Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Bookhounds of London: The Many Deaths of Edward Bigsby

This is for the benefit of those of you who don't read YSDC regularly.

I've written a scenario which will be published via Innsmouth House, on February 25th. It's compatible with Bookhounds of London, and is full of pulp horror goodness! It's a .pdf only product, and I have no intention of issuing a hardcopy edition. The intent is to benefit YSDC, so all cash raised through sales goes straight to Innsmouth House. Price is £2.99.

If you buy it and play it, let me know how your session went!

My thanks to Simon Rogers of Pelgrane, without whom this couldn't have happened. 

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Spies vs Anonymous and Lulzec: Night's Black Agents

Recently an NBC news report, based on the Snowden expose, revealed that British spies have been waging war on Anonymous and LulzSec. According to the report, Britain's GCHQ, through its attack arm the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, or JTRIG, used DDoS attacks to shut down servers that the two groups were using as communication hubs. The British are, in essence, using the same tactics as the hackers to shut down the hackers.

For those of you frantically reaching for Wikipedia right now, let me elucidate:

  • GCHQ: Government Communications Headquarters. Originally established after the Great War, these are the government's codebreakers du jour, the same Bletchley Park boffins that cracked Germany's Enigma. Their main focus is to provide SIGINT and information protection to the British government.
  • Anonymous is a group name for an unaffiliated band of hacktivists, who use their talents for political ends. It began life as a 4chan experiment back in 2003, and has been growing in notoriety ever since. It has attacked government, religious and corporate websites with DDoS tactics many times. 
  • LulzSec is a group often associated with Anonymous, which uses similar tactics but often has less lofty goals in mind. It's thought to be less effective these days, since one of its founders - Sabu, aka Hector Monsegur - turned informer after capture. 
  • DDoS aka Denial of Service, or Distributed Denial of Service, means exactly that. It denies service - blindsides the computer server - by clogging the system with thousands upon thousands of traffic requests.
  • Edward Snowden, in case you've been living under a rock this past while, is a former NSA contractor who came into possession of a great deal of embarrassing data, which he revealed to the world. He's currently dodging prosecution. Speaking personally, I find it fascinating that so much of Snowden's data seems to come from power point presentations of one kind or another, which government agencies used to brief officials and staff. Anyone who believed that data was going to stay hidden - especially when given to third parties - is, at best, hopelessly naive, and probably oughtn't to be left in charge of a baby carriage, never mind an intelligence agency. 
On a side note, it's interesting to me that the news comes from NBC after the Guardian newspaper publicly smashed the hard drives in its possession that contained Snowden's data. The Guardian may have felt constrained against reporting on GCHQ activities by the threat of a D Notice gag order, but as an American news outlet, NBC has no such qualms. Glenn Greenwald, one of the NBC contributors, used to work for Guardian US.

One of the biggest worries about this kind of reveal is that it shows just how quickly a government will resort to activities it publicly condemns in order to achieve its ends. Not that this is any kind of great secret; similar scandals are breaking all the time. But it is troubling to think that, at the drop of a hat, a Western government is willing to shut down chunks of the internet on the off-chance it contains something it doesn't like.

What does this suggest for Night's Black Agents?   

To begin with, it suggests that the agent's own communications could be disrupted at any time. When GCHQ went after Anonymous, it didn't worry about whether or not the server it targeted also carried other traffic. It just shut the whole thing down. Imagine what that could mean to agents currently stranded in 'bandit country', relying on the net to communicate with allies. 

It also suggests that, even with security measures in place, a government agency can obtain significant user data. The NBC article uses the example of a conversation between a JTRIG agent and a hacker named p0ke, in which the agent obtained p0ke's personal data - name, address, the lot - despite p0ke having a Virtual Private Network in place that, theoretically, should have kept its data safe. It's not clear whether this means JTRIG hacked the network, or used official contacts in the network's host country to break it.

From a game mechanic point of view, it's up to the Director whether or not identifying the source of a DDoS attack is Data Recovery or Military Science. I can see a case for either, or possibly even Human Terrain. Digital Intrusion is, of course, the ability you'd use to mount a DDoS attack. The difficulty with running that kind of test in-game isn't that it can't be done; it's that the skill itself is fairly abstruse. CyberPunk 2020 did its level best to make hacking fun, but even with all the ice-cool street samurai action, watching it unfold - if you're not involved yourself - is like watching particularly dull paint dry. Say what you like about the movie Hackers, but it at least knew how to make this stuff look good. Plus it had Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller in a cameo, which is worth at least two stars on anyone's rating. 

Consider the following possible story seeds:

  • What the hell? Every time I go online I gain Heat. It's almost as if someone has their hooks in my data, and is either tracking me themselves or passing on my information to people intent on hunting me down. The protagonist has been identified - falsely or not - as a member of Anonymous, LulzSec or a similar group. GCHQ, or a similar official organization, is cooperating with other agencies - possibly including the conspyramid, though whether GCHQ realizes who it's dealing with is a different matter - to expose the hacktivist, and arrange his or her capture.
  • Oh sweet mother of mercy. Someone's bombarding me with tweets and chat messages. 'We know who you are'? Bullshit you do, but how did you get my data? The protagonist's personal information, or at least the information attached to his or her current identity, has been revealed by the VPN, acting under pressure from local authorities. But the real question is, are those messages coming from clueless government spooks, or someone else?
  • Okay, who sent me that file? It's got a lot of juicy data in it, but can I trust it? In the course of carrying out an investigation, JTRIG - or the equivalent - came up with a lot of information on a hacker group that it thought was linked to Anonymous. It was ordered to back down and destroy all the files, but one of the JTRIG people, out of a misguided sense of outrage, decided to pass on the data to someone who might have a use for it. But things like that never stay secret, and now the higher authority that ordered JTRIG to back down is very interested in the protagonists.
  • What!? What is this data doing up on the internet for everyone to see? LulzSec, or a similar group, picked up a lot of interesting stuff when it hacked a government site, and decided to publish. Among the data is a lot of very compromising stuff about the protagonists. Have they been cutting clandestine deals, dabbling in things they weren't supposed to touch? Whoops. Now the cat's out of the bag, and here comes the cat-catchers; GCHQ is very keen to find out who these people are and what they're up to. This can also work as part of a Snowden-inspired plotline.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Guns for Hire: Night's Black Agents

The Guardian recently published an article about academic investigations into the murky world of hitmen, which I highly recommend. Though it naturally has a British focus, it's not unreasonable to extrapolate a similar situation across Europe. In brief, the study divides hitmen into four distinct groups:

  • The Dilettante. This killer is a complete novice, who until this point never had any criminal record. Circumstances - usually financial pressure - have forced this person to kill for cash. Like any novice, the dilettante is prone to mistakes, and may lose the will to carry through with the deed. Paul Cyrne, holder of the Guinness World Record for longest 24 hour underwater swimming, is one such. Penury persuaded him to fall in with Graham Birchwood's scheme to murder Birchwood's wife Sharon and collect the insurance payout. 
  • The Novice. This killer knows about as much as the dilettante when it comes to murder, but does have a criminal record. The novice has almost certainly participated in some kind of violent crime before taking up killing, but has never killed for cash before. The novice is very likely to leave some evidence behind at the scene of the crime.
  • The Journeyman. This is an experienced assassin with several kills to his credit. The journeyman knows enough to clean up after himself, but may make mistakes. When gangster David King aka Rolex Dave was gunned down outside a gym in 2003, his killers were of the journeymen type. Though the operation was meticulously planned and executed, the killers were traced because one of them left a plastic glove behind in the getaway vehicle. The palm print inside the glove led the police to one of the shooters, and after that tracing their movements before and after the attack was straightforward.
  • The Master. This is an experienced killer with an unknown number of kills to his credit. The master is identified as such because of the care taken in carrying out the attack, and the lack of evidence left behind. Glagow gang boss Frank McPhee's killer is identified as a master. McPhee was sniped at a distance by someone using a .22 rifle, and his killer has never been identified. 
It's remarkable how little cash is involved. A novice can be had for just £200, while a more experienced hand might cost as much as £15,000. As a point of comparison, you can buy a decent used car for something like £5,000, more or less.  

What does this say about the world of Night's Black Agents?

Well, for one thing, if gunmen can be had so easily, it's probably fair to say that assets of any sort can be classified in a similar system, and at a comparable price tag.  The dilettante/novice/journeyman/master model could as easily apply to hackers, for example, as to killers. Or thieves, or spies, or any other variation on the human asset theme.

That includes the kind of occult assets a conspyramid might do business with, as well as the sort the protagonists are going to be hiring. For there will be times when the players say 'this job doesn't need our direct involvement; we can contract it out. But to who, and how much?'

The conspyramid will be interested in disposable assets for all sorts of reasons, both organized and disorganized. By that I mean that there are times when the conspiracy deliberately sets out to hire outside help for a definite purpose - organized - and there are also times when elements inside the conspiracy hires outsiders for reasons of its own. This is most likely when, as per Double Tap, the conspiracy is breaking down and it's everyone for themselves. At that point a node under threat may well pay off a few contract killers to take out its immediate rivals. It's reasonable to assume that an organized effort is disinterested in anything less that Journeyman class, while a disorganized effort takes what it can get.

With all that in mind, consider the same classification, applied to occult assets:

  • Dilettante. This asset has no real knowledge of the nature of the conspiracy or horror in general, except for what it has seen in the movies. From a stats perspective, it's comparable with the Civilian in the main book, with Hand to Hand 4, Shooting 2 and slightly higher Health, also 4. This kind of asset it most often used by level 1 or 2 Nodes, and then only as fire-and-forget drones. However the advantage of the dilettante is twofold: first, it is usually desperate and thus willing to do anything. Second, it can turn up anywhere. The police and military stand out, but a civilian doesn't; often, a civilian with the right connections, or just the right key card, can get into any building, bypassing security. Can usually be bought for peanuts.
  • Novice. This asset has very limited knowledge of the conspiracy. It may or may not appreciate the true horror behind the mask; perhaps it accepts the conspiracy at face value, as a drug smuggling organization or whatever the conspiracy's selling itself as today. This asset has carried out operations in the past, and is eager to qualify for the inner circle. From a stats perspective it is comparable to Militia, though often with a specialty - like Driving - at 6. Unlike dilettante, the novice usually stands out, and lacks the dilettante's go-anywhere-do-anything quality. The novice makes up for this with slightly better skills. It can be bought cheaply, perhaps for a few thousand.
  • Journeyman. At this point and up, the asset is less and less likely to be human. The asset is aware of the conspiracy, and its true nature. It may be a feral, ghoul or Renfield that works outside of the conspiracy, either for cash or other rewards. It is careful not to get too close to the conspiracy, for fear of losing its independence, but at the same time it needs whatever the conspiracy is offering. This level of asset may, or may not, have had special training, perhaps as a government operative. It can be bought at a fairly high price.
  • Master. These independent operatives are almost certainly vampires, or possess equivalent power. They are aware of the nature of the conspiracy, and don't much care. Their primary concern is prolonging their own existence at a comfort level that they find soothing. The value of these assets is their experience and power, but the risk to the conspiracy is that, if the asset is not loyal, it might betray the conspiracy. This is especially likely if the asset's safety is in any way threatened, and at that point it might decide to forward that dossier of special information it's been gathering to whoever might be interested. For that reason the conspiracy prefers to keep Masters at arm's length, or further. The characters might not be so picky, but Masters have no loyalty to anyone, and can prove fickle allies. Masters can be hired at an exceptionally high price. 

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Antiquarian Associations: Bookhounds of London

I was going to talk about Night's Black Agents again - and will, soon enough - but Ken Hite posted an article that intrigued me. It's the Center & Clarke Newsletter from UCLA, and on the 9th page it starts talking about Ye Sette of Odd Volumes. I don't propose to talk about that here - though I do recommend you read the newsletter - but about something else that cropped up as I was reading it.

At one point the article talks about Bertram Rota, Booksellers. I wondered if it still exists, and Google tells me it does, though it no longer has a London storefront and does most of its business online. However on perusing its site I noticed that it claimed among its plaudits that Anthony Rota, presumably the current owner, is a past president of the ABA. So what is the ABA, I asked myself?

Once again, Google has the answer. The Antiquarian Booksellers Association is a trade body, founded in 1906, for dealers in antiquarian and rare books. "Members are elected solely on the basis of proven experience, expertise and integrity," says the ABA. "They are expected to observe the highest professional and ethical standards and to foster the mutual trust and respect that exists between the trade and the public." It currently boasts something in the region of 250 members in the UK and abroad, all experts in their trade. It doesn't have any specific bookbinding contacts, and admits it is hesitant to recommend any particular binder, "as we don't have any control over their quality, or any real knowledge of their product." Nor does it really want to recommend an auctioneer or auction house, as those are its competition. As far as the ABA's concerned, it's all about the books and nothing but.

Which means it maintains a database of lost or stolen books, and while naturally it lacks any significant information about what was going on in the 1930s, it's safe to assume the ABA was doing much the same then as it does now. That may intrigue certain player characters; if nothing else, it's a good way of checking the provenance of certain rare volumes, and can help avoid trouble. Or foment it, if the character was the one doing the stealing. It also keeps a library, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary; a .pdf of its contents can be found here. That does suggest it wouldn't have been around during the typical Bookhounds campaign, but it's likely the ABA had the beginnings of a library before the current one was founded. Its collection of links is also worth a look, if you want to learn more about the book trade. It isn't the only booksellers trade association - it isn't even the only one with the acronym ABA - but from a Bookhounds point of view, it's the only one that matters.

What does this suggest? From a fictional standpoint, of course; I accept that, from here on out, whatever is said may not reflect the actual practices of the ABA.

Well to begin with, membership of the ABA must be rather like getting into the Michelin Guide. It's all very well having a store front and shelves of books, but how does the discerning customer track you down? While it's not operating on a one to three star system - une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage - the ABA badge is a sign a quality, one that customers trust. With that discreetly displayed in your official literature your fortune is, if not assured, at least much more likely than it otherwise would be. From a game mechanic point of view, the ABA is unlikely to be interested in any shop with less than 3 Credit Rating, and even most of the 3-point places are probably on the outside looking in.

It also suggests that someone must vet these establishments, and their proprietors. Again taking a leaf out of the pages of Michelin, the vetting process is probably anonymous. You don't know who might be judging you, or your expertise; these silent observers flit from shop to shop, evaluating its quality and the expertise of its staff and owners.

Finally - and this is purely from a Trail perspective - it also suggests the possibility of an organization within the ABA, devoted to occult studies. After all, in this universe magic is real, certain books have a power all their own, and strange, terrible things are known to have happened to those who unwarily ventured into bookselling's murkier corners. The ABA would be well aware of this. Whether or not the ABA has acknowledged occultists and cultists within its ranks, or just a few rather well-informed experts, is probably going to depend on whether your game is Pulp or Purist. In Pulp almost anything goes, but in Purist there's only going to be one or two people 'in the know' when it comes to the uncanny. "It's not the sort of thing we talk about," an ABA member might say, "but if you really want an expert opinion on that text, you should show it to Smythe. It's his bailiwick."

So after all that, an example ABA expert:

Edward Smythe

Physical: Short, thin, in his early 40s. Dark wire-brush hair, always slightly unkempt; he's forever trying to brush it into submission, and it never takes. Hands like a concert pianist, which he takes obsessive care over.

Arabesque: Smythe is an intelligent overachiever from a poor family, whose scholarships and academic prowess pushed him into the realm of books. He occasionally dreams of a large castle with hundreds of rooms, all of which he has access to save one. He knows the door of that one room as well as the door to his own home, and sometimes he wonders what might happen if he saw it in the waking world. His eyes are wide, and filled with dreams; at times, say his friends and contemporaries, he sees things which aren't there.

Technicolor: Smythe is a ghost-hunter. It's not something he likes to broadcast, as it would hurt his reputation, but he's worked with Harry Price and other famous psychic researchers. He's put down three hauntings so far, in addition to all the usual frauds and 'ghost sightings' that turn out to be faulty water pipes and the creaking of old houses. It's whispered that, in addition to the ABA, Smythe is also a member in good standing of a secret occult society, but it's not the kind of thing a chap like Smythe would ever talk about.

Sordid: Smythe, while not a forger himself, is on good terms with many who are. It helps him in his work and, its said, he has been known to let pass a questionable tome or two, at the right price. He doesn't do it often, for fear of being caught, and in Smythe's case 'the right price' isn't coin of the realm. But as for what it is, you'd have to talk to Smythe to find out, and let him touch you. Those hands of his seem to have a mind of their own, sometimes.

Tainted:  A man can't do as Smythe has done and not come into contact with the Dust Things. Smythe is hag-ridden each night, and in order to survive has come to certain accommodations with his mistress. Pockets full of dust, he goes out into London, spreading he knows not what; it's the only way to stay sane.

Three Things: A very slight Liverpudlian accent, which he does his best to cover over with rich, BBC-quality tones. He has a morbid fear of cats, and can't bear to be in the same room with one. He always carries a cane; the Arabesque version uses it as a kind of divining rod, while in Technicolor it's probably a sword cane.

Credit Rating: 4

General Abilities: Athletics 4, Auction 8, Fleeing 5, Health 6, [Magic 6, if Keeper chooses], Scuffling 3, Weapons 5

Areas of Expertise: Art (Engraving), Art (Printing), Craft (Papermaking), Languages, Occult.

Alertness: +0

Stealth: -1

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Decaying Mansions on Billionaire's Row: Night's Black Agents

Bishop's Avenue in East Finchley, London, has for many years been known as Millionaire's Row, but back in 2006 the Guardian newspaper crowned it Billionaire's Row, reflecting the changing times. Saudi oil magnates, industrial tycoons, newspaper barons and property men all wanted a spot in this most highly sought after area, in one of the most valuable cities in the world. Valuable not for its intrinsic worth, necessarily, but its perceived worth; London property prices are remarkably stable, and only ever seem to trend upwards. Even in the depths of depression, RICS had good things to say about property prices in the South, and each time it carried the caveat 'bolstered by London demand.'

Yet there's a price to be paid, and in this instance the price is neglect. Many of the buyers who acquired houses in this area back in the 1980s and1990s did so only because they knew the price would remain stable or go up, never down. This meant they needn't worry about upkeep. Why bother sinking thousands of pounds into an empty house each month when, whether you spend thousands or spend nothing, demand for that property will still go up? Buy for a million in 1980-something, sell for 50 millions a few decades later, without lifting a finger in the intervening years. London becomes like Monopoly, where each square on the board is physically indistinguishable from any other square; only the price differs. But the end result is something almost obscene; wealth at its least valuable. If ever there was a riposte to the trickle-down theory of economics, this is it. It almost makes you nostalgic for the Edwardian era. You can't imagine Carnegie doing anything like this.  

What does this suggest, from a Night's Black Agents perspective?

The conspyramid would probably rate this a level 1 or 2 node. Any conspiracy needs funds, and property is a good way of keeping cash at hand. As an asset, a mansion in a wealthy area of a stable and prosperous city is a very reasonable proposition. It's probably slightly more liquid an asset than property would normally be, inasmuch as demand is always high and therefore it's easier to dispose of than a house might otherwise be. But a mansion could also provide a very useful bolt-hole, either a temporary safe house or a more permanent address. Bear in mind, these places are like icebergs. There's more going on underneath them than appears on the surface. Ballrooms, swimming pools, hot tubs, sauna and massage rooms, as well as any number of bedrooms, bathrooms and toilets; anything you can think of, and more besides. If you're the kind of person who really doesn't like going outside in the sunlight, you don't have to.

But who's the public face of these decaying showplaces? From an outsider's perspective there are at least three layers. There's the obvious layer, the security firm that maintains all those locks and bars, and perhaps keeps dogs or even a man or two on site. There's the secondary layer, the estate agent that fields all questions about the property and which deals with the local authorities. Then there's the final layer, the actual owner, almost certainly some kind of corporate body or holding company that, on paper at least, has ownership of the property.

With that in mind, let's talk about Balela Holdings.

Balela is a shell company, created in 1931 and incorporated in Bermuda. Balela is the parent, and has as its subsidiaries Caledon Inc, Darkley Inc, and Edenaveys Inc. Each of those three companies owns property in various parts of the world, and Caledon is the one that owns property in London, and the UK.

Among its other assets Caledon owns two properties in Bishop's Avenue, East Finchley. One was bought in 1989 from an Indian magazine magnate famous for, among other things, adult publications, while the other was purchased in 1991 from a bankrupt stockbroker. Both had planning permission for basement extensions, and for several years after purchase building work could be seen to be going on. By about 1995 all work had, apparently, stopped, though there were rumors of specialist work taking place as late as 1998. One of the neighbors went so far as to complain to the council about unauthorized development, but that claim lapsed when the neighbor, a Russian, died of polonium poisoning in 1999. The authorized work was carried out by McAlpine's, project manager William Quinn (deceased), and designed by architect Norah Foster of Foster and Kennilworth. Foster was diagnosed with cancer in 1994 and died in 1995.

The Bishop's Avenue properties, and all of Caledon's UK assets, are managed by Sherwood Estates, a property development firm that, through one remove, is wholly owned by Caledon. Sherwood's surveyors and real estate agents are, for the most part, completely ignorant of their owners' interests. Only the head of the firm, Richard W. Stevanage, known to his friends as Ducky, has any clue, and that's largely because he sometimes has direct dealings with Caledon's security people. Ducky may, or may not, be a Renfield.

Caledon's security is handled by Miles Security, which - through a company incorporated in Jersey - is itself a wholly owned asset of Caledon. Most of Miles' people are normals, keyholders and dog handlers, who know very little about the properties they look after. Their job is to make sure the gates stay shut, and they do that reasonably well. There have been a few breaches over the years, and in the worst case these situations are handled by Miles' special operatives. These Renfields and ghouls show no mercy, but are discreet enough to handle their kills out of sight of the media and public. Anything inside the property is fair game, but outside of it they tend not to use firearms or overt powers. Their job is to keep the property safe, after all, not blow up half the city. That kind of thing they leave to the conspyramid's other nodes.

Inside, the mansions are in a shocking state. Nothing has been done to them in twenty years or more, and it shows. However the garages are in excellent condition and always have a vehicle or two in them, in case of emergencies. Moreover if an intruder were somehow to find his or her way to the secret stair or lift, they could get to the basement levels. Those are in excellent condition, but anyone who gets down there has a short life expectancy, unless they can cope with the horrors than the conspyramid's hiding down in the depths.