A good background story

Before the lockdowns started, a friend of ours ran Berlin – The Wicked City from Chaosium. She had been bugging us to play for a while, but schedules have (as usual) been difficult to synch.

That afternoon almost didn’t push through, but we ended up playing all through the afternoon, into the night, into the wee hours of the morning. We finished the first scenario in one sitting.

(Ah, the long-gone times of real-life tabletop RPG games!)

Berlin – The Wicked City is a sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu, containing three scenarios in addition to being an overview of 1920s Berlin to help a Storyteller craft a CoC campaign filled with notable personalities, key locations, and rich culture.

I’m a scaredy cat. I can’t watch horror shows1, I can’t read horror books2. Dan had played the introductory scenario of Masks of Nyarlathotep for me under the Pulp Cthulhu adaptation, but it was decidedly horror-lite.

I was stressed for a good amount of time during the game. There were more than a couple times that I was seriously considering excusing myself from the game because it giving me a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. The only reason I didn’t was the thought of walking the short block home–alone–in the middle of the night3.

The saving grace was the almost-cheesy, almost-melodramatic back story I selected that I used “just for fun”. We’re starting the next scenario soon (since the quarantine isn’t easing up), and while I’m dreading playing Call of Cthulhu in a small condominium unit in the dead of night, I’m actually looking forward to it. All because of my cheesy, melodramatic back story that amazingly enabled me to feel fully integrated into the story than I otherwise would have.

Our game

We played the first scenario, The Devil Eats Flies. I had no idea what it was about. We just sat down in my friend’s living room and she told us what sorts of people currently populated the city.

I lit on becoming a woman refugee taking on odd jobs to survive. She was hiding her true identity as a Russian monarchist who was a servant under one of the lesser noble families before everything went to chaos.

Dan urged me to go big or go home–be a servant of the Romanovs directly! Why not? Background flavour was background flavour. So, hell, why not? I became one of the handmaidens of the imperial family who stayed behind as they fled Alexander Palace.

I was trying to scrape enough together, but also day-dreaming of finding my lady, the Grand Duchess Anastasia, amid rumours that she had escaped. Not that I could find anything with my barely-living wage juggling three jobs as a secretary at the University, a waitress at a popular diner, and taking on odd tasks at the police station.

(Of course I’m not going to sell my body. I am a lady’s maid, my good sir! For shame!)

Little did I know. Check out what the scenario is about, from the publisher itself:

In The Devil Eats Flies Germany teeters on the brink of economic ruin and political chaos. The ghost of a madman stalks the city, turning its own citizenry against itself. To stop a demonic spirit and save a Russian princess in exile, the investigators must strike a bargain with other sinister forces and ask themselves: who else are we prepared to see die in order to save the city?

What are the chances? Our Storyteller never made a sound as I planned my poor little Russian immigrant’s sad background.

You know that game where you end up mimicking your character’s actions, kneeling down on the floor as you’re entreating someone to believe you?

Yeah, that finally happened to me after over a year of playing tabletop roleplaying games. I didn’t even realize it until after the game.

That probably says more about the types of games I usually play in, but I generally prefer games where there is minimal emotional bleed. It’s not that I don’t like being challenged emotionally–I’m a girl who cries readily at movies and books. But I’m also conflict-averse and more often than not, emotional conflict in games tend to be between players. I’m a PvE sort of person.

This Berlin game gave me my PvE conflict wishes, heightened by all the emotional connections the storyline had with me.

A super brief review

Sure, the highly charged and horror-peppered story probably added to how visceral the game felt for me, though it comes from a different quarter than what one might expect. If you’ve played this scenario, I’m not even squicked at the inherent level of gore in the story. It was everything else. The creepiness of the people. The paranoia, the confusion, not knowing what to do and not wanting my character to go back to her tiny apartment alone (there’s one thing we have in common!).

I’m not typically a puzzle-solver in the tabletop RPG games we play, and this is no exception. So I can’t speak about how ingenious the plot puzzle was, but it certainly felt really clever. We did not play pulp this time around, so we were rather squishy folk, but we survived. Not unscathed, but alive. Of a sort.

We’re playing again soon, and I’ve petitioned a daytime game when it gets to the squicky parts XD

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. though I’m cool with zombie media and general gore
2. but I love Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga–while never having read the rest of his books. Go figure
3. Dan probably wouldn’t let me do that alone, but neither did I want to be the wet blanket

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