Design Notes: Ghosts, Memories, & Saint Barberra
I've been putting some broad strokes into the first chapter of The Corruption of Saint Barberra: A Campaign Setting & Guide for Zweihänder Grim & Perilous RPG in advance of our Sunday introductory session. I have a sense of the rules, I've read through the Game Master chapter, and have a world to work with. By building from the resources of Zweihänder, I'm leaning hard into my memories of the original Diablo (1996) computer game, my love of creepy gothic environments, and the weighty openness of my late grandparents' home and my father's hometown of Matewan, West Virginia. I want this world to feel lived in, substantial, and at the same time malign and broken. In this first chapter, I'm trying to teach the game to my players.
The table is familiar with Call of Cthulhu and the Pulp Cthulhu variant, so the d100 roll under mechanic shouldn't be challenging for them. The likelihood of matches and hence criticals (11, 22, 33, etc.) is much higher, meaning we're going to have some interesting outcomes more often, but those results are often more prescribed than in Dungeons & Dragons, which will be useful or frustrating, I'm not sure which. We'll start with overland travels with opportunities for our players--as guards of the Girl Accused of Witchery--to practice their skills on the road; interact with Sister Henrietta "Nettie" Boling, Novice Sister Maisie Green, Officer Mort Plunk, and the Girl herself; as well as make choices around exploration and protection. Zweihänder does a great job with structuring this and while I have finer points to work out, I feel good.
More to my own reflection and even trepidation, this setting is feeling intimate, close, and potentially painful. I think fondly of the ratatat of trains in the old clapboard house or the perpetual funk of the sluggish Tug River, but the small mountain town has aged and slumped. I recall the stories of ATVs flipping over leading to injury and death of their drivers, often young people. I think of the mobile homes that were patchwork churches or the two-faced behaviors of those same preachers. I think about my father in that old house where my grandmother deteriorated with Parkinson's Disease and his own moody, stubborn positivity. I think about the woods peppered with moonshine stills, the prescription pill addictions, the coal sludge pools.
Is this a story I'm comfortable writing? Can the lens of dungeon crawling and arcane magic overlay atop a land and a people that do hurt for relief and healing? Is it something I should do?
At the same time, I think about my grandmother, that same who struggled with Parkinson's, and how she co-opened a bank in the first half of the 20th century and a half dozen other businesses. She once told my mother, "I was a liberated woman before there were liberated women." There is an incredible, even brutal strength in those mountains and in those ramshackle houses. There is kinship and blood there. I want to tell that story as well.
As I write this campaign I think often of the oppressive mountain humidity, the mist on the mountains, the hollows like blood vessels claimed by families. I think about what that kind of weight does to a person, does to stone walls, does to the people. Those mountains, those mists, that secrecy, maybe it makes people both welcoming and private; or maybe it is the spirit of the people that go out that way, that they want that distance from the cities and the government.
And so I can imagine how something dark and malignant could grow there, quietly for a time, rising in power and revealed through the subtle machinations of an entrepreneur or a preacher, concealed in the yards on up a wooded holler, or infiltrating the old mines like rain water laden with toxic sludge that seeps into soil and into crop.
I've been pulling maps of West Virginia to figure out the Moonshine Pass. This first chapter that introduces the characters to the landscape, to the people along the way, and to the dangers. We joke about the poorly detailed elevation contours of the Curse of Strahd map for Dungeons & Dragons, so I don't want to make the same mistakes, but it does feel so close, so cutting to pull from the real world like that. And then, with those maps, to pepper it with demons and aberrations.
But the shadows, I think they have always been that thick, inky black.
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Matewan (1987) Film Poster