Thursday, 31 July 2014

Sykes, Fairbairn and the Wilds of Scotland: Post Bookhounds

There is a book in my collection I've been searching for without result. I say book; it's more of a pamphlet really, but one of those pamphlets you pick up knowing it will be of great use to you for a long time. I picked it up at the Soane Museum in London, which museum I highly recommend to anyone with an hour or two to spare; the pamphlet was from one of the architectural societies, and talked about the stately homes in Scotland that the security services used to train its agents, often with the enthusiastic assistance of two very skilled roughnecks, Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn.

Sykes and Fairbairn are the sort of people you need in a time of crisis. Sykes was a sniper and pistol expert, a veteran of the Great War as well as big game hunter, who went out to Shanghai in 1917 and for a time served, first as an unpaid volunteer and later as an inspector, in the police. That was where he met Fairbairn, a career copper, soldier, and close combat expert who developed his own martial arts system, which he taught to his fellow Shanghai policemen. Soon after the Second World War broke out, the pair of them shipped themselves home with a boatload of somewhat illegal firearms, and put themselves at the service of their country.

The intelligence services took them on board and set them up as instructors in sunny Scotland, teaching special agents, commandos and rangers how to fight, and live. Shooting to Live is in fact the title of their most famous instruction manual.  

The average shooting affray is a matter of split seconds, they warn. If you take much longer than a third of a second to fire your first shot, you will not be the one to tell the newspapers about it. It is literally a matter of the quick and the dead. Take your choice.

The bit that always sticks with me is, they used wax rounds and a slightly reduced powder charge to make their point, a practice which apparently is borrowed from duelists of the preceding centuries. In order to perfect your dueling technique, without actually getting your head blown off, you used these erzatz rounds in much the same way a paintballer would today. Sykes and Fairbairn used broadly the same method, putting trainees in a live fire range safe in the knowledge that, though they'd get bruised, they wouldn't actually die. At least, so says the Architectural Pamphlet, which I now cannot find. If you read Shooting to Live I highly recommend the Mystery Shoots section in chapter 6, which describes something like this scenario, but doesn't mention wax rounds.

Now, let's consider how this can be put in a Bookhounds context.

Bookhounds the campaign is set in the 1930s, with the War coming just around the corner. Nazi agents are specifically mentioned several times in the text as possible adversaries, or potential customers. When I discussed Technicolor London, way back in 2012, I touched briefly on the idea of a technologically advanced Nazi base complete with electric eyes and security cameras; that's the sort of campaign I'm thinking of here.

The question is, how to end it? If the game's been progressing well, no matter what your particular Final Adversary is, by the time war actually kicks off a Bookhounds game is effectively over. There's a certain charm in trying to keep the shop active while the Blitz is on - you could have some very effective scenarios set in the Undergound during air raids - but the whole grubby aesthetic of a books-and-auctions game is lost when everything's overshadowed by the threat of imminent, total destruction. You can't take the bickering over the price of a medieval missal seriously when your family was blown up yesterday.

Now is the time for a complete change of pace, and probably also an effective conclusion to the careers of these presumably established occultists. Now may also be the time for the security services to step in, recruit them, and send them off to Scotland. After all, if the protagonists have been involved in any way, shape or form with the Nazis before this, then one of Aunty Dora's children is bound to have taken note. Your country needs you. Time to step up and be counted.

Imagine what it would be like in one of those stately homes, miles from anywhere, set in God alone knows how many acres of carefully managed wilderness. Forgotten Gothic grandeur mixed with hasty wartime bodge jobs, as the military move in to make improvements of their own. Eager young recruits, polite but disbelieving, line up to be taught Idiosyncratic Magic or Megapolisomancy, and to be warned about the nature of some of the threats they will face. Meanwhile Sykes and Fairbairn are teaching them - and probably the Bookhounds too - how to shoot, stab, and throttle their opponents.

Then comes the inescapable warning: Trouble is on its way. Whatever the Great Adversary you might have been using in your game is, it is about to reach its destined conclusion. You could have this take place in London, for a Bookhounds game; whenever Dreamhounds comes out, you could have an interesting mix of the two campaign styles, as the surviving Bookhounds are sent in on a daring mission in wartime Paris. Odds on survival ought to be very low indeed.

The point ultimately being that this is an endgame moment. It takes on everything that has come before, and acknowledges that - thanks to the War - circumstances have changed such that things cannot proceed as they have done. There is a transition point - the stately home in Scotland - where the final encounter is defined, allowing the protagonists to plan for that moment when, whether on the rain-slick streets of London or the boulevards of Paris, they finally take action against the foe they've been crossing swords with all this time.

Then comes that moment when, after all those adventures, all that special training, they meet with the enemy one last time.

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