Sunday, 18 August 2019

Shadows Over Père-Lachaise (Night's Black Agents)

Hook: A young student has been found dead in Père-Lachaise Cemetery. The police say it was a regrettable accident; the 19-year old tripped and hit his head on one of the tombs. Witnesses are not forthcoming. Among the items found in his possession is a copy of the 1920 first French edition of Stoker's work, Dracula, l’homme de la nuit. The agents are hired by le Milieu (underworld) go-between to recover the book from the Gendarme; it is heavily implied that the book is stolen property that belongs to a Godfather in Marseille. The agents are to recover the book and deliver it to its rightful owner.

The Book: This soft-cover first French edition is rare, but not spectacularly valuable. Cryptography notices marks in the text, made recently in pencil. The positioning of these marks suggests the novel has been used as a book cypher by an amateur. Perhaps the Marseille Godfather wants to recover the book before the Gendarmes realize what they've got hold of?

Père-Lachaise Cemetery: This is one of Paris' most well-known landmarks, and the most visited necropolis in the world. It's the first garden cemetery, built far outside Paris proper so it could sprawl, a somnolent verdant memorial. Among its famous dead are the lovers Abelard and Heloise, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Frederic Chopin, and Marcel Proust. Its 108 acres are easy to get lost in, and, with its mix of monuments and architectural styles, it has a timeless quality. Though in the past it has suffered from outbreaks of crime, its status as a tourist draw ensures the gendarmes keep half an eye on it. Only half an eye, which explains how, for instance, noted art thief Verjan Tomic was able to hone his parkour skills by jumping from tomb to tomb, and to break into nearby houses by using the cemetery wall as a boost. Thousands of people walk through every day, especially around the tomb of Jim Morrison, decreasing Disguise and Surveillance difficulties by 1 - it's easy for the agents to get lost in this international crowd. The cemetery does have security officers on call; treat them as Police, but without stab vests and heavy armament (ie. submachine guns). The cemetery opens every day and closes at 530pm. Though it's not Fort Knox, it's secure enough that casual Infiltration is doomed to failure; Difficulty 3.

The Police: There are two obvious ways to secure the book. Bribe the cops, or break into the evidence locker. The agents find unexpected resistance if they go the bribe route, and their Heat increases by 1. They'll need to spend 2 points to find a willing accomplice in the Préfecture de police de Paris, but spending the extra point confers one other benefit: the agents discover the flics have been suborned by the Conspiracy. It's not clear who's in and who's out, but someone on high has already been bribed more than the agents could ever afford. The agents may discover this as a consequence of having their police contact murdered. Securing the book through bribery increases Heat by 3. Alternately the agents may try to Infiltrate the gendarmerie. Difficulty 5, reduced to Difficulty 4 with successful Disguise, Digital Intrusion or similar tests. According to the logs the book is kept in an evidence locker, but this is not so; it's actually on the desk of an inspector in the anti-crime division. This man is working with internal affairs (nicknamed the stew squad, or boeuf-carottes) to uncover the mole within the department. The stew squad believes there are elements within the Paris gendarmerie working with organized crime in Marseilles to protect the drug trade. The anti-crime inspector, Dallest, is their informer, but he's personally invested in this as his partner was murdered, so he's investigating the book on his own time. If the agents went the bribe route, Dallest handed over the book because he realized he was in way over his head and wants to get out alive. This won't happen; the Conspiracy can't afford loose ends.

Potential Twist: the vampires have either smuggled in a Renfield, or a full-fledged vampire, to search for the book. Their own informant ought to have taken it easily, but the informant didn't know about Dallest. If a vampire, the undead is lurking in the morgue, but a Renfield could be anywhere in the building. 

The Body: Jan De Vries, 19, a student of theology pursuing a doctorate at Tyndale seminary near Amsterdam, died from repeated blows to the head (Forensic Pathology 0 point). The first blow was probably delivered by a baton - a 12 inch concealable would do the trick. Once incapacitated, De Vries was smashed against a nearby tomb with extreme force. Marks on his clothing (grass & gravel) indicate he was dragged to where he was found, then killed. He arrived in Paris two days ago, and was staying at an apartment very close to Père-Lachaise. None of his friends or supervisors knew he was planning this trip. Bullshit Detector: his tutor, Sophie Visser, knew. She's the one who sent him. She's working with an anti-vampire group; Director's choice as to which. If the agents don't follow up, the Conspiracy will silence Visser soon.

What Happens Next?

There are several possibilities, revolving around the book, the Cemetery, and the alleged Marseille connection.

The Marseille Godfather is … an important part of a Marseille-based Node. Or has reasons of his own to be hunting Vampires, and went to Sophie Visser for help. Or is ignorant of the Conspiracy, but is heavily involved in narcotics smuggling. The Conspiracy wants to absorb the Marseille smuggler into its organization, and figures raising the Godfather's Heat is a good way to do that. "Having problems with those pesky freelance agents? We can help …"

Père-Lachaise is … A convenient haven for visiting Vampires. There's any number of tombs the Conspiracy use for temporary homes away from home, and Visser found that out. Or the real secret is in the tomb of Russian aristo Elisabeth Alexandrovna Stroganoff, died 1818, who promised that anyone who could spend a whole year and one night in her tomb would get her fortune. Some tried, none succeeded, and though people still volunteer now and again the Cemetery staff refuse to allow it. Visser and her student De Vries were about to crack the mystery, when De Vries was killed. Or the cemetery is a drop-off point for drug smugglers; leave the packets near such-and-such a tomb, and someone else picks up. De Vries stumbled on this and was killed. No vampire connection, but given who De Vries was, and working for, people make all kinds of assumptions. 

The Book is … a codebook that indicates the actual location of a stash hidden in Père-Lachaise. Or it contains Forged pages which describe an alternate adventure featuring Dracula and one of his brides in Père-Lachaise, and includes a description of the tomb this alleged incident occurred in. Or it's impregnated with some kind of reagent or similar substance that allows the user to detect vampires or vampire-haunted locations. [works best in Supernatural or Damned campaigns]. Or is a fake, a poison pill planted on De Vries by whoever killed him. The intent being to use the book as a weapon or false lead, distracting investigators from the real reason De Vries was killed - whatever that may be.

Who Are The Opposition?

Criminals from le Milieu, who want the book for their own reasons. Bent gendarmes. Conspiracy goons. Sophie Visser and whoever hired her to investigate Père-Lachaise. Vampires or other supernatural agents unconnected with the Conspiracy, but who have a connection with Père-Lachaise. The ghost of Jim Morrison, who's annoyed that all this activity is distracting people from his shrine. Père-Lachaise security cops, who just want a quiet life. 


Sunday, 11 August 2019

Glorious Romance (Bookhounds of London)

Richmond, a township of 20,000 within the bounds of southwest Greater London, boasts many graces, among them Richmond Green. The Green has an ancient history, and once hosted jousting knights; since the 18th century, cricket has taken over. Richmond Green is what's left of the Royal palace that once occupied the site, originally founded by Henry V. With the palace and the King's grace came maids of honor, to care for the Queen, and they needed somewhere to live. That led to the creation of Maids of Honour Row, built 1724.

Number 4, Maids of Honour Row is a series of four terraced houses fronting Richmond Green, opposite the Public Library. The Green was intended to be an elaborate pleasure park, designed by Constantio de Servi, architect to the Medicis, but almost nothing of that design was actually built. The original building where the Row now stands was elaborate and had, among other amenities, a tennis court and gardens, but its fortunes ebbed and flowed with the monarchy, and by the 1700s it was clear the old wreck had to go. Its replacement, Maids of Honour Row, was designed and built by carpenter Thomas Honour, who clearly had an eye for a good pun. 

Among the illustrious inhabitants of Maids of Honour were J.J. Heidegger, Master of Revels to the Court, and the author Charles Garvice.

Heidegger, a Swiss, came to London with very little and made a complete pig's breakfast of his first job, so he joined the Guards. From there he somehow moved to the Opera, where he became known for elaborate set-pieces. His fame increasing, he was hired by the Court to provide amusements as and when required. He had tremendous technical skill, and once lit 1800 candles in under three minutes, for the King's coronation, but is best remembered for his masquerades, and the illicit sexual thrills they offered. 

Charles Garvice is, in the Bookhound's day, an exceptionally famous romance novelist. He had a setback early in his career that taught him a painful, but valuable, lesson: always write for the market. He did so enthusiastically, developing a familiar formulae: innocent young girl plus lascivious nobleman plus some melodrama involving missing jewels or irate parents, mix in solicitors and charming young titled male leads, and the money comes flowing in. Nobody's sure how many books he wrote, as he worked under several different names. He knew he wasn't going to go down in literary history, and he didn't care. Once, when a friend tried to make light of his writing, he pointed to a crowded beach and said, "They are all reading my latest work." They were. He died in 1920, leaving, net, something in the order of sixty seven thousand pounds, or the rough equivalent of $2.5 million in today's money. Most went to his wife, the remainder to his two sons, one of whom died in 1921 in Alexandria, Egypt, where he was Chief of Police. The other lived in Canada until his death in 1964. 

All of which brings us to:

Glorious Romance

Hook: Would-be author Maurice Stowell has pestered the Bookhounds, among many, many others, for years now. He thinks he's an unacknowledged genius. So far, he's just unacknowledged. However his most recent manuscript, given to the Bookhounds for a read-through ("tell me what you think. Don't spare my feelings.") is very reminiscent of Charles Garvice's finest. Except it has an odd, Mythos tinge, particularly in the masquerade scene, presided over by the wicked Count Rochat, a conniving Swiss impresario with designs on the maiden, Cassilda. It's vaguely historical, except the setting is a Richmond Green nobody's ever seen before, complete with elaborate Italianate water gardens and a huge Neptune statue. The stone God has plot significance, as it moves about and, at one point, threatens the hero's life. It's … interesting, but those with Mythos knowledge can pick out sinister influences, particularly from that dreaded text. the King in Yellow. Masked balls, elaborate royal palaces, a terrifying Nemesis figure - where did Maurice get his inspiration?

Maurice Stowell: Three things: always suffers from a cold, limp handshake, uncanny luck at games of chance. If he took more care over it, he'd be a very successful card shark, but what he really wants to be is a writer. Athletics 8, Scuffling 12, Health 6; he was a Rough Lad when he was younger, but that's a mug's game. "Oh dear, I can feel a migraine coming on. Pass me my pills, would you? I cannot function without Mortlake's Concentrated Liver Pills."

Awful Truth: Stowell paid a local cunning-woman, Dicey (Eurydice) Wollard, to help his writing by summoning up the ghost of Charles Garvice. Stowell wanted writing advice, but got more than he bargained for, and so did Dicey. She doesn't know whose spirit she's channeling. At first she didn't care, so long as the money kept rolling in. Now she's very worried she's in over her head, but she can't keep the spirit quiet. The dreams she's been having since this started have become more and more surreal, and lately Stowell's been joining her in Dreamland, wandering through some peculiar, alternate version of Richmond Green. In that version of Richmond Green is hidden a book, some sort of play, that the spirit controlling her and advising Stowell wants found. This spirit, the Count Roche in Stowell's book, won't take no for an answer, and is forcing the two of them to find the book, no matter the cost. Trouble is, there's things hiding in that dream version of Richmond Green that could easily prove fatal …


Sunday, 4 August 2019

Forgotten London: The Three Squirrels of Fleet Street (Bookhounds, Trail)

Fleet Street was the early home of bankers, and several still preserve the signs with which they began business … Child's was the first on the scene and another most important business was carried on at Gosling's, a little farther to the east. The building is not very conspicuous and might easily be missed, as the old name does not appear. Its sign is the Three Squirrels, all busy eating nuts.

From London Cameos, A.H. Blake, 1930 ed.

The sign tentatively dates to the mid 1600s, and originally marked Gosling's and Sharp's goldsmiths. In the current day, it is Barclay's oldest branch. It began life as the sole trader Henry Pinckney, 1650-sh, and is mentioned in Pepys' diaries. Sir Francis Gosling joined the partnership in 1742, and Benjamin Sharpe in 1794. Though a partner, the Sharpes were junior to the Goslings, who called all the shots. Eventually the bank became one of the banks to join and form the conglomerate Barlcays, in 1896.

Goldsmith bankers are exactly what they sound like. Originally dealers in gold, they became sought after as lenders and eventually developed credit facilities, dealing in bills of exchange, the ancestor of the cheque.

As with Child's, Gosling's is also cheek-by-jowl with St. Dunstan's Church, which means it too has a Sweeny Todd connection. St. Dunstan, you may recall, is the patron saint of goldsmiths, and is also known for pulling the Devil's nose with hot tongs.

The symbolism of a squirrel and its nuts is obvious. Then, of course, there is Ratatosk, the squirrel who lives in the world-tree:

Ratatösk is the squirrel named, who has run
in Yggdrasil's ash;
he from above the eagle's words must carry,
and beneath the Nidhögg repeat

Tale-bearer, the gnawer, bore-tooth. The serpent Nidhogg, some say, will announce or herald Ragnarok; until that day, it gnaws at the roots of the world tree. The eagle at the tree's top is extremely wise, and feuds with the serpent. It is Ratatosk's daily work, and joy, to keep the feud alive by carrying messages between the eagle and the serpent.

So, in Bookhounds, from a Megapolisamantic perspective, the sign of the Three Squirrels could be used for several different workings:

  • Anything to do with credit, or Credit Rating
  • Anything to do with gold, or physical wealth.
  • Anything to do with malice, or gossip.
From a Mythos perspective, it is no great leap from squirrel to Rat-Thing; the leap is even shorter if you link Rat-Thing with Ratatosk, bearer of great wisdom taken from the eagle, and poisonous malice taken from the serpent. 

This in turn could link the sign of the Three Squirrels to Nyarlathotep, which puts that Credit Rating bonus, gold, wealth, gossip, all within the Old One's gift. 

Story Seed: The Lavender Hill Mob

A Bookhounds rival is constantly getting the better of the shop, thanks to seemingly endless cash reserves. No matter what, this rival always has cash on hand to beat the shop's Auction pool, yet nothing else about this rival suggests bottomless reserves of cash. If anything, their personal life is on the knife edge; a lowly bank clerk in shared accommodation, never promoted, never taken seriously. Until four months ago he had no interest in incunabula and grimoires; now he's seen at every auction, buying up as much as he can.

The Awful Truth: Henry Holland has dreamed for years of the perfect robbery. He accompanies the gold every day from smelting shop to the bank, and is the model employee. However he's never been able to crack it, and is beginning to despair. 

One day, while meditating on his misfortunes, he happened to catch a glimpse of the Three Squirrels, and, quite by chance, aligned himself megapolisomantically with the sign and the Lever it represents. He began to see how his robbery could work, and to understand how he could get away with it. 

However that Lever was already occupied, by a Rat Thing who resents Henry's unwarranted intrusion. The Rat Thing is forcing Henry to buy books for it, and in exchange promises to help Henry find the accomplice he needs to carry out the bank robbery of a lifetime.


Sunday, 28 July 2019

Laying Ghosts (Night's Black Agents)

I've discussed ghosts before, in relation to Trail of Cthulhu and, to a lesser extent, Bookhounds. What about Night's Black Agents?

There's a long tradition of combating, even defeating, ghosts. Sometimes the combat can be brutal and spectacular; it took twelve ecclesiastics to beat Black Vaughan down, for instance. Generally in these tales the objective is not to force the spirit to move on to a different place. The idea is to imprison it here, on earth. As a spirit, it can't be killed, and as it's malevolent, it can't be sent to heaven. The only option, short of somehow sending it down below, is to keep it here, but in such a way as to render it harmless. Shove it into a grandfather clock, throw it down a well, put it in a room and seal the room - however you care to do it, do it, and then forget about it.

Much like vampires, really. Except that vampires have a specific list of banes where ghosts have only one recorded weakness: prayer, especially when delivered by sanctified holy men.

Night's Black Agents is a more active setting than Bookhounds. The agents are expected to be capable, combative people. It's less about arcane knowledge and more about how many rounds you can put downrange.

I gave these guidelines for Bookhounds ghosts, or spirits of place:

  1. The truth of the haunting will probably never be known for certain, since most of the facts are unavailable.
  2. It cannot be dealt with in the same way as, say, an ordinary antagonist encounter. Ghouls, for example, can be shot, or bargained with. There is no way to communicate with a haunting of place, and probably no way to kill it.
  3. It has a great deal of power behind it, possibly magical power. That means other people besides the protagonists are going to be interested in it. That also means it could be very dangerous.
I'd modify them for Night's Black Agents, as follows:
  1. The truth of the haunting must be linked to the Vampire background. If vampires in your game are mutant creations of science, then ghosts should have a scientific background as well. A Satanic vampire game has Satanic ghosts, and so on.
  2. It cannot be dealt with in the same way as an ordinary antagonist encounter. Ghouls can be shot or bargained with, but ghosts don't have the same weaknesses. Bargaining may be possible, but difficult.
  3. It has power behind it, but that power is going to depend on the method of its creation. It ought never to be as powerful as, say, a Renfield, let alone a vampire. This isn't a major player; it's a mood piece, possibly even a booby trap.
  4. These ghosts can be defeated but probably not destroyed, in the same sense that vampires can be defeated, but can come back from the grave. 
In NBA vampires come in four delicious favors: mutant, supernatural, damned, alien. What kind of ghost stories can be told with the same premise?

Mutant: Their markers are medical symptoms; their emphasis is infection. The ghost is a vampiric remnant, something that lingers in those areas where vampiric infection has occurred. Say the vampire attacks and kills someone; the ghost is what's left behind, and can be dealt with by cleansing the area in the same way crime scene cleaners deal with the aftermath of a bloody murder. It might be inhaled, or infects through contact with unprotected skin. It might be some fragment of memory from the victim - their daughter's first birthday party, say, which causes anyone infected by it to relive that day again, and again, and again. It might be something left behind by the killer, an eye infection that causes the victim to see, say, blood, whenever they look at, or are in the presence of, certain things. Say the murder victim was a blonde female teen. Now, every time the agent sees a blonde of about the same age and gender, the agent hallucinates blood. Dealt with by medicines, or injecting liquified Banes.

Supernatural: Their markers are strange superstitions, their emphasis hunger. This best fits the traditional ghost story, and is the best candidate for magical manipulation. If, through magic, an unruly ghost can be imprisoned in, say, a grandfather clock, then it can be used as a supernatural bomb. Send it to the target, and sit back and watch the fun. Casting the Runes is the prototype. It's never clear, in stories like these, whether the ghost is a human spirit or some kind of older, pagan thing. A semi or demi God, perhaps. Some remnant of, say, the Great God Pan. A ghost of this sort probably has limited intelligence and free will, and the older ones can be very dangerous. You don't survive several hundred, or thousand, years, without learning a trick or two. Dealt with through arcane rituals found in worm-eaten texts.

Damned: Their markers are holy symbols and spiritualism, their emphasis is seduction. These ghosts are the bargainers, the promise-makers, the succubi and incubi. They are likely to be demons in their own right, capable of possession. They have a great deal of power when they're linked with a mortal soul, much less so without a suitable host. The Exorcist is the best example. Hungry Ghosts work well in this paradigm too. Of course, exorcists come with their own baggage, and rising demand for their services probably indicates widespread despair; the world is burning, and it must be the Devil's fault. Dealt with through spiritual intervention.

Alien: Their markers are various uncanny effects; their emphasis is invasion. In this version ghosts might be the aftereffect of alien tech, or just the presence of aliens. Quatermass and the Pit is the best example. Deep beneath the earth the last Martians lie entombed, and wait for the day when they can take over, piggybacking on our minds to recreate Mars. Until their rocket is uncovered, they can only throw out psychic shocks and disturbances - which is why Hobbs Lane, the London street that is being dug up, has such a shocking reputation. The Devil lives there, they say. Sure enough, there have been strange sightings, eyewitness reports, and horrible scenes there since the beginning of recorded history. In this instance ghosts are almost a warning, the canary in the coal mine - for if you see them, you know this is a tainted place. Dealt with through avoidance, or some kind of prophylactic treatment. Tin foil hat, anyone? 

The big takeaway, and the difference between these and the Bookhounds ghosts, is that they can be understood, challenged and defeated. It may require magic, or some kind of chemical cleansing, rather than a Glock, but the end result is the same. 

Ghosts of this type should generally not be very powerful; that spot is reserved for the vampires. Their main function is to squick or mislead, not defeat or kill. Aberrance rating, except for particularly powerful entities like the Great God Pan, ought to be low; somewhere around 5. No Free powers, and some will be more common than others. Possession seems one of the most likely for Damned ghosts, for example. 

The other thing to remember is, these ghosts can't be killed easily, but they can be diverted, imprisoned. Which means the agents can also weaponize them, if they can work out how to do that without getting caught in the blast radius. That's a story in and of itself. Figuring out how to do it is one thing; pulling it off in the heat of the moment, quite another.


Sunday, 21 July 2019

Car Hacking (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier, Esoterrorists)

"By definition, a connected car has more control units, computing power, lines of code and wireless connections than a “non-connected” car – all of which make it more susceptible to attacks. By exploiting a weakness, a hacker could take control of the brake or steering systems, show incorrect information on the dashboard dials, or grab driver data."

From IIoT World, author Simon Hartley, The State of Auto Cybersecurity: Current Vulnerabilities of Connected Vehicles.

In 2015, Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller grabbed the world's attention by hacking, and gaining control over, a Jeep's dashboard functions from ten miles away. In 2018, the situation hasn't gotten any better. If a vehicle's autonomous or semi-autonomous, it's a cinch it can be controlled remotely. If it can be unlocked and operated via a smartphone app, it's a cinch someone's devised a way to spoof the app and steal the car.

Again, from the article, we're talking about devices that will require code somewhere in the 200 to 300 million line range - basically, a long, long, *long*, technical document. Or, if you like comparing it to literary works, Hamlet to the power of 837,988. That's a lot of stabbings and poison.

Code without mistakes or bugs, of course. Each bug introduces vulnerability. Vulnerabilities can and will be exploited.

That's before you consider that allowing third party software - apps - to have any degree of control over the vehicle means that the app, with all its vulnerabilities, is also a risk factor.

So, for example:

  • I need to know where that vampire's been. She always drives that sporty Tesla. OK, spending a point of Digital Intrusion or Electronic Surveillance, whichever the Director thinks suits the task. I'm going to crack the car's GPS with this smartphone app, and see where the Tesla's been for, say, the past week.
  • An infotainment system, you say? With a huge touchscreen right in the dash that controls every non-driving function? Well color me impressed. Let's just play with that satellite mapping software … oh, gee, looks like the route you wanted to take is blocked by a car wreck. Best take that recommended detour. No, we haven't set up an ambush there, honest, Hey! I can play videos! Has he got passengers? Cue up that blackmail material, and let's hope his wife is watching.
  • No, no, I don't need to have any pools in Digital Intrusion or Electronic Surveillance. I just need to make a Preparedness check, and boom! Here's a sneaky little app I bought off the dark web. Shall we say, a 3-point dedicated Digital Intrusion pool? Why, yes, I think we shall.
  • It probably goes without saying, but all these shiny toys need to be updated regularly, a task many users avoid. So known bugs and weaknesses still sneak through, because the necessary defenses weren't installed. Plus, anything that relies on passwords is only as safe as the user lets it be - which often isn't safe at all.
  • Oh! I can use this smartphone app to lock and unlock the car, send destination information to the GPS, remotely stop or start the car, send its current location to the app, and run real-time diagnostics. I wonder if that power can be abused in some cunning way …
Of course, all this assumes someone's driving the vehicle. A self-driving car is a different story. This might seem a boon for those bloodsuckers who have to sleep during the day; just add tinted windows and some grave soil, and all your worries drift away. Except if someone's hacked the guidance software then they can tell your car to go, well, anywhere they want. Imagine being delivered to your slayer like a giftwrapped package!

Of course, what's sauce for the goose is good for the gander. Just what are the agents driving these days? A top-of-the-line sportscar, all the better for those thrilling chases? Well, that could be a problem, if the Conspiracy has some half-decent hackers on its side. Maybe it's time to get into vintage muscle cars. It can be tricky to get the parts for a '67 Thunderbird, but at least it won't freak out when someone waves a smartphone at it.    


Sunday, 14 July 2019

Dropbox Downtime

I recently did a bit of mental cleansing and wiped my Dropbox account clean.

DB's terms and conditions changed, and the price was due to go up. I realized most of the stuff crammed in there was junk, and certainly not worth $12 a month storage fees. So I saved what I wanted and axed the rest.

In doing so, I found a ton of notes for projects that never quite made it off the ground. As I'm in a hurry today, rather than a full post, I'll give you a sampler from the grab bag:

A Pleasant Afternoon. The character is invited to a private showing at an art gallery. It is the tail end of the season, when invitations of this type are thin on the ground. 
If they inquire, they discover that the gallery (Pyke’s, of Chapel Street) is supposed to be in murky financial straits. The owner of the gallery, Montague Pyke, is slightly known to the investigator as an acquaintance from years before, but they have not spoken in some time. 
Should the characters attend, they find that most of the gallery’s work is of the usual Victorian type; herds of Highland cattle, crofter’s cottages, still life with grouse, hunting scenes, views of the Thames and so on. None of them are worth much more than £20, though the asking price is a good £30-40 above that figure. 
Pyke is not present himself at the viewing; his assistant, Mary Hope, is in charge of the evening. There is a private viewing room separate from the rest of the gallery, which is only available by invitation, but as luck would have it Pyke has left their invitations at the door. 
The pictures in this gallery are more interesting, in the pre-Raphaelite semi Medieval style, and all are by the same artist, who signs himself as Schablone [German: Mask]. Each depicts a scene from some kind of morality play, with a character who very much resembles Pyke in the role of Everyman. Everyman, in each painting, is being abused by various figures who represent stock characters such as Popular Fashion, Ignorance, Folly, Greed, Envy, and so on. 
In the final portrait, Everyman is nowhere to be seen, while all the other characters are celebrating some kind of victory. In the background, easily missed, is Everyman, hanging from the rafters of a house. When the characters emerge from this private room, the gallery is completely vacant. The other attendees have vanished, as has Hope, and the walls are completely bare. A sign tacked to the front door advises that the previous occupant has been evicted for non-payment of rent. The canvases in the private room, meanwhile, are now blank. 
I originally intended this as a Victoriana flavor text moment. It was never supposed to be a full scenario. The idea was, the characters would encounter these minor notes in the larger plot every so often. There was no mystery to solve, really, but the mood of the piece and the overall weirdness of it was meant to cement the overall pattern of the campaign.
That said, there's no reason it should stay Victoriana. It could as easily appear in a Bookhounds, Dreamhouds, Esoterrorists or modern game. It's perhaps a little too quiet for Night's Black Agents, though it could fit an NBA Dust or Mirror game. You'd need to update the art style, but that's all. 
I suppose the larger point I was getting at when I first wrote this bit - many moons ago, now - is that in any campaign you need a few downtime moments. When players provide you with opportunities to use those moments, take them. However players won't always do that, nor will they necessarily provide them at the right time. 
So you, as Director/Keeper/Insert Shiny Hat Here, need to prep for that. Create a downtime moment to be used as needed. It doesn't have to be anything major. There are no stats in this example, no clue spends. No victory condition either, nor is there a reward, though it could be a kicking-off point for something more. Who is Schabone, for example? Is it Pyke's pseudonym, some supernatural force, something else? Is this a manifestation of Carcosa? Is Pyke dead? 
What would happen if you stared at one of those Everyman portraits, trying to drink it all in? Would the figures begin to move? 

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Hotel Wi-Fi Horror (Night's Black Agents)

Inspired by this article in the Guardian.

Short version: hotel wi-fi is incredibly insecure. This is partly because the people charged with protecting it are hotel people, who put service before security.

“Hospitality companies,” writes Bloomberg's Patrick Clark, “long saw technology as antithetical to the human touch that represented good service. The industry’s admirable habit of promoting from the bottom up means it’s not uncommon to find IT executives who started their careers toting luggage. Former bellboys might understand how a hotel works better than a software engineer, but that doesn’t mean they understand network architecture.”

Hackers love hotels because that's where people spend money. That means everything's vulnerable,  including their credit cards, passport numbers, personal details - pretty much everything guests might have wanted kept secret. Moreover it doesn't stop at one hotel. Hack, say, Marriott in Ohio, and you probably have access to every Marriott in the chain.

The aftershock can be brutal. When Marriott did get hacked, it put at risk 383 million guest records, as well as more than 5 million unencrypted passport numbers and more than 9 million encrypted payment cards.

I imagine most of you reading this have been to at least one sci fi or fantasy convention in your lives. Perhaps you go to several each year. Consider this a warning: you, too, could become a sad statistic in some future article about identity theft. You do have a Virtual Private Network, right?

It doesn't help that most hotels, anxious to keep expenses low, don't bother to upgrade out-of-date systems. Nor do their staff get trained on the best way to avoid trouble. If a customer asks to charge his phone, does the server plug it into the wall, or into the office computer? Are there unsecured, unwatched ports - say, in the bar?

With all that in mind, a scenario seed:

Puttin' On The Ritz

The agents are hired to infiltrate a high-profile hotel IT system, say one of the hotels in the Ritz-Carlton chain. That gives the Director plenty of options, from Washington DC to Tokyo. The client wants any and all data  that can be retrieved about guests arriving and departing between a set of dates. Nothing's too trivial; if the hotel records how the guest likes her eggs, then the client wants to know about it.

The agents may believe they're being hired as deniable cut-outs for a major intelligence service, or by a mafia don on the make. If the target is somewhere high-profile, like the Ritz-Carlton Macau, then the agents may be able to work up full profiles about the guests' gambling habits as well.

The job ought to be simple, but there are two problems:

First, there's a guest in the penthouse suite who's very paranoid about security. Her machines are VPN protected, and she takes care not to let her guard down. Her personal assistant seems to be the one in charge; perhaps if the PA could be dealt with, it would be easier to get the data.

Second, Heat jumps through the roof shortly before the hack ends. The agents gain 3 points Heat, with no idea why. Turns out there's a VIP, a Saudi royal, who recently arrived at the hotel, and the VIP's complaining about everything from the olives in his martini to the laughable internet security. The VIP's particularly hot on internet security, because six months ago his identity was stolen and large purchases made with his credit card. The hotel's jumping like a flea on a hot griddle, which is why Heat spiked. If the VIP could be satisfied, things would go back to normal.

One of these two - the penthouse guest or the Saudi royal - has Conspiracy links, but the agents won't find that out until their plotlines have been dealt with. The question is, which?

Or are the agents' mysterious paymasters the ones with Conspiracy links?


Sunday, 30 June 2019

Go See This Now - Heists, Crime, Horror, Food & Booze (Netflix)

I've been bingeing these, and you should too.

La Casa de Papel is brilliant, intelligent, meticulously plotted, with some incredible set pieces and a climax to set your teeth on edge. Eight small-time crooks break into the Royal Mint of Spain, but they get caught halfway through the heist and are besieged for over a week. Except it wasn't really a heist, and the siege is all part of the plan. Night's Black Agents directors and players need to have this in their lives. Why am I singing its praises again? Because Season Three is coming soon, and it would be a terrible, terrible shame not to see the first two seasons before Three's July debut.

The Bar, another Spanish shocker from cult director Alejandro de la Iglesia, is a much more claustrophobic comic horror piece. A group of strangers are trapped in a small hole-in-the-wall boozer, when a mad gunman opens fire. One customer's dropped with a headshot, and everyone wonders who's next to get got. But wait! Why are the streets completely deserted? Was it really some crazed sniper, or is this all part of some government plot? Standout performance award goes to Jaime Ordonez as Israel, who spends the entire film chewing the scenery and spitting chunks of it all over the floor.

Unit 42 is a Belgian cop drama, about cyber crimes. Widower and father of three Sam Leroy is parachuted in as the new head of the unit, and must find his feet while keeping his fractious team focused on their job. For once, a police procedural that doesn't treat computer crime like some alien sci-fi looney bin, though it does wear its sci-fi credentials proudly. Hence 42, as in the Meaning of Life. I like that it remembers corpses stink, and aren't pleasant to look at. The first season touches on Anonymous, ISIS and other topics ripped from the headlines, but never buries itself in bullshit. YouTube only has an English dub trailer and several non-subbed French trailers, and I shan't inflict the English dub on you.

I like it best for its subtle character details. Example: the boss' boss, a character who only appears occasionally, keeps goldfish and plants in her office. She's absolutely fatal, black thumb personified, and everything she touches dies. In another series there'd be long speeches about her inability. In this, we just see her harried expression as she brings another container of dead goldfish to the toilet for a solemn burial.

Again, highly recommended to Night's Black Agents Directors and players alike.

Charite At War is a second world war epic, about the Charite Hospital in Berlin. The doctors, nurses and patients have to survive a city under siege, threatened by aerial bombardment, Russians at the door, and cornered Nazis making a final stand. The narrative starts in 1943 and goes to the end of the war, all in six episodes. Fair warning: eugenics and experimentation on children both feature significantly.

I like it best for its characters, but I was struck by its intelligent use of wartime footage to flesh out its world. Every so often you'd see brief glimpses of Berlin as it was, then Berlin as it became, after the bombs dropped. It made the narrative much larger, even compelling.

Tokyo Stories: Midnight Diner is my chillax series. When the day's gone on too long, it's always a pleasure to sink back into this cheerful, slice-of-life narrative. Each day, after midnight, the Diner opens, for people who can't bear to go home. The Master has a limited menu, but offers to cook anything his customers want, so long as he has the ingredients. The Diner becomes a story hub, as each of the customers take it in turn to have some kind of crisis, which can only be solved at the Diner's counter. Slightly saccharine and very Japanese, in the same way that Studio Ghibli films are very Japanese; nostalgic, elegiac, sentimental.

Plus, free recipe with every episode. Can't beat that!

Finally, Office, a Korean horror film from 2015. Family man Kim Byong-gook goes to the office day in, day out, never deviating, never relaxing. One day he murders his entire family, then disappears. Where did he go? Why did he do it? Why do security cameras record him going back to the office one more time, but there's no footage of him leaving?

Freaky as hell, very psychological. Winner of the 2015 Camera d'Or at Cannes. I'm not saying much about it because I don't want to spoil, but trust me when I say, it delivers the goods in the craziest way imaginable.


Sunday, 23 June 2019

Funereal (GUMSHOE all, Swords of the Serpentine)

Many funeral customs arise from a fear of the newly dead.

For example: People wear black ribbons after a death, not out of respect, but because if you wear black you escape the ghost's notice. In the past, some people went to great lengths to ensure this, tying black ribbon on everything from people to poultry - particularly if there's been more than a few deaths recently.

When people throw mementoes into a fresh grave before it's filled, this too is to discourage the angry dead. The Fox North American Native group believed that you had to throw something in, even a bit of faded cloth or small bit of food. If you didn't, the dead would notice, and come back to claim its gift. This probably also explains the custom of throwing dirt, or ash, into the open grave before filling it.

The Scots used to believe that, if you met a funeral procession, you had to join it. If the mourners happened to be carrying the coffin, you had to take the place of one of them, and carry it for at least a short distance. Once you'd done that, you could let the funeral continue without you. If you didn't do this, then you were likely to die within a year.

It was also bad luck to meet a funeral procession head-on. If that happened, even if you were in a car, you had to turn around and look in the same direction as the procession, until it had passed.

If there's been a death in the house, you mustn't wear anything new. If you did, the dead would see, and envy you - with appalling consequences to follow. For the same reason sackcloth, ashes, and black clothes were the proscribed attire, though in the fashion-obsessed Victorian era there was a relaxation on the 'nothing new' dictat. Victorian ladies took great pleasure in arranging their funeral attire, to their satisfaction. Again, it's all black because that makes the mourners inconspicuous. The people closest to the corpse mustn't attract the attention of the corpse.

These are mostly European folktales, of course, with the exception of the Fox belief. Go across the planet, and you'll find plenty of examples of similar beliefs. Not all that long ago I talked about hungry ghosts, Luck Ambassadors, and Chinese festivals in honor of the dead. A similar philosophy's at work there: pay tribute to the dead, or be punished by the dead.

In a horror game - in any action game, really - death is a likely consequence of heroics. It isn't always the characters who die, of course, but sometimes it is. Suppose, for a moment, this meant a player character - or their shadowy double - could return, for a session.

I was fortunate enough to playtest Swords of the Serpentine earlier this year, and I'm looking forward to its release. Whenever it does release … *twitch* I don't want to drift into spoiler territory, but suppose for a moment we talk about a completely invented custom, based loosely on something I noticed in All Around The Town by Herbert Asbury. Let's see what can be done to make it Serpentine.

Important and picturesque functionaries of New York during the early days of Dutch and English rule were the Comforters of the Sick and the Inviters to Funerals … There were two Comforters, and two Inviters. They wore identical uniforms - tall black hats, solid black coats, and black mantles - and each carried a Bible and a long staff. When a man fell ill, the Comforters, their fees having been guaranteed by [family/friends] sat at his bedside during the long hours of the night … preparing him for a possible journey to Kingdom Come. When the patient died … the Comforters retired and the Inviters … took charge. Attaching to their tall hats long streamers of crepe which reached to their heels, and bearing elaborate scrolls, the Inviters went from house to house reciting the virtues of the deceased and inviting his friends and relatives to the funeral. As they marched solemnly through the town, one tolled a bell, and the other struck his staff heavily against the ground, while he cried the tidings of death in a loud and doleful voice …

At the end of it all the Comforters and Inviters gave away cheap geegaws, memento mori, to the pallbearers and attendees. Brooches, rings, carved or perhaps wrapped around with the hair of the deceased. The pallbearers got a special treat. Each received a carved spoon with a figure at the end intended to represent one of the Twelve Apostles, but these were often so crudely carved that they more resembled monkeys than saints. Hence the spoons became known as monkey spoons.

Note the copious use of black: top hats, coats, mantles, and that long twist of crepe for the Inviters. Again, those closest to the dead need protection from the dead, and nobody gets closer than a Comforter or Inviter.

All this ceremony presumes a few things. First, it presumes that the only effective way to communicate is by going door to door. Second, it presumes that a handful of people can do this effectively - so we're talking about a time when New York was much, much smaller than it is today. Imagine trying to walk all over modern New York to tell people Bob had breathed his last; you'd be in Manhattan all day, and never mind the Bronx or Brooklyn.

Now, I don't think I'm allowed to say anything about Serpentine beyond what's already out there on Pelgrane's site. However there's a fair bit already out there, so:

A rhythmic, solid clack of staves against stones echoes against towering walls, each blow followed by a high, mournful wail. Someone's passed, and whoever they were, they had money - enough to pay the Inviters, at least. A funeral! An unveiling ceremony for someone's statue. Free food, free drink, perhaps a chance for a little harmless larceny. What could go wrong?

The deceased was an important member of [Faction] and members of [Faction] are encouraged to attend. The party's held in one of [Faction]'s traditional banquet halls, teeming with statues of every description. However, wandering its halls reveals a shocking secret; someone smashed a statue to fit this new statue in. But who did it? Who would be so callous?

Was it the Inviters, or the Comforters, too eager to make a profit? Was it an accident? Or was it deliberate, a spiteful act from a faction within [Faction}, determined to elevate one of their own at the expense of some forgotten old fuddy-duddy?

Moreover, what does it really mean to destroy a statue? In-game, statues are described in much the same way as I've described, say, black hats and ashes. It's a means of keeping the unquiet dead under control - pulling their fangs, metaphorically speaking. But in your game, who knows? This is a player-driven experience, after all. In your session, statues could be something entirely different.

Better make your mind up soon, though. This banquet hall is dark, shadowy. Anything could be out there in the dark. Absolutely anything …


Sunday, 16 June 2019

Gabriel Hounds (Bookhounds, Dracula Dossier)

Brook Manor in Buckfastleigh, Devon, is said to be the inspiration for Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles. The story goes like this:

In the 17th Century the Manor was owned by a Richard Capel (or Cabell), who had a fearsome reputation. He owned two manors, one being Brook (sometimes spelled Brooke), the other Hawson. Whenever he spied a woman he liked the look of, he captured her and locked her in his manor at Hawson, riding over to visit her whenever he felt the need. When it came time for him to die, either he was howled to death by demon dogs parading outside Brook Manor, or he was chased down by the same on his way from one manor to the other, depending on which version of the story you prefer.

Devil dogs are relatively common in British folklore, particularly when it comes to ghouls and the undead. Often they are seen trailing after the living dead, or tormenting soon-to-be-damned souls. Their howls are a warning, both to the prey and to anyone else who might be nearby.

The most common version is the Gabriel Hound, often found coursing in packs. Also known as Corpse Hounds, they hover, like the Banshee, near the houses of those about to die. Occasionally the pack is supposed to be led by a man - the Gabriel of the story - a Sabbath-breaker whose punishment is to lead the Devil's pack for eternity. Some Victorian legends suggest that the Gabriel Hounds are actually the souls of unbaptized children, who cannot go to Heaven but are not condemned to Hell Everlasting, so they hover between the two.

In the case of Brook Manor and Richard Capel, the story has a postscript. Capel didn't get a church burial. His tomb was not far from the manor house, and had an iron grill over the entrance. It was said by the children of the parish that, if you marched counterclockwise around the tomb the correct number of times and stuck your fingers through the grill, Capel would come up and nibble your fingers. Why that was considered fun is a question best left to antiquity.

Brook Manor still exists in the present day, and if you have a spare few million you too can live in a Grade II listed ten bedroom manor house

So let's gamify this.

Devil dogs and Gabriel Hounds could easily be linked to the Hound-Lich, said to have its origins in the corpse-eating cults which dwell at Leng. However if the Gabriel tales are true, then the Hound-Lich isn't really a creature of Leng at all; its ghastly territory extends much further than that, and may not be linked either physically or spiritually to those fabled amulets of jade.

Church carvings come in all shapes and sizes, and the misericords of Grinling Gibbons are famous, but hounds often appear in stone form across the British Isles. Suppose for a moment that each of these markings is a warning, or possibly an indicator, that a Hound-Lich is nearby? Those strange and terrible demons found in church after church could be an attempt to capture the fluid essence of the Hound-Lich, neither corpse nor dog nor winged ghoul, but a combination of them all. Given the known links between the Hound-Lich and ghouls, the carvings could also be an attempt to warn people ghouls are nearby, or haunt the local churchyard.  

Typically the Hound-Lich stalks and kills those who steal its amulet, almost certainly from some forgotten, damned burial chamber. All of this comes courtesy of the 1922 Lovecraft short story The Hound, which isn't much different from the Howard Carter-ish Mummy's Curse. He who disturbs this tomb shall pay the penalty … 

All of which is very Pulp. However if your game is Purist then the whole idea of spectral tomb guardians may be unhelpful, particularly since the Leng name-drop is just so much excess baggage in the original story. Sure, it comes from Leng. If it came from Cleveland, Ohio it'd still be a slavering killing machine, but Leng's a better postcode. It has that Addams Family vibe.

That said, The Hound does have several markers that are close to, if not identical to, the Gabriel Hound story: the howling, the persecution of its victims, the presence/close proximity of the walking dead. The two big differences are the corpse-eating, and the strong inference that those killed by one might turn into one.

Suppose the Gabriel Hound was a Hound-Lich. What, then, do the legends signify?

Well, the spectral hounds forecast death, and they seem to be linked to certain spots - like Brook Manor. They might pursue a particular family for centuries, always appearing whenever one of them is close to death. So they're either linked to a place, or to a bloodline.

The bloodline bit fits neatly with the Bad Luck and In the Blood drives. Some people attract these things. Perhaps it's the star they were born under, or the ghastly taint flowing in their veins. Whatever the reason, put someone like that in proximity to the Gabriel Hounds' hunting grounds, and watch the sparks fly. Of course, to find out where those are you want to carry out a little Library Use or Cthulhu Mythos research, and keep an eye out for unusual stone carvings in old churches. In the case of In the Blood, it might also explain why your forbears were so keen to leave, say, Devon. Perhaps you're related, however distantly, to poor Capel, whose sins were not so black as history records, but whose blood proved irresistible to the Gabriel Hounds.

The location idea suggests a link to Magic, in some way. The Rough Magicks book gives several different paths to magic, from Elder Thing bio-tech to Dreamlands holdover to perceptual gravity. The key is, the source of magic, whatever it may be, is also the source of the Hound Lich. It gravitates to magical places, but cannot pass through them to its home dimension. Hence the howling, and all those stories about spectral guardians. The Hound-Lich isn't that fussed one way or the other about people, but it's perpetually frustrated and angry, so when it does find someone  on whom to take out all that rage … well, it usually doesn't end well for the someone.

Of course, Britain and folk magic go together like peanut butter and slavering hell-beasts from alternate dimensions. All those standing stones, ley lines, pagan sites, mystic wells, pilgrim's paths and peculiar rituals … Pick a hill or desolate moor, and chances are there's some kind of link with an ancient and malevolent past.

In the original story, the jade amulet serves as a kind of phylactery. It embodies the Hound-Lich in some way; remove the amulet, anger (and summon) the Hound. For this version, assume that there are several ways to create a phylactery, and it doesn't have to be jade or any particular material. That peculiar carving above the church door, on the tomb at Brook Manor, or even on the gate pillars of the old mansion, is the actual phylactery. Someone was clearly trying to create a means of disposal, or at least to anchor the Hound Lich in one place so it couldn't go roaming the countryside looking for victims. Wherever that marker is, so too is the Hound Lich - beware!

Perhaps there's some way to use the phylactery to defeat the Hound, but if so, that method is lost to time. Some crumbling grimoire, or some dangerous experimentation in the field, is needed to decipher the secret.

In Bookhounds, the secret of the Gabriel Hound can be found in some obscure, potentially Mythos-significant text. The client who wants it is either a Baskerville clone who wants to get rid of the family curse, or a necromancer who wants to use a Hound Lich for her own purposes. The Bookhounds search far and wide for the book that will explain everything, possibly because, if they don't find it, the Hound will come for them.

In Dracula Dossier, the Gabriel Hound could be Edom's early, abortive attempt to use supernatural means to destroy England's enemies. At least vampires are intelligent, and can be reasoned with. Gabriel Hounds are insane wights which kill anything they fancy. That's probably why Edom dropped the idea, but the sad story of this early experiment can still be found in some forgotten card file.

Alternatively a Gabriel Hound could be an indicator of vampire activity; the Hounds follow the undead, baying in their wake. This probably only works in certain locations, like Brook Manor, where the Hounds are known to congregate. The howls could be an early warning system for vampire-savvy locals, or the Hounds might attack vampires on sight. The occasional human Hound victim is an acceptable price to pay, for that kind of security.

This probably works best in a Supernatural or Damned game, especially with a Mythos tinge, but there's a lot of potential for other vampire types. The alien stone from the main book works well here. Just what are those fabled amulets made of, and why are they always buried in the cold, dark earth?


Sunday, 9 June 2019

Bookhounds of London: Customers

So who's trip-trapping on your bridge?

I'm running Bookhounds again, and the Dragon's Eye is the latest bookstore to open up on the edges of Soho. I'm drawing on some old Victorian scenarios for inspiration, on the grounds that whoever was knocking around in 1890 is probably still knocking around in 1930, only with longer beards and greyer hair. Those old favorites The Golden Dawn (Pagan Publishing) and Dark Designs are getting an airing, because the players want Arabesque with a hint of Arthurian lore, and both those books have that in spades.

So far the player with the Bad Luck drive is being very accommodating … I may have to design some kind of Keeper's Award for Most Willing to Cripple Self.

As is often the case, I have some notes I intend to recycle for the campaign, and while I'm not about to post anything the players might get an advantage from were they to see it, I thought you might find these customer notes useful. None of these are intended to be campaign-altering NPCs, but they may be handy if, like me, you need someone to step in on the fly.

Stuart Phillips-Rouse

Category: Client

Physical: Neat, trim build, with the proportions of a trained dancer. He always wears a suit and a Regimental Guards tie. He smokes French cigarettes, a habit that he says he picked up in the War. He may be in his forties, but it’s a very well preserved forties. He is clean shaven, dark haired, with no scars or distinguishing features.

Location: His London offices are at Tottenham Court. He has a ‘place out in the country’, a cottage in Metro-land. He works as an independent financial advisor, and has a reasonable (if not luxurious) income from a number of middle-class clients. He has two staff, Evelyn Smythe (office manager) and Parker Noyes (clerk and general dogsbody). He wears no wedding ring.

Interests: Spiritualism and ghosts. He can be sold almost anything on those topics, and seems to be an indiscriminating client. However he has recently become very interested in getting a copy of the King In Yellow, a text that he has heard about from a fellow collector.
Credit Rating: 4

Richard Middlemark

Physical: Tall, imposing, with a shock of thick white hair. He has a fondness for Victoriana, and this extends to his dress sense. He is rarely without his cane, a thick (reinforced metal) mahogany stick with a faun’s head carved into the grip. He wears glasses most of the time, though he only needs them for reading. He has a neat, short beard, which covers over a two inch scar on his chin and neck.

Location: He works as a curator for the National Portrait Gallery; his knowledge of pre-Raphaelite painters is unparalleled.  His home is in Greenwich.

Interests: He is particularly keen on Golden Dawn ephemera, and will be interested in anything to do with Enochian magic.

Credit Rating: 4
Theodora Eks

Physical: Short, red hair, clipped close and slicked down. She has pale porcelain skin and bright blue eyes. She usually wears trousers and men’s open collar shirts. She always wears a wedding ring (though she never talks about her husband) and a peculiar gold necklace with an odd Oriental pendant (Mythos: an emblem of the Lloligor). She has been a painter’s model in her time, and still has a graceful, full-bodied figure.

Location: No-one has seen her home, but she can usually be found in Soho, especially at night.

Interests: She is fascinated by pagan Gods and rituals, particularly river Gods, and is a knowledgeable medievalist. She will be interested in anything to do with ‘the dragon-gods of the ancients’ [lloligor]. She keeps a ritual temple in the basement of an otherwise ‘abandoned’ house in North London, where she conducts magic ceremonies and sacrifices.

Credit Rating: 6
Patricia Li

Physical: Medium height, thick bodied, with ink-black hair. She usually wears far too much makeup, which makes her appear as though she’s ten years older than she is. She often wears Parisian fashions, of the very latest type, and, though they look dreadful on her, her taste is impeccable. She keeps a poodle, Alphonse, who travels with her everywhere. Though she neither smokes nor drinks, she does take laudanum (on the quiet).

Location: She owns two counting-houses in Chinatown, and is a very well known moneylender in Chinese circles. Her father was as well; she inherited the business. According to gossip, it was Patricia’s mother who actually ran the counting-houses, while the father was a figurehead. When not at either of her businesses, she can usually be found in a gambling club. She is often away, in Paris. Rumor has it that she is connected to the Tongs in some way, but it seems unlikely on the face of it that the Tongs would tolerate a woman in a position of authority. However she does have a number of well-bred young men on her payroll with a peculiar talent for violence.

Interests: She is fascinated by the life and works of von Juntz, and will consider purchasing anything by that author. She collects anything to do with von Juntz – clothing, scraps of hair, portraits, furniture he used to own – and is undiscriminating. She has a room in her house entirely devoted to von Juntz.

Credit Rating: 8
Any of these characters could become important to a scenario, either as the main antagonist or as some kind of patron/source of information. Theodora and Patricia are both fabulously wealthy, the kind of client any Bookstore would want to cultivate, but the characters may want to proceed with caution. Do they really want to get too close to Lloligor-loving Theodora? Is Patricia all that she seems?

Given that my campaign is likely to involve the remnants of the Golden Dawn in some way, Richard Middlemark will be my go-to, at least to start with. After that, who knows where the future may lead?


Sunday, 2 June 2019

Not Quite Book Review Corner: The Abombinable Mr Seabrook

The Abominable Mr Seabrook, Drawn & Quarterly 2017, Joe Ollmann.

William Seabrook ought to be one of the most famous names in horror. This American pre-gonzo gonzo author and adventurer only went and invented the freakin' zombie; if that isn't an iron-clad claim to fame, what is?

Yet he's largely forgotten by modern audiences. My copy of the Magic Island, Seabrook's Haiti reminiscence, is an Armchair Traveller 1989 reprint of the 1929 original, and for a while there, unless you haunted antiquarian bookstores, this was your only option. There have been reprints since, thank goodness.

In his day, Seabrook was one of the most famous popular authors going - exactly the kind of author, in fact, whose work might be found on the shelves of your Bookhounds' shop. He went to Africa to live among the cannibals, Arabia to see the Bedouins, Haiti to discover the secrets of voodoo, and the asylum to find out what it was like to recover from chronic alcoholism.

That was his besetting sin. Seabrook was a lifelong alcoholic. He spent his entire career drinking across the planet, stopping in now and again to turn out very readable copy. He learned the trick by working for Hearst's papers, and despite everything he never really lost it.

He did his best to lose everything else. Never a contented man, his trick is to find his way into what he thinks is happiness - whether it be tramping across Europe, almost penniless, to owning his own cotton farm, or being partner in a successful ad agency in the 1920s - and promptly throw it away, in search of more happiness. He married three times, and each time it ended badly, though his first marriage was probably the most successful.

His trip to Arabia, in 1924, was a spectacular success, and gave him material for his first big international smash hit, Adventures in Arabia: among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes and Yezidee Devil Worshipers, published in 1927. It gave him the credibility and funds to go to Haiti, where he found inspiration for his Magic Island, published 1929.

That was the very first time anyone saw, and described, the zombie. A creation of Haitian magic, Seabrook said the animated dead man resembled a lobotomy patient, animate, yet incapable of thought. This idea was later turned into the main plot for White Zombie, a poverty row horror quickie that caught fire largely thanks to Bela Lugosi's performance as 'Murder' Legendre.

This is one of the few times a traditional zombie, as described by Seabrook, appeared on screen. Haiti's merely a backdrop here, voodoo barely mentioned. It's Transylvania-by-the-sea, with a plot that doesn't bear close examination. Magic was dropped from zombie lore in later films, starting with White Zombie's sequel, Revolt of the Zombies. In that film zombies are created by means of a secret formula, not the end result of a particular religious ritual; part Lugosi-style hypnotic magic, part alchemical science. Soon zombies became creatures of mad science, cooked up by lunatics and Nazis for unholy purposes. Then George Romero and his investor friends make Night of the Living Dead in 1968, another poverty row quickie, made for gore-loving drive-in audiences. The word zombie isn't even used in the film; to the terrified cross-section of Americana trapped in a deserted farmhouse, the approaching dead are flesh-eating ghouls. That didn't matter. Nobody really cared where zombies came from any more. Night hints at a scientific explanation, blaming strange radiation scattered by a rogue Venus probe, but explanations weren't necessary. Zombies roamed. They ate the flesh of the people they murdered. They could be killed by a shot in the head, nothing else. That was all anyone needed to know.

Speaking personally, while I admire Seabrook as an author, I've always distrusted him as a historian. His stories are just too sensational, too gonzo, too perfect. The Magic Island is a case in point. Seabrook sees everything and tells all, each story more incredible than the last. The zombie story isn't even the most outrageous tale in the book; my personal favorite is the wedding feast, but the account of an actual voodoo ceremony complete with 'human sacrifice' is another strong contender. He's a ballyhoo author to his core, going to sensational places and emerging with even-more-sensational stories. Can the man who gets paid for churning out colorful stories be trusted to tell the truth?

The thing is, Seabrook's the first. Nobody knows what a zombie is, before he sees one and tells the world. What if he was lying? Or exaggerating?

What if there were no zombies, before Seabrook made them up?

That would make Seabrook the inventor of possibly the only truly American horror icon. Vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, Mister Hyde, the Frankenstein monster - they all come from other sources, often European. If Seabrook exaggerated, if the zombie came from his imagination and a healthy dose of white rum … Nobody questioned him. It was taken on faith that Seabrook knew what he was talking about. In his wake came a teeming host of quasi-anthropologists, folklorists, adventurers, looking for voodoo, looking for excitement, looking for monsters. The Haitians knew how to milk credulous foreigners for everything they could get …

Joe Ollermann takes the reader on a guided tour of a colossal, life-long, booze-filled cock-up. Seabrook slowly destroys himself, and his talent, page by page. His sexual appetites, his love of adventure and corn liquor, his peerless imagination, sensationalism and bravado, all combine to create a disaster that some writers would give their soul to emulate. Make no mistake, Seabrook was the man to beat, in his heyday.

In the end, he beat himself. There are few moments more harrowing than the first pages of this novel, showing Seabrook at his worst, almost entirely destroyed, drinking his way across New York. He's on the brink of suicide - but can he pull himself out of the pit, for his ex-wife and young son, if for no other reason?

Image taken from the Guardian book review.

So, why should you pick this up?

First, if you have any love for the 1920s-1930s, this is the book for you. Seabrook saw and did everything, and knew pretty much everyone, from Maya Deren and Man Ray to Aleister Crowley and Theodore Drieser. It's a slice of history, from start to finish.

Second, if you're a Keeper looking for a useful patron, walk-in NPC or similar, William Seabrook's your boy. He's seen Timbuctoo and Brooklyn too. He'd fit in Masks of Nyarlathotep, Horror on the Orient Express or any of the classic stuff. Moreover, as hinted, he'd make an excellent walk-in for a Bookhounds campaign. Or a Dreamhounds campaign, for that matter, given his links with prominent surrealists and his travels to Paris in its bohemian heyday.

Third - well, it's a tragedy. We should remember our tragedies. For all his faults - and God knows there were many - there's something compelling about this poor soul's life. He spirals into a self-destructive black hole with, seemingly, no chance of redemption, and all you can think is, it could have been stopped. But would Seabrook have been happy if it had?

Finally, if you write, and you've wondered if it's worth it, if it can be good - read this book. Here's a man who knew success and disgrace, money and poverty. See if he has anything to tell you.