Sunday, 11 March 2018

Killer That Stalked New York - Diseases (GUMSHOE)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's talk gamification.

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

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

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

Hilarity ensues.

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

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

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

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

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

That's it for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image taken from Wikipedia, Plan de vaisselle CIWL

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

Image taken from Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's it for this week. Enjoy!