Walpurgis University

Walpurgis University is a setting that I made up first for a campaign of weird and horror adventures in the cliff-hangering 1930s, the employer and joint base of operations of a globe-trotting clique of archaeologists and anthropologists who encountered vampires in Massachusetts, mummies in Rwanda, the Ark of the Covenant in Abyssinia, yeti in Tibet, Macedonians in Kafiristan, and so on. Then I revived it a year later for a series of non-space-based sci-fi stories set in the 1950s, with a zombie plague curable with an experimental antibiotic, revivifications going badly in the Medical School basement, undergrads parasitised by giant mutant ichneumon wasps, a Neanderthal on the football team, an adventure cribbed from Conan Doyle’s The Creeping Man and so on. A couple of times I have tried unsuccessfully to launch a campaign to consist of the tall stories told (with a fine disregard for probability and consistency) by elderly emeriti in the faculty lounge. (I think it was circumstances both times, not a fault in the concept.) And once I tried unsuccessfully to launch a GURPS campaign based there with a newly-recruited group whose background in RPGs was D&D 3, and only one of whom had been to uni — that was a mistake.

Here is a campaign prospectus that I issued once for a campaign to be set at Walpurgis U., which did not get off the ground.

Walpurgis University

In the Connecticut River valley between Northhampton and Greenfield, on Interstate 91. is a town named Jamestown, the seat of Stewart County. Like most county seats up there in the Knowledge Corridor of Western Massachusetts, Jamestown has a college: Walpurgis University. Though its foundation dates back to the 1860s, Walpurgis is a small place with a modest endowment, somewhat encumbered by a reputation for eccentricity: it is the sort of place that would hire Indiana Jones. The science faculty is on the edge of sci-fi, and the humanities staff edge into fantasy, but the scant resources, odd reputation, and a few critical incidents of bad luck conspired to rob the place of the reputation it deserves.

In 1916 Walpurgis University sent a backup expedition to Maple White Land, which brought back a pterandon embryo in formalin. But their press conference was the day the SS Lusitania was sunk. In 1928 a junior chemistry professor built a working atomic pile in the squash courts, but abandoned the project when it became clear that his plan to transmute mercury into gold was not going to be profitable. In 1935 a PhD candidate in Food Science worked out how to make penicillin in bulk, but was ignored (largely because she was black). In 1953 Wal. U. Entomology staff destroyed a nest of radioactive mutant ants with a 55-gallon drum of DDT. In 1954 a Neanderthal played right tackle on the Wal. U. football team (he was a fine arts undergrad, on scholarship from Newfoundland). In 1955 a zombie zirus escaped from the microbiology lab, but nearly everyone was cured with an experimental antiviral drug. And so on.

Perhaps no-one actually knows that Professor Alanburg is re-animating corpses in the med school basement, but neither is anyone incredulous when Alanburg’s Monster is found shambling the halls with Dr. Alanburg’s severed head. If Dr. Traveller from Electrical Engineering asks for volunteers to come to the Cretaceous on a test of his time machine, the physics faculty doesn’t say “Absurd! Impossible!”: it starts arguing among itself about experiments that could possibly determine how the Grandfather Paradox is resolved. The reason is that about a quarter of the academic staff have either seen the Ark of the Covenant, drunk from the Holy Grail, operated an aircraft on beamed power, or synthesised traces of Cavorite. If they had the staff and money, they could overthrow the foundations of knowledge. But instead they have tenure at Walpurgis U.

As a matter of tone, it is important that the Wal. U. dons live in a world where all this stuff is true, and so they take it seriously, and absolutely do not think of themselves as anything other than a slightly run-down and somewhat under-appreciated little university in Massachusetts. To the Wal. U. staff, the atom-smasher at CERN is just as wonderful as a time-machine in the the Heaviside Building basement. More so, because it has funding.

One corner of the Senior Common Room at the Walpurgis University Faculty Club is by longstanding custom reserved for a particular handful of very senior, very tweedy teaching staff. These fellows have had tenure for longer than anyone else can remember. And they relate the most amazing anecdotes, some of which have been dated by context as early as 1905. Anywhere else they would be considered to be spinning yarns. Anywhere else they would be challenged as liars, written off as senile old confabulators. But… this is Walpurgis. And there actually is a pterandon in formalin in the basement of Darwin Hall.

The Campaign

Okay, so the campaign is going to be about the adventures, or at least the stories, of a coterie of very old academics who have been on the staff at Walpurgis since at least before World War One. Why are they, as they seem, immortal? That varies, and at Wal. U. no-one is game to ask. Have they seen everything before? No, perhaps not. But they have probably seen something bigger. And if not, it reminds them of a very cold winter during Prohibition… when they were on a field trip investigating the properties of diamond-bearing Kimberlite… in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy….

The frame story is sometime after about 1990, perhaps the present day. The adventures, on the other hand, are told in flashback to any time in the first three quarters of the 20th century, “back when we were younger”. They are outrageous, Munchausenish anecdotes about larger-that-life globe-trotting academics: swashbuckling archaeologists, MacGuyvering scientists, practical magicians from the School of Mediaeval Metaphysics, stories that might just be believed—at Walpurgis U. Each adventure will begin with an (NPC) grad student or junior member of faculty giving a breathless account of some modern marvel, and will proceed to the players (in character) offering “toppers” until one comes up that takes everyone’s fancy, which we will then game out. Continuity from story to story will be negligible or less.

Tell me, if you please, something about Walpurgis U. Perhaps something that happened when you were working or studying there.