Sunday, 29 December 2019

North Korea's Ghost Ships (NBA)

Once again North Korea hit the news this week, but not because of any Christmas Gift it's supposed to be dropping on … well, whoever North Korea doesn't like this week. No, this time it's because one of its Ghost Ships washed up on Sado Island, Japanese territory. All aboard were dead, two so badly decomposed that the authorities were unable to easily determine whether they were male or female.

This happens every so often, and sometimes hits the news. North Korea needs fish. Sometimes this is interpreted as 'North Korea is starving,' but whether it is or is not, fish is not to be had in quantity off the coast of North Korea. Though North Korea's fishing fleet isn't anything like robust enough for deep-sea fishing, in desperation its boats are forced further and further away from the coast. Often this means they can't get back again, and one more small tragedy is found, weeks or months later, by the Japanese. In 2019 alone at least 156 fishing boats were found adrift, or wrecked on the Japanese coast.

Sado is a remote, populated island, part of Niigata Prefecture, but far from Japan. In days gone by, it was a convenient place to send people nobody ever wanted to see again. Emperor Juntoku was one such; he was effectively puppeted by his predecessor, Emperor Go-Toba, who was forced to 'abdicate' by his shogun. Go-Toba spent the next few decades operating behind the scenes. Juntoku was one of three puppeted Emperors acting for Go-Toba, and when Juntoku failed to bring victory in war, Juntoku vanished.  The unfortunate puppet Emperor lived on Sado for twenty years after his disgrace, and is buried there, at Mano Goryo.

The island itself is two steep mountain ranges, north and south, clustered around a valley. Most of its 55,000-odd people live in that valley, Kuninaka. The island has been steadily depopulating; like much of Japan, it suffers from a lack of young people, as those with any ambition prefer to live in the big cities. The majority of Sado's grey-haired population hover around the 60+ mark. These days the island survives on tourism, attracting people with its geographic beauty, festivals, and historic shrines, memorials and landmarks.

It has a notorious connection with North Korea. US deserter Charles Jenkins lived there with his wife and daughters, after Jenkins was released by North Korea. His wife, Hitomi, was a 21-year-old abductee, one of several that North Korea snatched and kept imprisoned. The North Korean government 'gave' Hitomi to Jenkins, and they were later married. Her job was to teach North Korean agents Japanese language and customs, and Jenkins was meant to teach her English.

Hitomi was snatched from her home in Sado by North Korean agents, and Japan has always worried that the Ghost Ships are being used to transport spies to Japan, In 1999 there was an armed clash with one such 'fishing boat,' which resisted capture and fired on a Japanese coast guard ship with machine guns and rocket launchers. After it sank, it was recovered by the Japanese, and inspection showed it to be double-hulled with secret compartments capable of launching small speedboats. Presumably this was how it intended to deliver North Korean agents to Japan. The North Korean ship is now a star exhibit at the Coast Guard Museum, Yokohama.

So, to gamify:

The Cat Returns

In 1981, Japanese Vampirology expert Hotaka is taken by North Korean agents, and is never seen again. Most of his notes and research vanished with him, leaving only a few scraps behind for dedicated occultists and vampire hunters to fight over. However there have been persistent rumors since then that Hotaka-san was being forced to lead some kind of North Korean vampire program on a shoestring budget. There have also been rumors that he married, and had children - or possibly was forced to have children, depending on which version of the story you believe.

The agents have heard, through Network contacts, Tradecraft whispers, Traffic Analysis of Japanese SigInt, or similar, that Japanese authorities are particularly concerned North Korean agents of very uncertain, if not supernatural, provenance, may have infiltrated Sado. The Coast Guard recently intercepted a derelict fishing boat just off Sado's northern coast. The crew are dead, but what the Japenese government isn't saying is that the ghost ship wasn't an ordinary fishing smack. It was an armed spy ship, rigged in such a way that Vampirology experts can tell it was intended to transport blood-drinking cargo.

This coincides with an unusual radio broadcast from North Korea, evidently from a pirate station, unencrypted. It repeated the same Buson Haiku  three times, then went silent. The Haiku, Lighting One Candle, is known to be one of Hotaka-san's favorites. The broadcast went out the same day the ghost ship was recovered by the Japanese Coast Guard.

Has the 74-year-old famed Vampirology expert escaped, perhaps with the aid of one of the vampire program's experimental subjects? Or is this a defection by one of his children - and is that child human, or something else? If the agents want to find out, they'll have to evade Japanese and North Korean agents, who also want the same prize. Plus, there is that Haiku. If it was a secret message or signal, who was supposed to receive and understand it? The CIA? The Vatican? Someone else?

Bonus points to the Director if this race to uncover the defector - assuming it is a defector - takes place during one of Sado's many festivals. The Noh festivals in June, for example … imagine tracking a vampire through bonfire-lit Noh performances! Extra bonus points if the final scenes take place, at night, at Mano Goryo.


Sunday, 22 December 2019

KGB Museum, and Books!

I spent last weekend in NYC, loving every minute of it and walking my hind legs clean off. My hotel's about ten minutes walk from the Flatiron, and most of what I wanted - the Strand, really - is roundabout Union Square, so I didn't bother with the subway this trip. Spent a lot of time at the Pit, which I recommend if you enjoy comedy & improv.

That's not what this post shall be about, tho.

The KGB Museum down on West 14th Street is exactly what you think it is: a room stuffed full of pretty much every kind of spy kitsch you can imagine. If you like the KGB (and really, who doesn't?), Cold War shenanigans, and vintage spy tech, this is exactly the place you want to be. All it needs is a life-size statue of Ken Hite, glad-handing the tourists as they stroll in the door.

I got there at opening time, 10am, on Friday, and I'm glad I did. It meant I got the guided tour free of charge, but more importantly, I could enjoy everything in peace and quiet. There's a lot to see here, crammed into a relatively small space. I can only imagine what it's like with, say, fifty to sixty other sightseers jockeying for position.

It's run by a group of smiling eastern Europeans, probably Russians, and to be honest, if your first thought is, 'this has got to be an FSB front organization,' rest assured, I thought the same thing. It's exactly the sort of dumb-but-it-could-work idea that has fueled many a real-life spy operation, ever since Kit Marlowe got his in the back room of Elanor Bull's tavern. She, incidentally, did a lot of business with Russian merchants … wheels within wheels.

The KGB Museum's collection is very impressive. It leans a little more towards the early years, the Chekists and Beria, than the later Cold War operations. Some of the items stretch credulity a little bit. For example, the Museum has both The Thing - the wooden US seal which hung on the wall of the American Residency in Moscow for many years, which concealed a transmitter invented by musical genius Leon Theramin - and a Bulgarian poison-tipped umbrella, of the type that was used to kill dissident and defector Markov in London, 1978. Surely those are replicas. It beggars belief that the original Thing found its way to the KGB Museum, and as for the poison-tip umbrella … Anything's possible, I suppose.

That's the Museum's greatest trick. It makes everything seem possible. You don't know who owns it, where its money comes from, how it got its very impressive collection together, who all these charming Russians are who either run, or own, the place. It's a brilliant, small little museum, nestled in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world. Unless you're prepared to go to Moscow, you'll never see anything else like it.

It's a few steps down the street from a great 24-hour diner, the Coppelia, a Cuban place, and no, the irony of a little slice of Cuba a few steps down the street from the KGB museum did not escape me. God, I needed the Coppelia, at about 930 in the morning, when French toast with fresh sliced banana, plus a sinfully dark coffee, was the only shining light on a slate gray day. A good spread of rum on the shelf too; the kind of place worth coming back to again and again.

Now the books.

Hollywood's Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles, Laura B. Rosenzweig, NY University Press 2017. Los Angeles' Jewish community, led by Hollywood's elite, fights back against American Nazis. A slice of pre-Cold War cloak-and-dagger, and probably a good resource for Bookhounds, since a lot of the things happening in bookstore back rooms in Los Angeles in the 30s are probably also happening in London. If you play Technicolor and want some anti-Nazi action, paid for by Warner Brothers, here's your chance.

Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn edited by Andrei Codrescu, Princeton Uni Press, 2019. Hearn's stories enrapture me, and possibly the greatest thing about his work is, he wrote so very much it's almost impossible to run out. The day you think you've read them all, you find a whole new collection. The ghost lovers out there want this book.

Dark Tales, Shirley Jackson, Penguin 2017. Not as prolific as Hearn, but just as evocative. This contains the classics and several obscurities, newly reprinted. Again, ghost lovers, seek this out.

Psycho, Robert Bloch, Overlook Press, 2010. I must have seen the movie a dozen times, but it suddenly occurred to me, standing amid the Strand's towering stacks, that I'd never read the book. Time to rectify that.

How To Catch A Russian Spy, Naveed Jamali and Ellis Henican, Scribner paperback, 2018. Modern espionage tale about Jamali's work with the FBI, drawing out Russian intelligencers with poison packets of fake data. For the Night's Black Agents players and directors out there. Bought at the KGB Museum, so it has their own stamp on the flyleaf. As is only right and proper.

Hungry Ghosts, Anthony Bourdain, graphic novel, Berger Books (Dark Horse). Bourdain borrows from Japanese folklore to create a collection of creepy horror tales. I'll be honest, I hesitated over this one. Bourdain's unexpected death hit me hard, and for the longest while I didn't want to read his books or watch his show. I've recently gotten back into his work, and when I saw this on the shelf, I couldn't resist.

Night's Black Agents, Solo Ops. Pelgrane Press. How could I not? I playtested this, back in the day. I don't know how often I'll get a chance to play, but I couldn't resist. Now if only Swords of the Serpentine was out …

Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Edmund Curll (Bookhounds)

Once again, this week's inspiration comes from Geoffrey Ashe's The Secret History of the Hell-Fire Clubs, the gift that keeps on giving.

Edmund Curll is the kind of bookseller whose success your Hounds long to emulate. Born in 1675(ish), to a moderately respectable family, he apprenticed to a bookseller in the 1690s, and thus began his meteoric rise to fame, fortune, chicanery, and pornography, more or less in that order.

His early career was yellow journalism, in that it was entirely invented and existed only to start arguments. Clickbait. He'd work in conjunction with others like him, publishing cheap papers and pamphlets, capitalizing on current affairs. If a witch trial captures public attention, print some quickie cash-grabber taking her side of the case, while your partner in bullshit prints a denunciation of same. By doing so, you grab both ends of the market at the same time, and, if you can keep the argument going long after the witch hangs, you can keep the money rolling in for weeks after the actual incident is no longer news. The filthier the better - Archbishop engaged in sexual relations with a cow, that sort of thing.

He also had a good line in pseudoscience, publishing cure-all pamphlets and medical remedy books. Of course they bore no relation to actual scholarly work, but scholarship's boring - and Curll wanted to sell.

He had no scruples whatsoever. Johnathon Swift never wanted his Meditations on a Broomstick to see the light of day, and certainly not under Swift's own name, so Curll stole the book and published it. Curll would publish any old rubbish and put the names of famous men on it, to drive up sales. His favorite trick was to publish manuscripts already in print elsewhere, without seeking permission from the author or the publishing house, and often the ensuing controversy and denunciation only helped to publicize Curll's books.

Another beloved cash cow of Curll's was the unofficial biography published after some great man's death, when they couldn't retaliate with troublesome lawyers. He became so notorious for this that the House of Lords passed a law specifically to protect themselves: nobody could write about, or by, a Lord without permission.

He didn't escape unscathed. Swift poisoned him with an emetic, and the schoolboys of Westminster School, outraged at his unofficial biography of their headmaster, lured him into an ambush and beat him silly, wrapping him up in a blanket and thrashing the package with sticks. However despite all this he emerged as venomous as ever, and went on with his back-alley tricks. he had a special, enduring, rat-like talent for publishing, and publicity. Once, when he was put into a pillory, he salvaged something from the wreckage by publishing, and selling, self-promoting pamphlets, which he sold to the crowds who came to see him pilloried.

His final years were spent writing and publishing the Merryland line of  pornography. A Compleat Set of Charts of the Coasts of Merryland, Succors from Merryland, that sort of thing - the female body as a kind of strange and exotic land, to be explored by bold adventurers.

Curll's greatest achievement was to outlive his critics. He eventually died, publishing to the last, in December 1747, in a shop in a little alley off the Strand, in the City of Westminster, which used to be called Curll's Court.

All of which brings me to:

Let's All Go Down The Strand

The Bookhounds know Harry Box as a bumptious little fart who just can't keep his mouth shut for longer than five minutes, a minnow among sharks, bottom-feeder in the murkier, algae-flecked puddles of publishing. However he has a remarkable knack for ferreting out gossip, and he makes the leap from book scout to publisher. He gets his own printing press - God alone knows how, or where from - and publishes the most outrageous, scandalous and thoroughly disreputable biography of a recently deceased grandee, who according to Box's account cut a broad path through the demi-monde of Paris before the War.

It sells. O God, how it sells. The Bookhounds can't keep enough of it in stock. Lawsuits follow, but that doesn't seem to stop Box, who has something else on the go, an equally scandalous biography. Where does he get his material? The children of the dead man are very anxious to know, and will pay quite a handsome figure to find out.

If the Bookhounds go in search, whether on the family's account or for reasons of their own, they discover something unusual. Box's press isn't the original press. The printworks are given printed pages to work from, but these printed pages are of a very old-fashioned type - the sort that hasn't been seen since the 1700s.

Box is keeping his actual printworks in some Strand cellar, away from hidden eyes. Now, why would he want to do that? Where did he find this odd printing press - and how is it that this press somehow knows what to print, without needing to be told?


New York, New York

I'm taking some time off, and will be in the States this weekend. No Ephemera next Sunday!

I've been to NYC, God, I can't think how many times. I'm planning out an itinerary - first day shop (for Christmas looms like a bloated white whale, festooned with ribbons, and one roaming, bloodshot eye staring into your soul), next two day enjoy. The Argosy on 59th, the Strand and probably the game shop near Empire State whose name I can never remember. Ideally the Film Forum down on Houston, though, looking at the upcoming week's schedule, only Taxi Driver appeals. Maybe the Angelika? Jesus, is The Hidden Life the only thing on at the Angelika this coming weekend? I'm sure it's good, but if I wanted to spend the weekend in a state of existential misery, I'd just contemplate my bank  statements for 48 hours straight.

Well, looks like movies are off the table.

Anyway, I'm sure I'll find something to do.


Sunday, 1 December 2019

The Abbey (Bookhounds of London)

This week's post is inspired by Geoffrey Ashe's 1970s Secret History of the Hell-Fire Clubs, recently re-released in paperback. I've an interest in Hell-Fire Clubs, you may recall, so I picked this up on a whim.

Ashe is best known for his Arthurian Legends studies, but he acquits himself well here - though the text does have a whiff of the '70s about it, in much the same way Montague Summers' style and presentation is very much of his era, and dusty, erudite Edwardian upbringing.

Ashe starts with a study of Francois Rabelais, the Renaissance writer, humanist and religious scholar. Among the tales told by this fantasy and satire writer is Gargantua and Pantagruel, two scholarly and valiant giants. They fight battles against invading armies, defending France against giants, drown Paris in a bath of urine (delivered by Gargantua, standing atop Notre-Dame), delivers sermons against the evils of moral restraint, defend a judge who decides cases by rolling dice, and get up to no end of trouble.

Gargantua ends up co-founding the Abbey of Theleme. During the war against the giants he befriends the monk, Friar John, who comes to the giant's attention because John is the only monk who leaps to action when giants attack. All his fellow monks resort to prayer; John takes up a massive cross and uses it like a club, winning many victories.

After the war, Gargantua offers to make John the head of his order, but John refuses. He says he can't govern himself, so how can he lead others? Instead, he asks that the giant help him found his own order. This Gargantua does, and soon the former Friar has his own Abbey on the banks of the Loire, where young men and women both are welcome, so long as they are pretty and amenable. They all live in luxury, surrounded by art and beautiful things, and are allowed to study whatever they like.

All their life was regulated not by laws, statutes or rules, but according to their free will and pleasure. They arose from bed when they pleased, and drank, ate, worked and slept when fancy seized them. Nobody woke them; nobody compelled them either to eat or to drink, or to do anything else whatever … In their rules there was only one clause: DO WHAT YOU WILL. 

All of which brings me to:

The Abbey

Cosmopolitan Soho, the 'square mile of vice,' holds London's red light district, thousands of foreigners, and Wardour Street, the cinema industry hub of London … (Bookhounds of London)

Through the centuries, the houses of Soho have been the homes of the great as well as the infamous. It is difficult to say exactly when the neighborhood first became the haunt of vice it is today. The change was gradual. But by the twentieth century, the names of its denizens were more likely to fill the calendar at the Old Bailey than the pages of Debrett … (Soho: London's Vicious Circle, Arthur Tietjen.

The Abbey is the informal name of a smoky, down-at heels Beak Street den, just off Regent Street. It is nominally owned by John Fitzhugh, who claims he can trace his family line back to the Conqueror. In reality it's more of a commune, with people coming and going all the time. Usually young, always pretty, seldom virtuous, the Abbey's people are well-known in Soho for offering a warm bed and food to anyone who, like them, are pretty but lack funds. They're well-read, talented, and generous.

The only one of the group not young and pretty is the man they all call Pantagruel, and he's also one of the few to have been there from the beginning. Pantagruel is (in game terms) a Rough Lad with intimate Streetwise knowledge of Soho. If they need cocaine, they send Pantagruel to get it. If they need someone to throw an obnoxious person out of the Abbey, Pantagruel's the bouncer. If they need bail, Pantagruel brings it. The big fellow's a remarkably scholarly Rough Lad, and has the same Special as a Catalogue Agent, which makes him a useful person for Bookhounds to know. Pantagruel's always on the lookout for new things to add to his collection, and willing to make a trade. Nobody knows his real name, and he seems oddly reluctant to share it.  

John Fitzhugh, Jamaican-born Grace Gibbons and artist's model Rebecca Lattimore are the three founders of the Abbey, and the only ones apart from Pantagruel who remember the old days, when the Abbey was more of a tea room for soldiers on leave from the Front during the Great War. It's been a while since the War, but none of the three seem to have aged a day. Fitzhugh is still the same slim, trim, Bright Young Thing he was when the Abbey opened its doors; Grace the dancer who knew Harlem back when the Cake Walk was still popular; Rebecca the model beloved of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, & Gravers. Restraint is completely foreign to them, and they slide in and out of popularity, as they constantly get thrown out and banned from Soho nightclubs for outrageous behavior. It takes a lot to get thrown out of a Soho nightclub ...

The Bookhounds know the Abbey as a constant source of income, and trouble. The Abbey's shifting population are good spenders, but they're also expert grifters and shoplifters. They have to be watched every minute they're in the shop, or they'll steal the books, the bookshelves, and the carpets the shelves were standing on. Give them ten minutes, and they'll take the floorboards too. Pantagruel usually makes good any damage, but it may be a few weeks or months before he gets around to it.

Hooks & Terrible Secrets

  •  Are the founding trio, and Pantagruel, vampires? Possessed by evil spirits? Cultists? There's got to be some reason why they never age, or show any signs of wear & tear. Some former Beak Street scholars go on to dazzling, short-lived careers - the novelist who never publishes anything after his spectacular debut, or the musician who has one great night and then falls by the wayside. Why should that be?
  •  Whenever the Abbey's people go missing for an evening, people say they're having a pint at the Crown. This pub, mentioned by Charles Dickens in his novel Nicholas Nickleby, closed in 1921 and long since demolished. Where are they going, really? Is there still a Crown, somewhere in the shadows of Beak Street?
  •  The coppers at the Police Section House on Beak Street know the Abbey very well, and have nothing good to say about its founders. It's said that once, when Fitzhugh got particularly angry about some incident or other, he made half a cow appear in the unmarried men's quarters, and then disappear an hour later. Nobody figured out how he did it.  
  •  Every so often, the Abbey hosts a party or an art installation, to raise funds. People who go to these parties are allowed to go wherever they like, and do whatsoever with whosoever, so long as all parties are willing. However some of those who go say they meet people at those parties they never expected to see. On one notorious occasion, eighteenth century gentlemen bandits 'Captain' James Maclean and his partner in crime, William Plunkett, showed up to rob the place, only to vanish entirely when they ran outside to make their escape. Perhaps they were actors playing a skit, as some claim, but one partygoer swears blind he watched the pair dissolve into thin air. On another occasion, in 193[insert year here], a young Salvador Dali attended an art show - a Dali who claimed not to know or remember anything after 1924. Whenever the Abbey throws another bash, people place bets on what strange thing will happen next.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

The Doll Woman (Night's Black Agents)

This is loosely based on the career of wartime spy for the Japanese, Velvalee Dickinson.

Born Velvalee Blucher, this Californian native met her future husband, Lee Dickinson, when she was hired by his brokerage firm. The pair frequently socialized with Japanese, and were welcome visitors at the Japanese consulate, where they met diplomats and navy officers.

Later, when they moved to New York, Velvalee opened up a doll shop, and husband Lee kept the books until his death in 1943. This high-end enterprise specialized in collectors' items, and had a worldwide clientele.

 Image taken from Wikipedia

The FBI first became aware of Velvalee's spying in 1942, when wartime censors picked up on suspicious wording in a letter Velvalee sent to a 'client.' Velvalee's scheme was simple. Her letters, sent to a Japanese agent in Buenos Ares, spoke of 'a doll in a hula skirt', meaning a ship recently arrived from Hawaii, or 'fishing nets' and 'balloons' for coastal defenses. As a scheme it worked quite well, but Velvalee made a mistake. Anxious not to attract attention to herself, she put her real clients' names and addresses in the 'return to sender' section. She probably thought she was cunning; problems arose when her Japanese contact changed address, and the postal authorities in Buenos Ares started returning Velvalee's letters. The alleged senders, confused and worried by all these odd letters, contacted the FBI, and not long after that Velvalee found herself accused of spying for Japan. She claimed her husband, Lee, by that time long dead, was the real spy. When that didn't work, she offered up her Japanese contacts and other information in a plea bargain. She went to jail in 1944 for ten years, and was released in 1951, with time off for good behavior. 

So let's recap: spy set up in small high-end collectors' business, with money given her by her co-conspirators. She reports back on military movements, and would probably have gotten away with it too, were it not for that darn kid in Buenos Ares, who screwed everything up by not leaving a forwarding address when he moved.

The Conspiracy has interests all over the world, but it can't maintain full-fledged Nodes everywhere it likes. There are going to be times it has to rely on assets in place. Those agents will have a specific task; it might be to watch a person or place, or to surveil a particular port, or whatever the Director deems appropriate. They may not understand the whole picture, but then they don't have to. They just need to observe, and report.

The Doll Woman: Meredith Soames 

Soames [change name as needed] owns a doll shop in [Director chooses appropriate location], which deals in high-end collectibles for well-heeled clients. It might specialize in a particular kind of item - Japanese hina-ningyo, perhaps, or manga collectibles. 

Soames is backed by a Conspiracy Node, but she doesn't know anything about the Node except for her handler's contact details. Nor does she know a great deal about the Conspiracy. Her connection with it is strictly medical; back when she was in college, she developed a debilitating and ultimately fatal disease, and it was only thanks to the Conspiracy's medical intervention (ie. it Renfielded her) that she survived. Now she depends on her special medicine to keep going. 

Her job is to monitor [target's] communications, which means she hacks computers, monitors phone calls, and conducts on-the-spot surveillance, as needed. She's been trained in some aspects of surveillance, but much of the tools of her trade - like the viruses - come direct from her handler. The target can be anyone or anything, from an Edom Prince, to a particular pharmaceuticals company, or a mission-critical location - Whitby, say. 

Problems arise when her handler switches to a different supplier, a Ukrainian hack team, for the viruses. The Ukrainians are either sloppy or deliberately sabotage the scheme, because the viruses attract the attention of the authorities [increased her Heat to dangerous levels, mechanically.] This attracts the characters, but it also attracts the authorities. The agents will need to act quickly if they want to benefit. 

Civilian Template

General: Athletics 3, Hand-to-Hand 4 (training), Health 2, Weapons 2 (-1 damage, extendable baton, possibly also taser if allowed).

Special: effective Digital Intrusion 4, thanks to equipment supplied by Node.

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness: -1 (training)

Stealth: +0 (training)

Damage: -2 (fist)

As Renfield: 

Aberrance 9

General: Athletics 8, Filch 3, Hand-to-Hand 6, Health 4, Weapons 2

Special: as above.

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness: +0

Stealth: +1

Damage: -1 (fist)

Abilities: Enhanced Hearing, Infravision (free powers), Cloud Men's Minds. If the Director prefers, Cloud Men's Minds can be switched out for doll-specific Magic, most likely mood controllers and surveillance tools rather than Chucky-style killing machines or Puppet Master antics. 

Soames depends on the Conspiracy for her life-giving medicine. She won't betray its secrets, at least not without an ironclad guarantee that her drug supply - vampire blood - will continue.


Sunday, 17 November 2019

Keeper Advice: Talk Less, Smile More

Keepers often over-indulge, and forget Strunk's ageless wisdom: omit needless words.

Worse, needed words are misplaced.

Consider: It's the start of the session and you, the Keeper, are trying to set a scene. You talk about the weather, the countryside, its geography, even its history. You talk about the city and its streets, the mist that seeps out of manhole covers, rising from some forgotten, dark hole below. You might spend ten minutes expounding, because you see all this as important, even vital. How will the players know what's going on, if you don't tell them?

All this is Exposition.

Hitchcock's 100% gold. Exposition cannot be the spotlight moment, especially not at the beginning of the story. Never start a session with a ten-minute spiel about the weather, the setting, or, God forbid, the geopolitical situation. Or even the local political situation. Devote, at most, one sentence to the start - or as I'd describe it, the starting gun - and then get out of the way.

Night's Black Agents, and the agent is tasked with surveilling a suspicious character. The larger story can be about anything up to and including an apocalyptic death ray, but that's not how you start. You start with the agent, in the moment, doing a thing.

'Pretending to window-shop on a street full of holiday-happy people, you see your target slip into an upmarket coffee shop.'

That's all you need. Don't worry about anything else; the player takes it from there. It doesn't matter whether it's Halloween or Christmas. It doesn't matter whether it's the high street of some regional town, or London. Or Paris. You can define all that in play. Hell, you can even define the target in play - male, female, dressed how, ethnicity? After all, if there's one thing disguise expert Jonna Mendez teaches us, it's that the person who seems to be a young Asian female might be a white European male. If you as Keeper want a particular NPC in the scene, and the player describes a different person, no problem! Your NPC was in disguise all along.

Bear in mind what Hitchcock says about North by Northwest, because that illustrates my other point: needed words are misplaced. You can have exposition. You'll need lots of it later on, when the player wants to know important details about the geopolitical situation, or whatever it may be. Just don't have it right at the beginning of the session. That's when everyone's at the starting gate, eager to get on with it. Don't bore the group with ten minutes of blah when what they want is five minutes of action. Exposition is for explaining what has happened, not what is going to happen.

Going back to omit needless words, I'm also going to draw on the wisdom of M.R. James. I've been re-reading his short stories, and two things struck me.

First, like James Herbert, he goes there, sets it on fire, and sells hot dogs. In a much more genteel Victorian way - James would probably prefer roasting chestnuts. Yet James knows horror is best when the reader, the ordinary person, can picture themselves in the scene. "If I am not careful, something like this might happen to me …" That's why most of James' protagonists are young, professional people, perhaps in their late twenties or early thirties. Too old, or too young, wouldn't work as well. Professional people, well-to-do, thoroughly upper middle class, because James knows (or thinks he knows) his audience shares those traits. Their lives are fairly ordinary; some hold important jobs, or academic positions, but you could pass by them in the street and not immediately know them for who they are. One even rides the Clapham omnibus, the legal definition of the ordinary man.

So James takes the ordinary man off in a dark corner and threatens his life - or, in some cases, plain old kills him. Or kills his children. It's remarkable how often dead children appear in James' stories; I can't think of another author quite so keen to deliver pre-teens to the slaughter. I remember James Herbert had a baby eaten by rats, and Stephen King pulled off something similar in Salem's Lot, but neither of them made a habit of it. Whereas James pulls this chilling swerve all the time.

 ... the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch [Punch and Judy] wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality ... [The Story of a Disappearance, and a Reappearance.]

Second, James doesn't bother with things that aren't important, and that includes characters, even those that have narrative impact.

"I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full term is over, Professor," said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography, soon after they had sat down next to each other at a feast in the hospitable hall of St. James' College.

The Professor was young, neat, and precise in speech.

"Yes," he said; "My friends have been making me take up golf this term, and I mean to go to the East Coast - in point of fact to Burnstow (I dare say you know it) for a week or ten days, to improve my game. I hope to get off to-morrow."

"Oh, Parkins," said his neighbor on the other side, "If you are going to Burnstow, I wish you would look at the site of the Templar's preceptory, and let me know if you think if it would be any good to have a dig there in the summer."

It was, as you might suppose, a person of antiquarian pursuits who said this, but since he merely appears in this prologue, there is no need to give his entitlements.

Some of you may recognize this as the start of James' most famous story, Oh Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad. It's been reprinted countless times in any number of anthologies, and filmed at least twice, probably more often. Also a song by Robbie Burns, and I don't doubt James got a laugh out of that.

Look at what James is doing. He sets up the moment in one sentence, which tells you everything you need to know about the moment and the people in it. More importantly, he has a dialogue with three people, in which only one, Parkins, is important to the story - so he does not bother to name the other two. He doesn't even name Parkins until the third paragraph; before that he is merely a young, neat, precise Professor of Ontography.

Think! How often have you been asked, 'who is this NPC? What's their name?' How often have you had the courage to reply, 'as (s)he's not relevant to the narrative going forward, I shall not name him/her.'

If the player wants that NPC to become relevant, then by all means let the player name them. Grow fond of them. Even shoehorn them into the story somehow.

That's when you, as Keeper, murder that NPC in the most gruesome way possible. Harden your heart. If James can shove pre-teens into the sausage mincer, you can feed so-and-so into the ghoul pit. If nothing else, it alerts the agents to vital information - that there is a ghoul pit, and it should be avoided if they want to live.  

So! Omit needless words. Exposition explains what has happened, not what is going to happen. If it is not necessary, ignore it - don't even name it, if you don't have to.

Get on with the story. That's the important thing.


Sunday, 10 November 2019

Cuban Mysteries & Ladies Vanish

Once upon a time when the world was slightly saner than it is today, I mentioned a Cuban drama in which diplomats claimed to have fallen foul of a sonic superweapon. Incredibly, that story still has legs. Only this week the Guardian claimed a freedom of information victory, and got its hands on diplomatic cables and other official communications that, the paper claimed, shed light on the mystery.

Except … it kinda didn't. For all the fanfare, the released documents shed as much light as a snuffed-out candle. Nobody knows what happened. The Americans aren't in a hurry to find out. The Cubans, mightily pissed, are confident the whole thing's nonsense from beginning to end. There's some madcap Canadians who think the diplomats might have been unintentionally poisoned by insect spray.

The big, and probably unintentional, result is that diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US broke down, and frankly, given that the Jackass is currently disgracing the Presidency with his presence, those diplomatic relations were dead in the water. If it wasn't this, some other crisis would have come along and the GOP would have found an excuse to pull the plug. After all, the diplomatic rapprochement was an Obama administration policy, and the GOP's done its damndest to kill off every other Obama policy.

However the sonic superweapon got me thinking: what exactly do you need to design a spy thriller? High stakes? International locales? Femme fatales, or high-speed action sequences? Sinister superweapons? Diplomatic intrigue?

The answer to this question comes from Hitchcock, as you might expect.

Hitchcock made spy thrillers where ladies vanish on trains. Saboteurs send young children across London, with bombs hidden in film cans. Secrets that could change the course of world politics are whispered by dying men to total strangers. An ad executive meeting his mother for lunch is mistaken for a superspy. An American physicist defects to Moscow to steal rocketry secrets. Hitchcock knew the spy genre inside and out - and his spy thrillers were the simplest possible.

You need a McGuffin, one important enough to get people worked up. You need an interesting situation. You need tension. That's it.

Consider The Lady Vanishes (1938).

In that film, as is so often the case with Hitchcock, the McGuffin is never revealed, or even described. We know it's important, because everyone treats it as if it is important. Miss Froy, the elderly Englishwoman who has the McGuffin, vanishes - and it's as if she was never there. Miss Froy's chance companion, Iris Henderson, at first is puzzled, then horrified, as person after person says there is not, and never was, a Miss Froy - and it's her horror that propels her over the threshold and into the spy thriller. Who can she trust? Who's in the enemy camp? What happened to that dear old lady?

Hitchcock was a past master at building tension with very little, cinematic bricks without straw. A modern director uses flashy car chases and impossible parkour sequences; Hitchcock got the same result with two buses, one after the other, slowly traversing the countryside (Torn Curtain). This is where the interesting situation comes in, and Hitchcock was smart enough to realize that any situation can be interesting, under the right conditions.

With The Lady Vanishes, the interesting situation is the train journey. A few score strangers jammed together for hours, days at a time. A definite time limit - that train will eventually arrive at its destination, and once that happens, all chance of saving Miss Froy is gone. Mile after mile of unforgiving countryside, with nowhere to go, nowhere to turn for help.

Imagine for a moment a Night's Black Agents sequence where the agents are on the London Underground. They know there's an enemy agent on the train who wants to kill them, but they don't know who that agent is. It could be any one of the twenty-odd people in the carriage. So they wait. At Westbourne Park three people get off, two get on. The agents wait. Several more leave at Latimer Road. They wait. More get off at Shepherd's Bush, and now there are only half a dozen suspects left from the twenty-odd who were on board at Paddington. Of course, the agents could provoke a confrontation, but if they get it wrong then their cover's blown to no purpose. In the worst case, they might get a civilian killed. Hammersmith's coming up, the end of the line. If they wait till then, they may have a much better chance of telling the assassin from the commuters - but Hammersmith could be what the assassin's waiting for. They could get off the train before Hammersmith - but what if the assassin follows, mingling with the other passengers?

All this aboard an ordinary Hammersmith underground train. The Hammersmith and City runs hundreds of times a day, pretty much every day God sends. It takes about an hour. Imagine running a full hour of a game session where the agents have nothing to do but wonder - is it that kid? The old man? The woman with the baby carriage? Or, since it's vampires we're talking about, is the bastard hanging onto the roof waiting for me to get off?

A McGuffin. A situation. All that's wanted is tension, and we're off to the races. That tension, those thrills, don't have to come from gunfights or explosions. They can come from something as simple as a boy walking across London with a film cannister under his arm. What matters is, there are stakes - the explosion - and a definite timetable. If X doesn't happen by Y, then ...


Sunday, 3 November 2019

Vampire Trolls (NBA)

Does Dracula need an African troll factory?

Probably not … but ...

If you've been following the news, then you may have noticed Russian troll factories popping up again, as Facebook has closed down accounts linked to inauthentic Russian accounts across central Africa. These accounts were being used to influence leadership and political contests, and allegedly are linked to Russian troll magnate Yevgeny Prigozhin, who includes involvement with a PMC, Wagner Group, among his many hobbies. Wagner may, or may not, be a deniable branch of Russia's Ministry of Defense; the MoD and agencies like GRU have been very helpful to Wagner in the past. Prigozhin himself is a good friend of Vladimir Putin - so far as anyone can be said to be friends with Putin.

Troll factories are part of modern political and social life, now. Anything that pops up in your social media feed could be bait, or chum spread by those anonymous thousands of workers who get paid to tell lies.

At about the same time the Facebook story broke, a Polish journalist came out with their own version of life on the troll farm, and the kind of people who work in those misinformation factories:

'A majority of Cat@Net’s employees are understood to be disabled, allowing the company to derive substantial public subsidies from Poland’s National Disabled Rehabilitation Fund. According to the Reporters Foundation, the company has received about 1.5 million zloty (£300,000) from the fund since November 2015.

“Many of them are really good people – they are compassionate, they do charity work and engage in social activism in their spare time, but their disabilities mean that their employment opportunities are limited,” Pruszkiewicz told the Guardian. “For them it was just work and that’s it.”'

So, what would the Conspiracy do with a troll factory? What would Dracula want with one?

The answer's twofold, and part of it's obvious. The Conspiracy, and Dracula, need troll farms because they operate in the real world, and need to get influence over public figures, even governments. They're in it for the same reason Putin is - they want to make sure the right people are in power, and those opposed to them are publicly crushed. Is that journalist or political figure getting too close to the truth?  Is this government getting a little too bolshy, or is that President displaying an unwelcome independent streak? Time to unleash the dogs of social war.

That's the level of operation which won't really affect the agents, at least not directly. It does affect their bosses, though. Any Network ally or agency contact could get badly bruised or broken by the factories. Imagine what might happen if the Mr. Johnson the agents have been working with up till now suddenly has to deal with troll-inspired internet outrage!

But what about the agents, I hear you ask? How can I, a mere Director, get them with trolls?

Well, consider this: the agents work in the real world too. The high-level bring-down-governments stuff isn't for them, but there's plenty of other ways to troll people into submission, as the internet proves on a daily, even hourly basis. Ask yourself: what does it really mean to have pool points in Law, Occult Studies, Research, and especially High Society?

Ahh, High Society … that entrĂ©e into James Bond's shaken-not-stirred world. Anyone with points in High Society exists within High Society. At the very least, they have a milliWheaton's worth of followers on social media accounts. They are seen. Maybe they don't merit a full-color spread in the red tops, or an interview in Vogue, but if some Instagrammer's snapping candids at the club opening, there's a decent chance the agent will be in the background. Or even be the one taking the candids.

A similar but not identical case can be made for those with points in many of the academic abilities. Research is a small world. Anyone with points in that pool probably knows people in that world; they may even have been published in obscure academic journals. Military Science implies military experience, possibly at rank. Law suggests a former career as a lawyer, maybe even in an institution like the JAG or Crown Court. Remember how everyone seems to know James Bond, no matter where he goes? This is why.

If the agents have status, however they have it, that means they have something to lose.

As gamification, consider having Troll Attack as one of the Row One responses on the Conspyramid response sheet. It could be very applicable in Dust games in particular, where the emphasis is on nitty-gritty realism. As an effect, convert the characters' pool in the applicable Investigative ability into the equivalent in Heat gain. So an agent with 2 points High Society immediately gains 2 points Heat, which will remain so long as the internet furor is active. Putting a stop to the attack could provide the agent with Cherry-level Digital Intrusion a chance to shine!

As per p88 of the main book, the Director has the option of increasing this Heat gain depending on circumstances. Is the troll attack the equivalent of informing on the agents with the local law? That's a +1 gain. Did it reach the attention of the equivalent of the national media - ie. is it trending on Twitter or Facebook? That's a further +1 heat - and so on.

The troll attack could also be a very useful clue trail to somewhere the Director wants the agents to go next. 'Funny how all those troll attacks came from Wroclaw, Poland … I wonder if we should check into that.'

So, does the Conspiracy have a troll factory as a full-fledged Node? Eh … probably not. That's too much expensive talent to keep on the payroll for only occasional use. However troll factories are notoriously mercenary, and if there's one thing the Conspiracy's got a lot of, it's cash. It's not like the trolls will be asking questions either. The Poles looking to boost their income rather than survive on disability benefit definitely aren't asking questions.

Plus, the troll factory could link in nicely with the Conspiracy's ultimate goals. Does Dracula intend to gain control over Vladimir Putin, for instance? Then Dracula might choose to get at Putin through his dear friend Prigozhin ...


Sunday, 27 October 2019

Thrilling Seige (Night's Black Agents)

The NBA Resource Guide is out, and I highly recommend it. Every Keeper should have these tools in her blood-soaked toolkit. New Monsters, Initiations for those pesky agents, special Operatives, combat tweaks, mission skeletons, locations - all you could ask for, really.

I've a special fondness for Thrilling Scenes, where the agents engage in an extended contest for Fabulous Prizes. Are you still alive at the end of it? Congratulations, that's your fabulous prize! There's Duelling, Hacking, Heists, Interrogation, Negotiation, Sneaking, Trailing … have I missed anything?

Well, there is something left on the table, and I thought I'd discuss that today.

Thrilling Sieges.

Normally, as fragile bags of meat and blood, the agents prefer to avoid drawn-out combat; those unhappy moments where either you have to break through the enemy's defenses, or they force their way through yours. That's when even the best falter. However there may come the day when something unspeakable's scratching at the door, or far too many (or well-armed) mooks are outside, and all they want is to come in and kill you.

 As with all Thrilling scenes, the pursuer [besieger/attacker] wants to reduce the Lead to 0, while the runner [besieged/defender] wants to increase the Lead to 10, or whichever threshold is set by the Director. If the Lead goes to 0 then the attacker achieves its victory condition, which is almost certainly to get inside and slaughter everything they find. If the Lead goes to 10 then the defender achieves its victory condition, which may be simply to hold out (we made it till dawn, guys!) or find a way to escape.

This Scene involves a chase ability. Normally a Thrilling scene is one-on-one, so a General ability is used, like Digital Intrusion or Driving. In this instance no one General ability covers all the bases, and in any case a Siege implies many against many. There may even be Civilians or similar non-combatants in the agents' group, who don't normally have useful combat skills but who can at least point a gun in the direction of the enemy and pull the trigger. For that reason, the Chase Ability is a special pool created by the Defender from the Defenders' available pool of Investigative abilities.

Each Agent/defender contributes as many points as they wish into this pool, but each point has to be justified. For instance, say the attackers include supernatural entities. Occult Studies or Vampirology might be useful. "I sprinkle salt from the canteen over every doorway and windowsill, to keep the ghosts away!" Military Studies, Architecture, Electronic Surveillance, Human Terrain, Intimidation, Streetwise, Cop Talk might all have their uses, but it's up to the agents to justify their use. Spend is 1 point buys 1 point; theoretically in a Dust game it could be reduced to 1 point buys 1/2 a point, but that's up to the Director. The agents could also justify pool boosts by bringing in extra assets. Each otherwise useless civilian who is given a gun will boost the pool by 1 point, for example - always assuming the civilians can be persuaded to fight.

There could be other ways to achieve the same result. An otherwise useless civilian who's put in charge of monitoring the security cameras ("don't touch anything, just shout out when you see the bastards on camera,") could also count as 1 pool point. Ultimately it's up to the agents to create this pool and justify each point they put in it.

The Director determines the attackers' pool, preferably in advance. A good rule of thumb is 1 point per armed (or otherwise useful) Mook, 2 points per leader or trained special forces type, and a score equal to half the entity's Aberrance pool for each supernatural type. So 20 mooks led by a special forces type is 22 pool. Or six werewolves with 8 Aberrance each is 24 points, and so on.

'Otherwise useful' in context means 'able to contribute in a way that doesn't involve outright violence.' So the mook who's in charge of flying drones overhead to scout out defenses is worth 1 point, and the mooks in charge of running digital security, blocking out cell phones and other electronic options with their signal jammers, are worth 1 point per mook, Mooks disguised as cops directing curious onlookers away from the scene of the action, special purpose troops like dog handlers, exorcists, scientists who keep the super-science opposition under chemical control, and so on.

The benefit of this system is, it creates a Pool by which Thrilling progress can be measured, while leaving General abilities intact - in case you want to use them later in a bloody showdown. Or escape sequence. It's highly likely the attacker will have more points than the defender, so the defender will have to spend carefully during tests.

Next step: establish the setting. Are they in an old spooky house? Abandoned military complex? A tangled necropolis, a decommissioned police precinct, somewhere else? Whatever it may be, allow the agents to derive up to 3 Pool points from the setting, so long as it can be justified. "I know these old Soviet bunkers," says the agents with military training. "We can establish choke points here, and here." Or, "I bet there's some useful corrosive chemicals in the biolab." However it's done, so long as it's plausible (Director's call), the agent gets 1 point per justified use of the setting.

Now - Showtime!

In a Thriller Seige, both sides take whatever action they see fit. Ideally each agent involved in the siege should get a chance at controlling the spotlight, but play our the scene as works best for you. The action may involve outright attacks, Digital Intrusion attempts to get control of the security cameras, Infiltration to exploit weaknesses, whatever. Each side then makes checks, against a Difficulty of minimum 4. This Difficulty may rise or fall, depending on the circumstances that prevail at the time. Does the enemy hacker have special equipment, or Cherry level ability? Then unless the agents can justify countermeasures - hey, our hacker also has Cherry level abilities! - the Difficulty for the enemy's Digital Intrusion check is 3. Are the agents well protected and on higher ground? Then the enemy's Difficulty to shoot them goes up to at least 5 - and so on.

Note that this is written as if the agents are being besieged, and the Conspiracy is besieging. This is what I expect to happen, most of the time. It's unlikely that the agents and their private army will have Dracula and his eight goons besieged in the Royal Mint of Spain, but it could happen. If it does, just switch the consequences as needed for Attacker or Defender Wins.

There are four potential outcomes:

Both Sides Fail: Neither side suffers much. If the attacker has the better margin, the Lead decreases by one, and if the defender has the better margin, then Lead increases by 1. Ties go to the defender. The Director should let the agents decide exactly what that means. Did the security cameras fail? Power go offline? Was an important attacker injured by a stray bullet? It's only a difference of 1 point, so it's not going to be a major event, but still ...

Both Sides Succeed: Much as Both Sides Fail, except this time Lead increases or decreases by 2. Has an important defensive point been overrun? Did some of those civilians messily die? Has the enemy successfully sabotaged the vehicle the defenders were planning to use to escape?

Defender Succeeds, Attacker Fails: Lead increases by the margin of success, or the enemy loses an important asset. Losing an asset reduces the enemy's pool by 2, and eliminates the asset. So that special forces leader, for example, might have tripped a booby trap and had her leg blown off. She might not be dead, but she certainly isn't participating in the siege any more. That means she's not eligible for combat, can't shoot, and can't lead her mooks. Or that tank the attackers were relying on just blew up, the chopper crashed, one of the werewolves freaked out and is now running across the moors - whatever best suits the situation at the time.

Attacker Succeeds, Defender Fails: Lead decreases by the margin of success, or one of the agents takes a hit to Stability or Health equal to the margin of success +2. Say the margin of success is 6. That means one of the agents takes a hit equal to (6+2) 8 points. The agents get to choose which happens, thus allowing the agents to take the hit themselves rather than lose Lead. The agents get to decide exactly what happens to the injured agent. Is Cornelius the bang-and-burner a little too close to his latest blast? Was the sight of that bloodsucking horror too much for Maria the wetworker?

Thrilling Moments: I'm on the khazi! [Dog Soldiers] A siege implies the defenders are protecting, or at least trying to survive in, a structure. The agents work best as a group, but imagine what would happen if the enemy got inside, and started splitting the group up. Sarge's trapped  in the khazi, the rest of the team are trying to hold out in their own little defensive positions, or desperately attempting to regroup, come what may.

I'm boss up here. [Night of the Living Dead]. Perhaps best for Mirror or Dust games, the defending group splits into opposing factions, for whatever reason. The civilians trapped in here with the agents prefer to do what their boss says, rather than what the agents think is right. There's a sarcastic, sniping know-it-all among the hostages who Just. Won't. Shut. Up. Is one of the agents a traitor, working with some shadowy organization, or is the brainwashed black ops badass finally realizing who put them through that pain all those years ago?

We're in the middle of a city. Inside a police station! [Assault on Precinct 13] The agents may feel, with some justification, that they're in a safe spot. Maybe they're holed up in a church, or on sanctified ground. Maybe they're in a very public place, where outright violence ought to bring heavy police response. Take that security blanket away. The church is desecrated, the cops are in bed with the Conspiracy, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Famous Siege Moments: Beau Geste. The heroes are holding out in the fort, but it looks grim. Any moment now the enemy are going to come swarming over the battlements, especially when they realize how few defenders there are. So what does our hero do? He puts corpses up on the battlements as if they were soldiers, so the enemy thinks there are more Legionnaires than there are.

Men of Harlech. The lads at Rourke's Drift are down to their last few rounds and a prayer, with innumerable Zulu baying at the gate. Morale is at an all time low. [Stability checks went very badly.] What to do? Have a sing-song, that's what. If nothing else, it might raise those ebbing Stability pools.

Koulikov Jumps First. The defenders may feel pretty safe in their bunker, but the time will come when they have to change position - or be lured into changing position, along a track that the enemy have a sniper positioned. Here's the moment when the agents find out just how lucky they are.

The Final Moments

Either the defenders win, or the attackers do.

If the defenders win, then they hit their victory condition, which presumably was either to hold out for long enough, or to escape. They get away with it. The vampires drift away before dawn gets them, the mooks run away, the special forces retreat. All's Quiet on the Western Front. Time to go! No escape rolls needed, and if there was a McGuffin the agents were trying to steal or protect, consider it stolen or protected.

If the attackers do … well, things probably go very badly for the defenders. Anyone who's not one of the agents dies, or is captured. Each agent takes damage to Health or Stability, agent's choice, equivalent to 1D6+5 (roughly the same as Near range, Class 5 explosive, except the damage can be psychological rather than physical). Anyone who survives that gets a chance to escape, or to hide amongst the dead and hope not to be spotted. Rolls will be required, to get away with it. Some agents may be captured, requiring a rescue later. Or perhaps, when that agent returns … they'll have switched to the Vampires' team.


Sunday, 20 October 2019

Dear Jessica (Night's Black Agents)

Some of the information in this post comes from LexisNexis.

The Lexis database lists the Jessica (aka HMYJ5, Grand Union, Lian Shun 9), as a prohibited General Cargo vessel from North Korea, banned from entering US waters under the Countering America's Enemies Act and North Korea Sanctions Act. Lexis doesn't go into specifics as to why Jessica made the list, but there could be all sorts of reasons. Over 59 vessels have been sanctioned by the US Treasury, usually because they're smuggling cargo into, or out of, the dictatorial regime of North Korea.

It's not difficult to change the appearance of a ship. Smugglers have been doing that since the age of sail, and it's just as easy now as it was then. A new paint job, a new name on the stern, change out the flag and some of the fittings, and you're done.

As the CNN article points out, modern means of tracking are easy to falsify - or, in the case of transponders, turn off as soon as you leave port. File your company in Hong Kong, so you have a neutral(ish) port of call and flag to fly. That company owns the ship, and if you have trouble, just transfer the ship to another company. And another. And another. None of this is any more sophisticated than it has to be. The people who run these operations know nobody's looking too hard at them, and when someone does, they can just vanish, to be replaced by another faceless entity.

When a ship's well and truly burnt, its shadowy owners cut ties, just as happens to spies now and again - something your agents know all about. With ships, it's a little different.

You may recall me mentioning Rats, Glorious Rats, and Derelicts before. Also the Seaman Guard Ohio incident, and the nasty cargo found aboard the Hai Sin, when it was broken up at Guangdong port.

When you no longer want a ship, the best course of action is to dump it. The CNN article above references the Hao Fan 6 and says that, in its final stages, the ship's transponder had it going in circles for weeks and weeks. The author suggests this is a tactic to throw off investigators; with no legit port to go to, it just stays at sea. It could also mean that the crew disembarked weeks ago, kept the engines running, and tied off the wheel. Whereas the Hai Sin was sold to a scrapyard, but that was back in the 1990s, when transponders were less common, and the West's media didn't pay anything like as much attention to things that happened in Chinese ports. [Not that it pays a great deal of attention now, mind.]

There are plenty of graveyards all over the world. The UK has a few, France has a few, but if you want to dump your unwanted illegal cargo ship somewhere unremarkable, Africa and Asia are still your best shots - though I note that the largest of them all, Nouadhibou, is being cleared up, with China's help.

If you don't want to ditch it, for whatever reason, and you can't afford to send it to a scrapyard, your next best bet is to scuttle it. Sounds easy, doesn't it? People have been sinking ships for centuries, usually unintentionally. However scuttling your vessel can prove difficult. Ships are built to float, and sometimes stubbornly remain afloat despite the best efforts of those aboard. That's how ghost ships like the Lyubov Orlova with its cannibal rats get their start.

So, to gamify:

Jessica's Cargo

The agents are hired, either by shadowy go-betweens or by an agency like Edom, and sent to Bangladesh to take possession of the Jessica, a ship on the prohibited list for various smuggling offenses. The Jessica is believed ultimately to belong to North Korea, but is legally owned by a Hong Kong holding company. The Hong Kong holding company and the American authorities, possibly with CIA backing, are battling for control of the Jessica, so the agents must expect competition. The Bangladesh authorities are proving less than helpful, so the agents will have uncooperative bureaucracy to deal with too.

The Jessica turned up in Bangladesh in the old-fashioned way: it beached itself during a storm. It was swiftly claimed by a local scrapyard, for salvage, and a claim was put in with the ship's owners. Unfortunately for the salvage yard, its claim is on hold, and likely to remain so, as the shipyard owner's eldest son has been kidnapped by local gangsters. Though the shipyard owner is very reluctant to say so, one of the conditions on his son's release is that he drop all claim on the Jessica or its cargo. He won't want to cooperate with anyone, whether it's the agents or one of their rivals.

Why all this fuss? Is it because:

  • The Jessica wasn't supposed to beach, whether in Bangladesh or anywhere else. It was supposed to be delivering a very illegal cargo for North Korea's regime. North Korea wants to know why the Jessica ended up in Bangladesh - and the Conspiracy, which hitched a ride through contacts in North Korea, wants to cover up its involvement in the affair. What was that cargo? What Conspiracy asset was aboard the Jessica, and where is it now?  
  • The Jessica's carrying cargo meant for delivery in Bangladesh, but for whatever reason the crew went missing and now the cargo's God knows where. Did someone steal it, or did it walk away? Is this an elaborate attempt by a Conspiracy asset to defect?
  • The Jessica's part of a NSA operation designed to draw out Chinese assets working with North Korea. The NSA's been tracking the Jessica for months, and there was an op in place to recruit the ship's captain. Then the captain began relaying some very peculiar data, just before the Jessica went silent - two weeks before it ended up on Bangladesh's shoreline. The NSA wants to know what went wrong, and if the American vampire's in play, he may be assigned to find out.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Is It, or Is It Not? (Bookhounds)

Inspired by this tweet from @arkhamlibrarian, aka Rebecca Baumann.

Sir Thomas Browne possessed an incredible intellect, able to parse the Kabbalah, witchcraft, and angels, yet at the same time pursuing the art of the debunker, becoming a follower of Paracelcus, and an esteemed physician. The particular item mentioned in the tweet would have been part of his famous library, some of which became foundational volumes in the British Library.

In 1986, American scholar and researcher Jeremiah Stanton Finch discovered that, when Sir Thomas' extensive collection was eventually sold at auction - an event attended by the likes of Jonathon Swift and agents working for Sir Hans Sloane - not all of the items in his library made their way to the auction house. Presumably some were kept by relatives or friends, or possibly sold privately.

However, taken in conjunction with this imagined Bibliotheca, which contains some remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of Various Kinds, scarce or never seen by any man living, we get:

An Imaginary Catalogue

The Bookhounds often go through old sales catalogues, just to see what was sold when, and, if possible, to whom. There's always a chance they can pick up a useful tip that will lead them to a rarity.

However this time they are startled to discover, in a catalogue from 1922, a specific reference to an item found in Sir Thomas' imagined Bibliotheca. The item is catalogued as 45. A picture of the Antique Land whereat the fabled City Carcosa, now Ruined, once stood. Indeed, the 1922 catalogue and Sir Thomas' description match almost word for word. Almost. The 1922 catalogue leaves out the words now Ruined.

Research (Oral History, Flattery, Library Use) discovers that the 1922 auction was attended by several people who the Bookhounds know, either professionally as fellow booksellers & scouts, or as customers. These people may be able to point the Hounds at whoever it was bought the item. The Hounds also discover that the auction took place on the same day that Sir Thomas' disinterred skull, taken from its burial place in 1840 by workmen who discovered the coffin by accident during building works, was reburied at St Peter Mancroft, Norwich.

Further, they learn from news and Norwich gossip (Streetwise, Cop Talk, Library Use) that there's been a recent scandal at St Peter Mancroft. Someone broke into the church, late at night. Fortunately they didn't steal anything. Whoever it was seemed intent on breaking into the vaults, for some unsavory purpose. The church authorities are doing their best to play it down.

Only a short one this week! Next week will be longer, I promise.


Sunday, 6 October 2019

The Man Who Collected Berkeley (Bookhounds)

At that time, there is said to have lived in the village, which is called Berkeley, a certain woman of evil life, a glutton and a wanton, pursuing her wickedness and practicing the black arts even in her old age, persisting in her whoredoms until the hour of her death. On a day as she sat at meat, her pet crow began to chatter something or the other, whereupon the knife fell from her hand, and her face grew ghastly white … 

From The Geography of Witchcraft, by Montague Summers.

As you might guess, it ends badly for the Berkeley witch. She confesses all her crimes, and begs that, when she dies, she be laid to rest in such a way that the Devil cannot claim her. She bids her friends to sew the corpse up in the hide of a stag, and place her in a stone coffin, binding it with heavy bands of iron. Fifty psalms are to be said each night, and fifty masses each morning. So long as this is done for three nights, from that point forward she is safe.

The first night, throughout the chanting, demons wail and scream outside the church. On the second night, the fiends burst open the church door, but are kept at bay by prayer. One the final night a powerful tempest shakes the building to its foundations, and the Devil himself bids the witch to arise and come with him. She pleads, from the coffin, that she cannot; those iron bands hold firm. The Devil responds by breaking the bands as though they were paper, ripping open the stone coffin, tearing up the hide and demanding again that she rise. Stark naked and terrified, she does. The Devil leads her outside, where a coal black horse awaits, and the two of them ride off to Hell, her shrieks of fear the last thing the holy folk at prayer hear.

This is a very old tale, and appears in many places. William of Malmesbury cites it in his Gesta Regnum (1125), and it appears in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) and the 13th century Flores Historiarum. However it is best known thanks to the poet laureate Robert Southey, who uses the story as the basis for his ballad The Witch of Berkeley (1799).

Southey, poet laureate for thirty years until his death in 1843 at the age of 68, is one of the lesser known poets laureate, in part because he had to compete with the likes of Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth. It didn't help that he was the second choice for the job; Walter Scott turned it down. You know his work even if you don't think you do: he wrote Goldilocks and the Three Bears. He began as a radical, supporting the French Revolution, and age mellowed him, till he was embraced by the Tory establishment. He very briefly stood as MP for the pocket borough of Downton, as one of his political friends advanced him to the position, but he begged off, pleading he didn't have the money or the ambition to be a politician. He was very much against what he called the Satanic School of poetry, the sort championed by Byron and Shelley.

Possibly the most scathing assessment of him is this: "He wooed Liberty as a youthful lover, but it was perhaps more as a mistress than a bride; and he has since wedded an elderly and not very reputable lady, called Legitimacy."

The Ballad appears first in Tales of Wonder, a collection compiled by Matthew 'Monk; Lewis, most famous for his own work of gothic horror, The Monk. It's been republished many times since then, in many different formats.

Which brings me to:

The Seeker

Patrick Quinlan is an enthusiastic collector and amateur historian, obsessed with the works of Robert Southey, and The Ballad in particular. He thinks it is the great unsung masterpiece of the 19th century, easily better than any of the trash put out by Byron or Shelley. The Bookhounds know him as an easy mark for anything to do with The Ballad, whether it's a new Czech translation or a reproduction of the woodcuts from the original. Quinlan doesn't have a lot of money to spend - he's an unpublished poet, and a crime novelist under the pen name Edgar Dawson. Still, if presented with something tempting, he'll scrape together the cash somehow.

Arabesque: Quinlan thinks he and Southey are kindred spirits, brothers separated by time, and wants somehow to open a connection with his literary hero. He dresses like Southey, behaves like Southey, would eat the same foods and live in the same house, if he could. That's why he champions the forgotten laureate; a slight against Southey is a slight against Quinlan.

Technicolor: Quinlan believes in witchcraft and wants to emulate, not Southey, but the Witch. After all, she had a good life right up to the end. Quinlan hasn't a prayer of getting anywhere near the Nuremberg Chronicle, but he keeps studying and searching, hoping to find a clue to the real Satanic heart of the story.

Sordid: Quinlan, at heart, is a cruel, petty man, who sees himself as an avenger. The Devil in the story, to him, is righteous punishment visited on a deserving old hag. He'd never put any of his plans into action, but he often amuses himself with the thought that, one day, like the Devil, he'll astound the world with his swift acts of vengeance.

The Bookhounds know Quinlan as a bit of a pest, but a reliable spender. All that changes one day, when he starts going around with a crow on his shoulder. Eccentric, certainly, but the bird seems to have inspired him with new confidence - and he has more money than he ever did before. Perhaps his alter ego Edgar Dawson's made a few sales - but can that really explain the kind of money he's been throwing around?

What's more, his latest obsession is a rumor that there's an original Monk Lewis out there with an erratum, an extra woodcut in the Ballad. It's mentioned in the more obscure bibliographies, but nobody's seen it for many years. Quinlan is convinced it exists and is held in a private collection, possibly in the town of Downton, which Quinlan is convinced Southey visited after his short-lived and unexpected election victory.

The Bookhounds may be tempted to brush all this off as a collector's fantasy, but Quinlan has an uncompromising look in his eye, and his money is good. Moreover that black crow on his shoulder is positively uncanny, and seems to have human intelligence - think Rat Thing, in avian form. Where did it come from? Why does Quinlan treat it like a king? What will it do, if it doesn't get its way?

[Note: the town of Downton is in Wiltshire, and Downton Abbey is in Yorkshire. Still … that book's got to be held somewhere, and Downton Abbey does have a rather splendid library …]


Sunday, 29 September 2019

The D Pill - Moscow Rules (Night's Black Agents)

Only time for a quick post this week.

I'm reading Antonio & Jonna Mendez's The Moscow Rules, about the difficulties and triumphs of running a spy network in Moscow during the Cold War. You may remember Antonio Mendez from the movie Argo:

You may remember his wife Jonna from a post I put together a short while back about disguises:

This isn't a review, so I'm not going to say much about the book, except that I recommend it wholeheartedly.

One of the stories it tells is that of Russian diplomat turned CIA asset Aleksandr Dmitryevich, who died by suicide after being taken by the KGB. He used what was called an L-Pill to do it, hidden in his pen.

It occurred to me that Night's Black Agents, and the assets they run, face a peculiar dilemma in their line of work. An L-Pill, or in this instance a D-Pill, is no guarantee.

The whole point of killing yourself in these unhappy circumstances is to avoid interrogation. However in a world where vampires exist, death is no defense at all. Whether Damned, Supernatural, Mutant or Alien, there's every possibility that a dead agent can be revived, or their soul preserved through necromantic or alien scientific means. So they can be interrogated - perhaps forever.

This is something that's bound to prey on the minds of Network contacts. A player character is probably happy to take that risk, but a Network asset doesn't have to be so self-sacrificing. That person would probably like a way out, if the worst happens. The problem is, how to achieve that?

Polluting the body, perhaps with a substance like Polonium, which in theory ought to render the victim a form of immunity from vampire attack. No bloodsucker is going to want to tap that glowing keg. However there are two obvious problems here. The first is that a substance with that level of lethality is difficult to manufacture, transport, and use. In the case of polonium, even standing near the substance is enough to leave potentially lethal traces.

The second is, it doesn't kill you quickly enough. There's no point rendering yourself immune to vampire attack, if you leave yourself wide open to conventional interrogation.

Using a conventional poison in combination with vampiric banes or blocks, perhaps by eating garlic every day in anticipation of the final event. That's probably going to have complications unique to that particular bane - 'why does Natasha always smell like garlic pizza?' However it does rely on accurate Vampirology. If garlic doesn't actually work, then all that pizza smell was for nothing.

It may also be that the concept of a D-Pill negates the bane. Suicide is a sin. Holy water used in combination with a D-Pill probably won't work, since the sin negates the water. It might be catastrophic in certain circumstances, particularly with Supernatural or Damned vampires. If you end up in Hell, there's a decent chance your former enemies can visit you in your eternal torment, and, as Hellblazer's Ric the Vic discovered, easily break you.

Dying in such a way as to reduce the possibility of necromantic or scientific revival. They can't put your brain in a jar if you go up in a glorious napalm fireball. While this has some merit, it lacks the convenience of a D-Pill. It depends on specific circumstances to work, where the L-Pill's utility comes from being able to use it wherever, whenever.  Dmitryevich had already been captured, stripped all but naked, and was being forced to write his confession when he got his hands on his L-Pill. 

No, the plain fact of the matter seems to be that a conventional D-Pill is out of reach, without accurate Vampirology and a convenient, ingestible Block or Bane. However there is one possibility, and while it won't negate revival, it might provide a certain comfort. 

Use a radioactive tracer. That way, at least your allies will be able to find your body. Heck, there's a decent chance you may be able to spread the substance to your attacker, giving your allies a chance to find whoever did you in before they can give away vital intel to your enemies. 

It's not a D-Pill, but it's better than nothing.


Sunday, 22 September 2019

The Dead Don't Die - I Wish They Would

Recently Hurricane Humberto breezed past the island, and when that sort of thing happens I download a horror film and break out the beer. This time, I figured I'd try something different, and went for Jim Jarmusch's comedic zombie apocalypse feature,  The Dead Don't Die.

Starring a ton of people, set in an unmemorable little town called Centerville, featuring everyone's favorite ghoul.

If you don't want spoilers, stop reading now. I didn't like it. I didn't laugh once. Make of that what you will.

Now, on with the show.

Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny and Adam Driver are cops in a town that makes no sense. Centerville's big enough to have three cops, a juvenile correctional facility, a diner, a motel, a cemetery, a funeral parlor, a gas station-cum-memorabilia-store, and a hardware store. Nobody actually lives there, or if they do, you couldn't tell it from this movie.

There's one point, where Murray and Driver are in the squad car headed back to home base, and they're discussing whether or not to warn people the zombies are coming. They decide warning people is a good idea. Then Driver says, "You know, we passed by Farmer Miller's place, back there. Should we go warn him?" To which Murray replies, "No, Miller's an asshole." Which is fine so far as it goes, except, as they're delivering this witty banter, they're passing by half a dozen other houses, all of which presumably have people living in them who might like to know about the impending apocalypse. I guess those folks were assholes too.

Into this town pour an assortment of misfits, including, but not limited to, a woodlands hermit (Tom Waits), Selena Gomez and a pair of hipster sidekicks, passing through, Tilda Swinton in the Kill Bill funeral director role, Iggy Pop and Sara Driver as coffee-obsessed zombies, and, and, and, and … oh dear God, there are too many warm bodies in this movie about dead bodies.

This is the film's besetting sin. With so many people doing so many things, nobody, bar Murry and Driver, gets more than two minutes' screen time, much of which is wasted. I lost track of the number of times I said to myself, 'you could cut that line. And that line. This entire bit of business could be cut. Why are we spending any time in the JDC? None of these characters are relevant to the plot or doing anything interesting. They're just reacting to what's on the TV screen - any other cast member could do what they're doing. Cut this. Cut that. Cut the other thing." All of which makes the film feel bloated, and given the damn mess is 1 hour 44 minutes long in an industry that's tending towards two hour films, that's an achievement.

Frankly, towards the end I began to wonder whether the whole thing wasn't some misguided scheme on Jarmusch's part, to give fifty or sixty of his actor friends a paycheck and, for the kids, something to put in their showreel.

The actor I feel sorriest for is Chloe Sevigny, who's the third wheel in the cop shop and never gets to do anything cool, or have any big scenes. I hoped there'd be at least one defining moment before the inevitable, but I guess there wasn't enough time to shoehorn that in. Plenty of time to shove in another dead-on-arrival George Romero reference, though.

None of the actors seemed to be having any fun. Their whole shtick was deadpan delivery, so I suppose that's a partial explanation. But Tilda Swinton really seemed to revel in it, and so did Iggy Pop, where Tom Waits drifted, disconnected, and Murray just looked bored, most of the time. He was much more engaged in Zombieland. Waits was more fun to watch in Buster Scruggs. What the hell went wrong on the way to … wherever this is supposed to be?

That's the central problem. This is a film that doesn't know where, or what, it wants to be. It tells a few jokes, and shuffles off the stage. But a comedian that wants her career to last more than five minutes doesn't tell a few disconnected giggles and hope for the best. That comedian puts together a whole routine, and polishes it to a mirror shine. Till they can tell it in their sleep. This film is unpolished. It's a bloody mess.

So, bottom line: if you like Jarmusch's work and are prepared to sit through a flatulent, overcooked garbage pile featuring just about every single indie film maven you can think of, and others whose names you can't quite remember but are sure were great in that thing with the stuff, then by all means, see The Dead Don't Die.

Otherwise, avoid like the plague.

Side note: I see Hurricane Jerry's due to visit Bermuda next week. I wonder what I'll rent?