Mythos Mythras: Tone and Tenor

There is a sense among gamers that for games played with Lovecraft and Company’s Cthulhu Mythos as the setting, that insanity, death, or both are a foregone conclusion. Play to Find Out takes on a slightly limited meaning, ‘play to find out how you meet your end.’

I think it is helpful to take a step back and remember an older truism, the one that states that if a thing has stats, it can be killed. Lovecraft and his circle’s special attention to a universe too harsh for the human mind gave rise to adding a new stat to roleplaying games while still very much in their formative state: sanity. With this stat in play, the mental state of the character, once inviolate and untouchable, was fair game – in fact, it could be said that in Call of Cthulhu at any rate, it practically was the game.

In this Mythos campaign, (run with Mythras to add more trained lean muscle to the d100 skeleton), with its speculative and historical fiction aspects, with its focus on exotic  locations featuring plentiful mundane threats, and with its selection of down-on-their luck explorers and social manipulators, a tightrope of tone and tenor has been created that requires thought and attention from all of its players, Keeper included. Stray too far into the pulp heroic realm and the players may become convinced that they can battle Cthulhu’s spawn with firearms and a wry word. Stray too far into the oppressive realm of horror and the uncaring and indifferent nature of Lovecraft’s ineffable universe will be lost in punitive narrative reactions which make a lie of the very concept of the Mythos. Balance between a sense of daring, that willingness to take a risk to earn a buck fulfilling a desire to seek out wonders never before seen, and a sense of competence and caution born of living in a world of painful consequences for failure.

Heroes exist, but they bleed.

They are heroes because when they act, they risk more than failure, they risk their lives.

Finding that balance in this campaign, undertaken by players playing Mythras for the first time, led to the first design choice in how things would play. We opened with a set of pre-generated characters, a close-knit crew of smugglers aboard a tramp steamer off the Pacific coast of South America in the year 1888. The first scene of the campaign was of running aground in an impossible manner on island on none of their charts after a two-day chase by pirates through a growing tempest.

While exploring the improbable basalt island, looking for supplies and the means to effect repairs, the were ambushed.

The perverse adversity of this set-up allowed us to get introduced to stress and sanity mechanics, learn the significance of characteristics and skills in this system, and experience the mortality of combat first hand with firearms and close combat weapons.

With a personal experience of play leading to mutilation and death behind them, the process of character generation was performed in a different light of understanding, and when adversity rose up in front of these new, player-made characters, the result was a good mix of brashness and uncertainty fitting for the rough times of Shanghai in 1906.

The campaign is underway, the characters are showing their stripes, the players are settling into their roles and the process of Play by e-Mail, and all is right with this very wrong world of Mythos Mythras~


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