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~


7 Responses to “Mythos Mythras: Tone and Tenor”
  1. James Henderson says:

    Such a timely article to come across! I am currently seeking a “new” system with which to run a campaign as variety from my ongoing Edge of the Empire games. Much as I am enjoying that game (and the longer I play, the greater I enjoy it) a change of pace, style and atmosphere would be welcome. I was looking at the ancient Bushido, or Mythras Ancient Britain, then considered Call of Cthulu – the latter two tempted by your excellent unboxing videos.
    This article, with a fusion of the two was very interesting to read. In deciding which system to run, I always seem to end back at the key question of “which game/setting will be one that my players are likely to get the most fun out of?”. Key to that fun I think is how easily they can immerse themselves in the world and get in character, and find that setting challenging, interesting and…fun.
    For that reason, I was tending towards dropping Bushido and Mythras Ancient Britain. As GM, these two settings I find hugely fascinating and interesting. Much background reading can also provide more story ideas for the settings, and the constraints of the world make for an exciting challenge. But for players I suspect will be hard to get into without some interest in the periods, and above all an eagerness to roleplay within the setting’s culture. Playing “out of character” with a 21st century liberal democratic mindset in these settings would be largely futile, and playing with the expectation of “D&D with Japanese or Celtic armour” would also lead to disappointing results.
    My theory – prior to reading the article above, and especially your review of CoC 7th edition and it’s “push” mechanic, was that CoC 7th would be easier for my players to enjoy. 1920s, horror, all much more familiar and intuitive – apart from the parts which are expressly intended to be unknown. Post reading your comments, I have to admit that I am probably not correct. Again, if the players do not immerse themselves n the setting, their characters and how they “in character” will experience the world, then the game risks losing much of what can make it a great experience.
    Essentially what I look for in a system is that it portrays its precise setting well (not necessarily in agonising, pedantic detail, but it imbues it with an unmistakeable, broadly faithful flavour). If it does that, then I am happy with it and will forgive other small issues. If I understand your concerns on the push mechanic correctly, this is your concern on CoC 7th – that it has potential to break the setting and scene.
    I guess the TLDR is that any system anyway is hugely dependent on the willingness of the GM and players to engage and immerse themselves (even for a few hours) in the world they are playing in. A great system cannot make that happen; though an unsuitable one (or one with unsuitable mechanics) can hinder it. Given most players I encounter spend most of their time “out of character”, it is quite hard to achieve.
    Now I am just left with pondering if I have the storytelling skills to encourage players to immerse themselves in 16th century Japan, or 5th century Britain, and make it a fun experience for them. Plus of course, being salesman enough to actually persuade people to take a chance on something other than Star Wars or D&D 5e. That last is a real challenge.
    Anyway, apologies for the overlong rambling comment, and thank you for all the excellent reading and viewing material to make me think about my games and how to improve them. Extremely enjoyable and thought provoking.

  2. Runeslinger says:

    I am glad that you are finding these articles useful. There are a number of posts on Mythras for general fantasy and for Mythic Britain which may help.

    A look at Mythras Imperative (most of the rules) certainly cannot hurt.

    As for engagement, I like to start with character ideas. Cool characters can get a lot of games off the ground~

    • James Henderson says:

      Thank you for the reply. I agree with you entirely. One challenge to instant player gratification that I imagine in the setting of Ancient Britain is the comparatively narrow range of starting player archetypes. Culturally you have Celtic and Saxon (and Romano-British?) and Christian or Pagan – while essentially I would guess mostly “fighters” (albeit with different trades in their everyday lives) plus a handful of bards/skalds and druids. For players used to Edge of the Empire or D&D that can appear an austere selection.

      I guess it is my job to encourage them to see there is much more pleasure to be derived from role-playing different people than worrying about generic classes. I still believe there is a wealth of adventure, discovery and roleplay in the setting!

      • Runeslinger says:

        The call to join Arthur should have some excitement in it~

        • James Henderson says:

          And that sums up the issue succinctly. The appeal of this setting is heavily dependent on your player’s awareness and identification with that specific mythos. Ah well.

          • Runeslinger says:

            But what then is Arthur if not a dream for a better future, a light against darkness, a binder-together when others seek to rend things apart?

            What is Mythic Britain if not a realm in chaos, looking for direction from its brave young and its nearly forgotten ancestors? Spirit and flesh alike are on the stage of the tabletop to explore and claim~

            • James Henderson says:

              Eloquently put as ever!

              You are preaching to the converted in my case, but I now need to encapsulate what you said, and the excitement of discovery and rebirth in a pitch to a playerbase of sturdy Dutchmen!

              But what is life without a challenge? I am sure Arthur would not have been deterred.

              Thank you for your insights as always.

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