You know you’ve been there:
Keeper: Okay, so you are all coming out of the ruined building, the cacophony of cultists in the wake of their fell god’s death growing dim behind you, your Tommy guns still warm in your hands, your trench coats wrapped about you tightly to keep out the cold of the October night. As you enter into the field, an irregular disk with lights of various colors can be seen descending from the sky and landing in the field. (Players announce various actions to confront this strange sight.) A ramp descends from the side of the vessel, and three figures emerge. Two are obviously human, one blonde, clad all in black, with a strange metal tube of some sort hanging from his belt. The other human is darker-haired, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, a black vest, black pants, with a low-slung gun holster around his waist. Behind them is a large, hairy humanoid with a crossbow and a bandolier slung across its chest.
Player: Okay, I’m going into the kitchen to get a Mountain Dew, and when I come back, you are going to explain to me calmly and rationally that my 1920s investigator did not really run into Han, Luke and Chewie stepping off the Falcon.
Crossovers are one of those things that every gamer seems obliged to face, usually as a player, but sometimes as a GM if he or she is running a setting where “anything is possible”. Done well, they provide the opportunity to explore the meaning of genres by blending them and examining the overlap. Done poorly, they just, well, suck. So for this article I thought I would explore the ways of crossovers can be done, and hopefully how to avoid getting Doritos thrown at you. In the future, I’ll be doing some pieces on specific Cthulhu-crossover settings, hopefully without a lynching. Please, no hate mail.
The main problem I’ve encountered with crossovers is that they either tend to not fit at all with the game they occur in, or GMs will try to do them repeatedly with whatever their pet setting is.
When your players sign up to play Call of Cthulhu, they sign up to play Call of Cthulhu, and have certain expectations regarding that. When the crew of the Enterprise beams down, or they find themselves visiting Sunnydale for an evening slapstick bashing of vampires, they feel cheated.
Loosely connected to this is that some GMs just can’t give up on a particular crossover. One GM I know has many of his games end up being a brush with Great Old Ones, whether he’s running Legend of the Five Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, or Tales from the Floating Vagabond. Some friends of mine play with a GM who with regularly has characters from his other games (like Shadowrun) magically transported to the world of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.
So, as best I can reckon it, there are two main types of crossovers, which are pretty vague and nebulous anyway. The first I’ll call “When Worlds Collide”. This is the most basic, blunt sort of crossover. Take setting A, provide some way for setting B to connect with it, hijinx and fan erotica ensues. The other I tend to call the “Hybrid Game”. Much like the DC/Marvel amalgam heroes, you take elements from two settings, and combine them to make a third somewhat new setting. Let’s cut to some guidelines to pull this crap off.
First off, remember why your players are there. They came to play a specific game, and have specific ideas about what they want to see there. Jedi Knights don’t exactly belong in 1920s Arkham, and Cthulhu sort of stands out in your swashbuckly 7th Sea game.
But this is also balanced out by, “Know Your Audience”. If your players are all rabid fans of something, and you know your players well enough to know they’d all dig this crossover, then: More power to you. The hobby is about having fun, and if you have fun having your Rifts characters take on old Hastur in a gladiatorial style megadamage slugfest, then more power to you. Just don’t invite me.
However, if you’re players are a band of curmudgeons who may not dig your evil schemes, the next things you want to do is make sure it fits with the genre, and that it doesn’t come as a total and complete shock.
Cthulhu is, in theory, a dark game. While admittedly some games come out looking more like Army of Darkness than Alien, the core inspirational material is supposed to be dark, brooding and a little psychological. Which means that if you try to introduce Cthulhu in all his mind-bending glory in the midst of a light and fluffy Changeling pookah chronicle or a four-color superhero game of your favorite system, you’re likely to not win any great GMing awards. On the other hand, if it’s a plush, friendly Cthulhu in the Changeling game, or a creation of the arch-villain Dr. Gograh in the superhero game, then you are likely to avoid having your players charging your GM screen with torches and pitchforks. Again, just keep the genre consistent.
Also, give players a warning. If you want to keep an element of surprise, then drop clues along the way, so that it isn’t totally jarring. Evil tomes, vague hints, the usual false leads. If you aren’t into that whole subtle story-crafting stuff with your games, you may just say to your players, “Hey, I’m thinking of doing some cross-over stuff,” or “How do you feel about bringing in a crossover with setting X?” It will give your players a chance to either voice any concerns they have, or bail before things get ugly.
The last option that I’ll bring up is to simply make your references totally obscure. Every gamer worth his salt knows what Cthulhu looks like. If you introduce Cthulhu in any way, shape or form, they are going to know what they are encountering. Hell, if you introduce some horrible tentacled thing of any variety you’re likely to be accused of doing something Cthulhian, whether you intended it or not. But if you pitch players against some obscure Great Old One like Glaaki, you’re likely to stump a lot of people. I mean… Glaaki?! When’s the last time you were in an adventure with Glaaki?
While I’d hoped to make this the first in a few weekly pieces, I’m having to admit that it took me a month to finally finish this one article, and the settings I want to work up are still in my head. However, watch this space for future stuff on crossovers.
Jeremy Zimmerman is a teller of tales who dislikes cute euphemisms for writing like “teller of tales.” His fiction has most recently appeared in 10Flash Quarterly, Arcane and anthologies from Timid Pirate Publishing. His young adult superhero book, Kensei, is available as part of Cobalt City Rookies. He is also the editor for Mad Scientist Journal. He lives in Seattle with five cats and his lovely wife (and fellow author) Dawn Vogel.