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.  


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Image taken from

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

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

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. 

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Forgotten London:The Strand, St Clement's Danes Church

Image taken from British Museum Collection

The inspiration for this post comes from Steve Roud's London Lore.

The spot where St Clement Danes Church in the Strand now stands has had a church on it since the tenth century, but the current church is a Wren rebuilt after bombing damage during the Second World War. It's allegedly the church from the children's rhyme: oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements. But why is it called Danes Church?

Allegedly this is because a Danish King is buried there. According to chronicles, Harold son of Cnut the Great reigned officially for three years; he spent more time as regent, but was opposed in his bid to wear the crown by his two brothers. When he died he was buried at Westminster, but his half brother Hardicanutus, angry because his mother had been usurped by Harold's, dug up the corpse and flung it in the Thames. 'where it was by a fisherman taken up and buried in this churchyard.'

Harold was only in his early 20s when he died. According to legend his death was divine retribution for taking the town of Sandwich from the monks of Christchurch. Though there are other Kings of the period who died as young or younger, usually it was on the point of a murderer's poniard. In Harold's case it was a mysterious illness that laid him low at Oxford.

Harold was one of the first royals to be buried at Westminster, and at the time nobody really understood why. It's thought a royal residence was nearby, but the Abbey may have had particular significance for the Danes, which might explain why Hardicanutus was so keen to get him out.

From 1862 until the later 1920s there was a school nearby, St Clement Danes School, built on land purchased by the churchwardens. It moved twice, eventually ending up in Hertfordshire.

From 1919 onwards there has been a yearly event, initiated by Reverend William Pennington-Bickford, at which oranges and lemons are handed out to boys and girls of the parish.

Sir Christopher Wren's 15th century design was extensively remodeled by the Luftwaffe on May 10th, 1941. Bombs gutted the interior, burnt its organ, and flung the famous bells to the ground. In the 1950s after a fundraising drive from the RAF the church was rebuilt, and since then it has become the RAF's most honored Central Church.

With all that in mind, what could be done with this setting either in Bookhounds or Dracula Dossier?

The temptation with Bookhounds is to either go Arabesque or Sordid. Technicolor could work, but those two directions seem more fruitful.

In Arabesque St Clement Danes becomes the Eternal Flame. The Blitz wasn't the first time the church surrendered to overwhelming blaze. One alternate link to the Danes has it that a party of Danes burnt the church that stood on the site before they were killed, and that's why it is known as the Danes church. No matter whether it's day or night, there is always a burning flame at St Clement Danes - it might be a candle, a bonfire, or an unexplained glow from the stained glass windows. On one special night each year the Rector closes the doors for a sermon to be read to the flames themselves, to keep the church from burning in the coming year. It's said the repentant Danes gather to worship there, one night only. Those who somehow manage to overhear what's said at that sermon gain 1 point The Knowledge or 1 point Magic, in exchange for 2 points Stability. Stability lost in this way cannot be refreshed for one month; it takes time for those memories to fade.

In Sordid the old rhyme Oranges and Lemons plays a part. The children of the parish are encouraged the play the game, in which the final lines are here is a candle to light you to bed, and here is a chopper to chop off your head. Folklorists don't know exactly what the rhyme means; it has an old an murky history, and different versions have circulated since at least the 1700s. The churchwardens have a particular reason for wanting this game played. It allows them to randomly select a child to sacrifice, to ensure the protection of the church. This doesn't happen every year; it only happens when the previous sacrifice fails, at which point the child selected by random ballot - effectively - is killed in a staged accident. The parish always buries that child free of charge, and the body is swiftly taken into a hidden vault where it is interred in a special coffin with a glass lid. So long as the sacrifice holds, the body remains intact - preserved. The minute it starts to rot the protection fails, so the churchwardens have to go looking for another sacrifice. This practice ends after the 1941 bombing, which destroys both the church and the last few churchwardens who know the ritual. A protagonist who assists in this year's sacrifice will be taught many odd tricks of Megapolisomancy, adding 1 point Magic to their pool.

St Clement Danes isn't mentioned in the Dossier and to my knowledge there is no immediate vampire connection - though with these old churches, who knows? However that 1941 bombing looks fruitful, particularly when you consider Edom can never have been entirely sure Dracula's influence was driven from London in the 1890s. There's that Satanic Cult after all, never mind any vampiric by-blows that might have been lurking in the shadows. Along comes the Blitz and everybody's plans are upset, including the Cult's, and many a vampire haven must have gone up in smoke.

I'm particularly lured by an old war film. The Small Back Room, which tells the story of a disaffected scientist, one of the back room boffins, who thinks wartime research is being completely misapplied.

This sounds like a job for Tinman.

Plot core: It's 1941. Edom has become aware of a small pocket of Dracula-inspired resistance in London. Possible suspects include the Servants, Satanic Cult, a Feral, Lucy, or similar. At about the same time German bombers start dropping particularly unpleasant booby-trap bombs during the Blitz, and while these bombs kill people they're also clearly intended to kill vampires. Edom's task is to find a way to deal with these booby-trapped bombs while at the same time trace the lingering elements of Dracula's initial Conspyramid to its lair. Investigative scenes include other booby-trap sites, a bombed-out London where black marketeers trade in questionable, Satanic curios, a former hideout of the Cult now bombed to rubble, all leading up to the climactic moment at the heart of the May raid, where the last remnants of Dracula's by-blow are traced to St Clement Danes. They hide in that church because they've been able to deconsecrate it, using child sacrifice - here is a chopper to chop off your head - as the catalyst. Surely, the Dracula remnant reasons, nobody will think to look for me in a church? At which point the whole church is bombed to blazes, and the characters have to deal with escaping vampires or similar while at the same time defusing the booby-trapped bombs before they take out innocent civilians.

As for the question of why should the Germans want to kill vampires, at least two possibilities arise: the Germans don't want the British to get an edge on their own vampire program, and second, Dracula's using his influence in Germany to wipe out some disloyal former allies. Or something else entirely, of course …


Sunday, 26 August 2018

Who Are We Fighting? (Bookhounds of London)

When I wrote last week about the start of a new Ars Magica game, I was reminded that once upon a time I designed a store for Bookhounds of London using Ars Magica as an example. Thus began du Bourg's, a genteel and gently decaying establishment devoted to the sale of incunabula of all kinds.

This time I'd like to talk a little more about adversary design, using du Bourg's as an example.

Du Bourgs, like the covenant in Ars Magica, is a settled, established location. It has a history, institutional memory, roots in the community. Unlike a traveling band of murder hobos, a bookstore can't solve all its problems by sneaking away in the dead of night to begin a new life somewhere else. It has to deal with its enemies as they arise, and will probably have to deal with them more than once.

The big difference between antagonists like these and the band of orcs a bunch of murder hobos meet once, stab to death, and never think about again, is that these are recurring threats. Over the course of a campaign the investigators must expect to deal with these threats, but not necessarily defeat them.

It's useful to divide these antagonists into groups, as follows:

Minor Recurring (Normal)

Major Recurring (Normal)

Minor Recurring (Thematic)

Major Recurring (Thematic)

In any game the Minor players are going to outnumber the Major ones by a factor of at least two or three to one.

Notice I've divided the groups into Normal and Thematic. Every setting is going to differ slightly in its definition of Normal; Swords-and-Sorcery Normal is not the same thing as Victorian Paris Normal. However in broad terms all Normals are alike, just as happy families are all alike.

Consider: every setting, whether it's science fiction, horror, historic, or wildly ahistoric, has a few elements in common. There is some form of Authority - it might be legitimate or illegitimate, but it's there. There will be agents of the Authority who are sent out to enforce its will, collect taxes, and do all the other things that make society function smoothly. There is some form of Anti Authority, whether actively criminal, like the Mafia, or closer to the freedom fighter model. Or, like the Triads, the Anti Authority can be both criminal and freedom fighter at the same time. The Anti Authority will also have its agents, sent out to enforce its will.

The exact nature of these groups depend on the setting. In a post-apocalypse setting where the planet is just recovering from some major catastrophe, like a zombie outbreak, Anti-Authority probably outnumbers Authority. In a feudal setting there will be very fierce competition to set one faction or another up as the Authority. Equally there will be different kinds of Authority within the setting - a religious Authority, say, and a non-religious one.

In every setting there is weather, there are other intelligent creatures, there is disease, there is decay. There is the urbis, there is wilderness. You can probably think of a few yourself without too much effort. The point being all these things can be Minor or Major Recurring antagonists.

The Dragonriders of Pern series posits that a major recurring antagonist is Thread, a microfilament spore that rains down from the sky, effectively making the weather a major recurring antagonist. Alan Hyder's Vampires Overhead destroys the planet with giant vampire bats from space that devour us all, leaving only a few humans alive - and those humans become the recurring antagonists, predating Walking Dead by more than a century. Wyndham's Kraken Wakes turns the oceans of the world into recurring antagonists, and so on.

You can make anything you like a recurring Normal antagonist. They don't all have to be at daggers drawn with the players - they just have to come back again and again, and oppose the players' schemes.

The other type of recurring antagonist is Thematic. This differs from the Normal in that a Thematic antagonist reflects the Theme of the campaign. In Night's Black Agents the Thematic antagonists are the vampires, ghosts, Renfields and other damnable creatures of the night. In Call of Cthulhu the Thematic antagonists are cults, ghouls, Deep Ones and other elements of the Mythos. It's not simply that in a horror game you have horror things - it's that the antagonist fits the core activity of the setting. The Nodes and Mooks that work so well in Nights Black Agents are completely out of place in Cthulhu, just as Cthulhu is out of place in a slasher flick.

So let's go back to du Bourg's, and think about those antagonists.

Normal, Minor:
  • That One Weird Customer. Maybe it's the smell, his lack of respect for personal boundaries, or his obsession with a particular genre or author, but it drives the characters nuts. He just won't go away; perhaps he's protected by Mister Bourg, or perhaps he's rather more familiar with the locks and bolts on the doors than he ought to be.
  • The Water Pipes. They knock, they leak, they freeze, they burst. Nothing anyone can say to Mister Bourg gets the place re-plumbed; it's a maze of old pipes and patch repairs everywhere you look. Is your section flooded again? Better call the plumber.
  • The Rival Book Scout. How does he always get to the latest sale or trove of rare books before you do? Is the man psychic? Whether he is or isn't, he's the reason du Bourg's hasn't had a Windfall by now.
Normal, Major:
  • The Rival Store. It's not quite as old as du Bourg's, and hasn't got its storied history. What it does have is staff that know what they're doing, premises that aren't crumbling to bits, and prices that are better than du Bourg's. Some of our oldest customers are being tempted away - and that has got to stop.
Notice what's happening here. None of these antagonists need a gun to threaten the characters. What they do is complicate the players' lives in ways they can't easily anticipate or thwart. That, and they all play into the greater theme of the campaign. I could have had a local criminal group as an antagonist, but the whole point of Bookhounds is sale and retail. It makes more sense if the antagonists reflect that.

On to Thematic, Minor:
  • Maher-shalal-hash-baz, the cat. This is a minor Mythos entity that takes the form of a cat. Exactly how that happens is up to the Keeper, but for the purpose of this example I'm going to assume the redoubtable hunter was taken over by Brood of Elihort, and occasionally drops a few spidery white creatures in darker corners of the building. The Brood are building something, and this time it's not a man-homunculus; it's some kind of device, or living machine. What purpose does it serve - and why is it here?
  • Dust Things have infested the sole remaining copy of D'Erlette's Ghoules and they want someone to find this long-lost book. They keep trying to possess customers and older staff members in an attempt to get them to reveal the location of the book, but it never works. Their possessed victims blurt out some occult gibberish and collapse, expelling the Dust Things.
  • Diana Wisbee, a member of the Fraternity of the Inner Light who keeps trying to persuade the bookshop to let her hold seances and talks on occultism. If the players let her, something goes wrong - perhaps she annoys the Brood, or summons up actual ghosts, or just gets horribly drunk and starts talking nonsense. If the players don't let her, she keeps coming back again and again, trying to get them to change their mind.  
Thematic, Major:
  • M. Etienne du Bourg, founder and alchemical experimenter, really does wander down in the basement. This mummified lich still has some interest in the business - that's why he insists on the yearly meeting - but books aren't his primary concern any more. He doesn't mean anyone any harm, but his experiments need supplies and might have unforeseeable consequences. Do the investigators help or hinder his research? What will he do in response? 
Notice I'm not adding stat blocks to any of these, or assigning them abilities. Whether Normal or Thematic, these aren't killers nor are they necessarily in direct opposition to the players. Leaky pipes aren't going to leap out in the dead of night, knife in hand, to stab someone to death. 

No, what they will do is spill water all over that squizz someone's been working on. Or make a particular room uninhabitable. Or make that wooden floor just slippery enough that someone falls. Or … 

See, the things that people remember about their day-to-day lives aren't the number of times they kissed their spouse goodbye in the morning, or smiled at a stranger. No. They remember when the car wouldn't start, or they missed the bus, or a co-worker stabbed them in the back. It's the way we're wired; we remember slights more than we do favors.

The job of an antagonist is to keep rubbing away at that old injury. The One Weird Customer turns up at the least opportune moment. The pipes don't burst on a nice sunny day when there's plenty of time to deal with the problem and a dozen plumbers practically on the doorstep asking for work. No, they burst when the shop's busy as hell, in the depths of winter, when you can't get a plumber for love nor money. Rubbing away, rubbing away - until the moment something breaks.

After all, the whole point of an antagonist is to break things. It's the players' job to fix them.


Sunday, 19 August 2018

Welcome to the Covenant (Ars Magica)

Some friends of mine have been agitating for a new ongoing game, and I offered several options. Only one was fantasy, and that was the one they jumped for. Ars Magica 3rd ed shall be my new RPG home for the next however many number of Seasons.

I loved this game when I was in uni. I know the game's had other editions since, but it's the edition closest to my heart. It's beautifully designed, the artwork's evocative - I mean, just look at that cover for a start - the rules are fairly straightforward, but most importantly there's a flavor of gaming here to suit every palate.

The biggest drawback is that it wants a lot of record keeping - fairly mathsy record keeping at that. If you're not prepared to keep clear notes, heaven help you. In D&D you can often fudge it, but in this if you don't keep track of what you're up to each season, you are asking for trouble.

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure: this is troupe-style roleplay set at the tail end of the High Medieval period. The third Crusade has come and gone, and gunpowder hasn't yet burnt down the feudal world. The great plagues and famines have yet to devastate the continent, but it's only a matter of decades rather than centuries before the Black Death claims the lives of millions. Speaking of:

Did I mention how much I love this setting? 

The game presumes magic exists, and achieved its greatest heights during the classical and Roman period, when the Cult of Mercury spread the rituals and, more importantly, scrolls and proto-grimoires, of the wisest Magi far and wide. Your main characters are heirs to that magical tradition, who have become part of the Order of Hermes to further the study of magic.

However this isn't a story about wizards. It's a story about people who band together, forming a covenant or magical community. Everyone in that community is a potential character, from the lowliest Grog to the more powerful Companions to the Wizards in their ivory towers. The idea being that you, as a group, chart the course of that community from its birth in Spring to its eventual Winter, and possibly beyond. This will take years. It may take centuries, and over that period you can expect characters to come and go. The covenant, if all goes well, survives. 

A covenant begins in Spring, bursting with hope and enthusiasm but lacking resources. Not unlike the first time you leave home and go to university, or get your first job, or whatever might happen. Some covenants sputter and die at this point, but those that survive pass on to a glorious Summer, when their power is at its height. Then comes Autumn, when ambitions mellow and things settle into a quiet routine. After that comes Winter, when the rot sets in and power fractures. 

The writers captured this chronology in the Four Seasons books in which a covenant's cycles are charted over the course of four campaign arcs. Not coincidentally named after Shakespearian plays, it starts with Midsummer Night's Dream, in which a starting covenant struggles against the odds. The Tempest cements their rise with a challenge that seems linked to the very origins of the Order. A Winter's Tale plots the fall from Autumn to Winter, while Twelfth Night offers the possibility of redemption through glorious death. 

This Saturday is the first session, when the players design their covenant and create their first characters. They're all experienced gamers but none of them know the system. So what happens next?

Well ...

Here's a few tips for those starting their first game, whatever the system.

1) KEEP CALM. You know this system. Maybe the others have played this before, maybe not. Whatever else happens, you know for a certainty they've never played *your* game. Take a breath, don't lose your cool, be prepared to explain everything at least six times … and keep calm.

2) BRING EVERYTHING. Maybe it's different for you folks, but my guys prefer analog. They don't want it in .pdf; they want the actual thing. If there are six people at your table, yes, they will all want character sheets - but they'll also want a character generation cheat sheet, a spell list, or just something to read while they wait for the slower folks to get their heads straight. The great thing about .pdfs is you can print the bits you need and ignore the rest. Have extra character sheets, extra Virtues and Flaws sections, and some background material people can read.

3) SMILE, FOR PITY'S SAKE. Everyone knows this is meant to be fun, but this is as much about your performance as it is about the game. If you look worried, they get worried. Being a good keeper/DM/whatever is as much about reading the room as it is knowing the rules. Smile. Crack jokes. Be at ease. It'll kill their nerves and keep the session rolling.

4) BE GENTLE. It's their first time, after all. Remember what I said about repeating things six times? Make that twelve. Or however many times it takes for the message to get across.

5) START SIMPLE, GET COMPLEX. I started character generation with Grogs. They're the cannon fodder, the red shirts, the expendables. Yet they use exactly the same character generation system as everyone else, which means they're perfect for getting the players' feet wet. Once they'd done a few Grogs  they could move on to something more complicated. If this was D&D, I'd start at first level. Sure, it's tempting to give everyone levels and magic items so they can wallop dragons, but if this is everyone's very first game, never ever start above first level. To you it's all so simple, but to them it's incredibly intimidating. There's all these new terms, strange dice, a long list of abilities and characteristics to keep track of - and that's before they go anywhere near the dungeon or swing a sword in anger. On that note: no dragons. Goblins, yes. Giant rats, yes. Maybe a wolf if you're feeling daring. Anything capable of causing a full party wipe in one attack round should be nowhere near this adventure. Dragons come later. Complexity comes later.

Right now they've created Grogs and are halfway through Wizards. Next time it's covenant design, and the first small scenario.

So far we have:

Taleh Ex Miscellanea, clever but not spontaneous, a witch of the old school.

Brun de Avilla, a mountain of a man whose scars from past torture prevent him speaking.

An unnamed wizard of Verditius, a cunning vintner and inventive genius.

An unnamed archer (jeez, mate, really?) whose excellent armaments hint at an unsavory past.

Diego, a farmer and animal husbandman, whose drinking lets him down time and again.

An unnamed bear Bjornaer, whose master still pursues him after all this time.

Another cunning archer, Ella, a mercenary who had one brush too many with bad luck.

An unnamed Merinita magus, extremely intelligent and charismatic, a master of arts.

Everyone's having fun. That's the most important thing, after all.


Sunday, 12 August 2018

Playing With Real Toys: The Raketa Graveyard (Night's Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Timewatch)

Once upon a time in the former Soviet Union, someone junked the future.

All images for this post taken from Urbanghosts.

The Raketa series of hydrofoil riverboats were based on 1940s era designs, and you can see modernist and deco influences in these sleek rivercraft. Capable of 70km/hr cruising speed and built to carry 60-70 passengers, they were meant to be the river transport of the future. Built from the 1950s through to the 1970s and made available for export, they plied the Volga for many years. A few were sent to China, Cambodia, and Europe, but the vast majority stayed within the USSR. There are some survivors, but not many, and those that are still commercially viable have often been modified with new engines or had their hydrofoils removed.

The ship graveyard in the photograph is part of the closed city of Zayozorsk, Murmansk Oblast. Originally intended as a base for a nuclear submarine fleet, this administrative district, also known as Zayozyorny and Severomorsk-7, can only be accessed by those with the appropriate clearance, much like the satellite launch site Vostochny, discussed previously. Unlike Vostochny, there's little reason to think Zayozorsk has much of a future. A little under 12,000 people live there now, according to the most recent census. Like similar urbanizations of its type the closed city is nominally self-governing and exists as an urban core with an outer layer of more or less rural territory. This decayed shell with its rotting shipyards and disused railway lines is where somebody decided to dump the remains of the Raketa fleet. 

As a game location it has many advantages. It's a closed city, which means the characters will have to sneak in somehow with forged papers (or real ones obtained through devious means), or trespass. Anything could be going on there, from secret scientific experiments to Area-51 style storage for those things the Russian government would prefer to forget about. The people who still live there may know all kinds of things about what happened in Zayozorsk back in the day - or they might not be people at all. Innsmouth on the Volga? The last colony of an alien race? Vampires? 

Thrilling elements:

  • A group of dispirited soldiers nominally on patrol wander by. They may not notice much, but tangling with them only alerts the central authorities. 
  • Bored locals kick a football around next to one of the abandoned Raketa.
  • A sudden clatter comes from an abandoned building next to the ship graveyard. Did part of the roof cave in, or is someone watching?
  • Shadows cluster around an abandoned Raketa, and the last glimmer of daylight gleams off its remaining windows.
  • A murder of crows perched on a Raketa glare at human trespassers, and will not willingly move. They stare haughtily at any interloper.
  • A small group of homeless see the agents and make a run for it. What did they leave behind in their camp?
  • For one brief moment it almost seems as though that Raketa is brand new, untouched by time, as though it just launched. Passengers can be seen smiling and chattering among themselves, and the captain sits proudly at the bow. Then the image is gone, but its afterglow lingers in your mind.
  • Judging by the markings on that abandoned ship someone's been using this one as a place to store goods. Who was that someone affiliated with - Edom, the Russian mob, someone else? Is there anything left in the cache?  
Then the Scenario Seed:

Keyhole satellite data, elint and humint all suggest that something peculiar's happening at Zayozorsk, and it's centered on the ship graveyard. Russia's government pretends ignorance, but leaks from the Ministry of Internal Affairs suggest it's very keen to track down anyone related to engineer-shipbuilder and father of the ground effect vehicle Rostislav Alexeyev. Those who look into the matter further discover that most of his living relatives mysteriously vanished over the last two years, but two distant relations living in the West survive. 

Those who look closer at Zayozorsk discover that all transport to and from the closed city has been halted, and the embargo is being enforced by armed troops. 

Someone - a Network contact, perhaps - who claims to be in contact with someone inside Zayozorsk reaches out to the characters. This contact says his friend in Zayozorsk is asking for supplies, most of them medical but some scientific. Analysis shows the equipment could be used for all kinds of things, but is most likely intended to help restructure or rebuild a hydrofoil. What possible purpose could that serve?

Timewatch: the Zayozorsk contact is trying to rebuild, not just a hydrofoil, but the forward-facing Soviet Union of her youth. This time traveler is sick and tired of modern Russia, and seeks to remodel her vision of the Soviet Union on modernist principles exemplified by the Raketa. She feels this era, when Soviet technological advances were at their height and the world trembled at the feet of the USSR (at least as she remembers it), is the world she wants to live in. To that end she's been collecting everything to do with the Raketa and the man who designed them. She's built a kind of gestalt-brain out of Rostislav's relations, and using the equipment she has on hand she's rebuilt a test case Raketa to take her away from the present and into an alternate reality. The people who live in Zayozorsk are broadly on her side; they don't relish being ignored by Putin's Russia and want to return to the good old days when they had meaningful jobs and Zayozorsk had a future. The only thing holding Putin back is the thought that the rebels might have nukes; nobody has a clear idea what was still stored at that old sub base. It's Timewatch's job to ensure this gestalt alternate-reality machine never launches.

Esoterrorists: A cell has been busily at work trying to create a quasi-religion based on Soviet era futurist technology. People have been sneaking into Zayozorsk from all over, at first to see this grand new design and later to help build it. The town has been reinvigorated, and not necessarily in a good way - people are disappearing, perhaps having crossed over into the new reality, perhaps not. The cell hopes that all this futurist worship will weaken the Membrane sufficiently to let them breach reality's walls and bring their own version of the future through. The Russians will move in at any moment to cleanse the town, but if they put a foot wrong they might puncture the Membrane more efficiently than the Esoterrorists themselves. Putin's champing at the bit, but Ordo sympathizers within Russia's establishment would rather Ordo Veritatis went in first; that way if something does go badly wrong, it's not their fault.  

Night's Black Agents: A breakaway Conspiracy node has been working on its own project. This Node thinks Soviet-era futurism is the key to an important Conspiracy goal, but the higher levels of the Conspiracy disagree and have, until now, quashed all investigation along these lines. The Node thinks it knows better than the higher-ups, and has funded a low-level Facility to carry out test work. All this is very much off-book, and the Node hoped nobody would ever find out about it before the Node was ready to unveil its triumph. In a shocking turn of events that surprises nobody except those in charge of the Node, someone did find out. They leaked. Now all kinds of people are taking an interest, from Putin's Russia to the agents, and possibly other government-sponsored anti-vampire programs. The Node wants to clean up the Facility before anyone finds it, but the scientist in charge just won't quit despite all the red warning lights and alarms. It's a race against time to get any useful data from the project before wetworks teams move in.