Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Scenario Ideas, Bookhounds of London

This time out I'm going to talk about scenario seeds. Most Keepers, whatever the system, are going to need at least a scattering of these to keep their players occupied in between major events. Some Keepers opt for a more freestyle form of play and provide nothing but seeds, allowing the players to pick and choose the ones they want to follow up. Others prefer more scripted campaigns, but still need to keep some unscripted events in their arsenal for those times when the players go off-book. Perhaps a key player couldn't make the session, or perhaps they need to account for a period of downtime while someone heals or reads the all-important grimoire. After all, the other characters don't just sit on their backsides while Protagonist X rests in bed eating grapes.

Scenario seeds are very useful. They allow the players a chance to indulge their personal whimsies, without departing too much from whatever the Keeper has planned as the overarching story. They also provide the protagonists a chance to gain new skills, abilities, items or even just an amusing anecdote or two. Finally, they help establish the consistent reality of the game world by introducing the characters to new and interesting bits of it.

There's no set length for this sort of thing, but I find that if I've gone on for longer than a page A4, I've gone too far. After all, this is meant to be a seed, not a full-blown story.

With that in mind, let's talk about the Midland Grand Hotel, at St Pancras, London, and its mysterious room 113.

This room does not officially exist. It is not on any hotel layout map, and none of the servants acknowledge its existence. Inquirers after it are told that Room 113 is ‘booked’; ‘for the foreseeable future’ is added for the benefit of those persistent enough to enquire further. The only official record of it can be found amongst the plans and papers of Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect. The plans don’t seem to indicate anything unusual about 113; it’s a midsize East Wing room, not particularly luxurious, but with all the standard accoutrements of the Midland Grand, including a fireplace. It also lacks a bathroom and toilet, in common with the rest of the hotel. Chamber pots and copper baths are carried to and from all the rooms by a small army of servants, without whom the Midland Grand would not function.
Tracking down room 113 is a difficult task, almost as if the room itself doesn’t want to be found. Naturally seekers after it will not be encouraged by the hotel staff, and as there are so very many of them circulating at all times throughout the hotel, those with low Credit Rating may find it difficult to pass unnoticed. Those determined enough to wander the halls armed with a map of some sort soon discover that 113 simply does not exist during the day, though it can be found at night. It is much easier to find when the moon is waxing crescent, and more difficult when the moon is waning crescent.
Room 113 is, like the rest of the Midland Grand, the absolute last word in Victorian comfort, including gold leaf walls, elaborately carved wainscoting, and expensive furnishings and artwork, none of which have so much as a speck of dust. The main reception room has as its centrepiece a fascinating and somewhat disturbing pre-Raphaelite painting of a medieval hawking scene. The subject is conventional enough, but the brilliant and somewhat over-vivid colouring gives it a feverish quality, as though the viewer were seeing the scene through a heat haze.
Unlike the other rooms of the Midland Grand, 113 has a copper tub permanently installed; or at least, it is there, and nobody has ever tried to take it away. During a waxing crescent the tub is filled with a liquid very like blood, while when waning crescent there is only a very shallow pool of the same substance.

Staying the night there may awaken Magic potential in susceptible persons, or grant an increased Magic pool, though nobody is on record as having slept there or, braver still, having a bath. That might grant further power, of course, but the price might be more than most are willing to pay.
Now, let's talk about this from a Keeper's perspective.

First, the section is rules-lite. Only one investigative ability, Credit Rating, is mentioned, and even then there's no question of Difficulty numbers or potential tests. That sort of detail ought to be left up to the Keeper, to be elaborated at the the time the detail becomes relevant. There's no point scattering dozens of potential tests in a seed when the players may only ever use two or three of them. This isn't meant to be a dungeon, with traps around every corner. This is a hotel. People live and work there. A general description is useful, a sense of who might be there is handy, but anything beyond that is a waste of your time.

It does help that the Midland Grand is wiki-able, as is its architect. You can't expect the players not to look up historical background. Some of them may have iPads or laptops at the ready during the game session. This way, they'll naturally gravitate to information that might be as useful to you as it will be to them, and the pictures provided with the description is an added bonus.

Second, there's just enough creepy here to keep the players intrigued, and not so much that they avoid the place altogether. You don't want them thinking that this is beyond their ability. There's an obvious mystery here, but it's solveable. Also, it's not a dragon's cave: there are no bones scattered everywhere, warning them that a very painful death awaits. True, the seed might be fatal. There are facts the players don't know. That said, there's no need to hang a sign over the seed that reads Abandon Hope All Who Enter Here. The players ought to believe, at least to begin with, that the place isn't a deathtrap.

Third, there's a reward; the potential Magic increase. Magic is an ability introduced in Rough Magicks, a sourcebook that I personally find indispensible. Magic is a pool that would-be occultists use to power spells; in the main book, this function is covered by Stability. A Keeper who didn't use Rough Magicks would have to find another reward, but that shouldn't be too difficult. There's always something the players want badly enough to put themselves at risk, so long as the risk is survivable.

Now I'm going to elaborate a little further on the seed:

Potential clues:   Architecture, Art History. While strolling through the halls, an experienced architect may be able to deduce the whereabouts of 113 by noting where things have not happened. Everything suffers wear and tear, particularly over fifty-odd years (the Grand opened in 1876), yet there are portions of the Grand that seem as fresh as the day they were built. A student of art history may notice the same thing, or work out the approximate position by the odd lack of proportion that a particular corridor has, when compared with other corridors in the same wing.

                                Library Use, Occult. Sir George Gilbert Scott wrote his Personal and Professional Recollections, published 1879 by Sampson Low & Co. Though there isn’t a great deal on the Midland Grand, there’s supposed to be a mention of room 113 in the very first printing, which was cut from all subsequent editions. Occultists claim that a few drops of blood, smeared on the cover during a waxing crescent moon, can reveal the missing section in all extant copies of the Recollections. According to Sir George, ‘demands occasioned by the cemetery works forced an unpleasant compromise, which I solved by dedicating one of the rooms to private use. Naturally this meant that the room in question had to be kept effectively in quarantine, since to allow it to be used by an unsuspecting guest would be callous in the extreme. Fortunately soon after construction completed the room in question solved the problem in its own way, since which time I have not been made aware of any difficulties. Nodens will have his due.’ There is a sketch of a Green Man next to this paragraph, which sketch has also been cut from all but the very first printing.
Potential antagonist: Nightgaunt, which is only present during a waxing crescent. It tries to carry intruders out through the window and drop them to their deaths several hundred feet below. It can be dissuaded by occultists who can somehow prove their fealty to Nodens. Abilities: Athletics 6/12, Health 7, Scuffling 10. Hit Threshold: 4. Alertness: +1. Stealth: +2 (flying) +3 (flying in darkness). Weapon: success in Scuffling contest means victim is immobilized by unpleasant tickling attack. Armour: +2 vs Any (skin). Stability: +0
A Keeper is never going to be able to cover all the bases, particularly in a seed. The players will always have more ideas than the Keeper can account for. Many of those ideas will stink, but that's the nature of the beast: players are inventive, but not always sensible.
That said, there's no excuse for not covering some of the bases. The Keeper ought to have a few clues pre-written, if only to account for the most obvious contingencies. The above lists four potential abilities: Architecture, Art History, Occult and Library Use, as well as introducing a book, written by the architect. Now, the book is deliberately included; this is Bookhounds of London, after all. The protagonists are expected to be looking for books. It wouldn't be in the spirit of the campaign setting to not have the characters bury themselves in antiquarian bookshops seeking clues. The other abilities are more general, things that anyone might do in order to plumb the depths of the mystery. Architecture and Art History cover the two most obvious bases. Yes, there are other abilities that could be used, but some are more likely than others. Very few players are going to want to use Law or Chemistry to solve this one. Naturally if I knew in advance the skill list that the players had access to, I'd write the seed with them in mind. However it's probably more useful to talk in generalities at this point. Apart from anything else I might use a seed like this again and again, with several different groups of players. I can't know which skills they'll all have.
The antagonist is included to throw a little danger into the mix. Nightgaunts are creatures of Nodens, and that particular entity has been mentioned in the clue list. The protagonists ought to be taking some precautions anyway; there's been enough hints that this mystery might have an element of danger in it. If they choose not to, that's their look-out. A nightgaunt is a fairly scary antagonist, but it's not a lethal killing machine, and it won't necessarily be encountered all of the time. Moreover as noted in the text this one is special. The protagonists may be able to talk themselves out of trouble by proving their fealty to Nodens. This could be bluff or it could be the real deal. That's up to the player and the Keeper at the moment of truth.
Note that, even now, the section is rules-lite. I haven't included a list of potential Stability tests, or elaborated on the potential benefits. Those are things that ought to be determined during play, not written in stone beforehand. After all, the players may surprise you. Rather than take a bath in that fluid, they may drink it, or try to take it with them out of the room. Or they may fixate on that painting as the important item. Or they may try to move in to room 113 permanently, using it as a base of operations. Or, or, or . . . and so on. Best to leave that sort of thing up to chance. You could try to list every possibility and its consequences, but that would be a backbreaking labour, and nobody would thank you for it, or even know that you'd ever done it. Better to spend your time on the things your players will appreciate, than waste it on long lists that nobody will ever read.
I hope you've found this useful! Best of luck to all you Keepers out there.

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