Sunday, 27 December 2020

Ripped from the Headlines: Ghost Boat Cocaine

Inspired by this Guardian article about an 18-foot fiberglass boat that washed up on the Marshall Islands, stuffed to the gunwales with cocaine, an $80 million haul. The Maritime Executive has a slightly longer version, with photographs.

Sourced from CNN via jonastur68

I've talked about ghost ships before. From North Korea's fishing boats to the Mary Celeste, pausing briefly to admire cruise ships stuffed with cannibal rats, derelicts infest the ocean blue. This one's a bit of a head-scratcher. You just don't take an 18-foot putt-putt far from shore. Not if you value your life and cargo, and someone must have valued this cargo if not the life of whichever shmuck was paid to pilot. Presumably it wasn't piracy, or the cargo would have vanished. 

So it was probably a coastal storm of some description, bad enough to wash the pilot overboard but not bad enough to sink the boat. Fiberglass is difficult to sink, but every other year here in Bermuda hurricanes prove that difficult is not the same thing as impossible. You regularly see boats sunk at their anchorage, perhaps a bit of the bimini sticking above the surface. The pilot almost certainly drowned, and if he didn't he must have wished he had. Explaining that sort of thing to the bosses is not an easy task.

The bit I like is at the end of the Guardian article:

University of Hawaii researchers conducted 16 computer simulations of drift patterns from the Mexico coast and found nearly all eventually arrived in the Marshall Islands.

The Maritime Executive has an interesting addition:

Some of these lost-and-found narcotics re-enter the supply chain: earlier this year, a resident of  remote Ailuk was caught and arrested after trying to board an airplane with three kilos of cocaine in his possession. The source, he told investigators, was from a different batch of lost "bricks." 

The Marshalls have been independent since 1986; before that it was part of the American-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, and before that it bounced from pillar to post in the usual that-colony's-mine-until-I-don't-want-it way that was so popular from the 1500s onwards. Before that it was one of the many islands settled by Micronesians, well before the birth of Christ. These days it's a parliamentary republic with an interest in fishing, selling flags of convenience to shipping companies, and bitcoin, not necessarily in that order. There's not a lot of ways to make money if you're the Marshall Islands. 

A little under 78,000 people live there, the vast majority being Marshallese. The islanders have their own language, but English is widely spoken. Median age is (roughly) 23, and the population mostly lives on the atolls of Majuro and Ebeye. The US takes care of defense and the Marshallese police take care of internal issues.

Past nuclear tests nearby have left a toxic legacy. While compensation has been granted it has not been paid, and some of the atolls are completely uninhabitable due to radiation poisoning. 

According to the CIA, no TV broadcast station; a cable network is available on Majuro with programming via videotape replay and satellite relays; 4 radio broadcast stations; American Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) provides satellite radio and television service to Kwajalein Atoll (2019). 

Roughly 40% of the island has internet access.

With all that in mind:

Lost and Gone (Fear Itself, Esoterrorists)

It ought to have been simple. When the boat drifted ashore with its load of cocaine at Ailuk, a remote and lightly-inhabited coral atoll about 200 nautical miles to the north of Majuro, the plan was to burn most of it and turn over a few bricks for the DEA to analyze. A couple agents were given the onerous task of flying over to collect - never let a chance for a visit to a semi-tropical paradise pass you by, must be the company motto. The bricks were supposed to be kept secure at the air base at Bucholtz, on  Kwajalein Island. 

Nobody knows where those bricks are. As for the ones that were supposed to be destroyed ... rumor has it that not all of those found their way into the incinerator. Each one's practically a pension for whoever has them. Bucholtz is being torn apart in the search for the two that were supposed to be there, and the cops who had possession of the rest are under intense scrutiny.

Meanwhile rumors are flying, strange lights are seen out at sea, and some fishermen say a new boat's been seen out on the water at night - one without a pilot, yet it seems to be getting about just fine.

  • Free Meal. The original pilot was attacked by a Skitch (Unremitting Horror) and killed, but that left the insect-like meat eater with a problem. Once the boat was out at sea, there were no ways to spread its eggs. The Skitch was at the very end of its life cycle when the boat drifted up to Ailuk, its carcass smeared across the deck. Some of it was snatched up by birds, some by rats and crabs, before the boat was discovered. These have slowly found their way back into the human food chain, through cats (who eat the rats and birds) or other means. The bit about the missing cocaine is a red herring; the real problem is the skitch eggs which are now spreading rapidly through the local population. 
  • Bad Trip. That wasn't cocaine. Perhaps it was Liao, perhaps something else, but whatever occult substance is in those bricks someone at Bucholtz knows what it really is. That person isn't a cultist nor yet trained in mystic arts but they know just enough to know how insanely valuable the stuff is. Far too valuable to go up in an incinerator. So this person arranged for the cops to hand over their supply and made sure the two bricks kept for the DEA went missing. Meanwhile they sent out feelers to people they knew in Hong Kong and Macau: does anyone want to take this stuff off my hands? Now the problem is how to keep everyone bribed and compliant long enough for someone who actually knows how to handle the drug to show up and take it away.
  • Bright Lights. The boat was targeted off the coast of Mexico by Something - say, Greys from Delta Green. Those same Greys tracked the boat all the way across the ocean, wanting to carry out an ocean drift patterns experiment of their own. Where would it end up? Now the Greys know, but evidently that wasn't the end of the experiment. Whatever it is, it's still hanging around in the skies above the Marshalls, dogging whoever came into contact with the boat or its cargo. The cops who stole a pension, the army guys who 'lost' a couple bricks of cocaine, they're all being tracked, abducted, experimented on, and returned to their ordinary lives - perhaps a little traumatized, otherwise fine. The question is, what do the Greys really want - and what will it take to persuade them to go away?
Enjoy, and Happy Holidays! I'm going to take a break for one week, so no Ephemera next Sunday. After that, we'll kick off the New Year - and may it be better than 2020! 

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Seven Kinds of Fruit Loops (Bookhounds of London)

Seven Kinds of People You Find In Bookshops (Shaun Bythell, Profile Books hardback, 2020 ed) is something I'm going to talk about in detail for a YSDC Bookshelf, but I also want to recommend it here for Bookhounds of London players and Directors. It is exactly what you'd expect from the title; a slightly misanthropic take on the kinds of customers often found infesting bookshops, antiquarian or otherwise. 

It reminds me of a similar book, An Innkeeper's Diary (John Fothergill, Chatto and Windus, 1931). Fothergill's a snooty crosspatch who, in 1922, 'found that I must do something for a living' and so became an Innkeeper. 'Here at last I thought I might still be myself and give to others something of what I had acquired before making this clean-cut departure from my past.'  Thoroughly miserable old fool that he was, he persisted, and became friend to the literary greats of the period. Every page turned I couldn't help but wonder why the hell Fothergill, who by any standard seems to have been a prime candidate for an atomic wedgie, stayed in a profession he obviously felt was beneath him. Shaun Bythell seems cut from the same cloth.

Understand, I'm not saying Bythell's a bad man, or, worse yet, a bad writer. I'm saying he exudes the kind of scruffy pomposity you often find in a university lecturer, and I'm not sure how much of that is his professional persona intended for public consumption, and how much natural tendency. Frankly, I doubt even he knows, with any certainty.

Video sourced from David R Godine

Yet Bythell persists, and has won fame and plaudits. Seven Kinds is the third he's published; the others are Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller

You can probably guess the kind of people Bythell's talking about but I wanted to bring this to your attention because of one chapter among the seven: Genus: Homo qui maleficas amat (Occultist). This is why I bought the book: I wanted to mine it for Bookhounds of London

Boy howdy, can you ever.

I'm not going to go through the whole thing. Technically I don't suppose it counts as spoilers, but it's much more fun if you read it for yourself. That said, what I do intend to do is use those descriptions as a stepping stone to create an NPC which you might use in the game. 

Let's begin.

Type one. Species: artifex maleficus (dark artist)

Always dressed completely in black, usually a bit overweight and invariably on a quest for books by Aleister Crowley, or something antiquarian with which they believe they can summon Mephistopheles.

The always dressed in black bit is a modern conceit. In the 1930s people didn't know what Goths were, unless they were sacking Rome, or claiming all the best spots by the pool with carefully placed towels. In game, Bohemian with a touch of Count Dracula is the better way to go. A bit of the fictional gypsy, all ribbons, bright colors and crystals.  

Martyn Bower

Description: gender a bit of a mystery, always wears red and often too tight over an ample front, never without jade cigarette holder, probably in their 20s though is the type who will look 16 forever.

Auction 4, Fleeing 6, Magic 4

You could set your clock by Martyn. On the second of the month, without fail, in they trot with a new list of wants. Somehow Martyn's always on the cusp; there's meant to be a maiden aunt out there somewhere who will drop off the twig any minute and leave Martyn all her money. Not that anyone's ever met this mystery aunt, mind. Until then Martyn lives off credit and great expectations. Martyn's pet subject is Demonology; give Martyn the slightest opportunity and Martyn will talk your ear off. To Martyn Demonology is a soap opera; Mephistophilis might be some rake cutting a broad swathe through the swooning females of Tartarus, Beelzebub the wicked uncle lording it over his downtrodden extended family. And you wouldn't believe what that crafty tart Lilith's been up to!

Type two. Species: homo qui conjurationes fervet (conspiracy theorist)

Although not strictly speaking an occultist, the conspiracy theorist shares with the dark artist the characteristic of credulously believing in something for which there is an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary.

Robin Lea

Description: wiry, mop of sandy hair, charming polite goofball who, without ever intending to, creates chaos all around. If there's an open bucket of paint on the floor, Robin's about to step in it.

Driving 4, Explosives 1, Firearms 2, Mechanical Repair 3.

Robin's the radical's radical, the red sheep of an otherwise solidly middle class family. He dreams of making a difference, of striking a blow for the downtrodden. He's convinced the enemy outside will destroy the nation, the enemy within will destroy the nation, the enemy above will destroy the nation, the enemy below haven't the slightest idea what's going on, and Robin is the only benevolent conspirator in London - if not the country. He's remarkably well informed on police procedure and if he was a character he'd have a high Cop Talk rating, so it should come as no surprise that his father's a chief inspector at Scotland Yard who devoutly wishes Robin would grow up and take life seriously. If you want to find Robin, look in someone else's bed; he's usually in it or hiding under it.

Type three. Species: homo qui cartas providas legit (tarot reader)

Gazing into crystal balls and predicting the futures of complete strangers on the basis of precisely nothing has traditionally been the exclusive preserve of bearded - or at least heavily mustachioed - middle-aged types of either gender.

Lucy Garland

Description: forbidding stick insect, forever prodding with her umbrella as if it were some form of proboscis. Avid collector of any and every variant of Tarot de Marseille and is never without at least one deck.

Auction 4, Filch 2, Magic 2

Lucy knows. Nobody's quite sure what she knows, but she knows. She has that ineffable air of mystery that comes with being a fortune teller, and her client list is really quite stunning. Not just the great and good, but also the peculiar and the downright criminal consult her. She's as well known in the East End as she is the West, and her boast is she never judges anyone's behavior, sexual habits or larcenous tendencies. A client is a client, and their confidence is treated with the utmost respect. Many people wonder what this Victorian remnant does for fun. She's never been seen to drink, smoke, or indulge in any vice, nor has she ever been married - as far as anyone knows. Rumors abound. If every story's to be believed she's actually led a debauched life with six husbands, four wives (including a Duke's daughter), and currently sleeps in a coffin in an East End opium den - but you shouldn't put your stock in stories.  

Type four. Species: venator umbrorum (ghost hunter)

A YouGov survey in 2014 revealed that more people in the UK believe in ghosts than describe themselves as religious (34% and 26%, respectively).

Jacob D'Aster

Description: Craggy with a touch of aristocratic frost, full crimson vampiric lips, eyes that cut like razors. Particularly interested in anything to do with ghosts or Enochian practice. Never without his bag of tricks, which is full of odds and sods - it always seems to contain what he needs when he needs it.

Auction 2, Fleeing 4, Magic 2, Scuffling 6, Weapons 4

It's funny how D'Aster can become Astor at a moment's notice. Not that Jacob's a member of the illustrious banking and political clan, heavens no. He would never trade on anyone's mistaken belief that he's worth thousands, if not millions. That would be beneath him. Yet for whatever reason all sorts of people think he's minted, absolutely rolling in the spondoolicks, and Jacob never troubles to correct them. He might live in a drafty East End garret, but he'll never be anything less than the Lord of the Manor. He's even fought a duel, they say, defending a lady's honor. That was before the vampire incident in Highgate Cemetery. Ever since, Jacob's had almost a monomania about the place. If ever you want him, that's where you're most likely to find him.   

Type five. Species: homo artificii studiosus (craft enthusiast)

Although not technically an occultist, the craft enthusiast shares many of the characteristics of some of the subsets, most notably the tarot reader's dress sense.

Larry Tinston

Description: Your five-year-old younger brother, except he's twenty four and twice as annoying. His day job's at St Bart's and somehow his clothes are always spotted with gore or chemical burns, never mind that odd antiseptic smell that follows on his heels, more faithful than any hound. People always forget he was a boxing blue (Fist +0 damage).

Auction 1, Fleeing 3, First Aid 4, Scuffling 8

Everybody knows Larry. It's impossible not to know the man - he barges into every conversation, whether he knows who's talking or not. He assumes you're the best of friends, despite any evidence to the contrary. Which can be unfortunate, as Larry's true love is trains. He's a member in very good standing of the MRC (Modern Railway Club) King's Cross and his modelling skills are second to none (effective Craft 4). He will talk the hind legs off two donkeys and a nun, if given the slightest encouragement. Some do. Those with Megapolisomatic interests have noticed Larry's models can give magical bonuses to any working involving trains. Nobody knows why, least of all Larry, to whom any esoteric discussion is so much piffle. People have been known to pay Larry good money for his models, just to help them carry out some mystic scheme or other. Funny thing; nobody ever tries it twice. They say Larry's models give them peculiar dreams ...


Sunday, 13 December 2020

Rats, Rats, Rats as Big as Cats (GUMSHOE all)

 In the Quartermaster's store ... or in this case, a Manhattan Chipotle outlet.

Video sourced from PIX11 News

Rats have been a horror staple for I couldn't even tell you how long. Some of our most effective horror writers have used them with great success. James Herbert turned feral human-devouring rats into a trilogy which ended with them munching on a thinly disguised Maggie Thatcher. Herbert turned those rats into a career, and became one of the grand masters of horror as a consequence. 

Bram Stoker wrote one of his most effective horror shorts, The Judge, about a rat-infested house, and of course our dear friend Dracula has a close relationship with rodents - so close that Stephen King  borrowed the idea for Salem's Lot. He created a moment so hideous that his agent insisted he cut it from the narrative; I had them swarming all over him like a writhing, furry carpet, biting and chewing, and when he tries to scream a warning to his companions upstairs, one of them scurries into his open mouth and squirms as it gnaws out his tongue said King.

M.R. James once pulled a very sneaky blinder by titling a short story Rats, leading with a quote from Charles Dickens about bedclothes a-heaving with the rats under them, only to immediately forswear rats entirely and write the story about something else. Deceitful old soul that he was. 

New York is obsessed with rodents in a way I can't recall encountering anywhere else. Whenever someone posts a video about rats dragging away slices of pizza, people dressed in rat costumes wandering about in subway stations, giant inflatable rats posted at Union protests, I don't even bother asking which city. It's always New York. One of my favorite zombie movies is a rat zombie film, set in New York's Mulberry Street, made on a shoestring and remarkably well put together.

Sourced from The Palace of Horror

Why rats? Again, King has the answer.

I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.

Rats, and vermin in general, are easy gross-outs. Just having them appear in the scene is enough to get a lot of people shaking in their khakis. One rat's bad enough - so let's have two, three, a dozen. They make us feel vulnerable, and where a kaiju or some larger creature terrifies though size and ferocity, rats do the same and worse by making us feel small.

One of James Herbert's most effective moments, which appeared in the film adaptation, comes when the rats swarm a baby. In the film you never see the body but that's definitely not the case in the novel. Herbert looks that moment square on, as if there was a camera put right over the cradle. The family dog does its best but is quickly overwhelmed, and soon after that the child's torn apart. Which is how rats make us feel - tiny, defenseless, vulnerable.

Bear in mind, that's all aroundabout page 20. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. 

See, you can fight a wolf. You can hunt a bear, catch a shark. Rats, on the other hand, are like zombies - the weight of numbers is on their side. Kill one, there are ten more. Kill ten, there are a hundred. You can never kill them all. As for running ...

When I speak of poor Norrys they accuse me of a hideous thing, but they must know that I did not do it. They must know it was the rats; the slithering, scurrying rats whose scampering will never let me sleep; the daemon rats that race behind the padding in this room and beckon me down to greater horrors than I have ever known; the rats they can never hear; the rats, the rats in the walls. H.P. Lovecraft

It doesn't help that rats are pretty much contemptuous of us humans. They'll invade our spaces, wander though our kitchens, our bedrooms as they please, when they please. They'll attack us, bite us, where another animal might run. A cornered rat will bite a cat, it's said. To fight like a cornered rat is to fight with utmost ferocity, no holds barred. 

The Quartermaster's Store, that cheerful ditty, may pre-date the Great War but it certainly became popular then, and no surprise. The War had more than its fair share of rat stories. 


Entropy (n) lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder. As symbolism goes, you can't get better than rats. Look at what happened at the Chipotle: wires destroyed, stock eaten, staff injured, a decline into disorder that leads inevitably to destruction - or in this case, closure. 

So any scenario involving rats ought to be reinforcing that theme: disorder, decline, unpredictability. 

With all that in mind:

The Nest

The characters are asked to go to X and recover Y. For purposes of this outline it doesn't matter what X or Y actually are. Y is valuable enough to send some poor shmucks to go get it, and X is a place that once was quite nice and now is not. It could be a subway station. an airport, a fine mansion on the hill. Or none of these things. 

The previous occupant(s) were less than cleanly. Maybe it was an aged packrat (eh? ehhh?) who piled everything up until trash overwhelmed them. Maybe it was squatters, or some eccentric billionaire who forgot how to take showers and clip their toenails. Whoever it was, they left a lot of stuff behind, some of which is valuable. That's apart from whatever Y is worth; extra loot, which the characters might carry away for themselves.

Then they find the bones. At first it's animals; cats, dogs, relatively ordinary creatures whose corpses were dragged inside and flung into a midden. It's unusual behavior for unintelligent animals; people create middens all the time, octopi also, but it's rarer for other creatures. 

Then they start finding human remains, picked clean. Some were transients, people who probably came here for shelter. Others may have been ambushed and brought here; kids, city workers, people who got too close. Somehow they were dragged here after death, their bodies carefully hidden away.

Then they find the holes, the tunnels that lead downward, ever downward.


  • The rats are being channeled or powered by a minor supernatural or Outer Dark entity; a ghost, say, or some kind of dybbuk. This spirit has inhabited the decaying flesh of one of the corpses and so long as that corpse isn't buried or otherwise dealt with, the rats will keep coming back.
  • The rats are being controlled by a different kind of rat, perhaps one with multiple heads (credit to James Herbert for that one.) This super-rat has psychic control over their lesser brethren, a kind of Queen status. It can't move very quickly so if the characters find this rat they should be able to kill it - provided they can get past all the other rats.
  • The problem is X. Wherever or whatever X is, it's not a place as we understand the term. It's entropy manifest. It started small, perhaps one room in a much larger structure, but over time entropy infested everything, took over the complete building, with unfortunate consequences for the people who lived/worked there. There may not be a way to defeat it, but there ought to be a way to contain it for now. Later, someone with more smarts or resources can actually destroy it. You hope ...


Sunday, 6 December 2020

Heath Robinson Assassination (Night's Black Agents)

 From the Guardian, concerning the recent assassination of scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Iran:

“The operation was very complex and took place using electronic devices, and no one was present at the scene,” [Ali Shamkhani, secretary for Iran's supreme national security council] told Iranian media ... 

A [Fars news agency] report said Fakhrizadeh and his wife were travelling in a bulletproof car along with three vehicles for bodyguards when gunfire hit his car. Fakhrizadeh exited the car to check the damage, the report said, speculating that he may have thought he had hit something.

“At this moment, from a Nissan car that was stopped 150 metres away from the martyr’s car, several shots were fired at the martyr from an automatic remote-controlled machine gun,” the [Fars] report said, adding that one bullet hit his back.

“Moments later, the same stopped Nissan exploded,” it said, adding that the owner of the car, which it did not identify, had left the country a month ago. It said the weapons may have been controlled by satellite.

The Iranian state-owned broadcaster Press TV cited unidentified “informed sources” as saying remnants from the attack showed Israeli arms had been used to kill Fakhrizadeh.

My first reaction: that seems needlessly complicated. 

Think about all you'd have to arrange for this to happen. You'd have to smuggle in some fairly sophisticated equipment, get someone with above-average technical expertise to put it all together (don't forget whoever-it-is needs to be a demolitions expert as well as a mechanical genius), transport all that kit to the hit site and pray Fakhrizadeh chooses exactly that route. Since he's an assassination target you've got to figure he changes his driving route constantly to avoid becoming an easy target, so good luck with that. Hopefully your sources on the inside can give you Fakhrizadeh's route so you don't have to rely on blind luck. 

You probably can't afford to leave the Nissan in place for longer than a few hours, so this all has to be done quickly as well as discreetly. Presumably you have to have a Plan B in case this doesn't work and you have to retrieve the Nissan and its gear to try again tomorrow. You'd then have to remotely control all that sophisticated equipment and do it in such a way that you can adjust the kill shot in case Fakhrizadeh doesn't obligingly stand exactly where you want him to. You then have to carry off the operation flawlessly and extract whoever it was that put all that equipment together. As assassinations go, this technical masterpiece makes the aerosol murder of Kim Jong-nam look like amateur hour.

Incidentally, jolly good luck on the shooter's part that not only did Fakhrizadeh get out of his bulletproof car and stand out in the open like a complete fool, but also his bodyguards didn't immediately intervene and drag the idiot under cover. Three vehicles, assume four people per vehicle - that's twelve bodyguards, any one of whom could have saved his life. Did Fakhrizadeh habitually bail out of his protective vehicle? Is that why his bodyguards weren't quick off the bat - were they used to his antics? Was he deliberately lured out? Otherwise this seems like an incredibly lucky break, worthy of Gavrilo Princip.

For those keeping score, the effective range of a heavy machine gun is well over 150m, so no problems there. An SMG would have an effective range of about 200m, so accurate shooting's getting a bit complicated and in any case an SMG would have next to no chance of penetrating the bullet-resistant car. An assault rifle's effective range is about 400m more or less, but has a similar problem with bullet resistance - and remember this all has to happen in a matter of seconds, because the target will rabbit as soon as the threat's obvious. 

So if this happened at all the Nissan presumably had a mounted HMG of some description, since the shooter couldn't count on Fakhrizadeh getting out of the car and the HMG has the best chance of being able to eat through the car's resistance to hit the target. Even then, the odds aren't great - unless the target gets out of the car and obligingly provides the perfect opportunity.

Video sourced from JerryRigEverything

Incidentally I cry bullshit on that claim Israeli armaments were used to carry out the attack. It might have been the Israelis, but if it was not even the most idiotic of spies uses easily identifiable home-manufactured equipment. It'd be like James Bond parachuting in with a Union Jack chute. 

Spy Who Loved Me clip

I can't help thinking it would have been easier to smuggle in a couple gunmen, purchase equipment on the ground, and hit the target the old-fashioned way. It sounds more like something I'd see in an NCIS Los Angeles plotline than a real-life Iranian assassination. After all, if your whole plan hinges on the target being kind enough to get out of the car and present you with a kill shot it really doesn't matter whether you're using Robocar or someone with a reasonably accurate rifle.

If you're wondering whether I can get past that, no, I really can't. This whole scheme would probably have gone down the crapper if Fakhrizadeh hadn't gotten out of the car. So why the hell did he? People do stupid things, but you've got to figure he'd been told again and again that staying in the car was the best policy - he's a prime target, after all. Did he really care that much if the paintwork on his company car got dinged?

That said, if the Wire Rats in your Night's Black Agents game aren't paying close attention to this theory then they just aren't trying hard enough.

Heath Robinson was a cartoonist who specialized in ridiculous, over-complicated mechanical devices; his American equivalent, and spiritual successor, is Rube Goldberg. The NBA support book Double Tap gives Achievement rules, in which:

  • when an agent meets the criteria for an achievement
  • and the player provides a colorful bit of roleplaying or hot-dogging
  • the agent gets a 3-point refresh of whichever General ability seems most appropriate
From that:

Heath Robinson Assassination. Carry out an assassination completely remotely, by using remote-control equipment of some complexity. No fair just exploding a bomb with your cell phone; get creative with your kill shot.

The Double Tap cherry Trapmaster is the closest equivalent to any cherry I might devise to cover this situation. I'm not about to reinvent the wheel.

However there is another possibility: Distance Shooter. The Wire Rat can use Mechanics pool for Shooting tests when using a remotely controlled rifle or similar weapon. I'm a little leery of this. It requires some prior assembly, and it kinda feels as if the Wire Rat's stealing the team sniper's thunder, but it does have that quasi-Cyberpunk feel that the best Wire Rat ought to be able to manage.   

If I were assigning Difficulty to this task I would add 3 for every element of the task, on the presumption that the more moving parts involved the more opportunities there are for failure. So in this instance there are at least three elements of the task:

  1. Placement/assembly of the assassination weapon. (You could split that into two elements, for greater Difficulty).
  2. Remote control of the assassination weapon.
  3. Remote viewing of the target.
That makes the total Difficulty 9. Tag-Team Tactical Benefits or Tactical Fact-Finding can help reduce that Difficulty to an acceptable level, or add in points to help the Wire Rat hit the difficulty. 


Sunday, 29 November 2020

Campaign Design: The Fruit (Night's Black Agents)

 The myth of pure evil is the belief that evil exists separately from individuals, or that evil exists within people as something like what we traditionally think of as an evil 'force', driving them to perform evil acts. If pure evil exists, however, then how can we hold people accountable for their actions? ... if evil does exist, then will we always be plagued with violence, war, genocide, crime, rape and other evils? Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil. 

Time Bandits, by Terry Gilliam

A Damned Stakes Tree bears Damned Stakes fruit. The antagonists' power and goals must reflect the core concept, as must the overall mood, as must the initial arc and Conspyramid. Last week we laid the groundwork; this week we see the result. 

The interesting thing about pure evil is that it implies so much about the way the universe works, and how we interact with the universe as people. In that world there is an actual thing - it might even have physical substance - which is separate from us and which is responsible for everything we abhor. Were it not for this pure evil there would be no violence, war, genocide, crime, rape, and a host of other things. We would remain as we were in the Garden. 

Instead we bumble about, occasionally stumbling into pure evil and getting fried alive. Moreover since pure evil is literally everywhere it's impossible to avoid stumbling into it. The aftershock is cataclysmic. Death, destruction, turmoil - these are Evil's hallmarks. 

Bruce Eder once wrote of Time Bandits:

The plans of David Warner’s Evil Genius take the form of building without purpose—he intends to re-create a world to suit his own needs, starting with computers and fast-breeder reactors ... in sharp contrast to the Time Bandits, who created trees and shrubbery before they got above their station. Kevin’s parents reveal themselves as unknowing and uncaring agents of Evil with their fixation on blind consumption, the mortal corollary to the Evil Genius’s desire for construction for its own sake. Their fate—utter destruction as a consequence of ignoring their son’s warnings—makes for the perfect denouement

The implication being that there is an order, a design, created by a Supreme Being to whom Evil Genius is always in opposition. Where the Supreme Being plans for A, Evil Genius goes straight to Z. From shrubbery to the atom bomb, with no means of stopping this headlong progression to despair. 

So what does this mean for the campaign?

It means the Conspiracy's endgame must always be Damned Stakes, but it goes further than that. The agents should always be reminded of what will happen should they fail, and that means wherever they turn, whatever they do, there is Pure Evil, the charred rock in the microwave that destroys anything it touches. The people they trust are seduced or destroyed by Pure Evil. The institutions, the Symbols they revere are corrupted by Pure Evil. Every campaign arc should remind them of this, either because Pure Evil won or because they managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at the last minute. 

This is Stakes, after all. The agents aren't playing at the low roller table. It's fate-of-nations time. If Jason Statham doesn't pull off something pretty nifty then hundreds of thousands of people suffer. 

Against them are the Vampires, and this time the bloodsuckers want it all. They're agents of Pure Evil, which means they exist outside the established order and actively oppose it. There's no question as to their motives or their methods. Wherever they are, death, destruction and despair follow. If a vampire establishes a lair in, say, an apartment building, then soon afterward everyone in the building suffers for it. The vampire doesn't have to do anything to make that happen. The vampire is Pure Evil. Just being there is enough to ruin lives. 

There is also some form of Pure Good, the Ralph Richardson to David Warner's Evil Genius. Distant, unknowable, imperious - but it's there. Else those crucifixes wouldn't work, as Banes. For Holy Water to have any kind of function, there must be something Holy out there to give it strength. That said, even with Pure Good there are still wars, violence, despair. The agents can't rely on Pure Good to ride in like the cavalry and save the day.

Of course, it might be interesting if the crucifix didn't work ... 

OK, all that being said, it's time to talk specifics.

The antagonists' power and goals must reflect the core concept.

Since this is Damned Stakes, the antagonists must be Pure Evil and be trying to achieve Stakes-level goals - something cataclysmic for the world as a whole, and possibly more than the world. Storming the gates of Heaven, that sort of thing.

As must the overall mood.

Every single scenario has got to drive this home, on the micro and macro level. Everything the vampires touch turns to pure evil. They do not create; they seduce, then destroy. There should be at least one reminder of this per scenario, whether it be an NPC brought low, an institution, or a nation.

As must the initial arc and Conspyramid.

So much to choose from ... 

Well, since we're talking Damnation and that's usually a theosophical conversation, it seems reasonable to start with religion. We need something that has at least an outpost or a history in every major location we want to use in the campaign. Something rife with scandal that can be exploited for plot.

Sounds like the Catholic Church will fit that bill nicely. 

The Church's scandals are many and various, but Vati-leaks and its financial misdeeds are perhaps the most plot-useful. People tend to forget that the Church is rich and has an established, impressive diplomatic corps. Imagine what the Conspyramid could do if it could put its chosen representative in control of the Section for General Affairs.

The Vati-Leaks scandal, briefly, began when a highly placed official leaked information to the press claiming that Catholic construction project tenders were wildly overpriced, suggesting corruption and bribery. The Pope, Benedict XVI, appointed a team of highly-placed clergy to uncover the source of the leaks, and one of the consequences of this investigation was the discovery of hitherto unsuspected financial misdeeds. In 2012 the Pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, was given a reduced sentence of 18 months for supplying confidential documents to journalists. The butler claimed he did so to combat corruption within the Church, and rather than spend actual time in prison he was allowed to serve his time within the Vatican itself. Rumor had it this was because everyone feared he'd spill more secrets if he was kept in a state-run institution. Pope Benedict resigned shortly thereafter, becoming the first Pope in more than 700 years to do so. Before he resigned, he made sure to pardon his butler. Paolo Gabriele died in 2020 at the age of 54, after a long illness. 

From a Guardian article written at the time of Gabriele's arrest:

Investigators searching through the "chaotic" collection of stolen papal letters found in Gabriele's apartment at the Vatican also found gifts meant for Pope Benedict, including a cheque for €100,000 (£78,00), a gold nugget and a 16th century copy of the Aeneid.

Gabriele's lawyer, Carlo Fusco, said the cheque had ended up between the letters by mistake and that Gabriele had not sought to cash it. Gabriele told investigators he had borrowed the copy of the Aeneid to show his son's school teacher and intended to give it back.

In another Guardian article: 

When one officer said documents were found with the phrase "to be destroyed" written in German – the language of Bavaria-born Benedict, Gabriele smiled.

The search turned up documents that had been published in Nuzzi's book. "For us that was the first proof," said Stefano de Santis.

Police from the tiny city state's police force also recalled finding documents about masking mobile phone calls and a large number of computer USBs.

Police inspector Stefano Carli said there were more than 1,000 documents relevant to the investigation, and these were hidden among other documents, which a second officer said totalled tens of thousands.

If ever there was an excuse for Conspyramid shenanigans, this is it. You've got everything from ancient, crumbling texts to computer files, fiddled financial records and gold nuggets, and a scandal that goes right to the Pope. On top of all that you have a high-ranking Vatican official, now disgraced, who's on his deathbed and might be looking for a way to cheat the reaper.

So, the first arc begins with, let's say, an Italian journalist whose recent work threatens to expose yet another Vati-leaks. Is Pope Francis trying to keep his predecessor's misdeeds a secret, or is there something worse hidden behind the cover-up? Does the former Pope's disgraced butler still have some of his old boss' papers hidden away, or does he perhaps have some more esoteric tomes in a bank vault? Why is the Enigmatic Monsignor spending so much time at the bankers' Klopstock & Billreuth, and does it have anything to do with those old accusations of money laundering?  All of which is leading up to that moment after the funeral, when the agents get to find out whether the butler shall rise again ...

Stakes: vast sums of money, corruption at an intra-national level, the potential ruination of a Pope with all the damage that implies to an institution that claims 1.8 billion baptized worshippers worldwide. 

The Fruit: damaged lives, for a start. Destroyed faith. Churches, once revered, falling into decay. Symbols tarnished, solace gone. That's before you consider the many, many murders that could result from a Conspyramid like this. The potential for Mafia nodes, which spirals off into all kinds of plot possibilities. 

Perhaps more importantly though is the potential for seduction, which is one of Damned's signifiers. Seduction of the good, the great, the beneficent. Honest people who want only to do what is best, whose efforts are perverted into the service of a vast money-making machine. The cop who believes in the law, overpowered and ultimately subsumed into a cause that believes itself above the law. The spy who believes she's doing what's best for her country, only to discover that the organization she works for is part of the cover-up. 

The Damned Stakes Tree bears Damned Stakes Fruit.


Sunday, 22 November 2020

Campaign Design: The Tree (Night's Black Agents)

There are some guiding principles to any campaign design, and this week I want to start applying them to Night's Black Agents. Before I do, let's go over some of the basics:

Power, and goals. The antagonists need both to be effective. 

Overall mood. Any scenario, any event needs to be true to the mood of the campaign as a whole.

Initial Arc and Conspyramid. The first story you tell and the Conspyramid's initial Nodes should reflect the power and goals of the antagonists as well as the overall mood of the game as a whole.

I'm going to add one more bit of guidance to those three principles:


Yes, I know that sounds gnomic. Consider: Nights Black Agents can be played in several different ways. Mutant, Supernatural, Alien, Damned are the main headers, with subheadings Dust, Burn, Mirror and Stakes. These combine in several different ways: Mutant Dust, Damned Stakes, Supernatural Mirror and so on. 

Night's Black Agents explicitly tells the Director this at the start, but most RPGs of whatever stripe - Cyberpunk RED, say - can be run in much the same way. Cyberpunk isn't as explicit in its genre tropes; Mike Pondsmith doesn't make a distinction between, say, Dust and Stakes. However for you, the Director, it makes sense to identify specific tropes of the genre early on and stamp them onto your campaign. 

Exactly what those tropes are is up to you. For reasons that ought to be obvious you should stick to four core ideas and decide which of them best suits the game you want to run. More than four gets difficult to organize. 

Using Cyberpunk as an example, let's say that of the core concepts we could potentially be going with we end up using Crapsack World. Thus: A Crapsack World tree bears Crapsack World fruit.

This means everything important that happens in the game world, whether it happens to the characters or not, is fruit of the Crapsack World. It is part of that world; it reflects its core principles. It is always Crapsack. 

Black Lagoon, for instance, is very much this. The whole concept of Roanapur is Crapsack central. This is where the characters live, and perhaps die. Even the nuns have guns and deal drugs. Everyone's an enemy. That noose hanging above the only bridge leading to Roanapur is your only warning.


Similarly, a Damned tree bears Damned fruit, a Supernatural Tree bears Supernatural fruit, and so on. If you add a qualifier, say Dust, then a Damned Dust tree bears Damned Dust fruit, and so on. The Damned Dust world is always Damned Dust. Everything that happens within that world reflects that core concept. 

Overall mood is a large part of this. Every event in the game has to be true to the overall mood. A swords and sorcery game, like Swords of the Serpentine, has to have a swords and sorcery vibe. You don't play swords and sorcery the same way you do cyberpunk. 

However the key point I'm drilling down to is this: the tree goes beyond mood, because it describes not just the present but also the future. Ideally, this is the future the heroes are trying to prevent. They are subverting the core concept and trying to replace it with something else - anything else, really. That's their struggle. They're trying to prevent that tree from bearing fruit.

Say this was a James Bond film. Bond represents a certain point of view, a set of tropes that almost by definition are opposed to the core concept. The Core Concept, as represented by Blofeld, Goldfinger, or whoever it may be, is usually chaos of some description, the precise nature of which changes from film to film. Bond is trying to subvert that Core Concept and replace it with his own. If this were a cyberpunk film with a Crapsack World core concept then the main characters would be trying to subvert that Crapsack World and replace it with something of their own. 

Let's start applying the guidance and see what happens next.

A CORE CONCEPT tree bears CORE CONCEPT fruit. This is a Night's Black Agents game, so the core concepts are helpfully defined for us. Let's go with Damned Stakes, thus: A Damned Stakes tree bears Damned Stakes fruit.

From the main book:

Damned: Their markers are holy symbols and symbolism; their emphasis is seduction. Starting in the 17th century, most literary and legendary vampires are damned.

Stakes: Although more common in earlier spy fiction than now, some spy stories play for higher stakes. The characters derive their actions from a higher purpose than mere survival or “get the job done” ethics: patriotism, the search for knowledge, protection of the innocent, or even justified revenge. This is the world of James Bond and Jack Ryan, of Tim Powers’ novel Declare, of films like Taken, of TV shows like Burn Notice.

The antagonists' power and goals must reflect the core concept, as must the overall mood, as must the initial arc and Conspyramid. All of these things must be Damned Stakes. Power and goal = Damned Stakes, mood = Damned Stakes, and so on. Moreover all these things are trending towards an ultimate endgame which itself is, you guessed it, Damned Stakes. Your agents are playing with the fate of nations (stakes) and if they fail then everyone's damned. 

So we're creating antagonists whose power and goals reflect this, creating a mood that reinforces this, designing a conspyramid intended to create this, and writing an initial arc in which the heroes are brought face-to-face with damnation and made very aware of the stakes.

Next week: the fruit, and thus the antagonists and first campaign arc.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Welcome to RED, Choomba (Cyberpunk)


Source: Movieclips (Kino)

Source: Filmviewed (Rintaro)

I've been a Cyberpunk fan for a very long time. Back in the day I had most of the books and picked up the ones I didn't have second-hand at UK conventions. My collection's pretty complete now, but I haven't played in years. When they announced a new, revised edition (with Mike Pondsmith as a leading light, no less) I was all for it.

Cyberpunk 2020, for those who haven't played, can broadly be described as Metropolis plus Metropolis plus post-apocalypse, with a dash of William Gibson. Everything was shiny and new until it wasn't. Now you have to survive in a world where survival is the lesser of two evils. There are all kinds of fancy toys to make survival bearable - or at least achievable. Ultimately the larger question is, will you strive to make the world better, or bring the temple crashing down?

The game's credo could be boiled down to three sentences: style over substance, attitude is everything, and live on the edge. Cyberpunk wasn't about its mechanics. It was about its setting and its players, which made it significantly different from its peers. Its first edition was published in 1988; there was no Vampire then, nor was there a White Wolf, the big boy on the block was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and every other game system peeped about under its huge legs looking for dishonorable graves. Games then were all about stats, mechanics, dice; if you didn't have at least twenty complicated charts in the opening chapter, you couldn't call yourself an RPG.

Mechanically the old Cyberpunk was Skill plus Stat plus 1D10 versus a Difficulty number, and that Difficulty went up or down depending on circumstance and bonuses. Because of the sheer number of variables calculating that Difficulty could be tricky, particularly since you, as Referee, had to put it all together on the fly most of the time. However it wasn't a million miles away from the systems we use now in Gumshoe, where pool points plus 1D6 versus a Difficulty number means the vampires get you, or they don't. You can also have opposing rolls, where the enemy's die roll provides the Difficulty you have to beat, and if you don't you get smacked round the noggin. Or something along those lines.

The biggest difference, mechanically speaking, between Cyberpunk and the games that were published alongside it was this mechanic didn't really change, ever. No complicated tables. No feature creep. Whereas AD&D and Vampire made it their business to stuff in tables every other page and creep that feature with every new supplement; it was Dr. Strangelove on steroids, with new rules, new roles, new toys parachuted in all the time, everyone chasing the mineshaft gap.

If you bought a Cyberpunk supplement, on the other hand, you were getting about ten pages of setting and inspiration for every two pages of rules. Nor were these new character archetypes, new feats, new Disciplines. They were add-ons to the existing, changing little. You never had the Unearthed Arcana Cavalier problem, where some ill-thought-out idea dumped ten tons of heavily armed and armored horseshit into your campaign. If you pick up Home of the Brave, the US setting book, and start at the beginning there are about sixteen pages of text before you get to the first rules entry, and even that's just stats for an NPC - not new stats or new cyberware, just the basic stats everyone gets.

Artwise the old books - particularly the first ones - were pretty cheap. The cover was new color art, but the interior was, at best, pencil. Scattered among the pages were black & white photos meant to convey the setting through character portraits - i.e. the writers' buddies with shades on, or an old phone cord draped over their neck to look as if they were jacked into the network. 

Now CD Projekt RED's working on a video game release due to arrive at some point in the next X decades, and while it does look cool I've no real desire to play it. When it comes to RPGs I prefer tabletop, or at least Discord chat.

However the tabletop version came out on PDF yesterday ...

Setting-wise the game is pretty much as it was before. Details have changed, but broadly speaking the world went to hell in a handbasket back in the 1990s, the Middle East gets nuked flat in 1997-ish, and corporations begin asserting their authority through armed conflict. This all comes to a head in the early 2020s with what the setting calls the Time of the Red, where thanks to a combination of unfortunate circumstances the skies go crimson for two years. Things trot merrily along from that neo-Biblical event, and by the time the game's present day rolls around the corporations aren't as powerful as they were, Europe's licking its wounds, the Highriders up in space have declared themselves an independent territory and backed up this claim with lethal force, and the (dis)United States are pulling themselves out of the rubble. More or less. The rest of the planet is just trying to catch a breath, thank you very much. 

Yes, there are Artificial Intelligences. They don't like you. Move along, citizen.

Mechanically the game is very much as it was before. Skill plus Stat plus 1D10 versus a Difficulty number. This should make it easier to convert the old material to the new game, if you (like me) have a dozen or so of the old sourcebooks taking up space on your game shelf. 

Netrunning was one of the big features of the old game, and both in terms of mechanics and style it worked a lot like those slightly ridiculous sci-fi movies did back in the day: more psychobabble than technobabble.

Which is what gave hacking its charm, really. I mean, who wouldn't want to live in a world where Toontown is a thing, and you can go there in person? Problem being, this made Netrunners all but a solo class. The Referee'd spend half an hour or so resolving the Runner's many actions while the rest of the team sat around eating cold pizza, trying not to chew their own arms off in frustration.

Well, Netrunning has changed - except not really. The NET is dead - except not really. 

Mechanically it's the same as ever, broadly speaking. Stat plus Skill plus 1D10 versus Difficulty, or an opposed roll, depending on circumstances. The better a Runner you are, the more net actions you have and therefore the more things you can do when jacked in. The old system used more fuzzy logic than mechanics to resolve this, so the change is welcome. 

Rather than enter some kind of fantasy land now the Runner puts on special glasses which allows them to see the real world's underlying technical architecture. The Runner has the choice between taking a Meat Action or as many Net Actions as her technical ability can provide. The language used, the ICE, is all much as it was before. That said, I suspect the old Netrunner solo game problem will rear its ugly head again, and the rest of the team will take a back seat while the Runner calls the play.

Without going through the whole shmear line by line, the Netrunning chapter - and most of the others - are a lot more rulesy than the old game. There are mechanics now where words were before. The rules are still pretty simple, but the ten page to two page ratio no longer applies.   

Stats are broadly the same. The original had nine stats bought and paid for with a points system. This has ten stats which can be generated several different ways. Attractiveness is no longer a thing; DEX and Willpower are. Generally as with all things in the new system this is more rulesy than before, but much better organized and probably easier for new players to understand. It feels less player-facing and more dice oriented, which may be a problem if you or your players prefer player-facing games. But that's a flavor issue, and your mileage may vary.

The Agent is your new cell phone. The old game had a lot of 1980s-era tics; the cell phone, for one thing, was still a massive brick. The new game has 2020s tics, which probably means than when 2030 rolls along we'll all be having a quiet giggle at how quaint the Cyberpunk RED tech is. Be that as it may, your Agent controls your life. It's your public face. It manages the media you watch, the social media you participate in, speaks in a voice of your choosing and has whatever face you desire. I'm sure nothing but good can come from that. 

There are still Data Terminals and Screamsheets, which means print media is still a thing in 2045. It all works a little differently than before, but fills the same function and can be accessed in broadly the same way. You can still buy kibble and guns, and they're still called kibble and guns. It's just that there are a lot more charts than there were before, so the Referee can determine most things by quick random roll. I suspect, as is the fate of most charts, once the Referee gets used to the system the charts will be ignored and the Referee will just decide on the fly what's available when. 

Cyberware! Ahh, the old reliable ...

Sourced from XGP OST.

Of course cyberware's a big thing in this game. What are you, some kind of fruit loop? Moreover it works pretty much as it always has. Buy tech toys, install tech toys, watch your Humanity melt away. Install too much and your brain goes bye-bye. But you have to install something, or you'll be at a disadvantage when the booster gangs come knocking on your coffin lid. So what's the harm? Everyone does it ...

While the list in the main book feels a little short, it is the main book. The old game had God alone knows how many supplements and Chrome books to add new Cyber. This is about the same list as before, with perhaps a few additions and subtractions. 

Since I touched on art, I should mention that the new book is (naturally) much prettier than the old one. More color inserts for one thing, and some of the new art is really gorgeous. It lacks the stylistic certain something of, say, Vampire the Masquerade; it feels a little paint-by-numbers, but that's the thing with a stylistic choice. People aren't always going to see it the same way. It's pretty, functional, and clean. So it works.

You know what I miss the most, oddly enough?

In the old book there was a bit of short fiction, Never Fade Away. It doubled as an introductory scenario, in that it provided stats for every NPC and potential PC, goons both basic and advanced, and so on. It was brief, to the point, and it did the job by conveying not only the plot but also the style and sensibility of the average game.

That's not how the new game operates. Sure, Never Fade Away is there along with other bits of fiction, like Black Dog. They don't fill the same dual function of being both a starter scenario and mouthpiece for the setting. It's a personal thing; I liked the other way, and now there's a new way. Such things are bound to happen.

Still, I miss it. Mike Pondsmith makes a point of saying in the introduction that his difficulty was balancing the need to keep ' Cyberpunk Cyberpunk, while at the same time moving the timeline forward and clearing out the deadwood. I also had to make the new version fit not just a tabletop roleplaying game but a AAA videogame title too.' When I first saw this game it was new, fresh, exciting, completely different from any other tabletop title of its day. It had bold ideas, like ditching mechanics for setting and style, using its fiction as an introductory game springboard. It's still great, but it's not new. It could never have been new. New was more than thirty years ago.

Scores on the doors. Is this worth getting?

If you're new to the system and looking for a Cyber good time, sure. This does what a main book is supposed to do: provide a simple introduction to the rules, and an advanced understanding of the setting and game philosophy. It's pretty to look at and explains itself clearly. It's solid.  

If, like me, you already have a weighty chunk of the old stuff, some of this will feel like old ideas warmed over. That's inevitable; this is the core book, after all. It's going to have to cover ground you've already travelled a dozen times before. It's not talking to you. It's talking to the new player.  

The new lore, the new Net, the updated mechanics are still worth the price of admission. I'm not sure I'd buy physical, mind you. The .pdf is fine by me, and that's not just because getting things shipped anywhere is a huge problem these days. 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have boosters to kill, places to be ... 


Sunday, 8 November 2020

Dangers of Modern Living (Trail, Bookhounds, Dreamhounds)


Videos sourced from Absolute History.

OK, so why am I telling you about this? Well, for one the channel's great, especially if you have any interest in history or storytelling in a historical context. The material's fascinating, story's well told, and there's no shortage of detail. By the time you finish one of these you should have at least two or three ideas for a scene, even a scenario.

Which brings me neatly onto 2: while these shorts are talking about the Victorians, the Edwardians and so on, you can bet the farm and all the chickens in it that these threats continued well into the 1930s. After all, bookshops, to name but one example, aren't usually fitted out with the latest and greatest when the doors open on the shop's first day. I guarantee you nobody's taken out the old gas fixtures, never mind renewed or repaired the electric wiring first put in by Bob back before the War. Bob could read and write, you know. That made him an expert in electrics. That peeling wallpaper, half-hidden behind the bookshelves? I'm sure it's a-OK! The dodgy fridge in the staff break room? Luxuries! Why, in my day we had to walk twenty miles uphill both ways before we even saw a fridge ...

It's remarkable to me that these events are set in roughly the same time period M.R. James sets most of his ghost stories. You almost never see an electric light or fixture in his tales, and I can't recall even one that had gas lighting. It's all done by candles. The only story I can think of where electricity plays any kind of part is Wailing Well, where the boy scouts have electric torches, but the torches don't play a significant part in the narrative. The same's broadly true for his contemporaries, like E.G. Swain who wrote the Stoneground Ghost Stories. It's only when the tale's written by someone like Charlotte Perkins Gillman that you get stories about wallpaper; it takes an engineer like L.T.C. Rolt to write about ghastly doings in factories and railway tunnels. Part of it is the old saw 'write what you know,' but what strikes me as telling is what M.R. James apparently didn't know - possibly because that side of life was all arranged for him without his having to think about it.

To set a scene you need to know what's in it, and (roughly) how it works. Then you can play with the set dressing until it does what you want it to.

Let's talk about wallpaper. Gilman's chiller has as its unnamed protagonist a woman suffering from depression. This has been interpreted many different ways in many different treatments of the story, from audio drama to television, but the key point is that her doctor husband advises fresh air and prevents her from working or any mental stimulation, so she can recover. She spends much of her time in the room with yellow wallpaper. The story progresses from there, but I shan't go further in case you haven't read it.

Taken in context with what we now know about the dangers of wallpaper, consider what might happen (in a Purist game in particular) where spending much time in a room whose air is contaminated by toxic fumes can cause temporary Stability loss, or permanent Sanity loss.

Let's say that room is the rare books collection, in the rear of the store. The bookshelves hide the remains of the old, toxic wallpaper; the store owner didn't bother to get rid of it since it would be covered by the shelves, mostly, and so wouldn't be objectionable to look at even if it was manky and peeling. 

But one of the problems with the slower arsenic poisoning, of a smaller amount over a longer time, is that it could cause very vague symptoms ... as the video puts it.

If the protagonist suffers 1 Stability loss every time they go into the rare books section, they may put it down to some Cthulhoid influence. After all, this is a Cthulhu game; Cthulhu is always sus. 

The Keeper should make it a toll, publicize it, put its name up in lights for all to see: every time someone goes into the rare books room they lose 1 Stability. If they are at 0 Stability they lose 2 Health or 1 Sanity. Sanity losses are always permanent; Health can be restored. 

I mention Dreamhounds because this applies equally to both settings, but consider: the Hounds enter the Dreamlands either in the flesh, or mentally. If mentally, then their bodies are still somewhere in the physical realm.

Now, imagine what happens if that light fixture in the physical realm becomes overwhelmed by all the cheap bits and bobs that the Hounds plugged into it - the heater, the kettle, the cooking pan. A cascade of fizzing adaptors, just waiting to go off. 

Hitchcock once said Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one ... The point I'm making here is that you can have a bomb that is not a bomb. Anything will do, so long as the audience knows it is dangerous and that it is about to go off. Imagine the Hounds' anxiety if they know, as they try desperately to finish what they're doing in the Dreamlands, that their cheap apartment is about to go up in flames because the electrics have given up the ghost. The Keeper can helpfully remind them of this every few minutes, by telling them what's happening in that cheap apartment. Smoke billows. Cheap adaptors fizzle, That printed tablecloth everyone hates goes up as soon as a few sparks drop on it - and all the while the Hounds are snoring away ...

Play with it further. The video points out that Victorian books sometimes used arsenical dyes. The example given is a wallpaper sampler, but really, it could be anything. Imagine a high-quality printing of an occult book. The obvious example is Yellow King, but that's a bit too on-the-nose, to have a book that already sends people mad also kill them with arsenic. As this Jstor article points out, using arsenic to make books was a common practice from the 1800s onwards; from the article:

Bartrip adds that it was “found in literally dozens of goods in everyday use,” including books. “Any manufactured item coloured green was as likely as not to have been dyed with arsenic, and in the mid-nineteenth century shades of green were the height of fashion, especially for home furnishings and women’s clothing.”

So let's imagine a limited edition of some occult text. Fairly modern, at least from a Bookhounds perspective. Let's say it's published aroundabout the 1860s or 70s. For the purpose of this example I'm going to say it's Magyar Folklore, published in English in the 1880s (borrowed from the old Keeper's Compendium for Call of Cthulhu) but really it could be any grimoire from about the 1790s onwards.

The Bad Penny

This is the third time your Hounds have noticed this particular book come to market: a limited edition of Theodore Dornly's Magyar Folklore, published 1881 in a very limited run of 100 copies. It's not especially sought after except by specialists; it has a lot to say about shamanism and demon spirits.

Funny thing. When it first came to auction a Cambridge academic bought it. He's dead now; heart failure. When it came to auction again a reliable shop customer, Major Thornton, bought it. He's dead now; a stroke. 

Now #26 of a run of 100, slight damage to the spine otherwise in excellent condition, is up for sale again. It's not supposed to be particularly dangerous in the occult sense, yet two people who've owned it have died within five years. Further research can find six other previous owners, all of whom have died under more or less mysterious circumstances.

What's so dreadful about Magyar Folklore - and should the Hounds stop another of their valuable customers from acquiring it? 

Magyar Folklore: Skimming gives 1 dedicated pool point, Occult or History, specialization Magyar. Poring over it gives +1 Mythos, no spells. However poring takes several weeks, as the text is rather esoteric and dry, and Dornly is very fond of his obscure Latin and Greek tags. Every week costs the reader 3 Health and 1 Stablity (arsenic poisoning). 


Sunday, 1 November 2020

All-Hallows (Edom Files)

 Today is All-Hallows, also known as All Saints, a Christian replacement of an ancient tradition. That is, it's November 1st - October 31st being the day before the festival day. 

Originally this would have been celebrated in March, which means technically Halloween is a March tradition. Pope Boniface moved it to November in the way back when, and in the Catholic calendar All Saints is followed by All Souls on November 2nd. The idea being that one day is dedicated to the saints and martyrs, another to everyone else, and the everyone else in this instance are those still suffering in Purgatory rather than the blessed in Heaven. 

There's a very old tradition that says should you give clothes or shoes to a poor man you shall receive the same when you die, to ease your passage. It's part of a general injunction to do right by the poor, and you will be rewarded in the afterlife - but if you don't, expect torment and fire when you pass over.

There's a further tradition which says you shouldn't wear new shoes to a funeral, in case the dead see them and get jealous. They may try to steal them, and your luck will surely turn bad.

All Hallows is also a very popular name for a church. A quick Google will show you how popular. One in particular, All-Hallows-The-Great of London, was ancient when it was destroyed in the Great Fire. Christopher Wren rebuilt it, and it lasted until the later 1800s when the neighborhood became far too commercial. The space was needed for development, so the Church sold the land and used the money to build a new church elsewhere. It was the London Brewery for a while before Hitler put a stop to that, and eventually became Mondial House, the great telephone exchange. It was a massive white elephant even when it was being built; construction started in 1978 and although the building itself was finished it still needed equipment. By the time BT finished installing all its kit, in the 1980s, the equipment it had installed back in 1978 was already woefully obsolete. Mondial was demolished in the 2000s; an office block stands there now.  

In the Edom Field Manual there's a contact, Maggie Canter, of Canter Antiques & Salvage, "a large junk shop in East London. Over the years, the business has come to specialize in architecture and furniture salvaged from churches and other religious institutions. If you want to outfit your hipster bar with a few pews from a demolished church, or are looking to buy a load of old-fashioned bedsheets and tablecloths from a nunnery that ran out of nuns, Canter’s is the place to go. She jokes that she’s just finishing up what Henry the Eighth started with the destruction of the monasteries ..."

With all that in mind:

Maggie's Back Room

Even Maggie Canter comes across items she can't sell. She got a job lot of office furniture and other bits and bobs when they broke up Mondial House, the sort of thing she'd be able to turn over in a heartbeat under normal circumstances. There's always some dodgy little startup looking for cheap office furniture, and while it's not strictly in Canter Antiques' usual line a quick clearance like this is bread-and-butter.

If only she could sell it.  

She knew there was something off when she took possession. It was just a feeling, and she ignored it. More fool her. As it happened the day after she brought back the goods was All Hallows, and that very day she heard someone walking around in the warehouse after hours. Couldn't catch him, mind. Funny thing; her warehouse foreman, Larry, lost a pair of shoes that day. Christ knew where those got to.

When they didn't sell straight off she shoved the kit in the back of the warehouse, making a mental note to take it to the dump tomorrow. Except tomorrow never comes, does it? So it was all still in the back next All Hallows, and once again she heard someone stomping around in there. Once again, someone's shoes went missing. Hers, in fact.

It's been years, and every year on All Hallows someone marches about in the warehouse like some kind of night watchman. Every year someone's shoes go missing. She's started buying cheap trainers and boots to leave behind for whoever it is; better than letting the good stuff go.

If Edom's finest want to get on Maggie's good side, they could tell her what's going on and how to put a stop to it. 

  • The Corpse Watchman. Back when the Church had to worry about bodysnatchers, All-Hallows-The-Great built a watch house and put a permanent watchman on staff. Except the Church put its faith in the wrong man, and several corpses ended up on the dissection table before the ring was put out of business. The Watchman barely escaped with his life; the mob wanted to tear him to shreds. Legend has it for years afterward you could hear the Watchman on patrol, forced to look after the dead he betrayed while he was alive.
  • Weird Science. Edom had its fingers in Mondial House. Specifically the Boffin, (Dracula Dossier), who was forever experimenting to see if he could come up with a more efficient, scientific way to deal with the vampire problem. Mondial House already had a bit of a reputation among the frivolous; after all, it had been built on All-Hallows' churchyard, even if all the bodies had been moved before they built Mondial. The Boffin thought he'd create a vampire trap, but all he ended up doing was losing a perfectly good assistant. Nobody knows where Norman ended up. Rumor had it he never left Mondial ...
  • Footsteps of the Damned. It's got nothing to do with the office furniture. Once upon a time Dracula's Node in London (the Satanic Cult, for instance, though it's up to the Director as to exactly what form the Node takes), found out about Maggie's links to Edom and decided to assign one of its more disposable assets to watch her. Trouble is, nobody rescinded the order, and when the Node got bored and forgot about Canter's, the asset kept coming back. Again. And Again. Almost as if it was compelled ...


Sunday, 25 October 2020

Thieves of Book Row (Bookhounds of London)

This is going to be a little cheeky, since as of time of writing I haven't finished the book I want to recommend to Bookhounds Keepers: Thieves of Book Row (New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring And The Man Who Stopped It), by Travis McDade. My copy's the 2013 Oxford Uni Press paperback. 

OK, there are now two books and two books only I highly recommend if you want to run Bookhounds of London, and both are about the US book trade. Frustrating, I know. I work with what I've got. 

The first is Ruth Brown Park's Book Stores and How to Run Them. The second is Travis McDade's Thieves. 

I want to say right up front that this is an academic text. That means, as you might expect, the text is occasionally dry. However the subject's a kicker, and Travis McDade's a clear and clever writer. He's not going to pound you to death with polysyllables or bore you silly with academic trivia. These are thieves, bad guys, the villains of the piece. 

They come off the page just as bad as you'd hope. 

Sneaks with lists and capacious coats or bags, they drift from library to library looking for likely targets. Once stolen any identifying marks are cut away or, if they're prepared to take a little care, bleached right off the page. Then off they go to the booksellers, more or less witting conspirators in the trade, and sell their loot for a fraction of its value. It's a trade that continues to this day, though of course the methods have changed since the 1920s and 30s. 

You will never look at libraries the same way again. Constantly under siege, they had to develop extraordinary protocols to keep their books safe - and even the most secure, like the NYPL, suffered losses. If ever there was a setting for a particular kind of heist movie, this is it. 

I'm not going to go into the hows, whos or whats because, as hinted in the opening paragraph, I haven't finished the blasted thing yet. Just take it from me, if you like this setting you will find at least a dozen period story ideas in the first two or three chapters. Edwin White Gaillard's career alone is worth its weight in plot gold. 

What I will do is steal a throwaway bit from the early chapters and give you a plot seed.

At the end of his work, Gaillard came to believe that at least three men were operating together as a sort of book theft team. One man did the initial investigating of the library, another did the stealing, and a third stole the books ...

Three Blind Mice

The London trade knows them as Percy, Blunt and Nash, though they have half a dozen different identities. Legend has it they met during the war when all three flew for the jolly old RFC, and later teamed up as thieves when civilian life turned out to be less than they'd hoped. Whether or not this is true they're closer than brothers, and just about the most efficient book thieves the characters know.

Percy always pretends to be clergy, and scouts out the job. He's the one who poses as almost blind, so he has an excuse to totter around and ask questions. Blunt, gifted with a face that remains perpetually young, is the one who actually steals the stuff. He pretends to be a fellow of Oxford, Cambridge or, in a pinch, Trinity. The stuff vanishes into his capacious carrying case, which is equipped with several hidden pockets. Nash is the dealer. To the outside world he's a Dilettante with occult leanings who 'inherited' his collection, parts of which he occasionally sells to fund other purchases. He has a rather nice house in Bloomsbury, where he hosts parties and generally bolsters his reputation as a well-heeled lover of literature.

There's not many places they won't go to make a score. On more than one occasion they've gone by boat and train to the Continent, but their knowledge of libraries private and public in the UK is prodigious.

Rumor has it the three are, if not falling out, certainly at risk of a rift. This makes everyone nervous. If one of them should peach to the authorities it won't just be the Blind Mice who suffer. Everyone they've sold a hooky first edition to - including the Hounds - might find themselves up before the beak for receiving stolen goods. Embarrassing, certainly - the sort of Downfall a shop might not recover from.

What upset the Three Blind Mice? 

  • A recent theft proved toxic, when one of the Mice read a section of the Cultes des Ghoules. Now they have an appetite for human flesh, and though they're trying to keep their impulses in check it isn't going well. The other two are trying to help but realize the consequences if they fail are severe, so they're simultaneously planning exit strategies. The two who aren't tainted won't say which one of them is. 
  • One of them has started dealing on the side to a prominent member of one of London's cults. It might be the Brotherhood of the Pharaoh, Keirecheires or some other organized group, but the key point is they're dangerous as hell and the Mouse didn't appreciate how dangerous until they were already in the trap. The other two are furious and looking for a way out, but they don't want to leave their pal in the soup if they can help it. Meanwhile the cult is aiming the Blind Mice at their most valuable prize to date, and the consequences if they fail are unthinkable. That said, the Hounds are just as interested in the prize as the cult is, and if they're clever about it they might be able to sneak off with the loot - so long as they don't mind leaving the Mice to rot.
  • There are no Mice. There is one Mouse with three faces, that he (?) got through eating the other two's brains years ago. That worked fine for a long while, but nothing lasts forever. The Mouse is losing grip on at least one of its personalities, and wants to ditch its failing personas for younger models. Plausible, bookish models. After all, it doesn't do to abandon a con game it's been working for so many years. Perhaps some fresh faces can be found in the marketplace. One or more of the Hounds may find themselves targeted by the surviving Mouse, as potential replacements ...