Sunday, 30 September 2018

Neuf a la Banque - Gambling (Night's Black Agents)

Gambling (General Ability): You are conversant with the rules and etiquette of  all forms of gambling … but can you have fun doing it?

Doctor No's opening scene is the first time James Bond appears on the big screen. He'd been the hero of several novels before the movie's debut in 1962, as well as a television series. This was Connery's first shot at the role, and he made it iconic.

Most Night's Black Agents players take Gambling for the cherry, Luck of the Devil. It's certainly useful - exchange any die roll, yours or your enemies, for one you like better. However it'd be a lot more fun if gambling were more central to the plot. Or even the focus of a Thrilling contest; after all, most of the plot of Casino Royale is about an extended gambling contest. Where Bond goes, let your agents follow.

But where does Bond go, exactly?

In the novels gambling has two main uses. Bond uses his talents to expose cheats, like Goldfinger and Sir Hugo Drax at the start of Moonraker. In each case Bond is brought in by a third party to expose the cheater. In Moonraker M brings Bond to his club, Blades, to confront Drax quietly and discreetly. M knows Sir Hugo is cheating and can't understand his motives, but appreciates that someone as important to Britain's nuclear missile program as Sir Hugo can't be exposed to scandal. In Goldfinger, while on a stopover in Miami Bond is asked by a passing acquaintance - someone Bond met during Casino Royale, but only briefly - to help expose Auric Goldfinger's cheating methods. Bond agrees, and only later discovers that Goldfinger is also a gold smuggler HM Government's got its eyes on.

In each case the scene has several elements:

First, it happens right at the beginning of the novel. This allows Bond to meet the antagonist of the novel early, form an opinion of him, get a good look at his methods and his tricks. Any character flaws or incipient megalomania is on display early on. Moreover there's no chance of bringing the whole thing to a premature conclusion with a bullet. A casino or member's club is basically neutral territory and even if Bond were so inclined violence is not an option.

It's also very cinematic. Serious gamblers bent over an immaculate table, either wagering or watching someone else wager. The theatre of the casino, of each bid, raise and re-raise. The exotic unfamiliarity of things like the shoe - that leathery bag used when the cards are dealt. Baccarat's simple enough that after seeing a hand or two you get the gist - two cards dealt, high card wins, face cards don't matter. Which is why her eight falls to Bond's nine even though both had face cards in their deal. So you don't have to spend five minutes before the scene explaining how baccarat works, even though it's more complex than I described - you can just deal cards. Blackjack has the same appeal; if you can count to 21, you know how to play blackjack. Poker's become so ubiquitous most people can follow along, though the intricacies of play are daunting for new players. Which is probably why four of a kind features so often in movie card games; much easier to show four aces winning than wonder whether a straight beats a flush. Anyone familiar with a card deck knows four of a kind is the best you can hope for, and will presume it's a good hand without being told.

Compare that with the Bond backgammon scene in Octopussy. I can tell you now, first, double sixes are next to no use in backgammon except under certain specific circumstances. Second, anyone so reliant on crooked dice as Kemal Khan would have been kicked out of the club years ago. There's just no way that would not have been spotted by the club's manager, and private members clubs are very, very sensitive about their reputation. Cheats get kicked out double quick, and the clubs that don't kick out cheats are the ones nobody in their right mind joins.

Finally, scenes like these allows the protagonist - the agent - a chance to seize the spotlight. Bond dominates that Doctor No scene, and it reveals a lot of his character in very economic bite-sized bits. No monologues, no dancing up and down in front of the camera - just cool, collected play. You don't even see his face for a full minute, in a two minute forty seven second clip.

So from a Director's perspective what all that says is, first, pick a game that everyone at the table at least knows something about. Blackjack, poker - anything the Director thinks the players are familiar enough with that someone at the table might get off some Thrilling dialogue. If the Director and at least one agent knows the difference between a running game and a blocking game, about covering blots and a lover's leap, then by all means use backgammon. Otherwise steer well clear of games you don't know.

Second, the major antagonist can show up, and that includes everyone from the head of a Tier Three Node to Dracula himself. After all, just as the agents can't leap across the table and stab Dracula in front of all these pesky witnesses and security, so too is Dracula prevented from causing a total party wipe. This is a good moment for everyone to strut their stuff and show how cool they are, not to wet the table felt with blood.

Third, if the Director intends for some important Conspiracy henchman to play a major role, like Oddjob or Khan's bodyguard Gobinda, then that henchman must also be in the scene alongside the major antagonist. The henchman ought to do at least one cool thing, or threaten the agents in some way, as Gobinda does when he crushes the crooked dice in his fist.

Double Tap introduces some new Gambling clues and new cherries, All In and Everybody's Got A Tell, but doesn't include Gambling in the list of potential Thrilling Contests. I think more can be done with this general ability, so here's my advice to you.

Step One: Establish Stakes. This is never about the chips on the table. It's about people. In Doctor No, the card sequence leads to a seduction scene. In Goldfinger, Moonraker the novel and Octopussy the film, the gambling sequence is all about cracking the opponent by exposing weakness - cheating, every time. In Octopussy the stakes are even higher, since by using the Fabergé egg - the MacGuffin everyone's chasing - as collateral, Bond leverages Khan into a position where he can be beaten.

So what's the stakes? In Doctor No, 1 point Flirting. In Goldfinger, Moonraker and Octopossy, 1 point Intimidation, Notice or similar. The agent is buying pool points in an Investigative ability with his victory at the tables, and spending it immediately in play. The player sets the wager, in other words, and that wager can be anything. Need a sportscar for that chase scene you just know is coming? Some Streetwise so you can broker a deal with those Triads? Flirting to impress that minor royalty so you can leverage a ticket to that exclusive ball? Get it through Gambling.

Ultimately what counts as a stake is up to the agent and Director on the day. However I recommend that stakes be calculated in terms of Investigative pool points. A stake is worth either 1 pool point in an Investigative ability, or the equivalent benefit in ordinary items. Ordinary is defined in context as something that is useful but not the equivalent of a Bane, Block or similar advantage against supernatural foes. Higher stakes are worth more points. Anything gained at the table must be spent during the scenario; it cannot be saved for future scenarios.

I can see an argument for allowing Cover or Network points to be won at the table. Pools of this type are strictly temporary - the equivalent of meeting a Sylvia Trench at Baccarat and leveraging that into a Network contact, or spreading the rumor that the agent is a high-stakes gambler from, say, China who just blew into town for the night. The Cover or Network contact gained in this way is strictly temporary, and will not last longer than the scenario unless actual experience points are used to build up that Cover or Network contact.

Step Two: Establish Difficulty. The higher the stakes, the higher the difficulty. Difficulty 5 gets a pool point. Difficulty 6 gets 2 pool points or extraordinary equipment, like a Bane or Block. More extravagant stakes mean higher difficulty numbers, but ultimately the limit is Director's discretion.

Point being, none of this is essential so you needn't worry about denying agents access to core clues. The agent is looking for extras, and ought to be prepared to pay for those extras.

The pool point, or whatever it is, ought to be spent as quickly as possible. No saving this up for future scenarios - cash in those chips now. This is to discourage players who might otherwise stack up on extra points by repeated trips to the table. Also, it's in keeping with the genre. Bond doesn't wait till the end of Doctor No to sleep with Sylvia Trench, nor does he leave Auric Goldfinger to fleece his unfortunate victim unmolested.

Step Three: Establish Consequences. In Bond's world there are always consequences. When he beats Goldfinger's card cheat, Goldfinger responds by painting Jill to death. Kemal Khan responds to losing at backgammon by threatening Bond. Bond's victory over Sir Hugo Drax means he stands out later when M assigns him to look into suspicious events at Sir Hugo's research facility. So what happens to the agent when the agent wins at the tables?

Either 1 point Heat gain or a Level One Antagonist Reaction, Director's choice as to which. Ideally Heat gain occurs when the agent is not pitted against a Conspiracy asset, and Antagonist Reaction occurs when the agent beats a Conspiracy target.

This happens whenever an agent wins one of these contests. What happens when the agent loses?

Ultimately that depends on the stakes involved. In contests where only 1 pool point was at stake, there should be no consequences - beyond the Gambling pool points spent, of course. Loss of pool points, and a certain amount of embarrassment, is enough.

However in situations where 2 pool points or some other form of extraordinary benefit was sought, consequences should be the same whether the agent wins or loses. That means 2 points Heat gain or a Level Two Antagonist Reaction, whichever the Director deems suitable.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 23 September 2018

A Nation State Robbing Banks: 80 Million and a Spelling Error (Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired in part by Kento Bento's video about the biggest bank heist in modern history:

You may remember me mentioning this bank heist before, back in 2016 when not all the facts were in.

A couple quick points before I dive into Lazarus. Night's Black Agents Directors and agents wondering if Human Terrain is useful, wonder no more. Think about how cleverly this whole thing had to be coordinated: the thieves knew if they hit this particular bank on this particular day, and then transferred the stolen money to a bank in the Philippines, they'd be in the clear. Bangladesh, being Muslim majority, had its weekend on Friday and Saturday. The hack starts Friday. They come in on Sunday to sort out their problems, but they can't talk to their colleagues in New York because, on Sunday, their Christian colleagues are all off for the day. Monday works, but the bank in the Philippines, where the money is sent, is celebrating Chinese New Year, so it can't be contacted. That was fiendishly clever timing on someone's part.

Two, you may remember me mentioning a missing IT expert in the previous post. That expert, Tanveer Hassan Zoha, did turn up eventually. Detectives found him wandering near the airport and took him home, six days after he went missing. The IT expert claimed he could discover the identity of some of the culprits, and went with special police to the Bangladesh bank to have a look at the bank's records. Two days after that he was abducted from an auto rickshaw, and his family claimed the police were no help finding him. As far as I can determine his abductors were not caught. If he ever issued a public statement about his abduction, he didn't make it in an English language publication, as far as I know.

Bangladesh Airport connects to Hong Kong via Cathay Dragon, and Hong Kong is only a ferry ride away from Macau. That's where the alleged thieves went - it was a stopping point on their journey to North Korea, according to Kento Bento.

Which brings me to Lazarus Group, an entity that has been committing cybercrime since the early 2000s. Its earliest known attacks targeted South Korea, and it's alleged that the group has links to the North Korean government. This is difficult to prove, and might be a fake-out to throw blame on a believable straw man. That said, if anyone's going to think it's a good idea to back a group of crooks on a cybercrime spree, it's the dictator who may have poisoned his half-brother at an airport shopping concourse.

Lazarus has hit banks before, but banks aren't its only focus. It likes to hit South Korean targets, and allegedly was responsible for the Sony hack in 2014. The group demanded Sony withdraw its film The Interview, a comedy about an attempt on Kim Jong-un's life.

The Interview had so-so reviews and according to IMDB lost a ton of money - budget $44 million, worldwide gross something in the region of $12 million. Sony pulled the film from theatres in December 2014, allowing only a limited independent cinema release, and that after President Obama criticized Sony for giving in to terrorist threats.

Cybercrime experts Kaspersky Labs analyzed the Bangladesh hack, and give Kaspersky praise because it has nailed down the perfect hacking mini-scenario for Night's Black Agents Directors.

Initial Compromise. A single system inside the bank is breached with remotely accessible vulnerable code, perhaps through a webserver or a watering hole on a seemingly trustworthy website. The premise is simple: find a site you know the target visits, like a Chinese takeaway. The security on that site is bound to be less robust than the target's IT. Break it, infect it, wait for your target to visit - and the mouse takes the cheese. Snap!

Foothold Established. The group establishes persistent backdoors so they can come and go as they like.

Internal Reconnaissance.  The groups spends days, weeks, learning the network and identifying useful resources, like a backup server with vital information or an email server that can let the hackers into anything connected to that server. With the Bangladesh hack, Lazarus was particularly interested in SWIFT authentication, so it went after any server that might contain SWIFT authorization codes as well as IT admin systems.

Deliver and Steal. The great hack begins. Presumably followed by a scene Kaspersky does not mention, tentatively titled RUN AWAY!

This is the perfect breakdown for scenes in a game. What's more, they don't have to be about Digital Intrusion and nothing else. Human Terrain, Surveillance, Infiltration, Electronic Surveillance, potentially Flattery, Bureaucracy - all these will be useful, particularly in the early stages of the hack.

I see this as a potential Thrilling Digital Intrusion contest, starting with the initial compromise and moving through to final execution. The technothriller dialogue opportunities, particularly in the Initial Compromise or Internal Reconnaissance, are fascinating. It's a reminder that a Thrilling Contest doesn't have to be over in a few minutes. This one takes months - though at the table on the day the whole thing might take an hour's game time at most.

As for North Korea, well … it'd make a hell of a Node.


Sunday, 16 September 2018

Mossad 101

A short while back I recommended a Spanish TV show, Money Heist, to all Night's Black Agents players and Directors. I have something else for you: Mossad 101, an Israeli sypcraft action drama that's been on Netflix since October 2016 and has had a second series release.

The plot features a disparate group of would-be spies who have volunteered for Mossad training, and are put though a grueling series of tests to see whether they have what it takes. Their supervisor, Yona Harari, is a former field agent whose last mission went very bloodily wrong, and in the process two and a half million Euro went missing. The trainees include the wife of the agent who died on that mission, and she suspects Yona knows a lot more than he's telling about that cock-up, and the missing money.

The idea's intriguing, but what really makes it work - and I don't think the producers realized this while they were making it - is a Satanic mix of reality television and spycraft. Because the trainees are being eliminated at a fairly rapid rate, the show has all the evil appeal of an Apprentice or Big Brother with the added draw of slick espionage techniques that border on stage magic. The number of times I was convinced that I had seen X, when it was actually Y with a dash of Z … Penn and Teller would be fooled.

It helps enormously that the actors are all enthusiastic and good at their jobs. There's a lot of people on stage in the first half-dozen episodes, and it would have killed the series stone dead if any of them had been boring. As it is, you'll have a favorite within the first ten minutes of episode one, and then have your heart broken when they get booted.

Which makes the second season an odd duck, because it ditches the reality television idea that made the first season so entertaining. The second season revolves around that same botched operation and the missing millions, but now there are more dead agents, training doesn't seem to be a priority any more, and there are three new characters, taken from one episode in the first season, who basically are the trainees except they're not Mossad, they're criminals. It's not a bad plot; it's very engaging, but it feels as if the writing team either lost its way or was told 'you have to write a traditional spy thriller. No, I don't care. Traditional. With terrorists, drugs, money laundering, the whole bit. Training spies? That's so last season.'

I reiterate: the second season isn't bad. It obviously had more money spent on it, for a start. From a player and Director's POV it's very Dusty, guns kill, and there are plenty of ideas to steal for your campaign or agent. Plus, it's really great to see something set in Kiev rather than the usual suspects, and again, Directors, if you want a city to use in your campaign, here you are. However ditching the central idea that made the first series so much fun to watch feels like a mistake.

It reminded me, oddly enough, of Fauda, another Israeli spy drama that I tried to watch but stopped after the first episode. Fauda's slick and engaging, but I didn't care about any of the characters and didn't know enough about them to want to learn more. That, and it felt like a sausage factory, with female characters getting less than 1% of screen time, and always in a support role. That just killed the show for me. I might go back to it - Fauda's well-executed - but if I do it will be in spite of its flaws, not because I'm intrigued.

Last time I did this I wrote up an achievement, and I'm going to do the same this time.

Yona and Abi. Using only Interpersonal skills like Flattery or similar, plant a surveillance device disguised as jewelry on a person. Just slipping it into their pocket without them seeing doesn't count; they have to see, but not suspect.


Sunday, 9 September 2018

Quick and Dirty: Abu Dhabi (Night's Black Agents)

Image of 1909 Abu Dhabi castle taken from Berlin Museum collection. 

Abu Dhabi

While there is archaeological evidence of previous settlement, going back as far as the 3rd Millenium BC, the city formally began its existence in the 16th Century. A nomadic group settled there on the freshwater spring at Abu Dhabi island. The name literally means Father of the Gazelle, and probably refers to the Dhabi gazelle that once was plentiful in the area. Depending on where you are, you either pronounce Abu as Bu (on the western coast of the city) or Abu (eastern section). 

The Al Nahyan, a branch of House Al-Falahi, were the first to settle at the spring and have since become the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. Current male members of Al Nahyan number about 200, and as has been the custom for many years the identities of female members are not known. Their family has contributed government ministers and high officials to the UAE; Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan is the current head, chair of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Supreme Commander of the Union Defence Force, Emir of Abu Dhabi, and President of the UAE. Current estimates suggest the family is worth in excess of $150 billion.

For many years the city was best known for its pearl fishing, but in the 19th Century Britain increased its influence over the region, strengthening its hold once oil was discovered. This led to a partnership with BP which resulted in the discovery and development of the region's major oil fields. Even to this day relations between the UAE and Britain remain strong, though Britain formally withdrew from the region in 1968, a few years ahead of the founding of the UAE in 1971. Some Brexiteers lean heavily on this friendship as a prop for the Brexit argument, saying that withdrawal can lead to even closer ties with the UAE. 

This cuts both ways. For many decades wealthy UAE buyers have been snapping up British assets and property in London, and race their high-performance supercars through Mayfair, once Ramadan's over and done. This historically has led to some friction, but by and large the British are content to overlook the problem so long as money keeps rolling in.


1.8 million, just a little less than Houston, Texas.

The whole of the UAE is slightly smaller than Maine, with 6 million population. Dubai, the most populous city in the UAE, is home to over 3 million, which means that the citizens of these two cities make up more than 80% of the total population of the UAE.

When Abu Dhabi was originally planned out in the 1960s, it was only intended to house 40,000 people.

Immigrants make up more than 80% of the total population. South Asians are the largest immigrant group, including Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani workers. Arabic is the official language, but there's a significant number of English speakers as well as Hindi and Urdu.

Islam is the official religion. There's a very small scattering of Christians and other religious groups, including Hindu and Bhuddist.

Life expectancy is somewhere around 77 for males and over 80 for females.


The UAE cushioned itself against the 2010 outbreak of the Arab Spring by doing what it does best: throwing money at the problem. At the same time it began a vocal campaign for political reform in other Arab countries, though the UAE itself remains largely as it was before the Spring, from a political perspective. The UAE was also one of the first to join the coalition against ISIS. Intelligence sharing between the UAE and Western governments, particularly the US, has traditionally been strong.

It's not always smooth sailing. In 1999 the CIA was tipped that Osama Bin Laden was attending a falcon hunt in Pakistan, and among the honored gathering was Sheikh Kalifa bin Zayed al Nahayan himself, along with Sheikh Maktoum, leader of Dubai. The CIA debated whether assassinating Bin Laden, perhaps by missile strike, was worth the risk; it was doable, but when potential collateral damage includes a political ally and the heads of two of the royal families of the UAE, it takes considerable political will to pull the trigger. In the end, it was beyond the CIA.

Which is Abu Dhabi and the UAE in a nutshell. Allies, yes, but with a hard desert-dwelling Bedouin core and a love of the past combined with strong religious sentiment. Tradition comes first, and it's not unknown for UAE capitalists to stave off feelings of religious-inspired guilt by backing hard-core Islamic fundamentalist groups. In much the same spirit, Irish American groups once sent cash to the IRA; it meant they were involved in the struggle, even though they never saw the explosive results.

Explosive results of any sort are something the average citizen only sees on television. Abu Dhabi is by far the safest city on the planet. Assault, robbery and muggings are almost unknown. Cyber crime is increasing, with two out of five citizens falling victim - or about 800,000 of Abu Dhabi's 1.8 million. Terrorist attacks in Abu Dhabi are almost unheard of, though there are exceptions. In 2014, a Romanian-American teacher of English, Ibolya Ryan, was stabbed to death by an attacker who later went on to try to plant a bomb at a doctor's house. The attacker was arrested and executed.

Capital punishment (by firing squad) has been meted out to citizens and foreign nationals. It is rare for women to suffer the ultimate penalty, but it has happened; the terrorist who killed Ibolya Ryan, Alaa Bader al-Hashemi, was one such. Death is the penalty for the following crimes: treason, espionage, murder, successfully inciting the suicide of a person afflicted with total lack of free will or reason, arson resulting in death, indecent assault resulting in death, importing nuclear substances/waste, adultery, apostacy, blasphemy, perjury which results in wrongful execution, rape, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, terrorism, sodomy, homosexuality, drug trafficking, and joining the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Death penalty cases are often but not always commuted to life sentences.

The UAE is a founder member of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, contributing both troops and cash to the cause.

Terror attacks tend to be rare and extremely limited in scope. Abu Dhabi doesn't see anything like the constant bombings that rocked Kabul, and this is in part because it enjoys the protection of an extremely well-provided police force. Agents take note: these cops drive sportscars, so don't count on your wheel artist to save you when it all goes south. Abu Dhabi is rapidly deploying project Oyoon, blanketing the city with facial recognition cameras; the project should be complete within the next two years. Areas frequented by tourists will get top priority. In game terminology, any Heat-gaining activity increases Heat by 1 extra point, or 2 if the activity is overtly violent. Once Oyoon deploys, Heat gain may increase still further at the Director's discretion.


Image taken from

Ferrari World. Opened to the public in 2010, this is the world's only indoor race car theme park. Among its many attractions is the world's fastest roller coaster, the Formula Rossa, one of five coasters at the park. As you might expect from a Ferrari-branded resort, the park is a petrolhead's idea of heaven, and naturally includes the opportunity to drive a Ferrari.

Image taken from

Sheikh Zayed Mosque. This is the third largest mosque in the world and the largest in the UAE, capable of holding up to 40,000 worshippers. It was finally completed in 2007, three years after the Sheikh's death, and is his final resting place. Its library and collection of artefacts is extensive and includes items of considerable antiquity. As the country's holiest site the UAE is sensitive about the mosque's image; both Selena Gomez and Rihanna have been criticized for taking pictures with the mosque in the background, because their poses (in Gomez's case, an ankle was showing) were considered provocative.

Image taken from

Emirates Palace. This hotel, completed in 2005, includes 22 residential suites, 92 suites, and 394 residences. It is the third most expensive hotel ever built, and second to none in terms of luxury. "Think about coffee," hotel GM Willy Optekamp told the New York Times. "We serve coffee on a silver tray with rose petals, crystallized sugar, a linen napkin, marzipan croissants, a bottle of imported water and the coffee. The ladies get a rose."  Costs range from $625 a night to $13,000. There are six ruler's suites on the top floor, to be used only by royalty travelling from other Persian Gulf countries. A special Arc de Triumph-style entrance is reserved for their motorcades. 

Three Hooks

A Conspiracy asset with a very interesting laptop is staying at the Emirates for a few days, to help facilitate a deal with minor royalty. The contents of that laptop could be absolutely invaluable - if the agents can somehow smuggle themselves into the hotel, get to the highly secure $13,000-a-night suite, and grab the laptop's contents without anybody realizing what's going on.

An IMCTC exercise 'accidentally' uncovered a Hellenistic-era archaeological site in the desert, not far from Abu Dhabi. Just how does a counter-terrorist organization manage to stumble across an archaeological site? Why have the artifacts been taken to a secure location in Abu Dhabi, to be kept under lock and key? 

One English expat, who may have been out in the sun too long, swears blind he once saw a facility in the desert devoted to growing Indian workers - or what he thinks were intended to look like Indian workers - from seeds, later to be shipped into Abu Dhabi in colorful decorated trucks. He's probably mental, but if anyone might be interested in growing people wholesale, it's the Conspiracy …

Thrilling Elements
  • Fast cars. Fast cars. Fast cars. The most expensive, tricked-out, high-tech vehicles congregate in Abu Dhabi like desert wanderers at an oasis.
  • A tourist is scolded by a citizen for indecent behavior, and clearly doesn't understand what's going on - the language barrier is a factor.
  • Heat and humidity smash you flat. Nothing can prepare a first-time visitor, and nothing can save them except air conditioning. 
  • An unexpected rain or windstorm blows through, temporarily clearing the streets and bringing some much-needed cool air.
  • Few cities are as pedestrian-unfriendly as Abu Dhabi. This is a city built to worship the car, and those foolish enough to try to walk through it take their lives in their hands.
  • Though public drunkenness is frowned on, Abu Dhabi boasts some of the swankiest liquor palaces in the UAE, catering to every conceivable taste.  
  • Try not to scream when the waiter hands you the bill. As you might expect, the cost of living in Abu Dhabi is extremely high; expect to pay considerably more for pretty much anything and everything.
  • A trip to the beach is a treat - a very expensive treat. The private beach clubs can set you back something in the region of Dhs150 to 450 a visit. 

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Forgotten London:The Strand, St Clement's Danes Church

Image taken from British Museum Collection

The inspiration for this post comes from Steve Roud's London Lore.

The spot where St Clement Danes Church in the Strand now stands has had a church on it since the tenth century, but the current church is a Wren rebuilt after bombing damage during the Second World War. It's allegedly the church from the children's rhyme: oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements. But why is it called Danes Church?

Allegedly this is because a Danish King is buried there. According to chronicles, Harold son of Cnut the Great reigned officially for three years; he spent more time as regent, but was opposed in his bid to wear the crown by his two brothers. When he died he was buried at Westminster, but his half brother Hardicanutus, angry because his mother had been usurped by Harold's, dug up the corpse and flung it in the Thames. 'where it was by a fisherman taken up and buried in this churchyard.'

Harold was only in his early 20s when he died. According to legend his death was divine retribution for taking the town of Sandwich from the monks of Christchurch. Though there are other Kings of the period who died as young or younger, usually it was on the point of a murderer's poniard. In Harold's case it was a mysterious illness that laid him low at Oxford.

Harold was one of the first royals to be buried at Westminster, and at the time nobody really understood why. It's thought a royal residence was nearby, but the Abbey may have had particular significance for the Danes, which might explain why Hardicanutus was so keen to get him out.

From 1862 until the later 1920s there was a school nearby, St Clement Danes School, built on land purchased by the churchwardens. It moved twice, eventually ending up in Hertfordshire.

From 1919 onwards there has been a yearly event, initiated by Reverend William Pennington-Bickford, at which oranges and lemons are handed out to boys and girls of the parish.

Sir Christopher Wren's 15th century design was extensively remodeled by the Luftwaffe on May 10th, 1941. Bombs gutted the interior, burnt its organ, and flung the famous bells to the ground. In the 1950s after a fundraising drive from the RAF the church was rebuilt, and since then it has become the RAF's most honored Central Church.

With all that in mind, what could be done with this setting either in Bookhounds or Dracula Dossier?

The temptation with Bookhounds is to either go Arabesque or Sordid. Technicolor could work, but those two directions seem more fruitful.

In Arabesque St Clement Danes becomes the Eternal Flame. The Blitz wasn't the first time the church surrendered to overwhelming blaze. One alternate link to the Danes has it that a party of Danes burnt the church that stood on the site before they were killed, and that's why it is known as the Danes church. No matter whether it's day or night, there is always a burning flame at St Clement Danes - it might be a candle, a bonfire, or an unexplained glow from the stained glass windows. On one special night each year the Rector closes the doors for a sermon to be read to the flames themselves, to keep the church from burning in the coming year. It's said the repentant Danes gather to worship there, one night only. Those who somehow manage to overhear what's said at that sermon gain 1 point The Knowledge or 1 point Magic, in exchange for 2 points Stability. Stability lost in this way cannot be refreshed for one month; it takes time for those memories to fade.

In Sordid the old rhyme Oranges and Lemons plays a part. The children of the parish are encouraged the play the game, in which the final lines are here is a candle to light you to bed, and here is a chopper to chop off your head. Folklorists don't know exactly what the rhyme means; it has an old an murky history, and different versions have circulated since at least the 1700s. The churchwardens have a particular reason for wanting this game played. It allows them to randomly select a child to sacrifice, to ensure the protection of the church. This doesn't happen every year; it only happens when the previous sacrifice fails, at which point the child selected by random ballot - effectively - is killed in a staged accident. The parish always buries that child free of charge, and the body is swiftly taken into a hidden vault where it is interred in a special coffin with a glass lid. So long as the sacrifice holds, the body remains intact - preserved. The minute it starts to rot the protection fails, so the churchwardens have to go looking for another sacrifice. This practice ends after the 1941 bombing, which destroys both the church and the last few churchwardens who know the ritual. A protagonist who assists in this year's sacrifice will be taught many odd tricks of Megapolisomancy, adding 1 point Magic to their pool.

St Clement Danes isn't mentioned in the Dossier and to my knowledge there is no immediate vampire connection - though with these old churches, who knows? However that 1941 bombing looks fruitful, particularly when you consider Edom can never have been entirely sure Dracula's influence was driven from London in the 1890s. There's that Satanic Cult after all, never mind any vampiric by-blows that might have been lurking in the shadows. Along comes the Blitz and everybody's plans are upset, including the Cult's, and many a vampire haven must have gone up in smoke.

I'm particularly lured by an old war film. The Small Back Room, which tells the story of a disaffected scientist, one of the back room boffins, who thinks wartime research is being completely misapplied.

This sounds like a job for Tinman.

Plot core: It's 1941. Edom has become aware of a small pocket of Dracula-inspired resistance in London. Possible suspects include the Servants, Satanic Cult, a Feral, Lucy, or similar. At about the same time German bombers start dropping particularly unpleasant booby-trap bombs during the Blitz, and while these bombs kill people they're also clearly intended to kill vampires. Edom's task is to find a way to deal with these booby-trapped bombs while at the same time trace the lingering elements of Dracula's initial Conspyramid to its lair. Investigative scenes include other booby-trap sites, a bombed-out London where black marketeers trade in questionable, Satanic curios, a former hideout of the Cult now bombed to rubble, all leading up to the climactic moment at the heart of the May raid, where the last remnants of Dracula's by-blow are traced to St Clement Danes. They hide in that church because they've been able to deconsecrate it, using child sacrifice - here is a chopper to chop off your head - as the catalyst. Surely, the Dracula remnant reasons, nobody will think to look for me in a church? At which point the whole church is bombed to blazes, and the characters have to deal with escaping vampires or similar while at the same time defusing the booby-trapped bombs before they take out innocent civilians.

As for the question of why should the Germans want to kill vampires, at least two possibilities arise: the Germans don't want the British to get an edge on their own vampire program, and second, Dracula's using his influence in Germany to wipe out some disloyal former allies. Or something else entirely, of course …