Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Bookhounds Campaign Thoughts Part 4: The Structure

Which is a little different from the Arc, I promise.

Last time I discussed the nature of antagonists and the importance of giving them sufficient power to directly affect the plot. This helps create the story by providing motivators, which affect the narrative the same way an engine powers a car. These motivators can be as simple as 'my power dictates that you must do X' - where X may be hunt up a particular grimoire, go to a certain place and do a certain thing, and so on. In a sword and sorcery RPG, the equivalent would be a wizard charging the hero with a quest to go to the Lonely Mountain and help a band of dwarves break in to steal the dragon's loot hidden therein. The wizard has a completely different kind of power than the kind we've been discussing, but that doesn't matter. What does matter is he has sufficient power to directly affect the plot, and get the protagonists moving toward their goal. There are other kinds of motivators, such as 'my power is such that I will dominate the world unless you stop me' or 'without my power the world is doomed, so you'd better save me' or 'my power is being misused, and that will cause a lot of trouble for all concerned.' You can probably think of several others, but the point is they all start with 'my power.' Power makes the arc go round (a buck or a pound, a buck or a pound), and the antagonist is in the Emcee role: they are at the centre of the action.

What does this mean to the overall structure?

I've already discussed the kind of story this is going to be in the first post on this topic, Campaign Thoughts. Just to refresh everyone's memory, this is what was said:

"The opening act would introduce the characters to the world, and to Sarah Montgomery. The second act would reveal Montgomery's plotline, and have the characters attempt to foil it, or perhaps pick up the pieces when it all comes crashing down around her ears. The final act would be a race against time to stop Fentiman, before he does something that will change the world forever."

It didn't have to be like that, of course. There are other ways it could have played out, but that particular dichotomy is useful to the overall structure of the planned campaign. I'm now going to discuss why that is so.

Bookhounds is a horror game. Much could be said about the structure of horror narratives, but the point I want you to understand for now is this: in horror, all victories are Pyrrhic. There are always terrible losses, and the protagonists lose friends, their social position and reputation, their money, possibly everything they ever held dear, even if they get out alive. In Alien, for example, victory can only be had once everyone else is dead and the ship has blown up. In The Shining, Jack Torrance has to be sacrificed before the protagonists have a hope of victory. Lucy Westerna's death in Dracula, Victor Frankenstein's tragedy, the climax of Night of the Living Dead - time and time again what little victory there is, is achieved only after disaster and death.

With that in mind, there needs to be a Pyrrhic victory here, preferably one that's built into the structure. After all, in an RPG you can't count on the protagonists doing exactly as you would like them to do. They're unlikely to obligingly sacrifice themselves on cue to heighten the experience; if anything they're going to hang on tooth and nail to what they have.

In this example, it's Sarah Montgomery who fills that role. Her plot function is twofold: she provides the money and power to get the protagonists moving in the right direction, and her failure - orchestrated by Fentiman - provides the kind of sacrifice that the structure will need.

The money is key, both for the reasons discussed in earlier posts and for one more reason I want to mention now, because it directly impacts the structure. Bookhounds is ultimately about buying and selling, about money and what it can get you. The characters are assumed to be at the low end of the totem pole in this arrangement: they may not be poor, exactly, but they certainly don't have enough money to do everything they want to do. Sarah's wealth helps put their financial position in perspective. It's two parts envy to one part class war. It adds a bit of sauce to the protagonist's grilled cheese sandwich (cooked on a hot plate and served with a bottle of Bass) to know that their frienemy is dining at the Ritz with the finest Bollinger on chill. Also, in an English context, where Sarah is almost certainly landed gentry with blue blood going back to [whenever - the Tudors, the Conquest], the protagonists are working class with no more pedigree than the moggy scraping scraps out of the bins behind the shop. This creates tension, and the Keeper should do everything to help foster that tension. If they and Sarah travel by train to the same destination, then Sarah should definitely have a seat in the Pullman while the protagonists rub shoulders with drunks and racing touts in 3rd Class. If they and Sarah are attending the same auction then the auctioneer, his assistants and anyone else in authority ought to be dancing to her tune, and offering to do her favours, while ignoring the importuning protagonists. 

However her goal, to remake the world as if the Great War had never happened, is one that the protagonists may sympathise with. They may have seen its horrors first hand, but even if they didn't they'll understand how removing it from history could easily change so many things for the better, and also save countless millions of lives. They may cooperate with her, at least to the extent of finding out more about what she wants to do and how she intends to go about it. Ideally they might provide material assistance, like helping her obtain a particular volume or planning out the arcane ritual site that she'll need to build on her estate, but even if they don't do that they should be motivated enough by this point to get involved in some other capacity. That means they'll be on hand when everything goes to Hell in a handbasket.

Her downfall is all the more tragic, because - thanks to Fentiman, and possibly also thanks to her own hubris - her scheme is doomed to fail. Since in the doing of it she'll be playing with some very dangerous powers, the resultant destruction should be on an epic scale. If it happens on her estate, then her home and everyone in it, at a minimum, would be killed or crippled, and it's entirely possible that the devestation will go further and effect, say, the nearby village, upping the body count from scores to hundreds.

Which brings me to the Mythos, and Fentiman's role in the structure.

Bookhounds - and Trail in general - has a nice take on the Old Ones. In that setting the Gods have no statistics or stated abilities, and Hite says this "is because these beings are essentially unstoppable by any force the Investigators are able to wield - except occasionally, by dangerous and chancy uses of Mythos lore . . . It's up to the Keeper to work out whether any given appearance of a god or titan in the adventure is the final challenge to be overcome, or an unmistakable signal that the investigators have failed." The Old Ones are the third rail of the Mythos: get too close, or touch them, and you die.

In this instance it's the power of the Mythos, misused, that caused the devestation which wiped out Sarah, her home and friends, possibly hundreds of others. That's a pretty clear signal to the protagonists that the stakes are as high as they can get, and that if this happens again they can expect even worse than has already occurred to be the result.

At which point they discover that Fentiman intends to do it again, and this time he's going to put even more power into it. As stated in Campaign Thoughts, he intends to create a school of black magic with himself appointed as its immortal headmaster. Of course, that school could be based anywhere, but given the nature of the campaign (it is Bookhounds of London, after all), where could it be but the Big Smoke? There are plenty of rambling Victorian red brick schools there, some of them conveniently abandoned, that he could use as a starting point. The exact location is ultimately Keeper's whim, but whether he's South or North of the Thames he's bound to be in a heavily populated area. Sarah's disaster killed scores, possibly hundreds of people, but at least it was limited to a relatively quiet bit of countryside; this will be happening in a city in which over 8 million people live. If the protagonists want to save their homes, their livelihoods, their friends, and everything they hold dear, they'd better do something to stop it. Fentiman is the capstone of the structure. Everything has been leading to this point, when the protagonists have to step in or face utter ruin.

Thus the structure is complete, and the protagonists have only to add the finishing touches. Will they stop Fentiman? Will Fentiman's scheme actually succeed exactly as he plans it, and create a school for necromancy with him as headmaster? If so, what does that mean for the protagonists, and for London? Will Fentiman triumphant want to persecute the protagonists, or does he perhaps have a place for them at his new institution of horrific learning? Perhaps the protagonists' blundering actually causes the disaster they were trying to prevent. There are many different ways it could play out; ultimately it's up to the protagonists. They're the heroes of the story, after all.

And on that note, I'll draw the discussion to a close. Next time, something completely different!


  1. Karloff, thanks for posting this series of articles. I'm getting ready to run my first Cthulhu game, using ToC, and your insights have been really helpful. Thanks!

  2. This has been an excellent primer on how to use Bookhounds. I really appreciate this.