It began, as many things do, with a gentleman’s wager. Myself, Dr. Shiny, and a chap we’ll call Awesome Mike, were sitting around discussing RPGs, and one of us said something like “you can turn more or less anything into a Call of Cthulhu scenario”, and, like a fool, I said “I wonder how quickly I could actually write a Call of Cthulhu scenario, given how sort of stock-situationy the Lovecraftian milieu generally is”: well, I said something like that, anyway. I might not have said ‘milieu’, not least because I can’t pronounce it.
Now, our Mike is a bit of a Misfits fan (this is a lie. He is a lot of a Misfits fan.) and the notion occurred to him that maybe he could throw out a Misfits lyric and give me, say, an hour to turn it into a Call of Cthulhu scenario. A challenge, if you will.
Like a bloody fool, I accepted. And you know what? It worked like a charm. Having that tension best articulated as “okay, how do I turn this into a proper story and still make it obvious where it came from?” was a nice challenge, and having an hour to sketch out the story meant that getting hung up on what stats the NPCs should have and what the Eldritch Horror at the end should actually be was a waste of time.
It kept the whole thing wild and inspirational, clues being placed where the players went rather than being laid out ahead of time to be discovered or, more likely, completely missed or ignored. It turned the game from follow-the-trail mystery puzzle to genuine suspense for everyone involved, including the mug on the other side of the screen.
The subsequent sessions took off further and further – some of the best roleplaying we ever did occurred in Musical Method sessions. I’m still both chuffed and surprised that I accidentally created and played Mike’s dream girl as an NPC and that we managed to negotiate their awkward relationship as well as we did – I don’t know if the Musical Method’s responsible for that but I choose to believe it helped set up that anything-can-happen atmosphere, a few sessions of which made roleplaying something like that in a horror story not only possible but non-intimidating.
When the concept was tried out on my long-suffering Mage group, the result was a session we still talk about in hushed tones of reverence to this day. It was based on a line from the Death Note title song – “within the spreading darkness, we exchanged vows of revolution”. We just call it ‘Bastille Day’. It went so well that I still have my notes, illegible as they are, in case rereading them can make that fabled lighting strike twice.
Vows of revolution.
Vows – to see the Revolution through to its conclusion, no matter what, sworn in the dark entrails of the Bastille (a Cradle of Filth lyric that sort of sprang to mind and dictated the actual style of the scenario).
What if a vow was sworn, and the genius loci of the Bastille somehow empowered the swearers to survive through the Age of Reason and into the modern day? What if time slipped out of joint, and the Revolutionary past started intruding on the present?
(It should be pointed out that absolutely no research was done, what with the whole write-it-in-an-hour thing and that – parochial ignorant English filth that we all are – we actually sort of forgot that the Bastille is very much NOT THERE ANY MORE. If the scenario is ever re-used, this lamentable error will be corrected…)
The actual horror of the setting came from random sensory hallucinations; characters would see or smell or hear the past while standing in the present. Two characters could look through windows right next to each other and one would see a rainy past while the other saw the sunny present. The deeper into the building the characters went, the more intrusive the hallucinations became, the more immersive, the more senses they employed, until they reached the actual cell where the vow had been sworn, at which point the past overlaid itself onto the present and they had to spend the second session working out how to bargain with the genius loci to undo what it had done (and round up some very confused de facto time travellers wandering around Paris with future shock).
That break point, of the past overlaying the present, was chosen during play as the most exciting thing that had happened so far, and thus the perfect place for a cliffhanger.
Despite its dreadful history-fail, this was one of the most intense, genuinely scary roleplaying games I’ve ever run: apparently one of our players was sleeping with the light on for days afterwards. She still describes me as the Steven Moffat of roleplaying games, which I choose to perceive as a compliment (there are things I don’t like about Moffat’s writing, and I think she knows that, but then there are things I don’t like about my GMming…)
My Dark Heresy game, in which we went for a sense of the epic and the bizarre rather than the immediately horrific, was based on the Bruce Dickinson album The Chemical Wedding. The previous outings have been singles or EPs: this bout of musical roleplaying was more like a concept album, a run of ten to thirteen sessions all referencing and homaging the source material in some way, working its concerns about alchemy, freedom, forbidden lore and dodgy occult symbolism into the charmingly over-the-top Grim Darkness of the Far Future that Dark Heresy’s setting is all about.
Even though it only ran to six sessions in the end, it worked well as a means of sketching out a theme and story, although the problem with having the end planned at the beginning is a tendency to railroad toward that plan, rather than staying as improvisational as I like to be.