Sunday, 27 December 2015

Auction Houses of London (Bookhounds)

So you want to run a Bookhounds of London campaign, and need to arrange an auction scene. Where's this taking place? Your players will want to know. If you're the kind of silver-tongued devil who can make this stuff up on the fly, no problem. However for those of you desperate for some historical examples, consider the following auction houses:

Puttick and Simpson. Not much is left online about this venerable auction house, first opened in 1794, closed in 1971. The scene shown in the engraving is its Leicester Square location, a wide open space, no permanent seating, lined with books of all kinds. At one end, close to the door, there's a podium. One wonders whether its proximity to the only exit was important for the auctioneer. In the middle of the room there's a wide section of boards set on two tables, presumably for display, which could be easily moved if needed. At the far end of the room there's a piano. Puttick and Simpson was famous for its sale of musical scores, so it's possible the piano was there in the spirit of try, before you buy. The internet also tells me that there was a Puttick and Simpson Limited at Montpelier Street London, since dissolved. It might not be the same one, of course, but let's say that it is, for the sake of discussion. That suggests that Puttick and Simpson moved from Leicester Square at some point. Judging by the list of old catalogs available for sale online, it seems to have moved more than once. In 1851 it was at 191 Piccadilly, while in 1897 it was at Leicester Square. My source, The Book-Hunter in London (1895, via Project Gutenberg), says that, after Sothebys, Puttick and Simpson was one of the premier book auction houses in London. It also says that the Leicester Square location was formerly the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds - in fact, he died there - and goes on to proclaim, 'in this age of iconoclasm it is pleasant to wander in the passages and rooms where all the wit, beauty and intellect of the latter part of the last century congregated; where Johnson and Boswell, Burke, Garrick, Goldsmith and Malone met in good fellowship.' Of course, it might have moved before the 1930s, but for the sake of your game it might be more interesting if it stays in Leicester Square.

Hodgson's. The source I have for this auction house is the 1895 book mentioned above, but the internet tells me there's a house clearance specialist operating out of Bristol with the same name, that first opened in 1918. The 1918 Hodgson's says it covers West London, which opens the situation up to all kinds of amusing slapstick scenes. I'm reasonably certain that the auctioneer Hodgson's mentioned by my source no longer exists, but the difficulty with a name like Hodgson is that it's one of the more common surnames in the UK, so searching for it is troublesome. The Book-Hunter in London says that Hodgson's Chancery Lane location 'was specially erected for the peculiar requirements of a book-auction house.' Whatever those may have been. Among other things, Hodgson used to host what were called trade dinner sales, where those in the trade would meet, enjoy a pleasant meal, and sell or buy as they saw fit. Apparently Hodgson used to clear fifty thousand pounds a time at these dinners, but the habit had died out by 1895, so presumably in the 1930s it's a distant memory. It does suggest possibilities, though, rather in the same style as a certain Burnt Auction. In 1895 the head of the firm was the founder's son, but by 1930 this may have changed. Incidentally, in the present day 115 Chancery Lane is occupied by a cocktail bar, Baranis. It describes itself as a Provencal-style cellar bar with a petanque court. It'd be interesting to see how much, if anything, of that Victorian structure 'specially erected' for a book auction house survives. Judging by Google, the frontage looks more or less original, but it's anyone's guess what's inside.

The Dorotheum. This is a Vienna-based auction house rather than a London firm, but it's the oldest in the world, so it deserves mention. The protagonists no doubt dream of one day going to something as prestigious as a Dorotheum auction. First established in 1707 by the Emperor Joseph I, it occupied its current premises in 1777, and has remained there ever since. Impossibly Baroque, immensely expensive; no doubt the protagonists are stealing its catalogs and forging its provenance in hope of boosting the price of their stock.

Phillip's, briefly Phillips de Pury, though that sad chapter in the firm's history post-dates the average Bookhounds game. First established in 1796 by one of Christie's clerks, this auction house puttered along until 1999, when it changed hands several times, engaged in disastrous business decisions, and was bought out by Bonham's. At the time of the average Bookhounds game, Phillip's is known as Phillips, Son and Neale. According to its website, Phillips had a 'reputation for strong regional sales rooms dotted about the British Isles,' which suggests that, if you as Keeper want an excuse for finding some obscure tome in, say, Scotland or Ireland, it could come into the game via Phillips, Son and Neale.

Sotheby's will be a familiar name to anyone who has a copy of the Dracula Dossier. Established in 1744, it began as a bookseller's but has since branched out into every conceivable art form. In the 1930s its principal lines, apart from books, would have been prints, coins, and medals, with a sideline in fine art. Its main rooms are at 34-35 New Bond Street, where it has lived since 1917. Though in the present day it has branches all over the world, in the 1930s its only location would have been London. It often arranges private sales when the seller wants to conduct business with the utmost discretion, as often happens when the seller would prefer the outside world not know how hard up for cash he is. One of its 1930s highlights is the sale of Baron Rothschild's paintings at one of the Rothschild residences in Piccadilly. This 1937 sale reached over £125,000, and was broadcast live by the BBC.

Taverns and Pubs. Many of the businesses mentioned here got their start by running auctions at their local pub.  Though a much less common practice in the 1930s as it would have been in the 18th Century, it's still quite possible, particularly for auctions taking place outside London. Without a dedicated auction house, any large sale taking place in the counties, say, has to locate itself in the largest and most convenient spot, and that will often be the local tavern. 

Book Fairs. The London Book Fair does not exist in the 1930s, but other Fairs do, most notably the Frankfurt Book Fair. The protagonists who operate a small book stall in, say, Spitalfields, probably won't be going to Frankfurt, but any book store owner with a Credit Rating of 3 or better will definitely want to be represented there. The Frankfurt event is a trade fair, where all kinds of innovations, new products, and other things of interest to booksellers are put on display. Exactly the kind of event that a Forger might want to attend, for example. 

That's it for the moment! It's also the last post this year. May 2016 be good to you, and best wishes to you all!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Not Quite Book Review Corner: Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

I've been reading Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, a relative newcomer to the scene. He's been writing for a while, but keeps dropping off the map, and so his publication list isn't that long. First published in 1988, then nothing until 1997, then a gap, then a gap, everywhere a gap gap, old Matt Ruff he had a farm, and so forth. My copy is an uncorrected proof. When published, it will be via Harper Collins, and is expected to be a February 2016 release.

The central idea is fascinating. Ruff takes the tropes of Lovecraft's Mythos, and re-imagines the stories with African American protagonists. The setting is 1950s America, heartland of noir fiction, and the collection of short, interconnected stories opens with the tale of Atticus Turner, off to Chicago with a copy of the Safe Negro Travel Guide in his pocket, hoping to find his father. Except his father's gone missing, and all the clues suggest that he's gone to Arkham, Massachusetts, home of Lovecraftian horror. It soon develops that Montrose Turner is mixed up with a peculiar Order of the Ancient Dawn, who are themselves very interested in Atticus since he might be a direct descendant of the founder of their Order.

Things, as you might expect, get very complicated from that point forward.

I mentioned interconnected stories earlier. It wouldn't be entirely fair to call this a short story collection, even though it is a collection of several short-ish stories. There is a common long-term plot, however, and the characters are all related either by blood or by bonds of friendship. So in the first story Montrose is a relatively minor support character, but in a later story he becomes the main protagonist. Childhood friends, cousins, Brothers from the local Lodge, may all appear as fleeting glimpses in one story, only to reappear later as main characters. The Braithwaite clan and its magical machinations make up the main antagonists, along with its allies and rivals in the alchemical Orders that seem to spring up like weeds across America.

In and of itself the concept would be intriguing, but by combining it with Lovecraft Ruff manages to hit a very particular and sensitive nerve. After all, this is Howard Phillips we're talking about, the man who gave us Cthulhu but also gave us the comic verse On The Creation of Niggers, as Ruff reminds us very early on.

Recently the World Fantasy Awards statuette hit the news again. It's been pointed out, particularly in recent years, that having an award of this type made in Lovecraft's image is sending, at best, a mixed message to the world at large, and fandom in particular. "This is something people of color, women, minorities, must deal with more often than most when striving to be the greatest they can possibly be in the arts," said award winner Nnedi Okorafor, on discovering Lovecraft's reputation after receiving her award. "The fact that many of the Elders we honor and need to learn from hate or hated us."

It's been announced that future awards will not bear Lovecraft's image. Noted Lovecraftian scholar S.T. Joshi has been particularly outspoken in his disgust at this decision. "Evidently this move was to placate the shrill whining of a handful of social justice warriors who believe that a 'vicious racist' like Lovecraft has no business being honored by such an award."

I lost a great deal of respect for S.T. Joshi after reading that piece.

There's no denying Lovecraft's hatred, of women, of African Americans, of pretty much everything and everyone except white Anglo Saxons and Gothic Revival architecture. He has created some very compelling art, worthy of study, worthy of approbation. That does not excuse the rest of it.

Perhaps it's time to admit that having his face on an award is exclusionary. That it sends a message, intentionally or not, and that message is an unpleasant one. 

Having touched on that nerve, however, Ruff lacks follow-through. There are many dark and complex scenes in these stories, but at the same time there's an undercurrent of light-heartedness that is at odds with horror. Frankly, there's more angst and despair in The Hobbit than there is in this book, and the main character of The Hobbit is a jolly little fellow whose sole ambition in life is to eat more dinners.

That's not to say the stories are bad. They're very cleverly done, and as a counterpoint to pure Lovecraft there's pleasure to be had in re imagining those stories with these protagonists. Even so, you have to go into this expecting that it won't be horror, as horror is usually understood. There's the suggestion of shoggoths off in the darkness, and weird things do happen, but these shoggoths have a low-fat label on the side with an encouraging nutritional message from the FDA.

An example, hopefully avoiding as many spoilers as possible: in one story, a character is told to choose whether or not to accept a benefit. That benefit, we discover, comes at someone else's expense, and that someone else is kept inside a large machine, apparently unconscious. We're told by the antagonist that this person is in a permanent coma thanks to a head injury, and feels no pain. What would make this really work would be if we didn't know whether the antagonist is telling the truth. Perhaps there is no coma, no head injury. Except as the reader we know that the antagonist is telling the truth. We saw that head injury in a previous episode, and from that we can infer the coma. Trouble is, knowing that undercuts the horror by removing the uncertainty. 

So would I recommend Lovecraft Country to Lovecraft fans, when it finally debuts? Yes. Just bear in mind, as I've said, that this is not a frightening collection. It has horrific scenes, and its depiction of historical events is all the more shocking because we know the truth of the matter. We also know that it didn't happen very long ago, in the grand scheme of things. For that alone it's worth reading. 

Even if it doesn't keep you awake at night, captivated by existential bleakness and despair.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Forgotten London: Egyptian Hall (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London)

England once had a Home of Mystery, founded by one of the premier family businesses in all of entertainment history: the Maskelynes. Forgotten London has touched on the Crystal Palace and Tussauds Museum. Now it's time to turn our attention to the history of magic, and with it, the Egyptian Hall.

Built by Mr William Bullock in 1812 to house his extensive collection of curiosities, the Egyptian Hall covered numbers 170 to 172, Piccadilly, Westminster. Egyptology being the prevailing obsession, it was designed in a broadly Egyptian style, with a frontage reminiscent of Karnak or Luxor. However it was a multi-purpose building. The Musical Repository had shops there, where it manufactured sheet music. A grocer's, Jacksons, remained there until its destruction in 1910, and even after the Hall was gone Jacksons still maintained a shop at its old location for many decades afterward. There were other shops, and an art gallery, but from Bullock's point of view the main purpose of the Hall was to house his museum, originally called the London Museum of Natural History. It went through several other name changes before finally becoming the Egyptian Hall, sometime between 1819 and 1821.

It was an odd collection. One moment the Hall might be home to Egyptologist Belzoni's collection of artifacts, and then next week it might house fresh exhibits Bullock had brought home from Mexico. Then again it might be home to Eng and Chang Bunker, the original Siamese twins. Or P.T. Barnum, or Tom Thumb, or the Mysterious Lady, or magicians, hatchet throwers and other entertainers. This was the age of spectacle, and the Egyptian Hall excelled at spectacle.

The Maskeylnes were not the first magicians at Egyptian Hall by any means, but they were the first to realize the possible benefits of having a theatre of their own. Up till that time a typical magician's career was peripatetic, and one of the consequences was that he had to rely on the theatre having what he needed to carry off the performance. It meant that he had to be versatile, but it also meant that he had to accept the misfortunes of travel. Sometimes this meant disaster; imagine being the magician who, on unpacking his expensive and carefully crafted props and devices after a long sea voyage, discovered that his life's work had been eaten by termites. The Maskelynes were no strangers to this kind of life, and when J Nevil Maskelyne signed up for a three month stay at the Hall in 1873, he probably had no intention of staying longer than that.

Bullock, by this point, was out of the picture, having died in 1849. Before his death the Hall had been bought by lifelong bookseller George Lackington, who rented it mainly for art exhibits and entertainments. It's difficult to find out who owned it after Lackington's death in 1844; presumably either the Lackington bookselling firm owned it outright, or it was held in trust for Lackington's heirs.

J. Nevil Maskelyne soon discovered the benefits of being master of his own theatre, even if, in the Hall, he was merely a tenant. It became his home base. He could travel to Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and rest assured that, on his return, he had a space, and his tools of the trade, waiting for him in London, the grandest city of the Empire. His son Nevil followed in his footsteps, spending the first nineteen years of his performing life at the Egyptian Hall.  Yet nothing lasts forever. Its owners decided there was more profit in office blocks than magic, and in 1905 the Egyptian Hall was demolished.

As a side note, its dissolution was captured by the artist Muirhead Bone, who later went on to become a famous war painter. The best version I've been able to find is here, and isn't all that clear, but you may have better luck.

The Maskelynes, father and son, went on to St George's Hall, which J Nevil significantly adapted for their work. J Nevil died in 1917 leaving the business to his son Nevil, and Nevil's children, including grandson Jasper who, at the time of J Nevil's death, was only fifteen years old. Jasper's father Nevil died in 1924, when Jasper was barely in his twenties. Nevil had the benefit of nineteen years at the Hall and a further twelve at St George's before inheriting the family business. Jasper had less than a decade. Jasper must have felt bereft, and perhaps a little unsteady on his professional feet, which may help to explain his later erratic behavior.

Jasper was one of five Maskelynes to inherit the magical Maskelyne empire. He had three older brothers. Captain Clive fought in the War and won the Military Cross, despite a heart murmur, and later became a stage magician. John Nevil had no interest in working the stage, and handled the business side of things. Noel also became a magician and maker of illusions, along with Jasper, who was the most adept of the brothers on stage. Their sister Mary, a talented performer, completed the Maskelyne menage.

Before his death, J Nevil attended the inaugural meeting of the Magic Circle at the Green Man pub in Soho, and St George's Hall later became a regular meeting place for the Circle. The Magic Circle eventually established itself at Euston, where it remains to this day. For a time Captain Clive was president of the Circle, but that heart murmur proved to be the death of him at a tragically early age, in 1928. Jasper would have been twenty six years old at that point, when the last strong connection with the Maskelynes of old was severed.

That was the start of the Maskelyne family feuds. Jasper proved to be a difficult sibling to work with, and Clive the war hero seems to have been the glue that held the family together. Jasper was dismissed from the family business in 1933, which coincided with the loss of St George's Hall. It was taken up by the BBC, and the Maskelyne's permanent home for magic ceased to be. The Maskelynes briefly tried to keep the dream alive at a different location, but by the end of 1934 the family business was kaput. St George's itself was demolished in 1966, and a hotel stands where the Maskelynes used to entertain all of London.

Jasper's life never really lived up to his early promise. Though he had an interesting wartime career, how interesting it actually was depends on how much you're willing to suspend disbelief and take Jasper's word for it. "You are not actually under oath when writing your own memoirs," as one historian put it. He chucked it all in and went to Kenya to start a new life as a farmer which, in hindsight, was one of the worst things he could possibly have done. He would have been there post-1960 and during the age of Mau Mau, when independence made things very difficult for those white settlers who'd chosen to believe, in their folly, that the sun would never set on the Empire. Jasper died in 1974, an embittered drunk. 

With all that in mind, let's talk about what this might mean for a Bookhounds game.

Both the Egyptian Hall and St George's Hall offer strong possibilities. By the 1930s the Egyptian Hall no longer exists, but the grocer's, Jacksons, does. In fact it may still exist, as Jacksons of Piccadilly, though I can't be certain that the modern Jacksons still occupies its old Egyptian Hall address. Be that as it may, Megapolisomancers may wish to take advantage of this long-standing lever by using Jacksons to keep in contact with the Egyptian Hall of former days.

It may even be possible, if you walk through the right door at Jacksons, to get to whatever's left of the memory of the Egyptian Hall, though what you'd find in that hidden space between worlds is anybody's guess. It once housed anything and everything, from a family of Laplanders plus reindeer to relics from the tomb of Seti I. Who knows what might still lurk in the shadowy, somehow dustless corridors of that Hall which is still a prisoner of time? Possibly spending the night there, or investigating the Hall further, would confer 1 potential Magic point.

Alternatively Jacksons' records might prove very interesting, to students of history. After all, the firm's been there since the Hall was first built. The account books, photographs, and other memorabilia hidden away in Jacksons' offices would prove very interesting, if they could be accessed. Of course, they might be very dusty, the perfect environment for Dust Things.

Or perhaps something else is still living there. A Rat Thing that's been hiding in Jacksons all this while would know everything about the old Hall. It could be that the oldest employee at Jacksons has been there much longer than even his or her employers know; did one of the many mummies housed at the Hall over the years decide to sneak to safety when the Hall was demolished?

St George's Hall is slightly different. It's still home to the Masklynes until 1933, which means it's also home to the Magic Circle. Getting involved with any of the Masklynes, especially Jasper, could be interesting. They're all going to want to collect books on magical practice, mechanical engineering, and other topics related to their craft. J Nevil, like many magicians, was a confirmed skeptic, and founded the Occult Committee to investigate strange claims. By the 1930s J Nevil is long gone, but perhaps Jasper, in his ongoing feud with his siblings, is reviving the Committee out of spite, spending family money on its endeavors. Or perhaps the protagonists, desperate for a bump in the shop's profit margin, is courting members of the Magic Circle in hope they'll become patrons. It's also possible that one of the characters is a practicing stage magician, in which case they might be members of the Circle, or be hoping to join.

Of course, when St George's Hall is taken by the BBC in 1933, the Maskelynes would have to downsize. Even if each of them took some of their props and properties with them, there would probably have been plenty of items left over that Nevil's heirs either wouldn't or couldn't take. That sounds like an excellent opportunity for an auction.

Alternatively among the many bits of props, papers and other ephemera carted over to St George's Hall in 1905 may be something that the characters really want. It might be something owned by the Maskelynes, or something accidentally moved over from the Egyptian Hall. Perhaps an occult artifact, or book, or something more substantial. Maybe something in old J. Nevil's notes holds the key to the protagonists' current dilemma. Or it could be that the stuff in St George's Hall, while not useful in itself, could be used to make a squiz, or be material for a forgery.

That's enough for the moment. Enjoy!

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Messing with the Protagonists (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

I'm playing through the Dracula Dossier with some friends of mine, and I thought that the Directors out there might like to know about a surprise I recently pulled on their unsuspecting IT expert.

This is a fella who does IT in real life, at a fairly high level, so he's up to date on most technical issues. His character has a very high Digital Intrusion pool, and is the one everyone turns to when Electronic Surveillance is needed. His standard response to data management is to back everything up, as often as possible, on as many devices as possible.

Now, to kick things off we started with the scenario in the main book, (S)Entries, which asks the protagonists to recover a laptop belonging to an important NATO officer. This they did, without a hitch. They proceeded to search through the data before handing it over to their contact, and the IT bod also cloned and copied it everywhere. He wanted as many copies as possible, on as many devices as possible.

Among the files on the laptop were four scanned pages of the Dracula Dossier. I let the players pick which four pages. The presumption was that someone (they hadn't met Harker yet) had passed on the Dossier pages to the NATO officer, as part of a scheme to enlist the NATO man's help. The Dossier pages were presumed to be Harker's bona-fides. That scenario led them on to several unconnected adventures which I shan't detail here.

Eventually they recovered the original Dossier, and the IT bod promptly started copying it, scanning it, whatever he could think of, so long as he had an electronic version of it somewhere. No doubt, as a canny player, he was expecting me to try to steal the Dossier at some point. However no matter what he tried he couldn't get a scan. I pointed him to page 200 of the Unredacted Dracula, and that explanation seemed to satisfy him. He believed he couldn't scan the Dossier, so he stopped trying. I think he'd forgotten about the scans in the NATO packet.

Then when things were a bit quieter he settled in with his laptop to see if he could find out what had gone wrong, and at that point with his extensive IT abilities it wasn't long before he discovered the truth.

Now, at this point I have to confess that my background is not IT, and what little I do know about hacking and viruses is at the layman level. I'm interested, certainly, and I pay attention to developments, but I couldn't write a worm to save my life. Not that I'd have to, I suppose; I could always just buy one, off of that dark net everyone's babbling about these days.

The scans in the NATO officer's folders weren't your standard .pdfs. They were .exe files, their purpose being to release a memory-resident virus onto the home system. It is encrypted with polymorphic code, making it very difficult to detect. However the mutating engine can, if the virus is traced, betray its GCHQ origins to a knowledgeable hacktivist like our IT friend.

The virus has two functions. First, if ever someone tries to scan and read Dossier files on an infected machine, those files immediately become unreadable. Second, it alerts the virus originator that a scan has been attempted, and advises the originator of the infected machine's location, current IP address, the works.

Remember, he'd been copying the NATO files everywhere, to any device the protagonists had that would take the data.

Oh dear.

The virus can be removed with a Difficulty 7 Digital Intrusion check. A success of 5 or better, but not 7, makes the protagonist think that the virus has been removed, when it really hasn't. The scan-destroying function is eliminated, but unfortunately for the protagonist the routine that lets the virus contact home is still active, and is now permanently switched on.

Failure on the DI check means that the virus' last act is to destroy the infected hard drive.

The protagonist spent so many DI pool points that success was pretty much guaranteed, and his next act - to be dealt with in an upcoming session - is to have a go at the PNC, to see if he can find out who did this to him. This should be interesting! Time for a Thriller Digital Intrusion contest, methinks ...

More later!

Monday, 30 November 2015

Spy Tech: The Minox (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Say hello to the Minox A, an antique bit of spy kit due to be sold at Bonhams Hong Kong in a few days time. If you fancy a flutter, the projected price is hovering at the US$5000 range. Personally I quite like the look of the Expo Police Camera, more modestly priced at $2,000-odd, but then I've always been fonder of Prohibition-era kit.

The Minox line was the spy's best friend from the earliest days of the Cold War. The OSS used them in World War Two, while the KGB were still using them as recently as 1990. If you've seen Doctor Strangelove, for instance, there's a scene in which the Soviet Ambassador uses one. A Minox also became part of JFK lore, when his assassin Oswold was found with one in his possession. John Anthony Walker, the Navy man convicted of spying for the Soviets in 1985, used a Minox C.

Its popularity wasn't because the typical Minox was cunningly disguised as a potted plant, but because it was small and lightweight, with remarkably clear close focus for its size, and very decent long focus. You can get as many as 36 exposures from a single reel of film, on the old cameras. The A series being sold at Bonhams was manufactured until 1969. The C series, used by Walker, was manufactured from 1969 to 1978. The C series was electronic, with a light meter, while the less sophisticated mechanical A series had an aluminum shell, which at least made it lightweight. However the A series was so beloved of Minox fans that a special edition was produced in 1992, completely mechanical, in chrome, black or gold. The Minox brand is still on the market today.

Now, let's take a look at the Dracula Dossier, and see where the Minox might fit in.

As with every other item in the Dossier, the Minox is described as an item of major importance, minor importance, or as a fraud.

SUPPOSED HISTORY: If a 1940s artifact, the Minox was taken by the Van Sloan team on its desperate mission. It's a battered Riga model, modified by Edom for special operations. Built in 1939, Edom saw the advantage in having a miniature camera, but knew that taking photographs of vampires was, at best, a tricky business. The original design was retrofitted with lenses designed by Teman to overcome the vampire problem, but Edom never had a chance to test the design before deployment. If a 1970s artifact, the Minox was used by foreign agents - perhaps KGB - during the mole hunt, but was either captured or lost. The information it contains has been exploded out of all proportion by rumor after rumor, but best guess has it that one of the photos is of the real mole. If modern day, it was until recently the plaything of one of the Legacies, who fancied themselves a modern-day spy. Perhaps it's a tricked-out gold replica A model, all mechanical, specially engraved with the owner's initials. Nobody knows why a dangerous crime syndicate ordered its theft, but for it to be worth so much to that kind of people, the information hidden on it must be damning.

MAJOR ARTIFACT: Not only does it contain a photograph of a very important figure or location within the Conspiracy - Dracula's Castle, for example, or one of the Conspyramid higher-ups - it can also take photographs of the Undead. Not necessarily good photographs, mind you; this is a prototype, perhaps from Edom, perhaps from another manufacturer, and it never got tested. However even if the photographs aren't perfect, everyone from Edom to the Conspiracy to China's Room 452 wants this one, because they think its design can be studied and improved. Of course, whoever originally created the modified Minox also wants it back, and is willing to do quite literally anything to get it. Funny thing; it seems almost to attract Renfields. Perhaps that has something to do with its design, which may or may not have included a drop of rather potent blood.

MINOR ARTIFACT: The Minox contains many interesting, potentially damaging photographs. Even though none of the pictures show important Conspiracy locations or people, there's enough here to wreck careers. At least one significant person, perhaps involved or formerly involved with the intelligence community, is very keen to get the negatives, and will pay any price. There's more than enough blackmail material here to Intimidate that person. At the Keeper's discretion, there may also be pictures of blueprints or other curious documents on the Minox; there's just enough detail here to give the protagonists a clue as to the location or means of manufacture of another Item.

FRAUDULENT ITEM: The Conspiracy, or perhaps Edom, deliberately built this Minox and its photographs for disinformation purposes. It's bait, intended to lure enemies out into the open. Either they reveal themselves when they turn up to claim the camera, or the photos on it lead the owner to a predetermined ambush point. Alternatively, the information contained here is black propaganda, designed to smear a chosen target. If the latter, then the Minox is almost certainly Conspiracy manufacture; there's hardly any point in, say, Edom trying to blacken Dracula's reputation.

["My God! not only does the foul creature drink the blood of innocents, he also strangles kittens! Is there no end to his perfidy?"]

CONNECTIONS: Any of the 1940s people might have the Minox in their possession, or have stashed it somewhere for safekeeping. It might have been left behind by Van Sloan, somewhere in Romania. If it ended up in Conspiracy hands, it could be in any of Dracula's London safe havens, probably long forgotten. A former intelligence operative from the 1970s may still have his old Minox left over from his days on active service. An antique Minox may find its way via Sotheby's to the open market. A modern Minox may still be in the possession of its current owner; it may need to be stolen, or perhaps prised from their cold, dead hands.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Disney, Esoterror, and You: The Haunted Mansion (Esoterrorists)

I've been thinking about this ever since seeing some very evocative photographs over on the Long-Forgotten blog. The blog's creator is a long-time fan of the Haunted Mansion, and was lucky enough to be one of the first kids to ride it when it opened back in 1969. There aren't many people I envy, but I admit I'd have loved to have been on that ride. Imagine seeing it for the first time, so fresh you could smell the paint; or more likely, the brimstone!

For those of you who haven't been lucky enough to visit the original attraction, the Haunted Mansion (First Edition) is part of the California park. The next version opened in 1971 in Florida, and is, broadly speaking, a copy of the original, though longer and more elaborate. Since then there have been other versions of the Mansion opened in Disney's other parks, but they tend to diverge significantly from the California concept. The Hong Kong version, for example, doesn't bother too much with ghosts and spooks, since that doesn't really fit with local lore.  If you're wondering what the ride looks like, take a wander over to YouTube.

As you can probably guess, the Mansion isn't really a Mansion at all; it's one huge elevator, leading down into the bowels of the earth. From there, you go on the ride, and your spooktacular tour begins. It really was a stroke of genius on someone's part, to mount a separate speaker system in each of the Doombuggies. Not only does it mean the Voice is coming from behind the guest, it also means that each guest has their own guided tour, making the experience seem more intimate.

There was a lot of discussion in the planning stages as to what, exactly, the Haunted Mansion was supposed to be. Was it meant to be scary? Funny? Ought it to incorporate existing Disney characters, like the Headless Horseman, or the spooks from Mickey's 1937 short Lonesome Ghosts? Ought it to be a ride, or a walk-through attraction?

Disney himself was adamant that the experience fit his personal vision, and that did not include anything that might detract from the park as he conceived it. His park was Mainstream USA, clean and neat; Disney didn't see a tumbledown shack as part of his grand conceit. That nixed much of the imagineers' first concepts, and meant that the Haunted Mansion as we know it became a rather clean and pleasant looking place, from the outside anyway.

As for the scare-vs-funny divide, the final decision was to split the difference. Rather than have a completely scary or completely funny experience, all the macabre thrills are put up-front, in the first few minutes of the tour. Later, in all scenes after the gypsy Madame Leota summons up the spectral inhabitants, the scenes are skewed towards comic relief. The final word is had by a character called Little Leota, based in part on cemetery arrangement hostesses seen in 1965's The Loved One. 'Hurry back! Hurry back! Be sure to bring your death certificate, if you decide to join us. We're just dying to have you.'

I do wonder what Disney does if someone decides to join the Mansion, perhaps by having their ashes scattered over the ride. Human nature being what it is, someone must have tried by now. If I were Disney, I'd be tempted to offer it as an ultra-private perk only available to special guests, say, members of Club 33. There will be people out there willing to pay over the odds for those bragging rights. 'Come visit me when I'm gone, I'll be in the Graveyard with the Grim Grinning Ghosts!'

The security's pretty tight - some of them even carry firearms, though it's very doubtful you'd ever see them if you visit the park - and for good reason. Millions of people pour through each park each month. With those people come the usual assortment of shoplifters, petty thieves and other ne'er-do-wells but, more to the point, with that massive crowd comes an equally massive crowd management problem. Disney's goal has always been to function like clockwork. Nothing is allowed to go wrong, and if by some chance it does, the problem can't last long. Achieving that kind of smooth functioning demands tight control over everything that happens on the premises.

Disney has its own lore. Yes, among it is the ashes-in-the-Mansion bit. Yes, there's the occasional ghost story. There's also one about someone having a heart attack on the Mansion ride because it was so scary. Now, I very much doubt that anyone was actually frightened to death by the Mansion, but it raises an interesting point. What does happen when someone dies at the park?

Again, life is like that: people die all the time, often on vacation, and the Mansion's been going for nearly fifty years. Odds are pretty fair that, of the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people who've poured through the LA Mansion day in, day out since 1969, someone's had a life-threatening incident. What happens next? There's probably a clinic in the park somewhere. Is there a morgue?

Walt's ghost is supposed to haunt the LA park, and while technically that myth focuses on his apartment, one of the Mansion myths is that Disney used to live there. This one springs from the Mansion's long build time. It took eight years from initial announcement till opening day in 1969 for the attraction to complete, and rumor had it this was in part because the Mansion wasn't intended as an attraction at all. It was a ruse; Disney wanted somewhere he could live in peace, without being distracted by visitors all the time. Or perhaps Disney's frozen corpse is kept safe in the park, and though that particular legend is tied to the Pirates ride, we know where Disney would really rather be ...

Or here's a good one: whose hearse is that outside the Mansion? It's not Brigham Young's ... could it be someone else's final carriage ride? After all, it was a working hearse at one time, which would make it possibly the only part of the Mansion that's actually come into contact with a dead body at some point in its career.

Now with all that in mind, let's leave reality behind for a moment, and talk about how this can be used in an RPG scenario. While the Esoterrorists are the most obvious bad actors in this story, there's really no reason why this couldn't also be a Fear Itself setting.

Assuming Esoterrorists, then the cell is almost certainly made up of Submissives for the most part, led by either a Dominant or an Attention Seeker. If an Attention Seeker, then one interesting concept would be a rogue Imagineer determined to restore the Mansion to its intended, spooky glory. A Dominant could be a park supervisor, perhaps one who's been working with Disney for many years. Someone who's been there since the Mansion opened in 1969 is probably facing retirement by now, if they haven't already retired; perhaps that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Or the group could as easily have nothing to do with the park; they could be uber-fans of the Mansion, or Disney-obsessed folklorists, conspiracy nuts, what have you.

As for the rumor, what about this:

Every year, at Halloween, if you're lucky, you'll find the Mansion as it was meant to be. Only a few people each year get to visit it, and of those few, only a handful get out alive. Imagineer Ken Anderson had great plans for the Mansion, but Disney nixed 'em; now, each year on Halloween, Anderson gets his revenge ...

The great thing about this scheme is that Anderson's original concept drawings still exist, and are easily found. The internal schematics show it as Anderson originally designed the attraction, as a walk-through exhibit, perhaps with Tiki Magic. We also have excellent exterior elevations by Sam McKim, showing the old, dilapidated New Orleans mansion as it was originally conceived. The Keeper almost doesn't have to do the work at all; the whole thing could be an improv romp, with these drawings as the impetus. Blogger HBG2 really has outdone himself with Long-Forgotten. Kudos!

On that note, let me bring this tour to a close. I hope you enjoyed your visit! Remember to tip your guide. Unpleasant things may happen if you don't ...

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Haw Haw (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London)

Lord Haw Haw, like Tokyo Rose, was a propaganda broadcaster during the Second World War, who each night told the people of Britain that the war was a hopeless cause, and that Nazi victory was inevitable. There were several broadcasters who wore the Haw Haw mantle, but the one I'm interested in is William Joyce, who presents a unique opportunity for a Trail or Bookhounds Keeper. Theoretically he could also show up in a Night's Black Agents game, particularly if, in your Dracula Dossier, you're running the 1940s campaign. That's the great thing about the radio; it doesn't matter where you are. You don't have to find it. It will find you.

However from a Bookhounds perspective, the bit you're interested in is Joyce's pre-war career.

Though born in New York to Irish immigrants, Joyce's parents soon returned home to Galway, Ireland, where he spent his youth, and where he is now buried. Following what he claimed was an assassination attempt when he was fifteen, Joyce and his family went to England. Though he attempted to get into the army, he had to lie about his age to do it, and was soon found out. Denied entry to the military, he went back to school, and attended Birkbeck College at the University of London, hoping to go from there into officer training. While he was there he fell in with the British Fascists, thus beginning what was to become a lifelong obsession.

He was an enthusiastic campaigner from the first, and not just as a talking head. Front-line clashes with the political opposition were common in those days, and Joyce had his face slashed open in a brawl with Communist agitators. He claimed ever afterward that his attacker was a Jew. However for all his faults one thing Joyce didn't lack was physical courage, and he soon had a reputation as a brawler.

It was an age of street battles. Cable Street is the most notorious, with Stockton-on-Tees a close second. People fought with whatever they could get their hands on; it might be a chair leg, a chamber pot, or a thrown potato with a razor blade stuck in it. Confrontations tended to be violent and bloody, but with few, if any, fatalities. Joyce was in the thick of it. It was the kind of thing he enjoyed.

His great talent was for public speaking. He could electrify an audience, and soon became one of the British Union of Fascists' leading speakers. Under Sir Oswold Mosley, Joyce soon rose to great heights in the BUF, standing for Parliament under the Fascist banner, and ran the West Sussex branch of the party. Youth groups, rallies, public events, Blackshirt marches; Joyce turned West Sussex into a Fascist stronghold.

He maintained this position until 1937. He had hoped that, come the revolution, Mosley would make him Viceroy of India, but events turned out differently. The 1937 elections had been the party's goal, and it spent time and effort grooming candidates, only for its major political supporter, Lord Rothermere, to withdraw funding. Without its most influential backer, the BUF had to tell its supporters to abstain, and fight for fascism in the next election. Little did Mosley know what was to come; war would interrupt the electoral process, and there would be no election till 1945.

Without a victory in 1937, and lacking a big-money patron, Mosley had to cut back on BUF expenditure. One of those fired in the ensuing cuts was Joyce, who found himself at a loose end. Though he tried to stay in politics, and split with his former friend Mosley, by 1939 it was very clear to him that, if he stayed in Britain, he would be arrested and interned. Joyce and his wife fled to Germany, where they stayed for the duration. At war's end Joyce was tried and hung as a traitor, for his Haw Haw broadcasts. He was 39 years old.

From a Keeper's point of view, Joyce's main use is as an antagonist, though, in a Bookhounds setting, he could conceivably also be a patron. Any campaign involving Radicals could easily have Joyce as a prime mover, and if there genuinely are Nazi agents roaming around London looking for occult tomes, Joyce is bound to be assisting them.

There's no suggestion that Joyce was superstitious in any way, or believed in the occult, but a fictionalized version could easily turn him into a kind of Svengali figure, using his (Mythos inspired) hypnotic voice to sway crowds. Theoretically he could even be an avatar, or dupe, of Nyarlathotep, since the Old One likes causing chaos and disaster and Joyce is in a prime position to do it.

On one famous occasion Sherlock Holmes himself tackled the Fascists, tracking down and defeating a fictionalized Haw Haw. That suggests a potential Dust Thing connection. Suppose the Dust Things decided to oppose Joyce and his Fascist friends, perhaps because of a book burning that Joyce organized. What better way to get the protagonists to act as their allies against Joyce, than to recruit Sherlock Holmes himself, and get Holmes to lead the protagonists into battle? Best suited to an Arabesque style game, but - particularly if one of the protagonists is deluded into thinking he or she is Holmes - it could be an excellent roleplay opportunity for gamers who enjoy a bit of Baker Street sleuthing with their Mythos madness.      

With all that in mind, William Joyce:

Athletics 10, Driving 4, Electrical Repair 6, Explosives 2, Firearms 6, Fleeing 6, Health 8, Mechanical Repair 4, Scuffling 9, Weapons 8. In a Pulp game, assuming use of Hypnosis, then Joyce has Hypnosis 5/15, the number after the slash representing the bonus he might get as a Mythos-powered Svengali figure.

Alertness Modifier: +1
Stealth Modifier: 0

Damage: -2 (fist), -1 (knife, thrown brick or razor blade), +0 (handgun)

Special: Joyce can summon Radicals (Bookhounds page 55) to do his bidding. He can command the allegiance of up to 20 Radicals at a time, perhaps sending them on missions or using them as bodyguards. Radicals tend to have few useful General abilities, but are handy to have around when you want someone beaten up or knifed. This is in addition to any forces he may have at his disposal as a Nazi spy or Mythos agent, assuming he is one. 

Monday, 16 November 2015

Exercising the Mind

A while back I talked about finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places. As a result, I wrote a mini scenario based around a restaurant in Athens, the To Treno. As you're probably aware by now, I also write short fiction, and I thought I'd use this time to demonstrate one way of structuring and creating short fiction.

Again I'm going to use one of the Guardian's Top Ten lists. This time it's ten of the best hidden bars in New York, which I'm going to use as a jumping-off point. There are all kinds of options here - I particularly like the Blind Barber - but I think I'm going to go with the No Name in Brooklyn. It has a lot of things I find attractive, particularly that anonymous door, the atmosphere, and that it's open all hours so it gets an eclectic crowd. You can just picture it on, say, a Monday night after the restaurants shut down, and there's no civilians on the streets, just the parade of night workers and after hours people who keep the city running. It works, as a setting, for the tale I want to tell.

Now, a short story usually has to be something around four to seven thousand words. Seven's actually a little high. Most of the outlets I've submitted for so far have insisted on a four thousand word cut-off. What that means is you need to get in there quick. You haven't got time to waste on establishing shots and sentences that go nowhere but look pretty. The focus has to be on getting the most done in the least amount of time.

What do you really need? Well, you need at least one protagonist. Supporting characters can be useful, but aren't essential. You need the setting, which we've already established is going to either be the No Name, or be very like the No Name. Then you need a problem, something to spur the protagonist to action. That action will drive the story forward.

What's the best kind of protagonist for this sort of story? Well, bars need bartenders. This person could be a talented mixologist, the kind of person who wins awards and acclaim. He could be a flair bartender, the sort you might have seen in the movies.It can be fascinating to watch; I dread to think how many bottles are sacrificed to the floor paving in order make a talent like that.

Designing a character can be relatively simple. In fact we've discussed this before, when I talked about villain design, and campaign planning. The same tactics that work there, work here. We don't have as much time here to flesh out every least detail, so rather than answer every possible question I intend to focus on the basics:

  • What is the character’s name, age, ethnicity and gender?
  • Name three physical attributes.
  • What is a problem the character faces?
  • What is a secret the character hopes nobody finds out about?
Since I've been on a bit of a Dracula Dossier kick, I think this time the protagonist will be Romanian, a recent arrival in the US. Female, early twenties, and since the Dossier's kind enough to give some name options, she'll be Timea Barbu.

Tall, muscular, and dark hair that she secretly hates, for physical attributes. She's tried dye jobs, but they never work the way she'd like.

Her problem is that one of her least favorite customers has come in the wrong door of the bar. See below for more information about that.

Her secret is that she hopes nobody finds out she's a vampire hunter. She's trying to get out of the life, which is why she left Romania and why she's working as a bartender now.

That brings us to the problem that the character faces, which I alluded to earlier. That problem will spur her to action, which in turn drives the plot. Now, one of the simpler ways of structuring this kind of story is by giving her what amounts to a series of problems, each of which feeds into the other, in the same way that one scene feeds into another in a Night's Black Agents game. The point being that her initial action moves her forward by further complicating the initial problem. Each attempt she makes to solve her difficulty drives her further and further into the plot.

Generally speaking, you can allow for up to three steps in a short story. The initial obstacle, and her proposed solution, drives us to the second obstacle, which in turn leads to a proposed solution. That solution drives us to the third obstacle, and resolution. Obviously in a longer story you can develop this further, but this is short fiction, and we don't have the time for that.

As a rule of thumb, you can perhaps allow as much as a thousand words to establish the setting and the initial problem. The next thousand can deal with her first proposed solution, and so on. Since we've got a cap of about four thousand words, there's only so many times you can get away with that before you run out of words.

With that in mind, the structure is:

  • Initial thousand establishes the bar, Timea, and the problem.
    • The No Name has two doors, each of which is marked only by an antique knocker, no sign. The difference is that one door is used exclusively by normals, ordinary humans. The other is used exclusively by the spirits, undead, and other unnaturals, also out for a good time. So long as they all stick to their own doors, normals can't 'see' specials, and vice versa. Tonight, one of the normals has decided to break the rules. Well, decided probably isn't the best way of putting it; he's drunk as two skunks, and managed to find the wrong door handle by accident.
      • Proposed solution: get him out the door, quick. Unfortunately one of the specials spots him, and decides to keep him in the bar, as a kind of mascot. Or maybe a snack.
    • OK, if Timea can't get the normal out of the bar, she needs to keep the special occupied. If he's not paying attention to the normal because Timea's putting on a show, then maybe the normal can slip out. Or maybe Timea's bar-back can help out by getting the normal outside.  
      • That didn't go so well. Sure, the special's attention is occupied, but so is the normal, which means he isn't leaving. Plus the bar-back, a Penanggalan, scares him silly. Normal's beginning to sober up, which could be very bad for everyone.
    • New plan. Keep the normal drinking, or he'll sober up, and if he sobers up he'll start to question what he's seeing. Also, keep the special drinking, because that way the special won't have the wherewithal to do anything drastic.
      • Ah, nuts. The normal's settling down, after the Penanggalan scare, but the special's just getting belligerent. 
    • Final option. It's closing time, folks. Timea offers to walk the normal home. At least that way the special won't eat him. Except the special really, really wants to eat him ...
      • Resolution! One way or the other ...
There you have it! Once this story is finished it will appear on my Patreon. If I can finish it before the 20th, it will appear this month; if not, then it will appear next month, and something else will fill the slot.

I hope you found this entertaining!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Nodes, Glorious Nodes pt 2: Unusual Suspects (Night's Black Agents)

When designing a Node, one of the questions the Director has to ask is what role this Node has in the ongoing conspiracy. Another question, well worth asking, is how can the Director make this Node unusual? Jaded players will soon become weary with the Too Big To Fail Evil Bank scenario, or the Subverted Paramilitary Force. Some Node types will seem so obvious that they might as well have We Are Extremely Naughty tattooed on their employees' foreheads. Also, they'll have too many Capital Letters, but that's a different problem altogether. The question is, how to come out of left field and surprise the players with something new and interesting?

With that in mind, let's discuss some Node concepts that might just catch your players off-guard.

  • The Biker Gang. While this is a close cousin of the paramilitary force, it does have some characteristics of its own well worth addressing. Take Putin's furry friends the Night Wolves, for example. These cheerful Cossacks take it as an article of faith that wherever they go, they take Russia with them. They're big fans of Stalin, have ridden with Putin himself, and have fought in the Crimea. In short, it's as much a political organization as it is a biker movement, and with 5,000 members in the fold, it has a fair amount of clout. Or consider that well-known glee club, the Hell's Angels. It's got chapters all over the world, and its membership has been accused of involvement in narcotics smuggling, as well as violent crimes too numerous to mention. In short, a Conspiracy-led biker gang has all kinds of potential benefits. It can be used as muscle, to smuggle goods across borders, as political activists, or just as good old-fashioned first with the most cavalry. 
  • Food suppliers. There's a lot of money in milk, as Parmalat proved. This Italian dairy products supplier managed to burn through eight billion Euro in a complex financial fraud and money laundering scheme, before its castle in the sky crumbled. At one point it claimed it had an account with four billion tucked away in the Caymans, a fiction that soon unraveled. In the Conspiracy, a front like this could be used to cover up all kinds of financial tricks. Or you could hit the headlines the old fashioned way, by selling tainted product. In 2013 it was revealed that many meat suppliers in Europe had been selling horse meat and calling it beef. One of the companies, a French supplier named Spanghero, had been getting its 'beef' direct from Romania, which opens up all kinds of intriguing possibilities. Leaving aside whether or not you happen to like horsemeat, the bigger issue was that horses, particularly race horses, can be given medication like Phenylbutazone which can lead to fatal liver degeneration in humans, when combined with other medication. Why should vampires taint the human food chain? For all sorts of reasons, not least of which might be improving the taste, but this plot point might work better with Mutant or Alien vampire types. 
  • Cleaners. Nobody cleans their own property any more; they outsource. Whether it's a high-end corporation buying itself some peace of mind, or a domestic service that handles individual tenancies, there's a lot of people out there who'd rather pay someone else to dust than lift a finger. But in so doing they invite strangers into their homes or place of work, strangers with no loyalty to them, just to the paycheck. How better to insert spies into someone's organization? Or to disguise a forensic clean-up operation, tasked with making potential crime scenes go away? Probably best left as a low-level Node, but an extremely useful one in a pinch. Concepts allied with the Cleaners include car and limo rental services, as well as more formal outfits like domestic service trainers
  • Construction companies. If you think there's money in milk, you should see the bottom line of companies like McAlpine's. Not only are there fortunes to be made, those fortunes can be made all over the world. Need a hospital here, a road network there? Not a problem. Plus, since a typical international construction chain will work for just about anyone, the company's well used to dealing diplomatically with all sorts of people. This is another Node that can make large amounts of money seem legitimate, or just bury it in paper losses incurred abroad. However its main use is in building things. Want a hidden vault, an underground bunker under your decaying mansion, or just to make an inconvenient archaeological site disappear? Get the builders in, and you'll soon see your problems vanish under a ton of concrete.
That's it for the moment. I hope you found this useful! Enjoy.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Hated Volunteer (Night's Black Agents)

I've been digging around some ideas for Night's Black Agents scenarios, delving into the murkier waters of offensive counter intelligence. Counter Intelligence, for the purposes of this discussion, is the frustration of attempts by Foreign Intelligence Services (FIS) to penetrate home defenses, sometimes referred to as Defensive Counter Intelligence. Of course, once the attack has been dealt with the option exists to go on the offensive, and turn those enemy units against the FIS that sent them. 

In the course of that investigation I came across this interesting quote:

'The Soviet operational officer, having seen a great deal of the ugly face of communism, very frequently feels the utmost repulsion to those who sell themselves to it willingly. And when a GRU or KGB officer decides to break with his criminal organization, something which fortunately happens quite often, the first thing he will do is try to expose the hated volunteer.'

That lends itself to some interesting possibilities. 

Consider what happens when a Conspiracy asset decides it has had enough. That might happen for any number of reasons, but when it happens, that asset is going to be in a position to burn a number of FIS assets. The assets it is most likely to burn first are, by the logic of the above quote, the hated volunteers, the ones who walked into this hoping to become vampires.

Let's take a Level Three Node, which means it's at the provincial level. A racket within a larger mafia, a company, merchant bank, brokerage, university and so on. Let's say for the sake of this discussion that it's a university, which has been co-opted by the Conspiracy for its research. It doesn't matter whether that research is pharmaceutical, medical, or archaeological. All that matters is that the research it carries out is of great interest to the Conspiracy.

Now, the Head of Research and whatever Boards govern the university are completely penetrated. They'd have to be, to avoid embarrassing leaks. But within the organization there are going to be dozens of support staff, postgraduate students, professors and researchers, all of whom probably suspect that something's off, but who don't necessarily know the true state of affairs.

It's from that pool of support staff I intend to draw the Hated Volunteer. That person - there may be more than one - has discovered the true nature of the Conspiracy, and wants in. The Volunteer has participated in Conspiracy activity willingly, whether it's helping human traffickers move 'research subjects', conducting Satanic rituals, or something equally depraved.

Assume that the Head of Research is having second thoughts about her involvement with the project. Her love of research, she realizes, has become tainted by the Conspiracy's crass short-sightedness. She wants out, and she wants to take her research findings with her.

That asset is going to want to secure her position within her new home, whether that's Edom or some other agency. In order to do that, she's going to be throwing as much of the Conspiracy under the proverbial bus as she can manage, but the very first to go are going to be those Volunteers. These are people within her own department, her colleagues, people she may have spent a lot of time with. But she hates them, because they willingly involved themselves in corruption. Note that the asset was probably a Volunteer herself at some point, but the irony doesn't occur to her; or if it does, she doesn't care. 

Now pitch your players in, and see what develops. The characters need to separate fact from fiction; are these people being served up on a platter actually part of the Conspiracy, and if so, what's their function? Are they being fed a poison pill, sweeping up a few low-level conspirators while the Conspiracy uses the goodwill generated by the defecting asset to slip in disinformation? Can the defecting asset be protected against retaliation, and transferred to a new, safe location?

Consider the example scenario in the main book, (S)Entries. That scenario assumes that a Canadian NATO officer and logistics expert, Brigadier-General Lennart, has collected data on his laptop which somebody wants. One question worth asking is, why did Lennart do that? 

Note that none of the information below is part of the scenario as written, and very little of it will count as a spoiler, since the information about Lennart is part of the characters' briefing at the start of the scenario.

Say Lennart is actually a Conspiracy asset, and has been using his position within NATO to assist the Conspiracy. Say he did this because he was pushed, rather than volunteered; maybe he was bribed, or threatened. Now he wants out, and is coming up for retirement. He's already contacted a security service that he thinks will help him escape, and has pushed forward his flight date to frustrate Conspiracy countermeasures. 

However in order to prove his bona fides, Lennart had to betray a number of Conspiracy assets within his Node; those Hated Volunteers, people he might have brought into the Conspiracy himself but who took to it like a duck to water. Perhaps his aide, Captain Sebring, is one such. 

This could complicate the characters' lives considerably. If they were brought in by the Conspiracy, wittingly or otherwise, to complete the mission, then the Hated Volunteers might help them get away with it. If they were hired by a third party, it might be that same security agency that Lennart went to hoping for rescue. The agency couldn't bring itself to trust Lennart, but it does trust Lennart's data, and it's willing to sacrifice a few deniable assets to get it. In that scenario, the characters could easily end up burned by the agency that hired them, and also in the bad books of the Conspiracy, which thinks the characters were probably involved in the uprooting of its Hated Volunteers. Of course, it was actually the shadowy third party that did that, but why should the Conspiracy believe it?

That's enough for now. Enjoy!

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Not Quite Review Corner: Til Morning's Light (iOS, Android)

As it's Halloween, and I have a busy day ahead, I'm just going to pop in for a moment or two and tell you about this moderately spooky title: Til Morning's Light, a puzzle adventure game by WayForward, distributed by Amazon's game section, available for iOS and Android.

It's the perennial problem. You want to go all Silent Hill, but you've got young spawn in the house, and you're not convinced that the sexual subtext of Pyramid Head and the Nurses will really go down well either with the sproglets, or your disapproving in-laws. How to best introduce them to the genre? Well, you could do a lot worse than try out this $2.99 title.

You play as Erica, a teen bullied into spending the night in a spooky old house. Now you can't get out, and monsters are crawling out of the woodwork to eat you alive. Maybe, just maybe, there's a way out around here somewhere. If you don't die trying to find it.

Expect to think your way through a lot of puzzles, find a bunch of keys, and beat up some nasty bosses along the way. There's plenty of folks in the house determined to add you to their ghost collection, and none of them are pushovers.

Let's talk about challenges. The puzzles are pretty standard stuff; find quest objects, use them in a certain way - make a stew, repair a phonograph, fix a clock, hold down a pressure pad - and you unlock keys, items or other things that will make your life easier. None of them are brain breakers, some of them are moderately challenging. Usually the clues needed to decypher the puzzle are near the puzzle bits, and, if you get frustrated, you can use the coins you've been picking up along the way to solve the puzzle for you.

Which is a good thing, because otherwise there really isn't all that much use for the gold and silver Erica snaffles up like a currency-mad truffle pig. Sure, there's an in-game shop you can use, but I didn't find the items in it that important. I ended up with about 7,000 in my pocket by the end, and no idea what to spend it on.

Combat is fairly straightforward. Poke or swipe the screen at just the right time, and you hit. Miss, and the enemy takes a swing at you. Very few of the combat moments were that challenging, but then I've been doing this for a while. Younger gamers may need help getting past the bigger fights.

You start the game with just a flashlight, but later on you can pick up more deadly weapons, like crowbars, hammers, axes and so on. They can only be found in certain places, and you can only carry one at a time. This is important, because some of those weapons are also used to force through locked doors, dig up items, or otherwise get to areas you don't immediately have access to. At the start, the item and the important weapon are usually close to each other, so there's no real problem. Later, after you've been swapping out weapons time and again, you'll start to ask yourself the important questions. 'OK, this is a hammer door. Now, where did I drop that hammer? O GOD! Over there? Really???' Off you trot, through room after cleared room to get the tool you need.

I get the impression the developer might have wanted the game to be more challenging, but cut elements out. For instance, there's a game mechanic that allows you to turn clues over, take a look at the back, or zoom in and out, the inference being that there might be hidden information that will help the player solve the puzzle. Except not really, since it almost never becomes relevant to play, and after a while you forget about the mechanic altogether.  You can also turn the flashlight on and off, implying that there might be significant differences in gameplay depending on whether or not you have light, but that never really developed.

The story's entertaining. The boss characters are just well drawn enough to be interesting, making each defeat a satisfying victory. The atmosphere's spooky, without going into The Shining territory. Erica's a lot of fun to spend time with. She starts out scared for her life - who wouldn't be, really? - but develops into someone determined to see this thing through, even if it kills her. Not the most original of plotlines, but voice actor Stephanie Sheh lends Erica a lot of personality the character badly needs. There's a downbeat coda to the ending that I found really satisfactory, and it has the impact it does because of Stephanie's portrayal. But that verges on spoiler territory ...

Speaking of death, yes, you might go down in a blaze of glory, but it doesn't make a great deal of difference to your game. You lose no items, or progress. Most importantly, for a game with its eye on the younger market, there's no gore to speak of.

The boss fights are fun, without being frustrating. My personal favorite is the second one in, Constance, whose special attack forces Erica to attend her tea party and chat with the ghostly guests. Spend too long in that chat, and you join them forever ...

At a price tag of just under three bucks, you'll probably get about four to six hours of fun if you play it yourself. Someone not as used to gaming may take longer to get through all the challenges. As an introductory title, it has a lot to recommend it. It has all the elements of horror - the spooky house, the ghosts - without actually being horrifying.

On the whole, two thumbs up!

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Time After Time (all RPG titles)

I've been watching a lot of Mad Men recently. This drama, set in the 1960s, does an excellent job of portraying all the little details that make up a world, and it's not just in the obvious points, like male/female relations, or the cars and houses. No, it's in the little things, like the constant cigarette smoking, the way the office completely clears out for lunch, and the perfect dress sense of characters like Don Draper or Joan Harris. A host of little details, swarming together, to create a cohesive whole.

It made me think of the efforts Keepers go through to create a cohesive imaginary campaign world. Mad Men, as with all period pieces, has to show you the time as well as place where everything's happening. However it's always a particular window in time that it wants you to look through. There's no point in pretending that Mad Men is a complete, cohesive and entirely accurate portrayal of the sixties. Instead it selects the kind of sixties it wants you to know about and shows that, because that particular kind of history best suits the story it intends to tell.

The same applies in scenario and campaign structure. If your game is set in the 1920s, it needs to reflect that era. Same for the 1930s, the Victorian period, or indeed for any other period you, as Keeper, intend to portray. But the window that you let the players look through needs to reflect the story you intend to tell.

Let's consider the 1920s for a moment. What kind of period touches make up that decade?

To begin with, there's the Great War. The world's just this minute climbing out of an earth-shattering crisis, one which smashed great nations to dust, and then, mere months later, a plague breaks out that kills something in the region of 100 million people. Those events in combination make everything seem fragile, and contribute to a devil-may-care youth culture determined to have a good time regardless of how awful the world is. Then there's a sweeping rise in transport and communications, linking the furthest reaches of the planet. The automobile reaches its ascendancy, with new roads snaking across the planet, and architects like le Corbusier propose cutting through the great cities of Europe to make way for the car. Psychiatrists like Freud are becoming incredibly popular, even if their work isn't fully understood by the millions of people who swear by psychiatry. In the United States there's the question of Prohibition, and with it a completely new culture in which Federal law enforcement agencies suddenly appear, in great numbers, all over the country, determined to enforce an unpopular new law.

No doubt you can think of many other touches. The point then becomes, which of these touches best suits the story the Keeper intends to tell?

Is it an Innsmouth-style tale of corruption from within, with the ultimate reveal that we are all somehow infected by strange and terrible genetic putrefaction? Then the Keeper will want to concentrate on medical issues, perhaps linking the Spanish Flu, sleeping sickness and all other plagues that sweep through the population to this Mythos decay. The psychiatrists may be fighting a losing battle against the horrors that are hard-coded into the psyche. There could be a dozen different threads, but whatever they are, or become, the Keeper needs to emphasize them again and again in the background details. The characters travel to a decayed New England town, and note among other things that the people living there all suffer from a particular disease. Another outbreak of plague occurs in a far-off land that the characters suspect is a hotbed of Mythos activity. An outbreak of suicides among psychiatrists in, say, New York, suggests that terrible horrors are overwhelming those unlucky souls who try to delve further into the murky recesses of the mind.

Perhaps it's all about the vastness of the machine, and the unknowable Nyarlathotep-inspired creations that we unwittingly construct each day, with our new technology. Then the background details should all be about construction, new developments, architectural marvels, scientific advancement, all leading, of course, to an inevitable and tragic conclusion. Or perhaps its about the destruction of old values and their replacement with new, corrupt ideals. Then the characters could be broken refugees from the Old World, fleeing a land devastated by war, only to discover new tendrils of the Mythos in all these fancy innovations their new home expects them to adopt. Changing hairstyles, attitudes, a lack of respect for religion, the modern whirl and rush, all of these could be signs of Mythos activity.

You take that part of history that works for the story, and you bend it to your liking. Then you show it to the players.

Say you wanted to run a Victorian period game. That's a time of great political upheaval masked by apparent tranquility at the top. You've got revolutionaries brewing up political doctrines, or just ordinary explosives, to be used in acts of terror to support their goals. Small wars are kicking off all over the planet, leaving destruction in their wake. Religion is a much more important part of their lives than it is today, but it's a religion of rules and patterns, a little elderly and creaky. Spiritualism and mediumship are fast becoming more attractive, as an alternative to religion. Scholars like Mayhew are beginning to pay attention to the poor, and to tell the world how the poor live. Massive tidal waves of immigration are sweeping across the Old Country, flowing to the New. People are writing things down, in massive tomes that can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about public decorum, how to behave, how to cook, how to dress, what to see if you're abroad. Indeed, what you know and how you demonstrate your knowledge mark you out as an educated gentleman, or lady; a slip here, a misplaced haitch there, and you damn yourself in the eyes of everyone.

So perhaps you want a story in which the forces of the Mythos are crushing out spirituality and replacing it with ennui and despair. In that case emphasizing the spiritual decay of the church and the rise of corrupting spiritualism is key; the Fox sisters as outriders for Nyarlathotep, or the Cottingley Fairy photographs as inspired by Hastur. Or a story in which strange forces of destruction toil away in the darkness while the world goes by in blissful ignorance. In that event, play up the terrorists, the small wars, the limbless veterans begging in the gutter for their daily bread. Again, you take those aspects of the period that best support your story, and emphasize them.

If you're reading this and reminded of a previous column, Murder Most Foul, there's a reason for that. Both ideas use the same principle. In order to create a broad canvas in which the characters operate, you take relevant details and seed the canvas with them. In Murder, I suggested that a clue found in a newspaper report be juxtaposed with other information which helps build the world in which the characters live.

... it can be something like: ‘buried on page 12, underneath a photo array showing exactly where the Battersea Torso Killer hacked up his victim, you find …’ Or alternatively something like ‘the radio announcer is describing the crowd outside Birmingham Prison, where baby killer Victor Parsons is about to be hung, as the jingle of the doorbell announces the entry of a customer.’ ...

These are throwaway details, yes, but the fact remains that it's when you throw them out, and in what context, that helps build your campaign world. Continuous reinforcement will create the kind of world you want to operate in, without the characters being buried in text dumps and historical research.  

I hope you find this useful. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Lure of Travel (Night's Black Agents)

Let's say you're plotting out a scene in Night's Black Agents, or another Gumshoe setting, and you're looking for ideas. Inspiration can be found in the unlikeliest of places, and in this case it comes to you courtesy of the Guardian's Food section, and its Top Ten list of train station restaurants.

Right away there are intriguing possibilities. At least four of the choices have been around since the early 1900s, which means from a Gumshoe point of view that they're just as suitable for Bookhounds of London, Dreamhounds of Paris, or Trail of Cthulhu in the default 1930s setting, as well as anything current, for example Mutant City Blues. But these are train station scenes, and that means they have Spy Thriller written all over them right from the get-go, probably using a special pen supplied by Q. Let's hope it doesn't explode.

Any of them could make for an interesting scene, but I decided to go with the To Treno Sto Rouf, in Athens.

Rouf is a little to the west of the center of Athens. Rouf Station isn't the main station in Athens; that honor goes to Larissa. Rouf is a suburban substation, through which you may have to pass to get to Larissa. The Piraeus-Athens line, for example, passes through Rouf.

Rouf was built in order to ease congestion at the main terminal, but it has a secondary function: urban regeneration. The hope was that a new station would encourage investment in the down-at-heel suburb. It's built on an artificial hill, with excellent views of the Acropolis.

Tro Treno Sto Rouf is, by all accounts, a brilliant innovation. Five carriages, plus an open air bar, make up the restaurant proper. One carriage is dedicated to theatrical performances, another to music, the so-called new wagon holds art fairs, and the rest is the main bar/restaurant area. The wagons are train carriages re purposed. One comes from the Simplon Orient Express, the other is a World War Two troop carriage, and so on.

Already you can get a sense for the kind of scenes you could put here. It's a mix of ancient and modern, set in a location that's rough around the edges but not drowning in crime, with a bird's eye view of the most majestic and classic landmark in Athens, the Acropolis. With the regular music and art shows, there's a sense that the crowd is probably young, bohemian, with enough money to have a good time. But with all those carriages, there's probably also plenty of quiet corners, places where someone could hold a quick meeting without being disturbed, or dose someone with sedatives prior to a swift abduction. Plus, it's a train station, so if need be the characters can relocate somewhere else relatively easily.

In the strictly metaphorical sense, train stations are symbolic of lover's meetings, or lovers parted; the start of a great journey, or a great tragedy. But you can also have wild gunfights, if you want. It might be a beginning, an ending, or possibly a way station, probably in a long chase scene of some kind. Rarely is it an objective in and of itself; it's something you end up in, not something you strive to get to.

With all that in mind, let's brainstorm a possible series of scenes to be set at To Treno.

The scenes will assume that the protagonists are in Athens for some reason of their own, and some of the details will be deliberately obscure. If this were part of a larger project, a campaign say, then there would be more detail. However since the intention here is to create something you can use in your own game, which presumably has its own plot and important characters that you can slot into this scene, I'm not going to spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel; not when you have perfectly good wheels of your own to use.

The cast includes: Important NPC (Neutral), or INN. This character has vital skills, or vital information. The INN may be someone in the characters' Network, who has already been established. Otherwise the INN is a technical support type, possibly a hacker or someone who might get illicit access to classified information. Neutral in this instance means the INN isn't affiliated with the Conspiracy. The INN knows who the characters are.

Mafia Bruiser, in this case a small-time Godfather of the Night, Nikitas, whose crew specializes in kidnapping for ransom. He's been hired by a Conspiracy asset to kidnap the INN. The reasons for this are going to vary depending on the nature of your game, but the short version is that the INN has data which the Conspiracy wants for itself. Nikitas has a ten-strong team, including two attractive people who act as bait for the trap (good at Infiltration, Filch, would have pools in Flirting and Flattery if had access to Investigative abilities), a medic/Dr Feelgood who provides the chemical distraction as well as general patch-up skills, a skilled wheel artist, and a half dozen dudes with guns/knives/halitosis. Nikitas is probably the best hand to hand fighter in the group, but one of the others can be better than him with a gun.

Minor Conspiracy Asset, detailed to watch over the operation and make sure everything goes according to plan. The MCA isn't supposed to interfere, but it isn't supposed to get caught either. The MCA may or may not be a supernatural entity. The MB doesn't know about the MCA.

The Fly in the Soup: an Adzeh smuggled itself out of Ghana, piggybacking on a drug cartel's smuggling operation in order to get its host out of the country and into Greece. It has the Body Jumping ability, which is lucky for it, as its current host is a stick-thin vagrant hanging around outside To Treno. As its current body is about to expire, it's time to find a new one. Luckily it has all kinds of choices available, but as Fate would have it, the Adzeh is going to pick on one of the following: one of the MB's crew, the INN, or possibly one of the protagonists. This last option could be a lot of fun, but you might want to prepare the player beforehand; nobody likes having control of their character taken away. Once possessed, the Adzeh will want to assess the situation before doing anything rash. Alternatively its sudden intervention might cause real problems in a chase scene, or other dramatic moment. The Adzeh's nominally a free agent, but is easily dominated by a stronger personality; the MCA, for instance.

The action opens at To Treno. The INN has asked to meet the protagonists at the New Wagon. The exact reason for this will vary depending on the nature of the game, but the most likely option is that the INN wants to sell or pass on the valuable intel that the MB has been hired to protect.

The protagonists arrive at the New Wagon and see the INN chatting with the MB's two attractive lures. The INN is clearly smitten, but the lures are not at all happy to see the characters show up. The INN suggests moving on to the Wagon Bar, but before that happens he hides a small data stick in one of the exhibits (behind a picture frame, say). Notice may spot this, especially if it's considered a Core clue. The INN thinks he's being clever, making sure that nobody can Filch the data out of his pocket. The data's encrypted, and the INN knows the password. The INN isn't suspicious of the lures, but the INN doesn't want them around when talking business.

As the group passes from one carriage to the other, they may Notice a small commotion outside, below To Treno. A vagrant has collapsed in the street. Some good Samaritans are trying to provide aid, but if anyone's so altruistic as to go to help, they find that not only is the vagrant dead, he's been dead for days. The Fly is now free and looking for targets.

Up in the Wagon Bar, the INN is trying to negotiate with the protagonists. The lures have followed them in, as unobtrusively as possible, and one of them tries to slip one of Dr Feelgood's concoctions into the INN's drink. Ordinarily they wouldn't try anything so brazen with people like the protagonists standing around, but they're under orders from MB to get this done quick. If one of the protagonists Noticed the data stick trick, then so did one of the lures, so perhaps one lure is still in the New Wagon trying to get the stick while the other is in the Bar.

If all goes according to plan, the INN collapses under the influence of Dr Feelgood's prescription. Or possibly the INN collapses because the Adzeh struck, but whichever it is, the INN goes down. There's a commotion in the bar. Dr Feelgood approaches, identifies himself as a physician, and tries to render aid. He has a few of the MB's goons with him too, in case things go south. The idea is to hustle the INN outside, get him to a nearby car, and drive off. If that doesn't work, Plan B is to get the INN to the train and take him to Larissa, from where they get a car as before.

From this point things develop into a Chase scene, and probably move out of To Treno. What happens next is up to you and your players.

I hope you find this useful! Enjoy.