Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Exploring Race, Gender & Sexuality in Masks of Nyarlathotep - New York

OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: This is in no way a criticism of the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. Please do not take it as a criticism. The campaign is designed to engage as many pulp tropes from the era while at the same time avoiding any nasty assumptions about those stereotypes actually being true. At no point does the campaign blame inherent characteristics of any race for any of the Mythosy unpleasantness and there are plenty of examples of every race getting in on the Nyarlathotep action. There are also plenty of examples of nasty people of either race and gender included as well though the 1 named woman to every 9 named men is a bit unfortunate (while still making sense given the tropes and era involved).

I ADORE this campaign and do not wish nor desire for there to be any permanent changes to the campaign book. This is a more an examination of how some elements of the campaign could be changed to create a greater diversity and richness within the characters. I am in NO WAY saying that you *should* make these changes or that you are a bad person if you don't see any reason why these changes are necessary. They're not necessary. They're optional. Play it as you please.  

SPOILER WARNING: There are plenty within. I thought I would create a few more opportunities for important and powerful female NPCs in my version of the campaign. While I have to give kudos to the authors for Erica Carlyle, M'Weru, Nitocris (if summoned), Miriam Atwright, Agatha Broadmoor, Mei-Ling Choi, Nyiti, Bertha Shipley, Natalie Smythe-Forbes, Eloise Vane, Ewa Cowles, and Yaleesha from the core campaign and the companion writers for Fat Maybelle and Helen, I want to have more than 12 key characters out of 92.

Part of this can be dealt with through airtime. Even if only 12 named characters out of 92 are female, if those 12 characters are highly significant than that can most assuredly help mitigate the difference. Unfortunately since most of the cultist bad guys that consistently oppose you are men this is a bit trickier than one might initially suppose.

Still I am assisted by the fact that I am running this campaign nearly twenty years later during World War II and that I am creating a few NPC allies to assist my solo PC in his journeys and some of them will be women who will both fit within the era and yet counter the era's expectations of them. These allies will be introduced during the Half-Moon Cult and will include his apprentice hunter, Charlotte Adams; Sydney Silver's bisexual girlfriend Martha Collins who can help track her down; and Jane Fisher, the daughter of the Byron Fisher who provided Claude Porter with some advice after the monster sighting was leaked to the press.

 I have also gender swapped Sydney Silver from the Half Moon Cult (female reporter working under a male byline) and Jonah Kensington (now Julia) from Prospero Press is now a successful divorcee who had built the company up using her inheritance and who is now officially in charge since divorcing her husband.

 I will also be including some violent female cultists as the Cult of the Bloody Tongue seems a lot more open to female power than either of the other two cults. This will come up as a real issue when James Tyler takes out Mukunga as his chief wife will then step up to take control over the remnants who will meet at Fat Maybelle's.

Another problem James will face will be a female member of the Half Moon Cult (as he will have upset them first) who will prove to be a seemingly helpful femme fatale whom he will probably meet at Erica Carlyle's party. She won't be a mystical threat, really. More of a 'web of deceit and legal machinations' sort of person.

The New York Cult of the Bloody Tongue Masks of Nyarlathotep is an immense campaign that deals with the rather delightful aspects of a bloodthirsty, violent and utterly unsympathetic collection of cults that will do anything to achieve its evil aims. Suitably pulpy, yet with plenty of investigative and social avenues, this campaign deals with that essential human fear that there are some folk out there who will stop at nothing to achieve their awful aims and care nothing for those hurt along the way.

They are blinded by their drive for power, excited by sadistic cruelty, and yet can still blend within society. They are every fear of serial killers, doomsday cults, and vicious criminals that haunt our dreams at night. Now take that and mix in the primordial terror of ancient gods who want only to destroy us alongside a modern horror that our scientific exploits will doom us all (aka the Rocket).

Both cults also have a mixture of white and black cultists, though the white cultists tend to be richer and the black ones poorer. This is likely because the religion was brought over by black migrants who are actively discriminated against by the surrounding society but who target white cultists who have more wealth and influence. Odds are they are mostly middle class but have the kind of bureaucratic positions that can be painful to fight. I do, after all, want to keep them distinct from the wealthy Cult of the Black Pharoah.

Since wealth in any cult tends to be funneled into the cult leader's pockets, it would make sense for Mukunga to become quite wealthy as well. While there is a good chance that he will remain a shadowy figure in the background, knowing James' style he will probably be investigated so I'd be better off answering a few questions for myself. I have given him a residence on Sugar Hill and a couple of wives who are as dangerous as he is and who would take up the position as cult leader should he be killed. His lawful wife would take control first as she never attends the same cult meetings as Mukunga so that if one were killed (or arrested) the other would remain free. His second wife masquerades as his chief maidservant. The third pretends to be the nanny-turned-housekeeper. The children are all enrolled in a boarding school to give them the best possible education.

 This means that no matter what James does, the Cult of the Bloody Tongue will probably resurface in New York later on. Religions are pretty hard to stamp out, after all. If he does somehow manage to put enough effort into it without running out of time before the Big Ritual, so to speak, then the lack of religious influence on the kids may mean that they drift off into ordinary lives. He'll never really know.

Initially this was just going to be about race and gender but after reading The Post-Modern Masks of Nyarlathotep treatment in a Trail of Cthulhu Actual Play, I've decided to throw in some sexuality issues as well as you may have noticed with Sydney Silver's romance with her bisexual live-in lover. I'm taking Aviatrix's suggestions of having Jack Brady and Roger Carlyle be homosexual lovers. This isn't just to 'inject some LGBT-ness' into the storyline. I actually think it makes a lot more sense within the plotline if you inject some romance.

Why would Roger Carlyle suddenly become so interested in a jailbird that he'd even condescend to interview him in jail about the murder, let alone lawyer him up? Why was their loyalty so tight that Jack Brady travelled halfway around the world to save him and turned into a vigilante?

Sure, there are friendships that are that tight and sudden but this is fiction and fiction requires work to make coincidence logical. Romance is a far better shorthand.

As this is Masks, the NPC romances won't be a big part of the campaign anymore than a straight one would be but they do exist and may be referenced within the campaign itself if James is quick enough to pick up the clues.

Happy for discussion in the comments section below on your personal experiences with this campaign alongside any tweaks you may have made to the campaign, in whatever direction you may have done it.


  1. This is very, very neat.

    I seem to have started something here, or there's something in the water--there are a lot of revisionist takes of Masks floating around out there, it seems.

    I view what I'm doing as a reboot very much in the spirit of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, down to gender-flipping key characters. Most especially Jackson Elias. When the history of my campaign is written, that single change had the longest reach and was the key to everything else.

    If you haven't started yet, my one piece of advice is to make sure that Jackson is important to the PCs. She died in session 1, but has managed to appear in all but two of the subsequent sessions, and her presence haunts the campaign. It's all I could hope for!

    Really, good luck--it's an awesome campaign, and it is surprisingly resilient even when folks like you and me muck around in it!

    1. Thank you. Your revisionist take on it was very inspiring. I always take existing campaigns and adventures and remodel them fairly extensively to meet my requirements. You gave me the confidence to do the same with Masks.