It’s New Years Eve, 1980. You peer listlessly out of the window of your London flat, clenching a half-empty bottle of wine. The holiday has provided a momentary lapse in your labours as a dockworker. It’s a good thing too – the hum of the thermionic lanterns was causing you splitting migraines, and there’s no chance in hell you can afford another trepanning appointment. The booze will have to do.
Suddenly, there’s a pounding at the door. You freeze; you weren’t expecting visitors. You never expect visitors. The knocking escalates to a hammering, and broken words of English, German, and Shadish leak through the oaken portal. You can’t make them out, but you’re pretty sure it ain’t a singing telegram.
You reach for your ray duster. The sight’s crooked and one of the tubes is cracked, but at least you remembered to charge it this time. The hum of the device causes you to wince as you flick it on. Hands shaking, you aim at the cracking doorframe.
This year’s off to a bad start.
Imagine a universe where World War 2 ended differently. In this world, days prior to what would have been the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Adolph Hitler’s ultimate plan came to fruition. Dedicating millions of dollars and nearly a decade to secret occult research and scientific experimentation, the fuehrer succeeded in opening a portal to another dimension. His intent – use the secrets of the multiverse to rule his enemies as a god.
A pitiful man who, with the throw of a lever, doomed the world.
Nothing remains of Germany save for a crater spiralling into endless blackness. Those who have returned alive from the surrounding countries of Eastern Europe describe buildings torn out from their foundations, barren fields, and shadowy behemoths that stalk the howling countryside.
The United Kingdom now remains the foremost bastion of civilization in Europe. Massive thermionic lanterns keep the creatures of the other world at bay while refugees from what remains of France, Spain, and Italy pound at the doors. An impenetrable fog draws a veil across the North Atlantic; no one has heard from the Americas in almost four decades.
This is the world of Psychopomp. Psychopomp is a pen-and-paper roleplaying game designed in the same vein as Call of Cthulu. It is an alternate history campaign setting with the inclusion of substantial horror and fantasy elements. Although there are rules for basic combat, the game is largely story oriented. Character advancement is skill based, with additional skill points being rewarded to the player at the end of every play session.
Creatively speaking, Psychopomp is the bastard son of my love for Hellboy graphic novels and for Coast to Coast AM. Hellboy pioneered and perfected the history-meets-fantasy subgenre (nobody does occult Nazis better than Mignola) and offered this narrative through a noir aesthetic that causes your eyes to latch on to every page. Coast to Coast AM, while decidedly lacking the same sort of artistic clout, is a brimming reservoir of goofy notions about psychic powers, secret government technology, and shadow people.
One of the principle themes of Psychopomp is appropriating old avenues of science, technology, and medicine that are considered dead ends by modern standards and reimagining them as legitimate pursuits. The foremost field of technology in this version of 1980s Europe is thermionics, electrical devices that employ vacuum tubes. Modern medicine prescribes homeopathic dilutions in place of pharmaceuticals and employs bloodletting – intended to balance the four humours – as the principal means of surgery. Advanced computers run on punch cards, phrenology is used to appraise character, and so on.
Despite magic and the supernatural being an integral aspect of the campaign setting, players cannot cast spells or wield magic in a manner conventional of roleplaying games. Instead, they may opt to learn skills that grant them minor psychic or mystic capabilities. Many of these skills enhance the senses: remote viewing allows a player to visualize locations, items, or individuals from miles away, while psychometry grants the ability to learn about items from holding them. Others include speaking with the dead (channeling) and predicting the future (taromancy). These supernatural abilities are intended to complement mundane abilities rather than be an end in themselves.
Psychopomp’s setting is unique in that it allows me access to a great deal of reference material from the real world. If I should ever choose to further develop the idea, the alternate 1980s version of London will be based on historical maps of London from the 1940s – the turning point of divergence in the alternate universe – that I will expand upon and revise. This benefits me greatly, as I’m only a novice cartographer, but it will also require a great deal of meticulous research. The historical elements impart the same trade off – my last world history class was almost a decade ago, and I do not recall receiving an impressive grade.
The concept of Psychopomp is one that I’ve been sitting on for a while. I think it has potential, but I’m not 100% sure how to proceed with it. For those curious, the word “psychopomp” isn’t a nonsense fantasy term I made up myself. As defined by Dictionary.com, a psychopomp is “someone who conducts spirits or souls to the other world.” Apt, don’t you think?