Friday, 14 October 2011

Bookhounds Campaign Thoughts Part 2: the Early Chapters

So we have our antagonists, Susan Montgomery and Stanley David Fentiman. What to do with them? How shall the initial scenarios play out?

I'm assuming a mini campaign with at least three acts. In the first act, the players get used to the setting and are introduced to the antagonists. In the second, they deal with the first major arc, Susan Montgomery's plot, and are introduced to the second one, Fentiman's plot. In the third they deal with Fentiman, and conclude the overarching storyline. Each act consists of at least three seperate scenarios, so about nine sessions overall. Assume that an individual session can last an average of two play evenings (more or less, depending on the group's availability and the speed at which they tackle plot) and you ought to end up with eighteen evenings of play, or two to three months total.

That's a lot of time. It needs to be filled.

This Ephemera is going to tackle the first act, where the players are introduced to the setting and the antagonists.

The obvious first question is, why have a first act at all? It could end up being talkie talkie and not enough action. Why not leap straight into the plot?

The answer to that is you need the first act to establish the setting, the characters and the overall mood of the game. Whether the players are veterans, novices or a mixture of the two, they've never played in this game world before, because it's your game world, fashioned out of your ideas and imagination. They don't know what to look forward to, or what to be worried about. They may not know all of the rules, and they certainly won't know all of the locations or NPCs since you're going to be making many of those up yourself.

Bookhounds suggests three potential campaign styles: Arabesque, Sordid and Technicolour, and adds a fourth descriptor that could apply to all three, Tainted. It doesn't really matter which you pick for your campaign; what matters is the players get to understand what that means, both to the plot and to their characters. The whole point of the first act, in any campaign, is to establish mood and setting. You don't even have to introduce main plot at all if you don't want to. The important thing is, if the setting is Arabesque, then the first act has to drive that home to the players. Everything they see, do or encounter has to reinforce that atmosphere.

They don't even have to encounter the Mythos, or anything supernatural, in the opening act, so long as the opening act is true to the overall mood.

There's two important points to consider here. The first is that getting them used to the setting is paramount, and anything that distracts from that is to be avoided. By having them chase ghoulies in the very first scenes, you're distracting them. It may seem interesting at first, but it does mean that later on they may not fully understand what's going on or what they can do about it.

The second is that every reveal detracts from the ultimate horror. It's the first rule of good ghost stories: the less you see, the more you imagine. When M.R. James wrote his chillers, he didn't pitch the protagonist straight in and have them grappling with demons right from page one. In fact, you rarely ever see the creatures in his stories at all. In Canon Alberic's Scrap Book, for example, there's only one very brief scene with an actual spectre - no more. Yet there's plenty there to keep the reader occupied. If you as Keeper chuck in ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties right from the get-go, you're only doing yourself harm in the long run. The big reveal should be a Big Reveal, and that means you oughtn't to detract from it by revealing your hand too soon.

Horror on the Orient Express has an interesting way of going about this. The initial scenes are pure prologue, (with the exception of one haunted train moment that many Keepers skip anyway). There's plenty going on, but it's all aimed at establishing setting and mood. Those are the scenes in which wise Keepers will be playing the Orient Express for all its worth, emphasising its luxury, the wine list, the attendants at your beck and call, the incredible novelty of such a fantastic train. Later, when things start to go wrong, it's exactly that information that will be most useful to the players. 

What you as Keeper ought to be doing is getting the players to concentrate on the things that matter (at least in the short term): the setting and the starting location. In Bookhounds, that's the shop, and book auctions, which even for veteran players will be an unusual challenge.

Some may wonder how they're going to make a session out of encounters in a shop. Those people have never worked in retail.

All the world passes through your door, and most of them are time wasters. People looking for a free toilet, hoping for shelter from the rain, who want a book for Uncle Bob but don't know what the book is called or who the author is, drunks, lunatics, thieves, actual honest to God members of the public who don't know what they want but might (glory be!) spend some money, and on and on and on. And that's just the customers - what about the staff? Slackers, dopeheads, no-hopers and snarky drudges, almost to a man (or woman). It's enough to drive you to drink, and if you happen to own the store you've probably got a bottle stashed away for emergencies.

The key here is to establish the shop as an important location, and its regular customers and staff as its major players. Many of the staff roles will be taken by player characters, but that doesn't mean all of them will, and whether they are or aren't, the customers aren't PCs. The very first scenario ought to be all about the store, and its daily routine. That gives the players some foundation for their future adventures. The major event of that scenario could be something relatively mundane - say, chasing down a potential squizz for a very important customer, which has the unfortunate character wandering all over London looking for something suitable. Not only does that keep the player busy, it's also a handy reference for future scenarios, as it introduces several other important locations and NPCs. Rival bookstores, markets, forgers, possibly the police, and so on.

Later scenarios in the opening arc could introduce other important plot elements. Say the Keeper chooses to use Idiosyncratic Magic, as introduced in the main rulebook and later fleshed out in Rough Magicks. If that's on offer then the players need to get used to the idea, so now's the time for some simple magic tricks, perhaps taught to the character by an NPC or picked up as they go along. Let them try these incantations in relatively safe circumstances, and they'll be more willing to rely on them later on. Of course there has to be at least one big book auction too; after all, that's as integral to the Bookhounds setting as dungeons are to Dungeons and Dragons. It'd be a pity not to indulge the players in an auction scene, particularly one where they win out over some hated rival by the skin of their teeth.

By the time the opening arc reaches its conclusion the players should be comfortable with the setting, the mechanics and the mood of the campaign. They may have met one of Sarah Montgomery's agents by now; possibly she was the important customer who wanted that squizz mentioned earlier. They've certainly had a few triumphs by this point and they ought to know by this stage that there are Things Out There. Possibly one of those spells went wrong, or they found the ghastly remains of someone who wasn't as lucky as them. Or they may even have been studying the stock a little too closely for comfort . . .

But however it went, now is the time to introduce them to the overall plot, and bring the introduction to a close.

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