Sunday, 5 April 2020

The Bagman (Night's Black Agents)



I've discussed the Pink Panthers before. This clip is a Sundance short from the television feature The Last Panthers, which features (among others) the late John Hurt, and David Bowie's reworking of his Blackstar track is in the credits, for those nostalgic for a world pre-2016. Apart from giving the cunning among you an excellent Thrilling Chase moment (and some cool music to go with your game - the album's less than $10, Directors) it suggests a story idea.

Incidentally if you want to know more about the Pink Panthers I highly recommend the documentary Smash & Grab, available on iTunes.

In the Last Panthers six episode series (which I have not seen but would like to, and it is on iTunes, and I have free time, so YOINK!) the action opens with this heist, but soon delves deep into the criminal underworld that underpins heists like these. With the real-life Panthers what typically happens is that the heisted jewels are given to a Bagman to be sold to a middleman at whatever-the-current-rate is on the dollar, or Euro. The middleman forges whatever documents need to be forged, recuts the jewels when necessary, and sells the diamonds on. Diamonds being very easy to dispose of, the trade is relatively low-risk. Plus, it's basically unsupervised. Currency transactions are monitored when you're moving several thousand dollars at a time. Diamonds worth the same amount or more can fit in your pocket, and raise no alarms when you cross borders.

In the teaser the crooks get into the vault at about 1.50 and then something interesting happens. The lead throws what looks like high-value loot aside, choosing instead to rifle through a file box of stuff. The audience never gets a clear look at what the stuff is. It's organized, it fits into a small box, and looks like a collection of labelled packets.

If anything ever was a McGuffin, this is it. In series plot, the packets are individual diamonds worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions. In your game, they could be anything.

Say this theft targets a Conspyramid Node, a false front that pretends to be a jewelers but in fact provides the Conspiracy with X, whatever X is. X could even be diamonds, if you like, and the loss of same leaves the Conspiracy in a delicate financial position, or brings unwelcome attention from the insurance assessor.

Say the people who carry out the hit escape with the McGuffin, which is of vital importance at least to a National and possible International Node. Now the crooks have it, but everyone wants it. The question then becomes, how do your characters get close enough to the crooks to get the McGuffin without frightening off the crooks, or triggering a Conspyramid response?

Because there will be a response, a big, fat, screaming blood-in-its-eye response. The Conspiracy is pissed, and for once in a way it's not aiming its big guns at the agents. The four-alarm-fire bell is going off, and all the underworld wants to know where these crooks are.

The agents may also want to know something else: why the crooks targeted the McGuffin, and what they intend to do with it.

Of course, to find all that out they'll need to get close to someone who knows the crooks well. They'll need to get close to the Bagman. He's the one the crooks have been known to have used before, the one who they might use again - or at least trust, a little.

The recent resource guide features different scenario skeletons for several different possible plots, including flip operations where the goal is to subvert an important character and get them to do [X], whatever [X] may be. In this instance they have to flip the Bagman, so he'll tell them how to contact the crooks who pulled off the caper. The usual leverage won't apply here; the Bagman's known to be a crook, so revealing his criminal past or dodgy dealings won't work. Blackmail's probably a non-starter unless the agents can come up with some pretty convincing leverage.

Likely flip motivators include: kill a Renfield, or even a vampire. Prove convincingly that your knowledge of vampirology is second to none. Prove that you aren't working for the Node, perhaps by destroying Node assets. Use an Interpol (or similarly connected) Network Contact to reduce the Bagman's legal difficulties, perhaps by tearing up or losing some outstanding arrest warrants or getting the Bagman's friend out of prison early.

However, there is a time constraint. If the agents take too long, the Conspiracy will flip the Bagman. The Conspiracy has supernatural leverage at its disposal; it may even be able to divine the crooks' location through the Bagman's spilled entrails. Once the Conspiracy does that, the crooks probably have a very short shelf life.

So the scenario then moves from a flip operation to a Thrilling (possibly Extended) Chase to get to wherever in Serbia the crooks currently hide. If the Conspiracy gets there first then it gets the McGuffin. If the agents do, then they may or may not get the McGuffin but they'll definitely have to fend off or avoid the Conspiracy's rapid response team. Can the agents exfiltrate the crooks before the big bad bloodsuckers get there? Will it all end in blood & tears?

Enjoy!

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Hotel Hell (Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, Night's Black Agents, Timewatch)

This week's post is inspired by a news item about hotel thefts, and loosely based on the Breidenbacher Hof in Dusseldorf, Germany.

You've really got to feel sorry for the owners of five star boutique hotels. They attract a different kind of criminal. Where most of us are content to steal the soap and possibly a bathrobe, the folks who steal from the wealthy chisel out their marble fireplaces, package up their flat screens and framed art, and cart off the Steinway piano.

According to the article there's a fellow in South America who poses as an artist come to do a show, and who brings with him large packaging crates stuffed full of 'art.' Of course, it's stuffed full of nothing when he arrives, but when he leaves the crates are suspiciously heavier than they were before. In short, this is a job for the professional, your thief with an eye for high value, someone who can pull off a quick change and swindle like a veteran grifter.

In Germany it's easier than you might think, as there isn't the proliferation of security cameras you might find in an equivalent hotel elsewhere. Privacy laws specify where you can and cannot place cameras, such as public spaces like the drive in front of the hotel.

Which naturally made me go looking for a boutique hotel in Germany, which is how I found Briedenbacher Hof. Built in 1806 as a luxury resort for the rich and famous, in its day it's hosted royalty and the impossibly wealthy. It was bombed extensively during the War, and rebuilt in the 1950s. In the later 1990s it was torn down again by its Kuwait-based owners, and rebuilt to their exacting standards. During construction a section of Dusseldorf's medieval city wall was discovered in the basement, and that archaeological find is now permanently on display from the retail level of the hotel.

Dusseldorf is the second largest city in Germany, and has been an urban settlement since the Romans moved in. Its strategic position on the Rhine strengthened its importance as a trade-and-tax town, and it officially became a city in 1288 when the Counts of Berg defeated the forces of the Archbishop of Cologne and granted Dusseldorf town privileges. It built a market square surrounded by thick city walls, those same walls which lie under the foundations of the Briedenbacher Hof. Bombed extensively during the Second World War, what was a medieval town became a modern one in the 20th century, after extensive rebuilding and reconstruction. 

With all that:

Hotel Hell

The characters are professional thieves. They may be funded by an outside group, like the Esoterrorists' Ordo Veritatis, or Dracula Dosssier's Edom, but if they are then it's through cut-outs and Mr. Johnsons. The characters only know their patrons as shadowy figures in the criminal community.

They have been hired to steal a certain artwork from the Richter Hof, a newly reopened hotel with an illustrious past. Its Dubai-based owners intend it to be the jewel in their hospitality crown, and it has everything the high-end traveler could want, including a gaming room where well-heeled visitors lose their shirts at vingt-et-un and poker. Gambling licenses are very difficult to get in Germany, but the Richter has its license from before the War when it was (and still is) a destination for the wealthy and famous. 

Their job is to get in, get the goods, and get out without being stopped by hotel staff. Piece of cake, they may think. 

That rather depends on how much they like cake … 

The artwork they're told to steal is an abstract sculpture installed in the penthouse suite. Physically, it's slightly smaller than man-size and weighs over 250 lbs, so the characters will need to find some way to get it out and to the main elevator. That elevator goes all the way down to the basement car park level, so they should be able to get out without wheeling it through the lobby at least. Of course, to do that they'll need to get it out the penthouse and down a corridor which might at any time have guests or hotel staff. Plus the penthouse has a dedicated butler who spends much of his day going in and out of the penthouse, even if it's vacant, as he has to make sure the penthouse is ready at any time for one of the Richter Hof's high-end guests. The hotel's Dubai owners' extended family often drop by the hotel for a little shopping spree, and when they do they expect to be accommodated in the penthouse suite.

If the characters do some advance scouting and try to find out more information about the sculpture, they discover something odd. No two sources agree on when it was made, or who by. Some claim it's a Picasso from 1912, others an 1889 Rodin, still others a 1980s bronze by Stephen De Staebler. Everyone says it's a masterpiece worth hundreds of thousands of dollars/euro/marks - which is a little peculiar, since why would anyone value anything in Deutsche Marks, a dead currency since 2002? It's large, it's metal, and it will be hard to lift without special equipment, which is probably going to be the characters' main concern.

The trouble really begins when the characters begin the lift. Time is soft within Richter Hof. At one moment it might be 2020, at another it might be 1943 and the Battle of the Ruhr, at still another it might be 1806 and the Hof's grand opening. So long as the investigators have possession of the statue, any door - including the elevator doors - can open to any era. The statue's inert (or as inert as it ever gets) as long as it's in position in the penthouse. The minute it moves, the fun begins.

The elevator doors are an especial problem, since at most points in the hotel's history it didn't have an elevator. It certainly didn't have one that went to the basement. So the elevator doors literally lead to anywhen, anywhere, while the other doors lead to the equivalent space in [time period]. At least if the characters move from the corridor to a hotel room, they end up in a hotel room. It might be a hotel room in 1980 or 1880, occupied or empty, but at least it's predictably a hotel room. There's no telling where they end up, if they take the elevator.

Among the events the characters could walk into:


  • Ruritanian Assassination. It's 1848, the age of Revolution, and the Crown Prince / Duke / [insert title here] of a small country or principality that no longer exists in 2020 has relocated to the Richter Hof to avoid talking to the Revolutionaries. Anarchists have infiltrated the hotel staff, and are planning to plant a bomb in the royal's apartments. Of course, bombs don't care who they blow up, and the characters could easily find themselves on the receiving end of a poorly planned assassination attempt.
  • Firebugs. It's June 1943, and British bombers are scattering their load all over Dusseldorf. The hotel's ablaze, but so is much of Dusseldorf, so the fire brigade isn't going to be available any time soon. The hotel's part-evacuated but there are still some staff and guests in the hotel itself, either because they didn't want to go to bomb shelters or because they're trying to rescue their belongings from their burning rooms. 
  • Songbirds. It's 2011, and Dusseldorf's hosting the Eurovision Song Contest. There's no escaping it; every room, bar, and screen is blaring Europop. If people aren't singing Wadde hadde dudde da  (singer/comedian Stefan Raab's 2000 hit; he's one of the 2011 judges), they're singing Lena's Taken by a Stranger, the current German entry. No immediate danger, but the hotel is absolutely rammed, and it's very difficult to sneak past the crowds while toting a 250 lbs bronze.  
Enjoy!

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Eyes and Ears: Stasi (Night's Black Agents)

There's a new coffee-table book out for lovers of spy lore: Der Blick der Staatssicherheit (The Gaze of State Security). It's German, but as it's mainly photographs those who can't read German will still get something out of it.

The Stasi were East Germany's version of the secret police. Whether or not you think it was effective probably depends on whether you were born in East Germany and had to live under its regime. Certainly there were a lot of them. Their job was to root out the class enemy, the traitors who betrayed the People's Republic. One of their tools was the humble camera.

As the book points out, camera technology was still relatively new in the 1950s. It took a certain specialist knowledge to use one. However, as time went by and the technology went mainstream the Stasi's cache of surveillance photos increased exponentially. Photos were great. They documented everything. You could prove you were doing a good job if you had a picture of it, whatever it was. It might be a picture of a lightbulb, the same type and manufacture as one which had been thrown onto the roof of a passing car. It might be the faces of three children who kicked their football over the Berlin Wall into East Germany.

It might be absolutely anything.


I would have sworn I'd written about Deutschland 83 before, but apparently not - which is criminal of me. There's meant to be a sequel, Deutschland 86, but I haven't seen it yet. There is a trailer on YouTube but without subtitles it'd only be interesting to the German speakers out there.

I highly and without reservation recommend Deutschland 83 to Night's Black Agents players and Directors, particularly those who enjoy Dust games and who aren't afraid of a little Burn. Just don't get too attached to any of the characters.

When the East German government fell the Stasi did its level best to shred all the records, but the obvious problem was obvious: they had just too many things to shred and not enough shredders. All that paperwork, all those photographs; there was never any chance it'd get done before protestors stormed the gates and took control. It's said that some of the protestors were actually ex-Stasi determined to get hold of their own records and destroy them before anyone could find out about their many crimes. Regardless, in the decades since much of the Stasi's records have been saved, catalogued and made available for research, which is how we end up with books like The Gaze of State Security.

Which brings me to a scenario in two parts:

The State's Last Gasp

The scenario takes place in two different time periods. The first, an extended Thrilling Scene, takes place outside the Stasi Headquarters on 15th January, 1990. This will most likely involve pre-generated characters, possibly based on existing NPCs within your campaign. Any agents' Network Contact, mentor, or nemesis could be involved. An agent can also be involved, provided they're of an age to be a spy in 1990. Their task is to get inside the building and recover the McGuffin - the files.

Precisely what these files are is up to the Director. Perhaps the Stasi had their own version of the Dracula Dossier; not nearly as complete or all-encompassing as Edom's files, but useful nonetheless. Perhaps it's information about Stasi cooperation with agents of the Conspiracy. Blackmail material, photographs of sites which may or may not have been Dracula's castle, personal files of former Stasi who now occupy trusted positions in unified Germany, or whose children are politically or economically significant. It's a McGuffin. It can be whatever you like.

The modern day scenario involves retrieving those files from whoever took them from Stasi Headquarters - assuming they were taken, of course. The files may have been digitized and put on a hard drive, or they may still be in crumbling paper form.

The intent is to play out the Thrilling Scene alongside the main game, so that at the start of the main game none of the players know whether the McGuffin they're chasing was actually taken from Stasi HQ. It might be completely worthless, but there's no way to be sure until after the conclusion of the Thrilling scene.

In a Thrilling chase the stakes are usually life & death, or at least capture or freedom. This time it's different. This time the victory condition is whether or not the players get to decide what happens to the McGuffin. If the 1990s characters succeed in their Thrilling section, then the players do get to decide. If not, then the Director does.

So the start moment would be outside Stasi HQ on 15th January. The protestors are getting out of control, and the guards outside HQ are beginning to panic. Appeals for calm aren't working. Historically the protestors first infiltrated the building at 5pm with tens of thousands getting in through police security. Success in this scene means the players get into the building without anyone getting hurt; failure means they still get in, but there's a scuffle with security and all the characters take -1 damage from the melee.

The target is still 10 - if the characters can build up their Lead to that point, they get the McGuffin. The start point is 3, and the Ability being tested is Infiltration. Unlike the usual Infiltration test this isn't about getting in quietly, unseen - it's more about blending into the crowd, and maneuvering so you can get to where you want to be without being stopped. Potential maneuvers include Intimidation (Death to the Stasi!) Negotiation (appeals for calm and non-violence), even Cop Talk (for dealing with the cops and soldiers).

Then, after the initial Thrilling scene, action moves to the present day. The agents are briefed: their sponsor wants to retrieve the McGuffin from its current hiding place in Germany. A historian claims to have found important files within the Stasi archives, including never-before-seen information about [whatever the McGuffin is about]. Unfortunately, the historian's apartment was burgled and the historian battered into a coma. The agents are to find out who did it, and what happened to the McGuffin.

In order to do it the agents will need to find and talk to X, who is/are, of course, the character(s) in the Thrilling scene. They may also be established NPCs within the campaign; they may even be Network Contacts or mentors. Even if they're usually friendly, this time they aren't. They don't like being reminded of what happened in the bad old days, and especially of what happened back in January 1990.

Action moves back to the Thrilling scene. The characters are in the building now. They need to get past the crowds of rubbernecking protestors, dodging actual spies (did you think the CIA would pass up a chance like this? The Russians? Former Stasi?) and get to the records room. Failure in a test here leads either to a mook Hand-to-Hand combat, (where mooks = P+2, and have Thug stats) or a straight +1 damage to all characters in the scene, players choice as to which. Of course, if the players choose the mook combat they might actually lose the fight, which would terminate the Thrilling scene - which is why they have the option of taking straight damage. The Director is free to rule that losing the mook combat = a capture moment, which has the advantage of keeping the Thrilling action going.

Action moves back to the present day. The agents know a little more than they did before, and they have leads that indicate where the McGuffin is, or alternately, who the opposition are. X, it turns out, is just as interested in the McGuffin as the agents are, and is actively looking for it. Is this is double-bluff? Is X looking for the McGuffin because it's actually lost, or because X is pretending to look for it to confuse the issue? This would be a good time for an Antagonist Reaction, or possibly a straight-up vampire moment, as in 'someone got eaten by vampires! They must be closing in!'

Action moves back to the Thrilling scene. The characters, if they're still free, are on their way to the records room. If caught, they're being dragged to the records room by their captors, who don't dare let them out of sight. The final test is to get in there, get the stuff, and out again.

However, a lot now depends on where they are in the Thrilling moment. If the agents are close to 10, which means they're close to winning, then they're one step ahead of the opposition and have unfettered access to the records. So the only people between them and the McGuffin are a few frightened soon-to-be-ex Stasi spies in the records who are frantically shredding everything they can get their hands on. Treat these as mooks (Thugs) as above, except that any show of force (Intimidation) cows them. They'll beat feet if challenged.

If, on the other hand, the agents have been losing badly and have no hope of getting to 10 or pulling off some game-changing Maneuver, then the opposition in the records room is much tougher. Whoever's their main competition (the CIA? the Russians? Vampires?) got there first. Now the agents have to either brace themselves for a fight, or make a really difficult Infiltration check. If, in previous scenes, they took a lot of damage then fighting isn't going to appeal. Let's hope their Infiltration pools are up to it.

This is the capstone moment of the Thrilling scene, so play it for all its worth. If the Director's really feeling cruel, characters in the Thrilling scene could even be mesmerized or vampirized, which retrospectively means that Network contact or important NPC was always working with the enemy, either as a Renfield, or …

Cue the final scene in the present day. The agents close in on the McGuffin. Maybe they retrieve it or maybe they don't, but this is where everyone decides whether the McGuffin is real or not. If the Thrilling scene was a success, then the 1990 characters retained control of the McGuffin so the players can decide whether it's real or not. Their decision may depend on who has it now; if the agents have it they might prefer it to be real, but if the opposition carried it off then the players may rather it was fake. If the Director decides whether it's real, presumably because the Thrilling scene did not go well for the players, then pick whichever option hoses them the most.

Enjoy!

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Members' Voluntary Liquidation (Night's Black Agents)

You may have seen recent news articles about Gate Ventures, a British entertainment investment company that, its Chinese investors allege, ripped off its shareholders while at the same time making massive loans to celebrity backer Sarah Ferguson, (aka Fergie, aka Duchess of York) and handing out multimillion pound freebies to its former chair, Hong Kong businessman Doctor Johnny Hon. The company's investors put in over £24 million between them; the company now has less than  £5 million left, and can't afford to pay its lawyers, who recently quit. The company's current chair, Lord Grade, is now personally fighting the court case being brought by angry investors. Fergie and the Doctor jumped ship in 2019 and 2017 respectively. 

The Brits among you may remember that this isn't Fergie's first brush with financial unpleasantness. She was stung by a News of the World reporter back in 2010, in a cash-for-access exposé. There was loose talk about bankruptcy at about the same time, but Jeffrey Epstein, (yes, it is he), saved her with a loan. Her husband had an altogether different relationship with Epstein.

Johnny Hon, meanwhile, is doing very well for himself. The motto on his coat of arms, granted in 2018, is Ambition, Perseverance, Success. Apparently you can get that sort of thing from the Lyon Court if you own property in Scotland and are prepared to pay a fee. One wonders if Fergie lent a hand.

You may be wondering what members' voluntary liquidation is. In brief: if you are a company and want to die, you have to be wound-up. It's not unlike the reading of the will in a detective novel, except this time all the weeping relatives are actually weeping creditors. Their grief is none the less real, I'm sure. The assets of the company are then disposed of, in an exercise that can be prolonged or brief, depending on how much the company has in the bank and how angry the weeping creditors are. The longer it lasts the less cash there will be for the members, as whatever the company had left after paying its debts will be spent on admin and legal fees.

In a members' voluntary, all the members - the shareholders - have to agree that the winding-up should take place. In this instance, the shareholders were offered a carrot. They were told that if they agreed, the chair would be able to dispose of what was left of the company at a good price, thus allowing the shareholders to take home more money. If they had agreed, the winding-up process would be much easier.

They did not. One investor in particular, Zheng Youngxiong, aka Quentin, wants to know what happened to all those loans and freebies. His fellow investors, many of whom were sucked in by celebrity-studded investment drives held in Macau, are just as angry.

You have to wonder how Lord Grade thought he'd get away with members voluntary, particularly since the rats leaving the ship ought to have been a clear sign that she was holed beneath the waterline and the pumps were shagged. Or to put it in current terms, when the founders of the company vest their stock options and take long vacations in the fabled land of Anywhere But Here, now is the time to update your CV.

Now, what's in a McGuffin?


Video sourced from Overly Sarcastic Productions, highly recommended for lovers of tropes and history. Sometimes both at the same time.

When Hitchcock was still above ground, McGuffins were often plans - of the fort, the bomb, the experimental aircraft, whatever. The spies want it, so it's important. In the Cold War it made perfect sense that McGuffins were tools of war. In the modern world of fractured loyalties it's all about the dolla, dolla bills, so financial records make perfect McGuffins. They might be Worthless (my God! someone wiped the hard drive!), Tactical or Walking. In this instance someone like Quentin would be the Walking McGuffin, the only living person who really knows where the financial records are buried. It's the agents' job to make sure he lives long enough to testify.

The great thing about a financial scam is that it gives the Director an excuse for having scenes in smoke-filled rooms, casinos, or parking garages, where the agents try to flip an informant. Scenes without gunfights, very Dust plus a hint of Mirror, with looming dread of what might come. After all, if you follow the money, you don't know where it will take you.  

With all that in mind:

Members' Voluntary Liquidation

The agents are hired by a third party to go to Macau and meet with Cindy Cho, a financial expert and professional investor, who according to rumor is the whistleblower in a major scandal that's about to hit the City. Cindy is a significant investor in a gaming, gambling and entertainment mutual fund run by a London-based LLC, Eden Soul. The company's face and CEO is [insert celebrity here - or if playing the Dracula Dossier, insert Legacy], but according to City gossip the CEO's backed by some fairly dangerous characters. The City thinks it's a scam run out of Saudi Arabia to launder money, but the agents may wonder if the Conspiracy's involved.

Eden Soul is on the rocks and wants to wind up its affairs. The CEO's appealing to the shareholders in an attempt to get the company wound up without public fuss. Cindy Cho bought Eden Soul stock specifically so she would have a voice in company business; she represents a bloc of Chinese investors who bought into the mutual fund, since its business is gambling and Macau's a gambling town.  In the process she learned a lot more about Eden Soul than she ever wanted to. She knows where the money went, what it bought, and who benefited. She's making a stink, and if she and her notes ever see the inside of a courtroom it will be bad times for Eden Soul and its CEO, never mind those mysterious backers.

The agents must make sure she does have her day in court. If she doesn't live long enough, they have to get her notes to the press, or the financial regulator.

But, the agents may justly wonder, who is this third party who hired us to get it done?
  • The Cushing Protocol. The third party is a well-heeled vampire hunter, possibly backed by the Vatican. The vampire hunter suspects, rightly, that Eden Soul is a machine designed by the Conspiracy to part suckers from their money so it can be spent on Conspiracy projects. The CEO is a hapless pawn, with minimal knowledge of Conspiracy affairs but a healthy regard for their own skin.  
  •  The Hellsing Sanction. The third party is a Conspiracy puppet. The Conspiracy wants Cho silenced and the agents are Judas Goats whose purpose is to deliver Cho to them on a silver platter. The CEO is neck-deep in Conspiracy dealings but wants out, and the CEO knows the truth about the third party. The agents might find the CEO is an unexpected ally, if they offer some kind of deal.
  •  The Hades Directive. The third party is a wealthy investor who knows nothing about the Conspiracy but thinks that Cho's the real deal, who can help the investor stick it to Eden Soul and its sneaky CEO. The problem with that plan is Cho's actually a plant, designed to draw the third party out into the open. Then the Conspiracy can deal with the pesky investor once and for all.
Finally, the McGuffin: 
  •  Cho and her photographic memory. Treat as Civilian with effective 3 point pools in Accountancy and Bureaucracy, no self-defense skills whatsoever, Hit Threshold 3, Health 1. Allergies, you know …
  •  Cho's laptop/external hard drive. Of course it's encrypted. The question is, who encrypted it? If it was Chinese Military Intelligence, then it's probably as well protected as any electronic device can be, with extra spicy viruses waiting to snap the trap shut. If Cho did it, the encryption is basic stuff bought from a civilian vendor. If it was the Triads, then chances are good the drive itself is bogus and the McGuffin worthless; the Triads wouldn't leave anything like that hanging around for ordinary people to look at. Or maybe their crypto guy screwed up and wiped the drive when trying to protect it.
  •  Cho's notes. She doesn't believe in electronic devices. Those things can be hacked. Besides, she thinks better on paper. Yes, those are coffee stains. Yes, they are heavily annotated in her own personal shorthand. Why yes. they are scattered across several different journals so they can be easily separated and carried off by mischievous thieves, spies, or vampires. Why do you ask? 
Enjoy!

Sunday, 8 March 2020

All Aboard The Saturnia! (Trail of Cthulhu)


I like cruise liners. They're especially useful locations for horror narratives. An enclosed space, often exotic or opulent, far from shore (and the authorities), populated by an ever-changing cast of characters. In the classic period of liner travel (broadly 1890s through to 1940s) these queens of the ocean serve two purposes: first, ambassadors for their nation. Second, transport for the vital, lucrative immigrant trade. The Titanic of legend, for all its gilt and glory, was practically an immigrant ship, earning its money off her 709 Third Class passengers, the vast majority of whom drowned - including most of the Third Class children.

This time out I want to draw your attention to MS Saturnia, launched 1927 by the Cosulich Line, later the Italian Line. Built in a Monfalcone shipyard, she's capable of carrying 2,196 passengers from Italy (Trieste, Venice) to New York, or 279 First Class, 257 Second Class, 310 Third Class, and 1,350 Fourth Class. That last are the ones going to New York permanently; the rest are probably only there to visit. She's capable of 19 knots on a good day with her twin screw engines, or a little over 20 miles per hour.

Inside, she's a Beaux-Arts wonderland, gaudy marble, stained glass, wood paneling and more Gods (Roman, naturally) than you can shake a stick at. Her indoor swimming pool is practically a Roman bath. Her pride and joy is a vast internal gallery locked off from the rest of the ship with wrought iron gates, which was probably intended for those passengers (First and Second Class, most likely - no Fourth Class plebeians here) who didn't enjoy ocean travel and wanted to be as far removed from shipboard life as possible. Here they could relax in an atmosphere that wouldn't shame a feudal banquet hall, never having to so much as smell the sea.

Naturally things did not go well for her during the War. She became the American hospital ship Frances Y. Slanger and most of her finery, including her bath and gallery, was torn out and not replaced. She went back to Italy after the war and continued to carry passengers until 1966, when she was scrapped. The Italians had a very slight advantage in the age of jet travel; their ships tended to be smaller, so they lost less money than did the larger Queens of the Sea. However, that advantage wasn't enough to save MS Saturnia. Nor was it really enough to save the Italian Line, which operated at a tremendous loss (on government subsidies) for many years and only saved itself by switching over to freight shipping. These days what's left of the Italian Line is part of Hapag-Lloyds, though in a Dracula Dossier game there's always a chance HGD Shipping bought her out instead.



Her glory years are the 1930s, which is the same period as most Trail games. She's also not a bad pick for some pre-War Night's Black Agents gaming. The Gestapo regularly used cruise liners as transport for its couriers; no doubt the Servizio Informazioni Militare did something similar. In an age before jet aircraft ocean liners are the only way from Europe to the New World, so if your Big Bad wants to get to New York then hi ho the ocean waves, and let's hope seasickness isn't a vampire Bane.

Or perhaps someone wants to get their occult item of choice from Europe to the Americas. Even an occult building of choice, since the 1920s-30s is also the time when eccentric American millionaires are buying up European monasteries, castles and churches, and dragging them across the ocean blue. William Randolph Hearst brought St. Bernard de Clairvaux from Spain to New York city in 1926, though it ended up in Florida. Gothic chapels, Renaissance chateaux, manor houses, practically anything with a patina of age on it could be uprooted, sailed across to New York, and planted somewhere scenic. The Depression put a bit of a gloom on the market for historic buildings, and by 1939 you couldn't unload a castle for anything like what you might have paid for it in 1929. That said, your basic antique masterpiece was still making the journey from the Old World to the New right up to the outbreak of war.

Image sourced from the Museum of the City of New York

For similar images please go to the Museum's website. There's a ton of useful resources there.

With all that in mind:

The Transporter

You and your companions have been hired to shepherd an Italian castle from Venice to New York, aboard MS Saturnia. You're a short-notice replacement for the original custodian, who fell critically ill at an unfortunate moment. You must make sure all the crates are safely stowed, shipped and delivered to its new owner, the architect Philip Lehmann, who hopes to sell it on to an American buyer. He's already had several offers. Hearst himself is said to be interested.

Castello della Fontana, built 1180 and allegedly a Templar stronghold once upon a time, has a nasty reputation. A ghostly nun and a headless knight, as well as two demonic children, are supposed to infest its gloomy corridors. It's said the Inquisition burnt the children at the stake, though the details of the trial are not known. However, Lehmann's only interested in the castle as an architectural and historic artefact, not as some kind of carnival spook-show. He's packed every least item, down to the candlesticks, each with a detailed description of where it was in the castle and where it should be put. He's gone ahead to New York to make arrangements for storage. It's the investigators' job to make sure nothing happens to his precious castle.

If the characters are an unprepossessing mix of unemployables and occultists, then Lehmann probably hired them because they speak English. He distrusts foreigners. This is especially likely if any of the investigators are American.

The initial load, on the docks of Trieste, is fraught with the usual brushes with catastrophe. Is a box missing? Was that box that landed with an almighty thump the one marked delicate that contained the antique, irreplaceable china and crystal goblets? Why is that customs official going crimson with rage?

However, during all this the investigators notice a family that is taking more than the usual interest in them. Papa, mama, two small children, all impeccably turned out, clearly upper class. Yet they never speak, and have no servants, which seems unusual for people of their social standing. Whenever the investigators pay close attention to them they are nowhere to be found, yet whenever something goes wrong with the load they are on the sidelines, watching closely.

Throughout the journey the investigators see them again and again. Never in the dining rooms, never eating or drinking - but they're always there, in the gallery, near the pool, in the music room, the reading room, on the first class stairwell, window shopping in one of the many fashionable stores on board. They seem to stand apart from the rest of the crowd, and they always stare at the investigators with unfathomable, dark, hypnotic eyes.

What's Going On:

The Knight, Nun and Demon Children: The castle ghosts are just as keen to get out of Italy as Lehmann is to get their castle to New York. However, the last thing they want is for something to go wrong with the journey, so they're paying extra attention to the investigators to make sure that doesn't happen. Of course, if the investigators do something that might imperil the shipment (or let that precious china crack) then they're fair game. Carelessness must be punished ...

Exorcists: The 'family' is a cover for a group of occultists determined to put an end to the castle's demons once and for all. The 'father' is an ex-Vatican exorcist, the 'mother' his devoted sister, and the children her children, brought along because there was no way she was leaving them with their deadbeat, atheist, Communist father. Trouble is, bringing children along gives the castle's demon kids opportunities for possession ...

The Autumn Moon is Bright: Did you know that when Lycaon sacrificed his son and turned him into a pie to serve to Zeus, who then punished Lycaon and his fifty sons by making them lycanthropes, that Lycaon's son Peucetius went to Puglia in Italy, bringing the family's werewolf curse with him? Well, now you do, and so will the investigators when they learn that the castle comes from Puglia, notorious werewolf haven. The family are the castle's true owners, who want to escape Italy and live in the New World, but they refuse to leave the family home behind. So they bullied Lehmann into buying their castle - 'do as we say or you will share our werewolf curse.' That's why he was so eager to get to New York, and leave the shipping to a bunch of nobodies who could, for all he cared, get eaten alive. Of course, it's a long journey from Italy to New York, and the children aren't used to fasting ...

Enjoy!

Sunday, 1 March 2020

One of Them (NBA, Esoterrorists, Trail)

This week's entry comes courtesy of Marie de Garis' Folklore of Guernsey. I don't recall seeing anything similar in any other folklore collection. The story goes something like this:

There are people who can spread vermin by touch. Often referred to as i'une de chs-s-la (One of Them, and spelling is as it appears in the book) these people are usually cold to the touch and are regarded with fear, as one who is in close contact with Satan. Their curse is always the same: the target is infected, overrun with lice and vermin. This cannot be countered by any normal means, and lasts for three days. After that, the insects vanish as mysteriously as they arrived.

How is it contrived? asks de Garis. Inquiry does not lead us very far. Some people say it is by touch … others by incantations and/or prayers; most blame the 'bad books.'  By which de Garis means the Alberts, Grand and Peitit, those well-known grimoires which feature so prominently in Brittany folklore. The most recent incident de Garis was aware of happened during the German occupation, so at some point in the 1940s.

The Vermin Curse is an embarrassment rather than something dangerous, but it could become dangerous in the right circumstances. Body lice act as vectors for spreading human pathogens, after all. Fleas have been known to carry all manner of horrible plagues. However in the instances quoted by de Garis the attack is always the result of some kind of grudge or spite, and never does long-term harm.

OK, so where is this going? Here we have a person, a suspected Satanist or at the very least with bad blood running in their veins, who likes to spitefully annoy their neighbors. It's the kind of curse you'd use to bully people, which suggests the person using it is a natural bully, someone who doesn't think twice before taking a swing at whoever they dislike. They're not naturally powerful people, but they sound like the kind who'd really like to have power.

I'd assume a Civilian base, possibly with a Gym Rat bump. They're not directly linked to the Conspiracy nor are they vampires or Renfields. They're what's left over after centuries of biological tinkering, the bye-blow of countless examples of vampire blood getting into the population. They don't know anything and they don't have any real power, but they're the type who might really get interested in, say, a Satanic Cult of Dracula. Or in a non-NBA setting they could be natural Esoterrorists, would-be witches who never got very far in the craft. Or in Trail they could be some remnants of long-forgotten Elder Thing experimentation.

They all have Aberrance 4, and one Ability (cost 1 per use): Summon Vermin Swarm. Like NBA's Heat Drain, the possessor is cold to the touch, but where heat drain does +0 damage this does -3 damage (minimum 0) and the vermin effect lasts for 3 days. The vermin cannot be counteracted by any ordinary means.

So using the NBA categories of Mutant, Supernatural, Damned and Alien:

Mutant: One of Them is what happens when Renfields breed. It's something in that swamp-like bloodline; they just don't behave like ordinary folks. Often they band together in clans or groups, for self-protection. When that happens only one or two in the group are genuinely One of Them, but they all behave as if they were.

Supernatural: One of Them can be created in several ways, but one of the more common (or it used to be more common, anyway) is to fall asleep inside a fairy ring. The spirits take notice of you then, and sometimes give you a gift.

Damned: One of Them is a descendant of witches, those who pledged their tainted blood to the service of Satan. Or perhaps One of Them read one of the forbidden books, and is now cursed. These debased creatures are well aware of their situation, and use it to their advantage so far as they can, by terrorizing others into feeding and caring for them.

Alien: This is what happens when you drink water tainted by the Color Out Of Space. Or perhaps get too close to a dolmen, or spend a night in a pyramid. You're just far away enough from the tainted source to not be completely annihilated - but it changed you forever.

Enjoy!


Sunday, 23 February 2020

Ireland's Ghost Tanker (NBA, Esoterrorists)

This week's post is inspired by the recent discovery of derelict MV Alta, recently breached on the coast of Ireland.

MV Alta, a merchant vessel over 2000 tons and originally known as Tanager when she was launched in 1976, got into difficulties near Bermuda in September 2018. A power outage brought her to a halt, and Tropical Storm Leslie was bearing down on her. Her 10-man crew were recovered safely, and the ship towed to Guyana where it was subsequently stolen. It was next spotted in August 2019, abandoned and adrift in the mid-Atlantic. From that moment to this her exact whereabouts were unknown, until she washed ashore near Ballycotton, a fishing village in County Cork.

For those of you unfamiliar with Guyana, I present these unedited excerpts from the CIA World Factbook:

Trafficking In Persons

Current situation: Guyana is a source and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor – children are particularly vulnerable; women and girls from Guyana, Venezuela, Suriname, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic are forced into prostitution in Guyana’s interior mining communities and urban areas; forced labor is reported in mining, agriculture, forestry, domestic service, and shops; Guyanese nationals are also trafficked to Suriname, Jamaica, and other Caribbean countries for sexual exploitation and forced labor. 

Tier rating: Tier 2 Watch List – Guyana does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so; in 2014, Guyana was granted a waiver from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3 because its government has a written plan that, if implemented would constitute making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; the government released its anti-trafficking action plan in June 2014 but made uneven efforts to implement it; law enforcement was weak, investigating seven trafficking cases, prosecuting four alleged traffickers, and convicting one trafficker – a police officer – who was released on bail pending appeal; in 2014, as in previous years, Guyanese courts dismissed the majority of ongoing trafficking prosecutions; the government referred some victims to care services, which were provided by NGOs with little or no government support (2015).

Illicit Drugs

Transshipment point for narcotics from South America - primarily Venezuela - to Europe and the US; producer of cannabis; rising money laundering related to drug trafficking and human smuggling.

In short, whatever MV Alta was up to after she was stolen, it most likely involved people smuggling or drug smuggling. Or both.

Stealing ships from port for drug smuggling was, and to an extent still is, a problem in the Caribbean. It's the easiest thing in the world to take a ship while it's in port, or at anchor close to shore. Either you get one of your own put aboard her as crew - "I'm a student working my was across the Caribbean" - or sneak aboard at night, butcher anyone you find, and fill the yacht with whatever narcotic you're selling this week. Generally speaking a yacht might make one or two trips this way before becoming too well known to the US Coast Guard, at which point you scuttle her or set her adrift.

However, that was the 1980s. These days it's considered much easier to smuggle your narcotics in a merchant vessel; you can carry more, and are unlikely to be stopped or searched. Given the timeline it's likely MV Alta made at least one trip to the East Coast of the US, or possibly more than one trip to Venezuela. That she was abandoned suggests one of two things happened: she became too well known to the authorities, or she was never properly repaired after being stolen, and became too much of a liability for her hijackers.

I should note that some sources allege the ship was never towed anywhere, but left to drift after her crew was rescued in 2018. This seems odd. The US Coast Guard, which rescued the crew, isn't in the habit of letting abandoned ships drift where they please. The South China News alleges it was hijacked in Guyana not once, but twice. According to Fleetmon, someone alleging to be the owner claimed that in 2018 they hired salvagers to tow her who turned out to be smugglers, but that MV Alta was stolen from the smugglers when it reached Guyana.

Incidentally those of you wondering if this is going to involve bodies in the fridge unit, anything is possible but if that was going to happen I think we'd all know about it by now. The Irish have many fine qualities, but reticence is not among them.

Ballycotton sounds like one of those More Irish Than The Irish destinations, where you can comfortably expect all your clichés to come true. No doubt like many another tourist destination there's an underclass of locals who can't afford to live there any more, but who barely rate a mention in the council meetings. In fact it reminds me not a little of a film called Grabbers, which I highly recommend:


So with all that in mind, a one-shot:

The Movie Pilot

The characters are all teens and would-be YouTubers living in the Quaint-with-a-capital-Q village of [Insert Name Here], where, for the first time in living memory, something exciting has happened. A derelict merchant ship has run aground on one of the nearby beaches, thoroughly bolloxing the tourist trade with threat of oil leaks (or worse)! It'd make a real change from Fortnite live streaming if you could get aboard her and take some first-hand footage of the ghost ship. Of course, the Gardaí have put her off limits, with a few coppers on patrol, but they're all local lads and you're pretty confident you can get past them no problem.

In fact, you've a financial inducement for so doing (pick one):

  • The ship's owners have contacted you by email and asked you to recover something from the captain's cabin. They've offered you a small fortune in Bitcoin for the work.  
  • Your mate Mick who hangs round the pool tables at the Moby Dick's pub swears blind there's a small fortune in narcotics aboard, and is willing to shell out the readies if you can recover some of it for him to sell.
  • A fella who says he's a biologist from Oxford wants samples of whatever's in the hold, and is prepared to pay big time if you'll fill his test tubes for him.
Naturally the cargo ship isn't completely abandoned. That would be far too easy. Pick one:

  • Alien space vampires who drained the crew's blood and are now looking for somewhere quiet and dark to hide out.
  • Ghosts of hijack victims who were left to suffocate in the refrigeration unit, and who possess anyone unwary enough to come aboard.
  • Strange and exceptionally dangerous chemicals have brewed a quasi-Shoggoth which lives in the cargo hold and oozes out for victims whenever it gets a hankering for fresh protein.
Enjoy!