Sunday, 29 January 2017

Campaign Design Vampire Style, Part One (Night's Black Agents)

When I first started this conversation many moons ago, I began with a discussion about campaign ideas for Bookhounds of London. From initial thoughts I went on to early chapters, the arc and the structure. Later when I became interested in Night's Black Agents I discussed Nodes, and in a separate piece went over what makes a good Villain.

Why tell you all this? Because it's time to tackle campaign creation for Night's Black Agents, and see what happens when you add vampires to the mix.

To begin with we go back to those two core principles: power, and goals. The antagonists need both to be effective.

Power is, for once, the lesser of those two points since the nature of the setting determines power: it has to be overwhelming, whatever it is. By the very nature of the premise the characters are on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of their enemies while trying to piece together their enemies' schemes. You don't do that unless your foes have access to overwhelming power. If your opposition are just a bunch of weaklings you don't run, you stand and fight. If your enemies can be countered by telling the authorities then you don't run, you tell the authorities. So establishing what kind of power we're dealing with isn't that important; we know how bad it is, and that's enough for now.

Goals are going to be determined by setting and by the nature of the opposition. The opposition are vampires, and the setting is espionage thriller.

'Espionage thriller' covers a lot of ground. The Bourne Identity is an espionage thriller, as is Three Days of the Condor and North By Northwest and Munich and Doctor No. But each delivers very different thrills, different narratives, which is why Night's Black Agents has several different styles of play: Burn, Dust, Mirror, Stakes. Intense psychological damage, gritty low-fi settings, betrayals piled on betrayals, high-stakes 'the world depends on you' stuff; you can cherry-pick to suit the kind of thriller you want to create.

The kind of vampire you pick will determine what happens next.

The default is the bloodsucker who sleeps in a coffin all day, emerges at night, dislikes garlic pizza, has a problem with mirrors, the whole bit. However the system offers several alternatives: Supernatural, Damned, Alien, and Mutant.

Supernaturals are the magical kind of vampire, dependent on folkloric tropes. Damned share some similarities with Supernaturals, but draw their inspiration from demonic activity. Aliens are the paraphysicals, replete with psychic powers or flitting between dimensions. Mutants are earthly entities created by some freak of biology or scientific development.

You may be familiar with the term opportunity cost: the price of passing up the next best choice. It applies in most games, but never more so than here.

Take the supernatural crew as described in the main book. One of the entities is the Strix, shape-changing monsters whose origin story goes back to the Romans. If you opt for an Alien vampire story in which, say, the first vampires appear after an Andromeda Strain incident that takes place in Russia during the 1960s, mixing in a supernatural trope like Strix muddies the waters. If you have Strix at all, you'd need some kind of changed origin story at the very least, but it would be simpler to do without it altogether.

Conversely if we go for, say, a Damned origin story then science and its narrative tropes are, at best, reduced in scope. You can still have secret laboratories studying the vampire issue, but they're never going to get anywhere because they're looking for a scientific solution to a spiritual problem. It's like using a magnet to hunt for rats.

So going back to the original problem: if we are to work out the Goals of the conspiracy our spies will fight against, we need to know what kind of opposition they'll be dealing with. From there we can work out the kind of narrative we'll be telling, and tailor the campaign accordingly.

For this example let's say we shoot for Mutants. What kind? 'Their markers are medical symptoms; their emphasis is infection.' OK, so what symptoms are we shooting for?

Well we have the whole wide world to choose from. I rather fancy the old story about the medical herb Silphium, which the Romans used as, among other things, a contraceptive. It became so popular that overuse made it extinct. I've also been binging on a fun Chinese TV show, A Candle In The Tomb, about tomb robbers in 1980s China. So, using those two seeds as a starting point:

Vampirism first arose in antiquity as a byproduct of use of a medicinal herb, which for the moment I'm going to call the McGuffin, because why not. I can come up with a better name for it later, but this is early days. One in a hundred imbibers had the genetic marker that, in combination with over-use of the herb, turned them into Mutant Vampires. The McGuffin became extinct in the pre-Christian era, and as a consequence no more true Vampires could be created; infection can create ferals and mindless killing machines, but not true Mutants.

I like the idea of using Hive Mind powers for these bloodsuckers; it feels more Mutant, somehow. So here we have a core batch of perhaps a few hundred ancient Mutants and a swarm of lesser creations and Renfields, who've spent the last few hundred years since the Reformation trying to find a scientific means of passing on true Mutant status.

Then in the 1980s reckless tomb robbers in China uncovered a handful of seeds and a batch of Jin-Gui, a Mutant strain that remained dormant for centuries. This Mutant strain is also Hive Mind, but a completely different batch from the European variety. Like its counterpart the Jin-Gui Mutant strain can't create true Mutants, but unlike the Europeans this batch has access to the herb. What it needs is peace and quiet to cultivate it, and it's had a rough time finding a good spot. Driven from China, then Singapore, the Jin-Gui bounced from pillar to post during the 1990s before coming to Europe with the Triads, only to find itself suddenly in competition with its long-lost European counterpart.

There's only so much McGuffin to go around, and both sides want it. The Europeans see it as the key to their genetic future; this Mutant strain has the technological background to reverse engineer a new batch, if it can only get hold of an original sample. Meanwhile the much smaller Jin-Gui strain has neither the technical background nor the numbers to really take advantage of what it has, but it has the herb.

So there's the Goal. The opportunity cost of going Mutant means ghosts and other supernatural tropes are off the menu, but on the other hand scientific horrors are very much on the menu. Already I can see several ways forward, probably involving agribusiness, dangerous human experimentation, Chinese spies, smuggled antiquities, and subverted human catspaws carrying out an inhuman agenda. That's more than enough to be getting on with.

Tune in next week when Power plus Goal equals initial Conspyramid structure!

Friday, 27 January 2017

Sharp Little Needles Kickstarter



When did we last clean the self promotion trumpets?

Anyhoo, if you're one of those crazy people who scan Kickstarter daily looking for new Cthulhu material to back you may have spotted something intriguing in the pile. Stygian Fox Publishing is crowdfunding Fear's Sharp Little Needles, a collection of modern day horror mini scenarios for Call of Cthulhu 7e.

Stygian Fox's last effort along these lines, The Things We Leave Behind, was very well received. Pookie, reviewer of all things Cthulhu and some things that aren't, called it "the first great release for Call of Cthulhu 7e" with nary a dud to be seen in its six scenario collection.

Fear's Sharp Little Needles is going a hell of a lot further than Things We Leave Behind, with a spine-chilling twenty one shot scenarios at time of writing, with more being added as each second passes. That's not including a much longer stretch goal scenario by Jeff Moeller, designer of note and editor of Things We Leave as well as Little Needles.

Who can you expect to see in Little Needles? Well, the likes of Oscar Rios, Brian Courtemanche, Chad Bowser, Adam Gauntlett ... and a hell of a lot of other superb writers, but I'm going to stop right there because if you want to know more there's a Kickstarter Page you really should be looking at right now.

I could launch into a whole bit but I'm not going to do that. What I am going to do is share with you a taste of the one that got away. For lo, I submitted two scenario ideas to begin with, and one did not get through. [I may have submitted a third since then. Sue me. I'm greedy.]

The one that did not get through is:

The Huiquing’s Cargo

A 1980s era container ship known to have been captured by pirates beaches itself offshore with a cargo of human remains in its refrigeration compartment; one of the dead in the hold was a Daughter of Atlach-Nacha being smuggled to the Americas, and the would-be spider priestess’ aborted transcendence transforms the Huiquing into a Dreamlands nightmare ship. Inspired by the real-life case of the Hai Sin which, in a breaker’s yard in Guangdong, China, disgorged a cargo of bones and flesh hidden in its refrigeration unit.

You may recall me mentioning the Hai Sin before.

Atlach-Nacha is a monstrous entity which weaves its enormous web across a deep chasm underground; legend says that when the web is complete, the world will end. Some of its tunnels lead into the Dreamlands.

Its Daughters are human women chosen to be its companions, and marked by a spider bite. This lesser servitor is dragooned into service by the Great Old One's human servants, and after a period of vigorous brainwashing and horrible arcane rituals the woman eventually transforms into a giant spider and travels deep below to join her monstrous parent.

The base idea comes from a simple premise: accidents and death happen to everyone, including minions of the Old Ones. The question is, what happens next?

In this instance the snakeheads who attempted to smuggle the Daughter into the United States, presumably to kickstart some kind of cult, are forestalled by pirates who capture the Huiquing and murder everyone aboard, including the Daughter.

Picture that moment. The surviving crew and smuggled cultists, herded into an airless container. They fight for breath as the oxygen depletes, first trying to claw their way out, then implore, then expire. As the Daughter struggles to breathe her transformation triggers, and the spider within starts to emerge. Too little too late; her husk dies, but in doing so she creates a connection between the Huiquing and the most nightmarish aspects of Dream, in a desperate attempt to reunite with Atlach-Nacha.

Imagine what happens next to the pirates, then picture that gutted cargo ship drifting without crew, without direction, finally beaching itself. The Keeper gets to decide exactly where, of course. It might as easily be off North Africa as the coast of Florida.

Tell you what. The Little Needles rules specify that a scenario can be no more than 2500 words long. If at least two of you reading this pledge to that Kickstarter, and say so in the Comments thread, I'll write a 2,500 word short scenario based on the pitch The Huiquing’s Cargo and post that scenario here for you to enjoy.

Can't say fairer than that, can you?

Sunday, 22 January 2017

A Growth Market (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

A short while ago I mentioned Tony Thompson's book Gangs and drew inspiration from that for a scenario seed. Now I'm going to dip into his follow-up, Gang Land, for a look at something that can be stolen by Dracula Dossier Directors.

'I first became aware of the impact of Vietnamese cannabis gangs in 2005,' Thompson writes. 'While attending a murder trial at London's Woolwich Crown Court, I noticed that five cases being heard that day featured defendants with the same name - Nguyen; I thought I'd stumbled across some massive conspiracy but soon learned that each of the cases was separate, that all involved homes which had been converted to cannabis farms and that none of the defendants were related to one another.'

Nguyen is a very common Vietnamese name, and what Thompson had actually stumbled across was a very simple scheme. Send in your representative, a sober-seeming member of the community with impeccable credentials. Get the lease signed. Set up a fully-functioning cannabis farm in an otherwise ordinary house. Move in your chosen 'gardener,' a man or woman whose fear of you far exceeds any fear they may have of the consequences of arrest. Get the gardener to take care of the plants. Harvest. Repeat.

Frequently those involved are children, sent to the UK to work off family debts at home. "Children are an increasingly valuable assets to criminal gangs," says Philip Ishola, former head of the UK’s Counter Human Trafficking Bureau, "Because they are easy to get hold of, easily intimidated and exploited, and easy to keep isolated and unaware of what is really happening around them, which makes it far less likely for them to be able to disclose anything of use to the police."

Since Vietnamese gangs account for something close to 90% of the supply of domestically grown cannabis in the UK, those of you who enjoy a quiet puff on the occasion may want to bear in mind you may be supporting child slavery with your habit.

Leaving that unhappy thought to one side, let's talk about Nodes.

In the Conspyramid (main book p 157) nodes can be 'a gang, a cell within an organization, a facility or institution, a powerful individual, a whole subverted agency, or anything else that might be part of the vampire conspiracy ... each node will have its own penumbra of guards, lackeys, underlings, investigators, or other assets not explicitly indicated on the chart.'

A Node designed with the cannabis farming template doesn't sound like a very powerful or significant one. It's likely to be at the lowest level, defined in the main book as a street-level power. Street level Nodes can be police departments, museum departments, street gangs and so on, so it can have multiple personnel and locations, maybe some heavy hitters, but probably doesn't have enough pull to get the really powerful assets.

Before we go deeply into what this Node might be like, let's take a step back and talk about design.

When I discussed Villains I made reference to a writing exercise that can be used for Nodes just as easily as Villains. I provide a list of questions that need to be answered, and a modified list will do as well for Nodes, as follows:

  • What is the Node's Level and primary designation?
  • Name three physical attributes that should be emphasized when describing this Node.
  • List three primary assets.
  • Where is the Node based?
  • What is the Node's primary function?
  • What is the Node's secondary function, if any?
  • What is a problem the Node has to deal with?
  • What is the Node's ultimate goal?
  • What, if anything, is the Node's secondary goal(s)?
  • Which other Nodes interact with this one?
So with that in mind let's talk about this particular Node.

Its Level is 1, the lowest in the Pyramid. Its primary designation is Cannabis Farms.

Physical attributes are tags that can be applied to any of the Node's locations or personnel. Think of them as tags added to a blog post, or tags added to an asset in computer game design. In this instance since this is a street level Node and pretty dark, I'm going for: half-starved illegals/children, rats & vermin, quiet neighborhoods.

Primary assets are not necessarily leader types. They are assets that the Node uses on a daily basis to go about its business or protect itself from harm. In this case the primary assets are a series of rented houses where the farms are based, a small network of adult criminals (using the Thug template from the main book) who organize the farms and distribute the product, and a police informant who has access to Holmes 2, so the Node can keep an eye on any official investigation that might take place. This police contact might be the only Renfield in the group, kept docile and obedient by blood addiction. Alternately one or two of the adult criminals may be Renfields.

The Node is based in the greater London metropolitan area, in this example. Cannabis farms are spread all over Europe, so a similar Node could as easily operate anywhere in Europe. In this instance the Node doesn't have one big base; it has half a dozen small outposts, many of which have little or no defenses. The group doesn't care if one or two farms get knocked off. It has plenty more, and can make more quickly. 

The Node's primary function is to earn money for the Conspiracy.

The Node's secondary function is to provide safe housing for other Conspiracy assets. A quiet suburban house is the perfect place for SBA's on the run, and all those illegal kids are handy snacks.

The Node's problem is that other criminal gangs are constantly trying to steal their turf. This is a low-level Node; it can't go running to the higher-ups every time some scrote tries to rip it off. It has to deal with its problems in-house. That means relying on its own Thugs, or any supernatural powers its leadership might possess. Since this is nominally a Vietnamese gang ideally the leadership's powers, if any, should be drawn from Vietnamese folklore, say a Krasue variant. If this were a Romanian gang - perhaps, with Dracula Dossier in mind, run by the Human Trafficker - then the leadership's power would be different.

The Node's ultimate Goal is probably closely aligned with the Conspiracy's ultimate Goal. Say the Conspiracy's function is to ensure Dracula's ascendance to power. Dracula might have any number of ways to do this that the Node doesn't know about, but the Node will help in any way it can. Perhaps it uses the cash it earns to corrupt important politicians. Perhaps it helps the Human Trafficker distribute and control illegal immigrants. Perhaps it produces a corrupted form of cannabis which makes the smoker more susceptible to vampiric Mental attacks (+1 Difficulty). Perhaps the rats that infest each of its houses are breeding some kind of mutant rodent, or just supply rats for ordinary rat swarms which the Conspiracy uses to devour its enemies.

Its secondary Goal, if it has one, is unique to it. Say the leadership is a Ma Lai with the traditional three red dots on her neck and a scarf wrapped tight to conceal its suppurating throat wounds. It may want to wear only the best fashions, or be cursed with eternal hunger that makes it seek out raw meat each night. The Node may change its patterns or activities to cater to that need. The Node may have an ongoing rivalry with another Node, in which case the secondary Goal will be to defeat that Node, and so on.

Finally, which other Nodes interact with this one? Say for the sake of this example that the Human Trafficker supplies immigrants to a number of different criminal Nodes. That suggests the Human Trafficker is a Node unto him (it?) self, which this Node interacts with. Or that the chemicals it uses to mutate the cannabis plants are supplied by a specialist Node. Or that one of the corrupted politicians its money created makes up another separate street or city level Node. The point is that by looking at the Node's Goals and its Primary Function you should be able to work out which other Nodes logically would interact with this one.

For that matter the players are bound to come up with connections of their own that you can run with. Say the players find out about the Renfield police contact, and start looking for other corrupted cops. You might not have decided to have corrupt cops in the game until now, but once the players start looking for them maybe you can establish a completely new Node around that idea. Connections breed Connections, and sometimes the best ones are the ones you haven't thought of yet.

One last thing before I sign off. I also use this idea in a short story written for my Patreon page. Go check it out, and let me know what you think!

That's enough for now. See you next week!

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Never Built New York - Meagpolisomancy

I'm a sucker for concepts. If it's intriguing and at least semi-plausible I'll wait eagerly for the denouement, provided it hits enough of my conceptual buttons. One of my big please-oh-yes buttons is Art Deco, which is why I fell so hard for Bioshock. It's also why I fell so hard for Raymond Hood's vision of a New York Bridge, as featured in a recent Guardian article.

I love the concept not simply because it's beautiful - though it is - but because it reminds me irresistibly of London Bridge, as it was once upon a time.

Old London Bridge was a gorgeous mess, with houses, shops and latrines - all the joys of modern life - along its length. It couldn't bear its own weight, it caught fire frequently, it was a traffic nightmare, but it supported buildings seven stories high at a time when a tall building was an unbelievable feat of engineering. It supported grain mills and water pumps through its massive, and ultimately overburdened, arches. There's a romance in that image of a bridge that defies its design that draws me in.

I look at that Hood scheme and see a New York that ought to exist, in the same wistful way that people think of flying cars and jetpacks as hallmarks of a future that never was. It's conceptually perfect, in the same way that Andrew Ryan's city under the sea is conceptually perfect.

The movie High Rise hits a similar button. 'Almost no reason to leave,' the trailer promises, and yet that is very far from the truth. Ballard creates a world in which the inhabitants of the High Rise have everything they think they need and yet fail to live the way they think they ought to live. The end result is destruction, chaos and death, and in the film version the viewer's left to wonder whether this is a failure of the people in the High Rise, or of the design.

Art Deco is the first breath of Modernism, where we embrace our faith in social and technological prowess. Ballard's vision is Modernism's death rattle, where we accept that our faith is misplaced. Or perhaps that we lack the innate goodness we'd need to embrace that pure faith. In between those two extremes we have Hood, and his vision for a bridge that lives and provides everything we need to live. Not simply apartments but shops, schools, colleges, workshops, factories, from the least to the most. Somewhere in that bridge there is a kindergarten, and somewhere else a crematorium. Both have to exist for the whole to function.

A very similar concept - to go off on a slight tangent - lies behind the idea of the eco-city, which is a current architectural design obsession. The design profile isn't Deco but the base idea is the same as Hood's, that mankind's self-destructive and messy tendencies can somehow be tamed, controlled and shaped in order to create the perfect urban environment. But that's a by-the-by.

Bookhounds of London introduces a game concept borrowed from Fritz Leiber, Megapolisomancy. 'A megapolisomantic working uses the city as a sorcerous engine to accomplish magical effects,' as described in Bookhounds p76. 'With the Megapolisomancy ability you can ... recognize places of power, vortices, dread zones, etheric windows, lay lines, sacred architecture, etc, in cities.'

This carries with it the implied statement that you recognize places which actually exist within the city. Suppose for a minute it also means you recognize places that ought to exist within the city, but don't - or perhaps don't yet. Suppose as part of a sorcerous working the megapolisomancer could draw on a concept as well as a reality, such as the Hood scheme. Designed but never built, schemes like Hood's capture the imagination of the people within the city and therefore, perhaps, the imagination of the city itself.

Cities are constantly being reimagined. Le Corbusier, for example, spent much of his career proselytizing the idea that a house is a machine for living in and reimagining those houses on a grand scale, creating entire cities in which people's lives reach perfection in perfect dwellings. Thousands of architects' imaginations caught fire along with his, and they tried to put his concepts into practice again and again, sometimes successfully, often not.

Suppose for a moment that epochs like these aren't about architects and their ideas. If you use meagpolisomancy as a concept in your game then you accept the possibility that the city generates sorcerous energies, which implies that changes which affect the design of a city either reshape those energies, or, intriguingly, are inspired by whatever it is that creates those energies. So Deco, Modernism, the machines for living in, eco-cities are all in turn part of the city's grand megapolisomantic design, and the only question is whether those design changes are humanity's way of shaping the environment, or the city's attempt to shape humanity.

Say London's megapolisomantic resonance is ultimately the result of a God or Titan, and that the city is intended to chain that entity. Deco could be inspired by that entity's dreams, or be part of its attempt to escape its prison. In turn megapolisomancers could be the entity's jailers, or be part of its escape attempt. Whichever it is, they're still mites crawling around the body of a fallen God, using scraps of its energy to power their schemes.

Further, when buildings are designed but not built, as with Hood's creation, this might in turn affect the potential megapolisomantic workings available within the city.

Take the idea of vanishing into a crowd, for example. Spend a point to increase the tracker's Difficulty number by a point, is how it's expressed mechanically. But does the caster really vanish into the crowd, or instead disappear into an idea of the city that doesn't exist yet, except on paper in an architect's office? When a victim's driven mad by the city, is that because of echoing howls of sirens, the chittering of telegraph wires, or is it by the inexplicable appearance of a city completely unlike the one the target thinks exists? What would happen if, against all previous knowledge, the target found herself wandering Hood's bridge, completely lost within architecture that, the target believes, should not be?   

Talk soon!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Mussolini's Underground Car Graveyard (Night's Black Agents, Esoterrorists)

Here's a scenario seed involving Mussolini, abandoned vehicles, Naples, and an escape tunnel built by a King.

In 2005 a government geologist rediscovered an ancient Neapolitan secret: The Bourbon Tunnel. Ferdinand II built it in the 19th Century as an escape route in the event of an attack or assassination attempt. The tunnel was supposed to connect the palace to a military compound but it remained unfinished at the time of Ferdinand II's death.

The escape route connects with old Roman mines and the underground aqueduct, so the Bourbon tunnels aren't of one piece. You can take a water tour, if you care to, or go spelunking as an adventure tourist. Or you can go on one of the more sedate, handicap-accessible tours through the main line.

The main line's unique in its own right. When Ferdinand II died the tunnels were lost to history, until rediscovered and reactivated by Mussolini. During the war he dumped cars, bikes and other vehicles that had been seized by his government as contraband, and later the tunnels were used as emergency shelter during bomb raids and as a military hospital. After the war old Fascist statues and other Mussolini-era ephemera were dumped down there, and it was used as an impound lot until the 1970s. Then the tunnels were lost again, until their 2005 rediscovery.  The tunnels are the subject of a recent BBC documentary that's worth watching.

So in one fell swoop we have: mysterious tunnels whose history, at least in part, go back to ancient Rome. A Bourbon escape plan that was never used. An unintentional Fascist memorial. A car graveyard. Where to begin?

All kinds of threads could spool off from there. The 1970s angle potentially admits late-stage Edom activity, even an Operation Gladio connection. The 1970s are the Years of Lead, with any number of anarchist and Communist plots unfolding, perfect material either for a present day hunt-the-legend or a 1970's shooting war. Or an Esoterror twist might say that the old Fascist statuary down there walk around at night, or the cars can be heard to mutter and groan. One or two missing tourists would liven up that story for Esoterror purposes. Even without anything living (unliving?) down there the tunnels are still an excellent hiding place for spies on the run, or a place for squirrelling away a cache of useful items. Is the Vatican using it as some kind of interrogation chamber for the evil dead? Do some of the smaller branch tunnels lead to forgotten Roman temples? Is it true that some attempts to create a complete 3D map of all the tunnels under Naples have been frustrated by the sudden psychological collapse of the mapmakers? Is Dracula's Tomb really in Naples after all, and if so has the old bloodsucker been using the Bourbon Tunnel as a means of passing unseen under the streets of Naples?

As is traditional, a seed, with three options.

The Pitch: A tour guide has found old papers stuffed in one of one of the abandoned cars. She wasn't supposed to be poking around down there, but curiosity got the better of her. She posted pictures of her find on Reddit hoping to track down the descendants of the person named in the papers, and perhaps put a face to the name of the presumed owner of the abandoned vehicle. However things take a turn for the worse when she winds up dead, in a murder the less responsible news sources are calling 'The Vampire Killing' after the sanguinary nature of her wounds and the stake through her heart.

One: This is a disinformation campaign spread by an Esoterror cell (or non-Esoterror related cult) determined to get the Bourbon tunnels shut down. The next step is to kill a few tourists in much the same way and have their bodies found in memorable circumstances. Once shut, the cell can create something really nasty down there with a ritual obtained from a text stolen from the Vatican's secret successor to the Sacred Order of the Index, still going despite official disbandment in 1966. They can only do this in the Bourbon tunnels thanks to special preparations made by Ferdinand II's architect, who had his own use for the King's escape route. The characters are Ordo agents, or independent occult investigators - possibly clerical investigators - chasing down the stolen Vatican text.

Two: It really was a Vampire killing. The owner of the abandoned vehicle is still alive - if alive is the right term - and was most upset to discover that, thanks to a mistake made decades ago, her identity was about to be revealed by a tour guide, of all people. The vampire moved quickly to make the tour guide a vampiric vassal, but some independent slayers moved even more quickly. Now there's amateur vampire hunters swarming over Naples and the tunnels, and one very annoyed bloodsucker doesn't know where to turn. The characters are among the independent vampire hunters, or perhaps represent a recruitment team - Edom? - eager to make the SBA an offer she can't refuse.

Three. It's bad luck fooling around with those old cars. Vicious spirits from Italy's Fascist past are down there, content to be forgotten, but now all kinds of people are pawing through what's left of their dusty lives. The tour guide's boyfriend, possessed, did the deed and was promptly sent down into the tunnels to die. His body will turn up eventually, drowned in the aqueduct. Fear Itself could be used here, with the characters being fellow tour guides and tourists wandering the tunnels. Getting lost in the tunnels. Never finding their way out of the tunnels ...

That's it for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Vampire Hackers, Hospitals and NBA Good Stuff (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Welcome 2017! Here's hoping the next few months will be more enjoyable than the last few.

I thought I'd start with something light, frothy, and slightly bloodstained, so here's some Vampire goodness courtesy of Night's Black Agents.

While in the UK last month I spent a small fortune on some fun reading material, and one of my purchases - mine for a quid - was Tony Thompson's book on the British underworld, Gangs. Thompson's a former Observer, Time Out and Guardian journo, and has a good eye for a fascinating story. His nonfiction includes Gang Land, Reefer Men, and Gangland Britain, and has a co-author credit on Written in Blood, an exploration of modern forensic science. Judging by Gangs he's well worth picking up if you happen to be setting any kind of modern day crime story in the UK.

He mentions something in his section on high-tech crime that I hadn't considered before, but is well worth adding to your NBA agent's bag of tricks, as follows:

'When I visited the offices of the Child Protection Command of the National High Tech Crime Unit at Scotland Yard, a nine-year-old girl, a twenty-seven-year-old stockbroker and a forty-eight-year old geography teacher were quietly surfing the internet. The girl was bored, lonely and looking for pen-pals; the stockbroker was looking to add to his collection of hardcore, sad-masochistic child pornography; while the teacher was looking for someone who shared his interest in ex with pre-pubescent blond boys. The girl was typing slowly, misspelling some words and abbreviating others. She made passing references to her favorite television programmes, complained about her lack of pocket money and told silly jokes.

"In reality the girl, the stockbroker and the teacher were just some of the dozens of fictional characters created by the unit's undercover officers.

"'Some of the pedophiles out there are the best hackers in the world,' Detective Inspector Brian Ward told me. 'They have the ability to examine the hard disc of someone online to check whether they are who they say they are.'

"This means that if an officer is going to pose as a nine-year-old girl, he has to ensure that everything on the hard disc fits with that. There will be certain types of music files, emails to and from friends about problems at school and home. All this information has to be created simply to ensure the deception is complete. Stacks of hard discs containing the different identities are spread about the room." [emphasis mine.]

Now there's something Players and Keepers can steal.

Usually fake identities are covered by the Cover ability, and presumably a Cover spend creates an online identity as well as the more usual fake passports and identity documents. After all there's no percentage in claiming you're a freelance art restorer who's worked with Christies, among other prestigious organizations, if you don't even have a LinkedIn profile to back it up. The first thing you can count on the opposition to do is Google you; you need to have something for them to Google.

But the kind of identity Thompson's talking about is paper thin. It exists only on one hard disc, and only for the purpose of fooling people who might scan that hard disc. There's probably links to social media sites which get updated sporadically, but it's not the same thing as a detailed cover story.

One of the things that can be done with Digital Intrusion is to 'provide a digital paper trail for a forged identity,' which is broadly what we're aiming for. Except this is less a paper trail and more a sculpted personality, adapted to be most attractive to the target, in order to trap the target. In this instance the intended victim is an SBA or other Conspyramid asset, and the sculpted personality is someone of interest to that person or creature - say, the Goth from Double Tap.

Under Covers and Legends (main book p112) there's rules for creating new Covers with Digital Intrusion or Forgery. For every 2 points spent, the agent gets 1 Cover. The Forgery bit's there for physical documents, so it's not much use for our current problem. The Digital Intrusion spend is, but lacks the tailor-made element of the online personality we're talking about.

This is sounding more like a Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit (main book p107), combining Criminology, possibly Human Terrain, or Vampirology - the exact Investigative ability will depend on the target - and Digital Intrusion to create a new Team Pool, Online Cover (X, in this example Goth), with a spend of 1 point from the Investigative ability plus X points Digital Intrusion, gaining 1 point Online Cover for every 2 points Digital Intrusion spent. Call it an Online Cover to underline the fact that this identity only exists as a special hard disc, to be used when tracking or trapping subjects online.

The big difference between an Online Cover and ordinary Cover being that the points thus gained can be used as Cover, or as Intimidation, or as Reassurance. This pool shouldn't be split two or three ways; it has to be or, not and. The Intimidation being something along the lines of 'I've caught you doing something your superiors really would not approve of, so you'd better do as I say,' while the Reassurance is along the lines of 'I really am who I say I am and I'm exactly the kind of person/opportunity you fantasize about. Come play with me.'

Imagine being the Conspiracy asset who suddenly realizes that his interest in, say, child porn is about to be leaked to the police, or that her secret desires are within reach. What would that asset do, either to keep a secret - imagine what happens to assets whose private lives draw unwanted attention to the Conspiracy - or to get the one thing they want more than anything else in the world?

So in an operation the Online Cover (Goth) can be used to tempt or force a computer-using SBA into doing something risky - like come to a rendezvous in some lonely spot, or download something they really shouldn't. Then the target can be neutralized, or flipped and turned into a double agent, or their network can be compromised. Or something else; the players will come up with something interesting, no doubt.

The next idea comes from Romania's diluted disinfectant crisis, covered in some detail here.

Briefly: the Romanian health care system is riddled with corruption, and one part of the bigger problem involved a pharmaceutical company, Hexi, selling heavily diluted disinfectants to Romanian hospitals. When the Collectiv Nightclub fire resulted in many avoidable deaths through infections, the scandal broke. Hexi's CEO, Dan Condrea, was charged with fraud, only for the charges to be nullified when he drove his car into a tree. The fallout claimed Romania's Health Minister, who resigned while public protests were at their height.

Corruption doesn't begin and end with diluted disinfectant. The entire healthcare system in Romania is supported by a network of bribery; if you want good treatment, or just sufficient anesthetic to get you through an operation, best to have a full wallet and a willingness to share. This is one of the reasons why so many Romanian healthcare professionals prefer to leave Romania as soon as possible.

Consider the fate of a Conspyramid asset that supplies, say, immunoglobulins and immunosuppressants to Romanian hospitals. This asset can have two functions: first, it's a moneyspinner. Thanks to significant dilution of the end product - resulting in avoidable deaths, naturally - it can charge top price for substandard product, paying off handsomely. Second, it's an excellent means of creating new Renfields, particularly in important government positions. Everyone has to go to the hospital at some point. Say an official's daughter needs an organ transplant: not only is the transplant a success, but also the Conspiracy now has an undetectable asset on the ground in the official's house.

Then it all starts going wrong. A massive event - like the Collectiv fire - exposes the deception. An investigative journalist is hot on the trail, and an expose is only days away. The Conspiracy has to act. Does it try to silence the journalist, or clean up loose ends at the pharmaceutical company?

As is traditional, the three possibilities:

One. The Conspiracy already had its hooks in the Journalist, as can be confirmed by looking at the Journalist's medical history; she's a Renfield. The whole thing's a Conspiracy plot, using an expendable asset - the pharma company - to take out its enemies in the Romanian government. The scandal alone should be enough to force a few inconvenient Government types to resign. The agents are brought in by the Journalist, partly as window dressing - foreign spies messing with local politics plays well in the papers - and partly so the agents can be lured into an Conspiracy ambush.

Two. The Journalist managed to dig up some extra information about another Conspiracy asset in Romania - a cursed monastery perhaps, or some lonely forsaken orphanage. This was possible thanks to negligence on the part of the pharma CEO, which is why the CEO is now in little bits scattered all over the freeway. The agents are brought in by the pharma's CFO, who's seen what happens to those who don't play ball and is looking for protection.

Three. The CEO collected blackmail material for years, thinking that he was dealing with Romanian mafia rather than some supernatural Conspiracy. When the CEO died the blackmail material was supposed to be forwarded to Interpol, but a contact at Interpol thought this was better dealt with by the agents and so forwarded the blackmail folder to them.

That's all for now. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!