Sunday, 31 March 2019

Moving the Mona Lisa (Night's Black Agents, GUMSHOE)

This week's post is based on this article in the Guardian. I highly recommend it.

Night's Black Agents characters frequently have to steal high value items, like artwork. Sometimes we forget how difficult that sort of thing can be. Leaving aside the practicalities of size and weight - a Van Gogh's never going to weigh as much as Michelangelo's David - there's a whole host of issues the agents may not have considered.

Somewhere along a puzzle of corridors inside the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum, London] is a silent passageway lined by fireproof security doors and guarded by fingerprint-sensitive locks … Shipping museum-grade art is a specialist business; only a handful of top-flight firms, among them the London-based Momart and Constantine, are trusted by major institutions. Even so, most museums also insist the art on loan travels at all times with a courier, ideally a conservator. This is known as 'nail to nail'; one person stays with one work from the moment it is taken down in room 38A of the V&A to the moment it goes on to the wall in a museum in Shanghai … the object will need its own first-class seat [on the plane] … "If you have a lorry with three Matisses stuck in snow in Latvia, that's stressful" … In most European countries, works travel by road with armed guards either in the truck or following in a chase car … Some handlers I interviewed referred to their craft as an art; many, indeed, are artists, working as handlers to pay the bills … 

Some things to take away:
  • Art handler sounds like an excellent background or cover identity for almost any agent, but especially one with artistic skills. Bagmen should give it serious consideration. It explains so much - odd itineraries, specialist transportation needs, peculiar cargo … "You can't open that crate. I don't care what you think is inside. My manifest says it's a priceless Titian that could be irreparably damaged if exposed to direct sunlight and this damp atmosphere. I promise you, I shall make a detailed complaint to the Ministry of Culture …"
  • If you want to steal art in transit, nobble the courier - or be the courier. 
  • Try not to get into a gunfight while standing on or near the crate with the Cezanne in it.
  • When trying to steal art, it's a good idea to crack the servers of any of the following: the insurer, the courier firm, the museum (either lender or recipient), any applicable government agency (eg the UK's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), the private donor. Any of these will have the transport information you need, and may be useful in other ways as well. Imagine arranging the theft of an artefact by posing as the V&A Conservator in charge of an exhibit asking for an artwork!
  • If you absolutely have to break into a museum, bring along someone who knows what they're doing. Those fingerprint-sensitive locks are going to be trouble.
With all that in mind, I give you The Italian Job.

Hook: The Agents are tasked with recovering a life-size bronze, The Flayed Man, by neoclassic artist Gino Jerich. It's held by the Museo delle Culture in Milan, and is the property of a private donor. The sponsor suggests that the bronze be taken while in transit from Milan to London, where it is scheduled to become part of a retrospective of Jerich's work at the Tate Gallery.

Truth: The sponsor is a vampire hunter, and can even be a government agency, like Dracula Dossier's Edom, working through cut-outs. The reason they want the bronze is because its subject and its current owner are one and the same - a vampire. This bloodsucker thought it would be amusing to have a self-portrait unlike any other, and skinned itself so as to be able to pose appropriately for the artist. The skin grew back, over time, and the statue's owner fell in love with it. The sponsor wants it either because the sponsor thinks it can be used as a weapon, can be used to discover some hidden vampire secret, or to extort the owner into giving up something else the sponsor wants. 

Potential Scenes: Deep in the heart of the converted factory labyrinth that is MUDEC, trying to break past sophisticated electronic locks to get into the secure vaults. Eavesdropping on the security detachment as they eat coffee and donuts in a Milanese café. Chasing after the van and its pursuit car along the highway, as you and they try to navigate the highway hell that is Milan's permanently-under-construction road network. On the ferry across to England, in high seas weather - is this normal, or is some supernatural element involved? Making the exchange in an old corn mill turned guesthouse that failed two years ago when the owner defaulted on bank loans. Or faking a handover at the Tate, bluffing conservators, security, and buttinski art experts. An angry vampire/disappointed buyer chases the agents out of the city, into the countryside, to a final showdown in some desolate backwater.  


Sunday, 24 March 2019

Everybody Dies (GUMSHOE All)

It's rare for an RPG game to end in complete failure. It's almost as rare, in fiction. Blake's Seven infamously finishes a four season run with the entire cast gunned down. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid doesn't show you precisely what happens to Butch and Sundance, but it's made plain by the context of the scene. The Wild Bunch go out in a hail of bullets, and Cross of Iron ends on a similar note - but that's Sam Peckinpah for you.

However there are few Peckinpahs out there. The audience prefers victory, or at least a Pyrrhic Victory, a Maltese Falcon where the hero walks away scarred but victorious. I've discussed fail states before, and suggested that failure should not always equal extreme penalty.

What happens when the campaign ends in a fail state?

Cthulhu-style horror games have a word for that: Purist. In that style of game death is considered the desirable end, because it best encapsulates the kind of horror the game strives for. A final diary entry, a message on a phone machine, perhaps a few scratches on the wall are all that's left of the intrepid soul who went out into the dark to find out what was bringing chaos into this ordinary world.

However if you're not running Purist Cthulhu, you might not want to end the game with a splat. Yet your Night's Black Agents crew might find themselves on the wrong end of the Kalashnikovs, or helpless and unarmed in the vampire's lair. Or your Bookhounds might suffer one reverse too many, and lose the store to the bank. Or your Parisian surrealists may never escape the dream. Whichever your fail state is, that's where you end up.

What then?

The trickiest thing about this kind of failure is, it often comes unexpectedly and quickly. The scene that ought to have been a breeze turns out to be a complete disaster. The mook gets off one lucky shot. The police arrive at the worst possible moment. The absinthe went moldy. Whatever it may be, it happened, and now you have to deal with it.

My advice would be to throw it open to the players. Put the facts plainly, and ask if that's how they want the game to end. They have to say yes or no; there's no maybe on the table.

If no, then as Keeper/Director/what-have-you, it's your job to find a way out. The players can offer suggestions, but you're the one in the chair.

The most likely solutions include:

Cavalry to the Rescue: Some third party arrives in time to pull the characters' fat out of the fire. This doesn't mean they're friendly; they can be rivals, even enemies. They might throw the characters in jail, or interrogate them, or whatever it may be. The important thing is, they don't kill the characters, and the characters probably get to keep some or all of their equipment.

Left 4 Dead: The characters are presumed dead, probably stripped of any valuables and gear, and abandoned. Any McGuffins are either taken, or overlooked by the attackers and can be recovered. Characters with abilities like NBA's Preparedness can have items stashed somewhere safe, so it's not a total loss. Otherwise it's time to crawl off the battlefield and lick wounds.

Morale Failure: The opposition get scared and run away, presumably because something more dangerous is nearby. The ghouls pause in their ghastly buffet, then scatter - because a shoggoth is too close for comfort. The mooks hear police sirens and run for cover. The characters are probably just as threatened by this new development as the opposition are, but at least now they have a chance to run.

Environmental Change: This is the trickiest to pull off, because it depends on specific circumstances. Say the mooks ambush the agents as they fly to some forgotten hellhole on a Douglas DC-3. In their eagerness to overwhelm the agents, the mooks accidentally shoot the pilot and now the plane's about to crash with everyone on board. The mooks bail out with the only parachutes, or panic, leaving the agents to save the day. Or the ghouls, in their eagerness to devour the investigators, don't notice that flood waters are about to sweep the sewers. Those fuel tanks are about to blow. The swarms of rats someone summoned up are now uncontrolled and don't care who they eat.

The point behind all these solutions is, they don't let the characters off the hook. They lose, and that means they suffer consequences. Maybe it's straightforward Health or Sanity/Stability loss, or maybe some gear's gone, or maybe they have to get the McGuffin back. Whatever that loss is, it's the price they pay for rescue. It's important to get player buy-in; if they just give up when the McGuffin goes missing, then it's probably better to let them keep the McGuffin, or at least have a reasonable chance of getting a new one. However once you have that buy-in, let the good times roll.

The players might say Yes, this is how it ends. What then?

Consider Blake's 7. In that climactic scene, two things are achieved. First, everyone dies on-screen, but in such a way that, if necessary, their survival could be justified. Injured, apparently dead, but not actually dead. The only exception to that is Blake himself, and that because the actor playing Blake really didn't want to do it any more and insisted on a death scene that left nothing to chance, so Blake gets shot multiple times.

Second, the most important plot question - whether or not Blake was a traitor - is answered.

Readers, filmgoers and players have this in common: they can live with an unhappy ending, but not an unsatisfactory one. There has to be an answer to the questions raised by the plot. Blake is not a traitor, but Avon kills him anyway because, in that moment, Avon thinks he is. Avon, and the audience, have their answer - and then guns go off.

Say this is a Dracula Dossier game in which the 1970s agents are trying to find out who the Edom mole is. Guns blaze, bodies drop, and in the last few moments before death the mole's identity is revealed. Maybe the agent's mentor leans over their bleeding body and whispers, "it was me." Or maybe they see the mole accepting a pay-off from the leader of the opposition.

Again, this is a situation where the players should have input. If they really want the mole to be X, then let it be X. Give them proof, or allow them to justify their suspicions. If the Dreamhounds want to know their art lives on, allow a final coda in which their paintings hang in the Musée d'Art Moderne, perhaps in the act of being stolen by Vjeran Tomic. Or Nyarlathotep gathers up their souls and whispers ghastly truths, before scattering them into the endless void.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 17 March 2019

An Unusual Butcher (Trail of Cthulhu)

… it is held that, if necessary, a zombi can be turned into an animal, slaughtered, and the meat sold in the market, whence drives the assertion often met with among Haitian peasants in documenting belief that they have not only seen zombi but have bought their flesh. This, it is thought, can be distinguished by the fact that such meat will spoil much more readily than ordinary meat. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore.

… the word is American-commercial-synthetic, like Nabisco, Delco, Socony. It stands for the Haitian-American Sugar Company - an immense factory plant, dominated by a huge chimney, with clanging machinery, steam whistles, freight cars. It is like a chunk of Hoboken. William Seabrook, The Magic Island.

Historically, to be a cook, to prepare food for others, was always to identify oneself with the degraded and debauched. Antony Bourdain, Typhoid Mary.

In 1928 Charles Souther, from Skowhegan, Maine, was appointed manager of the Hasco plant in Haiti. It was a new adventure for him. The American occupation was in full swing, and Haiti was under the control of the USMC, but there were still echoes of rebellion up in the hills. Souther, never a courageous man, stuck with his own in Port-a-Prince as much as he could. He was afraid of the Haitians, even the sophisticated men and women who had lived in France, and preferred the company of fellow Americans. He did not expect to stay long in Haiti. Ambition drove him, and this post would be a step up the ladder to success. He hoped, if he did well, to secure a better post Stateside.

One of the problems he encountered was how best to staff his house. His wife was not up to the task, and they suffered for months, especially with food. No cook could satisfy them, and burnt, cold, ruined dinners thoroughly spoilt the Souther's digestions for the first few months of their stay. They tried to bring someone over from Maine, but couldn't find anyone willing to make the trip.

Then they found Antoine Baussan, an answer to a prayer. Classically educated in the Escoffier school, he could also turn out respectable American fare, like corn chowder and baked beans. It was love at first bite.

They ignored warnings from their Haitian neighbors. What did it matter to the Southers that Baussan had a bad reputation? When it came to lobster rolls and brown bread, Charles didn't care if it was prepared by the Devil himself. Moreover he was coming to love some of Baussan's Haitian dishes, particularly a curried stew that he called Chevre de Montagne a la Toussel, or Mountain Goat prepared as Baussan had done for a particularly famous wedding feast. Souther couldn't get enough of it, and his wife was growing fat.

When time came for Souther to move on, he found it impossible to part with Baussan. He arranged for the Haitian to come with him back to Maine, and Baussan was happy to oblige. In fact, he said he was looking forward to it.

Unfortunately Mrs. Souther was struck down by a devastating malady soon after their return. Charles was thrown into depression, relieved only by the devoted attentions of Antoine, who cooked up all his wife's favorite dishes to ease her pain. The doctors could do nothing for her; at least Baussan was trying to help.

When his wife passed, Souther was thrown into a frenzy of despair. He stopped seeing his friends, stopped going to his clubs, gave up work almost completely. After several weeks without word or sign of him, his friends and work colleagues finally descended on his house, alarmed at lack of contact.

Souther was not there. Nobody could say where, or when, he went. His devoted cook Baussan had vanished too. However alarm reached new heights when it was discovered that the family vault had been desecrated, and that Mrs. Souther's body was missing. What was more, it seemed as if the vault had been broken open from the inside.

As it had the hallmarks of a kidnapping case, the Federal authorities were called in. Bureau of Investigation agents began to suspect Baussan's involvement; the man's background was, at best, suspect, and it was thought he might be a Socialist agitator, inspired by European radicals. It was suggested that German Haitians had drawn Baussan into their conspiracies during the War, and that Baussan was on some kind of one-man revenge crusade.

Reports from Haiti that suggested Baussan was a devotee of sinister cults were discounted as fantasy.

Tracking Down Baussan

The investigators can be brought in independently by Souther's family and friends, as experts hired by the Bureau, or some other excuse as the Keeper desires.

The question for the investigators is, where did Baussan go next?

  • Historic Maine. Baussan went to the Watch Hill Inn, Rhode Island, beloved of Hollywood stars and well-heeled industrialists. He's become an institution, training several intelligent men and women in his particular style. Moreover he's attained spiritual guru status, and become increasingly attached to Douglas Fairbanks, who relies on Baussan's advice to kick-start his failing film career. There's talk Fairbanks might persuade Baussan to come with him to California.
  • High Seas. Baussan is one of the senior chefs aboard the USS Leviathan, formerly Germany's Vaterland, a luxury liner that cruises between New York and Europe, carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers but never making a cent's profit. It couldn't sell alcohol during Prohibition, and by the time it got permission the Great Depression knocked the guts out of the cruise market. More often than not she sails at half capacity, at best. For whatever reason she has great difficulty keeping crew; people just seem to vanish. Sailors are notorious for jumping ship in foreign ports, but this is becoming a serious problem.
  • East Coast Hotspots. Baussan goes up and down the East Coast, working for wealthy families and hotels, but never staying long in any one place. Bad luck haunts him. There was that nasty incident in Florida where the son of the house went instantly insane, on getting a peek inside the walk-in freezer. Or that time in New York, where all the family died in a matter of hours, except the youngest daughter, who was bedridden with some kind of intestinal parasite for weeks. Where Baussan goes, trouble follows, and only his habit of continually crossing state lines looking for work has kept him out of the reach of the authorities - so far.  

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Page XX (Gumshoe All)

I hope you've enjoyed the two Page XX strips I've created over the past months. Getaway and Nothing Is Forever both charge Night's Black Agents' Chase rules with fun ideas and a scenario to use them in, so if you haven't already beat feet to Pelgrane's site, please do!

Those were fun to write, and I've been given the opportunity to create more in the same vein. Cat asked if I could come up with articles for different systems - Esoterrorists, Trail, Bookhounds, that sort of thing. It's probably a good idea to steer clear of Mutant City Blues, since that's probably going to get reworked, and tho I love Swords of the Serpentine to death, since it's not out yet I can't touch it. Same goes for Yellow King, with the added complication that Robin's currently putting out some really cool stuff for it on Page XX anyway, so probably best avoid that one.

I thought it'd be interesting to ask you which you'd like to see. Is there a setting for which you'd like me to write a short scenario? It can't be longer than 1400 words, so don't get your hopes up.

Post answers in the comment field below! It'd be even better if you specified, say, a location, or an era. Esoterrorists in the 60s, say, or Trail in the American Midwest.

Of all Pelgrane's supplements, it should come as no surprise that Bookhounds and Night's Black Agents are my two favorites. I love Dreamhounds of Paris, but have yet to play a session in that setting. Same goes for TimeWatch; it's a brilliant idea that deserves more love, but I have yet to sit at a table with actual, living players, and run a session. Trail's great, but I'm a Call of Cthulhu guy from way back, so to my taste the setting needs a little something. The rules are better than CoC, but it needs maybe a little salt, more pepper, some garlic - something to make it savory.

However I'll entertain pretty much any suggestion you make - and note I said entertain, not promise to do something with it.

Random thoughts:
  •  a Trail scenario in which Bonnie and Clyde's Death Car haunts the back roads of Bienville Parish, Louisiana.  
  • an Esoterrorists scenario set in Toronto, Canada, in which immigrants from Hong Kong claim they're being stalked by a car with a Chinese number plate - one with only the number 4, the death 
  • a Bookhounds scenario in which the characters are asked by a wealthy eccentic, who may be a vampire, to prove the authenticity of his recent purchase.
  • a Dreamhounds scenario in which a nightmare posing as a publican bottles artist's souls.
Or anything, really - pitch me!

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Universal Aunts (Trail, Call of Cthulhu, Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired by Lucy Lethbridge's book Servants, which I'm reading for research purposes. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting period information on the Victorian era, the 1920s and 30s.

Lady-help is a catchall term for an unmarried woman without financial resources, who works as a kind of servant but isn't really from the same social class as a servant. Consequently they balance precariously between the group they feel they belong to, the middle classes, while at the same time not having the same claim to membership of that group as the people they work for. Lethbridge describes this as 'living on a social mezzanine floor, between one world and another.'

Often they do not, or cannot, perform the same tasks as a servant, having not been taught the necessary skills. Nor did they want to be taught. That's the whole point of being a lady; you don't have to do manual or domestic labor. So in practice the lady-help is a paid companion or quasi-governess, someone who can be set administrative tasks, like managing a diary or arranging train tickets and hotel stays, but who has no practical function, like laundry or cooking. Agatha Christie often makes use of the lady-help. Hildegarde Schmidt and Mary Debenham, who appear in her novel Murder on the Orient Express, are examples of the type.

In the Victorian and early Edwardian period, the lady-help's a bit vulnerable, particularly since they lack the money and the opportunity to save that guarantees a modest comfort in retirement. Again, going back to Agatha Christie, this is why legacies gifted in the master or mistress' will are so important. However for those not lucky enough to get a legacy, the best they can hope for is to live on charity - or, more likely, slowly starve on charity.

Things change in the 1920s. There are fewer men, thus fewer opportunities for marriage. Moreover the declining economy means families need cash, however they can get it. Unmarried daughters must work. At the same time, there's an innate horror in letting social standards slip. The middle class must remain the middle class; there can be no question of blurring the line between servant and master. Then there is the war, which among other things taught a whole generation of middle class women new skills, and confidence.

Enter new temporary employment agencies, like Universal Aunts.

'Britain's first personal service bureau' opened in 1921, on Sloane Street. Its founder, Gertie Maclean, wanted to create a venture "which will, I hope, fulfil my search for an opportunity to use my time and intelligence. I would hope too, that other like-minded ladies can become involved." They did, and soon Universal Aunts had a full catalogue of women capable of performing any task. Women with Zoological Society certificates, expert researchers fluent in many languages, women who knew about physics, spiritualism and foreign missions, who were qualified car and boat mechanics, and pilots.

Women who would make excellent investigators in any period horror game, especially Trail and Call of Cthulhu.

These kinds of agencies turn up in fiction now and again. Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey owned and operated an agency like this, with Joan Murchison, former secretary with a background in stock broking, as its founder member. However it wasn't until Servants that I realized this was an actual, historical event, not some backstory invented by a mystery writer. It opens up a range of options for the Keeper, or even the Night's Black Agents director. Consider:

  • The agency can be a source of information. You can justify any skill set you care to name - Archaeology, Accounting, History, Library Use, Bureaucracy, High Society, Surveillance - and the agency can meet that need. So if the investigators pick up an interesting doodad, and don't know what it is or what it does, ask Universal Aunts to look into the problem. Or need someone followed, or something looked into.
  • The agency can be an employer or patron, for female investigators. That former Dilettante who lost all her family money in the great Crash can find a new sense of purpose, and employment, with Universal Aunts. It might work even better with a group of all female investigators.
  • It can be a clue dispenser. Are the investigators getting bogged down in minutiae, or lost in the weeds? Universal Aunts might point them in the right direction, albeit indirectly. Say the investigators are having trouble tracking down Stanley Fentiman, or they want to know why he was kicked out of his old College, or what he's been up to recently. Universal Aunts may know, because one of its members knows Fentiman, or used to work with him, or has connections with the College that chucked him out. Or Universal Aunts may come to the investigators and ask their help with Fentiman, thus giving the investigators a clue as to his whereabouts or plans. 
  • It can be a training facility. If the investigator needs to brush up on her Latin, History, Vampirology, or whatever it may be, there's bound to be an Aunt who knows all about it, and can help.
  • It can be an occult investigative agency. This is similar to the employer or patron option, above, except that it exists to combat occult threats. It hides this mission under some discreet front, but imagine a Universal Aunts founded, not by Gertie Maclean, but by Wilhemina Murray. Or Dion Fortune, or anyone with occult interests. Universal Aunts wouldn't be up there with Delta Green, sending out hit squads to eliminate threats, but there's all kinds of trouble it could get up to. That mysterious Count, for example, with his business interests in Whitby - no doubt the Aunts have crossed swords with him before. 
The best thing about Universal Aunts, of course, is that it still exists. Anything For Anyone At Any Time is one heck of a motto to live up to for over a hundred years, but Universal Aunts has managed it. 'Universal Aunts still endeavors to rise to any challenge.' I bet it does! This means it can be a resource in Call, Trail, and Night's Black Agents; plausible in any era. 

That's it for this week. Enjoy!