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Darius West

Call of C'thulhu in Stalin's Russia

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In an interview, Charles Stross mentioned that he thought that the combination of espionage and C'thulhu were a natural fit, in that the paranoia, bureaucracy, and institutional indifference of the world of espionage mixed well with the mythos. The child of this has been the laundry files and arguably Delta Green.  But arguably a mix that is intrinsically very similar would be the paranoia, bureaucracy and institutional indifference of Stalin's USSR.  We have seen a number of scenarios for the time period  "Secrets of the Kremlin" in Glozel est Authentique, Cold Harvest, The monogram "Terror", and potentially the Eastern Front info from Achtung C'thulhu all provide some background.  So historically, in 1927, when CoC is generally set, Stalin is still consolidating his control.  By 1929 he was actually in control of the USSR.  He dies in 1952, but arguably is at his worst in the 1930s.  Has anyone else actually contemplated putting together a campaign in this historical setting, or done so?  Is anyone interested in discussing it? 

Edited by Darius West

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“As Far as my Feet will Carry me”, about a German POW who escapes by walking all the way from East Cape to Turkey, provides a very different perspective on Soviet society which might be relevant to a CoC scenario.

The German protagonist has to stay on the fringes of society to survive - one serious identity check and he’s a dead man.

And those fringes, especially in tribal areas in the far north, where he spends a lot of time, are very thin indeed.

The historical veracity of the story has been challenged - but if you want some background material, the connection to Siberian shaman or whatever, well worth a read.

Note there is also a movie but I haven’t seen it.

 

Edited by EricW
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From a discussion on this topic over on YSDC, I brought up how in a chapter in GURPS Infinite Worlds: Worlds of Horror, Kenneth Hite outlined an alternate history in which Stalin signed his name in the Book of Azathoth in the 1920s in exchange for earthly power and extended life.

This Mythos USSR timeline, extending from the 20s to the 60s, can easily be repurposed for a regular CoC campaign prior to 1947 when the timeline notably diverges  The alternate history aspect kicks in with Harry Truman's death that year and the election of the isolationist Robert A. Taft to the presidency the year after.  Before that, it’s alternate secret history.  Afterward, it culminates in a Soviet-dominated world in which the Mythos lies only barely below the surface: "A hundred doors slowly crack open, all across the Soviet sphere. Surgeons captured in Treblinka probe the brains of political prisoners and Red Army volunteers, seeking the gateways in pineal space. Armies of slaves work gulag mines to supply the fungoid, alien Yughotiy with rare Siberian minerals. Thousands die in screaming agonies to placate Nyarlathotep. Antarctic explorers dig up Elder technologies; physicists in isolated Siberian laboratories go mad trying to utilize them. Certain inquisitive strangers with unlikely knowledge of the past and future answer insistent questions in their turn in the Lubyanka basement. Over them all, Stalin's will drives forward. The New Soviet Man will be the next Great Race on Earth. It will be the only Great Race."  Players in this setting would be trying to avert the Great Old Ones' return to this parallel earth "when the tsars are right".

I suspect it would be more entertaining (if that’s the word) to launch a campaign in an alternate 1920s USSR rather than a historically accurate 1930s one.  A Soviet CoC game would be more and more horribly depressing the closer it hewed to the historical record, especially once Stalin came to power.  In the early years of Stalin’s reign, players would have to deal with forced collectivization resulting in famine killing millions, then by the mid-/late-30s, show trials and the Great Purge.  And of course the NKVD had been murderously suppressing counter-revolutionaries for years.  Players in such a period setting would have to be either zealots or thoroughly morally compromised.  In an alternate history 1920s campaign, the players gradually realizing that their setting diverged from history would be a jarring reveal even as they explore the terrors of the Mythos behind increasingly fearful Soviet life.

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15 hours ago, Travern said:

From a discussion on this topic over on YSDC, I brought up how in a chapter in GURPS Infinite Worlds: Worlds of Horror, Kenneth Hite outlined an alternate history in which Stalin signed his name in the Book of Azathoth in the 1920s in exchange for earthly power and extended life.

That is a very pulp take on the setting, and is a bit like making the Nazis all involved in the mythos.  Idk if it actually makes the story better.  One of the main adversaries in any CoC game is the fact that very few people in authority understand that the mythos is real, and consequently the players have to come up with plausible explanations for terrible things that happened that will satisfy the local police etc.  Scale this up in Soviet Russia, where your actions are scrutinized more harshly unless you are some sort of "party darling" who can do no wrong in the eyes of Stalin and Beria.  If you blew up a coal mine outside of Magentogorsk you had better get your stories straight:

(a) We blew it up to stop the Fungi from Yuggoth= State facility for the insane, and sleeping in your own feces.

(b) We blew it up to stop dangerous counter-revolutionary activities= Gulag or firing squad for you. You are counter-revolutionary saboteurs.

(c) It had nothing to do with us.  I had a smoke with a guy at the Dept of Energy, and he told me  that they are using the mine to store nuclear materials long term. = Just right.

There is a tendency, given the threat of the mythos, to think that it needs to be involved in human politics and can be used as an explanation for human evils.  In a way this is something of a cop-out.  Not only does it dehumanize human evils, but it also sort of lets these acts off the hook, because "the mythos dun it".  I think it adds something to a game when players are forced to come to terms with what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil.  Part of the real horror is when your players have to start making very uncomfortable moral choices to survive in a world where bad people are in charge.

I mean, it is great to have the potential for the mythos to be infiltrating the Party, but to have a top-down approach where it is all Stalin's fault is fine if you are aiming for a pulp plot, and the notion of getting involved in an aerial chase where Stalin is firing a KSVK 12.7 at the party from the door of an Antonov A-7 is amusing, but it isn't really horror.  The fact is that the Communist party was segmented into thousands of branches with millions of members, and many of them lived in out of the way places, barely on the rail line, where they lived in modernist buildings overlooking the endless taiga, and oversaw a ball-bearing factory or some such.  This is where the mythos would take hold imo.  If it isn't stopped on the small scale, it grows, and it's all the PC's fault.  Sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to horror.

So, in essence, one of those plots would be great, but having all of them piled in on top of each other would be overkill I think.  I am not dismissing any of the ideas, just thinking that toning it down a bit might make for a better setting horror-wise, and suspension-of-disbelief-wise.

Edited by Darius West
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On 2/24/2020 at 8:30 AM, Darius West said:

That is a very pulp take on the setting, and is a bit like making the Nazis all involved in the mythos.  Idk if it actually makes the story better.  One of the main adversaries in any CoC game is the fact that very few people in authority understand that the mythos is real, and consequently the players have to come up with plausible explanations for terrible things that happened that will satisfy the local police etc.  Scale this up in Soviet Russia, where your actions are scrutinized more harshly unless you are some sort of "party darling" who can do no wrong in the eyes of Stalin and Beria.

Yes, Hite’s take is definitely pulp-horror rather than straight horror, with all the complications you mention.  It could be scaled down in a more serious campaign by having the Mythos-worshipping official(s) lower down on the hierarchy, even as their ambitions threaten to unleash vast terrors.

On 2/24/2020 at 8:30 AM, Darius West said:

There is a tendency, given the threat of the mythos, to think that it needs to be involved in human politics and can be used as an explanation for human evils.  In a way this is something of a cop-out.  Not only does it dehumanize human evils, but it also sort of lets these acts off the hook, because "the mythos dun it".  I think it adds something to a game when players are forced to come to terms with what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil.  Part of the real horror is when your players have to start making very uncomfortable moral choices to survive in a world where bad people are in charge.

Hite makes a similar point in Achtung Cthulhu about avoiding blaming Nazi atrocities on the Mythos: “Nyarlathotep did not dictate the Wannsee Conference memoranda on the Final Solution; Mengele was not channelling Y’golonac in his surgeries. Playing it that way lets the Nazis off the hook: they were only following orders from Cthulhu’s nightmares! Rather, point your causality in the other direction: humans who build industrial-scale gas chambers, massacre towns down to the children and house pets, and torture women in low-pressure capsules are the kinds of humans who find the Mythos.”

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On 2/26/2020 at 7:06 AM, Ali the Helering said:

Try 'Declare' by Tim Powers.  Cold War occult spy craft, not directly mythos, but... 

That looks like it could well be worth a read.  Thx Ali, I'll see if I can track down a copy.

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Kenneth Hite has talked about maybe writing a module for this for Trail, with the PCs being Soviet investigators who have to protect humanity while navigating the bureaucracy and a state that is ideologically committed to deny anything supernatural.  

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Does not World War Cthulhu : Cold War  not cover this? I assumed it covered all angles? (I much prefer the less pulply Darker WWC over Actung!) 

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23 minutes ago, Thaz said:

Does not World War Cthulhu : Cold War  not cover this? I assumed it covered all angles? (I much prefer the less pulply Darker WWC over Actung!) 

The advertising material assumes Western agents in a later time frame. It may be plundered, of course 👾

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23 hours ago, Thaz said:

Does not World War Cthulhu : Cold War  not cover this? I assumed it covered all angles? (I much prefer the less pulply Darker WWC over Actung!) 

Not really.  WWC is all about the Western Front from what I have read.  It's treatment of the USSR is tenuous at best, and certainly doesn't cover the the 1930s in the area.  WWC is fine if you want to play covert ops in Nazi Occupied Europe and introduce a mythos theme, but it doesn't even cover the previous era of the attempts by various intelligence agencies to infiltrate the USSR.  While I prefer the attitude of WWC to Achtung!  it just doesn't have the source material you would need.  Even the Cold War supplement is post Stalin.

Edited by Darius West

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On 2/23/2020 at 10:28 PM, Darius West said:

In an interview, Charles Stross mentioned that he thought that the combination of espionage and C'thulhu were a natural fit, in that the paranoia, bureaucracy, and institutional indifference of the world of espionage mixed well with the mythos. The child of this has been the laundry files and arguably Delta Green.  But arguably a mix that is intrinsically very similar would be the paranoia, bureaucracy and institutional indifference of Stalin's USSR.  We have seen a number of scenarios for the time period  "Secrets of the Kremlin" in Glozel est Authentique, Cold Harvest, The monogram "Terror", and potentially the Eastern Front info from Achtung C'thulhu all provide some background.  So historically, in 1927, when CoC is generally set, Stalin is still consolidating his control.  By 1929 he was actually in control of the USSR.  He dies in 1952, but arguably is at his worst in the 1930s.  Has anyone else actually contemplated putting together a campaign in this historical setting, or done so?  Is anyone interested in discussing it? 

Difficult plot ) If the goal is to make a campaign in this specific era and somehow connected to real historical events, it's not a problem. But if you want to write something really close to real culture and people in USSR - it's impossible. All the mentioned scenarios, with all respect, are "cranberry". I can try to explain what does this means (cranberry). If you look at Bollywood movies and think that life in India looks like it for real, well, it's "cranberry". Vodka, balalaika, bears in the street, matryoshka, nuclear reactors in each household - cranberry. Any native speaker, when he reads any of the mentioned campaigns will notice "cranberry" because of the names of main characters (not all, but most of them). Of course, I'm not talking about more detailed work with cultural aspects of everyday life.

 

But my advice will be really bad without any positive feedback ) What can be really interesting and could work well - US and UK intervention to the Soviet North in 1918.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allied_intervention_in_the_Russian_Civil_War

 

Long story short:

 

End of the Great War.

The civil war in USSR. Two main forces - the White army and the Red army. More easily - ex-Imperial forces, protecting the old system and communists on the other side.

Allied armies invasion to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk (in English it means Archangel) to support the White army.

 

In this case, you will have a lot of common and well-known culture in your campaign from one side (the US and England troops + Canadians, Australians + some french colonists + a lot more other small ethnic groups) and USSR setting on the other side. From March 1918 till November 1919 at minimum, your players will be able to visit a lot of northern Russian cities and make some mythos related story out of it. Your players can be any nationality, you will have danger all around and some isles of peace in big cities captured by Allied forces.

 

Just, for example, "Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus" begins in Arkhangelsk (original book). Also, you may find inspiration in the last episode of "Love, Death & Robots" - «Secret War». It's pretty close to not a "cranberry". Please, welcome, if you have any questions.

Edited by Pseudodog
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2 hours ago, Ali the Helering said:

You could easily produce a rationale for executions and mass starvations to power enormous magical workings. 

 

Spoiler

See Tim Powers’s aforementioned Declare.

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On 3/6/2020 at 6:08 AM, Ali the Helering said:

You could easily produce a rationale for executions and mass starvations to power enormous magical workings. 

 I like humans who are responsible for crimes to bear the guilt for them, not slap the blame on the mythos.  The mythos is more likely to use the humans who are so degenerate that they can wholesale murder their own species as a springboard and disguise for their own agenda. But it does raise another issue...  Have you ever read the cartoon "Garfield minus Garfield"?  It removes Garfield from the comic, leaving the character of Jon Arbuckle negotiating his existential angst and growing isolation driven madness.  Imagine "C'thulhu minus C'thulhu", a game where there are insane cults who worship and are prepared to kill for something that isn't actually more than their own madness de-anthropomorphised. 

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I don't think that having a 'Mythos inspired' cause for callous mass murder in any way reduces the culpability of the perpetrators. In fact, their willingness to sacrifice a vast number for their own perceived benefit may increase their crime. 

Twin Peaks has a marvellous discussion between Dale and Harry concerning which is worse - the demonic or the purely human evil. I have used it in Ethics classes and Bible studies alike! It is always interesting to watch the conversation develop 😳

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3 hours ago, Ali the Helering said:

I don't think that having a 'Mythos inspired' cause for callous mass murder in any way reduces the culpability of the perpetrators. In fact, their willingness to sacrifice a vast number for their own perceived benefit may increase their crime. 

Twin Peaks has a marvellous discussion between Dale and Harry concerning which is worse - the demonic or the purely human evil. I have used it in Ethics classes and Bible studies alike! It is always interesting to watch the conversation develop 😳

Wow, that would be a most interesting conversation... 

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The 'Garfield minus Garfield' approach is very interesting, indeed. It can be used within a great many different genres as an analytical tool to tell us a  great deal about the author, although perhaps little else. 

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Then, whispered Castro, those first men formed the cult around small idols which the Great Ones shewed them; idols brought in dim aeras from dark stars. That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. Meanwhile the cult, by appropriate rites, must keep alive the memory of those ancient ways and shadow forth the prophecy of their return.

I don't think the mythos beings care in the slightest about human politics, and most mythos sorcerers probably don't care that much either, they simply take what they want. When humans are ready to be an easy meal mythos entities might show more of an interest, but meanwhile there are plenty of other corners of the universe to party. Cthulhu found early 1900s Earth so uninteresting he simply went back to sleep, unless you believe the protagonist's theory that a god who once ruled the entire Earth was silly enough to be accidentally trapped by his own chamber.

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But if you've got Stalin and his cronies running around loose, who needs the Mythos?

 

Six parts so far.  Fascinating and terrifying.Thank God daily that you don't live in Stalin's Russia.

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3 hours ago, EricW said:

I don't think the mythos beings care in the slightest about human politics, and most mythos sorcerers probably don't care that much either, they simply take what they want. When humans are ready to be an easy meal mythos entities might show more of an interest, but meanwhile there are plenty of other corners of the universe to party. Cthulhu found early 1900s Earth so uninteresting he simply went back to sleep, unless you believe the protagonist's theory that a god who once ruled the entire Earth was silly enough to be accidentally trapped by his own chamber.

I think that he's sleeping off the headache caused by being hit in the cranium by a steamship. 

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