Sunday, 26 November 2017

E.F. Benson and Ken's Mind Control (Trail of Cthulhu)

I'm a huge ghost story fan, and some of the best - the classics of the genre - were created by a relatively small group of Victorian and Edwardian era spookwriters.  M.R. James, E.G. Swain, Violent Hunt - her Tiger Skin is one of my favorites - Sheridan Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, Lafcaido Hearn, and a host of other cobwebbed creators. At about this time of year, when the weather gets colder, I like to reread some of the stories in my collection, and sometimes I get inspired by them.

Which brings me to E.F. Benson, and The Room In The Tower. Have a read of that - it's free. I recommend his short story collection - my copy's The Collected Ghost Stories edited by Richard Dalby - and while I can't say every one's a winner, I can say that when they win, they win big. Particular favorites include And the Dead Spake, The Shootings Of Achnaleish, The Bus Conductor, and The Outcast, the last of which is very similar in tone to The Room In The Tower.

E.F. Benson is the fifth child born to a family determined to win awards for Most Gothic as well as Overachiever. The father, headmaster of Wellington College when E.F. was born, and later Archbishop of Canterbury, was by all accounts a terrifying man. Among other things, he founded the Ghost Society at Trinity College, Cambridge, dedicated to psychical research. His wife Mary, or Minnie, was one of the cleverest women in Europe, according to British Prime Minister Gladstone. After her husband's death in 1896, she moved in with close friend Lucy Tait. Judging by some of E.F.'s stories, it's tempting to cast Minnie as a bit of a bloodsucker herself; so many of his stories feature predatory women, particularly mothers and wives.

Of the six Benson children, two died young, and none of the survivors had children of their own. E.F.'s sister Margaret, a ferocious intellect, was one of the first women admitted at Oxford and the first to be granted the opportunity to conduct archaeological expeditions in Egypt. Like her mother, she preferred the company of women. She died in the Priory after suffering a mental breakdown. Brother Alfred Christopher is best known for writing Land of Hope and Glory, but also wrote ghost stories, and suffered from manic depression. Brother Robert Hugh, appointed a Church of England priest, recanted, and eventually became a Catholic priest, while at the same time writing ghost stories and ground-breaking dystopian science fiction about the Antichrist in a world on the brink of war between the forces of Marxism, the Japanese Empire, and the American Republic. He died at the relatively young age of 42, in 1914, just as the Great War was about to start.

E.F. Benson meanwhile survived into his 70s, and died of throat cancer in the opening years of the Second World War. He very nearly wrote one novel for each year of his life, not including short stories or short story collections, or his non-fiction - over thirty published - or his autobiographical pieces. Best known for comic Mapp and Lucia these days, in his lifetime he was known as a superlative spook-story author. H.P. Lovecraft admired his stories, saying his work had "singular power" and was "lethally potent in its relentless atmosphere of doom."

Having read The Room In The Tower, what pointers does it have for vampire design?

First, the vampire is unquestionably evil, with a strong suggestion of Satanic influence. That whole business about being buried in an unmarked suicide's grave is a Christian trope of long standing, as is the postscript about a corpse that will not lie quiet in sanctified ground. But there's more to it than that; after all, here is a vampire who knows, while she still lives, that she'll become a vampire.

This suggests either that becoming a vampire is a matter of will, or that someone can deliberately damn themselves with the intent of becoming a vampire. I lean towards the former, because the narrator of the story says he's been having the vampire dream since he was sixteen years old. She's been grooming him all that while, and at the time the dreams began she was still alive. So she must have become aware of him at some point when he was sixteen - when he and her son were at school together - and decided he was her meat.

Ferocious personality she must have had.

Blood is a significant part of the narrative, but it appears in unusual places. The portrait leaves bloodstains on the hands of whoever touches it, the vampire's coffin is filled with blood, there's a bloody mark on the victim's shoulder - but there's no suggestion of an actual wound. It's as if whatever the vampire touches, or the vampire uses, leaves a gory trail, and implies heavily that, when the vampire isn't wandering abroad, it literally bathes in blood, like Countess Bathory..

Though the vampire has a physical presence, it's an insubstantial, almost psychic substance. It leaves behind a part of its shroud, when it vanishes into nothingness. There is an awful smell where it has been, but no footmarks, no evidence of tampering with the window or door. Moreover unlike many other vampire tales - including those by Benson himself - there is no moment of catharsis, with the destruction of the vampire. It is tempting to assume that Julia Stone is dealt with when her coffin is exhumed, but there's no reason in the narrative to think this was her undoing. For all the reader knows, she still may be wandering abroad, seeking prey. Certainly nobody ever finds her corpse.

However there is a strong presumption of a sense of place: that room in the Tower where she committed suicide, that patch of unconsecrated ground just outside the house where Julia Stone of evil memory is buried. Perhaps Julia Stone's powers grow weaker the further she is from her place of power. Perhaps whatever part of her still exists in the physical world is somewhere in that house - or perhaps she left many tokens, like that portrait, behind, as a kind of marker.

I rather like this as a kind of vampire template, but when designing something along these lines I'd lean heavily on Ken Hite's Zoom: Mind Control, since that seems to best model this creature's style of attack. This is a psychic or spiritual battle rather than a physical one; the scenario mechanics should reflect that.

This assumes a conventional scenario with more than one player character. In fact, a story like this seems better suited for Cthulhu One-to-One - but that's a subject I want to return to later.

The great thing about the Mind Control option is that it allows the scenario to play out over several scenes, possibly spread over several years. This is, after all, a battle for the soul, not a fight for territory. Moreover unlike the conventional, stakeable vampire, this time out the opponent can't easily be destroyed by applying garlic, sunlight or some other bane. The only way you win this time is by beating it on its own terms - which means overcoming its ferocious will.

Without going into tremendous detail - after all, that's in the Zoom - the Shadow Plays section of the Zoom seem best suited for this kind of scenario. In that, the struggle between the dominating force and the subject is played out over some form of mental battleground, with defenders or defenses made up of parts of the subject's psyche. The zone's defenders are constructed by using the subject's total Stability rating as Health statistics, and the subject's total General pool to work out statistics. So if the General pool is 60 and the Stability pool is 6, then in theory the subject could create 10 different defenders, each with an 6-point rating in a useful General ability, but could only assign 6 Health total between all of those defenders.

In the Zoom, the Shadow Play section assumes that the defenders are mooks of some sort - gunmen, thugs, whatever. In this kind of scenario I'd suggest that the defenders could be anything. A strong door, a meaningful symbol of some sort - particularly one related to a Source of Stability - all of these things could be assigned defensive roles and given a Health rating based on the subject's Stability.

The Zoom also states that the mental battleground is divided into three zones, the Superego, Ego, and Id, and that the Health budget will increase for the Ego and Id. The budget is multiplied by 2 for Ego targets, and 4 for Id, so in the 6 Stability example the Health budget would be 12 and 24, respectively.

So in this instance the vampire spends its time reducing the subject's defenses to zero in a series of nightmares, targeting the Superego, Ego, and Id. Once those defenses are destroyed, the subject dies, and becomes a vampire in turn. During the day the investigators may find signs of the vampire's presence - blood stains, clumps of grave dirt or scraps of shroud, awful charnel smells, perhaps claw marks on the windowsill or footmarks on the floor.

However these physical marks also point to a weakness - the vampire depends on certain physical anchors in order to survive. That coffin filled with  blood, the portrait on the wall, perhaps a particular room in a house or a grimoire in the library; the vampire needs all of these things, and if they are destroyed then its offensive capability is damaged.

Its offensive capability is determined by adding up the total of its General abilities, with Health as its Health stat. So using the Vampire example in Trail as a baseline, its offensive pool is 28, and its Health is 7, with its offensive pool refreshing in every scene. An offensive attack doesn't have to be a straight fang-to-the-throat; it can as easily be a sense of overwhelming dread, or a particular phrase - 'Jack will show you to your room. I have given you the room in the tower.' In a mental or nightmare attack, these blows to the psyche are just as crippling as a physical punch to the throat.

That said, these nightmare attacks might also reveal more than the vampire intended. After all, the narrator of the story knows what is coming because he has been here before; he has experienced the same nightmare for many years, and is very familiar with the room in the tower. Thus when he encounters it in the real world for the first time, he knows what to expect next - and that proves to be the vampire's undoing. So too can the Keeper drop clues in the nightmare realm as to the importance of certain things to the vampire - its place of rest, that grimoire in the library, the portrait. If those things are destroyed, then its offensive pool dwindles; exactly how important this is depends on the vampire, and its particular weaknesses.

When designing this kind of vampire the Keeper ought to be as creative as possible. Sure, a coffin filled with blood is an evocative image, but when dealing with vampires the players expect to find coffins, blood-filled or otherwise. What about a doll's house, designed exactly like the vampire's own place of power? Or a greasy deck of playing cards that the vampire used in life? A horse-and-carriage, or a railway carriage? An apple orchard? The possibilities are limitless.

Anyway, as I've now got to cook a turkey I shall leave it at this point - but Cthulhu One-to-One is the next stop.

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