Note: This series is going to be talking about some of the issues involved with working through the third and final season of Sunset Empire, my Victorian vampire hunting game. While I don't foresee there being Spoilers here, my players may want to skip these posts until the season has wrapped if they are concerned about dissonance or displeasure caused by a peek "behind the curtain".
This past Saturday, I returned to the Big Chair to begin the third season of Sunset Empire. I will admit, it's been a while since I've run what I think of as a "meaty" game -- it's been almost a year and a half since I wrapped up Shadowrun: Disavowed and just over a year since the end of the last episode of SE season two. I was a little worried that I'd be rusty, and I'm not sure this was my best session ever, but I got through it and I'm reasonably happy with how it's going so far. The players seem happy, and I'm satisfied that I got most of my cards on the table so we can proceed from here with style.
For those who haven't been sitting at my table for the past four years, I'll start with a little background on the game, so the rest of this makes sense.
I've always been a fan of Victoriana. There is something about the image of fog-shrouded streets by gaslight, carriages rattling along cobblestones, the fashions, the hats. I'm a sucker for a Sherlock Holmes movie (notwithstanding the horrible Robert Downey, Jr. vehicles, which irritated me in ways I can't go into without scatological detail), a fan of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books, and books that spin things in a new direction like Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine. Mark Frost's Sherlock Holmes meets the Cthulhu mythos novel The List of 7 made a big impression on me. For years, I'd been wanting to run a big, crazy Victorian game that played on all those things I love so much, and I kept shelving the idea for the simple idea that I didn't think I knew enough about the era to credibly portray the world.
What made it possible for me to run Sunset Empire was a decision to do the research that was required to increase my comfort level. I had done some casual research when I was prepping my games American Nightmare and Deadlands: Hell on Earth, and developed some skills that I felt were up to the task of building up my Victorian knowledge. The good news was that there are a lot of great resources for Victorian games already available on the good ol' Internet. I had access to great maps, photographs, and the ability to look up little bits of ephemera with incredible ease. If I needed to know the names of steamships in Her Majesty's Navy, in 1884, I was only a few clicks away from sweet satisfaction.
I read some good books, including Stephen Johnson's excellent The Ghost Map, and began reading through the few game resources on Victorian England I had collected over the years. The White Wolf supplement Victorian Age Vampire: London by Night was particularly useful to me, providng me with a good introduction to the setting and a handful of important characters for my game -- including the game's villain, Mithras. I also found that there was lots of great inspirational stuff in the old TSR "Amazing Engine" book For Faerie, Queen and Country, a gem I managed to snag off of e-Bay for very damned little. This inspired a good deal of the business in Sunset Empire revolving around England's other Queen of the Victorian era, Titania, her kingdom, and it also provided the name of the organization the heroes of the campaign worked for: the Royal Magisterial Corps.
Slight aside: It appears that, like my friend Rob and his Cold City game, that I was slightly ahead of the publishing curve with my gaming interests. Rob got stung twice by Ken Hite publishing material that was ideal for his game -- his Jason Bourne meets vampires game Night's Black Agents and his upcoming The Nazi Occult not having come out when Rob really needed them. For myself, the excellent The Kerberos Club by Ben Baugh and an outstanding new edition of Cthulhu by Gaslight happened to come out after I'd already done all the heavy lifting for SE. Ah well.
The core of the game is the idea that Queen Victoria has a semi-secret branch of the army (the Royal Magisterial Corps) who make their headquarters in the Tower of London. This branch of the army deals with any supernatural / extraordinary threats to the Empire, and patrols the borders where it intersects with the Faery realm. The Corps is lead by the greatest magician of the era, William Gull, a man who the world knows as Queen Victoria's private physician (and who is suspected of being Jack the Ripper in certain absurd conspiracy theories, like the one outlined by Alan Moore in From Hell). My take on Gull is based on the Victorian Vampire London book, which describes Gull as the Queen's advisor on occult matters. I thought that was too tasty not to steal.
Tomorrow, I'll tell you all about the heroes of Sunset Empire.