Sunday, 25 August 2019

The Last Suit You'll Ever Wear (Gumshoe, Night's Black Agents)

I've been tangentially aware of DEF Con for a while, but I began dipping into some of the video panels over the past few weeks. This one is worth watching if you have any interest whatsoever in cyber security. If you don't want to watch it all the way through, scoot to about 30 minutes in. That's the bit I want to talk about today.

This stuff fascinates me. You may have seen the speaker elsewhere, or read his work. He's Jayson E. Street, and he's had articles in Forbes as well as talkathons in Las Vegas. He's an ongoing (if that's the right word) speaker at DEF Con, and there are several videos of his on YouTube. I'm going to quote one sentence from the Forbes article, because it ought to be engraved in words of fire on the beating heart of every IT professional: 'it appears ease of use will once again trump security.'

Now, let's talk about that suit.

"If I am in this suit, I am out to screw you over terribly," says Street. Well, so are your Night's Black Agents. So what is it about the suit?

It does two things.

First, it fits in. Look at that conservative cut. He wouldn't be out of place in any North American business environment, and probably not in most places in Europe. He'd melt here in Bermuda - the waistcoat (vest o'doom) is not your friend in our climate.

Second, it allows him to transport any number of Trojans, horses and otherwise, without suspicion. USB pens, a flashlight that is also a video recorder, you name it. "When I walk into your facility, I am a walking, talking Google street car." Except this street car can leave things behind, like those pens, so he can pick up on your conversation later. Or plug in an external hard drive, if he wants a chunk of data. Bring along a tablet packed with useful apps. Who knows? But it's all hidden there in that vest o'doom, detectable if he goes through some form of X-ray security, or is just plain given a pat-down, but otherwise unseen.

The key to his entire talk, but especially this section, is this: anyone can do what he does. Most of the tools in his vest o'doom are commercially available, particularly in the US. Street bought some of his gear from Think Geek, for crying out loud. I shop at Think Geek (or I used to, anyway). Admittedly I wasn't buying USBs packed with keyloggers, but still ...

So how can we gamify this?

You could treat it as a simple Electronic Surveillance spend, where every 1 point spent buys 2 points Digital Intrusion. That seems a little bland. You could make it a combined spend, by saying that the agent can spend Bureaucracy or Flattery as well as Electronic Surveillance, each point adding to the pool, provided at least 1 point Electronic Surveillance is spent. So 1 point Bureaucracy plus 1 point Electronic Surveillance equals 4 points Digital Intrusion. That's probably enough to crack most OPFOR installations.

As a Cooperative task (p50 main book), assuming the agent with Electronic Surveillance is not at her best dealing with people, it could be: lead character (the one with Flattery/Flirting/Reassurance and Disguise) goes in, and secondary (with Electronic Surveillance) talks the lead through the technical stuff, presumably using an earpiece. So the secondary spends Electronic Surveillance to give the lead a Digital Intrusion pool. Or, using broadly the same trick but with Preparedness, reduce the Difficulty of future Digital Intrusion checks, or reduce the opposition's defensive pools. "Yeah, we thought of that. Which is why I sent Billy in during the day with my special vest o'doom, posing as one of the external audit team. Boy, are they going to be pissed when they find that nasty data stick of mine, plugged into the CFO's desktop!"

Or you could chain it to some Technothriller Monologue, to refresh 4 points Digital Intrusion. This may require some Disguise spends, mind you. "What they don't know will hurt 'em, I think to myself, as I dip into the vest o'doom for another of my specialty pens. This one goes in the CFO's office, this one for the CEO, and, oh, look, is that the exchange server? Let me just pop my tainted data stick in that little beauty."

Or it could be a great way to drop a clue. The agents find a nerdy-looking corpse stuffed behind a dumpster, but whichever goon did the deed didn't search the body thoroughly. Here's this funny vest, and it's stuffed full of data, or maybe it's still receiving output from those special little pens. The agents have to get to the data somehow, but that's their problem.

That's it for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Shadows Over Père-Lachaise (Night's Black Agents)

Hook: A young student has been found dead in Père-Lachaise Cemetery. The police say it was a regrettable accident; the 19-year old tripped and hit his head on one of the tombs. Witnesses are not forthcoming. Among the items found in his possession is a copy of the 1920 first French edition of Stoker's work, Dracula, l’homme de la nuit. The agents are hired by le Milieu (underworld) go-between to recover the book from the Gendarme; it is heavily implied that the book is stolen property that belongs to a Godfather in Marseille. The agents are to recover the book and deliver it to its rightful owner.

The Book: This soft-cover first French edition is rare, but not spectacularly valuable. Cryptography notices marks in the text, made recently in pencil. The positioning of these marks suggests the novel has been used as a book cypher by an amateur. Perhaps the Marseille Godfather wants to recover the book before the Gendarmes realize what they've got hold of?

Père-Lachaise Cemetery: This is one of Paris' most well-known landmarks, and the most visited necropolis in the world. It's the first garden cemetery, built far outside Paris proper so it could sprawl, a somnolent verdant memorial. Among its famous dead are the lovers Abelard and Heloise, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Frederic Chopin, and Marcel Proust. Its 108 acres are easy to get lost in, and, with its mix of monuments and architectural styles, it has a timeless quality. Though in the past it has suffered from outbreaks of crime, its status as a tourist draw ensures the gendarmes keep half an eye on it. Only half an eye, which explains how, for instance, noted art thief Verjan Tomic was able to hone his parkour skills by jumping from tomb to tomb, and to break into nearby houses by using the cemetery wall as a boost. Thousands of people walk through every day, especially around the tomb of Jim Morrison, decreasing Disguise and Surveillance difficulties by 1 - it's easy for the agents to get lost in this international crowd. The cemetery does have security officers on call; treat them as Police, but without stab vests and heavy armament (ie. submachine guns). The cemetery opens every day and closes at 530pm. Though it's not Fort Knox, it's secure enough that casual Infiltration is doomed to failure; Difficulty 3.

The Police: There are two obvious ways to secure the book. Bribe the cops, or break into the evidence locker. The agents find unexpected resistance if they go the bribe route, and their Heat increases by 1. They'll need to spend 2 points to find a willing accomplice in the Préfecture de police de Paris, but spending the extra point confers one other benefit: the agents discover the flics have been suborned by the Conspiracy. It's not clear who's in and who's out, but someone on high has already been bribed more than the agents could ever afford. The agents may discover this as a consequence of having their police contact murdered. Securing the book through bribery increases Heat by 3. Alternately the agents may try to Infiltrate the gendarmerie. Difficulty 5, reduced to Difficulty 4 with successful Disguise, Digital Intrusion or similar tests. According to the logs the book is kept in an evidence locker, but this is not so; it's actually on the desk of an inspector in the anti-crime division. This man is working with internal affairs (nicknamed the stew squad, or boeuf-carottes) to uncover the mole within the department. The stew squad believes there are elements within the Paris gendarmerie working with organized crime in Marseilles to protect the drug trade. The anti-crime inspector, Dallest, is their informer, but he's personally invested in this as his partner was murdered, so he's investigating the book on his own time. If the agents went the bribe route, Dallest handed over the book because he realized he was in way over his head and wants to get out alive. This won't happen; the Conspiracy can't afford loose ends.

Potential Twist: the vampires have either smuggled in a Renfield, or a full-fledged vampire, to search for the book. Their own informant ought to have taken it easily, but the informant didn't know about Dallest. If a vampire, the undead is lurking in the morgue, but a Renfield could be anywhere in the building. 

The Body: Jan De Vries, 19, a student of theology pursuing a doctorate at Tyndale seminary near Amsterdam, died from repeated blows to the head (Forensic Pathology 0 point). The first blow was probably delivered by a baton - a 12 inch concealable would do the trick. Once incapacitated, De Vries was smashed against a nearby tomb with extreme force. Marks on his clothing (grass & gravel) indicate he was dragged to where he was found, then killed. He arrived in Paris two days ago, and was staying at an apartment very close to Père-Lachaise. None of his friends or supervisors knew he was planning this trip. Bullshit Detector: his tutor, Sophie Visser, knew. She's the one who sent him. She's working with an anti-vampire group; Director's choice as to which. If the agents don't follow up, the Conspiracy will silence Visser soon.

What Happens Next?

There are several possibilities, revolving around the book, the Cemetery, and the alleged Marseille connection.

The Marseille Godfather is … an important part of a Marseille-based Node. Or has reasons of his own to be hunting Vampires, and went to Sophie Visser for help. Or is ignorant of the Conspiracy, but is heavily involved in narcotics smuggling. The Conspiracy wants to absorb the Marseille smuggler into its organization, and figures raising the Godfather's Heat is a good way to do that. "Having problems with those pesky freelance agents? We can help …"

Père-Lachaise is … A convenient haven for visiting Vampires. There's any number of tombs the Conspiracy use for temporary homes away from home, and Visser found that out. Or the real secret is in the tomb of Russian aristo Elisabeth Alexandrovna Stroganoff, died 1818, who promised that anyone who could spend a whole year and one night in her tomb would get her fortune. Some tried, none succeeded, and though people still volunteer now and again the Cemetery staff refuse to allow it. Visser and her student De Vries were about to crack the mystery, when De Vries was killed. Or the cemetery is a drop-off point for drug smugglers; leave the packets near such-and-such a tomb, and someone else picks up. De Vries stumbled on this and was killed. No vampire connection, but given who De Vries was, and working for, people make all kinds of assumptions. 

The Book is … a codebook that indicates the actual location of a stash hidden in Père-Lachaise. Or it contains Forged pages which describe an alternate adventure featuring Dracula and one of his brides in Père-Lachaise, and includes a description of the tomb this alleged incident occurred in. Or it's impregnated with some kind of reagent or similar substance that allows the user to detect vampires or vampire-haunted locations. [works best in Supernatural or Damned campaigns]. Or is a fake, a poison pill planted on De Vries by whoever killed him. The intent being to use the book as a weapon or false lead, distracting investigators from the real reason De Vries was killed - whatever that may be.

Who Are The Opposition?

Criminals from le Milieu, who want the book for their own reasons. Bent gendarmes. Conspiracy goons. Sophie Visser and whoever hired her to investigate Père-Lachaise. Vampires or other supernatural agents unconnected with the Conspiracy, but who have a connection with Père-Lachaise. The ghost of Jim Morrison, who's annoyed that all this activity is distracting people from his shrine. Père-Lachaise security cops, who just want a quiet life. 


Sunday, 11 August 2019

Glorious Romance (Bookhounds of London)

Richmond, a township of 20,000 within the bounds of southwest Greater London, boasts many graces, among them Richmond Green. The Green has an ancient history, and once hosted jousting knights; since the 18th century, cricket has taken over. Richmond Green is what's left of the Royal palace that once occupied the site, originally founded by Henry V. With the palace and the King's grace came maids of honor, to care for the Queen, and they needed somewhere to live. That led to the creation of Maids of Honour Row, built 1724.

Number 4, Maids of Honour Row is a series of four terraced houses fronting Richmond Green, opposite the Public Library. The Green was intended to be an elaborate pleasure park, designed by Constantio de Servi, architect to the Medicis, but almost nothing of that design was actually built. The original building where the Row now stands was elaborate and had, among other amenities, a tennis court and gardens, but its fortunes ebbed and flowed with the monarchy, and by the 1700s it was clear the old wreck had to go. Its replacement, Maids of Honour Row, was designed and built by carpenter Thomas Honour, who clearly had an eye for a good pun. 

Among the illustrious inhabitants of Maids of Honour were J.J. Heidegger, Master of Revels to the Court, and the author Charles Garvice.

Heidegger, a Swiss, came to London with very little and made a complete pig's breakfast of his first job, so he joined the Guards. From there he somehow moved to the Opera, where he became known for elaborate set-pieces. His fame increasing, he was hired by the Court to provide amusements as and when required. He had tremendous technical skill, and once lit 1800 candles in under three minutes, for the King's coronation, but is best remembered for his masquerades, and the illicit sexual thrills they offered. 

Charles Garvice is, in the Bookhound's day, an exceptionally famous romance novelist. He had a setback early in his career that taught him a painful, but valuable, lesson: always write for the market. He did so enthusiastically, developing a familiar formulae: innocent young girl plus lascivious nobleman plus some melodrama involving missing jewels or irate parents, mix in solicitors and charming young titled male leads, and the money comes flowing in. Nobody's sure how many books he wrote, as he worked under several different names. He knew he wasn't going to go down in literary history, and he didn't care. Once, when a friend tried to make light of his writing, he pointed to a crowded beach and said, "They are all reading my latest work." They were. He died in 1920, leaving, net, something in the order of sixty seven thousand pounds, or the rough equivalent of $2.5 million in today's money. Most went to his wife, the remainder to his two sons, one of whom died in 1921 in Alexandria, Egypt, where he was Chief of Police. The other lived in Canada until his death in 1964. 

All of which brings us to:

Glorious Romance

Hook: Would-be author Maurice Stowell has pestered the Bookhounds, among many, many others, for years now. He thinks he's an unacknowledged genius. So far, he's just unacknowledged. However his most recent manuscript, given to the Bookhounds for a read-through ("tell me what you think. Don't spare my feelings.") is very reminiscent of Charles Garvice's finest. Except it has an odd, Mythos tinge, particularly in the masquerade scene, presided over by the wicked Count Rochat, a conniving Swiss impresario with designs on the maiden, Cassilda. It's vaguely historical, except the setting is a Richmond Green nobody's ever seen before, complete with elaborate Italianate water gardens and a huge Neptune statue. The stone God has plot significance, as it moves about and, at one point, threatens the hero's life. It's … interesting, but those with Mythos knowledge can pick out sinister influences, particularly from that dreaded text. the King in Yellow. Masked balls, elaborate royal palaces, a terrifying Nemesis figure - where did Maurice get his inspiration?

Maurice Stowell: Three things: always suffers from a cold, limp handshake, uncanny luck at games of chance. If he took more care over it, he'd be a very successful card shark, but what he really wants to be is a writer. Athletics 8, Scuffling 12, Health 6; he was a Rough Lad when he was younger, but that's a mug's game. "Oh dear, I can feel a migraine coming on. Pass me my pills, would you? I cannot function without Mortlake's Concentrated Liver Pills."

Awful Truth: Stowell paid a local cunning-woman, Dicey (Eurydice) Wollard, to help his writing by summoning up the ghost of Charles Garvice. Stowell wanted writing advice, but got more than he bargained for, and so did Dicey. She doesn't know whose spirit she's channeling. At first she didn't care, so long as the money kept rolling in. Now she's very worried she's in over her head, but she can't keep the spirit quiet. The dreams she's been having since this started have become more and more surreal, and lately Stowell's been joining her in Dreamland, wandering through some peculiar, alternate version of Richmond Green. In that version of Richmond Green is hidden a book, some sort of play, that the spirit controlling her and advising Stowell wants found. This spirit, the Count Roche in Stowell's book, won't take no for an answer, and is forcing the two of them to find the book, no matter the cost. Trouble is, there's things hiding in that dream version of Richmond Green that could easily prove fatal …


Sunday, 4 August 2019

Forgotten London: The Three Squirrels of Fleet Street (Bookhounds, Trail)

Fleet Street was the early home of bankers, and several still preserve the signs with which they began business … Child's was the first on the scene and another most important business was carried on at Gosling's, a little farther to the east. The building is not very conspicuous and might easily be missed, as the old name does not appear. Its sign is the Three Squirrels, all busy eating nuts.

From London Cameos, A.H. Blake, 1930 ed.

The sign tentatively dates to the mid 1600s, and originally marked Gosling's and Sharp's goldsmiths. In the current day, it is Barclay's oldest branch. It began life as the sole trader Henry Pinckney, 1650-sh, and is mentioned in Pepys' diaries. Sir Francis Gosling joined the partnership in 1742, and Benjamin Sharpe in 1794. Though a partner, the Sharpes were junior to the Goslings, who called all the shots. Eventually the bank became one of the banks to join and form the conglomerate Barlcays, in 1896.

Goldsmith bankers are exactly what they sound like. Originally dealers in gold, they became sought after as lenders and eventually developed credit facilities, dealing in bills of exchange, the ancestor of the cheque.

As with Child's, Gosling's is also cheek-by-jowl with St. Dunstan's Church, which means it too has a Sweeny Todd connection. St. Dunstan, you may recall, is the patron saint of goldsmiths, and is also known for pulling the Devil's nose with hot tongs.

The symbolism of a squirrel and its nuts is obvious. Then, of course, there is Ratatosk, the squirrel who lives in the world-tree:

Ratatösk is the squirrel named, who has run
in Yggdrasil's ash;
he from above the eagle's words must carry,
and beneath the Nidhögg repeat

Tale-bearer, the gnawer, bore-tooth. The serpent Nidhogg, some say, will announce or herald Ragnarok; until that day, it gnaws at the roots of the world tree. The eagle at the tree's top is extremely wise, and feuds with the serpent. It is Ratatosk's daily work, and joy, to keep the feud alive by carrying messages between the eagle and the serpent.

So, in Bookhounds, from a Megapolisamantic perspective, the sign of the Three Squirrels could be used for several different workings:

  • Anything to do with credit, or Credit Rating
  • Anything to do with gold, or physical wealth.
  • Anything to do with malice, or gossip.
From a Mythos perspective, it is no great leap from squirrel to Rat-Thing; the leap is even shorter if you link Rat-Thing with Ratatosk, bearer of great wisdom taken from the eagle, and poisonous malice taken from the serpent. 

This in turn could link the sign of the Three Squirrels to Nyarlathotep, which puts that Credit Rating bonus, gold, wealth, gossip, all within the Old One's gift. 

Story Seed: The Lavender Hill Mob

A Bookhounds rival is constantly getting the better of the shop, thanks to seemingly endless cash reserves. No matter what, this rival always has cash on hand to beat the shop's Auction pool, yet nothing else about this rival suggests bottomless reserves of cash. If anything, their personal life is on the knife edge; a lowly bank clerk in shared accommodation, never promoted, never taken seriously. Until four months ago he had no interest in incunabula and grimoires; now he's seen at every auction, buying up as much as he can.

The Awful Truth: Henry Holland has dreamed for years of the perfect robbery. He accompanies the gold every day from smelting shop to the bank, and is the model employee. However he's never been able to crack it, and is beginning to despair. 

One day, while meditating on his misfortunes, he happened to catch a glimpse of the Three Squirrels, and, quite by chance, aligned himself megapolisomantically with the sign and the Lever it represents. He began to see how his robbery could work, and to understand how he could get away with it. 

However that Lever was already occupied, by a Rat Thing who resents Henry's unwarranted intrusion. The Rat Thing is forcing Henry to buy books for it, and in exchange promises to help Henry find the accomplice he needs to carry out the bank robbery of a lifetime.