As someone who plays a lot of Call of Cthulhu, I’ve gotten to know the 1920s (and the 1910s and 30s) rather well. Why is the game in that era? As I recall, initially Sandy Petersen wanted to set the game in the modern-day (which was then the 1980s) but instead Chaosium made the decision to default the game to the 1920s (with the most common alternate eras being the Victorian era and modern-day, though other eras have been getting love of late as well).
What are the advantages of setting the game in the 1920s? The argument for modern-day seems pretty compelling – it’s the world outside our window. You don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about what technology is available, what the culture is like, etc. With that in mind, I can think of a few advantages to a game in the 1920s – or other past eras…
- Atmospheric. In some ways, there is simply the desire to set the game in another time. The 1920s work well as much of Lovecraft’s fiction takes place in that period (or the decades just before and after).
- Room to Maneuver. When I play a horror game, I try not to put the adventures too close together. I typically play Call of Cthulhu biweekly. Assuming a typical adventure takes two sessions, that’s perhaps a dozen adventures in a year. Aside from a tightly interconnected campaign, that stretches believability regarding how many adventures might take place in a year. Let’s say a more believable pace would be, say four per year. If I started a modern game in September of 2019, both real-time and in the campaign, after a year of playing the game will have reached September of 2022 while it will be September 2020 in the real-world.
- Tech. This is perhaps the biggest reason I can think of to set a game in the past. And it’s the one I’m going to dedicate the rest of this article to.
On the matter of tech, take a look at your phone. There’s actually a good chance you’re using it right now to read this article. In your hand, you have more computing power than NASA could ever have imagined in the 1960s. With it, you can navigate, perform research, record video evidence of the supernatural, get in touch with your allies, etc. There’s an understandable feeling that technology diminishes horror.
I’d like to take a look at these issues. This is a mind-experiment for me—almost all of my horror gaming has been in the 1920s and I’m preparing a 1950s Delta Green game. So I’m curious how well this theorizing and musing will fit in the real world.
First and foremost, it’s important to note that technology is not 100% reliable. I’m not a fan of always having cellular dead zones, but that doesn’t mean technology will always function as well as desired. This weekend my wife sent me a text telling me and our younger daughter that she and our eldest were having lunch at a local Japanese restaurant. She sent that text at 1 PM. We received it at 5 PM. Sometimes you pull your phone off the charger and see it didn’t connect right and you are at 5% charge. Calls get dropped. Sometimes the quality is mediocre. I don’t think this should be the norm, but it would actually be unrealistic not to use it. The Mi-go are in the mountains of Vermont? Last time I went hiking in the nearby White Mountains of New Hampshire, there were a lot of dead zones. Heck, there’s a dead zone at our local supermarket.
What about the internet as a research tool? It can be handy. But it is not perfect. First, for contemporary research, there is a ton of absolute garbage. Go do some searching for information on climate change, whether the Earth is round (!) and vaccines. (In case you were wondering, climate change is nearly universally accepted among climate researchers, humanity has known the Earth is round for thousands of years, and vaccines are a good idea and do not cause autism.) Also, there is the challenge that not everything is digitized. Sure the Boston Globe and New York Times are. What about some small-town newspaper that ceased publication in the 1980s or 90s? As a recent graduate student, I can tell you how much I miss having university credentials which got me through a ton of paywalls—there’s a lot of research behind paywalls. And there’s a lot that just hasn’t been digitized.
I touched on the lack of trust in experts up above. There is also the lack of trust that you’ll find with your incontrovertible video evidence that you post to Instagram and YouTube. You will be accused of doctoring images and videos by “experts” who are either people with decades of applicable experience or some person with an opinion.
I also consider the possibility of that same technology being used against characters. Social media can be a powerful source to delegitimize someone—you don’t want to be the next Star Wars Kid. You don’t want to be known across the internet as the person who blames monsters or aliens for everything. If the internet doesn’t come to look at you in this way on their own, that worldwide cult you were fighting might nudge people. The 2016 presidential election in the United States showed how a foreign power was able to influence popular opinion with bot accounts, WikiLeaks, and general manipulation of social media. Picture what a Cthulhu Cult would do to a person on social media. Instead of killing someone, that target might wish they were dead.
I’d also like to touch on GPS. I’m pretty sure if an artificial intelligence seeks to wipe out humanity, GPS navigation would be a great way to do it. Half of us would probably drive off a cliff if our navigation systems told us to (as someone who uses GPS to manage my commute, I do not exempt myself).
One final thought. Remember horror is still horror, whether of the cosmic or splatterpunk variety. As HP Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft). Technology will remove some unknowns, have no effect on others, and create some new ones—who is NyarlathotepPr0n69 and how do they know everything I do?
Allow me to close with some perhaps practical suggestions as to what can go wrong with mobile technology. One suggestion I’d make is some of these occur at non-critical times. First, it raises suspense, second it adds an element of realism—tech going wrong doesn’t mean something horrible is about to happen – but it might. Most of these are things that I’ve experienced without a Mi-go showing up:
- Thought you charged the phone overnight but the contacts did not quite connect or the power strip was unplugged. Wake up with 15% charge.
- Drop your phone and crack the screen.
- Phone begins updating.
- Cellular update failed (this happened on my daughter’s iPhone 7 earlier this summer, taking away all cellular service).
- GPS/cellular signal lost.
- Phone rings/chimes at a horribly inconvenient time (today while walking from my office to a conference room I must have clicked “play” on a trailer for Star Wars Resistance Season 2).
- Out of storage.
- Phone slows to a crawl.
- App keeps crashing.
- Phone becomes non-responsive
- Battery overheats and phone catches fire (Galaxy Note 7…)
~ Dan Stack
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