Sunday, 24 November 2019

The Doll Woman (Night's Black Agents)

This is loosely based on the career of wartime spy for the Japanese, Velvalee Dickinson.

Born Velvalee Blucher, this Californian native met her future husband, Lee Dickinson, when she was hired by his brokerage firm. The pair frequently socialized with Japanese, and were welcome visitors at the Japanese consulate, where they met diplomats and navy officers.

Later, when they moved to New York, Velvalee opened up a doll shop, and husband Lee kept the books until his death in 1943. This high-end enterprise specialized in collectors' items, and had a worldwide clientele.

 Image taken from Wikipedia

The FBI first became aware of Velvalee's spying in 1942, when wartime censors picked up on suspicious wording in a letter Velvalee sent to a 'client.' Velvalee's scheme was simple. Her letters, sent to a Japanese agent in Buenos Ares, spoke of 'a doll in a hula skirt', meaning a ship recently arrived from Hawaii, or 'fishing nets' and 'balloons' for coastal defenses. As a scheme it worked quite well, but Velvalee made a mistake. Anxious not to attract attention to herself, she put her real clients' names and addresses in the 'return to sender' section. She probably thought she was cunning; problems arose when her Japanese contact changed address, and the postal authorities in Buenos Ares started returning Velvalee's letters. The alleged senders, confused and worried by all these odd letters, contacted the FBI, and not long after that Velvalee found herself accused of spying for Japan. She claimed her husband, Lee, by that time long dead, was the real spy. When that didn't work, she offered up her Japanese contacts and other information in a plea bargain. She went to jail in 1944 for ten years, and was released in 1951, with time off for good behavior. 

So let's recap: spy set up in small high-end collectors' business, with money given her by her co-conspirators. She reports back on military movements, and would probably have gotten away with it too, were it not for that darn kid in Buenos Ares, who screwed everything up by not leaving a forwarding address when he moved.

The Conspiracy has interests all over the world, but it can't maintain full-fledged Nodes everywhere it likes. There are going to be times it has to rely on assets in place. Those agents will have a specific task; it might be to watch a person or place, or to surveil a particular port, or whatever the Director deems appropriate. They may not understand the whole picture, but then they don't have to. They just need to observe, and report.

The Doll Woman: Meredith Soames 

Soames [change name as needed] owns a doll shop in [Director chooses appropriate location], which deals in high-end collectibles for well-heeled clients. It might specialize in a particular kind of item - Japanese hina-ningyo, perhaps, or manga collectibles. 

Soames is backed by a Conspiracy Node, but she doesn't know anything about the Node except for her handler's contact details. Nor does she know a great deal about the Conspiracy. Her connection with it is strictly medical; back when she was in college, she developed a debilitating and ultimately fatal disease, and it was only thanks to the Conspiracy's medical intervention (ie. it Renfielded her) that she survived. Now she depends on her special medicine to keep going. 

Her job is to monitor [target's] communications, which means she hacks computers, monitors phone calls, and conducts on-the-spot surveillance, as needed. She's been trained in some aspects of surveillance, but much of the tools of her trade - like the viruses - come direct from her handler. The target can be anyone or anything, from an Edom Prince, to a particular pharmaceuticals company, or a mission-critical location - Whitby, say. 

Problems arise when her handler switches to a different supplier, a Ukrainian hack team, for the viruses. The Ukrainians are either sloppy or deliberately sabotage the scheme, because the viruses attract the attention of the authorities [increased her Heat to dangerous levels, mechanically.] This attracts the characters, but it also attracts the authorities. The agents will need to act quickly if they want to benefit. 

Civilian Template

General: Athletics 3, Hand-to-Hand 4 (training), Health 2, Weapons 2 (-1 damage, extendable baton, possibly also taser if allowed).

Special: effective Digital Intrusion 4, thanks to equipment supplied by Node.

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness: -1 (training)

Stealth: +0 (training)

Damage: -2 (fist)

As Renfield: 

Aberrance 9

General: Athletics 8, Filch 3, Hand-to-Hand 6, Health 4, Weapons 2

Special: as above.

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness: +0

Stealth: +1

Damage: -1 (fist)

Abilities: Enhanced Hearing, Infravision (free powers), Cloud Men's Minds. If the Director prefers, Cloud Men's Minds can be switched out for doll-specific Magic, most likely mood controllers and surveillance tools rather than Chucky-style killing machines or Puppet Master antics. 

Soames depends on the Conspiracy for her life-giving medicine. She won't betray its secrets, at least not without an ironclad guarantee that her drug supply - vampire blood - will continue.


Sunday, 17 November 2019

Keeper Advice: Talk Less, Smile More

Keepers often over-indulge, and forget Strunk's ageless wisdom: omit needless words.

Worse, needed words are misplaced.

Consider: It's the start of the session and you, the Keeper, are trying to set a scene. You talk about the weather, the countryside, its geography, even its history. You talk about the city and its streets, the mist that seeps out of manhole covers, rising from some forgotten, dark hole below. You might spend ten minutes expounding, because you see all this as important, even vital. How will the players know what's going on, if you don't tell them?

All this is Exposition.

Hitchcock's 100% gold. Exposition cannot be the spotlight moment, especially not at the beginning of the story. Never start a session with a ten-minute spiel about the weather, the setting, or, God forbid, the geopolitical situation. Or even the local political situation. Devote, at most, one sentence to the start - or as I'd describe it, the starting gun - and then get out of the way.

Night's Black Agents, and the agent is tasked with surveilling a suspicious character. The larger story can be about anything up to and including an apocalyptic death ray, but that's not how you start. You start with the agent, in the moment, doing a thing.

'Pretending to window-shop on a street full of holiday-happy people, you see your target slip into an upmarket coffee shop.'

That's all you need. Don't worry about anything else; the player takes it from there. It doesn't matter whether it's Halloween or Christmas. It doesn't matter whether it's the high street of some regional town, or London. Or Paris. You can define all that in play. Hell, you can even define the target in play - male, female, dressed how, ethnicity? After all, if there's one thing disguise expert Jonna Mendez teaches us, it's that the person who seems to be a young Asian female might be a white European male. If you as Keeper want a particular NPC in the scene, and the player describes a different person, no problem! Your NPC was in disguise all along.

Bear in mind what Hitchcock says about North by Northwest, because that illustrates my other point: needed words are misplaced. You can have exposition. You'll need lots of it later on, when the player wants to know important details about the geopolitical situation, or whatever it may be. Just don't have it right at the beginning of the session. That's when everyone's at the starting gate, eager to get on with it. Don't bore the group with ten minutes of blah when what they want is five minutes of action. Exposition is for explaining what has happened, not what is going to happen.

Going back to omit needless words, I'm also going to draw on the wisdom of M.R. James. I've been re-reading his short stories, and two things struck me.

First, like James Herbert, he goes there, sets it on fire, and sells hot dogs. In a much more genteel Victorian way - James would probably prefer roasting chestnuts. Yet James knows horror is best when the reader, the ordinary person, can picture themselves in the scene. "If I am not careful, something like this might happen to me …" That's why most of James' protagonists are young, professional people, perhaps in their late twenties or early thirties. Too old, or too young, wouldn't work as well. Professional people, well-to-do, thoroughly upper middle class, because James knows (or thinks he knows) his audience shares those traits. Their lives are fairly ordinary; some hold important jobs, or academic positions, but you could pass by them in the street and not immediately know them for who they are. One even rides the Clapham omnibus, the legal definition of the ordinary man.

So James takes the ordinary man off in a dark corner and threatens his life - or, in some cases, plain old kills him. Or kills his children. It's remarkable how often dead children appear in James' stories; I can't think of another author quite so keen to deliver pre-teens to the slaughter. I remember James Herbert had a baby eaten by rats, and Stephen King pulled off something similar in Salem's Lot, but neither of them made a habit of it. Whereas James pulls this chilling swerve all the time.

 ... the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch [Punch and Judy] wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality ... [The Story of a Disappearance, and a Reappearance.]

Second, James doesn't bother with things that aren't important, and that includes characters, even those that have narrative impact.

"I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full term is over, Professor," said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography, soon after they had sat down next to each other at a feast in the hospitable hall of St. James' College.

The Professor was young, neat, and precise in speech.

"Yes," he said; "My friends have been making me take up golf this term, and I mean to go to the East Coast - in point of fact to Burnstow (I dare say you know it) for a week or ten days, to improve my game. I hope to get off to-morrow."

"Oh, Parkins," said his neighbor on the other side, "If you are going to Burnstow, I wish you would look at the site of the Templar's preceptory, and let me know if you think if it would be any good to have a dig there in the summer."

It was, as you might suppose, a person of antiquarian pursuits who said this, but since he merely appears in this prologue, there is no need to give his entitlements.

Some of you may recognize this as the start of James' most famous story, Oh Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad. It's been reprinted countless times in any number of anthologies, and filmed at least twice, probably more often. Also a song by Robbie Burns, and I don't doubt James got a laugh out of that.

Look at what James is doing. He sets up the moment in one sentence, which tells you everything you need to know about the moment and the people in it. More importantly, he has a dialogue with three people, in which only one, Parkins, is important to the story - so he does not bother to name the other two. He doesn't even name Parkins until the third paragraph; before that he is merely a young, neat, precise Professor of Ontography.

Think! How often have you been asked, 'who is this NPC? What's their name?' How often have you had the courage to reply, 'as (s)he's not relevant to the narrative going forward, I shall not name him/her.'

If the player wants that NPC to become relevant, then by all means let the player name them. Grow fond of them. Even shoehorn them into the story somehow.

That's when you, as Keeper, murder that NPC in the most gruesome way possible. Harden your heart. If James can shove pre-teens into the sausage mincer, you can feed so-and-so into the ghoul pit. If nothing else, it alerts the agents to vital information - that there is a ghoul pit, and it should be avoided if they want to live.  

So! Omit needless words. Exposition explains what has happened, not what is going to happen. If it is not necessary, ignore it - don't even name it, if you don't have to.

Get on with the story. That's the important thing.


Sunday, 10 November 2019

Cuban Mysteries & Ladies Vanish

Once upon a time when the world was slightly saner than it is today, I mentioned a Cuban drama in which diplomats claimed to have fallen foul of a sonic superweapon. Incredibly, that story still has legs. Only this week the Guardian claimed a freedom of information victory, and got its hands on diplomatic cables and other official communications that, the paper claimed, shed light on the mystery.

Except … it kinda didn't. For all the fanfare, the released documents shed as much light as a snuffed-out candle. Nobody knows what happened. The Americans aren't in a hurry to find out. The Cubans, mightily pissed, are confident the whole thing's nonsense from beginning to end. There's some madcap Canadians who think the diplomats might have been unintentionally poisoned by insect spray.

The big, and probably unintentional, result is that diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US broke down, and frankly, given that the Jackass is currently disgracing the Presidency with his presence, those diplomatic relations were dead in the water. If it wasn't this, some other crisis would have come along and the GOP would have found an excuse to pull the plug. After all, the diplomatic rapprochement was an Obama administration policy, and the GOP's done its damndest to kill off every other Obama policy.

However the sonic superweapon got me thinking: what exactly do you need to design a spy thriller? High stakes? International locales? Femme fatales, or high-speed action sequences? Sinister superweapons? Diplomatic intrigue?

The answer to this question comes from Hitchcock, as you might expect.

Hitchcock made spy thrillers where ladies vanish on trains. Saboteurs send young children across London, with bombs hidden in film cans. Secrets that could change the course of world politics are whispered by dying men to total strangers. An ad executive meeting his mother for lunch is mistaken for a superspy. An American physicist defects to Moscow to steal rocketry secrets. Hitchcock knew the spy genre inside and out - and his spy thrillers were the simplest possible.

You need a McGuffin, one important enough to get people worked up. You need an interesting situation. You need tension. That's it.

Consider The Lady Vanishes (1938).

In that film, as is so often the case with Hitchcock, the McGuffin is never revealed, or even described. We know it's important, because everyone treats it as if it is important. Miss Froy, the elderly Englishwoman who has the McGuffin, vanishes - and it's as if she was never there. Miss Froy's chance companion, Iris Henderson, at first is puzzled, then horrified, as person after person says there is not, and never was, a Miss Froy - and it's her horror that propels her over the threshold and into the spy thriller. Who can she trust? Who's in the enemy camp? What happened to that dear old lady?

Hitchcock was a past master at building tension with very little, cinematic bricks without straw. A modern director uses flashy car chases and impossible parkour sequences; Hitchcock got the same result with two buses, one after the other, slowly traversing the countryside (Torn Curtain). This is where the interesting situation comes in, and Hitchcock was smart enough to realize that any situation can be interesting, under the right conditions.

With The Lady Vanishes, the interesting situation is the train journey. A few score strangers jammed together for hours, days at a time. A definite time limit - that train will eventually arrive at its destination, and once that happens, all chance of saving Miss Froy is gone. Mile after mile of unforgiving countryside, with nowhere to go, nowhere to turn for help.

Imagine for a moment a Night's Black Agents sequence where the agents are on the London Underground. They know there's an enemy agent on the train who wants to kill them, but they don't know who that agent is. It could be any one of the twenty-odd people in the carriage. So they wait. At Westbourne Park three people get off, two get on. The agents wait. Several more leave at Latimer Road. They wait. More get off at Shepherd's Bush, and now there are only half a dozen suspects left from the twenty-odd who were on board at Paddington. Of course, the agents could provoke a confrontation, but if they get it wrong then their cover's blown to no purpose. In the worst case, they might get a civilian killed. Hammersmith's coming up, the end of the line. If they wait till then, they may have a much better chance of telling the assassin from the commuters - but Hammersmith could be what the assassin's waiting for. They could get off the train before Hammersmith - but what if the assassin follows, mingling with the other passengers?

All this aboard an ordinary Hammersmith underground train. The Hammersmith and City runs hundreds of times a day, pretty much every day God sends. It takes about an hour. Imagine running a full hour of a game session where the agents have nothing to do but wonder - is it that kid? The old man? The woman with the baby carriage? Or, since it's vampires we're talking about, is the bastard hanging onto the roof waiting for me to get off?

A McGuffin. A situation. All that's wanted is tension, and we're off to the races. That tension, those thrills, don't have to come from gunfights or explosions. They can come from something as simple as a boy walking across London with a film cannister under his arm. What matters is, there are stakes - the explosion - and a definite timetable. If X doesn't happen by Y, then ...


Sunday, 3 November 2019

Vampire Trolls (NBA)

Does Dracula need an African troll factory?

Probably not … but ...

If you've been following the news, then you may have noticed Russian troll factories popping up again, as Facebook has closed down accounts linked to inauthentic Russian accounts across central Africa. These accounts were being used to influence leadership and political contests, and allegedly are linked to Russian troll magnate Yevgeny Prigozhin, who includes involvement with a PMC, Wagner Group, among his many hobbies. Wagner may, or may not, be a deniable branch of Russia's Ministry of Defense; the MoD and agencies like GRU have been very helpful to Wagner in the past. Prigozhin himself is a good friend of Vladimir Putin - so far as anyone can be said to be friends with Putin.

Troll factories are part of modern political and social life, now. Anything that pops up in your social media feed could be bait, or chum spread by those anonymous thousands of workers who get paid to tell lies.

At about the same time the Facebook story broke, a Polish journalist came out with their own version of life on the troll farm, and the kind of people who work in those misinformation factories:

'A majority of Cat@Net’s employees are understood to be disabled, allowing the company to derive substantial public subsidies from Poland’s National Disabled Rehabilitation Fund. According to the Reporters Foundation, the company has received about 1.5 million zloty (£300,000) from the fund since November 2015.

“Many of them are really good people – they are compassionate, they do charity work and engage in social activism in their spare time, but their disabilities mean that their employment opportunities are limited,” Pruszkiewicz told the Guardian. “For them it was just work and that’s it.”'

So, what would the Conspiracy do with a troll factory? What would Dracula want with one?

The answer's twofold, and part of it's obvious. The Conspiracy, and Dracula, need troll farms because they operate in the real world, and need to get influence over public figures, even governments. They're in it for the same reason Putin is - they want to make sure the right people are in power, and those opposed to them are publicly crushed. Is that journalist or political figure getting too close to the truth?  Is this government getting a little too bolshy, or is that President displaying an unwelcome independent streak? Time to unleash the dogs of social war.

That's the level of operation which won't really affect the agents, at least not directly. It does affect their bosses, though. Any Network ally or agency contact could get badly bruised or broken by the factories. Imagine what might happen if the Mr. Johnson the agents have been working with up till now suddenly has to deal with troll-inspired internet outrage!

But what about the agents, I hear you ask? How can I, a mere Director, get them with trolls?

Well, consider this: the agents work in the real world too. The high-level bring-down-governments stuff isn't for them, but there's plenty of other ways to troll people into submission, as the internet proves on a daily, even hourly basis. Ask yourself: what does it really mean to have pool points in Law, Occult Studies, Research, and especially High Society?

Ahh, High Society … that entrĂ©e into James Bond's shaken-not-stirred world. Anyone with points in High Society exists within High Society. At the very least, they have a milliWheaton's worth of followers on social media accounts. They are seen. Maybe they don't merit a full-color spread in the red tops, or an interview in Vogue, but if some Instagrammer's snapping candids at the club opening, there's a decent chance the agent will be in the background. Or even be the one taking the candids.

A similar but not identical case can be made for those with points in many of the academic abilities. Research is a small world. Anyone with points in that pool probably knows people in that world; they may even have been published in obscure academic journals. Military Science implies military experience, possibly at rank. Law suggests a former career as a lawyer, maybe even in an institution like the JAG or Crown Court. Remember how everyone seems to know James Bond, no matter where he goes? This is why.

If the agents have status, however they have it, that means they have something to lose.

As gamification, consider having Troll Attack as one of the Row One responses on the Conspyramid response sheet. It could be very applicable in Dust games in particular, where the emphasis is on nitty-gritty realism. As an effect, convert the characters' pool in the applicable Investigative ability into the equivalent in Heat gain. So an agent with 2 points High Society immediately gains 2 points Heat, which will remain so long as the internet furor is active. Putting a stop to the attack could provide the agent with Cherry-level Digital Intrusion a chance to shine!

As per p88 of the main book, the Director has the option of increasing this Heat gain depending on circumstances. Is the troll attack the equivalent of informing on the agents with the local law? That's a +1 gain. Did it reach the attention of the equivalent of the national media - ie. is it trending on Twitter or Facebook? That's a further +1 heat - and so on.

The troll attack could also be a very useful clue trail to somewhere the Director wants the agents to go next. 'Funny how all those troll attacks came from Wroclaw, Poland … I wonder if we should check into that.'

So, does the Conspiracy have a troll factory as a full-fledged Node? Eh … probably not. That's too much expensive talent to keep on the payroll for only occasional use. However troll factories are notoriously mercenary, and if there's one thing the Conspiracy's got a lot of, it's cash. It's not like the trolls will be asking questions either. The Poles looking to boost their income rather than survive on disability benefit definitely aren't asking questions.

Plus, the troll factory could link in nicely with the Conspiracy's ultimate goals. Does Dracula intend to gain control over Vladimir Putin, for instance? Then Dracula might choose to get at Putin through his dear friend Prigozhin ...