Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Luck Ambassador (RPG Scenario Seed, Macau)

I haven't had two seconds to think about it, so the Benson / One-to-One bit will have to wait. Another idea presents itself. A while ago I discussed Halloween, and mentioned in passing the Chinese festival of the dead. This week I want to delve into that in more depth, with a scenario seed.

According to Funk & Wagnalls Standard Folklore Dictionary, the Seventh [moon], the Moon of Hungry Ghosts, is the Autumn moon. The festival ... lasts from the 15th to the 30th of the month. On this day food is prepared for the ghosts who have no descendants to care for them, and therefore are always hungry. Lotus-flower lamps are carried through the streets, or at dusk candles are stuck into tiny boats and floated down the streams.

There's the key: these ghosts don't have anyone to look after them. There are other festivals - the Tenth Moon also has a festival of the dead - but those ghosts are well cared for. Because hungry ghosts lack descendants, or have descendants who don't care about them, they never receive offerings, and are always starving, so when the gates of Hell gape wide in the Seventh month there's a real risk of harm - unless those ghosts are propitiated.

The festival has Bhuddist overtones, but at its core it is Chinese. Many hungry ghost stories arise because of mistreatment, either of the living or the dead. So, for example, when a rich man who has to leave on business instructs his wife to feed a hungry monk, and that wife instead withholds the food or punishes the monk, she becomes a hungry ghost when she dies.

These ghosts can, if not taken care of, cause bad luck, or attach themselves to people who are not their descendants. That's why people offer so many bribes, of food or other things - they don't want ghosts hitching along for the ride. Similarly during a live performance, say of opera - and there are many performances during the festival - the first row of seats is traditionally left unoccupied, so the ghosts can have them. The boats and lotus lamps are to help the ghosts find their way home again at the end of the festival. The ghosts are said to have found their way back to Hell when the lamps go out, and the boats carry them home.

The most common image is that of a ghost with a sack for a belly and a needle-thin neck. The belly signifies constant hunger; the needle neck, how difficult - impossible, even - it is for the ghost to find and eat food. Generally speaking there are three types of hungry ghost: those with no money, those with a little, and those with great wealth. The ones with great wealth are the rulers of ghosts, who live off of things lost or forgotten; the ones with little or no wealth are scavengers, sometimes with mouths so decayed that they can no longer eat, but yet are driven by insatiable need. Naturally there are far more of the latter than there are of the former.

From there I'm going to pivot to a podcast: Adam Ruins Everything with Professor Natasha Dow Schull. It's about gambling, and how casinos use slot machines to encourage gambling addicts. I can't call myself a huge fan of Adam - I don't watch the show and I only occasionally listen to the podcasts - but I'm always intrigued by his argument.

In that podcast, Professor Schull points out that slot machines, particularly cloud-based machines, can be rigged and re-rigged pretty much at the casino's whim, adjusting odds and changing the game on the fly to suit the intended audience. The main protection against this, in the States at least, relies on a law that prohibits the changing of a game's odds while the game is being played.

Of course, Macau doesn't have to play by those rules. It can switch up whatever it likes whenever it likes, and it has plenty of slot machines. Which is where the Luck Ambassador comes in. This Ambassador is employed by the casino to help a player out, which in turn encourages the player to stay. Helping can involve any of a number of different bennies, and although human helpers have been used in the past, with a virtual game system like a cloud-based slot machine, the Ambassador can be completely subsumed in the game's subroutines.

So here you have a slot machine that knows exactly who you are. It's tracked you from the moment you checked in at the hotel, and can continue to track you via the courtesy smartphone that the hotel gave you, or through your guest card, or any number of different ways. It can switch up the odds as it sees fit, to keep you playing. It can judge your tolerance for loss, and keep you pumped up for as long as your money holds out.

Now imagine if that machine was haunted - say, by hungry ghosts.

With that in mind, here are three options:

1) A Ghost King has taken over the casino. It sends its lesser minions from slot to slot, gobbling up cash which the King uses to fund its ever-lavish lifestyle. The trouble is, in its overwhelming greed it has overextended itself, and is causing player deaths in its helter-skelter attempt to keep the money flowing. The casino hires a Tao master to bring things to a head, and this master - actually more of an acolyte with excellent PR - brings the characters on board. As helpers. Or cannon fodder ...

2) A Conspiracy asset has taken over this Macau casino, and is slaving hungry ghosts to its slot machines in order to keep the money flowing. Unfortunately for the Conspiracy asset, the people it hired to keep the ghosts in line aren't as necromantically skilled as they pretend to be. Ghosts are escaping into the wider world, and that can only attract the wrong sort of attention.

3) For a Fear Itself vibe, imagine a slot machine that knows you - that can follow you around. It can migrate from console to console; after all, it's in the cloud, not in the circuitboard. You see it in one casino, then another. You might try to leave the casino, do something else, but now it's on every device you see or touch. What's more, there's a face floating behind the game - a broken face, with a needle-thin neck, and it wants everything you have.


  1. This is an excellent resource! I have been contemplating running an Oriental Adventures campaign and this is exactly the sort of cultural details needed to separate it from any other generic fantasy setting.

  2. I'm very glad you like it! I hope your campaign goes well.