Beneath Our Radiant Southern Cross

So, today is Australia Day — the day that Australia celebrates its “founding.” Unlike many other countries Australia’s national day doesn’t really celebrate the creation of the nation of Australia (that came into effect on January 1, 1901) but rather the day that European colonization began. Since that also marked the beginning of 200+ years of mistreatment of Indigenous Australians, who had been here for 60,000+ years before that, many feel it is a somewhat distasteful thing to celebrate … but for now that’s how things are.

The first British colonization of Australia was in the form of the penal settlement at New South Wales founded in 1788, centred around Sydney township. This was an extraordinarily brutal and corrupt colony, where convicts served as de facto slaves and cruel military-style justice was meted out for even minor transgressions. Doubtless life was pretty miserable for many people … but the combination of human cruelty, an empty and unexplored land (from a European point-of-view), and a thoroughly unfamiliar landscape (whose animals and plants no European really understood) has much potential for tales of darkness and horror. Since 2016 we have been exploring that setting in a RPG-sense through the lens of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Convicts & Cthulhu is our line of (free, or at-cost) game supplements for running Lovecraftian horror scenarios and campaigns in the brutality of early Australian convict settlement.

Over the past 3.5 years we have created a *lot* of material for Convicts & Cthulhu — the product line now has 19 titles. This can make it a little difficult for newcomers to understand what’s what. On this, the 232nd anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet of convict ships, I thought I would have a go at demystifying C&C by briefly walking through everything we’ve made to date. If you just want to grab it ALL in one go, we have an up-to-date ZIP file which lets you do just that (the so-called “Bundle of Misery”, but be warned it is 111MB).

The Core Convicts & Cthulhu (1st Ed) book is a 96-page supplement which describes the setting and includes rules (referencing Call of Cthulhu’s 7th Edition) for running games of Lovecraftian horror in the penal settlements. The book is available as a free/PWYW PDF or as a PWYW softcover book (which has its base level set at the POD print cost of the book; so as close to “free” as we can make it).

Things that are included in this book: Enough historical info for GMs/players to understand the key flavour of the setting, templates for creating investigators — either European or Indigenous Australian, notes on social classes and literacy in the era, ideas about structuring investigative scenarios in a place where few “musty old tomes” exist. It also has a gazetteer of convict-era New South Wales (with particular attention to places in Sydney), as well as notes on Dark Cults that the GM can use in his or her scenarios as well as Lovecraftian horrors old and new. The book’s rounded out with a short introductory scenario called “Un-Fresh Off The Boat” which I have run numerous times at conventions around the world to great success.

Ticket of Leave Supplements

We began publishing short (and later, not-so-short) PDF supplements with an eye towards giving GMs tools for creating memorable scenarios. Most of these “Ticket of Leave” supplements are themed around one aspect of life in the penal colonies, providing historical notes on that topic as well as a scenario or scenario-outline that heavily features that thematic element. To date we’ve released 15 of these, totalling 278 pages of scenario-related Convict material. All of it has been released as free/PWYW PDF titles.

Ticket of Leave #1 is titled “Night Terrors” and explores the phenomenon of the “Night Watch” a group of soldiers and other hangers-on who were given the unenviable task of patrolling around the colony at night to keep the peace and deter breaches of curfew or other wrongdoing by convicts (or soldiers). Since the Night Watch is charged with poking its nose into all manner of after-dark activities, the possibilities of it accidentally stumbling upon weird or horrific manifestations is … well, much higher than anyone would really prefer.

Ticket of Leave #2 is titled “Tri-Colour Terror” and investigates the precarious relationship between the British Empire and France during the era of Convicts & Cthulhu. France and England were bitter foes for much of the 18th Century, periodically at war, occasionally at a kind of uneasy peace. When Australia was founded several French scientific expeditions were dispatched to explore parts of its coastline; this was more than a little alarming to early Australian colonists — these ships are allowed to re-provision at Sydney … but are those so-called French “scientists” really here to spy on behalf of Napoleon?

Ticket of Leave #3 is titled “Criminal Enterprise” and explores the seedy underbelly of crime in the penal settlements. It’s easy to think that because the ne’er-do-well convicts sentenced to the prison colony are kept under close guard, their opportunities to continue their criminality is small. That wasn’t always the case … and even when it was, the soldiers and civilians running the colony weren’t exactly above breaking the law themselves in one way or another. Even in this oppressive regime there are criminal gangs — and how much easier is it for them when they have access to the skills of hundreds of convicted thieves, counterfeiters, and the like.

Ticket of Leave #4 is titled “The Vanishing Ensign” and explores some of the military logistics of keeping track of troops and settlers in a sparsely-populated but vast colony. From time to time, the Governor needs to arrange for a grand Muster — a literal stocktake of the whole colony. This can present a great opportunity to have player-characters sucked into an endeavour that literally spans a visit to every nook and cranny (and tiny isolated farmstead) in the colony. What happens when the data being collected reveals some weirdness? The scenario in this supplement explores one such case — many disparate places have official records of a soldier called “Ensign Dobley” assigned to serve there … but nobody knows who he is, and nobody has seen him for many weeks. What is the truth behind this weird “vanishing man”?

Ticket of Leave #5 is titled “The Damned and the Degenerate” and is an exception to the general pattern of these supplements being scenario-related. This PDF aims to massively-supercharge the range of player character options for your Convicts & Cthulhu games. Due to space constraints we could only include a dozen or so profession templates in the core book — in this supplement we go to town on providing a wealth of different character types. These are divided into convict “professions”, free-settler “professions” and Indigenous Australian “professions”. It also provides statted examples of many of the profession types, highlighting the diversity of different types of player/non-player characters that can populate a C&C game.

Ticket of Leave #6 is titled “Night of the Convict Dead” and explores burial grounds and funerary traditions in the early colonial days. Naturally enough, cemeteries and similar houses of the dead make great sites for several different types of Lovecraftian tales of darkness. In the scenario portion of this supplement, a familiar trope of horror stories is given a uniquely Convict-era twist, presenting the players with an unusual type of dark horde of rising terrors.

 

Ticket of Leave #7 is titled “Seams of Peril” and explores a rather singular real-life incident concerning the apparent early discovery of gold in the colony. Many people may be familiar with the Australian gold-rushes of the 1850s and later, but decades earlier an enterprising convict concocted a convincing tale about having stumbled upon a valuable seam of gold while working an assignment out in the unexplored backwaters of the colony. His plan: to convince the greedy gaolers to grant him a pardon in exchange for its location (presumably with the idea of him being far away before they realized they were conned). This amazing-but-real setup has potential as the basis for a horrific tale which takes player characters far out into the remote corners of New South Wales … but the promised gold at the end of the trek isn’t actually gold at all.

Ticket of Leave #8 is titled “Gentlemen Convicts” and explores the curious phenomenon of wealthy individuals who found themselves sentenced to Transportation to New South Wales. Most stereotypical depictions of convicts shows them as grubby and drawn from the poorer classes of Great Britain — these convicts were not like that at all. Sometimes they were convicted as “high society thieves” or master counterfeiters … but just as often they were lawyers or prominent citizens whose political dabblings had brought them on the wrong side of the powers-that-be, to be convicted on trumped-up charges. Gentlemen convicts provide both an interesting character option, and a whole new strata of society to weave into C&C games.

Ticket of Leave #9 is titled “Orphan School Horror” and provides a creepy Christmas haunting scenario. The Female Orphan School is one of the few vaguely charitable institutions in early Sydney — a place for abandoned girls to live and be educated to perform crafts or domestic service. What happens when ghostly apparitions start being reported by some of the girls? The Master and Matron of the school want nothing to do with such “superstitious nonsense” but the manifestations still keep being reported, and some girls have “fallen into a swoon.” What is going on?

Ticket of Leave #10 is titled “The Doom That Came To Five Dock” and is a purely scenario-based scenario. Several ships plying the route between Parramatta and Sydney have reported that the small waystation and dock building at Five Dock has been utterly destroyed, seemingly overnight. As the location is usually unpopulated, nobody really knows what happened, but it must have been something fairly drastic to cause such extensive destruction in such a short time. Of course it’s the player character’s job to travel up the river to Five Dock to see what the heck made such a mess of everything. It’s not something they (or anyone) would expect, and some may not return from the trek.

Ticket of Leave #11 is titled “The Dispensatory of Doctor MacDead” and explores medical practice in the early colonies. It’s hard to credit today, but the only real qualification that someone needed to call themselves a physician is … to call oneself a physician. While the colony itself tended to employ people with established credentials in Britain, there was nothing to stop someone setting up a private practice with absolutely no training or experience at all. This led to quacks and charlatans — all of which is great fodder for a Lovecraftian tale of dubious medicine.

Ticket of Leave #12 is our very first GenCon scenario, titled “Fallen Stars.” A strange shooting star was observed by many crossing the night sky above Sydney and elsewhere in the colony. Some people in outlying regions heard a crash as the thing fell to earth. This event has raised interest among the few scientific men of the colony … so much so that they want to mount an expedition out into the unexplored districts at the colony’s edge, in the hope of retrieving the meteorite. As it happens, this long and harrowing trek — not to mention the meteorite itself — holds more than its fair share of surprises.

Ticket of Leave #13 is titled “The Thirteenth Convict” and explores superstition and folk magic in the early days of Australian settlement. Recent archaeological research has shown that it was not uncommon for colonial-era buildings to be constructed with strange “witch marks” carved into wood … or with objects hidden in the walls. Both were common “good luck” charms of the day, aimed at keeping evil spirits at bay. But what happens, as in the scenario included in the PDF, when the thing you buried in your wall isn’t what it seems to be …?

Ticket of Leave #14 is our second GenCon scenario, titled “Hark, Now Hear The Sailor’s Cry.” It explores the maritime world of sealers and whalers in the southern waters in the early days of white settlement. While convicts and gaolers lived out their grubby lives, enterprising ship captains from around the world eyed off these waters as a source of potential wealth. They too lived grubby lives, sometimes aboard ships and sometimes aboard makeshift camps built on otherwise unsettled islands in Bass’s Straits and elsewhere. In this scenario, one such whaling ship — a vessel hailing out of Kinsport, Mass. — is found dead in the water. Naturally the player characters are the ones dispatched to investigate; is this American ship part of some dubious (spying?) enterprise … and if so, what the heck happened to the crew?

Ticket of Leave #15 is our most recent C&C release, titled “The Death Knells.” It has some details about different types of ways in which music or musical instrumentation was used in daily life in the early penal settlements. Its scenario part riffs on a real-world historical mystery — the uncertain fate of several church bells transported to the colony on an early ship, but apparently never used in any structure. A night of carnage has left several dead on the shores of Sydney Harbour and a strange French naval axe embedded in the harbour bell … who could have committed these bizarre crimes?

Other Supplements

In addition to the Ticket of Leave supplements, we’ve also put out a few other themed supplements. Two of these are shorter releases themed around real-world figures who would make handy NPCs (or even player characters) in an investigation. These supplements are called “Musters” and the two we’ve released so far are:

We have also released a Convicts & Cthulhu Prop Document Pack which contains some PDF-fillable versions of key documents that convicts might carry or aspire to carry (e.g., Tickets of Leave or Pardons), as well as templates to help GMs make newspaper clues for their scenarios.

Frequently Asked Questions about C&C

As I have spoken to a great many folks at conventions about Convicts & Cthulhu, there have been a few common things that have come up.

Q: Do I need to be an expert in the historical era to use this material?

A: Absolutely not. We deliberately wrote the C&C core book — and every supplement that came thereafter — with the assumption that most readers wouldn’t be familiar with the history surrounding the era or setting. In truth, even readers who have been schooled in Australia usually don’t get to hear about some of the grubbier (i.e., more realistic) elements of their early colonial history — it is, to a greater or lesser extent, glossed over in favour of a more “whitewashed” narrative. Because of that, even readers who know zilch about Australian history, or even British colonialism for that matter, should be able to pick up these books and create a rollicking fun (and somewhat historically accurate) game.

Q: What if I don’t want to run a historical game? Is this material useful to me at all?

A: We set out to make a game that would be fun for people who love historical gaming … but have been quite surprised to hear that several folks have downloaded and used our material for entirely different purposes. The most fun-sounding thing we’ve heard about is someone inventing their own “space prison” settlement in the far future and using the C&C material — with appropriate changes of names and weapons tech — to sketch out a grimy and corrupt penal colony on some far distant planet. Sounds fun to us …

Q: What if my players don’t want to be Convicts?

A: While there are lots of convicts in the early settlements, there are also lots of soldiers, administrators, surgeons, Aboriginal trackers, amateur scientists, merchants, and the like. It is easily possible to run a game in which nobody is incarcerated … but equally well, playtests have shown that playing a convict can be surprisingly fun too. Groups which combine some convicts and some free-settler or military characters also offers some interesting dynamics. The setting is flexible enough that the GM can easily find character types that will generate a style of game that works for the expectations of their players. Well … unless the players expect an easy or safe ride … in which case I don’t think Lovecraftian roleplaying is for them.


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