15 November 2023
There’s only one thing that’s more terrifying than the endless but not empty abyss at the heart of the Cthulhu mythos… and that’s saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at a high-stakes, high society ball in the 1800s. Welcome, then, to Regency Cthulhu, and our interview with the designers about it before the game hit the shelves.
There’s only one thing that’s more terrifying than the endless but not empty abyss at the heart of the Cthulhu mythos… and that’s saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at a high-stakes, high society ball in the 1800s. Welcome, then, to Regency Cthulhu, a game that we spoke to Lynn Hardy and Mike Mason about at Dragonmeet 2021, which will finally be arriving on our shelves later this year. The PDF is available right now, and in usual Chaosium fashion, you can order the physical book and get the digital version free right away.
Of course, you’re not really in character if you’re using a tablet at your table, and indeed, if you’re sitting in mixed couple of unmarried people. The world of Jane Austen is a socially vicious one that sets us up for a whole host of potential roleplaying frictions – all while trying to uncover the usual cosmic horrors we’re used to seeing in Call of Cthulhu.
We sat down with the game’s writers, Lynne Hardy and Andrew Peregrine to discuss what makes this trip into the world of Cthulhu-themed horror so intriguing…
Who are Lynne Hardy and Andrew Peregrine?
Lynne Hardy: My name is Lynne Hardy, and I’m the Associate Editor for Call of Cthulhu at Chaosium. I’m also the line editor for the recently released Rivers of London: the Roleplaying Game.
Andrew Peregrine: I’m Andrew Peregrine, and I’m a freelance writer for role playing games, which for me is technically a side hustle that has gotten completely out of hand. My official job is as a lighting technician at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West End. I’m currently the lead developer for Dune: Adventures in the Imperium from Modiphius and also developing some of the My Little Pony line for Renegade. Regency Cthulhu is my first project for Chaosium, but it has been a dream of mine for some time to work on an official Cthulhu product for them.
And would that be appropriate given the period in which Regency Cthulhu is set, Lynne?
LH: Totally not! Not only have I published under my own name rather than anonymously—as was usually the case for women authors if they wanted to avoid a scandal—but I’m definitely one of those terrible Blue Stockings who believe in women’s education. Although I do, on occasion, also teach traditional embroidery techniques, so I suppose I may be just a little bit acceptably “accomplished,” at least as far as the Regency era is concerned.
Can you play Regency Cthulhu without knowing much about the setting?
LH: The supplement is set during the actual Regency, the period between 1811 and 1820 when George, Prince of Wales, was made Prince Regent by an Act of Parliament so he could take over official royal duties from his father King George III—hence the era’s name. George III’s previous bout of mental illness almost caused a Regency some twenty or so years earlier, as depicted in Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, but that time he recovered. Sadly, this time, he died without ever regaining power, and the Prince Regent became King George IV in January, 1820.
If you’re familiar with Jane Austen’s books, such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, you pretty much know what to expect—balls, promenades, matchmaking, and other social intrigues, with an added sanity-shredding Mythos twist. In real terms, what you can expect is an introduction to the era, which takes you through the historical setting; a chapter discussing how to create period appropriate investigators, as well as some new rules; the fictional town of Tarryford in Wiltshire, to use as a base for your Mythos investigations; two scenarios to introduce your players and their investigators to Tarryford, its inhabitants, and its secrets; and a smattering of appendices that contain additional support information, including a costume glossary and Tarryford 100 years after the events portrayed in the scenarios, in case the Keeper wishes to continue the story into the 1900s.
AP: If you’re not, the best option would be to just go and watch one of the legion of movies and series based on Jane Austen’s work. While few of them actually capture her biting satire and elegant writing, they will absolutely give you the gist. Reading any Jane Austen novel is the ideal though. But if we were playing tonight and I was driving you to the game, I’d first introduce it as an exercise in manners and good behaviour. For your characters, who are at the high end of Regency society, life is all about doing the ‘correct thing’, although this isn’t always the right thing. Society is beset with a legion of rules and etiquette governing what is polite and appropriate. Many of them are arcane and byzantine, and all designed to keep out interlopers. So, while there may be eldritch monsters from beyond time seeking to drive you insane, as long as you can remember which is the correct fork to use at lunch you are all good.
What made you want to go here with this book?
LH: While there is a lot more going on in the Regency period than the world portrayed by Jane Austen, I grew up watching BBC adaptations and listening to audiobooks of her works, and they were always something I enjoyed. When I was a little older, I read the books for myself and came to fully appreciate how clever, witty, and revealing they were about the time she lived in. I also took part in two Regency-based LARPs many years ago, one inspired by Jane Austen and the other by Mary Shelley, and they were both a great deal of fun, so I knew the setting was ripe for a Call of Cthulhu supplement!
AP: For some years, I’ve run a Call of Cthulhu game for my group on my friend James’ birthday which happens to be on Halloween. James picks the setting and we do a one night adventure. So Cthulhu has very much become our ‘special occasion pick-up game’. One year we were all holidaying in a Regency house and so everyone wanted to play a Regency Cthulhu game. As it happened I’d been researching the era for another game I’ve been working on for years called ‘Manners and Monstrosities’. So we played the scenario that would become ‘The Long Corridor’ mainly as the house we were in had just that arrangement of corridors. Thankfully both remained the same length for the holiday.
With a collection of these adventures in hand I realised I should do something with them, and so I pitched them to Chaosium. Lynne, being a huge Jane Austen fan, got very excited about the idea and convinced Mike (Mason) to make it much more than just a single adventure. I expanded on the setting and background detail, as well as developing the town of Tarryford and added another adventure. Then Lynne took hold of it, rebuilt reputation and added a whole ocean full of more cool stuff I’d forgotten.
Does Regency Cthulhu stick to the gendered spaces of it's era?
LH: The actual Regency period was very stratified, both in terms of gender roles and a person’s place in society. One’s social class and status was usually dictated by one’s ethnicity, job, or by how much money you’d inherited if you were at the top end of the scale, i.e., a member of the gentry or aristocracy. You could make money in trade, of course, but that was also looked down on by the great and good. Women in the lower classes certainly worked—they had to for their families to survive—but the women at the top of the social order were pretty much expected to produce heirs and be decorative. Women like Austen who attempted to have a career usually had to do so in secret if they didn’t want to bring shame on themselves and their families. Only truly wealthy women—usually widows—had some leeway in this respect, as they were regarded as “eccentric” rather than dangerous transgressors of societal norms.
Exploring some of that stratification in the game can be interesting—it certainly means players have to get creative when it comes to working around social expectations while combatting the Mythos. In terms of the spaces—well, being able to disappear off behind closed doors with those of your class and gender or being permitted to do the social rounds so you can catch up on the latest gossip is a great way to get information, the lifeblood of any scenario. Regency society thrived on gossip and tittle-tattle, so it’s a great way to seed clues to characters who may not be able to go tramping about the countryside interrogating witnesses.
AP: The other thing about the sexual segregation that went on is that (for a change) it made gay relationships a little easier. Men who spent time together were just ‘enjoying the bachelor life’ and women might often share a room and even a bed with a close friend. Of course they will still be pressured to marry and certainly not the person they are in love with. So there is a source of fun and tragedy in all such relationships, which makes for good story.
LH: We didn’t want the era’s gender roles—or any of its other social mores—to limit the kinds of stories the Keeper and their players could tell together. So, while we provide the Keeper with the information they need to know about what a woman’s role in upper class society was, we also suggest that they take a few liberties with historical accuracy in order to make the game as diverse and inclusive as possible. How many liberties depends on the group involved, and we encourage Keepers to talk about that with their players so everyone is on the same page once the game begins. Having some players think they’re playing Pride and Prejudice while others think they’re playing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is going to cause an issue!
How does Repuation work in Regency Cthulu? How do we go about ruining what little reputation we currently have?
LH: Oh, that’s easy! Dress inappropriately, flirt outrageously in public, get caught with members of the opposite sex without a chaperone, cheat at cards, behave drunkenly and licentiously, default on your creditors, then flee the country!
AP: Reputation is vital. It is very common for PCs to try and break the rules, or insist they don’t apply to them as they are mavericks. But in Regency Cthulhu, that sort of attitude will quickly have them thrown out of society. If you want to investigate you will have to be able to talk to people and go to the right occasions. Anarchists and mavericks are not respected for their daring, but ostracised for their rudeness.
But reputation is all about what you are seen to do, not what you actually do. As long as you can hide the truth for long enough, you can get away with a lot. In fact, society will turn a blind eye to a lot of scandal where it can, especially if they might get caught in it. So this adds an extra layer to investigation, trying to make sure you talk to people the right way or approach things with the correct etiquette as well as finding the clues.
Is the horror of the game the vicious social hierarchy present in the era? Or are there monsters too?
AP: Both! There is a lot you can do without introducing monsters at all. Regency Cthulhu gives you the tools to run a straight Jane Austen game if you are so inclined, without the mythos getting involved. But the horror works very well here because of the rules. If you can’t scream for fear of causing a scene, or try to find your missing brother because setting out right now would be inappropriate, the horror only grows.
LH: The social hierarchy certainly provides challenges and horrors, especially if your investigator is an intelligent woman who has no desire to be married off, but there are monsters, too. As we know from other historical Call of Cthulhu settings, the Mythos and its supporters get everywhere. And given the amount of secrecy and saving face in the Regency, the Mythos has a lot of places it can hide.
What're the Scenarios in Regency Cthulhu?
LH: The first scenario is “The Long Corridor.” In the grand Regency tradition, it begins at a ball, where the behaviour of the host’s daughter attracts the investigators’ attention. From there, they discover an unusual architectural feature that leads them further into the mystery. It was designed to introduce players to the Regency era, the town of Tarryford, and its notable citizens. It’s reasonably short—I say “reasonably” because, while it should only take one to two sessions to play through, our playtesters had so much fun with the social interaction side of things that it took them far longer!
The second scenario is “The Emptiness Within,” which takes place a year after the events of “The Long Corridor”. A brother and sister arrive in Tarryford from Italy to take over their late father’s estate, just as the town’s citizens start suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness. The investigators need to delve into Tarryford’s murky past to see if they can find a solution before the whole town falls sick. This is a longer and more complex scenario, designed to stretch the investigators and have them interacting with people from all social levels—from the absolute poorest all the way up to the aristocracy.
What're the top three tips for being a Regency investigator in Regency Cthulhu?
LH: Always be well dressed, mind your Ps and Qs, and always have a duelling pistol and a sharp knife in your reticule.
Will Regency Cthulhu be an ongoing line?
AP: It certainly could be, but I don’t believe there are any plans at the moment. It would certainly be worthwhile taking a look at the ‘Sharpe’ side of the era and the Napoleonic wars. But the community has already dived into the setting and there are already several excellent adventures to be found there. It is one of my favorite things about being a game writer that what I get to make can inspire such awesome stuff in other people. It’s great to see people taking the setting and running with it in some amazing directions I’d never have thought of.
And what’s next for you personally?
LH: My focus is currently shifting from Call of Cthulhu now that Rivers of London: the Roleplaying Game is out. I’ll still be involved (at the moment I’m editing a mini campaign) but there’s a lot of work to do to make sure Rivers has the player support it needs to make it into a vibrant, thriving line.
AP: At the moment we have a new book for Dune on the way and more in production as we speak. I’m looking forward to seeing the My Little Pony corebook out, and I’m working on more books for that in development too. I’ve also got some work coming out for two of my other favourite games, Vampire and 7th Sea and there is usually some more Doctor Who books to keep an eye out for. But it’s been great to work on Regency Cthulhu and I’d love to do more for Chaosium. I’ve already pitched them a modern day campaign book, so hopefully I’ll have a chance to get working on that too sometime.
And finally, please complete this phrase I’ve just come up with all by myself: “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”?
LH: “… that a single Keeper, in possession of a new setting, must be in want of some players.”
Words and Interview by Christopher John Eggett
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