Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Dusting Off Price

I've been reading Pelgrane Press' Night's Black Agents, trying to digest its ideas and see whether or not it will work for me. I think it might. However this may be because, in the first few pages, it references one of my favorite authors: Anthony Price.

Night's Black Agents, for those who don't know it, is an RPG horror setting that presumes vampires exist, and are at the heart of a gigantic, possibly world-spanning conspiracy. You know this because, until recently, you were working for them; but, having discovered your masters' true identity, you're now more of a liability than an asset. Vampires hate loose ends, so if you want to keep on breathing, you need to do something decisive, and fast. It's a spy game at its heart, with you as the spy, betrayed by your former masters, and now on the run.

Spy games are exactly the sort of thing Anthony Price was fond of. Price, a former journalist, turned to novel writing in the early 1970s and, over time, put together nineteen intricately crafted stories. His two favorite characters were David Audley, a former tanker in World War Two who gets recruited for Intelligence work in the aftermath of the war, and Colonel Butler, also a soldier, who is recruited at much the same time by the same person, and who eventually rises to head of the Intelligence branch that Audley works for. Most of Price's work was set in the 1970s and 80s, with occasional glimpses back into the war years. I say was because, although I've no proof one way or the other, it's long been my assumption that Price is dead. Certainly he hasn't published anything for over two decades, though I see that, according to Existential Ennui, he was still with us in 2011.

The Night's Black Agents connection comes early in the Modes section when, in talking about the Dust option, Hite says: "To instead recreate the gritty, low-fi espionage world of Anthony Price or Charles McCarry ... you can de-power the game into Dust mode," and he goes on to give advice as to how this may be done. "In Dust mode," Hite continues, "the vampires and their agents will be far more challenging and powerful in open combat. Design, and encourage your players to design, operations that avoid shootouts unless the team has overwhelming positional advantage, or some surprising ace in the hole."

If there's one thing Price is especially known for, it's the cerebral nature of his plots. At one point you may be convinced beyond all hope of reason that the supposed villains - they might be KGB, they might be agents of another foreign power - are secretly after the gold of Troy, or a list of names from an old Napoleonic warship, or hidden treasure from the English Civil War, only to discover that the truth of the matter is something altogether different. In his Other Paths To Glory, much depends on the fate of a regiment that went missing, almost to a man, on the Somme in 1916; yet it's not until the final chapters that the reader discovers why these soldiers' deaths were - are - so important in 1974.

Double and triple agents are commonplace. One of the enduring tropes of Price's works is Debreczen, the alleged school for spies in East Germany, whose sole purpose was to create people for very deep cover operations. They weren't supposed to deliver secrets; their role was to exist, and keep on existing for as long as possible, rising in the ranks of whichever organization they had penetrated. Imagine an Intelligence agency, a corporation, a political organization where the leadership wasn't merely corrupted, but had been - from the very beginning - working for the Other Side. Audley and his fellow spies were never entirely sure whether Debreczen had even existed; merely the threat that something like it might exist kept them awake nights. Because once you introduce that sort of thing into the mix, anything's possible; the people you report to, work for, vote for, might not be who you always believed them to be.

I can see that kind of setting working very well in a Night's Black Agents game. The whole idea of double and triple crosses, agents who might have been working for the enemy all along, ought to be meat and drink to a Vampire Spies game. If anyone's wondering what a Price setting might be like, I offer the following guidelines:

1. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Very few agents in Price's world get far on guts and guns. In the early chapters of October Men, Italian agent Villari is set up as the perfect bravo, swaggering, assured, lethal. Yet when the bullets fly, it is not he but his more bookish and cowardly partner, Boselli, who emerges triumphant; even if it is, at least in part, by complete accident. Those who get into gunfights often die young, in Price's world.

2. Nobody is who they seem to be. The Brigadier in The Hour of the Donkey is anything but, the dentist in Our Man in Camelot is no dentist, and Paul Mitchell, reluctant hero of Other Paths to Glory is no soldier, but that's all right, as his partner Nikki MacMahon isn't really from the French Ministry of Tourism. When in doubt, always assume someone's lying about their true identity. It saves time.

3. Everybody's lying about their intentions, as well as their identity. In The Labyrinth Makers, Price's best known novel, the prevailing assumption throughout the book is that the Russian top brass who wants to visit England is doing so because he thinks that, as a result of a recent discovery, the true location of the gold of Troy, lost during the War when Germany fell, is about to be discovered. Then we're led to believe he's after something else, only to discover that what he was after might not have been the important thing at all. Or perhaps it really was Trojan gold ... But the smoke and mirrors is integral to the plot; it's not like a Bond novel, where the true identity of, say, Auric Goldfinger is known pretty much from the opening pages, and the point of the narrative is to discover how he intends to burgle Fort Knox. Goldfinger has many faults, but concealing his intentions isn't one of them. He wouldn't last long in Price's world.

4. The stakes are both unbelievably high, and potentially meaningless, all at the same time. In one novel, which I shall not name, the entire scheme - which has already claimed several lives and is about to claim many more by the climactic moments - is undone by damp and wet. Another hinges, in its final moments, on ancient grenades. Perhaps we're finally about to find out what happened at Debreczen, or perhaps we're about to find out that Debreczen never existed in the first place. The illusion of Trojan gold, in the first novel, is repeated again and again; fantastic treasures, that somehow turn into worthless lead.

5. Relationships are key. Most of these novels take place before widespread computerization, and the reader's left with the impression that Price himself didn't think much of technology. For his agents, it's all about who you know, the expert you can turn to for that much-needed clue. The trading of favours comes up again and again, in Price's world. Even knowing your enemy puts you one step ahead; October Men opens up with an Italian spymaster recognizing, in a few fleeting seconds, an old foe at a busy airport terminal, and in more than one story David Audley's knowledge of that preeminent Russian archaeologist and spy, Panin, saves the day.

At any rate, that ought to be enough to get the Director thinking. I shall need to read Night's Black Agents a few more times to see if it really is for me, but early results are promising!

Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Value of Knowledge

I've talked about books within the context of a Trail of Cthulhu campaign once or twice before, arguing for the concept of fake Mythos, and describing a potential Mythos tome. This time I want to talk about books that aren't Mythos related at all, yet still have their uses in a horror setting.

There are many possible Mythos tomes out there. The main Trail book mentions seventeen, but even a little research will uncover dozens more, many of them invented by scenario writers specifically for a particular campaign or one-shot. This is undoubtedly useful, yet - particularly in the early stages of a campaign - I'd warn against resorting immediately to Mythos tomes.

When I discussed the first story arc I mentioned that it should be almost entirely about the setting, and the characters' role in that setting. If it is Arabesque, then everything the protagonists encounter should reinforce Arabesque tropes and ideas, and so on. Naturally this means that, in general terms, the kind of horror the protagonists will be coming up against is low-key. Something to whet the appetite, not something capable of crushing the life out of the protagonists.

What this means in terms of Mythos tomes is that, realistically speaking, there probably oughtn't to be any; at least, not in the first arc. At most, perhaps there are rumors, or one or two fakes floating around; but anything that dangerous probably oughtn't to be on offer, at least not until the very end of the arc.But if there are no Mythos tomes, then what kind of tomes are there? After all, the protagonists run a bookshop; they can hardly be expected to ignore books.

My response is that there are books, and plenty of them; ordinary, honest books, like the Thousand and One Nights (I'm having a lot of fun with that in my own campaign), which don't in themselves have Mythos knowledge, but can be used as part of an ongoing plot. In some cases borrowing from the plot can be useful; imagine a book scout, sniffing for valuables, who happens to re-enact the voyages of Sindbad the Sailor in the process. Or perhaps a regular customer to the shop, who begins to take on attributes common to Ali Baba, complete with meddling rich brother and a hidden treasure. In that setting, the books could become a kind of divining tool, not unlike the way the bible is used in M.R. James' The Ash Tree. What is troubling our dear friend, and why is that book mysteriously open to that very page in which Ali Baba discovers his dead brother, killed by the Forty Thieves?

But this kind of indirection may not suit every campaign. There are more direct methods. The Dust-Things described in the Bookhounds can be very useful, in that they take on attributes of the books they mimic. Imagine what a collection of, say, R.L. Stevenson's works might become, with one or two of those hidden away in its leaves. Would the bookstore become the haunt of pirates? Or would the Dust Things lead the protagonists on to discover the New Arabian Nights, and the Suicide Club that still exists, hidden somewhere in London?

There is one other alternative, and that is to have a mundane book become magical. There are plenty of precedents for this; black magicians often wrote their copies of the Grand Grimoire out in longhand, on the presumption that their personal energies, poured into the creation of the book, made the item magical. There's potential for almost anything to become an occult text, under the right circumstances.

And with that, let me tell you about the Books of Knowledge.

Printed by the Grolier Society in London, this Children's Encyclopedia was intended to teach - and mould - young minds, and included such topics as nature, science, famous books, golden deeds, poetry, and - most important, this - Things to Make and Do. I happen to have a 1911 collection of these inherited from my great-grandfather, which is how I know about them; I used to read them when my grandmother looked after my brother and me. Physically, the collection is a set of sixteen thick hardback volumes, mostly black-and-white with the occasional color plate. The stories are intended to be edifying, though often in a gruesome sort of way; I'm looking at The Story of Little Red Shoes as I type this, which ends with headstrong Karen pleading with a headsman to cut off her perpetually dancing feet rather than her head; her eventual reward is to be taken up to Heaven by an angel. And all this, mark you, for the crime of wearing pretty red dancing shoes on a Sunday. One line in particular strikes me as being strong meat for young minds: She told the headsman what she had done, and persuaded him to cut off her feet, and away they danced in the red shoes across the moor. Now there's the stuff of nightmares! But I digress.

I want to talk about Model Town.

It is a very troublesome thing to build a real town, the opening paragraph reads, and it costs a great sum of money. There is the land to buy, streets to make, sewers to lay, architects, builders, clerks, foremen, and workmen to pay. Then inspectors and surveyors come to see that the work is being done as they like. So that not many people have ever built a whole town alone. We will try to do so ... 

It goes on to describe how you, with your inquiring young mind, sharp knife - but what boy or girl is without a knife? - pencil, glue, and a quantity of cardboard, can construct wonders. It starts with a model of Shakespeare's birthplace, but it doesn't stop there. There's the Fire Station, a Farm, the Chapel and its Parsonage, Shops, Villas, the Church, and, of course, the Gasworks.

It is some time since we made any new buildings to add to Modeltown, the last section reads. The last building we made was the Gasworks. We could go in indefinitely ... If we have made all the buildings, or even a considerable number of them, we ought to have become rather expert at the work of cardboard modelling. But, after all, we have only followed instructions and plans. There is, however, a much higher ability than this. There is the ability to think things out for ourselves, and invent ...

In game terms, the Books of Knowledge in themselves are non-magical; perhaps poring over them will net the reader 1 temporary pool point History, Art History, or similar. But there is one very special collection, previously owned by Henry Worthing, and poring over that will earn the reader 1 dedicated pool point Craft (model buildings), and 1 point Occult, Magic, or Megapolisomancy, reader's choice.

Henry Worthing, born 1901 in India, where his father was a colonial administrator, was a happy child, but wild in his habits. The Books, bought for him by his doting mother, were the only things to truly capture his imagination, and he spent hours and days working on his Model Town, which he patterned on what he imagined London to be like. Then he was sent Home shortly before the War started, to live with his aunt and uncle in the real London. He soon discovered that all was not as he had imagined; his relatives grudged him his keep, often told him that he was only there on sufferance, and was a wicked child, for any number of reasons. His parents' deaths soon afterward only compounded his sorrows; though there was a little money, his aunt and uncle kept most of it for themselves. Meanwhile Henry stayed up in the attic, working day and night on his Model Town. Now he had the actual London streets and buildings to work with and, piece by piece, he put together something extraordinary.

Then, one night, Henry vanished, never to be seen again. It was claimed at the time that his relatives, worried that their bilking of his inheritance was about to be uncovered, got rid of the boy, but a thorough investigation came to nothing. The Books - and Henry's Town - were soon got rid of, presumably destroyed.

Yet, claim some Megapolisomancers, Henry's London proved remarkably difficult to truly kill. Some of his models have turned up in the most unlikely of places, and are prized by those who use the bricks and soul of London in their magic. But the books are the real prize, and more than one practitioner has spent many hours picking through obscure bookstores, hoping against hope that they'll stumble across one of the precious volumes with Henry's hand-written notes in the margins.

As to where Henry himself ended up, practitioners of the Art theorize that Henry managed, one night, to vanish into a London of his own devising, becoming one with the city he loved so much. Perhaps his aunt and uncle could shed some light on what really happened, but his uncle is - supposedly - dead, and his aunt now lives far out in the countryside.

It's said she has a horror of cities.