Thursday, February 24, 2011
The Hounds of Lore are Hunting Me
What is it?
Large sourcebook for a London-based bookhunting Trail of Cthulhu campaign (with many, many maps).
Bookhounds of London is the latest supplement for Trail of Cthulhu. My review is based on the pre-order pdf; the printed copy will be available in March. I've reviewed a number of other Gumshoe and ToC products and my impression has been pretty universally positive. As with the other Pelgrane books, this one looks great with excellent art and graphic design. This was an advance pdf which may explain a few minor problems (some references unexplained and a few distraction justification spacing problems). Bottom line: Pelgrane's provided another complete campaign sourcebook with Bookhounds, one which will have appeal beyond Trail of Cthulhu gamers.
This frame originally appeared in a handful of pages in the Trail of Cthulhu core book. Author Ken Hite has taken that concept and expanded it- running with the wild ideas and logic inherent in that original outline. Basically the the PCs take the role of employees/owners of a bookstore specializing in the strange and esoteric. Through the process of hunting to strange and rare lost tomes, they come encounter elements of the supernatural and cross paths with the Mythos. They aren't out to save the world, they just manage to get caught up in craziness when they try to make a good sale. Its a great idea, breaking from the usual Cthulhu backdrop and has more room for humor (albeit dark) and social interaction than many classic approaches. Hite sets the frame definitively in London-- that city becomes a necessary and integral part of the atmosphere.
The opening section does an excellent job to describing the kinds of characters necessary for this campaign. Hite adds a number of new occupations specific to a Bookhounds game, as well as some discussion of how to modify existing ones. The new abilities added have some nice discussion (Forgery, Textual Analysis, The Knowledge, etc); they're fairly narrow but its nice to see skills built particularly for the campaign style. I think my favorite part of the section considers how a bookshop functions in the game- suggesting elements for collaborative design and basic mechanics for play. The shop serves as a shared resource for the group and the rules provides some nice abstract ways to handle that. The rule manages throughout to strike the right balance between dealing with the details of running and business and keeping out minutiae which could slow the game down. I think some of the concepts presented here could easily serve as the backbone for handling players who want to run mercantile enterprises in other games.
Truly Black Books
The section which follows complements that idea of the business side of this. In the course of twenty pages, Hite covers books and bookbuying in what feels like extensive detail. I was actually surprised when I went back to do a page count- I recalled the section being longer, an illusion created by the depth. The concepts of finding books and buyers get a nice discussion, all aimed at entangling players in plots. Libraries have always been a stable of Cthulhu games, and the book has an overview of the most important ones in the London. Probably the most interesting section here covers auctions. That's another staple which has appeared in classic scenarios. Hite makes these into a cornerstone of the campaign, breaking them into Narrative and Dramatic Auctions. That's a nice parallel to the way Gumshoe handles necessary vs. risky moments in the campaign. He provides some rules for Dramatic Auctions which allow players to feel invested and keeps the stakes high in those situations. These could be easily pulled out for any game with auction events. Lastly the section provides some example of real world and mythos occult tomes. I was expecting more of this in the book- and at first I was a little disappointed we didn't end up with more books presented. However given the other material here I don't feel too put off. The books presented here do utilize the optional occult rules presented in Rough Magicks. That book plus the main ToC book do offer more volumes which could easily be brought into a Bookhounds campaign. I'm also fully expecting (and will buy) a book just of tomes with plot hooks.
The next forty or so pages, over several sections, covers London. While there's some overview- the book sticks to the program. Hite recognizes that several other sources for London exist. We get some discussion of how 1930's works, but much more a sense of the fantastical London and one tied to the kinds of threads Bookhounds would look out for. Hite has a fairly encyclopedia knowledge of the setting, but that doesn't get in the way. Instead his presentation of the city is infectious- in a good way. You can see all of the ideas, leads and plots he throws out in paragraph after paragraph. I especially like the way each city section gets an overview, a set of interesting contacts, and a set of rumors. He considers how the lore and legends of the city might be tied up with Mythos creatures and cults- it reads like a great and extended version of his Suppressed Transmission articles. For GMs who like the magical side of things he presents Megapolisomancy which comes from Leiber but I originally spotted in Unknown Armies. It would be an excellent background element to a scenario or campaign arc. Overall I think Bookhounds presents its version of London well, although I perhaps wanted a little more (something I'll come back to). To complement this overview, the book includes a location index followed by twenty-eight pages of maps of the city and locations, nearly all of them in full color. That's followed by a twelve-page street index. It is pretty amazing and I'm looking forward to seeing how the final printed version appears.
Fearless Textual Hunters
Thirteen pages follow which talk about the specifics of a Bookhounds campaign. Most of that is taken up with some interesting NPCs built for different roles in the campaign. Again, here's another section which I wish had been longer-- not that it feels short, but that I would have loved to see more. Honestly I'd easily buy a supplement of these. Hite presents the characters along with variations based on the style of the campaign: Arabesque, Sordid or Technicolor. I like this approach which combines with the Purist vs. Pulp thematics given in the main Trail of Cthulhu book. He talks about how those choices affect the look and feel of the campaign. My favorite addition here is a discussion of how to create a Hammer Horror London for Cthulhu. There's a parallel between this "Technicolor Horror" and the Backlot Gothic presented in the earlier Shadows Over Filmland. In grew up watching the Hammer films on Saturday afternoons of "Son of Svengoolie" out of Chicago.
Hite also includes some discussion of how to shape Bookhounds into a sandbox game. I have to stop here an talk about a problem with the Pelgrane Press books. Quite honestly they've raised the bar for me about what I expect from a role-playing game book. Armitage Files blew my mind and most of the other Gumshoe stuff put out has really made me think or else immediately bloomed a metric ton of campaign material for me. When I first heard about Bookhounds I got excited by the idea that it would provide material for "sandbox" games. Armitage Files had provided an incredible toolset for Improvisation Games, built on the brief Armitage frame mentioned in the main book. I expected Bookhounds would do something like that. In some ways, I expected a more player-driven supplement ala the great Kaiin Players Guide for Dying Earth. That's not what this book does- the advice on sandbox games seems good, but because that's the kind of open game I usually run it wasn't revelatory to me. It took me a bit to get past my initial expectations to realize how dynamite this book is. There will apparently be an "Occult Guide to London" companion volume, and that may have material closer to my initial expectations.
Bookhounds provides an easily workable campaign- one firmly attached to its setting. It takes London as a place seriously and fully. I've read other books which have presented a city for use in a game. But I don't think I've ever read a gamebook which so carefully integrated the character of the city with the character of the play. It is an imaginary London, but one vivid and playable.
ToC GMs should pick this up. It provides material which could be easily ported to other campaigns. While I think it would be difficult to set this unique theme anywhere else, I can imagine it as inspiration for other more broadly Antiquarian campaigns in another city (focusing on collecting in general). The particular notions of how to handle a business and auctions could be used in other non-Cthulhu campaigns. It reminds a little of InSpectres in that regard. Bookhounds could obviously be easily used by a traditional Call of Cthulhu GM and I'd recommend they pick it up. Anyone with an interested in London or England in the first half of the 20th Century should consider it as well.