Sunday, 9 December 2018

Separation (Esoterrorists)

Inspiration for this post comes from Victorian and Edwardian Prisons, by Trevor May.

In the Victorian period two competing theories met head-to-head, in an effort to reform criminals. One, the silence system, proposed that all prisoners be kept in absolute silence. They could work together, congregate, exercise, but never talk. As you can imagine this did not work well.

The other method was the separate system, and while this didn't work either it enjoyed a slightly longer period of popularity. The description's deceptively simple: no prisoner shall have any contact with other prisoners. It's the lengths the prison went to make that happen that makes the separate system horrifying.

HM Prison Pentonville is Britain's first modern prison, designed and built in 1842 with the separation system in mind. The central hall has five radiating wings, designed to hold 520 prisoners total, each in their separate cell. The cells had their own toilets, though those frequently blocked, and the prisoners would spend much of their lives in those cells. The idea was to put them to work, but they couldn't do anything useful because that would put them in competition with free men. So they picked oakum by hand - undoing lengths of rope into individual strands into loose hemp, which would then be used as a short-term sealant for broken pipes, or a packing material.

There were times when they had to leave their cells, to go to chapel or to exercise. Each time they left they dressed in heavy leather, with thick caps covering their entire face. When they got to a communal area, like the chapel, each pew was separated into small sections by wooden panels. They could sit by their neighbor, but never see him. They could walk past a man in the corridor, and not know who he was.

The idea was to foster meditation and, with it, remorse. The evangelical Christians who came up with it believed in what they called the Inner Light, but a person needed to be in close communion with the eternal to access it. Complete separation from any distraction was thought to be essential. The chaplain was the only man they'd ever see, the only visitor they'd receive. Even the guards didn't know who they were guarding. A man was just a number, without any distinguishing features, living day in, day out in what amounted to specially designed solitary confinement.

They called it the maniac-making system.


The suicide rate jumped, and many more went insane. The few successes, the ones who claimed to have seen the light, usually went back to their old ways the moment they left prison. There were practical problems with the separate system as well; because it required separate cells for each prisoner, a prison could neither be converted nor expanded. Each had to be purpose-built, like Pentonville, and could only hold a set number of prisoners. Innovations designed to help separation, like the toilets, soon became problematic because the prisons seldom bothered to unclog them or replace burst pipes. The system could be subverted by the inmates, who came up with ingenious ways to communicate - say, by tapping on those clogged and broken drain pipes.

In the end it wasn't the system's flaws that brought it down. The powers that be lost their faith in the reformative powers of imprisonment; more emphasis on punishment was called for. By the early 20th century solitary confinement was unpopular, though the radial architectural system of prison design remains influential on modern prisons.

Let's put that into Esoterror context. What kind of cell would work with this material to create an ODE effect, and what kind of ODE shall it be?

The cell structure is going to look like a prison gang, and since we started with HM Pentonville it might as well be a British gang, though the separate system was used all over the Western world and got its start in America, so this could as easily be set elsewhere.

Right now British prison gangs are violent, territorial and fractious. Assaults and gang conflicts are at an all-time high, helped in part by reduced investment in prisons. Efforts to hire more guards have fallen flat, and austerity cuts mean no cash for anything like rehabilitation, reform, or even upkeep. Where there is a vacuum something will fill it, and in this case gangs are taking over HM Prison Kingstead, a fictional category A prison intended to house those whose escape would be highly dangerous to the public or national security.

Kingstead, built in 1858 with the separate system in mind, has known its share of strife. In 1892 it hit the news with a series of inmate murders, and in 1978 IRA prisoners staged a very public dirty protest. However its current suicide and self-harm rate is seriously alarming the OV, as it may indicate ODE influence. What really concerns the OV is that, if there's an Esoterror cell in the prison population, it's very likely to spread to other prisons when inmates, or possibly guards, get transferred.

The OV isn't wrong. An Esoterror cell has self-generated around a Sadist, with a small compliment of Attention-Seekers, Exofetishists and Cyphers. Group numbers fluctuate, but there's a hard core of eight, with a further ten or more hangers-on at any one time. This group calls itself the SB8, or Separate Brotherhood 8. Unusually for a prison gang this group doesn't break down on ethnic lines, but does have one rule: gang members don't talk to outsiders, ever. When they have to, they communicate in writing - often text message. They control the supply of mobile phones in and out of HM Kingstead, through prison guard proxies.

Thanks to this group the prison population is terrorized by nightmares, with a recurring element: the Separate Man.

Game Statistics
Abilities: Athletics 9, Disguise 6, Scuffling 8, Weapons 6
Hit Threshold: 4
Alertness Modifier: +0
Stealth Modifier: +2
Weapon: Knife +0, Dream Attack
Armour: +2

The Separate Man can briefly (no longer than a few rounds) look like anyone - an inmate, a guard, the chaplain - but in its true form it's a leather-clad humanoid with a flesh-coloured hood over its head. In this form it does not speak, but whenever it moves it rustles, and there's a strong scent of damp, rotten leather. It cannot be confined so long as it's in a prison, so prison doors mean nothing to it, but a car door, out in the prison parking lot, can be an effective barrier. As a special attack it can invade the dreams of an inmate and take them back to a nightmare version of HM Kingstead as it was in 1858, imprisoning them under the separate system for what feels like forever. To do that the Separate Man has to be in physical contact with the dreamer, and if interrupted and forced to flee the dreamer must make a level 4 Stability check; NPCs nearly always go insane. If, after repeated visits, the target is reduced to 0 Stability, they become catatonic. The only thing they do, all day, every day, is make motions with their hands and legs, as though forever unravelling oakum by rolling it on their knees and thighs. A Separate Man can create another Separate Man by bringing a willing Esoterrorist to catatonia, which is why SB8 is always willing to take on new members.

A Separate Man's special mode of dispatch is having its hood removed, but this is harder than it looks as the hood is grafted onto the face. A hard Athletics test is required, and success subjects the victor to a 4-point Stability test, as they stare into the Inner Light.

Enjoy!
 

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Killer Cream (Bookhounds, Dracula Dossier)

Doctor Thomas Neill Cream, one of the many possible candidates for the true Jack the Ripper - allegedly he yelled "I am Jack the -" just as the hangman pulled the lever - was, in his day, one of the most famous, if not the most famous, multiple murderers. Today he barely rates a mention. Keepers, ask yourselves: what would your players do if an anonymous letter accused them of a terrible crime? That was Cream's preferred tactic: poison someone, then accuse someone else, blackmail, rinse, repeat.

Born in Glasgow in 1850, he went to Canada with his family in 1854. He grew up in Quebec City, went to McGill to study medicine in the 1870s, and eventually passed, after some scholastic hiccups, in 1876. He took postgraduate qualifications in London and Edinburgh, before returning to Ontario to begin his career.

He became a criminal not long after, in 1879. A pregnant woman was found chloroformed to death behind his office, and it was believed Cream was the child's father. When the truth threatened to come out he fled across the border to the United States where he took up medicine again, with a sideline in abortion. A patient died in 1880 and he was almost charged, but due to lack of evidence the case fell apart.

Then came the first of what can be called the true Cream killings. In December 1880 a patient died, and Cream immediately attempted to blackmail the pharmacist who issued her drugs. This blackmail attempt came to nothing, but it established the pattern: kill, then immediately blame someone else. It would happen again in 1881, with the death of Daniel Stott, an elderly married man with a pretty young wife. Again, Cream tried to blackmail a pharmacist, and again it came to nothing. Cream very nearly spent life in prison as a consequence, but thanks to a generous inheritance from his father, and good behavior, he was set free in 1891.

The United States and Canada having played out, Doctor Cream went to London again. He settled in Lambeth, near a notorious red-light district, and perfected his method, which was hardly very complex to begin with. He would meet with prostitutes and either give them a spiked drink, or pills. They took the offered poison, died, and Cream would blame someone else for their death and attempt blackmail. Once, he even posed as a detective and offered to solve the crime for three hundred thousand pounds. He blackmailed the heir of the W.H. Smith bookselling chain, Frederick, who later became 2nd Viscount Hambleden. He blackmailed medical students, pharmacists, hotel clerks - really, anyone he could think of.

There's no reason to think Cream enjoyed any sexual satisfaction from his murders., nor did he care much whether he killed men or women, though the crimes he's famous for were all against women. He boasted of his sexual prowess, claiming he bedded three a night, but his method of killing could hardly be called subtle or prolonged. He killed with chloroform or, later, strychnine, in large quantities, often administered with the victim's consent, as they thought they were taking medicine. He sometimes wasn't even present when the victim died. This is hardly a well-played game of chess. Nor does he profit from his blackmail schemes, and by the amounts he asked for it's no wonder. Three hundred thousand pounds? Why not ask for a million?

No, for Cream the fun part came later.

I am writing to say that if you and your satellites fail to find the murderer of Ellen Dunsworth, alias Ellen Linnell … I am willing to give you such assistance as will bring the murderer to justice, provided your Government is willing to pay me three hundred thousand pounds for my services ...

I hereby notify you that the person who poisoned Ellen Dunsworth on the 13th October last is today in the employ of the Metropole Hotel, and that your lives are in danger so long as you remain in this hotel …

I am writing to inform you that one of my operators has indisputable evidence that your son, W.J. Harper, a medical student at St Thomas' Hospital, poisoned two girls named Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell …

Note how it always begins with I. Cream wanted to be the center of attention, the hero. He is the one who knows, the one who can indisputably prove, who did the deed. Either the detective or the one in charge of detectives - 'one of my operatives.' He usually wrote the letters himself, which meant he was easily traced by his handwriting. Only once did he have someone else do it for him - his respectable fiancée, Laura Sabatini, who when the time came gave evidence against him. Again, hardly surprising. After all, she knew what she'd written.

The Victorians were obsessed with crime, and with genius detectives: Jonathan Whicher, John Haynes the chemist, Stephen Thornton, Richard Tanner, Jerome Caminada, disguise expert Maurice Moser, polymath Edmund Reid, and many others. Charles Dickens was a big fan, and wrote about these new masters of the criminal underworld. This all really kicks off in the 1840s, as the Detective Bureau is founded; someone Cream's age would have grown up with hero detective stories.

If you can't detect a crime, the next best thing is to commit one - and to say you know who did it. Cream reveled in the celebrity, once going so far as to give a visiting New York detective a tour of the killing grounds of the Lambeth Poisoner. Often he attracted attention to his murders with his blackmail letters, when the crimes themselves might have gone unnoticed. To the very end he encouraged speculation that he wasn't just the Lambeth Poisoner, but Jack the Ripper - adding fame to fame, and a much bloodier kind of fame too. What a treat it must have been for the man who only ever poisoned his victims and wasn't brave enough to watch them die, to be thought capable of the kind of butchery Jack took for granted.

He was convinced of his own genius. He never thought he'd be convicted, and, if charged, thought he could prove insanity and avoid the hangman. He sang and danced in his cell after the counsel's closing speeches, so convinced was he of acquittal. The jury took twelve minutes to convict, and on November 15th, 1892, he swung at Newgate. The executioner, James Billington, swore afterward that Cream uttered the words "I am Jack the -" just as he went down, but as Cream is known to have been behind bars in Chicago when the Ripper killings took place, this is unlikely. His body was buried same day in an unmarked Newgate grave.

It's a very rare kind of psychosis, but there have been other examples. When the Morro Castle burned off the coast of New Jersey in 1934, a lot of attention focused on the radio operator, George White Rogers. In the immediate aftermath he was hailed as a hero both by the passengers and by the public at large, and he basked in the attention. However this unlikely hero was also a suspected arsonist, possibly also a poisoner and rapist. After the Morro Castle incident he was arrested for another crime, attempted murder of a co-worker with an incendiary device. The co-worker suspected Rogers of being involved in the Morro Castle arson, and that, allegedly, was the motive for the incendiary device attack. Rogers died in prison.

From a gaming point of view Cream has two obvious uses: in Bookhounds, and the Dracula Dossier. Both use the Ripper killings in one way or another: in Whitechapel Black-Letter the Ripper is supposed to have been conducting a megapolisamantic ritual, while the Dracula Dossier has the Ripper's knife set as a potential artefact and Red Jack as a possible foe.

In WBL there is an Optional Monster, Jack's Shadow. Described as "a living ghost haunting his own past," this tulpa stalks the major antagonists and Whitechapel inhabitants alike, possibly racking up a body count and certainly complicating the Book Hounds' lives. However if Jack shows up then his most devoted fanboy is sure to follow, even if he has to come back from the grave to do it. There's an obvious conduit: the executioner James Billington who, as luck would have it, kept diaries. His son William, also an executioner, continued those diaries, and though William lost his job in 1905 he lived until 1951. So from that comes this optional scene:

I Am Writing To Inform You

This is triggered only if Jack's tulpa possesses someone, either a Book Hound or prominent NPC. Letters are sent to the Book Hounds, saying that the writer knows all the details about a particular crime, and offers to tell all for money. If the characters don't pay up, the writer threatens to go to the police. The handwriting (1 point Cop Talk, Evidence Collection or Textual Analysis, and Cop Talk assumes the character goes to a police contact for the information) is eerily similar to Cream's. Following up on this, possibly via Streetwise, Document Analysis or just offering to pay, discovers that the letter writer is disgraced former executioner William Billington, but he's not himself; Cream, either as a ghost or via a Dust-Thing living off the diaries, has control over him. The remnant has a special kind of insight into Jack's tulpa, which can help the Book Hounds trace it. However to do so they will have to reach some kind of bargain with Doctor Cream, who's just loving all the attention.

In Dracula Dossier, Red Jack appears both as a potential antagonist and as a spirit connected with one of two possible knife artefacts. Where Red Jack leads Cream is sure to follow, which brings us to the following potential artefact:

Thomas Cream's Travelling Medical Case

This late Victorian tooled leather medical case has seen better days, and would cause the Antiques Roadshow crowd to tut audibly. Damp and neglect have damaged its exterior, and some of the contents aren't original. However the bits that are demonstrate the full range of late Victorian pharmacopoeia in odd little bottles and jars, as well as a collection of pornographic photographs, letters, and a set of false whiskers with decayed gum arabic fastening. Some of the contents, particularly the strychnine, retain their potency and must be carefully handled. A label, carefully removed, suggests that this might have been part of some kind of collection, though without the label itself this is impossible to prove.

This is Cream's case, which went from Newgate to London's Black Museum after Cream's 1892 execution. According to the Museum's files the case went missing in the 1980s during the move from its original home to New Scotland Yard; unofficially it was believed to have been stolen, possibly by the movers, but no charges were filed. Agents who follow up find that the case changed hands at least twice, both times bought by specialist Murderabilia collectors, each of whom died under suspicious circumstances.

This might be found in the possession of the Smuggler, Online Mystic, Madman, Art Forecaster (soon to be part of a conversation piece), Psychic, or as an unexpected find by the Church Scavenger.

Major Item: Cream enjoyed a unique relationship with Dracula through Red Jack, and either became a Renfield or longed to be one, committing murders to draw in his beloved Master in much the same way that Edom tried to use Jack. His blackmail letters were cries for help; in a small part of his mind he resisted, and tried to bring destruction on himself and his patron by giving away what he thought were their most important secrets. Owning the case establishes a psychic link between the owner and Cream, who forces the owner to write incriminating letters and send them to the police - but since Cream still thinks the police live at the Norman Shaw Buildings the letters will vanish into Government bureaucracy, or be scooped up by Edom, unless the agents intervene. The letters, when studied, prove to be in Cream's handwriting, and detail any of the Conspiracy's operations that are linked with Red Jack. So if Red Jack is linked to the Satanic Cult, then the letters will be about the Cult's current activities. The letters answer any three questions about Red Jack's link to the Conspyramid.

Minor Item: The case is Cream's, and is of some small value on the Murderabilia market. It can be sold or exchanged for an item of minor importance, and since the kind of crazies who collect Murderabilia have unusual tastes this can include illegal items. Guns, in the United Kingdom, or drugs, or a data dump of phone numbers, credit card numbers and similar. It can also include information on a Level One node, equivalent to 1 point Streetwise.  

Fake: It's a period doctor's travelling case filled with powders and pills, but expert analysis proves most of the stuff in here is 60s tat made up to look old. The LSD's still good, more or less, but the mushrooms and Mary Jane are well past sell-by. This was formerly owned by a roadie who worked as psychedelic consultant for many iconic London 60s venues, and afterward was sold to idiot Murderabilia collectors as a genuine antique. Fun fact: under the Misuse of Drugs Act, LSD is Class A and attracts the harshest penalties for possession. Or potentially life in prison, if the charge is intent to supply.

Enjoy!

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Quick Change: Disguise (Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired by one of Wired's videos, featuring a former CIA boss talking about disguises.



Disguise is one of the most useful tools in a Night's Black Agent's character's kit, but the main book doesn't describe its use in Thrilling Chases. Double Tap does mention the quick change, but doesn't go into detail. Yet the quick change, as described here, is perfect for chases.

So let's talk about three ways in which a quick change can be used.

Swerve. A swerve is a single maneuver that has the potential to change the chase all at once … if either the pursuer or the runner has the higher Maneuver, or if both Maneuver ratings are the same, he can spend 3 points of the chase ability to force a high-risk swerve; all changes in Lead in the the Swerve round are double normal.

Suggested change: he can spend 3 points of the chase ability or 3 points Disguise. If the latter, the Director may ask for a Preparedness check, but is not obliged to.  

So in this version the pursuer or runner - more likely runner - opts for a quick change to throw the other party off. This increases Lead, if it works. The typical Lead change in a foot chase is 1 or 2; now it might be 2 or 4.

The Director is within rights to limit this kind of Swerve to agents with 8 or more in their Disguise pool.

Sudden Escape. If the runner has a lead of 7 or better, and wins the exchange of chase ability tests, she can attempt a Sudden Escape instead of changing the Lead. This is something completely outside the parameters of the chase … [and] requires a successful ability test of some kind. The Difficulty of the Sudden Escape test is always 1 higher than the previous Difficulty in the chase. 

So in this version the runner uses Disguise as the ability in the Sudden Escape test.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that a Disguise has to be elaborate. Often the best disguise is something that changes the profile of the runner quickly. Were you last seen bare-headed? Grab a hat, or pull up the hoodie. Last seen in red? Switch to brown, or black. No glasses? Then put on glasses, or sunglasses. Change tops. Baggy sports jackets are perfect for this kind of chase; not only are they memorable, you can wear something completely different underneath. Even changing your gait can help - remember what the Wired video had to say about American vs European stances.

As for new gear, if you have a chance to grab a wig, or new jacket, then by all means do - and this is one of the reasons why the runner always ought to have one eye on her surroundings. If ever there was a moment to dive into a clothes shop, now's the time.

Take this sequence from Baby Driver as your cue:



At about 1.40 he's dashing into the mall, which means two things: plenty of civilians to cloud the issue, and plenty of shops. By 1.50 he's in his first store, and grabbing a new jacket and hat comes soon after. The broken glasses are gone by 2.02. By 2.12 he has a whole new look and is out the door, and it works. That Lead bonus gets him to a car, which since he has the Grand Theft Auto perk is an easy steal, particularly since he used Thrilling Dialogue to grab a useful tool (refresh) on the way out of the electronics store. Several spectacularly failed Driving rolls later he's on foot again, but thanks to a gun-toting partner in crime there's a chance for a Sudden Escape.

I mentioned three ways to use the Disguise ability in a Chase. The Forsythe classic thriller Day of the Jackal has the nameless assassin changing disguises several times - the entire novel is one long Hot Lead chase sequence. One of my favorites comes towards the end, and is remarkably simple. They're looking for an able-bodied man, so the Jackal loses a leg. He also chews on cordite to make himself look ill, an old army trick. That, and a simple costume change plus the appropriate paperwork, gets him through the barricade to his chosen sniper position.


In some cases, agents can test other abilities to increase their Hot Lead … The Director must agree that such a test (possibly run as a full contest against a pool equal to 12 minus the current Hot Lead) might plausibly aid in the evasion of hot pursuit … Agents can also spend Hot Lead to … [do] things that aren't directly related to fleeing the country. (main book p91). Examples given include shopping, research and healing. Once Hot Lead is reduced to 0 the agents risk immediate confrontation with a serious threat - which is exactly what happens in Forsythe's story.

So what's the Jackal doing here? First, he's using Disguise to buy himself some Hot Lead. He immediately spends that Hot Lead to get a chance at the target, and takes his shot. As his Hot Lead is now 0, he faces that immediate confrontation.

Usually it's the agents dealing with Hot Lead, but it doesn't have to be that way. A chase of this sort could be very interesting to play out in an Edom game, with the agents as the pursuers just as Claude Lebel pursues the Jackal. The Conspiracy asset works his way to the target, using Disguises and tricks to throw off pursuit, hiding in plain sight. Then comes that fatal moment - it might be outside Number 10, or in Westminster Abbey - when the agents either snuff out the threat, or watch helplessly as the Conspiracy claims another victory.

Enjoy!

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Forgotten London: The Devil Tavern (Bookhounds of London)

I talked about my purchases last week and now it's time to make use of one: London Cameos, by A.H. Blake, F.R. Hist.S., F.R.G.S.


The entry shows a bust of Apollo, but given the condition of the book I'm not going to reproduce that here. In any case you'd get very little from the photo - ultimately one bust looks very much like another, storied history or not.

The text is as follows:

A BEN JONSON RELIC IN FLEET STREET

Child's Bank, No. 1 Fleet Street, is old in history and rich in treasure. Here is one - the Head of Apollo, which was at the back end of the Jonson Room in the Devil Tavern, afterwards taken over and incorporated into the Bank [in 1787].

At this tavern the Royal Society used to hold its meetings, and Jonson collected together congenial spirits to those festive gatherings that Herrick, the one-time clergyman, celebrated in his well-known verse:

Welcome all who lead or follow
To the oracle of Apollo.

There is no doubt that here, as on Bankside, the wit combats took place between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, as we might say, in the presence of this bust.

Others who loved the tavern were Swift and Addison, and even Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Johnson's memorable visit was to honour the occasion of the publication of Mrs. Lennox's first novel, and he gave her a crown of laurel leaves and they kept it up till eight in the morning drinking cups of tea.

The full sign of the inn was 'The Devil and St Dunstan' and the host was the well-known Simon Wadloe, King of the Skinkers as Jonson called him.

Simon was succeeded by his widow, and then by his son John, and Pepys was mightily struck by the company of young men all in white which young Wadloe organized to greet Charles II on his entry into London at the Restoration.

**

The bust still exists, as does Child's Bank, and a plaque honouring the old Devil Tavern can be seen at Fleet Street. The blog Exploring London has more information, and mentions that among other notorious Londoners the Devil is linked to highwayman John Cottington, aka the Mull Sack.

Cottington, called the Mull Sack after his favorite tipple, robbed both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II in exile in his day. One of nineteen children of a bankrupt haberdasher who was so ruined he had to be buried by the parish, Mull Sack apprenticed as a chimney sweep before turning to a life of crime. Early in his career he married a transvestite by mistake, thinking her to be a young woman who wouldn't give up the goods before marriage. Apparently this turned his head, for soon after this he fell in with a group of fearful women calling themselves the women-shavers, whose idea of fun was to strip girls naked, shave every hair wheresoever it might be, and whip them soundly. This couldn't last forever, and the women-shavers had to flee the country, several of whom went to Barbados. [Having met some Bajans, I can well believe it.]

Mull Sack turned to a life of crime, first playing gigolo with the wife of a merchant, then when she died and the money ran out, turning pickpocket. This went reasonably well, but a botched attempt on Oliver Cromwell's purse persuaded him the time had come to take to the open road, which he did with aplomb. Sometimes solo, sometimes in company with another rogue or two, Mull Sack made the highways hot, and when not robbing carriages passed himself off as a well-to-do merchant. This is when he becomes associated with the Tavern.

He was briefly arrested and put on trial at Reading after a successful six thousand pound score, but managed through tricks and bribery to avoid penalty. Shortly after that he fled across the water with the help of his married lover, and made the acquaintance of Charles II, who he also robbed. However he obtained such secret information from this that he hoped to buy a pardon from Cromwell, and went back to England to tell all.

Unfortunately for Mull Sack the Protector was not favourably inclined, and the notorious bandit went to the gallows at Smithfield Rounds in 1655, at the age of 45.

A Skinker, incidentally, is someone who serves drink.

The name Devil Tavern is supposed to come from the pub's old sign, which showed the Saint pulling the Devil's nose with a pair of tongs. The precise origin is unclear; it may have come from St Dunstan-in-the-West, the nearby medieval church. If you've been following me for a while then you may remember me mentioning St Dunstan's in a different context - Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber. The murdering scoundrel hid the remains of his victims in the crypts of St Dunstan's, accessed by underground tunnel. Saint Dunstan is also the patron of goldsmiths, and at one time the area was full of them. It may be the pub's sign was designed to flatter them, and encourage trade.

Saint Dunstan himself is supposed to have taken his turn at the forge, tongs in hand, which is why he uses them to pull the Devil's nose. According to legend the Saint was asked to make a chalice, and agreed, but during the work realized that his client was the Devil himself. Dunstan took his tongs and put them in the fire, waiting till they were red-hot. Then he turned on the Devil and caught Satan's nose in his tongs, holding tight till he felt the Devil was vanquished. "These are the tricks of Devils, who try to trap us with their snares whenever they can. But if we remain firm in the service of Christ, we can easily defeat them with his help, and they will flee from us in confusion."

So with all that in mind, let's put together a Bookhounds scenario seed:

Teachings of Apollo

One of the Bookstore's regulars is a Shakespeare obsessive, whose dream it is to track down the lost play Cardenio. Though the regular is willing to pay any price - creating a Windfall for the shop and increasing its Credit Rating - to date the characters have not been able to obtain the item.

However according to a book scout (either NPC or character) a very disreputable character claims to know "how to make Apollo speak." This peculiar gentleman says he can conjure up spirits and make them talk, and proposes to use the bust of Apollo, now kept at Child's Bank, as a focus for his ritual. All he needs are some Comte d'Erlette pamphlets as payment, and blood soaked by a hanged man's blood as a material component, and he'll get Shakespeare's ghost to give up the goods.

Though peculiar, this wizard does know the ritual and can perform it as a demonstration should the characters wish. Going through this kind of ritual first-hand is fairly traumatic (3-point Stability check), but it is convincing, and the necromancer can produce other forgeries to show he's done this sort of thing before. Besides, he points out, is it really a forgery if it's Shakespeare's own play recounted by the man himself?

The characters will need to obtain the blood-soaked earth. This is more difficult than it used to be in the days when public hangings were held at Tyburn or Smithfield. However some investigative work, and possibly a bargain with ghouls, finds a suicide's hanged corpse that nobody else has discovered yet. It's another 3-point Stability check to gather the raw materials.

They also need those pamphlets. This bit's best left to the Keeper, but a raid on some private archive or, better yet, an auction in a particularly seedy establishment - some Soho den of vice, perhaps - solves that problem.

Then they need to get into the Bank where the bust of Apollo is kept. It's the oldest bank in England and holds the accounts of the great and good, so it's reasonably secure. Difficulty 5 tests needed either to sneak or bluff past security. They can either carry off the bust or conduct the ritual in the Bank. The latter might be the easier option; Difficulty 6 tests needed to get out of the building with a life-size head-and-shoulders marble bust. There may also be megapolisomantic benefits to leaving the bust where it is; it's current location is as close as it's possible to be to the old Devil Tavern, where Shakespeare and Jonson had those famous battles of wit.

The ritual begins (5-point Stability test) and all goes well at first. Whoever's on note-taking duty gets some golden material, not just from Shakespeare but from Jonson, Swift, Dr Johnson and other guests of The Devil. It all goes wrong halfway through when the shade of Mull Sack interferes. The desperate robber doesn't like the afterlife or being ignored in favour of some scribbling buffoon, and attempts to possess one of the group. The necromancer suffers a heart attack and drops dead, leaving the Bookhounds with a partial Shakespeare script, a ritual rapidly getting out of hand, and a vengeful highwayman who will not stay in the grave if he can help it.  Using the blood-soaked earth as a weapon against Mull Sack will get rid of him, but also waste some of the ritual component that the Bookhounds need to keep Shakespeare talking. Just how greedy are the Bookhounds? Will they risk all to get a complete Cardenio?

Enjoy!  

Sunday, 11 November 2018

London Booty

I'm back!

For the first time in my life I have jet lag. I can't blame the climate, as I had the same problem flying over as I did flying home. I have no idea how this happened. I've always been lag-free. I suppose this is one of those things that goes wrong with age, he says clutching a shawl around his shoulders and sipping tepid tea for fear of excess excitement.

This time out I thought I'd talk about the haul of books and DVDs brought home from faraway places. For those of you wondering what peculiar artifact this Digital Video Disc might be, it's a cinema format I find very useful, for two reasons. First, it's still the most reliable way to find odd, old, and cult cinema, and there are some temples where they might be found. Like Fopp in London within striking distance of the Orc's Nest, Music & Goods Exchange in Greenwich, and Timeslip on Trafalgar Road in Brighton. Second, it avoids the Foreigner Problem.

For those of you who don't have to put up with the Foreigner Problem, allow me to elucidate.

If you happen to live in a place like Bermuda, overseas vendors don't know what to do with you, but as you're a Foreigner they treat you like a peculiar, simple-headed soul. Someone who doesn't appreciate the good stuff. Someone whose first language probably isn't English. Someone you can overcharge for postage.

So if you're, say, an American service provider offering online movies, you certainly don't offer the full rate of programs to Foreigners. You short the bill, and if the series happens to be, say, Japanese anime, you offer subtitles in Spanish. Only Spanish. Because Spanish is what they speak in Foreign Parts. Portuguese would be better, but quel dommage! It's improved over the years, but this is what put me off online services for a very long time, and even now I'm dubious about a so-called service that can be withdrawn at the vendor's discretion. If I buy a movie, it's mine. It's not some peculiar form of rental.

So despite the climate being ruinous to discs, I still purchase DVDs. How ruinous, you ask? Our humid salt-laden air often kills DVDs within months. The outer skin of the disc separates ever so slightly, leaving the smallest of cavities, something you can't see with the naked eye. Then condensation builds up, the tiniest beads of water. Mold loves water. All it wants is water and darkness, and there's not much light inside a DVD case. When it's not mold, it's rust. I remember tape decks being much the same - you could see the rot spread, little greyish fingers of death. I've seen DVDs practically transparent, patched like a pinto pony. The lifespan of a disc depends on its quality. Your average HBO box set, manufactured by the lowest bidder, might die within a few months, maybe a year. A BFI high quality issue might last decades.

There are ways of solving the problem but I shan't go into them here. This isn't Technology Corner.

The list of books is short, but that only means I'm not including books bought as Christmas presents for other people. I'm not some animal.

London Cameos by A.H. Blake, Herbert Jenkins publisher, 1930. Purchased at Greenwich market.

Markets are very hit and miss. You can find treasures; more often you find junk. It's like prospecting for gold, with about the same success rate. "Surely there is no city in Europe that is as rapidly obliterating all the footsteps of the past as London," writes Blake. Just a moment there, Blake, old son, there's a Herman Goering on the line for you. Blake's done a brilliant job of collecting what amounts to a ton of scenario hooks - A Picturesque Inn, The Bell of Doom, to name but two of several score. I look forward to devouring them at my leisure.

Victorian and Edwardian Prisons by Trevor May, Shire Library, 2006. Purchased at the Museum of London Docklands.

I'm not going to spend much time describing this one. You can work it out from the title. However if you ever want source material for a UK game I highly recommend anything Shire publishes. It's always informative, packed with useful detail and evocative illustrations. Writers take note.

Folklore of Guernsey by Marie De Garis, originally published 1975, reprinted 2014 by La Societe Guernsesiaise. Bought in Guernsey.

You'd be forgiven for thinking, as you peruse the bookshelves, that nothing much happened in Guernsey until Hitler invaded. There's a few tomes on fishing and forts, then Whallop! Germany calling, and suddenly there's books by the dozen. Guernsey was the only part of Britain ever to be captured by the Nazis, and they left behind some calling cards, the odd gun emplacement, a well-stocked Occupation Museum. However I was surprised not to see more books about this dolmen-haunted island's history and folklore. The island's seen human habitation since before the birth of Christ and its archaeology is fascinating - yet so much of it has been dug up, used for building material or just thrown away to clear a farmer's field. I love books like this Folklore, and ate it up while waiting for Aurigny to wind up the rubber bands that power its aircraft's engines. I shall have to do something with this material.

Guernsey as it used to be, a tour of the town in Victorian times by George Hugo, originally published 1933, reprint 2017 Blue Ormer.

Yes, I shall definitely have to do something with this material.

Vampire the Masquerade by Ken Hite and others, World of Darkness. Bought at Orc's Nest, London.

I went over with one eye on this and another on The Fall of Delta Green, which no doubt made for a peculiar facial expression on my part, but thankfully I didn't have to see it myself. There was no way I was buying both. Leaving aside the cost - this one item makes up about a fifth of my book budget - there was no way both would fit in the suitcase, not with everything else that had to go in. Read it on the plane, need to read it again. Mechanically it's not a million miles away from the version I played at Uni, but there are significant differences. Culturally it's a whole other universe away. This is Vampire for the 21st Century, and it looks hellishly entertaining.

The Vampire, by Nick Groom, Yale Uni Press 2018.

Yes, it's a new history of your friend and mine. Yes, it's very, very good. Highly recommended. Am still reading. Go away. Shoo! Still reading … Depending on my Shoggee I might have to get someone this for Christmas.

Dogs of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, first published 2017, this edition 2018 Head of Zeus.

Adrian's been a mate since university, and he kindly gave me this. It's a near future dystopian sci-fi in which bioform weapons are used in place of robots, because the robots can't be trusted. Rex is a Good Dog, leader of his squad, but he's beginning to wonder whether he's really such a Good Dog after all, and if he's not, what to do about it. What fascinates me is that it's as much about international, human rights and war crimes law as it is Big Guns Go Bang; it takes a lawyer's mind to pull that one off.

The DVD list includes:

Lucky Luke 2009, French. I loved this Western gunslinger comedy comic when I was young. Can't wait to see the big screen adaptation.

A Private Function 1984, a British comedy of manners about a roast pig dinner gone awry.
 
Thief 1981, in which expert bandit James Caan wants to settle down, but the mob prefer him out on the streets working for them.

Arsenic and Old Lace 1944, and if you don't know what this is you should be ashamed of yourself. Fun fact - this is based on a 1941 stage play in which Boris Karloff played the monstrous Brewster played in the film by Roger Massey. The film was being shot at the same time Karloff thrilled audiences on Broadway.

Watership Down 1978, animated. I remember watching this when I was a kid. I have young nieces. I see no reason why their childhood shouldn't be blighted too. ;)

Big Trouble in Little China 1986, and how could any sane soul resist this film? I won't ask if you know it - but when was the last time you saw it?

The Monster Club 1981, a horror triple bill with Vincent Price, Donald Pleasance and John Carradine.

Ray Harryhausen, the Special Effects Titan 2011, documentary about the man who made stop motion movie magic possible, from Jason and his Argonauts to tentacled horrors tearing apart the Golden Gate bridge.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 21 October 2018

A Very British Coup (Night's Black Agents)



This post is inspired by Tilar Mazzeo's history of Paris' Ritz, The Hotel on the Place Vendome, a story of the hotel between the Wars and during the Occupation. I enjoyed it but don't recommend it as a purchase, which is ironic since not only did I snag this as a freebie from the 'take me' shelf of my local charity, it's a version with the author's signature plate on the flyleaf. So someone else felt the same way.

I don't recommend it as a purchase because it sells itself as more than it is. Life, death, betrayal at the Hotel Ritz! The questions you are asking are more treacherous than you think. This book about the Hotel Ritz and the story of the occupation, you should not write it … Yet what's between the covers is a mannered and at times pleasant history of a famous hotel. Rich people doing rich things and pretending to be more interesting than they are, as though money can buy you a personality. There's little to quicken the pulse or excite the imagination. It's useful as a history, if you plan to set a session there, and worth borrowing from the library or buying second hand, but don't rush out to get it.

However there is one incident after the War that intrigues me enough to borrow for a Dracula Dossier story seed.

In 1936 Edward Windsor abdicated so he could marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. During the war the two royal Nazi sympathizers went to live in Bermuda (gee, thanks ever so, gosh what an honor). After the War they returned to Europe and settled in Paris for a time, because Edward had his sights on the throne again and wanted to be close enough to London to dash over whenever necessary.

His brother George IV was sickly, and his successor Elizabeth was barely 18, saddled with a Greek princeling husband that none of the British establishment cared for, not least because they suspected he might be a Greek bearing gifts, in the form of ne'er-do-well relatives. Under ordinary circumstances Edward didn't have a chance at the throne, but these were not ordinary circumstances. It was felt in certain circles that Edward had a shot, so long as he behaved himself.

Edward had a reputation for sexual adventures. His liaison with Wallis was only the last in a string of unfortunate dalliances. If Edward hoped to replace Elizabeth when her father died, on no account could he be linked with any kind of scandal, particularly sexual scandal.

In steps Wallis. The great love affair had cooled by this point. She didn't precisely hate him, but the marriage was more a convenience than anything else. In 1951 when Edward rushed to his dying brother's bedside, she embarked on a romance that sank Edward's chances altogether.

American socialite Jimmy Donahue, close friend of the Windsors, Woolworth heir and flamboyant homosexual, was the one who drove the wedge in. His friend Barbara Hutton, herself a Woolworth heir, frequent divorcee and, at the time, Princess Troubetzkoy, provided the safe haven at her grand suite at the Ritz. While Edward was in Paris Jimmy and Wallis were discreet, but once Edward left …

 That weekend, when the Duke was in London, things in the nightclubs on Montmarte escalated at last into some very public dirty dancing - and into a weeklong fling that took Wallis and Jimmy from one hot spot or another across the capital by night and found them in the afternoons cavorting in delicto at the Ritz, in the lavish suite lent to him for the purpose of some privacy by his millionaire cousin. "I knew it was physical," Barbara Hutton's personal secretary, Mona Eldridge, later admitted … And once the affair was out in the open anyhow, the Duchess made a display of it.

By the time the Duke returned to Paris on June 9, 1951, he stood no chance of usurping Elizabeth. When her father died on February 6, 1952, the princess became Queen Elizabeth II.

All that's the history, However if you're running a Dracula Dossier game then you have the option of giving history some fangs. Where did Edom stand in the succession debate? Did Dracula have any interest? What about personalities like the Legacies, particularly Lord Godalming - did the then heir have a dog in that fight? What exactly is Jimmy's role in this - what was it about Wallis that persuaded him to change preference?

Option 1: Edom Skullduggery. There are powerful interests in London that want to see Edward on the throne, but Edom sees this as an unmitigated disaster. Those same London interests are in bed with Dracula's Satanic Cult, and see Edward as their chance for the ultimate advancement. With his patronage, the Satanic Cult will put its catspaws into positions of utmost sensitivity and importance. Edom can't permit that, so it sends a team - possibly including an SBA - with one goal in mind: sink Edward's chances, but don't kill anyone or do anything that might reveal Edom's hand in this. Edom plays Cupid, using Dracula's own weapons of seduction to do it.

Option 2: Dracula's Spite.  Edom wants Edward on the throne. It knows Edward is biddable, and can be persuaded to double Edom's budget, advance its Dukes to high positions in the establishment, and generally make Edom a force to be reckoned with. Dracula, or possibly the remnants of his Conspiracy if the great bloodsucker is indisposed, does not like this idea one bit. Moreover George IV is going in and out of his sickbed like an indecisive corpse - will he or won't he finally die? As it turns out the Conspiracy has two agendas: first, keep George alive until his brother can be dealt with. Second, sink Edward - and the best way to do that is through Wallis.

Option 3: Outside Influences. Jimmy Donahue is the dark horse in this scenario. Erzabet Bathory is the catalyst. This could also work as a sequel to the Carmilla Sanction from Edom Files, assuming Carmilla got away. It would need to be quick work; as written the Carmilla Sanction takes place in 1948, and Wallis' big romance is in 1951. Bathory is fascinated by Jimmy, and Jimmy's money. A liaison with him could refresh her empty coffers, and he is a pretty little thing. Such a pity he's gay, but under Erzabet's influence anything is possible. Trouble is, Erzabet's tinkering sets Jimmy along an entirely different path, and things spiral out of control when a sexually liberated and vampire-influenced Woolworth heir goes on a mad Dionysian spree across Paris. A suspicious Edom sends some minders over, just in case this turns out to be one of Dracula's ploys. The remnants of Dracula's war-torn Conspiracy is also interested in what's going on, because they know vampire activity when they see it but they don't know who's behind it all. Cue a Pink Panther-esque romp across Paris, as everyone joins in the chase from nightspot to hotspot to bedroom, all trying to find out what's going on.  

Enjoy!

London Bound

A quick bit of housekeeping. For the past I'm not sure how long, I've been keeping to a schedule of once-a-week posts, published on Sunday. For the next two weeks, that's going to change.

I'm going to the UK, part business part pleasure. I'll be in London, Leeds and Guernsey for a bit, before returning to London again on the 5th, departing the 8th. I can't resist Blackheath fireworks!

That means I shan't be posting for the next two Sundays. After that, back to the regularly scheduled programming!

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Holywell Horror (Bookhounds of London)

Image taken from Wikipeida


I haven't had as much time to work on this as usual, as I've been assisting backstage at the local Gilbert & Sullivan's production of Annie. Set break was today and I'm exhausted. So here's a short scenario seed, set in the lustful, vice-ridden streets of old London town. 

Specifically Holywell Street.

Located on the edge of Fleet Street, Holywell was originally a nest of radicals, free-thinkers and pamphleteers. However after a crackdown in the early 1800s the free-thinkers decided to turn their talents to more profitable endeavors, and thus began Holywell's new life as the hub of London's porn industry. Hundreds crammed this narrow thoroughfare overtopped by gloomy timber-framed houses, eager for a chance to purview such classics as The Seducing Cardinal, The Lustful Turk, An Experimental Lecture by Captain Spanker, and 1880's limited print run extravaganza The Story of a Dildoe

'Three young American ladies resolve to purchase a dildoe for their mutual satisfaction …' and hijinks ensue. 

This couldn't go on. Under the guise of public improvements, in 1901 Holywell Street was demolished altogether. Aldwych took its place.

In Bookhounds, the group most likely to be interested in ephemera from Holywell's golden age is the Keirecheires, a Y'Golonac cult that had its start in 1894, when Holywell was still at its height. In the 1930s its London branch is centered around the University of London, in Bloomsbury. 

Which leads us to:

The Holywell Horror

Bloomsbury has its fads, but the current one really is peculiar. A persistent rumor has it that a rare, limited edition was purchased by one of Bloomsbury's most notorious talents. No less a luminary than Lytton Strachey (NB: died 1932) read passages from it aloud for the amusement of a literary party. Now all the truly fashionable people want a copy, but there are two problems. First, nobody can recall what the book's title is. Second, according to the story it was bought at a little place on Holywell Street - but that can't be right, surely?

Option One: The Fake-Out. The book doesn't exist. The rumor was put about by a young artist, Duncan Quoin, who wanted to make his boyfriend jealous. The boyfriend is a scandalous soul who's never out of trouble, and who loves rare books and Lytton Strachey in equal proportion. Unfortunately for Duncan, in order to create the rumor he used an Idiosyncratic ritual cribbed from a Keirecheires friend to start it, and now the more senior members are livid. Revealing secrets is very bad form - someone's going to pay for this.

Option Two: The Little Shop on the Nonexistent Corner.  Three members of the Keirecheires who have fond memories of the old days decided to recreate a little bit of Holywell using Megapolisomancy, on the theory that nothing in London is truly forgotten, least of all London's most notorious street. They did so using a gas lamp specially installed for the purpose and imbued with all the talent at their disposal, hiding their work by blackmail and bribery - tracing this at the Council level will be tricky but not impossible. The intent was the lamp would light the way for anyone who knew the right magical phrase. That isn't what happened. The lamp lets anyone in, whether they know the phrase or not, so long as they go at a certain time of night - eleven-fifteen precisely. Whatever's bought in this shadow-copy of Holywell Street never lasts long in the outside world, but it leaves a lasting impression. People are beginning to talk, which means more people are being let in on the secret. That can only lead to trouble.  

Option Three: Fatal Forgery. A forger, Richard Addison, has been creating Holywell specialties for his own amusement, and to pass off on so-called sophisticates. A Keirecheires sorcerer took offense, and put a curse on the cunning man: unless Addison creates a perfect copy of a particular limited edition, Stories of the Parisienne Night, in four months, the forger will become the feature course in a particularly lurid literary party. Addison is at his wit's end; he's never seen a copy of Stories, so how is he to forge it? His search is driving him down obscure and awful lines of inquiry, and Y'Golonac already has its fingers in his psyche. It's only a matter of time before something breaks - and if everyone's lucky Addison will be the only victim.

Enjoy!

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Black Crows (Night's Black Agents)



Black Crows, a terrorist-theme drama created by Dubai-based MBC Group, tells the story of civilians sucked into the orbit of ISIS and forced to participate in terrorist operations. Most of the commentary I've read so far says it focuses on women's stories, but I'm now seven episodes in and if by 'women's stories' you mean 'women get approximately a third of the screen time' then yes, these are women's stories. Mind you, the whole thing is 24 half-hour episodes long so there's time yet.

It's an oddly compelling narrative. The ISIS top brass are portrayed as scheming, cheating, ultimately irreligious hypocrites, from the religious leader who uses a mirror to spy on women bathing, to the children's brigade boss who abuses his authority to have sex with the boys under his care. Even the Emir in charge, probably the most faithful and sincere of the lot and determined to die for the cause, sooner rather than later, has skeletons in his closet. In that respect it's not unlike HBO's Rome, or Deadwood, where even the best have feet of clay. The difference being these are actively evil people with no redeeming characteristics, rather than ambitious would-be Caesars.

Typical of this is a Mufti moment spread over episodes 5 and 6. The Mufti goes to a factory owner making hallucinogenic drugs for sale to unbelievers. The factory boss offers the Mufti a bribe so the Mufti will issue a fatwa that allows him to sell his drugs to Muslims. The Mufti accepts the bribe and then makes a deal with the religious leader. The Mufti will report the bribe to the Emir. The Emir will insist the religious leader kill the factory owner. The religious leader will say he's worried about the dead man's wives, children, and the factory, which might under new ownership sell to Muslims anyway. The Mufti expects the religious leader to insist the Mufti take over the factory, but in the heat of the moment the religious leader takes the factory for himself, earning the Mufti's displeasure.

It's all dealt with in pretty much that way. "I am doing something wicked. Help me do this wicked thing." "I shall! Praise God!" [betrayal.] "Curse you!" It lacks Rome's subtlety, but it has an energy and conviction you don't often see.

By the way, don't think of the above as a spoiler. The plot races from point to point. Faces come and go, plot points come and go. When an episode is only 30 minutes long and you've a lot to do, things like subtlety and character development are sacrificed.

The new intake is a mix of idiots, the deluded and the desperate, from the wife who murdered her philandering husband and fled with the children, to the two high school dropouts who think being Call of Duty champions makes them ideal candidates for martyrdom. Some are sincere, like the surgeon who thinks he's doing what his dying father would have wanted. Sprinkled in the mix are double agents trying to spy on this ISIS cell.

One of the main recurring faces is Abu Omar, a religious teacher who has volunteered so he can find his daughter, who he believes has been inducted into this ISIS camp. He's the narrator who kicks off the action in the first episode, and he sometimes bookends episodes with wise commentary on what happened or is about to happen. He's clearly meant to be the conscience of the series, the one who preaches truth while everyone else lies. He's not your typical hero, being stout and well past the age when parkour is an option, but this is a battle for souls, and for that you need a genuine man of God.

The cast of thousands is a problem. I honestly couldn't tell you who half the cast are, because they never appear on screen for much more than 60 seconds at a time before yielding the spotlight to someone else. Only the most eccentric characters stick in the mind; everyone else blurs. Is that the former dancer? The prisoner? The officer? The this, that, other, tinker, tailor, soldier, martyr? I thought he was dead - no, that was someone who looked like him for 30 seconds two episodes ago. That severed head dropped dramatically on the floor - whose was it?

But then I'm not watching this the way it's supposed to be watched. I'm seeing one, maybe two episodes at a stretch, and I'm meant to be binging the entire series - twelve hours worth of content.

Saudi-owned MBC Group is the world's first private free-to-air Arabic language television network. It specializes in family-friendly material, which means its most extreme content is mid-range action movies and tv shows like Bones, Supernatural and Divergent. Black Crows is a significant departure from its usual lineup, and its anti-extremist polemic is partly the result of extended cooperation with the US State Department.

It's not subtle. When not delivering a very clear message about corrupt extremist groups, it's bathing in gore. But it has a very specific audience in mind: Arabs during Ramadan.

Ramadan is an annual month-long religious observance, one of the five pillars of Islam, in which the faithful are enjoined to refrain from eating, drinking, and sinful behavior of any kind from sunrise to sunset. It's a time for reflection, good deeds and charity - and watching television. Musalal like these are consumed by an eager viewing public who, after sunset, break fast and binge-watch the latest prime-time goodness. No doubt if I had waited the entire day thinking about the last episode I'd watched, or binged several episodes in one go, I'd have a much better idea who was who. It would also help my understanding of the rapid-fire plot.

Yet even though I'm not the audience and am finding it a struggle to watch, I respect Black Crows. It's an Arabic story told by Arabs - less about Islam, more about a civil war fostered by extreme distress. Abu Omar makes this very clear many times; ISIS does not represent Islam.

It has its flaws. The action takes place in an Iraqi ISIS stronghold, yet the story skips over why Iraq and Syria became ideal nurseries for this kind of militancy. Nor does it really explore why people are attracted to ISIS's message. It's difficult to deny the criticism that this is a polemic intended in part to please the US State Department and flatter Western, particularly Hollywood, watchers.

I mentioned Deadwood and Rome. The one thing Al Swearengen and Julius Caesar have in common is that they're both long dead. It's easier to be detached about them, to present a subtle dissection of their flaws and achievements. Perhaps that was always impossible for Black Crows, just as it would have been impossible to make Apocalypse Now, Platoon or The Deer Hunter in 1970. The actors in Black Crow are still getting death threats; one of the major expenses for the producers was security, to stop their shoot being blown up or their people assassinated.

I'd recommend this to anyone interested in current events, but Dracula Dossier and Night's Black Agents Directors may find it useful. Particularly if you think of this ISIS cell as a Node; this is how a Node functions, and falls apart.

Enjoy!

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Neuf a la Banque - Gambling (Night's Black Agents)


Gambling (General Ability): You are conversant with the rules and etiquette of  all forms of gambling … but can you have fun doing it?

Doctor No's opening scene is the first time James Bond appears on the big screen. He'd been the hero of several novels before the movie's debut in 1962, as well as a television series. This was Connery's first shot at the role, and he made it iconic.

Most Night's Black Agents players take Gambling for the cherry, Luck of the Devil. It's certainly useful - exchange any die roll, yours or your enemies, for one you like better. However it'd be a lot more fun if gambling were more central to the plot. Or even the focus of a Thrilling contest; after all, most of the plot of Casino Royale is about an extended gambling contest. Where Bond goes, let your agents follow.

But where does Bond go, exactly?

In the novels gambling has two main uses. Bond uses his talents to expose cheats, like Goldfinger and Sir Hugo Drax at the start of Moonraker. In each case Bond is brought in by a third party to expose the cheater. In Moonraker M brings Bond to his club, Blades, to confront Drax quietly and discreetly. M knows Sir Hugo is cheating and can't understand his motives, but appreciates that someone as important to Britain's nuclear missile program as Sir Hugo can't be exposed to scandal. In Goldfinger, while on a stopover in Miami Bond is asked by a passing acquaintance - someone Bond met during Casino Royale, but only briefly - to help expose Auric Goldfinger's cheating methods. Bond agrees, and only later discovers that Goldfinger is also a gold smuggler HM Government's got its eyes on.

In each case the scene has several elements:

First, it happens right at the beginning of the novel. This allows Bond to meet the antagonist of the novel early, form an opinion of him, get a good look at his methods and his tricks. Any character flaws or incipient megalomania is on display early on. Moreover there's no chance of bringing the whole thing to a premature conclusion with a bullet. A casino or member's club is basically neutral territory and even if Bond were so inclined violence is not an option.

It's also very cinematic. Serious gamblers bent over an immaculate table, either wagering or watching someone else wager. The theatre of the casino, of each bid, raise and re-raise. The exotic unfamiliarity of things like the shoe - that leathery bag used when the cards are dealt. Baccarat's simple enough that after seeing a hand or two you get the gist - two cards dealt, high card wins, face cards don't matter. Which is why her eight falls to Bond's nine even though both had face cards in their deal. So you don't have to spend five minutes before the scene explaining how baccarat works, even though it's more complex than I described - you can just deal cards. Blackjack has the same appeal; if you can count to 21, you know how to play blackjack. Poker's become so ubiquitous most people can follow along, though the intricacies of play are daunting for new players. Which is probably why four of a kind features so often in movie card games; much easier to show four aces winning than wonder whether a straight beats a flush. Anyone familiar with a card deck knows four of a kind is the best you can hope for, and will presume it's a good hand without being told.


Compare that with the Bond backgammon scene in Octopussy. I can tell you now, first, double sixes are next to no use in backgammon except under certain specific circumstances. Second, anyone so reliant on crooked dice as Kemal Khan would have been kicked out of the club years ago. There's just no way that would not have been spotted by the club's manager, and private members clubs are very, very sensitive about their reputation. Cheats get kicked out double quick, and the clubs that don't kick out cheats are the ones nobody in their right mind joins.

Finally, scenes like these allows the protagonist - the agent - a chance to seize the spotlight. Bond dominates that Doctor No scene, and it reveals a lot of his character in very economic bite-sized bits. No monologues, no dancing up and down in front of the camera - just cool, collected play. You don't even see his face for a full minute, in a two minute forty seven second clip.

So from a Director's perspective what all that says is, first, pick a game that everyone at the table at least knows something about. Blackjack, poker - anything the Director thinks the players are familiar enough with that someone at the table might get off some Thrilling dialogue. If the Director and at least one agent knows the difference between a running game and a blocking game, about covering blots and a lover's leap, then by all means use backgammon. Otherwise steer well clear of games you don't know.

Second, the major antagonist can show up, and that includes everyone from the head of a Tier Three Node to Dracula himself. After all, just as the agents can't leap across the table and stab Dracula in front of all these pesky witnesses and security, so too is Dracula prevented from causing a total party wipe. This is a good moment for everyone to strut their stuff and show how cool they are, not to wet the table felt with blood.

Third, if the Director intends for some important Conspiracy henchman to play a major role, like Oddjob or Khan's bodyguard Gobinda, then that henchman must also be in the scene alongside the major antagonist. The henchman ought to do at least one cool thing, or threaten the agents in some way, as Gobinda does when he crushes the crooked dice in his fist.

Double Tap introduces some new Gambling clues and new cherries, All In and Everybody's Got A Tell, but doesn't include Gambling in the list of potential Thrilling Contests. I think more can be done with this general ability, so here's my advice to you.

Step One: Establish Stakes. This is never about the chips on the table. It's about people. In Doctor No, the card sequence leads to a seduction scene. In Goldfinger, Moonraker the novel and Octopussy the film, the gambling sequence is all about cracking the opponent by exposing weakness - cheating, every time. In Octopussy the stakes are even higher, since by using the Fabergé egg - the MacGuffin everyone's chasing - as collateral, Bond leverages Khan into a position where he can be beaten.

So what's the stakes? In Doctor No, 1 point Flirting. In Goldfinger, Moonraker and Octopossy, 1 point Intimidation, Notice or similar. The agent is buying pool points in an Investigative ability with his victory at the tables, and spending it immediately in play. The player sets the wager, in other words, and that wager can be anything. Need a sportscar for that chase scene you just know is coming? Some Streetwise so you can broker a deal with those Triads? Flirting to impress that minor royalty so you can leverage a ticket to that exclusive ball? Get it through Gambling.

Ultimately what counts as a stake is up to the agent and Director on the day. However I recommend that stakes be calculated in terms of Investigative pool points. A stake is worth either 1 pool point in an Investigative ability, or the equivalent benefit in ordinary items. Ordinary is defined in context as something that is useful but not the equivalent of a Bane, Block or similar advantage against supernatural foes. Higher stakes are worth more points. Anything gained at the table must be spent during the scenario; it cannot be saved for future scenarios.

I can see an argument for allowing Cover or Network points to be won at the table. Pools of this type are strictly temporary - the equivalent of meeting a Sylvia Trench at Baccarat and leveraging that into a Network contact, or spreading the rumor that the agent is a high-stakes gambler from, say, China who just blew into town for the night. The Cover or Network contact gained in this way is strictly temporary, and will not last longer than the scenario unless actual experience points are used to build up that Cover or Network contact.

Step Two: Establish Difficulty. The higher the stakes, the higher the difficulty. Difficulty 5 gets a pool point. Difficulty 6 gets 2 pool points or extraordinary equipment, like a Bane or Block. More extravagant stakes mean higher difficulty numbers, but ultimately the limit is Director's discretion.

Point being, none of this is essential so you needn't worry about denying agents access to core clues. The agent is looking for extras, and ought to be prepared to pay for those extras.

The pool point, or whatever it is, ought to be spent as quickly as possible. No saving this up for future scenarios - cash in those chips now. This is to discourage players who might otherwise stack up on extra points by repeated trips to the table. Also, it's in keeping with the genre. Bond doesn't wait till the end of Doctor No to sleep with Sylvia Trench, nor does he leave Auric Goldfinger to fleece his unfortunate victim unmolested.

Step Three: Establish Consequences. In Bond's world there are always consequences. When he beats Goldfinger's card cheat, Goldfinger responds by painting Jill to death. Kemal Khan responds to losing at backgammon by threatening Bond. Bond's victory over Sir Hugo Drax means he stands out later when M assigns him to look into suspicious events at Sir Hugo's research facility. So what happens to the agent when the agent wins at the tables?

Either 1 point Heat gain or a Level One Antagonist Reaction, Director's choice as to which. Ideally Heat gain occurs when the agent is not pitted against a Conspiracy asset, and Antagonist Reaction occurs when the agent beats a Conspiracy target.

This happens whenever an agent wins one of these contests. What happens when the agent loses?

Ultimately that depends on the stakes involved. In contests where only 1 pool point was at stake, there should be no consequences - beyond the Gambling pool points spent, of course. Loss of pool points, and a certain amount of embarrassment, is enough.

However in situations where 2 pool points or some other form of extraordinary benefit was sought, consequences should be the same whether the agent wins or loses. That means 2 points Heat gain or a Level Two Antagonist Reaction, whichever the Director deems suitable.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!




Sunday, 23 September 2018

A Nation State Robbing Banks: 80 Million and a Spelling Error (Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired in part by Kento Bento's video about the biggest bank heist in modern history:


You may remember me mentioning this bank heist before, back in 2016 when not all the facts were in.

A couple quick points before I dive into Lazarus. Night's Black Agents Directors and agents wondering if Human Terrain is useful, wonder no more. Think about how cleverly this whole thing had to be coordinated: the thieves knew if they hit this particular bank on this particular day, and then transferred the stolen money to a bank in the Philippines, they'd be in the clear. Bangladesh, being Muslim majority, had its weekend on Friday and Saturday. The hack starts Friday. They come in on Sunday to sort out their problems, but they can't talk to their colleagues in New York because, on Sunday, their Christian colleagues are all off for the day. Monday works, but the bank in the Philippines, where the money is sent, is celebrating Chinese New Year, so it can't be contacted. That was fiendishly clever timing on someone's part.

Two, you may remember me mentioning a missing IT expert in the previous post. That expert, Tanveer Hassan Zoha, did turn up eventually. Detectives found him wandering near the airport and took him home, six days after he went missing. The IT expert claimed he could discover the identity of some of the culprits, and went with special police to the Bangladesh bank to have a look at the bank's records. Two days after that he was abducted from an auto rickshaw, and his family claimed the police were no help finding him. As far as I can determine his abductors were not caught. If he ever issued a public statement about his abduction, he didn't make it in an English language publication, as far as I know.

Bangladesh Airport connects to Hong Kong via Cathay Dragon, and Hong Kong is only a ferry ride away from Macau. That's where the alleged thieves went - it was a stopping point on their journey to North Korea, according to Kento Bento.

Which brings me to Lazarus Group, an entity that has been committing cybercrime since the early 2000s. Its earliest known attacks targeted South Korea, and it's alleged that the group has links to the North Korean government. This is difficult to prove, and might be a fake-out to throw blame on a believable straw man. That said, if anyone's going to think it's a good idea to back a group of crooks on a cybercrime spree, it's the dictator who may have poisoned his half-brother at an airport shopping concourse.

Lazarus has hit banks before, but banks aren't its only focus. It likes to hit South Korean targets, and allegedly was responsible for the Sony hack in 2014. The group demanded Sony withdraw its film The Interview, a comedy about an attempt on Kim Jong-un's life.


The Interview had so-so reviews and according to IMDB lost a ton of money - budget $44 million, worldwide gross something in the region of $12 million. Sony pulled the film from theatres in December 2014, allowing only a limited independent cinema release, and that after President Obama criticized Sony for giving in to terrorist threats.

Cybercrime experts Kaspersky Labs analyzed the Bangladesh hack, and give Kaspersky praise because it has nailed down the perfect hacking mini-scenario for Night's Black Agents Directors.

Initial Compromise. A single system inside the bank is breached with remotely accessible vulnerable code, perhaps through a webserver or a watering hole on a seemingly trustworthy website. The premise is simple: find a site you know the target visits, like a Chinese takeaway. The security on that site is bound to be less robust than the target's IT. Break it, infect it, wait for your target to visit - and the mouse takes the cheese. Snap!

Foothold Established. The group establishes persistent backdoors so they can come and go as they like.

Internal Reconnaissance.  The groups spends days, weeks, learning the network and identifying useful resources, like a backup server with vital information or an email server that can let the hackers into anything connected to that server. With the Bangladesh hack, Lazarus was particularly interested in SWIFT authentication, so it went after any server that might contain SWIFT authorization codes as well as IT admin systems.

Deliver and Steal. The great hack begins. Presumably followed by a scene Kaspersky does not mention, tentatively titled RUN AWAY!

This is the perfect breakdown for scenes in a game. What's more, they don't have to be about Digital Intrusion and nothing else. Human Terrain, Surveillance, Infiltration, Electronic Surveillance, potentially Flattery, Bureaucracy - all these will be useful, particularly in the early stages of the hack.

I see this as a potential Thrilling Digital Intrusion contest, starting with the initial compromise and moving through to final execution. The technothriller dialogue opportunities, particularly in the Initial Compromise or Internal Reconnaissance, are fascinating. It's a reminder that a Thrilling Contest doesn't have to be over in a few minutes. This one takes months - though at the table on the day the whole thing might take an hour's game time at most.

As for North Korea, well … it'd make a hell of a Node.

Enjoy!

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Mossad 101


A short while back I recommended a Spanish TV show, Money Heist, to all Night's Black Agents players and Directors. I have something else for you: Mossad 101, an Israeli sypcraft action drama that's been on Netflix since October 2016 and has had a second series release.

The plot features a disparate group of would-be spies who have volunteered for Mossad training, and are put though a grueling series of tests to see whether they have what it takes. Their supervisor, Yona Harari, is a former field agent whose last mission went very bloodily wrong, and in the process two and a half million Euro went missing. The trainees include the wife of the agent who died on that mission, and she suspects Yona knows a lot more than he's telling about that cock-up, and the missing money.

The idea's intriguing, but what really makes it work - and I don't think the producers realized this while they were making it - is a Satanic mix of reality television and spycraft. Because the trainees are being eliminated at a fairly rapid rate, the show has all the evil appeal of an Apprentice or Big Brother with the added draw of slick espionage techniques that border on stage magic. The number of times I was convinced that I had seen X, when it was actually Y with a dash of Z … Penn and Teller would be fooled.

It helps enormously that the actors are all enthusiastic and good at their jobs. There's a lot of people on stage in the first half-dozen episodes, and it would have killed the series stone dead if any of them had been boring. As it is, you'll have a favorite within the first ten minutes of episode one, and then have your heart broken when they get booted.

Which makes the second season an odd duck, because it ditches the reality television idea that made the first season so entertaining. The second season revolves around that same botched operation and the missing millions, but now there are more dead agents, training doesn't seem to be a priority any more, and there are three new characters, taken from one episode in the first season, who basically are the trainees except they're not Mossad, they're criminals. It's not a bad plot; it's very engaging, but it feels as if the writing team either lost its way or was told 'you have to write a traditional spy thriller. No, I don't care. Traditional. With terrorists, drugs, money laundering, the whole bit. Training spies? That's so last season.'

I reiterate: the second season isn't bad. It obviously had more money spent on it, for a start. From a player and Director's POV it's very Dusty, guns kill, and there are plenty of ideas to steal for your campaign or agent. Plus, it's really great to see something set in Kiev rather than the usual suspects, and again, Directors, if you want a city to use in your campaign, here you are. However ditching the central idea that made the first series so much fun to watch feels like a mistake.

It reminded me, oddly enough, of Fauda, another Israeli spy drama that I tried to watch but stopped after the first episode. Fauda's slick and engaging, but I didn't care about any of the characters and didn't know enough about them to want to learn more. That, and it felt like a sausage factory, with female characters getting less than 1% of screen time, and always in a support role. That just killed the show for me. I might go back to it - Fauda's well-executed - but if I do it will be in spite of its flaws, not because I'm intrigued.

Last time I did this I wrote up an achievement, and I'm going to do the same this time.

Yona and Abi. Using only Interpersonal skills like Flattery or similar, plant a surveillance device disguised as jewelry on a person. Just slipping it into their pocket without them seeing doesn't count; they have to see, but not suspect.

Enjoy!

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Quick and Dirty: Abu Dhabi (Night's Black Agents)



Image of 1909 Abu Dhabi castle taken from Berlin Museum collection. 



Abu Dhabi

While there is archaeological evidence of previous settlement, going back as far as the 3rd Millenium BC, the city formally began its existence in the 16th Century. A nomadic group settled there on the freshwater spring at Abu Dhabi island. The name literally means Father of the Gazelle, and probably refers to the Dhabi gazelle that once was plentiful in the area. Depending on where you are, you either pronounce Abu as Bu (on the western coast of the city) or Abu (eastern section). 

The Al Nahyan, a branch of House Al-Falahi, were the first to settle at the spring and have since become the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. Current male members of Al Nahyan number about 200, and as has been the custom for many years the identities of female members are not known. Their family has contributed government ministers and high officials to the UAE; Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan is the current head, chair of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Supreme Commander of the Union Defence Force, Emir of Abu Dhabi, and President of the UAE. Current estimates suggest the family is worth in excess of $150 billion.

For many years the city was best known for its pearl fishing, but in the 19th Century Britain increased its influence over the region, strengthening its hold once oil was discovered. This led to a partnership with BP which resulted in the discovery and development of the region's major oil fields. Even to this day relations between the UAE and Britain remain strong, though Britain formally withdrew from the region in 1968, a few years ahead of the founding of the UAE in 1971. Some Brexiteers lean heavily on this friendship as a prop for the Brexit argument, saying that withdrawal can lead to even closer ties with the UAE. 

This cuts both ways. For many decades wealthy UAE buyers have been snapping up British assets and property in London, and race their high-performance supercars through Mayfair, once Ramadan's over and done. This historically has led to some friction, but by and large the British are content to overlook the problem so long as money keeps rolling in.

Population

1.8 million, just a little less than Houston, Texas.

The whole of the UAE is slightly smaller than Maine, with 6 million population. Dubai, the most populous city in the UAE, is home to over 3 million, which means that the citizens of these two cities make up more than 80% of the total population of the UAE.

When Abu Dhabi was originally planned out in the 1960s, it was only intended to house 40,000 people.

Immigrants make up more than 80% of the total population. South Asians are the largest immigrant group, including Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani workers. Arabic is the official language, but there's a significant number of English speakers as well as Hindi and Urdu.

Islam is the official religion. There's a very small scattering of Christians and other religious groups, including Hindu and Bhuddist.

Life expectancy is somewhere around 77 for males and over 80 for females.

Conflict

The UAE cushioned itself against the 2010 outbreak of the Arab Spring by doing what it does best: throwing money at the problem. At the same time it began a vocal campaign for political reform in other Arab countries, though the UAE itself remains largely as it was before the Spring, from a political perspective. The UAE was also one of the first to join the coalition against ISIS. Intelligence sharing between the UAE and Western governments, particularly the US, has traditionally been strong.

It's not always smooth sailing. In 1999 the CIA was tipped that Osama Bin Laden was attending a falcon hunt in Pakistan, and among the honored gathering was Sheikh Kalifa bin Zayed al Nahayan himself, along with Sheikh Maktoum, leader of Dubai. The CIA debated whether assassinating Bin Laden, perhaps by missile strike, was worth the risk; it was doable, but when potential collateral damage includes a political ally and the heads of two of the royal families of the UAE, it takes considerable political will to pull the trigger. In the end, it was beyond the CIA.

Which is Abu Dhabi and the UAE in a nutshell. Allies, yes, but with a hard desert-dwelling Bedouin core and a love of the past combined with strong religious sentiment. Tradition comes first, and it's not unknown for UAE capitalists to stave off feelings of religious-inspired guilt by backing hard-core Islamic fundamentalist groups. In much the same spirit, Irish American groups once sent cash to the IRA; it meant they were involved in the struggle, even though they never saw the explosive results.

Explosive results of any sort are something the average citizen only sees on television. Abu Dhabi is by far the safest city on the planet. Assault, robbery and muggings are almost unknown. Cyber crime is increasing, with two out of five citizens falling victim - or about 800,000 of Abu Dhabi's 1.8 million. Terrorist attacks in Abu Dhabi are almost unheard of, though there are exceptions. In 2014, a Romanian-American teacher of English, Ibolya Ryan, was stabbed to death by an attacker who later went on to try to plant a bomb at a doctor's house. The attacker was arrested and executed.

Capital punishment (by firing squad) has been meted out to citizens and foreign nationals. It is rare for women to suffer the ultimate penalty, but it has happened; the terrorist who killed Ibolya Ryan, Alaa Bader al-Hashemi, was one such. Death is the penalty for the following crimes: treason, espionage, murder, successfully inciting the suicide of a person afflicted with total lack of free will or reason, arson resulting in death, indecent assault resulting in death, importing nuclear substances/waste, adultery, apostacy, blasphemy, perjury which results in wrongful execution, rape, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, terrorism, sodomy, homosexuality, drug trafficking, and joining the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Death penalty cases are often but not always commuted to life sentences.

The UAE is a founder member of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, contributing both troops and cash to the cause.

Terror attacks tend to be rare and extremely limited in scope. Abu Dhabi doesn't see anything like the constant bombings that rocked Kabul, and this is in part because it enjoys the protection of an extremely well-provided police force. Agents take note: these cops drive sportscars, so don't count on your wheel artist to save you when it all goes south. Abu Dhabi is rapidly deploying project Oyoon, blanketing the city with facial recognition cameras; the project should be complete within the next two years. Areas frequented by tourists will get top priority. In game terminology, any Heat-gaining activity increases Heat by 1 extra point, or 2 if the activity is overtly violent. Once Oyoon deploys, Heat gain may increase still further at the Director's discretion.

Backdrops

Image taken from abudhabi.com

Ferrari World. Opened to the public in 2010, this is the world's only indoor race car theme park. Among its many attractions is the world's fastest roller coaster, the Formula Rossa, one of five coasters at the park. As you might expect from a Ferrari-branded resort, the park is a petrolhead's idea of heaven, and naturally includes the opportunity to drive a Ferrari.

Image taken from abudhabi.com

Sheikh Zayed Mosque. This is the third largest mosque in the world and the largest in the UAE, capable of holding up to 40,000 worshippers. It was finally completed in 2007, three years after the Sheikh's death, and is his final resting place. Its library and collection of artefacts is extensive and includes items of considerable antiquity. As the country's holiest site the UAE is sensitive about the mosque's image; both Selena Gomez and Rihanna have been criticized for taking pictures with the mosque in the background, because their poses (in Gomez's case, an ankle was showing) were considered provocative.

Image taken from abudhabi.com


Emirates Palace. This hotel, completed in 2005, includes 22 residential suites, 92 suites, and 394 residences. It is the third most expensive hotel ever built, and second to none in terms of luxury. "Think about coffee," hotel GM Willy Optekamp told the New York Times. "We serve coffee on a silver tray with rose petals, crystallized sugar, a linen napkin, marzipan croissants, a bottle of imported water and the coffee. The ladies get a rose."  Costs range from $625 a night to $13,000. There are six ruler's suites on the top floor, to be used only by royalty travelling from other Persian Gulf countries. A special Arc de Triumph-style entrance is reserved for their motorcades. 

Three Hooks

A Conspiracy asset with a very interesting laptop is staying at the Emirates for a few days, to help facilitate a deal with minor royalty. The contents of that laptop could be absolutely invaluable - if the agents can somehow smuggle themselves into the hotel, get to the highly secure $13,000-a-night suite, and grab the laptop's contents without anybody realizing what's going on.

An IMCTC exercise 'accidentally' uncovered a Hellenistic-era archaeological site in the desert, not far from Abu Dhabi. Just how does a counter-terrorist organization manage to stumble across an archaeological site? Why have the artifacts been taken to a secure location in Abu Dhabi, to be kept under lock and key? 

One English expat, who may have been out in the sun too long, swears blind he once saw a facility in the desert devoted to growing Indian workers - or what he thinks were intended to look like Indian workers - from seeds, later to be shipped into Abu Dhabi in colorful decorated trucks. He's probably mental, but if anyone might be interested in growing people wholesale, it's the Conspiracy …

Thrilling Elements
  • Fast cars. Fast cars. Fast cars. The most expensive, tricked-out, high-tech vehicles congregate in Abu Dhabi like desert wanderers at an oasis.
  • A tourist is scolded by a citizen for indecent behavior, and clearly doesn't understand what's going on - the language barrier is a factor.
  • Heat and humidity smash you flat. Nothing can prepare a first-time visitor, and nothing can save them except air conditioning. 
  • An unexpected rain or windstorm blows through, temporarily clearing the streets and bringing some much-needed cool air.
  • Few cities are as pedestrian-unfriendly as Abu Dhabi. This is a city built to worship the car, and those foolish enough to try to walk through it take their lives in their hands.
  • Though public drunkenness is frowned on, Abu Dhabi boasts some of the swankiest liquor palaces in the UAE, catering to every conceivable taste.  
  • Try not to scream when the waiter hands you the bill. As you might expect, the cost of living in Abu Dhabi is extremely high; expect to pay considerably more for pretty much anything and everything.
  • A trip to the beach is a treat - a very expensive treat. The private beach clubs can set you back something in the region of Dhs150 to 450 a visit. 
Enjoy!