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!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Bookshelf

Now I want to talk about the book review segment I contribute to Yog Radio.

I started doing it because I thought it would be fun, which is probably the motivating factor behind most of the things I do. At that time Yog Radio didn't have many contributors, and those it did have only occasionally sent in stuff. I thought it shouldn't be difficult to produce regular content, particularly since Paul of Cthulhu preferred segments that were no more than six minutes long.

I decided on book recommendations because I'm a voracious reader. I always want to tell people about good books, particularly if they're horror or horror-related. I'm a huge fan of ghost stories, especially Jamesian ghoulishness, and whenever I get the chance I infest second hand shops and antiquarian stores looking for material. I personally find the older stories far more enjoyable than the ones written today, possibly because contemporary authors tend to explain too much and are addicted to gore. I don't mind bloodshed, but I'm not in this for the ketchup; I'm in it for the chills.

I see The Bookshelf as a series of recommendations, rather than reviews. I'd never talk about a book (or a series) I didn't like. There'd be no fun in that. However I acknowledge that my tastes don't suit everyone, which is why I always include a short list of negative points: the cons, to be weighed against the pros. Hopefully people find them useful.

I also tend to avoid talking about books other people recommend to me. I've had a few Yog Radio listeners try to persuade me to talk about their favorite novels, and while I don't mind doing it if I like the book, I'm always a little wary because there's every chance I might hate it. I don't want to upset a listener by ragging on an author or story that they love. That doesn't seem fun at all.  

So, that's what I do and why I do it. Next post, I'll be talking about an old favorite of mine: The Beetle