Sunday, 3 January 2016

Tally O: Fox Hunting (Bookhounds of London, Trail of Cthulhu)

If your campaign is set in the British Isles you're probably mainlining television programs like Downton Abbey, seeking inspiration. What did people look like, think like, want to be like? What sets a British location apart from, say, a French one, or a German? What habits, sports, hobbies are quintessentially British?

In that spirit, this time I'm going to talk about fox hunting. Most of the information I have comes from D.W.E. Brock's 1936 book, The ABC of Fox Hunting. He's writing at a time when the hunt, as he knew it, is already on its way into the history books. You can tell by the way he gnashes his teeth that he's well aware of this, and bitterly resents the influx of City men and other London fools who barely know how to ride, let alone what to do on the field.

In his day the hunts are organized by the Masters of Foxhounds Association, which lays down the boundaries of the hunt. The Edwardians would have run the hunt themselves, with the Master owning and funding the hounds; indeed, the whole shebang. In Brock's time the hunt is run more along Club lines, with Secretaries and Committees. The Master is appointed by the Club, and runs the pack accordingly. That, in fact, is one of the Club's chief troubles; it's no joke housing and feeding all those hounds, and finding a suitable Master is no easy task. If you, as an ordinary person, intend to ride with the hunt, you pay for your membership; or, if you're a guest, you pay a daily fee, sometimes called a cap. Collecting that cap is the bane of the Master's life, as it's very easy to ride off and not pay, a tactic that may appeal to some Bookhounds.

The size of the hunt depends on how often it intends to hunt. The fewer the days in the week that the hunt meets, the smaller the hunt, so there can be two, three, or four day hunts. Any one hunt is strictly forbidden from drawing a fox in any territory other than its own.

The character of the hunt will depend on its territory. A grassland hunt, pleasant to ride over, is the kind that most people are familiar with from books and television. There are also hunts on the moors, which involve smaller packs because of the difficulty of the ground. Hilly or mountainous terrain means no horses, but there's still a pack of hounds, with the huntsmen following on foot.

A hunt is something that requires a great deal of preparation. A hunt doesn't just blindly ride out and hope for the best; instead, over the course of the year, the Master and his people look for where the foxes are, and mark out their earths. There's a Damage Fund set aside for farmers, to bribe them and hopefully prevent them from shooting or poisoning animals who might raid their farms. In fact, farmers are encouraged to leave food out for foxes, when their holes are spotted.

'Anyone knowing of the the existence of a litter of cubs,' says Brock, 'will be doing the vixen a kindness by leaving food, such as rabbits, rats or the cleanings of poultry, somewhere about a hundred yards from her earth. On no account should butchers' meat be given, for, though the cubs will eat it readily enough, it is very liable to give them mange.'

Come the day, the huntsmen set out the night before to find the fox's earth, and any other hole it might use as a hiding place. Foxes are nocturnal, and prefer to be underground during the day, so by stopping up their holes at night the huntsmen are forcing the fox to remain above ground during the hunt. Then the business begins in earnest.

The hounds are carefully looked after, in preparation for this moment; indeed, a hound's age is expressed from the first time hound meets fox. So a 1932 dog wasn't born in 1932; it first hunted in that year . The hounds are all tattooed in the ear with a simple cypher, say BV VI. The first letters refer to the hunt, so BV might be Blackmore Vale. The numbers refer to the litter, so VI means that this dog is from litter number 6. Each hound will have a name based on its litter, so that litter 6 might have dogs called Whirligig, Whale, Walpole, Wrale and so on, all beginning with W.

These most definitely are not indoor pets, and want nothing more than to run like a brainless maniac all the live-long day. They love to eat raw meat, and are typically fed an entire carcass, which the pack devours whole. 'In a very short time the whole pack is covered from head to stern with blood.' The pack size is expressed in  couples, each couple being two hounds, so a pack size of 30 is actually 60 animals. Imagine having to care for that many crazy, hyper-energetic, bloodthirsty hounds. It's no wonder Clubs had difficulty finding Masters.

The hunt has a very idiosyncratic dress, which you may think you're familiar with, even if you're not. The typical Ratcatcher style used by ordinary members of most Clubs includes a bowler hat, strengthened for resisting blows to the head, a white hunting stock or neckerchief, a tweet sports coat (the Ratcatcher of the title), and breeches of almost any color except white. The overall aesthetic is plain and sober.

There are variations on that theme. The Black Coat is much like the Ratcatcher, except you wear a top hat, a black or dark grey cloth coat, and white or colored breeches. The Scarlet Coat, which is the style everyone recognizes, is much as the Ratcatcher, except the coat is red cloth, with brass buttons. Depending on the Hunt, these variant costumes may be insignia of rank.

You address a professional huntsman by their last name, so Harry Flashman would be just Flashman. If, on the other hand, you're addressing a whipper-in, you use their Christian name, so in this case, Harry. The whipper-in is the huntsman's assistant and has two very specific tasks. The first whipper-in opens gates, removes slip rails, stops road traffic and generally ensures that nothing interferes with the pack. The second whipper-in keeps track of the pack, hunts down strays, and when otherwise not needed will keep an eye out for that tricky fox.

When out in the field, the Master always goes first. The Master directs the hunt, so he has to be in a position to see everything that's going on. For everyone else, there's an etiquette system. When in with the field, you're never to ride too close behind someone else. You're supposed to shout Ware Hole! if you see something a horse might stumble over. You take your time at a fence or gap in the hedge, and on no account make the attempt if there's someone ahead of you; wait until that person is clear before trying the jump.

Most importantly, you have a duty to farmers. 'Always remember you are a guest of every single farmer whose land you cross. Do not willfully damage crops or ride over greens, cricket pitches, football grounds. Do not frighten their stock. Do not leave fences open.' This is the point at which, I strongly suspect, Brock was writing with gritted teeth, and breaking the point of his pen on every second word.

So what's likely to happen during a hunt? Here's some examples to lend flavor to a scene:

  1. A dog may be kicked and killed by an inexperienced horse, or rider.
  2. The hounds may find another fox and set out on a false line, or kill the fox too early.
  3. The hunt takes too long without result, and the hunters get bored.
  4. The field (riders) scatters or gets in the way of the hounds.
  5. The fox hides in unstopped ground.
  6. The fox takes the hunt near a scent spoiler (eg cattle) or near road, or rail.
  7. The hunt encounters a wire fence.
  8. A horse falls, or encounters a difficult ditch.
  9. The pack splits into two or more groups, or is lost from the Huntsman.
  10. The fox hides up a tree, curled on a branch, or somewhere else high, like a rooftop.
  11. The fox hides under a haystack. Remember, you're not supposed to inconvenience farmers.
  12. The fox hides in the furrow of a ploughed field.
  13. The fox hides in exposed drains, especially in a dry season. 
  14. Fox hides in marsh or bog, knowing that the hounds don't like going near water.
  15. The fox puts the hounds on the scent of another fox.
  16. The fox doubles back, and dodges straight through the hounds.
Brock estimates that in a typical hunt the fox is killed one time in five, and that, in its lifetime, the fox is far more likely to die by poison, gun or trap than by hounds.

In a GUMSHOE game, a hunt is probably best expressed as a Thrilling Chase, as per Night's Black Agents. However if you're not comfortable with that, a simple Fleeing vs Athletics or Riding contest will do as well. The Fox should get a large Fleeing pool, representing not so much its natural athletic ability as its raw cunning and trickery. Its stats ought to be based on the Wolf, so:

Abilities: Athletics 9, Fleeing 14/18/12 (young/mature/old) Health 3, Scuffling 8
Hit Threshold: 5 (Athletics plus small and fast)
Alertness: +3
Weapon: -1 (bite)

So why will your players get involved in a hunt? Well, in Bookhounds, it's most likely to be a social class issue. The characters are always scheming to increase their Credit Rating, to get more patrons, to rise up in the world. How better to express their social importance than by riding to hounds with the Blankshires? Plus, it's an excellent way to toady to your social betters, thus worming your way into the confidence of future patrons. London is remarkably close to the countryside at time of writing; in the 1930s country lanes and open fields would have been almost on the protagonists' doorstep. (That was the whole point of Metro-Land, after all). One quick road or rail journey, and they can be riding to hounds over the weekend.

In Trail, a hunt is an excellent way to set the scene. It gives the characters a grand overview of the area they're in, and also offers a brilliant chance to get the characters lost in some kind of ancient and long-forgotten wood, or near some evocative, haunting ruins. If the characters have somehow annoyed the local cultists, it's also a good way to maneuver them into an ambush. Finally it can be a dramatic means of introducing some kind of challenge or event, say, if the hunt were to encounter a mangled body, or signs of otherworldly activity. Imagine a hunt, for example, that finds itself within the sphere of influence of a Color Out Of Space.Wandering into that blighted landscape unexpected could lead to all sorts of complications ...

To close out, a bit of hunting slang to add flavor to a scene:

Babbler: A dog who 'talks' too much.
Blind (country): Before winter; that is, with the leaves still on the trees. This is a dangerous time to hunt, as accidents are more likely with decreased visibility.
Blow Away: The horn sounds to get the hounds out on the trail. This is a quick, pulsating noise.
Blow Out: The horn sounds to call the hounds back. This is a long and mournful call.
Check: The hounds are said to check when they temporarily lose the scent.
Covert: Woods.
Drag: The line of the fox, leading to his lair.
Feather: The dog raises stern and shows tail, suggesting it is on the scent.
Huic Holloa: A cheer.
Tally O!: I have seen the fox.
Tally Over!: I have seen the fox cross this ride.

I hope this was useful! Enjoy.

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