A few weeks ago, I attended Total Con and received a welcome invitation to join in on a Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign scheduled to begin in a few weeks. Unfortunately, the game’s Sunday night meeting schedule conflicts with my own local gaming group and I had to regretfully decline. However, the invitation got my Call of Cthulhu synapses firing again and I’ve been thinking a great deal about what to run in the future. We’re over a year into our ongoing The One Ring campaign, but I’ve already alerted the players that I’ll be calling a brief hiatus once we hit an appropriate milestone in Middle-earth. After that, it’ll be time to switch gears for a bit and something Cthulhu-related is a viable candidate.
This has thinking about how to interpret supernatural events in a Mythos-themed setting. It’s a topic I’ve attacked before with various success. Sometimes I’m turned off by the fact that in Lovecraft’s work, it’s the Mythos at the bottom of everything. From a literary standpoint, this conceit provides a solid foundation and accomplished what H.P. wanted—a different bogeyman than the traditional ghosts, vampires, and werewolves that filled the genre prior to his efforts. But from a gaming standpoint, it can be a little “same same” if the players know there’s a Mythos beastie behind every bit of backwoods folklore.
At the moment though I’m enjoying the mental exercise of trying to twist various Mythos phenomenon and entities into classical monsters—or at least as the seeds that spawn the folklore that hint at traditional monsters and evil things. You can’t get much more classical than a ghost, so I’ve start there. Off-hand, I can’t remember if Lovecraft ever wrote a story that features the restless spirit of a dead person inhabiting a crumbling building (“The Shunned House” is close, but not quite). If he did, the story is hiding in the far stacks of my mental library and I’m sure someone will remind me of it or it’ll come to me at 3 AM some stormy night [Author’s note: Or before I finish writing this essay!]. Until then, however, let’s say Howard never did and instead think about how he could have used a ghost in his stories and still plays by the Mythos rules.
- Sorcerer trapped in the angles of time: Now that I write that, it’s clear that “The Dreams in the Witch House” was Lovecraft’s ghost story and used this as its premise. Keziah Mason manifests from outside physical reality to carry out her evil deeds and acts very much in the ghost story tradition. But whereas Mason seems to have control over her interactions with the earthly realm, we can twist this around and make our ghost be a human sorcerer who imperfectly meddled with the angles of time and space and is now trapped in its folds. Only on certain dates, during specific astronomical events, in the presence of objects charged with magical energy or even the sorcerer’s blood relatives does it the power to manifest and interact with the physical plane. An exorcism of such a trapped wizard might appear to cleanse the house, but the “ghost’s” quiescence is really due to changing conditions closing off its access from its trapped position in the cosmic realms. This remission might last several years or only until the blood relative (likely a PC in true Call of Cthulhu fashion) returns to the house.
- Telekinetic Phenomenon: The classic poltergeist manifests as physical effects caused by an invisible force moving objects and people and lacking a visible form. A poltergeist could then easily be a creature, human or otherwise, capable of telekinesis. Anything from powerful psychics, diabolical magicians (such as is the case in the CoC adventure “The Haunting”), Tibetan mystics, lloigor, and the like might be the root of a poltergeist haunting. All the holy water and burning sage in the world won’t stop a haunting when its cause is the deathless wizard in the secret basement crypt or the lloigor lurking around the fetid loch near the old manor.
- Time Traveler: That indistinct human form glimpsed in the shadows or out of the corner of one’s eye is in fact a person under the effects of liao, the Plutonian Drug, who has ventured back into time from anywhere from a few decades in the future to centuries from now. Perhaps the strain of liao is an uncommon one that grants the user the ability to interact outside the Fourth Dimension and become visible by those it is observing. That terrible death that was attributed to the “ghost” might actually be the victim of a Hound of Tindalos on the track of the temporal visitor. The liao strain has the unintended side-effect of “marking” anyone who glimpses the ghost, making it possible for the Hounds to detect them too.
- Dimensional Shambler: My first exposure to the dimensional shamble (outside of “The Horror in the Museum” which doesn’t call them that by name) was Call of Cthulhu 4th edition, in which it is said that these creatures “are capable of walking between the planes and worlds” and “They can leave a plane at will, signaling the change by beginning to shimmer and fade.” One could therefore theorize that the dimensional shambler also displays some sort of shimmering and fading in when they enter a dimension. If a witness sees an indistinct thing shimmer and seem to solidify in a darkened room, this might be interpreted as a ghostly apparition—especially if the witness flees the area before the dimensional shamble fully manifests in physical form. An ancient manor may be “haunted” by a shambler who is bound into servitude to the family via an heirloom once owned by the family’s founder, a black magic dabbler who anchored the shambler to a locket or ring or other personal object. Ending the haunting would be done by freeing the dimensional shambler—but that probably causes just as many problems as it solves.
- Mi-Go Origin: Given the Fungi from Yoggoth’s ability to manipulate physical bodies and their vast command of technology, it’s feasible that the Mi-Go might be able to create phenomenon that could easily be misconstrued as the manifestation of deceased souls. A “harmonic wave manipulator” could allow physical creatures to pass through solid matter. A “presence projector” might create a holographic image capable of speaking with those in the vicinity of its manifestation, creating a translucent form to communicate with bystanders. Even “cloaking webs” that provide Predator-like camouflage could be responsible for ghost sightings at night or in eerie, mountainous forests.
- Temporal Echoes: Some scholars of the supernatural postulate that ghosts are actually holographic recordings of past events that get replayed by magnetic fields or other energy patterns. This could be one possible explanation that fits with the science fiction vibe of Lovecraft’s stories. These echoes might be naturally occurring or side effects created by the working of powerful, physics-breaking sorcery. Perhaps magic points generated by sacrificing a living creature sometimes “bleed off” instead of powering the rite they’re intended to feed and scenes from the sacrifice’s life occasionally manifest in the vicinity. This could lead to “ghost dogs” and “spectral cats” just as easily as human-shaped ghosts. Perhaps each echo also produces residual magical effects tied into the rite they died to fuel, causing all manner of mysterious harm to those who encounter them.
- Magic: Certain spells could recreate ghostly manifestations, allowing sorcerers to feign a haunting. While a possibility, using magic in this manner sounds like a bad Scooby-Doo episode. So why would an insane wizard use spells in this manner? Perhaps it is unintentional, being instead the perceived manifestations of a magical working? A sorcerer moves out of phase with space and time as he duels a rival or works a powerful enchantment on multiple angles of reality, creating perceived ripples in the physical world. Or maybe the sorcerer is trying to generate immense emotional energy from those observing this phenomenon in order to power a greater and potentially more sanity-blasting working to summon an eldritch thing across dimensional thresholds? Terror can be generated again and again, whereas a sacrifice gives its energy only once. One last possibility is that ghostly phenomenon are side-effects of tampering with the laws of physics and anyone working a magical spell causes phenomenon to occur in the general vicinity. This could also explain Fortean events that are sometimes linked to hauntings.
- Natural Tillinghast Resonator: Some substance causes the same effect as Tillinghast’s resonator, stimulating the pineal glands of those exposed to it and allowing them to perceive entities in adjacent dimensions. The substance could be a hitherto undiscovered radioactive element (perhaps one brought down from Yuggoth), an herb, a rare drug, a meteorite, or any other organic or inorganic material capable of changing the body’s physiology, even temporarily. Those exposed to the substance glimpse things swimming in and out of the visible spectrum and manifest strange wounds inflicted by these spectres.
- Ancestral Memory: Racial memory was a favorite plot point for Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, so adapting it to our needs in appropriate. Let’s postulate a person capable of unconscious self-hypnosis, perhaps accessing their ancestral memory when they’re in a hypnopompic state. Images of those long dead appear to them, carrying on conversations or engaging in actions they performed long ago. The subject might be susceptible to suggestion while in this state and interaction with a nefarious ancestor’s memory—perhaps those of a long-dead relative with a predilection towards serial murder—begins insinuating itself on the subject’s personality, leading to possession-like effects that are actually self-inflicted. The ghostly phenomenon would only be experienced by the subject, but their actions while “possessed” would be the vector that leads to player characters’ investigation of matters.
- Mythos-caused Hallucinations: The ghosts are not real, but that doesn’t mean the witnesses don’t have other problems. Some other Mythos entity is causing them to hallucinate unexplainable events. It could be the Mi-Go-manufactured spores leaking out of the Devil’s Hopyard or latent memories seeping up from the unconsciousness from that time the observer was possessed by a Yithian. The manor’s steady diet of Deep One-tainted seafood from out beyond the reef causes auditory phenomenon and makes the eater see red liquid flowing down the walls or across the floor. While the investigators are chasing spectres, the real cause is about to close in on the unsuspecting ghost-breakers.
There are undoubtedly numerous other possibilities I’m overlooking, some of which will stem from canonical Lovecraft works (such as “The Mound” now that I think of it) or the mass of extended writings filling out both the Mythos and the Call of Cthulhu RPG. I accept that. I wanted to brainstorm a bit without doing any research or fact-checking from the extended Cthulhu corpus of work, and this list is the result. Not a bad start and there’s a few solid adventure seeds and plot twists lurking in there. All in all, it’s a good beginning to the prolonged process of Mythos investigation planning. More to come.