Prohibition Play

Al Capone in the Untouchables

History Hooks

I am alive! I’ve been recovering from Vidcon and wisdom tooth-related trauma, but all rumors to the effect that Ryan has killed me and seized control are false. And I have my very first history hook for opposite month! Ryan mostly discusses ancient history, but I want to bring it forward to the 1920’s and talk about prohibition and some opportunities to use it in rpgs.

The History

The American prohibition era began in 1919 with the passing of the 18th Amendment to the constitution and the Volstead act, which prohibited the sale of alcohol. Many states took this further and banned alcohol altogether. Historically, the motivation for the amendment was lobbying by protestant groups many of whom already didn’t drink, and who saw it as destroying the moral fabric of America. Needless to say, it didn’t work. It gave rise to smuggling and organized crime, saw otherwise innocent Americans prosecuted for things that were only barely crimes, and in many places went largely unenforced. It was repealed in 1933 with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, and life went back to normal. And there was a depression thing.

The Hook

There are a lot of elements going on in the prohibition that make for some interesting stories. There’s a story of scarcity, of factions and forces beyond the reach of ordinary people imposing a ban on something commonplace. Artificial scarcity like that creates opportunities for smuggling, empire building, and crimebusting fun. It’s also a story of sides. Some people supported the prohibition for the reasons it was put in place. They figured alcohol eroded the morality of otherwise decent citizens. Others, like smugglers and speakeasy owners, supported it because it supplied them with an easy livelihood. Lots of supply from moonshine in the hills, liquor from Canada, Mexico, or half a dozen other places, and just as much demand in the cities. Banning the sale, production, and transport of booze didn’t keep people from wanting it. Most of them remembered when a beer after work had been a fixture in their lives, and weren’t about to drink milk like their kids. Others advocated against it, urging a return to ordinary life. Each side carries a cost.

What makes a ban interesting is the tension it creates, and a nationwide ban creates tension on a national scale. When a magistrate who’s been a friend approaches the party asking them to investigate the roots of the ban there’s a lot of places it can take them. Who could pressure the government to create it? Does it come from the top or from outside? Whether it’s an evil cult, a motivated minister with the ear of the ruler? These are questions that can flesh out the political organization of your setting and embroil the PCs in intrigue.

Al Capone in the UntouchablesAnother angle is smuggling. PCs usually have the mobility and connections to make smuggling a lucrative career. It’s a great opportunity to introduce new characters and have them develop strong relationships, whether they’re suppliers of the banned substance or the law officers who are chasing the PCs. Is the criminal culture in your setting one of respect, brutality, or both? Encourage PCs to extend information networks and create adventures by having them do favours for their new friends. Law-abiding PCs can easily take the other side of the equation. The same mobility and strength that make them good smugglers make them good at catching them. A beleaguered magistrate or watch captain struggling to enforce the ban might look to them for help. On either side of the law there’s a chance for an adventure.

Of course there’s the question of what to ban. In 1919 it was alcohol. In Tamriel, it’s the fantasy drugs moon sugar and skooma. I think the most important aspect of what gets banned is that the players can see a visible demand for it. If you ban bricks, have everyone complain about the fire risk of wooden houses. If it’s bread, have every baker making protest pastries. Whatever it is, put it up front where people can see its effects.Whether it makes the PCs curious or directly inconveniences them in some way (“What do you mean I can’t spend my ill-gotten gains on ale?”), a ban like the prohibition is supposed to be heavy handed and over the top. What would you ban and how would it change your setting? I’d love to know in the comments.

2 comments

  • Cool. I’ve wanted to do a Prohibition Era game with fantasy races. Elf and dwarf gangs, half-orc detectives & G-men.

    Of course, as with any setting, the players need to bee involved in deciding the particulars, or the game bogs down in clarification and lacks engagement.

    • It definitely helps. I’ve been toying with using it in an my established one. Arbitrary banning of things is one of those acts that signifies a serious shift in political power, at least temporarily.

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