As the Host, you have some particular duties and particular rules to follow. Your role is in some ways more difficult, and in some ways easier than everyone else’s.
Note also that although I use the term “Host” throughout, that should be be construed to omit the possibility of a hostess, or any other variation.
First, while the other players are playing to faithfully and compellingly portray and inhabit their characters, you have a slightly different agenda:
Make the world seem real§
That means verisimilitudinous, and that means that supporting characters should act with some sort of consistent psychological reality, and socially damaging actions should have repercussions and supporting characters should pursue their own agendas even when not on stage. It does not mean that you or anyone else should demand the exact proper forms of address and the proper placement of silverware. Inasmuch as those help express characters, their desires, and their relationships, they are valuable, but as a cudgel to use on the other players at the table, they are worse than useless.
Make magic seem rooted in the world§
Magic is a force with a will. It is an ancient and inscrutable and enormous thing. But it is a thing that is, ultimately, of this world. It is the way the world expresses itself, and some humans have just found a way to converse with it. It is the trees and the rivers, the rain and the hills. It is not abstract, scientific, mechanical. Magic does not like being treated as a vending machine, as a process that can be relied upon with no quid pro quo. Magic lives among the trees, on the wind, and in the stones.
Make the characters’ lives worthy of the telling§
This isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a story about people defeating Napoleon on the battlefield, but the characters’ lives should be interesting for their own sake. If you would put down this book, then step back a moment and try to see how things could be more interesting. Then push in that direction. This is a game where you are not saving the world, but perhaps saving yourselves.
Remember that nothing is written§
Don’t plan what will happen before it does. It can be tempting to take your position of responsibility and power and use it to write and execute on a plan. Don’t do that. You are creating the story in the moment as much as the other players.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think about, talk about, write about the game between sessions, or come in with no plans or ideas. Rather, those plans and ideas should be loosely held, and should be about what is happening off-stage rather than what will come to pass.
Push supporting characters’ plans, ideas, and agendas on the main characters§
The supporting characters are your main tool for shaping the main characters lives, and pushing them into untenable situations where they will have to make hard and interesting choices. This is a time and place defined by mutual obligation, and the main characters are not exempt from this simply because they wield magic. Every supporting character will have plans for them, and it is up to you to push those plans.
This goes in both directions, too: a social superior may easily try to exert pressure on a main character, as Lady Catherine does to Lizzy, but a servant may as easily try to shape their master’s behavior for their own benefit.
Principles concerning the world§
As you pursue this agenda, you are constrained by certain principles. There are principles about the world at large, and about magic in particular.
- Show how the world is unjust.
- Show how everyone is obligated and bound.
- Remember that disaster lurks around the corner.
- Make consequences real: relationships break, people die, fortunes are lost.
- Be a fan, not just a threat.
- Never worry about historical detail; as long as you all agree to it, it’s so.
- Show what will happen if the main characters do not act.
Principles concerning magic§
The principles concerning magic are fewer, but vital. Magic should veer towards the sublime, something slow and deep, not quick and flashy. Achieving this is an art, and every Host will find their own preferred style, but describing magic in matter-of-fact terms is a very helpful approach.
- Let magic show up in the corner of your eye.
- Let magic seem as though it’s always been there.
- Make magic have a will of its own.
- Make magic be old, feral, and of the land.
Your single most effective tool for enacting your agenda are the supporting characters. They let you embody and enact all of the things you must try to do.
However, it can be hard to play many supporting characters and keep them all straight! What follows are some tools to make that easier.
Names and roles§
As soon as a supporting character is introduced, write down their name and role. I like to use an index card for related supporting characters, but you could use one card per character, or a single sheet of paper, or whatever works for you.
The name and role can be something like “Mr. Ashbrook, the butler” or “Miss Cavendish, a lady of quality” or “Captain Fitzroy, a naval man” or “Alice, a chambermaid”.
After this, note down one or two descriptors: “cunning and quiet”, “kind and brash”, “vapid and money-conscious”, “dashing and mysterious”. This will help you remember how to portray that character, as while playing you’ll be asked to switch context very often, and no one wants all the supporting characters blending into each other.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but don’t try to make their character deeper than a note or two for now. Only once the players express interest in a character and get to know them more should you make them deeper and more complex. At the best, you would have wasted effort on a character who never shows up in more than a bit part, and at the worst, you’d make a character who’s strikingly inappropriate for where the game ends up going.
Once it becomes clear, or if you introduced them with a motivation in mind, add that to the notes you have for them. This is the thing that character is pushing for, probably in relation to a main character. Something like “Wants status (marry Mr. Stanhope?)”, “Wants money (attach himself to Miss de Vere)”, “Wants a feeling of power (command Jack Kelly)”, or “Wants to get away from her mother (run off with Mr. Pryce?)”.
Fairies and goblins§
Fairies and goblins are much like other supporting characters, except they exist outside the bounds of society. The sorts of things they want are therefore very different.
Goblins usually want simple, single, horrific things. To see a love broken, to see someone murdered, to hear the cries of a lost and lonely child, to see good wheat rotting in the field.
Fairies, though, all at root share an esoteric desire: to possess and steal away mortal magicians. There are stories of magicians with fairy assistants back in the golden age of magic, but these magicians, even when they understood quite well what they were doing, walked a razor’s edge. The reasons a fairy might want to possess magicians might vary: as noble champions, as trusted confidants, as passionate lovers, as scorned jesters. But whatever the reasons, fairies will try to ensnare magicians and take them to their realm.
Save fairies for late in the game, or when a magician invokes one. Once a fairy is introduced, it becomes the fairy, and you should take a moment to envision it. You can find many suggestions in Appendix: Fairies & goblins, and feel free to use them verbatim, or to create your own.
Certain outcomes will say that the fairy gains a “strand” on a magician. This is how they steal magicians, and represents a bit of obligation and control that the fairy has over the magician. Once a fairy has five strands on a magician, they may steal them away to their fairy realm at their pleasure. No one has escaped from fairyland under their own power, but there are stories of magicians rescuing their loved ones from fairy, so perhaps this is possible.