Settings, Part I

I should just start making all my posts end with “Part I” as some sort of running joke.

I’m starting up worldbuilding for a GURPS game (3rd edition).  I’m going to post about it here because some people might find it interesting, and I might get some necessary and useful suggestions… and finally, because I need something to write about and I have to write about this in order to get it done, so I’m working it out here in the interests of being lazy.

The conversation began with some of my last-run AD&D players when I said, “You know, this term is Game Theory and from the looks of things I’ll be able to spend some time thinking about things other than work or class in the next few months and I want to get gaming again, so are you all interested in running something and if so… what?”  We started off talking about Cliffhanger, and now we’re sort of edging towards a suspense/Horror campaign.

I haven’t put together a near-history campaign in a long while.  Unlike, say, Swashbuckling or some Space Opera campaign, near-history campaigns have a very neat and accessible worldbuilding aspect: you can mine historical data.  With a large format printer, you can (for example) print out actual bits of old newspaper pages or maps to use as adventure seeds and props to set the atmosphere. Unfortunately, aiming at 1930 means I have to hit microfiche in the library… 1922 an earlier and there would be scads of stuff on sites like Chronicling America.

Here’s what we have so far.  The year is 1930, the campaign will begin in San Francisco.  There will be international flava flav, but probably not world-spanning travel (think more along the lines of The Maltese Falcon – adventure seeds allude to international intrigue… instead of Indiana Jones with parts of the campaign being represented by a red line moving across a world map).  The one player that has expressed a solid idea of backstory has worked with me and we’ve settled on her being the granddaughter of Hiram Walker.  This is four years after the Walker family unloaded the family distillery in Canada.  Her backstory is still developing, but so far she runs a speakeasy in San Francisco (still Prohibition), and the local mob family lets her run independently because of course nobody wants to risk having their supply chain cut off by pissed off Canadians.

There will be paranormal events.  The player characters (some of them at least) will likely be low level espers of some sort, and the Bad Guys will be many and varied and will range from secret societies with ritual magic to the aforementioned mob gangs and maybe the Feds or some crazy occult-seeking Nazis.  The goal is to have lots of cerebral task to overcome and lots of suspense and action without turning it Indy-style cinematic (and without killing off the PCs, which is going to require a lot of work on the GMs part).  Just in the little bit of newspaper browsing I’ve found tons of neat little articles that can easily tie into game threads… one of the nice things about horror-suspense type campaigns is that just about any story could be part of the greater conspiracy, so it’s easy to mine newspapers for clippings that give you interesting ideas for side plots or red herrings or perhaps insight into the Inner Circle of the Cabal.

If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments.


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.


  1. Hrm. That’s right around the time that vaccinations started really taking off. Work in a serum that “the bad guys” shoot themselves up with and make themselves bullet-resistant or fire-resistant or something. Make the players resent that the enemies are always making themselves better with this stuff… then let them get a syringe of it.

    • That’s a really good idea. There’s also the nefarious plot thread there…

      “Maybe the anti-vaxxers were actually onto something in 1930. The Cabal gets an agent deep in the medical community…”

      DPT was 1942, but we can always do revisionist history, too.

  2. This sounds like a perfect opportunity to pimp GURPS: Social Engineering, written by my internet buddy Bill Stoddard. This seems like the kind of campaign where social interaction is going to be at least as common as combat.

    It is designed for 4th edition, but GURPS editions are much closer than D&D editions, so I do think there’s still a lot of value you could get out of it.

  3. How exciting! 1930 is a great choice for an RPG setting.

    San Francisco would have been a big Navy town; Fleet Week would have been a big deal, and the Presidio was an active Army base. Alcatraz was open for business, something I’ll bet you’ve not forgotten. Only ferries to get around the Bay Area; the Bay Bridge was still thought of as a technical impossibility by a lot of people. The Palace of Fine Arts would have still been in use as a public art exhibition. Italian-Americans were only just being newly accepted into polite society (the Chinese and Japanese, not so much).

    It’s a shame Anton LeVay isn’t available in 1930 without serious anacronism to add to the occult flavor of the paranormal events. Maybe you can invent an analogue. But, San Jose was a pretty big city, and it would have sported the Winchester Mystery House, in all seven stories of its unplanned glory, which would surely be a good place for more encounters with the paranormal after you players get loaded up in the Duesenberg for a trip down there to investigate. (Bet you thought of that, too.)

    Although San Francisco is a good launch point for its romance and relative isolation from the surrounding world, Los Angeles had by 1930 tripled in population over the previous ten years, and would have had a charm and romance of its own — the street cars were not yet fully torn out, Pasadena and Santa Monica were “out in the boonies,” and the guys who ran the newspaper were economically self-interested political shot-callers. Kind of a Chinatown sort of vibe and maybe a good place for a showdown with the mob, or an encounter with Hollywood’s Golden Age stars?

    • San Jose also has the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum… which was basically founded between 1927 and 1932.

      I grew up in San Jose, so yes I thought of the Winchester house.

      The Golden Gate was constructed between 1933 and 1937. The Coit Tower in 1933. Alcatraz was opened as a federal prison in 1933, prior to that it was a military prison – I’m thinking about conscientious objectors who may have been imprisoned there. San Quentin still executed prisoners by hanging. Lots of historical context to swim through.

      I’m probably going to incorporate the fire of 1925 in Mission Santa Clara into the story.

  4. Late Depression would feature the rise of petroleum in Louisiana and Texas. Fascism wasn’t then quite the evil it would become. Huey Long and a couple of like minded rabid populists would set up their own fiefdoms. These guys would be far more interesting (and powerful) than some inscrutable Chinese or Italian gangs. Unlike the racist Nazis, your Fascist Fausts might form alliances into black culture through voodoo and swear oaths which could get them in trouble with dark powers whose powers they didn’t fully understand when they signed the contract. Mwahaha!

    • I like the idea of a Huey Long under the control of a bokor.

  5. I should just start making all my posts end with “Part I” as some sort of running joke.

    I’ve been thinking about this and I am in love with the idea.

    • I rock out at getting things started.

      Getting past Part I is a bitch.

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