The second event I attended during the Festival of Creative Learning was pitched as an exploration of the issues around catastrophic climate change through role-playing.
Perhaps you are wondering what that long, ominous-looking word (pronounced ch-too-loo-seen) in the title means. So was I! I’d heard of the Cthulhu Mythos before – a collection of stories by H. P. Lovecraft. Though dated now, they’re known for starting a genre known as cosmic horror. In these stories the sense of horror comes not from a monster or violence, but from humanity’s utter insignificance in a vast universe governed by forces beyond our ken.
This seemed like a promising starting point for an exploration of catastrophic climate change. The climate systems of Earth are immense by human standards after all. Even our meteorological models, while impressive, rely on supercomputers to predict the weather, pushing them well beyond human comprehension.
The term Chthulhucene is a more recent invention from sociologist Donna Haraway (the extra ‘h’ at the start is intentional, to distinguish the concept from Lovecraft’s work) as a change in perspective from the so-called anthropocene in which we live today1.
Why anthropocene, or any other -cene?
Where the anthropocene is concerned with humanity’s impact on the environment (which is already pretty terrifying – humanity is in the process of causing a sixth mass extinction), the chthulhucene is a vision of the future in which humans come to see themselves as a part of something much larger and more complex than themselves alone.
Chthulucene Dark is a role-playing game (RPG) where a group of players take on the role of characters in a science fiction setting out to explore these themes. It’s a relatively straightforward system as RPGs go: you play a character with a profession and some kind of sci-fi augmentation – I played an archaeologist with a bionic eye that spent most of the session seeing much more than he wanted to.
I’ve previously played a variety of tabletop RPGs2. The main difference between those and Chthulhucene Dark is they had a lot more rules for a lot more things. I like the complexity, but that kind of detail would only bog down a short game, and the idea is to spur thought and discussion about the themes, not to mess with lots of rules!
When you try to do something in this game, you roll a 6-sided die (d6) to see how well you do, if it’s related to your profession or you’ve got some help, you roll 2 dice and take the better result.
It gets a little trickier when you use your augmentation. If you can think of a way to use it to help you accomplish your goal you can roll an 8-sided die (d8) as well and, as before, take the best result. BUT! If your d8 rolls higher than your other dice, your augmentation pushes you beyond what the human mind was meant to cope with and you gain 1 Strain.
Strain is the system’s way to gauge insanity (a recurring theme in cosmic horror), it starts at 1 and goes up to 8. If you reach 8, your character goes mad and is removed from play. You also have a chance of gaining Strain if you roll a 6 or higher on any roll, as you find out too much about the disturbing truth. In these cases you roll a d8. If the result is higher than your current Strain, you gain 1 Strain.
This means that while you’re likely to pick up some Strain in the course of play, it’s quite hard to go right over the edge unless you get overenthusiastic with your augmentation. Despite my best efforts my character didn’t get above 4 Strain, and he was one of the more unhinged of the group.
I think the system works really well for something in the cosmic horror and investigation genres. The rules are simple enough that you can pick them up very quickly and as your characters uncover secrets they gradually become more erratic as a natural result, a neat agreement between story and the rules.
The story was set in the far future, long after humans have abandoned Earth after climate catastrophe made it uninhabitable. You might think they’d have learned from this, but no: humanity has spent thousands of years trapped in a cycle of finding new worlds and migrating to them once the current one becomes uninhabitable. This is a bit of a departure from common sci-fi themes, but I thought it worked really well as a vehicle to consider the topic of climate change, which involves the same themes around unsustainability. It’s one thing to use up a planet, but due to the ambiguous amount of time that had passed between leaving Earth and the current date I was a bit concerned that we were in danger of using up an entire galaxy!
Our characters were part of a team sent to explore humanity’s next prospective home, which was kind of a big deal as it was the most Earth-like planet we’d ever found in our recorded history. During our research though, we discovered a mysterious black substance that frustrated all our attempts to learn about it: it jammed our drills, it poisoned people and animals it came in contact with and the most we managed to learn about it was that it was organic (that is, carbon-based) and reacted in very strange ways to certain high-frequency vibrations.
After some exploration, some new players joined who were part of an earlier expedition who had gone native and learned to avoid the mystery substance wherever possible. Not only that, we discovered the fish on the planet had evolved a degree of resistance to its poisonous effects. Towards the end of the session we were conducting an underwater drilling mission to try and get to the bottom of what this stuff was and where it came from.
I don’t want to spoil the big reveal at the end of the story, as finding that out is part of the fun in any investigation or cosmic horror story, but when it came it hit us like the proverbial ton of bricks. It would have been really interesting to continue past that point, and have our characters (who were already at each other’s throats) grapple with the revelation.
I think that is definitely a big strength of the ‘role-playing as discussion’ format: it let’s you try on different views by playing a character who you might completely disagree with and seeing how they interact with other characters. From my own experience I know that if you have a single thoughtful player in a group otherwise unconcerned with an issue, it will almost always stimulate a discussion, because groups often end up doing things by consensus. The inclusion of the mystery element worked very well too, as a way to encourage us to learn more about the situation we found ourselves in.
References, Notes and Information for the Curious
1. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin, Donna Haraway’s essay that originated the term
2. In case anyone is interested, I’ve mostly played Dungeons & Dragons (v 3.5), Pathfinder and Shadowrun (3rd edition), as well as a smattering of others.
4. If you’re interested in playing Chthulhucene Dark, Vivek will be running it at Conpulsion in early April.
5. Various science fiction stories explore similar themes, including The Dispossessed, The Word for World is Forest and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson.
6. In a different vein, the (also now dated) game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauriplays around with the idea of life as an assemblage of species and humanity’s relationship with them.