Sunday, 24 January 2021

Body Horror (Cyberpunk)

Generally speaking people know what they're getting into when they play a particular system. A James Bond game is all about being Bond and therefore can be expected to fulfil Bond tropes - the quips, the car chases, exotic locations and world-shattering evil masterminds. A Trail game is about Cthulhoid horror and can be expected to be moist and squamous, with a heavy dose of American gothic, possibly a hint of film noir. A Cyberpunk game is about dystopia, people lost in a futuristic landscape looking for meaning in all the wrong places.

You rarely see mixed genres in RPG settings, but it can be very interesting. The old Cyberpunk had a quasi-horror setting, the Night's Edge books, that worked remarkably well. In that setting you might encounter vampires, ghosts, Voodoo acolytes and terrifying dreamscapes. It had its faults; it leaned a little too heavily on serial killer tropes. But when it worked, it sang.

Body horror is a storytelling method where the narrative attempts to invoke intense feelings of physical and psychological disgust, or squick, and plays upon anxieties of physical vulnerability. One of the most effective versions of this I've ever seen on screen is the 1999 Takashi Miike movie Audition, in which a lovelorn businessman attempts to spark romance by auditioning women to 'be in his movie' - but things go badly wrong when he meets Asami, a fascinating woman with a past. And a few extra feet. There is a moment with a sack ... but I've said too much, and the trailers I can find online are a bit too spoilery, so I'll stop there.

The essence of body horror is making the human form do things we consider unnatural, though what we consider unnatural can be very revealing about our own prejudices. Stephen King once pointed out that, in the 1950s, you could freak American kids out just by having characters with a relatively mild physical issue. Even a bad case of the zits and shaggy hair was a major taboo, at a time when good hygiene, medical advances and three square meals a day had sorted out most of a generation's physical issues. Cleft palates, goiters, and many other ailments once relatively common, vanished almost entirely from the landscape. Bones lengthened, teeth straightened, complexions cleared. People forgot the old normal and replaced it with the new.  

Clive Barker treads similar ground in Hellraiser, in which physical punishment - nails through the head, being skinned alive - masquerades as spiritual punishment. The spirit and the body are, apparently, one - mutilate the body, torture the soul.

Or Cronenberg, in films like Rabid, implying that a once-normal, healthy body can be tainted by, in this instance, a medical procedure, becoming a necrotic, corruptive influence.

There's no suggestion that a person's spirit and corpus is somehow separate; no immortal essence hidden behind a mortal façade. In body horror the two are one, and you can tell corruption at a glance because they don't look or behave like us. Often this is a buckets-of-blood genre, where guts and slick essences are spilt all over the screen and, by implication, your own home, since the whole point is to make the audience think this might happen anywhere at all, but especially where you feel safest. There's a reason why Hellraiser takes place in an ordinary house, why Rabid is set in semi-rural suburbia. 'This looks like where I live,' you're meant to think. 'This could happen here.' Of course, the logical tagline is 'it could happen to me,' which as you'll recall was Edwardian ghost story master M.R. James' famous bit of horror writing advice.   

It doesn't have to be awash with gore. Invasion of the Body Snatchers achieves a very similar goal without the slightest drop of blood, by creating invaders that look like us but aren't quite like us. All flesh, no soul. Whatever immortal shred resides within that flesh is annihilated when the Body Snatchers take over.

In my practice, I've seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn't seem to mind... All of us — a little bit — we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear ...

If body horror is the subversion of the natural - exploding guts and all - then cyberpunk is the conversion of the natural. We think we know what normal is, and then our expectations are upended. The only difference is, in conversion we willingly accept the change, where in subversion change is forced upon us.

Manga and movies like Ghost in the Shell explicitly play with this concept, going on and on about the Ghost without ever really exploring the concept beyond muttering 'The Ghost!' as if they were all ravens programmed to say Nevermore every few minutes. Paying lip service to the spirit without really confronting the concept, yet taking every possible opportunity to show off fantastic new body conversions. At times you wonder whether there are any downsides to becoming a cyborg, beyond a compulsion to mutter 'The Ghost!' every other episode. Nobody changes; the Major is always the Major, Batou always Batou. Even when changes seemingly occur, the series reverts back to the status quo ASAP in the next episode. For all the characters talk about the Ghost, it rarely impacts the narrative.

Cyberpunk the RPG setting does something similar with Empathy/Humanity. 

Empathy: Your ability to relate to and care for others, and take others into consideration. Particularly important as it offsets the effects of cyberpsychosis, a dangerous mental illness common in the Dark Future ... For every point of Empathy the Character has, they gain 10 points of Humanity (HUM) ... Cyberpsychosis Humanity Loss is defined (for this purpose) as a loss of empathy for others and a corresponding loss of self-regard or sense of self preservation. Subjects with low Humanity have trouble emphasizing with themselves or others as "real."

All of this should sound very familiar to CoC and Trail players since this is basically the SAN/Stability mechanic, except where in CoC or Trail SAN is permanently lost by exposure to Mythos sources and  temporarily lost by exposure to any number of frightening circumstances, Empathy and by extension Humanity is lost by grafting on technical adjuncts to the flesh. There's a side mechanic where Humanity can also be lost by exposure to terrifying circumstances, but it's encapsulated in a small chart on p. 231 and I wonder how many GMs run with the idea. Sanity is a major concept in CoC and Trail; Humanity doesn't seem as important in Cyberpunk. 

It's difficult to make those numbers mean something without engaging the players' imaginations, and it's difficult to engage imagination though numbers alone. Particularly when those numbers have a mechanical consequence - in this instance, loss of the character. To cyberpsychosis, but really loss of the character to anything, whether it's cyberpsychosis or the Spaghetti Monster, is just as frustrating to the player.  

Exactly the same conversation's been going on in CoC for decades. At first SAN and loss of same meant a roll on the Temporary (or Permanent) Insanity table, which meant that in some or all future scenes the player had to behave as though their character suffered from, say, a fear of insects, or a fear of crossing bridges. From that relatively simple (at times cruel, unintentionally or otherwise) beginning, systems became more complicated, until now we have setups like Delta Green's relationships, bonds and disorders system, actively engaging the players in their own spiritual demise. Because if they don't tend to those Bonds, in-game, the characters lose out big time.  

I'm going to suggest to you now that body horror is indispensable to Cyberpunk because body horror gets the players to engage in what it means to be Cyber, in ways other than crunching HUM numbers. Those implants and modifications they desire come at a cost, and it's not just in Eurobucks. Further, that body horror doesn't have to be guts and gore; it has to be a subversion of the norm. 

 White Zombie, 1932 Bela Lugosi film

White Zombie isn't a particularly interesting film. It's historic, as it's the first zombie movie ever, based in part on William Seabrook's book The Magic Island. However everyone who's ever seen that film remembers this early scene if they remember nothing else, because it's the most chilling moment in the movie. Nature can be cruel, but only man can be so pointlessly cruel as to set up a system like this. The dead toil to grind cane into sugar, and it doesn't matter if one falls into the mix and is ground up with the cane. 

It has a lot in common with the Moloch scene from Fritz Lang's Metropolis:

Sourced from MU History

Both scenes are dehumanizing people in service of a mechanized, semi-supernatural overseer, for a goal that might be pointless. Both turn people into things. Both destroy people to achieve their objective. The workers of Metropolis march to their doom just as unthinkingly as White Zombie's dead men tend the sugar mill. Both are made in an age when socialism and worker's rights were hot topics, vigorously debated in the halls of power and on the factory floor. 

Body horror - the subversion of body and soul.

Going back to Cyberpunk's player guidance:

1: Style over Substance: It doesn't matter how well you do something, as long as you look good doing it. Why should it matter if you look good? Because everything else doesn't. Imagine what decades of poor hygiene, lack of medical care and poor diet is going to do to people. Then add in radiation poisoning. Sure, if you're a corporate beaver, that's not a problem. Most people aren't corporates. Why do people cyber up if they can afford it? For the same reason people get plastic surgery. Not everyone needs a gun arm, but everyone needs to fit in.

2: Attitude is Everything. It's truth. Think dangerous; be dangerous. Think weak; be weak. Remember the sugar mill, and Moloch. The average primitive screwhead is going to end up sacrificed on that altar because they have no other choice. The average booster is going to die for some corporate's big power play because they don't know any better. That's what grunts are for. Are you a grunt?

3: Live on the Edge. The Edge is that nebulous zone where risk-takers and high rollers go. On the Edge, you'll risk your cash, your rep, even your life on something as vague as a principle or a big score. Why? Because the alternative is worse. Your principles are your soul, and you're trying to keep that as pure as possible in a world where people trade their souls in every day for a better butt or a new pair of eyes.

As GM you need to be banging away at body horror as often as possible, and you need to be making much greater use of that handy-dandy Humanity chart on p. 231. You should also encourage your players to go to Therapy (p 230) as often as possible, and maybe consider small Humanity rewards for interesting roleplay moments, much as CoC or Trail rewards heroic moments with a little SAN or Stability boost. After all, Humanity is ultimately about being human; there should be a reward for engaging with your Humanity.

As a final what-if, consider these potential body horror moments:

You enter the ripperdoc's dimly-lit den and notice, among the jars and storage tanks lining the walls, a new-harvested face floating in preservatives. You know that face. It belongs to the bartender at the Mad Hatter; you recognize that cute little mole on his cheek. He's been talking about selling his face for months, but until now you've always persuaded him otherwise. Guess he needed the money more than you thought. Wonder what he looks like these days ...

Womb rental - it's the latest thing. Some prefer vat-grown, but a healthy female with no significant black marks in her genetic history can command a substantial fee. They just put you into the factory for nine months, fill you full of sedatives to keep you compliant, and pop goes the baby. Of course, there are rumors that some of these women aren't exactly what you'd call volunteers, but hey - corp beavers need kids ...

You hear about the new factory they're building out by Jesus Street and Memory Lane? Remember about five years ago when they were going to renovate the old St. Simon Building, but the job stalled out? How they lost a cleanup crew? Well, turns out they didn't precisely lose that cleanup crew. I guess someone forgot to unlock a door when shift ended, and they've been down there ever since. Pretty airtight in those vaults, so they didn't decay so much as, well, became liquid. Anyway, there's good cheddar on offer for anyone who, you know, wants to scoop up the slurry and dump it somewhere legal. Or at least somewhere out of sight and mind ...  

You see that group over there? Garbage pickers. They work the mounds out by Hooker Loop. How can I tell? Well, look at the fingers, choomb. See, on the one hand you get those who've been able to buy new hands, or at least good second-hand digits. See how the metal gets pitted and cruddy-looking? On the other, well, there's this kind of ulcer you get from that work, it eats fingers ...

You want to sign up for the Hustle Truck? Comes by every morning, picks up folks who want to earn a little extra by doing odd jobs. It's not a lot of money, and the work ain't much, but it's legal; it'll cover your coffin costs, choomb. One thing, tho; you got to get the Hustle Truck chip if you want in. It's nothing serious. The people who run it, they want to keep tabs on you - how you spend your time. Just when you're working. The chip doesn't monitor you when you're not on the job ...

Remember how Nixon used to tell those tall tales about Japanese ghosts? The what-was-it, the nupper-something, that was the one that really stuck with me. How it could just wipe its face away, leaving nothing behind but a blank. Well, they say that the braindance viewers over in the Night Market that sometimes pops up in Bitters has this problem. You go into the dance, and everything's slick. You come out, and sometimes you see faceless people. Now, are these real faceless people? Or is this some hot-shit rewired brain bull you get from the Dance? This one chica, she swears that after she did the Dance she went to, you know, freshen up, and there was this woman in the same stall, red hair, and the woman turns around ... nothing there, man. Nothing. Blank, from forehead to chin ...



Sunday, 17 January 2021

The Forerunner (RPG Horror)

It was Christmas Eve.

I begin this way because it is the proper, orthodox, respectable way to begin, and I have been brought up in a proper, orthodox, respectable way, and taught to always do the proper, orthodox, respectable thing; and the habit clings to me.

Of course, as a mere matter of information it is quite unnecessary to mention the date at all. The experienced reader knows it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story ... Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper

I've been reading a lot of ghost stories over Christmas. I've a small collection of Ash-Tree Press books, any of which I'd recommend to a reader interested in older, more obscure ghastly tales. I'm not saying they're all winners - far from it. But when they work, they are brilliant. 

Christmas is a troubling holiday. In the early days of the Church the date varied; it might be celebrated in January, March, or December. However in pagan traditions, and in particular the Roman Saturnalia or observance of the birth of the Sun in Mithraic tradition, the proper celebration was in mid to late December (17th to 24th). Since the early Church depended on converting pagans it was felt prudent to shift the Christmas celebration to its current date. 

This, mind, is also the season of the Lord of Misrule. The dead return; in fact, in some traditions that's the whole point. In former days the entire house would be swept clean, the meal prepared, everything laid on - and then the family would go to church, leaving the house empty so the ghosts could visit, and feast. 

It's traditions like these which give birth to the old habit of telling ghost stories at Christmas.

One of the collections I've been reading is by David G. Rowlands: The Executor. Rowlands is a ghost story nut; he picked up the bug by reading M.R. James' work many years ago, and couldn't shake it. His style is similar to the Jamesian Circle, authors like Swain, Munby and Wakefield - in fact Rowlands is so fond of Swain's work he wrote several stories about Swain's clerical the Rev. Mr. Batchel and his Stoneground parish. I very much admire Rowlands' work, though he does have a habit I find annoying. He refers back to the old classics explicitly, by name, having his characters say things like "why, this is just like the events in Charles Dickens' The Signalman!" Do that once and you're forgiven; after the third or fourth repetition it becomes annoying.

For this post I want to develop an idea Rowlands uses in his very short piece, The Previous Train. I can't discuss this without spoilers, so be warned - but The Previous Train is only one small piece among many others, so I hope you'll forgive me for spoiling this one.

His long-running protagonist, Catholic priest Father O'Connor, is trying to catch a train. As with many of Rowlands' works the exact date is unclear, but judging by the circumstances it's probably 1930s-adjacent. He's in the Suffolk countryside, it's late at night, and there's nobody but O'Connor at the station. Even the station master has gone home, and there's little light; O'Connor has to read the train timetable by the glimmer of his bicycle lamp.

O'Connor hears an approaching train. It's not on the schedule, so he assumes it's not stopping and is probably a goods train, so he moves back from the track. However it is a passenger train and it does stop at the station. Thanking his lucky stars, he tries to put his bicycle in the goods wagon, after which he intends to board.

By the dim light within I saw the Guard. He was standing at the hand-break in the center of the floor. The feeble interior light came not from the lamp overhead, but seemed to emanate as cold phosphorescence from the very fabric of the compartment.

The Guard had not moved, and I was about to put my questions to him when I saw the cobwebs over his uniform, from his arms to the brake pillar; from the clutter of packages on the floor to his legs; across his face ... 

Fortunately O'Connor escapes, by luck more than judgment. It transpires that this ghost train isn't a relic from the past but a warning of things to come, for one year later exactly there is a wreck on that line and all aboard are killed.

Forerunners are supernatural warnings of approaching events says folklorist Helen Creighton, and are usually connected with impending death. They come in many forms, and are startling, as though the important thing is to get the hearer's attention.  

They share many characteristics with the German Doppelganger in that both phenomena can appear as warnings of tragedy soon to come. Or of tragedies just this minute playing out; Poe's William Wilson and the later short The Student of Prague play on this theme. An evil twin separates from the original - literally the protagonists' reflection, in Student - and goes off to create chaos.

Forerunners don't have to appear as a person; they can be an event, a sound, a recurring phenomena. A similar trick is often used in science fiction narratives, where the forerunner effect is often played off as some kind of time loop.


In The Previous Train the forerunner is a train, but it's not clear why it appears to O'Connor. After all, there's nothing the priest can do to stop the tragedy, even supposing he knew what the forerunner was trying to say. Nor is there any suggestion that this is a personal warning; there's no risk O'Connor will catch the train on the fatal day.

Moreover the forerunner in Previous Train is malevolent, potentially fatal. 

The jolt swung the figure of the Guard around like an awkward puppet and I looked into his dead face. I am convinced that my heart stopped for that instant, then I felt it pound away again. The skin was seamed and gray, blotched with decay and softly luminous. The last straw was to see a dim spark of light deep down in the eyes, behind the cobwebs. It was not the light of intelligence, but some infernal animation building up ... building up from the emotion and vitality that were draining out of me!

Using this in an RPG is a little tricky, in that the whole point of a forerunner is that it happens before the action happens. So where in your average scenario all the really gruesome, action-packed stuff happens towards the end of the narrative, in a forerunner story the supernatural unpleasantness happens in the first few moments of the narrative, and the players spend the rest of the session unravelling it.

For that reason I don't think a forerunner suits a one-shot session. A one-shot demands action in the final scenes, as a kind of pay-off or reward for a shorter narrative span. However it could be a really effective device in a long-running campaign, where there's a big event coming in the final chapter and you want to give the characters some advance warning. It has real potential as the inciting incident of a longer narrative, in which the characters' ordinary lives are violently interrupted by a blatantly supernatural warning, which they spend the rest of the story trying to understand.

It could be a very interesting trick if the forerunner creates duplicate versions of the characters, as with The Student of Prague. Then the GM has ready-made antagonists for the campaign, enemies who will advance in power as the characters advance and will oppose the characters at every opportunity. Always one step ahead, the doppelgangers ruin the characters' reputations, upend their triumphs, undermine their successes. No matter where they go, they can't escape. 

In any kind of horror setting the forerunner springs from the same source as magic. If magic happens because of demons, then the forerunner is demonic. If magic is the result of super-science beings meddling with the fundamental building blocks of the universe at the dawn of time, then dopplegangers are an after-effect of those same experiments; the universe's version of a bad acid flashback. If, as with Bookhounds, the energies of the city itself power magical effects, then those same energies can create forerunners.

A megapolisomantic working uses the city as a sorcerous engine to accomplish magical effects. Whether the city generates magical energies, or merely focuses pre-existing forces (astrological, geomantic, divine, Mythos, etc) is a metaphysical matter left up to the Keeper. Are all cities megapolisomantically significant? Bookhounds of London, p 76.

Let's say for the sake of this discussion that this is a Bookhounds game and you, the GM, want to use a forerunner event to set up a later, Mythos-relevant disaster. Let's also include Megapolisomancy, with the presumption that it's the innate power of the city that causes the event.

From that we get:

Shadow Train

This seed presumes the characters' book store is somewhere near an Underground Station. That's not difficult; there are plenty to choose from, including a long list of fictional stations. I'm going to call this station Hobb's End, after the station which plays a major role in Quatermass and the Pit

One or more of the characters are waiting for their train. It is the end of a long day, and they are exhausted. It is close to midnight, and there aren't many other people with them, down there in the dark.

It gets darker. The station lights flicker and dim, and characters with magical or megapolisomantic ability sense a disturbance, as if something powerful is gathering strength. There comes a pulsing of energy from the tube line, perhaps heralding an approaching train - but as the whatever-it-is emerges from the tunnel the station lights fail altogether, plunging the platform into darkness.

The characters can still see. Whatever-it-is coming out from the tunnel sheds its own ghastly light.

It's not a tube train, at least not as they know it. It is black, and its livery doesn't match any train line they're familiar with. It grinds to a stop but its doors do not open. 

Sitting in the train, so close the characters could touch them, are the characters. At least, in every possible way these creatures with their dead, luminous eyes resemble the characters. They gaze with indifference at their living counterparts. Try as they might, the characters won't be able to get on board the train or communicate with their doubles.

There's something else on the train. Large, motile, a mass that flows and bubbles.

With a sudden start the train begins to move again, and soon it eases down the tunnel. Once it's gone, the station lights come on again.

If the characters ask, the other people on the platform saw this happen but none of them know what it means. Station staff, if asked, disclaim all knowledge, though one or two of them might privately admit that 'odd things' have happened over the last few nights. Nothing on this scale, and as it never happens again station staff and other witnesses are all too keen to forget it ever happened.

Two things result from this experience.

First, any character who did not already have a Megapolisomancy pool has one dot now. They're attuned to the inner workings of the city, for good or ill. 

Second, any character present feels a persistent sense of impending doom. They don't know what it is. They don't know what it presages. They only know that it is coming and that right soon.

The rest of the campaign arc will be spent unravelling this sense of impending doom and discovering what it means. Exactly what it does mean is up to the players and Keeper. It could be a very personal event, like a disaster on the line. It could be a citywide event, or something of planetary significance, like England being destroyed by the awakening of an Old One. Whatever it is, is up to you.

Though the characters will not appreciate this at first, there is a third result. Their twins are busy. They, like the Student's reflection, are as like the characters as it is possible to be, down to mannerisms and dress - yet they are opposed to the characters in every way. They dog the characters' actions. If the character asks for a book to be reserved at the British Library, their opposite arrives and claims it before they do. If the character attends an auction, their double is there and bids for the prize.

These creatures are creations of pure Megapolisomancy. They cannot exist outside the city, and it's not clear whose bidding they follow - if they follow any creature's bidding at all. It may be they are figments of the city's imagination, as a dreamer populates her dream - but if so, does that mean the city is an entity unto itself? Is it dreaming?

Will it wake up?


Sunday, 10 January 2021

The Building (RPG all, Cyberpunk)

Rear Window is a fascinating piece of cinema directed by one of the greatest talents of the medium, but it struck me as I was watching it the other day how much it relies on a setting that is as dead and gone as Caesar's Rome.

Sourced from Matt'sfilmblog

Shot in 1954 and based on a story written in 1942, the concept, setting and entire premise relies on two fundamental facts about New York in the mid-twentieth century.

First, there is no television. The glass teat does exist, and the basic technology's been around since the late 19th century. Yet it hasn't become a commodity, it isn't in every home. None of these people own a set, and if the protagonist, James Stewart's L.B. Jefferies, had one in his apartment this whole movie needn't have happened. It won't be long before televisions become commonplace; Sony sold over 4 million portable sets worldwide in 1960. It just hasn't happened quite yet.

Second, there is no air conditioning. Again, the technology exists, but it's so far out of reach for the ordinary consumer that the average New Yorker prefers to live with their windows open in the red-hot summer time. Some even sleep out on the fire escape, as the only way to get anything like a decent night's rest. I lived in New York for a short while years ago, and I can personally attest the city's just as hot in summer now as it would have been in the 1940s - but that doesn't matter any more. 

From the Brooklyn Eagle in 1934, via the Gothamist:

15,000 persons spent last night on the beach at Coney Island and several thousand more sought relief from the heat in Brooklyn parks and playgrounds. Additional thousands slept on roof tops and fire escapes in the Brownsville, Williamsburg and other crowded sections of Brooklyn. In Manhattan, many slept on the grass in Central Park and on the open piers in the East River.

There's even a brief moment early in the film where you see someone delivering ice for the ice box, which isn't something you'd see nowadays. The ice box, if you don't know, is literally that: a box where you keep ice, so you can put butter and other perishables in cold storage. Once the ice brick you bought melts, you buy another one. Selling ice was a major line of business, in the days before refrigerators. It's something people have been doing since before the birth of Christ, and only came to an end relatively recently.

But here's the kicker: Rear Window can only exist because there is no television, and because there is no air conditioning. As a result, people live outdoors more, open their windows more - which lets Jefferies peer into their private lives, and provides the inciting incident that kicks the entire movie into gear. 

New York still exists. If you looked hard enough you could probably find a neighborhood like the one Jefferies lives in. The film's shot on a Paramount stage built especially for the occasion, but it shouldn't be that difficult to find somewhere in Greenwich Village that looks like Rear Window. What you won't find are a lot of open windows. The landlord will have made sure they can't be opened, since the law changed in the 1970s so as to stop kids plummeting to their doom. You also won't find many people looking outdoors; either they're watching television, or their mobile devices, or both.

Rear Window's New York is as dead as dead can be, which is probably one of the reasons why the 1999 remake with Christopher Reeve didn't work.

When designing a setting, think about how people live and what they have to do in order to live well. Not just the big stuff, like which Camarilla faction holds political sway after dark, or whether ghosts are secretly controlling the police force. I mean the small stuff. What do people do for fun? How do they get their food? Do they have light when night falls, and if so how is that managed? What happens when it's hot? What happens in the rainy season? What happens when it snows? What happens to all the shit - literally, the shit - that your average city produces every day? Is someone hauling that off to the tanner's vats, or the farmer's fields? Are there public toilets, public baths? Do people just fling their waste into the streets?

Not that you, as GM, have to answer all those questions, but even answering one or two can lend a lot of atmosphere to your setting. Say that street lights are had by capturing souls and setting them on fire, which is something that happens to the souls of the poorest of the poor who can't afford proper burial. In Sword of the Serpentine's Eversink everyone tries to make statues for their dead, but there are always going to be people who can't manage that, or whose statues break. What if the alternative is an eternity roasting in hellfire so the wealthy can have decent street lighting? What kind of ghost catcher would the city have to employ to make that system work? How would the poor feel about that? Would there be riots, with people demanding that instead of using the poverty-stricken the city burns foreign souls instead? How do the characters feel about that?

Let's go from the general to the slightly more specific. What I want to talk about this time is the Building, as setting and as plot device.

Rear Window wouldn't work if all Jefferies did was stare at the murderer all day. He has an entire world at his disposal, from Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyhearts to the sculptor, the newlyweds, the old married couple, the composer, and dozens of others who appear and disappear like mayflies. They all exist within an artificial concept which I'm going to call The Building, even though the concept extends outside the walls of the structure to the coffee shops and railway stations of the film's 'outside world'. In the film's conceit the Building is literally that, and Jefferies is tied to that spot because he has a broken leg. The audience hardly ever sees anything from any perspective other than Jefferies' room.

Loadingreadyrun recently finished a short series directed by Jacob Burgess called Not A Drop To Drink, a Vampire chronicle set in Vancouver Island. I recommend it to anyone thinking about getting into tabletop but isn't sure how best to do it. However I bring it up now because of something Jacob said in the Q&A.

In answer to the question, was there anything you changed about the campaign due to decisions taken during session 0 (about 1.09.54 in), Jacob replies:

I had nothing planned going in ... I made a city, I wrote a city and all of the people in it ... and then you drop four [players] into it. I really didn't plan anything ahead of time and I used the elements people gave me, what they wanted, what they said some of the characters' desires were because those are sometimes different things and sometimes they even conflict ... to then feed in and fold everything in, so we all created the space we got to play in.

Jacob created a city and all of the people in it. Many settings do the same; Swords of the Serpentine again is a classic example of this, where the GM has an entire city at her disposal ready to be populated. 

I'm going to suggest to you now, as GM to GM, that this conceit is the Building. It is the structure in which the action happens, and in which people meet the players, creating plot. It can be as large or small as you need it to be. Some games need entire planets. Some stories can play out within a single structure. 

Most of Rear Window happens within one apartment; Jefferies can see other apartments, other people, but he's as locked in as any prisoner in Sing Sing. If he wants to talk to other people, they either have to be in the room with him or he needs to call them on the phone. Half the tension in the final act is precisely because the audience is locked in there with Jefferies; they can't move any more or any further than he can. 

The Building is that area in which you, as GM, expects plot to happen. For plot to happen, the GM needs to populate the Building, either with people or events with which the players can interact. It is player interaction, not NPC action, that makes plot. 

For example, in a Cyberpunk session that I'm creating for some friends of mine, I've created:

Zhirafa Alley: For whatever reason the Zhirafa police drones have a bug in their programming about this crossroads. There used to be a CHOOH2 station here, run by some of the Aldecaldos. That went up in the third strafe. Nobody knows what happened to piss the drones off, but they regularly zap moving targets and complaints to Precinct #2 are ignored. Shooting back does not help; it only summons more Zhirafas.

I haven't written any more than that. I shouldn't need to. There's enough here to paint a scene and give the players something to interact with. Whether or not they go any further than that is up to them. They might never encounter Zhirafa Alley. I certainly haven't splattered stats all over the page, any more than (I suspect) Jacob gave each and every one of the dozens of NPCs in Not a Drop full stats. What would be the point? 

Of course, if the players start paying close attention to Zhirafa Alley, that's a different story. That's the point at which I start thinking about stats, and motives, and other player-engagement things. Just as (I suspect) Jacob at least partially statted out the more important Not a Drop NPCs, like the Sherriff, as soon as he realized that NPC could become plot-critical. 

Moving from the slightly more specific to the very specific, consider this potential Cyberpunk answer to the question, where do the characters live?

If you've existed on the internet for longer than five minutes you've probably seen at least one story or video about Hong Kong's coffin homes:

Sourced from Channel NewsAsia via Mythopolis Pictures

Lest we get too sanctimonious, it's worth reminding ourselves that coffins are for the rich just as much as they are the poor:

Sourced from CNN

Sourced from Here be Barr

With the obvious caveat that the rich can buy much nicer coffins than the one in the Hong Kong video.

This is nothing new. We tend to think that the ideal middle class environment is the detached suburban house with garage, back yard, decent schools nearby for the 2.5 kids we intend to have and so on. We forget that suburbs are a very recent creation - late 19th century, with England's Metroland - and only came about because the train, and later the car, extended our reach. Before them, we could only ever go within walking distance of work and food. People lived in tiny houses or stuffed whole families into single rooms in big cities because there was no other affordable space. 

Public transport was an incredible boon that allowed places like London to burst their boundaries, with buses, trains and highways creating new suburban opportunities. Trouble being, nobody's invented anything better since then, and the boomer generation's greying suburbs means installing more highways or better rail networks is almost impossible because grandpa doesn't want that in his backyard. That creates more pressure on the existing habitable space, which in turn creates demand for even the smallest of city habitats.

In the world of CP RED space is at a premium. After the nuke dropped, refugees ran away from the hot zone and set up temporary-but-permanent tent housing in what was the former Beavertown of Rancho Coronado. Many people don't have the luxury of four walls and a roof. As for public transport ...

Surprise, surprise. Contrary to expectations, the Dark Future has not yielded any staggering new developments in transportation. Years of economic strife and civil unrest have discouraged research into new ways to travel—in fact, the very act of travel has become very restricted. Don't expect the inner-city world of the Time of the Red to be much like the 20th century—a network of crowded freeways, packed trains, and swarming airports. Instead, think of it as a patchwork of badly up-kept roads, abandoned airports, and trains plagued by gangs and intermittent service. (Main Book, Everyday Life p 322).

So if you want any kind of work at all you need to live close to where you work. Odds are unless you have a lot of cash in your pocket you can't afford whatever travel networks exist, and that assumes those networks are safe(ish) to use - which they almost certainly aren't. When Rancho Coronado was a Corporate-controlled Beavertown with actual transport options this wasn't a problem. Nowadays, though, when you can't even reliably drive anywhere and Rancho Coronado is basically a tangled slum, we have:

Crystal Rock

Nobody remembers how Crystal Rock got its name, but it probably wasn't a compliment. When refugees first started flooding into Rancho Coronado many of them were temporarily housed in this old sports stadium. Over time, as Rancho Coronado devolved and it became clear there were few options for the forcibly evacuated, enterprising businessmen started adding portable Cubes, as a kind of an upgrade to tent housing and uncovered sleeping pallets. After all, it's not like the Rancho Raiders were ever going to play here again. Cubes piled on top of Cubes, and a couple of Cargo Containers were added to the mix for those who could afford luxury accommodation. 

Cubes: You live in a single windowless room with a nice strong lock where you can touch both walls if you spread your arms. Flatpack furniture folds out of the walls, converting your cell from a chair with a desk to a bed with a small television. [Notice how even this is better than the Hong Kong coffin; there's space to sit, and a desk. You could work from home in this environment. It wouldn't be pleasant, but it would be doable.]

Cargo Containers: You'll have plenty of places to store your things, a bed to sleep comfortably, a desk, electricity, a refrigerator, microwave, and sink, protected by the security of a strong lock

None of this was designed by any kind of qualified architect. It just grew like Topsy, built on top of what was intended to be temporary tent housing inside a sports stadium. Think of it like a ring fort, with the outer ring being the old stadium (now basically a kind of glorified strip mall catering mainly to residents), the next ring being open air tents and sleeping pallets, the next ring being Cubes, and the innermost ring being Cargo Containers. The final two rings are piled on top of each other, on foundations of building rubble and old abandoned Cubes. Sometimes there's a shift underneath that shakes the whole structure. It probably doesn't mean anything. You get from low to tall by means of escalators, which don't always work. Climbing all the way up to Container level when the escalators don't work is a real five-storey-brownstone pain in the ass. Luckily some enterprising folks have set up little mobile kibble wagons at each level, some even with seating, so climbers can take a break when they need to. 

Many of the people who live here are in construction and entertainment. Company transport wagons bus them over to Pacifica Playground to the West, where there are plenty of jobs. The ones who don't work in Pacifica either work in one of the nearby construction or factory zones, or they have a hard time getting by.

Utilities (power and water) are handled on-site by filtration plants and solar generators. The Cubes and Containers aren't plumbed-in (though some of the more expensive Containers do have micro-shower cubicles). Instead there are public lavatories and showers inside the Stadium, accessed by private keys issued to tenants. The company that manages the utilities, toilets and showers, River Bend Management, is every tenant's love-to-hate company. Brownouts are common in the hot months, when everyone tries to run a fan or some kind of air conditioning. 

Wireless Nodes nearby are run by three different service providers, of which the most popular is Feebus, with its cartoon winged man logo. Feebus isn't more reliable than the others, but it's cheaper. 

Gang activity was a big problem in Crystal Rock's early days, but it's less of a problem now thanks in part to BozoByeBye, a loosely organized neighborhood watch. Originally set up by a Solo who's since moved out of Crystal Rock, BozoByeBye was created to deal with a persistent Bozo infestation in the Stadium. Nearly every permanent resident has the BBB app installed in their Agent, and it's generally assumed that when an alert pings someone in the group will deal with the problem. Eventually.

There is no security per se. River Bend keeps a remote eye on its installation and occasionally a Precinct #2 Zhirafa flies over, but there are no armed guards on patrol. 

OK, so that's the Building. More than enough information there to keep the players entertained. What about the people?

Let's stick to three per area to keep things as simple as possible. So what are the areas? Broadly: the Stadium, the Tents, the Cubes, the Containers.

Stadium: Khan a cheerful little man in his early thirties (Aikido 6) who owns and operates PatchIt, a clothing repair store, bullet holes a specialty. He's dry cleaner, leatherworker and tailor to all of Crystal Rock. When this was still a sports stadium his store was a souvenir shop, and he hasn't changed the layout much. He also runs a self-defense class for Crystal Rock tenants. 

                Mulligan a broad-faced woman in her early forties, techie, River Bend's main maintenance operative. Big fan of BBB, will abandon a job in progress to go hunting with her shotgun.

                Hooman an acne-scarred Fixer in his mid-twenties, the unofficial pharmacist for Crystal Rock. Limited medical skills, nothing like a ripperdoc or even a competent medtech but he can at least fill you full of narcotics, slap your ass and send you on your way.

Tents:       Alice, formerly a dancer with minor exotic body mods (cat), lost her main gig after a bout with cyberpsychosis. Scrapes a living refilling noodle Vendits in the Stadium, dreams of getting back into Pacifica. Local strip joint TropicalMotion keeps offering her work and she keeps turning it down. 

                El Nagar, a Solo lying low after a really bad gig. Light tattoos indicate Triad affiliations. Enhanced Antibodies, Skin Weave, Vampyres. Keeps a machete and an SMG on him at all times. Likes to play chess.

                Sudo, a gambling fanatic who sometimes has a Cube but more often than not is out in the tents again. His main game is poker. His prize possession is his Netrunning deck (500eb), the only thing he's never sold or pawned. 

Cubes:    Dirty Dirty, affiliated with the Aldecaldos, is Crystal Rock's Shylock. Mid-forties, broad and brawny. If you want a loan and have something to pawn, he's your guy. He doesn't really live in his Cube; it's more of a storage space for the stuff people give him. The lock's much better than average, and you won't get the combination from Dirty Dirty even at gunpoint. Day in, day out, you'll find him sat outside his Cube waiting for business.

                Mikey, construction worker (borgware Sigma, heavy lifter), eternally cheerful, to such an extent people wonder if he's permanently stoned. He does a lot of work in dangerous zones; people joke his footprints glow.

                 Cleo, kibble vendor who runs a stall out on the Cube's rooftops. Korean theme, has a popular sideline in medicinal foods or boyangshik. Always on the lookout for her deadbeat former girlfriend Seo-yun, who's often strung out on Hooman's latest batch.

Containers:  Hibiscus, rocker/entertainer at a Pacifica nightclub, Redemption. Age impossible to guess, apparent age twenty-one. They specialize in pre-Bomb classics, more feel-good than high-intensity. One of Khan's dedicated students, and often runs the class if he's not available (Aikido 6).  

                    Wally, corporate shark (literally - shark aquaform), works human resources for a construction firm, Premier General. He's one of the few people in Crystal Rock who was actually born in Rancho Coronado, pre-Bomb. He remembers coming to watch the Rancho Raiders with his dad when this was still a stadium.

                    Bobbi J, media, street scribe with a local music scene focus, a regular vidcast, Spread the Word, known in Rancho but not elsewhere. Popularly thought to have links with Network 54 talent scouts. Almost pro-level dancer, technicolor hair.

That's it. That's the Building. That's all you need. 

Insert players, watch plot develop. Will they help Cleo save Seo-yun? Go Bozo hunting with Mulligan? What's the deal with El Nagar, and will some heavy hitters come looking for the Solo down on his luck? Is Dirty Dirty going to have to break Sudo's leg before Sudo coughs up the cash? Is Mikey borderline cyberpsycho or is his permanent happiness actually the real deal? Jesus, what is up with Feebus today - reception's patchy as hell. Will River Bend ever fix the fracking toilets - and what is causing that stink anyway? (My money's on a dead Bozo Mulligan chased down an HVAC vent, but you never know ...) 



Sunday, 27 December 2020

Ripped from the Headlines: Ghost Boat Cocaine

Inspired by this Guardian article about an 18-foot fiberglass boat that washed up on the Marshall Islands, stuffed to the gunwales with cocaine, an $80 million haul. The Maritime Executive has a slightly longer version, with photographs.

Sourced from CNN via jonastur68

I've talked about ghost ships before. From North Korea's fishing boats to the Mary Celeste, pausing briefly to admire cruise ships stuffed with cannibal rats, derelicts infest the ocean blue. This one's a bit of a head-scratcher. You just don't take an 18-foot putt-putt far from shore. Not if you value your life and cargo, and someone must have valued this cargo if not the life of whichever shmuck was paid to pilot. Presumably it wasn't piracy, or the cargo would have vanished. 

So it was probably a coastal storm of some description, bad enough to wash the pilot overboard but not bad enough to sink the boat. Fiberglass is difficult to sink, but every other year here in Bermuda hurricanes prove that difficult is not the same thing as impossible. You regularly see boats sunk at their anchorage, perhaps a bit of the bimini sticking above the surface. The pilot almost certainly drowned, and if he didn't he must have wished he had. Explaining that sort of thing to the bosses is not an easy task.

The bit I like is at the end of the Guardian article:

University of Hawaii researchers conducted 16 computer simulations of drift patterns from the Mexico coast and found nearly all eventually arrived in the Marshall Islands.

The Maritime Executive has an interesting addition:

Some of these lost-and-found narcotics re-enter the supply chain: earlier this year, a resident of  remote Ailuk was caught and arrested after trying to board an airplane with three kilos of cocaine in his possession. The source, he told investigators, was from a different batch of lost "bricks." 

The Marshalls have been independent since 1986; before that it was part of the American-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, and before that it bounced from pillar to post in the usual that-colony's-mine-until-I-don't-want-it way that was so popular from the 1500s onwards. Before that it was one of the many islands settled by Micronesians, well before the birth of Christ. These days it's a parliamentary republic with an interest in fishing, selling flags of convenience to shipping companies, and bitcoin, not necessarily in that order. There's not a lot of ways to make money if you're the Marshall Islands. 

A little under 78,000 people live there, the vast majority being Marshallese. The islanders have their own language, but English is widely spoken. Median age is (roughly) 23, and the population mostly lives on the atolls of Majuro and Ebeye. The US takes care of defense and the Marshallese police take care of internal issues.

Past nuclear tests nearby have left a toxic legacy. While compensation has been granted it has not been paid, and some of the atolls are completely uninhabitable due to radiation poisoning. 

According to the CIA, no TV broadcast station; a cable network is available on Majuro with programming via videotape replay and satellite relays; 4 radio broadcast stations; American Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) provides satellite radio and television service to Kwajalein Atoll (2019). 

Roughly 40% of the island has internet access.

With all that in mind:

Lost and Gone (Fear Itself, Esoterrorists)

It ought to have been simple. When the boat drifted ashore with its load of cocaine at Ailuk, a remote and lightly-inhabited coral atoll about 200 nautical miles to the north of Majuro, the plan was to burn most of it and turn over a few bricks for the DEA to analyze. A couple agents were given the onerous task of flying over to collect - never let a chance for a visit to a semi-tropical paradise pass you by, must be the company motto. The bricks were supposed to be kept secure at the air base at Bucholtz, on  Kwajalein Island. 

Nobody knows where those bricks are. As for the ones that were supposed to be destroyed ... rumor has it that not all of those found their way into the incinerator. Each one's practically a pension for whoever has them. Bucholtz is being torn apart in the search for the two that were supposed to be there, and the cops who had possession of the rest are under intense scrutiny.

Meanwhile rumors are flying, strange lights are seen out at sea, and some fishermen say a new boat's been seen out on the water at night - one without a pilot, yet it seems to be getting about just fine.

  • Free Meal. The original pilot was attacked by a Skitch (Unremitting Horror) and killed, but that left the insect-like meat eater with a problem. Once the boat was out at sea, there were no ways to spread its eggs. The Skitch was at the very end of its life cycle when the boat drifted up to Ailuk, its carcass smeared across the deck. Some of it was snatched up by birds, some by rats and crabs, before the boat was discovered. These have slowly found their way back into the human food chain, through cats (who eat the rats and birds) or other means. The bit about the missing cocaine is a red herring; the real problem is the skitch eggs which are now spreading rapidly through the local population. 
  • Bad Trip. That wasn't cocaine. Perhaps it was Liao, perhaps something else, but whatever occult substance is in those bricks someone at Bucholtz knows what it really is. That person isn't a cultist nor yet trained in mystic arts but they know just enough to know how insanely valuable the stuff is. Far too valuable to go up in an incinerator. So this person arranged for the cops to hand over their supply and made sure the two bricks kept for the DEA went missing. Meanwhile they sent out feelers to people they knew in Hong Kong and Macau: does anyone want to take this stuff off my hands? Now the problem is how to keep everyone bribed and compliant long enough for someone who actually knows how to handle the drug to show up and take it away.
  • Bright Lights. The boat was targeted off the coast of Mexico by Something - say, Greys from Delta Green. Those same Greys tracked the boat all the way across the ocean, wanting to carry out an ocean drift patterns experiment of their own. Where would it end up? Now the Greys know, but evidently that wasn't the end of the experiment. Whatever it is, it's still hanging around in the skies above the Marshalls, dogging whoever came into contact with the boat or its cargo. The cops who stole a pension, the army guys who 'lost' a couple bricks of cocaine, they're all being tracked, abducted, experimented on, and returned to their ordinary lives - perhaps a little traumatized, otherwise fine. The question is, what do the Greys really want - and what will it take to persuade them to go away?
Enjoy, and Happy Holidays! I'm going to take a break for one week, so no Ephemera next Sunday. After that, we'll kick off the New Year - and may it be better than 2020! 

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Seven Kinds of Fruit Loops (Bookhounds of London)

Seven Kinds of People You Find In Bookshops (Shaun Bythell, Profile Books hardback, 2020 ed) is something I'm going to talk about in detail for a YSDC Bookshelf, but I also want to recommend it here for Bookhounds of London players and Directors. It is exactly what you'd expect from the title; a slightly misanthropic take on the kinds of customers often found infesting bookshops, antiquarian or otherwise. 

It reminds me of a similar book, An Innkeeper's Diary (John Fothergill, Chatto and Windus, 1931). Fothergill's a snooty crosspatch who, in 1922, 'found that I must do something for a living' and so became an Innkeeper. 'Here at last I thought I might still be myself and give to others something of what I had acquired before making this clean-cut departure from my past.'  Thoroughly miserable old fool that he was, he persisted, and became friend to the literary greats of the period. Every page turned I couldn't help but wonder why the hell Fothergill, who by any standard seems to have been a prime candidate for an atomic wedgie, stayed in a profession he obviously felt was beneath him. Shaun Bythell seems cut from the same cloth.

Understand, I'm not saying Bythell's a bad man, or, worse yet, a bad writer. I'm saying he exudes the kind of scruffy pomposity you often find in a university lecturer, and I'm not sure how much of that is his professional persona intended for public consumption, and how much natural tendency. Frankly, I doubt even he knows, with any certainty.

Video sourced from David R Godine

Yet Bythell persists, and has won fame and plaudits. Seven Kinds is the third he's published; the others are Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller

You can probably guess the kind of people Bythell's talking about but I wanted to bring this to your attention because of one chapter among the seven: Genus: Homo qui maleficas amat (Occultist). This is why I bought the book: I wanted to mine it for Bookhounds of London

Boy howdy, can you ever.

I'm not going to go through the whole thing. Technically I don't suppose it counts as spoilers, but it's much more fun if you read it for yourself. That said, what I do intend to do is use those descriptions as a stepping stone to create an NPC which you might use in the game. 

Let's begin.

Type one. Species: artifex maleficus (dark artist)

Always dressed completely in black, usually a bit overweight and invariably on a quest for books by Aleister Crowley, or something antiquarian with which they believe they can summon Mephistopheles.

The always dressed in black bit is a modern conceit. In the 1930s people didn't know what Goths were, unless they were sacking Rome, or claiming all the best spots by the pool with carefully placed towels. In game, Bohemian with a touch of Count Dracula is the better way to go. A bit of the fictional gypsy, all ribbons, bright colors and crystals.  

Martyn Bower

Description: gender a bit of a mystery, always wears red and often too tight over an ample front, never without jade cigarette holder, probably in their 20s though is the type who will look 16 forever.

Auction 4, Fleeing 6, Magic 4

You could set your clock by Martyn. On the second of the month, without fail, in they trot with a new list of wants. Somehow Martyn's always on the cusp; there's meant to be a maiden aunt out there somewhere who will drop off the twig any minute and leave Martyn all her money. Not that anyone's ever met this mystery aunt, mind. Until then Martyn lives off credit and great expectations. Martyn's pet subject is Demonology; give Martyn the slightest opportunity and Martyn will talk your ear off. To Martyn Demonology is a soap opera; Mephistophilis might be some rake cutting a broad swathe through the swooning females of Tartarus, Beelzebub the wicked uncle lording it over his downtrodden extended family. And you wouldn't believe what that crafty tart Lilith's been up to!

Type two. Species: homo qui conjurationes fervet (conspiracy theorist)

Although not strictly speaking an occultist, the conspiracy theorist shares with the dark artist the characteristic of credulously believing in something for which there is an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary.

Robin Lea

Description: wiry, mop of sandy hair, charming polite goofball who, without ever intending to, creates chaos all around. If there's an open bucket of paint on the floor, Robin's about to step in it.

Driving 4, Explosives 1, Firearms 2, Mechanical Repair 3.

Robin's the radical's radical, the red sheep of an otherwise solidly middle class family. He dreams of making a difference, of striking a blow for the downtrodden. He's convinced the enemy outside will destroy the nation, the enemy within will destroy the nation, the enemy above will destroy the nation, the enemy below haven't the slightest idea what's going on, and Robin is the only benevolent conspirator in London - if not the country. He's remarkably well informed on police procedure and if he was a character he'd have a high Cop Talk rating, so it should come as no surprise that his father's a chief inspector at Scotland Yard who devoutly wishes Robin would grow up and take life seriously. If you want to find Robin, look in someone else's bed; he's usually in it or hiding under it.

Type three. Species: homo qui cartas providas legit (tarot reader)

Gazing into crystal balls and predicting the futures of complete strangers on the basis of precisely nothing has traditionally been the exclusive preserve of bearded - or at least heavily mustachioed - middle-aged types of either gender.

Lucy Garland

Description: forbidding stick insect, forever prodding with her umbrella as if it were some form of proboscis. Avid collector of any and every variant of Tarot de Marseille and is never without at least one deck.

Auction 4, Filch 2, Magic 2

Lucy knows. Nobody's quite sure what she knows, but she knows. She has that ineffable air of mystery that comes with being a fortune teller, and her client list is really quite stunning. Not just the great and good, but also the peculiar and the downright criminal consult her. She's as well known in the East End as she is the West, and her boast is she never judges anyone's behavior, sexual habits or larcenous tendencies. A client is a client, and their confidence is treated with the utmost respect. Many people wonder what this Victorian remnant does for fun. She's never been seen to drink, smoke, or indulge in any vice, nor has she ever been married - as far as anyone knows. Rumors abound. If every story's to be believed she's actually led a debauched life with six husbands, four wives (including a Duke's daughter), and currently sleeps in a coffin in an East End opium den - but you shouldn't put your stock in stories.  

Type four. Species: venator umbrorum (ghost hunter)

A YouGov survey in 2014 revealed that more people in the UK believe in ghosts than describe themselves as religious (34% and 26%, respectively).

Jacob D'Aster

Description: Craggy with a touch of aristocratic frost, full crimson vampiric lips, eyes that cut like razors. Particularly interested in anything to do with ghosts or Enochian practice. Never without his bag of tricks, which is full of odds and sods - it always seems to contain what he needs when he needs it.

Auction 2, Fleeing 4, Magic 2, Scuffling 6, Weapons 4

It's funny how D'Aster can become Astor at a moment's notice. Not that Jacob's a member of the illustrious banking and political clan, heavens no. He would never trade on anyone's mistaken belief that he's worth thousands, if not millions. That would be beneath him. Yet for whatever reason all sorts of people think he's minted, absolutely rolling in the spondoolicks, and Jacob never troubles to correct them. He might live in a drafty East End garret, but he'll never be anything less than the Lord of the Manor. He's even fought a duel, they say, defending a lady's honor. That was before the vampire incident in Highgate Cemetery. Ever since, Jacob's had almost a monomania about the place. If ever you want him, that's where you're most likely to find him.   

Type five. Species: homo artificii studiosus (craft enthusiast)

Although not technically an occultist, the craft enthusiast shares many of the characteristics of some of the subsets, most notably the tarot reader's dress sense.

Larry Tinston

Description: Your five-year-old younger brother, except he's twenty four and twice as annoying. His day job's at St Bart's and somehow his clothes are always spotted with gore or chemical burns, never mind that odd antiseptic smell that follows on his heels, more faithful than any hound. People always forget he was a boxing blue (Fist +0 damage).

Auction 1, Fleeing 3, First Aid 4, Scuffling 8

Everybody knows Larry. It's impossible not to know the man - he barges into every conversation, whether he knows who's talking or not. He assumes you're the best of friends, despite any evidence to the contrary. Which can be unfortunate, as Larry's true love is trains. He's a member in very good standing of the MRC (Modern Railway Club) King's Cross and his modelling skills are second to none (effective Craft 4). He will talk the hind legs off two donkeys and a nun, if given the slightest encouragement. Some do. Those with Megapolisomatic interests have noticed Larry's models can give magical bonuses to any working involving trains. Nobody knows why, least of all Larry, to whom any esoteric discussion is so much piffle. People have been known to pay Larry good money for his models, just to help them carry out some mystic scheme or other. Funny thing; nobody ever tries it twice. They say Larry's models give them peculiar dreams ...


Sunday, 13 December 2020

Rats, Rats, Rats as Big as Cats (GUMSHOE all)

 In the Quartermaster's store ... or in this case, a Manhattan Chipotle outlet.

Video sourced from PIX11 News

Rats have been a horror staple for I couldn't even tell you how long. Some of our most effective horror writers have used them with great success. James Herbert turned feral human-devouring rats into a trilogy which ended with them munching on a thinly disguised Maggie Thatcher. Herbert turned those rats into a career, and became one of the grand masters of horror as a consequence. 

Bram Stoker wrote one of his most effective horror shorts, The Judge, about a rat-infested house, and of course our dear friend Dracula has a close relationship with rodents - so close that Stephen King  borrowed the idea for Salem's Lot. He created a moment so hideous that his agent insisted he cut it from the narrative; I had them swarming all over him like a writhing, furry carpet, biting and chewing, and when he tries to scream a warning to his companions upstairs, one of them scurries into his open mouth and squirms as it gnaws out his tongue said King.

M.R. James once pulled a very sneaky blinder by titling a short story Rats, leading with a quote from Charles Dickens about bedclothes a-heaving with the rats under them, only to immediately forswear rats entirely and write the story about something else. Deceitful old soul that he was. 

New York is obsessed with rodents in a way I can't recall encountering anywhere else. Whenever someone posts a video about rats dragging away slices of pizza, people dressed in rat costumes wandering about in subway stations, giant inflatable rats posted at Union protests, I don't even bother asking which city. It's always New York. One of my favorite zombie movies is a rat zombie film, set in New York's Mulberry Street, made on a shoestring and remarkably well put together.

Sourced from The Palace of Horror

Why rats? Again, King has the answer.

I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.

Rats, and vermin in general, are easy gross-outs. Just having them appear in the scene is enough to get a lot of people shaking in their khakis. One rat's bad enough - so let's have two, three, a dozen. They make us feel vulnerable, and where a kaiju or some larger creature terrifies though size and ferocity, rats do the same and worse by making us feel small.

One of James Herbert's most effective moments, which appeared in the film adaptation, comes when the rats swarm a baby. In the film you never see the body but that's definitely not the case in the novel. Herbert looks that moment square on, as if there was a camera put right over the cradle. The family dog does its best but is quickly overwhelmed, and soon after that the child's torn apart. Which is how rats make us feel - tiny, defenseless, vulnerable.

Bear in mind, that's all aroundabout page 20. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. 

See, you can fight a wolf. You can hunt a bear, catch a shark. Rats, on the other hand, are like zombies - the weight of numbers is on their side. Kill one, there are ten more. Kill ten, there are a hundred. You can never kill them all. As for running ...

When I speak of poor Norrys they accuse me of a hideous thing, but they must know that I did not do it. They must know it was the rats; the slithering, scurrying rats whose scampering will never let me sleep; the daemon rats that race behind the padding in this room and beckon me down to greater horrors than I have ever known; the rats they can never hear; the rats, the rats in the walls. H.P. Lovecraft

It doesn't help that rats are pretty much contemptuous of us humans. They'll invade our spaces, wander though our kitchens, our bedrooms as they please, when they please. They'll attack us, bite us, where another animal might run. A cornered rat will bite a cat, it's said. To fight like a cornered rat is to fight with utmost ferocity, no holds barred. 

The Quartermaster's Store, that cheerful ditty, may pre-date the Great War but it certainly became popular then, and no surprise. The War had more than its fair share of rat stories. 


Entropy (n) lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder. As symbolism goes, you can't get better than rats. Look at what happened at the Chipotle: wires destroyed, stock eaten, staff injured, a decline into disorder that leads inevitably to destruction - or in this case, closure. 

So any scenario involving rats ought to be reinforcing that theme: disorder, decline, unpredictability. 

With all that in mind:

The Nest

The characters are asked to go to X and recover Y. For purposes of this outline it doesn't matter what X or Y actually are. Y is valuable enough to send some poor shmucks to go get it, and X is a place that once was quite nice and now is not. It could be a subway station. an airport, a fine mansion on the hill. Or none of these things. 

The previous occupant(s) were less than cleanly. Maybe it was an aged packrat (eh? ehhh?) who piled everything up until trash overwhelmed them. Maybe it was squatters, or some eccentric billionaire who forgot how to take showers and clip their toenails. Whoever it was, they left a lot of stuff behind, some of which is valuable. That's apart from whatever Y is worth; extra loot, which the characters might carry away for themselves.

Then they find the bones. At first it's animals; cats, dogs, relatively ordinary creatures whose corpses were dragged inside and flung into a midden. It's unusual behavior for unintelligent animals; people create middens all the time, octopi also, but it's rarer for other creatures. 

Then they start finding human remains, picked clean. Some were transients, people who probably came here for shelter. Others may have been ambushed and brought here; kids, city workers, people who got too close. Somehow they were dragged here after death, their bodies carefully hidden away.

Then they find the holes, the tunnels that lead downward, ever downward.


  • The rats are being channeled or powered by a minor supernatural or Outer Dark entity; a ghost, say, or some kind of dybbuk. This spirit has inhabited the decaying flesh of one of the corpses and so long as that corpse isn't buried or otherwise dealt with, the rats will keep coming back.
  • The rats are being controlled by a different kind of rat, perhaps one with multiple heads (credit to James Herbert for that one.) This super-rat has psychic control over their lesser brethren, a kind of Queen status. It can't move very quickly so if the characters find this rat they should be able to kill it - provided they can get past all the other rats.
  • The problem is X. Wherever or whatever X is, it's not a place as we understand the term. It's entropy manifest. It started small, perhaps one room in a much larger structure, but over time entropy infested everything, took over the complete building, with unfortunate consequences for the people who lived/worked there. There may not be a way to defeat it, but there ought to be a way to contain it for now. Later, someone with more smarts or resources can actually destroy it. You hope ...


Sunday, 6 December 2020

Heath Robinson Assassination (Night's Black Agents)

 From the Guardian, concerning the recent assassination of scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Iran:

“The operation was very complex and took place using electronic devices, and no one was present at the scene,” [Ali Shamkhani, secretary for Iran's supreme national security council] told Iranian media ... 

A [Fars news agency] report said Fakhrizadeh and his wife were travelling in a bulletproof car along with three vehicles for bodyguards when gunfire hit his car. Fakhrizadeh exited the car to check the damage, the report said, speculating that he may have thought he had hit something.

“At this moment, from a Nissan car that was stopped 150 metres away from the martyr’s car, several shots were fired at the martyr from an automatic remote-controlled machine gun,” the [Fars] report said, adding that one bullet hit his back.

“Moments later, the same stopped Nissan exploded,” it said, adding that the owner of the car, which it did not identify, had left the country a month ago. It said the weapons may have been controlled by satellite.

The Iranian state-owned broadcaster Press TV cited unidentified “informed sources” as saying remnants from the attack showed Israeli arms had been used to kill Fakhrizadeh.

My first reaction: that seems needlessly complicated. 

Think about all you'd have to arrange for this to happen. You'd have to smuggle in some fairly sophisticated equipment, get someone with above-average technical expertise to put it all together (don't forget whoever-it-is needs to be a demolitions expert as well as a mechanical genius), transport all that kit to the hit site and pray Fakhrizadeh chooses exactly that route. Since he's an assassination target you've got to figure he changes his driving route constantly to avoid becoming an easy target, so good luck with that. Hopefully your sources on the inside can give you Fakhrizadeh's route so you don't have to rely on blind luck. 

You probably can't afford to leave the Nissan in place for longer than a few hours, so this all has to be done quickly as well as discreetly. Presumably you have to have a Plan B in case this doesn't work and you have to retrieve the Nissan and its gear to try again tomorrow. You'd then have to remotely control all that sophisticated equipment and do it in such a way that you can adjust the kill shot in case Fakhrizadeh doesn't obligingly stand exactly where you want him to. You then have to carry off the operation flawlessly and extract whoever it was that put all that equipment together. As assassinations go, this technical masterpiece makes the aerosol murder of Kim Jong-nam look like amateur hour.

Incidentally, jolly good luck on the shooter's part that not only did Fakhrizadeh get out of his bulletproof car and stand out in the open like a complete fool, but also his bodyguards didn't immediately intervene and drag the idiot under cover. Three vehicles, assume four people per vehicle - that's twelve bodyguards, any one of whom could have saved his life. Did Fakhrizadeh habitually bail out of his protective vehicle? Is that why his bodyguards weren't quick off the bat - were they used to his antics? Was he deliberately lured out? Otherwise this seems like an incredibly lucky break, worthy of Gavrilo Princip.

For those keeping score, the effective range of a heavy machine gun is well over 150m, so no problems there. An SMG would have an effective range of about 200m, so accurate shooting's getting a bit complicated and in any case an SMG would have next to no chance of penetrating the bullet-resistant car. An assault rifle's effective range is about 400m more or less, but has a similar problem with bullet resistance - and remember this all has to happen in a matter of seconds, because the target will rabbit as soon as the threat's obvious. 

So if this happened at all the Nissan presumably had a mounted HMG of some description, since the shooter couldn't count on Fakhrizadeh getting out of the car and the HMG has the best chance of being able to eat through the car's resistance to hit the target. Even then, the odds aren't great - unless the target gets out of the car and obligingly provides the perfect opportunity.

Video sourced from JerryRigEverything

Incidentally I cry bullshit on that claim Israeli armaments were used to carry out the attack. It might have been the Israelis, but if it was not even the most idiotic of spies uses easily identifiable home-manufactured equipment. It'd be like James Bond parachuting in with a Union Jack chute. 

Spy Who Loved Me clip

I can't help thinking it would have been easier to smuggle in a couple gunmen, purchase equipment on the ground, and hit the target the old-fashioned way. It sounds more like something I'd see in an NCIS Los Angeles plotline than a real-life Iranian assassination. After all, if your whole plan hinges on the target being kind enough to get out of the car and present you with a kill shot it really doesn't matter whether you're using Robocar or someone with a reasonably accurate rifle.

If you're wondering whether I can get past that, no, I really can't. This whole scheme would probably have gone down the crapper if Fakhrizadeh hadn't gotten out of the car. So why the hell did he? People do stupid things, but you've got to figure he'd been told again and again that staying in the car was the best policy - he's a prime target, after all. Did he really care that much if the paintwork on his company car got dinged?

That said, if the Wire Rats in your Night's Black Agents game aren't paying close attention to this theory then they just aren't trying hard enough.

Heath Robinson was a cartoonist who specialized in ridiculous, over-complicated mechanical devices; his American equivalent, and spiritual successor, is Rube Goldberg. The NBA support book Double Tap gives Achievement rules, in which:

  • when an agent meets the criteria for an achievement
  • and the player provides a colorful bit of roleplaying or hot-dogging
  • the agent gets a 3-point refresh of whichever General ability seems most appropriate
From that:

Heath Robinson Assassination. Carry out an assassination completely remotely, by using remote-control equipment of some complexity. No fair just exploding a bomb with your cell phone; get creative with your kill shot.

The Double Tap cherry Trapmaster is the closest equivalent to any cherry I might devise to cover this situation. I'm not about to reinvent the wheel.

However there is another possibility: Distance Shooter. The Wire Rat can use Mechanics pool for Shooting tests when using a remotely controlled rifle or similar weapon. I'm a little leery of this. It requires some prior assembly, and it kinda feels as if the Wire Rat's stealing the team sniper's thunder, but it does have that quasi-Cyberpunk feel that the best Wire Rat ought to be able to manage.   

If I were assigning Difficulty to this task I would add 3 for every element of the task, on the presumption that the more moving parts involved the more opportunities there are for failure. So in this instance there are at least three elements of the task:

  1. Placement/assembly of the assassination weapon. (You could split that into two elements, for greater Difficulty).
  2. Remote control of the assassination weapon.
  3. Remote viewing of the target.
That makes the total Difficulty 9. Tag-Team Tactical Benefits or Tactical Fact-Finding can help reduce that Difficulty to an acceptable level, or add in points to help the Wire Rat hit the difficulty.