Interview with John Houlihan – Author of the Trellborg Monstrosities from Modiphius Entertainment
Modiphius Entertainment recently released its new Achtung! Cthulhu RPG adventure for both Savage Worlds and Call of Cthulhu called the Trellborg Monstrosities. The adventure is based off a novella (also available) by a Mr. John Houlihan who was gracious to take some time to answer questions about his process in writing the novella, the development process of his novella being developed into a roleplaying game adventure, his upcoming novellas and more. It’s really a spectacular read and I can’t encourage you enough to do so.
Take a second to introduce yourself.
Hello! My name’s John Houlihan and I’ve been a writer and journalist for over 20 years, working mainly in news, sport and computer games. By day I’m the mild mannered Digital Manager of computerandvideogames.com but by night, I slave away at the digital inkwell, virtual quill in hand, writing sci-fi, horror and fiction and designing games.
You’ve described a couple of places that it all started with a conversation with Chris Birch about Achtung! Cthulhu where it was decided that you should do something for the setting. What was it about the World War II/Lovecraft mash-up that you felt worked?
It’s funny that meeting seems like such as pivotal moment now and we were discussing something completely unrelated. But a few beers in and we discovered our mutual love of Lovecraft, World War 2 and gaming.
I was besotted with WW2 as a kid, couldn’t imagine being anything else other than a soldier and lapped up all comics like Warlord and The Victor. I read a lot of Lovecraft when I was younger too, but a couple of years ago I listened to The Shadow Over Innsmouth on Radio 4 Extra and was hooked all over again and I then went back and re-read the entire works.
As for the appeal of the crossover, well there’s something that’s instantly compelling about that right? The dread Cthulhu mythos crossed with mankind’s darkest hour, it just inspired me, it offers so many dark, exciting possibilities.
How long did it take you to come to the idea that became The Trellborg Monstrosities? Was the story there right from the start or did you go down a few roads before you got there?
Well I think if you ask any writer they’ll probably say, it’s rare that something appears absolutely fully formed, these things take a little while to swirl around the mind and coalesce into something tangible. You’ve got to give your unconscious time to do the work
I do remember being partially inspired by a documentary on the Cockleshell Heroes narrated by Paddy Ashdown. That was certainly something I filed away for later use and eventually fed into Trellborg. I was just fascinated by that mission, the idea of being able to sneak stealthily through the enemy coastal defences in a fragile canoe.
I’ve always loved the cold: snow, ice and mountains are much more my native habitat than sun or heat (I was a snowboard instructor about a decade ago) and so Norway was a natural fit. Norse mythology was another major influence, I love all kinds of myths, but the Viking gods and legends in particular have always fascinated me and so they came to bear some strange fruit in Trellborg.
But I suppose mostly for me, it begins with character and the narrator, Major Powell, seemed to come to me fairly quickly, once I started writing. His voice was there almost straight away and once that clicked, the rest just seemed to flow naturally, especially his irritation and resentment towards this so-called civilian expert Mister Seraph.
Did you have any interesting ideas that you just couldn’t make fit into the story you were writing?
Well there were a few that I’d love to have maybe developed more, perhaps some of the history of the Drottnar and the Vikings, but to be honest, I think I used most of the better ones up. Leave everything on the field as sportsmen say.
When you were writing the Trellborg Monstrosities were you thinking about how it would adapt as a roleplaying game adventure? Was the adventure being developed side-by-side with the novella? I’d love to hear some of how the development cycle went between writing the story and the Achtung! Cthulhu adventure.
Funnily enough it was the novella that was written first and the game design very much second and they were worked on sequentially rather than in parallel. It was an interesting way of doing it, I’m not sure I’d repeat the exercise in quite the same way though! There are some advantages doing it that way of course, you have a good idea of the overall story arc, plenty of ready made characters and a clear path to follow
Where it’s more difficult that way around is balancing the narrative versus the idea of player agency, because you want your players to have freedom to do their own thing. I’ve always veered towards the more story-led side of roleplaying, I remember at college having some tremendous CoC sessions where we sat around in a candle-lit attic room decorated with cast-off statues of Ganesh from the local takeaway and didn’t use dice or paper at all. They were more like free-form story telling sessions, where we all collaborated to tell the tale.
In the adventure you still have a story to tell of course, but you still want to give your players plenty of room to explore, adapt and come up with their own unique solutions to the challenges and puzzles the adventure presents, while still gently steering them down a narrative path. It can be challenging to balance, so I tried to suggest and give options on how sections might be played and allow Keepers to choose which ones suited them best. I also gave the Keeper Seraph and Sven to roleplay, as I firmly believe GMs should have as much fun as the players!
What do you think makes The Trellborg Monstrosities awesome?
That’s a very kind verdict, but I’m going to have to leave it for others to judge, it’s quite tough when you’ve been so close to a project to view it impartially. I just hope people enjoy it and have fun either reading or playing or both and I’d love to hear about it if they do. I certainly had a lot of fun writing it.
Some of the parts I enjoyed the most were Von Obertorff’s diary (playing the bad guy, especially one so steeped in evil and half deranged is always so much fun). I was quite pleased with the build towards the climax too and the descriptions of the camp and mountain.
The thing which will always stay with me though is probably the mysterious Mister Seraph. He’s just one of those characters you come up with that seems to take on a life of his own. He’s not your classic clean-cut, square-jawed hero and in some ways he’s not even very likable, but he’s got a strange fascination, something, someone, I definitely wanted to explore further.
When you’re writing something that is Lovecraft-inspired it seems to me that getting the tone just right is very important to get the appropriate amount of dread. Was that something that came naturally when you were writing The Trellborg Monstrosities?
I’m not sure naturally, but it’s something that seemed to develop as the adventure unfolded. There’s an old adage about not showing the horror explicitly and too early, as the audience’s imagination will come up with something way more twisted and terrifying than you ever could. So I tried to keep that in mind and tease and tantalize along the way, building up the tension but without showing anything too explicit. Hopefully when everything is finally revealed it makes for a thrilling climax.
You’re working on two follow-up novellas to The Trellborg Monstrosities, as well, right?
Yes indeed, the first one, The Crystal Void is actually finished in first draft form, but it’ll need a couple more editing passes to bring it up to final scratch before I show it publicly. It’s another Seraph tale, but actually set during Napoleonic times, which is a bit of a departure but another period of history I’m really interested in. It might be the first Mon Dieu! Cthulhu or Vive Le Cthulhu! tale, which is a much cherished side project is to design a mythos RPG system or expansion for the Napoleonic era.
The second, Tomb of the Aeons, is another Seraph tale and returns to the early part of the Second World War during the North African campaign and is about 95% done. I was writing the climactic scene last night. I think I might put all those into one work (and maybe one more very short story set in the future) and release them as The Seraph Chronicles Volume One.
I think those two novellas will probably remain fictional offerings though, rather than be made into game scenarios. But I’ve got some outline ideas for two new more game scenarios to follow on from Trellborg, with some of the Monstrosities characters returning. But they’re still very much at the initial planning phase.
Where can people find out more about you, your work, and The Trellborg Monstrosities?
I’ve just recently launched a very modest little site at www.John-houlihan.net if you’d like to find out more and there’s Facebook groups and things (Ed: Here’s the Facebook group) or my Twitter account @johnh259. All my details are on there and I do genuinely like to hear from readers and players too, so don’t be afraid to get in touch.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Just a big thanks to everyone who has bought game and scenario I’d love to sit in or eavesdrop in on a few play sessions as well as see what people make of it. That really would be fascinating.
I’d also like to thank all the people I’ve worked with on Trellborg and who’ve brought it to life, especially Chris, Michal and Pookie as well as the artists Gregor Kari and the Mkultra Studio.
Writing is such a solitary pursuit, it’s usually just you, rattling around inside your own head, but it’s amazing to see your words come to life and inspire people who use their talent to extend and build on your adventure. That’s probably been the most gratifying and humbling thing of all.
You can get John Houlihan’s novella, The Trellborg Monstrosities, for $2.99 from RPGNow right now. The adventure of the same name from Modiphius Entertainment is available for $11.99 for the Call of Cthulhu RPG and for Savage Worlds. Look for my review of the adventure next week!