Sunday, 31 January 2021

Cheap-John (Swords of the Serpentine, Bookhounds of London, Cyberpunk)

From Henry Mayhew's London Characters and Crooks:

These men have several articles which they sell singly, such as tea-trays, copper kettles, fire-irons, guns, whips, to all of which they have some preamble; but their most attractive lot is a heap of miscellaneous articles: 'I have here a pair of scissors; I only want half-a-crown for them. What? You won't give me 1 shilling? Well, I'll add something else. Here's a most useful article, a knife with eight blades, and there's not a blade among you all that's more highly polished. This knife's a case of instruments in addition to the blades; here's a corkscrew, a button-hook, a file, and a picker. For this capital knife and a first-rate pair of scissors I want 1 shilling. Well, well, you've no more conscience than a lawyer; here's something else - a pocket book ...

Very nearly two years ago to the day I talked about campaign design, and how designing from the ground up is the best way to put together a memorable scene, or even a longer story arc. I said then:

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.

What more basic than a Cheap-John?

Magnifique Hooky Street, after all.

A Cheap-John has three characteristics. First, they have a main line of business. It's the up-front stuff which might have fallen off the back of a lorry, but it's what catches the customer's eye and brings them to the Cheap-John in the first place. It might be the tea-trays, whips or guns, it might be something else. In a Cyberpunk setting, it might be clothes - racks of Leisurewear, say. Or guns. Or kibble.

Second, they have their sideline - all the other stuff they're selling in a job-lot. A Cheap-John will sell almost anything, and make the most outrageous promises if it means making the sale. A half-dozen spoons, nothing inferior to silver, and that do not require half the usual quantity of sugar to sweeten your tea ... a splendid pocket-book, which must add to the respectability and consequence of any man who wears it ... a pocket-comb which possesses the peculiar property of making the hair curl ...

Notice the phrasing. 'Nothing inferior to silver' does not mean it's silver. 'Do not require half the usual quantity of sugar to sweeten your tea' means ... something, but probably not what the buyer thinks it means. The buyer hears 'I will use less sugar,' but that's not what the Cheap-John said. 

Third, a Cheap-John is a transitory business. Here one week, gone the next. On the move. Trotter's Independent Traders has its 1972 Reliant Regal Supervan III, knackered yet sturdy; symbols of British eccentricity, Wikipedia calls 'em. Comedic yet dangerous; you could drive those on a motorcycle license, and they tipped over and crashed at the slightest provocation. Point being, it's cheap. Ubiquitous, at least in its day, and it will get you and your goods where you need to be, more or less in one piece.

A Cheap-John is someone the characters will encounter all the time. They are the base level of the market, whatever the market is. More expensive traders sell more reliable,  authentic merchandise, but the Cheap-John sells whatever the Cheap-John can lay his hands on, and the lure is you just might find an actual bargain. Of course you rarely do; if that was at all likely, the Cheap-John would go out of business. The whole point is to sell cheap tat for more than you paid for it.

Legal? Of course it's not legal. Do you think someone selling cheap tat at the lowest possible price is going to pay whatever the local authority wants for a trader's license? 

With all that in mind, let's talk about three versions of the Cheap-John, with plot ideas for each.

Bookhounds of London

Morris Farraday

Age: indeterminate, but definitely over 40. Fat and wheezy. Works with an associate, 'Ribs' Macavoy, whose job it is to stand watch for the peelers and give warning if the stall's about to be raided.

Main Line: tea sets and china.

Sideline: almost anything, but the characters are going to be interested in his collection of pocket books. These aren't for note-taking; they're small paperback versions of popular novels, printed in the tens of thousands. They're useful for bulking up a struggling bookhound's stock. Morris' collection isn't exactly what you'd call mint, pristine or even complete; pages might be missing, the cover torn. That doesn't matter to the bookhounds - much. Besides, these have colorful covers that attract the eye.

Plot Hook: Morris acquires a suitcase from God alone knows where, and the contents are a bit literary for him so he offers it to the Hounds at a knock-down price. Papers found inside suggest that this is the very suitcase lost by Hemingway in the Gare de Lyon, Paris. Legendarily, it once contained Hemingway's entire literary output up to that point plus a large chunk of an unpublished World War One novel. It's anyone's guess where those papers are now; a large hole, chewed by a rat, in the bottom of the case may provide a clue. Oddly, once the Hounds get the case they find themselves plagued by rats of all kinds, including Rat Things ... but Rat Things are intelligent. They might remember what the papers said, if they don't still have the originals. The group's forger may be very interested in talking to these knowledgeable rodents.

Swords of the Serpentine

Pasqualin the Contrary

Age: no more than 20, at least biologically, and no matter what he does those moustache hairs aren't getting any thicker.  Thin and aggressive. Is on the outs with half-a-dozen different criminal gangs as he refuses to pay dues, tribute or any other fealty. Fancies himself a ladies' man.

Main Line: blades, mostly knives.

Sideline: oddments, particularly foreign oddments. If it came from somewhere other than Eversink and is cracked and damaged now, you can bet it will find a place on Pasqualin's stall. He doesn't discriminate; that peculiar game set with half the pieces missing is just as important as the tooled leather belt he got from a barbarian, or the colorful blown glass bottles with the odd green sheen.

Plot Hook: Everyone knows foreigners have strange ideas about how to treat their dead. Those born and bred in Eversink know you have to put up some kind of statue, but these horsemen from the Flatlands have odd notions. One of Pasqualin's cheaper items is a mask about right-sized for a child, which Pasqualin thinks is a death mask. Unbeknown to him it has magical properties, in that someone used it to channel Corruption into a blood relative by means of the mask. The child is long dead, and the sorcerer wants her mask back, for ... sentimental reasons. That's before the heroes realize that the dead child also wants it back, for ... sentimental reasons. 


 Perfect Trung

Age: probably 40s, they/them, loves Asia Pop, particularly Hot Monster brand accessories and glasses. Drives around in a bright yellow modified groundcar, the Forbidden Palace (cargo upgrade, counts as seating upgrade for spend purposes, housing upgrade, malfunctioning biolock upgrade - as in, doesn't always let Perfect in). Works with Nomad pack, Coronado Pagans, who help them with their vehicle. Sometimes Perfect has one or two Pagans with them on a run, usually Pixie Dust, seven foot tall shotgun-toting bruiser. Younger Pagans also travel along with Perfect as technical support; the Pagans see it as a good way of testing out wannabees and hangers-on. 

Main Line: Asia Pop fashionware, also light tattoos if Pixie Dust is with Perfect.

Sideline: Perfect rummages around in all the forgotten or broken-down parts of Rancho Coronado, particularly abandoned strip malls, so they often come up with software and braindance chips, pre-Red. Not all of them work as intended and some of them are so retrograde they won't work with current technology, at least not without Tech modification. Perfect fancies themselves a braindance artist and connoisseur, and frequently splices in old dance material to their latest creation for extra buzz. 

Plot Hook: Perfect needs a place to lie low after a braindance chip sale went bad. Perfect's not sure what the customer's beef is, but the customer has weight with the Happy Daze Posers and as Perfect's allergic to multiple Fonzies beating the snot out of them, Perfect's calling in favors. Anyone who can offer Perfect a quiet place to sleep at night gets whatever they want from stock, plus a tip on where to look for some sweet salvage.


Sunday, 24 January 2021

Body Horror (Cyberpunk)

Generally speaking people know what they're getting into when they play a particular system. A James Bond game is all about being Bond and therefore can be expected to fulfil Bond tropes - the quips, the car chases, exotic locations and world-shattering evil masterminds. A Trail game is about Cthulhoid horror and can be expected to be moist and squamous, with a heavy dose of American gothic, possibly a hint of film noir. A Cyberpunk game is about dystopia, people lost in a futuristic landscape looking for meaning in all the wrong places.

You rarely see mixed genres in RPG settings, but it can be very interesting. The old Cyberpunk had a quasi-horror setting, the Night's Edge books, that worked remarkably well. In that setting you might encounter vampires, ghosts, Voodoo acolytes and terrifying dreamscapes. It had its faults; it leaned a little too heavily on serial killer tropes. But when it worked, it sang.

Body horror is a storytelling method where the narrative attempts to invoke intense feelings of physical and psychological disgust, or squick, and plays upon anxieties of physical vulnerability. One of the most effective versions of this I've ever seen on screen is the 1999 Takashi Miike movie Audition, in which a lovelorn businessman attempts to spark romance by auditioning women to 'be in his movie' - but things go badly wrong when he meets Asami, a fascinating woman with a past. And a few extra feet. There is a moment with a sack ... but I've said too much, and the trailers I can find online are a bit too spoilery, so I'll stop there.

The essence of body horror is making the human form do things we consider unnatural, though what we consider unnatural can be very revealing about our own prejudices. Stephen King once pointed out that, in the 1950s, you could freak American kids out just by having characters with a relatively mild physical issue. Even a bad case of the zits and shaggy hair was a major taboo, at a time when good hygiene, medical advances and three square meals a day had sorted out most of a generation's physical issues. Cleft palates, goiters, and many other ailments once relatively common, vanished almost entirely from the landscape. Bones lengthened, teeth straightened, complexions cleared. People forgot the old normal and replaced it with the new.  

Clive Barker treads similar ground in Hellraiser, in which physical punishment - nails through the head, being skinned alive - masquerades as spiritual punishment. The spirit and the body are, apparently, one - mutilate the body, torture the soul.

Or Cronenberg, in films like Rabid, implying that a once-normal, healthy body can be tainted by, in this instance, a medical procedure, becoming a necrotic, corruptive influence.

There's no suggestion that a person's spirit and corpus is somehow separate; no immortal essence hidden behind a mortal façade. In body horror the two are one, and you can tell corruption at a glance because they don't look or behave like us. Often this is a buckets-of-blood genre, where guts and slick essences are spilt all over the screen and, by implication, your own home, since the whole point is to make the audience think this might happen anywhere at all, but especially where you feel safest. There's a reason why Hellraiser takes place in an ordinary house, why Rabid is set in semi-rural suburbia. 'This looks like where I live,' you're meant to think. 'This could happen here.' Of course, the logical tagline is 'it could happen to me,' which as you'll recall was Edwardian ghost story master M.R. James' famous bit of horror writing advice.   

It doesn't have to be awash with gore. Invasion of the Body Snatchers achieves a very similar goal without the slightest drop of blood, by creating invaders that look like us but aren't quite like us. All flesh, no soul. Whatever immortal shred resides within that flesh is annihilated when the Body Snatchers take over.

In my practice, I've seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn't seem to mind... All of us — a little bit — we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear ...

If body horror is the subversion of the natural - exploding guts and all - then cyberpunk is the conversion of the natural. We think we know what normal is, and then our expectations are upended. The only difference is, in conversion we willingly accept the change, where in subversion change is forced upon us.

Manga and movies like Ghost in the Shell explicitly play with this concept, going on and on about the Ghost without ever really exploring the concept beyond muttering 'The Ghost!' as if they were all ravens programmed to say Nevermore every few minutes. Paying lip service to the spirit without really confronting the concept, yet taking every possible opportunity to show off fantastic new body conversions. At times you wonder whether there are any downsides to becoming a cyborg, beyond a compulsion to mutter 'The Ghost!' every other episode. Nobody changes; the Major is always the Major, Batou always Batou. Even when changes seemingly occur, the series reverts back to the status quo ASAP in the next episode. For all the characters talk about the Ghost, it rarely impacts the narrative.

Cyberpunk the RPG setting does something similar with Empathy/Humanity. 

Empathy: Your ability to relate to and care for others, and take others into consideration. Particularly important as it offsets the effects of cyberpsychosis, a dangerous mental illness common in the Dark Future ... For every point of Empathy the Character has, they gain 10 points of Humanity (HUM) ... Cyberpsychosis Humanity Loss is defined (for this purpose) as a loss of empathy for others and a corresponding loss of self-regard or sense of self preservation. Subjects with low Humanity have trouble emphasizing with themselves or others as "real."

All of this should sound very familiar to CoC and Trail players since this is basically the SAN/Stability mechanic, except where in CoC or Trail SAN is permanently lost by exposure to Mythos sources and  temporarily lost by exposure to any number of frightening circumstances, Empathy and by extension Humanity is lost by grafting on technical adjuncts to the flesh. There's a side mechanic where Humanity can also be lost by exposure to terrifying circumstances, but it's encapsulated in a small chart on p. 231 and I wonder how many GMs run with the idea. Sanity is a major concept in CoC and Trail; Humanity doesn't seem as important in Cyberpunk. 

It's difficult to make those numbers mean something without engaging the players' imaginations, and it's difficult to engage imagination though numbers alone. Particularly when those numbers have a mechanical consequence - in this instance, loss of the character. To cyberpsychosis, but really loss of the character to anything, whether it's cyberpsychosis or the Spaghetti Monster, is just as frustrating to the player.  

Exactly the same conversation's been going on in CoC for decades. At first SAN and loss of same meant a roll on the Temporary (or Permanent) Insanity table, which meant that in some or all future scenes the player had to behave as though their character suffered from, say, a fear of insects, or a fear of crossing bridges. From that relatively simple (at times cruel, unintentionally or otherwise) beginning, systems became more complicated, until now we have setups like Delta Green's relationships, bonds and disorders system, actively engaging the players in their own spiritual demise. Because if they don't tend to those Bonds, in-game, the characters lose out big time.  

I'm going to suggest to you now that body horror is indispensable to Cyberpunk because body horror gets the players to engage in what it means to be Cyber, in ways other than crunching HUM numbers. Those implants and modifications they desire come at a cost, and it's not just in Eurobucks. Further, that body horror doesn't have to be guts and gore; it has to be a subversion of the norm. 

 White Zombie, 1932 Bela Lugosi film

White Zombie isn't a particularly interesting film. It's historic, as it's the first zombie movie ever, based in part on William Seabrook's book The Magic Island. However everyone who's ever seen that film remembers this early scene if they remember nothing else, because it's the most chilling moment in the movie. Nature can be cruel, but only man can be so pointlessly cruel as to set up a system like this. The dead toil to grind cane into sugar, and it doesn't matter if one falls into the mix and is ground up with the cane. 

It has a lot in common with the Moloch scene from Fritz Lang's Metropolis:

Sourced from MU History

Both scenes are dehumanizing people in service of a mechanized, semi-supernatural overseer, for a goal that might be pointless. Both turn people into things. Both destroy people to achieve their objective. The workers of Metropolis march to their doom just as unthinkingly as White Zombie's dead men tend the sugar mill. Both are made in an age when socialism and worker's rights were hot topics, vigorously debated in the halls of power and on the factory floor. 

Body horror - the subversion of body and soul.

Going back to Cyberpunk's player guidance:

1: Style over Substance: It doesn't matter how well you do something, as long as you look good doing it. Why should it matter if you look good? Because everything else doesn't. Imagine what decades of poor hygiene, lack of medical care and poor diet is going to do to people. Then add in radiation poisoning. Sure, if you're a corporate beaver, that's not a problem. Most people aren't corporates. Why do people cyber up if they can afford it? For the same reason people get plastic surgery. Not everyone needs a gun arm, but everyone needs to fit in.

2: Attitude is Everything. It's truth. Think dangerous; be dangerous. Think weak; be weak. Remember the sugar mill, and Moloch. The average primitive screwhead is going to end up sacrificed on that altar because they have no other choice. The average booster is going to die for some corporate's big power play because they don't know any better. That's what grunts are for. Are you a grunt?

3: Live on the Edge. The Edge is that nebulous zone where risk-takers and high rollers go. On the Edge, you'll risk your cash, your rep, even your life on something as vague as a principle or a big score. Why? Because the alternative is worse. Your principles are your soul, and you're trying to keep that as pure as possible in a world where people trade their souls in every day for a better butt or a new pair of eyes.

As GM you need to be banging away at body horror as often as possible, and you need to be making much greater use of that handy-dandy Humanity chart on p. 231. You should also encourage your players to go to Therapy (p 230) as often as possible, and maybe consider small Humanity rewards for interesting roleplay moments, much as CoC or Trail rewards heroic moments with a little SAN or Stability boost. After all, Humanity is ultimately about being human; there should be a reward for engaging with your Humanity.

As a final what-if, consider these potential body horror moments:

You enter the ripperdoc's dimly-lit den and notice, among the jars and storage tanks lining the walls, a new-harvested face floating in preservatives. You know that face. It belongs to the bartender at the Mad Hatter; you recognize that cute little mole on his cheek. He's been talking about selling his face for months, but until now you've always persuaded him otherwise. Guess he needed the money more than you thought. Wonder what he looks like these days ...

Womb rental - it's the latest thing. Some prefer vat-grown, but a healthy female with no significant black marks in her genetic history can command a substantial fee. They just put you into the factory for nine months, fill you full of sedatives to keep you compliant, and pop goes the baby. Of course, there are rumors that some of these women aren't exactly what you'd call volunteers, but hey - corp beavers need kids ...

You hear about the new factory they're building out by Jesus Street and Memory Lane? Remember about five years ago when they were going to renovate the old St. Simon Building, but the job stalled out? How they lost a cleanup crew? Well, turns out they didn't precisely lose that cleanup crew. I guess someone forgot to unlock a door when shift ended, and they've been down there ever since. Pretty airtight in those vaults, so they didn't decay so much as, well, became liquid. Anyway, there's good cheddar on offer for anyone who, you know, wants to scoop up the slurry and dump it somewhere legal. Or at least somewhere out of sight and mind ...  

You see that group over there? Garbage pickers. They work the mounds out by Hooker Loop. How can I tell? Well, look at the fingers, choomb. See, on the one hand you get those who've been able to buy new hands, or at least good second-hand digits. See how the metal gets pitted and cruddy-looking? On the other, well, there's this kind of ulcer you get from that work, it eats fingers ...

You want to sign up for the Hustle Truck? Comes by every morning, picks up folks who want to earn a little extra by doing odd jobs. It's not a lot of money, and the work ain't much, but it's legal; it'll cover your coffin costs, choomb. One thing, tho; you got to get the Hustle Truck chip if you want in. It's nothing serious. The people who run it, they want to keep tabs on you - how you spend your time. Just when you're working. The chip doesn't monitor you when you're not on the job ...

Remember how Nixon used to tell those tall tales about Japanese ghosts? The what-was-it, the nupper-something, that was the one that really stuck with me. How it could just wipe its face away, leaving nothing behind but a blank. Well, they say that the braindance viewers over in the Night Market that sometimes pops up in Bitters has this problem. You go into the dance, and everything's slick. You come out, and sometimes you see faceless people. Now, are these real faceless people? Or is this some hot-shit rewired brain bull you get from the Dance? This one chica, she swears that after she did the Dance she went to, you know, freshen up, and there was this woman in the same stall, red hair, and the woman turns around ... nothing there, man. Nothing. Blank, from forehead to chin ...



Sunday, 17 January 2021

The Forerunner (RPG Horror)

It was Christmas Eve.

I begin this way because it is the proper, orthodox, respectable way to begin, and I have been brought up in a proper, orthodox, respectable way, and taught to always do the proper, orthodox, respectable thing; and the habit clings to me.

Of course, as a mere matter of information it is quite unnecessary to mention the date at all. The experienced reader knows it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story ... Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper

I've been reading a lot of ghost stories over Christmas. I've a small collection of Ash-Tree Press books, any of which I'd recommend to a reader interested in older, more obscure ghastly tales. I'm not saying they're all winners - far from it. But when they work, they are brilliant. 

Christmas is a troubling holiday. In the early days of the Church the date varied; it might be celebrated in January, March, or December. However in pagan traditions, and in particular the Roman Saturnalia or observance of the birth of the Sun in Mithraic tradition, the proper celebration was in mid to late December (17th to 24th). Since the early Church depended on converting pagans it was felt prudent to shift the Christmas celebration to its current date. 

This, mind, is also the season of the Lord of Misrule. The dead return; in fact, in some traditions that's the whole point. In former days the entire house would be swept clean, the meal prepared, everything laid on - and then the family would go to church, leaving the house empty so the ghosts could visit, and feast. 

It's traditions like these which give birth to the old habit of telling ghost stories at Christmas.

One of the collections I've been reading is by David G. Rowlands: The Executor. Rowlands is a ghost story nut; he picked up the bug by reading M.R. James' work many years ago, and couldn't shake it. His style is similar to the Jamesian Circle, authors like Swain, Munby and Wakefield - in fact Rowlands is so fond of Swain's work he wrote several stories about Swain's clerical the Rev. Mr. Batchel and his Stoneground parish. I very much admire Rowlands' work, though he does have a habit I find annoying. He refers back to the old classics explicitly, by name, having his characters say things like "why, this is just like the events in Charles Dickens' The Signalman!" Do that once and you're forgiven; after the third or fourth repetition it becomes annoying.

For this post I want to develop an idea Rowlands uses in his very short piece, The Previous Train. I can't discuss this without spoilers, so be warned - but The Previous Train is only one small piece among many others, so I hope you'll forgive me for spoiling this one.

His long-running protagonist, Catholic priest Father O'Connor, is trying to catch a train. As with many of Rowlands' works the exact date is unclear, but judging by the circumstances it's probably 1930s-adjacent. He's in the Suffolk countryside, it's late at night, and there's nobody but O'Connor at the station. Even the station master has gone home, and there's little light; O'Connor has to read the train timetable by the glimmer of his bicycle lamp.

O'Connor hears an approaching train. It's not on the schedule, so he assumes it's not stopping and is probably a goods train, so he moves back from the track. However it is a passenger train and it does stop at the station. Thanking his lucky stars, he tries to put his bicycle in the goods wagon, after which he intends to board.

By the dim light within I saw the Guard. He was standing at the hand-break in the center of the floor. The feeble interior light came not from the lamp overhead, but seemed to emanate as cold phosphorescence from the very fabric of the compartment.

The Guard had not moved, and I was about to put my questions to him when I saw the cobwebs over his uniform, from his arms to the brake pillar; from the clutter of packages on the floor to his legs; across his face ... 

Fortunately O'Connor escapes, by luck more than judgment. It transpires that this ghost train isn't a relic from the past but a warning of things to come, for one year later exactly there is a wreck on that line and all aboard are killed.

Forerunners are supernatural warnings of approaching events says folklorist Helen Creighton, and are usually connected with impending death. They come in many forms, and are startling, as though the important thing is to get the hearer's attention.  

They share many characteristics with the German Doppelganger in that both phenomena can appear as warnings of tragedy soon to come. Or of tragedies just this minute playing out; Poe's William Wilson and the later short The Student of Prague play on this theme. An evil twin separates from the original - literally the protagonists' reflection, in Student - and goes off to create chaos.

Forerunners don't have to appear as a person; they can be an event, a sound, a recurring phenomena. A similar trick is often used in science fiction narratives, where the forerunner effect is often played off as some kind of time loop.


In The Previous Train the forerunner is a train, but it's not clear why it appears to O'Connor. After all, there's nothing the priest can do to stop the tragedy, even supposing he knew what the forerunner was trying to say. Nor is there any suggestion that this is a personal warning; there's no risk O'Connor will catch the train on the fatal day.

Moreover the forerunner in Previous Train is malevolent, potentially fatal. 

The jolt swung the figure of the Guard around like an awkward puppet and I looked into his dead face. I am convinced that my heart stopped for that instant, then I felt it pound away again. The skin was seamed and gray, blotched with decay and softly luminous. The last straw was to see a dim spark of light deep down in the eyes, behind the cobwebs. It was not the light of intelligence, but some infernal animation building up ... building up from the emotion and vitality that were draining out of me!

Using this in an RPG is a little tricky, in that the whole point of a forerunner is that it happens before the action happens. So where in your average scenario all the really gruesome, action-packed stuff happens towards the end of the narrative, in a forerunner story the supernatural unpleasantness happens in the first few moments of the narrative, and the players spend the rest of the session unravelling it.

For that reason I don't think a forerunner suits a one-shot session. A one-shot demands action in the final scenes, as a kind of pay-off or reward for a shorter narrative span. However it could be a really effective device in a long-running campaign, where there's a big event coming in the final chapter and you want to give the characters some advance warning. It has real potential as the inciting incident of a longer narrative, in which the characters' ordinary lives are violently interrupted by a blatantly supernatural warning, which they spend the rest of the story trying to understand.

It could be a very interesting trick if the forerunner creates duplicate versions of the characters, as with The Student of Prague. Then the GM has ready-made antagonists for the campaign, enemies who will advance in power as the characters advance and will oppose the characters at every opportunity. Always one step ahead, the doppelgangers ruin the characters' reputations, upend their triumphs, undermine their successes. No matter where they go, they can't escape. 

In any kind of horror setting the forerunner springs from the same source as magic. If magic happens because of demons, then the forerunner is demonic. If magic is the result of super-science beings meddling with the fundamental building blocks of the universe at the dawn of time, then dopplegangers are an after-effect of those same experiments; the universe's version of a bad acid flashback. If, as with Bookhounds, the energies of the city itself power magical effects, then those same energies can create forerunners.

A megapolisomantic working uses the city as a sorcerous engine to accomplish magical effects. Whether the city generates magical energies, or merely focuses pre-existing forces (astrological, geomantic, divine, Mythos, etc) is a metaphysical matter left up to the Keeper. Are all cities megapolisomantically significant? Bookhounds of London, p 76.

Let's say for the sake of this discussion that this is a Bookhounds game and you, the GM, want to use a forerunner event to set up a later, Mythos-relevant disaster. Let's also include Megapolisomancy, with the presumption that it's the innate power of the city that causes the event.

From that we get:

Shadow Train

This seed presumes the characters' book store is somewhere near an Underground Station. That's not difficult; there are plenty to choose from, including a long list of fictional stations. I'm going to call this station Hobb's End, after the station which plays a major role in Quatermass and the Pit

One or more of the characters are waiting for their train. It is the end of a long day, and they are exhausted. It is close to midnight, and there aren't many other people with them, down there in the dark.

It gets darker. The station lights flicker and dim, and characters with magical or megapolisomantic ability sense a disturbance, as if something powerful is gathering strength. There comes a pulsing of energy from the tube line, perhaps heralding an approaching train - but as the whatever-it-is emerges from the tunnel the station lights fail altogether, plunging the platform into darkness.

The characters can still see. Whatever-it-is coming out from the tunnel sheds its own ghastly light.

It's not a tube train, at least not as they know it. It is black, and its livery doesn't match any train line they're familiar with. It grinds to a stop but its doors do not open. 

Sitting in the train, so close the characters could touch them, are the characters. At least, in every possible way these creatures with their dead, luminous eyes resemble the characters. They gaze with indifference at their living counterparts. Try as they might, the characters won't be able to get on board the train or communicate with their doubles.

There's something else on the train. Large, motile, a mass that flows and bubbles.

With a sudden start the train begins to move again, and soon it eases down the tunnel. Once it's gone, the station lights come on again.

If the characters ask, the other people on the platform saw this happen but none of them know what it means. Station staff, if asked, disclaim all knowledge, though one or two of them might privately admit that 'odd things' have happened over the last few nights. Nothing on this scale, and as it never happens again station staff and other witnesses are all too keen to forget it ever happened.

Two things result from this experience.

First, any character who did not already have a Megapolisomancy pool has one dot now. They're attuned to the inner workings of the city, for good or ill. 

Second, any character present feels a persistent sense of impending doom. They don't know what it is. They don't know what it presages. They only know that it is coming and that right soon.

The rest of the campaign arc will be spent unravelling this sense of impending doom and discovering what it means. Exactly what it does mean is up to the players and Keeper. It could be a very personal event, like a disaster on the line. It could be a citywide event, or something of planetary significance, like England being destroyed by the awakening of an Old One. Whatever it is, is up to you.

Though the characters will not appreciate this at first, there is a third result. Their twins are busy. They, like the Student's reflection, are as like the characters as it is possible to be, down to mannerisms and dress - yet they are opposed to the characters in every way. They dog the characters' actions. If the character asks for a book to be reserved at the British Library, their opposite arrives and claims it before they do. If the character attends an auction, their double is there and bids for the prize.

These creatures are creations of pure Megapolisomancy. They cannot exist outside the city, and it's not clear whose bidding they follow - if they follow any creature's bidding at all. It may be they are figments of the city's imagination, as a dreamer populates her dream - but if so, does that mean the city is an entity unto itself? Is it dreaming?

Will it wake up?


Sunday, 10 January 2021

The Building (RPG all, Cyberpunk)

Rear Window is a fascinating piece of cinema directed by one of the greatest talents of the medium, but it struck me as I was watching it the other day how much it relies on a setting that is as dead and gone as Caesar's Rome.

Sourced from Matt'sfilmblog

Shot in 1954 and based on a story written in 1942, the concept, setting and entire premise relies on two fundamental facts about New York in the mid-twentieth century.

First, there is no television. The glass teat does exist, and the basic technology's been around since the late 19th century. Yet it hasn't become a commodity, it isn't in every home. None of these people own a set, and if the protagonist, James Stewart's L.B. Jefferies, had one in his apartment this whole movie needn't have happened. It won't be long before televisions become commonplace; Sony sold over 4 million portable sets worldwide in 1960. It just hasn't happened quite yet.

Second, there is no air conditioning. Again, the technology exists, but it's so far out of reach for the ordinary consumer that the average New Yorker prefers to live with their windows open in the red-hot summer time. Some even sleep out on the fire escape, as the only way to get anything like a decent night's rest. I lived in New York for a short while years ago, and I can personally attest the city's just as hot in summer now as it would have been in the 1940s - but that doesn't matter any more. 

From the Brooklyn Eagle in 1934, via the Gothamist:

15,000 persons spent last night on the beach at Coney Island and several thousand more sought relief from the heat in Brooklyn parks and playgrounds. Additional thousands slept on roof tops and fire escapes in the Brownsville, Williamsburg and other crowded sections of Brooklyn. In Manhattan, many slept on the grass in Central Park and on the open piers in the East River.

There's even a brief moment early in the film where you see someone delivering ice for the ice box, which isn't something you'd see nowadays. The ice box, if you don't know, is literally that: a box where you keep ice, so you can put butter and other perishables in cold storage. Once the ice brick you bought melts, you buy another one. Selling ice was a major line of business, in the days before refrigerators. It's something people have been doing since before the birth of Christ, and only came to an end relatively recently.

But here's the kicker: Rear Window can only exist because there is no television, and because there is no air conditioning. As a result, people live outdoors more, open their windows more - which lets Jefferies peer into their private lives, and provides the inciting incident that kicks the entire movie into gear. 

New York still exists. If you looked hard enough you could probably find a neighborhood like the one Jefferies lives in. The film's shot on a Paramount stage built especially for the occasion, but it shouldn't be that difficult to find somewhere in Greenwich Village that looks like Rear Window. What you won't find are a lot of open windows. The landlord will have made sure they can't be opened, since the law changed in the 1970s so as to stop kids plummeting to their doom. You also won't find many people looking outdoors; either they're watching television, or their mobile devices, or both.

Rear Window's New York is as dead as dead can be, which is probably one of the reasons why the 1999 remake with Christopher Reeve didn't work.

When designing a setting, think about how people live and what they have to do in order to live well. Not just the big stuff, like which Camarilla faction holds political sway after dark, or whether ghosts are secretly controlling the police force. I mean the small stuff. What do people do for fun? How do they get their food? Do they have light when night falls, and if so how is that managed? What happens when it's hot? What happens in the rainy season? What happens when it snows? What happens to all the shit - literally, the shit - that your average city produces every day? Is someone hauling that off to the tanner's vats, or the farmer's fields? Are there public toilets, public baths? Do people just fling their waste into the streets?

Not that you, as GM, have to answer all those questions, but even answering one or two can lend a lot of atmosphere to your setting. Say that street lights are had by capturing souls and setting them on fire, which is something that happens to the souls of the poorest of the poor who can't afford proper burial. In Sword of the Serpentine's Eversink everyone tries to make statues for their dead, but there are always going to be people who can't manage that, or whose statues break. What if the alternative is an eternity roasting in hellfire so the wealthy can have decent street lighting? What kind of ghost catcher would the city have to employ to make that system work? How would the poor feel about that? Would there be riots, with people demanding that instead of using the poverty-stricken the city burns foreign souls instead? How do the characters feel about that?

Let's go from the general to the slightly more specific. What I want to talk about this time is the Building, as setting and as plot device.

Rear Window wouldn't work if all Jefferies did was stare at the murderer all day. He has an entire world at his disposal, from Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyhearts to the sculptor, the newlyweds, the old married couple, the composer, and dozens of others who appear and disappear like mayflies. They all exist within an artificial concept which I'm going to call The Building, even though the concept extends outside the walls of the structure to the coffee shops and railway stations of the film's 'outside world'. In the film's conceit the Building is literally that, and Jefferies is tied to that spot because he has a broken leg. The audience hardly ever sees anything from any perspective other than Jefferies' room.

Loadingreadyrun recently finished a short series directed by Jacob Burgess called Not A Drop To Drink, a Vampire chronicle set in Vancouver Island. I recommend it to anyone thinking about getting into tabletop but isn't sure how best to do it. However I bring it up now because of something Jacob said in the Q&A.

In answer to the question, was there anything you changed about the campaign due to decisions taken during session 0 (about 1.09.54 in), Jacob replies:

I had nothing planned going in ... I made a city, I wrote a city and all of the people in it ... and then you drop four [players] into it. I really didn't plan anything ahead of time and I used the elements people gave me, what they wanted, what they said some of the characters' desires were because those are sometimes different things and sometimes they even conflict ... to then feed in and fold everything in, so we all created the space we got to play in.

Jacob created a city and all of the people in it. Many settings do the same; Swords of the Serpentine again is a classic example of this, where the GM has an entire city at her disposal ready to be populated. 

I'm going to suggest to you now, as GM to GM, that this conceit is the Building. It is the structure in which the action happens, and in which people meet the players, creating plot. It can be as large or small as you need it to be. Some games need entire planets. Some stories can play out within a single structure. 

Most of Rear Window happens within one apartment; Jefferies can see other apartments, other people, but he's as locked in as any prisoner in Sing Sing. If he wants to talk to other people, they either have to be in the room with him or he needs to call them on the phone. Half the tension in the final act is precisely because the audience is locked in there with Jefferies; they can't move any more or any further than he can. 

The Building is that area in which you, as GM, expects plot to happen. For plot to happen, the GM needs to populate the Building, either with people or events with which the players can interact. It is player interaction, not NPC action, that makes plot. 

For example, in a Cyberpunk session that I'm creating for some friends of mine, I've created:

Zhirafa Alley: For whatever reason the Zhirafa police drones have a bug in their programming about this crossroads. There used to be a CHOOH2 station here, run by some of the Aldecaldos. That went up in the third strafe. Nobody knows what happened to piss the drones off, but they regularly zap moving targets and complaints to Precinct #2 are ignored. Shooting back does not help; it only summons more Zhirafas.

I haven't written any more than that. I shouldn't need to. There's enough here to paint a scene and give the players something to interact with. Whether or not they go any further than that is up to them. They might never encounter Zhirafa Alley. I certainly haven't splattered stats all over the page, any more than (I suspect) Jacob gave each and every one of the dozens of NPCs in Not a Drop full stats. What would be the point? 

Of course, if the players start paying close attention to Zhirafa Alley, that's a different story. That's the point at which I start thinking about stats, and motives, and other player-engagement things. Just as (I suspect) Jacob at least partially statted out the more important Not a Drop NPCs, like the Sherriff, as soon as he realized that NPC could become plot-critical. 

Moving from the slightly more specific to the very specific, consider this potential Cyberpunk answer to the question, where do the characters live?

If you've existed on the internet for longer than five minutes you've probably seen at least one story or video about Hong Kong's coffin homes:

Sourced from Channel NewsAsia via Mythopolis Pictures

Lest we get too sanctimonious, it's worth reminding ourselves that coffins are for the rich just as much as they are the poor:

Sourced from CNN

Sourced from Here be Barr

With the obvious caveat that the rich can buy much nicer coffins than the one in the Hong Kong video.

This is nothing new. We tend to think that the ideal middle class environment is the detached suburban house with garage, back yard, decent schools nearby for the 2.5 kids we intend to have and so on. We forget that suburbs are a very recent creation - late 19th century, with England's Metroland - and only came about because the train, and later the car, extended our reach. Before them, we could only ever go within walking distance of work and food. People lived in tiny houses or stuffed whole families into single rooms in big cities because there was no other affordable space. 

Public transport was an incredible boon that allowed places like London to burst their boundaries, with buses, trains and highways creating new suburban opportunities. Trouble being, nobody's invented anything better since then, and the boomer generation's greying suburbs means installing more highways or better rail networks is almost impossible because grandpa doesn't want that in his backyard. That creates more pressure on the existing habitable space, which in turn creates demand for even the smallest of city habitats.

In the world of CP RED space is at a premium. After the nuke dropped, refugees ran away from the hot zone and set up temporary-but-permanent tent housing in what was the former Beavertown of Rancho Coronado. Many people don't have the luxury of four walls and a roof. As for public transport ...

Surprise, surprise. Contrary to expectations, the Dark Future has not yielded any staggering new developments in transportation. Years of economic strife and civil unrest have discouraged research into new ways to travel—in fact, the very act of travel has become very restricted. Don't expect the inner-city world of the Time of the Red to be much like the 20th century—a network of crowded freeways, packed trains, and swarming airports. Instead, think of it as a patchwork of badly up-kept roads, abandoned airports, and trains plagued by gangs and intermittent service. (Main Book, Everyday Life p 322).

So if you want any kind of work at all you need to live close to where you work. Odds are unless you have a lot of cash in your pocket you can't afford whatever travel networks exist, and that assumes those networks are safe(ish) to use - which they almost certainly aren't. When Rancho Coronado was a Corporate-controlled Beavertown with actual transport options this wasn't a problem. Nowadays, though, when you can't even reliably drive anywhere and Rancho Coronado is basically a tangled slum, we have:

Crystal Rock

Nobody remembers how Crystal Rock got its name, but it probably wasn't a compliment. When refugees first started flooding into Rancho Coronado many of them were temporarily housed in this old sports stadium. Over time, as Rancho Coronado devolved and it became clear there were few options for the forcibly evacuated, enterprising businessmen started adding portable Cubes, as a kind of an upgrade to tent housing and uncovered sleeping pallets. After all, it's not like the Rancho Raiders were ever going to play here again. Cubes piled on top of Cubes, and a couple of Cargo Containers were added to the mix for those who could afford luxury accommodation. 

Cubes: You live in a single windowless room with a nice strong lock where you can touch both walls if you spread your arms. Flatpack furniture folds out of the walls, converting your cell from a chair with a desk to a bed with a small television. [Notice how even this is better than the Hong Kong coffin; there's space to sit, and a desk. You could work from home in this environment. It wouldn't be pleasant, but it would be doable.]

Cargo Containers: You'll have plenty of places to store your things, a bed to sleep comfortably, a desk, electricity, a refrigerator, microwave, and sink, protected by the security of a strong lock

None of this was designed by any kind of qualified architect. It just grew like Topsy, built on top of what was intended to be temporary tent housing inside a sports stadium. Think of it like a ring fort, with the outer ring being the old stadium (now basically a kind of glorified strip mall catering mainly to residents), the next ring being open air tents and sleeping pallets, the next ring being Cubes, and the innermost ring being Cargo Containers. The final two rings are piled on top of each other, on foundations of building rubble and old abandoned Cubes. Sometimes there's a shift underneath that shakes the whole structure. It probably doesn't mean anything. You get from low to tall by means of escalators, which don't always work. Climbing all the way up to Container level when the escalators don't work is a real five-storey-brownstone pain in the ass. Luckily some enterprising folks have set up little mobile kibble wagons at each level, some even with seating, so climbers can take a break when they need to. 

Many of the people who live here are in construction and entertainment. Company transport wagons bus them over to Pacifica Playground to the West, where there are plenty of jobs. The ones who don't work in Pacifica either work in one of the nearby construction or factory zones, or they have a hard time getting by.

Utilities (power and water) are handled on-site by filtration plants and solar generators. The Cubes and Containers aren't plumbed-in (though some of the more expensive Containers do have micro-shower cubicles). Instead there are public lavatories and showers inside the Stadium, accessed by private keys issued to tenants. The company that manages the utilities, toilets and showers, River Bend Management, is every tenant's love-to-hate company. Brownouts are common in the hot months, when everyone tries to run a fan or some kind of air conditioning. 

Wireless Nodes nearby are run by three different service providers, of which the most popular is Feebus, with its cartoon winged man logo. Feebus isn't more reliable than the others, but it's cheaper. 

Gang activity was a big problem in Crystal Rock's early days, but it's less of a problem now thanks in part to BozoByeBye, a loosely organized neighborhood watch. Originally set up by a Solo who's since moved out of Crystal Rock, BozoByeBye was created to deal with a persistent Bozo infestation in the Stadium. Nearly every permanent resident has the BBB app installed in their Agent, and it's generally assumed that when an alert pings someone in the group will deal with the problem. Eventually.

There is no security per se. River Bend keeps a remote eye on its installation and occasionally a Precinct #2 Zhirafa flies over, but there are no armed guards on patrol. 

OK, so that's the Building. More than enough information there to keep the players entertained. What about the people?

Let's stick to three per area to keep things as simple as possible. So what are the areas? Broadly: the Stadium, the Tents, the Cubes, the Containers.

Stadium: Khan a cheerful little man in his early thirties (Aikido 6) who owns and operates PatchIt, a clothing repair store, bullet holes a specialty. He's dry cleaner, leatherworker and tailor to all of Crystal Rock. When this was still a sports stadium his store was a souvenir shop, and he hasn't changed the layout much. He also runs a self-defense class for Crystal Rock tenants. 

                Mulligan a broad-faced woman in her early forties, techie, River Bend's main maintenance operative. Big fan of BBB, will abandon a job in progress to go hunting with her shotgun.

                Hooman an acne-scarred Fixer in his mid-twenties, the unofficial pharmacist for Crystal Rock. Limited medical skills, nothing like a ripperdoc or even a competent medtech but he can at least fill you full of narcotics, slap your ass and send you on your way.

Tents:       Alice, formerly a dancer with minor exotic body mods (cat), lost her main gig after a bout with cyberpsychosis. Scrapes a living refilling noodle Vendits in the Stadium, dreams of getting back into Pacifica. Local strip joint TropicalMotion keeps offering her work and she keeps turning it down. 

                El Nagar, a Solo lying low after a really bad gig. Light tattoos indicate Triad affiliations. Enhanced Antibodies, Skin Weave, Vampyres. Keeps a machete and an SMG on him at all times. Likes to play chess.

                Sudo, a gambling fanatic who sometimes has a Cube but more often than not is out in the tents again. His main game is poker. His prize possession is his Netrunning deck (500eb), the only thing he's never sold or pawned. 

Cubes:    Dirty Dirty, affiliated with the Aldecaldos, is Crystal Rock's Shylock. Mid-forties, broad and brawny. If you want a loan and have something to pawn, he's your guy. He doesn't really live in his Cube; it's more of a storage space for the stuff people give him. The lock's much better than average, and you won't get the combination from Dirty Dirty even at gunpoint. Day in, day out, you'll find him sat outside his Cube waiting for business.

                Mikey, construction worker (borgware Sigma, heavy lifter), eternally cheerful, to such an extent people wonder if he's permanently stoned. He does a lot of work in dangerous zones; people joke his footprints glow.

                 Cleo, kibble vendor who runs a stall out on the Cube's rooftops. Korean theme, has a popular sideline in medicinal foods or boyangshik. Always on the lookout for her deadbeat former girlfriend Seo-yun, who's often strung out on Hooman's latest batch.

Containers:  Hibiscus, rocker/entertainer at a Pacifica nightclub, Redemption. Age impossible to guess, apparent age twenty-one. They specialize in pre-Bomb classics, more feel-good than high-intensity. One of Khan's dedicated students, and often runs the class if he's not available (Aikido 6).  

                    Wally, corporate shark (literally - shark aquaform), works human resources for a construction firm, Premier General. He's one of the few people in Crystal Rock who was actually born in Rancho Coronado, pre-Bomb. He remembers coming to watch the Rancho Raiders with his dad when this was still a stadium.

                    Bobbi J, media, street scribe with a local music scene focus, a regular vidcast, Spread the Word, known in Rancho but not elsewhere. Popularly thought to have links with Network 54 talent scouts. Almost pro-level dancer, technicolor hair.

That's it. That's the Building. That's all you need. 

Insert players, watch plot develop. Will they help Cleo save Seo-yun? Go Bozo hunting with Mulligan? What's the deal with El Nagar, and will some heavy hitters come looking for the Solo down on his luck? Is Dirty Dirty going to have to break Sudo's leg before Sudo coughs up the cash? Is Mikey borderline cyberpsycho or is his permanent happiness actually the real deal? Jesus, what is up with Feebus today - reception's patchy as hell. Will River Bend ever fix the fracking toilets - and what is causing that stink anyway? (My money's on a dead Bozo Mulligan chased down an HVAC vent, but you never know ...)