Wednesday, 20 August 2014

I'm In London, What Should I Do?

I lived in London for several years, and in the UK for about ten years all told, so I know my England reasonably well. Many of you who end up playing, or being Keeper, in a Bookhounds game may not be so lucky. Then the fatal day arrives: by luck, or thanks to work commitments, you have a day or two to kill in London. What should you do? Are there things you could be spending your hard earned money on?

Yes, of course there are. Books are always worth spending dosh on, and there are some things worth looking out for. The Historical London A-Z is something you should definitely seek out, whether Keeper or player. It makes for an excellent prop, and since it's an accurate reproduction, you can add your own notes for extra authenticity. Anything Liza Picard writes is worth reading, and her London series is brilliant, but from a period perspective the best is her Victorian London. It's slightly out of period for a Bookhounds game, but you get a real sense of the City as it used to be, as well as a glimpse of what it was becoming. Finally, the Shire Library has an excellent series of short historical books, about everything from the London Underground to maps of pre-War London, and more. The A-Z and Picard's books can be found almost anywhere, but Shire Library's work is harder to find. The British Library has an excellent bookshop that stocks them, and many museums will have them too.

Speaking of Museums, by all means go to the British Museum if you like, but make sure to go early. It's on every tourist's must-do list, and London is flooded with tourists year round. However if you want something a little more London-specific I recommend three: the Museum of the City of London, the Docklands Museum, and the Geffrye. All are brilliant in their own way, but if you want to understand what makes London tick, you need to see the first two. The Docklands is, to my mind, slightly better, but that may be because it's never as crowded. The London Museum covers the whole nine yards, from prehistoric settlement to modern city, whereas the Docklands Museum just covers London's Docklands. The Geffrye is a design museum, and I admit this is on my must-do because I enjoy design, but its chief advantage is that it demonstrates how people would have lived, once upon a time, by showing you the rooms, furniture and accessories they would have lived in or owned. It is a little out of the way, so feel free to skip it if you're short on time or have no sense of direction and are afraid of getting lost!

As for things to do, go to a pub. It's not difficult to find one, and it is the quintessential English way of spending time, but if you're after a pub with a historic flavor, try one of the Sam Smith's. Samuel Smith's is a brewery chain that specializes in historic premises, and one of the best examples of a pub as it would have been in the 1930s is the Princess Louise, out near Cannon Street tube.  If you've just been to the British Museum, it's a stone's throw away. A little closer to the museum is another Sam Smith's, the Crown, useful if all you want is a pint after being crushed to death by Japanese tourists and English schoolchildren. Word of advice: nobody goes to a Sam Smith's for the food. It's not awful, just profoundly uninspired. Beer's good though, and pretty cheap for London. Oh, and the Crown's within easy walking distance of Forbidden Planet and the Orc's Nest, which you're probably going to want to visit at some point.

But you want something non alcoholic to do, I hear you ask. God knows why, but you do. In that event, I recommend the Thames Water Taxi. Not only is it a brilliant way of seeing the city, it also gives you a real sense of what London would have looked like to all those ships that once made it their home, when London was still a significant port. It's also an easy way to get to Greenwich, which is worth seeing in its own right, and not just for the Meridian. The park's a joy to walk round, and the weekend market's always busy. Besides if you've made it that far you can stop at the Old Brewery for a pint, always a worthwhile endeavor.  


Edit: I'm adding the London Transport Museum to the list, with a couple caveats. The chief caveat is, for the love of God, don't go on the weekend. The museum's brilliant, and I think you can guess what it's about from the name, but it's located at Covent Garden, which is an absolute nightmare on the weekends, particularly in the summer. While there is a nearby tube, you may find it easier on your sanity to go one station beyond, or stop one station prior, and walk the rest of the way.The place is absolutely swarming with people, worse than the British Museum by far, and the tube stop is like an ant mound after someone's pissed off the ants.

The other caveat is, I'm mainly recommending this for its bookstore. The museum's great - a little dry, perhaps, if trains and buses don't fill you with awe - but the bookstore's remarkably good, for a museum, and you don't have to go through the museum to get to the bookstore. There's also a good selection of period-reproduction posters, if you want to add that extra bit of authenticity to your gaming night.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Wolf Man: Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London

Let's talk about werewolves.

The difficulty with an established creature of myth is that most people believe they already know everything there is to know about the beast, and familiarity breeds contempt. Is a vampire really frightening any more? A zombie? Will your players groan in disappointment if a Deep One shows its fishy face? Ken Hite has tried to counteract this with his Writes About Stuff series, taking entities like Deep Ones and Shoggoths and demonstrating how they can be twisted to counteract that old bugbear, complacency.

The interesting thing about folklore is that it can be turned to almost any purpose. I highly recommend anything Sabine Baring-Gould writes, for two reasons: first, he has a wide breadth of knowledge, and second, he writes clearly, or at least as clearly as you can expect a Victorian antiquarian to write. In this instance I'm drawing heavily from The Book of Werewolves, (1865).

It is positively true that there are many to whom the sight of suffering causes genuine pleasure, and in whom the passion to kill or torture is as strong as any other passion ... Inherent cruelty may be obscured by after impressions, or may be kept under moral constraint; the person who is constitutionally a Nero may scarcely know his own nature, till by some accident the master passion becomes dominant, and sweeps all before it ... Gall tells of a violin player, who, being arrested, confessed to thirty-four murders, all of which he had committed, not from enmity or desire to rob, but solely because it afforded him an intense pleasure to kill ... I have seen an accomplished young woman of considerable refinement and of a highly strung nervous disposition, string flies with her needle on a piece of thread, and watch complacently their flutterings. Cruelty may remain latent till, by some accident, it is aroused, and then it will break forth in a devouring flame. It is the same with the passion for blood as with the passions of love and hate; we have no conception of the violence with which they can rage till circumstances occur which call them into action.

From this we get a picture of the kind of person who might become a werewolf. It isn't simply that they are bitten or somehow fall victim through some random act of chance; they are born that way, and might live their whole lives without succumbing to temptation. They were always werewolves, which means they were always sociopaths. They might be able to fake humanity, or they might be well trained enough for the wolf in them not to show. But if that inciting incident does occur, then heaven help anyone who gets in the werewolf's way.

Or, as the Duchess of Malfi has it:

One met the duke ’bout midnight in a lane        16
Behind Saint Mark’s church, with the leg of a man
Upon his shoulder; and he howl’d fearfully;
Said he was a wolf, only the difference
Was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside,        20
His on the inside

There are various means in folklore by which a person is meant to be able to transform. Deals with the devil, belts made of human skin, wolf capes, ointments made of human fat; any number of totems and devices, but there is nothing in Baring-Gould that suggests werewolves are supernaturally difficult to kill. Silver bullets are an invention of the 1940s and 1950s, when Lon Chaney Jr was busy carrying off damsels and paying too much attention to wandering gypsies. Stab them, cut them, shoot them, and they die like anything else. The chief danger of a werewolf isn't some kind of physical invulnerability. The problem is, it's incredibly intelligent, and utterly without mercy or fear. It will attack regardless of odds, but it can also plan, and reason.

Baring-Gould devotes a significant portion of his book to Gilles de Rais, aka Bluebeard, and it's worth talking about him here as well. He's one of those historical villains whose crimes seem to have been so shocking that they defy fiction; Hammer Horror leapt on the story of Erzabet Bathory and her life is the subject of any number of films, but while de Rais appears in fictional tales and anime it's often thanks to his Joan of Arc connection, and not his child murders, of which there were many. Certainly Hammer Horror never tried to turn his life story into a spookshow. Christopher Lee would probably have refused the part, if offered.

De Rais, former wartime companion of the Maid of Orleans, was a Marshal of France and possibly the most prestigious noble of his time, bar the King of France himself. If the tales are to be believed he was quite insane; at his confession during his trial he claimed that his crimes were 'in accordance with his own imagination and thought, following no man's counsel, but his own, solely for his pleasure and carnal delight, with no end in view.' Though there have been attempts, at the time and since, to link his murders with witchcraft, it is unlikely de Rais was motivated by Satanic promises. He dabbled in alchemy and had a magician on the payroll, but this was more to do with his crushing debt than his personal preferences.

There is no telling exactly how many met their death at his hands. Most of the bodies were burnt and the ashes disposed of; estimates vary from 200 to 600, of both sexes, most younger than 16. The children, peasants for the most part, would be lured to one of his estates with promises of money, food, or something similar, where he would sexually assault them and cut their throats, sever their limbs or otherwise butcher them. The multitude of corpses became a significant problem, since he was forever selling off his estates and castles; frequently he had to stage an emergency exhumation, carrying off the evidence under cover of nightfall before someone discovered it.

It wasn't the butchery in the end that did for him, but his intemperate nature. Despite being the richest man in France, he persisted in throwing money away. His two obsessions were a mystery play about Joan of Arc, with him in the starring role, and a Church of the Innocents which he established, including a tame Bishop, all of which he paid for but which Rome refused to recognize. The mystery play, created in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Siege of Orleans, was the real money pit; 140 speaking parts, 500 extras, 20,000 lines of verse, with elaborate staging and costumes. Take the costumes as one example: he insisted that each be made of new material, and were only to be worn once. Even the rags were made by creating an entirely new costume, then tearing it up with a dagger.

Nobody could afford extravagances like these, not even the richest spendthrift in France. He began selling his estates and possessions, a scandalous thing to do in 15th Century society. When he ran out of his own possessions he began selling other people's, defrauding his relatives, his wife, his children, to feed his addiction. What he couldn't get by fraud, he took, capturing at least two castles by siege and promptly selling them to pay his debts. It got to a point where the King of France himself issued an edict forbidding any citizen of France to buy anything whatsoever from Gilles de Rais, an act which killed his credit rating. It was a castle that did for him in the end, when he tried to repossess by force Saint-Etienne-de-Mer-Morte, which he had only recently sold to an ally of his enemy Jean V de Brueil. The fallout from this raid eventually brought him to the ecclesiastical court.

The wolf revealed, not as some kind of hero figure, but a bandit, a raider, preying on the weak and helpless.Serial killers of this type are often referred to either as werewolves or as vampires,and cannibalism is often a theme.

Taking all of the above into consideration, and using the three Bookhounds archetypes of Technicolor, Arabesque and Sordid, we can create several different kinds of werewolf.

Technicolor: Donovan McQuaid

McQuaid, former corporal 6th Bttn Prince of Wales' Leinsters, was born in Nova Scotia, son of Sergeant Robert McQuaid, and spent his early years traveling from camp to camp along with his mother and five siblings. At age 14 he tried to bluff his way into the Regiment when the Great War started, only to be handed over to his father who gave him 'the leathering of a lifetime,' he later declared. Two years later he went in, and spent the rest of the war 'neck deep in mud and blood.' He rose to the rank of Sergeant, was demoted after an incident involving a senior officer, and worked his way back to corporal before the war ended.

He dates his 'affliction' to this period, when he began using a bibliotheque bleu edition of the Cultes des Ghoules. Repeated trips to the Front had broken his nerve, and he tried a ritual intended to give him the courage of the wolf. He uses a belt made of human skin - he obtained it from German corpses and tanned it himself - to achieve this transformation, and when under the influence he felt 'mightier than Satan, and twice as bloodthirsty.' It awoke a thirst within him, one which has proved difficult to satisfy.

After the War, when the Regiment broke up in 1922, he moved to London and worked on the docks, eventually moving up to foreman. He married Mary, and they had two children, Robert and Diedre. But despite everything, despite the passage of time and his own well-trained nature, Donovan found himself drawn to the belt again and again. He couldn't bear to throw it away, not even when it began speaking to him in his father's voice.

At first he hoped that he might get away with just becoming a wolf, and not killing anyone. Then the bloodlust took over, and he tried mightily to turn it to what he saw as good ends, using his werewolf form to punish the wealthy 'who feed on the blood of the poor.' When that didn't work as he'd hoped and he found himself unemployed, he switched to moonlighting for the local gangs. They don't know his true nature; the gangs use him as a leg breaker and occasional assassin.

He's desperate for a way out, and needs someone who understands the occult better than he to work out how the curse can be broken. Perhaps there's a book out there than can help him ...

Abilities: Athletics 9 (14), Conceal 4, Driving 8, Electrical Repair 6, Firearms 8, Fleeing 6 (12), Health 9 (12), Scuffling 14 (18), Weapons 8. All stats in ( ) are wolf form statistics; any ability not in ( ), like Weapons, cannot be used in wolf form.

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness: +4

Weapon: +1 (bite)

Armor: -1 vs any (fur)

Stability Loss: +1

Appearance as wolf: Giant, muscular, with fur sloughing off in handfuls as if from some kind of disease, and a strange chemical stink (mustard gas, actually).

Arabesque  Lucy Ainsworth

Lucy is the second daughter of wealthy shipping magnate Peter Ainsworth. Her eldest sister is married to minor nobility, and lives in Kensington. She and her younger sister Elanor still live in the family home in Wimbledon; both parents are dead.

Since childhood, Lucy has nurtured a simmering hatred for her younger sister. Helen, the eldest, was able to escape the family home, but homely Lucy never had suitors, family fortune or no. There was something about Lucy's forbidding demeanor, passed on to her by her father, that put people off. Elanor on the other hand was pliant, pretty and cheerful, and had no difficulty attracting men. It was enough to make Lucy's blood boil.

The only thing that kept Lucy from going completely off the deep end was torture. It began with small animals, mice and such; Lucy used her taxidermy hobby as a cover for her activities, transforming her kills into elaborate and fantastic displays. She created fantasy landscapes with her mice as tiny knights, wooing damsels and challenging dragonish cats. Before long she had several large glass tanks full of her craftsmanship, decorating the ground floor of the family home. At first she confined it to her father's study, but the project grew and grew, until now there isn't a single room on the ground floor that lacks a study in quasi-medieval splendor. Pride of place is taken up by a Spanish Inquisition piece complete with purpose-built instruments of torture, using rats as the inquisitors.

It wasn't enough. More and more the men kept coming for Elanor, and Lucy would keep them away. She saw herself as the guardian of the house and its legacy. After all, if Papa was still alive, he wouldn't want the youngest married before her elder sister. There are standards of decorum. The family money is held in trust, and Helen's not foolish enough to come anywhere near Wimbledon these days. For all the outside world knows, the two sisters might be living together in secluded harmony.

Though Lucy would never admit it, taxidermy is no longer enough to keep her darker urges in check, and hasn't been for several years now. She has strange dreams in which she roams London like an avenging angel, tracking down Elanor's would-be lovers and dealing with them before they become a serious threat. This has extended to all young men who might, at some point, pay Elanor attention, from the milkman on. The mailman hasn't tried to deliver the post in some time, not that he dares tell his supervisor why. So far the black hound of Wimbledon Common hasn't attracted attention, but with each incident Lucy's restraint slips further and further.

The one thing Lucy hasn't really been paying attention to, oddly enough, is Elanor herself. Lucy's younger sister has a mind of her own, for all her pliant nature, and she's making a collar for the guard dog Lucy has become. One day she'll snap it around Lucy's hairy neck, and then things may change forever.

Abilities: Athletics 4 (12), Fleeing 4 (10), Filch 7, Health 5 (10), Scuffling 4 (12). All stats in ( ) are wolf form statistics; any ability not in ( ), like Filch, cannot be used in wolf form.

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness: +3

Weapon: +0 (bite)

Armor: -1 vs any (fur)

Stability Loss: +0

Appearance as wolf:  Jet black hound, similar in build to an Irish Wolfhound. Sleek and well cared for, but with a savage temper.

Sordid: Barton King

Barton King is a factory owner, a tanner, whose business is in the East End, out on the Isle of Dogs. The tannery has been struggling since the War; King made a lot of money back in 1914-18, but had no real head for business, and ended up wasting most of his profits on failed investment schemes. The factory has been in the red for the last few years, and there's talk it might go under.

However badly the factory might be doing, King sees himself as a captain of industry, frustrated in his efforts by lesser men. It wasn't his fault that none of his investments worked out, it was the jealousy of his rivals who intrigued against him and tricked him out of his rightful profits. He's a wolf, and the world is full of sheep. If the concept of the alpha male existed in the 1930s he'd enthusiastically self-identify as an alpha, the dominant male lording it over his domain.

The first rape took place three years ago. She was one of his workers, a woman he'd had his eye on for some time, and he followed her home one night, assaulting her in her flat. He saw it as taking what rightfully belonged to him, and if the girl killed herself, why, that was her own silly fault.

The second time it happened the woman had a boyfriend, and that was where things got complicated. King's alpha male side refused to back down even though he was clearly outmatched. King doesn't really understand what happened after the boyfriend intervened; King just remembers coming to in an alleyway, covered from head to foot in blood. The papers said a vicious murderer had slashed the two to death, and as far as King was concerned that was as good a story as any.

It's happened four times since then, each time to women that King's had his eye on, and as he's grown older, his targets get younger and younger. The last was only twelve, a girl without parents he'd seen hanging around the factory gates, begging. Those he sees as his rightful prey, but lately he's become excited by boys as well as girls. Boys put up more of a fight, and their flesh is as tender, if caught young enough.

He has one ally within the factory who knows his secret, George Means, a foreman. He brought Means in early in his career, when he was frightened of what he was becoming and wanted someone to help him understand it. Means passes himself off as a master of the occult, but really he's a sub-Crowley dilettante who knows very little about the Mythos. Means took the job as a sinecure, figuring he'd milk King for a few paydays and then scarper. Trouble is, King's feral side scares Means silly, and the last two times Means ended up helping King get his kill for fear of what might happen if he didn't. Now Means is involved up to his neck, and the day will come when he'll have to decide whether his fear of King is greater than his terror of the hangman's noose. 

Abilities: Athletics 8 (15), Fleeing 7 (12), Electrical Repair 5, Health 8 (15), Mechanical Repair 8, Scuffling 7 (14), Weapons 5. All stats in ( ) are wolf form statistics; any ability not in ( ), like Electrical Repair, cannot be used in wolf form.

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness: +3

Stealth: +1

Weapon: +1 (bite)

Armor: -2 vs any (fur)

Stability Loss: +1

Appearance as wolf: A shaggy hound with exaggerated sexual characteristics, and eyes that glow like hellfire.

Friday, 8 August 2014

The Jonestown Dead: Trail of Cthulhu, Night's Black Agents, Delta Green

This post is part inspired by the recent revelation that several cremated bodies from the Jonestown massacre have turned up, 35 years after the fact, in an abandoned Delaware funeral home.

Jonestown, for those not familiar with the event, refers to the 1978 mass suicide of more than 900 members of the religious group Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, run by James Warren 'Jim' Jones. The People's Temple had gone to Guyana to find utopia, only to be subjected to full-time agricultural labor and incessant Soviet propaganda. Meanwhile Jones was raking off the American welfare checks that were being sent to his devoted followers; he's supposed to have collected almost $26 million before the end.

That end came when California congressman Leo Ryan decided to fly to the the Guyana camp, prompted by calls from his constituents to find out what had happened to their family members.  He arrived with a delegation of eighteen people, including representatives of the press as well as a Guyanese politician and concerned relatives. Though initially things went well, the situation soon deteriorated, and a violent shoot-out on the airstrip left Ryan and several other delegation members dead. Jones and his followers committed suicide soon afterward, leaving behind several high-ranking members tasked with delivering the Jonestown treasury to the Soviets, as well as a handful of other survivors who, by luck, managed to avoid poisoning. Everyone else died.

When the bodies were returned to the United States the military asked local funeral homes to help relatives deal with the interments, but there were several hundreds - including many children - and it seems that the funeral homes, and probably also the relatives, were completely overwhelmed. The particular funeral home mentioned in the AP report kept the cremated remains of nine people, presumably because the relatives didn't claim the ashes. Time passed, and the home fell into receivership when its owner died, so the bank took it over. Someone from the bank had to go to the home and take stock of what was left, and that was when the remains were discovered.

Many funeral directors admitted, after the fact, that it was not uncommon for a home to have several unclaimed dead on its hands; relatives often lack the money to reclaim their loved ones. "I'm going to say most all funeral establishments have cremains in storage that people have not come to collect," says Harvey Smith, secretary of the Delaware State Funeral Directors Association.

Sad though this is, it does provide some interesting possibilities for roleplay. Given the nature of the universe posited in Trail of Cthulhu, Call of Cthulhu, and modern games like Night's Black Agents or Pagan Publishing's Delta Green, there are plenty of other reasons why cremains might go unclaimed. A funeral home that has fallen into disuse because the owner has died is a very nice touch, and could happen in any of the game's eras. Cremation as a means of disposing of the dead has been around for donkey's years, but in London the concept was never really popular until the 1870s, when the Cremation Society of Great Britain was founded. Take all that into consideration, and we have the following possibilities:

J.S. Salt, Mortician: Established London, 1873, operating one of the country's early crematoriums in 1908, recently abandoned after the death of its owner and proprietor, Jonas Salt, at an advanced age. Mr Salt's immediate family predeceased him; his only son and daughter-in-law, along with his grandchild, perished in the Lusitania disaster. In recent years Mr Salt conducted a reduced business, only accepting commissions from established clients, among them the members of a London psychical society, the Fulham Theosophical Order. The Order has refused to seek new members since 1901, and the three remaining members are in their declining years. Each are very keen to have their arrangements made by Jonas Salt, death be damned; and as for what's in Salt's mortuary, not even the bank that owns the property knows for certain.

Hoffman, Bestattungs-Meister: Established Berlin, 1980, known to have been an asset that at times worked for the CIA as well as the Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND). In its day, Hoffman's was an excellent cobbler with a sideline in cleaning; it specialized in dealing with unorthodox death scenes, and was known to provide excellent quality false identity documents. However in the 1990s it became less useful; unable to keep up with advances in technology, its documentation was no longer considered superior. The end came in 2001 when a scandal involving two misplaced corpses, both of which were later found, naked, in a garbage dump, was traced to Hoffman's. Though the funeral home's owners escaped prosecution, largely thanks to favors owed it over the years, its usefulness as an intelligence asset was finished. Except, according to rumor, perhaps it isn't as dead as previously thought; allegedly it has become active again recently, its work apparently having improved markedly. However nobody has seen Mr and Mrs Hoffman in some time, and the financial institution that holds the funeral home's mortgage is becoming concerned at the lack of contact. Several important papers need to be signed, and even though payments are coming in every month on schedule there are enough irregularities that the bank is beginning to wonder if it isn't participating in an illegal enterprise.

Heavenly Rest Funeral Home: Established 1974 by Horace and Wanda Miller, this business has come into contact with Delta Green's Cell T on four separate occasions, and is considered a Friendly. The Millers are not aware of the conspiracy as a conspiracy; they believe they have assisted agents of the Federal Government, in arranging for the quiet disposal of several decedents, both human and non-human. However recent events within Cell T have resulted in the temporary disbanding of that cell; group leader Tricia is under close psychiatric observation, agent Thomas' whereabouts are unknown, and only agent Tina remains on the active duty list. As a result several things have been overlooked, including half a dozen urgent phone messages sent to Tricia by the Millers concerning a recent consignment. There have been no further messages in the last six months, and Heavenly Rest is now the property of Delaware State Bank, after the disappearance of the Millers. It's believed that Horace and Wanda skipped town when the mortgage payments got too much for them; Delaware State has yet to conduct a survey of its new acquisition.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Sykes, Fairbairn and the Wilds of Scotland: Post Bookhounds

There is a book in my collection I've been searching for without result. I say book; it's more of a pamphlet really, but one of those pamphlets you pick up knowing it will be of great use to you for a long time. I picked it up at the Soane Museum in London, which museum I highly recommend to anyone with an hour or two to spare; the pamphlet was from one of the architectural societies, and talked about the stately homes in Scotland that the security services used to train its agents, often with the enthusiastic assistance of two very skilled roughnecks, Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn.

Sykes and Fairbairn are the sort of people you need in a time of crisis. Sykes was a sniper and pistol expert, a veteran of the Great War as well as big game hunter, who went out to Shanghai in 1917 and for a time served, first as an unpaid volunteer and later as an inspector, in the police. That was where he met Fairbairn, a career copper, soldier, and close combat expert who developed his own martial arts system, which he taught to his fellow Shanghai policemen. Soon after the Second World War broke out, the pair of them shipped themselves home with a boatload of somewhat illegal firearms, and put themselves at the service of their country.

The intelligence services took them on board and set them up as instructors in sunny Scotland, teaching special agents, commandos and rangers how to fight, and live. Shooting to Live is in fact the title of their most famous instruction manual.  

The average shooting affray is a matter of split seconds, they warn. If you take much longer than a third of a second to fire your first shot, you will not be the one to tell the newspapers about it. It is literally a matter of the quick and the dead. Take your choice.

The bit that always sticks with me is, they used wax rounds and a slightly reduced powder charge to make their point, a practice which apparently is borrowed from duelists of the preceding centuries. In order to perfect your dueling technique, without actually getting your head blown off, you used these erzatz rounds in much the same way a paintballer would today. Sykes and Fairbairn used broadly the same method, putting trainees in a live fire range safe in the knowledge that, though they'd get bruised, they wouldn't actually die. At least, so says the Architectural Pamphlet, which I now cannot find. If you read Shooting to Live I highly recommend the Mystery Shoots section in chapter 6, which describes something like this scenario, but doesn't mention wax rounds.

Now, let's consider how this can be put in a Bookhounds context.

Bookhounds the campaign is set in the 1930s, with the War coming just around the corner. Nazi agents are specifically mentioned several times in the text as possible adversaries, or potential customers. When I discussed Technicolor London, way back in 2012, I touched briefly on the idea of a technologically advanced Nazi base complete with electric eyes and security cameras; that's the sort of campaign I'm thinking of here.

The question is, how to end it? If the game's been progressing well, no matter what your particular Final Adversary is, by the time war actually kicks off a Bookhounds game is effectively over. There's a certain charm in trying to keep the shop active while the Blitz is on - you could have some very effective scenarios set in the Undergound during air raids - but the whole grubby aesthetic of a books-and-auctions game is lost when everything's overshadowed by the threat of imminent, total destruction. You can't take the bickering over the price of a medieval missal seriously when your family was blown up yesterday.

Now is the time for a complete change of pace, and probably also an effective conclusion to the careers of these presumably established occultists. Now may also be the time for the security services to step in, recruit them, and send them off to Scotland. After all, if the protagonists have been involved in any way, shape or form with the Nazis before this, then one of Aunty Dora's children is bound to have taken note. Your country needs you. Time to step up and be counted.

Imagine what it would be like in one of those stately homes, miles from anywhere, set in God alone knows how many acres of carefully managed wilderness. Forgotten Gothic grandeur mixed with hasty wartime bodge jobs, as the military move in to make improvements of their own. Eager young recruits, polite but disbelieving, line up to be taught Idiosyncratic Magic or Megapolisomancy, and to be warned about the nature of some of the threats they will face. Meanwhile Sykes and Fairbairn are teaching them - and probably the Bookhounds too - how to shoot, stab, and throttle their opponents.

Then comes the inescapable warning: Trouble is on its way. Whatever the Great Adversary you might have been using in your game is, it is about to reach its destined conclusion. You could have this take place in London, for a Bookhounds game; whenever Dreamhounds comes out, you could have an interesting mix of the two campaign styles, as the surviving Bookhounds are sent in on a daring mission in wartime Paris. Odds on survival ought to be very low indeed.

The point ultimately being that this is an endgame moment. It takes on everything that has come before, and acknowledges that - thanks to the War - circumstances have changed such that things cannot proceed as they have done. There is a transition point - the stately home in Scotland - where the final encounter is defined, allowing the protagonists to plan for that moment when, whether on the rain-slick streets of London or the boulevards of Paris, they finally take action against the foe they've been crossing swords with all this time.

Then comes that moment when, after all those adventures, all that special training, they meet with the enemy one last time.

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.