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Rachel, David, and the Tentergrounds Synagogue

By Stuart Young, June 8, 2021 · Fallen London Mask of the Rose

You can learn more about Mask of the Rose and watch the video on Kickstarter. We’ll be back with more staff updates like this one during the development process!

This blog is by our Director of Narrative, Chris Gardiner

The Fallen London universe is more than ten years old and consists of actual millions of words. Fortunately, the nineteenth century is a bottomless wellspring of improbable stories, bleak horror, and fascinating characters, and even after all the time we’ve spent in Fallen London, there are still huge areas we’ve never touched on.

One of those is the Jewish communities of Victorian London — until now. Mask of the Rose features two major Jewish characters – David and Rachel – and the (fictional) Tentergrounds Synagogue as a key location.

Tentergrounds Synagogue

Tentergrounds Synagogue

We’re big fans of research at Failbetter. “Help! I’ve fallen down a research hole!” is a frequent cry in the writers’ Slack channel. (Some examples of research holes down which Failbetter writers have been tragically lost include: Victorian underwear, methods to extract scorpion venom, bicycle tires, 19th century electoral malpractice, contemporary swearing, gemstones novel to the UK in the 1800s, and mushrooms.) Sometimes, though, your own research can only take you so far, and to take the next step requires expert advice.

We’ve found consultations to be invaluable to our work. Previously, we’ve consulted with experts on colonialism, board game design, transgender and nonbinary representation, and structuring horror mysteries. Every single time we’ve come out of the experience with mountains of new material, a better understanding of the stories we can tell, and a fizzing sense of creative excitement. We’ve also found them to be a great way to find people to work with in the future, should we need additional feedback or collaboration.

In this case, we wanted the session to be useful for both Mask of the Rose and future work on Fallen London, so we decided the consultation should be a workshop with two parts to it:

  1. Feedback and discussion on the initial character and story outlines for David and Rachel.
  2. A presentation and discussion on the history of Jewish communities in Victorian London.

The aim is always to empower us to tell better stories. With that in mind, here are our goals for the session:

  • To develop David and Rachel’s characters in Mask of the Rose, and help us identify story opportunities (including how their faith might affect their reaction to London’s fall).
  • To get a broad overview of Jewish life in Victorian London, with specific recommendations for sources we could independently use to further our knowledge.
  • To learn about some uniquely Victorian circumstances, events, and details relating to the topic. (This sort of specific information helps make our writing more authentic. At the bare minimum it provides evocative background detail for scenes, and more often it inspires new stories or new angles on a story).
  • To acquire an awareness of the common stereotypes and misrepresentations of the period, so we can take steps not to reproduce them. (Stereotypes are a menace to good writing. They’re all-too-easy to reproduce, and eclipse more interesting and nuanced human truths.)

In addition, the writing and art teams also made a number of specific requests, including: information on Jewish radicals in Victorian London, relationships with other minority groups, and visual sources we could refer to when making the game’s art.

Rachel displaying different emotions

Characters in Mask of the Rose can react to the player with a wide range of emotions

With the help of some friends in the games industry, we identified and approached Marcus Roberts, the founder and director of the official UK Jewish Heritage Trail, to be our consultant. Finding the right consultant is difficult. We need someone with expertise, who is receptive to the constraints of the medium, and who can embrace Fallen London’s weirdness and engage speculatively and imaginatively with it. Marcus was an excellent choice!

He provided us with an absolute trove of feedback and information, including primary sources, photographs, maps, census-data, first-hand accounts, and even family portraits!

We covered topics including:

  • The shedim, shapeshifting spirits with undisguisable rooster-feet.
  • The wide differences in experience between established, naturalised Jewish families and that of the nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants living in the East End.
  • The aggressive conversion attempts of local Christian missions.
  • How unlikely it would be for London-based Ashkenazic and Sephardic jews to worship at the same synagogue, even after an event like the Fall (this information led us to revise our original concept for the Tentergrounds Synagogue to something more interesting).

Some of our discussions were as much about speculation as research. How might one of these communities respond to suddenly finding themselves a mile under the earth? Are there any historical upheavals we could use as a precedent? How might David interpret the fact he dies and returns to life?

Ultimately, we came out of the consultation with a wealth of inspirational material, a better sense of how to write David and Rachel, and even more excitement about writing Mask of the Rose.

 

3 Comments

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ZRW Jun 16, 1:35pm

As a Modern Orthodox Jew, I’m so excited to see what you’ve created. The level of Jewish representation in gaming and media in general is really lacking and is usually either highly stereotyped or highly superficial. Thank you for going the extra mile and doing the research. I hope you won’t be offended if I send some feedback after the game comes out!

Val Jun 8, 2:31pm

Oh goodness, this will be fascinating! I'm very glad there's going to be the inclusion of non-Yiddish groups, as well as the diversity and social divides that existed in the London community. There's already been a lot of discussion on how to observe Jewish custom in space, but underground I wonder how they'd figure out practical things like the start of the sabbath or an eruv. And what about the Clay Men and their potential connection to the Golem of Prague? Or the sheydim's relation to the Judgements? Guess I'll have to back the Kickstarter and find out!

Thighs Jun 8, 11:28am

I'm looking forward to seeing how this changes the Neath, seems like there were a lot of interesting questions asked and answered here.