Sunday, 17 February 2019

Vampire Rats (Night's Black Agents)

I'm a big fan of Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series and its hero, PC Peter Grant. However, living where I do means I can't always pick the latest up on release. I recently devoured Lies Sleeping, in which Peter and his two nemeses, former colleague Leslie and the Faceless Man, have their Good, the Bad and the Ugly showdown. I'm not going to talk about that, except to say go read the damn thing already what the hell are you waiting for? What I'd like to talk about is a very brief non-spoilery throwaway gag.

Nightingale and Frank Caffrey dealt with a vampire nest in Neasden. Curiously these turned out to be infected rats …

That's such a good idea it deserves to be stolen. There's even a small precedent:

"I heard a commotion one day in the yard,” he said, “and there was a young turkey thrashing about the yard with two rats hanging to its neck. I ran into the yard and drove them away and found that they had sunk their teeth into the back of the turkey’s neck and had been sucking the blood. The turkey was strong, but the wounds poisoned it, and swelled its head and I had to kill it. The worst of it is, these rats won’t be poisoned, for they refuse to eat raw meat or cheese that has been fixed for them."

Also, a very fun movie, Mulberry Street. I had a DVD copy but it rotted. I shall have to get another one somehow.

In Night's Black Agents rats get group stats, which increase in stacks of 10. For every 10 rats added to the horde, its Health, Athletics and Damage all go up. Otherwise its ability pools and damage are fairly unremarkable. It works best in large numbers, which is why Steven King wanted to use them in Salem's Lot, but was persuaded against it because it was felt the scene was too gruesome. "I had them swarming all over him like a writhing, furry carpet," says King, "Biting and chewing, and when he tries to scream a warning to his companions upstairs, one of them scurries into his open mouth and squirms as it gnaws out his tongue." King was drawing on a similar moment in Stoker's Dracula, where a horde of flesh-chewing rats are neatly disposed of by Godalming's dogs.

To make this work in-game, the Director needs to answer an important question. Did this happen by accident or design?

If accident, then there must be something that caused this. Perhaps the strange pathogen that created vampires first came from rats, and some of the breed still carry the strain. Or the chemicals got out of the vat, the rats ate a vampire in its coffin and gained some of its powers, what have you. The key thing here is that to understand, and beat, the pack, the agents will need to discover what the accident was, which itself is at least one or two scenes' worth of investigative work. If they don't do this, then the likelihood is they won't exterminate the threat. No matter how much damage they do, one or two of the infected will escape, to carry the infection to another pack.

Once the agents understand the accident, they can devise some kind of cure, perhaps by introducing an antigen of some kind to the wider population. Then the rats solve the problem themselves, by passing the McGuffin on to the rest of the pack. Or perhaps they just spray holy water on anything that moves and most things that don't.

If it was by design, then there has to have been a purpose. Perhaps the vampires intended to use the rats as emergency blood packs, spies, assassins, saboteurs. A magical strain of vampires might give these rat packs to favored human servants as animal familiars; after all, the whole point behind the fabled witch's mark is that the familiar sucked blood from its master at that point. Whatever that purpose may be, the agents need to understand it so they can beat the rats, or work up some kind of defense. If you know that rat saboteurs might come after the cables and wiring in your safehouse, put down lots of rat poison laced with vampire banes. If you know that these rats are magical familiars, then you also know that blooding the witch will cause them to run away in terror.

Next question: how powerful are these meant to be? Answer being, not very. These are minor antagonists at best, not boss monsters. I'd recommend treating them like inferior Renfields, so where Renfields get 12 points to add to abilities, vampire rats get only 4, no  bonus to alertness, +1 melee damage, no free powers, one other power, aberrance starts at 3 and goes up by 1 for every 10 extra rats in the pack. Feats of Strength probably aren't an option, but otherwise pick the one you like the look of. Vulnerable to the same banes and blocks as the vampire that created them, and if that means they explode in daylight, well, now you have kamikaze exploding vampire rats to worry about.

Lucky you!

Sunday, 10 February 2019

High Seas Booty - SuperYachts (Night's Black Agents)

By now you've probably seen the silly season news piece about Picassos getting dinged by champagne corks. In case you haven't, here's the article.

Briefly, people with more money than sense own very large luxury craft. Those ships are bespoke and fitted with pretty much anything you can imagine and more besides. Among the pretty shinies put on board to make everything seem less of a waste of money, time and art, is art. Except the kind of people who buy these things are not the kind best suited to take care of them, and end result is a lot of collateral damage caused by hyperactive kids, flying champagne corks and the like.

God alone knows what living in a salt-impregnated waterborne environment will do to the poor artwork, but that's just by-the-bye.

I've discussed super yachts before, but to repeat:

Though luxury yachts have been around since the 19th Century, the number of super yachts has spiked since the 1990s and the rise of the mega rich. There’s no set rule for what is or is not a super yacht, but generally they have to be more than 45 meters long. That's for your ordinary rich person. The 100-meter gigayachts tend to be the exclusive preserve of Russian oligarchs and Gulf royalty.


They always have a permanent crew and luxurious accommodation capable of handling many guests. They can accommodate as many as they like while in port, but at sea  they're limited to 12 passengers unless they have specific permits saying otherwise. They have at least four decks above the waterline and two below. They are built to commission, which means no two superyachts are alike.  This one might have a gym, pool and sauna, and that one might have a working medical lab, a movie theatre, or massage parlor. It all depends on what the owner wants.
The industry is very gendered. As a general rule the deck crew will be exclusively male, and below decks crew exclusively female. This also means there is a strict age limit for female crew - "late 30s, and you're off," says one yacht captain
The biggest risk – and least recognized, at least by their owners – is cybercrime. The yacht’s Wi-Fi network is typically designed to be very strong; the owners like to be permanently connected. This means a super yacht’s network extends over a very large area, which lets people in the ship moored next door, or on shore, infiltrate it. Since most of the ship’s systems are interconnected a good hack team can get everything from the security camera feed to control over the navigation systems. Those with Data Analysis or using Digital Intrusion as an investigative ability know this as a 0-point clue. It bears repeating - the weakest link is always the internet of things. If you can crack any one device on that yacht, odds are it's connected to every other thing. It doesn't matter whether it's a projector, a fish tank, or the toilet. Once you're in, you're in.

For a Night's Black Agents Director, no setting is more appropriate than a super yacht, not even a high-end casino - unless it's Casino de Monte-Carlo. Introduce high-end art into the mix and you have the perfect ingredients for a caper. The art in question can be anything; what's art to one man is trash to another. This fellow might collect Picassos, but his neighbor the director of Hong Kong horror film gorefests keeps peculiar medical texts, and the Saudi princeling has a thing for 19th century anthropodermic bibliopegy - books bound in human skin. That's before you consider what an actual vampire might decide to collect.

With that in mind:

Breaching the Mingyun.

The Chinese e-commerce billionaire Jack Wei recently purchased, at private auction, a McGuffin. The precise nature of the McGuffin is up to the Director. A Dracula Dossier McGuffin, for example, might be Le Dragon Noir or the Portrait of Dracula. In a game with Perfectus Petri, it might be an alien stone. Whatever it is, it's of incredible significance and potency - and it's just sitting out there on his yacht, the Mingyun. Most of the time the yacht's on the move, but for a few days in July it will definitely be in Hong Kong, as Jack's current paramour, Jian Yan, a prominent actress, will be attending HKIFF, the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

The agents' task is to locate, infiltrate, and retrieve the McGuffin before the Mingyun leaves port.

Variant 1: It's all a bluff. 'Jack Wei' is actually a vampire hunter, bent on revenge. He's borrowed the real Jack Wei's identity and put about the McGuffin story to lure a bloodsucker to him, and capture it for interrogation. However the vampires are a little more cunning than the hunter gives them credit for. The Conspiracy hired the agents through a cut-out, intending to send them in first as sacrificial lambs. The agents' real purpose is to trip all the booby traps, exhaust the opposition, and then the vampires will move in and exterminate whatever survives. Possible OPFOR: Soldiers (mercs hired by Jack Wei), bodyguards (ditto), Jack Wei (vampire hunter, treat as improved soldier or special forces, Chow Yun Fat type), boat crew (civilians), young paralegal working for the real Jack Wei's lawyers sent to serve a cease and desist, and boy did she pick the wrong night to do it (civilian), vampires (eek!).

Variant 2: Jack Wei is a vampire enthusiast, who collects all things to do with vampire legends and lore. The vast majority of his collection is worthless tchotchke but for once he's got something genuine, and he wants to know just exactly what it is. His yacht's laboratory is equipped with the finest scientific gear money can buy, and he's in Hong Kong on a secret mission to bring aboard an expert in Vampirology to test the item. Unluckily for him his expert has been Renfielded, and the expert's job is to retrieve the artefact without undue fuss. The expert's been given a reasonably accurate forged copy to switch with the real thing, and has a small but well-funded hit team on shore to help him escape, if things go south. Neither the Renfield nor Jack Wei are expecting the agents to show up … Possible OPFOR:  Soldiers (very well equipped mercs hired by the Renfield, including expert drivers/snipers equipped with speedy cars, or jetskis, to make the getaway), bodyguards (Jack Wei's people), Jack Wei (civilian with occult interests), boat crew (civilians), Renfield Expert.

Variant 3: Jack Wei is enthralled by a Vampire, possibly a Jin Gui, who lives on the yacht full-time. The McGuffin is the creature's present, which Jack Wei hopes is sufficiently enthralling that the Vampire forgets all about Jack Wei's new born child, Jian Yan's daughter. The Vampire recently expressed a desire for something new on the menu, and the child is it. Jian Yan vehemently disagrees, and has been keeping her daughter's birth a secret; all through the pregnancy the Vampire insisted on keeping the actress aboard, feeding Jian Yan special diets, tailored aromatherapy and the like, all to make the little dumpling that much sweeter. Jian Yan's desperately pretending she hasn't given birth yet, though only last night the dumpling arrived - and is currently hidden on Jack Wei's yacht, because Jian Yan couldn't think of a way to smuggle her daughter ashore. It was Jian Yan who hired the agents through a cut-out; she's hoping they'll solve her problem, with extreme violence. Possible OPFOR: Bodyguards (notionally Jack Wei's people, actually Renfields under the Vampire's control), Jack Wei (terrified civilian under the bootheel), Jian Yan (civilian trying to get out alive with her daughter), boat crew (civilians). Plus Vampire (eek!).

Enjoy!  

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Banes: Running Water (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

"Come,' he said, 'Come, we must see and act. Devils or no devils, and all the devils at once, it matters not; we fight him all the same." Van Helsing, Dracula.

Vampires are bound by certain fundamental truths, and one of them is that they can't cross running water. Why not? What's so special about a babbling brook that you can't find in, say, a puddle?

In folklore, running water is a potent bane against all sorts of things. It stops witches, ghosts and devils dead in their tracks. It also has curative powers, and can heal someone stricken by elf-shot, but the wary spit on the earth before crossing bridges at night, to avoid the attention of evil things. In Scotland, crossing the right kind of river with silver coin created a cure for children struck by witches' curses. Stones taken from running brooks and rubbed against affected limbs cure aches and pains. If your cow gives bad milk, have it drink from a south-running stream; that will make its milk sweet again. Gold and silver water - that is, water taken from a running brook and bottled with gold and silver coins - is a cure for a wide variety of ailments.

So running water isn't just a block. It has magical powers beyond vampires, when used correctly. The stones used to cure aches have to be gathered in a certain way, at a certain time. The gold and silver coins and the water they are sprinkled or bottled with have to be treated just so. Holy water has similar powers, which is why in the past people would, say, keep the water left in the baptismal font for later use as a cure-all, and also why the church would put the font under lock and key - to prevent people using the water for magic.

Part of this can be traced back to legends surrounding fords, ferrymen, and river crossings. When there is no public infrastructure to speak of, and the only way across a river is by a ford, river crossings take on huge importance. Many famous battles end up being fought next to fords for precisely this reason; if the only way to your objective is across a river, then you want to capture that ford. For much the same reason, you often find inns and coach houses near fords and bridges. Also, murderers, like infamous Illinois innkeeper Isaiah Luna Potts who, in folklore, slaughtered many a traveler at Pott's Inn.

For that matter there are plenty of ghostly legends about ferry crossings. Charon, Wade, Vati, Anti - there's no shortage of psychopomp ferrymen willing to carry heroes, the dead, even Gods to their final reward. Water drawn from a ford 'where the dead and living cross' was thought to have miraculous curative powers, and could break any infernal curse.

All of which goes to show that, when Van Helsing says Dracula has difficulty crossing rivers, it's not because Dracula has a water allergy. It's because rivers are extremely important and powerful in their own right, and no thing of evil can easily get past one. Moreover a cunning man can use the river's power to his own advantage, accessing its magic to cure and protect.

In Night's Black Agents terminology, the running water bit works best with Satanic or Supernatural vampires. It's more difficult to make work with Mutant and Alien types, if the assumption is that the undead are a recent phenomenon. Even if they've been here since ancient times, it's risky making running water a bane. It looks a little too much like the Wicked Witch of the West, or the Triffids.


There are ways of getting round the problem. Seawater, for example, is known to have a bad effect on plants, so you could argue that a vampire type that derives from some form of plant life or fungus might hesitate if seawater became an issue. However it's going to get silly if an agent threatens a vampire with a bucket of water. Even a hose looks daft, as the Triffids discovered back in the 1960s. As the folklore shows, this trope works best if the water itself holds power, not if the vampire is weak against water attacks.

Say running water marks the boundary between the living and the dead, and so is constantly infested with ghosts, which is why vampires don't like going near water. In gaming terms, it costs them Aberrance to go anywhere near running water and fend off the ghosts, so the weaker ones don't do it at all, and the stronger ones only try with reluctance. Again, that's a supernatural trope, not a biological or quasi-scientific one - the tropes that best suit Mutant or Alien vampires.

So when using running water as a block, bear this in mind: the running water probably gets its power from the same magic - or whatever it may be - that works on Vampires. Say your version is the Telluric kind found in the Dracula Dossier, or the Ancient Stones in the main book. Telluric Vampires get that way thanks to bacteria which fed on telluric energies and were expelled from the earth, probably by volcanic activity. The Ancient Stones are alien variants who spread the contagion by completely replacing a human's blood with alien matter.

In both cases the Vampires are created by some kind of microscopic or microbial contamination. Water can be a transmitting vector, carrying the essence of the vampire, presumably because there's some kind of contaminating source. We already know that volcanoes have a significant effect on river flow, and it's not impossible that a bit of alien stone found its way into a river. Perhaps after a battle some conquering tribe flung the alien stone, which they perceived to be a foreign God, into the river to drown it. Or it was hidden there to protect it.

Either way, the mixture of water plus contaminating element could really mess with Vampires. The Telluric bacteria might have an adverse effect on a Vampire's metabolism when combined with rushing water. Or it might confuse the Vampire's senses and reduce its ability to make Aberrance spends. The microbes and bits of stone from an Alien Stone vampire might have a similar effect on a Perfectus Petri, or alternatively it might be such a draw to the vampire that it has to study the phenomenon, even at the expense of self preservation - meaning it stands there till dawn, and then explodes.

Equally, drinking from that stream or mixing it with other materials - gold and silver, say - will have some effect on living creatures. Exactly what that effect may be is up to the Director.

Or it may be an indication of trouble to come.

Say most rivers don't have this effect on Alien Stone vampires, which is likely if the river draws its power from a chunk of Alien Stone. Well, if this one does, then it follows that there must be some Alien Stone around here somewhere. Where, exactly, and what effect has it had on the surrounding wildlife?

Alternatively, with Telluric vampires, if rivers suddenly have this block effect on vampires, and if this is related to recent volcanic eruptions that spewed bacteria into the atmosphere, then what else has happened? Does this mean a new vampire threat waxes in some forgotten, blighted land? If the river effect fades, presumably because the bacterial matter has been washed into the sea, then does this mean the vampires are on the run - or does it just mean that running water no longer blocks them as once it did?

That's it for this week. Enjoy!