Sunday, 25 June 2017

Quick and Dirty: Macau (Night's Black Agents)

I enjoyed the Kabul piece, so I thought I'd return to the theme and talk about a city that has fascinated me for years: Macau.

Macau (also Macao)

The first European settlement in the Far East, former Portuguese colony Macau has been an autonomous territory under China's one territory, two systems policy since 20 December 1999.

Macau is famous - or possibly notorious - as a gambler's paradise. Over 40% of its GDP comes from casinos and games of chance, and close to 70% of government tax revenue. Macau is the preeminent gambling center in the world, with its 33 casinos bringing in somewhere near $30 billion annually. Vegas, by contrast, earns closer to $10 billion annually from over 120 casinos.

Its gaming history goes back to the 1850s, when the Portuguese legalized gambling. Macau's colonial masters needed a source of revenue; its preeminence as a trading port had declined considerably since the Portuguese took over in the 1500s. Chinese gamers flocked to Macau's fantan houses, but Macau's popularity as a gaming destination didn't really take off until the 1960s when the government, always a little leery of gambling and the crime that went with it, finally embraced gaming as a source of revenue and began promoting Macau as the Monte Carlo of the East.

In the 1960s casinos were operated by a monopoly, the Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau (STDM), not unlike Monte Carlo's Societe des bains de mer de Monaco. However unlike Monaco's state-owned Societe, the STDM is owned by one family headed by Stanley Ho, or Ho Hung Sen, the 95-year-old King of Gambling. Stanley, with his financial backers Henry Fok and gambler Yip Hon, bid for Macau franchises when they were put out to public tender, and won the bid for Macau's gambling monopoly for a little under half a million dollars. Stanley Ho parlayed his stake into political power, and had an important role in the handover negotiations in the 1990s. It has also been alleged that he has links with the Kung Lok (Mutual Happiness) Triad.

In 2002 this monopoly system was broken up and Macau's casinos are now run by a handful of concession and subconcession syndicates, though the STDM still has 16 casinos of its own. Stanley Ho has made few public appearances since a fall at his home in 2009, and has fallen out with members of his family over business concerns.

In recent years Macau's economy, though still booming, hasn't been as robust as formerly. In part this is due to changes in China. Chinese anti-corruption laws are having an effect, but the larger issue is a change in tourism. Previously Macau was the preeminent destination for Chinese tourists, but with the expanding Chinese economy people have more options, and travel world-wide. This hasn't broken Macau by any means, but its gambling revenue has flattened since 2014, and the government has said it is looking for other sources of revenue.

Image sourced from Wikipedia under Creative Commons.

Macau is 60 kilometers southwest of Hong Kong. It has 41 km of coastline, and a vanishingly small land border with mainland China. It consists of the Macau Peninsula, the islands of Taipa and Coloane, and the recently constructed landfill Cotai that connects the islands.

The entirety of Macau is only 30 sq km.

There are eight parishes in total, and a significant portion of Macau's land mass is reclaimed from the ocean. The northernmost parish Nossa Senhora de Fatima, for example, which borders the Chinese city of Zuhai to the north, is made of land reclaimed in the 1960s and 70s. The Cotai Strip, where many of Macau's casinos are located, is reclaimed, as is Santo Antonio on the western portion of the peninsula.

Local currency is the MOP or Macanese pataca, but Chinese renmibi and the Hong Kong dollar is accepted everywhere.


Just shy of 600,000 people, or about the size of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The median age is 39, and over 50% of the population is between the age of 25 and 50. Unemployment is very low, at about 5% for those between 15 to 24 years old, and in addition the government pays a subsidy to its citizens, amounting to a little over a month's minimum wage income. Literacy is over 95%.

The official languages are Portuguese and Chinese; only a little over 2% of the population speak English. Cantonese is by far the most wide spread language, but there's a good sampling of all the Chinese dialects as well as other regional languages such as the Philippines dialect Tagalog.  Portuguese is spoken by less than 1% of the population.

Formerly Catholic during Portuguese rule, and boasting the first Western Christian school in the far east, Macau is majority Buddhist.


As a special administrative region Macau is overshadowed by China, but the relationship is complex.

Traditionally Macau has been a hub; goods, services and people flow to and from China via Macau. Today what this means is Macau supplies opiates, amphetamines and other narcotics to China, while at the same time stripping Chinese tourists of their cash at the casinos. Meanwhile poor Chinese flee the mainland via Macau, and often find themselves stuck in dead-end jobs cleaning, cooking and otherwise serving the rich who flock to Macau.

About a third of the population are migrants, and close to 10% live in poverty. The working poor find it all but impossible to live in modern, hyper-expensive Macau, and many have chosen to relocate to the mainland and commute to work. This leads to an odd situation where Macau natives have to move to China for economic reasons, while China's poor move to Macau, also for economic reasons.

In China, gambling is illegal. While Macau is tolerated, China sometimes lashes out. China believes gambling leads to or facilitates government corruption, particularly by local government officials who ought not to have the kind of cash Macau demands. Clearly they could only afford their gambling habits thanks to bribes or embezzlement.

These crackdowns cause a serious problem for Macau's economy, which is one of the reasons why Macau's government is traditionally very pro-Beijing. Macau is often thought of as China's filial child, while Hong Kong is considered more rebellious and wayward. Macau believes the best defense is to cause no offence.

Where Monaco, which relies on France for its external security, still has several hundred troops and police, Macau, which relies on China, has no troops of its own. It does have a police force, the Public Security Police, armed with Smith & Wesson Model 10 handguns, shotguns, MP5s and gas launchers.

China has an armed presence in Macau, the People's Liberation Army Macau Garrison, a little under 2,000 strong, about 600 of which are actually in Macau while the rest are just across the border in Zuhai. Its main base in Macau is on the Cotai Strip, among all the glittering casinos. Its soldiers tend to keep a low profile, and wear civilian clothes when off-base.

This may be part of the reason why, unlike Hong Kong, there is almost no pro-Democracy or independence movement in Macau.

Because Macau enjoys a unique relationship with China, foreign intelligence services have used it as a base point for operations. Bejing has long suspected that agencies like the CIA use US-owned casinos to tempt wealthy Chinese into foolish behavior, which the CIA then uses to blackmail them.

Triad crime is a significant concern. However as a result of the breakup of the casino monopoly, allowing foreign interests to invest in Macau, triads in the present day tend to work more cooperatively together and to spread their influence beyond Macau's borders, to China in particular. This requires diplomatic skills the triads never needed before. In the past, competition was dealt with directly. Now, in order to avoid anti-corruption purges and official displeasure, the triads adopt a softly-softly approach.

Beijing's concern about Macau corruption is not misplaced:

According to a member of the 14K Triad also interviewed for the study, most VIP-room contractors 'are triads or businessmen with a triad background ... The casino management would select the most powerful triads, based on a couple of factors including money, triad, reputation and ability to mobilize manpower.' ... VIP rooms are described in the study as 'bank-like' business enterprises. A junket must provide hotels, transport, loans and sex services. High rollers are expected to spend at least HK$500,000 per trip in a room.

That half-million dollars has to come from somewhere; bribes and embezzlement's probably the least of it.

Triads are also involved in casino security. In 2010 four men were arrested on conspiracy to commit bodily harm charges and a fifth on murder charges, as part of a retributive strike on a Macau casino employee suspected of cheating. Initially the men were supposed to break his arms and legs but, when the order came down to kill the dealer instead, one of the thugs balked and talked to the cops.

It turned out that the one who ordered the hit was a Wo Hop To triad boss, the person in charge of the casino's VIP rooms. Not only that, his company Jumbo Boom owned the junket concession; he got his both from those booking the holidays, and later from their expenditure while at the casino.

Most VIP gambling in Macau is leveraged, Reuters points out. Gamblers usually bet more than their cash on hand. This is particularly true of mainland Chinese high-rollers who, because of Beijing's strict capital  controls, aer limited to carrying the equivalent of US$5,000 in renminbi per trip when they leave China. Macau's six publicly listed casino operators lend to only a small minority of their patrons, according to company filings. This is because collection of gambling debt is illegal in China and Macau forbids casinos from writing off their bad or uncollectable debts.

Which begs the obvious question: if you can't legally collect on gambling debts in China, who do you turn to when a debtor in China refuses to pay?

This has proved a problem for US casino owners who can't or won't do business the Macau way. Either they get in bed with the triads - the only people who can collect on debts - or they don't do business at all.


Hac Sa Beach in Coalone, a black sand or volcanic beach. Due to erosion the government has shored up the beach with yellow sand. This is the largest natural beach in Macau, and is part of Hac Sa Bay Park. The Park includes a large barbecue area, mini golf, tennis courts, basketball and baseball fields, and there are many fast food stands if you don't care to make your own BBQ. The Beach is a popular spot for young lovers.

Mong-Ha Fort, built in the mid-19th Century to defend against Chinese attack after the First Opium War. The Fort was deactivated in the 1960s when the Portuguese military moved out, and this hilly area has since become one of Macau's green lungs. It's a public space with good views of Macau, though there isn't much left of the fort itself, and there are several walking trails. Mong Ha Hill also is home to the Lin Fung Temple, a restaurant and an art gallery.

Altira Macau Casino, formerly known as Crown Macau, opened in 2007 and boasts 216 guest rooms in its 38 floor complex. It's one of the tallest buildings in Macau, owned by a joint partnership between Hong Kong's Melco International and Australia's Crown Limited. There are 220 gaming tables, over 500 slot machines, a spa, fitness center, indoor pool, and seven different restaurants and bars. Its Yi Pavilion 5 star dining area overlooks all of Macau, and has only one table, seating up to 15. Rooms start at HK$1,500, or just a touch over US$192/night. Its website mentions its casino in the most tactful way possible, without even a picture of the gaming tables. 'Unlock a dazzling world of privileges! ... Terms and conditions apply. Participants must be 21 years or above. Gamble responsibly.' 

Three Hooks

The CIA has lost an asset. China, in another of its reprisals, arrested a half-dozen Western employees working in mainland China as publicists/junket bookers for a Macau casino, alleging that they are part of a criminal syndicate. However one of them is actually a CIA asset, though it's not clear whether the Chinese have figured this out yet. The CIA can't afford to make the snatch; if the agents do it, they can name their own price. What nobody's yet realized is that the whole thing's the brainchild of a Chinese government official who doesn't want to pay his gambling debts, and has engineered this crisis to bully the casino into backing off.

One of the People's Liberation Army non-coms enjoys a modest fortune acting as a broker for mid-ranking Chinese officials. He can arrange for pretty much anything, up to and including money laundering and lending at modest rates. As he's PLA the officials feel comfortable dealing with him, but in the grand scheme of things he's a bit player in a much larger, Triad dominated drama. Now he's provoked some very serious people, and wants out of Macau. He's willing to trade his contact list for safe passage - and he knows some very interesting people.

A would-be God of Gamblers has come from mainland China to strike it lucky. He wears red underwear, yells Deng! (eight, lucky numerology) at every turn of the card, and obeys all of the folklore rules except one: he deliberately cultivates bad feng shui. This is because he's actually a necromantic corpse, revived by a Jin-Gui who can't resist Macau's tables but who dares not come down to play in person. The Jin-Gui stays in the gambler's room; he says 'she's' his hot date, but you can't have sex before you play - it would drain the luck right out of him. The Jin-Gui controls the corpse telepathically and gets its thrills second-hand, but if anyone gets a good look at its dead pawn in an octagonal mirror, the truth will be revealed.

Thrilling Elements

These are unique to Macau:
  • Street vendors serving up Macau's signature chee par pau, or pork bun; hungry customers cluster, and the delicious smells tempt the most jaded palate.
  • Taipa, formerly a fishing village, now a laid-back tangle of shops and restaurants. Easy to get lost in its maze of streets.
  • A flock of scooters breeze past, narrowly missing someone's expensive limo.
  • Tourists cluster round the ruins of St Paul in the historical district, snapping photos.
  • Glittering casinos with all the fakery and glamor you'd expect of a high profile resort, from Vegas-style Venetian mashups to T-Rex displays.
  • Security guards on call at all times, ensuring that the gaming rooms are kept private; only guests of the hotel and gamblers allowed in.
  • The Macau-Hong Kong Turbo Jet ferry shooting back and forth from the two former colonies, packed with tourists and workers.
  • Night scene with neon signs and lights aplenty, dazzling the eye and screaming for attention: shop here, gamble here, come here and spend!
  • Street signs on every corner, in both Chinese and Portuguese.
  • Yet another extravagant fireworks display or huge event at one or more of the casinos.
  • Police on an anti-subversion raid forcibly clear out a house or business, hauling away the occupants for vigorous interrogation.
  • Hotel staff fawn over a visiting Chinese high-roller.
  • Long queues, everywhere, for everything. Crowds everywhere, particularly on weekends and holidays.


Sunday, 18 June 2017

Needles: The Huiquing's Cargo

A short while back I promised that as part of the Needles Kickstarter I'd publish a short scenario here, if certain conditions were met.

So here we are!

The Needles rules stipulate a scenario must not go over 2,500 words. In this instance the word count is 2,495.

CoC 7e rules are used throughout.


The Huiquing is a 1980s build container ship, 42 meters long by 8 meters wide, allegedly constructed in Shanghai and nominally registered in China, though anyone following up on that registry will discover just how flimsy that record is. The Huiquing exists on the shipping registry of several different flag of convenience nations - Panama, North Korea, Lebanon - always under a different name and with a different paint job, but a dedicated investigator can track it down through the years, back to its actual port of origin, South Korea.

It was built there in 1986 and registered under the name Man Seong, and it had a ten year career carrying cargo to and from Australia before it was captured by pirates in winter 1996. Its captors, a criminal ring based in the Philippines, kept it for about two years before passing it on to another gang, and it's had just shy of half a dozen owners since 1996.

Each group used it as a cheap transport, ferrying off-the-books cargo and occasionally human traffic between countries in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the West Coast of the United States. Whenever the authorities in a particular jurisdiction got to close it changed its name, paint job and often owner, and resumed trade as if nothing had happened.

In 2002 a Malaysia-based human trafficking group was using it - then called Bunga Kenek - to transport cargo with a sideline in soon-to-be sex workers, when it was taken by a gang based in China. The takeover was very informal; surviving crew and passengers were herded into the ship's refrigeration unit and left to suffocate. The Chinese group then repainted it, named it Huiquing, and used it to smuggle cut-rate Chinese goods to Long Beach, California.

After a while the Coast Guard, Homeland Security and Department of Transportation (Maritime Administration, MARAD) had enough information between them to make life difficult for the Triad that operated the Huiquing, so the ship suffered an unfortunate accident off the coast of California. Lost with all hands, the Huiquing sank leaving behind only an inflated insurance claim and lots of confusing paperwork.

That would have been the end of it, had not the Huiquing's carcass - stripped bare of its oh-so-valuable cargo - survived scuttling, and ended up aground not far from Cape Disappointment, Washington State. Now it's the center of a legal battle between various State and Federal authorities as to who has responsibility for removing it.

This battle became all the more contentious when the bodies were found in the refrigerated compartment, but tracing their deaths to the criminals responsible proved impossible and the corpses ended up in a Potter's Field.

Unfortunately that wasn't the end of it. One of the dead was a Daughter of the Old One Atlach-Nacha, the Great Spider, He Who Binds the World. These unfortunate women are 'chosen' to become the Old One's companions, and marked by the spider's bite. After a time they transform into a monstrous spider, dwelling for a brief while in the world of men before making the long journey into Dream, and Atlach-Nacha.

The Malaysian group that assisted in her creation was taking her to Los Angeles, where she would be worshipped as a God by cultists before being transformed into a God's companion. However her death changed all that, and now the Huiquing traps her soul, while her body rots.

This is causing many unusual side effects, but the most obvious, and the one that will attract the investigators, is a new breed of subsocial or cooperative spider, which has established a sizeable colony at the Potter's Field where the bodies are buried. This heretofore unknown species causes a scientific stir, but Cthulhu Mythos or Hard Occult links the markings on the spiders' bodies to the Old One. The spiders' unusual markings have been widely reported in the media, and can be found online without a check.

The spiders gather in large groups, creating enormous complex webs that cover the entire cemetery. They show no interest in people who invade their territory, and though they bite if disturbed their bite is harmless. However pushing through the colony is an eerie experience, and costs 0/1D2 SAN.

The center of this unusual outbreak can be traced to the grave where the trafficked woman from the Huiquing is buried.

Possible avenues of investigation include:
  • Tracing the Huiquing's history.
  • Investigating media reports concerning the Huiquing's wreck.
  • Obtaining autopsy records or speaking with the people who work at the cemetery.
  • Boarding the remains of the Huiquing.
Tracing the Huiquing requires Hard Law, several Languages and patience, and will take weeks. However at the end of that time the investigators will have a clear picture as to what happened to her, and will know that the Malaysian group which used her from 2000 to 2002 is known to work closely with Mythos related cults across the Pacific and on the West Coast. The investigators will also discover from notes taken by law enforcement surveillance that the group supposedly lost 'an idol of supreme value' in 2002, at about the time the Huiquing was captured. 

If the investigators make a Law check, but not Hard, then they get all the information as above but attract the attention of the cult, which sends its killers to deal with the investigators; see below.

Investigating media reports requires Library Use and Hard Computer Use. Library Use gets the information; the Hard Computer Use is to see whether or not the investigators realize that their internet searches have infected their computers with a very specialized virus. With a successful Computer Use check the investigators deal with the virus before it does harm; without it, the Malaysian cult tracks them down and sends killers to deal with them, as above.

Media reports show that the Huiquing was wrecked as part of an insurance fraud, and the Federal Government is pursuing the Huiquing's owners through the courts. However this is likely to take several years and may never be resolved, since there are complicated issues of international law at stake. Blogs and local feeds published at the same time indicate a disquieting pattern of nightmares and disturbances which began after the ship beached. People living near the spot where it beached suffer disturbing dreams, at least one person has gone insane, and a workplace shooting has been blamed in part on stress caused by lack of sleep, traceable to what's described in the blogs as the 'Doom Ship effect.'

Some of the blogs say that relief can be had through a treatment offered by 'Doctor' Michael Chin and his BioWellness device, a beam ray machine patterned on the pseudoscientific cancer cure offered by notorious quack Royal Rife back in the 1930s. The Doctor is anything but, and the whole thing's a scam. However Chin takes extensive notes concerning his patients, their sleep cycles, dreams, all of which can provide useful information to the investigators. Obtaining this data means dealing with Chin; a hefty bribe would do it, or breaking and entering.  Studying Chin's notes takes a week, costs 1D4 SAN, and confers +1/+2 Mythos, Mythos Rating 8, no spells.

Obtaining autopsy reports requires law enforcement contacts or possibly Hard Computer Use if the investigators decide to hack a database. The reports are very slender, and say only that the decedents died of suffocation, that an accurate date of death could not be determined but is tentatively put at late 2002, and that the remains indicate twelve people, eight males and four females, died in the refrigeration unit. There are notes on one file, Jane Doe 02.3, that indicate an 'unusual deformation of the skeletal structure,' but the notes are inconclusive.

The cemetery staff have all suffered disturbing dreams, repeatedly. Several are well on their way to permanent insanity, and all have a spider obsession. They will not willingly let the spider colony be harmed. Psychology indicates an outside influence, slowly dominating each individual; Cthulhu Mythos notes that each of them refers to Dreamlands imagery and creatures, particularly Leng Spiders, more than once. Leng Spiders, like the Daughters, have an extensive history with Atlach-Nacha.

Obtaining a legal exhumation will be impossible without some form of formal credentials and a court order. Illegal exhumation is relatively simple, as the cemetery hasn't got the strongest security. Stealth checks get a Bonus die. However if the infiltration fails then someone - cemetery staff or a passer-by - calls the State Police, who will throw the book at any captured and arrested investigator.

A Medicine check on the exhumed remains shows the decedent was undergoing some kind of mutation event when she died. Ultimately there isn't enough left to make an informed diagnosis, but her spine was beginning to warp and her limbs, particularly her legs, elongate at the time of death. The skull is also significantly deformed, which the autopsy passes off as normal aftereffect of blunt force trauma, but which Cthulhu Mythos indicates is the first sign of transformation into a spidery Daughter of Atlach-Nacha.

Investigators who stay in the area for a prolonged period - more than two or three days - begin suffering disturbed dreams, like many other people in the local area. This is especially likely if the investigator has high POW or has visited the Dreamlands before.

Images include:
  • Wandering aboard a ship crewed by the decayed dead. The ship changes from moment to moment; at times it is a modern cargo vessel, while in the next moment it seems to be a ghostly sailing ship.
  • A woman with a spider living in her head, that directs her every move.
  • A vast and fathomless chasm, bridged by thin spider webs.
  • A human skeleton with spider limbs crawls across the deck of an abandoned container ship.
Each dream costs 0/1D2 SAN. Fumbling a SAN check means the dreamer loses 1D6 SAN, but gains 1 point Cthulhu Mythos for every 2 SAN lost.

The dreams are growing in intensity, as Psychology on a sufferer can determine. This information, in combination with Cthulhu Mythos or Hard Occult, allows the investigator to work out that the increase in dream intensity coincides with what significant dates in the Dreamlands, and that the dreams are following what would ordinarily be considered a medical astrology or iatromathematical pattern.

Medical astrology states that various parts of the body and diseases are associated with astrological bodies, and that a disease can be treated or identified through astrological means. In the Dreamlands this is actually true, and when certain Dreamlands stars are in alignment physical effects result. In this case the Daughter is being stimulated by Dreamlands astrological events, and eventually this will result in what's left of her passing over from the Waking World to the Dreamlands.

Finally the investigators can board the Huiquing. The remains of the ship are still under Federal lockdown, but what this means in practice is the Coast Guard occasionally checks in to make sure it's still there. No Federal or local authority is tasked with looking after it. No Stealth rolls required to board, but if the investigators do this during the day a Coast Guard ship will turn up in a couple hours to turf them off the derelict.

The Huiquing is solidly wedged on shallow rocks within sight of Cape Disappointment State Park. It's been stripped of valuables and its fuel tanks have been drained, but it still poses a significant environmental risk, and when it first wrecked protest groups gathered to insist it be properly removed. However the state lacks the money, and the owners can't be traced, so for the moment it stays where it is. After a month or so of this the protesters got bored and moved on. Now it's mostly ignored, except by visitors to the park who complain about it and leave unpleasant comments on TripAdvisor.

The strange spiders seen at the cemetery are here in force. The refrigerated compartment in particular is infested with them, and judging by the rat carcasses that can be found dotted in their nests these spiders are more dangerous than the ones on shore. If provoked these creatures swarm over their target for 2D6 minutes, causing 1D4 damage per minute. 0/1D3SAN to witness the spider swarm.

Even without the swarm, spider bites are likely. LUCK check to avoid being bitten; those who are need to make a SAN check. Failing the SAN check incurs no SAN penalty; instead, the affected's consciousness slips between the Waking World and the Dreamlands, seeing the Huiquing one moment and a wrecked sailing vessel under alien skies the next. Those who are affected can also talk to the Daughter, whereas those who are not cannot.

The Daughter is still here aboard the Huiquing, but exists only as a shadow in the Waking World. In this form she can attack, but not communicate. In the Dreamlands she can communicate, which means she can be reasoned with. Investigators who talk her down - perhaps by Persuading her that she really is dead, and can go on to her father in darkness - can get her to retreat into the Dreamlands permanently, which ends the insect infestation and the nightmares. Otherwise she can only be dealt with in combat.

If the Daughter is not dealt with then eventually the Dreamlands astrological signs come into alignment, and she is forced to retreat to Atlach-Nacha. In the Waking World this is represented by a terrible storm that sweeps the wreckage of the Huiquing out to sea. It is accompanied by awful nightmares that plague all dreamers within 20 miles, inflicting SAN losses of 1/1D8. This drives several people indefinitely insane, and the cemetery workers, who suffer the worst effects, commit ritual suicide.

A complete win assumes the Daughter is permanently dealt with, and is worth 1D8 SAN. A loss assumes the storm occurs, people go insane, and the cemetery workers die. This incurs a 1D10 SAN penalty.  

Daughter of Atlach-Nacha (Shadow Form)

INT 75 POW 90

Attack: POW vs POW, where success means the Daughter drains 3D10 POW from the victim and failure means the Daughter loses 2D10 POW.

Armor: cannot be harmed by conventional or magical weapons, can only be defeated in POW vs POW combat.

Appearance: half-human, half-spider hybrid, only seen in shadow.

SAN loss: 1D8 

Daughter of Atlach-Nacha (Dreamlands Form)

STR 115 CON 95 SIZ 95 INT 75 POW 90 DEX 75 HP19

Attack: Bite 75%, damage 1D10 plus Poison, CON test or target is paralyzed for 1D6 hours, in which time the Daughter slowly devours the target's brains if given the opportunity.

Armor: 5 point shell.

Spells: Contact and Call Atlach-Nacha.

Cult Killers

Number: P+2, where P = number of investigators.

Nationality: A mix of Malay, Chinese and Filipino
STR 75            CON 55           SIZ 55              INT 60            POW 65          DEX 70          
APP 50            SAN 00            EDU 65           Luck 45           HP 11              Age: 19 to 25
Move: 8
Build: 1
Damage Bonus: ­+1d4
Education: High School and up.
Weapon:         Fighting (Brawling) 60%. Stiletto 1D6+DB
Firearms (Handgun) 55%, Silenced .32 pistol, 1D8.
Skills: Own Language  65%, Other Language (English) 40%, Credit Rating 10%, Dodge 45%, Listen 30%, Spot Hidden 30%, Stealth 30% 
Defenses: None above base
Spells: None
Note: Each of these has an extensive criminal record in his or her own country, and some appear on terrorist watch lists.  

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Quick and Dirty: Kabul (Night's Black Agents)

Inspired by a New York Times article, Urban Sprawl Up Mountainsides, With Splashes of Color, by Fahim Abed and Mujib Mashal.

This one's of obvious use to Night's Black Agents Directors, but may also appeal to Esoterrorist types, modern day Cthulhu Keepers, Delta Green and similar.


This three thousand year old city, heart of the old Mughal Empire, is the capital of Afghanistan and epicenter of civil war in the 1990s, which ended with the capture of Kabul by hardline Pakistani-funded Taliban fighters in 1996.

However when terrorists took down the World Trade Center in 2001, one of the retaliatory actions taken by the US and its allies was the support, militarily and financially, of anti-Taliban forces, as the Taliban sheltered Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda figurehead and mastermind of the attack. Bin Laden exercised complete control over Kabul, and the nearby city Jalalabad.

By November 2001 Kabul had fallen to the Northern Alliance,  and in 2004 Hamid Karzai, leader of the transitional government and winner of the 2004 elections, was sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan at a ceremony held in Kabul. Bin Laden hid in Pakistan and was eventually killed in 2011. 

'The city lies almost in the center of a semicircular chain of hills,' wrote William Taylor, Troop Sergeant-Major of the Forth Light Dragoons in Scenes and Adventures in Afghanistan, 1842. 'The valley in which it is situated being watered by a noble river which pursues a serpentine and picturesque route through it, and divides the town in nearly equal parts.' That became a problem in the 1990s, when the mujahideen used those surrounding heights as launchpads for its bombardment, devastating Kabul. The city was all but destroyed, power and water completely cut, and Kabul remained in a semi-ruined state for the rest of the decade. Only now has it begun to rebuild, in a haphazard and ramshackle fashion, but its need for housing and utilities is immediate and growing.


Though estimates in 2015 put Kabul's population at a little over 3.6 million, there can be little doubt that those 2015 estimates are well out of date; 5 million would be closer to the mark.

This makes Kabul larger than any American city except New York, and Kabul is growing exponentially every month. Even using the 3.6 million figure, Kabul would still be about as large as Los Angeles, California, give or take a couple hundred thousand.

Over 60% of the population is under the age of 24, and living standards are among the lowest in the world, with unemployment hovering at the 35% mark.


Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, and production has held steady since Karzai's ascent to power. Money laundering through informal financial networks is a significant part of the economy, and thanks to skyrocketing hashish and opium production there's a growing local narcotic addiction problem.

Alongside the river of narcotics cash is an almost equally large torrent of foreign aid and US government money. Billions have been spent over the years on infrastructure projects and contractor fees, with knock-on inflationary effects felt throughout the local economy.

One symptom of this money flood is the poppy palace, architectural monstrosities with 50 or 60 rooms, built for the expat (read: military contractor) market, for high-ranking government officials, and for narco-traffickers.

'Narco-villas feature grand entrances, byzantine floor plans, and huge, cavernous hallways,' writes Tom Freston for GQ. 'Everything inside is concrete and marble. There is very little wood trim, and the chandeliers and fixtures could be right out of a Columbian drug lord's HQ. They say you can tell a lot about a home by the way it smells. These smelled unhealthy; cold and mouldy ... The most striking thing about these buildings is the vulgar detailing: the painted Greek columns, the mirrored fireplaces, the Bavarian Alpine murals ... Architecture here was traditionally low-key and adaptive to the environment: cool in summer, warm in winter. These were just the reverse. And the design influences are quite foreign, drawing not from tradition but from movies that glamorize excess.'  

In recent years poppy palaces have fallen out of favor. There aren't as many fat military contracts, or government bigwigs willing to spend a fortune on rent. It doesn't help that American media alerted people to the 'ghost soldier' phenomenon, where fake soldiers were on the books as 'living' in empty poppy palaces so the owner could claim government rent money.

Taliban, ISIS and other terrorist factions operate openly within Afghanistan. These groups routinely attack civilian targets with little regard for human life; on January 12, 2017, for example, a suicide bomber killed 30 and wounded 70 in an attack on a mosque.

Kidnappings on the streets of Kabul are not uncommon. Westerners have been snatched by various groups, sometimes for ransom, often for political purposes - as in publicized execution. Locals are taken for ransom, though often the kidnap victims are not returned even if the ransom is paid.

Even US Embassy personnel are advised against travelling to any and all locations in Kabul except the Embassy and other US government facilities. Though thousands of Western contractors and diplomats live in Kabul, they do so behind thick blast-resistant walls and are advised to travel with a bodyguard at all times. The road to and from the airport has been so frequently targeted that British Embassy officials, at time of writing, travel to and from the airport by helicopter instead.

This is a stark contrast from the early days of Karzai's rein in Kabul, when an assortment of rebels, do-gooders, misfits and journalists descended like a swarm of muddle-headed Western locusts to do whatever it is muddle-headed Western locusts do when they want to do good. In the words of Guardian correspondent Sune Engel Ramussen, 'If the expat bubble in Kabul in the 00s was like a pool scene from Boogie Nights, Kabul in 2016 is more like Panic Room.'

All this is before even considering the domestic strife that has gripped Afghanistan since the 1970s: town vs country, secularism vs Islam, Tajiks vs Pashtuns. The history of 20th and 21st century Afghanistan is warfare, ignited initially by conflict between the Soviets and the US back in the dying days of the reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah, and never since quenched.


Bala Hissar, a 5th century fortress and landmark. It sits to the south of the city center, and its walls sweep down the mountain ridge to the river. It featured in the First and Second Afghan Wars in the Victorian Era, and was the focal point of conflict throughout the 1990s. Today an Afghan army unit is stationed there, and the site is surrounded by tanks and other war detritus.

The Gardens of Babur, or Bagh-e Babur, a historic park and location of the tomb of the first Moghul emperor. It was traditional for Moghul rulers to design parks where, in the fullness of time, they would be buried. These Gardens are the last resting place of Babur, conqueror of the Punjab and victor of the Battle of Khanwa, one of the earliest battles in modern India.

Kabul City Center, the city's first modern mall, nine stories tall, part of the Safi Landmark Hotel. Its doors are protected by metal detectors and its glass windows are explosive resistant. A failed suicide bombing took place there in 2011; the two low-paid security guards who stopped the bombing, at the cost of their own lives, were hailed as heroes. The bomb went off inside the protected security screening vestibule, which is why it did so little damage to the mall or its patrons. 

Three Hooks

A Pakistani criminal group smuggles conflict antiquities from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and from there to the antique stores and collectors of Europe. Poor Afghan villagers often go out with pick and shovel to dig up whatever they can find, and Afghanistan is rich in artefacts. This time the villagers have unearthed more than they can handle, but the Pakistani smugglers will not be put off. The agents realize the villagers have something very useful - a new Bane item perhaps, or some kind of artefact important to the Conspiracy - but they'll have to silence the Pakistanis if they want to take possession.

A local Network contact or vital NPC is kidnapped by gangsters and held for ransom. The kidnappers think that, because the NPC associates with foreigners, the foreigners will pay handsomely to get the NPC back. Or, if the agents have high Heat or are obviously spies, the kidnappers take him for political reasons, calling the NPC a spy for the West. Whether or not the kidnappers are correct the Conspiracy has its boots on the ground as well, and may intervene if it thinks that getting the NPC for itself will upset the agents' plans.

Local contractors, while demolishing a poppy palace, claim to have found papers which they say are very valuable. Certainly Academi, the military contactor formerly known as Blackwater, seems to be taking an interest, and one very nervous Academi bigwig would pay almost any price to get them back. But what could these documents possibly be - and why is the CIA also keen to get them?

Thrilling Elements

As Middle Eastern Bazaar, with the following elements unique to Kabul:
  • Narrow, poorly maintained roads that can easily be blocked at any time.
  • Mosque blaring out anti-Western propaganda from its loudspeakers.
  • A group of well-protected Westerners, nervously scuttling from one safe zone to another.
  • Yet another narco-palace in the process of being pulled down, to make way for a more modest housing development. Expensive fixtures and fittings are being stripped out and dumped.
  • A café, ice cream parlor, gym or similar, blaring out Western music and filled with people.
  • Street demonstration blocks the road, forcing traffic down even narrower side streets.
  • A nearby television set shows a woman journalist in full hijab discussing women's rights.
  • An overwhelming stench emanates from a nearby sewer, the lines having broken weeks before.
  • An old man sat at his desk on the corner advertises his services: love letters written on request.
  • Soldiers - or possibly kidnappers in soldiers' uniforms - patrol the streets.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Playing with Real Toys: Teufelsberg, Berlin (Night's Black Agents, GUMSHOE)

In keeping with established tradition, here's another location for Night's Black Agents Directors to use as they see fit. As before, there is a brief description followed by thrilling elements, followed by a scene.

Teufelsberg is a man-made hill within the Grunewald, the largest wooded area in Berlin, and was built after the War in what was then the British Zone.. It's located on top of a Nazi military engineering college designed by Albert Speer, because burying the college under several thousand tons of rubble was easier than destroying Speer's remarkably well constructed college.

It was originally intended as a rubble disposal site, and was used as a dumping ground until 1972. However as time passed people began using this man-made hill for other things. A bold entrepreneur opened up a ski jump in 1955, and another ski jump - this one much longer - opened in 1962, but ski jumping ceased in 1969. The jumps remained, and were still on site as late as 1999, when they were finally demolished.

Teufelsberg began its life as an espionage asset as early as 1961, when the first listening posts began operations. The uneasy alliance between the Soviets and the West had broken down by this point, and the Americans wanted somewhere they could listen in on Soviet communications. Teufelsberg's 120 meter height seemed perfect, and over time the NSA developed a permanent installation, staffed round the clock by American troops who commuted daily to 'the Hill.'

This remained so until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism, at which point the NSA withdrew, leaving the buildings behind. Over time street artists moved in, decorating the place with layers of colorful graffiti. Some investors tried to turn the buildings into apartment blocks, with spy museum attached, but the plan proved economically unviable.

Teufelsberg remains an abandoned artefact of the Cold War to this day. Tours are given every week, but otherwise the site is kept locked up - though given the amount of graffiti, the locks and fences aren't much deterrent.

Rumor has it the Americans dug down to the abandoned military college at one point, or that there is a secret tunnel from the military buildings to a submarine base. Like all rumors these are likely false.

Thrilling elements:
  • The Grunewald is home to wild boar, and a pair of them just wandered by. They're not friendly but they are curious - humans can be useful snack dispensers.
  • A band of chattering tourists wander through the abandoned military installation.
  • A grey-haired veteran and his more athletic daughter tour the site of the former's glory days.
  • Some of the colorful street art has clear Vampirology connections, and perhaps can be interpreted for a non-Core clue.
  • Dark, long-abandoned corridors that lead to long abandoned offices and observation stations.
  • The ground is uneven, covered with rubble and broken glass, making running very dangerous. Also walking, if the agents happen to be wearing flimsy shoes.
  • A torn and battered radome, now liberally decorated with rainbow graffiti.
  • Magnificent view across the whole of Berlin, with only a rickety wall of wooden pallets between you and a neck-breaking tumble.
  • Standing inside the remains of the dome at the top of the tower, with perfect acoustics catching the least hum.
  • A wide-eyed entrepreneur films a video for his investor pitch, with the decaying buildings as backdrop.
  • A small group of street artists add their next installation to the ever-growing collection of paintings.

After the War the Allies found remnants of whatever passes for the Nazi Vampire Project in the campaign. After months of bombing and repeated info snatches by all sides, including the Soviets, there wasn't much left, and in the immediate aftermath of the War it seemed more sensible to bury it in Germany than cart potentially dangerous material back to Britain, or the US. In order to completely dispose of the material, including its biological waste, the British and Americans established a 'safe room' in Speer's Nazi engineering school and used the dumping ground as a cover-up for their secret installation, codename Operation TOADSTOOL.

However neither the British nor the Americans could make sense of the remains of the Nazi project, so when the NSA said it wanted to use Teufelsberg as a listening post, those few still interested in TOADSTOOL decided the listening post was as useful an excuse as any to bury the site for good. The Allies sealed up the tunnel that led down to the Nazi school, and that was that.

Or so they thought.

One of the local Nodes of the Conspiracy has been interested in this site for years, but despite rigorous searching the Node hasn't been able to find the secret tunnel. However the Node has its eye on visiting academic and former military man Noah Scopell, who's in Berlin to give a talk on the Teufelsberg installation. The Node intends to capture Scopell and make him talk; if anyone knows where the secret tunnel is, it's the Teufelsberg expert who spent most of his military career working there.

The agents are brought on board either by a Network contact or an old Cold Warrior who guesses what the kidnappers are up to, and wants to make sure Scopell doesn't talk. TOADSTOOL's better off buried, as far as this warhorse is concerned.

Naturally the most action-packed capstone to the scene is an exploration of the Nazi school buried under the Devil's Hill. What feral creatures lurk down there? Or is the biological material hazardous in other ways? A Dust game might suppose the material's actually pathogenic, kept in leaky containers or o-so-fragile glass tubes. Maybe old notebooks or blackboards covered in cryptic formulae, half-blotted with mold and rot, can be recovered.

Of course, the Node will stop at nothing to get all of this. Whatever resources at the Node's disposal, it will expend them; this is the bold stroke that will put it on top. Or so its leadership thinks ...

That's it for now. Enjoy! 

NYC Book Expo

I just flew in from the New York Book Expo and boy are my arms tired of that joke.

I was there courtesy of the Bermuda Book Store - highly recommended if you ever happen to be in town - and as it was my first visit I had no idea what to expect. I was advised not to even think about going on the weekend when it's open to the public, as the place turns into a madhouse. A fun one no doubt, but still, madhouse.

I enjoyed myself thoroughly and came away with a few factoids, one of which is that apparently we have hit peak ebook. Or something along those lines anyway; according to those who have crunched the data, sales peaked at somewhere around 34% of the total market. The book is not dead - it can eternal lie, after all.

What seems to be happening these days is people buy several different versions of the same thing - ebook, audio, and physical. Among other advantages, with the advent of new tech like Alexa this allows people to enjoy the experience seamlessly, because each interconnected device can track where the other left off. You read the ebook, shut it down, go to sleep, wake up the next day and activate the audiobook precisely where you stopped reading the night before, that sort of thing. Presumably for the book you use the same old standards the ancients did, which in my case is a bit of torn-up newspaper or moth-eaten bookmark.

There was much talk of author buzz, and here's where I regret not bringing some of the con tchotchke home with me, as I naively assumed the expo's website would have the data. Not so, or if it does it's so well hidden that not even the wisest of the Keebler Elves can find it.

So I only have what I can remember, as the physicals are being shipped home to save on suitcase space.

Stay With Me by Ayolami Adebayo is my take-home - a signed uncorrected proof, no less. Set in 1980s Nigeria, this story is about newlyweds Yejide and Akin, whose lack of success in having a child has complicated their relationship. Akin swore never to take more than one wife, unusual in a polygamous society, and Yejide holds him to this. However their families are not so understanding, and one day they turn up on Yejide's doorstep with a second wife in tow, so determined are they to get grandchildren. This starts a war of the wombs between Yejide and the unwanted outsider, with devastating consequences for Yejide's marriage.

There are two other books that I did not take home; I left them in New York with some friends, having read them both myself during the Expo. I figured it was good to spread the love, not realizing that I would be relying on memory alone for titles and authors. That was silly of me.

I'm strongly tempted to rant about the ill-designed Expo website or its reliance on its app, which never worked for me. But I shall resist.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is a modern-day retelling of the Monkey King saga, set in a California high school. Genie - Eugenie, but there are dozens of those at her school, hence the abbreviation - is doing everything she can to get into an Ivy League college far, far away from California, but her smooth progress is interrupted by the arrival of an exchange student, Quentin, who introduces himself as the (disguised) Monkey King. He's been sent to Earth to seek her out, so she can help him deal with over a hundred Demons newly escaped from Hell. Though Genie resembles his monkish companion from Journey To The West, it transpires she's a reincarnation of a completely different yet vital character, but to say more might count as a spoiler. Lots of fun, great action scenes, a thoroughly believable main character in Genie Lo. F.C. Yee in person rather resembles Quentin as he's described in the novel, which I suppose shouldn't come as a shock. Highly recommended, though not as highly as this next one:

Saints and Misfits, by S.K. Ali, tells the story of Janna Yusuf, a young Muslim woman struggling to cope with the usual assortment of teenage woes plus one other: she was sexually assaulted by a young man who everyone in her community thinks is a saint. She doesn't know what to do, who to tell, whether to tell at all. I was attracted to this book partly because it was something new in my experience, a young adult story about Muslims told by a Muslim, in a thoroughly engaging, charming and, best of all, funny way. I read it in a day because it's just that good, a true page-turner. No, there's no demons, spells or supernatural things. Cthulhu is as far away from this book as it is possible to be. I recommend it because it's wonderful, no other reason. Though I suppose if you were looking for a BubbleGumshoe setting that is unique, entertaining and charming, you could do far worse than steal a few ideas from S.K. Ali.

Now, as I'm a cunning man I also prepped a longer post in advance, which shall follow shortly. However this is all I have to say about the Expo, for now. If I think of anything else I shall add it as an addendum. In fact there's at least one addendum I desperately want to add, as it concerns a publisher of reprinted World War One stories - Henri Barbusse and the like - which Dulce Et Decorum Keepers and players will find interesting. However that's in the pile of stuff that's being shipped home, so it will have to wait for another day.



Sunday, 28 May 2017

Sir Roger and the Microstate (Night's Black Agents)

Sir Roger Moore died on the 23rd.

For many of you he was James Bond, his most celebrated character. My personal favorite is The Man With The Golden Gun, his second film as Bond; that has a lot to do with his co-stars, Christopher Lee and Herve Villechaize, both of whom chewed the scenery like consummate professionals.

Sir Roger played Bond seven times all told. The only other actor to have managed that trick is Sean Connery, and Roger Moore was 45 when he took up the role, old for an action hero.

'Of course I do my own stunts,' he's supposed to have said. 'And I do my own lying too.'

You couldn't accuse Sir Roger of being a brilliant actor. That was never the point; he played a type, and was lucky enough that, for a while, that type was what people wanted to see. He claimed, as Bond, to have three emotions; right eyebrow raised, left eyebrow raised, and crossed eyes, when being strangled by Jaws.

He didn't take Bond at all seriously. 'To me,' he said, 'The Bond situations are so ridiculous, so outrageous. I mean, this man is supposed to be a spy and yet, everyone knows he's a spy. Every bartender in the world offers him martinis that are shaken, not stirred. What kind of serious spy is recognized everywhere he goes? It's outrageous. So you have to treat the humor outrageously as well. My personality is entirely different than previous Bonds. [Moore replaced Lazenby, whose behind-the-scene antics ensured he'd only play the part once.] I'm not that cold-blooded killer type. Which is why I play it mostly for laughs.'

Though his Bond never went there, Sir Roger is also well known as a citizen of that quintessential Bond location, Monaco. As it happens I've learnt a lot about Monaco over the past few weeks, preparing for a potential writing project.

Apart from anything else, in order to qualify for residency you have to deposit at least 300,000 Euro in a Monaco bank account. Somehow I suspect Sir Roger passed that hurdle easily.

In 2014 he was appointed Monaco's Goodwill Ambassador, for his efforts in publicizing and promoting the Principality all over the world. He was on very friendly terms with Prince Albert II, the reigning monarch of the microstate. He divided his time between Monaco and Switzerland, and though he said it wasn't primarily for tax reasons there's no doubt he benefited from a lighter tax burden.

I could do a Monaco Quick and Dirty, but as I may have a use for that in different circumstances I'd prefer not to. However let's talk a little about Monte Carlo Casino, since that's probably going to be the one location all the agents rush to as soon as they get to Monaco, and then dream up some theme achievements in Sir Roger's memory.

Casino de Monte-Carlo was proposed  in the 1850s as a moneymaker for the cash-strapped principality by Lady Caroline, a former stage actress who married the Grimaldi heir to the microstate. At that time Monaco was a remote backwater, with poor roads, no rail, and little in the way of quality accommodation for the kind of guests Lady Caroline wanted to entertain. However despite some initial economic setbacks the casino began turning a profit by 1859, and Lady Caroline managed to persuade casino entrepreneur Francois Blanc to take it over.

Blanc was an entrepreneurial genius, and the Casino went from strength to strength. Over the next twenty years the relatively modest Belle Epoque building expanded significantly and, though extensively modernized since, it still retains its grand Victorian air. Until recently the casino was the primary source of income for Monaco, and its ruling family.

It provides table games of all kinds, American and European. There are seven Salles, or gaming rooms, and two panoramic gaming terraces overlooking the ocean and the delights of Monaco. That's before you even consider the food at the Salon Rose, or the gardens, or any of the other pleasures on offer.

This includes slots and electronic entertainment. So if you ever wondered what it would be like to play Plants vs Zombies in the most exclusive destination on Earth, the Casino has you covered.   

Bond enthusiasts may recall that his first adventure, Casino Royale, is set at fictional Royale-les-Eaux, which is (very loosely) based on places like Monaco.

With all that in mind, here's some Achievements for Sir Roger. All Achievements are location-based; they have to be earned in Monaco, and preferably at the Casino or one of the spas and restaurants run by the Societe des bains de mer de Monaco. So let's start:

Goodwill Ambassador. Have your picture taken with the current Crown Prince of Monaco. This can, at the Director's discretion, be extended to include any of the Crown Prince's immediate family.

How do you say p__s off in Russian? Thoroughly humiliate a boorish Russian oligarch or mafia don at the tables or in the restaurant, preferably with your innate good breeding or Gambling as opposed to a punch on the nose.

For better or worse, for richer or poorer. Have a screaming, no-holds-barred public argument with your spouse, or supposed spouse, in which you come off the loser. This may involve damage to your Cover. [Sir Roger's first three marriages ended badly. He and his fourth wife Kiki set up home in Monaco.]

I don't think I've ever made any good financial decisions. Gamble away a significant sum of money at the tables, so that for the rest of the mission you are on Insufficient Funds. Bear in mind that Monaco is one of the most expensive places in the world; not the place to be if you have little in your wallet. Interesting side note: according to Sir Roger he got the Bond role because of his gambling habits.

I'm not that cold-blooded killer type. Neutralize a potentially hostile Conspiracy asset or opponent by using Flirting rather than combat. Also known as I didn't recognize you with your clothes on

I never thought I was much of an actor anyway. At time of writing Sir Roger is to be buried at a private ceremony in Monaco, and presumably will end up at the Cimetiere de Monaco, which is the only graveyard in the microstate. To earn this achievement, the agent must use Sir Roger's gravesite either as a meeting place, or a dead drop.

Finally, a bit of a cheat:

This never happened to the other fellaGo to a fancy event, like a 100,000 Euro Punto Banco tournament, which features one of the actors who played or currently plays Bond. Bonus points if the Bond happens to be dead at the time, like Sir Roger, or David Niven. Though how either of them get in without causing a sensation is something best left up to the Director.

That's it for this week. I know it's a little short; I'm flying to NYC for the Book Fair, and by the time you read this I'll probably be up in the wild blue yonder. Enjoy!

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Tumulus Tumult (Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists)

While researching for a project I'm working on for my Patreon short story page, (me? subtlety? never!), I found an interesting item on Wikipedia. The topic was tumulus, aka barrow mounds, and call me crazy but I had no idea people were still building those.

Yet they are. In 2015 a group of enthusiasts built a Long Barrow outside the village of All Cannings, aiming to sell space as a crematoria memorial. Pay a small fee and your relative can stay forever in a purpose-built chalk mound, designed in the traditional style.

Moreover it's not the only company to have colonized this niche in the market. Shortly after the All Cannings experiment - all its spaces were quickly snapped up - the owners of Soulton Hall announced their intention to construct a similar barrow on their property. As with the All Cannings barrow the intent is to provide a spectacular funerary experience, and since Soulton Hall already hosts weddings and provides short term holiday rentals I can picture a unique kind of all-inclusive experience; marriage, wedding anniversaries, death and burial all in the same location.

Frankly it's all a little creepy, in the best folk horror traditions. I can imagine Hammer Horror in its heyday making something memorable with this idea, probably with Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing in the lead. Nigel Kneale would have to write it, of course. Not that I think for a moment this is what the Sacred Stones designers intend, but it's impossible to contemplate something like this without remembering the Wicker Man, or the Stone Tape.

I'm also amazed it took this long for someone to build a new barrow. I'd have thought someone inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century or someone in the folk-horror infused 1970s would have had a go. Though possibly someone did but decided not to use it as a public cemetery. It does sound like the perfect Folly, now that I think of it, though traditional Folly-builders preferred Classical motifs.

So what can be done to gamify this?

Night's Black Agents: This is clearly a Node. The only question is who's using it? As a sanctuary almost any kind of vampire could be lurking in those urns. Damned or Supernatural vampires probably positioned the barrow very carefully for mystic architectural purposes; no doubt a ley line flows through the site, or the stars line up perfectly at a certain time of year. It could also be a communications or resupply point, as with the Dracula Dossier's Red Rooms. Alien or Mutant vampires are probably using the site to disguise some other kind of activity; maybe the floor rolls away to reveal some kind of laboratory, or the excavated remains of the alien craft that brought them here so long ago. Or there's always acoustics to play with; the barrow might be designed for its acoustic properties, the better to create an infrasound effect intended to [fill in the blank, but it's not going to be good news]. My go-to would be that the barrow's infrasound helps weaken the barrier between our existence and wherever it is vampires come from, allowing the vampire-thing to possess a human host.

Trail of Cthulhu/Bookhounds: Much depends on when the barrow is built. Assuming a kind of Arts and Crafts project then this could easily be happening in the 1930s, which opens up possibilities for Bookhounds Keepers. Perhaps there's a sociopath out there collecting every book or paper she can to do with Neolithic burial practices, the better to refine her long-term goal of creating a new home for an Entity from beyond the stars. Or perhaps some wealthy scholar is trying to realize the ultimate passion project, but his ideals are being perverted by one of his assistants. Or even the design itself, unintended, pulls something across the void. What would building a barrow in or around London - tricky thought that may be - do for its Megapolisomancy? Could it be part of a larger design to drawn power from the city in order to create [a power store? a special Lever? a place where Megapolisomancers can cast without spending their own power?] What would you have to do to build a barrow like this within London - and would it have to be a traditional barrow, or could you do this with other materials? Bones, say? Even if you do have to use traditional materials that could be a story in itself, as the stones are laboriously transported, in secret, to the construction site. Or maybe the construction site is in plain view - at the Crystal Palace, say, as part of the architectural exhibits.

Esoterrorists: Now here's a question: is the mound intended to weaken the Membrane, or is it something the Ordo built to cover up or bury something it didn't want the rest of the world to see? A funerary burial mound - all spaces already bought and paid for, of course - could be the perfect prison/tomb for something the good guys can't kill but don't want roaming around. Or perhaps this is a mystic interrogation/holding facility for captured Esoterrorists. Cue the ultimate jail break, as their colleagues close in, guns and monsters at the ready. Or if this is intended to weaken the Membrane, then was it built with that purpose in mind or is it being manipulated by outside forces? Maybe one of the burials is actually a kind of Trojan Funeral, intended to sneak something into the mound that will corrupt its mystical energies into something malign. Or, in the best Phil Rickman tradition, the mound could be the plaything of a rich dabbler in mystic arts, intended either to reawaken something foul that once ravaged this site or to channel mystic energies for some hideous purpose.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Playing With Real Toys: Halles Saint-Géry, Brussels (Night's Black Agents, GUMSHOE)

Let's try something new.

I've handled Chilling Locations in the past. I want to expand the concept. Every so often I'm going to post a Real Toys segment, in which I'll take a real world location and write it up as an RPG scene, including a description, thrilling elements, and a potential short plot. Not unlike the bit I wrote for To Treno in Athens, in fact.

So let's start with Halles Saint-Géry in Brussels.

Halles Saint-Géry is a covered market in the heart of Brussels. Saint-Géry was formerly an island on the river Senne, but over time the river was subsumed into the city proper and by 1870 Saint-Géry was an island no longer.

Saint-Géry is named for Saint Gaugericus, who built a chapel on the island in 560 AD. This chapel was replaced by a Gothic church, which in turn was razed during Brussels' flirtation with French Revolutionary ideals and replaced by an open air market. The covered market, completed in 1882, stands in that same spot once occupied by Saint Gaugericus' chapel.

The market hasn't been a market for some time. These days Saint-Géry is better known as a hive of nightclubs and bars, and Halles Saint-Géry is a coffee shop during the day and a bar at night. However on the first Sunday of each month it transforms into a vintage market, where you can get everything from rare vinyl to pianos and furniture.

As Saint-Géry chapel was built by a saint and is known to have housed some of the relics of another Saint, Gudula - her body was, for a time, kept in veneration at Saint Gaugericus' chapel - in a Damned or Supernatural game the Director may rule that sufficient sanctity remains to prevent vampires from freely wandering Saint-Géry, or perhaps from entering Halles Saint-Géry. Though Saint Gudula's relics were moved, the Director may also rule that something was secretly kept back by the clergy at Saint Gaugericus, and which is now interred somewhere at Halles Saint-Géry; possibly underneath the fountain which marked the center of the old open market, and which still exists at the heart of Halles Saint-Géry. Again, this is likely to have significant implications for Damned vampires.

To begin with, a thrilling element list:
  • A group of drunken tourists travel unsteadily from the bar to their table, laden with beer.
  • A server moves through the crowd dexterously balancing a tray filled with hot coffee.
  • Architecturally significant metal balustrade mezzanine balcony over the main floor of the market.
  • A beautiful fountain and obelisk, dating back to 1767, at the center of the market, marking where the old chapel used to stand.
  • Art installations along the mezzanine, or tucked away in one of the side rooms.     
  • (Nighttime) An enthusiastic DJ pumps out electronica to the delight of a happy, buzzed crowd.
  • (Vintage Market) Bargains of all kinds on every side, from clothes to statuary.
  • Sunlight slips through the clouded panes of the glass ceiling, as evening falls.
  • A group of young locals passionately argue the politics of the day, over an ever-growing pile of empty beer glasses.
  • Renfields or Damned vampires sweat blood just being here, on the spot where saints once walked, making them much easier to pick out in a crowd.  
  • For a brief moment - perhaps just a trick of the light - a shadow assumes the form of a man in a bishop's mitre, right hand raised in benediction; the traditional depiction of Saint Gaugericus.        
Then the Scene:

An Underworld or Government contact - possibly a Network contact - asks or pays the agents to provide security for a meeting at Halles Saint-Géry. The Contact can't afford to use the usual people, or his own staff, because the Contact thinks they have been compromised; the agents, the Contact hopes, are free of vampiric influence.

The Contact intends to meet clandestinely with someone on the other side who says they have vital information about the Conspiracy. This is true, though whether it's because the Conspiracy agent wants to betray the vampires or because this is yet another example of Node fratricide is something the agents may never know.

The meeting is to take place at a time when Halles Saint-Géry is very busy, so this might happen at night when the DJ is pumping out tunes, or during one of the Sunday vintage market days. The meeting point is at the mezzanine, just opposite the obelisk.

Unfortunately for the Conspiracy agent his defection is known to his vampire masters, and assassins are on standby.

The exact nature of the assassination depends on the style of the campaign. In Dust games the assassins have replaced one of the servers - either a barman or one of the coffee shop baristas - with one of their own. This person has been instructed to dose the Conspiracy agent with Polonium, and if successful the Conspiracy agent will die after a few agonizing days.

The agents and their Contact may also be poisoned just through their proximity to the target, though much less severely. The Contact is very ill for a day or two, and the agents must make a Difficulty 6 Health check. Minor effect is +0 damage, Major is +2 damage, always bearing in mind this assumes close proximity to the Polonium, not ingesting it. Somehow swallowing the poison - did someone volunteer to act as taster? Silly ass - means Minor effect of +2 damage and Major +6.

There's a Sense Trouble test Difficulty 6, reduced to Difficulty 3 if the agent making the test spends a point of Chemistry, to detect the Polonium poison before the Conspiracy agent drinks it.

Any Chase scenes involving the assassin start at 2 Lead, as the assassin is right next to the target.

In more action-heavy games the assassin uses a pistol crossbow, firing from the other side of the Hall while standing on the opposite mezzanine. The bolt is tipped with Cyanide, which will be fatal to the intended target and will force agents to make Difficulty 5 Health checks, Minor effect being -1 damage, Major being +3 damage. The Cyanide tip damage is separate from the bolt, which does +0 damage.

The assassin can be spotted before she makes her move, if the agents make a Difficulty 6 Sense Trouble. If the agent spends a point of Tradecraft or Streetwise this can be reduced to Difficulty 3; in-game, the agent recognizes the assassin from a previous encounter, or some half-remembered intel dossier.

Any Chase scene involving the assassin starts at Lead 5, as the assassin starts the chase on the mezzanine opposite.

That's it for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Magic of Cinema (Bermuda International Film Festival)

The Bermuda International Film Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. I don't often get a chance to enjoy the movies on offer, and this year wasn't an exception, but I did make an effort to see the independent short films. Monday's lineup called itself Dead? Undead? Don't Know ...? which should give you a great big clue as to the theme.

No, it was not banana cream pies. Shame on you. Shame on us all.

So this time out I thought I'd give a short review of each so that if you come into close contact with one of these snaggle-toothed orphan children you know what to expect.

As part of the audience choice short film awards we were invited to vote for our favorites, on a score from 1 (snail vomit) to 4 (cinema gold). I present you with my votes as I remember them, and why.

Alfred J Hemlock (Australia, director Edward Lyons, who also co-wrote the screenplay). Emily (Renaye Loryman) is comprehensively dumped by the side of the road by her jackass boyfriend, and wishes she were dead. Enter Alfred J Hemlock (Tristan Mckinnon), demon and king of the road, who offers her a chance to get the death she craves.

Had I seen the trailer before seeing the film I wouldn't have been so disappointed - and I would still have been disappointed. See, I was half-hoping that, what with its name being Alfred J Hemlock, I was about to see a Hitchcock-style chiller. The man's name was Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock after all; the connection seemed obvious to me. Alas we were presented instead with someone's substandard Johnny Depp impression. Only 14 minutes long, but a substantial wasted chunk of those 14 minutes is devoted to a silly chase montage. Plus, Oh Susannah? Why? You're in Australia for God's sake; if you're going to go cheesy, you might just as well sing Waltzing Matilda. At least that has a ghost story in it.

Score: 2, and that only because the SFX are reasonable, though we don't get too many SFX moments.

A Family of Ghosts (Canada, dir Shannon Kohli). A turn of the last century tale in which a privileged young woman's ghostly grandparents frustrate her love life. The ghosts take against her music teacher suitor and do their best to force him away, but is this what's best for her? With Kacey Rohl as Abigail, Jordan Burtchett as Thomas, and Mary Black, Gwyneth Walsh, Alec Willows and Chris Button as both sets of grandparents.

Interesting, well thought-out and charmingly shot on historic location, all for about a thousand Canadian smackers according to IMDB. It rather resembles the love child of a museum and an amateur dramatics society. I enjoyed it, but I wonder how long it will stick around in my brain before it vanishes into the void. Charming yes, but there's not a lot of there there. In many ways it reminds me of those period dramas the BBC used to do, and which Canadian TV now produces excellent examples of. High production values, but nothing to really sink your teeth into. Plus, not sure why ghost dog got a screen credit; he didn't even poop on anyone's shoes.

Score: 3, as the production values are high even if the story is insubstantial.

Ernie (US, dir Hadley Hillel). Ernie (Gary Gorland), disappointed in life, resolves to commit suicide, only to find himself bonding with the neighbor's kid upstairs thanks to a hole in the ceiling of Ernie's apartment. Undoubtedly the most stylized film of the bunch, devotees of Jan Svankmajer's animation will find a lot to love in the meticulous cardboard-build set and properties. Every single thing, whatever it may be, is made either of cardboard or paper, giving the film an otherworldly quality.

Judging by the little I can see of Hillel's previous work online, I'm guessing Hillel has a mild - maybe not so mild - obsession with misfit loners, such as our protagonist Ernie. The relationship between Ernie and the child, who save each other, is perfectly realized and well thought out.

My difficulty is plot-related. We start with a heavily narrated portion, perhaps 4 out of the film's 17 minute total, describing Ernie's early life, his hatred of Swedish meatballs, his father's failing meatball business, the climactic fiery destruction of his meatball stand - and fire assumes a special significance when the entire set is cardboard and paper.

Yet after the burnt-out remains are dealt with we fast forward about sixty years to the point where Ernie's on the brink of suicide. It's a huge leap, and I felt as though I'd wasted my time paying attention to the meatball stand, the father, the narrator or anything to do with the sequence when I realized it would never be referred to again. Sure, it gave Ernie backstory, but the audience didn't need Ernie's backstory. The director could have cut that entire bit out and the film still would have made perfect sense. Hell, the director ought to have cut that entire sequence out; it just delays the start of the narrative. I note this film won a Tacoma Film Festival award. I'm guessing that's thanks to its charming set design, not its storytelling.

Score: 2, as I bitterly resent the wasted prologue.

Memento Mori (UK, dir Scott James Bassett). A young woman (Alexandra Roach) goes on a blind date, and gets a marriage proposal from someone rather like death (Joel Fry). Game of Thrones fans will recognize Fry as one of the minor recurring characters from Season 5, Hizdahr zo Loraq. Alexandra Roach hasn't quite got the same fantasy cred, but she's got a lot of UK TV appearances to her name.

This one impressed me, largely because of the meticulous set dressing - and yes I know that sounds like faint praise, but if you'd seen it you'd say the same I wager. There's something about that atmosphere-drenched setting that makes anything seem possible. But if I were handing out acting awards they'd all go to Fry, whose charismatic performance steals the show. There's something about him that reminds me of Toshiro Mifune; I think it's a combination of that deep voice and his scraggle beard. Give this actor larger roles, please; I'd love to see what he can do.

The ending's predictable but the journey to get there is compact, well designed and cleverly plotted. Unlike many of the other films on this list, none of its 19 minutes are wasted. Fry's alien attitude makes him feel far more like an otherworldly being than Alfred J Hemlock, and though I haven't spent much time talking about Roach's performance trust me when I say that it's very good - just not as memorable as Fry's.

Score: 4. All the 4.

Lost Souls (France/UK, dir Fabrice Pierre, who also wrote the script). A depressed taxi driver (Dean Christie) finds help from an unexpected customer (Sophie Delora Jones). Not much supernatural in this one; it is what it says on the tin. Methinks it scraped into the supernatural section on account of its title.

A whopping 26 minutes long, and unlike Memento Mori at least half of that run time is wasted. Plus the grand climax is Dean Christie telling Sophie Jones why his character's so fucked up, in a scene that lasts about a minute and a half of screen time.

As a drama it works inasmuch as I understand why the main character needs help and I can see how he gets there, but my problem with the plot is the main character does nothing. He picks people up in his cab, they chat, they leave, he goes on to the next customer. At no point does he take positive action to resolve any of his problems, until finally he's prodded into action by his last fare of the night, a prostitute who needs to go to hospital but who nevertheless has time to talk Christie down from the metaphorical window ledge.

I don't even know why Jones' character needs to go to hospital. It's suggested that a customer beat her up, but there's not much on show to demonstrate that. Frankly, she's only there to drop a few words of wisdom in Christie's ear, and to hell with any problems her character might have, whether it's a black eye or a bust appendix.

This one desperately needed a severe edit, and I can't help but notice Fabrice Pierre is listed as director, screenwriter and one of the two producers. This is someone who couldn't bear to kill his darlings, so his darlings killed him instead.

Score: 1. And may those snails puke forever and ever, amen.

Anyway, trust you enjoyed this departure from the norm. If you get a chance to see Memento Mori or A Family of Ghosts, please do. Ernie also has my begrudging recommendation, on grounds of style alone; it looks gorgeous even if the prologue annoys the hell out of me. Avoid the other two like the plague, unless you've a tolerance for time wasters.

Later this Sunday I'm going to see The Night Watchmen - the executive producer's Bermudian, which is why it's showing down here on what's called Bermovie Day - so this post may get an update, but probably not a Sunday update unless it's truly inspiring. Which it might be, I don't know.

The Night Watchmen (2017, dir Mitchell Altieri). Three inept night watchmen, aided by a young rookie and a fearless tabloid journalist - ye Gods, I'm not making this up, it's how the producers bill the wretched thing, and since when are tabloid journalists fearless? - fight an epic battle to save their lives. A mistaken warehouse delivery unleashes a horde of hungry vampires. These unlikely heroes must not only save themselves but also stop the scourge that threatens to take over the city of Baltimore.

Judging by the trailer this is one part Salem's Lot to nine parts 28 Days Later. How good is it? Well ...

It's as dumb as a dead donkey, but it's funny.

Blimpo the clown and his entire clown posse get wiped out while on a trip to Romania, in a mysterious bat-related incident. The group is shipped back home to Baltimore and most are sent to the morgue, apart from Blimpo who gets relocated because the morgue and the newspaper offices next door - on Stoker Street and yes I did see what you did there movie - have similar addresses. Someone cracks open the coffin to steal Blimpo's clown nose, and it's all downhill from there.

Not to be seen by those suffering from coulrophobia. No, no, pass, trust me.

The film gets a bit tired of itself at the midway mark, and all of the really good jokes are in the first half. There are some brilliant moments; my personal favorite is when Blimpo, as Clown King, summons his killer clowns from the morgue next door by standing at the window and blowing his little clown horn. There's a recurring gag about corpses voiding their bowels which crops up every time they stake a vampire, and believe me when I say the heroes do that a lot. But it loses its grip once the situation is established and the heroes have to decide what to do.

The acting's decent, the SFX are high quality amateur stuff, and the plot bangs along quickly for the most part. It's a tribute to the trio of amateurs who came together to make it that it works, mostly. It's never going to win an Oscar but it deserves and will probably get a distribution deal. Which is all an aspiring film maker can hope for, really.

If you get a chance, give it a go.

Have a good one!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Top Cop (Mutant City Blues)

I've always had a soft spot for Pelgrane's superpower cop setting Mutant City Blues, but I could never make it work.

In my head it sounds like a cross between Powers and The Wire. Particularly The Wire; there are actors in that show - Michael K Williams, Seth Gilliam, Lance Reddick - that I have seen elsewhere, but have never seen give finer performances than in HBO's crime epic. I'd like to think their characters would feel right at home in Mutant City.

So with that in mind let's talk a little bit about what makes this setting function, and to do that we're going to spend some time dwelling on film noir.

In this kind of campaign, the city is just as important a character as any of the players. More so, because the city was there before them and will be there long after they are dead and dust. In The Wire we see small parts of that bigger picture, when McNulty and Bubbles school Shakima Greggs about Omar's cousin No Heart Anthony, or Prop Joe talks about how the house he lives in is one of the first available to black families in that neighborhood. These stories go straight to the long term history of the setting, hinting at a bigger universe that the individual characters are often blind to, so focused are they on their own problems.

At the same time we can also see where the city is going. The whole of Season Two is dedicated to that idea. In that season we see how the docks which once made Baltimore a premier port city, and which fired up the blue collar union workers that kept the docks running, are being beaten to death by forces beyond their control. No matter how bitterly they fight, their defeat is almost inevitable - and in fact they guarantee it by making alliances with drug kingpin the Greek, taking his money to fund a docks revival, but only ensuring that when the deal comes to light the union, last defender of the docks, gets shut down.

Every city has these stories. It's like watching the march of advancing armies, or following the spread of trade across a map. Superficially things seem the same, yet over time the changes become more and more apparent until finally all you can see are the changes. Oddly enough it may be more useful to use a different system, like Microscope, to plot out this city history, particularly if you're not too keen on doing a lot of research. [for an actual play version of Microscope, look here.] But the point is that there is a larger story playing out around the characters, and that story takes decades - centuries - to complete.

To give just one example, consider MV Empire Windrush, the ship that gave its name to an entire generation's emigration to the UK in general and London in particular. This shifting migration pattern is an event whose consequences can have far-reaching effects for your campaign; you could base an entire story arc around something like this. Or consider the Syrian refugee crisis now, and ask yourself how much more challenging it would be if even a tenth of the people incarcerated in holding camps or swept from crisis to crisis had super powers.

Which brings me to my next point: that in film noir the world is ambivalent, and often thoughtlessly cruel.

People we think of as heroes or protagonists seldom win outright. They may prevail, but there are casualties. Moreover the alleged heroes often lack heroic characteristics, or are so deadened by their experiences that they no longer care.

My go-to film, the one I point at as the perfect example of film noir, is On Dangerous Ground with Robert Ryan. There's one scene in particular that gets me again and again: this one, where Ryan's cop corners a stool pigeon early on in the film and makes him talk. That look on Ryan's face - disgust, anger, despair - is distilled cruelty, but it's difficult to say whether that cruelty's inherent in his character or something that's been stamped into him over time.

If you want your Mutant City game to stand out, that's the standard to aim for. The city, and by extension the game world, does not reward kindness. Soft hearts and do-gooders get ground up in this city, and well-meaning projects meant to make a difference sputter into nothingness, leaving only a sense of futility behind.

Again, The Wire Season Two: there isn't a single person in union boss Sobotka's crew who doesn't want what's best for the docks and the people who work there, yet everything they do only hastens the destruction of everything they care about. Even the gangsters don't get what they want; in Season One the Barksdale Crew is set up as the one to beat, yet over time the Barksdales crumble not because the cops win but because the Barksdales lose.

Yet finally, there is hope. Again I turn to On Dangerous Ground. About a half hour in Ryan's character is cornered by a co-worker, after Ryan's beaten yet another suspect half to death. "How do you do it?" Ryan screams. "How do you live with yourself?" To which the other cop replies, "I don't. I live with other people. This is a job like any other. I do it the best I can. It's never enough, but I still do it."

That's the payoff. The city is a main character, yes. It will be there after the characters have come along, absolutely. But if the characters surrender, if they let circumstance and misery grind them down until nothing's left, then they've lost. The battle isn't to control the city. It's to control themselves, to find some satisfaction in the work and in life. Otherwise the only thing they have to look forward to is nothingness.

I've not spent any time talking about super powers, even though this is a super powers game. That's because it isn't the powers that make this setting work. It's a police procedural first, a supers game second. You shouldn't worry too much about the super side of things; that will take care of itself. What you need to concern yourself with is the police procedural, and I hope this post will help you do that.

Enough from me this week. Enjoy!