Monday, 28 November 2011

So what's in this room?

I managed to fracture my wrist while painting my brother's apartment, which was very clever of me. I oughtn't to have been doing it and I doubt he'll be pleased with the result, but it had to get done. He's away for a month in Thailand (far, far away) and he asked me to look after his place (and his cat) while he was gone.

The man lives like a troll. I had no idea it was as bad as this. He hadn't cleaned the floor, or anything else, in five years. Piles of crap were everywhere. You had to pick your way through to the bedroom with a ten foot pole, for fear of traps. He left me four day's washing up in the sink. Roaches roamed wild and free throughout the kitchen, even during the day. The fridge was a biological weapons testing zone. All his clothes were on the floor in the bedroom, and by the look of things had been there for some time. Every cupboard, nook and cranny was crammed with tat, and he kept four or five suitcases (remember he flew to Thailand, so he has at least two other bags) to put more stuff in. Some of it was valuable; he had a preorder special edition of Battlefield 3 worth about $600, and a boxed set of Lost Girls going to mould under a pile of clothes in the bedroom. Some of it was worthless, like the Stephen King that had turned to black sludge after months if not years of sitting in a small, damp space, or the plastic bags with old candy bars in them that he'd probably bought at an airport somewhere and never eaten, lying under the clothing mountain in the bedroom.

I've spent the last few weeks getting the place in order, which is code for throwing out a lot of shit and cleaning the rest, as well as repainting. Pity about the fall, but c'est la vie; at least it happened at the end of the job and not the beginning.

I realized, as I set fire to the rubble, that if someone was interested they could put together a pretty accurate history of my brother if they analyzed the debris. He kept everything. His PC from college (with the 3 1/2 inch floppy drive) gathered dust in one of the cupboards. His old military gear was bundled up in several seperate piles throughout the house, as was his collection of knives and cigarette lighters. Every single shirt he ever bought or had bought for him, old presents that he'd lost in the confusion still in their wrapping paper. The list goes on, but you get the point: if he had it, it was there.

Which brings me to roleplay material, and a thought about NPCs.

As a player you may have noticed (or as a Keeper you may have dreaded) the natural impulse to poke your nose around every in-game location. For some reason as soon as a player character enters the room the need to search every nook and cranny is overwhelming. Even so, there's very little there. Most scenarios don't go into great detail; 'it's a laboratory/dining room/old stately home/ghetto flophouse' covers a lot of ground, but doesn't say much about the contents. It's as though, as with so many computer games, the background can't be interacted with and therefore doesn't exist. Rather like the mounds of gold coins in the map room of Uldaman, they're there to be looked at, not looted.

Yet that hardly seems reasonable, so I offer this suggestion to Keepers who want a little set dressing but don't want to go overboard.

Look at your NPC first. That person has a backstory. It may not be much, but it could be interesting. Then, from that backstory, pick four elements that will be useful.

Say the NPC is Stanley David Fentiman. Well, we know from his plot function what his goals are, and we know a little about his previous history. He's an ex-Oxford don, which suggests a conventional middle class upbringing and years of dedicated scholarship. It also suggests a certain amount of travel abroad, because to do the kind of work he would have done requires first-hand research, and that can't be done without going to museums, archives, possibly archaelogical sites (depending on his subject) and so on. As he's ex-Oxford there must have been a scandal of some kind. I don't know quite what you have to do in order to get chucked out of an academic post, but I'm betting it's nothing so trivial as pinching the spoons.

So the four things are: middle class background, years of scholarship, travel, and scandal.

For each point you can come up with ideas for items related to that point, things Fentiman might own and which might be found in his apartment, things that will add a bit of colour to the furnishings. The players are free to make as much or as little of them as they like.

So, for example, middle class background: good quality clothes, photographs, jewelry (cuff links, watch), cricket ball, bat, old jersey (from his days on the team when he was at prep school), letters to relatives, bank statements. Or years of scholarship: battered notebooks filled with crabbed handwriting and sketches, expensively bound published monographs, letters to colleagues, tickets to various archives and libraries.  Travel:  battered suitcases, ticket stubs, odd foreign coins, clothes obviously meant for a radically different climate, photographs. Scandal: odd notations or withdrawals recorded on his bank statements, blackmail letters, photographs, newspaper clippings.

Naturally you don't have to chuck all this in every room, but if the players search around they should be allowed to find them. None of this has to be plot relevant. What matters is they speak to character; they give the players a better idea of who this NPC is. They may even get so caught up in the NPCs backstory (so who's blackmailing Fentiman and does he know something useful?) that they lead themselves astray. That's no bad thing in itself. Let them chase false leads, or even create genuine leads from their speculation. The room furnishings can be part of the ongoing plot, with some preparation.

So long as it doesn't get like my brother's place . . .

Monday, 31 October 2011

Hell Fire

As some of you may already know, my latest Pelgrane project. Hell Fire, has hit the electronic shelves. I'm very pleased to see it; it's been a while in gestation, and there's nothing like the satisfaction you get from seeing a creative work of yours take wing.

I thought I'd talk a little bit about the scenario writing process, and use Hell Fire as an example.

When I first pitched to Pelgrane, lo these many moons ago, it was for the scenario that eventually became Brick Kiln and appeared in the Unspeakable Oath. It didn't really appeal to the folks at Pelgrane, as it felt a bit too much like a haunted house scenario, and they were trying to steer clear of those. Then we talked about The Zeppelin Raid, a scenario which has yet to see the light of day and is based on a painting I saw at the Queen's House in Greenwich, London. Initial response was positive as they thought there were actually zeppelins in the scenario, something I hadn't really planned on, and parts of that idea were recycled into Suited and Booted, a Call of Cthulhu scenario that, as luck would have it, also ended up in that same issue of the Unspeakable Oath. From zeppelins war stories inevitably followed, and I successfully pitched Not So Quiet, which is now part of the Out of Time collection.

Since then we've talked about several other projects, one of which became Hell Fire.

I enjoy history. My personal bookshelves are split about 50/50 these days between history, (a broad term in which I lump such diverse subjects as stage magic, occultism, the Great War, piracy on the high seas, Prohibition, Victorian England, Medieval Europe and the great ocean liners of the early 20th Century, among others), and fiction, much of which tends to be historical fiction (ie. this sort of thing) these days.  So the attraction of what amounts to a spy story set in the 18th Century and involves the Chevalier d'Eon and a heavily disguised Benjamin Franklin ought to be fairly obvious. That I was then able to set part of it in Bermuda only sweetened the deal.

Why disguise Benjamin? Well, the answer has nothing to do with worries I may have had about plunging a real person into the depths. After all, the real person did have (nebulous) links with Dashwood's Hell Fire Club and may or may not have been involved in espionage, both of which subjects are important parts of the scenario. No, the reason for changing the character was that, as written, the odds were fairly high he'd die (though of course in an RPG scenario nothing is certain) and I didn't feel entirely comfortable changing established events to that extent.

One of the major problems with writing for print is how to get the characters in the same room following the same plot. Many of the old Chaosium scenarios assumed that the characters were 'into that sort of thing' and were likely to take a leave of absence from their jobs and scuttle off to, oh, Mississippi, or Maylasia, at the least hint (delivered by newspaper clipping, more often than not) that Something Wicked This Way Went. There wasn't any attempt to rationalize it. While this does have its good points - frankly I'm not sure you need to rationalize that sort of thing - it does create an atmosphere of desperate cliche right at the start of the session, which really isn't something you as Keeper want to foster. It's the horror equivalent of going to the travellers inn and talking to the mysterious man in the hooded cloak, and not (for example) the barmaid with the bubbly personality who doesn't have an adventure hook but does seem like more fun to be around.

Another option is to be summoned to the plot location by a dear old friend. This has been done more than once, and starts off at least one famous campaign. I've used it myself in Brick Kiln, though I tried to add to it by saying that the dear old friend wanted them to value something he'd picked up in France. Again, it's not a bad way to start a game, and it does get them all in the same room at the same time, but it has been used many times now and is starting to look frayed.

A third is pure accident: the characters end up at the plot location by chance and then have to deal with what follows. I used this in Not So Quiet, and it's an important part of the scenario Mr Corbitt in Mansions of Madness. I like it as a concept, but it's the sort of thing you can only really get away with in one-shots or in the opening scenario of a campaign. Otherwise it starts to feel as though the characters are the unluckiest group of misfits since Scooby Doo, wandering by simple chance from disaster area to disaster area.

A fourth, which is the Hell Fire option, is to start with the characters already up to their necks in trouble, forcing them to start swimming or drown. As they're already heavily involved in the plot (or what appears to be the plot) they've every reason to start working together, since if they strike out on their own they probably won't make it. I haven't seen this in published scenarios that often. The Cthulhu Now scenario In Media Res, first published in the Unspeakable Oath issue 10, uses it, and there are others. The idea lends itself to pregenerated characters but I suppose there's no reason why that has to be so. Nor does it have to be a one-shot; you could start a decent Golden Dawn or Delta Green campaign that way. Of course it does assume that all the characters have broadly similar beliefs or tastes. In a Golden Dawn setting all the characters would have to be members of that occult group, while in Hell Fire the protagonists are all members of the same Club.

The trick is that whatever option you (as writer) choose, it has to be sufficiently open to cover all the bases. You don't know what player characters will come tramping through the front door, not bothering to wipe their boots and tracking mud all over the clues. It might be one of several scenarios in someone's campaign, or it might be a one-shot. They could be anybody. A group of tweedy academics from Miskatonic, professional spook hunters a la Carnacki, or a few darn kids and their talking dog; the list is endless, but the point is you have to consider all possibilities, and close off as few of them as possible. So you can't afford to be too picky, when it comes to the opening scenes. Yes, the dear old friend ploy may be riddled with cliche, as might the funeral gambit or the haunted house scenario. That shouldn't matter. What should matter is efficiency: does this format serve the purpose of getting the group to the plot as quickly as possible? If the answer is yes, then go for it.

In RPG writing, the plot is what's important. The opening scenes are just a means to an end. This is slightly different from fiction writing, in which the opening sentence is supposed to be where you put your wow factor; in fiction, you're trying to tempt the reader into reading the whole thing, so the first thing they see is critical to your success. In RPG writing, that isn't so. The characters will never know what your first sentence was, and they certainly won't care too much about the ropey opening scene if what follows is sufficiently engaging. People soon forget about the desperate, threadbare nature of the plot hook in Masks of Nyarlathotep (for example) because once they're invovled in the plot it occupies all of their attention, and to this day Masks is considered one of the best Call of Cthulhu campaigns out there.

Of course, if the players don't like the plot, they'll probably also complain about the opening scenes, but that's just them babbling. They didn't like the whole of it, so they'll pick apart the whole of it. At that stage it doesn't matter if the opening scenes were first class or rubbish; they're just part of the target area which they're currently carpet bombing.

That's enough of that, I think. Next time, something other than RPG stuff!

Thursday, 27 October 2011


The Crawling Chaos appeared in one short story, is referenced in several other stories, but otherwise doesn't seem to have been the major figure that he later became in RPG mythology. Lovecraft had a lot of fish to fry, and while Nyarlathotep does embody civilization under threat and the uneasy concept of race taint, two topics that were his touchstones, Nyarlathotep was just one of many entities in the Mythos. Yet of all the Old Ones gamers seem to have taken to the Black Pharaoh the most. He has his own campaign,  (considered by many to be one of the best ever RPG campaigns), has no less than forty seperate entries in the Malleus Monstrorum, including all the avatars, is an intergral part of Delta Green's Club Apocalypse and Karotechia campaign adversaries, and appears either as a main antagonist or a significant feature of Lord alone knows how many adventures, one-shots, monographs and so on.

Why has the gaming world taken to the Dark One?

Some of his appeal is obvious. He's one of the few Old Ones with anything like an identifiable personality and a stated purpose, whose mission brings him directly into contact with humanity. Moreover he's a free agent, unlike Cthulhu, who pretty much has to stay in his Pacific Ocean tomb. Being tied to one location means that if the players are ever to encounter him they have to go on a world-spanning quest, whereas they can find the Horned Man almost anywhere. That helps the Keeper, because it means Nyarlathotep can be used in any setting they care to imagine. Abandoned Victorian school? No problem. Polar research station? No problem. Forgotten amusement parks, museums, warships, subway stations - wherever the Keeper chooses, Nyarlathotep can fit right in, with minimal or no modification required. Very few other Old Ones can inhabit that many different environments, or fulfill that many story functions.

However I suspect there is an underlying fascination here, that has its roots in Greek mythology. Nyarlathotep, to my mind, owes a debt to Dionysus, and in retelling his story we find ourselves repeating an ancient legend.

Euripdes' Bacchae tells the best known version of the Dionysiac legend. In the play, the return of the God to Thebes (the city that ought to honor him above all others as he is related to the Kings of Thebes by birth) is opposed by Pentheus, the current King and presumably a cousin to the God. Dionysius whips up a frenzy in the women of Thebes, who go to venerate him on the mountaintop in orgy and delight. Pentheus, in disguise, follows them determined to find out more about the sacred Mysteries, though it's heavily implied he also wants to see naked debauched women - including, incidentally, his own mother. The tale could only end badly. Pentheus is torn apart by the women, and his mother, intoxicated an confused, presents the dead King's head to his grandfather as a hunting trophy. Practically everyone in the play suffers to some extent, whether by death (Pentheus), exile, (his mother), being transformed into snakes (his grandfather and grandmother) or in some other way.

Compare this to Nyarlathotep. In the short (very short) story, the unnamed narrator hears tell of a dark and mysterious stranger who has set the world on its head with his dark and terrible mysteries. He makes up his mind to see for himself, and goes with a friend to a meeting place where Nyarlathotep delivers his revelations to the throng. The narrator is the only one to speak out: "And when I, who was colder and more scientific than the rest, mumbled a trembling protest about imposture and static electricity, Nyarlathotep drove us all out, down the dizzy stairs into the damp, hot, deserted midnight streets. I screamed aloud that I was not afraid; that I never could be afraid; and others screamed with me for solace." Their punishment is swift and brutal. The narrator and his companions are driven out and destroyed, and the city with them. "Once we looked at the pavement and found the blocks loose and displaced by grass, with scarce a line of rusted metal to show where the tramways had run. And again we saw a tram-car, lone, windowless, dilapidated, and almost on its side." Soon the narrator is the only one of them left, and even he is doomed to die, or worse, at the command of "the gigantic, tenebrous ultimate gods the blind, voiceless, mindless gargoyles whose soul is Nyarlathotep."

The influence of Euripides is plain. The God figure, Dionysius or Nyarlathotep, comes from outside, the stranger with a grim reputation. He has revelations to spare, for those willing to listen, but for Pentheus and his ilk, only death and despair. And in the end, for the faithful and the faithless alike, there is only a ruined city and desolation to come.

Yet what does this mean in RPG terms?

In game, the protagonists are effectively the sons and daughters of Pentheus. Like the King of Thebes and the narrator of Lovecraft's short piece they too seek out the inner workings of the mystery. They want to know, in Masks, whether there really is a global organization acting out the will of an ancient God. They want to find out who's partying in the Green Bar  at Club Apocalypse, or why a cult of skinless men tried to kill their friend Professor Smith. They want to know what, if any, truth there is to the rumour of a new Hitler ensconced somewhere in South America. They want to penetrate to the very heart of the mystery and understand it, and as has been pointed out by Sandy Petersen, every mystery is like the layers of an onion: peel away one skin, and another is revealed beneath it. So the protagonists will keep digging until they get as far as they're going to go, and in Cthulhu that usually means insanity, death, or both - the fate of Pentheus and the unnamed narrator, visited on your players' characters. All unknowing, they've been characters in a drama that has been going on since time immemorial, with Nyarlathotep as their director. For the minute they decided to go in disguise up to the mountaintop, to attend that awful lecture, to go find out what was really going on - at that point they were doomed, beyond salvation, and that is the story of Nyarlathotep.

The Crawling Chaos represents the reward all seekers into the mysteries ultimately receive: ignominious and pitiless destruction, not just of them, but of all their future hopes. Snakes and forgotten tram cars are their only monuments. Or, in RPG terms, a crumpled piece of paper with hasty erasure marks and repeated notches along the dwindling Sanity bar. Moreover none of them can claim innocence; ultimately this was what they wanted. Else why start on the journey in the first place?

Stranger: Ah! Would you like to see them in their gatherings upon the mountain?
Pentheus: Very much. Ay, and pay uncounted gold for the pleasure.
Stranger: Why have you conceived so strong a desire?
Pentheus: Though it would pain me to see them drunk with wine-
Stranger: Yet you would like to see them, pain and all.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Bookhounds Campaign Thoughts Part 4: The Structure

Which is a little different from the Arc, I promise.

Last time I discussed the nature of antagonists and the importance of giving them sufficient power to directly affect the plot. This helps create the story by providing motivators, which affect the narrative the same way an engine powers a car. These motivators can be as simple as 'my power dictates that you must do X' - where X may be hunt up a particular grimoire, go to a certain place and do a certain thing, and so on. In a sword and sorcery RPG, the equivalent would be a wizard charging the hero with a quest to go to the Lonely Mountain and help a band of dwarves break in to steal the dragon's loot hidden therein. The wizard has a completely different kind of power than the kind we've been discussing, but that doesn't matter. What does matter is he has sufficient power to directly affect the plot, and get the protagonists moving toward their goal. There are other kinds of motivators, such as 'my power is such that I will dominate the world unless you stop me' or 'without my power the world is doomed, so you'd better save me' or 'my power is being misused, and that will cause a lot of trouble for all concerned.' You can probably think of several others, but the point is they all start with 'my power.' Power makes the arc go round (a buck or a pound, a buck or a pound), and the antagonist is in the Emcee role: they are at the centre of the action.

What does this mean to the overall structure?

I've already discussed the kind of story this is going to be in the first post on this topic, Campaign Thoughts. Just to refresh everyone's memory, this is what was said:

"The opening act would introduce the characters to the world, and to Sarah Montgomery. The second act would reveal Montgomery's plotline, and have the characters attempt to foil it, or perhaps pick up the pieces when it all comes crashing down around her ears. The final act would be a race against time to stop Fentiman, before he does something that will change the world forever."

It didn't have to be like that, of course. There are other ways it could have played out, but that particular dichotomy is useful to the overall structure of the planned campaign. I'm now going to discuss why that is so.

Bookhounds is a horror game. Much could be said about the structure of horror narratives, but the point I want you to understand for now is this: in horror, all victories are Pyrrhic. There are always terrible losses, and the protagonists lose friends, their social position and reputation, their money, possibly everything they ever held dear, even if they get out alive. In Alien, for example, victory can only be had once everyone else is dead and the ship has blown up. In The Shining, Jack Torrance has to be sacrificed before the protagonists have a hope of victory. Lucy Westerna's death in Dracula, Victor Frankenstein's tragedy, the climax of Night of the Living Dead - time and time again what little victory there is, is achieved only after disaster and death.

With that in mind, there needs to be a Pyrrhic victory here, preferably one that's built into the structure. After all, in an RPG you can't count on the protagonists doing exactly as you would like them to do. They're unlikely to obligingly sacrifice themselves on cue to heighten the experience; if anything they're going to hang on tooth and nail to what they have.

In this example, it's Sarah Montgomery who fills that role. Her plot function is twofold: she provides the money and power to get the protagonists moving in the right direction, and her failure - orchestrated by Fentiman - provides the kind of sacrifice that the structure will need.

The money is key, both for the reasons discussed in earlier posts and for one more reason I want to mention now, because it directly impacts the structure. Bookhounds is ultimately about buying and selling, about money and what it can get you. The characters are assumed to be at the low end of the totem pole in this arrangement: they may not be poor, exactly, but they certainly don't have enough money to do everything they want to do. Sarah's wealth helps put their financial position in perspective. It's two parts envy to one part class war. It adds a bit of sauce to the protagonist's grilled cheese sandwich (cooked on a hot plate and served with a bottle of Bass) to know that their frienemy is dining at the Ritz with the finest Bollinger on chill. Also, in an English context, where Sarah is almost certainly landed gentry with blue blood going back to [whenever - the Tudors, the Conquest], the protagonists are working class with no more pedigree than the moggy scraping scraps out of the bins behind the shop. This creates tension, and the Keeper should do everything to help foster that tension. If they and Sarah travel by train to the same destination, then Sarah should definitely have a seat in the Pullman while the protagonists rub shoulders with drunks and racing touts in 3rd Class. If they and Sarah are attending the same auction then the auctioneer, his assistants and anyone else in authority ought to be dancing to her tune, and offering to do her favours, while ignoring the importuning protagonists. 

However her goal, to remake the world as if the Great War had never happened, is one that the protagonists may sympathise with. They may have seen its horrors first hand, but even if they didn't they'll understand how removing it from history could easily change so many things for the better, and also save countless millions of lives. They may cooperate with her, at least to the extent of finding out more about what she wants to do and how she intends to go about it. Ideally they might provide material assistance, like helping her obtain a particular volume or planning out the arcane ritual site that she'll need to build on her estate, but even if they don't do that they should be motivated enough by this point to get involved in some other capacity. That means they'll be on hand when everything goes to Hell in a handbasket.

Her downfall is all the more tragic, because - thanks to Fentiman, and possibly also thanks to her own hubris - her scheme is doomed to fail. Since in the doing of it she'll be playing with some very dangerous powers, the resultant destruction should be on an epic scale. If it happens on her estate, then her home and everyone in it, at a minimum, would be killed or crippled, and it's entirely possible that the devestation will go further and effect, say, the nearby village, upping the body count from scores to hundreds.

Which brings me to the Mythos, and Fentiman's role in the structure.

Bookhounds - and Trail in general - has a nice take on the Old Ones. In that setting the Gods have no statistics or stated abilities, and Hite says this "is because these beings are essentially unstoppable by any force the Investigators are able to wield - except occasionally, by dangerous and chancy uses of Mythos lore . . . It's up to the Keeper to work out whether any given appearance of a god or titan in the adventure is the final challenge to be overcome, or an unmistakable signal that the investigators have failed." The Old Ones are the third rail of the Mythos: get too close, or touch them, and you die.

In this instance it's the power of the Mythos, misused, that caused the devestation which wiped out Sarah, her home and friends, possibly hundreds of others. That's a pretty clear signal to the protagonists that the stakes are as high as they can get, and that if this happens again they can expect even worse than has already occurred to be the result.

At which point they discover that Fentiman intends to do it again, and this time he's going to put even more power into it. As stated in Campaign Thoughts, he intends to create a school of black magic with himself appointed as its immortal headmaster. Of course, that school could be based anywhere, but given the nature of the campaign (it is Bookhounds of London, after all), where could it be but the Big Smoke? There are plenty of rambling Victorian red brick schools there, some of them conveniently abandoned, that he could use as a starting point. The exact location is ultimately Keeper's whim, but whether he's South or North of the Thames he's bound to be in a heavily populated area. Sarah's disaster killed scores, possibly hundreds of people, but at least it was limited to a relatively quiet bit of countryside; this will be happening in a city in which over 8 million people live. If the protagonists want to save their homes, their livelihoods, their friends, and everything they hold dear, they'd better do something to stop it. Fentiman is the capstone of the structure. Everything has been leading to this point, when the protagonists have to step in or face utter ruin.

Thus the structure is complete, and the protagonists have only to add the finishing touches. Will they stop Fentiman? Will Fentiman's scheme actually succeed exactly as he plans it, and create a school for necromancy with him as headmaster? If so, what does that mean for the protagonists, and for London? Will Fentiman triumphant want to persecute the protagonists, or does he perhaps have a place for them at his new institution of horrific learning? Perhaps the protagonists' blundering actually causes the disaster they were trying to prevent. There are many different ways it could play out; ultimately it's up to the protagonists. They're the heroes of the story, after all.

And on that note, I'll draw the discussion to a close. Next time, something completely different!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Bookhounds Campaign Thoughts Part 3: the Arc

Okay, so you've put the players through their paces, they've become comfortable with the setting and the mechanics, and they've just become aware of the major plot arc. What next?

Let's take a step back and talk about antagonists again, with Sarah Montgomery and Stanley David Fentiman as examples. Why were they chosen?

Well, in part they were designed to match the setting.. Each setting has its own quirks. An early Gothic locale with crumbling castles out in the lonely countryside is very different from a bustling coastal city in the glory days of Haroun al-Rashid (may he live forever), and both are as different again from an antiseptic space station out on the periphery where the least breach of delicately balanced artificial systems could mean death for everyone on board. Each setting demands a particular kind of antagonist. Sauron only really makes sense in Middle Earth; he'd be out of place in the Wild West. He could be made to fit, but in the doing of it he'd stop being Sauron and become something comletely different. A mad AI determined to eradicate disease by eliminating potential carriers would be great in the space station, but wouldn't make nearly as much sense in Baghdad, and so on.

This is Bookhounds, and that means buying and selling, with the characters as middle men, taking their cut from each transaction. Buyers and sellers are the best antagonists in that situation.

Sarah Montgomery is the buyer. She has wealth, and that often translates to power and influence; she's used to getting what she wants. That means she can put pressure on the protagonists in ways most customers can't; she can cause them legal troubles, financial problems, pay for thugs to smash up their store. Equally she can reward them far beyond their wildest dreams, should she wish to. Both are powerful motivators, but some Keepers may wonder, why make her as rich as all that? Surely she didn't need to be so wealthy to be an effective antagonist? 

Yes and no. Yes she could be effective without wealth, so long as she had enough money to be interesting to the characters. However it's more useful to the Keeper if she's more powerful than the characters and their allies put together. Someone living in the hobo shack down by the railway tracks can be beaten up, or have their possessions ransacked, and not be able to retaliate. The players know this, and if they think the antagonist is weak they'll probably go on the offensive. Usually the Keeper doesn't want this to happen. There are times when attacking can be a lot of fun to play through (there's a reason why Dungeons and Dragons is still one of the most popular tabletop systems out there) but in horror games direct assault ought to be the last resort, since there are too many ways it can go wrong. Wealth is a clear indicator of power, and power doesn't get attacked very often, at least not directly. Making Sarah wealthy - which means she'd have all the trappings of wealth, including bodyguards, assistants, a large estate out in the countryside where everyone's her friend or ally as she's the Lady of the Manor - signals to the players that direct action isn't the way forward.  

It also means, in a game world focused on buying and selling, that she's an attractive target. After all, when someone can afford to pay three or four times the going rate, and not quibble about the price, the vendor starts paying attention. That's a pretty tasty reward for a day's work.  If the characters want it, they need to do what she wants them to do. Someone with less money would be less interesting. Why should a vendor go out of his or her way to satisfy a customer who always demands a discount and never pays list price if they can help it? There are other customers willing to pay for what they want. 

The fundamental principle is this: just as the antagonist needs to fit the game world, they also need to be powerful enough to be useful to the overall plot. The mad AI on the space station has no wealth at all. That doesn't matter: it controls all the station's systems, including life support and security. In other words, it has power that is appropriate to the setting, which in turn means it can directly affect the plot. The plot needs to be paramount, in a story-driven game; the plot is what drives the characters forward, what gives them their motivation and their goal. Without it, they're adrift, and the game suffers.

So back to Fentiman. If Sarah's such an effective protagonist, why is he here?

Well, in part he's here to provide Sarah with knowledge she doesn't have and can't get with money alone. He's the one with the occult skill, and she has the resources to make it happen. In theory he didn't have to be there: she could have had the occult skill herself. However that would raise more questions than it answers, chief among them being: how did she get that skill in the first place? It seems out of character for a wealthy widow to somehow have all the knowledge she needs as well as the money. Genuine polymaths do exist, but they're incredibly rare. To put it in modern context: Lord Sugar is a businessman with decades of experience behind him, but that doesn't mean he could design a computer system, or build an office tower, or win the Grand Prix. All those achievements take a particular skill set, and it isn't reasonable to suppose that he would have them all, any more than it's reasonable to suppose Sarah can do everything she wants to do. It also begs other questions, like 'if she had magic powers why didn't she protect her sons during the War' or 'doesn't she realize that what she's trying to do involves dealing with forces she can't control' or even 'so why does she need us Bookhounds, if she's already got the power she needs to make it happen?'

Whereas if Fentiman is involved things start to make more sense. Yes, he has the natural ability, but he's always lacked the funding necessary to get what he wants. He probably knows a great deal, but the real secrets have always been just out of his reach, so he needs the Bookhounds or someone like them to hunt up the grimoires he'll then use to further his schemes. He is her agent, but he has his own plans, and that means he can complicate the players' lives in ways Sarah's never dreamed of. She has lawyers and flunkies: he can summon up the powers of the Mythos. She can interfere in their day-to-day; he can infiltrate their dreams and plague them with nightmares. Again, his power is appropriate to the setting, but in a completely different way. He represents the true threat, in a horror game: the one who can plunge everything into chaos, and will, to get what he wants.

That's it for the moment: one more to follow.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Bookhounds Campaign Thoughts Part 2: the Early Chapters

So we have our antagonists, Susan Montgomery and Stanley David Fentiman. What to do with them? How shall the initial scenarios play out?

I'm assuming a mini campaign with at least three acts. In the first act, the players get used to the setting and are introduced to the antagonists. In the second, they deal with the first major arc, Susan Montgomery's plot, and are introduced to the second one, Fentiman's plot. In the third they deal with Fentiman, and conclude the overarching storyline. Each act consists of at least three seperate scenarios, so about nine sessions overall. Assume that an individual session can last an average of two play evenings (more or less, depending on the group's availability and the speed at which they tackle plot) and you ought to end up with eighteen evenings of play, or two to three months total.

That's a lot of time. It needs to be filled.

This Ephemera is going to tackle the first act, where the players are introduced to the setting and the antagonists.

The obvious first question is, why have a first act at all? It could end up being talkie talkie and not enough action. Why not leap straight into the plot?

The answer to that is you need the first act to establish the setting, the characters and the overall mood of the game. Whether the players are veterans, novices or a mixture of the two, they've never played in this game world before, because it's your game world, fashioned out of your ideas and imagination. They don't know what to look forward to, or what to be worried about. They may not know all of the rules, and they certainly won't know all of the locations or NPCs since you're going to be making many of those up yourself.

Bookhounds suggests three potential campaign styles: Arabesque, Sordid and Technicolour, and adds a fourth descriptor that could apply to all three, Tainted. It doesn't really matter which you pick for your campaign; what matters is the players get to understand what that means, both to the plot and to their characters. The whole point of the first act, in any campaign, is to establish mood and setting. You don't even have to introduce main plot at all if you don't want to. The important thing is, if the setting is Arabesque, then the first act has to drive that home to the players. Everything they see, do or encounter has to reinforce that atmosphere.

They don't even have to encounter the Mythos, or anything supernatural, in the opening act, so long as the opening act is true to the overall mood.

There's two important points to consider here. The first is that getting them used to the setting is paramount, and anything that distracts from that is to be avoided. By having them chase ghoulies in the very first scenes, you're distracting them. It may seem interesting at first, but it does mean that later on they may not fully understand what's going on or what they can do about it.

The second is that every reveal detracts from the ultimate horror. It's the first rule of good ghost stories: the less you see, the more you imagine. When M.R. James wrote his chillers, he didn't pitch the protagonist straight in and have them grappling with demons right from page one. In fact, you rarely ever see the creatures in his stories at all. In Canon Alberic's Scrap Book, for example, there's only one very brief scene with an actual spectre - no more. Yet there's plenty there to keep the reader occupied. If you as Keeper chuck in ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties right from the get-go, you're only doing yourself harm in the long run. The big reveal should be a Big Reveal, and that means you oughtn't to detract from it by revealing your hand too soon.

Horror on the Orient Express has an interesting way of going about this. The initial scenes are pure prologue, (with the exception of one haunted train moment that many Keepers skip anyway). There's plenty going on, but it's all aimed at establishing setting and mood. Those are the scenes in which wise Keepers will be playing the Orient Express for all its worth, emphasising its luxury, the wine list, the attendants at your beck and call, the incredible novelty of such a fantastic train. Later, when things start to go wrong, it's exactly that information that will be most useful to the players. 

What you as Keeper ought to be doing is getting the players to concentrate on the things that matter (at least in the short term): the setting and the starting location. In Bookhounds, that's the shop, and book auctions, which even for veteran players will be an unusual challenge.

Some may wonder how they're going to make a session out of encounters in a shop. Those people have never worked in retail.

All the world passes through your door, and most of them are time wasters. People looking for a free toilet, hoping for shelter from the rain, who want a book for Uncle Bob but don't know what the book is called or who the author is, drunks, lunatics, thieves, actual honest to God members of the public who don't know what they want but might (glory be!) spend some money, and on and on and on. And that's just the customers - what about the staff? Slackers, dopeheads, no-hopers and snarky drudges, almost to a man (or woman). It's enough to drive you to drink, and if you happen to own the store you've probably got a bottle stashed away for emergencies.

The key here is to establish the shop as an important location, and its regular customers and staff as its major players. Many of the staff roles will be taken by player characters, but that doesn't mean all of them will, and whether they are or aren't, the customers aren't PCs. The very first scenario ought to be all about the store, and its daily routine. That gives the players some foundation for their future adventures. The major event of that scenario could be something relatively mundane - say, chasing down a potential squizz for a very important customer, which has the unfortunate character wandering all over London looking for something suitable. Not only does that keep the player busy, it's also a handy reference for future scenarios, as it introduces several other important locations and NPCs. Rival bookstores, markets, forgers, possibly the police, and so on.

Later scenarios in the opening arc could introduce other important plot elements. Say the Keeper chooses to use Idiosyncratic Magic, as introduced in the main rulebook and later fleshed out in Rough Magicks. If that's on offer then the players need to get used to the idea, so now's the time for some simple magic tricks, perhaps taught to the character by an NPC or picked up as they go along. Let them try these incantations in relatively safe circumstances, and they'll be more willing to rely on them later on. Of course there has to be at least one big book auction too; after all, that's as integral to the Bookhounds setting as dungeons are to Dungeons and Dragons. It'd be a pity not to indulge the players in an auction scene, particularly one where they win out over some hated rival by the skin of their teeth.

By the time the opening arc reaches its conclusion the players should be comfortable with the setting, the mechanics and the mood of the campaign. They may have met one of Sarah Montgomery's agents by now; possibly she was the important customer who wanted that squizz mentioned earlier. They've certainly had a few triumphs by this point and they ought to know by this stage that there are Things Out There. Possibly one of those spells went wrong, or they found the ghastly remains of someone who wasn't as lucky as them. Or they may even have been studying the stock a little too closely for comfort . . .

But however it went, now is the time to introduce them to the overall plot, and bring the introduction to a close.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

One Quick Addendum

Concerning occult tomes.

I've written an article on the subject of Cthulhuoid grimoires, which the Escapist was kind enough to publish. If you'd like to read that article, it can be found here. It's not the only thing I've written for the Escapist; by all means have a look at my other articles, though I should say up front that few of them are horror-based.


Bookhounds Campaign Thoughts

This is inspired in part by a thread on YSDC.

For those who aren't familiar with the setting, Bookhounds is a 1930s era campaign book for the Trail of Cthulhu horror RPG. The concept is, the characters are traders in antiquarian tomes of one kind or another, particularly occult or outre grimoires, and they get their daily bread by trading in knowledge that man was not meant to know. It's a fine line: do you opt for poverty and refuse to sell to the sinister gentleman who may have very dangerous ideas, or do you damn the consequences and hope it all comes out all right in the end? Perhaps you opt for an even more dangerous game, and forge realistic looking tomes for sale to the highest bidder. The setting lends itself to M.R. Jamesian spook stories (many of his protagonists were antiquarians, and not a few found themselves in awful trouble because of a dusty old book) and has an atmosphere that's part Lovejoy and part Club Dumas.

The question is, what to do with it? Bookhounds is an impressive toybox, but can leave even veteran keepers feeling overwhelmed. As a setting, it's very nearly unique; plenty of games have horror elements and London certainly has been used before, but the antiquarian book trade is something altogether other. Most RPGs assume that the protagonists are Heroes with a Capital Haitch, and while Cthulhu tends towards the weedy academic side of the street even so there's usually one or two brutish toughs in the group. This time everyone's a cultured sort of gent who wouldn't dream of dirtying their knuckles - not when they can pay someone else to do it for them, at any rate. How do you set up a campaign with that sort of group?

Well, the obvious first step is to pick an antagonist. The essence of the setting is trade: the characters are buying and selling knowledge. Therefore the antagonist is going to be someone interested in that knowledge.

This is slightly different from the average Cthulhuoid plot, in which a disparate group of loons get drafted in by dear old pal X to globetrot around the world (see also Masks of Nyarlathotep, Horror on the Orient Express) fighting cults or helping stop the awakening of Old One [fill in the blank]. This time out there is no dear old pal X nor is there necessarily a global conspiracy. There's just the trade, and most of the action will be taking place in one location, London.

So let's start out by designing that one antagonist whose actions will spur the plot along: the customer. [S]he may or may not be mortal, or human. That said, there has to be power here, and a lot of it, for two reasons. First, without power there is no real conflict: the characters will probably be able to foil the evil schemes of a hobo living in the back alley behind the shop. Second, without power there's no real reason to worry. Even if the hobo's machinations aren't stopped, they can probably be ignored.

There also has to be an overarching goal for the antagonist. [S]he wants knowledge; if not, there'd be no reason to do business with the characters. There must be a reason for wanting that knowledge. Perhaps they want more power, or immortality, or to create some lasting monument to their God (or themselves, if they're going the Carnegie route). Whatever it may be, it is a concrete goal which they can only achieve by using occult means.

With those two facts in mind, let's brainstorm.

Assume a very wealthy widow, Sarah Montgomery, who lost her two sons in the Great War, wants to recreate the world that she believes was lost when the Guns of August started firing. She doesn't just want her sons back; she wants to remake everything as though the First World War had never happened. Because she has dabbled in spiritualism she came into contact with someone steeped in Mythos knowledge, Stanley David Fentiman, ex-Oxford don, who has a different goal in mind: he wants to recreate the school of black magic that existed at Chorazin, once upon a time, and set himself up as its new (immortal) headmaster. Fentiman is using Montgomery's money and connections to get the knowledge he needs, and in exchange he's promised to help her get what she wants.

Here you have two antagonists with very different goals working together. One is motivated by grief and loss, the other by a lust for power and immortality. In each case the motives are human and understandable, but in order to achieve their goals both will have to steep themselves in Mythos knowledge.

Which is where the characters come in. At first they may only know about Sarah Montgomery, and they may not even meet her face to face. After all, someone as wealthy as her can afford to hire agents to do their work for them. However they will be drawn into her schemes by her continuing search for Mythos knowledge, and in the process of uncovering books for her they'll reveal her overarching goal. Who knows? They may even agree with her, that the world would be better off if the War never happened. That said, the methods she's using to get what she wants are highly questionable, and could lead to disaster. She'll be drawing on the powers of the Old Ones to do what she intends, and that can only lead to trouble. Is her plan even feasable, or has Fentiman lied to her to get her to finance the project?

This could easily turn into a two-pronged campaign. The opening act would introduce the characters to the world, and to Sarah Montgomery. The second act would reveal Montgomery's plotline, and have the characters attempt to foil it, or perhaps pick up the pieces when it all comes crashing down around her ears. The final act would be a race against time to stop Fentiman, before he does something that will change the world forever. More on that kind of campaign design later.

For the moment, consider this: you oughtn't to start a campaign by wondering what kind of threat to fling at the players. You ought to start by thinking about your antagonist: what do they have, and what do they want? For it's the antagonist that will drive the plot, and whose actions the characters will have to react to. Without a good antagonist, you can't have a good game.

That's it for the moment! More to come.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Trail of Cthulhu

I've written a few things for Trail in the last year or so. Not So Quiet is already in electronic print, and is now one of the scenarios in Pelgrane's Out of Time compilation. Other Pelgrane projects are in playtest stage, including a few Great War scenarios and a historical piece set just before the American Revolution. The Unspeakable Oath has published another Trail scenario, The Brick Kiln. I also helped with the map indexing for Bookhounds of London, a suppliment I very much admire.I've been discussing other projects with Pelgrane and those may come to fruition; if they do, they'll probably see print next year, as I haven't finished writing the most recent one. What with playtesting, layout, editing and other issues, I don't see that getting done before Christmas.

I suppose I ought to discuss Trail as a system, and say why I've grown to like it more than its parent RPG system, Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium). As this is where I discuss books, I'll treat Trail to the Bookshelf format. So, here goes!

My copy is the 2008 hardback edition, with Jerome Huguenin's evocative artwork on the cover. I think I bought this at Dragonmeet in London, which would mean I had it the same year it came out. I remember being a little reluctant. Not that I didn't like it - I did - but I was between jobs then and I was money conscious. For some reason the Yankee Dollar price and the GBP price for RPG stuff tends to be roughly the same, which means the book cost me forty quid, roundabout. That was about thirty nine quid more than I really wanted to spend on anything, leave alone a system I knew little about beyond a few favourable words on Yog-Sothoth. However I bit the bullet, though when the fella behind the counter tried to persuade me to buy something else I declined. I suppose I ought to regret that, since whatever it was is certainly out of print by now. I don't. I've never been very good at impulse buying. I tend to keep my hand on my wallet and smile politely.

Though I suppose if you want to look at it in crude money terms then the cash I've earned from scenario sales by now outweighs the initial investment by at least a hundred to one. So there's that. If only everything I invested in had the same result!

The book is well put together and sturdy, which is saying something for the RPG market. The binding is stitch, not glue, and it stands up to hard wear. I've owned hardback suppliments that collapsed after three or four months, shedding pages like a dog does fleas. In fact, the only other time in my recollection that I've bought a hardback RPG book which actually took punishment was when I bought the AD&D DMG, Player's Handbook and Monster Manuals. I've still got those in a box somewhere. The pages may be yellowed, but they never once fell apart, despite the hundreds of hours they spent being knocked around at school or dragged from house to house. Hopefully this book will last as long.

The rules are based on Robin Laws' GUMSHOE system, which tends to emphasise roleplay over dice rolling. In GUMSHOE each player character has a certain number of points spread over several investigative abilities. When an ability is used, the player is supposed to spend a point and describe how he's going about the investigation. So if it's a situation where X is in a shady part of town trying to track down a hired gunman, he might say something like: "I go to my usual haunts, chasing up snitches. I spread a little payola around, because what else are you going to do? Whisper sweet nothings in their ears?" Then a Streetwise point is spent (representing the character's known interest in snitches and shady places), and the result of his investigations is adjudicated by the Keeper. It's a fairly simple system which doesn't need dice to make it work, most of the time. The key thing is, it lends itself to player control. It was the player who decided to have a point in Streetwise, the player who decided, not just to spend it, but how it was spent.

That's the key issue for me. I prefer a roleplay style of game. Anything that promotes roleplay is aces in my book, and leaving the responsibility in the hands of the player makes things very interesting. The Keeper has to think of more eventualities, anticipate players' responses to the ongoing plot. The players have to take responsibility for their characters' actions; it isn't just a roll of the dice any more. If anything, the GUMSHOE design reminds me not a little of the old Troupe style of play popularised by Ars Magica. In that game, everyone had responsibility for world design as well as character design. Building a covenant of magi was a group activity, based on point spend with a set budget. The group had to decide what they had and did not have, and in the process they ended up describing a fair part of the world they lived in. So too here with Trail, except that now the group is de-emphasised and the individual has control.

Take the Streetwise example. The player only spent one point, enough to get the information. If the player had spent two points, they could have had the information and also bought themselves an additional asset - the Black Cat Club, for example, and its owner Jack Quimper, half-French former crook turned solid citizen, who passes the player the information and also says that the gunman will be in the Black Cat later on, as he always shows up when Lola's singing. The player gets the Black Cat, which he can return to again and again in future scenarios. The game world gets a new location, which the Keeper can then  plan around for his own nefarious purposes. It's a brilliant idea, and one I wish more players were courageous enough to use.

The other standout for me is the game's treatment of its bestiary. The Cthulhu universe is well populated, and by now veteran players will have worked out what most of the creatures can and cannot do. Trail specifically encourages the Keeper to "rework the creature to suit the setting or the scenario, keeping their basic nature the same. Should ghouls be albino, almost insectoid creatures like Morlocks, and attack subway trains instead of grave robbers? Should byakhee emerge from deep wells or simply assemble themselves out of trace metals and corpses in the vicinity? How does the Colour work as the Sound out of Space?"

This is giving the Keeper carte blanche to do as they like. Of course, Keepers have always had that power, but they battled against player expecation. If the players know that X is X, then they're justifiably suspicious when X suddenly resembles Y, or Z. For much the same reason rolling dice behind the Keeper's screen is perilous, as is fudging die rolls. The fudge itself isn't the problem. The issue is the Keeper's basic sense of fairness. If the players get even a whiff of an idea that the Keeper isn't playing by the same rules they are, they'll start wondering whether the result of the last few dice rolls had more to do with a personal vendetta than good game play. Once that idea gets into people's heads it's impossible to dislodge, and can ruin a long-running game. This way, both sides know ahead of time that the Keeper may change things to suit the situation and the rules allow for that to happen. The fairness issue is taken off the table.

Moreover the statistics are streamlined. There's just enough here to be useful and not enough to be cumbersome, while some entities have no statistics at all, on the understanding that the Keeper has the final word as to what it can and cannot do. This speeds things along while keeping the player in control, since the existing stats are less 'what It can do' as modifiers to the player's dice roll. The Stealth Modifier affects the player's chance to Sense Trouble, its Alertness Modifier affects the player's chance to Sneak. That and a small scattering of abilities and armour is the sum total of most creatures' write-up.

Now, pros and cons.

Pro One: This is a well-designed roleplay system which puts emphasis on player's actions and responses, as well as encouraging more Role (and less Roll) play. People looking for a less dice-heavy game should look no further.

Pro Two: It's a very faithful adaptation of Cthulhu mythology. I haven't discussed the Sanity and Stability mechanics in any detail, but they do work well in a Purist setting, where the assumption is that everyone is doomed from the outset as the Horrors reveal themselves. It also lends itself nicely to a more Pulp style game, particularly if the Bookhounds of London suppliment is used.

Pro Three: The emphasis on storytelling and scenes rather than dungeon crawling is a welcome change. Veterans of CoC may remember some of the older scenarios with their vast, mapped-out locations crawling with unspeakable things, and shudder as I do not at the horror but at the prospect of working through the bloody thing room by room and corridor by corridor, changing characters every third or forth chamber as the previous ones get et. This isn't that sort of game.

Con One: While not strictly diceless, it is remarkably dice free. That will be a turn-off to some gamers.

Con Two: The players may be overwhelmed at first by the amount of responsibility put on their shoulders. Gamers are used to the Keeper doing most of the work. They sometimes seem afraid to spend points, or reluctant to embrace the challenge. This can be a stumbling block at first, though overcoming it (provided everyone's willing) isn't impossible.

That's it from me! Have a good one. 

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Spring Cleaning in Winter

I own a lot of stuff.

Bought, received, collected, whichever term best applies: there's heaped mounds of it in the unlikliest of places. Much of it is books, and some of it is old board games. The rest is an eclectic grouping of 'things' which you'd think nobody in their right mind would keep and yet we all seem to have. Old papers from when I was an A level student, yearbooks, notes (I seem to be addicted to notebooks and cue cards), old extension cords and electrical gear, dead beard trimmers, batteries: all of them things that can easily be shoved in a drawer and forgotten about, which is precisely what happened to them.

It's so easy to let these things take over your life. Some of them have sentimental value, but most are just junk. At first they were in my rooms, then they got boxed and put somewhere else, and a lot are still at my parent's house including Tintins and Asterix, old toys and long forgotten memorabilia.

I've been slowly getting rid of it. I started with the books, all the ones I didn't think I'd read again or knew I could get electronic versions of. So while I do like Agatha Christie and Wodehouse, they went out the door in plain brown bags on their way to the charity market. One day I'll have the lot on kindle or the equivalent. I kept a few back on cover art grounds - the old White Circle paperbacks that date back to the 40s or 50s, practically worthless but fun to have around, things like that.

Oddly I've been less eager to tackle the real junk. All those piles of tat, old papers and school yearbooks, which by rights should be in the bin. I suppose it's because sorting through those won't be nearly as much fun as going through the book collection. When it's pure donkey work, motivation is hard to come by.

Today I went for board games. If I was still in the UK I might be tempted to save these for the next gaming convention and flog them at the bring and buy. I'm not, and the cost of shipping these things far outweighs their value even for the ebay crowd. So the old Judge Dredd RPG, Squad Leader, Cross of Iron and Richtofen's War among others are going the way of all things: off to the charity market, and thank heaven for Christmas. I loved these things once, but now the memories are distant and I doubt very much whether there's a local market for them here in Bermuda.

I suppose I ought to feel more sentimental about this, but I've seen too many people - hell, my brother's one of them - keep every single scrap of their lives like some kind of shrine to their past. The past is another country, and far away; there's no getting back to it, not even with a Tardis made out of faded school reports and half a board game you used to play when you were twelve.

So out the door it goes, and while it isn't quite good riddance, I shan't be sorry to see the back of it. Bon voyage, stuff! I hope you make someone else as happy as I was, once upon a time.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Scenario Ideas, Bookhounds of London

This time out I'm going to talk about scenario seeds. Most Keepers, whatever the system, are going to need at least a scattering of these to keep their players occupied in between major events. Some Keepers opt for a more freestyle form of play and provide nothing but seeds, allowing the players to pick and choose the ones they want to follow up. Others prefer more scripted campaigns, but still need to keep some unscripted events in their arsenal for those times when the players go off-book. Perhaps a key player couldn't make the session, or perhaps they need to account for a period of downtime while someone heals or reads the all-important grimoire. After all, the other characters don't just sit on their backsides while Protagonist X rests in bed eating grapes.

Scenario seeds are very useful. They allow the players a chance to indulge their personal whimsies, without departing too much from whatever the Keeper has planned as the overarching story. They also provide the protagonists a chance to gain new skills, abilities, items or even just an amusing anecdote or two. Finally, they help establish the consistent reality of the game world by introducing the characters to new and interesting bits of it.

There's no set length for this sort of thing, but I find that if I've gone on for longer than a page A4, I've gone too far. After all, this is meant to be a seed, not a full-blown story.

With that in mind, let's talk about the Midland Grand Hotel, at St Pancras, London, and its mysterious room 113.

This room does not officially exist. It is not on any hotel layout map, and none of the servants acknowledge its existence. Inquirers after it are told that Room 113 is ‘booked’; ‘for the foreseeable future’ is added for the benefit of those persistent enough to enquire further. The only official record of it can be found amongst the plans and papers of Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect. The plans don’t seem to indicate anything unusual about 113; it’s a midsize East Wing room, not particularly luxurious, but with all the standard accoutrements of the Midland Grand, including a fireplace. It also lacks a bathroom and toilet, in common with the rest of the hotel. Chamber pots and copper baths are carried to and from all the rooms by a small army of servants, without whom the Midland Grand would not function.
Tracking down room 113 is a difficult task, almost as if the room itself doesn’t want to be found. Naturally seekers after it will not be encouraged by the hotel staff, and as there are so very many of them circulating at all times throughout the hotel, those with low Credit Rating may find it difficult to pass unnoticed. Those determined enough to wander the halls armed with a map of some sort soon discover that 113 simply does not exist during the day, though it can be found at night. It is much easier to find when the moon is waxing crescent, and more difficult when the moon is waning crescent.
Room 113 is, like the rest of the Midland Grand, the absolute last word in Victorian comfort, including gold leaf walls, elaborately carved wainscoting, and expensive furnishings and artwork, none of which have so much as a speck of dust. The main reception room has as its centrepiece a fascinating and somewhat disturbing pre-Raphaelite painting of a medieval hawking scene. The subject is conventional enough, but the brilliant and somewhat over-vivid colouring gives it a feverish quality, as though the viewer were seeing the scene through a heat haze.
Unlike the other rooms of the Midland Grand, 113 has a copper tub permanently installed; or at least, it is there, and nobody has ever tried to take it away. During a waxing crescent the tub is filled with a liquid very like blood, while when waning crescent there is only a very shallow pool of the same substance.

Staying the night there may awaken Magic potential in susceptible persons, or grant an increased Magic pool, though nobody is on record as having slept there or, braver still, having a bath. That might grant further power, of course, but the price might be more than most are willing to pay.
Now, let's talk about this from a Keeper's perspective.

First, the section is rules-lite. Only one investigative ability, Credit Rating, is mentioned, and even then there's no question of Difficulty numbers or potential tests. That sort of detail ought to be left up to the Keeper, to be elaborated at the the time the detail becomes relevant. There's no point scattering dozens of potential tests in a seed when the players may only ever use two or three of them. This isn't meant to be a dungeon, with traps around every corner. This is a hotel. People live and work there. A general description is useful, a sense of who might be there is handy, but anything beyond that is a waste of your time.

It does help that the Midland Grand is wiki-able, as is its architect. You can't expect the players not to look up historical background. Some of them may have iPads or laptops at the ready during the game session. This way, they'll naturally gravitate to information that might be as useful to you as it will be to them, and the pictures provided with the description is an added bonus.

Second, there's just enough creepy here to keep the players intrigued, and not so much that they avoid the place altogether. You don't want them thinking that this is beyond their ability. There's an obvious mystery here, but it's solveable. Also, it's not a dragon's cave: there are no bones scattered everywhere, warning them that a very painful death awaits. True, the seed might be fatal. There are facts the players don't know. That said, there's no need to hang a sign over the seed that reads Abandon Hope All Who Enter Here. The players ought to believe, at least to begin with, that the place isn't a deathtrap.

Third, there's a reward; the potential Magic increase. Magic is an ability introduced in Rough Magicks, a sourcebook that I personally find indispensible. Magic is a pool that would-be occultists use to power spells; in the main book, this function is covered by Stability. A Keeper who didn't use Rough Magicks would have to find another reward, but that shouldn't be too difficult. There's always something the players want badly enough to put themselves at risk, so long as the risk is survivable.

Now I'm going to elaborate a little further on the seed:

Potential clues:   Architecture, Art History. While strolling through the halls, an experienced architect may be able to deduce the whereabouts of 113 by noting where things have not happened. Everything suffers wear and tear, particularly over fifty-odd years (the Grand opened in 1876), yet there are portions of the Grand that seem as fresh as the day they were built. A student of art history may notice the same thing, or work out the approximate position by the odd lack of proportion that a particular corridor has, when compared with other corridors in the same wing.

                                Library Use, Occult. Sir George Gilbert Scott wrote his Personal and Professional Recollections, published 1879 by Sampson Low & Co. Though there isn’t a great deal on the Midland Grand, there’s supposed to be a mention of room 113 in the very first printing, which was cut from all subsequent editions. Occultists claim that a few drops of blood, smeared on the cover during a waxing crescent moon, can reveal the missing section in all extant copies of the Recollections. According to Sir George, ‘demands occasioned by the cemetery works forced an unpleasant compromise, which I solved by dedicating one of the rooms to private use. Naturally this meant that the room in question had to be kept effectively in quarantine, since to allow it to be used by an unsuspecting guest would be callous in the extreme. Fortunately soon after construction completed the room in question solved the problem in its own way, since which time I have not been made aware of any difficulties. Nodens will have his due.’ There is a sketch of a Green Man next to this paragraph, which sketch has also been cut from all but the very first printing.
Potential antagonist: Nightgaunt, which is only present during a waxing crescent. It tries to carry intruders out through the window and drop them to their deaths several hundred feet below. It can be dissuaded by occultists who can somehow prove their fealty to Nodens. Abilities: Athletics 6/12, Health 7, Scuffling 10. Hit Threshold: 4. Alertness: +1. Stealth: +2 (flying) +3 (flying in darkness). Weapon: success in Scuffling contest means victim is immobilized by unpleasant tickling attack. Armour: +2 vs Any (skin). Stability: +0
A Keeper is never going to be able to cover all the bases, particularly in a seed. The players will always have more ideas than the Keeper can account for. Many of those ideas will stink, but that's the nature of the beast: players are inventive, but not always sensible.
That said, there's no excuse for not covering some of the bases. The Keeper ought to have a few clues pre-written, if only to account for the most obvious contingencies. The above lists four potential abilities: Architecture, Art History, Occult and Library Use, as well as introducing a book, written by the architect. Now, the book is deliberately included; this is Bookhounds of London, after all. The protagonists are expected to be looking for books. It wouldn't be in the spirit of the campaign setting to not have the characters bury themselves in antiquarian bookshops seeking clues. The other abilities are more general, things that anyone might do in order to plumb the depths of the mystery. Architecture and Art History cover the two most obvious bases. Yes, there are other abilities that could be used, but some are more likely than others. Very few players are going to want to use Law or Chemistry to solve this one. Naturally if I knew in advance the skill list that the players had access to, I'd write the seed with them in mind. However it's probably more useful to talk in generalities at this point. Apart from anything else I might use a seed like this again and again, with several different groups of players. I can't know which skills they'll all have.
The antagonist is included to throw a little danger into the mix. Nightgaunts are creatures of Nodens, and that particular entity has been mentioned in the clue list. The protagonists ought to be taking some precautions anyway; there's been enough hints that this mystery might have an element of danger in it. If they choose not to, that's their look-out. A nightgaunt is a fairly scary antagonist, but it's not a lethal killing machine, and it won't necessarily be encountered all of the time. Moreover as noted in the text this one is special. The protagonists may be able to talk themselves out of trouble by proving their fealty to Nodens. This could be bluff or it could be the real deal. That's up to the player and the Keeper at the moment of truth.
Note that, even now, the section is rules-lite. I haven't included a list of potential Stability tests, or elaborated on the potential benefits. Those are things that ought to be determined during play, not written in stone beforehand. After all, the players may surprise you. Rather than take a bath in that fluid, they may drink it, or try to take it with them out of the room. Or they may fixate on that painting as the important item. Or they may try to move in to room 113 permanently, using it as a base of operations. Or, or, or . . . and so on. Best to leave that sort of thing up to chance. You could try to list every possibility and its consequences, but that would be a backbreaking labour, and nobody would thank you for it, or even know that you'd ever done it. Better to spend your time on the things your players will appreciate, than waste it on long lists that nobody will ever read.
I hope you've found this useful! Best of luck to all you Keepers out there.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Bush League

Extra Credits has been an excellent video series about the game industry, which I've followed since its debut on the Escapist. Recently EC left the Escapist due to a dispute over money. I'm not going to rehash that argument here. I don't have all the facts at my disposal and I doubt it would matter if I did, since both sides are burning with righteous indignation right now and neither willing to concede a yard of ground. Trench warfare didn't work out so well the last time it was used, but every time lawyers get involved it seems both sides start digging.

However it intrigues me (in a morbid look-at-the-car-wreck way) that the dispute is over non-payment of money owed. Judging by some of the twitter responses this may not be the first time that's been a problem. Now, I have a dog in this fight, as I've written for the Escapist before and hope to do so again. That dog may be small and puny, but it has four legs and fleas: it's a dog.

They're not the only company I've written for. I've done a little for Ars Magica and a lot more for Call and Trail of Cthulhu, among others. No, I'm not going to tell you who pays late and who on time. That'd be wrong of me, and childish to boot. Any discussion along those lines is between me, the other fella, and my bank account.

However the Escapist debacle reminded me of a forum discussion I had on YSDC about NDAs and their use by pen-and-paper RPG companies. My position was, I didn't see the point in anything as official or as restrictive as an NDA when the subject of the agreement was as trivial, in the grand scheme of things, as an RPG product. A licensed property, perhaps; something technologically complex, perhaps; something worth a lot of money, perhaps. The average monograph fits none of those categories. At that rate of pay, you're looking at just a touch over $0.01/word. You don't pay rent with that cheque. The Horror Writers Association suggests (in their membership requirements) that the minimum professional rate is $0.05/word, which is not a rate that all of the RPG companies I have done business with have paid. Of course Chaosium's a bit unique in that their monograph system has the contributor doing all the work, and there's always the chance they might get more if the thing 'goes gold', to borrow a term from a different gaming industry. But low pay is a fact of life in the RPG biz. The one piece of advice everyone involved repeats again and again is 'don't give up the day job.'

A few things came out of the NDA discussion, some of which I agreed with and some I did not. Yet some of them seemed to suggest a mentality I've come across a couple times before: "if you want to play in the big leagues, you have to play by our rules."

I'm pretty sure the big leagues can afford to pay more than $0.01/word. I'm also pretty sure the big leagues can afford to pay on time. The Penguins, the Pan MacMillans, the Times, they're the ones in the big leagues. Even they screw up, but I doubt they make a habit of it. Down here in the dirt, we play bush league stuff.

Now, I don't mind the minors. I see it as a proving ground. I expect one day to move up to the majors, if I'm good enough, and I constantly work towards that goal. I like the Escapist. The people I've done business with there, particularly Susan Arendt, are good people. I'm sorry to see them in this mess, and I'm sorrier still that it had to be Extra Credits, a series I admire. I think this is a situation that could have been avoided.

However I do wish one thing: that we all stopped pretending this is the big time. It's not. This is scrabbling in the dirt, praying that the ump is cross-eyed enough not to notice our screw-ups. That can still be a hell of a game, and it demands skill, but it is not the majors.

Maybe it never will be, but that shouldn't stop anyone from trying to be professional. From bush to big isn't an impossible gap, but it demands a certain commitment to standards, on both sides.

Again, I'm sorry it had to be Extra Credits, and I'm sorry it had to be the Escapist. I wish everyone concerned the best of luck.   

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Guilty Pleasures: Doll

There are times when all you want to do is curl up with a bad book. Not a blindingly awful one, not the kind you fling at the wall and scream obscenities at; I'm talking about the books you sometimes don't want to admit you enjoy. I re-read McBain's 87th Precinct thriller Doll today. It's one of that tribe.

I almost want to defend it, but I can't. It's formulaic, pulp, the characters are cardboard, the situation is at best odd, and none of that matters. I enjoyed it anyway. Mind you, it helps that it's the kind of novel that only takes an hour or two to read.

McBain is the best known pseudonym of Salvatore Lombino, a native New Yorker and former Navy man who found fame in the 50s as a writer of pulps. His 87th Precinct stories, set in the fictional city of Isola (New York with the serial numbers filed off), are the ones I enjoy the most. I know he's written other stuff, and I keep meaning to watch The Blackboard Jungle, but his police procedurals are the ones I find interesting. As a series, they start with a bang, and if they'd kept on in that vein I'd have called it one of the greatest police procedural collections going. Every little detail, from the vomit green paint on the precinct walls to the bitching of the bulls as they slowly work their way through another case, seems authentic. The characters, at least at the start, are fleshed out nicely, and have their own story arcs, something that many procedurals don't bother with. McBain was young then, and it shows.

As he gets older, the precinct goes to the dogs.

It's the little things that start to annoy. Steve Carella, probably McBain's fictionalized Lombino, is the first to get fuzzy around the edges. He starts as a tough detective with a deaf mute girlfriend, who he meets while on a case, and his ongoing relationship with her and his friends at the precinct holds the setting together. That's all well and good. He gets married, even better. Then there are kids, and the wife's husband gifts them with an Irish housekeeper, Fanny. Not so good. Though Fanny is on a contract, when the contract's up she declares she'll stay anyway. Even worse. McBain handwaves 'how can they afford a housekeeper, even one who doesn't want a salary', much the same way he handwaves the mansion that Steve Carella eventually moves into. It was bought cheap, apparently. I don't know who was running Internal Affairs, but they ought to have given Steve a closer look. Even cheap mansions cost more than a detective makes, and throughout the series neither Steve nor anyone else gets promoted. Suddenly the tough, plausible Italian cop is Dick Tracy, foiling master criminals by day and going home each night to his wife and twin kids, neither of whom seem to be in any hurry to grow up.

Did I say Dick Tracy? Perhaps it ought to have been Princess Peach. Steve has a nasty habit of getting shot / kidnapped / knocked on the head, and Doll kicks off when Carella's taken hostage by the killers of Tinka Sachs, a glamorous fashion model with a suspiciously empty bank account. The murderer's moll, a busty femme fatale, stuffs Steve full of heroin, trying to make him tell them how he almost caught them. Meanwhile his friends at the precinct think Steve's been murdered, and his buddy Bert Kling is on the verge of being kicked off the force because he wasn't watching Steve's back at the psychological moment. It's a race against time to rescue Steve before the murderer finally twigs that sticking around is a monumentally stupid idea, and keeping a cop hostage slightly more so.

It's pretty standard pulp, and if this was the only 87th Precinct novel I'd ever read, the plot wouldn't seem that formulaic to me, though I'd probably wonder whether this was written before or after The French Connection II. However it isn't the only one, and by now I'm starting to recognize the signs. There's Bert, unlucky in love, mourning over his dead girlfiend. He's Cupid's version of Dirty Harry; none of his relationships end well, and the murder of his latest is the reason why he's on edge and fighting with Steve when the story starts. There's Steve, the hero of the precinct, going down like a glass jaw champeen yet again, allowing all his buddies a chance to say how sorry they are he's dead. Not, and I think this would be more likely, a chance to start a betting pool on how Steve's going to get out of his fix this time. There's the murderer, dumb as a sackful of rocks, who does all the wrong things and then obligingly stays in Isola long enough for Steve's buddies to track him down and fill him full of lead. All the old favourites show up: Myer Myer, Artie Brown, Byrnes, Andy Parker. It's what would happen if someone gave the cast of As the World Turns guns and badges.

I suppose if you put a pistol to my head and demanded answers, I'd say I like Doll - and the other 87th Precinct novels - because they're soap operas. There's a reason why those things are popular. They don't demand much of your attention and entertain you just enough to keep you happy. They're not supposed to make you think. They're not supposed to be good for you. They're just fun.

That's good enough, on a lazy, sunny afternoon.

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Beetle

I first discussed this on Yog Radio; those wanting the audio can listen to that here.

Richard Marsh is one of those unlucky authors who seem to vanish from the scene through no fault of their own. Here he's created an Orientalist Victorian melodrama on a par with Dracula, which was published in the same year. Initially The Beetle was more popular than Stoker's bloodsucker, yet it's Stoker that gets remembered while Marsh languishes in obscurity.

I don't think that can be blamed on quality of output. Marsh and Stoker were equally prolific, more or less, and neither of them seem to have been successful with anything other than their 'name' works. Yes, Stoker's Lair of the White Worm and Jewel of the Seven Stars occasionally turns up in print, but I doubt that anyone reads those for fun. They're the sort of thing that a hard-core Stoker fan will devour just to say they've done it, but nobody else can stomach.

I also don't think Vampires can be blamed for this. Yes, Stoker kicked off the bloodsucker industry, with all the shlock that goes with it. Yet before Stoker there wasn't a vampire market; they turn up now and again, in Byron's (Polidori's?) poetry and Wuthering Heights, but to me that seems less an unstoppable tide and more a slight splash. Vampires, as we've come to know them, weren't inevitable.

No, I think Bela Lugosi's got a lot to answer for. 

Well, him and Hollywood. The very first was, of course, Nosferatu, which wasn't a Dracula movie, honest luv, now stop trying to set fire to the film reels there's a good gel. That was just a teaser: the main event came in 1931, when Universal suddenly realized there was good money to be made in horror. Then followed a host of other shockers, some of which caught the audience's imagination, while others quietly died. Universal was willing to raid almost any crypt for inspiration, and it's not as though they were the only movie studio who saw the potential in chills. Film kicked the vampire up from the minors to the majors. So why was there no Beetle, to go with those invisible men and lupine horrors?

Well, there's the rub. It could have been The Beetle, but for one thing: it's not a cinematic property. Anyone who reads fantastic literature knows the problem. There are some stories that practically glow with genius, but when it comes to the big screen, they die on their feet. Moving pictures, by definition, move; there has to be action, and if most of the fun stuff is happening in the character's head, translating that to the silver screen will be a thankless task. Psychological portraits are extremely difficult to do, and the Beetle is one of those thorny subjects in which, bar one train crash, there isn't much action. Plenty of chills and gothic horror galore, but no screen shocks to go with it.

Yet it could be done, and perhaps will be done, one day. I can but hope!