Ein Interview durch YSDC mit dem Autor von BtMoM, CHAZ ENGAN.
Can you remind us how Beyond the Mountains of Madness came about?
CE: Sure. This is an old story, you've probably heard it before. Back in 1992 or so, my wife Janyce and I ran an email-based discussion group called “Strange Aeons” for all matters Lovecraftian, but focusing mostly on the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. When Chaosium announced that development of a scenario book based on HPL's At the Mountains of Madness everyone was very excited, including me: AtMoM was my favourite HPL story and I was eager to see what they'd do with it in the game.
Time passed, however, and nothing appeared. In 1994, fellow list member and awesome gamer Hugo Barbosa wrote an open letter to Chaosium and sent it around the list. Where were the Mountains of Madness? He asked. Any news on the promised scenario?
Lynn Willis replied, saying that the author team that had taken on the job had pulled out. Unless someone else was willing to take up the challenge, there would be no Mountains of Madness scenario book any time soon.
Janyce wanted the job. “I've never done one of these before,” she said, “but I'd love to give it a try!” She and Lynn met several times over the next few weeks; he gave her the materials produced by the first team, as well as a list of other interested potential contributors; they discussed plot content, word count and schedules, and the project began. Took us four years to finish it too – but when we finally went to press in 1999 it was quite a hit. Well worth the effort, and a real learning experience for us.
What was your development process like?
CE: That changed quite a bit over time. When we started, Janyce had a lot of source material and a long list of people who had expressed an interest in being a part of the project – writers, subject matter experts and fans. The first month or two was spent, as I recall, just ironing out who was responsible for what, and producing a detailed story outline for the “mission bible.” The contributor list was rapidly winnowed down to a dozen or so writers, each of which took a chapter or subject; these were mapped into the story as they were proposed. Janyce herself planned to edit, coordinate, and write some of the introductory material, I wasn't planning to write at all in the beginning, just help Jan out here and there and be a subject-matter go-to guy on Antarctic exploration and period radio practices.
So, in the beginning, it was not so different from what we'd been doing with the mailing list: lots of correspondence, back and forth, with folks all over the world. Jan and I brainstormed the plot, building proposed outline bits and sending them to the group for reactions; other folks added ideas or signed up for a plot thread or a chapter.
Once we had a final outline things got more streamlined. The section writers sent Jan their stuff, she replied with edits and suggestions, consulted the other subject experts and adapted the plan to fit. This went on for a year or more. Not so much interaction with Lynn at Chaosium either; he seemed to love what we were doing and was very supportive, but made few suggestions. “Finish it,” he kept saying. “Tell it as it needs to be told. Then we'll see.”
Eventually the well dried up. We had submissions for about half the chapters, but no more coming in. In particular, we had no one to write the sections dealing directly with the City, and no ending. Jan asked me if I'd write a chapter or two.
By then, I'd been deeply involved in the plot design for many months, and had a lot invested in the vision. Of course I said yes. After that, for the next year and a half, it was all Janyce and me. I wrote, she edited, working backwards through the outline and filling in the holes; then when that was done, I worked through all the other chapters one more time, bringing the whole work into a more cohesive style.
By that point the Mountains project had taken over our lives. There were no separate meetings, or particular hours of the day set aside for it; we talked about it, dreamed of it, exchanged emails from work and reviewed drafts on the bus coming home. I don't know if it would have worked if we hadn't been married to one another – but it certainly was a heady thing.
What particular challenges did you find with creating BtMoM?
CE: Challenges - it seems as though there were quite a few! Though I'd be the first to admit that most of them we set ourselves.
The first question we had to answer was what story to tell. AtMoM was the last big Lovecraftian novel that hadn't seen a treatment at that time, and there was a lot of interest around the gaming community. One team had already taken the job and had pulled out. Written themselves into a corner, we were told, and they were respected experts. We knew it would be hard.
AtMoM was a popular novel. We knew that in any gaming group, there would be those who had read it, and those who had not. We wanted to tell a tale that would be equally interesting to both - but somehow to level the playing field, so that those who had read the novel would not have a big advantage over the rest. We knew, then, that we couldn't just re-tell the tale of the Lake Expedition. Instead we chose to create a sequel, with the Starkweather-Moore party that followed, and to use the original novel as a prop that could be read by the players in the course of play.
Then there was the issue of player agency. Most of the scenarios written at the time were carefully crafted to isolate the investigators so that they could do whatever they wanted, be it research or utter mayhem, and the rest of the world would never know. We wanted to do something different. The investigators were members of an Antarctic expedition. Not its leaders, just members of the party. I'd done a lot of reading and research into Antarctic expeditions throughout history, and was amazed and impressed by the sheer amount of detail that expedition leaders and members had to plan for and execute if they were going to survive. Every item is critical; there are no spares and no stores. If you didn't plan for it, you don't have it until you leave. And the Expedition members are never alone; they are crammed together, living in one another's socks, for months at a time: on the ship, on the Ice, day and night. In a situation like that, player investigators are never alone, unless they go out of their way to isolate themselves – and if something does happen, everyone will know, and they'll also know what the characters did about it, if any are left alive. It's an environment different from any we'd seen in adventures before - and that created an interesting challenge. To use the constant intimate presence of NPCs - NPCs that are not strangers but colleagues and friends - made it a different kind of tale.
The City itself is a big challenge, simply because of its scale. This, I think, is why none of the other authors wanted to take it on: how do you write a comprehensive adventure guide for a single city that is untold layers high and low, and covers an area the size of California? The answer is, of course, that you can't. You simply have to depict a few pertinent areas, describe how they fit within the bigger scheme of things, and let the Keeper do the rest. We knew that some players, who had read the novel, would want to revisit the locations mentioned in Dyer's tale, so we paid attention to them; we knew also that most people like to go “off the map” into new and uncharted territories … so we tried to put in a lo of those as well. Even so, a single book is not big enough to do it properly.
Smaller issues that cropped up were mostly ones of plot. If this was to be a sequel, we had to resolve, at least for ourselves, the enigmas left by Lovecraft, and decide how much to use them in our tale.
Does the City really exist in our world at all? If so, why hasn't it been found today?
What happened to the Elder Things from Dyer's tale? Were they massacred by the shoggoths as he supposed?
What did Danforth really see, in his last glimpse beyond the City, that drove him mad?
… and so on.
The final challenge we faced was that we ourselves were unsure just what we needed to do. We were new to the business of writing a published game. Not to gaming itself: I'd been roleplaying for 20 years, playing Call of Cthulhu for 15; Janyce had been playing almost as long, and running a long-lived continuous campaign since CoC hit the gaming stores in ‘81. We'd even worked together on plot design for an interactive console RPG that never made it into production. But we had never taken a game book from synopsis to store, and we wanted to do it right.
Each of us had particular things we wanted to see in the final result. We wanted the tale to be stylistically true to AtMoM, which is much more a science fiction story than a classic horror fantasy; we wanted there to be a strong female NPC, who was neither monster bait nor someone's girlfriend. We wanted the NPCs to be just as real, well-rounded and important to the course of play as the PCs were, and to give the Keepers whatever tools we could to do that; and we wanted to present the players and their characters with decisions they could not simply walk away from - ones they would carry for the rest of the characters' lives.
It was a lot. We were originally asked to do 120 pages: 80 pages of story, with another 40 pages of Antarctic Sourcebook. But when we finished designing the plot, the initial stoery outline was nearly twenty pages long, and we knew it was too big. We thought, when we sent it to Lynn Willis, that he'd reject out of hand, but he didn't.
“Write it,” he said. “Tell the story until it is done.” So we did.
Even with Lynn's encouragement, however, there were limits. The 120 original pages grew, over time to 400… and at that, we had to cut away parts of the plot and remove a lot of Keeper's aids. There simply wasn't room to print all the outcomes of all the choices the players might make. In the end, we compromised on describing what seemed, from our play-tests, to be likely outcomes of major branches, and reminding the Keepers that the rest was up to them.
Some have felt that aspects of the campaign were rather linear. How do you respond to that?
CE: When Janyce and I were writing the first edition, we started out with a very broad plot landscape. As we wrote, two things happened. One was that we found ourselves trapped between an immense plot and the need to deliver a tale in less than 2,000 pages. If we even tried to list out the consequences of each choice at each decision point, the thing grew without bounds. If we *didn't* list them out, the play-test Keepers bogged down from the sheer complexity of the situations and couldn't finish. In the end, we decided it was important to give the Keepers as much insight as we could into the NPC reactions and emotions, so we took the common elements from all our play-tests and wrote the book as a drama featuring those choices. If you've read the first edition, you know: we never intended our "plot" to be the only way the story could go, but we wanted to show something; we showed a likely outcome, then encouraged the Keepers reading the book to take it and bend it however they pleased. Thus we were disappointed when everyone read the book and said "there's only one path through it -- it's so linear it sucks!"
The other thing that came up as we wrote the endgame was that we found the physical needs of exploring the Antarctic, with the aircraft we had chosen and the environment of the high plateau, kept cutting our options back and back and back. Our original vast and choice-filled landscape in the City was so constrained by the need for oxygen and the limits of the cargo holds that things had to be short and sweet or everyone would simply die. Some of the railroading, then, comes at the very end - and it comes from straight-up physics. Yet the ending is the only part that readers do not complain about; so I must scratch my head.
In the second edition of course, I had an opportunity to loosen those shackles somewhat. Lowered plateau; less or no need for oxygen. Hooray! Folks can stay longer and explore more easily. So a lot of stuff was thrown back in that had to be left out the first time. The result, of course, is a scenario containing vast amounts of material. In fact it's pretty much a given: You cannot see/play/do it all in any given game. There're too many choices... too open-ended? Perhaps.