Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Bookstore, Winter or Spring (Bookhounds of London)

It seems like a long time since I've touched on Bookhounds of London, so for a change of pace in the next few posts I'm going to design a mini campaign for Bookhounds. Of the three potential campaign types, Sordid, Arabesque or Technicolor, I'm going to go for Technicolor. It's not my favorite; I prefer Arabesque, but I see this as a challenge rather than an indulgence.

Technicolor is B-movie stuff, and when I touched on it in a previous post I used the Hammer Horror Satanic Rites of Dracula as an example. Hammer had a love-hate relationship with the British censor; its box office success depended on gore and sex, not necessarily in that order, and to get people's attention it had to push the censors just about as far as it could. If nothing else, public spats with the censor were good publicity, and its films always seemed to find an audience even when, as happened in the later 1960s, it started recycling sets, costumes, even scenes from film to film.

So a Technicolor style game probably ought to concentrate on the immediate viscera. There must be ichor, and in quantity. If ever you've wanted to play around with zombies or alien beings, now's the time to do so. Mummies roaming the Underground, Vampires haunting Westminster, ghouls lurking in the seven great cemeteries of London; these are all concepts that would suit a Technicolor game.

A Technicolor game is also exactly the place you'd expect to find spooky, cobweb-drenched mansions and forgotten crypts, so let's start talking about the Bookstore itself, since you'll be spending a lot of time in its shadowy confines.

The Bookstore is the scenario hub. The characters all devote themselves to its wellbeing. Without the money they earn each month, they'd be out on the street. But it may be more than that. The characters may be, or become, psychologically dependent on the place. Institutionalized, in the same way long term convicts become so used to their prisons that they can't bear to leave.

But how to design it? Let's take some inspiration from another game altogether: Ars Magica.

Ars Magica is one of my all-time passions, but it's been a long time since I had a chance to play. One of the things that attracted me to that system was its emphasis on troupe-style gaming, and its willingness to make the wizard's Covenant, the place where they all lived, a vibrant part of the setting. Too often a castle is just a castle, but the Covenant was always more than that. In all the games I played and many of the ones I ran, the Covenant was as much a character as any of the actual players' characters. That's exactly the kind of atmosphere I want in this Bookstore.

In Ars, the Covenant can be in Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter; that is, it can be just starting out, in the height of its powers, just beginning to show signs of age, and in near terminal decay. The decision to set the game in one particular season determines the tone of the campaign. But Ars isn't a horror game, so it can utilize the hope and confidence that comes with being at the height of your powers in Summer, or the preening arrogance of Autumn. Bookhounds is a horror game, and therefore doesn't suit either Summer or Autumn play types. I'm going to suggest that, in Bookhounds, the store is always either in Spring or Winter, never any other season.

What does this mean? Well, in Spring, you're just starting out. Like any new business, the store could collapse at any moment, for any number of reasons. 'The challenges are many, and the dull moments few,' says Ars about its Covenants. 'But if the trials and tests can be survived, the rewards are great.' This is a good style of game for new players to the system. It allows them to explore the setting and the rules without interference. It also means they have few resources. The shop's Credit Rating is probably low, and it has almost no important customers.

Whereas in Winter the Bookstore has seen out many decades, and may be on its last legs. It got its start long ago, possibly as early as the 1700s. If its walls could talk, they would scream, no doubt. This is the kind of place that has odd traditions, forgotten corners, and very dangerous secrets. It's probably on its way out, and may not survive to see 1940. But if it does go, it will be in a blaze of malignant glory. This is the kind of game for experienced players who know Bookhounds, and are happy to play with some of its concepts.

Now we come to the nuts and bolts. What ought this Bookstore be like?

Well, what does any store have? It has stock. It has an entrance, and probably more than one exit. It has furnishings and fittings. It has staff. It may or may not have a delivery van of some kind.  As this is a Bookstore it probably has a lending library. It may have a sideline that is not its main business but which earns a little money, like selling greeting cards, stamps, or other ephemera.

Perhaps most importantly it has character, a concept that's difficult to define but easy to spot. It's the difference between a Barnes and Noble, in which one store is always much like another, or a corner book barn, which is unique unto itself.

A Spring Bookstore doesn't have much of anything. There probably aren't any staff, except for the player characters. It won't have much stock, and its furnishings and fittings are second hand at best. I'm going to say that a Spring Bookstore has, at most, three things about it that are unique and interesting details worthy of description. Also, it probably doesn't have anything really weird about it. Weirdness is the kind of thing that grows over time, not unlike dry rot, and the whole point of a Spring game is that the store hasn't been open long.  Whereas a Winter Bookstore will have five things, since it's been around for decades if not a century or so. It will have many things that are odd about it. Probably also dry rot, but that's another topic altogether.

Ideally you'd get the players to cooperate here and think of a few of these details for themselves. In this example, I'm going to do all that groundwork. I'm also going to posit a Winter Bookstore, since that sounds more interesting to me.

This store has been around for many decades. Let's assume it was founded in 1803, by a French exile, Etienne du Bourg. He fled France during the Revolution, and spent some time in London working for Bonham's before branching out on his own. When he started his bookstore he returned to France several times, secretly, and brought back his own extensive collection of incunabula, which became the stock of his store. Though the store is now run by his thoroughly English heirs, it still retains the old name, du Bourg's. This is all borrowed (a little) from Madame Tussaud's, but what the heck. It works.

The building is classic Georgian architecture with all the Palladian neo-classic frippery that implies. This doesn't mean the business has a lot of money behind it. Its Credit Rating might be low, representing years of mismanagement and bad debts. The structure may look impressive, but be a leaky, damp pit in summer and a freezer in winter. Rats in the basement, mice in the closets, bats in the attic. All the joys of imminent financial disaster, wrapped in a cloak of genteel refinement.

So, about those five things:

History: M Etienne du Bourg, the founder of the business, took a leaf out of Jeremy Bentham's book and had himself mummified after his death in 1833. Unlike Bentham, du Bourg didn't mind so much about the cadaverous appearance of his mummified head, so his corpse - currently enshrined in his alchemical laboratory in the basement of the building - still has all its original parts. By tradition, the owners of the business meet once a year in the laboratory, on du Bourg's birthday. At that time the financial returns of the previous year are read out, and presented to the assembly for approval. The assembled drink to the health of the business and its founder, and the meeting concludes. By tradition the staff and invited guests can attend, but in recent years only the business' owner(s) have gone to the meeting. People do say that M du Bourg wanders his laboratory at night conducting experiments, but nobody's ever proved this one way or the other.

Stock: When M du Bourg recovered his library from Europe he brought with him his extensive collection of the works of Francois Honore-Balfour, Comte d'Erlette, including many rare pamphlets, autographed correspondence, and, of course, Cultes des Ghoules. According to the shop's records du Bourg had three copies of that book, including one described as 'in Cordwain binding,' which it has been alleged is a coded reference to one of the three bound in human skin by Honore-Balfour himself. Over the years many of these items have sold to collectors, while others have gone missing. Only one of the Cultes is supposed to have been sold, at auction in 1870, but nobody knows where the other two are. Legend has it that du Bourg hid the rest of his collection before his death, and successive generations have done their best to find it in hope of rescuing the business with a big sale.

Monster: Ever since its opening du Bourg's has always had a cat, and by tradition this has been a ginger tom, always with the name Maher-shalal-hashbaz. Cat after cat has made mincemeat out of the generations of rats and mice that infest du Bourg's. Recently people have noticed that the latest Mash is just a little more feisty and enthusiastic than its illustrious forbears. In fact it's a Mythos entity, or controlled by a Mythos entity, Keeper's choice as to which. Perhaps its friendly with some ghouls who live nearby and feed it sweetmeats when they visit to have a nosey through the library, or perhaps its a minion of Bast with powers of its own. It has no particular allegiance to the staff or shop, but it's not going to destroy its home on a whim. As to what Mash actually is, well, spoilt for choice really. Perhaps he's king of the cats or some shapechanged thing out of Ken Hite's Writes About Stuff series. Power level relatively low, no more that Health 8 and say 3 to 6 Magic.

Shop: Though the building is large, in recent years the management has stopped using some of the upper floor rooms because of damp problems. At least, that's the excuse management have offered for why several upper floor rooms are permanently locked. But locked they are, and it's more than anyone's job is worth to open them again. Odd noises are heard up there at times, and at night people have reported seeing lights in those deserted rooms. Perhaps it's the secret meeting place of some kind of cult, or perhaps it's haunted. Perhaps it once was the meeting place of a cult, and that's why it's haunted. The only way to know for sure is to go and see.

Staff: Most of the staff are probably player characters, but du Bourg's has been around for a long time. Long enough to accumulate some very curious hangers-on; ancient, crumbling wrecks who dodder from room to room like something out of Titus Groan. Perhaps they know a little Idiosyncratic Magic, or perhaps they just drink all the tea and eat all the biscuits. However Mister Bourg, as he is known, is by far the most senior, and the keeper of all the shop's traditions. Though he may not be the Bourg that actually owns the shop - that role ought to be reserved for a player - he certainly behaves as though he is, and he knows everything there is to know about the place. In the first few sessions he ought to be a fount of knowledge, if not the voice of the Keeper, but as time goes on and the players start showing signs of independence, he'll probably become a minor villain of sorts. If the players decide to sack him, the shops Credit Rating immediately drops by 1, and they'll have earned an enemy for life. Such as it is; someone as aged as Mister Bourg surely can't live that much longer? 

That's enough to be getting on with. By now you should have a clear idea of what du Bourg's is like, how it operates, and the kind of stories it can generate. Note that I've deliberately not mentioned its location. It could be anywhere in London. That's for the Keeper and players to decide for themselves. I've also not gone too deeply into subjects like the bookshop stock or its Credit Rating. Again, that's something best decided by Keeper and players together.


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