What Is Cosmic Horror?
Cosmic horror, sometimes called Lovecraftian horror, is a subgenre of horror fiction that deals with and emphasizes the dread and discomfort created by the vast unknown. It usually eschews gratuitous violence and gore in favor of high tension and unclear enemies. Themes of sanity, greater awareness, and change are often featured. The genre is best known for the works of H.P. Lovecraft, a prolific horror writer in the early 20th century.
Aside from fantasy and science fiction, one of the most popular genres of tabletop RPGs out there is cosmic horror. Games like Call of Cthulhu, Achtung, Trail of Cthulhu, or another system of your own diabolical choosing, there is something compelling about a game where you brush against the unknowable and content with the great, dark forces of our realm.
That said – it can be a difficult game to GM for. Just coming up with ideas is something of a challenge. Mysteries in general are difficult to write and balance well, much less mysterious where the solution involves forces beyond human comprehension. And the general public is already fairly familiar with most of the famous Lovecraft stories themselves, so rewriting them might be something of a letdown.
There are other places to turn to for inspiration. Whether you want something filled to the brim with fright and slow, plodding investigations, or something pulpier and more action-filled, here are our media recommendations to inspire a cosmic horror campaign:
The most obvious place to look for Lovecraftian inspiration is Lovecraft himself! But, as stated above, these stories are already relatively well-known to the general public (and even better known to the kind of people playing a horror TTRPG). Thankfully, eldritch horror as a genre did not come to a halt after Lovecraft.
A simple look through the ‘horror’ section at your local library or bookstore should bring up a treasure trove of novels and short stories from which you can take inspiration. Books listed under ‘Lovecraftian horror’ or ‘thriller’ are most likely to be a good fit. ‘Mystery’ novels are a good choice as well, though you may want to avoid the cozy mysteries like Agatha Christie – you’ll want something a bit darker in tone for Lovecraftian storytelling, so try giving the noir mysteries a try!
If you’re looking for something you could almost take wholecloth, the Arkham Horror card game has a series of novelized adaptations which make for great session outlines. Since they’re based off a game, their characters are primed for the investigating and adventuring that your players are likely looking for their own characters.
If you don’t have to sit down and read a book, or are looking for something to put on while you plan your sessions, old radio dramas are an excellent choice. These audio adventures are often written or set in common eldritch horror time periods (like the 1920s, 1940s, or the Victorian era), and have the kind of tone that brims with nostalgic thrills.
Personally, I love the mystery series. These ‘potboiler’ adventures (so named for the simmering tension that underlines the stories and grants the heroes their nickname as ‘hardboiled detectives’) will give you interesting hooks and culprits, with the kind of clues and twists that you might want your players to investigate. Rocky Jordan, an Egyptian café-owner prone to trouble, Johnny Dollar, an insurance investigator with an action-packed expense account, and Sam Spade, a classic private eye with a heart of gold, are all favorites of the genre.
You could also go straight for the proper horror. The Shadow, Starring Boris Karloff, Weird Circle, Suspense, and The Whistler are all wonderful horror radio shows that encapsulate the strange and terrifying atmosphere that marks cosmic horror.
Just like tabletop roleplaying games, video games have not gone without their own vibrant collection of comic horror games. They also present a unique boon when it comes to inspiring tabletop sessions, in that they can give you first-hand experience in how to present the otherworldly and horrifying aspects to best effect. After going through a Lovecraftian adventure yourself, you’ll be much better prepared to lead your friends on one.
For those who prefer combat games, Bloodborne and Remnant: From the Ashes are worth checking out. Or, if you prefer puzzles and thinking in your games (as many horror TTRPGs tend to lean towards), The Sinking City, Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones, and Call of Cthulhu The Official Video Game (yes, based off of the tabletop system) are excellent choices.
A newer release that fits the bill is Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, a mystery investigative game that features the famous detective coming face-to-face with something bigger than he ever could have imagined.
Where do you go for Lovecraftian and comic horror inspiration? Do you have any favorite sources? How have they played out in games of your own? Let us know in the comments below!