Thursday, 30 October 2014

Rock Me Like a Hurricane (Trail of Cthulhu, Call of Cthulhu, All Flesh Must Be Eaten)

I've been out of action for over a week thanks to Hurricane Gonzalo, which hit us two weekends ago now. We lost power fairly quickly, but had it back within 24 hours. Telecommunication was more of a problem, as the pole went down during the storm and hasn't yet been replaced. We have a temp line coming in, but the least bit of bad weather will knock that out.

It occurs to me that a relatively small number of people have experienced a hurricane directly, and I thought I'd go over the sequence of events as they occur, with a discussion of what it might mean for a gaming group.

A hurricane is basically a high intensity tropical storm, with sustained winds of over 74 mph; a hurricane is categorized by the intensity of its winds, from 1 to 5. Gonzalo was a Cat 4 - sustained winds of over 130 mph - until it hit us, when it became a Cat 3, with something like 111 mph winds.

In the modern era, here's usually plenty of warning of a hurricane's approach. With Gonzalo, we first knew about it almost a week prior, when it was a tropical depression brewing down in the Caribbean. That gives you time to prepare, which in Bermuda usually means take in all the lawn furniture, move the boat - if you have one - to a safe anchorage in the lee of the projected storm winds, close up all the windows and put up shutters or plywood if need be, and lay in plenty of booze to keep you entertained.

Power's almost certain to go out, so you'll want candles or some other light source. I find candles slightly better than electric light sources, inasmuch as candles don't need to be recharged or use batteries. You don't know how long it will be before the lights come back on again, so you don't want to rely exclusively on a light source that consumes a lot of power or fuel. This also means you're likely to lose frozen food, so the day before the hit is the time to cook as much as possible. Stew's just as good cold as it is hot, after all, and bread or cakes will keep for a while. Expect to lose anything in the freezer or fridge. Lay in plenty of water, and run the taps as much as you can, filling buckets. Once the power goes, the only water you'll have to drink or cook with is the water you saved beforehand.

Briefly on the subject of cooking: the house I'm in uses gas, but a lot of people have switched to electric. That means you'll have no power to cook. There have been cases where people bring their BBQs inside the house to make burgers or what have you. That is a remarkably poor idea - almost Darwin Award worthy - but high risk of death by stupidity has never stopped anyone yet.

The storm will be making its presence felt for hours, if not days, before the hit, with cloudy skies and high winds. When it actually does hit, the chief difference you'll notice is in the intensity of the winds and the darkening sky. By that point you need to be indoors, in a solid structure. We build in stone here, nice thick walls, and most of our structures are low-lying. It's rare to see a building with more than one storey, and we seldom go in for large windows or walls of glass. This is why we seldom see catastrophic property damage here; no collapsed houses, and devastation is usually limited to trees and telephone poles. Bear in mind, Cat 3 is the same velocity as Katrina, which did such terrible damage to New Orleans. Historically there have been very few hurricane deaths here, and none during Gonzalo, though when it blew across the ocean and hit the UK it killed three people. However if you look at the cause of death and injury in the UK, it seems the majority were avoidable if only the victims had taken the storm seriously. All the dead were out and about, walking or driving somewhere; one man was repairing his van in 108mph winds. This is something people down here would never do. 

The duration of the initial hit will probably be several hours, but there's usually no way to be certain. Hurricane behavior is, at best, erratic. However one phenomenon that is well known but which still takes people by surprise is the eye of the storm. This circular phenomena at the heart of the hurricane is marked by unnatural calm. All activity seems to have come to a complete stop, and were you to go outside and light a candle, you probably wouldn't see the flame flicker in the slightest as there's no breeze to trouble it. This is actually when the storm is at its most dangerous, because the calm lures people into a false sense of security. This is when many leave the safety of their homes and go out to have a look at the damage, even travel down to see their neighbors or check on the boat. However the eye is surrounded by a ring of winds called the eyewall, and this is where the storm is at its most intense. So long as you're in the eye itself, no problem, but the eye is constantly moving and you can never be sure when the eye will pass over and plunge you into the eyewall. If that happens when you're outside, you're probably dead; that, or very, very lucky to be alive. Gonzalo's eye lasted for somewhere between half to three quarters of an hour, and then the hurricane picked up again and hung on for a further four hours or so. It wasn't until one or two in the morning that the storm winds finally began to die away, as Gonzalo moved off shore.

The immediate aftermath of the storm is usually marked by good weather. In our case it's been very sunny, and though the first day or so was still quite humid, since Gonzalo the temperature has dropped significantly.

Clean-up is a top priority. As you can imagine, downed trees and telephone poles need to be cleared as soon as possible, so the roads can be used, and there's often a significant period where, thanks to power outages or damage, traffic signals are out. Airport clearance is also a priority, and after Gonzalo flights were going to and from a day or so after the hurricane hit. As I write this, there's still plenty of mess out there, but mess is all it is; you can drive wherever you want, and the airport's at capacity again.  

Now, that's what happens to us here in Bermuda. Hurricanes are something we know about and expect; they turn up once every few years, do some damage, and go away again. We're relatively safe, because we know what to do, and we've built out of stone because we recognize the damage that a hurricane can do to anything built out of anything less robust. It helped a great deal that, for many years, we could quarry limestone here rather than get supplies from overseas.

In other jurisdictions they do more damage, often for environmental or architectural reasons. When Georges, a Cat 2, hit Haiti in 1998, it killed 400 people and left over a hundred thousand homeless, largely because extensive deforestation created an environment in which mudslides were likely after heavy rain. In 1935 Jérémie - so called because that town was devastated - claimed more than 2,000 Haitian lives, most of whom were peasants living in wooden houses, often in river valleys prone to flooding. Florida's 1920 property boom was abruptly halted by the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 which plunged the state into an early economic Depression, just before the 1929 Great Depression kicked off. Again, few buildings in Miami at that time were built to withstand hurricane force winds. There were no building codes back then; Miami soon invented some, and became the first city in the US to implement a city-wide building code. Even now, hurricane mitigation construction is still a bit of an arcane science in Florida, which seems incredible when you consider how often the state is hit by storms.

From an RPG perspective, a hurricane is a great way to change the landscape of the scenario. Do your players rely on electronic communications and the internet? Tough; it's gone now. No knowing when it's coming back. For the next few hours, driving anywhere or even leaving the house you're in is impossible. The players are pinned in place, helpless. There's no calling the authorities now, no hope of a rescue. If you, as Keeper, want to deliver a short, sharp shock, now's the time. It doesn't have to stop there, of course; hurricane clean-up usually takes weeks, and the aftereffects can be felt for months. Suppose the storm uncovers something best left hidden? Maybe a predator that would normally have kept itself hidden now has to change its habits after the destruction of its hunting ground, or a long-forgotten temple or tomb is discovered during the clean-up.

To my mind this best suits a Trail or Call of Cthulhu one-shot, perhaps one in which a disparate group of strangers find themselves trapped for the night, with no way out. But if you were to play with the concept it might also make a good All Flesh Must Be Eaten kick-off. There was an interesting episode of Law & Order that assumed an anthrax outbreak had occurred after flooding in New Orleans wiped out some experimental laboratories. Suppose a similar incident released the zombie virus, and now your hurricane clean-up team has to deal not just with flooded out families and disaster relief, but also the walking dead? Imagine how difficult it would be to contain an outbreak like that.

All Flesh has a fun mechanic called Spreading the Love, which basically describes how the zombie virus infects people, creating more zombies. What if, in this instance that the prospective zombie has to be immersed, maybe even drowned, in the same tainted water that created the first batch? Going further, what if this encourages the creation of a special zombie type, whose only function is to carry this tainted water in its own bloated belly?

That's it for me, for now. Talk soon!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Fiction Corner: Behind You

I'm in the middle of a writing seminar led by sci fi author Tobias Buckell, and one of the assignments is to complete a short story. It's due in about eight days. I'm enjoying the process so far, and may well submit this one for publication at some point. I thought you might like to see the first five hundred words, just to get an idea of the process. The story's set in contemporary London, and the working title is Behind You. Enjoy!


The late evening tide of humanity washes past the Nando’s, which replaced the BBQ Hut, which replaced the Smoothie place, flowing towards the escalators, and Jen rides the tide, with only the faintest hint of Him at the back of her mind.
The escalator is broken - again - so Jen and the rest of the evening crowd struggle up the way a cruel God intended. The woman in front of Jen has a pull-case, and lacks the upper body strength to haul it easily upward. Jen bangs her ankle against it.
"Sorry," Jen says, but doesn’t feel.
No reply. The other woman’s lost in the great Canary Wharf shuffle, one more in the mix, going home.
Jen gets to the top and sees a tattered Metro, left behind by an earlier commuter, beckoning her from its hiding pace stuffed at the top of the escalator. She grabs it, hiding her face behind it, pretending to care about a Sudoku that someone else had already finished.
She glances at the board. Ten minutes till the next DLR train. Ten long, soul-sucking minutes.
The Sudoku is in pen, and whoever it was got it wrong.
The cartoon is one she'd seen before, but she idly looks at it again, begging for distraction, when the hairs on the back of her neck begin standing up. She shifts from foot to foot.
He is looking at her.
There’s no particular He, at least not that she can make out, but there’s no mistaking the feeling. The greasy eyes-on, the sensation of cold, slimy wetness. It’s one of the Hes. Which one?
Fat one, thin one, short one, tall? Some of them she knew from work, has seen in corridors, been in meetings with. None of them she could put a name to. The platform’s full of people. He could be any one of them.
Her pocket buzzes, and her heart sinks. A text. She fumbles in her pocket for the new phone, almost drops it, then angrily swipes through until she finds the screen she wants. It’s Simon. Of course it’s Simon. It wasn’t going to be anyone else.
Not after last weekend, she thinks, and texts back:
How do you tell someone you've met someone else? Jan hated it, hated the lies that became bigger lies, but the alternative was to look him in the eye and say ... what, exactly? Not boyfriend material? I like you, I just don't fancy you?
The hairs on the back of her neck are still up and twitching. The other He is looking at her.
"Train approaching. Mind The Gap."
The sudden rush to board, the frantic quest for seats followed by the equally frantic search for somewhere to stand. Jan found herself standing at the front of the car, looking into the rear of the next car, just as full as this one. Bored commuters packed in together, staring sightlessly at London, too clamped together to read a Metro.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of London: Ned Kelly's Skull

This post is inspired by a recent article concerning the fate of Australian bandit and folk hero Edward 'Ned' Kelly. I'm not going to recount Kelly's biography here - that's what Wikipedia's for - but, in brief, Kelly, after several minor brushes with the law, escalated to murdering policemen sent to arrest him, and started robbing banks. Their most memorable, and final, encounter was at the small town of Glenrowan, near Victoria, where Kelly and his friends, dressed in bullet-repelling armor, captured the entire town, thinking that police were due to arrive by train and that, if the gang acted quickly, they could derail that train. The pursuers were warned by a constable named Curnow before they reached the ambush point, and surrounded the gang at Mrs Jones' hotel, where Kelly and his men lay in wait along with most of the captured townsfolk. The resultant siege was bloody and violent, eventually ending when the hotel burnt down, but Kelly was taken hours before that. He'd been shot several times in the lower body, including once in the groin, but his armor protected his upper body and head. Kelly was hanged on November 11th, 1880.

Though the authorities tried to deny it, Kelly's body was taken for dissection, and his skull allegedly was given to phrenologists to examine, before being returned to the police who used it as a paperweight. The bodies of Kelly and his associates were exhumed in 1929 when building works took place at the gaol, and a skull alleged to be Kelly's was retrieved. However it's since been shown that the 1929 skull did not, in fact, belong to Kelly, which means it must have gone missing some time before. Nowadays there are several people who claim to have it, including a self-proclaimed witch. It might have been carried off by phrenologists, or it might have been buried somewhere else. Interestingly, the skull that was recovered in 1929 - and stolen in the 1970s, only to be returned in 2009 - probably belongs to Frederick Bailey Deeming, once thought to be a likely Jack the Ripper candidate.

From a Bookhounds perspective, there are at least three contemporary books that might turn up in London:

Sadlier, John, Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer, (1913)
Kenneally, J. J. The Inner History of the Kelly Gang, (1929)
Hare, Francis Augustus, The Last of the Bushrangers: An account of the capture of the Kelly Gang (1894)

In addition to these books there would have been scores of Kelly artifacts, from photographs to bits of armor and guns. Many of these - like the revolver belonging to one of Kelly's early targets, constable Fitzpatrick, which sold for $70,000 at auction in 2007 - are probably fakes.

With all that in mind, consider the following Trail (Tale) of Terror:

A bottom-feeding Book Scout, David / Dolores Veles, is working on behalf of an as yet unknown client, and is making a nuisance of himself. Veles is after Kelly memorabilia of any sort, but is particularly interested in three books, each of them ex libris Francis Brevor, an occultist and self-proclaimed Satanist who committed suicide in 1930. According to Veles, Brevor had copies of Sadlier, Kenneally and Hare's works, as well as a mysterious 'fourth item' which Veles is very reluctant to describe, but for which Veles is prepared to pay an astronomical sum. The fourth item, kept in a special oak box, is Ned Kelly's skull, which Brevor supposedly took from a phrenologist enemy in 1896. Nobody knows where the fourth item is, though Veles suspects that annotations in the three books from Brevor's library might hold the key.

1. Veles is working on behalf of a particularly ghoulish client, who wants to grind Kelly's skull to powder and ingest it, in a potion of his own concoction. He thinks he will consume Kelly's essence that way, gaining special powers as a result. However the skull, it transpires, isn't Kelly's at all, and the client will be most upset at this deception. The client won't believe Veles when he protests he knows nothing about the fraud, and he probably won't believe the protagonists either.

2. The skull was brought out to London by a phrenologist who believed he was actually stealing Deeming's remains. He intended to use the skull as part of a ritual to evoke Jack the Ripper, which spirit he intended to use as part of a long-running scheme to reopen the Eye of Byatis (see further Whitechapel Black Letter, in the main book). When he discovered the skull was actually Kelly's he was most upset, and sold it to Brevor, an expatriate Australian for whom it had sentimental value. The problem is, the phrenologist's botched Byatis ritual has inadvertently linked Kelly's ghost to the Eye, causing the skull to be a kind of focal point, leeching London's malignant spirit and causing whoever might be its current owner no end of trouble. Veles' client has heard of this Byatis artifact and thinks it can help him in his own studies, but nothing could be further from the truth, as Kelly's twisted ghost will be only too happy to demonstrate. 

3. Veles is actually working for Brevor, who's been dead for years. Except not really; Brevor faked his death to escape immolation at the hands of a particularly powerful rival. Now Brevor thinks he has a chance to revenge himself against his enemy and lure him into a trap. But first, the bait: Kelly's skull, which Brevor claimed, untruthfully, had special powers. With Veles out there spreading rumors and buying up Kelly artifacts, Brevor thinks it's only a matter of time before his rival shows up in person, eager to get that skull. Then the fun will begin! Of course, some innocent Bookhounds might get caught in the crossfire, but who cares about them?

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Night's Black Agents: Chilling Locales pt2

Often as Director you may find yourself stumped by one question: where does this scene take place? You need somewhere dramatic, interesting, filled with potential; but you can't think of one. I've touched on this point once or twice before, when discussing decaying mansions on Billionaire's Row and Hotel Castel Dracula, as well as the Orient Express. Now I'd like to draw your attention to another intriguing possibility: Moscow's Metro-2.

Forgotten subway stations are nothing new to urban explorers; there are dozens of them all over the globe. Moscow's Metro-2 is something a little different. Allegedly the Metro-2 is a parallel subway network running alongside Moscow's Metro system, and I say allegedly because nobody can agree whether or not Metro-2 exists. Many people assume it does, and at least one high-placed defector said as much during his debriefing by British Intelligence; but people believe many things that aren't true, and defectors are notorious for saying anything they can think of, if it will guarantee them a quiet and prosperous retirement.

If the stories are to be believed, then Metro-2 began life as a single-track system built by Stalin to avoid traveling in public. Stalin was deathly afraid of assassination attempts, and Metro-2 could get him from the Kremlin to his Volynskoye Dacha without incident. It developed into a more sophisticated network during the Cold War, as the Politburo leadership demanded a means of escape in the event of a nuclear attack. There are supposed to be networks of bunkers down there, as well as a whole underground city in Rameki, south-west Moscow, capable of housing 15,000 people.

Certainly there is an  - that is, singular - undergound line, the D6; that one has been explored and documented, but it doesn't have the vast scope of the fabled Metro-2. There are also known nuclear bunkers under the streets of Moscow, but again nothing like the extent of Metro-2. Moreover the artifacts that do exist are decayed, flooded, and almost useless either as a transport system or a last resort hideway; these facilities haven't seen serious investment since the 1970s, and for the most part have been left to decay. Fifty-odd years of underinvestment is a long time, and technology has changed significantly. Even if someone were to reactivate them, it would cost far more than the project could ever be worth to the powers that be.

All that aside, consider the possibilities. In a Night's Black Agents world there's no reason why Metro-2 shouldn't be just as large as the stories say, and for that matter there's no reason it shouldn't still be in excellent condition. The Conspiracy needs some kind of base of operations, after all, and what better place than an underground city under Moscow, complete with its own lines of communication, far from the burning daylight? Picture the protagonists trying to discover the true extent of Metro-2, perhaps caught up in a maze of bureaucracy above ground, or lost in an actual maze far beneath the streets of Moscow. Then they turn one wrong corner too many, and find themselves in a city populated entirely by hundreds, perhaps thousands of vampires.

There's also something to be said for leaving the Metro-2 exactly as decayed, flooded and abandoned as the stories seem to suggest. In that Dusty world, the Metro-2 could be a project that the Conspiracy made use of back in the 1970s only to abandon it later. Who knows what the vampires left behind, when they pulled out? Anything from old files from the Great Patriotic War to forgotten supercomputers, perhaps still with the old tape wheels whirring away down in the dark. Perhaps this is where the bodies really are buried, or where vampire Stalin's been hiding all these years. Who was really in charge of the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 60s?

There are all kinds of questions to be answered. Did the Conspiracy engineer the abandonment of Metro-2 so it could move in and use the system for its own devices? Are there modern labs humming down there, working on some hideous project? Have Satanists taken over the nuclear bunkers, invoking Beelzebub and Armageddon? Does Metro-2 still run, and if so, what purpose does it serve? Are there sleek black trains that pull up to high security stations at the dead of night, dropping off or picking up blasphemous cargo? 

That's it for the moment, but I will return to this theme again. In the meantime, have fun! Or the vampires will get you ...

Monday, 22 September 2014

Night's Black Agents: The Nature of Conspiracy pt 2

In a previous segment I discussed how a Director might work out what the Conspiracy's been up to, before the protagonists arrived. I summed it all up in a Mission Statement for each Conspiracy, describing its current goals in one sentence. Now I'm going to discuss the Conspyramid in a little more detail, and show why having a Mission Statement can pay off big time for the Director.

The Conspyramid is the structure by which the Conspiracy is organized. The main book suggests building a structure with six levels, each ascending level having fewer, more important nodes. A node can be a gang, a cell withing an organization, a facility or institution, a powerful individual, a whole subverted agency, or anything else that might be part of the vampire conspiracy. The Level 1 nodes tend to be the weakest, street-level faces or the organization, a Level 2 has power that might affect a whole city, Level 3s are provincial powers, Level 4s are national powers, Level 5s are supranational powers, and Level 6 is top branch: the core leadership cadre.

The Mission Statement should be treated as a broad guideline for the kind of nodes that might exist within your Conspyramid. The Mission Statement begs a question: in order to achieve that goal, what does the Conspiracy need? Answering that question gives you the basis for your entire Conspyramid.

To demonstrate this, I'm going to take the Supernatural Mission Statement and expand on it. Remember, the Supernatural vampire type is the result of otherworldly activities on Earth, and by implication lives in a world where there are plenty of other supernatural types: ghosts, witches, and so on. The Mission Statement in this instance is: The premier supplier of Gray in the Western World

So what's Gray? Gray is a kind of narcotic made from ghosts, which vampires find particularly enthralling and addictive. They might need blood to live, but they crave Gray the same way humans crave heroin or cocaine. In fact Gray is a term I've stolen from heroin addiction; it's a slightly altered form of one of the terms used to describe the mixture of blood and narcotic in the syringe. The original term is gravy, as in 'shoot the gravy.' I'm picturing Gray as a form of heroin admixed with processed ghosts, not unlike cutting a drug with, say, rat poison.

Given this, it's reasonable to assume that an otherwise careful supernatural vampire, hooked through the bag on Gray, might do pretty much anything to get more. It's also reasonable to assume that a human using Gray might end up much as a heroin user would after injecting heroin mixed with strychnine: that is, dead. In fact, doubly dead, given that the mix was ghost to begin with.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First let's talk about that Mission Statement, and what it means for the Conspyramid. If your organization wants to become the premier supplier of Gray in the Western World, what does it need?

At the lowest rung of the ladder, all those Level 1 Nodes, it needs groups and individuals that can help it move and market product. It's not about selling vials on streetcorners; vampires are notoriously reclusive, so the Conspiracy has to go to them. It needs runners who can deliver, it needs access to ports and airports, and it needs someone to do the tedious legwork of chasing down its customers, finding out where they live and establishing contact so that the Conspiracy can make another sale.

There's no reason you can't play with this concept. Suppose there's a celebrity vampire hunter in your world, a Seán Manchester crossed with Peter Vincent who does all kinds of talk shows and low-budget stuff. That's the perfect cover for a Level 1 marketing expert, someone who finds the customer for the Conspiracy. An occult group like the Golden Dawn could be another Level 1 marketing node; the Victorian original spawned so many lookalikes, imitators and alleged inheritors of the mantle that it's perfectly reasonable to assume a modern Golden Dawn infesting each nation in Europe, using its magician initiates to research and identify possible customers. Bicycle couriers, individual members of a nation's Customs Authority, any number of small airports are also good node fits. Low-cost air carriers like Ryanair made their fortune utilizing ex-military bases in the early 2000s; no reason why the Conspiracy couldn't have snaffled a few of those bases for their own use, or be piggybacking on the low-cost crowd.

An alternate Level 1, of course, is the customer itself. This vampire isn't part of the Conspiracy, but it knows someone who is; that same marketing expert who made the pitch in the first place. That would definitely require a face-to-face; a vampire isn't about to buy anything, sight unseen, from some chancer. There would need to be at least one sales pitch, from the Level 1. That in turn exposes the Conspyramid to risk, if the vampire is identified by other groups. An otherwise careful vampire who's been living quietly off of the locals for decades might get very sloppy if he's craving Gray, which will in turn alert the protagonists, as news stories leak out.

There's a further potential Level 1: a dead human addict. Any large organization has its fuck-ups and breakdowns; in this example, a batch of Gray ended up in the hands of a human addict who shot up, and promptly died in spectacular fashion. Spectacular enough to make the news, and probably also blogs and YouTube videos, as amateur ghost-hunters descend on the site to find out why, say, entities from the French Revolution are suddenly infesting a Berlin squat. Technically this isn't part of the Conspyramid proper, but whichever Level 1 managed to cock up so spectacularly as to deliver Gray to a non-customer is going to want to cover its tracks, and that exposes the Conspyramid to even more danger.

Let's move on to the Level 2 node. This is the national level node, the first one with real pull. If an entire Customs Authority, or at least its top ranking officials, has been subverted then that makes it a Level 2. A national level politician, or even a Eurocrat, is probably also a Level 2. The import-export company that transports Gray is a Level 2, and if we're using a low-cost airline like Ryanair in that role, then that airline is a Level 2.

Going further, what else does this Conspiracy need? Well, at the moment it has marketing, sales, and supply all at Level 1. What it lacks at the moment is a product, and for that it needs ghosts and heroin, as well as a means of cutting the ghosts with the heroin. That suggests factories of some kind, as well as a means of collection. It also suggests groups whose purpose in life is psychical research. If a university's parapsychology department has been subverted in order to concentrate on searching for and collecting ghosts, that would make it a Level 2; it might also make its grad students potential Level 1s in their own right. A highly placed Renfield in a crime syndicate, tasked with ensuring safe delivery of the heroin, is also a Level 2. I'm not picturing the factories as anything more sophisticated than the average meth lab, and there are probably quite a few of them scattered all over the target area. Each of those labs, complete with technicians and possibly also security, is a Level 2 in its own right. Whether they're interconnected in some way - perhaps all have the same cover story - is another matter.

Speaking of interconnection, these groups need a means of communication, and coordination. Individual members can get by on burner phones, but once you get to the stage when groups of people, institutions and factories are involved, something more sophisticated is needed to assist in coordinating efforts. After all, there's a lot of product to be obtained, cut, shipped and marketed. That implies a central hub of some kind, but preferably one that's divorced from the upper levels of the Conspyramid. It doesn't do anyone any good if, by capturing and squeezing some Level 1 pusher, an enemy can leapfrog straight up to the highest levels of command. Say this central hub is internet based, an email system or a BBS. Suppose the Conspiracy kept some tame black hat hackers on the payroll, a tiger team maintaining security on its Level 1 and Level 2 network. That tiger team would itself be a Level 2. Nobody above Level 2 would be on that network, but it would allow groups at Level 2 or below to keep in contact. Presumably there's one member of the tiger team with a telephone number, or other means of communication, with a Level 3. 

Speaking of which, here we are at Level 3. Now we're at the provincial level; if an entire ministry within a nation is compromised, or if there's an entity within the Conspiracy capable of doing significant damage, this is where it's probably going to be. There's one element of the Conspiracy as we've been considering it that hasn't been discussed, and that's Security. This is basically one big drug cartel, and an organization of this type is going to have both 'ordinary' enemies - public officials, police, nosy reporters, basically ordinary humans - and the other kind, the kind that perhaps knows about vampires and, more importantly, knows how to kill them.

At least two, probably three nodes at this level will be dedicated to security. One node is a top-notch criminal law firm; if any of the nodes below Level 3 get into legal difficulty, these are the people who show up to deal with it. Another is the heavy mob, and if ever there's a time to use, say, a completely subverted special forces detachment, like a platoon (or whatever the term would be) from Germany's KSK Kommando Spezialkräfte, it is now. That heavy mob deals with any mortal threat that can't otherwise be handled through legal means. A third has got to be a specialized heavy mob, for use only in those circumstances where a vampire - possibly a dissatisfied customer - is involved. Perhaps there genuinely is an actual vampire hunter out there that the Conspiracy has on its payroll for special tasks; it might even be a religious order of some kind or, say, a senior member of the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Let's not forget that tiger team at Level 2, the one handling communications. It has to report to someone, and that someone is a vampire, or someone of equivalent authority, at Level 3. That entity's sole purpose is to act as Hermes for the Conspiracy, delivering information by word of mouth alone. Hermes deals with the other Level 3 nodes directly, face-to-face meetings only, and also communicates information to the Level 4 nodes. Hermes might even know who is at Level 5, but that's dangerous information to possess. 

From here we pass on to Level 4, the National branch. There's one more aspect of a Conspiracy of this type that hasn't been discussed so far: the money angle. Nobody's in this business for their health, and if a Conspiracy of this type has been formed to deliver Gray, then Gray must be fantastically valuable. Rivers of cash must be flowing up the chain, otherwise there's no point. Those rivers need to be directed, properly laundered, and distributed, and that means a Bank. Probably a private bank, unincorporated, that handles all the financial transactions as discreetly as possible. Only nodes at Level 3 and up will be aware of this Bank, and probably not all the Level 3s; no point in telling the heavy mob, for instance, where the money's coming from.

Equally if there's a significant individual within the Conspiracy tasked with acting as an adviser on field operations - a form of consigliere - Level 4 is where that individual will be. That individual needs to be close enough to the operation to be aware of its day-to-day operations, while at the same time be far enough away from the front lines so as not to become a target. A consigliere is also tasked with handling disputes, so if there's any issue between nodes at Level 4, 3, or maybe even 2, this individual will be involved, though it's unlikely that it gets face-to-face with a Level 2 node.

Since this is a drug racket, if there's a task force that deals with international smuggling that has been subverted by the Conspiracy, that will become a Level 4 node. Someone, probably several someones, at Interpol, say, or someone involved with anti-money laundering efforts at the EU. This particular node might not know as much about the Conspiracy as the others, but over time it could have gathered a significant amount of surprising information. Interpol, for instance, dates back to 1923; who knows what could be hidden in its files? Names, dates, incident reports; the Conspiracy would probably prefer those files were shredded or burnt, but there's any number of surprised and convicted criminals out there who can testify that, when it really matters, sometimes, somehow, the documents turn up.

Now we've reached Level 5, the Supranational level. If the Conspiracy has a Think Tank on its payroll, planning future operations, this is where it will be. Remember, the Conspiracy wants to expand operations further afield; it needs someone to plan for that, to establish contact in those markets, to make deals and identify opportunities. Equally if the Conspiracy has some kind of mad scientist type, perhaps someone who's been ghost-gathering since the Victorian era and who knows the process backwards and sideways, this is where that individual will be, probably in its own padded cell with lots of colored chalk and as many chalkboards as it wants.  R&D is vital to any forward-thinking business, and this is ultimately a business; what matter if the head researcher likes to eat babies, so long as it delivers?

Finally there is Level 6: the Board. The no-nonsense creatures of the night who run this operation. The Board is probably made up of the original members - the ones who formed the business back in whenever-it-may-have-been - and representatives from the competitors it has absorbed, over time. Perhaps there's some ill feeling about that; some Board members may feel that their past contributions haven't been properly rewarded. Be that as it may. The Board is still the Board, and woe betide anyone who manages to get quite that close to the Conspiracy's heart.

I hope this discussion has been useful to the Directors out there! Good luck, and good hunting.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Great War, Extra Credits and Soviet Ghosts

More of a catch-all, this time. For those of you with an interest in the Great War, or my Trail of Cthulhu supplement Dulce et Decorum Est (plug plug), should check out the Extra Credits series Extra History. Extra History is pretty much what it sounds like: a look at historical subjects, created by the same folks who do the video game commentary animated shorts. For the next few weeks Extra History will be tackling the Great War, and so far it's up to episode two. The first episode, all about the lead-up to the war, can be found here, and the second, about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, can be found here.

While I'm talking about totally unrelated things, I would be shockingly remiss if I didn't point the Night's Black Agents fans towards the work of photographer Rebecca Litchfield. Her collection of post-Soviet abandoned sites, including radar defense bases, train yards, military camps and other forgotten memories of the Soviet era is truly outstanding. Any Director worth his salt needs to look at these

Monday, 15 September 2014

Night's Black Agents: The Nature of Conspiracy

I really wish I had more opportunities to play this game face to face, as the Gods of Tabletop intended. It's an exceptionally fun system and a very intriguing world concept. One of the things I've been thinking about recently is the nature of the Conspyramid, the way in which the Vampire conspiracy is organized, and wondering how it can be manipulated to best serve the game.

For example, in the Double Tap expansion Kenneth Hite talks about alternate eras for the game, such as Victorian, World War Two or the Cold War, and that got me wondering: how many Directors sit down and work out what the Conspiracy's been up to? What are its long term goals? Have those goals changed over the course of time, and if so what did that mean for the nature of the Conspiracy?

Any organized group has a long term goal, though most of them these days frame it in the form of a mission statement. Why does this organization exist? What does it want to accomplish, and what is it prepared to do in order to achieve those goals? From there other questions flow, such as, what does it need in order to do what it wants to do, where does it get the capital to finance its activities, and what kind of personnel will it want to recruit?

The game presupposes four base types of opponent: supernatural, damned, alien and mutant. I'm going to consider each in turn.

Supernatural: vampires are the result of magical or other supernatural activities on Earth; spirits, ghosts, witchcraft and the like. OK, let's presuppose that, in this campaign, vampires are created by necromantic activity, and while their bodies need blood in order to survive, ghosts are like cocaine or narcotics to them. A Conspyramid in this kind of game could be formed in order to supply this cocaine to other vampires. It would be interested in historical sites and artifacts, but demand is going to far exceed supply, and where in the real world this imbalance is usually met by price increases, it also often creates alternate suppliers, bad product, and a desire to increase supply. The Conspiracy, in its early incarnation, might have been behind Europe's colonial era, hoping to expand supply by opening up new sources of production. When that didn't work out, it might have tried to foster wars - even the Great War - hoping that the new machines it created to harvest ghosts would increase supply radically. Perhaps that didn't work out; the machines might have created bad product, or the War might have created new competition in the market as alternate suppliers gain a foothold. The market crashes, the Conspiracy is weakened, and when the Second World War breaks out it discovers that its competition has new ideas about market share, and the Conspiracy isn't invited. Cue the Cold War, aka the Conspiracy Fights Back, leveraging its position in Europe's governments to crush alternate suppliers by poisoning the supply, forcing its competitors to toe the line, eventually absorbing most of them into the Conspiracy. Now it's the Modern Era, where the Conspiracy is on top again. It wants to strengthen its hold on supply, absorbing the last of the competition while at the same time establishing its dominance in new markets like Russia and China.

Mission statement: The premier supplier of Gray in the Western World.

Damned: Vampires are the work of Satan or other explicitly demonic creatures opposed to mankind and God. This is a tricky one, in that it presupposes first, an origin story that dates back to before recorded history and indeed before Man itself, and second, it strongly suggests that the Conspiracy is not independent. Instead it works for a Higher Power, though in this case it might be more apt to call it a Lower Power. Very well; then let's take the Antichrist as our motivator here, and presuppose that the Vampires are ultimately descended from the spirits described in Revelations: And I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.This Conspiracy is preparing for the day, as yet unknown, when the Final Battle will wash all creation in blood. In order to do so it has been preparing, protecting, and disseminating the seed from which the Antichrist will be born. This Conspiracy fosters the great migrations, like the flow of immigrants from the Old World to the Americas in the later Victorian period, in order to preserve that seed. It has great long lists in its archives of who begat who, and where; monasteries stuffed with genealogies, eventually replaced by think tanks with computer databases, all diligently recording everything its potential antichrists do. An orphan in Birmingham may be as important to the Conspiracy as a billionaire in Bombay. This kind of Conspiracy would be very interested in anything to do with genetics, and manipulation of embryos in the womb to promote or restrict certain characteristics. However with a religious outlook on life comes every religion's favorite game: the Schism. Somebody's going to have a preferred bloodline, and want to promote it above all others. Perhaps the Donovans who went to America in 1903 are the ones most likely to bring about the Apocalypse, or perhaps the sons of the Church the Pascuttis of Northern Italy have tried to stake their claim. The Conspiracy could have spent the last hundred years or more squabbling with itself, with rival factions happily slaughtering entire families in order to ensure that its favored bloodline makes it to the top. In that world, a disaster like the Titanic's sinking might have been manipulated in order to ensure that one specific person drowned at exactly the right moment. Meanwhile, that final War is coming, and there are vampires at top levels of the military in every government whose fingers have been itching on that trigger for more than half a century. What if someone decided 'kill them all, for Satan knows who is His'?

Mission statement: To protect and prepare the Chosen One.

Alien: Vampires are alien beings, or earthly beings who nevertheless follow different laws of physics. Let's presuppose in this instance that the vampires are truly alien, not earthly in any way. I'm going to steal an idea from Quatermass II - which I highly recommend - and suggest that the creatures fell from space, infected a certain percentage of the host population, and the infected then set about creating an environment in which the original creatures can live. That in turn suggests a definitive timetable: the vampires have a set date on which the original creatures are to arrive, and must meet their goal by that date. At the same time their goal requires a massive expenditure of energy and equipment, which means it can only be achieved by cannibalizing a nation state's worth of resources. In this world the government, probably more than one, has already been taken over, and the facilities are being built. This is a process that probably takes up all of the Cold War, and began earlier than that; say the creatures arrive shortly before or during World War Two, begin colonizing where they land, and start infecting useful humans as soon as possible. They spend the Cold War identifying suitable targets - any nation with the potential for a space program - and, once a target is identified, using that space program as the stepping stone for the Conspiracy's goals. The Director could have great fun with a V2 rocket spy one-off, in which the protagonists first identify potential aliens in the German weapons program, only to see those infected scientists snapped up by Russia and America. Was this unintentional, or were sympathizers in both governments trying to save their infected comrades in Germany? By the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Modern Era either the Conspiracy has subverted all of its chosen targets, or it has succeeded in most and failed in others. That second option in turn suggests that some nations are aware of the infection, though probably not cognizant of the Conspiracy's higher goals. Naturally they can't tell anyone; stating that an otherwise friendly nation is the tool of an alien conspiracy isn't something sane prime ministers do. Yet they will have their own intelligence apparatus on the lookout for possible infestation, in some cases perhaps sending kill teams to other countries to eliminate the threat. Even so, the Doomsday Clock is ticking; the Conspiracy is about to achieve its long term goal, unless someone does something. Like, for example, destroy all those facilities it's been building to house the aliens ...

Mission statement: We shall build Utopia.

Mutant: Vampires are earthly beings infected or changed by (or into) some freak of nature. Let's suppose that there is such a thing as a vampire gene, that it existed in the Classical world and that it spread West from there, only to be all but exterminated by the Black Death and the persecutions that followed. What with y pestis slaughtering untold millions in its first appearance in the early 1300s, then recurring again and again up to the early 1600s, followed by persecutions, witch burnings and the final vampire purges of the early 1700s, it seemed as if the mutant vampire was eradicated from the earth. Then, in the Victorian period, the few scattered remnants of the breed begin to reestablish themselves. The initial focus of this nascent Conspiracy is on survival; it never wants to come that close to extinction again. However it soon becomes obsessed with its origins. What is the vampire inheritance? Can it be promoted? Why is it so vulnerable to certain diseases, and can it be protected against them? Virologists and scientists in the colonies and darkest corners of the earth might be funded by this Conspiracy, desperate for knowledge. The Conspiracy might even start funding or infiltrating relief organizations like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, in hopes of learning more about itself by studying viruses and diseases across the globe. This Conspiracy also has the potential to become a colonizing power. Say it becomes aware of a strain of other mutations, like the Penangglan of Southeast Asia.It's going to want to study this variant to see how it evolved, and whether its mutation has any benefit to the Conspiracy. Naturally this doesn't bode well for the Penangglan. The protagonists could even be caught up in the hunt as potential, unwitting allies of the Conspiracy, in a bring-em-back-alive romp through, say, Vietnam and Cambodia; Platoon mixed with R-Point, except this time the CIA - or something that passes for the CIA - is pulling the strings. That could lead neatly into a Cold War game, as the Conspiracy starts pushing its genetics program, hoping to create the perfect mutation; one that is truly invulnerable to disease, and spreads much more quickly than in previous variants. This Conspiracy hopes for a breakthrough event in the Modern Era, one in which it can release a perfected bioweapon, ensuring its continued survival by eliminating the competition once and for all while at the same time promoting its own genetic superiority.

Mission statement: To ensure our survival and eventual triumph.