Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Lure of Travel (Night's Black Agents)

Let's say you're plotting out a scene in Night's Black Agents, or another Gumshoe setting, and you're looking for ideas. Inspiration can be found in the unlikeliest of places, and in this case it comes to you courtesy of the Guardian's Food section, and its Top Ten list of train station restaurants.

Right away there are intriguing possibilities. At least four of the choices have been around since the early 1900s, which means from a Gumshoe point of view that they're just as suitable for Bookhounds of London, Dreamhounds of Paris, or Trail of Cthulhu in the default 1930s setting, as well as anything current, for example Mutant City Blues. But these are train station scenes, and that means they have Spy Thriller written all over them right from the get-go, probably using a special pen supplied by Q. Let's hope it doesn't explode.

Any of them could make for an interesting scene, but I decided to go with the To Treno Sto Rouf, in Athens.

Rouf is a little to the west of the center of Athens. Rouf Station isn't the main station in Athens; that honor goes to Larissa. Rouf is a suburban substation, through which you may have to pass to get to Larissa. The Piraeus-Athens line, for example, passes through Rouf.

Rouf was built in order to ease congestion at the main terminal, but it has a secondary function: urban regeneration. The hope was that a new station would encourage investment in the down-at-heel suburb. It's built on an artificial hill, with excellent views of the Acropolis.

Tro Treno Sto Rouf is, by all accounts, a brilliant innovation. Five carriages, plus an open air bar, make up the restaurant proper. One carriage is dedicated to theatrical performances, another to music, the so-called new wagon holds art fairs, and the rest is the main bar/restaurant area. The wagons are train carriages re purposed. One comes from the Simplon Orient Express, the other is a World War Two troop carriage, and so on.

Already you can get a sense for the kind of scenes you could put here. It's a mix of ancient and modern, set in a location that's rough around the edges but not drowning in crime, with a bird's eye view of the most majestic and classic landmark in Athens, the Acropolis. With the regular music and art shows, there's a sense that the crowd is probably young, bohemian, with enough money to have a good time. But with all those carriages, there's probably also plenty of quiet corners, places where someone could hold a quick meeting without being disturbed, or dose someone with sedatives prior to a swift abduction. Plus, it's a train station, so if need be the characters can relocate somewhere else relatively easily.

In the strictly metaphorical sense, train stations are symbolic of lover's meetings, or lovers parted; the start of a great journey, or a great tragedy. But you can also have wild gunfights, if you want. It might be a beginning, an ending, or possibly a way station, probably in a long chase scene of some kind. Rarely is it an objective in and of itself; it's something you end up in, not something you strive to get to.

With all that in mind, let's brainstorm a possible series of scenes to be set at To Treno.

The scenes will assume that the protagonists are in Athens for some reason of their own, and some of the details will be deliberately obscure. If this were part of a larger project, a campaign say, then there would be more detail. However since the intention here is to create something you can use in your own game, which presumably has its own plot and important characters that you can slot into this scene, I'm not going to spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel; not when you have perfectly good wheels of your own to use.

The cast includes: Important NPC (Neutral), or INN. This character has vital skills, or vital information. The INN may be someone in the characters' Network, who has already been established. Otherwise the INN is a technical support type, possibly a hacker or someone who might get illicit access to classified information. Neutral in this instance means the INN isn't affiliated with the Conspiracy. The INN knows who the characters are.

Mafia Bruiser, in this case a small-time Godfather of the Night, Nikitas, whose crew specializes in kidnapping for ransom. He's been hired by a Conspiracy asset to kidnap the INN. The reasons for this are going to vary depending on the nature of your game, but the short version is that the INN has data which the Conspiracy wants for itself. Nikitas has a ten-strong team, including two attractive people who act as bait for the trap (good at Infiltration, Filch, would have pools in Flirting and Flattery if had access to Investigative abilities), a medic/Dr Feelgood who provides the chemical distraction as well as general patch-up skills, a skilled wheel artist, and a half dozen dudes with guns/knives/halitosis. Nikitas is probably the best hand to hand fighter in the group, but one of the others can be better than him with a gun.

Minor Conspiracy Asset, detailed to watch over the operation and make sure everything goes according to plan. The MCA isn't supposed to interfere, but it isn't supposed to get caught either. The MCA may or may not be a supernatural entity. The MB doesn't know about the MCA.

The Fly in the Soup: an Adzeh smuggled itself out of Ghana, piggybacking on a drug cartel's smuggling operation in order to get its host out of the country and into Greece. It has the Body Jumping ability, which is lucky for it, as its current host is a stick-thin vagrant hanging around outside To Treno. As its current body is about to expire, it's time to find a new one. Luckily it has all kinds of choices available, but as Fate would have it, the Adzeh is going to pick on one of the following: one of the MB's crew, the INN, or possibly one of the protagonists. This last option could be a lot of fun, but you might want to prepare the player beforehand; nobody likes having control of their character taken away. Once possessed, the Adzeh will want to assess the situation before doing anything rash. Alternatively its sudden intervention might cause real problems in a chase scene, or other dramatic moment. The Adzeh's nominally a free agent, but is easily dominated by a stronger personality; the MCA, for instance.

The action opens at To Treno. The INN has asked to meet the protagonists at the New Wagon. The exact reason for this will vary depending on the nature of the game, but the most likely option is that the INN wants to sell or pass on the valuable intel that the MB has been hired to protect.

The protagonists arrive at the New Wagon and see the INN chatting with the MB's two attractive lures. The INN is clearly smitten, but the lures are not at all happy to see the characters show up. The INN suggests moving on to the Wagon Bar, but before that happens he hides a small data stick in one of the exhibits (behind a picture frame, say). Notice may spot this, especially if it's considered a Core clue. The INN thinks he's being clever, making sure that nobody can Filch the data out of his pocket. The data's encrypted, and the INN knows the password. The INN isn't suspicious of the lures, but the INN doesn't want them around when talking business.

As the group passes from one carriage to the other, they may Notice a small commotion outside, below To Treno. A vagrant has collapsed in the street. Some good Samaritans are trying to provide aid, but if anyone's so altruistic as to go to help, they find that not only is the vagrant dead, he's been dead for days. The Fly is now free and looking for targets.

Up in the Wagon Bar, the INN is trying to negotiate with the protagonists. The lures have followed them in, as unobtrusively as possible, and one of them tries to slip one of Dr Feelgood's concoctions into the INN's drink. Ordinarily they wouldn't try anything so brazen with people like the protagonists standing around, but they're under orders from MB to get this done quick. If one of the protagonists Noticed the data stick trick, then so did one of the lures, so perhaps one lure is still in the New Wagon trying to get the stick while the other is in the Bar.

If all goes according to plan, the INN collapses under the influence of Dr Feelgood's prescription. Or possibly the INN collapses because the Adzeh struck, but whichever it is, the INN goes down. There's a commotion in the bar. Dr Feelgood approaches, identifies himself as a physician, and tries to render aid. He has a few of the MB's goons with him too, in case things go south. The idea is to hustle the INN outside, get him to a nearby car, and drive off. If that doesn't work, Plan B is to get the INN to the train and take him to Larissa, from where they get a car as before.

From this point things develop into a Chase scene, and probably move out of To Treno. What happens next is up to you and your players.

I hope you find this useful! Enjoy.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Not Quite Book Review Corner:Army of Thieves (Night's Black Agents)

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves is the most recent incarnation of Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow, his Marine Corps hero not seen since Hell Island in 2005. This time Captain Schofield has to save the world from a Soviet era doomsday device, which has been captured by the Army of Thieves, an Anonymous-style terror group with a battalion strength armed force at its command. The Army is hiding out in a remote Soviet fortress on Dragon Island, a former test base for superweapons, currently mothballed. Can Scarecrow stop the Army from unleashing a weapon that will, in one fell swoop, ignite half the world in a fireball that will wipe out billions?

I picked this up as a freebie, hoping that it would give me some Night's Black Agents material. Having read it, I'm confident that Reilly is, or was, a gamer. Nobody's that obsessive over maps and tactical minutiae without spending at least a portion of their misspent youth crawling down a dungeon corridor, ten foot pole in hand, checking for traps every step of the way.

The maps are really what caught my attention, and the reason why I'd recommend this to a Night's Black Agents director. Every step of Scarecrow's way is carefully planned out, and that includes pretty much every part of Dragon Island. Ah, Dragon island, where they test themobaric weapons, acid grenades, and train mutant polar bears to kill on command.

'This,' Ivanov said, 'is the Stadium. This is where my colleagues tested the bears in combat.' 

You have my undivided attention, Mr Reilly.

However, as with the Book of Spies mentioned previously, there's a lot not to like here. Reilly has a nasty habit of telling you what you ought to feel, rather than letting you feel it. He'll write a paragraph or two describing how the flesh and skin melts off a victim of acid attack, as they claw their eyeballs out in agony, and then he'll say 'It was really disgusting,' or something like it. Of course it's disgusting, but the reader doesn't need the author telling everyone that. It's disgusting on its face, without need of embellishment. Plus, there's the ! recurring ! exclamation point ! issue, which arises whenever ! tension ! needs ! to ! be ! heightened. Thankfully these writer's tics tend to calm down later in the book, and he resorts to them less often.

Certainly, in terms of writing style, this book flows more smoothly than Book of Spies, which is a bonus. Partly this is because the protagonists have a lot to do, and keep on doing it. Schofield and his team never slow down, rattling on from one action moment to the next with barely a pause for breath.

On that note, pop quiz: would you survive in Scarecrow's world? Answer the following questions:

1) Do you have a cool nickname, like Scarecrow, Barbarian, or Fox?
2) Are you in love with one of the story's supporting characters, who has no real personality but who's described as physically attractive?
3) Are you a robot?

If the answer to all of those questions is No, then sucks to be you, sunshine. You're going to be shot - usually in a hail of overwhelming gunfire, so your body is torn to shreds - blown up by a thermobaric grenade, such that your body vanishes in a puff of logic, immersed in acid, or otherwise messily torn to shreds. Possibly by a mutant polar bear, because hey, polar bears. You can pretty much tell from the opening paragraphs who's going to live and who's going to die, and though Reilly does pull some intriguing fake-outs, ultimately there's an element of predictability about the whole thing that undercuts the action on the page.

That said, there is a lot of action on the page. Buckets and buckets of action, with plenty of casualties and loud explosions. To give you a taste: the French have put a bounty on Schofield's head, because in previous installments Schofield not only sank a French submarine, he also blew up a French aircraft carrier, killing everyone aboard. Now, to sink one tiddly sub is excusable, but to blow up an aircraft carrier - in fact, the only carrier the French have, according to Wikipedia - seems a little careless. Before we're even a fifth of the way through the book yet another submarine is on its way to the bottom. You begin to wonder whether the French navy is going to be reduced to two rubber dinghies and a sobbing subaltern before the series is over. And that's just the French; there's still a whole army of crazy terrorists to get through before the book's done.

I don't recommend this as high art, because God knows it ain't that. It's Pulp, Pulp and more Pulp, entertainingly written, but ultimately forgettable. The sort of thing you'd pick up on a long flight, in fact, much like Book of Spies.

However I do recommend it to any Night's Black Agents Director looking for inspiration for the next Conspiracy Node in the Pyramid. The maps alone are worth a look at. Plus there are plenty of intriguing tech-toys to steal for your campaign, and some brilliant chase scenes to borrow wholesale.

I don't know whether it's worth having a look at the rest of the series - there are five Scarecrow books in all - but I'm reliably informed that one of them involves recovery of an alien spaceship, while another has mutant killer gorillas. Whose heart is so hardened that they can say No to killer gorillas?


Monday, 21 September 2015

Polish Nazi Ghost Trains: The Walbrzych Sanction (Night's Black Agents)

If you've been paying any sort of attention to things that go bump in the news, you've probably heard of the Mysterious Nazi Ghost Train buried somewhere near Walbrzych, Poland. Treasure hunters, historians, and other crazy people have been flocking to this tale like flies to honey, and it occasionally resurfaces in Western media.

Briefly, at some point late war the Nazis are supposed to have hidden a train packed full of goodies in an underground railway embankment, and then sealed off the embankment. As to what the goodies are supposed to be, it could be almost anything, but naturally everyone's hoping it's looted artwork, gold, and other valuables. Not, say, mothballs, dust, and rubble, which is possibly the more likely, if less romantic, scenario. Is the burial site sealed off with deadly, explosive traps? Will Israel lay claim to the booty on behalf of the Holocaust dead? Are the treasure seekers who claim to have found the train telling the truth, or perpetuating a grand hoax?

Buried treasure always gets people salivating. Rumors of lost pirate gold, or whatever the hell it's supposed to be, have kept idiots digging at Oak Island for time out of mind, and repeated, ignominious failure hasn't dissuaded any of them yet. So too with Nazi trains, lost Armada galleons, lost cities, and far too many other tropes to count. It doesn't matter if there's no proof. So long as somebody's granny remembers somebody's granny telling the tale of the Dread Pirate Salty Drawers' treasure, or whatever it may be, there will be a buffoon out there somewhere with a shovel and a dream, ready to dig it up.

However the fun thing about this particular ghost train is that it draws on old tales of Project Riese, which is worth discussing.

Project Giant, to give it its translated name, began in 1943, and was still in progress at war's end. It was meant as an air raid shelter for important, strategic targets, and consisted of seven separate installations in the Owl Mountains of Lower Silesia, now part of Poland. The project, though ambitious, never really got off the ground, because the Germans insisted on using forced labor, POWs and concentration camp workers. Kept in insanitary conditions and worked to death, these poor souls proved less than efficient, particularly since typhus was rife among them. This meant that the projects never really went anywhere, and by 1945 the Red Army was on the doorstep. All seven projects were left unfinished, as the Nazis withdrew.

The ghost train story is part of the Walbrzych network, centered on what was then known as Schloss Fürstenstein, or to give it its current name, Książ Castle, part of the Książ landscape park and nature reserve. The castle was taken over by the Nazis in 1941, and later made part of the Giant network in 1943. What wasn't destroyed or taken by the Nazis was looted by the Reds, so the castle was pretty much stripped bare during the war. It is currently a tourist attraction, and the upper levels of the tunnel network are open to tourists. The lower levels are used by the Polish Academy of Sciences, for seismological research, among other things. The remains of the old concentration camp, AL Fürstenstein, may or may not be there yet; I've been unable to confirm one way or the other.

Dracula Dossier Directors may already be making the leap to telluric vampires - I mean, there's an Academy of Sciences right there just begging to be taken advantage of - and that's certainly one way to go. But what about:

  • The Nazi connection. An elder vampire, seeing the Reds on the doorstep, decided to pack a train full of snacks and push it into an abandoned railway siding, thinking to wait it out for, say, six months or a year. Then the vampire would escape after the Red Army had pushed though. Except that things didn't go according to plan, and the vampire ended up trapped down there for many decades. Now it's on the verge of release, which may or may not please the Conspiracy. After all, there's no real vacancy in the Cospyramid for it to fill, but at the same time the Conspiracy can't afford to be unwelcoming. For that matter, what kind of mental shape is this elder likely to be in, after several decades with nothing but dust-dry corpses for company?
  • The Edom connection. One of the Hochberg dynasty that owned the castle before it was seized by the Nazis joined Edom, and after the war the information about the castle that he provided was very useful in defusing Soviet attempts to reactivate the Nazi vampire program that Project Giant was the cover for. After Poland joined the EU, Edom quickly established itself at Książ Castle, hoping to discover secrets buried in the lost tunnels. However Edom was to be disappointed; any such secrets had, apparently, been relocated back to Russia shortly before Solidarity brought Poland out from under the Soviet umbrella. Continued efforts occasionally uncover tempting prospects, but so far Edom considers Project Fürstenstein a bust. But is it? This train discovery could change everything, and nobody's more anxious than Edom to find out what's really down there. 
  • The Conspiracy Connection. The vampires established themselves at Książ soon after Project Giant began, using Nazi cut-outs to cover for their own fiendish experiments. However the advancing Red Army forced them to withdraw, burying whatever they couldn't carry away. For a time their secrets remained safe, deep beneath the earth. When Poland regained its independence, the Conspiracy moved back in, suborning the Academy of Sciences to ensure that its secret installations would remain secret. Now the tunnels beneath Książ are its private preserve, and its plans are well advanced. If only those blasted treasure hunters would stop looking for Nazi ghost trains laden with loot, all would be well!
 Of course, that's just a sampling. No doubt you can come up with a few twists of your own, to plague your players. Just remember, secrets that have been buried for decades can still kill you. Or at least give your tourist trade a welcome bump. Nazi Ghost Train T-Shirts, anyone?  


Saturday, 19 September 2015

Go See This Now: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

I dearly want to see more from director and writer Ana Lily Amirpour, but for the moment I'll make do with vampire love story A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

Set in Iran, this dark romance sees James Dean-ish Arash, poor son of a deadbeat junkie father, meet The Girl, on the desolate streets of Bad City. Arash first encounters her after a Halloween party; he shows up as Dracula and, in order to impress a rich girl he has a crush on, he takes some Ecstasy. Blitzed out of his mind, he gets lost, and finds The Girl, clad demurely in hijab. Except she isn't at all what she appears to be ...

There's so much I want to tell you, but don't dare, as it would spoil the effect. Much of this film's impact depends on imagery and sound, to the point where you have to wonder if Amirpour sold her soul to get some of those shots. So simple, so striking, so perfect. Shot entirely in black and white, the shadows alone remind you how effective a film without color can be. There's one shot in particular that makes good use of the hijab ... but again, I can't tell you. I wish I could!

Arash has plenty of problems which ought to make him sympathetic; his father's addiction, his grinding poverty, his conflicts with his father's drug dealer. Yet every so often we see a glimpse of the kind of angry, misanthropic loser he may one day become. His father's son, in fact. Whereas with The Girl, we know what she is from the off, but though she never claims to be anything other than bad, it's hard not to feel a little sympathy for this lonely night wanderer. The relationship between these two characters keep the movie alive; you want to know whether they'll make it, even if it's in spite of each other.

This film is Amirpour's theatrical debut. She describes it as a vampire spaghetti Western, and it employs many of the tricks those old sixties films used. Of Iranian descent, she was born in England and lived most of her life in the US, and though the setting may be Iran, the film's actually shot in California. The next one's to be set in Texas, featuring post-apocalypse cannibals. I can't wait!

Want to know more about this one? Check out its imdb page.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Nodes, Glorious Nodes (Night's Black Agents)

If you're a Director planning out your first Night's Black Agents game, you may begin to wonder just what these Node things are that make up the Conspyramid. The main book goes into some detail, but ultimately doesn't tackle the question of what makes up a Node. Instead it focuses on what a Node does: provides protection, income, or blood, for the most part. It also provides some examples of potential Nodes, such as banks, human trafficking rings, local gangs, and so on. All of that's great, but the Director may wonder how to inject some personality into these skeletal creations. Otherwise the average Node is just a two dimensional punching bag for the players to smack on.

When discussing Bookhounds and the story arc, many moons ago, I mentioned the importance of the antagonist, using Sarah Montgomery and Stanley David Fentiman as examples. I went on to point out that, to be useful, an antagonist needs to have power, at an appropriate level for the setting and their function in the plot. I touched on Fentiman again when discussing Villains, using him as an example of villain design. In that example, I posited that the Director should decide what a villain wants, what the villain's prepared to kill for, and other background points.

All of which is a preamble for the point I'm going to put to you now: 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.

Probably the best example of a Node in modern television fiction appears in HBO's crime drama The Wire, Season Two. Frank Sobotka, played by Chris Bauer, is a low level Node in a larger criminal conspiracy. That conspiracy is involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling on the Baltimore docks, and it needs Sobotka, or someone like him, because Sobotka, through his position as secretary treasurer for the local Stevedore's Union, can help them get their goods through Baltimore's docks without attracting attention.

Sobotka knows very little about the greater purpose of the conspiracy. He doesn't care to know, because if he did, he might have to rethink his position, and he needs the money the conspiracy provides to revitalize the docks and secure the long-term future of his union friends. He's also trying to keep his family clear of the conspiracy as much as possible, but thanks to the recklessness of his son Ziggy, that isn't as successful as he'd like.

Already we're beginning to see what makes this Node successful, as a character within a greater story. Frank doesn't have a lot of power. He can't sent hordes of faceless assassins or attack helicopters off to strike at his enemies. But he does have enough power for his role in the plot, as a go-between. He has enough power within his Union to arrange for some minor harassment and obstruction of the protagonists' efforts. He can call on more significant muscle through his links with more important Nodes in the conspiracy.

However what makes him really effective as a Node isn't the power he can exercise, but his personality. He has goals that go beyond his role in the conspiracy. He has connections - his son Ziggy, his nephew Nick, the power brokers he's trying to bribe to keep the docks alive - that complicate his life and keep him from getting what he wants. All this is important, if you want a Node to be effective within the narrative.

Note that this is a different thing from being effective as part of the Conspiracy. It could be argued that Frank's effectiveness within his Conspiracy is relatively low, but that doesn't make his story less interesting. Never forget that you're not designing a Conspiracy, but a story, and this story isn't about how wonderful or powerful the Conspiracy is.  It's about how the Conspiracy falls.

So what does make up a successful Node? Well, given the example, in order to be successful a Node would need:
  • Power appropriate to its function.
  • Goals, which may be personal or professional.
  • Assets, which it uses to reach its Goals.
So let's design a Node from the ground up.

Let's make this one a level 3 Node, at the Provincial level. So it has a certain level of authority and importance, but isn't in charge of group policy. Let's make it part of the Conspiracy's income streams. In fact, let's make it a private bank, one of those staples of spy fiction. It operates out of somewhere like Switzerland or France, and rather than have it a centuries-old institution like Coutts or Landolt & Cie, let's make it a little more modern, and pattern it after something like NBAD Private Bank (Suisse). Banks like these exist to hold other people's assets, and do so discreetly. In NBAD's case it's wholly owned by another banking group, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, but we can assume that, if our Node is wholly owned by another group, that group isn't part of the Conspiracy. It has been corrupted from within, so only a few of its top people are actually aware of its role within the greater Conspiracy.

A bank of this type is often fairly small. Rothchilds, for example, employ a little over 1,600 people, while Warburg has only 1,230 employees. It often has several offices, spread over a large area. Warburg's base is in Hamburg, but it also has offices in Frankfurt, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Zurich and Luxembourg,. That suggests that the total number of employees in any one office is probably small, perhaps less than a hundred. You wouldn't need to corrupt more than one or two senior people to have control over an office, and that office probably supports a level of business out of all proportion to its size; millions at least, if not billions of euro.

As a private bank, it is run by a partnership, and again, this will be a small number of people, each of whom have power according to the size of their holding within the company. Again, the conspiracy will only need to corrupt one, perhaps two partners to have significant control over the Node.

With all that in mind, we have Bankhaus Klingemann, of Bonn. Established 1956, this institution is a post-war re-consolidation of three pre-war private banks, all of which failed as a result of losses incurred during the war. The assets that had become valueless were disposed of, while the assets that still held value were kept. At the time of its incorporation it was suggested that the Bankhaus was established not because their predecessors had failed, but in order to launder assets held by former Nazi elite. These rumors have, of course, been denied repeatedly over the years by the partnership, of whom Joachim Klingemann is the senior partner. His son Eric and daughter Lisle are both partners, as are four others, each of whom have connection with the pre-war banks.

Bankhaus Klingemann is an investment bank. It advises its clients how best to raise financial capital, and as a consequence it has its fingers in many different pies all over the world. In its early days it focused heavily on construction and real estate, as part of the post-war reconstruction effort; currently its main interest is software development companies, particularly in jurisdictions within Europe, though it has a significant sideline in mining, especially in East Asia, a holdover from its former interests.

The Conspiracy controls Lisle Klingemann, and one other partner, Albert Ahrens. Through them it controls the Bankhaus' Swiss and Paris offices.

The Conspiracy roped in Lisle thanks to her gambling addiction. In her younger years she was a notorious high-stakes player, known from Macau to Monte Carlo for the extravagance of her bets. Her father always helped her out of whatever hole she found herself in, until one day, on her twenty fifth birthday, he lowered the boom: no more, or I disown you. That was when the Conspiracy stepped in, and offered her a way out. Become one of us, and you can have the power to make people do whatever you want. In return, we expect you to join your father's bank, and rise in its ranks. Rather than give up her lifestyle, Lisle agreed.

Albert was one of her first victims. He'd been Uncle Albert to her, all her life; fat, disgusting Uncle Albert. It was far too entertaining a thought not to make him her slave. He'd bark like a dog if she told him to. However she was indiscreet, and her brother Eric caught on. Not to her new found power, but her relationship with Albert, which Eric sees in an altogether different light.

Since then Lisle's been much more cautious. She needs to be, in order to influence their father, who's much more strong willed than she would have given him credit for. Also, she lacks the technical expertise Eric has in abundance, which makes her less able to talk to software development clients on their own terms.

There are three questions to consider: what is this Node's power? What is its Goals? What Assets does it possess?

This Node's power is financial. It can leverage millions without any effort at all, It maintains several private accounts whose sole purpose is to act as a kind of slush fund for Conspiracy assets. As a consequence of this financial power, it has a certain level of influence in many different areas. Government officials will bend over backwards for a bank able to affect, positively or negatively, the state's economy. Companies who want investment capital will help this Node when they can. Certain industry events or conventions may be funded by the Bankhaus, and so on.

Its Goals are to keep the Conspiracy's financial operations running smoothly. Lisle and Albert have their own Goals, of course. Lisle wants to consolidate her control over her father, and edge her brother Eric out of the partnership altogether. She also wants to gamble whenever she pleases, but she's got to be much more discreet about it these days. Unexplained trips on the company jet may reveal her itinerary. Albert wants to keep Lisle happy, but it's possible that her continued mental domination has awakened certain desires in him that, until now, he's been able to suppress. He may have a collection of Lisle-a-likes kept at private apartments, or be a familiar figure at local BDSM establishments.

Its primary Assets are Lisle and Albert themselves, but each will have secondary assets of their own. Secretaries, assistants, houses, cars, the company jet, and so on. The offices they command could also be considered assets, as well as the accounts they control. Each probably has at least one bodyguard. Lisle may have a hacker permanently on her payroll, to ensure that her constant drain of company funds, to fuel her gambling addiction, goes unnoticed. If Uncle Albert kidnaps Lisle-a-likes to populate his private dungeons, then he may have a kidnap team on the payroll. Each office will have some kind of security detail, probably sub-contracted, and while these won't be fully armed mercs they will be at least moderately competent. Finally, one or both of them may have sufficient criminal contacts to hire an outside hit man. All this is in addition to whatever muscle the Node can leverage from other, lesser Nodes.

That's enough to be getting on with, I think. With this information the Director knows enough about the Node to determine what it wants, what it can do, and what it might do when threatened by the protagonists. After that, it's up to the players how things proceed.


Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Unblinking Eye (Night's Black Agents)

Recently Frederick Forsythe issued an annotation to his celebrated novel, The Day of the Jackal - a book I encourage you to read - in which he described three reasons why the Jackal's 1963 plot would not work today. The third item is CCTV, "which would have recorded (for example) all cars entering France via the Ventimiglia crossing point." Never mind all the other opportunities; after all, the Jackal crosses more than one border in his quest to assassinate de Gaulle.

There's an interesting Urbaneye research paper concerning CCTV in London, which states among other things that, in 1999, someone walking through London could expect to be filmed by over 300 cameras on 30 different CCTV systems. Of course, over a decade and a half has passed since that statistic was compiled. No doubt things have progressed considerably.

The article also states that the official system has been integrated with that run by the City's many banks and private entities. Those same private entities are notoriously touchy when it comes to security; taking pictures of the Gerkhin, in London, often attracts the attention of internal security, who in turn inform the police.  

All of which leads up to an important question: how difficult is it, with the spread of CCTV, for the agents in a Night's Black Agents game to avoid attracting attention? How quickly will they be picked up, if they do anything that raises Heat?

In a previous post, I mentioned the early progenitor of CCTV, and pointed out that it could theoretically affect a campaign as early as the mid to late 1930s; the first recorded instance of security cameras is 1942, at Peenemunde. Thus in a Dracula Dossier game it is reasonable for CCTV, or the equivalent, to become an issue at any point after the war. The characters are unlikely to encounter CCTV deployed on the streets of a city until roundabout the mid 1980s; there were early experiments in the 60s and 70s, but it's not until the 1990s that everyone started installing them, everywhere. However they will encounter cameras pretty much every time they go inside an official building, or an important location, like a bank.

Of course, certain tourist destinations were well ahead of the game on this issue.

It's reasonable to assume that, in any game set during the 2000s, CCTV is present in every European city the agents visit. It's also reasonable to assume that the CCTV system in a major urban center - Paris, Berlin, London - is capable of facial recognition and video content analysis. Finally, it's also reasonable to assume that the system in any border control point - say, Lille, with its Eurostar connection - is at least the equivalent of a Paris or London system, due to the increased importance of border control. 

With regard to the Conspyramid, it's a fair bet that any Node within a major urban center is going to have, or want to have, some level of control over the CCTV network. A Level One Node probably can't manage much, if anything. Perhaps it's bribed one of the police officers whose job it is to run the system, or perhaps it has a small CCTV network of its own. More likely it just wishes it does, but any Node at Level 3 or higher is definitely going to have its fingers in the official CCTV network, either directly, or through bribed proxies. That means that any Heat breach caught by CCTV is going to be in the Conspyracy's hands fairly quickly, perhaps 24 to 48 hours after it happens; probably longer, for low level Nodes.

Blanking the CCTV system to conserve Heat is certainly possible, but increases in difficulty with the sophistication of the system. Your average branch of Lloyds Bank probably has protection up to Difficulty 4 Digital Intrusion, or similar, and blanking it out won't get much immediate attention. Blanking out all the cameras at, say, Bank Tube, is probably close to Difficulty 6 or 7, and will certainly get immediate official attention; the security services tend to be extremely paranoid when it comes to the public transport network of a major urban center. Blanking out the CCTV at Parliament is definitely Difficulty 8, and will absolutely get an armed response. For that reason, simply knocking out the CCTV isn't always the best option. A response of whatever type can be expected within anywhere from five to six hours, for a simple breach on a soft target, to immediate, for a hard target like Parliament or Bank Tube.

Disguise or similar can be useful aids, but never forget that facial recognition systems can render disguises useless, and video content analysis can pinpoint people behaving suspiciously. Depending on the system this may not be a problem, but if you're somewhere important - public transport, any border control point, government buildings, certain private buildings - the system is likely to be sophisticated enough to detect simple disguises and strange behavior. Face concealing items, like hoods, hats and long hair, may be the best defense in the short run.

Does this mean CCTV is infallible? God, no. Ultimately these things are hooked to a computer network - there aren't enough operators in all the world to directly manage this flow of data - and computer networks can always be fooled. That, and CCTV placement is a perennial problem. Are all the important areas covered? Is anything blocking the view?

Or perhaps the problem can be managed by simple misdirection; cause an obvious breach in one location, and while forces are mustering to deal with that, hit the system from another direction. In game, this could perhaps be represented by the protagonists deliberately splitting into two groups, one of which does something to generate a lot of Heat, very quickly, while the other group does what it needs to do. Spoof the emergency services, and have a fleet of ambulances or fire trucks turn up at the front door while the insertion team makes its way in through the sewer. Set a fire or make a bomb threat, then have the insertion team arrive in uniform, sneaking in as part of the emergency response team. Those firemen's outfits are great for concealing identity; all bulk, and handy, concealing facemasks. This probably won't work as well for, say, Parliament or the headquarters of MI6 as it would for a softer target, but it stands a fair chance.

In the end, your best option for minimizing Heat in the CCTV age is not to attract it in the first place. Loud explosions and automatic weapons fire may be cinematic, but they're also very problematic. Never rely on any Cover lasting long; get in, and get out, as quickly as possible. When in doubt, use your Network connections to hide the camera information, rather than try to wipe the system yourself.

Oh, and smile for the camera. It's always watching you.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Not Quite Book Review Corner: The Book of Spies (NBA)

Silly, but entertaining, and with a very interesting plot hook. Which isn't something I was sure I was going to be able to say about Gayle Lynds' The Book of Spies. I picked it up mainly to data mine it for Night's Black Agents, and it's perfectly serviceable in that role. If you happen to be a Director and want some inspiration for your campaign, this is a good place to look for it, as it plays out much as you'd want a good RPG to: lots of travel to exotic locations, fun combat moments, and engaging villains. Just don't expect all of it to make sense.

The central hook is what lured me in, and that didn't disappoint. Rare book curator Eva Blake is drawn into a conspiracy surrounding the mysterious Library of Gold, once owned by Russian despot Ivan the Terrible, now thought lost to history. Eva's dead husband was a foremost expert on the mysterious library, but it seems his death isn't as kosher as first thought; not only is he alive, he's now the head librarian. But what's the connection between this most secretive of book clubs and Islamic terrorism?

Things I didn't like: oh, brother, it's a gimmick book. You know the type: Mysterious Clues have been left by Eva's long lost husband that, if pieced together, will lead to the Library itself. Mysterious clues like the tattoo on his head, or the ancient Latin code kept secret in Rome, or the annotations in the main McGuffin, Ivan's fabled Book of Spies. Piece together the picture formed by the moles on Washington's buttcheecks, as revealed to the righteous in the fabled naked Washington portrait painted by his secret lover, Andrew Jackson, and you too will receive a Wally Walrus decoder ring of your very own. I have so little patience for that kind of thing. It reminds me irresistibly of Calvin and Hobbes'  G.R.O.S.S., and while I enjoy that stuff when a kid and his stuffed tiger do it, I find I have less patience for it when grown adults try the same thing.

Plus, the clues can only be pieced together by his wife, which means that if his wife hadn't been conveniently dragged into the plot, nobody would have the slightest idea what the hell's going on. Added to that, there's no convincing reason why he should leave behind the clues he does, beyond a quick handwave, and there's one particular clue that, as far as I can see, he had absolutely no business knowing about. Poor plotting drives me mental.

There is a Mysterious Assassin With a Conscience. Kinda like a Hooker with a Heart of Gold, these fabled beasts only appear when the writer's up shit creek without a paddle. Naturally the main villain lies to the MAWC to get him to go after the book's heroes, and naturally the MAWC ends up turning against the main villain because the heroes seem so nice and righteous. Sweet jumping jellybeans, Batman, why the hell didn't you hire one of those assassins who don't have a conscience? Surely there are one or two of them left?

The plot is introduced when one of the conspirators has doubts, and meets with his old CIA buddy in a D.C. public park. He literally has just enough time to say, 'important clue concerning the nature of the McGuffin' before a sniper takes him out. I think the last time I saw that gag, Sax Rohmer was writing it. Life must get very frustrating for those poor snipers, who have to wait just long enough for the victim to say something significant before they can blow the victim's brains out.

So I don't recommend this book for its plot. You could drive a sixteen wheeler through the damn thing. No, I recommend it because of its McGuffin, the fabled Library of Gold, and the mysterious power brokers who own it. That whole set-up could be stolen wholesale by a Night's Black Agents Director. All you have to do is put Dracula in charge of the Library, and you're golden.

Plus, Lynds clearly seems at her most comfortable when talking about the Library, and other ancient sites. It's when her prose starts to come alive, and the character seem at their most human. Even the villains seem interesting, once they get to the Library and start sipping the brandy. Entire scenes could be taken from this book and transplanted into your campaign, and there's a very useful appendix where Lynds talks about the history behind the myth.

So on the whole, a qualified recommendation. It's worth bearing in mind that I did finish it, in spite of my vehement dislike of its structure and plotting. It's the kind of book you can probably devour in a few hours, or a long plane journey. In fact, it's exactly the sort of book you're likely to find in an airport newsagents, so if you should spot it, and it's going cheap, by all means give it a shot. Just don't expect too much from it beyod a few rollicking action scenes and a McGuffin so good, it really ought to have been in a better book.