Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Trail of Cthulhu: Overlooked Corpses (Bookhounds of London)

Once upon a time in Oaklahoma there was an enterprising young idiot named Elmer McCurdy, who wanted to be a train robber but lacked any kind of talent, or indeed common sense. After yet another failed attempt the law caught up with McCurdy and, though the Sheriff would have much preferred to get the $2,000 reward for bringing him in alive, shot McCurdy through the heart after a fierce gun battle. This happened in 1911.

In steps the undertaker who thinks, 'I can make a quick buck.' After embalming the unfortunate McCurdy the undertaker put his corpse on display, and for five years earned a crust from his dead exhibit before finally selling him on to a carny operator, who eventually sold him on to another carnival, then a wax museum, a haunted house ... you get the idea. In 1976 some poor fool working at Queen's Park amusements in California discovered that the body everyone assumed was just a prop was actually McCurdy. They were filming the Six Million Dollar Man at the park at the time. You have to wonder what Steve Austin would have done about it.

McCurdy eventually got to be buried, which is more than he might have expected given the circumstances, but there's something to be said for giving this a Trail twist.

Embalming has a history that long predates the Civil War, when embalming techniques became more common. In England before autopsies were legitimized the bodies of convicted criminals were used as practice cadavers by eager would-be doctors. Highwaymen flourished in England for some time, the last incident occurring in 1831; the improvement of the roads coupled with an expansion and improvement in the police service brought the practice to a close. Take those elements, mash them together and you have:

James 'Yellow Jack' Donegan, born Dublin, 1761, fought in the East India Company's wars before being repatriated in 1796, having lost his left hand in an explosion. He spent some time in London as a dock worker - or at least, he hung around the docks looking for an easy score - before taking to the roads as 'Yellow Jack', gentleman bandit. So called because of his colorful clothes as well as his fading tan, Yellow Jack made the area around Blackheath his haunt for six months or more, before the authorities made it too hot for him. He vanished for a time, only to return in the summer of 1798 when he was captured, through sheer bad luck, at the scene of his first robbery since his return. His trial was the talk of the summer, and his execution well attended.

His body was given to Paston Syme, a physician of questionable repute; ten years after this, Syme would be accused of acting as go-between for a league of bodysnatchers, and be forced to flee to Australia to escape trial. Doctor Syme used the opportunity afforded him by Yellow Jack's cadaver to make an exhibit, one that he hoped would make him famous. Syme believed he had found the perfect preservative and he had a flair for the imaginative: Professor Gunther von Hagens would recognize a kindred spirit in Syme, though Syme's techniques were far inferior to von Hagens' plastination. Syme's grotesquerie involved a half-dressed Yellow Jack, part in the colorful costume he wore in life, part skinned down almost to the bone, exposing every least element.

It was a display that Syme intended to show only to those he trusted and were willing to pay a fee, but word soon got out, and the public - who distrusted and feared the anatomists - rebelled. Syme had to flee London for a time, for fear of being lynched, while his creation stayed in a box in a medical museum for several decades, lost and forgotten.

Eventually it vanished from that museum - nobody will admit to knowing how - and ended up on a tour of the continent, appearing in all manner of side shows. It's known to have been used as a prop in Paris at Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol; Orton and Spooner are believed to have owned it around 1900. However its ownership history is sketchy at best, and if anyone remembers Yellow Jack nowadays it's as a cautionary tale, not as an actual cadaver.

Yet if someone were to take a closer look at the cadaver kept behind glass at Buck's Corner Public House, in South London, they might get a shock. Buck's Corner, itself a home for all kinds of odd knick-knacks, gave Yellow Jack a home shortly after the Great War, bought as a job lot with six stuffed cats, an owl, and half a dozen musty books, all of which were promptly put up as decoration. Buck's Corner, currently owned by Meux's Brewery Co Ltd (Jonas Skelp, landlord), does a good bitter and a mediocre porter, but is best known for its Ghost Society, which meets every third Thursday in the month to swap tall tales. Several would-be writers are among its members.

Arabesque: Yellow Jack's fathomless eyes seem to follow one about the room, and his gaunt cadaver has inspired more than one spooky tale from the Ghost Society. Yellow Jack whispers his story to whoever is sensitive enough to listen; if they listen long enough, they might learn all kinds of strange and terrible things. Listeners can gain 1 potential Magic Point at a cost of a Stability Difficulty 5 check, provided they are prepared to stay after closing and listen to all of Yellow Jack's tale.

Technicolor: Syme's technique was based on Mythos experimentation, and though nobody realizes it, Yellow Jack is still alive in there. His brain - exposed and somehow glistening - is alert, and after decades Yellow Jack has learned to see again, and hear, in a limited fashion. He's biding his time, as there's nothing he thinks he can gain by going out in the world of men again; but there's a bright young woman, a member of the Ghost Society, who awakens so many memories of long ago that it's painful for Yellow Jack to look at her. Anyone who threatened her, or seemingly threatened her, would be the target of Yellow Jack's wrath. Syme's notes, if found, could reveal how the trick was pulled off, and what might be used to put an end to Yellow Jack.

Sordid: Yellow Jack's legacy is violent crime. Anyone who has ever spent a long period of time with it - days, or weeks - eventually is inspired to commit assault, murder, or even rape. The corpse's one joy is to make others suffer as he suffered, and hang as he once swung at Tyburn. He can appear as a ghost, but only to those whose mind he has infected. Close contact with the thing - touching, especially - spreads a kind of rash or fungal infection that will soon reduce the victim to a kind of flayed state, as Yellow Jack is flayed, before finally ending in death.


Friday, 18 July 2014

Gumshoe Night's Black Agents Scenario Seed: The Incident

Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents is rapidly becoming one of my favorite systems, despite me not having that many chances to play it. I wanted to talk about an idea that's been bouncing around in my head for a while, which can be used as a scenario seed in your game. The pitch is this: what happens if an accident upsets everyone's plans, right in the middle of a complex transaction or investigation?

I first began thinking of this idea when watching West Wing, specifically season 3 episode 17 'Stirred'. One of the plot elements in that episode is a truck crash in an Idaho tunnel that causes a massive environmental hazard as waste from uranium fuel rods are spread all over the shop, and the President isn't sure, at first, whether this is a genuine accident or an act of terrorism. Yet similar things happen all the time: ships sink, or go missing, aircraft crash, buildings catch fire, people die. An important government official is found dead in an airport first class waiting lounge: natural causes, or no? A helicopter carrying NGO doctors is shot down by rebels or separatists while flying in a disputed zone, and all aboard are killed: an act of war, an assassination attempt, or something else? A train derails in a vital rail hub in an urban center, killing ten and injuring dozens more: faulty maintenance, driver error, something else? Forgotten vials are found in a lab containing plague germs that could theoretically wipe out half the planet; how did they get there, and are there more?

Then add Night's Black Agents into the mix, and wonder what happens if a Vampire is among the dead. There are any number of organizations who'd want to know what happened, why, and where the body is now. Particularly the body; any organization not part of the conspyramid will want that for their own research purposes. Powerful civilian groups as well as government agencies could be involved at that stage. Del Toro's The Strain, now a TV series, has a good example of this with its industrialist/power broker Eldritch Palmer; though I am not a fan of the books and haven't seen the FX TV show yet, there were some fun moments to be had and it's worth having a look if only for research purposes.

First let's consider the setting. This incident can happen anywhere, but it might be at its best when the protagonists have to deal with the culture shock of moving from a highly technical environment to one considerably less sophisticated. For that reason I'm going to put this in Nigeria, where conflict with Islamic militants is ongoing, but really it could be set in any of the many potential African war zones.

Let's further assume the conspyramid has a definite reason for having one of its nodes there. If it's Africa then we're probably talking about natural resources, perhaps minerals, gold or jewels. The conspyramid's influence has been detected by the protagonists, who decide to travel down to one of the major cities to find out more. Since this is Nigeria, let's make the city Lagos, and the resource tantalite, which the conspyramid is busily mining. For a game with a more science fiction bent, the conspyramid could also be infiltrating Nigeria's fledgeling National Space Research and Development Agency Headquarters for reasons of its own.

The protagonists are investigating this latest problem when, by pure chance, a terrorist bombing at a marketplace in a small city in Northern Nigeria, followed by an explosion at a hospital intended to catch first responders, kills a vampire among the hundreds dead and injured. Not just dead, either; bits are scattered all over the shop. The vampire was part of a hitherto unsuspected conspyramid operation at the hospital, which is now in complete disarray.

Now this becomes a time-sensitive problem. The bombers - presumably Boko Haram - have some of the body, civilians have some, and the Nigerian government, in the form of the hospital administrators, have the rest. Among the many institutions that might be interested in acquiring all those bits are the CIA, the Nigerian government, any foreign government - like China - which has ties with the Nigerian government, and of course the conspyramid itself, particularly if there's any chance that the remains might be revived. It's likely that not all of the institutions listed really know what they have; Boko Haram and the Nigerian government, for instance, might only have a very limited idea, though of course if the remains are unusual in any way - they glow with a blue light, kill everything they touch, emit strange silver worms and so on - they'll want to keep hold of what they have.

Then of course there's the conspyramid operation itself, which is now completely blown in more ways than one. Its computers and, far more importantly, its paperwork and samples are now scattered all over the street. Looters almost certainly helped themselves to a hard drive or two. Again, all the above agencies will be interested in getting that data, though not all of them will understand what it means.

The protagonists will have to get to the scene - no easy task, given that the city's in chaos and the military's dashing about like a headless chicken - get what they want, and get out, all without being intercepted or killed. This may mean negotiating with terrorists, like Boko Haram; it may mean bribing corrupt officials, raiding a morgue or two, dodging CIA investigators. It almost certainly involves at least one chase scene through the crowded streets, as conspyramid heavies close in looking for the same stuff the protagonists are trying to collect. Meanwhile if the remains - whether the vampire's, or the samples it was collecting - are in any way dangerous to human life, then people will be dropping like flies from a mysterious contagion. This does at least have the advantage of pinpointing potential locations, but an epidemic in one of the most populous countries in Africa is the last thing anyone needs. Particularly since it will draw in NGOs, health organizations, and more government organizations, all eager to contain the initial incident.

I hope this helps you! We'll talk again soon.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Mythos Expeditions

I probably oughtn't say too much about this here, but since Pelgrane's been spreading the word on Facebook I suppose I can talk a little about my contribution to Mythos Expeditions.

Expeditions, for those not familiar with the product, are 'a collection of adventures designed to be run as a stand alone with new rules tailored for expeditions or as part of the Armitage Files campaign setting in the core rules.' My contribution is Lost on a Sea of Dreams, about a trip to Bermuda to assist William Beebe. Again, I can't tell you much about the scenario, but I can tell you that when Beebe was in Bermuda he didn't get on at all well with the scientists already in place at the Biological Research Station, now known as BIOS.

The BRS had been in operation for over twenty years by the time Beebe showed up in 1928. It had been established by Harvard and New York University academics who realized early on how useful Bermuda could be for oceanic research; it probably helped that the climate is exceptionally pleasant year-round. For that matter the island was a major staging post for Prohibition blockade runners throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, a fact which can't have escaped the scientists' notice. It must have been quite pleasant to get a secondment out to a bucolic sub-tropical island, where the booze flowed freely and there was valuable work to be done.

But the established academics viewed a chancer like Beebe - who had no actual scientific credentials, and a reputation for being fast and loose with the facts as well as with women - with grave suspicion. "To tie up with such an explorer and exploiter would certainly kill our chances [of getting a cash grant from the Rockerfeller Trust]," said Professor Mark, one of the BSR's top people, and Dr Wheeler, the then director, took statements like that very seriously. It was the Great Depression, and the BSR had a significant cash flow problem; without grant money from the British Government and charitable donations from institutions like the Rockerfeller, the BSR was sunk.

The end result was a kind of 'live and let live' truce between Beebe and the BSR. Beebe was told not to use the BSR's name in any of his publicity or reports, and for its part the BSR pretended Beebe didn't exist. Beebe was given Nonesuch Island to use as his staging post, which suited BSR very nicely as it meant he wouldn't be using its facilities. No doubt when Beebe finally left the island eleven years later, the academics of the BSR breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Trail of Cthulhu: Soldiers of Pen and Ink

As Simon Rogers over at Pelgrane has been kind enough to Tweet about the cover art, I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk a little about an upcoming project: Soldiers of Pen and Ink, a mammoth Trail of Cthulhu scenario set during the Spanish Civil War. Let me give you the official precis:

The protagonists, sponsored by the Paris-based political organisation BNVS, have come to Spain to shoot a documentary on the war, and find themselves marooned in Madrid. One of their team goes missing, and their literary colleagues say it’s pointless – even dangerous – to ask what happened to him. In a war of competing ideologies, unorthodoxy can merit the death penalty, but is this Communist oppression or something more sinister?

The thing's huge - more than 43,000 words - and includes, among other things, four new character archetypes: the Extremist, Volunteer, Black Marketeer and Spy. For those of you who picked up Dulce et Decorum Est and liked the lists of tanks and aircraft, there's new stats here for even more military equipment. There's also a new Ability, Politics, and a new take on Hastur the Unspeakable and his terrifying Byakhee: The Hastur Mneme.

I really don't want to give away any plot details here, but I will say this: I loved writing it, am thrilled to see it come to completion at long last, and hope you enjoy playing it as much as I did writing it!

It is the duty of every citizen to defend Carcosa to the last drop of his blood!

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Trail of Cthulhu: Arcane Tomes

From time to time I prepare a brief description of arcane tomes to drop into my own campaign, to be used whenever the characters go looking for something antiquarian and interesting and I don't have a plot-specific book to give them. I thought this might be of some use to you, particularly if you play Bookhounds, and as I have a quiet moment - a rare thing, these days - I've dusted off some of those old notes, as follows:

Zohar Kabbalist foundational work. Quarto bound in pale cream leather (brain-tanned) with the inscription Mensis meus vinco eram , Diabolus suus vinco eram (translation: Montagu my master was, the Devil his master was: a reference to Hellfire Club member John Montague, Earl of Sandwich); 1758 edition, Guild of Stationers mark with the printer listed as Thomas Beckton. Language: Latin.Study award: 1 dedicated pool point Latin, Occult or Theology, player's choice. Potential magic: 1 point.

Observations on Several Parts of Africa Author Sir Wade Jermyn. Octavo bound in limp vellum, binding water damaged, leather thongs beginning to fail. Signature on title page: August Schynse [Keeper's note: German missionary and explorer]. Listed as 1 of 240, 1768 edition, printer a Cairene identified only as του δύση καλά [translation: of the Western Well]. Language: Greek, though there are handwritten notes in German. Book also includes several sketches signed by A.S., in a small packet. One of the sketches has a handwritten note, ein Ritus des wich aus Volk  [translation: a rite of the shunned people], and depicts a ceremony in honor of Ahtu [Keeper: Nyarlathotep]. Study award: 1 dedicated point History, Anthropology or Archaeology, player's choice. Cthulhu Mythos: +1

The Secret Doctrine, Author Madame Blavatski. 2 of 3 volumes (Cosmogenesis is missing), each quarto bound  in wet-blue leather with gold inlay.  Anthrogenesis is scorched and slightly smoke-damaged. 1888 edition, printer Ettrick and Sons, Norwich. Study award: 1 dedicated point Occult or Theology, player's choice.  

Oracles of Nostradamus Author: unknown. Quarto bound in lamb skin, slightly foxed (markings on back cover). Published by the Milanese printer and engraver Baldini, 1704 edition. Excellent copper-plate engravings. Language: Italian.Study award: 1 dedicated point Occult or History, player's choice.

Culto del trasporto mangiatori Author: unknown. Folio bound in what appears to be brain-tanned leather [Mythos: ghoul skin] with the inscription egli chi passeggiata sotto il lapide avuto questo fatto , possesso dal scritto del padrone [translation: he who walks beneath the graves had this done, at the behest of the master]. Handwritten volume, time of binding unknown but probably early 19th century. Several of the later sections appear to have been excised [some of the spells have been cut out of the book]. Language: Italian. A small silver whistle is tied to the book by a length of black leather. [note on title page: il richiamare e controllo del stella bestia, il segno di potere. translation: to invoke and control the star beast with the sign of power.]  Study award: 1 dedicated point Occult or History, player's choice. Cthulhu Mythos: +1. Spells: none, or one; Keeper's choice as to what's left, given that much has been removed.

The Book of Werewolves Author: Sabine Baring-Gould. Octavo bound in chromium blue leather, second edition 1867 by the London bookmakers Rogers and Sons. Signed by the author to ‘Charles, in the hope that it may be of some small use.’ [Keeper: persistent research might indicate Charles Prescott, occultist and suicide 1871, as the possible recipient.] Study award: 1 dedicated point Occult, Anthropology or History, player's choice. Potential magic: 1 point. Special: this book was in Prescott's hands on the night he shot himself with a silver bullet. Each night, at 1 in the morning, it bleeds; Stability 3 to witness. It remains unstained after each event, but anything close to it - other books on the shelf, the shelf itself - may end up spotted with blood.

Azathoth and Other Horrors Poetry by Edward Pickman Derby; also includes several sketch drawings by M.S. [Keeper: a London artist, Miles Shipley] based on the poems. 1919 Onyx Sphinx Press edition, with repaired binding. This copy was Shipley’s personal volume; he has decorated the interior and cover with his own designs.Study award: 1 dedicated point Art. Potential magic: 1 point. Special: due to Shipley's contact with the Serpent People - see further Masks of Nyarlathotep - some of the markings on the book have special significance to the People. Another Serpent, seeing these marks, would become incredibly agitated and want to find out more. Whether or not the Serpent would actually stoop to paying good money for it is another matter; the People aren't in the habit of cooperating with monkeys.

Unpublished Monograph Author: unknown. 1915, limp vellum binding. The bookmaker is unknown but, judging by the style and materials, was most likely an Oxford binder working for one of the colleges.  The Merton College coat of arms is stamped on the interior cover. The monograph is signed ‘In gratitude, TSE.’ Handwriting analysis may tentatively identify the writing as T.S. Eliot. It is ‘a comparison of the runic symbols, recently discovered, to the early classic Vedic, with notes as to discrepancies and possible alternate translations.’ Study award: 1 dedicated point History (Mi-Go Runes). Potential magic: 1 point.

I hope you find this useful! I may return to this list with more books, later on.