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.  


Sunday, 5 August 2018

You Must Pay The Penalty (RPG All)

Sometimes characters fail, and that's okay.

What's not okay is the binary choice system we, as Keepers/Directors or what-have-you, put ourselves in by insisting that failure = extreme penalty, usually health damage or catastrophic plot damage.

I've often thought this is a holdover from the earliest RPGs, where assuming THACO is X and the character rolls something less than X, the character misses. There isn't a middle ground. Hit, or miss, with the possibility of critical miss or critical hit.

The recent Pelgrane One-2-One systems make different assumptions. It's very difficult to out-and-out fail a roll. The character usually has 2D6 for any test, where a result of 3 or less is a Setback, 8 or less is a Hold and above 8 is an Advance. So the character's only likely to get a Setback around 8% of the time. Whereas the character's very likely either to succeed (perhaps with some complications) or win extra benefits, so long as the die roll is unmodified.

This is in no small part because having the character fail in a One-2-One in any scene other than the climactic ones is boring. Lovecraft didn't end Innsmouth at the part where Roger Olmstead makes a break for it out his hotel window, slips, and falls to his doom. Neither should the Keeper end a story before the character at least understands what's going on and what's at stake.

It's different in a combat-heavy system, where the plot can be irrelevant and the only real criteria for success is how many levels a character gets. In any game where the plot takes second or third place to contests, whether or not a character out-and-out fails a contest is extremely important, because those contests are the only means the character has of influencing the shape of the game in any significant way.

In a game where plot is more important than contests, the character has other ways of changing the shape of the game. The character can create plot, or solve the existing plot, and while this can involve contests it doesn't have to. The character who gets blackmail information on an important NPC and uses that information to force the NPC to do a certain thing, is just as successful as the character who draws her sword and wins a contest, forcing the NPC to do a certain thing. Both these courses of action assume that having the NPC do a thing is as important, if not more so, than getting levels or gathering treasure. However one method involved little or no contests, whereas the other was nothing but contest.

In a plot-focused game there has to be some kind of penalty for those moments when the character fails a test. The question is, what kind of penalty should it be?

I handle failure by ramping up the consequences but keeping the chain going, and I announce the consequences in advance. So:

Player: Okay, now's my chance. I tie together several blankets and, using them as an impromptu rope, escape out of my hospital room to the ground below.

Director: You can do that, but be warned: if you fail this roll, the nurse will come in the room while you're escaping and scream, alerting everyone.

Player: Fine. [rolls, fails]

Director: You reached the ground but now everyone knows what happened and where you are. Security is on its way.

Now, I could have said that failure means the character slips, falls, and injures herself. However it's usually more interesting to impose a story consequence in a story-driven game. Health loss is only an interesting consequence if this is the kind of game where a lot of combat happens, because in those systems health is more important than any other stat. In story-driven games health is rarely the most important stat.

In the above example failure didn't injure the character but it did impose story consequences, thus continuing the chain of events. If the test succeeded the character could probably escape unnoticed. Now the character has to find a solution to the story problem, which is that security will recapture the character unless the player does something to prevent it.

Moreover I warned the player ahead of time. That's important for two reasons: first, it raises tension. The player knows even before the die is cast that there's a significant penalty for failure. Second, by establishing consequences ahead of time the Keeper avoids seeming wishy-washy. Failure has to be failure, not a reason to create more tests until the character finally passes one. Oh, you failed that test? Um. Well, we can have another test … and another … and you're really bad at this, but let's have another test

The swashbuckling game 7th Sea tried something similar in its death mechanic, by insisting that player characters never died outright in a fight. Instead they became Helpless, and could only be Killed by a deliberate act. This encouraged players to do reckless things in combat - which is the point of a swashbuckling game, after all - secure in the knowledge that, while there might be consequences, they would not necessarily be character-ending ones. Moreover if there was a chance your character could die, that possibility would be flagged by the obvious presence of a Villain capable of taking that deliberate act.

Ultimately this was because 7th Sea valued story over combat, but still wanted a fair amount of combat. The setting was very Douglas Fairbanks, after all, and you can't have that kind of story without at least one sabre duel in some dramatic setting.

Bear in mind there probably weren't any safety nets or guide ropes on set. That's all Fairbanks.

This should be ringing a chord with, say, Night's Black Agents Directors. After all, those games also involve significant combat or chase scenes with potentially fatal consequences for those involved. At the same time the Director probably doesn't want to kill the characters midway through the scenario.

But if you can't or don't want to kill them, there has to be something else you can do. In any game there's usually something, but the Director has to be creative.

For example:

At the end of a Thrilling Chase scene across the rooftops of Paris, the agent fails a roll and the enemy gets away. Rather than have the agent who failed the roll tumble to the ground, the Director rules that the agent made the leap but didn't quite get to the rooftop. Instead they landed on the balcony below, taking 1D6 damage. In addition, the Director rules that for the remainder of this scene and the next scene the agent has the Hurt condition, and takes penalties to physical action contests, to reflect sprains, bruises and possibly broken glass injuries sustained during the fall. 

If the agent was trying to get away instead, the Director rules that the agent tumbles into an occupied apartment and the enemy does not follow, not wanting to get caught by the police. Or maybe there's a Bane there, if the pursuer is a Vampire. The agent suffers the same damage and Hurt condition as above, and also gains 1 extra Heat. The agent gained 1 Heat anyway just for being in a chase; now the total is 2. Also, the agent now has to deal with the situation the agent tumbled into - whatever it may be. 

In both examples there is a penalty and it's a serious penalty, but it does not kill the character or end the session prematurely.

The point to bear in mind is this: in any system, no matter the setting or mechanics, there is always an option that does not involve character death. In Night's Black Agents a character can increase Heat, lose Stability, or suffer penalties to future die rolls to name just three potential consequences. A character can also be Captured, or bitten by a vampire, or lose important equipment or evidence. Say an agent obtains an important Block or Bane only to drop it in the Seine. What happens next?

There is always the possibility of failure, and when a character fails that character must pay the penalty. However it's up to you, as the Daffy of this scenario, as to what that penalty should be.


Sunday, 29 July 2018

Money Heist - Flashbacks (Night's Black Agents)

I've been on a Spanish kick recently after watching the brilliant series Ministry of Time. One of the shows I've been watching is a heist series I recommend to anyone interested in Night's Black Agents: Money Heist, aka La Casa de Papel.

La Casa tells the story of a gang of clever and sophisticated thieves who engineer a takeover of the Royal Mint of Spain, planning to print millions upon millions of Euro and walk out scot free after a 12 day siege. It's gorgeously shot and intricately plotted, with slick twists and turns to astound the viewer. I'm on season 1 episode 10 at time of writing; every episode I've watched these characters pull off moments of sheer genius, none of which I'm going to share with you because it would be a shame to spoil.

This is a must-watch for Night's Black Agents players and directors. Not just for its clever ideas, but because it demonstrates effective use of investigative and general abilities in ways that you haven't thought of. You can go through an episode and say for each moment in a scene, Disguise, Infiltration, Flirting, Cop Talk, Bureaucracy, High Society - and on and on. Dust gamers should take particular note; this is as Dusty as an eight mile stretch of bad road.

It's also a Lewton's Bus master class, except without the supernatural element. The number of times I've watched this thing spike the tension, SPIKE the tension, SPIKE THE TENSION and then release … and you, the viewer, know it could easily have gone a different way, but here we are now.

However I do want to talk about a mechanic that Money Heist uses at least once per episode: the Flashback.

It works like this: a problem or situation arises unexpectedly. The viewer can't see a way out, or a way forward. Then there is a switch to a previous moment, almost always kicked off by narration from Tokyo, the audience viewpoint character and one of the most significant members of the heist crew. The events that take place in that flashback show how or why the present situation isn't what the viewer thought; that what looked like a crisis is an opportunity, or what seemed victory is defeat.

Night's Black Agents often suggests using flashbacks in-game, but doesn't go much further than 'narrate a brief flashback sequence.' Money Heist goes one further, and I think it can be co-opted into NBA using the Achievements mechanic in Double Tap.

Double Tap proposes a simple mechanic for General Ability refreshes in the middle of a scene. Engineer an Achievement moment - say, by running through a working kitchen during a chase or shootout scene, thus winning the Chef de Partie achievement - and you get a 3 point refresh of whichever General Ability seems most appropriate. The point being that the agent has to create the moment, has to find that kitchen and run through it. If there's no reasonable way of creating the moment, say if it's well after closing time and no kitchens are open, then the achievement cannot be won.

I propose something like this:

La Casa de Papel: Invoke and play through a flashback moment that has direct relevance to the situation you are currently in. This may involve other agents, or opposition forces. Gain a 3-point refresh, and pay for that refresh by gaining 2 points Heat, or by losing 2 points Stability, or by imposing a story problem on another agent that the other agent has to solve. Whichever payment method is used, it must flow directly from the events of the flashback - so, eg, the Heat gain comes from something that happened in the flashback.

In Money Heist a flashback always raises the stakes in some way. It's often used to, in game terms, pay for a Preparedness refresh so the characters can accomplish some cool thing that the viewer didn't think the characters would pull off. However there are always story consequences, and La Casa is very much a Dust game, with all the Trust and lack of same that implies. There are inevitably serious consequences every time Tokyo calls for a flashback, and the only question is who suffers. It might be Berlin, or the Professor, Helsinki, Nairobi, one of the hostages, one of the cops, but someone gets burnt.

That's why each time you call for this achievement, you have to pay for it with some kind of penalty. Heat affects the entire team. Stability losses affect the agent in a way that make future tests more difficult. Imposing a story problem harms a team member, whose contributions may be vital to future success or failure.

Say one of the team suffers from an addiction and is hiding it from the group. The story problem might threaten to reveal that addiction, or to remove the substance the addicted agent needs, or lets the opposition know the agent is addicted to [whatever] which in turn allows them to manipulate the addicted agent. Or something else, but whatever it is the story complication ought to be serious. It can't be something the targeted agent can overcome easily. It might even require them to spend pool points of their own - Infiltration, Disguise, Athletics, something else - to engineer a solution. Which means it works great in a Dust game, but it would still work whether your game's Dusty or not.

For that reason this works best as an Achievement. Thrilling Narration can be used by anyone at any time; two agents with the Shooting cherry can both use narration to refresh points. However Achievements can be gained once and once only, so there's a definite benefit to invoking La Casa before anyone else does. Sure it screws everyone else, but at least you're okay - you got your refresh, and now there's no risk someone's going to screw you by calling for their own La Casa and imposing a story penalty on you. Of course, if they can think of a different way to screw you ...

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Child Spies (Night's Black Agents)

This will be a quick one as Sunday has flown past.

It's based in part on this Guardian article about the police and intelligence services - presumably MI5 though the article dances around that bit - using children as assets in the war on crime and terror. Brief synopsis: a House of Lords committee expressed alarm at the increasing use of children, some under the age of 16, as spies.

The Report on which the article is based can be found here.

'This Order proposes to increase the period for which a person under 18 years can be used as a CHIS [juvenile covert intelligence source] from one month to four months. While the Government state that the rationale for the change is that the one month authorization for CHIS increases pressure on the CHIS and their handlers to get results swiftly in order to justify renewal of the authorization, the predominant tone … was about the administrative convenience of the authorities concerned … The original [report] did not give any context on how such sources would be used or the numbers involved … It gave no indication of what checks might be made on the welfare of the young person not only during the period of surveillance but also in the longer term … We are concerned that enabling a young person to participate in covert activity associated with serious crime for an extended period of time may increase the risks to their physical and mental welfare …'

Unpleasant stuff.

In the Dracula Dossier there's one obvious connection: the Feral Child Vampire (p191). 'Created by Lucy during her brief tenure as 'The Bloofer Lady,' this child vampire hasn't aged since 1894 ...'

Operation FOOTBALL

A joint task force between MI5 and the London Metropolitan Police, Operation Football is supposed to be an investigation of juvenile gangs linked to larger organized groups dealing in heroin, with possible links to terrorist organizations. Several members of youth gang Horror Road have been targeted as part of Football, and the thinking is that flipping these gang members will lead to bigger fish. MI5 is particularly interested in rumors that Horror Road may be linked to a larger group involved in terror acts or the planning of same. One gang member, street name Mayhem, seems to be the primary link, but Football hasn't had much luck with Mayhem so far.

All of which is giving Edom kittens, because Football hasn't found a child informant; it's found the 1894 feral child, and the larger group involved in terror acts is Dracula's Conspiracy. The problem is Edom can't just warn the Football operatives off; it's gone too far for that. Too many people know. There's even talk an MP might raise the issue in the House, in support of (or to counter, whichever) the House of Lords' efforts to bring some order to the current Regulations governing the use of child spies.

Option One: Containment. This assumes the agents are working with or for Edom. Their task is to bring Mayhem in as discreetly as possible, preferably without involving or alerting Football's operatives in any way. Ideally they capture the SBA and provide a suitable corpse substitute - knife crime's a real problem, so sad. Of course Mayhem isn't likely to cooperate - the feral hasn't had this much fun in years.

Option Two: Node Surfing. This assumes the agents are freelancers or at least not connected to Edom. Their job is to follow Mayhem up the chain to the Node the feral's working with. Of course they'll have to do that under the noses both of the Football team and also Edom, which is doing its best to contain the situation without exposing its own operations. Naturally this isn't going anywhere pleasant - the feral might be a very small cog in the larger machine, but the Conspiracy elements it's contacted are bigger fish by far.

Option Three: Bad Day At Work. This option assumes the agents are part of Football and unaware of the larger conspiracy. This is a way to start a campaign, possibly even a Solo Op once the ruleset gets out of playtest. The Football team thinks its about to score a coup, but first it has to justify extending its use of its child operative. While it's doing that, someone drops an explosive bundle of information in Football's lap - its star informant isn't a child, it's been alive for over a hundred years and there are photos, documents or other paperwork to prove it. Who is Mayhem? What is Mayhem?


Sunday, 15 July 2018

Have Fun Storming the Castle (RPG All)

In fantasy and in other genres the castle is something armies attack. Occasionally a band of plucky heroes sneak in before the army arrives, but as a general rule if it has crenellations and a porter its purpose in life is to be besieged and preferably beaten in some great battle.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

A castle has two jobs: to exert authority, and survive. To exert authority it needs to have a minimum compliment of troops and a significant compliment of administrators. To survive it needs more castles and a bit of luck.

When William the Conqueror swept England after the great battles of 1066 one of his first priorities was to ensure motte and bailey castles went up as quickly as the Normans could build them, wherever they could build them. There wasn't a central planning bureau picking out exactly where things should be placed; put walls up, put archers on those walls, and send out the tax collectors, was the sum of the Conqueror's plan.

When Rome sent its soldiers out into the world and beat seven bells out of whoever it might be this week, its armies built fortresses or castrum as quickly as possible. Some permanent, some temporary, but all with the same purpose: plant the standard and provide a headquarters for the administrators. Possibly also a marketplace to do business with the locals, if circumstances warranted, but that wasn't its main purpose. Its reach extended further than its walls; it controlled a vast swathe of territory.

Look from culture to culture, from Sengoku Japan to the American frontier or the Aztec empire, and you'll find the same. First there is the period of conquest, where simple forts are flung up as quickly as possible. Not all of them will be built in good locations, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that they fulfil their first purpose: to exert authority. In time the castles that no longer matter or which were built in poor locations will be abandoned. Sometimes this means they'll be destroyed so someone else can't use them, and at other times or in less organized societies old forts will be left to decay. Meanwhile the better designed or situated castles will be improved upon. Each surviving castle will carry out its intended purpose: to provide a base of operations for administrators to collect taxes and organize civil operations, say a court of justice.

However survival depends not on defenses but on your neighbors, and that's why castles need more castles.

Back in the day if you were standing at the top of a decent-sized tower and looked in any direction, odds were you'd see another castle off in the distance. It might only be a speck on the horizon, but it's there. The reason why it's there is very simple: an attacker might get one, but not all.

If you're attempting to invade a country your job is to get from the entry point to the main target as quickly as possible. This is even more true in situations where your army has to move on foot through difficult terrain, as has been the case for most of human history. There are only so many months in the year. Some are rainy, some are frozen, some are too hot. Your army might only have three or four months before it has to dig in and wait out the weather. That assumes you have a cohesive, professional army that is paid and trained to fight. For much of history that simply wasn't so. Generals and Kings had to make do with what they could scrape together, but that meant conscripting farmers and other people whose absence was keenly felt at home. Farmers have a nasty habit of deserting when the harvest and planting seasons come. Sailors don't want to work in dangerous conditions for little pay when they could earn much more in the merchant marine.

Even in the present it's ruinously expensive to keep a professional army in the field for longer than a few months. Remember a while back when I talked about the Muscle in Night's Black Agents? I quoted an article posted in the Guardian which said child soldiers fresh from conflicts in Africa were being hired by mercenary companies like Aegis - formerly Sandline - to do duty in Iraq.

"You probably would have a better force if you recruited entirely from the Midlands of England," [James] Ellery, a former brigadier in the British Army [and former director of Aegis], told the Guardian. "But it can't be afforded. So you go from the Midlands of England to Nepalese etc etc, Asians, and then at some point you say I'm afraid all we can afford now is Africans."

The point being that if your job is to get to and conquer the main target, anything that delays this advance is a threat to your economy as well as your campaign. If there are twenty castles in your way then there are twenty threats, and there are only so many options open to you.

You can attack. Congratulations, you just lost the war. A siege takes weeks, perhaps months, and may require specialized equipment you don't have. One siege is doable, maybe, if you're lucky. Twenty is not an option. Even if you capture one or two by quick movement and surprise attack, the others will be waiting for you.

You can ignore them. Congratulations, you just lost the war. Each of those castles has a defensive force and now that defensive force is free to attack your supply lines, your stragglers, and anything else it can get its grubby little hands on.

You can devote a small portion of your force to keep each castle's defenders under siege while moving your main force to the primary objective. Congratulations, you just made things much, much harder for yourself and may have lost the war. Your army is only so large. There's only so much it can do, and if you send one force off here and another off there and a third to God alone knows where, by the time you get to the thing you actually want to attack you may not have enough troops to knock it over.

This is why some of the most successful military escapades in medieval history were hit-and-run raids. The Hundred Years War and Omar's relentless attacks on Marlo Stansfield have this in common: it's not about territory, it's about making the other side bleed. Send the Black Prince and a band of thugs on Chevauchee, pillage everything in sight and run away before the enemy can get an army together. Do that often enough and you put the enemy on the defensive, forcing them to meet you on terms of your choosing.

This is also why when castles fall it typically isn't to an attacking enemy. When castles fall, it's because someone betrayed them. It might be that the defenders reached an accommodation with the attackers before the fight even began, or it might be that one or two people inside the castle let the enemy in. There's many a ballad and ghost story about a foolish lover who let her paramour into the castle, only to be stabbed and left in the ruins as the besiegers take the fortress.

All that said, what does this mean to your RPG campaign?

It means that when you design a castle in your game you need to think about its jobs. It has to exert authority and survive.  Authority doesn't mean knights and heroes, it means soldiers and administrators. Someone has to collect the taxes, administer justice, and do all the pesky things that need doing if the country's going to run smoothly.

It's great if the guy in charge is a hero, but it's not about the heroism nor is it about the noble lineage. When William divided up England he didn't give out manors to the most blue-blooded Normans he could find - he was William the Bastard, after all. He gave out manors to successful soldiers, and if, as time went on, those soldiers proved unworthy or died childless the manor would be handed out to someone else. Manors change hands all the time. That's what makes them so useful; the more manors you have in your gift, the more loyalty you can purchase from would-be manor holders.

In a fantasy setting, or in any setting where mundane power - swords, guns - can be outclassed by magical or supernatural power, this does not change the castle's first job. Its first job is still to exert authority. However it does change the castle's second job, because survival in a magical world is tricky business.

The point behind having a lot of castles is that it eats up an attacker's time. An army can't afford to lose even a day, never mind several weeks or months. However if an army has a dragon on its side then a castle might fall in a day. In fact, a dragon might fly ahead of an army and take castles by surprise, forcing their immediate capitulation. An undead army might march more quickly than a living one - no need to worry about fatigue - and doesn't care whether it's winter or summer. The list goes on.

So castles will need some form of defense against the threats that face it, and that may change the way castles are designed. When the threat was that someone might mine under the square corner of a wall to cause it to collapse, castle builders started using round towers which were much less vulnerable to that technique. When cannons made tall walls obsolete forts lowered their profile, eschewing tall walls for long, low palisades with interlocking fields of fire, to keep the enemy from getting too close.

If the castle designers know that dragons are going to be a threat, they'll start putting in anti-dragon measures. If they know undead armies are a thing, they'll start putting out anti-undead measures. Exactly what those are will depend on the enemies' characteristics and power set.

Say this is the typical kind of undead we're talking about, that can be defeated by holy power. In that case every castle has a picket line of shrines, each with its own minor holy relic - something blessed by a high-ranking official, a saint's finger-bone, what-have-you. The point being to keep the undead from getting too close, as well as providing a kind of early warning system. There will be at least one person at the castle whose sensitivity to the ebbs and flows of magic warns them when one of those shrines is interfered with. Equally it will be someone's job to make sure all those shrines are well maintained.

Moreover it will be someone else's job to steal the holy relics, because every castle needs them and there aren't enough to go around. There will be a secondary market in relics, many fake, because when demand is high and supply low, or restricted, black markets spring up like mushrooms. So it will be someone else's job to detect fakes, and prosecute the people stealing holy relics. Or just kill them. Whichever works.

This applies across the board. Castles aren't just for fantasy systems after all; every setting, from science fiction to gritty noir, has its equivalent.

Say we weren't talking about castles. Say we were talking about Facilities in a modern day game. Does anything change?

Not really. Whether a Facility is dedicated to Manufacture, Collection, Distribution, or Analysis, it still has those two basic functions. It has to exert authority and it has to survive. Exactly how it goes about those two functions will change depending on the setting.

Let's say this is an extra-legal facility in a setting like Night's Black Agents. Lets say that its job is to distribute McGuffins, and that it has to do that job within a developed, moderately policed environment. Anywhere in Europe, really; somewhere there's plenty of communication links, transport links, free movement, and enough cops to keep the peace. Not where movement is restricted or there's a significant number of secret police or armed forces checking everyone's papers.

So here is your castle: it's one distribution facility. It has to exert authority, and it has to survive. It has to do those things in an environment that is innately hostile: if the cops knew it existed, they'd shut it down, because it's an extra-legal facility.

So how does it exert authority and survive?

Castles exert authority by providing a base for administrators and tax collectors. The same applies here. The collection authority is a base for, say, vampire Conspiracy types. Since it's a distribution facility it probably doesn't have troops and bosses; it has trucks, drivers, and a bunch of goons. As D'Angelo points out in the Wire, the drug stash never moves without soldiers to protect it.

The exact nature of that authority will depend on the nature of the facility. A low-level, unimportant facility probably doesn't have powerful soldiers, and so on. But powerful or not, someone at that facility is in charge of making sure everything works smoothly, that the McGuffins get to where they need to go when they need to get there, and that the police or whoever is nominally in charge doesn't interfere with the facility's operation. Those are the administrators.

It also has to survive. Castles survive because there are lots of castles. The more of them there are, the less likely it is that any attacker will be able to take them all on. Sure, one or two may fall, but there are always other castles. The sheer number of them may be enough to persuade enemies not to attack at all.

Facilities can use the same trick. There's never just one distribution facility. There are dozens, hundreds. The larger the organization, or Conspiracy, the more likely it is that it will have many facilities at its disposal, some more important than others. If one gets destroyed, move operations to another.

There can be alternate means of survival depending on the nature of the threat, just as the best defense against an undead army isn't necessarily a large number of castles. If the threat comes from a bunch of unaligned burnt spies, then one way to ensure survival is to turn the Heat up as soon as the agents show their faces. Squeal loudly and often; let the cops know that crazy gun-toting madmen are on the prowl. Or, if the facility can't afford to get the authorities involved, tell other criminals. The agents aren't the only one with the Yojimbo option. "You know that shipment you were supposed to get, but which was intercepted by the cops? Yeah, it was these guys." For 'intercepted by the cops' read 'we deliberately didn't sent it' or 'we set it up to look like an ambush.' Whichever best suits the situation.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Catching Lewton's Bus: Jump Scare Gaming (RPG all, horror)

Val Lewton invented the jump scare in 1942, but that's not what he called it. He called it the Bus, and this scene from Cat People is why he called it that.

Let's analyze the scene.

It begins in ordinary circumstances. The character is doing something she does every day, and in a place where she would consider herself safe. The audience sees the threat, but she does not. She becomes isolated. She becomes aware of the threat, though she isn't certain where exactly it is. At the point where everyone - the character and the audience - expects the worst, salvation appears. The character survives the scene, though we are made very aware it could have gone differently.

This differs from the modern jump scare in several ways.

First, the modern jump scare depends heavily on atmospheric circumstances, specifically music. We know when those strings thrum that something awful is coming. There are strings here too, but not that blaring unsubtle BZAAA. If anything, the music is much louder before she goes into the park and dies to nothing once she enters it. Instead we hear her footsteps echo in the dark - and possibly the echo of someone else's footsteps. No music at all.

The hiss of the doors opening so closely mimics the sound we expect to hear - the big cat's scream - that for a split second we're not sure whether we heard the bus, or the cat. Whereas in a modern scare there's never any attempt to confuse; it's always BZAAA.

However we see a great deal, and that's another difference. Often in a modern jump scare we are allowed to see very little. It's a dark corridor, a dark spaceship, a dark house, with shadows blocking everything. Or the camera is fixed and unmoving. Or the camera is tight in on the protagonist, allowing us to see very little other than the protagonist. Yet in Cat People we see everything, often from the protagonist's viewpoint, and specifically we see her dart from pool of light to pool of light. Yes, there is darkness between the pools but it does not obscure the entire scene. If anything it tantalizes by allowing the audience to see just enough and no more.

Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca earned every penny of his paycheck. It probably helped that he had complete control over his environment - the whole thing's shot on a studio lot. They built that park from scratch. Mind you, they built it so much like Central Park I doubt anyone familiar with it in 1942 could have told the difference.

Finally, the greatest difference is that in a jump scare we often discover that the threat is fake. In this, we know the threat is real. We know, and the protagonist knows, that there really was something out there. We just didn't see it catch her.

It begins quietly, spikes the tension, SPIKES the tension, SPIKES THE TENSION and then … leaves us unfulfilled but terrified. Because we know that although the threat didn't follow through this time, it was a real threat, and it is still out there, and it will try again.

This isn't the only Bus in Cat People, but Lewton knew that overuse of the technique would deaden its effect. You have to earn your Bus; you can't just leap on screen and hope for the best.

So how does a horror Keeper do this at the table?

To begin with, let's set the scene. Assume this is part of the Dracula Dossier. Assume it is taking place in Whitby. Assume it takes place at nightfall or early evening.

This shall be a transitional scene. The agent has completed a task and has to get from wherever the agent currently is to the meeting place or safehouse, and discuss the events of the day with the other agents.

The Dossier gives several Emotional Modulation moments. It's useful to have a few of these on standby for any game. You don't have to kill yourself planning these out; be brief, evocative, and don't nail down the details since those will change depending on circumstances beyond your control.

A sudden rainstorm breaks. You're drenched in seconds and huddle briefly under the patched canvas of a closed shopfront's awning, icy ropes of water slithering down your back and neck. There's a brief pause in the squall, and you think you might have time to get to where you need to go.

The agent either moves off or stays where they are.

You catch a glimpse in the reflection of a window [shop window, car, something else].

The player will probably ask, "glimpse of what?" Don't answer. Don't be drawn, don't add detail. The player will be adding all the detail you could ask for, so long as you let imagination run riot.

Spike the tension.

The agent probably moves off at this point, but might try something else.

Your footsteps on the wet pavement are the only thing you can hear. At this time of night there ought to be people about, surely? You haven't passed a single person in the last five minutes. The streetlights go on, one after the other. The one ahead of you has failed, as has the one ahead of that.  

Tone of voice is important here. Be very calm and deliberate. Take your time. The more agitated the player becomes, the more tranquil you should strive to be.

SPIKE the tension.

There's definitely something behind you. It's out of sight but you can smell it, something rank and rotten clawing its way down your throat, gagging you. That, and the copper stink of fresh blood.


A door opens just to your left, and a startled shopkeeper blurts an apology for almost barging into you. The streetlight next to you flickers on. She mutters something about the Council and starts her journey home.


[The agent may try looking for the source of that smell.] You finds a pool of fresh blood next to a shopfront, not diluted by rain so it must have been put there moments ago. By what, you can't be certain. [Tests, if carried out, show it to be animal blood.]

There's no indication how it got there. It's as if the creature vanished altogether, whatever it was.

So what happened exactly? The agent began in ordinary circumstances. Players are creatures of habit; if they get used to things happening in scenes, and they just had a scene - investigating Whitby Abbey, say - then they won't expect anything to happen 'out of scene' or in a transitional moment between scenes.

The setting was normal. Even if your players have never been to Whitby you can show them pictures - God knows there are plenty of them. They can see in their minds where they are. At the same time it is not precisely as they picture it. Where are the people? The place ought to be packed with tourists, residents - did they all vanish?

Again, tone of voice is important. You are striving through your performance to achieve the same effect that Lewton and Musuraca did with camera shots. There is no sudden jerk, no zipping about the place. The shot is calm, unnaturally calm. You can see everything - and imagine worse. It all looks fine, which is precisely why you're frightened.

Not answering questions is as important. Players are used to you answering questions. It gives them comfort, and the last thing you want is for them to have comfort. You want them not sure of their environment, their immediate surroundings, or the true nature of the threat. The only thing you want is for them to be absolutely certain that there is a threat.

The unnatural enters the scene. The agent could smell it, knew it was close, but could not see it. That's important. If they can see it they can attack it, try to kill it - overmaster the threat, in other words. An intangible threat is different. You can beat an enemy standing in front of you. You cannot hit an enemy that exists only in your mind.

Or, to put it in D&D context, if you give hit points to Cthulhu then the players know they can kill Cthulhu, if they try hard enough. So don't give Cthulhu hit points.

Then comes the release, and it's important that it be an ordinary release, bringing the mundane back into the scene with a crash. Once that shopkeeper opens that door, the unnatural takes flight.

Yet we know the threat is real, else why the pool of blood? It must have been close, and it must have been there only a moment ago, otherwise the rain would have washed it away.

No points were spent. No tests were made. The player can call for tests, of course, but that's a different thing. The Director didn't insist on it.

Now the agent's caught Lewton's Bus, let the agent ride it for a while - nerves jangling all the way.


Sunday, 1 July 2018

The Kill Team (NBA)

Last year I wrote about the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, and his alleged killers' trials proceed apace. The prosecutors say the two women who claim to have played a prank on the North Korean dictator's half-brother were working as part of a trained kill team, and the prank was just cover for the kill. The women are sticking to their story, and say that when they sprayed Kim Jong-nam with the nerve agent they thought they were taking part in a comedy reality show.

In Night's Black Agents the central conceit is that the agents used to be the vampires' puppets, but they broke free and are now on the run. I don't know of many games that actually play it that way, possibly because while that works for one agent's backstory it begins to look shaky when four or more agents are in play. One escapee is unfortunate, two looks like carelessness, and more than two makes the vampires look less like an all-encompassing threat and more like the Elmer Fudd Conspiracy.

However there is a way to work it that could be very interesting:

The Kill Team

You come to, tired and with an awful thirst. You're in a nondescript hotel room in one of the cheaper hotels in Macau. You're dirty and haven't bathed or shaved in days, but you've no idea why nor any clear memory of the last … how long? It can't have been that long, surely, but according to the news it's been [months, years, whichever the Director prefers]. You don't have any equipment but you do have a suitcase full of cash, mostly Macanese Pataca with a mix of Chinese renminbi, Hong Kong Dollars, Maylay Ringgit and a small amount of US$.

When you switch on the television you're horrified to see your own face looking back at you, as part of a news item about an assassination. [High profile victim] was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and according to the media you, and a handful of other people you've never seen before, are part of the kill team. At least one of the assassins died at the airport, preferring to swallow poison rather than get caught.

While you'd swear you've never met any of these people, you know them professionally - highly trained, reliable, and as far as you know they have nothing to do with murder, whether political or otherwise. Which is why you're even more shocked to discover that each surviving member of the alleged kill team is staying at this hotel, on the same floor - the same corridor, even.  

You each have a suitcase, a pill bottle containing God alone knows what, and whatever else a Difficulty 5 Preparedness might get you.

What do you do next?

Director's Notes

The agents start with Heat 4 or 5 depending on the importance of the High Profile Victim. This will go up by 2 if they attempt to spend any of that money, since it's counterfeit. In fact until a few days ago it was the property of the Royal Malaysian Police CID, and it has told Interpol about the theft of the funny money.

The pill bottles contain ordinary aspirin.

There is a Conspiracy agent at the hotel. She arranged for the agents' accommodation and oversaw their arrival. She is the only vampire-influenced person at the hotel, (Renfield? Maybe) but she has ordinary civilians and criminal goons on the payroll.

The scheme was supposed to be simple: get the agents to kill the target in a way guaranteed to attract attention. Have them flee to Macau, and then have them arrested by the Chinese. There was to be a flashy gun battle, and few if any of the agents were supposed to survive. Their lives weren't important. The idea was to make everyone think the Victim was killed by [whichever agency the agents used to work for] thus spreading chaos and furthering the Conspiracy's schemes.

It went wrong because the agents took one day longer than anticipated to get to Macau. They only had enough [compound X, presumably vampire blood but it could be something else] to last a certain amount of time. Once it wore off, their conditioning would break. That extra 24 hours gave the agents time to recover their wits, and it also meant that the agent at the hotel had to make new arrangements with her friend at Public Security. The raid they'd planned couldn't go off at the time they wanted, and now the higher-ups are asking questions, making the operation more delicate. However the plan is still the same: raid the hotel on the pretext of cracking down on pro-democracy dissidents, guns go off, everybody dies.

Unless the agents move quickly that's exactly what will happen.

Possible Avenues of Attack:

The hotel provides cell phones to all its guests, and these phones are linked to the hotel network. A little Digital Intrusion jury-rigging, possibly with some Wire Rat expertise, allows an agent to get into the hotel's email server which lets them see the communications between the vampire front desk agent and her handler.

Human Terrain or Military Science spots the military build-up outside the hotel. They're trying to be as inconspicuous as it is possible to be, bearing in mind they're People's Liberation Army heavy squad. Blowing two points Military Science allows an agent to identify someone on the team that they've worked with before (former colleague, cooperated in a police raid, something else) who they might be able to work with, if they can get to that person without being spotted and blown away. This person only joined the squad today, and was appointed because the higher-ups want someone on the ground they can trust implicitly - further complicating the Conspiracy's plans. The Chinese higher-ups don't think this is about pro-democracy dissidents; they think the PLA agent organizing the raid has been corrupted by Triads and is abusing his authority to carry out Triad reprisals. This does not mean that they'll welcome the agents with open arms; if the Chinese get hold of them they'll likely vanish into some forgotten prison, never to be seen again.

Human Terrain also notices the conspicuous lack of hotel service on the agents' floor. The hotel staff who do show up, if the agents press the issue, clearly aren't trained members of the service industry; they look and behave more like Triad thugs in fancy dress. They're freelancing gangsters paid off by the Conspiracy front desk agent, who are supposed to make sure the agents stay precisely where they are. They are armed, if it comes to a fight.

Incidentally Streetwise knows that these Triads aren't with the gangs who run this particular hotel chain. The Kung Lok have this hotel sewn up, and will not be pleased to learn some rival nobodies are trespassing. A Network spend or clever use of Urban Survival or Streetwise points get the Kung Lok involved, to the detriment of the Conspiracy's goons.

Getting out of Macau is challenging. That's the whole point of dumping the agents there in the first place. Unless they want to cross the border into China - not recommended - they can fly out via the International Airport or take a ferry to Hong Kong. The airport and land border are heavily screened, and with all that Heat the agents will find those routes impossible unless they have Network contacts who can help them. The ferry terminal is probably the least scrutinized exit, but it does leave them on a boat for some time - and who knows what might happen then?

One option for the brave is the Hong Kong-Zuhai-Macau Bridge which was scheduled to open July 1 2018. It's 58 km long with six dual lanes and an undersea tunnel about 6.7 km long. In other words, it's a lengthy, exposed, monitored and flashy way to exit Macau that, depending on when you set the scenario, might not be officially open yet.

One other possible solution would be to steal a boat and sail out discreetly. Again, the best and closest option is Hong Kong, but they might try to strike further afield. Here's hoping they don't end up in North Korea by accident, and style points if they steal a traditional junk rather than some modern sailboat.

Thrilling Options:

Discreet foot chase involving Surveillance, Athletics or similar. Possibly involving both the Triads and the PLA.

Steal a taxi and race across the crowded streets of Macau. Style points if the agents steal a three-wheel pedicab, but if they do that they'll likely be caught. On the other hand, it's what Roger Moore would do.

Gun battle inside the hotel. The PLA have the agents severely outmatched, so they'll need to make it a running gun battle with some escape objective in mind - out the kitchens, via the roof, something else?

Macau's a gambler's paradise, so if the agents want to discreetly switch out their dodgy cash for clean currency one way to do that would be to hit the tables. Of course, they'll need to think of a way to dodge their PLA and Triad shadows first.


The agents really did kill that High Profile Victim so their Heat is about as bad as it can get. Their old agencies won't trust them and criminal fraternities will be very cautious in their dealings with them - they don't want the trouble that getting involved in assassinations will bring down on them.

The first order of business - survival.

The second order - how did they get involved in this, and can their names be cleared?


Sunday, 24 June 2018

Rats In The ATM (Night's Black Agents, Mumbai)

Only time for a quick one this week as there's a lot on. Among other things I'm directing a play - first read-through today - and making a cheesecake for my birthday, cos I like cheesecake. ;)

This one borrows from Ken Hite's Looking Glass Mumbai as well as this article about an ATM whose contents were devoured by rats.

Now to the story seed:

Making Bank

This broadcast is a one-day silly season attention getter for most media outlets, but for the agents it's a different story. There's enough detail in the Indian press to indicate the involvement of a Bhuta, possibly more than one. Although the Western press have only picked up on the ATM incident it's clear from Hindi outlets that this is the third incident of its type in the last three weeks. It's the first to involve an ATM; the other two were less eye-catching. Interesting side note: all three events have taken place within walking distance of Antilia, allegedly the largest private home in the world. Moreover a 0-point Traffic Analysis or similar discovers that at least one member of the Antilia's staff were near or on the site of each incident moments before it occurred. In fact a senior staff member was the last person to use the ATM before its rodent infestation. Is this Conspiracy action, or something else?

Option One: Unwelcome Guests. It's a curious fact known to few (1 point High Society or similar) but the family that built Antilia don't live in it. They hold parties and events there, but as soon as the last guest leaves so do they. Rumor has it this is because they fear bad luck; experts say the building has bad Vastu Shastra. The experts aren't wrong; the building has become a magnet for Bhuta. In fact the building is so crammed with spirits that some of them are ranging out into the wider world in search of excitement. The staff are very well paid and know better than to tell anyone about what's going on, particularly foreigners; no amount of reassurance or bribery will work on them, though Intimidation mixed with Occult Studies or Vampirology might. It's not the Conspiracy this time - but getting too close might get someone hurt or killed.

Option Two: Shot Across the Bow. The local Conspiracy Node is leaning on Reliance Industries, which is controlled by Mukesh Ambani, owner of Antilia. Reliance is in a range of different industries from petrochem to telecom, retail, and special economic development, so the Director's free to choose which of those lines the Conspiracy is interested in. Reliance also does business with Russian interests, so depending on the nature of your Conspiracy it might be his Russian friends that got him in this fix. Regardless, the Conspiracy is making its position plain: so far we haven't hurt you - but we could. Submit. Rescuing Ambani from this threat could earn the agents a powerful friend, the kind that can grant Excessive Funds.

Option Three: Good Staff is Hard to Find. A senior member of staff (of a total of 600) has drifted too close to the vampires. She might have found a Conspiracy asset or an unaligned bloodsucker, but whichever it was snacked heartily. The staff member didn't quite die, but it was a very close thing. Now her paramour wants to seal the deal - it wants a loyal Renfield at Antilia, and thinks the staff member is ripe for the plucking. However the frightened woman is hiding in Antilia, and there is some Bane or other preventing the vampire from getting in and taking what it wants. The Bhuta are a side-effect of the vampire's presence; it can't get rid of the things, much as it would like to.


Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Forger (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

This post is inspired by this article about Sotheby's latest acquisition: James Martin, an expert whose scientific mastery helps him spot fakes.

In the Dracula Dossier there's one story seed and one Node that could be affected. The Node is the Extraordinary Objects Department, and the story seed is the Portrait of Dracula by Francis Aytown, created in 1894.

Sotheby's offers a five-year money back guarantee in the event of a forgery, so it has every incentive to make sure it sells genuine artwork. Leaving aside that expense there's insurance to consider: every time it has to make a claim, premiums skyrocket. That's why it brought Marin and Orion Analytical on board.

The Extraordinary Objects Department handles strange, unusual and unique items from around the world. Everything it sells is scrutinized by experts, to ensure fakes don't slip through the net. Now it has the best scientific examination equipment and personnel on offer. Assuming the EOD is either an Edom or Conspiracy asset, why would it do that?

If an Edom asset, then it's because the EOD is stepping up its game. Orion isn't just expert at spotting forgeries: it has the very best anti-Vampire equipment Tinman has to offer. Anything found in the field or brought in by outsiders is subject to its scrutiny. The department's Recovery Team is the beneficiary of this new scientific wisdom, and is much more likely to spot either Conspiracy influencers or fake vampire-related artefacts. It's also going to be much more capable in the field, should it encounter something a little more dangerous than the norm.

If a Conspiracy asset, then it's because the EOD is trying to make itself look good. Too many dodgy artworks have gone out into the world, and people are getting suspicious. There's only so many times the jug can go to the well before it shatters, so Martin is the "new broom." He's not supposed to uncover anything; his job is to cover up the Recovery Team's activities. If brought on as an innocent, then the Conspiracy will be actively trying to corrupt him, and the agents might try to use him as a way into the EOD. Alternately he might be a Renfield, or even a full-fledged Vampire, the new, unofficial head of the Recovery Team.

Then there's that Portrait of Dracula. If it's a forgery, then Orion Analytical should spot it easily enough. That might lead somewhere interesting, depending on who the forger is. However it could be more interesting to use Aytown's portrait in a different way.

Francis Aytown is hardly the world's most renowned Victorian-era artist, and his Portrait is never going to be worth anything to anyone other than a small circle of vampire hunters. However there are plenty of other artists of his era whose work is worth a great deal more.

As the article points out, there's only so many times anyone can forge a Da Vinci.  "The technical skill needed to forge a Leonardo is colossal," says expert Georgina Adam, "But with someone like Modigliani it isn't." Aytown is in the Modigliani ballpark - someone who wanted a canvas of the right age to forge an "authentic" Modigliani might use the Portrait as a base. In fact, a canvas of Aytown's vintage is even better; Modigliani famously tried to destroy all his early works, so someone wanting to forge an early Modigliani that escaped destruction would love to have an 1894 canvas to work with.

If the Portrait is a minor item, then the deception could be uncovered by Orion. However there probably wouldn't be enough left of it to be useful. The process of preparing the canvas for re-use would have destroyed the original.

Suppose it was a Major Item, with all the psychic essence that implies. Suppose a part of Dracula is in that canvas. Imagine being that forger, working with it every day, having it eat into your soul. 

Story Seed: Dash of Color. The agents are alerted by an art-knowledgeable Contact (Journalist, Art Historian, Sculptor) who points them at a recent scandal in the art world. A Modigliani passed as genuine by Sotheby's has turned out to be a fake, but in a peculiar twist the owner not only refused to accept that she'd bought a fraud, she also committed suicide - cutting her throat while standing in front of the alleged Modigliani. Forensic analysis at the scene notes that there ought to have been blood splatter all over the painting, but not a drop can be seen on the canvas.  

The painting is currently in the possession of the Metropolitan police, but it might not be there long unless the agents intervene. A group who, while not part of the Conspiracy direct, are Conspiracy-adjacent, intends to steal it. This might be some of the Psychic's hangers-on, or the Madman; whoever steals or tries to steal it is highly motivated. Almost psychotic, really - and they show signs of vampiric infection. Former Renfields or unaligned/feral vampires are likely to be members of this group.

Tracing the fake through Sotheby's to the seller discovers that the vendor acquired it from a forger working in an East London garage. It might be the Sculptor, or someone hired by the Sculptor. Whoever it is has a highly sophisticated set-up in that garage, but it's all for naught; the forger's been going slowly out of his mind ever since he worked on that piece. The studio's covered in renditions of the original Portrait, but he can't quite get the likeness.

Meanwhile the Portrait is asserting itself, underneath all that fake Modigliani. The more blood it gets, the more like the original it becomes. If it can get enough sacrifices - perhaps provided by its new owners - the Portrait will be exactly as it was before the forger got his hands on it.


Sunday, 10 June 2018

Time Horizon & the Conspiracy - Night's Black Agents

Time Horizon: Shareholders are concerned about the long-term financial prospects of their company, because the value of their shares depends on expectations for the long-term future. In contrast, managers might only be interested in the short term. This is partly because they might receive annual bonuses based on short-term performance, and partly because they might not expect to be with the company for more than a few years. ICSA Definitions in Corporate Governance.

It occurs to me that the Conspiracy in Night's Black Agents is relentlessly anti-Capitalist. Which will come as a shocker to you, I'm sure, but consider - even the Mafia operates on a kind of managerial reward scheme, with bonuses and benefits. The Conspiracy does not.

If you're middle management in this organization, you don't get bonuses based on short-term performance. Vampires don't care about the short term; their interest is strictly in centuries. Their servants, being mortal, would probably like to think about short-term benefits, but that would be a huge mistake. If upper management ever got the idea that the chair moistener from section 7G was developing strange notions, that foolish dreamer'd be off to the slurry pits.

So what keeps this organization functional, bearing in mind that it doesn't operate in the same way a corporation would, with salary bumps, bonuses and other rewards? Why become middle management for immortal psychotics?

1) The alternative is worse. Say you're a criminal, whether part of an organized crime network or just a talented freelancer. It's not like you can go to the cops for help. They'll just dump you in the slammer or the booby hatch, and that assumes you live in a relatively civilized nation rather than one where the authorities shoot you on sight. Plus, there's always death. Only one kind of person climbs out of the coffin, and you're pretty sure it's not you. The threat of death works on just about anyone, particularly if it's a suitably messy and prolonged death.

2) Sweet Toys. There might not be much hope for you, but at least there's plenty of fun to be had while you're still above ground. The vampires have access to all the best stuff - seemingly bottomless bank accounts, narcotics by the boatload, pretty people and booze. There's enough to numb the senses and stop you asking the important questions, like how long you can expect to enjoy all this.

3) Obliviousness. Very few people in the first two levels of the network are going to know who they work for. All they know is they get slipped some cash and aren't encouraged to ask questions. That plus the various vampiric powers of mind control and memory wiping ensures even the more inquisitive chair moistener never realizes what she's involved in. It's like the guys and gals at Enron; one day they had jobs, stock options and a future. Next day they're clearing their desks.

4) Ambition. Sure, you're not part of the in-group now. In time anything's possible. Play the game, keep your head down, and maybe one day …

However there's one big problem with this system. It's very vulnerable to abuse, but not the kind you may be thinking of.

Barings Bank sank thanks to a rogue trader, Nick Leeson. Soc Gen nearly went belly-up thanks to Jerome Kerviel. Kewku Adoboli made the management team of UBS look like chumps and lost over $2 billion. Toshihide Iguchi burned through $1.1 billion.

Weak management, ethical vacuousness, regulatory deficiency and a culture of deference to success leads to trading disasters time and again. The Conspiracy often has its claws in multinational corporations or banks, but it's a cinch that the vampire masters aren't sitting down with the audit team every other month and going over risk factors and daily trades. Maybe I'm wrong, but I can't see Dracula poring over annual reports and crunching numbers. That's what Renfields are for.

Problem is, if you don't understand what your company is doing then you risk someone taking advantage - and then you're really screwed. Barings went belly-up, after all. Vampires are the shareholders in this parable, but shareholders are seldom activists. They want their company to succeed, but they often don't pay enough attention to the inner workings of the company to ensure its long-term survival. When disasters happen, often the first sign the shareholders pay attention to is when the share price sinks below sea level - and then it's too late.

Picture the scene: ashen-faced government ministers in close conference with solemn lawyers and suicidal bankers plan strategy and write and rewrite policy, as queues of people line up in front of whichever financial institution is going belly-up this time. One man's face is on every television screen. Nobody knows exactly where he is; he was last seen boarding a flight, but never arrived at his destination - or if he did, he went straight into hiding. Billions of dollars went with him. Forensic accountants are still plumbing the depths of his secret off-books accounts.

Meanwhile the vampires are having a meltdown, because when that trader went off into the never-never so did their schemes for world domination. "What do you mean, the money's all gone?"

Worth watching.

After all that, a scenario seed:

Sunday Morning Coming Down

Hook: Through cutouts, a financial whiz-kid asks for a rescue. The whiz-kid is in a major European city, and wants help getting from there to Dubai completely unobserved. The outside world has to think he's still at home for at least 48 hours after he makes a break for it.

Wakeup: Any reasonable plan gets the target to Dubai as agreed. However very soon after they get there the agents see their faces on every TV screen, newspaper and financial webpage. Where is the whiz-kid? He's alleged to have brought about the complete collapse of the financial institution he worked for, and the depths of his bad trading have yet to be fully revealed. The agents are linked with his disappearance, and it soon becomes clear this is because the whiz-kid planned for that to happen. Meanwhile the whiz-kid has completely vanished; he has contacts in Dubai who helped him give the agents the slip.

Blowback: Initial Heat gain is substantial, but the first hit team isn't human. The vampires had a substantial interest in the collapsed financial institution, and are desperate to get the whiz-kid back. There's always a chance not all the money's gone, but only he knows exactly what happened and where everything went. This is why the whiz-kid burned the agents. As far as he's concerned they're meat shields, to stop the vampires from closing in on him before he made his getaway.

Stall: Continuing the search in Dubai is a bust. The whiz-kid came here because he wanted to get to an international airport hub with links all over the world. He could skip to Toronto, London, Kenya, Manila or anywhere in-between. He has friends at the airport who helped him confuse the trail by posting several different potential flights; tracking and Interrogating those friends will help find the whiz-kid.

Twist: The country the whiz-kid fled to has its own vampire program, or - if it's somewhere like Manila - has been infiltrated by a foreign nation's program, eg China's. He has contacts who work for that program who've offered him asylum in exchange for all he knows. Those contacts are just as happy to feed the agents to the Conspiracy as the whiz-kid is - they'd far rather the Conspiracy was chasing the agents than tracking the whiz-kid. Because of this, the agents find themselves gaining Heat wherever they go; the opposition intelligence agency is tracking their movements and telling the world.

Big Boom: The agents are finally in the same city as the whiz-kid, as are the Conspiracy and the other intelligence agency. Just when it seems the whiz-kid is about to be cornered, the car/plane/train he's in goes up in a big fireball. Nobody has the whiz-kid, not the vampires, the spies, or the agents. Is this an assassination, the whiz-kid's final escape plan, something else? Whatever it is, the agents will need to deal with it and clear out quickly, before all that Heat becomes too much to bear.