Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Elric of R’lyeh: Law and Chaos

  1. The Role of Sanity
  2. The Mythos
  3. Final Comments

“for Earth alone was lawful and constituted of ordered matter, drifting in the sea of Chaos-stuff as it had done for aeons.”
M. Moorcock, Earl Aubec

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

Our baseline is an alternate 1920’s Earth, and the milieu is broadly the same. We are between two great wars. The Americas (the “Young Kingdoms”) have been independent for more than 2 centuries, and the British (Melnibonean) Empire will shortly be in decline. Britain is part way through introducing Women’s Suffrage. Al Capone is bootlegging alcohol in Chicago.

But it’s an alternate earth, and one that straddles Moorcockian and Lovecraftian cosmology. The outlook between the two is more similar than different; Earth is a small island of stability in an infinite sea of change. But aside from being rather more optimistic than Lovecraft, the principle feature of Moorcock is that this fundamental philosophical concept is more or less out in the open. There’s no comforting veneer of human faith (Christian or otherwise) to cushion the mind from a black eternity; and while humans may fool themselves that siding with Law or Chaos will win them some kind of afterlife, it’s more of a business arrangement than an act of devotion.

One of the significant themes of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion is the transition from mankind serving the whims of gods to forging its own destiny; however this would be just as unplayable as a truly Lovecraftian setting where mankind’s destruction was inevitable and outside the control of the protagonists. Instead we need to consider the human attitudes towards Law and Chaos and what motivates humans to do good, rather than just being self-serving.

The Role of Sanity

Sanity goes hand in hand with the notion of a Veil between the mundane world and the supernatural, a staple of most horror and certainly horror-themed RPGs.

Here in our alternate Earth, there is no Veil. In Call of Cthulhu the loss of SAN is the human mind being confronted with a reality that it cannot comprehend, as the narrator in the original story alludes to. But this starts to make less sense when Cosmic Law and Chaos are overt concepts. Our alternate 1920s accepts the vast and unknowable nature of gods (well, more or less), and humans may not understand their gods, but they understand smiting.

Still, you can expect that most humans will never be in contact with their gods, and will deal for the most part with powerful proxies. Being in the presence of actual Chaos (or indeed Law) may have a profound effect on the observer. Whether you rationalise that effect as actual loss of sanity, or some physiological effect is up to you. I’d like to avoid any implication that people serve Law and Chaos because they’re insane, however. In the books allegiances were mostly either rational choices or contracts the protagonist could not break.

The in-game role of SAN is to direct a PC’s action when they go insane, and this is still viable even if the definition makes less sense. In Elric! (and presumably Stormbringer 5e) the old system of “Elan” was replaced with Allegiance to Law, Chaos and the Balance, and under this system it’s possible for PCs to maintain some level of allegiance with all three (being free willed). However when the difference exceeds 20 points in any direction, that PC is said to be allied to one of the three powers and may make use of such an arrangement with supernatural boons from their patron.

What happens if the difference between Allegiances exceeds the character’s current SAN? Are they forced to unswervingly obey their new master? Does SAN give man the capacity to maintain conflicting viewpoints, and ultimately maintain free will?

There’s opportunity for some interplay between the various Allegiances and SANity. Allegiances grow as a consequence of character actions; SANity is lost mostly through bad luck, with the occasional foray into forbidden tomes that Man Was Not Meant To. Speaking of forbidden knowledge…

The Mythos

One cannot have CoC without the Mythos. But if Law and Chaos are generally understood, what place does the Mythos have?

The modern 20th Century character may be living in a world that has evolved from the wild and dark fairytale of Elric’s time, but they have thousands of years between that time and the modern day. Context has changed, and humans no longer have Aubec’s perspective on the finite nature of Law and the vastness of Chaos. Law and Chaos are to a large extent what the Earthly priests tell the population they are. The society may be broadly secular with devotion to Law or Chaos being more of a business arrangement (and we’ll discuss the influence of the two sides on national and international politics later).

The Mythos then becomes a measure of how much closer the character is to the fundamentals of Law/Chaos compared to the average citizen. Rather than deny the existence of the Elder Gods, humanity simply glosses over the true horrors of Law and Chaos. The net result is not a lot really changes in this interpretation from CoC, although it’s more akin to priests of Yig and Shub-Niggurath practicing their faith openly in human society. The priests are still human, and any presentation of their god will place it in a human context.

Now we come to the really big question: what relationship do the Elder Gods have to the Lords of Chaos and Law? We’ve already noted that humans do not deal with the gods directly but through earthly proxies; therefore the Mythos is seen through the filter of those individuals. Are Arioch, Arkyn and others truly gods, or are they powerful and manipulative humans? Are the Variable Eight of the Chaos pantheon a modern reinterpretation of the Elder Gods, or are they a younger pantheon of usurpers?

Regardless of the answers, we also need to decide why the current political structure would want to keep the Elder Gods a secret, and what the consequences of discovery might be. My first game focused on the Mabelrode Commission and investigations into “Old Chaos” (as distinct from “New Chaos”, q.v. Old and New Labour) and for the most part functioned like a CoC police procedural with “licensed magic” alongside badges of authority and .38 revolvers.

Final Comments

I wanted to get this part out of the way, because the treatment of Sanity and the Mythos will colour the rest of the game. The decision points are
– what is the relationship between the deities of Law and Chaos and the Elder Gods?
– what does Sanity represent?
– what is the Mythos to an early 20th Century citizen?
– how many degrees of separation are there between the Chaos Gods and the mortal population?
– what do the “new” gods of the Earth gain from keeping the Elder Gods a secret?

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Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Elric of R’lyeh: Spoilers

A brief word about spoilers: they are inevitable. It’s not possible to write a literary commentary without giving some of the plot up, although if you’re reading this the chances are you’re already a fan of both authors.

More importantly, this collection has been written with a GM in mind. This means we’ll discuss some of the decisions the GM has to make regarding the world — as I said earlier, this is not a complete setting but a starting point for a debate on how the two genres can mix together.

On the other hand, part of the fun in consuming cross-genre fiction is second-guessing the author. In this case, the questions the GM must answer are the same ones the players will ask themselves during play. If you take that view, the questions become a method of aligning the players with the GM before play. One of the necessary elements of this genre mash-up is uncertainty surrounding the “big questions” of life. And that’s what we’re going to discuss next.

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Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Sources for Elric of R’lyeh

  1. Main Sources
  2. Books
  3. Roleplaying Games
  4. Afterword

Book sources for this project are divided into two camps: literary sources, and derivative works (which for the most part are games). In addition, there are some games which have nothing to do with the original premise but may still be useful.

This list is meant to be evergreen and may be expanded in the future.

Evergreen: Main Sources

Moorcock, M., Elric of Melnibone (omnibus) (London, Millenium/Orion, 1993)
Moorcock, M., Stormbringer (omnibus) (London, Millenium/Orion, 1993)
Moorcock, M., Earl Aubec (short stories) (London, Millenium/Orion, 1993)
Moorcock, M., Corum (omnibus) (London, Millenium/Orion, 1992)
Moorcock, M., Von Bek (omnibus) (London, Millenium/Orion, 1992)
Lovecraft, H.P., Complete works of H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulhuchick epub)
St. Andre, Perrin, Monroe, Stormbringer 4th Edition (Chaosium 1990)
Willis, Watts, Elric! (Chaosium 1993)
Petersen and others, Call of Cthulhu 4th Edition (Chaosium 1989)


Of Moorcock’s prolific offerings, the most pertinent are the various Elric books. Unfortunately I’m not familiar with the most recent anthologies, which are published by Gollancz, and may have different orders of contents from the older Millennium imprints that I own (the original, big format books, lovely though not very portable). Wikipedia has a good run down of the books in roughly chronological order, and the Wikiverse project is also a source of information.

In addition to Elric, the other books recommended are the first Corum trilogy (Prince in the Scarlet Robe), the short story Earl Aubec) (from the anthology of the same name), and The Warhound and the World’s Pain (Von Bek). I chose these because they’re fairly suggestive of the relationship between humans and gods (and Law and Chaos).

The Dancers at the End of Time and anything with Jerry Cornelius are recommended, though only peripherally useful for the discussion here.

For Lovecraft there are numerous printings available, but the ebook rendering of the Complete works of H.P. Lovecraft by CthulhuChick is recommended for e-readers and has a nice index.

Roleplaying Games

Chaosium (BRP)

For reference, I originally used the 4th editions of both Call of Cthulhu (hereafter CoC) and Stormbringer (hereafter SB). I also posess most of the Elric! line of books (technically these are Stormbringer 5th ed) and the first edition of books published by Mongoose in their Eternal Champion line (EC).

That’s all well and good, except none of these books are in print now. Mongoose’s offerings are defunct, which means there’s no official game based on Moorcock’s work currently available. This leaves the secondhand market as an option for obtaining copies of the various games.

However, I’m lead to believe that Chaosium’s recently released Advanced Sorcery (for Magic World) contains the content of the Bronze Grimoire from Elric!, and should include rules for demons and elementals. I can’t confirm this myself and I don’t intend to buy the new book any time soon, so caveat emptor.

Call of Cthulhu is of course available, in the 6th (and soon to be 7th) edition. One supplement I got a lot of mileage from is the Cthulhu Dreamlands hardback; since Moorcock also has a take on the Dream Realms (q.v. The Fortress of the Pearl) and there has even been a Mongoose game supplement of the same name, it may be worth consideration.

A final note regarding the various Eternal Champion games. I haven’t mentioned Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone line, mainly because I don’t really like them as games; part of me never really warmed to the Mongoose way of doing Runequest. I’ve also complained about the presentation of the books in the past, and I confess this has put me off reading them cover-to-cover. However I have enjoyed the parts I’ve read and for the Moorcock faithful they may prove to be a better and more complete representation of the Young Kingdoms (and the Tragic Millennium, for Hawkmoon fans). If the presentation of the Elric game was fixed in Mongoose’s 2nd edition, that may be the version to try to pick up second hand (they did a good job for MRQ2).

Other Games

If you’re not wedded to the original games, there are plenty of other options that could be used to emulate the hybrid world. Games will most likely still be oriented towards investigation, which makes Trail of Cthulhu and other Gumshoe games worth considering (and if you’re quick, you can pick up the Trail in the latest Bundle of Holding). I can recommend the Rough Magicks supplement, at least for Kenneth Hite’s essay on Lovecraftian Magick.

Other titles to consider are Unknown Armies, the free Nemesis) (which includes sanity rules from UA) and Kult. However these all deviate into modern urban fantasy/horror, so will require some amount of surgery to make them fit together.

If you want to play something more epic and/or narrative oriented, consider simplifying. Everway is out of print and feels a bit too optimistic to me, but it could work. If you like to get your hands dirty, hack Apocalypse World. This really is deviating from my original specification, but whatever, if you’re inspired then make the game your own.


On the subject of “epic”, the Eternal Champion’s high fantasy (with anti-hero) presentation does clash with Cthulhu’s everyman nihilism. This is something I’ll cover later, but for now it’s worth mentioning that if you just glue Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu rpgs together, you’ll probably get a campaign where some characters can go toe-to-toe with Lovecraftian baddies, at least until they go insane. This may not even be a bad thing: if the goal is to interrogate the higher powers on their motivations and their place in the cosmic scheme of things, then having characters (and therefore players) with the ability to ask such questions may be a benefit.

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