One of the things that I’m really enjoying about running the Call of Cthulhu pbem is the research that’s required to make sure the game is as true to life as is possible (given the need to keep it fun). When I last ran a tabletop CoC game, way back in the 1980s, it was a lot harder to do the research, simply because the internet was unavailable. Now, I can spend an hour or two googling “Doomed Archaeological Expeditions” (and what other game gives you the chance to do that?) or “Brattleboro in the 1920s” and reams of information come pouring out of the computer. I can find out stuff about dance etiquette, the history of coffee, pictures of the glorious (and sadly demolished) Pennsylvania Station of 1920 without having to leave my desk.
I’m not downplaying the role of libraries; indeed, it seems ironic that to research a CoC game before the internet, one had to spend a lot of time in libraries. The odd looks I got from the librarian when I asked to see the Necronomicon! It’s just that the net is now a “Can’t do without” resource if you’re running any sort of historical game (and with all due respect to those who like their Cthulhu 21st century stylie, I prefer the original setting).
For all of us, I think that it’s become a sort of living history lesson, in the most fun possible way. As the campaign is set in January 1920, my NPCs have opinions on the forthcoming Presidential election and are taking sides either for Cox or Harding. And who’s that Assistant Secretary of State for the Navy? Franklin Roosevelt? He shows promise, I think he'll go far. And what of Aleister Crowley, who was in New York until the early part of 1920? Looking for a popular boxer that a player can follow? Jack Dempsey. Dungeonmum’s character is an aviatrix so Google turned up pages of stuff on the female flyers of the early 1920s as inspiration.
I also like to populate my e-mails to the players with pictures from the era to add flavour. I can use a paragraph of the e-mail to describe the bus that is waiting for the characters at the station to take them on to their destination but it is quicker and more atmospheric if I just insert this picture
I stressed earlier the need to keep the game fun. There’s no joy in a totally simulationist style for this; besides, we’re not trying for a wholly faithful recreation of the world of 1920, since the books on which the game is based were not a social history. Lovecraft didn’t feel the need to pepper his stories with period detail because for him, they were not period works but contemporary fiction. Period detail would have held up what for him was happening in the here and now.
The Call of Cthulhu keeper doesn’t have that option unless, as I’ve mentioned above, he chooses to set the adventure in the present day (and even then, rigorous attention to the news is required to keep up with the world as we know it). To make the experience of his players an involving and thrilling one, he needs to leaven the game with just enough detail to transport his players to the era, without loading on so much that the setting then becomes a cage, leaving no room for the actual playing to fly free. The game’s the thing – detail is just another tool to make it an enjoyable experience.
It’s a tough balancing act for a research nerd like me to achieve – all this information does give me an urge to show it off but I have to remember the iceberg principle – 10% visible, 90% the players will probably never even notice (but would notice the lack thereof).