Sunday, 23 February 2020

Ireland's Ghost Tanker (NBA, Esoterrorists)

This week's post is inspired by the recent discovery of derelict MV Alta, recently breached on the coast of Ireland.

MV Alta, a merchant vessel over 2000 tons and originally known as Tanager when she was launched in 1976, got into difficulties near Bermuda in September 2018. A power outage brought her to a halt, and Tropical Storm Leslie was bearing down on her. Her 10-man crew were recovered safely, and the ship towed to Guyana where it was subsequently stolen. It was next spotted in August 2019, abandoned and adrift in the mid-Atlantic. From that moment to this her exact whereabouts were unknown, until she washed ashore near Ballycotton, a fishing village in County Cork.

For those of you unfamiliar with Guyana, I present these unedited excerpts from the CIA World Factbook:

Trafficking In Persons

Current situation: Guyana is a source and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor – children are particularly vulnerable; women and girls from Guyana, Venezuela, Suriname, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic are forced into prostitution in Guyana’s interior mining communities and urban areas; forced labor is reported in mining, agriculture, forestry, domestic service, and shops; Guyanese nationals are also trafficked to Suriname, Jamaica, and other Caribbean countries for sexual exploitation and forced labor. 

Tier rating: Tier 2 Watch List – Guyana does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so; in 2014, Guyana was granted a waiver from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3 because its government has a written plan that, if implemented would constitute making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; the government released its anti-trafficking action plan in June 2014 but made uneven efforts to implement it; law enforcement was weak, investigating seven trafficking cases, prosecuting four alleged traffickers, and convicting one trafficker – a police officer – who was released on bail pending appeal; in 2014, as in previous years, Guyanese courts dismissed the majority of ongoing trafficking prosecutions; the government referred some victims to care services, which were provided by NGOs with little or no government support (2015).

Illicit Drugs

Transshipment point for narcotics from South America - primarily Venezuela - to Europe and the US; producer of cannabis; rising money laundering related to drug trafficking and human smuggling.

In short, whatever MV Alta was up to after she was stolen, it most likely involved people smuggling or drug smuggling. Or both.

Stealing ships from port for drug smuggling was, and to an extent still is, a problem in the Caribbean. It's the easiest thing in the world to take a ship while it's in port, or at anchor close to shore. Either you get one of your own put aboard her as crew - "I'm a student working my was across the Caribbean" - or sneak aboard at night, butcher anyone you find, and fill the yacht with whatever narcotic you're selling this week. Generally speaking a yacht might make one or two trips this way before becoming too well known to the US Coast Guard, at which point you scuttle her or set her adrift.

However, that was the 1980s. These days it's considered much easier to smuggle your narcotics in a merchant vessel; you can carry more, and are unlikely to be stopped or searched. Given the timeline it's likely MV Alta made at least one trip to the East Coast of the US, or possibly more than one trip to Venezuela. That she was abandoned suggests one of two things happened: she became too well known to the authorities, or she was never properly repaired after being stolen, and became too much of a liability for her hijackers.

I should note that some sources allege the ship was never towed anywhere, but left to drift after her crew was rescued in 2018. This seems odd. The US Coast Guard, which rescued the crew, isn't in the habit of letting abandoned ships drift where they please. The South China News alleges it was hijacked in Guyana not once, but twice. According to Fleetmon, someone alleging to be the owner claimed that in 2018 they hired salvagers to tow her who turned out to be smugglers, but that MV Alta was stolen from the smugglers when it reached Guyana.

Incidentally those of you wondering if this is going to involve bodies in the fridge unit, anything is possible but if that was going to happen I think we'd all know about it by now. The Irish have many fine qualities, but reticence is not among them.

Ballycotton sounds like one of those More Irish Than The Irish destinations, where you can comfortably expect all your clichés to come true. No doubt like many another tourist destination there's an underclass of locals who can't afford to live there any more, but who barely rate a mention in the council meetings. In fact it reminds me not a little of a film called Grabbers, which I highly recommend:

So with all that in mind, a one-shot:

The Movie Pilot

The characters are all teens and would-be YouTubers living in the Quaint-with-a-capital-Q village of [Insert Name Here], where, for the first time in living memory, something exciting has happened. A derelict merchant ship has run aground on one of the nearby beaches, thoroughly bolloxing the tourist trade with threat of oil leaks (or worse)! It'd make a real change from Fortnite live streaming if you could get aboard her and take some first-hand footage of the ghost ship. Of course, the Gardaí have put her off limits, with a few coppers on patrol, but they're all local lads and you're pretty confident you can get past them no problem.

In fact, you've a financial inducement for so doing (pick one):

  • The ship's owners have contacted you by email and asked you to recover something from the captain's cabin. They've offered you a small fortune in Bitcoin for the work.  
  • Your mate Mick who hangs round the pool tables at the Moby Dick's pub swears blind there's a small fortune in narcotics aboard, and is willing to shell out the readies if you can recover some of it for him to sell.
  • A fella who says he's a biologist from Oxford wants samples of whatever's in the hold, and is prepared to pay big time if you'll fill his test tubes for him.
Naturally the cargo ship isn't completely abandoned. That would be far too easy. Pick one:

  • Alien space vampires who drained the crew's blood and are now looking for somewhere quiet and dark to hide out.
  • Ghosts of hijack victims who were left to suffocate in the refrigeration unit, and who possess anyone unwary enough to come aboard.
  • Strange and exceptionally dangerous chemicals have brewed a quasi-Shoggoth which lives in the cargo hold and oozes out for victims whenever it gets a hankering for fresh protein.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Moving Day (Bookhounds of London)

One of London's revered antiquarian bookshops, Sotheran's, moves to Sackville Street in the 1930s. The Hounds are there to see it off, and perhaps pick up a few crumbs - after all, anything can fall off the back of a lorry. Positively anything.

Sackville Street is one of those aspirational locations the Hounds long to be. In the heart of Piccadilly with well-heeled customers trotting by daily, Sotheran's bound to pick up some juicy commissions. Friends of the shop gather on moving day to share a glass of something suitably alcoholic with the shop's staff and owner.

The shop itself is a bit of a mess on moving day. Boxes everywhere, furniture piled up in the corners, anxious staff trying to ensure you don't - o, heavens! Look out! Well, it can't be helped. Another trinket smashed. Still, there are plenty more where that little glass geegaw came from. You're not hurt, are you? Oh, good. Smashing in fact, ha-ha! Let me get you another glass.

Sackville Street seems overburdened with tailor's shops, but there are one or two other businesses on the street. One of them is the Sackville Gallery, a mildly famous name, owned and operated by an offshoot of the Rothschild banking family. Back in the early 1910s it got a bit of notoriety for an exhibition of futurist paintings, but its usual stock in trade are old masters. The owner, Max, is getting on a bit (he dies in 1939) and the Gallery hasn't the social cachet it once had, but then it was always more of a hobby than a business for Max.

The gallery owner stops by with a present for Sotheran's, when the booksellers move in. He has a painting for Sotheran's, a view of Sackville Street showing their shop front. It's a bit more modernist than the Gallery's usual line - almost expressionist, really. Perhaps that's why Max felt safe giving it away rather than selling it for extortionate prices in his gallery. The street in the painting is almost empty. There's just one fellow standing outside the shop, but details are sketchy, and his face unreadable. Just a blob on the canvas.

While at the party, the Hounds notice that the painting seems uncomfortably lifelike. There are times when its clouds scud across a painted evening sky, and the drops of rain that seem to be slicking its pavement are felt on the back of an onlooker's neck. Meanwhile the little man with the unreadable face is sometimes there, and sometimes not. Or perhaps he moves, just a fraction, turning his blank face to look out at those looking in.

Max Rothschild is nowhere to be found, and his Gallery, if the Hounds check, is shut and locked up. The owner, according to a hand-written sign on the door, is in Spain on a buying trip.


A Famous Name: The artist's name is barely a squiggle, but there's enough there to work out he's a protégé of Klimt, who died shortly after the war. He was one of the many victims of the Spanish Flu epidemic. According to popular rumor he was very productive in the last months of his life, and claimed he was searching for that moment of pure inspiration - that split second when your soul transmutes into art. Is this what's left of him? But why a street in London, a street that, by rights, he never saw in life? Or could it be that the painting changes when it travels - one moment a Parisian scene, the next an Istanbul alleyway, but always a city. Megapolisimancy gone wrong - or right, depending on your perspective. The artist, it is said, had a fondness for bookstores, and would spend hours wandering in them. Perhaps he's looking for a permanent home.

Something Underneath: Is there a painting underneath the surface art? Some masked evil, perhaps, lurking under a placid front - but the soul of the painting is too strong to be perfectly concealed, which is why the surface appearance is so unsettling. Whether Dust Things or something more awful, there is a Mythos taint here. Which is no surprise, since 'Max Rothschild' is actually a bookshop rival who wants Sotheran's to fail, and fail spectacularly. This artistic albatross will keep customers away from the door, until it is somehow dealt with. Of course, if the Hounds intercede then Sotheran's does well. Do they want to encourage a rival?

Faceless: The painting is a prison, for a Nopperabo. The creature was trapped there by an exorcist, working for Max Rothschild. The art dealer was hounded by the creature ever since an unfortunate incident on his last buying trip, about which Max will not speak save to say it was the most remarkable, most terrifying moment of his life. The trouble was, even as a painting the thing has its own unique personality. Max just couldn't stand it a moment longer, and seized on this as the perfect opportunity to get rid of the thing. If pressured (Credit Rating, Intimidation, or Art used as a weapon - 'you'll never work in this town again' kind of thing) Max admits the whole sordid business, but refuses to take the painting back, even at gunpoint.  The Hounds will have to find some other way of dealing with it.

Stakes: Sotheran's is a competitor, after all. The Hounds don't have to do anything about it, and if they don't, Sotheran's suffers a reverse. Of course, if they do help, Sotheran's will be very grateful, and it's always good to have friends. If left to its own devices Sotheran's may try to find other ways to get rid of it, and the Hounds may not be happy with the result.


Sunday, 9 February 2020

The Funeral (NBA, Dracula Dossier)

This week's post is based loosely on the life & career of 'Mad Mike' Hoare, who recently died at the age of a hundred. His wartime career spanned the world war, the cold war, and some present day shenanigans, all of which goes to show you should never mess with a chartered accountant.

Thomas Michael Hoare, born in India, was sent by his Irish parents back to the UK for his further education in 1927, at the age of eight. Though trained in accountancy what he really wanted was to be a soldier, and he got his opportunity when war broke out in 1939. He joined the Territorials, became a small-arms expert, successfully completed officer training and rose up the ranks, ending his world war fighting Japanese in Burma with the Chindits, guerrilla warfare experts.

Finding post-war life as a chartered accountant dull, Hoare moved to South Africa with his young family, going on a motorcycle tour of the continent in 1950, searching for the Lost City of the Kalahari. From there it was a short step to the battlefield again, and an encounter with Moise Tshombe, a Congolese politician who would become prime minister in 1964, forced out in 1965, led to Hoare becoming a mercenary leader fighting against communist-backed troops. It's this Congo conflict that gives Hoare his nickname; communist radio broadcasts described him as 'that mad bloodhound Hoare,' a description he delighted in.

He came out of the Congo conflict with an illustrious reputation that would later be captured on film in The Wild Geese, where he was fictionalized as Richard Burton's Colonel Faulkner. The Wild Geese was Hoare's name for his Congo mercenary group.

He seemed to have retired after this, but embarked on a mad adventure to 'rescue' the Seychelles from its communist government in 1981. He and a group of grey-haired gunmen, disguised as a bunch of tourists, tried to fly in, but the plan all fell apart when Customs agents found a folded-up AK-47 in someone's bag. One abortive shootout later, Mad Mike and some of the survivors flew out to South Africa, where Mike found a prison cell waiting for him. His stay in jail was not prolonged, and he spent the rest of his life travelling, writing, and filming or being filmed. He died in South Africa on the 2nd of February, aged 100.

From a Night's Black Agents perspective, here you have a gun for hire who's seen out some of the major conflicts of the Cold War, the World War, and the modern era. If Edom wasn't hovering in the background someone certainly was, else why and how does a man who put himself in harm's way so often live to be a hundred?

So, to gamify:

The Funeral

A legend is dead. The funeral's this week, but Edom has much work to do before that happens.

The legend is the last survivor of the Carmilla Sanction, who went on to have a bloody and spectacular career as a mercenary in Africa throughout the Cold War. Cameroon, Congo, even Rhodesia - wherever a nationalist, and preferably Communist, government tried to seize power, there was the legend right in the thick of it. He helped Edom more than once, and was a known British intelligence asset, but despite the worst war could throw at him, the man wouldn't die. He even formed his own PMC in the late 1960s, RiskControl, though that ended in an embarrassing mess in Sierra Leone, when RiskControl failed to prevent Siaka Stevens regain the Presidency. The legend's financial backers deserted him, and his Edom connections weren't much help.

Disgruntled, the legend went into semi-retirement, though he was drawn out in the early 1980s - or so they say. He's supposed to have been a minor player in the investigation that led to the capture of the Rainy Night Butcher in Hong Kong, though few could understand why someone like him should abandon his African haunts for Hong Kong. Only the higher-ups in Edom know the full story of China vampire program Room 452's involvement in that affair, or why Triad gangsters were offering large sums of money for an experienced vampire hunter, no questions asked. It was allegedly his last hurrah, and it went like a dream.

Except that he was grabbed by Chinese authorities as he made his departure, and spent eight years in prison. Not that he was bitter, or wrote a scathing memoir about his intelligence operations and the failure of his superiors after his release. It was never published in English, but is well known in the Chinese-speaking world. One publishing house that tried to make an English language translation mysteriously burned down, with the publisher inside. The rumor mill differs as to whether than was a British or Chinese attempt to stifle the truth. Anyone with Vampirology knows the story, and someone with Vampirology and Tradecraft knows who burned down the publishing house. There's also a 1998 schlock film, Trust Me U Die Twice, in which the legend's reimagined as a CIA rogue agent who gets killed in the penultimate scene.

When the legend was an operator it was standard practice that, on the operator's death, Edom would conduct an autopsy and complete cleansing of the operator's personal effects. It was wartime. Nobody really knew what long-term physical effects prolonged exposure to Seward Serum would have, and in any case nobody wanted Edom's secrets to be accidentally discovered by their next of kin, or, worse yet, their landlady. Edom's insisting on its rights, and sending in the agents along with some helpful Director characters - the Pathologist, Phlebotomist, Serum Researcher, perhaps the E-Squadron Veteran as minder - to take the legend apart and see what there is to see, as well as strip his home, nursing home and anywhere else he's recently been right down to the floorboards. Grieving family be damned - this is Defense of the Realm stuff.

Except nobody knows where the body is ...


Last Flight of the Wild Geese: The legend still has contacts in the mercenary world, and he knew Edom would come looking for his corpse. He arranged for his body to be retrieved by some of his comrades, now septuagenarians (at the youngest), and buried in some easy-to-overlook South African beauty spot. They might be elderly, but they're combat veterans and prone to extreme violence. No supernatural element here, though there might be a few Chinese intelligence assets in the background; Room 452 just wants to make sure the old sod really is dead. Of course, if the Director wants a supernatural element, there's always old Roland ...

Hopping Away: How does someone become a Jiangshi? The legend knows - now. All those years ago in Hong Kong, he was possessed briefly by a wicked, unclean spirit. He thought he'd thrown off that curse, but it turns out spirits are harder to deal with than he thought. The Jiangshi inside the legend's body wants revenge for the Rainy Night hunt, and is after the legend's friends and family. How fortunate for it that all the people it wants to kill have gathered in South Africa for the funeral.

Advanced Persistent Threat 452: All those years ago, China didn't capture the legend - Room 452 recruited him. Already angry with his former colleagues, the legend accepted their job offer and helped train some of China's best vampire killers. The legend isn't dead; his life has been prolonged by Room 452's version of the Seward Serum. However, Room 452 knew it couldn't carry on the deception much longer. People were beginning to gossip about the gunman who wouldn't die. The funeral is Room 452's chance to lure some of Edom's top talent into a trap, and either infect their computers with malware that they'll take back to base or, even better, capture or turn the Pathologist, Phlebotomist or Serum Researcher. Who better to lead the operation than the legend himself ...  


Sunday, 2 February 2020

Get Your Ideas (GUMSHOE All, NBA Solo Ops)

In the past I've used travel articles as inspiration for an RPG scene. This time I'm going to point you towards a source just as useful, and easily had: pictures.

Yes, it seems obvious, but hear me out. There are plenty of evocative architectural and slice of life photographers out there. I put a lot of faith in twitter sources like @liamwong, @41Strange, and @archillect, all of whom find or produce quality imagery, but it's not difficult to find other examples. You don't even have to look very hard. It's twitter. Most flotsam washes up on that unholy shore eventually.

Point being, if you're looking for a moment, a scene, something that reaches out and speaks both to you and the player, you really don't have to look very far. I'm going to use Solo Ops in this particular example, but this is something you can do for any GUMSHOE setting. Or any game, really.

Credit: Liam Wong

Hungry Eyes

Your Hong Kong bookstore contact is late. Very late. The question is, was it the mainland PRC that caught up with her, or something else? There are eyes in the dark following your every move, and this location is compromised. You can see shadows flickering across an endless sea of neon promises, and in those shadows something ageless and hungry waits for you to make the smallest mistake ... 

Bonuses: +2 if you have the Edge, Hell Money.
Penalty: -1 if you have the Problem, PRC Pavement Artist
Advance: 9+ You know these streets better than the opposition thinks. It takes some doing, but you blend into the garish glare, vanishing into a sea of humanity. Behind you a thin, angry voice wails outrage and fear at the faceless city. The first chance you get, you buy a handful of sweets and toss them behind you, just in case whatever it was manages to sniff you out again. It's not much, but it's better than nothing at all.
Hold: 6-8 You feel it dogging your every step, and nothing you do drives it off. Its clutching fingers drift across your neck, and an unearthly chill settles in your chest as you realize it will never, ever let you go. If you gave money to the Taoist priest, thus avoiding the sin of stinginess, you get away with a shiver and an unpleasant moment. If not, you gain the Shadow Problem Whispers of Madness. 
Setback: 5 or less. The wretched thing possesses you. While it doesn't control your every move, it does force you to take crazy chances, driving you ever closer to capture, torture, and damnation. Gain Shadow Problem Living In My Skin (apply Shadow score as a penalty to all Challenges, discard when you next score an advance).
Extra Problem: None.
Stunt?  Sense Trouble to dive into a friendly 24-hour shop at just the right moment, one with lit joss sticks in a small shrine at the entrance. Cool to hold yourself together despite the cold, grasping fingers at the back of your neck.