Bookhounds of London Episode 1, Summary
I’ve been a fan of Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu RPG for years, and the Bookhounds of London supplement is perhaps the finest product ever written for ToC. Aside from an abortive attempt to run a Bookhounds game on Storium some years back, I’ve never had a chance to explore this particular campaign model…until now. Bookhounds focuses on a low-down and dirty band of scoundrels in the occult book-collecting scene of 1930s London, as seen through a pulpy and Arabesque lens.
Our protagonists have found themselves consorting with an increasing number of quirky and dangerous individuals in the smoky clubhouses and foggy dockyards of London. Most amusingly, while other players of horror RPGs might attempt to exterminate outright the various blatantly evil cults and gangsters that pop up in my game, my own players have chosen to make bargains and share gossip with many of the worshippers of elder horrors that inhabit the story. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning, but for now it is amusing to see our antiheroes sharing tea with sorcerous cultists.
- Poh Tun Kai, the Keeper
- Bill Phang as Charles Anderson, the catalogue agent. An elderly war veteran with a gift for the gab and an eye for profit.
- Ivan Tam as Nils Dijkstra, the forger. A Dutchman born in Batavia and fated to keep crossing paths with cultists, scoundrels and extremists.
- C.E. Chua as Theodora Fyffe, the occultist. A keen seeker of forbidden truths, with absolutely no social skills, but quite gifted in violence and torture.
Enter Bookhounds, Stage Left
I wanted to begin the campaign with a simple job that gives my players a feel for the setting. “Something connected with rare books and evil cults,” I said to myself. After flipping through The Book of the Smoke, an occult guide to London published as an optional add-on for the Bookhounds campaign, I found what I was looking for: Watkins Bookshop, a popular haunt for the occult scene that is said to keep a folio of rather dubious extracts from the Necronomicon. I crafted a simple plot about foreign cultists targeting the store to seize this book.
The well-connected businessman Everett Plume, a major player in the book auction scene, hired our Bookhounds to surreptitiously look into the value of Watkins’ rare book collection, and assess its security. Charles’ expertise in the rare book trade, Theodora’s knowledge of the occult scene and Nils’ insight into fakes, forgeries and criminal enterprises would provide all the skills to perform this evaluation.
The complication: A man named Muhammad Prince, who had been recently seen at an occult bookshop in Paris, the Marshall Soult Cafe, shortly before it was mysteriously robbed and three clerks murdered. According to Plume’s contacts, Muhammad Prince had arrived in London, and he might be targeting Watkins next. Plume sent along a henchman named Wormley who had been at the Marshall Soult Cafe and could identify Mr Prince.
The Call of Watkins
We spent a good part of the game session playing out the Bookhounds’ visit to Watkins. This included a cameo appearance by the old devil himself, Aleister Crowley, an acquaintance of Theodora, who expressed doubts that the shop had anything worth taking. The Bookhounds met Qoyle, the supervisor of the shop, and took a tour downstairs to see the rare book collection. While Theodora spoke with one of the patrons, a suspicious oversized Turk in a creaky ill-fitting suit, the others scoped out the security around the stock-room, where some of the pricier items were kept, including the folio of the Necronomicon.
The Turk introduced himself as Kassim Bey and explained that he was in London to find sources of certain rare books for his employer, Mr Prince. When Theodora expressed an interest in meeting Prince, he provided her with a business card with the address of the Foreign Affairs Club, a high-class establishment providing rooms, food and drink for foreign businessmen and envoys.
After Kassim Bey departed the store, Theodora and Charles conspired to bamboozle the clerks in the basement level in order to access the stock-room logbook and keys. The attempt almost succeeded, but Charles fumbled his attempt to filch the keys and the Bookhounds had to fast-talk their way out of the shop in a hurry, before Qoyle called the police.
Bill had wanted to be thrifty in spending Ability Points and ended up rolling too low, when he could have spent more for an automatic success. This would be an error he would make more than once in the campaign.
In an attempt to keep tabs on Watkins, the Bookhounds found a loft above one of the other shophouses in Cecil Court for rent, one with a suitable window for staking out the bookstore at night.
Just at the fringe of Westminster, up a set of stairs and through two sets of solid oaken doors, the Bookhounds stood in a lavishly decorated smoking lounge of the Foreign Affairs Club, facing the handsome Arab man known as Muhammad Prince. Theodora and Muhammad hit it off right away, but Wormley was far less cheerful. Nils followed the panicking henchman into the men’s room to learn that yes, Muhammad Prince was indeed the man who was seen in Paris.
At one point, Muhammad Prince excused himself to make a call to his unseen master, a man known only as “Alzis.” A reference to the shadowy mastermind of the New York cabal known as The Fate in the legendary Delta Green campaign by Pagan Publishing. I figured that I might get to play out the payoff for this reference someday.
Muhammad politely explained that he had arrived in London to seek out partners who could help him navigate the rare book market. Charles unilaterally decided to come clean, telling Muhammad that they were indeed in the employ of Mr Everett Plume, who was just the man to talk to. Very good, replied Muhammad, expressing his interest in meeting with Mr Plume to discuss the acquisition of certain rare items.
He also hit on Theodora. Theodora did not turn him down, choosing instead to string him along, and bidding him a good night as they departed.
Mr Plume was certainly intrigued to hear that the Bookhounds had made contact with his enemy, the man who had come for rare items such as the Watkins Necronomicon (which the Bookhounds had not yet authenticated, but nevermind…). He instructed them to inform Mr Prince of a special auction to be held in a warehouse in Limehouse, near the docks, that coming night. The Bookhounds immediately sensed that this was a suspicious set-up, but just nodded to Plume and said nothing.
In some games, player characters may not be able to tell if someone is lying to them unless they can roll high enough on the dice in a skill check for “Insight” or something like that. So there is a chance that our heroes might never catch on that they are being tricked or set up. However, in Trail of Cthulhu, as long as an investigator has at least 1 point in the Assess Honesty ability, they can automatically discern if someone is being honest. This is typical of the game design philosophy of ToC – give the players more information, not less, and see what they do with it.
After leaving Plume’s place, Nils, Charles and Theodora privately discussed whether they were willing to let Muhammad Prince walk into Plume’s trap, or change sides and work for this mysterious foreign interloper.
Well, my players took a minute and talked about it. They decided that allying with the foreign occultist over the local gang boss would be the more…interesting…choice.
Bad Ends in Limehouse
Theodora made a quick visit to Muhammad Prince’s club and advised him of the high possibility that the Limehouse rendezvous was a trap. Muhammad laughed it off and told her that he would send Kassim Bey in his place.
That night, while Theodora staked out Watkins from the rented room, Nils and Charles made their way to the warehouse rendezvous as stealthily as they could. Nils elected to bring his 35mm film camera to aid in observation (and gathering potential blackmail material).
From a hidden spot outside the fence, Nils and Charles could see parked automobiles, including a valuable Bentley 4½ Litre – enough for at least a dozen men. Sure enough, Kassim Bey soon arrived, along with two robed figures. Standing just in front of the warehouse, the robed men drew curved knives and slashed their own arms, spilling ribbons of blood – blood that began to smoke and change as the men chanted strange alien words.
With his camera, Nils captured every impossible moment of abominable horror as the cloud of blood flowed like a living thing through the warehouse doors. The air was filled with screams and the sound of fighting – pistols going off, bodies being flung through walls, and the sickening crunch of bones being shattered. When it was all over, silence reigned. Kassim Bey bound the wounds of the two men, who vanished into the night, heading for the river.
Once it was safe to come out, Nils and Charles explored the scene of carnage before them, finding gangland thugs from multiple groups, including several Chinese gangsters, as well as poor Wormley, who had been leading the combined effort to ambush Muhammad Prince. They had all died in the most unfathomable manner possible, as if a storm of unseen force had ripped through the building, shredding all in its way. The firearms and blades they had carried had provided no protection whatsoever.
A telephone lay off its hook inside the warehouse office. Everett Plume could be heard trying to speak to Wormley, to learn what had transpired. Nils and Charles then heard the distinct sound of Muhammad Prince’s voice interrupting the phone call, to Plume’s surprise. There was the sound of Plume’s last gurgle…and then silence.
Sometimes just surviving a potentially dangerous set-up and gathering evidence counts as a win, as it does in my Trail of Cthulhu game. Of course, witnessing a massacre perpetrated by blood magic still inflicted a loss of Stability and Sanity on Nils and Charles.
All For Naught
Nils and Charles quickly took leave of the site in their newly obtained Bentley, fleeing to Nils’ workplace in Chatham, a printing shop known as The Pirate Bay.
The next day, the Bookhounds learned that Everett Plume had died in his sleep during the night. And, in a completely unrelated occurence, the police had found a dozen criminals from several different gangs dead in a warehouse in Limehouse.
That afternoon, Theodora, Charles and Muhammad Prince paid a visit to Watkins just as the staff were in mourning over the sudden death of their benefactor, Mr Plume. Finally gaining access to the stockroom, Theodora was finally able to analyse the folio with Dr John Dee’s translation of the Necronomicon – only to learn that it was indeed a clever fake. A pity that this was all for naught, said Muhammad. But he thanked the Bookhounds for their help and assured them that he would return to London soon with more business. He looked forward to working more closely with Theodora and her friends.
Meanwhile at the Pirate Bay, Nils was hard at work developing the film reels…and making copies. Many copies.
So ended the first session for my Bookhounds. This set the tone for further dealings and schemes in the games to follow.