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?

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