In the latest episode of their numinous podcast, Ken and Robin talk imaginary psychogeography, elastic vampires, word clusters and Ioan Culianu.


ChemistryAnd so the time has begun for teases of Dracula Dossier content. Not least because the time is being taken up writing Dracula Dossier content instead of “Call of Chicago” content for See p. XX, but be that as it may. (If you’re wondering what The Dracula Dossier might be with all this content of a sudden, here’s the link.) Those of you fortunate ones who remember The Armitage Files will recognize this as a close variant of its “Artifact and Tome” format, in which a device might turn up in any one of many ontological states.

So why an Earthquake Device? Because there is a weird sub-theme in Stoker’s novel concerning volcanism, earthquakes, and other sorts of tectonic Gothic mayhem … including a full-on volcanic eruption that Stoker cut from the final version of the novel. For some reason. And when I started researching this book, I uncovered huge earthquakes in Romania — in the Carpathians, even — in 1893, 1940, and 1977. Exactly and specifically the earlier time frames the campaign refers to. There’s a lot more that I found out, but you’ll have to wait for the Big One to see it thrust up to the surface.

For now, I give you …

The Earthquake Device

Appearance: This object resembles a set of pistons held together by a ring around a central shaft. It rests on a set of splayed feet, allowing the central shaft to rise and fall when fed electrical power. Leads for a truck battery are visible in a recess on the side of the ring. On the ring and the bottom of the central shaft appear tiny symbols and words in another language: Serbo-Croatian, perhaps? An Investigative use of Mechanics can tell that this device was not mass-produced, but it may not be unique.

Supposed History: Agents with Occult Studies (or Fringe Science, if the campaign uses that possible version of the ability) or a 1-point Mechanics spend recognize this device as a version of Nikola Tesla’s oscillator. In 1893, Tesla patented a machine intended as a steam-driven electrical generator, but soon realized that its regular oscillations actually tuned themselves to the resonant frequency of the building – or country – it operated within. During one test in 1898, so the story goes, he accidentally triggered an earthquake centered on his laboratory, and had to demolish the prototype with a sledgehammer before the whole building came down around his ears.

Major Item: This device, as Tesla feared, can actually trigger earthquakes. Edom bought or stole a prototype from Tesla’s laboratory (or Morris brought one over from America) and used it to awaken Dracula in 1893 – and to trigger the volcano that put him back to sleep a year later. This specific device was issued to the 1940 Edom team in Romania; Edom (or Dracula’s mole within Edom) may also have used it (or another like it) to awaken Dracula (or leave a false seismic trail) in 1977. By now, the British government has far more sophisticated truck-mounted (or satellite-mounted) earthquake machines, which explains why the agents can misappropriate this one.

To operate the earthquake machine requires a continuous supply of electricity for three days (three truck batteries is sufficient) and a successful Difficulty 6 Mechanics test each day. The severity of the earthquake that results depends on the tectonic instability of the machine’s location. Getting out of the earthquake zone with the machine may be a bigger challenge than starting the earthquake in the first place!

[[DA]] In a campaign emphasizing the sorcerous, necromantic aspects of Dracula, the device is actually a Seal of Agares, a demon given power over earthquakes. The tiny symbols are the Name of Agares and certain geomantic emblems; the strange words UUSUR and ITAR channel Agares’ power into an earthquake. A 1-point Occult Studies spend (or a 1-point Research spend in a well-stocked occult library; or a 2-point Research spend and a good Internet connection; or a 0-point spend of Occult Studies while consulting Le Dragon Noir) recognizes all of the above.

To activate the earthquake device requires a simple battery discharge (Difficulty 3 Mechanics test, replacing the traditional lightning-strike), a supply of blood (at least 4 Health) decanted into the “pistons” each night, a specialized pentacle containing the Seal and the caster, three nights of spell casting, and a successful Difficulty 7 Stability test each night. The severity of the earthquake that results depends on the amount of blood sacrificed, and perhaps on the tectonic instability of the Seal’s location. Dracula can cast the spell more rapidly, if he needs to.

The specific spell is not available online; discovering it requires a week’s Research (3 point spend) or two days’ Occult Studies (2 point spend) in a well-stocked occult library, or access to Le Dragon Noir. With a 1-point Occult Studies spend, an agent knows that the spell is in Le Dragon Noir. The Director may well rule that only Le Dragon Noir (and possibly an Edom field manual somewhere) has the spell, and no amount of research outside the Scholomance can uncover it.

Minor Item: The device is actually a field seismometer dating back to 1893, used by the Harker team to find Castle Dracula by triangulating on temblors. Its design is more rugged and portable than a standard Milne seismograph. The central shaft holds the heavy pendulum; the other “pistons” hold mercury bubbles (viewed through a glass underneath the piston cap) and a battery: the “battery leads” are actually intended to connect to a telegraph key and line. A 1-point Geology spend recognizes it for what it is, and can even “read” it, although without a telegraph hookup, its output is less useful.

Fraudulent: The object is a fake “Tesla” device built by the mole to send Edom on a wild goose chase through the worlds of seismology: there is no direct connection between Dracula and earthquakes, except for the coincidence of his awakening and the 1893 quakes, and perhaps of the 1940 quake knocking Harker’s Kukri loose from his chest.

If the Director would like to keep the Dracula-earthquake connection alive, the device might still be authentic, but was left out in the Romanian countryside long enough to get broken and rusted beyond repair.

Connections: The Former Gehlen Org and Van Sloan  know of the device’s existence, as does the Old Seismologist. The object itself might be in Van Sloan’s house, or in a neglected corner of the HMS Proserpine, Ring, or the Citta della Scienza Museum.

MV_Lyubov_OrlowaGUMSHOE is a game system that privileges bite-size morsels of neat-sounding knowledge. Ideally creepy neat-sounding knowledge, handed out in such a way as to imply a whole universe of such things just beyond the players’ horizon. It’s as though Robin invented it thinking solely of me. Even before Trail of Cthulhu, I liked to make a habit of flavoring my game books with morsels of neat-sounding knowledge, laid out in such a way as to imply … that I knew all there was to know about architecture, or Gnosticism, or astrological decans, or aviation history, and had just picked one or two morsels for the delectation of the reader. Friends, I am here to tell you that is an illusion. I am frighteningly widely (that is, mostly uselessly) read and at have been trying with some success to drown a trick memory under waves of vodka, but I do not know all there is to know about any of those things (except possibly astrological decans, because there isn’t much to know about those in the first place).

With that confession off our chest, let me proceed to show you that such knowledge is an illusion. Better still, it is an illusion YOU can cultivate in the service of being a GUMSHOE adventure writer, whether pro or am. Any GUMSHOE GM can use this foolproof method on pretty much anything. You just need about an hour and a search engine.

It begins.

In the fourth week of January of this year, my Twitter, Facebook, and email feeds all blew up with the news that there was a Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship approaching England. A decommissioned 300-foot Russian cruise ship, the MV Lyubov Orlova, broke its chain off Newfoundland on January 23, 2013 while being towed to the Dominican Republic to be scrapped. Its emergency beacons transmitted in the mid-Atlantic, then went silent. About a year later, a Belgian “marine missions specialist” (read: excitable goof) speculated in the press (well, in the Sun) that the ship’s rats had devolved into cannibalism. Hey presto, Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship. I should not have to explain, at this late date, why or even how this is essentially a perfect Night’s Black Agents story hook.

As with so many perfect garat_monkey_deadaliveme hooks, various  killjoys set about pouring cold water (the icy waters of the North Atlantic!) on the story. (I don’t really want to get political about this, but I just love that the Guardian went the extra mile and found someone to assure their readership that the rats would instead set up a socialist utopia.) As with so many debunkers, they let their skepticism out-race the facts on the ground. Er, water. Or, as the Robert Benchley of the 21st century, Mallory Ortberg, put it on Twitter:

“the ocean is a PRETTY big place, I don’t think you can definitively say there are NO rat-ghost ships on their way to England right now”

But the skeptics did one great favor for Night’s Black Agents Directors; the Smithsonian piece provided a link to the MV Lyubov Orlova search blog, “Where Is Orlova?” Which, unlike the slackers in the British media, has apparently been quietly looking for the Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship since it vanished.

See what you have already? You have a hook. You have the best (i.e., most sensationalistic) version of the story. You have a debunking for the NPC coverup to parrot. And you have a blogful of huge amounts of data and parallel info thanks to the kind of quiet obsessive who makes the Web so Wonderful. Combine that with the Wikipedia article and you have more than enough material for your Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship adventure, whether the ship heaves up in Norway, or the PCs rappel down onto it from a borrowed Sikorsky, or the Director decides to put the Orlova in her pocket as the floating HQ of a dissident Nosferaterrorist and sprinkle clues (and cannibal rats) over the next six adventures.

It took me about half an hour to become as much of an expert on the Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship as anyone except perhaps the rats themselves. Go thou and do likewise.

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

With Kevin Kulp’s TimeWatch RPG blasting through Kickstarter as only a chronoton can, you may be asking yourself if you can put time travel in other GUMSHOE games. We at Pelgrane are not in the business of telling you not what not to do with GUMSHOE. (Unless you want to use it to light your Hibachi indoors. In which case, don’t do that.)

That caveated, here’s how you might do it in the various existing GUMSHOE settings.

The Esoterrorists/Fear Itself/Trail of Cthulhu

One of my favorite treatments of time travel comes, of all places, from an old Batman comic. And not during a cool Batman phase, but from the kooky silver age. In that story, the details of which my memory is doubtless mangling, Batman and Robin go back in time hypnotically. (In fact, now Googling “Batman time travel”, I find that I like this idea because I’m remembering it wrong.) In my memory’s mistaken version of how this works, they possess the bodies of their ancestors, who happen to be conveniently located and remarkably similar in appearance in ancient Rome, the old west, the Viking era and so on.

Lovecraft likewise treats time travel as a mental journey, making it the specialty of the Great Race of Yith. In a Trail game you need go no further than to have a series of weird murders committed by a victim of Yithian possession. When the investigators capture the first suspect, the Yithian simply jumps to someone else—perhaps a PC whose player is absent that session—and forges ahead with the mayhem. To really shut down the Yithian menace, the group must figure out what the entity is trying to accomplish, and then take action to ensure that it is no longer possible. Otherwise the body-hopping from the ancient past continues.

Scrubbing the Mythos detail from this idea for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself allows you to reverse the direction of travel. Outer Dark Entities come from the future, when they have already breached the membrane, to create the conditions that will later allow them to breach the membrane. They can’t travel directly into this time, but possess those emotionally destabilized by Esoterror provocations. Again the problem is that stopping one meat-form merely slows them down, requiring them to find a suitably vulnerable replacement. The definitive solution depends on rendering what changes they’re trying to wreak in the timestream impossible. After the Veil-Out, the Ordo Veritatis might take temporary relief in the thought that they’ve prevented a future in which their demonic foes win. But plenty of additional ways for them to do it remain, as a fresh manifestation quickly demonstrates.

Mutant City Blues

The conceit in this mutant-powered police procedural is that all weird abilities are already well explicated by science. If you do want to invent a mutant time travel ability you have to find a spot for on the Quade Diagram. Somewhere out near sector F00, where the weirdo dream manipulation appears, might fit the bill. You also want to establish the effects of time manipulation as already measurable, if not fully understood. So perhaps a time distortion field might emit some sort of radiation that enters the bloodstream, or induce over-production of a particular preexisting hormone. As members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit you can perform tests on tissue samples to determine whether victims, alive or on a morgue examination table, were exposed to time altering energies. Finding out who committed the time crime would then be a matter of finding out which local mutant miscreant has the mutation in question. That said, given the down-and-gritty reality level of Mutant City Blues superheroics I would be inclined to make time travel something that tantalizingly almost seems to exist, until the detectives get to the real truth of the matter. Perhaps false rumors of time travel could be connected to the alien beings some people in the world credit with the Sudden Mutant Event that created all weird powers.

Ashen Stars

The space opera setting of Ashen Stars seems tailor-made for timey-wimey activities. Like several sources of its inspiration, it includes godlike aliens. Or at least there used to be godlike aliens, the Vas Kra, who have devolved into the all-too-moral vas mal. And with those in the mix, even if only in the setting’s past, anything can happen. That allows you to nod to this key genre element without introducing brain-cracking paradoxes that rightly belong in TimeWatch territory. Needless to say the shift from universe with time travel to universe without would be an outcome of the Mohilar War. We might take a cue here from the current, degraded morphologies of the Vas Mal, the former godlike aliens. Now they look like classic UFO grays, which hook up to the motif of missing time. Perhaps in the Ashen Stars universe, missing time derives not from hypnosis or erased memories but from proximity to time travel and its contradictions in minds not capable of handling it. Back in the 20th century, when the Vas Kra came to earth to meddle with the human mind, those taken up into their vessels suffered gaps in understanding because they brushed too close with their transtemporal natures. This leads to the theory, oft-mooted by residents of the Bleed, that the Vas Kra ended the Mohilar War by interfering massively in the past of those forgotten beings. It explains how the war ended, how the Vas Kra lost so much energy that they had to devolve, and why no one remembers that this happened. The fear that this is so leads at least one powerful movement to oppose all efforts by the vas mal to reconstitute themselves, lest time travel come back, unleashing chaos throughout the cosmos—maybe bringing back the Mohilar, too.

Night’s Black Agents

What if the vampires are time travelers? They’re humans who, sometime in the future, discovered how to move through time. Problem: doing so warped their bodies. They became vulnerable to sunlight and had to drink the blood of humans uncontaminated by chrono-energy to survive. Their added strength and resistance to damage (except to the brain or heart) hardly counts as a fair trade. So they send agents back to the past, to prevent the chain of events that leads to their own development of time technology. Stopping those events requires a grand upsetting of the geopolitical power structure. To achieve this they must penetrate and destroy the world’s intelligence agencies. The PCs know too much about this, even if they don’t believe the truth, and hence find themselves on the run from somewhat sympathetic vampires from the future. Who still want to pulp them and take nourishment from their juices.

brochurevampConspiracy Horror in Trail of Cthulhu

by Justin Farquhar

These guidelines will help you to incorporate a thoroughly conspiratorial feel into your Trail of Cthulhu campaign. They make use of conspiracy mechanics found in Night’s Black Agents, so you will need a copy of the Night’s Black Agents (NBA) core rulebook as well as your Trail of Cthulhu (ToC) rulebook. If your intention is to run a thriller – especially a modern thriller – using the Cthulhu Mythos, it is recommended that you instead use The Dunwich Sanction build for Night’s Black Agents (NBA, p195).

What is Conspiracy Horror?

In fiction of all sorts, the existence of a persistent and organised group of antagonists plotting against the interests of civilised humanity is a classic device that forms the basis of the story arc. True conspiracy fiction however, brings distrust and paranoia to the forefront – the conspiracy has infiltrated society and the protagonists don’t know who they can trust. In horror, a conspiracy can help to evoke the sense of a menacing reality that lies beneath the veneer of mundanity. Lovecraft used this device in many stories, notably The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Call of Cthulhu and The Haunter of the Dark. Examples of conspiracy horror movies include Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man and Jacob’s Ladder.

Almost every Trail of Cthulhu and Call of Cthulhu campaign involves a plot by cultists or mythos entities. However, no matter how complex or ambitious the plot is, these don’t usually constitute conspiracy horror in the truest sense. True conspiracy horror brings the specific, features of conspiracy to the foreground – secretiveness, distrust, betrayal, disguised menace and active opposition. In a true conspiracy horror campaign for Trail of Cthulhu, there must not only be a group of antagonists working to bring about the return of the Great Old Ones (or whatever), they need to have infiltrated society, or the Investigators’ organisation, so that the Investigators don’t know who to trust. And they need to have the power to act against the Investigators. If the characteristic mood of a Lovecraftian horror campaign is cosmic horror, the mood of Lovecraftian conspiracy horror should be cosmic horror plus paranoia.
Campaign Design

In terms of the broad structure of your campaign Trail of Cthulhu campaign, refer to The Continuing Conspiracy: Campaign design (ToC, p199). The equivalent advice in Night’s Black Agents – The Thriller Skeleton (NBA, p184) and The Campaign Story (NBA, p193) – is also well worth referring to, particularly with regard to antagonist reactions. This advice, however, is tailored for the thriller genre, and is high on action and early shocks. Unless perhaps you are running a very Pulpy game, it will need to be toned down – action should be more low-key, the horror should build more slowly and, particularly if your campaign has a strong Purist feel to it, the Endgame should confront the Investigators with a climax of cosmic horror, with undermined Drives, Pillars of Sanity or complete Anagnorisis for one or more of them.

Campaign Frame

Some campaign frames are particularly suitable for conspiracy horror:

Armitage Inquiry

In Pulp mode, this could be a globetrotting battle against agents of the mythos. In Purist mode, the focus might be on intrigue within the corridors of the Miskatonic University itself (how high does it go?). Agents of the mi-go are almost certainly stalking Albert Wilmarth at the University; the Witch Cult is active in Arkham and who knows what forces may be trying to seize the dark knowledge kept in the Miskatonic Library? See ToC, p206 for more details.

Bookhounds of London

Think of exclusive and secretive societies and hermetic lodges in London high society and dingy, claustrophobic, cult-dominated communities in the Severn Valley. One challenge might be motivating typically selfish and cowardly Bookhounds to tackle a larger conspiracy. See ToC, p209 for more details.

Inmates

The powerlessness, alienation and paranoia of institutionalisation combined with the conspiring of the authorities and uncertainty about whether the Investigators are just crazy, give this great potential as the basis of a conspiracy campaign. This campaign frame by Robin Laws is available free here.

Mythos Detectives

Having the resources and the politics of law enforcement on their side – and the possibility of its corruption – makes this an excellent choice for a conspiracy campaign. The influence of hidden hands within society’s institutions of governance, including the Investigator’s own department, would be a powerful way to create a sense of intimidation and paranoia. See Arkham Detective Tales, p6.

Project Covenant

This is a perfect campaign frame for a conspiracy game, with the Investigators part of a secret plot within government agencies. This necessitates secrecy and gives them access to classified information and exposes them to potential corruption within their own agencies. Emphasis could be on investigations within US territory, conspiracies within US institutions or far ranging secret missions. See ToC, p207; and find the Michael Dauman expansion of this campaign frame here.

Moon Dust Men

With black helicopters, men in black, and other shadowy government forces, this is another ideal set-up for a conspiracy campaign this time with a strong X-Files feel. This is detailed in the sixth instalment of Ken Writes About Stuff.

Conspirators

Some organisations and mythos races lend themselves better to effective conspiracy horror than others. Whether those who dominate the conspiracy are cult members or are a group of mythos entities they will need to be capable of organisation; they will probably have some sort of hierarchy; they will need rationality of some kind (no matter how alien), a degree of understanding of human beings, lines of communication, access to money and other resources and they will need some reason to conspire against humanity in the first place.  Examples include:

Black Dragon Society

This group could certainly extend covert influence through East Asia and further afield. Their secrecy and infiltration of commerce and politics would make them a good candidate for a pulp conspiracy campaign.

Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign

In The Whisperer in Darkness, Henry Akeley (who is probably being impersonated by the mi-go at the time) blames a secret organisation devoted to Hastur and the Yellow Sign responsible for hunting down the mi-go (and tampering with Wilmarth’s mail). The Repairer of Reputations by Robert Chambers describes a national conspiracy (or at least the belief in one) bearing the Yellow Sign and preparing to seize power on behalf of the King in Yellow.

Cult of Cthulhu

While this is really a number of essentially independent sects, rather than a unified organisation, they share an ancient heritage and a common interest. Probably the most organised of these groups is the sea-farer’s cult found in ports across the world, which, in The Call of Cthulhu, conspired to murder Professor Angell in Providence, because of what he had discovered. Just how far do their tentacles reach?

Esoteric Order of Dagon

The EOD controlled the town of Innsmouth for 80 years, with the raid by government agents in early 1928 being the formative event of Project Covenant (above). A pre-raid campaign could focus on initial investigation of the town’s unnatural corruption, while after the raid, the focus could be on investigation of surviving outposts, or other contaminated communities. Could other powers be conspiring to acquire artefacts captured in the raid?

Mi-Go Agents

The Whisperer in Darkness describes a secret network in Vermont, capable of spying and intercepting mail, and sometimes resorting to violent intimidation. Mi-go themselves can mimic human speech, may be able to transplant brains from one person to another or take a semblance of human form with prosthetic body parts or hyper-advanced surgery. In terms of a mythos conspiracy game, this is gold dust.

Serpent Folk

Humanoid reptiles that can take human appearance would be great antagonists in a conspiracy game. And the overlap with the modern ‘reptoid’ meme is compelling. What if David Icke was right and the world really was led by an elite cabal of shapeshifting reptiles?

Starry Wisdom Sect

A secretive urban cult that can attract and corrupt the rich and powerful is ideal for a conspiracy campaign. What sort of political corruption allowed this murderous cult to flee from Rhode Island when faced by an angry mob in 1877? Did the cult simply go underground under the leadership of Enoch Bowen’s daughter Asenath? In Strange Eons, Robert Bloch refers to a branch of this sect in LA in the 1920′s and 30′s with likely influential members in Hollywood, law enforcement or government.

Yithian Agents

The knowledge and technology of the Yithians is beyond human understanding. They are highly intelligent, secretive and essentially indifferent to human concerns. They are served by human agents that may be embedded in society at any level and any location. They may at times seek to influence events in ways that are antithetical to the interests of humanity. They would make good antagonists in a conspiracy game, but their motivations should be marked by cold indifference to human concerns rather than a desire for power or destruction.

ToC, p160 has more detail on many of these organisations.

Conspiratorial Considerations

Most of the advice in Conspiratorial Considerations in NBA, p156 applies equally to a mythos conspiracy.

‘Mythos Need’
Mythos conspiracies don’t generally seek power over humanity for its own sake – they seek to bring the return of their favourite Great Old One, to rid mankind of the scourge of reason and sanity, mineral resources found only on this planet, information about human life in the 20th century, or to alter the course of evolution or history for some alien purpose. Alternatively they might be trapped on the earth and simply be attempting to protect themselves from human interference. This requirement lies behind all other details of the conspiracy – this is why they are interacting with human society in the first place.

Intentions
As in Night’s Black Agents, this consideration concerns your conspiracy’s intentions at a political level.

Parallel State: Mythos conspiracies are likely to be less dependent on humanity than vampire conspiracies, but mi-go for example might need to parasitise human societies in order to harvest brains, Yithians might need to do so in order to gather research data, the Starry Wisdom sect may do so in order to maintain a regular supply of sacrificial victims.

Replacement State: Does the conspiracy seek to overthrow the current regime and replace it? This idea doesn’t come up often in Lovecraftian literature – some cult devotees might see the return of their ‘god’ as a type of replacement state. And in The Repairer of Reputations, Hildred Castaigne seeks to do this, establishing himself as regent and representative of the King in Yellow.

Anti-State: This describes the intentions of those entities and nihilistic cults that seek to wreak madness upon the earth or bring civilisation to an end with the return of the Great Old Ones.

Indifferent: The organisation or mythos race may be indifferent to the human world, and seek to influence it only in so far as it is necessary to fulfil its Mythos Need (above) – it may be neither dependent on nor hostile to the state, as long as it doesn’t interfere with its earthly operations.

Enemies
Does the conspiracy have another group or conspiracy that opposes it (as the mi-go and Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign might)? Is there rivalry or open hostility between two or more branches of the conspiracy? Investigators might try to exploit such a situation.

Modus operandi
In order to fulfil its secret agenda, a conspiracy will have had to spread its influence through society. What methods does it use? Blackmail, bribery and threats? Assassination? Mind control? Alien parasitic infection? Prosthetic human bodies? Shapeshifting magic?

Demographics
Does the conspiracy operate primarily in the higher echelons of power or ordinary farming folk or among university academics? Where is its power focussed?

Lines of communication
Communications technology in the 1930s was far slower than the modern era. How do the various components of the conspiracy communicate with one another? Letter? Telegram? Pigeon post? Where do they access these services? A cannibal cult in the Himalayas might have difficulty getting access to telegraph equipment. Do they use codes? Do they use magical means – summoned servitor races, telepathy, hyperspace gates? As always, however, avoid letting drama be trumped by pedantic details.

Conspiracy Design Tools

Conspyramid

The Conspyramid tool (NBA, p157) is an excellent tool for defining the power structure of your conspiracy and for defining a flexible structure for the campaign itself, with a clear beginning, middle and end.

Adversary Map

This is the players’ map of the conspiracy structure. The rules for this can be found in Night’s Black Agents, p113. Relevant spends for uncovering an adversary map in Trail of Cthulhu are Anthropology and Oral History in place of Human Terrain and Traffic Analysis.

‘Vampyramid’

While a different name might be more appropriate in a mythos conspiracy game (‘Reaction Pyramid’ perhaps), this is another useful tool from Night’s Black Agents (p189) that can be readily adapted. The Vampyramid suggests options for an escalating series of antagonist reactions in response to the players’ investigations and assaults, with the nature of these reactions dependent on campaign style and previous actions.

Obviously you’ll need to substitute the suggested vampiric agents with appropriate agents or alien entities from your own campaign. And some steps require a slightly different interpretation from Night’s Black Agents:

Row One – Frame Agent: The targeted Investigator might be framed for a crime or tarnished with allegations of Bolshevism or something similar. Their Credit Rating ability is reduced by 2. 1 point can be recovered if they can clear their name.

Row One – Shadow Investigator: This is a contest of Shadowing.

Row One – Shadow Source: The effect may be to prevent the Source of Stability from refreshing Stability. Restoring them to a normal state is a difficulty 4 Psychoanalysis test (Psychological Triage).

Row Two – Threaten safety: This is a threat to a location that the Investigator had considered safe, for example, they find their study ransacked. It’s possible that important possessions could be stolen. In Trail of Cthulhu there is no direct mechanical effect.

Row Four – Kill Solace: The conspiracy kills one or more of the Investigator’s Sources of Stability in front of them.

Row Five – Lure Agent: Substitute with Reveal Awful Truth – the conspiracy captures or tricks the Investigators, exposing them to one or more Awful Truth, attacking their Drives and/or Pillars of Sanity.

Row Six – Destruction: As with ‘Reveal Awful Truth’ above, and especially in a Purist campaign, this final assault may include or take the form of awful revelations that destroy Investigator sanity: Anagnorisis, or destroyed Drives or Pillars of Sanity for at least one Investigator.

Conspiratorial Components

As with vampire conspiracies (NBA, p159), there are certain components that most mythos Conspyramids will need:

Funding Sources

It may not have to control a bank or launder money for organised crime, but depending on the level of influence of your conspiracy, it will need some way of funding its activities. Drugs? Smuggling? Legitimate businesses? Donations from cult members? Many mythos conspiracies have outer circles or puppet religious sects that function as shell organisations – providing a semi-legitimate face for funding and recruitment.

Protection sources

How does the conspiracy at large protect itself when threatened? If threats and violence are used, is this carried out by cult members, converted police officials, members of a controlling mythos race or summoned servitors? If they use blackmail, who does it and how do they get the compromising information?

‘Mythos Need’ Sources

If a cult requires a steady supply of human sacrifices or brains, where does it source them? Cultist volunteers? Abductions? If it needs to protect a colony, who defends or hides it?

Poaching Thriller Mechanics from Night’s Black Agents

Keepers running games that centre on law enforcement, government agencies or military personnel may find it appropriate to incorporate mechanics from Night’s Black Agents with an emphasis on action and gun-play. Note however, that introducing too many such options may be at the expense of the sense of Lovecraftian horror. Especially careful consideration should be given before using these options in a Purist game. If you choose to do this – unless you want a very pulpy, high-action feel – it is recommended that you limit these mechanics to:

  • Thriller Chases (NBA, p53)
  • Thriller Chase rules – DUST mode only (NBA, p56)
  • Thriller Combat rules - DUST mode only (NBA, p70)

 

NBA CD front coverJonathan Hicks of Farsight Blogger fame has posted a great review of Dust and Mirrors, new original music for Night’s Black Agents by James Semple and his crack composing team. Jonathan says,

“The themes on this album have an excellent atmosphere to them that suit the Night’s Black Agents game perfectly. I’m incredibly impressed with this album, not just as a decent soundtrack for a great game but also as a great selection of music from some incredibly talented people. I can see this getting some serious airtime during my special ops-themed campaigns”.

He also says,

“The music itself reflects both of the genres the game represents exceptionally well. The high-energy and action-orientated spy genre merges well with the dark, brooding danger of the horror in the world and you could quite easily use this music in a general spy- or special ops-themed game or a stand-alone horror one.”

You can read the full review on RPG.net here.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

Hillfolk and Blood on the Show present a couple of series pitches that cross the streams with our flagship GUMSHOE games. Chris Lackey’s “The Whateleys” lets you play in Lovecraft territory from the cultists’ point of view. My own “Mutant City: HCIU” flips the police procedural of Mutant City Blues into police drama where the cases matter less than the personal lives of the anamorphically altered detectives.

This mini-pitch pulls a similar trick in the world of Night’s Black Agents.

Nutshell

A nest of vampire operatives finds that its tangle of undying desires interferes with its mission to keep the modern world’s human spies from blowing the lid off the inhuman power structure.

Characters

The main cast plays mid-tier operatives of the international vampire conspiracy. Other, more powerful bloodsuckers stand in the shadows to destroy you if you fail them.

Is one of them the Big D, whose real name none dare whisper? Would you even know if he was?

From a careful distance, you control a network of renfields, human dupes and perhaps a low-ranking vampire or two.

What kind of vampires are you? Select from the array of choices given in Night’s Black Agents.

You comprise a command station—maybe linked to a single headquarters, maybe a notional HQ always on the move. Toward the goal of managing the activities of top human threats—or as you have come to call them, bloodbags—each of you performs a particular role.

  • Gray-faced bureaucrat, afraid an old mistake is about to bite you
  • Demoted former team leader, burning for redemption
  • Weasel, reporting through a back channel to the big bosses
  • Mole, a vampire doubled into the service of some competing supernatural power. Put off deciding who for as long as you can.
  • Frustrated hothead, thirsting for direct action
  • Recent recruit, sought by all as a balance-shifting ally
  • Furtive comm jockey, secretly monitoring the lives of the human family she’s supposed to have left behind
  • Passionate reformer, determined to change the way the command keeps the bloodbags in line.
  • Burn-out, obsessed by a personal issue that overrides all but the most desultory interest in command business.
  • Underestimated grotesque, shunned by the other cast members because he belongs to a stigmatized vampire subtype.
  • Control freak obsessed with maintaining normality, whatever that is in this context.
  • The heir apparent, recently turned by the boss and recipient of blatant favoritism and seething resentment
  • Brilliant amnesiac, whose skill set makes her irreplaceable to the team, and whose incuriosity over the loss of all memories more than a few months old hints at mental programming.
  • Token human, a toadying Renfield who fears that his masters will never turn him—and that he doesn’t deserve such a magnificent honor, even if they finally make good on their promises.

Setting

If Night’s Black Agents is the Bourne Trilogy if Treadstone were vampires, you’re the undead Brian Coxes, David Strathairns and Joan Allens. Raid the core book for world information.

Themes

The GM calls the opening episode as Red Alert, in which a new team of bloodbag operatives appears on the cast’s radar. Do they seem at first to be just another threat, or is their series-defining menace apparent from the start.

If you’ve played straight-up Night’s Black Agents (and if not, why haven’t you?), a nod or two to the human agents that made up the PC group will surely occur…

  • Power is a Cage: Though among the world’s most terrifying beings, you’re stuck doing paperwork, peering at laptops, and ordering unseen minions to pursue troublesome bloodbags. Maybe it’s time you cut loose and let others worry about the humans for once.
  • Buried Secrets; You thought you’d dealt with it as thoroughly as a stake driven through a heart, but an old operational blunder gains new, awful life.
  • Articles of Faith: The ancient code governing all vampires collides with the exigencies of a crucial operation. Which do you sacrifice?
  • Return of the Repressed: All vampires suppress their old human impulses, no more so than the steely operatives of Bloodbag Command. This week some of them start seeping out.
  • Dead Drop: The ennui of undead existence is never more acute than in the drab, LeCarre-like offices of Bloodbag Command.
  • Hellhound on your Trail: The bloodbags couldn’t possibly win, could they?

Tightening the Screws

  • Office Party: One of you brings some live food into the command center to play with on a quiet night. It can’t possibly escape. What could go wrong?
  • The Con Eternal: Your bloodbag subjects target a convention for horror fans, thinking its LARP rooms conceal real vampiric activity. Can you stop their sally against the fake thing from casting light on the real one?
  • The Big Stake: A CIA drone destroys a vampire nest in Peshawar. You’re trained to rule out coincidence. Who knows what, and how do you shut them down?
  • Chatter: Communications intercepts suggest a wave of anti-vampire actions from a group you’ve never encountered before and can’t immediately identify. To switch to this new target you’ll have to loosen vigilance over your existing ones.
  • Crypt of Decryption: Bloodbags kill one of your best renfields and grab a key hard drive. You scramble to have it retrieved before they can decrypt it.
  • Downturn: Vampire spy agencies run on black money. A global economic crisis turns off the spigot when you can least afford it. Do you resolve your budget problems by intervening to stop the financial panic?

Many themes and screw tightenings from Ken’s “Moscow Station” pitch could be adapted to a “Bloodbag Command” series.

NBA CD front coverDust and Mirrors – music for Night’s Black Agents

“I was delighted to be asked to write original music for Night’s Black Agents. The game is truly a masterpiece backed up by some incredible research and it just oozes atmosphere. Superspies vs Vampires? What’s not to like?

 For this project I assembled a crack team of amazing composers who each brought something unique to the table. Everyone was very inspired by the source material and that really comes across. I consider myself honoured to be surrounded by so much talent here.

The music itself is made up of tracks which are each designed to work for specific situations but also can be played together as an album for a general mood of tension, action and horror. I hope this creates the perfect mood for your games!”

- James Semple

 

Track Samples:

Main Theme

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Urban Parkour:

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Dust and Mirrors contains the following tracks, specifically composed for Night’s Black Agents:

1. Main Theme
Mysterious and dramatic music sets the scene for the game ahead!

2. Stakeout
Hidden surveillance and gathering evidence during dark hours of the night.

3. The Brief
A meeting, telephone call, email or letter is the catalyst for a series of events where danger lurks in the shadows.

4. Infiltration
An overall sense of dread envelopes you when you discreetly enter the state-of-the-art facility.

5. Ambient
A moment to reflect where secret agents become ambivalent when their duty to the mission conflicts with their consciences.

6. Manhunt
A dangerous chase in a network of power and crime.

7. Suit Up
The final battle approaches, and only you have what it takes.

8. Urban Parkour
Desperate pursuit across rooftops in a city where death is on the line.

9. Purging The Demon
A desperate struggle between human and vampire.

10. Heist
Heavyweight direct brute force is sometimes the agents’ only recourse.

11. Conspyramid
Conspiracy theories take a horrific turn after uncovering an ancient and dangerous secret society.

12. Covert Ops
Behind enemy lines sometimes subterfuge is the best approach.

13. The Great Escape
Confrontation is futile, all you can do now is run for your life. How will you get out of this one?

14. Captured
Emotionally draining circumstance of being trapped in a fiercely unpleasant and smelly environment.

15. An Eye For An Eye
An all out horror piece where the character is alone, vulnerable and miles away from any other human being.

16. Horror
The unfortunate and unforeseen event of meeting with blood-thirsty Vampires.

17. Darkness
The true nature and power of the Vampires is revealed. Few can stand against it!

18. Crawlers
You can feel them watching, waiting patiently for you to come out of your hiding place.

19. Atonement
A final reflective moment when the agents examine the life they lead and the choices they have made.

Stock #: PELGN04D Author: James A Semple
Artist: George Cotronis Format: MP3 tracks

Buy

DD image 2As I once more turn my hopeful eye upon The Dracula Dossier, digging back into things vampiric and espionagical, it occurs to me that it might be fun to wonder just who we talk about when we talk about Dracula. In The Dracula Dossier, every player knows going in that the Big Bad up on Level 6 of the Conspyramid is Dracula – making him a lowly puppet might have the advantage of novelty, but vitiates the whole point of using Dracula in the first place. But who, in the first place, Dracula is – that, we can leave mysterious.

These seven possible candidates might show up as just such Director’s options in The Dracula Dossier, most likely built out a bit from these skeletal outlines. Which one shows up in your game – well, that’s why they call it a mystery, isn’t it?

Vlad III Tepes

Vlad the Impaler, the historical voivode (closer to prince than count) of Wallachia, is the most usual of suspects. Even Bram Stoker’s great-grandson Dacre pins the Impaler and the Count together, following in the footsteps of Francis Ford Coppola and the historians Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu, among others. In Vlad’s favor: his name actually was “Dracula,” and he signed it that way. He did like death and bloodshed, whether in battle or on a field of impaled boyars. He had an “unworthy brother,” like the Count. He also fits Van Helsing’s description of the Count: “He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey-land.” As against the identification: Not only is it too obvious, but too many details of Dracula’s life (his Szekely blood, for instance) don’t match Vlad’s – while the most, er, pointed detail of Vlad’s life (the hundreds of thousands of impalements) don’t show up in Dracula’s reminiscences or Van Helsing’s research.

Janos Hunyadi

One thing Dracula is sure of: he is Hungarian, a descendant of Attila, not Romanian. He is also voivode of Transylvania, not of Wallachia. And who was the greatest of the Hungarian voivodes of Transylvania? Janos Hunyadi (1385-1456), that’s who. Like Dracula (and Vlad) he “crossed the Danube and beat the Turk on his own ground,” at Belgrade in 1456. In the fairly confused reminiscence of his lineage (which might, of course, reflect either Harker’s distracted note-taking or deliberate disinformation by Stoker), Dracula’s career fits that of Hunyadi at least as well as it does that of Vlad. Fun fact: Hunyadi’s son Matthias Corvinus became King of Hungary, and later betrayed and imprisoned Vlad in Visegrad.

John Dracula

By Chapter 25, Van Helsing has given up on Vlad’s era and decided that the Count must be: “that other of his race … in a later age.” In their biography of Vlad, McNally and Florescu run down the descendants of the Draculesti line, about fourteen in all. While Mircea II had exceptional physical prowess, Alexandru II enjoyed a good impalement, and Radu Mihnea was rich and extravagant, in the Night’s Black Agents “Linea Dracula” campaign frame I went with John Dracula, who received a patent of nobility from Emperor Ferdinand I in 1535. Intriguingly, the coat of arms he (and his brother Ladislas, another possible candidate) received was that of the Bathory family: a wolf’s jaw with three teeth. Stephen Bathory commanded Vlad in the 1476 war against the Turks that briefly restored his throne; a connection between the Balkans’ two great vampire lineages was too good to pass up. Also, John and Ladislas (like the Count) were Hungarians, descended from Janos Hunyadi through their mother. I picked John over the elder Ladislas mostly because of John’s near-complete obscurity: he had a son (Georg) but no recorded date of death.

Nicolaus Olahus

Finally we have Nicolaus Olahus, who served (from 1553 to 1568) as archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary, for that “blasphemous vampire Curia” vibe so common amongst Protestant (or atheist) film-makers. He described himself as “ex sanguine Draculae” (“of the blood of Dracula”), which is just about perfect and echoes the Count’s own word choice to boot. He was an adviser to kings and emperors, ideal soil for that medieval Conspyramid to root itself, and although Hungarian by nationality he researched the ancient past of Romania, another field pregnant with possible game hooks.

Graf Orlok

We now leave the fields of recorded history for the realm of secret history. It is well known that F.W. Murnau, the director of Nosferatu, pirated Stoker’s novel for his plot. But what if his research turned up the original story that Stoker concealed – and its German connection? Murnau, of course, was wired into the Berlin occult underground – the producer and designer of the film, Albin Grau, was a member of the Saturnian Brotherhood and a student of alchemy and magic. Through his occult mentor Aleister Crowley, Grau could have turned up British intelligence records of the Dracula operation, and made his film using the real name of the Count, Graf Orlok. The German (or “Saxon”) population of Transylvania goes back to the Teutonic Knights, who built castles there in the 13th century – including in Dracula’s home ground of Bistritz and Borgo Pass. If “Dracula” is German by blood, that complicates the story nicely. This theory also provides a lovely secret-service explanation for every print of Nosferatu (but one) being hunted down and destroyed — ostensibly to defend Florence Stoker’s copyright.

Count Dolingen

Complications multiply even more wonderfully if the connection to Romania is entirely fictional. Stoker’s Notes reveal that he initially wanted to set his novel (by which, of course, I mean “reveal that the original British Secret Service report set the action”) in Styria, a province of Austria famous for both literary and historical vampire infestations. (LeFanu sets Carmilla in Styria.) Stoker’s original draft used the transparent pseudonym “Count Wampyr” for the vampire’s name, clearly indicating that he was covering up the real title. If Florence Stoker hadn’t published “Dracula’s Guest,” a chapter redacted from the original novel, in 1914, we might never know the vampire’s family name. In that tale, “Countess Dolingen of Gratz in Styria” has been buried with an iron stake through her and the epitaph (in Russian) “The Dead Travel Fast.” If she is one of the Count’s brides, that makes Dracula actually Count Dolingen. The common initials also hint at a cover story, which is pretty nice.

Baron Ferenczy

Our final possibility offers a wonderful linkage between Night’s Black Agents and Trail of Cthulhu. In 1924, Charles Dexter Ward visits “a Baron Ferenczy” east of Rakus in Transylvania. His castle “was on a crag in the dark wooded mountains, and the region was so shunned by the country folk that normal people could not help feeling ill at ease. Moreover, the Baron was not a person likely to appeal to correct and conservative New England gentlefolk. His aspect and manners had idiosyncrasies, and his age was so great as to be disquieting.” A-hem. Count Dracula is a necromancer, schooled at the Scholomance: “Baron Ferenczy” turns out to be Edward Hutchinson, a necromancer of Salem, Massachusetts. Unless, of course, both “Ferenczy” and “Hutchinson” are pseudonyms; he signs himself first with “Nephren-Ka nai Hadoth” – in other words, Nyarlathotep. That said … if Count Dracula is actually Nyarlathotep, you’re going to need a lot more garlic. And some more agents, most likely.

Mountains_of_Kabul

 

[Editorial Note: We're trying out formats for city writeup PDFs, between this and next month's Ken Writes About Stuff on Mumbai. Let us know in the comments how you'd like to see our city PDFs look going forward. This one, for example, resembles a more detailed version of the "Quick and Dirty" writeup from Night's Black Agents without adventure hooks. However we do it, we'll have Cat whomp up a lovely map; until then, here's a map of Kabul. -- Ken]

 

 

KABUL

by Jonathan Turner

Terrorism. Drugs. Rival spy agencies. Ancient fortresses. A thriving black market in stolen antiquities. Dragons who live in the mountains. Welcome to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

Kabul’s 3000-year history is defined by conflict. Fought over by the Mughals, the Persians, the Ancient Greeks, the British Empire and the Soviet Union, the city has been destroyed and rebuilt more than once. The current war between the international community and Islamic extremists is just another bloody chapter in the city’s story.

Arriving at the city’s airport, a visitor’s first glimpse of Kabul is drab brown buildings hunkering in a bowl of snow-capped mountains. At 1800 meters, Kabul is one of the highest capital cities in the world, and if the view of the Hindu Kush from the airport doesn’t take your breath away, the altitude probably will.

Kabul is always dry and dusty, and its semi-arid climate and altitude has given rise to its own irritating medical condition, the “Kabul cough.” In winter temperatures plunge to minus 20 degrees Celsius. Many people in the city live without electricity or heating beyond wood fires. A cold night in Kabul is a cold night indeed.

The war between the international community and the Taliban has left Kabul a city on edge, but it is still a vibrant and colorful place. In the streets, ubiquitous yellow and white cabs speed past old men leading donkeys and pick-ups loaded with soldiers. Busy bazaars and even entire streets of shops specialize in everything from antiques to fine Persian carpets. Anything can be bought for a price.

But the insurgency casts a constant shadow over the city. As Afghanistan’s foreign backers prepare to wind down a decade of military support, many Kabulis are worried about what happens next.

Conflict

It’s not unusual in Kabul to be woken at dawn by the distant crump of a car bomb, followed by gunfire. Lots of gunfire. The struggle between the fairly weak Afghan government and the Taliban and other Islamist insurgents has seen billions pumped into the country by the west. High numbers of Afghan and foreign troops in Kabul mean the city is reasonably secure, but the insurgents know a high-profile attack there means embarrassing international headlines. The primary target is the “Green Zone”, home to the Afghan government, foreign embassies and the international military headquarters. Hotels and other places frequented by westerners can also be targeted though, and agents in the city might find themselves having a rude awakening one morning. Whether it’s the Taliban or the less well-known Haqqani Network, a “complex attack” normally starts with three or four groups detonating car bombs, either as distractions or to breach compound walls. They then then take over multi-story buildings near the Green Zone, or storm buildings in search of hostages. From rooftops they will indiscriminately fire RPGs, small arms and machine guns at any target that looks good. Such attacks are rare, but can last for hours or even days until the attackers are ferreted out. Elsewhere, the biggest threat is kidnapping. Westerners travelling around the city either adopt “soft” protection in the form of trusted local fixers or friends, or the more traditional safeguards of armored vehicles and lots of guns.

Backdrops

The Green Zone

Located in central Kabul, this is the centre of the international community’s footprint in the city, and the seat of the Afghan government. Agents using their old intelligence or government contacts, or searching for a reliable Afghan fixer, will have to get in here. A warren of concrete blast walls and checkpoints manned by Afghan security forces, this area is the focus for many of the attacks which penetrate the city’s “ring of steel”. But for many foreign embassies and their staff, life is fairly normal. Staff walk to work from apartment complexes in the zone, there are regular parties and even the occasion half marathon. All in the all, the area has a Disneyland feel for those who have come into the city from up country. Another famous landmark in the Green Zone is the Gandamack Hotel, named after the fictional home of George MacDonald Fraser’s infamous Afghan adventurer Flashman – and a real Afghan battle. The hotel was founded by a former BBC journalist, and is a home away from home for many members of the media and other ex-pats. The Hare and Hound bar in the basement is a popular watering hole, and aside from the usual hotel services, guests can also hire body armor. It doesn’t pay to be under-dressed on the back streets of Kabul.

Balla Hissar

Persian for “high fort”, this citadel stands watch over the city’s southern edge. A fortress of some sort has stood in this commanding spot since the 5th century, though the modern citadel was built at the end of the 19th. Run by the Afghan army, a small number of international troops are also based in the fort, operating specialist surveillance balloons. Unsurprisingly, Balla Hissar has been the scene of repeated and bloody fighting through the centuries, and the remains of burned out armored vehicles and abandoned fighting positions litter the hills around it. The original fortress had palaces and barracks in the upper level, while below was the infamous “Black Pit,” Kabul’s most notorious dungeon. Perhaps most interesting to agents is the network of tunnels and trench-lines in the hills around the fortress. With so much destruction and rebuilding in the fort over the centuries, anything – or anyone – could be buried there. They just have to find it.

National Museum of Afghanistan

Keeping the historical treasures of Afghanistan safe isn’t an easy job. The National Museum of Afghanistan, just outside Kabul, has been looted on dozens of occasions. Some of the worst damage was done during the civil war following the Russian occupation, when tens of thousands of objects were stolen and sold, many to overseas clients. The building itself was later used as a military base and destroyed in fighting, but not before courageous members of staff had moved or hidden its remaining collections. In the chaos, many thousands of items disappeared. Exhibits from the museum have since turned up across the world, some on the black market and some simply hidden away for safety elsewhere in Kabul. Their collection includes a huge number of coins, as well as frescoes, Buddhist sculptures, and Roman glassware. Some exhibits, such as a glass phallus said to be have to be touched by Alexander the Great, are absolutely unique. Huge parts of the collection are still missing, and may well be hidden around Kabul or in the hands of private collectors in the city. As the crossroads of Asia, almost anything might have passed through Afghanistan at some stage in ancient history and ended up here.

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