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?”