Thursday, 20 November 2014

The School of Night, Kit Marlowe and Bookhounds: The Dagger That Slew Him

Ken Hite's KWAS edition The School of Night brings into focus something I've been thinking about for a while, and I'd like to discuss what it could mean for Bookhounds of London.

Often the Bookhounds end up chasing Mythos texts of one kind or another, and that's fine, but it does mean that they end up doing broadly the same things that any other Cthulhu investigator does: hunt down obscure Mythos facts and save the day. Problem being that you, as Keeper, can't have them stumbling over the Necronomicon every other week. There must be other books, other mysteries to unravel. What could they be?

Dramatist, author and probable spy Christopher Marlowe lived a very eventful life, before his murder in May 1593 at the hands of Ingram Frizier. To this day nobody's entirely sure what happened. The three men in the pub with Marlowe at the time claimed it was an argument over money, but all three seem unreliable witnesses. Robert Poley was an intriguer and professional liar who once said 'I will swear and forswear myself, rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm,' Nicholas Skeres was a confidence trickster, while Ingram Frizer, the alleged assassin, was also a con man as well as an agent of Thomas Walsingham, a patron of Marlowe's. The coroner's report, discovered in 1925 by Shakespearean scholar and literary detective Leslie Hotson, said that Frizier had acted in self-defense, and acquitted him. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in Deptford.

Marlowe's plays were published posthumously, among them The Massacre at Paris, which no longer exists in manuscript; the edition in publication is a reconstruction, based on the memories of the actors who performed it. One page allegedly exists, as part of the collection gathered by notorious forger John Payne Collier, who regularly created Shakespearean documents in an attempt to 'prove' his own theories. He even went so far as to insert his forgeries into the original record, by amending existing texts. The Massacre page, known as the 'Collier leaf,' is thought to be authentic.

The Massacre at Paris describes the events of the St Bartholemew's Day Massacre in 1572, a three day butchery of Protestant Huguenots by Catholics which left somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 dead. The Catholic mob believed it was necessary in order to prevent a Huguenot coup d'etat; women and children were hunted down and slaughtered, and the bodies of the dead were flung into the Seine.

Now consider this possibility: your Bookhounds discover, at auction, a bundle of papers described as 'an Elizabethan miscellany.' The papers include one or more pages from an unpublished manuscript, as well as some legal documents. A quick scan leads the Bookhounds to suspect that the manuscript is actually Marlowe's Massacre, and the legal document is an attestation from the Coroner, William Danby, that 'the attached poniard is that same weapon with which Ingram Frizier did rob Marlowe of his life.' The Bookhounds then realize the hitherto unsuspected significance of another item up for auction, an Elizebethan era dagger, listed as 'provenance unknown.'

Suddenly a world of possibilities open up. Talk about a Windfall for the shop; two, even three pages from Marlowe's missing play? The very dagger that killed him, with documentation attached as provenance? Fame, fortune, glory; it could all be theirs.

Now try to prove it.

Scholars are going to go mad about this discovery. There will be condemnations as well as accolades; if there's ever been the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing connected to the characters, this fantastic find will be dismissed out of hand as a blatant forgery. The Bookhounds may need to find a tame scholar of their own, an acceptable face to announce this new find to the world. But where to get one?

There are other problems. Suppose the pages can be traced back to Collier, whose proclivity for creating his own evidence is well known. Does that mean that these pages are forgeries too, or are they, like the Collier leaf, genuine?

What about that dagger? Proving it to be the actual weapon that killed Marlowe seems an almost impossible challenge. However there are going to be plenty of desperate Elizabethan scholars out there determined to own it, and some of them might be desperate enough to kill. Collectors can be strange folk. So too can occultists; imagine the kind of sympathetic magic you could perform with such a weapon.

Going further, what about the School of Night? Consider what you, as Keeper, could do with an occult group of conspirators operating in the Elizabethan era, fighting against strange and supernatural threats against the throne. Catholics versus Protestant, wrapped up with witches, Rawhead, ghosts, and many other things that go bump in the night. There's every reason to intersperse a Bookhounds campaign with School of Night adventures, all leading up to that fatal moment in Deptford when Marlowe is murdered - but why? Which of his enemies orchestrated the deed? Is he in fact dead, or is there some cover-up allowing him to retire in peace after years of intriguing?

Suppose the Massacre contains a coded message, perhaps even some kind of warding spell. The play itself features a mysterious English Agent, generally considered to be Marlowe himself. Say Marlowe tried to protect his life by transferring some of his essence into the manuscript itself, much as wizards in old tales are supposed to have hidden their hearts away in secret places to avoid death. Does this mean the manuscript is haunted, or will it try to rebuild itself in an attempt to revive Marlowe? Is this the work of malevolent Dust Things, or is there really a chance Marlowe might come back?

If it is a spell, does it still work? Marlowe may have wanted to protect England against the same kind of religious turmoil that gripped Paris, but suppose that, in its damaged form, it actually provokes them. Could discovery of this document lead to Protestant massacres of Catholics, on the streets of 1930s London?

Ultimately, my point's this: you can do a lot with a literary mystery, beyond have the Bookhounds seek out Von Juntz's miscellanea again and again. Try a little mix-and-match with other settings or ideas, see where it takes you. Maybe you'll find out who really killed Marlowe, and why; maybe you'll put an end to a literary time bomb that's been waiting centuries to go off. You might attempt occult rituals with that dagger, or you might just spend all your time trying desperately to prove that the fabulously valuable literary artifact you discovered really is what you say it is.

Have fun!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Lovejoy and the Mythos: Bookhounds of London

If you've never read Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy series, I recommend them to Bookhounds Keepers in particular. The TV series is fun too, but it has a broad comedy streak, and comedy rarely ages well. Still, it's worth looking at for the atmosphere alone, and since many of the episodes involve auctions of one form or another, it's handy for setting the scene if you have an auction coming up in your game and aren't sure what to do about it.

I want to talk a little about divvies, but for that to happen I need to describe Lovejoy to the uninitiated.

Lovejoy is the main character in the series. He's an antique dealer and forger with an unusual talent: he can spot the real thing. In the series it's described as a near-supernatural gift; he can just feel when an antique is right, a talent he calls his 'bell' which rings the minute he comes into contact with the real thing. It makes him especially desirable to a certain kind of collector, and also a certain kind of criminal. Often it means he's swept up in one scheme or another, desperately trying to keep one step ahead of the people trying to manipulate him.

The very first book, The Judas Pair, is a case in point; Lovejoy is hired to find a near-mythical set of flintlock dueling pistols, only to discover that murder follows in their wake, and not just because the pistols themselves are desirable. In that story Lovejoy is hired by the brother of a former owner, who apparently was shot with one of the dueling pistols, though neither weapon can be found. How did Eric Field die? Who has the pistols now? What are they prepared to do to keep them?

This is actually one of the better ones for Keepers to pick up. Since it is the first, Gash is heavy on the detail, and there's plenty here about the shadowy world of antique collecting and forging. However we're not here to talk about books: we're here to talk about forgery.

In the game, the Technical ability is described as follows: 'you can create a false document, forge handwriting with a sample to work from, or (given time) fake an entire book. This ability does not convey any special skill at creating aged paper or ink, or at bookbinding, or an ability to write or otherwise create a given volume.' Which is good so far as it goes, but the poor forger is then lumbered with half-a-dozen Art and Craft specialties that he absolutely has to have in order to do his job, and will never actually use in game unless the Keeper's feeling kind and manufactures a clue to suit his peculiar build. Given that ability pool points are at a premium during character creation, I tend to say that a forger needs Art and Craft, but doesn't need to sink points into all those different specialties.

However this merely means that the character can create a forgery, and I suspect in most games this ends up meaning that the players decide to make a small fortune by forging, say, the Cthaat Aquidingen half-a-dozen times, palming each hooky copy off on some unsuspecting occultist. How often does it happen that someone tries to pass a forgery off on the player characters?

The Document Analysis ability allows players to tell fakes from genuine, but there is no in-game equivalent for any other kind of Analysis. It could be easy enough to rationalize different kinds of Analysis, all of which are Technical abilities that do broadly the same thing as Document Analysis but which work in other mediums: Art Analysis, Weapons Analysis (for those antique arms and armor), Furniture Analysis, Collectables Analysis (for any small tchotchke that doesn't fit in the other categories), and so on. Naturally the characters aren't going to be interested in these Abilities, not unless toy collecting - or what-have-you - is also part of their store's remit. These would be NPC abilities, for those moments when your character has to phone a friend to properly identify and value the item in question.

Of course, this does tend to create the impression in the players' minds that Analysis (of whatever type) always works; you spend a point, you get the benefit. That isn't precisely so. I would count these kinds of Analysis in the same way the game counts Lockpicking: an ability that always reveals a clue when there is a clue to be had, but which can also be used as a General ability. General abilities can fail.

Which is where Lovejoy comes in. As a divvy he has a special talent, his Bell, which in game can best be represented by Idiosyncratic Magic, used to bump up a General roll that didn't quite hit the Difficulty target. Exactly how this would work is up to your enterprising Bookhounds, but I'm sure they can think of some peculiar ritual that helps them tell false from real.

In the Bookhounds universe, there's bound to be a few divvies out there with actual magical powers. There's also bound to be even more people who pretend to be divvies in order to get customers, or who actually believe they have powers when in fact they do not. The psychic field is full of deluded practitioners who honestly believe everything they say, but just because someone swears a thing is so does not make it so.

It's up to the Keeper whether he wants one of the player characters to be a divvie. There's no real harm in it, and it can help the forger out. I find that forgers in my games are a bit like netrunners used to be in Cyberpunk; the idea's great, but the actuality doesn't really work the way you think it would. Forgers often end up locked in the back room, talking to no-one, diligently creating fakes. They lack a reason to get involved with the outside world, but certifying true antiques from forgeries gives them a reason to get out and meet people, and having a reputation as a divvie means the outside world will eagerly come to them.

But what is a fake, exactly? It's something that pretends to be real, and have value. That 'have value' is the most important part of the equation; nobody bothers to forge things that are easily available on the open market, for little or no money. From a Bookhounds point of view, it's a potential disaster waiting to happen.

Consider: every shop, no matter what it sells, operates ultimately on the basis of goodwill. So long as people think the store is reputable and does good business, customers will keep walking in the door. Many businesses, particularly in the service industry, are bought and sold on the basis of goodwill alone, not its physical assets. Any restaurant can buy tables and chairs, but they can't buy customers, and if there's a food poisoning incident that hits the papers, you can bet that restaurant's goodwill just dropped through the floor. It's the same with a bookstore. Who wants to be known as the bungler that certified a fake as the real thing? What store wants a reputation for passing off hooky merchandise? That's why a reputable dealer, if he becomes aware of a fake in his collection, has to eat the cost rather than try to pass it on to an unsuspecting customer. The consequences of being found out are just too great.

From a game perspective, being found to have sold forgeries, knowingly or not, must count as a Reverse. That means someone needs to be checking incoming stock, to make sure none of them are too good to be true. I'd suggest a Difficulty 4 check once every so often, perhaps at the beginning of the session, though not at the beginning of every session. However I would suggest that successfully selling a valuable forgery does not count as a Windfall, except for shops with Credit Rating 1 or lower. One sale, more or less, does not make a business; but being caught selling fakes, even once, can ruin it.

That's it for the moment! I hope you found this useful.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Rock Me Like a Hurricane (Trail of Cthulhu, Call of Cthulhu, All Flesh Must Be Eaten)

I've been out of action for over a week thanks to Hurricane Gonzalo, which hit us two weekends ago now. We lost power fairly quickly, but had it back within 24 hours. Telecommunication was more of a problem, as the pole went down during the storm and hasn't yet been replaced. We have a temp line coming in, but the least bit of bad weather will knock that out.

It occurs to me that a relatively small number of people have experienced a hurricane directly, and I thought I'd go over the sequence of events as they occur, with a discussion of what it might mean for a gaming group.

A hurricane is basically a high intensity tropical storm, with sustained winds of over 74 mph; a hurricane is categorized by the intensity of its winds, from 1 to 5. Gonzalo was a Cat 4 - sustained winds of over 130 mph - until it hit us, when it became a Cat 3, with something like 111 mph winds.

In the modern era, there's usually plenty of warning of a hurricane's approach. With Gonzalo, we first knew about it almost a week prior, when it was a tropical depression brewing down in the Caribbean. That gives you time to prepare, which in Bermuda usually means take in all the lawn furniture, move the boat - if you have one - to a safe anchorage in the lee of the projected storm winds, close up all the windows and put up shutters or plywood if need be, and lay in plenty of booze to keep you entertained.

Power's almost certain to go out, so you'll want candles or some other light source. I find candles slightly better than electric light sources, inasmuch as candles don't need to be recharged or use batteries. You don't know how long it will be before the lights come back on again, so you don't want to rely exclusively on a light source that consumes a lot of power or fuel. This also means you're likely to lose frozen food, so the day before the hit is the time to cook as much as possible. Stew's just as good cold as it is hot, after all, and bread or cakes will keep for a while. Expect to lose anything in the freezer or fridge. Lay in plenty of water, and run the taps as much as you can, filling buckets. Once the power goes, the only water you'll have to drink or cook with is the water you saved beforehand.

Briefly on the subject of cooking: the house I'm in uses gas, but a lot of people have switched to electric. That means you'll have no power to cook. There have been cases where people bring their BBQs inside the house to make burgers or what have you. That is a remarkably poor idea - almost Darwin Award worthy - but high risk of death by stupidity has never stopped anyone yet.

The storm will be making its presence felt for hours, if not days, before the hit, with cloudy skies and high winds. When it actually does hit, the chief difference you'll notice is in the intensity of the winds and the darkening sky. By that point you need to be indoors, in a solid structure. We build in stone here, nice thick walls, and most of our structures are low-lying. It's rare to see a building with more than one storey, and we seldom go in for large windows or walls of glass. This is why we seldom see catastrophic property damage here; no collapsed houses, and devastation is usually limited to trees and telephone poles. Bear in mind, Cat 3 is the same velocity as Katrina, which did such terrible damage to New Orleans. Historically there have been very few hurricane deaths here, and none during Gonzalo, though when it blew across the ocean and hit the UK it killed three people. However if you look at the cause of death and injury in the UK, it seems the majority were avoidable if only the victims had taken the storm seriously. All the dead were out and about, walking or driving somewhere; one man was repairing his van in 108mph winds. This is something people down here would never do.

The duration of the initial hit will probably be several hours, but there's usually no way to be certain. Hurricane behavior is, at best, erratic. However one phenomenon that is well known but which still takes people by surprise is the eye of the storm. This circular phenomena at the heart of the hurricane is marked by unnatural calm. All activity seems to have come to a complete stop, and were you to go outside and light a candle, you probably wouldn't see the flame flicker in the slightest as there's no breeze to trouble it. This is actually when the storm is at its most dangerous, because the calm lures people into a false sense of security. This is when many leave the safety of their homes and go out to have a look at the damage, even travel down to see their neighbors or check on the boat. However the eye is surrounded by a ring of winds called the eyewall, and this is where the storm is at its most intense. So long as you're in the eye itself, no problem, but the eye is constantly moving and you can never be sure when the eye will pass over and plunge you into the eyewall. If that happens when you're outside, you're probably dead; that, or very, very lucky to be alive. Gonzalo's eye lasted for somewhere between half to three quarters of an hour, and then the hurricane picked up again and hung on for a further four hours or so. It wasn't until one or two in the morning that the storm winds finally began to die away, as Gonzalo moved off shore.

The immediate aftermath of the storm is usually marked by good weather. In our case it's been very sunny, and though the first day or so was still quite humid, since Gonzalo the temperature has dropped significantly.

Clean-up is a top priority. As you can imagine, downed trees and telephone poles need to be cleared as soon as possible, so the roads can be used, and there's often a significant period where, thanks to power outages or damage, traffic signals are out. Airport clearance is also a priority, and after Gonzalo flights were going to and from a day or so after the hurricane hit. As I write this, there's still plenty of mess out there, but mess is all it is; you can drive wherever you want, and the airport's at capacity again.  

Now, that's what happens to us here in Bermuda. Hurricanes are something we know about and expect; they turn up once every few years, do some damage, and go away again. We're relatively safe, because we know what to do, and we've built out of stone because we recognize the damage that a hurricane can do to anything built out of anything less robust. It helped a great deal that, for many years, we could quarry limestone here rather than get supplies from overseas.

In other jurisdictions they do more damage, often for environmental or architectural reasons. When Georges, a Cat 2, hit Haiti in 1998, it killed 400 people and left over a hundred thousand homeless, largely because extensive deforestation created an environment in which mudslides were likely after heavy rain. In 1935 Jérémie - so called because that town was devastated - claimed more than 2,000 Haitian lives, most of whom were peasants living in wooden houses, often in river valleys prone to flooding. Florida's 1920 property boom was abruptly halted by the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 which plunged the state into an early economic Depression, just before the 1929 Great Depression kicked off. Again, few buildings in Miami at that time were built to withstand hurricane force winds. There were no building codes back then; Miami soon invented some, and became the first city in the US to implement a city-wide building code. Even now, hurricane mitigation construction is still a bit of an arcane science in Florida, which seems incredible when you consider how often the state is hit by storms.

From an RPG perspective, a hurricane is a great way to change the landscape of the scenario. Do your players rely on electronic communications and the internet? Tough; it's gone now. No knowing when it's coming back. For the next few hours, driving anywhere or even leaving the house you're in is impossible. The players are pinned in place, helpless. There's no calling the authorities now, no hope of a rescue. If you, as Keeper, want to deliver a short, sharp shock, now's the time. It doesn't have to stop there, of course; hurricane clean-up usually takes weeks, and the aftereffects can be felt for months. Suppose the storm uncovers something best left hidden? Maybe a predator that would normally have kept itself hidden now has to change its habits after the destruction of its hunting ground, or a long-forgotten temple or tomb is discovered during the clean-up.

To my mind this best suits a Trail or Call of Cthulhu one-shot, perhaps one in which a disparate group of strangers find themselves trapped for the night, with no way out. But if you were to play with the concept it might also make a good All Flesh Must Be Eaten kick-off. There was an interesting episode of Law & Order that assumed an anthrax outbreak had occurred after flooding in New Orleans wiped out some experimental laboratories. Suppose a similar incident released the zombie virus, and now your hurricane clean-up team has to deal not just with flooded out families and disaster relief, but also the walking dead? Imagine how difficult it would be to contain an outbreak like that.

All Flesh has a fun mechanic called Spreading the Love, which basically describes how the zombie virus infects people, creating more zombies. What if, in this instance that the prospective zombie has to be immersed, maybe even drowned, in the same tainted water that created the first batch? Going further, what if this encourages the creation of a special zombie type, whose only function is to carry this tainted water in its own bloated belly?

That's it for me, for now. Talk soon!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Fiction Corner: Behind You

I'm in the middle of a writing seminar led by sci fi author Tobias Buckell, and one of the assignments is to complete a short story. It's due in about eight days. I'm enjoying the process so far, and may well submit this one for publication at some point. I thought you might like to see the first five hundred words, just to get an idea of the process. The story's set in contemporary London, and the working title is Behind You. Enjoy!

***



The late evening tide of humanity washes past the Nando’s, which replaced the BBQ Hut, which replaced the Smoothie place, flowing towards the escalators, and Jen rides the tide, with only the faintest hint of Him at the back of her mind.
The escalator is broken - again - so Jen and the rest of the evening crowd struggle up the way a cruel God intended. The woman in front of Jen has a pull-case, and lacks the upper body strength to haul it easily upward. Jen bangs her ankle against it.
"Sorry," Jen says, but doesn’t feel.
No reply. The other woman’s lost in the great Canary Wharf shuffle, one more in the mix, going home.
Jen gets to the top and sees a tattered Metro, left behind by an earlier commuter, beckoning her from its hiding pace stuffed at the top of the escalator. She grabs it, hiding her face behind it, pretending to care about a Sudoku that someone else had already finished.
She glances at the board. Ten minutes till the next DLR train. Ten long, soul-sucking minutes.
The Sudoku is in pen, and whoever it was got it wrong.
The cartoon is one she'd seen before, but she idly looks at it again, begging for distraction, when the hairs on the back of her neck begin standing up. She shifts from foot to foot.
He is looking at her.
There’s no particular He, at least not that she can make out, but there’s no mistaking the feeling. The greasy eyes-on, the sensation of cold, slimy wetness. It’s one of the Hes. Which one?
Fat one, thin one, short one, tall? Some of them she knew from work, has seen in corridors, been in meetings with. None of them she could put a name to. The platform’s full of people. He could be any one of them.
Her pocket buzzes, and her heart sinks. A text. She fumbles in her pocket for the new phone, almost drops it, then angrily swipes through until she finds the screen she wants. It’s Simon. Of course it’s Simon. It wasn’t going to be anyone else.
MEET U L8R?
Not after last weekend, she thinks, and texts back:
WRK L8, SRY.
How do you tell someone you've met someone else? Jan hated it, hated the lies that became bigger lies, but the alternative was to look him in the eye and say ... what, exactly? Not boyfriend material? I like you, I just don't fancy you?
The hairs on the back of her neck are still up and twitching. The other He is looking at her.
"Train approaching. Mind The Gap."
The sudden rush to board, the frantic quest for seats followed by the equally frantic search for somewhere to stand. Jan found herself standing at the front of the car, looking into the rear of the next car, just as full as this one. Bored commuters packed in together, staring sightlessly at London, too clamped together to read a Metro.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of London: Ned Kelly's Skull

This post is inspired by a recent article concerning the fate of Australian bandit and folk hero Edward 'Ned' Kelly. I'm not going to recount Kelly's biography here - that's what Wikipedia's for - but, in brief, Kelly, after several minor brushes with the law, escalated to murdering policemen sent to arrest him, and started robbing banks. Their most memorable, and final, encounter was at the small town of Glenrowan, near Victoria, where Kelly and his friends, dressed in bullet-repelling armor, captured the entire town, thinking that police were due to arrive by train and that, if the gang acted quickly, they could derail that train. The pursuers were warned by a constable named Curnow before they reached the ambush point, and surrounded the gang at Mrs Jones' hotel, where Kelly and his men lay in wait along with most of the captured townsfolk. The resultant siege was bloody and violent, eventually ending when the hotel burnt down, but Kelly was taken hours before that. He'd been shot several times in the lower body, including once in the groin, but his armor protected his upper body and head. Kelly was hanged on November 11th, 1880.

Though the authorities tried to deny it, Kelly's body was taken for dissection, and his skull allegedly was given to phrenologists to examine, before being returned to the police who used it as a paperweight. The bodies of Kelly and his associates were exhumed in 1929 when building works took place at the gaol, and a skull alleged to be Kelly's was retrieved. However it's since been shown that the 1929 skull did not, in fact, belong to Kelly, which means it must have gone missing some time before. Nowadays there are several people who claim to have it, including a self-proclaimed witch. It might have been carried off by phrenologists, or it might have been buried somewhere else. Interestingly, the skull that was recovered in 1929 - and stolen in the 1970s, only to be returned in 2009 - probably belongs to Frederick Bailey Deeming, once thought to be a likely Jack the Ripper candidate.

From a Bookhounds perspective, there are at least three contemporary books that might turn up in London:

Sadlier, John, Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer, (1913)
Kenneally, J. J. The Inner History of the Kelly Gang, (1929)
Hare, Francis Augustus, The Last of the Bushrangers: An account of the capture of the Kelly Gang (1894)

In addition to these books there would have been scores of Kelly artifacts, from photographs to bits of armor and guns. Many of these - like the revolver belonging to one of Kelly's early targets, constable Fitzpatrick, which sold for $70,000 at auction in 2007 - are probably fakes.

With all that in mind, consider the following Trail (Tale) of Terror:

A bottom-feeding Book Scout, David / Dolores Veles, is working on behalf of an as yet unknown client, and is making a nuisance of himself. Veles is after Kelly memorabilia of any sort, but is particularly interested in three books, each of them ex libris Francis Brevor, an occultist and self-proclaimed Satanist who committed suicide in 1930. According to Veles, Brevor had copies of Sadlier, Kenneally and Hare's works, as well as a mysterious 'fourth item' which Veles is very reluctant to describe, but for which Veles is prepared to pay an astronomical sum. The fourth item, kept in a special oak box, is Ned Kelly's skull, which Brevor supposedly took from a phrenologist enemy in 1896. Nobody knows where the fourth item is, though Veles suspects that annotations in the three books from Brevor's library might hold the key.

1. Veles is working on behalf of a particularly ghoulish client, who wants to grind Kelly's skull to powder and ingest it, in a potion of his own concoction. He thinks he will consume Kelly's essence that way, gaining special powers as a result. However the skull, it transpires, isn't Kelly's at all, and the client will be most upset at this deception. The client won't believe Veles when he protests he knows nothing about the fraud, and he probably won't believe the protagonists either.

2. The skull was brought out to London by a phrenologist who believed he was actually stealing Deeming's remains. He intended to use the skull as part of a ritual to evoke Jack the Ripper, which spirit he intended to use as part of a long-running scheme to reopen the Eye of Byatis (see further Whitechapel Black Letter, in the main book). When he discovered the skull was actually Kelly's he was most upset, and sold it to Brevor, an expatriate Australian for whom it had sentimental value. The problem is, the phrenologist's botched Byatis ritual has inadvertently linked Kelly's ghost to the Eye, causing the skull to be a kind of focal point, leeching London's malignant spirit and causing whoever might be its current owner no end of trouble. Veles' client has heard of this Byatis artifact and thinks it can help him in his own studies, but nothing could be further from the truth, as Kelly's twisted ghost will be only too happy to demonstrate. 

3. Veles is actually working for Brevor, who's been dead for years. Except not really; Brevor faked his death to escape immolation at the hands of a particularly powerful rival. Now Brevor thinks he has a chance to revenge himself against his enemy and lure him into a trap. But first, the bait: Kelly's skull, which Brevor claimed, untruthfully, had special powers. With Veles out there spreading rumors and buying up Kelly artifacts, Brevor thinks it's only a matter of time before his rival shows up in person, eager to get that skull. Then the fun will begin! Of course, some innocent Bookhounds might get caught in the crossfire, but who cares about them?

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Night's Black Agents: Chilling Locales pt2

Often as Director you may find yourself stumped by one question: where does this scene take place? You need somewhere dramatic, interesting, filled with potential; but you can't think of one. I've touched on this point once or twice before, when discussing decaying mansions on Billionaire's Row and Hotel Castel Dracula, as well as the Orient Express. Now I'd like to draw your attention to another intriguing possibility: Moscow's Metro-2.

Forgotten subway stations are nothing new to urban explorers; there are dozens of them all over the globe. Moscow's Metro-2 is something a little different. Allegedly the Metro-2 is a parallel subway network running alongside Moscow's Metro system, and I say allegedly because nobody can agree whether or not Metro-2 exists. Many people assume it does, and at least one high-placed defector said as much during his debriefing by British Intelligence; but people believe many things that aren't true, and defectors are notorious for saying anything they can think of, if it will guarantee them a quiet and prosperous retirement.

If the stories are to be believed, then Metro-2 began life as a single-track system built by Stalin to avoid traveling in public. Stalin was deathly afraid of assassination attempts, and Metro-2 could get him from the Kremlin to his Volynskoye Dacha without incident. It developed into a more sophisticated network during the Cold War, as the Politburo leadership demanded a means of escape in the event of a nuclear attack. There are supposed to be networks of bunkers down there, as well as a whole underground city in Rameki, south-west Moscow, capable of housing 15,000 people.

Certainly there is an  - that is, singular - undergound line, the D6; that one has been explored and documented, but it doesn't have the vast scope of the fabled Metro-2. There are also known nuclear bunkers under the streets of Moscow, but again nothing like the extent of Metro-2. Moreover the artifacts that do exist are decayed, flooded, and almost useless either as a transport system or a last resort hideway; these facilities haven't seen serious investment since the 1970s, and for the most part have been left to decay. Fifty-odd years of underinvestment is a long time, and technology has changed significantly. Even if someone were to reactivate them, it would cost far more than the project could ever be worth to the powers that be.

All that aside, consider the possibilities. In a Night's Black Agents world there's no reason why Metro-2 shouldn't be just as large as the stories say, and for that matter there's no reason it shouldn't still be in excellent condition. The Conspiracy needs some kind of base of operations, after all, and what better place than an underground city under Moscow, complete with its own lines of communication, far from the burning daylight? Picture the protagonists trying to discover the true extent of Metro-2, perhaps caught up in a maze of bureaucracy above ground, or lost in an actual maze far beneath the streets of Moscow. Then they turn one wrong corner too many, and find themselves in a city populated entirely by hundreds, perhaps thousands of vampires.

There's also something to be said for leaving the Metro-2 exactly as decayed, flooded and abandoned as the stories seem to suggest. In that Dusty world, the Metro-2 could be a project that the Conspiracy made use of back in the 1970s only to abandon it later. Who knows what the vampires left behind, when they pulled out? Anything from old files from the Great Patriotic War to forgotten supercomputers, perhaps still with the old tape wheels whirring away down in the dark. Perhaps this is where the bodies really are buried, or where vampire Stalin's been hiding all these years. Who was really in charge of the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 60s?

There are all kinds of questions to be answered. Did the Conspiracy engineer the abandonment of Metro-2 so it could move in and use the system for its own devices? Are there modern labs humming down there, working on some hideous project? Have Satanists taken over the nuclear bunkers, invoking Beelzebub and Armageddon? Does Metro-2 still run, and if so, what purpose does it serve? Are there sleek black trains that pull up to high security stations at the dead of night, dropping off or picking up blasphemous cargo? 

That's it for the moment, but I will return to this theme again. In the meantime, have fun! Or the vampires will get you ...

Monday, 22 September 2014

Night's Black Agents: The Nature of Conspiracy pt 2

In a previous segment I discussed how a Director might work out what the Conspiracy's been up to, before the protagonists arrived. I summed it all up in a Mission Statement for each Conspiracy, describing its current goals in one sentence. Now I'm going to discuss the Conspyramid in a little more detail, and show why having a Mission Statement can pay off big time for the Director.

The Conspyramid is the structure by which the Conspiracy is organized. The main book suggests building a structure with six levels, each ascending level having fewer, more important nodes. A node can be a gang, a cell withing an organization, a facility or institution, a powerful individual, a whole subverted agency, or anything else that might be part of the vampire conspiracy. The Level 1 nodes tend to be the weakest, street-level faces or the organization, a Level 2 has power that might affect a whole city, Level 3s are provincial powers, Level 4s are national powers, Level 5s are supranational powers, and Level 6 is top branch: the core leadership cadre.

The Mission Statement should be treated as a broad guideline for the kind of nodes that might exist within your Conspyramid. The Mission Statement begs a question: in order to achieve that goal, what does the Conspiracy need? Answering that question gives you the basis for your entire Conspyramid.

To demonstrate this, I'm going to take the Supernatural Mission Statement and expand on it. Remember, the Supernatural vampire type is the result of otherworldly activities on Earth, and by implication lives in a world where there are plenty of other supernatural types: ghosts, witches, and so on. The Mission Statement in this instance is: The premier supplier of Gray in the Western World

So what's Gray? Gray is a kind of narcotic made from ghosts, which vampires find particularly enthralling and addictive. They might need blood to live, but they crave Gray the same way humans crave heroin or cocaine. In fact Gray is a term I've stolen from heroin addiction; it's a slightly altered form of one of the terms used to describe the mixture of blood and narcotic in the syringe. The original term is gravy, as in 'shoot the gravy.' I'm picturing Gray as a form of heroin admixed with processed ghosts, not unlike cutting a drug with, say, rat poison.

Given this, it's reasonable to assume that an otherwise careful supernatural vampire, hooked through the bag on Gray, might do pretty much anything to get more. It's also reasonable to assume that a human using Gray might end up much as a heroin user would after injecting heroin mixed with strychnine: that is, dead. In fact, doubly dead, given that the mix was ghost to begin with.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First let's talk about that Mission Statement, and what it means for the Conspyramid. If your organization wants to become the premier supplier of Gray in the Western World, what does it need?

At the lowest rung of the ladder, all those Level 1 Nodes, it needs groups and individuals that can help it move and market product. It's not about selling vials on streetcorners; vampires are notoriously reclusive, so the Conspiracy has to go to them. It needs runners who can deliver, it needs access to ports and airports, and it needs someone to do the tedious legwork of chasing down its customers, finding out where they live and establishing contact so that the Conspiracy can make another sale.

There's no reason you can't play with this concept. Suppose there's a celebrity vampire hunter in your world, a Seán Manchester crossed with Peter Vincent who does all kinds of talk shows and low-budget stuff. That's the perfect cover for a Level 1 marketing expert, someone who finds the customer for the Conspiracy. An occult group like the Golden Dawn could be another Level 1 marketing node; the Victorian original spawned so many lookalikes, imitators and alleged inheritors of the mantle that it's perfectly reasonable to assume a modern Golden Dawn infesting each nation in Europe, using its magician initiates to research and identify possible customers. Bicycle couriers, individual members of a nation's Customs Authority, any number of small airports are also good node fits. Low-cost air carriers like Ryanair made their fortune utilizing ex-military bases in the early 2000s; no reason why the Conspiracy couldn't have snaffled a few of those bases for their own use, or be piggybacking on the low-cost crowd.

An alternate Level 1, of course, is the customer itself. This vampire isn't part of the Conspiracy, but it knows someone who is; that same marketing expert who made the pitch in the first place. That would definitely require a face-to-face; a vampire isn't about to buy anything, sight unseen, from some chancer. There would need to be at least one sales pitch, from the Level 1. That in turn exposes the Conspyramid to risk, if the vampire is identified by other groups. An otherwise careful vampire who's been living quietly off of the locals for decades might get very sloppy if he's craving Gray, which will in turn alert the protagonists, as news stories leak out.

There's a further potential Level 1: a dead human addict. Any large organization has its fuck-ups and breakdowns; in this example, a batch of Gray ended up in the hands of a human addict who shot up, and promptly died in spectacular fashion. Spectacular enough to make the news, and probably also blogs and YouTube videos, as amateur ghost-hunters descend on the site to find out why, say, entities from the French Revolution are suddenly infesting a Berlin squat. Technically this isn't part of the Conspyramid proper, but whichever Level 1 managed to cock up so spectacularly as to deliver Gray to a non-customer is going to want to cover its tracks, and that exposes the Conspyramid to even more danger.

Let's move on to the Level 2 node. This is the national level node, the first one with real pull. If an entire Customs Authority, or at least its top ranking officials, has been subverted then that makes it a Level 2. A national level politician, or even a Eurocrat, is probably also a Level 2. The import-export company that transports Gray is a Level 2, and if we're using a low-cost airline like Ryanair in that role, then that airline is a Level 2.

Going further, what else does this Conspiracy need? Well, at the moment it has marketing, sales, and supply all at Level 1. What it lacks at the moment is a product, and for that it needs ghosts and heroin, as well as a means of cutting the ghosts with the heroin. That suggests factories of some kind, as well as a means of collection. It also suggests groups whose purpose in life is psychical research. If a university's parapsychology department has been subverted in order to concentrate on searching for and collecting ghosts, that would make it a Level 2; it might also make its grad students potential Level 1s in their own right. A highly placed Renfield in a crime syndicate, tasked with ensuring safe delivery of the heroin, is also a Level 2. I'm not picturing the factories as anything more sophisticated than the average meth lab, and there are probably quite a few of them scattered all over the target area. Each of those labs, complete with technicians and possibly also security, is a Level 2 in its own right. Whether they're interconnected in some way - perhaps all have the same cover story - is another matter.

Speaking of interconnection, these groups need a means of communication, and coordination. Individual members can get by on burner phones, but once you get to the stage when groups of people, institutions and factories are involved, something more sophisticated is needed to assist in coordinating efforts. After all, there's a lot of product to be obtained, cut, shipped and marketed. That implies a central hub of some kind, but preferably one that's divorced from the upper levels of the Conspyramid. It doesn't do anyone any good if, by capturing and squeezing some Level 1 pusher, an enemy can leapfrog straight up to the highest levels of command. Say this central hub is internet based, an email system or a BBS. Suppose the Conspiracy kept some tame black hat hackers on the payroll, a tiger team maintaining security on its Level 1 and Level 2 network. That tiger team would itself be a Level 2. Nobody above Level 2 would be on that network, but it would allow groups at Level 2 or below to keep in contact. Presumably there's one member of the tiger team with a telephone number, or other means of communication, with a Level 3. 

Speaking of which, here we are at Level 3. Now we're at the provincial level; if an entire ministry within a nation is compromised, or if there's an entity within the Conspiracy capable of doing significant damage, this is where it's probably going to be. There's one element of the Conspiracy as we've been considering it that hasn't been discussed, and that's Security. This is basically one big drug cartel, and an organization of this type is going to have both 'ordinary' enemies - public officials, police, nosy reporters, basically ordinary humans - and the other kind, the kind that perhaps knows about vampires and, more importantly, knows how to kill them.

At least two, probably three nodes at this level will be dedicated to security. One node is a top-notch criminal law firm; if any of the nodes below Level 3 get into legal difficulty, these are the people who show up to deal with it. Another is the heavy mob, and if ever there's a time to use, say, a completely subverted special forces detachment, like a platoon (or whatever the term would be) from Germany's KSK Kommando Spezialkräfte, it is now. That heavy mob deals with any mortal threat that can't otherwise be handled through legal means. A third has got to be a specialized heavy mob, for use only in those circumstances where a vampire - possibly a dissatisfied customer - is involved. Perhaps there genuinely is an actual vampire hunter out there that the Conspiracy has on its payroll for special tasks; it might even be a religious order of some kind or, say, a senior member of the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Let's not forget that tiger team at Level 2, the one handling communications. It has to report to someone, and that someone is a vampire, or someone of equivalent authority, at Level 3. That entity's sole purpose is to act as Hermes for the Conspiracy, delivering information by word of mouth alone. Hermes deals with the other Level 3 nodes directly, face-to-face meetings only, and also communicates information to the Level 4 nodes. Hermes might even know who is at Level 5, but that's dangerous information to possess. 

From here we pass on to Level 4, the National branch. There's one more aspect of a Conspiracy of this type that hasn't been discussed so far: the money angle. Nobody's in this business for their health, and if a Conspiracy of this type has been formed to deliver Gray, then Gray must be fantastically valuable. Rivers of cash must be flowing up the chain, otherwise there's no point. Those rivers need to be directed, properly laundered, and distributed, and that means a Bank. Probably a private bank, unincorporated, that handles all the financial transactions as discreetly as possible. Only nodes at Level 3 and up will be aware of this Bank, and probably not all the Level 3s; no point in telling the heavy mob, for instance, where the money's coming from.

Equally if there's a significant individual within the Conspiracy tasked with acting as an adviser on field operations - a form of consigliere - Level 4 is where that individual will be. That individual needs to be close enough to the operation to be aware of its day-to-day operations, while at the same time be far enough away from the front lines so as not to become a target. A consigliere is also tasked with handling disputes, so if there's any issue between nodes at Level 4, 3, or maybe even 2, this individual will be involved, though it's unlikely that it gets face-to-face with a Level 2 node.

Since this is a drug racket, if there's a task force that deals with international smuggling that has been subverted by the Conspiracy, that will become a Level 4 node. Someone, probably several someones, at Interpol, say, or someone involved with anti-money laundering efforts at the EU. This particular node might not know as much about the Conspiracy as the others, but over time it could have gathered a significant amount of surprising information. Interpol, for instance, dates back to 1923; who knows what could be hidden in its files? Names, dates, incident reports; the Conspiracy would probably prefer those files were shredded or burnt, but there's any number of surprised and convicted criminals out there who can testify that, when it really matters, sometimes, somehow, the documents turn up.

Now we've reached Level 5, the Supranational level. If the Conspiracy has a Think Tank on its payroll, planning future operations, this is where it will be. Remember, the Conspiracy wants to expand operations further afield; it needs someone to plan for that, to establish contact in those markets, to make deals and identify opportunities. Equally if the Conspiracy has some kind of mad scientist type, perhaps someone who's been ghost-gathering since the Victorian era and who knows the process backwards and sideways, this is where that individual will be, probably in its own padded cell with lots of colored chalk and as many chalkboards as it wants.  R&D is vital to any forward-thinking business, and this is ultimately a business; what matter if the head researcher likes to eat babies, so long as it delivers?

Finally there is Level 6: the Board. The no-nonsense creatures of the night who run this operation. The Board is probably made up of the original members - the ones who formed the business back in whenever-it-may-have-been - and representatives from the competitors it has absorbed, over time. Perhaps there's some ill feeling about that; some Board members may feel that their past contributions haven't been properly rewarded. Be that as it may. The Board is still the Board, and woe betide anyone who manages to get quite that close to the Conspiracy's heart.

I hope this discussion has been useful to the Directors out there! Good luck, and good hunting.