11/11/99: The Night the Universe Changed 
by Pieter van Hiel 

Has anyone here seen the James Burke documentary series, "The Day the Universe Changed?" It was produced in the mid-80s, and dealt with the idea that over history, mankind’s perception of the universe has changed radically. Specifically, Burke addresses the precise moment of change, the instant of discovery or realization that turned everything on its head. This sudden alteration was represented at the start of each episode by a shot of the sun rising. A hand holding a glass ball covers up the sun, and through it we suddenly see the image inverted…the sun is setting. 

Occasionally, we experience a similar irrevocable shift in the way we see the world. What does that have to do with role-playing? I’ll get to that later. First of all, a personal anecdote.

I work part-time driving a mobile soup kitchen for the Salvation Army. The truck goes out from 9pm till 1am every night. I work the Friday and Saturday night shift. The city I live in is quite large, about 450,000, and has more than its fair share or poverty and hard-luck stories. Hamilton is often referred to as "The Hammer," a place where you go when you can’t afford to live in Toronto anymore, and don’t have the skills to do anything but wait on a counter or sit on a assembly line. Imagine Flint, Michigan with a pair of monster steel plants and you’ll get the idea. 

When the truck parks at a stop, often one of our regular clients will tell me they spotted someone asleep or in need of a helping hand, and so I get to poke around some very interesting places; abandoned buildings, dark alleys, fire escapes, old railway sidings, and rooftops. 

In the dead of winter, 1997, I was walking on a mall roof poking my flashlight beam into corners. The previous two nights I had found a homeless man sleeping in a darkened service doorway. He had refused help each time, but it was an especially frigid night so I wanted to make sure he was still all right. I checked out his doorway, but he was gone. I was about to move on, when my eye was caught by something glittering in the flashlight beam. 

I moved closer. There, on the cold concrete ground, among some liquor bottles, was a pigeon’s head. Completely intact and whole except for the fact that it had been cleanly detached from the body. The rest of the bird was nowhere in sight. I prodded it with my boot. A cat, maybe? I returned to the truck. 

Over the coming winter, I found at least 10 more of these severed heads. Usually they were pigeons, but I also found the remains of a brilliant Blue Jay, a Gull, and once even a Gold Finch. Always just the heads, always within 100 yards of the doorway.  

Like all cities, Hamilton has a mythology. You find it scrawled in the ramblings of the "soap lady," a semi-legendary woman who writes amazingly literate and utterly mad essays in soap on the windows of abandoned storefronts late at night. You hear it from the drunks and madmen in the street. They all say the same thing…there’s a war going on in Hamilton. Good and Evil, God and Satan. I’ve had a man chit-chat politely to me for an hour and then run shouting and yelling because he said he saw an angel in the truck behind me. I’ve been attacked by a man calling himself the Anti-Christ…and then met the same man a year later, sober, clean, religious, and apologetic. I once heard a group of teens boast about urinating on graves and breaking into crypts. Frankly, I could fill a book. The Midnight Gospel of the Hammer. 

In the shadow of these experiences I tended to interpret finding the bird heads in a sinister light. There are any number of madmen and disturbed people out there, and it was not unreasonable to assume that the birds were being beheaded by some human agent. I don’t believe in the power of magic or curses, but I know that many do, and it leads them down a steep road to the Land Where Reality is No Longer within Shouting Distance.

Hamilton has harbored real, live Satanists in the past. Who was to say they weren’t still around and kicking? The image of some twisted young soul creeping up on sleeping birds on the mall roof and twisting their necks acquired reality within my head. I always kept a close eye out for the possible perpetrator on my weekly jaunts into the dark and forgotten places. 

A few months ago, I mentioned the severed bird heads to my wife. Before I could launch into my theory, she looked up and said "Oh yeah. Those falcons, right?" Immediately and irrevocably my view of those experiences changed. It was like having a sack pulled off my head. I felt relieved and stupid at the same time. Those falcons, of course. 

About three years ago, Hamilton introduced Peregrine falcons to the downtown core of the city. This was done to help repopulate the species and control the pigeon the population…pigeons being the favorite food of city-dwelling falcons. Falcons don’t eat heads. No crazed lone bird killer. Just a falcon surviving. 

So, what does this have to do with role-playing? Well, I’ll tell you. Some of the most memorable role-play sessions, and in fact stories of any kind, involve completely screwing with the perceptions of the players. Or readers. Set them up, let them play a few sessions, and then change the universe. Or rather, let them finally see the universe as it truly is. 

For example…in a Call of Cthulhu game, have them pursue a cult of evildoers based on a tip. Players are notoriously knee-jerk. If they see someone with a clue or someone who looks at them funny, out come the heavy weapons and Mickey Spillane-style detective work. (i.e.: Did you do it? No sir! *Boot to the head.* You sure?) So, they pursue these cultists and find that, yes, they have a big collection of forbidden occult tomes, they carry around guns that they aren’t afraid to use on upstanding people in the community, and they chit chat about the Nameless Horrors like they knew them personally. It’s tommy-gun time, right? 

Or maybe not. You see, in most of Call of Cthulhu games, the above traits perfectly describe a group of "heroic" investigators as well. So, the players bust in, shoot the "cultists," burn their books…and discover that they were on the same side all along. Just watch their faces as the realization hits. 

So…to conclude…don’t be afraid to turn your role-play world on it’s head. Don’t be afraid to change the way your players see themselves in relation to this suddenly-new world…it’s worth it. 

Pieter van Hiel is now in pursuit of the notorious "New Jersey Devil," who he believes may be the creature who mysteriously dented his car door in the mall parking lot.