Monday, 17 August 2015

Gunpowder Treason and Me (Trail of Cthulhu)

In case you were wondering, this is how I spend my spare time. Yes, that daring fellow in the bedsheet running around on the beach is me, at the reenactment of the 1775 Gunpowder Plot, which supplied the American army with gunpowder stolen from the British in Bermuda. I played Governor George Breuer, a hapless military man stymied by the Bermudians and his own lackluster government at every turn, who suffered the ultimate indignity of having his gunpowder stolen right from under his nose.

I ended up overboard, which given the heat was a welcome benefit, even if it meant my costume became see-through.

The plot came about because, during the War, the Continental Congress decided to embargo trade with any British colony still loyal to the Crown. Several prominent Bermudians became upset at this; America was a valuable trading partner, and without it the island colony would never prosper. How to persuade the Americans to break the embargo?

Well, there was that store of gunpowder that nobody was using. Originally stockpiled to defend the colony, there were no troops manning any of Bermuda's extensive fort network, so it had gone to rot in the attic of the House of Assembly before the Governor decided to build a store for it and move it there. What if the rebels were to come in and steal it, nudge nudge, wink wink?

The Americans, and Ben Franklin in particular, were having none of it. They hadn't the resources to waste on what might be a wild goose chase, and in any case, if the Bermudians wanted to benefit, Franklin felt they'd better have some skin in the game. Instead the Committee, as the gunpowder plotters styled themselves, were advised to steal the powder and bring it to the Americans if they wanted any kind of reward.

This they did, on a warm August night. The powder store had no windows, so they cut their way in through the roof. There were perhaps a hundred kegs, but twelve of those had obviously gone bad, so they left those behind. About forty percent of the remainder was found to be bad when they reached Washington's army, so in the end the grand conspiracy netted enough powder for about a thousand men, to fire one or two balls each.

Naturally this Saved America.

The Committee did very well for itself, financially speaking. Not only did it sell the powder at market price - a little over two hundred pounds total, or about $30,000 in today's money - it also persuaded the Americans to break the embargo and sell food to Bermuda at cut rates, on the grounds that the colony was starving thanks to lack of trade. Except it wasn't really starving, and in any case the Committee exaggerated the number of people on the island by about 5,000. The Committee sold on the excess food at a handsome profit.

So, a dashing tale of heroism.

The colonial period hasn't really been covered in gaming. There's been an installment of the Assassin's Creed series, a few titles like Sons of Liberty, and several board games, but it's not really hit the big time. Every so often the Cthulhu crowd suggests that, perhaps, it might be a good fit for a horror setting, but so far it hasn't really caught on. There may be as many games written for Parisien Surrealists as there are for those who want to see redcoats eaten by shoggoths.

My contribution to the pile has been Hell Fire, which sends the characters from the fleshpots of London to the colonies, trying to stop an outbreak of Ygolonac worship. Oddly enough, the climactic scenes of that scenario are set in Bermuda. Can't think why.

If this scenario were to be turned into a gaming supplement, it's a bit difficult to see who the characters would play. Characters tend to be underdogs, but it's pretty clear that the Committee aren't the underdogs in this scenario. If anyone is, it's Breuer, who has no troops, no allies, can't get the British government to listen to him when he repeatedly warns the folks at home about the danger, and has to constantly be on his guard against treachery.

Trouble is, playing the authority figure never really sits well with gamers either, not unless you're playing the Judge Dredd RPG. However that title's success may be due to the players being authority figures who shoot anything that moves and most things that don't, which makes for great catharsis. So were I to gamify this, I think I'd have to boost Breuer, and make him the villain of the piece, or at least the main opposition. Perhaps he was able to persuade the British to send him reinforcements, or perhaps he's a potent sorcerer in his own right, capable of defending the store all by himself. That gives the characters a respectable home-grown opposition.

Or perhaps there's a third figure in all this, a mysterious and powerful British spymaster, who's watching all this from afar. If this villain has infiltrated the Continental Congress, then he'd know about the Gunpowder Plot, but probably not be aware of the details. Perhaps he has secretly supplied Breuer with the reinforcements he'll need, or perhaps he's willing to let the plotters steal the powder, so long as he can track them down later and dispose of them. Maybe he's doing all this to expose a valuable American asset, say the player characters' contact with the Continental Congress. Or maybe he's hidden something in that powder which will backfire catastrophically when the rebels try to use it.

If you like a bit of sordid moneygrubbing with your supernatural tinged adventure - a maritime version of Bookhounds, with powder and shot taking the place of old tomes - then you could play it straight. The characters really are double-dealing smooth talking rogues, with their own ship, an experienced crew, and a yen for easy money. To the Continental Congress they're fellow lovers of liberty, while to the Crown they're loyal subjects, lying to everyone they meet and dodging the blockade in search of that last big score that will pay all debts. Will you die a rich man in your bed, or will the sea swallow your bones full fathom five?

That's it for now. Enjoy!

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