Sunday, 24 September 2017

Ghost Town (RPG All)

I've been re-reading Salem's Lot, Stephen King's take on Dracula in a small New England town. It starts with two survivors on the run, who read about the ghost town that Salem's Lot has become. It is not the first town in American history to just dry up and blow away, and will probably not be the last, but it is the strangest ... The article goes on to reference the fictional town of Momson, Vermont, which also dried up and blew away back in 1923. I suspect King was drawing on the Bennington Triangle when he wrote that, particularly Glastenbury.

It got me thinking about ghost towns, and how useful they can be in fiction, and RPGs.

Ghost towns exist in every nation, in all parts of the world. More often than not they're unknown outside a relatively small area. To give you an example, I have on my shelf a coffee-table book about Abandoned New England - Its Hidden Ruins and Where To Find Them. I doubt anyone's gone looking for any of these places in years. The book was published in 1978 but more than thirty years have passed since then; what was a ruin in the 1970s is most likely a nondescript pile of rocks now. Point being that unless you own a book like this, or live in New England not far from one of these locations, you wouldn't have the slightest idea these places existed at all.

What is a ghost town, really? There are legal terms, of course; a town only exists as a town because it's been incorporated, and as such it can be unincorporated. In that sense the legalities aren't much different from the days when the Crown would issue a charter, or the Church establish a Cathedral. The forms have changed, but the basic principle remains the same: you can't call yourself anything unless you have the documents to prove it, and those documents can be nullified at any time by the powers that be.

However a ghost town is more than just a few forms. I think of it in these terms: first a town loses its ability, then its vitality, and shortly after that it becomes a ghost.

Its ability can be defined as the power, financial or legal, by which the incorporated entity serves its citizens. Once it loses that power, the town no longer serves its people. This can mean many things, some of which may not be immediately obvious. If a town can no longer provide or maintain drainage, the problem may not really be a problem until the first serious storm, at which point the town floods. That might not happen for years. On the other hand, if the town stops being able to collect and dispose of garbage, everyone knows all about it pretty quickly.

Its vitality is more nebulous, and refers to the interest its citizens take in the town's continued survival. Do they sit passively to one side, refusing to participate in town meetings, not bothering to support local initiatives? Do they volunteer when the town needs help? If there's a fire, do people show up to put it out? If someone goes missing, do they help search? If the answer to all these questions is negative, then the town lacks vitality and will most likely collapse at the first sign of trouble - say, when the garbage trucks stop showing up.

Without ability and vitality a town is dead - even if there are still some people living there. Many ghost towns have a scattering of people hanging on, like bats clinging to the exposed rafters of a burnt-out house. From a gaming perspective, having a few shell-shocked survivors dropping clues and adding atmosphere can be a very good thing.

Sometimes the event that causes a ghost town is immediate and devastating. Centralia, Pennsylvania is all but destroyed thanks to a coal fire that's been burning under the town since 1962. There are any number of small townships that went under thanks to fire or flood. Varosha in Cyprus was a functioning, thriving place until the Turks invaded, and since then it's lain derelict. Chernobyl in the Ukraine is probably the most famous example of a ghost town caused by a nuclear disaster. France's Red Zone is one of the most recent examples in the West of a populated area reduced to nothingness by war, though there are plenty of examples of this outside the West. We tend to think of war damage in terms of explosions and shrapnel, or of massacres like Oradour-sur-Glane that kill people but leave the town intact, but recent tests in the Red Zone showed dangerously high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, zinc - the soil is basically poisoned, as is the water and the animals who live there. The same will apply to modern battlefields, if not more so; they didn't have depleted uranium in 1914, after all.

However a town can also die slowly, often due to economic failure. We tend to think of the gold, copper and silver rush towns of the Old West and British Columbia when we think of economic failure, but really as a phenomenon it's all around us. Dying industries, the increasing use of automation, the transfer of factories from one state to another - as an economy shrinks, so do the townships that service that economy, until one day there's nothing left. Monotowns are particularly vulnerable to economic fluctuation, even in planned economies where the state has every incentive to keep the town afloat.

Sometimes a ghost town revives as a semblance of its former self. This most often happens when the town is revived as a tourist site or nature reserve, but it's difficult to really call a town a town if it no longer has an independent function. As a tourist site or reserve the former town loses all its impetus, becoming a parasite without any reason to develop further or to change in any way. In fact, change - and with it, growth - is the last thing these places can afford to indulge in.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Alexandria, in Egypt, was all but dead in the 1800s, boasting a mere 5,000 people when Napoleon took over. Yet under Muhammed Ali Egypt reinvented itself, and Alexandria grew; today it has over 4 million inhabitants.

Alexandria's example is particularly relevant to Keepers running a sword-and-sorcery or fantasy RPG. In fantasy campaigns cities are often portrayed either as fully functioning, or completely abandoned, but historically there is usually a long intermediary period when most of the city is abandoned, and yet it is still alive. There isn't a major city in Europe that hasn't endured shrinkage at some point in its career; London famously lost a third of its population during the Black Death, for example, and many cities lost closer to 60%. Imagine what that would have looked like: empty dwelling after empty dwelling, roads meant for heavy traffic now almost deserted, wild animals roaming the streets. And yet people still eke out a living there. The city still has ability, but has lost vitality. Dunwall in the Dishonored series is one of the few videogame examples of this kind of city: basically functional, but with the guts ripped out of it.

With all that in mind, let's talk gamification.

I think of ghost towns in small sandbox terms. There may or may not be a convenient central hub - a general store, an inn, a church - but the town's story is scattered roundabout, which means there will be different kinds of experiences to be had. Go one way, and find out what happened to the silver miners when the mine collapsed. Go another way, and find out what lurks in the old coach house. Go a third way, and see what's left of the miller's granaries. A fourth way to find out where the children who attended the schoolhouse ended up - and so on, and on.

It's a small sandbox because ultimately this is a small scale tragedy, in a game which can span continents or even dimensions. If your secret agents need to be in Istanbul next week, they can't spend a lot of time digging into the life story of a bar worker in Germany.

From a Keeper's perspective, I would take a series of notes either on index cards or on one of the many apps that mimic the index card format. None of this has to be very complex. A few lines per location is all that's needed. The key thing to bear in mind is all the minor stories that took place here need to be linked in some way to the major story.

So as an example, let's consider a ghost town in modern Eastern Europe, or a fictional non-Earth equivalent, abandoned after a massacre during a civil war or military incursion from a neighboring state.

The massacre is the major story. That's what robbed the town of its ability and vitality. All the town's leadership was rounded up and shot, and the few survivors of the massacre fled to neighboring towns and never returned.

All the minor stories reflect this and link back to it. The event was sudden, catastrophic and irreversible. There will be some battle damage wherever the characters look, but if it's an overwhelming event then there may not be a truly significant amount of property damage. This isn't like Guernica, where waves of bombers strike a sitting target again and again; this is more along the lines of the SS lining up villagers against a wall and executing them.

Let's further assume that the game mechanic includes something like Ars Magica's Regio system, or Ravenloft's Sinkholes of Terror, where reality can bend or change altogether depending on which level of reality you happen to be standing on at the time. So at its worst it can be a hellscape, and at its best a blasted and lonely place.

Therefore at its worst point - probably the town hall where the people were herded inside the building and murdered, or the mass grave where many of them ended up - the Keeper needs to do the most preparation. Two or three cards worth of notes at least, one of which is devoted exclusively to the supernatural entities certain to be found there. There will be several layers to the main hub, each more awful than the last.

However there are going to be other stories scattered about the town which are related to, but not part of, the main event. The farmhouse where a young mother was raped, her baby's brains beaten against a tree. The garage where frightened survivors hid. The fire station that was set aflame with the stationhouse dog still inside, soldiers standing around taking bets on how long it would survive. Each of these stories needs a brief description, one card's worth at least, which should include the location story, any debilitating effects - SAN or Stability loss - and perhaps a color point or two, like the red flowers that constantly bloom around the tree where the baby died, no matter what the weather. There may only be one or two layers to each of these minor points, just enough to hint at what happened here without going full Night on Bald Mountain.

If you, as Keeper, do that, then I'm willing to guarantee the players will remember this ghost town long after other, perhaps more action-packed, scenes. Horror isn't in the eye, but in the mind, Play with their minds, and who knows what you'll accomplish?


Sunday, 17 September 2017

Ripped from the Headlines: Fishtanks, Yachts, Bankers and Cuba

Ever wonder what it takes to hack into a casino? Or whether those wealthy tourists disembarking from that yacht are all they seem to be? Wonder no more! Searching for something new for your Night's Black Agents game, or looking for a special new toy for the opposition to play with? Read on!

Recently someone cracked a North American casino - name and location carefully withheld, according to the Washington Post - by way of its fish tank. The tank's systems were connected in order to monitor temperature, food, cleanliness; after all, it had to look its best. Since it was connected, hackers got into the casino's systems and stole 10GB of data, sending it all to a device in Finland, and from there God, and possibly the NSA, alone knows where. Nobody's saying what the data was. Best guess is guest information, credit cards, that sort of thing.

I've discussed this topic before, but it bears repeating. If your players are wondering how best to hack into a facility, the easiest route is via the weak point that is the Internet of Things.

Every single thing in that facility is connected to something. The fish tank needs food. Vending machines need to tell home base when they are empty. Lights and cameras need to sense activity. Projectors connect, as do thermostats, HVAC, plumbing, lavatories. Complex equipment, like tractors, may have multiple processes, some of which may have been modified by the owner, some of which may be set by the manufacturer to only accept its brand of maintenance. Every single thing needs to be managed, and that means it is vulnerable.

The facility owner may not even have full control over its systems. Recently there's been a ton of internet hate directed at the entrepreneurs behind the Bodega vending machine, because apparently they have no idea how marketing works and thought saying they wanted to destroy corner store bodegas would be a good idea. However my first thought wasn't 'oh no, my bodega,' because my nearest bodega is a few thousand miles away and I can't swim that far. No, my first thought was, 'here's a device that's technically managed by an outside agency, but you can bet your sweet bippy it'll be connected to the host's network.' Probably for no good reason either, but that's never stopped anyone in the history of anything. Which means that if the Bodega has a system vulnerability, then its host has a system vulnerability - and the same applies to every single outside agency device you care to name. The device might even have malware built right in.

In fact, there's a genius idea right there. Say your characters notice that the vending machine is supplied and maintained by XYZ Corp. Oh, no, it broke. Darn shame. Oh look, here's a new one - wow, that's fast service. Is anyone going to check and see whether the soda machine delivered actually is from XYZ Corp? Are they hell - so long as it supplies frosty beverages, the host's never going to question it. XYZ Corp will, so you need a workaround there, but apart from that you've an actual Trojan horse wheeled in and installed, dispensing all kinds of goodness, sweetness and light. Plus malware. Yummy. In Night's Black Agents terms, it's a job for the Wire Rat rather than the Hacker - but think of the benefits!

The next one's from this Guardian article about people smuggling. Many hundreds of thousands are fleeing Syria, some with much more money than the rest. For those with the cash, there's a better quality of service. Professionals, entrepreneurs and other wealthy migrants who couldn't get out by other means were paying a Turkish crime syndicate hundreds of thousands at a time to get them and their families out, on cruises best described as luxury desperation.

According to one Italian prosecutor, some smugglers were behaving like travel agencies, offering first, second and third-class accommodation. "It depends how much money you can pay."

We often talk about people smuggling in terms of desperation, hardship, and despair. The route to Italy has been described as the most lethal. Yet at the same time the rich buy their way out of that problem, and make the same crossing in Port Out, Starboard Home style.

As gamification, consider: this is the perfect route for an abandoned Conspiracy asset, Esoterrorist or other well-heeled undesirable to make their way out of a hot zone to somewhere more appealing. Dracula himself once used much the same tactic to get to Whitby, although he definitely travelled closer to third class than first. Finding an abandoned luxury yacht afloat in the Mediterranean is a good hook for a scenario, and this one has an added bonus: the crime syndicate that financed the cruise will be just as interested as the characters in finding out what went wrong, which makes them perfect second-string antagonists for the scenario.

An old one from Monaco: HSBC's banker to the rich and famous was arrested and charged over allegations that he siphoned close to $10 million from his clients' accounts. The banker, Stephen Troth, fought back by claiming his employers were the ones to blame, not him. That didn't work, and he was later arrested again in Monaco for kiting cheques. Before all this happened, Troth worked with Edmond J Safra, a banker who was burnt to death in an arson attack. The fire was set by Safra's bodyguard and nurse Ted Maher, who wanted to impress his boss by rescuing him from a blazing inferno, but only got the inferno bit right. Troth was part of Safra's old banking operation, and when HSBC took that over Troth went to work for HSBC.

Ordinarily I wouldn't delve too deeply in yet another banking scandal, were it not for the fact that it happened in Monaco, the microstate that's home to the rich and eccentric. All sorts of people can claim Monaco as their home, so long as they pay a hefty fee. Moreover, as you can see from the above truth defies fiction; if I'd tried to write that plot I'd be laughed out of every publishers from here to Hong Kong. It's got everything: the rich, lunatics, mysterious arson attacks, a disgraced money man claiming his trial is a cover-up for high level corruption, plus all the lavish trappings of wealth in the ritziest microstate in the world.

I've argued before that when designing supernatural threats the Keeper ought to make liberal use of history and folklore. People have been dreaming this sort of thing up for millennia; it's a cinch there's gold in there for Keepers, if only they sift for it. The case of Stephen Troth goes to show that the same applies to less supernatural plotlines. With just the information above I could come up with two or three Night's Black Agents plots without having to do much work; the same goes for you, Director.

Finally, news from Cuba: Canadian and American diplomats posted to Cuba are falling ill, and report a bewildering variety of symptoms, from speech loss and headaches to balancing problems and nervous system damage. Initial reports suggest some kind of sonic weapon is to blame, but nobody's sure what that weapon is - or even if such a weapon is feasible. Infrasound is supposed to have unusual effect on the human body, causing fatigue, panic attacks and, in extreme cases, hallucination. However an effect at this level is more akin to some kind of mad scientist's death ray than anything known to be in development.

The reports came in before Hurricane Irma, which caused considerable damage to Cuba. It would be interesting to know if the effect continues post-Irma.

Frankly, it's tempting to call this a psychosomatic illness. Even if you assume that such a weapon is possible, it's incredible to think the Cubans developed one - and what would be the purpose? A few diplomats sent home ill? Even if you call it a test run, perhaps conducted by the Russians rather than Cuba, there's less high-profile targets you could be testing it on. Nobody would give a damn if this was happening, say, in the Ukraine, except the Ukrainians, and frankly if the West isn't going to pay attention to actual missiles then it wouldn't blink at whatever this sound gun is - assuming it exists at all.

Israel's supposed to have something called The Scream and there have been attempts to make less-than-lethal sonic devices, but the known examples of those toys are very, very obvious when they go off. It wouldn't just be a few diplomats complaining of headaches; half Havana would hear it. Or, as with the Active Denial System, a device that acts on nerve receptors, it's large enough to be seen by pretty much anyone. However this whatever-it-may-be is portable and small enough to avoid immediate detection.

Psychosomatic effects can spread. Sick building syndrome is a bane of facility maintenance people and building surveyors alike as there's no agreed cause, yet, when it starts, an entire building's population may be affected - or at least say they are. Often there is no real cause, no mold or HVAC malfunction you can point to. People just get ill, and as soon as one person says they're suffering it's a sure bet half a dozen others will too - whether they actually are, or not. SBS can be caused by poor work/life balance and stress, factors that don't involve the building in any way, but once people get it into their heads that the building's at fault, nothing will persuade them otherwise. In many ways it's similar to hauntings; all it takes is one or two people spreading the tale, and before you know it everyone's chattering about cold spots and poltergeists.

Edit 12 October: I see I'm not the only one who thinks the whole thing might be psychosomatic.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Down Among The Dead Men (Esoterrorists)

Another short scenario, this time for the Esoterrorists.

The scenario is loosely based on this news item. A family discovers an SUV, wrapped in plastic, buried in the back yard. It seems to be in excellent condition, and not - as first feared - a body dump. The vehicle was reported stolen, and at time of writing the most likely scenario seems to be insurance fraud, though it seems a convoluted way of going about it.

Word count: 2433.


The Briefing

Lead-out: Sheriff Berry, Fool's Gold, The Previous Owner

Ms Verity summons the agents to Shawnee, the capital of Pottawatomie County, Oaklahoma.

[Pottawatomie: mostly white with sizable Native American population, land originally given to Creek and Seminole after their forced removal from Georgia and Florida, main income retail sales & manufacturing, with agriculture a significant earner, cotton, potato, peach. Shawnee: competed with nearby Tecumsah for county seat designation, finally won in 1930, former railroad hub, current agriculture and industry hub.]

She explains:
  • A week ago local media station KFOR reported the discovery of a buried, brand-new SUV on the property of Lucas Earley.
  • The SUV was discovered as Lucas was digging a new track for ATV racing. He rents out part of his property to weekend joy-riders, and was improving the track.
  • The SUV is a 2003 model and apart from being buried is in reasonable condition, given the circumstances. No bodies were found.
  • Local sheriff Shandra Berry has told reporters an investigation is ongoing, with insurance fraud the likely cause of the incident. The previous owner of the property is the most reasonable suspect.
  • According to Ordo records the previous owner of the property, Rick Parsons, is a known Esoterror asset who escaped Ordo surveillance during operation ROCK DAWN in 2004. Current whereabouts unknown; may have died in 2005 mass immolation Bowie, Texas, but insufficient physical evidence to confirm. 
The agents are tasked with investigating the SUV and confirming whether or not it has any Esoterror connections. Their cover for the operation is that they are acting on behalf of the insurance company, GEICO.

Sheriff Berry
Lead-In: The Briefing

Lead-Out: Fool's Gold, The Previous Owner, Parasites.

If the agents follow up with Sheriff Berry, preferably using some kind of official channel - Bureaucracy or Cop Talk, 0 point spend - she confirms Ms Verity's account and says that forensic examination has shown the vehicle was modified, presumably by the former owner, removing the steering wheel airbag to create a hidden compartment. This was almost overlooked, as the 2003 model had an airbag problem, so the non-standard cover was taken to be a recall/replace issue. The compartment had small traces of what the Sheriff is guessing will turn out to be narcotics. If the agents don't use Bureaucracy or Cop Talk then they still get the clue, since it's a 0 point, but Sheriff Berry checks up on them with their presumed bosses at GEICO, which will cause trouble down the line. See also Official Business.

However agents who spend 1 point Pathology or 2 points Evidence Collection notice that a significant number of the Sheriff's staff have come down with a viral infection - coughing, red/runny eyes, sore throat, blood-flecked phlegm - which mainly affects those who've had first-hand contact with the SUV. The Sheriff thinks this isn't relevant, beyond making her job that much more difficult with a quarter of the department off sick, including all of her forensic support and the mechanics she had looking at the SUV.

In fact the infectious agent, if studied, most closely resembles a variant of the Dependoparvovirus genus, not normally associated with infectious diseases. These don't usually trigger an immune response, and are often used in gene therapy. In this instance someone has modified it for use as a bioweapon. See also Parasites.

Parasites (alternate)
Lead-In: Sheriff Berry

Lead-Out: The Previous Owner, Official Business

The virus discovered in Sheriff Berry is one of the Esoterrorists' failed attempts to modify an Outer Dark entity, in this case the Glistening (main book, p57). 

The intent was to cultivate a much more biddable version of the Glistening and introduce the infection via contaminated cocaine, which is why the SUV was modified with a hidden compartment. However the experiment was not a success, and instead of creating a Glistening the Esoterrorist cell merely made an obnoxious infectious disease. It knocks the host out for a few days, and it can be fatal in a very small portion of the population - less than .001% - but the spores are nothing like the Glistening and do not create sessiles or drones.

However they are enough like the Glistening to give false positives for Evidence Collection and Forensic Entomology. A 0 point spend with either of those indicates that the Glistening is present; only spending points demonstrates that there is no real infection.

This may make the agents panic, possibly even call in FEMA-level backup. This moves the action to Official Business.

Official Business (alternate, reaction)

Lead-In: Parasites, Sheriff Berry

This scene assumes that the agents do something to provoke a hostile reaction from official channels. This means either they aroused Sheriff Berry's suspicions, or they over-reacted to what they thought was a potential Glistening outbreak.

If the former, Sheriff Berry starts surveilling them, gathering evidence for what she believes may turn into serious, even Federal, charges. A lot of her people are off sick, so she's doing this solo and on her own time. Treat this as an increase of 2 Difficulty to any General test involving criminal or semi-criminal activity, eg Infiltration to break into someone's house. Failure in this instance means that she's watching the agents when they attempt the criminal activity, and interrupts them at a psychological moment - like when they're making what they think is a clean getaway. Fortunately the agents can get around her with generous (2 point minimum) point spends of abilities like Cop Talk. Intimidation is a very bad idea, and may lead to shooting.

If the latter, then Federal agencies have become involved. Now the agents have to worry about being picked up by the FBI, which means point spends for Interpersonal abilities (Bureaucracy, eg) increase by 1 point and Difficulty for General tests involving criminal or semi-criminal activity increases by 2. The Feds are watching. Phones are tapped, electronic communications are being monitored, rooms are bugged, nondescript surveillance vans are in position across the street, and so on. This probably isn't going to look good on anyone's final report. Point spends will not get around the Feds.

The Previous Owner

Lead-in: The Briefing

Lead-out: Solitary Confinement, Psychobomb

If the agents chase up the Rick Parsons angle, then they discover (core clue Cop Talk, Fingerprinting, Bureaucracy) that according to state and local records Rick Parsons fled the state back in 2003, one step ahead of an assortment of charges of which the most important are an assortment of federal firearms beefs. The ATF would very much like to know his current whereabouts. Ordo records suggest but cannot confirm his death in 2005; however at about the same time, a Robert Peters was arrested in Maryland for assault, and thanks to a less-than-spotless prison record he's still in an Maryalnd lockup. Fingerprint evidence and Evidence Collection strongly suggest that Peters is Parsons, operating under an alias.

He's also become one of the more important members - a lieutenant - in the prison's Dead Man Incorporated gang. His specialty is contract killing and he has a reputation for being impossible to kill thanks to his unique tattoos (-2 armor, magical ritual). He's been spreading the Esoterror message throughout the system since his incarceration, and he won't be happy to see the investigators.

Assuming the investigators get to see him (Law 0 point) then Interrogation (0 point) or similar shows he's surprised to hear his old SUV turned up. He thought that thing was gone for good. It was involved in some kind of Esoterror stunt, but he's not about to say what. Interrogation or Bullshit Detector (1 point) indicates he thinks he can work an angle, maybe use this information in some way, but it's not clear how. He does let slip that his brother will help him, but records show he has no brother. Perhaps he means a gang brother.

Paying attention to the other prisoners (1 point Streetwise or similar) notices that many of them refer to 'Loco' or 'Loco Man' in terms of reverent awe. Loco, they say, is an inmate, but he's not just any inmate: he's special.  He looks like a heavily tattooed George Raft, is an expert brawler and killer, and wears correctional clothing so perfectly clean and pressed you'd think he had a personal valet. He runs the DMI in this prison, and thanks to Peters he's well on the way to becoming an Esoterror asset. Upsetting him, or challenging him in any way, could lead to a riot. However judging by the artwork in his cell - drawn by Loco Man himself - he's a few steps away from summoning a particularly unpleasant Outer Dark entity - a Brutalizer. If the agents leave him alone, they're going to hear from this prison again soon. Antagonizing Loco Man leads to Psychobomb.

Investigating Peters' cell finds his carefully hidden (0 point Evidence Collection) ritual diary, in which his plans for this prison, and the plan to become a Discarnate, are carefully encoded (1 point Cryptography or Occult Studies), buried among a lot of uncoded stuff about his nightmares and other psychobabble. Information found here can help uncover his dig sites (cf Fool's Gold).

Ordo influence (Bureaucracy 0 point) can get Peters transferred to an Ordo facility, but before that happens he shanks a guard and gets himself put in solitary. See further Solitary Confinement.

Psychobomb (alternate)

Lead-in: The Previous Owner

The Loco Man runs the DMI in this prison, which means that he runs the narcotics and smuggling rackets. Upsetting him leads him to start a riot, with the aim of shanking one or more investigators.

It starts with a fight between two inmates unconnected with DMI, in a room or corridor close to the investigators' current location. They're drug addicts acting under orders. The fight quickly escalates, and when guards intervene with chemical agents, baton and hard foam rounds, the prison erupts. Two guards are quickly taken prisoner, and the fighting gets totally out of control. The riot lasts for forty minutes, and only ends after the guards start using live rounds.

In the confusion, Loco Man and N=P number of DMI hard men seek out the investigators, attacking with razor blades, shivs, metal pipes and a four-shot homemade pistol. They want the investigators dead. If possible, Loco Man will capture one for a blood sacrifice, a made-up ritual he's basing on the things Peters has told him. The sacrifice won't do anything except weaken the local Membrane.

Solitary Confinement (alternate)

Lead-in: The Previous Owner

Lead-out: Fool's Gold

This scene occurs if Peters knows the Ordo has caught up with him.

Peters figures he's going to end up in an Ordo cell, and doesn't like the prospect. He immediately attacks another inmate, hoping to be put in solitary. This plan succeeds, and the prison warden isn't about to let him out again without Federal level clearance, which means 2 points Bureaucracy or 1 point Law.

However Peters has other plans. As soon as the door slammed shut behind him he began pouring accelerant, and by the time the investigators catch up with him his cell is ablaze. Nobody knows how he got the accelerant or a source of ignition in the cell, though Bullshit Detector or Interrogation 0 point tracks down the guard who helped Peters pull it off.

Peters' charred body is almost unrecognizable. In fact, an autopsy shows that the dental work isn't Peters', and 1 point Forensic Pathology discovers that his fingerprints have changed as well. It shouldn't be possible, but Peters somehow switched his body for someone else's - another prisoner. Peters is nowhere to be found, certainly not in the prison. Investigators who remember the briefing note about the mass immolation in Bowie, Texas may wonder if this is the same trick.

Fool's Gold

Lead-in: Solitary Confinement, Parasites, Sheriff Berry

Lead-out: Endgame

This scene assumes the investigators either go to the place where the car was found, investigate the car while it's at the impound, or both.

The 2003 model SUV is in remarkable condition, given that it's been buried for almost a decade. It doesn't run, but with cleaning and some very minor restoration it could be made usable. It's a standard model, with some modification (cf Sheriff Berry). However there's something about it that makes people very nervous; Stability 3 test to work on it or be near it for longer than a half hour. This is because, before he buried it, Peters/Parsons went to a great deal of trouble to make it suitable for use as a Discarnate host (cf main book p55-6). He just didn't go that final step, because before he could get started the Ordo closed in and he had to make a break for it.

This is also why Peters/Parsons went to such lengths to bury it. Investigating the dig site (core Occult Studies) notices that, at the bottom of the hole, there's a space in which the ritualist is meant to commit suicide, providing the spirit to power the Discarnate.

In theory the investigators can short-circuit this plan by having the SUV crushed or otherwise destroyed. However if Peters/Parsons realizes that the SUV has been uncovered, then he escaped - Solitary Confinement - and quickly made his way to another suicide spot, hidden on the vast extent of his former property. There he completed the ritual, and the Discarnate is now active.


Lead-in: Fool's Gold

Either the investigators alerted Peters/Parsons, and therefore the Discarnate is active, or they did not.

If they did, then the house Peters/Parsons lived in is now a Discarnate killing machine, and its first victim is either Sheriff Berry or the people who now live on what was Peters/Parsons' property. It then targets the investigators. In this version of events, the SUV is almost as important to the Discarnate as the cultist's corpse, and destroying the SUV reduces the damage done by traps. Where a discarnate normally does (13-N) damage to a victim, it now does (9-N).

If they did not, then shortly after dealing with the SUV - presumably destroying it - Peters becomes aware of what they've done. He stages a prison break with (N= 0.5P) DMI goons, and tracks the investigators down if they're still in Pottawatomie County. His first victim, as above, is Sheriff Berry or the people on his property, but he'll definitely want revenge on the players. As an ordinary cultist Peters/Parsons is much less dangerous, but he will have had time to steal a shotgun and a couple pistols or knives for his DMI buddies. In this version Peters/Parson still has his damage reduction, but no other magical abilities.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Sax and Violence: Writing Pulp

My grandparents owned New York editions of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu and Yellow Peril novels, and when I was young I read them when I waited at their house for my parents to finish work. The last in the series is The Hand of Fu Manchu, which I think must be the New York printer's name for The Si-Fan Mysteries, first published in 1917 and intended to be the last adventure featuring sinister doctor and polymath Fu Manchu. Not that it was; Rohmer's bank balance couldn't stand the loss of his most famous character, and Fu Manchu material kept getting published even after Rohmer's death.

I couldn't call his work good writing. In fact, it's bloody awful, and that's before you consider the racism. However reading them makes me realize the strength of pulp fiction, so now I'm going to talk about pulp, and how Rohmer works his magic.

Because it is magic, let's face it. Nobody has his output - his successful output - without a little magic. It's very much of it's time and there's no chance in hell you could get away with exactly the same thing today. However there are writers who've come close. Why? Well, let's see.

The Yellow Claw opens in a writer's garret. He's busily working on his latest epic, and he's all alone in the apartment. Without warning, a woman clad in civet furs - and nothing else - bursts in on his reverie. She faints. He rushes off for help, and by the time he returns with a doctor the woman is dead - strangled.

We're 11 pages in.


She's not just afraid, she's naked and afraid. She's not just dead, she's dead in his flat, and strangled. Moment piles on moment like a freight train crashing into a tunnel, crushing cars and bodies in hell's own bonfire. Every new scene should be a fresh horror.

Also from The Yellow Claw: the menace in this novel is, you guessed it, a sinister Chinese known only as The Yellow Claw, aka Mister King. The reader never sees his face, knows his identity, guesses his plans. Whenever he intrudes into the action we see his sinewy hands, but never the man himself. Even in the final moments, when his ship sinks with all aboard, the last we see of him is his terrible hands clawing at the hair of a poor unfortunate, to drag her down to drown with him.

So, lesson #2: never reveal.

If you can get the same effect with just a brief glimpse, then do that. A Nosferatu, when seen straight on, has nothing left to offer by way of shock, horror, or effect. By the time the players see it, they're already calculating its stats and possible ways of killing it. Whereas if they never see it at all, if they just see the effect it has and the damage it does, the effect is much greater.

Val Lewton did exactly the same thing in his films, and he was right to do it.
Cat People is a prime example, but there are plenty of others. Never reveal if you can avoid it.

This one's from Dope. "Sin Sin Wa is a marked man," says Seton Pasha, secret agent. "He has the longest and thickest pigtail I ever saw on a human scalp. I take it he is a Southerner of the old school; therefore, he won't cut it off. He has also only one eye, and while there are many one-eyed Chinamen, there are few one-eyed Chinamen with a pigtail like a battleship's hawser."

This pigtail is a huge part of Sin Sin Wa's character. It gets a mention in every scene he's in. He strangles at least one person with it. Yet ...

[Sin Sin Wa] raised his hands and began to unplait his long pigtail, which, like his 'blind' eye, was camouflage - a false queue attached to his own hair, which he wore but slightly longer than some Europeans and many Americans. With a small pair of scissors he clipped off his long, snake-like moustaches ...

Lesson #3: confound expectations.

Villains are smart. They know the value of a good disguise. More importantly, they know how to get the heroes to underestimate them. The day will come when that will cost the heroes dear.

From The Hand of Fu Manchu comes Lesson #4: Never can I forget that nightmare apartment, that efreet's hall!

The closing chapters take place in the home of Sir Lionel Barton, the world-famous explorer. He recently took possession of Graywater Park, formerly a fortress, a monastery, and a manor-house. Sir Lionel keeps a menagerie of big animals - leopards, lionesses, a couple Hyenas - in the extensive crypt beneath the chapel, because of course he does. And the house is supposed to be haunted, because of course it is. Yes, there are secret rooms walled up and forgotten since the Middle Ages. In fact the Spanish churchman who now haunts the place is supposed to have died in that mysterious chamber, which is, of course, a torture room with still-functioning equipment. And yes, to complete the picture, there is a secret tunnel that leads out of the Park to a hidden coastal cove, where Fu Manchu's yacht waits to whisk the Devil Doctor away.

In short, it's never just a house. Pack the place full of whatever you can think of. If there's even the slightest excuse for something mad, bad and dangerous to know hidden away in a back room, by all means put it in. If you need there to be a tunnel, then there's a tunnel. Maybe mobsters built it during Prohibition, or maybe it's part of an abandoned mine, or maybe ghouls have been digging under the walls of this place since time immemorial. Find a reason, however contrived, and use it.

Somewhat related to #4 is Lesson #5: double down on everything, especially the squick.

In Tales of Chinatown: The Daughter of Huang Chow, the hero discovers the hidden jewel hoard of Huang Chow, guarded by the most gigantic spider which he had ever seen in his life! It had a body as big as a man’s fist, jet black, with hairy legs like the legs of a crab and a span of a foot or more! Naturally one bite from this thing is instant death, and of course it lives in a lacquered Chinese coffin and is fed birds to eat, so that the stench of decayed flesh wafts from its nest.

Make sure every aspect of the thing screams for attention. It's not just a venomous spider. It's a spider whose body is as big as a man's fist, and which lives in an ornate coffin stinking of rotten flesh. That way, when it skitters across the room towards its prey, the prey is absolutely certain this thing is bad, bad news. There's no 'I might make my saving throw' with this creature. The only possible outcome is death - if it gets close enough to bite.

Finally there is Lesson #6, and this time I'm not going to quote from any one story, because this is present in every single story: pile the corpses high.

If someone isn't dead every other chapter, it isn't pulp. Preferably dead in some awful, soul-destroying way, so you know that the victim suffered before they died. Moreover death is no respecter of persons: anyone can die, at any time. Especially women, in Sax's case, but really, anyone's fair game.

The only possible exception to this is the villain, who can die, but preferably in such a way that there's still a chance the villain may return. In games where being undead is a thing, or brains are kept in jars, there's an obvious route. However the typical method is to have the villain die in such a way that the body's never found, or found in such a state as to be unrecognizable, leaving open the possibility of a body double.

This trope can get annoying if overused, so best to save it for the real, honest-to-Satan Villains. Henchmen, even the very important ones, only live once. Moreover there are ways to make the Villain's return intriguing, in such a way that the return is forgivable.

For example, in The Hand of Fu Manchu, the Devil Doctor returns as The Man With The Limp, even though the heroes know for a fact he was shot in the head the last time they saw him. Indeed he was. That's why he walks with a limp; he has permanent brain damage, because the bullet's still there. Which is why he kidnaps Doctor Petrie halfway through the novel - he needs someone to help him remove the bullet, and he knows he can rely on Petrie because he also captured Petrie's lover Kâramanèh. Unless the good Doctor cooperates, Kâramanèh's goose is cooked.

If Fu Manchu had just come back to life, it would have been boring. This way, not only does he return, he does so in such a way that the hero has to become involved, and an entire scene is devoted to what happens as a consequence of Fu Manchu's survival.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!