Sunday, 6 March 2016

The Keeper of the Keys (Night's Black Agents, Bookhounds of London)

I'm going to have a certain sinister tour guide show up in my Dracula Dossier campaign, and I've decided his role is butler to one of the significant antagonists. It occurred to me that this would be a good opportunity to discuss butlers and domestics in general, since although they're staples of this kind of fiction their role, particularly in the modern day, is poorly understood.

In the Victorian period, a butler would be a senior domestic, if not the senior domestic, in an upper middle class or plain old upper class household. This is a managerial post, in that while the butler may have a specific domestic role to perform within the house, his major function is actually to supervise everyone else. There isn't a single part of the household's operation that he - and in the Victorian period it is almost always he - would not have a hand in. One of his more important functions is keeper of the keys; he knows how to get into every door, pantry or cellar, and frequently it is he who locks the house at night and opens it in the morning. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why crooked butlers are such a staple of early detective fiction. Someone who can get into and out of any room is perfectly suited for the role of burglar, or murderer.

Otherwise, a butler's role is fluid, and may depend on the house's peculiarities or habits. A house of this type forms its personality over generations. There is a way that Things are Done, and it's the butler's task to ensure that those Things keep being Done in that way from now until the end of time. Carson, the mainstay of Downton Abbey, is a traditionalist for a reason. It's not just his nature. It's his job.

One thing a butler of this period tends not to get involved in is the running of the estate, as opposed to the house. The house is usually only one part of a larger whole, and it's the estate steward who presides over that whole. However the steward does not outrank the butler. In most cases, the two would barely have a reason to interact.

Socially the butler is at the top of a very complex chain, and expects deference and respect from everyone beneath him on that chain. Which is understandable, since a good butler has worked many years, if not decades, to get to that point, and is as senior as you can possibly get, in managerial terms. There is no training for his job; he has had to learn from the bottom up, the equivalent of earning a Field Marshal's baton after joining as an enlisted man. A good butler is worth his weight in gold, and his employers recognize that fact. They will do almost anything to keep him, and if a butler leaves a house it's a minor scandal in itself. Everyone is going to want to know why.

This kind of position is a vocation more than a job. People who aren't born in domestic service don't often aim to become one, but for those who do, it's the summit of their career.

In game terms, a Victorian butler would definitely have Bureaucracy, High Society, and a Preparedness pool or the equivalent. Depending on the nature of his role within the house he may have unexpected talents. A butler used to dealing with correspondence, for example, may have a talent for Forgery, developed after many years of signing people's names to documents.

A modern butler is a different animal. The role is significantly expanded, if anything, from its Victorian roots. No longer are butlers limited to looking after the house and servants. The butler is more of a major domo, in that he or she - and it is much more often she, these days - looks after almost every aspect of the client's existence. The role may involve light cooking, balancing chequebooks or credit card statements, keeping diaries, handling public relations and marketing, managing property portfolios, and generally looking after a significant part of the client's life both personal and professional.

This sort of butler has probably had formal training of some kind. There are various schools which offer it, some more respected than others, but one key thing to bear in mind is that the butler probably didn't start life as a domestic or child of a domestic. They would have come into the role from another profession, and that might have been almost anything. If you, as Keeper, want a butler to have been a solider, musician, journalist or what-have-you, there's no reason not to.

The client list has expanded significantly as well. No longer are they exclusively upper class, from generations of landed gentry. Now it might be a celebrity, a hotel chain, an executive, a cruise ship line, and so on.

The butler's role may be dependent as much on social mores as on need for a trained servant. In the Middle East, for example, the client may ask for a female butler, since the butler's duties will involve looking after female members of the family. In China, the role may be more geared towards property management and public relations, since the job involves looking after apartment blocks, yachts and aircraft.

While the traditional attire is formal wear, this is less and less common. Smart business or smart casual is the more likely dress code. In America, this may be polo shirts and slacks, while in Indonesia it might be a sarong, and so on.

The most important difference between the modern and the Victorian version is that a modern butler is not a traditionalist. There are no rituals formed over generations, nor is the way Things are Done in this house of particular importance. Rather, the butler maintains standards. Those standards are going to vary from place to place. A butler in Hollywood is going to have a very different idea of the nature of the profession than one in Beijing, or in London. Moreover the modern butler is going to travel, and be used to travel. There's no such thing as a job for life with one family any more. This year, Paris; next year, who knows?

Finally, a modern butler is probably going to be significantly more wealthy than his Victorian counterpart.  People pay a high premium for that kind of service. In return, absolute discretion is a must. In the age of always-on media the butler is in a unique position to spill all kinds of beans. It's the butler's job to keep his or her mouth shut, a silent Twitter feed, and an innocuous or nonexistent Facebook profile. Seen but not heard takes on a whole new meaning.

In game terms, a butler of this type will have a similar skill set to the Victorian model, but with some additions. Electronic Surveillance and Data Recovery is very likely, as is Accounting and Languages. Flattery is probably a must, for dealing with celebrities and the like. While a butler is less likely to be involved in up close and personal combat than most, it's possible that, as part of his role as security head, that the butler has a pool in Shooting or Hand-to-Hand. Depending on the work environment the butler may also know something about piloting a ship, a plane, or be an expert driver.

Finally, how about a scenario seed?

This takes place nominally in London, though it could be adapted for other settings. There is a house in a very exclusive and expensive district that is hardly ever occupied, not unlike those Bishop's Avenue mansions mentioned in a previous post. Miss Tyler is the butler in charge of this and several other properties scattered across Europe, allegedly for a Middle Eastern family paranoid to the nth degree about its privacy. Occasionally the daughters of the family arrive for a long weekend, or couple of weeks, and when that happens their long luxury vehicle with its tinted windows cruises out and back like a tiger on the hunt.

Miss Tyler's role, apart from looking after the house, is to secure entertainment - and snacks - for the daughters, who may or may not be from the Middle East. A hijab can be an excellent disguise, after all. She delegates this to Steve, the house man and pretty boy, who cruises the nightspots looking for talent when he knows that the daughters are due. The problem is that Steve's party lifestyle has engendered one too many bad habits, and he's gotten a little too sloppy in his procedures. One of the entertainment has escaped from the carefully crafted dungeon underneath the property, and now it's Miss Tyler's job to deal with the problem. Probably also Steve, if it comes to it.

The protagonists get involved when they discover, or have their attention drawn to, Steve's last victim but one, whose corpse ended up in a landfill. Clues found at that scene lead to Steve, but by the time the protagonists catch up with him Miss Tyler is already involved. If the protagonists can rescue the latest entertainment they could get enough information (and evidence) to shut the whole operation down. But what happens when the daughters turn up expecting their usual weekend's fun?

That's enough for now. Enjoy!

No comments:

Post a Comment