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.