Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Battleground of the Mind (Bookhounds of London)

In this ongoing series on Bookhounds campaign design, so far I've talked about the setting, why a bookstore should be either Spring or Winter, and what the first arc might look like. Now I want to take a step back and talk about another concept, borrowed in part from Ars Magica but also from Ken Hite's KWAS Mind Control: the Regio.

In Ars Magica, a Regio is a place of power. It draws its power from one of several possible spiritual sources: the Infernal, the Divine, Faerie, or Magic. More than one region is called a regiones, and in situations where multiple regiones are layered one on top of the other, a peculiar thing happens. Two people can stand in the same place at the same time, and yet be in two different versions of that same place.

Take a horror setting regiones, for example: a ruined castle. On the lowest level, which everyone can see, it is exactly that: a ruined castle. Faintly forbidding, and probably a bit nasty to hang around in for any length of time. It has a nasty reputation, and perhaps bad things happen there from time to time. But even with that, people who look at it see just the ruined castle.

At the next highest level, things change. It's still a ruined castle, but now the eerie quotient is raised. Strange noises, peculiar lights, odd weather effects, even unusual animals or ordinary animals that behave in an unusual way. Someone not in the regio, but looking at the castle from afar, would see none of these things. Someone near the castle, but not on that level, also does not see these things. However they don't see anyone on the next highest level either, nor do the people in the next highest level see them.

At the third level, things change still further. Now perhaps the castle is less ruined than it first appeared. It might not be completely rebuilt, but that tower where everyone says the old Baron used to torture his captives is intact. Also, the eerie effects increase in intensity, and achieve a kind of physicality not seen before. Old bloodstains become fresh blood. Faint moans become ear-piercing shrieks, and corpses which long ago went to dust have physical form. Moreover if there's any entity here capable of posing a physical threat, that entity exists and can harm people on this level of the regiones.

AD&D's Ravenloft setting played with a very similar concept, calling it a Sinkhole of Evil. As with the regiones, a Sinkhole exists on multiple levels of consciousness, but here the Sinkholes are Ranked in terms of the event that created them. A Sinkhole of Rank 1 can be created by intense emotions. A Rank 2 can be created by emotions and a particular evil event, say the spot where a murder occurred. A Rank 3 can be created by emotions and a prolonged event or series of events, such as a torture session that lasts several days. A Rank 4 can be created by emotions, prolonged activity and a remarkable event, such as the sacrifice of multiple people at an unholy chapel over a period of years. A Rank 5 is the most monstrous, the kind of thing reserved for battlefields where the hopes and youth of warring nations were sacrificed to no good end. The scarred landscape of the Somme or Passchendaele, in a game based in our world, could be a Rank 5 Sinkhole.

Leaping to the KWAS, Ken Hite suggests something interesting: a conflict of the mind, in which the players battle for control of the Superego, Ego, and Id. With each conquest the conqueror becomes bolder and more powerful, meaning that resistance to future conflicts is at a penalty. Here is a situation in which the evil is, quite literally, within. But like the regio, and like the Sinkhole, it exists on a completely different level: it's a fight that cannot be seen from the outside, which is being powered by something unspeakably evil, and which can do incredible damage all without being seen by anyone not directly involved in the situation.

With that I propose the overarching plot of the Bookhounds campaign: the return of the Comte d'Erlette, author of the Cultes des Ghoules, through the flesh of a player character.

The Comte laid plans for this long ago. Through his book - bound in human skin, one of the special volumes - he laid the seed. He's been waiting a very long time for someone to find it, touch it, even read it, and now he has that someone. There was a time when Etienne du Bourg was the target, but Etienne forestalled that plan by dying - and really, was his death an accident, or did Etienne decide suicide was the better way out? Since then, the Comte has waited patiently for the right candidate.

Along come the protagonists.

This shall be a battle of the minds, that takes place at intervals during the plot. In each instance the Comte goes after the geography of the mind, striking out at the Superego, Ego, and Id. If successful, the Comte gets a new body, and with it a new lease on life.

Exactly which player gets the dubious honor of becoming a target will depend largely on circumstance. Is there a protagonist who has paid special attention to the book? Then the choice is obvious. Otherwise it will be up to the Keeper to decide who's first on the list, but if, say, someone should have the bad manners to die before Mind Control can be achieved, then the Comte sighs and moves on to the next likely target.

To look at, each layer of the target's mind exactly resembles the Bookstore, du Bourg's. Except different somehow, in odd little ways. A level 1 might be slightly unusual, feature NPCs who no longer exist - because they died - or have doors that will not open. A level 2 has doors which do open, and the protagonists may devoutly wish that they did not. Strange and terrible creatures may stalk the halls. Odd landscapes may be seen out the windows. A level 3 is completely beyond the bounds of reality. There is no outside world in this scenario, and you cannot trust any door to lead where you think it ought to.

Movement from reality to the mental realm may be as easy as stepping from one room to the next. The target simply discovers that, when she emerges from the stockroom laden with books that a customer asked for, not only is the customer not there but neither is anyone else. That signals the start of a mental attack, but as to when it ends ... ah, there's the rub.

How to get the other players involved? Well there are two obvious ways. First, the target can create the other characters in her mind, using them as mental bodyguards. The other players take over the role of those bodyguards, and play them as usual. Perhaps they have slightly unusual appearances; someone she always thought had a fish-face, say, now really is a fish, in a much-patched suit and cheap cravat.. But fundamentally they are the same people with the same suite of abilities. This option allows the Keeper to use lethal force without troubling his conscience too much about whether a character lives or dies. A mental construct, after all, can die multiple times - theoretically, anyway.

The other option is to use magic. If the characters on the outside find their companion standing mute and apparently senseless, the victim of a mental attack, they can use, say, Idiosyncratic Magic to get into their friend's mindscape. From there the game plays out as normal, only without the multiple deaths. One is quite enough.

As to how this might play out, that will wait for future posts, I feel.

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