Monday, 19 March 2012

Bookhounds - The Ongoing Saga

I've been posting ongoing commentary about my Bookhounds campaign over at YSDC, and it occurred to me that I ought also to post them here. I'm also going to talk a little bit about campaign developments. Later this week I intend to return to Hauntings, so watch this space!

The YSDC postings will be in red.

In which our heroes discover a use for peppermints, and enjoy a bracing trip to Brighton.
Elliot, James and Percy had two problems. Their latest venture,
Whytes, was due to open in three days, but they had no stock, and no capital. The storage company they had hired to keep their stock while they arranged the fine details was padlocked by order of the bailiffs, and their bank manager was refusing to extend their credit.

Careful surveillance showed that the padlocked premises were being guarded, and the guards had a nasty looking dog, Satan. As luck would have it, the Satanic mastiff was rather fond of peppermints. Elliot and James risked life, limb and the seat of their trousers dealing with the dog, while Percy kept the guard talking. Fortunately the love of sweets prevailed; the light-fingered Bookhounds were able to load up their borrowed car with their stock and make a clean getaway.

The bank manager proved a tougher nut to crack. Or rather, his secretary was; Miss Eames, breathing fire and slaughter, guarded her employer's appointment book. The arrival of the Bookhounds did nothing for her temper. Purveyors of filth they were, and worse - for had they not sold her young cousin a copy of Lady Chatterly's Lover? Admitting nothing and swearing up and down that they meant no harm, they managed to charm an important clue out of her: their bank manager was missing. Down he'd gone to Brighton for a pleasant weekend, and not returned by Wednesday. So they too went for a bracing seaside trip, and discovered that the bank manager, the owner of the bed an breakfast and all the other guests were sound asleep, and had been so since Saturday. Open on Mr Featherby's plump lap was his latest purchase: Galland’s Les Mille et une nuits, contes arabes traduits en fran├žais. Then, as if from a great distance, they heard the muezzin call the faithful to prayer . . .

I like Brighton. I've an uncle there, who runs a bookstore coincidentally enough. Technically a Bookhounds of London campaign ought to focus on London, but to my mind that doesn't mean the characters can't ever leave the city. There will be times when leaving is positively advantageous, particularly when they're on the run from someone (or something), or want access to an item or resource they can't get elsewhere. As far as the scenario seed is concerned, I like the idea of tailoring a concept to the characters. Rescuing a princess would be out of character; rescuing their bank manager, not so much.

Percy Briers ignored the comatose body of his friend and employee, Elliot Parker, as he had more pressing things on his mind. The twelve volume collection of Galland's Les Mille et une nuits, contes arabes traduits en fran├žais, to be exact - and such splendid copies they were! The binding in excellent condition, the pages not even slightly foxed, and the illustrations! Beautiful beyond compare. He gathered them up in his arms, and made for the door.

Which was where James Fidler found him, stretched headlong, the books still clasped in his arms.

Meanwhile Elliot was having problems of his own. Who were all these strange foreign folk? Why were they speaking French? Was he somehow lost in the Brighton Pavillion, that everything looked so Arab-ish? Finding no answers to his dilemma, and having no French, he made his way to the Bazaar. There, in the crowd, he spotted another two English people, a man and a woman, apparently trying to get away from a very sinister looking gentleman and not making a good job of it. 'This is a job for British steel', thought Elliot, and he promptly purchased a Damascene dagger from a vendor, offering some of the gold coins he found fortituously in his wallet.

James dragged his unconscious employer down the stairs, convinced that a gas escape was suffocating them all. He managed through heroic effort to get them as far as the kitchen, and had his hand on the door knob when everything went off.

Percy was most perplexed. This didn't look like Brighton at all. Fortunately having a bit of French at his disposal he was able to determine his true location - Baghdad! At least, that was what the vendor said. Moreover he still had the books, or at least he thought he did; he could no longer see them, but could feel their weight in his arms. He wandered aimlessly, and found himself standing outside a very odd looking place. It wasn't at all like the other buildings. More modern, it looked like, and was that concrete?

James, terrified half out of his wits and utterly lost, ran whooping through the crowded alleyways of this strange city, and as luck would have it ran headlong into Percy Briers, scattering invisible books everywhere.

Elliot managed to rescue the couple - Mr Pinks, and Ethel, whose last name probably wasn't Pinks. Dressed in night attire (Ethel's was very frilly), they claimed to have gone to bed only moments before, though Ethel seemed to think it had been longer than that, somehow. Elliot's attention was drawn to another sinister figure, a man impossibly tall and improbably thin, wrapped from head to foot in flowing yellow robes. This newcomer seemed to be interested in them. Elliot thought it prudent not to dilly-dally, and led his new charges out of the bazaar.

'Mister Briers, I don't know where you think we are,' said James, 'But I bet you anything you like they don't all speak French in Baghdad. They speak foreign. And what is this strange building here? Is that writing above the door? I can't read it.'

'Neither can I,' replied Percy. 'Here, hold these; they're valuable. Now, let's have a look in here, shall we?'

They went inside, and found themselves in a chamber that seemed to stretch on forever. Something that shimmered like silk was being woven on looms as large as tree trunks, the fragile glimmering cloth falling down from the ceiling like waterfalls. At the bottom of each silken explosion lay a human figure, peacefully asleep. One of them was their erstwhile bank manager, Mr Ffolkes-Featherby, and he didn't seem to be enjoying himself at all. His belly was fearfully distended, as though stretched beyond bursting, and yet more and more bolts of cloth were being forced down his throat.

'Mister Briers,' James quavered, 'What are those things a-weaving of that cloth? They look like crabs, but that's too many legs, surely. And since when have crabs been that size?'

By good fortune Elliot found himself outside that self-same odd building, with the impossibly tall figure in close pursuit. He too noticed the writing above the lintel, and having been a bit of a dabbler (reading about the Golden Dawn, and suchlike), he recognized some of the Enochian symbols and was able to work out what they meant.

'The Dream Factory,' he read aloud. 'Rum sounding name.'

However the thin man was close on their heels, and he heard what sounded like James and Percy inside the Factory, so in he stepped, and he shut the doors behind him.

'Open up!' screamed James. 'The crab-thing's almost on us!'

'You don't want to go out there,' Elliot told him. 'There's worse than crabs out that door.' Though, as Elliot said it, he did notice that there were rather a lot of the crab-like things.

Meanwhile Percy had caught their bank manager by the heels and was dragging him off, but too slowly. The weaver was descending on its silken trail, and was close enough to reach out to him with one thin leg-or-feeler. He felt it tear the back of his jacket.

In desperation, he began pulling silk out of Mr Ffolkes-Featherby by the handful, and that seemed to do him some good. James threw invisible books at the thing, which did it no apparent harm but did distract it. Elliot, seeing his chance, leapt in with his new-bought dagger, and cut the silk away. At that same moment the weaver scored him across the face, tearing off a slice of flesh the size of half a pound note.

Their surroundings faded away, and they found themselves standing in the kitchen of the Oriental Bed and Breakfast, Brighton.

Percy Briers was aghast. Twelve volumes! In near-perfect condition! Now there were only six.

'Mister Briers,' said Elliot, as he staunched his bleeding wound, 'I want a raise.'

This is a classic example of incidental information achieving unexpected importance. I never thought the Thousand and One Nights would become a thing. Yet when the players took an interest, I ran with it. Now they're an important item in the ongoing story.

After their bracing trip, Percy, Elliot and James set about getting their business, Whytes Books, ready for its opening day. James copied out several engravings, and arranged for the pawnshop beneath their store to rent them some window space for display, so people walking by had something to attract their attention. Percy set about finalizing their loan with Mr Featherby, while Elliot, at a bit of a loose end, made the rounds of the auction houses and gossiped with his contacts.

Some of the tidbits he picked up were less than encouraging. There was an antiquarian book store not far from their shopfront, Lisiewicz Rare Books; in fact, it was ten minutes walk away. Elliot, on the rationale that there was no such thing as useless information, decided to pay Lisiewicz a visit and see what the competition was up to. He discovered many things that weren't entirely to his liking. Lisiewicz was doing cracking business; there didn't seem to be a moment in the day when trade slackened. Their shopfront was considerably more decorative and tastefully arranged than Whytes. Their stock was considerable, including several rather valuable eighteenth century travel memoirs and maps. There was also a restricted section with rather more intriguing looking volumes, which he was unable to get near.

It was worth a visit after hours, he decided. So later than evening, after Lisiewicz had locked up for the night, Elliot, after making sure nobody was watching, carefully undid the lock on the front door. He jumped out of his skin when the alarm went off. Its loud bell yammered and hammered while he stood mute, stunned and immobile. Recovering his wits, he scuttled off fast as a scalded cat.

Later on, when he thought things might have settled down, he returned to the scene of his crime to see what had developed. A crowd of interested nobodies was gathered around the shop door, and several policemen were standing guard. The alarm was still blaring, and Elliot discovered from one of the onlookers that the shop manager had yet to arrive to turn it off. Elliot waited, and soon afterward saw the manager, a man named Egan, arrive, somewhat the worse for wear, with several drinking companions. After some discussion with the police sergeant, Egan switched off the alarm and re-set the device. Elliot waited to see what Egan would do next, and after about half an hour's work Egan eventually went back with his chums to whatever drinking hole they'd crawled out of.

Elliot followed, and after several hours in Soho trailed Egan and a fellow drunkard to a teaching hospital. The drunk let Egan in by a side door, and stood outside, shivering in the early morning chill. After waiting some minutes, Elliot decided to see if he'd be let in too, so he approached the door only to be blocked by the drunkard.

'Bill says no,' said he, swaying in a dead-eyed stupor.

'But I'm allowed,' said Elliot in his most reassuring manner.

'Bill says no,' the drunkard stubbornly repeated, and though he showed no sign of fight he blocked the way. Elliot might have pressed the issue, but at that moment he heard someone on the other side of the door. He stepped away smartly, and Egan came out. He didn't notice Elliot. Egan had a smirk on his face, and his clothes were dishevelled. The two of them wandered off, and Elliot decided there wasn't much point in following them further.

Early that morning he met Jimmy Fidler for a pint and some bacon sandwiches at the Bull's Heart, and Elliot told Jimmy what he'd been up to. They agreed it was all very odd, and worth keeping an eye on, but there was little they could do about it right then and there. Having finished their early morning meal they went back to Whytes, hoping to get some work done before Briers came in.

'Hullo,' said Fidler, 'Who's that?'

Elliot looked in the direction Jimmy was pointing. Up on the second floor, at one of the windows of their shop, they both saw a figure. They could not make out his face, for he wore a hood or robe of some description, and at the same moment they saw him he vanished back inside. Elliot and Fidler crept up the stairs as quietly as they could, hoping to surprise whoever it was, but when they burst in the room they discovered to their consternation that nobody was there at all.

Jimmy, a sour expression on his face, looked at the shelf closest to where they'd last seen the figure. On that same shelf their most recent acquisition, the twelve volume edition of the Thousand and One Nights, rested awaiting more prominent placement.

'The sooner we're rid of those things the better,' he said.

This was a filler session. One of the players unexpectedly dropped out, so I had to carry on with two. This meant a shorter session, but it did allow me to play with some concepts that may become important later in the game. It also introduces a rival, Lisiewicz Rare Books, of whom more later.

It wasn't so easy to convince Briers that the books had to go.

'I'm sure it's nothing,' said he, his mind still fixed on wine and cheese, 'A trick of the light. Someone was standing opposite, and their reflection happened to be caught in the window for a moment, that's all. There's no need for concern.' With that, Jimmy Fidler had to be satisfied.

The wine and cheese was spread over two trestle tables covered with white cloth. Today was the very first day of their new enterprise, and a celebratory evening had been planned. Percy Briers was far more concerned about that than he was about anything else. He needn't have been. On the day, Whytes was packed with old friends and new customers, and Jimmy, who manned the till, was kept very busy.

Percy was buttonholed by Professor Fife, of Oxford. She was easily several inches taller than he, and her eyesight was not good, which she refused to admit. She blinked mistily at him, as though seeing Briers from a considerable distance.

'I do so hope you can help me get it,' she said. 'It would add considerably to my collection.'

They were discussing Dekker's Parliament of Bees, an important piece of Elizabethan drama. A copy ex libris John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, was due to come up for auction at McKinnon's, who were disposing of many of the personal effects and properties beloninging to Durrant, known as the Wizard of the North. His most recent tour of the antipodes had not been a profitable as he had hoped, and this sale was intended to revitalize his fortunes. In addition to Durrant's collection of Elizabethan dramatical works, he was also selling many of the props, costumes and devices that had made his performances famous throughout the world, and some of his own books.

'We shall do our best for you, Professor,' Briers oozed, as he deftly hid a mouse that had crawled out onto a shelf and was eyeing Fife, its whiskers a-quiver. 'Would you excuse me a moment?'

He dashed around to the other side of the shelf, just in time to catch Charlie Pettimore in the act of earwigging. Charlie was unsuccessfully covering his activities by pretending deep interest in the travel section. Determined that Charlie wouldn't spoil his sale, Briers shepherded him somewhere further away.

'It would be so wonderful if you could help me buy the Confectioner,' said Quincy Riddle to Elliot. 'McKinnon's prices are likely to be high, and I'm a duffer at this sort of thing. But it would look so wonderful at the Rep!'

'I'm sure,' Elliot replied, deftly flicking a mouse away from the cheese board.

'Can I help you, sir?' asked Jimmy, putting on his best impersonation of someone with money and no criminal record. This gent looked a bit posher than the usual, very country, in his tweeds and well-worn shoes.

'I do hope so,' replied the man, who introduced himself as Styles. 'I'm on the lookout for, now let me see, I have it written down here . . .' He consulted his notes. 'Ah! Yes, here it is. Something called the Un-asspikkliken - is that the word? - Coolties. Also known as the Black Book, it says here. By someone called Won Yoon, I think.'

Jimmy Fidler looked at the notation. 'Unaussprechlichen Kulten,' he read aloud, 'The Bridewell edition, by Von Juntz. A very difficult piece to obtain, if I may say so.' In point of fact, he didn't know; he knew very little about that sort of thing, relying on the more encyclopediac knowledge of Percy Briers.

'Oh, well,' said Styles, and promptly named an asking price that was, in Jimmy's estimation, about a hundred pounds more than the book was worth - in fact, triple what Whytes had made in a day's brisk trade.

Later, after the day's trade was done and they had time to discuss matters, they ruminated on the possibilities. They had several interesting leads to chase up, with McKinnon's being the next event on their horizon. There were several useful things to be obtained there, and Jimmy could get materials for his own work. They wondered about Styles, and whether he might be fobbed off with something less than original.

'I reckon he's buying for some posh bloke with a place in the country,' said Fidler. 'Some gent wot knows a bit more than his man, if you follow me. Whoever made those notes knew exactly what he wanted, right down to notes about the binding.'

They decided to visit McKinnon's in advance of the sale, to get a better idea of what was on offer.

McKinnon's cavernous interior was filled with all the bright colours of carnival. Elliot was particularly drawn to the Confectioner and the other automata, including the Tree of Life, the Dancing Clowns and the Miraculous Fountain. Briers was more interested in the Mechanical Turk, and wondered whether it would look good in the front of their shop. 'It would bring in the customers,' said he.

Elliot wasn't convinced. He could see many nights of sleeplessness in his future, with something like that dead-eyed wooden-face lurking in the dark, waiting for him to come in of a morning.

Jimmy, after tearing himself away from the collection of playbills and memorabilia, drew their attention to the book collection. 'The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green, John Day, 1662, beautiful, just look at the binding there. The Devil is In It, Dekker, 1640; Mustafa, a closet drama by Fulke Greville, 1640. Honest, boss, I reckon we could pick some of these up for a song. Most of the blokes here are after the magician's stuff,' he pointed at a curiously waxen-faced man who was eyeing the Confectioner covetously, 'They don't know what this is worth.'

Percy Briers was more interested in what one item in particular was worth. 'Is that what I think it is?'

One of the books, lying as if tossed atop a collection marked in the catalouge as Elizabethan Fragment, Unknown Author was remarkably familiar to him, right down to a new dent in the binding, as though someone had thrown it at something. He riffled through the pages. There could be no mistaking; it was one of the missing six from his collection of twelve volumes of the Thousand and One Nights, last seen (or possibly not) when Jimmy Fidler had flung it at the thing in the Dream Factory.

Fidler consulted McKinnon's catalogue. 'It's not down as a sale item,' he said, and Briers promptly stuffed it inside his jacket, hoping to make a quiet getaway.

'What was that it was resting on?' he wondered aloud, and took a closer look. His pulse quickened. There was no way to be certain without closer analysis, but it looked remarkably like examples he had seen of Christopeher Marlowe's handwriting. If so, it could be a heretofore unknown fragment of one of his plays, quite possibly the Massacre at Paris. There was something else bundled in with the document, not in the same hand as the rest of the script. It read like a legal paper, and was signed under seal. 'It says here that the weapon described herein, being a dagger . . . it gives details about the length of blade, maker and so on . . . that this weapon is that same which did take the life of one Marlowe at the hands of Frizier, his sign attached herewith by order of the coroner. My word!'

'Um . . .' said Fidler, nervously, 'A knife, boss? Like this one here on the catalogue, marked Dagger, Unknown Origin?'

Here's where I introduce the players to the Auctions concept. They're all experienced gamers, but the Auction mechanic has them a little intimidated. So I thought it sensible to introduce them with an auction that has no significant story consequence in and of itself, but does have some interesting items up for grabs. They have rivals to bid against, items to purchase, and have discovered that some manuscripts can hide some intriguing secrets. Plus, the Thousand and One Nights returns to plague them, and there's that dagger, unknown origin, to worry about.

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