A Lazy Sequence

Villainous motivations in Cthulhu games

Exposure to the truths of the Cthulhu Mythos shatters the core of the human psyche by stripping away all illusions of human significance, benign nature, and loving God, leaving nothing but the terrifying vistas of stark, cosmic nihilism…

A paradox at the heart of many mythos scenarios is that the human antagonists (cultists, sorcerors, servitors,…) act in alien and irrational ways, yet the Keeper – ideally a human – is required to portray them. Ascribing human motivations to the key NPCs runs the risk of humanizing the threat and removing the cosmic from the cosmic horror.

Only knowledge of the Mythos can keep humanity safe from the Mythos.
Those with knowledge of the Mythos lose their humanity to the Mythos.

The Mythos echoes “the gun” of Western paradox.

Briefly, the antagonists in Mythos stories often work in the background and their own motivations are rarely disclosed1. If the protagonist thwart them, the Mythos – hydra-like – simply replaces them with another. These antagonists are as futile (more?) as the protagonists.

As a result, when I’m trying to portray the zero-sanity servitors of the Mythos in a game, I’m not particularly concerned about why they are doing anything, and more concerned about what they are doing. If this means an sorceror is doing some things with no obvious motivation, I’m fine with that as it leaves questions open that the players will fill in. It increases the weirdness. This takes a leaf from GUMSHOE’s player-facing approach: only the aspects of the villain the players see matter. I want everything I do as Keeper to be in service of the atmosphere and tone of the game, and driving towards the player characters personal horror as they face the cosmic nihilism of the setting.

While on paper this approach may seem unsatisfying for the Keeper, I’ve found it works well in practise. The player’s don’t know how much or how little motivation the villain has, and may interpret the actions of the antagonists in ways you would never have predicted. This is counter to the way I would want to run the antagonists in most other games, but I think it suits the genre of a Cthulhu game well.

  1. There are exceptions of course. The residents of Innsmouth clear have a lot of goings on they want to hide from the outsiders. The source of their wealth for one.
22 May 2018