The Lost Expedition (Modern Day) with Blood and Ink (1930s Africa).
I love this image, which is from Fantasy Flight Games excellent Cthulhu card game.
For my next Trail of Cthulhu campaign, I decided I wanted to actually split “The Lost Expedition” into two simultaneous parts and have my players make characters for both. The first was my current “established” modern Cthulhu horror, which I have developed over the past few years and didn’t want to let go over a “historic” setting. Setting my Cthulhu horror games in the modern era, as opposed to the more classic historic 1920s or 1930s assumptions, has proven to have several advantages. By far the most important advantage, is that by giving my players a world identical to ours it really helps people “Get into character”. There isn’t any need to know about the culture of 1930s New York to get a feel for how they should think and act.
I also find the large amount of reliance on “current” technology that characters often develop to be just as useful for building tension. You should, as much as possible, let things like cell phones be integral parts of the game and not impede their function. Let players become as reliant on their characters phones as their actual player possibly is in reality. Then at the right moment, turn their electronics against them by having a phone ring at the wrong moment, or the device simply outright doesn’t work or even worse, cultists hack their metadata and track them right down to their hideout. In essence, the more you turn players current understanding of the world and their reliance on real things, like cellphones, against them the better the tension/horror.
On the other hand, there is a considerable attraction to me in running a historical campaign because of the interesting possibilities for different stories and roleplaying. While it can be harder to get into the idea of roleplaying characters from a different time and worldview, this problem is increasingly mitigated by numerous excellent free resources on history on the internet. While Wikipedia isn’t always 100% accurate, it’s often a very good “One stop shop” for a rough idea about where to start for storylines to pursue and general events, which occurred in your chosen regions time period. Historic storylines often exploit the lack of technology, enhanced difficulty of travel and slower means of communication of the time to build tension/horror.
This is why when I wrote the original “Staring New Campaigns” post, I decided to use True Detective as a kind of inspiration behind this campaign. In the first season of True Detective, two former police detectives are interviewed by their modern counterparts about an old cold case series of murders. During these interviews, the former detectives give some embellished and often outright lie filled accounts of their previous actions. This creates an interesting contrast, between how reliable the detectives stories are about the events of the 1990s and how in the modern era they eventually resolve the case. In The Lost Expedition I wanted to create a similar kind of unknown, where the players need to rely on accounts about what happened in the 1930s from “unreliable” sources. Essentially setting up the campaign this way I get my tension filled modern horror game style I like, while getting to have my side cake of pulpy style 1930s historic horror.
The Unreliable Past
This fabulous piece of art was done by Scott Purdy for World War Cthulhu.
When I came up for the concept of Blood and Ink, what I wanted was to do something very different to any of my previous Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu games: Make the investigators characters somewhat more like action adventure heroes. Essentially, this campaign really needed to capture the feeling of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft vs. mythos monsters. To achieve this feel, investigators in Blood and Ink can bounce back readily from terrible injuries, defy death on a regular basis and most importantly, regularly battle monsters. In Trail of Cthulhu terms, the style of campaign I decided to go for was extremely pulp action adventure, as opposed to the slow purist style of modern set Lost Expedition.
In contrast to their historic counterparts, the modern investigators are liable to die to a single gunshot, suffer mentally from murdering their fellow man and cannot face down horrible mythos monsters without permanent injury (mental or physical). Minding this difference in resilience between the historic and modern investigators creates a problem, because within the games worlds narrative “fiction” there are now two very different sets of rules in play. It honestly doesn’t make a lot of sense why investigators can be engaging in a desperate underwater knife fight against deep ones in the past, yet have almost no chance of surviving such a sustained attack in the modern era – where they could be armed with better weaponry!
This is where I decided the best way to operate the two campaigns, was to ensure that the 1930s events felt like those from the first season of True Detective and were highly nebulous as to what really happened. For example in True Detective – BTW SPOILERS! – there is a moment where the two protagonists are assaulting a dilapidated house hidden in some thick bush. In reality, they were able to sneak up on the place and take out both of the heinous individuals holding children hostage there without a fight. Of course they do so by executing both of the unarmed men, which is not something that an officer of the law is supposed to do. In order to cover up their murder, they used the heavy machine gun present to tear up the surrounding vegetation and concocted an elaborate story about their “assault”. Based on this fabrication, the two detectives are lauded as heroes and paraded about as stars of the force.
Other than the two detectives involved, nobody can say what actually did or didn’t happen that day. The detective’s fabrication, which they sold to the police and press easily, was a dramatic action packed assault based on desperation and cunning. In reality it was entirely the opposite and involved cold blooded murder, even if it was a genuinely awful pair of individuals being killed. SPOILERS END! This event from True Detective is illustrative of how things in the past can often be highly nebulous and unclear. Without other corroborating accounts or evidence available, there isn’t anything other than the two protagonists account of what happened to go on. As a result they get to “set the scene” for what happened and effectively write their own history.
Considering that True Detective happens over a period from 1995 to 2012, while showing how the two protagonists could get away with a considerable lie, imagine what a handful of survivors (if that?) could do from a secret expedition in the 1930s. This is the basis behind why Blood and Ink has investigators who seem to perform more “superhuman” acts and even fend off hordes of mythos monsters – because someone is embellishing the truth. This idea that the players can’t trust what they are seeing and doing, despite playing these characters in the 1930s, is integral to building the games modern counterparts tension. Is the fate of the infamous archaeologist Dr. Nathanial Kirkwind really being buried alive in 1937 within a collapsing ancient temple? Or is the actual truth far more horrifying and when Dr. Kirkwind – or whatever entity is now inhabiting his corpse – turns up in 2015, how do the players investigators react?
Another good reason for keeping what happens in the past nebulous or even presenting clearly what agenda the individual telling the tale has, is to keep the mystery of the whole campaign intact. Even though the players are playing through these events with their decisions shaping many important events, characters and decisions for later, there is always a considerable aura of doubt about what’s going on. One investigation may imply a particular cult heavily and then a later expedition may muddy the waters, possibly by showing how another unrelated mythos entity influenced things subtly. Alternatively, neither explanation may be correct and a previously overlooked piece of evidence may point to another potential culprit altogether. Playing through the past enriches it and gives the players a sense of agency over what happens, but it’s their actions in the modern era that genuinely pieces together the final puzzle.
And then tells them what they need to do to solve it.
Pulp Action Adventure
This terrific image sums up a lot about what I want to try to do with the 1930s game. Do I feel like having an intense aerial battle with WWI era biplanes against Byakhee? Then I can pretty much find a way to put it in there. Art from Flying Coffins by Pelgrane Press.
Ultimately by keeping the past uncertain and the truth of events lost to the insane minds of missing explorers – as only their barely comprehensible notes are often left behind to tell of what they encountered – I get a lot of flexibility in the scenarios I want to create in Blood and Ink. Most of the time when I think of something for this game, I think “Would this work in an Indiana Jones movie?”. If it would be cool and work in such a movie, I think about including it in Blood and Ink. Especially because I can theoretically use almost any kind of monster or cult I desire, with many potential story reasons for why that wasn’t the true answer (or maybe it was and they just looked in the wrong place). This also lets me have somewhat ridiculous scenarios like an engagement against a train carrying a single NAZI sympathizing spy, which soon turns into a fight against a small group and finally into an entire battalion.
These more action orientated and monster slaying style scenarios are designed to purposefully confuse the modern investigators. While I am going for the ridiculous, it’s how these scenarios tie into the modern era and hint at the truth of what happened that makes the campaign compelling. For example to continue with the previous train of thought, they might discover there was a major derailment at around the same time period in the country from the account they originally played. Further investigation could provide vital clues or links to what is actually happening, thus tying down what actually happened from the ridiculous things that the account claimed happened. In may ways, I want to make the debunking (or even more terrifying, proving) these absurd accounts and stories are part of the satisfaction of the modern investigation.
To put a further stark contrast with the modern era investigation, which is classic slow tension building and methodical horror, many situations in Blood and Ink will start in media res. This technique is used to get the investigators right into the thick of the action, which should prove to be suitably confusing and disorienting. Why are they on this river boat? Why is it in the process of being sunk by deep ones and who thought to bring equipment suitable for fighting underwater? By obfuscating the set up of these scenarios, I essentially create playable “incomplete” transcripts or reflect on how a witness has a faulty memory. In the latter case, consider how in a Trail of Cthulhu game you typically move the players on between “relevant” scenes to keep the game flowing. Well in Blood and Ink scenes might skip around or even appear out of order as the witness (being interviewed in 2015) remembers different things.
In fact I have some really interesting ideas how to use this idea of a witness to my advantage. If this witness is an NPC with the investigators in the 1930s, if they happen to be knocked out, disabled or separated from the party it could create interesting holes in the story. Perhaps they don’t remember what happened in a specific battle? Maybe when they were thrown from the truck as it spun out of control and crashed, they awoke to find everyone captured (including the PCs)? In both cases, I’ve used the NPC to skip ahead in scenes or direct the plot down different paths but alternatively I can add scenes too. While knocked out the NPC heard that the expedition PCs raided a temple, fighting a group of monsters and taking out a key cultist. They didn’t see evidence that it actually happened, or where the strange artifact the expedition team in the 1930s really came from but that is what they were told. Now the focus is different: Did this actually happen and can they rely on the witness’ trust of the expedition to be telling them the truth?
The key here is to always keep the action flowing and moving the expedition from scene to scene. Methodical piecing together of the overall horrifying puzzle is for the people in the future, kicking down doors to hidden caches of artifacts or fleeing NAZI archaeologists is more important. A focus on action and doing things for the expedition members of the 1930s is very important. This is because it’s how they choose to resolve these scenes for good or completely disastrously, which provides evidence for those in the modern day to discover what is really happening. Here the story changes and goes down different paths depending on what trail of clues they leave behind.
The past really does determine the future, just not in the way we would normally expect.