Tag Archives: Cthulhu Dark Ages

Venetian Ghost Stories

When I wrote about the lack of weird tales set in Venice I did not of course mean a lack of ghost stories, of which the city has plenty.  She has a Casino deli spiriti (House of the Spirits), a calla della Morte (Street of Death) and the Ca’Dario, the so-called Haunted Palace.

Venice has a plethora of ghosts,  wizards, demons, supernatural lions and stone hearts, sneezing ghosts of stillborn babies, floating coffins thoughtfully bedecked with candles so the ferries won’t run into them, and squids with human eyes. Many of these treasures are handily collected in Alberto Toso Fei’s Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories. This is my favorite kind of book. Alberto knows what we spectre-loving visitors to Venice want. He has mapped out the phantoms by district then given a walking tour of each, punctuated by pauses for increasingly more grisly stories.

Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories [Source: Alberto Toso Fei’s website]

Possibly my favorite in this collection features Doge Enrico Dandolo. Dandolo led the Fourth Crusade to the infamous sack of Constantinople in 1204, and thus links to’ The Dark Crusader’, Geoff Gillan’s new Dark Ages Horror on the Orient Express scenario. Venice appears to have always had a rather uneasy relationship with Dandalo’s memory. My trusty 1914 guide, A Wanderer in Venice, wonders why there no statues or monuments to his name. This ghost story reflects that communal disquiet. In myth, Dandolo is condemned to pace around the walls of S.S. Giovvanni e Paolo in the Castello district. With two burning coals instead of eyes, and carrying a sword by the blade, he must eternally bloody his hands to atone for the innocent blood he shed. The passer-by is advised not to try to assist this grim spectre. Any attempt to help may only add to the total sum of blood.

The S.S. Giovvanni e Paolo also holds a grisly relic, another odd link to the themes of the Horror on the Orient Express. The ill-fated Marcantonio Bragadin was one of the Venetian heroes of the siege of Famagosta in 1571. When the city was taken by the Turks, Bragadin was flayed alive in punishment for his resistance. Then his head was cut off, his body quartered, his skin was stuffed with straw and paraded around the city mounted on a cow. The stuffed skin was taken back to Constantinople as a trophy of war, where nine years later it was stolen from the Arsenal of Constantinople and returned to Bragadin’s family. The family buried the remains in a niche in the south aisle. When the niche was opened in 1961, by a family descendant, it was found to hold a lead urn containing several pieces of tanned human hide.

The monochrome fresco of Bragadin’s martyrdom above his urn [Source: Associazione Circolo della Cultura del Bello]

This fresco is exceedingly tame by comparison with contemporary 16th century portrayals of martyrdom, and was memorably snubbed by J.J. Norwich in his monumental A History of Venice as “distinctly disappointing”.

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Secrets of play testing

Dark Ages play test

Behind the medieval Keeper’s Screen for the Cthulhu Dark Ages play test, set in Constantinople 1204

Last night we played “The Dark Crusader” by Geoff Gillan, the brand new Cthulhu Dark Ages scenario for Horror on the Orient Express. It was an interesting group, as only one of our regular 1920s group play testers could make it. Of the others, one knew of the 1991 campaign from years ago, one had read it recently, one knew nothing at all, and one was Penny… who we can say knows more than a bit (although nothing about “The Dark Crusader”).

It worked really well; Geoff has outdone himself. The clues and drama moved the players seamlessly from one location to the next, the backdrop of the Fourth Crusade was rife with tragedy and horror, and there were some scenes that were creeping me out, and I was the one running it. The players praised it at the end, particularly the regular play tester, who thought it blended really well with the larger story. I timed the play test so that it ran the Saturday after the 1920s group found the illuminated 13th century manuscript in the Wednesday game.

The historical scenarios are not dreams nor past lives nor out of body experiences; they are in effect playable player handouts, with pre-generated characters. In this case the characters were mostly created by Geoff’s original play testers (including Cthulhu Reborn meister Dean), and the personalities were great. I was not so convinced by their skill chances, so I’ll be increasing some of those so that each player can shine when his or her character’s specialty is called upon.

I have not run Cthulhu Dark Ages before, and to be frank (actually, the players were Franks – oh stop, I’m killing me – Frankish knights, geddit? – I’ll be here all week, try the chicken) I found that combat ran a little slow. Armour is good at soaking medieval amounts of damage (who knew?) so even the simplest battle encounter slowed the game down for me. In the edits, I’ll add suggestions for Keepers as to what the key is for winning each fight, so that players do not need to kill everything in all scenes. I’ve co-opted this from the “out” suggested for Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition fights, from work by Michael Shea and others. (And yes, that is indeed a D&D screen in the photo above; it seemed like the right choice for an adventure set during a medieval siege. It’s the most ridiculous RPG accessory I own, but in my defence I got it on special from a store which was closing down where I had $100 credit to burn. Don’t judge me.)

Backing up to the point above: our Orient Express play test games are not proper RPG sessions. We simply don’t have time, as we need to knock over a city a night. Hence my impatience with combat length. This ticking clock applies to all scenes. I’ve asked the players to focus their roleplaying on the plot at hand, and not to introduce sub-plots and dynamics from their own characters. I also don’t have time for the usual to and fro around the table where the players decide what to do; you know how it goes, an issue comes up with a few different approaches, no-one agrees, the discussion starts going around and around with plenty of repetition but no resolution in what Danny Bilson once called “a cycle of failure”. And there’s me, watching the clock, thinking If they just decided on something we could all see what happens, instead of sitting here deciding what won’t.

Hence the decision totem.

This is a pretty cool artifact; in 1989 I wrote a tournament module called Persons Unknown set in 1980s Scotland about a group of amnesiacs in an asylum. Marion Anderson had a tremendously cool idea for our trophies: she made an Elder Sign brand, and burned the image into our wooden book trophies. There was a spare left over, and Marion was kind enough to give it to me. It’s been a keepsake all these years, and now it’s a prop.

It sits on the table in front of one player. So, when the players are in a cycle of failure, I quickly summarise the options they have proposed, look at the person with the decision totem and say “Choose”. He chooses, then moves the totem widdershins around the table to the next player, and the game moves on.

Call of Cthulhu trophy, made by Marion Anderson for Arcanacon VII (Melbourne, 1989)

Call of Cthulhu trophy with Elder Sign brand, made by Marion Anderson for Arcanacon VII (Melbourne, 1989)

Our play testers are tainted, in any event. Not morally, but they know they are play testing Horror on the Orient Express, so they are the most diligent, focused, fantastic set of players you could ask for; they take their job seriously, so they are very attentive to all clues. I wish you the same luck with whoever you run the campaign for (Rule One: No smartphones in the 1920s), but suggest you contract with them before you start. If everyone pays attention, stays in character and takes the game seriously, it is better by a margin of strange aeons.

It’s a heady brew: the combination of such great players, such detailed material, the worldwide support of gamer investors and the thrill of an engaging and deep creative project. This is turning out to be one of the best campaigns I’ve ever run. I hope it is the same for you.

Oh, and a postscript: While my players in Melbourne Australia were in Constantinople 1204, at that exact hour on the other side of the planet, Oscar Rios’s players in New York were in Vinkovci 1923. Two Keepers, two groups, two cities, two Cthulhu eras, but the same campaign. That felt good.

vinkovci009

Vinkovci train station. [Source: StareSlike.com]

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Attenzione! Cthulhu

When I asked Pookie to update the list of English-language European Call of Cthulhu scenarios  for the “Continent of Horrors” essay in Horror on the Orient Express, I was looking forwards to hearing about dozens of new adventures that I had missed in my years in the wilderness.

Pookie did his job with flair and diligence, and recently turned in the revised manuscript. Alas, my imagined dozens did not appear. In fact, excluding our campaign, we ended up with less than 20 European scenarios in total for the 30-year life of the game and many of those are now out of print. Has anyone out there played a T.O.M.E. scenario lately?

Glozel est Authentique, by Stephen Rawling. [Source: Grognardia blog]

Instead, good ol’ Lovecraft Country remains the firm favourite for writers (and, I presume, players), with so many scenarios now set in Arkham that frankly, if I lived there, I would goddam move.

Looking back, this makes me even prouder of what we managed with Horror on the Orient Express, which alone seems to contain nearly one-third of all English-language scenarios ever set in Europe. This is made slightly more odd by the fact that it is mostly written by Australians; but then, as a culture we are often looking somewhere else. You get a good view when you’re living at the end of the world.

Eddie Izzard has a line where he says “I’m from Europe, where the history comes from”. You could just as well say that Europe is where the horror comes from.

Vampires and werewolves slaughtered their way across that blood-soaked continent centuries before they all got stylists and agents and underage paramours, and Elizabeth Bathory and Vlad the Impaler did not start their dark exploits in New England. The tales of Guy de Maupassant and Hoffman, the novel Der Golem and the films Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari; these are all European nightmares. Fulci and Argento and Bava were serious about their cinematic horror, and Del Toro is at his best in the Spanish settings of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.

Black Sunday, dir. Mario Bava. [Image from Art of the Beautiful-Grotesque blog]

European editions of Cthulhu have been supplemented with new scenarios set in those countries, but I’m not aware of any of these ever having been translated back into English. It’s our loss, really; furthermore, the Spanish and French editions of the game are beautiful.

La llamada de Cthulhu

La llamada de Cthulhu (Spanish edition from Edge Entertainment]

Once you step away from the 1920s period though, the European setting opens up. Naturally, Cthulhu Invictus and Cthulhu Dark Ages are all about European history, and there are excellent scenarios and campaigns for both. That was a direct inspiration for us to use those settings to reveal the dark history of the artifact at the heart of Horror on the Orient Express, and we were fortunate to snag Oscar Rios, the foremost scenario writer for Invictus. Both scenarios are now completed and I’m looking forwards to running them over the next few weekends.

After the 1920s, Europe has its darkest hour. Our campaign is set in 1923, just as the Deutschmark is at its lowest ebb. (As P.F. informed me in an email, German hyperinflation had reached a point where they stopped printing serial numbers on the  currency because they were not worth forging.) The seeds were sown then for the worst horrors of all: the Second World War and the final solution.

It’s hard to think of anything more evil than real-world Nazism, but Modiphius are giving it a crack by adding in the Mythos with their Call of Cthulhu setting Achtung Cthulhu, which is now on Kickstarter. This looks to be a tentacle-stepping thrill ride of pulpy goodness; I always figured Hitler must have had some Deep One blood in him. The first campaign Zero Point by Sarah Newton is out in PDF and it’s  great. Part One: Three Kings is set in Czechoslovakia, Part Two: Heroes of the Sea is in Dunkirk, and the upcoming Part Three: Code of Honour promises to bring us Istanbul in 1941 (“city of spies, intrigue and adventure!”)

The printed versions are coming, so get on the backing wagon. Perhaps after their trials on the Orient Express, your 1923 investigators (or their sons and daughters) can take up the fight against the Mythos once again when the dark and Stuka-filled skies of 1939 roll around.

It seems like  European Cthulhu gaming is finally kicking into gear. Achtung!

Achtung Cthulhu Investigator’s Guide & Keeper’s Guide [Modiphius]

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