Oct. 23rd, 2009

tablesaw: A trial sign ("This trail is OPEN") against a blue sky in Los Angeles's Griffith Park. (Hiking (Open Trails))
I'm running a game for [livejournal.com profile] ojouchan, [livejournal.com profile] cramerica, [personal profile] amythyst, and maybe [livejournal.com profile] thefreak (who's will probably be working) and [livejournal.com profile] pbchris (who hasn't let us know whether he's coming glare). Ojou asked for Call of Cthulhu, which I've run before, but I decided to switch to Trail of Cthulhu, which looked awesome and is nicely streamlined. I'm finishing up writing my notes now, which is good, because I still keep moving things around as I do it. But two things have been bouncing through my mind.

(There are no spoilers for the game in this post.)

One, it's awesome that the places that I walk to when I want to clear my head are exactly the setting of the game I'm writing. I live just a few blocks away from the old Krotona Colony. Krotona was a colony for Theosophy, an esoteric religion that still exists today. (So does the colony; it moved to Ojai in 1926.)

A regular feature in my walks is this stairway, which served as the southern entrance to the colony. I knew that several of the buildings up there were from the colony, but I didn't realize how many. A review of the architecture of the area (available as a PDF) has this to say:
Nearly all of Krotona's major and many of its minor buildings still stand occupied, though all have been to some extent remodeled and most changed dramatically in function. Together they comprise what may well be the largest coherent group of architecturally significant, Theosophical structures in the western hemisphere.
And sure enough, looking through the pictures, I kept recognizing the less flamboyant buildings as ones I walked past.

Tomorrow's adventure begins at this house, though not with its then owners, the parents of Mary Astor.

Second, I've always wondered the extent to which Cthulhu roleplaying games are fundamentally racist. Not in the sense of mechanically dealing with 1920s American race relations in roleplay. More in the sense of whether Lovecraft's stories structurally racist, whether they contain or foster or support ideas of the primacy of whiteness. There's no doubt that Lovecraft was a serious racist, even for the 1920s. (If you doubt it, read this; you can get the gist by looking at the title in the URL.) But the last time I ran the game, Ojou drew up a character that was essentially her grandmother, and it threatened to break the game. Not because of min-maxing or anything, just in having a view of the world that was not the WASP academic worldview that Lovecraft relies upon. That worldview is necessary for the horror to work, and as a result it supports it in the reader. Add a character that doesn't fit into that worldview (like a rich black woman withconnections to other African-American practitioners of Vodoun), and the story completely changes.

The role-playing games are very good at breaking down the stories of Lovecraft (and other Mythos writers), and examining them can give a sense of what's there structurally. There's definitely a sense of extended Terra Nullius. The Mythos contains a whole host of gods, creatures, and alien races that populated earth long before "humanity." And yet, non-White humans (like the native Tongva of Southern California, or ancient or even contemporary Africans) seem to have regular contact with this mentally toxic existence.

Trail of Cthulhu takes Call of Cthulhu's legendary "Sanity" stat and breaks it into Sanity and Stability. Stability is what many people consider to be "sanity"; it's the ability to hold yourself together when terrible things happen, whether they're natural or supernatural. Sanity is specifically tied to knowledge of the "Cthulhu Mythos." From the ToC manual:
Sanity is the ability to believe in, fear for, or care about any aspect of the world or humanity as we know it: religion, science, family, natural beauty, human dignity, even "normal" immorality. The horrible truth of the Mythos is that Sanity measures your ability to believe a comforting lie . . . . It is perhaps best understood as a long-term measure of how close you are to fully realizing the bleak and awful reality of the cosmos.
Given all this (and some other things), I start to see Lovecraft's take on horror as one in which Whiteness and its privileges is equivalent with "humanity." Horror comes from the threat to Whiteness, the comfortable (and comforting) lie that is threatened by incursion from or exposure to the Other, who are alien and unhuman. It's an attitude and analogy that does permeate the structure of Lovecraftian horror, and I'm trying to find ways to neutralize it.


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