Tempus Fugit: History for Games
Cthulhu Ate My Hometownby Mithras
November 22, 2001
edited by Drew Meger
Tempus Fugit: History for Games
Cthulhu Ate My Hometownby Mithras
November 22, 2001
edited by Drew Meger
When I first picked up my copy of R.Talsorian's 'Cyberpunk' back in 1989 my eyes alighted on one passage in particular, giving advice on atmospheric refereeing. It said:
"[Night City] should be a place that the Referee has an immediate grasp of, allowing him to give his descriptions the proper 'you are there' ambiance. Night City plays best when you use a city that the players are somewhat familiar with ..."
This certainly struck a chord with me and I set my first campaign in the Welsh capital city, Cardiff. It was where I was at university, and every one of the players had as much experience of the city as I had. We knew our way around, knew all the famous buildings, the clubs, the shopping centers, the docks - it seemed a great idea. And it worked. I needed to do a bit of work to transform innocent Cardiff into a cyberpunk den of violence and iniquity, but luckily I happened to stumble upon a supplement for GURPS Autoduel called The AADA Road Atlas and Survival Guide, Volume Five: The Midwest. It described the apocalyptic future of the US Midwest in detail, and included a nice chapter on 'fortress towns' and the techniques a GM can use to convert a 1980's city into a 21st century hell-hole.
With that as my guide I turned peaceable Cardiff into the British government's stronghold against Welsh seperatists. Welsh terrorism was running rife, the Welsh Office (home to the Secretary of State for Wales) in Cardiff was a fortress, and big business was becoming more security conscious. The big oil companies moved their headquarters there to oversee the oil industry at Milford Haven some miles down the coast, and they began their interminable corporate wars. I played up various city districts, most especially Riverside, home to the Chinese community, and mapped out the city with its barricades, gangs, no-go zones, razor-wire fences and corporate developments.
Our collective memories of these early games are vivid. We used to walk the streets the day after some kick-ass mission and could not help point out places where the action had occurred. This alleyway here, the crane on that construction site. This plate glass window here ... and so on. Perhaps we were getting carried away, but the city seemed to develop two lives, the normal mundane life of students and shoppers, and the night-time world of armored buses, street gangs and software heists.
You don't have to be a genius to see where I'm headed with this one, do you? It was some years later when I came up with the idea of reversing the concept. I had a Call of Cthulhu scenario ready to play that was (by default) set in 1920's USA, but the words that I'd read in Cyberpunk were still imprinted on my brain. I thought of setting this scenario in the town in which I now lived, and moving the scenario date even further back to 1910 - into the Edwardian period. Why?
GOING BACK IN TIME
The greatest benefit in setting a roleplaying game in your hometown during some historical period has got to be familiarity. Your players have walked the streets, they have seen the buildings and gazed across the parks, they might have used the railway station and stepped inside the churches. Of course a great deal will have changed and this technique would only provide any benefit if the historical town has some survivals into the modern-day. As such this isn't a method that every roleplayer will be able to use.
For those GMs and players who don't happen to live in a town or city with a a century or two of history behind it (and I think a lot of American and Australian gamers will come into this category) you might want to try looking instead at urban myths or more general regional aspects of history. OK, so your suburb was built in the 1960s, but what happened in the area *before* that. Territory disputes, Civil War battles, Native American tribal lands, memorable colonization incidents ... there may not be any visible historical scars remaining, but that shouldn't let that stop an enterprising GM from using them in some form or another. We all remember Poltergeist, right?!
The decades that separate us from the chosen period allow for some fictionalisation of that setting. Certain aspects can be altered, important (but fictional) NPCs can be introduced, and the players won't know. But what they do know will help them believe that the gameworld is a real one. If you live in New Orleans, you will know what the weather is like, the effects of hurricanes and their likelihood. If I remember correctly a causeway connects New Orleans to the mainland, and knowledge of this may have tremendous implications during a roleplaying game. The setting becomes immediate and intimate. You feel as if you are there, despite being separated by many decades of history.
Why not use your hometown in a modern-day (rather than historical) setting? This is certainly an option, and I'm sure that plenty of super-hero roleplaying games have advised referees to do just that. Everything I've just touched upon applies in equal measure to a modern-day setting.
But remember that there is a requirement to fictionalise the setting to some degree. NPCs need generating, evil plots, horrors, paranormal events and other roleplaying weirdness will rear their head eventually. Sometimes the sheer urbanity of your hometown makes these inclusions preposterous. Setting the same scenario in the future or the past sheds some of that mundanity, but retains that all important ambiance. As an example, my hometown is a decidedly mundane place to live and as a modern-day horror setting the very idea makes my players laugh. But when you push that horror back 50 or 100 years it becomes less of a joke and much more of an atmospheric opportunity, one that allows you to loot the gaming potential of that historical setting.
Rather than continue to list the advantages of using a town you're familiar with, I may as well go into a little more detail. I'll lay out the approach I used with my own town, taking it back in time from 2001 to 1910 ready for a Call of Cthulhu campaign.
I live in Bridlington, an English seaside town in East Yorkshire with a declining tourist industry. Geographically it lies north of the port of Hull and an hour's drive east of York. It sits in an attractive sandy bay and the northern sweep of this bay is actually a promontory of white chalk cliffs called Flamborough Head. Hundreds of ships have been wrecked on the cliffs resulting in the construction of a lighthouse on the promontory. My sketch-map sets the scene well enough.
The town's heyday was in the early 20th century, the Edwardian period to be more precise. A railway station was built in 1903 and through it came both working-class and middle class holiday-makers up from the cities. Hotels and guest houses grew in number, a long promenade was built behind the beach and it featured landscaped gardens, pavilions and shows for the Edwardian public. Boat trips from the harbor were also popular.
There are two major types of information you are looking for when you research your hometown's history. The first type is 'hard' information that can be used to construct scenarios and establish the building blocks of your campaign. The second type of information is 'soft,' providing atmosphere and ambiance to flavor the game and suffuse it with reality and historicity. Both are necessary to a greater or lesser degree.
When I started discovering 'hard' information about Bridlington's past I soon started to collect a long list of useful data. To work out what I had I needed to separate all of the facts into four major lists: Events, NPCs, Places, and Maps. I'll give you a few examples of the kinds of information I was digging up:
The Great Gale - On a stormy day in 1871 dozens of ships were sheltering in the bay and thirty of these were wrecked on the beaches with the townsfolk turning out to watch the horrific spectacle, unable to help. Seventy people (including six lifeboatmen) were drowned.
Kit Brown - Christopher (Kit) Brown was Bridlington's most famous fisherman and a folk hero. He was a pillar of the community and both he and his son were lifeboatmen, both earned medals for their bravery. Kit died during a sea rescue against the sea-wall in 1891 and was given a naval funeral.
Beacon Hill - There's plenty of flint in the chalk cliffs of the headland and bronze age settlers exploited this resource. A high hill on the headland known as Beacon Hill was dug out for sand in the 1800s and workmen found the remains of a Bronze Age farm. Some think the Romans later built a signal station on the hill to warn of Saxon raiders.
Saint John - An Augustinian priory (monastery) was founded in 1113 by the lord of the manor, Sir Walter de Gant. Its power and prestige accelerated following the rule of Prior John de Thweng who was reputed to work miracles (including walking out to sea to rescue storm-tossed sailors, turning water to wine and raising the dead). He died in 1379 and the miracles continued, leading the pope to canonise John in 1401. His shrine attracted many pilgrims. The priory became the focus of Bridlington and the reason for its growth.
Kings - King Henry IV visited the priory in 1407 and Henry V made a pilgrimage in 1421. Henry VI even carried around with him a relic of St John - one of the saint's fingers!
The Marshall Family - An established family of merchant ship-owners from 1700 onwards into the 1800s. Very successful, most sons became master mariners and traded heavily in timber, corn and coal. Church-goers and community-leaders.
Danes Dyke - A deep wooded gully splits the chalk cliffs, and it was once reinforced as a defense by early man. The builders created a huge earth-defense that cut off the entire peninsula. It wasn't the Danes (Vikings), but it might have been Celts or more plausibly Saxons. In fact some think the Saxon king Ida landed on Flamborough Head and used it as a base camp before moving north to found the kingdom of Bernicia.
Privateers Attack - Bridlington had a small fort near the harbor with a few cannon, and these were used to ward off three Dutch privateers in 1666 while the raiders drove two merchantmen onto the shore, torched a third and fired on the town. When they tried to land the locals fought the privateers off. A few weeks later several boatloads of Dutch privateers tried to land and were again beaten off.
Lighthouse - The lighthouse was built in 1806 to prevent ships from being wrecked on the headland. It replaced an old octagonal beacon built in 1674. Strangely this beacon may not have actually seen any use, and equally strangely it was erected a mile inland.
Flamborough Village - This village sits out in the middle of the headland, remote and obscure, a fishing community since early Medieval days. So undiluted is the Viking blood here that it is sometimes referred to as 'Little Denmark'. The fishermen still go to sea in 'cobbles', little open-topped clinker-built boats built in the Viking fashion. Boats were kept at two rocky coves that allow access from the cliff top to the shingle shore: North Landing (on the northern side of the headland) and South Landing (on the southern). St.Oswald is the patron saint of fishermen, and the weather-vane on top of St.Oswald Church is bronze fish.
Battle of Flamborough Head - In 1779 (during the War of Independence) a ferocious sea battle too place between American ships and the Royal Navy. Admiral John Paul Jones boarded a British ship as his own vessel, the Serapis, sank. The battle occurred just north of the headland.
These pieces of information would become the central building blocks of my 'Call of Cthulhu' campaign. I could divide them into three lists:
As you carry out more research and find other interesting things that might prove more useful, stick them into one of those categories. This makes life easier, you create for yourself a ready store of campaign plot devices. Maps, incidentally, should always be obtained if possible. I was able to get hold of a modern map of the area, a map of Edwardian Bridlington, and a sketch-map of Danes Dyke. Together these form a fourth group of campaign resources.
'Soft' information doesn't help you to write historical scenarios or plan out a period campaign, but it does allow you to portray your setting accurately and vividly. If you've gone to the trouble of planning and writing a historical scenario, you at least want it to feel historical when you and your players begin gaming. What kind of information is 'soft?' There are innumerable types of atmospheric data you can collect.
I managed to purchase a local history book on Bridlington that includes lots of 'trivial' pieces of information such as the date of the first cinema, the names of hotels and their prices, the names of pleasure steamers in the harbor, the name of the Edwardian hospital, some of the local pubs, etc. From the same bookstall I bought a book called 'Old Bridlington' full of period photographs showing fashions, activities, old buildings, street scenes, shops, shots of the promenade and so on. These two purchases provided more than enough detail for me.
You have to keep your eyes open for useful 'soft' resources. Postcards, old catalogues, museums, libraries, tours, guidebooks, old newspapers, recreations - even statues or memorials. Of course if you can walk around those areas of the town that have changed the least, and go look at or go inside buildings that existed in your chosen era, then so much the better! All of these things give you (the GM) meat to feed to your players.
It only took me a few weeks to collect together all of my 'hard' and 'soft' information; the time had come to use this raw data in planning my Edwardian Cthulhu campaign. Straight-away I envisaged an Agatha Christie-style campaign premise, with Edwardian Bridlington attracting holidaymakers both rich and poor, with the wealthier clientele residing here all summer. As they took in the bracing sea air, took a dip in the ocean from the back of a new-fangled 'bathing machine' and watched concerts in the sea-front pavilions they gossiped and intrigued. They may have connections, interests and dirty linen from across the Empire. Here such baggage might serve as a wonderful plot generator on its own. All I had to do was look for local Mythos elements to weave into this premise to create a setting with some depth.
So I checked over my resource list and eyeballed a number of possibilities. That mysterious 17th century beacon tower? Could that have been built for a local wizard as a means to summon Yog Sothoth? And being so isolated and oriented toward the sea, surely Flamborough must be a haven for deep ones. The fact that the coves and bays along the cliffs are riddled with smuggler's caves only adds weight to this theory. They might allow reclusive and partially transformed Flamborians access to the sea and their fishy brethren.
What about Danes Dyke, that prehistoric earth-defense cutting off the peninsula? Perhaps it was actually built and defended in ages past to keep something in (such as deep ones or worse...). Now that's a creepy thought. Beacon Hill may have been the site of a Roman signal station (others have been excavated along the coastline) but no evidence has so far been unearthed. Such a discovery would make a great scenario - especially if it then emerges that deep ones wiped out the garrison there, not Saxon raiders.
So much for the available locations around Bridlington, but what about the NPCs? I can envisage the famous lifeboatman, fisherman and folk hero Kit Brown bequeathing some ominous legacy to his perplexed son. Something dredged up in his fishing nets and kept locked away in a sailor's chest, or a chilling diary that recounts some hideous encounter off the headland. The Marshalls are easily woven into this tapestry as the major ship-owners and merchants. With numerous business contacts and interests, any brush with the Mythos may have them hiring investigators and asking questions. Meanwhile, St.John could be a wonderful repository of Mythos legends and accounts; how did he come by his powers? What became of his preserved finger? What miraculous artifacts, books or treasures of John lay buried under the Priory churchyard?
Of the three events I have in my list, the Great Gale strikes me as the most fascinating. To weave that event into an Edwardian campaign would certainly add real-life tragedy, horror and gloom to the story. Could the Gale have been caused by evil magics or the wrath of some Mythos beastie? Perhaps an important treasure from some distant land was recovered from the wreckage strewn beach the next day. Turning to the Battle of Flamborough Head, I have visions of some ghoulish seaweed-draped crewmen rising up from the British wrecks - or have I watched 'The Fog' too many times? Otherwise an Edwardian expedition may set out to recover artifacts from the Serapis. Or it may use that event as a cover, and be testing one of the new diving suits for some other, more macabre purpose...
Don't think that talk of Cthulhu and horror roleplaying has little to do with historical gaming. 'Call of Cthulhu' seems well suited, and a friend of mine has run a very successful and well researched Elizabethan campaign set in his home locale of South London. But if you want to play it straight then all of this advice applies equally. I've used 'Call of Cthulhu' here as an example because the Edwardian campaign I've described is my most detailed foray into exploiting the history of one of the places I've lived. I was lucky enough to live in Canterbury a few years ago, and with its intact street layout and the fact that many buildings still standing in the city are over two-hundred years old, the place proved a superb springboard for historical roleplaying.
I suppose it all comes down to where you live, where you've lived and what you're familiar with.
I hope you can check out next month's installment!