Thursday, 31 July 2014

Sykes, Fairbairn and the Wilds of Scotland: Post Bookhounds

There is a book in my collection I've been searching for without result. I say book; it's more of a pamphlet really, but one of those pamphlets you pick up knowing it will be of great use to you for a long time. I picked it up at the Soane Museum in London, which museum I highly recommend to anyone with an hour or two to spare; the pamphlet was from one of the architectural societies, and talked about the stately homes in Scotland that the security services used to train its agents, often with the enthusiastic assistance of two very skilled roughnecks, Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn.

Sykes and Fairbairn are the sort of people you need in a time of crisis. Sykes was a sniper and pistol expert, a veteran of the Great War as well as big game hunter, who went out to Shanghai in 1917 and for a time served, first as an unpaid volunteer and later as an inspector, in the police. That was where he met Fairbairn, a career copper, soldier, and close combat expert who developed his own martial arts system, which he taught to his fellow Shanghai policemen. Soon after the Second World War broke out, the pair of them shipped themselves home with a boatload of somewhat illegal firearms, and put themselves at the service of their country.

The intelligence services took them on board and set them up as instructors in sunny Scotland, teaching special agents, commandos and rangers how to fight, and live. Shooting to Live is in fact the title of their most famous instruction manual.  

The average shooting affray is a matter of split seconds, they warn. If you take much longer than a third of a second to fire your first shot, you will not be the one to tell the newspapers about it. It is literally a matter of the quick and the dead. Take your choice.

The bit that always sticks with me is, they used wax rounds and a slightly reduced powder charge to make their point, a practice which apparently is borrowed from duelists of the preceding centuries. In order to perfect your dueling technique, without actually getting your head blown off, you used these erzatz rounds in much the same way a paintballer would today. Sykes and Fairbairn used broadly the same method, putting trainees in a live fire range safe in the knowledge that, though they'd get bruised, they wouldn't actually die. At least, so says the Architectural Pamphlet, which I now cannot find. If you read Shooting to Live I highly recommend the Mystery Shoots section in chapter 6, which describes something like this scenario, but doesn't mention wax rounds.

Now, let's consider how this can be put in a Bookhounds context.

Bookhounds the campaign is set in the 1930s, with the War coming just around the corner. Nazi agents are specifically mentioned several times in the text as possible adversaries, or potential customers. When I discussed Technicolor London, way back in 2012, I touched briefly on the idea of a technologically advanced Nazi base complete with electric eyes and security cameras; that's the sort of campaign I'm thinking of here.

The question is, how to end it? If the game's been progressing well, no matter what your particular Final Adversary is, by the time war actually kicks off a Bookhounds game is effectively over. There's a certain charm in trying to keep the shop active while the Blitz is on - you could have some very effective scenarios set in the Undergound during air raids - but the whole grubby aesthetic of a books-and-auctions game is lost when everything's overshadowed by the threat of imminent, total destruction. You can't take the bickering over the price of a medieval missal seriously when your family was blown up yesterday.

Now is the time for a complete change of pace, and probably also an effective conclusion to the careers of these presumably established occultists. Now may also be the time for the security services to step in, recruit them, and send them off to Scotland. After all, if the protagonists have been involved in any way, shape or form with the Nazis before this, then one of Aunty Dora's children is bound to have taken note. Your country needs you. Time to step up and be counted.

Imagine what it would be like in one of those stately homes, miles from anywhere, set in God alone knows how many acres of carefully managed wilderness. Forgotten Gothic grandeur mixed with hasty wartime bodge jobs, as the military move in to make improvements of their own. Eager young recruits, polite but disbelieving, line up to be taught Idiosyncratic Magic or Megapolisomancy, and to be warned about the nature of some of the threats they will face. Meanwhile Sykes and Fairbairn are teaching them - and probably the Bookhounds too - how to shoot, stab, and throttle their opponents.

Then comes the inescapable warning: Trouble is on its way. Whatever the Great Adversary you might have been using in your game is, it is about to reach its destined conclusion. You could have this take place in London, for a Bookhounds game; whenever Dreamhounds comes out, you could have an interesting mix of the two campaign styles, as the surviving Bookhounds are sent in on a daring mission in wartime Paris. Odds on survival ought to be very low indeed.

The point ultimately being that this is an endgame moment. It takes on everything that has come before, and acknowledges that - thanks to the War - circumstances have changed such that things cannot proceed as they have done. There is a transition point - the stately home in Scotland - where the final encounter is defined, allowing the protagonists to plan for that moment when, whether on the rain-slick streets of London or the boulevards of Paris, they finally take action against the foe they've been crossing swords with all this time.

Then comes that moment when, after all those adventures, all that special training, they meet with the enemy one last time.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Trail of Cthulhu: Overlooked Corpses (Bookhounds of London)

Once upon a time in Oaklahoma there was an enterprising young idiot named Elmer McCurdy, who wanted to be a train robber but lacked any kind of talent, or indeed common sense. After yet another failed attempt the law caught up with McCurdy and, though the Sheriff would have much preferred to get the $2,000 reward for bringing him in alive, shot McCurdy through the heart after a fierce gun battle. This happened in 1911.

In steps the undertaker who thinks, 'I can make a quick buck.' After embalming the unfortunate McCurdy the undertaker put his corpse on display, and for five years earned a crust from his dead exhibit before finally selling him on to a carny operator, who eventually sold him on to another carnival, then a wax museum, a haunted house ... you get the idea. In 1976 some poor fool working at Queen's Park amusements in California discovered that the body everyone assumed was just a prop was actually McCurdy. They were filming the Six Million Dollar Man at the park at the time. You have to wonder what Steve Austin would have done about it.

McCurdy eventually got to be buried, which is more than he might have expected given the circumstances, but there's something to be said for giving this a Trail twist.

Embalming has a history that long predates the Civil War, when embalming techniques became more common. In England before autopsies were legitimized the bodies of convicted criminals were used as practice cadavers by eager would-be doctors. Highwaymen flourished in England for some time, the last incident occurring in 1831; the improvement of the roads coupled with an expansion and improvement in the police service brought the practice to a close. Take those elements, mash them together and you have:

James 'Yellow Jack' Donegan, born Dublin, 1761, fought in the East India Company's wars before being repatriated in 1796, having lost his left hand in an explosion. He spent some time in London as a dock worker - or at least, he hung around the docks looking for an easy score - before taking to the roads as 'Yellow Jack', gentleman bandit. So called because of his colorful clothes as well as his fading tan, Yellow Jack made the area around Blackheath his haunt for six months or more, before the authorities made it too hot for him. He vanished for a time, only to return in the summer of 1798 when he was captured, through sheer bad luck, at the scene of his first robbery since his return. His trial was the talk of the summer, and his execution well attended.

His body was given to Paston Syme, a physician of questionable repute; ten years after this, Syme would be accused of acting as go-between for a league of bodysnatchers, and be forced to flee to Australia to escape trial. Doctor Syme used the opportunity afforded him by Yellow Jack's cadaver to make an exhibit, one that he hoped would make him famous. Syme believed he had found the perfect preservative and he had a flair for the imaginative: Professor Gunther von Hagens would recognize a kindred spirit in Syme, though Syme's techniques were far inferior to von Hagens' plastination. Syme's grotesquerie involved a half-dressed Yellow Jack, part in the colorful costume he wore in life, part skinned down almost to the bone, exposing every least element.

It was a display that Syme intended to show only to those he trusted and were willing to pay a fee, but word soon got out, and the public - who distrusted and feared the anatomists - rebelled. Syme had to flee London for a time, for fear of being lynched, while his creation stayed in a box in a medical museum for several decades, lost and forgotten.

Eventually it vanished from that museum - nobody will admit to knowing how - and ended up on a tour of the continent, appearing in all manner of side shows. It's known to have been used as a prop in Paris at Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol; Orton and Spooner are believed to have owned it around 1900. However its ownership history is sketchy at best, and if anyone remembers Yellow Jack nowadays it's as a cautionary tale, not as an actual cadaver.

Yet if someone were to take a closer look at the cadaver kept behind glass at Buck's Corner Public House, in South London, they might get a shock. Buck's Corner, itself a home for all kinds of odd knick-knacks, gave Yellow Jack a home shortly after the Great War, bought as a job lot with six stuffed cats, an owl, and half a dozen musty books, all of which were promptly put up as decoration. Buck's Corner, currently owned by Meux's Brewery Co Ltd (Jonas Skelp, landlord), does a good bitter and a mediocre porter, but is best known for its Ghost Society, which meets every third Thursday in the month to swap tall tales. Several would-be writers are among its members.

Arabesque: Yellow Jack's fathomless eyes seem to follow one about the room, and his gaunt cadaver has inspired more than one spooky tale from the Ghost Society. Yellow Jack whispers his story to whoever is sensitive enough to listen; if they listen long enough, they might learn all kinds of strange and terrible things. Listeners can gain 1 potential Magic Point at a cost of a Stability Difficulty 5 check, provided they are prepared to stay after closing and listen to all of Yellow Jack's tale.

Technicolor: Syme's technique was based on Mythos experimentation, and though nobody realizes it, Yellow Jack is still alive in there. His brain - exposed and somehow glistening - is alert, and after decades Yellow Jack has learned to see again, and hear, in a limited fashion. He's biding his time, as there's nothing he thinks he can gain by going out in the world of men again; but there's a bright young woman, a member of the Ghost Society, who awakens so many memories of long ago that it's painful for Yellow Jack to look at her. Anyone who threatened her, or seemingly threatened her, would be the target of Yellow Jack's wrath. Syme's notes, if found, could reveal how the trick was pulled off, and what might be used to put an end to Yellow Jack.

Sordid: Yellow Jack's legacy is violent crime. Anyone who has ever spent a long period of time with it - days, or weeks - eventually is inspired to commit assault, murder, or even rape. The corpse's one joy is to make others suffer as he suffered, and hang as he once swung at Tyburn. He can appear as a ghost, but only to those whose mind he has infected. Close contact with the thing - touching, especially - spreads a kind of rash or fungal infection that will soon reduce the victim to a kind of flayed state, as Yellow Jack is flayed, before finally ending in death.


Friday, 18 July 2014

Gumshoe Night's Black Agents Scenario Seed: The Incident

Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents is rapidly becoming one of my favorite systems, despite me not having that many chances to play it. I wanted to talk about an idea that's been bouncing around in my head for a while, which can be used as a scenario seed in your game. The pitch is this: what happens if an accident upsets everyone's plans, right in the middle of a complex transaction or investigation?

I first began thinking of this idea when watching West Wing, specifically season 3 episode 17 'Stirred'. One of the plot elements in that episode is a truck crash in an Idaho tunnel that causes a massive environmental hazard as waste from uranium fuel rods are spread all over the shop, and the President isn't sure, at first, whether this is a genuine accident or an act of terrorism. Yet similar things happen all the time: ships sink, or go missing, aircraft crash, buildings catch fire, people die. An important government official is found dead in an airport first class waiting lounge: natural causes, or no? A helicopter carrying NGO doctors is shot down by rebels or separatists while flying in a disputed zone, and all aboard are killed: an act of war, an assassination attempt, or something else? A train derails in a vital rail hub in an urban center, killing ten and injuring dozens more: faulty maintenance, driver error, something else? Forgotten vials are found in a lab containing plague germs that could theoretically wipe out half the planet; how did they get there, and are there more?

Then add Night's Black Agents into the mix, and wonder what happens if a Vampire is among the dead. There are any number of organizations who'd want to know what happened, why, and where the body is now. Particularly the body; any organization not part of the conspyramid will want that for their own research purposes. Powerful civilian groups as well as government agencies could be involved at that stage. Del Toro's The Strain, now a TV series, has a good example of this with its industrialist/power broker Eldritch Palmer; though I am not a fan of the books and haven't seen the FX TV show yet, there were some fun moments to be had and it's worth having a look if only for research purposes.

First let's consider the setting. This incident can happen anywhere, but it might be at its best when the protagonists have to deal with the culture shock of moving from a highly technical environment to one considerably less sophisticated. For that reason I'm going to put this in Nigeria, where conflict with Islamic militants is ongoing, but really it could be set in any of the many potential African war zones.

Let's further assume the conspyramid has a definite reason for having one of its nodes there. If it's Africa then we're probably talking about natural resources, perhaps minerals, gold or jewels. The conspyramid's influence has been detected by the protagonists, who decide to travel down to one of the major cities to find out more. Since this is Nigeria, let's make the city Lagos, and the resource tantalite, which the conspyramid is busily mining. For a game with a more science fiction bent, the conspyramid could also be infiltrating Nigeria's fledgeling National Space Research and Development Agency Headquarters for reasons of its own.

The protagonists are investigating this latest problem when, by pure chance, a terrorist bombing at a marketplace in a small city in Northern Nigeria, followed by an explosion at a hospital intended to catch first responders, kills a vampire among the hundreds dead and injured. Not just dead, either; bits are scattered all over the shop. The vampire was part of a hitherto unsuspected conspyramid operation at the hospital, which is now in complete disarray.

Now this becomes a time-sensitive problem. The bombers - presumably Boko Haram - have some of the body, civilians have some, and the Nigerian government, in the form of the hospital administrators, have the rest. Among the many institutions that might be interested in acquiring all those bits are the CIA, the Nigerian government, any foreign government - like China - which has ties with the Nigerian government, and of course the conspyramid itself, particularly if there's any chance that the remains might be revived. It's likely that not all of the institutions listed really know what they have; Boko Haram and the Nigerian government, for instance, might only have a very limited idea, though of course if the remains are unusual in any way - they glow with a blue light, kill everything they touch, emit strange silver worms and so on - they'll want to keep hold of what they have.

Then of course there's the conspyramid operation itself, which is now completely blown in more ways than one. Its computers and, far more importantly, its paperwork and samples are now scattered all over the street. Looters almost certainly helped themselves to a hard drive or two. Again, all the above agencies will be interested in getting that data, though not all of them will understand what it means.

The protagonists will have to get to the scene - no easy task, given that the city's in chaos and the military's dashing about like a headless chicken - get what they want, and get out, all without being intercepted or killed. This may mean negotiating with terrorists, like Boko Haram; it may mean bribing corrupt officials, raiding a morgue or two, dodging CIA investigators. It almost certainly involves at least one chase scene through the crowded streets, as conspyramid heavies close in looking for the same stuff the protagonists are trying to collect. Meanwhile if the remains - whether the vampire's, or the samples it was collecting - are in any way dangerous to human life, then people will be dropping like flies from a mysterious contagion. This does at least have the advantage of pinpointing potential locations, but an epidemic in one of the most populous countries in Africa is the last thing anyone needs. Particularly since it will draw in NGOs, health organizations, and more government organizations, all eager to contain the initial incident.

I hope this helps you! We'll talk again soon.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Mythos Expeditions

I probably oughtn't say too much about this here, but since Pelgrane's been spreading the word on Facebook I suppose I can talk a little about my contribution to Mythos Expeditions.

Expeditions, for those not familiar with the product, are 'a collection of adventures designed to be run as a stand alone with new rules tailored for expeditions or as part of the Armitage Files campaign setting in the core rules.' My contribution is Lost on a Sea of Dreams, about a trip to Bermuda to assist William Beebe. Again, I can't tell you much about the scenario, but I can tell you that when Beebe was in Bermuda he didn't get on at all well with the scientists already in place at the Biological Research Station, now known as BIOS.

The BRS had been in operation for over twenty years by the time Beebe showed up in 1928. It had been established by Harvard and New York University academics who realized early on how useful Bermuda could be for oceanic research; it probably helped that the climate is exceptionally pleasant year-round. For that matter the island was a major staging post for Prohibition blockade runners throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, a fact which can't have escaped the scientists' notice. It must have been quite pleasant to get a secondment out to a bucolic sub-tropical island, where the booze flowed freely and there was valuable work to be done.

But the established academics viewed a chancer like Beebe - who had no actual scientific credentials, and a reputation for being fast and loose with the facts as well as with women - with grave suspicion. "To tie up with such an explorer and exploiter would certainly kill our chances [of getting a cash grant from the Rockerfeller Trust]," said Professor Mark, one of the BSR's top people, and Dr Wheeler, the then director, took statements like that very seriously. It was the Great Depression, and the BSR had a significant cash flow problem; without grant money from the British Government and charitable donations from institutions like the Rockerfeller, the BSR was sunk.

The end result was a kind of 'live and let live' truce between Beebe and the BSR. Beebe was told not to use the BSR's name in any of his publicity or reports, and for its part the BSR pretended Beebe didn't exist. Beebe was given Nonesuch Island to use as his staging post, which suited BSR very nicely as it meant he wouldn't be using its facilities. No doubt when Beebe finally left the island eleven years later, the academics of the BSR breathed a quiet sigh of relief.