Sunday, 17 September 2017

Ripped from the Headlines: Fishtanks, Yachts, Bankers and Cuba

Ever wonder what it takes to hack into a casino? Or whether those wealthy tourists disembarking from that yacht are all they seem to be? Wonder no more! Searching for something new for your Night's Black Agents game, or looking for a special new toy for the opposition to play with? Read on!

Recently someone cracked a North American casino - name and location carefully withheld, according to the Washington Post - by way of its fish tank. The tank's systems were connected in order to monitor temperature, food, cleanliness; after all, it had to look its best. Since it was connected, hackers got into the casino's systems and stole 10GB of data, sending it all to a device in Finland, and from there God, and possibly the NSA, alone knows where. Nobody's saying what the data was. Best guess is guest information, credit cards, that sort of thing.

I've discussed this topic before, but it bears repeating. If your players are wondering how best to hack into a facility, the easiest route is via the weak point that is the Internet of Things.

Every single thing in that facility is connected to something. The fish tank needs food. Vending machines need to tell home base when they are empty. Lights and cameras need to sense activity. Projectors connect, as do thermostats, HVAC, plumbing, lavatories. Complex equipment, like tractors, may have multiple processes, some of which may have been modified by the owner, some of which may be set by the manufacturer to only accept its brand of maintenance. Every single thing needs to be managed, and that means it is vulnerable.

The facility owner may not even have full control over its systems. Recently there's been a ton of internet hate directed at the entrepreneurs behind the Bodega vending machine, because apparently they have no idea how marketing works and thought saying they wanted to destroy corner store bodegas would be a good idea. However my first thought wasn't 'oh no, my bodega,' because my nearest bodega is a few thousand miles away and I can't swim that far. No, my first thought was, 'here's a device that's technically managed by an outside agency, but you can bet your sweet bippy it'll be connected to the host's network.' Probably for no good reason either, but that's never stopped anyone in the history of anything. Which means that if the Bodega has a system vulnerability, then its host has a system vulnerability - and the same applies to every single outside agency device you care to name. The device might even have malware built right in.

In fact, there's a genius idea right there. Say your characters notice that the vending machine is supplied and maintained by XYZ Corp. Oh, no, it broke. Darn shame. Oh look, here's a new one - wow, that's fast service. Is anyone going to check and see whether the soda machine delivered actually is from XYZ Corp? Are they hell - so long as it supplies frosty beverages, the host's never going to question it. XYZ Corp will, so you need a workaround there, but apart from that you've an actual Trojan horse wheeled in and installed, dispensing all kinds of goodness, sweetness and light. Plus malware. Yummy. In Night's Black Agents terms, it's a job for the Wire Rat rather than the Hacker - but think of the benefits!

The next one's from this Guardian article about people smuggling. Many hundreds of thousands are fleeing Syria, some with much more money than the rest. For those with the cash, there's a better quality of service. Professionals, entrepreneurs and other wealthy migrants who couldn't get out by other means were paying a Turkish crime syndicate hundreds of thousands at a time to get them and their families out, on cruises best described as luxury desperation.

According to one Italian prosecutor, some smugglers were behaving like travel agencies, offering first, second and third-class accommodation. "It depends how much money you can pay."

We often talk about people smuggling in terms of desperation, hardship, and despair. The route to Italy has been described as the most lethal. Yet at the same time the rich buy their way out of that problem, and make the same crossing in Port Out, Starboard Home style.

As gamification, consider: this is the perfect route for an abandoned Conspiracy asset, Esoterrorist or other well-heeled undesirable to make their way out of a hot zone to somewhere more appealing. Dracula himself once used much the same tactic to get to Whitby, although he definitely travelled closer to third class than first. Finding an abandoned luxury yacht afloat in the Mediterranean is a good hook for a scenario, and this one has an added bonus: the crime syndicate that financed the cruise will be just as interested as the characters in finding out what went wrong, which makes them perfect second-string antagonists for the scenario.

An old one from Monaco: HSBC's banker to the rich and famous was arrested and charged over allegations that he siphoned close to $10 million from his clients' accounts. The banker, Stephen Troth, fought back by claiming his employers were the ones to blame, not him. That didn't work, and he was later arrested again in Monaco for kiting cheques. Before all this happened, Troth worked with Edmond J Safra, a banker who was burnt to death in an arson attack. The fire was set by Safra's bodyguard and nurse Ted Maher, who wanted to impress his boss by rescuing him from a blazing inferno, but only got the inferno bit right. Troth was part of Safra's old banking operation, and when HSBC took that over Troth went to work for HSBC.

Ordinarily I wouldn't delve too deeply in yet another banking scandal, were it not for the fact that it happened in Monaco, the microstate that's home to the rich and eccentric. All sorts of people can claim Monaco as their home, so long as they pay a hefty fee. Moreover, as you can see from the above truth defies fiction; if I'd tried to write that plot I'd be laughed out of every publishers from here to Hong Kong. It's got everything: the rich, lunatics, mysterious arson attacks, a disgraced money man claiming his trial is a cover-up for high level corruption, plus all the lavish trappings of wealth in the ritziest microstate in the world.

I've argued before that when designing supernatural threats the Keeper ought to make liberal use of history and folklore. People have been dreaming this sort of thing up for millennia; it's a cinch there's gold in there for Keepers, if only they sift for it. The case of Stephen Troth goes to show that the same applies to less supernatural plotlines. With just the information above I could come up with two or three Night's Black Agents plots without having to do much work; the same goes for you, Director.

Finally, news from Cuba: Canadian and American diplomats posted to Cuba are falling ill, and report a bewildering variety of symptoms, from speech loss and headaches to balancing problems and nervous system damage. Initial reports suggest some kind of sonic weapon is to blame, but nobody's sure what that weapon is - or even if such a weapon is feasible. Infrasound is supposed to have unusual effect on the human body, causing fatigue, panic attacks and, in extreme cases, hallucination. However an effect at this level is more akin to some kind of mad scientist's death ray than anything known to be in development.  

The reports came in before Hurricane Irma, which caused considerable damage to Cuba. It would be interesting to know if the effect continues post-Irma.

Frankly, it's tempting to call this a psychosomatic illness. Even if you assume that such a weapon is possible, it's incredible to think the Cubans developed one - and what would be the purpose? A few diplomats sent home ill? Even if you call it a test run, perhaps conducted by the Russians rather than Cuba, there's less high-profile targets you could be testing it on. Nobody would give a damn if this was happening, say, in the Ukraine, except the Ukrainians, and frankly if the West isn't going to pay attention to actual missiles then it wouldn't blink at whatever this sound gun is - assuming it exists at all.

Israel's supposed to have something called The Scream and there have been attempts to make less-than-lethal sonic devices, but the known examples of those toys are very, very obvious when they go off. It wouldn't just be a few diplomats complaining of headaches; half Havana would hear it. Or, as with the Active Denial System, a device that acts on nerve receptors, it's large enough to be seen by pretty much anyone. However this whatever-it-may-be is portable and small enough to avoid immediate detection.

Psychosomatic effects can spread. Sick building syndrome is a bane of facility maintenance people and building surveyors alike as there's no agreed cause, yet, when it starts, an entire building's population may be affected - or at least say they are. Often there is no real cause, no mold or HVAC malfunction you can point to. People just get ill, and as soon as one person says they're suffering it's a sure bet half a dozen others will too - whether they actually are, or not. SBS can be caused by poor work/life balance and stress, factors that don't involve the building in any way, but once people get it into their heads that the building's at fault, nothing will persuade them otherwise. In many ways it's similar to hauntings; all it takes is one or two people spreading the tale, and before you know it everyone's chattering about cold spots and poltergeists.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Down Among The Dead Men (Esoterrorists)

Another short scenario, this time for the Esoterrorists.

The scenario is loosely based on this news item. A family discovers an SUV, wrapped in plastic, buried in the back yard. It seems to be in excellent condition, and not - as first feared - a body dump. The vehicle was reported stolen, and at time of writing the most likely scenario seems to be insurance fraud, though it seems a convoluted way of going about it.

Word count: 2433.


The Briefing

Lead-out: Sheriff Berry, Fool's Gold, The Previous Owner

Ms Verity summons the agents to Shawnee, the capital of Pottawatomie County, Oaklahoma.

[Pottawatomie: mostly white with sizable Native American population, land originally given to Creek and Seminole after their forced removal from Georgia and Florida, main income retail sales & manufacturing, with agriculture a significant earner, cotton, potato, peach. Shawnee: competed with nearby Tecumsah for county seat designation, finally won in 1930, former railroad hub, current agriculture and industry hub.]

She explains:
  • A week ago local media station KFOR reported the discovery of a buried, brand-new SUV on the property of Lucas Earley.
  • The SUV was discovered as Lucas was digging a new track for ATV racing. He rents out part of his property to weekend joy-riders, and was improving the track.
  • The SUV is a 2003 model and apart from being buried is in reasonable condition, given the circumstances. No bodies were found.
  • Local sheriff Shandra Berry has told reporters an investigation is ongoing, with insurance fraud the likely cause of the incident. The previous owner of the property is the most reasonable suspect.
  • According to Ordo records the previous owner of the property, Rick Parsons, is a known Esoterror asset who escaped Ordo surveillance during operation ROCK DAWN in 2004. Current whereabouts unknown; may have died in 2005 mass immolation Bowie, Texas, but insufficient physical evidence to confirm. 
The agents are tasked with investigating the SUV and confirming whether or not it has any Esoterror connections. Their cover for the operation is that they are acting on behalf of the insurance company, GEICO.

Sheriff Berry
Lead-In: The Briefing

Lead-Out: Fool's Gold, The Previous Owner, Parasites.

If the agents follow up with Sheriff Berry, preferably using some kind of official channel - Bureaucracy or Cop Talk, 0 point spend - she confirms Ms Verity's account and says that forensic examination has shown the vehicle was modified, presumably by the former owner, removing the steering wheel airbag to create a hidden compartment. This was almost overlooked, as the 2003 model had an airbag problem, so the non-standard cover was taken to be a recall/replace issue. The compartment had small traces of what the Sheriff is guessing will turn out to be narcotics. If the agents don't use Bureaucracy or Cop Talk then they still get the clue, since it's a 0 point, but Sheriff Berry checks up on them with their presumed bosses at GEICO, which will cause trouble down the line. See also Official Business.

However agents who spend 1 point Pathology or 2 points Evidence Collection notice that a significant number of the Sheriff's staff have come down with a viral infection - coughing, red/runny eyes, sore throat, blood-flecked phlegm - which mainly affects those who've had first-hand contact with the SUV. The Sheriff thinks this isn't relevant, beyond making her job that much more difficult with a quarter of the department off sick, including all of her forensic support and the mechanics she had looking at the SUV.

In fact the infectious agent, if studied, most closely resembles a variant of the Dependoparvovirus genus, not normally associated with infectious diseases. These don't usually trigger an immune response, and are often used in gene therapy. In this instance someone has modified it for use as a bioweapon. See also Parasites.

Parasites (alternate)
Lead-In: Sheriff Berry

Lead-Out: The Previous Owner, Official Business

The virus discovered in Sheriff Berry is one of the Esoterrorists' failed attempts to modify an Outer Dark entity, in this case the Glistening (main book, p57). 

The intent was to cultivate a much more biddable version of the Glistening and introduce the infection via contaminated cocaine, which is why the SUV was modified with a hidden compartment. However the experiment was not a success, and instead of creating a Glistening the Esoterrorist cell merely made an obnoxious infectious disease. It knocks the host out for a few days, and it can be fatal in a very small portion of the population - less than .001% - but the spores are nothing like the Glistening and do not create sessiles or drones.

However they are enough like the Glistening to give false positives for Evidence Collection and Forensic Entomology. A 0 point spend with either of those indicates that the Glistening is present; only spending points demonstrates that there is no real infection.

This may make the agents panic, possibly even call in FEMA-level backup. This moves the action to Official Business.

Official Business (alternate, reaction)

Lead-In: Parasites, Sheriff Berry

This scene assumes that the agents do something to provoke a hostile reaction from official channels. This means either they aroused Sheriff Berry's suspicions, or they over-reacted to what they thought was a potential Glistening outbreak.

If the former, Sheriff Berry starts surveilling them, gathering evidence for what she believes may turn into serious, even Federal, charges. A lot of her people are off sick, so she's doing this solo and on her own time. Treat this as an increase of 2 Difficulty to any General test involving criminal or semi-criminal activity, eg Infiltration to break into someone's house. Failure in this instance means that she's watching the agents when they attempt the criminal activity, and interrupts them at a psychological moment - like when they're making what they think is a clean getaway. Fortunately the agents can get around her with generous (2 point minimum) point spends of abilities like Cop Talk. Intimidation is a very bad idea, and may lead to shooting.

If the latter, then Federal agencies have become involved. Now the agents have to worry about being picked up by the FBI, which means point spends for Interpersonal abilities (Bureaucracy, eg) increase by 1 point and Difficulty for General tests involving criminal or semi-criminal activity increases by 2. The Feds are watching. Phones are tapped, electronic communications are being monitored, rooms are bugged, nondescript surveillance vans are in position across the street, and so on. This probably isn't going to look good on anyone's final report. Point spends will not get around the Feds.

The Previous Owner

Lead-in: The Briefing

Lead-out: Solitary Confinement, Psychobomb

If the agents chase up the Rick Parsons angle, then they discover (core clue Cop Talk, Fingerprinting, Bureaucracy) that according to state and local records Rick Parsons fled the state back in 2003, one step ahead of an assortment of charges of which the most important are an assortment of federal firearms beefs. The ATF would very much like to know his current whereabouts. Ordo records suggest but cannot confirm his death in 2005; however at about the same time, a Robert Peters was arrested in Maryland for assault, and thanks to a less-than-spotless prison record he's still in an Maryalnd lockup. Fingerprint evidence and Evidence Collection strongly suggest that Peters is Parsons, operating under an alias.

He's also become one of the more important members - a lieutenant - in the prison's Dead Man Incorporated gang. His specialty is contract killing and he has a reputation for being impossible to kill thanks to his unique tattoos (-2 armor, magical ritual). He's been spreading the Esoterror message throughout the system since his incarceration, and he won't be happy to see the investigators.

Assuming the investigators get to see him (Law 0 point) then Interrogation (0 point) or similar shows he's surprised to hear his old SUV turned up. He thought that thing was gone for good. It was involved in some kind of Esoterror stunt, but he's not about to say what. Interrogation or Bullshit Detector (1 point) indicates he thinks he can work an angle, maybe use this information in some way, but it's not clear how. He does let slip that his brother will help him, but records show he has no brother. Perhaps he means a gang brother.

Paying attention to the other prisoners (1 point Streetwise or similar) notices that many of them refer to 'Loco' or 'Loco Man' in terms of reverent awe. Loco, they say, is an inmate, but he's not just any inmate: he's special.  He looks like a heavily tattooed George Raft, is an expert brawler and killer, and wears correctional clothing so perfectly clean and pressed you'd think he had a personal valet. He runs the DMI in this prison, and thanks to Peters he's well on the way to becoming an Esoterror asset. Upsetting him, or challenging him in any way, could lead to a riot. However judging by the artwork in his cell - drawn by Loco Man himself - he's a few steps away from summoning a particularly unpleasant Outer Dark entity - a Brutalizer. If the agents leave him alone, they're going to hear from this prison again soon. Antagonizing Loco Man leads to Psychobomb.

Investigating Peters' cell finds his carefully hidden (0 point Evidence Collection) ritual diary, in which his plans for this prison, and the plan to become a Discarnate, are carefully encoded (1 point Cryptography or Occult Studies), buried among a lot of uncoded stuff about his nightmares and other psychobabble. Information found here can help uncover his dig sites (cf Fool's Gold).

Ordo influence (Bureaucracy 0 point) can get Peters transferred to an Ordo facility, but before that happens he shanks a guard and gets himself put in solitary. See further Solitary Confinement.

Psychobomb (alternate)

Lead-in: The Previous Owner

The Loco Man runs the DMI in this prison, which means that he runs the narcotics and smuggling rackets. Upsetting him leads him to start a riot, with the aim of shanking one or more investigators.

It starts with a fight between two inmates unconnected with DMI, in a room or corridor close to the investigators' current location. They're drug addicts acting under orders. The fight quickly escalates, and when guards intervene with chemical agents, baton and hard foam rounds, the prison erupts. Two guards are quickly taken prisoner, and the fighting gets totally out of control. The riot lasts for forty minutes, and only ends after the guards start using live rounds.

In the confusion, Loco Man and N=P number of DMI hard men seek out the investigators, attacking with razor blades, shivs, metal pipes and a four-shot homemade pistol. They want the investigators dead. If possible, Loco Man will capture one for a blood sacrifice, a made-up ritual he's basing on the things Peters has told him. The sacrifice won't do anything except weaken the local Membrane.

Solitary Confinement (alternate)

Lead-in: The Previous Owner

Lead-out: Fool's Gold

This scene occurs if Peters knows the Ordo has caught up with him.

Peters figures he's going to end up in an Ordo cell, and doesn't like the prospect. He immediately attacks another inmate, hoping to be put in solitary. This plan succeeds, and the prison warden isn't about to let him out again without Federal level clearance, which means 2 points Bureaucracy or 1 point Law.

However Peters has other plans. As soon as the door slammed shut behind him he began pouring accelerant, and by the time the investigators catch up with him his cell is ablaze. Nobody knows how he got the accelerant or a source of ignition in the cell, though Bullshit Detector or Interrogation 0 point tracks down the guard who helped Peters pull it off.

Peters' charred body is almost unrecognizable. In fact, an autopsy shows that the dental work isn't Peters', and 1 point Forensic Pathology discovers that his fingerprints have changed as well. It shouldn't be possible, but Peters somehow switched his body for someone else's - another prisoner. Peters is nowhere to be found, certainly not in the prison. Investigators who remember the briefing note about the mass immolation in Bowie, Texas may wonder if this is the same trick.

Fool's Gold

Lead-in: Solitary Confinement, Parasites, Sheriff Berry

Lead-out: Endgame

This scene assumes the investigators either go to the place where the car was found, investigate the car while it's at the impound, or both.

The 2003 model SUV is in remarkable condition, given that it's been buried for almost a decade. It doesn't run, but with cleaning and some very minor restoration it could be made usable. It's a standard model, with some modification (cf Sheriff Berry). However there's something about it that makes people very nervous; Stability 3 test to work on it or be near it for longer than a half hour. This is because, before he buried it, Peters/Parsons went to a great deal of trouble to make it suitable for use as a Discarnate host (cf main book p55-6). He just didn't go that final step, because before he could get started the Ordo closed in and he had to make a break for it.

This is also why Peters/Parsons went to such lengths to bury it. Investigating the dig site (core Occult Studies) notices that, at the bottom of the hole, there's a space in which the ritualist is meant to commit suicide, providing the spirit to power the Discarnate.

In theory the investigators can short-circuit this plan by having the SUV crushed or otherwise destroyed. However if Peters/Parsons realizes that the SUV has been uncovered, then he escaped - Solitary Confinement - and quickly made his way to another suicide spot, hidden on the vast extent of his former property. There he completed the ritual, and the Discarnate is now active.


Lead-in: Fool's Gold

Either the investigators alerted Peters/Parsons, and therefore the Discarnate is active, or they did not.

If they did, then the house Peters/Parsons lived in is now a Discarnate killing machine, and its first victim is either Sheriff Berry or the people who now live on what was Peters/Parsons' property. It then targets the investigators. In this version of events, the SUV is almost as important to the Discarnate as the cultist's corpse, and destroying the SUV reduces the damage done by traps. Where a discarnate normally does (13-N) damage to a victim, it now does (9-N).

If they did not, then shortly after dealing with the SUV - presumably destroying it - Peters becomes aware of what they've done. He stages a prison break with (N= 0.5P) DMI goons, and tracks the investigators down if they're still in Pottawatomie County. His first victim, as above, is Sheriff Berry or the people on his property, but he'll definitely want revenge on the players. As an ordinary cultist Peters/Parsons is much less dangerous, but he will have had time to steal a shotgun and a couple pistols or knives for his DMI buddies. In this version Peters/Parson still has his damage reduction, but no other magical abilities.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Sax and Violence: Writing Pulp

My grandparents owned New York editions of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu and Yellow Peril novels, and when I was young I read them when I waited at their house for my parents to finish work. The last in the series is The Hand of Fu Manchu, which I think must be the New York printer's name for The Si-Fan Mysteries, first published in 1917 and intended to be the last adventure featuring sinister doctor and polymath Fu Manchu. Not that it was; Rohmer's bank balance couldn't stand the loss of his most famous character, and Fu Manchu material kept getting published even after Rohmer's death.

I couldn't call his work good writing. In fact, it's bloody awful, and that's before you consider the racism. However reading them makes me realize the strength of pulp fiction, so now I'm going to talk about pulp, and how Rohmer works his magic.

Because it is magic, let's face it. Nobody has his output - his successful output - without a little magic. It's very much of it's time and there's no chance in hell you could get away with exactly the same thing today. However there are writers who've come close. Why? Well, let's see.

The Yellow Claw opens in a writer's garret. He's busily working on his latest epic, and he's all alone in the apartment. Without warning, a woman clad in civet furs - and nothing else - bursts in on his reverie. She faints. He rushes off for help, and by the time he returns with a doctor the woman is dead - strangled.

We're 11 pages in.


She's not just afraid, she's naked and afraid. She's not just dead, she's dead in his flat, and strangled. Moment piles on moment like a freight train crashing into a tunnel, crushing cars and bodies in hell's own bonfire. Every new scene should be a fresh horror.

Also from The Yellow Claw: the menace in this novel is, you guessed it, a sinister Chinese known only as The Yellow Claw, aka Mister King. The reader never sees his face, knows his identity, guesses his plans. Whenever he intrudes into the action we see his sinewy hands, but never the man himself. Even in the final moments, when his ship sinks with all aboard, the last we see of him is his terrible hands clawing at the hair of a poor unfortunate, to drag her down to drown with him.

So, lesson #2: never reveal.

If you can get the same effect with just a brief glimpse, then do that. A Nosferatu, when seen straight on, has nothing left to offer by way of shock, horror, or effect. By the time the players see it, they're already calculating its stats and possible ways of killing it. Whereas if they never see it at all, if they just see the effect it has and the damage it does, the effect is much greater.

Val Lewton did exactly the same thing in his films, and he was right to do it.
Cat People is a prime example, but there are plenty of others. Never reveal if you can avoid it.

This one's from Dope. "Sin Sin Wa is a marked man," says Seton Pasha, secret agent. "He has the longest and thickest pigtail I ever saw on a human scalp. I take it he is a Southerner of the old school; therefore, he won't cut it off. He has also only one eye, and while there are many one-eyed Chinamen, there are few one-eyed Chinamen with a pigtail like a battleship's hawser."

This pigtail is a huge part of Sin Sin Wa's character. It gets a mention in every scene he's in. He strangles at least one person with it. Yet ...

[Sin Sin Wa] raised his hands and began to unplait his long pigtail, which, like his 'blind' eye, was camouflage - a false queue attached to his own hair, which he wore but slightly longer than some Europeans and many Americans. With a small pair of scissors he clipped off his long, snake-like moustaches ...

Lesson #3: confound expectations.

Villains are smart. They know the value of a good disguise. More importantly, they know how to get the heroes to underestimate them. The day will come when that will cost the heroes dear.

From The Hand of Fu Manchu comes Lesson #4: Never can I forget that nightmare apartment, that efreet's hall!

The closing chapters take place in the home of Sir Lionel Barton, the world-famous explorer. He recently took possession of Graywater Park, formerly a fortress, a monastery, and a manor-house. Sir Lionel keeps a menagerie of big animals - leopards, lionesses, a couple Hyenas - in the extensive crypt beneath the chapel, because of course he does. And the house is supposed to be haunted, because of course it is. Yes, there are secret rooms walled up and forgotten since the Middle Ages. In fact the Spanish churchman who now haunts the place is supposed to have died in that mysterious chamber, which is, of course, a torture room with still-functioning equipment. And yes, to complete the picture, there is a secret tunnel that leads out of the Park to a hidden coastal cove, where Fu Manchu's yacht waits to whisk the Devil Doctor away.

In short, it's never just a house. Pack the place full of whatever you can think of. If there's even the slightest excuse for something mad, bad and dangerous to know hidden away in a back room, by all means put it in. If you need there to be a tunnel, then there's a tunnel. Maybe mobsters built it during Prohibition, or maybe it's part of an abandoned mine, or maybe ghouls have been digging under the walls of this place since time immemorial. Find a reason, however contrived, and use it.

Somewhat related to #4 is Lesson #5: double down on everything, especially the squick.

In Tales of Chinatown: The Daughter of Huang Chow, the hero discovers the hidden jewel hoard of Huang Chow, guarded by the most gigantic spider which he had ever seen in his life! It had a body as big as a man’s fist, jet black, with hairy legs like the legs of a crab and a span of a foot or more! Naturally one bite from this thing is instant death, and of course it lives in a lacquered Chinese coffin and is fed birds to eat, so that the stench of decayed flesh wafts from its nest.

Make sure every aspect of the thing screams for attention. It's not just a venomous spider. It's a spider whose body is as big as a man's fist, and which lives in an ornate coffin stinking of rotten flesh. That way, when it skitters across the room towards its prey, the prey is absolutely certain this thing is bad, bad news. There's no 'I might make my saving throw' with this creature. The only possible outcome is death - if it gets close enough to bite.

Finally there is Lesson #6, and this time I'm not going to quote from any one story, because this is present in every single story: pile the corpses high.

If someone isn't dead every other chapter, it isn't pulp. Preferably dead in some awful, soul-destroying way, so you know that the victim suffered before they died. Moreover death is no respecter of persons: anyone can die, at any time. Especially women, in Sax's case, but really, anyone's fair game.

The only possible exception to this is the villain, who can die, but preferably in such a way that there's still a chance the villain may return. In games where being undead is a thing, or brains are kept in jars, there's an obvious route. However the typical method is to have the villain die in such a way that the body's never found, or found in such a state as to be unrecognizable, leaving open the possibility of a body double.

This trope can get annoying if overused, so best to save it for the real, honest-to-Satan Villains. Henchmen, even the very important ones, only live once. Moreover there are ways to make the Villain's return intriguing, in such a way that the return is forgivable.

For example, in The Hand of Fu Manchu, the Devil Doctor returns as The Man With The Limp, even though the heroes know for a fact he was shot in the head the last time they saw him. Indeed he was. That's why he walks with a limp; he has permanent brain damage, because the bullet's still there. Which is why he kidnaps Doctor Petrie halfway through the novel - he needs someone to help him remove the bullet, and he knows he can rely on Petrie because he also captured Petrie's lover Kâramanèh. Unless the good Doctor cooperates, Kâramanèh's goose is cooked.

If Fu Manchu had just come back to life, it would have been boring. This way, not only does he return, he does so in such a way that the hero has to become involved, and an entire scene is devoted to what happens as a consequence of Fu Manchu's survival.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Twisting Christie (GUMSHOE All)

When constructing a mystery scenario - say for BubbleGumshoe - the Director/Keeper will want to keep the players on their toes. Everyone loves a plot twist. It's practically mandatory. The problem is, how to keep players from guessing the twist halfway through?

In some settings, guessing the twist is half the fun. The Dracula Dossier, for instance, provides three possible ways for any person, place or thing to develop; as an innocent, or unconnected plot point, as an Edom-friendly plot point, or as Dracula's puppet. That way the Director can adjust things on the fly, and account for unwise player mutterings like, 'God, we would be so, so hosed if the Journalist turned out to be one of Dracula's minions.' The twist is baked in.

That said, the Dracula Dossier is huge. Over 360 pages of unrelenting evil. When writing your own stuff, you may not want to spend time making sure every single person, place or thing the players might encounter has three different aspects. So what to do?

Author Karen Woodward has this to say about mystery maven Agatha Christie:

Christie often (though not always) had three distinct threads interwoven throughout most of her plots. Let's call these the A story, the B story and the C story.

A Story --> the murder (the whodunit)

B Story --> a romance

C Story --> a touch of evil

The A story is the main story, the story of the murder. The B story is a subplot that includes one of the main characters in a romance. The C story is another subplot, one about a character who has malign intentions toward one of the other characters. These intentions aren't related to the murder--perhaps this is suspected but, in the end, the 'touch of evil' character will not be intimately connected with it.

In Death In The Clouds, for example, the A plot is the murder of blackmailer and moneylender Madame Giselle. The B plot is the romance between ingénue Jane Grey and dentist Norman Gale. The C plot revolves around crime novelist Mister Clancy, who may or may not be the murderer. 

Yet a typical scenario often has only an A plot: one clear objective, which the agents or investigators have to shoot for or die in the attempt. Seldom is there a B plot, and almost never a C. However the disentanglement of A from B and C is what makes the twist a twist. It's because the reader can't be sure that A won't turn into C at the last minute, or vice versa, that the denouement becomes a denouement, and not just a rubber mask removal.

Now, it's unreasonable to have a romance B plot in every single scenario. Christie liked them, but you're trying to get a plot out every other week, where she's aiming to get a novel out every six months or so. Equally, in a TV series where there's a romance subplot, the romance isn't part of every single episode. Flirting, yes, but not the full-blown will-they-won't-they stuff. The audience gets tired if you return to the same plot points in every scenario, whether it's romance or some other thing.

However a B plot that adds some non-threatening drama is perfectly reasonable. Even better if it includes something the characters can relate to, but what that thing is will depend largely on the setting. In Bookhounds of London, the obvious target is the store itself. In Dreamhounds of Paris, it could be a proposed art showing, possibly even the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme. In settings where there are character hooks baked into the setting - like Night's Black Agents with its Sources of Stability - there are other possibilities.

With that in mind, and using a Bookhounds scenario idea I've described in the past, let's do some brainstorming and see where the B and C plots might be.

Lucy Ainsworth 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.

Years of simmering hatred and jealousy have turned Lucy into a werewolf. She sees herself as the guardian of the Ainsworth legacy, defending it - and the Wimbledon house she and her sister Elanor share - against intruders. So far her activities haven't attracted attention, but her restraint is slipping. Sooner or later something will happen that will shatter their peaceful home life for good.

So the A plot is Lucy, and what to do about the ravening werewolf she's become. We're now looking for B and C plots that can be tied into A.

B is meant to be the non-threatening plot. It may or may not be the cheerful plot. When Christie plots her B level romances, they don't always end well. C is the touch of evil plot, the character that draws focus away from the real villain. C may or may not be a threat, but C certainly looks like a threat.

Since this is Bookhounds, the store is in play. There may be other, character-related hooks that are equally viable, but when writing for a group not your own you can't guarantee those hooks are there or, if they are, whether they're useful.

So let's make the B plot store-relevant. If the store is actually in Wimbledon, even better, though again when writing for a group not your own you can't order things the way you'd like them.

The main plot is about jealousy and rage, so it would be good if the B plot could also be about jealousy and rage. This helps tie everything together, thematically, reinforcing the scenario's central concept.

So: one of the store's rivals, fed up at the store's perceived success, hires Chester Riley, an amateur actor down on his luck, to do them foul. Chester, who thinks he's a master of disguise, keeps coming back to the store again and again to cause trouble. Maybe this time he'll make himself obnoxious while customers are in the shop. Or loudly argue with the staff about the price of a book. Or say he wants to return a book, since it was damaged when he bought it and he wants his money back. Of course he's doing that in front of a crowd of would-be customers.

In order to deal with the B plot the characters need to work out who Chester is, and why he's doing what he's doing.

Note that the B plot has little relevance to the main plot. It's a distraction, a thing the characters don't have to worry about too much, but can't entirely ignore since it does affect their lives and livelihood.

It could have been different, of course. Given the relationship between Lucy, Elanor, and anyone who pays any kind of attention to Eloise, a romance B plot is doable. The difficulty is how to involve the characters. Either they have to be the object of someone's affection, or they have to willingly pursue it. Willingly pursue is fun, if a player can be persuaded, but the Keeper can't rely on that every time. Alternatively Elanor - or possibly Lucy - might develop a fixation, but then you run the risk of it being short-lived if the player decides to negate the idea.

That, and ideally you want to involve all the players, otherwise one character's getting a lot of spotlight time for no other reason than that the plot says they must. You want to avoid 'the plot says, therefore you must' as often as you can, whether for B plots or any other reason.

One further possibility is to have an NPC be the lover and an NPC - presumably Elanor - be the object of affection. However that means two NPCs are basically having their own plot with no player input. Again, this is something to be avoided if at all possible.

Onward to C.

The C plot is the touch of evil plot. It needs to feature someone, or thing, that seems to be a threat but in fact is not. Since this is a horror game, that C plot probably needs to feature something supernatural-ish - heavy on the ish.

It also needs to be relevant to the main plot, unlike the B plot. The B plot can afford to be a little oddball, and so long as it affects the characters it doesn't matter if it isn't 100% plot relevant. In the same sense, the romance between Jane Grey and Norman Gale isn't 100% plot relevant, though the reader becomes invested anyway.

So we need a touch of evil character who is related to the A plot but not a central part of it. We already have a maddened werewolf and her trapped sister. We also have another sister, married, who lives in Kensington. We haven't specified who the sister married.

Let's say that the sister married Algernon Parker, a no-good snake in the grass who married sister Helen for her money. Thanks to unwise speculation that money's almost gone, though you'd never know it to look at their lifestyle. Algernon knows that Lucy and Elanor are still sitting on the bulk of their trust funds, and thinks that, if they wrote wills at all, they probably left everything to their sibling. After all, why wouldn't they?

Algernon's scheme is to get rid of Lucy and Elanor, so Helen can inherit the lot. However he wasn't counting on Lucy's unique condition. He has become aware of it, thanks to an unlucky encounter with Lucy on the Common, and is secretly worried he too might be infected after Lucy bit him. So he's resorting to magical means, and reading every grimoire and tome he can get his hands on - in part to find a cure, and in part to get rid of Lucy once and for all.

This may or may not bring him into the players' orbit, as he's bound to need Bookhounds. However so long as he keeps lurking in the background, possibly arranging fiendish traps to get rid of the Ainsworth sisters or chaining himself up at night to prevent disaster when he transforms, the players are bound to suspect him.

Which means they may not suspect Lucy - until it's too late.


Sunday, 20 August 2017

Ripped from the Headlines: The Iron Toothed Vampire (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier, Esoterrorists)

Hundreds of Glasgow schoolchildren gather at the Necropolis each night. Two kids have been murdered, and eaten, by a vampire, and they're determined to bring the monster to justice. Their weapons may be feeble - a collection of sticks and knives - but their fervor is very real.

A cry goes up: "There's the vampire!" The schoolchildren scatter, screaming.

Thus a legend is born: the Iron Toothed Vampire of the Gorbals.

It gets its genesis from a comic book, Dark Mysteries. Comics like these were rarer than hen's teeth in Glasgow in the 1950s, and whoever had it must have enjoyed bragging rights. For whatever reason, that particular tale caught hold. It probably started small, with a couple kids chatting. Then more took up the tale, and more. Then the rumor goes round that, not only does it exist, it's killed.

It's one small step from that to patrolling the cemetery looking for the thing.

I can bear personal witness to this. Not that long ago, a tsunami swamped Bermuda. You won't have heard of it, but it's true. No, it didn't come from the Triangle. It came from Thailand.

In 2004 a terrible disaster took the lives of a quarter million people, most of them in Thailand. A year later, there was a documentary about the event. Bermudians watched it. Two of them sat outside, near Salt Rock Grill in Somerset, and idly commented that the gleam of water on the horizon looked just a little like what they thought a tsunami-created water wall might look like.

A few hours later our neighbors from Dockyard were deposited on our doorstep by the local police, convinced beyond reason that water would swamp everything at low level. Since we are on a hill, the police figured people would be safe.

Oddly enough, there was no ocean wave of death.

Nobody thought to ask how long it took a tsunami wave to hit, once it's sighted from shore. The police never called the weather service, or any other agency tasked with monitoring this kind of thing. They just scooped people up and dropped them somewhere that might be safe.

I suppose I should be grateful most of them aren't armed.

When the Esoterrorists talks about how the Membrane can be shattered by people spreading cryptorumors to create what amounts to a supernatural effect, the Iron Toothed Vampire is what it's talking about.

To add a little bit of gamification, with all the above in mind:

In 1954 Edom has a problem. It's self-inflicted: the Glasgow site at which it has been holding a biological test subject proves less secure than hoped, and the test subject escapes.

It's spotted by local children when it tries to hide in the Southern Necropolis, and then something interesting happens.

Edom still isn't sure of the proximate cause, but for whatever reason children by the dozens - the hundreds - join the hunt. At the same time the psychic listening posts set up to monitor activity - and by extension, Dracula - go off like klaxons. This causes an inordinate amount of public concern, outcry, and attention-grabbing media.

By the time the dust settles, the entity is contained, and the children given sound spankings and sent to bed, the Dukes are in conference. After all, it was just one minor outbreak, the sort of thing that has happened often enough before without this kind of reaction. What caused the psychic trauma? Will it happen again? Can it be created - can Dracula fake out the listening post system with false reports?

To begin with, the Glasgow operation is shut down. Clearly security is too lax; somewhere else shall be found for these experiments.

However the next few decades see an unprecedented interest in child psychology, as investigators from Edom monitor the children who participated in the Iron Toothed Vampire hunt. The initial theory is that one or more of them is, or was, a psychic sensitive, and the excitement caused by the vampire story caused a sudden burst of psychic energy, which in turn affected and influenced all the others.

In spite of this attractive theory the investigators are never able to narrow down the patient zero of this outbreak. Instead they have what come to be called the Gorbals Ten: children, now grandparents, who might or might not have had sufficient ability to create the effect. In some cases, whatever they may have had is thought to have dissipated with puberty. In others, the jury is still out. In any case those ten, and their offspring, are still monitored closely, just to be sure.

So when Ronald Morrison dies by his own hand in a very suggestive manner - he apparently stakes himself to death, using the remains of a wooden chair - Edom is quick to respond. The agents go up to Glasgow in sunny January - average rainfall 148.2 inches - to see what's what.

Did Morrison kill himself? If so, did he choose that particular method for a reason? What of the remaining Nine - are they at risk?

Are children gathering at the Southern Necropolis again, and if so, why?


Sunday, 13 August 2017

Dry As Dust (Night's Black Agents)

I was going to talk about something else, but then a question popped up on Ken & Robin's podcast about Dust mode in Night's Black Agents.

It occurred to me that I've been working on just that very thing for a writing project I'd like to see come to fruition, so with that in mind:

Dust Mode

[REDACTED] is written with Dust mode in mind.
Dust tends to be less cinematic than the standard setting. Characters are still badass, but they’re not Jason Bourne badass. Death is an ever-present reminder that mistakes may be forgivable but are also fatal. The vampires and their human allies tend to be much more challenging in open combat.
Dust tends to work well with Mirror mode, that shifting morass of ever-changing loyalties which makes heavy use of the Trust and Betrayal mechanics described on pages 40-41 of the main book.
The following rules modifications are required for [REDACTED's] Dust mode:
·         Remove the MOS rules.
·         Remove Cherry benefits that result in automatic success.
·         Keep Cherry benefits that do not imply automatic success, eg Medical School of Hard Knocks with its bonus point in Diagnosis.
·         Cap Health at 10.
·         Keep the Thriller Combat rules.
·         Use the Guns Kill rules given on page 63 of the main book.
The Thriller Combat rules make combats more interesting, as do Cherries like Martial Arts. Equally the Athletics Cherry gives access to Parkour, which allows for better chase scenes.
The point being that simply having access to those rules does not imply automatic success; just because a character is experienced in Parkour doesn’t mean she won’t screw up the vault.
However the MOS rules and Cherries like Infiltration’s Open Sesame do allow automatic success, and therefore should not be used if the Director intends to play this setting in Dust mode.
There are some grey area Cherries, and the Director should make a judgement call as to whether to use them. Gambling’s Luck of the Devil Cherry, for example, allows the player to make a dice roll at the beginning of the session and decide when to use it. Technically this could allow an automatic success, or an automatic failure.
The Director must decide whether this benefit is applicable in Dust mode. In my Dust games I allow it, on the basis that the Cherry does not necessarily result in automatic success or failure; the Difficulty of the test still needs to be taken into account.  
If Mirror mode is to be used then players assign Trust as usual.
It sometimes happens in Mirror games that the Betrayer reveals that they’ve been working for ‘the other side’ all along, where the other side is often an intelligence agency. In the example in the main book, Beatrice tells her companions Jack and Luc that she’s been working for the DGSE, the French external intelligence agency, all along.
In this setting, it’s also possible that the Betrayer is working for one of the players in this high-stakes game, like [YOU BETTER BELIEVE THAT'S REDACTED]. The Director should consider carefully whether to allow this; it may be that aligning with one of the in-game agencies allows the player greater access to in-game secrets.
That said, it’s perfectly in keeping with Mirror mode to have a character announce she’s been bought off by one of the in-game agencies. If the Director wishes to allow it, by all means do so.

Why, Bob? Why?
Ultimately the point behind Dust mode is that it's gritty, more realistic, potentially more fatal. In Anthony Price's novels combat is rare, but when it happens somebody dies. In Price's war novels, like Hour of the Donkey, there's death by the bucketload; an entire unit is wiped out in the first few pages of Donkey. 
So the Thriller Combat rules have their uses. True, they add cinema, but they also increase the stakes, particularly if the Guns Kill rules are used. Plus, the players love Thriller Combat, possibly because it gives them the illusion of control. Never take away anything the players love. It's much better to destroy the things they love, preferably with as much drama and fanfare as possible. Try to arrange a brass band, possibly a few elephants. Elephants add class to every occasion.
That said, the MOS rules can be a problem because they allow the players to eliminate serious threats without rolling dice or spending points. One automatic success later, and the encounter that the Director thought would be challenging is reduced to a brief cameo moment, starring 'pink brain mist' in tonight's climactic scene. For much the same reason, Cherries that give automatic success are also difficult to deal with. Preparedness can be particularly annoying, but there are plenty of others.
Players become more concerned if they know they have to spend points to guarantee success, because their points pools are finite. Sure, at the beginning of the session they have pools for days, and can take on any foe, but they know and you know that, at the midway point, things change. The center cannot hold
To quote LBJ - or possibly John Wayne or Teddy Roosevelt - if you grab them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow. 
Inject anxiety into the equation. Make the players question whether they can hold out long enough. Once they start thinking they might not have enough oomph for yet another gunfight, they'll do their best to avoid another gunfight.

Finally, a word about the Guns Kill rules.

It's one thing to see those rules in print, something else again when the first player drops from, say, 5 Health to -6 in a single shot. The first time something like that happens, prepare for falling jaws to splinter floorboards. Assume Health 10, and two shooters, both of whom hit the target. On an average roll of 4+, the target is in serious trouble. If the total is much more than that - if one rolls 4, the other 6, say, or 2 5s - then the target is already on -6 Health, possibly in the first round of combat.

If that doesn't cause the players to rethink their John Woo ways, nothing will.


Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Facility (RPG Any. GUMSHOE)

The agents gather their forces and prepare to strike. The opposition won't know what hit them - or at least, that's the idea. But what are the agents assaulting, and how difficult will their task be?

Any organized group, whatever its objective, has assets of one kind or another. Often these assets are brick-and-mortar buildings, facilities whose efforts assist the group's goals. For the purpose of this discussion I'm going to use Esoterrorists as an example, but the concepts discussed here could apply across the board. It doesn't matter whether Vampires or Cultists are behind the latest threat to humanity; certain characteristics are shared.

The purpose of this segment is to give you, the Keeper/Director, some basic vocabulary to describe these facilities to the players. This will be particularly useful if you have to do this on the fly, without much prior preparation. This will most often happen in an improvisational game, in which the characters are likely to go off-script in search of adventure.

So what are these facilities?

  • Manufacture,
  • Collect,
  • Distribute, or
  • Analyze.
A manufacturing facility makes something, a collection facility stores it, a distribution hub delivers it, and an analyzing facility investigates.

So to take an Esoterror cell devoted to weakening the membrane by any means necessary, that group has means by which it collects material to further its cause, makes that material, distributes it, or tries to find new ways to make, distribute or collect it. For purposes of this example it doesn't really matter what that material is - it's a pure McGuffin.

What do all these facilities have in common? They need:
  • Security, and,
  • Monitoring.
Someone has to keep the facility maintained and safe from prying eyes. This may mean a simple padlock on an important door, or a full-fledged electronic surveillance system. Also, someone has to monitor what's going on, whether the facility is doing as it should.

For purposes of gamification, the Security and Monitoring aspects of any facility ought to be given a basic rating, Low, Medium, or High. This determines the Difficulty of any given test against or within the facility.

So for example: this Collection facility has Low Security and Low Monitoring. It isn't very important to the grand design, or the cell doesn't have the resources to look after this and its other facilities too. This implies that any attempt to Infiltrate the facility, use Digital Intrusion to crack its online database, or really to attempt any test, is, at most, 3, assuming the Gumshoe default of Difficulty 4 for all tests.  

This implies that the Collection facility has only the most basic of security. Maybe there's a guard at the door, or a few badly placed, cheapo cameras. It also implies that the characters may be able to infiltrate the facility without being seen, and if they leave without blowing the place up or burning it down, their actions may not be noticed by the cell for some time, if ever. 

Thus Low = Difficulty 3, Medium = Difficulty 4, and High = Difficulty 5.

This doesn't just affect Difficulty. In Gumshoe, it also affects Investigative ability spends. A Low Security, Medium Monitoring facility implies:
  • 0 point clues for anything involving Security, say Electronic Surveillance, and
  • 1 point clues for anything involving Monitoring, say, Bureaucracy.  
The point being that a Low Security environment, say, is lax in all areas. The security cameras aren't properly positioned, the guards are rent-a-cops, the fences have holes in them. This isn't the time to make the agents spend points on Military Science to work out guard patterns. Whereas a Medium Monitoring environment has some functioning safeguards, so it shouldn't be a walk in the park when your forensic Accountant goes through its books.

High Security or Monitoring, on the other hand, implies extraordinary safeguards. That in turn suggests that more than one point, or perhaps a combination of points from different abilities, are needed.

It's unreasonable to assume that there's a wide spread between Security and Monitoring. A High Monitoring facility would never have Low Security. Nobody in their right mind puts the most important thing they own in a cardboard box by the side of the road. So a High Monitoring facility will have at least Medium Security. Similarly a Low Security facility is only ever going to have Medium Monitoring, and so on.

If you extend the gamification to transport between facilities, then there's an argument for saying there can be a wide spread between Security and Monitoring, for a very brief period while the McGuffins are in transport. However even then a wide spread isn't really likely. You don't see banks transporting cash in a tuk-tuk

OK, all that's the bare bones approach. So what happens when you want to go into more detail?

First, take a moment to think about what it is you're trying to describe. Security and Monitoring are common factors, granted. However there are other factors unique to the kind of facility you're designing. For example:

A Collection facility gathers McGuffins. What does it need?

It needs:
  • Space, in which to safely store the McGuffins.
  • Materials that are important to the McGuffins.
  • Transport for the McGuffins.
Let's say the McGuffins are delicate, and need to be in a temperature controlled environment. This may be the case if the McGuffins are antiques, or bacteria, or high-end computer equipment. Then the facility needs Materials, equipment to maintain temperature, power for that equipment, and probably some kind of electronic monitoring system to ensure the equipment doesn't fail, or, if it does, that the appropriate monitoring body is immediately alerted.

This in turn suggests significant investment - some kind of HVAC, distribution vents, means to control waste runoff from the equipment, some kind of monitoring station either automated or with human personnel. This only gets more important if the facility is somewhere that complicates that process - if, say, this temperature controlled environment has to exist within a tropical biosphere.

Say that the Esoterror cell is operating a facility similar to InGen's Jurassic Park in Isla Nublar, Costa Rica. That environment is fairly harsh: hot, humid, probably lots of salt in the atmosphere since it's an island, subject to intense storms. It's reasonable to assume that any complex technical facility in that environment wages a constant battle against corrosion, and that providing even basic aircon is more difficult there than it would be, say, in Texas.

However it couldn't exist at all if it wasn't close to Costa Rica. Politically stable, with a democratic government since 1948, and economically developed, it permits the transport network a would-be InGen needs to move all the construction equipment, scientific McGuffins and other things required to create the facility in the first place.

Equally, satisfying those needs may give the agents clues as to the facility's purpose and importance. In Greg Rucka's Queen and Country, when the agency needs to work out whether or not a particular building, out in the middle of nowhere, is or is not a chemical weapons plant, the two things that give it away, from satellite imagery alone, are an abundance of guards, and high waste heat from the machinery it uses to produce its McGuffins. Satisfying needs meant that the facility gave its true nature away. 

A Distribution facility's needs are similar, but not the same. It needs:
  • Space,
  • Materials, and
  • Transport.
But its need hierarchy is different.

If you were to map out a Collection facility's needs, its priority list would be Materials, then Space, then Transport. It absolutely needs to keep the McGuffins safe and viable, so it absolutely needs Materials. It needs Space, but that isn't as important as Materials, since it's reasonable to presume the McGuffins aren't staying forever. Finally, it needs transport links, but that isn't as important to it as the other two needs in the hierarchy.

So a Collection facility could be: out in an allegedly abandoned military base or missile silo. In a warehouse on the outskirts of a small town. In an old freighter anchored offshore. All these places are relatively remote and low-key, but they satisfy the need hierarchy. They offer Materials first and foremost, then Space, then Transport.

Whereas a Distribution facility's need hierarchy is: Transport, Materials, Space. Its purpose is to distribute, so it absolutely needs transport links to help it distribute. It needs to keep the McGuffins safe and viable for the limited time the McGuffins are within its care, so it needs Materials. It doesn't need Space as much as it needs the other two things, since the McGuffins aren't staying very long.

So a Distribution facility could be: a warehouse in a suburb near a major city. Container yards at or near a major port. Slaughterhouses on or near an important railway hub. A hotel at or near an airport. All these places are near the one thing it needs most, but in turn it means that the facility isn't as low-key. It needs some kind of profile, if only to blend in with everything else around it. Abandoned, decaying, marked with hazard warning signs - these are things you don't associate with important transport links. If it's a hotel right next to JFK airport in New York, it probably doesn't look like the hotel from Psycho

You can assign a needs hierarchy to all the facility types. Manufacturing needs Space, Materials, Transport. An Analyzing facility needs Transport, Space, Materials. With this needs hierarchy comes the first indication of what a facility is actually like, which in turn helps you design it quickly.

All that said, let's consider an Esoterror Manufacturing facility. Let's also presume that this facility is important but not vital to the cell, so it has Medium Security and Monitoring.

Say for the sake of plot that this particular facility is involved in food production, that it makes chicken nuggets which are infected with a biological agent that, in a percentage of the population, results in a disease which causes brain death. This allows the newly dead brains to be taken over by an Outer Dark entity.

It's manufacturing, so it needs Space, Materials, Transport. Space in this instance implies a lot of space - after all, there are a lot of chickens - and given the nature of the facility there's a lot of waste disposal too, and equipment for processing - the Materials part of the equation. There will be some kind of loading bay or shipping point - the Transport. There's also a small amount of the McGuffin on site. There would be more if this was a High Monitoring or Security site, but we've already decided this is Medium.

When the McGuffins are transported out of the facility, Security drops by one level, from Medium to Low. This in turn suggests that if the agents choose to hit the transport rather than the facility, their odds of success improve.

Assuming there's anything here that might provoke a Stability or Sanity loss, then that loss is probably not enough to drive anyone crazy, but enough to be a concern. Minor, not major; if it were major, the facility would be more important to the cell, and have High levels of Security, Monitoring, or both.

Medium Security implies plenty of locked doors, some kind of electronic alarm system, maybe a minor Outer Dark entity on site depending on how pulp you intend to play it. Medium Monitoring implies that if something happens to the facility the cell will respond reasonably quickly. Within a day if that something is overt, like explosives or a fire, within a week if it's just a break-in.  It also implies that there are resources on site that the agents might want to look at - filing cabinets, computer databases, midlevel management to interrogate. Difficulty for all tests within the facility is 4. Investigative Ability spends are at least 1 point.

Already you have a fairly clear picture of the facility, and thus what the agents can hope to get from the facility. You also know, for gamification purposes, the Difficulty for all tests, and the point spend. Those are the most important things you'll need to know before running any scene within the facility. 

Of course, you'll want to go into more detail for truly important, campaign-relevant facilities. This is just for those emergency moments, when the need arises and you haven't anything planned. Take a breath, consider your options, and ...