Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Quite Distracted By: The House on the Borderlands

Perspicacious, hypothetical readers will note that finial "s" on the last word of the title.  But what does it mean?  Mysterious, eh?  Much like the work of the authour being referenced: William Hope Hodgson.

I came to W.H. Hodgson only comparatively recently.  It might have been from seeing his name in conjunction with that of Arthur Machen, love of whom I have discussed before.  Or, it might have been the excellent use of his ideas in the great World of Thool setting.  In any case, I've only begun reading him in the last few years.

A few minutes ago, I completed The House on the Borderland.  If you have read it, you probably know the strange space-time in which my head reels.  But whatever cosmic vista lurches forward, I am a gamer.  Which means that I am thinking, "how could I use this in a game"? And the answer that occurred to me was this:

What if you combined W.H. Hodgson's The House on the Borderland with E.G. Gygax's The Keep on the Borderlands?

Well, what I get anyway, is "The House on the Borderlands".  Essentially, it's the Keep, but with the House taking the place of the fortress.  And set in the 19th century.

The set-up follows the novel right up to where the Swine-Things cease their attack.  In this version, instead of investigating the Pit and then going all 2001 about a century before 2001, the Recluse engages in the great Victorian lit tradition of sending word to London for his chums from the old College / Club / Army days.  Enter the PC's.

As with the Keep, the House serves as the (sorta) secure home-base. From there, the intrepid adventurers descend into the Pit, into the tunnel opened up by the land-slide (or land-slip as W.H. has it), and thence into - what else - the Dungeon.

Some reasons why this is so great:

1.  One of the hall-marks of Ye Auld Game is that the Dungeon, at its iconic best, makes no obvious sense.  It is, as Philotomy has so well put it, the Mythic Underworld and operates according to its own, generally obscure rules (doors close on their own; monsters can always see in the dark except when they work with the PC's).  Not only does it seem that the Pit in our story is a real Mythic Underworld, but the Fantastic in Hodgson never makes sense, by which I mean that it adamantly refuses mundane, logical explanation.  That's bloody perfect for a Dungeon.

2.  There is no clear resolution.  One of the great problems in using stories as fodder for YAG is that stories usually have an recognizable, narrative structure, while story in old-school gaming is emergent from play.  But the story of the House resolutely resists any acceptable, narrative structure.  We never learn why the Swine-Things attack or what they really are or why the House has a trap-door to Hell in the cellar or why the Floating Hog-Face wants the Recluse to open the Door or anything.  It's a story that should make your High School English teacher sob in frustration.

But that makes it great for gaming.  There may be immediate problems and solutions to them, but there isn't actually any single mystery to solve or act to be performed.  Adventures under the House could go for years; generations of explorers could come, level up, and go; and that would all be fine.

3.  Swine-Things.  Seriously, have orcs ever seemed this creepy?  W.H. seems to have had a thing about pigs (see The Hog for another great example) and, just as his fan, H.P. Lovecraft could do with his fears, old W.H. could make his fear seem totally justified.  I mean - man! - I have to think twice about eating bacon after reading this story (note: I ate it anyway).

There are lots of games that would work for this (I just realized the other day that there are a number of Victorian age adventure games in print now), but I immediately thought of Engines & Empires, of which I have written before.  As I discussed then, I would forget the whole alternate-Earth deal (at least at first), and set it securely within cozy little Britain. So no demi-humans and also no steam-punk stuff.  Just old India hands, cockney pugilists, Van Helsing-like scholars, and counter-cultural Black Magicians (what a world we gamers live in when those things can be discussed as "just such" and be seen as a limitation).  Into the Pit they go and we all see what happens from there.

I mentioned Britain above.  I know the novel is set in far western Ireland, bit that doesn't sit entirely right with me.  It may just be my own lack of Hibernophilia, but I want to place the House on an old borderland; the west Ireland isn't any kind of borderland in the same sense.  I'd prefer to use the border-countries with Scotland, Cornwall, or Wales; of those three, I favour the later.  Maybe because of Machen?  Maybe because it gives you a great excuse to bring old mines into the equation?  I don't know and it doesn't really matter that much I suppose.

My mind is definitely turning on the Swine-Things.  Obviously, they play the orcs in this scenario, but they need to keep their weird mystique to preserve the feel of the setting.  I'm focusing on the hints W.H. keeps dropping about how the Recluse never finds any corpses in the morning and his occasional wonder if the things are even mortal at all.  There's a lot of ways you could play that, but having brought up Van Helsing, my minds turns to vampires, specifically the Hammer Studious version of vampires.  What if the Swine-Things are some kind of anti-life (they are described as having corpse-like flesh)?  They can be seemingly killed as any other creature, but will also decompose in the sunlight, collapsing into dust within a matter of minutes.  This is why no evidence can ever be found.  However, should the body be kept out of the light , probably by being dragged back into the Pit - it will reform within 24 hours, good as new.  

This actually doesn't have much impact on the PC's - not at first anyway. After all, who can tell one Swine-Thing from another?  The disappearing bodies may be annoying if the characters are hoping for some kind of proof, but this isn't really that sort of game anyway.  It only really maters if the PC's begin to wonder why they can't thin out the population.  Or maybe if a particular Swine-Thing with some kind of distinguishing mark (a half-chewed off ear perhaps) seems to reappear every time it gets killed.  That's the kind of thing that sends players into paroxysms of paranoia.

One last thought for the night: it might be useful to increase the population of the House in a long-term game.  If the group is going to set-up camp here for a while, it may prove useful to have some opportunities for events to occur within the House.  Perhaps the owners has the full complement of servants he should have.  What if he had a family with his lost-love, perhaps a beautiful daughter who is initially aloof but ends up falling in love with one of the PC's (the first to reach a certain level?) just in time to get kidnapped?  What if we the inhabitants of the House slowly go wacky, as is suggested in the novel?  Is sister Mary deliberately trying to open the House to the Swine-Things before the Recluse stops her; and, if so, is she under the malevolent influence of the Floating Hog-Face?  The potential parallels to the Cult of Evil Chaos from the Keep are right there if you want to use them.

I'm not going to get to play this game any time soon and it may just remain an idea.  But, if so, it's out there if anyone wants to try it.