Creating The Saanich Cycle – Part 2 – The High Level View

In case you missed part 1, I’m in the process of creating a Trail of Cthulhu campaign framework using the city creation guidelines from the Dresden Files RPG. Why? Well, basically, I’ve found that I typically don’t do enough prep work for games – in terms of creating NPCs and locations for the PCs to interact with during the game, and I sometimes have trouble coming up with good stuff on the fly.

By having some design work done ahead of time, and knowing how the different NPCs think about a range of issues, it will (hopefully) make my life easier and the game seem a little more real.1 I had thought about developing my own system for doing this until I realised that the guidelines in the DFRPG were pretty good and could be bent a little to create game settings for other systems without too much hassle. So, this series of blog posts is my attempt to create an interesting campaign setting for ToC using those guidelines. Also, by blogging this stuff, it gives me an extra bit of motivation to work on this stuff.

One thing I did neglect to mention last time is when I’m setting this campaign framework. I’ve decided to stick with the default 1930s setting that Trail of Cthulhu uses, rather than do this in the modern day. Hopefully, it will help keep the usual Cthulhuesque feel to the game.

OK, when we left off the other night, I’d come up with the themes and threat for the city of Victoria, B.C. The next phase of the city creation rules are to take a high level view of the city and to come up with the different factions and where they stand on the supernatural status quo.

Of all the sections in the city creation rules, this one is probably the one that doesn’t work overly well for Trail of Cthulhu. In the Dresden Files universe, there are a set of well known groups – the different courts of Vampires and Fae, as well as the White Council of Wizards and all that sort of thing. When you’re creating a city for DFRPG, you start plugging in whichever of those groups takes your fancy, and it’s fairly easy.

DFRPG also runs with the assumption that the PCs are going to be enmeshed in whatever supernatural shenanigans are going on in their city and will have a far better grasp on the truth than the vast majority of the mundane population.

But in Trail of Cthulhu, we don’t have those pre-existing groups to fall back on, and the PCs are part of the mundane population. They do have some knowledge of the supernatural side of things, but it’s a very different viewpoint to the one in the Dresden Files. ToC is also based on the premise that the PCs don’t really know what’s going on and that’s why they’re investigating.

Now, my first thought was to just skip over this section of the guidelines and go on with something else instead. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to have a go at it and come up with some different groups within the city that all have some interest or experience of the supernatural (to different degrees).

Now, this stuff is probably going to be a bit rough in this early stage, because I’m creating these groups from scratch, rather than going on material someone else has already come up with. But, at the same time, I’ll build on this stuff in the later sections to help build a stronger and more interesting framework at the later stages.

The aim of the exercise is to come up with a list of groups that are important to the city and what’s going on there, but are related to the themes and threats that we created in the first part of the process. There’s no point in creating, for example, a gardening society if they’re not going to have anything to do with the ghosts or the paranormal.

So, I started to brainstorm a bit about the sorts of groups of people who are going to be important to the storyline as I currently see it.

The Victorian Paranormal Society
The first group is the Victorian Paranormal Society itself. It was mentioned in the second theme of the city, so I figured that it’s important to start there. But I had also said that they are a house divided, and that there are factions within the society that don’t get along so well. This got me thinking about ways to split the group along ideological lines.

To begin with, I think I’ll split the society into two main factions: the “spiritualists” and the “scientists”.

The “spiritualists” will be the group who believe that the ghosts are the spirits of the dead, who are trying to communicate with the living, particularly those that were left behind. They’ll be most concerned with conducting seances and the like, and trying to find ways to understand what the ghosts want and what the living need to do to help them move on.

The “scientists” are those that aren’t really sure what the ghosts are, but they believe that there’s a logical, rational explanation for their appearances. They’re the group that are more likely to use scientific equipment to figure out where the ghosts are and what effect they have on the “real” world.

Given the differences of approaches between the two groups, there’s going to be a fair bit of antagonism between them. They will share information about various cases, but there’s still going to be friction.

I’ll probably think up further divisions for the Society as I go along, but this will do as a starting point.

The Skeptics
Now, to counterpoint the Paranormal Society, I’m going to include a group of skeptics. They don’t believe in the paranormal in any form and take great delight in debunking whatever theories people have and proving them to be hoaxes. They’re also going to be doing their best to destroy the reputations of the Paranormal Society members, so that people won’t take them seriously. Given that the main threat of the campaign framework is going to be that ghosts are real, I don’t see the skeptics as playing a massive part in the story. However, they may well make good antagonists for a couple of the episodes, throwing spanners in the plans of the PCs at inopportune times.

The Chinese
Victoria had a large Chinese population in the 1930s, with a vibrant Chinatown district in the downtown core. In the earliest part of the Twentieth Century, the district had been filled with underground opium dens and illicit prostitution, which is great fodder for creating restless spirits. The population of Victoria’s Chinatown was falling in the 1930s from the heights it reached in the mid-Twenties. By including elements of Chinese mysticism and their beliefs on spirits and the afterlife, we can provide a counterpoint to the more Western ideas of the Paranormal society.

The Church
The Church – in its various denominations – provides a couple of different approaches to dealing with ghosts. By and large, most of them would consider ghosts to be evil and related to the Devil somehow. Depending on the views and experience of the priest, exorcisms could be provided as an option, but by and large, the church is going to discourage belief and investigation of ghosts as much as possible.

I’m also going to have to divide this section down into the different denominations, as they can have quite different views at times.

The First Nations Bands
Before European Settlement of Vancouver Island and the founding of Victoria in the Eighteenth Century, the region was the home to several bands of First Nations people. The Songhees lived around what is now Victoria’s Inner Harbour and there are burial grounds and other important sites dating back thousands of years all over the lower part of Vancouver Island. The First Nations have their own views on spirits and ghosts and it would be remiss of me to not include some of those ideas into the story.

The Police
The police are going to be in the skeptical camp, but because there are going to be deaths involved in the storyline, they’re going to be getting involved in the investigations. The PCs and other members of the Paranormal Society may well run across the police in the course of their own investigations and the cops could make certain activities much harder, if not impossible. I’m thinking of making it that the investigators won’t get a whole lot of leeway with the law when it comes to breaking and entering, or worse – murder if they go shooting someone – which will add further complications to their investigations.2

I have in mind some other people who probably could be written up in this section, but I’m going to keep these close to my chest for the time being, as a means of building the mystery that underlies this campaign framework. Again, this is really a case of how the needs of ToC don’t like up all that well with the intentions of the DFRPG.

Now, in the DFRPG, there’s a chart divided into four quadrants, which is designed to map out how much people know about the supernatural on one axis (ranging from nothing at the top to everything at the bottom), and how much they want to rock the boat on the other axis (from not at all on the left, through to major revolutions on the right.

I haven’t decided as yet whether I’m going to use this chart at all in this game, as the premise that I’m working on doesn’t really line up with the underlying design principles that the chart was created to capture. So, for the time being, I’m not going to be using it, although I may change my mind on this later on.

I’ll admit that this all still feels a little disjointed at the moment. Some of the groups aren’t really related to each other at this stage, but I’m including them now to create plot elements that can be woven into the storyline later on. But, I’m reasonably confident that by the time I’m done, things will come together nicely.

Next time, I’ll start creating significant locations for the story. Some of them will be related to the main themes and threats of the city, while others will be more related to the factions that I’ve created here.


[1] I refuse to use the word “verisimilitude”, mainly because I can’t stand it. I think it’s a complete load of wank.


[2] I should say “his” investigations, because I’m planning this campaign framework for a game with only one character in it initially.

Creating The Saanich Cycle

This is going to be the first in a series of posts where I talk about creating a new campaign framework for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu roleplaying game. With a bit of luck, I should hopefully be running a campaign based on this material in the not-too-distant future.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m something of a packrat when it comes to roleplaying games. I have a fairly large collection of RPG books – well over sixty different systems last time I bothered to count, which was (admittedly) quite a while ago now. I definitely not one of these people who sells off his RPG books as soon as he loses interest in them.

I’m also the sort of person who often finds ways to cross-pollinate ideas between gaming systems1. I’m finding that I’m forever digging out old gaming books to pinch ideas from, even if those ideas need a bit of bashing into shape in order to get them to work for the game I’m interested in at the moment. But at the end of the day, a good idea is a good idea and it doesn’t take much work to translate those ideas and find new uses for them.

Last week, while I was working on writing a standalone Trail of Cthulhu adventure, I started getting all sorts of weird ideas on how I could expand the basic hook of the adventure and expand it into a campaign framework for ToC. I grabbed a new notebook and started scribbling some notes down, as is my wont.

One of the first things I realised is that I needed to come up with a collection of non-player characters and locations that would fit into the framework to make it seem more robust and interesting. At first, this seemed like a fairly daunting prospect, as I was staring at a blank page and wondering what the heck to write about. So, I made the mental note that I should think about a process for building these sorts of things, so that I could do again later on if a different set of ideas struck me.2, 3

It was about at that point that I realised that such a framework already existed: the city creation rules in Evil Hat Games’ Dresden Files RPG.4 I had used the city creation guidelines last year to create a setting for a DFRPG game that never managed to get started.5 I figured that if I tilted my head and squinted a bit, I could use the DFRPG stuff to create a Mythos related campaign framework for Trail of Cthulhu that would have all sorts of locations and characters baked into it from the beginning and give me a much stronger base to start gaming on.

So, that’s what we’re going to do in this series of posts. We’re going to (mostly) develop a ToC campaign framework using the DFRPG city creation guidelines. I say “mostly” because I am going to be keeping some of the ideas under my hat in case my player stumbles across these notes. A lot of stuff that I’m going to be coming up with I’m going to be sharing with him before play starts, but some of it I want to keep as a surprise to keep some of the mystery that a GUMSHOE game actually needs.6

Ok, the first step in the city creation rules is to pick a city to play with. I’d already done that: Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. There were a couple of reasons for this. The biggest one is that it’s the city my wife is from and I spent a wonderful few days there back in 2007 and would go back there in a heartbeat. It’s got some very cool landmarks and historical facts about it, and it just felt like it would be a neat place to set a game.7

I also chose Victoria because the standalone Trail of Cthulhu scenario I’m writing is set further north on Vancouver Island, and in trying to figure out why a set of player characters would get involved in the investigation, I came to the realisation that if there was a society for investigating paranormal activity in Victoria, some of the members could potentially travel up island to start poking their noses into weird things that are happening up in the mountain forests. 8

It was the idea of having a campaign framework based around a group of part-time paranormal investigators that got me started on this project. I’m also lucky in that my wife has a couple of books on ghost stories from British Columbia, and many of them are from Victoria and the surrounding districts.

Now, ghosts are a funny thing as far as the Cthulhu Mythos is concerned. While there are rules for them in both the BRP and D20 versions of Call of Cthulhu, there isn’t even a mention of them that I could find in Trail of Cthulhu. This may be because H.P. Lovecraft himself apparently didn’t believe in life after death and thought the idea was preposterous.

But, on the other hand, ghosts have been a staple of horror fiction for a very long time, including stories by people who inspired Lovecraft himself. When I started thinking about basing a campaign around ghosts and other paranormal activities, I put aside my Lovecraft reading for a while and dug out my copy of Colllected Ghost Stories by M.R. James. It’s proving to be excellent reading and acting as wonderful inspiration for this campaign framework.9

So, I’ve got a city and a particular lens through which to view it. This puts me in a pretty good position to start moving forward with the steps of the DFRPG city creation rules.

The first thing that it suggests doing (and this is really all I’m going to cover tonight) is thinking up the Themes and Threats that will underpin the whole game. The themes are elements that provide the status quo in the city; they sum up how things are right now. Threats, as the name suggests, are elements that will ultimately drive the story forward through the long term story arc and have the potential to upset the status quo and to make life difficult for the player characters.

The guidelines say to think up a total of three (combined) themes and threats, and write down a brief sentence for each one. After a bit of thinking, I settled on two themes and one threat:

Theme: Victoria is one of the most haunted cities in British Columbia, if not all of Canada.

This one is actually reasonably accurate, if you believe in actual ghost sightings. Victoria does have a fair number of haunted buildings and ghost sightings. The paranormal is one of the things that’s providing the main inspiration for this campaign framework, so it make sense to make it one of the central themes.

Theme: The Victorian Paranormal Society is a house divided

This theme ties in with the ideas from the Trail of Cthulhu campaign framework worksheet, in that the Victorian Paranormal Society is going to be a group of people who investigate paranormal activity in and around Victoria and will be the organisation to which the player characters will belong. But, to make things more interesting and to let me create a wide variety of non-player characters to act as both allies and antagonists, I felt it was better to set the organisation up to have several different factions within it, who argue about what the true nature of the paranormal is and even the best ways to go about investigating it. I’ll expand more on this theme in later posts, but for now, it just seems as though it’s going to provide a whole lot of colour to bring into the campaign down the line.

Threat: The Paranormal has been far more disturbed of late

If you read “real” ghost stories, they’re fairly tame. People talk about feeling odd presences, or hearing strange noises, or even seeing the occasional apparation. But very few of these stories are really all that scary. But we’re working on a framework for Trail of Cthulhu, which is based around having fun with characters who get the crap scared out of them and descend inevitably into madness. Because of this, we need to make the paranormal the PCs are going to be investigating more malevolent and scary, so that we can have some interesting stories to tell.

I do have to admit that I have a long term basis for the threat in my head, but I’m keeping that under wraps for now. I may not actually divulge what it is until I get a chance to run this campaign. I will say, however, that I’ve linked it back to the more traditional Mythos threats and plan on having a bit of fun with it.

Anyway, that’s probably more than enough stuff for the first post in this series. I plan on blogging the rest of the city creation process as I work through it, so that others can follow along with it and maybe even get some inspiration for themselves. Next time, we’ll start building stuff on top of these three core themes and threats and see what we can come up with.

Oh yeah, one last thing: the title of the campaign. The Saanich Cycle. Saanich is actually a district which forms part of greater Victoria. It also sounds vaguely Mythosy, so it seemed like a cool name for the campaign, even if it only ends up being a working title. :)


[1] Or even to crosspollinate from fields completely unrelated to gaming into gaming terms. I did, after all, use fuzzy cognitive map theory from a relatively obscure corner of computer science to create a GMing tool when I was writing the community rules for the Gamma World D20 Players’ Handbook back in 2003.

[2] Yes, I know there’s the campaign framework worksheet in the main Trail of Cthulhu workbook. It’s actually not too bad, but it doesn’t go deep enough into the sorts of things that I wanted to create. I will be using some of the ideas on that sheet in this process, but it will be part of a larger design process.

[3] Part of my day job is writing software. I’m quite keen on object oriented software design, part of which involves figuring out commonalities between potentially diverse things and abstracting those commonalities into “base classes” which can be used as a framework for creating a more specific object later on, without having to completely reinvent the wheel. If you do it well, it can speed up your software development time quite considerably.

[4] I also realised at the same time that the DFRPG city creation stuff would be just as useful for designing a Consillium for White Wolf’s Mage: the Awakening, or a freehold for Changeling: the Lost, and would probably have applications for a whole bunch of other similar styles of games.

[5] The stillbirth of gaming campaigns is something that I’ve been cursed with quite badly over the past couple of years, but that’s a rant for another time and place.

[6] This is already one place where I’ll be departing slightly from the DFRPG guidelines. To use the system properly as per that book, the players are involved in that process and they help to create locations and characters and the GM later builds on that stuff to create the adventures. But some of the antagonists are already known to the players before play starts, which isn’t really what I want in this particular case.

[7] I also think it would be a great city to set a Changeling: the Lost game in. But that’s not important right now.

[8] I’ll say more about this particular adventure another time. It’s still a work in progress which I really should get around to finishing some time soon.

[9] The other major influence on the framework is actually Japanese Horror movies. I’m quite partial to them, even if I do think the American version of The Ring is probably better. I’ll probably talk more on this aspect later on.