Sunday, 11 March 2018

Killer That Stalked New York - Diseases (GUMSHOE)

We tend to think of biological weapons as a modern phenomenon, but in fact the tactic has a very long pedigree. During the American Civil War, for instance, Bermuda's horrified authorities quickly stepped in when it was discovered that a doctor, allegedly acting out of charity, was in fact collecting infected blankets and clothing from Yellow Fever victims, to be sent to the North in hopes of spreading the disease to Union soldiers. The threat of disease is often enough to provoke panic, and no disease was more threatening than smallpox, which is the major plot point of The Killer That Stalked New York.

In this Noir thriller, Sheila Bennet is the unwitting Patient Zero who came back from Cuba with a fortune in diamonds, and death in her veins. It turns out that her boyfriend, who persuaded her to smuggle the stones, has been two-timing Sheila with her own sister. He's able to fool Sheila for a while, and steal the diamonds, but when she finds out, nothing will stop her tracking him down. Meanwhile the authorities discover that Sheila's infecting everyone she meets with smallpox, and desperately want to bring her in, but Sheila refuses to submit.

It's not entirely clear why the authorities want Sheila. OK, she's infectious, but the end voiceover suggests they needed her for some other reason - as if she's the key to a vaccine, or has some vital evidence about where she contracted the disease. All that's a McGuffin, really; the point is, she's important, so they have to chase her.

Smallpox hasn't been a threat since its eradication in 1980, and it's becoming more and more difficult to understand, on an emotional level, the fear it once inspired. Intellectually we can look at its history, see its death count, and know how devastating it can be - but it's like trying to put yourself in the shoes of a soldier in the trenches of the Great War. Empathy only carries you so far; ultimately, you have to have been shot at to know what it truly is like to be shot at.

First comes the fever, and vomiting. Then sores in the mouth, and painful skin rash. Over a period of days this rash becomes fluid-filled bumps, which will eventually scab over and leave scars - assuming you survive. Fatality can be as high as 75%, depending on severity of the rash distribution. The overall rate is closer to 30% fatality. Death tends to occur in ten to sixteen days, accompanied by acute organ failure. If you survive, you're scarred for life, and might also go blind.

Image taken from Wikipedia: Content Providers(s): CDC/James Hicks 

Let's talk gamification.

Given that Trail, Bookhounds and Dreamhounds are all set in the 1930s, it's reasonable to think that a character might have encountered, or contracted, the disease at some point in their careers. It could be an interesting twist, say, to an In The Blood drive - yes, it is in the blood, but because of a smallpox outbreak, not heredity.

However let's take this one step further, and say that a smallpox scare threatens the characters' lives or livelihoods in some way. Let's further say that the Patient Zero is someone the characters know, or work with, or are responsible for. George MacDonald Fraser makes good use of this last tactic in his short McAuslan story, Fly Man, where his narrator Dando has to go chasing over Cairo for his soldiers, while at the same time keeping the smallpox story very, very quiet for fear of starting a panic. Of course, two of the most dangerous have decided to go AWOL, and are armed, just to add to the fun.

'You must go through every club, canteen, dance-hall and gin mill in the in-bounds area,' says his superior, 'I want them all, you understand. No stragglers, nobody overlooked.'

Hilarity ensues.

Bookhounds is particularly useful for this, since the players are likely to have employees or co-workers, but in theory this could happen to any group. Someone you know & rely on has contracted smallpox, but either they don't know it yet, or they have other reasons for staying out of the authorities' reach. Your characters have to track down that person and somehow persuade them to come in from the cold - or the consequences could be dire.

All this, of course, without considering the Mythos. It's likely that anything with a biological makeup can contract diseases, so something like a Fire Vampire is probably immune to smallpox, but a ghoul, or Deep One Hybrid, isn't. Tracking outbreaks of smallpox could be an unusual way of tracking the movements of a ghoul colony, but a potentially more interesting question is, what happens at the fever stage? Suppose, in the case of an as-yet undiscovered Hybrid or ghoul changeling, the smallpox causes uncontrollable mutations, or spontaneous outbreaks of Idiosyncratic Mythos magic, as per Bookhounds. Or the afflicted taps into the Mythos and starts babbling secrets which, under normal circumstances, the poor soul doesn't know. Nurses, relatives, carers, would all be bombarded with secrets tapped straight from Cthulhu's psychic backlash, with consequences too terrible to think about.

This doesn't have to stay trapped in the 1930s. Even in the modern day there's the occasional scare, as with the retained stocks of the virus rediscovered in 2014, at an FDA storage facility in Bethesda. Imagine what the Esoterrorists might do with just the mystic threat of a smallpox bioweapon, or what the Conspiracy might want with strange vials filled with what might be smallpox - or might be something else again. Particularly in a campaign where the vampires have a Mutant background, there may be any number of reasons why the Conspiracy is keenly interested in dusty records of bioweapons research long past. Is this smallpox, or is this the Vampire Genome deliberately mislabeled as smallpox?

Finally, a Bookhounds scenario seed to speed you on your way:

A book scout of your acquaintance has fallen ill, shortly after telling you about a tremendously valuable find. What at first is thought to be ordinary fever is soon discovered to be smallpox, and the authorities are knocking on the characters' door with instructions to inoculate everyone the book scout has come into contact with. It transpires that several other people have fallen ill with the same symptoms, but these people had no contact with the book scout. However they might have had contact with the book. Just what tome is this, and what dreadful secret does it carry within those pox-ridden pages?

That's it for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Playing with Real Toys: Abandoned Orient Express Trains, Belgium (GUMSHOE Modern)

There was a time when Orient Express meant luxury, mystery, and romance. Those days aren't quite gone, but the train in these pictures has seen better days. Abandoned somewhere in a Belgian train yard, these old carriages and locomotive have been quietly rusting away for many years. Lost and forgotten things have many stories to tell - so what can we do with this one?

A quick note on ownership: the photos shown here were obtained via Urban Ghosts and the blog Rebecca Bathory. I understand Urban Ghosts obtained at least some of its images from another user, blogging at PreciousDecay. To my knowledge, those are the original sources of the images.

For those who aren't familiar with Georges Nagelmackers' pride and joy, a brief history.

The state of train travel in Europe during the Victorian era was lamentable. Functional, yes, but where was the style? The panache? Meanwhile, across the water, American George Mortimer Pullman was showing how it could be done: luxury travel, in a carriage fit for a king, not the knock-crack-smash in a wooden box that everyone had become used to. 

This inspired many innovators, including Belgian Georges Nagelmackers, who founded the Wagons-Lits Company in 1867. His dream was to create a train empire, luxury that traveled across the continent, and he was successful. You could start in London, end in Constantinople, and never lack for anything, whether it be fine dining, comfortable sleeping compartments, or congenial companionship. Each carriage had its own name, its own personality, decorated and fitted to the highest standards of the day. Every need was anticipated, and catered for, down to the least detail.

Image taken from Wikipedia, Plan de vaisselle CIWL

If you had any pretense to importance, you wanted to be seen on that train, and that went for fictional characters as well as the more mundane sort. Dracula's hunters went by Orient Express from Paris to Varna, beating their quarry to the punch. English hero Harry Flashman went with his journalist friend Blowitz on the train's maiden voyage. James Bond nearly lost his life on that train, and Agatha Christie uses it twice, once in a short story, and again in her novel Murder on the Orient Express - probably the most famous novel about the Orient Express.

Image taken from Wikipedia.

The Great War knocked back the Express, and for the first time in its history it was unable to traverse its entire route. At war's end, armistice papers were signed aboard one of the train's luxury carriages; when Hitler kicked off World War Two, he made sure that the French surrender documents were signed aboard that same carriage, and later, when defeat seemed imminent, he blew it up. After World War Two the train revived again, but with a dramatically altered route; some of its traditional stops were now behind the Iron Curtain. However in the end it wasn't history but technology that killed it off; in the jet set age, there was no demand for train travel, however luxurious. For a brief time there was no train at all. Then in 1982 enthusiasts revived the brand, restoring some of the old carriages and building others. Now the London to Venice luxury run is purely for well-heeled sightseers, not for travelers on their own mysterious passage from wherever to whenever.

The train and carriages seen in the photographs are 1930s vintage, probably left there in the 1970s. If the 1980s enthusiasts looked at them at all, presumably they believed what was left wasn't economically viable - they may have been too far gone to be restored.

With all that in mind, some scenario seeds for Night's Black Agents, Fear Itself, and Esoterrorists.

Night's Black Agents: the opposition proposes a midnight meeting at the train yards; whether to exchange hostages or for some other reason is immaterial to the seed. The exchange is to take place aboard one of the abandoned Orient Express cars. As might be expected, it's a trap: two snipers have the train carriage covered, and there's a bomb inside.

Thrilling Elements: 
  • A chilled bottle of champagne and an appropriate number of glasses rest on one of the abandoned carriage's seats. [the bomb, on remote detonation, is under the seat.]
  • A goods train comes to an unexpected stop some distance away, and the screech can be heard throughout the yards.
  • The faint glow of cigarettes can be seen, perhaps some fifty yards away - train staff on a crafty break, or something else?
  • Train cars loom ominously in the darkness; every shadow could hide a potential threat.
  • A tapped-out, blood-starved Renfield [the Conspiracy think she's a traitor, and this is as good a way as any of dealing with her], captured ally or other defenseless, twitching body is tied up on the carriage floor.
  • A train unexpectedly switches to the track the agents are on.
Fear Itself: Urban Explorers say the Orient Express cars have a completely different personality at night, and the latest dare is to go there after midnight and leave some sign that you've been there - a card, a mark, anything. However some of those who do never return, and some who do return say they hear odd noises, a voice speaking in German. In fact, one is the train car Hitler ordered destroyed, but not because he thought it would be used as a war trophy. The demon inside Hitler transferred its consciousness to a special phylactery shortly before war's end, and arranged for it to be hidden inside the train car, for later retrieval by dedicated followers. The dazed and reeling Fuhrer, free of its influence, tried to have the car destroyed, but the demon's followers prevented this. However the last few months of the war saw all the Nazi occultists killed or captured, which meant nobody was able to retrieve the phylactery. There it sits to this day, waiting to be rediscovered - and in the meantime causing all kinds of mayhem to those unwise enough to disturb it without using the proper ritual.

Esoterrorists:  Several Esoterror cells across Europe have united with a singular purpose: to place copies of the abandoned Orient Express cars in every train stop that the original Express visited, before the Great War. Urban explorers from Paris to Istanbul report seeing these train cars, apparently copied to the last detail from the Belgian originals, left in depots and apparently forgotten. Are the Esoterrorists trying to create some kind of spirit copy of the original Orient Express, and if so, is this to weaken the Membrane, or have the Esoterrorists some other purpose in mind? Could this be an attempt to resurrect someone, or something, that rode aboard the Orient Express? Does this have anything to do with a string of murders, also from Paris to Istanbul, with one thing in common: an antique train ticket from 1892 found in the pockets of the dead?

That's it for this week. Enjoy!  

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Quick and Dirty: Limassol, Cyprus

This week's post is inspired by a recent Guardian article, Limassolgrad, about the influx of Russian money into Cyprus.


Image taken from Wikipedia, Plamen Matanski

This coastal port is the second largest urban center in Cyprus, with just shy of a quarter million people in the greater metropolitan area. It has an archaeological history that goes back at least as far as the 8th Century BC, which means human habitation has existed on that site since the Homeric Age. Its earliest history is lost to time; the information we have suggests that the first few times people tried to establish a city there, the experiment failed.

However Limassol survived, and became an important see in early Christian history. King Richard Lionheart of England captured Cyprus from its Byzantine overlords during the Third Crusade, and eventually gave the island to the Templars in exchange for 100,000 bezants, but the Templars provoked revolt by enforcing high taxes to recoup the cash they paid for Cyprus. This eventually led to Cyprus being bought by a French knight, Guy of Lusignan, inaugurating the Kingdom of Cyprus.

Cyprus remained a thing to be bought and sold, however, and in 1489 its ruler, Queen Catharine, let Venice purchase it, as she had no heir. To the Venetians, Cyprus was just another asset, but their rule was relatively peaceful, right up to 1570 when the Ottomans conquered it, and took Limassol without a fight.

Thus began an uneasy relationship between the Turks and Greeks that persists to this day. Even now, parts of Famagusta in Cyprus are a ghost town, fenced off  since the Turks invaded in 1974. For a very long time, the entire city was off-limits; it's only since 2003 that the former Greek Cypriot population was allowed to return, to a reduced portion of Famagusta. 

The British took Cyprus from the Turks in 1878, and Limassol began a regeneration. The city's infrastructure improved enormously, and it became something of a tourist resort, albeit a modest one. However by the 20th Century, change was in the air; Marxist and pro-independence groups called for a free Cyprus. This alarmed the Turkish Cypriots, who saw this as an attempt by Greeks to force them out. Greek Marxist terrorists clashed both with the British government and the Turkish opposition movement, and meanwhile Turkey tried to bolster its claim to the island by relocating more and more Turks to Cyprus, so the Turkish Cypriot minority would become the majority.

This led to the crisis of 1955-9, and eventually Cyprus became an independent republic in 1960. The Republic immediately suffered internal division; the Greeks were highly annoyed at the amount of influence given to Turkish Cypriots, who were still a minority population despite the move from Turkey to relocate more Turks and alter the population balance. This eventually culminated in the Turkish invasion of 1974, and division: Northern Cyprus became Turkish, and separated from the rest of the island by a buffer zone protected by barbed wire and troops. Despite continuous negotiation, this armed stalemate persists today. 

Cyprus became a member of the EU in 2004, and in 2014 produced a Joint Declaration with a view to bringing the ongoing internal conflict to an end. So far, negotiations are ongoing.

Its current crisis is economic, not political. Cyprus suffered significantly as a result of the US subprime mortgage collapse in 2008, which led to a recession in Cyprus in 2009 followed by a home-grown debt crisis in 2012-13. Cyprus was bailed out by Russia, which advanced billions in loans in 2012. At the time this was seen as an attempt by Russia to bolster its hold on Cyprus, which already relied on Russian money and deposits for a substantial amount of its economy. Among other things, it led to a 'citizenship for cash' initiative, in which foreign investors who had lost more than a certain amount of money in the Cyprus cash crisis would be fast-tracked for Cyprus citizenship - and thus, an EU passport. This was announced by Cyprus President Anastasiades to a group of Russian investors in 2013, at a conference held at Limassol. Nowadays it's a straight cash-for-passport deal: invest two million in Euro in property, and you too can have an EU passport. This led to a steady influx of Russian cash, and Limassol's skyline blossoms with new luxury apartment buildings, while its coastline sprouts marinas packed with luxury yachts.


Urban population over 180,000, and the greater metropolitan area boasts just shy of a quarter million, which puts Limassol on par with North Las Vegas, Nevada.

The majority population is Greek Cypriot, with a healthy mix of Turkish and Armenian Cypriot.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a substantial minority population of Pontic Greeks, from the shores of the Black Sea, settled in Limassol, but this population is overshadowed by the larger influx of Russians since the 2008 economic collapse and Russian regeneration. Some 17% of the population of Limassol is Russian-speaking, and at least 8% are Russian born. Cyrillic signage, adverts and similar are commonplace.

Greek is the official language, with English a very distant second at 4% of the population. 

The vast majority are Greek Orthodox, with Roman Catholicism a very distant second at 2.9% of the population.

Literacy is at 99%.


The crime rate is low, in comparison to similar EU cities. Armed violence, or criminal acts against the public, are remarkably absent. Similarly drug trafficking and transnational smuggling is a minor concern; there's some hashish and cocaine traffic, but Limassol isn't considered a major smuggling hub.

However like many cities in Greece there is a significant organized crime network in Limassol. Cigarette smuggling is the traditional source of income for these Godfathers of the Night, but they involve themselves in every financial sector. This is one of the reasons why Russia's organized crime networks haven't penetrated Limassol quite as thoroughly as might have been expected, given the circumstances; the locals have the situation all sewn up. This includes officialdom; it's widely believed that public officials and police are in the pockets of the Godfathers. These organizations are family-like cells, with the father supporting several sons, but it does not follow that there are blood ties between father and son, or that they are all Greek Cypriot. These organizations are known to accept other ethnic groups into the family.

By far the most significant crime in Cyprus generally, and Limassol in particular, is financial. Cyprus' lax financial regulations make it a money laundering magnet; even back in the 1990s, according to Misha Glenny, approximately $1 billion in Russian capital was being processed by Cyprus each month. 

Tensions between ethnic Turks and Greeks remain high, but Limassol is on the southern coast of Cyprus, about as far as possible as it is to be from the Turk/Greek buffer zone and still be in Cyprus. 


Limassol's Kolossi Castle is one of the ten castles of Cyprus. Built by the Byzantines originally, around 1000 AD, it's supposedly where Richard Lionheart married his Queen, Berengeria of Navarre, during the Third Crusade. The current version of Kolossi was built by the Hospitallers in 1454, and consists of a large, square keep with rectangular bailey. It houses a medieval museum, with artefacts that date back to 400 AD in some instances.

Image sourced from Wikipedia, Gérard Janot

Limassol's building boom is a huge part of its current economy. Cranes and half-built luxury apartment buildings are an almost permanent part of the skyline, and new luxury megayachts are docking at one of the New Port's marinas every day. The best have beachfront views, naturally, but the mix of architectural styles and accommodation mean that Limassol's architecture is idiosyncratic, particularly when compared to Cyprus generally. 

Image taken from Limassol Royal real estate agency.

Limassol is famous for its carnivals, particularly the ten-day festival that takes place just before Lent each year. Supposedly an outgrowth of a pagan tradition, the carnival has some similarities with Venice's - not surprising given Cyprus' Venetian ties - but by comparison Venice is much more formal, where Limassol is relaxed, carefree, and more than a little inebriated. There are masquerade balls, cheese feasts, a satirical King or Queen of the Carnival, and parades galore. 

Carnival 2014, image taken from Wikipedia, Sergei Galyonkin

Three Hooks

The Conspiracy mooks your team just dropped all have Cyprus passports and ROC tattoos, and one of them has brochures from a Limassol real estate agency in his pocket. This ties in with rumors you've been hearing through your Network contacts, about a major Conspiracy asset - possibly even a vampire - that relocated her assets, and perhaps her sanctum, from Russia to a European base of operations. Is she there herself, or does this mean there's a Conspiracy node operating in Limassol? 

The people smugglers you've been tracking have a significant operation in Cyprus - mainly supplying unskilled labor and sex workers. However a look at their recent pattern of operations (Traffic Analysis, possibly Human Terrain) indicates that the flow of sex workers in particular has increased significantly, and that can be attributed to a small string of Limassol nightclubs controlled by an organized crime group, increasing demand. But what is it about those nightclubs that forces them to bring in so many sex workers? What's happening to all those women?

A former member of Turkey's National Intelligence Organization is shopping data on targets in Germany, Switzerland and Greece. This spy got badly burnt in a recent operation, and wants guarantees of safety in exchange for the information she possesses. However before negotiations conclude she's snatched off the street, and indications are that one of Cyprus' Godfathers of the Night paid for her abduction. Where's her data, and why are OC elements based in Limassol so interested in what she had to offer?

Thrilling Elements

  •  Groups of laughing, drunken young revelers meander from nightclub to nightclub along the waterfront. After 2am, if you're over 24, you'll feel as old as Methuselah.
  • After another Limassol football victory, sports fans throng the streets, cheering and boasting.
  • Expensive sports cars and the ultra-rich flock to the marinas at Limassol's New Port; celebrities and those who love to stalk them are often seen. 
  • A cruise ship docks, disgorging hundreds of tourists that scatter over the city, seeking diversion.
  • Tourists wind through the streets of old-fashioned wine making Omodos village, only a short distance to the north of Limassol proper. 
  • A group of disparate foreigners - surely not fun-seekers - cluster together at a café, eyeing strangers suspiciously. They're all young men of fighting age - might they be on their way to some Middle Eastern war zone?

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Akkat, Mother of the Sunrise: Part 2, City Builder

Last time I discussed the basics of this city build: what kind of place is it, what is it famous for, where (roughly) is it located? Now the time has come to go into a little more detail. What, exactly, is this city like?

When I've discussed character design before, it's always been in the form of question-and-answer.  Exactly the same process can be followed here, slightly altered. So where I might ask about the character's name, age, ethnicity and gender, I now ask about the city's name, age, ethnic makeup, and landmarks.

To give you some examples:

Name: Akkat, Mother of the Sunrise. The title Mother of the Sunrise derives in part from the city's most valuable find: the Sunrise star gem, currently held by the Lugal, or ruler, of Akkat.

Age: People have been living here for uncounted generations. However the current rule of the guilds is less than a century old; in the time of grandfather's father, Akkat was ruled by the Lugal, who in turn owed his fealty to the great Raj of the Northern Kingdoms. The Northern Kingdoms in their mountain fastness have ceased to be a concern ever since the great rebellions, and the Lugal hasn't been a serious force in local politics for many decades.

Ethnic Makeup: Akkat is majority human. There is a much higher proportion of Tieflings here than anywhere else in human lands; about a fifth of the city are Tieflings, including many of its most important guildsmen. Though there aren't many half-orc citizens, nearly all the guild guard are half-orcs, with human officers - though the officers are largely for show, the guard being commanded in practice by its non-coms. Halflings and Elves are uncommon but not unheard of; many of the riverboat captains and crew are members of these races. Dwarves, gnomes and dragonborn are among the least common, and dragonborn are especially distrusted, since the old Raj of the Northern Kingdoms was led by dragon-kin.

Three Landmarks:
  • The Thousand Window Palace, where the Lugal traditionally holds court, is an architectural wonder, and its stained glass windows are a superlative example of the glassblower's art. The scenes depicted there show the great moments of the Lugal, and the Raj. Though the Palace is meticulously preserved, no new windows have been added for a hundred years. The Palace Guard is headquartered here, and the Lugal's Court is open daily, so the Lugal can hear the concerns of his people. The Palace Guard, as distinct from the city guard, is entirely human, and ceremonial. In days long gone, it was often the case that a new Lugal achieved power thanks to the quick and stealthy blade of an influential Guardsman. As a result, these days the Guard aren't allowed anything sharper than a wooden staff. They even eat their food with wooden utensils.
  • Destiny Quarter, the ghetto where most of the Tieflings live, is alive morning, noon and night. When Tieflings began coming here, at first they were confined to a small section of the city that nobody else wanted. Over time, as more of them arrived, their political power increased. Now some of the richest citizens of Akkat live here, side by side with the finest merchant mansions, the most expensive and famous inns and eating houses. The one thing that hasn't changed in all that time is Destiny Gate, that used to mark the way in and out of the walled ghetto. The Tieflings prefer it that way, as a reminder; the ghetto walls may have come down, but if you seek your Destiny, you go through that gate. 
  • The Permit House is where you have to go if you want permission to build anything. Since the very rocks of Akkat are impregnated with magical materials, and since merely digging a foundation might uncover priceless wealth, building rights are very strictly controlled. There are only three licensed building contractors in the entire city, each of them richer than a king. Building without a license, or hiring yourself out as an independent contractor, is  brutally punished; the hands of those who try are cut off and nailed up above the Permit House door. Applications for new build, or to repair existing buildings, often vanish within the labyrinthine corridors of the Permit House, never to be seen again. Of course, grumble ordinary citizens, Tieflings never seem to have any trouble getting permission ...
Economy: Akkat's most famous, and lucrative, export, is the star gems from which it gets its name and reputation. These highly magical items are sought after by wizards, sorcerers, liches, kings and princes. There are only a handful of official mining operations, and unofficial diggings are harshly punished - hence the Permit House. This increases the scarcity of an already rare commodity. Moreover the wizards and Tiefling jewelers of Akkat are supposed to have an especial affinity for these gems; a magical device incorporating a star gem shaped and polished by their cunning hands is said to be especially powerful, and valuable.

However it does not stop at gems. The forges of Akkat, incorporating that same magically potent stone, are supposed to be capable of producing the finest magical blades. The very best swordsmiths are, it is said, working on sentient items to rival the creations of mythic wonder-workers of times past. Whether or not this is true is besides the point; a magical blade from Akkat, with the mark of one of the Guild's swordsmiths, is worth twice as much as any other of its type, whether or not it has any kind of extra potency. 

Finally there are the glassblowers. This is a relatively recent innovation for Akkat; the first master glassblowers relocated here forty years ago. However in that brief time they have become renowned for their skill and delicate craftsmanship; alchemists and lovers of art alike swear by Akkat glass, which, so it is said, captures sunlight like nothing else on this earth. The thing that puzzles visitors to Akkat is, why do these glassblowers not add new windows to the Thousand Window Palace? Yet, to date, none have.

There is one other branch of the economy that the Guilds and the lords of Akkat prefer did not exist: poppies. Again, thanks to the magical qualities of the city, its people are themselves slightly magical. You can't live all your life surrounded by material from the far-flung stars, and not pick up a tiny amount of background radiation. Even the animals are a touch fey. What this means is, the night-soil of the city - excellent manure - is the perfect food for a particularly delicate flowering plant, commonly called the Sunset Poppy. The seeds of this plant, properly processed, produce an addictive narcotic, sold throughout the Southern lands as Sunset, Moonglow, or Journey's End. The Thieves' Guild makes a very tidy profit from cultivation of these poppies; most, if not all, of the night soil collectors of Akkat are on the payroll. It's safer that way. Those who resist meet unfortunate accidents. The fields, and processing facilities, are outside the city proper, high up in the hills; it makes it that much easier for the lords of Akkat to ignore a problem on its doorstep.


What I'm getting at is this: as a designer of worlds, you can create cities and characters in exactly the same way. If you want to design a character, you ask how old they are, how they make their money, what they look like, what they value, what they want, what they dream of, what their secrets are. For a city, you ask exactly the same questions. The difference is merely scale. A city needs more, makes more money, has grander vistas, and outlives even its oldest citizen. But the questions remain the same.

Don't think this just applies to fantasy cities. The same technique can be used to design your version of London, or Macau, or wherever it might be. Sure, a lot of that information can be found in Wikipedia, but you're after the stuff that's not in Wikipedia. Say you're building a version of London much like that Ben Aaronovitch uses for his Rivers of London series. It's very like the London of today - but not exactly like. For the bits that don't fit established modern London, you ask exactly those questions I've asked here - and design your version of London around that.

Which brings me to adventures. Once you design a city, the kind of adventures that happen there should flow from that design. Such as:

A swordsmith has crafted a particularly fine longsword, that he wishes to sell to a nobleman far away. However he needs someone to guard the weapon on its journey South. The swordsmith's rivals are very jealous of his work, and one of them will stop at nothing to prevent the sale - but which of them paid off the bandits that attacked the adventurers?

A Tiefling, on coming of age, or marking a particular life triumph, walks through the Destiny Gate as part of a ceremony that usually involves days, sometimes weeks of feasting, masquerade, and song. The masquerade balls are particularly famous; the grander the masquerade, the more important - and wealthy - the Tiefling host. However this particular Tiefling, on walking through the Destiny Gate, somehow opens up a small, personal connection to the Abyss. Nothing so dramatic as a flaming portal through which can be heard the wailing of the damned; rather, unexpected and swift corrosion, say of furnishings, clothing, or food, or a brief plague of Abyssal small fry, like Dretch, or Manes. Each time this happens, it's centered on the unfortunate Tiefling who walked through the Gate. Naturally this complicates the masquerade somewhat, but it also provokes a human backlash. Can the adventurers defuse the situation, before an angry mob tears through Destiny Quarter?

An innkeeper has, through accident or design, dug a very small pit in the cellar of her inn. Only the tiniest of scrapings, but if the authorities ever hear about it, her hand will be nailed up above the Permit House door. However, if she were somehow to obtain retroactive permission for her illegal excavation, all will be well. Can the adventurers forge, or otherwise obtain, that all-important permit?

That's enough for now. Next week, something completely different!

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Building Fantasy (13th Age, Dungeons & Dragons)

Some friends of mine are leaving the island soon. If you listened to the last Halloween game, you know who they are - Tach and Max. Tacha is off to pursue a degree in Stage Management in Canada, and Max is going with her because those two are joined at the (very tall) hip, and besides, there are more chances for actors in Canada.

As a kind of farewell present, I said I'd run a game of their choice, and they opted for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, which until now I'd never run. I've played D&D before, of course - red box, DMG with the Efrit on the cover, 3.5, yadda yadda. But I stopped at 3.5. Now I've been talked into giving 5th a go, I must admit, I'm pleasantly surprised. It's by far the easiest of the systems to run, and it's not so chart-heavy simulationist as to frighten off the new player.

I thought I'd play with the concept a little bit, and design a fantasy town. Keepers running 13th Age games, take note: while I won't go heavily into 13th Age stuff, there's no reason why you couldn't pillage this for use in your game.

Begin at the beginning: why design a town? Mainly because the players need a base of operations, somewhere they can return to for supplies, healing, and emotional support, after the dragons have ruthlessly mocked their combat skills, dubious parentage, and other weak points. Of course, that base could be anything - wizard's tower, hobbit village, elven shrine - but by making it a town, you open up a variety of different plot threads. Ultimately there's only so much mystery to be had in a tower. If you design a town, there's a lot you can leave blank, to be filled in later. Plus, there's more chances for other fantasy races to get involved. Hobbit villages are all very well, but unless you're planning on putting a half-orc ghetto on the outskirts of Hobbiton - and Bilbo Baggins strikes me as the ultimate NIMBY - there's only so much diversity to be had.

Let's start with the very basics: what kind of town, and what kind of setting? Is it a trading outpost, a manufacturing town, a great port? Is this broadly Northern European, Mediterranean, Pacific island waystation, ancient necropolis on the outskirts of a vast wasteland?

I like the idea of the town being able to supply something nowhere else can. Its unique status means it'll be fought over by all the powers, but it also means everyone will want to go there. Merchants will send their caravans, nobles and leaders their emissaries, and everyone else will want to go just to say they've been.

That brings me to Nordlingen. If you've ever spent five minutes on the internet, you've probably seen an article or photograph, as it's famous in an Atlas Obscura kind of way.

About 15 million years ago a meteorite smacked into what is now Bavaria, creating a massive bowl-shaped crater, about 14 kilometers wide, between 100 to 150 meters deep. Over time humans arrived, and started building in that crater. They didn't know it was caused by a meteorite; they thought it was a volcano. Be that as it may, they started quarrying the remains of the meteorite and using the diamond-encrusted stone as building material. The diamond remnants are breathtakingly small - about 0.2 mm across - but there are uncounted hundreds of thousands of them embedded in the bricks and stones of Nordlingen.

So let's poach that, and posit: millennia ago, a meteorite smashed into the earth, bringing with it large quantities of precious minerals. Most of it was smashed into pieces so small that they can't be seen except with the most delicate of instruments, but there are still portions large enough to be quarried, shaped, and polished to a fine sheen. These gems, found nowhere else on earth, are prized highly by magical scholars, for their mystic properties. Physically, I picture them as similar to rubies, but with an internal, captivating flicker.

Sorcerers and Warlocks, particularly Tieflings, are drawn to this place like a moth to a flame, and the Tiefling community here is larger and more politically powerful than in any other place in the realm. A great river runs nearby, and merchants from across the realms send their caravans, offering up the wealth of kings in exchange for the magical gems of this proud city.

As a government, I see this as a town where the craftsmen's guilds have taken over, big time. There was a noble leader at one point, and there probably still is a kind of rump nobility - someone to wear the pretty hat and wave at ceremonies. But the guilds wear the pants in this metaphorical marriage. They pay for defense, they negotiate with other powers, they write and enforce the laws. If they want something done, it gets done, or there'll be trouble.

With this much money at stake, there's bound to be a Thieves' Guild. They'd have to tread softly with all these Craftsman's Guild enforcers wandering around ostentatiously sharpening their weapons, but that's never stopped a greedy man before. Besides, merchants will want a way around all those tariffs the Craftsmen's Guild imposes, and getting around tariffs is what a good Thieves' Guild is all about.

The only thing I haven't discussed so far is cultural location. What kind of place is this? Well, I've mentioned rubies, and that always makes me think of tropical locales. Myanmar, in Southeast Asia, has long had a reputation as a source of rubies. So we're talking cloudy, rainy, with hot, humid summers, and a parched dry season in winter. There are mountains to the north, but I don't see the town in a mountainous locale. Tropical forest covers most of the countryside, and the great river sweeps down to the delta and far away, to the wide, trackless ocean.

So I give you Akkat: Mother of the Sunrise, jewel of the great Chinda River, where the Asteria, or Star, gems come from. 

Next post shall be a deeper dive into Akkat. What makes it tick, and what kind of adventure can be found there?

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Man Downstairs (Miskatonic Repository)

Well, I said I'd do it, and it's done.

The Man Downstairs, a CoC scenario set in Jazz Age Harlem, New York, is up on the Miskatonic Repository at DriveThruRPG. This is very much an experiment for me. I want to see whether it has legs.

If any of you buy it, I hope you enjoy it - a review would be appreciated!

The tenants at 224 Lenox Avenue, between W 121st and W122nd, New York City, have a neighbor they have never met, and never knew existed until a few weeks ago, yet he has always been there. Josef Voorzanger has been hiding for more than forty years, but time has eaten his once-sharp mind, and his wards are no longer strong enough to keep out the curious. Josef made a bad bargain a long time ago, and now the entity he bartered with is sending the Man with Lightning Flowers to collect - unless the investigators, hired by the owners of 224 Lenox, can find Josef first.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Person of Interest: Benjamin Rucker, aka Black Herman (RPG all, especially Timewatch)

Professor Black Herman, the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Negro Magician, was born in a Zulu village, to hear him tell it, and spent his early life learning the mystic secrets of the Orient while dodging Chinese assassins, bent on revenge for his refusing to help them steal a priceless diamond from the head of a statue of Buddha. Seeing that the end was nigh, rather than deliver himself into the hands of his enemies, Black Herman drank poison and died. Many dignitaries, including the King of the Zulus, gathered to pay respects, only to gape in wonderment, as Black Herman stepped out of his coffin and back into the land of the living. Then, after a display of wonders to rival the best, Black Herman went across the seas, to try his luck at fame and fortune in the Americas.

Or, to be slightly more accurate, Benjamin Rucker was probably born in Amherst, Virginia, in 1892. He tried a number of different professions before taking up the magician's wand, but by 1906 he was well on his way. He's known to have worked with Harry Kellar, but it's his alleged association with huckster, herb doctor, and fellow Virginian Prince Herman that he's best known for. It's not entirely clear whether Rucker worked with Prince Herman or not, but Rucker said he did, and he took on Herman's stage name after Prince Herman died unexpectedly in 1909.

Rucker, then only 17, was set to conquer the world, but there was a problem: he was black, in a world where that mattered more than anything. When he worked with Prince Herman, he could perform in the South; now he was a solo act, segregation laws confined him to non-white audiences, unless he was performing in the North. So he set his sights on other audiences, and by 1918 was at the height of his talent. An absolute master of stage magic, he also mixed in a healthy dose of hoodoo and herbal remedies; for, as Rucker himself put it, he was a man who knew how to spend $1 twice over and still have change left, and fortunetelling with a healthy dose of herbal remedies were where the money was.

Hoodoo, for those unfamiliar with the term, is not voodoo. Hoodoo is an American variant on West African folklore, also known as conjure, root doctoring, or rootworking. It blends herbal remedies with Moses-as-conjuror; the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses are the core texts of this spiritualist movement. A hoodoo worker makes talismans, oils, candles and incense, to minister to every possible need or ailment. Though hoodoo has a strong element of ancestor worship, it lacks the loa that vaudon sanctifies, and also lacks the Catholic overtones of voodoo.

The man who not only can foretell the future, but also supply every possible remedy to human frailty, can make a great deal of money, which is exactly what Benjamin Rucker did.

Things went from good to better. He bought a brownstone in Harlem, NYC, where he saw all his clients. He performed across the country, and when the performances were over, he used his hoodoo skills to counsel his audience. He became a devoted friend and counselor to Marcus Garvey, leader of the Back to Africa movement, and Garvey was far from Burcker's only friend and confidante; Black Herman was probably the best-connected hoodoo man and performing magician of his day. He was an Elk, a Freemason, a Knight of Pythias. He donated to churches and worthy causes, funded scholarships, was a friend to poor man and intellectuals, politicians and power brokers. Everyone wanted to be on good terms with the man who knew how to twist the skein of fortune any way he wanted.

HIs signature performance piece was a living burial. He picked a spot, which he called his Private Graveyard, and lay in his coffin on display for all to see; it cost ten cents to check his pulse. Then he was buried, but when his coffin was disinterred a few days later he stepped out, none the worse. He used his miraculous recovery as a kick-off for his stage performance, emerging from the coffin to lead a parade to the stage. It was his boast that he returned to a venue once every seven years - a picturesque way of saying he was constantly on tour.

Things didn't always go his way. In 1927 he was arrested and sent to Sing Sing on charges of fortune telling and selling medicine without a license, but he only spent a brief time in jail. His supporters claimed a prison cell couldn't hold him; he'd walk out of there any time he liked. He wasn't in jail long in any event, and the 1929 stock market crash didn't hurt his fortune much; whatever financial losses he might have suffered were soon made back again, by telling more fortunes and selling more conjure medicine.

He died young. In 1934 he collapsed at a friend's home - some stories say it actually happened on stage - suffering massive cardiac failure. He was only 44 years old.

Even then, his admirers and well-wishers didn't believe it. Professor Black Herman, dead? The man who'd stepped out of the coffin more times than a man could count? No, never; thousands went to the funeral home to see his body, laid out in state. His assistant, Washington Reeves - later to take on Black Herman's stage name - charged money to view the corpse. But this time it didn't step out of the casket; Benjamin Rucker had enraptured his last audience.

From a gamificiation viewpoint, a hoodoo stage magician who performs throughout the 1920s and 30s, all across the United States, is a perfect NPC for Trail or Call of Cthulhu. However with that mysterious death, can he be anything other than a Timewatch agent? You can almost picture the funeral home, after everyone else is left, as Black Herman walks out of the grave one last time, and into Time itself.

With that in mind:

Recruitment Drive: TimeWatch intends to pick up Rucker at the funeral home in 1934 but, when the agents get there, he's not in the coffin any more. Instead, an aged and scarred Rucker appears at his brownstone in Harlem, witnessed by his employee and protégée Washington Reeves, who he tells to go to the funeral home and give a message to whoever he finds there. Clearly Rucker's been time travelling, but on whose dime? And was his reappearance an attempt to contact TimeWatch, knowing that TimeWatch agents would have to be in Harlem on that date? Or is this some elaborate trap?

That's it for now. Enjoy!