The Revised Elric of R’lyeh

5 years ago I made my first post here on Department V.

To celebrate 5 years of blogging I’ve revised, edited and expanded my Elric of R’lyeh setting. You can grab the pdf here.

Moving forward, I’m going to update the site over the next few weeks to simplify the pages and consolidate downloads. None of the content is going away.

And after that, something new. Watch this space!

EoR Inspiration

7 Ages of Magic

Reworking a thing I did a couple of years ago. Originally it was inspired by The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions, but considering society as a vehicle for magic.

The seven ages are:

  1. Age of Reclusive Sorcerer
  2. Age of Itinerant Sorcerer
  3. Age of Folk Magic
  4. Age of Regulation
  5. Age of Revolution and Innovation
  6. Age of Incorporation and Ignorance
  7. Age of Mistrust and Decline

The graphic.

7 Magical Ages

1. Age of the Reclusive Sorcerer

Magic is feared/forbidden/evil. Magicians are separate from human civilisation. The Divine is separate from Earth. Humans pay dearly for venturing outside.

Thematic Elements: hidden horror, secrecy, things humanity was not meant to know

Games: Wraith, Kult, Call of Cthulhu

2. Age of the Itinerant Sorcerer

The magician walks into the Earth to connect with human communities, seeking disciples. Magicians as Gods/Divine Spark on Earth.

Thematic Elements: magicians as deities, ages of myth

Games: Exalted, Stormbringer, Barbarians of Lemuria, Everway

3. Age of Folk Magic

Human communities in balance between their civilisation and liminal elements of their community (fair folk, ghosts, myths). Wise women and cunning men.

Thematic elements: village magic, fairies and ghosts, walking legends, small communities

Games: Beyond the Wall, Runequest (Spirit Magic/Primitive cultures), Everway

4. Age of Regulation

Human civilisation realises a taxonomy of magical and Divine elements; seeks to categorise, gain control over. Humanity divided between minority of powerful sorcerers and majority of peons. Humans, not the Divine, decide who is worthy of Magic.

Thematic elements: secret societies, initiation rites, religion, vampires

Games: Ars Magica, Vampire, Runequest

5. Age of Revolution and Innovation

The human majority take back power from minority gatekeepers. Individuals find new ways to do magic outside prescribed methods. Freedom to conjure. 

Thematic Elements: personal empowerment, meritocracy, superheroes identified as ordinary humans

Games: Wild Talents, Unknown Armies, Mage, D&D, Ghostbusters, Spirit of the Century

6. Age of Incorporation and Ignorance

Magic becomes commodity, weaponised, mass manufactured, disposable

Thematic Elements: technology and science, greed, separation from the Divine, spiritual listlessness

Games: Cyberpunk, the Bret Easton Ellis RPG, Changeling

7. Age of Mistrust and Decline

Humanity mistrusts magic. Earth is purged of self-serving magic. Magicians withdraw wholly to the realm of the Divine.

Thematic Elements: the Apocalypse

Games: Apocalypse World, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Werewolf

The Squid Abides

My first Dragonmeet happened. Highlight was the announcement of Seven Wonders, and even better the con-only print run sold out by lunchtime!

I attended the What’s Hot seminar and the What Would Jackson Elias Do? session (available here and here respectively) and played Blades in the Dark for the first time, and bought stuff:

aru

books

Cosmic Fear

An eclectic mix, but a nice spread of OSR and storygame type stuff, plus All Rolled Up’s fantastically useful accessories.

Graham Walmsley was kind to autograph our copy of Stealing Cthulhu which I’ve wanted forever:

Colour

Graham asked us what our favourite monster was, and why (I assume he asks that of all his customers). I said The Colour Out Of Space, for a couple of reasons (which might not have been coherent at the time):

  1. Colours don’t get a treatment in my 4th edition CoC, and tend to get glossed over in favour of tentacles (they don’t make any of The Good Friends’ top three, for example).
  2. The Lovecraftian Science blog dissects the origins of Colours nicely and appeals to me as a scientist. Quantum life-forms would not be out of place in Star Trek, either.
  3. The Corruption trope is (like Cosmic Horror) seductive in an abstract, all-encompassing way — we love the stench of Chaos in the Warhammer universe, for example, and the way it perverts the natural.

As Graham says on p.85:

Since the Colour is more dreamlike than horrific, the final horror is probably a victim of the Colour, rather than the Colour itself.

Putting a human context on horror is essential for it to be horrific; without that, it’s weird science fiction — or in other words, horror is sensation, sci-fi is genre. And while Lovecraftian roleplaying has moved into the realm of pulp with Dark Young being answered with shotguns, the Colour remains nihilistic and faithful to Lovecraftian sensations of alien wrongness, promising a thoroughly miserable gaming experience. That’s a great monster.

The other Dragonmeet find was The Grognard Files who were promoting themselves with a neat little booklet and also plugged by Scott Dorward. I’m pleased to add them to my subscription to UK RPG podcasts. I guess the appeal will be limited to gamers of a certain age, but with the US-centric OSR it’s nice to have a British perspective on gaming nostalgia. If you want a run-down of the history of Runequest, Call of Cthulhu and others (I can’t wait for their take on Stormbringer) in the British RPG scene from the early 80s onwards, it’s recommended.

grog

Their second podcast features a Call of Cthulhu retrospective, and name-checks several White Dwarf contributions including The Horse of the Invisible from WD66 and Ghosties, Ghoulies and Squid by Simon Nicholson from WD91 (July 1987 — just before White Dwarf’s peak and sharp decline).

GGS

Let’s put that article in context: CoC was released in 1981, and I guess will have been available in the early 80s in the UK — but the edition that raised its profile here will have been Games Workshop’s 3rd edition hardback in 1986. That was the first time I’d heard of Lovecraft, and like Dirk I also looked for Lovecraft books in shops and the library, and found those same Grafton omnibuses with the awful and unrepresentative covers:

Lovecraft Omnibus

Given that Cthulhu gaming is maybe a decade old at this point (if you count Appendix N references) Nicholson’s article is fairly cutting-edge stuff. He nails the fundamentals of the Lovecraftian worldview:

  • God and the Devil are human constructs
  • The universe in vast and humanity is insignificant
  • There are aliens, who have motives and societies that we can’t hope to understand
  • Human life is a chance event

And so on. Nicholson also differentiates between the Derlethian (black and white) vs Lovecraftian (shades of grey) outlook. He does call Lovecraft “an athiest, materialist, and nihilist” (implied but by no means proven), “not a great writer… his characters were two-dimensional at best” (a matter of taste), and maintains that the horror in Lovecraft’s tales comes from a bleak, nihilistic vision (I don’t agree). But Nicholson also recommends taking conventional monsters (vampires, werewolves, ghosts) and regarding them — and magic — from a scientific point of view, which is a great piece of advice espectially looking forward to the 90s where contemporary urban horror fantasy becomes the mainstay of gaming and characters have access to scientific techniques and seek explanations (arguably my Department V game was more Lovecraft than World of Darkness, with its focus on alien forensics).

With that in mind, I think it’s fair to mention Ghosties, Ghoulies and Squid in the same breath as Stealing Cthuhlu. Walmsley’s book is more mature — as you would expect, with 30 years of collective experience in Call of Cthulhu as a roleplaying exercise, and the ways the narrative may be subverted. Both works advocate deconstruction of the genre, getting back to the fundamentals, the expectations of players and how to subvert them. Just as Silent Legions deconstructs the elements of Lovecraftian (and other horror) worldbuilding, these texts are a critical eye on the elements of the Lovecraftian narrative.

At the end of the Smart Party/Jackson Elias podcast (around 59 mins) there’s this quote from Scott Dorward:

I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what Lovecraft can offer in Roleplaying games… when you think adding Cthulhu to a game, don’t think of there being too many tentacles or Deep Ones, think of what else Lovecraft and his ideas and tropes can add to your games

Cthulhu as a pulpy tentacled monster is indisputably played out; but Lovecraft as a genre still has legs, and the analysis in Stealing Cthulhu and Ghosties, Ghoulies and Squid are the kinds of discourse that keeps it fresh, peeling the genre back to the authorial intent and fundamentals. This kind of deconstruction is what enables new ground to be broken in the Lovecraftian genre with games like Lovecraftesque.

Just don’t call it horror. Horror is an emotional response; this is science fiction. In any other game a starship’s crew will look upon the pulsing nuclear chaos of a black hole with wonder, not horror. They will transplant their consciouses from one body to another in transhuman societies, without a thought for what this means for their identity. They will accept that the universe is vast and contains many other races, for whom Humanity is an irrelevance. The first spell I encountered playing CoC was Brew Space Mead; the idea that a traveller could reach distant worlds in the arms of a byakhee or star vampire filled me with curiosity, not dread.

End

Nihilism, Cthulhu and Me

Call of Cthulhu is a great fantasy game, a great sci-fi game, a great pulp adventure game, and crucially a great investigative game. It is a terrible horror game.

Let’s qualify “terrible”. The enduring power of the Lovecraftian mythos is Cosmic Horror. The sheer scope of cosmic horror makes it a terrific high concept for the GM and author and reader, incredibly seductive as a backdrop. But (I’m going to stick my neck out here) thanks to that scope it’s almost impossible to translate that to the RPG table and call it horror. It’s too far away from any human context to be horrific.

So, CoC (and stablemates) have a reputation on delivering horror on this grand scale, a nearly impossible task in practice. I’m not talking about the horror genre, I’m talking about the emotional response. This is the Paranoia fallacy that because a game is purported to be darkly comedic or horrific, it will elicit that emotional respose. CoC’s mechanism for tackling fear and horror is Sanity, a one-dimensional resource that lacks subtlety or empathy (or respect for mental health issues). More to the point, it doesn’t really reflect the bleak, nihilistic horror that the setting promises — just a slow spiral into subjective madness punctuated by periods of loss of control.

Of course CoC at the time was working with the best tools available. Chaosium’s model was to provide adventures, and that’s where the visceral and spooky thrills would be baked in (much like LofFP does now). Outside of that, CoC was a book of weird monsters and spells, fine for pulp science fantasy but it’s a mythology, not horrific in itself. And as far as I can see 7th edition doesn’t change this formula.

Better Nihilism

There are better games to communicate the absolute bleakness of existence in a RPG. Two spring to mind:

Unknown Armies has a much more sophisticated take on deterioration. There are five scales of Madness (Self, Isolation, Violence, the Unknown, and Helplessness) but the genius is not only that PCs can become subjected to different stresses with the usual deleterious effects — they also become hardened to them to the point that they become unfeeling, ascetic, joyless agents of chaos. This is Vampire’s Humanity in reverse. This is also a very objective way of looking at things, and objectivity is what makes the nihilistic view horrible. It’s a slow battering down of all the defences against that crushing certainty — all of the mechanisms of family and relationships, societal norms and faith in order being stripped away. It’s delicious.

UA

The other game is Wraith, a much looser and much more subjective and personal view. Wraith’s high concept — the idea that the afterlife is no more than a slow decline, waiting to be consumed by Oblivion and feeding off weaker wraiths, sometimes clawing your way back to the living — gives the Lovecraftian cosmic worldview a run for its money.

Wraith

Wraith isn’t as mechanically tight as UA but its use of Passions and Fetters — the former being diminished by harrowings — gives a context for the character’s place in an uncaring cosmos. Passions are the defining emotional ties of the character but can be stripped away by Spectres, neglect, or by the environment itself; they rarely get stronger. Hope is a slender thing.

Love’s Cruft

This is a nihilistic storygame about the end of life. I recommend a Lines and Veils conversation up front, as is best practice.

Introduction

This is a game about looking back over the life of someone and examining all the ways they’ve touched people, the things they’ve built, and the ideas they’ve had.

You will need:

  • A deck of cards
  • Pencils and index cards or scraps of paper

For as many players as you like, it doesn’t really make any difference.

Step One — The principal

Your principal is old, but they have accomplished much in their lifetime — they have touched many people, had grand ideas, built great things. They are in a place they call home, safe for now, with time to reflect.

As a group:

  1. Name your principal.
  2. Decide how the world saw them. Examples:
    • An explorer
    • A pioneer
    • An inventor or researcher
    • A philanthropist
    • An industry leader
    • An architect
    • A politician
  3. Describe their house. Is it in the city or the country? Which country?

Write the answers to the above on an index card, then go to Step Two.

Step Two — Cruft

When a card is drawn, both the suit and the number may be used. See below.

  1. A player takes the deck of cards and draws one, placing it in the middle of the table.
  2. With the suit in mind, the player to their right describes an object that exists in the principal’s house. Write it on an index card.
  3. The next player to the right explains the significance of the object — what event, relationship, place or idea, and who or what it affected. Add that to the index card.
  4. The next player to the right then explains how that achievement ultimately amounts to nothing in the bleak and baleful eye of an uncaring universe. The numbers on the card are a guide (see below). Add the text to the index card.
  5. Continue for as many rounds as the players can be bothered. The first player to say “sod this, what’s the point” ends this phase, and has to make the tea.
  6. Proceed to Step Three.

The suit has the following significance:

  • Hearts are about love, emotions and relationships with the principal.
  • Diamonds are about the principal’s imagination; ideas and concepts that have been adopted by others.
  • Clubs are about physical things that have been constructed (directly or indirectly) by the principal.
  • Spades are about people (cultures, groups) that have been influenced by the principal.

Card numbers as a guide:

  • 2, 3, or 4: describe how a person or thing came to harm or ruin in spite of the ideals of the achievement
  • 5, 6, or 7: describe how this thing was twisted from its original meaning by self-serving opportunism
  • 8, 9 or 10: move forward in time (decades, centuries, millenia) to describe how this thing has been forgotten or failed to influence anything
  • J, Q or K: describe a pastiche on another world or dimension. It should be brutal, alien, or unfair; it shows how the achievement is ultimately irrelevent.
  • Ace: Wild card. This card allows the player to retcon any one narration into something life-affirming and optimistic (if an Ace is the first draw, hold for later). For more optimism, add Jokers with the same function. For less optimism, take the aces out of the deck.

Step Three — Memorial

Together, the players recite the following:

“Here lies (principal’s name), who never amounted to anything in the eyes of a bleak uncaring cosmos.”

Alternative version — if you used the wild cards, append

“except for (Wild Card retcon), that was quite uplifting.”

Afterwards you can sit and stare at each other, if you like

Elric of R’lyeh: Appendix

  1. Appendix 1: Skills in excess of 100%
  2. Appendix 2: What About The Dharzi?

Use the various Chaosium and Mongoose texts as you see fit. But for the record this is what I would use:

  • any edition of Call of Cthulhu, with the monsters, modern weapons, spells and so forth.
  • Demon creation rules from the edition of Stormbringer you can get your hands on.
  • Optionally, spells from the Bronze Grimoire, though it’s more for colour than anything eles. Mix them in with the other CoC spells which, as previously noted, are forbidden.
  • CoC‘s Dreamlands. I like that there’s a Moorcockian treatment of dreams as well, but I confess to preferring the Lovecraftian one. It’s weirder.

Appendix 1: Skills Exceeding 100%

Originally in Runequest some skill percentages of were considered adequate at 30% or so (languages, for example). Unfortunately not all skills are created equal; a 30% skill for the most part does not indicate competence. Even if the GM says “hey, don’t bother rolling, your skill is good enough” it jarrs with the character’s perception of their PC — which should be of a capable individual the player can have confidence in (otherwise, why attempt anything, ever?).

For BRP-style systems I like to consider skills well in excess of 100%, and call that the base level of “expertise”. A pass for a skill is rolling equal to that number or less; a success, however, is rolling under half the skill. Now, the ideal range for percentiles in a challenging system is between 30 and 70%. Any less than 30% is really no chance, and any more than 70% is a walkover. With the pass/success granularity you can start making base skills above 50% for novices, which means the players can at least have some confidence in their character. Additionally equating a skill level of 100% to expertise seems right; experts will make routine tasks seem trivially easy.

Other levels can be added — this is what I like to use:

  • Roll under the skill % — Pass
  • Roll under 1/2 skill % — Success
  • Roll under 1/5 skill % — Extra Success
  • Roll under 1/20 skill % — Critical

…and so on. You could add another level of granularity at say 1/10 skill if you really wanted, but I wouldn’t bother — for someone with 100% skill the difference between Pass and Success is 50%, between Success and Extra Success is 30%, and between Extra and Critical is 15%.

If you want to get really creative you could consider “Super Crits” of 1/50 or even 1/100 of the skill — but those should only come into play when absurdly high percentages are reached (say 300%).

In combat splitting the percentage is an option, and this starts to be a tactical decision at high percentages. Should you split the % for multiple Passes, or should you roll fewer times to get Successes?

(for combat I’ve usually considered a Pass to function at half the effectiveness of a Success for parries, e.g. halving the AP of the parrying weapon).

Appendix 2: What About The Dharzi?

Of course, what did for the Melniboneans’ global Bright Empire was a big war with the Dharzi. Crucially this came long before Elric’s time, and is given as a reason for humans taking hold of the world as Melnibone retreated to the Dragon Isle to lick its wounds. This makes the Dharzi hardly relevant — certainly they have no role to play in the 1920s society. They do have a role as an ancient enemy of Melnibone, and could feature in myth as another component of the broader Mythos.

There is the option to make the Dharzi appear here and now. In doing so you’re lifting events from long before Elric’s time and inserting them well after the end of his life (after he blows the Horn of Fate), but it would work. Dharzi came from the “unknown East” which in this game could be Asia, with opportunities for tie-ins with the Plateau of Leng and other mysterious places in the Mythos.

This would lead your campaign in a couple of directions. Firstly you will probably diverge from Earth history, which is fine if that’s what you want. Second, your game may turn into a war game, which could also be fun but not the same as an investigation game.

A third consideration: if the Dharzi emerge now, does this change the relationship of people with natural forces and beasts? Dharzi were “beast worshippers”. On the other hand Melniboneans already had ancient relationships with the Beast Lords and Elemental Rulers, so the lack of Dharzi in the history of your game world probably won’t upset the metaphysic.

Back: Games | Index | Back To The Start

Elric of R’lyeh: Games

  1. Types of Games
  2. Power Levels
  3. Sourcebooks and Adventures

This chapter is split into three areas. The first is what kind of games you might want to run in this hybrid setting. The second is about power levels and how they may (or may not) upset the usual power balance in vanilla CoC (if there is such a thing). The last part is using the resources already at your disposal.

Types of Games

My game was always intended to be CoC-style invesigation, just in a weirder sort of earth. As such it faces the question that all CoC games face: if the investigation is so dangerous, if the secrets come at such a high price, what drives the investigators on? The rewards within the system such as expanding your Cthulhu Mythos skill are a double-edged sword. In a lot of cases the investigators band together for metagame reasons, e.g. if they didn’t work together, there would be no game.

That’s OK; we’ve all had good times playing CoC which characters whose dedication to the investigation is completely implausible. However it’s better practice to give the players a real motivation for getting stuck in.

The Mabelode Commission

The Mabelode Commission are a peacekeeping force in Boston around 1923. They exist to keep the peace between the human population and the Melnibonean gated community, and (secretly) to investigate breaches of the Old Ones (“Old Chaos”) into civilisation. As the name hints they are answerable to Mabelode directly.

This is the classic “squad” organisation of play, where the characters have a common goal and are expected to work together as a team. Ron Edwards is critical of this style in his Annotated Sorcerer — certainly it doesn’t work for Sorcerer, but he also opines that it generally produces boring characters and that “imposed team identity isn’t what makes a superhero group”. This may be the case, but we have plenty of examples of an ensemble cast in fiction working together yet establishing their own identities. The main issue will be “why don’t the characters just quit?” which is the problem with all CoC games anyway. In this one you can assume that, as Agents of Mabelode, each character does not have the option of quitting, though this could be something they work towards (e.g. by accumulating enough points of Lawful allegiance that they can annul their ties to Chaos).

This game could be equally investigative and pulp-y; particularly if the characters are loaded up with Demons of Combat and other magical powers that help them do battle with Chaos. “Death by SAN loss” should be even more of an occupational hazard than in normal CoC, as the party are forced to interrogate tomes and face whatever SANity blasting monsters they encounter. The principle enemies will most likely be cultists waging a secret war against the Church and intending to bring about some kind of End when the stars align. No change there, then.

Dreaming Spires

Dreaming Spires is a campaign set in Oxford, whose ancient name is Imyrr. This is a little more traditional with the party made up of academics, professionals and local peacekeeping forces.

Oxford is a place literally half within a dream world; the Dreamlands (CoC) and also the Dream Realms (for Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone) may become useful sources. With the constant flow of both academics and nobles into the city there’s plenty of opportunity for the characters to interact with various strata of society. The longevity of the Melniboneans allows all sorts of historical characters into the campaign, and perhaps even act as the PCs’ patrons. In addition there are options for explorations into the various corners of the earth. Finally, a seat of learning is a nice setting where PCs can plumb depths of forbidden knowledge, getting themselves into all kinds of trouble with the Church and going insane into the bargain.

Power Levels

Assuming you’re using both Stormbringer and CoC rules “straight”, once demon weapons and armour become commonplace, dispatching Lovecraftian monsters becomes a distinct possibility. Demon melee weapons can easily exceed the damage of a shotgun at point-blank range. This has two effects:

  1. Characters are more likely to go mad than die

  2. Violence becomes an option.

To put things in perspective, a fairly low-level demon weapon may add 5d6 damage, so a single blow could do more than 20 points. That’s enough to do for a Hound of Tindalos with a lucky roll, and a few blows will start to annoy Shoggoths and Star Spawn.

The early Stormbringer does have a problem with balance between PCs (i.e. there was no balance), but this is mainly thanks to the lottery that is character generation. If the players are working for an Agency that bequeathes them magical (demonic) items, power levels should be easy to control. In any case Demons should be rare and demon weapons rarer still.

Sourcebooks and Adventures

The more complex campaigns may require some thought to weave the Moorcockian motifs into the setting, but a lot of printed CoC adventures are fairly neutral in their premise and should be easy to wind into the plot. There’s not much to say about this other than the printed adventures from Chaosium and in particular CoC are high quality with handouts galore.

A lot of the CoC adventures will assume a mixture of professions and will concentrate on technical skills like Psychology, Archaeology and Library Use. These skills, and the professions in CoC should still be relevant in the alternate 1920s. With the exception of various Allegiances and the chance to learn Sorcery, things shouldn’t be that different.

Back: Gods | Index | Next: Appendix

Elric of R’lyeh: Gods (and Magic)

  1. Who are these God persons, anyway?
  2. The Other Gods
  3. A Word On Magic

There are (allegedly) a number of things Moorcock was not happy with in Chaosium’s representation of his world, and magic is one of them. Much as I like Stormbringer as a game, some of the passages make me wince. The notion that “the Gods of Chaos actually created the Young Kingdoms but the Gods of Law managed to establish a toehold in it” (Stormbringer p62) is a very humanocentric way of interpreting two primal forces at odds with each other, if not flat out wrong:

“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

See? No gods, just Law and Chaos. No God-founded origin for Earth. It just is, in the words of Jhonn Balance.

Our fantasy pantheons have always suffered from bland humanisation, and unfortunately all of the RPGs based on Moorcock continue this tradition. And at this point we should acknowledge that yes, Moorcock’s deities do appear as human, for the most part (yes, I know Pyaray is a tentacled whisperer of impossible secrets, but he’s still presented in a very human context — laying claim to a sunken fleet of humans). But they are Lords. Arioch is a Duke of Hell. He didn’t build the place, he just lives there.

There will be no quicker way to underline the weirdness of this alternate 1920s than to hilight the many cults that people attach themselves to. Law, Chaos, Beast Lords or Elementals — everyone wants to belong, to show that they’re a member and their cult is better than yours. It should be subtle but ever-present — tie pins and fascinators with Chaos symbols, glyphs on doors, even the appearance of demons in public.

Who are these God persons, anyway?

Lovecraft and Moorcock’s approach to deities may seem diametrically opposed; Lovecraftian entities are unknowable, horrible monsters for whom Humanity is irrelevent, and Moorcock’s Lords are supremely interested in perpetrating a cosmic “great game” with humans as their pawns.

Or to put it another way, in Lovecraft humans spend all their effort trying to attract the attention of higher powers that do not care, and in Moorcock the higher powers spend all their time trying to attract the attention of humans who are at best a bunch of secular opportunists and only in it for the demon summoning and communion wine. Ho hum.

Gods in the Elric’s society feature in daily life, almost as if they were local personalities. There is no faith; temples to the different Lords of Chaos exist where one may make direct appeals and be answered. The ensemble of godlings reminds me of Shinto, in that it’s a collection of local mythologies rather than a cohesive pantheon. This is certainly the case when the likes of the Elementals and Beast Lords are on an even footing with the Dukes of Hell, and the extent of their power mainly comes down to territory.

Furthermore Moorcock’s books emphasise the direct relationship the gods like to have with humans. Maybe not just any humans — Elric is the Eternal Champion, after all — but for all their caprice they’re potrayed as being fairly understanding of humans.

I prefer to think of the Lords of Law and Chaos as more like the sons and daughters of Amber; they are allied to one of two cosmic forces, and they are fantastically powerful and are able to exist in multiple versions of reality, possibly simultaneously.

But they’re not gods, they’re magicians.

Local Gods for Local People

In Elizabeth’s Empire there is virtually no separation of church and state. The Lords of Chaos are political positions; they are the Variable Eight Lords who are appointed by Elizabeth herself, and bear grandieuse titles like Lord Arioch, Lord Slortar, etc. Whether actual gods or human pretenders (at the moment it’s ambiguous) they’re clearly powerful entities but also in touch with the human population, and they hold a seat on Elizabeth’s council for as long as it suits her whim.

The Variable Eight and the Church of Chaos also has local representation. In any major city the Gods are represented, and priests act as the mouthpiece for Arioch and the other gods when worshippers seek his council. Whether this is just a metaphor (q.v. Catholic absolution) or the ability to channel the mind of the actual Duke of Hell is up to you. Certainly there’s a lot of ceremony involved, and while the priest is channeling Arioch they are assumed to be Arioch. But, it could be trickery. There’s a lot of that about.

In the Young Kingdoms the representation of gods is even more corporation-like, with the various Dukes as CEO of each Church. Each competes with the other for the most devotion from the population; at the same time the population will worship whatever Lord is appropriate for the occasion, and will freely mix it up between Law and Chaos as well as the more primal deities. Religion is a free market.

Of course when the existence of gods is proven, and when they function as politicians and service providers, worshippers expect something in return.

Agencies and Cults

The Stormbringer/Elric! RPGs mention the ability of PCs to become Agents of deities. In 4e Stormbringer Agents are placed above priests and have literally promised their soul to the deity. They get to try Divine Intervention and they get a special amulet/decoder ring/mcguffin that keeps them in contact with their deity. This gets watered down a bit in 5e/Elric! where Agents are just on the payroll and get financial reward for doing the work of Law/Chaos.

As mentioned earlier I favour the Elric! style of separate ratings for Law and Chaos (and the Balance) over 4eSB‘s “Elan”. I do prefer the latter’s approach to Agency and control, however — including the amulet schtick. As for actually giving up one’s soul — how would you tell?

Whatever you choose, suitable rewards for serving could include money and status (a contextual boost to Credit Rating similar to the benefits of being high born), spells/demons/magic items, even divine intervention and other powers. Elric! has a nice section on benefits of being a Champion, though the epic scale may not quite fit with the low-key nature of an investigative game. Cults of the Young Kingdoms (Mongoose) has a long list of gifts and compulsions, though I don’t really like the “taint of chaos” effect (a la Warhammer FRP) that it exudes, as if being an agent is like contracting an infection. YMMV.

One important note: Agents need handlers. Put them in touch with their supernatural masters (either via a mouthpiece or direct visitation). The point of being an Agent is not the free stuff, it’s the being in someone’s secret club and doing their shady jobs.

It’s not entirely clear if Agents are supposed to be out in the open, or a secret force. The notion that each Church of Law and Chaos has a secret police fits right in with the political and corporate setting. Whether these “agents” wear their allegiance like a badge, or it’s just rumoured, or even secret is a decision for the GM. Personally I favour the middle option. Speculation about allegience adds to the paranoia.

The Other Gods

Now, let’s tackle the 80 tonne shoggoth in the room.

CoC is a game where humans leave their safe cocoon of humanocentric beliefs and realise just how uncaring and frightening and alien universe is.

This means that however unpleasant, depraved or unfair the various gods of Law and Chaos are, they are the norms that humans insulate themselves with. And, there is something worse.

The broader mythos includes Outer Gods, Elder Gods, Other Gods, and Old Ones (Great, and not-so-great). In the Post-Lovecraft mythos the Elder Gods are pitted against the Outer Gods and are generally considered slightly less awful than the Outer Gods. The RPGs (e.g. CoC and Trail of Cthulhu) are a further source of confusion (4e CoC calls Nodens an Outer God… but different; ToC calls Nodens an “Elder One”). But whether these Outer/Elder gods really are at war is irrelevant, at least on that cosmic scale; humans don’t matter to them. Hereafter I’m going to lump them into a single category of Old Ones and hope for the best.

Since Elric (or Ylrhc) replaces Cthulhu in this setting, we need to consider not only the relationship between the Old Ones and the Lords of Law and Chaos, but also the relationship of both with the true Melniboneans. In the history section we suggested a myth where Elric defied “the gods” and with a weapon called the Horn of Fate, and was entombed in R’lyeh for his trouble. The question is, which gods? There are a few possibilities:

  1. The Old Ones are an original pantheon, and their power (“hell”) was usurped by the Lords of Chaos. Elric was an Old One, but the usurpers foiled his plans before he could bring his weapon to bear.

  2. Elric was a sorcerer, and challenged the power of the Old Ones with his weapon; he managed to deploy his weapon before they could stop him completely, and the result was that both he and the Old Ones were banished from the Earth. The various Lords of Chaos then occupied the power vacuum and set themselves up as the new pantheon.

  3. The Lords of Chaos and the Old Ones are one and the same; Law and Chaos as personified are simply the acceptable face of the Old Ones. For some reason the Old Ones felt the need to remodel themselves and hide from humanity. Elric is either a renegade who was punished, or the Horn of Fate is irrelevant and he slumbers along with the other Old Ones.

Option 3 is the least appealing to me — I’d rather keep them as seperate entities — however it could work if the Old Ones need humanity to rend the veil of time and space and bring them back to the Earth, and in the meantime need a way of communicating with the population without driving their followers completely insane. There is the potential for institutional politics where the majority of the Church is unaware of its origins.

What about Law and Chaos itself? I don’t believe the Lords of Law and Chaos actually are those forces; they’re just opportunistic godlings who have allied themselves with one side or the other. But the description of a “monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space” (Lovecraft, The Whisperer In Darkness) is fitting and inclusive of both Chaos and Law, as immutable primal concepts. This would mean that the Old Ones et. al. are simply the older beings who gravitate around these concepts and the descriptions of Azathoth and its servitors may be allegorical.

Or maybe not. Whichever version we choose, the humanocentric Churches must be aware of the Old Ones on some level. The situation is unchanged from stock CoC except now we have a public and organised religeon who are fully aware of the tenuous situation the mortal civilisation is in, and not only that, they almost certainly filter the true horror of Law and Chaos for public consumption. The best the Churches can hope for on a spiritual level is to hang for as long as possible, which means they will have strong motivations to both keep the existence of the Old Ones from the public while tackling their attempts to break into reality in secret.

A Word on Magic

You can’t have a Stormbringer-style setting without overt magic. But you can’t have CoC without magic being dangerous and esoteric.

If myth and the nature of Law/Chaos are being filtered for public consumption, it stands to reason that the same is being done for Magic. Magic is an apolitical esoteric science that can cause great harm in the wrong hands; for this reason magic is probably licensed for use.

Depending on which ruleset you wish to follow, there are various ways of drawing the line between regulated and illegal magic. Stormbringer 1e-3e use demons to express magical power exclusively, and these are divided into categories such as “Demons of Combat”, “Demons of Knowledge”, etc. Later versions take a toolkit approach to demons, add spells, and all sorts of other items. CoC has its own spells, many of which are predicated on summoning and controlling things.

I prefer to abandon the minor, magic missile style spells that crop up in Elric! and make demons the only “legal” source of magic. Demons are a kind of container or filter for raw magical energy; the formation of that filter is by state-approved manufacturing processes. By comparison casting spells directly is irresponsible and dangerous, and therefore illegal. So, choose whichever demon creation method you like (I mostly prefer the earlier approach) and make that available to PCs, and make the CoC spells “raw” magic.

That’s not to say the other forms of magic in the games don’t have a use. The various runes and glyphs from the Bronze Grimoire are cool, also. But the message is that for magic to be safe, it should be packaged for consumption by a regulator.

Back: Politics | Index | Next: Games

Elric of R’lyeh: Politics

  1. Rise of the Melnibonean Middle Class
  2. Local and National Government
  3. International Politics
  4. Breeding and Status

Note: this section has been rewritten a couple of times. Mostly I’ve found it problematic because it touches on both class and race, and the last thing I want to do is trivialise either. There’s an excellent article by Mo Holkar that I would urge you to read, concerning what not to do to avoid slipping into lazy stereotype.

A large part of Elric’s adventures take place beyond the Dragon Isle in the Young Kingdoms, where Elric’s albinoism is secondary to the fact that he is not human at all. Elric of Melnibone provides about as much context as we can hope for in showing Melniboneans dealing with their own kin — and of course Elric’s weaknesses (both physical and moral) also make him persona non grata with his own people.

That hasn’t stopped the roleplaying lines from developing their own perspectives of Melnibone. Both Melnibone (Chaosium) and Bright Shadows (Mongoose) cover the Melnibonean race, and they’re worth mining for ideas. But colourful as those books are the principle features of Melniboneans are pretty unsubtle; they’re beautiful, tall, intelligent, long-lived, xenophobic, magically astute. Basically they’re still the same old Tolkienesque supremacists with the varnish stripped off and a bit more effort into making them actually alien.

They were tall and slender, with slanting almond eyes, ears which came almost to points. While the eyes of some of them were like those of ordinary men, others had eyes that were purple and yellow, others had eyes that were flecks of blue and silver which sparkled constantly. They seemed a proud and intelligent people and were plainly given to avoiding most of their fellows. Yet Ilian also knew that these could be the cruellest of all the invaders. “Call them Eldren, call them Vadaugh, call them Melniboneans,” Jhary-a-Conel had said to her, “but remember that these are renegades all of some kind, else they would not league themselves with Ymryl.” Moorcock, The Champion of Garathorm

Alongside the major themes of mankind escaping the influence of gods and making up its own fate, Moorcock uses the “Man v. Elf” dichotomy not only in Elric’s books, but also Corum and Erekose. In each example the Elves are arguably the architects of their own downfall in the face of the expanding human race (generally through a combination of arrogance, passivity and introspection). It’s also implied that the various races have a single root, and that the Melniboneans were seduced by Chaos. Those elves aren’t bad, they just made bad choices.

Rise of the Melnibonean Middle Class

A large part of our alternate 1920s requires Man and Melnibonean to rub shoulders. In the British Isles the Melniboneans are the ruling race; but to a large part their survival has been contingent on mixing and breeding with humans.

The net effect of breeding is a gradual expansion of Melnibonean blood out from the social elite into the middle class, stratifying the middle classes further and fuelling British class obsession. This is much like the “time of thin blood” in the Vampiric milieu, except Human and Melnibonean are part of the same class structure. The most powerful (and purest) Melniboneans keep themselves relevent to society through allowing their blood to propagate through the lower ranks. Clearly this isn’t a sustainable situation, but for now it’s the social backdrop of the Second Bright Empire.

What about the Young Kingdoms? Since the United States broke away from the Empire, they are divided over the importance of Melnibonean blood. In the more meritocratic parts of the Union being Melnibonean may imply wealth, but nothing more. In the traditionalist areas the feudal structures remain to keep the human rabble out. In some pro-Human states, the gated Melnibonean communities may be as much to keep the aliens in than the humans out.

How much this gets focus in your game is up to you; in an investigative game it may be enough to provide a backdrop, or you may want to dig deep into the different bloodlines and how they interact.

Whatever you do, the situation should not be simplistic. An alternate-Earth Downton Abbey with the Crawleys as cruel and ethereal Chaos-worshipping aliens being waited upon by their human slaves would be easy to do, and also easy to fall into class stereotypes. Both races will have their own anxieties over retaining cultural identity and their place in the political landscape. But while there should be fear and mistrust (following the template that Moorcock has given) there should be counter examples of progressiveness, inclusiveness and perhaps most importantly optimism where the two races interact.

In fact, there should be opportunities to ask what it means to be Melnibonean and a citizen of the various nations. In this culture there is a high propotion of mixed race citizens (and no “pure” Melniboneans). Elizabeth’s “Romance of Melnibone” is a celebration of culture, and given the political structure of Melnibonean estates acting as local government (see below) it’s quite possible that the human commoners also identify as Melnibonean.

Concerning Slavery and Freedom

In the books Melnibone relies on her slaves, and the slave population outnumbers their masters 9:1 (I confess I got this from Chaosium’s Melnibone — I struggled to find an original reference). If the rule of thumb is for 99% of the population to be human, one in eleven humans is a “slave”, and 10% of the whole population are contained within Melnibonean households.

Melnibonean slaves are supposedly kept compliant with drugs but are otherwise well treated (with the exception of labour slaves). They perform various functions for their masters, up to and including teaching the Melnibonean young.

Here in the alternate 1920s, the obvious function of slaves is as an entourage to the Estate and performing a function of domestic service. Is it ever desirable for a free person to become a slave? What do the Estates look like to outsiders — are they well integrated with the local population, or are they closed off and secret? Are slaves really treated well, and how does treatment vary between the Estates? And even if a slave has no voting power, do they still have some privilege conferred on them by virtue of their attachment?

Local and National Government

Elizabeth sought a balance between Law and Chaos in her new Bright Empire. In Britain the House of “Commons” has a seat for every Melnibonean estate on the island, though attendance varies. These are not elected, but inherited positions. The representation of each Estate is not just for the family but also the constituents of the Estate, and so functions as the local government and government representation for thousands of people.

The House of the Lords is something different. The Lords houses Elizabeth’s Court of Chaos as well as European representation from the Lords of Law. Elizabeth’s own Lords are the Variable Eight, and are given honourary titles as repesentatives of the Chaos Lords themselves. Lord Slortar, Lord Chardros and Lord Mabelrode are in constant residence, while other titles — Arioch, Xiombarg, Pyaray and others — change at the Queen’s whim, in a true reflection of Chaos.

International Politics

As indicated in the History, Europe is still under the control of Law and the seat of power is the Vatican. Elizabeth entertains both Law and Chaos in her court, and Vatican diplomats are in permanent residence in her Granbretan.

Aside from this very specific detail I don’t intend to explore this further. Naturally there are interesting things going on in the period — attitudes to the British Empire in the inter-war period, the drive towards Women’s Suffrage, the rise of national socialism in Germany — all of these can be adapted to the alternate world. How subtly you do that is up to you. The intention has always been to make use of actual history as much as possible, particularly if one wants to adapt existing CoC books to the alternate world.

Breeding and Status

Note: the interpretation below assumes an almost indefinite lifespan for “pure” Melniboneans, and deviates from Moorcock significantly. The intent is to signal the alien nature of Melnibonean genetic heritage and to raise a question mark over Elric’s survival at R’lyeh (q.v.).

Melnibonean Blood

This is the rule of thumb I used. The three main tiers of Melnibonean/Human hybrid have an adjustment for Credit Rating.

Human: can be capable conjurers and sorcerers in exceptional cases, but no adjustments to stats otherwise. More than 99% of the population (population of the British Isles is approx 40 million, and the Bright Empire is 400 Million).

Lowest tier Melnibonean: gene was interrupted more than 3 generations ago, and breeding has since been exclusively with humans. May have slightly increased POW and CHA. Lifespan increases by perhaps 20% from nomal human expectancy. Physical characteristics – eyes. Could pass for human except under careful scrutiny. Even chance of producing type 1 or 0 offspring with a human or near-human mate. One in every thousand (10%/20% to CR).

Middle tier: gene was interruped less than 3 generations ago, or was interrupted earlier but there was a successful pairing with Melnibonean stock afterwards. May have slightly increased POW, CHA, SIZ and INT. Lifespan increases by 75% of human. Physical characteristics – eyes, shape of skull, ears. Could pass for human with some disguise skill. One in every 5,000, with 8000 in British Isles and 80000 in the Empire as a whole (30%/50% to CR).

Nobility: gene interrupted for less than 3 generations and successfully paired with Melnibonean stock. Will have increased SIZ, CHA, INT and POW. Lifespan is 250% of human. Physical characteristics – eyes, ears, skull, body frame, skin. Clearly half-breed (and alien to anyone lower born). One in every 500,000, with around 100 in the British Isles and just over 800 throughout the Empire. Mostly these are feudal lords or custodians of ancient Melnibonean estates (60%/90% to CR).

Elizabeth (and others?): Child of pure Melnibonean and human, or of Melnibonean parents with a minor interruption in the line. Will have greatly increased POW and INT, and high CHA and SIZ (tall and beautiful). Lifespan 500% or more of human. Appearance is as a true Melnibonean – but could a true Melnibonean tell the difference?

Elric: Pure Melnibonean. Lifespan 1000 human years +. High POW, INT, CHA, and SIZ. Beautiful, powerful, unearthly, terrifying.

Social Rank

Often CoC defers to Credit Rating for interactions where social rank becomes important. This is highly contextual, in that it’s using one’s perceived status to bluff past requests for credentials, etc.

The Blood ratings have two numbers; the lower of the two is the bonus to Credit Rating that the breeding confers outside the Empire (in the Young Kingdoms), and the higher is the bonus conferred when dealing with people who care about your breeding. The bonus is largely conferred because, even if people don’t respect the blood, there is old money behind it.

At the very highest tiers CR becomes irrelevent, of course. Who’s queen?

With the stratified nature of Melnibonean society, to influence someone else an opposed Credit Rating check is probably appropriate. Here are some sample credit ratings, to be used in opposed rolls:

  • 50: Central government officials, heads of institutions (colleges, trusts, military and civillian departments)
  • 40: Local government representatives, senior members of colleges and institutions, feudal landowners
  • 30: Academics and professionals
  • 20: Merchants, scholars
  • 10: Tradesmen, serving staff, soldiers
  • 05: Apprentices to tradesmen, casual labour
  • 0: homeless, criminals
  • 0 (n/a): Children and slaves

Shade these numbers with the bonuses as described above.

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Elric of R’lyeh: History and Legend

  1. Myth
  2. Subverting History
  3. Timeline of the Common Era

In this portion of the game notes, we’ll discuss history and myth.

Myth

It was as if some enormous sun, thousands of times larger than Earth’s, had sent a ray of light pulsing through the cosmos, defying the flimsy barriers of Time and Space, to strike upon the great black battlefield.
Stormbringer

When Elric blew the Horn of Fate, a rent in time and space allowed the Gods of Law to pass into our world and do battle with Chaos. Eventually the power of the Horn swept all gods away and ushered in a new age and new world.

At least, that’s how the common version of the myth goes. As Moorcock fans we’re familiar with the events in Stormbringer up to the point of Elric’s final toot of the horn (and subsequent betrayal by the eponymous sword) and it’s generally assumed that the world that follows is both geographically and metaphysically altered into our own world.

The alternate earth of Elric of R’lyeh exists after that cataclysm; the Elric myth is broadly aligned with the events of Stormbringer, but it is still a myth. The cataclysmic event at the beginning of the Common Era is the beginning of known history, and the time before is speculation — and the Elric myth is probably a rendering down of a complex series of events to make it palatable to modern citizens.

But, let’s consider what could have happened.

Firstly, the Horn of Fate is a macguffin. It could be a metaphor for vast cosmic change, or it could be a coincidental detail that has been blown out of proportion. What if the sound of the horn was the “thin, monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time” (H. P. Lovecraft, Nyarlathotep) and Elric’s true purpose was to summon Nyarlathotep to usher in a new age?

Another idea: what if the Horn of Fate were a weapon? Its intent was to usher in a new age, reset the balance and sweep the old gods away. When Elric sounded the Horn of Fate and conjured the gods, what if they came there not to do battle with Chaos, but — facing their own extinction — with the sorcerer himself?

“So it is over,” Moonglum murmured. “All gone — Elwher, my birthplace, Karlaak by the Weeping Waste, Bakshaan, even the Dreaming City and the Isle of Melnibone. They no longer exist, they cannot be retrieved.”
Stormbringer

And finally, when the Horn was sounded for a third and final time, did the Earth change, or did Elric’s perception of the Earth change? Did he truly witness the Earth whirling “faster and faster… day giving way to night with incredible rapidity” (Stormbringer) or did Dead Elric dream those changes after his final battle ground sank beneath the waves? Elric is popularly portrayed as mortal, yet he is also Melnibonean; he is both fantastically long-lived and powerful, and there is no-one in the Common Era who is truly Melnibonean, and thus his true power is likely beyond the estimation of modern scholars. That he lives still is a frightening possibility.

Ylrhc the sorcerer created a weapon that could challenge the gods themselves, and for his blasphemy they met him in his palace at R’lyeh to strike him down. He was defeated but not killed, for he did the gods terrible harm and weakened them such that even they could not end him. And so the gods consigned his R’lyeh to beneath the waves, along with his weapon, so men would never find him and understand that they had the power to challenge the gods.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Ylrhc R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

  • Unnamed heretical scroll, from the archives of the Vatican

Subverting History

There’s not a lot to say about mucking about with history. It falls down to two things: inserting historical figures into your game, and establishing a timeline.

Let’s talk about historical figures first. Melnibonean bloodlines present a lot of potential; in my campaign Queen Elizabeth was the last true Melnibonean, and the class structure was predelicted on Melnibonean blood and how many generations one was removed from Her Majesty. The greater the percentage of Melnibonean blood the longer lived the individual is, too. I’ll cover modern society and its obsession with bloodline and status in a later post.

With the potential for historical persons having a drop of Melnibonean blood in their veins, there are opportunities to insert any figure you care to from history into the 1920s. But, this is hardly new, since we were doing it in Vampire 20 years ago.

In fact, Melniboneans are a lot like Vampires in their scope to change history — they’re unusually long lived and usually powerful. The differences between a Melnibonean and a Vampire that matter are

  • they’re able to go out in the sunlight
  • they walk around in a society which obeys them rather than fearing them
  • they’re public figures.

History should be made by Melniboneans. Bear in mind that “Melnibonean” is a fluid concept and applies to members of rich families with strong Melnibonean bloodlines — but not exclusively alien. No-one in 1920’s earth is a “pure” Melnibonean, or has any concept of what that would look like — maybe with the exception of Queen Elizabeth.

Where it’s amusing to do so, pluck figures from history and give them Melnibonean blood. Pay attention to their relative ages. No-one is older than Elizabeth herself, but having NPCs who were born in the 1700s is plausible. In my own games I inserted Elias Ashmole and various contemporaries of Elizabeth. However I was mindful not to turn it into an alternative Vampire with the players as mere observers to the Elder’s machinations. This should still be an investigation game.

Timeline of the Common Era

This is a sample timeline. In this world the Dragon Isle and Melnibone are both synonymous with The British Isles, and Imyrr is synonymous with Oxford (city of dreaming spires and all that).

0-500 – age of Chaos.

Sinking of R’lyeh followed by a power vacuum. The Western Ocean is named the Boiling Sea and becomes impassable for the next 1500 years. Old Melnibonean feudal estates within Britain and on mainland Europe vie for power. End of the Bright Empire witnessed by Maximillian von Becque who founds the Church of Law. At the end of the Age the Church of Law is a significant power in central Europe.

500-1000 – age of the Construction.

Church of Law gradually permeates through civilisation, and challenges the Melnibonean estates. British Isles resist influence of Law and is widely held to be haunted by mainland Europe, inhabited by ancient sorcerer-kings and frightened tribes of humans. Capital of the Church of Law established at the ancient pre-collapse city of Byzantium.

1000-1500 – age of Enlightenment.

British Isles invaded by William who establishes his United Kingdom and begins the reconstruction of the largely superstitious and Chaos-aligned Britain. This is the Middle Age of Britain, during which time the Church of Law is fully established. At the same time the Court of Chaos is put in place to satisfy (the vanity of) the remaining Melnibonean estates on the island. The southern estates join the alliance of the Church of Law and the Court of Chaos under the British Monarch, though in the far north of Scalland the estates refuse to bow to the alliance and a bloody war ensues which is never fully resolved, only conceded. The Scalls continue to predominantly observe the cults of Chaos and become known as the Lands of a Thousand Cults.
At this time the old cities of Melnibone are rediscovered and William arbitrates on the rightful stewardship of the settlements. Oxford is one such city, and becomes a principle seat of learning. Towards the end of this period the collapse of the Byzantine Empire is imminent, to be replaced by the modern European structure.

1500-present – modern age; the Age of Empire; the Rediscovery of Melnibone.

The influence of Law spreads as cities prosper and the precepts of Law supplant the old allegiances to the cults of Chaos; however in rural areas local cult worship is common. Queen Elizabeth comes to the throne in Britain after a brutal war of succession following the death of her father, Henry. As it happens this profoundly influences the Balance between Law and Chaos throughout Europe. Had her sister Mary succeeded their father it is likely that Mary would have founded New Byzantium and a second Great Age of Law would have resulted; instead Elizabeth sought a balance between the Church of Law and the Courts of Chaos, and the latter was able to establish itself in the political landscape. This was the great Rennaissance of Chaos, with the rediscovery of the arcane sciences and a resurgence in magic. The British Empire — also known as the Second Bright Empire — is established during this time, and spreads throughout the modern world as far as the New World to the West, and Asiacommunista to the East.
The “Romance of Melnibone” is a phrase used for the romantic sensibilities of old Melnibone, the rediscovery of Melnibonean relics and knowledge and a reconnection with the spirit of Melnibone which Elizabeth sees as a continuation of the work of William’s Reconstruction. As part of the Rediscovery, the pioneers of the new Bright Empire travel west across the Boiling Sea and successfully land in the New World. Colonies of the Bright Empire are established there until the war of Independence, where the United States split from the Empire completely.

Recent History

Britain has recently fought a Great War with Germania and won; for the moment there is peace in Europa, though the cost has been very high. Russian revolution leads to the renaming of the Eastern continent as Asiacommunista. Church of Law establishes prohibition in the former Imperial Colonies who now refer to themselves as the United States — though the Empire calls them the Young Kingdoms.

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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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