Sunday, 2 July 2017

Vathek and the Burning Tower (Bookhounds of London)

The Needles bit inspires me to tackle some other short scenarios, but rather than use CoC 7E I'm going to pick a different system each time.

The scenarios will be stat lite, and no more than 2,500 words. Though GUMSHOE uses a scene-by-scene format, space limitations require limited scene-by-scene breakdowns.

This scenario is 2,423 words long.

This one will be for Bookhounds of London, and is nominally set in 1931 or later. It can't be earlier than that, as the fire referenced in the scenario didn't take place until then.


William Beckford (1761-1844), famed bibliophile and author of Gothic masterpiece Vathek among many other works, built the neoclassic folly Beckford's Tower on Lansdown Hill in 1827, to house his library.

This Bath landmark stands over the mile-long pleasure gardens known as Beckford's Ride, and it was William's habit to oversee his gardens from its 120 ft. height. It is crowned with an octagonal lantern decorated with gilt gold columns, and at its base are two drawing rooms, the Scarlet and the Crimson, both paneled in oak and richly appointed. The stairs that lead up the tower have 154 steps, and at the center of the spiral is a colossal polished granite vase.

In William's day he kept his vast collection there, and added to it. He would spend days picking through choice items, sometimes leaving notes in the fly-leaf to record his thoughts on the book's merits, or lack of same. When he died the collection sold at auction, and the property passed first to a publican, and later, thanks to a gift by William's daughter, to the church, which used the grounds as a cemetery. The Scarlet Drawing Room was converted to a chapel to serve the cemetery. Among those buried there is the Tower's architect, and Beckford himself, in a specially built pink marble monument.

The Tower was allowed to fall into an alarming state. By 1918 the Tower's condition is described as 'piteous and dilapidated,' and in 1931 a fire all but destroyed the Scarlet room, and very nearly brought the whole Tower down.

Since the fire a rumor has spread among bibliophiles that a fourth Episode of Vathek has been discovered.

When the original was published William left out three Episodes from Vathek's life, which were later incorporated into the novel after the author's death. This fourth episode is supposed to be a coda to the novel; the other three are the stories of Prince Alasi, Prince Barkiarokh and Princess Zulkais, but this fourth is the Story of Giaour, the servant of Eblis who lures Vathek to damnation. According to those who claim to know about it, the manuscript is annotated in Beckford's own hand, and was found at the Tower either shortly before or after the fire - accounts differ as to which.

Obtaining this manuscript counts as a Windfall for the store.

There are three NPCs of significant importance to the scenario: Alfred Drinkwater, a forger who intends to make a mint selling forged copies of the Episode, Parthena Quill, a devoted collector of all things Beckford, and the mystic Carathis - aka Molly Hannan - who claims to channel Beckford's soul and tells anyone who'll listen that the discovery is a fake.

Molly Hannan, before she became a mystic, used to work at the Faraday Building telephone exchange in London. In fact it's thanks to the exchange that she became a medium; she claims voices came down out of the phone lines and instruct her. When forced to return to London by Drinkwater's scheme she goes back to her old haunts. This important detail can be discovered with 1 point Oral History.

Image sourced from alondoninheritance.

Opening: The Bookhounds are made aware of the potential Windfall by Parthena, who asks them to obtain it for her. Parthena's scatty, but she has money to spare, and even if she didn't pay, the prestige that would go with a newfound Beckford is immense. Core History/Library Use: Beckford's life and the history of the Tower. Core Cop Talk/Forensics: judging by the published version of events, the fire was arson. Streetwise: the likeliest suspect is a known bibliographic firebug named Jimmy 'Topsy' Cooper, as he's not been in his usual London haunts recently but has been seen in Bath, allegedly acting as a book scout for an unknown third party - not that lazy Topsy would know a squiz from a top hat. Topsy came back to London the day after the fire.

The Bookhounds may try to: forge their own version, go to Bath to investigate, track down Topsy.

Forgery: The Bookhounds gather materials for their forgery, which means spending Forgery, Textual Analysis points and similar to build up a pool which will be used to create the end product. This represents buying materials, research, getting comparisons for Beckford's handwriting & so on. Doing so alerts Alfred Drinkwater. He's not best pleased that someone else is capitalizing on his scheme, so he sends some Rough Lads (p53 main book) to warn them off. The Rough Lads are instructed to Intimidate not damage, but things can easily get out of hand. Interrogation leads back to Drinkwater.

Drinkwater: The forger is in hiding. He's staying in a derelict tub moored just offshore in the East End, and he's paying the kids who play on the banks of the Thames to keep an eye out for anyone trying to find him. Streetwise or Bargain spends needed to creep up on him, otherwise it's a Fleeing check vs Drinkwater's pool of 8, increased by 2 due to the advance warning. If cornered and Intimidated, Drinkwater admits he came up with the scheme. The idea was to cause a small fire, and pretend that the documents were 'discovered' during or after the fire fighting, hidden behind some damaged paneling. Topsy was supposed to be the discoverer, and he was supposed to pretend to be a passerby who helped the firefighters deal with the blaze. Unfortunately his catspaw Topsy Cooper got carried away. This scene leads to Forger Found Out.

Forger Found Out: Shortly after Drinkwater is found, and either confesses all or runs away, Drinkwater is found dead near the banks of the Thames. His heart has been burnt out. Those who have read Vathek - 1 point Library Use - know that, at the end of the novel, the wicked Caliph, his attendants and his paramour all end up tortured by Eblis in Hell, their hears eternally aflame with the fires of damnation. Evidence Collection finds Drinkwater's copy of the Beckford manuscript, hidden away. Evidence Collection (1 point) notices that Drinkwater died a few steps from a phone booth, and appears to have been running away from it at the time. Leads to Windfall or No?

Bath: A few days after the fire and the place is still a mess. The church hasn't got anything like the money it needs for restoration, and an appeal has gone out for donations to cover repairs. Evidence Collection finds clear signs of arson. Streetwise/Reassurance finds that the local scoundrels are angry that a Londoner - Topsy Cooper, by the description - came to Bath to burn the Tower. Oral History (1 point) discovers that local mystic and medium Carathis is very upset about it, and has gone to London swearing vengeance. Carathis, as anyone who's read Vathek will know - 1 point Library Use - is the name of the Caliph's mother, a sorceress of considerable power. Carathis is known to claim to channel the spirit of William Beckford, one of Bath's prodigal sons. Leads to Topsy, Windfall or No?

Topsy: Can be found drunk out of his mind at one of his usual East End haunts, core Streetwise. In this state he'll tell anyone anything, but there are some Rough Lads looking for him - Drinkwater's goons - so the Bookhounds will need to dodge them first. Topsy spills the whole scheme, and also says he's terrified of a woman he met in Bath shortly after the fire, who threatened to kill him unless he told her who orchestrated the scheme. Leads to Drinkwater, Windfall or No?

Windfall or No?: By this point the Bookhounds ought to know the details of the scheme, have met Drinkwater, and probably have a copy of the forged manuscript, either their own version or Drinkwater's. If they don't have a forged version assume someone else, a rival bookseller, does - probably another forged copy, not Drinkwater's. The industry buzz is intense, and experts in Gothic literature flock to either praise or debunk the find. Then Parthena Quill, Beckford enthusiast and would-be purchaser, is found dead at her home, heart burned right out of her chest. Forensics knows the heart's a tough muscle; it can even survive professional cremation (of the period, mark you, not 21st century standards). The method of death strongly indicates occult involvement, possibly Megapolisomancy. Library Use (1 point) knows the Vathek clue as described in Forger Found Out. Reassurance / Oral History (1 point) discovers that Parthena's maid Dorcas saw Parthena arguing with a woman whose description matches Carathis a day before her death. Evidence Collection (1 point) notices she died with a telephone in her hand, part melted from some tremendous heat. Leads to Battle of the Experts, Chasing Carathis, Carathis Strikes.

Battle of the Experts: Several qualified and famous experts descend on whichever shop says it has the manuscript, demanding access. If rebuffed, they all declare the manuscript to be a fake, and the shop suffers a Reversal. If somehow placated or convinced, they declare the manuscript genuine, and the shop gains a Windfall. However placating them may require a combination of Forgery, Bargain, Reassurance and other appropriate abilities, as justified by the Bookhounds. The Experts, all three of them, have a combined total of 6 in their appropriate abilities. Treat this as a Contest, and the Bookhounds may choose to knock some of the Experts out of the running with Intimidation or similar, reducing the combined pool by 2 each time. Leads to Toxic Expert, Chasing Carathis.

Toxic Expert: If the Battle of the Experts seems to be going in the Bookhounds favor and the Bookhounds have not started Chasing Carathis, then Carathis acts against the idiot Experts prepared to believe such a ridiculous forgery. That Expert is found dead, his or her heart burnt out. Forensics as per Windfall or No? with the additional benefit that signs found at the scene indicate the force came out of the telephone, and may travel via telephone wires. The death of the Expert cancels any Windfall effect, as the others promptly declare the manuscript a forgery. If asked, on condition of anonymity the survivors say they're terrified they'll die next, and have been told as much by an angry woman whose description matches Carathis. They will never admit as much in public, and there is no chance of getting the Windfall back. This leads to Haunted Expert (Red Herring), Chasing Carathis, Carathis Strikes.

Haunted Expert (Red Herring): After Toxic Expert, one of the William Beckford Experts claims to have been visited in the night by the ghost of Beckford himself, swearing vengeance. In fact this is a lie, though it may not be a deliberate lie; perhaps the Expert's overheated imagination took over. Given the details in the Expert's account, the Bookhounds may mistake this for a Mythos entity attack, perhaps a Dust Thing. It's nothing of the kind. However if the Bookhounds don't realize this and waste time chasing it up, Carathis has time to beef up the paramental. Its Scuffling and Health each increase by 2, and it gains an extra +1 damage. Leads to Chasing Carathis, Carathis Strikes.

Chasing Carathis: Carathis has many friends in the fortune-telling and medium community. Oral History or Reassurance with these people tracks her down to a cheap flophouse in Soho. However if the Bookhounds didn't spend a point, then they still track her down but one of the people they talk to warn her they are coming, which means a Fleeing contest vs her pool of 6. If she Flees, she does so in such a way that leaves no doubt as to her Megapolisomantic powers, eg she vanishes into the shadows. Important: as her powers are linked to the telephone exchange, ideally this should happen within close proximity to an important point, eg. near a red telephone box or one of the many telephone exchanges. If caught and Intimidated she defiantly says she didn't kill Drinkwater, Parthena or the Expert, but she did cause them to die. 'Eblis knows! Eblis judges!' she shrieks. Leads to Carathis Strikes, Carathis No More.

Carathis Strikes: If Carathis is still active, and if she has already moved against the Experts, Parathena and anyone else who's annoyed her by taking William Beckford's name in vain, then she moves against the Bookhounds. She does this by going to the Faraday Building, using her Megapolisomancy to summon up the entity she calls Eblis, and sends that over the telephone lines that snake out from the Faraday Building Exchange to attack whoever is her target. Without access to telephone lines or the Faraday Building - which over years spent working there she has turned into a powerful Megapolisomantic Lever - she cannot do this. Ideally the Bookhounds will stop her before she kills again; from this point on she can always be found at the Faraday Building, which she knows inside out. She can hide in there for weeks if need be. Leads to Carathis No More.

Carathis No More: If Carathis is removed from the equation then the entity she called Eblis no longer has enough power to attack victims. It has just enough power to strike out wildly, which it will do, but once it runs out of juice this time it will fade out of existence. This ends the threat, and successfully concludes the scenario. If Carathis is not removed, then she will continue to direct the entity until everyone she thinks deserves punishment is dead. At the Keeper's discretion this may mean that she goes one fatal step too far, and Eblis turns on her, destroying Carathis. This is most likely to happen thanks to interference from the Bookhounds.

Epilogue: By the end of the adventure the Bookhounds should have dealt with Carathis, the paramental, and the Experts, and may have secured a Windfall for the shop. If any of the named NPCs somehow survived - particularly Parthena - they may become Contacts (p92) with an effective pool of 2 in any one Investigative ability. If Carathis survives then she goes back to Bath to stew over what happened, and she may try to get revenge. However the events of the scenario took a lot out of her, and the Lever she used at the Faraday Building is burned, so she can no longer summon paramentals.

The Paramental Entity: Summoned up by Carathis using the power of the City, and specifically the telephone exchange, this creature is semi-controlled by Carathis. However her control is not absolute, and if left to its own devices this rage-filled creature will go on a rampage.

Appearance: A darkness surrounding a telephone line, like a cloud of flies or similar, with a beacon of crimson at its center.

Abilities: Athletics 8, Health 6, Scuffling 10

Stealth Modifier: +2

Attacks: Electrical Surge +1

Special Tactic: On unmodified 6 Scuffling check, the entity targets the heart directly, doing +5 damage. 

Defenses: non-silver weapons do minimal damage, refresh 1 Health/round

Stability: +0

Note: if Carathis is taken out of the picture, Scuffling drops to 6 and it loses the special tactic.

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