INSPO: Raffles

INSPO is a series of posts about non-horror topics that could nonetheless be used as inspiration for a horror game. The rest of the series can be found here.

I am, much to my regret, someone who tends to nest.

When choosing a place to live, proximity to things in the outside world will always come a distant second to the aesthetics and utility of my chosen living space. As a child, my preferred style of artistic expression was to draw an everyday object and then reinvent its interior as a kind of military base from which people and vehicles might emerge. Whenever I play a strategy game, I build defensively rather than offensively. My politics are not those of individual flourishing, but those of gentle connectivity. As a result, I am always delighted when a game allows you to invest either in the physical space in which your group resides, or in the group itself as an entity in its own right.

Examples of the first are a lot closer to the top of my mind than the latter but think of computer RPGs like the Suikoden series or Dragon Age: Inquisition and table-top RPGs like Blades in the Dark and Ars Magica. That is my mother-fucking jam.

As you might expect of someone with those kinds of proclivities, I am always disappointed by games and/or campaigns that pay no attention to the reasons why a group of people would not just come together but then continue adventuring in each other’s company.

People make fun of the standard-issue D&D opener ‘so you all meet up in a tavern’ but at least that obeys the logic of the real world: A group of strangers have decided to start their careers as adventurers, they see a job opening and decide to take it together and split the reward. You can even understand why such a group would stay together as travelling from place to place in Fantasyland is not without danger and a successful group is a useful group at least in the short-to-medium term.

As bad as the standard-issue D&D campaign opener may be, the standard-issue Call of Cthulhu opener ‘you receive a letter’ is immeasurably worse as Call of Cthulhu deals with modern people and how many modern people throw their lot in with a bunch of strangers on the basis of a letter? How many Oxford-educated archaeologists would risk their lives for a private investigator and how many would survive a harrowing experience with a relative stranger and then seek that person out again? I feel that Call of Cthulhu has historically dealt with this problem either by skating over the entire issue, or by publishing quite tightly-focused adventures with a load of pre-generated characters with pre-existing ties. Thankfully, the Seventh Edition keeper’s guide does go out of its way to address this question by providing you with a handful of model ‘adventuring parties’ and it is on this level that the Raffles stories and TV series are a fantastic inspiration.

The Raffles stories were written by E.W. Hornung as a direct response to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson stories. The main difference between the two series is that while Holmes devotes himself to saving noblemen, helping the police, and generally furthering the rule of law, Raffles channels his considerable energy and genius into becoming the physical embodiment of the command to “Be Gay Do Crimes”.

The Raffles stories are set in a cynical version of Victorian London where only the most profoundly stupid and red-faced slices of gammon are able to support themselves in the lifestyle expected of a gentleman. Raffles is handsome, intelligent, and public-school educated but his only visible means of support is playing cricket for England and that scarcely pays at all.  As a result, Raffles makes his way in the world by burgling his fellow posh people and spending all the money on booze, fags, sharp clothes, and his beloved side-kick Bunny.

Re-watching the 1970s TV adaptation of the series, I was struck by how well the Raffles stories map onto a Victorian setting like Cthulhu by Gaslight:

Imagine a disparate group of antiquarians, intellectuals, and adventurers. Maybe they have all been friends since childhood. Maybe they all belong to the same Gentleman’s Club. Maybe they all served together in India. Maybe they are all related. All of these people have skills and capabilities but Victorian society is such that they are forced to choose between doing what they love, and seeking gainful employment. Unaccustomed as they are to getting their hands dirty, the group meet up for dinner and swap stories of their rapidly-approaching disgrace at the hands of various banks and creditors. Every well has run dry, every mine has tapped out, and every connection has been drained of good will. There is no option but for the women in the group to seek husbands and the men in the group to start checking the positions vacant adverts at the back of the Times. Someone pulls out today’s edition and notices that The Earl of Cuthbertson has returned from the jungles of Peru with a strange metallic statuette that is said to exude an unsettling energy. Someone points out that even if you didn’t want such a grotesque object in your own home, someone would doubtless be willing to pay for the privilege. Someone else points out that they are all invited to Cuthbertson’s for dinner the following weekend. Suddenly everyone goes silent as a brilliant idea passes unspoken across the group: What if the statuette were to disappear? What if the statuette were to find its way into the hands of someone who was willing to pay for the privilege of owning such an ugly piece of primitive artwork? Wouldn’t that keep everyone in Scotch whiskey and Sullivan cigarettes until they were able to sort out the creditors? Wouldn’t that be more fun than getting a job?

As you might expect, the early Raffles stories focus upon the heists and the series’ viewpoint character Bunny Maunders’ attempts to adjust to life as a society criminal. However, as the stories progress, the emphasis shifts away from the heists and towards the broader social context in which the crimes are committed: So some stories are about Raffles playing cat-and-mouse with the police, other stories are about Raffles’ relationship with different layers of criminal society, and some are purely about Raffles stealing something out of pride, spite, and devilry.

Transpose all of this to a Call of Cthulhu campaign and you can imagine early adventures devoted to the various characters adapting to the requirements of a life lived with one foot in the criminal underworld; adapting their existing skills in order to function not only as thieves, but also as researchers forever on the lookout for mystical objects and people willing to pay for the privilege of adding to their collections.

Then, once the players have gotten comfortable, you introduce the idea that the police might be on to them and even if the police don’t get them then the occultists and secret societies they keep stealing from almost certainly will. The Raffles stories get progressively darker as Raffles and Bunny are forced to dig deeper and transgress more laws in order to keep themselves one step ahead of the police. In one episode of the TV Series, Raffles fakes his own death in order to rid himself of an old flame who refuses to let him live in (relative) poverty. In another episode, Raffles is so outraged by the actions of a loan shark that he allows him to burn to death for the affront of messing with one of his friends. In yet another episode he is recruited by the foreign office to help resolve an embarrassing diplomatic error only for Raffles to wind up trapped between the uncouth thuggery of a Prussian nobleman and the transparent duplicity of Whitehall mandarins. This sense of encroaching, inevitable darkness and moral decay is entirely consistent with the broad pessimistic arc of cosmic horror: Sure you’ve kept yourself in booze and fags this month, but how long can you keep your head above water? How long can you keep swimming before you feel a spiny tentacle wrap around your leg?

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