Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ripped from the Headlines (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Just a quick one this week to highlight a few newspaper articles that intrigued me, and may prove useful to Night's Black Agents Directors.

First the inspired and somewhat quixotic theft of two million quid's worth of books. I really hope the thieves aren't going to cut the things apart for their illustrations. That would be a tragedy,  but as a heist it has all the hallmarks of greatness. Whoever carried it out knew the target's security measures and knew exactly what to steal; that takes planning as well as flair. Plus there's a decent chance this was a theft to order, and that sort of thing is meat & drink to a Night's Black Agents Director. A group of thieves and ne'er-do-wells are gathered by some shadowy well-heeled sociopath to steal a small fortune in unsellable manuscripts? You couldn't ask for a better start to the campaign.

Next, a Dracula Dossier connection: The Harker Scene-Painting Studio is about to be turned into flats. Bram Stoker, when he worked at the Lyceum, became great friends with Joseph Harker, a scene painter and theatrical chandler, hence Jonathon Harker the Dracula character. Harker's studio survived until the 1980s when it was bought by Flint's, another theatrical chandler which still manufactures the signature color Harker's Red. Now the Grade II listed building is to be sold off, and several of Harker's descendants visited the studio to find Joseph's scrawled name, along with those of several of his family who went into the family trade, carefully preserved on the studio wall.

As a Director you could do many things with this information. To begin with it adds a hidden layer of depth to Billie Harker, Lucy Blythe and J.Q. Harker if they happen to be part of this grand theatrical tradition. Billie in particular could do with a switch from law student to RADA grad, perhaps working as showrunner or scriptwriter for a BBC epic about horror movies. Perhaps Lucy Blythe's name is up on that wall with all the other Harkers, or maybe J.Q. wanted to make a switch from a military career to an artistic one only to be badgered into submission by his domineering father.

As a location it has all kinds of benefits. A Grade II listed building that's seen out Dracula, the original vampire hunters and all their progeny, preserving the history of the generations? Was some secret hid in those brick walls, or stored for safekeeping under the floorboards?

Even as a Cool site the grand backdrops on their massive frames loom overhead like memories blustering in an empty head, and the weight of history hangs heavy on visitors. Some of the names on the wall are recognizable as Edom cut-outs or friendlies. Is that peculiar stain all that's left of a pool of blood spilt decades ago, or an old Harker's Red accident? If anything's still here, it's at best a minor artefact, or even a fake; or perhaps the Conspiracy hid a red herring here for foolish spies to follow straight into a trap.

As a Warm site it's probably used as an Edom safehouse-cum-meeting place, nice and anonymous. People come and go all the time, and nobody remarks on it if a stranger arrives here to never be seen again. That unmarked white van isn't at all suspicious, not when dozens like it are here every week. Perhaps Edom keeps the studio active out of some sense of family history, or because Billie agreed to become an Edom asset only if it helped keep the business alive. Maybe there's a temporary holding cell somewhere in the basement for Renfields captured in the course of an operation, somewhere safe, secure and anonymous for short-term stays before being moved on to better accommodation elsewhere. Probably last used in the 1970s, but even so if those walls could talk ... It's also a great hiding place for old artefacts, like the 1890's Cryptic Lockbox, or Aytown's Photographic Studies. Perhaps Harker's cameo is hanging, long forgotten, not far from the framed section of the wall protecting all the family signatures.

Last up is the assassination of Kim-Jong nam, half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim-Jong un. The 45-year-old exile and gadabout was apparently sprayed in the face by an aerosol poison, while walking through an airport shopping concourse. The alleged assailants, two women, say they thought they were taking part in a comedy reality show. Their brief was to convince businessmen to close their eyes, at which point the two would spray them in the face with water. Except in Kim Jong-nam's case it wasn't just tap water, and he died shortly afterwards.

Let's say the women's story is accurate on its face. If so, kudos to their shadowy employers for coming up with a scheme that Bugs Bunny would have been proud of. This is the kind of lateral thinking I'd expect to see at the gaming table, but never in real life.

Also, it can be an instructive and frightening few minutes to research potential bioterroism agents that can be deployed via aerosol. "There is no vaccine or prophylactic immunotherapy available for human use." Oh goody. That'll help me sleep at night.

But from a Director's POV it does open up some interesting possibilities. Can Vampires deploy a spray agent to create Renfields? Or even just make a target more vulnerable to special abilities like Cloud Men's Minds or Mental Attack? Even a bog-standard hallucinogenic would be a reasonable attack agent, something to incapacitate without leaving significant traces for CSI to follow up later.

Of course, you'd have to come up with a scheme that allowed you the perfect shot. Simply breaking into someone's hotel room armed with a spray canister probably isn't going to get you what you want. Clocking someone in the face with a spritz of perfume would do it, especially in a crowded place where such an action might go without comment. A similar moment provided an inciting incident for a West Wing episode, in which POTUS secretary Debbie Fiderer thought she'd been spritzed by a couple sitting next to her at a public event.

"I thought they were guests of Leno's, but it turned out they weren't," Debbie says. "While they finished with the party ahead of us, I didn't even see the woman get in her bag and sffh! She spritzed right into my face." "You say this aerosol got on you?" the military doctor asks. Without waiting for a response, the doctor immediately shuts everything down and calls for a full decontamination process. And that's how you immobilize the White House for the evening. It's the sort of thing that might happen anywhere; in a restaurant, at a gala event, on the subway. Totally innocuous, totally deniable, and the ones who make the attack - if it is an attack - vanish into the crowd like ghosts.

Or you could go whole hog and spray an entire room or building with the stuff, like a Batman villain with zero restraint and a flair for the dramatic. But this only works if you don't mind the media fallout that will inevitably follow.

From a rules perspective, aerosol toxins are thoroughly covered in the main book, p78-9. If I had to put a number on it, I'd say whatever was used to dose Kim Jong-nam was a +6 damage aerosol attack agent. Almost all [toxins] will reliably kill or incapacitate all but the most dramatically robust of NPCs - human NPCs, that is, says Ken Hite. Too true, says Kim-Jong-un.

That's it for now! See you next week.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Campaign Design Vampire Style 3: Initial Arc & Pyramid (Night's Black Agents)

We've talked about power and goals as well as things the Keeper needs to know before plotting the campaign. Now we're at the point where we can start talking about the first arc and the Conspyramid that the characters will spend their - probably short - lives trying to dismantle. What happens next?

Going back to core principles, we need the opening act to be true to the overall mood. Now we know what that mood is: a slightly downbeat, gritty style of play in which the characters will be engaged in lots of infiltration, hacking, possibly assassination, probably theft, high-speed chases and a relatively small amount of combat.

Munich's a good example of this kind of film, as is Forsythe's Day of the Jackal or The Boys from Brazil. In fact Boys may be a better example than most, since despite its sci-fi conceit the plot ultimately revolves around a series of assassinations, with the protagonist having to work out why all this killing's necessary.

The next question that's going to be on the Director's mind is, how detailed does the Conspyramid need to be at this stage? After all, designing the vampire conspiracy is a large part of the central conceit of the campaign. Surely the Director needs to know what the conspiracy has at its disposal?

Well, yes and no. The Director needs to know who or what is at the top of the pyramid, giving all the orders. The Director also needs to know, in detail, what the agents will initially be dealing with. In order for this to happen the Director needs to have a firm idea of what's at the entry-level Conspyramid point, whichever point that happens to be.

To give an example: if the Director intends that the agents will first encounter a power at the Provincial level (3 on the Pyramid scale) then the Director needs to fully flesh out that power. What the Director does not necessarily need to do is fully flesh out the levels below that power or above it.

It would be handy to have a basic idea what those powers are, of course. The Director doesn't want to be in the unenviable position of handwaving everything and then furiously writing backstory between sessions.

But there is a degree of player freedom in Nights that we don't see in, say, Bookhounds. The agents are encouraged to take responsibility for their own thrills, remember. Be bold and seize the initiative say the Bucharest Rules in the main book.  Pick the most awesome alternative say the Cartagena Rules in Double Tap. Keep moving forward. Hack the exposition. Do something unexpected. Repeated again and again, like a mantra, is the tag line thrills are everybody's business.

In improv this is the 'yes, and' principle. Not rule; in improv there are no rules. The point being that when an actor in a scene throws out a potential line of action - 'how could you sleep with my wife!' - the response should never be 'but I didn't do that!' It should always accept the premise and work with it. 'I couldn't help it, I was drunk,' or 'I've loved her for years, it was a moment of weakness,' or even 'she loves it when I put on the clown costume' are acceptable responses. No never is.

So in a given scene if the agents fall foul of, say, the cops in Dubai and one of the agents suspects vampire involvement, that's not a moment the Director wants to squash. Instead that's the time to get the Renfielded Police Special Unit involved. Which creates a new Node that you will have to work into the pyramid somehow, or adds a layer of complication to an existing Node that you will have to integrate into the ongoing plot.

For that reason while the Director ought to have a basic idea of the pyramid structure it's always handy to leave a few connections vague, or even blank. Then you can fit things into the plot as and when required.

Incidentally if your response as Director is 'but that seems implausible; surely I need to know everything before the game starts,' I pose this question: just how plausible is the Bourne series, really? There are fifteen novels so far, only three of which were written by Ludlum, and that's before you consider the films. If you were to try to untangle that unholy mess you'd go stark staring mad

If plausibility was a benchmark nobody'd write spy fiction ever again. This is one of the main differences between spy fiction and mystery fiction: where in a whodunit the readers always want there to be a good solution to the puzzle, and get bent out of shape if you fudge things with the detective's unaccountable intuition or mysterious twins that weren't mentioned until the final chapter, in spy fiction you can get away with the implausible so long as it looks good on paper.

Bond himself has stolen pirate gold from a Caribbean dictator and crime lord, and foiled a raid on Fort Knox orchestrated by every single American crime syndicate plus veterans of the Red Ball Express, in the novels. In the movies he's done everything from space travel to kinky sex in a submarine. Does any of this sound plausible to you?   

So to go back to last week, we have four agents looking for an insert point. The insert point is a Node on the Pyramid. I'm not going to go over old ground, as I've discussed Nodes before. For a brief recap, all you need to remember is:

[a] Node should be treated no differently from a Villain, for the purposes of campaign design. A Node should have power to affect the plot. A Node has things it wants, things it's in charge of, things it's prepared to kill for. A Node has personality, and it's up to the Director what that personality ought to be.

I'm going to opt for a Level 3 Node insertion point, and use Bankhaus Klingemann, of Bonn, as the Node in question. I'm going to use Paris as a backdrop and plan for most of the initial action taking place there. Conspiracy asset Albert Ahrens controls the Paris branch of the Bankhaus, and we'll say for the sake of this discussion that I've designed the Paris branch thoroughly, including potential Antagonist Reactions and set-pieces. I already know that I have a hacker, two infiltration experts and a Wire Rat in the team, so I've given thought as to the potential Thrilling Scenes involving hacking, infiltration and probable reaction to those actions, from the authorities as well as the Conspiracy.

I'll say that the main scenes take place at a development conference, patterned after the dotSecurity conference. One of the attendees is Eric Klingemann, Lisle's family rival. I already know that Lisle wants to ease Eric out of the family business, because Eric has blackmail material on her. I also know, thanks to the overarching meta-plot, that there's a rivalry between the Conspiracy that Lisle sold her soul to, the European Mutant Vampires, and their Chinese rivals.

So here's the basic bones:

Lisle hires the agents, through a cut-out, to infiltrate the conference and steal vital data from her brother's heavily encrypted and protected personal computer. She knows that her bosses wouldn't approve of her taking out Eric because that draws too much attention to Bankhaus Klingemann, but she needs Eric out of the way and that Need is stronger than her Need to keep the vampires happy. She intends to murder Eric and make it look like the agents did it. She also intends to make it look as if the agents are in league with the Chinese mutant vampires. That way her bosses will think this was all part of the meta-plot, not a private quarrel between siblings.

Albert has a kill team on standby to finish the agents off as soon as Eric's out of the way. The intent is to have the agents plus a couple of Chinese Renfields all get killed by Albert's people, to make it look like the agents were caught with their Chinese paymasters by Albert's heroic countermeasures. Thus Bankhaus Klingemann's dynamic duo get what they want and keep their own hands seemingly clean.

From this point there could be all kinds of future developments. The Chinese mutant vampires, suitably outraged, might go after the agents next, only to attempt to recruit them as soon as they realize the agents were just patsies. The agents may go after Albert, and find all kinds of peculiar things in his Lisle-a-like dungeon. Or the agents may end up in Bonn, trying to plumb the depths of the Bankhaus Klingemann Node. From there they may discover that Bankhaus Klingemann's been funding some peculiar research laboratories all over Europe, working on some mysterious plant hybrid.

From there ... but you get the idea.

Enough! Next week, something completely different.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Campaign Design Vampire Style Part 2 (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Before I dive in, a bit of housekeeping.

I mentioned I'm involved in Stygian Fox's Fear's Sharp Little Needles Kickstarter. Well since that post the campaign has exceeded all expectations and is now well on its way to hitting several high stretch goals. As a consequence I'm writing more stuff, both for the main KS and for the backer exclusive pdf Aspirations, unlocked at the twenty thousand quid level. Want me to write even more stuff? Pledge more money!

Now, on to the main attraction.

So we have the bare bones, a mutant vampire conspiracy with its Goals and basic Power level. From here another question arises: what kind of scenarios will we be designing for this campaign? Following on from that, how do we begin plotting the Arc?

When this question came up for Bookhounds I said:

The answer to that is you need the first act to establish the setting, the characters and the overall mood of the game. Whether the players are veterans, novices or a mixture of the two, they've never played in this game world before, because it's your game world, fashioned out of your ideas and imagination ... They don't even have to encounter the Mythos, or anything supernatural, in the opening act, so long as the opening act is true to the overall mood.

This is still true, but there's a caveat. Bookhounds is all about quiet horror. You can afford to be slow and subtle in the opening arc of a Bookhounds campaign. However Night's Black Agents is a different beast, because in an espionage movie it's all about the thrills.

Those may come in different flavors. The Bourne Identity has a different style, a different feel, from Munich. For purposes of arc design that does not matter as much as you'd think; the basic principle is still the same, whether you're going for high-octane Stakes or low-fi Dust:

They don't have to encounter anything supernatural in the opening act, so long as the opening act is true to the overall mood.

The Harker Intrusion, a free RPG pdf release, is a classic example. In that scenario while there are supernatural elements the opposition is low-key, and could easily pass for normal. The only significant supernatural threat remains off-stage. If the players start digging up random coffins then yes, they will find something nasty. But that keeps the decision in the players' hands, an optional extra rather than part of the main plot.

Just bear this in mind: whatever you do, whichever scenario you opt for or design, it has to be true to the overall mood.

So what is that mood?

To a certain degree this should be discussed with the group in advance. Mirror play requires a higher degree of player buy-in than other GUMSHOE products.  Mirror has the Trust and Betrayal mechanic, which allows players to support or undermine their fellow players in a way that does not happen in, say, Bookhounds or Dreamhounds. The Keeper shouldn't just impose Mirror play from the get-go and hope nobody's going to lose their temper when, in a crucial scene, Bob Betrays Mary and the whole group loses as a result.

However even without that consideration the Director should still discuss mood with the players because, in order to work out what the mood should be, the Director needs to know what thrills the players expect to encounter.

Fortunately this is made easy by the Cherries system.

If a General ability is bought with 8 points or more, that character is expert in that ability and gains special bonuses as a result. With Infiltration comes Open Sesame, Gambling comes Luck of the Devil, and so on. But what the player's really saying when she buys 8 points or more of, say, Athletics is "I want this kind of Thrilling Contest."

Thrilling Contests used to be limited to chase scenes, but as of Double Tap the mechanic covers a much wider ground. Now just about every General ability has some kind of Thrilling Contest, which makes the Director's job much simpler.

Consider: if you have four players, and between them they have Cherries in Athletics, Driving, Digital Intrusion, Disguise and Infiltration, they're signaling to you, the Director, that they want lots of thrills involving breaking and entering, sneaking and stealth, possibly with high-octane getaways after the B&E.

They're also signaling their lack of interest in gunfights and personal confrontation. They probably still have points in Hand to Hand and Shooting - really, who wouldn't - but if none of them bought Cherry level then it stands to reason they don't want Bourne-style punch-ups or Bond-style sharpshooting.

With that information you already have a decent idea of the kind of scenarios the players are interested in. Remember always that GUMSHOE is a player-facing game, but Night's Black Agents even more so.

The game says as much in the Advice to Players section. 'Think of it like you're writing an episode of an ensemble caper show like Leverage: the hitter's gotta hit, the hacker's gotta hack, the shooter's gotta shoot.' The Director needs to play to those strengths when plotting the scenario, and by extension when plotting the arc. Make sure the hitter gets a chance to hit, the hacker to hack, and the shooter to shoot.

Going back to the established setting: this is a Mutant vampire game featuring two opposing kinds of bloodsucker, squabbling over a resource they both desperately want. One group's Chinese, the other European. Already some ideas can start taking shape, probably involving smuggling and Triad crime.

Now let's look at what the players want. Assume for the sake of this example that there are four players, as follows:

Kayo, Hacker. One sentence: Former Nollywood actor and con artist shooting for the big leagues.

Basil, Black Bagger. One sentence: A former Flying Squad operative who became a little too fond of the high life.

Nick, Wire Rat. One sentence: Old hippy with a love of underground comics, and his own barge in Amsterdam.

Ly, Muscle. One sentence: Former Hanoi cop (People's Security Sergeant Major) accused of corruption and silenced because of what she knows.

Already I have a pretty good idea of the kind of scenarios these players want to see, just from their choice of archetype. I also know from discussions with the players that both Kayo and Ly have Cherries in Shooting, that Nick and Basil have Cherries in Infiltration, that Nick has a Cherry in Explosive Devices, that Ly has Cherries in Driving and Hand to Hand, and that Basil has Cherries in Disguise and Gambling.

So there's a lean towards sneaky, given the Hacker, Black Bagger and Wire Rat. Plus those three archetypes work well together, with complimentary skill sets. While the group isn't defenseless only two characters have Cherry level combat ability and only one character has Cherries in two or more combat abilities. Thus while combat scenes are possible they're not the preferred form of Antagonist Reaction. There are a few wild cards in the mix, like the Gambling and Explosive Devices Cherries, for those moments when only something unexpected will do.

Sounds as though the group's looking for high intrigue thrills rather than gunfights and punch-ups. Munich rather than Bourne, to carry on the analogy; closer to Dust or Burn than Stakes. I ought to be planning break-ins, thefts, possibly assassinations and high speed chases. I should expect the group to make heavy use of Infiltration and Basil's Disguise ability, probably combined with Kayo's Digital Intrusion. I ought to avoid too many straight combat scenes. I ought to bear in mind that, at any moment, Nick might blow up something vital to the plot.

Sounds like I have enough to start plotting the arc and first scenario in more detail. Which is exactly what I will do, next week.

Talk soon!

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Campaign Design Vampire Style, Part One (Night's Black Agents)

When I first started this conversation many moons ago, I began with a discussion about campaign ideas for Bookhounds of London. From initial thoughts I went on to early chapters, the arc and the structure. Later when I became interested in Night's Black Agents I discussed Nodes, and in a separate piece went over what makes a good Villain.

Why tell you all this? Because it's time to tackle campaign creation for Night's Black Agents, and see what happens when you add vampires to the mix.

To begin with we go back to those two core principles: power, and goals. The antagonists need both to be effective.

Power is, for once, the lesser of those two points since the nature of the setting determines power: it has to be overwhelming, whatever it is. By the very nature of the premise the characters are on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of their enemies while trying to piece together their enemies' schemes. You don't do that unless your foes have access to overwhelming power. If your opposition are just a bunch of weaklings you don't run, you stand and fight. If your enemies can be countered by telling the authorities then you don't run, you tell the authorities. So establishing what kind of power we're dealing with isn't that important; we know how bad it is, and that's enough for now.

Goals are going to be determined by setting and by the nature of the opposition. The opposition are vampires, and the setting is espionage thriller.

'Espionage thriller' covers a lot of ground. The Bourne Identity is an espionage thriller, as is Three Days of the Condor and North By Northwest and Munich and Doctor No. But each delivers very different thrills, different narratives, which is why Night's Black Agents has several different styles of play: Burn, Dust, Mirror, Stakes. Intense psychological damage, gritty low-fi settings, betrayals piled on betrayals, high-stakes 'the world depends on you' stuff; you can cherry-pick to suit the kind of thriller you want to create.

The kind of vampire you pick will determine what happens next.

The default is the bloodsucker who sleeps in a coffin all day, emerges at night, dislikes garlic pizza, has a problem with mirrors, the whole bit. However the system offers several alternatives: Supernatural, Damned, Alien, and Mutant.

Supernaturals are the magical kind of vampire, dependent on folkloric tropes. Damned share some similarities with Supernaturals, but draw their inspiration from demonic activity. Aliens are the paraphysicals, replete with psychic powers or flitting between dimensions. Mutants are earthly entities created by some freak of biology or scientific development.

You may be familiar with the term opportunity cost: the price of passing up the next best choice. It applies in most games, but never more so than here.

Take the supernatural crew as described in the main book. One of the entities is the Strix, shape-changing monsters whose origin story goes back to the Romans. If you opt for an Alien vampire story in which, say, the first vampires appear after an Andromeda Strain incident that takes place in Russia during the 1960s, mixing in a supernatural trope like Strix muddies the waters. If you have Strix at all, you'd need some kind of changed origin story at the very least, but it would be simpler to do without it altogether.

Conversely if we go for, say, a Damned origin story then science and its narrative tropes are, at best, reduced in scope. You can still have secret laboratories studying the vampire issue, but they're never going to get anywhere because they're looking for a scientific solution to a spiritual problem. It's like using a magnet to hunt for rats.

So going back to the original problem: if we are to work out the Goals of the conspiracy our spies will fight against, we need to know what kind of opposition they'll be dealing with. From there we can work out the kind of narrative we'll be telling, and tailor the campaign accordingly.

For this example let's say we shoot for Mutants. What kind? 'Their markers are medical symptoms; their emphasis is infection.' OK, so what symptoms are we shooting for?

Well we have the whole wide world to choose from. I rather fancy the old story about the medical herb Silphium, which the Romans used as, among other things, a contraceptive. It became so popular that overuse made it extinct. I've also been binging on a fun Chinese TV show, A Candle In The Tomb, about tomb robbers in 1980s China. So, using those two seeds as a starting point:

Vampirism first arose in antiquity as a byproduct of use of a medicinal herb, which for the moment I'm going to call the McGuffin, because why not. I can come up with a better name for it later, but this is early days. One in a hundred imbibers had the genetic marker that, in combination with over-use of the herb, turned them into Mutant Vampires. The McGuffin became extinct in the pre-Christian era, and as a consequence no more true Vampires could be created; infection can create ferals and mindless killing machines, but not true Mutants.

I like the idea of using Hive Mind powers for these bloodsuckers; it feels more Mutant, somehow. So here we have a core batch of perhaps a few hundred ancient Mutants and a swarm of lesser creations and Renfields, who've spent the last few hundred years since the Reformation trying to find a scientific means of passing on true Mutant status.

Then in the 1980s reckless tomb robbers in China uncovered a handful of seeds and a batch of Jin-Gui, a Mutant strain that remained dormant for centuries. This Mutant strain is also Hive Mind, but a completely different batch from the European variety. Like its counterpart the Jin-Gui Mutant strain can't create true Mutants, but unlike the Europeans this batch has access to the herb. What it needs is peace and quiet to cultivate it, and it's had a rough time finding a good spot. Driven from China, then Singapore, the Jin-Gui bounced from pillar to post during the 1990s before coming to Europe with the Triads, only to find itself suddenly in competition with its long-lost European counterpart.

There's only so much McGuffin to go around, and both sides want it. The Europeans see it as the key to their genetic future; this Mutant strain has the technological background to reverse engineer a new batch, if it can only get hold of an original sample. Meanwhile the much smaller Jin-Gui strain has neither the technical background nor the numbers to really take advantage of what it has, but it has the herb.

So there's the Goal. The opportunity cost of going Mutant means ghosts and other supernatural tropes are off the menu, but on the other hand scientific horrors are very much on the menu. Already I can see several ways forward, probably involving agribusiness, dangerous human experimentation, Chinese spies, smuggled antiquities, and subverted human catspaws carrying out an inhuman agenda. That's more than enough to be getting on with.

Tune in next week when Power plus Goal equals initial Conspyramid structure!

Friday, 27 January 2017

Sharp Little Needles Kickstarter



When did we last clean the self promotion trumpets?

Anyhoo, if you're one of those crazy people who scan Kickstarter daily looking for new Cthulhu material to back you may have spotted something intriguing in the pile. Stygian Fox Publishing is crowdfunding Fear's Sharp Little Needles, a collection of modern day horror mini scenarios for Call of Cthulhu 7e.

Stygian Fox's last effort along these lines, The Things We Leave Behind, was very well received. Pookie, reviewer of all things Cthulhu and some things that aren't, called it "the first great release for Call of Cthulhu 7e" with nary a dud to be seen in its six scenario collection.

Fear's Sharp Little Needles is going a hell of a lot further than Things We Leave Behind, with a spine-chilling twenty one shot scenarios at time of writing, with more being added as each second passes. That's not including a much longer stretch goal scenario by Jeff Moeller, designer of note and editor of Things We Leave as well as Little Needles.

Who can you expect to see in Little Needles? Well, the likes of Oscar Rios, Brian Courtemanche, Chad Bowser, Adam Gauntlett ... and a hell of a lot of other superb writers, but I'm going to stop right there because if you want to know more there's a Kickstarter Page you really should be looking at right now.

I could launch into a whole bit but I'm not going to do that. What I am going to do is share with you a taste of the one that got away. For lo, I submitted two scenario ideas to begin with, and one did not get through. [I may have submitted a third since then. Sue me. I'm greedy.]

The one that did not get through is:

The Huiquing’s Cargo

A 1980s era container ship known to have been captured by pirates beaches itself offshore with a cargo of human remains in its refrigeration compartment; one of the dead in the hold was a Daughter of Atlach-Nacha being smuggled to the Americas, and the would-be spider priestess’ aborted transcendence transforms the Huiquing into a Dreamlands nightmare ship. Inspired by the real-life case of the Hai Sin which, in a breaker’s yard in Guangdong, China, disgorged a cargo of bones and flesh hidden in its refrigeration unit.

You may recall me mentioning the Hai Sin before.

Atlach-Nacha is a monstrous entity which weaves its enormous web across a deep chasm underground; legend says that when the web is complete, the world will end. Some of its tunnels lead into the Dreamlands.

Its Daughters are human women chosen to be its companions, and marked by a spider bite. This lesser servitor is dragooned into service by the Great Old One's human servants, and after a period of vigorous brainwashing and horrible arcane rituals the woman eventually transforms into a giant spider and travels deep below to join her monstrous parent.

The base idea comes from a simple premise: accidents and death happen to everyone, including minions of the Old Ones. The question is, what happens next?

In this instance the snakeheads who attempted to smuggle the Daughter into the United States, presumably to kickstart some kind of cult, are forestalled by pirates who capture the Huiquing and murder everyone aboard, including the Daughter.

Picture that moment. The surviving crew and smuggled cultists, herded into an airless container. They fight for breath as the oxygen depletes, first trying to claw their way out, then implore, then expire. As the Daughter struggles to breathe her transformation triggers, and the spider within starts to emerge. Too little too late; her husk dies, but in doing so she creates a connection between the Huiquing and the most nightmarish aspects of Dream, in a desperate attempt to reunite with Atlach-Nacha.

Imagine what happens next to the pirates, then picture that gutted cargo ship drifting without crew, without direction, finally beaching itself. The Keeper gets to decide exactly where, of course. It might as easily be off North Africa as the coast of Florida.

Tell you what. The Little Needles rules specify that a scenario can be no more than 2500 words long. If at least two of you reading this pledge to that Kickstarter, and say so in the Comments thread, I'll write a 2,500 word short scenario based on the pitch The Huiquing’s Cargo and post that scenario here for you to enjoy.

Can't say fairer than that, can you?

Sunday, 22 January 2017

A Growth Market (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

A short while ago I mentioned Tony Thompson's book Gangs and drew inspiration from that for a scenario seed. Now I'm going to dip into his follow-up, Gang Land, for a look at something that can be stolen by Dracula Dossier Directors.

'I first became aware of the impact of Vietnamese cannabis gangs in 2005,' Thompson writes. 'While attending a murder trial at London's Woolwich Crown Court, I noticed that five cases being heard that day featured defendants with the same name - Nguyen; I thought I'd stumbled across some massive conspiracy but soon learned that each of the cases was separate, that all involved homes which had been converted to cannabis farms and that none of the defendants were related to one another.'

Nguyen is a very common Vietnamese name, and what Thompson had actually stumbled across was a very simple scheme. Send in your representative, a sober-seeming member of the community with impeccable credentials. Get the lease signed. Set up a fully-functioning cannabis farm in an otherwise ordinary house. Move in your chosen 'gardener,' a man or woman whose fear of you far exceeds any fear they may have of the consequences of arrest. Get the gardener to take care of the plants. Harvest. Repeat.

Frequently those involved are children, sent to the UK to work off family debts at home. "Children are an increasingly valuable assets to criminal gangs," says Philip Ishola, former head of the UK’s Counter Human Trafficking Bureau, "Because they are easy to get hold of, easily intimidated and exploited, and easy to keep isolated and unaware of what is really happening around them, which makes it far less likely for them to be able to disclose anything of use to the police."

Since Vietnamese gangs account for something close to 90% of the supply of domestically grown cannabis in the UK, those of you who enjoy a quiet puff on the occasion may want to bear in mind you may be supporting child slavery with your habit.

Leaving that unhappy thought to one side, let's talk about Nodes.

In the Conspyramid (main book p 157) nodes can be 'a gang, a cell within an organization, a facility or institution, a powerful individual, a whole subverted agency, or anything else that might be part of the vampire conspiracy ... each node will have its own penumbra of guards, lackeys, underlings, investigators, or other assets not explicitly indicated on the chart.'

A Node designed with the cannabis farming template doesn't sound like a very powerful or significant one. It's likely to be at the lowest level, defined in the main book as a street-level power. Street level Nodes can be police departments, museum departments, street gangs and so on, so it can have multiple personnel and locations, maybe some heavy hitters, but probably doesn't have enough pull to get the really powerful assets.

Before we go deeply into what this Node might be like, let's take a step back and talk about design.

When I discussed Villains I made reference to a writing exercise that can be used for Nodes just as easily as Villains. I provide a list of questions that need to be answered, and a modified list will do as well for Nodes, as follows:

  • What is the Node's Level and primary designation?
  • Name three physical attributes that should be emphasized when describing this Node.
  • List three primary assets.
  • Where is the Node based?
  • What is the Node's primary function?
  • What is the Node's secondary function, if any?
  • What is a problem the Node has to deal with?
  • What is the Node's ultimate goal?
  • What, if anything, is the Node's secondary goal(s)?
  • Which other Nodes interact with this one?
So with that in mind let's talk about this particular Node.

Its Level is 1, the lowest in the Pyramid. Its primary designation is Cannabis Farms.

Physical attributes are tags that can be applied to any of the Node's locations or personnel. Think of them as tags added to a blog post, or tags added to an asset in computer game design. In this instance since this is a street level Node and pretty dark, I'm going for: half-starved illegals/children, rats & vermin, quiet neighborhoods.

Primary assets are not necessarily leader types. They are assets that the Node uses on a daily basis to go about its business or protect itself from harm. In this case the primary assets are a series of rented houses where the farms are based, a small network of adult criminals (using the Thug template from the main book) who organize the farms and distribute the product, and a police informant who has access to Holmes 2, so the Node can keep an eye on any official investigation that might take place. This police contact might be the only Renfield in the group, kept docile and obedient by blood addiction. Alternately one or two of the adult criminals may be Renfields.

The Node is based in the greater London metropolitan area, in this example. Cannabis farms are spread all over Europe, so a similar Node could as easily operate anywhere in Europe. In this instance the Node doesn't have one big base; it has half a dozen small outposts, many of which have little or no defenses. The group doesn't care if one or two farms get knocked off. It has plenty more, and can make more quickly. 

The Node's primary function is to earn money for the Conspiracy.

The Node's secondary function is to provide safe housing for other Conspiracy assets. A quiet suburban house is the perfect place for SBA's on the run, and all those illegal kids are handy snacks.

The Node's problem is that other criminal gangs are constantly trying to steal their turf. This is a low-level Node; it can't go running to the higher-ups every time some scrote tries to rip it off. It has to deal with its problems in-house. That means relying on its own Thugs, or any supernatural powers its leadership might possess. Since this is nominally a Vietnamese gang ideally the leadership's powers, if any, should be drawn from Vietnamese folklore, say a Krasue variant. If this were a Romanian gang - perhaps, with Dracula Dossier in mind, run by the Human Trafficker - then the leadership's power would be different.

The Node's ultimate Goal is probably closely aligned with the Conspiracy's ultimate Goal. Say the Conspiracy's function is to ensure Dracula's ascendance to power. Dracula might have any number of ways to do this that the Node doesn't know about, but the Node will help in any way it can. Perhaps it uses the cash it earns to corrupt important politicians. Perhaps it helps the Human Trafficker distribute and control illegal immigrants. Perhaps it produces a corrupted form of cannabis which makes the smoker more susceptible to vampiric Mental attacks (+1 Difficulty). Perhaps the rats that infest each of its houses are breeding some kind of mutant rodent, or just supply rats for ordinary rat swarms which the Conspiracy uses to devour its enemies.

Its secondary Goal, if it has one, is unique to it. Say the leadership is a Ma Lai with the traditional three red dots on her neck and a scarf wrapped tight to conceal its suppurating throat wounds. It may want to wear only the best fashions, or be cursed with eternal hunger that makes it seek out raw meat each night. The Node may change its patterns or activities to cater to that need. The Node may have an ongoing rivalry with another Node, in which case the secondary Goal will be to defeat that Node, and so on.

Finally, which other Nodes interact with this one? Say for the sake of this example that the Human Trafficker supplies immigrants to a number of different criminal Nodes. That suggests the Human Trafficker is a Node unto him (it?) self, which this Node interacts with. Or that the chemicals it uses to mutate the cannabis plants are supplied by a specialist Node. Or that one of the corrupted politicians its money created makes up another separate street or city level Node. The point is that by looking at the Node's Goals and its Primary Function you should be able to work out which other Nodes logically would interact with this one.

For that matter the players are bound to come up with connections of their own that you can run with. Say the players find out about the Renfield police contact, and start looking for other corrupted cops. You might not have decided to have corrupt cops in the game until now, but once the players start looking for them maybe you can establish a completely new Node around that idea. Connections breed Connections, and sometimes the best ones are the ones you haven't thought of yet.

One last thing before I sign off. I also use this idea in a short story written for my Patreon page. Go check it out, and let me know what you think!

That's enough for now. See you next week!

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Never Built New York - Meagpolisomancy

I'm a sucker for concepts. If it's intriguing and at least semi-plausible I'll wait eagerly for the denouement, provided it hits enough of my conceptual buttons. One of my big please-oh-yes buttons is Art Deco, which is why I fell so hard for Bioshock. It's also why I fell so hard for Raymond Hood's vision of a New York Bridge, as featured in a recent Guardian article.

I love the concept not simply because it's beautiful - though it is - but because it reminds me irresistibly of London Bridge, as it was once upon a time.

Old London Bridge was a gorgeous mess, with houses, shops and latrines - all the joys of modern life - along its length. It couldn't bear its own weight, it caught fire frequently, it was a traffic nightmare, but it supported buildings seven stories high at a time when a tall building was an unbelievable feat of engineering. It supported grain mills and water pumps through its massive, and ultimately overburdened, arches. There's a romance in that image of a bridge that defies its design that draws me in.

I look at that Hood scheme and see a New York that ought to exist, in the same wistful way that people think of flying cars and jetpacks as hallmarks of a future that never was. It's conceptually perfect, in the same way that Andrew Ryan's city under the sea is conceptually perfect.

The movie High Rise hits a similar button. 'Almost no reason to leave,' the trailer promises, and yet that is very far from the truth. Ballard creates a world in which the inhabitants of the High Rise have everything they think they need and yet fail to live the way they think they ought to live. The end result is destruction, chaos and death, and in the film version the viewer's left to wonder whether this is a failure of the people in the High Rise, or of the design.

Art Deco is the first breath of Modernism, where we embrace our faith in social and technological prowess. Ballard's vision is Modernism's death rattle, where we accept that our faith is misplaced. Or perhaps that we lack the innate goodness we'd need to embrace that pure faith. In between those two extremes we have Hood, and his vision for a bridge that lives and provides everything we need to live. Not simply apartments but shops, schools, colleges, workshops, factories, from the least to the most. Somewhere in that bridge there is a kindergarten, and somewhere else a crematorium. Both have to exist for the whole to function.

A very similar concept - to go off on a slight tangent - lies behind the idea of the eco-city, which is a current architectural design obsession. The design profile isn't Deco but the base idea is the same as Hood's, that mankind's self-destructive and messy tendencies can somehow be tamed, controlled and shaped in order to create the perfect urban environment. But that's a by-the-by.

Bookhounds of London introduces a game concept borrowed from Fritz Leiber, Megapolisomancy. 'A megapolisomantic working uses the city as a sorcerous engine to accomplish magical effects,' as described in Bookhounds p76. 'With the Megapolisomancy ability you can ... recognize places of power, vortices, dread zones, etheric windows, lay lines, sacred architecture, etc, in cities.'

This carries with it the implied statement that you recognize places which actually exist within the city. Suppose for a minute it also means you recognize places that ought to exist within the city, but don't - or perhaps don't yet. Suppose as part of a sorcerous working the megapolisomancer could draw on a concept as well as a reality, such as the Hood scheme. Designed but never built, schemes like Hood's capture the imagination of the people within the city and therefore, perhaps, the imagination of the city itself.

Cities are constantly being reimagined. Le Corbusier, for example, spent much of his career proselytizing the idea that a house is a machine for living in and reimagining those houses on a grand scale, creating entire cities in which people's lives reach perfection in perfect dwellings. Thousands of architects' imaginations caught fire along with his, and they tried to put his concepts into practice again and again, sometimes successfully, often not.

Suppose for a moment that epochs like these aren't about architects and their ideas. If you use meagpolisomancy as a concept in your game then you accept the possibility that the city generates sorcerous energies, which implies that changes which affect the design of a city either reshape those energies, or, intriguingly, are inspired by whatever it is that creates those energies. So Deco, Modernism, the machines for living in, eco-cities are all in turn part of the city's grand megapolisomantic design, and the only question is whether those design changes are humanity's way of shaping the environment, or the city's attempt to shape humanity.

Say London's megapolisomantic resonance is ultimately the result of a God or Titan, and that the city is intended to chain that entity. Deco could be inspired by that entity's dreams, or be part of its attempt to escape its prison. In turn megapolisomancers could be the entity's jailers, or be part of its escape attempt. Whichever it is, they're still mites crawling around the body of a fallen God, using scraps of its energy to power their schemes.

Further, when buildings are designed but not built, as with Hood's creation, this might in turn affect the potential megapolisomantic workings available within the city.

Take the idea of vanishing into a crowd, for example. Spend a point to increase the tracker's Difficulty number by a point, is how it's expressed mechanically. But does the caster really vanish into the crowd, or instead disappear into an idea of the city that doesn't exist yet, except on paper in an architect's office? When a victim's driven mad by the city, is that because of echoing howls of sirens, the chittering of telegraph wires, or is it by the inexplicable appearance of a city completely unlike the one the target thinks exists? What would happen if, against all previous knowledge, the target found herself wandering Hood's bridge, completely lost within architecture that, the target believes, should not be?   

Talk soon!