Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Bookhounds of London: Found in the Margins

There's an interesting piece in the New York Times that I encourage you to read, about marginalia and its increasing value in the book trade. Three major universities have received significant funding to study marginalia created by certain people, the magician John Dee being one.Until recently marginalia was looked on as a sin in the book world, but these days it can be worth big money.

If you've ever owned a second hand textbook, then you already know what marginalia is. Whether or not the scribbling and doodles interspersed with the text is worth anything will depend on the identity of the scribbler. The Times quotes a Christies auction in which a chemistry text annotated by Michael Faraday sold for $38,000 when the high estimate was $25,000, and points out that an ordinary, pristine copy of the same text would sell for only a fraction of that amount.

Before now, it was common practice to destroy marginalia when it was found. Booksellers thought it made the text less valuable, calling marked books 'dirty,' and libraries routinely destroy this ephemera when it is discovered. There's an organization, Book Traces, devoted to tracking down and preserving these items and notes, wherever possible.

From a Bookhounds point of view, removing marginalia - if the characters want to do that - uses the Forgery ability. It's not just about erasing text; it's about making it seem as though the text was never there, a tricky thing to pull off. The Keeper might call for something like this if the Hounds pick up a text that needs tipping in to make it complete, and increase its value.

On the other hand, there are plenty of times when marginalia might add value, or become significant to the plot. Poems annotated by Randolph Carter, or an anatomy text with Herbert West's scribbles, are only ever going to interest Mythos scholars, but those can be the most determined collectors. Don't forget that many of these characters traveled extensively in their lifetime, which means that they could have left marginalia in all kinds of interesting places. Imagine, say, an official history of the Regiment with odd photographs, scraps of paper drawings and maybe a medal or two attached, or used as bookmarks. Say it was West's old unit in Flanders, and that West was one of those who contributed a photo or two, perhaps one of those drawings. Now imagine it being further annotated by West's old C.O. Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee, the headless medico.

That kind of thing is bound to be plot significant rather than valuable in its own right. Though someone with Mythos knowledge might be interested in the contents, to anyone else it's just a battered old book. But there are plenty of characters in Lovecraft's fiction whose marginalia might be valuable in its own right. Occultists and scholars like Von Juntz, Ludwig Prinn, the Comte d'Erlette, and so on, are all going to be of interest to people who have little or no understanding of the Mythos, and those scholars will have left behind letters, notes, drawings, and other items, stuffed in the leaves of the books in their libraries. Picture a medieval Arabic text on astronomy, annotated by Von Juntz, or a love letter by the Comte d'Erlette used as a bookmark in a history of Paris. Those things may not have any plot significance, but there are going to be people out there who will go nuts over them.

Finally there is the double whammy, a Mythos text with marginalia. Something like the King in Yellow with annotations by Hildred Castaigne, or Leggett's 1821 Mysteries of the Worm with notes by Halpin Chalmers. The books themselves already add Mythos, perhaps potential Magic, even granting dedicated pool points. The King in Yellow, for example, adds 2 to Cthulhu Mythos and 1 to Art, permanently. One annotated by Castaigne might do all that, and also provide 1 potential Magic point, or, in a Dreamhounds game, refresh Instability.

That's it for now! This may be the last entry before the New Year, so let me take this opportunity to wish you every good thing in 2015!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Vin Mariani: Cocaine, Wine, and Cthulhu

Once upon a time there was a fascinating substance called cocaine, first imported to the West after the conquest of the New World by Spain. This habit-forming substance enjoyed a kind of reluctant endorsement from the powers that be; the Catholic Church, for example, was very hesitant about cocaine, blaming it for all kinds of sins and claiming it was an invention of the devil, until it realized that workers dosed with the stuff were twice as productive. The Third Council of Lima allowed the Church to take a 10% cut on all cocaine sales, after which the Church dropped any and all reservations it had.

In 1863 a Corsican apothecary, Angelo Mariani, hit on the idea of mixing cocoa leaves with wine. The cocoa leaves bled off their alkaloids into the wine, creating a cheery substance, Vin Mariani or Vin Tonique Mariani, which soon became a hit. It helped that Mariani was an absolutely shameless media hound, extracting celebrity endorsements from the likes of Thomas Edison, Queen Victoria, two Popes, Jules Verne, actress Sarah Bernhardt, the Empress of Russia, and so on. The whole list of endorsements, it is said, took up fifteen leather-bound books; The King of Tonics, The Tonic of Kings, or so went the advertising. It became one of the most popular tonic wines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and continued to be manufactured until Mariani's death just three months prior to the start of the Great War. He took the formula to his grave, in Cemetary of the Père Lachaise in Paris. It's still possible to find examples of the original bottle for sale as antique glass, and there's at least one example of the original stuff still kicking about.

Some of the known physiological side effects of cocaine use include a decreased need for food and sleep - something night owl Edison appreciated - a tendency to become talkative and energetic, intense euphoria, increased libido, irregular heartbeat, bulging eyes, gaunt appearance, increased blood pressure and valve damage, obsessive behavior, paranoia, hallucination, feelings of impending doom and death. and so on.

Taking all of that into consideration, what does this mean for Trail games?

Bookhounds begins, more or less, in the 1930s, while Dreamhounds kicks off in the 1920s. During both periods Vin Mariani would be available for sale, though probably in reduced amounts since it is no longer manufactured. Or is it? After all, Vin Mariani isn't protected by trademark and even if it was, the person most concerned with protecting it is long dead. The Keeper could easily rationalize that someone stepped in to make an inferior version of the original, particularly in Paris, since Mariani's manufacturing plant was in France. It's always possible some associate or employee of Mariani stepped in to fill a void in the marketplace. Of course the original, probably still available at least while stocks lasted, would be the superior vintage by far.

It would be beloved of older occultists and other NPCs. Anyone over 40 in 1930, for example, might easily have enjoyed the original while Mariani was still alive and making it. A few bottles of Vin Tonique could be used as window dressing in any scene involving NPCs of this type, as could the cocaine shakes, gaunt appearance and so on that is characteristic of long-term use.

In a game like Dreamhounds, Vin Mariani could acquire an odd reputation. After all the whole point of the setting is to get into the Dreamlands somehow, and here's a substance that reduces the need for sleep. Some Dreamhounds might find that a blessing or a curse, depending on what they've been up to; a sudden spike in their wine consumption could be a significant Sense Trouble indicator. Or perhaps Vin Mariani, or its equivalent, has made its way through to the Dream somehow, perhaps carried there by a fan. Can it be manufactured there? What would happen if it was?

Going over to Night's Black Agents for a moment, a few months back when I was discussing the nature of Conspiracy I posited an organization that wanted to become the premier source of Gray, a narcotic substance, in the Western World. Consider what Vin Mariani is: a wine infused with an intoxicating substance. Now consider what the Conspyracy wants: an easily transported, easily disguised means of distributing ghost-impregnated stimulants. Sold! Vin Mariani, or a wine very like it, could easily have been one of this Conspyracy's first attempts at distributing Gray. It might still have vineyards out there being dusted, fertilized or what have you, with the essence of dead souls, sold to its more discerning clientele.

Or, leaving Gray aside altogether for a moment, a Vampire with nineteenth century connections could still have a hankering for its favorite tipple, particularly with a drop or two of blood added. After all, just because Dracula, rather snootily, says he doesn't drink wine, doesn't mean that the rest of the blood drinking community has turned teetotal. But as the years advance and Vin Mariani becomes much more unobtainable, that Vampire might go to extraordinary lengths to ensure a supply. Following the bottle trail could be an extremely useful way of tracking down a dangerous opponent.

That's it for now! Enjoy.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Come Fly The Friendly Skies: Night's Black Agents and Air America

If people remember Air America at all, it's usually because of the Mel Gibson/Robert Downey Jr film. which didn't do too well at the box office. While the movie's fun enough, no one film could really do justice to the CIA's wholly owned subsidiary transport company. The question before us right now is, what happened to Air America after the war, and what does that tell us about Night's Black Agents?

Air America started life in the 1950s as a passenger airline, intended by the CIA to help it gather intelligence in China. China at that time was just coming out of a battle for control of the country, which ended in 1949 when Mao formed the People's Republic. At that time Air America was Civil Air Transport(CAT), originally founded by Flying Tigers veteran Clair Lee Chennault, and had significant Chinese investment. It had bases in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, among other places, which in hindsight became perfect placement when America became embroiled in Vietnam.

It transported people, cargo, and allegedly narcotics on behalf of high placed Laotians. It also had a significant sideline in transporting livestock, often to help civilians, starving thanks to Agent Orange attacks which blighted their cropland. It lived up to the slogan Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, often in ways that would seem, to outsiders. less than creditable, and hired pretty much anyone, from ex-war aces to ex-Marines, with the helicopter pilots, generally younger , taking the prize for hell-raising and boozing.

'The men usually abandoned the [company] hat for a baseball cap, and some even wore Stetsons, and all wore the inevitable sunglasses. But most distinctive of all was what came to be known as A.A. jewelry. Some wore gold necklaces and rings, but almost without fail they sported a solid gold Rolex on one arm and a solid gold bracelet hand-engraved with their initials, sometimes in diamonds, and the Chinese four seasons design, on the other ... The bracelets were big and gaudy, and the biggest weighed half a kilo. The pilots claimed that the A.A. bracelets originated as something to barter their lives with if they were ever shot down and captured by the enemy. As the enemy would have cut their arms off to get the gold, it is more likely that the pilots' naive theory was created to allow them time to indulge themselves in a little ostentation.'

So why, when the war was over, did the CIA get rid of its airline, and what does this mean for Night's Black Agents?

It wasn't because the CIA never wanted to get in a plane again. It still had a use for an aviation section, but one of the big problems was the size of Air America. By the war's end the airline was too large, and its activities too well known, to be kept a secret. It didn't help that, as a business, it was an enormous drain on resources in terms of man hours spent keeping it going, often with very little reward in sight. After all, the CIA doesn't always need an airline, but if it wants to keep one then it always needs to find something for that airline to do. That's a huge pain in the neck, particularly if you lend your airline to another agency, just to justify that airline's existence on your balance sheet, only to have that other agency commit some heinous faux pas for which you, as owner of the airline, are now being blamed.

For those reasons, the CIA sold off its assets, including all its planes, and started working with cut-outs. Much easier, the spooks reasoned, to work on a contract basis with third parties, than to own the business yourself. By 1976, Air America was history.

What does all this mean for Night's Black Agents?

To begin with, it's entirely possible that the conspyramid worked hand-in-hand with AA at some point, if only because AA worked with pretty much everyone. If the vampires had an interest in infil or exfil of human (?) assets somewhere in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, then it probably used AA to do it. After the dissolution of AA, the conspyramid might have picked up a few disgruntled human assets of its own; many of those pilots found themselves without a job after AA dissolved, and with limited compensation, except for a few entitled to disability benefits. Those on disability might have found vampire promises particularly enticing.

However the AA story points up a bigger truth, than the conspyracy will have to acknowledge: while there's a great deal of control in owning your own asset, ownership is a pain in the ass. You have all the troubles of running a business and few of the rewards, since your clandestine asset can't compete with commercial enterprises. After all, the commercial line can do whatever it takes to earn contracts, but the clandestine enterprise always has to be mindful of its master's wishes. Plus there's always the risk that, with larger and more complex assets, the truth will leak out. People talk. Accidents happen. From a game perspective, those assets are constantly generating Heat, attracting attention to themselves because they really can't explain their activities, except to admit to some kind of illegal enterprise.

This is why most of the assets in a conspyracy, particularly at its lowest levels, are going to be human; cut-out organizations, businesses and groups with little substantive link to the higher echelons. All the better for deniability, but it also means that those cut-outs might unintentionally commit an act that harms the conspyracy, just as AA did when it allegedly got mixed up in narcotic smuggling.

With all that in mind, consider the following:

Pet Flight, a bespoke animal air freight company incorporated and operating in the UK, has recently suffered financial troubles after a PR disaster, when a celebrity's favorite dog died in transit. The police got involved when rumors began to circulate that the dog died from a drug overdose, which happened when the animal stuck its snout in a massive quantity of cocaine. The police initially believed that the cocaine was being smuggled on the celebrity's behalf by Pet Flight - an extra service it allegedly provided some of its high profile clients - but when the CEO of Pet Flight, Patricia Brady, offered to turn informer, she was brutally murdered. The murder seems overkill for what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward smuggling charge; what else did Brady know about, that her clients preferred remain secret?

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London: Brains!

You may have already seen the news item about the University of Texas' 100 missing brains, including among others the school shooter Charles Whitman who, one fine day in August 1966, climbed a University of Texas campus tower with a rifle, killing 16 and wounding 32. In a letter written before the attack, Whitman said he did not know what compelled him to carry out the shootings, and asked that he be autopsied; 'donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.' Nobody knows where his brain is now; perhaps it was stolen, perhaps it's just missing.

People have been preserving brains since the mid-19th Century, and more often than not, these collections are the work of enthusiasts and specialists whose efforts go neglected after their deaths. Harvey Cushing's Yale collection vanished after his death in 1939, only to be rediscovered decades later by students who made the collection part of a ghoulish pilgrimage that all new students had to undergo. Eventually Dr Dennis Spencer, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, rescued them and made them the centerpiece of a museum dedicated to Cushing's work. La Société d'autopsie mutuelle carried out the same kind of task in Paris in the 1870s, collecting both brains and the recorded history of their former users, until the Society died out in the 1890s.  There are probably thousands of brains scattered all over the world, hidden away in hospital basements, or some other temporary final resting place.

With all that in mind, consider the following possibility: a society of surgeons, working in Moscow in the later 19th and early 20th century, have been carrying out autopsies and preserving the brains of the dead. Their focus has been on the study of madness and suicide, and their collection includes several murderers as well as the deranged and self-harming. It's said that they even managed to collect Rasputin's brain, complete with the fatal bullet that went through it. However when the Revolution upended everything in 1917, several prominent members of the Society determined to preserve their life's work, and fled Moscow with the Society's collection, as well as its valuable library containing many important works, including a complete edition of Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring's anatomical encyclopedia in the original German. This collection is supposed to have been in Paris for about five years after the Revolution, but the surviving members of the Society were unable to persuade any French academic institution to accept the collection. With little money of their own to sustain it, the Society members took their collection to London in hopes of persuading one of the Universities to take their treasures.

Unfortunately for those three surgeons, Apetkar, Veselov and Zarubin, the English academic world was as unenthusiastic about their collection of preserved brains as the French had been. Though Rasputin's brain attracted mild interest, there was no real provenance, nor could there be under the circumstances. Unless they could prove, somehow, that it really was Rasputin's brain, it had no value to anyone. There was some demand for the library, but the Russians weren't willing to give up one half the collection without finding a home for the other. Zarubin is supposed to have put the collection in storage on or around 1926, while the three considered how best to raise the money needed to properly house it. Then Zarubin went missing in April of 1926, possibly a victim of the GPU's Operation Trust, before he could tell his partners Apetkar and Veselov where the collection was stored.

Since then many fantastic tales have been told about this collection of brains, and it's become a favorite ghost story for doctors and surgeons training in London. Every tale-teller claims that the preserved brains are floating around in the basement of one of London's hospitals. Nobody knows what became of Apetkar, though Veselov took up his old profession and can be found in the East End managing a small practice; most of his patients are Russian immigrants.

However the library is supposed to be remarkably valuable, to the right sort of client. Any number of book scouts claim to know where Zarubin hid the collection, and whenever a Russian book on anatomy turns up rumors begin anew that the Zarubin Collection has been found. None of those rumors have ever been proved true.

There are three factions known to be after the Zarubin collection:

  • Veselov is supposed to have been able to gather enough money from other Russian emigres to house the collection, if only he could find it again. It's debatable whether he actually has the cash; he certainly doesn't look or dress the part, and these 'rich Russians' of his have never been seen by anyone other than him.
  • Andrew Harding, a devoted Communist with deep pockets, is always buying Russian artifacts of whatever type, without any regard for what they are. It's said he's actually funded by OGPU, and tasked with recovering anything and everything that Russian emigres brought with them when they fled the country.
  • Arthur Poole, solicitor and coroner for the Municipal Borough of Bromley, is fascinated by criminals of all kinds, but particularly murderers, stemming from his ten years as coroner. He's been involved with three capital cases so far, and in each case has argued for the preservation of the brain of the condemned, for further study. Some say he has history with the Golden Dawn as well, but this is more gossip than proved.

There are two other factions, less well known, interested in Zarubin's brains:

  • The Supper Club, a loose collection of aesthetes who some claim have connections with the Keirecheires Y'Golonac cult, is willing to pay significant sums of money for any brain from the Zarubin Collection. It's not known whether they're after the alcohol used to preserve the brains, or the brains themselves.
  • Pavel Tchelitchew, surrealist artist and Russian emigre currently living in Paris with his partner Charles Ford, is supposed to be interested in the collection, and is willing to pay a high price for them. It's not known precisely why Tchelitchew wants them; there may be a Dreamhounds link here, or it may be that Tchelitchew's name is being used by another, more clandestine collector who would prefer to keep his identity secret for reasons of his own. This is most likely if the scenario takes place after 1934, since Pavel and his partner went to New York City in that year; this fact may not be known to Bookhounds, living far from Paris. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The School of Night, Kit Marlowe and Bookhounds: The Dagger That Slew Him

Ken Hite's KWAS edition The School of Night brings into focus something I've been thinking about for a while, and I'd like to discuss what it could mean for Bookhounds of London.

Often the Bookhounds end up chasing Mythos texts of one kind or another, and that's fine, but it does mean that they end up doing broadly the same things that any other Cthulhu investigator does: hunt down obscure Mythos facts and save the day. Problem being that you, as Keeper, can't have them stumbling over the Necronomicon every other week. There must be other books, other mysteries to unravel. What could they be?

Dramatist, author and probable spy Christopher Marlowe lived a very eventful life, before his murder in May 1593 at the hands of Ingram Frizier. To this day nobody's entirely sure what happened. The three men in the pub with Marlowe at the time claimed it was an argument over money, but all three seem unreliable witnesses. Robert Poley was an intriguer and professional liar who once said 'I will swear and forswear myself, rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm,' Nicholas Skeres was a confidence trickster, while Ingram Frizer, the alleged assassin, was also a con man as well as an agent of Thomas Walsingham, a patron of Marlowe's. The coroner's report, discovered in 1925 by Shakespearean scholar and literary detective Leslie Hotson, said that Frizier had acted in self-defense, and acquitted him. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in Deptford.

Marlowe's plays were published posthumously, among them The Massacre at Paris, which no longer exists in manuscript; the edition in publication is a reconstruction, based on the memories of the actors who performed it. One page allegedly exists, as part of the collection gathered by notorious forger John Payne Collier, who regularly created Shakespearean documents in an attempt to 'prove' his own theories. He even went so far as to insert his forgeries into the original record, by amending existing texts. The Massacre page, known as the 'Collier leaf,' is thought to be authentic.

The Massacre at Paris describes the events of the St Bartholemew's Day Massacre in 1572, a three day butchery of Protestant Huguenots by Catholics which left somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 dead. The Catholic mob believed it was necessary in order to prevent a Huguenot coup d'etat; women and children were hunted down and slaughtered, and the bodies of the dead were flung into the Seine.

Now consider this possibility: your Bookhounds discover, at auction, a bundle of papers described as 'an Elizabethan miscellany.' The papers include one or more pages from an unpublished manuscript, as well as some legal documents. A quick scan leads the Bookhounds to suspect that the manuscript is actually Marlowe's Massacre, and the legal document is an attestation from the Coroner, William Danby, that 'the attached poniard is that same weapon with which Ingram Frizier did rob Marlowe of his life.' The Bookhounds then realize the hitherto unsuspected significance of another item up for auction, an Elizebethan era dagger, listed as 'provenance unknown.'

Suddenly a world of possibilities open up. Talk about a Windfall for the shop; two, even three pages from Marlowe's missing play? The very dagger that killed him, with documentation attached as provenance? Fame, fortune, glory; it could all be theirs.

Now try to prove it.

Scholars are going to go mad about this discovery. There will be condemnations as well as accolades; if there's ever been the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing connected to the characters, this fantastic find will be dismissed out of hand as a blatant forgery. The Bookhounds may need to find a tame scholar of their own, an acceptable face to announce this new find to the world. But where to get one?

There are other problems. Suppose the pages can be traced back to Collier, whose proclivity for creating his own evidence is well known. Does that mean that these pages are forgeries too, or are they, like the Collier leaf, genuine?

What about that dagger? Proving it to be the actual weapon that killed Marlowe seems an almost impossible challenge. However there are going to be plenty of desperate Elizabethan scholars out there determined to own it, and some of them might be desperate enough to kill. Collectors can be strange folk. So too can occultists; imagine the kind of sympathetic magic you could perform with such a weapon.

Going further, what about the School of Night? Consider what you, as Keeper, could do with an occult group of conspirators operating in the Elizabethan era, fighting against strange and supernatural threats against the throne. Catholics versus Protestant, wrapped up with witches, Rawhead, ghosts, and many other things that go bump in the night. There's every reason to intersperse a Bookhounds campaign with School of Night adventures, all leading up to that fatal moment in Deptford when Marlowe is murdered - but why? Which of his enemies orchestrated the deed? Is he in fact dead, or is there some cover-up allowing him to retire in peace after years of intriguing?

Suppose the Massacre contains a coded message, perhaps even some kind of warding spell. The play itself features a mysterious English Agent, generally considered to be Marlowe himself. Say Marlowe tried to protect his life by transferring some of his essence into the manuscript itself, much as wizards in old tales are supposed to have hidden their hearts away in secret places to avoid death. Does this mean the manuscript is haunted, or will it try to rebuild itself in an attempt to revive Marlowe? Is this the work of malevolent Dust Things, or is there really a chance Marlowe might come back?

If it is a spell, does it still work? Marlowe may have wanted to protect England against the same kind of religious turmoil that gripped Paris, but suppose that, in its damaged form, it actually provokes them. Could discovery of this document lead to Protestant massacres of Catholics, on the streets of 1930s London?

Ultimately, my point's this: you can do a lot with a literary mystery, beyond have the Bookhounds seek out Von Juntz's miscellanea again and again. Try a little mix-and-match with other settings or ideas, see where it takes you. Maybe you'll find out who really killed Marlowe, and why; maybe you'll put an end to a literary time bomb that's been waiting centuries to go off. You might attempt occult rituals with that dagger, or you might just spend all your time trying desperately to prove that the fabulously valuable literary artifact you discovered really is what you say it is.

Have fun!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Lovejoy and the Mythos: Bookhounds of London

If you've never read Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy series, I recommend them to Bookhounds Keepers in particular. The TV series is fun too, but it has a broad comedy streak, and comedy rarely ages well. Still, it's worth looking at for the atmosphere alone, and since many of the episodes involve auctions of one form or another, it's handy for setting the scene if you have an auction coming up in your game and aren't sure what to do about it.

I want to talk a little about divvies, but for that to happen I need to describe Lovejoy to the uninitiated.

Lovejoy is the main character in the series. He's an antique dealer and forger with an unusual talent: he can spot the real thing. In the series it's described as a near-supernatural gift; he can just feel when an antique is right, a talent he calls his 'bell' which rings the minute he comes into contact with the real thing. It makes him especially desirable to a certain kind of collector, and also a certain kind of criminal. Often it means he's swept up in one scheme or another, desperately trying to keep one step ahead of the people trying to manipulate him.

The very first book, The Judas Pair, is a case in point; Lovejoy is hired to find a near-mythical set of flintlock dueling pistols, only to discover that murder follows in their wake, and not just because the pistols themselves are desirable. In that story Lovejoy is hired by the brother of a former owner, who apparently was shot with one of the dueling pistols, though neither weapon can be found. How did Eric Field die? Who has the pistols now? What are they prepared to do to keep them?

This is actually one of the better ones for Keepers to pick up. Since it is the first, Gash is heavy on the detail, and there's plenty here about the shadowy world of antique collecting and forging. However we're not here to talk about books: we're here to talk about forgery.

In the game, the Technical ability is described as follows: 'you can create a false document, forge handwriting with a sample to work from, or (given time) fake an entire book. This ability does not convey any special skill at creating aged paper or ink, or at bookbinding, or an ability to write or otherwise create a given volume.' Which is good so far as it goes, but the poor forger is then lumbered with half-a-dozen Art and Craft specialties that he absolutely has to have in order to do his job, and will never actually use in game unless the Keeper's feeling kind and manufactures a clue to suit his peculiar build. Given that ability pool points are at a premium during character creation, I tend to say that a forger needs Art and Craft, but doesn't need to sink points into all those different specialties.

However this merely means that the character can create a forgery, and I suspect in most games this ends up meaning that the players decide to make a small fortune by forging, say, the Cthaat Aquidingen half-a-dozen times, palming each hooky copy off on some unsuspecting occultist. How often does it happen that someone tries to pass a forgery off on the player characters?

The Document Analysis ability allows players to tell fakes from genuine, but there is no in-game equivalent for any other kind of Analysis. It could be easy enough to rationalize different kinds of Analysis, all of which are Technical abilities that do broadly the same thing as Document Analysis but which work in other mediums: Art Analysis, Weapons Analysis (for those antique arms and armor), Furniture Analysis, Collectables Analysis (for any small tchotchke that doesn't fit in the other categories), and so on. Naturally the characters aren't going to be interested in these Abilities, not unless toy collecting - or what-have-you - is also part of their store's remit. These would be NPC abilities, for those moments when your character has to phone a friend to properly identify and value the item in question.

Of course, this does tend to create the impression in the players' minds that Analysis (of whatever type) always works; you spend a point, you get the benefit. That isn't precisely so. I would count these kinds of Analysis in the same way the game counts Lockpicking: an ability that always reveals a clue when there is a clue to be had, but which can also be used as a General ability. General abilities can fail.

Which is where Lovejoy comes in. As a divvy he has a special talent, his Bell, which in game can best be represented by Idiosyncratic Magic, used to bump up a General roll that didn't quite hit the Difficulty target. Exactly how this would work is up to your enterprising Bookhounds, but I'm sure they can think of some peculiar ritual that helps them tell false from real.

In the Bookhounds universe, there's bound to be a few divvies out there with actual magical powers. There's also bound to be even more people who pretend to be divvies in order to get customers, or who actually believe they have powers when in fact they do not. The psychic field is full of deluded practitioners who honestly believe everything they say, but just because someone swears a thing is so does not make it so.

It's up to the Keeper whether he wants one of the player characters to be a divvie. There's no real harm in it, and it can help the forger out. I find that forgers in my games are a bit like netrunners used to be in Cyberpunk; the idea's great, but the actuality doesn't really work the way you think it would. Forgers often end up locked in the back room, talking to no-one, diligently creating fakes. They lack a reason to get involved with the outside world, but certifying true antiques from forgeries gives them a reason to get out and meet people, and having a reputation as a divvie means the outside world will eagerly come to them.

But what is a fake, exactly? It's something that pretends to be real, and have value. That 'have value' is the most important part of the equation; nobody bothers to forge things that are easily available on the open market, for little or no money. From a Bookhounds point of view, it's a potential disaster waiting to happen.

Consider: every shop, no matter what it sells, operates ultimately on the basis of goodwill. So long as people think the store is reputable and does good business, customers will keep walking in the door. Many businesses, particularly in the service industry, are bought and sold on the basis of goodwill alone, not its physical assets. Any restaurant can buy tables and chairs, but they can't buy customers, and if there's a food poisoning incident that hits the papers, you can bet that restaurant's goodwill just dropped through the floor. It's the same with a bookstore. Who wants to be known as the bungler that certified a fake as the real thing? What store wants a reputation for passing off hooky merchandise? That's why a reputable dealer, if he becomes aware of a fake in his collection, has to eat the cost rather than try to pass it on to an unsuspecting customer. The consequences of being found out are just too great.

From a game perspective, being found to have sold forgeries, knowingly or not, must count as a Reverse. That means someone needs to be checking incoming stock, to make sure none of them are too good to be true. I'd suggest a Difficulty 4 check once every so often, perhaps at the beginning of the session, though not at the beginning of every session. However I would suggest that successfully selling a valuable forgery does not count as a Windfall, except for shops with Credit Rating 1 or lower. One sale, more or less, does not make a business; but being caught selling fakes, even once, can ruin it.

That's it for the moment! I hope you found this useful.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Rock Me Like a Hurricane (Trail of Cthulhu, Call of Cthulhu, All Flesh Must Be Eaten)

I've been out of action for over a week thanks to Hurricane Gonzalo, which hit us two weekends ago now. We lost power fairly quickly, but had it back within 24 hours. Telecommunication was more of a problem, as the pole went down during the storm and hasn't yet been replaced. We have a temp line coming in, but the least bit of bad weather will knock that out.

It occurs to me that a relatively small number of people have experienced a hurricane directly, and I thought I'd go over the sequence of events as they occur, with a discussion of what it might mean for a gaming group.

A hurricane is basically a high intensity tropical storm, with sustained winds of over 74 mph; a hurricane is categorized by the intensity of its winds, from 1 to 5. Gonzalo was a Cat 4 - sustained winds of over 130 mph - until it hit us, when it became a Cat 3, with something like 111 mph winds.

In the modern era, there's usually plenty of warning of a hurricane's approach. With Gonzalo, we first knew about it almost a week prior, when it was a tropical depression brewing down in the Caribbean. That gives you time to prepare, which in Bermuda usually means take in all the lawn furniture, move the boat - if you have one - to a safe anchorage in the lee of the projected storm winds, close up all the windows and put up shutters or plywood if need be, and lay in plenty of booze to keep you entertained.

Power's almost certain to go out, so you'll want candles or some other light source. I find candles slightly better than electric light sources, inasmuch as candles don't need to be recharged or use batteries. You don't know how long it will be before the lights come back on again, so you don't want to rely exclusively on a light source that consumes a lot of power or fuel. This also means you're likely to lose frozen food, so the day before the hit is the time to cook as much as possible. Stew's just as good cold as it is hot, after all, and bread or cakes will keep for a while. Expect to lose anything in the freezer or fridge. Lay in plenty of water, and run the taps as much as you can, filling buckets. Once the power goes, the only water you'll have to drink or cook with is the water you saved beforehand.

Briefly on the subject of cooking: the house I'm in uses gas, but a lot of people have switched to electric. That means you'll have no power to cook. There have been cases where people bring their BBQs inside the house to make burgers or what have you. That is a remarkably poor idea - almost Darwin Award worthy - but high risk of death by stupidity has never stopped anyone yet.

The storm will be making its presence felt for hours, if not days, before the hit, with cloudy skies and high winds. When it actually does hit, the chief difference you'll notice is in the intensity of the winds and the darkening sky. By that point you need to be indoors, in a solid structure. We build in stone here, nice thick walls, and most of our structures are low-lying. It's rare to see a building with more than one storey, and we seldom go in for large windows or walls of glass. This is why we seldom see catastrophic property damage here; no collapsed houses, and devastation is usually limited to trees and telephone poles. Bear in mind, Cat 3 is the same velocity as Katrina, which did such terrible damage to New Orleans. Historically there have been very few hurricane deaths here, and none during Gonzalo, though when it blew across the ocean and hit the UK it killed three people. However if you look at the cause of death and injury in the UK, it seems the majority were avoidable if only the victims had taken the storm seriously. All the dead were out and about, walking or driving somewhere; one man was repairing his van in 108mph winds. This is something people down here would never do.

The duration of the initial hit will probably be several hours, but there's usually no way to be certain. Hurricane behavior is, at best, erratic. However one phenomenon that is well known but which still takes people by surprise is the eye of the storm. This circular phenomena at the heart of the hurricane is marked by unnatural calm. All activity seems to have come to a complete stop, and were you to go outside and light a candle, you probably wouldn't see the flame flicker in the slightest as there's no breeze to trouble it. This is actually when the storm is at its most dangerous, because the calm lures people into a false sense of security. This is when many leave the safety of their homes and go out to have a look at the damage, even travel down to see their neighbors or check on the boat. However the eye is surrounded by a ring of winds called the eyewall, and this is where the storm is at its most intense. So long as you're in the eye itself, no problem, but the eye is constantly moving and you can never be sure when the eye will pass over and plunge you into the eyewall. If that happens when you're outside, you're probably dead; that, or very, very lucky to be alive. Gonzalo's eye lasted for somewhere between half to three quarters of an hour, and then the hurricane picked up again and hung on for a further four hours or so. It wasn't until one or two in the morning that the storm winds finally began to die away, as Gonzalo moved off shore.

The immediate aftermath of the storm is usually marked by good weather. In our case it's been very sunny, and though the first day or so was still quite humid, since Gonzalo the temperature has dropped significantly.

Clean-up is a top priority. As you can imagine, downed trees and telephone poles need to be cleared as soon as possible, so the roads can be used, and there's often a significant period where, thanks to power outages or damage, traffic signals are out. Airport clearance is also a priority, and after Gonzalo flights were going to and from a day or so after the hurricane hit. As I write this, there's still plenty of mess out there, but mess is all it is; you can drive wherever you want, and the airport's at capacity again.  

Now, that's what happens to us here in Bermuda. Hurricanes are something we know about and expect; they turn up once every few years, do some damage, and go away again. We're relatively safe, because we know what to do, and we've built out of stone because we recognize the damage that a hurricane can do to anything built out of anything less robust. It helped a great deal that, for many years, we could quarry limestone here rather than get supplies from overseas.

In other jurisdictions they do more damage, often for environmental or architectural reasons. When Georges, a Cat 2, hit Haiti in 1998, it killed 400 people and left over a hundred thousand homeless, largely because extensive deforestation created an environment in which mudslides were likely after heavy rain. In 1935 Jérémie - so called because that town was devastated - claimed more than 2,000 Haitian lives, most of whom were peasants living in wooden houses, often in river valleys prone to flooding. Florida's 1920 property boom was abruptly halted by the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 which plunged the state into an early economic Depression, just before the 1929 Great Depression kicked off. Again, few buildings in Miami at that time were built to withstand hurricane force winds. There were no building codes back then; Miami soon invented some, and became the first city in the US to implement a city-wide building code. Even now, hurricane mitigation construction is still a bit of an arcane science in Florida, which seems incredible when you consider how often the state is hit by storms.

From an RPG perspective, a hurricane is a great way to change the landscape of the scenario. Do your players rely on electronic communications and the internet? Tough; it's gone now. No knowing when it's coming back. For the next few hours, driving anywhere or even leaving the house you're in is impossible. The players are pinned in place, helpless. There's no calling the authorities now, no hope of a rescue. If you, as Keeper, want to deliver a short, sharp shock, now's the time. It doesn't have to stop there, of course; hurricane clean-up usually takes weeks, and the aftereffects can be felt for months. Suppose the storm uncovers something best left hidden? Maybe a predator that would normally have kept itself hidden now has to change its habits after the destruction of its hunting ground, or a long-forgotten temple or tomb is discovered during the clean-up.

To my mind this best suits a Trail or Call of Cthulhu one-shot, perhaps one in which a disparate group of strangers find themselves trapped for the night, with no way out. But if you were to play with the concept it might also make a good All Flesh Must Be Eaten kick-off. There was an interesting episode of Law & Order that assumed an anthrax outbreak had occurred after flooding in New Orleans wiped out some experimental laboratories. Suppose a similar incident released the zombie virus, and now your hurricane clean-up team has to deal not just with flooded out families and disaster relief, but also the walking dead? Imagine how difficult it would be to contain an outbreak like that.

All Flesh has a fun mechanic called Spreading the Love, which basically describes how the zombie virus infects people, creating more zombies. What if, in this instance that the prospective zombie has to be immersed, maybe even drowned, in the same tainted water that created the first batch? Going further, what if this encourages the creation of a special zombie type, whose only function is to carry this tainted water in its own bloated belly?

That's it for me, for now. Talk soon!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Fiction Corner: Behind You

I'm in the middle of a writing seminar led by sci fi author Tobias Buckell, and one of the assignments is to complete a short story. It's due in about eight days. I'm enjoying the process so far, and may well submit this one for publication at some point. I thought you might like to see the first five hundred words, just to get an idea of the process. The story's set in contemporary London, and the working title is Behind You. Enjoy!


The late evening tide of humanity washes past the Nando’s, which replaced the BBQ Hut, which replaced the Smoothie place, flowing towards the escalators, and Jen rides the tide, with only the faintest hint of Him at the back of her mind.
The escalator is broken - again - so Jen and the rest of the evening crowd struggle up the way a cruel God intended. The woman in front of Jen has a pull-case, and lacks the upper body strength to haul it easily upward. Jen bangs her ankle against it.
"Sorry," Jen says, but doesn’t feel.
No reply. The other woman’s lost in the great Canary Wharf shuffle, one more in the mix, going home.
Jen gets to the top and sees a tattered Metro, left behind by an earlier commuter, beckoning her from its hiding pace stuffed at the top of the escalator. She grabs it, hiding her face behind it, pretending to care about a Sudoku that someone else had already finished.
She glances at the board. Ten minutes till the next DLR train. Ten long, soul-sucking minutes.
The Sudoku is in pen, and whoever it was got it wrong.
The cartoon is one she'd seen before, but she idly looks at it again, begging for distraction, when the hairs on the back of her neck begin standing up. She shifts from foot to foot.
He is looking at her.
There’s no particular He, at least not that she can make out, but there’s no mistaking the feeling. The greasy eyes-on, the sensation of cold, slimy wetness. It’s one of the Hes. Which one?
Fat one, thin one, short one, tall? Some of them she knew from work, has seen in corridors, been in meetings with. None of them she could put a name to. The platform’s full of people. He could be any one of them.
Her pocket buzzes, and her heart sinks. A text. She fumbles in her pocket for the new phone, almost drops it, then angrily swipes through until she finds the screen she wants. It’s Simon. Of course it’s Simon. It wasn’t going to be anyone else.
Not after last weekend, she thinks, and texts back:
How do you tell someone you've met someone else? Jan hated it, hated the lies that became bigger lies, but the alternative was to look him in the eye and say ... what, exactly? Not boyfriend material? I like you, I just don't fancy you?
The hairs on the back of her neck are still up and twitching. The other He is looking at her.
"Train approaching. Mind The Gap."
The sudden rush to board, the frantic quest for seats followed by the equally frantic search for somewhere to stand. Jan found herself standing at the front of the car, looking into the rear of the next car, just as full as this one. Bored commuters packed in together, staring sightlessly at London, too clamped together to read a Metro.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of London: Ned Kelly's Skull

This post is inspired by a recent article concerning the fate of Australian bandit and folk hero Edward 'Ned' Kelly. I'm not going to recount Kelly's biography here - that's what Wikipedia's for - but, in brief, Kelly, after several minor brushes with the law, escalated to murdering policemen sent to arrest him, and started robbing banks. Their most memorable, and final, encounter was at the small town of Glenrowan, near Victoria, where Kelly and his friends, dressed in bullet-repelling armor, captured the entire town, thinking that police were due to arrive by train and that, if the gang acted quickly, they could derail that train. The pursuers were warned by a constable named Curnow before they reached the ambush point, and surrounded the gang at Mrs Jones' hotel, where Kelly and his men lay in wait along with most of the captured townsfolk. The resultant siege was bloody and violent, eventually ending when the hotel burnt down, but Kelly was taken hours before that. He'd been shot several times in the lower body, including once in the groin, but his armor protected his upper body and head. Kelly was hanged on November 11th, 1880.

Though the authorities tried to deny it, Kelly's body was taken for dissection, and his skull allegedly was given to phrenologists to examine, before being returned to the police who used it as a paperweight. The bodies of Kelly and his associates were exhumed in 1929 when building works took place at the gaol, and a skull alleged to be Kelly's was retrieved. However it's since been shown that the 1929 skull did not, in fact, belong to Kelly, which means it must have gone missing some time before. Nowadays there are several people who claim to have it, including a self-proclaimed witch. It might have been carried off by phrenologists, or it might have been buried somewhere else. Interestingly, the skull that was recovered in 1929 - and stolen in the 1970s, only to be returned in 2009 - probably belongs to Frederick Bailey Deeming, once thought to be a likely Jack the Ripper candidate.

From a Bookhounds perspective, there are at least three contemporary books that might turn up in London:

Sadlier, John, Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer, (1913)
Kenneally, J. J. The Inner History of the Kelly Gang, (1929)
Hare, Francis Augustus, The Last of the Bushrangers: An account of the capture of the Kelly Gang (1894)

In addition to these books there would have been scores of Kelly artifacts, from photographs to bits of armor and guns. Many of these - like the revolver belonging to one of Kelly's early targets, constable Fitzpatrick, which sold for $70,000 at auction in 2007 - are probably fakes.

With all that in mind, consider the following Trail (Tale) of Terror:

A bottom-feeding Book Scout, David / Dolores Veles, is working on behalf of an as yet unknown client, and is making a nuisance of himself. Veles is after Kelly memorabilia of any sort, but is particularly interested in three books, each of them ex libris Francis Brevor, an occultist and self-proclaimed Satanist who committed suicide in 1930. According to Veles, Brevor had copies of Sadlier, Kenneally and Hare's works, as well as a mysterious 'fourth item' which Veles is very reluctant to describe, but for which Veles is prepared to pay an astronomical sum. The fourth item, kept in a special oak box, is Ned Kelly's skull, which Brevor supposedly took from a phrenologist enemy in 1896. Nobody knows where the fourth item is, though Veles suspects that annotations in the three books from Brevor's library might hold the key.

1. Veles is working on behalf of a particularly ghoulish client, who wants to grind Kelly's skull to powder and ingest it, in a potion of his own concoction. He thinks he will consume Kelly's essence that way, gaining special powers as a result. However the skull, it transpires, isn't Kelly's at all, and the client will be most upset at this deception. The client won't believe Veles when he protests he knows nothing about the fraud, and he probably won't believe the protagonists either.

2. The skull was brought out to London by a phrenologist who believed he was actually stealing Deeming's remains. He intended to use the skull as part of a ritual to evoke Jack the Ripper, which spirit he intended to use as part of a long-running scheme to reopen the Eye of Byatis (see further Whitechapel Black Letter, in the main book). When he discovered the skull was actually Kelly's he was most upset, and sold it to Brevor, an expatriate Australian for whom it had sentimental value. The problem is, the phrenologist's botched Byatis ritual has inadvertently linked Kelly's ghost to the Eye, causing the skull to be a kind of focal point, leeching London's malignant spirit and causing whoever might be its current owner no end of trouble. Veles' client has heard of this Byatis artifact and thinks it can help him in his own studies, but nothing could be further from the truth, as Kelly's twisted ghost will be only too happy to demonstrate. 

3. Veles is actually working for Brevor, who's been dead for years. Except not really; Brevor faked his death to escape immolation at the hands of a particularly powerful rival. Now Brevor thinks he has a chance to revenge himself against his enemy and lure him into a trap. But first, the bait: Kelly's skull, which Brevor claimed, untruthfully, had special powers. With Veles out there spreading rumors and buying up Kelly artifacts, Brevor thinks it's only a matter of time before his rival shows up in person, eager to get that skull. Then the fun will begin! Of course, some innocent Bookhounds might get caught in the crossfire, but who cares about them?

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Night's Black Agents: Chilling Locales pt2

Often as Director you may find yourself stumped by one question: where does this scene take place? You need somewhere dramatic, interesting, filled with potential; but you can't think of one. I've touched on this point once or twice before, when discussing decaying mansions on Billionaire's Row and Hotel Castel Dracula, as well as the Orient Express. Now I'd like to draw your attention to another intriguing possibility: Moscow's Metro-2.

Forgotten subway stations are nothing new to urban explorers; there are dozens of them all over the globe. Moscow's Metro-2 is something a little different. Allegedly the Metro-2 is a parallel subway network running alongside Moscow's Metro system, and I say allegedly because nobody can agree whether or not Metro-2 exists. Many people assume it does, and at least one high-placed defector said as much during his debriefing by British Intelligence; but people believe many things that aren't true, and defectors are notorious for saying anything they can think of, if it will guarantee them a quiet and prosperous retirement.

If the stories are to be believed, then Metro-2 began life as a single-track system built by Stalin to avoid traveling in public. Stalin was deathly afraid of assassination attempts, and Metro-2 could get him from the Kremlin to his Volynskoye Dacha without incident. It developed into a more sophisticated network during the Cold War, as the Politburo leadership demanded a means of escape in the event of a nuclear attack. There are supposed to be networks of bunkers down there, as well as a whole underground city in Rameki, south-west Moscow, capable of housing 15,000 people.

Certainly there is an  - that is, singular - undergound line, the D6; that one has been explored and documented, but it doesn't have the vast scope of the fabled Metro-2. There are also known nuclear bunkers under the streets of Moscow, but again nothing like the extent of Metro-2. Moreover the artifacts that do exist are decayed, flooded, and almost useless either as a transport system or a last resort hideway; these facilities haven't seen serious investment since the 1970s, and for the most part have been left to decay. Fifty-odd years of underinvestment is a long time, and technology has changed significantly. Even if someone were to reactivate them, it would cost far more than the project could ever be worth to the powers that be.

All that aside, consider the possibilities. In a Night's Black Agents world there's no reason why Metro-2 shouldn't be just as large as the stories say, and for that matter there's no reason it shouldn't still be in excellent condition. The Conspiracy needs some kind of base of operations, after all, and what better place than an underground city under Moscow, complete with its own lines of communication, far from the burning daylight? Picture the protagonists trying to discover the true extent of Metro-2, perhaps caught up in a maze of bureaucracy above ground, or lost in an actual maze far beneath the streets of Moscow. Then they turn one wrong corner too many, and find themselves in a city populated entirely by hundreds, perhaps thousands of vampires.

There's also something to be said for leaving the Metro-2 exactly as decayed, flooded and abandoned as the stories seem to suggest. In that Dusty world, the Metro-2 could be a project that the Conspiracy made use of back in the 1970s only to abandon it later. Who knows what the vampires left behind, when they pulled out? Anything from old files from the Great Patriotic War to forgotten supercomputers, perhaps still with the old tape wheels whirring away down in the dark. Perhaps this is where the bodies really are buried, or where vampire Stalin's been hiding all these years. Who was really in charge of the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 60s?

There are all kinds of questions to be answered. Did the Conspiracy engineer the abandonment of Metro-2 so it could move in and use the system for its own devices? Are there modern labs humming down there, working on some hideous project? Have Satanists taken over the nuclear bunkers, invoking Beelzebub and Armageddon? Does Metro-2 still run, and if so, what purpose does it serve? Are there sleek black trains that pull up to high security stations at the dead of night, dropping off or picking up blasphemous cargo? 

That's it for the moment, but I will return to this theme again. In the meantime, have fun! Or the vampires will get you ...