Common way the elder sign is depicted and used in various Cthulhu mythos related products, which originates from the way August Derleth described it.
If there is one thing I dislike about how the mythos is interpreted in a lot of modern horror games, including Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, it’s the the “Elder Sign”. Generally speaking, it’s treated as an all purpose anti-mythos related protective symbol. When it’s placed on places, objects and people it is supposedly powerful enough to ward away even some of the most powerful of cosmic threats of the mythos. A lot of board games and RPGs use it a general symbol of protection including Elder Sign, Arkham Horror, Trail of Cthulhu, Call of Cthulhu and various others. As it’s so pervasive among Lovecraftian inspired games, it has led to some interesting problems at my own gaming table in Trail of Cthulhu and Call of Cthulhu. This problem occurs because there is an inherent expectation my players have that it is possible to “protect” yourself against mythos entities.
So following is my general description of what the “Elder Sign” was originally, from Lovecraft’s work and others who followed. Then I’m going to get into a personal rant about why I feel there should not be any one sign, symbol or concept that protects against the mythos as a whole.
As mentioned, I don’t actually this concept in my own games of an overarching protective symbol against the mythos. As a matter of fact, I think my dislike is actually supported by the original source material from Lovecraft’s stories. This concept of symbols capable of providing protection against all mythos entities is distinctly against Lovecraftian cosmic horror, or at the very least how I like to interpret it. This isn’t to say that Lovecraft didn’t think his entities couldn’t be protected against, as the original “Elder Sign” mentioned in his stories was actually used as a way to divert attacks from Deep Ones. What might surprise you, is that there are no real direct mentions of the Elder Sign in Lovecraft’s stories beyond that. In fact, when Lovecraft actually decided to draw what the sign looked like in correspondence, this is what he drew:
Another symbol representing the Elder Sign, which is the way H.P. Lovecraft described it and drew it in correspondence.
So where does the elder sign, which all these various games and “Lovecraftian” themed products use, derive the pentagram like symbol from? It actually comes from another author within the Lovecraftian mythos and someone who was very important in the fact we even have the mythos to enjoy today, August Derleth. Derleth was one of Lovecraft’s longest term friends and is directly responsible for first publishing many of Lovecraft’s works through Arkham House Publishing (which Derleth actually created). As well as this, Derleth added a lot of stories, entities, characters and yes, even the concept of the protective elder sign to what we now call “Lovecraftian Mythos”.
Derleth’s creation of the star like elder sign was from “The Lurker at the Threshold” (published 1945), which involves the sealing of a demon in a tower using this symbol. The sign was described as a five pointed star, with a flaming eye within its center and Derleth, with subsequent authors as well, later reusing it in other stories as a symbol for warding off the mythos. Like many of the original Lovecraftian mythos creations, it has evolved considerably into its current usage and importance – but in my opinion has picked up too much prominence.
One of the things that I think is best about the kind of cosmic fiction Lovecraft originally wrote, was how there was so much uncertainty and contradictory information behind how mythos entitites actually worked. In the original stories where the sign is mentioned such as “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” it’s highly ambiguous if elder signs were protective, a general symbol of these gods, an unknown religious meaning to these people or some other unknown purpose. In another really good example, the five pointed stone stars described in “At the Mountains of Madness” are likely to be a kind of elder sign and the archaeologists in the story speculated they were just “currency”. Unfortunately this nuance with later contributions of other authors, took this sense of mystery about what they really were away and made it more explicitly a symbol of protection.
As I mentioned during the introduction, I am writing this post because of how the original ambiguity from Lovecraft of the usage of the elder sign has been lost. Especially because the modern universally accepted idea of the elder sign as a protective symbol has created some specific issues for me in my Cthulhu related games. In both Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, I’ve had players attempt to use the elder sign or magic to “protect” their characters from, well, just about anything. Just about every time this has happened, I’ve had to explain that there simply isn’t any one thing that will protect you from mythos entities – even if other “Lovecraftian” games do. Usually at some point I need to go into an explanation like this post and then finally end with “I just don’t like the concept of being able to feel safe”.
That ability for a character to feel “safe” through magic, elder signs or even that there is something powerful enough to be capable of warding off the mythos is why I dislike it. In a horror game tension is everything and the release of that tension – IMO – should come from the thrill of horrifying encounters with mythos entities. Being able to erect powerful magical barriers or carry around a symbol of “This will stop the monsters from harming me!” I feel is anathema to that concept, because it inherently relieves that built up tension. In my Cthulhu related games, magic and the means to stop monsters frequently have some major downfalls to them.
A good example is how I’ve treated this concept in Masks of the Dreamer, with the most recent spell the investigators discovered in ward. Ward functions a bit like an elder sign – the spell includes a symbol that is a cheeky reference to it actually – but has a significant pair of drawbacks to it, which mean you can’t feel 100% certain of it. Firstly, you can only ward an area/object against a single god and those who worship it, so anything mythos related outside of that group doesn’t get affected by it. The second drawback is actually worse however, because I have taken a semi-Derlethian* approach to the way mythos gods interact, the servants of gods who oppose the one you chose are actually enhanced by the wards presence (or can detect the object in question easier).
This means while you’ve stopped one particular group you’ve also given another a major advantage. Most importantly, if both entities are actively opposed to the investigators this can create a really difficult set of choices. Do you risk giving such an advantage or do you absolutely need to stop those deep ones now? This creates a great deal of tension and makes the use of magical protections a non-trivial choice. Consider how “Ward” is in contrast to the existing sort of “Elder Sign” type spell from the core Trail of Cthulhu book, which generally improves defense against mythos entities attempting to attack you. Ward might stop that deep one from disemboweling you right now, but if you happen to be around a creature from an outer god, it’s as useful as having a belt of fresh bloody steaks around you in a sea of great white sharks.
Another major way that I interpret “Protective” magic is that it flat out doesn’t work against the most powerful, ancient or simply outright bizarre of entities. There aren’t a lot of solutions for avoiding or stopping something like a Hound of Tindalos for example, because you’ve really just got to avoid getting the horrible things attention in the first place. When you do, you should be prepared to run and keep running for a very long time thereafter. It has all of eternity to keep chasing you after all! Minding, you could do that whole “building a completely perfect sphere” thing to live in – even if it didn’t exactly work out for the owner the first time.
Finally and most importantly, one of the key reasons I have “depowered” this symbol from how it is used in other games is that it’s personal to my Cthulhu mythos. Something that I feel is well emphasized in Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, but oddly not often practiced, is personalizing the mythos to your game. Lovecraft, Derleth and other authors** made up new bizarre monsters or gods precisely because the “status quo” of vampires, werewolves, ghosts and such had got boring. When you run your own Cthulhu mythos based games, bear this fact in mind and don’t be afraid to interpret or change things to your liking. I dislike the idea that humanity can, in any meaningful way, protect itself from these cosmic horrors to any degree except for a futile search to buy time. So I decided to break with how many other games, keepers and authors use the elder sign in my games and highly limited its power.
This kind of thinking can be applied to anything else, including the popular monsters and gods of the mythos as well. Of course, we are now getting into the territory of another post and so I shall leave that topic to another day. For now at least, consider the role of the elder sign in your own games or Lovecraftian inspired fiction. Do you want something that brings comfort and safety to your players? Or is all mythos related magic ultimately a terrible double edged sword, to be used carefully and only in the most dire of circumstances?
*August Derleth has a particularly controversial view of how the mythos gods interact, usually called the “War in Heaven”. I actually don’t like the core concept of them fighting ala “Satan rising up against the Lord”, but I do like the idea the gods have some degree of antagonism and even conflicting goals. That these goals invariably always lead to humanities inevitable destruction – often as just simple collateral damage they wouldn’t even notice as they head along their real agendas – is much more in keeping with Lovecraft’s nihilistic view of the universe towards us.
**Frank Belknap Long was the original creator of the Hound of Tindalos for example, a monster that Lovecraft liked sufficiently to incorporate into his own story “Whisperer in Darkness”.