Sunday, 15 October 2017

Wire Rat - the Mulholland Option (Night's Black Agents)

Only a brief post this time. I spent a chunk of the day helping the local Gilbert & Sullivan society clear set from their latest production. There was a bad accident. Flesh torn off palms kind of accident, many stitches kind of accident. We're lucky it wasn't much worse.

Anyway, this week I want to talk about the Wire Rat archetype, which I suspect gets short shrift in many people's campaigns.

Technical experts, says the rulebook, As distinct from hackers, are almost always nuts and bolts electronic specialists, with a side of metal shop. Building bugs into innocuous objects is another wire rat specialty, as is general gadgeteering.

Which is fine, but doesn't really scream 'hero of the story.' More the sidekick, the comedy relief character. The backroom boffin with all the toys at their disposal, but none of the kick-ass. Not a very fair portrait, perhaps, but I've often thought it's one of the big reasons why I've never had a player willingly choose this archetype in any game I've run. The other big reason probably being that few people know much about the nuts and bolts of electronic surveillance, and may feel a bit intimidated by the archetype that seemingly does nothing but.

I'm struggling to think of many media versions of this kind of character, as the lead and not a companion or minor role. There's the Wizard. The FX movies. Lester Freamon off the Wire, though I'm not sure he counts as a lead as this is an ensemble show; really, everyone's a lead. But that's when the well runs dry. There are plenty of lead roles which use gadgetry in some form or other - Michael Westen off Burn Notice springs to mind - but usually it's an adjunct to their role, not the defining part of it, and when they need something complex done they turn to the expert rather than do it themselves. Whereas there are hundreds upon hundreds of Qs out there, or David Niven's character Cpl. Miller from Guns of Navarone; support roles who supply the hero with the tools they need, but who rarely appear on screen for longer than a few minutes at a time, and who never get the girl. Or, like Argo, do all the hard work in the first half of the film and then sit on the sidelines while the action man gets the job done.

Which brings me to John Mulholland, the CIA's favorite magician.

I'm not going to go into too much detail here, as I'm writing a long article about him for Genii and don't feel the need to drop spoilers, but briefly: Mulholland was a renowned stage magician asked to contribute his talents to a little project called MKULTRA. He wrote two training manuals for the CIA intended to teach their people stage magic techniques and tricks of the mentalist trade.

So what does this mean? Well, stage magicians are the premier gadgeteers of this or any other era. Their whole shtick is to make something seem as innocuous as it is possible to be, and yet create wonder. Maybe nobody wants to be the sidekick, but I guarantee everybody wants to be Penn and Teller. Moreover with Mulholland as an archetype you have the perfect excuse for stage magic in espionage; the man who builds, designs, stage manages, plans, and executes every conceivable trick in the book, all to fool the hardest audience in the world - the one that'll kill you if you get it wrong.

You'll notice that this reduces the role of electronic surveillance a little. It doesn't have to; bugs and those who are bugged is still a huge part of the archetype. But if that's all the player thinks the character can do, the player may not be in a hurry to play that role. Ultimately it's very passive. You plant the bug, and then you sit and wait, and wait, and wait. It's not something you do if you crave adrenaline-pumping action.

But a Houdini that can seemingly walk through walls? A charmer whose words lull you into a false sense of security? A specialist adept with the hold-out camera, or pistol, and whose pockets are full of trick coins? A technical genius who can make you think everything's normal, right up to the point when it's very clearly not? Now that's magic.

With all that in mind:

One sentence: A Parisian street artist whose deft hands and charming smile have fooled half the continent.

Investigative: Architecture 1, Bullshit Detector 2, Chemistry 1, Data Recovery 2, Electronic Surveillance 2, Flattery 1, Human Terrain 2, Languages 2, Notice 1, Negotiation 1, Reassurance 2, Research 1,  Tradecraft 1, Urban Survival 2

General: Athletics 8, Conceal 10, Cover 10, Digital Intrusion 2,  Disguise 3, Filch 8, Hand to Hand 10, Infiltration 8, Mechanics 12, Network 15, Preparedness 8, Sense Trouble 6, Surveillance 6

MOS: Conceal, for those moments when she really needs to make something disappear. Plus, what with Swiss Army Prep (Mechanics Cherry) and ordinary Preparedness, she's ready for just about any eventuality; after all, any performance can go wrong, and when it does, it's great to have a backup plan.

Finally, a scenario seed:

The same street artist has been sighted, either by witnesses or by security cameras, outside three different venues, all of which suffered mysterious break-ins. Twice the intrusion was so skillfully done that, had the perp not left a calling card - a print of The Surrealist, by Victor Brauner - on display at each scene. The victims are baffled; what was taken? Was this some kind of scam? Have their networks been infected with malware? Should the directors worry about blackmail material?

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Person of Interest: Institution M (Night's Black Agents)

Earlier this week the story of Werner Mauss' tax evasion conviction, and two hundred thousand euro fine, broke, and brought the shadowy Institution M back into the international spotlight again. Since he's exactly the sort of person your Night's Black Agents players are going to want to meet, he's this week's Person of Interest.

Mauss, born in Essen in 1940, became a private investigator in the 1960s, and soon started working with the German police and intelligence services exclusively. It's not clear how this happened. His website claims he was trained by a former member of the intelligence services, and that may have given him the contacts he needed to start working with the authorities. Otherwise it's difficult to fathom how an otherwise undistinguished former agronomist and vacuum cleaner salesman in his twenties got the attention of the powers that be. He'd enjoyed success working for insurance companies, but presumably he wasn't the only private investigator in Germany with a decent success record. Reading the site gives the impression that here is a man who is neither shy nor lacking in self-promotion skills, so a certain amount of bluff may have been involved.

He began as a police spy, infiltrating criminal gangs and filtering their secrets back to the police. He claims over 2,000 arrests all told thanks to his evidence, over a forty year career, everything from diamond thieves and tracking down barrels of stolen toxic waste, to the arrest of Red Army Faction fugitives and alleged police murderer Alfred Lecki, in Spain. However from the 1980s he began his South American work, and it is at this point that things get murky.

He started by helping Mannesmann AG in Columbia with troubles it was having over an oil pipeline, but Mann soon found himself negotiating the return of hostages from the ELN. The National Liberation Army -  Ejército de Liberación Nacional - has been fighting the Columbian government since 1964. Its more famous fraternal organization FARC gets all the attention, but the ELN is also a Communist group - Marxist, as distinct from FARC's brand of Marxist-Leninism - and the ELN is no laughing matter. It engages in attacks on infrastructure, like the pipeline, as well as extortion and kidnapping. At this moment it is estimated to have over two hundred people in captivity. The ELN calls it war taxes and retentions; the retentions - kidnappings - are used to encourage payment of the war taxes, or extortion.

Mauss successfully recovered retentions, which got the attention of the German government, at that time Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrat/Liberal coalition. Kohl needed a way to get German civilians back from the ELN, and Mauss was perfectly positioned to play intermediary. Soon Mauss became involved in a more ambitious project, aimed at brokering peace between the ELN and the government. From Germany's perspective this could be nothing but good news; finally the kidnappings and damage to German businesses would end.

The negotiations went reasonably well, but didn't prove as successful as everyone hoped. Moreover the Columbian government was becoming suspicious; was Mauss actually collaborating with the ELN to drive up ransoms, collecting his cut from the kidnappers for this service? He was arrested and jailed for nine months, before being cleared of all charges in 1998.

If he was being paid by the ELN, it was just one of a long list of clients. Mauss' personal fortune grew. His 40,000 acre estate, bought in the 1960s when land was probably a lot cheaper, has been built up into a fenced-off Disney World castle according to the German papers, complete with its own zoo, exotic animals, and the largest private riding hall in Germany. All of which seems reminiscent of a certain film, or possibly more than one.

The Panama Papers leak threw a little more light onto Mauss' world. He had been a busy man, helping the rich and powerful in their business dealings, and in the process built up substantial accounts in Luxembourg and the Bahamas, for which he paid no tax. Mauss claims this is because the funds were actually given him by Western intelligence agencies to help his fight against terrorism and organized crime, even Isis. He also promised a string of star witnesses at his trial, none of whom showed up - and one of whom had died five years prior. Even had all of them materialized, it would have been difficult to explain a slush fund in excess of $50 million whose stated purpose was to fund a Werner Mauss memorial museum after Institution M's demise.

Mauss claims his defense was hampered because so much of his work has to remain secret, covered in a blizzard of non disclosure agreements. All this may be so, but NDAs can also be used to cover up a mountain of bullshit, and in Mauss' case it's difficult to separate the man from the legend. Given the amounts discussed at his trial, his two year suspended sentence and fine seem remarkably lenient. The trial judge said Mauss' lifetime achievement was the reason why his sentence was so light. Clearly the judge couldn't tell the difference between Mauss, the man with $50 million in unexplained funds, and Institution M, the tireless crusader against crime.

So from a gamification perspective, what do we have?

A Night's Black Agents character, clearly. Possibly a mentor; Institution M seems an unlikely Solace. There's a certain murkiness about his whole career that just screams plant - but whose? After all, he buys that 40,000 acre estate in the 1960s, when he's just starting his private investigative career. Even in the 1960s, it's difficult to believe land was quite that cheap. A fictionalized version would have Institution M backed by some shadowy force - but whether it's Dracula or the KGB is an open question. It's easy to see why the Soviets, for example, might want an independent private investigator deeply embedded in the German intelligence apparat, particularly in the 1960s when the Cold War might get hot at any minute. Or the Americans. Or any number of foreign governments, but the Soviets or the Americans are the two most likely to have the funds and the hutzpah.

As a Node he's clearly at the National level at the very least. All those government contacts, in several different jurisdictions; all that foreign travel. He's not what you'd call a bruiser - his legend claims he's only ever fired a gun once in his entire career - but as an information gatherer he's unsurpassed. He's spent his entire career persuading people he can be trusted; someone like that can be more dangerous than an entire tank battalion, in the right circumstances. A Grima Wormtongue with significantly more panache.

It's tempting to write him into any number of stories. For example, Helmut Kohl's legacy has been tainted by the CDU donations scandal, in which cash donations to the party were swept under the rug. It's never been shown that Kohl actually took bribes or benefitted financially in any way, but it paved the way for Angela Merkel's rise. Someone had to be the go-between in the whole unsavory affair; it's not as if Kohl could attend to the matter himself. Suppose for a moment it was Mauss, a man who Kohl had come to know well at least by reputation, and perhaps personally. Or suppose that Mauss was a go-between for Karlheinz Schreiber, the arms dealer at the heart of the scandal, and that Mauss leaked the whole thing for reasons of his own, possibly to avoid prosecution, or to settle some kind of grudge. He could be fictionalized in all sorts of ways, is the point; the man who knows everybody's secrets, but who ensures nobody knows his. Did he use his go-between status to act as Kingmaker, and is now the man behind Merkel - or better yet, the Renfield behind Merkel? Did Germany's pre-war vampire project information find its way into his hands? What awful secrets does his German estate conceal? After all, 40,000 acres is a lot of ground - plenty of space to bury bodies if need be ...

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Guilty! The Witchcraft Act (GUMSHOE Bookhounds, Dracula Dossier)

If you, as Keeper, want to throw a wrench in the players' ordered little lives in Bookhounds or a UK-based, pre-1950s Dracula Dossier mission, why not prosecute them under the Witchcraft Act of 1735?

The Act states that anyone claiming magical powers, or practicing witchcraft, could be imprisoned for a maximum of one year. It remained in force until the 1950s, when it was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which in turn was replaced by Consumer Protection under the 2008 Regulations. The 1735 act is the successor to a string of similar acts, all of which had one purpose: to seek out and punish witches, necromancers, and other frauds.

If you look up the Witchcraft Act 1735 you'll notice that the only politician to voice an objection to it was James Erskine, Lord Grange, who is remembered for two things: first, abducting his wife, claiming she died, and holding her prisoner on the Isle of Skye; and second, his opposition to the Act. He opposed the Act because he believed in God, and he, along with John Wesley and others, was reluctant to condemn witchcraft, as it was felt that giving up witchcraft was on par with giving up the Bible. After all, witches were proof of the spirit world, which in turn meant the religious world. Without proof of life after death, where is God? Nebulous claims of Scots political considerations that weighed heavily on Erskine have been floated, but this makes it sound like all of Scotland was witch-ridden, where in practice all of Scotland was merely God-fearing and wanted no truck with an Act that seemed to deny God.

Lest you think this is something that existed but was never enforced, rather like all those Elizabethan statutes that allegedly claim able bodied men have to turn up for archery practice of a Sunday, prosecutions were fairly common up to and after the First World War. This was a time when, if you could bring back the dead for a chat with their grieving relatives, you could make a fortune. During the war the authorities became increasingly concerned that fortune tellers and mystics were having a deleterious effect on morale, particularly since some of them were throwing caution to the wind and making prognostications about the war effort. Telling people who would win the war, or particular battles, was the Government's job, not Miss Millie's, and the authorities took a very dim view of Miss Millie's continued interference.

It got somewhat embarrassing for the plainclothes detectives and undercover agents sent to gather evidence when they discovered that soldiers, even officers, were also going to Miss Millie. Elizabeth Sixsmith, known professionally as 'Madame Betty' - and why she ignored God's gift of a surname I do not know, as Madame Sixsmith to my ears sounds much more impressive than Betty - claimed many soldiers among her clients. In 1918, when Detective Inspector Bedford burst in on medium Marie-Charles to deliver an arrest warrant, he found her in consultation with a Brigadier General.

This activity peaked during the War, when people were at their most vulnerable and desperate for any kind of news. It declined afterward, though the casualty lists ensured there would be a large number of people who wanted to talk to the dead in the 1920s. However as the decades wore on and people became less accustomed to going to fortunetellers and mystics, prosecutions became less common. There's a resurgence during the Second World War, but nothing on the scale of the mischief people were getting up to in the Great War, and once the conflict was over old habits began to die out. There were only a handful of prosecutions under the Fraudulent Mediums Act, and now the whole shebang is shoved in with dodgy tellies and fell-off-the-back-of-a-van stuff you find in the consumer protection regs.

What does this mean for your players?

To begin with, it's an excellent method of harassing them. Are they getting too big for their britches, and pursuing ghouls through Covent Garden without any thought for what might happen next? Time to pull them up and remind them that the outside world isn't something they can just ignore. Sooner or later blatant bullshittery comes back to bite you, and in this case it bites to the tune of one year in chokey. Or perhaps just bound over, if the Keeper's feeling generous. Don't forget that elements of this legislation are still in force in Israel and South Africa to this day, or that it was in force in Northern Ireland long after its repeal and replacement in England in the 1950s. Something for your agents to bear in mind, as they merrily skip across borders accumulating Heat.

Of course, if the government actually has some kind of supernatural or occult-interested research group - say, Edom - then a conviction under the Witchcraft Act could be synonymous with a quick trip to a secluded spot, there to be interrogated at leisure.

As an element of backstory, it can be very useful. Here's Miss Millie, dotty old dear, and here's her gang of hardened thugs. Where did she get hardened thugs? Oh, you can learn a great deal banged up in Holloway for a year. Plus you meet fascinating people like Norah Elam, suffragette and proto-fascist. This works for player characters as well as NPCs, bear in mind, so if you as player want to justify that point in Streetwise and some of your less savory contacts, this would be a good way to do it.

On top of all that, there's one other obvious direction to take: the prison scenario. This last is very much up to the Keeper, but consider: if you want a one-off in an unusual setting, and think a bit of hard time could be an interesting route to take the campaign, the Witchcraft Act will get you there in style. I recommend a good old-fashioned haunting, with the execution of Edith Thompson - and possibly also her unborn child - as a catalyst, but really, with a prison that's been there since the mid-nineteenth century, you could do anything.


Self Promotion & Deadly Women

For those of you who don't already know, I've written a couple articles for Genii Online, home of magic and deception. One of them's about Mandrake the Magician and his failed 1954 TV debut, filmed here in sunny Bermuda. The other's about J.N. Maskelyne, and his encounter with the spiritualist Davenport Brothers. There's a third one due soon about the CIA's favorite magician, and there may be more coming - I certainly hope there is! If you enjoy magic, trickery, jiggery and pokery, hie thee to Genii. If you like my work there, please give it a Share.

I also want to recommend something that isn't mine, but which I'm thoroughly enjoying: Lady Killers, by Tori Telfer. This history of deadly women covers the gamut, from the Queen of Poisoners and the Blood Countess, to the Giggling Grandma and Iceberg Anna. If you don't know who any of these people are, then you should buy the book, shouldn't you? Mine's an Advance Reader Copy, and I'm mentioning this to you now because this true crime novel is due out October 2017 - which means basically right this minute, more or less. Or more accurately on the 10th of October, which is when Harper Collins will launch this blood-soaked narrative.

If you enjoy true crime, or serial killers, that's one good reason to seek this out, but Dracula Dossier Directors have another: it covers Erzabet Bathory's gory career in considerable detail. If you want a bit of meat to add to this NPC's back story, this is an excellent source.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Ghost Town (RPG All)

I've been re-reading Salem's Lot, Stephen King's take on Dracula in a small New England town. It starts with two survivors on the run, who read about the ghost town that Salem's Lot has become. It is not the first town in American history to just dry up and blow away, and will probably not be the last, but it is the strangest ... The article goes on to reference the fictional town of Momson, Vermont, which also dried up and blew away back in 1923. I suspect King was drawing on the Bennington Triangle when he wrote that, particularly Glastenbury.

It got me thinking about ghost towns, and how useful they can be in fiction, and RPGs.

Ghost towns exist in every nation, in all parts of the world. More often than not they're unknown outside a relatively small area. To give you an example, I have on my shelf a coffee-table book about Abandoned New England - Its Hidden Ruins and Where To Find Them. I doubt anyone's gone looking for any of these places in years. The book was published in 1978 but more than thirty years have passed since then; what was a ruin in the 1970s is most likely a nondescript pile of rocks now. Point being that unless you own a book like this, or live in New England not far from one of these locations, you wouldn't have the slightest idea these places existed at all.

What is a ghost town, really? There are legal terms, of course; a town only exists as a town because it's been incorporated, and as such it can be unincorporated. In that sense the legalities aren't much different from the days when the Crown would issue a charter, or the Church establish a Cathedral. The forms have changed, but the basic principle remains the same: you can't call yourself anything unless you have the documents to prove it, and those documents can be nullified at any time by the powers that be.

However a ghost town is more than just a few forms. I think of it in these terms: first a town loses its ability, then its vitality, and shortly after that it becomes a ghost.

Its ability can be defined as the power, financial or legal, by which the incorporated entity serves its citizens. Once it loses that power, the town no longer serves its people. This can mean many things, some of which may not be immediately obvious. If a town can no longer provide or maintain drainage, the problem may not really be a problem until the first serious storm, at which point the town floods. That might not happen for years. On the other hand, if the town stops being able to collect and dispose of garbage, everyone knows all about it pretty quickly.

Its vitality is more nebulous, and refers to the interest its citizens take in the town's continued survival. Do they sit passively to one side, refusing to participate in town meetings, not bothering to support local initiatives? Do they volunteer when the town needs help? If there's a fire, do people show up to put it out? If someone goes missing, do they help search? If the answer to all these questions is negative, then the town lacks vitality and will most likely collapse at the first sign of trouble - say, when the garbage trucks stop showing up.

Without ability and vitality a town is dead - even if there are still some people living there. Many ghost towns have a scattering of people hanging on, like bats clinging to the exposed rafters of a burnt-out house. From a gaming perspective, having a few shell-shocked survivors dropping clues and adding atmosphere can be a very good thing.

Sometimes the event that causes a ghost town is immediate and devastating. Centralia, Pennsylvania is all but destroyed thanks to a coal fire that's been burning under the town since 1962. There are any number of small townships that went under thanks to fire or flood. Varosha in Cyprus was a functioning, thriving place until the Turks invaded, and since then it's lain derelict. Chernobyl in the Ukraine is probably the most famous example of a ghost town caused by a nuclear disaster. France's Red Zone is one of the most recent examples in the West of a populated area reduced to nothingness by war, though there are plenty of examples of this outside the West. We tend to think of war damage in terms of explosions and shrapnel, or of massacres like Oradour-sur-Glane that kill people but leave the town intact, but recent tests in the Red Zone showed dangerously high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, zinc - the soil is basically poisoned, as is the water and the animals who live there. The same will apply to modern battlefields, if not more so; they didn't have depleted uranium in 1914, after all.

However a town can also die slowly, often due to economic failure. We tend to think of the gold, copper and silver rush towns of the Old West and British Columbia when we think of economic failure, but really as a phenomenon it's all around us. Dying industries, the increasing use of automation, the transfer of factories from one state to another - as an economy shrinks, so do the townships that service that economy, until one day there's nothing left. Monotowns are particularly vulnerable to economic fluctuation, even in planned economies where the state has every incentive to keep the town afloat.

Sometimes a ghost town revives as a semblance of its former self. This most often happens when the town is revived as a tourist site or nature reserve, but it's difficult to really call a town a town if it no longer has an independent function. As a tourist site or reserve the former town loses all its impetus, becoming a parasite without any reason to develop further or to change in any way. In fact, change - and with it, growth - is the last thing these places can afford to indulge in.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Alexandria, in Egypt, was all but dead in the 1800s, boasting a mere 5,000 people when Napoleon took over. Yet under Muhammed Ali Egypt reinvented itself, and Alexandria grew; today it has over 4 million inhabitants.

Alexandria's example is particularly relevant to Keepers running a sword-and-sorcery or fantasy RPG. In fantasy campaigns cities are often portrayed either as fully functioning, or completely abandoned, but historically there is usually a long intermediary period when most of the city is abandoned, and yet it is still alive. There isn't a major city in Europe that hasn't endured shrinkage at some point in its career; London famously lost a third of its population during the Black Death, for example, and many cities lost closer to 60%. Imagine what that would have looked like: empty dwelling after empty dwelling, roads meant for heavy traffic now almost deserted, wild animals roaming the streets. And yet people still eke out a living there. The city still has ability, but has lost vitality. Dunwall in the Dishonored series is one of the few videogame examples of this kind of city: basically functional, but with the guts ripped out of it.

With all that in mind, let's talk gamification.

I think of ghost towns in small sandbox terms. There may or may not be a convenient central hub - a general store, an inn, a church - but the town's story is scattered roundabout, which means there will be different kinds of experiences to be had. Go one way, and find out what happened to the silver miners when the mine collapsed. Go another way, and find out what lurks in the old coach house. Go a third way, and see what's left of the miller's granaries. A fourth way to find out where the children who attended the schoolhouse ended up - and so on, and on.

It's a small sandbox because ultimately this is a small scale tragedy, in a game which can span continents or even dimensions. If your secret agents need to be in Istanbul next week, they can't spend a lot of time digging into the life story of a bar worker in Germany.

From a Keeper's perspective, I would take a series of notes either on index cards or on one of the many apps that mimic the index card format. None of this has to be very complex. A few lines per location is all that's needed. The key thing to bear in mind is all the minor stories that took place here need to be linked in some way to the major story.

So as an example, let's consider a ghost town in modern Eastern Europe, or a fictional non-Earth equivalent, abandoned after a massacre during a civil war or military incursion from a neighboring state.

The massacre is the major story. That's what robbed the town of its ability and vitality. All the town's leadership was rounded up and shot, and the few survivors of the massacre fled to neighboring towns and never returned.

All the minor stories reflect this and link back to it. The event was sudden, catastrophic and irreversible. There will be some battle damage wherever the characters look, but if it's an overwhelming event then there may not be a truly significant amount of property damage. This isn't like Guernica, where waves of bombers strike a sitting target again and again; this is more along the lines of the SS lining up villagers against a wall and executing them.

Let's further assume that the game mechanic includes something like Ars Magica's Regio system, or Ravenloft's Sinkholes of Terror, where reality can bend or change altogether depending on which level of reality you happen to be standing on at the time. So at its worst it can be a hellscape, and at its best a blasted and lonely place.

Therefore at its worst point - probably the town hall where the people were herded inside the building and murdered, or the mass grave where many of them ended up - the Keeper needs to do the most preparation. Two or three cards worth of notes at least, one of which is devoted exclusively to the supernatural entities certain to be found there. There will be several layers to the main hub, each more awful than the last.

However there are going to be other stories scattered about the town which are related to, but not part of, the main event. The farmhouse where a young mother was raped, her baby's brains beaten against a tree. The garage where frightened survivors hid. The fire station that was set aflame with the stationhouse dog still inside, soldiers standing around taking bets on how long it would survive. Each of these stories needs a brief description, one card's worth at least, which should include the location story, any debilitating effects - SAN or Stability loss - and perhaps a color point or two, like the red flowers that constantly bloom around the tree where the baby died, no matter what the weather. There may only be one or two layers to each of these minor points, just enough to hint at what happened here without going full Night on Bald Mountain.

If you, as Keeper, do that, then I'm willing to guarantee the players will remember this ghost town long after other, perhaps more action-packed, scenes. Horror isn't in the eye, but in the mind, Play with their minds, and who knows what you'll accomplish?


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.

Edit 12 October: I see I'm not the only one who thinks the whole thing might be psychosomatic.

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.