Musings on Cthulhu in Colonial America
I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you cannot put downe; by the Which I mean, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use. Ask of the Lesser, lest the Greater shall not wish to answer, and shall commande more than you.
- HP Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
I was talking with one of the players in my gaming group about Call of Cthulhu in Colonial America - specifically the 17th and 18th centuries. Sixtystone Press has a Colonial Lovecraft Country on their production schedule but it is likely safe to say it is a ways out so any Keeper is on his or her own.
I wrote about general gaming in Colonial America last year whilst in Colonial Williamsburg - Another Bucket List Setting - Colonial America. Not a lot has changed on the material available gaming in Colonial America. As I see it, the main products currently usable include:
- Colonial Gothic - A game dedicated specifically to gaming in British North America. It includes a supplement entitled Lovecraft which, unsurprisingly, is all about injecting the Cthulhu Mythos into a Colonial Gothic game. While I've never been too crazy about the game engine the game and its supplements make for fantastic source material.
- Renaissance - The Renaissance RPG, most specifically with its Clockwork & Cthulhu supplement, is all about gaming in the era I've discussed. Renaissance is an engine based off of OpenQuest which in turn is based off of the Moongoose incarnation of RuneQuest, making it a close cousin of the Call of Cthulhu game. It isn't a colonial game, but rather is set in England.
Additionally, Cthulhu Dark will include as one of its settings late 17th century Arkham. The 1990 Chaosium adventure anthology Fatal Experiments includes rules for black powder weapons - it's for the 4th edition of the game, but rereading it nothing about it seems impossibly difficult to
I've recently read The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for the first time - I knew the basic plot but it was one of those stories that I just never got around to reading. The backplot, which receives about as much attention as does the main one, deals with evil sorcerers from the colonial era and their evil experiments. The conspiracy to stop Joseph Curwen has all the makings of a Call of Cthulhu adventure.
One challenge that occurs to me is avoiding mapping all superstitions of the era directly to the Cthulhu Mythos. The people of that age absolutely believed in witchcraft and believed that Curwen engaged in such activities. However, Curwen and his allies were not witches in the sense that the people of that age believed in. They certainly had dark powers, but they made no bargains with Old Scratch. Mythos entities such as Yog-Sothoth are certainly horrifying but they are not the analogous to Satan. Of course townspeople looking to burn someone at the stake might not make such a distinction.
An appealing aspect of this is the fact that often investigators find themselves needing to learn Mythos lore and magic - running the risk of they themselves being accused of witchcraft.
How might such a game differ form a traditional Call of Cthulhu one? I think the biggest difference is the general acceptance of the existence of the supernatural. This is not to say that the people of the age have a better innate understanding of the Mythos - Lovecraft's universe is not a Judeo-Christian one - Cotton Mather would be quite horrified to learn of the origins of humanity in "At the Mountains of Madness". One of the horrifying aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos is just how little we understand the universe. The science of the 17th and 18th centuries are no more accurate than that of later era in understanding the deeper origins of the universe.
It is also a setting with even slower communications than the Victorian era. No telegraph, no railroad, no steam engine. It is possible for an immortal to vanish for a while and return as a descendant - assuming that, unlike Curwen, one could afford to leave one's business for a time.
A possible way of introducing a Colonial game would be to embed it within a modern adventure. For example, were one to be playing The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, one could actually play out the flashbacks to the Colonial era, where Curwen was defeated - at least for a century and a half.