Sunday, 26 August 2018

Who Are We Fighting? (Bookhounds of London)

When I wrote last week about the start of a new Ars Magica game, I was reminded that once upon a time I designed a store for Bookhounds of London using Ars Magica as an example. Thus began du Bourg's, a genteel and gently decaying establishment devoted to the sale of incunabula of all kinds.

This time I'd like to talk a little more about adversary design, using du Bourg's as an example.

Du Bourgs, like the covenant in Ars Magica, is a settled, established location. It has a history, institutional memory, roots in the community. Unlike a traveling band of murder hobos, a bookstore can't solve all its problems by sneaking away in the dead of night to begin a new life somewhere else. It has to deal with its enemies as they arise, and will probably have to deal with them more than once.

The big difference between antagonists like these and the band of orcs a bunch of murder hobos meet once, stab to death, and never think about again, is that these are recurring threats. Over the course of a campaign the investigators must expect to deal with these threats, but not necessarily defeat them.

It's useful to divide these antagonists into groups, as follows:

Minor Recurring (Normal)

Major Recurring (Normal)

Minor Recurring (Thematic)

Major Recurring (Thematic)

In any game the Minor players are going to outnumber the Major ones by a factor of at least two or three to one.

Notice I've divided the groups into Normal and Thematic. Every setting is going to differ slightly in its definition of Normal; Swords-and-Sorcery Normal is not the same thing as Victorian Paris Normal. However in broad terms all Normals are alike, just as happy families are all alike.

Consider: every setting, whether it's science fiction, horror, historic, or wildly ahistoric, has a few elements in common. There is some form of Authority - it might be legitimate or illegitimate, but it's there. There will be agents of the Authority who are sent out to enforce its will, collect taxes, and do all the other things that make society function smoothly. There is some form of Anti Authority, whether actively criminal, like the Mafia, or closer to the freedom fighter model. Or, like the Triads, the Anti Authority can be both criminal and freedom fighter at the same time. The Anti Authority will also have its agents, sent out to enforce its will.

The exact nature of these groups depend on the setting. In a post-apocalypse setting where the planet is just recovering from some major catastrophe, like a zombie outbreak, Anti-Authority probably outnumbers Authority. In a feudal setting there will be very fierce competition to set one faction or another up as the Authority. Equally there will be different kinds of Authority within the setting - a religious Authority, say, and a non-religious one.

In every setting there is weather, there are other intelligent creatures, there is disease, there is decay. There is the urbis, there is wilderness. You can probably think of a few yourself without too much effort. The point being all these things can be Minor or Major Recurring antagonists.

The Dragonriders of Pern series posits that a major recurring antagonist is Thread, a microfilament spore that rains down from the sky, effectively making the weather a major recurring antagonist. Alan Hyder's Vampires Overhead destroys the planet with giant vampire bats from space that devour us all, leaving only a few humans alive - and those humans become the recurring antagonists, predating Walking Dead by more than a century. Wyndham's Kraken Wakes turns the oceans of the world into recurring antagonists, and so on.

You can make anything you like a recurring Normal antagonist. They don't all have to be at daggers drawn with the players - they just have to come back again and again, and oppose the players' schemes.

The other type of recurring antagonist is Thematic. This differs from the Normal in that a Thematic antagonist reflects the Theme of the campaign. In Night's Black Agents the Thematic antagonists are the vampires, ghosts, Renfields and other damnable creatures of the night. In Call of Cthulhu the Thematic antagonists are cults, ghouls, Deep Ones and other elements of the Mythos. It's not simply that in a horror game you have horror things - it's that the antagonist fits the core activity of the setting. The Nodes and Mooks that work so well in Nights Black Agents are completely out of place in Cthulhu, just as Cthulhu is out of place in a slasher flick.

So let's go back to du Bourg's, and think about those antagonists.

Normal, Minor:
  • That One Weird Customer. Maybe it's the smell, his lack of respect for personal boundaries, or his obsession with a particular genre or author, but it drives the characters nuts. He just won't go away; perhaps he's protected by Mister Bourg, or perhaps he's rather more familiar with the locks and bolts on the doors than he ought to be.
  • The Water Pipes. They knock, they leak, they freeze, they burst. Nothing anyone can say to Mister Bourg gets the place re-plumbed; it's a maze of old pipes and patch repairs everywhere you look. Is your section flooded again? Better call the plumber.
  • The Rival Book Scout. How does he always get to the latest sale or trove of rare books before you do? Is the man psychic? Whether he is or isn't, he's the reason du Bourg's hasn't had a Windfall by now.
Normal, Major:
  • The Rival Store. It's not quite as old as du Bourg's, and hasn't got its storied history. What it does have is staff that know what they're doing, premises that aren't crumbling to bits, and prices that are better than du Bourg's. Some of our oldest customers are being tempted away - and that has got to stop.
Notice what's happening here. None of these antagonists need a gun to threaten the characters. What they do is complicate the players' lives in ways they can't easily anticipate or thwart. That, and they all play into the greater theme of the campaign. I could have had a local criminal group as an antagonist, but the whole point of Bookhounds is sale and retail. It makes more sense if the antagonists reflect that.

On to Thematic, Minor:
  • Maher-shalal-hash-baz, the cat. This is a minor Mythos entity that takes the form of a cat. Exactly how that happens is up to the Keeper, but for the purpose of this example I'm going to assume the redoubtable hunter was taken over by Brood of Elihort, and occasionally drops a few spidery white creatures in darker corners of the building. The Brood are building something, and this time it's not a man-homunculus; it's some kind of device, or living machine. What purpose does it serve - and why is it here?
  • Dust Things have infested the sole remaining copy of D'Erlette's Ghoules and they want someone to find this long-lost book. They keep trying to possess customers and older staff members in an attempt to get them to reveal the location of the book, but it never works. Their possessed victims blurt out some occult gibberish and collapse, expelling the Dust Things.
  • Diana Wisbee, a member of the Fraternity of the Inner Light who keeps trying to persuade the bookshop to let her hold seances and talks on occultism. If the players let her, something goes wrong - perhaps she annoys the Brood, or summons up actual ghosts, or just gets horribly drunk and starts talking nonsense. If the players don't let her, she keeps coming back again and again, trying to get them to change their mind.  
Thematic, Major:
  • M. Etienne du Bourg, founder and alchemical experimenter, really does wander down in the basement. This mummified lich still has some interest in the business - that's why he insists on the yearly meeting - but books aren't his primary concern any more. He doesn't mean anyone any harm, but his experiments need supplies and might have unforeseeable consequences. Do the investigators help or hinder his research? What will he do in response? 
Notice I'm not adding stat blocks to any of these, or assigning them abilities. Whether Normal or Thematic, these aren't killers nor are they necessarily in direct opposition to the players. Leaky pipes aren't going to leap out in the dead of night, knife in hand, to stab someone to death. 

No, what they will do is spill water all over that squizz someone's been working on. Or make a particular room uninhabitable. Or make that wooden floor just slippery enough that someone falls. Or … 

See, the things that people remember about their day-to-day lives aren't the number of times they kissed their spouse goodbye in the morning, or smiled at a stranger. No. They remember when the car wouldn't start, or they missed the bus, or a co-worker stabbed them in the back. It's the way we're wired; we remember slights more than we do favors.

The job of an antagonist is to keep rubbing away at that old injury. The One Weird Customer turns up at the least opportune moment. The pipes don't burst on a nice sunny day when there's plenty of time to deal with the problem and a dozen plumbers practically on the doorstep asking for work. No, they burst when the shop's busy as hell, in the depths of winter, when you can't get a plumber for love nor money. Rubbing away, rubbing away - until the moment something breaks.

After all, the whole point of an antagonist is to break things. It's the players' job to fix them.


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