Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Ring

One of the difficulties with a setting as unique as Trail of Cthulhu is that some of the terms are going to be so unfamiliar as to deserve an in-depth explanation. Yet there's only so much space in the book, and some things are bound to be truncated to make room for other, more important elements. One such is the Ring, described as a cabal of book-buyers whose cooperation allows them to pull off the Knock; to cheat by agreeing to gang up on the competition, knocking them out early so that members of the Ring can then pick up the good stuff at bargain prices.

There's a story in Dorothy Sayers' collection of short stories, Lord Peter Views the Body, that features the Ring in all its glory. The tale is The Stolen Stomach and its hero, amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, is helping a friend in Scotland. However there happens to be an auction in London that Lord Peter is particularly anxious to attend, so rather than immediately dash off to the Highlands he sends a telegram and then goes off to the auction, with the result that he's not on-hand to deal with the problem in Scotland at a critical moment. Sayers describes the auction in some detail, which I will quote here:

[Lord Peter] had great fun at the sale the next day. He found a ring of dealers in possession, happily engaged in conducting a knock-out. Having lain low for an hour in a retired position behind a large piece of statuary, he emerged, just as the hammer was falling upon the Catullus for a price representing the tenth part of its value, with an overbid so large, prompt and sonorous that the ring gasped with a sense of outrage. Skrymes - a dealer who had sworn eternal enmity to Wimsey, on account of a previous little encounter over a Justinian - pulled himself together and offered a fifty-pound advance. Wimsey promptly doubled his bid. Skrymes overbid him fifty again. Wimsey instantly jumped another hundred, in the tones of a man prepared to go on till Doomsday. Skrymes scowled and was silent. Someone raised it fifty more; Wimsey made it guineas and the hammer fell. Encouraged by his success, Wimsey, feeling that his hand was in, romped happily into the bidding for the next lot, a Hypernotomachia which he already possessed, and for which he felt no desire whatever. Skrymes, annoyed by his defeat, set his teeth, determining that, if Wimsey was in the bidding mood, he should pay through the nose for his rashness. Wimsey, entering into the spirit of the thing, skied the bidding with enthusiasm. The dealers, knowing his reputation as a collector, and fancying that there must be some special excellence about the book which they had failed to observe, joined in whole-heartedly, and the fun became fast and furious. Eventually they all dropped out again, leaving Skrymes and Wimsey in together. At which point Wimsey, observing a note of hesitation in the dealer's voice, neatly extricated himself and left Mr Skrymes with the baby. After this disaster, the ring became sulky and demoralized and refused to bid at all, and a timid little outsider, suddenly flinging himself into the arena, became the owner of a fine fourteenth-century missal at bargain price. Crimson with exitement and surprise, he paid for his purchase and ran out of the room like a rabbit, hugging his missal as though he expected to have it snatched from him. Wimsey thereupon set himself seriously to acquire a few fine early printed books, and, having accomplished this, retired, covered with laurels and hatred.

Clearly Sayers knew a great deal about auctions, which given her academic interests is not surprising, but there are several elements here which will be useful to Bookhounds.

First, it makes clear that the Auction ability has little - if anything - to do with money. This is a mental trap that even my own players sometimes fall into, thinking that the person with the most money always wins. The above extract makes it clear that a bidding war is more about intimidation, psychology and deceit than it is about cash. You know how to handle yourself in an auction is the very first line of the ability description, and at no point does it even mention cash.

Second, it's a reminder that other abilities will come in handy in an auction setting. Clearly Lord Peter doesn't depend on his Auction score; either Stealth, Disguise or Conceal could cover the incident with the large piece of statuary, a fair amount of Intimidation was going on, and Sense Trouble could account for the a note of hesitation in the dealer's voice which tells Lord Peter that the time has come to jump ship. 

Third, it's a pretty clear indication that the Ring isn't just a shadowy cabal, but made up of people with their own goals and desires. If Skrymes had kept his head he and his partners might have carried off the knock even with Lord Peter's interference, but because he didn't the whole thing fell flat. Once Skrymes had been dealt with the Ring lost all hope, and Lord Peter was able to do as he pleased; even the little rabbit got away with his missal. 

To begin at the beginning: a Ring is an informal term for a collection of people acting together to fix the bidding. In its simplest form, members of the Ring viciously go after anyone not in the group while refusing to compete against Ring members. This keeps outsiders intimidated, and allows the Ring to pick up what it pleases at bargain rates. Members of the Ring are usually dealers who want to sell on their purchases for a profit, so the cheaper they can get their merchandise the better they like it.

However that isn't the only thing a Ring can do. Where the owner of the item being auctioned is a member of the Ring, one possible cheat is to bid up the article in question and then drop out once other bidders have joined in. That pumps up the initial price, which in turn means that the item's owner will probably walk away with more than he would otherwise have done. This is particularly likely to happen where the Ring is made up, not of dealers, but of owners; it may also happen that the Ring is made up of people trying to pass off fake goods, upping the bidding to make the item seem worth more than it actually is. Remember the auctioneers in the above description, who fancied that there must be some special excellence about the book which they had failed to observe. People in the auction room simply don't know what an item really is worth, and they can be persuaded - through psychological manipulation - that the stuff they're dealing with is worth much more, or much less, than it actually is. They're guessing, and so they can be bullied or tricked into guessing incorrectly.

It's all about psychology and intimidation, as anyone who's ever watched Storage Wars will know. That A&E show features a regular character, Dave Hester, whose 'YUUUUP' catchphrase is his trademark. Yes, it's about being heard, but it's also about letting the competition know who they're dealing with; not unlike Lord Peter's tones of a man prepared to go on till Doomsday. Money is certainly part of the equation, but in many ways its the least part of it; a flashy roll attracts the eye and makes the competition think twice, but whether it's all bills or bills plus newspaper clippings is impossible to tell at a glance.

In game terms, a Ring is clearly Cooperating, as described on page 58 of the main book. Several people pool their Auction scores together in order to achieve a common goal, which means that for purposes of gameplay the Ring's Auction ability is going to be very high. The Keeper should consider either designing several different cabal members, so that each has an individual Auction pool, or assigning a joint Auction pool for the group. That pool is going to be fairly high, whichever route the Keeper goes; scores of 15+ should be common for a Ring.

That probably puts them in a power position when dealing with an individual player character, but it doesn't have to stay that way. Intimidation can shave a few points off that total, and the players will probably come up with other ways to bluff the Ring into losing even more from their pool. Moreover as Skrymes shows individual Ring members can be split off from the pack - another reason for designing individual Ring members rather than assigning a pool - and defeating one of these on their own could be enough to break the Ring altogether. Remember, these aren't shadowy criminal masterminds; they're just bidders who happen to have formed a temporary alliance, perhaps over tea that morning. They don't have hordes of minions to do their every bidding; at best they may have suborned the auctioneer, or someone else working for the auction house, but dacoit assassins are well beyond their remit.

That said, they might know people who know people. Strong-arm men, forgers, burglars and con artists are just the sort of shady characters members of a Ring might know. In theory someone desperate to get their own back on an interfering player character could call on these resources, if they really wanted to. Again, this doesn't mean hordes of minions to fling into combat; at best it's two blokes willing to rough someone up in a back alley. Still, it's better than nothing, and a likely consequence of offending someone with shady friends.

One final word for the Keeper: remember that bidding in an auction has nothing - or very little - to do with money. It's about power, and who has it, which is why the Ring does very well for itself. They know the importance of power, and are willing to cooperate - temporarily at least - to achieve a common goal. If the player character wants to go up against the Ring he'd better be very sure of himself, otherwise he could be left - like Skrymes - holding the baby.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Flim Flam

Recently I started sorting through my book collection, trying to get it into some semblance of order. I came across this little wonder: Flim-Flam: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions, by James Randi. This is an old - as in 1980's - expose of psychic frauds and the scientific community's reaction to them, and is a lot of fun to read. Most of Randi's books are like that; he has a very forthright style, that can be a lot of fun. However it reminded me of something that I've often thought should be a focus for Cthulhu adventures; fakes, frauds, and dodgy occultists.

Most Cthulhu adventures, whether Trail or Call, assume that the events the protagonists are meant to be investigating are all basically true. Very rarely adventures like The Westchester House for Call of Cthulhu - seen in the The Secrets of San Francisco and The Asylum and Other Tales - tackle the fraudulent side of hauntings and occult phenomena, but this is very rare. Usually the scenario takes the funny business at face value; there are no frauds, no trickery, nothing that isn't above board. If the initial indication suggests that vampires are the scenario's Hook, they're probably also its Awful Truth. Psychics are genuinely gifted, all Mythos knowledge is by definition Knowledge with a capital K, and everyone's telling the truth no matter how outré that truth may seem.

Bookhounds of London is one of the few settings that takes as part of its subject matter the issue of fraud. The protagonists in that setting can forge books, cheat their customers, and generally commit any kind of deceit in search of hard profit. It also assumes that protagonists can be taken in by frauds; after all, without the possibility of trickery there's no use for abilities like Textual Analysis. However even Bookhounds doesn't spend a lot of time discussing frauds, and abilities like Forgery tend to lead players to believe they will be the ones committing fraud, not that cheats will try to trick them.  

That isn't reasonable. If the setting is to resemble the real world in any way, shape or form then the tricksters ought to outnumber the truths by at least 100 to 1. Given that, there ought to be plenty of people trying to take advantage of the players, and any number of fake Mythos secrets floating around. If that doesn't happen then there is no real mystery; just a sequence of events that leads to a climax scene. Without the possibility that the protagonists might be wrong there's little dramatic tension, and the best way to demonstrate that to the players is to offer up some actual frauds for them to deal with.

There's a section in Flim-Flam that talks about psychic surgery, as practiced by tricksters in the Philippines, Brazil and elsewhere. These are people who practice faith healing, claiming to remove tumors and cysts with little pain and often little or no surgical tools. Instead they reach into people's stomachs and remove the offending cancers by hand, with a lot of dramatic bloodletting. Randi points out that this is best achieved with a fat patient, since the flesh can be kneaded and folded in such a way as to hide the slight-of-hand used to produce the chicken guts and other substances the surgeon has on-hand to convince his patient. Naturally they expect payment for this service, and when Randi was writing about them the surgeons refused up-front payment but took their cut in the form of donations and fees for the use of surgery rooms and other services.

Where this comes in for a setting like Bookhounds is this: health frauds have always been popular, and often prey on the most vulnerable - the poor - who lack the resources to get anything better. This would have been particularly true in pre-National Health London, where the only way the poor could get medical services was through charity and Poor Law offerings. This is also a time when abortions were illegal and poorly understood; when surgeons were still feared as patients went under the knife and never came out of the operating room alive, with little explanation as to why. In that kind of environment quackery flourishes, and in a horror setting what better quackery than withcraft with a Mythos element?

So, let's talk about a potential NPC: Cephas Norwood, alias Albert Pinckney, a South London trickster. Cephas puts himself forward as a faith healer from Trinidad who has access to secret knowledge passed down from his witch doctor grandfather. He occasionally hold seances, but this aspect of his business has died down almost two decades after the Great War ended. These days he gets most of his money from cures - and, in a Sordid setting, abortions - sold to the working poor of London. Cephas claims to get most of his knowledge from the guiding spirit of his grandfather that he keeps in a rum bottle, but he also has his Dream Book for reference in extreme or obscure cases.

Abilities:   Assess Honesty 6, Art: Music 1, Bargain 4, Biology 1, Credit Rating 2 (4) Conceal 8, Disguise 8, Filch 10, Fleeing 8, History 1, Intimidation 4, Medicine 1, Occult 2, Oral History 3, Pharmacy 2, Reassurance 4, Scuffling 9, Theology 1, Weapons 9
Alertness: +0
Stealth: +0
Damage: Fist -2, Knife -1

Cephas uses Disguise to make his skin seem much darker than it is, and Intimidation combined with Occult to bolster his reputation. His actual Credit Rating is 4, but he pretends to have a lower Credit Rating to fool gullible people. Allegedly he lives a humble, ascetic life without need of cash but he burns money - actually a Filch-based scam - in front of his grandfather's bottle to appease his spirit and buy power to heal the sick. He's supposed to have put curses on several people, all of whom suffered terrible accidents of one sort or another. His big trick is to cure people of diseases by "pulling" the sickness out of them, often with dramatic special effects. In Sordid settings abortions are carried out in much the same way, but are accompanied with a "health-restoring purgative" - actually a herbal mix based on large quantities of Tansy - to induce a miscarriage. The mix is highly toxic, and unless the subject makes a Difficulty 4 Health check they take +2 Damage. Though Cephas has never been further West than Soho, he uses slang terms to bolster his alleged Trinidadian heritage, words like:
  • duppies: ghosts
  • doogla: mixed race person
  • eh eh: exclamation of surprise
  • pan: steel drum band, a sound which was invented in the 1930s and which Cephas claims proficiency in
  • vex, vexed: angry, upset
  • wah-jang, wah-bean: slut, loose woman
His Dream Book and rum bottle are two items that the protagonists may be interested in. The grimoire is leather-bound and suitably worm-eaten, and the bottle has been known to shake and buzz when Cephas asks it a question. The bottle is a simple trick with cotton thread and ventriloquism, but the book is slightly more interesting as its frontispiece is a Yellow Sign. That's the only thing about it that is in any way Mythos-based, and the Sign was probably taken from a different book. Cephas uses the Sign to "prove" his credentials to anyone who questions his mystical ability. Otherwise the Dream Book is worth 1 pool point Occult, and confers no other benefit. 

Someone like Norwood could be encountered in several different ways: as a self-proclaimed expert, a potential mystic adversary - perhaps even trading "curses" with the protagonists - or even as a customer. After all he does have a fair amount of Credit Rating, and he must be spending it on something ...