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?

Back: Spoilers | Index | Next: History

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.

Back: Sources | Index | Next: Law and Chaos

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Elric of R’lyeh: An Introduction

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

Elric of R’lyeh was originally a marriage of convenience between Chaosium’s Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu. Rather than inject Lovecraftian nihilistic horror into a fantasy world (plenty of that already), the intent is to marry Moorcockian cosmology with a 1920s alternate earth.

This isn’t so much a setting as a “meta setting”; the balance between Lovecraft and Moorcock in the cosmic outlook is not fixed. As such it’s closer to an academic discussion than a work of fan fiction. Over the next few posts I’m going to serialise my game notes, including discussions on daily life, religion, geopolitics, myth, magic and philosophy. Whether the end product is Stormbringer’s Young Kingdoms superimposed over the 1920s Earth, or Call of Cthulhu’s version of our earth with a subtle taint of chaos, is for the reader to decide.

About Sources

The roleplaying games Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer are not about faithfully recreating the worlds of Lovecraft and Moorcock, but about running a workable version of those worlds where players can see their characters in context. Moorcock has been dissatisfied with the portrayals of his characters in at least some of the roleplaying products that bear the Eternal Champion monicker; this isn’t something I wish to explore here. Furthermore the goal of this project was never to faithfully interpret Moorcock’s entire cosmology, but rather analyse the elements that make the multiverse and discuss how those would apply in a re-imagined 1920s.

Therefore in the mention of sources, any reference to the roleplaying games are for purposes of referencing mechanics and colour that originate in those games. There are parts of the games that do not accurately portray the literature — the portrayal of magic in both Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu, for example — which, while not true to the original sources, are still useful mechanically. For the actual events of Moorcock and Lovecraft’s books, the content within the games will always be viewed through the lens of the games’ author, and returning to the original sources is the best practice.

Index | Next: Sources