Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Bookhounds of London: The Christmas Tradition

I used to play with a group that insisted on a Christmas adventure, each and every year. There's a lot of pleasure to be had in the bad jokes, and crazy plotlines, that come with trying to stuff Santa, presents, decorated trees and Lord alone knows what else into an ostensibly horrific situation. That said, there's as much to dislike as like, particularly if you're the sort that prefers to treat the game seriously. Shoggoths with their nose so bright guiding something's sleigh tonight might not be your thing, and if so, that's fine.

But there's still some fun to be had with the idea.  Christmas is also the season for ghost stories, as M.R. James and his friends knew full well. If ever you've wanted to torment your players with something inexplicable and elemental, now's the time to do it. There are also entities, like Krampus - the Christmas Devil - which really only have power at this time of year, and wouldn't suit any other kind of story. Or if you prefer a more pagan tale, there are any number of winter solstice stories to be told, whether inspired by religion or some more obscure, local festival. Besides, who is Father Christmas really? Is the whole idea of a festival devoted to indulgence and good cheer contemptible, as the Puritans believed? Is there something sinister hiding in those red robes?

With that in mind, I propose a Tale of Terror that starts with a narrative auction.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

You are at a house sale, where the contents of the library are being picked over by one or two knowledgeable rivals and the usual gaggle of nosy neighbors. Most of the collection is second-rate stuff, fit only for the shop's lending library or bargain bin, but there are one or two items that would fetch a decent price, or make a useful squiz. It's a chilly December day, and while it's not snowing yet, you don't like the look of those clouds. If it does start to come down, your car (or van) may not be able to handle the roads. The sooner you get on your way, the better. But there's a rumor going round of a special candle auction about to be held upstairs, and you notice that your knowledgeable rivals are headed up to participate. What's this all about? And why is this special auction being held in the Blue Room, the manor house's allegedly haunted bedroom?

1. Snow starts tumbling past the window as the auction begins. The candle is the only light in the room, and as it slowly flickers to its death the auctioneer brings out all kinds of odd rarities. With each new addition to the pile, the bids go up. But there is something outside, a large horned beast clutching a coal-black sack in its hands. It can barely be seen as the snow thickens, and the candlelight fades. Nobody believes you if you tell them what you saw; but if it gets into this darkening room, what will it do next?

2. The 'auctioneer' is a man of straw, dressed as Father Christmas, of all things. The candle flickers in the gloom, as your rivals start pawing the merchandise. A hat is placed at Christmas' feet, for bids to be placed, on an honor system. A side table is piled high with mince pies and ham, as well as some quite decent wine. But woe betide the bidder who takes, and leaves behind only a pittance in the hat, or nothing at all. Father Christmas is watching, and anyone who tries to cheat him will be tracked down and punished.

3. The goods up here are marginally better than the stuff downstairs, but not by much. The auction is presided over by one of the family who does his best to inject some enthusiasm into the proceedings, but it's a losing proposition. Funny thing, though; that mirror on the wall reflects an image of a room quite different from this. This room has a blazing fire, and Christmas cards and greenery hung all over, but the other is bare, almost austere. The same people are in the room, doing the same things, but there's one extra. As you watch, this extra man - or thing - drags one of the participants out of view. When it returns, there's a nasty red smear round its mouth. It seems to be eying other reflections.

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