In the over twenty years my game has run, we’ve touched on just about all the possible pulp genres, excepting maybe the Western. However, I do have a fondness for the weird and supernatural, and thus my stories very, very often slant that way.
Another element I consider very important when creating adventures is to consider social issues and problems which were relevant, but often handled very differently in those days. Many of the heroes of my game have surprisingly modern sensibilities — or perhaps “enlightened” would be a better word. The only thing they have no tolerance for is evil.
Rather than being strictly episodic, like most of the pulps were, my game is much more of a continuing story. A soap opera, as some of my players have said — usually when they want to give me a hard time.
It is true, however, that I like to have characters that keep coming back, stories whose threads continue from adventure to adventure, villains that don’t always stay that way. I like looking at love, romance, family and loved ones. I like my characters — player and NPC — to be real people, not just collections of stats on a sheet.
If that’s soap opera, well … so be it.
Adventures, By Year
When looking at the listing pages, containing the descriptions of actual adventures, please bear in mind that until about 1998, these games were played exclusively as a regular tabletop RPG. I have my GM’s notes of how the adventure was set up, but there were no records kept of how it actually played out. Thus I am relying largely on my memory, which isn’t always of the best, especially when we’re talking about events that took place as many as twenty years ago.
Beginning in about 1998, many of the adventures were played out online, and the transcripts have been preserved. This allows for a much more detailed account of events. However, there are a few cases where transcripts are missing or incomplete, and so again, I have to rely of the vagaries of memory.
Elements of a Chamber of Mystery Game
Over the years the game has developed its own particular flavor, driven mostly by my fondness for particular story elements (as described above). What follows is a run-down of some of the most common ones.
The very first adventure I ran had its basis in some weird science: a Victorian Age inventor built a machine that could hold people in suspended animation, and had as his first subject none other than Jack the Ripper. How the Ripper was set free, briefly resumed his terrifying career, and was finally sent to a much-delayed, greatly-deserved doom, formed the rest of the tale. Joe Medina, my inital player and creator of the Silver Ghost (not to mention my husband), transformed the adventure into a short story, “Age of Fear,” which was published in the pulp zine Secret Sanctum.
Issues of Secret Sanctum prior to the one in which “Age of Fear” appeared are available from Vintage New Library. The zine has since folded, and I’m not sure if a copy of that last issue is commercially available. Contact me if you are interested in seeing the story.
In a later story, another subject — a werewolf — escaped. (Professor Gaizer was long on intellect and idealism, but perhaps just a bit short on common sense.)
A few “mad scientist” types inhabit my world. One invented a time machine and used it to kidnap beautiful women from all over the world, from the past and even the future. It was one of these, a computer programmer from the early 1990s, who gave the time machine its name: the Crystal Ship, after a song by The Doors.
There are two principal groups of entities in my game which I call “Great Powers” — beings who are incredibly powerful, quite possibly immortal, and have a part in shaping (or guarding) the destiny of the human race. They are the Lords of Shamballa and the Daughters of the Apocalypse.
The Lords of Shamballa inhabit the mystical land of their name, which lies in another dimension from Earth. This dimension can be entered by several means, most commonly by “gates” of black granite constructed by the Lords. Interestingly enough, the Crystal Shiptime machine can also cross the dimensions to reach Shamballa.
The Daughters of the Apocalypse are a far darker group than the Shamballans. Legend has it that the end of the world will be accompanied by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Famine, Pestilence, War, and Death. In the universe of the game, each of these beings has a daughter, charged with making sure that the human race doesn’t destroy itself before time. No one can say for certain how the Daughters do their work, or why they seem drawn to certain individuals (like the player characters). What is beyond doubt is that they are incredibly powerful, inspiring awe and dread by their mere presence.
Extraterrestrial beings have made at least two appearances in the game. In one adventure, the players had to rescue and protect a young alien whose parents — who had been living secretly among humans as innocent observers — were murdered by the Nazis for their advanced technology. Later, the players returned the young alien to his own kind.
In another adventure, the players joined forces with a robotic alien probe, marooned on earth after his travel pod malfunctioned. The sentient robot, who could duplicate any human in near-perfect detail, helped the players by impersonating a Nazi spy.
Out-and-out sorcery is somewhat rare in my game (as opposed to the supernatural which can be explained by psychic powers or spirit phenomena), but it does exist. Hei Lian is a Chinese sorceress who has used her magic to greatly extend her lifespan, and has become one of the players’ most formidable allies. At least one player character has studied magic under Hei Lian’s tutelage for a time.
Monsters — and monster hunters — thrive in the world of my game. Some are not as evil as their appearance or reputation would suggest, while others are far worse. The players have encountered several vampires over the years, ranging from a benevolent young woman who uses her abilities to fight crime, to a madman seeking to wipe out the entire human race with a plague, to the king of vampires, Count Dracula himself.
One adventure took the players to a mysterious uncharted island deep in the South Pacific, where they encountered the descendants of an ancient Chinese exploration mission — and a dragon, who turned out to be one of the original explorers, transformed and granted power and immortality by mysterious crystals in the cave where he lived.
For some time, one of the players’ greatest foes was a kitsune, or Japanese fox-spirit. After many battles with the woman who could take the form of a fox, the players succeeded in winning her over to the side of right and she has become a friend and ally.
The players have also had to contend with werewolves, demons, ghosts, and at least one gaki (a Japanese spirit-creature combining aspects of the western ghost and vampire). On the more positive side, in a recent adventure, a lonely young NPC found a naiad (a water-spirit based in Greek myth) and the two became lovers.
Psychic abilities are very real in the world of my game, although most people don’t realize it, and the gifted sometimes have to struggle against prejudice, misunderstanding and fear — even their own.
One of the game’s longest-running non-player characters (who in fact began as my own PC when someone else was running a JI game) is an empath, whose abilities first manifested when she was serving as a nurse in the field hospitals of the Great War. Having to literally suffer the death of her neighbors more times than she could count left her with a hatred of war and violence, and inspired her career as a diplomat.
The Nazi spy mentioned above, Count von Schellen, was a clairvoyant and possibly a telepath. The clairvoyance made him especially dangerous to the players with secret identities. His daughter, who the players rescued from a concentration camp, may well share some of his abilities.
Several notable player characters over the course of the game have also had psychic powers, including psychometry, telekinesis and prescience. A few are also master hypnotists, most dangerous if provoked. While hypnosis is not necessarily a psychic ability, being frequently used in the real world for both entertainment and psychotheraputic purposes, in the world of my game, it has somewhat greater power.
For some, Spiritualism is a genuine religion, centering on the idea that one can communicate with the spirits of those who have died, through a specially-trained person called a medium. In the world of my game, this is quite true. At least one of the major player characters, and several NPCs, are mediums who communicate with the dead frequently.
The dead themselves have become major figures in the game. One character, formerly a villain, became a “spirit guide” for one of the players, helping him in his efforts to locate and speak with people in the spirit world.
Quite a few adventures have revolved around ghostly spirits. One helped the characters find vital information about her own murder! While several malevolent spirits have attempted to possess the players and turn them to evil ends, most spirits (even of those who weren’t necessarily so nice in life) are benevolent, and willing to give the players information helpful in solving crimes and mysteries.
Reincarnation is also a fact of life. One of the players had his spirit guide send him to find the reincarnation of her own child, unborn at the time she was murdered. And in one of my most recent adventures, the soul of a once incredibly evil man, now seeking redemption, entered the body of a young woman whose soul had already departed but whose body was left behind, still alive.
Social Justice (Inc.)
While the players often spend their time doing battle with supernatural beasts, monsters of a more human sort have also been their foes. They’ve hunted down several serial murderers, including one who, as a telepath, killed his victims purely for the perverse pleasure of “hearing” their thoughts as they died. They once smashed up a crime ring dealing in sweatshop labor, furnished by children that had been kidnapped and enslaved.
And they have taken on the Nazi killing machine — in 1937 and 1938, only beginning to turn its bloody gears. Several players traveled to Germany and smuggled out people who would otherwise have been doomed to concentration camps. Back home, they have several times brought swift and well-deserved retribution to those who tortured and killed in the name of Hitler’s ideology.
It’s regrettable, but unavoidable, that the pulps of the 1930s were often thick with the prejudices of the time they were written, sometimes using words and characterizations of people that we today find offensive. However, even in those days, there were people who believed in — and practiced, sometimes at great personal risk — tolerance, acceptance and understanding of all human beings. Many of my game’s player characters embody this virtue — to their credit, and the credit of their players.
This aspect of my game can probably best be explained by a combination of two facts: first, I hate letting characters go, especially once they’ve been out on the stage and proven themselves interesting; and second, I have a fascination for themes revolving around fall and redemption. I’m also a sucker for a good romance in the grandest of styles.
On at least four occasions, major recurring villains have “come around” to the side of right after many run-ins with the players. The thief Janet Rutherford became a spirit guide for one of the players (it helped that she had become a bit infatuated with him) after she was murdered. The man who murdered her, Evan Sabre, was a misogynistic murderer who tangled with the players even after he was dead, and is only now moving toward a path of atonement.
Mariko Tashimori was a kitsune, several hundred years old and part spirit creature, whose adventures only really began when she was won over to the side of right. She married one of the players and not long ago bore his child. The scientist Davidon also turned to the cause of right, but remains tortured by guilt over his past. This has led him to many self-sacrifices on behalf of the players and others.