Becoming a Master of the Victorian Era on Tuppence a Day

Having only recently begun a new Cthulhu by Gaslight campaign, I’ve found myself refamiliarizing myself with the Victorian era, specifically the late 1880s and 1890s.

If you’re anything like me, the biggest challenge is not finding source material but rather knowing when to stop. It’s about learning how to inject the feel of the era, and its character, without making one’s gaming group or own sanity suffering from the effort.

First, there are a lot of RPGs set in the Victorian era. Why not take advantage of them? Even if you’re not going to play one of these games, they serve as great inspiration—and they do a lot of the research for you, focused on gaming needs.

  • Victorian Age Vampire – The Victorian era is a great time to be a vampire. Especially recommended is Victorian London by Night.
  • Castle Falkenstein takes so many liberties with history, has faeries and all sorts of magical beasties all over the place, alters the geography—and just drips the feeling of an over-the-top Victorian age.
  • The Kerberos Club – In my opinion, a forgotten gem detailing superheroes in the Victorian Age. Originally made for Wild Talents, there are also versions for Fate and Savage Worlds—and any of them make for a great sourcebook.
  • Cthulhu by Gaslight – What I’m using presently. With a review coming real soon. (I’ll add a link to this when it is up).
  • Space: 1889 – Available in various versions – a bit more “out there” than many versions but nevertheless a great representation of the “Great Game” aspect of the era.

There is no shortage of contemporary fiction from the Victorian era. A lot of it is crap. But in the immortal words of Theodore Sturgeon, “ninety percent of everything is crap.” In all honesty, even the crap can be an inspiration—the penny dreadfuls of the period were the equivalent of the pulp fiction that would appear a few decades later. However, I’d like to offer a few works and authors who I feel offer enjoyable readings while serving as a great way to get into the mood and to mine for ideas:

  • Dracula by Bram Stoker – A Victorian technothriller against the supernatural
  • Jules Verne – Yeah, not British, but great inspiration for explorations and journeys. If you’re not fluent in French, look for more recent translations – I recommend Walter James Miller and William Butcher.
  • HG Wells and Robert Louis Stephenson – No, they’ve never collaborated (as far as I know), but both have a vast library full of great ideas for adventures – Martian invaders, bizarre transformations, invisible people, pirates, and time travel.
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – While the tales of Sherlock Holmes extend well into the 20th century, the earliest tales, probably those that first come to mind, were written in the late Victorian age. They’re still incredibly readable.

If you’re looking at contemporary fiction, you might want to supplement it with contemporary nonfiction. Availability varies, so your best bet is likely to be a quick internet search. There are several good guide books to London, such as Baedeker’s Guide to London and Environs and Dickens’ Dictionary to London. You can find many maps reprinted digitally and physically—definitely keep the year of your game in mind, as the city changed a lot throughout the Victorian era. The Victorian era was a great time for newspapers, and many of them are available digitally.

The period is well represented in modern media—I’ll share some of the ones that come most readily to my mind. Doctor Who featured Victorian England multiple times. The 4th Doctor visited it in the classic “Talons of Weng-Chiang” (which has some very regrettable racial stereotypes), and the 11th Doctor was a frequent visitor. There’s the recently ended Penny Dreadful Series (gracefully knitting together contemporary fictional characters).

If I were to recommend one modern tale of Victorian London, it would be Alan Moore’s From Hell graphic novel. Moore mixes the occult, conspiracy theory, true crime, royal scandals, and a gritty look at late-Victorian London. It is not for the squeamish, with the murders of Jack the Ripper portrayed in vivid detail.

I know with certainty this brief overview is missing some great stuff. In part, some deliberately to keep this article a reasonable length, and some due to my limited knowledge. So I’d love to know what you’ve used for such games? And what approaches you use when prepping a historical game.

~ Daniel Stack

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