Sunday, 28 June 2020

Rockers, Spies and MICE - Flipping Vampires (Night's Black Agents)

This week's post is inspired by a Guardian article about the use of musicians and artists to shred the Iron Curtain.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. US government agencies - basically, the CIA - backed ideologically useful artists, singers, performers, and sent them across the Iron Curtain to boogie for their country. The idea being that if the enemy saw how wonderful freedom was, they'd stop being the enemy. Even when, as was the case with Satchmo, the artist in question faced significant restraints at home, they were expected to perform to order abroad. Except, as with Satchmo, they sometimes didn't; the celebrated jazz singer refused to do as he was told until Roosevelt mobilized the army to enforce anti-segregation laws.

So far, so Radio Free Europe. Let's talk about MICE.

Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego. These are the factors that flip assets. If you want someone's cooperation you appeal to at least one of those drivers. Compromise is perhaps the trickiest, as it can range from blackmail to revenge, but they're all straightforward human impulses, played on like a violin.

Human, yes - but vampires were human too, once upon a time, prey to all the ills flesh is heir to.

In Night's Black Agents the characters will frequently want to turn the Conspiracy against itself. Take one Node, play on its baser impulses, and get it to smack one of its neighboring Nodes until its chimes ring like Big Ben. After all they're vampires, not zombies - they have free will, and anything with free will can be subverted. Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego - and no prizes for guessing that Ego plays a big part in the vampire psyche.

You think to baffle me, you with your pale faces all in a row, like sheep in a butcher's. [now there's a dated reference. How many of you reading this have even seen a butcher's shop, much less sheep's heads for sale?] You shall be sorry yet, each one of you! You think you have left me without a place to rest, but I have more. My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side.

Cultural espionage shows up in at least two Dracula Dossier scenarios, both in the Edom Files: Blood Coda, in which the action revolves around a Russian ballet troupe sent to London to dazzle capitalism, and Day of the Wehrwolf, where the agents encounter terrorists bent on blowing up Radio Free Europe. In each scenario cultural espionage is a background against which the main action takes place; nobody expects the agents to engage directly with ballet as an art form used to influence the West. However it can be a lot of fun to play with cultural espionage, as a form of gameplay.

Let's say the agents have a particular asset in mind. They've taken the trouble to know this asset inside and out. They're confident they have their fingers on the pulse, metaphorically speaking. They want to make the asset theirs, or at least influence the asset in a certain direction. But how to make the move? Just going in with guns and attitude escalates the problem. The soft approach is called for.

Show me the vampire who can resist a star. It's a huge ego-boost, particularly for those low on the Conspiracy's org chart. If you're in Dracula's clique then you know whatever you do for the rest of your unlife you will be second banana. If you're lucky. Did you command armies? Were you feared throughout Europe? Did the townsfolk not dare to speak your name aloud? That's great. No, really, super. Here's a scrub brush. There are toilets that need cleaning.

Now put a celebrity in the mix. Someone with fame, talent, charisma. Someone who's much more, well, likeable than you will ever be. Then imagine what happens when that celebrity finds you the most interesting thing on Earth - or performs just for you.

When Money won't work, when Ideology's a non-starter, the smart agent leans heavily on Compromise and Ego. All wrapped up in a pretty package, with charming smile to match.

The Wedding Singer

This story seed is nominally set in Monaco, but can easily be changed to a different location.

A celebrated Russian Mafia boss has arranged it so his daughter will have the ultimate private show - a concert in her honor at the Monaco Yacht Club. Invites are out, and this is very much by invitation only. If you don't have Streetwise or High Society sufficient to impress the higher-ups, you aren't getting in.

However the agents know that a very important figure within the Conspiracy is keen to get in. The performer is someone that Conspiracy bigwig rates very highly. They'd do, well, anything to get closer. Perhaps a quiet back-room conference - a quick bite, maybe?

In this seed the agents have two challenges. First, they have to get into that performance. They can't blunt-force this Infiltration. Monaco's much too high profile for stick-on comedy moustaches and a bit of the old Peter Sellers.  Force will be met with brutal retribution. Monaco's the most highly policed location on the planet, with cops and soldiers aplenty available at a moment's notice. With all those cameras watching everyone's least move it will literally need only a moment before Heat becomes unbearable. However they get in, it will need to be ironclad.

Second, they need to make a Network contact of that celebrity. Ideally this isn't just a point spend; you don't want the players thinking they can buy Beyoncé with X number of Network points. The agents will need some kind of leverage - which brings us back to MICE. Again, Ego is probably the most useful leverage but don't forget the power of Money. After all, Money bought Jackson Pollock. The rulebook calls it Excessive Funds for a reason. Given the Monaco setting this might be a fun time for some Gambling challenges to rack up funds. Perhaps the agents get the celebrity's cooperation through some strategic baccarat, in much the same way Sean Connery gets Sylva Trench's attention in the opening scenes of Doctor No.

All of which leads up to that psychological moment. Celebrity meets Vampire. At which point the agents presumably play their ace and flip that asset. Or not. Then, as with every con game, there is the blow-off, as the agents exfiltrate without arousing suspicion. Cackle bladder optional.

Mind you if it all goes wrong and Beyoncé ends up one of the Conspiracy's converted it shall be an interesting after-mission briefing with Edom (or whoever's paying the bills). The agents will be lucky if they escape with a written reprimand in their case file ... 


Sunday, 21 June 2020

Locked Room Mysteries (GUMSHOE Any)

I recently watched a film I'd really wanted to see and came away dissatisfied. I shan't say which one, as this post might constitute spoilers. I'll just say CSI KYC and leave it at that, on the supposition that if you get the joke you've already seen the film and so spoilers mean nothing to you.

Part of my dissatisfaction is because it sets up a locked room mystery and then betrays the trope. The classic locked room is the Mary Celeste of mysteries. It sets up a situation that ought to be impossible, and then shows you not just that it's possible but takes you through the working until you see all the clues you missed along the way. It's called locked room because the classic example is the corpse found sealed away in a locked room, whose death seems inexplicable. Edgar Allen Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue is the original version, but there have been countless others since.

There have been a few real-life examples. The 2010 death of MI6 operative Gareth Williams, found padlocked inside a bag in his London apartment, is one. Williams, who might have been investigating Russian financial crime at the time of his death, went on leave and never came back. Nobody noticed he'd gone missing until his employers thought to make a welfare check, which is when his corpse was discovered. It's thought he went into the bag alive and the Metropolitan Police concluded his death was probably an accident, a sex game gone wrong. As a means of disposing of a body locking it inside a sports bag and leaving it in the flat seems unnecessarily theatrical, almost amateurish, especially if a professional espionage agency was involved. You'd think it'd be simpler to dump the bag in the Thames with weights wrapped round it. It's that Mary Celeste touch again - cups of coffee found still warm in the wardroom, everything apparently normal except there's no crew aboard.

The thing about a locked room is, it's never impossible. It's a puzzle box, and there's always a way to solve a puzzle box. The key is to disbelieve what's in front of you. The minute someone says 'judging by blood splatter, the only way it could have happened is ...' you know for a fact that, whatever else happened, the so-called only way is precisely how it didn't happen. A locked room works on magician's rules, and a magician's favorite trick is misdirection.

So if a corpse turns up in a burnt-out garage, for example, and dental records show that the corpse is Mister Bob Bingo who owed everyone a ton of money, then your first job is to look at those dental records and see if they're fake. Trust nothing, check everything.

As it's a puzzle the emotional satisfaction comes from solving the puzzle, and if the thing's badly designed or if the author cheats their way to a solution then the fun's lost.

Example from CSI KYC: at one point a poison's described as being lethal inside ten minutes. The characters go to a great deal of trouble to establish this. Then in another scene the same dose takes two hours, and even then the victim isn't dead. Which is it? 

In game, how would this work?

Remember this: once you introduce magic, or super-powers, or whatever it may be, the puzzle stops being a puzzle. The audience - the players - will assume magic did it. The problem switches from 'how does the puzzle work' to 'how do I show the solution isn't magic?' At which point you've probably lost the most important battle: capturing the audience's attention. 

So set the puzzle up in such a way that magic isn't the first or obvious answer. Maybe this is a Mutant City Blues game in which the necessary mutant abilities don't fit well into the Quade Diagram, or perhaps this happened during the day when vampires are powerless. Something quick, simple and obvious, so you can get on with the plot. This is why abilities like Night's Black Agents Vampirology are so useful, because one point spend will tell the agents 'a vampire couldn't have done it, at least not the way it was done,' without the Director jumping through hoops to show it wasn't vampire magic.

The best way to design a puzzle like this is to start with the solution and work backward. If you know who did it and how they did it then you should be able to come up with clues that show as much. Always remember this is a puzzle, and puzzles can be about anything. It doesn't have to be murder. It can be 'how did a virus get onto the system when it's not connected to the internet?" Or 'how did that burglar get into this hidden safe?'

Let's play with an example. Assume the setting is Night's Black Agents, modern day, so we're talking every conceivable current technology. Let's further assume that the crime takes place in an area patrolled by security robots which ought to have detected the intruder but did not. It doesn't matter what the crime is. The puzzle is how whoever did it foozled the security robots so they weren't detected carrying out the crime.

The software that operates the robots and monitors their activity reports no anomalies at the time of the crime. The incident reports show only that there was a brief interruption in patrol when a human employee fell ill. The robot stopped to monitor the situation and summoned a security guard, who confirmed that the person suffered a bad reaction to allergy meds. The sick person was escorted away and treated. 

The hardware that runs the show is not connected to the internet or the outside world. It's a purely internal network whose sole purpose is to run the building. It does everything from monitor the security robots to adjust the HVAC and make sure the goldfish tank in the exec suite is operating smoothly. Employees are expressly forbidden from attaching their own devices to the network, or using company property like laptops outside the building. There's no indication (via internal monitoring) that anyone did connect an outside device to the network, whether on the day or at any time in the past. So there should be zero chance of a virus corrupting the system. The hardware is in a security room down on the ground floor that is constantly monitored by cameras, sensors and human security personnel. 

So how was it done?

A virus was introduced into the system that prevented the security robots from detecting the intruder, or anyone at all, after a certain point. The target room and the corridors immediately around that room became invisible zones; the security robots could not see humans while they were in those zones. The agents may become aware of this when they realize that the robots did not detect the CEO even when he was in an area where he ought to be detected. He was working late on a big project, which is why he was in the building. 

How was the virus introduced? By our old friend the fish tank. 

The thermostat was recently replaced on the CFO's authority. That thermostat was the Trojan Horse which introduced the virus to the system. The CFO is the employee who had the bad reaction to allergy meds, which coincidentally enough happened at about the same time as the incident. The CFO doesn't remember authorizing the thermostat switch.

The CFO didn't authorize the switch; her secretary did. Turns out the CFO was poisoned by her secretary to create a diversion so the secretary could carry out the crime. While security and the robots were diverted the secretary got into the invisible area. She used 'I'm going to get your meds' as an excuse to leave the CFO's side and carry out the crime. The whole thing took five minutes.

So how would you do it?


Sunday, 14 June 2020

A Million Dollar Trouper (Night's Black Agents)

This week's post is inspired by a recent Guardian news article about the antics and jolly japeries of the Barclay family.

The brief version is this: concerned that their uncle Sir Frederick was blabbing just a little too freely about the family's business interests, and in particular about the sale of London's Ritz Hotel to Qatari businessman Abdulhadi Mana al-Hajri, the younger generation bugged the Hotel's conservatory to listen in on Sir Frederick's business conversations. Sir Frederick's version is that he had buyers lined up prepared to pay over a billion pounds for London's most famous hotel, as discussed in those recorded conversations. The Ritz sold for much less than that. The implication is that the younger generation, which has control over the family's complicated financial structure, sabotaged his attempts to get a better price. The younger generation seems to think Sir Frederick is talking a load of old cock to leverage his way into a bigger payout.

Truly, the rich are different from you and me.

For those of you wondering 'haven't I heard the phrase Barclay Brothers before,' Sir Frederick is one of the two billionaire Barclay twins who, like Colossi, bestride the British financial world while petty men walk about under their huge ... well, that's enough of that. They're the ones attempting to take over Sark's feudal government, who've fiddl ... managed their taxes for years by claiming residence in Monaco (for health reasons, claims Sir Frederick), and who made sure the Ritz paid no corporation tax in the UK for 17 years. In short, wealthy weasels.

It's not entirely clear why the younger Barclays would deliberately sabotage a business deal that would earn them more money. Were I writing this as fiction, one possibility occurs: the deal wouldn't earn the business more money, but the buyer would sling a big fat financial inducement to the person who swung the deal. Sir Frederick, not having any direct say in the family's financial affairs, wouldn't benefit directly from a business deal, beyond the usual, but hankers after that big fat financial inducement. Hence those business meetings at the Ritz. As the family network wasn't getting any more cash no matter who bought it, the younger generation might be perfectly happy kicking old uncle Freddie in the statisticals if it meant a) he wouldn't get the B.F.F.I., and b) he'd keep out of the family's business in future. Game of Thrones, really, but with lawyers and bribes rather than stabbing and bribes.

However it did make me think about Night's Black Agents, and Nodes.

One typical version of the National or International level Node is the Corporation, or the Wealthy/Influential Individual. In Dracula Dossier terms, Klopstock & Billreuth, Bankers, or the Petroleum Executive.  These are the entities or people who can get things done, who by virtue of their own power/authority can affect and even direct the policies of small countries or nations. They have outposts in several different places, and luxurious homes in other places - Monaco, say. Often they're treated as monolithic or singular entities, but every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Far from being singular, the Petroleum Executive, say, will have a flock of hangers-on, employees, family. Klopstock & Billreuth, having more working parts, will have an even larger flock.

These people will notice if the Node does something out of character, say because it's being influenced by outside powers. The Conspiracy doesn't care about balance sheets so it might order the higher-ups at K&B to do something that doesn't benefit the bank but does benefit the Conspiracy. Or it might tell the Petroleum Executive to falsify reports on prospective oil fields. The people close to them, but not directly touched by the Conspiracy, will notice this. They may try to do something about it. Like the younger Barclays, they may get very reckless. They may plant bugs, or hire people to plant bugs for them. Put surveillance on mobile phones, track the company car with GPS - all the kind of things that sound or look cool in a TV show but often end up in court in real life, possibly with substantial damages attached. As happened to the younger Barclays.

With that in mind:

Niko, My Cousin

The agents become aware (High Society, Law, possibly Cop Talk or via a contact like the Journalist) that a scandal is about to break. Someone attached to a suspected Node has been caught planting surveillance equipment in the Node's luxury Monaco townhouse. Apparently this has been going on for at least a few months, but it only recently came to light when that someone - Nic Bellic, the Serbian fiancée of the Node's son/daughter - was caught replacing one of the bugs.

According to Nic, the intent was to protect the fiancée from the Node's questionable business dealings. Apparently the trust fund was being drained, for reasons Nic doesn't fully understand. Nic thinks it has something to do with the Node's business partners, but isn't sure of the details.

Currently Nic is under lock and key in one of Monaco's high-end hotels. Lawyers are said to be circling, and the fiancée is dithering between the Node and Nic.

The Agents will want Nic's data. So does the Conspiracy. The question is, where is it? Does Nic have it in the hotel room? Is it in Nic's lawyers' safe? Does the fiancée have it?

The Conspiracy will also want to silence everyone involved, but in Monaco that's a tall order. The recorded murder rate has been 0% per 100,000 people since 2007. Even in 2001, the high-water mark, the murder rate was 3% per 100,000. There are more police per capita here than anywhere else on the planet, and cameras all over every street, public place, and high-end hotel corridor. An actual killing will be difficult to pull off. The Conspiracy's used to planting snipers on rooftops, but this is more a 'death by natural causes' situation. It would be much, much easier if this happened outside Monaco, but none of the main players seem all that keen to leave the fleshpots.


Sunday, 7 June 2020

Bookmarks of London (and Eversink)

Bookmarks have been with us since the earliest days. There's evidence that they were being used as long ago as the 1st Century AD, but we don't see what we think of as bookmarks - ie detachable, ephemeral, mass-produced - until the mid 19th Century, when books themselves become ephemeral and mass-produced. Up until that point, and even with the invention of the printing press, books are relatively rare and expensive to obtain. You had to be upper class or of similar status to be able to afford, never mind read, books. Once the middle and lower classes get in on the racket you start seeing changes in the trade. Less porn, for one thing. Well, not that much less. But they were slightly more discreet.

By this point booksellers and marketers alike are seeing potential in the humble bookmark. You can put your brand on them. You can put advertising on them. If you want to be very fancy you can embroider them, stud them with beads or semiprecious stones, design them with special rotating discs or tongues so they can mark not just the page but the very line you last read. Want to spread word of your hotel? Put free bookmarks in every room with your hotel's branding. Want to sell chocolates? Here, have a bookmark. Want people to know where this book was purchased? Here, have a bookmark.

I'm going to discuss this with an eye to Bookhounds of London and also Eversink (because why not). Much the same techniques could be used in Yellow King, but as I haven't read the Yellow King books yet I shan't comment. Heck, I've barely had chance to skim the post-playtest version of Serpentine.

First point: you can make bookmarks out of almost anything. Silk, paper, leather, cardboard, silver - whatever you like, which means in a fantasy or horror setting whatever you like. In a world where books can be bound in human skin, you can bet some charmer's tried to make bookmarks out of human leather. Moreover that charmer's almost certainly a medical professional, and probably someone working in the early to mid 19th Century, when interest in anthropodermic leather peaked. There's a certain macabre satisfaction in having a memento made from the skin of a condemned man. Murderabilia has become a recognized phenomenon in recent years, but as a tradition it goes back a very long way - after all, what's a hand of glory if not the ultimate collector's item? Of course in a fantasy setting this can run the gamut. A bookmark made of ghost? Why not? Leather tanned from the corpse of a dead God? Certainly sir - will that be letter of credit, or hard cash?

Second point: you can make bookmarks for almost any purpose. I've mentioned advertising and branding because those are the obvious uses, but you can spread any message. Religious or charitable groups make bookmarks to spread the Word, or perhaps just the word. It follows that any other organization spreading its word may do the same. Back in the 1970s, a Golden Dawn group issued 'magical' bookmarks to spread its creed. In a world where curses can be spread by bits of paper with runes writ on them, a bookmark could be a weapon. In a world where mind or dream control is a thing, a bookmark could be an infection vector.

Third point: bookmarks are transitory. People collect them inadvertently. I must have at least a score spread around the place, picked up in bookstores or on my travels. I've no idea where they all are or what they all are. Some came to me without my knowledge, stuck in the leaves of a book I bought second-hand. That's just the ones made to be bookmarks, mind - I'm not counting bits of used envelopes or old newspaper clippings shoved inside a forgotten tome. So there's any number of reasons you might find a bookmark somewhere in your house, your luggage, your hotel room. These things happen …

With all that, some seeds:

Graveyard Shift (Bookhounds): Your Shop decided it was time to spend a little on advertising, and bookmarks seemed the best way to go. A few hundred were ordered and you've been giving them away to favored clients. These aren't your standard bit of tat; you paid good money for best quality. You know the vendor; she's reliable, and a customer interested in Egyptology. Which would have been fine, except now all the Shop's best customers complain their dreams are awful. Some go on extended vacation - doctor's orders. Some customers just vanish ... Turns out that interest in Egyptology wasn't just academic. The vendor wanted to boost her luck and incised all kinds of charms in her printing machine. Charms invoking old Gods, meant to summon protective spirits. They attracted the attention of Rat Things, who decided to manipulate the vendors' interest for their own amusement. The Rat Things use the bookmarks as an infection vector, spreading dream control (nightmare fuel) with each bookmark. The bookmarks cause Egypt-themed nightmares which sap the owners' Sanity. This only works for a short period, perhaps two weeks, but it's long enough to cause the holder serious problems. Soon the Rat Things will get bored and move on, but not before causing as much chaos as possible.

Precious Memories (Eversink):  The designer Cestino once created a number of collectable cameos for adolescents wealthy enough to afford them. Several generations later those cameos are sought-after among the aristocracy, and anything rare and valuable attracts forgeries. The Cestino Bookmark is a particular kind of forgery, created as an attack on a particular aristo. Though it is made in Cestino's style (ceramic embossed in silver, with a little wheel attached to mark the exact line the owner was reading) it is actually marked with a discreet Rune of Humiliation, targeting the owner of the bookmark. Its creator intends to pass it on to someone they really don't like. The characters are either employed to deliver it to the target (a gift from an admirer) or to find out who made it (so the admirer can get their own back). Or both, as in 'find out who hired you to deliver this or I'll make sure your throats are slit one dirty night ...'