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 -  Ej√©rcito de Liberaci√≥n 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.