On This Day, March 9, 1923

Since the start of this year, I’ve been doing a daily TikTok video going through  Boston Globe newspaper headlines from exactly 100 years ago. I’ve used old newspaper archives heavily when running RPG campaigns set in the past, and Call of Cthulhu particularly benefitted from this treatment.

In my experiment of doing a daily video on the news, I’ve noticed an interesting effect of “getting used to” the past. I’ve begun seeing certain patterns in stories and build-ups of events. And the tone that was used in the past. For example, as today’s video shows, newspapers frequently refer to any woman short of matronly as a “girl.” I also discovered a morbid fascination with reporting stories like suicides in exacting detail.

I’ve also seen buildups to events—French saber-rattling in the Ruhr, for example, before their invasion. There have been false alarms—the United States beginning, in earnest, to plan for a canal in Nicaragua. Charlie Chaplin’s on-again, off-again engagement. And there have been stormclouds—for example, Adolph Hitler made his first appearance in the Boston Globe in February of 1923, railing against the German government and threatening to overthrow it.

When using old newspaper articles for gaming, these stories provide color and possible adventure ideas. Often, the idea is simply a seed, and I diverge from the story. Let’s take a look at the headlines that grabbed my attention on March 9, 1923. And if you’d like to see my video version of a recap, check out my 100 Years Ago Playlist on TikTok.

“Girl Helps in Bold Daylight Robbery.” This certainly can simply be a bit of color. Something the characters might witness. But it also greatly resembles the sort of thing player characters might do—”she grabbed a roll hid in a bag of beans.” Little does the reader know that within that roll were concealed fragments of the Necronomicon that the characters have been hunting for. Also, the casual reference to an adult woman as a girl is a reminder of the casual sexism that was commonplace. Obviously, sensitivity is required when making sure “the real world” of then does not interfere with everyone at the table having an enjoyable experience.

“Missing Train Here At Last.” Perhaps the characters were aboard this ill-fated train. Was it delayed by snow drifts? Why yes, it was. Among other things. The story does not tell us that cultists dedicated to Ithaqua were active in the area, and a Wendigo terrorized the passengers. Perhaps an entire scenario could be written around this experience.

“Struggle 24 Hours With Raging Sea”. Obviously, any story in Massachusetts at sea in the 1920s brings to mind the Deep Ones of Innsmouth. Off the top of my head, this brings to mind a few ideas:

  • One of the survivors was underwater for a good twenty minutes, trapped in the overturned boat. He is terrified that he is still alive. And the folks of Innsmouth are making inquiries…
  • The boat was actually overturned by the efforts of the Deep Ones, who had retrieved some unholy artifacts back to  Innsmouth. The characters must recover it.

A “Booze Party in Taunton Asylum.” What might happen if there were to be such a party at Arkham Asylum? Especially if the staff insists there was no booze. As it turns out, an inmate going through detoxification projected his thoughts. Though now sober, the man is still scarred by his experiences with eldritch horrors and is still projecting his thoughts.

“President Cruises 60 Miles, Plays Golf”. President Harding vacationing in Florida, cruising in a houseboat, and golfing, might be a bit difficult to be more than color. But it does give to mind the idea of a politician as a patron, going on “vacation” to have an opportunity to meet with the characters. These sorts of activities also give an idea of what a vacation might look like for the upper class.

“Waitress, capable of taking charge”? I assume they’re looking for Wafflehouse Wendy. OK, this is probably not an adventure seed, but it certainly gives a possibly interesting location. And it brings up the idea of perusing classified ads for all sorts of interesting ideas. Sometimes I’ll read a classified ad that just seems weird… Like a “situation wanted, private investigator, danger no obstacle.” Is this wanna-be detective viewing himself as a pulp hero?

Do It Yourself

Does this seem like an interesting idea to you? What might you do to gain access to this sort of material? I’ve purchased a subscription to newspapers.com, which gives me access to their entire library. If you subscribe to a local (or not-so-local) newspaper, that subscription might come with access to that newspaper’s archives. And if you’re a college student, there’s a good chance you have access to this sort of digital data via your university library.

If you’re setting a game in the past and want to go on this expedition, I’d encourage embedding yourself in the past. Try reading the same paper several days in a row, one day at a time. Or if you’re in a hurry, read two or three days worth of papers per day. What you’ll find is you begin getting a feel for the era. You’ll start catching onto euphemisms, notice what is not said, and see what they focus on. You might notice a lot of newsprint dedicated to things that never amounted to anything. You’ll find major scandals you never heard of, fads that came and went. And tucked into the deep interior articles, you’ll find stories that the people of the day had no idea would lead to major events. Future tyrants. Pioneers of medicine. Major entertainers.

And you might find inspiration for your own adventures in the past. Often these will not be the major stories but rather stories that make you think, “what if actually….”

And you’ve got some potentially awesome handouts for your adventures.

~ Daniel Stack

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