Sunday, 24 October 2021

Naughty German, Burning Crystal Palaces (Bookhounds)

Thanks to a random post on Twitter I discovered the art of Heinrich Lossow, a 19th century German artist who specialized in pornography and erotic drawings. Probably not safe for work even though it is Wikipedia; bear that in mind. 

Lossow was a remarkable talent who, among other things, illustrated other people's manuscripts. Several of the items listed on his Wikipedia page are given the heading Glaspalast München - these tend to be the more artistic, classical works. 

Glaspalast München refers to Munich's Crystal Palace, built 1854 and modeled after London's Crystal Palace which I've mentioned before in the Forgotten London series. Like London's Palace, Munich's tribute also burnt to the ground, this time in 1931. All indications at the time was that it was an accident that started in a carpentry shop, but it was later shown to be arson. 

Taken from Wikipedia

From about 1889 onwards Munich's Palace was primarily an artistic venue, hosting exhibitions and festivals yearly. Hence Lossow's contributions. At the time of the fire more than 1,000 modern German works were on display; most of them were destroyed.

At this point in Munich's history the town is still basically medieval, but it's showing significant signs of growth. Aircraft and automobile factories, radio, film - new industries are emerging. Many know Munich best for its beer-soaked Oktoberfest celebrations. but it's also famous for its artistic connections. 

 Taken from Karl Hoeffkes

As a side note, while Hitler's rise to power is well under way by the time the Palace burns, he's not there yet. The Nazis don't formally consolidate their power and take effective control until the elections of 1933. However Munich is the Nazi's main base of operations, the site of the Beer Hall Putsch, and is rife with political intrigue. Anyone who goes to Munich can't help but see Nazis, hear Nazis, and talk to Nazis wherever they go - the Palace included.

Time to gamify. So what are we working with?
  • A well-known German artist famous for his erotic works, who exhibited in:
  • Munich's Crystal Palace, a beautiful monument destined to burn in
  • 6 June 1931, which is well within a Bookhounds timeframe.
Who in Bookhounds lore would be interested in erotic art? That would be the Keirecheires, those fun-loving Y’golonac cultists who have branches in London, Paris, New York - but not Germany. How very careless of them.

With all that:

The Banquet

The Hounds are hired to purchase a rare, elusive work, about to be sold at private auction in Munich. Known informally as The Banquet (it has no title engraved either on its expensive tooled leather binding or its frontispiece) this peculiar piece of erotic poetry is said to have been illustrated by Heinrich Lossow in 1881. The author is unknown, and rumor is rife. Some of the madder theories claim the author is actually Ludwig II of Bavaria, or that it was commissioned by Ludwig. 

The title, The Banquet, refers to an infamous bit of Catholic lore that claims Cesare Borgia once hosted an orgy at the Papal Palace. Lossow is known to have painted a scene from that Banquet; the book goes much further, describing the action in a blow-by-blow account.

Whoever wrote it, the book is filthy beyond description and was only released in a limited edition of 100, of which at least 40 are known to have been destroyed and a further 20-odd thought to have been destroyed. The rest? Who can say?

Apparently one man can say: assistant director Baumbach of the Glaspalast München. Baumbach is willing to sell a copy, and a very private auction is being arranged at the Glaspalast. The Hounds' patron is keen to get The Banquet, but there are others just as eager, and some who will stop at nothing.

On the list of those who will stop at nothing is Ortsgruppenleiter Baumbach - the assistant director's son. The Nazi is mortified that his father is willing to trade in such filth, and concerned that, if word were to get out, his career in the party would be ruined. The Ortsgruppenleiter doesn't know precisely when or where the auction is to take place, but he does have violent mooks at his disposal, which is usually a guarantee of fun times for player characters.

The bigger problem (if there can be a bigger problem than rampaging Nazis) is the Keirecheires. That secretive organization has decided that their best and brightest Sons, desirous of promotion within the cult, shall prove their worth by acquiring The Banquet. Representatives from Paris, New York and London are converging on Munich to win the prize. They include:

Paris: Frieda Sorel, a ragged gothic artist's model and would-be Surrealist who has peculiar power over dreams.

New York: Ewan Dabney Macpherson, a bloated plutocrat whose pockets are bulging with loot from his robber baron grandfather's railway stocks.

London: Solomon Doom, aka Graham Micklethwaite, a charming blonde curate's son who turned to the occult to find meaning in life. He has Idosyncratic Magic at his disposal. Not many people know that.

As the group converges on the Glaspalast they find themselves at a disadvantage. What none of them realizes is the Glaspalast is not a solitary building in Munich. There are many Glaspalast - London, Montreal, Madrid, New York - most of which will burn, or have already burnt. They share an animating spirit, a gestalt manes that allows communication between places, and contact with a separate, unnamed place which can only be reached through a Crystal Palace. The Munich entity knows it is about to burn as Montreal and New York did before it, and desperately seeks someone - anyone - who can save it from destruction. 

Enter those poor unfortunate Hounds, who only want to buy some antique porn and who, when they go back to London, will have to deal not only with the Keirecheires, who have become aware of their shop, but also the Crystal Palace itself, which still stands in South London. The Palace remembers ... and reaches out. 


Sunday, 17 October 2021

Welcome to the Mansion (RPG All, Disney)

Once upon a time I wrote about Disney's Haunted Mansion attraction, and said:

I do wonder what Disney does if someone decides to join the Mansion, perhaps by having their ashes scattered over the ride. Human nature being what it is, someone must have tried by now. If I were Disney, I'd be tempted to offer it as an ultra-private perk only available to special guests, say, members of Club 33. There will be people out there willing to pay over the odds for those bragging rights. 'Come visit me when I'm gone, I'll be in the Graveyard with the Grim Grinning Ghosts!'

Bloomberg's been kind enough to answer that question. I shan't link the article as it's hidden behind a paywall (author Brandon Presser again, and I'm beginning to think that's a pseudonym), but the important bits are:

Even death finds room for celebration, particularly at the Haunted Mansion. “I’d venture to say, if the Haunted Mansion is temporarily closed, it means someone tried to spread grandma’s ashes and we’ve had to bio-vac the entire place,” a former cast member says. The ritual happens often—at least once a month. And you thought the hologram ghosts were spooky ...

Christine Fougère, a cleaning-support manager, says hazardous spills command code names—which I luckily never heard in the line of duty. And yet, they’re not uncommon. Code V is for vomit, and Code H is for human waste. (Sometimes kids—and even a few adults—have trouble holding it in when they’re waiting in line.) Code Winnies are called when resort pools turn slightly yellow; oddly enough, it’s not used for the Pooh ...

Sourced from Disneyland Paris

So let's try some Halloween gamification.

What's different about Disneyland Paris' Mansion?

For starters, Disney Paris isn't California. It hasn't got the history. Someone's grandma didn't visit the place for the first time back in 1969. It opened its doors in 1992, along with the rest of the resort. So you're probably not going to get the same sentimental attraction that drives people to dump granny's ashes over the Grinning Ghosts.

Second, Paris' Mansion hasn't had extensive renovations. It had one big revamp in 2019, which among other things added some new Vincent Price dialogue to the introductory speech.

Third, the plot's different. Not a whole lot different, and the plot's just an excuse for ghoulish nonsense anyway, but worth bearing in mind if anyone's a Disney nut who thinks they can sing along with the animatronics.

Added to all that, there's been a death. In 2016 a worker was found dead inside the attraction, possibly electrocuted. It's one of several incidents that have happened at the Paris attraction.

Sooo ...

Once There Was, And Once There Wasn't 

The characters are all visiting Euro Disney, whether as a group or individually. They might be young, old, whichever it may be. YouTube microcelebrity or ordinary schlub, they all want to go to the Haunted Mansion but the first time they show up, it's closed. The staff won't say why.

So they go off to other attractions for a while and see what is to be seen, but after a time they gravitate back to the Mansion to discover that it's open again. Nobody else has realized this so the queue is short - only the player characters are in it.

Or at least that's how it seems at first. As they pack themselves into the elevator and queue for the ride there seems to be an extra body. If the characters count up carefully, there are only player characters in the group. Yet they cannot shake the feeling there's another person in the room.

At first the ride seems to be as advertised, with the grim grinning ghosts telling the tragic tale of the abandoned bride, Melanie Ravenswood. Yet as the carriages get to the narrator (about 9.09 in the video) the carriages melt away and the player characters find themselves abandoned inside the mansion.

The extra person in the group is a youngster who died of a wasting illness two weeks ago. Their grieving mother knew that the child wanted to see the Mansion, had them cremated, and scattered the ashes inside the Mansion. That's why the Mansion was shut down; the whole thing had to be deep cleaned. 

Inactivity didn't suit the Outer Dark. This was a command performance, one night only. As for the ride itself, well, children don't know from rides. As far as they're concerned, the experience is a real experience. 

A fatal experience. After all, who escapes alive from the Manor? The whole point of the story is everyone dies, and Melanie's trapped here forever.

On the other hand there is that dead electrician, who might be persuaded to help importunate characters lost in the Mansion. Otherwise there aren't many allies to be had. That child is especially difficult to deal with; anyone who threatens its good time will be dealt with severely.

There are several ways out for enterprising characters:
  • Death. It's a bit permanent, but it works.
  • Successfully romancing Melanie and ending the curse.
  • Preventing Henry from killing Melanie's intended, Jake. 
  • Somehow restoring the buggies and riding them out of the Mansion.
If they can't achieve any of these objectives before an hour is up, then the Mansion will have several new attractions ...


Sunday, 10 October 2021

Ripped from the Headlines: Pandora's Monaco (Night's Black Agents)

Washington Post

By now most of you will have heard of the Pandora Papers, the latest version of a series of well-constructed exposes into the financial dealings of the rich and ultra-rich.

This week I want to concentrate on the Russian angle, and in particular how that impacts on a topic I've discussed before: Monaco

The wealthy gambling microstate once again hit the headlines thanks to wealthy Russians, and although Putin's alleged girlfriend Svetlana Krivonogikh is given prominent mention in the video, news articles make clear she's far from being the only Russian in Putin's circle who has made their way to Monaco. 

Those who do are probably interested in passports as much as they are in swanky property and a place to dock their yacht. Provide proof of residency (property deeds plus a term of years) and proof of self-sufficiency, and you too can have a passport that grants you visa-free access to Brazil, Japan, United Kingdom, United States and the entire European Union. 

Ironically, Monaco passport holders do need a visa to travel to Russia but I suspect that isn't a significant problem for Putin's friends.

There's a reason why Putin's chums might want a passport above all else.

Bill Browder, TEDx

It's thanks to Browder's efforts that we have the Magnitsky Act, the intent of which is to authorize the U.S. government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the U.S.. The Act is named after Browder's lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died in a Moscow prison after investigating a $230 million fraud involving Russian tax officials.  

Browder's argument for sanctions has always been that Russia's kleptocrats don't want to spend their time and money in Russia if they can help it. They'd far rather relax in more comfortable surroundings in the West. Therefore sanctions which limit their ability to travel and settle outside Russia are punishing those same kleptocrats that, Browder argues, make Putin's Russia the kind of country that it is today - one where friends of Putin can amass huge illicit gains and salt it away in trusts and shell companies.

Monaco celebrates its close relationship with Russia. A perhaps ill-timed article in the Monaco Tribune admits as much. The Tribune's a daily e-paper which publishes in French, English, Italian and Russian, and it had this to say about the Monaco Loves Russia initiative: 

The first diplomatic relations between the Principality and Russia go back to the end of the 19th cenutry [sic] with the signing of trade and political agreements. However, it was only in 2006, with Vladimir Putin, that an official diplomatic relationship began.

Today, Monaco has over 800 Russian residents, as well as a Russian consulate, located on Monaco’s rock. Given their high purchasing power, Russians also represent an important asset to the local tourism sector. 

A proud history of cooperation and mutual benefit, to be sure.

The media salivated over Putin's alleged mistress' Monaco apartment but with over 800 Russian residents and a consulate it's easy to see how she mightn't be the only Putin chum with a Monaco connection. Given their high purchasing power, and all that.

A follow-up in the Guardian makes much of a Monaco-based go-between, Moores RowlandA professional accountancy and tax firm, it is connected to a network of law companies and offshore service providers around the world. There is little to be seen from outside other than a pleasant roof garden. Nice little touch of le Carré there. According to the article Moores Rowland creates and manages the network of companies and trusts that manage Russian wealth. 

In short, it's not unlike the role that the Dracula Dossiers' Billington and Sons plays in that Night's Black Agents campaign setting: a go-between. Whether an Edom friendly or a Conspiracy asset, Billington's job is to sit there and look innocent, even nondescript, while dark deeds are done with its assistance.

It's perhaps a little over-the-top to imagine that Billington has an outpost in Monaco, but it's not going too far to wonder if a Monaco firm might have an interest in a shabby little law office in some nondescript British town. Particularly if that law office has a lot to do with wills, property and trusts.

Let's gamify this, and suppose that there is a Level 3 Node (provincial power) linked with Billington (at best a Level 2) as Billington holds some of the Level 3's assets.

Let's further suppose that the Level 3 is an accountancy and tax firm, Addison Boland, founded by an Englishman and a Frenchman in the 1970s. Addison Boland has since become a significant power behind the scenes thanks to an influx of Russian cash. The original Addison, Samuel, is related by marriage to the Billingtons of Whitby, and in the old days Samuel used to push a lot of business Billington's way. It was sometimes convenient to have a holding company or trust incorporate under British law, and Billington and Sons was the perfect British go-between.

From the Conspiracy's POV, it was a reverse infection. Billington's was already a Conspiracy asset and had been for many years before Samuel Addison reached out. Through its connection with Billington, Addison Boland became aware of and then corrupted by the Conspiracy. The Conspiracy then used Addison Boland to hide its assets through a web of shell companies and trusts. 

That was all fine and dandy in the 1980s and 90s, when Addison Boland was an up-and-coming power. Then came the 2000s, and all that Russian money. So much Russian money, even Addison Boland couldn't keep track of it all.

The present-day Addison Boland is split into two factions.

Faction A, the Addison faction, wants to keep things as they are. The company's Conspiracy connections have served it well for decades. Added to that, the Addison faction are uncomfortably aware that their masters expect unquestioning obedience unto death - beyond death, preferably. Horace Addison, Samuel's 50-year-old son, is the de facto leader of this faction.

Faction B, the Boland faction, is dazzled by Russian money and Russian power. Many of their clients have direct links to the former KGB, or its successor the FSB. The Bolands have seen the future, and if ever there was a time to cut ties with their vampiric benefactors and sidle up to Moscow's elite, it's now. If the FSB or GRU have an anti-vampire program the Bolands are reaching out to it. After all, even vampire hunters have to hide their ill-gotten gains somehow, and the Bolands are happy to oblige. This faction is led by Alice Boland, the 30-year old granddaughter of the founding Boland. 

Scenario Seed: Rats, Rats, Rats As Big As Blooming Cats

A former KGB asset turned high-end bagman, Gennady Balabanov, is arrested in France with large quantities of illegal pesticide. The authorities were monitoring him for various money laundering offences and didn't want to pull him in, hoping instead to tie him to more important crimes. Unfortunately, Balabanov blew a traffic stop and was arrested by local law in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, a medieval township on the Riviera not far from Monaco. Balabanov immediately screamed for assistance from the Russian government, but he died in jail before anything could be done. 

The pesticide is banned because it's far too lethal. Its toxicity is acute and chronic (mutagenic), and it's banned under the Stockholm Convention. Nobody understands why Balabanov had it. According to official records it's still in a police lockup, but if the agents follow this line of investigation they discover the pesticide was stolen about a week after Balabanov's arrest. Nobody knows where it is now.

The official reason for Balabanov's death is heart failure, but examination of the body (which the agents will have to carry out themselves) indicate exsanguination. Which begs a few questions, not least why the authorities in a quiet little town in France are so keen to obscure the cause of death.

Turns out the pesticide was intended for Addison Boland, specifically Alice Boland, as emails between her and Balabanov indicate. Addison Boland has a rat problem. A big one. The rats which infest Billington's made their way to Monaco long ago, and the two rat colonies communicate with each other. Alice hopes to sever communications, permanently. It's all part of her ongoing alliance with the Russians; she helps hide their money, they help her with her infighting. If Alice gets control of Addison Boland, then Addison Boland becomes an all-Russian shop. If Horace Addison retains control, then he'll probably kick the Russians to the kerb for helping Alice.

The Yojimbo Option, but with extra rats.


Sunday, 3 October 2021

London's Vauxhall (RPG All)

This week has been particularly busy as I've been writing/editing a Pelgrane project, so I haven't had as much time to think about Ephemera.

So this time it's going to be a short one (plus a book recommendation).

I've mentioned Liza Picard before.  She describes herself as 'not a properly trained historian. I am a lawyer by trade, and an inquisitive, practical woman by character.' Properly trained or otherwise, she's a far better historical writer than many who spent their whole lives buried in history's detritus. Born 1927, called to the bar when she was 21 (just after the war), she worked for Inland Revenue until 1987 when she retired and took up London as a hobby. Her book on Restoration London was published ten years later, and she's since come out with several more: Dr. Johnson's London, Elizabeth's London and Victorian London. 

So if you were looking for material to use, say, in Ken Hite's School of Night or Robin Laws' Bookhounds of London then Picard's your best source of plot hooks. I'd also recommend Picard to anyone looking for Swords of the Serpentine inspiration, particularly her Elizabethan history.

Picard's also one of those authors who doesn't believe in social media or giving interviews. Ordinarily I'd try to find a video or at least a newspaper article, but there really isn't much and as far as I know she hasn't a web page. Not that she needs one. I get the impression she's one of the few who writes to please herself and nobody else.

What I'm going to do now is flick to a random page in Dr. Johnson's London (1740-70) and invent a scenario seed based on whatever I find there.

As luck would have it I landed on the opening page of Chapter 22: Parties of Pleasure.


In 1732 Jonathan Tyers, 'the master builder of delight,' took over a 12-acre site in the fields across the river, and transformed it. Throughout the summer months, May to August, anyone looking respectable (known whores were barred) could come for the price of a shilling ticket. Paved paths through trees ran the length of the site, with cross alleys at right angles, and space near the entrance for a music room, 50 supper boxes adorned with paintings by Hogarth and others, Chinese pavilions and a round bandstand. Vistas were designed to show off a succession of triumphal arches, and some newly built Italian ruins and a statue of Handel by Roubiliac valued at a thousand guineas. There was a Turkish tent with doric pillars, and a famous 'tin cascade' at the end of one of the avenues, made of strips of tin and complete with miller's house. At nine o'clock each evening, a bell rang, a watchman shouted 'Take care of your pockets' and concealed lighting played on the shimmering strips ...

Known whores might have been barred, but there was plenty of sex to be had in the gardens. Vauxhall became notorious for it. 'The most experienced mothers have often lost themselves in looking for their daughters,' as a contemporary writer put it. The Gardens lasted for quite a while, until 1859 when the site finally closed. In the early years the Gardens were only accessible by boat but after Vauxhall Bridge was erected in 1810 the Gardens slowly became part of the Metropolis. There's still a Vauxhall Gardens today, but it's a modern London inner city park, very different from its previous incarnation.

Obtained via Wikipedia

Now to gamify.

Bookhounds of London

The zoetrope consists of a cylinder with cuts vertically in the sides. On the inner surface of the cylinder is a band with images from a set of sequenced pictures. As the cylinder spins, the user looks through the cuts at the pictures across. The scanning of the slits keeps the pictures from simply blurring together, and the user sees a rapid succession of images, producing the illusion of motion.

The Hounds pick up a 1741 book, The Mysteries of Nature and Art, as part of a miscellany in an auction. The author is unknown, which was a fairly common practice in the eighteenth century. Some of the engravings are reminiscent of William Hogarth, so the Hounds might try to pass it off as a Hogarth for a little extra cash. 

Among other things the book describes how to make a zoetrope and provides a series of images to help the amateur toymaker make their own zoetrope. The images show a young woman in a very fancy garden, pursued by an amorous rakehell. The images are titled A Walk In Vauxhall and the pages are slightly damaged; the rakehell's face is almost completely obscured by bookworm bores. 

After the Hounds acquire the book they have peculiar dreams about an apparently infinite pleasure garden, and the strange people they almost-but-not-quite see in the shadows. The dreams get worse and worse, until the Hounds start taking Stability losses.

Option 1: Build And They Will Come. The dreams can be stopped if someone constructs and uses the zoetrope. If that happens one room in the Shop will become permanently infested by the Gardens, such that anyone who steps through that door finds themselves wandering in this hideous playground. So long as the Hounds keep the door shut they need never worry about what's hiding in the Gardens. No, they never have to worry at all ...

Option 2: Worm In The Apple The Rakehell's face didn't vanish because it was eaten by a bookworm. The Rakehell is in fact a Crawling One, and is hiding on the other side of Dream waiting for a chance to get out. The dreams are a series of mental attacks intended to force one of the dreamers to become a host for the reborn Crawling One, willingly or otherwise.

Option 3: A Yellow Garden The zoetrope is actually a window into Carcosa, and if anyone's foolish enough to actually construct it then a copy of the King In Yellow, 1741 edition, will appear in the shop. Nobody knows where it came from. Destroying the zoetrope will destroy the 1741 edition, but not before someone comes face-to-face with the Mythos, with the additional Stability and Sanity loss than implies.


Sunday, 26 September 2021

Pennies and Dimes (Bookhounds of London)

The Dime Novel and Penny Dreadful are two terms that mean the same thing: cheap, mass-produced books. 

Often lurid, usually in poor taste, the whole point of the genre was to get as much cash as possible as cheaply as possible. Reprints were common. Exciting subjects - gunslingers, highwaymen, vampires, range wars, cannibal murderers - were standard. The whole point was to draw the purchaser in, get their dime or penny, and vamoose - because next month, next week even, there'd be another penny dreadful, another dime novel.

As might be expected these were not books built to last. Much like the broadsheets of previous centuries, they were mass-produced as cheaply as possible and started falling apart soon after purchase.

The first thing you see is the cover illustration, typically of some awful crime, a gunfight, or supernatural scene. That's the draw. It's what gets you to fork over your cash; you have to know what happens to that poor unfortunate, or what hideous crimes that black-a-vised villain is about to commit. Then there's the sordid events themselves, and there are many of them, piled high in a hideous bonfire. 

As Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a successful penny dreadful author, put it, the amount of crime, treachery, murder and slow poisoning, & general infamy required [by my readers] ... is something terrible.

That's what keeps you reading, and what keeps you coming back for more. It's the 19th-century equivalent of clickbait. Give the audience a picture of something titillating, then follow up with cheap, exciting trash. You'll never go poor when your business model relies on taking advantage of the gullible.

Pawn Stars, s17

These books are valuable now as collector's items. However, Bookhounds is set in the 1930s when it probably wasn't that difficult to find a moldering collection of cheap books from, say, the 1890s. Also, collectors weren't as interested in cheap ephemera. Fine copies of incunabula from the 1800s, yes please. Fine copies of Sweeny Todd's adventures, aka The String of Pearls, not so much.

So it's quite likely that penny dreadfuls and dime novels would find their way into the 1930s equivalent of the bargain bin. Or on one of the shelves outside, under canvas. Those outdoor shelving sections were ideal, from a bookseller's perspective. People would stop there to browse, perhaps because they got caught in a sudden downpour, and before long they came inside.

Alternatively the penny dreadful might find its way to the store's lending library. From Orwell:

It is therefore worth noting that of all the authors in our library the one who ‘went out’ the best was – Priestley? Hemingway? Walpole? Wodehouse? No, Ethel M. Dell, with Warwick Deeping a good second and Jeffrey Farnol, I should say, third. [two romance novelists and a historical romance novelist] Dell’s novels, of course, are read solely by women, but by women of all kinds and ages and not, as one might expect, merely by wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists. It is not true that men don’t read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel – the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel – seems to exist only for women. Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories. But their consumption of detective stories is terrific. 

It's easy to imagine Sweeny Todd or Spring-Heel Jack finding a comfortable home in the lending library. Easier still for the highwaymen, musketeers and pirates to find a home next to the detectives and crime novels, and especially those o-so-popular historical romances. If it has frills, curly beards and blushing maidens, it's practically gold - very cheap gold, but still.

How does this find your way into a Bookhounds game?

First, and most obvious, the comedy scene.

When I worked in a gaming store, Magic the Gathering was still on its first wave and the CCG market was exploding. Print a CCG and you were printing money. A lot of people with more money than sense bought full runs of obscure CCGs as an investment, and sure, some cards from back in the day are worth money, but the vast majority aren't worth the cardstock they were printed on. 

Every so often someone would come in with a sack-full of cards, jumbled together. They expected me to pay out vast sums, in cash, for their trash. Imagine their shock when I turned them away.

Now imagine someone walking through the Bookhounds' front door with a sack-full of penny dreadfuls, expecting a fortune. Sure, they're worth beer money, but ... The argument starts. Voices are raised. Someone throws something. Pandemonium and chaos!

Then there's the titles themselves, like Sweeny Todd, which might inspire their own scenario ideas. I've discussed that before so I shan't delve deeply into it now, except to say that there's all kinds of horror ideas lurking in penny dreadfuls. Half the point of those books was to splatter as much blood as possible.

Take a look at the images from Wild Will, another penny dreadful. There's inspiration there for three or four scenarios at least!

Finally, let's use penny dreadfuls as part of the Battleground of the Mind. This is an idea I floated back in 2016 and will return to now. 

The short version: mental combat can be described as a series of attacks against the Ego, Superego and Id. First described by Ken Hite in KWAS Mind Control, the central idea is to make mental attacks Thrilling, much as Chases are Thrilling in Night's Black Agents. You do this by changing the combat from a single win/lose die roll to a series of RP scenes in which the player fends off the attackers in what amounts to a mental dreamscape.

I said:

To look at, each layer of the target's mind exactly resembles the Bookstore ... 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 ...

Now picture the same concept - except the landscape is the penny dreadful, not the bookstore.

Sweeny Todd's London. Varney the Vampire's adventures across Europe. The school from the Lambs of Littlecote, slowly becoming twisted and wrong. 

Every time the character awakes from their 'dream' the penny dreadful is close by. Perhaps with a bookmark in the appropriate page. Were they reading it? Was it ... influencing them?

Above all, why is this happening?

Well, as to that last there are all kinds of options but I prefer Mythos influence. The target has become aware of the Mythos - perhaps they even suffered SAN loss as a consequence. This is especially likely if they've had direct contact with one of the big names, like Nyarlathotep. That Mythos contact is corrupting the character's psyche, and this attack on their mental facilities is one result of this. It might be deliberate, or it might be just one of those things. 

Think of it this way: the dream state begins in the Bookstore, but soon unravels - and does so in the style and setting of the penny dreadful. Their main opposition is the main antagonist in the penny dreadful. Dick Turpin, Varney the Vampire, whoever it may be. The attack's resolved in the Zoom's style. Fail, and, well ...  alas, alack the day. ;) 

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 19 September 2021

GenCon 2021

 Now it's all over and I have a chance to take stock, I want to give a shout out to all the players at GenCon2021.

I was a virtual Pelgrane GM again this year, and loved every minute of it. I ran three games - Excess Baggage, the Van Helsing Letter and Metal Ox. Two of those are Pelgrane products (modified) and one, Metal Ox, was my own work.

Three games straight is pretty tiring, even if it is only one game a day! I had tons of fun and I hope the players did too.

One of these days I shall have to get up to GenCon in person, but at the moment cost (and COVID) make it impossible. Still, there's always next year! Or the year after that ... ;) 

The Midway Point (RPG All)

Here, in the heart of the forest, the character embraces their new self. Knowledge is gained which can never be lost; where they have sought, here they find, and they can never go back. John Yorke, Into the Woods

I've talked a lot about campaign design. Core Concept Trees bear Core Concept Fruit, Where To Begin, the Arc. Now I want to talk about what happens midway through the campaign - or the one-shot.

The Midway point. Conflict and Drama.

Oedipus Rex, Chorus

As Director you should have a midway point in view, but may not know how to get there. This is because your players drive the narrative, and players have a tendency to go chasing moonbeams as it suits them. 

That said, as Director you already know that all this shooty bang-bang is going somewhere. Stanley David Fentiman's treachery is revealed. Bankhaus Klingemann's scandals come to light. Grand schemes are seen in all their malevolent glory - and the time has come to put an end to them.

So you know what the Middle looks like, even if you're not certain how to get there.

I'm going to suggest to you that the Middle is where you resolve plot, and establish new plot. It's also where the main direction of the narrative is established, and the characters progress from this point forward knowing what that direction is - whether or not they follow it themselves.

Let's say this is a Night's Black Agents game and the agents have been following the activities of the Conspiracy, and by extension Bankhaus Klingemann, throughout the plot to date. The agents have chased up some plot threads and have a vague idea of what's going on, but don't know what the end game is. Hints have dropped, and there have been some red herrings. The overall vision is still fuzzy.

The Midpoint does several things:

  • It clarifies the plot stream. From this point forward there's no question what the enemy wants to achieve, and probably no question about how they want to achieve it.
  • It resolves some or all of the outstanding character threads. Say the Bang-and-Burner has wanted to know what happened to her son from session one. Well, now she does - and it probably isn't good news. From this point forward, her goal is probably Revenge. In any case, whatever it is her new goal arises from the resolution of that plot thread.
  • It resolves the Bankhaus Klingemann narrative, whatever it may have been. Its assets are scattered, its main actors dead, imprisoned or otherwise neutralized. One or two survivors might lurk in the shadows to strike back at a later date, but the main threat is dealt with.
Why do all this, you may ask. You do this because the Midpoint is also a Mini-Conclusion. 

  • It resolves minor narrative threads, so they don't get in the way of the main narrative.
  • It establishes the main narrative. If there was doubt before, now there is none.
  • It gives the characters a little hit of victory, providing them with the energy they need to go on.
So now the agents know that all those diamonds they've been chasing are going to be used to make a deadly space laser, which the Conspiracy will use to blackmail the governments of the world. Or that the unusual secret government manufacturing facilities are actually being used to manufacture food for aliens. The question is, how do they stop it?

  Quatermass 2, Hammer Horror

Bankhaus Klingemann or its equivalent has to go, because it's exhausted its role in the narrative. It was financing peculiar research laboratories all over Europe. Now the focus has to switch to those research laboratories, and by extension the main plot of the narrative.

After all, Bankhaus Klingemann isn't the main event. The main event is the top tier of the Pyramid, the Vampires themselves. They're what's hiding behind all this smoke & mirrors, and they're who the agents have to ultimately defeat. Their big plan is what the agents have to stop. If their big plan is to grow devil plants, then finding those plants and destroying them is the focus of the final chapters. 

Defeating Bankhaus Klingemann sets the stage for the main event, whatever that may be. That doesn't mean it's gone for good. Crazy Uncle Albert might have survived the wreckage and now plots his revenge from some bunker in Switzerland, surrounded by zombie Lisle-a-likes. That could make a fun session, or perhaps just an action scene in the middle of a session. But the whole of the plot doesn't have to be about Uncle Albert.

How do you, as Director, know when the agents are approaching the Midpoint? After all, this is meant to be a player-facing, free-floating narrative. 

Well, apart from anything else you know the Midpoint approaches when it's clear the agents have gone about as far as they can with the opening chapters. They know what Lisle wants. They've foiled her plans a time or two. They've all but destroyed Bankhaus Klingemann as a financial institution, and sown the ground with salty social media posts. Stick a fork in it; it's done.

Remember, Bankhaus Klingemann was only ever intended as an insertion point. It was the first thing the agents encountered. The next few sessions were probably about exploring the Klingemann narrative, identifying the main actors (Lisle and Albert), probably getting into a few gunfights or Thrilling scenes - meat and potatoes.  

But there's only so far you can go. 

World of Warcraft, which I played to death back in vanilla, has many faults but also many strengths, or it would never have lasted as long as it has. One of those strengths is its willingness to push the narrative forward, through quest completion. At the start it's all 'find me six wolf tails' or whatever it may be, but as you progress you become wrapped up in intrigue. What happened to the Angamand family? What's going on in the Scarlet Monastery? 

Then you find yourself pushed into other zones - the Silverpine Forest, say - looking for answers, only to discover that those zones have things for you to do so you get wrapped up in its drama. Then someone asks you to take a message to Ogrimmar ... 

The game knows that there's only so much you can do in the starting zone. It might lure you back there now and again for big events, but that's just a fleeting visit. Eventually you'll have to leave that zone if you want to progress the narrative, and the game gently pushes you out there. 

Once the players find out what happened to the Angamands, what's going on at the Monastery, and have explored those threads as far as they can go, you - as Director - establish new threads. 

That's what the Midway Point is for.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!