Sunday, 23 December 2018

Christmas Keepers (Trail, Lovecraft Country)

This is going to be my last post for the year. Happy holidays to all, and I hope you have a great New Year!

Let's talk Christmas in New England, that jolly time of year when eating a mince pie can get your ears cut off.

When the Puritans settled in New England they brought their customs with them, and being a joyless bunch of asshats one of their most beloved customs was a hatred of all things cheerful. That included Christmas. The holiday season was a complete anathema to those stern Yankees, so much so that in 1647 laws were passed to ensure nobody kept Christmas, or any saint's day, and certainly didn't make mince pies, attend Christmas masques or dramas, dance, or play any musical instrument. Decoration was also banned, which meant no holly or mistletoe; that might encourage kissing, God forbid!

The first Puritans arranged things as they liked, but were constantly threatened by those among them who weren't Puritans and who enjoyed festive cheer. One such was Thomas Morton, who was caught by Miles Standish having a good time in his own home, and promptly banished from Plymouth Colony.

Thomas Morton was playing the Lord of Misrule, which was a particular grievance to good Puritans. The Lord of Misrule was a traditional Yule figure in English folklore, now not often seen in its Christmas role. Each year the Lord, usually a peasant or of low birth, would be appointed and go around the neighborhood dressed in green and orange, with bells at his ankles, dancing with his celebrants, leading the crowd in games and singing. The band would make a nuisance of themselves until given money, at which point they'd go off and find some other householder to torment. Often the merry pranksters would invade the church and interrupt the solstice sermon, which is why the Puritans so disliked the Lord. The tradition may have come from the Roman Saturnalia, but its origins are obscure, and in any case people usually don't need much excuse to get drunk and go round in a group making a nuisance of themselves. The 'getting drunk' part of the ceremony encourages any kind of bad behavior.

Being Puritans, the colonists' treatment of those caught in the act were severe. Morton was lucky to get away with banishment; cash fines, time in the stocks, branding, or having your ears or nose cut off were typical punishments. This was all intended to bring people to Salvation, for on the Day of Doom the Lord would judge impartial, but stern, and woe betide the sinners who passed on Christ's left hand side.

This worked so long as the colonies were made up entirely, or at least in the majority, of Puritans. However as time went by more Catholics, Episcopalians and Universalists arrived in New England, and public opinion changed. By 1681 the laws banning Christmas were repealed. It took time for people to become used to the idea - a small entertainment, called 'educational', here, a modest party there - but over time even the Puritans came to accept some Christmas frivolity.

However even after the law was repealed good Puritans, of whom there were many, treated Christmas like any other day. They did not close their shops or schools; as far as they were concerned, Christmas was a day of work, not play. It wasn't until 1797 that a churchman felt safe enough to call for a celebration of the holiday, and up to the 1870s schools kept on teaching right through the holiday period. It wasn't until after the Civil War, when Christmas became a Federal holiday, that New England really embraced Christmas. By that point the season was becoming commercialized; a time to work so you can buy and give presents, not to play games or dance around with bells on your ankles.

Now, to gamify:

Crack Nouts and Cry Yule

The Hook

The weather this Christmas is particularly harsh, and Arkhamites nervously joke about a return of the great 1921 ice storm that blanketed the town and nearly froze the Miskatonic. People don't hang around on the streets after dark; they hurry home, where there's warmth and cheer.

There's a story going round that a gang of carol singers are making a nuisance of themselves in East-town, the seedy and decaying residential section once so beloved of Arkham's upper class. Rumor has it that they use the singing as a distraction to burgle the houses they visit, and there have been several letters to the paper about it. Where are the police, they ask, and why can't more be done to stop these thieves?

However those with History, Occult or possibly Library Use notice a pattern. The lead figure of these criminal characters is dressed as the Lord of Misrule. The Lord never removes his mask or participates in the thievery, but it's clear from the accounts of those who've seen him that the Lord is the most menacing of the group. The attacks seem to radiate out in a circle from a central point: the First Unitarian Church of Arkham, on Federal Street. Further, every location where the carolers have been is visited by another mysterious figure with a much more violent MO. This character, whoever he is, attacks and brutally injures people outside after dark. Four attacks have been recorded, and in each case the victim lost extremities - noses, ears, always due to frostbite. Those who go into this further notice that, according to the hospitals and doctors (Charm, with a bonus die for those with Medicine above base), six people with that kind of injury have been treated by local hospitals or doctors.

The Awful Truth

The Minister of First Unitarian, Doctor Spencer, recently hired a professional archivist, Norton Deane, to help bring the church archive into some kind of order. This was more a question of charity than need; poor Norton recently had a great shock that required a stay in a sanitarium, and this job was meant to put him back on his feet.

Unfortunately for Deane some of the earlier documents in the archive, related to early Christmas traditions in Arkham, contained Mythos knowledge. The revelations Deane encountered, in his weakened mental state, drove him over the edge. He became the Lord of Misrule, visiting nearby houses to spread Christmas insanity.

His first two visits were solo affairs, as the investigators will discover if they talk to newspaper reporters or cops. However a bunch of criminals joined in, seeing an opportunity. These might be young Arkham hoods (the Finns, the Rocks), or more experienced bottom-feeders. Deane doesn't object to them following in his wake, so long as they dance and sing. He insists on that, and they're too frightened of him to object. The level of violence has increased since they joined in, but the Lord of Misrule doesn't mind that; violence is part of Christmas.

However something else has joined in the celebration. Icy Cold Ones are closing in on the Lord of Misrule, determined to put an end to him. They wouldn't be able to do it without the freezing weather, but so long as ice storms threaten they can roam the streets at night. The Mythos texts that Deane found draw these Cold Ones in, so they too congregate around or near First Unitarian. The church at night is a very hazardous place to be.

The two injured men who aren't part of the official tally are part of the gang of crooks that follow Deane, and if they're interrogated they can tell the investigators about the Cold One attacks and the Lord of Misrule. 

Defeating the Lord of Misrule, or burning the Mythos texts, drives off the Cold Ones and end the threat.

There is a time limit on this. The longer the Lord of Misrule, and by extension the Cold Ones, are allowed to do their work, the more likely it is that the gathering Cold Ones will cause an ice storm more dangerous than the 1921 event. Should that happen, the weak and vulnerable of Arkham will die off, frozen to death in their own homes. Assume there is a 10% chance, cumulative, per week, that this will happen. This deadly storm causes a SAN penalty of 1/1D6+1.


Sunday, 16 December 2018

Vampire 5th Edition

I played Vampire in the 90s. I had that book with the green marble cover and the o-so-evocative red rose. My heart belonged to Wraith, but I couldn't always get players for that haunted setting. Vampire was always the more popular game, because it fed into the power fantasies that the players enjoyed.

I don't know where my old books are now. In the basement, probably. Or given away. I still have the Wraith stuff. I have a new gaming group now, and some of them remember Vampire fondly, so I picked up a copy when I was last in the UK, shortly after its general release. Ken Hite's name attached to the project lured me in. I see Neil Gaiman's in there as well, not sure where. Some of the background material, presumably.

This thing's huge, and it doesn't waste a page. Even the endpapers are covered with 50 vampire victims for the characters to snack on. Hardback, full colour, a thing of beauty. I found it difficult to read at times and I'm not sure why; I compared it to the old Wraith books and there doesn't seem to be a huge difference, except in line thickness and colour plates. The new book's thinner font may be the problem, or perhaps it's just the difference between colour and black and white. One's prettier, the other clearer.

Rules-wise, while there have been changes, seasoned veterans will soon wrap their heads round them. It's still the old d10 mechanic at core. You have a dice pool, you roll your pool against a target number, the more times you make or exceed the target number the more spectacularly you succeed. Botches and critical successes are possible. There's more to it than that, but if you can understand that base concept you're laughing.

The old game had backgrounds, blood-powered Disciplines, and so does this. It's all basically the same as before. There's just a lot more than there used to be. This wealth of information is bound to be intimidating to neophyte and veteran with poor memory alike, so be prepared for lots of hand-holding if you're the Storyguide. For that matter, if you are the Storyguide, read the main book at least six times. You'll thank me later.

Is this a horror game? Yes. In fact that may be its greatest weakness, because the original wasn't.

Back in the before times, Vampire aspired to be Gothic with two Gs and extra Vathek. Yes, you played Vampires, tragic figures cursed with a lust for … something, it's on the tip of my tongue. Gaze not into the abyss, lest it steal your credit card information and run up a whopping bill on Amazon. Play pretty people power gamers controlling things behind the scenes.

But horror? Nooo, never heard of that. You must be thinking of some other Vampires. 

This was a game that, more than most, was guided by its fans, and what the fans wanted was a power trip dosed with a hefty slug of Anne Rice - which, again, was pretty vampires doing Gothic things, often in a historic setting, without serious consequences for the main character.  Humans? They were your toys, but in practice what this meant was you controlled things behind the scenes - local government, state, the cops, the Feds. For someone in their teens, being able to tell the Mayor of New York where to get off, or the cops to go screw, was heady stuff. 

Yes, there was a Humanity mechanic, and going into Frenzy was a pain in the ass - but that could be contained, and there was always the promise of Redemption, where you went up to Nirvana on a big pink cloud so long as you filled in all the squares on your celestial Bingo card.

People, meanwhile, were handy-dandy blood tacos you consumed to power up your Bejeezus Stick. Few players gave serious thought to the mechanics of hunting, or what it might mean for the faceless, nameless prey. Humans were a means of recharging Disciplines, which you then used on the more important stuff, like Dominating the Mayor of New York. 

One Hunt stands out in my memory. I thought it might be interesting to play through rather than just handwave it, and God, was that a mistake. The player hadn't the least idea what to do. It was like watching Inspector Clouseau chasing a guy in a gorilla costume round a roundabout. In the end the prey got away. The player thought I was in the wrong for making him go through it. He just wanted a good time, and this wasn't it. 

The designers, poor lambs, expected people to get deeply involved in the lore, the political intrigue, the social cut-and-thrust. That was doomed from the start. You don't give a player a Bejeezus Stick and expect her not to smack some fools with it. Often quite a lot of fools. 

Maybe somewhere out in Neverland where the flying fishes play there was a group that played the political game, but it soon became clear to everyone, including the designers, that what the gamers wanted was More Power, Please and Thank You. That led to a deluge of books. Camarilla, Sabbat, setting books, Clan books, more Clan books, special Sabbat Clan books, each with upgrades to the Bejeezuz Stick, till the thing resembled a nuclear powered Christmas tree with extra smiting. If you were a Gothically inclined Munchkin, this was the game for you.

I referenced the Nietzsche bit earlier about staring into the abyss. That got quoted frequently in Vampire circles; it was heady stuff for those greasy teens. It sounds good, sure. Nietzsche gives quotable stuff, but if you're a self-obsessed 15 to 23 year-old, to you, the abyss is old hat. You're already convinced you're dark and tragic, and have a poetry diary to prove it. This is the kind of thing Vampire gamers flocked to; that pop psychology 'yes, I am both interesting and tragically flawed, even doomed' reinforcement of an idea you're already convinced is the Ultimate Truth. All that, and power too - the power you didn't have in real life. Very attractive message.

This thing, though? Vampire 5th Edition? It's horror through and through, in one large package. 

There's absolutely no question what you are, in this game, and it's not a tragic antihero. You are the enemy, touched with Evil, hunted, slaughtered on sight - and this is because you hunt, and slaughter. You don't run things. Your Bejeezus Stick is pretty nifty, but it won't save you if the Second Inquisition comes calling. Humanity is monitored the same way someone with life-threatening allergies checks each and every thing they come into contact with. Frenzy can be character-ending. The Hunt is real. All too real. 

You're no longer the baddest man in the whole damn town, friend. You're meat, and if you want to keep on … whatever it is you're doing … you'd better get with the program. 

The clearest indicator of this is the Thin-Blooded, who've come to the end of the bloodline and now know how much it sucks to be undead. The central conceit of Vampire is that, back in the days of Caine, there was a first generation of Vampires. Each generation sires another, and each generation is weaker than the last. Vampire 5E goes one step further and gives you the Vampire without a clan, because there wasn't enough of the clan left to go around. Like mules, they're sterile. Unlike their kin, they haven't the dubious comfort of a working Bejeezus Stick; since the warranty expired on their bloodline, they don't have access to the full set of Disciplines. They can fake it till they make it, eating a stronger Vampire to join an actual clan, but until then they're the lowest of the low.   

All the old institutions have been destroyed. The Tremere Chantry is gone, the Nosferatu hacker network blown away. There's a new player in the game, the Second Inquisition, and it's here because Somebody, naming no names, let the Masquerade slip once too often. Now governments know what Vampires are, where they can be found, and how to kill them. As you might expect, the 'how to kill them' bit is what really fires them up. There were Hunters in the old game, Buffy-esque Scooby Gangs of civilians and witchy folk who pounded stakes into corpses on weekends. Now they're out of the picture, replaced by Langley spooks and NSA watchers with drone squadrons at their command. So don't say anything on the internet or your cell phone you don't want Uncle Sugar to hear, or you might find yourself on the wrong end of a well-equipped government sponsored kill team.

As a Vampire, you have to do some horrible things to keep going. So the game goes into detail about your style of hunting. Do you engage in Consensual vampirism? Cleave to your old mortal family, only ever drinking from your own people? Are you a Farmer, drinking only from animals, or a Bagger, taking only cold, bagged blood? Victim types, when described in the text, are precisely that - Victims. There is no romantic pretext that you're doing anything other than killing people. You might have been Compelled to do it by your lack of blood, but that's still a corpse on the ground.

Not just any faceless corpse, either. Remember those 50 Victims on the endpapers? That's Kevin, he was stuck in a dead-end job but wanted to be a poet. That's Faye, who wanted to fix the system. That's Maddie, who was trying to start her own business. 

Then consider some of the gruesome aspects of your chosen path. Cleavers feed covertly from their mortal family, which can include children. The most extreme Cleavers adopt children, marry a human, and try to maintain a family life for as long as they can [p176]. The Sandman attacks sleeping victims. The Siren feigns sex to get what he wants. Child abuse, sexual assault, stalking - it's all there, bubbling under the surface. 

If what you are looking for is a horror game, then this is what you're looking for. Ken Hite's on record as saying that if it were up to me nobody would ever get to play the good vampire ever again in any medium [NBA p126] and these most definitely are not the good vampires. These are the bloodsuckers, the killers, the villains, and if that is the game you are looking for - the game where you sink as low as you can go, and then sink further - rush to your friendly local game store and buy this now. 

Think very carefully about that for a second.

By now I'm sure you've heard that White Wolf no longer calls the shots for this franchise. Paradox, the parent, absorbed the White Wolf team into the company. Sections of the Camarilla book have been retconned, and by now I suspect unaltered versions of the Camarilla and Anarch .pdfs are very popular downloads on shadier parts of the internet. This is in response to a specific section of the Camarilla book, which puts vampires in effective charge of state-level butchery in Chechnya.

I've not read the Chechen section of the Camarilla book. I have read sections of it reprinted on various websites. I will say that if your RPG supplement ends up being blasted by Russian crime news sites then things have gone badly wrong. According to the author of the Chechnya bit it was an editing error more than anything else. Judging by some of the customer commentary there are certainly plenty of those.

[Side note: does nobody attribute, anymore? I've spent the last however-long trying to find out who wrote the Camarilla book. It might have been Winnie the Pooh for all I know. Nobody refers to the author by name; even the site linked above just refers to whoever it is as 'the author.' Mark Rein-Hagen and Matthew Dawkins provided 'insights and perspectives' which isn't the same as saying they wrote it, but I suppose that's as close as I'm going to get to solving that mystery. Vampire 5E has ten different people listed as writers or contributing writers, so I'm guessing that Rein-Hagen and Dawkins weren't the only two involved in Camarilla, but you'd probably have to own the book to know who the others are. 

Mind you, there's no Vampire 5E author info at White Wolf or Modiphius either; for all I could prove to the contrary, Vampire 5E might have been written by that talented polymath, Fartknockers McGee. If I'd talked Neil Gaiman into writing for my RPG setting I'd be shouting that from the rooftops, even if all he did was add an extra comma to paragraph 3, page 56. The only reason I know about it is I looked at Vampire 5E's front page. Until I did that, I had idea he was involved, and I've been following the progress of this book for a while.]

In this version of the game, those greasy teens and their power fantasies wrapped up in Gothic romanticism get a nasty shock. There's no disguising what you are, not even with a handy-dandy Nietzsche tag-line. In fact, I'm not even sure Nietzsche gets name-checked in the 5E book, though my memory could be faulty. You don't have the authority you used to, and forget about Dominating the Mayor of New York, lick. Stick your head up above the parapet, and a government assassin will blow it off. The moving hand has writ, and not one word or quote from your poetry diary can lure it back to cancel even half a line. You aren't the vampire you thought you were. You're the bloodsucker of the 21st century, a thin-blooded, bottom-feeding, treacherous asshole. 

Therein lies the problem.

Maybe the audience doesn't want a horror game where they're the monster. Romantic, doomed antihero, yes. However this time you have no redeeming features. You can pretend you have redeeming features, if you're into self-delusion. You can pretend to have a moral code. 

Kevin, the wannabe poet, might challenge your world view. 

If you're feeding off your family - including the kids - sneaking into people's homes at night to attack them while they sleep, tricking the gullible lovelorn into giving up all they have, there's no pretending you're anything other than evil. That's what makes this work, as horror. If horror is what you're looking for.

Like Charlie Hall over at Polygon, you may find this game isn't for you. Frankly, played straight, I'm not sure I'd want to play a full campaign of this. Some one-shots, sure. I don't know how my new gaming group will react to it either. The ones who played Vampire back in the day may be into it, or they may not. I can think of at least one player who won't want anything to do with it.

Charlie Hall brings up one more good point: how to do this so you don't squick out, weird out or emotionally scar the group. A White Wolf representative tells him the company wants to put out a series of essays about caring for the folks at the table, but it wasn't going to be available right away.

We saw it as a separate product, as a separate SKU,” [Jason] Carl said. “I think the timing is inconvenient because we wanted to have it ready for Gen Con [when V5 will first be available for purchase] and I don’t know that it will be ready for Gen Con.”

Maybe a Gen Con release date without the essays wasn't wise, in hindsight; maybe releasing those at the same time would have blunted some of the criticism. Yes, a Gen Con release is good for sales, but this is going to be a tough one to find an audience for, which is all the more important because a quality production like this needs good sales to make its nut. One reason why, back in the day, black and white was preferable - less expensive means a lower break-even.

It's good stuff, well written, excellent production values. It's a mass-market book looking for players who want to be evil. Not murder hoboes, not doomed and tragic, not Gothic with two Gs and extra Vathek. Evil.

One tough sell.

Now, since I complained about attribution a while ago it's only fair I attribute:

Vampire 5E

Developed by: Ken Hite, Karim Muammar

System Design: Ken Hite, Karim Muammar, Karl Bergstrom

Story & Creative Direction: Martin Ericsson 

Written by: Ken Hite, Martin Ericsson, Matthew Dawkins, Karim Muammar, Juhana Petterson

Additional Writing: Mark Rein-Hagen, Karl Bergstrom, Jason Andrew, Freja Gyldenstrom, Neil Gaiman

Edited by: Freja Gyldenstrom, Karim Muammar, Jennifer Smith-Pulsipher

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Separation (Esoterrorists)

Inspiration for this post comes from Victorian and Edwardian Prisons, by Trevor May.

In the Victorian period two competing theories met head-to-head, in an effort to reform criminals. One, the silence system, proposed that all prisoners be kept in absolute silence. They could work together, congregate, exercise, but never talk. As you can imagine this did not work well.

The other method was the separate system, and while this didn't work either it enjoyed a slightly longer period of popularity. The description's deceptively simple: no prisoner shall have any contact with other prisoners. It's the lengths the prison went to make that happen that makes the separate system horrifying.

HM Prison Pentonville is Britain's first modern prison, designed and built in 1842 with the separation system in mind. The central hall has five radiating wings, designed to hold 520 prisoners total, each in their separate cell. The cells had their own toilets, though those frequently blocked, and the prisoners would spend much of their lives in those cells. The idea was to put them to work, but they couldn't do anything useful because that would put them in competition with free men. So they picked oakum by hand - undoing lengths of rope into individual strands into loose hemp, which would then be used as a short-term sealant for broken pipes, or a packing material.

There were times when they had to leave their cells, to go to chapel or to exercise. Each time they left they dressed in heavy leather, with thick caps covering their entire face. When they got to a communal area, like the chapel, each pew was separated into small sections by wooden panels. They could sit by their neighbor, but never see him. They could walk past a man in the corridor, and not know who he was.

The idea was to foster meditation and, with it, remorse. The evangelical Christians who came up with it believed in what they called the Inner Light, but a person needed to be in close communion with the eternal to access it. Complete separation from any distraction was thought to be essential. The chaplain was the only man they'd ever see, the only visitor they'd receive. Even the guards didn't know who they were guarding. A man was just a number, without any distinguishing features, living day in, day out in what amounted to specially designed solitary confinement.

They called it the maniac-making system.

The suicide rate jumped, and many more went insane. The few successes, the ones who claimed to have seen the light, usually went back to their old ways the moment they left prison. There were practical problems with the separate system as well; because it required separate cells for each prisoner, a prison could neither be converted nor expanded. Each had to be purpose-built, like Pentonville, and could only hold a set number of prisoners. Innovations designed to help separation, like the toilets, soon became problematic because the prisons seldom bothered to unclog them or replace burst pipes. The system could be subverted by the inmates, who came up with ingenious ways to communicate - say, by tapping on those clogged and broken drain pipes.

In the end it wasn't the system's flaws that brought it down. The powers that be lost their faith in the reformative powers of imprisonment; more emphasis on punishment was called for. By the early 20th century solitary confinement was unpopular, though the radial architectural system of prison design remains influential on modern prisons.

Let's put that into Esoterror context. What kind of cell would work with this material to create an ODE effect, and what kind of ODE shall it be?

The cell structure is going to look like a prison gang, and since we started with HM Pentonville it might as well be a British gang, though the separate system was used all over the Western world and got its start in America, so this could as easily be set elsewhere.

Right now British prison gangs are violent, territorial and fractious. Assaults and gang conflicts are at an all-time high, helped in part by reduced investment in prisons. Efforts to hire more guards have fallen flat, and austerity cuts mean no cash for anything like rehabilitation, reform, or even upkeep. Where there is a vacuum something will fill it, and in this case gangs are taking over HM Prison Kingstead, a fictional category A prison intended to house those whose escape would be highly dangerous to the public or national security.

Kingstead, built in 1858 with the separate system in mind, has known its share of strife. In 1892 it hit the news with a series of inmate murders, and in 1978 IRA prisoners staged a very public dirty protest. However its current suicide and self-harm rate is seriously alarming the OV, as it may indicate ODE influence. What really concerns the OV is that, if there's an Esoterror cell in the prison population, it's very likely to spread to other prisons when inmates, or possibly guards, get transferred.

The OV isn't wrong. An Esoterror cell has self-generated around a Sadist, with a small compliment of Attention-Seekers, Exofetishists and Cyphers. Group numbers fluctuate, but there's a hard core of eight, with a further ten or more hangers-on at any one time. This group calls itself the SB8, or Separate Brotherhood 8. Unusually for a prison gang this group doesn't break down on ethnic lines, but does have one rule: gang members don't talk to outsiders, ever. When they have to, they communicate in writing - often text message. They control the supply of mobile phones in and out of HM Kingstead, through prison guard proxies.

Thanks to this group the prison population is terrorized by nightmares, with a recurring element: the Separate Man.

Game Statistics
Abilities: Athletics 9, Disguise 6, Scuffling 8, Weapons 6
Hit Threshold: 4
Alertness Modifier: +0
Stealth Modifier: +2
Weapon: Knife +0, Dream Attack
Armour: +2

The Separate Man can briefly (no longer than a few rounds) look like anyone - an inmate, a guard, the chaplain - but in its true form it's a leather-clad humanoid with a flesh-coloured hood over its head. In this form it does not speak, but whenever it moves it rustles, and there's a strong scent of damp, rotten leather. It cannot be confined so long as it's in a prison, so prison doors mean nothing to it, but a car door, out in the prison parking lot, can be an effective barrier. As a special attack it can invade the dreams of an inmate and take them back to a nightmare version of HM Kingstead as it was in 1858, imprisoning them under the separate system for what feels like forever. To do that the Separate Man has to be in physical contact with the dreamer, and if interrupted and forced to flee the dreamer must make a level 4 Stability check; NPCs nearly always go insane. If, after repeated visits, the target is reduced to 0 Stability, they become catatonic. The only thing they do, all day, every day, is make motions with their hands and legs, as though forever unravelling oakum by rolling it on their knees and thighs. A Separate Man can create another Separate Man by bringing a willing Esoterrorist to catatonia, which is why SB8 is always willing to take on new members.

A Separate Man's special mode of dispatch is having its hood removed, but this is harder than it looks as the hood is grafted onto the face. A hard Athletics test is required, and success subjects the victor to a 4-point Stability test, as they stare into the Inner Light.


Sunday, 2 December 2018

Killer Cream (Bookhounds, Dracula Dossier)

Doctor Thomas Neill Cream, one of the many possible candidates for the true Jack the Ripper - allegedly he yelled "I am Jack the -" just as the hangman pulled the lever - was, in his day, one of the most famous, if not the most famous, multiple murderers. Today he barely rates a mention. Keepers, ask yourselves: what would your players do if an anonymous letter accused them of a terrible crime? That was Cream's preferred tactic: poison someone, then accuse someone else, blackmail, rinse, repeat.

Born in Glasgow in 1850, he went to Canada with his family in 1854. He grew up in Quebec City, went to McGill to study medicine in the 1870s, and eventually passed, after some scholastic hiccups, in 1876. He took postgraduate qualifications in London and Edinburgh, before returning to Ontario to begin his career.

He became a criminal not long after, in 1879. A pregnant woman was found chloroformed to death behind his office, and it was believed Cream was the child's father. When the truth threatened to come out he fled across the border to the United States where he took up medicine again, with a sideline in abortion. A patient died in 1880 and he was almost charged, but due to lack of evidence the case fell apart.

Then came the first of what can be called the true Cream killings. In December 1880 a patient died, and Cream immediately attempted to blackmail the pharmacist who issued her drugs. This blackmail attempt came to nothing, but it established the pattern: kill, then immediately blame someone else. It would happen again in 1881, with the death of Daniel Stott, an elderly married man with a pretty young wife. Again, Cream tried to blackmail a pharmacist, and again it came to nothing. Cream very nearly spent life in prison as a consequence, but thanks to a generous inheritance from his father, and good behavior, he was set free in 1891.

The United States and Canada having played out, Doctor Cream went to London again. He settled in Lambeth, near a notorious red-light district, and perfected his method, which was hardly very complex to begin with. He would meet with prostitutes and either give them a spiked drink, or pills. They took the offered poison, died, and Cream would blame someone else for their death and attempt blackmail. Once, he even posed as a detective and offered to solve the crime for three hundred thousand pounds. He blackmailed the heir of the W.H. Smith bookselling chain, Frederick, who later became 2nd Viscount Hambleden. He blackmailed medical students, pharmacists, hotel clerks - really, anyone he could think of.

There's no reason to think Cream enjoyed any sexual satisfaction from his murders., nor did he care much whether he killed men or women, though the crimes he's famous for were all against women. He boasted of his sexual prowess, claiming he bedded three a night, but his method of killing could hardly be called subtle or prolonged. He killed with chloroform or, later, strychnine, in large quantities, often administered with the victim's consent, as they thought they were taking medicine. He sometimes wasn't even present when the victim died. This is hardly a well-played game of chess. Nor does he profit from his blackmail schemes, and by the amounts he asked for it's no wonder. Three hundred thousand pounds? Why not ask for a million?

No, for Cream the fun part came later.

I am writing to say that if you and your satellites fail to find the murderer of Ellen Dunsworth, alias Ellen Linnell … I am willing to give you such assistance as will bring the murderer to justice, provided your Government is willing to pay me three hundred thousand pounds for my services ...

I hereby notify you that the person who poisoned Ellen Dunsworth on the 13th October last is today in the employ of the Metropole Hotel, and that your lives are in danger so long as you remain in this hotel …

I am writing to inform you that one of my operators has indisputable evidence that your son, W.J. Harper, a medical student at St Thomas' Hospital, poisoned two girls named Alice Marsh and Emma Shrivell …

Note how it always begins with I. Cream wanted to be the center of attention, the hero. He is the one who knows, the one who can indisputably prove, who did the deed. Either the detective or the one in charge of detectives - 'one of my operatives.' He usually wrote the letters himself, which meant he was easily traced by his handwriting. Only once did he have someone else do it for him - his respectable fiancée, Laura Sabatini, who when the time came gave evidence against him. Again, hardly surprising. After all, she knew what she'd written.

The Victorians were obsessed with crime, and with genius detectives: Jonathan Whicher, John Haynes the chemist, Stephen Thornton, Richard Tanner, Jerome Caminada, disguise expert Maurice Moser, polymath Edmund Reid, and many others. Charles Dickens was a big fan, and wrote about these new masters of the criminal underworld. This all really kicks off in the 1840s, as the Detective Bureau is founded; someone Cream's age would have grown up with hero detective stories.

If you can't detect a crime, the next best thing is to commit one - and to say you know who did it. Cream reveled in the celebrity, once going so far as to give a visiting New York detective a tour of the killing grounds of the Lambeth Poisoner. Often he attracted attention to his murders with his blackmail letters, when the crimes themselves might have gone unnoticed. To the very end he encouraged speculation that he wasn't just the Lambeth Poisoner, but Jack the Ripper - adding fame to fame, and a much bloodier kind of fame too. What a treat it must have been for the man who only ever poisoned his victims and wasn't brave enough to watch them die, to be thought capable of the kind of butchery Jack took for granted.

He was convinced of his own genius. He never thought he'd be convicted, and, if charged, thought he could prove insanity and avoid the hangman. He sang and danced in his cell after the counsel's closing speeches, so convinced was he of acquittal. The jury took twelve minutes to convict, and on November 15th, 1892, he swung at Newgate. The executioner, James Billington, swore afterward that Cream uttered the words "I am Jack the -" just as he went down, but as Cream is known to have been behind bars in Chicago when the Ripper killings took place, this is unlikely. His body was buried same day in an unmarked Newgate grave.

It's a very rare kind of psychosis, but there have been other examples. When the Morro Castle burned off the coast of New Jersey in 1934, a lot of attention focused on the radio operator, George White Rogers. In the immediate aftermath he was hailed as a hero both by the passengers and by the public at large, and he basked in the attention. However this unlikely hero was also a suspected arsonist, possibly also a poisoner and rapist. After the Morro Castle incident he was arrested for another crime, attempted murder of a co-worker with an incendiary device. The co-worker suspected Rogers of being involved in the Morro Castle arson, and that, allegedly, was the motive for the incendiary device attack. Rogers died in prison.

From a gaming point of view Cream has two obvious uses: in Bookhounds, and the Dracula Dossier. Both use the Ripper killings in one way or another: in Whitechapel Black-Letter the Ripper is supposed to have been conducting a megapolisamantic ritual, while the Dracula Dossier has the Ripper's knife set as a potential artefact and Red Jack as a possible foe.

In WBL there is an Optional Monster, Jack's Shadow. Described as "a living ghost haunting his own past," this tulpa stalks the major antagonists and Whitechapel inhabitants alike, possibly racking up a body count and certainly complicating the Book Hounds' lives. However if Jack shows up then his most devoted fanboy is sure to follow, even if he has to come back from the grave to do it. There's an obvious conduit: the executioner James Billington who, as luck would have it, kept diaries. His son William, also an executioner, continued those diaries, and though William lost his job in 1905 he lived until 1951. So from that comes this optional scene:

I Am Writing To Inform You

This is triggered only if Jack's tulpa possesses someone, either a Book Hound or prominent NPC. Letters are sent to the Book Hounds, saying that the writer knows all the details about a particular crime, and offers to tell all for money. If the characters don't pay up, the writer threatens to go to the police. The handwriting (1 point Cop Talk, Evidence Collection or Textual Analysis, and Cop Talk assumes the character goes to a police contact for the information) is eerily similar to Cream's. Following up on this, possibly via Streetwise, Document Analysis or just offering to pay, discovers that the letter writer is disgraced former executioner William Billington, but he's not himself; Cream, either as a ghost or via a Dust-Thing living off the diaries, has control over him. The remnant has a special kind of insight into Jack's tulpa, which can help the Book Hounds trace it. However to do so they will have to reach some kind of bargain with Doctor Cream, who's just loving all the attention.

In Dracula Dossier, Red Jack appears both as a potential antagonist and as a spirit connected with one of two possible knife artefacts. Where Red Jack leads Cream is sure to follow, which brings us to the following potential artefact:

Thomas Cream's Travelling Medical Case

This late Victorian tooled leather medical case has seen better days, and would cause the Antiques Roadshow crowd to tut audibly. Damp and neglect have damaged its exterior, and some of the contents aren't original. However the bits that are demonstrate the full range of late Victorian pharmacopoeia in odd little bottles and jars, as well as a collection of pornographic photographs, letters, and a set of false whiskers with decayed gum arabic fastening. Some of the contents, particularly the strychnine, retain their potency and must be carefully handled. A label, carefully removed, suggests that this might have been part of some kind of collection, though without the label itself this is impossible to prove.

This is Cream's case, which went from Newgate to London's Black Museum after Cream's 1892 execution. According to the Museum's files the case went missing in the 1980s during the move from its original home to New Scotland Yard; unofficially it was believed to have been stolen, possibly by the movers, but no charges were filed. Agents who follow up find that the case changed hands at least twice, both times bought by specialist Murderabilia collectors, each of whom died under suspicious circumstances.

This might be found in the possession of the Smuggler, Online Mystic, Madman, Art Forecaster (soon to be part of a conversation piece), Psychic, or as an unexpected find by the Church Scavenger.

Major Item: Cream enjoyed a unique relationship with Dracula through Red Jack, and either became a Renfield or longed to be one, committing murders to draw in his beloved Master in much the same way that Edom tried to use Jack. His blackmail letters were cries for help; in a small part of his mind he resisted, and tried to bring destruction on himself and his patron by giving away what he thought were their most important secrets. Owning the case establishes a psychic link between the owner and Cream, who forces the owner to write incriminating letters and send them to the police - but since Cream still thinks the police live at the Norman Shaw Buildings the letters will vanish into Government bureaucracy, or be scooped up by Edom, unless the agents intervene. The letters, when studied, prove to be in Cream's handwriting, and detail any of the Conspiracy's operations that are linked with Red Jack. So if Red Jack is linked to the Satanic Cult, then the letters will be about the Cult's current activities. The letters answer any three questions about Red Jack's link to the Conspyramid.

Minor Item: The case is Cream's, and is of some small value on the Murderabilia market. It can be sold or exchanged for an item of minor importance, and since the kind of crazies who collect Murderabilia have unusual tastes this can include illegal items. Guns, in the United Kingdom, or drugs, or a data dump of phone numbers, credit card numbers and similar. It can also include information on a Level One node, equivalent to 1 point Streetwise.  

Fake: It's a period doctor's travelling case filled with powders and pills, but expert analysis proves most of the stuff in here is 60s tat made up to look old. The LSD's still good, more or less, but the mushrooms and Mary Jane are well past sell-by. This was formerly owned by a roadie who worked as psychedelic consultant for many iconic London 60s venues, and afterward was sold to idiot Murderabilia collectors as a genuine antique. Fun fact: under the Misuse of Drugs Act, LSD is Class A and attracts the harshest penalties for possession. Or potentially life in prison, if the charge is intent to supply.