Sunday, 27 October 2019

Thrilling Seige (Night's Black Agents)

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

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

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

Thrilling Sieges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now - Showtime!

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

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

There are four potential outcomes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Final Moments

Either the defenders win, or the attackers do.

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

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


Sunday, 20 October 2019

Dear Jessica (Night's Black Agents)

Some of the information in this post comes from LexisNexis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, to gamify:

Jessica's Cargo

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

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

Why all this fuss? Is it because:

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

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Is It, or Is It Not? (Bookhounds)

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

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

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

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

An Imaginary Catalogue

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 6 October 2019

The Man Who Collected Berkeley (Bookhounds)

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

From The Geography of Witchcraft, by Montague Summers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to:

The Seeker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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