Sunday, 21 January 2018

Pink Panthers (Night's Black Agents)

No, not that one. This time out I'm going to talk about the most successful thieving syndicate of modern times, if not history itself: the Pink Panthers. With over 340 robberies and more than $500 million to the good, this gang of former paramilitaries, bandits, fixers and crooks has made its mark across the planet, nicking jewels from London to Tokyo. Next time you see an Audi lingering outside somewhere fat with loot, ask yourself: am I about to be witness to a daring heist?

This gang of Serbian criminals got their start in the early 2000s, after the Kosovo War of 1998-9, between the Federal Forces of Yugoslavia and the rebel, NATO-supported Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and the Bosnian War of 1992 to 1995. The end of these conflicts put a lot of very skilled, dangerous people out of business, and the sanctions against Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s, which didn't come to an end till 2001, completed an ugly picture. For some Serbs, this turmoil and economic devastation forced emigration; others became creative moneymakers, supplanting and replacing the destroyed economy with smuggling, theft and robbery.

Imagine what happens after ten long years of civil war and economic sanctions. Then imagine the likely result when curbs that had been in place for a decade are lifted, and poor, desperate, well-trained people can move freely across the world, on their own passports or one stolen from someone else. Thieves, smugglers and bandits licked their chops and went in for the kill - among them the Pink Panthers.

It's not clear how many Panthers there are. Estimates go as high as several hundred, but it's probable not all are actual Pink Panthers; more likely, Pink Wannabes. Gang members tend to be highly trained, speak several languages, are comfortable with firearms and violence, and have exceptional attention to detail. In one instance, for example, the robbers painted a bench near a target, specifically to prevent people sitting on it and becoming witnesses to the soon-to-be-crime.

Their method of operation is fairly straightforward. They send in a scout, always an attractive woman, whose job it is to thoroughly explore the target, marking any cameras and security devices. The group then hits the target as quickly and decisively as possible, going in and getting out in minimal time. They almost always use Audis as escape vehicles, because their drivers are very familiar with the type - again, attention to detail, avoiding unnecessary risks. They even went so far as to smuggle stolen Audis into Saudi Arabia, where high-performance luxury cars are much more common. However they are not married to their Audis; in Saint-Tropez they used speedboats to make their getaway.

The loot is then given to a courier and brought back to Serbian brokers for re-cutting, and sale. The courier gets 5%, the broker something like 30 to 40% of the take, and the Panthers themselves get 15%. Their partners in Antwerp and elsewhere in Europe, who put the stolen loot back on the market, get the rest.

In some cases, the diamonds are never sold; instead, they become currency. A boatload of cocaine can be bought with a pocketful of diamonds. Money transactions over a certain amount have to be declared, and cash can be traced, but diamonds have no memory and no conscience.

For most of their career the Pink Panthers avoided violence. They preferred overwhelming force and quick entrance and exit; they might spray tear gas at cashiers, but never shoot. However in recent encounters the alleged Panthers have been considerably sloppier, by their standards, and in a recent confrontation in Greece, a policeman was shot. Over 150 Panthers have been captured and imprisoned over the years, and while some have been broken out of prison by their comrades, others are less fortunate; some, like an unfortunate held in a Saudi jail, never leave prison alive.

Even without this steady drain, the Panthers' days are numbered. Times have changed, and EU membership is on the table. That means the Panthers no longer have a safe haven in Montenegro or Serbia. The more experienced members, who made their fortunes long ago, can retire, and perhaps will, but the newer, less experienced recruits still want to make a killing - and they're the ones more likely to make a serious, perhaps fatal mistake.

In Night's Black Agents terminology, what exactly is a Pink Panther? The archetype combines several different skill sets: investigator, black bagger, bang-and-burner, wheel artist. I'd assign abilities as follows:

InvestigativeIntimidation 1, Languages 1,  Notice 1, Streetwise 1, Urban Survival 2. Possible alternates: Flatter, Flirting (for the female scouts), Architecture.

General - Athletics 4, Conceal 2, Driving 4, Infiltration 2, Preparedness 4. Possible alternates: Disguise, Sense Trouble, Surveillance.

Special Driving Cherry - Audi Expert. The Panther can get extra performance out of an Audi, and for Thrilling Chase purposes has +1 Maneuver.

That's it for this week! Enjoy.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

New Gamemaster Month - Trail of Cthulhu

I'm not directly involved with the New Gamemaster Month program, but I thought it'd be fun to kibbitz and offer a little extra advice. The system is Trail of Cthulhu, and the sample adventure on offer is Midnight Sub Rosa, in which a group of investigators are sent to Rosa, Alabama to recover a diary written by necromancer Ezekiel de la Poer. If you want to download the scenario, I recommend you wander over to the New Gamemaster Month website where there is a download link.

I'm going to start the discussion with a note on historical accuracy. Thursday's New Gamemaster post says that you "don't have to have every nook and cranny of the setting committed to memory, either - in fact, the setting is yours to craft, and elements you interpret differently than what's in print (on purpose or by accident) make the setting your own. That's a feature, not a bug." This is absolutely true, but some people may find it difficult to believe, because of the historical accuracy problem.

Trail, like Call of Cthulhu and many similar titles, is set in a particular time period. This can cause novice Keepers, and players, concern. Sometimes this is because certain aspects of history are, at best, unsavory. The example scenario spends some time talking about race, a topic that's bound to come up in 1930s Alabama. However it just as often causes problems because people don't know enough history, and feel the lack. They get nervous that they're "doing it wrong," or worry that a particular technology might not have been available at the time. What does it mean for the scenario when a player says, "I turn on my flashlight," and someone else at the table says, "did they have flashlights back then?"

First thing: don't panic. Confidence, as the Thursday update says, is the only secret sauce. If you, as Keeper, choose to rule thus-and-so, it doesn't matter if history contradicts you.

Second thing: a little history can be very useful, and history's easily had.

You don't have to bury yourself in textbooks. The game manual is your first stop, but there are other sources. Writer's Guides for pretty much every period you care to name are available at very reasonable rates, and because they're pitched to people in exactly your position - creators seeking background knowledge - they're very readable. I have a copy of the Writer's Guide to Everyday Life from Prohibition to World War II, which I see is going for silly money on Amazon, and while I wouldn't base my PhD on McCutcheon's work, it's certainly good enough for game night. It doesn't just give you timelines and dry facts; it has a list of slang terms, an essay on crime and a selection of cop slang, bits on transport, clothing, radio, music, dance, what people were reading, watching, talking about. If ever you want to add color to a scene, this is the kind of detail you need.

For example: Death Valley Days is a radio show that started in 1930 and went on, in one form or another, until 1975. Some episodes are available online. Nothing could be easier than to have that playing in the background; there are many apps that play old time radio, most of them for cheap or for nothing. Heck, even if you don't use these old shows as background noise, it's still worth listening to a couple, if only to steal characters to use as NPCs.

However there's another way history can help: it can give the Keeper ideas. Lots and lots of juicy ideas, many of which can be data mined from Wikipedia.

Consider the telephone. By the 1930s they were common; Rosa, Alabama has a party line, according to the scene Exploring Rosa. The scenario notes that the house where most of the action takes place doesn't have much use for electricity, but there are telephone poles. The characters are presumably staying at the lodging house, which definitely has a telephone.

Let's take a step back. What exactly is a telephone exchange? Well, when telephones were first used, they were single-function devices. You had a phone, it was connected by wire to another phone, and that was that. You could only call that one phone. If you wanted to make calls to other people, you had to install new telephones. This wasn't particularly useful, so someone came up with the idea of the exchange. Everyone's phone was connected to the exchange, and when you wanted to call someone you contacted the exchange and told them which telephone you wanted to connect to. The operator then physically connected you with that phone. This system continued, in one form or another, until the 1960s, when automation replaced human operators. If you read old authors, like Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, or Dorothy Sayers, you'll notice that whenever a character picks up a phone they talk to the operator first, and say "connect me to [letter code] [number]," and after maybe a few seconds, there's a connection. The letter code identifies the exchange, the number, the telephone. Usually the number is anywhere from three to five digits long, depending on the likely number of subscribers. The smaller the catchment area, the smaller the number. The letter code is often turned into a word for easy memorization, as for example with Susquehanna 4 7568.

That tells you, as Keeper, three things. First, that connecting with another phone is a lengthy process. You might have to wait a long time, perhaps several minutes, before you finally got to speak with the person on the other end. Second, that there is a human being, the exchange operator, between you and the other person - and the exchange operator can hear everything you say.

Third, that the number of numbers is limited. Take a look at Susquehanna 4 7568, an episode of The Naked City, a TV show that aired in the 1950s and early 1960s. The story kicks off when a young woman, new to NYC, gets a phone installed at her flat, only to discover that her number used to belong to someone else and she's getting his calls. Exchanges can only accommodate so many subscribers; eventually they have to re-use numbers. In The Naked City, the woman overhears a murder. In Cthulhu, the investigator might overhear almost anything.

The Keeper can complicate this further. As Rosa is a rural community, it has a party line. These are cheaper to run, and don't need an operator. In broad terms, everyone is connected to everyone else, on a loop system. The obvious problem being that there is no privacy on the party line; everyone gets to listen in, not just one operator. Moreover a user can monopolize the line, preventing anyone else from making calls, and this can happen by accident, when someone doesn't properly disconnect after a call. Party lines were still a thing even as late as the 1980s; it wasn't until people started using phone lines for other things, like answering machines and computer modems, that they finally died out. Stephen King, for example, references party lines in his fiction more than once.

The scenario says that the party line only connects three locations, but as Keeper you should feel free to modify a scenario to suit your needs. Remember, it's a feature, not a bug. If you want that party line to connect to other places, you can. Probably not very many other places, since, as written, Rosa is dirt poor. However a couple of the outlying farms could also have telephones, and there's no reason the Derby House shouldn't also be on the party line. It may even be that someone's illicitly connected; after all, it's not as if anyone's marching up and down the line looking for extra connections. This may come in handy if the Keeper intends to run any of the additional material provided with the scenario.

There are two plot-related points to make here.

First, the party line is an excellent way to provide clues, particularly via Oral History. People talk. Often they can't help themselves; they give away secrets and gossip in equal measures. Just listening in can provide an investigator with all kinds of dirt. Imagine what might happen if the investigators catch Sheriff Barnes on the line, discussing the situation with the state police, or listen to some of the citizens of Rosa dishing dirt on people's families and less-than-reputable pasts. "Of course, nothing good ever came from that side of the family. Why, my dear, didn't you know ..."

Second, if the investigators use the telephone, they have no way to ensure their conversation is confidential. It's wiser to assume someone's listening. Or something. After all, there's that o-so-intriguing section about Ghoul Changelings; imagine what might happen if one of those was listening in on an investigator's call for help.

But perhaps the most significant non-plot-related point to make is that a party line can add a lot of color to an otherwise drab setting. Gizmodo makes a similar point, when talking about barbed wire lines. People used to live their lives on these connections. They'd play music, talk about local politics or sports, read newspapers to each other, recite the weather report, pass on important news or alerts to the group. In many ways the phone lines acted in the same way a forum post does today; it passes on group messages, and alerts the group to important information. It adds that extra bit of vibrancy to a location if the Keeper bothers to add a few bits on non-plot related bits to a party line call. "Missus Sullivan's dog's missing? Better let the boys know, they might see 'er out in the long pasture. Gantry's sow dropped a litter of six last night, says he'll be selling off the weaners in a week or so, you want in on this you better go see old man Gantry afore they all leave the nest..."

So, going back to the original point: just by knowing a bit of history, in this case about the telephone, the Keeper can insert clues, link to scenes (even Antagonist reaction scenes), and provide enough color to make the setting come alive. None of this requires specialist knowledge; you can data mine from Wikipedia and similar sources to get everything you need.

So why the telephone? Why not? Everything has a history. Cars, nightclubs, public transport, trains, newspapers, factories and diners and a thousand things besides. You don't need to be an expert. You just need to ask yourself, "is there anything useful here?" Nine times out of ten, the answer's yes. Seek it out, and use it.

To all new Keepers and Game Masters, welcome to the hobby! I hope you enjoy yourselves.


Sunday, 7 January 2018

Satellites Gang Aft Agley - Vostochny (Night's Black Agents)

Welcome back!

Let's start the year with a quick look back at a news story that some of you may have picked up on, in the dying days of 2017, and see what can be done to gamify it. In late 2017 Russia announced that one of its rockets went off on a merry jaunt, taking with it a payload of 18 satellites belonging to research and commercial enterprises from the US, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Norway and, of course, Russia. So why did this unfortunate incident occur? Because someone boobed, and programmed the launch device with the wrong coordinates. The Meteor-M rocket thought it was departing from Baikonur cosmodrome, when in fact its departure point was Vostochny.

The rocket tried to correct, but didn't have time to adjust course, and by the time it passed the crisis point it was aiming back at Earth. Meteor-M's payload ended up in the Atlantic. Among the lost payload were several satellites designed to boost broadband capability for remote locations, planes, and ships, a Japanese satellite designed to monitor space junk in low Earth orbit, maritime communications satellites, and a Russian student-built microsatellite.

This is the second launch from Vostochny. The first went almost without a hitch back in April, barring a slight launch delay, but Russia's track record with satellite launches is lamentable. 2003 is the last year it managed to go twelve months without at least a partial launch failure.

Vostochny is Russia's only domestic cosmodrome, built at fantastic expense in Russia's Far East. It's intended to reduce Russia's dependence on Baikonur, which is in Kazakhstan. Russia pays $115 million yearly rent for use of the Baikonur cosmodrome, and it hopes that the civilian satellite launch market will beat a path to its door if it can get Vostochny working properly. 

Russia may or may not be moving in the right direction. Currently, even with its not-so-great track record, it has something like half the market. However it has competition, and its competitors are more reliable and less expensive. In years to come Russia may find itself cut out of the market, and this gets more likely with each launch failure. Satellites are expensive assets; no doubt Russia's clients are looking at those 18 drowned payloads and thinking, do I really want to trust my umpteen-hundred-thousand dollar telecom satellite, and the future business it's supposed to generate, to this bunch of clowns?

Using the Playing with Real Toys format, let's provide a description, Thrilling Elements and a short scene for Vostochny cosmodrome.

                                                                    Image taken from Roscosmos

Vostochny is in Amur Oblast, southeast Russia, a mountainous area with many rivers and alpine tundra. It has been under construction for some time, and final completion is scheduled for 2018. Two launches have already taken place, the second of which was a dismal failure that resulted in the loss of the payload in the Atlantic.

It is at the watershed of the Zeya and Bolshaya Pyora rivers, and is nearest to the closed town of Tsiolkovsky, originally built in 1961 to service a nearby ICBM installation. Closed means that travel to and through is not permitted without authorization, and the entire area should be considered minimum Heat 2, not Heat 1, for purposes of tracking agents' Heat levels.

It has good links with nearby highways and railroads, and has an abundance of power, as Amur Oblast is well supplied with hydroelectric plants. The cosmodrome will also have its own small town, when it is finished, and seven launch pads, including two for crewed flights. According to Roscosmos, when complete Vostochny will provide up to 80,000 new jobs, either at the cosmodrome itself or at one of the satellite towns & train station. 

Construction has been plagued with problems, and workers have protested or gone on strike several times over unpaid wages and other issues. Corruption has been alleged, and the project hemorrhages money; at an estimated price of $7.5 billion, it is easily the most expensive installation of its kind in the world.  

Thrilling Elements include:
  • A government official or potential customer is being given the grand tour, surrounded by a flock of lackeys, bodyguards and cosmodrome bigwigs.
  • Heavy equipment and expensive satellite payloads move slowly past, towed or carried by complex-seeming loaders.
  • The mobile service tower, all 1,600 tons of it, ponderously moves towards the launch pad, with its expensive and delicate rocket inside.
  • Cosmodrome security conduct a sweep, demanding all nearby produce their official identification.
  • Scientists and officials argue over the meaning of the latest test results, hushing whenever anyone not connected with their project goes within listening distance.
  • The Fuel Service Unit is a constant hive of activity, with supply trucks and rockets coming and going.
  •  Disgruntled workers form an ad-hoc protest. If any of the agents are obviously non-Russian, cosmodrome security and officials will immediately attempt to remove the agents, or at least block their view / confiscate anything that can be used to record or take pictures.
  • The cosmodrome is visited by Vladimir Putin, or someone of similar importance. The number of attendant lackeys, bodyguards and bigwigs doubles, at least, and base Heat increases to 3.
Scene: Unauthorized Access

The agents become aware, through their own sources, that a Conspiracy Node has penetrated Tsiolkovsky, and a cell of three to five Conspiracy agents are operating there for reasons unknown. The exact nature of this cell is up to the Director. For the purpose of this example, using The Zalozhniy Quartet as a reference, the Node is a Lisky Brava outpost, and at least three of the agents on the ground are known members of the mafiya led by an Operative who can work with others, like the Girl or the Con Artists. The Mafiya agents ought to be Thug Boss leader at a minimum; this isn't an operation for amateurs. The remaining two are experts, chosen for their ability rather than their combat stats. The mafiya members of the cell work at the Ledyanaya Railway Station, while the cell leader is a minor official in charge of the sports complex. The town itself is basically a shell; it has residential buildings, schools, a hospital, the railway, the sports complex, and not much else. There's been a recent spike in crime thanks to the influx of workers to build the town; the maifya cell members may be taking advantage of this to smuggle items, like narcotics or DVDs, which can be easily transported and have a good resale value, especially to bored townies.

The cell's job is to infiltrate the cosmodrome and interfere with the launch of a satellite, six months from now. The plan at the moment is to re-rig the launch device with the wrong set of launch coordinates, so the rocket goes off-course. That's why the cell needs the two experts. As to why the cell needs to do this, that's up to the Director, but possibilities include:

The rocket's payload includes a satellite bought and paid for by an important enemy of the Conspiracy.

The rocket's payload includes a satellite bought and paid for by someone the mafiya has been extorting or blackmailing, but who recently developed a backbone. The loss of the satellite is supposed to bring the recalcitrant to heel.

The new coordinates will drop the rocket, expensive payload and all, on something the Conspiracy would very much like destroyed. This may or may not be a target sufficiently important to spark off World War Three.

That's it for now! Happy New Year!