Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Soane's Museum

Udan-Adan – a blog I commend to you in all respects - recently did an excellent and hilarious post on Romantic artists as DMs, which features the incredible Joseph Gandy image on the left. That picture is in fact of a real place which looks substantially the same now as it did when Gandy painted it – it's the house-museum of the architect and collector Sir John Soane, and you can visit it in London (for free!) should you wish to visit a heavily modified, labyrinthine 18th century house stuffed with weird recovered art treasures.

Which is to say: John Soane's house is totally a dungeon, you guys. So I mapped and filled it. This version of it is based on the real house and doesn't change or falsify any of its details (like, seriously, look it all up after - I have stuffed this post with imaes but you can never get enough of this place), but it tries to be setting-agnostic. You could use this as a dungeon in a game set in some actual version of London, but you could also use it in any RPGable city of your creation that features antiquaries and eccentrics, which is any RPGable city at all: the way it’s presented here is with real-world names and so forth but they can be run through any appropriate fantastic filter. Soane - or whatever you want to call him - can be any prominent visionary weirdo of the city. The Greek and Roman and Egyptian (and Indian and Incan and Chinese and so on) artefacts of Soane's collection can be mapped onto any ancient cultures your setting has (and are a handy way of introducing those cultures to your players, so that months later you can say 'this tomb is in the style of that fucked-up mask you picked up in Soane's house right before the night watchmen finally broke down the door').

In fact Soane's house is a particularly good thing to drop into a game if you have a setting with detailed forerunner cultures, because it's a microcosm of a moment in Western history when obsession with supposed forerunner cultures – Greece and Rome, largely – was at its height. Soane embodied that obsession and united, in his interests and pursuits, classicism and romanticism, which we often think of as opposites but which to Soane and his circle were facets of the same, deeply D&D thing: an
obsession with the grandeur and tragedy of ancient civilizations, and a constant need to delve back into them. Soane's house – the real one – is a berserk hodgepodge of objects from those cultures and architectural designs imitating and interpreting and exaggerating them in meticulous and bizarre ways.

Which is to say, it's like stepping inside a DM's notebook. But enough theory, here's the practice.
Soane’s house is a 5-storey townhouse set somewhere in an upscale but quiet part of the city. Its neighbouring houses are expensive but discreet, presenting uniform outsides - Soane’s house was like this too, once, before he got his hands on it (and on parts of the neighbouring two houses: Soane has purchased chunks of the insides of these houses over the years from his neighbours, hence the irregular internal shapes) and began his endless rebuilding. The upper stories are nevertheless still a relatively conventional townhouse (though full of weird objects), but the back parts of the ground floor and the basement (‘the museum’) are anything but.
Soane lives in the house with his wife (Eliza), his two sons (George and John) and three
The man himself
servants: a housekeeper (Mrs Higgins), a maid (Lucy), and a bootboy (Tommy). Soane himself is a noted eccentric about town and collector of odd objects, widely regarded as good fun and an excellent party host (and relied upon by a whole constellation of antiquities dealers, legitimate and otherwise, for their livelihoods) but often thought to have squandered his chance at a proper architectural career. Most of his commissions nowadays are small works - monuments and tombs - or plans and drawings that never come to anything. Soane’s sons, aged 17 and 15, are an embarrassment to him: he had hoped that they would train as serious architects and create a legacy for him but they have turned out to be dissolute wastrels, forever being ejected from one or another tavern. There is a decent chance of them not being in the house most of the time, and a fairly good one that the party will run across one or both of them if they know where the smart set likes to party: they might even be open to the suggestion that the afterparty happen at their dad’s place. Soane’s wife is a faithful companion and society hostess, if occasionally driven to distraction by her husband’s behaviour. She has agreed a division with him whereby she maintains the upstairs house but he looks after the basement and his collection there. She is helped around the house by Mrs Higgins, who has been with the family forever and whose knees aren’t what they used to be, and by Tommy, who reckons he must be around 12 years old. Lucy is a lady’s maid but is also the only servant allowed in the cellars: Soane says she is the only one careful enough when dusting the antiquities.

The party might have any number of reasons for wanting to get into Soane’s place. It is
with valuable antiquities: a handful of really priceless pieces and a large number of less exceptional but still desirable ones. The party may simply hear of Soane’s collection on the grapevine - along with the rumour that some of the collection is magical, where appropriate - or if they move in the right circles they may be invited to a party there. Most likely, though, they will be specifically approached by a rival collector or a dealer, perhaps one of those who sells to Soane but who has decided they want some of their inventory back, with a generous offer and the promise that Soane’s house is not well guarded and that the payment on the table is as nothing compared to the value of anything else the party might care to pick up in the house. This is and is not true.

Antiquities and artifacts of numerous kinds are scattered throughout the house, but particularly in the back section of the ground floor and the basement (‘the museum’), where it is literally impossible to reach out an arm without knocking over a bust of some dead notable. There is an enormous assortment of objects large and small, all of them of potential interest to collectors. Their value is generated like so (this sounds fiddly

but trust me it is fun as fuck once you get going) - tell whichever PC is investigating or pocketing an object what it is (mask/chair/statuette) and its cultural origin (Greece/Maztica/Yoon-Suin): they then (starting immediately) have a number of seconds equal to their Intelligence to describe it. At the end of this roll d100 and multiply by the number of adjectives the PC used that made sense and that haven’t yet been used to describe any other object in the house (keep a list). Give bonuses for particularly clever descriptions and penalties for shit ones. A lot of Soane’s objects are also replicas or fakes: plaster casts and the like. Some of these he knows about and has anyway, some he doesn’t. When an object is valued, roll a d8 secretly - on a 1 it’s not authentic and the party doesn’t spot this, on an 8 it’s not authentic and the party does. An inauthentic object is worth 10% of its apparent value (but of course the party could try and sell it on as authentic). There’s also the risk, during resale, that something will be noticed as coming from Soane’s collection: the PCs must roll over the item’s value on a d1000 to avoid this (though the buyer may not care). Obviously you’ll also need to impose sensible limits on what the party can carry.

Or you can have everything be worth d400 gp each. Fuck you.

Bigger -

The house itself breaks down into two parts. The ‘home’ - the upper floors and the large front rooms of the ground floor and basement - is full of weird embellishments and odd corners but they are at least grafted onto the skeleton of a recognisable house. Here (and above) is the whole building, with the street facade on the left: the oblong at the front of the ground and basement floors is a sunken area. Everything on the diagram on floors 2 and 3, and everything on floors -1, 0 and 1 south and west of the stairs (the oval thing on the northern side - call north the top of the image), is the home. From the top:

3 is the servants’ quarters, right at the top of the house: there’s a back bedroom where the maid and bootboy sleep and a small front boxroom where the housekeeper sleeps, and a
common room with a large square table where they dine together and do various bits of sewing, mending etc. The tiny room-cupboard just west of the stairs is a toilet. Everything on this floor is simple and Spartan: there’s one rather neglected curio in the niche at the top of the stairs but otherwise this part of the house is free of goodies. Each of the servants has a few sets of clothes and a strongbox with a fairly easily forced lock: Mrs Higgins’ is full of money she has been saving, Tommy the bootboy’s has a nice knife he was given by his mother when he left home and quite a lot of extremely bad love poetry about Lucy, and Lucy’s has a locket in the shape of a scarab beetle that seems like it must have been stolen from Soane’s collection and a diary with most of the pages torn out. In the dining room is a fair amount of domestic bric-a-brac and one of the most well-provisioned sewing boxes on the planet. The odd slot reaching east from the eastern wall of the common room has a curtain separating it from the rest of the room and functions as a cupboard and an excellent hiding place (it’s actually a vestige of an architectural experiment Soane never pursued further).

Below, on 2, are the family bedrooms. The bedroom at the back is the boys’ (on the diagram it looks like a double bed but it has two singles) and the larger one at the front is Soane’s: the connected room north of it is a combination closet and private study for Mrs Soane, who
writes letters and reads in there. Her personal correspondence is not especially interesting but there’s a fair amount of jewellery in the ornate armoire. Soane does all his work downstairs so this room really only contains several sets of frayed clothes. The boys’ bedroom has various adventure novels and lots of dandyish clothing: wedged into a crack in the floor under George’s bed is a bundle of unpaid tavern bills and gambling debts coming to several hundred gp all told. The room in the south-east corner is a bathroom, which is to say it has a heatable closet for water, a large tin bath, several enamel basins and two cupboards full of towels and linens, as well as a smaller cabinet containing various patent medicines (most of them fairly fraudulent). One of them, with a nasty, tarry smell, is called Dr Carter’s Bitumen Paste. This room has no toilet, though: as with the floor above, that’s in the cupboard just west of the stairs. All of these rooms (but not the toilet), and the corridor connecting them, have 2d4 antiquities in them: Soane’s bedroom has 2d8. The strange little room east of the stairs is one of three on successive floors, created by Soane who had bought the space and didn’t want to waste it. This one has a couple of extremely dramatic, overdone paintings in it: the whole staircase is hung with paintings and this is a rot of overflow space for them.

The 1st floor is as large as the one above it: the grey space on the plan is all glazing (see the entry on the museum) and the smaller white space immediately east of the room with the X-
patterned carpet is a light shaft going all the way to the basement. Here again there is a toilet in the small room west of the stairs: the odd room east of the stairs is in this instance a weird kind of shrine to Shakespeare (or relevant equivalent): it has a marble bust of him and is hung with paintings depicting scenes from his plays. The bust sits on a cabinet containing a valuable early edition of his works. Soane reveres Shakespeare (obviously). The two larger rooms that make up the bulk of this floor - the one with the X carpet and the front room - flow into each other, with the front room also having a kind of roofed-in colonnade on the front (added on by Soane, of course). These are entertaining rooms: in the back room there is a long table with 12 chairs and a large armoire containing large amounts of silverware and crockery (and d4 antiquities): the front room is a more general reception room, with chairs and side-tables around the edges and most of the floor clear. Each of these rooms contains 2d8 antiquities, mostly smaller ones on shelves but at least one chair of exotic origin and one full-size statue in a corner.

In the ‘home’ section of the ground floor, there are again two interconnected rooms along with a hallway leading from the front door to the stairs. The hall is lined with paintings and 2d6 antiquities: the small room off the stairs to their east has, this time, a hat- and coat-stand in it, with numerous umbrellas, travelling cloaks and the like also hanging in it. There
are also two quite blunt swords - basically theatrical props - in the umbrella basket. The two large linked rooms on this floor are referred to collectively as the library: they are lined with locked glass-fronted cabinets containing a large number of books (probably a couple of hundred all told) on various architectural and antiquarian subjects. Most of the books have some second-hand value: one or two are near-priceless. They have no very logical organisation, though Soane can find any of them amazingly quickly: he is the only person with keys to the cabinets. The library, taken as a single room, has 3d10 antiquities. The mid-size room with multiple entrances and exits immediately east of the stairs is a sort of intermediate room between the home and the museum - it is known as the breakfast room and has a large round table in the centre around which breakfast is eaten and on which the day’s newspaper can usually be found. This room is the scene of normal family life but like the museum it links to it has elaborate, multi-faceted lightwells and glazed roof sections, and has numerous antiquities.

Finally for the ‘home’ is the front part of the basement, accessible from the area steps through a locked and (at night) bolted door down there as well as from the main stairs (and ultimately from the museum basement as well). These interconnected rooms south and west of the stairs are the kitchen: the main room has a huge central kitchen table and heavy wooden sideboards, and two large cast iron stoves, and is filled with pots and pans and knives and utensils and so forth. The smaller rooms are various kinds of pantries and storecupboards: the shaded area immediately west of the stairs is an ingeniously modified pantry designed by Soane to retain a very low temperature, and contains a large block of ice and some chilled food: the space to the west of this room, on the north side of the kitchen, is the boot room, where Tommy is usually to be found shining and mending when he is not running errands.The largish room east of the main kitchen room, on the south side of the house, is a further storeroom but largely for plates, cutlery, spare trays and folding tables etc rather than food. These kitchen areas do not contain any antiquities.

Bigger here
As for the museum, well, here we switch to this map, which I think is actually an incredibly early central heating diagram of the house? Incorporate that if you so wish, pipes full of hot water that can be punctured in people’s faces at crucial moments are great. Does this map confuse you? Good. Partly this is because things have shifted 90 degrees (our former north is
now to the left - look at the stairs for guidance). But generally it is extremely hard to properly convey the complexity and narrowness of the space in the weirder parts of the house. The chief thing to understand is that the the ‘museum’ section is a network of passages and galleries and arcades, none of which are wide enough to allow two people to walk abreast: see these various images. Proper use of this limitation and of the various balconies, shafts and lightwells between the ground floor and the basement is the basis of all museum strategy: it is an arena for clever, close-quarters sneaking and fighting. The only exceptions to this are the named rooms - the monks’ room and the picture room - and even these are of such a size that if you were to spread your arms you’d hit at least one wall, or more likely one priceless antique, since this is where most of them are.

In the museum, antiquities are not counted - they are everywhere. Every wall is hung with them, stacked from ceiling to floor; all the little internal balconies that look down from the ground floor to the basement have artefacts sat on their railings; every tiny alcove has
something in it and something else balanced on top of that something. The limits now are more about grabbing the most and the most valuable ones and getting away with it (on which more below).

We’ve mentioned the breakfast room already - to the south of it (i.e. the left on our new map, keep up) is a squarish space that’s not an internal room but rather a void - this goes all the way down to the basement floor, where it forms a sunken outdoor courtyard, though not one you could stroll around in as it is crowded with obelisks and columns and arch keystones (these count as antiquities if anyone can be bothered to move them). This is the space that was noted above on level 1 behind (ie east of) the dining room. If you look again at that depiction of level 1 you’ll see all the greyed-out material as well, covering the area of the museum - this is all the ornate, multi-level roof glazing (see pictures). This whole area, where other houses might have gardens, is a baffling expanse of lightwells, skylights (many of them with coloured glass - see pictures), ornamental glass domes and columns and whathaveyou: you will definitely fall through somewhere if you try running across this roof. It ensures that the museum, despite being a two-level warren of passages, is surprisingly well-lit by day, and even at night moonlight filters in. The museum is extremely eerie at night.

On the ground floor, on the other side of the lightwell from the breakfast room, is the first of the narrow, single-file passages into the museum, running straight from the library (marked with a couple of h’s on the map). It is lined with antiques and also with custom-made cupboards and, at one point, an ingeniously installed washbasin. From here, or from the breakfast room, you enter the long, north-south running gallery (marked as such on the map), which is divided by the marked columns and by excessive numbers of statues and display boards into further single passages. To the north, it leads to the square-with-a-circle-inside-it which is directly above the ‘Belzoni chamber’ of the basement. This square is a balcony-gallery looking down into that chamber, with a glass dome above it: the passages around its four sides are all single-file as well. Beyond it, to the north, is a large statue of Apollo set in a half-rotunda, essentially another excruciatingly narrow passage that leads round behind it (and, as with everything else, is festooned with antiques).

At the south end of the museum’s ground floor is the picture room, marked as such on the
Soane's painting of the imagined ruins of his imaginary
Bank of England.
map: here there is more space, and no antiquities, but instead a room hung with large pictures, all of them speculative architectural designs, buildings Soane hopes or has hoped to build on large canvases. They’re not blueprints; they’re full-on oil paintings of these buildings in their imagined prime. There are also, along the walls, a number of little brass hooks, and in one corner a 10-foot (duh) pole with a hook at the end of it: the ‘walls’ on which the paintings sit are in reality huge hinged boards and can be swung away, revealing the real walls below, which are also hung with paintings, creating twice the hanging space. In all cases, the paintings on the ‘real’ walls are corresponding images of the same speculative buildings, but in ruins, lovingly imagined. In some, if you look closely, tiny figures can be discerned, going stiff-limbed about some uncertain business.

Finally, there is the basement section of the museum, reached either through the kitchen area at the front of the basement or through a single-file, hairpin-bend staircase behind the gallery, visible on the plan. Down here are Soane’s most valuable antiquities, again to be found amid a confusing jumble of narrow vaults and passageways. The only place of any size here is the so-called Monk’s Parlour, which is directly below the Picture Room, though it’s
also not very big: it’s a little sitting room crammed with further antiquities and supposedly for the use of ‘Father John’, a ghostly monk who Soane has made up to spook and amuse visitors. There is a little altar here for his ‘private devotions’: also a crucifix of odd design and inlaid jet, worth about 700 and purportedly a saintly relic. This is one of the more famous antiquities in the museum and one that the party might be specifically commissioned to obtain.

Other than this, the basement contains a further selection of passages, many of them with ornate plaster vaulting. The section labelled ‘crypt’ is where Soane keeps most of his funerary monuments: ancient tombstones, urns and so on, and also a cast of a death mask. Soane says it depicts a pirate called Parker: it is actually of a vastly older and more occult entity, and might again be the focus of a specific commission. Also in the crypt, hanging from one wall, is a set of rusting iron manacles, said to have held a king - nobody is quite sure which one - during a revolutionary trial. These again might be the focus of a specific request. To the west, where the kitchen passages join onto the museum basement, is the lower model room, which would be a slightly more open space but is filled with wooden and paper models of some of Soane’s favourite buildings: landmarks of architecture from around the world, including the Parthenon, the Pantheon in Rome and the temples at Karnak. This last is inlaid with gold leaf and particularly valuable, although it is about the size of a child’s coffin and would be hard to steal.

Finally, there is the area marked as Belzoni’s chamber, looked down upon by the balcony
above and surrounded by narrow passages on all sides. This space contains Soane’s pride and joy, the most valuable item in his collection, coveted by many others, the installation of which was celebrated with a three-day party: the sarcophagus of an Egyptian pharoah, Seti: it is a massive block of white alabaster inlaid with blue hieroglyphics, large enough that the rim of it (there is no lid) comes up to a man’s chin. Such a man, looking over the rim at night, would see a surprising thing: Soane, wrapped in a sheet inscribed with hieroglyphs. He has been gradually turning himself into an immensely powerful sorcerer-mummy for years now. He is not a fan of intruders.

Soane’s mummy takes 2d10 minutes to awaken: but this is timed either from the moment the party enters the museum (if they’ve not been invited) or (if they have) from the moment
they first steal an antiquity. Unless stopping the party becomes urgent, though, he will wait in the sarcophagus, since once the party are there they are in the deepest part of the museum. He is a mummy of whatever power level you deem appropriate, basically, but he ought to have a decent chance of slaughtering the party. He will have some help when dealing with intruders, as well. Lucy, who is his psychic thrall (and the only person in the house who knows Soane’s true nature) and with whom he can communicate telepathically, will raise the alarm in the house, at which John and George will seize the swords from the umbrella stand and go after the intruders - they are foolhardy and not very good fighters but they know the house. Tommy the bootboy, meanwhile, will run out of the house to fetch the night watch, 2d6 of whom will show up 2d10 minutes after he leaves. They are not much as fighters either, but as with George and John their chief function is to hem the party in with the mummy. Of them all only Lucy knows Soane's true nature, but the rest of the inhabtiants of the house are a) loyal to Soane and b) do not think him wandering around in a sort of sorcerous dressing gown all night muttering is odd behaviour by his standards (which it isn't). Most of the notable antiquities - the mask, the crucifix, the manacles - have occult properties and are, obviously, in some way involved in his project to become a mummy and, ultimately, a lich.

It will be noted that one of the upshots of Soane’s many modifications is that there is no back way out of the house. The museum is a trap. If you’re ever in London, you should go and visit it.