Eldritch Horror has long been a part of the RPG genre, from subtle mentions of the great old ones in Dungeons & Dragons to entirely eldritch games like Call of Cthulhu. But while Eldritch Horror has increased in popular culture, the genre often plays second fiddle to other genres in RPG culture and campaigns. Compared to fantasy or futuristic campaigns, Eldritch Horror campaigns are few and far between.  

So why are Eldritch Horror games so uncommon, even in a time where Tabletop RPGs seem to be thriving? The Eldritch Horror genre bases itself on the idea of the mundane world discovering and interacting with otherworldly and incomprehensible horrors. This core concept of the setting works against a good tabletop RPG’s two major principles: Freedom of Choice and Meaningful Action. 

Freedom of Choice: 

Tabletop RPGs are appealing to players because they have the freedom of choice to act in creative and diverse ways. Eldritch Horror directly conflicts with this due to the inherent nature of the creatures the players must fight. We’ve seen in staple Eldritch Horror stories that while eldritch beasts can be harmed, fighting these monsters is a fruitless effort unless the players know the true weakness of the beast. Furthermore, as these horrors embody true madness, there’s no reasoning with the eldritch forces that be, and investigating their true nature simply results in the person going insane from the horrors of what they learned. How can players and their characters choose how they want to face eldritch horrors when there’s no reliable or prolonged way to interact with them? Prolonged interaction with these horrors almost always results in death or insanity. We’ve seen in stories such as “Shadow Over Innsmouth” that even the mere sight of a deep one causes the narrator to faint from the sheer madness these creatures embody. Yet while these characters must interact with these unimaginable creatures, the Eldritch Horror genre takes place in realistic settings where player characters are restricted to realistic feats and abilities. RPGs set in Fantasy and Science-Fiction genres allow for players to create fantastical and imaginative characters with powerful abilities to execute the creative actions they wish to perform. While magic is present in the Eldritch Horror genre, extended use of this magic and the eldritch world brings misfortune, corrupting not only the mind of the character through inevitable madness, but also going so far as to corrupting the physical form as well, such as Wilbur in the “Dunwich Horror” where his and his family’s experience with eldritch beasts left them alien in nature and inevitably leads to their demise. At its core, Eldritch Horror is about the average joe stumbling into a world of horrors and madness where there is little freedom for characters to act how they want without the powers-that-be overwhelming their body and mind. 

Meaningful Action:

RPG campaigns should be gripping narratives that encourage and motivate characters to keep fighting and accomplish their goals. Eldritch Horror conflicts with this concept. The whole point of Eldritch Horror is that its monsters cannot be beaten or stopped, only stalled. As such, Meaningful Action in an Eldritch Horror system is hard to encounter as the big-bad the players are fighting can’t be meaningfully harmed; what drives the player’s characters to try and fight these otherworldly terrors when they know that there is little they can reasonably do to stop them? The Eldritch Horror campaigns I have both run and participated in have all notably made use of cults and humans as the antagonists. This allows the campaign to revolve around human motivations and meaningful action since taking down a cult is much more accessible than stopping an eldritch being. So unless the campaign reduces interactions with eldritch monsters or sidelines them all together, there is little possibility for game masters to create stories that allow players to feel like they’re making a difference. Lovecraft’s stories and other Eldritch Horror works share a pattern of this hopelessness in the face of the coming tide. There are few meaningful heroes in the Eldritch Horror genre, just victims in the end. While some Eldritch Horror stories end with the humans victorious, these victories come with a heavy toll, all from just one encounter. In “Dunwich Horror” where Armitage and his associates managed to defeat Wilbur’s spawn of Yog-Sothoth, the fight left Whateley unconscious just at the mere sight of the beast, and the town of Dunwich was left with a significant body count. Lovecraft’s and other authors’ stories often revolve around a single encounter with the Eldritch world. While this works well for the concept of one offs, where the long term fate of player characters does not need to be accounted for, a long term campaign of this genre is difficult. As every fight exacts a toll and even slim victories require significant sacrifice, player characters cannot expect to survive for long, making the chance of a Total Party Kill (TPK) all too real. 

As the Eldritch Horror genre is at odds with Tabletop RPGs’ focus of Player Freedom and Meaningful Action, it’s no wonder that this genre is one of the less popular campaign settings. With little possibility for characters to reliably triumph over otherworldly horrors, Eldritch Horror RPGs hold a unique position in the world of Tabletop RPGs, sitting in a realm of conceptual popularity but technical inaccessibility. In a time where Tabletop RPGs are more popular than ever, it will be interesting to see how the Eldritch Horror genre grows and develops and how new waves of players and game masters will encounter this unique situation the genre finds itself in. 

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2 Comments

  1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here; these difficulties make cosmic threats and eldritch horror, along with a number of other themes, hard to tackle.

    Do you think there’s a good way to do this, through system, style, or something else?

    The best luck I’ve had was with some very forgiving players in investigative games. One where things seemed normal but gradually revealed the possibility of a bizarre cosmic background, a sort of wider, more dangerous world than had previously been suspected. The other was in a setting where these things were known, but extremely rare and dangerous; the PCs were a little like inspectors specializing in responding to, and determining the cause of, accidental bioweapon releases. In both cases, there were solvable problems and effective action against a backdrop of eldritch horror, and players who were willing to lean into atmosphere and implications to help create a mood at the table.

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  2. I think the key to making these games is all about having the proper pacing. Eldritch Horror really shines as a slow burn. The whole genre bases itself on ordinary people stumbling into otherworldly horrors. Unlike other RPGs where you can just set up a big bad or encourage players to go off into the wild green yonder, Eldritch Horror campaigns need a proper pace so that the characters don’t end up making the reasonable choice of running away. Set up the eldritch horror as a veiled and encroaching threat. This let’s the players investigate at a pace that they can keep their sanity and, when they do discover what is actually going on, they are too far deep to turn back.

    For instance, I ran a campaign where the players were all part of the local state park and were tasked with investigating a lack of fish and animal corpses coming up on shore. At first they were just investigating for a possible oil spill or some company that was illegally dumping. But as they started investigating further, the characters started uncovering more and more concerning evidence such as suspicious carvings in the old grotto, black ichor in the tidal pools near the fish kills, and vividly lucid dreams. It wasn’t until they were all the way into the adventure before they realized that a commercial fishing boat had disturbed a nest of deep one eggs and that the matriarch was now active again. But at this point in the venture, the team was already investigated and the stake of their town’s main source of income was on the line.

    By keeping the eldritch being hidden until the very end, the characters were still motivated to solve the issue since they weren’t certain what the problem was and didn’t feel like it was some monumental task to try and accomplish, just a routine state park investigation. But as they slowly started finding out more and seeing the foe for what it really was, the classic eldritch horror started to shine as they found themselves going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, but at a pace where they didn’t really know what was going on or felt the need to flee until they were already too far in. And since I kept the eldritch monster on a smaller scale, one matriarch and a few of her young, the players felt threatened but not outright hopeless.

    Eldritch horror campaigns can be done but definitely needs to be approached differently than other genres. By slowly revealing the threat and letting the players slowly dive deeper and deeper before they figure out what’s going on, you still keep the horror but can reduce the feeling of “why do we even bother trying?”

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