I've been watching a lot of Mad Men recently. This drama, set in the 1960s, does an excellent job of portraying all the little details that make up a world, and it's not just in the obvious points, like male/female relations, or the cars and houses. No, it's in the little things, like the constant cigarette smoking, the way the office completely clears out for lunch, and the perfect dress sense of characters like Don Draper or Joan Harris. A host of little details, swarming together, to create a cohesive whole.
It made me think of the efforts Keepers go through to create a cohesive imaginary campaign world. Mad Men, as with all period pieces, has to show you the time as well as place where everything's happening. However it's always a particular window in time that it wants you to look through. There's no point in pretending that Mad Men is a complete, cohesive and entirely accurate portrayal of the sixties. Instead it selects the kind of sixties it wants you to know about and shows that, because that particular kind of history best suits the story it intends to tell.
The same applies in scenario and campaign structure. If your game is set in the 1920s, it needs to reflect that era. Same for the 1930s, the Victorian period, or indeed for any other period you, as Keeper, intend to portray. But the window that you let the players look through needs to reflect the story you intend to tell.
Let's consider the 1920s for a moment. What kind of period touches make up that decade?
To begin with, there's the Great War. The world's just this minute climbing out of an earth-shattering crisis, one which smashed great nations to dust, and then, mere months later, a plague breaks out that kills something in the region of 100 million people. Those events in combination make everything seem fragile, and contribute to a devil-may-care youth culture determined to have a good time regardless of how awful the world is. Then there's a sweeping rise in transport and communications, linking the furthest reaches of the planet. The automobile reaches its ascendancy, with new roads snaking across the planet, and architects like le Corbusier propose cutting through the great cities of Europe to make way for the car. Psychiatrists like Freud are becoming incredibly popular, even if their work isn't fully understood by the millions of people who swear by psychiatry. In the United States there's the question of Prohibition, and with it a completely new culture in which Federal law enforcement agencies suddenly appear, in great numbers, all over the country, determined to enforce an unpopular new law.
No doubt you can think of many other touches. The point then becomes, which of these touches best suits the story the Keeper intends to tell?
Is it an Innsmouth-style tale of corruption from within, with the ultimate reveal that we are all somehow infected by strange and terrible genetic putrefaction? Then the Keeper will want to concentrate on medical issues, perhaps linking the Spanish Flu, sleeping sickness and all other plagues that sweep through the population to this Mythos decay. The psychiatrists may be fighting a losing battle against the horrors that are hard-coded into the psyche. There could be a dozen different threads, but whatever they are, or become, the Keeper needs to emphasize them again and again in the background details. The characters travel to a decayed New England town, and note among other things that the people living there all suffer from a particular disease. Another outbreak of plague occurs in a far-off land that the characters suspect is a hotbed of Mythos activity. An outbreak of suicides among psychiatrists in, say, New York, suggests that terrible horrors are overwhelming those unlucky souls who try to delve further into the murky recesses of the mind.
Perhaps it's all about the vastness of the machine, and the unknowable Nyarlathotep-inspired creations that we unwittingly construct each day, with our new technology. Then the background details should all be about construction, new developments, architectural marvels, scientific advancement, all leading, of course, to an inevitable and tragic conclusion. Or perhaps its about the destruction of old values and their replacement with new, corrupt ideals. Then the characters could be broken refugees from the Old World, fleeing a land devastated by war, only to discover new tendrils of the Mythos in all these fancy innovations their new home expects them to adopt. Changing hairstyles, attitudes, a lack of respect for religion, the modern whirl and rush, all of these could be signs of Mythos activity.
You take that part of history that works for the story, and you bend it to your liking. Then you show it to the players.
Say you wanted to run a Victorian period game. That's a time of great political upheaval masked by apparent tranquility at the top. You've got revolutionaries brewing up political doctrines, or just ordinary explosives, to be used in acts of terror to support their goals. Small wars are kicking off all over the planet, leaving destruction in their wake. Religion is a much more important part of their lives than it is today, but it's a religion of rules and patterns, a little elderly and creaky. Spiritualism and mediumship are fast becoming more attractive, as an alternative to religion. Scholars like Mayhew are beginning to pay attention to the poor, and to tell the world how the poor live. Massive tidal waves of immigration are sweeping across the Old Country, flowing to the New. People are writing things down, in massive tomes that can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about public decorum, how to behave, how to cook, how to dress, what to see if you're abroad. Indeed, what you know and how you demonstrate your knowledge mark you out as an educated gentleman, or lady; a slip here, a misplaced haitch there, and you damn yourself in the eyes of everyone.
So perhaps you want a story in which the forces of the Mythos are crushing out spirituality and replacing it with ennui and despair. In that case emphasizing the spiritual decay of the church and the rise of corrupting spiritualism is key; the Fox sisters as outriders for Nyarlathotep, or the Cottingley Fairy photographs as inspired by Hastur. Or a story in which strange forces of destruction toil away in the darkness while the world goes by in blissful ignorance. In that event, play up the terrorists, the small wars, the limbless veterans begging in the gutter for their daily bread. Again, you take those aspects of the period that best support your story, and emphasize them.
If you're reading this and reminded of a previous column, Murder Most Foul, there's a reason for that. Both ideas use the same principle. In order to create a broad canvas in which the characters operate, you take relevant details and seed the canvas with them. In Murder, I suggested that a clue found in a newspaper report be juxtaposed with other information which helps build the world in which the characters live.
... it can be something
like: ‘buried on page 12, underneath a
photo array showing exactly where the Battersea Torso Killer hacked up his
victim, you find …’ Or alternatively something like ‘the radio announcer is describing the crowd outside Birmingham Prison,
where baby killer Victor Parsons is about to be hung, as the jingle of the
doorbell announces the entry of a customer.’ ...
These are throwaway details, yes, but the fact remains that it's when you throw them out, and in what context, that helps build your campaign world. Continuous reinforcement will create the kind of world you want to operate in, without the characters being buried in text dumps and historical research.
I hope you find this useful. Enjoy!