One of the difficulties a Keeper faces when deciding to begin a “Call of Cthulhu” campaign, is where to set it. The game offers a range of canon time periods in which to set adventures and each of these has a number of playing possibilities. Modern-day technology and ease of investigation? 1920s joie-de-vivre? The formality and reserve of the late-Victorian era? The possibilities are endless.
Of course, a lot depends upon your players and which time period resonates best with them. Some might want to play in a milieu as far removed from their day-to-day life as possible; others might not be comfortable about re-enacting a time period which seems unreachably archaic. As Keeper, you often have to draw a line in the sand and say ‘this is it; this is what we’re doing’, which, while ending the argument, might put some of the players off side. Do you then just forge ahead and hope that the story will generate enough interest to offset a player’s resistance to the setting? Or is there a way to let everyone have their cake and eat it too? I’m here to say yes; yes there is.
Rather than narrow your focus to one of the canon time periods, take them all. Think of the offerings in terms of milieu as a broad canvas with no reason to restrict your activity to any one of them. There are a heap of advantages in taking this approach, so let’s look at how it can be done.
First: decide with your players where you are all going to start – Gaslight, 1920s, Modern day. Then, rather than telling them to make a single character for that time zone, ask them to make a family of characters which cover all three periods: thus, if you’re playing “Cthulhu Now”, ask the player to sketch out who their grandmother was in the 1920s, and who their great-grandfather was in the Gaslight era. Don’t let them get too carried away with fleshing these ancestors out: ongoing play will affect these characters’ standings and layer meaning onto them which won’t have been obvious during character generation. You’ll note that this takes care of the pesky ‘long-lost friend’ problem of hooking your characters into a scenario also.
As play proceeds, events which impact one of the three characters automatically have resonance with the other two. Does a scandal affect a character in the ‘20s? How does this impinge upon their modern day descendant? Does a Gaslight character stumble across a rare mystical tome? How – if at all – does their 1920s descendant get their hands on it? Once you get your players thinking across a three-stage setting, things start to have more meaning and nuance. For instance, if a Gaslight character dies without having spawned, this could mean that the modern-day character isn’t really their descendant after all, so, having blown apart a generally-held family fiction, how are they related? This is a game about mysteries, and families can be pretty damned mysterious sometimes...
Secondly, establishing your campaign like this, gives your story greater flexibility and range, while simultaneously removing the eternal problem of character longevity. The Keeper is free to have particular nemeses erupt out of the past and the source of these grudges might have roots in an earlier generation. ‘Damn!’ a 1920s character might expostulate, ‘these Azathoth flunkies again?! What did I do to harsh his vibe?’ Well, the answer to this question might lie in the Victorian goings-on of a forebear.
Now that all players have three characters to juggle, the group can flip-flop between settings, stretching out the danger and providing rests between the action that will make your campaign seem bigger, more multi-layered and wide–ranging, and – most importantly – longer in duration.
But that’s not all.
In the writings of the Lovecraft Circle, time switches and alters its flow according to the whim of the narrative, and there’s no reason why you can’t play like this either. Perhaps your Gaslight character plays a little fast-and-loose with their copy of the Pnakotic Manuscripts: what if they switch places with their descendant from the future? How will this fish out of water cope? How will their relative, bounced into the modern world, stack up? Will it drive them mad? With magic in the mix – even the cosmic apocalyptic type of magic that Lovecraft’s vision conjures – anything’s possible.
And let’s take another approach. Say that one of your players has the skill of Dreaming. A common issue with campaigns that stretch across to the Dreamlands, is that often only one player has the skill and, if the story calls for them to stumble about in Dreams looking for clues, the other players get to sit around twiddling their thumbs. Sure there are spells and magic items that throw the whole party into the Dreamlands, but why not allow the other characters who aren’t Dreamers, to roll up their own Dreamlands characters? These personae should all be predicated upon a connexion of some kind with the Dreaming character – that is, they should all know each other – in order to facilitate Dreamlands adventures, but the players should – as usual - have the option of playing whoever they please. An interesting exercise would be to let them try and generate a Dreamlands analogue of their Waking World persona, a move that allows the Keeper to switch the characters across the Veil of Sleep at some point later in the narrative.
But that’s still not all.
Lovecraft kept a rigorous diary of his more colourful dreams and these have sometimes made their way into his or other writers’ fiction. A good example is Frank Belknap Longs’ “Horror From the Hills”, which takes its starting point from a dream recorded by Lovecraft where he found himself as a Roman military commander in Spain. The Plutonian Drug, various spells or artefacts, even lucid dreaming or a heavy blow to the head (a la Robert E. Howard), can suddenly mean that you have a Cthulhu Invictus scenario running side-by-side with your regular setting. Alternatively, you can flash your players back to Dark Ages Cthulhu and have them traipsing across the landscape of Averoigne. Keep in mind, also, that time runs in both directions, so a futuristic Cthulhu setting could also be an option.
The trick of course, is to make sure that, wherever your campaign wanders, it has ramifications on the other settings and the characters within them. If a character in Ancient Rome hides a magic widget somewhere, make sure that the discovery of it has relevance to their ancestor down the track. You’ll soon discover that your players will start taking a “big picture” view of reality and will begin making choices that will affect their other characters in other milieu. And don’t forget that, as Keeper, you’re in charge of such beings as Nyarlathotep and Yog-Sothoth who both transcend the concepts of space and time, and for whom a setback to their plans in one reality can be a grudge offloaded in another...