Allan Quartermain

Allan Quartermain

In my previous post I had mentioned the possibilities of superheroes in the 1930s. I shared the posting with my group – immediately illiciting horror from my brother (who is in the group) with the message STOP CHANGING GAMES!!! Perhaps you know other GMs with short-attention spans… Be that as it may, rest assured guys I’m still pumped for our D&D 4e/Eberron game – I even splurged for shipping on the new Eberron book due out tomorrow. This is one of my outlets to explore such ideas without inflicting each of them on my group.

Some of the comments from my group were quite interesting. A player who had a modern age Wild Talents character with time control focus indicated he was rather fond of his current character – which really opened intriguing possibilities. Indeed other characters could be revisited as antecedents of their more modern characters. And more than one player noted the possibilities of being on the edge of World War II – especially interesting for a time traveler commited to preserving the timeline. Another player mentioned the possibility of making an Alan Quartermain-like character, albeit a while too late. That got me thinking of Quartermain. I’d never read the novels featuring him, but I knew the basics and knew he was a character in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I’d seen enough of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film to know it was not my ideal kind of film – but I’d never read the graphic novels. I snagged the first volume and was immersed into the world of the League. A motley assortment of fictional characters of the Victorian Age came for a visit – the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Mina Murray, Allan Quartermain, Professor Moriarty, etc. It had never occurred to me just how many “superheroes” existed in the Victorian Age until I read this work.

So what sort of a campaign would we be looking at, hypothetically? Well, to begin with I think we are looking at “superheroes” who are not extremely super. In modern comics, think of someone like Daredevil, Golden Age Sandman, Batman, etc. People who are above and beyond the common man, but not going to destroy continents or fly through space. Some characters have no real superpowers at all but are incredibly intelligent, masters of martial arts, gadget masters, etc. Alan Moore presented Captain Nemo in this manner, using Nautilus as the team’s mobile base and Nemo having a massive harpoon  gun to repel borders.

So these characters have advantages over “normal” men, but not much of one. I picture superpowers being available but they are limited superpowers. A character can be a successful adventurer without them – just like Batman is in modern comics. Here’s some sample ideas that come to mind, some pulled straight from period tales:

  • Super-strength, obtained from a potion bringing out the dark side of the persona.
  • Precognitive powers, but difficult to translate from the myriad of possible futures. However does make it easy to avoid getting hurt in a fight.
  • Flight from a special lighter than air metal – not incredibly fast flight mind you…
  • A ritualist magician member of the Golden Dawn.
  • A native studying forbidden lore of his people to fight the Imperialists.
  • An extremely competent adventurer with a big gun.
  • A cocaine-using consulting detective.
  • A monster hunter. No special powers per se, but a ton of handy knowledge and variety of tools for use against monsters.

I rather like the idea of using the Wild Talents engine. Though I’m planning on dialing back the “super” part of powers – I view these characters as having access to something that makes them special, whether it be training, research, dark secrets, etc. This seems less an era where a radioactive spider will bite a hero as one where a “mad” scientist researches into the nature of spiders to gain those powers – only to have it not quite work out.

Why adventure in this period? What about the idea of the 1930s? Well either will work to be honest. A lot of it has to do with feel. But especially appealing about dialing back even further is the even greater limits placed on technology. While the telephone existed, it was even more primitive than it was in the 1930s. Radio is still in the extreme experimental stages. There is a cheerful Imperialism in this era, something I certainly do not approve of (Leopold’s Congo just leaps to mind as a brutal example of this) but someing that makes for excellent adventuring opportunity. Depending on how scientifically accurate one wants to be there can be ships in the ether or invasion of Martian tripods. Characters can go exploring in unknown lands, seek out Shangri La, go under the sea, visit the deserts of Mars and jungles of Venus (which will have, of course, dinosaurs). One advantage of the late Victorian/early Edwardian period is much of the well known European fiction has occurred, giving a wide menagerie of foes and adventures to mine. Also it makes the oncoming Great War something to keep in mind.

If we do go into this era, there are a variety of gaming sources to mine. The obvious ones are:

  • Castle Falkenstein,  published by R. Talsorian games. A physically gorgeous game, it takes place in an alternate Victorian Age where fictional characters interact with their creators. Dwarves, dragons, and faerie (not the Disney kind) are part of society. Great steam devices have been created. Adventure is dialed up to 11. The rules system is quite different from most other games, being card based and descriptive. It foreshadowed game engines such as FATE and PDQ. To be honest, if I were to go for a non-Wild Talents game this would be it. And for some reason there is an inland sea over much of Belgium. I guess this is good news for the Congo…
  • Space: 1889, originally published by the late Game Designers Workshop. The license reverted to its creator Frank Chadwick. Heliograph is reprinting the original game and Pinnacle Entertainment Group will be producing a Savage Worlds adaptation. Space: 1889 is less wahoo than Castle Falkenstein, positing the existence of ether that allows interplanetary space travel to the jungles of Venus and deserts of Mars.  The Great Game of Empires takes place across the solar system as well as on the continents of the Earth. I can definitely see interplanetary journeys in my game, though I’m not sure I’d keep the ether.
  • GURPS: Steampunk. While my group isn’t too fond of GURPS, this is a first rate sourcebook just begging to be exploited.
  • Savage Worlds: Rippers. This is a Savage Worlds game which cheerfully makes use of ideas from the movie Van Helsing. Even if I were not to use the Savage Worlds game engine (which I think would work well should I choose to dial back the superpowers a bit) there is a lot from this game to borrow.
  • Victoriana. I’m still working my way through a pdf of this game. It takes place far earlier than I plan on running a game, but it is all nice and moody and atmospheric. If I had more time for gaming – and it paid an awesome salary…

As far as literary and other inspirations, the possibilities are quite wide.

  • The works of Jules Verne. Verne had an amazing imagination. Captain Nemo is the perfect anti-hero – reminds me in many ways of Marvel’s Sub-Mariner. My more “serious” blog just discussed him in the post Jules Verne: Good Parts Version, with an emphasis towards the better translations.
  • War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells. At some point a team has to stop an alien invasion.
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore. Of course this work must be referenced as a prime inspiration.
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson. A classic story of science gone wrong, useful for both insipiration of a hero (the Hulk?) of a villain. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells would work in a similar manner.
  • Dracula, Bram Stoker. One of my favorite novels, the opening scenes are incredibly moody and atmospheric and the brides of Dracula creep me out.
  • The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman. A work of non-fiction, gives an excellent view of European society in the period between the Franco-Prussian Wars and World War I.
  • The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914, Philipp Blom. Another non-fiction work from the period.