Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Truth Is Somewhere (X Files, Delta Green)

'One of those rare horror-genre gems produced for television,' wrote Adam Scott Glancy in a 1994 review for Unspeakable Oath. 'So far the first twelve [X Files] episodes rate nine out of ten phobias for solid horror/science-fiction genre entertainment.''

It's been a while.

Recently I was paid for an acting gig with iTunes cards, and used them to buy X-Files seasons 1 through 5. I tend to do that with stuff I want to see but don't care if I lose, which is always a risk when dealing with the Cloud. I pride myself on having a good memory, but I have to admit I'd forgotten most if not all the episode plots. Something about aliens? Maybe? And there were monsters, sometimes? Lone Gunmen? Someone who smoked a lot?

No, it was a total blank. This, mind you, after spending damn near every week plugged in practically at the electrical socket, waiting like a slavering fanboy for the least tidbit. That was back in 1994, and without wishing to be unkind to anyone here who may be counting their grey hairs, 1994 was over 20 years ago. If I'd had a kid back then, it would be on its way to college.

Hopefully I'd resist the temptation to call it Fox or Dana.

Looking back on it now, that first season was remarkably weak. Not awful - very good, really - but low budget, creaking along, with plots as shaky as an Ed Wood set. Inevitably they fell into a pattern: strange things happen, Mulder proposes something utterly absurd, Scully throws dirt on the whole thing, Mulder is proved right in every detail, madness ensues. Often there are plot holes you could drive a truck through, even if you accept Mulder's version without question.

None of that mattered at the time, and while it kinda matters now, that's only because time has passed. I'm less accepting of wild-eyed bullshit, and I've seen much better television since, so my standards have risen. Yet even with that firmly in mind I find I'm still in love with those early seasons, particularly from season 2 onwards.

That's when things begin to ratchet up, when Mulder's first informant Deep Throat is gunned down, the Cancer Man becomes more of a visible threat, and Mr X becomes Mulder's contact with the murky world of government conspiracies. Steven Williams plays Mr X, and he's such a badass in that role. He really makes it work.

It's also when I begin recognizing supporting cast. I don't know who was hiring back in 1994-5, but they picked some very decent talent. I knew Jack Black was in one of the early episodes, and he of course goes on to fame and fortune. But he's not the only one to hit the radar. Bradley Whitford, before West Wing, Jewel Staite, before Firefly, Titus Welliver, before Deadwood and Lost, Joe Spano, just after Hill Street Blues and before NCIS. Season 2 in particular is an exercise in 'spot the soon-to-be famous.'

If you really don't know what I'm talking about - which is always possible, though perhaps not forgivable - X Files was a supernatural/science-fiction genre show back in the 1990s, starring David Duchovny as FBI Agent Fox Mulder, and Gillian Anderson as his long-suffering partner Agent Dana Scully. The two are tasked with investigating X Files, cases involving paranormal phenomena. This can range from lake monsters to strange parasites from beyond history, irradiated fluke men and little grey men from outer space.

As you can imagine this does not sit well with their superiors, and Agent Scully is initially assigned to the X Files to debunk them, presumably because nobody's thought to fire Agent Mulder. Which is where the first of those peculiar plot holes appears; we're dealing with a massive conspiracy involving corruption at the highest levels, run by men who think nothing of murdering their enemies, their friends, the mailman; men who carry out mass experiments on unwitting human test subjects every other week without losing sleep over the death count. Yet those same men have some psychological block that prevents them from getting Mulder fired, even when he presents them with opportunities to do so with cause. It's papered over with tissue-thin excuses, but it's a problem nonetheless.

Looking back on it, I suspect it survived that initial year not because it was brilliant - good, yes, occasionally genius - but because it was unique. It was 1994. Nobody was doing horror on the small screen in 1994.

Hell, there weren't that many people making horror for the big screen either, come to think.

Tales from the Crypt is the closest thing it had to competition, and Tales was hosted by a scary Muppet. A bunch of carefree optimists tried to make a TV show out of Vampire the Masquerade, but that was in 1996, two years after X Files began, and it withered on the vine. Buffy doesn't start pounding dildos into pale Californians until 1997, and if I'd known what pegging was back then I'd have had a lot more fun watching that hot mess. Ultraviolet's 1998, and British. Touched By An Angel, maybe, but you could hardly call that horror.

It helps that Duchovny and Anderson, both talented actors, work well together. Anderson in particular is a lot of fun to watch; she's clearly got more on the ball than Duchovny. Yet Duchovny has one great talent: he's a natural doofus, and the show eventually starts playing to that, giving him more comedic or parody moments. I can't think of many television shows, genre or otherwise, that would be happy making its lead actor look like an idiot, and to be clear it's not like this happens every week, but when it does, it's a delight. Small Potatoes from Season 4 is a personal favorite.

Yet by the fifth season I find its appeal starting to wear on me. Though there are several moments when I can't wait for a show to finish, the episode Post-Modern Prometheus is the first one I couldn't force myself to finish. Yes, I know it won an Emmy. Chris Carter can thank his lucky stars I wasn't on the awards committee, way back when.

It starts to crumble under the weight of its own mythology at that point. There's just no way to make this all make sense, and it doesn't help that so much of it contradicts itself. One of the long-running secrets of the series is what happened to Fox Mulder's sister all those years ago; was she abducted by aliens, murdered by a serial killer, something else? But there are only so many times she can turn up as a clone, as a child worker clone, as an abductee, as a possible ghost, as a murder victim, before I start to lose interest.

You can butcher a turkey once, cook it once, eat it, make stock from its bones and skin, but when all that's done, you can't bring the turkey back again and eat it a second time. Not if you want to enjoy the experience.

Oddly enough I feel the same way about X Files as I do Delta Green, the RPG originally developed by Pagan Publishing many moons ago.

It first showed its warty head back in 1993, as part of the Unspeakable Oath magazine, but it doesn't really get its chance to strut its stuff until 1997. So it technically predates the X Files, though in practical terms it owes much of its format and initial appeal to that show.

Delta Green, as it was then, had a lot of promise, and I love its take on conspiracy theories, modern horror, cryptozoology, government cover-ups, little Grey Men. I played that game to death back in the day. I still have all the books.

Yet I look back on it now, and it's a mess.

A fun mess, but there's no skeleton here holding it together. The basic premise is solid, but the mythology soon crushes the whole thing under its ponderous weight. You could pick up a sourcebook and literally have no idea what you were getting, because the series didn't seem to be planned in any coherent way.

If you liked the Fate, for example, its New York occult menace based loosely on Club 57 and the exploits of Andy Warhol, there wasn't a Fate book you could get. You could get Count Down and Eyes Only, both of which have Fate-related material, but they also have a ton of other stuff you might not want. If you want to know more about tradecraft, intelligence agencies and the art of being a spy, that's in there too, but again it's scattered over most of the books with no real rhyme or reason as to which goes where.

The lethality level varies considerably. Some scenarios might as well have a footnote saying 'allow for 40 minutes downtime as everyone makes new characters right about now.' Others seem positively gentle in comparison. It reminds me of some of the X Files first season episodes, Darkness Falls in particular, where the writers find themselves in a situation where, logically, Mulder and Scully die. So they do, but not really. Delta Green isn't quite so kind.

There's some absolutely brilliant writing here, but looking back on it I have to ask myself how likely it is that the players are ever going to find this information, or find it useful. With the benefit of hindsight it seems to me now that it was written for the Keeper to read and be entertained by, but not necessarily use at the table.

One thing I admire about the Gumshoe clue system, apart from simplicity of design, is that it forces the designer to consider whether or not what's going on the page is useful. If it's a Clue, it has a purpose, and there's a definitive chain of events that lead from this Clue to the next Scene, where there are more Clues. From here, the players piece together the narrative, and decide what to do next.

I didn't back the Delta Green Kickstarter so I don't know what the new stuff's like. I almost regret that, but money's tight. One thing I hope and pray for is that, whatever it is, there's a plan. That someone has their eye on the long term, not a scattershot put-it-all-in-the-pot approach.

Anyway, it's been a day, and I'm exhausted.

Talk soon!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Vampire's Heart - Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier

There are several different classifications of vampire in Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents game, and this time I want to talk about the Damned variety, designing a vampire type from the ground up.

First, a word on sources. Much of the information I'm going to post here derives from Jean-Claude Schmitt's Ghosts in the Middle Ages: the Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. My copy's University of Chicago Press, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, 1998. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the material.

The rest comes from a recent news article discussing a new technique whereby video clips have been encoded to human DNA.

The legend of Herle, aka Harlequin, aka Arthur, King of the Dead and leader of the Wild Hunt, goes back to at minimum the year 1000. Before that date there are reports of a ghostly army on the march, but the legends begin to coalesce into the version known to historians at that time, with multiple sightings and reports.

At its inception the army of the dead, if not precisely benign, at least serves a genuine purpose. Its troops beg for mercy, asking the living to give them prayers, or do deeds that will help them escape their torment such as returning borrowed goods, or repaying old debts. One of the most vivid and earliest accounts comes from the priest Walchelin, who told his tale to Orderic Vitalis, a Welsh-born chronicler who, at that time, was living in Normandy. In that story Walchelin is approached by several dead, including his own brother, all of whom ask for aid or for messages to be delivered.

However as time passed the army of the restless dead became stigmatized as Satan's legion. Priests anxious to drive out the last vestiges of paganism told their flock that the warriors, priests and peasants seen in Harlequin's army were actually devils, who took on the form of ghosts to fool honest men into doing the devil's work. This is how, for example, Arthur King of the Britons comes to be depicted, in a mosaic at the Cathedral of Otranto, as riding a goat, Satan's steed.

Herle's restless legions are often seen at crossroads, for 'those places, due to the number of people of all sorts that passed through them, were more polluted than the fields. In these sordid places, the living were shown the true punishments endured by the evil in the hereafter.'  Often they are depicted wearing hoods - 'the hood or the cape is the specific dress of the dead and the instrument of their torment' - which are not really hoods at all, but things of blood and fire which weigh heavily on them. Similarly those of Herle's troop who go armed or ride horses do not really carry weapons, but red-hot things that burn their flesh, nor are their steeds horses but devils disguised as same. As a rule the items they carry symbolize their sin, which is why the warriors carry weapons, but also why the priests and bishops carry croziers and wear monkish habit, and why the peasants are often seen carrying domestic items.

From this tradition, as an aside, we get Dickens' Christmas Carol, where Jacob Marley wears a chain of his own devising, forged in life, which he must wear in death. The deeds which men do in life live on after their death, tormenting their souls, which is why blood is so often a theme; those who spill it are most likely to end up damned.

In Yorkshire there is a tale recorded by William of Newburgh in his History of England, in which vampires are dealt with summarily by the people. When the bloodsuckers first appear, people turn to the church for aid, and after some back-and-forth the clergy recommend putting prescriptions for absolution of the tombs of the damned revenants. However a gang of 'the young' decide instead to disinter the creature and cut it to bits, burning everything except the heart in a bonfire. They preserve the heart because 'its presence would have prevented the cadaver from burning.'

Put all this together, and we get:

Harlequin's Legion

Explicitly demonic entity opposed to mankind and God.

Origin: A soul polluted with evil, inhabiting a corpse. At some point in the past - how far back is up to the Director - a Grand Grimoire was broken up and scattered to the four winds, encoded into the blood (DNA) of especially evil souls. This Codex, if it is ever recreated, will cause the destruction of mankind and usher in the Apocalypse.

Some vampires have parts of this Grimoire engraved in their corpus, and these are the more powerful and magically astute of their brood. The others, lesser creatures, are merely evil, and brought to their undead condition by their more powerful siblings. These lesser vampires do not have the Codex as part of their DNA, but that does not make them harmless or easy to defeat.

One vampire takes on the title of King of the Dead, referred to in literature as the leader of the Wild Hunt. The actual leadership function may vary, but it is this vampire that contains within it the index of the Grimoire. It has a direct link to the very foundations of evil, is exceptionally powerful, and can, with the proper rituals, recreate the Codex. Whether or not it wants to is unknown; it may be quite insane, or perhaps the title of King of the Dead is one that can be stolen by rivals. If the latter, then the Herle may prefer to remain anonymous, to dissuade would-be usurpers from taking its heart.

A vampire may be created by magical ritual, or it may be created by another vampire. If the latter, only a vampire with part of the Grimoire encoded to its DNA can create a vampire; all other vampire types lack this ability.

As a group the Wild Hunt tends to segregate itself into the types it remembers of old: warriors, priests, and peasants. The warriors consider themselves elite, wolves among sheep. The priests are the lore-keepers, the Codex made flesh, who keep other vampires in line. The peasants are everyone else, the ones who lack the special DNA strands. Other vampires mock and despise them, and consequently they bully everyone weaker than themselves - usually humanity.

They can be detected by their hoods. These are not real items, but coronas of blood and fire that form around their heads; the warriors can extend this corona around their whole body, at will. This spiritual manifestation of their sin can only be seen under special conditions: certain high holy days, or at places of especial spiritual pollution. These include modern-day crossroads - subway terminals, airports, and similar gathering places where hundreds, perhaps thousands of people come and go, on their way to one place or another. Vampires avoid these places if they can, which makes travel difficult.

The hoods also appear in photographs or on video feeds, which makes surveillance both easy and difficult. Easy, because the hood is a dead giveaway; difficult, because with the hood on it's impossible to tell who's who.

The heart is tough to destroy, and in many cases impossible. It can be cut out of the body and dissolved in strong acid or similar, but does not burn easily. A peasant's heart can be destroyed. A warrior's can be destroyed with considerable effort and magical assistance. A priest's is imbued with the words of the Codex, and therefore has been touched by semi-divine power. It cannot be destroyed, and can only be bound with magical assistance.

So long as the heart remains, the vampire can be reborn. A corpse is required - anyone's - but once the vampire heart is put in its chest, the creature is renewed. From that point on it can take its original face and form, fresh as the day it died, or it can assume the face and form of the corpse it borrowed. If the latter, the body takes on the appearance of natural decay over time, which can provoke Stability checks depending on the age of the corpse. This only affects appearance, not smell or fluids.

Aberrance: 10 (peasant), 13 (priest), 16 (warrior). The Harlequin probably has a much higher Aberrance, but it's impossible to say how high.

Hit Threshold: base 4, increase to 5 with Vampiric Speed. 

Hand to Hand: -1 (peasant, fangs), +0 (priest, fangs or talons), +1 warrior (rows of razor teeth, bony claws). 

Armor: -1 (peasant, tough skin), -2 (leathery hide), -3 (corona of blood, covering the whole of the corpus).

Free Powers: Darkvision, Vampiric Speed and Cloak of Darkness are common to all. Vampires which have recently gained a new body in reasonable condition temporarily gain Mimic Form, but this only remains viable as long as the corpse stays presentable. As a general rule the first signs of obvious decay set in very quickly; the skin becomes waxy and bluish within half an hour. However people often overlook this so long as the person seems otherwise normal. After three days there is no hope of a convincing Mimic Form. Priests also have Hive Mind - they are all part of the same entity.

See also Death and Resurrection.

Other Powers: All have Heat Drain and Regeneration (between scenes). Priests also use Necromancy and can Summon (zombies). Warriors lack the priest abilities, but make up for it with Vampiric Strength, Wings, and Turn to Creature (varies, often a wolf or bear, but sometimes other animals like a pig, cat, goat or horse).

Blocks: holy symbol, hawthorn.

Compulsions: Must show the sign of their damnation - the hood of blood and hellfire - on certain holy days, and at certain locations, such as holy places, crossroads or areas that count as crossroads, like subway stations. Priests and Warriors can resist this by spending 4 Aberrance, but there are circumstances - particular holy days, or moments when certain stars are in ascendance - when spending Aberrance will not work.

Dreads: dogs, particularly black and white dogs, which are the informal symbol of the Dominican order.

Requirements: Must commit ritual sacrifice to Satan at least four times a year. Must sleep in a place soaked with blood; it can be grave soil or bedsheets.

Death and Resurrection: The body can be cut to bits and destroyed, but the heart remains viable. If the heart is destroyed, the vampire cannot return. If the heart is still within the body, the body cannot be destroyed; it must be cut out first. Otherwise a vampire can walk through, say, a house fire and emerge seemingly unscathed, though its clothes will be ruined. An IED or similar can obliterate the body, leaving only the heart behind. A nuclear blast might obliterate peasants and warriors, but even that will not destroy the hearts of the priests.

It is said that should someone gather together all the hearts of all the priests and carry out a specific Satanic ritual, the Codex will be recreated. That will kill all Vampires instantly, warriors and peasants alike, but create an item of such awful power that the world itself will be shaken to its core.

The priests say they want this, but in practice they delay the apocalypse, preferring instead one more day of life to eternal rest within the leaves of Satan's book.

That's it for this week! Enjoy.



Sunday, 9 July 2017

Israel's Flying Horses (Dracula Dossier, Edom)

Mexico's in the news for something other than border walls, as the government's use of Pegasus malware against opposition politicians and media personalities comes to light.

The malware was used to infect the smartphones of anti-corruption crusaders, journalists criticizing the President, and senior members of the opposition National Action Party, the intent presumably being to track their movements, emails, and private messages.

Pegasus is supplied by Israeli cyberarms dealer NSO Group. Based near Tel Aviv, this company 'provides technology to help authorized governments battle terror and crime,' according to Forbes. Its founder Omri Lavie, allegedly a former member of Israel's Unit 8200 signals intelligence group, seldom speaks to the press, and details about the group are thin on the ground.

It specializes in iOS hacks, and deals strictly with governments, not individuals. However as Mexico has shown, governments are by no  means above abusing their position. You have to wonder what NSO intends to do about customers who ignore the provision in the purchase agreement that says the software can only be used to combat crime.

Pegasus uses malicious links in innocuous-seeming messages to install malware which jailbreaks the iOS device it's installed on. The jailbroken device then feeds data from text messages, password entry, email, location and so on, back to home base.

The points to take home here are, first, that it's an iOS device, and Apple has a reputation for security. Not as polished or as impregnable as previously thought, but still, compared to Android, it's practically Fort Knox.

Second, that the messages sent were relatively sophisticated compared to the usual stuff that ends up in the junk file. Targeted messages from trusted senders, on subjects that the recipient would have no reason to think are bogus.

NSO isn't the only company in the cyberwarfare business by any stretch, but it's gained notoriety recently thanks to the Mexico reveal. Presumably Apple intends to patch the specific vulnerabilities revealed thanks to the scandal, but NSO will find a workaround, if it hasn't already got one.

Which brings me to Edom, because if you think Her Majesty's Government hasn't already got a deal in place either with NSO or with one of the other outfits, you must be living in a very nice imaginary world, and I wish it were the real one.

So what would Edom target with Pegasus?

To begin with, Prince is the one most likely to be doing the targeting, and given her backgrouns in Israeli intelligence she may already have links with NSO. But Prince can't do everything herself. She's a Duke of Edom, not the IT bod fixing every downed server and workstation complaint. There'll be a team handling the day-to-day stuff, the routine monitoring, the cyber surveillance. Which means there'll be relatively junior personnel in charge of remarkably powerful equipment, particularly since Prince's condition means she can't be on site during the working day. And how likely is it, really, that the other Dukes completely understand the technology used by those staffers?

It's a situation ripe with potential for abuse.

Picture this:

OPERATION IRISH GIANT is bringing in great intel on a London-based Node. It might be the Satanic Order, or some well-placed patsy on Her Majesty's payroll - perhaps even a Government minister. All of this intel is coming from jacked smartphones, which Edom has cracked thanks to software provided by a well-known cybersecurity firm.

However the congratulations that echo through the halls at Ring soon go silent when it's discovered that a very important person - perhaps the Journalist, or Lord Godalming - is tracking down a story about hackers on the Government payroll who've been jailbreaking iOS phones in order to pursue private vendettas. This person broke phones belonging to his ex-wife, kids, and the ex-wife's new girlfriend, all as part of a messy divorce and custody battle, and they used the IRISH GIANT code to do it.

Now the very important person is about to go public with the story, whether it's a front page expose or embarrassing questions in the House. However if they do, then the good results from IRISH GIANT will be drowned out by the scandal.

The subjects will almost certainly discover the hack and change phones, but worse, the shroud of secrecy that protects Edom will be penetrated. The Dukes might find themselves the focus of the investigation, as journalists chasing the first story get sucked into the second, and ask very embarrassing questions about a secretive Government outfit that spends its time - and the taxpayers' money - on what appear to be pointless errands.

That leaves Edom with two problems to deal with. First, somehow silence the important person before this thing goes public. Second, track down whoever it is who abused IRISH GIANT resources. Was it mere incompetence or Conspiracy-inspired?

With a possible third option: perhaps it wasn't an internal problem. Perhaps it was the cybersecurity firm itself, using its software to bait Edom, and then hook it with a fictitious scandal. Why? Perhaps the firm's a Conspiracy asset. or perhaps it's in the employ of its home nation's vampire project. After all, crippling the competition is the name of the game.

That's it for this week! 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Vathek and the Burning Tower (Bookhounds of London)

The Needles bit inspires me to tackle some other short scenarios, but rather than use CoC 7E I'm going to pick a different system each time.

The scenarios will be stat lite, and no more than 2,500 words. Though GUMSHOE uses a scene-by-scene format, space limitations require limited scene-by-scene breakdowns.

This scenario is 2,423 words long.

This one will be for Bookhounds of London, and is nominally set in 1931 or later. It can't be earlier than that, as the fire referenced in the scenario didn't take place until then.

***

William Beckford (1761-1844), famed bibliophile and author of Gothic masterpiece Vathek among many other works, built the neoclassic folly Beckford's Tower on Lansdown Hill in 1827, to house his library.

This Bath landmark stands over the mile-long pleasure gardens known as Beckford's Ride, and it was William's habit to oversee his gardens from its 120 ft. height. It is crowned with an octagonal lantern decorated with gilt gold columns, and at its base are two drawing rooms, the Scarlet and the Crimson, both paneled in oak and richly appointed. The stairs that lead up the tower have 154 steps, and at the center of the spiral is a colossal polished granite vase.

In William's day he kept his vast collection there, and added to it. He would spend days picking through choice items, sometimes leaving notes in the fly-leaf to record his thoughts on the book's merits, or lack of same. When he died the collection sold at auction, and the property passed first to a publican, and later, thanks to a gift by William's daughter, to the church, which used the grounds as a cemetery. The Scarlet Drawing Room was converted to a chapel to serve the cemetery. Among those buried there is the Tower's architect, and Beckford himself, in a specially built pink marble monument.

The Tower was allowed to fall into an alarming state. By 1918 the Tower's condition is described as 'piteous and dilapidated,' and in 1931 a fire all but destroyed the Scarlet room, and very nearly brought the whole Tower down.

Since the fire a rumor has spread among bibliophiles that a fourth Episode of Vathek has been discovered.

When the original was published William left out three Episodes from Vathek's life, which were later incorporated into the novel after the author's death. This fourth episode is supposed to be a coda to the novel; the other three are the stories of Prince Alasi, Prince Barkiarokh and Princess Zulkais, but this fourth is the Story of Giaour, the servant of Eblis who lures Vathek to damnation. According to those who claim to know about it, the manuscript is annotated in Beckford's own hand, and was found at the Tower either shortly before or after the fire - accounts differ as to which.

Obtaining this manuscript counts as a Windfall for the store.

There are three NPCs of significant importance to the scenario: Alfred Drinkwater, a forger who intends to make a mint selling forged copies of the Episode, Parthena Quill, a devoted collector of all things Beckford, and the mystic Carathis - aka Molly Hannan - who claims to channel Beckford's soul and tells anyone who'll listen that the discovery is a fake.

Molly Hannan, before she became a mystic, used to work at the Faraday Building telephone exchange in London. In fact it's thanks to the exchange that she became a medium; she claims voices came down out of the phone lines and instruct her. When forced to return to London by Drinkwater's scheme she goes back to her old haunts. This important detail can be discovered with 1 point Oral History.


Image sourced from alondoninheritance.

Opening: The Bookhounds are made aware of the potential Windfall by Parthena, who asks them to obtain it for her. Parthena's scatty, but she has money to spare, and even if she didn't pay, the prestige that would go with a newfound Beckford is immense. Core History/Library Use: Beckford's life and the history of the Tower. Core Cop Talk/Forensics: judging by the published version of events, the fire was arson. Streetwise: the likeliest suspect is a known bibliographic firebug named Jimmy 'Topsy' Cooper, as he's not been in his usual London haunts recently but has been seen in Bath, allegedly acting as a book scout for an unknown third party - not that lazy Topsy would know a squiz from a top hat. Topsy came back to London the day after the fire.

The Bookhounds may try to: forge their own version, go to Bath to investigate, track down Topsy.

Forgery: The Bookhounds gather materials for their forgery, which means spending Forgery, Textual Analysis points and similar to build up a pool which will be used to create the end product. This represents buying materials, research, getting comparisons for Beckford's handwriting & so on. Doing so alerts Alfred Drinkwater. He's not best pleased that someone else is capitalizing on his scheme, so he sends some Rough Lads (p53 main book) to warn them off. The Rough Lads are instructed to Intimidate not damage, but things can easily get out of hand. Interrogation leads back to Drinkwater.

Drinkwater: The forger is in hiding. He's staying in a derelict tub moored just offshore in the East End, and he's paying the kids who play on the banks of the Thames to keep an eye out for anyone trying to find him. Streetwise or Bargain spends needed to creep up on him, otherwise it's a Fleeing check vs Drinkwater's pool of 8, increased by 2 due to the advance warning. If cornered and Intimidated, Drinkwater admits he came up with the scheme. The idea was to cause a small fire, and pretend that the documents were 'discovered' during or after the fire fighting, hidden behind some damaged paneling. Topsy was supposed to be the discoverer, and he was supposed to pretend to be a passerby who helped the firefighters deal with the blaze. Unfortunately his catspaw Topsy Cooper got carried away. This scene leads to Forger Found Out.

Forger Found Out: Shortly after Drinkwater is found, and either confesses all or runs away, Drinkwater is found dead near the banks of the Thames. His heart has been burnt out. Those who have read Vathek - 1 point Library Use - know that, at the end of the novel, the wicked Caliph, his attendants and his paramour all end up tortured by Eblis in Hell, their hears eternally aflame with the fires of damnation. Evidence Collection finds Drinkwater's copy of the Beckford manuscript, hidden away. Evidence Collection (1 point) notices that Drinkwater died a few steps from a phone booth, and appears to have been running away from it at the time. Leads to Windfall or No?

Bath: A few days after the fire and the place is still a mess. The church hasn't got anything like the money it needs for restoration, and an appeal has gone out for donations to cover repairs. Evidence Collection finds clear signs of arson. Streetwise/Reassurance finds that the local scoundrels are angry that a Londoner - Topsy Cooper, by the description - came to Bath to burn the Tower. Oral History (1 point) discovers that local mystic and medium Carathis is very upset about it, and has gone to London swearing vengeance. Carathis, as anyone who's read Vathek will know - 1 point Library Use - is the name of the Caliph's mother, a sorceress of considerable power. Carathis is known to claim to channel the spirit of William Beckford, one of Bath's prodigal sons. Leads to Topsy, Windfall or No?

Topsy: Can be found drunk out of his mind at one of his usual East End haunts, core Streetwise. In this state he'll tell anyone anything, but there are some Rough Lads looking for him - Drinkwater's goons - so the Bookhounds will need to dodge them first. Topsy spills the whole scheme, and also says he's terrified of a woman he met in Bath shortly after the fire, who threatened to kill him unless he told her who orchestrated the scheme. Leads to Drinkwater, Windfall or No?

Windfall or No?: By this point the Bookhounds ought to know the details of the scheme, have met Drinkwater, and probably have a copy of the forged manuscript, either their own version or Drinkwater's. If they don't have a forged version assume someone else, a rival bookseller, does - probably another forged copy, not Drinkwater's. The industry buzz is intense, and experts in Gothic literature flock to either praise or debunk the find. Then Parthena Quill, Beckford enthusiast and would-be purchaser, is found dead at her home, heart burned right out of her chest. Forensics knows the heart's a tough muscle; it can even survive professional cremation (of the period, mark you, not 21st century standards). The method of death strongly indicates occult involvement, possibly Megapolisomancy. Library Use (1 point) knows the Vathek clue as described in Forger Found Out. Reassurance / Oral History (1 point) discovers that Parthena's maid Dorcas saw Parthena arguing with a woman whose description matches Carathis a day before her death. Evidence Collection (1 point) notices she died with a telephone in her hand, part melted from some tremendous heat. Leads to Battle of the Experts, Chasing Carathis, Carathis Strikes.

Battle of the Experts: Several qualified and famous experts descend on whichever shop says it has the manuscript, demanding access. If rebuffed, they all declare the manuscript to be a fake, and the shop suffers a Reversal. If somehow placated or convinced, they declare the manuscript genuine, and the shop gains a Windfall. However placating them may require a combination of Forgery, Bargain, Reassurance and other appropriate abilities, as justified by the Bookhounds. The Experts, all three of them, have a combined total of 6 in their appropriate abilities. Treat this as a Contest, and the Bookhounds may choose to knock some of the Experts out of the running with Intimidation or similar, reducing the combined pool by 2 each time. Leads to Toxic Expert, Chasing Carathis.

Toxic Expert: If the Battle of the Experts seems to be going in the Bookhounds favor and the Bookhounds have not started Chasing Carathis, then Carathis acts against the idiot Experts prepared to believe such a ridiculous forgery. That Expert is found dead, his or her heart burnt out. Forensics as per Windfall or No? with the additional benefit that signs found at the scene indicate the force came out of the telephone, and may travel via telephone wires. The death of the Expert cancels any Windfall effect, as the others promptly declare the manuscript a forgery. If asked, on condition of anonymity the survivors say they're terrified they'll die next, and have been told as much by an angry woman whose description matches Carathis. They will never admit as much in public, and there is no chance of getting the Windfall back. This leads to Haunted Expert (Red Herring), Chasing Carathis, Carathis Strikes.

Haunted Expert (Red Herring): After Toxic Expert, one of the William Beckford Experts claims to have been visited in the night by the ghost of Beckford himself, swearing vengeance. In fact this is a lie, though it may not be a deliberate lie; perhaps the Expert's overheated imagination took over. Given the details in the Expert's account, the Bookhounds may mistake this for a Mythos entity attack, perhaps a Dust Thing. It's nothing of the kind. However if the Bookhounds don't realize this and waste time chasing it up, Carathis has time to beef up the paramental. Its Scuffling and Health each increase by 2, and it gains an extra +1 damage. Leads to Chasing Carathis, Carathis Strikes.

Chasing Carathis: Carathis has many friends in the fortune-telling and medium community. Oral History or Reassurance with these people tracks her down to a cheap flophouse in Soho. However if the Bookhounds didn't spend a point, then they still track her down but one of the people they talk to warn her they are coming, which means a Fleeing contest vs her pool of 6. If she Flees, she does so in such a way that leaves no doubt as to her Megapolisomantic powers, eg she vanishes into the shadows. Important: as her powers are linked to the telephone exchange, ideally this should happen within close proximity to an important point, eg. near a red telephone box or one of the many telephone exchanges. If caught and Intimidated she defiantly says she didn't kill Drinkwater, Parthena or the Expert, but she did cause them to die. 'Eblis knows! Eblis judges!' she shrieks. Leads to Carathis Strikes, Carathis No More.

Carathis Strikes: If Carathis is still active, and if she has already moved against the Experts, Parathena and anyone else who's annoyed her by taking William Beckford's name in vain, then she moves against the Bookhounds. She does this by going to the Faraday Building, using her Megapolisomancy to summon up the entity she calls Eblis, and sends that over the telephone lines that snake out from the Faraday Building Exchange to attack whoever is her target. Without access to telephone lines or the Faraday Building - which over years spent working there she has turned into a powerful Megapolisomantic Lever - she cannot do this. Ideally the Bookhounds will stop her before she kills again; from this point on she can always be found at the Faraday Building, which she knows inside out. She can hide in there for weeks if need be. Leads to Carathis No More.

Carathis No More: If Carathis is removed from the equation then the entity she called Eblis no longer has enough power to attack victims. It has just enough power to strike out wildly, which it will do, but once it runs out of juice this time it will fade out of existence. This ends the threat, and successfully concludes the scenario. If Carathis is not removed, then she will continue to direct the entity until everyone she thinks deserves punishment is dead. At the Keeper's discretion this may mean that she goes one fatal step too far, and Eblis turns on her, destroying Carathis. This is most likely to happen thanks to interference from the Bookhounds.

Epilogue: By the end of the adventure the Bookhounds should have dealt with Carathis, the paramental, and the Experts, and may have secured a Windfall for the shop. If any of the named NPCs somehow survived - particularly Parthena - they may become Contacts (p92) with an effective pool of 2 in any one Investigative ability. If Carathis survives then she goes back to Bath to stew over what happened, and she may try to get revenge. However the events of the scenario took a lot out of her, and the Lever she used at the Faraday Building is burned, so she can no longer summon paramentals.

The Paramental Entity: Summoned up by Carathis using the power of the City, and specifically the telephone exchange, this creature is semi-controlled by Carathis. However her control is not absolute, and if left to its own devices this rage-filled creature will go on a rampage.

Appearance: A darkness surrounding a telephone line, like a cloud of flies or similar, with a beacon of crimson at its center.

Abilities: Athletics 8, Health 6, Scuffling 10

Stealth Modifier: +2

Attacks: Electrical Surge +1

Special Tactic: On unmodified 6 Scuffling check, the entity targets the heart directly, doing +5 damage. 

Defenses: non-silver weapons do minimal damage, refresh 1 Health/round

Stability: +0

Note: if Carathis is taken out of the picture, Scuffling drops to 6 and it loses the special tactic.



Sunday, 25 June 2017

Quick and Dirty: Macau (Night's Black Agents)

I enjoyed the Kabul piece, so I thought I'd return to the theme and talk about a city that has fascinated me for years: Macau.

Macau (also Macao)

The first European settlement in the Far East, former Portuguese colony Macau has been an autonomous territory under China's one territory, two systems policy since 20 December 1999.

Macau is famous - or possibly notorious - as a gambler's paradise. Over 40% of its GDP comes from casinos and games of chance, and close to 70% of government tax revenue. Macau is the preeminent gambling center in the world, with its 33 casinos bringing in somewhere near $30 billion annually. Vegas, by contrast, earns closer to $10 billion annually from over 120 casinos.

Its gaming history goes back to the 1850s, when the Portuguese legalized gambling. Macau's colonial masters needed a source of revenue; its preeminence as a trading port had declined considerably since the Portuguese took over in the 1500s. Chinese gamers flocked to Macau's fantan houses, but Macau's popularity as a gaming destination didn't really take off until the 1960s when the government, always a little leery of gambling and the crime that went with it, finally embraced gaming as a source of revenue and began promoting Macau as the Monte Carlo of the East.

In the 1960s casinos were operated by a monopoly, the Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau (STDM), not unlike Monte Carlo's Societe des bains de mer de Monaco. However unlike Monaco's state-owned Societe, the STDM is owned by one family headed by Stanley Ho, or Ho Hung Sen, the 95-year-old King of Gambling. Stanley, with his financial backers Henry Fok and gambler Yip Hon, bid for Macau franchises when they were put out to public tender, and won the bid for Macau's gambling monopoly for a little under half a million dollars. Stanley Ho parlayed his stake into political power, and had an important role in the handover negotiations in the 1990s. It has also been alleged that he has links with the Kung Lok (Mutual Happiness) Triad.

In 2002 this monopoly system was broken up and Macau's casinos are now run by a handful of concession and subconcession syndicates, though the STDM still has 16 casinos of its own. Stanley Ho has made few public appearances since a fall at his home in 2009, and has fallen out with members of his family over business concerns.

In recent years Macau's economy, though still booming, hasn't been as robust as formerly. In part this is due to changes in China. Chinese anti-corruption laws are having an effect, but the larger issue is a change in tourism. Previously Macau was the preeminent destination for Chinese tourists, but with the expanding Chinese economy people have more options, and travel world-wide. This hasn't broken Macau by any means, but its gambling revenue has flattened since 2014, and the government has said it is looking for other sources of revenue.


Image sourced from Wikipedia under Creative Commons.

Macau is 60 kilometers southwest of Hong Kong. It has 41 km of coastline, and a vanishingly small land border with mainland China. It consists of the Macau Peninsula, the islands of Taipa and Coloane, and the recently constructed landfill Cotai that connects the islands.

The entirety of Macau is only 30 sq km.

There are eight parishes in total, and a significant portion of Macau's land mass is reclaimed from the ocean. The northernmost parish Nossa Senhora de Fatima, for example, which borders the Chinese city of Zuhai to the north, is made of land reclaimed in the 1960s and 70s. The Cotai Strip, where many of Macau's casinos are located, is reclaimed, as is Santo Antonio on the western portion of the peninsula.

Local currency is the MOP or Macanese pataca, but Chinese renmibi and the Hong Kong dollar is accepted everywhere.

Population

Just shy of 600,000 people, or about the size of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The median age is 39, and over 50% of the population is between the age of 25 and 50. Unemployment is very low, at about 5% for those between 15 to 24 years old, and in addition the government pays a subsidy to its citizens, amounting to a little over a month's minimum wage income. Literacy is over 95%.

The official languages are Portuguese and Chinese; only a little over 2% of the population speak English. Cantonese is by far the most wide spread language, but there's a good sampling of all the Chinese dialects as well as other regional languages such as the Philippines dialect Tagalog.  Portuguese is spoken by less than 1% of the population.

Formerly Catholic during Portuguese rule, and boasting the first Western Christian school in the far east, Macau is majority Buddhist.

Conflict

As a special administrative region Macau is overshadowed by China, but the relationship is complex.

Traditionally Macau has been a hub; goods, services and people flow to and from China via Macau. Today what this means is Macau supplies opiates, amphetamines and other narcotics to China, while at the same time stripping Chinese tourists of their cash at the casinos. Meanwhile poor Chinese flee the mainland via Macau, and often find themselves stuck in dead-end jobs cleaning, cooking and otherwise serving the rich who flock to Macau.

About a third of the population are migrants, and close to 10% live in poverty. The working poor find it all but impossible to live in modern, hyper-expensive Macau, and many have chosen to relocate to the mainland and commute to work. This leads to an odd situation where Macau natives have to move to China for economic reasons, while China's poor move to Macau, also for economic reasons.

In China, gambling is illegal. While Macau is tolerated, China sometimes lashes out. China believes gambling leads to or facilitates government corruption, particularly by local government officials who ought not to have the kind of cash Macau demands. Clearly they could only afford their gambling habits thanks to bribes or embezzlement.

These crackdowns cause a serious problem for Macau's economy, which is one of the reasons why Macau's government is traditionally very pro-Beijing. Macau is often thought of as China's filial child, while Hong Kong is considered more rebellious and wayward. Macau believes the best defense is to cause no offence.

Where Monaco, which relies on France for its external security, still has several hundred troops and police, Macau, which relies on China, has no troops of its own. It does have a police force, the Public Security Police, armed with Smith & Wesson Model 10 handguns, shotguns, MP5s and gas launchers.

China has an armed presence in Macau, the People's Liberation Army Macau Garrison, a little under 2,000 strong, about 600 of which are actually in Macau while the rest are just across the border in Zuhai. Its main base in Macau is on the Cotai Strip, among all the glittering casinos. Its soldiers tend to keep a low profile, and wear civilian clothes when off-base.

This may be part of the reason why, unlike Hong Kong, there is almost no pro-Democracy or independence movement in Macau.

Because Macau enjoys a unique relationship with China, foreign intelligence services have used it as a base point for operations. Bejing has long suspected that agencies like the CIA use US-owned casinos to tempt wealthy Chinese into foolish behavior, which the CIA then uses to blackmail them.

Triad crime is a significant concern. However as a result of the breakup of the casino monopoly, allowing foreign interests to invest in Macau, triads in the present day tend to work more cooperatively together and to spread their influence beyond Macau's borders, to China in particular. This requires diplomatic skills the triads never needed before. In the past, competition was dealt with directly. Now, in order to avoid anti-corruption purges and official displeasure, the triads adopt a softly-softly approach.

Beijing's concern about Macau corruption is not misplaced:

According to a member of the 14K Triad also interviewed for the study, most VIP-room contractors 'are triads or businessmen with a triad background ... The casino management would select the most powerful triads, based on a couple of factors including money, triad, reputation and ability to mobilize manpower.' ... VIP rooms are described in the study as 'bank-like' business enterprises. A junket must provide hotels, transport, loans and sex services. High rollers are expected to spend at least HK$500,000 per trip in a room.

That half-million dollars has to come from somewhere; bribes and embezzlement's probably the least of it.

Triads are also involved in casino security. In 2010 four men were arrested on conspiracy to commit bodily harm charges and a fifth on murder charges, as part of a retributive strike on a Macau casino employee suspected of cheating. Initially the men were supposed to break his arms and legs but, when the order came down to kill the dealer instead, one of the thugs balked and talked to the cops.

It turned out that the one who ordered the hit was a Wo Hop To triad boss, the person in charge of the casino's VIP rooms. Not only that, his company Jumbo Boom owned the junket concession; he got his both from those booking the holidays, and later from their expenditure while at the casino.

Most VIP gambling in Macau is leveraged, Reuters points out. Gamblers usually bet more than their cash on hand. This is particularly true of mainland Chinese high-rollers who, because of Beijing's strict capital  controls, aer limited to carrying the equivalent of US$5,000 in renminbi per trip when they leave China. Macau's six publicly listed casino operators lend to only a small minority of their patrons, according to company filings. This is because collection of gambling debt is illegal in China and Macau forbids casinos from writing off their bad or uncollectable debts.

Which begs the obvious question: if you can't legally collect on gambling debts in China, who do you turn to when a debtor in China refuses to pay?

This has proved a problem for US casino owners who can't or won't do business the Macau way. Either they get in bed with the triads - the only people who can collect on debts - or they don't do business at all.

Backdrops

Hac Sa Beach in Coalone, a black sand or volcanic beach. Due to erosion the government has shored up the beach with yellow sand. This is the largest natural beach in Macau, and is part of Hac Sa Bay Park. The Park includes a large barbecue area, mini golf, tennis courts, basketball and baseball fields, and there are many fast food stands if you don't care to make your own BBQ. The Beach is a popular spot for young lovers.

Mong-Ha Fort, built in the mid-19th Century to defend against Chinese attack after the First Opium War. The Fort was deactivated in the 1960s when the Portuguese military moved out, and this hilly area has since become one of Macau's green lungs. It's a public space with good views of Macau, though there isn't much left of the fort itself, and there are several walking trails. Mong Ha Hill also is home to the Lin Fung Temple, a restaurant and an art gallery.

Altira Macau Casino, formerly known as Crown Macau, opened in 2007 and boasts 216 guest rooms in its 38 floor complex. It's one of the tallest buildings in Macau, owned by a joint partnership between Hong Kong's Melco International and Australia's Crown Limited. There are 220 gaming tables, over 500 slot machines, a spa, fitness center, indoor pool, and seven different restaurants and bars. Its Yi Pavilion 5 star dining area overlooks all of Macau, and has only one table, seating up to 15. Rooms start at HK$1,500, or just a touch over US$192/night. Its website mentions its casino in the most tactful way possible, without even a picture of the gaming tables. 'Unlock a dazzling world of privileges! ... Terms and conditions apply. Participants must be 21 years or above. Gamble responsibly.' 

Three Hooks

The CIA has lost an asset. China, in another of its reprisals, arrested a half-dozen Western employees working in mainland China as publicists/junket bookers for a Macau casino, alleging that they are part of a criminal syndicate. However one of them is actually a CIA asset, though it's not clear whether the Chinese have figured this out yet. The CIA can't afford to make the snatch; if the agents do it, they can name their own price. What nobody's yet realized is that the whole thing's the brainchild of a Chinese government official who doesn't want to pay his gambling debts, and has engineered this crisis to bully the casino into backing off.

One of the People's Liberation Army non-coms enjoys a modest fortune acting as a broker for mid-ranking Chinese officials. He can arrange for pretty much anything, up to and including money laundering and lending at modest rates. As he's PLA the officials feel comfortable dealing with him, but in the grand scheme of things he's a bit player in a much larger, Triad dominated drama. Now he's provoked some very serious people, and wants out of Macau. He's willing to trade his contact list for safe passage - and he knows some very interesting people.

A would-be God of Gamblers has come from mainland China to strike it lucky. He wears red underwear, yells Deng! (eight, lucky numerology) at every turn of the card, and obeys all of the folklore rules except one: he deliberately cultivates bad feng shui. This is because he's actually a necromantic corpse, revived by a Jin-Gui who can't resist Macau's tables but who dares not come down to play in person. The Jin-Gui stays in the gambler's room; he says 'she's' his hot date, but you can't have sex before you play - it would drain the luck right out of him. The Jin-Gui controls the corpse telepathically and gets its thrills second-hand, but if anyone gets a good look at its dead pawn in an octagonal mirror, the truth will be revealed.

Thrilling Elements

These are unique to Macau:
  • Street vendors serving up Macau's signature chee par pau, or pork bun; hungry customers cluster, and the delicious smells tempt the most jaded palate.
  • Taipa, formerly a fishing village, now a laid-back tangle of shops and restaurants. Easy to get lost in its maze of streets.
  • A flock of scooters breeze past, narrowly missing someone's expensive limo.
  • Tourists cluster round the ruins of St Paul in the historical district, snapping photos.
  • Glittering casinos with all the fakery and glamor you'd expect of a high profile resort, from Vegas-style Venetian mashups to T-Rex displays.
  • Security guards on call at all times, ensuring that the gaming rooms are kept private; only guests of the hotel and gamblers allowed in.
  • The Macau-Hong Kong Turbo Jet ferry shooting back and forth from the two former colonies, packed with tourists and workers.
  • Night scene with neon signs and lights aplenty, dazzling the eye and screaming for attention: shop here, gamble here, come here and spend!
  • Street signs on every corner, in both Chinese and Portuguese.
  • Yet another extravagant fireworks display or huge event at one or more of the casinos.
  • Police on an anti-subversion raid forcibly clear out a house or business, hauling away the occupants for vigorous interrogation.
  • Hotel staff fawn over a visiting Chinese high-roller.
  • Long queues, everywhere, for everything. Crowds everywhere, particularly on weekends and holidays.

Enjoy!


Sunday, 18 June 2017

Needles: The Huiquing's Cargo

A short while back I promised that as part of the Needles Kickstarter I'd publish a short scenario here, if certain conditions were met.

So here we are!

The Needles rules stipulate a scenario must not go over 2,500 words. In this instance the word count is 2,495.

CoC 7e rules are used throughout.

**

The Huiquing is a 1980s build container ship, 42 meters long by 8 meters wide, allegedly constructed in Shanghai and nominally registered in China, though anyone following up on that registry will discover just how flimsy that record is. The Huiquing exists on the shipping registry of several different flag of convenience nations - Panama, North Korea, Lebanon - always under a different name and with a different paint job, but a dedicated investigator can track it down through the years, back to its actual port of origin, South Korea.

It was built there in 1986 and registered under the name Man Seong, and it had a ten year career carrying cargo to and from Australia before it was captured by pirates in winter 1996. Its captors, a criminal ring based in the Philippines, kept it for about two years before passing it on to another gang, and it's had just shy of half a dozen owners since 1996.

Each group used it as a cheap transport, ferrying off-the-books cargo and occasionally human traffic between countries in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the West Coast of the United States. Whenever the authorities in a particular jurisdiction got to close it changed its name, paint job and often owner, and resumed trade as if nothing had happened.

In 2002 a Malaysia-based human trafficking group was using it - then called Bunga Kenek - to transport cargo with a sideline in soon-to-be sex workers, when it was taken by a gang based in China. The takeover was very informal; surviving crew and passengers were herded into the ship's refrigeration unit and left to suffocate. The Chinese group then repainted it, named it Huiquing, and used it to smuggle cut-rate Chinese goods to Long Beach, California.

After a while the Coast Guard, Homeland Security and Department of Transportation (Maritime Administration, MARAD) had enough information between them to make life difficult for the Triad that operated the Huiquing, so the ship suffered an unfortunate accident off the coast of California. Lost with all hands, the Huiquing sank leaving behind only an inflated insurance claim and lots of confusing paperwork.

That would have been the end of it, had not the Huiquing's carcass - stripped bare of its oh-so-valuable cargo - survived scuttling, and ended up aground not far from Cape Disappointment, Washington State. Now it's the center of a legal battle between various State and Federal authorities as to who has responsibility for removing it.

This battle became all the more contentious when the bodies were found in the refrigerated compartment, but tracing their deaths to the criminals responsible proved impossible and the corpses ended up in a Potter's Field.

Unfortunately that wasn't the end of it. One of the dead was a Daughter of the Old One Atlach-Nacha, the Great Spider, He Who Binds the World. These unfortunate women are 'chosen' to become the Old One's companions, and marked by the spider's bite. After a time they transform into a monstrous spider, dwelling for a brief while in the world of men before making the long journey into Dream, and Atlach-Nacha.

The Malaysian group that assisted in her creation was taking her to Los Angeles, where she would be worshipped as a God by cultists before being transformed into a God's companion. However her death changed all that, and now the Huiquing traps her soul, while her body rots.

This is causing many unusual side effects, but the most obvious, and the one that will attract the investigators, is a new breed of subsocial or cooperative spider, which has established a sizeable colony at the Potter's Field where the bodies are buried. This heretofore unknown species causes a scientific stir, but Cthulhu Mythos or Hard Occult links the markings on the spiders' bodies to the Old One. The spiders' unusual markings have been widely reported in the media, and can be found online without a check.

The spiders gather in large groups, creating enormous complex webs that cover the entire cemetery. They show no interest in people who invade their territory, and though they bite if disturbed their bite is harmless. However pushing through the colony is an eerie experience, and costs 0/1D2 SAN.

The center of this unusual outbreak can be traced to the grave where the trafficked woman from the Huiquing is buried.

Possible avenues of investigation include:
  • Tracing the Huiquing's history.
  • Investigating media reports concerning the Huiquing's wreck.
  • Obtaining autopsy records or speaking with the people who work at the cemetery.
  • Boarding the remains of the Huiquing.
Tracing the Huiquing requires Hard Law, several Languages and patience, and will take weeks. However at the end of that time the investigators will have a clear picture as to what happened to her, and will know that the Malaysian group which used her from 2000 to 2002 is known to work closely with Mythos related cults across the Pacific and on the West Coast. The investigators will also discover from notes taken by law enforcement surveillance that the group supposedly lost 'an idol of supreme value' in 2002, at about the time the Huiquing was captured. 

If the investigators make a Law check, but not Hard, then they get all the information as above but attract the attention of the cult, which sends its killers to deal with the investigators; see below.

Investigating media reports requires Library Use and Hard Computer Use. Library Use gets the information; the Hard Computer Use is to see whether or not the investigators realize that their internet searches have infected their computers with a very specialized virus. With a successful Computer Use check the investigators deal with the virus before it does harm; without it, the Malaysian cult tracks them down and sends killers to deal with them, as above.

Media reports show that the Huiquing was wrecked as part of an insurance fraud, and the Federal Government is pursuing the Huiquing's owners through the courts. However this is likely to take several years and may never be resolved, since there are complicated issues of international law at stake. Blogs and local feeds published at the same time indicate a disquieting pattern of nightmares and disturbances which began after the ship beached. People living near the spot where it beached suffer disturbing dreams, at least one person has gone insane, and a workplace shooting has been blamed in part on stress caused by lack of sleep, traceable to what's described in the blogs as the 'Doom Ship effect.'

Some of the blogs say that relief can be had through a treatment offered by 'Doctor' Michael Chin and his BioWellness device, a beam ray machine patterned on the pseudoscientific cancer cure offered by notorious quack Royal Rife back in the 1930s. The Doctor is anything but, and the whole thing's a scam. However Chin takes extensive notes concerning his patients, their sleep cycles, dreams, all of which can provide useful information to the investigators. Obtaining this data means dealing with Chin; a hefty bribe would do it, or breaking and entering.  Studying Chin's notes takes a week, costs 1D4 SAN, and confers +1/+2 Mythos, Mythos Rating 8, no spells.

Obtaining autopsy reports requires law enforcement contacts or possibly Hard Computer Use if the investigators decide to hack a database. The reports are very slender, and say only that the decedents died of suffocation, that an accurate date of death could not be determined but is tentatively put at late 2002, and that the remains indicate twelve people, eight males and four females, died in the refrigeration unit. There are notes on one file, Jane Doe 02.3, that indicate an 'unusual deformation of the skeletal structure,' but the notes are inconclusive.

The cemetery staff have all suffered disturbing dreams, repeatedly. Several are well on their way to permanent insanity, and all have a spider obsession. They will not willingly let the spider colony be harmed. Psychology indicates an outside influence, slowly dominating each individual; Cthulhu Mythos notes that each of them refers to Dreamlands imagery and creatures, particularly Leng Spiders, more than once. Leng Spiders, like the Daughters, have an extensive history with Atlach-Nacha.

Obtaining a legal exhumation will be impossible without some form of formal credentials and a court order. Illegal exhumation is relatively simple, as the cemetery hasn't got the strongest security. Stealth checks get a Bonus die. However if the infiltration fails then someone - cemetery staff or a passer-by - calls the State Police, who will throw the book at any captured and arrested investigator.

A Medicine check on the exhumed remains shows the decedent was undergoing some kind of mutation event when she died. Ultimately there isn't enough left to make an informed diagnosis, but her spine was beginning to warp and her limbs, particularly her legs, elongate at the time of death. The skull is also significantly deformed, which the autopsy passes off as normal aftereffect of blunt force trauma, but which Cthulhu Mythos indicates is the first sign of transformation into a spidery Daughter of Atlach-Nacha.

Investigators who stay in the area for a prolonged period - more than two or three days - begin suffering disturbed dreams, like many other people in the local area. This is especially likely if the investigator has high POW or has visited the Dreamlands before.

Images include:
  • Wandering aboard a ship crewed by the decayed dead. The ship changes from moment to moment; at times it is a modern cargo vessel, while in the next moment it seems to be a ghostly sailing ship.
  • A woman with a spider living in her head, that directs her every move.
  • A vast and fathomless chasm, bridged by thin spider webs.
  • A human skeleton with spider limbs crawls across the deck of an abandoned container ship.
Each dream costs 0/1D2 SAN. Fumbling a SAN check means the dreamer loses 1D6 SAN, but gains 1 point Cthulhu Mythos for every 2 SAN lost.

The dreams are growing in intensity, as Psychology on a sufferer can determine. This information, in combination with Cthulhu Mythos or Hard Occult, allows the investigator to work out that the increase in dream intensity coincides with what significant dates in the Dreamlands, and that the dreams are following what would ordinarily be considered a medical astrology or iatromathematical pattern.

Medical astrology states that various parts of the body and diseases are associated with astrological bodies, and that a disease can be treated or identified through astrological means. In the Dreamlands this is actually true, and when certain Dreamlands stars are in alignment physical effects result. In this case the Daughter is being stimulated by Dreamlands astrological events, and eventually this will result in what's left of her passing over from the Waking World to the Dreamlands.

Finally the investigators can board the Huiquing. The remains of the ship are still under Federal lockdown, but what this means in practice is the Coast Guard occasionally checks in to make sure it's still there. No Federal or local authority is tasked with looking after it. No Stealth rolls required to board, but if the investigators do this during the day a Coast Guard ship will turn up in a couple hours to turf them off the derelict.

The Huiquing is solidly wedged on shallow rocks within sight of Cape Disappointment State Park. It's been stripped of valuables and its fuel tanks have been drained, but it still poses a significant environmental risk, and when it first wrecked protest groups gathered to insist it be properly removed. However the state lacks the money, and the owners can't be traced, so for the moment it stays where it is. After a month or so of this the protesters got bored and moved on. Now it's mostly ignored, except by visitors to the park who complain about it and leave unpleasant comments on TripAdvisor.

The strange spiders seen at the cemetery are here in force. The refrigerated compartment in particular is infested with them, and judging by the rat carcasses that can be found dotted in their nests these spiders are more dangerous than the ones on shore. If provoked these creatures swarm over their target for 2D6 minutes, causing 1D4 damage per minute. 0/1D3SAN to witness the spider swarm.

Even without the swarm, spider bites are likely. LUCK check to avoid being bitten; those who are need to make a SAN check. Failing the SAN check incurs no SAN penalty; instead, the affected's consciousness slips between the Waking World and the Dreamlands, seeing the Huiquing one moment and a wrecked sailing vessel under alien skies the next. Those who are affected can also talk to the Daughter, whereas those who are not cannot.

The Daughter is still here aboard the Huiquing, but exists only as a shadow in the Waking World. In this form she can attack, but not communicate. In the Dreamlands she can communicate, which means she can be reasoned with. Investigators who talk her down - perhaps by Persuading her that she really is dead, and can go on to her father in darkness - can get her to retreat into the Dreamlands permanently, which ends the insect infestation and the nightmares. Otherwise she can only be dealt with in combat.

If the Daughter is not dealt with then eventually the Dreamlands astrological signs come into alignment, and she is forced to retreat to Atlach-Nacha. In the Waking World this is represented by a terrible storm that sweeps the wreckage of the Huiquing out to sea. It is accompanied by awful nightmares that plague all dreamers within 20 miles, inflicting SAN losses of 1/1D8. This drives several people indefinitely insane, and the cemetery workers, who suffer the worst effects, commit ritual suicide.

A complete win assumes the Daughter is permanently dealt with, and is worth 1D8 SAN. A loss assumes the storm occurs, people go insane, and the cemetery workers die. This incurs a 1D10 SAN penalty.  

Daughter of Atlach-Nacha (Shadow Form)

INT 75 POW 90

Attack: POW vs POW, where success means the Daughter drains 3D10 POW from the victim and failure means the Daughter loses 2D10 POW.

Armor: cannot be harmed by conventional or magical weapons, can only be defeated in POW vs POW combat.

Appearance: half-human, half-spider hybrid, only seen in shadow.

SAN loss: 1D8 

Daughter of Atlach-Nacha (Dreamlands Form)

STR 115 CON 95 SIZ 95 INT 75 POW 90 DEX 75 HP19

Attack: Bite 75%, damage 1D10 plus Poison, CON test or target is paralyzed for 1D6 hours, in which time the Daughter slowly devours the target's brains if given the opportunity.

Armor: 5 point shell.

Spells: Contact and Call Atlach-Nacha.

Cult Killers

Number: P+2, where P = number of investigators.

Nationality: A mix of Malay, Chinese and Filipino
STR 75            CON 55           SIZ 55              INT 60            POW 65          DEX 70          
APP 50            SAN 00            EDU 65           Luck 45           HP 11              Age: 19 to 25
Move: 8
Build: 1
Damage Bonus: ­+1d4
Education: High School and up.
Weapon:         Fighting (Brawling) 60%. Stiletto 1D6+DB
Firearms (Handgun) 55%, Silenced .32 pistol, 1D8.
Skills: Own Language  65%, Other Language (English) 40%, Credit Rating 10%, Dodge 45%, Listen 30%, Spot Hidden 30%, Stealth 30% 
Defenses: None above base
Spells: None
Note: Each of these has an extensive criminal record in his or her own country, and some appear on terrorist watch lists.  

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Quick and Dirty: Kabul (Night's Black Agents)

Inspired by a New York Times article, Urban Sprawl Up Mountainsides, With Splashes of Color, by Fahim Abed and Mujib Mashal.

This one's of obvious use to Night's Black Agents Directors, but may also appeal to Esoterrorist types, modern day Cthulhu Keepers, Delta Green and similar.

Kabul

This three thousand year old city, heart of the old Mughal Empire, is the capital of Afghanistan and epicenter of civil war in the 1990s, which ended with the capture of Kabul by hardline Pakistani-funded Taliban fighters in 1996.

However when terrorists took down the World Trade Center in 2001, one of the retaliatory actions taken by the US and its allies was the support, militarily and financially, of anti-Taliban forces, as the Taliban sheltered Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda figurehead and mastermind of the attack. Bin Laden exercised complete control over Kabul, and the nearby city Jalalabad.

By November 2001 Kabul had fallen to the Northern Alliance,  and in 2004 Hamid Karzai, leader of the transitional government and winner of the 2004 elections, was sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan at a ceremony held in Kabul. Bin Laden hid in Pakistan and was eventually killed in 2011. 

'The city lies almost in the center of a semicircular chain of hills,' wrote William Taylor, Troop Sergeant-Major of the Forth Light Dragoons in Scenes and Adventures in Afghanistan, 1842. 'The valley in which it is situated being watered by a noble river which pursues a serpentine and picturesque route through it, and divides the town in nearly equal parts.' That became a problem in the 1990s, when the mujahideen used those surrounding heights as launchpads for its bombardment, devastating Kabul. The city was all but destroyed, power and water completely cut, and Kabul remained in a semi-ruined state for the rest of the decade. Only now has it begun to rebuild, in a haphazard and ramshackle fashion, but its need for housing and utilities is immediate and growing.

Population

Though estimates in 2015 put Kabul's population at a little over 3.6 million, there can be little doubt that those 2015 estimates are well out of date; 5 million would be closer to the mark.

This makes Kabul larger than any American city except New York, and Kabul is growing exponentially every month. Even using the 3.6 million figure, Kabul would still be about as large as Los Angeles, California, give or take a couple hundred thousand.

Over 60% of the population is under the age of 24, and living standards are among the lowest in the world, with unemployment hovering at the 35% mark.

Conflict

Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, and production has held steady since Karzai's ascent to power. Money laundering through informal financial networks is a significant part of the economy, and thanks to skyrocketing hashish and opium production there's a growing local narcotic addiction problem.

Alongside the river of narcotics cash is an almost equally large torrent of foreign aid and US government money. Billions have been spent over the years on infrastructure projects and contractor fees, with knock-on inflationary effects felt throughout the local economy.

One symptom of this money flood is the poppy palace, architectural monstrosities with 50 or 60 rooms, built for the expat (read: military contractor) market, for high-ranking government officials, and for narco-traffickers.

'Narco-villas feature grand entrances, byzantine floor plans, and huge, cavernous hallways,' writes Tom Freston for GQ. 'Everything inside is concrete and marble. There is very little wood trim, and the chandeliers and fixtures could be right out of a Columbian drug lord's HQ. They say you can tell a lot about a home by the way it smells. These smelled unhealthy; cold and mouldy ... The most striking thing about these buildings is the vulgar detailing: the painted Greek columns, the mirrored fireplaces, the Bavarian Alpine murals ... Architecture here was traditionally low-key and adaptive to the environment: cool in summer, warm in winter. These were just the reverse. And the design influences are quite foreign, drawing not from tradition but from movies that glamorize excess.'  

In recent years poppy palaces have fallen out of favor. There aren't as many fat military contracts, or government bigwigs willing to spend a fortune on rent. It doesn't help that American media alerted people to the 'ghost soldier' phenomenon, where fake soldiers were on the books as 'living' in empty poppy palaces so the owner could claim government rent money.

Taliban, ISIS and other terrorist factions operate openly within Afghanistan. These groups routinely attack civilian targets with little regard for human life; on January 12, 2017, for example, a suicide bomber killed 30 and wounded 70 in an attack on a mosque.

Kidnappings on the streets of Kabul are not uncommon. Westerners have been snatched by various groups, sometimes for ransom, often for political purposes - as in publicized execution. Locals are taken for ransom, though often the kidnap victims are not returned even if the ransom is paid.

Even US Embassy personnel are advised against travelling to any and all locations in Kabul except the Embassy and other US government facilities. Though thousands of Western contractors and diplomats live in Kabul, they do so behind thick blast-resistant walls and are advised to travel with a bodyguard at all times. The road to and from the airport has been so frequently targeted that British Embassy officials, at time of writing, travel to and from the airport by helicopter instead.

This is a stark contrast from the early days of Karzai's rein in Kabul, when an assortment of rebels, do-gooders, misfits and journalists descended like a swarm of muddle-headed Western locusts to do whatever it is muddle-headed Western locusts do when they want to do good. In the words of Guardian correspondent Sune Engel Ramussen, 'If the expat bubble in Kabul in the 00s was like a pool scene from Boogie Nights, Kabul in 2016 is more like Panic Room.'

All this is before even considering the domestic strife that has gripped Afghanistan since the 1970s: town vs country, secularism vs Islam, Tajiks vs Pashtuns. The history of 20th and 21st century Afghanistan is warfare, ignited initially by conflict between the Soviets and the US back in the dying days of the reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah, and never since quenched.

Backdrops

Bala Hissar, a 5th century fortress and landmark. It sits to the south of the city center, and its walls sweep down the mountain ridge to the river. It featured in the First and Second Afghan Wars in the Victorian Era, and was the focal point of conflict throughout the 1990s. Today an Afghan army unit is stationed there, and the site is surrounded by tanks and other war detritus.

The Gardens of Babur, or Bagh-e Babur, a historic park and location of the tomb of the first Moghul emperor. It was traditional for Moghul rulers to design parks where, in the fullness of time, they would be buried. These Gardens are the last resting place of Babur, conqueror of the Punjab and victor of the Battle of Khanwa, one of the earliest battles in modern India.

Kabul City Center, the city's first modern mall, nine stories tall, part of the Safi Landmark Hotel. Its doors are protected by metal detectors and its glass windows are explosive resistant. A failed suicide bombing took place there in 2011; the two low-paid security guards who stopped the bombing, at the cost of their own lives, were hailed as heroes. The bomb went off inside the protected security screening vestibule, which is why it did so little damage to the mall or its patrons. 

Three Hooks

A Pakistani criminal group smuggles conflict antiquities from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and from there to the antique stores and collectors of Europe. Poor Afghan villagers often go out with pick and shovel to dig up whatever they can find, and Afghanistan is rich in artefacts. This time the villagers have unearthed more than they can handle, but the Pakistani smugglers will not be put off. The agents realize the villagers have something very useful - a new Bane item perhaps, or some kind of artefact important to the Conspiracy - but they'll have to silence the Pakistanis if they want to take possession.

A local Network contact or vital NPC is kidnapped by gangsters and held for ransom. The kidnappers think that, because the NPC associates with foreigners, the foreigners will pay handsomely to get the NPC back. Or, if the agents have high Heat or are obviously spies, the kidnappers take him for political reasons, calling the NPC a spy for the West. Whether or not the kidnappers are correct the Conspiracy has its boots on the ground as well, and may intervene if it thinks that getting the NPC for itself will upset the agents' plans.

Local contractors, while demolishing a poppy palace, claim to have found papers which they say are very valuable. Certainly Academi, the military contactor formerly known as Blackwater, seems to be taking an interest, and one very nervous Academi bigwig would pay almost any price to get them back. But what could these documents possibly be - and why is the CIA also keen to get them?

Thrilling Elements

As Middle Eastern Bazaar, with the following elements unique to Kabul:
  • Narrow, poorly maintained roads that can easily be blocked at any time.
  • Mosque blaring out anti-Western propaganda from its loudspeakers.
  • A group of well-protected Westerners, nervously scuttling from one safe zone to another.
  • Yet another narco-palace in the process of being pulled down, to make way for a more modest housing development. Expensive fixtures and fittings are being stripped out and dumped.
  • A cafĂ©, ice cream parlor, gym or similar, blaring out Western music and filled with people.
  • Street demonstration blocks the road, forcing traffic down even narrower side streets.
  • A nearby television set shows a woman journalist in full hijab discussing women's rights.
  • An overwhelming stench emanates from a nearby sewer, the lines having broken weeks before.
  • An old man sat at his desk on the corner advertises his services: love letters written on request.
  • Soldiers - or possibly kidnappers in soldiers' uniforms - patrol the streets.