Sunday, 16 May 2021

Private Investigations (Mutant City Blues)

The recent Mutant City Blues reboot offers the option of playing as a heightened private detective in this brave new world of superpowers and those who abuse them, and that got me thinking: just what is a private detective, anyway?

The oldest examples are crooks who went straight - sort of. Men like France's Eugène François Vidocq, a rakehell, soldier, convict, probable forger, duelist and martial artist who turned his life around and, in 1811, joined the cops. Later, when the Sûreté decided in 1833 that it didn't need recruits with a criminal history, Vidocq formed his own investigative agency, Le bureau des renseignements, made up mainly of ex-cons like himself. Larger than life and full of devilment, Vidocq became the subject of plays, books, gossip, and several films, from the silent era to modern day.

His English equivalent is Jonathon Wild, Thief-Taker General, who operated roughly a century before Vidocq but without the latter's successful career. Less a crook gone straight, more a crook gone even more crooked, this gang boss decided that, in the absence of a police force, he'd act as the police. This allowed Wild endless opportunities for bribe-taking, racketeering and bounty hunting. Wild would offer to find and return stolen goods, and then extract cash from the thieves and the putative owners, threatening to expose criminals or actually turning them over for the bounty on their heads. It all came crashing down when Londoners started taking corruption seriously, for the first and possibly last time, and Wild went to the gallows in 1725, later ending up on the dissection table. His skeleton is possibly the most famous one in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons.

In the United States the most famous private investigator is Allen Pinkerton, a cooper (maker of barrels) who by chance discovered a gang of counterfeiters, informed on them, and as a result became a Chicago police detective. From there he went from strength to strength, eventually becoming Lincoln's spymaster in the Civil War, a union buster and a terror to train robbers and bandits. The agency he founded still exists today, and became synonymous with private investigation - the Pinkertons.

The earliest fictional detectives tend to operate along these lines, albeit slightly more respectably. Poe's Auguste Dupin is a man born to money but now poor, a kind of gentleman detective who can operate in both the respectable and less-respectable realms because he belongs to both, by training and circumstance. He shares this quality with Sherlock Holmes, whose antecedents might be of the squirearchy but whose financial constraints lead him to make money the best way he can. 

Holmes' creator Conan Doyle was himself comfortably middle class, but spent his early life in straitened circumstances due to his father's alcoholism and spent much of his early career bouncing from failed job to failed job before finding a niche in fiction. Whereas Dashiell Hammett left school at age 13 to work, eventually becoming a Pinkerton himself and, later, a soldier, before ever committing a fiction, and Hammett's protagonists are fiercely independent fixers and private agents. His contemporary Raymond Chandler had a decidedly rosier early life, but again financial woes intervened and he turned to writing to solve his cash problems, creating fictional characters like Philip Marlowe, world-weary intermediaries between the rich and those who would prey on the rich.

    Big Sleep trailer. Sourced from Movieclips

Agatha Christie meanwhile had a conventional early life unmarked by the kind of financial and social hardships that created Hammett, and thus Hammett's Sam Spade. So her characters are themselves fairly conventional. Christie's Poirot operates in a world in which he can specialize in the detection of murder, and Miss Marple doesn't really have to earn a living at all but finds herself mixed up in murders regardless. Whereas Spade has to do what he can to get by, and will take, say, $200 if you offer him, say, $100 to find a mysterious missing objet d'art.

Already we can see a stylistic break. For Hammett's Spade, how is less important than who, and why is usually self-explanatory. There's no question about anybody's motive in the Maltese Falcon, nor are there exotic poisons and doubts about time of death. Floyd Thursby is shot to death, Miles Archer is shot to death, all out in the open rather than behind locked doors, and the central question isn't how or why they died but where the Falcon is right now, and who has it. 

Whereas Christie's Poirot, Dorothy Sayer's Sir Peter Wimsey and others of their type are obsessed with how and why, and less concerned about who. The Mysterious Affair at Styles features a wealthy woman poisoned with strychnine, and the central question becomes how that poison was obtained, whether or not people knew about the dead woman's altered will, and how the poison was administered. Novels like these care about who did it only because someone has to have done it; the prize for working out the puzzle is finding out who, but the puzzle is the point, not the murderer.

So a Hammett protagonist navigates an uncertain world of changing allegiances and lies, where a Christie protagonist lives in a fairly certain world where crime is more of a logical conundrum than an opaque mist of bluff and counter-bluff.  You'd never get a speech like Sam Spade's at the end of Maltese Falcon in a Christie novel. A Poirot never needs to explain himself, or examine his own motives, because Poirot knows his motives are pure. A Sam Spade knows his motives are anything but pure. Yet that speech is the bleeding heart of Maltese Falcon. There is no heart in The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

From these early beginnings come others, operating broadly along similar lines - the specialist, the clever amateur, the genius. Seldom are they former crooks, like Vidocq or Wild. More often they are former detectives, like Spade or Poirot. Very often they're neither of those things but happen to wind up near a murder regardless, whether they bake cookies for a living or have a famous detective for a father. The more respectable the author, the more likely it is the detective will be someone either respectable or formerly respectable but now in straitened circumstances. The crime is nearly always murder, and when it isn't murder to begin with it usually becomes murder by the third or fourth chapter. A far cry from The Maltese Falcon's snatch job gone wrong, Dupin's purloined letter, or Holmes' Beryl Cornet. Finding the McGuffin isn't anything like as important, in this kind of narrative, as unmasking the killer.

The world these fictions live in is quite nice, on the whole. Someone might threaten them or try to hurt them, but as a general rule folks are pleasant, innocent creatures and they're not at the mercy of circumstance. If anything, it's the detective's job to ensure the world remains pleasant for everyone, and when it isn't they step in to make it so.

Every so often someone like Walter Mosley comes along and the detective returns to his roots as a middleman in a larger, dangerous world. In that kind of fiction nobody's completely innocent, least of all the protagonist, and often the dividing line between success and failure is vanishingly slight. However the Mosley's of this world are the exception rather than the rule; in fiction, there are far more Marples than there are Easy Rawlins. 

Devil in a Blue Dress, from Sony Pictures

So after all that rambling, the central question: who or what is a private detective?

The private detective is a hired agent whose job is to help their client achieve a particular goal. A contractor. A middleman. It's not their job to build a legal case against a guilty party, but to build the case their client wants them to. Equally is it not their job to denounce anyone from a pulpit. They work for pay, like everyone else, and their day-to-day resembles more a researcher's than a gunslinger's.

When your detective is a man like Thief-Taker Wild the client is usually someone who wants to stifle potential scandal or avoid a criminal conviction, and will pay any amount of money to make sure the truth never comes out. When your detective is someone like Vidocq then the client is someone who has been failed by the authorities, possibly because of political shenanigans, and will pay any amount of money to get what they want - whether or not they deserve it. Dashiell Hammett's protagonist in The Glass Key, gambler and racketeer Ned Beaumont, is built along Vidocq's lines, as is Sam Spade of Maltese Falcon fame. Philip Marlowe leans more to Thief-Taker Wild, particularly in The Big Sleep.    

If your detective is someone like Allen Pinkerton then everyone's operating within the law, but the law is a very big tent and can include intimidation, beatings, political twisting and shady deeds. Immoral, but not necessarily illegal. Or, if illegal, the kind of illegality that is seldom prosecuted and almost never successfully prosecuted. Mosely's Easy Rawlins operates in this kind of world. 

If your detective is a Dupin, Holmes or Poirot then not only is everyone operating within the law but also the law has a decidedly moralistic tinge. Poirot can say, in all seriousness, that he disapproves of murder - and he does so because his creator disapproves of murder. In much the same sense someone might disapprove of opening a liquor store on Sunday, or of spanking children, or of sexual behavior. Murder is wrong and people who do wrong things are punished. Q.E.D. Most modern police procedurals - The Rookie, Law & Order, especially L&O SVU - fall in this category. There are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are supposed to win. 


If you're looking for strict realism in your game then you're probably going to want to lean towards the Pinkerton model. Vidocq and Thief-Taker Wild belong to an earlier age, when there is very little law to speak of and almost as little civil authority. Modern society couldn't survive without some kind of organized leadership. Someone's got to be the glue holding this rickety bucket together, after all, and it's not going to be the PCs - they're too busy getting into fights and looking out for Number One. 

There's a lot of talk about Invincible right now, for obvious reasons, and while I've not watched it through I have noticed something odd about the series - and perhaps it holds true for all modern superhero comics. In Invincible, there really isn't an organized leadership of any kind. Buildings blow up and civilians get vaporized, but there's no suggestion of a civil authority, no real government at all. It's almost as if the planet is just a pretty backdrop for selfish costumed jackasses who want to party. 

A private investigator has to operate within society's rules, a superhero doesn't. A private investigator has to worry about getting arrested, about keeping her nose clean and not getting caught doing something shady. If the PI doesn't worry about those things then the best they can hope for is to have their license pulled, at which point they're not a PI any more. The worst case is time in jail, if not the death penalty.

In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade spends a fair amount of time keeping the cops at bay, and calling his attorney to make sure he and his client don't get railroaded.

The same holds true for your PCs. In any private investigator game the cops, the civil authority, the mayor's office and whoever else are all going to get in the PI's face. This might be because the PI is holding onto explosive information that could embroil the city in scandal, or it might just be because the PI is a pain in the ass who doesn't play well with others. Which would explain why the character isn't working within the HCIU. Either way, one of the main antagonists in any PI game is going to be the city itself, whether or not the character has a decent relationship with the cops at the local precinct.

The Pinkerton-style world is a little different from the Miss Marple and Poirot model. In a Pinkerton world the authorities may actively work against the investigator, our of malevolence or protecting their own interests. At best the authorities passively block the investigator at every turn, or make things more difficult. There are constraints on what the PI can do, and the authorities enforce those constraints.

In the Poirot kind of fiction the investigator - who doesn't hold any kind of license and is the very definition of a free agent - can do as they like, because the authorities are assumed to be on their side. They share goals, because this is a moralistic world in which people who do bad things are punished, and the law is implicitly on the side of those who do good. Poirot might have a friendly or not-so-friendly rivalry with the detective in charge of the case, but Poirot's relationship with the law as an institution is always sound. 

Take The Rookie. Nathan Fillion's John Nolan is always going to be on the side of righteousness, because that's the essence of his character. If tempted, he will never eat the apple. Thus his relationship with the LAPD is always going to be good, even when (at the end of the second season) it appears to everyone as if Nolan's gone rogue. The Rookie's LAPD is always on the side of the angels, and Nolan is basically an angel at heart, so the LAPD will always back Nolan's play.

Fictions like the Rookie might ape Chandler and Hammett in some superficial respects - after all, they all take place in Los Angeles, the heartland of detective fiction in America - but they differ in fundamental ways, which you as Game Moderator should bear in mind. The most fundamental of which is that, in a Rookie fiction, bad guys are always punished by the righteous, while in a Hammett fiction bad guys may or may not be punished, and if they are it's seldom by the righteous. 

That in turn will determine the shape of your campaign going forward, which means it's a vital part of your Session Zero. What kind of fiction do your players lean towards? Do they like the idea of being cogs in a mincing machine? A Pinkerton-style go-between, acting on behalf of less-than-innocent clients - perhaps even doing things that a more moral character would recoil at? Falsifying evidence, theft, bearing false witness? Then their clients are going to be powerful, unscrupulous people who want what they want whether or not they deserve it, because in that kind of world nobody deserves anything. They only keep what they can take.


Do they like the idea of being the clever, morally centered Poirot, Marple, Monk or Rookie? The kind of person who, like Poirot, refuses to act on behalf of the unworthy 'because I do not like your face?' Then their clients are going to be innocent people looking for something that rightfully belongs to them. No grey areas, only moral absolutes, and the adventure along the way involves solving puzzles, not playing several different gangs of crooks against each other and hoping to come out on top. In fact solving the puzzle is the only reason this kind of detective exists. That's why Holmes examines cigarette ash and Miss Marple interrogates vacationers at a Caribbean getaway. It's implicit that the criminal is bad and must be punished, and because it's implicit nobody's going to be examining their motives or delve into psychological angst over them. That just leaves the locked-room question as the meat of the narrative.

Knives Out

Anyway, that's it for this week's discussion. Next week, some Mutant City Blues scenario seeds ...

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Fly With Me (Heist, Night's Black Agents)


  Frank Sinatra

Pelgrane Press' Resource Guide for Night's Black Agents posits some interesting dilemmas for those oh-so-confident Agents. Let's see what can be done if we put those puzzle pieces together, and plot out a Heist. 

For a heist, says the Guide, decide where the McGuffin is and who has it right now. I'm deliberately keeping the nature of the McGuffin vague so you, as Director, can do with it as you will. However I'm going to treat it as if it were vital medical supplies, like a replacement organ, because that fits neatly with the planned location for the heist: an airport.

An airport can be a quasi-fortress devoted to security theatre, but it doesn't absolutely have to be. In fact, in a Stakes game the airport ought to be something that fulfills that James Bond fantasy. One of the top ten airports in the world, in fact. Fortunately this is a reality in which humanity is devoted to top ten lists of all kinds, and can find out this information easily.

So the central conceit is this: a Conspiracy asset is flying the McGuffin out of Whichever airport to Destination X, and once it gets to X the McGuffin is effectively off-limits. So if the Agents want the McGuffin they'll have to get it during transport. That means they can hit it at its departure or its destination airport, but either way it has to be an airport.

There's some talk that in the future we'll be using drones to transport organs, but for the sake of this narrative I'm crossing drones off the list. This is a manned flight. 

A surgeon plus bodyguard(s) will accompany the McGuffin. Whether or not the surgeon actually is a surgeon is neither here nor there, for the purpose of the narrative; as far as the airport's concerned, she's a surgeon. Depending on the nature of the game the surgeon might actually be a necromancer, a mutant Renfield, some sort of alien botanist or what-have-you. Her beefy travelling companion is just a remarkably well-built anesthesiologist.  

The objective is to obtain the McGuffin without tipping off the surgeon and her bodyguard. This allows the Agents a vital hour or two to arrange their getaway. If the Agents succeed but the surgeon and bodyguard find out about it, then either Heat goes up by 3 or the Conspiracy immediately initiates a highly aggressive Conspyramid response. Or possibly both, why not. After all, you're the Director, not the Saint. 

So, going back to the Resource Guide:

  • Uncover the nature and history of the target item. OK, I'm keeping this vague for plot reasons, but we know it's portable, we know it's being kept in a reasonably secure environment, and we know there are enemy assets watching over it. We also know that those assets won't be in possession of the McGuffin for a period of time, while it's in transit.
  • Gather intel about the holding facility. I'm going to go into more detail, but for now just know that it's a major international airport.
  • Gather intel about the opposition. In addition to the surgeon and her bodyguard(s), there's airport personnel, airport security, and random passers-by who may or may not get involved. 
  • Acquiring whatever elements are needed for the Agents’ plan. That's up to the Agents, but likely disguises or Covers include government agents, government agents from a foreign power, airport staff, airport security, some kind of diplomatic VIP, surgical staff, medical couriers. 
The holding facility is an airport, and for the purpose of this post I'm going to assume it's the top rated airport in 2020: Changi, in Singapore.

via Business Insider

It's gorgeous, it's massive, and there are plenty of opportunities to intercept someone - or their baggage. Let's say the couriers arrive several hours before departure, perhaps even checking in to that transit hotel the video mentions or spending time in a lounge

The question then becomes, do the Agents engage the couriers directly? Palm them off with a fake? Do the Agents wait until the McGuffin has passed into the careful hands of airport staff? Will the agents be the airport staff? Do they somehow intercept the McGuffin while it's being transported aboard the plane? 

As for complications, let's have a competing team. This squad has been hired by someone with more money than God, who wants the McGuffin for reasons of his own. He might even be part of a competing Node, which would explain how he knew about all this.

His team is pretending to be airport security, and will fake an emergency to get close to (and remove) the McGuffin from the Agents just as soon as the Agents take possession.

In order to do that they'll need to surveil the Agents. This may mean someone's following them discreetly, or tracking them over security cameras. In a Mirror game, one of them might have suborned an Agent. Perhaps someone's phone picked up some unhelpful malware. Whatever it is, the Agents are being tracked and unless they're careful the competition will swoop in and snatch the prize.

That's the Heist. If the Agents are lucky they'll scoop the McGuffin and get out of Changi before the competition closes in. If not, well ... they'd better think of something quick!


Sunday, 2 May 2021

Ravenloft & Gothic (RPG D&D5E)


Dracula (1931), clip courtesy Fear: The Home Of Horror

I first encountered Strahd many moons ago, when I still played AD&D. Back then there was no Ravenloft, not as we've come to know the term; it was just a big bad sat up in his castle, a spider in his web - and what a web! Tomb of Horrors might have been more lethal - just - but you couldn't move two steps in Strahd's labyrinthine lair without encountering something hideous, murderous and downright nefarious. 

Which, as Tracy and Laura Hickman, progenitors of Ravenloft, admit was the whole point. 

“Our [adventuring] party turned the corner and there [the vampire] stood," recalls Tracy Hickman. "I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing here?’ He seemed out of place with the other standard monsters we were encountering. I thought, ‘You’re lost. You’re in the wrong place. You need to have your own adventure, setting, and story.’ That’s pretty much where it all started.”

That was Strahd, and Ravenloft: one big backstory for one bad man. A former hero who'd done the unthinkable, and would spend eternity paying for it. The apex predator, locked in a Walpurgisnacht of his own devising, just as securely imprisoned as any serial killer in a supermax yet free to roam within his prison and tear all the other inmates a new one. His white-hot rage is what keeps the ordinary folk of Barovia deeply embedded in the magical mist that forms Strahd's prison walls, and if you want to get out of this hellhole, you have to deal with Strahd. 

His impenetrable fortress was the dungeon the characters would have to navigate, in order to track Strahd down and put an end to his damned existence once and for all. Less a castle in the medieval sense, more Neuschwanstein, except the 6,000 tourists per day who visit the home of Wagner-fanatic Ludwig II don't have to worry about encountering rust monsters, giant spiders or 10-100 bats. Not unless they're prepared to pay extra for the special tour.

Then it grew. From a castle sprang a Manor, and from a Manor whole new lands filled with other Universal Monster-esque grotesques. You got yourself your basic Frankenstein's Monster, your basic Mummy, your basic Poe-inspired gothic giallo, and by that point things were migrating quickly over to 3rd and 3.5 editions. 

I was already on my way out the door. 

I'd been falling out of love with D&D for quite some time. It was too rulesy, too mathsy, it lacked the horror elements I enjoy playing with, and there were other systems that did it better. White Wolf, Chaosium, Pagan Publishing, those were the places I went to scratch that itch. 

Besides, D&D then and (possibly) now has never been a good system for mystery-style games. Ultimately the whole point of D&D - at that time, anyway - was to march into a 10x10 room, hit something, and steal its treasure. There's not much room for story in 'see Dick smack Kobold. Smack Kobold. Smack.' 

Things change. There's a new Ravenloft core book due this May, and I'm intrigued. 

For one thing, D&D isn't the whack-smash-thanks-for-the-cash game I remember. There can be mystery, the unravelling of a complex story, strong characters playing out narrative arcs. That makes for a meatier, more interesting game at the table. So far, so good.

For another, the Ravenloft design team seem to be leaning heavily into Gothic tropes, which is even better. 

Gothic literature often evokes memories of Stoker, Shelley, and Poe, but I like to think of it as the natural home of Le Fanu, Richard Marsh, (The Beetle!), Ludwig Flammenberg (The Necromancer), Arthur Machen, Gaston LeRoux and many, many others. The monster crowd. The steeped-in-sin congregation. The ones who delve into occult grimoires and hide out in ruined castles and dungeons, buried deep in the Black Forest. The Bad People.

Gothic is something entirely to itself, completely unlike other genres of supernatural fiction. There's a magnetic draw that fixes you in place and keeps you there. I suspect, if you were to put a gun to my head, I'd have to admit that one of the draws of this kind of story, for me anyway, is that there can be a hero character, central to the narrative.

You certainly don't get that in Lovecraft, or M.R. James, and you don't get it that often even in Stephen King. You get an Everyman, swept into the story by forces beyond their control. Their only hope of coming out the other end in one piece is to confront the horror, bearding the vampire in its den. Even then, victory is far from guaranteed. 

Which, let's be clear, has its own satisfaction. The reader can easily imagine themselves in the same situation, terrified out of their minds and looking for a way out. It's more difficult to picture yourself as Sir Lancelot swooping in to save the day, than it is to imagine you're schlubby author Ben Mears, who decides to go home for the summer and really regrets his life choices.

Salem's Lot

Still, there's something satisfying about being a genuine, bona-fide hero confronting dark and sinister forces. The Hero is the Hero, and the d&s v's are as Dark and Sinister as it is possible to be. The canvas is splattered with crimson and gold, and it's your job to turn this into a masterpiece, even if you die in the attempt.

Dragon's Lair (Cinematronics) - home of more of my quarters than I care to remember.

This is an idea that draws you in, and keeps you playing. Even when everything seems hopeless you can be the single spark raging against the dying of the light. It's why Night's Black Agents works so well; you too, it promises, can be James Bond or Jason Bourne, facing off against something far more powerful than a mere Blofeld. 

It's also why Swords of the Serpentine captures the imagination. The city of Eversink may be vast, its hidden face a thing of nightmares, but you - you're a free blade, a witty rogue, and you can beat anything Eversink has to throw at you.

It's why Ravenloft works. At least, I hope it's why Ravenloft works. Like everyone else, I'll find out in May.

Burying the lede! I'm also working on a couple of Ravenloft scenarios I intend to publish via DTRPG. Feel free to seek them out at your peril, once they launch. Not certain of the publish date. I want to look at the book first, obviously, and I'm not sure when that will arrive on-island. 

Working titles:     For The Sound Of His Horn (a haunting hunting party)

                             The Three Crows (terror lurks at a sinister coaching inn on the old Svalich road)

We'll see how that turns out. I'll let you know more when I post the scenarios. 

Talk soon!

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Malta's Golden Ticket (Night's Black Agents)

 Malta is in the news again, and for the same old reasons - its cash for passports scheme. Recent reports indicate the Maltese government has been very elastic when defining the term 'residency'; the prize for residency being an EU passport with all the mobility that goes with it.

When the Maltese government first announced its residency scheme, intended to show a 'genuine connection' to Malta, it seemed legit; someone seeking residency had to spend at least twelve months in Malta before they could claim it. Except, not really; some spent as little as sixteen days in Malta, perhaps endowing a charity or two, just to seem reasonable. In order to do this they rented an apartment for a few years, sometimes as many as twelve people per apartment - all claiming residence, of course. The rental agreement was more than enough to prove residency, and with it came that all-important passport. 

As schemes go, this is cheap given the prize on offer. You could spend relatively little on an apartment rental, particularly if you were splitting the cost several ways. A quick in-and-out visit to your country of residence, just to show your face, and boom! You're a European. 

From the Guardian article:

As part of their demonstration of a commitment to their new home, Malta’s golden passport applicants were also required to invest €1.15m in the country, including a property purchase worth at least €350,000 or a five-year rental at €80,000. [per annum]

Some of the properties that were rented were significantly smaller than the size an applicant’s family would realistically have required had they planned to live in the property. In one case, a Chinese national rented a two-bedroom apartment for €1,500 a month despite applying for citizenship for 12 people, including six children.

€80,000 is approximately $96,000, if you were looking to get an EU passport. About the same cost as a high-end sportscar, so if you can afford a Ferrari you can afford to rent in Malta. I shan't bother to quote the GBP value; after all, the English already had a European passport and they tore it up, so presumably no citizen of the UK would bother relocating to Malta now.

The article's information comes courtesy of the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, a non-profit named after a Maltese anti-corruption journalist who was murdered in 2017. A Maltese businessman, Yorgen Fenech, has been accused of involvement in that car bombing, as well as being neck-deep in the government's corruption scandal.

For those of you wondering what you can expect from a property in Malta, I give you this Sotheby's listing. Which is ironic really, since the people we're talking about would never bother with any of these properties, beautiful though they may be. I mean, $23 million? Why would you? The kind of people in it for the passport wouldn't touch these high-end penthouses and detached palazzos.

All of which made me wonder: if it's good enough for Russian Mafia dons and dodgy high-net-worth individuals the world over, surely Malta's good enough for the Conspiracy?

I shan't go through the whole Quick and Dirty, but in brief:

Malta is a south European island nation in the Mediterranean, below the toe of Italy's boot and broadly halfway between it and the African continent. Humans have lived there since the dawn of time, but if you know Malta at all it's probably because of its role in the Crusades when the Knights Hospitaller were in charge.

Also, there's a film.

Given its location it's no surprise Malta has been influenced by every culture in Europe, economically, politically and architecturally. Independent since 1964; before that it was a British colony from 1814 onwards.

Geographically it's mostly low lying and rocky, with plenty of coastline. It can be rainy in winter, and is usually hot and dry in summer. What we think of as Malta is actually an archipelago, with only the three largest islands (Malta, Ghawdex or Gozo, and Kemmuna or Comino) inhabited - mostly Malta. 

Population, broadly 515,000, or about the same number as live in Sacramento, California. Valetta, the largest city, has about 214,000 inhabitants, so roughly half the total population of Malta; the vast majority of Maltese, c. 95%, live in an urban area of one kind or another. Mostly native Maltese, with about 21% other nations, and majority Christian (Catholic). 

Government: republic closely patterned on the UK's parliamentary democracy, with an elected President (chief of state) and Prime Minister (leader of the government). Three main political parties, being the Democratic Party (Partit Demokratiku), Labor Party (Partit Laburista), and Nationalist Party (Partit Nazzjonalista). PL is the dominant force, rocked with political scandals though it may be. 

There's one airport and two heliports, so unless you're planning on swimming from Italy your best bet is by sea - unless you're the sort of vampire who can get through airport security without setting off alarms. Malta is also known as a drug transshipment point, but as far as narcotics goes it's not a hugely important port. Mostly hashish from Northern Africa, bound for Europe.

So if I was a vampire what would I be looking for in a house?

Security. Isolation. Good transport links - I don't want to be schlepping everywhere on foot and horses are passé, always assuming one would let me ride it. Lots of acreage, for the hiding of things I'd prefer were kept hidden. In fact probably the exact opposite of the kind of house the passport-hungry want to rent, but I have needs that a grotty little hole in Valetta isn't going to satisfy. 

In fact, something not unlike this Sotheby's advert. A 5 bed farmhouse, renovated to exacting standards with 20 tumoli of land (a little over an acre), a stable and a large garage. Somewhere far enough from other people I can do as I like. Ideally it would also be somewhere on or near the coast; a private cove for the yacht would be ideal. It fits the James Bond / Hitman fantasy to a T, and is exactly the sort of place I'd use in a Stakes game.

However if I was going a little Dusty I'd skip that luxury - tempting though it is - and go for the grotty apartment in Valetta, owned through some dupe in, oh ... South Africa, why not. Someone who's never going to visit in person. Because if I'm really Dusty then this is all about the passport, and the great thing about an apartment like that is its anonymity. If I need passports for my Russian goons, or whoever it may be, I just funnel them through my Valetta hideaway and they emerge on the other side a new man. Or thing. Whatever. Anyway, they have the passport and that's all that matters, isn't it? No need to fake a cover when the real thing works just fine.

Of course, they do have to spend some time in Malta - a little over two weeks, more or less. Think of it as a holiday. It does make you peculiarly vulnerable for a couple of weeks. Alone, in an unfamiliar country. Anything could happen ...


The agents, through their usual efficient means (Accounting most likely, possibly also Criminology, Traffic Analysis, High Society) become aware that the Node they're trailing has a peculiar subsidiary: Tumoli Ltd, a company registered in Gibraltar that exists to own one asset, an apartment in Malta. This same apartment has been used as a residency address for at least half a dozen disreputable types that the agents know of, and probably more besides. It's a nasty little roach hotel on Testaferrata Street and as luck would have it someone of great interest to the agents is in Malta right now. There's no telling how long they'll be there; they only have to be physically present on the island for a few days to meet residency requirements. If ever the agents want to catch up with this person of interest, to gather information, carry out a discreet assassination, or some other reason, now's the time. 

Funny thing: when you provide temporary accommodation for blood drinkers, it creates problems for the neighbors. Nosferatu had his rats - lots of rats - and it turns out roach motel is more than just a moniker, this time around. A strange disease ripples up and down Testaferrata Street and some say it just isn't natural. Of course the government doesn't care; there's always something wrong with Testaferrata, someone's always complaining, there's always another community action group.  

To find out what's really going on the agents will have to take a close look at that little place on Testaferrata. Perhaps talk to the rentals agent who looks after the property, that twitchy woman with the bad case of polymorphic light eruption, also known as sun poisoning. At some point they'll have to catch up with their target, whoever - or whatever - that might be.

Then things really will kick off ...

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Big Winner (Night's Black Agents)

From Thrilling Locations, Victory Games James Bond 007 RPG:

It has been compared with being reborn. Once a person experiences casino life, the rest of experience pales. People entering a luxurious casino for the first time have noted physical and psychological changes taking place in themselves. They shed their mundane lives, like butterflies emerging from cocoons, and leave their worries and troubles at the door. Once inside, they are insulated from the ravages of the world by the cloak of the casino ...

From Double Tap: Cameos, Pelgrane Press, NBA:

The jangling crash of slot machines fills the air. You’re surrounded by mass market elegance, a vast honey trap designed to separate tourists from their money in a thousand little ways. Gorgeous couples saunter past towards the high-stakes tables, and tourists wearing Hawaiian shirts sit at slot machines and mechanically press the buttons to the sound of bells and chimes. Gossip in a dozen languages hangs as thick as the cigarette smoke ...

Particularly in Stakes games, which tend more towards high-octane action than John le Carré-esque multiple layers of deceit, a scenario set in a casino sets expectations. Yes, it could be the kind of Vegas strip let's-all-gawk mass market theatre, with pirate ships gunning down frigates every hour on the hour. Vegas shares that kind of showmanship with Macau, but there are plenty of examples of the opposite approach. Monaco built its reputation on high-end gambling, the kind that wouldn't be caught dead in a Hawaiian shirt. Moreover casino architecture design can be a gorgeous flight of fancy, the kind of thing that excites the senses just by being there - even if the point is to maximize the amount of time the average customer spends in their chair.

People go to casinos to stop being themselves for a while. They want to be successful, risk-takers, the sophisticated elite. Whether they are or not is neither here nor there, but the casino's job is to indulge this fantasy. To cocoon the gambler in a comfortable environment, one in which they feel free to do as they please - and spend money for that privilege. To feel like the big winners they know they are. 

For the purpose of this post I'm going to use the Casino La Seyne of  La Seyne-sur-Mer, France, as an example. My attention was drawn by this blog post by Archute, and further information has been taken from this architectural document by Archdaily. The Archdaily document is particularly useful for Directors, as it includes floorplans

Image by Javier Callejas, found via Archute.

La Seyne-sur-Mer has been an industrial, shipbuilding commune; it also built Iraq's nuclear reactors, destroyed by Israel back in 1981. It is part of Toulon, itself a major naval port, home base to the Mediterranean fleet;  La Seyne-sur-Mer is to Toulon's west. 

In recent years La Seyne-sur-Mer became more of a tourist destination, exchanging its shipbuilding docks for hotels and parks - not a million miles away from the changes that turned London's Canary Wharf from a maritime hub to a high-tech commercial hub. It's part of the Riviera, the famous Côte d'Azur, with its brilliant blue ocean. 

According to Archute: Visually it is a wide, relatively low, and geometrically simple building, said to resemble a great, docked ship from certain angles. It is only up close that you notice some of its sleek, glass-walled sides. The casino is also situated beautifully, in between an active marina and a new public park, as well as near a newly opened hotel.

It's relatively small as casinos go, if its Companies page is to be believed. It has less than a hundred staff, and earns less than $10 million revenue per annum. As a very rough comparison, the Hotel Ritz Paris employs over 400 people, while the Société des Bains de Mer of Monaco employs over 4,000 casino staff spread across several different installations - though with COVID those numbers have fluctuated. 

On the other hand it is very new; the build completed in 2016. That implies everything is as modern as can be managed. It also implies there may be snags that can be exploited; there are always problems with new build.

According to Archdaily: The newly completed complex is bordered to the east by a great leisure craft marina and to the west by a recently landscaped public park, at the end of which, just by the old drawbridge, stands a new three star hotel. The casino is thus at the heart of a series of large existing and future installations in the centre of a cultural and commercial hub which will breathe life into the old brick buildings, docks and the marina extension, along a privileged and autonomous beachfront.

                                            Image by Javier Callejas, found via Archdaily.

Image by Javier Callejas, found via Archdaily.

Now we've gone this far, let's talk about some scenario seeds that might use this location.

Data Tap. A hacker team set up a data leak to steal the personal information of the casino's high rollers, and everything was going according to plan - when the guy who was supposed to be extracting the data dropped dead of an overdose. Nobody else on the team knows how to remotely extract the data, and time is a factor, so somebody's going to have to go into the casino and take out the device manually. That means bluffing your way past security, getting into the theatre (seats 500), cracking open the cooling system and taking out the data collection device by hand. Sounds like a job for professionals - but why did that fella drop dead, anyway? Was it really an overdose, or did something else happen to him?

Beautiful Foil. An asset of interest who happens to be very close to a Conspiracy Node bigwig is currently enjoying the casino's hospitality. They particularly enjoy Texas Hold'em, and the casino boasts precisely one Hold'em table. If the agents want to find out more about the Node bigwig they're going to have to talk to the Foil, but that means getting into the Casino and staging a showdown at the poker table. Or perhaps inveigling the Foil to a dinner at one of the Casino's luxury restaurants, or maybe just cocktails at the bar overlooking the marina. Better find some way of neutralizing the Foil's personal security, or Fido's liable to tear the interfering agent a new one.  

Hollow Triumph. A former Cospiracy asset, now a desperate freelancer trying to stay one step ahead of his former comrades, has hit upon the perfect retirement scheme - rob the Conspiracy, which owns the casino, of hundreds of thousands in Euro it has in its vaults. This asset has inveigled his way into the casino as a croupier under a false identity, and is bringing in experienced professionals to help him stage the robbery now he's been able to case the joint. However those professionals don't realize they're being conned; he doesn't want money, he wants revenge. He's staging this robbery the same night his former master - his tormentor - is meant to be visiting the casino aboard her superyacht, docked at the marina next door. The casino vault isn't a vault; it's a vampire safehouse, where Conspiracy bigwigs come to meet face-to-face. He figures his heist buddies are useful scapegoats, and by the time the Conspiracy finishes chasing them down he'll have got what he wanted. [Potential Initiation scene for new characters.]

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Forgotten London - The King on Horseback (Bookhounds)

 From London Cameos by A.H.Blake:

It stands in a commanding position at the meeting of the ways at Charing Cross looking down Whitehall. 

The spot on which it stands is historical, for here for hundreds of years stood the last of the Elanor Crosses erected by Edward I. It marked her last resting-place for the night in a near-by hospital before her burial in the Abbey on the morrow.

The actual cross, of copy of which exists in Charing Cross station yard, was destroyed during the Puritan regime as savoring of superstition and the site was vacant until the Restoration.

This statue, made for Lord Treasurer Weston during the peaceful years of Charles I's reign and destined for his park at Roehampton, was handed over to a man called Rivett for destruction. He secreted it and brought it out at the Restoration.

After some of the regicides had been executed on this spot, the statue was put up, and in royal fashion Charles I looks down Whitehall to the place where in front of the Banqueting Hall he died.

See it on January 30 covered with wreaths from Stuart admirers, including offerings from descendants of those who suffered for the Jacobite cause in the rebellions of '15 and '45. The statue is by Le Sueur, and the base was the workmanship of Joshua Marshall, the King's mason.

 Image taken from Wikipedia

Blake isn't being entirely frank about those wreaths. Back in the 1890s there was considerable controversy when Jacobite loyalists asked for permission to place wreaths at the statue on the 30th. The government of the day refused them, and there was a minor scuffle with the police before the Jacobites were finally allowed to honor Charles on the day of his execution.

A bold and daring man is Mr. Herbert Vivian [leader of the group], Jacobite and journalist wrote the Western Morning News. He announces to all and sundry that, law or no law, he will... attempt to lay a wreath on the statue. I have not heard whether special precautions have yet been taken to cope with this new force of disorder though, perhaps... one constable may be set apart to overawe Mr. Herbert Vivian.

Before you go crowning Vivian as a hero of the people, he was anything but: his Royalist and Fascist tendencies led him to support Mussolini later in the 1930s.

Said he at the time, the world's galloping consumption will not be arrested until... Kings forget their ancient animosities to unite in a Royalist International uncontaminated and unhampered by the lying, cowardly, malignant Spirit of the Age.

Also, when Blake wrote that piece the statue was incomplete. Back in 1844 someone stole the statue's sword and Order of the Garter, and the items wouldn't be replaced until the Second World War, when the statue was taken under cover for safekeeping during the Blitz. 

So from a gaming perspective we have:
  1. A King's monument, built on the spot a previous King's monument stood.
  2. Overlooking a place of execution, where regicides were punished for their crime.
  3. Honored for centuries by Royalists and cranks.
  4. Partly defaced, by removing its sword and medal.
From a Megapolisomancy perspective we have a Lever that could be used in several different ways: as a means of causing death, of causing or punishing rebellion, of inspiring fear, of obtaining favors from monarchs, or of boosting any working that harms or helps monarchy. 

Moreover there's that missing sword and Order to consider. Lord knows where those ended up, or why they were stolen in the first place. It happened in 1844 on the day Queen Victoria opened the new (and current) Royal Exchange, its wooden predecessor having been destroyed by fire. Presumably there's some significance in that, though what is difficult to see. The Order of the Garter is a chivalric award, associated with the Military Knights of Windsor. The symbiology of a missing sword is easy to see. The removal of honor and virility both - assuming someone actually wanted to make a point, and not just to steal shiny things.  

OK, so all that in mind:

Hanged and Beheaded

A prominent Indian speaker and journalist, Nadrenda Patel, has been murdered. The body - most of it - was found at Charing Cross just off the Mall very early on a frosty October morning. The head is missing, and forensic examination can determine that the deceased was hung before the head was removed; Mr. Patel died before being beheaded. 

Aside from the gruesome nature of the crime, one other peculiarity emerges: in his pocket is an 1808 collection of children's rhymes, bought recently - at the Bookhounds' shop. It still has the shop label on the inside cover. 

Naturally the police are deeply suspicious, as is a private detective hired by Mr. Patel's newspaper, Muhammad Parekh, a former military man turned investigator. However the Bookhounds know they never sold that book - or any book - to Mr. Patel. They sold that particular book to a private collector, Mrs. Murray, an unassuming old widow who lives in the West End with three spoilt cats. 

Odd thing about that copy; one of the pages, with the rhyme As I Was Going By Charing Cross, is a tipped-in forgery. It shouldn't be there at all, and further investigation finds the invisible ink mystic inscription that drew the supernatural killer to its victim.

Their troubles deepen when Muhammad Parekh dies the same way Mr. Patel did, also in Charing Cross - though not the Mall, this time, and no book, though he does have a pamphlet with that same rhyme in his pocket. The police are convinced they had something to do with it.

The true killer is a paramental summoned up by Mrs. Murray, a rabid monarchist with Jacobite ancestry, who wants to use its powers to punish those who weaken the Empire or betray the Crown. Indian nationalists were her first pick, but she has a long list of potential targets. 

This paramental acts as an executioner so it kills in the same way the Parliamentarian traitors were executed - first hung, then beheaded, with the heads going up on public display. Mrs. Murray now has a fourth spoilt cat, that same paramental. However Mrs. Murray doesn't have the spiritual energy to keep this going, and her heart is beginning to skip; should she die before putting down what she summoned up, the freed paramental will do as it pleases - to whoever it pleases.


Sunday, 4 April 2021

An Upright Man (RPG All)

From Thomas Harman, A Caveat for Common Cursitors Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566) reprinted in the collection Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars, Imprint Society, Mass, 1973:

Yet notwithstanding, they have so good liking in their lewd, lecherous loitering, that full quickly all their punishments is forgotten. And repentance is never thought upon, until they climb three trees with a ladder (ie. are hung for their crimes) ...

An Upright Man is a skilled vagabond who makes his living by begging and thievery, in turns. Frequently they are former soldiers, or trusted servants who betrayed their trust. They're so called because they retain a certain rugged charm, and are clever talkers. They usually travel with one or more accomplices, Morts and Doxies, skilled at theft as well as prostitution. If they go to a stout yeoman's or farmer's house [and ask] his charity they usually go in packs of four or more, to get what they want by intimidation as much as appeals to the yeoman's finer feelings. At fairs or public gatherings they hang about in unremarked alleys and byways to beg, and to spy out likely targets. Their chief targets are lonely travelers, women and beggars - those who cannot easily defend themselves. Their chief defense, apart from cudgels, is their character; they're well practiced liars, bluffers and con artists. 

So in game terms we're talking about someone with decent Charisma (or the equivalent) as well as some talent for theft and brawling. This person might have had a good career at one point, whether soldiering or something else, but that's long in the past. Their biggest asset is their willingness to work together, to gather accomplices and make alliances with other Upright Men. Alone, they'd soon be caught and hanged. Working with others, having someone prepared to swear an alibi or two or pick a pocket as needed, they can do much more. 

When designing a game world, as has been said once or twice before, you start at the ground up. Design those things that the characters see every day. The basic layer, and as a reminder:

The basic layer is simply this: the things the characters encounter all the time, whether they want to or not.  The characters will always want to eat, to sleep, to move around. They'll buy clothing, toys, game consoles. They will have needs and they'll want to fill them. At the same time there will be events happening around them regardless of whether or not the players are directly involved, because everyone else in the game world has needs to satisfy too. This is at the heart of every system, regardless of setting or mechanics, and you can play with this layer in many different ways - so long as you establish it first.

The last time I dipped into this well I talked about Cheap-Johns, the base level of the market economy. This time let's flesh out the Upright Men, the base level of the non-market economy. 

If the Upright Man seems at all familiar to you, there's reason enough:

Falstaff is probably the most famous Upright Man ever to draw breath. Fat, roistering old blaggard, living off of stolen or borrowed funds, surrounded by friends yet truly beloved of none - save possibly Mistress Quickly, who delivers his eulogy. A soldier who once fought for his King and now roils for his daily bread, he's successful enough to draw in the Prince himself - yet not so successful he can keep Hal in check.

When we talk about thieves in fantasy settings it's usually painted as though they're members of some kind of elite organization, perhaps with a storied history, its traditions passed down by generations of thieves. Fritz Lieber's Lankhmar tales imagine such a Guild, its dead Masters buried with their jewels in a crypt so ancient their descendants have forgotten where it is. 

Yet historically while thieves do cooperate gangs like these are rare, often evaporating like dew. A decade, perhaps a little longer, is the most they can expect before entropy, arrests and an ageing membership brings them low. Dead Rabbits, Plug Uglies and all - given enough time and they vanish into the history books, assuming anyone bothered to write their histories down. 

No, the base level of the criminal world isn't some kind of proto-Triad, swearing loyalty upon pain of death by five thunderbolts. The base level is the wandering Upright Man working in loose cooperation with other Upright Men, bullshitting and bullying their way through a world that lacks the means to bring them to heel.

An Upright Man is someone with talent. They have a little charm, and perhaps a skill - it might be shoemaking, horsemanship, service in an army, something else. Fundamentally, they're clever enough to live on their wits and charismatic enough to work as a group when the situation calls for it. They can be intimidating but intimidation is not their talent; they don't get what they want by force of arms, not unless they work with others. Their natural target is the weak, loners, children, the aged. 

If they escape punishment, it's because they have wit enough to be charming, and to bluff. As Harman remarks, repentance is never thought upon until the day it will do them no good - except in the eyes of the Lord, and possibly not then. 

Not that the hangman is an Upright Man's only possible fate. Falstaff, after all, died in his bed, though he had plenty of chances to die on the battlefield. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. 

With all that in mind, a few Upright Men:

Bookhounds of London

Clarence Inkpen

Three things: fat, claims to be former constable and has a quasi-military bearing, never without his pipe and baccy.

Quote: Now, lad, don't be alarmed. I'm on your side, I am, truly.

Criminal History: Assault, bribery, pimp.

Background: Clarence is one of those people who's 'always been here.' Nobody can remember when he arrived or can reliably say what his history is. He claims to have been a police constable, but that was years ago in another city, and he keeps changing his mind as to which city. He knows just enough Law to get himself into trouble, and has a quick enough tongue to get himself out of trouble when needs must. His usual trick is the badger game, and he works with four or five different women all of whom he calls his nieces, though whether there's any actual relation is an open question. The badger game is simple: the target is lured into a compromising situation, and when things are at their height Clarence bursts in and threatens to bring the law on the unfortunate - unless the target coughs up a hefty bribe. Bookhounds know Clarence as a reliable witness - as in, 'he was with me that night, your worship, down at the pub. All night, yes indeed.' He's also a reliable forger of legal documents, and makes a decent sideline from forged pub licenses and similar.

Swords of the Serpentine

Simonetta the Red

Three Things: Always wears red, usually in barbarian fashions; false teeth, several sets, often uses iron choppers for intimidation value; pretends to be a Vontavni Horselord but was born in the Tangle and has spent time in the House of Broken Wings. 

Quote: Crush you! Crush you! Break bones! Smash face! Money, money, money or I beat you stupid!

Criminal History: Assault, Assault, more Assault, procuring indigents for purposes of Corruption (as in, taking unfortunates from the House of Broken Wings so a sorcerer can use them as a convenient vessel for ghost possession).

Background: Simonetta dreams of being something she isn't. Right this minute, it's a Vontavni Horselord, and that's been her obsession for the last five years or so. Before that, a mighty sorcerer capable of channeling Corruption to her own ends. Truth be told she's a Tangle wharf rat, but that's not exotic or interesting enough for her. Though she hates her Servile connections she has a talent for Servility, and can vanish into the background when necessary. She has Allies among the Monstrous factions and has been known to act as a go-between, buying supplies in the Night Markets for her friends who can't afford to be seen there. She doesn't have strong connections with any of the Gangs but knows enough mooks and thugs to gather together a small-ish group of backers, if need be. Her usual racket is protection, and she works small food stalls in Sag Harbour, the ones that serve the poorer working class. She's also a freelance leg breaker for several of the larger loan sharks, and uses her reputation as a 'crazy barbarian queen' to intimidate the gullible.

Fall of Delta Green

Geoffrey Battle Lydell, aka G.B. 

Three Things: Bullet head, toothbrush Hitler moustache, claims to have worked for the FBI and does have some law enforcement training (failed a psych exam and was disqualified).

Quote: Under the authority of Executive Order 11503 I am hereby charging you with ... [insert legalistic nonsense here.]

Criminal History: Breaking and Entering, Extortion, Impersonating a Federal Officer, Conspiracy, Wiretapping, multiple violations of the Mann Act

Background: G.B. never caught a break in his life, that's what he likes to tell people, and in exactly that way - G.B.'s gonna get his one day, you'll see, oh boy, they'll rue the day they crossed ol' G.B. ... He's a political go-between, messenger and bagman for any number of less-than-savory political hacks. As such he travels the world on missions for his masters. This week he's in Washington, next week Saigon, Berlin the week after that. He got his start (after his disastrous attempt at an FBI career) procuring entertainment for political meetings - hence the Mann Act violations - and when he proved himself as a somewhat reliable hand he was given more responsibility. He doesn't have any direct Mythos connections but you don't travel the world doing odd jobs for peculiar politicos without picking up a rumor or two. Several of his recent employers have MJ-12 links and he's sometimes used as a kind of a canary in the coal mine, sent in just to see if any of the rumors about (whatever it might be this week) have substance. Though G.B. doesn't work with a regular team he does know an awful lot of mercs, from Polish ex-RAF pilots now flying for African warlords to Spanish Civil War holdouts and Arab nationalists. G.B. has some knowledge of Fringe Science and the Unnatural, but his flights of fancy are usually best ignored; though sometimes when he's drunk he claims to be keeping extensive notes about his activities, who he's worked with and what he's seen. Oh, they'll be sorry they hacked off ol' G.B., yessir ... 


Pixie Dust

Three Things: Man mountain, tattooed head to foot including sun and butterfly on face, twitchy and paranoid (amphetamine addiction).

Quote: You hear something? I know I heard something. Like it was someone laughing, maybe? 

Criminal History: Assault, Possession with Intent to Supply, Robbery, Bank Robbery

Background: Pixie Dust is an artist. Were it not for his less-than-sparkling personality, he'd be a vid star. As it is, folks all over Night City have seen his work, not just as light tattoos but also graffiti tags, particularly in Rancho Coronado but also in Pacifica Playground and Heywood. He got his start as a legbreaker working with the Coronado Pagans, but has since become a semi-independent contractor. Even the Pagans think he's a loose cannon, about to blow, and they don't want to be too close when he does. Still, they love his work. There isn't a Pagan who doesn't have some of Pixie's ink on them, and he's no slouch at customizing their rides either. He often works with Perfect Trung, the braindance-obsessed fixer, and due to his talent he has plenty of Rocker and Media friends too - though friends is perhaps going too far. Drinking buddies, the sort who deal in favors rather than cash. Pixie often claims he's waiting for the day when he can pull off his big score, whatever that is. It's going to be huge. Talk of the town stuff, big media blitz stuff, the kind that will put him on the path to fame and fortune. Nobody's sure what it is, exactly, but they all know it's coming soon to a braindance near you.

That's it for this week! Enjoy.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

The Red Queen (Fall of Delta Green)

Recently, on the Bookshelf for YSDC, I talked about a Vietnam War novel, Play the Red Queen, by Juris Jurjevics. At that time I'd forgotten Michael Herr's Dispatches, or I'd have mentioned that Jurjevics borrowed his entire plot from a paragraph of Herr's. I'm going to quote that paragraph now, leaving out a small portion that might be considered Red Queen spoilers:

Those nights there was a serious tiger lady going round on a Honda shooting American officers on the street with a .45. I think she'd killed over a dozen in three months; the Saigon papers described her as 'beautiful' but I don't know how anybody knew that ... [redacted.]

Herr goes on to say:

Saigon, the center, where every action in the bushes hundreds of miles away fed back into town on a karmic wire strung so tight if you touched it in the early morning it would sing all day and all night. Nothing so horrible happened upcountry that it was beyond language fix and press relations, a squeeze fit into the computers would make the heaviest numbers jump up and dance. You'd either meet an optimism that no violence could unconvince, or a cynicism that would eat itself empty every day and then turn, hungry and malignant, on whatever it could for a bite, friendly or hostile, it didn't matter. Those men called dead Vietnamese 'believers', a lost American patrol was 'a black eye,' they talked as though killing a man was nothing more than depriving him of his vigor. 

One thing Jujevics hammers, which Herr does not (as he spends more time out of Saigon), is how irredeemably corrupt Saigon became in this period. Everyone's on the make, from the corporals to the colonels to the astrologer telling fortunes in the tea shop. Troops go back and forth to the Indian money changers, there to exchange their pay (and extracurricular funds)  at favorable rates. Spooks from Langley are ferrying vast quantities of dirty currency to Hong Kong, there to be laundered and put back in circulation. Up in the Ambassador's Mansion Henry Cabot Lodge is scheming, and down in the town the Red Queen is picking her next target - though whether she's doing so on the CIA's behalf, the Viet Cong's, or on a mission of her own devising is an open question. 

This is all the more pressing because, at the time of Jurjevics' novel, Prime Minister Diem is on the verge of toppling, yet again. His generals are plotting to depose him, everybody knows it, and the only serious consideration is whether or not Diem and his closest people be extradited somewhere safe before the ax falls. It's not the first time Diem's regime, and life, has been threatened but everyone thinks it will be the last.

The Fall of Delta Green takes place during this period. Perhaps the most likely occult organization to be involved, aside from Delta Green itself, is the Order of the Black Buddha (p305). It's a fair bet that any Delta agents operating in Saigon are at least going to spare a moment's thought for American officers being gunned down by a mysterious female assassin. Using Constructing a Crime (p 312) as a baseline:

The Victim(s): An American officer of captain rank or higher. Further investigation shows that they're all working in procurement in one capacity or another; these aren't just REMFs, they're accountants and auditors - the people who know where the money goes and who set it in motion.

The Deed: Each time the target was shot at a distance by a woman using a .45 caliber pistol, who immediately speeds away on the back of a scooter driven by an accomplice. The weapon, forensics can determine, is a Savage 1907, manufactured for the French in the Great War; it probably made its way to Vietnam as a police sidearm, before the assassin got hold of it. Her marksmanship is impeccable, never more than one shot per kill. Funny thing; at each scene there's a graffiti skull on the ground or wall next to or very near to the victim. It seems to have been put there beforehand.

The Culprit: The assassin is a Vietnamese woman approximately between the ages of 25 and 30, according to witnesses, who also describe her as 'beautiful.' She has one or more accomplices who act as getaway drivers, and there may be still others who act as spotters. All of them appear to be VC, and judging by strategy and tactics are veteran guerillas. The shooter is a class apart, with talent that could easily have taken her to the Olympics - but will probably take her to the boneyard. Further investigation brings their allegiance into question; is this actually a CIA-backed cleanup crew, eliminating witnesses that might later testify as to the source and whereabouts of its slush fund? Or is this a Russian effort, perhaps GRU-SV8 working through KGB cutouts, to destabilize a Delta Green cash cow? Who really controls all that money flowing through the system to Hong Kong and back? Criminals? The CIA? Someone - something - else? 

The Puzzle: That graffiti skull at the crime scene uses magical theory derived from Hermann Mülder's 1939 text Geheimes Mysterium von Asien, the limited edition published for the Karotechia. Use some of your own blood to make the paint and inscribe the death image at a place of your choosing. So long as you're shooting at that point, you gain 4 points Firearms pool and can spend or pull off combat tricks as though you had Cherry level expertise, whether you do or don't. Damage is always considered to be Point Blank for the weapon, no matter how far distant the shooter. This doesn't affect forensics, only damage - so, eg, no gunpowder burns from muzzle contact with flesh, but the wound is in all other respects as bad as it would have been if the weapon was pressing against the target's forehead. Of course, you need to make sure your target is standing where you want them to stand, which is a whole other problem. [Note: DG doesn't use Cherries but NBA does, extra text included to ensure NBA rules taken into account.] There's one other catch. For 24 hours after this magical shootist's trick, the shooter is exceptionally vulnerable to being shot and takes +2 damage from any successful Firearms attack.

Question being, how did this hit team get hold of a Karotechia text? 

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 21 March 2021

Forgotten London: Mother Red-Cap

From The Lore of the Land, Westwood & Simpson, 2006:

A Camden Town pub now called the World's End was formerly a famous coaching inn, the Mother Red Cap. It got its name because it was built on the site of an old cottage, the home of notorious seventeenth-century fortune-teller known either as Mother Damnable or Mother Red Cap. ... According to the account in Samuel Palmer's History of St. Pancras in 1870 (itself based on an older pamphlet), her parents were suspected of practicing black magic and were hanged for killing a girl by witchcraft ... She was strikingly ugly, kept a huge black cat, and like many who practiced magic for a living, she enhanced her reputation by eccentricities of dress - in her case the red bonnet which gave her the nickname ...

Allegedly the Devil came to claim her when she died, and this was witnessed by hundreds of people who gathered at her deathbed. The Lore of the Land says this could as easily have been one of the bystanders playing a prank, perhaps trying to scare the old woman to death. If so, it worked.

A coaching inn, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a waypoint. Before railways became the new mode of travel, if you went by road then you probably went by coach or at least horse, which meant you needed places to stop and rest your horse along the way - or, if you were a coach, swapping out the tired nags for fresh ones. Typically they provided accommodation, food and drink, and some became notorious as highwayman haunts. After all, how better to find out which coaches carried wealthy passengers or important packages than to spy out the goods at the inn?

A typical coach could manage perhaps 15 miles at a stretch (on good Roman roads) before needing to stop, so the coaching inn network spread like spider silk along the main roads, fifteen miles or so apart. Like society, inns and coaches were divided socially; the best class of passenger rode on top of the coach, the less wealthy were inside, and there were less well-appointed coaches for those who could only afford third class travel. Equally the inns split their accommodation into first, second and third class, with separate bars and lounges for different classes of traveler. If you were the poorer sort of passenger then you might be expected to share a bed, never mind a room, with one of your fellow unfortunates. 

The coaching inn was built around a courtyard, with stables, and that meant constant noise as different coaches arrived at different times of the day or night. Sleep was almost impossible, though if you got one of the rooms facing out rather than into the courtyard you probably had a better time of it.

Red Cap is not an uncommon English pub name, suggesting that the story isn't unique to Camden - and nor, probably, is Mother Damnable. Either that, or there's a host of Mothers Damnable out there, which isn't entirely surprising. 

Borrowing from the Two Nerdy Girls blog which in turn got its information from The English Inn Past and Present:

No definite system of planning seems to have been adhered to through the centuries for inns other than to provide a yard around which were grouped sets of lodgings and a further yard for stabling and wagons ... The old inns of London consisted in the main of a block facing the street with an entry to a courtyard within, the front part of the house being reserved for sitting-rooms and eating parlours. The problem of the Georgian buildings was to provide easy ingress though an arched entry for coaches, which made their way out through a gate in the further yard.  To right or left of this entry, which varied according to circumstance, there was generally a large room where coach passengers could dine; to the left was the coach office and a passage connecting with the bar and the coffee room.  The drawing room was on the first floor.  This arrangement was generally followed in all parts of the country.

It's not clear when Mother Red Cap changed its name to the World's End. Presumably it was still known as Mother Red Cap in 1870 when Samuel Palmer was writing about it. The website isn't clear (though that Underground live music venue is worth noting for scenario ideas), and I'm going to cross my fingers and say it probably happened in the 1980s when the site was redeveloped. There is one source that says it happened in the 1990s, for what it's worth, and also claims it was a notorious house of terror in the early 1800s. Certainly all records indicate there was an inn of one kind or another on that site since the 1690s.

The great thing about a scene backdrop like Mother Red Cap is it can be used in pretty much any of Gumshoe's established settings, from Night's Black Agents to Bookhounds to Fear Itself, Trail and Esoterrorists. It's been there throughout. In Night's Black Agents, for instance, in a Dracula Dossier setting it can be a place of interest from the Victorian age start of the Dracula story right to the modern Edom period. 

Moreover if the story about Mother Damnable's parents is to be believed then there's reason to think occult activity was significant well before it was an inn, suggesting it might have been some kind of ritual site or locus point. In Trail terms, a potential Fane. Added to that are the hints it might have had a bad reputation as an inn, at least in the early 1800s, and that Devilish visit when Mother Damnable died. "What haunts this seemingly innocent spot?" the players may ask. The answer may be more than they can cope with. 

So after all that, what have we?

An inn, in London, which has been visited by the Devil himself. A place where not merely a witch but a family of witches gathered, and which has been a London landmark for close on 400 years. A pub which is now a live music venue with two bars and a mezzanine level.

Scenario Seeds:

Gaslit (Bookhounds): The Mother Red Cap has had many famous or notorious customers over the centuries, one of them being Charles Dickens. A Hounds would-be patron (capable of bringing much-needed cash to the shop) is potty over Dickens and is convinced that a séance at the Red Cap would bring the great man back for a chat. He expects the Hounds to arrange this - after all, aren't they supposed to be expert in all things mystic? Whether they are or not, they soon hit a snag; yes, allegedly Dickens did live very near the Red Cap - when he was ten. Not exactly drinking age, even in the early 1800s when standards were lax. However if the Hounds probe a little further they do discover an odd Victorian shadow, very like Dickens, haunting the gaslit recesses of the old Red Cap. Whatever it is, it seems to know an awful lot about Dickens, but it only appears after midnight in the public bar. Its signature is remarkably like the great man's, which will please the Hounds forger no end ...

Coach and Four (Trail/Fear, 1970s): Camden was a nexus for trade, when the canals were still viable, and grand warehouses sprang up around the lock. When the canals failed the lock died, and with it went trade, leaving the warehouses to rot. In the 1970s a group of entrepreneurs banded together to create what we now know as Camden Market, but they find their efforts blocked by what people say is the Devil, come back to the Red Cap in search of old Mother Damnable. Or at any rate, in search of something ... A pack of Bleeders (Unremitting Horror) have set up shop at the Red Cap, and its sanguinary efforts are attracting attention. Peculiar thing; for whatever reason, the Bleeder attacks coincide with the sound of a coach and horses, as though a coach was trotting into the old Red Cap's yard.

Operation DAMNABLE: According to an article in Folklore magazine, written by one of the participants in the Highgate Vampire feud, a feral vampire haunts the World's End. The author references the Red Cap link and its devilish history, but claims that the more recent vampiric infestation is the work of Satanists. Ordinarily this would vanish into the murky dark from whence it came, were it not that a Russian attached to the embassy recently turned up beaten senseless outside the World's End. Probably just a night out on the town which ended badly, of course. Yet that same Russian was retrieved from the hospital by her embassy remarkably quickly ... and nobody knows where she is now. Even the Russians don't know, or that's what they say.

That's it for this week. Enjoy! 

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Bozos (Cyberpunk RED, CP2020)

I didn't expect the Bozos to become a thing, but they're a thing.

I'm running a short-campaign RED for my regular group, in which the lead, Shamus, is a Rocker-Chef, an Anthony Bourdain wannabe being run off his feet by his jealous mentor. He operates a food truck in Rancho Coronado and has just recently had his big face-off against Bob Ghandi's Bhaji Bomb (From Bradford To Your Belly) in which he emerged triumphant, thanks to his team and his encyclopedic knowledge of Friends trivia. Now he wants to break into Playland By The Sea, but there are challenges ahead. Think of it as Food Wars but with more gunplay and far fewer anime boytoys. Though Shamus is kinda the Idiot Hero ...

Anyhow in the first episode, when we were all just settling in and I needed to introduce the characters to the game world, they ran up against some Bozos who were holding kids hostage in Five, which I saw as an old Uncle McPorky's fast food joint long since stripped out and turned a bit Five Nights At Freddies. Acid balls in the ball pit, rats instead of golden tickets being poured into the ticket blaster, that sort of thing. 

Uncle McPorky's is all me, by the way. I was using that as a backdrop in CP2020, donkey's years ago. The Bozos are new to Cyberpunk; at least, I don't remember them being a thing in CP2020. According to the main book, p. 308:

When they first appeared, the Bozos were a prankster gang. Biosculpted to look like circus clowns with red bulbous noses, wild red hair, and long flat feet (no, not shoes) and costumed to the part, the Bozos became impromptu slapstick. But soon the Bozos became the ultimate killer clown gang. People living on Bozo turf learned the hard way that if you see a pack of Bozos, just run. Bozos enjoy playing on people's greatest fears: lurking in apartments in the dark, locking victims in small spaces filled with rats, stopping elevators midway and filling them with water. They are not funny.

I expected this to be a quick in-and-out, beat up the bad guys and save the day situation, with the added bonus that saving the kids would lead Shamus and his pals to a group living in Rancho Coronado that grows their own vegetables - perfect allies for a food truck business. 

Little did I realize the Bozos would become one of the most popular recurring gags in the series. Particularly the mimes ...

Incidentally if the players out there are wondering how best to encourage your GM in bad behavior, screams of fear, gibbering, and general expressions of terror will do quite nicely, please and thank you.

Killer Clowns aren't the most popular horror concept in the world. Everyone remembers Pennywise, and the classically minded might mention Pagliacci, but those are about the only killer clowns to have made a significant contribution to the medium. As a trope, they're not even a 0.1 on the Zombie scale. Gosh darn it, they're memorable, and that's what counts.

Still, even in Killer Klowns they are just ... clowns. Pancake make-up, red noses, big feet, pointy teeth, boom, it's a killer clown. Clowning has a rich history. Why not steal a few ideas and turn Bozo into something really special?

I'm using the basic boosterganger stats found in the main book (p 412), with minor modifications. Pyros and Psychos (p 416) for the main bosses, with the occasional Netrunner (p 414) Tech and Rocker as backup / floating opposition. 

I see these as Bozos with a purpose: cheap horror braindances. Jack in and be a Bozo out on the town, or see what it's like to be on the sharp end of a Bozo's rippers as one of the victims. There's going to be a market for that. There's a market for just about anything in Night City. Plus, the Bozos can sell surplus organs from their victims to Ripperdocs. Everyone's a winner!

At the very lowest level are the Mimes or Mummers, silent artists, working their way up to a speaking role. These are always basic Boosters. They can be mistaken for Posers since they sometimes borrow costume ideas from silent comics like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Variants: heavy melee weapon, cane with taser, light melee weapon, bowler hat with razor blades in the brim, both for swiping in close combat and short range thrown weapon, Oddjob-style. 

There's a strong temptation to incorporate Noh ideas in a variant Bozo gang but I don't know enough about Noh to really make it work. Still, Mime Bozos playing out a Mugen Noh plot complete with supernatural characters and themes is ... tempting. 

A step up from the Mimes are the ones with speaking roles, who I see as a Commedia dell'Arte troupe gone very badly wrong. Commedia relies on stock characters and cheesy storylines, and even if you've never once seen a Commedia performance in your life you can usually get the gist of it whether or not you know the language, because you've seen these stories before. It's soap opera with beautiful masks.

The usual characters include:

List taken from Wikipedia

You can probably guess, for example, what Arlecchino is going to get up to. A servant to two masters is the go-between, the hapless slapstick target. Maybe Arlecchino is cheating both of them, maybe Arlecchino is just one of nature's whipping boys. Il Dottore, the Doctor, is going to seem wise while spouting rubbish, but as Il Dottore is head of the household Il Dottore will expect to be obeyed. The old wealthy man is going to be trailing after the perky maid like a dog in heat, and so on. 

From there you can dig deeper into the lore to come up with variations. Arlecchino is also Harlequin, variously a devil figure and a trickster, a sword-carrying bravado and an indigent  wanderer. And that's all before you get to the modern interpretation.

So there's a heavy emphasis on sexual comedy with all the broad tropes and dick jokes that implies. Someone's in love (possibly more than one someone), someone's in the way (possibly more than one someone) and it's up to whoever it may be - usually the servants - to sort this mess out so everyone can live happily ever after.

There are variations. One of the most famous is the British puppet version, Punch and Judy. In that blood-soaked narrative Punch is both protagonist and serial killer, and if he avoids the hangman it's only because the world is crazy.

Mr. Punch is one jolly good fellow,
His dress is all scarlet and yellow,
And if now and then he gets mellow,
It's only among his good friends.
His money most freely he spends;
To laugh and grow fat he intends,
With the girls he's s rogue and a rover;
He lives, while he can, upon clover;
When he dies-its only all over;
And there Punch's comedy ends.

Punch. [Knocking down her head.] I thought I should soon make you quiet.

Judy. [Again raising. her head.] No.

Punch. [Again knocking it down, and following up his blows until she is lifeless.] Now if you're satisfied, I am. [Perceiving that she does not move.] There, get up Judy, my dear; I won't hit you any more. None of your sham-Abram. This is only your fun. You got the head-ache? Why, you only asleep. Get up, I say.- Well, then, get down. [Tosses the body down with the end of his stick.] He, he, he ! [Laughing.] To lose a wife is to get a fortune. 

The best advantage of a Punch and Judy theme is the wide variety of characters. Crocodiles, ghosts, devils, hangmen, policemen, skeletons, Toby the Dog, lawyers, servants, blind men - you can stuff almost anything into Punch and Judy. Also, since murder's all part of the plot, Punch & Judy's practically built for Bozo. 

OK, so all that in mind, what next?

First the basic structure, in a kind of loose Cospyramid a la Night's Black Agents.

At the very outer rim are the collaborators and business partners, the Ripperdocs, Fixers and Media willing to work with the Bozos to distribute the dances. These aren't Bozos proper but if anyone ever found out they were working with Bozos their Reputation would be trashed. 

I see these as low-level characters about on par with the pregens found in the Single Shot Pack. Anyone more influential wouldn't be caught dead working with Bozos. They might have a few allies or know where to find some Solo muscle if necessary, but otherwise anything they do, they do themselves.

Closer to the Bozos proper are the Netrunners, Techs and Rockers who create, edit and prepare the dances for distribution. They also prepare the lures and traps the Bozos use to sucker in victims, and maintain the Bozo vehicle fleet, such as it is. 

These are no higher than Mimes and Mummers, and might not have body mods yet. They can wear masks and costumes, and they're committed to the Bozo lifestyle, but they can't afford the full sculpt. This is both a financial and a practical problem. Someone's got to be the go-between. Someone's got to meet the collaborators and business partners. You can't do that if you look like a Bozo.

Next up the chain are the Mimes and Mummers, the ones with actual biosculpting. These are the basic boosters, and they're the muscle for the high-ups. When people talk about Bozos, the Mimes and Mummers are usually what they're talking about. They can look like anything - Chaplin tramps, exaggerated whiteface, something out of the Wicker Man parade - but their stock in trade is funny/scary. 

One step up from the Mimes are the Commedia, and these are the ones committed to their particular bit. Arlecchio is always Arlecchio, Il Dottore is always Il Dottore. These are the speaking roles, and while some of them may have Booster stats they're generally one step up from your average Ganger. Better equipment, better armor. Pyros and Reclaimer Chief types - mini bosses.

At the very top is the Psycho, the Boss Clown. Punch, or Pierrot if we're being classical. Punch can only tolerate other Bozos, and even then it's a very thin-ice arrangement. Seeing anyone who isn't a Bozo drives Punch crazy. When not laying about with his club (or gun, or grenades) Punch is kept happy with a combination of drugs and games. The minute Punch's happy pills run out, or the game isn't as entertaining as it was, is the minute everything goes pear-shaped. Probably in a six-block radius. For Punch is a jolly good fellow ...

Story Ideas:

  • Where's the Baby? Punch has lost track of the Baby, and the other Bozos want it back. If they don't get the Baby soon, Punch will start looking for it himself - and then things will get very complicated very quickly. Turns out, the Baby is at the same Night Market the characters are currently shopping in - the little scamp! Exactly what the Baby is, is a matter best left to the imagination; stats-wise, it's no tougher than a Booster, but nobody's allowed to hurt the Baby except Punch.
  • Jealousy. Pierrot is in love, again, and that can only be bad news for the inamorata. The Bozos have taken over an abandoned multi-story car park and turned it into a theme park filled with traps and unpleasant vignettes. Then they place the bait: braindance volunteers wanted to run the maze, with some valuable McGuffin at the top of the car park as the prize. Pierrot will 'fall in love' with one of the dancers and pursue them through the maze, singing all the while. A few other speaking role Bozos will also be on hand, to make sure the fight's as fair as it can be.
  •  Uncle McPorky's Strikes Back. The Bozos have captured a food truck and turned it into their own special mayhem delivery vehicle. They travel around Night City selling treats to whoever will buy - but those treats are nightmare-inducing hallucinogenic 'pork rib' kibble. Or perhaps that's not really rib of pork at all ... They film the trippy antics of their victims before going in for the kill.  

 La commedia è finita!