Sarah Newton (meme_machine) wrote,
Sarah Newton

The Cthulhu Conundrum - Writing Historical Fiction and RPGs (Part Two)

In my last post I talked a little about the experience of writing period Lovecraftian fiction. This week I'd like to touch upon our latest pride and joy, the bumper book of Caledonian fun for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, Shadows Over Scotland.  I worked as editor on this weighty tome, authored by Stuart Boon, and together I think we've forged something unique both as a game supplement and a written work.

Shadows Over Scotland is set in the 1920s, and as the title says in the country of Scotland, the northernmost of the four countries making up the United Kingdom. To the vast majority of modern readers, then, it has two factors mitigating against its familiarity: first, that it's set in a historical period some 90 years before the present day; and second, that it's set not in England but in Scotland, a separate country and culture.

Most Call of Cthulhu players and Lovecraft aficionados are familiar with the 1920s New England as the backdrops to most of their tales. There's a "shared world" understanding of the cultural conventions of, say, Arkham in 1927 - what day-to-day life is like, what cars people drive, what clothes they wear, what kind of food you can buy and eat in a restaurant or rooming house. As a British national, I personally always found it difficult to get into that mindset - I have a vague idea of contemporary American life from TV and the movies, and the few visits I've made there - but the 1920s?!  I remember on my first Cthulhu game, exploring the haunted house in the 2nd edition rules, I didn't even know what cars people were driving - or if horses were common mounts in the streets of Arkham! That's a huge gulf of understanding of cultural context.

How much more then is 1920s Scotland a challenge? Somehow, in 288 pages, we had to produce a volume which would give a non-Scottish national - let's face it, many of our readers would live Stateside - a grasp of not only a different yet familiar culture, but also a different yet familiar era, enough to run a fun and exciting Cthulhu game. What do people eat? How do they talk? How do they get about? How do they behave? Scotland in the 1920s is not New England.  Heck, it's not even Old England. Attitudes, language, beliefs, would be a constant surprise - even to those of us writing and editing the book!

We wanted a fun and playable book, of course - that's always the goal when creating historical RPG material. There's endless source material out there, some of it very detailed and esoteric indeed. But that's not what we were producing - Shadows Over Scotland is for Call of Cthulhu gaming, and not a research project. It has to be accessible, digestible, and above all great fun to play.  So how to do that?

Happily (or unhappily, from the perspective of those alive at the time), there is one great unifying force behind all Lovecraftian material set in the 1920s: the First World War. Even in 2011, it's still probably too early to accurately assess the cultural and social impact of that conflict, but in the 1920s societies all across the New and Old Worlds are wracked with unrest and change.  Scotland is no exception, and that very instability is a perfect environment for typical Call of Cthulhu investigators and investigations.  More than ever, Scotland is in upheaval - new technologies, new ideas, and a painful departure from the prestige and relative plenty of the past.  

That phenomenon - an almost chaotic change - is a great breath of fresh air and freedom to improvise for Keepers running Scottish scenarios. Shadows Over Scotland gives you heaps of material on the historical and cultural background of Scots society, descriptions of picturesque towns, uncanny and fearsome legends, terrible secrets, and of course Scotland's awe-inspiring scenery, as well as over a hundred pages of scenarios steeped in Scots culture - but at the same time there's an "openness", a sense that Scots life is gradually changing, which means that Keepers needn't be cultural experts to get the right "feel" for a Shadows Over Scotland game. A party of American investigators disembarking in Glasgow will have a whole ancient culture to explore...

As an editor, working on Shadows was a voyage of discovery for me, too.  I'm profoundly English, and although I'm a bit of a history and culture vulture and love visiting Scotland, wandering Edinburgh's wynds and stalking the Highlands, I have no pretensions to "knowing" Scotland. The amount of fact-finding and detail-checking we did on Shadows has made me appreciate just what a different and unique place Scotland is - and was even more so in the 1920s - and what a humongous and awesome job Stuart Boon has done in putting this new supplement together.

Shadows Over Scotland is on the press now, and should be available from Cubicle 7 in the next few weeks.  I think it stands as a great presentation of 1920s Scotland, its culture, people, history, and magnificent lcations, and also a truly unique environment for Call of Cthulhu gaming. I can't wait to see it finally see the light of day, and to see the hordes of investigators taking on the noisome Cthulhoid foulness which lies beneath its lochs and glens...

Tags: call of cthulhu, chaosium, cubicle 7, editing, rpg
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