Monday, April 9, 2012

Colonial Hex Crawling


I keep coming back to the idea of putting together a hex crawl for colonial New England - something in the mid-17th century, before the Salem witch trials, probably even before the Dutch lost New Amsterdam to the English - 1650 or earlier.

For our upcoming Cthulhu game in 1930's New York, I've been reading up on the history of the city, and it struck me how the early Dutch colonies of New Amsterdam had the frontier qualities of the American Wild West.  You have these European fur traders landing in the new world to make some money, heading up rivers and tributaries to trade with natives and trap animals, then returning to the settlements to get hammered and have a good time.  Basically the types of things you’d expect from adventurers.  Accounts of life in those Dutch colonies are quite a bit different from the theocratic colonies of Plymouth and Rhode Island.

Once you overlay the tropes of Lovecraftian horror, the idea of a fantasy game hex crawl in this type of setting becomes real interesting to me.  The native Algonquin and Iroquois nations struggle with degenerate neighbors that worship ancient horrors sleeping beneath the ground.  Alien terrors like the Mi-Go have been visiting earth for millennia, mining rare minerals and performing heinous biological experiments, such that remote ranges of hills are considered taboo for their evil reputations.  Beneath the ground, atavistic cave-dwellers emerge on moonless nights seeking flesh.

Many of the early colonists came to escape religious persecution; in a weird fantasy game, why wouldn't there also be witches, cultists, wizards, and sorcerers leaving Europe to avoid the inquisitor's pyre, either hiding in the settlements or striking out on their own?  American folklore has a tradition of "deals with the devil" - as the Black Man, or Old Scratch - happening out in the dark woods.   There's a theme of 'chaotic wilderness' versus 'law and civilization' that can be developed as well.

Part of why Lovecraft's body of work is so compelling is how he's created an intricate mythology for New England, blending science and cosmicism with supernatural horror in a self-referential body of work.  Stephen King carried the torch in a similar way with his Maine mythology.  I'm also enamored with Ramsey Campbell's treatment of the Severn Valley in England.  So I'd mine those sources for ideas on creating a sprawling hex crawl wilderness representing the eastern seaboard, littered with locations for these ancient horrors.

There could be opportunities for traditional dungeon crawls, too - cavern complexes and underground lairs of the atavistic cannibals, the lightless caverns carved by unknown hands implied by The Festival, the lost civilization of K'n-yan (from The Mound), or the subterranean dungeons carved by wizards to hide their experiments - like Joseph Curwen's dungeons from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

I admit, it' an unusual idea - I see a frontier of isolated colonies of competing nationalities, and then small border forts penetrating the interior of a dark and foreboding land, and then the discovery of monsters.  I usually carry around a brainstorming notebook for ideas, I'll keep it handy for jotting down notes for the colonial hex crawl and see if it generates a real spark.  Must be something about the zeitgeist, Chaoisum released a monograph called Colonial Terrors, there's an entire rpg called Colonial Gothic, and Sixtystone Press has a Colonial Lovecraft Country book penciled in for next year.  All of these works seem to be 18th century or so, around the time of the Revolutionary War, and they focus on traditional horror investigations, and not exploration and adventure.  Doing this type of thing as a D&D setting allows the use of technologies that explicitly support free-form wilderness exploration, like the D&D hex crawl and dungeon crawl.

With a cover like this, the LOTFP Grindhouse Edition looks tailor made for the colonial hex crawl:





15 comments:

  1. I don't have time today, but if you're serious we should talk: Dutch expansion is what I do for my day job. Hexcrawling the Albany hills is one great approach, Heart of Darkness Journeys Up The Awful River is another - Hudson's adventures and eventual disappearance have a flavour all their own. But I'd do this as the very first globetrotting wave- or coast-crawl: right at the same time the Dutch were getting lost in Sumatra, imprisoned in India, wrecked in Western Australia, malaria in Mexico, not-scalped in New England (thereon hangs a tale) and frozen in both Spitsbergen and the Bering Strait. The deadly, exotic and id-calling Indies was the whole world beyond Europe, and I see no reason not to draw strange parallels across all of it... in a game.

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    1. Richard - I'm off to the library this weekend to grab some books on the Iroquois and Algonquin Indians, as well as some books on colonial life. Any suggestions on sources for Dutch settlements north of New Amsterdam? I'm thinking of placing it around Fort Orange or Schenectady - it's rugged and a crawl could stretch all the way to the Finger Lakes. Hope I'm not imposing - it sounded like you were open to reaching out for ideas - contact info is off to the right if you want to send a gmail.

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  2. There are some glacial caves in New Hampshire that legend says the local indians used for unusual rites. I've visited these caves myself and in spots you can see phosphorescent minerals and you can still feel the cold bubbling up from the clacier fragments buried far beneath the caves which are formed by boulder gouged up out of the earth and pushed aside by the glaciers of old.

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  3. I think this is a good idea. Some of Howard's stuff would offer inspiration, too. Solomon Kane, of course (though it isn't set in the New World), but also the Conan stories about the Pictish wilderness (which are sort of a fantasy Leatherstocking Tales). Cherie Priest's Those Who Went Remain There Still is latter era, but close enough to be inspirational.

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  4. just re-read my comment and realised I sound incredibly arrogant. Sorry about that. I'm really not, usually.

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  5. Cool, there's something about explorers in raccoon hats and fur jackets poling up a murky river into unknown lands that screams adventure to me... Richard, I'm definitely considering the Heart of Darkness approach and all the things that can go wrong with those border forts and way stations out in the wilds. I see this as a little side project though, and wouldn't take on the globe trotting version. That being said, if the scrawlings in my notebook indicate an alternate mythology is taking root, I'll take you up on the kindly offer to talk about the historical side of things - sounds like you'd have ideas on the best decade and location in the 17th century, and that could really focus my reading.

    I'd want there to be a lot of intrigue in the wilds with the mix of continental powers (ie, ,Last of the Mohicans style conflicts), plus the rivalries between native nations, and then those groups that are involved with dark powers.

    @Trey: your link didn't work! I'll google it though.
    @JD: I like that idea of pre-glacial remnants - who lived in North America even before the native Americans? Monsters.

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  6. Monsters like Ithaqua (you think Ithaca NY is named after some place in Greece? Nope, that's ancestral brain-echo). And baxbaxwhatever: the cannibal-at-the-north-end-of-the-world (no google right now on my phone, but he's worth looking up).

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  7. That's a cool concept- I think we'll see more people interested in the Colonial and earlier period soon, given the upcoming Assassin's Creed VG. I already had one of my normally history-adverse group come up and ask about a tabletop game in that era, primarily based on the advance artwork they'd seen for the VG.

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  8. I'm itching to do the same.

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  9. This is a really interesting idea. It sounds like a great time & place to play a campaign out.

    When I read the line about "degenerate neighbors", I remembered a Native American/Western Horror film called the Burrowers. If you haven't seen it, you should check it out.

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  10. I remember that one, The Burrowers. It had a creepy, humans-being-dragged-underground-as-food thing going on - those kind of creatures would be great. I also liked the the things from The Descent living in Appalachia.

    I'm heartened to see interest in the idea. So much of our fantasy gaming is European themed, I'm intrigued by blending bits from Native American folklore and myth with the cosmic horror.

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  11. You might check out this guy's stuff: http://theosrlibrary.blogspot.com/
    If you haven't seen.

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  12. Sorry to be so late to the party, but I've been doing research for a Halloween adventure for my group (I try to do one every year) and I literally stumbled on this moments ago. It's brilliant! I have a great idea for an adventure, but I was wondering if you ever got this off the ground and if so, how did it go? Also, if you're still looking for inspiration (or for any future visitors out there) I cannot recommend highly enough the movie Eyes of Fire. It's set in this exact era and deals with this very concept. The SFX are dated (from the 80's) but the story and concepts are awesome. Anyway, cheers!

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  13. Sorry to be so late to the party, but I've been doing research for a Halloween adventure for my group (I try to do one every year) and I literally stumbled on this moments ago. It's brilliant! I have a great idea for an adventure, but I was wondering if you ever got this off the ground and if so, how did it go? Also, if you're still looking for inspiration (or for any future visitors out there) I cannot recommend highly enough the movie Eyes of Fire. It's set in this exact era and deals with this very concept. The SFX are dated (from the 80's) but the story and concepts are awesome. Anyway, cheers!

    ReplyDelete