March 22, 2014
Iconic Antagonists: Cthulhu
For the purposes of this article, I am not referring specifically to Cthulhu out of H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos. I, as a gamer, have never actually run across this particular Old One. What I am referring to is what a being like Cthulhu represents, an ancient god-like being of phenomenal power, usually locked away in some ancient prison or held in some deep slumber, that when it will awaken will herald the end of all things. I considered calling this one “Iconic Antagonists: Apocalyptic Doom Beasts,” but figured that I could just sum that up with the poster-thing of all apocalyptic doom beasts, Cthulhu.
A trope in many apocalyptic, epic fantasy, and horror-genre games, the apocalyptic doom beast – which many players will refer to as “Cthulhu” – is rarely a direct threat. Just like fighting against a government or other greater power, the characters often have no way of fighting such a beast face-to-face. It would either dominate them, as such creatures are usually left without any stats in a game, representing their sheer, god-like powers, or would drive mortal beings mad just by looking upon them. Sauron, from the Lord of the Rings is an example of this kind of villain. The characters never actually confront him. They must contend with his countless servants, his vile machinations, and his evil influences. It takes more to destroy him, or any of these creatures, than simply sword or fireball. Besting such an enemy is done through story.
And therein exists the greatest problem with these sorts of enemies. They leave the players helpless to accomplish anything on their own. How a player character manages to best such a threat is left up to the Gamemaster leaving breadcrumbs for them to follow (usually deemed “railroading”) and setting up the right circumstances for the characters to discover what they need, a MacGuffin. While these stories can certainly work, and have been a great deal of fun to both run and play, having a foe that can only be beaten by Gamemaster direction can leave something to be desired for many players.
I have found that a good way of running these sorts of antagonists is to have lesser villains, servants of the antagonist, around to thwart the characters. Give these “lesser” enemies as much detail and characterization as you normally would a main antagonist, and suddenly you have your players invested in the story once again. By doing this, you give them something they can face without Gamemaster “gimmes.” You have created enemies that they players can understand, maybe even relate to. Most importantly, you have given them something they can try to hit with a big stick. Something, to them, that is real and tangible for them to struggle against, which is important for a table-top game.
More than other sorts of iconic antagonists, Cthulhu is more of an ever-present danger. It does not pose a direct threat, but more acts as a win/lose scenario. A Good/Bad ending, if you will. The goal, or good ending, is for the players to stop the servants of the Old One from ever releasing him from his prison/waking him from his slumber/prevent his return to the world. The bad end is if they fail and find themselves unable to stop him from bring chaos, madness, and destruction to the world.
Gamemasters, use these sorts of villains with care. Done too casually, and players will lose interest. Give them a threat that is too large for them to handle, and they will give up. Finding the balance of threat and resolve within your own group is key to running a game that is set to feature an apocalyptic doom beast.
As always, thanks for reading and I wish you all good gaming.
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