Saturday, 24 June 2017

Campaigns I'll Probably Never Get to Run: Shanghai 1930 Part 1

So I recently took a look at the Hillfolk expansion Blood on the Snow.  Hillfolk is a tabletop role-playing game that uses the Drama System, it was created by Robin Laws.  You can find the game over at the Pelgrane Press website.  While I have never used Hillfolk as written, I have been very impressed by it.  The Game's books include some of the best campaign pitches and adventure seeds, I have ever read.  So while scanning Blood on the Snow, I came across a seed that sparked my interest. Shanghai 1930.  Now I will admit, the title is not what captured my attention.  Prior to reading the pitch, I had known nothing about Shanghai during that era.  What caught me was the nutshell, elevator Pitch that was given for this campaign.  The following quotation is taken from Blood on the Snow, page 43.

"In the sin-drenched free port of 1930s Shanghai, criminal gangs, refugees, revolutionaries and adventurers vie for power as a new world war looms."

Needless to say that little bit of writing is what caught my attention.  I was still a little skeptical due to still being unfamiliar with Shanghai in that time period.  Further reading of the campaign overview helped to alleviate any skepticism I may have had left about running a game in that setting.  There were plenty of factions with conflicting interests, to make for an intriguing background, to run a campaign through.

Shanghai during the 1930s was city of sin, violence and fast money.  At the time the city was the centre of China's national and international opium trade.  Business was doing so well that many Shanghainese gangsters had set themselves up with positions within the cities Police force.  To ensure that business continued to run smoothly.  As one of the world's only free ports (a city one could enter without a passport) Shanghai was also a safe haven to many European Refugees.  Most notably White Russian emigres, European Jews fleeing the emerging right-wing political parties.  As well as many German entertainers & closeted homosexuals seeking to escape the right-wingers.  The White Russians (Russian aristocrats or any Russians that opposed the Bolsheviks) are a particularly interesting case study.  Having fled through Siberia into Shanghai, they were literally stateless.  Aristocrats that had lived lives of luxury now shared dingy apartments with as many as two or three other families.  Many took up whatever jobs they could find.  In the case of the men hardened by five years of fighting against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, they became bodyguards to Chinese mobsters.  It was often considered to be a sign of prestige to have White Russian bodyguards.  Others opened bars, cafes, turned to grifting and con artistry.  While others still continued to fight the Bolsheviks by passing out anti-communist literature and giving speeches from soap-boxes to anyone who would listen.  The women often took up work as cultural instructors to upper-class Chinese families.  Teaching European style dancing and music.  Though a large portion of them ended up working dance halls and brothels.  Many of them hoping to entice rich American and British businessmen into marriage, which would mean a passport and a ticket out of Shanghai.  German musicians found they were most welcome, finding employment in the numerous Shanghai nightclubs.        The nightclubs are often frequented by American, British and European businessmen that reside in the International Settlement.  Here to make their fortunes in the import/export business, banking and shipping industries.  They are followed by foreign correspondents, reporting on the goings on of the city.  Artists fascinated by the in-vogue Oriental culture, missionaries seeking to save the souls of this modern day Gomorrah.  As well as numerous foreign spies keeping an eye on political situation of the city.  At the height of the Chinese Civil war between the Nationalist and the Communist Forces, several countries have a vested interest in the outcome of this conflict.

Gaming Shanghai 1930 - Choosing a System 

So when I decided that I would love to at least write some notes on campaign in 1930 Shanghai.  The immediate question that popped into my head was.  What system should I use?  Shanghai 1930 was written with Hillfolk's Drama System in mind.  I personally find it hard to convince players to play systems primarily focused on story-telling.  I needed something that had potential for quick and easy combat, but was also capable of supporting the Genre.  One system that popped to mind was GURPS.  The Generic Universal Roleplaying System.  Their World War 2 line of sourcebooks were only a decade or so removed from when the events of the game would take place.  I particularly loved the Templates from those books and the National Advantages/Disadvantages packages for each country.  There were a number of problems with using GURPS however.  While I have read many of the sourcebooks as inspiration for campaigns with other systems.  I have never actually run a game of GURPS.  Another problem that arose was that GURPS as played out of the Basic Set is not very structured.  Which was something I was looking for, for this particular campaign.  One of the reasons that I loved the Templates from the WW2 Sourcebooks was the structure that they gave character creation.  A problem I have had with players before is that they will choose any skill they think they can get away with.  Creating an incredibly game-breaking character, which fictionally has no real business being in the story.  The WW2 Templates, give the players a selection of skills that is required to play that character's occupation.  Most of which are heavily combat focused, while the players get to flesh out their characters with the remaining points.  Something else I found somewhat lacking was that the WW2 Sourcebooks lack, National Advantages/Disadvantages for Chinese Characters.  As well as National Advantages/Disadvantages for White Russian Exiles, despite having a list for Soviet Characters.  I wasn't confident enough in my abilities as a game hacker to create lists for those Nationalities, that would satisfy my own strict demands for this game.

The next game that sprang to mind ended up being the one that I picked.  In Blood on the Snow's pitch for Shanghai 1930, there were three lists of character archetypes, for each of the three factions.  As I read through them I started thinking, this is like I'm reading through the Call of Cthulhu Investigator's Companion Volume 2 all over again.  Typical Call of Cthulhu is played in a primary setting of the 1920s, 1930s if the Keeper decides to stretch the timeline a little.  Thinking about it for a while it seemed to be the perfect fit.  Take out the Mythos elements and you have the makings for exactly what I wanted in a system for this Campaign Idea.  In COC you usually play, somewhat wealthy individuals sneaking around, trying to save the world from creatures beyond our understanding.  In Shanghai 1930, a large portion of character archetypes are wealthy or keep the company of wealthy people.  Instead of sneaking around to stop the machinations of otherworldly abominations.  They sneak around expediting their own selfish machinations.

So there's my pitch for Shanghai 1930.  A campaign I'll probably never get to run, due to a lack of players.  I'll post part two to this post later.  In the meantime, feel free to comment and give feedback on my pitch.  Have a good day and keep gaming.