Writing Teens

I have been reading a lot of young adult fiction recently. Mainly young adult mystery novels as I work on a full length campaign for BubbleGumshoe from Evil Hat. The most important thing I have learned is that writing teenagers is difficult. When I find a believable teen in a novel I often realize that I find them believable in part because of details that I would have left out or never thought of.

In her novel, Red as Blood, Salla Simukka creates mysteries for the teens to solve because of their own missteps as much as because there is an actual mystery. The characters find themselves in trouble because of the actions they take, actions which often prevent them from going to the police or seeking outside help. The need to avoid incrimination for their own misdeeds and the fear of adult action is actually what drives the action. Whereas adults often are assumed to be rational actors in mysteries, the teens in the novel have no such default.

Similarly in the Netflix version of 13 Reasons Why, the show comes off as a mystery because of the insular word which the teen characters build for themselves to avoid adult recrimination. In mysteries we often find ourselves asking why the characters don’t go to the police or seek help from someone more “capable”. In Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle mysteries this is because the main character is the most capable person, but in 13 Reasons Why and Red as Blood this is because the teenage protagonists find themselves too afraid and too insulated to consider such a course of action.

As we age past our teenage years by decades we forget that being an adolescent is scary enough without crime and mystery. This fear coupled with lack of fully developed reason can make it hard to write these characters. As I immerse myself in YA mystery though, what I have realized is that it should actually be easier to write. The mystery does not need to be convoluted with arcane details only a master hacker or forensic expert could discern; The mystery just needs to be deep enough that the characters can find themselves in over their head and afraid to do anything but follow the story to its end.

Putting myself in the midst of my mysteries and asking how I would solve them is often my first step in writing new mystery games. However, as I write a game with teenage protagonists in mind I find this approach lacks a fundamental understanding of how my players will approach the story. Yes my teen protagonists will have thrill seeking adults as their brains, but they will also be bound by the fact that they are still adolescents with adolescent skills and ideas. Mystery does not have to be complicated and arcane, it just has to give the Teen characters enough to dig themselves into a deeper mystery.


Cthulhu and the American Experience in Horror: Review of The Cthulhu Wars

The Cthulhu Wars: The United States’ Battles Against the Mythos is the latest book in the Dark Osprey series from Osprey Publishing. The series focuses on alternate, usually supernatural, history relating it the classic condensed and focused Osprey style. For those of us who love both these classic Osprey works and the mystical and bizarre worlds of Fortean history, these books have been a delight. The Cthulhu Wars is no exception, and for fans of the horror writings of HP Lovecraft in particular, it was a joy.

This most recent book is historian and game designer Kenneth Hite’s second contribution to the series. His first, The Nazi Occult, still feels like the most complete and serious of the books in the line. This time Mr. Hite is joined by Kennon Bauman, who appears to inject a wry sense of humor and overt Lovecraft reference, almost as a balance to Mr. Hite’s overt historical style. This contribution is evident from his introduction to the book, in which we learn of Mr. Bauman’s involvement due to the tragic death of Mr. Hite and destruction of much of his library in a mysterious fire.

The book initially opens with an overview of mythos elements and events in North America dating to before there was a United States. This was probably the most surprising part of the book for me as I was expecting something referencing the United States to begin with the United States. Also given that it starts when it does, it calls for a second work attempting to look in more detail on the Mythos’ history with Native Americans. It touches upon this and implies a potentially extensive connection, but does not go into any detail here. All in all though, I quickly accepted this overview as it laid the groundwork for later stories and consisted largely of clear references made by Lovecraft himself. Keziah Mason and Joseph Curwen both make their appearances here. The discussion of the contributions of the people of Innsmouth to the American Revolution is particularly appreciated.

As the history works its way through the 19th century we learn a great deal about the impact of NREs (a term used throughout the book short for Necronomicon-Related Entities) on the Nineteenth Century. This section, citing lack of official records from the period, focuses on the breadth of the Mythos in the US rather than depth. However, in good Dark Osprey fashion, the book manages to reference Lewis and Clark, Ambrose Bierce, and Harry Houdini tying them into the idea of a war the US has been carrying on for centuries without even knowing.

As befits a book on this topic, the meat of the text occurs after the events of the US government’s raid on Innsmouth, Massachusetts in 1928. This story, first referenced in Lovecraft’s own Shadows over Innsmouth and again expanded upon in the classic Call of Cthulhu scenario Escape from Innsmouth, has taken on a large role in tales of the US government’s involvement with the Cthulhu Mythos. Mainly this outsized role is because it references a coordinated federal assault inside one of Lovecraft’s own writings. It makes sense, therefore, that histories where these writings are historical would put the event front and center.

Being an avid role-player, probably the second most surprising thing about the book was the realization that Delta Green would not make an appearance. In hindsight, this was probably obvious. Why use a copyrighted organization created for table-top gaming, when there is an actual conspiracy more popular and broadly known to Americans in the form of the mysterious MAJIC clearance? After all, Majestic-12, the shadow organization responsible for the Roswell cover-up, is actually referenced in FBI files. Nonetheless, as a Delta Green player and GM, I found myself frequently bemused reading of the successes and failures of MAJIC at fighting the NREs, after so long thinking of Majestic primarily as antagonists. Following in the vein of the rest of the book, Mythos connections are made to various historical UFO sightings, nuclear weapons tests, and US anti-communist interventions across the globe.

It is in this Cold War section that the similarities with other eliptonic alternate US histories is best seen. And while in this story the US government are the good guys, we still see the hallmarks of conspiracy and cover-up that are so rampant throughout American culture. In this case, this sense of conspiracy recasts our history as a dark battle against horrible entities. The obvious boogeyman of our training of Tibetan paramilitary troops is not fighting Chinese communism, but the NRE deity known as Chaugnar Faugn. The flaw in our support of contras in Nicaragua, was not the intervention in general, but the specific attempt to use an NRE to do it.

This commonly used idea of retelling historical failures or mistakes in a new light is not a weakness of the book. In fact if it tried to find a new angle on many of these events, it would not be as enjoyable as it is. The book carries you through the logic of its alternate history mainly because the tropes are ones we all recognize. This sense of the conspiracy as history makes sense to us and the Mythos explanation is just the latest twist on that story. Sometimes it is more enjoyable to think that dark forces are manipulating humanity and attacking us. That there is some dark conspiracy behind a tragedy is often easier to read than the alternative, which is that people are often the biggest causes of the suffering of other people. For this reason, as well as its wry, entertaining flavor, I suspect I will enjoy the alternate history of The Cthulhu Wars for many years to come.