Sunday, 20 May 2018

Small Town Zombie Chow - All Flesh Must Be Eaten

Perhaps it's just me, but as the heat intensifies with the onset of summer I feel the need for zombie goodness. I'm also a fan of Outside Xbox, which is how I came across this video:

Don't feel obliged to watch the whole thing if you don't want to. I post it because it sparked a train of thought: why is it in these zombie games towns never look like towns?

Sure, they have certain town-like attributes, but tell me truly: have you ever seen a small town in one of these games that doesn't look as if it were put together with Lego? People live here, work here, are born here, die here - and in a zombie apocalypse they're still dying here. Yet it's all oddly designed houses and suspiciously well-positioned radio towers as far as the eye can see. There's no sense of history, no real indication of what this place was like before the zoms came to zom everything up.

So this time out I'm going to draw on All Flesh Must Be Eaten ruleset by Eden, probably the best zombie survival game in print. My copy's the 2005 revised edition. I assume this is a game for Normals, in which the Basic Zombie (p146 main book) is the most common adversary. This means a player character with 50 build points can handle up to 10 zombies at a time. About 10% of the walking dead are improved versions of one kind or another, which get 10 extra Power points spent on them. That's the crunchy rule bit of this post.

I'm also going to draw on this article about the 27 most successful small business ideas for small towns. This is where I'm going to get my location inspiration. Finally I'm going to pick a town from this list of the prettiest small towns in Georgia, because why the hell not. Never kill yourself with work when someone else has already done it for you. Besides, I'm told there's a popular zombie series set in Georgia.

I'm reluctant to set this anywhere there's more than 4,000-odd people. That excludes a few towns on that list. So let's have a pop at Madison, Georgia. It even has a useful tourism website.

Named after an American President and incorporated in 1809, this township is Georgia's largest historic district. It avoided destruction during Sherman's march as one of its residents was a prominent pro-Union politician. This meant its antebellum plantations and homes survive in remarkable condition, luring tourists by the thousand.

This is a fictional version of Madison so let's not call it that. Let's call it Monroe, after Madison's successor. What's it like there? Well, Monroe has:
  • art galleries
  • museums
  • antebellum architecture
  • fancy restaurants & bars
  • Civil War memorabilia, including a statue donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
  • a farmers' market
  • antique shops
Plus other locations to be detailed. Already you should be getting a picture of Monroe, Georgia. You could probably name some of the streets if you tried, and some of the kinds of homebrew you can find on tap in the bar.

OK, time to add the zombies.

I'm not going to get too detailed here. There was an outbreak. It went about as well as you might expect. We are now two months in. Initial attempts at quarantine failed miserably, as did most federal and state bodies. While there probably is a federal or military presence somewhere, it's nowhere near Monroe. There is no state-wide power grid, but there are still plenty of generators and fuel for same. Communication is spotty, and almost entirely radio-based. Some landline telephones work, none of the mobile phones do. The internet is offline for good.

Human population of Monroe has shrunk to about 10% of pre-apocalypse numbers, split 50/50 between locals and non-locals. Assuming a pre-apocalypse count of 4,000, that means there are 400 people left alive scattered across a mostly rural or historic area something like 24 sq. km. large. Further assume that 10% of that 400 were in positions of some authority before this happened. State police, former members of a Federal organization like the CDC, local politicians - anyone who might reasonably be expected to lead and organize people. 

Now we come to those 27 small business ideas. I'm not going to go through all 27. That would break my brain and yours. However I am going to pick six, and see what a zombie apocalypse might do to them.

Coffee Shop & Bar: Before the apocalypse this place served coffee during the day and liquor after 4pm. Warm Discussions is near the farmer's market, just off the corner of Plum Street and S Main. A fire in the business next door shortly after the outbreak damaged the exterior, but the walls and roof are still sound - it's mostly smoke damage. Décor: exposed brick, brass & leather finishing. Location can be secured if the following entry points are dealt with: broken window front, main entrance, fire exit. Partially scavenged. Food & liquor on site in small quantities. Two Molotov cocktails on site. High velocity handgun on site with a dozen rounds. Location overrun by (Z=PCx5) basics plus one special with The Lunge, Teeth.
Bakery: Born and Bread in Monroe is a 1920s brick build on James Avenue within sight of Centennial Park. A firefight shattered most of the front windows but they have been boarded up. Bullet marks pock the exterior. Décor: glass, art deco, tile. Location has been secured. Location occupied by four survivors including one soldier, leader of the group. Food and liquor on site. Small stash of medicine on site. Three firearms, over a hundred rounds total, and three clubs on site. Group attitude: unwilling to trade unless materials to fix their radio are on offer. 

Food Truck: The Gourmet Machine specialized in BBQ with its signature Satan's Surprise mustard sauce. A firefight blew out its two front tires and it hit a wall on Bacon Street. If the tires were replaced the truck is in fair working condition and could be driven away. It would need further repair, but nothing too serious. Style: black & flame red exterior. Site has been secured, but it's a food truck - breaking in is not difficult. Location occupied by former CDC scientist, who is using it as a temporary base of operations after her last safe house was destroyed. Food on site, including plenty of Satan's Surprise. CDC medical equipment (travel bag) on site. One handgun and twelve rounds of ammunition on site. Survivor attitude: grateful for any assistance. Prefers authority figures.

Flower Shop: After all, it worked so well for Silent Hill. Pansy Petal was a family business run at the same location for over 15 years. The ground floor has been completely abandoned; there are survivors on the roof, growing vegetables. Décor: 90s chic, with a thick overlay of zombie destruction. Ground floor overrun by (Z=PCx4) basics. There is a means of getting up to the roof, but not through the flower shop; it can be done by going through the building next door. Food on site. Small supply of medicine on site. Location occupied by two survivors trying not to draw attention to themselves. One baseball bat on site. Survivor attitude: grateful for any assistance.

Bowling Alley: Splittsville is a 50s theme alley with vintage jukebox and pinball on site. The alley has been boarded up and is obviously being defended; it has working security cameras and a radio antennae on the roof. Décor: Happy Days, right down to signed posters and Fonzie for President chotchke. Food and liquor on site. Medicine on site. Power supply from portable generator runs security cameras & electric traps on the main doors. Location occupied by half a dozen survivors three of whom are cops. Two shotguns on site, 50 rounds. Three heavy handguns on site, 80 rounds. SMG on site, 50 rounds. Sword on site. Clubs on site. Group attitude: unwilling to cooperate, feels that its supplies are just enough to keep group safe without taking risks. Prepared to steal from others.

Pet Grooming and Boarding: Bark and Buzz Spa & Board is a very new business that, had the apocalypse not intervened, was due for Chapter 11 by the beginning of the next financial year. Décor: cheap and desperate. Paint, carpet, equipment all lowest possible standard. Lots of pet toys. Food on site, so long as you like eating dog chow. Radio on site. Pedal bike on site. Location overrun  by (Z=PCx7) basics plus one, the former owner, with Animal Cunning & Long-Term Memory.

So what did I do, exactly?

First, I picked a real-world location and copied some of its characteristics. This gives Monroe a lived-in feel. Then I borrowed some business ideas from a small business website. That gave me potential locations and some cues as to what those locations might be like. Then I searched online with terms like 'pet grooming store names' or 'bakery names'. There's any number of marketing sites out there which do this sort of thing all day long. After that I pencil in a few details about the occupants and the kind of gear that might be found on site. Nothing fancy. The folks at Splittsville might be major antagonists, or bumps in the road - no way to tell until the game starts and the players add their own flavor. For all I know the CDC researcher might end up the supreme villain. Or it might be one of those games where the actual antagonist is the situation, and the only thing the characters have to do is survive.


Sunday, 13 May 2018

Murder on a Cruise Ship: A Photographer's Lawsuit

In July 2017 Kristy Manzanares, 39, was found dead in her Princess Cruise Lines cruise ship cabin. Her husband was arrested and charged with murder; he's awaiting trial in Alaska in November 2018, since the crime took place in Alaskan waters.

That's not what I'm going to talk about. This post is about what happened next.

As part of the on-board investigation, one of the cruise ship's security detail demanded that a ship's photographer make record of the crime scene. Jean Luc Van Wyk, who only signed on to take happy snaps of smiling families, was directed to take 100 photos of the very bloody cabin where a woman had been beaten to death. [Pre-trial discovery indicates 541 pictures in total, which suggests Van Wyck didn't take them all.] The security agent told Van Wyk what to shoot, and not to shoot. I'm guessing Van Wyk objected, given what happens next, and the security agent told him to shut up and get on with it.

Van Wyk has filed a lawsuit for damages alleging post-traumatic stress, making claims of Jones Act negligence, general maritime law negligence, maintenance and cure, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. He wasn't up for photographing bloody crime scenes, and I for one don't blame him; it's hardly the sort of thing he expected to be asked to do. He must have been wondering, all the while he's snapping blood spatter, whether earlier in the cruise he'd caught some candids of Ms. Manzanares in happier, pre-murder times.

He filed that claim in a California court and the ship is Bermuda registry, so the cruise line's holding him to an agreement he signed on taking up the job: any and all disputes are to be arbitrated in Bermuda. Van Wyk would prefer to fight the claim in a California court, since he'd get more damages if he won a court case in California.

The latest word, as far as I can determine, is that a California judge told Van Wyk to go to arbitration.

Initial thoughts: why the hell the security guy didn't just borrow a camera and take his own photos? It's not as if Van Wyk had specialist forensic training; he's a happy snaps, let's-all-make-nice-for-the-camera shutterbug. The guard's shaky-cam couldn't have been any worse than Van Wyk's shaky-cam.

So what happens next to the security agent who caused all this mess? It's the one bit of the story I really want to know more about. Though I suppose if the cruise line is going to hang him from the yardarm it'll do it after the Van Wyk business settles, not before. Doing it before might look like an admission of guilt.

I see that according to this piece about security guard licensing the requirements for security personnel aboard a cruise ship may vary. Senior people will often, but not always, need to have law enforcement credentials. Your average guard need only be physically fit and proficient in English.

It's odd: you seldom see cruise liners in gaming or in mysteries any more. When liners were the only way to travel - broadly from the nineteenth century up till the jet age - there were any number of detective stories, romances, even ghost stories, set on liners. Charlie Chan had his murder cruise, Hercule Poirot set sail down the Nile, Wodehouse's idiots wooed and won, or lost, aboard queens of the sea. My favorite romantic comedy, The Lady Eve, begins with crooked gamblers aboard a cruise ship. These days whether it's a movie or a game when you do see cruise liners it usually means everyone on board is dead.

Which is a pity, because setting a scene aboard an ocean liner provides a complex yet artificial setting that can be adapted to any eventuality. Do you want to stage an elaborate heist? Imagine trying to crack a safe inside one of the luxury cabins, with all those cameras everywhere and thousands of potential witnesses on-site. Do you want to have a scene at a ski resort without all the fuss of actually going to a ski resort? Not a problem: there's a cruise ship that does that - or will do that. Luxury bars? Check. Casinos? Check. Elaborate theatres, robot bartenders, scuba diving, escape rooms? Not a problem.

Most of all, do you want an artificial setting where all the usual rules don't apply and the police presence is amateur hour at best? Cruise lines have you covered.

That's it for this week!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Forgotten London: The Tyburn Tree (London)

This post inspired by the YouTube channel Plainly Difficult.

So how can this be gamified?

There are a few things that can be played with:
  • The gallows themselves.
  • The location of the gallows.
  • The artifacts associated with the hangings eg broadsheets.
  • The psychic impact of the event.
The gallows are a folkloric gold mine. Most people with any interest in horror folklore know about the Hand of Glory, and how it can be used by sorcerers. The condemned on the way to the gallows were especially prized for their curative hands, both before and after the event. There would always be a congregation of sufferers gathered at the three-legged tree hoping for a stroke from the soon-to-be departed, and the hangman could often be bribed to let the chronically ill have a few minutes with the corpse after its last jig was done.

However it wasn't just the hands that were valuable. The gallows themselves were magically potent. Plainly Difficult notes that the permanent gallows Tyburn is famous for were eventually taken down because of persistent vandalism. People were taking great chunks out of the gallows because they believed the wood itself was magical after being watered with the blood of the condemned, a theme that recurs again and again in ghost stories. The wood could cure ague, toothache, and bring luck at cards. 

So, a story seed:

John Rann's Chair A pub in East London claims to have an antique chair made from wood taken from the gallows that took the life of Sixteen String Jack, hung in 1774 for his many crimes. It's said the chair was originally made at the instruction of one of London's most prominent gamblers, Samuel William Rowlinson, a regular at notorious gambling club Brook's. Rowlinson is supposed to have died of a heart attack while playing Hazard at Brook's. Two nights ago a pub regular died sitting in that chair while playing cards, and there's been talk of a curse. What's going on? 

The location of Tyburn Tree is slightly in doubt. It's popularly supposed to be at the junction of Oxford Street, Edgeware Road and Bayswater Road, there's reason to think it might actually have been at Connaught Square.  This Georgian landmark is very exclusive, and has a private shared garden park in which a party is held each year. 

So, a story seed:

The Unwelcome Corpse Each year, the night before the party, the heads of each Connaught Square household gather for a quiet ritual at which they 'hang' a corpse - usually a dummy, though in the early days it's said they obtained their corpses from medical schools - with the intent of keeping Tyburn Tree quiet for another year. This ritual has been going on for longer than anyone can remember, and deadly secrecy is essential since some of the country's most important citizens live at Connaught Square. They couldn't afford the scandal. However this year Connaught Square was horrified to find an actual corpse strangled at the very spot their ritual was to be carried out. Nobody knows who did it, or who the body belongs to. Can this scandal be hushed up? How did this happen, and why?

Bookhounds of London characters will be interested in the broadsheets. Printed cheap and sold for peanuts, surviving copies of these scurrilous rags can be very valuable to collectors. Often the condemned sold her life story to the highest bidder, and had the satisfaction of seeing it sold at the same moment her limbs twitched for the last time. Or perhaps it was a poem, a song, some kind of political pamphlet - but whatever it was, there's bound to be a market for it. Even the lies are valuable, and Lord knows there were plenty of lies to go around. When in need of copy, broadsheet sellers plagiarized old sheets and added just enough new detail to make it seem as if the current condemned actually did all those things. Sex & violence always sells, particularly when mixed with a healthy dose of punishment for the wicked.

Provenance A book scout fallen on hard times and sodden with drink keeps coming up with vintage Tyburn broadsheets, which sell for just enough to keep the scout sozzled. In almost every respect the sheets seem genuine; the right paper, subject material, historical details, even the ink. The one thing wrong about them is they seem too good. Nothing that's been around for two to three hundred years has any business being in this condition. It's as if they were printed yesterday. Where is the scout finding these broadsheets? Why does the scout keep going back to Tyburn?

A Tyburn execution was a popular event. A famous one drew crowds to watch the condemned on his two mile procession to the Tyburn Tree. Wealthy spectators had their own stands built, or rented rooms along the route at one of the many inns or houses, while the poorer mob stood in the heat or rain - and in Britain rain is more likely. The trip to the gallows might take as long as three hours, as the condemned's passage was constantly interrupted. The prisoner often stopped at an inn to have one last drink - after all, a drunken prisoner was a compliant one, particularly if someone thought to slip drugs in his drink. Sometimes the prisoner would be pelted with rotten vegetables, eggs and other things, if they were unpopular or their crimes particularly heinous. More likable condemned would be better treated, but they all came to the same place in the end. 

Traffic Violations The church of St Giles has a traffic problem. Three times in the last three months there's been a serious accident in the street outside its gates, and each time the driver or passenger of the vehicle involved swore the accident happened because the road was slick with what seemed to be blood. Loose talk links the accidents with Tyburn dead buried in the churchyard, and some parishoners are getting hysterical. What's really causing these accidents? Is it to do with Tyburn, or something else? [Esoterrorists Keepers take note: this could be a scheme to weaken the Membrane.]

That's it for this week!

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Grimoires - The Long Lost Friend (RPG materials)

I've talked about grimoires before, those worm-eaten magical texts so often found on the bookshelves of the preternaturally deceased. In the last couple stories posted on patreon, Martin's Beach cunning man and private enquiry agent Mowry refers to one particular grimoire: the Long Lost Friend. I thought I'd take a moment to talk about that book.

Der Freund in der Noth; oder, Gehime Sympathetische Wissenchaft is known to have been published in 1793. No doubt its contents were liberally lifted from other occult works, but at this far remove it's difficult to tell where from. Like many other occult texts it claimed to draw on older secret knowledge.

The following secret remedies were taken from an old Spanish manuscript, which was found at an old hermit's who for over a hundred years lived in a cave in the dark valleys of the Graubünden Land, performing the region many wonderous works, among others totally expelling from the said region the monstrous dragon with four young which dwelt upon those fearsome mountains in Unterwalden.

So it's Spanish, which means it's from them there Foreign Parts with a very slight hint of South American/Aztec Wisdom. It comes from a mysterious place, and through its power great mystic works were possible. All good advertising needs your basic dragon or dragon-equivalent; nobody'd believe Tide got your whites the whitest without a demonstration.

What you actually got for your money was twenty-four pages of charms, medicinal remedies, and other magical workings. Since it was German it travelled across the ocean blue to America in the trunks and bags of German immigrants, and before long became in translation the Long Lost Friend. A collection of MYSTERIOUS & INVALUABLE ARTS AND REMEDIES for MAN AS WELL AS ANIMALS. First printed in English in 1846 by Pennsylvania German bookmaker Hohman, copies of this extremely rare edition now sell for thousands of dollars.

Of course this wasn't the only edition. Success breeds imitators, and before long there were several other Pennsylvania booksellers with their own versions of the Friend. One of the more ubiquitous is John George Holman's Pow-Wows, which went through many pulp printings in the early 20th century. There were some changes in content with each new edition, but at its core the Friend remained the book of charms it had been since 1793. Do you want to cure scurvy and sore throat? The Friend has a charm for that. Do you want to find water? The Friend will show you how.

Its influence lasted well into the 20th century. In 1951 a Pennsylvania Mennonite couple were reported to the police for refusing to have their serious ill child treated by 'scientific' medicine. Their belief in faith healing came primarily from Hohman's Long Lost Friend. "If the Lord wants to heal the boy, He will heal him," said the father to State troopers.

In 1928 a Pennsylvania murder was linked to the Friend. Farmer Nelson D. Rehmeyer was found beaten to death at his home, and it transpired that his killers had followed the advice of a pow wow man named John Blymyer. This cunning man had identified Rehmeyer as a witch whose hexes had bedeviled his killers. Rehmeyer happened to own a copy of the Long Lost Friend, and Blymyer knew about it. Blymyer told Rehmeyer's neighbors to break into Rehmeyer's house, steal his Friend and a lock of his hair, burn the book and bury the hair. That would break the curses they labored under. It all went spectacularly wrong, and in an attempt to cover up the killing the murderers tried to burn the corpse. They fled the scene without checking to make sure their cover-up worked. The fire went out, the murder scene was preserved intact, and the killers were brought to justice. Blymyer served twenty-five years in prison. After this, Pennsylvania authorities became extremely sensitive to hex magic cases, and the Friend got a reputation as a witch book.

In game terms, books like the Long Lost Friend confer no real power as such - not when compared to the eldritch authority of the Cthulhu Mythos. However they do have occult status. Any self-respecting curse-breaker is bound to have a copy. Moreover as it has been through so many printings by so many different booksellers, a Keeper would be well within her rights to give it a few Mythos touches. No doubt those touches are borrowed from some other text, just as the original Friend borrows its ideas from mysterious Spanish mystics.

CoC 7th Ed:

The Long Lost Friend. English translation of a German hex book, containing a collection of prayers, charms and medical advice. SAN Loss: 1/1D2. Occult: +4%. Mythos variant: SAN: 1/1D4+1. CMI: +2%. CMF: +4%. MR: 12


The Long Lost Friend. Adds 2 to Occult rating. Potential dedicated investigative pool Oral History (assumes players use it or phrases from it in conversation with old folks, particularly in Pennsylvania or anywhere there's a significant German population) or Theology. The Mythos version provides 1 Mythos.

Whichever version you use, assume it confers no spells - or at least, no spells that work as advertised.


Source material provided by Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Caveat Emptor

YSDC's adaptation of my scenario The Many Deaths of Edward Bigsby is going really well, and people seem to like it. In honor of that, here's a very skeletal scenario for you about a cursed French commode.

No, not that kind of commode.

It's based in part on Jules Michelet's book Witchcraft, Sorcery and Superstition. Michelet is a very clever French raconteur and scholar who makes the stories he tells come alive - even if he has to sacrifice detachment and accuracy to do so. If you have any interest in this topic I urge you to seek it out. I have the Citadel Press translation which is why the title's slightly different.

Caveat Emptor

The Hook

The investigators are asked to authenticate an allegedly cursed Louis Quinze commode, only to discover that the curse is all too real.

Louis Quinze: A term used by antique dealers and art historians, this means that the item was made during the reign of Louis XV of France, or 1715 to 1730. This is sometimes called the Regency period. The grand Rocaille stylings with their graceful curves and elements modeled on nature, an artistic rebellion against the heavy formal styles popular in Louis’ fathers time, are just beginning to come into fashion.

Commode: The meaning is derived from the French, meaning convenient, or suitable. A cabinet or chest of drawers, set low so as to be below the dado rail, or the midpoint of the wall.

The Awful Truth

In 1726 the notorious witch and false nun Madeline was brought by her confessor and captor Picart to a dungeon in his home at Rouen. There she was to be starved to death, but she proved remarkably difficult to kill. Over time Picart relented, but only because she was still useful – he could bring her to trials as a so-called expert witness to accuse other witches. All the while he and the staff of his house sexually abused and tormented her, thinking her less than human.

They grew so used to her that they seldom bothered locking her up. There was nowhere she could go. No family in Rouen would take her in, her family had renounced her, and to the wider world she was the notorious witch, baby-killer and false Bride of Christ. She had the run of Picart’s household.

Picart and his people failed to realize that whether or not she’d been a servant of dark powers before her incarceration she certainly was now. She had congress with strange creatures while locked in that cellar deep below ground, beings that advised her the best way to revenge herself on Picart. She scrawled her curses in blood on parchment stolen from Picart’s desk, and carefully concealed them in a false drawer of the commode. Then she waited for the curse to do its work.

She hadn’t long to wait. Before the month was out Picart had vanished, stolen into the void by the Dimensional Shambler her curse had summoned, but not bound. As it wasn’t bound the creature could return again and again, so long as it remained within a short distance of the commode. It did. Within another month, two of Picart’s servants disappeared, and people began talking about a curse.

Over the years the Shambler emerged from beyond our dimension again and again. Sometimes it didn’t take a victim, but allowed itself to be seen. On other occasions it merely wounded its target, or left bloodstains and other marks behind for people to wonder at. Often its victim would simply vanish without a trace.

These repeated visits began to damage the commode, in a dimensional sense. It no longer exists just in our world; it has a parallel existence across the void. It creates a hole in reality.

Holes allow passage in both directions.

The Cursed Commode

Date made: around 1710 to 1725

Artist/Maker: attributed to the workshop of Pierre Couchois, Rouen.

Medium: Oak and Fir veneered with amaranth, bloodwood and warama; gilt-bronze mounts; marble top.

Dimensions: 85.7 cm by 131.4 cm by 58.4 cm.

First known curse event: the disappearance and presumed death of Father Picart, Jesuit and witch-hunter, 1728.

Second known: The murder of banker Marius Harel and his entire family, eight people in all, 1789. Also known as the Night of Blood in some of the more lurid histories.

Third known: The disappearance of Deidra Van Stratten on her wedding night, leaving only her ring finger behind, 1865.

Fourth known: The strange decapitation of auctioneer Ralston Hayes, 1902.

There are several disappearances also blamed on the curse, but without evidence it’s impossible to link any disappearance with the commode.

Opening Scene

The investigators are asked to authenticate the commode by an important auctioneering firm.

Initial examination finds nothing untoward. The commode is authentic, and rather plain for the period. Its lurid history is its main attraction, otherwise an ordinary example of early Louis Quinze furnishing would attract little interest.

Clue:                     There are some signs of refurbishing, possibly in the early 18th Century, which warrant further investigation. Perhaps this isn’t an original piece; someone may have cobbled it together from period parts.

Confrontation: The Confession

Soon after the investigators start their examination they discover mysterious writing appearing in every notebook, newspaper or similar. The writing only appears if the item is left in the same room as the commode, for any length of time. It’s in archaic French.

The writing disappears after several hours, but if the paper was torn or damaged those marks remain.

Clue:                     If translated, the writing proves to be a series of confessions. Whoever wrote them was in a very disturbed state of mind. The person confesses to congress with the Devil, witchcraft, baby murder and a hundred different things. Often the writer is so disturbed that whatever they use to write with breaks or tears through the paper. The name Picart appears again and again.

Clue:                     Whatever it is, it’s not invisible ink. Despite every test, once the writing vanishes it’s as if it was never there.

Clue (hard):        The writer refers to herself as ‘unhappy Madeline’ once.

Confrontation: A Break-In – Or Is It?

The contents of the room the commode is in have been moved by person or persons unknown, and they weren’t too careful when they did it. Some things are damaged or smashed beyond repair. The commode is untouched, and remains exactly where it was left.

Clue:                     Judging by what might be a footprint in the dust, whoever did this was very large. Possibly more than seven foot tall. How does someone that huge break in, and nobody sees a thing?

Refurbished Or Not?

The refurbishment actually was a concealment. The commode had a secret compartment in one of its upper cabinets covered by a false bottom, and someone went to a great deal of trouble to seal and conceal that false bottom so it couldn’t be detected or opened. Inside is a parchment written in blood. It appears to be a magical curse.

Clue:                 Whoever went to all that trouble must have been a very clever artisan, probably someone in the mid to late 1700s. Nobody else would have had the skill, knowledge or materials.

Clue:                    The document is written in the same hand as the confessions.

Clue (hard):       The document curses Father Picart “to eternal and unending torment in the realm   beyond, where the Old Ones await.”

Soft Spot

The room where the commode is kept develops what can only be described as a soft spot. The walls feel spongy, the floor insubstantial, and if someone tilts their head at just the right angle they can see beyond the room to something, or somewhere, else. Potential Sanity/Stability loss.

Clue:                     The sensation never lasts very long. When it happens, any reflective surface in the immediate area glows with a faint blue aura.


The investigators may chase up the Father Picart angle, or poor Madeline.

Clue (Picart):     Father Picart was a confessor in a nunnery who fell in lust with one of the nuns. He wooed her and promised to marry her, and when she objected that they could not be wed in the sight of God he said they should be married with the Devil’s blessing. Later, when she was with child and the whole story was about to be revealed, to save his skin he portrayed himself as the heroic redeemer who discovered this witch nestled in the haven of Christ’s Brides. Her punishment, overseen by Picard himself, was starvation. She survived and he later used her as an expert witness to accuse other witches. He vanished, the first victim of the curse. The records don’t say what happened to her.

Clue (Mad):        Madeline de Poitiers was from a rich family that had too many daughters, and being the youngest she was sent to the nunnery at the age of 12. There she met Father Picart, who seduced her before her fourteenth birthday. Though the records don’t say what happened to her after his disappearance, some legends say she appeared again and again in his house, an angry spirit wanting revenge.

Dimension Hopping

The Shambler moves from its dimension to ours, but thanks to the curse the investigators can move to its realm.

There things fold in on each other like paper dolls made of string. The investigators see things that are familiar to them – streets, houses, towns – yet they constantly shift away, always out of reach. Everything is seen through a blue filter, as if the inside of the investigator’s eyeballs had been painted over. Always the things they see are torn apart and remade, never the worse for wear, only to be shredded again and a new thing made.

The one exception to this is the commode. It exists in every place they go in this new dimension. It’s not always the same size or shape, but it’s the same thing.

A woman shouts obscenities somewhere nearby, yet it’s impossible to hear exactly what she’s saying.


If the investigators want to end the curse, they need Madeline’s help. It’s thanks to her power that this all started, and being trapped in the alternate dimension has one big advantage: our time doesn’t exist there. For her, it’s still 1726. If she does something here, it affects our world in 1726. Theoretically the investigators could put a stop to the curse before it starts, saving many lives. All they need to do is persuade Madeline to rescind her curse.

This does mean that Father Picart will not die. The curse will end before he gets destroyed by the Shambler. The investigators will have to come up with a way in which Madeline can be persuaded to give up her vengeance.

If the investigators don’t do this, they might try to destroy the commode. The Shambler will intervene forcefully before that happens. Moreover since it exists in alternate dimensions even if they do destroy it the commode can be replaced. All the Shambler has to do is ‘borrow’ one from an alternate dimension and move it here. This further weakens an already unstable dimensional rift, but why should the Shambler care?

Killing the Shambler stops it from coming to our dimension, but only for one day. Time doesn’t exist in its dimension, and neither does death. It can reform a body and return. A day’s grace is all the investigators get, and that only because a day will make them think they might have won.

This concludes the scenario.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Exorcist (NBA, Dracula Dossier)

Exorcism is on the rise, according to this Guardian piece. The Vatican set up a new training scheme for would-be Von Sydows, claiming that reported instances of possession have grown exponentially in recent years. Evangelical churches have always been fond of exorcism, and there are independent exorcists that will bell, book & candle you for less than the price of a second-hand car. Or so the Economist claims.

Of course, there are no reliable statistics for any of this. The people reporting a rise in demand for exorcism are the same people who want to hold more exorcisms. The evidence is anecdotal, but that's never stopped anyone from jumping to a conclusion before.

Christianity has traditionally had a very uneasy relationship with the Devil, but not for the reason you might think. It's a power problem. If the Devil is capable of performing miracles, then what price God? In order to keep God at the top of the hierarchy, the Devil cannot perform miracles. His imps and minions can only perform natural acts, because if they could actually pull off supernatural stunts then the fine line between God and his opposite number gets blurrier than philosophers like. Instead they manipulate Man to achieve what seems to be miracles, but are not.

For the Dog of Hell is bound, writes one philosopher, neither can he operate on Forms, the Bodies of these, or their properties, unless he take to him the mind of Man as a co-operatives with him, under whose convents he bond-slaves by deceit, and binds them in a Covenant ... For he persuades those who have renounced Divine Grace, of whatsoever he will. and promiseth that he will perform Mischievous or wicked Acts, by strength or faculties which he feigneth to be natural or proper unto himself. For he snatcheth his Imps into the detestable adoration of a He-Goat, as if the government of all things stood in His power, and that he alone could confer the gift of the working of miracles.

The larger problem - and again, this was true in the medieval period as now - is that once you let the Devil in the door, there's no keeping him out. He's the original Special Pleading. There's no justifying him, but once you admit that he could be lurking in the shadows causing mayhem then there's no way to tell the difference between reality and the Devil's fantasy.

Moreover an exorcist, particularly an amateur, is likely to look at almost any problem as a spiritual one requiring immediate spiritual intervention. Not, say, a problem of  human fallibility, or a medical problem requiring medical assistance. The same is true of their petitioners. Very few people understand what exorcism is, but if it doesn't look like Netflix crossed with Hammer Horror and offer a convenient one-stop cure for their problem, they don't believe it.

Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series about a female Deliverance cleric operating in Hertfordshire makes this point again and again: it is all too easy to become addicted to exorcism, to see it as a solution to problems it was never meant to handle. Merrily often has to discourage people from thinking of her job as an immediate cure, like calling out the plumber to deal with a leaky faucet.

However from a role-playing POV, and with one eye on Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents, an exorcist player character has appeal. Moreover Merrily Watkins has a hint as to which way it should go, as the series is set near Hereford, the home of the SAS. Often a character in one of her mysteries turns out to be a former SAS now retired, or turned priest. You can see the appeal for a serving soldier; first-hand combat experience often either turns a person atheist, or devout. Muscular Christianity offers the willing a chance to fight spiritual problems with physical action. What more could a former special operations vet wish for?

That said, designing a character template for this ought to take the civilian version into consideration, the occultist with a yen for theatrics and a PayPal account for donations. With that in mind, here's two options for an exorcist player character.

Exorcist (Former Soldier)

Investigative:  Intimidation 2, Military Science 1, Occult Studies 2, Outdoor Survival 1. Possible alternates: Urban Survival, Vampirology.

General: Athletics or Shooting 10, Hand-to-Hand 4, Preparedness 4. Possible alternates: Sense Trouble, Weapons.

Exorcist (Enthusiastic Amateur)

Investigative: Bullshit Detector 1, History 2, Occult Studies 2,  Research 1. Possible alternates: Vampirology, Diagnosis, Reassurance

General: Conceal 6, Shrink 6, Preparedness 6. Possible alternates: Filch (for those who like to take their theatrics one step too far).

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Cousin Jane (Lafcadio Hearn)

I've been lucky enough to hold a copy of The Life & Letters of Lafcadio Hearn in my hands. Elizabeth Bisland's two volume collection is a remarkable piece of scholarship, and I'd recommend it to anyone with any interest in Hearn. Or even those that don't, because there's plenty here that can be data mined by anyone with an interest in horror.

Lafcadio was born in 1850 to an Irish father and Greek mother. The circumstances of his parents' marriage were straight out of a romance novel. Surgeon-Major 76th Foot Charles Bush Hearn was sent to the island of Cerigo in the late 1840s, where he met Rosa Cerigote. The two fell in love but her family did not approve, particularly since the British were an occupying force. They wanted nothing to do with the oppressors, and one night her brothers ambushed Hearn and stabbed him, leaving him for dead. Rosa found the Surgeon Major and concealed him in a barn, nursing him back to health. When he was well enough the pair eloped, and for a time knew happiness in Greece. Lafcadio, named for the island of his birth, Lefcada, was their second son. The first died soon after birth, and their third, James, was born three years later.

When Britain ceded the Ionian Isles to Greece the family went back to Ireland, but this was fatal to the marriage. Rosa could not abide Ireland, and had no friends there. She became miserable, and after a time believed the Surgeon Major had fallen in love with someone else. The marriage was annulled, and Rosa fled back to Greece.

This disruption broke the family, and Lafcadio was adopted by an aunt, Mrs. Brenane, a staunch Roman Catholic. Lafcadio moved to Wales, and never saw his father or brother again. He grew up with a morbid distrust of attachment, never making friends easily, constantly on the lookout for betrayal.

I'm not going to summarize the book, but I do want to talk about an episode from Lafcadio's early history. It illustrates what I believe to be the one true rule of weird fiction: that the writer must take something that is normal in every respect, and twist it until it becomes unnatural.

Young Hearn had a cheerless life in Mrs. Brenane's household. She was a stern woman, teaching him Roman Catholicism by rote. He understood nothing of religion, but could repeat prayers "only as a parrot might have done." A nervous child, he had been forbidden ghost stories and fairy tales and was under strict injunction not to talk about such things.

One day a visitor arrived, Cousin Jane, a joyless young woman who wanted to become a nun, but did not. "I asked why," says Lafcadio, "I was told I was too young to understand." She seldom smiled, and seemed burdened by some secret grief.

One day she discovered that Lafcadio, though nominally religious, had no real concept of God. This horrified her, and she lectured him with a fervor that says something about the brand of religion she adopted.

I do not remember all the rest of her words; I can recall with distinctness only the following:

"and send you down to Hell to burn alive in fire for ever and ever! Think of it! - always burning, burning, burning! screaming and burning! screaming and burning! never to be saved from that pain of fire! You remember when you burned your finger at the lamp? Think of your whole body burning - always, always, always burning! - for ever and ever!"

I can still see her face as in the instance of that utterance - the horror upon it, and the pain. Then she suddenly burst into tears and left the room.

From that time I detested Cousin Jane, because she had made me unhappy in a new and irreparable way. I did not doubt what she had said; but I hated her for having said it - particularly for the hideous way she said it ... When she left us in the spring, I hoped that she would soon die - so that I might never see her face again. 

But I was fated to meet her again under strange circumstances. I am not sure whether it was in the latter part of the summer that I last saw her, or early in the autumn; I remember only that it was in the evening and that the weather was still pleasantly warm. The sun had set; but there was a clear twilight, full of soft colour; and in that twilight-time I happened to be on the lobby of the third floor - all by myself.

I do not know why I had gone up there alone; perhaps I was looking for some toy. At all events I was standing in the lobby, close to the head of the stairs, when I noticed that the door of Cousin Jane's room seemed to be ajar. Then I saw it slowly opening. The fact surprised me because that door - the farthest one of three opening on the lobby - was usually locked. Almost at the same moment Cousin Jane herself, robed in her familiar black dress, came out of the room, and advanced towards me - but with her head turned upwards and sideways, as if she were looking for something on the lobby-wall, close to the ceiling. I cried out in astonishment, "Cousin Jane!" - but she did not seem to hear. She approached slowly, still with her head so thrown back that I could see nothing of her face above the chin: then she walked directly past me into the room nearest the stairway - a bedroom of which the door was always left open by day. Even as she passed I did not see her face - only her white throat and chin, and the gathered mass of her beautiful hair. Into the bedroom I ran after her, calling out, "Cousin Jane! Cousin Jane!" I saw her pass round the foot of a great four-pillared bed, as if to approach the window beyond it; and I followed her to that other side of the bed. Then, as if first aware of my presence, she turned; and I looked up, expecting to meet her smile ... She had no face. There was only a pale blur instead of a face. And even as I stared, the figure vanished. It did not fade; it simply ceased to be - like the shape of a flame blown out.

Cousin Jane returned to the house at the beginning of the cold season. In the first few hours she made much of Lafcadio, buying him toys and good things to eat.

I ought to have been grateful, if not happy. But the generous shame that her caresses had awakened was already gone; and that memory of which I could speak to no one - least of all to her - again darkened my thoughts. This Cousin Jane who was buying me toys, and smiling, and chatting, was only, perhaps, the husk of another Cousin Jane that had no face ... Before the brilliant shops, among the crowds of happy people, I had nothing to fear. But afterwards - after dark - might not the Inner disengage herself from the other, and leave her room, and glide to mine with chin upturned, as if staring at the ceiling?

Cousin Jane took a turn for the worse the very next day, and did not come down to breakfast. She died of consumption soon after.

I understood only that I had seen; and because I had seen I was afraid. And the memory of that seeing disturbed me more than ever, after the coffin of Cousin Jane had been carried away. The knowledge of her death had filled me, not with sorrow, but with terror. Once I had wished that she were dead. And that wish had been fulfilled - but the punishment was yet to come. Dim thoughts, dim fears - enormously older than the creed of Cousin Jane - awakened within me, as from some prenatal sleep - especially a horror of the dead as evil beings, hating mankind ... such horror exists in savage minds, accompanied by the vague notion that character is totally transformed or stripped by death - that those departed, who once caressed and smiled and loved, now menace and gibber and hate ... what power, I asked myself in dismay, could protect me from her visits? I had not yet ceased to believe in the God of Cousin Jane; but I doubted whether he would or could do anything for me. Moreover my creed had been greatly shaken by the suspicion that Cousin Jane had always lied. How often had she not assured me that I could not see ghosts or evil spirits! Yet the Thing that I had seen was assuredly her inside-self - the ghost of the goblin of her - and utterly evil. Evidently she hated me: she had lured me in a lonesome room for the sole purpose of making me hideously afraid ... And why had she hated me thus before she died? - was it because she knew that I hated her - that I wished her to die? Yet how did she know? - could the ghost of her see, through blood and flesh and bone, into the miserable little ghost of myself?

Anyhow, she had lied ... perhaps everyone else had lied. Were all the people that I knew - the warm people, who walked and laughed in the light - so much afraid of the Things of the Night that they dared not tell the truth? To none of these questions I could find a reply. And there began for me a second period of black faith - a faith of unutterable horror, mingled with unutterable doubt. 

Those who knew her history are dust ... How often have I tried to reproach myself for hating her. But even now in my heart a voice cries bitterly to the ghost of her: "Woe! woe! - thou didst destroy it - the beautiful world!"

When I first decided to post this I thought I would use the story as the kernel for something of my own, perhaps a discussion about ghosts. I find I do not have the stomach for it.

The child was just shy of six when this happened. Imagine living with that pressure cooker of a mind, stuffed full of gunpowder and set alight by a hysterical would-be nun, frightened out of your wits and nobody to talk to. I would not want Lafcadio's early life if you offered it me with a fortune in gold, and fame by the truckload. 

Lafcadio's work has a long, long shadow. If you've played The Mountain Witch RPG, you've been playing in his world. If you've seen Kwaidan, you saw his stories. 

I urge you to seek him out.