Lovecraftesque is a rules-lite GMless collaborative storytelling game which utilizes three revolving roles (“Narrator” or GM, “Witness” or PC, and “Watcher,” which is a flexible role usually involving adding detail to the scenes the Narrator describes). The Narrator’s responsibility in each scene is to introduce a clue of some kind for the Witness to find- this clue may be weird, but not overtly supernatural. After each scene, the Witness describes their internalizations and rationalizations about what happened during the scene, the roles shift one to the right or left, each player secretly writes down what they think is actually going on, and the story continues. As the story progresses through three acts, the game’s mechanics conspire to take the Witness on a journey to meet the Final Horror lurking behind the story. The climax occurs with the revelation of the terrible truth by the player who’s turn it is to be Narrator, followed by an Epilogue described by the next Narrator.
Over the course of three episodes, we attempted each of Lovecraftesque’s variants- “Investigative horror,” “Comedic horror,” and “Heroic horror,” at least once. This review will address each of these in turn before some closing remarks and a final verdict.
Lovecraftesque’s “default” setting is Investigative Horror. In this variant, the Witness actively works toward uncovering the final horror, but is more or less powerless to emerge from the encounter unscathed. This is the purest way to experience Lovecraftesque in all its glory. The pacing of the game closely mirrors that of a well-crafted classic horror movie like Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, or Jaws. In an almost magical way, a loose collection of nouns and adjectives describing the Witness and the locale in which the game is set is gradually transformed into a cohesive tale of terror. While we chose not to utilize the game’s “Special Cards,” which allow players to introduce supernatural elements that shape the overall plot under certain circumstances, it is certain that their use would only serve to deepen the experience.
Lovecraftesque’s first variant is Heroic Horror. In a Heroic Horror game, the Witness has a chance to defeat the Final Horror and live to tell the tale. In our playtest of this variant, we chose to use Nicolas Cage playing the character of Ghost Rider as our Witness. As a result, the outcome was more towards the “Comedic Horror” end of the spectrum than we would have liked, simply because of the over-the-top nature of Nicolas Cage as an actor and character. However, this test was notably more action-packed than our Comedic Horror test, consisting almost entirely of a single, uninterrupted road race through Japan, replete with special effects from Michael Bay along with a whole suite of Hollywood actors, so in that respect it was a resounding success. All this to say that strangely enough, despite the fact that everything was a lot more humorous than we wanted it to be, the story that resulted was absolutely true to the kind of story that Nicolas Cage would sign on for. This setting would really shine with an unknown Witness or serious actor as the star.
Lovecraftesque’s second variant is Comedic Horror, in which the goal is to create a story which parodies the established tropes of the horror genre as a whole. Our playtest featured John Cena in a WWE Heavyweight Wrestling match like none other. It was over the top. It was zany. It was as delightful as a wine cooler on a warm day at the beach. Above all, we had an absolute blast, and ended up with a great story which none of us could have come up with on our own, which we will talk about for years to come.
Lovecraftesque is a very special game. It’s easy to teach, easy to play, and works even when you wouldn’t expect it to. While the lack of die rolls to guide the action is strange at first, the discomfort fades quickly, leaving philosophical questions about why we use dice at all in their wake. It works in groups as small as 2, and probably can accommodate all the way up to 10 dedicated and experienced roleplayers. While the game’s early stages can be rocky, as new players get the feel of the game and begin to flesh out the Witness, the nature of the game is such that this problem self-corrects. The number of stories and scenarios that can be played out using Lovecraftesque’s system is practically limitless. The only potential drawbacks that came to light are that session lengths are highly variable, that and that the nature of the system is such that extended campaign play would likely prove more difficult than in other systems. Beyond that, we had no complaints whatsoever. It is a beautifully crafted game with surprising depth considering the simplicity and usability of the ruleset- definitely worth a purchase to provide some satisfying low-prep pick-up-and-play variety to your gaming rotation.