Sunday, 13 September 2020

Start With Action (Swords of the Serpentine)

 I've been looking forward to talking about Swords of the Serpentine for a very long time. It's on pre-order now; I participated in the playtest and have the Adventurer's Edition; I really want to see the final version.

I thought I'd talk about one-shot design this time out and use Swords as an example. 

A One-Shot is a simple adventure that theoretically can be slotted into any campaign or played as a one-off with disposable characters. It has no significance in a campaign's ongoing plot but can be modified to fit. An ideal one-off is short and simple enough to be played in one session of about 4 hours, more or less. Often the point of a one-off is to teach new players the rules, but it could as easily be used as a filler or special occasion scenario. In Night's Black Agents, The Van Helsing Letter is a one-off. 

Serpentine's Main Rules talk about one-shot construction and offers considerable advice, including:

  • Strong Premise: Pick an exciting and adventurous plot hook for the adventure.
  • Start with Action: Starting with a short action sequence immediately helps new players focus, and teaches them combat rules in just a few moments.
  • Clear Goals: Give the Heroes specific goals for the adventure. Whether that’s “find the idol,” “blackmail the noble,” “uncover the Sorcerer,” or “rob the treasury,” starting with a clear goal gives a one-shot momentum.
Going back to Van Helsing for a moment, and without spoiling too many plot points, that scenario begins with the agents going to a place to do a thing, only to be immediately interrupted by mooks who steal the McGuffin and run away, possibly setting the scene location on fire in the process. That is action. When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand, as Raymond Chandler would say. 

So what makes a premise strong? A premise is strong when it compels action. A knock on the door compels action, a gunshot is more compelling, and the building you're in going up in a blazing inferno is more compelling still. The premise has to make the players want to get up and do something immediately, because that thing, whatever it may be, is important enough to grab their attention and get them moving. 

The old first edition DMG said something about loot that's relevant here:

While it is possible to reduce treasure in these areas to some extent so as to prolong the period of lower costs, what kind of dragon hoard, for example, doesn't have gold and gems? It is simply more heroic for players to have their characters swaggering around with pouches full of gems and tossing out gold pieces than it is for them to have coppers. Heroic fantasy is made of fortunes and king's ransoms in loot gained most cleverly and bravely and lost in a twinkling by various means - thievery, gambling, debauchery, gift-giving, bribes, and so forth. The reality AD&D seeks to create through role-playing is that of the mythical heroes such as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Kothar, Elric and their ilk. When treasure is spoken of, it is more stirring when participants know it to be TREASURE!

You should apply the same philosophy to your Premise. It's got to be Big. It's got to be Four-Color. This is swords and sorcery, after all. If ever there was a genre where everything is larger than life, it's this one.

Whichever Goal your characters are trying to achieve, it ought to be no more than once sentence long. Devoting paragraphs to backstory and intricate diplomacy is not encouraged. Find the idol is great. Twenty paragraphs describing the idol, those who've sought it over the years, why it's important to an obscure sect of Outlander sorcerers and so on is an appalling waste of time and effort.

Finally, a one-shot needs only one major adversary, and at most one minor adversary. This isn't the time for complicating the narrative with side-plots. The minor adversary doesn't have to be daggers drawn with the characters; it could be a rival, or some troublesome incorruptible City Watchman. This character is there to be the irritant, the foil. not the nemesis. The Villain, on the other hand, is there to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and as bubblegum hasn't been invented yet he's a bit of a monomaniac.


Incidentally for those GMs looking for Serpentine setting-specific NPC naming conventions, I recommend this resource

With all that in mind:

Doting Mother

Premise: a Giant Scorpion brought into Eversink to guard sorcerer Tranquilo's tower escaped and is living somewhere in the Tangle, the poorest part of the Goddess Denari's eternal city. Rumor has it that when the scorpion did a bunk it carried off Tranquilo and the wizard's famous Grimoire, and there are plenty of would-be sorcerers who'd pay good money for that book. Besides, Tranquilo won't need it any more ...

Complication: a barbarian, Bloody-Ax Kang, is also after the scorpion, to prove his power and to make a trophy shield out of its carapace. Kang isn't much of a reader and will probably destroy the Grimoire if he finds it first. 

Goal: Recover the Grimoire.

Complication to be uncovered during play: the Scorpion's pregnant, which is why it ran off; it wants somewhere peaceful to give birth and raise its brood. It's carrying a number of juveniles on its back right now, some of which might be old enough to wander around on their own.

From wikipedia: The size of a brood varies by species, from three to over 100. Before giving birth, the female elevates the front of her body and positions her pedipalps and front legs under her to catch the young. The young emerge one by one from the genital opercula, expel the embryonic membrane, if any, and are placed on the mother's back where they remain until they have gone though at least one molt. The period before the first molt is called the pro-juvenile stage; the young are unable to feed or sting, but have suckers on their tarsi, used to hold on to their mother. This period lasts 5 to 25 days, depending on the species.

Secondary Goal to be uncovered during play: kill or otherwise deal with the Scorpion's brood, before they grow and become a real threat to the Tangle.

Start with Action: the characters hear screams and see something large and black scuttling over the highest points of the Tangle. Chase scene! Bloody-Ax also saw the whatever-it-was and is in hot pursuit. 

Ultimate Location? Well, that's up to the Game Master. I see it as some tumbledown slum near the Hospital (and all those tasty sick citizens) but the Tangle's a big place. She could be anywhere ...

Enjoy!

  

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Psalm 109 (Bookhounds of London)

This post draws inspiration from M.R. James' tale, The Uncommon Prayer Book.

In that chilling spook story Psalm 109 features significantly, but is not described in detail. That Psalm, sometimes called the Iscariot Psalm, begs the Almighty to punish the petitioner's enemies. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him ... Let his posterity be cut off ... in the generation following their name be blotted out ... Extinction not just of the sinner but the sinner's heirs, so that the family is utterly destroyed.

The narrative is straightforward: an unscrupulous book scout discovers a potentially valuable find buried in an obscure estate in the country; its exact location isn't specified in the narrative. That book scout fakes up some duplicates, exchanges them for the originals, and is about to profit from his find when supernatural forces intervene.

The supernatural forces in this instance have to do with Oliver Cromwell. The woman who owned the prayer books - and who probably commissioned their publication - loathed Cromwell and all he stood for. She prayed, on the anniversary of Cromwell's birth, for his ruin, and the ruin of his heirs and their heirs. She wanted him to suffer right up to the moment of death and then burn in Hell eternally. Ever since then there has been a presence in the chapel, something that ensures the prayer books are always kept open to Psalm 109. The chapel doors may be locked, the windows barred, the books kept under cloth and closed - yet whenever the chapel's opened, there they are, open to Psalm 109, as if whatever is in there constantly prays for Cromwell's torment.

Whatever it is has a physical presence. ... with the feeling I have as there's someone settin' here - no, it's the other side, just within the screen - and looking' at me all the time I'm dustin' in the gallery and pews. This from the housekeeper, Mrs. Porter. But I never yet see nothin' worse than myself, as the sayin' goes, and I kindly hope I never may.  

A Cold Heart

In 1875 SS Schiller, a brand new German ocean liner and one of the largest of her era, sinks in a storm not far from the Isles of Scilly. She was en route from New York to Hamburg, and smacked up on a reef while blinded by thick fog. The captain tried to pull her off, but ripped the guts out of her in the process. Panic ensued as the passengers fought to get aboard the lifeboats. Captain Thomas tried to enforce order with pistol and sword, as Schiller was flung repeatedly up on the rocks by storm swells. Only two lifeboats launched, carrying 27 people in all. These made it safely to shore. Many of the women and children were herded into the Schiller's deck house to shelter while they awaited rescue, but by now the storm was all but unstoppable and the deck house was swept completely away along with all inside.  The remainder aboard ship hid where they could, most of them drowning or succumbing to hypothermia. 

Rescue was impossible until the following morning, due to storm conditions. In the end only 37 people survived; the 27 who made their escape in the boats, and a few others who managed to cling to the wreckage. The remaining crew and passengers, 335 souls, drowned.

Gamifying: Among the dead was American missionary and philanthropist Hanna Wilcox, on her way to Europe with two friends. All three drowned or succumbed to cold. However Wilcox's leather-bound prayer books, with her signature and annotations, survived. 

Though water damaged, the books are valuable as memorabilia of a famous wreck. There are always collectors interested in that kind of morbid ephemera. When the Bookhounds spot the prayer books at an auction, they soon realize their value. They may regret beating out the Ring this time as the prayer books have a peculiar history: they are haunted by three Cold Ones. [from the main book's description, Cold Ones can be transformed humans created at the whim of the Great Old One Ithaqua. It was the Old One that flung the Schiller on the rocks, and heard the despairing prayers of Wilcox and her friends.]

These entities have an all-encompassing hatred for stockholders and directors of the Transatlantic Steam Navigation Line, which owned the Schiller. They also don't like anyone who mistreats the Prayer Books. Their usual tactic is to get someone to bring the books within range of a target, so they can get to work. Which begs the question: did the Book Hounds buy the Prayer Books, or are they being manipulated into doing the Cold Ones' work for them?

Enjoy!


  

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Walk-Ins (Night's Black Agents)

A walk-in, or dangle, is a potential spy agency informant who claims to have information to sell or skills to offer, but in fact is an enemy asset whose sole purpose is to feed the target agency false information. Any spy agency, no matter which government it works for, has this problem. People approach the agency all the time, swearing they have valuable intel to sell. Some are crackpots. Some are idiots. Some are genuine.

Every so often, though, it's enemy action.

In fiction, From Russia With Love's Red Grant, a Cold War British Army motorcycle courier, defects to the Soviets, who spend considerable time debriefing him. Always at the back of their mind is the question: is this defector what he claims to be, or is he someone we should just kill, right now? It's only when Grant is ushered into his interrogator's office and sees an unaccustomed bowl full of red roses on the interrogator's desk that he knows he's accepted. 

In reality, when CIA analyst Brian Regan tried to sell his data to whoever would buy (most likely China, Lybia or Saddam Hussain, he thought) he had to figure out who would be most amenable. He settles on Libya and approached its consulate in Switzerland, only to be flung out on his backside. The Libyans were convinced Regan was either an idiot or an enemy agent, and either way they wanted nothing to do with him. 

It's generally good practice to treat an unsolicited offer with suspicion, whether you're a spy agency or an ordinary person getting enticing emails from iamnotaphishingattempt.com. However if you're in Edom's line of business there's an added complication: that woman who just walked in the door claiming to have seen a vampire may not realize she's lying. She might be under something else's influence.

Imagine if you have to evaluate the sincerity and usefulness of someone who's just walked in off the street and claims to have something you want. The more valuable the thing on offer the more suspicious you ought to be. Still, if the offer's tempting enough ...

The Night's Black Agents Resource Guide offers rules for Thrilling Interrogation, but goes on to say that these rules are expected to be used when the Agents have captured a tougher-than-average bad guy who doesn’t give everything up to a simple Interrogation spend, or for scenes where one Agent has
been captured by the police or some other mostly legal entity (domestic intelligence, corporate security) and you want to play out the cat-and-mouse game between interrogator and suspect. 

There's one other time when Thrilling Interrogation comes into play: when the characters have to assess the honesty of a dangle.

The Little Grey Room

The agents work for X (Edom? CIA? the Vatican? Someone else?) or are freelancers; it doesn't matter which. They're hot on the heels of some kind of Conspiracy Node or plot, and in the middle of the action are approached by a would-be friendly with information to sell. Is this friendly genuine? Is the information reliable? Has the Conspiracy already flipped this asset and are the agents being lured into a trap?

For this example I'm going to use a Cameo from Double Tap as the potential friendly, but don't feel obliged to do so if it doesn't fit the moment. I'm also not going to detail the information the friendly has to offer. Far better if it remain in McGuffinland, to be changed as you see fit.

It's just the agents, the friendly, and a little grey room where they can talk without being overheard ...

Bureaucrat Athletics 4 (gym membership) Lara didn’t expect this job when she graduated from college, but it’s better than living at home with her mother. She epitomizes paper-pusher, working in a basement office that time forgot. Neat, thin, blonde, and pretty, she is officious and far too serious for her age. She still dresses for the job she wants: a little too much personality in the scarf and belt. (Bureaucracy, Flattery, Reassurance) In play: There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place; pick lint off your knees and lap; explain in a patient voice why that can’t happen.

In this example Lara is the runner. She might be perfectly sincere (+0), desperate (+1), and/or under vampiric influence (+2). More likely one of the latter two options, but it's Director's choice. There may be other reasons why she'd get bonuses, and again that's Director's choice. 

The agents are the pursuers. They have +2 base maneuver and probably have a +1 bonus as this is an enclosed interrogation. They may be able to finagle more bonuses, but that's up to them.

The chase ability in Thrilling interrogations is usually Stability. NPCs traditionally aren't assigned Stability. In theory if an asset was being controlled by a supernatural entity the Director could use the entity's Aberrance score, but tactically this is a bad choice. Aberrance is usually fairly high, at least 7 and often higher. This means any runner with high pool is signaling that she's under enemy control, since how else would she get the high pool? 

I would assign the runner a pool equivalent to their highest pool +2. In this case Lara's high pool is Athletics, so total pool for Thrilling purposes is 6. I might adjust that higher if she's under supernatural control, but if so I wouldn't tell the players. I'd assign more points in secret and see if the players notice.

The difference between this Thrilling Interrogation and a standard interrogation is that the facts are not an issue. Lara's perfectly willing to tell everything she knows. Maybe she wants money, or maybe her ego needs a little stroking, (remember MICE),  but she's spilling her guts either way. 

The problem is whether or not Lara's sincere, or lying, or so completely under someone else's control that she thinks her lies are truths. 

For an added Thrilling element, assign a time limit. Maybe there's a bomb about to go off somewhere that only Lara knows about, or maybe a sniper's lining up crosshairs on Lara's forehead, or maybe it's something else again. If the agents don't make the right call before the time limit (ie number of rounds in the Interrogation scene) expires, something bad happens.

The chase begins either at base 5 (the normal starting point) or base 7 (if Lara's sincerity is in question, as it probably will be). If Lara wins the contest, then the agents will never know whether or not her information is trustworthy. They'll just have to decide whether to take it at face value. If the agents win the contest then they know whether or not Lara's bluffing, intentionally or otherwise. What they do next is up to them. 



Enjoy!

Sunday, 23 August 2020

The Booksellers (2019 documentary)

 


I became aware of this when YouTube trailers popped up early in the year. I can't remember whether I first saw them before the lockdown, or just as it was starting. Either way, I was intrigued. I love bookstores. I love New York. I love Bookhounds of London. This was an obvious buy - but was it worth it?

Oh yes. Definitely yes.

Directed by D.W. Young, whose documentary credits stretch back twenty years, this could almost be called New York Booksellers since its framing device is the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, most of its faces are New Yorkers, and its big documentary subjects (the Strand, the Argosy) are all New York icons. Even Rebecca Romney, who you may recall from Las Vegas' Pawn Stars, has relocated to the East Coast. You'd think there were no booksellers west of the Alleghenies. Possibly there aren't. I've never travelled west of the Alleghenies myself, so I can't comment. Been to New York at least thirty or forty times, and lived there for four months back in 1999, so ... 

If you're a Director looking for inspiration for your Bookhounds campaign, this is exactly the kind of thing you want to watch. If you're a player looking for inspiration for your next Hound, this is also exactly the kind of thing you want to watch. It's punchy, well-paced - I mean, look at the subject material, this could have been as dry as a bone - filled with brilliant characters and never beats you to death with information or statistics, the two bugbears of a documentary feature. 

There's one moment that, for me, encapsulates the Bookseller's appeal. An expert (Adam Weinberger) has been told a noted scholar has died, the spouse of an academic, and her collection has to be sold off. He knows she might have some treasures, so he has a look inside "the detritus of their lives." "My ears pick up," says Weinberger. "I think there's potential ... you always take a peek." 

My thoughts first are for those shelves and what might be on them, but then they wander to the apartment itself, which is a wreck. It's a New York wreck so it costs more than I could afford, but ... my God. I can only imagine that broken ruin in winter, with Jack Frost getting out the garden shears to nip off your toes and other extremities. Weinberger goes so far as to put on a mask (remember, this is all pre-COVID), which is probably wise. The person who lived there cared about books and nothing else. Absolutely nothing else. 

That scene in and of itself is an entire Bookhounds adventure, and it takes maybe five minutes of an hour thirty total. It almost writes itself. The Hounds have to catalogue a collector's entire library but a Cold One's lurking outside their wrecked apartment. It becomes a race against time; do they keep the Cold One out long enough for them to scoop up some unconsidered trifles?

If you're looking for a reason to watch this and aren't convinced yet (you monster!) let me put it this way: it's a remarkable, watchable glimpse into a book world that only exists right this minute. Twenty years ago it was completely different. Twenty years from now it will be completely different. The book business is one of the few that seems to thrive on change, despite the jeremiads from the old-timers convinced that nothing new is ever good.

A short while back I talked to YSDC about Bookhounds, and said I wished the game paid more attention to the book business. It sometimes feels as if the bookstore is just a framing device for the usual Scooby Doo action. Booksellers is here to remind you that buying and selling books is its own unique thrill, with all the joys and terrors of the carnival to entertain you. 

After all, it's retail. Anything can happen in retail. 

Enjoy!

Sunday, 16 August 2020

The Combat Wheelchair - Vampire Style!

If you've been paying attention to RPG news (and really, who doesn't gobble up every least crumb?) you'll have noticed a lot of fuss over Combat Wheelchairs in D&D. In brief, Sara Thompson, a writer for R Talsorian, thought it would be fun to design a D&D wheelchair. Idiots objected. There was fuss. 

The chair itself looks like tons of fun. Sara obviously put a great deal of thought into it. In broadest possible terms it's a Sports Wheelchair design with extra bits, and to be honest until this post came up I  knew sports chairs existed, but not in such variety. If you want to know more about Sara's design the documents are posted in her Google drive and Sara can be found on Twitter over here. I follow her; I think some of you would enjoy following her too.

It made me think about wheelchairs in Pelgrane's game worlds. I'm not going to talk about Swords of the Serpentine as Sara's pretty much covered that ground already. If you wanted to use that design in Swords it would want some tweaks since it's for a different game system, but fantasy is fantasy and even if you have to rationalize some of its abilities differently there's no reason why you couldn't rationalize them.

In Trail, Esoterrorists, Fear Itself or Night's Black Agents a wheelchair-bound character is entirely plausible. Possibly a bit too plausible; after all, characters do put themselves in remarkably dangerous situations. Accidents happen.

A Trail (or for that matter Call) character lives in a world that's very wheelchair-unfriendly, but on the flip side she shares that world with a lot of people who have physical issues of one kind or another. The Great War generated a truly staggering number of permanently impaired people - over one million life-debilitating wounds, according to Yale University's research. They'd be very common in Europe, but over 2.8 million Americans served on the Front Lines overseas - that figure presumably doesn't count the Americans who served in foreign armies like Eugene Bullard - and many of them would have come back with permanent injuries of one kind or another. So the world around her is used to people like her, which may come in handy.

Sara's design presupposes a combat use but Trail, like Fear Itself, really isn't a combat system. Frankly if you get into combat in Trail you've probably made a serious mistake. This is why Fleeing is such an important ability. However as Sara notes the combat wheelchair is Swift, particularly downhill. I'd be inclined to give a character going downhill an additional 3 points to their Fleeing pool, so long as the character doesn't mind the risk of ending up in a crash at the bottom. I'd probably ignore most of the upgrades since they aren't really meant for this game world nor are they necessarily beneficial. However the armor plates (extra 2 Health) and mounted pistol look handy, and putting a permanent pack on the frame for books, cameras and scientific equipment is reasonable. As far as Tripping opponents goes, I'd make it a straight Athletics check difficulty 4, or difficulty 5 if you want to delay the target for more than  one round. I see this more as delaying a chase scene opponent than a combat trick, but the player may see it differently.

Esoterrorists and Night's Black Agents both suppose a much more dangerous world. The combat aspects of the chair become increasingly important. On the other hand those spider legs look sweet, and totally in keeping with a Stakes style NBA game. Q Branch would be proud, and so would Dracula Dossier's Tinman. Besides if Douglas Bader can become an air ace after losing both his legs there's no reason why your Muscle can't be a vampire-hunting hero in a wheelchair.

Added to the chair's usual add-ons is the Conceal option. Frederick Forsythe leads the way in Day of the Jackal, where the assassin out to snipe De Gaulle hides the parts of his weapon in a disabled veteran's crutch and finagles his way into a veterans-only celebration. 

It can be very useful to appear weak. People underestimate you to their detriment, particularly if you have a sniper rifle hidden away. This probably wouldn't work if your chair was being electronically scanned, but there's bound to be a way to spoof the simpler scanners out there. Besides a scan might not pick up garlic or crucifixes hidden away, and that could be more important than a mercury-tipped rifle round.

Gadgets ... anything that allows you to apply Blocks or Banes is a definite plus. Exactly what that entails depends on the vampire type, and there are so many versions it's pointless going over them all. Still, there are some all-purpose gadgets. A simple GPS function, perhaps designed to trace Surveillance targets. If Bond can follow a GPS tracer in Goldfinger (a film that's nearly 60 years old now) then surely someone can come up with a chair attachment that does the same thing. Small one-shot Flamethrower for those moments when Intimidation just doesn't cut it? Taser? Ooo! What if the entire chair was effectively a taser and the user was insulated by the seat, but anyone touching the chair got zapped? 

This is beginning to sound like a Wire Rat's dream come true, and it's probably a good build for that kind of character. However any or all of the agent builds can make use of the chair option. You'd need to finagle it for your table and some of Sara's ideas are a non-starter in a modern (ish) game with no blatant magical effects. Looking at you, Beacon Stone. That said, the modern world is much more chair-friendly than the 1930s and there's really no reason why a chair-bound character shouldn't go wherever they like. 

There are even adaptive chairs for skiing, and apparently there have been versions since the 1940s. Cue the Bond-style ski chase! Bonus points if Propellerheads is playing in the background.

Anyway I hope this gives the Directors, Keepers and players out there something to think about. There's all kinds of ways to play this - pick the version you like and have fun with it.

Enjoy!


Sunday, 9 August 2020

Romanian Mafia (Dracula Dossier, Night's Black Agents)




Videos sourced from the Organized Crime & Reporting Project

The Dracula Dossier goes into some detail about the Romanian mafia, though it is brief by necessity as covering it all would be at least one book in and of itself. I recommend the OCCRP as a useful source of supplementary information and this week I'm going to draw on it to sketch out a mini-scenario for you to use as you see fit. 

The main book points out that the thriller relies on escalating thrills to keep the viewer engaged. The reward for danger is information; having information puts you into danger. When the hero rests, add more danger. (p180, NBA). Double Tap goes on to describe several different Thrilling contests (Digital Intrusion, Infiltration, Surveillance, Manhunts) and the Resource Guide includes Mission Skeletons. I'm going to be using all of these.

Just looking at the videos, a couple of interesting scene locations pop out: Spain, Popa Sapca Prison, Istanbul, a construction company, nightclubs. I can borrow from this pool to create the locations I'm going to need. Quick and dirty every time, mind you; this isn't the moment to be describing cities in detail.

Now I need to decide the kind of operation I want to create. The Resource Guide offers several options, any of which might apply: Destroy, Flip (an asset), Heist, Hit, Hunt, Rescue, Sneak, Trace, Uncover. I'm going to go with Flip, with a touch of Rescue just for flavor. 

The asset I want to Flip is in Popa Sapca Prison. He used to be heavily involved in human trafficking, taking women from Turkey to Spain. He has information about a Conspiracy operation but he'll only talk if his conditions are met. Additional complication: Popa Scapa is unfriendly territory, and if he stays there then he may end up dead before he can talk.

Popa Sapca: Formerly for political prisoners, this is a working prison. If you don't work, you get half rations. You can work in the kitchens (very difficult to get assigned there, high demand), you can make wooden crates for transporting vegetables, you can work in a nearby concrete factory. This information dates back to the 1980s and things are almost certainly different now, but I can use this in plot so I'm keeping it. There's also a prison football team. Religious groups visit Romanian prisons. That's enough Google; it's easy to get bogged down in research.

So what have I got? A former Communist political prison now populated by some of the worst of the worst. There are work programs, a football team, and regular visits from an American evangelical religious group whose Chicago founders have Romanian links. Some of the work programs take place outside the prison, so in my fiction if there's any smuggling it probably happens via that work program; either the inmates or drivers/guards take packages into the prison. 

In Dossier terms this is a Warm site, which means the Conspiracy has its tentacles here. It probably doesn't have a full-fledged Node, but there are plenty of former Renfields behind bars strung out for lack of the good stuff, and more than a few Ruvari Sgzani. There are no secrets in prison; the Conspiracy will find out if anyone talks.

The Flip target is Sorin Barbu, a former human trafficker now serving a five-year sentence. He used to transport women from Istanbul, Turkey, to nightclubs in the New Golden Mile, Marbella, Spain. He knows more than he should about Conspiracy operations in Spain thanks to his connections with organized crime there, specifically the Romanian syndicate Wolf Brigade. According to Sorin the Brigade carried out several hits while he was working in Spain supplying girls for the Brigade's hangouts in the New Golden Mile. He knows the hitters, the targets, some of the burial sites, and he knows these things because the Brigade coerced him into disposing of the bodies. 'You used to work in construction,' they said. 'You know how to dig a hole.' 

Vampirology (0 point) soon realizes that some of these so-called hits are vampire attacks, and it's possible there may be some ferals down in the Golden Mile thanks to this creature's activities.

The Flip target comes to the agents' attention thanks to Charlie Popescu, an American evangelist trying to get attention paid to Sorin's case. Charlie thinks Sorin is unjustly imprisoned, and as a brother in Christ Charlie feels obligated to help Sorin out. Charlie's been talking to the American embassy in Bucharest, and he's been very indiscreet. If the agents know about Sorin, it's only a matter of time before the Conspiracy finds out.  

Sorin's flip trigger (on the MICE scale of Money, Ideology, Coercion and Ego) is Ego. He sees himself as a protector, and he wants to go on protecting people - specifically Fatma Yildiz, a prostitute he became close to. He knew Fatma was falling in love with one of the johns, and he also knew that the john in question was one of the hitters whose bodies he was burying. This could only end badly for Fatma, so he brought her back to Istanbul where she would be safe.

Flip condition: If the agents ensure Fatma's safety, Sorin will talk.

What Sorin doesn't know: Fatma was the one who turned him in to the authorities.  

Danger: If the agents don't move Sorin, or arrange some kind of protection while he's in prison (Network is helpful here), then Sorin will end up shanked long before the agents can complete the mission.

Next step is to locate Fatma, which means going to Istanbul. I'm not going to go through a whole Google for that; Istanbul's a capital city, well known, unlike an obscure prison in Romania. Streetwise narrows the search to a Gecekondu (squatter district) on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, where Fatma's living with a dozen other women.  She works as a dancer in a Kadikoy nightclub. Fatma wants to go back to her lover in Spain. She's convinced he'll marry her and she'll live the high life on a yacht. The Conspiracy doesn't have any direct ties to the Turkish mafya group that runs the nightclub, but they have a friendly relationship. Fatma served her purpose when she helped put Sorin behind bars. The Conspiracy doesn't care what happens to her, but it cares very much if she goes back to Spain and causes a fuss. The Turks have been given a fat bribe and asked to take care of Fatma if it looks as if she's going to bolt.

Twist: Fatma isn't going to bolt. She's going into business. When she worked with Sorin she met quite a few Romanian mafia, including people who worked for a rival syndicate, the Centurions (cue Yojimbo option). The Centurions want their slice of Marbella's New Golden Mile. Fatma's being promoted from prostitute to procurer, and the women in her Gecekondu are her first shipment. 

So on the principle that Information leads to Danger, the Information that Fatma's in Istanbul working for a nightclub run by a Turkish godfather immediately leads to trouble when Fatma runs away with her Centurion pals, and the Turks assume these nosy agents had something to do with it. Violence ensues, as trigger-happy Turk thugs bust up the agents' safehouse looking for Fatma. 

By this point the agents have probably racked up Heat. If Heat is 5 or more, cut scene: Interpol. Turkey's well known for using Interpol aggressively to punish critics and dissidents. The Turkish mafyia pulls some strings and gets the agents put on an Interpol watch list for alleged organized crime offences (people smuggling). Senior Agent III Svitlana Dobrovolska is assigned the case. Cut scene ends with her beginning her investigation. This scene threatens Danger to come, since the agents don't know whether Svitlana's on the up-and-up. An honest Agent can be reasoned with; a crooked one cannot. 

The action moves to Marbella, Spain. The New Golden Mile is Marbella's latest attempt to capitalize on a vast sea of money. It's high end houses, businesses, golf courses, and expensive shops, as far as the eye can see. As to where all this money's coming from, it might have something to do with Marbella's corruption problem. Mayor after mayor has been jailed in recent years in a string of allegations of money laundering and bribery that goes back to Mayor Gil (1991 to his arrest in 2002). The town nearly went bankrupt in 2006, and was briefly run by an unelected, appointed council before elections in 2007 put the People's Party in charge. Marbella's heavily in debt, which makes it vulnerable to approaches from, say, Romanian organized crime. 

Or the Conspiracy.

There's been a Node in Marbella since the days of Mayor Gil, and a lot of the Conspiracy's money was funneled through friendly Marbella banks. The Conspiracy invested heavily in local Golden Mile real estate as well, banking its cash in brick and mortar. This came to a crashing halt in 2007 when investigations began in earnest, and the Conspiracy pulled out some of its assets and almost all of its money, selling its Golden Mile properties. However things are looking more promising nowadays and the New Golden Mile promises to be as lucrative as the old one was. 

The vampire in charge of it all, Anna Kaufman, whose antecedents go back to before the Great War when she worked in film, is taking charge of this effort. She's the power behind the throne for local drug gangs, and she works through a Renfield hitter nicknamed The Southpaw, also known as Zubi after the football player Andoni Zubizarreta. Through Zubi and People's Party politician Maya Bardina the Conspiracy exercises control over the New Golden Mile. 

Anna has a problem. Back in the early 2000s when things were looking much better she promoted a Renfield to full vampire status: Gordon 'Bones' Honeybone, a former London hard boy with remarkably handsome features. Bones was an excellent enforcer with criminal contacts in the UK, France and Spain, but he was never management material. His new status went to his head. He sees himself as a cross between Michael Caine and Christopher Lee, and relishes it a little too much. He's the one Fatma's in love with, and he's also the one whose carnal appetites has created a batch of new ferals that Anna doesn't know about - so far. Bones has killed some of those ferals himself, but the rest are causing trouble.

Meanwhile the Centurions are muscling in on turf the Wolf Brigade controls. The Wolf Brigade has a mutual assistance pact going with Anna's drug dealers through Zubi, but the Centurions are hungry for power and see the Wolf Brigade as yesterday's villains. So far Anna's interests aren't directly threatened so she's happy to let all this play out - until the agents get involved.

Up in Popa Sapca, Sorin Barbu has a ton of information on all these players. He knows all the Wolf Brigade's officer cadre, and has a surprising amount of detail on Anna's people too. This includes businesses they own, operations they run and assets they control - but most importantly he knows which New Golden Mile mansions have bodies in their basements, because he put them there. If the agents can convince Sorin that Fatma is either safe or not worth protecting any more, Sorin will spill all kinds of beans. 

If the Interpol option is active then Svitlana Dobrovolska is in Marbella, gathering information and planning her next move. She'll need cooperation from the locals, but if she can get that then a sudden GAR raid is all too likely ...  

Enjoy!

Sunday, 2 August 2020

The Clippie (Bookhounds of London)

A short while ago I answered a question about Dulce et Decorum, and it reminded me of Kate Adie's excellent book Fighting on the Home Front. This week's post is based on something borrowed from that book.

At the outbreak of the war as men marched off to fight, the unexpected resource drain pushed women to unexpected workplace gains. Particularly in the early years when entire unions, streets and schools volunteered in a body, industries and schools discovered they had neither workers nor students. Though initially resistant many professions recruited women to replace the absent men, in all sorts of roles - including tram drivers.

You wouldn't know it by looking today, but in 1914 electric trams were the preeminent form of public transport in London. In fact, London led Europe in tram use and the system was ever-expanding, but the War delayed things substantially and it would soon be obvious trams were on the way out. The car and truck would eventually take over where trams left off, but that wouldn't happen until the 1930s when cars were more affordable, and available. In 1914 the tram was still vital, and the tram lines desperately needed conductors and drivers.

Trams were more glamorous than omnibuses, writes Adie, cleaner and quieter, and they soon were used in numerous cities as part of the recruitment campaign. Rochdale trams bore posters asking 'Are you fighting for Rule Britannia - or only singing?' Southampton and Leeds went one better and dressed their vehicles overall with coloured lightbulbs. They looked magnificent, clanging over the rails with 'God Save the King' illuminated in huge letters ... 

The women driving and collecting tickets on these trams garnered many nicknames. To some they were conductorettes, to others clippies or lady conductors. They did the same jobs as men and took the same risks; in 1916, during a zeppelin raid, conductor Sally Holmes was blasted clear out of her tram and was lucky to escape with a badly injured leg.

All of which brings me to:

The Clippie

If she has a name, your Bookhounds don't know it. She only answers to Clippie. She walks with a noticeable limp, but that doesn't stop her covering her beat; she's a well-known book scout whose specialty is Oxford, particularly the colleges. Nobody knows why, but if you want to know which don's library is about to be sold or what some academic literary lion is looking for this month, ask Clippie. She knows.

Bookhounds who do a little digging (Oral History, possibly Library Use) discover that before the War she worked as a tweeny at one of the Oxford colleges, following in the footsteps of her older sisters. She started when she was 12 and stayed till she was 16.  That's why she knows Oxford so well; she was born there, and several of her relatives still live and work there.

Shortly after the War started she moved to London and worked for a time for the London, Deptford and Greenwich Tramways Company as a conductress. She loved the job and the life, and was a fixture of her route. Everybody knew the Clippie. She worked the trams until 1917, when her career was abruptly cut short.

On the evening of 12 September Clippie's tram was on it way back to the depot when a Gotha raid bombed London, killing 30 and injuring 64. Clippie was blown clear out of her tram, the only survivor; everyone else on board were killed. From that day to this she refuses to get on board a tram, or go anywhere near electrical devices. She was temporarily homeless until taking up life as a book scout; these days she lives by candlelight aboard a barge in Greenwich.

Funny thing about that barge; it's covered in electrical diagrams and books of all kinds about electrical machinery. Clippie spends every waking hour studying them, when she's not earning a crust. She never says why.

Possibilities:


  • Clippie's a megapolisomancer who just wants to get control of her life again. She knows there's something out there stalking the tramlines, something fierce, vital and lethal. She's looking for a way to bring this paramental entity under control, but she hasn't given any thought to what will happen when she does it. Once she has a killing creature as her personal emissary, what will Clippie do? Or is Clippie's obsession the reason this thing exists at all? 
  • Clippie shares her head with four ghosts: the conductor and passengers of Tram #38, who have an elastic approach to time. Sometimes they recognize the passing of the years, and sometimes it's still 12 September, 1917. Clippie's secret is not well-kept, and several occult groups and societies have tried to use her as a window to the afterlife, a medium with a hole in her mind, capable of being filled by almost anything. She always refuses to perform in any room fitted with electric light or electric devices of any kind. One would-be student of the occult (a Bookhound, perhaps?) decides to challenge the norm and tricks Clippie into performing in a room with electric fittings, which proves a real problem when the final, unexpected ghost appears - Tram #38 itself, an entity with (among other things) Scuffling 16 and +1 Damage (electric shock). 
  • Clippie's a go-between for Yithian outposts in London and Oxford. There was a time when Clippie herself was a Yithian agent, but the 12 September bombing put paid to that. However she remains loyal to the cause and now knows as much as anyone about Yithian activity in London and Oxford. Her obsession with electrical equipment has to do with her deep desire to recreate the devices she half-remembers from her time as a Yithian. She thinks she might just be able to translocate herself from the London she hates to the far-off Other she loves. When not running errands for her masters and buying books to keep a roof over her head she experiments with strange devices, out on the river where there are few witnesses.
Enjoy!