Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Bookhounds Technicolor

Having discussed Sordid and Arabesque London for Bookhounds, the time has come to talk Technicolor. To do that I'm going to reference an example that may at first seem out of place: The Satanic Rites of Dracula, the last Hammer Horror film to feature Christopher Lee as the Count. I picked this up as part of a bundle of 10 films for 10 dollars; included in it were such gems as Snowbeast (Jaws knock-off set at a Colorado ski resort) and House on Haunted Hill (Vincent Price chews the scenery in this locked-room ghost mansion thriller). Satanic Rites deserves to be in that company. It's a pretty standard B-movie shocker with plenty of blood and sexy bits for your viewing pleasure. I don't recommend buying it - not unless you can get it for $1, as I did - but it's worth a rental. Go see!

Now that you've seen it, let's talk Bookhounds.

To begin with, I should point out straight away that apart from the 1970s aesthetic there's nothing here that couldn't have happened in the 1930s. The technology, the style, the characters are all pretty much interchangeable, bar a few hairstyle concerns. Most of it is set in ye ramblinge olde Englishe country home, complete with pleasant woodlands for your walking pleasure.  There's very little of the ultra-modern here, which is one of the reasons the Hammer Horror aesthetic works so well for Bookhounds.

In fact, in the main rulebook they reference Hammer Horror by name. There is another London, garish and glorious. This is the Technicolor world of Hammer Films, in vibrant color – and the color is always bright red or lurid green. Cults wear rich robes; monsters radiate unearthly glows; scarlet blood smears jaws and talons and lips and other parts ... All very cinematic, I'm sure; but with that in mind, what does Satanic Rites tell us about a Technicolor London?

To begin with, it tells us that London is London. Every time Satanic Rites wants to establish the scene, it show a quick montage of famous landmarks. A Sordid London might set its scenes in nameless back alleys and Soho nightclubs; an Arabesque can take any aspect of the city and turn it into something glorious. Technicolor London is all about the bling; Nelson's Column, the British Museum, the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, the Palace, the Tower. Even the relatively ordinary laboratory of Professor Keeley is in a rather splendid Georgian terrace. If there's ever a campaign in which the characters are trying to find out what really lives in the forgotten tube station under the British Museum, or whether the green men in the Jewel Tower hide some sinister secret, Technicolor is that campaign.

In that London, there are mooks. Hordes and hordes of the little devils; three of them go down in a hail of gunfire or are strangled in the first ten minutes of the film. For that matter there are also minions, slightly higher class mooks who perhaps get to lounge naked on Satanic altars or chant along with the ritual leader, but who don't have any significant plot function and will probably get whalloped by the heroes before too long.

As might be expected, these mooks are occasionally plot-stupid. By that I mean they'll do daft things, purely for the sake of keeping the plot moving. There's one moment about a quarter of the way through when Van Helsing's granddaughter breaks into the cellars of Pelham House and discovers, to her horror, that there's half a dozen vampires hidden there. Had this been any other picture, she'd have been sucked dry within half a minute; as this is Hammer Horror her clothes get torn but, as luck would have it, all those vampires are chained down - for no good reason I can think of - so she manages to avoid being bitten.

Not that the heroes have plot immunity. Death stalks everyone, and while it does play favorites to a point, there's still every chance that the heroes will get theirs before the final reel. See that nice secretary lady? All she did was turn up in one scene to make the tea but clearly that meant the cult had to mark her for death and, since Dracula's giving her a nibble, it's a good bet she'll be back before too long. In a Technicolor campaign there should be death, and lots of it. Bodies should be turning up in closets, and the butler the characters met at the door of their friend's mansion could easily turn up as a zombie in the following scene. 

There should be technology, and you shouldn't be afraid to use it against the players. Twice in Satanic Rites an electronic eye becomes plot significant; there are security cameras everywhere; the cultists use silenced weapons; some of the action takes place at an ultra-modern skyscraper. Don't think for a minute that this is 1970s stuff, so you can't use it. The electronic eye was a viable security option in the early 1930s, the Nazis had security cameras in 1942 - a little out of time, but not by much - the first silencers were patented in 1902, and electronic alarms were common enough to feature as a significant plot device in a 1915 silent movie. So if you happen to be designing a secret Nazi Satanic lair in the heart of London, why shouldn't they be using all of those technologies? Don't feel you have to limit this to existing tech either; if there's one thing the 1930s are famous for, it's death rays, those old pulp standbys that never worked but which fired so many imaginations. There ought to be a mad scientist out there somewhere working on a gizmo or a plague to wipe out mankind; it's only proper.

Or consider architecture; yes, this is the London of bling, but this is also the London of the modernist movement. Why shouldn't that new office building, built by the mysterious reclusive industrialist, hide some terrible secret? Its clean lines and Deco touches could be the facade behind which an ageless evil lurks!

Finally, it should be personal. Dracula, if he had any sense, would have made absolutely sure Van Helsing never got anywhere near his office block; the cult assassin, rather than playing with his victims, would have put bullets right through their foreheads. Yet Dracula must have his revenge, so he risks his entire plot to toy with Van Helsing. The cult assassin must show how clever he is, so rather than blow their brains out he captures them and puts them in a deathtrap. Funny how the heroes always seem to escape from those. The point is, death's too good for those pesky heroes. They have to be humiliated, crushed, the last vestiges of those prized Pillars of Sanity swept away, for the villain to feel as though he's really triumphed. The villains take this sort of thing very personally, and they tailor the demise to fit the hero.

That's Technicolor; fascinating, blatant, sinful and technology-driven. I hope you find this useful! Next time: something completely different ...

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Bookhounds Arabesque

Bookhounds of London for Trail of Cthulhu has three potential settings: Sordid, Technicolor and Arabesque. Last time I discussed the role of murder in a Sordid game; this time I want to discuss the best example of Arabesque London.

In the rulebook, Arabesque is described as follows: In an Arabesque London, anything might happen around any corner. Any or all of Elliott O’Donnell’s mad imaginary cults might exist (p. 61) and be tied in to any or no Mythos machinations. Investigators have touched the strange, the unusual, the uncanny: they do not quite exist in the same quotidian city where the faceless masses on the buses and the Underground dwell.

There is a temptation to leap straight to the Mythos heart and start designing cults and entities to live in that city. After all, cults and entities are the bread-and-butter of any horror game; but what does it mean, to be Arabesque in London? What kind of style is that really, and what kind of city will a Baghdad-on-the-Thames be?

To my mind, the best example of what Arabesque can mean to a campaign is found in the writing of authors like Lord Dunsany, and I'm going to use his short fiction The Beggars as an example. Like many of his stories it's only a few hundred words long, and I recommend you read it before going further.

Now, think of what that means for London. This isn't just a city in which cults and beasties dwell. This is the sort of place where beggars in marvelous garb wander, men who wear purple cloaks with wide green borders, and the border of green was a narrow strip with some, and some wore cloaks of old and faded red, and some wore violet cloaks, and none wore black. And they begged gracefully, as gods might beg for souls. This is the sort of place where anything - quite literally anything, including the street lights and the gutters - can have a fantastical double life, say as a lighthouse that guides the unwary to safe harbor, or as a means by which the remnants of great waters can find their way back to the Sea. Moreover this is the kind of vision that can - and does - vanish in an instant, as if it had never been. 

In short, an Arabesque London is the kind of place where anything can happen, and usually does; where the outer shell, so mundane and unexceptional, can hide strange secrets. For did not the shopman in his black frock coat hide strange and dumb ambitions; that his dumbness was founded by solemn rite on the roots of ancient tradition; that it might be overcome one day by a cheer in the street or by some one singing a song, and that when this shopman spoke there might come clefts in the world and people peering over at the abyss? Was not even the smoke that gushed forth from the chimneys the last of the old coal-forests that have lain so long in the dark, and so long still, are dancing now and going back to the sun? This is the sort of place where, in your pocket change, you might find a Spanish doubloon, a Roman denarius or something of even older and stranger minting. Here the solemn and silent stranger in his bowler hat and coat may be heir to secrets that go back to the beginning of things. 

Moreover it is the sort of place that is linked with travel, and change, where everything must at last go back to the delectable Sea, and meet the heaving, huge, and travelled ships. Not for nothing is Arabseque London called Baghdad-by- the-Thames. The River ought to be at the heart of every Arabesque campaign; it has served London since the days of flint knives and the first fires, and will serve London long after everyone in your campaign has gone to dust. It brings the flotsam of the world to the city, and washes away its sins. It might be administered by the Crown - or some other agency, that sends odd gilded ships across its face - and it might hide old Gods long forgotten. This is the same Thames that near-drowned the City in 1928, and killed fourteen; the same Thames whose tributaries run hidden under the streets of London; the same Thames that feeds a city of millions with the tonnes of cargo unloaded every day at the dockside. There is no London without the River, but in an Arabesque story - where travel and travelers' tales becomes so important - the Thames is a vital ingredient.  

Arabesque, to my mind, is possibly the least likely of all the settings to accommodate Pulp play. It's not that it can't be done; but there is an air of inevitable decline in stories like these, where the City unquestionably survives but its people perhaps do not. Dunsany was also very fond of stories like The Field, where something outwardly beautiful hides a dark secret, or The Ghosts, where outwardly noble and beautiful people carry their monstrous sins with them always. Here sits an old nobleman with his grandson on his knee, and one of the great black sins of the grandfather is licking the child's face and has made the child its own ... No, these are not stories that end well, and the point of Pulp is that occasionally the characters triumph. The point behind Arabesque is that, no matter what else may happen, the City always triumphs. People come and go, but Baghdad-on-the-Thames is eternal, and can never be completely understood even by those who have lived there for centuries.

                      “Who are you?” people said. “And where do you come from?”
                  “Who may tell what we are,” they answered, “or whence we come?”

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Murder Most Foul

Bookhounds of London offers three different kind of campaign settings: Arabesque, Technicolor and Sordid. This time out I’m going to go Sordid, and discuss the crime of murder.

Murder was an obsession of the Thirties. People read about them all the time – Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers made their careers out of murder – but apart from the fictional variety there were plenty of real killings to occupy headlines. Men like Doctor Crippen, who killed for money and finally fled, bloody-handed, with his lover Ethel le Neve, only to be caught on the SS Montrose while fleeing to Quebec. Or Doctor Buck Ruxton, who bludgeoned his wife and her maid, cut up the bodies, and then lied and said she’d left him. Then there’s Alfred Rouse, the blazing car killer who picked up a hitchhiker and set him on fire in an attempt to disguise Rouse’s own disappearance. Or Nurse Hopton of Gloucester, the poisoner, and any number of trunks with torsos – and other parts – shipped off to railway stations, the better to delay identification.

And when the murderer was safely arrested, there were other murderous celebrities to occupy people’s attention. Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the famous British pathologist who worked on so many bodies, was always news. Detective Chief Superintendent Edward Greeno was making a name for himself collaring some of the most notorious criminals of the age, as was Fabian of the Yard, aka Superintendent Robert Fabian whose memoirs became fodder for a BBC series in the 1950s.

We sometimes forget this, but the reason why writers like Sayers and Christie could make a living from writing crime novels was that their contemporaries were utterly obsessed with crime. It was what they saw every day in the news, which brought them stories of people – it might be your next-door neighbor – who’d sliced up their spouses, or been sliced up themselves. The criminals and those who caught them, all celebrities, clamored for attention every day. Then of course there were the trials, with their attendant photographers, reports, juicy transcripts full of gossip-fodder, and so on and on.

A truly Sordid campaign has to include murder. The Sordid London is the London of prostitution, drugs, poverty, desperation, extortion, and cruelty, as the rulebook puts it, and you can’t conceive of that kind of London without there being murders every day. Not the kind of killings that wind up in the comfortable stately homes of old England either; no, these are the brides in the acid bath, the abortionists with bodies in the basement, the elderly beaten to death for their jewellery and whatever cash can be looted from their bank accounts. These are the stories that will be on the front page of every newspaper, with the photo supplements that helpfully point out exactly where the body was found.

But how to introduce these murderers to the campaign? Well, there are at least two options. First, as background noise. If the Keeper is going to present a living world for the players to inhabit, that means there’s going to be a lot of things going on around them which they’re aware of, but do not necessarily directly affect the game. Income tax will be going up, up, up, for a start, and there will be rumblings of trouble in Europe. Yet another Council for Peace will try to persuade everyone to disarm or to compromise on war reparations, and be rudely told where to stick the notion. There will be roadworks and gas explosions, advertising campaigns and sermons. No doubt the Duke of Windsor is in the news again, as he and Wallis Simpson hob-nob with Hitler. All of these things will be going on all the time, and if the Keeper uses this as background then the players ought to be reminded of it all the time. Extra, extra, read all about it, the newsboys call, or perhaps the BBC drones on in their offices during the off hours.  It can be something to mention at the beginning of a scene, or as part of an important moment.

Say for instance that the character is due to find something in the newspaper. Well in that event it isn’t just a newspaper, it can be something like: ‘buried on page 12, underneath a photo array showing exactly where the Battersea Torso Killer hacked up his victim, you find …’ Or alternatively something like ‘the radio announcer is describing the crowd outside Birmingham Prison, where baby killer Victor Parsons is about to be hung, as the jingle of the doorbell announces the entry of a customer.’   Yes, it’s flavor text; but it’s text of a very deliberate sort, intended to reinforce the style of campaign you intend to play.

The other way is to make the killer a customer. There are any number of chemically or medically inclined murderers of the Twenties and Thirties. Aside from the doctors and nurses there’s people like Rouse, trying to use modern methods to disguise their crimes, and Haigh wasn’t the first acid bath killer by any stretch. People like that are going to have disposable income and a desire to spend it. Some of them, no doubt, will want books. They may not be particularly interested in Mythos tomes, of course, but that does not matter. What does matter is their usefulness as NPCs, either by supplying knowledge or services that the characters do not themselves possess, or by providing a non-Mythos hook to a horror-themed scenario.


Ethel Pratt

Abilities:             Athletics 4, Biology 1, Bargain 4, Credit Rating 1-4 (varies), Chemistry 3, Flattery 3, Filch 6, Health 8, Law 1, Medicine 1, Oral History 3, Preparedness 6, Reassurance 4, Scuffling 9, Weapons 4

Damage:              -2 (fist, kick), -1 (knife)

Special:                dose of arsenic always handy by (nausea, vomiting, convulsions, coma, death); Health Difficulty 7 or suffer +1 damage for 4 rounds. There would be no treatment in the Thirties for severe arsenic poisoning.

Occupation:       Lady’s Maid

Three Things:    Perpetually shocked at the wickedness of the world; addicted to thrillers and crime novels of all kinds including true crime accounts; odd chemical odor seems to follow her wherever she goes.

Notes:  Ethel is the guiding mind in the Pratt partnership; Mister Pratt, a habitual drunkard, is either in her good graces and therefore allowed to come near her, or driven off with curses and blows if not. Mister Pratt was once a butler in a great household, but his addiction put paid to that and all other forms of permanent employment. Ethel moves from employer to employer every six months to a year, and usually has excellent references. Some of her employers – old Miss Willets, crumbling Miss Jefferson, aged and deaf Mrs Fowlkes-Willoughby – went missing soon after Ethel went into service with them, but in each case the old ladies were without family or friends and their disappearance went unremarked. As far as the neighbors are concerned they went abroad for the good of their health, on doctor's orders, and their loyal, helpful maid kindly stayed behind to lock the houses up. They've stayed locked up ever since. Were the police to check Mister Pratt’s tumbledown East End dwelling, particularly the acid-flecked drains in the yard, they would find something greatly to their interest. Ethel’s fortunes seem to flourish and die remarkably quickly; for a brief time she is flush, and goes to all the best places, but soon afterwards is stony and looking for another job. Ethel picked up some of her knowledge from her experiences as a nurse during the War, and the rest from books. She’s always keen to add to her body of knowledge, and never fails to pick up the latest crime novel.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Mythos Knowledge

I recently discussed flim flam artists and fakers in Trail of Cthulhu, and suggested that in any setting there ought to be at least some fakery. Without false knowledge, players will come to expect that everything in front of them is the exact truth, that if early indications are that vampires (say) are at the root of the scenario then they won't go looking for other explanations. I used the example of a psychic healer in that post, but today I want to talk about something slightly different: false knowledge, specifically false Mythos knowledge.

Now, before I go any further on this topic I need to make one thing clear. If the Keeper intends to use false Mythos knowledge in a campaign, I strongly advise that he discusses this with the players before the campaign begins. The Keeper must always be perceived as a fair arbiter, whether of rules or anything else to do with the game. Introducing house rules without telling anyone, only bringing it up when a player falls foul of the house rule, is the quickest way to ruin gaming friendships I can think of. Bear this in mind!

Cthulhu Mythos is defined in the main book as the secret rules of the real world, [not] the ignorant scrim of physics and religion. You recognize the great names, and the truths they conceal ... The primary use of this ability in the course of an investigation is to “put together the pieces” and draw upon the terrible knowledge that you have been subconsciously suppressing, achieving a horrific epiphany. Using it costs both Stability and Sanity, and the benefit provided is to point the characters in the right direction towards solving the scenario's mystery.

If there is such a thing as false Mythos knowledge, then based on this description two things are clear: first, it cannot - by definition - point the characters in the right direction. Fake is fake. They may accidentally stumble in the right direction regardless, but that's their good luck. Second, though it might cost Stability to use it, false Mythos ought not to cost Sanity, since - again, by definition - false truths do not reveal great names or any significant information, and it is that information which wears away at a person's Sanity.

Therefore false Mythos does this: it costs precisely the same, in terms of Stability and possibly also Sanity, as a real Mythos reveal of the same magnitude - as discussed on pages 74-6 of the main book - but it provides no actual insight. This may mean that the Keeper has to come up with a completely false lead for the players to follow, or that they are presented with a means of solving whatever problem faces them but that this method will not actually work when used. This can be especially devastating should the players be basing their entire last-ditch plan of attack on false knowledge. The results could be severe, possibly even death for one or more characters. The Keeper needs to factor this possibility in when including false knowledge; only if the Keeper is happy with the potential result - up to and including a total party kill - should the false knowledge be used.

There is an obvious flaw which you probably spotted straight away. If false Mythos costs no Sanity to use, then players will immediately spot it for what it is. Yes ... but there are two points to consider. First, that by the time this becomes apparent the false Mythos has been used and therefore has done all the damage it can do. Thus imposing a Sanity penalty on top of everything else could be seen as overkill. Second, that if the Keeper wants to maintain the mystery there are rules already in the game to help achieve this. The Denial rule (p 75) states that if, at the end of the adventure, there is absolutely no proof of your horrible experience – samples, photographs, recordings, eerie artifacts – then your Sanity rating recovers by 1 point. Effectively it "never happened," so the penalty is reduced. In the case of fake Mythos, it can't ever happen - it's fake, after all - and in that instance I would recommend that the Sanity rating recovers by the amount "lost," whatever it may have been, at the scenario's conclusion, rather than just by 1 point. It could be argued, particularly in a Purist setting, that 1 point is all the player is entitled to regain, but that seems harsh to me; again, if the Keeper intends to do that, I strongly urge that this be made clear at the outset.

Why use fake Mythos? Again, this goes back to the flim-flam argument, but I'd go one further and say this: particularly in a setting like Bookhounds of London, which depends so much for its impact on fraud, deception and vice, it seems counter-productive to suppose that every source of Mythos knowledge is telling the truth. Some of those dusty grimoires must be fakes, but how then to separate those - from a rules point of view - from the ones that aren't?

It's not as if there have never been frauds in real life. The Vinland Map, the Book of the Zohar, Jack the Ripper's Diary, to name just three forgeries created either with the deliberate intent to deceive for money's sake or as part of a more insidious attempt to spread false doctrine. Moreover there have been any number of occasions when a "new" work by a famous literary figure has suddenly been discovered; any number of artists who have lived off of their ability to copy a famous person's style. Given that, it is increasingly likely that someone - probably quite a few someones - have tried to grift their way to fame and fortune by copying, say, the artistic flourishes of a Pickman, creating a play in the style of The King in Yellow, or discovering a hitherto unknown von Juntz. These wouldn't necessarily have been modern fraudsters either; scarcity bumps up price, and as soon as the Cultes des Ghouls went on the bonfire in the 18th century there would have been someone trying to persuade one of the mystical societies - perhaps a Hell Fire Club - that they had access to one of the Comte d'Erlette's unpublished works, and was prepared to part with it for a small consideration. Frauds of this type would be all the more difficult for a modern researcher to identify as frauds, since they would have been created with materials appropriate to the period.

The biggest difficulty with using false Mythos is that it requires bookkeeping. Each and every source of Mythos would need to be identified and cataloged; you can't just add them straight into the pool with no record of where it came from, or you'll never be able to tell the good stuff from the bad. The player will need to record that the character has, say, a Cthulhu Mythos pool of 3 points, of which 1 comes from direct experience during a scenario (and is therefore true), 1 comes from studying a text (which may or may not be true), and 1 comes from miscellaneous occult researches (talking with ghouls in the churchyard, or otherwise learning from primary sources, which is therefore also true). Anything based on direct, personal experience - an encounter, consulting with Mythos entities and the like - is certain to be true. Nothing else should be as certain, so in those cases where a Mythos point has to be spent the player needs to specify where the point came from. That should make for some very tense decision-making moments, as pools start to deplete and the players begin to wonder: ought I really trust the information in that tome? After all, I got it from Bainbridge, and he's a born liar if ever there was one ... but he might not have been wrong about this.    

Naturally false Mythos should only be used at the Keeper's discretion, and with full knowledge of the probable outcome: defeat for the characters, and therefore the players. That doesn't have to be a bad thing; this is horror gaming after all, and players are bound to lose from time to time. However don't forget the advice I gave earlier; the Keeper should always be seen as a fair arbiter of events, not as someone who changes the rules to suit themselves mid-session. It should also be possible for the players to detect frauds before they do damage, and there are skills - Bibliography, Textual Analysis, Document Analysis - that can help careful players do exactly that.

Provided of course that they remember to use them; after all, even if the cult leader whose group they just defeated prized that tome above all others in his collection, his belief doesn't make the Mythos knowledge contained therein true ...