Sunday, 28 April 2019

Constant but Unhappy (Bookhounds of London)

The Constant but Unhappy Lovers, chapbook, published Ludgate 1707, by E.B. Bumped, woodcut (extra-illustrated), crozier chariot device. No reserve price.

The chapbook tells the story of two lovers, prevented from marrying by her obdurate father, Mr Butler. Broken-hearted, the gentleman, Henry Perpoint, signs up for a soldier and is shot while on duty in Spain. He survives for several days, and writes a letter to her in his own blood, which he sends with a lock of her hair, kept as a memento, and the ashes of his heart. Butler, meanwhile, marries his daughter to a Mr Harvey, a rich but jealous man. When the packet arrives Harvey intercepts it, and sprinkles the ashes in her tea. When he tells her what he has done, she bursts into tears, proclaims that the tea is "a draught so precious that no meat or drink shall ever come upon it." She retires to her room, cuts her finger for ink, and writes a poem in her own blood. She is found dead the next morning.

The author claims to be telling a true story of events that took place the same year the chapbook was published. In fact the subject dates at least to the Medieval period, and probably further, though the details have been updated to the 1700s.

Keeper's note: bumped means the cover is damaged, through careless shelving. Woodcut (extra-illustrated) means that the chapbook contains a woodcut illustration that was not in the original, and is probably an addition by one of the book's owners. Crozier chariot device means the book has a mark by its publisher, a crozier and chariot, most likely a reference to St Erkenwald of London, whose symbol is a chariot and who served as Bishop of St Paul's. This most likely means the publisher's shop was in or near St Paul's. No reserve price means the auctioneer will accept any bid, which is unsurprising for an otherwise unremarkable 18th century chapbook. All of this can be a 0 point clue for Book Scouts, Booksellers and Catalogue Agents, or anyone with a Bibliography pool.

This item is one of a longish list of interesting but not spectacular items, come out of a house sale. The Bookhounds probably attended to see if they can scarf up some material for the group's Forger, or purchase something cheap but interesting for the shop.

However things become heated when the bids for this item surpass all expectations, and a bidding war develops between two people unknown to the characters, or the resident Ring. One, a foreign gentleman with a German accent, (Eugen Grosche, grandmaster of the Berlin magical order Fraternitas Saturni), is bidding remarkable sums, but is being outbid by a shabby woman in tweeds with a Home County accent.  She is Lillian Lewis, an Oxford academic and one of the steamboat ladies who got their degrees via the University of Dublin, at a time when Oxford didn't grant academic qualifications to women. This information can be had by 1 point spends of Occult, Credit Rating or History (Lewis is a renowned historian). Otherwise all the characters know is that one is clearly German, while the other is a redoubtable lady.

The characters can engage in the bidding war if they wish. Grosche has Auction 8 (he has the resources of his own bookstore to draw on) while Lewis has 10. However the bidding is brought to an unexpected end when, at the conclusion, Lewis drops dead of an apparent heart attack.

It later transpires - and the investigators can learn this immediately with Medicine, Forensics or Evidence Collection spends, otherwise they must wait for the official inquiry, which will take days - that Lewis was poisoned. Whoever did it must have injected Lewis with a fatal dose as she was bidding, so they must have been standing close to her. It would take a cool head and steady hand to do that, given the circumstances.

So, what happened to Lillian Lewis, why, and what does this all have to do with an otherwise unremarkable 18th century chapbook?

Facts to be uncovered by the investigators: The chapbook supposedly was once the property of occultist and artist Pamela Coleman Smith, co-creator of the Waite-Smith Tarot deck, though she denies all knowledge of the chapbook. Grosche believes it was hers, and also that the woodcut (extra-illustrated) is her work. That's why he wants it; he thought it an interesting early example of her art, and wonders if the woodcut is a precursor to her Tarot designs. He doesn't know that she denies it. Lewis, so far as anyone knows, had no interest in the occult or Pamela Smith, nor did she have anything like the financial resources to back up her frenzied bidding. Other Bookhounds and occultists believe the chapbook and its famous woodcut really is Pamela Smith's work, and claim she indulged in a bit of forgery to earn some extra cash back in the 1920s, when she was living in bohemian London. The woodcut shows a grieving woman writing a poem, and is similar in composition to the second trump of Major Arcana in the Waite-Smith deck, the High Priestess. Though intended to look as if it is an 18th century original, the woodcut is a modern addition, as 1 point Forgery or Art can realize. The poison that killed Lewis is a derivative of Gelsemium elegans, sometimes called heartbreak grass, a flowering shrub native to India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and China. It is popular among suicides, hence the name, and causes seizures, convulsions, paralysis and death.

Possible Conclusions:

  • The killer is a high-ranking member of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan. The chapbook is part of a book code, and the woodcut is a sign to those who understand it that this particular chapbook is part of a two-book cypher set. It ought never to have come to auction; an enemy of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan stole it, and it was sold by his landlord to cover his debts when he turned up mysteriously dead in a back alley. The dead man was Lewis' brother, and she found out about his death too late to prevent the sale. That's why she bid so frenziedly; she knows, through her brother, that something important is hidden inside the chapbook, and is determined to uncover the identity of her brother's killer. Grosche is a red herring, in this version.
  • The killer is one of Grosche's Berlin rivals, a potential successor to his position in the Order of Saturn. This Mythos-inspired madman wants to turn the Order to Mythos worship, but Grosche bars his way. The killer spread the word about the auction, knowing Grosche would hear about it. He also sent notice to Lewis, who he knew was a secret occultist who had clashed with Grosche before, in academic battles over literary scholarship  The killer knew that the two would bid furiously, to spite the other. He killed Lewis with an obscure poison, intends to plant evidence that implicates Grosche, and alert the authorities. With any luck Grosche will hang, and the killer will take over the Order.
  • The killer is Lewis herself. She met Grosche in Berlin in the 1920s, and became besotted - but Grosche did not return her affection. She threw herself into her work, but a brush with the Mythos fractured her mind, and she began to obsess about Grosche. He, she felt, was the anchor she needed, to bring her back to reality - but he stubbornly refused to accept that. So she manufactured the chapbook, made sure Grosche knew about it, and set up the whole incident at the auction. She used a Mythos variant of heartbreak grass, as grown by the Tcho-Tcho, which only incapacitates, not kills. She bribed the coroner and the funeral parlor with the last of her life savings, to keep them quiet, and then arranged her own funeral. Surely, she thinks, when Grosche attends the funeral ceremony, weeping over lost love and missed chances, he'll fall on his knees in gratitude when she reveals, from the coffin, that she's not dead after all? However if he doesn't show - as is quite likely - then the tantrum this Mythos-knowledgeable scholar falls into is likely to destroy the church, and kill several dozen innocent bystanders.   

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Forgotten London: Rat Queen (GUMSHOE, Bookhounds of London, Night's Black Agents)

From Westwood & Simpsons' The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends:

The tradition concerns a mysterious, luck-bringing Queen Rat. This was a supernatural creature whose true appearance was that of a rat; she would follow the toshers [sewer workers] about invisibly, as they worked, and when she saw one that she fancied she would turn into a sexy-looking woman and accost him. If he gave her a night to remember she would give him good luck in his work; he would be sure to find plenty of money and valuables [among the garbage that ends up in the sewer] He would not necessarily guess who she was, for though the Queen Rat did have certain peculiarities in her human form (her eyes reflected light like an animal's, and she had claws on her toes), he probably would not notice them while making love in some dark corner. But if he did suspect, and talked about her, his luck would change at once; he might well drown, or meet with some horrible accident.

In Bookhounds, the Flusher (Contacts in the East End) is the theme-specific descendant of the tosher. Flushers know what's been found in the sewers, and who's been lost there, and they know the tangled labyrinth of tunnels beneath all London. The flushers will not talk to those they know despise them … although their sergeant, the Ganger, might unbend for a good reason. Especially if they've seen something Down There that you can show you know something about.

As with most things to do with the Victorian poor, Henry Mayhew is the most useful source.

Were it not a notorious fact, it might perhaps be thought impossible, that men could be found who, for the chance of obtaining a living of some sort or other, would, day after day, and year after year, continue to travel through these underground tunnels for the offscouring of the city; but such is the case even at the present moment … Many wonderous tales are still told among the people of men having lost their way in the sewers, and of having wandered among the filthy passages - their lights extinguished by the noisome vapours - till, faint and overpowered, they dropped down and died on the spot. Other stories are told of sewer-hunters beset by myriads of enormous rats, and slaying thousands of them in their struggle for life, till at length the swarms of the savage things overpowered them, and in a few days afterwards their skeletons were discovered picked clean to the bones …

They carry a bag on their back, and in their hand a pole seven or eight feet long, on one end of which there is a large iron hoe. The uses of this instrument are various; with it they try the ground wherever it appears unsafe … Should they, as often happens, even to the most experienced, sink in some quagmire, they immediately throw out their long pole armed with the hoe, which is always held uppermost for this purpose, and with it seizing hold of any object within their reach … without the pole, however, their danger would be greater, for the more they struggled to extricate themselves from such places, the deeper they would sink … in addition to the long hoe already described [they equip themselves] with a canvas apron, which they tie around them, and a dark lantern similar to a policeman's [with a lens that could be restricted] this they strap round them on their right breast, in such a manner that on removing the shade, the bull's-eye throws the light straight forward when they are in an erect position, and enables them to see everything in advance of them for some distance; but when they stoop, it throws the light directly under them, so that they can then see any object at their feet.

Rat Queen

Athletics 9, Health 5, Scuffling 10

Hit Threshold: 6 (small and nimble) or 4 (human form)

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier +3 (rat form) or 1 (human)

Weapon: -2 (bite, rat form), -1 (bite, human form), claws +0 (human form)

Special: a bite from a Rat Queen does not heal. In game terms, the Health damage heals but the wound still seems recent and will not scar or scab over. This is because the Queen uses these bites to mark her prey, either so she can give her victim good luck, or so she can track the ones she hates. Any bitten victim can be tracked unerringly by the Queen, and her Alertness and Stealth modifiers increase by 2 against those victims.

Armor: none. However a Rat Queen killed, or buried, in London's sewers or the river Thames will re-form one month to the day after being killed. To ensure she doesn't come back, it's best to bury a Rat Queen far from London, or at least to burn the remains and scatter them to the winds.

Stability: +1 in rat form, none in human form unless the person seeing her knows what she really is, in which case loss is +1.

Magic: 8, refreshed each day at sunset.

Spells: Rat Queens are often friendly with ghouls, and many know how to Call/Dismiss Mordiggian. Rat Queens of this type can also summon ghouls, on a 4-point spend per ghoul summoned.

Create Hypertime Gate is also a common Queen trick. All of them know Dominate, and are very familiar with Idiosyncratic Magic. This last is why so many would-be sorcerers seek them out, often at their peril.

A 2 point Magic spend summons one Rat Thing, or a 20-strong rat swarm. Up to 6 points can be spent this way in one scene.

While in the sewers, a Rat Queen can summon dead toshers from the muck where their forgotten bones sank. Treat as zombies for combat purposes, and for each 1 Magic point spent the Queen gets a tosher. They all have weapons, their hoes, which strike for +1.

Rat Queens know where all kinds of peculiar things are hidden, lost, or abandoned. Seekers after treasure, or just a back way in to some well-guarded sanctum, can bargain with the Queen, but her price is usually very high indeed.

Some Bookhounds claim a Rat Queen can, if she wishes, give their store good luck. A Windfall can be had, if the Bookhounds meet her terms. Of course, her enmity works the other way, and any Bookhound store on the Queen's bad side suffers a Reverse. This is why some nervous Bookhounds frequent East End and riverside pubs; they hope to catch the Queen's roving eye.

Killing and properly disposing of the body of a Rat Queen dispels all of her magical effects, for good or ill. So Windfalls vanish, as well as Reverses. However if it ever becomes known who did it, other Rat Queens, Rat Things and ghoulish allies will take vengeance against the killers.

While Rat Queens don't lead cults, they have many friends in the East End and sewer Flushers, and can call on these friends for any aid short of actual combat. Many of these friends have been the Queen's lover in the past, and bear her bite mark; a useful identification aid for Bookhounds trying to work out who to trust.

Night's Black Agents Variation: though Rat Queens can still be found in the East End, and particularly Docklands, the area has transformed since Mayhew's day, and so have the Queens. Now they can often be found in gastropubs, or the latest two-or-three star restaurant, or some banker's multimillion pound den overlooking the shining City and the Thames. They move among the elite, and have become power players in their own right. Their ability to confer Luck makes them very popular creatures, and they trade on this, changing lovers every other week or so. Rats ride high, in this new London. In a Dracula Dossier game, Dracula long ago learned about the Rat Queens, but whether they became his Minions or remain a neutral supernatural power is an open question. If they did not become minions, they surely resent this foreign parvenu and can be persuaded to become temporary, fickle allies, with the right inducement. If they did, a Queen will be in charge of a London-based Node, perhaps a Satanic temple; they accept nothing less than dominance inside their territory, but aren't interested in anything outside London. In a NBA game without Cthulhu or related magic, assign two free and one other Renfield power to a Queen, and Aberrance 10.


Sunday, 14 April 2019

Espionage FUBAR (GUMSHOE, Night's Black Agents).

This week's post is inspired by recent events in Florida, at the President's member's club Mar-a-Lago.

You've almost certainly seen the reports by now, but a brief recap: a Chinese national was caught by Secret Service agents on Sat 30th March, as she attempted to infiltrate the club with two passports, four cell phones, malware on a data stick, and a laptop with an external hard drive. It's not clear why she was there. The theory being passed around in the papers is that she wanted to infiltrate an event organized by a "spa owner" (alleged whorehouse madam and human trafficker) which was to take place that evening.

It seems remarkably amateurish, especially for China. Given that Mar-a-Lago probably isn't the most secure installation in the world, I'd have thought it'd be much, much easier to suborn a senior staff member at the resort, and keep them on permanent payroll for moments like this. Or even get one of China's people hired as full-time staff. Heck, if all you want to do is put malware on the system, given that Mar-a-Lago's cyber security is probably even shakier than its front door policy, sneaking malware in via someone's Facebook page seems the better bet. Frankly, it sounds more like something North Korea would indulge in, given its penchant for wacky schemes and ambitious hacking.

Gamification coming right up.


The Night's Black Agents hear, via Network - so before the media gets it, but only just - that a security breach at a Conspiracy-friendly government locale was foiled by alert security, and that the person responsible was captured, along with a quantity of suspicious items. Director's choice as to what, exactly, was on the agent when they were captured, but suggested kit includes assassination tools (particularly those known to work on vampires), data sticks chock-full of malware, mini cameras and similar surveillance tools. There's enough information for the agents, particularly anyone with Vampirology, to realize that, whoever it was, they knew enough about vampires to take effective countermeasures against them.

The precise location is going to depend on your campaign, but suggested locales are the House of Parliament in London, a high-profile event venue like the British Museum, the Berlaymont Building in Brussels, the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, or the Victoria Palace in Romania.

This raises two red flags for the agents. First: does this mean there's a Node of the Conspiracy operating at that location? Second: who is this luckless infiltrator, and what do they know about the Conspiracy?

To answer that question, the agents are going to have to rescue the infiltrator, or at least take possession of any notes taken from the infiltrator's interrogation. Both will involve sneaking into a National-level installation at the very least, with all the chicanery that implies. However there's a potential big reward on offer, because apart from anything else, whoever sent that infiltrator in will want them back. That means the agents could earn themselves Excessive Funds, or at least one big, fat, favor from a Vampire program like China's Room 452. The agents will need to move very quickly to pull this off, since it's only a matter of time before the infiltrator is put somewhere even the agents can't break into.

For a Dracula Dossier variant, the agent is from Edom, and might even be a Prince. Pearl is the obvious choice, but Tyler and Elvis are strong contenders. If this happened, then Edom will be very eager to get them back. However it raises a third red flag: was the Prince betrayed by a mole within Edom, or is this an elaborate attempt to defect?


Sunday, 7 April 2019

Hacking Vampire Healthcare (Night's Black Agents)

This week's post is inspired by Verge's article, Health Care's Huge Cybersecurity Problem.

The article's pretty scary. It boils down to this: there are multiple vulnerabilities that can lead to catastrophic breach, hospital cybersecurity is almost nonexistent, and the consequences vary, from bitcoin highwaymen to purpose-built government malware designed to create false diagnoses. Hospital tech is basically a big, expensive black box to the people who rely on it every day, for everything. It can't be replaced easily, it can't be upgraded easily, and to date the focus has been on protecting client personal information, rather than protecting the tech itself. After all, you can be fined for a data security breach. For now, at least, nobody's tried to sue a hospital because its cybersecurity negligence caused permanent health injury - or worse.

How to gamify this?

Consider Night's Black Agents. There are several vampire types - Damned, Supernatural, Alien, Mutant. It's reasonable to presume that Damned and Supernatural types don't interact at all with hospital tech. There's no real biology there - it's all beyond the reach of modern science. However Alien and Mutant types must have some kind of biology, different though it may be. Renfields and other human cut-outs would definitely be affected. Then, of course, there's the Nodes.

With that in mind, some story ideas:

Primary Caregiver: The Beacon Institute is a national, potentially international, Conspiracy Node which poses as a scientific research organization, run by a charity, whose mission is to investigate and cure obscure blood disorders. It keeps a hack team on the books, whose purpose is to spread malware throughout all the hospitals in the country. That malware 'identifies' obscure blood disorders, feeding false diagnoses to selected patients. Those patients can only be treated with drugs issued by a Beacon cutout, but the drugs make the patient seem as if they have symptoms. Patients suffering from these symptoms eventually come knocking on Beacon's door - at which point they vanish. All this is done to secure blood donors for the Conspyramid, either as some sort of long-term scheme involving blood type McGuffins, or for some other reason. Perhaps particular blood types are tastier, or perhaps the vampires have a pressing need for blood in large quantities on demand. Perhaps the vampires use this to lure important targets into the Node's clutches, where they can be Renfielded.

Enemy Of My Enemy: Rogue vampire-hunters have seeded hospitals throughout the country with malware, to identify Renfields, and possibly also vampires, if their biology can be analyzed by human technology. The vampire hunters then track the targets, capture them, interrogate them, and kill them. The problem is, this system throws up a number of false positives, people who have nothing to do with the Conspyracy but whose quirky biology make them seem to have the taint. The agents are alerted when someone close to them turns up dead, apparently the victim of a medical 'accident.' Dracula Dossier Variant: as above, except the system is more sophisticated, and run by Prince. She's using malware developed by friends in Israel to carry out the con. If the agents are Edom, then she's using them to distribute the malware and further investigate the targets after they've been identified by the malware.

Caught in the Middle: Third party hackers based in Ukraine get more than they bargained for, when malware the group uses on hospitals turns up at a Node caregiver facility. The hack group just wanted bitcoin, but it ended up with several GB worth of Conspiracy data and a hit squad. The data's out there on the net, nested in a neutral hospital database. The hack team wanted to sell it to the highest bidder, but now most of them are dead and the rest in hiding. Which hospital has the data? Can the agents get to it before the Conspyracy does? Maybe if the agents can track down the surviving hackers they might get a jump on the vampires, but that means a trip to Luhansk, currently held by the People's Republic.

That's it for this week! Enjoy.