“Like all decadents he was exquisitely sensitive to the color and atmosphere and names of things …”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”
Much of the ironic entertainment of playing in Lovecraft’s universe comes from playing, well, in Lovecraft’s universe, or at least his Earth. Specifically, from playing with his names. And not just the Big Names like Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, but the human-scale names in his world. Meeting a supporting character named Waite, spotting a gunshot-riddled sign for the turnoff to Dunwich, discovering a slim volume in violet buckram by Randolph Carter — these very specific joys come from the very specific associations we formed with those names as readers of Lovecraft’s fiction over years or decades. Crack open your copy of The Lovecraft Lexicon by Anthony Pearsall and salt your campaign with those joys to taste.
The downside is that in order to enjoy them, the players must recognize those names as fictions within your fiction, the equivalent of seeing the “clue glow” in a video game. This endangers immersion, and mitigates against suspension of disbelief. If, as Lovecraft wrote to Clark Ashton Smith, “no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax,” then you damage terror and verisimilitude by introducing people and place names taken straight from fiction, and from increasingly familiar fiction at that.
In a classic Call or Trail game set in the 1920s or 1930s, players tend to adopt an ironic detachment from the running boards and candlestick telephones of the setting even without guest appearances by glittery-eyed weirdos named Tillinghast or Curwen. The past is another country, one that might very well have a seaside town named Kingsport in it.
But in a 1960s Fall of DELTA GREEN game, and even moreso a Cthulhu adventure set in the present day, players’ sense of the game world begins to bleed into the “real” and away from the stage set of the past. Thus, the unreal breaks harder when it breaks: if you know in your heart that Googling “Henry Armitage” gets you a “Fictional Librarians” tag on Wikipedia, it’s harder to play along when your Investigator Googles “Henry Armitage” and gets “Head Librarian, Miskatonic University 1924-1936.” To say nothing of the knowledge that Miskatonic University itself is just a cooler Hogwarts with a slightly better Defense Against the Dark Arts program.
“The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
— Dragnet, opening narration
Alan Moore, as is his wont, has limned another approach, one that pays increasing dividends the closer your campaign gets to the present. Moore pointed the way out of this box in his comics series Providence (and before that, in The Courtyard and Neonomicon). Moore presents a Cthulhoid world with H.P. Lovecraft in it, a jetée we’ve danced before. Lovecraft’s stories, it transpires, actually happened in that world (which also has Chambers-style suicide temples in them as well) but Lovecraft, one assumes, changes the names, dates, and details when he fictionalizes them for his weird tales.
Elspeth Wade becomes Asenath Waite; the Boggs family of Salem becomes the Marsh family of Innsmouth; Ronald Underwood Pitman becomes Richard Upton Pickman. Moore interweaves real places and people as well: Manchester, New Hampshire becomes Arkham; the (historical) alchemist and Caliph’s son Khalid ibn Yazid becomes Abdul Alhazred (and also, as he did in actual early modern Latin manuscripts, “Hali”); the (historical) werewolf Jacques Roulet takes on a more important role than he did in Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House.” Moore’s “true names” (and lots of spoilers for the Moorecraftian tales) appear here, for the curious.
Presenting various names and places (especially real-world versions) as lightly coded (or de-coded, depending on which direction your epistemology polarizes) versions of Lovecraft’s names and places doesn’t break immersion because the players’ action of de-coding the game names mirrors their Investigators’ action of, well, investigating them. The player deduction that “Weldon Wycherley” is “actually” Wilbur Whateley reinforces and recuperates their character’s realization that the Weldon Wycherley in this picture seems awfully big for an eight-year-old boy. Players become alert for twins and mysterious hills and standing stones, mirroring their Investigator’s discovery of a hidden twin and a strange ruin on Sepulcher Hill. Thus, following Moore and making the various changes transparent ones helps the story and the drama along.
Or start with Earth, but even moreso! Real names and careers of Salem witches, for example, can provide an interesting warp for the Lovecraftian weft: did John Alden, Jr. traffick in other things than guns with the Abenaki? Did his ships bring in mummies and corpses? Or did the remarkably long-lived Jonathan Curwin escape accusation (unlike his mother-in-law) thanks not to his high position but to his necromantically-obtained blackmail material? With a little effort, I bet you can find real-life electrical experimenters and disgraced surgeons who died mysteriously somewhere in New England at some time between 1914 and 1922 — and if they didn’t die mysteriously, that’s where the coverup (or the weird effect of the Mythos on memory and testimony) comes in. Pick your favorite missing U-boat and say it’s the one from “The Temple.” Lovecraft already used real floods and storms for “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Haunter of the Dark,” and a real earthquake for the rising of R’lyeh; shift places and dates until something gameable clicks into being.
Use the same approach for real locations of Lovecraftian towns and hills: if your “Kingsport” is actually Marblehead, maybe the Old Pirate House is the house of the Terrible Old Man. Feel free to scatter them around, too. Perhaps Lovecraft re-used Arkham to further snarl the trail: the meteorite fell near Oakham, Massachusetts; the witch Ann Foster hyperspatially disappeared from Salem rather than dying (as the records were altered to indicate); and the university with the arcane ambit is actually St. Anselm College in Manchester, or Brown University in Providence, or Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. If you can’t find a real legend or ghost or crime that fits Lovecraft’s story, make one up — and finding out who kept it out of the history books (and off Google) can be another layer of the onion for your Investigators to peel back.