Sunday, 30 July 2017

To Whom It May Concern (Night's Black Agents)

Once more we venture into the uncharted waters of short scenario design, this time for Night's Black Agents.

I run a movie night, and this month has been Roger Moore/Adam West/Martin Landau, in honor of the fallen. Last night was The Man With The Golden Gun, and I'd forgotten that parts of it are based in Macau, for which I've already prepared some background material. You should refer to that material when using this scenario.

The title comes from Queen And Country, by Greck Rucka. The line is Tara Chace's, in her first appearance, and she says:

It's not the bullet that has your name on it you have to worry about .. it's all those other ones ... marked 'to whom it may concern.'

Shortly after speaking that line, Tara is shot.

Usually I try to keep these to 2,500 words or less, but this time I exceeded the remit by a hundred forty seven words. Final count: 2,647.


Director's summary:

  • A Conspiracy asset hires the agents through a cut-out, tasking them with retrieval of some very special bullets.
  • The rounds were manufactured in the 1980s by a Portuguese craftsman living in Macau, for a vampire hunter. The hunter is long dead, as is the craftsman.
  • The craftsman's nephew inherited everything, but as most of it was useless to him he kept it stored away, until now.
  • Another vampire hunter, seeking the bullets, went to the nephew and made a generous offer, but all that did was alert the nephew to the possibility that he was sitting on a gold mine.
  • The nephew has been asking around, to see if anyone else is willing to offer him more than the vampire hunter. That's how the conspiracy learned that the bullets still exist; until now, they thought them gone, along with the original vampire hunter.
  • In addition to the vampire hunter and the Conspiracy, a would-be conspiracy Node, local Triad gangsters, has decided to muscle in, thinking to impress the Conspiracy by obtaining the bullets. 

Meeting the Buyer
Contact is made via Macau fixer Jorge Nolasco, an ethnic Chinese with Portuguese ancestry. [Physical: sallow, always wears high-end suits, dislikes physical contact. Treat as Mafioso without Thugs.] The meet is held in a private cocktail room at China Rouge, an expensive member's club that lets in non-members so long as they look the part. No flip-flops or T-shirts. D├ęcor: 1920s Shanghai, with deep reds, lattice screens, and innumerable depictions of the naked female form. A mural by Chinese-Kiwi artist Deng Xinli dominates one wall.  

Nolasco explains that the seller, Kim Sun Chan, is being greedy. Nolasco would cheerfully pay for the custom made bullets, but the price asked is far too high. He wants the agents to acquire the rounds for him, and is willing to pay the retainer he would have given Kim, had Kim not decided to get greedy. That retainer is US$60K, which seems over the asking price for 1,000 rounds of ammunition, but Kim is demanding more than US$100K, an outrageous sum. Nolasco's willing to pay half up front, half on delivery. The agents have carte blanche, but Nolasco says he won't intervene if they get arrested for any crime more serious than assault. He can help them avoid minor peccadillos.

Find out more - 
  • about Nolasco. High Society, Tradecraft, Criminology. Nolasco is a 'club promoter,' which means he arranges junkets for Chinese businessmen and government officials from the mainland. He almost certainly has Triad connections or he wouldn't be in that line of work, but his Portuguese ancestry may mean he's no more than a Blue Lantern, or uninitiated member. He's suspected of having links with China's Ministry of State Security, but again his Portuguese ancestry and his Macanese nationality probably mean he's an informant, not an agent.
  • about Kim Sun Chan. Gambling as an Investigative ability, Tradecraft, Criminology. Kim is a notorious gambler with ambition far beyond his talent. He's nothing special himself, but his uncle, Lazar, was a respected gunsmith who supplied some of the most famous names in the business, back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. However it's difficult to imagine even his best work being worth US$100 per round. Kim has very low-level connections with the local Triads, particularly the 14K, but that's because he owes them money.

Shaking Hands
Lead-in: Meeting the Buyer
Lead-out: The Game of Death, Death of an Industry

At some point the agents will want to contact or surveil Kim. [Physical: cheap suits, usually with something red, like a jacket or tie; elaborate sleeve tattoo probably intended to make people think he's with the Triads; gold tooth that winks when he smiles. Thug.]

If contact, he only agrees to meet in a public place, where there's lots of people. He's brash and demands the full $100K, no excuses. He says he knows what he's got, and if he doesn't get what he wants he'll sell it to the CIA. [Director: no he won't, but he thinks he'll get a better deal if he bluffs. Nolasco will be very unhappy if anyone tells him about the CIA threat.]

Clues: Bullshit Detector, Flattery, Flirting: he lets slip that there's another buyer, Emily Cho, who's got CIA connections. Cho, according to him, is more than willing to meet his price. Clues that lead elsewhere: Urban Survival, Criminology. Kim is being tailed by [N=P] thugs, and these really are Triad, 14K judging by the tattoos. Kim is either unaware or too arrogant to care.

Find out more - 
  • about Emily Cho. Tradecraft, Vampirology. [Physical: athlete with former Olympic ambitions, fencer, scar on left hand, thousand yard stare. Asset Handler.] Former CIA stringer who went rogue after a disastrous operation in Turkey. The Americans would very much like to bring her in for extensive questioning, probably at a black or grey site like Diego Garcia. Potential links with Russian intelligence. Vampirology knows she went off-grid when two of her assets were taken out by the Conspiracy, and she evened the score by taking out one of theirs. Director: she's why Kim thinks he can sell to the CIA. He doesn't know she's no longer with the agency.
If surveil, Kim lives in a relatively modest single room near the Hong Kong Express ferry terminal, where rents are around the HK$4 to 5K mark and luxuries like private bathrooms cost extra. Difficulty 5 to surveil; a Difficulty 4 check still succeeds, but does not notice the 14K Triad thugs following Kim. Kim has a mundane routine - eat, sleep, gamble - but he detours to the floating Casino Macau Palace, currently anchored in the Inner Harbor.

The Palace is a former boat-based casino, now derelict, and its ownership is obscure. Bureaucracy, Criminology or Accounting traces it to a notoriously violent 14K Triad boss, Broken Tooth Koi, who was jailed in 1999 on extortion charges. The Macau Palace went bust at about the same time. Broken Tooth has since been released from prison, but no longer has his former influence or ambition.

Kim knows all this because, back in the day, he worked for Broken Tooth as a Triad Blue Lantern; he never made it as far as a 49 foot soldier. Kim figures if nobody's looking after the old Palace it's as good a place as any to stash the loot, but he can't stop himself from checking on it regularly. Difficulty 4 Conceal, or a Notice spend, finds the stash, hidden in an old secret safe in what was a manager's office. However if the agents make this search and did not notice the Triad thugs following Kim, then the Triads attack the agents.
  • Triad 49s [N=P] use Thug stats, half are gym rats, and all of them use machetes (+0 damage). These are in the pay of Shrimp Boy Lai, an ambitious Triad who wants to make a name for himself, like the old days when men of power like Broken Tooth could chop people with impunity. He can't, because these days China would come down hard on anyone foolish enough to try. Shrimp Boy sees the Conspiracy as his way out; with the Conspiracy backing his play, he could do as he likes. Shrimp Boy may or may not know about the true nature of the Conspiracy, and in any case he's not very bright. Treat Shrimp Boy as a Mafioso with the gym rat and triggerman bonuses normally applicable to Thugs.
Casino Macau Palace: treat as a combination of Casino and Derelict Factory, not unlike a James Bond set allowed to go to seed. There aren't as many homeless people living aboard her as might be expected - they know that Broken Tooth still owns her, and they don't want to get on the wrong side of the 14K.

The Game of Death
Lead-in: Shaking Hands
Lead-out: Death of an Industry, Spooky, Payout

The agents may learn of Emily Cho through Kim, in which case they might get the drop on her. If they don't, then she learns about them from Kim, and gets the drop on them.

If the former, Traffic Analysis plus Tradecraft (studying the arrivals and departures list by air and ferry) or a Network contact allows them to track Emily from her arrival in Macau, two days prior, under the workname Mary Chow, an identity that, unknown to Emily, has already been exposed by her former CIA paymasters, so she's now on watch lists. She's staying at the Venetian Macao Hotel, (Difficulty 4 Infiltration), and when not on other business spends much of her time at its V Gym fitness center, with views of the Cotai Strip. Searching her hotel room finds a laptop (encrypted, CIA issue, stolen - the CIA would like it back) with some information about the failed Turkey op. Effective 1 point pool Vampirology, and Emily doesn't use it or connect it to the internet because she knows, if she does, the Agency will track her. She keeps it because it's evidence, and she's hoping against hope to clear her name one day.

If the latter, Emily assumes the agents are part of the Conspiracy. She's incredibly paranoid, not without cause. She uses Tradecraft to set up a safe house - short term rental, cheap one bedroom apartment, toilet optional - and pays some local prostitutes (Civilians, effective 2 point pool Flirting) to act as decoys while she slips an agent a sedative, either in a drink or injected. Onset 2 rounds, Difficulty 7 Health, success = Shaken, failure = incapacitation 1 to 6 hours. The incapacitated agent is taken to the safe house for interrogation, and since Emily thinks the agent is a Renfield or worse, she will not be gentle. However she will use techniques best suited against vampires or Renfields, so Vampirology will allow agents to convince her they really aren't undead or undead sympathizers. That goes a long way to earning her trust, but even so Tradecraft, Reassurance or Bullshit Detector (reading her for tells, the better to create an artistic lie) spends will be needed to win her over. These spends cannot be made unless the Vampirology hurdle is leapt first. Since Emily's working solo, a group of agents can overpower her, but she's no pushover.
  • Emily Cho, Asset Handler. Base Asset Handler package, substituting Disguise for Shrink, plus 8 points Athletics, Weapons, 4 points Hand-to-Hand, Shooting. Effective 2 point pool Vampirology. Those using Vampirology to see if she's ever had dealings with them notice scarring indicative of vampire attack.
Escape: if the agents don't flip Cho and ally with her, or the other agents mount a rescue, then the cops show as she's attracted too much Heat. As soon as they do, Cho makes a run for it. This can turn into a Thrilling Chase, with everyone on foot, through the packed streets of Macau. 

Death of an Industry

Lead-in: Shaking Hands, The Game of Death
Lead-out: Spooky, Payout

The agents may be distracted by Shrimp Boy Lai and his 14K thugs.

Shrimp Boy pretends to have status, but he's no higher than a 49 - a footsoldier, the lowest rank on the scale, just above the non-initiate Blue Lanterns. When he got into the game Macau still had a fishing industry, and as he's from a fishing family he used his connections on the docks to move heroin and narcotics from Macau to mainland China. However Macau's fishing industry is in ruins thanks to industrial pollution, and its last shipbuilding company went bankrupt in 2005. Now the Coalone docks are eerily vacant, and Shrimp Boy scratches out a living as an extortionist and low-grade pimp.

All the more reason to try his luck with the Conspiracy, but his attempt to ingratiate himself by snatching the bullets has only annoyed the local Node, which already has a plan in place and doesn't like the Heat Shrimp Boy's drawing down.

The agents may use Criminology, Cop Talk, Urban Survival or Electronic Surveillance to track Shrimp Boy to the Coalone docks, but if they do then they discover that the Conspiracy got to Shrimp Boy first.

Shrimp Boy and his team have been bloodily wiped out. The abandoned shipbuilder's warehouse (treat as Industrial but for making traditional wooden junks, so less mechanical and more hand tools) where they had their base is awash with blood. Just being in that warehouse gets the agents 1 Heat.

If Emily Cho has not already been dealt with then she got here first, and can be found on-site. The agents might leap to the erroneous conclusion that she took out all these thugs herself. If confronted, she runs; Thrilling foot chase, and thanks to her Athletics she can use Parkour. Forensic Pathology, Notice or similar spots that Emily couldn't have done this, as she hasn't the strength. Nobody human has the strength to rip arms from sockets, or break a neck so that the head faces backwards. Cho only came here to find out why Shrimp Boy was so interested in the rounds, and whether he and his team were Conspiracy assets. When she found them dead, she started investigating, to see if vampires were involved.  
  • Heat: if ever there was a moment for the cops to show, this is that moment. (N=P-1) armed police show up if the agents blow a Heat check, having been tipped by the Conspiracy Node that Triads have been fighting. The Conspiracy didn't intend for its own catspaws to get caught at the murder scene, but such is life.
Lead-in: The Game of Death, Death of an Industry
Lead-out: Payout

The agents, once they realize Emily Cho has a CIA connection, may try to turn Cho over to the CIA or an intelligence agency. China's Ministry of State Security would be most interested in a former CIA agent and her encrypted CIA issue laptop.

They can reach out through Network to get this done, and if they do then the agency responds requesting a meet at the Venetian, on the walkway next to its fake canal and gondola.

The agent is only interested in facts, not stories, and couldn't care less about custom ammunition sales. The agent just wants to bring Cho in.
  • Intelligence Agent: base Investigator, with two Bodyguard types close by.
If the agents reveal Emily's location, or hand her over themselves, they can reduce Heat by 2. If, however, they try to feed the agent a load of nonsense or disinformation, Heat increases by 2.

If attacked, the agent will immediately withdraw.

Lead-in: Spooky, Death of an Industry, The Game of Death

If the agents successfully retrieve the ammunition from Kim and hand it over to Nolasco, they get paid. The Conspiracy will take the ammunition and destroy it. The agents will be marked down on the Conspiracy's books as useful people to do business with.

If the agents do not do this, or if they attempt some kind of double-cross, then the Conspiracy cuts its ties and tries to drown the agents in Heat. Nolasco, Emily Cho, Shrimp Boy or the Intelligence Agent from Spooky wind up publicly dead, and in such a way that the agents are implicated in the killing. Heat increases by 3, and security increases significantly at the ferry terminal and airport - the only viable ways out of Macau, short of crossing over into mainland China and going for a long walk. A Renfield will lead the security team sent to bring the agents in. If captured the agents will end up in a Chinese prison, but the Renfield's orders are to ensure the agents die, preferably shot while trying to escape. 
  • Custom ammunition: exact details up to the Director, but the vampires consider this especially dangerous. Design with your campaign's vampires in mind. Given its unique makeup, forgery is not possible, particularly not with the agents' limited means.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Truth Is Somewhere (X Files, Delta Green)

'One of those rare horror-genre gems produced for television,' wrote Adam Scott Glancy in a 1994 review for Unspeakable Oath. 'So far the first twelve [X Files] episodes rate nine out of ten phobias for solid horror/science-fiction genre entertainment.''

It's been a while.

Recently I was paid for an acting gig with iTunes cards, and used them to buy X-Files seasons 1 through 5. I tend to do that with stuff I want to see but don't care if I lose, which is always a risk when dealing with the Cloud. I pride myself on having a good memory, but I have to admit I'd forgotten most if not all the episode plots. Something about aliens? Maybe? And there were monsters, sometimes? Lone Gunmen? Someone who smoked a lot?

No, it was a total blank. This, mind you, after spending damn near every week plugged in practically at the electrical socket, waiting like a slavering fanboy for the least tidbit. That was back in 1994, and without wishing to be unkind to anyone here who may be counting their grey hairs, 1994 was over 20 years ago. If I'd had a kid back then, it would be on its way to college.

Hopefully I'd resist the temptation to call it Fox or Dana.

Looking back on it now, that first season was remarkably weak. Not awful - very good, really - but low budget, creaking along, with plots as shaky as an Ed Wood set. Inevitably they fell into a pattern: strange things happen, Mulder proposes something utterly absurd, Scully throws dirt on the whole thing, Mulder is proved right in every detail, madness ensues. Often there are plot holes you could drive a truck through, even if you accept Mulder's version without question.

None of that mattered at the time, and while it kinda matters now, that's only because time has passed. I'm less accepting of wild-eyed bullshit, and I've seen much better television since, so my standards have risen. Yet even with that firmly in mind I find I'm still in love with those early seasons, particularly from season 2 onwards.

That's when things begin to ratchet up, when Mulder's first informant Deep Throat is gunned down, the Cancer Man becomes more of a visible threat, and Mr X becomes Mulder's contact with the murky world of government conspiracies. Steven Williams plays Mr X, and he's such a badass in that role. He really makes it work.

It's also when I begin recognizing supporting cast. I don't know who was hiring back in 1994-5, but they picked some very decent talent. I knew Jack Black was in one of the early episodes, and he of course goes on to fame and fortune. But he's not the only one to hit the radar. Bradley Whitford, before West Wing, Jewel Staite, before Firefly, Titus Welliver, before Deadwood and Lost, Joe Spano, just after Hill Street Blues and before NCIS. Season 2 in particular is an exercise in 'spot the soon-to-be famous.'

If you really don't know what I'm talking about - which is always possible, though perhaps not forgivable - X Files was a supernatural/science-fiction genre show back in the 1990s, starring David Duchovny as FBI Agent Fox Mulder, and Gillian Anderson as his long-suffering partner Agent Dana Scully. The two are tasked with investigating X Files, cases involving paranormal phenomena. This can range from lake monsters to strange parasites from beyond history, irradiated fluke men and little grey men from outer space.

As you can imagine this does not sit well with their superiors, and Agent Scully is initially assigned to the X Files to debunk them, presumably because nobody's thought to fire Agent Mulder. Which is where the first of those peculiar plot holes appears; we're dealing with a massive conspiracy involving corruption at the highest levels, run by men who think nothing of murdering their enemies, their friends, the mailman; men who carry out mass experiments on unwitting human test subjects every other week without losing sleep over the death count. Yet those same men have some psychological block that prevents them from getting Mulder fired, even when he presents them with opportunities to do so with cause. It's papered over with tissue-thin excuses, but it's a problem nonetheless.

Looking back on it, I suspect it survived that initial year not because it was brilliant - good, yes, occasionally genius - but because it was unique. It was 1994. Nobody was doing horror on the small screen in 1994.

Hell, there weren't that many people making horror for the big screen either, come to think.

Tales from the Crypt is the closest thing it had to competition, and Tales was hosted by a scary Muppet. A bunch of carefree optimists tried to make a TV show out of Vampire the Masquerade, but that was in 1996, two years after X Files began, and it withered on the vine. Buffy doesn't start pounding dildos into pale Californians until 1997, and if I'd known what pegging was back then I'd have had a lot more fun watching that hot mess. Ultraviolet's 1998, and British. Touched By An Angel, maybe, but you could hardly call that horror.

It helps that Duchovny and Anderson, both talented actors, work well together. Anderson in particular is a lot of fun to watch; she's clearly got more on the ball than Duchovny. Yet Duchovny has one great talent: he's a natural doofus, and the show eventually starts playing to that, giving him more comedic or parody moments. I can't think of many television shows, genre or otherwise, that would be happy making its lead actor look like an idiot, and to be clear it's not like this happens every week, but when it does, it's a delight. Small Potatoes from Season 4 is a personal favorite.

Yet by the fifth season I find its appeal starting to wear on me. Though there are several moments when I can't wait for a show to finish, the episode Post-Modern Prometheus is the first one I couldn't force myself to finish. Yes, I know it won an Emmy. Chris Carter can thank his lucky stars I wasn't on the awards committee, way back when.

It starts to crumble under the weight of its own mythology at that point. There's just no way to make this all make sense, and it doesn't help that so much of it contradicts itself. One of the long-running secrets of the series is what happened to Fox Mulder's sister all those years ago; was she abducted by aliens, murdered by a serial killer, something else? But there are only so many times she can turn up as a clone, as a child worker clone, as an abductee, as a possible ghost, as a murder victim, before I start to lose interest.

You can butcher a turkey once, cook it once, eat it, make stock from its bones and skin, but when all that's done, you can't bring the turkey back again and eat it a second time. Not if you want to enjoy the experience.

Oddly enough I feel the same way about X Files as I do Delta Green, the RPG originally developed by Pagan Publishing many moons ago.

It first showed its warty head back in 1993, as part of the Unspeakable Oath magazine, but it doesn't really get its chance to strut its stuff until 1997. So it technically predates the X Files, though in practical terms it owes much of its format and initial appeal to that show.

Delta Green, as it was then, had a lot of promise, and I love its take on conspiracy theories, modern horror, cryptozoology, government cover-ups, little Grey Men. I played that game to death back in the day. I still have all the books.

Yet I look back on it now, and it's a mess.

A fun mess, but there's no skeleton here holding it together. The basic premise is solid, but the mythology soon crushes the whole thing under its ponderous weight. You could pick up a sourcebook and literally have no idea what you were getting, because the series didn't seem to be planned in any coherent way.

If you liked the Fate, for example, its New York occult menace based loosely on Club 57 and the exploits of Andy Warhol, there wasn't a Fate book you could get. You could get Count Down and Eyes Only, both of which have Fate-related material, but they also have a ton of other stuff you might not want. If you want to know more about tradecraft, intelligence agencies and the art of being a spy, that's in there too, but again it's scattered over most of the books with no real rhyme or reason as to which goes where.

The lethality level varies considerably. Some scenarios might as well have a footnote saying 'allow for 40 minutes downtime as everyone makes new characters right about now.' Others seem positively gentle in comparison. It reminds me of some of the X Files first season episodes, Darkness Falls in particular, where the writers find themselves in a situation where, logically, Mulder and Scully die. So they do, but not really. Delta Green isn't quite so kind.

There's some absolutely brilliant writing here, but looking back on it I have to ask myself how likely it is that the players are ever going to find this information, or find it useful. With the benefit of hindsight it seems to me now that it was written for the Keeper to read and be entertained by, but not necessarily use at the table.

One thing I admire about the Gumshoe clue system, apart from simplicity of design, is that it forces the designer to consider whether or not what's going on the page is useful. If it's a Clue, it has a purpose, and there's a definitive chain of events that lead from this Clue to the next Scene, where there are more Clues. From here, the players piece together the narrative, and decide what to do next.

I didn't back the Delta Green Kickstarter so I don't know what the new stuff's like. I almost regret that, but money's tight. One thing I hope and pray for is that, whatever it is, there's a plan. That someone has their eye on the long term, not a scattershot put-it-all-in-the-pot approach.

Anyway, it's been a day, and I'm exhausted.

Talk soon!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Vampire's Heart - Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier

There are several different classifications of vampire in Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents game, and this time I want to talk about the Damned variety, designing a vampire type from the ground up.

First, a word on sources. Much of the information I'm going to post here derives from Jean-Claude Schmitt's Ghosts in the Middle Ages: the Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. My copy's University of Chicago Press, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, 1998. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the material.

The rest comes from a recent news article discussing a new technique whereby video clips have been encoded to human DNA.

The legend of Herle, aka Harlequin, aka Arthur, King of the Dead and leader of the Wild Hunt, goes back to at minimum the year 1000. Before that date there are reports of a ghostly army on the march, but the legends begin to coalesce into the version known to historians at that time, with multiple sightings and reports.

At its inception the army of the dead, if not precisely benign, at least serves a genuine purpose. Its troops beg for mercy, asking the living to give them prayers, or do deeds that will help them escape their torment such as returning borrowed goods, or repaying old debts. One of the most vivid and earliest accounts comes from the priest Walchelin, who told his tale to Orderic Vitalis, a Welsh-born chronicler who, at that time, was living in Normandy. In that story Walchelin is approached by several dead, including his own brother, all of whom ask for aid or for messages to be delivered.

However as time passed the army of the restless dead became stigmatized as Satan's legion. Priests anxious to drive out the last vestiges of paganism told their flock that the warriors, priests and peasants seen in Harlequin's army were actually devils, who took on the form of ghosts to fool honest men into doing the devil's work. This is how, for example, Arthur King of the Britons comes to be depicted, in a mosaic at the Cathedral of Otranto, as riding a goat, Satan's steed.

Herle's restless legions are often seen at crossroads, for 'those places, due to the number of people of all sorts that passed through them, were more polluted than the fields. In these sordid places, the living were shown the true punishments endured by the evil in the hereafter.'  Often they are depicted wearing hoods - 'the hood or the cape is the specific dress of the dead and the instrument of their torment' - which are not really hoods at all, but things of blood and fire which weigh heavily on them. Similarly those of Herle's troop who go armed or ride horses do not really carry weapons, but red-hot things that burn their flesh, nor are their steeds horses but devils disguised as same. As a rule the items they carry symbolize their sin, which is why the warriors carry weapons, but also why the priests and bishops carry croziers and wear monkish habit, and why the peasants are often seen carrying domestic items.

From this tradition, as an aside, we get Dickens' Christmas Carol, where Jacob Marley wears a chain of his own devising, forged in life, which he must wear in death. The deeds which men do in life live on after their death, tormenting their souls, which is why blood is so often a theme; those who spill it are most likely to end up damned.

In Yorkshire there is a tale recorded by William of Newburgh in his History of England, in which vampires are dealt with summarily by the people. When the bloodsuckers first appear, people turn to the church for aid, and after some back-and-forth the clergy recommend putting prescriptions for absolution of the tombs of the damned revenants. However a gang of 'the young' decide instead to disinter the creature and cut it to bits, burning everything except the heart in a bonfire. They preserve the heart because 'its presence would have prevented the cadaver from burning.'

Put all this together, and we get:

Harlequin's Legion

Explicitly demonic entity opposed to mankind and God.

Origin: A soul polluted with evil, inhabiting a corpse. At some point in the past - how far back is up to the Director - a Grand Grimoire was broken up and scattered to the four winds, encoded into the blood (DNA) of especially evil souls. This Codex, if it is ever recreated, will cause the destruction of mankind and usher in the Apocalypse.

Some vampires have parts of this Grimoire engraved in their corpus, and these are the more powerful and magically astute of their brood. The others, lesser creatures, are merely evil, and brought to their undead condition by their more powerful siblings. These lesser vampires do not have the Codex as part of their DNA, but that does not make them harmless or easy to defeat.

One vampire takes on the title of King of the Dead, referred to in literature as the leader of the Wild Hunt. The actual leadership function may vary, but it is this vampire that contains within it the index of the Grimoire. It has a direct link to the very foundations of evil, is exceptionally powerful, and can, with the proper rituals, recreate the Codex. Whether or not it wants to is unknown; it may be quite insane, or perhaps the title of King of the Dead is one that can be stolen by rivals. If the latter, then the Herle may prefer to remain anonymous, to dissuade would-be usurpers from taking its heart.

A vampire may be created by magical ritual, or it may be created by another vampire. If the latter, only a vampire with part of the Grimoire encoded to its DNA can create a vampire; all other vampire types lack this ability.

As a group the Wild Hunt tends to segregate itself into the types it remembers of old: warriors, priests, and peasants. The warriors consider themselves elite, wolves among sheep. The priests are the lore-keepers, the Codex made flesh, who keep other vampires in line. The peasants are everyone else, the ones who lack the special DNA strands. Other vampires mock and despise them, and consequently they bully everyone weaker than themselves - usually humanity.

They can be detected by their hoods. These are not real items, but coronas of blood and fire that form around their heads; the warriors can extend this corona around their whole body, at will. This spiritual manifestation of their sin can only be seen under special conditions: certain high holy days, or at places of especial spiritual pollution. These include modern-day crossroads - subway terminals, airports, and similar gathering places where hundreds, perhaps thousands of people come and go, on their way to one place or another. Vampires avoid these places if they can, which makes travel difficult.

The hoods also appear in photographs or on video feeds, which makes surveillance both easy and difficult. Easy, because the hood is a dead giveaway; difficult, because with the hood on it's impossible to tell who's who.

The heart is tough to destroy, and in many cases impossible. It can be cut out of the body and dissolved in strong acid or similar, but does not burn easily. A peasant's heart can be destroyed. A warrior's can be destroyed with considerable effort and magical assistance. A priest's is imbued with the words of the Codex, and therefore has been touched by semi-divine power. It cannot be destroyed, and can only be bound with magical assistance.

So long as the heart remains, the vampire can be reborn. A corpse is required - anyone's - but once the vampire heart is put in its chest, the creature is renewed. From that point on it can take its original face and form, fresh as the day it died, or it can assume the face and form of the corpse it borrowed. If the latter, the body takes on the appearance of natural decay over time, which can provoke Stability checks depending on the age of the corpse. This only affects appearance, not smell or fluids.

Aberrance: 10 (peasant), 13 (priest), 16 (warrior). The Harlequin probably has a much higher Aberrance, but it's impossible to say how high.

Hit Threshold: base 4, increase to 5 with Vampiric Speed. 

Hand to Hand: -1 (peasant, fangs), +0 (priest, fangs or talons), +1 warrior (rows of razor teeth, bony claws). 

Armor: -1 (peasant, tough skin), -2 (leathery hide), -3 (corona of blood, covering the whole of the corpus).

Free Powers: Darkvision, Vampiric Speed and Cloak of Darkness are common to all. Vampires which have recently gained a new body in reasonable condition temporarily gain Mimic Form, but this only remains viable as long as the corpse stays presentable. As a general rule the first signs of obvious decay set in very quickly; the skin becomes waxy and bluish within half an hour. However people often overlook this so long as the person seems otherwise normal. After three days there is no hope of a convincing Mimic Form. Priests also have Hive Mind - they are all part of the same entity.

See also Death and Resurrection.

Other Powers: All have Heat Drain and Regeneration (between scenes). Priests also use Necromancy and can Summon (zombies). Warriors lack the priest abilities, but make up for it with Vampiric Strength, Wings, and Turn to Creature (varies, often a wolf or bear, but sometimes other animals like a pig, cat, goat or horse).

Blocks: holy symbol, hawthorn.

Compulsions: Must show the sign of their damnation - the hood of blood and hellfire - on certain holy days, and at certain locations, such as holy places, crossroads or areas that count as crossroads, like subway stations. Priests and Warriors can resist this by spending 4 Aberrance, but there are circumstances - particular holy days, or moments when certain stars are in ascendance - when spending Aberrance will not work.

Dreads: dogs, particularly black and white dogs, which are the informal symbol of the Dominican order.

Requirements: Must commit ritual sacrifice to Satan at least four times a year. Must sleep in a place soaked with blood; it can be grave soil or bedsheets.

Death and Resurrection: The body can be cut to bits and destroyed, but the heart remains viable. If the heart is destroyed, the vampire cannot return. If the heart is still within the body, the body cannot be destroyed; it must be cut out first. Otherwise a vampire can walk through, say, a house fire and emerge seemingly unscathed, though its clothes will be ruined. An IED or similar can obliterate the body, leaving only the heart behind. A nuclear blast might obliterate peasants and warriors, but even that will not destroy the hearts of the priests.

It is said that should someone gather together all the hearts of all the priests and carry out a specific Satanic ritual, the Codex will be recreated. That will kill all Vampires instantly, warriors and peasants alike, but create an item of such awful power that the world itself will be shaken to its core.

The priests say they want this, but in practice they delay the apocalypse, preferring instead one more day of life to eternal rest within the leaves of Satan's book.

That's it for this week! Enjoy.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Israel's Flying Horses (Dracula Dossier, Edom)

Mexico's in the news for something other than border walls, as the government's use of Pegasus malware against opposition politicians and media personalities comes to light.

The malware was used to infect the smartphones of anti-corruption crusaders, journalists criticizing the President, and senior members of the opposition National Action Party, the intent presumably being to track their movements, emails, and private messages.

Pegasus is supplied by Israeli cyberarms dealer NSO Group. Based near Tel Aviv, this company 'provides technology to help authorized governments battle terror and crime,' according to Forbes. Its founder Omri Lavie, allegedly a former member of Israel's Unit 8200 signals intelligence group, seldom speaks to the press, and details about the group are thin on the ground.

It specializes in iOS hacks, and deals strictly with governments, not individuals. However as Mexico has shown, governments are by no  means above abusing their position. You have to wonder what NSO intends to do about customers who ignore the provision in the purchase agreement that says the software can only be used to combat crime.

Pegasus uses malicious links in innocuous-seeming messages to install malware which jailbreaks the iOS device it's installed on. The jailbroken device then feeds data from text messages, password entry, email, location and so on, back to home base.

The points to take home here are, first, that it's an iOS device, and Apple has a reputation for security. Not as polished or as impregnable as previously thought, but still, compared to Android, it's practically Fort Knox.

Second, that the messages sent were relatively sophisticated compared to the usual stuff that ends up in the junk file. Targeted messages from trusted senders, on subjects that the recipient would have no reason to think are bogus.

NSO isn't the only company in the cyberwarfare business by any stretch, but it's gained notoriety recently thanks to the Mexico reveal. Presumably Apple intends to patch the specific vulnerabilities revealed thanks to the scandal, but NSO will find a workaround, if it hasn't already got one.

Which brings me to Edom, because if you think Her Majesty's Government hasn't already got a deal in place either with NSO or with one of the other outfits, you must be living in a very nice imaginary world, and I wish it were the real one.

So what would Edom target with Pegasus?

To begin with, Prince is the one most likely to be doing the targeting, and given her backgrouns in Israeli intelligence she may already have links with NSO. But Prince can't do everything herself. She's a Duke of Edom, not the IT bod fixing every downed server and workstation complaint. There'll be a team handling the day-to-day stuff, the routine monitoring, the cyber surveillance. Which means there'll be relatively junior personnel in charge of remarkably powerful equipment, particularly since Prince's condition means she can't be on site during the working day. And how likely is it, really, that the other Dukes completely understand the technology used by those staffers?

It's a situation ripe with potential for abuse.

Picture this:

OPERATION IRISH GIANT is bringing in great intel on a London-based Node. It might be the Satanic Order, or some well-placed patsy on Her Majesty's payroll - perhaps even a Government minister. All of this intel is coming from jacked smartphones, which Edom has cracked thanks to software provided by a well-known cybersecurity firm.

However the congratulations that echo through the halls at Ring soon go silent when it's discovered that a very important person - perhaps the Journalist, or Lord Godalming - is tracking down a story about hackers on the Government payroll who've been jailbreaking iOS phones in order to pursue private vendettas. This person broke phones belonging to his ex-wife, kids, and the ex-wife's new girlfriend, all as part of a messy divorce and custody battle, and they used the IRISH GIANT code to do it.

Now the very important person is about to go public with the story, whether it's a front page expose or embarrassing questions in the House. However if they do, then the good results from IRISH GIANT will be drowned out by the scandal.

The subjects will almost certainly discover the hack and change phones, but worse, the shroud of secrecy that protects Edom will be penetrated. The Dukes might find themselves the focus of the investigation, as journalists chasing the first story get sucked into the second, and ask very embarrassing questions about a secretive Government outfit that spends its time - and the taxpayers' money - on what appear to be pointless errands.

That leaves Edom with two problems to deal with. First, somehow silence the important person before this thing goes public. Second, track down whoever it is who abused IRISH GIANT resources. Was it mere incompetence or Conspiracy-inspired?

With a possible third option: perhaps it wasn't an internal problem. Perhaps it was the cybersecurity firm itself, using its software to bait Edom, and then hook it with a fictitious scandal. Why? Perhaps the firm's a Conspiracy asset. or perhaps it's in the employ of its home nation's vampire project. After all, crippling the competition is the name of the game.

That's it for this week! 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Vathek and the Burning Tower (Bookhounds of London)

The Needles bit inspires me to tackle some other short scenarios, but rather than use CoC 7E I'm going to pick a different system each time.

The scenarios will be stat lite, and no more than 2,500 words. Though GUMSHOE uses a scene-by-scene format, space limitations require limited scene-by-scene breakdowns.

This scenario is 2,423 words long.

This one will be for Bookhounds of London, and is nominally set in 1931 or later. It can't be earlier than that, as the fire referenced in the scenario didn't take place until then.


William Beckford (1761-1844), famed bibliophile and author of Gothic masterpiece Vathek among many other works, built the neoclassic folly Beckford's Tower on Lansdown Hill in 1827, to house his library.

This Bath landmark stands over the mile-long pleasure gardens known as Beckford's Ride, and it was William's habit to oversee his gardens from its 120 ft. height. It is crowned with an octagonal lantern decorated with gilt gold columns, and at its base are two drawing rooms, the Scarlet and the Crimson, both paneled in oak and richly appointed. The stairs that lead up the tower have 154 steps, and at the center of the spiral is a colossal polished granite vase.

In William's day he kept his vast collection there, and added to it. He would spend days picking through choice items, sometimes leaving notes in the fly-leaf to record his thoughts on the book's merits, or lack of same. When he died the collection sold at auction, and the property passed first to a publican, and later, thanks to a gift by William's daughter, to the church, which used the grounds as a cemetery. The Scarlet Drawing Room was converted to a chapel to serve the cemetery. Among those buried there is the Tower's architect, and Beckford himself, in a specially built pink marble monument.

The Tower was allowed to fall into an alarming state. By 1918 the Tower's condition is described as 'piteous and dilapidated,' and in 1931 a fire all but destroyed the Scarlet room, and very nearly brought the whole Tower down.

Since the fire a rumor has spread among bibliophiles that a fourth Episode of Vathek has been discovered.

When the original was published William left out three Episodes from Vathek's life, which were later incorporated into the novel after the author's death. This fourth episode is supposed to be a coda to the novel; the other three are the stories of Prince Alasi, Prince Barkiarokh and Princess Zulkais, but this fourth is the Story of Giaour, the servant of Eblis who lures Vathek to damnation. According to those who claim to know about it, the manuscript is annotated in Beckford's own hand, and was found at the Tower either shortly before or after the fire - accounts differ as to which.

Obtaining this manuscript counts as a Windfall for the store.

There are three NPCs of significant importance to the scenario: Alfred Drinkwater, a forger who intends to make a mint selling forged copies of the Episode, Parthena Quill, a devoted collector of all things Beckford, and the mystic Carathis - aka Molly Hannan - who claims to channel Beckford's soul and tells anyone who'll listen that the discovery is a fake.

Molly Hannan, before she became a mystic, used to work at the Faraday Building telephone exchange in London. In fact it's thanks to the exchange that she became a medium; she claims voices came down out of the phone lines and instruct her. When forced to return to London by Drinkwater's scheme she goes back to her old haunts. This important detail can be discovered with 1 point Oral History.

Image sourced from alondoninheritance.

Opening: The Bookhounds are made aware of the potential Windfall by Parthena, who asks them to obtain it for her. Parthena's scatty, but she has money to spare, and even if she didn't pay, the prestige that would go with a newfound Beckford is immense. Core History/Library Use: Beckford's life and the history of the Tower. Core Cop Talk/Forensics: judging by the published version of events, the fire was arson. Streetwise: the likeliest suspect is a known bibliographic firebug named Jimmy 'Topsy' Cooper, as he's not been in his usual London haunts recently but has been seen in Bath, allegedly acting as a book scout for an unknown third party - not that lazy Topsy would know a squiz from a top hat. Topsy came back to London the day after the fire.

The Bookhounds may try to: forge their own version, go to Bath to investigate, track down Topsy.

Forgery: The Bookhounds gather materials for their forgery, which means spending Forgery, Textual Analysis points and similar to build up a pool which will be used to create the end product. This represents buying materials, research, getting comparisons for Beckford's handwriting & so on. Doing so alerts Alfred Drinkwater. He's not best pleased that someone else is capitalizing on his scheme, so he sends some Rough Lads (p53 main book) to warn them off. The Rough Lads are instructed to Intimidate not damage, but things can easily get out of hand. Interrogation leads back to Drinkwater.

Drinkwater: The forger is in hiding. He's staying in a derelict tub moored just offshore in the East End, and he's paying the kids who play on the banks of the Thames to keep an eye out for anyone trying to find him. Streetwise or Bargain spends needed to creep up on him, otherwise it's a Fleeing check vs Drinkwater's pool of 8, increased by 2 due to the advance warning. If cornered and Intimidated, Drinkwater admits he came up with the scheme. The idea was to cause a small fire, and pretend that the documents were 'discovered' during or after the fire fighting, hidden behind some damaged paneling. Topsy was supposed to be the discoverer, and he was supposed to pretend to be a passerby who helped the firefighters deal with the blaze. Unfortunately his catspaw Topsy Cooper got carried away. This scene leads to Forger Found Out.

Forger Found Out: Shortly after Drinkwater is found, and either confesses all or runs away, Drinkwater is found dead near the banks of the Thames. His heart has been burnt out. Those who have read Vathek - 1 point Library Use - know that, at the end of the novel, the wicked Caliph, his attendants and his paramour all end up tortured by Eblis in Hell, their hears eternally aflame with the fires of damnation. Evidence Collection finds Drinkwater's copy of the Beckford manuscript, hidden away. Evidence Collection (1 point) notices that Drinkwater died a few steps from a phone booth, and appears to have been running away from it at the time. Leads to Windfall or No?

Bath: A few days after the fire and the place is still a mess. The church hasn't got anything like the money it needs for restoration, and an appeal has gone out for donations to cover repairs. Evidence Collection finds clear signs of arson. Streetwise/Reassurance finds that the local scoundrels are angry that a Londoner - Topsy Cooper, by the description - came to Bath to burn the Tower. Oral History (1 point) discovers that local mystic and medium Carathis is very upset about it, and has gone to London swearing vengeance. Carathis, as anyone who's read Vathek will know - 1 point Library Use - is the name of the Caliph's mother, a sorceress of considerable power. Carathis is known to claim to channel the spirit of William Beckford, one of Bath's prodigal sons. Leads to Topsy, Windfall or No?

Topsy: Can be found drunk out of his mind at one of his usual East End haunts, core Streetwise. In this state he'll tell anyone anything, but there are some Rough Lads looking for him - Drinkwater's goons - so the Bookhounds will need to dodge them first. Topsy spills the whole scheme, and also says he's terrified of a woman he met in Bath shortly after the fire, who threatened to kill him unless he told her who orchestrated the scheme. Leads to Drinkwater, Windfall or No?

Windfall or No?: By this point the Bookhounds ought to know the details of the scheme, have met Drinkwater, and probably have a copy of the forged manuscript, either their own version or Drinkwater's. If they don't have a forged version assume someone else, a rival bookseller, does - probably another forged copy, not Drinkwater's. The industry buzz is intense, and experts in Gothic literature flock to either praise or debunk the find. Then Parthena Quill, Beckford enthusiast and would-be purchaser, is found dead at her home, heart burned right out of her chest. Forensics knows the heart's a tough muscle; it can even survive professional cremation (of the period, mark you, not 21st century standards). The method of death strongly indicates occult involvement, possibly Megapolisomancy. Library Use (1 point) knows the Vathek clue as described in Forger Found Out. Reassurance / Oral History (1 point) discovers that Parthena's maid Dorcas saw Parthena arguing with a woman whose description matches Carathis a day before her death. Evidence Collection (1 point) notices she died with a telephone in her hand, part melted from some tremendous heat. Leads to Battle of the Experts, Chasing Carathis, Carathis Strikes.

Battle of the Experts: Several qualified and famous experts descend on whichever shop says it has the manuscript, demanding access. If rebuffed, they all declare the manuscript to be a fake, and the shop suffers a Reversal. If somehow placated or convinced, they declare the manuscript genuine, and the shop gains a Windfall. However placating them may require a combination of Forgery, Bargain, Reassurance and other appropriate abilities, as justified by the Bookhounds. The Experts, all three of them, have a combined total of 6 in their appropriate abilities. Treat this as a Contest, and the Bookhounds may choose to knock some of the Experts out of the running with Intimidation or similar, reducing the combined pool by 2 each time. Leads to Toxic Expert, Chasing Carathis.

Toxic Expert: If the Battle of the Experts seems to be going in the Bookhounds favor and the Bookhounds have not started Chasing Carathis, then Carathis acts against the idiot Experts prepared to believe such a ridiculous forgery. That Expert is found dead, his or her heart burnt out. Forensics as per Windfall or No? with the additional benefit that signs found at the scene indicate the force came out of the telephone, and may travel via telephone wires. The death of the Expert cancels any Windfall effect, as the others promptly declare the manuscript a forgery. If asked, on condition of anonymity the survivors say they're terrified they'll die next, and have been told as much by an angry woman whose description matches Carathis. They will never admit as much in public, and there is no chance of getting the Windfall back. This leads to Haunted Expert (Red Herring), Chasing Carathis, Carathis Strikes.

Haunted Expert (Red Herring): After Toxic Expert, one of the William Beckford Experts claims to have been visited in the night by the ghost of Beckford himself, swearing vengeance. In fact this is a lie, though it may not be a deliberate lie; perhaps the Expert's overheated imagination took over. Given the details in the Expert's account, the Bookhounds may mistake this for a Mythos entity attack, perhaps a Dust Thing. It's nothing of the kind. However if the Bookhounds don't realize this and waste time chasing it up, Carathis has time to beef up the paramental. Its Scuffling and Health each increase by 2, and it gains an extra +1 damage. Leads to Chasing Carathis, Carathis Strikes.

Chasing Carathis: Carathis has many friends in the fortune-telling and medium community. Oral History or Reassurance with these people tracks her down to a cheap flophouse in Soho. However if the Bookhounds didn't spend a point, then they still track her down but one of the people they talk to warn her they are coming, which means a Fleeing contest vs her pool of 6. If she Flees, she does so in such a way that leaves no doubt as to her Megapolisomantic powers, eg she vanishes into the shadows. Important: as her powers are linked to the telephone exchange, ideally this should happen within close proximity to an important point, eg. near a red telephone box or one of the many telephone exchanges. If caught and Intimidated she defiantly says she didn't kill Drinkwater, Parthena or the Expert, but she did cause them to die. 'Eblis knows! Eblis judges!' she shrieks. Leads to Carathis Strikes, Carathis No More.

Carathis Strikes: If Carathis is still active, and if she has already moved against the Experts, Parathena and anyone else who's annoyed her by taking William Beckford's name in vain, then she moves against the Bookhounds. She does this by going to the Faraday Building, using her Megapolisomancy to summon up the entity she calls Eblis, and sends that over the telephone lines that snake out from the Faraday Building Exchange to attack whoever is her target. Without access to telephone lines or the Faraday Building - which over years spent working there she has turned into a powerful Megapolisomantic Lever - she cannot do this. Ideally the Bookhounds will stop her before she kills again; from this point on she can always be found at the Faraday Building, which she knows inside out. She can hide in there for weeks if need be. Leads to Carathis No More.

Carathis No More: If Carathis is removed from the equation then the entity she called Eblis no longer has enough power to attack victims. It has just enough power to strike out wildly, which it will do, but once it runs out of juice this time it will fade out of existence. This ends the threat, and successfully concludes the scenario. If Carathis is not removed, then she will continue to direct the entity until everyone she thinks deserves punishment is dead. At the Keeper's discretion this may mean that she goes one fatal step too far, and Eblis turns on her, destroying Carathis. This is most likely to happen thanks to interference from the Bookhounds.

Epilogue: By the end of the adventure the Bookhounds should have dealt with Carathis, the paramental, and the Experts, and may have secured a Windfall for the shop. If any of the named NPCs somehow survived - particularly Parthena - they may become Contacts (p92) with an effective pool of 2 in any one Investigative ability. If Carathis survives then she goes back to Bath to stew over what happened, and she may try to get revenge. However the events of the scenario took a lot out of her, and the Lever she used at the Faraday Building is burned, so she can no longer summon paramentals.

The Paramental Entity: Summoned up by Carathis using the power of the City, and specifically the telephone exchange, this creature is semi-controlled by Carathis. However her control is not absolute, and if left to its own devices this rage-filled creature will go on a rampage.

Appearance: A darkness surrounding a telephone line, like a cloud of flies or similar, with a beacon of crimson at its center.

Abilities: Athletics 8, Health 6, Scuffling 10

Stealth Modifier: +2

Attacks: Electrical Surge +1

Special Tactic: On unmodified 6 Scuffling check, the entity targets the heart directly, doing +5 damage. 

Defenses: non-silver weapons do minimal damage, refresh 1 Health/round

Stability: +0

Note: if Carathis is taken out of the picture, Scuffling drops to 6 and it loses the special tactic.