Sunday, 28 August 2016

A Path With No Ending (Spilsbury, Trail, Bookhounds)

Following on last week's discussion about Sir Bernard Spilsbury's career, I'm going to give you a short scenario idea drawn from his experiences. This idea is written from a Bookhounds of London perspective, but could easily be used in Trail or Call of Cthulhu.

The following quote is from The Life of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, by Browne and Tullett.

Pamela [aged 9 and a half] had left her home in South Romford after lunch on the 18th [January 1939] to walk back to her school in Benhurst Avenue. Her stepmother watched her going along Southend Avenue towards a street called Coronation Drive, which leads to Benhurst Avenue past Elm Park Station on the District Railway. Two school friends waited for her in vain at the corner of the Avenue. Somewhere on the way, less than a quarter-hour's walk, the little girl had disappeared, in broad daylight. When she did not return to tea, and it was learned she had not reached the school, Mrs Coventry went to the police. The body was discovered early next morning.

It was naked, except for a cotton frock tied loosely around the neck, and doubled up, the knees being under the chin, tightly bound with black and green insulated wire and tarred string. Insulating tape covered the knots. Beneath the body was a rotting mattress. Rigor mortis was advanced, and there were the usual painful symptoms of strangulation, this time by hand. When Spilsbury began his examination, and straightened the limbs, the stub of a home-made cigarette fell out from between a thigh and the chest. He found a great number of small scratches and bruises on the head and body; a large bruise on the jaw was probably, he thought, caused by a blow, and another behind the left ear might be the result of a fall on a hard surface. The child had been criminally assaulted, and had evidently struggled with her assailant. She had died within an hour of her last meal, the dinner she had eaten at about one o'clock on the 18th.

Though the police did arrest someone in connection with the crime, the evidence was circumstantial. Although he possessed many of the items found at the scene - the wire, home-made cigarettes made with the same brand of tobacco - and a raincoat spotted with blood, the prosecution couldn't make a case. The blood couldn't be proved to be the same type as Pamela's, and the items were commonly available; thousands of people used that same brand of tobacco, the same roll-up papers, and owned that kind of wire. The accused was acquitted.

The scenario opens on a cold day in March, as the aftershocks of the case are dying out. The protagonist sits in the bookshop in the early morning, browsing the newspaper in a quiet moment. Her attention is drawn by the mention of Elm Park, and a nagging realization that, somewhere in the bookshop's collection, there's mention of that part of London in connection with a megapolisomantic working. What was it?

She goes in the back to find the book only to discover that, although the cover is still on the shelf, the contents have been skillfully removed and replaced with pages from another book of the right period. Someone's been stealing, and a quick survey of the shop's collection shows this isn't the only time. There are several books and pamphlets missing, all of them to do with London and megapolisomancy.

Core clue Forgery: whoever did this had some skill, but wasn't an expert. They knew enough about books to get replacement papers from the right period, and knew how to quickly and carefully exchange the contents. However anyone with real skill would have been more careful with the binding and stitching.

Core clue Locksmith or similar: the criminal wasn't able to get at the really valuable stuff, as that's [presumably] locked away. There's some scratches on the lockplate that show someone tried, but failed. All the stolen books were interesting, but not especially valuable even to a megapolisomancer. There wasn't enough in them to teach a person Magic, but perhaps in combination with more important texts someone could have tried a Megapolisomantic working of their own. 

Core clue Assess Honesty or similar: allows the protagonist to draw up a short list of people who might have had access to the books in question. Not all of them would have been easily available to the public; some were in back rooms, out of sight. However there are several people other than the player characters who might have had access, among them:

  1. The Favored Customer: There's always one. The customer who seems a friend, who spends a lot of money, or who brings in a lot of other customers. He might have been wandering in places other people wouldn't be allowed to go, but you'd think nothing of it, because he's that good a customer.
  2. The Nuisance Customer: Not the same thing, but it has the same effect. This pest cannot be kept to the public areas. For whatever reason he keeps wandering in the back rooms looking for prizes, and you keep chasing him out.
  3. The Business Rival: Every so often you're visited by this fellow, who comes to talk shop and discuss upcoming auctions. Sometimes you work together, sometimes you're deadly enemies, but you're both in the same trade so when he visits he gets a higher level of access than the standard customer.
  4. The Contact: This may be a catalogue agent, book scout or forger who regularly does business with the shop. Naturally he doesn't mingle with the ordinary customers, and he probably knows as much about the shop's stock as you do.
  5. The Delivery Men: Theoretically these hefty workers only lift and carry, but what if they do more? They're always here each week, bringing boxes to and fro. What if one of them decided to make a little extra on the side?
Core clue Forensics, Evidence Collection or similar: The protagonist is frozen in her tracks when she notices that, where the books used to be, there's a scattering of loose tobacco. It's easy to confirm that this brand is the same brand found by Spilsbury at the crime scene. Was the book thief involved in that crime too?

From there the scenario progresses. One of the above is indeed the book thief, and may be the killer too. The method of abduction relies on magic: the megapolisomancer creates what amounts to a small pocket out of time, in which the caster can do as he likes for as long as he can keep the magic going. Nobody will interrupt him; nobody notices he's even there. Of course, bending the city's power like that carries consequences of its own, which will result in peculiar events - perhaps random summonings or disappearances - in the place where the working occurred.

That's enough for this week. Enjoy!

Monday, 22 August 2016

Person of Interest: Sir Bernard Spilsbury (Trail, Call, Bookhounds)

I thought I'd try something different and kick of what I hope will be a semi-regular column here: Person of Interest. I'll discuss the biography and gamification of important historical people, and to start us off let's have a look at the life and career of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the Scalpel of Scotland Yard.

Spilsbury was born 1877 in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, to a sold, middle class family. His father was a chemist, and Bernard spent his early years watching his father in his laboratory, experimenting. However his family was trade and his grandmother, a very determined woman, saw no future in medicine or chemicals, insisting that Bernard's father go into business. He did so reluctantly, but made sure his son would be a doctor if he had anything to say about it.

Bernard was a solitary soul who best liked long walks, skating and other hobbies that he could enjoy by himself, without distractions. He was amenable to his father's wish that he become a doctor, and resisted his grandmother's insistence that he go into trade instead, as a draper. He was an older graduate, entering St Mary's Hospital Medical School at 23, and his contemporaries found him amiable but ordinary, certainly not marked out for greatness. He seems to have been one of those people who just got on with things, without drawing attention to himself, and was a born workaholic.

At St Mary's he fell in with some of the best and brightest pathologists of their day, who took Spilsbury under their wing once they saw that, in spite of his seeming plodding unimpressive nature, he was a prodigious worker. Soon he became Student Demonstrator of Pathology, eschewing competitions, prizes and fame for hour after hour after hour in the lab. In fact his dedication to his craft meant that he did not take on the other courses needed for a medical degree, so he graduated much later than many of his classmates.

He did so at just the right time. In years gone by the police force and public prosecutions had been a piecemeal operation, with different standards and practices applying in every county. Now things were being reorganized; there would be a central authority in charge of the police, and a Director of Public Prosecutions, under the supervision of the Attorney General. Scotland Yard, meanwhile, was being forced to update itself. Paris, New York, Berlin, Prague, all these had police laboratories; even some of the provincial British police forces had established ad-hoc relationships with private medical labs. Yet Scotland Yard had no police laboratory of its own. All this was to change, and quickly.

Then along came Crippen.

The 1910 Crippen case gripped the nation. He had murdered his wife, a stage performer, and taken up with his lover, stealing his wife's money and even clothes. Then, when suspected, the pair fled across the ocean, leaving the police to find the wife's remains in the cellar of his house. Not all of the corpse was recovered; head, limbs and skeleton were missing, but a piece of flesh remained. That flesh bore an old abdominal scar, which helped identify the remains as those of Cora Crippen. Spilsbury also found traces of scopolamine in the remains, which suggested that Crippen, a doctor himself, had used the drug to pacify Cora and make her easier to kill. The doctor and his lover were caught and returned to Britain, where Crippen was eventually hanged.

Yet it wasn't Spilsbury's medical ability - excellent though it was - that really made his reputation. It was his demeanor, as an expert witness. Well dressed, handsome, with a carnation in his button hole, he projected solid competence, an impression that was only reinforced by his detached yet determined attitude. Spilsbury would not be rattled by the prosecution, nor yet by the judge. "Here is a coming man," said spectators, and they were right.

From there Spilsbury went from strength to strength. He became the pathologist of choice for the prosecution, travelling across the country from murder site to murder site, gathering and recording evidence. No absent-minded professor he; Spilsbury was an avid record keeper and fastidious note taker. His index card collection eventually sold for several thousand pounds and is now in the Wellcome collection in London.

Spilsbury loved nothing better than to experiment and solve problems. After the Mahon case, for example, Spilsbury determined to carry out Mahon's autopsy himself, though this would normally be the prison's responsibility. Mahon had been double-hanged; the murderer had, at the last moment, tried to save himself, but instead fell backward rather than down, breaking his spine on the trapdoor as he fell, and then his neck. In most instances the autopsy would be fairly perfunctory, but Spilsbury insisted on a complete autopsy including examination of the brain, a portion of which he took away with him. It was the first judicial autopsy Spilsbury conducted but by no means the last, and eventually as a result of his examinations a recommendation was made to increase the drop by two inches on humanitarian grounds, the better to ensure a clean break of the neck.

Spilsbury also developed the Murder Bag, or collection of standard equipment to use in murder cases, and the Mahon case is the cause. This is what Spilsbury and his colleagues found at the murder site, a bungalow at the Crumbles, Eastbourne:

'On a rusty tenon saw, grease and a piece of flesh. Articles of female clothing, greasy and bloodstained, some with soot or coal-dust on them. On the cauldron-shaped coal-scuttle, two minute specks of blood. In the saucer near it, solidified fat. The two-gallon saucepan in the same fireplace was half-full of a reddish fluid, with a thick layer of grease on the surface; this contained a piece of boiled human flesh, the skin adhering to it. The metal fender was splashed with grease. There was more grease deposited in the second saucepan, and smeared in the bath and basin. In the hat-box, among soiled articles of clothing, were thirty-seven pieces of flesh, cut or sawn. All were human, and all apparently had been boiled. The big fiber trunk held four large pieces of human body, sawn apart, but not boiled. On one of those pieces, a left chest and shoulder, there was a bruise over the shoulder blade, the result of a blow inflicted before death, if only a few minutes before; it had been, in Spilsbury's opinion, a heavy blow. There was also in the trunk a biscuit tin containing various organs.' From The Life of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, 1952, by Douglas G Browne and E V Tullett.

Spilbury started work on the murder bag, full of equipment needed to properly collect and store remains, when he saw a detective using his bare hands to scoop the victim's boiled flesh into a bucket.

Spilsbury became Sir Bernard in 1923, one year before the Mahon case. He spent his entire career dissecting, studying, analyzing, and giving evidence in case after case. It's become fashionable now to downplay Spilsbury, to claim that his dogmatic and unyielding attitude on the stand led to miscarriages of justice. Just as in his university years, when he eschewed competitive examinations and prizes for ordinary lab work, in his working career he refused to engage in peer review, or to train students. Spilsbury preferred his own counsel.

Yet it must be remembered that Spilsbury did not get where he was through anything other than effort. He was and remained the persistent, meticulous workaholic who graduated late because, thanks to his dedication to pathology, he could not be bothered with distractions. He lived for the job, and never lied or prevaricated. He thought before he acted but, once he made his mind up, that was that.

It did not end well for him. He had three sons. Peter, the one following in his footsteps, became a house surgeon at St Thomas' in London. On the 13th September, 1940, the Hospital was bombed and Peter died, but the news didn't get to Spilsbury right away. He went to work as usual the next morning, performing post-mortems and giving evidence at the Coroner's Court. After finishing one case and while waiting for the other to start he went through the morning's post, only to discover a letter from a friend with condolences on the death of his son. Except the letter didn't say which son; Spilsbury had seen Alan earlier that day, so it might have been either Peter or Richard.

Eventually Spilsbury learned the truth. He was back at work the next day, but he was never the same again.

Alan, the eldest son, was a sickly soul, and Spilsbury was devoted to him. The two would spend each day together, at the Gower Street laboratory where Spilsbury worked. In November 1945 young Alan died of consumption.

By this point Spilsbury was in decline. A micromanager to the end he could not bear to have other people write his reports or fill in forms for him, yet he became increasingly incapable of doing the job himself. He took longer and longer to make decisions now, his tiring mind unable to do the work of former years.

His death was characteristic of the man. During Christmas 1947 he took care of his affairs, gave his staff their accustomed Christmas boxes, and completed his paperwork for the year. On December 17th he sent out his last post-mortem report, in time to catch the 530 post. He dined at his club, afterwards handing the key to his private cupboard back to the club steward because, he said, he no longer needed it. He went back to the Gower Street laboratory at 730, which he had kept exactly as it was since the death of Alan two years prior. At 830, one of his colleagues passed by the laboratory, smelt gas, and investigated. By then, Spilsbury was dead.

With all that in mind, let's talk gamification.

As his career spans several decades all of which are core for Call and Trail of Cthulhu, Spilsbury could easily appear in either setting. Some of his most famous cases are in the 1930s - Trail's favorite decade - but Spilsbury was already the most celebrated pathologist of his day long before 1930. Moreover unlike many specialists, who prefer staid laboratory work, Spilsbury travels all over the country, which means he can be encountered almost anywhere from John O'Groats to Land's End. He might even be encountered elsewhere within the Commonwealth; he's known to have worked in the Channel Islands, and a small amount of fictionalization could have him turn up, say, in Canada or further afield.

In Trail or Call, Spilsbury's most likely role is the expert, assisting in investigations without taking part himself. If the investigators have a medical background or any official standing, they might meet the great man himself. From a rules perspective Spilsbury's bound to have expert-level ratings in any medical or forensic discipline and, though his finances were relatively modest, thanks to his professional reputation his Credit Rating is very high. His library and note card collection would be a boon to any researcher, giving boosts to related medical or forensic abilities.

For investigators more likely to commit crimes than investigate them, Spilsbury is a very dangerous enemy. No matter how careful, clever, or resourceful the characters think they are, it's nearly impossible to outwit the Scalpel of Scotland Yard.

In a Bookhounds game, Spilsbury best fits a Sordid London setting. No amount of crime novel romanticism can disguise Spilsbury's grim and grisly world. Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers both based their crime fiction in part on Spilsbury's work, directly or indirectly. Yet their depictions are fairly bloodless, when compared to the gore, guts, and limbless torsos that made up Spilsbury's professional career. Spilsbury was no stranger to the variations of the human condition; suicide, accidental death, sexually motivated asphyxia, and a thousand other kinds of demise were his stock in trade.

If you wanted to go in an Esoterrorist direction, the obvious terror to link to Spilsbury is the Practice. This gestalt, described in The Book of Unremitting Horror, is a medical nightmare, a surgical team of the damned. If you were to link Spilsbury to it then one way would be to suggest that the Practice is haunting the site of Spilsbury's old lab at Gower Street. I'm guessing that the old lab is long gone, but it was probably part of what's now University Teaching Hospital. Maybe there's a cult of medical students seeking grim knowledge, or perhaps Spilsbury wants his index cards back from the Wellcome.

In any case, you've more than enough information now. I hope this was useful! Enjoy.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Stephen Leather, Spider and E Squadron (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

A short while back I said I'd have to discuss Stephen Leather's work someday, and rather than do that as a book review corner I thought it might be more interesting to discuss it in relation to the Increment, also known as E Squadron, one of the more persistent special forces tales.

Stephen Leather's a lot of fun to read. He's a UK former journalist turned novelist, whose main line is torn-from-the-headlines espionage. For horror gamers who aren't into spies and special forces hijinks, he also writes a series of supernaturals with his hero Jack Nightingale, former cop turned occultist who deals with Satanists and witchcraft.

Having read a few in the Nightingale series, in all honesty I don't like them much. The character's too much like a squeaky clean John Constantine which in turn reminds me too much of that damn TV show and then everything goes black and I wake up next to an empty case of Bushmills. Except that where Constantine as imagined by Moore, Delano and Ennis had a lot of charm, Nightingale lacks personality, to the point where you begin to wonder if he didn't pop along from central casting for the day.

Which to be fair is also a problem with Spider Shepherd, but then few people read spy novels for the clever and intriguing characters. We read them for the action and the intrigue, and Leather does deliver when it comes time to return to the land of cloak and dagger. Leather's very good at action, and believable scenes of murder and mayhem.

I suppose it's a fundamental split between horror and spy-fi. The one depends on character; in order to really feel invested in which character survives, you need to like those characters in the first place, and that means characters need to be interesting. Whereas a spy thriller depends on situation; you need to know the stakes are high, and that the action will keep coming. It would take a huge amount of self-deception to argue that Bourne or Bond are, in themselves, interesting characters, that the audience would enjoy watching what they might do on a long bank holiday weekend. No, we only care about Bourne or Bond when he's in a high-speed chase, disarming nukes, or shooting mooks. Not when he's down the pub with his mates, then off for a curry after.

Black Ops opens on a murder scene. A former US special forces turned private contractor is waiting for his target. The client has requested a 'suicide' by hanging, so Rob Tyler's waiting patiently, dressed in full forensic gear from head to toe to minimize trace evidence. It's that kind of detail that helps paint a scene; you can imagine a man, anonymous, wrapped from head to toe in protective clothing seen a thousand times in a thousand crime TV shows, just waiting for the chance to strike. This, you instinctively feel, is how assassins work. Not flashy, smooth-talking gamblers with a Walther PPK in a shoulder holster, but patient professionals lurking in ambush, dressed not for the casino but for business.

Black Ops links in with a long-rumored special section of British special forces: E Squadron, aka The Increment. While I don't think Leather ever explicitly says Shepherd's a member, a lot about his profile and CV suggests he might be or have been. Former SAS still in peak condition, in Black Ops Shepherd works for MI5 - though by the end this is in doubt - and handles all kinds of dubious duties on behalf of his boss, Charlotte Button. In the novel, he spends much of his time pretending to be a hit man in order to fool a Dutch millionaire who's trying to recruit killers to assassinate Putin.

Whereas the actual E Squadron's duties are, at best, unclear. Assuming it exists, which is itself an open question. If it does, then it's been suggested its duties involve offering military assistance to foreign powers, clandestine insertion and extraction of intelligence agents, and covert reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. It draws personnel from all elite branches of the British military, and so has a wide range of skills at its disposal. Pilots, sailors, CQB experts, you name it, the Increment has it. As for what it's been up to, it might have assassinated Princess Diana - an event Leather refers to - or Doctor David Kelly, and may have participated in other high-level killings. Or not. It certainly has personnel deployed in hot zones all over the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan, offers close protection for high value intelligence targets, and performs a host of other clandestine services as needed.

Black Ops illustrates two ways this could be implemented. In the Spider sections of the narrative, Shepherd's objective is to discourage the Dutch millionaire. Not because anyone at MI5 is in love with Putin, but because the most likely kill zone is in London during a summit and nobody needs the fall-out that an attempted assassination - or a successful one - would bring. In order to do that, Shepherd assumes the identity of an existing killer who, MI5 happens to know, is being clandestinely held in the Emirates. Meanwhile, in a separate section of the plot, another high-profile mercenary, Lex Harper, is tasked by Button to embarrass and then kill several highly placed members of the real IRA who are trying to buy very expensive rockets so they can shower London with HE. Embarrass, because Button doesn't want the other real IRA members to follow in their footsteps. To do this Harper pretends to be an arms dealer with a sideline in munitions swiped from the former Soviet Union. Stakes couldn't be higher, and the cloak-and-dagger is skillfully deployed.

While neither Harper nor Shepherd are part of E Squadron, a lot of what the characters do fits E Squadron's alleged remit: covert surveillance, intelligence gathering, quasi-military engagements, comfortable adoption of covert identities, the ability to operate clandestinely in unfamiliar territory or foreign soil. In addition to those fun things, the Increment's also alleged to have its own air section, equipped with a Puma helicopter and a C-130, and in all probability has a small flotilla too, or at least people capable of docking a boat and tying a reef knot. Which is all to the good since, if rumor is to be believed, every SIS station has a direct line to the SAS. You never know when, where, or in what circumstances, so best to be prepared for any eventuality.

In the Dracula Dossier there's also an E Squadron, but its duties seem much less far-reaching than those ascribed to the Increment. With that in mind, I suggest:

1) a new level 5 Bureaucracy test for Elvis, Hound, Nails and Tyler, Preparing the Ground. There will be times when the agents need caches of supplies (not necessarily weapons) placed ahead of time, trackers put on ships or other large vehicles, surveillance of a military or semi-military target, assistance in tracking a target, close protection (eg. on a visit to the Red Zone in Baghdad), or something similar. When that happens, it's E Squadron that carries out the task. Note that none of these things necessarily involve combat; more logistical support. In some instances, eg the close protection detail, having E Squadron on call might confer in-game benefits, say a free 1-point pool Intimidation. The exact nature of the benefit to be agreed between Director and Players. All this basically falls under Section 2027 in the Field Manual.

2) there are various existing Bureaucracy tests, eg Oakes Difficulty 3 assistance in cleaning up a crime scene, in which the source of the assistance is nebulous. It's reasonable to assume that the assistance comes from E Squadron, or at the very least that E Squadron arranges delivery of the assistance.

3) that E Squadron draws some of its membership from services like the RAF and Navy, and those personnel have Cherry level Piloting and Mechanics abilities. It's also reasonable to assume than any vehicle assigned to E Squadron (as opposed to stolen by) is Souped Up (p102, main book).

4) that E Squadron can supply vehicles as well as caches, and that those vehicles may be specially modified, eg with extra hidden compartments for those moments when you really need somewhere to hide an assault rifle. Duke Ian probably arranges this, either at level 5 Bureaucracy or possibly level 7 if the vehicle is suitably unusual or difficult to obtain.

5) that it's reasonable to assume E Squadron has access to its own transport, which probably includes helicopters, boats, a C-130 and several kinds of ground vehicle. Those vehicles are almost certainly modified, most likely with armor and bullet-resistant glass at the very least.

That's it from me! Enjoy.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Long Con: Gentleman Jack (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London)

My scenario, The Long Con, won a Silver Ennie at GenCon this year. As I wasn't there and didn't have the chance to speechify or thank people, let me get a few things out of the way before passing on to the meat and potatoes:

Thanks to Simon, who originally let me develop this for YSDC and then took it under Pelgrane's wing.

Thanks to Paul, who helped me bring The Long Con to life at YSDC to begin with.

Thanks to the Pelgrane team, from editors (hi Cat!) to artists, who collaborated to put all this together.

Thanks again to the original playtest team, Chris, Jillian, Jym and Mary. Much fun was had!

Thanks to a certain Shoggee, who sent me a book about Yokai for Christmas and so inadvertently kicked all this off.

Thanks especially to all of you who voted for The Long Con!

I don't have a whole lot of time today, as it's tech rehearsal for the play I've been directing - opening night's this Thursday, hope you bought a ticket - so I'm going to spend a little time talking about some movies I find inspirational, and which helped me create the character of Gentleman Jack, one of the significant antagonists in the script.

One of the main inspirations for the character's style and personality is Sir Richard Attenborough's performance as Pinky, in the 1947 movie Brighton Rock. I'm amazed, frankly, that YouTube hasn't a decent clip of his performance. It's a smasher. Graham Green, the author who wrote the novel on which the screenplay is based, wasn't convinced Attenborough could pull it off. By the end of filming, he admitted he'd been entirely wrong. Pinky, the quiet, cunning razor-killer, is Gentleman Jack, at least as far as personality goes.

However for those Keepers out there looking for other period films to help them develop a Bookhounds game, I thoroughly recommend these two gems:

Night and the City, directed by Jules Dassin, starring Richard Widmark as the scheming Harry Fabian. Nothing conveys the seamy underbelly of the city more convincingly. Those opening scenes with Fabian on the run grab your attention, and it stays grabbed from that moment to the killer ending. Apart from Widmark, who's a smasher, Googie Williams and Francis L Sullivan, as a sleazy night club owner and his scheming wife, and Herbert Lom as a crooked wrestling promoter, give standout performances. But really there isn't a bad performer in the bunch. A must-see.

The Blue Lamp. 1950, with Jack Warner, in iconic character PC George Dixon's first appearance. Dixon would go on to be a mainstay of British television, but this first film outshines anything seen on the gogglebox. Both this and Night use London's street locations to stunning effect, but the standout here is Warner's Dixon. There's a reason why this copper became the face of British policing. Another must-see.

But enough of all that. Let's take a look at Gentleman Jack for a moment, and think about what might happen after the scenario.

Whatever happens, Jack is going away disappointed. I won't spoil why, but if you've read the Long Con you know he doesn't get anything he wants, and may end up arrested. What would someone like that do to get revenge?

Probably something very nasty, with razors. But first he'd like the protagonists to have a taste of the humiliation he endured, so to that end consider the following forgery:

The Book of Vampires, Monstrous Ghosts, Sorcery and the Seven Deadly Sins. First published 1802 by a German printer, this book discusses Demonology and Occult, is written mainly in German with some Latin, and is in good condition overall with some minor damage to the leather binding. To a collector, it might be worth as much as £25 (or close to £1000 in today's money). In Bookhounds terms, it's a Windfall.

Or it would if it were real, but it's not. Jack had one of his forger pals create it, and it's a pretty good facsimile. It takes 2 points of the appropriate Craft or Forgery abilities to work this out.

Jack's plan is this: he gets someone to pretend to be a rich buyer, possibly a ghoul confederate with appropriate body-warping magic. This rich buyer spreads the word that he's on the lookout for that book. Then Jack lets it slip to the protagonists that he knows where a copy can be found, for a price. Let bygones be bygones, says Jack; why let past troubles stand in the way of present success?

Jack steers to the protagonists to the copy, and lets them make the presentation to the client. Then, horror of horrors! The 'rich buyer' discovers it to be a forgery, and threatens to sue. This definitely counts as a Reversal in the shop's fortunes, if the protagonists let this go ahead.

Then Jack steps in again, and says he can make the problem go away, if the protagonists pay him. Sure enough, if the protagonists pay, the problem goes away - because there never was a problem in the first place. Jack may siphon a hundred pounds or more from the protagonists in this way, possibly even returning to blackmail the protagonists again if he thinks there's a chance.

Of course, if the protagonists show fight or don't pay, Jack steps up his game and starts using razors and menaces to get the money he feels is his rightful due.

That's enough for today. Many thanks again to all who voted! I'll treasure this.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Edom: Side Missions (Dracula Dossier, Night's Black Agents)

So you've bought the Dracula Dossier, and are hooked on the idea of running an Edom-centric campaign. Great!


'Hmmm,' thinks the cunning Director. 'I need to run some small-scale Edom-centric stuff before moving on to the main meat of the story. That way I can introduce the group to all the things Edom has to offer, before Dracula turns up and makes salsa out of the Dukes. That's a bit of a problem, because it needs to be small-scale otherwise characters and important NPCs are going to end up dead before the story arc payoff. Some of the adventures in The Edom Files could be useful here, but not all of them. What to do?'

Well, what you really need are some small scenario seeds that showcase parts of Edom you want to develop in more detail later in the campaign. If E Squadron's going to play a big part in the showdown, then you need to have a few story moments where the characters interact with E Squadron before anything story significant kicks off. Same goes for the researchers, the support staff, the Dukes and all the other peculiar things that go to make up Edom as a whole.

These scenario seeds needn't be very large. In fact it's best to think of them as the opening sequences in a Bond film, just after the iconic score kicks in but before the title sequence. The Bond people got away with a lot in those moments, up to and including killing Bond, which happened at least three times to my knowledge and I wouldn't be surprised if it was more often than that. Though they could be forgettable at times; if you'd told me ten minutes ago that the opening sequence to Goldfinger involved heroin flavored bananas I'd not have believed you. Thank heaven for YouTube, I guess?

So with that in mind I'm just going to focus on the Hook, the Main Scene, and the Thrilling Moment, which is broadly the pattern those Bond intros aimed for. In each instance I'll state which Duke or aspect of Edom this is meant to illustrate, which means this is best read with a copy of the Basic Field Manual handy.  

In play, don't sweat the details. By which I mean that this isn't meant as a series of mini scenarios. It's an introduction to a particular part of Edom that might not otherwise get screen time, which means attention needs to focus on Edom interactions. If this scene is meant to introduce the agents to the Archivist, then let it. Don't get bogged down in mechanical details; it's perfectly acceptable to montage most if not all of the elements between the Main Scene and the Thrilling Moment.

Let's go back to Goldfinger's Banana. That scene involves Infiltration, Hand to Hand (twice), Flirting, Explosive Devices, Sense Trouble, Athletics for the wall climb and probably Athletics again for the scuba dive. If all of those pools were depleted in this scene and then the adventure proper starts, the player's right to feel aggrieved, since the character starts at a disadvantage. Even if you decide that the Flirting is a 0 point spend, everything else is a General pool, and theoretically failure in say, Hand to Hand, Sense Trouble or Athletics results in Health loss, while failure in Explosive Devices could be very embarrassing. [Incidentally if anyone can explain why they needed several containers worth of nitro in the poppy growing facility I'd be delighted to hear it.]

So instead of using dice, let it be a montage sequence of automatic successes, except for the Thrilling Moment. Describe the situation, let the player describe how the characters get through the situation, and then move on. Which is probably how Bond ended up with a seagull on his head; it's a throwaway moment, not intended as a major plot point. Brief chuckle, then on with the show. For a reward, if a reward is needed, use the Achievement system, as follows:

My Name is Bond: When the player provides a colorful bit of roleplay or hot-dogging in the opening montage, the character gets an extra 1 point of experience at the end of the session.

The Thrilling Moment is a bit different. This is the point at which there is some tangible threat, and it shouldn't be montaged away. Admittedly the opposition are never any more threatening than mooks or low-power Renfields, but even so there's a chance of failure. Here's where point spends become relevant again, so spend away. In the Goldfinger scene, that final fight with the mook in the dancing girl's bedroom is the Thrilling Moment.

E Squadron: One of the Boys. Hook: E Squadron is on emergency scramble, objective a freighter delivering a suspected high-value target (Dracula?!? probably not, but you never know) to the UK. Agents are to accompany E Squadron, verify the target, retrieve if possible and eliminate if not. Ship's crew and any others on board considered expendable. Main Scene: on board the freighter (Axel Logistics?) in a firefight with mooks and Renfields. Thrilling moment: escaping the burning freighter before its highly explosive cargo goes off.

E Squadron: Publish and be Damned. Hook: A tell-all book is about to be published by 'a former Special Forces veteran' that allegedly dishes dirt on past Edom operations. Unlike other veterans turned novelist this one hasn't cleared any of his work with the DoD, and his (foreign) publisher is very cagy about his true identity. Current E Squadron members need to be screened to ensure none of them have contributed to the book or met with its author. Meanwhile someone needs to find out who this person is and whether the information is genuine. Main scene: confronting the author in his Spanish hideaway. Thrilling moment: breaking into the publishers.

Chain Home Deep / Operation Piper: BIP (Burglary in Process). Hook: one of the patients the Social Worker looks after has been burgled. Although it seems nothing has been taken, standard protocol says the incident needs to be investigated by Edom personnel, and this time the Social Worker's insisting standard procedure be followed. Main Scene: tracking down a half-demented patient through the streets at night, as the patient tries to find the criminals who broke into her apartment. Thrilling moment: a confrontation with the burglars, who may or may not have links with a low-level Conspyramid node.

Archivist: Provenance. Hook: a reclusive European collector of occult grimoires is about to sell some of his rarest items at Stockholms Auktionsverk, the oldest auction house in the world. The Archivist wants first look, hoping to secure some impossible curiosity, but the Archivist can't travel without bodyguards. God knows what would happen if Dracula's people got hold of him. Main Scene: the auction house at the height of the auction. Thrilling moment: avoiding capture by Conspiracy goons after the auction.

Serum Researcher: Biohazard. Hook: A European biopharma company claims to be about to make a breakthrough with a compound whose effects sound suspiciously like Seward Serum. The biopharma's results, and testing laboratory, need to be thoroughly investigated, and only the Researcher has the skills. Main Scene: infiltrating the research laboratory with the Researcher in tow. Thrilling Moment: dodging the laboratory's suspiciously well trained security.

Pathologist: Great Aunt Nelly. Hook: The pathologist is convinced, thanks to a spate of suspicious autopsy reports, that a police forensic pathologist has been turned and is helping cover up vampire activity. Main Scene: confrontation with the police pathologist in a SOCO lab, possibly involving a new-fledged feral vampire. Thrilling Moment: dodging or dealing with the vampire's criminal goons, all of whom have high Driving pools.

Logistical Support: First Class Lounge. Hook: While retreating from a bad situation, the agents turn to Logistical Support to get them out of a hostile foreign country. Main Scene: getting through an armed cordon to a military airbase where a transport plane is waiting, as Logistical Support advises best route. Thrilling Moment: Renfield sniper tries to take plane out on takeoff, by shooting the pilot.

Phlebotomist: Dead Man's Hand. Hook: Edom's captured a Renfield, and the Phlebotomist is called in to help with the interrogation/incarceration. Main Scene: in a dark, anonymous cellar with the Phlebotomist and the target. Thrilling Moment: the Renfield somehow breaks free and tries to escape, possibly through unorthodox means - rat swarm attack, mesmerism, or similar.

Duke Tyler: Silent Night. Hook: Each year the Metropolitan Police are honored with a carol service at Westminster Abbey, but this year Tyler wants help; a senior member of the Met may have fallen under Vampiric control, and Tyler wants this person checked out discreetly without arousing suspicion. Main Scene: surrounded by cops and carol singers at Westminster Abbey. Thrilling Moment: the senior member hasn't been subverted, but the spouse has, and unless the agents move quickly this person may escape.

Duke Tinman: Stitch in Time. Hook: An old friend of the Duke who stayed in the Middle East building houses and hospitals has been snatched and held for ransom by bandits, and Tinman needs help getting him back. Off the books, of course. Main Scene: covertly infiltrating the bandit stronghold.  Thrilling Moment: racing for the exfiltration site where Tinman waits with a chopper.

Duke Prince: Tiger Team. Hook: Prince wants the agents to pose as a security Tiger Team acting under her direction, the idea being to penetrate a suspect organization (possibly a subsidiary of one of the larger players, like Leutner Fabrichen) using the pretense of checking the organization's security. Prince will be in constant contact via VOIP and email. Main Scene: the hack, as the agents penetrate the company's systems. Thrilling Moment: escaping the facility before security shuts the place down.

Duke Pearl: What's Yours Is Mine. Hook: Edom's black bagger needs someone to cause a distraction while he, and possibly some or all of the agents depending on Infiltration pools, breaks into a facility in Dubai to steal a well-protected computer hard drive. Also a Degas painting, but Pearl doesn't think the agents need to know that. Main Scene: the CEO's office in a fully automated office complex, including robot security. Thrilling Moment: slipping through the streets of Dubai in top-end sportscars, with the facility's security in discreet pursuit. Nobody wants to get the police involved if they can help it.

Duke Osprey: Graduation Day. Hook: as Edom's best-connected Lamplighter Osprey is always on the lookout for new talent and thinks he has a candidate; a mathematical genius about to graduate Oxford. However the genius has a former lover who's threatened to dump revenge porn on the net, which would overcomplicate Osprey's chances of getting the candidate to cooperate. Main Scene: in the Sheldonian Theatre at graduation, confronting the lover. Thrilling Moment: dealing with a bunch of Oxford yahoos who think the agents are getting above their station.

Duke Oakes: Cleanup. Hook: Oakes needs a team to hot-foot to Berlin on clean-up duty after a SBA asset got a bit too enthusiastic taking out a target. Oakes wants to be on-hand for this one, as the SBA was supposed to retrieve some data from the target but never did. Main Scene: a blood-spattered crime scene at silly o'clock in the morning, before the cops show up. Thrilling Moment: dealing with an IED the target thoughtfully left behind, and which the SBA didn't bother to mention.

Duke Nails: Glorious 12th. Hook: A Saudi terror financier is meeting confederates in Brussels on the 12th August, and it's Nails' job to clear the path for the kill team. Nails needs reliable hands to make sure the cops and Belgian State Security stay as far away as possible. Main Scene: in the Grand Place / Central Square, surrounded by baroque buildings, as the kill team makes its move. Thrilling Moment: foiling a bunch of mercenary vampire hunters who want to terminate the SBA.

Duke Ian: Obbo. Hook: A high priority target is in the UK for a few days, and Ian needs a surveillance team to keep an eye on him the entire time. Main Scene: watching a meet between the target and one of the target's network (the Investigative Journalist, perhaps?) in a crowded public place, like the Tate Modern. Thrilling Moment: keeping the surveillance going as the target slips out of the Tate and tries to escape using three identical vehicles, each with a highly trained (8+ Driving) driver.

Duke Hound: Crashing the Party. Hook: A suspected SBA is active in Iraq, and allegedly attacked US troops aiding Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIL. Hound needs to sooth some ruffled feathers, but also wants to make sure first, that it was or was not an SBA, and second, that if it was the American Vampire Program doesn't get hold of it. Main Scene: infiltrating an alleged ISIL stronghold after a drone strike, to check the identity of the survivors. Thrilling Moment: discovering that the remains of the SBA have been eaten by dogs, who are now infected and roaming the bombed-out camp.

Duke Fort: Penny for the Guy. Hook: Fort has to burn down a particularly sensitive or difficult target, and wants to use November 5th as cover, pretending that the fire's been caused by faulty fireworks. The characters are tasked with keeping the targets busy while Fort does her work. Main Scene: In a burning building, just before the main charges go off. Thrilling Moment: keeping the targets in the building, ensuring they can't escape.

 Duke Elvis: Blabbermouth. Elvis thinks his current safe house and office in Belgrade is bugged. That's no surprise; the real question is, who's bugging it? The characters have to find out. Main Scene: In Elvis' office, sweeping it for bugs. Thrilling Moment: chasing down the spies, foreign nationals posing as aid workers who wanted to get information vital to a foreign vampire program, eg. China's Room 452.

That's it for now! Enjoy.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

You've Got To Hear This Podcast

I wouldn't usually post on a weekday nor would I use the time to big up a podcast, but this is one you have to listen to if you have any interest whatsoever in cinema: The Secret History of Hollywood. This is by far the single best podcast I have ever heard, in any genre, and I'm not at all surprised that Audible has picked it up.

So what is this glorious thing? Briefly, it's one man's descent into cinematic obsession. This gent's knowledge of early cinema history is exhaustive; if ever you wanted to know anything about anyone in Hollywood before, say, 1960, this is the place to learn about it.

Moreover it's well presented. Despite the wealth of detail, it's not overpowering. The presenter is a pleasure to listen to, and the flow from moment to moment is seamless. I'm indulging in A Universe of Horrors, an in-depth study of Universal Studio's great horror experiment in the 20s and 30s and, while I know a lot of this material already, it's a treat to have it all laid out like a movable audible feast.

One caveat, and it's a fairly significant caveat: Ye Gods, these things are long. Like transatlantic flying time long. Universe of Horrors is over 7 hours worth of audio. I'm flying to the UK later this year, which is usually a 7 to 8 hour journey; I could plug myself in as soon as I board the plane, and may still not have finished listening by the time it lands. There are three separate episodes on Alfred Hitchcock, for over 18 hours total. And there's more ... and more ... and more ...

Leaving aside the obvious, the length of the episodes poses a device storage problem. Usually a podcast is, maybe, a handful of MB. Not so here. If you're so foolish as to download more than one you're looking at several GB worth of data. That takes time to download as well as space. Some mobile devices may find that difficult to swallow.

But!! If you let that put you off, you're really missing out. I cannot praise this enough. If you're a cinephile, this is a must-listen. It may be a constant companion for a week or so per episode, depending on how you devour your podcasts. In fact the biggest problem may not be listening to this one, but in finding time to listen to all the other podcasts you'll be ignoring while working your way through Secret History.


Sunday, 24 July 2016

A Lonely Vigil: Safehouses and their Keepers (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

I recently picked up The Anonymous Spy's Espionage Dictionary, and found this definition:

Safehouse: A house or apartment used for clandestine meetings between case officer and agent ... The person who lives in the safehouse ... is called the safehouse keeper. He is usually paid for the use of the safehouse. The safehouse keeper is a kind of support asset.

Support Asset: An agent who provides services to support an agent or case officer but does not necessarily provide intelligence information. Support agents may be safehouse keepers, couriers, live drops, etc.

It occurred to me that, in game, Directors and players alike often treat safehouses as disposable one-shots, somewhere to rest your head for a few hours before going on to the next thrilling chase scene or shootout. But in doing so we miss a chance to have some fun. A safehouse has a separate existence, and its keeper has her own concerns.

The main book says that 'ideally, a safe house also has several inobvious exits and good lines of site. Some spy agencies maintain houses or apartments complete with deep-cover minders who ask no questions, but provide alibis and explanations to curious neighbors. Others use heavily-travelled (but private) rooms in establishments like brothels, rehab clinics, or seedy hotels, trusting their agents to fit the pattern of anonymous visitors.'

Depending on the circumstances, those heavily-travelled (but private) rooms can throw up unexpected complications. In Spielberg's movie Munich, for example, the Israeli kill team have to bed down with PLO terrorists thanks to the machinations of their French criminal contact Louis. But the truth is the agent never really knows what to expect from these clandestine low-rent safehouses. Anything could go wrong. Their belongings could be stolen, their vehicles hijacked, and if they're quite so incautious as to use the wifi, well ...

Then again, what's good for the spy is good for his vampire opponent too. The Dracula Dossier points out that Dracula has several safehouses in London, and it's a safe bet that London isn't the only place Vlad keeps safehouses. Moreover while Dracula can afford well-stocked and protected safehouses, his minions probably have to settle for those same seedy and well-travelled  hovels that the protagonists might use.

It's one thing to be a Mossad agent unexpectedly having to share a cigarette and sleeping quarters with the PLO, something else again for a vampire hunter to discover the rehab clinic she's hiding in for the night is temporarily inhabited by one of the bloodsuckers she's been hunting. Or Renfields. Or people smugglers working within the Conspiracy. Or ... but you get the point.

As Director you could switch this around and make the safehouse the focus of the story, perhaps even setting an entire mini-campaign around a group of safehouse keepers. After all, if Christopher Eccleston can do it, I see no reason why a player character shouldn't have a go. If the Director goes that route I'd recommend setting the safe house somewhere evocative and useful; Bucharest, say. It's doable in London, but doesn't quite have that same zing. There's a lot of merit in setting this safehouse, as with Eccleston's, in a remote rural or semi-rural area, for added isolation; but it could work just as well in an urban or suburban setting.

With all that in mind, let's kick around some example safehouses and their keepers, for use in an ongoing campaign. For each example I'm going to include the Ability that leads to this safehouse, and I'm going to start with the ones used only by the desperate, without the backing of a larger agency.

Military Science: This military base, first built back in the 1960s, had family housing on site that nobody uses any more. The cash just isn't there for maintenance, the roof leaks, and the electricity supply's wonky at best. However the right Cover and some judicious palm greasing gets you in, and you can stay so long as you don't draw attention to yourself.

History: You can get to the catacombs via this sewer outfall or abandoned building. As for what's down there, that's an open question; but martyrs, resistance fighters and revolutionaries have bedded down with the bones of saints ever since the catacombs were first dug. Not a bad place to hide a cache, either. Just don't expect power cables, sanitation or a decent wifi signal.

High Society: You know Selena? Well she's seeing Riff Raff right now so she's in the States. Or maybe the Bahamas. Anyway, she's not here, and that's the important thing. You can crash at her apartment for a few days. Just remember to feed the plants and if someone comes by asking about a cocaine stash, you don't know anything.

Occult Studies: This Parapsychological Society has been going since the 1890s, with minor interruptions during the World Wars, and keeps an apartment in its headquarters for visiting scholars. It's just above the library. Perfect for late night research, even if it feels incredibly lonely up there with nobody else around.

Streetwise: The local mafia uses this love hotel as a drop-off for people and narcotics smugglers; it's very conveniently placed, so close to the border and to rail and road networks. It's within an hour's drive of the ocean too, perfect for that last-ditch escape across the Channel. Normally you're only allowed to stay for three hours maximum, but with your Streetwise you know the code the mafia uses to allow their people to stay longer. Don't stay too long, though; the neighbors aren't that pleasant, and if you overstay there's a good chance the mafia will turn up to ask who's hogging the safehouse.

On that note, a very brief list of Unusual Hotels: Transylvanian Castles courtesy of the Kálnoky Estate, complete with walks in the countryside and an exploration of Transylvanian life.  H2tel Rotterdam, a floating hotel in the heart of the city. Shakespeare & Co in Paris offers a Tumbleweed program where people can stay in the bookstore on very easy terms, and it's probably not the only independent bookstore in Europe to do so. Or for the adventurous seafaring soul, a trio of Napoleonic sea forts in the Solent. However as this isn't a travel blog, let's move on.

Tradecraft: When the Cold War was still a thing, these canal boats were often used by spies as temporary lodging; nobody gives them a second look, and people come and go all the time. The old signal used to be a boat sticker marred in a particular way; look for one of those and, if you can find one, that means the owner's agreeable to letting his boat be used as a meeting place, if you know the sign and countersign.

Urban Survival: There's a bunch of trust fund anarchists living in a squat in a pretty decent part of town. So long as you can spout a few political slogans and have plenty of weed you could stay there a few days, and nobody will ask questions.  

OK, so those are some potential safehouse ideas for the spy on the run. But say you're running an Edom campaign, or that for whatever reason your group hasn't been burnt yet by its home agency. In that event the safehouses are going to be less risky, and have their own keepers.

So what's a safehouse keeper like? Well, it's someone who the home agency deems 100% reliable, for whatever reason. This probably means that the keeper has strong ties with the home agency's country or, better yet, the home agency's government. However this doesn't mean the keeper's trusted with Top Secret intel. Far from it; the keeper's purpose is to provide a safe, quiet environment, not to play at being Jason Bourne. The keeper probably has Tradecraft and may also have ancillary skills like Electronic Surveillance and Notice. That way the keeper can work out when people have been sneaking around the safehouse, and conduct a basic sweep for electronic listening devices. Given that part of the keeper's duties is to keep the neighbors from asking questions, the keeper probably also has Flattery, Reassurance and similar interpersonal abilities.

That said, the keeper isn't a spy, nor should she be treated as a spy.  She's not a crack shot, or some kind of low-rent ninja. The best way to design one is to pick an already existing template, like Civilian, and add the necessary Abilities to upgrade her. Director's discretion as to the template, but it's unlikely that a former Spec Ops badass is going to settle into the relatively sedentary life of a safehouse keeper. A former cop, on the other hand, is perfectly reasonable.

Moreover the keeper's cover is long term, and mustn't be blown. If the agents leave corpses on the lawn, that's bound to attract comment. Equally if they use her wifi signal to host a hack of the host government's computers, and that hack is traced back to the safehouse, there will be repercussions. The whole point of the safehouse is anonymity; if the agents break that anonymity the home agency will not be pleased.

With all that in mind, consider the following Edom safehouse in Bucharest:

Edom maintains an apartment in Lipscani/Old Town. This section of Bucharest was long neglected; its beautiful businesses and houses were owned by the bourgeois, and after the Communists cleansed the place few wanted to move into the vacant buildings. For decades the only people willing to live there were gypsies, many of whom still live in the Old Town. In the early 2000s Lipscani changed from a run-down slum to a trendy, youth-oriented entertainment zone, making it more attractive to development. Too attractive, some would say. The rush to build and flagrant disrespect for the law contributed to, among other things, a disastrous fire at Club Collectiv which killed 27 and injured many more. The lack of maintenance and the ever-present threat of earthquakes means that many of the older buildings here have the Red Disc sign, indicating that the structure is at risk of collapse.

The keeper is Charlotte Nickel, one of the City of London's Masters of the Universe who moved into government work. Officially she's liaising with the Romanian Government; perhaps she's an economic advisor, a lobbyist for an NGO charity like Heal the Children, or a science advisor of some kind. However she's been on MI6's books for over a decade now, ever since she took a job in Dubai and agreed to pass on information to a Cambridge school friend working for the intelligence services. As far as Charlotte's concerned she's still working with MI6; she doesn't know anything about Edom. However Edom took her on board thanks to her mother's Romanian background. Charlotte's grandfather was a refugee who escaped the country after the abdication of King Michael I during the Communist takeover. That's why she wanted to move to Romania in the first place, and Edom smoothed the way for her.

Charlotte gets a regular stipend from Edom that more than covers the rent on this third floor Red Disc apartment, which overlooks Boulevard Brătianu. It has a balcony as well as a roof terrace, and is within walking distance of several popular nightspots. The apartment has all the mod cons and wifi, as well as a somewhat creaky elevator. 

Charlotte: Electronic Surveillance, Notice, Reassurance, Tradecraft; Civilian template, with personal defense training and Alertness Modifier 0.

That's it from me! Enjoy.