Sunday, 22 April 2018

Caveat Emptor

YSDC's adaptation of my scenario The Many Deaths of Edward Bigsby is going really well, and people seem to like it. In honor of that, here's a very skeletal scenario for you about a cursed French commode.

No, not that kind of commode.

It's based in part on Jules Michelet's book Witchcraft, Sorcery and Superstition. Michelet is a very clever French raconteur and scholar who makes the stories he tells come alive - even if he has to sacrifice detachment and accuracy to do so. If you have any interest in this topic I urge you to seek it out. I have the Citadel Press translation which is why the title's slightly different.


Caveat Emptor


The Hook


The investigators are asked to authenticate an allegedly cursed Louis Quinze commode, only to discover that the curse is all too real.

Louis Quinze: A term used by antique dealers and art historians, this means that the item was made during the reign of Louis XV of France, or 1715 to 1730. This is sometimes called the Regency period. The grand Rocaille stylings with their graceful curves and elements modeled on nature, an artistic rebellion against the heavy formal styles popular in Louis’ fathers time, are just beginning to come into fashion.

Commode: The meaning is derived from the French, meaning convenient, or suitable. A cabinet or chest of drawers, set low so as to be below the dado rail, or the midpoint of the wall.

The Awful Truth


In 1726 the notorious witch and false nun Madeline was brought by her confessor and captor Picart to a dungeon in his home at Rouen. There she was to be starved to death, but she proved remarkably difficult to kill. Over time Picart relented, but only because she was still useful – he could bring her to trials as a so-called expert witness to accuse other witches. All the while he and the staff of his house sexually abused and tormented her, thinking her less than human.

They grew so used to her that they seldom bothered locking her up. There was nowhere she could go. No family in Rouen would take her in, her family had renounced her, and to the wider world she was the notorious witch, baby-killer and false Bride of Christ. She had the run of Picart’s household.

Picart and his people failed to realize that whether or not she’d been a servant of dark powers before her incarceration she certainly was now. She had congress with strange creatures while locked in that cellar deep below ground, beings that advised her the best way to revenge herself on Picart. She scrawled her curses in blood on parchment stolen from Picart’s desk, and carefully concealed them in a false drawer of the commode. Then she waited for the curse to do its work.

She hadn’t long to wait. Before the month was out Picart had vanished, stolen into the void by the Dimensional Shambler her curse had summoned, but not bound. As it wasn’t bound the creature could return again and again, so long as it remained within a short distance of the commode. It did. Within another month, two of Picart’s servants disappeared, and people began talking about a curse.

Over the years the Shambler emerged from beyond our dimension again and again. Sometimes it didn’t take a victim, but allowed itself to be seen. On other occasions it merely wounded its target, or left bloodstains and other marks behind for people to wonder at. Often its victim would simply vanish without a trace.

These repeated visits began to damage the commode, in a dimensional sense. It no longer exists just in our world; it has a parallel existence across the void. It creates a hole in reality.

Holes allow passage in both directions.

The Cursed Commode


Date made: around 1710 to 1725

Artist/Maker: attributed to the workshop of Pierre Couchois, Rouen.

Medium: Oak and Fir veneered with amaranth, bloodwood and warama; gilt-bronze mounts; marble top.

Dimensions: 85.7 cm by 131.4 cm by 58.4 cm.

First known curse event: the disappearance and presumed death of Father Picart, Jesuit and witch-hunter, 1728.

Second known: The murder of banker Marius Harel and his entire family, eight people in all, 1789. Also known as the Night of Blood in some of the more lurid histories.

Third known: The disappearance of Deidra Van Stratten on her wedding night, leaving only her ring finger behind, 1865.

Fourth known: The strange decapitation of auctioneer Ralston Hayes, 1902.

There are several disappearances also blamed on the curse, but without evidence it’s impossible to link any disappearance with the commode.

Opening Scene


The investigators are asked to authenticate the commode by an important auctioneering firm.

Initial examination finds nothing untoward. The commode is authentic, and rather plain for the period. Its lurid history is its main attraction, otherwise an ordinary example of early Louis Quinze furnishing would attract little interest.

Clue:                     There are some signs of refurbishing, possibly in the early 18th Century, which warrant further investigation. Perhaps this isn’t an original piece; someone may have cobbled it together from period parts.

Confrontation: The Confession


Soon after the investigators start their examination they discover mysterious writing appearing in every notebook, newspaper or similar. The writing only appears if the item is left in the same room as the commode, for any length of time. It’s in archaic French.

The writing disappears after several hours, but if the paper was torn or damaged those marks remain.

Clue:                     If translated, the writing proves to be a series of confessions. Whoever wrote them was in a very disturbed state of mind. The person confesses to congress with the Devil, witchcraft, baby murder and a hundred different things. Often the writer is so disturbed that whatever they use to write with breaks or tears through the paper. The name Picart appears again and again.

Clue:                     Whatever it is, it’s not invisible ink. Despite every test, once the writing vanishes it’s as if it was never there.

Clue (hard):        The writer refers to herself as ‘unhappy Madeline’ once.

Confrontation: A Break-In – Or Is It?


The contents of the room the commode is in have been moved by person or persons unknown, and they weren’t too careful when they did it. Some things are damaged or smashed beyond repair. The commode is untouched, and remains exactly where it was left.

Clue:                     Judging by what might be a footprint in the dust, whoever did this was very large. Possibly more than seven foot tall. How does someone that huge break in, and nobody sees a thing?

Refurbished Or Not?


The refurbishment actually was a concealment. The commode had a secret compartment in one of its upper cabinets covered by a false bottom, and someone went to a great deal of trouble to seal and conceal that false bottom so it couldn’t be detected or opened. Inside is a parchment written in blood. It appears to be a magical curse.

Clue:                 Whoever went to all that trouble must have been a very clever artisan, probably someone in the mid to late 1700s. Nobody else would have had the skill, knowledge or materials.

Clue:                    The document is written in the same hand as the confessions.

Clue (hard):       The document curses Father Picart “to eternal and unending torment in the realm   beyond, where the Old Ones await.”

Soft Spot


The room where the commode is kept develops what can only be described as a soft spot. The walls feel spongy, the floor insubstantial, and if someone tilts their head at just the right angle they can see beyond the room to something, or somewhere, else. Potential Sanity/Stability loss.

Clue:                     The sensation never lasts very long. When it happens, any reflective surface in the immediate area glows with a faint blue aura.

Research


The investigators may chase up the Father Picart angle, or poor Madeline.

Clue (Picart):     Father Picart was a confessor in a nunnery who fell in lust with one of the nuns. He wooed her and promised to marry her, and when she objected that they could not be wed in the sight of God he said they should be married with the Devil’s blessing. Later, when she was with child and the whole story was about to be revealed, to save his skin he portrayed himself as the heroic redeemer who discovered this witch nestled in the haven of Christ’s Brides. Her punishment, overseen by Picard himself, was starvation. She survived and he later used her as an expert witness to accuse other witches. He vanished, the first victim of the curse. The records don’t say what happened to her.

Clue (Mad):        Madeline de Poitiers was from a rich family that had too many daughters, and being the youngest she was sent to the nunnery at the age of 12. There she met Father Picart, who seduced her before her fourteenth birthday. Though the records don’t say what happened to her after his disappearance, some legends say she appeared again and again in his house, an angry spirit wanting revenge.

Dimension Hopping


The Shambler moves from its dimension to ours, but thanks to the curse the investigators can move to its realm.

There things fold in on each other like paper dolls made of string. The investigators see things that are familiar to them – streets, houses, towns – yet they constantly shift away, always out of reach. Everything is seen through a blue filter, as if the inside of the investigator’s eyeballs had been painted over. Always the things they see are torn apart and remade, never the worse for wear, only to be shredded again and a new thing made.

The one exception to this is the commode. It exists in every place they go in this new dimension. It’s not always the same size or shape, but it’s the same thing.

A woman shouts obscenities somewhere nearby, yet it’s impossible to hear exactly what she’s saying.

Endgame


If the investigators want to end the curse, they need Madeline’s help. It’s thanks to her power that this all started, and being trapped in the alternate dimension has one big advantage: our time doesn’t exist there. For her, it’s still 1726. If she does something here, it affects our world in 1726. Theoretically the investigators could put a stop to the curse before it starts, saving many lives. All they need to do is persuade Madeline to rescind her curse.

This does mean that Father Picart will not die. The curse will end before he gets destroyed by the Shambler. The investigators will have to come up with a way in which Madeline can be persuaded to give up her vengeance.

If the investigators don’t do this, they might try to destroy the commode. The Shambler will intervene forcefully before that happens. Moreover since it exists in alternate dimensions even if they do destroy it the commode can be replaced. All the Shambler has to do is ‘borrow’ one from an alternate dimension and move it here. This further weakens an already unstable dimensional rift, but why should the Shambler care?

Killing the Shambler stops it from coming to our dimension, but only for one day. Time doesn’t exist in its dimension, and neither does death. It can reform a body and return. A day’s grace is all the investigators get, and that only because a day will make them think they might have won.

This concludes the scenario.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Exorcist (NBA, Dracula Dossier)


Exorcism is on the rise, according to this Guardian piece. The Vatican set up a new training scheme for would-be Von Sydows, claiming that reported instances of possession have grown exponentially in recent years. Evangelical churches have always been fond of exorcism, and there are independent exorcists that will bell, book & candle you for less than the price of a second-hand car. Or so the Economist claims.

Of course, there are no reliable statistics for any of this. The people reporting a rise in demand for exorcism are the same people who want to hold more exorcisms. The evidence is anecdotal, but that's never stopped anyone from jumping to a conclusion before.

Christianity has traditionally had a very uneasy relationship with the Devil, but not for the reason you might think. It's a power problem. If the Devil is capable of performing miracles, then what price God? In order to keep God at the top of the hierarchy, the Devil cannot perform miracles. His imps and minions can only perform natural acts, because if they could actually pull off supernatural stunts then the fine line between God and his opposite number gets blurrier than philosophers like. Instead they manipulate Man to achieve what seems to be miracles, but are not.

For the Dog of Hell is bound, writes one philosopher, neither can he operate on Forms, the Bodies of these, or their properties, unless he take to him the mind of Man as a co-operatives with him, under whose convents he bond-slaves by deceit, and binds them in a Covenant ... For he persuades those who have renounced Divine Grace, of whatsoever he will. and promiseth that he will perform Mischievous or wicked Acts, by strength or faculties which he feigneth to be natural or proper unto himself. For he snatcheth his Imps into the detestable adoration of a He-Goat, as if the government of all things stood in His power, and that he alone could confer the gift of the working of miracles.

The larger problem - and again, this was true in the medieval period as now - is that once you let the Devil in the door, there's no keeping him out. He's the original Special Pleading. There's no justifying him, but once you admit that he could be lurking in the shadows causing mayhem then there's no way to tell the difference between reality and the Devil's fantasy.

Moreover an exorcist, particularly an amateur, is likely to look at almost any problem as a spiritual one requiring immediate spiritual intervention. Not, say, a problem of  human fallibility, or a medical problem requiring medical assistance. The same is true of their petitioners. Very few people understand what exorcism is, but if it doesn't look like Netflix crossed with Hammer Horror and offer a convenient one-stop cure for their problem, they don't believe it.


Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series about a female Deliverance cleric operating in Hertfordshire makes this point again and again: it is all too easy to become addicted to exorcism, to see it as a solution to problems it was never meant to handle. Merrily often has to discourage people from thinking of her job as an immediate cure, like calling out the plumber to deal with a leaky faucet.

However from a role-playing POV, and with one eye on Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents, an exorcist player character has appeal. Moreover Merrily Watkins has a hint as to which way it should go, as the series is set near Hereford, the home of the SAS. Often a character in one of her mysteries turns out to be a former SAS now retired, or turned priest. You can see the appeal for a serving soldier; first-hand combat experience often either turns a person atheist, or devout. Muscular Christianity offers the willing a chance to fight spiritual problems with physical action. What more could a former special operations vet wish for?

That said, designing a character template for this ought to take the civilian version into consideration, the occultist with a yen for theatrics and a PayPal account for donations. With that in mind, here's two options for an exorcist player character.

Exorcist (Former Soldier)

Investigative:  Intimidation 2, Military Science 1, Occult Studies 2, Outdoor Survival 1. Possible alternates: Urban Survival, Vampirology.

General: Athletics or Shooting 10, Hand-to-Hand 4, Preparedness 4. Possible alternates: Sense Trouble, Weapons.

Exorcist (Enthusiastic Amateur)

Investigative: Bullshit Detector 1, History 2, Occult Studies 2,  Research 1. Possible alternates: Vampirology, Diagnosis, Reassurance

General: Conceal 6, Shrink 6, Preparedness 6. Possible alternates: Filch (for those who like to take their theatrics one step too far).

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Cousin Jane (Lafcadio Hearn)

I've been lucky enough to hold a copy of The Life & Letters of Lafcadio Hearn in my hands. Elizabeth Bisland's two volume collection is a remarkable piece of scholarship, and I'd recommend it to anyone with any interest in Hearn. Or even those that don't, because there's plenty here that can be data mined by anyone with an interest in horror.




Lafcadio was born in 1850 to an Irish father and Greek mother. The circumstances of his parents' marriage were straight out of a romance novel. Surgeon-Major 76th Foot Charles Bush Hearn was sent to the island of Cerigo in the late 1840s, where he met Rosa Cerigote. The two fell in love but her family did not approve, particularly since the British were an occupying force. They wanted nothing to do with the oppressors, and one night her brothers ambushed Hearn and stabbed him, leaving him for dead. Rosa found the Surgeon Major and concealed him in a barn, nursing him back to health. When he was well enough the pair eloped, and for a time knew happiness in Greece. Lafcadio, named for the island of his birth, Lefcada, was their second son. The first died soon after birth, and their third, James, was born three years later.

When Britain ceded the Ionian Isles to Greece the family went back to Ireland, but this was fatal to the marriage. Rosa could not abide Ireland, and had no friends there. She became miserable, and after a time believed the Surgeon Major had fallen in love with someone else. The marriage was annulled, and Rosa fled back to Greece.

This disruption broke the family, and Lafcadio was adopted by an aunt, Mrs. Brenane, a staunch Roman Catholic. Lafcadio moved to Wales, and never saw his father or brother again. He grew up with a morbid distrust of attachment, never making friends easily, constantly on the lookout for betrayal.

I'm not going to summarize the book, but I do want to talk about an episode from Lafcadio's early history. It illustrates what I believe to be the one true rule of weird fiction: that the writer must take something that is normal in every respect, and twist it until it becomes unnatural.

Young Hearn had a cheerless life in Mrs. Brenane's household. She was a stern woman, teaching him Roman Catholicism by rote. He understood nothing of religion, but could repeat prayers "only as a parrot might have done." A nervous child, he had been forbidden ghost stories and fairy tales and was under strict injunction not to talk about such things.

One day a visitor arrived, Cousin Jane, a joyless young woman who wanted to become a nun, but did not. "I asked why," says Lafcadio, "I was told I was too young to understand." She seldom smiled, and seemed burdened by some secret grief.

One day she discovered that Lafcadio, though nominally religious, had no real concept of God. This horrified her, and she lectured him with a fervor that says something about the brand of religion she adopted.

I do not remember all the rest of her words; I can recall with distinctness only the following:

"and send you down to Hell to burn alive in fire for ever and ever! Think of it! - always burning, burning, burning! screaming and burning! screaming and burning! never to be saved from that pain of fire! You remember when you burned your finger at the lamp? Think of your whole body burning - always, always, always burning! - for ever and ever!"

I can still see her face as in the instance of that utterance - the horror upon it, and the pain. Then she suddenly burst into tears and left the room.

From that time I detested Cousin Jane, because she had made me unhappy in a new and irreparable way. I did not doubt what she had said; but I hated her for having said it - particularly for the hideous way she said it ... When she left us in the spring, I hoped that she would soon die - so that I might never see her face again. 

But I was fated to meet her again under strange circumstances. I am not sure whether it was in the latter part of the summer that I last saw her, or early in the autumn; I remember only that it was in the evening and that the weather was still pleasantly warm. The sun had set; but there was a clear twilight, full of soft colour; and in that twilight-time I happened to be on the lobby of the third floor - all by myself.

I do not know why I had gone up there alone; perhaps I was looking for some toy. At all events I was standing in the lobby, close to the head of the stairs, when I noticed that the door of Cousin Jane's room seemed to be ajar. Then I saw it slowly opening. The fact surprised me because that door - the farthest one of three opening on the lobby - was usually locked. Almost at the same moment Cousin Jane herself, robed in her familiar black dress, came out of the room, and advanced towards me - but with her head turned upwards and sideways, as if she were looking for something on the lobby-wall, close to the ceiling. I cried out in astonishment, "Cousin Jane!" - but she did not seem to hear. She approached slowly, still with her head so thrown back that I could see nothing of her face above the chin: then she walked directly past me into the room nearest the stairway - a bedroom of which the door was always left open by day. Even as she passed I did not see her face - only her white throat and chin, and the gathered mass of her beautiful hair. Into the bedroom I ran after her, calling out, "Cousin Jane! Cousin Jane!" I saw her pass round the foot of a great four-pillared bed, as if to approach the window beyond it; and I followed her to that other side of the bed. Then, as if first aware of my presence, she turned; and I looked up, expecting to meet her smile ... She had no face. There was only a pale blur instead of a face. And even as I stared, the figure vanished. It did not fade; it simply ceased to be - like the shape of a flame blown out.

Cousin Jane returned to the house at the beginning of the cold season. In the first few hours she made much of Lafcadio, buying him toys and good things to eat.

I ought to have been grateful, if not happy. But the generous shame that her caresses had awakened was already gone; and that memory of which I could speak to no one - least of all to her - again darkened my thoughts. This Cousin Jane who was buying me toys, and smiling, and chatting, was only, perhaps, the husk of another Cousin Jane that had no face ... Before the brilliant shops, among the crowds of happy people, I had nothing to fear. But afterwards - after dark - might not the Inner disengage herself from the other, and leave her room, and glide to mine with chin upturned, as if staring at the ceiling?

Cousin Jane took a turn for the worse the very next day, and did not come down to breakfast. She died of consumption soon after.

I understood only that I had seen; and because I had seen I was afraid. And the memory of that seeing disturbed me more than ever, after the coffin of Cousin Jane had been carried away. The knowledge of her death had filled me, not with sorrow, but with terror. Once I had wished that she were dead. And that wish had been fulfilled - but the punishment was yet to come. Dim thoughts, dim fears - enormously older than the creed of Cousin Jane - awakened within me, as from some prenatal sleep - especially a horror of the dead as evil beings, hating mankind ... such horror exists in savage minds, accompanied by the vague notion that character is totally transformed or stripped by death - that those departed, who once caressed and smiled and loved, now menace and gibber and hate ... what power, I asked myself in dismay, could protect me from her visits? I had not yet ceased to believe in the God of Cousin Jane; but I doubted whether he would or could do anything for me. Moreover my creed had been greatly shaken by the suspicion that Cousin Jane had always lied. How often had she not assured me that I could not see ghosts or evil spirits! Yet the Thing that I had seen was assuredly her inside-self - the ghost of the goblin of her - and utterly evil. Evidently she hated me: she had lured me in a lonesome room for the sole purpose of making me hideously afraid ... And why had she hated me thus before she died? - was it because she knew that I hated her - that I wished her to die? Yet how did she know? - could the ghost of her see, through blood and flesh and bone, into the miserable little ghost of myself?

Anyhow, she had lied ... perhaps everyone else had lied. Were all the people that I knew - the warm people, who walked and laughed in the light - so much afraid of the Things of the Night that they dared not tell the truth? To none of these questions I could find a reply. And there began for me a second period of black faith - a faith of unutterable horror, mingled with unutterable doubt. 

Those who knew her history are dust ... How often have I tried to reproach myself for hating her. But even now in my heart a voice cries bitterly to the ghost of her: "Woe! woe! - thou didst destroy it - the beautiful world!"

When I first decided to post this I thought I would use the story as the kernel for something of my own, perhaps a discussion about ghosts. I find I do not have the stomach for it.

The child was just shy of six when this happened. Imagine living with that pressure cooker of a mind, stuffed full of gunpowder and set alight by a hysterical would-be nun, frightened out of your wits and nobody to talk to. I would not want Lafcadio's early life if you offered it me with a fortune in gold, and fame by the truckload. 

Lafcadio's work has a long, long shadow. If you've played The Mountain Witch RPG, you've been playing in his world. If you've seen Kwaidan, you saw his stories. 



I urge you to seek him out.



Sunday, 1 April 2018

Dead Nodes (NBA)

Julian Assange made the papers again this week, when the Ecuadorian government cut off his internet access. Assange made a written commitment not to use the Embassy's internet connection to say or do anything that might harm Ecuador's relationship with other countries. As a moderately intelligent three-year-old might have guessed, Assange couldn't keep his online mouth shut. This has happened before, when Assange's posts during the American 2016 election prompted a shutdown. His internet access was restored December that same year.

I have some sympathy for the Ecuadorians. It can't be easy playing host to WikiLeaks' founder, but you do have to wonder what on earth the Ecuadorian Government thought would happen when it restored Assange's internet access.

Question: what does NBA's Conspiracy do with dead nodes?

In this context, Assange is the dead node. He's never going to have the same influence he enjoyed when WikiLeaks was at its height, in 2011 to 2015. He's the equivalent of an ageing rock star convinced that if he only loses a few pounds and cuts down on the booze he can still manage a full international tour. Those days are behind him. Moreover he's lost his freedom. Even if he somehow finagles a way out of the Embassy, wherever he goes now he's a marked man. That doesn't make him inconsequential. He's still a symbolic draw for many people, and WikiLeaks still exists. But the Assange that was is never coming back.

Let's suppose the Conspiracy backs Assange, or someone very like him. That suggests a Node at National level at least, possibly Supranational depending on circumstances. Let's further suppose that, due to a combination of events, this Node becomes much less relevant to the Conspiracy because it has been compromised in some way. In Assange's case, it was the pressures that forced him to take refuge at the Embassy. What next?

First, the obvious choice:


This is not always the optimal choice. The information and skills the dead node possesses could still be of use, and it would be wasteful to break a valuable asset. If the Node is politically or socially visible, as Assange is, then it may be very unwise to terminate it. There's bound to be an official investigation, and in the case of someone like Assange, at least half a dozen unofficial ones. Every espionage agency in the Western world will want to know why Assange choked on his soup. The Heat mechanic doesn't apply to the Conspiracy, but if it did this would be a massive Heat gain.

There is always demotion. In a sense, this is what has happened to Assange. He still has resources and time to work on the things that interest him, but he no longer has the influence he once enjoyed. This can work well, but only if the Node is willing to cooperate. It has to be content to slide into irrelevance. Assange clearly isn't interested in that option. There is always the risk that the Node will break ranks and spill secrets, or do something unfortunate in a desperate bid to regain lost status. This option works best if the Node has some weakness the Conspiracy can use to keep it quiet. A dependence on narcotics, or blood; a beloved family member; a secret. Anything that can keep the Node docile will be useful.

However anything the Conspiracy needs can be used against it. Say the Agents discover that the only thing keeping Assange-lite obedient is his blood dependence. Given his location, it can't be easy smuggling in the special substances he requires. If the Agents were to starve Assange-lite for a few days by intercepting the courier, then he might go off the rails. This could have all kinds of interesting consequences for the Conspiracy. Imagine what might happen if the revealer of secrets started spilling the Conspiracy's hush-hush intel.

The alternative is promotion. A saying has been attributed to various members of the German high command, in the years between the World Wars. It goes like this:

I divide my officers into four classes as follows: the clever, the industrious, the lazy, and the stupid. Each officer always possess two of these qualities.

Those who are clever and industrious I appoint to the General Staff. Use under certain circumstances can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy qualifies for the highest leadership posts. He has the requisite nerves and the mental clarity for difficult decisions. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be got rid of, for he is too dangerous.

A dead node has proved itself stupid. The question then is whether or not it is industrious. If so, then the Conspiracy will cut it loose. If lazy, then a case could be made for kicking it upstairs. The Conspiracy, like any bureaucracy, is bound to have a number of high echelon positions which boast grand titles but carry no significant authority. Head of Research, say, where all the real work is done by subordinates. Or Vice Chancellor in charge of records. Anything that gets the Node to a point where it has no power to directly affect, and therefore threaten, the day to day running of operations. Since it's lazy, it won't interfere with the smooth workings of whichever department it's promoted to. Everyone goes home happy.

Assange-lite is too industrious to be dealt with this way.

There's one other option: burn it.

This is exactly what happens to player characters. Dumped and discredited by the agency that once supported them, the agents now wander the shadowy world of espionage on their own. The same can happen to Conspiracy assets. This works best on low-level Nodes, which don't have access to any important information. There's no point burning someone who can burn you back, after all.

If desired, a variant of the Black Program Badass archetype could be used for a player character who was once in deep with the Conspiracy. The Director might consider giving the character extra bennies in exchange for a pre-existing psychological disorder - PTSD, say, in exchange for supernatural Network contacts. But be careful not to give away the store, or cripple a new character.

Renfields denied access to blood, dhampires and ferals who once had status, hackers and financiers and other lackeys - all can be flung aside. The Conspiracy will probably feed supernatural former assets to the hunters, or straight into a mincing machine, but Renfields and humans can be dealt with subtly. Make sure their criminal history is given to the right people, or stuff their hard drives full of kiddie porn and wrap them up in a big red ribbon for the authorities. Betray gangs to rival gangs, or let the hitman's enemies find out who's been carrying out all these assassinations. If death is the preferred option, make sure the body's found in compromising circumstances. Auto-erotic asphyxiation, say. That way any inconvenient last testament hidden on a hard drive is less credible when it surfaces.

This would be a useful way of dealing with Assange-lite. Make sure there's enough evidence of wrongdoing to taint any evidence he might come up with, then let him go. Possibly dangle the carrot of reinstatement if he somehow redeems himself, but never be so foolish as to actually bring him back into the fold. What's done is done. Never look back.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Poisoned and Abandoned: Andrei Zheleznyakov (NBA)

This week's post is inspired by the story of Russian bioweapons expert Andrei Zheleznyakov, poisoned on the job and left to die.

Novichok, aka 'newcomer,' is allegedly the most deadly nerve agent ever created. The novichok variants were created over a period from 1971 to 1993. Its design intent was to be capable of avoiding detection by the 1970s and 80s equipment available at the time, to circumvent NATO biohazard defensive equipment, to be safer to handle, and to avoid classification under the Chemical Weapons Convention. If it made the CWC list, novichok would be a controlled weapon, its stockpiles liable for destruction. It's said that the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skirpal in London is a novichok poisoning.

In 1987 Zheleznyakov was poisoned by novichok, while carrying out laboratory experiments. A vent malfunctioned, spewing a small amount of the bioagent. Zheleznyakov immediately knew he'd been poisoned. "It's got me," he told his workmates. A timely dose of atropine saved his life, but his body was ravaged. When he eventually died in 1993, he'd suffered cirrhosis, toxic hepatitis, nerve damage and epilepsy.

Before dying he broke silence and gave extensive interviews, describing what had happened to him and what was likely to happen next. The material was published in 1992, a year before his death.

It's likely he wasn't the only victim of novichok, but he's the only one known to have died of this bioagent. Other potential victims include a Soviet officer who was convinced that he'd been exposed to the agent deliberately, to see what would happen. There have been assassinations tentatively linked to novichok as well, but nothing conclusive.

Assuming the Soviet officer's account is correct, the Russians aren't the only ones to test dangerous substances on their own people. MKULTRA famously dosed US Army biochemist Frank Olson with LSD, and Olson either committed suicide as a result or was murdered so he wouldn't talk - take your pick. In the 1940s and 50s the UK carried out radiation tests that were extremely hazardous for the military personnel involved, from flying through the bomb cloud to being ordered to sit and wait for the bomb to go off. In both cases the intent seems to have been to find out what close proximity to the blast would do to a human subject. The French did much the same. Ironically, we probably know more about Russian bioweapons research than we do about similar research in other countries, because there have been so many leaks and books over the years

Taking a trip down memory lane, and assuming an Ultraviolet game world, what does this mean for vampires and the spies who hunt them?

To begin with, it suggests a very nasty bane. Supernatural and Damned vampires might be immune to science, but it's a good bet nobody else is. Something that rots your organs and shreds your brain is going to do a number on anything reliant on human biology. To take the Perfecti from the main book as an example, the statues could care less, but their human proxies might die like flies.

Of course, it's a bane with significant drawbacks. You can't really target a bioweapon; you just set it off and hope it does the job. If not handled carefully it could be as lethal to the assassin as the target, and any bystanders may get a fatal dose too. Collateral damage makes it a visible kill; Heat will go through the roof. It's not an instant kill, and the effects linger. In the aftermath of the Skirpal attack, for example, three policemen who responded to the report were sent to hospital. One, DS Nick Bailey, was seriously ill for several days, and may be permanently affected. Moreover it requires access to state of the art facilities and considerable technical expertise to manufacture, and in novichok's case has a short shelf life. Edom might be able to pull it off, and so might other government-sponsored agencies. Freelancers haven't a hope.

On top of all that, it might not kill. Going back to the Perfecti, according to the main book their blood has been transformed to alien matter and a Perfecti's being is tuned to extradimensional frequencies. That suggests something like novichok might not kill them. The Perfecti could be sufficiently inhuman to survive an attack, but given they're at least partially reliant on human biology they will suffer damage. Perhaps permanent damage. A vampire whose brain has been destroyed or severely injured is still alive, but it's not much of a life. Even if the damage is temporary, the vampire will take time to recover - perhaps long enough for a hunter to do more permanent damage.

Returning to Ultraviolet for a moment, one of the recurring themes of that series was blood contamination. The vampires were concerned about ways in which the blood supply could be poisoned, specifically through radiation. Given that, vampires might also be concerned about poisoning through other means - like a bioweapon.

Suppose the Conspiracy wished to utilize a bioweapon in one of its schemes. The Persephone Extraction posits such a plot. For it to work as planned it would have to be an agent that did what it was supposed to do, but left the survivors with drinkable blood. If instead it killed off billions and left the survivors with undrinkable blood, that's a huge problem - the same problem that obsessed the undead in Ultraviolet. An issue like that can only be solved by rigorous testing. However tests sometimes go wrong, with catastrophic results. An event like that could easily trigger the agents' involvement, or be the inciting incident for a campaign.

This post started with Andrei Zheleznyakov, so to conclude I'm going to develop a story seed based on him.

Old Ghosts: According to your Network a supposedly dead Russian bioweapons expert has reappeared in Ukraine. Reports indicated he'd been exposed to a bioweapon in 1989, perhaps deliberately in a macabre test. He fell out with the authorities and published a tell-all interview before dying in 1993. Yet here he is in Mykolaiv, a seaport. Perfect for transporting a cargo - a bioweapon, say? Or perhaps his target is one of Mykolaiv's many food manufacture and processing plants. Whatever his goal, it would be very interesting to find out how he's survived all these years. Perhaps the Conspiracy is involved.

Variant: The expert was vampirized in 1993, but it didn't take. The devastating effect of the bioweapon made his unlife a hell, and the Conspiracy recently decided to stop footing the bill for the medicine and special facilities he needs. This might be due to Node infighting, or lack of interest in the dusty recollections of a man who hasn't done any real work since Mikhail Gorbachev was in power. Now the expert's ready to spill his guts to anyone who'll help him, including the agents, but you can't defect from the Conspiracy.

Potential adversaries/interested parties: former highly placed Russians now living in the West, who want to know if the bioweapons expert knows anything about a spate of assassinations that might have involved the weapon he worked on. Russia's Foreign Intelligence (SVR RF), which wants to know who this impostor is - after all, he's definitely dead. It has a certificate that says so. Ukraine's Foreign Intelligence Service, which wants to know what fresh hell this expert's been brewing on Ukrainian soil.  If serious evidence of WMD production is made public, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, United Nations, or Biological Weapons Convention signatories may get involved.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Not Quite Book Review Corner: Directorate S, Steve Coll (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

When I read Fyodr Dostoevski's The Idiot, I became convinced that a character I'd met in the early chapters must have died, and I hadn't noticed. There was so much going on. No doubt there'd been a paragraph that said she'd caught the sniffles, drowned, or been eaten by hamsters, and I'd missed it. Steve Coll's Directorate S: The CIA and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the second time I've had that idiotic feeling.

The damn thing feels ten times longer than it is. That's not a complaint - it kept me absorbed from start to finish. Directorate S is a successor to Coll's Pulitzer Prize winner, Ghost Wars, which tells the CIA/Afghanistan story from the Soviet invasion in 1979 to September 11, 2001. In Ghost Wars Coll shows how CIA intelligence failures helped create the extremists that brought the Twin Towers down. Directorate S shows how a continued pattern of misunderstanding, political folly and wastage led to the bloody mess that is Afghanistan today. Coll won a Pulitzer for Ghost Wars; he's probably going to be a contender for a second one with Directorate S. 

It's just so sad. If Coll chewed off his fingers and howled at the moon every other page it would have felt appropriate, but he tackles the subject with remarkable restraint. It feels even more awful as a result, and makes the reader wonder what future horrors lie in store. If CIA support for the mujahedeen in the 1970s and 80s fostered the world in which planes flew into the Twin Towers, what fresh atrocity will be spawned by this nightmare? 

Steve Coll, for those who don't know him, is a journalist of long standing who got his start at California Magazine. He went on to the Washington Post in 1985, and stayed there until 2004 before moving on to the New Yorker. Currently he writes on national security and foreign intelligence issues, and has eight non-fiction books to his credit as well as many articles. 

If you have any interest in modern history, intelligence issues, or the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, this is the book to read. So long as you can stomach a bellyful of tragedy, that is. 

If you're a Night's Black Agents Director or have any interest in the Dracula Dossier, this should be on your shelf. Edom raises up Dracula specifically to combat Al-Qaeda, after all; the Director should know what Dracula's up against. 

Just one story seed, taken from ch 35 Coups d'Etat:

Edom discovers, thanks to a leak, that discontented Pakistani naval officers are planning to seize a frigate. Armed with Land Attack Cruise Missiles with a potential nuclear payload, this rogue frigate could do tremendous damage if the attempt is successful. Edom doesn't know how many people are involved, but it does know that one of the naval cadets is due to attend a training course at HMNB Portsmouth in a week's time. Edom will use its vampire to control this cadet and persuade him to tell all he knows.

If the characters are Edom, then the Agents are given operational authority: find out who's involved, and when the attack is to take place. They can't let Pakistan know what's going on, because they can't be sure whether elements within Pakistani intelligence are involved in the operation. If they succeed, a potential nuclear disaster is averted. Of course, the vampire under their control is a disaster waiting to happen ...

If the characters are freelancers, then they're alerted or brought in when Edom's initial attempts raise red flags at Portsmouth. Its vampire managed to get away for a short time, and created some spawn before its recapture. Its Pakistani target is also Renfielded, and now the naval officer serves three masters - Pakistan, Al-Qaeda, and Dracula. Would Dracula like a frigate armed with nuclear weapons?   

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Killer That Stalked New York - Diseases (GUMSHOE)

We tend to think of biological weapons as a modern phenomenon, but in fact the tactic has a very long pedigree. During the American Civil War, for instance, Bermuda's horrified authorities quickly stepped in when it was discovered that a doctor, allegedly acting out of charity, was in fact collecting infected blankets and clothing from Yellow Fever victims, to be sent to the North in hopes of spreading the disease to Union soldiers. The threat of disease is often enough to provoke panic, and no disease was more threatening than smallpox, which is the major plot point of The Killer That Stalked New York.


In this Noir thriller, Sheila Bennet is the unwitting Patient Zero who came back from Cuba with a fortune in diamonds, and death in her veins. It turns out that her boyfriend, who persuaded her to smuggle the stones, has been two-timing Sheila with her own sister. He's able to fool Sheila for a while, and steal the diamonds, but when she finds out, nothing will stop her tracking him down. Meanwhile the authorities discover that Sheila's infecting everyone she meets with smallpox, and desperately want to bring her in, but Sheila refuses to submit.

It's not entirely clear why the authorities want Sheila. OK, she's infectious, but the end voiceover suggests they needed her for some other reason - as if she's the key to a vaccine, or has some vital evidence about where she contracted the disease. All that's a McGuffin, really; the point is, she's important, so they have to chase her.

Smallpox hasn't been a threat since its eradication in 1980, and it's becoming more and more difficult to understand, on an emotional level, the fear it once inspired. Intellectually we can look at its history, see its death count, and know how devastating it can be - but it's like trying to put yourself in the shoes of a soldier in the trenches of the Great War. Empathy only carries you so far; ultimately, you have to have been shot at to know what it truly is like to be shot at.

First comes the fever, and vomiting. Then sores in the mouth, and painful skin rash. Over a period of days this rash becomes fluid-filled bumps, which will eventually scab over and leave scars - assuming you survive. Fatality can be as high as 75%, depending on severity of the rash distribution. The overall rate is closer to 30% fatality. Death tends to occur in ten to sixteen days, accompanied by acute organ failure. If you survive, you're scarred for life, and might also go blind.

Image taken from Wikipedia: Content Providers(s): CDC/James Hicks 

Let's talk gamification.

Given that Trail, Bookhounds and Dreamhounds are all set in the 1930s, it's reasonable to think that a character might have encountered, or contracted, the disease at some point in their careers. It could be an interesting twist, say, to an In The Blood drive - yes, it is in the blood, but because of a smallpox outbreak, not heredity.

However let's take this one step further, and say that a smallpox scare threatens the characters' lives or livelihoods in some way. Let's further say that the Patient Zero is someone the characters know, or work with, or are responsible for. George MacDonald Fraser makes good use of this last tactic in his short McAuslan story, Fly Man, where his narrator Dando has to go chasing over Cairo for his soldiers, while at the same time keeping the smallpox story very, very quiet for fear of starting a panic. Of course, two of the most dangerous have decided to go AWOL, and are armed, just to add to the fun.

'You must go through every club, canteen, dance-hall and gin mill in the in-bounds area,' says his superior, 'I want them all, you understand. No stragglers, nobody overlooked.'

Hilarity ensues.

Bookhounds is particularly useful for this, since the players are likely to have employees or co-workers, but in theory this could happen to any group. Someone you know & rely on has contracted smallpox, but either they don't know it yet, or they have other reasons for staying out of the authorities' reach. Your characters have to track down that person and somehow persuade them to come in from the cold - or the consequences could be dire.

All this, of course, without considering the Mythos. It's likely that anything with a biological makeup can contract diseases, so something like a Fire Vampire is probably immune to smallpox, but a ghoul, or Deep One Hybrid, isn't. Tracking outbreaks of smallpox could be an unusual way of tracking the movements of a ghoul colony, but a potentially more interesting question is, what happens at the fever stage? Suppose, in the case of an as-yet undiscovered Hybrid or ghoul changeling, the smallpox causes uncontrollable mutations, or spontaneous outbreaks of Idiosyncratic Mythos magic, as per Bookhounds. Or the afflicted taps into the Mythos and starts babbling secrets which, under normal circumstances, the poor soul doesn't know. Nurses, relatives, carers, would all be bombarded with secrets tapped straight from Cthulhu's psychic backlash, with consequences too terrible to think about.

This doesn't have to stay trapped in the 1930s. Even in the modern day there's the occasional scare, as with the retained stocks of the virus rediscovered in 2014, at an FDA storage facility in Bethesda. Imagine what the Esoterrorists might do with just the mystic threat of a smallpox bioweapon, or what the Conspiracy might want with strange vials filled with what might be smallpox - or might be something else again. Particularly in a campaign where the vampires have a Mutant background, there may be any number of reasons why the Conspiracy is keenly interested in dusty records of bioweapons research long past. Is this smallpox, or is this the Vampire Genome deliberately mislabeled as smallpox?

Finally, a Bookhounds scenario seed to speed you on your way:

A book scout of your acquaintance has fallen ill, shortly after telling you about a tremendously valuable find. What at first is thought to be ordinary fever is soon discovered to be smallpox, and the authorities are knocking on the characters' door with instructions to inoculate everyone the book scout has come into contact with. It transpires that several other people have fallen ill with the same symptoms, but these people had no contact with the book scout. However they might have had contact with the book. Just what tome is this, and what dreadful secret does it carry within those pox-ridden pages?

That's it for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Playing with Real Toys: Abandoned Orient Express Trains, Belgium (GUMSHOE Modern)

There was a time when Orient Express meant luxury, mystery, and romance. Those days aren't quite gone, but the train in these pictures has seen better days. Abandoned somewhere in a Belgian train yard, these old carriages and locomotive have been quietly rusting away for many years. Lost and forgotten things have many stories to tell - so what can we do with this one?

A quick note on ownership: the photos shown here were obtained via Urban Ghosts and the blog Rebecca Bathory. I understand Urban Ghosts obtained at least some of its images from another user, blogging at PreciousDecay. To my knowledge, those are the original sources of the images.






For those who aren't familiar with Georges Nagelmackers' pride and joy, a brief history.

The state of train travel in Europe during the Victorian era was lamentable. Functional, yes, but where was the style? The panache? Meanwhile, across the water, American George Mortimer Pullman was showing how it could be done: luxury travel, in a carriage fit for a king, not the knock-crack-smash in a wooden box that everyone had become used to. 

This inspired many innovators, including Belgian Georges Nagelmackers, who founded the Wagons-Lits Company in 1867. His dream was to create a train empire, luxury that traveled across the continent, and he was successful. You could start in London, end in Constantinople, and never lack for anything, whether it be fine dining, comfortable sleeping compartments, or congenial companionship. Each carriage had its own name, its own personality, decorated and fitted to the highest standards of the day. Every need was anticipated, and catered for, down to the least detail.

Image taken from Wikipedia, Plan de vaisselle CIWL


If you had any pretense to importance, you wanted to be seen on that train, and that went for fictional characters as well as the more mundane sort. Dracula's hunters went by Orient Express from Paris to Varna, beating their quarry to the punch. English hero Harry Flashman went with his journalist friend Blowitz on the train's maiden voyage. James Bond nearly lost his life on that train, and Agatha Christie uses it twice, once in a short story, and again in her novel Murder on the Orient Express - probably the most famous novel about the Orient Express.

Image taken from Wikipedia.

The Great War knocked back the Express, and for the first time in its history it was unable to traverse its entire route. At war's end, armistice papers were signed aboard one of the train's luxury carriages; when Hitler kicked off World War Two, he made sure that the French surrender documents were signed aboard that same carriage, and later, when defeat seemed imminent, he blew it up. After World War Two the train revived again, but with a dramatically altered route; some of its traditional stops were now behind the Iron Curtain. However in the end it wasn't history but technology that killed it off; in the jet set age, there was no demand for train travel, however luxurious. For a brief time there was no train at all. Then in 1982 enthusiasts revived the brand, restoring some of the old carriages and building others. Now the London to Venice luxury run is purely for well-heeled sightseers, not for travelers on their own mysterious passage from wherever to whenever.

The train and carriages seen in the photographs are 1930s vintage, probably left there in the 1970s. If the 1980s enthusiasts looked at them at all, presumably they believed what was left wasn't economically viable - they may have been too far gone to be restored.

With all that in mind, some scenario seeds for Night's Black Agents, Fear Itself, and Esoterrorists.

Night's Black Agents: the opposition proposes a midnight meeting at the train yards; whether to exchange hostages or for some other reason is immaterial to the seed. The exchange is to take place aboard one of the abandoned Orient Express cars. As might be expected, it's a trap: two snipers have the train carriage covered, and there's a bomb inside.

Thrilling Elements: 
  • A chilled bottle of champagne and an appropriate number of glasses rest on one of the abandoned carriage's seats. [the bomb, on remote detonation, is under the seat.]
  • A goods train comes to an unexpected stop some distance away, and the screech can be heard throughout the yards.
  • The faint glow of cigarettes can be seen, perhaps some fifty yards away - train staff on a crafty break, or something else?
  • Train cars loom ominously in the darkness; every shadow could hide a potential threat.
  • A tapped-out, blood-starved Renfield [the Conspiracy think she's a traitor, and this is as good a way as any of dealing with her], captured ally or other defenseless, twitching body is tied up on the carriage floor.
  • A train unexpectedly switches to the track the agents are on.
Fear Itself: Urban Explorers say the Orient Express cars have a completely different personality at night, and the latest dare is to go there after midnight and leave some sign that you've been there - a card, a mark, anything. However some of those who do never return, and some who do return say they hear odd noises, a voice speaking in German. In fact, one is the train car Hitler ordered destroyed, but not because he thought it would be used as a war trophy. The demon inside Hitler transferred its consciousness to a special phylactery shortly before war's end, and arranged for it to be hidden inside the train car, for later retrieval by dedicated followers. The dazed and reeling Fuhrer, free of its influence, tried to have the car destroyed, but the demon's followers prevented this. However the last few months of the war saw all the Nazi occultists killed or captured, which meant nobody was able to retrieve the phylactery. There it sits to this day, waiting to be rediscovered - and in the meantime causing all kinds of mayhem to those unwise enough to disturb it without using the proper ritual.

Esoterrorists:  Several Esoterror cells across Europe have united with a singular purpose: to place copies of the abandoned Orient Express cars in every train stop that the original Express visited, before the Great War. Urban explorers from Paris to Istanbul report seeing these train cars, apparently copied to the last detail from the Belgian originals, left in depots and apparently forgotten. Are the Esoterrorists trying to create some kind of spirit copy of the original Orient Express, and if so, is this to weaken the Membrane, or have the Esoterrorists some other purpose in mind? Could this be an attempt to resurrect someone, or something, that rode aboard the Orient Express? Does this have anything to do with a string of murders, also from Paris to Istanbul, with one thing in common: an antique train ticket from 1892 found in the pockets of the dead?

That's it for this week. Enjoy!  





Sunday, 25 February 2018

Quick and Dirty: Limassol, Cyprus

This week's post is inspired by a recent Guardian article, Limassolgrad, about the influx of Russian money into Cyprus.

Limassol

Image taken from Wikipedia, Plamen Matanski


This coastal port is the second largest urban center in Cyprus, with just shy of a quarter million people in the greater metropolitan area. It has an archaeological history that goes back at least as far as the 8th Century BC, which means human habitation has existed on that site since the Homeric Age. Its earliest history is lost to time; the information we have suggests that the first few times people tried to establish a city there, the experiment failed.

However Limassol survived, and became an important see in early Christian history. King Richard Lionheart of England captured Cyprus from its Byzantine overlords during the Third Crusade, and eventually gave the island to the Templars in exchange for 100,000 bezants, but the Templars provoked revolt by enforcing high taxes to recoup the cash they paid for Cyprus. This eventually led to Cyprus being bought by a French knight, Guy of Lusignan, inaugurating the Kingdom of Cyprus.

Cyprus remained a thing to be bought and sold, however, and in 1489 its ruler, Queen Catharine, let Venice purchase it, as she had no heir. To the Venetians, Cyprus was just another asset, but their rule was relatively peaceful, right up to 1570 when the Ottomans conquered it, and took Limassol without a fight.

Thus began an uneasy relationship between the Turks and Greeks that persists to this day. Even now, parts of Famagusta in Cyprus are a ghost town, fenced off  since the Turks invaded in 1974. For a very long time, the entire city was off-limits; it's only since 2003 that the former Greek Cypriot population was allowed to return, to a reduced portion of Famagusta. 

The British took Cyprus from the Turks in 1878, and Limassol began a regeneration. The city's infrastructure improved enormously, and it became something of a tourist resort, albeit a modest one. However by the 20th Century, change was in the air; Marxist and pro-independence groups called for a free Cyprus. This alarmed the Turkish Cypriots, who saw this as an attempt by Greeks to force them out. Greek Marxist terrorists clashed both with the British government and the Turkish opposition movement, and meanwhile Turkey tried to bolster its claim to the island by relocating more and more Turks to Cyprus, so the Turkish Cypriot minority would become the majority.

This led to the crisis of 1955-9, and eventually Cyprus became an independent republic in 1960. The Republic immediately suffered internal division; the Greeks were highly annoyed at the amount of influence given to Turkish Cypriots, who were still a minority population despite the move from Turkey to relocate more Turks and alter the population balance. This eventually culminated in the Turkish invasion of 1974, and division: Northern Cyprus became Turkish, and separated from the rest of the island by a buffer zone protected by barbed wire and troops. Despite continuous negotiation, this armed stalemate persists today. 

Cyprus became a member of the EU in 2004, and in 2014 produced a Joint Declaration with a view to bringing the ongoing internal conflict to an end. So far, negotiations are ongoing.

Its current crisis is economic, not political. Cyprus suffered significantly as a result of the US subprime mortgage collapse in 2008, which led to a recession in Cyprus in 2009 followed by a home-grown debt crisis in 2012-13. Cyprus was bailed out by Russia, which advanced billions in loans in 2012. At the time this was seen as an attempt by Russia to bolster its hold on Cyprus, which already relied on Russian money and deposits for a substantial amount of its economy. Among other things, it led to a 'citizenship for cash' initiative, in which foreign investors who had lost more than a certain amount of money in the Cyprus cash crisis would be fast-tracked for Cyprus citizenship - and thus, an EU passport. This was announced by Cyprus President Anastasiades to a group of Russian investors in 2013, at a conference held at Limassol. Nowadays it's a straight cash-for-passport deal: invest two million in Euro in property, and you too can have an EU passport. This led to a steady influx of Russian cash, and Limassol's skyline blossoms with new luxury apartment buildings, while its coastline sprouts marinas packed with luxury yachts.

Population

Urban population over 180,000, and the greater metropolitan area boasts just shy of a quarter million, which puts Limassol on par with North Las Vegas, Nevada.

The majority population is Greek Cypriot, with a healthy mix of Turkish and Armenian Cypriot.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a substantial minority population of Pontic Greeks, from the shores of the Black Sea, settled in Limassol, but this population is overshadowed by the larger influx of Russians since the 2008 economic collapse and Russian regeneration. Some 17% of the population of Limassol is Russian-speaking, and at least 8% are Russian born. Cyrillic signage, adverts and similar are commonplace.

Greek is the official language, with English a very distant second at 4% of the population. 

The vast majority are Greek Orthodox, with Roman Catholicism a very distant second at 2.9% of the population.

Literacy is at 99%.

Conflict

The crime rate is low, in comparison to similar EU cities. Armed violence, or criminal acts against the public, are remarkably absent. Similarly drug trafficking and transnational smuggling is a minor concern; there's some hashish and cocaine traffic, but Limassol isn't considered a major smuggling hub.

However like many cities in Greece there is a significant organized crime network in Limassol. Cigarette smuggling is the traditional source of income for these Godfathers of the Night, but they involve themselves in every financial sector. This is one of the reasons why Russia's organized crime networks haven't penetrated Limassol quite as thoroughly as might have been expected, given the circumstances; the locals have the situation all sewn up. This includes officialdom; it's widely believed that public officials and police are in the pockets of the Godfathers. These organizations are family-like cells, with the father supporting several sons, but it does not follow that there are blood ties between father and son, or that they are all Greek Cypriot. These organizations are known to accept other ethnic groups into the family.

By far the most significant crime in Cyprus generally, and Limassol in particular, is financial. Cyprus' lax financial regulations make it a money laundering magnet; even back in the 1990s, according to Misha Glenny, approximately $1 billion in Russian capital was being processed by Cyprus each month. 

Tensions between ethnic Turks and Greeks remain high, but Limassol is on the southern coast of Cyprus, about as far as possible as it is to be from the Turk/Greek buffer zone and still be in Cyprus. 

Backdrop

Limassol's Kolossi Castle is one of the ten castles of Cyprus. Built by the Byzantines originally, around 1000 AD, it's supposedly where Richard Lionheart married his Queen, Berengeria of Navarre, during the Third Crusade. The current version of Kolossi was built by the Hospitallers in 1454, and consists of a large, square keep with rectangular bailey. It houses a medieval museum, with artefacts that date back to 400 AD in some instances.

Image sourced from Wikipedia, Gérard Janot


Limassol's building boom is a huge part of its current economy. Cranes and half-built luxury apartment buildings are an almost permanent part of the skyline, and new luxury megayachts are docking at one of the New Port's marinas every day. The best have beachfront views, naturally, but the mix of architectural styles and accommodation mean that Limassol's architecture is idiosyncratic, particularly when compared to Cyprus generally. 

Image taken from Limassol Royal real estate agency.

Limassol is famous for its carnivals, particularly the ten-day festival that takes place just before Lent each year. Supposedly an outgrowth of a pagan tradition, the carnival has some similarities with Venice's - not surprising given Cyprus' Venetian ties - but by comparison Venice is much more formal, where Limassol is relaxed, carefree, and more than a little inebriated. There are masquerade balls, cheese feasts, a satirical King or Queen of the Carnival, and parades galore. 

Carnival 2014, image taken from Wikipedia, Sergei Galyonkin


Three Hooks

The Conspiracy mooks your team just dropped all have Cyprus passports and ROC tattoos, and one of them has brochures from a Limassol real estate agency in his pocket. This ties in with rumors you've been hearing through your Network contacts, about a major Conspiracy asset - possibly even a vampire - that relocated her assets, and perhaps her sanctum, from Russia to a European base of operations. Is she there herself, or does this mean there's a Conspiracy node operating in Limassol? 

The people smugglers you've been tracking have a significant operation in Cyprus - mainly supplying unskilled labor and sex workers. However a look at their recent pattern of operations (Traffic Analysis, possibly Human Terrain) indicates that the flow of sex workers in particular has increased significantly, and that can be attributed to a small string of Limassol nightclubs controlled by an organized crime group, increasing demand. But what is it about those nightclubs that forces them to bring in so many sex workers? What's happening to all those women?

A former member of Turkey's National Intelligence Organization is shopping data on targets in Germany, Switzerland and Greece. This spy got badly burnt in a recent operation, and wants guarantees of safety in exchange for the information she possesses. However before negotiations conclude she's snatched off the street, and indications are that one of Cyprus' Godfathers of the Night paid for her abduction. Where's her data, and why are OC elements based in Limassol so interested in what she had to offer?

Thrilling Elements

  •  Groups of laughing, drunken young revelers meander from nightclub to nightclub along the waterfront. After 2am, if you're over 24, you'll feel as old as Methuselah.
  • After another Limassol football victory, sports fans throng the streets, cheering and boasting.
  • Expensive sports cars and the ultra-rich flock to the marinas at Limassol's New Port; celebrities and those who love to stalk them are often seen. 
  • A cruise ship docks, disgorging hundreds of tourists that scatter over the city, seeking diversion.
  • Tourists wind through the streets of old-fashioned wine making Omodos village, only a short distance to the north of Limassol proper. 
  • A group of disparate foreigners - surely not fun-seekers - cluster together at a café, eyeing strangers suspiciously. They're all young men of fighting age - might they be on their way to some Middle Eastern war zone?