Sunday, 22 January 2023

Schools and Genre Mixing (RPG All)

Let's say we opt for the Brotherhood of the Pharaoh as the main plot, the destination of this runaway train. The campaign is headed in an Egyptian direction. That doesn't mean you can't have side plots with, say, the Nazis, but after the side plot is over we go straight back to Egypt. In fact - tangent time - it could be a lot of fun to have a Tomb-Hounds of Egypt game running concurrently with the Bookhounds sessions, so the players get to experience the Brotherhood from both ends of the narrative ...

Which begs the question, when are RPGs compatible – or compatible enough that you can pull this trick – and when are they not?

In the example above the Brotherhood is the point of intersection between Bookhounds and Tombhounds. It helps that both games are set in the 1930s but that isn’t absolutely necessary. What is necessary is some kind of compatibility, some link that makes the one a natural fit with the other. If the Brotherhood wasn’t part of the Bookhounds main plot, then it wouldn’t work. With the Brotherhood and its Egyptian themes in the mix, it does.

That means you can mix genres, but more importantly, it means you can mix plots. Characters. Even whole locations. Say you had a major Brotherhood temple set up in London, with all the pharaonic symbolism that implies, tended by ancient mummies and spirits from beyond. Why not have a mirror image of that temple in Egypt for the Tombhounds to find? Why shouldn’t it be the same temple, linking one location to the other by means of a Gate? 

It also helps that the two settings have a common theme: illicit knowledge. The Bookhounds sell it, the Tombhounds uncover it. The Tombhounds might want to catch the Orient Express up to London to have their latest find evaluated. The Bookhounds might want to learn more about these curious Dynasty XIII papyri they’ve purchased. There’s a reason why both groups might want to talk to each other, to draw on the others’ skillset.

On the other hand, let’s say you were trying to pull a similar trick with a different system – Esoterrorists, say. Does that work?

On its own, probably not, for two reasons.

First, there’s no element of compatibility. In the Tombhounds example the point of compatibility was the Brotherhood. In theory there could be an Esoterrorist element there; the Brotherhood could be Esoterrorists. So there’s a means of creating compatibility, if you wanted to force it. But Egypt is central to the idea of Tombhounds and is the main motivator of the Brotherhood. It is fundamental to both games. There’s no fundamental connection between Esoterrorists and Bookhounds unless you, as Keeper, care to force it.

There’s no common theme either. Bookhounds is about illicit knowledge. Esoterrorists is about fighting off the Outer Black. They’re both horror games, but that’s the only link between them and it’s not a strong thematic connection. There’s plenty of horror games out there. You could make an equally valid case for, say, Wraith. Or Werewolf.  Or Dungeons and Dragons: Ravenloft.

None of that is to say it can’t be done. However, to do it you’d have to go some lengths to make it happen. Ideally that’s the kind of thing you want to avoid, if only because that means more work on your part and the whole point is to avoid extra work. You have enough to do. 

Let’s explore the concept to see how it functions.

Say you’re planning a game of School of Night. Is that compatible with Bookhounds?

Well, you’re looking for an element of compatibility and a common theme. 

School of Night is an Elizabethan-era horror game about defending the Realm against ‘occult forces ... You study those forces at the risk of torture — at the risk of your soul — but you must hold them at bay or see England destroyed …’ You’re walking alongside John Dee, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh. Bookhounds is a 1930s-era game about buying and selling occult tomes. You’re a contemporary of Agatha Christie, M.R. James, J.R.R. Tolkien and Aleister Crowley.  On the face of it, the two seem very different games. 

However, there is an element of compatibility.  Both games involve literature; School of Night is literally about playwrights, poets and scholars pitted against occult forces. These people generate those same grimoires which the Bookhounds will later sell. You could even make a case for a common prop for both games – the book. A copy of, say, the Revenger’s Tragedy with its o-so-useful disputed authorship which can be battered about, annotated, have fake blood split on it, whatever, during play in School of Night, and then handed over to the Bookhounds. 

Also, there is a common theme: illicit knowledge. With the added benefit that, if you start talking about Elizabethan spies and alchemists, you could make a case for cryptography and hidden secrets within the text. That generates new secrets which the Bookhounds then spend their time unravelling. The School of Night players could literally inscribe the Revenger’s Tragedy with peculiar codes which the Bookhounds players break.

Why do this?

Because it’s fun, silly.

That, and one other reason: it’s instant backstory. Most games involve a certain amount of backstory, and you don’t want to be in the position of having to read out chunks of text or giving the players a prop they may never give a second glance to. 

I love Dracula Dossier to death; I think the Armitage Files is one of the best props in any game ever. I wonder, though: how many players actually look through the Dracula Dossier prop and pick out the particular annotation they want to follow up?

But if you’re playing two settings concurrently then the players will know what happened in the way-back-when, because they’re the ones who did the thing that happened in the way-back-when. The duel that Sir Walter Raleigh fought in 1608 is that same duel you played out at the table. The peculiar history of that scarab your Bookhound is using as a paperweight is something that your Tombhounds were caught up in two years prior. That peculiar fellow who plays chess every day at a club at the Elephant and Castle who strongly resembles Thomas Middleton might actually be Thomas Middleton – and because your School of Night players had that adventure they know why Thomas Middleton is condemned to remain at that spot forever and ever, amen.  

That’s it for this week. Enjoy!

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