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.