Sunday, 24 June 2018

Rats In The ATM (Night's Black Agents, Mumbai)

Only time for a quick one this week as there's a lot on. Among other things I'm directing a play - first read-through today - and making a cheesecake for my birthday, cos I like cheesecake. ;)

This one borrows from Ken Hite's Looking Glass Mumbai as well as this article about an ATM whose contents were devoured by rats.

Now to the story seed:

Making Bank

This broadcast is a one-day silly season attention getter for most media outlets, but for the agents it's a different story. There's enough detail in the Indian press to indicate the involvement of a Bhuta, possibly more than one. Although the Western press have only picked up on the ATM incident it's clear from Hindi outlets that this is the third incident of its type in the last three weeks. It's the first to involve an ATM; the other two were less eye-catching. Interesting side note: all three events have taken place within walking distance of Antilia, allegedly the largest private home in the world. Moreover a 0-point Traffic Analysis or similar discovers that at least one member of the Antilia's staff were near or on the site of each incident moments before it occurred. In fact a senior staff member was the last person to use the ATM before its rodent infestation. Is this Conspiracy action, or something else?

Option One: Unwelcome Guests. It's a curious fact known to few (1 point High Society or similar) but the family that built Antilia don't live in it. They hold parties and events there, but as soon as the last guest leaves so do they. Rumor has it this is because they fear bad luck; experts say the building has bad Vastu Shastra. The experts aren't wrong; the building has become a magnet for Bhuta. In fact the building is so crammed with spirits that some of them are ranging out into the wider world in search of excitement. The staff are very well paid and know better than to tell anyone about what's going on, particularly foreigners; no amount of reassurance or bribery will work on them, though Intimidation mixed with Occult Studies or Vampirology might. It's not the Conspiracy this time - but getting too close might get someone hurt or killed.

Option Two: Shot Across the Bow. The local Conspiracy Node is leaning on Reliance Industries, which is controlled by Mukesh Ambani, owner of Antilia. Reliance is in a range of different industries from petrochem to telecom, retail, and special economic development, so the Director's free to choose which of those lines the Conspiracy is interested in. Reliance also does business with Russian interests, so depending on the nature of your Conspiracy it might be his Russian friends that got him in this fix. Regardless, the Conspiracy is making its position plain: so far we haven't hurt you - but we could. Submit. Rescuing Ambani from this threat could earn the agents a powerful friend, the kind that can grant Excessive Funds.

Option Three: Good Staff is Hard to Find. A senior member of staff (of a total of 600) has drifted too close to the vampires. She might have found a Conspiracy asset or an unaligned bloodsucker, but whichever it was snacked heartily. The staff member didn't quite die, but it was a very close thing. Now her paramour wants to seal the deal - it wants a loyal Renfield at Antilia, and thinks the staff member is ripe for the plucking. However the frightened woman is hiding in Antilia, and there is some Bane or other preventing the vampire from getting in and taking what it wants. The Bhuta are a side-effect of the vampire's presence; it can't get rid of the things, much as it would like to.


Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Forger (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

This post is inspired by this article about Sotheby's latest acquisition: James Martin, an expert whose scientific mastery helps him spot fakes.

In the Dracula Dossier there's one story seed and one Node that could be affected. The Node is the Extraordinary Objects Department, and the story seed is the Portrait of Dracula by Francis Aytown, created in 1894.

Sotheby's offers a five-year money back guarantee in the event of a forgery, so it has every incentive to make sure it sells genuine artwork. Leaving aside that expense there's insurance to consider: every time it has to make a claim, premiums skyrocket. That's why it brought Marin and Orion Analytical on board.

The Extraordinary Objects Department handles strange, unusual and unique items from around the world. Everything it sells is scrutinized by experts, to ensure fakes don't slip through the net. Now it has the best scientific examination equipment and personnel on offer. Assuming the EOD is either an Edom or Conspiracy asset, why would it do that?

If an Edom asset, then it's because the EOD is stepping up its game. Orion isn't just expert at spotting forgeries: it has the very best anti-Vampire equipment Tinman has to offer. Anything found in the field or brought in by outsiders is subject to its scrutiny. The department's Recovery Team is the beneficiary of this new scientific wisdom, and is much more likely to spot either Conspiracy influencers or fake vampire-related artefacts. It's also going to be much more capable in the field, should it encounter something a little more dangerous than the norm.

If a Conspiracy asset, then it's because the EOD is trying to make itself look good. Too many dodgy artworks have gone out into the world, and people are getting suspicious. There's only so many times the jug can go to the well before it shatters, so Martin is the "new broom." He's not supposed to uncover anything; his job is to cover up the Recovery Team's activities. If brought on as an innocent, then the Conspiracy will be actively trying to corrupt him, and the agents might try to use him as a way into the EOD. Alternately he might be a Renfield, or even a full-fledged Vampire, the new, unofficial head of the Recovery Team.

Then there's that Portrait of Dracula. If it's a forgery, then Orion Analytical should spot it easily enough. That might lead somewhere interesting, depending on who the forger is. However it could be more interesting to use Aytown's portrait in a different way.

Francis Aytown is hardly the world's most renowned Victorian-era artist, and his Portrait is never going to be worth anything to anyone other than a small circle of vampire hunters. However there are plenty of other artists of his era whose work is worth a great deal more.

As the article points out, there's only so many times anyone can forge a Da Vinci.  "The technical skill needed to forge a Leonardo is colossal," says expert Georgina Adam, "But with someone like Modigliani it isn't." Aytown is in the Modigliani ballpark - someone who wanted a canvas of the right age to forge an "authentic" Modigliani might use the Portrait as a base. In fact, a canvas of Aytown's vintage is even better; Modigliani famously tried to destroy all his early works, so someone wanting to forge an early Modigliani that escaped destruction would love to have an 1894 canvas to work with.

If the Portrait is a minor item, then the deception could be uncovered by Orion. However there probably wouldn't be enough left of it to be useful. The process of preparing the canvas for re-use would have destroyed the original.

Suppose it was a Major Item, with all the psychic essence that implies. Suppose a part of Dracula is in that canvas. Imagine being that forger, working with it every day, having it eat into your soul. 

Story Seed: Dash of Color. The agents are alerted by an art-knowledgeable Contact (Journalist, Art Historian, Sculptor) who points them at a recent scandal in the art world. A Modigliani passed as genuine by Sotheby's has turned out to be a fake, but in a peculiar twist the owner not only refused to accept that she'd bought a fraud, she also committed suicide - cutting her throat while standing in front of the alleged Modigliani. Forensic analysis at the scene notes that there ought to have been blood splatter all over the painting, but not a drop can be seen on the canvas.  

The painting is currently in the possession of the Metropolitan police, but it might not be there long unless the agents intervene. A group who, while not part of the Conspiracy direct, are Conspiracy-adjacent, intends to steal it. This might be some of the Psychic's hangers-on, or the Madman; whoever steals or tries to steal it is highly motivated. Almost psychotic, really - and they show signs of vampiric infection. Former Renfields or unaligned/feral vampires are likely to be members of this group.

Tracing the fake through Sotheby's to the seller discovers that the vendor acquired it from a forger working in an East London garage. It might be the Sculptor, or someone hired by the Sculptor. Whoever it is has a highly sophisticated set-up in that garage, but it's all for naught; the forger's been going slowly out of his mind ever since he worked on that piece. The studio's covered in renditions of the original Portrait, but he can't quite get the likeness.

Meanwhile the Portrait is asserting itself, underneath all that fake Modigliani. The more blood it gets, the more like the original it becomes. If it can get enough sacrifices - perhaps provided by its new owners - the Portrait will be exactly as it was before the forger got his hands on it.


Sunday, 10 June 2018

Time Horizon & the Conspiracy - Night's Black Agents

Time Horizon: Shareholders are concerned about the long-term financial prospects of their company, because the value of their shares depends on expectations for the long-term future. In contrast, managers might only be interested in the short term. This is partly because they might receive annual bonuses based on short-term performance, and partly because they might not expect to be with the company for more than a few years. ICSA Definitions in Corporate Governance.

It occurs to me that the Conspiracy in Night's Black Agents is relentlessly anti-Capitalist. Which will come as a shocker to you, I'm sure, but consider - even the Mafia operates on a kind of managerial reward scheme, with bonuses and benefits. The Conspiracy does not.

If you're middle management in this organization, you don't get bonuses based on short-term performance. Vampires don't care about the short term; their interest is strictly in centuries. Their servants, being mortal, would probably like to think about short-term benefits, but that would be a huge mistake. If upper management ever got the idea that the chair moistener from section 7G was developing strange notions, that foolish dreamer'd be off to the slurry pits.

So what keeps this organization functional, bearing in mind that it doesn't operate in the same way a corporation would, with salary bumps, bonuses and other rewards? Why become middle management for immortal psychotics?

1) The alternative is worse. Say you're a criminal, whether part of an organized crime network or just a talented freelancer. It's not like you can go to the cops for help. They'll just dump you in the slammer or the booby hatch, and that assumes you live in a relatively civilized nation rather than one where the authorities shoot you on sight. Plus, there's always death. Only one kind of person climbs out of the coffin, and you're pretty sure it's not you. The threat of death works on just about anyone, particularly if it's a suitably messy and prolonged death.

2) Sweet Toys. There might not be much hope for you, but at least there's plenty of fun to be had while you're still above ground. The vampires have access to all the best stuff - seemingly bottomless bank accounts, narcotics by the boatload, pretty people and booze. There's enough to numb the senses and stop you asking the important questions, like how long you can expect to enjoy all this.

3) Obliviousness. Very few people in the first two levels of the network are going to know who they work for. All they know is they get slipped some cash and aren't encouraged to ask questions. That plus the various vampiric powers of mind control and memory wiping ensures even the more inquisitive chair moistener never realizes what she's involved in. It's like the guys and gals at Enron; one day they had jobs, stock options and a future. Next day they're clearing their desks.

4) Ambition. Sure, you're not part of the in-group now. In time anything's possible. Play the game, keep your head down, and maybe one day …

However there's one big problem with this system. It's very vulnerable to abuse, but not the kind you may be thinking of.

Barings Bank sank thanks to a rogue trader, Nick Leeson. Soc Gen nearly went belly-up thanks to Jerome Kerviel. Kewku Adoboli made the management team of UBS look like chumps and lost over $2 billion. Toshihide Iguchi burned through $1.1 billion.

Weak management, ethical vacuousness, regulatory deficiency and a culture of deference to success leads to trading disasters time and again. The Conspiracy often has its claws in multinational corporations or banks, but it's a cinch that the vampire masters aren't sitting down with the audit team every other month and going over risk factors and daily trades. Maybe I'm wrong, but I can't see Dracula poring over annual reports and crunching numbers. That's what Renfields are for.

Problem is, if you don't understand what your company is doing then you risk someone taking advantage - and then you're really screwed. Barings went belly-up, after all. Vampires are the shareholders in this parable, but shareholders are seldom activists. They want their company to succeed, but they often don't pay enough attention to the inner workings of the company to ensure its long-term survival. When disasters happen, often the first sign the shareholders pay attention to is when the share price sinks below sea level - and then it's too late.

Picture the scene: ashen-faced government ministers in close conference with solemn lawyers and suicidal bankers plan strategy and write and rewrite policy, as queues of people line up in front of whichever financial institution is going belly-up this time. One man's face is on every television screen. Nobody knows exactly where he is; he was last seen boarding a flight, but never arrived at his destination - or if he did, he went straight into hiding. Billions of dollars went with him. Forensic accountants are still plumbing the depths of his secret off-books accounts.

Meanwhile the vampires are having a meltdown, because when that trader went off into the never-never so did their schemes for world domination. "What do you mean, the money's all gone?"

Worth watching.

After all that, a scenario seed:

Sunday Morning Coming Down

Hook: Through cutouts, a financial whiz-kid asks for a rescue. The whiz-kid is in a major European city, and wants help getting from there to Dubai completely unobserved. The outside world has to think he's still at home for at least 48 hours after he makes a break for it.

Wakeup: Any reasonable plan gets the target to Dubai as agreed. However very soon after they get there the agents see their faces on every TV screen, newspaper and financial webpage. Where is the whiz-kid? He's alleged to have brought about the complete collapse of the financial institution he worked for, and the depths of his bad trading have yet to be fully revealed. The agents are linked with his disappearance, and it soon becomes clear this is because the whiz-kid planned for that to happen. Meanwhile the whiz-kid has completely vanished; he has contacts in Dubai who helped him give the agents the slip.

Blowback: Initial Heat gain is substantial, but the first hit team isn't human. The vampires had a substantial interest in the collapsed financial institution, and are desperate to get the whiz-kid back. There's always a chance not all the money's gone, but only he knows exactly what happened and where everything went. This is why the whiz-kid burned the agents. As far as he's concerned they're meat shields, to stop the vampires from closing in on him before he made his getaway.

Stall: Continuing the search in Dubai is a bust. The whiz-kid came here because he wanted to get to an international airport hub with links all over the world. He could skip to Toronto, London, Kenya, Manila or anywhere in-between. He has friends at the airport who helped him confuse the trail by posting several different potential flights; tracking and Interrogating those friends will help find the whiz-kid.

Twist: The country the whiz-kid fled to has its own vampire program, or - if it's somewhere like Manila - has been infiltrated by a foreign nation's program, eg China's. He has contacts who work for that program who've offered him asylum in exchange for all he knows. Those contacts are just as happy to feed the agents to the Conspiracy as the whiz-kid is - they'd far rather the Conspiracy was chasing the agents than tracking the whiz-kid. Because of this, the agents find themselves gaining Heat wherever they go; the opposition intelligence agency is tracking their movements and telling the world.

Big Boom: The agents are finally in the same city as the whiz-kid, as are the Conspiracy and the other intelligence agency. Just when it seems the whiz-kid is about to be cornered, the car/plane/train he's in goes up in a big fireball. Nobody has the whiz-kid, not the vampires, the spies, or the agents. Is this an assassination, the whiz-kid's final escape plan, something else? Whatever it is, the agents will need to deal with it and clear out quickly, before all that Heat becomes too much to bear.


Sunday, 3 June 2018

Playing With Real Toys: Monaco Yacht Show (GUMSHOE, Night's Black Agents)

This post is partly inspired by this Guardian piece about the perils of crewing a super yacht.

To start with, what is a super yacht?

Though luxury yachts have been around since the 19th Century, the number of super yachts has spiked since the 1990s and the rise of the mega rich. There’s no set rule for what is or is not a super yacht, but generally they have to be more than 45 meters long. That's for your ordinary rich person. The 100-meter gigayachts tend to be the exclusive preserve of Russian oligarchs and Gulf royalty.

They always have a permanent crew and luxurious accommodation capable of handling many guests. They can accommodate as many as they like while in port, but at sea  they're limited to 12 passengers unless they have specific permits saying otherwise. They have at least four decks above the waterline and two below. They are built to commission, which means no two superyachts are alike.  This one might have a gym, pool and sauna, and that one might have a working medical lab, a movie theatre, or massage parlor. It all depends on what the owner wants.
The industry is very gendered. As a general rule the deck crew will be exclusively male, and below decks crew exclusively female. This also means there is a strict age limit for female crew - "late 30s, and you're off," says one yacht captain
The biggest risk – and least recognized, at least by their owners – is cybercrime. The yacht’s Wi-Fi network is typically designed to be very strong; the owners like to be permanently connected. This means a super yacht’s network extends over a very large area, which lets people in the ship moored next door, or on shore, infiltrate it. Since most of the ship’s systems are interconnected a good hack team can get everything from the security camera feed to control over the navigation systems. Those with Data Analysis or using Digital Intrusion as an investigative ability know this as a 0-point clue. It bears repeating - the weakest link is always the internet of things. If you can crack any one device on that yacht, odds are it's connected to every other thing. It doesn't matter whether it's a projector, a fish tank, or the toilet. Once you're in, you're in.

Image taken from the Guardian, photographer Mark Thompson/Getty Images.

I've discussed Monaco before.

The annual Yacht Show began in 1991 and is organized by British events and publishing company Informa. It is held at Port Hercules, an ancient anchorage that dates to the 6th Century BC, Monaco's only deep-water port; the next event is scheduled for September 25th to 28th. The Show always lasts four days and includes over a hundred yachts and at least three times as many events. To give you an idea of the kind of event I'm talking about, when Informa bought the rights to the Show from the previous holders, it paid $1.4 billion. That's how much Informa thought it was worth in 2005.

It's a toy show for those who have the cash to afford the latest in marine architecture, prestige cars, and private jets. Whether you're interested in hardware, design, or accessories, you can find what you want at one of the hundreds of display stands dotted around the show. The most revered marine architects show off their newest creations, and discreetly deal with prospective clients in between chaperoning visits to their showcase yachts.

As with all things in Monaco security is heavy but discreet - the MYS site makes a point of thanking "the 35 security agents" who made the show a success. "The Monaco Yacht Show has identified 16 possible points of entry and access to the Show. One or several security agents will perform visual checks of bags of all types, and will ask those wishing to access the Show to open their jackets." Given there are 16 possible entry points and 35 security agents, it suggests that the heaviest security is at the entryway and there's minimal security presence once you're on the Show floor.

There's well over two hundred hostesses and support personnel whose comings and goings are controlled with access passes, for those agents wishing to make a more discreet entrance. There's a barrier for sea craft, limiting entrance to Port Hercules to those vessels with the appropriate security clearance sticker. Even then all passengers aboard need their own security passes. Sounds like a job for the Forger, though it should be noted that access to the best berths often depends not so much on the yacht's owner as it does on its captain. Seniority counts, even in Monaco.

Map taken from MYS.

Thrilling elements:

  • Polite but persistent security agents converge on a less-than-well-dressed attendee. Whether it's last night's liquor or natural talent that's making the attendee balky, this offers a chance to bluff past distracted security.
  • Glamorous twentysomethings in revealing outfits and stilettos breeze through the crowd, hoping to catch the eye of a super yacht's owner - or their more impressionable freewheeling children.
  • Calm and collected hostesses corral boisterous attendees, smiling at every less-than-funny joke.
  • Crowds gather around an impossibly cool thoroughbred car, eg an impeccably restored Shelby Cobra. The exhibitor discreetly takes the details of a potential customer.
  • Laughter and music from one of the yachts, as its architect hosts an impromptu cocktail party on the upper deck for potential buyers.
  • A brief flurry of excitement as an heiress' small dog escapes its leash and skitters through the crowd. Its owner, a couple minders and an embarrassed MYS official are in pursuit.
  • [Supernatural campaign, possibly an Occult spend] As has become traditional ever since the 2002 disaster, a special sacrifice of food and beautiful women is made at the opening ceremonial party in honor of Hercules whose port this is. Not that anyone dies - the women are ceremoniously dipped in the harbor. Tradition has it that Hercules, or his less-than-heroic twin Iphicles, attends the Show in secret, and any offense given to the God shall be repaid a hundredfold. 
Finally, a Scene:

A Network contact or similar go-between wants the agents to infiltrate the Show and hack the yacht Mantra-Mukta, owned by Indian billionaire Lakshmi Jindal. The contact is very interested in obtaining documents concerning a takeover bid Jindal may be contemplating against an American Biopharma company, and believes that Jindal will have the information on the ship's server. Jindal will only be in port for a few days, and after the Show will sail away. The agents will need to be quick.

What the Network contact doesn't know is that Jindal has been Renfielded by a vampire unconnected to the Conspiracy. This trip is a discreet meet-and-greet arranged by the Conspiracy in hopes of inducting a new member to the fold. Both Conspiracy and non-conspiracy assets are on site, including a Bhuta who may or may not be the non-Conspiracy vampire. The non-Conspiracy vampire stays on the Mantra-Mukta at all times in a specially constructed bane-free stateroom, but the Conspiracy assets wander the Show as attendees.

Hacking the Mantra-Mukta requires a Difficulty 5 Digital Intrusion test, reduced to Difficulty 4 if the agents can lift a smartphone belonging to Jindal's dissolute daughter Chandni and piggyback on her social media accounts to get access to the yacht's network. Of course the agents have to get into the Show first, and that will involve either High Society spends, an appropriate Cover, or some creative Forgery. The hack can take place from the dock but if the agents want to get onboard the Mantra-Mukta by all means let them; they might accidentally wander into that forbidden stateroom … If it takes place from the dock, someone will need to distract attention from the hacker otherwise bystanders or Show security might get curious.

There are two ways to do the hack. The hacker can try to sort through the reams of data - everything from the crew's social media to Chandni's porn and more besides - to get the precise information they need. That takes time. Or they can download every single scrap onto their own device to sort through later. That takes less time, but might require more sophisticated equipment since there's a lot of data to download. 

The agents will notice extra security on site not all of whom are what they appear to be; the Conspiracy is taking its privacy very seriously, and has infiltrated and replaced the Show's security with some of its own people. For that reason even a successful Digital Intrusion gains not 1 but 2 Heat. Moreover Monaco takes its security very seriously, and even more so when a prestige event like the Show takes place. Any Heat-gaining activity involving overt violence, even a punch-up, generates 1 extra Heat.

In a Supernatural game in this location, Heat doesn't just mean the cops. It also means Hercules, or his twin Iphicles. The God having been propitiated, He's willing to help His people if they get in trouble. That means in any Heat encounter involving non-Conspiracy cops, the God may choose to give one of them His strength. This gives one security personnel an extra 12 points to spread among Athletics, Hand-to-Hand and Health. If it's Iphicles giving the benefit then the boosted security can be Intimidated or bluffed, but a Hercules-inspired guard is immune to such tactics. Either Hercules or Iphicles can be delayed or stopped by a willing beautiful woman and an Occult spend to find the appropriate ancient Greek incantation. A boosted guard can be identified by the aureole that temporarily forms around his head.  

In a game where the optional Double Tap Familiar Foe rules (p 52) are used, the Familiar Foe should be the Conspiracy asset in charge of the meet-and-greet. The Director should assume the Conspiracy asset, Familiar Foe or not, has starting stats equivalent to Special Police or Special Operations Soldier. Conspiracy guards have stats equivalent to Gendarmes, and ordinary Show guards are Civilians with personal defense training. One in four Show guards are equivalent to Police - the leadership cadre. Not all the Show guards have been bought off by the Conspiracy, but a considerable number have and there's no obvious way the agents can discover who has.

Given the number of high value people at the Show there are bound to be Bodyguards, but as there are no guns allowed on site they won't have firearms. On that note, unless the agents can think of a really clever holdout they don't have firearms either. They might sneak in a small handgun, but anything larger is right out.  

Once the hack is complete the agents have to make a Thrilling escape from the Show. Assuming the hack was an undetected success, the agents need Lead 6 to escape and might begin at Lead 2 if the Digital Intrusion succeeded by 2 or more points. If it was not, then the agents need Lead 14. In this instance "chase" means "discreetly walk away" rather than run, though stealing a luxury car and driving through the Show is an option, as is stealing a boat. Remember that all exits including the harbor are monitored by Show security. The Show is Cramped for chase purposes.  

Once out the agents need to leave Monaco quickly, especially if the Conspiracy knows they're out there. A successful hack completely spoiled their meet-and-greet; the non-Conspiracy vampire is very upset that the Conspiracy's bungled security let hackers lift its data. An unsuccessful hack is still annoying, since any attempt is bound to upset the non-Conspiracy vampire. At a bare minimum a Tier 1 response is called for, especially if the agents are foolish enough to hang around in Monaco.