Sunday, 21 October 2012

Necessity is Somebody's Mum

Now that Sisters of Sorrow is out, I can talk a little bit about how that scenario came to be.

The Great War has always fascinated me, both as a historical period and as a setting for RPG scenarios. It seems uniquely suited to a horror setting, as well as being a conflict that, from a Keeper's perspective, involves so many different potential ideas. You could literally do anything, anywhere; a Great War scenario set in Africa, or the Pacific, is as feasible as one set in the trenches on the Western Front. A Keeper could set the scenario set entirely aboard a zeppelin, or a cruise liner, could have spies infiltrating the New York docks, a conflict in the Italian mountainside, Japanese soldiers in a bayonet charge, or German internees awaiting their fate after the Siege of Tsingtao. Any nation, any setting the Keeper can think of, and the War provides it.

I hadn't intended becoming Pelgrane's go-to for Great War scenarios, but they're a lot of fun to do, and I hope to make more of them. That said, there are times when I run smack against a scenario problem that takes some thinking to solve, and Sisters of Sorrow was one of those times.

I had intended to write a completely different kind of scenario, something more on par with Red October It would have been a haunted house at sea, with the players creeping around the once-familiar corridors of the U-Boat, never entirely sure what they would find around the next corner. I had the rough idea sketched out in my head before I started the research.

If this incident taught me anything, it's to do the research before coming up with any clever ideas. There was a glaring problem with my plan, and that problem was, there isn't enough room aboard a sub of the period to swing a cat. It's difficult to get hold of a comprehensive sketch, but Submarine Warfare of Today and Diary of a U-Boat Commander, both hosted by Project Gutenberg, give pretty reasonable accounts of life on board a submarine. I can't believe even for a moment that the Diary is genuine, bearing in mind how it's written and what happens in it - Polish spies, ye Gods! - but some of the scenes are probably accurate enough, as far as setting goes.Submarine Warfare was much more useful to me, and many of the illustrations in it could prove helpful to a Keeper running Sisters. 

But I had a problem: there was no way the complicated haunted-house story I had in mind could play out on a tiny little thing barely fifty foot long. If every single crewman stood up at once - assuming they could - they'd fill the boat from end to end. The very idea that someone could get lost in one was silly; it'd be simpler to imagine someone not being able to find their way out of a public toilet.

In some ways, scenario writers are crippled by a reliance on historical accuracy; it prevents them taking advantage of an idea, and seeing how it could play out. Yet there's no way a Cthulhu audience would tolerate any significant deviation from historical fact, not when the facts are available to anyone who cares to look. It's odd, when you consider that Lovecraft's U-Boat story featured not just portholes, but also diving suits and the means of deploying them, that players insist on strict accuracy. But then, I suspect there aren't that many who really like The Temple. Incidentally, for those who enjoy coincidences, the real U-29 sank on its first voyage in 1915, thanks to prompt action by HMS Dreadnough.

Meanwhile the real UC-12 had seven patrols to its credit, when it was sunk by its own mines in 1915. All of its crew went down with the boat, most - if not all - probably killed in the explosion.  

However the problem presented me with its own solution. A situation in which people are crammed together in a stifling, small space, helpless in the face of danger; that breeds paranoia and fear. It's not unlike Night of the Living Dead, funnily enough, but the interplay of characters was what made that move really interesting ... and then I realized I had my solution, ready-made.

Of course, I don't intend to discuss that here. Read the scenario, if you're interested in finding out what happens next.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Odd Beliefs

If you haven't already seen The Cabin in the Woods, you ought to. I don't say it's a frightening movie, but it is a fun one, and if you have any interest in horror it ought to be on your list. I won't talk about its plot since that would constitute spoilers, but I will say that it involves sacrifice and odd beliefs, which - since the opening credits and trailers make the sacrifice theme pretty obvious - is a safe thing to say, if you haven't seen it yet.

I'm going to talk about odd beliefs in RPGs, using Trail of Cthulhu as an example system.

Most cults in Lovecraftian horror tales seem to worship the Old Ones just because the Gods are large and powerful. These cults often don't seem to have a long-term goal in mind, and you could be forgiven for thinking they exist only to supply flavor text, or to provide the Louisiana police a convenient target to hit.Yet real-world organizations with similar characteristics often have an understandable goal in mind. Jim Jones wanted to create a better world. Many people want to contact the extraterrestrial creatures they think inspire their religion. Some seek the Messiah, or the Truth; others hope for social or political change. Yet each has a goal, a stated purpose which can be explained in a rational manner. After all, cults wouldn't have much luck recruiting new members if they couldn't explain their objectives to outsiders.

Let's take a step back and consider what it means to live in a Trail of Cthulhu universe.

Well, for starters everything we are, or do, is influenced in some way by the Old Ones. Take Rough Magicks, for instance, and consider the potential sources of magic explained in the Which Magic? section. If magic comes from Dreaming, then all the humans on Earth - possibly other creatures too - contribute in some way to magic. Or perhaps humanity itself is a creation of the Old Ones, an accidental result of a technological malfunction. Or maybe blood really is the life - and so on, and on - but the point is that each of these solutions presupposes a radical reinterpretation of the physical world, on such a fundamental level that it would affect everyone's lives in ways we can't even begin to comprehend.

It would also fundamentally affect our belief systems. Say for the sake of discussion that one or more organizations - they might be religions, they might be groups more akin to the Illuminati - became aware that Cthulhu really did exist, and was sleeping at the bottom of the Pacific until the stars were right. That would be Thinking With Demons in a very literal sense; knowing what was out there, and possibly even working out what it might take to keep it there - or get it out - would become a major goal of that group. Perhaps there really would be a secret organization within, say, the Catholic Church dedicated to hunting down and destroying Mordiggan death cults, for fear that if they did not then ghouls would rise up and destroy humanity.

But that's at the macro level. Let's talk micro for a minute.

We all know about folklore, and its modern counterpart the urban legend. Both are forms of odd belief that most people know about and tend not to take too seriously ... at least, while the sun is shining. An hour after midnight, lost and alone, and suddenly a lot of things seem believable. But the point is that everyone knows those stories, and most of us can rattle off the more famous ones by heart.

It's reasonable to assume that, in a Trail of Cthulhu world, there are other urban legends that everyone knows, but which are specific to that reality. Urban legends about a man who walks out of your dreams one day and offers you a blessing, or about the woman whose blood talked to her, or about cats. This is where abilities like Anthropology, Oral History and so on can come in very useful, helping characters to identify these odd beliefs for what they are. Never cut yourself, or bleed, while walking through a graveyard, or the Resurrection Men will sniff you out. If you break a mirror, sweep up the remains without looking at them, because it's bad luck to look into a broken mirror ... you might see things you don't want to see. Never open a door without knocking at least twice; knock only once, or not at all, and you might find something nasty waiting for you on the other side.

Except that the difference between a legend and reality is that legends can't hurt you. Reality, on the other hand, can; and who knows but that Yog-Sothoth, the key and guardian of the gate, may wait behind each and every door, waiting for someone who forgets to knock ... or perhaps someone who knocks only once.

Sunday, 7 October 2012


... was a very busy month.

On the plus side, there should be something of mine for Trail out very soon. I shouldn't say more than that right now, but I think I'm safe in saying that, if all goes well, it should be out in October.

On the other hand, it meant I didn't have a lot of time to post here. Thankfully September is over and done with. October is a brand new month, with new things to say!

Incidentally if you happen to be going to Hammercon this year and play the Cthulhu Cup, you'll be pleased to know I'm writing the scenario this year. Again, I can say nothing. Nothing, I tell you! Except that it does reference one of my obsessions ... full fathom five, and all that ... but I shall say nothing!

I've enjoyed working for the Hammercon folks. It's even a paying gig; not a fortune, but it all adds up. Hopefully you'll enjoy the scenario!