GM's Corner 11: The Nethescurial Fragment

I hope you enjoy this Call of Cthulhu one-shot! It seems like this is our go-to format when one of us can't make a session. CoC is a nice flexible system that works for very few players, and doesn't usually require a ton of prep.

Of course, I say that, but I've technically been prepping this scenario for about 8 years now...

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GM's Corner 07: Writing Historical Roleplaying Scenarios (Ethan)

I've been dedicating a lot of my recent RPG creativity to writing historical gaming scenarios. I've written three Lovecraftian horror scenarios set during the American Civil War (with a fourth in progress), as well as another couple of scenarios set during the standard Call of Cthulhu period of the 1920's that include strong real-world historical elements. I've also been researching the Black Death in 1340's Europe, ideally for a future Red Markets-related project. If you want to listen to some of my scenarios, I'm running them here on Technical Difficulties (check out He Calls Me by the Thunder, part 1 and part 2), as well as for Role Playing Public Radio.

I also really love reading and playing historically-focused RPG scenarios, like Caleb Stokes's No Security scenarios set during the Great Depression, and the Trail of Cthulhu World War I collection Dulce et Decorum Est from Pelgrane Press.

I figured I'd share a few of my thoughts and tips about designing historical scenarios, since I've been thinking about it so much recently.

1. For me, the most fun thing about historical scenarios is getting to explore a new time and place, to imagine how people living in that place would deal with strange and dangerous situations differently than someone living in our modern world. I always play up the unique historical conditions of a scenario, even as I'm mixing in fantastical or supernatural elements. How might a Lovecraftian monstrosity affect an Antebellum slave plantation? How would a 1920's radical socialist newspaper deal with a malevolent sorcerer?

2. I recommend writing pre-generated characters for most historical scenarios. I don't want to force my players to do a bunch of their own historical research just to make up appropriate PCs. So I'll write characters that fit an appropriate archetype: the wounded artillery officer, the corrupt militia trooper, the crusading field nurse. But I also make sure to leave the pregens vague enough that each player can invest their own details into their character's personality, to make it their own.

3. When I'm researching for a game, I start broadly and then get more specific. A prominent historical event can be the seed of a scenario plot, like the Gettysburg Address or the Missouri Mormon Wars. I'll cruise Wikipedia or read a general history to get broad ideas. Then to develop the scenario, I'll dive into the detailed facts of the event and let that shape my plot, like how the black workmen on the Gettysburg National Cemetery project were surprisingly well-paid, and how Lincoln was getting sick while he was giving his speech. Having loads of details adds a lot to the players' sense of immersion.

4. That said, I have to resist the urge to cram every single tidbit in. Remember, we're writing games, not lectures. The main focus needs to remain on the characters' choices and actions, not just on the set dressing. Make sure that the details you do emphasize are ones that the PCs can use to inform their actions, so that they feel more like they're embodying real people from the era. The design of the Gettysburg courthouse probably doesn't matter, but the person playing the war widow might like to know a lot about the traditions of mourning dress.

5. Make sure that you let the actual play at the table be as free and open as you would in any game. Don't pull a "Stop having fun, guys!" on your players, just because they're doing something that doesn't quite make historical sense. Maybe gently remind them of how a particular historical fact might guide their behavior, but don't be a stickler about it. Remember, nobody's getting graded at the end of this.

Those are just a few tips. I might revisit this subject again in the future, to talk more theoretically about how to use historical games to explore big themes, or how to take ideas from historical research and use them in other genres like fantasy and science fiction. Let us know if you you find this sort of thing interesting! I hope I'm not the only one. :)


GM’s Corner 03: He Calls Me By The Thunder

I hope you've enjoyed the first of my Civil War Cthulhu scenarios! I had a great time running He Calls Me by the Thunder for the Technical Difficulties crew. I've been developing this scenario for quite a while now and this is about the sixth or seventh time that I've run it. You can hear a very early version that I ran about two years ago for Ross and Caleb of RPPR over on their feed. Each run through has been unique and it’s been especially entertaining for me to see how each group makes different choices in their investigation.

As I’ve developed the scenario, I’ve added a lot of elements to help encourage the PCs to progress, including the encircling buzzard swarm, the missing seal for the parole passes, and the objective of discovering the whereabouts of Eveline’s family. Still, it’s up to the players to decide what they feel is important. Aaron, Greg, and Laura were a lot more cautious and deliberate than some of the other folks I've run it for. They almost went straight for the Tobacco Shed without even exploring the big house first, which would have been very interesting. But then they backed off and decided to collect clues. Darn!

But they also had some interesting failed rolls that changed the way the scenario progressed (as a side note, one of the things I like most about Call of Cthulhu is how failures can have a very dramatic effect on the story). They distinguished themselves as the least greedy group (in most other runs, one character has taken the gold and hidden it for themselves), and they're the only group I've had so far that almost tried to brave the deadly buzzard swarm and make a break for it! Private Cubbins has only survived one playthrough, and he bit it again this time. Poor kid!

Overall, we all had a great time with the scenario and it’s encouraging to me to learn that it still works even online and split into two parts. It was pretty tough to wrap up the ending, though, so we went a bit long.

I can't quite identify when I first got the idea to write some cosmic horror tales set amidst the very earthly horror of America's bloodiest war, but I've found it to be a rich combination.

Even since I first began reading Lovecraft and playing and listening to Lovecraftian horror games, I've been interested in the realistic historical aspect of the genre. Even though Lovecraft was writing stories set in his own contemporary era – often with cutting-edge science and technology – the Call of Cthulhu RPG retained the 1920's as its typical setting, which makes it a historical game to us 21st-century players. It's a short leap to set similar tales in other eras, like Adam Scott Glancy's World War I games and Caleb Stokes' No Security was probably the biggest direct influence in prompting me to write my stuff).

In each of my Civil War scenarios, I try to combine the themes of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with the difficult issues of the American Civil War. In this case, I focused on two things: the suffering of wounded soldiers and the legacy of plantation slavery.

The Random Wound Table is a major feature that sets up the scenario. I've found that rolling randomly emphasizes the arbitrary nature of battlefield wounds and it helps the players embrace the fragility of their disabled characters. They can then focus on trying to overcome their physical weaknesses as they play through the story.

Slavery is (to make an understatement) a difficult topic to approach in gaming. The character of Eveline Prentis emphasizes how terribly racial prejudice stifled African Americans' opportunities to express their natural talents and how casually their abilities were exploited by their owners. Eveline was directly inspired by Blind Tom Wiggins, a real life African American musical prodigy from the Reconstruction era, whose talents were constantly exploited by white "managers."

Hikiton Mound Plantation was partially intended as a commentary on so-called "patriarchal slavery," the idea that slavery was actually in the best interests of African Americans. Promoted by major figures such as Benjamin M. Palmer and Jefferson Davis, the idea was that slavery could best balance the relationship between naturally inferior blacks and naturally superior whites, to the benefit of both. As absurd and casuistic as this sounds to our modern ears, many Southerners genuinely believed it and some slaveholders such as Davis tried to run their plantations as "humanely" and "progressively" as they could. I designed Hikiton Mound to appear to be such a place on the surface, but with a horrific cruelty concealed just beneath.