With the release of Robin’s wonderful new story-explorer The Gaean Reach RPG, GUMSHOE extends its tendrils into one of the oldest and most reliable of dramatic forms: the revenge story. In that game, the player characters unite to destroy the indescribably vile Quandos Vorn in revenge for his prior cruelties to them. And just beforehand, the players (this is the really great bit) collaboratively describe Quandos Vorn’s vileness and determine his prior cruelties. The result? A fresh, involving take on a tale as old as Orestes, if not always quite so damp and naked. From Dumas’ Gothy Edmond Dantes to TV’s dreamy Oliver Queen, doughty heroes have sought revenge on Him (or Her, for Orestes) Who Done Them Wrong for millennia — and if Jack Vance’s SF is anything to go by (and indeed it should be) will continue to do so for millennia hence. So what about our own millennium right here? Why not adapt the brilliant story focus of The Gaean Reach RPG to another of your already beloved if not-quite-so-brilliantly-focused GUMSHOE RPGs? Why not, indeed?
Each possibility here introduces your game’s Quandos Vorn and gives a possible reason you want to get him, although the GM should begin with the good old “Why do you hate …?” and only prime the pump if player creativity seems temporarily throttled. Further possible Terrible Deeds appear, followed by the Quarry’s Masks (how he hides from you, possibly in plain sight) and Obstacles (what he can put between you and him) and then the game’s potential Taglines (things you do or say in play to get Tokens which you spend to pierce Masks and overcome Obstacles).
Night’s Black Agents: Chandler Vaughn
Chandler Vaughn is the guy who burned you. Or that’s one of his cover names. You aren’t actually sure he’s with the Agency any more. If he ever was. Maybe he was a double agent. You’re not even sure what he looks like now. Or looked like, then. But you know one thing: he burned you, and you’re going to bring him down.
Terrible Deeds: killed your partner, aided al-Qaeda in a (lot of) terrorist action, smuggled nukes, killed your family, perverted the Agency’s once-proud ideals into the Orwellian sham they are today, released the vampire virus, vampirized your partner, betrayed your country
Masks: cover identities, plastic surgery, can shapeshift, deniable dead drops, is a hive parasite that lives in many minds, cut-outs, brain-hacking, literal masks you know neat face-mask technology like in Mission: Impossible
Obstacles: billions of embezzled drug dollars for bribes, Russian mobsters, Iranian snipers, North Korean mentats with telekinesis, lots of pull with the corrupt helicopter-gunship-and-SWAT-team parts of the Agency, Renfields, secure immunity in isolated country, total surveillance of all computers
Taglines: Use the Night’s Black Agents Achievements, which are ideal for this sort of thing, as the source of Tokens, not of refreshes (except refreshes with Tokens, of course).
Mutant City Blues: “Quantum Born”
Not the least of “Quantum Born”‘s sins is to have a really lame pseudonym on the Internet. But he’s a mutant (“born of the quantum apocalypse that is ending your corrupt world system so-called”) and a terrorist and a murderer. At least.
Terrible Deeds: set off a bomb in the subway, killed your partner, leaked your case files all over the Internet and got a jillion hardened criminals set free on technicalities, killed your family, bio-engineered a worse version of the Quade virus for the most destructive possible power combos, provides foolproof schemes to other criminals and terrorists, hacked into a candy company’s mainframe and poisoned several thousand kids by altering its ingredient ordering software, is a serial killer among his other hangups
Masks: anonymous Internet existence with the Tor and the onion and such, hoodie and sunglasses, army of easily-gulled hipster anarchist wannabes to claim his identity, is blackmailing members of the force to cover his trail and feed him clues, shape-changing mutant power, is actually an AI given a computer analog of the Quade virus, surveillance-obscuring software, could literally be anyone at all
Obstacles: insanely devoted online love cult, not actually in your home country to say nothing of your actual jurisdiction, police red tape that says “it’s too personal with you and him,” super-powered goons paid big Bitcoin to hit you a lot, your own online history/credit report/everything ever, previous criminals you put away broken out (or legally freed!) by him, is protected from on high by government or corporations or a big seemingly cool charitable or progressive foundation, army of computer-controlled drones and makerbots
Taglines: Use Achievements, as above, or Taglines, as in Gaean Reach, or both, but sourced from either “gritty” comics dialogue or from police procedural TV shows.
Trail of Cthulhu: Kwan-Ho Wong
Or, sure, if you’d rather be torn apart by peculiarly intelligent wolves than poisoned by enormous purple centipedes, Gennadiy Voronin. He is a dealer in antiquities of a repellent aspect, and the lord of a criminal empire extending from Limehouse to Leningrad to Lhassa. He possesses perhaps the finest mind you’ve ever encountered, all the more terrifying because it is his brilliance that has led him to the Mythos …
Terrible Deeds: unleashed a shoggoth, killed your mentor horribly, stole your research and left you floundering and bankrupt, drove you mad and had you institutionalized in some charming colonial hellhole, denounced you to Stalin/Hitler, assassinated FDR, found the Ark of the Covenant first, raised a god or titan once and didn’t have the courtesy to die or go mad
Masks: master of an ancient serpent-man cannibal shapeshifting technique, is an identical twin, has never been photographed, wears an all-enveloping hooded robe at all times, mind-swapped or drug-enslaved pawns, plastic surgery, is (or commands) an ambulatory shoggoth, yellow mask
Obstacles: hideous and hideously-strong enforcer, Ahnenerbe or Black Ocean or NKVD favors, lives in an immense ruined temple to a Mythos entity, hyperspace gates for escapes, bribed or addicted officials in all countries, byakhee flocks, fanatical cultist followers, cannot die
Taglines: Gain a Token by suitable, effective, in character use of a properly Lovecraftian adjective.
Every now and again, I allude jokingly to my “patented one hour per paragraph production model.” This joke has the advantage of making Simon squirm and laugh hollowly, and the disadvantage of sometimes being true. Those little ability clues that I so thoughtlessly made standard in Hideous Creatures? Some of them, especially for the harder sciences, take — well, not an hour necessarily, but they take a good deal longer than just writing “Aunt Sandra thought she saw a bear but it smelled like a frog” or whatever. Visceral goo, easy; virtual science, hard.
Well, anyhow, I recently set what I hope to goodness is my all-time record for research-to-paragraph production, when I wrote up the “Calimani” paragraph in the “Castle Dracula” section of The Dracula Dossier. We can’t make it too easy to just “skip to the boss fight at the end,” after all, so I put in nine or so possible sites for Castle Dracula, of which the Calimani Mountains (a.k.a. the Kelemen Alps) in the eastern Carpathians are one. Why those Mountains (or Alps) in particular? Because they’ve been fingered by the wonderfully obsessive Dutch Dracula scholar Hans Corneel de Roos in his essay “The Dracula Maps” which is available only as an introductory section in his has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed photographically illustrated (and surprisingly minimally annotated) oversized book The Ultimate Dracula. (The cover, for those who disdain following clicky links, shows Dracula riding his coffin (complete with headlamps) through the skies over Transylvania.) So I (of course) bought it and when it showed up, pored over the FIFTY PAGE essay and carefully studied the SEVENTEEN main maps (the crucial ones being blown-up images of Austro-Hungarian military charts oh Thoth-Dionysos I love this book so much) and looked at the spot Corneel de Roos found in GoogleEarth then spent a bit of extra time tracing the “Mozile Draculi” label from one of those Austro-Hungarian military charts on a nearby hill, which turns out to actually read “Morile Draculi” meaning “Devil’s Mill” … or, of course, “Dracula’s Mill.” There’s also a nearby mountain called Dragusul, which doesn’t come from the same root at all but seems suggestive nonetheless.
If you’re curious, the key insight in de Roos’ essay is that Stoker gives a (mistakenly swapped) latitude and longitude for the nearest border crossing in his Notes, and mentions a nearby location called “Izvorul” which might well be the mountain Izvorul Calimanii or “Heart of the Kelemen” which might well have been the random desolate peak Stoker picked to use as Dracula’s mountain home. And yes I have Stoker’s Notes too.
And then I boiled the whole megillah down to the “Calimani” description but in my defense I think that turned into a little more like two or even three paragraphs.
But wait! There’s more! On an entirely unrelated search — well, not entirely unrelated, as it’s still about Dracula — I found another essay by the indefatigable Corneel de Roos. This one deals with the 1901 Icelandic translation of Dracula (titled Makt Myrkranna, meaning “Powers of Darkness”), which sent Dracula scholarship into a tizzy in 1986 when Stoker’s preface to it was rediscovered, said tizzy emanating from Stoker’s clear reference in that preface to Jack the Ripper. What’s the connection? asked any number of Dracula critics and at least two novels (one with a great title) and one very silly book of ostensible nonfiction which of course I own why would you even ask such a question it’s like you don’t even know me.
So anyhow that Icelandic translation, by one Valdimar Ásmundsson (who died in 1902, the year after it came out, no that’s not suspicious at all) was recently republished in 2011 — and only our redoubtable Dutchman has bothered to translate it or Googlefish it at least to find out if Jack the Ripper shows up in the book. So in his 2014 essay “Makt Myrkranna: Mother of All Dracula Modifications?” C. de Roos reveals that Ásmundsson — possibly with Stoker’s assistance and nigh-certainly with his permission — radically changed the plot! Dracula is now head of an evil conspiracy of rich bastards, financial-conspirator-Satanists who carried out the Thames Torso Murders among other outrages (and likely committed the Ripper killings after Dracula left the scene in a cloud of dust).
Reading this essay gave me: some possible names for the Brides of Dracula, lots more creepy Europeans, a new detective (Barrington, to go with Stoker’s un-used Cotford) and best of all, a lovely extra thread to spin out as a potential conspiracy. I barely prevented myself from adding Iceland as a new location.
All that, I confidently suspect, will nurture many new paragraphs indeed. So as long as I can keep Hans Corneel de Roos from publishing any more ground-breaking essays, we should be able to wrap this thing up (only a bit bloated with extra Satanism and keen Romanian mountains) by Halloween.
The GUMSHOE Preparedness ability, which lets you test to see if you happen to already have the crucial bit of equipment you want, lets you skip the aggravation of equipment shopping with an on-the-spot moment of creativity in play.
Although the book definitions of Preparedness refer specifically to gear, GMs may find it plot-forwarding to expand it cover in-the-moment revelations of other prior planning.
Do the investigators need a car to pick you up in a desolate spot in the woods? A player can make this happen by a) supplying a credible retroactive explanation of how she arranged it, and b) scoring a Preparedness success.
- “Naturally I tampered with the elevator as we stepped out of it.”
- “Might I have set the sick bay diagnostic bot to sedate anyone with transferant DNA?”
- “I had time to put flowerpots on the fire escape, right?”
You might combine ordinary Preparedness (having a piece of gear) with the planning to have it in the right place, already doing its job.
“Well, of course I brought along a webcam and set it up by the door to catch video of anyone leaving after we came in.”
If Preparedness as planning seems to give a greater advantage than simply having a particular item on hand, increase the Difficulty above the baseline of 4. If it substitutes an anti-climactic moment for an exciting one, make it exorbitantly expensive. Or better yet, let the players have their moment of coolness and competence and find another, unrelated crisis to throw at them soon afterwards.
If not, don’t make it cost more just for abstract world logic reasons. As always, GUMSHOE cares more about emulation than simulation.
Night’s Black Agents GMs might rule that instances of Preparedness as planning involving the intercession of a GM character also require the expenditure of at least 1 Network point. Or maybe you charge the Network point only if the agents try to squeeze an additional benefit from having the character on the scene.
For example, the driver of the car costs 0 Network if you only have him take you out of the woods, as per the original framing of the Preparedness use. But if you then ask him to accompany you into the motel, to make sure you don’t get jumped by a pack of Renfields on the way in, you have to fork over some Network points to mark his transition from passive background character to source of active, ongoing, risky assistance.
Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.
In the latest episode of their submersible podcast, Ken and Robin talk sunken Dunwich, Gulina Karimova, professionalism, and saving Anne Boleyn.
In the latest episode of their numinous podcast, Ken and Robin talk imaginary psychogeography, elastic vampires, word clusters and Ioan Culianu.
And 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.
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.