Insurers specializing in high-end art have become increasingly worried by the proportion of their clients’ art collections stored in a small handful of warehouses, mostly in Switzerland. By stashing their art at a so-called free port, the hyper-rich avoid taxes and customs fees.
To rip this story from the headlines, we can see an obvious plot for a heist flick, in which the PCs plot a single score allowing them to scoop up enough masterpieces to stock a world-class museum.
Let’s bend it a little into a premise for a Night’s Black Agents scenario. A venerable vampire, who perhaps once shared absinthe with Oscar Wilde, has transmitted his soul essence into a painting. You know the drill—it ages, he doesn’t. The only way to destroy him is to burn the canvas. He’s stashed it in a free port, confident that its experts will give it all the security they’d provide to a Rembrandt or Picasso.
The mission: under the guise of an ordinary heist, get in there and grab the painting—either to end him, or gain leverage to squeeze favors out of him, in furtherance of your broader war against the international bloodsucker hegemony.
A Ripped From the Headlines Scenario Hook for Ashen Stars
In a development that raises the prospect of bespoke organs created with cells extruded through a 3D printer, a patient in a June 2011 procedure received a new windpipe grown specifically for him. 3D scanning technology provided the template for an exact replica of his original windpipe, sculpted from polymer around a glass mold.
In the future timeline of Ashen Stars, the utopian space empire known as the Combine once assiduously policed its ban on sentient-species cloning. Like so much else, this has fallen by the wayside in the frontier region of the Bleed. But so far it’s proven impossible to create true replicas of intelligent beings—you can make a physical copy, and even age it, but you can’t recreate all of the experiences that shape personal identity.
That may have changed, the lasers discover, when they get the terms of their latest contract. Famed inventor Sian Sar hires them to track down her ex-husband, Rog Trainor, who, without her knowledge, used her own scanning technology to make a complete cellular scan of her brain. She believes that he’s printed out a meat version of her brain, and is using it for competitive advantage—putting her genius to work on the same technologies her company is feverishly developing. Their mission: to bring Trainor to justice, and destroy the counterfeit of her brain.
The twist: Trainor has not only grown a replica of his ex-wife’s brain, but installed it in a clone copy of her body. The result is a new person, who shares Sar’s experiences and personality up to a point, but then diverged. She may not want to remain imprisoned and working for Trainor, but she doesn’t want to be murdered, either. Do the lasers fulfill their contract, or accept her claims of full personhood?
A Ripped From the Headlines Scenario Premise for Ashen Stars
As this article reveals, the conversion of mortgages into complex financial instruments did more than provoke the 2008 global financial meltdown. The data-tracking process used to spin fragments of mortgages off into a tradeable derivative—creating a sort of mortgage slurry, if you will—now makes it impossible to determine whether homeowners, banks, investors, or anyone at all really owns certain real-world property. A nebulously owned property can’t be used as collateral, undermining a key value of everyday finance.
Speaking of slicing and dicing, this springboards a scenario that perfectly fits the Ashen Stars setting, where information loss has been one of the prices paid by a former stellar utopia torn at the seams by recent warfare.
Unlike most planets of the Combine, the synthculture planet Trump’s World practiced 20th century capitalism –albeit in idealized, tourist-park form—even before the Mohilar War. Private ownership of property underpinned this historical reenactment economy. Now info-saboteurs have struck at the heart of the system, scrambling the worldwide property database. The PCs are hired to track down the McGuffin on which the entire economy rests—the single accurate copy of the pre-disaster real estate registry. Complicating the mission: plenty of Trump’s World moguls want the database back up—after they get a chance to fiddle with it, just a little…
According to a conspiracy theory both odd and oddly un-sinister, a youthful Barack Obama, as part of a secret CIA program, used to teleport to Mars. Why, the official denials only serve to confirm it!
To rip this from the headlines into an Ashen Stars scenario…
Teleportation technology doesn’t appear in the game setting. It’s a notorious plot-hoser. And in a roleplaying game you never have to leave out an establishing shot of a shuttle for pacing or budgetary reasons.
With this in mind…
A wealthy woman hires the lasers to locate her missing daughter, Rika True. Like many missing persons contracts, the arrangement calls for them to bring to justice anyone responsible for any harm that may have come to her. Rika, they learn, was last seen applying for employment with the utopian Eden Corporation. They find the uncharted company world that serves as its headquarters: a lush paradise that provides Eden settlers with a life of ease and luxury. They discover that Rika won the coveted right to participate in an Eden teleport experiment. The experiment turns out to be a scam to feed willing volunteers to a bi-dimensional predatory entity. The twist: it’s the entity that makes the planet inhabitable. If they destroy it or drive it away, the atmosphere immediately becomes toxic. Should the lasers reveal this to the populace, the residents decide that they’d rather continue the modest sacrifices than abandon their paradise. Do the lasers bring the system crashing down, as their contract demands, risking the lives of thousands?
As with other GUMSHOE games like The Esoterrorists and Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars GMs are encouraged to look to the news for episode inspiration. Like the writers of the various Treks and the nouveau Battlestar, they might use the space opera form to examine issues of the day.
Alternately, they can start with pop science articles and either work their way to political allegory, or not, as desired.
For example, a recent study indicates that drug addiction piggybacks on the same neural impulses that lead animals to crave salt.
In the episode this inspires, the crew is hired to investigate a series of attacks on Combine ships near the Bleed’s far edge. They discover that the hostile party is a heretofore unknown advanced species called the gretherin. Although at first they seem merely xenophobic and implacably hostile, a twist reveals their motivations. A gang of human and cybe drug runners has infiltrated their home world, engineering a synthetic drug by hijacking the gretherin’s necessary craving for arsenic, a trace metal they require to regulate metabolic function. The gangsters aim to addict the entire planet to a substance only they can manufacture, draining it of its wealth. The gretherin take this for an act of war waged by the entire Combine. Can the PCs avert a nasty local conflict by taking down the drug gang and destroying the technology used to create the drug?
It’s not just The Esoterrorists that urges you to reconfigure real-life mysteries by ripping tales from the headlines. With Mutant City Blues undergoing a resurgence of interest lately, I figured I’d start swapping in case ideas for the Heightened Crimes Investigative Unit as well.
Japan’s strict limitations on organ donation have created a thriving black market in which the yakuza are often involved, either as recipients or brokers.
In your mutant city, a down-and-outer with quills, blade immunity and webbing mutations disappears, to the anxiety of his family and the indifference of everyone else. If the detectives search where no one else will, they discover that the victim’s disappearance coincided with a yakuza boss’ incognito visit to town. It turns out that the mobster had him killed to harvest a kidney for his own use. The boss also shares the blade immunity enhancement (along with others adjacent to it on the Quade Diagram) and superstitiously feared believed that he might lose this power, from which he derives much underworld prestige, if he settled for just any kidney.
When a phone tip from a woman claiming to be a psychic leads police in a rural community to excavate a supposed mass grave, the Ordo Veritatis dispatches a team to the site to cope with supernatural repercussions. By the time they arrive at the scene, the call is shown to be a hoax. But as seasoned investigators into the machinations of the Esoterrorists, the team knows better than to pack up and go home. The emotional impact of this nationally televised event has likely weakened the membrane between this world and the Outer Dark. If there isn’t already an Esoterror sleeper cell nearby, they can bet that at least one will be headed to town, stirring up further cognitive dissonance until genuinely uncanny events start to occur. Can the team shut them down before they do permanent damage to the membrane?
The Esoterror Factbook details a Station Duty campaign frame, in which agents are permanently assigned to one locale where a thinning membrane provokes a series of horrific occurrences. We’ll be exploring this idea in more depth in an upcoming product. In the meantime, the fake corpse call could serve as the instigating incident for your Station Duty series.
News of an Esoterror bioscience expedition sends the investigators on a jaunt to the Brazilian rain forest, where they encounter the usual horrors of nature at its most fecund and ferocious.
After a red-herring encounter with corporate forces intent on leveling the rainforest for beef production, they catch up with their quarry and find them studying fungal infections that turn ants into zombies. They discover a fungal formulation, manipulated by an Outer Dark Entity able to change organisms on the DNA, that will launch a human zombie plague. It can’t induce a global extinction event, but it can certainly spawn enough panic to thin the membrane between realities worldwide.
Normally Ripped from the Headlines features scenario premises for The Esoterrorists. Today’s news story seems to cry out for a Trail of Cthulhu treatment—perhaps in the modern day.
When reports surface that the venom of certain poisonous snakes induces a intoxicating effect strong enough to get through to hardened opiate abusers, a cadre of jaded libertines heads to Oklahoma snake country. There they set out to find a local shaman willing to provide them with a venom-derived hallucinogen known as the Kiss of Yig. At the behest of a concerned relative, the investigators attempt to intercept them before they successfully establish a widespread distribution network for the mind- and body-shattering, supernatural drug.