In our current Call of Cthulhu campaign, the year is 1915. We’re working our way through the time period of the First World War. Unlike some games set in that period, the characters are all civilians. That’s not to say they’ll never be in the line of fire – a trip on R.M.S. Lusitania illustrated that the war is deadly for civilians too.
If you do a search on a site like Amazon or DrivethruRPG for World War I resources, most of your matches will likely be for World War II. That said, there are a number of good adventures for military characters – Pelgrane Press’s Great War adventures for Trail of Cthulhu (like Dulce et Decorum Est) and Chaosium’s No Man’s Land quickly come to mind (note Rolling Boxcars gets a small amount of revenue from purchases made from the preceding affiliate links).
Our game began at the end of June 1914, just as Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated. The characters were based in the United States, in Boston, so the war was something “over there”. Reading the Boston Globe of that era gives an interesting feeling. There’s a relief that America is smart enough not to get involved. There’s the attempt to make sense of a constantly changing situation in Europe – every day’s paper has a strong focus on the war, with what we now know as major events not always recognized as such. From my perspective, in these early days of the war (the game has just reached mid-1915), I detected a desire to be impartial in reporting but an undercurrent of sympathy for the Triple Entente. The war even enters into advertising, sometimes shamelessly so.
With the characters making their way to London (aboard R.M.S. Lusitania as you might recall from Call of Cthulhu Aboard R.M.S. Lusitania), the war is more of an issue. As foreigners, the male investigators, known to hail from America, don’t have to deal with the questions native Londoners would as to why they’re not fighting for King and Country. Obviously, the war is more omnipresent in London than it was in Boston. Looking at the July 5, 1915, issue of The Times I found nearly every article having something to do with the war – even the financial section discussing war bonds. I did find some exceptions – school sports results, for example (Eaton was victorious over Henley in rowing if you were interested). Also, advertising went on – I found a bunch of ads for clothing and automobiles. As time went on the cost of the war in the UK increased greatly, in both lives and treasure. The UK found itself dealing with massive debts and insurrection in Ireland.
As rough as the UK had it, other countries had it worse. Almost all of Belgium was occupied, as were portions of France. Germany began having deaths due to malnutrition owing to its loss of international trade. And this article is far too short to even scratch the surface of the effect of the war in Russia, eventually leading to the collapse of the Russian Empire and formation of the Soviet Union.
It’s worth noting that America’s time as a beacon of peace is not long. Even prior to the American declaration of war in 1917, a strong preparedness movement breaks out. By the time America enters the war, there is a strong authoritarian aspect to American life, one that would look at home in Robert Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations” from The King in Yellow. Censorship was extremely high, with socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs arrested and eventually imprisoned for speaking out against the war. The Espionage and Sedition act made it very difficult to be critical of the government. One of the reasons the Spanish Influenza was so-named was that, as a result of censorship in most countries, Spain was one of the few places where reporting bad news was possible. Modern scholarship is divided where it originated from, with Kansas, USA; Étaples, France; China; and Austria all being on the list of possible origins for the virus.
The war, of course, introduces challenges to international travel – as a bit of trivia, in the decades leading up to World War I, border crossing became very easy, with passports typically not required. The war also introduces a strong element of disruption – picture all the ancient libraries waiting to be bombed at the fronts. Some ancient tomes and artifacts might be uncovered as a result of this destruction and sent back home – or perhaps investigators travel to the front to learn the secrets to some ancient mysteries.
For American characters, it is possible to transition from a civilian game to a military one, with the characters joining the military (or getting drafted). One nice thing about this is it allows their military service to be a part of the campaign but not the whole focus, given how brief America’s actual involvement was. American investigators can have an official role without even going overseas – picturing being sent to Innsmouth and Dunwich to see why they’ve not participated in the draft…
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