GUMSHOE 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.
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 game 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.
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.
Conspiracy 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.
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.
Some campaign frames are particularly suitable for conspiracy horror:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Most of the advice in Conspiratorial Considerations in NBA, p156 applies equally to a mythos conspiracy.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
As with vampire conspiracies (NBA, p159), there are certain components that most mythos Conspyramids will need:
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.
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)
Jonathan 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dust 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
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!
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.
An overall sense of dread envelopes you when you discreetly enter the state-of-the-art facility.
A moment to reflect where secret agents become ambivalent when their duty to the mission conflicts with their consciences.
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.
Heavyweight direct brute force is sometimes the agents’ only recourse.
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?
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.
The unfortunate and unforeseen event of meeting with blood-thirsty Vampires.
The true nature and power of the Vampires is revealed. Few can stand against it!
You can feel them watching, waiting patiently for you to come out of your hiding place.
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
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
by Jonathan Turner
We’ve all been there — facing down a vampire and scraping the bottom of the ability pool for points. Next time you’re stuck for just the right moment of badass for that Night’s Black Agents refresh maneuver, use one of these and bask in the approbation of your fellow gamers along with the surge of points to your ability score.
MARTIAL ARTS (HAND-TO-HAND)
Headbutts. Knees. Elbows. I explode in a flurry of nose-crunching, eye gouging close-in attacks. More suited for a bar-room brawl than a battlefield, but a thumb in the eye is a thumb in the eye no matter where it happens.
It’s the perfect moment, like a slow cliff-top dive into the ocean. Time slows as I duck under my opponent’s clumsy punch and flow upwards, my heel strike taking him under the chin with a sound like granite sliding over glass. Inside him, something breaks. Something bad.
This guy knows Krav Maga… but he didn’t train with the elite Maglan special forces in Israel like I did. He throws a hook punch and a heel kick, but I saw them coming last Tuesday. A roundhouse knee kick puts him halfway down, and a throat-strike takes him the rest of the way. So close, I smell the onion bagel he had for breakfast on his breath.
In aikido, you channel your opponent’s force like pouring tea into a teacup. This guy comes at me as hard as he can, which is his last mistake. I turn his straight punch into a wrist grab, shutting down his ulnar nerve and killing the hand, then I flow into a knife-hand strike to the maxilliary sinus. It might not kill, but it hurts.
This is savate de rue, not the pretty style of the dojo, but the bone-crunching, teeth-shattering style of the street. A direct bra arriére cross and a crochet hook has him watching my hands, but his block opens him up for a painful chassé italien to the inner thigh and a devastating fouetté whip kick to the head.
MARTIAL ARTS (WEAPONS)
I didn’t learn my best knife-fighting in a dojo, I learned it in prison. People expect knife-fighters to dance around, so when I rush this guy screaming like a maniac, I can tell from the look in his eyes he’s surprised. And that lets me get close enough to ram the Cold Steel SRK into his chest with every ounce of force I’ve got.
I don’t use knives to fight, I use knives to win. This guy’s big, and he’s fast, but a blade beats a fist every time. I slash his forearm to lower his guard, then smash him in the face with the Gerber’s knuckle duster style guard. Something in his face splinters like a twig.
As this mook comes in swinging, I keep my wrist turned in, the 3.5” blade of my K-BAR hidden behind my hand. The first time he knows I have it is when I punch it sideways into his intercostal space, between his third and fourth rib. He thinks I just punched him… until he realises he’s bleeding to death.
The karamit in my fist is Indonesian, the curved blade ideal for cutting and slicing. I go at this guy like a surgeon cutting out a cancer. Wrist. Shoulder. Forearm. Ear. Anything he shows me gets sliced as I force him to back off and give me space for a proper strike.
There are lots of “experts” out there who claim they can teach you how to knife fight. But they’ll only get you killed. I’m not one of those. I’m the real deal. No wasted effort. Total economy of movement. I wait for him to make a move, then I elbow his guard aside and bury the tanto tip Gerber into his jugular notch.
Parkour’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle in a hurricane, finding where the pieces need to go at a hundred miles an hour. I sprint at this wall and hit it with a passe muraille, toe off a drainpipe, window ledge and edge onto the roof. Then I hammer across the tiles and Kong over to the next roof.
That roof in front of me is higher than this one, but in reminds me of one in London’s South Bank where I learned how to free run for the first time. I know I can make it. I spring into a Saut de Bras, knees up, kick forward into the other wall and hook my fingers onto the ledge. Up and over. All that work with my Mash Monster grip enhancer is paying off!
The fire escape is out of reach, but the alley’s pretty narrow. I kick off and Tic Tac up, twist onto the bottom rung and haul myself onto the ladder. Whoever’s behind me is going to struggle to make that jump.
My target cuts from cover and for a second I’m back in the Kill House in Hereford on that first exercise with simunition — blazing away at a moving target and not believing I missed with everything. But not here. Not now. Track. Lead. Squeeze. BANG!
The glow-in-the-dark Suresight on my Glock 19 Gen4 lines up perfectly as I swing the little pistol around, making sure my snap shot on the fly is as accurate as any on the range.
I punch my SIG P239 towards the bad guy’s muzzle flash and it goes off with the smooth Swiss precision of a Breitling: BANG! BANG! BANG! Every round on target. Every round a hit. Every hit a kill.
The acrylic custom SPD grip on my Beretta Px4 Storm nestles comfortably in my gloved hand as I lay down a constant cadence of fire from the Weaver position. Fire. Move. Fire. Move. Fire. Fire. Fire.
I snap my Five-seveN® Tactical from my Model 6005 tactical holster and cover the room. Polymer slide, DEVGRU camo scheme, custom Picatinny rail with Viridian X5L laser sight and extended mag with 30 rounds of 5.7 x 28mm armour-piercing ammo. I’m ready for anything these bastards feel like throwing at me.
The only thing better than an extended mag, fully-automatic Glock G18c is two extended mag, fully-automatic Glock G18cs. Hang two 5 megawatt ZT-EO5 laser sights off the muzzles to balance the weight and it’s more rock and roll than the Stones. As these guys I’m pointing ‘em at are about to find out…
The muzzle flash of my MP7 is reflected in the Plutonite lenses of my Oakley SI Flak Jacket shades as I lay another devastating burst into the bad guys.
I take a knee and cover the alley with my HK MP7, peering through the Sightmark reflex sight on the top Picatinny rail, gloved hand balancing the German submachinegun’s stubby Osprey suppressor.
I line up on the bad guys with my EoTech Holographic Sight and the FN P90 rocks almost comfortingly in my hands as I lay down a long burst — the Warlock 2 sound suppressor choking the gunfire into nothing more than a muffled cough.
The Magpul angled foregrip on my HK 416 makes aiming as easy as pointing. And when I aim at the bad guys, the ACOG / red dot TA01NSN sight makes it easy to find them. And when I find them, all it takes is a squeeze of the custom Geissele trigger to cut them down to size.
The PP-19 Bizon is a typically Russian firearm. Cheap, ugly and effective. The only fancy thing is the 64-round helical magazine, which gives me twice as many rounds as these mooks. But the best thing about it? If I run outta ammo, I can hit you with it as hard as I like and it’ll still work afterwards.
That tight little junction up ahead is a hazard, but like my driving instructor at the Farm used to say, a hazard can be attacked as well as avoided. I throw the Lexus down into second and push it into the red, engine throttling up into a roar as I gun for the gap, muscling oncoming cars out of the way.
I overcook it into the bend in an effort to cut ahead, the suspension sucking the tarmac like an octopus with vertigo. As I hit the apex, the big Lexus’s tail starts to swing out wide… I steer in just a touch, change down and I’m gone.
Always go less metal. I hammer towards the junction ahead, cutting into the half-empty right lane, powering through and slicing hard left. I slither past a startled looking grandmother as she bimbles out — leaving her squarely between me and the bad guys.
Mud on the road means something big and heavy and fatal ahead. A glance over the hedges and I see a tractor trundling out of a field. I change down, throttle off, don’t touch the brake, time it so I scrape past the front of the tractor just as it pulls into this narrow little lane. That trailer it was hauling looked to have something sharp and spikey on the back. I sure hope on this wet, muddy road the guys behind us don’t slide straight into it.
I didn’t spend all day driving around these back roads not to spot a few shortcuts. I cut off the blacktop onto this forestry track, slam through the gate I left open earlier and past two startled dog walkers. It’s all sliding, slippery mud, but I drove this route yesterday and I know every curve. The guy behind me doesn’t. Left onto the hill, grab some air at the top, wipers already on max as I slam through a ford, up and out onto a parallel road.
by Andrew Brehaut
Modern technologies, such as cellphones and the internet, are often a thorn in the side of the horror or thriller GM. Typical responses involve negating the use of this technology, be it through remote locations (no signal), dead batteries, villainous forethought (the cell towers have been damaged), the people contacted simply not believing the PCs’ story, or simply setting the game prior to the existence of such technology.
An alternative to outright negation is to look for ways that the technology may work only partially: the web of trust breaks and confidential information gets into the wrong hands, or information is corrupted or misunderstood. This is particularly suited to thriller games with espionage elements. Games with active magical forces can obviously go above and beyond the suggestions presented here.
These suggests are not intended to be used to hose the players; instead, when they use modern technology, they open themselves up to new problems. Consider these suggests to be “Yes, and” twists.
In keeping with the spirit of GUMSHOE, try to choose twists that not only cause trouble for the players, but introduce new information. The type of attack reveals something about the enemy. If the attackers reach through corrupt authorities to track your cell, that says something different to a black-bag job on an assets computer.
The following suggestions are based on generalities about cryptography and encryption. As I am not a cryptographer I am certain to have misconstrued some some of the fine points.
Characters in Fear Itself are typically less competent at the technical necessities required to keep communications private and concealed than the agents in a Night’s Black Agents game. As a result, you have more latitude for Fear Itself characters to be the instigators of their own failures than you do in Night’s Black Agents.
A simple guideline to consider is that if the character should be competent, then the failure should only come from depending on a (compromised or lazy) asset or NPC, or when a failed die roll presents an opportunity.
An example of this might be that the player blows a preparedness test for a cellphone in a tight spot. Instead of failing and not getting the phone, the GM might rule that they have a phone, but it has been compromised.
In Nights Black Agents, any network contacts whose pool has dropped to zero – or in a Mirror mode game, any flipped contacts (NBA pg 32) – are perfectly placed to be the weak link in the security chain. They may reveal cellphone numbers, secure keys, passwords, or any other secret information the character uses.
Less competent characters are unlikely to use secure methods at all. The GM has more latitude to hand-wave the details in this context.
Trust and Authenticity
The backbone of digital secret sharing is authenticity; sophisticated mathematical tools provide ways of ensuring that a communication is from who you think it is from, and that only the intended recipient can access it. Authenticity allows an increase in trust in the communications. Typically these schemes require a non-secret ‘key’ (part of a key pair, with one key secret, and the other non-secret) to be shared between the appropriate parties. Given an opportunity to trade encryption keys, and sufficient bits in those keys, this encryption is sufficiently secure that it will not be feasible to break using brute force in a reasonable amount of time. Not to mention, brute force cracking is lazy story telling, especially in a spy game1.
The math involved is the strongest part of any cryptographic system. Instead, the system is more easily broken by attacking the humans involved, or any secondary mechanisms used. While the math is typically tough, it requires that its process is followed strictly; deviation may introduce subtle weaknesses. Not only does the human angle make for a more believable story, it makes for a more interesting one.
A good guideline here is that the human link that breaks should never be the player characters. If they are competent enough to be using secure methods to begin with, it undermines the characters to suddenly cause them to make a mistake. Only in a crunch (e.g. if preparedness is involved) might they not use a secure channel, and in that instance they clearly know. This also means that PC to PC communication is guaranteed to be secure, which avoids an always check for hidden doors situation where the players waste time worrying about their intra-party communications.
The takeaway here is that you need to trust every link in the chain that has access to the secret keys. If the chain is secure, then any secret communicated with those keys is secure. Adding links to the chain increases the chances that the chain is compromised. As mentioned above, these mistakes and unnecessary links should occur at the NPC end.
When unsecured communications are being used, especially textual, there is little guarantee that whoever is at the other end of the system is who they claim to be. Snooping and supplying misinformation are trivial.
Secure communication relies on the sender having the recipient’s public key, and the recipient being able to get the sender’s in a trusted way. Without this, unsecured methods have to be used. The implication here is that communicating with people outside the existing circle of trust leaves you wide open: the police can’t be called without eavesdroppers having an opportunity to listen in.
One final point: Cryptography is extraordinarily hard. Cryptographers typically cannot see the flaws in a system of their own devising. Competent characters should know that they cannot invent their own cryptography safely, but if players push for it, then they are wide open and asking for trouble.
Aliens and Brute Force
Aliens present a reasonable excuse for brute force encryption breaking. Presumably their computational war chest vastly outstrips our own, so they would be able to brute force nearly all encryption with relative ease. The exception here is one-time pads which are still likely to be secure assuming aliens obey our same mathematical laws.
With people as the weak link in a cryptographic system, it helps to know some potential attacks that may be deployed against them:
- Probably the most common method for acquiring secrets is via social engineering. This is basically a confidence game. Email phishing is a blunt form of this. When the target works out of a large organisation, posing as a network administrator will often get easy physical access to a machine, and the willing cooperation of the target.
- Extortion, threats or torture that leverage vices, family, friends or debts is a very direct method for extracting secrets, but effective.
- Another direct method is the black bag job. Simply break in to the physical location containing a computer or device and either copying data or just stealing it.
Sometimes communications must travel through an insecure network. In this case, even when a message is communicated securely, an observer may still be able to gain information. Examples of an insecure network include wireless networks, cell networks, the wider internet, and local wired networks controlled by a third party.
Establishing a secure network on top of an insecure network (a tunnel, or a virtual private network) is possible, but is subject to the same secret sharing challenges sending the message in the first place. One development here is anonymizing networks such as Tor; with Tor, an observer could see you connect to Tor, but have no idea where the information goes2.
Transmitting secrets over an insecure network allows an observer to collect “meta” details about the communication. Things like: when the message was sent, the duration of connection and/or size of the message, where the message was sent from, and possibly where it was sent to. Proxy networks and other tools may be used to obscure the specific details, but with less latitude than true security.
In more complex systems (such as server software like websites or email systems), information inadvertently disclosed by the system may allow an attacker to find weak points or, in a particularly egregious situation, piece together information from the revealed pieces. This is especially dangerous when the information can be correlated with other sources.
Cellphones, especially smartphones, provide many options for problematic twists.
SMS messages and phone calls are not encrypted end to end, and can be accessed relatively easily via the network. Users of iPhones have access to Apple’s iMessage network which sends arbitrarily large messages and images with end to end encryption. However, if an iPhone cannot access the iMessage server for any reason, it falls back to unencrypted SMS by default. Harried characters may forget to check this, or assets may be lax at checking the setting. One other potential weak point of iMessage is that multiple devices can be configured to receive messages at a given address; someone may snoop on encrypted conversations without you realising. You can safely assume similar foibles of any consumer messaging service.
Competent agents can be assumed to have installed apps on smart phones they control to let them securely communicate and that avoid the risks of using consumer messaging. However, the phone itself is still vulnerable to attack at levels lower than the messaging application.
Smartphones such as Android phones, and jail-broken iPhones, allow for arbitrary software to be installed, and in doing so can replace or augment the operating system’s core software. A simple example of an attack at this layer is a key logger: by planting listening code into the software keyboard, the phone can record every piece of text entered system-wide, and secretly broadcast it, thus circumventing any encryption used. A compromised device may also use the device’s cameras, microphone and GPS to capture a broad range of additional ‘passive’ data.
Jailbreaking a phone is done by taking advantage of security vulnerabilities in the phone’s operating system. While typical jailbreaking does require some user intervention (partly as it is intended to be an intentional attack), there have been jailbreaks that only required visiting a website. If a smartphone that is considered secure has been used to access untrusted websites (and any website that is not delivered securely with known-good certificates can be considered untrusted) then it could possibly have been compromised by a malicious site. In the real world the chances of such an attack vector being viable are extremely narrow, but in the fictional world of a spy thriller where agents may not have opportunities to keep their devices up-to-date and are frequently accessing servers in the seedy underside of the internet, the risks rise. A competent agent with time and access is going to use a disposable or public computer to access these sites, but under pressure there may be no choice.
Obviously, if a smartphone with secret keys on it is stolen or lost, it is a serious risk until it can be remotely deactivated. Lock screens are a weak defence against an attacker; iOS and Android have both suffered multiple security holes allowing lock screens to be bypassed.
Light, Sound and other Emissions
Modern mobile devices have more direct ways of creating trouble too. To function they must emit radio waves on various frequency bands, as well as light and/or sound to be functional.
With phones from sloppy assets, or that have been appropriated, there is also a risk of alarms and other sounds occurring. The iPhone, for example, has a switch that disables the ringer but does not disable all sound system wide. The system’s policy allows some sounds, such as alarms, to occur even when the ringer is disabled. This is a particularly appropriate “gotcha” for normal people thrust into dire situations without warning, such as in Fear Itself.
Another class of potential attack in the modern world (and form of information leakage) is that devices such as cellphones that connect to wireless and cell systems broadcast unique device IDs to those networks. In both cases the attacker could compromise the network itself, but because these devices must broadcast their communication, it is often easier to use malicious base stations and traffic snoopers. For wifi this can easily be achieved with cheap plug computers. In both cases basic identifying information can be harvested without the target being aware.
This is possible because the devices need to maintain a low level of background traffic to maintain a presence on a given network (e.g. so that calls or data can be routed to the device). This information can then be pooled over time. For instance if the same IDs appear in networks of two or three geographically separate locations, a conspirator could reasonably assume that it is not a coincidence.
Particularly with wifi, the range of each network is small enough that with a collection of networks or malicious base-stations, a particular device’s movements could reliably be tracked in a known area.
TEMPEST Monitors (NBA Pg 100) are another risk of carrying a cellphone or other broadcasting device.
In games with supernatural, in addition to creatures being extra sensitive to light and sound, they may perceive frequency ranges well above even ultra violet; In these spectrums the radio signals from cell and wifi systems would be clearly visible bursts emanating from the characters.
If the creatures communicate with each other in these frequency ranges, it is possible that may even mask cell or wifi signal for short bursts.
In a situation where a character must be separated from a device, such as at a meeting with criminal elements, they should be concerned about tampering. The question is what could have been tampered with in the time window, and what the signs of it would be.
Some devices are easier to tamper with than others. Those with battery access for instance; a matter of seconds may be all that is needed. Phones without user accessible batteries may seem less vulnerable to tampering, but with the appropriate tools (such as the right screwdriver, a special prybar and a suction cup for an iPhone) you can have it open and closed again in a couple of minutes. The easiest way to check for physical tampering is to open the device and examine it.
Software tampering is harder to identify, but may take longer to perform. This is the equivalent of a jailbreak. It may be achieved over a network, or by connecting the device to a computer. Between five and fifteen minutes for a competent attacker to determine and use the correct attack vector and required waiting for software installs and device restarts would not be unreasonable. Tampered devices may run hotter and/or use battery faster than the usage would suggest. With the appropriate hardware and software tools and some time, the image of a device can be checked against a known good copy and if need be restored.
Finally, devices with SIM cards are vulnerable to tampering. It takes only a couple of minutes and some text messages. This allows trivial call and message snooping.
Back of the sticks?
An alternative to just denying characters use of cellphones due to lack of signal in the remote locations is to allow them to find a patch of poor signal; if they use it, they may be pinned in one spot while making a call, or waiting for their encrypted data to transfer. Maybe not your first choice when being stalked by a vampire.
An alternative to smart phones is cheap, disposable ‘feature’ phones (called ‘burners’) with prepaid data. These can be purchased with cash, no personal information, and can be trivially disposed of after use.
Relying on burners allows trivial anonymity as long as the burners only contact other burners, and do not contact a device known by the observer (that allows the entire network to then be unravelled).
The main downsides to burners is that they can’t have cryptographic keys or software loaded onto them easily. This means that communications are necessarily insecure, but it also means that there is no reliable (cryptographically speaking) way to authenticate with others. Anonymity and trust are naturally opposed. Weak secrets such as pass phrases or PINs can be trivially snooped by any observer that has either compromised the network or has the target surveilled.
Some smartphone burners exist. These often suffer from antiquated operating system versions with plentiful known vulnerabilities and no way to upgrade.
Accessing the wider internet is relatively safe; you can do so anonymously from a variety of publicly accessible computers (Libraries, internet cafés etc) without needing to put your own hardware at risk, with limited chance of your location being uncovered beyond the typical physical risks, and without too much concern about key logging or other snooping.
The biggest restriction is that the character may not be able to get the machine out of its kiosk mode, which means being limited to only the web browser, and potentially some coarse filtered view of the web (administered at a firewall).
If the machine can be accessed out of a kiosk mode (surreptitiously), then it is relatively trivial to connect more securely and directly to known good machines (perhaps virtual machines) to then access out into wider internet unobstructed.
One potential problem here is that the character may need to relay their secret key via USB stick. Beyond the dangers inherent to carrying the key (leaving the key behind would be a potential disaster), there is the risk of any malware on the computer infecting the USB stick, and then in turn the characters own computers. This is more likely to cause a computer to run sluggishly and/or unreliably than it is specifically going to leak information to the enemy.
Characters with heat (see Night’s Black Agents pg 87-88) from government agencies may experience difficulty crossing borders: a failed heat roll may result in laptops and phones being seized for searching (and copying or tampering). While consumer operating systems now provide full disk encryption, characters may be subjected to extra scrutiny due to its presence (“If you have nothing to hide, why do you need the encryption?”); the characters will of course be able to manufacture convincing reasons, but the argument may still be leveraged as an excuse to detain them.
Alerting the Authorities
Players may at some stage wish to call in reinforcements in the form of law enforcement, or media. Instead of ruling it out completely, consider allowing it. Keep in mind that the characters are unlikely to be able (or want) to use authenticated channels to make this communication, so there is limited trust involved. Any respondents will act accordingly.
The characters will probably do one of two things: lie about the situation, or come off sounding like cranks. If they lie, then whoever investigates is likely to be wildly unprepared for what is happening. Meat for the grinder, and stability tests for the characters. With the crank option, the response is likely to be slower arriving.
For law enforcement, consider having a couple of uniforms roll up to investigate. The characters will have to work extra hard to achieve their original objective and keep them alive. If the officers die at the scene, the characters can expect their heat to rise, and attached with it records of the call and tags for any weirdness mentioned. These unexplained deaths will surely crop up again later, too, perhaps pinned to the characters.
In the case of media, a reporter given a crazy but potentially promising tip may wish to do some initial research, and perhaps meet up with the informants. Again, the characters are going to have to work to keep the reporter alive. In a Night’s Black Agents game offering up a small story may only take out a single low level cell of the conspiracy, but is reasonably achievable. Tip offs with larger scope take a lot more time to come to fruition, and will end up endangering more people.
Competent characters will be aware of the security risk of most of these problems. Don’t try to hide this from the players to spring on them later; let them stew in their own juices and make the decision in the heat of the moment. They always get their message in or out, but they know they have let something slip in the process. Allow Sense Trouble rolls to alert characters, particularly if they have points in the appropriate abilities (Cryptography, Electronic Surveillance, etc)
When a network contact is turned, an agent may see telltale signs that their communications have been breached, but not know what exactly.
- If you are interested in reading more about the strength of cryptography, check out the PGP FAQ. While some weaker keys have been cracked, the amount of computing power needed is phenomenal. Using strong keys, and regular secure key rotation should mitigate most of the risk.
1.The default setting of Night’s Black Agents (pg 28) assumes that government agencies do possess tools to crack even the strongest keys. You may prefer to assume this in your games.
- Tor is not perfect though. This article is an interesting read about one attack on Tor using malicious end points.