragons’ own Mind Flayers to characters like Hermaeus Mora in the Elder Scrolls Series, and even Funko Pop Minis, the creations of Lovecraft are everywhere. His style of horror, as well as the styles that other writers developed after his, have shaped how modern horror is viewed.
Knowledgeable protagonists who have uncovered horrifying secrets, living stars, and impossible powers are cornerstones of the genre. These themes can be used to significant effect within your games through ancient prophecies. Try using books with their own alien intentions or a tapestry that shows beings encroaching on your world. These can begin to instill a creeping dread upon your players, even if they dismiss the content at the time. Using a Lovecraftian Nightmare as a final villain, such as Cthulhu, that has been hinted at since session 1 is a massive payoff!
What Could I Include From This Material?
Including a mysterious backstory for one of your players, with their permission, that they do not know the full extent of is an excellent method of seeding horror early on in a game. Perhaps they are star-born (a being made of living starlight or created by an alien intelligence) and have fallen to the world to herald the oncoming of Atropus, The World Born Dead. This could be shown to them through harrowing nightmares, and they must struggle between their true nature and the person they believe themselves to be.
Another exceptional approach to including elements from Lovecraftian Horror is to look towards the ideas of forbidden knowledge, madness, and one’s perception of reality. Foreseeing this Lovecraftian potential, the Dungeons Masters Guide already includes rules for Madness rolls.
However, using the concept of forbidden knowledge may prove more difficult. Perhaps whenever the player reads from the Tome that they discovered, they take psychic damage or have to make an Intelligence Save against Madness. If you wanted to incorporate this concept of forbidden knowledge into the narrative instead, you could create an order of monks or knights whose life goal is to stop some awful text or song from reaching the mortal world, lest it is used to call forth Great Old Ones.
Finally, if you wished to toy with how your players perceive the game, you could try turning their assumptions upside down. In Dungeons and Dragons, player characters are most often seen as the heroes of the tale. They perform acts of goodness and save worlds. In this new, Lovecraftian version, your player characters may be the only people in the world that believe their actions are heroic. Townsfolk may sense something inherently ‘wrong’ about your Dragonborn Paladin, or their heroic quest may unlock seals to the prison of Tharizdun, the Chained God. Both of these ideas reinforce the feeling of isolation or ‘not-being-wanted’; that is key to many of Lovecraft's stories.
For the idea of releasing Tharizdun, secret orders of knights may be dispatched to stop the party from achieving what they believe to be a worthy goal. In the case of townsfolk, they could be colonists from another world ready to defend this new foothold on Faerun.
What Books or Movies Might Inspire Me?
If you want to include these elements into your game, you could look at a number of different sources from modern media. Movies, such as the Event Horizon, Prince of Darkness, or Cold Skin introduce some excellent ideas about reality not being what it seems and horrors from beyond our world. A key to many of these films is the idea of modern science and the dangers that it could hold if it were to be misused, as was a popular theme in Lovecraft's work.
Books that may be of interest are, of course, the works of Lovecraft himself. Be careful though, some of these works are very dated and set in the time that Lovecraft was writing. In addition to these, one might look at a few of Stephen King’s novels such as The Mist and Dreamcatcher.
Are There Any Modules or Sourcebooks I Could Use?
Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition had a sourcebook called Elder Evils, which detail some marvelous ideas that developed on the concepts set out by Lovecraft. The book contains some outstanding narrative moments, as well as monsters, that can be easily transferred to Fifth Edition.
Beyond this, however, looking through the core and expansion books at monsters like Mind Flayers, Astral Dreadnaughts, and Kuo Toa provide a great starting place for Lovecraftian adventures. Even items like the Book Of Vile Darkness and its psychic damage from reading Black Speech is very in keeping with Lovecraft's notions.
Beyond all of this, including the cosmic horror that many know as Lovecraft’s calling card can help improve your understanding of what scares your players and maybe, what scares you.