Classic Call of Cthulhu is set in the real world but in a time that, with one or two nonagenarian exceptions, none of us remembers. The pace of change has rendered this period as real to us as Middle Earth. What inhabitants of the 1920s accepted as commonplace is now consigned to the history books, to be learned about as just a collection of facts and sepia photographs.
So the Keeper has a challenge similar in vein to that of a Dungeon Master who has to create a living, breathing world that is at the same time our world but fantastical and alien. The Keeper does, however have one advantage over the struggling DM – the world of CoC does exist, or at least it used to and there are copious records to attest to that fact.
Those records are like a treasure trove, packed with facts, recollections and images that have the potential to bring life to what for us is tantamount to an alien world. In my post on sources of information for Call of Cthulhu, I’ve listed a great many sites where these records can be found. Properly used, they are a Keeper’s best friend.
However, the Keeper does have a challenge that the DM does not have to face. If a party of adventurers decide to head off across the river into the wilderness, past the Granite Obelisks and through the Bull Gate into the Forest of Hawks, the DM can be pretty confident that no-one is going to say
“Hang on a minute, it’s not like that there, the Bull Gate is twenty miles further north and the Obelisks haven’t been raised yet”
Yet if the Keeper turns around and tells the players in 1920 that President Roosevelt is travelling into New York on Route 66, he’s laid himself open to challenges in at least three areas (four if he uses an anachronistic car).
If, like most Keepers and players, you know little about the 1920s, there are two options you can adopt. One is to ignore the facts and wing it. Just play the adventure, no-one’s going to notice the errors and if they do, you can shrug and tell them to go and write their own history book. That’s an approach that, with a group of players who share the same outlook, can work. It would be a shame if that were the case, because well-placed details bring a game to life.
The second option is to ladle on the details with a big spoon. Whilst this is all well and good to begin with, the Keeper needs to remember one salient caveat.
Research is like salt. It adds flavour but too much makes you sick.
If I were to ask you to give me an account of your day, you’d probably not tell me the make of your breakfast cereal, the toothpaste you used or the brand of coffee you drank. You’d probably use generic terminology for those things. The degree to which you’d use that vagueness of description would probably depend on how well you thought I knew your life and how much detail you felt I needed in order to make sense of your account.
We probably both live in a western industrialised society and there are things that we take for granted that each of us know. I don’t have to listen to a description of how your car works, or – for that matter – what make it is or its performance details. You might tell me that it takes three hours for you to drive 200 miles but it took longer last winter because of the snow. You might enthusiastically tell me about your favourite TV programme but you wouldn’t give me an in-depth explanation of television itself.
Both the world we live in today and the world of Call of Cthulhu share certain details and it’s those that circumscribe the amount of information we need when running our games. A fact should be considered, weighed and then slipped into the narrative subtly so that virtually no-one notices. And it should only be done once. The players are there to play, not to study 20th century history.
When I put my author’s hat on and work on my fantasy novel, I have an acronym that I use - WANTON – Would Add Nothing TO Narrative. This keeps my work focused and free of unnecessary clutter – or so I hope. The same holds true of the description I write for the pbem. Remember that stretching a point to slot something interesting in is fine, but remember that over-stretching causes breakage.
By way of example, I’m including here a long section of my recent pbem, The Majestic Mystery, which gives an idea of the sort of thing I was sending out to players. Everything included is as historically accurate as I could make it, yet I hope the detail didn’t overwhelm the story.
You make your way to the dinner table where Dwight Albert has already taken his seat and has his wallet out. He passes the waiter a $50 bill and sends the man off with an imperious gesture.
He rises as Julia arrives and draws her chair out for her. He shakes the hands of Alessandro and Solomon, less reserved now that he knows who they are with. You note that Alice is seated with the Frosts. Chester Allen and O'Mahony are on a nearby table. A fresh bottle of whiskey has somehow followed them there.
Eyebrows are raised, nevertheless when Alessandro’s choice of guest for the last place arrives at the table.
Daniel Quigley might be good-looking in a saturnine way if he ate regularly and got some sleep. He is twenty-six but no-one would know it. He shakes Solomon’s hand with a less than enthusiastic grip and takes Julia’s hand and kisses it briefly. His handshake for Dwight is rather perfunctory.
Thanks to Dwight’s foresight in buying the waiter, you have more or less the best of everything. He has scrutinised the wine list and suggests a bottle or two of 1904 or 1911 Bordeaux, on finding that the hotel has no 1900, which he describes as an excellent year. For Alessandro, he acquires a White Burgundy 1906 which he believes you would find outstanding.
As regards champagne, he declares that since there were very poor harvests between 1902 and 1909, the champagne riots of 1910 and 1911 and the intervention of the war, he would not recommend drinking it at present.
Quigley is not particularly impressed by this show of largesse. Drawing a long pull on an unfiltered Gitane, he languidly states “I am a friend of the Green Fairy; she is a tender lover and leaves me intoxicated by her verdant beauty”.
He summons the waiter and whispers something into his ear. A few minutes later, a green bottle of Dornier-Tuller Absinthe, a bowl of sugar and a carafe of ice water arrives at the table. He offers the bottle around; Dwight seems less than pleased but is probably too polite to say anything.
[let me know if you are indulging - it's strong stuff. Anywhere from 45-74% ABV; I think this brand weighs in at 68%. Phew! Technically its import had been banned by the US in 1912 so this must be a bottle that the hotel had obtained before that]
Quigley’s love of French culture, he explains, came from a stay in Paris the previous year, during which time he met Gertrude Stein who he describes as “tiresomely ordinary in an extraordinary way” and made contact with the French surrealists, including Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton.
“I fear that when it came to true surreality, I found them wanting. They, for their part, found me too disturbing – however, Miss Somersby, I think that you would find their choice of words intriguing, not dérangé but affolé”
Julia is aware from her time in France that whilst the former means 'disturbing', the latter means 'terrifying'.
“They would have nothing more to do with me. I came home via London and sojourned there for a week or two; whilst I was there, I had the pleasure of meeting two very interesting gentlemen, Charles Bennett and George Jones, who describe themselves as mystics. And of course, I had the splendid good fortune to meet Arthur Rackham himself. I greatly admire his style – are you familiar with it?
If anyone is familiar with Rackham’s style and work, Quigley will spend several minutes comparing favourites.
“Of course” he says “his work is not to all tastes and some find him frightening. He took me into his confidence and told me that he has several pieces for which he was unable to find an exhibitor. No-one dared show them. I resolved to make every effort to see them one day”
Alessandro mentions the fact that Quigley has been working on pictures whilst staying here. The artist affects a moue of embarrassment.
“Signor Mancini is correct, although my doctor would throw up his hands in despair were he to hear of it. I was sent here for complete rest due to a nervous collapse before Christmas but I found that I was wholly unable to remain inactive. This place is utterly conducive to my work – it affect me, drawing out the visions within. I have such dreams as art is made of. Signor Mancini has displayed an interest in seeing my work – I wonder if anyone else at the table might consider a private viewing later, once dinner is over?”
[let me know if you're interested in Quigley's offer]
Regardless of what anyone else says, Dwight is stalwart in his refusal.
“I am not in the slightest bit interested in decadent, nay, degenerate artwork of this nature. I can see you for what you are, sir – a louche dilettante, sucking the life out of the American art world with your morally fraudulent obscenities”
“Obscenities? You are a representative of the society that sent millions to their deaths in barbed wire and mud for a failed vision and you have the gall to talk to me of obscenities?”
Dwight will not sit still for this but nevertheless he remains controlled in his anger. He regales the table with his war service and the battles in which he was a participant in France.
Quigley turns to Julia.
“Miss Somersby, if I have offended and insulted you by my actions at the table, I apologise. In you, I recognise a kindred spirit, a rebel and a fighter against the shackles of society. In honour of your integrity and that alone, I shall provoke no further; might we continue this discussion after dinner?”
[let me know if you reply in the affirmative to this suggestion]
Dinner continues with Quigley and Dwight giving each other frosty glances across the table but remaining restrainedly polite. As dinner ends and the table staff clear away the plates and glasses, there is an announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” calls a young man who Julia recognises as Tommy Milner “I’m pleased to announce that the Green Mountain ballroom is now open for dancing; we have Miss Grace La Rue and Fred Mulrooney backed by Sly and Lefty Fitzgerald. Rudi at the bar tells me he has giggle water aplenty for those who haven’t had enough at their tables.”
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