Sunday, 12 July 2020

Getting Ideas (RPG General)

A short while ago I gave an interview to YSDC about my experiences with Bookhounds of London. You may have heard it by now - I hope you enjoyed it!

I talked about my scenario writing methods, and I figure now is as good a time as any to deep-dive. In the interview I said I go to my research library, dig out a likely-looking tome, and see what I can borrow from it. Some of you may wonder how to build a library like that. Well, the answer's simple enough. In any library there are going to be some core texts and some useful but not vital ones, and the core texts will vary depending on what you want to achieve.

A lot of my work delves into the fantastic and mystical, so my core texts are:

Standard Dictionary of Folklore and Legend, Funk & Wagnalls. It's a little on the dusty side. My copy's the 1984 version, but it was originally compiled in the 40s and 50s and some of its language choices reflect that. However there's nothing else quite like it out there, so until someone does a better job I'll stick with it.

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, 1989, Hamlyn Publishing. Again, a little on the dusty side but thankfully much better organized than Funk & Wagnalls.

The Lore of the Land, a Guide to England's Legends, Westwood & Simpson, Penguin, 2006. Much less dusty, and reasonably well organized.

Past Worlds, the Times Atlas of Archaeology, 1993 Times Books. Again, a little dusty but there's so much here for the amateur, and it's explained clearly.

That provides a decent basis. What follows next depends on what I'm working on. I tend to do a lot of work in settings closely aligned to the UK and US circa 1920, so I've got things like Jimmy Durante's book on Nighclubs cheek by jowl with Mayhew's compendium of London Underworld lore. If I had a good research library close by I'd rely on that, but I don't, so I collect the things I need whenever I can get them.

This involves a lot of second-hand bookshopping, as well as regular visits to the National Trust jumble sale.

A quick word about our local National Trust. It looks after historic sites, maintaining them as best it can. To do this it needs a constant influx of money, and one of its charitable exercises is its yearly auction & jumble sale, which includes a decent book collection. The Trust takes in donations, and sells them to whoever will buy. Anything not sold is thrown away, so I try to rescue what I can. Yes, I said thrown away. It's a small island. Nobody has warehouse space, least of all the National Trust.

You can sometimes find some very odd things in those sales. I'm going to base the rest of this post on an item found in the last rummage: Bohemian and Social Life in Paris (Salons, Cafes, Studios) by Sisley Huddleston, Harrap & Co, 1928. It talks about Paris in the 1920s, with a heavy dash of pre-war and 1890s Paris to leaven the loaf. Huddleston first went to France to edit a British army newspaper, later settling in Paris and eventually Normandy. He's also written a book about Normandy which I wouldn't mind getting hold of; it sounds interesting. He turned Vichy during the Second World War and was briefly imprisoned by the Free French.

Point being with this and many of the books I pick up: it's a period piece. Sisley talks about things that were important to him and his at the time, because he was there at the time. It's the closest thing to a primary source that I'm going to get.

The pieces I'll quote now come from the opening chapters:

Or that other Chicago merchant who not only collected pictures by old masters, but dabbled himself in painting. (I have known a number of men and women who have come to Paris after a strenuous life of business and who in a spirit of emulation have suddenly decided to become artists.) My friend was looking at his collection. He was attracted by a certain picture.

"That," said he, "is almost like a Corot. Why, it must be a Corot. And yet it cannot be a Corot. How curious! There is much in it that reminds me of Corot, but then again - no, it cannot be."

"You are right," was the response. "it is a Corot. Only, I have just touched up the sky a little."

Or this piece about nightly entertainments.

Again, at Montmartre the party is shown a 'cabaret' which is also the 'private property of _________.' Needless to say the cabaret is not open except for the express purpose of this visit. The chansonniers are specially hired. The men wear long, flaxen wigs, baggy trousers, flowing neckties; and the girls wear red aprons, and their false hair is arranged in a golden casque. These things are expected, and they are supplied. 

Still, it was just as bad before the War, when the Tournee des Grand-Ducs was in vogue. The Russians - whether Grand Dukes or not - and the rest were conducted to faked apache dens. There were red-aproned, golden-casqued girls, and the sinister looking Apache with caps drawn over their eyes. In the course of the dancing a quarrel would break out. A duel with knives would be fought. The Grand Dukes had their money's worth of thrills, and then the girls took off their aprons and the men donned respectable hats and went quietly home to bed.

The obvious use for these snippets is a Paris-based game, so Dreamhounds of Paris, or perhaps King In Yellow. If I was working on either of these settings I'd probably turn to a source like Sisley for inspiration. However there's no reason why I should restrict myself to Paris. These are ideas; ideas can be used anywhere.

So what's at the core of both these ideas?

  1. An overweening rich man with artistic ambitions ruins an original by touching it up, pretending to more skill than he actually has. 
    1. Imagine being the expert who has to judge whether that really is a Corot, a question that could mean millions. A genuine masterpiece - or a fake? 
  2. A fake Paris is more valuable than the real thing, at least to tourists. 'These things are expected, and they are supplied' - now there's a sentence!
Let's take these ideas to Eversink and play with them there.

Swords of the Serpentine is a fantasy setting in which the glittering jewel that is the city of Eversink is everyone's goal. If you're rich, that's where you want to be - to flaunt your wealth. Tourists flock there every year, eager to see the latest, the best, the craziest thing Eversink has to offer.

So let's talk story ideas.

A Caprian trader whose wealth comes from alchemical supplies sales (though she doesn't practice alchemy herself) comes to Eversink and, within months, establishes herself as a society doyenne. She has money to burn and wants above all else to acquire that veneer of sophistication that can only come with being a big noise in Eversink.

As part of this self-improvement scheme she dabbles in art and purchases several great works, prizing above all else the landscapes painted by Leonine D'Quinto, a renowned painter of Eversink's glories as they were several hundred years ago. As the trader fancies herself a genius in her own right, she touches up her purchases to better fit her own artistic vision.

This angers the ghost of the great D'Quinto, who goes looking for someone to help him take revenge on this philistine trader. Enter the heroes.

Twist - ghost of D'Quinto? Not hardly. D'Quinto's statue still graces the mansion it was placed in, though that long-abandoned manse is sinking away. No, the ghost is actually forger Gino Boniface who took great pride in his ability to capture D'Quinto's style. The last thing Gino wants is for some sniveling parvenu to ruin the forgeries he took such care to make.

Perilous Opinion
[Either one of the heroes possesses the necessary ability/reputation to value art, or they are hired as bodyguards by one who does.]

A Caprian trader and collector of D'Quinto masterpieces wishes to show off her collection in a specially built gallery, but there is some question as to the art's provenance. In order to bolster her collection's reputation she brings in a proven D'Quinto expert to show Eversink that her collection is not only genuine but the most magnificent collection of D'Quintos ever established in one place.

Problems arise when the expert discovers that the trader has been adding her own personal touches to the D'Quintos. Specifically, she has been adding herself to each crowd scene. It's moderately subtle, but it's there, and each time she does it she drastically devalues the D'Quintos.

The expert ought by rights to expose this fraud. However the trader is backed by the Thieves' Guild and is too valuable to them to be insulted by an art expert. If the expert is to speak freely, he will need protection. Enter the heroes.

Mysteries of Temple Market
Temple Market is known for its high-end restaurants and its mysterious mansions. One daring entrepreneur intends to capitalize on both, and operates the latest sensation: The Lady.

The Lady offers a dining experience. Located in the basement of one of the Market's more obscure mansions, it capitalizes on a near-forgotten murder that took place there two generations prior. Each night at the Lady they recreate the fateful night, and ask patrons to decide who, of the pool of suspects, murdered Eliana Vespacci, newly wedded bride of the Vespacci heir. The family bitterly object to this ruthless monetization of their tragedy, but lack the resources to oppose the Lady directly.

Indirectly, though ... perhaps some money-grubbing heroes could be persuaded to break up the Lady.


Sunday, 5 July 2020

Lies, Damn Lies, and Missing Billions (Night's Black Agents)

This week's post is based on two versions of fraud, as outlined here:

This video about the recent Wirecard scandal is from Tom Nash.

This video about money laundering via casinos, particularly in Macau, is from Economies Explained.

The Wirecard fraud is deceptively simple. It is alleged that the top brass at Wirecard lied about their source of income. About $2 billion on their books had no basis in reality. The bank accounts where the money was held didn't exist, neither did their so-called business partners. So far, so Enron, but the part I especially like is at 12.22, where the hack-for-hire group Dark Basin enters the picture. According to the video, Dark Basin swiped journalists' emails (among many other things) and posted them, carefully edited, publicly on a leaks website. The intent was to make it look as if those journalists were blackguarding Wirecard to benefit short sellers of Wirecard stock - turning an accounting scandal into an insider trading scandal.

What puzzles me are the actions of the regulator and auditor, both of which did their best to enable Wirecard. Which isn't completely unheard of - auditors and regulators can be dazzled by massive profits and smiling, spreadsheet-wielding execs. It's just so bizarre that it's Germany's regulator doing it, that it's EY - Ernst and frocking Young - caught in the middle. The Germans are the original Sober Business Brains. How did they get it so wrong? EY ought to have learned from its dealings with Lehmans - but I suppose the idea of an auditor learning from its mistakes is a bit utopian sci-fi.

The Economies Explained video details what, on its face, is also a simple fraud. China wants its money kept in China. That's why it doesn't allow tourists to leave the country with more than a paltry sum. So Chinese billionaires buy travel packages to Macau for ludicrously expensive prices, which include an eye-watering sum in poker chips. The gamblers play a little at the tables, maybe they win, maybe they lose. It doesn't matter, because when they stop they still have most of their chips, which they then exchange for US$. Bingo, cash smuggled out of China.

Incidentally if you're a long-term reader then you'll remember an important point about those travel agencies: they're Triads. They operate what amounts to a loan sharking service masquerading as a travel agency. Debts don't cross borders, and it's impossible for a Macau casino to collect on gambling losses when the gamblers are tucked away in China. Macau's Triads cooperate with mainland Triads to recover debts that would otherwise vanish along with the debtor. However in this instance what's happening is the Triad travel agency stands in the middle as a kind of financial broker, no doubt collecting a very nice commission for letting Chinese billionaires change their Renminbi for dollars.

What does all this mean for Night's Black Agents?

Well for one thing it puts the bagman in a whole new light. Traditionally that lonely figure is imagined as a sneak with a briefcase full of cash, shuttling from one mysterious rendezvous to another. Sure, maybe in the 1970s, or when the amounts concerned can be counted in the thousands - chicken feed, really.  But in this happy-go-lucky modern world in which we live billions are in play and electronic currency is the order of the day, which means a bagman is much more likely to be sat behind a computer as creeping across the border. In the main book Data Recovery is listed as an alternate investigative ability; I'd be inclined to make it a starting ability, with Intimidation as the alternate. I'd also be inclined to swap the Digital Intrusion and Sense Trouble starting loadout, so Digital Intrusion starts at 6 and Sense Trouble at 3.

For another it gives us several new potential plots and Nodes. Dark Basin alone is a Node unto itself, potentially a freelance one at that. Not officially part of the Conspiracy, but brought in for dirty tricks campaigns and discarded as expendables. Maybe it ranks at the International level, given its reach, but its resources are paltry.

Operating from a small room above a shuttered tea stall at a west-Delhi retail complex, BellTroX bombarded its targets with tens of thousands of malicious emails, according to data reviewed by Reuters. Some messages would imitate colleagues or relatives; others posed as Facebook login requests or graphic notifications to unsubscribe from pornography websites. 

Just the sort of thing you want on your work machine. In a spy thriller the agents often have to infiltrate heavily-armed compounds to get what they're after. Imagine breaking into a stuffy little office above a decommissioned tea stall. It's a pretty good excuse to dig out Looking Glass Mumbai, at that.

Closing out, let's have a story seed.

A Three Hour Tour

A Macau Triad boss, Tong Sang-koi, is on the run. Tong, formerly a big noise in the 14K Triad, ran a travel agency at the Casino Babylon where until recently he regularly sold incredibly expensive tour packages to mainland Chinese gamblers. However something went wrong, and nobody's entirely sure what - at least, nobody outside the insular world of Macau organized crime. China wants Tong badly, and if that wasn't bad enough the CIA would also like a quiet word with the former 14K big shot. The investigators pick up on this when gossip suggests that Tong was attempting to sell important vampire-related intel to China's Room 452. Nobody knows where Tong is now, but everybody wants his data.

Not just his data. Digging a little deeper (Streetwise, Tradecraft or similar) discovers that Tong went missing shortly after a Chinese high-roller bought one of his $100 million special packages. This high-roller, Robin Yonghau, was later found insensible in his Macau hotel room with no coherent explanation for his condition. Nobody knows where the $100 million went either.

The investigators will need to find out where Tong Sang-koi is, what's his connection with Room 452, and what Robin Yonghau has to do with any of this. This will mean going to Macau in the first instance, but Tong could easily have run to pretty much anywhere after that, so if as Director you'd prefer to reset the action to, say, Vancouver, feel free.

Possible answers:

  • Tong Sang-koi found himself in the middle of a dangerous deal. The Conspiracy wanted to move a billion dollars out of China and found itself a willing mule, Robin Yonghau. Tong discovered the vampire connection, and as luck would have it knew enough about vampires to have means of contacting Room 452. However the USA's Find Forever got wind of it, and muscled in at the 11th hour to snatch the prize - one Chinese Jin-Gui, acting as Robin Yonghai's controller. Things got messy, the Jin-Gui got dusted, and nobody but Tong knows where the money went. That paints a very bright and glowing target on Tong's back, so he's keeping his head as far down as possible.
  • Tong Sang-koi is a CIA asset. The CIA put the bite on him back in 2009, when he tried to relocate his ill-gotten gains outside of Macau. Ever since the CIA has been using him to monitor Chinese organized crime, and to encourage Chinese billionaires to relocate their cash out of China. After all, every Renminbi that leaves via Macau is a Renminbi the Chinese government can't use to prop up its economy. However Tong got tired of this arrangement and wanted out, so he made a deal with the Conspiracy: if I help you get $100 million, get me out of this. The Conspiracy obliged ... but it's an open question as to whether Tong Sang-koi is living the high life or down at the bottom of the harbour.
  • Tong Sang-koi is a Chinese asset. He let himself be 'recruited' by the CIA so he could feed false intel to the Americans, but he's been working with Room 452. The Chinese want to get their hands on the CIA's home-grown vampire, so they dangled a very tempting $100 million target knowing that in order to grab it the CIA would deploy its prize possession. It did, Room 452 moved in - and then things went South. Nobody's sure where the money went, where Tong is, and most importantly where the American Vampire ended up. Was this all an elaborate bluff somehow orchestrated by the American Vampire to escape with $100 million in stolen, untraceable cash?

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Rockers, Spies and MICE - Flipping Vampires (Night's Black Agents)

This week's post is inspired by a Guardian article about the use of musicians and artists to shred the Iron Curtain.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. US government agencies - basically, the CIA - backed ideologically useful artists, singers, performers, and sent them across the Iron Curtain to boogie for their country. The idea being that if the enemy saw how wonderful freedom was, they'd stop being the enemy. Even when, as was the case with Satchmo, the artist in question faced significant restraints at home, they were expected to perform to order abroad. Except, as with Satchmo, they sometimes didn't; the celebrated jazz singer refused to do as he was told until Roosevelt mobilized the army to enforce anti-segregation laws.

So far, so Radio Free Europe. Let's talk about MICE.

Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego. These are the factors that flip assets. If you want someone's cooperation you appeal to at least one of those drivers. Compromise is perhaps the trickiest, as it can range from blackmail to revenge, but they're all straightforward human impulses, played on like a violin.

Human, yes - but vampires were human too, once upon a time, prey to all the ills flesh is heir to.

In Night's Black Agents the characters will frequently want to turn the Conspiracy against itself. Take one Node, play on its baser impulses, and get it to smack one of its neighboring Nodes until its chimes ring like Big Ben. After all they're vampires, not zombies - they have free will, and anything with free will can be subverted. Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego - and no prizes for guessing that Ego plays a big part in the vampire psyche.

You think to baffle me, you with your pale faces all in a row, like sheep in a butcher's. [now there's a dated reference. How many of you reading this have even seen a butcher's shop, much less sheep's heads for sale?] You shall be sorry yet, each one of you! You think you have left me without a place to rest, but I have more. My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side.

Cultural espionage shows up in at least two Dracula Dossier scenarios, both in the Edom Files: Blood Coda, in which the action revolves around a Russian ballet troupe sent to London to dazzle capitalism, and Day of the Wehrwolf, where the agents encounter terrorists bent on blowing up Radio Free Europe. In each scenario cultural espionage is a background against which the main action takes place; nobody expects the agents to engage directly with ballet as an art form used to influence the West. However it can be a lot of fun to play with cultural espionage, as a form of gameplay.

Let's say the agents have a particular asset in mind. They've taken the trouble to know this asset inside and out. They're confident they have their fingers on the pulse, metaphorically speaking. They want to make the asset theirs, or at least influence the asset in a certain direction. But how to make the move? Just going in with guns and attitude escalates the problem. The soft approach is called for.

Show me the vampire who can resist a star. It's a huge ego-boost, particularly for those low on the Conspiracy's org chart. If you're in Dracula's clique then you know whatever you do for the rest of your unlife you will be second banana. If you're lucky. Did you command armies? Were you feared throughout Europe? Did the townsfolk not dare to speak your name aloud? That's great. No, really, super. Here's a scrub brush. There are toilets that need cleaning.

Now put a celebrity in the mix. Someone with fame, talent, charisma. Someone who's much more, well, likeable than you will ever be. Then imagine what happens when that celebrity finds you the most interesting thing on Earth - or performs just for you.

When Money won't work, when Ideology's a non-starter, the smart agent leans heavily on Compromise and Ego. All wrapped up in a pretty package, with charming smile to match.

The Wedding Singer

This story seed is nominally set in Monaco, but can easily be changed to a different location.

A celebrated Russian Mafia boss has arranged it so his daughter will have the ultimate private show - a concert in her honor at the Monaco Yacht Club. Invites are out, and this is very much by invitation only. If you don't have Streetwise or High Society sufficient to impress the higher-ups, you aren't getting in.

However the agents know that a very important figure within the Conspiracy is keen to get in. The performer is someone that Conspiracy bigwig rates very highly. They'd do, well, anything to get closer. Perhaps a quiet back-room conference - a quick bite, maybe?

In this seed the agents have two challenges. First, they have to get into that performance. They can't blunt-force this Infiltration. Monaco's much too high profile for stick-on comedy moustaches and a bit of the old Peter Sellers.  Force will be met with brutal retribution. Monaco's the most highly policed location on the planet, with cops and soldiers aplenty available at a moment's notice. With all those cameras watching everyone's least move it will literally need only a moment before Heat becomes unbearable. However they get in, it will need to be ironclad.

Second, they need to make a Network contact of that celebrity. Ideally this isn't just a point spend; you don't want the players thinking they can buy Beyoncé with X number of Network points. The agents will need some kind of leverage - which brings us back to MICE. Again, Ego is probably the most useful leverage but don't forget the power of Money. After all, Money bought Jackson Pollock. The rulebook calls it Excessive Funds for a reason. Given the Monaco setting this might be a fun time for some Gambling challenges to rack up funds. Perhaps the agents get the celebrity's cooperation through some strategic baccarat, in much the same way Sean Connery gets Sylva Trench's attention in the opening scenes of Doctor No.

All of which leads up to that psychological moment. Celebrity meets Vampire. At which point the agents presumably play their ace and flip that asset. Or not. Then, as with every con game, there is the blow-off, as the agents exfiltrate without arousing suspicion. Cackle bladder optional.

Mind you if it all goes wrong and Beyoncé ends up one of the Conspiracy's converted it shall be an interesting after-mission briefing with Edom (or whoever's paying the bills). The agents will be lucky if they escape with a written reprimand in their case file ... 


Sunday, 21 June 2020

Locked Room Mysteries (GUMSHOE Any)

I recently watched a film I'd really wanted to see and came away dissatisfied. I shan't say which one, as this post might constitute spoilers. I'll just say CSI KYC and leave it at that, on the supposition that if you get the joke you've already seen the film and so spoilers mean nothing to you.

Part of my dissatisfaction is because it sets up a locked room mystery and then betrays the trope. The classic locked room is the Mary Celeste of mysteries. It sets up a situation that ought to be impossible, and then shows you not just that it's possible but takes you through the working until you see all the clues you missed along the way. It's called locked room because the classic example is the corpse found sealed away in a locked room, whose death seems inexplicable. Edgar Allen Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue is the original version, but there have been countless others since.

There have been a few real-life examples. The 2010 death of MI6 operative Gareth Williams, found padlocked inside a bag in his London apartment, is one. Williams, who might have been investigating Russian financial crime at the time of his death, went on leave and never came back. Nobody noticed he'd gone missing until his employers thought to make a welfare check, which is when his corpse was discovered. It's thought he went into the bag alive and the Metropolitan Police concluded his death was probably an accident, a sex game gone wrong. As a means of disposing of a body locking it inside a sports bag and leaving it in the flat seems unnecessarily theatrical, almost amateurish, especially if a professional espionage agency was involved. You'd think it'd be simpler to dump the bag in the Thames with weights wrapped round it. It's that Mary Celeste touch again - cups of coffee found still warm in the wardroom, everything apparently normal except there's no crew aboard.

The thing about a locked room is, it's never impossible. It's a puzzle box, and there's always a way to solve a puzzle box. The key is to disbelieve what's in front of you. The minute someone says 'judging by blood splatter, the only way it could have happened is ...' you know for a fact that, whatever else happened, the so-called only way is precisely how it didn't happen. A locked room works on magician's rules, and a magician's favorite trick is misdirection.

So if a corpse turns up in a burnt-out garage, for example, and dental records show that the corpse is Mister Bob Bingo who owed everyone a ton of money, then your first job is to look at those dental records and see if they're fake. Trust nothing, check everything.

As it's a puzzle the emotional satisfaction comes from solving the puzzle, and if the thing's badly designed or if the author cheats their way to a solution then the fun's lost.

Example from CSI KYC: at one point a poison's described as being lethal inside ten minutes. The characters go to a great deal of trouble to establish this. Then in another scene the same dose takes two hours, and even then the victim isn't dead. Which is it? 

In game, how would this work?

Remember this: once you introduce magic, or super-powers, or whatever it may be, the puzzle stops being a puzzle. The audience - the players - will assume magic did it. The problem switches from 'how does the puzzle work' to 'how do I show the solution isn't magic?' At which point you've probably lost the most important battle: capturing the audience's attention. 

So set the puzzle up in such a way that magic isn't the first or obvious answer. Maybe this is a Mutant City Blues game in which the necessary mutant abilities don't fit well into the Quade Diagram, or perhaps this happened during the day when vampires are powerless. Something quick, simple and obvious, so you can get on with the plot. This is why abilities like Night's Black Agents Vampirology are so useful, because one point spend will tell the agents 'a vampire couldn't have done it, at least not the way it was done,' without the Director jumping through hoops to show it wasn't vampire magic.

The best way to design a puzzle like this is to start with the solution and work backward. If you know who did it and how they did it then you should be able to come up with clues that show as much. Always remember this is a puzzle, and puzzles can be about anything. It doesn't have to be murder. It can be 'how did a virus get onto the system when it's not connected to the internet?" Or 'how did that burglar get into this hidden safe?'

Let's play with an example. Assume the setting is Night's Black Agents, modern day, so we're talking every conceivable current technology. Let's further assume that the crime takes place in an area patrolled by security robots which ought to have detected the intruder but did not. It doesn't matter what the crime is. The puzzle is how whoever did it foozled the security robots so they weren't detected carrying out the crime.

The software that operates the robots and monitors their activity reports no anomalies at the time of the crime. The incident reports show only that there was a brief interruption in patrol when a human employee fell ill. The robot stopped to monitor the situation and summoned a security guard, who confirmed that the person suffered a bad reaction to allergy meds. The sick person was escorted away and treated. 

The hardware that runs the show is not connected to the internet or the outside world. It's a purely internal network whose sole purpose is to run the building. It does everything from monitor the security robots to adjust the HVAC and make sure the goldfish tank in the exec suite is operating smoothly. Employees are expressly forbidden from attaching their own devices to the network, or using company property like laptops outside the building. There's no indication (via internal monitoring) that anyone did connect an outside device to the network, whether on the day or at any time in the past. So there should be zero chance of a virus corrupting the system. The hardware is in a security room down on the ground floor that is constantly monitored by cameras, sensors and human security personnel. 

So how was it done?

A virus was introduced into the system that prevented the security robots from detecting the intruder, or anyone at all, after a certain point. The target room and the corridors immediately around that room became invisible zones; the security robots could not see humans while they were in those zones. The agents may become aware of this when they realize that the robots did not detect the CEO even when he was in an area where he ought to be detected. He was working late on a big project, which is why he was in the building. 

How was the virus introduced? By our old friend the fish tank. 

The thermostat was recently replaced on the CFO's authority. That thermostat was the Trojan Horse which introduced the virus to the system. The CFO is the employee who had the bad reaction to allergy meds, which coincidentally enough happened at about the same time as the incident. The CFO doesn't remember authorizing the thermostat switch.

The CFO didn't authorize the switch; her secretary did. Turns out the CFO was poisoned by her secretary to create a diversion so the secretary could carry out the crime. While security and the robots were diverted the secretary got into the invisible area. She used 'I'm going to get your meds' as an excuse to leave the CFO's side and carry out the crime. The whole thing took five minutes.

So how would you do it?


Sunday, 14 June 2020

A Million Dollar Trouper (Night's Black Agents)

This week's post is inspired by a recent Guardian news article about the antics and jolly japeries of the Barclay family.

The brief version is this: concerned that their uncle Sir Frederick was blabbing just a little too freely about the family's business interests, and in particular about the sale of London's Ritz Hotel to Qatari businessman Abdulhadi Mana al-Hajri, the younger generation bugged the Hotel's conservatory to listen in on Sir Frederick's business conversations. Sir Frederick's version is that he had buyers lined up prepared to pay over a billion pounds for London's most famous hotel, as discussed in those recorded conversations. The Ritz sold for much less than that. The implication is that the younger generation, which has control over the family's complicated financial structure, sabotaged his attempts to get a better price. The younger generation seems to think Sir Frederick is talking a load of old cock to leverage his way into a bigger payout.

Truly, the rich are different from you and me.

For those of you wondering 'haven't I heard the phrase Barclay Brothers before,' Sir Frederick is one of the two billionaire Barclay twins who, like Colossi, bestride the British financial world while petty men walk about under their huge ... well, that's enough of that. They're the ones attempting to take over Sark's feudal government, who've fiddl ... managed their taxes for years by claiming residence in Monaco (for health reasons, claims Sir Frederick), and who made sure the Ritz paid no corporation tax in the UK for 17 years. In short, wealthy weasels.

It's not entirely clear why the younger Barclays would deliberately sabotage a business deal that would earn them more money. Were I writing this as fiction, one possibility occurs: the deal wouldn't earn the business more money, but the buyer would sling a big fat financial inducement to the person who swung the deal. Sir Frederick, not having any direct say in the family's financial affairs, wouldn't benefit directly from a business deal, beyond the usual, but hankers after that big fat financial inducement. Hence those business meetings at the Ritz. As the family network wasn't getting any more cash no matter who bought it, the younger generation might be perfectly happy kicking old uncle Freddie in the statisticals if it meant a) he wouldn't get the B.F.F.I., and b) he'd keep out of the family's business in future. Game of Thrones, really, but with lawyers and bribes rather than stabbing and bribes.

However it did make me think about Night's Black Agents, and Nodes.

One typical version of the National or International level Node is the Corporation, or the Wealthy/Influential Individual. In Dracula Dossier terms, Klopstock & Billreuth, Bankers, or the Petroleum Executive.  These are the entities or people who can get things done, who by virtue of their own power/authority can affect and even direct the policies of small countries or nations. They have outposts in several different places, and luxurious homes in other places - Monaco, say. Often they're treated as monolithic or singular entities, but every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Far from being singular, the Petroleum Executive, say, will have a flock of hangers-on, employees, family. Klopstock & Billreuth, having more working parts, will have an even larger flock.

These people will notice if the Node does something out of character, say because it's being influenced by outside powers. The Conspiracy doesn't care about balance sheets so it might order the higher-ups at K&B to do something that doesn't benefit the bank but does benefit the Conspiracy. Or it might tell the Petroleum Executive to falsify reports on prospective oil fields. The people close to them, but not directly touched by the Conspiracy, will notice this. They may try to do something about it. Like the younger Barclays, they may get very reckless. They may plant bugs, or hire people to plant bugs for them. Put surveillance on mobile phones, track the company car with GPS - all the kind of things that sound or look cool in a TV show but often end up in court in real life, possibly with substantial damages attached. As happened to the younger Barclays.

With that in mind:

Niko, My Cousin

The agents become aware (High Society, Law, possibly Cop Talk or via a contact like the Journalist) that a scandal is about to break. Someone attached to a suspected Node has been caught planting surveillance equipment in the Node's luxury Monaco townhouse. Apparently this has been going on for at least a few months, but it only recently came to light when that someone - Nic Bellic, the Serbian fiancée of the Node's son/daughter - was caught replacing one of the bugs.

According to Nic, the intent was to protect the fiancée from the Node's questionable business dealings. Apparently the trust fund was being drained, for reasons Nic doesn't fully understand. Nic thinks it has something to do with the Node's business partners, but isn't sure of the details.

Currently Nic is under lock and key in one of Monaco's high-end hotels. Lawyers are said to be circling, and the fiancée is dithering between the Node and Nic.

The Agents will want Nic's data. So does the Conspiracy. The question is, where is it? Does Nic have it in the hotel room? Is it in Nic's lawyers' safe? Does the fiancée have it?

The Conspiracy will also want to silence everyone involved, but in Monaco that's a tall order. The recorded murder rate has been 0% per 100,000 people since 2007. Even in 2001, the high-water mark, the murder rate was 3% per 100,000. There are more police per capita here than anywhere else on the planet, and cameras all over every street, public place, and high-end hotel corridor. An actual killing will be difficult to pull off. The Conspiracy's used to planting snipers on rooftops, but this is more a 'death by natural causes' situation. It would be much, much easier if this happened outside Monaco, but none of the main players seem all that keen to leave the fleshpots.


Sunday, 7 June 2020

Bookmarks of London (and Eversink)

Bookmarks have been with us since the earliest days. There's evidence that they were being used as long ago as the 1st Century AD, but we don't see what we think of as bookmarks - ie detachable, ephemeral, mass-produced - until the mid 19th Century, when books themselves become ephemeral and mass-produced. Up until that point, and even with the invention of the printing press, books are relatively rare and expensive to obtain. You had to be upper class or of similar status to be able to afford, never mind read, books. Once the middle and lower classes get in on the racket you start seeing changes in the trade. Less porn, for one thing. Well, not that much less. But they were slightly more discreet.

By this point booksellers and marketers alike are seeing potential in the humble bookmark. You can put your brand on them. You can put advertising on them. If you want to be very fancy you can embroider them, stud them with beads or semiprecious stones, design them with special rotating discs or tongues so they can mark not just the page but the very line you last read. Want to spread word of your hotel? Put free bookmarks in every room with your hotel's branding. Want to sell chocolates? Here, have a bookmark. Want people to know where this book was purchased? Here, have a bookmark.

I'm going to discuss this with an eye to Bookhounds of London and also Eversink (because why not). Much the same techniques could be used in Yellow King, but as I haven't read the Yellow King books yet I shan't comment. Heck, I've barely had chance to skim the post-playtest version of Serpentine.

First point: you can make bookmarks out of almost anything. Silk, paper, leather, cardboard, silver - whatever you like, which means in a fantasy or horror setting whatever you like. In a world where books can be bound in human skin, you can bet some charmer's tried to make bookmarks out of human leather. Moreover that charmer's almost certainly a medical professional, and probably someone working in the early to mid 19th Century, when interest in anthropodermic leather peaked. There's a certain macabre satisfaction in having a memento made from the skin of a condemned man. Murderabilia has become a recognized phenomenon in recent years, but as a tradition it goes back a very long way - after all, what's a hand of glory if not the ultimate collector's item? Of course in a fantasy setting this can run the gamut. A bookmark made of ghost? Why not? Leather tanned from the corpse of a dead God? Certainly sir - will that be letter of credit, or hard cash?

Second point: you can make bookmarks for almost any purpose. I've mentioned advertising and branding because those are the obvious uses, but you can spread any message. Religious or charitable groups make bookmarks to spread the Word, or perhaps just the word. It follows that any other organization spreading its word may do the same. Back in the 1970s, a Golden Dawn group issued 'magical' bookmarks to spread its creed. In a world where curses can be spread by bits of paper with runes writ on them, a bookmark could be a weapon. In a world where mind or dream control is a thing, a bookmark could be an infection vector.

Third point: bookmarks are transitory. People collect them inadvertently. I must have at least a score spread around the place, picked up in bookstores or on my travels. I've no idea where they all are or what they all are. Some came to me without my knowledge, stuck in the leaves of a book I bought second-hand. That's just the ones made to be bookmarks, mind - I'm not counting bits of used envelopes or old newspaper clippings shoved inside a forgotten tome. So there's any number of reasons you might find a bookmark somewhere in your house, your luggage, your hotel room. These things happen …

With all that, some seeds:

Graveyard Shift (Bookhounds): Your Shop decided it was time to spend a little on advertising, and bookmarks seemed the best way to go. A few hundred were ordered and you've been giving them away to favored clients. These aren't your standard bit of tat; you paid good money for best quality. You know the vendor; she's reliable, and a customer interested in Egyptology. Which would have been fine, except now all the Shop's best customers complain their dreams are awful. Some go on extended vacation - doctor's orders. Some customers just vanish ... Turns out that interest in Egyptology wasn't just academic. The vendor wanted to boost her luck and incised all kinds of charms in her printing machine. Charms invoking old Gods, meant to summon protective spirits. They attracted the attention of Rat Things, who decided to manipulate the vendors' interest for their own amusement. The Rat Things use the bookmarks as an infection vector, spreading dream control (nightmare fuel) with each bookmark. The bookmarks cause Egypt-themed nightmares which sap the owners' Sanity. This only works for a short period, perhaps two weeks, but it's long enough to cause the holder serious problems. Soon the Rat Things will get bored and move on, but not before causing as much chaos as possible.

Precious Memories (Eversink):  The designer Cestino once created a number of collectable cameos for adolescents wealthy enough to afford them. Several generations later those cameos are sought-after among the aristocracy, and anything rare and valuable attracts forgeries. The Cestino Bookmark is a particular kind of forgery, created as an attack on a particular aristo. Though it is made in Cestino's style (ceramic embossed in silver, with a little wheel attached to mark the exact line the owner was reading) it is actually marked with a discreet Rune of Humiliation, targeting the owner of the bookmark. Its creator intends to pass it on to someone they really don't like. The characters are either employed to deliver it to the target (a gift from an admirer) or to find out who made it (so the admirer can get their own back). Or both, as in 'find out who hired you to deliver this or I'll make sure your throats are slit one dirty night ...'


Sunday, 31 May 2020

North Korea's Floating Hotel (Night's Black Agents)

Once again this video comes courtesy of Side Note.

This location combines the unusual locale of a cruise ship with the happy fun times any enterprising agent might have in North Korea. For those of you who don't want to watch the whole video, a brief precis:

Once upon a time a man with more money than sense thought it would be a spiffing idea to open a grand hotel floating on the Grand Barrier Reef in Australia. In theory this is a fantastic location for a boutique hotel. You have all the beauty of nature at your disposal coupled with the luxuries a top tier hotel can offer. In practice this rapidly fell apart. Hotels, like all other service industry enterprises, operate on the basis of low cost high return. Even the Ritz scrimps. However a floating hotel was always going to be an expensive proposition, particularly given the ecologically sensitive nature of the Grand Banks. There were expensive delays which meant it didn't open when it needed to. Added to that is the less obvious problem that once you plonk it out there, there's not a lot you can do with it. Any other hotel can offer excursions, change the look up, offer deals. Operating costs being what they were, deals were off the table: you paid through the nose. If you didn't really enjoy watersports or suffered from seasickness, you weren't going to have a good time. Any local problems, like starfish eating the coral or cyclones knocking out the pool, meant the site was less desirable. Then they found discarded WWII ammo - possibly live ammo - dumped nearby.


Incidentally if any of you are suffering from an advanced case of deja vu, then you've read Chris Brookmyre's One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night.  In that comic crime novel a developer puts all his eggs in one floating basket and opens a hotel in a converted oil rig off the coast of Scotland. A floating "Butlins meets ethnic cleansing", with "every modern British urban leisure activity, but without the British urban clouds and rain. A resort where all the staff didn't merely speak English, but spoke it in comfortably familiar accents … And crucially, a resort where you could be guaranteed never to see the front page of Bild staring back at you from your desired poolside spot." As a kind of fuck-you to his past he arranges a class reunion aboard his pride and joy, so he can flaunt his success in front of the people he wants most to acknowledge his greatness: the kids he knew at Catholic school St Michael's, Auchinlea. Then terrorists show up, shoot the place up, and plant a bomb in the oil rig.


Australia's pride and joy migrated to North Korea via Vietnam, and was used for a brief period as a kind of way station for reunited Koreans when NK flirted with reconciliation. The idea being that those who'd been on one side of the Bamboo Curtain could meet their relatives from the South on what seemed more or less neutral ground. As with all things designed by man this too fell apart, and for now the empty hotel floats off Mount Kumgang. Allegedly it's slated for redevelopment, a project temporarily delayed by COVID quarantine. In practice given the idiosyncrasies of NK's current government it is likely to be mothballed till it sinks.

Its timeline is:
  • Inception and late opening 1988, as the John Brewer Floating Hotel off Australia's Barrier Reef. It was very briefly also known as the Four Seasons Floating Hotel, when some addled philanthropist bought it from Brewer. If further proof were needed that the average rich man's brain consists entirely of warmed-over pudding ...
  • Relocated 1989 (oh dear) to Vietnam, where it had a home on the Saigon River near the Tran Hung Dao Statue
  • Relocated 1998 to North Korea.
  • Closed 2008 after a shooting incident in which a NK soldier shot a South Korean visitor dead. Allegedly the tourist was entering a militarily sensitive zone and did not heed warnings. Remains closed to this day.
There is a free Night's Black Agents RPG based aboard a cruise ship, Pleasures of the Flesh, written by Alasdair Sinclair and available in Pelgrane's downloads section. With some small modification it could as easily take place aboard Brewer's seven story luxury floating hotel. Given it was only at the Barrier Reef for a year, unless you want to set the game in the 1980s - which is perfectly doable - you're better off having it a 1990s scenario, or even a North Korean getaway. What sinister secrets lurk inside North Korea's luxury resort, and why do so many NK officials want to stay there?  If it's a Vietnam scenario you have other options, not least returning veterans of the Vietnam war trying to recapture their lost youth in a sparkling high-end nightclub playground. Dance the night away in the Downunder Bar, then restore your strength with one of the management's special tonics …

To close out, here's a scenario seed:

Dead Drop

A North Korean source claims to have what Edom would describe as a Special Biological Asset - a vampire. The source wants to smuggle it out of North Korea, allegedly because the powers that be want to use it as part of a North Korean eternal life program and the source fears what might happen if Kim Jong-un lives forever. Terms include a fat payoff for the source, to be routed via casinos in the Philippines. A fixer in Macao is arranging the deal, negotiating with interested parties which include every known vampire program - so America's Find Forever, whatever's left of Germany's Unternehmen Braun, the Vatican's St Lazarus - only China's Room 452 isn't on the bidder list. That may or may not be a warning signal that something dodgy's going on, given North Korea's historic ties to China.

The deal is, pay through the nose via the casino and the buyer collects the asset at the floating Hotel Haegumgang. How the buyer gets to the hotel and retrieves the asset is entirely up to the buyer. The seller only promises to deliver the asset, as securely bound up as possible. This offer's only open for a  limited time - buy now, beat the rush.

Verifying the vendor's bona fides is a chancy proposition. The only contact is the Macau fixer, Wan Kuok-koi, aka Broken Tooth, a notorious gangster affiliated with the 14K Triad. Recently released from jail and enjoying millions earned from a cryptocurrency scheme, Broken Tooth isn't the sort to cave under intimidation tactics and he knows how to keep his mouth shut. However someone able to do him political favors or wipe out a few outstanding warrants for friends of his will get him to talk. The vendor is an elder statesman, ally to Kim Jong's father and now out in the cold, politically speaking. 

The asset will be in one of the hotel's most expensive suites, in five day's time. Either the agents represent the buyers, or they represent a disappointed bidder who wants to snatch the asset before the buyer takes possession. All they have to do is sneak into North Korea, take possession, and get out without being arrested and thrown into a North Korean re-education camp. Assuming the vendor's trustworthy. Assuming the asset's as securely bound as the vendor says it is. Assuming this isn't all some double-bluff on someone's part to capture a foreign vampire hunter and use that person's knowledge to kick-start North Korea's vampire program.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy ...