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 ...

Monday, 22 September 2014

Night's Black Agents: The Nature of Conspiracy pt 2

In a previous segment I discussed how a Director might work out what the Conspiracy's been up to, before the protagonists arrived. I summed it all up in a Mission Statement for each Conspiracy, describing its current goals in one sentence. Now I'm going to discuss the Conspyramid in a little more detail, and show why having a Mission Statement can pay off big time for the Director.

The Conspyramid is the structure by which the Conspiracy is organized. The main book suggests building a structure with six levels, each ascending level having fewer, more important nodes. A node can be a gang, a cell withing an organization, a facility or institution, a powerful individual, a whole subverted agency, or anything else that might be part of the vampire conspiracy. The Level 1 nodes tend to be the weakest, street-level faces or the organization, a Level 2 has power that might affect a whole city, Level 3s are provincial powers, Level 4s are national powers, Level 5s are supranational powers, and Level 6 is top branch: the core leadership cadre.

The Mission Statement should be treated as a broad guideline for the kind of nodes that might exist within your Conspyramid. The Mission Statement begs a question: in order to achieve that goal, what does the Conspiracy need? Answering that question gives you the basis for your entire Conspyramid.

To demonstrate this, I'm going to take the Supernatural Mission Statement and expand on it. Remember, the Supernatural vampire type is the result of otherworldly activities on Earth, and by implication lives in a world where there are plenty of other supernatural types: ghosts, witches, and so on. The Mission Statement in this instance is: The premier supplier of Gray in the Western World

So what's Gray? Gray is a kind of narcotic made from ghosts, which vampires find particularly enthralling and addictive. They might need blood to live, but they crave Gray the same way humans crave heroin or cocaine. In fact Gray is a term I've stolen from heroin addiction; it's a slightly altered form of one of the terms used to describe the mixture of blood and narcotic in the syringe. The original term is gravy, as in 'shoot the gravy.' I'm picturing Gray as a form of heroin admixed with processed ghosts, not unlike cutting a drug with, say, rat poison.

Given this, it's reasonable to assume that an otherwise careful supernatural vampire, hooked through the bag on Gray, might do pretty much anything to get more. It's also reasonable to assume that a human using Gray might end up much as a heroin user would after injecting heroin mixed with strychnine: that is, dead. In fact, doubly dead, given that the mix was ghost to begin with.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First let's talk about that Mission Statement, and what it means for the Conspyramid. If your organization wants to become the premier supplier of Gray in the Western World, what does it need?

At the lowest rung of the ladder, all those Level 1 Nodes, it needs groups and individuals that can help it move and market product. It's not about selling vials on streetcorners; vampires are notoriously reclusive, so the Conspiracy has to go to them. It needs runners who can deliver, it needs access to ports and airports, and it needs someone to do the tedious legwork of chasing down its customers, finding out where they live and establishing contact so that the Conspiracy can make another sale.

There's no reason you can't play with this concept. Suppose there's a celebrity vampire hunter in your world, a Seán Manchester crossed with Peter Vincent who does all kinds of talk shows and low-budget stuff. That's the perfect cover for a Level 1 marketing expert, someone who finds the customer for the Conspiracy. An occult group like the Golden Dawn could be another Level 1 marketing node; the Victorian original spawned so many lookalikes, imitators and alleged inheritors of the mantle that it's perfectly reasonable to assume a modern Golden Dawn infesting each nation in Europe, using its magician initiates to research and identify possible customers. Bicycle couriers, individual members of a nation's Customs Authority, any number of small airports are also good node fits. Low-cost air carriers like Ryanair made their fortune utilizing ex-military bases in the early 2000s; no reason why the Conspiracy couldn't have snaffled a few of those bases for their own use, or be piggybacking on the low-cost crowd.

An alternate Level 1, of course, is the customer itself. This vampire isn't part of the Conspiracy, but it knows someone who is; that same marketing expert who made the pitch in the first place. That would definitely require a face-to-face; a vampire isn't about to buy anything, sight unseen, from some chancer. There would need to be at least one sales pitch, from the Level 1. That in turn exposes the Conspyramid to risk, if the vampire is identified by other groups. An otherwise careful vampire who's been living quietly off of the locals for decades might get very sloppy if he's craving Gray, which will in turn alert the protagonists, as news stories leak out.

There's a further potential Level 1: a dead human addict. Any large organization has its fuck-ups and breakdowns; in this example, a batch of Gray ended up in the hands of a human addict who shot up, and promptly died in spectacular fashion. Spectacular enough to make the news, and probably also blogs and YouTube videos, as amateur ghost-hunters descend on the site to find out why, say, entities from the French Revolution are suddenly infesting a Berlin squat. Technically this isn't part of the Conspyramid proper, but whichever Level 1 managed to cock up so spectacularly as to deliver Gray to a non-customer is going to want to cover its tracks, and that exposes the Conspyramid to even more danger.

Let's move on to the Level 2 node. This is the national level node, the first one with real pull. If an entire Customs Authority, or at least its top ranking officials, has been subverted then that makes it a Level 2. A national level politician, or even a Eurocrat, is probably also a Level 2. The import-export company that transports Gray is a Level 2, and if we're using a low-cost airline like Ryanair in that role, then that airline is a Level 2.

Going further, what else does this Conspiracy need? Well, at the moment it has marketing, sales, and supply all at Level 1. What it lacks at the moment is a product, and for that it needs ghosts and heroin, as well as a means of cutting the ghosts with the heroin. That suggests factories of some kind, as well as a means of collection. It also suggests groups whose purpose in life is psychical research. If a university's parapsychology department has been subverted in order to concentrate on searching for and collecting ghosts, that would make it a Level 2; it might also make its grad students potential Level 1s in their own right. A highly placed Renfield in a crime syndicate, tasked with ensuring safe delivery of the heroin, is also a Level 2. I'm not picturing the factories as anything more sophisticated than the average meth lab, and there are probably quite a few of them scattered all over the target area. Each of those labs, complete with technicians and possibly also security, is a Level 2 in its own right. Whether they're interconnected in some way - perhaps all have the same cover story - is another matter.

Speaking of interconnection, these groups need a means of communication, and coordination. Individual members can get by on burner phones, but once you get to the stage when groups of people, institutions and factories are involved, something more sophisticated is needed to assist in coordinating efforts. After all, there's a lot of product to be obtained, cut, shipped and marketed. That implies a central hub of some kind, but preferably one that's divorced from the upper levels of the Conspyramid. It doesn't do anyone any good if, by capturing and squeezing some Level 1 pusher, an enemy can leapfrog straight up to the highest levels of command. Say this central hub is internet based, an email system or a BBS. Suppose the Conspiracy kept some tame black hat hackers on the payroll, a tiger team maintaining security on its Level 1 and Level 2 network. That tiger team would itself be a Level 2. Nobody above Level 2 would be on that network, but it would allow groups at Level 2 or below to keep in contact. Presumably there's one member of the tiger team with a telephone number, or other means of communication, with a Level 3. 

Speaking of which, here we are at Level 3. Now we're at the provincial level; if an entire ministry within a nation is compromised, or if there's an entity within the Conspiracy capable of doing significant damage, this is where it's probably going to be. There's one element of the Conspiracy as we've been considering it that hasn't been discussed, and that's Security. This is basically one big drug cartel, and an organization of this type is going to have both 'ordinary' enemies - public officials, police, nosy reporters, basically ordinary humans - and the other kind, the kind that perhaps knows about vampires and, more importantly, knows how to kill them.

At least two, probably three nodes at this level will be dedicated to security. One node is a top-notch criminal law firm; if any of the nodes below Level 3 get into legal difficulty, these are the people who show up to deal with it. Another is the heavy mob, and if ever there's a time to use, say, a completely subverted special forces detachment, like a platoon (or whatever the term would be) from Germany's KSK Kommando Spezialkräfte, it is now. That heavy mob deals with any mortal threat that can't otherwise be handled through legal means. A third has got to be a specialized heavy mob, for use only in those circumstances where a vampire - possibly a dissatisfied customer - is involved. Perhaps there genuinely is an actual vampire hunter out there that the Conspiracy has on its payroll for special tasks; it might even be a religious order of some kind or, say, a senior member of the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Let's not forget that tiger team at Level 2, the one handling communications. It has to report to someone, and that someone is a vampire, or someone of equivalent authority, at Level 3. That entity's sole purpose is to act as Hermes for the Conspiracy, delivering information by word of mouth alone. Hermes deals with the other Level 3 nodes directly, face-to-face meetings only, and also communicates information to the Level 4 nodes. Hermes might even know who is at Level 5, but that's dangerous information to possess. 

From here we pass on to Level 4, the National branch. There's one more aspect of a Conspiracy of this type that hasn't been discussed so far: the money angle. Nobody's in this business for their health, and if a Conspiracy of this type has been formed to deliver Gray, then Gray must be fantastically valuable. Rivers of cash must be flowing up the chain, otherwise there's no point. Those rivers need to be directed, properly laundered, and distributed, and that means a Bank. Probably a private bank, unincorporated, that handles all the financial transactions as discreetly as possible. Only nodes at Level 3 and up will be aware of this Bank, and probably not all the Level 3s; no point in telling the heavy mob, for instance, where the money's coming from.

Equally if there's a significant individual within the Conspiracy tasked with acting as an adviser on field operations - a form of consigliere - Level 4 is where that individual will be. That individual needs to be close enough to the operation to be aware of its day-to-day operations, while at the same time be far enough away from the front lines so as not to become a target. A consigliere is also tasked with handling disputes, so if there's any issue between nodes at Level 4, 3, or maybe even 2, this individual will be involved, though it's unlikely that it gets face-to-face with a Level 2 node.

Since this is a drug racket, if there's a task force that deals with international smuggling that has been subverted by the Conspiracy, that will become a Level 4 node. Someone, probably several someones, at Interpol, say, or someone involved with anti-money laundering efforts at the EU. This particular node might not know as much about the Conspiracy as the others, but over time it could have gathered a significant amount of surprising information. Interpol, for instance, dates back to 1923; who knows what could be hidden in its files? Names, dates, incident reports; the Conspiracy would probably prefer those files were shredded or burnt, but there's any number of surprised and convicted criminals out there who can testify that, when it really matters, sometimes, somehow, the documents turn up.

Now we've reached Level 5, the Supranational level. If the Conspiracy has a Think Tank on its payroll, planning future operations, this is where it will be. Remember, the Conspiracy wants to expand operations further afield; it needs someone to plan for that, to establish contact in those markets, to make deals and identify opportunities. Equally if the Conspiracy has some kind of mad scientist type, perhaps someone who's been ghost-gathering since the Victorian era and who knows the process backwards and sideways, this is where that individual will be, probably in its own padded cell with lots of colored chalk and as many chalkboards as it wants.  R&D is vital to any forward-thinking business, and this is ultimately a business; what matter if the head researcher likes to eat babies, so long as it delivers?

Finally there is Level 6: the Board. The no-nonsense creatures of the night who run this operation. The Board is probably made up of the original members - the ones who formed the business back in whenever-it-may-have-been - and representatives from the competitors it has absorbed, over time. Perhaps there's some ill feeling about that; some Board members may feel that their past contributions haven't been properly rewarded. Be that as it may. The Board is still the Board, and woe betide anyone who manages to get quite that close to the Conspiracy's heart.

I hope this discussion has been useful to the Directors out there! Good luck, and good hunting.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Great War, Extra Credits and Soviet Ghosts

More of a catch-all, this time. For those of you with an interest in the Great War, or my Trail of Cthulhu supplement Dulce et Decorum Est (plug plug), should check out the Extra Credits series Extra History. Extra History is pretty much what it sounds like: a look at historical subjects, created by the same folks who do the video game commentary animated shorts. For the next few weeks Extra History will be tackling the Great War, and so far it's up to episode two. The first episode, all about the lead-up to the war, can be found here, and the second, about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, can be found here.

While I'm talking about totally unrelated things, I would be shockingly remiss if I didn't point the Night's Black Agents fans towards the work of photographer Rebecca Litchfield. Her collection of post-Soviet abandoned sites, including radar defense bases, train yards, military camps and other forgotten memories of the Soviet era is truly outstanding. Any Director worth his salt needs to look at these

Monday, 15 September 2014

Night's Black Agents: The Nature of Conspiracy

I really wish I had more opportunities to play this game face to face, as the Gods of Tabletop intended. It's an exceptionally fun system and a very intriguing world concept. One of the things I've been thinking about recently is the nature of the Conspyramid, the way in which the Vampire conspiracy is organized, and wondering how it can be manipulated to best serve the game.

For example, in the Double Tap expansion Kenneth Hite talks about alternate eras for the game, such as Victorian, World War Two or the Cold War, and that got me wondering: how many Directors sit down and work out what the Conspiracy's been up to? What are its long term goals? Have those goals changed over the course of time, and if so what did that mean for the nature of the Conspiracy?

Any organized group has a long term goal, though most of them these days frame it in the form of a mission statement. Why does this organization exist? What does it want to accomplish, and what is it prepared to do in order to achieve those goals? From there other questions flow, such as, what does it need in order to do what it wants to do, where does it get the capital to finance its activities, and what kind of personnel will it want to recruit?

The game presupposes four base types of opponent: supernatural, damned, alien and mutant. I'm going to consider each in turn.

Supernatural: vampires are the result of magical or other supernatural activities on Earth; spirits, ghosts, witchcraft and the like. OK, let's presuppose that, in this campaign, vampires are created by necromantic activity, and while their bodies need blood in order to survive, ghosts are like cocaine or narcotics to them. A Conspyramid in this kind of game could be formed in order to supply this cocaine to other vampires. It would be interested in historical sites and artifacts, but demand is going to far exceed supply, and where in the real world this imbalance is usually met by price increases, it also often creates alternate suppliers, bad product, and a desire to increase supply. The Conspiracy, in its early incarnation, might have been behind Europe's colonial era, hoping to expand supply by opening up new sources of production. When that didn't work out, it might have tried to foster wars - even the Great War - hoping that the new machines it created to harvest ghosts would increase supply radically. Perhaps that didn't work out; the machines might have created bad product, or the War might have created new competition in the market as alternate suppliers gain a foothold. The market crashes, the Conspiracy is weakened, and when the Second World War breaks out it discovers that its competition has new ideas about market share, and the Conspiracy isn't invited. Cue the Cold War, aka the Conspiracy Fights Back, leveraging its position in Europe's governments to crush alternate suppliers by poisoning the supply, forcing its competitors to toe the line, eventually absorbing most of them into the Conspiracy. Now it's the Modern Era, where the Conspiracy is on top again. It wants to strengthen its hold on supply, absorbing the last of the competition while at the same time establishing its dominance in new markets like Russia and China.

Mission statement: The premier supplier of Gray in the Western World.

Damned: Vampires are the work of Satan or other explicitly demonic creatures opposed to mankind and God. This is a tricky one, in that it presupposes first, an origin story that dates back to before recorded history and indeed before Man itself, and second, it strongly suggests that the Conspiracy is not independent. Instead it works for a Higher Power, though in this case it might be more apt to call it a Lower Power. Very well; then let's take the Antichrist as our motivator here, and presuppose that the Vampires are ultimately descended from the spirits described in Revelations: And I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.This Conspiracy is preparing for the day, as yet unknown, when the Final Battle will wash all creation in blood. In order to do so it has been preparing, protecting, and disseminating the seed from which the Antichrist will be born. This Conspiracy fosters the great migrations, like the flow of immigrants from the Old World to the Americas in the later Victorian period, in order to preserve that seed. It has great long lists in its archives of who begat who, and where; monasteries stuffed with genealogies, eventually replaced by think tanks with computer databases, all diligently recording everything its potential antichrists do. An orphan in Birmingham may be as important to the Conspiracy as a billionaire in Bombay. This kind of Conspiracy would be very interested in anything to do with genetics, and manipulation of embryos in the womb to promote or restrict certain characteristics. However with a religious outlook on life comes every religion's favorite game: the Schism. Somebody's going to have a preferred bloodline, and want to promote it above all others. Perhaps the Donovans who went to America in 1903 are the ones most likely to bring about the Apocalypse, or perhaps the sons of the Church the Pascuttis of Northern Italy have tried to stake their claim. The Conspiracy could have spent the last hundred years or more squabbling with itself, with rival factions happily slaughtering entire families in order to ensure that its favored bloodline makes it to the top. In that world, a disaster like the Titanic's sinking might have been manipulated in order to ensure that one specific person drowned at exactly the right moment. Meanwhile, that final War is coming, and there are vampires at top levels of the military in every government whose fingers have been itching on that trigger for more than half a century. What if someone decided 'kill them all, for Satan knows who is His'?

Mission statement: To protect and prepare the Chosen One.

Alien: Vampires are alien beings, or earthly beings who nevertheless follow different laws of physics. Let's presuppose in this instance that the vampires are truly alien, not earthly in any way. I'm going to steal an idea from Quatermass II - which I highly recommend - and suggest that the creatures fell from space, infected a certain percentage of the host population, and the infected then set about creating an environment in which the original creatures can live. That in turn suggests a definitive timetable: the vampires have a set date on which the original creatures are to arrive, and must meet their goal by that date. At the same time their goal requires a massive expenditure of energy and equipment, which means it can only be achieved by cannibalizing a nation state's worth of resources. In this world the government, probably more than one, has already been taken over, and the facilities are being built. This is a process that probably takes up all of the Cold War, and began earlier than that; say the creatures arrive shortly before or during World War Two, begin colonizing where they land, and start infecting useful humans as soon as possible. They spend the Cold War identifying suitable targets - any nation with the potential for a space program - and, once a target is identified, using that space program as the stepping stone for the Conspiracy's goals. The Director could have great fun with a V2 rocket spy one-off, in which the protagonists first identify potential aliens in the German weapons program, only to see those infected scientists snapped up by Russia and America. Was this unintentional, or were sympathizers in both governments trying to save their infected comrades in Germany? By the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Modern Era either the Conspiracy has subverted all of its chosen targets, or it has succeeded in most and failed in others. That second option in turn suggests that some nations are aware of the infection, though probably not cognizant of the Conspiracy's higher goals. Naturally they can't tell anyone; stating that an otherwise friendly nation is the tool of an alien conspiracy isn't something sane prime ministers do. Yet they will have their own intelligence apparatus on the lookout for possible infestation, in some cases perhaps sending kill teams to other countries to eliminate the threat. Even so, the Doomsday Clock is ticking; the Conspiracy is about to achieve its long term goal, unless someone does something. Like, for example, destroy all those facilities it's been building to house the aliens ...

Mission statement: We shall build Utopia.

Mutant: Vampires are earthly beings infected or changed by (or into) some freak of nature. Let's suppose that there is such a thing as a vampire gene, that it existed in the Classical world and that it spread West from there, only to be all but exterminated by the Black Death and the persecutions that followed. What with y pestis slaughtering untold millions in its first appearance in the early 1300s, then recurring again and again up to the early 1600s, followed by persecutions, witch burnings and the final vampire purges of the early 1700s, it seemed as if the mutant vampire was eradicated from the earth. Then, in the Victorian period, the few scattered remnants of the breed begin to reestablish themselves. The initial focus of this nascent Conspiracy is on survival; it never wants to come that close to extinction again. However it soon becomes obsessed with its origins. What is the vampire inheritance? Can it be promoted? Why is it so vulnerable to certain diseases, and can it be protected against them? Virologists and scientists in the colonies and darkest corners of the earth might be funded by this Conspiracy, desperate for knowledge. The Conspiracy might even start funding or infiltrating relief organizations like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, in hopes of learning more about itself by studying viruses and diseases across the globe. This Conspiracy also has the potential to become a colonizing power. Say it becomes aware of a strain of other mutations, like the Penangglan of Southeast Asia.It's going to want to study this variant to see how it evolved, and whether its mutation has any benefit to the Conspiracy. Naturally this doesn't bode well for the Penangglan. The protagonists could even be caught up in the hunt as potential, unwitting allies of the Conspiracy, in a bring-em-back-alive romp through, say, Vietnam and Cambodia; Platoon mixed with R-Point, except this time the CIA - or something that passes for the CIA - is pulling the strings. That could lead neatly into a Cold War game, as the Conspiracy starts pushing its genetics program, hoping to create the perfect mutation; one that is truly invulnerable to disease, and spreads much more quickly than in previous variants. This Conspiracy hopes for a breakthrough event in the Modern Era, one in which it can release a perfected bioweapon, ensuring its continued survival by eliminating the competition once and for all while at the same time promoting its own genetic superiority.

Mission statement: To ensure our survival and eventual triumph.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Trail of Cthulhu Mythos Expeditions: The Icy Tomb

By now you've probably heard that Mythos Expeditions is out, or soon to be out, depending on exactly where you live. I hope anyone who picks it up enjoys my contribution to that book, Lost on a Sea of Dreams. It was fun to write!

In honor of that Trail of Cthulhu supplement, as well as a tip of the hat to the recent discovery of the Franklin Expedition's lost ship, I thought I'd give you a taste of what's in Mythos Expeditions. This scenario seed is based on a real event, recorded in Mysteries of the Sea by Robert de la Croix.

In 1931 the Hudson's Bay Company sent out the Baychimo, a steel-hulled and thoroughly modern 1,300 ton ship, to collect furs. In October it got caught in pack ice and its captain, Cornwall, decided not to risk wintering aboard, preferring the safety of huts ashore. At the end of November a blizzard broke the Baychimo free of the ice and she drifted away, nobody knew where. Cornwall assumed she'd broken up in the ice. The crew were eventually rescued the following year, and reported the Baychimo lost, only to be told by the Hudson's Bay Company that the Baychimo had been spotted adrift many hundreds of miles to the east of her last known position.

A month later, de la Croix writes, in April 1932, a young explorer named Leslie Melvin also spotted the Baychimo. He succeeded in boarding her, and was astonished at the quantity of furs piled up in the hold. But as his position was more than 3,000 miles from his base at Nome in Alaska and he was badly off for equipment, possessing only two sleighs drawn by dogs, he could not salvage any of the cargo ...

Without going into too much detail, the Mythos Expeditions rules state that the protagonists have a Survival Pool, and these pool points represent a factor roughly analogous to a character's Stability. Yes, Survival represents food, medicine and trade goods, but it also represents morale, will to live, and any number of intangible factors as well. Loss of Survival operates in much the same way as loss of Stability; lose too much, go into negative Survival, and you suffer penalties to actions. Lose enough Survival, and the expedition disintegrates.   

In this scenario seed, the protagonists are playing the part of Leslie Melvin, except that where Melvin was acting on his own you, as Keeper, may have half a dozen characters to consider. It's reasonable to assume that each character contributes 2 Survival pool points, with no opportunity to hire extra bearers. That means, assuming a team of 6, that 12 Survival's on the table. Already you can see that Melvin, with his pool of 2, didn't have many options when he found the Baychimo. The group's going to be traveling via dog sled, probably two sleds per protagonist. They have minimal equipment - you don't want to take anything you don't need, though warm clothing's an absolute must - which would include at least one rifle, to scare off wildlife. The team isn't out looking for missing ships; it has its own objectives, and probably includes geologists, naturalists, explorers, and perhaps a photographer.

Terrain is the next thing to consider. This is the Arctic, so terrain is Bleak. That means +1 Survival loss per Travel Increment. The Travel Increment is an abstraction that basically says it takes X number of increments to get from point A to point B, and in each increment there's a chance of Survival pool loss. This chance is represented by what amounts to a damage roll for each travel increment, modified by terrain. If this damage roll represented travel along a beach, the damage would be modified by -3, so there's a decent chance that no actual Survival loss would accrue. That isn't the case here. Assuming maximum damage, an increment might cost the team 7 Survival which, even if the team started with 12 Survival, is a very significant loss. Melvin, with his starting pool of 2, would already be at -5, or Ragged, with all the appropriate penalties.

It is possible to refresh Survival while out in the wilderness. In this instance the most likely source of a refresh is an Investigative spend, probably Outdoorsman or Navigation, and there's a small chance of finding friendly Inuit. Theoretically the Investigative spend might refresh 1 or 2 points, while friendly Inuit could refresh 3 to 4 points. Finding the Baychimo could also refresh 3 to 4 points; Cornwall probably took most of the ship's supplies ashore when he abandoned ship, but there's bound to be something left behind.   

It's likely that one or two Challenge scenes will occur. Challenge scenes are those moments in a travel increment when something exciting and dangerous happens. As this is an Arctic expedition, any Challenge scene takes place in an extremely Cold environment, which means the character is treated as Hurt for the purposes of Difficulty and spends. Potential Challenges include frostbite, animal attack, an unexpected crevasse hidden by snow, and injury to the sled dogs. Assume a minimum Difficulty 5 for tests, modified to Difficulty 4 if the group has an Investigative ability that might assist, like Outdoorsman.

So far we've just talked about the expedition and Survival, without mentioning the Mythos element. In this instance the most likely Mythos element is Ithaqua, the Great Old One who stalks the Arctic wastes. Possibly in its Death Walker form, it may have torn the Baychimo free and made it drift to this point, either because Cornwall and his crew skinned something Ithaqua didn't want skinned, or because Ithaqua wants the ship for other purposes, perhaps as a floating temple for some kind of ritual. In the latter case, cultists could be drawn to the spot, preparing for the great ceremony to come. There are other intriguing possibilities; perhaps the protagonists find those strange and impossible pelts in the Baychimo's hold, or one of the Challenge scenes could have the protagonists huddle inside the derelict ship as Ithaqua batters it with storms.

The Keeper may prefer other options, if the players are already nodding their heads and muttering wisely about Ithaqua the instant Arctic exploration is mentioned. Ubb, the Father of Worms, is a unique Chthonian Yugg meant to haunt the Pacific, but that doesn't mean Ubb is the only massive sea worm out there. Suppose one haunts the Arctic waters, and has picked on the Baychimo as a target for whatever reason. Picture a scene in which the ice holding the ship at bay cracks under immense pressure, as the titanic creature lunges upward. It could pursue the protagonists in other Challenge scenes, as they try to escape across the ice. Why is it here? Well, Ubb is meant to be guarding the final resting place of a God; perhaps this entity is a guardian, and the Baychimo, by great misfortune, managed to drift too close to its location. When the investigators clambered aboard they earned the wrath of the Worm, not for anything they did, but because they're getting too close to the protected location. Maybe after they leave the Baychimo they find that forbidden spot ...

Hope that helps you Keepers out there! Have fun with Expeditions; I certainly did!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Bond and the Chase Scene: Night's Black Agents

Let's tackle something a little different this time and talk about chase scenes.

In Night's Black Agents the main book points out that they 'require more attention and creativity than other contests' and should be considered a major set-piece event, packed with thrills. That means the Director needs to prepare in advance, or at the very least have some notes for potential chases given the locale the agents are likely to be in. To discuss what that might mean for the Director, I'm taking two Bond chase scenes as examples and dissecting them, from a pure rules perspective.

Starting with Moonraker, take a look at the canal scene.

First: yes, it's incredibly camp. All the Moore Bonds were camp. That's part of the fun!

Second: there's no real reason for Bond to be using a gondola in this scene, but it's a cool thing to do, and it's an iconic Venetian symbol. When in doubt always do the cool thing ought to be the agent's motto, and the Director's too. It's been a long time since I've seen this movie, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Bond's gondolier is introduced as agent Blankorelli of the British Secret Service. IMDB has not seen fit to preserve his character's name for posterity.

The scene kicks off with an ambush moment, a really fantastic reveal. True, there's no reason why he should be popping out of that coffin with throwing knives when a silenced pistol would be more efficient, but screw efficiency; knives are the better cinematic option. The chase hasn't officially begun yet, so the usual prohibition on Weapons during a chase doesn't apply. Note how the NPC gondolier is his first target, even though Bond's a sitting duck. Not only does this give Bond a chance to fight back, it also knocks the gondolier - who otherwise might have tried to pilot the gondola - out of the running straight away. Always leave the agent in the driver's seat.

Initial Lead is probably very short - no more than 2, given that Bond's caught flat footed and the mooks are right next to him - and the operative ability is Piloting. This is a cramped chase - all those narrow, twisting canals - and Bond is probably the more maneuverable participant, so the starting Lead is bumped by minimum +1, up to 3. It might be more, but without handy gondola stats it's simpler to opt for the minimum. Given how quickly Bond moves to the Sudden Escape, those mooks probably didn't start with a fantastic Piloting pool.

A mook immediately opens up with an SMG, peppering the scenery but otherwise doing no damage. Bond's Hit Threshold would be 4, bumped up to 5 since this is an Attack During Chase. The mook used 3 pool points just to attack, but for once the chase difficulty doesn't go up, since the boat opening fire isn't one of the ones chasing Bond. Not yet, anyway. Nevertheless there's a cinematic failure moment when the funeral barge cruises under a low bridge, but that doesn't affect the chase scene itself since, after the initial reveal, the barge was out of the running anyway.

By 1.13 the chase begins in earnest, Bond in his tricked-out gondola versus two mooks in a much more conventional speedboat. Bond's going to jump to Lead 10 fairly quickly, so by this point it's reasonable to assume the initial contested chase roll went Bond's way. Lead is now 5.

More shooting, and again with an SMG, probably not the optimal weapon under the circumstances but what the heck, they're only mooks. At Lead 5, Bond is at Near range for combat purposes. Again, the mooks are spending 3 pool points just to shoot, Bond's Hit Threshold goes from 4 to 5, and the difficulty of the mooks' chase test bumps up by 1. Bond opts for an Evasive Maneuver, turning a sharp corner and increasing his Hit Threshold from 5 to 6. That costs him 2 Piloting. Given that he's probably a Gear Devil, he may opt for a 3-point refresh at some stage. The gondola takes some dramatic splash damage, but otherwise things are going Bond's way.

Again, it's reasonable to assume he wins the contested chase roll this round, possibly because the mooks opted to shoot, thus increasing their chase difficulty number. Lead is now 7. If the mooks try to shoot again, it'll be at Long range. Which they do, of course; they're mooks, and by now the only hope they have of getting Bond at all is with a lucky shot. Again, Bond's Hit Threshold goes from 4 to 5, and the mooks' chase test difficulty goes up by 1, in addition to all the other modifiers that will apply.

The mooks aren't providing much challenge, so it's time for the Director to throw in a Hazard: Bond's rapidly approaching a traffic stop, and the lights are against him. There's a potential Crash at stake, with a vehicle roughly equivalent of a motorcycle for damage modifier purposes. Assume a Difficulty 5 for that test; with modifier -3 that means only 2 Damage is at stake, but given the relative fragility of Bond's gondola it could change the chase significantly if he crashes. He doesn't, so the next in line - the mooks - do, probably because they exhausted their Piloting pool a while back and are running on hope and prayer right about now. Not that 2 Damage is going to do the mooks any harm, but it makes for a fun moment as the lovers drift off in their own little world while their gondolier goes down with the ship.

By this point Bond has hit more than 7 Lead, so it's time for the Sudden Escape. The gondola is clearly Q issue, but its gadgets haven't been fully described, and while there's no reason why Q - practical man that he is - would design a gondola capable of going on land in Venice, the lure of that Sudden Escape is too good to pass up. No doubt Gear Devil Bond uses those refreshed Piloting pool points to make the roll. The mooks despair, Bond drives merrily through the most famous public square in Venice, and the chase is over.

None of this is particularly rules-heavy or difficult to pull off. In the final analysis, the chase was just a few contested rolls, some shooting, one hazard and a sudden escape. What makes it memorable is its location, its vehicles, and the cool set pieces; the knife-throwing coffin man, the oblivious lovers, and the blatant Up Yours of that sudden escape. A chase doesn't have to be packed with stuff to be a good chase, but it does need to have those images, those WTF moments, to work as a scene. 

Now consider the ski scene in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Bond is trying to escape Blofeld's mountaintop fortress, but the guards spot him before he gets too far and an Athletics chase ensues. Technically this is a three group chase; Bond, mook group A, and mook group Blofeld. Beginning Lead is probably quite good, since Bond is the instigator and has had some time to prepare; call it 5. This is a normal chase, all groups are traveling at about the same speed, and by the look of things everyone's equally as good at Athletics, so there's no bonus to be had there. Brilliant chase scene music, by the way; just goes to show getting a good soundtrack is worth the trouble.

Technically the first shots fired (about 0.30) aren't part of the chase sequence, but were I Director I might say that the agent's difficulty increases by 1 for the next contested chase roll if the agent is under fire.  That allows the agent to rush off in a hail of bullets, without the tedious dice rolling (and possible early termination of the chase) that might accompany an actual attack.

Much activity ensues, and Blofeld is informed. At this point no actual chase action has taken place. Earlier I divided the mooks into two groups; they could as easily be kept as one big pool, but with Blofeld in the mix it makes more sense to have two groups. That way the major villain is still a major threat, while the other group of mooks might be knocked out of the running. It gives Bond someone he can beat, while at the same time introducing an antagonist that the Director would rather Bond didn't beat at this point in the plot.

It's 1.50 and now the chase is on. Each mook group has at least one armed man in the group. Now, in the gondola scene, when shooting took place there had to be an increased Firearms pool spend, the target's Hit Threshold went up by 1, and the Difficulty of the attacker's chase test went up by 1 in the attacking round. It could be argued that, since there's only one shooter, the shooter and only the shooter suffers the penalties that come with shooting; the other mooks in the group don't have the same penalty. I'd argue against that. Giving each mook separate die rolls only draws out what should be a quick, action-packed scene, and goes against the game principle of multiple pursuers. What if there had been ten mooks in the group? Will ten separate die rolls really be necessary? No; it's more sensible to treat the group as a group, with a common pool and common penalties.

So far, though plenty of shots have been fired, Bond hasn't been hit, but neither has there been any real change in Lead, suggesting that both Bond and the mooks have been succeeding their Athletics tests. By 1.35 we have the first of several Hazards, a jump sequence at night in snow-covered rocky terrain. This is a Falling Hazard, probably with minimum Athletics Difficulty 5, at considerable speed and height. Without sitting down to work out the actual speed plus height - which would be tedious, and again, this is meant to be a quick, action-packed scene - assume +2 damage for speed and height and a further +1 for the terrain, with no other applicable modifiers, so in total there's 8 (Difficulty 5+2+1) damage at stake. Certainly enough to splash a mook, and it probably wouldn't do Bond any good either. That Falling Hazard is soon followed by another Falling Hazard, higher this time, so call it 9 damage at stake.

The mooks are holding fire, and with good reason; everyone must be burning through Athletics. Bond might be able to blag a refresh from his Director, but the mooks haven't got that option. At about 1.55 Bond slips into the treeline, probably still at Lead 5; there's no reason to think anyone's been able to extend or reduce Lead dramatically. The change in terrain alters the chase conditions from normal to cramped, but nobody's more maneuverable than anyone else. Bond is probably hoping to provoke a Raise in his opponent's Difficulty numbers.

Then the mooks stop to coordinate, with flares and rockets. Bond's in trouble. In game terminology, this is best represented by mook group Blofeld, which so far has hung back out of the action, adding points from its relevant pools to mook group A. Effectively this provides mook group A with Athletics - and possibly other abilities, like Firearms - refresh. It allows the Director to account for a major villain's presence - Blofeld giving orders to the troops and organizing the attack - without actually bringing the villain face to face with the agent.

Bond's best chance now is to get mook group A to crash out early, so it's time to start provoking Raises. Bond opts to increase Difficulty by 1, from 4 to 5; he could have gone higher, but he hasn't had the pool refresh that the mooks just enjoyed. In fact they enjoyed it so much that, at 2.36, they Raise with gunfire, upping their chase sequence Difficulty from 5 to 6, upping Bond's Hit Threshold from 4 to 5, and spending 3 points from those refreshed Firearms pools to do it.

Bond is hit, but not out. He fails the chase sequence Difficulty test, goes arse over teakettle, and busts a ski. He also takes some Damage, and may even be less than 0 Health. Remember, the agents can go below 0 Health; mooks can't. Bond's probably at Hurt, so his Difficulty numbers, including opponent's Hit Thresholds, go up by 1; an effect neatly illustrated by his having to get away on one ski. Lead is also reduced, from 5 to 3.

Now, if Bond continues to Raise by snaking in and out of the treeline, his Difficulty goes up to 6 - his Hurt penalty plus the Raise - while the mooks' Difficulty stays at 5. Bond clearly thinks this is worth the risk, and he probably has the Athletics pool to back that bet up. What's more, by 3.10 he's back in Falling Hazard territory again, so Bond's Difficulty is actually 7 while the mooks' Difficulty is at 6. That's too much for the mooks, who lose a man in the trees. However we're close to the end of the sequence and the mooks are going to win this one, so while Bond made the Falling Hazard Athletics test he must have flubbed a contested chase roll at some point, bringing Lead from 3 to 1.

Another Falling Hazard at about 3.30 reduces mook group A to one man, but Bond's running out of luck, and also, it turns out, room to maneuver. The chase ends at 3.45 at the precipice, with Bond unable to go any further. In game, that last contested chase roll must have either ended in a draw, with the mook having the better roll, or Bond must have lost it. In any case, Lead drops to 0 or below. Hurt, and with his back to the metaphorical wall, he turns on the surviving mook, and the scene goes from Chase to Combat.

Again, nothing about this scene is particularly rules-heavy. It's mostly contested Athletics, with some Firearms, and the agent's making some clever use of the Raise mechanic. While there is a Hazard, it's the same Hazard each time. That doesn't have to be a problem. Multiple use of the same Hazard is acceptable, provided it's in keeping with the scene, and serves to increase dramatic tension. Besides, it wasn't over-used; ten Falling Hazards in a row would have been tedious, but there weren't that many of them, and the ones that did exist were mixed in with other events to break up the sequence. Bond didn't win the chase, but he had enough points left in his pool to quickly finish the Combat sequence, even taking his Hurt status into account. All in all, a success!

I hope this is of some help to you Directors out there. Have a good one!