The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in February 2008. 


You can also read Simon’s articles on 1930s Rail Transport and 1930s Air Transport.

an article for Trail of Cthulhu by Simon Carryer

While by the 1930s, diesel engines were revolutionising rail transport, and giving birth to a burgeoning flight industry, on the sea and on rivers, steam was still king. Unlike with trains and aircraft, large ships remained in service for decades, meaning that many of the ships that transported passengers of the 1930s were built as early as the 1850s, and some ships built in the 1930s remain in service today.

The steam turbine, first turned to use in seagoing vessels in 1897, was able to produce far more power than a traditional reciprocating steam engine. By the 1930s, all large ships were being built with such engines, allowing unprecedented speeds. For ships built in the thirties, the most popular fuel for running the boilers was no longer coal, but fuel oil. This meant that modern ships could run with a much smaller crew than earlier vessels. A typical small passenger steamer would have no more than a dozen crewmen, including a few stewards and cooks for the care of passengers. Larger vessels of course could have hundreds of crewmen (The Queen Mary, launched in 1936, had over a thousand), and were almost like floating towns, the crew forming their own community below decks.

Steam ships were used to ferry passengers between all major sea ports, and most navigable rivers were also serviced by ship. Such ships came in all shapes and sizes, from tiny paddle steamers, which could carry no more than a dozen passengers, to more modern screw driven steamers, which could carry hundreds of passengers in total luxury. The variety, diversity, and ubiquity of steam ships through the decade makes a detailed description by area almost impossible. It can be assumed that for most regions throughout the 1930s, if the region was accessible by water, and had any kind of population, then a steam ship would go there.

Passengers on ships in the 1930s could come from any walk of life. Immigrants to the USA (less common in the 1930s than in previous decades) would pack into giant transatlantic steamers, while more wealthy passengers could enjoy hotel-like conditions in first-class cabins. Outside America, river networks were frequently the backbone of trade in developing nations, and such rivers were packed with ships carrying all kinds of passenger, from native labourers to wealthy foreign investors.

Transatlantic

For the duration of the 1930s, passenger travel across the Atlantic was conducted almost exclusively by sea. Whether travelling in the greatest luxury, or sweltering in steerage class, anyone wanting to travel between America and Europe would almost certainly do so by sea.

Following WWI, several of the largest German “superliners” (large ships designed and used for transatlantic passenger shipping) were transferred to America and Britain as war reparations. Of these, the Mauretania – the holder of the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing for a twenty-year stretch ending in 1929 – is surely the most well known. Under new management, these huge ships continued to serve the transatlantic route. Travel aboard such vessels was glamorous and popular for many passengers the journey, and the style in which that journey was conducted, was as important as the destination. For first class passengers, the experience can best be compared to a modern cruise ship: meals, entertainment, sightseeing and socialising were all taken care of by the ships’ staff.

By contrast, the conditions experienced by passengers in steerage (the hold of the ship) could be miserable. Before the United States closed its borders in the 1920s, immigrants to America would sleep packed together like cattle, eating a common meal that was described as frequently almost inedible.

New ships built in the thirties achieved even greater speeds. Two German ships, the Bremen (named after its home port) and the Europa were the first to challenge the Mauretania‘s dominance, but throughout the decade the Blue Riband continued to change hands. The ships competed not only for speed, but also for glamour. With the transatlantic route no longer dominated by immigration to the United States, ships built in the thirties were designed as much for elegance as for speed. Competition was fierce, as several of the largest companies (including White Star, of Titanic fame) were operating at a loss for the first half of the decade.

The Arctic

From the 1860s onwards, steam powered icebreaker ships were developed, which allowed unprecedented exploration of the Arctic. Icebreaker ships rely on speed and strength to run their bow up onto a sheet of ice, and then break down through it. Steam power proved ideal for such a task. It was not until the start of the 20th century, however, that such ships saw regular service. The Klondike gold rush caused a surge in Arctic exploration. Union Steam Ships, with their characteristic black and red funnels, regularly serviced the Canadian and Alaskan coasts, even running tourist cruises from warmer southern ports into the frozen north.

Tramp Steamers:

With few regulations, large profits to be made, and steam ships becoming ever more ubiquitous and affordable, the thirties saw a proliferation of small-scale operations. None were more small-scale than the tramp steamer. Operating as a one-ship company, tramp steamers worked to no fixed schedule, going wherever there was money to be made. In the colonies, a great deal of shipping was conducted by tramp steamer, rather than by regular lines. While most tramp steamers were freight ships, they would not have turned down paying passengers, and indeed anyone with sufficient finances could charter a steamer to almost anywhere in the world.

Operating on a shoe-string budget, and often dodging regulations and taxation, tramp steamers often existed in a grey area on the edge of civilisation, and the law. The crews of such vessels could hail from any country, and tramp steamers often hired crew who could not find work elsewhere. Tramp steamers were romanticised even in their own time as an adventurous lifestyle, and they were the setting of many a pulp novel. While the reality was frequently much more mundane, tramp steamers were still an exciting part of the decade.

Adventure Seeds

A Cult Afloat: The crews of tramp steamers were often drawn from the most remote and exotic ports, and lived their lives isolated from normal conventions or authorities. In such circumstances, the worship of strange ancient gods could take hold among a crew, who due to their itinerant lifestyle could commit all kinds of awful crimes without discovery. There are still many unexplored or forgotten places left in the world, accessible only by sea, and such places could be a haven for such cults. Worse, in the holds of giant passenger liners, crews might spend weeks or months at sea. Miles from land, the passengers would be at the mercy of whatever unspeakable ritual the cultists wished to perform.

The Ghost Ship: Stories of ships found drifting, seemingly abandoned, and yet perfectly seaworthy, have chilled sailors since the discovery of the Mary Celeste in 1872. Such a mystery could attract significant interest from investigators, and if the ship’s route could be determined, an expedition might be launched to discover the fate of the crew. If such a voyage lead into dangerous, uncharted, or infrequently travelled waters, a party of hearty souls would be required for the job.

Strange Visitors: The US and Great Britain were paying increasing attention to border customs and immigration during the thirties, but smuggling remained rife. Criminal organizations that had cut their teeth in the prohibition era remained in operation, smuggling more illicit goods. Eldritch substances in the wrong hands could find their way onto the streets, as a new kind of drug. Worse, with the US imposing ever stricter regulations on immigration, the thirties saw the birth of people-smuggling into the United States. An old-world cult, or some degenerate tribe from the colonies, could find entrance to the States through one of the many ports along its coastline.

Related Links


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in December 2007. 


You can find Simon’s previous article on Air Transport in the 1930s here, and Sea Transport in the 1930s here.

an article for Trail of Cthulhu by Simon Carryer

The 1930’s was a period of great innovation in rail technology. The steam locomotive, having dominated overland transport for almost a century, was for the first time challenged by alternative modes, most significantly in the form of the automobile, and the diesel locomotive. Technology developed for the war was rapidly turned to civilian purposes, and rail transport was no exception. The replacement of old manual semaphore signals with automatic electric signals significantly reduced the manpower required for the operation of a railway, while increasing speeds and efficiency. A new understanding of streamlining, adapted from aircraft technology, lead to groundbreaking increases in top speeds, while the ubiquity of rail travel saw it become less a luxury, and more an everyday occurrence. Of course, these developments were not implemented at once all over the world. Even in Britain and North America, where most of the innovation was happening, the long service life of steam trains meant that new technology was slow to be implemented, Indeed, it was in developing countries where the new technologies were often most successfully employed. Advances in engineering made possible rail routes that were previously unthinkable, and a rush to exploit the resources of these nations made such routes extremely lucrative.

The rail traveller of the nineteen thirties was as likely to be a wealthy first-class passenger on a sight-seeing trip as a worker on a daily commute. Standards of luxury varied immensely, from dining cars as plush as any hotel suite, to trucks little more furnished than a cattle car. For most routes, the option of first-class travel was available. Long distance first-class travellers could expect a full meal service, and a sleeper cabin, to be shared with at most one other passenger.

The character of rail transport, both in the comfort for the traveller, and the speed and availability of passage, varied enormously between countries. Below is a broad outline of some national trends.

North America

Hit hard by the Depression, challenged by burgeoning numbers of automobiles, and left in poor shape after government management during the war, North American rail networks were for the first time struggling to make ends meet. The answer was modernization. One of the first diesel-powered passenger trains, the Zephyr, cut the record time for the 1,015 mile journey between Denver and Chicago almost in half on its maiden trip in 1934. With its aerodynamic, stainless-steel look, the Zephyr was an influence on the design of architecture, consumer goods, and other vehicles. The modernization of North America’s rail networks led to a reinvigoration of the industry, and soon the States’ railways were an economic success once again.

Africa

The exploitation of the vast natural resources of the African continent was enormously expedited by the development of rail networks throughout the 1930’s. Though extracting Africa’s natural wealth was a task begun decades earlier, by the 1930’s railways were still being built, working towards the dream of an Africa-wide rail network. During the decade, the journey from Cairo to the Cape was never possible to achieve exclusively by rail. Though there were extensive rail lines in both the north and south of the continent, these tracks were not connected during the 30s.

In the southern part of the continent, the major western trading port of Lobito was connected across the spine of Africa, through Portugese West Africa, through the copper fields of the Belgian Congo, on to Bulawayo. From there the track diverged, travelling east to the seaport of Beira, or south to Cape Town.

While for the most part African rail was dedicated to the transport of freight, and spared little for the comfort of passengers, the express service between Cape Town and Johannesburg was considered one of the most luxurious in the British Empire. It featured a magnificent dining car, with seating for 46, and an observation coach at the rear of the train. The passenger was able to take a shower, and have shoes and clothes cleaned, all aboard the train.

Trains were often used for the transport of diamonds, and extreme precautions were taken to safeguard the cargo. Safes were built raised from the floor of the van, with a clear view all around the carriage.

In North Africa, the rail network was less sophisticated, and frequent changes between various gauges, or to overcome natural obstacles, were common. In several instances, the distance between each length of track was significant, and had to be completed by boat, by truck, or even by foot. Journeys by rail in North Africa, while sometimes perilous, and certainly falling short of the standard of luxury expected by American or British travellers, would afford the traveller unique views of wildlife, Roman ruins and ancient temples.

Europe

Of all the European railways, and indeed of all the railways in the world, it was Europe’s Orient Express that was the most famous of the decade. Running from Calais to Bucharest, and passing through France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, the Orient Express was popular both with tourists and with everyday travellers. Prior to 1935, the Express carried only first-class passengers, as was normal for many of Europe’s most prestigious lines. Subsequently, however, several standard-fare coaches were included on many stretches of the route, catering to the more mundane local traffic. By the end of the decade, as with most rail routes, first class was considered a Òfancy extra” to normal, second-class travel.

For first-class passengers, the Orient Express was a magnificent journey through foreign lands, conducted in the height of luxury. Conductors would attend to the needs of the passengers diligently, not only making up beds and serving food, but also preparing the documents of travellers so they might cross the borders of the many countries the Express visited in their sleep, without being disturbed.

Also of note in Europe was the Trans-Siberian Express, even in the Thirties famed among travellers as a unique way to see Russia and the near East. Russian trains were in many ways different from those of Europe and Britain. Most obviously, their gauge was much wider, allowing the coaches to be built very wide, and very tall. To protect from the Russian cold, most trains, and event the gaps between cars were completely enclosed.

While popular with tourists, the Trans-Siberian was also a vital part of domestic Russian travel, and the foreign tourist was likely to be accompanied by many diverse travellers from all across Russia and Europe. In recently Communist Russia, “class” was a forbidden word, and hence “first class” and “second-class” tickets were unavailable. Instead, cars were designated as “hard” or “soft”, with accompanying differences in price and comfort. “Hard” cars were lined with bunk-beds, and lit exclusively by candles, while passengers in “soft” cars could enjoy more modern comforts.

China

The development of rail networks was met by fierce opposition from the Chinese public, as well as from Chinese government. Construction encountered numerous difficulties, from flooding and mudslides, to the many ancient gravesites that had to be avoided. Chinese railways often took circuitous routes to avoid such locations, and in mountainous areas, which comprised a large portion of the total network, tunnelling was preferred to blasting areas of hillside, for the reason that it was less likely to disturb such ancient burials. In many cases, especially following deaths of workers, irate locals would tear up tracks, in an attempt to forestall construction. European interests in China were relentless, however, and even within China there were many rail supporters. A great many of China’s railways were developed by foreign powers, for the purposes of furthering their industrial endeavours in China. As such, passenger services within China were of a completely different standard than elsewhere in the world. Chinese workers often travelled in unfurnished cars with open tops, exposed to the elements. Tourists were not unheard of, however, and several passenger cars of a type more familiar to foreign travellers operated between major centres.

South America

South America, with its many mountains, rivers, and swamps, was for a long time considered an impossible location for rail engineering. Technological advances in the 30’s however made possible feats of engineering that made large parts of the continent suddenly accessible by rail. It was not possible to travel the length of the country by rail, and indeed there was no rail route between North and South America in the thirties. The longest stretch of unbroken track ran the length of the coast of Chile.

The transit of the Andes, vital to South American trade, was completed by rail in 1908, but the route was not commercially viable until the development of more efficient steam locomotives enabled significant loads to be carried up the steep grades. The route, between Buenos Ares, and Valparaiso, Chile, climbs to over 10,000 feet above sea level.

Adventure Seeds

Long Buried: The incursion of railways into mountainous territory necessitated tunnel building on a previously unheard of scale. In South America, India, China, and many parts of Europe, the construction of alpine railways required tunnelling deep into the rock. Who knows what dark temples, long hidden from the sight of Man lie with these mountains, or what ancient horrors, working in secret, might be exposed by such diggings? What of the modern-day scions of such ancient cults? What would they do to preserve these long-forgotten secrets? Engineering crews would work isolated from settlements by many miles, often the very railway they were constructing was their only link to civilisation. A construction company might not look too carefully into the disappearance of a crew of native workers, if it could mean the delay of construction.

Strange Bedfellows: On long rail journeys passengers would often find themselves spending large amounts of time with relative strangers. In more exotic locales, this could mean rubbing shoulders with the strangest of people. In Russia, it was common for complete strangers, even of the opposite sex, to share a room. With journeys taking days, and often weeks, all manner of activity could arise. Passing between many different countries meant that trains, and the people on them, were very difficult to police. If some awful crime were committed aboard a train, especially if the crime had aspects of the supernatural, it might be left to the passengers of the train to discover the culprit, if local police forces proved too fearful or corrupt. Suspicion would quickly fall upon those passengers whose native customs or oddities of dress distinguished them from their fellows. However, even the most normal appearance might hide dark secrets.

Stranded: Railways would often pass through miles of the most inhospitable territory, often going for days without seeing another road or track. If some mechanical fault were to cause a train to stop, it might be days before the train was missed, and longer still before help could be mustered. In this intervening time, the passengers would be left to their own devices. For a small group of passengers on a train dedicated mainly to freight, such as was common in Africa and South America, such a time could become a nightmare of hunger and apprehension. What if there was some hint that the malfunction was caused by human hand? For what dark purpose could someone want to strand a group of people deep in the wilderness?

Bibliography


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

An article for Trail of Cthulhu players by Simon Carryer

The 1930s were known, for good reason, as the “Golden Age of Flight”. Technical advances in aviation technology fuelled by the Great War, combined with swiftly developing mass-production, and an increasingly global network of industry and trade, would take commercial air travel from a novelty and a luxury at the start of the decade, to a necessity by its conclusion. Throughout the world, air lanes were opening, and the most remote regions were gradually being connected to the rest of the world by air.

It was a different time, and air travel was still a very new technology. While today travelling by air is ubiquitous, in the 1930s, travel by rail or by sea was the norm. Railways and shipping had developed a standard of luxury and economy that was impossible for air travel to beat. Aircraft of the decade were not capable of the altitudes of modern craft. This exposed them to turbulence that the smaller, lighter craft were poorly suited to weather. Travel by air was often a bumpy ride. Importantly, these low altitude flights were also susceptible to variations in weather, while navigation was imprecise, particularly over uncharted or isolated areas. All this made flight times much less reliable than they are today. Some of this variation from course was deliberate. Reportedly, some pilots liked to make detours to spot wild animals or famous landmarks. Unscheduled stops for fuel or to service unreliable aircraft were also common. In tropical areas, flight paths varied seasonally as rains rendered some airfields unusable.

While flying was more expensive, less comfortable, and potentially more dangerous than travel by train or boat, there was one area in which air travel could compete with more conventional means of transport, and compete strongly: Speed. Air travel, especially in inhospitable or remote locations, was a great deal faster than any other means. Surveys from the time reveal that speed was the number one factor people considered when choosing to fly. The high cost, however, meant that for most of the decade, air travel was the preserve of the upper classes, those who had the money to travel by air as a novelty, or businessmen who operated national or international concerns. Passenger aircraft were fitted to suit this high-class clientele. Plush, upholstered seats, wet bars, smoking lounges and wooden panelling all gave the impression of luxury, despite engine noise and turbulence. Other innovations served to make air travel stand out from its competitors. Passengers could reserve seats by telephone with many airlines, and regular customers could purchase pre paid “scrip” – paper coupons which often allowed for discount rates. Stewards, who for most of the decade were required to be male, would help passengers with luggage, offer a sandwich mid-flight, and tend to the airsick.

Changes in the way we travel make it difficult to assess the relative danger of air travel in the 1930s, compared to other forms of transport. Twenty-five people, worldwide died in air crashes in the year 1932, yet it’s difficult to compare this figure to any comparative statistic from land or sea. Certainly air travel was perceived as dangerous, and insurance rates for air trips were four times the price of the same insurance travelling by rail.

Air Travel By Region

The degree to which air travel was available, and the regions which could be reached by air, varied enormously by year and by continent. What follows is a breakdown of some major areas and their history of aviation, with a focus on what kinds of flights would be available, and where.

North America

Flights across the North American continent became increasingly common and popular throughout the 30’s, thanks in no small part to the introduction of the Douglas DC-2, and from 1935, the ubiquitous DC-3. DC-3s enabled flights across America with comfort and speed heretofore unheard of. In 1934, an air trip between New York and Los Angeles would take almost 26 hours of flight, and require numerous stops and aircraft changes. By 1937, the introduction of the DC-3 had cut that time to just over 17 hours. With daytime and sleeper flights, upholstered seats, and the revolutionary introduction of female flight attendants (who were required to be registered nurses), air travel within the United States was, if not luxurious, at least comfortable.

China

As with previous decades, in the 1930s, Hong Kong was the gateway to China, and all international flights terminated at this British outpost. By 1937, trans-pacific flights from North America to China were becoming more regular, with a commercial run from San Francisco, through Honolulu, Midway, Wake Island and Guam, to Hong Kong. Imperial Airways also carried passengers and mail into Hong Kong as part of its mail route to Australia. Passengers on this line would stop in Penang before disembarking in Hong Kong.

The China National Aviation Corporation developed civil aviation in China throughout the decade, turning isolated cities serviced by antiquated, small aircraft, into a thoroughly modern air network by 1937. As with other countries, the flying boat was an invaluable part of air travel in China. Douglas “Dolphin” amphibious aircraft serviced the coast of China, while three Douglas DC 2 aircraft, capable of carrying 14 passengers each, ran regular routs to main centres in the interior. Older aircraft remained in operation throughout China for the duration of the decade.

Crossing the Atlantic

Passenger service between North America and Europe by air was not commercially developed until the very end of the 1930s. Long distances, changeable weather, and competition from reliable and popular crossings by ship made trans-Atlantic flights a difficult proposition for airline companies. Britain did not grant landing rights to American air carriers until 1936. A number of European companies made experimental flights across the Atlantic, carrying exclusively mail, using both dirigibles and seaplanes, but these flights were never commonplace. Prior to 1939, the most common way to cross the Atlantic by air was by zeppelin, and there were hundreds of such crossings between 1930 and 1937. 1939 saw the beginnings of the first commercial trans-Atlantic passenger flights, with the Pan American “Yankee Clipper” flying passengers between New York and Marseilles, France, or Southampton, England. The journey took about 29 hours, and cost $375 ($5,188 in today’s terms) one way.

Africa and the Middle East

Imperial Airways’ routes to Africa were the backbone of the Great Empire Air Route. As with other continents, the flying boat was a mainstay of air travel, and the Mediterranean was the hub of flying boat activity for the region. Flights to both the Middle East and Africa, as well as to India, would all pass through the Mediterranean, where the majority of passengers would transfer to flying boats. Egypt and the Sudan were linked by air with Central Africa from 1931. The Nile was another major centre for flying boats. By 1932, Imperial Airways flew as far south as Cape Town, and it was possible for passengers to travel from London to South Africa exclusively by air. There was little time saved by flying, rather than sailing, from London to South Africa, and the flight was likely to be more expensive, more dangerous, and less comfortable than sailing. However, within Africa, land transport was often slow and unreliable, and air travel was a popular alternative. A trip that might take three months by automobile, struggling through untracked desert or thick jungle, could take as little as three days by air, given suitable weather.

In addition to the main Empire routes, several smaller airlines offered limited services within Africa and the Middle East. Private operators, often with small two or four-seater planes, serviced the most remote regions. Two-seater flying boats were flying passengers and mail into the interior of the Congo as early as 1919. These antiquated aircraft remained in operation throughout the 1930s. Several European airlines offered seaplane service for mail between South America and West Africa, though these contracts never extended to regular passenger service.

The Pacific

Commercial air travel to Hawaii began in 1935 with a flying boat run between California and Honolulu (the flight took about 19 hours, and cost $278 ($4,046 today) one-way). This was part of a larger Pan Am flying boat route to China, travelling from San Francisco, through Honolulu, Midway, Wake Island, Guam, and finally terminating in Hong Kong. In 1936 these passenger flights were extended all the way across the Pacific, a round trip from San Francisco to Manila. The nine passengers on each of these flights paid an astronomical $1,400 (nearly twenty thousand dollars in modern day terms) for the privilege.

For these Pacific commercial fights the Sikorski S-40 and S-42 “Clippers” were the most popular planes throughout the thirties, capable of carrying over thirty passengers in relative comfort. The “China Clipper” which flew the San Francisco to Hong Kong route, was a stylish symbol of America’s growing dominance of the air. The clippers could seat 32 passengers in four well-appointed cabins, and usually had a steward to attend to the passengers.

Imperial Airways flew passengers to Australia and New Zealand from 1934, crossing the Pacific in days, when the trip by sea could take weeks or even months. From Australia, Qantas Empire Airways flew mail routes into remote stations, and across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. Britain refused to grant landing rights to American carriers into Australia, but the New Zealand government was more cooperative. In 1937 Pan Am flew their first passenger flights from San Francisco to New Zealand, via Honolulu and American Samoa.

South America

Pan American – Pan Am – Airways were synonymous with South American air travel, and to a lesser extent all international American commercial air travel, for the duration of the 1930s and beyond. Pan Am’s first international flight was a mail run from Florida to Havana, and the 1930s saw the company develop their South American passenger and mail services extensively. Miami was the North American base for these flights, which connected with many points around the Gulf of Mexico and further South. There was a regular flying boat service from Florida throughout South America, with regular stops in Panama and Buenos Aires. These flights were the first of Pan Am’s famous “Clipper” services, and popularised the flying boat as a passenger aircraft.

South America, with its mountainous landscape and many large rivers, was a perfect venue for flying boats and seaplanes. For most of the Thirties, much of South America was virtually inaccessible by land. The advent of cheaper, more reliable aircraft with the ability to land on water led to a boom of exploration in South America, with missionaries, archaeologists, and gold prospectors flocking to the region. Local airlines, often flying outdated aircraft, exploited this sudden rush of people and money to the region.

India

India was an important leg of the Empire Air Route, which passed through the Mediterranean, North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East, before reaching India, then continuing on to Hong Kong and Australia. For much of the decade, large portions of the route had to be completed by rail or ship, due to the complicated politics of European airspace. Italy in particular was notoriously intransigent in granting rights for commercial flights to pass through her airspace. It was not until 1936 that the trip to India could be completed entirely by air. The major airport in India during the thirties was Calcutta, but Karachi and Durban were also serviced by air.

Within India, the extensive train network created by the British made air travel largely unnecessary for the majority of travellers. Private operators of course, were active in all parts of the globe, and India was no exception.

Zeppelins

The 1930s saw the rise and fall of zeppelins as a popular form of public transport. Even at the height of their popularity, however, zeppelins were never a common sight, and travel by zeppelin was always seen as a luxury, rather than necessity. Zeppelins were appointed far more like a seagoing vessel than an aircraft. This extended even to the flight controls, which were handled just as onboard a ship, with a captain relaying orders to engine crew, while relying on several pilots and a navigator for steering and information. The Graf Zeppelin was by far the most commercially successful airship of its time, flying regular trans-Atlantic flights between Europe and America until 1936, as well as making visits to the Middle East, South America, and even the Arctic. Famously, zeppelins fell from popularity sharply with the Hindenburg crash of 1937. Deteriorating relationships between Nazi Germany and the United States of America ensured that zeppelins’ fortunes would not be revived.

Adventure Seeds

What follows are a few ideas for ways that one could incorporate the unique aspects of 1930s air travel into your game.

Lost

For long-distance flights across the Pacific and Atlantic, flying boats were used for their ability to land at several points along the way to refuel. To achieve this, the aircraft would rendezvous with a supply ship at an agreed location. These locations were often tiny, never-before-visited atolls and islands. Kingman Reef, a sandbar that barely rose more than a meter above sea level, in almost the exact centre of the Pacific, was one such rendezvous point, used in the inaugural passenger flight from North America to New Zealand. The reef was absent from even the most meticulous sea charts until the late 1920s. A flight crew, or the passengers of such a flight, would be alarmed to discover their supply ship abandoned, Signs that the crew of the ship had departed for the interior of the island would only deepen the mystery.

To the Antarctic by Zeppelin

Zeppelins, with their ability to remain afloat without power, were an ideal aircraft for crossing inhospitable and unexplored terrain. The Graf Zeppelin’s trip to the Arctic inspired many explorers and inventors to try similar feats. While no other successful trips to the Arctic or Antarctic by Zeppelin have been recorded, such a venture is by no means impossible. What antediluvian horrors lie undiscovered beneath the ice is best left to the imagination. The frequent mechanical troubles that plagued lighter-than-air flight would certainly complicate any attempt to scientifically study such cyclopean ruins as were found.

Flying to Inland Waters

The flying boat opened up to the foreign explorer the interiors of lands previously un-trod by all but native feet. From the late 1920s, the perfect mixture of improving technology giving rise to a plethora of flying boats and seaplanes, with an excess of trained pilots from the Great War, made such unexplored regions only a few hours’ flight away. South America, the Congo, the remotest regions of India, all became suddenly accessible. Any lake or large enough river was a sufficient landing point for the tiny two and four-seater craft. The remains of decaying civilisations, bastions of dark cults, the ruins of temples to forgotten gods, the last survivors of lost expeditions, turned barbarous and strange by their long absence from civilisation, all wait, hidden, beneath the jungle canopy and choking vines of such regions.

You Take the High Road…

Along many air routes, carriers gave preference to mail over passengers. Reliable and lucrative, mail required none of the comfort or attention of passengers, and could be counted on to provide a healthy return. This situation meant that often space could be found for mail where none could be found for passage. Booking clerks were instructed to avoid, if possible, selling space to passengers. For example, on the Imperial route from India, only five passengers were accepted each week. In 1937, only seven passengers a week were permitted to board the two weekly flights to and from Durban. For an archaeologist or anthropologist eager to gain credit for an extraordinary find, the temptation to send such an artefact home by air, while returning by sea or rail themselves, must have been enormous. What havoc such an item might have caused in the hands of unsuspecting baggage handlers, junior members of faculty, or some unsuspecting member of the public delivered the package in error does not bear speculation.

References

  • The Aviation Industry by Myron W. Watkins
  • US Centennial of Flight Historical Essays
  • Tales of Old Shanghai
  • Imperial Airways History
  • Passenger traffic in the 1930s on British imperial air routes

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

If your Yellow King Roleplaying Game art students make it all the way to October 1895 unscathed, a dramatic news event awaits them. The Granville-Paris Express spectacularly crashes at 4 pm on the 22nd of October. According to history as it comes down to us, the driver enters the Montparnasse station too quickly and is unable to stop the engine. It rams through its buffer, continues on through the station, and plummets to the street below. It strikes and kills one pedestrian, the wife of a newspaper vendor. The wreck results in a famous photograph, here distorted by the cruel filters of Carcosa.

The investigators might be prompted to look into the crash after the fact, perhaps upon hearing rumors of strange masked figures cavorting in one of its six passenger coaches.

Or was a shipment containing multiple copies of a certain banned play concealed among the crates and parcels of its postal service car?

You may already be thinking that this choice squanders a perfectly good action climax. The player characters ought to be on the car, engaged in a desperate struggle against gargoyles, vampires or an ankou, when it blows into the station. Surely the driver and the guard who failed to operate the handbrake were under attack at the time. Perhaps with the diligent intervention of well-heeled young American artistes they might be spared the fines and, in the driver’s case, brief prison sentence, that faced them in non-made-up history. The court system can’t admit to the presence of monsters conjured up by Carcosan emanations, but an Officialdom Push could go a long way to get them off the hook on the quiet.

Another option: player characters are outside the station, down on the street, when the accident happens, and the derailment is an attack on them. In this version, they might pull the lone victim out of the way in time.Then all they have to do is figure out which of their Aldebaran-worshiping enemies would attempt to wipe them out in such an outlandish and theatrical manner.

Or is the supposed news vendor’s wife in fact an incarnation of Cassilda or Camilla? If so, it’s probably the other sister who tried to drop a locomotive on her.

In yet another version of this event, the player characters might be the ones taking over the train and using it to target one of the princesses. When dealing with the royalty of Hali you don’t want to take chances with a vehicle of lesser impact.

Whichever way you choose to go, it certainly would be a waste of a famous incident of 1895 Paris to do nothing at all with it.


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

“[S]ome day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall … go mad from the revelation …” — H.P. Lovecraft

“Total paranoia is total consciousness.” — Charles Manson

Like a certain recent Quentin Tarantino movie, The Fall of DELTA GREEN juxtaposes the romance of the Sixties with their deeper horrors, very much including spree killings along with the various institutional heinousness of the era. Like all horror, both Tarantino’s film and Fall of DELTA GREEN perhaps perform a certain exorcistic function, allowing us to confront the real world through a ludic lens and ritually or fictively rectify some wrongs. By the way, if you haven’t seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood yet, it provides a lyrical time capsule to the Los Angeles of 1969 that Handlers and players should slurp up like one of Rick Dalton’s margaritas. Its Spahn Ranch scene, meanwhile, may be the best short horror film inside a larger film since The Devil’s Backbone, and should give Handlers lots of ideas for cults and cultists. This column offers only the mildest of spoilers.

Cultists. Robes not included.

So how do we use Charles Manson in a Fall of DELTA GREEN game? Before we answer that question, let’s ask the question before that: “Should we use Charles Manson in a Fall of DELTA GREEN game?” That, of course, is up to you and your players to judge: whether the murders of nine people happened too recently (or remain too memorious) to have become history instead of tragedy. If so, then replace Charles Manson with some fictitious cult leader: Louis Maddox, let’s say. Growing up poor and abused in rural Massachusetts, “Louie” drifts in and out of prison, where he encounters the Church of Interlife (FoDG, p. 302) or the True Love Study Group (FoDG, p. 305) and gets turned on to the Unnatural. (Another possibility: Maddox is one of the Annealed (FoDG, p. 302), the child of Kathleen Bishop, a witness to the 1928 “Dunwich Horror” incident, who raises her son to listen for the noises under the hills and the sound of whippoorwills.) He uses Liao instead of LSD, perhaps, to brainwash his murderous Flock. Stumbling on Maddox’ “little birds” soliciting and begging in the streets of whatever warm city the campaign visits regularly slowly leads the Agents to investigate him. Just as happened with Manson, when the authorities (in this case, the PCs) close in, Maddox goes apocalyptic and sends his Flock on a killing spree.

The trouble with using “Maddox” or the equivalent is that you don’t get the immediate ludic charge of the demonic true name, while still leaving yourself open to accusations of gamifying a real-life murder. At some point, however, gamifying murder sort of goes with the horror-mystery territory. Fall of DELTA GREEN, and the Delta Green universe in general, already make use of a lot of specific horrible things in the real world from the quotidian cruelties of MK-ULTRA to the mass-scale horrors of the Vietnam War. If we can fictively re-direct USAF napalm strikes, I would argue that we can fictively or ludically treat a murder cult that, as it happens, seems to spring straight out of Lovecraft’s nightmares: “laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy.”

One advantage of using “Maddox” or the equivalent is that you get to move the murders around from their inconveniently late date (August 1969) to suit your campaign. Another advantage is that you can make up a bunch of wild stuff about “Maddox” — although plenty of people have done the same about Charles Manson, as it turns out, starting perhaps with the prosecuting attorney who put him away for seven murders he didn’t actually commit himself. Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter” theory of Manson’s motivation makes a superb Lovecraftian plot: a work of art (White Album, King in Yellow, six of one …) initiated Manson into a secret understanding of the world. Once enlightened with the aid of drugs and occultism, Manson plotted to release his own poisonous artwork, trigger an apocalyptic race war, and emerge in the new aeon as its ruler. Lots of people, from the Family on down, have described this as a prosecutorial fantasia.

But it gets wilder still. In the “weird stuff” part of Fall of DELTA GREEN‘s Sources section, I recommend two works, Sinister Forces by Peter Levenda and Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon by David McGowan, which both confidently assert (among other things) that Manson was the creation (accidental or intentional) of the CIA via its various mind control projects. (I personally tend to doubt this theory, not least because if the CIA had programmed Manson, they would surely have sent him to Roger Vadim’s house, not Roman Polanski’s.) Comes now investigative journalist Tom O’Neill, whose new book CHAOS makes the same argument in a slightly less unhinged tone. O’Neill turns up a dubious character named Reeve Whitson in Polanski’s orbit and hints he’s CIA; he notes that former MK-ULTRA psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West worked at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic while Manson hung around there in 1967. Levenda, characteristically, brings in former OSS psych-warrior Hans Habe, the father of the murdered Marina Habe who some have called another Manson Family victim, and also notes that the Beach Boys recorded a Manson song on the B-side of “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” a clear reference (if you’re Peter Levenda anyway) to the MK-ULTRA precursor Project BLUEBIRD. So is Manson, or “Maddox,” an accidentally-Annealed MAJESTIC killer?

Or is he serving Something Else? Levenda, nothing loth, recounts Manson’s youth in Ashland, Kentucky, in the shadow of the ancient Adena mounds around and under that town. Do we detect the psychic hand of K’n-Yan, or a Serpent Folk fledgling? Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski both made movies involving Satanism, and the hippie-magician crowd they ran with included plenty of Children of Chorazin (FoDG, p. 304) types. Manson’s Family had its own satanic survivors, from Susan Atkins (former Anton LaVey dancer) to Bobby Beausoleil (star of Crowleyite filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising). Lurid tabloid reports at the time morphed into sensationalistic works such as hippie bard Ed Sherman’s The Family and investigative journalist Maury Terry’s Ultimate Evil, which both fingered the Satanic-Gnostic Process Church as part of Manson’s process. Terry’s book further tied Manson to the Son of Sam case and the Mafia (or the Fate? (FoDG, p. 288)) and eventually a vast cult network that more resembles the Cult of Transcendence (FoDG, p. 298) than anything in the real world. Such total paranoia has no place in the real world, of course. We must relegate it for our own sanity to a game we play, a tale we tell ourselves that begins “Once upon a time … ”


The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.


We can say relatively little for certain about the life of Robert W. Chambers, but it is clear from his work that knew France and its history. For this reason it is tempting to believe that the name Hildred Castaigne, unreliable narrator and protagonist of the classic Yellow King story “The Repairer of Reputations,” took its inspiration from the early 19th century murderer Edme Castaing.

Castaing, a young and impecunious doctor, befriended a pair of wealthy patients, the brothers Auguste and Hippolyte Ballet. In 1822, the consumptive Hippolyte died while in Castaing’s care. His fortune went to Auguste, who made Castaing his heir. Half a year later, after drinking wine and then milk given to him by Castaing, Auguste also died after a prolonged fit of vomiting.

Both victims had been in their early twenties. This fact, added to Castaing’s financial activities, triggered official suspicion. Investigation focused on his purchase of a then-new medicine, morphine, before the deaths. Castaing was arrested and tried for murder. The jury found him innocent of Hippolyte’s death but guilty of destroying his will, and of murdering Auguste. He went to the guillotine on December 6, 1823.

In the entangled realities of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, the mere difference of a few letters in a surname doesn’t stop us from identifying Castaing as an unlucky link in the dynastic chain running from the Pallid King to Hildred Castaigne. He had all the sinister predilections of his family without a Mr. Wilde to fully usher him to his destiny.

Ghosts feature heavily in Chambers’ other, lesser horror tales. In keeping with those, the characters from your Paris sequence could meet up with this earlier, slightly misspelled member of the bloodline in phantom form. Perhaps they encounter Castaing’s shade at the Place de Greve, the site of his guillotining. Or in Saint-Cloud, the bucolic Parisian suburb where he poisoned Auguste, during their stay at the Tête Noire Hotel.

Like other Chambers ghosts, Edme might not look or sound dead at all. He could seal his friendship with the occult-busting art students with much-needed medical treatment. His unearthly healing powers might allow the discarding of Injury cards that aren’t normally gotten rid of with a First Aid success. Over time Edme might abuse his friendly GMC status to mislead the group into spreading the influence of the Yellow King, increasing his own powers. Only by researching the seventy-year-old story of Edme Castaing can the group discover that their apparent benefactor is neither alive nor on their side.

Naturally, if he suspects they’re onto him, he’ll reach for the syringe full of phantasmal morphine he keeps in that little black bag of his.


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The 1920 murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell asks the question: who would want to kill a womanizing bridge expert and gambler with interests in the worlds of horse racing and Wall Street speculation?

When hacked from the history books as a Trail of Cthulhu scenario premise, we can answer the question with a Lovecraftian spin.

Missing from the apartment of our fictionalized Elwell—let’s call him Halliwell—is an item his loyal housekeeper scarcely thinks about: his lucky card deck.

The investigators get involved to clear the name of a friend accused of shooting Halliwell over the bridge master’s supposed attentions to his wife. As early 20th century murder cases among the well-heeled are wont to do, the initial scenes turn up too many people with a motive to shoot Halliwell.

But then one of them, a gambling associate of Halliwell’s, is found dead in circumstances even more humiliating than a bullet wound to the head. He died while bathing, when the ceiling of his apartment collapsed, sending the tub above thundering down on him. In his apartment the team finds notes about Halliwell’s magic card deck. It makes you the winner you’ve always wanted to be. Until, that is, the arbitrary day when cosmic joke gets played on you. The 53rd card materializes, bearing the vengeful image of Tsathoggua, Nyarlathotep or another Mythos entity sufficiently interested in humanity’s vices to enjoy toying with them.

Not that the second victim’s notes go this far: he just knew that the deck was magical. He didn’t know the incantation he needed to speak to give himself years of good fortune, instead of a few lousy days.

The deck has already been purloined again. This leaves two avenues of investigation:

  • tracking down its latest owner and finding a way to dispose of it without incurring the curse

  • looking into Halliwell’s past to uncover the 1904 ritual that created the deck, and dispersing the cult responsible for it—along with their continued production of similar cursed items

Either way, the cultists who made the deck want it back, and are conducting a parallel investigation, no doubt aided by blasphemous prayers to their obscene god.

Whatever the team’s plans for the deck that brings luck and then death, this is one case that won’t go according to Hoyle.


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

A column about roleplaying

By Robin D. Laws

Work on the Yellow King Roleplaying Game has been chugging along since the Kickstarter closed in July. A master document containing the elements of Absinthe in Carcosa is now in the hands of hand-out artist extraordinaire Dean Engelhardt. In the months ahead he’ll be transforming them into a unique and stunning presentation of the setting sourcebook format. Art direction is well underway for the four books that comprise the core game.

The first playtest round, focused on Paris, is now in progress, with actual play reports beginning to filter out into places like the GUMSHOE Facebook community.

With Absinthe turned over to Dean, I’ve turned my attention back to completing the core game. This task entails both the three remaining introductory scenarios and the many stretch goals crowdfunded by you (or gamers like you.)

Here’s a taste of the latter—a few of the GMC profiles from the Occultists of the Belle Epoque stretch goal.

Did you miss the Kickstarter? The Yellow King Roleplaying Game Pre-Order exists just for you.

Camille Flammarion

Astronomer and Science Fiction Writer

53, 1842-1925

The polymathic Camille Flammarion crosses not only the streams of science and spiritism, but throws the arts in for good measure. He believes both in evolution and the transmigration of souls, continually improving as they find new incarnations throughout the universe. His science fiction titles, such as Lumen and Imaginary Worlds, envision alien life from a naturalist’s perspective. Like Albert de Rochas he applies the scientific method to parapsychological research. Since souls go to other planets after death, he reasons, manifestations at séances must emanate from the extra-sensory powers of the mediums who conjure them. Always ready to write a foreword or appear at an occult talk, he might be found in the corners of any event held by any other figure in this chapter.

Physically his mane of white hair, incisively cocked eyebrows and flowing Van Dyke underline his grand old man persona.

As a Patron: Flammarion might recruit the heroes to round up copies of the book, drawing on his contacts in the scientific and occult communities.

Alexandre Saint-Yves

Synarchist

53, 1842-1909

Joseph Alexandre Saint-Yves, the Marquis d’Alveydre, invented the term synarchy to refer to the secret rule of mankind by occult masters. He believes that Abraham and the Hindu deity Ram are really the same figure, a primordial lawmaker and father of all peoples. Though the surface world has lost touch with the truth, millions dwell in Agarttha, a subterranean realm benevolently overseen by a trinity of rulers: a Brahatmah (God-soul), Mahatma (Great Soul) and Mahanga (Great Path.) It relocated underground, far below the plateaus of Tibet, during the Hindu dark age three thousand years ago, protecting its people and advanced technology from encroaching disaster. He knows this because he communicates with Agartthan officials telepathically.

The Marquis claims the power of astral travel. When characters ask about it, he proves notably stingy with the details.

He writes the popular Mission series of books in which various groups are issued instructions for bringing about the synarchy on the surface world: Mission to the Sovereigns, Mission to the Jews, and so on. When not occupied with synarchy he studies possible commercial applications for seaweed.

Saint-Yves became independently wealthy through marriage and was granted his title fifteen years ago by the Republic of San Marino. Describe him as a dour-looking man with a thick, pensive mustache.

Charles Richet

Physiologist and Parapsychologist

45, 1850-1930

A gaunt man with searching eyes, the physiologist Charles Richet studies a range of medical subjects and is destined to win the Nobel Prize for his work on anaphylaxis. His interests range from aviation to theatrical writing. The investigators however will care most about his role as a scientific psychic investigator. Last year he coined the term “ectoplasm” to describe the strange material mediums produce during séances. He believes that paranormal powers exist but will all be rationally explained through scientific inquiry, without the need to invoke spirits or an afterlife. In our reality, he falls for, and in at least one case helps to cover up, hoaxes perpetrated by mediums. In the universe of the Yellow King, he might instead fail to see the supernatural causes behind their effects.

Richet dedicates himself to pacifism, eugenics and hardcore racism, especially against blacks. Calibrate the way you deal with these last two according to your group’s desired level of unsavory social realism.

Léo Taxil (Gabriel Jogand-Pagès)

Conspiracy-Promulgating Con Artist

41, 1854-1907

Setting a pattern unknown to our own innocent age, pundit Léo Taxil (real name Gabriel Jogand-Pagès) masterminds a convoluted series of hoaxes, in which he appears to ricochet between extreme ideologies, selling books and calling attention to himself all along the way. He started as an anti-clerical rabble-rouser, writing books that mock Biblical inconsistencies or depict Catholic ecclesiastics engaged in Sadean debauchery. He infiltrated occult circles, convincing Jules Doinel (above) and others that he was one of them.

Ten years ago he staged a public conversion to Catholicism, tarring Freemasonry with similar sensational slanders. Taxil is the one who took Levi’s famous image of Baphomet and forever associated it with Satanism. He described a global conspiracy, the Palladium, led by a Masonic worthy of Charleston, South Carolina named Albert Pike. Three years ago he published the best-selling The Devil in the 19th Century, introducing to the world the reformed Satanist arch-priestess Diana Vaughan. Anecdotes include her encounters with incarnate demons, including a crocodilian specimen that plays the piano. He is now writing her first-person book of prayers and confessions.

Two years from now he will announce a press conference with Vaughan, at which he instead reveals that it was all a hoax. Reverting to his original persona, he says he has been showing the stupidity of the Church’s fear of Freemasonry.

But that’s the historical timeline. Might the ambient madness of Carcosa cause thoughtforms of the demons described in Taxil’s books to realize themselves?

A land that is thirstier than ruin
A sea that is hungrier than death
Heaped hills that a tree never grew in
Wide sands where the wave draws breath.

— Algernon Swinburne, “By the North Sea” (1880)

At some point around 1230 (perhaps during the “St. Luke’s Storm” of 1228 when the people of London saw “dragons and wykked Spyrites” in the storm wind) the action of the North Sea against the shallows on the southeast coast of Yorkshire threw up “stones and sand” to make an island probably to the east of a long sandbank at the mouth of the Humber Estuary. That sandbank is now “the Spurn” but the Vikings called it Ravenser (“raven’s tongue”) and a port of the same name appears on and off in history at the northern end of “the Neck” which connects the Spurn to the mainland such as it is of Yorkshire. Fishermen dried their nets there, then they stashed their boats there, then they traded without a lot of pesky taxation there, and by 1240 the Count of Aumale built a fortification on the island, which by that time was a “borough” named Ravenser Odd (an “odd” being Norse or Danish for a spit or point of land), or Ravenserodd, or Ravensrodd, or just Lod.

Map of the Humber mouth, 1595

In 1251, the Count obtained a charter for an official (taxed) market and fair, adding a (taxable) quay in 1297 and another in 1310. At its height, 100 ships called there per year (officially), and the town had 300 buildings, among them windmills, a tannery, a court, a prison (and gallows), and a chapel of Our Lady. Ravensrodd gained a royal charter in 1299, which came in very handy during its neighbors’ incessant lawsuits against it for piracy. In fact, another version of the town’s history says it began with a shipwreck, and was founded by the captain of that ship, one Peter-at-Sea (or Peter de la Mare), who began “convincing” other ships to land at Ravensrodd (“by fear and force”) instead of continuing on to Grimsby or Hull.

However it began, it ended just about as rapidly. The great storm of 1334 drowned “two parts” of the town and eroded the island badly; by 1351 the chapel and cemetery had drowned and looters carried off the chapel’s gold and silver ornaments. In 1360 the island was abandoned, the property owners feebly attempting to get writs against fishermen salvaging wooden beams from drowned buildings. The “St. Marcellus’ Flood” of 1362 (also called the Grote Mandrenke: “The Great Drowner of Men”) completed the job. In 1400 the walls of Ravensrodd could still be seen at low tide, but not long after that even the location of Ravensrodd was forgotten.

Trail of Cthulhu: The Shadow Over Ravensrodd

“… that town of Ravenserodd … was an exceedingly famous borough devoted to merchandise, as well as many fisheries, most abundantly furnished with ships …. But yet, with all inferior places, and chiefly by wrong-doing on the sea, by its wicked works and piracies, it provoked the wrath of God against its self beyond measure.”

— Thomas de Burton, Chronicle of Meaux Abbey (1396)

A mysterious island rises from the waves, becomes immensely profitable in gold and fish, then “by its wicked works” it drowns again. One hardly has to stretch to cast Ravensrodd as a medieval Innsmouth, destroyed by God rather than by J. Edgar Hoover. The Ravensrodd versions of the Marshes and Gilmans include family names such as: Barell, Selby, Brune, Cotes or Cokes or Coas, Rottenherring (meaning “red herring”), Keeling, Ferby, and perhaps most excitingly de la Pole, who married into not only the royal House of York but the poetic Chaucer family.

These families mostly removed to Hull in Yorkshire after Ravensrodd went down, or in some cases well before, buying up choice properties and investing in towns as far north as Whitby. So a Keeper looking for weird connections in Hull might begin with the mysterious (dream-driven?) suicide on December 6, 1924 of housebreaker Edward “Fanlight Jimmy” McMahon. McMahon apparently hanged himself in gaol despite having no motive to do so, after breaking into a house on Chariot Street. What did he see there that he couldn’t forget, or that Something wanted him to keep silent about?

Fall of DELTA GREEN Handlers might also want to look into the murders in Hull of prostitutes Margaret Lowson (1966) and Evelyn Edwards (1967). One Samuel Stephenson (a stereotypical serial killer, down to the letters to Scotland Yard) confessed to Lowson’s murder and was convicted of it, but Edwards’ remains officially unsolved. The other Deep One spoor that decade is the Hull triple trawler tragedy: three trawlers out of Hull sank in January 1968, one of them only a day out of port.

NIght’s Black Agents: The Ravensrodd Inheritance

“… the inundations of the sea and of the Humber had destroyed to the foundations the chapel of Ravensrodd, built in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that the corpses and bones of the dead there horribly appeared …”

— Thomas de Burton, Chronicle of Meaux Abbey (1396)

As I mentioned, the port of Old Ravenser goes back to Viking times or before, beginning as a monastic hermitage in 600 or so, a Danish invasion port in the centuries that follow, and reduced to only one manor house by 1400. At some point perhaps the monks drove something out into the sea, something that raised its own island and spread its own foul influence, trying to supplant the Counts of Aumale (all six of the Countess of Aumale’s children predeceased her; the line became extinct in 1274) and lurking in the manor house until the chapel drowned.

That something is the Danish vampiric spirit called the nikke (mentioned as the neck or nykr in the Director’s Handbook, p. 233). It might appear as a horse or as a bearded man or as a beautiful woman or youth. (In human form it has a slit ear, or a dripping wet garment.) Its “true appearance” may be that of a worm with blood-sucking tendrils. It surfaces every so often to work its wiles or slake its thirst in Hull: William Bolton kills Jane Allen in her flat in Andrew Marvell Terrace on October 17, 1902, stabbing her three times and himself once in the neck “in his sleep.” Six years later Thomas Siddle deprives himself of food, cuts his wife’s throat with a razor on June 9, 1908, stands stunned at the crime scene, remains insensible in prison, claims “something came over me; I only realised what I had done when blood was on my hand” …

Nikke

General Abilities: Aberrance 16, Hand-to-Hand 8, Health 10

Hit Threshold: 4 (above water), 6 (under water)

Alertness Modifier: +1 (at edge of water), +2 (on the water), +3 (under water)

Stealth Modifier: +2 (when not singing)

Damage Modifier: +0 (grasp; damage first to Athletics then to Health)

Armor: -1 (subcutaneous scales) or Corpse

Free Powers: Drain (drains air and blood from lungs, as Heat Drain), Regeneration (2 Health per round in water; all damage by next high tide), Strangling Grasp (as Lamia; NBA, p. 151)

Other Powers: Musical Enthrallment and Musical Madness (both as Mental Attacks; NBA, p. 131), Turn to Creature (Horse, Snake); Apportation (to its lair or to anywhere touched by its waters), Clairvoyance (everywhere touched by its waters), Dominate, Howl (when in the presence of a future drowning victim), Magic (Call Storms, Multiply Fish), Mesmerism, Necromancy

Banes: saying its name

Compulsions: sell magic to those who pay for it with “three drops of blood,” accept a coin dropped in water in lieu of a life

Blocks: iron knife or a steel fire-striker

Requirements: drown or drain humans, remain in or near its waters by day

Ripped from the history books, here’s a great choice the next time you’re asked to create a Trail of Cthulhu player character: Bessie Coleman, aka Queen Bess, pioneering African American aviator. An active protagonist if ever there was one, she taught herself to fly when neither women nor black people were supposed to do so. So she went to France to get her pilot’s license, dated two years before Amelia Earhart’s. Unable to get conventional piloting work back in the states, she returned to Europe to learn barrel rolls and other aerobatic techniques, then toured the US as a popular barnstormer. Coleman forced promoters to desegregate her audiences, and turned her back on a Hollywood career when asked to play a stereotypical role.

(In some of her publicity shots, she bears a striking resemblance to Janelle Monae. Somebody call somboedy’s agent.)

History tells us that she died in an air accident in 1926. Those of us steeped in horror adventure can see the flaws in that story, in which she allowed her mechanic to fly the plane, and it went out of control due to a literal wrench left in the engine case. A little too on the nose, surely—clearly she’s signaling to those in the know that she’s faking her own death. And if she’s doing that in ‘26, clearly she has to drop from sight to settle some business with Nyarlathotep.

That’s her backstory when it comes time to play her a few years later, in the Trail era.

Pilots can be a little hard to work into the action of a standard multiplayer game. As a GM you might build a Cthulhu Confidential series around her, with lots of aerial Challenges and problem solving. She speaks fluent French, so one of her globe-trotting Mythos-busting cases could take her to Paris to rub elbows with the Dreamhounds of the surrealist movement. Chauvinists like Andre Breton and Luis Buñuel might not know what to make of her, but a romp into Unknown Kadath with Gala Dalí and Kiki de Montparnasse might be just the thing. Perhaps she would also insist on taking Josephine Baker along, too. I’m sure she’ll be entirely careful while buzzing Mount Hatheg-Kla in the butterfly ornithopter Kiki has dreamed up for her.

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