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.


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