Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Patreon? Hmmmm

I want to discuss something with you.

Recently I've been looking at outlets for short fiction, and possibly also for GUMSHOE style scenarios. The GUMSHOE stuff would have to be under the open license, which means it couldn't be part of its regular settings like, say, Bookhounds. The short fiction is something I've been working on for a while, but finding a good outlet for short stories is as difficult now as it has always been.

Several people have recommended Patreon to me. I know a little about Patreon, but my suspicion has always been that platforms like Patreon are good for creators who already have an established following, not so much for those who are seeking to build one. Otherwise the site seems to be a good fit.

It occurred to me that you probably have some experience with Patreon, and sites like it. I wonder: what are your thoughts on the subject? Any recommendations? Suggestions, or things to avoid? Speak! I'm listening ...

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Rental Library (Bookhounds of London)

A while ago now I had cause to mention George Orwell's essay on running a book store. Among the topics covered was the store's rental library, something that was very common in Orwell's day but is extinct in ours. I wondered how it was organized, what its purpose was, how it was run. Wonder no more, for there is a book out there that reveals all: Ruth Brown Park's Book Stores and How To Run Them.

I had no idea this book existed until someone Tweeted about it, probably because the cover is so evocatively art deco. First published in 1929, copies of this can be had relatively cheap, and while it's not an absolute must-buy - the writing's a little dry, and as might be expected it dwells on the economics and accounting side of the business - any Keeper interested in running Bookhounds might at least see if it's available on inter-library loan. Naturally I turned to the Rental Library chapter first.

Few new book shop owners realize the importance of the rental library, it begins. Besides furnishing a source of steady income, remember always, a rental library brings people into your store. At first they come only to rent, but passing attractive displays on their way to the Rental Department, they eventually begin to buy,. And therein lies your opportunity. Make permanent buyers of former borrowers. Let people learn how delightful it is to own books, not merely to rent them. Create in them, through subtle sales talks, a desire to become book collectors, not transitory owners. You can do this if you exert real selling technique ...

Already I'm beginning to see why the Rental Department is extinct. The core assumption, judging by this piece, seems to be that people don't really know that they can buy books; that ownership is within their grasp. There's almost a subtle class war situation going on here, where a host of potential buyers, who previously thought that owning books was for the well-off, now realize how wonderful it could be to have a real, live book of their very own, to cuddle and play with and call George. In 1929, this might have been true. These days the written word doesn't have quite that same upper class cachet. People who want to own books just go out and buy them, and the ones who don't want to own books wouldn't care if Rental Departments opened up in all the Starbucks across the land.

George Orwell, since we're in his territory again, discusses this tendency at length in the essay Books vs Cigarettes. A couple of years ago a friend of mine, a newspaper editor, was firewatching with some factory workers, Orwell begins. They fell to talking about his newspaper, which most of them read and approved of, but when he asked them what they thought of the literary section, the answer he got was: "You don't think we read that stuff, do you? Why, half the time you're talking about books that cost twelve and sixpence! Chaps like us couldn't spend twelve and sixpence on a book." These, he said, were men who thought nothing of spending several pounds on a day trip to Blackpool. For the record, one pound in old currency is twenty shillings, and each shilling is twelve pence. Twelve and sixpence is twelve and a half shillings, or slightly over half a pound.

Orwell's essay concludes that, overall, reading is probably the cheapest recreation available, but it might not have appeared that way to the people doing the spending, because reading seems expensive when compared to everyday luxuries like cigarettes or beer. The individual pint or pack of coffin nails is relatively cheap compared to the price of an individual book, but when a year's spending is taken into consideration, you're likely to have bought, and spent more money on in aggregate, many more cigarettes or pints than you have books. Yet each cigarette or pint can only be consumed once, while a book lasts as long as need be.

Of course, says Park about the Rental Library, no definite choice of books for the renting department can be laid down, because the character of your patrons pays such an all-important part. However it has been found a good plan to have, first, the latest and most popular new fiction; second, the popular books of the past year, and the earlier books of authors whose present books are causing discussion; and third, non-fiction having wide popular appeal. 

The point always being to draw people in. Footfall is the life blood of retail. Remember what was said previously, about passing attractive displays on the way to the Rental Department. This is exactly the same kind of technique used in retail outlets all over the world; large chains, like Walmart,  have this down to a fine art. You put the things that you know the customers will want as far away as possible, so the customer has to walk past other things on the way to their destination. Those who walk past may stop, at those attractive displays, and those who stop might buy. I've previously spoken about shopping malls, and the practice of keeping key tenants far away from each other, so people have to walk from one to the other. The principle's the same. Only the scale is different.

As far as revenue's concerned - remember that source of steady income mentioned in the first paragraph - the retailer gets his cash up front. There's a deposit, refundable when the member decides he's had enough and wants to withdraw, and a small charge per week. Local competition would probably affect your decision as to deposits and rentals, Park diplomatically concludes. Some shops might choose not to demand a deposit, for fear of frightening off patrons. Orwell points out that theft is common in rental libraries, with the books being sold on at a small profit to other book shop libraries, but also says that the shop owner felt it was an acceptable loss, so long as Rentals kept drawing people into the store. 

Park starts talking about accounting at this point, and I shan't bore you with that, but she goes on to mention something I hadn't considered. Book wrappers should be of some distinctive design, with the name of your shop in clear relief. The more original and outstanding they can be, the more chance you have of saying to the public, "We have a rental department, and we can serve you."

You'd never persuade a shop owner now to produce their own line of dust jackets. The cost would frighten them half to death, but Park's writing about a time when paper's cheap and people's expectations are different. They'd demand dust jackets for their leather-bound darlings; only the pulps went about in horrid softcover.

From a Keeper's perspective, this is possibly the easiest prop ever invented. Want instant atmosphere? Photoshop a half-dozen dust jackets, wrap them around the books in your collection, and you're sorted. Or if you haven't got anything suitable, go to a second hand shop and buy a few of their cheapest old hardbacks. Let the players argue over the shop's logo, or how best to advertise. Oddly enough, this is exactly the sort of minutiae that many players love to get involved in, not unlike the Innsmouth House Players' inordinate fondness for period menus and food. You may even have to spend an entire session arguing over how best to design the jackets, but to be honest, if your players are quite that mad, good luck to you!

So there you have it: the Rental Department, in all its glory. What will it be to your bookshop? A constant trial and expense, with chancers nicking the books every other week? A source of revenue and advertising? What happens if a corpse turns up in an alleyway with one of your shop's books in his pocket? That attractive wrapper with the shop's name, address and logo on it might not seem like such a wonderful notion ...

That's all for now. Enjoy!

Friday, 24 April 2015

The Pulps (Bookhounds of London)

A while back now, I talked about the kinds of campaign that could be played in the Bookhounds game universe: Technicolor, Arabesque and Sordid, each of which could be played in a Pulp or Purist style. However, of all the settings, the best suited for a Pulp style of play has got to be Technicolor, with its emphasis on the garish and the glorious. This time out I want to talk about a particular aspect of Pulp, the costumed hero, and what role, if any, it might play in a Bookhounds setting.

The era of the Pulp magazines, particularly the 1920s and 1930s, introduced a different kind of protagonist to the reading public. In the Victorian era, heroes were bold, resolute, usually Christian, and always fought on the side of the angels. The Pulp era turns all this on its head. A Pulp hero can be an out-and-out villain, like the Eel, or the Spider, self-interested and vengeful. A Pulp protagonist doesn't have to have a name; many of the secret agents that infest the genre go by numbers, like Secret Agent X, or adopt a pseudonym, like Raffles, to disguise their true identity and protect their reputation. Sometimes, as with the Continental Op, there's really no need to hide the protagonist's identity at all, but he still doesn't have a name. There's often a hint of mystery and mysticism, particularly with the Yellow Peril masterminds, and frequently the hero has direct dealings with the occult and the minions of Hell, as with Jules de Grandin or Carnacki.

As far as backgrounds are concerned, there's a heavy emphasis on revenge, often for the death of a family member. Gone are the days when people got into the hero business because it was the right thing to do. Now it takes someone killing your father to get you involved. Coincidentally, this frees up the hero to do a lot of killing on his own account, without boring existential angst. Once upon a time, even Batman used to machine-gun his enemies to death, and seldom did an episode of Dick Tracey end without at least one or two people getting murdered before Tracey steps in and guns the villain down.

Many of the villains and heroes of Pulp are technologically skilled, or born in the new age of technology. Biggles couldn't be considered a science hero, but he wouldn't be a hero at all if he hadn't happened to be around when people were inventing aeroplanes. Meanwhile villains like Doctor Death manage to mix an intriguing blend of horror and technology, using science to create zombies as well as death rays.

What does all of this suggest for Bookhounds?

Well, there are several possibilities. The first has to do with the players themselves, particularly if one or more of them happen to be close to the edge, in terms of Sanity. Often insanity is seen as an affliction meant only to hinder the character's progress, but it could also serve as an interesting motivator. Imagine a character who, after a sudden shock, decides that the only way to put a stop to the nightmares that plague her every night is to get out there in a costume, and fight occult crime. That's pretty much the origin story for Wesley Dodds, aka the Sandman, but there's no reason your players can't steal an idea or two. Imagine a bookstore where the proprietor, sinking deeper and deeper into delusions, uses the store's cellar as a lab for forensic analysis, and mixing the sleep gas that he, as the Red Shadow, uses to help him fight the forces of evil.

This is probably best used for a character who's already on the way out. While the idea of a character acting as a costumed hero has a lot of potential, I can't help but think it clashes slightly with the Bookhounds downbeat economic horror ethos. But as a brief, bright spark of manic life just before the candle gutters out, the character as costumed vigilante could be very interesting.

Perhaps a better use for a Pulp character in a Bookhounds campaign is as mentor figure, or villain. It's often the case that a player wants to increase his character's knowledge in a particular discipline, perhaps Occult, or Magic, but lacks the resources. Alternatively the character might have the Occult at his disposal, but lacks information in Physics or Chemistry, or some other vital ability. A Carnacki type could be a useful instructor, or source of those extra points needed to put together a plan to stop the villain in her tracks once and for all.

As a villain, there's all kinds of possibilities. Many of the cults already familiar to the players are essentially pulp villain vehicles already, like the Hsieh-Tzu Fan or the Cult of the Black Pharaoh. It may need very little tweaking to turn these organizations, or their leaders, into true Pulp Technicolor villains. Or perhaps that mentor, so useful in former days, suffered a psychotic break, and is now the very villain the characters now have to defeat. Except here's an antagonist who really does know all the characters' weaknesses, and how to exploit them, since he's known them all for years. Who better placed to defeat you than the man who taught you everything you know?

Another possibility is as an NPC who needs the characters, but is unwilling to reveal his true identity to them, for whatever reason. This NPC might see the characters in the same way Fox Mulder does the Lone Gunmen. While this does have potential, it risks moving the focus from the characters to the mysterious, powerful NPC, which isn't ideal. The best thing in its favor is that it gives the characters a clear motivator to get involved: their NPC asks them to do something for him. Perhaps the best use of this kind of story is to have the powerful NPC overwhelmed by mysterious forces halfway through the adventure, and either killed or seemingly killed. That way the Lone Gunmen get promoted from sidekick to main character status. It could be a very interesting way to start a campaign: the employees of the shop discover that their bookseller employer was really the Red Shadow all along, and now he's vanished. What to do?

With all that in mind, to close out I'm going to outline the Red Shadow, the notorious vigilante who's been turning London on its ear for the last few years.

Red Shadow, aka Marcus / Melinda Dash

Abilities: Auction 4, Athletics 10, Disguise 8, Driving 10, Electrical Repair 4, Explosives 6, Fleeing 10

Specialties: Biology, Chemistry, Evidence Collection, Forensics, Occult

Combat: Health 7, Scuffling 12, Weapons 5.

Martial Art: If used in the campaign, Red Shadow is an expert in Baritsu (see Zoom Martial Arts)

Signature Weapon/Device: The Silencer, a short-range dart pistol operated by compressed air. Capable of delivering one shot before it has to be reloaded. Damage -2, but projectile is usually tipped with sleeping potion, Athletics Diff 7 or fall unconscious. Red Shadow rarely uses other potions, but does know how to make deadly projectiles capable of delivering +3 Damage, based on an obscure venom obtained from a South American plant, grown in the Shadow's own greenhouse.

Special Gimmick: Truth Serum. The Red Shadow concocts this from a recipe of his own creation, based on secrets uncovered from a medieval herbal manuscript. In game terms, acts as 3 point pool Intimidation, one target, as the target hallucinates strange and terrible mirages. While, strictly speaking, this doesn't guarantee that the target will tell the truth, it's a pretty good persuader.

Transport: The Red Shadow owns a finely tuned bright red sports car, capable of 100 miles per hour.

Appearance: When acting as the Red Shadow, wears sharply tailored formal attire, and a red leather Commedia dell'arte mask. Whether male or female, the Red Shadow is an adept cross-dresser.

Notes: The Red Shadow lost his two best friends on the same terrible day. The three of them had ventured, on a lark, to an old, abandoned house in the West End, rumored to be the most haunted spot in London. There they encountered a group of individuals, self-proclaimed occultists and wizards, who were carrying out a ritual in the cellars of that shunned place. One of them was immediately sacrificed, while the other two were imprisoned while the ritual was conducted. The Red Shadow and his friend managed to escape, but the wizards chased them down, and the Shadow's companion sacrificed his life so the Shadow could get away. Ever since that fateful night, Dash has used the nom de guerre Red Shadow to hide his identity, as he tracks down and kills the cultists who murdered his friends. The conspiracy, Dash has discovered, has roots sunk deep in London's best and brightest citizens; so far Dash has uncovered and dealt with two of his enemies, but the rest seem to be protected by none other than British Military Intelligence. Though cautious, Dash will not give up his chance at revenge, no matter who stands in Dash's way.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Junkhounds of London (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds)

This time out I want to talk about an optional addition to the Bookhounds character list: the Junkhound. I owe inspiration for this character type to George Orwell, particularly his essay Just Junk: But Who Could Resist It? I've had reason to mention Orwell before, and I highly recommend his short essays to anyone planning on running this game.

The Junk Shop probably exists on the same street as the characters' bookshop. They may well be neighbors, particularly since the kind of customer likely to wander into a junk shop is exactly the same kind of customer that might patronize the characters' establishment. If you should want to visit an example of the breed and happen to be visiting, or live in, London, I highly recommend The Junk Shop in Greenwich, which I used to visit often when I lived in South London. It's probably less dusty than those found in Orwell's day, and unlike Orwell's shop the owners of the Junk Shop are usually happy to make a sale. Otherwise it's a picture perfect example of the breed. American Pickers, for those of you trapped within the confines of the US of A, is also a pretty good example, except of course they seem to do most of their business long distance, where a junk shop relies on walk-in trade.

You can find almost anything in places like that; I can remember being tempted by a chunk of scrap from an American fighter, World War Two vintage, that someone had dug up out of a muddy field in Europe. My memory tells me it was probably a Curtiss Hawk or Warhawk, but the wretched thing was huge, perhaps three or four foot across, not the sort of piece you could put in a display case. Yet I could see it hanging above a mantlepiece, and was disappointed when, after going away to think about it for a while, I returned to find the scrap metal had sold to someone keener than I.

There will be some crossover between a bookshop and a junk shop. A junk shop is more likely to carry back issues of magazines, cheap publications, or books in bad condition. In the terms of the trade, its book stock is almost certainly disbound, remainder binding, or - worst of all - unsophisticated. Still, that shouldn't stop ambitious Bookhounds poaching from the Junkhound's stock, now and again. Equally a book shop may carry things of interest to the Junkhound, or the book scout may come back with news of an estate sale that has items of interest both to junk and book collectors.

While it may seem that the Antiquarian overlaps a bit with the Junkhound, there's one very important distinction to make. An Antiquarian is primarily interested in things of the past, collects items of historical interest, and generally is concerned about the condition of his stock. Not so the Junkhound. While the Junkhound has some love for history and things of historic importance, any item of scrap is grist for the Junkhound's mill. It doesn't matter to him how old it is, how decrepit, how valueless, or lacking in merit. The Junkhound stocks anything. If the Junkhound specializes in, say, pictures, as Orwell says one shop of his acquaintance did, those pictures will be from all possible artistic schools, of varying age, and the only thing they would have in common is a general lack of artistic talent. If ever you're going to find Dogs Playing Poker, it will be in a junk shop. Though there could be something valuable hiding away in the stacks of forgotten landscape artists and minor surrealists ... 

With all that in mind, I give you:


You live surrounded by other people's discarded valuables, and make your living from them. You  have a deep and abiding love for your charges, and spend days hunting down rumors of a complete set of whatever it might be, or a replacement chair, or even just a trove of scrap metal. You own either a shop front, or a yard, filled with what anyone else would see as scrap, but you see opportunity. You're a close relative of the rag and bone man, except you'd like to think of yourself as one step up on the social ladder, since you own your own premises, and a rag and bone man often does not. There's nothing you won't sell, but you can't often give an accurate history of the things you do sell. It's not as easy a life as bookselling, but you enjoy it, because with every new day comes a new item, something you may not have seen before; something you can turn to a tidy profit.

Occupational Abilities: Auction, Accounting, Assess Honesty, Bargain, Craft (often Carpentry, or something to do with metalwork), History, Oral History, The Knowledge

Credit Rating: 1 to 3

Possible Drives and General Abilities: The Junkhound isn't restricted as far as drives go, but Artistic Sensibility is probably the least likely. The one thing you can be sure of is that a Junkhound wouldn't know true art if it bit him on the leg. A Junkhound is quite likely to still rely on a horse and cart for transport, so Riding is a useful general ability. Abilities that allow the Junkhound to do minor repairs or reconditioning, like Electrical or Mechanical Repair, are also useful.

Special: Like the Bookseller, you own your own store or yard, and have the final word on anything to do with that establishment. Like the Antiquarian, you can, once per session, draw on your stock for something of minor interest. This item cannot be exceptionally valuable, be a weapon of greater than +0 damage, or supply a clue greater than a 0 point informational clue. However your greatest advantage lies in putting people - usually customers, or people who might be able to supply you with junk - at their ease. You have a raffish, disreputable charm that disarms people. You can use Oral History to activate contacts in the same way a Hobo can. These contacts can be from any Occupation, but your ability only works on those with Credit Rating 2 or lower. Those with higher Credit Rating don't want to know you.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Terms of the Trade (Bookhounds, Trail of Cthulhu)

A while ago I had reason to mention the Antiquarian Bookseller's Association, and now I want to draw your attention to it again. An article originally published in 2014 about terms of the bookseller's trade has appeared online, and I highly recommend it to all Bookhounds Keepers and players. Go read!

Now that you've read it, lets discuss. It's talking about catalogue description of books, best practice, and how a bookseller ought to advertise wares. Without wishing to reprint the entire article here, it gives a list of useful terms and phrases, under the following headings:

  1. Author or heading.
  2. Title
  3. Imprint
  4. Edition statement
  5. Physical description
  6. Binding
  7. Provenance
  8. General condition
  9. References
  10. Note
In order to build a world appropriate to the setting you've chosen, you need to remain true to that world. If your adventure is set aboard a U-Boat, for instance, you need to know what a U-Boat is like, what the common problems are, what the day-do-day routine is going to entail. It also means that you probably oughtn't call the Captain the Captain; he's the Kapitan, his executive officer is the Leutnant zur Zee, and so on. If the game is set during the Vietnam War, then you, as Keeper, probably ought to internalize at least some of the slang and terminology used. You need to know the difference between beans and dicks, and beans and motherfuckers, as well as what a bouncing Betty is, or a crispy critter. It's like background music. Nothing puts the players in their characters' state of mind quicker than using the language, and setting the scene with appropriate terminology.

Now, since this article is written in 2014, it records changes to best practice that you, running a game set in 1930, don't need to follow. For example, in the Date of Binding section it mentions the term Antique, which actually means modern; the article says the term is confusing, and so is no longer to be used. Perhaps not now, but you can bet your last shilling that your Bookhounds will want to use a confusing term to describe their books. Misdirection is what the trade's all about.  

What this means is, when describing a book, you as Keeper ought to cleave to ABA guidelines as closely as possible. Yes, this will mean extra work, but the reward is a better game.  Plus, with the way the ABA's laid things out, the work becomes much, much easier.

So, using the King In Yellow as a guideline, let's write up a description!

  1. [Henry Hubert Alexandre Kistemaeckers
  2. The King In Yellow
  3. Printed in translation by Russel of London
  4.  First Edition Thus, Pinckham illustrations
  5. Folio, 123p, grangerized with inserted throwout plate Boyle, stage set. Slight foxing, made up.
  6.  Half morocco, publisher's binding, rubbed.
  7.  Association copy, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree
  8. Good condition
  9. No references.
  10. Released in Paris without author attribution. Play in three acts, concerning the tragedy of Carcosa, following the arrival of a Masked Stranger.
Now let's talk you through it. 

Traditionally the King in Yellow's author is unknown. According to the ABA, you can cite a name supplied by secondary sources, where the author published anonymously. When doing so, the name is enclosed in square brackets. Now, this means I can attribute the King to almost anyone, up to and including the Pope of Rome. I needn't be right, or even accurate. All I need is a useful secondary source, so for this example I presupposed that there was a source out there somewhere who attributed the play to Kistemaeckers. Job done!

Russel of London is, of course, an invented book publisher. First Edition Thus means first in English translation, and Pinckham is an invented illustrator used to lend the description a little color. Grangerized means that there are additional illustrations added by a previous owner, perhaps Tree, perhaps someone else. The throwout plate is a folded-up illustration which can be unfolded to reveal a larger, detailed image. In this case it's a potential stage set design, created by someone named Boyle. Foxing you already know about, since the main text mentions it. Made up means that missing leaves have been added from another copy.

Association copy is a term meaning that this particular book is associated with someone of interest, usually connected with the author, but the term is also used when the book was previously owned by someone of interest. Sir Herbert was a very famous theatrical impresario, and manager of His Majesty's.  Exactly the kind of person whose ownership would lend interest to a copy of a play. 

Good refers to the condition. What's being said here is that the book is in good (not very good or original) condition. Probably there are some marks of wear, from previous owners, but otherwise it's in decent shape. If any of those marks were significant - if someone had spilled wine on page 3, for instance - that would have to be mentioned, but by just saying Good you're telling the potential purchaser that the condition is as to be expected, given that it's a previously owned copy that has been cared for. 

I hope you found this useful! We'll talk again soon.