Thursday, 9 April 2015

Junkhounds of London (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds)

This time out I want to talk about an optional addition to the Bookhounds character list: the Junkhound. I owe inspiration for this character type to George Orwell, particularly his essay Just Junk: But Who Could Resist It? I've had reason to mention Orwell before, and I highly recommend his short essays to anyone planning on running this game.

The Junk Shop probably exists on the same street as the characters' bookshop. They may well be neighbors, particularly since the kind of customer likely to wander into a junk shop is exactly the same kind of customer that might patronize the characters' establishment. If you should want to visit an example of the breed and happen to be visiting, or live in, London, I highly recommend The Junk Shop in Greenwich, which I used to visit often when I lived in South London. It's probably less dusty than those found in Orwell's day, and unlike Orwell's shop the owners of the Junk Shop are usually happy to make a sale. Otherwise it's a picture perfect example of the breed. American Pickers, for those of you trapped within the confines of the US of A, is also a pretty good example, except of course they seem to do most of their business long distance, where a junk shop relies on walk-in trade.

You can find almost anything in places like that; I can remember being tempted by a chunk of scrap from an American fighter, World War Two vintage, that someone had dug up out of a muddy field in Europe. My memory tells me it was probably a Curtiss Hawk or Warhawk, but the wretched thing was huge, perhaps three or four foot across, not the sort of piece you could put in a display case. Yet I could see it hanging above a mantlepiece, and was disappointed when, after going away to think about it for a while, I returned to find the scrap metal had sold to someone keener than I.

There will be some crossover between a bookshop and a junk shop. A junk shop is more likely to carry back issues of magazines, cheap publications, or books in bad condition. In the terms of the trade, its book stock is almost certainly disbound, remainder binding, or - worst of all - unsophisticated. Still, that shouldn't stop ambitious Bookhounds poaching from the Junkhound's stock, now and again. Equally a book shop may carry things of interest to the Junkhound, or the book scout may come back with news of an estate sale that has items of interest both to junk and book collectors.

While it may seem that the Antiquarian overlaps a bit with the Junkhound, there's one very important distinction to make. An Antiquarian is primarily interested in things of the past, collects items of historical interest, and generally is concerned about the condition of his stock. Not so the Junkhound. While the Junkhound has some love for history and things of historic importance, any item of scrap is grist for the Junkhound's mill. It doesn't matter to him how old it is, how decrepit, how valueless, or lacking in merit. The Junkhound stocks anything. If the Junkhound specializes in, say, pictures, as Orwell says one shop of his acquaintance did, those pictures will be from all possible artistic schools, of varying age, and the only thing they would have in common is a general lack of artistic talent. If ever you're going to find Dogs Playing Poker, it will be in a junk shop. Though there could be something valuable hiding away in the stacks of forgotten landscape artists and minor surrealists ... 

With all that in mind, I give you:


You live surrounded by other people's discarded valuables, and make your living from them. You  have a deep and abiding love for your charges, and spend days hunting down rumors of a complete set of whatever it might be, or a replacement chair, or even just a trove of scrap metal. You own either a shop front, or a yard, filled with what anyone else would see as scrap, but you see opportunity. You're a close relative of the rag and bone man, except you'd like to think of yourself as one step up on the social ladder, since you own your own premises, and a rag and bone man often does not. There's nothing you won't sell, but you can't often give an accurate history of the things you do sell. It's not as easy a life as bookselling, but you enjoy it, because with every new day comes a new item, something you may not have seen before; something you can turn to a tidy profit.

Occupational Abilities: Auction, Accounting, Assess Honesty, Bargain, Craft (often Carpentry, or something to do with metalwork), History, Oral History, The Knowledge

Credit Rating: 1 to 3

Possible Drives and General Abilities: The Junkhound isn't restricted as far as drives go, but Artistic Sensibility is probably the least likely. The one thing you can be sure of is that a Junkhound wouldn't know true art if it bit him on the leg. A Junkhound is quite likely to still rely on a horse and cart for transport, so Riding is a useful general ability. Abilities that allow the Junkhound to do minor repairs or reconditioning, like Electrical or Mechanical Repair, are also useful.

Special: Like the Bookseller, you own your own store or yard, and have the final word on anything to do with that establishment. Like the Antiquarian, you can, once per session, draw on your stock for something of minor interest. This item cannot be exceptionally valuable, be a weapon of greater than +0 damage, or supply a clue greater than a 0 point informational clue. However your greatest advantage lies in putting people - usually customers, or people who might be able to supply you with junk - at their ease. You have a raffish, disreputable charm that disarms people. You can use Oral History to activate contacts in the same way a Hobo can. These contacts can be from any Occupation, but your ability only works on those with Credit Rating 2 or lower. Those with higher Credit Rating don't want to know you.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Terms of the Trade (Bookhounds, Trail of Cthulhu)

A while ago I had reason to mention the Antiquarian Bookseller's Association, and now I want to draw your attention to it again. An article originally published in 2014 about terms of the bookseller's trade has appeared online, and I highly recommend it to all Bookhounds Keepers and players. Go read!

Now that you've read it, lets discuss. It's talking about catalogue description of books, best practice, and how a bookseller ought to advertise wares. Without wishing to reprint the entire article here, it gives a list of useful terms and phrases, under the following headings:

  1. Author or heading.
  2. Title
  3. Imprint
  4. Edition statement
  5. Physical description
  6. Binding
  7. Provenance
  8. General condition
  9. References
  10. Note
In order to build a world appropriate to the setting you've chosen, you need to remain true to that world. If your adventure is set aboard a U-Boat, for instance, you need to know what a U-Boat is like, what the common problems are, what the day-do-day routine is going to entail. It also means that you probably oughtn't call the Captain the Captain; he's the Kapitan, his executive officer is the Leutnant zur Zee, and so on. If the game is set during the Vietnam War, then you, as Keeper, probably ought to internalize at least some of the slang and terminology used. You need to know the difference between beans and dicks, and beans and motherfuckers, as well as what a bouncing Betty is, or a crispy critter. It's like background music. Nothing puts the players in their characters' state of mind quicker than using the language, and setting the scene with appropriate terminology.

Now, since this article is written in 2014, it records changes to best practice that you, running a game set in 1930, don't need to follow. For example, in the Date of Binding section it mentions the term Antique, which actually means modern; the article says the term is confusing, and so is no longer to be used. Perhaps not now, but you can bet your last shilling that your Bookhounds will want to use a confusing term to describe their books. Misdirection is what the trade's all about.  

What this means is, when describing a book, you as Keeper ought to cleave to ABA guidelines as closely as possible. Yes, this will mean extra work, but the reward is a better game.  Plus, with the way the ABA's laid things out, the work becomes much, much easier.

So, using the King In Yellow as a guideline, let's write up a description!

  1. [Henry Hubert Alexandre Kistemaeckers
  2. The King In Yellow
  3. Printed in translation by Russel of London
  4.  First Edition Thus, Pinckham illustrations
  5. Folio, 123p, grangerized with inserted throwout plate Boyle, stage set. Slight foxing, made up.
  6.  Half morocco, publisher's binding, rubbed.
  7.  Association copy, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree
  8. Good condition
  9. No references.
  10. Released in Paris without author attribution. Play in three acts, concerning the tragedy of Carcosa, following the arrival of a Masked Stranger.
Now let's talk you through it. 

Traditionally the King in Yellow's author is unknown. According to the ABA, you can cite a name supplied by secondary sources, where the author published anonymously. When doing so, the name is enclosed in square brackets. Now, this means I can attribute the King to almost anyone, up to and including the Pope of Rome. I needn't be right, or even accurate. All I need is a useful secondary source, so for this example I presupposed that there was a source out there somewhere who attributed the play to Kistemaeckers. Job done!

Russel of London is, of course, an invented book publisher. First Edition Thus means first in English translation, and Pinckham is an invented illustrator used to lend the description a little color. Grangerized means that there are additional illustrations added by a previous owner, perhaps Tree, perhaps someone else. The throwout plate is a folded-up illustration which can be unfolded to reveal a larger, detailed image. In this case it's a potential stage set design, created by someone named Boyle. Foxing you already know about, since the main text mentions it. Made up means that missing leaves have been added from another copy.

Association copy is a term meaning that this particular book is associated with someone of interest, usually connected with the author, but the term is also used when the book was previously owned by someone of interest. Sir Herbert was a very famous theatrical impresario, and manager of His Majesty's.  Exactly the kind of person whose ownership would lend interest to a copy of a play. 

Good refers to the condition. What's being said here is that the book is in good (not very good or original) condition. Probably there are some marks of wear, from previous owners, but otherwise it's in decent shape. If any of those marks were significant - if someone had spilled wine on page 3, for instance - that would have to be mentioned, but by just saying Good you're telling the potential purchaser that the condition is as to be expected, given that it's a previously owned copy that has been cared for. 

I hope you found this useful! We'll talk again soon.


Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Three Act Structure (Escapist)

This is another one for the aspiring Games Masters out there. Remember a while back, when I said that scenario design will become a big part of your life? Let’s talk a little more about that, and about the three act structure, a literary device that, used properly, will save your butt.

The three act structure is sometimes defined as the Setup, Confrontation, and the Resolution. John Yorke calls each of these acts “a unit of action bound by a character’s desire,” and in this case these are your player’s characters. They drive the story forward with their own actions and desires; you provide the structure, in which their actions are played out.

Each act has its own beginning, middle and end, which means that, for instance, the Setup has its own internal three act structure going on. In each unit of action that makes up the act as a whole, the characters follow their own desires and goals, which move the plot forward. At the end of the Setup there will be a turning point which leads naturally into the Confrontation, and once the Confrontation reaches its conclusion, there will be another turning point that leads naturally to the Resolution. Beginning, middle, end.

The point to take away is this: when designing scenarios, if you bear the three act structure in mind and write accordingly, it will lend your ongoing narrative coherency and drama. It will order your thoughts, and let you plot your boss encounters accordingly; it will show you where the best place is to leave clues as to what’s going on, when it’s a good idea to introduce significant antagonists, and where it’s time to introduce dilemmas.

With that in mind, I’m going to discuss a basic fantasy scenario, in terms of the three act structure.

Starting with the Setup: the characters are in a trading town looking for adventure and loot. They’ve been chasing up rumors of a dungeon somewhere nearby, and discover that, according to legend, a robber baron who was killed many years ago left a castle behind somewhere out in the King’s Woods, near the Old Road. That discovery is the first unit of action in the Setup.

The second unit of action comes when the characters try to find out more about this castle, and the dungeon that allegedly exists below it.  They discover that, according to local traders, the King’s Woods have become very dangerous within the last four months. Caravans have been attacked, people carried off, and nobody knows why; the caravans are never looted, so whoever’s doing it isn’t after money. The attackers seem interested only in captives, but they never send a ransom demand, and they don’t abduct everyone they meet, just a few people. This would be a good time to insert a few clues, which will pay off later. In this instance, the clues could be something like: your wizard or your cleric, being knowledgeable fellows, can work out that each of the abducted people were born in a very lucky year. Evil sorcerous types sometimes use people born in a lucky year for human sacrifices, and it’s said that dragons find them extra crunchy. So maybe not so lucky after all …

The third unit of action in the Setup comes when the characters go into the woods for the first time, and have their first minor boss encounter. Skeletons and other undead horrors rise up and attack them, and, if they happen to be with a caravan – maybe hired as guards? – the undead try to abduct anyone born in a lucky year. They seem to be directed by a special undead, stronger and better armed than the rest, who apparently can tell which humans are born in lucky years. Each of the undead wears the rotted livery of the robber baron. The special undead carries a magic item which allows it to pick out lucky year targets. None of them are intelligent, which means someone else is running the show.

This third unit of the Setup is sometimes called the Inciting Incident: this is the moment where, the background of events having been established, the characters are given the first real hint that all is not as simple as it seems. After all, the special undead couldn’t have made that magic item, so who gave it to him, why, and can that person’s plan be stopped? This is the question that will be answered in the third act, the Resolution.

That’s the Setup sorted out. The characters came in driven by their desire for adventure and loot, and now they have a mystery to solve. All roads lead to that robber baron’s castle. Hopefully the captives are still alive!

So now we move on to the Confrontation. That’s going to take place at the robber baron’s castle, abandoned for many decades. Perhaps, in the first unit, the characters try to find out more about the robber baron, or they try to scout out the castle before attacking it. This is another good place to start dropping some clues, which will pay off later. If they try to find out more about the baron, they learn he was a particularly vicious warrior, whose acts were so vile that the townsfolk, led by some heroes, stormed his castle and destroyed it. He tried to escape, via a secret passage, into the woods, but was caught and killed. If they scout the castle, they see that it was sacked and burned many years ago, but recent tracks indicate that creatures, most of them undead, have been coming and going here for the last few months.

In the second unit, the characters go into the castle and start clearing out the undead, of which there are quite a bunch. Led by a black knight dressed in the baron’s armor, these creatures pose a significant threat, and the dungeon beneath the castle is inhabited by other powerful creatures. Yet when all the fighting’s over, and the loot tallied up, the characters are left with a quandary. None of the captives are here, nor does it seem as if they ever were here. Moreover none of the creatures the characters have faced so far, even the knight, are intelligent. They couldn’t have come up with this scheme. So who did?

In the third unit of the Confrontation, the characters discover signs that lead to the real culprit. That secret passage mentioned in the first unit has to lead into the dungeon, and it has to exit in the forest somewhere. Perhaps they should search for it, either in the dungeon or in the woods, where the exit ought to be. Or maybe they just search the dungeon really thoroughly, looking for the captives, and find it that way. One of the heroes from that long-ago first raid may even have left a clue of some kind, but however it’s done, the third unit of the Confrontation must lead to the first unit of the Resolution, which is in that secret passage.

Now we’re coming to the meat of the matter. The first unit of the Resolution sees the characters discover that secret passage, which the real villain of the piece has been using as a hiding place. That villain is a necromancer, with a few tough hirelings and sorcerous apprentices, as well as some more undead. This necromancer – perhaps he’s a descendant of the baron out for revenge, or maybe he’s just using the baron’s castle as a convenient base - has been capturing those born in a lucky year for sacrifice, in a ritual which the necromancer hopes to use to build a particularly powerful magic item.

From this point forward it’s going to be a series of action scenes. The first unit has the characters facing off against the necromancer’s least powerful hirelings and apprentices in the secret tunnel. This allows them to rescue some of the captives, who can tell them about the necromancer’s ritual site deep in the forest. The necromancer has gone there, trying to complete his ritual with the remaining captives before the characters can catch up.

The second unit has the characters in a race against time, tracking the necromancer to that ritual site. They’ll encounter some tough resistance along the way, including the necromancer’s remaining hirelings and apprentices. All of which leads to the final unit of the Resolution, at the ritual site.  The necromancer’s conducting the ritual there, with a few undead or summoned entities as bodyguards. Now the true enemy has been revealed, the stage set, the final boss encounter primed and ready to go. Whether or not the characters prevail, or end up with the other captives, sacrificed so the necromancer can gain more power, is up to them.

Setup, Confrontation, Resolution. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But within that three act structure is the building blocks, the units of action, for any scenario you care to design, and if you’re the Game Master, scenario design is going to become a major part of your life. That’s why people show up every week or so and buy you pizza; they expect entertainment, high adventure, a few laughs, and loot. Don’t panic. Scenario design isn’t that hard. But if you need a helping hand, bear in mind these three acts, and write accordingly.

Good luck!

Monday, 30 March 2015

Villains (Escapist)

“So I won’t get away with it, huh? How many times I’ve heard that from dumb coppers, I couldn’t count … You’d give your left eye to nail me, wouldn’t you?” Johnny Rocco, Key Largo

Let’s talk about bad guys. 

If you’re the Keeper, Dungeon Master or whatever other hat of doom you’re wearing this week, you already know the problem: sometimes villains just leap off the page, screaming for attention as they blow up the world, but more often they just sit there, spineless slugs waiting for death. What went wrong, and how can you design a tabletop RPG villain that really catches the players’ attention?

The problem with villains is, too often they exist only to do one thing: be foiled by the player characters. Villains are punching bags, paper Nazis, colorful targets that sit on the far end of the shooting range and never shoot back, or at least not accurately. There’s nothing unique about them, nothing that makes the players think ‘I want to know more about this guy.’ If the players don’t feel engaged by the villain, they won’t respect him, and at that point the whole thing falls flat.

There’s a useful writing exercise for creating characters in fiction, which applies just as much to roleplay as it does that unpublished novel lurking on your hard drive. When designing a villain, think about the answers to the following questions:

  •  What is the villain’s name, age, ethnicity and gender?

  •  Name three physical attributes.

  •  List three favorite items.

  • Where does the villain live?

  •  How does the villain make money?

  • Where is the villain right now? What is he doing or saying?

  • What is a problem the villain faces?

  • What is a secret the villain hopes nobody finds out about?

  •  What is the villain’s core belief?

  •  What does the villain want, long term?

The first five questions on that list are self-explanatory. You need to know who the villain is and what they look like, or have on them at all times. You also need to know how much cash or capital they have, so you can work out what the villain has available to throw at the player characters. The rest of it wants a little explanation.

A villain is a character, with wishes, dreams and plans, just like everyone else in the game world. He didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, ‘I want to rob a bank today.’ The whole idea of robbing banks, or whatever it is the villain does, springs out of his desire to satisfy his long term goals. Maybe he wants to buy a house so he and his young wife and child can settle down, but he can’t afford it. Maybe he knows it’s a mob bank, and he wants to bring down the mob, so he figures hitting that particular bank is a virtuous act. Maybe it’s something else, but whatever it is, it’s tied to his core beliefs, and has the potential to satisfy his long-term wants. 

This influences everything the villain says and does, and he should take no action that fails to satisfy his wants. If he’s doing something, anything, it’s because the thing that he’s doing is important to him in some way: it protects a secret he doesn’t want anyone to know about, it solves a problem for him, it fits in with his core beliefs, or pushes forward a long-term goal. If it doesn’t do any of these things, then why would he bother? 

The bit about where the villain is and what he’s doing or saying is for your benefit. You need to be able to picture, in your head, what this villain is likely to do or say in any given situation, and often this means coming up with something on the fly. It really helps if you’ve worked out beforehand the kind of thing he’s likely to say in a particular situation, because you can use that as a jumping-off point to work out what he’s likely to say in other settings.

So how does this work in practice? 

I’m going to use an example villain from a Bookhounds of London campaign for Trail of Cthulhu. You don’t need to know the ruleset to understand the villain; for the purpose of this example, all you need to know is that Bookhounds is a horror game set in London, England, during the 1930s, and the core idea of the campaign is that the characters are booksellers dealing in occult tomes. That means the villain has to be interested in buying or collecting occult grimoires, for whatever reason.

  •  Stanley David Fentiman. Caucasian Male, in his early 30s.

  •  Tall. Wears good quality clothes that have seen hard use. Is missing two fingers on his left hand.

  • He always has a catalogue on him for a forthcoming book auction. Trench art RFC swagger stick. Webley Mk IV revolver, RFC issue.

Already you can see a bit of his history in what he wears and owns. He’s been injured at some point in the past; that suggests a catastrophic accident, or some kind of fight. The Great War isn’t that far off, and if he’s in his 30s now he could easily have been old enough to have served. The two RFC items indicate he was in the Royal Flying Corps, which means he can fly, and since one of the items is trench art, Fentiman’s probably quite talented as an artist. His clothes have seen hard use, which suggests he hasn’t the money to replace them when they get torn or worn out.

  •  Oxford, and is also a member of two London clubs, which is where he stays when he’s in the city.

  • Private tutor, formerly an Oxford don, disgraced and thrown out of his college.

He’s a very educated man, who formerly held a good position but now does not. That explains the good clothes, and why he can’t afford to replace them. He may also find it difficult to afford his club dues each year, but someone of his social status would probably hang onto those club memberships even if it means he has to eat beans for a month or two.

  •  Fentiman is confronting his enemies just before a fight, either in his tattered apartments or in a school room. “Dear boy, you ought to have a better grasp of grammar at your advanced age. Not that you will have an opportunity to improve …” [draws Webley]

  • Problem: he wants to establish a Satanic school of necromancy, but lacks the resources.

Satanic schools are a staple of folklore. Allegedly the Scholomance high in the mountains of Romania admitted ten students, each of whom was taught by the Devil himself. When the course of learning was complete, one student was sacrificed to the Devil as payment and the others were allowed to go free. Dracula himself is said to have studied there, and the Scholomance also turns up in World of Warcraft

Fentiman considers himself a master occultist, a true Satanic lord, but he’s also a teacher at heart. He wants to pass on his knowledge to future generations of occultists, but for that to happen he needs a lot of money, and also needs to conduct several powerful magic rituals. He may even need a school building, perhaps an old Victorian one that has fallen into disuse which he can then convert to his own purpose. 

  • Secret: he lost his privileges at Oxford when he was caught helping several of his student cheat; he was using the money the students paid him to buy occult books. He gets very angry if reminded of this disgrace.

Secrets can be very useful to the players. They reveal weaknesses, something that the characters can exploit to help them defeat the villain. In this case Fentiman gets angry if reminded of his fall from grace, and anger often makes people careless. Maybe in a critical moment the characters could use this information to upset Fentiman, at which point he starts making mistakes. That could be very bad for Fentiman, if he happens to be in the middle of a ritual or summoning.

  • Fentiman believes he is one of the most powerful occultists alive today, and one of the most knowledgeable.

Just because a person believes something, doesn’t make it so. Fentiman probably has some ability – unless he’s completely delusional – but there may be people more powerful than he, and more knowledgeable. He would probably be very upset if something happened to contradict his core belief.
  • Fentiman wants to establish a Scholomance of his own, to teach others.

If there is such a school, then there are students. Fentiman probably has some picked out already, and if he ever gets this thing going then there will be more students, eager to learn. There may be a school building, perhaps some decayed old Dotheboys Hall, abandoned decades ago after an awful scandal. There may be staff, but what kind of person – or creature – is Fentiman likely to hire?

Consider this tactic, when designing your own villains. Find out what they want, what they fear people will find out about them, what they’re prepared to kill for. Once you know that, you know how to make your villain memorable, and then it’s time to make the player characters shake in their boots. There’s nothing more terrifying than a well-designed villain, out for blood!