“I rolled a critical hit against Yog-Sothoth!”: Revisiting AD&D Deities and Demigods (4th and Final Part)
I’ve read dozens of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, some of them (“The Rats in the Walls”, “The Colour Out of Space”) multiple times. I’ve studied his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. But I never have felt compelled to categorize all the various Great Old Ones and Outer Gods and work out their relationships in the overall “mythos” — for one thing, such an undertaking seems to undermine the intent of these Lovecraftian horrors, which was to represent the awful unknown.
August Derleth was among the first to go about classifying Lovecraft’s monsters in any systematic way, which tended to morph the work from pure horror into something more like metaphysical science fiction. Some fans have also criticized Derleth for using a Judeo-Christian framework for his classification, creating a dualistic good-versus-evil overlay that would be anathema to Lovecraft’s own worldview. The dissonance of this theme with the source texts threatened to jettison the original intent: conveying the cosmic terror of the mystery of existence and our precarious place in it.
Plugging Lovecraft’s cast of cosmic creeps into a Dungeons & Dragons pantheon and assigning stats to them (hit points, armor class, etc.) — as the 1980 first edition of Deities and Demigods did — seems vulnerable to this criticism to the utmost degree. Here are these totally foreign, otherworldly entities — and here’s how you defeat them! But it’s human nature. We love stats. We have to classify, categorize, label, and collate. It’s an inevitable progression that tends to water down the capacity of classic monsters to frighten (we’ve worked out how you destroy a vampire — stake to the heart, full exposure to sunlight — or put down a werewolf — silver bullet — or stop a zombie — head shot — so exhaustively that we have to come up with new variations and altogether new monsters to keep readers on the edge of their armchairs).
Still, I gotta admit it’s kinda fun to see what the game designers thought Cthulhu’s class levels should be, or how many hit points might be possessed by Nyarlathotep. If you’re going to introduce these beings into the hack ‘n slash realm of D&D, it’s bound to happen.
Such curiosity must stem from that age-old schoolyard question: Who would win in a fight — your dad or my dad? Which proceeds to virtually inexhaustible variations: Who would win in a fight — a tiger or a crocodile? [See image of the trading card from the ‘50s I recently acquired, which actually purports to answer this question (at least in the circumstance that the fight is on land).] Who would win… Superman or the Hulk? Merlin or Doctor Strange? Doc Savage or Tarzan? Elric or Conan? Galactus or Anti-Monitor? (Or, getting progressively more creative) Nyarlathotep or Dispater? Cthulhu or Orcus?
The other thing that must be said about this later-excised section of DDG is that it inspired Erol Otus to create some of the oddest, most bizarre, and original illustrations in his D&D oeuvre. This stuff looks like it burst straight out of the most trippy underground comics of the ‘70s. Man, it’s fun to look at, even as you’re having a laugh reading:
Yog-Sothoth exists on the astral plane. He has the ability to enter the universe at any point in space and at any point in time. His astral shape appears as a congeries of iridescent globes like giant soap bubbles. When he takes shape on the Prime Material Plane he is partly material and partly astral and appears as a gigantic mass of feelers, legs, and stalked organs. In this shape he will mate with human beings, producing the Spawn of Yog-Sothoth (see “The Dunwich Horror,” by H.P. Lovecraft).
Is it worth hunting down? If you’re a fan of old-school D&D and of Lovecraft, absolutely. It is such an odd amalgam of the two that you can’t help but be fascinated — even if you think the concept of a party of elven rangers, human sorcerers, and dwarven fighters taking on Shub-Niggurath, “the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young,” to be somewhat ludicrous.
On second thought, such horrors are more at home in the fantasy worlds of D&D than they are in our world — which is why your D&D characters will be less likely to have to make a saving throw against insanity when they discover such things exist. They run into that sort of stuff all the time. Just last week, your half-orc barbarian nearly had his brains sucked out by a mindflayer and your half-elven druid was almost compelled to French-kiss a lich.