The Horrors We Can Contain

Arkham Horror!

Sometimes systems that look like unmitigated chaos from the outside are easier to navigate once you’re fully on the inside. Or they can consume you whole.

If now is not the time for a tortured metaphor involving a convoluted board game set in a fictional universe created by a flagrant racist, I don’t know when is.

Last Saturday was our Family Game Night, a welcome break from COVID-19 monotony and the resulting stresses of the past three months. With consumer restrictions slightly relaxed in our county, we three decided a new game was in order. We ventured out to a gaming store twenty minutes north of here — my first time on an interstate since mid-March — and donned masks for (hopefully) safe, quick shopping. The end result was our new acquisition, the 2018 revised edition of a 1987 board game called Arkham Horror, one among a plethora based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Full disclosure: I tried reading two of his short stories during my high-school speed-reading phase and couldn’t take any more. Anne has read nary a word and has no reason to go near his punishingly purple prose. My son recently discovered his works and found him horrifying on multiple levels, an author who made no attempt whatsoever to cloak his retrograde attitudes in subtext, blatantly throwing them in the reader’s face in a way that pushes the term “unreliable narrator” to and arguably through its farthest boundary. This led my son to also endure Nicolas Cage in Colour Out of Space, while the only truly Lovecraftian film I’ve ever gazed upon in its entirety was From Beyond. Three wrong minutes from Re-Animator twenty years ago told me the rest of what I needed to know.

We were intrigued by the game anyway. It wasn’t cheap, but its purchase supported a small business that could use the funds. Also, none of us were in the mood yet for a Pandemic variant.

The skeletal premise: things in the city of Arkham, MA, are getting supernaturally creepy. Your Heroes must determine the source of the disturbance, fight and fight and fight, and save the world from one of Lovecraft’s unholy inhuman otherdimensional demon tyrants, even though the day was almost never saved in the original tales. Players can choose one of four different scenarios that all follow that framework, though none of them could be called straightforward. We began with the scenario recommended for beginners, in which the Big Bad is Azathoth, some giant nebulous mega-bugaboo destroyer of worlds and whatnot. Players can oppose him as one of twelve different characters, at least three of whom are nonwhite. Thankfully their bios and skill summaries were clearly not written by the aforementioned famous racist.

Besides the five-piece board itself, we had a lot to juggle while unicycling along a learning curve rife with hairpin turns. Components we had to incorporate included:

  • Cards for each character’s starting equipment, spells, and/or handicaps
  • Cards describing events in each of the neighborhoods
  • Different event cards to be drawn instead of those if a malevolent portal has opened in the center of a neighborhood and threatens to alter the very fabric of space-time
  • A set of 40 cards that each contain a chapter of the narrative, sort of like puzzle pieces that give the entire game a Choose Your Own Adventure dynamic
  • Monster cards
  • Spell cards
  • Item/treasure cards
  • Cards that are either blessings or curses that barely factored in
  • Cards that would’ve given us new NPC allies, which would’ve been useful if we’d been allowed to draw any
  • Cards for local newspaper headlines that effectively act as a Community Chest deck
  • Money tokes
  • Tokens to keep track of health points
  • Tokens to keep track of “sanity” points, because it’s Lovecraft and therefore insanity can be fatal
  • Tokens with dead monster tentacles on them that can be traded for goods and services
  • Two-sided tokens that keep track of either useful clues or “Dooms”, which are like negative karma points you don’t want to see
  • Tokens for those city-warping malevolent portals
  • Tokens that can buff your ability stats but felt like a waste of time
  • Tokens that are drawn from a cup and can randomly initiate extra bonus evil events because why not
  • Tokens representing the Big Bad’s portal and other fake-out locations done in a Three-Card Monte setup
  • Tokens that tell other players whether or not you’re in the middle of a battle
  • Six ordinary six-sided dice

The first wisecrack about the daunting resemblance to Cones of Dunshire came about five minutes into setup.

We worked methodically through said setup, had to reread a few sections, backtracked to previous pages more than once due to obfuscated rulebook wordings, and tried not to fall asleep at the table. Rather, we kept each other’s spirits high as we teamed up against the sometimes aggravating nature of the setup phase itself. Ninety minutes later, we prevailed and actually got to commence playing.

3½ hours later we lost and the world was destroyed, consumed by Azathoth and pretty much ruined for all of humanity’s final generations. The short version of our story is we got suckered by a decoy, had an awful Anomaly portal open up in every single neighborhood, watched 14 Dooms stack up in the Scenario/Codex area, and were so close to closing the main portal at the Epicenter when the forces of Evil inflicted one Doom too many. We failed at our objective, but we remained in good spirits despite defeat and remain confident our next session will be even better.

While we imagined our fictional world being shredded on an incalculable scale and stomped into a trillion fragments by our new nihilistic overlords, elsewhere in Indianapolis on that same Saturday night was a radically different and much more real catastrophe.

The night before, numerous folks had flocked downtown for a peaceful protest against police brutality and/or racism in the wake of recent tragic murders and deaths nationwide involving police. (Here’s a link to Indianapolis’ own. It’s absolutely, jaw-droppingly unconscionable that major cities seem to be collecting these cases.) By all accounts the part of the evening when the organizers organized things organizationally went well. Then folks lingered after closing time, after the time frame that the organizers were accountable for, and things stopped being peacefully organized. Rioting ensued. Some businesses took damage, including my own workplace. Pepper spraying and sirens abounded. Local reporters live-tweeted their photos, video, and firsthand accounts of the bedlam as best they could from within while choking and trying to keep their eyes clear.

Saturday was the sequel, and of course every sequel has to double-down on the qualities of the original. Our mayor commended the organizers and protesters for their manner and conduct in the name of free speech and assembly for their second round. The mayor also asked them to please disperse by 7 p.m. The official version of events is that around 7:05 not only were folks still hanging around, but a disturbing number of them appeared to be making a concerted, suspicious move on the City-County Building. Rioting ensued again, far worse this time. Dozens of businesses, including the local comic shop I’ve been going to for years, took millions of dollars in damage from rioters. Once again our local reporters were in the thick of things as much as possible because The People had a right to know.

To their credit, I haven’t (yet) caught a single instance of an Indianapolis journalist being hounded or intentionally wounded by police this past weekend. Many other, larger cities can’t say the same, judging by what I’ve seen online.

Thing is, other states might be inured to riots. Maybe the good citizens of California and Michigan are used to them and don’t give them much thought. Maybe they think of riots the way a lot of Hoosiers think of tornadoes. I’m sure Florida residents who stock up on window boards for hurricane season think we’re weaklings about this, but Indy isn’t used to this much smashy-smashy. At all.

So the city once called “Naptown” is now grown-up enough — and allegedly hosted enough egregious sins within the ranks of its law enforcement — that now we get to have riots, too. If this is what it means to be in the Big Leagues of major American cities, then that station upgrade sucks.

Yes, the tragedies being protested and systemic forms of racism are horrible things that should have been left behind in history’s dustbins long ago. Yes, the right to peaceful assembly is right there in the Bill of Rights. Yes, lives are more important than things. I wish I didn’t have to type things that feel obvious.

But riots? We’re still processing that.

Small business owners and franchisees alike are still covering up frames that were formerly windows. Some of the affected have insurance. Not everyone does, and not everyone has full coverage that will cure the damage in an eyeblink. Some possess the serenity to roll with this either way, even some of those whose livelihoods were devastated.

For a variety of personal reasons this aspect of today’s world is not one we can assimilate into. We are virtually aliens disconnected from those internet communities that have the liberty and wherewithal to plan such displays, to broadcast large-scale announcements in the face of snarling opponents, and/or to slide into large crowds and mimic their moves in lockstep regardless of danger or cost. Some aspects of that skill set are more enviable than others.

As it is, I’d already been a walking ball of tension throughout portions of this awful season. Blood pressure meds can only manage so much. None of this helped.

While most of downtown Indy was pounded into shards by forces of either suddenly unbottled rage or unrelated opportunistic malcontents, we stayed home and settled for trying to control things ostensibly within our control. Or at least try to control. (Stupid sinister Azathoth.) For us, Arkham Horror is what passed for emotional self-care in our household this weekend, amid a real world spiraling ever downward into wanton brokenness. This was our version of Michael Scott’s Belles, Bourbon, and Bullets.

We had to find our tiny, unimportant silver lining where we could. And we explored what it’s like to take a system comprising a million moving pieces built atop a racist foundation, figure out which parts were worth saving, purge what didn’t, and construct something worthwhile out of what was left that we could all live with in peace.

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