Leaping to Conclusions in “Lovecraftesque”
“Moments Lost” is a blog series where I deconstruct a single moment from a narrative game, of any vintage, and talk through how and why it works.
The Game: Lovecraftesque is a beautiful and unique tabletop storygame that starts from a deep understanding of what worked in Lovecraft’s original stories, while challenging and engaging with what doesn’t work. The author’s stories have of course been the inspiration for many other roleplaying games (not to mention media of other kinds). What Lovecraftesque does so well is turn a deep understanding of the genre into game mechanics that help players improvise their own stories in that style, without falling back on lazy tropes or out of its own particular rhythms.
The rulebook generally is a treasure trove of deep thinking about Lovecraftian tropes, successes, and failures: it’s available as a £10 PDF or £20 printed book direct from the authors.
The game has no gamemaster and no story is prepared in advance. Players create a single protagonist, called the Witness, and take turns staging scenes where this character uncovers a Clue: some hint of a sinister lurking evil. Strict rules govern the pace and intensity of revelations, in order to preserve the looming but unseen dread of the original stories. After two phases of Clues with increasing intensity, the Witness makes a “Journey into Darkness” and confronts a terrifying horror, perhaps escaping with their life but never defeating the evil for good.
One of the problems with GM-less games can be the lack of a singular vision supplying a coherent story and pacing it well, and this becomes a potentially even greater problem with plots that hinge around a mystery. Lovecraftesque has a number of great ideas for coping with this problem, but one of my favorites is a device that ensures each Clue is part of a coherent storyline, even though all of them are being made up on the fly.
The Moment: After each scene, players take a moment to do something called Leaping to Conclusions. Each player silently considers all the Clues introduced so far, and secretly writes down a potential answer to the final mystery — a finale it would make sense for all these hints to be building towards. As new Clues are revealed, of course, this idea must be continuously revised. But the genius of the mechanic is that every Clue advances a real story in someone’s head: they’re not just empty fake-outs.
As play progresses and more Clues emerge, the players’ secret answers to the mystery grow closer and closer together. Often as the climactic scenes begin, everyone is on the same page about what the revelation is going to be, without having explicitly planned this or ever saying so aloud, which can be immensely satisfying and utterly thrilling.
After I first played Lovecraftesque, I loved this idea so much that I tried adopting it for my own game Archives of the Sky. I added a game phase called “Plotting” where characters would silently think about where the story was going. In practice, I found this didn’t work as well in my game, perhaps because Archives puts more focus on collaborative plot-building than on staying immersed in a mystery. The idea stuck with me, though, and eventually evolved into “Reflection”: at the end of each scene, each player makes an out-of-character statement about where they think (or hope, or fear) the plot is going. This works quite well: I often see players self-policing this rule if someone forgets or skips it. It makes this moment of speculation a public process that all players can riff on and take inspiration from together.
But Lovecraftesque needs to preserve more tension, and its moments where you get to sit quietly, the creepiness of the last scene lingering in the air, and think like an investigator grasping towards a solution are some of my favorites. Considering everything that’s come so far, waiting for a light bulb to go on that draws the disparate plot threads of yourself and your collaborators together: it’s a unique and memorable game experience. Leaping to Conclusions is a lovely example of giving players the space and attention to focus on crafting a good story, without the distractions of roleplaying their characters, juggling rules, or worrying about their performance.