Sunday, 26 May 2019

Forgotten London: The Fat Boy of Pye Corner

From London Cameos, by A.H. Blake:

It is an oft-told tale that the Fire of London started at Pudding Lane and burnt through to Pye Corner, and that, as a contemporary preacher said, it was due to the sin of gluttony. A fat, greedy boy, trying to steal a pie from the King's Baker's oven, is said to have let the fire get at some wood put by to dry, and set the house of light.

There existed here at the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane a tavern called The Fortunes of War, and this figure [of a small fat child] was put up on it to mark the spot where the fire is supposed to have ended …

This small wooden statuette, covered in gold leaf, still stands today. Though Pye Corner seems too coincidental, it in fact derives from Magpie, the name of a pub on the opposite corner from the Fortunes of War.

The Fortunes of War was an ancient public house that was finally demolished in 1910. In the 19th Century it was a favorite stopping place for Resurrection Men, as it was close to the river and the bodysnatchers had a professional interest in drowned corpses. The Humane Society had designated the Fortunes of War as the official place where those drowned in the river were first brought, and the resurrection men had assigned seating, where they waited for custom to come to them.

So famous was the Fortunes of War that Charles Dickens stole it as background for a scene in Tale of Two Cities, where one of his characters, Jerry Cruncher of Tellson's Bank, moonlights as a resurrection man. 

When the Fortunes of War was demolished, the Fat Boy was temporarily homeless, until the City and Guilds headquarters was built on the site. He now commands an excellent view of the corner.

So, in one location we have: an ancient site, a monument to the greatest disaster London has ever known, drowned men, bodysnatchers, and the City and Guilds, a charitable institution whose aim is: 

For the purposes of all such branches of science and the fine arts and for the advancement, dissemination, propagation, promotion, culture and application of all such branches of science and the fine arts as benefit or are of use to or may benefit or be of use to productive and technical industries especially and to commerce and industry generally or any branch thereof.

In Bookhounds, megapolisimantically speaking this is one of the most powerful locations in London. Not only is it significant in its own right by virtue of being where the Great Fire stopped, it's marked by what amounts to a node of power (the Fat Boy), it still has remnants of necromantic taint (all those drowned souls), and, to cap it all, one of the most significant forces for technical and industrial power in London.  

What kind of workings are likely? Causing fires is the obvious one, as is snuffing one out. The Fortunes of War still exists in London's memory, so it ought to be possible to get to the public house, if only for an hour or two. In game terms, the pub was only recently demolished, so it ought to be fresh in London's memory.  That might make it a useful hiding place, so long as whoever uses it can stand the horror of drowned men. 

For that matter, a working that allowed the user to speak with anyone recently drowned would work here. Or a working that caused a drowning. 

Playing on the City and Guilds angle, any working that relied on technology or industry would get a boost if this was used as an anchor. Or, conceivably, any working intended to affect the Royal Family. The Royals traditionally are president of the City & Guilds; currently HRH The Princess Royal is its president. Queen Victoria founded the institution, and her son the Prince of Wales was its first president. 

However a location like this is prized. There's likely to be more than one megapolisomancer who wants it for her own. Neophytes should be wary, lest their working be turned against them by someone more powerful, or cunning.


Sunday, 19 May 2019

Ripped from the Headlines - Crossbows, China's CIA Man, Huawei

Several people in Germany have committed self-murder in what appears to be a quasi-medieval suicide pact led by a man named in the press as Torsten W. Torsten and two women were found dead in a hotel room, each having been shot with a crossbow. Two other women, one a nineteen-year-old, were also found dead in a house in Wittigen.

According to @thelocalgermany, Torsten W. "owned a shop that sold medieval-style weapons and flags, offered sword-fighting classes and featured a bizarre female mannequin wearing suspenders, tied with ropes and chains, and smeared with blood-like red paint."

In the same article, Torsten is described as the leader of "a kind of sex circle with a focus on the Middle Ages."

There's been a small resurgence in cult stories In the last five years alone we've had five documentaries on Charlie Manson, four of them in 2017, the year Manson died, and there's a film coming up, Charlie Says, with Doctor Who alumnus Matt Smith in the leading role.

Part of this is because it's been fifty years since Manson. There's two or three more documentaries and films due in 2019, to go along with the Manson Family musical, the South Park episode, and the indie comedy film.

Part of this is because, right now, we're obsessed with this kind of mass lunacy, for some reason. Can't think why.

Gamifying this is surprisingly difficult, since most of the compelling scenes take place within the group, impenetrable to outsiders. Viewed from the outside, the Manson Family's just another bunch of cult mooks with a big bad boss, and whether said boss plays guitar or conducts orgies in a medieval dungeon is almost irrelevant. A nice character detail, possibly, but it doesn't add to plot. Put it another way: knowing that the Beach Boys once recorded a tune Manson composed doesn't really add to the Bullitt-style Thrilling Chase scene down the California highway in the third act.

There are ways in. The quasi-medieval cult, in NBA, could be a rival band of vampire hunters, woefully short on Tradecraft but effective in close-up combat. However given their backstory they may fit better in an Esoterrorists or Fear Itself session. Charlie Manson and his followers definitely fit the Fear Itself formula.

In other news, former CIA man turned double agent for China, Kevin Mallory, was sentenced to 20 years in prison this week. He only received $25,000 from China for his efforts, so that's $1,250 per year; not the world's greatest paycheck. Particularly when, at 62, he's likely to die in prison, or emerge a doddering octogenarian.

Mallory's one of several former intelligence assets suborned by China, but what strikes me about this story is how little money's at stake. I wrote last year about Brian Regan, the spy who couldn't spell. He too did it for the money.

I have been in the CIA for over 20 years and will be retiring in two years, Regan wrote in his letter to Libya. I feel that I deserve more than the small pension I will receive for all the years of service at the CIA … Considering the risk I am about to take I will require a minimum payment of thirteen million US dollars wire transferred in Swiss francs, the exact amount, before I will risk my life …

In fiction, we place an extraordinary value on secrets. I'm fond of the game Hitman, which is all about secrets and assassination. The first real scenario in Hitman, Showstopper, features a spy organization named IAGO which makes its living selling secrets to the highest bidder.

Outside Xbox created the vid. If you enjoy that kind of thing, I heartily recommend 'em. They also do fun RPG videos, for those who like cats, explosions, Eldritch Blast, and wacky pirates.

We fill out NDAs, convinced of the mystical value of all those trade secrets. We believe corporate espionage is some kind of James Bond world of spies and counterspies, that mysterious Illuminati-esque figures grow fat on the flow of information, that all-powerful hackers can destroy the world at the click of a keyboard, sending our secrets hither and yon.

What cases like Mallory's ought to show us is that our secrets aren't worth a bucket of horse manure. Hell, at least you can grow something with horse manure. China - China! - couldn't be bothered to scrape up chump change for top level classified information. $25K? If you want to sit in the driver's seat of a 2019 Porsche Boxter, say, you've got to cough up $59K, minimum. A flat in Manhattan, even a dump in Greenwich, costs around half a million. Hell, a lousy Fabergé egg sells for several millions, though if you're lucky you might find one at an LA flea market for a mere $14K.

Finally, let's look back at the Huawei scandal and current fears about surveillance tech inserted into Chinese-manufactured smartphones. It's widely supposed that Canada's detainment of a senior Huawei exec for breaking sanctions against Iran is cover for a more in-depth effort to prevent the Chinese from gaining an unbreakable hold over 5G wireless networks. It's thought China would attempt to insert malware and spyware, using Huawei as a stalking horse.

This is worrying news, but what interests me is, China's been manufacturing high-end electronic goods for decades now. China makes pretty much everything from PS4 and Xbox consoles to desktop PCs. Odds are pretty good you're using a Chinese-made machine to read this post. Chinese surveillance tech is almost certainly a big part of the electronic ecosystem already.

Gamification … remember a while back when I talked about casinos in Macau, and hungry ghosts? I posited that a casino might use hungry ghosts as so-called luck ambassadors, slaving the ghost to a cloud-based slot machine system and using it to monitor player activity.

So here you have a slot machine that knows exactly who you are, I posted. It's tracked you from the moment you checked in at the hotel, and can continue to track you via the courtesy smartphone that the hotel gave you, or through your guest card, or any number of different ways. It can switch up the odds as it sees fit, to keep you playing. It can judge your tolerance for loss, and keep you pumped up for as long as your money holds out.

Now imagine if that machine was haunted - say, by hungry ghosts.

If you've followed gaming at all, you'll have seen anguished articles about gambling, and how some games use casino-style tactics to drain cash from underage players, and their parents. Take that a step further. Imagine a Chinese manufacturer who deliberately slips hungry ghosts into gaming consoles, ships them out to naïve Westerners, and lets the ghost handle the rest. A microtransaction or micropayment system, managed by the dead, whose purpose is to skim a little off the top and send it back to the manufacturer. Even if all they got was a fraction of a penny on every transaction, there are so many transactions it all adds up to one great big fortune.

Imagine what might happen if those ghosts get too ambitious …

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Darling Anna (GUMSHOE, Night's Black Agents, Mutant City Blues)

You may or may not be aware of Anna Sorokin, aka Anna Delvey. As Delvey, Russian expatriate Sorokin scammed the rich and famous out of substantial amounts, by pretending to be a German heiress. Her scam wasn't the most sophisticated con game ever. She relied on charm and chutzpah, plus a little forgery, persuading people to lend her cash or pay her way. She racked up several hundred thousand worth of debt, and tried to get a $22 million loan to fund her Foundation. It was never going to last, and now she's been found guilty in court, sentence being four to twelve years, with the likelihood of deportation after release.

M Allen Henderson's Flim-Flam Man  is well worth looking at. Henderson lists these bunco traits:
  • Inclined to hold a low opinion of humankind, although this inclination is usually well-hidden.
  • Charming and personable.
  • Persistent and thick-skinned. He won't let a little failure get in the way of eventual success.
  • An actor who can fake emotions better than he can feel them. His act seems realer than real because he half believes it himself.
  • Not exclusively a con artist. He has engaged in, and will continue to engage in, other businesses, both legal and illegal, especially sales.
  • Proud of his ability to outsmart others, and expects others to outsmart him.
  • Lacking in conscience. 
  • Disrespectful of police and others in authority.
  • On the move, changing residences and businesses frequently.
  • Fond of showing off and is a big spender.
Sounds a lot like Dracula. Charming, personable, holds a low opinion of humankind, persistent and thick-skinned, lacking in conscience, fond of showing off, big spender …

Sorokin seems to demonstrate most of these traits, bar one; her addiction to Manhattan high life kept her in New York, when she might have been better served by travel.. Mind you, she took New York for every last penny she could get, and her success in that sophisticated city that never sleeps is what makes her famous. Other people stole more, but they didn't take New York's social scene for such a nasty ride. If her Foundation had ever opened its doors - an 'extremely pretentious private member's club', according to the Guardian's Hadley Freeman - it would have fit right in. New York has thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of plausible grifters like Sorokin. 'I lived in New York for a long time,' says Freeman, 'And that is the kind of … bullshit that you hear from people like that, in that area.' Sorokin wanted to fit in, and that is exactly what she did.

Let's gamify this.

Assume she's an asset in the world of Night's Black Agents. She's a natural chameleon who lives on social media, paying her way on someone else's credit card. She knew that, as a high-flying socialite spending a lot of money, hotel owners and restauranteurs don't want to challenge her. It's bad for business. So she can keep pushing the limit. It helps that she looks the part and keeps overtipping. Statistically she's a Civilian with effective High Society, Flirting, Flattery and Intimidation pools of 1 each, the Intimidation only useful against businesspeople and shop owners. However because she keeps pushing the limit she can be very successful, as a con artist. If there are two Bucharest Rules phrases that exemplify her, it's Build Your Own Network, and Keep Moving Forward.

As a Conspyramid asset, she's a free-roaming grifter looking for a likely target. She wants validation and fame, so she'll be especially dangerous to agents who rely on High Society and interpersonal abilities. She fits into that world. Several Edom dukes, such as Osprey, Pearl and Tyler, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of infiltration, as are some of the Legacies. However playing on Sorokin's MO, her most likely targets are other women; people she can befriend, be a buddy. Then she starts to mooch.

She probably doesn't run whichever Node she's affiliated with. Her handler would have to keep her at arm's length. She's not someone you'd trust with the Seward Serum. However her background in art may give her unusual ability pools, or Network contacts. She's the kind of person who gets by on her friends network, so it's reasonable to say she knows a lot of peculiar people in all lines of work. She probably knows a few low-level thugs, and bodyguards, along with the fashion plates and restaurant owners.

She may fit better into a Mutant City Blues game, which is all about crimes and the criminals who commit them. I haven't seen the 2nd Edition document, so everything I say here is based on my knowledge of the original game.

As a Mutant criminal, she most likely has passive power sets. This isn't someone who throws fire blasts around or sprouts fangs. This is someone who gets what they want through manipulation. Possibly Sexual Chemistry fits, but she really doesn't seem to be the siren type. She's more likely to use Memory Alteration, Possession or similar; some form of mind control or influence. At most she might display Psionic Blast, but even that sounds a little too violent. The one thing she definitely will not have is Nondescript. Her entire grift depends on her being seen, especially with the right people.

However it could be more interesting to have her as an ordinary con artist who everyone thinks is a Mutant, either because that's the way she plays it, or because nobody wants to admit they've been taken by a Normal. Mutants in particular will never, ever, in a million years, willingly admit they were conned by someone who isn't themselves Mutant. That Resist Influence power the mark boasted about is looking pretty thin right about now.

Alternatively she could be a beard, a front for a mind-influencing Mutant who is Nondescript but who seriously loves the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Sorokin and her pals jet off to a luxury holiday in Morocco, and nobody ever notices that an extra face is along for the ride. When Sorokin gets busted, the Nondescript recruits another wannabe socialite. The girl who ends up in jail might swear up and down she has no memory of doing all those things people say she did; what of it? Nobody in prison's guilty. Everyone was railroaded.


Sunday, 5 May 2019

The Loaded Coin (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

In this method the pill is stuck to the center of one side of a coin. The coin is taken by the performer from his pocket along with two or three other coins. The 'loaded' coin, however, in being brought out from the pocket is held between the thumb and first finger and the other coins are gripped between the rest of the fingers and the palm. The loaded coin is so held that the pill is kept from sight of the spectators … the purpose of taking the coins from the pocket is, ostensibly, to make some minor purchase such as a packet of cigarettes. There should be enough coins left in the hand after making the purchase so that two or more may be put on the bar or table and yet have two of the same size left in the hand. One of these two coins is the one to which the pill is attached …

This Cold War era trick comes courtesy of the CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, written originally by magician John Mulholland and resurrected from the CIA archives by H. Keith Melton and Robert Wallace. The intent is to slip a drug into a drink, unnoticed. You use a coin rather than palming because pills tend to stick to warm, damp flesh, whereas a pill on the reverse side of a coin can be flicked into a drink with a quick shake, or sweep of a finger.

It might be used by a Cold War era asset, or vampire-savvy outfits like Edom or China's Room 452. The trick, intended to deliver incapacitating or mind-altering substances like LSD, comes from the same line of thinking that gave us Project MKUltra. The idea is to deliver a payload that neutralizes an enemy asset, in a public place like a bar. This is especially relevant for Night's Black Agents characters, who know that certain substances, like garlic, holy water, or dead man's blood, can incapacitate or even kill an opposition target. All of these could be delivered in pill form, surreptitiously enough to evade detection. In theory the agent could hit the target, walk away, and watch the target fall to bits.

Of course, there is one obvious problem with this tactic. Coins are becoming obsolete, especially in sophisticated cities where smart cards and touch cards are more common. Particularly in high-end establishments, paying in coins makes you stand out - and standing out is the last thing a covert agent wants.

There are other issues. Prices have increased significantly since this trick was designed; even a packet of cigarettes will cost much more than a few coins. Also, in Mulholland's day security cameras were not anything like as common as they are now. These days even the dodgiest of pubs is likely to have CCTV, which means using this tactic increases Heat by 1. Moreover delivering a bane this way has its own risks; a vampire-friendly establishment might have countermeasures designed to detect, say, dead man's blood. This is more likely in Supernatural or Damned games, where science is less important than magic. If the pocket where you keep the loaded coins starts glowing red, or screaming, when you walk in the door, then you've got problems that not even Flirting can solve.

Making it Work: the agent needs to pass a minimum Difficulty 4 test, adjusted by Alertness modifier, spending either Preparedness or Filch, or a combination of the two. This may involve a Full Contest if the target is on the alert, for whatever reason, or is being watched over by a third party, like a bodyguard. Difficulty can be reduced if the agent can distract the target. In Mulholland's version this distraction came from natural patter, which in game would be Technothriller Monologue and can be prepared in advance. The remark is unimportant as to substance. It only has to express a reason, seemingly of interest or amusement to the performer, which makes it natural to show the coins. This can be achieved in other ways. At the end of the television show Mossad's season one, the distraction comes when an attractive member of the opposite sex walks past the target, which in game terms would be Cooperation. The exact reduction will depend on circumstances, but assume a minimum reduction of 2.

What happens next depends on the payload, and the target. Agents with a regard for their own health may want to scout out an exfil route before trying this tactic. An enraged vampire lashing out at anything and everything in sight is likely to do a lot of damage to its environment.

What's good for the goose is sauce for the gander. The opposition may try this tactic on the agents, perhaps delivering good old-fashioned LSD or some kind of knockout drug. A Sense Trouble Difficulty 4 minimum, increased by the opposition's Stealth modifier, detects this.  Alternatively the agent may spend Tradecraft to notice this Cold War spy trick. The result depends on the substance used, but it's reasonable to assume the effect takes place within 2 to 4 rounds, requires a minimum Difficulty 5 Health check, its minor effect is to inflict Shaken for the remainder of the scene, its major effect is to incapacitate for the remainder of the scene. Basic first aid given immediately can negate the minor effect, or reduce a major effect to a minor effect.