“Do you realize that this project concerns human evolution, and that it’s one of the most important questions the human race has ever dealt with? And here these damned fools are thinking in terms of espionage and counter espionage and murder …”
— Colin Wilson, The Black Room (1971)
Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the “Black Sorcerer” of the CIA. For real.
The 1970s are not the official decade of Fall of DELTA GREEN, but they are the decade that gave us the “modified limited hangout,” which is spy-speak for what the mystical-minded Masons call “Making Manifest That Which Should Be Hidden.” In other words: you reveal some of the truth, but as a distraction or cover for the real secrets behind everything. This, of course, is why Beyonce is always making the Illuminati gesture with her hands, and why MAJESTIC-12 greenlit Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and why everybody knows about MK-ULTRA, the CIA mind-control project so secret that CIA Director Richard Helms destroyed 138 boxes of MK-ULTRA records rather than turn them over to the Church Committee in 1975.
The “MK” digraph means that MK-ULTRA fell under the purview of the CIA’s Technical Services Staff (TSS), the Company’s “Q Branch.” In 1953, when MK-ULTRA spun up from the previous Project CHATTER (a Navy program begun in 1947) and Project ARTICHOKE (previously Project BLUEBIRD, a CIA program run under the Office of Scientific Intelligence, which by the 1970s was absolutely not building bionic astronauts), Director Allen Dulles put the TSS’ head chemist, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, in charge of it. Gottlieb, delightfully, was known as the “Black Sorcerer,” because of his expertise in poisons. Gottlieb rapidly expanded the remit of MK-ULTRA from brainwashing, LSD experiments, and hypnosis into some really weird stuff. (Delightfully, the “foreign deployment” sub-project of MK-ULTRA was called MK-DELTA. You cannot make this stuff up, or rather, you just never need to.) In 1964, MK-ULTRA became MK-SEARCH; in 1967, Gottlieb became head of the TSS and came up with even more wonderful toys including a microwave gun for planting voices in people’s heads. In 1972, Gottlieb retired; MK-ULTRA shut down (officially) the next year. Cue Congressional investigation, and Helms’ fun with shredders.
From ULTRA to OFTEN
So if MK-ULTRA is the modified limited hangout, what on Earth must the real deal have looked like? Well, according to researchers who quite frankly begin at “dodgy” and go down from there, the real deal is an MK-ULTRA spinoff called MK-OFTEN. In Congressional testimony, Director Helms claimed that MK-OFTEN was just another name for MK-CHICKWIT, a CIA-Defense Department program for testing “medical procedures” on prisoners at Holmesburg State Prison in Philadelphia from 1967 to 1973. MK-CHICKWIT, meanwhile, has also been associated with investigations into South American and Asian hallucinogens, tests of tropical disease prevention, or a research program to “identify new drug developments in Europe and Asia and to obtain information and samples.” Several intelligence historians believe that MK-OFTEN primarily researched pharmaceuticals for a wide variety of purposes, maintaining an enormous database of tens of thousands of chemicals and drugs. Congressional testimony indicated that MK-OFTEN experiments tried to “disturb a person’s psyche,” create “violent” or “irrational or irresponsible behavior” or “temporary psychotic states in subjects.” Like MK-ULTRA, MK-OFTEN was supposedly shut down in 1972 or 1973.
But we know better, thanks to pioneering (if that’s the word I want) research by Gordon Thomas, a pop-historian of intelligence. According to Thomas, MK-OFTEN’s task was to “explore the world of black magic” and “harness the forces of darkness and challenge the concept that the inner reaches of the mind are beyond reach.” Thomas posits Gottlieb really living up to his nickname, meeting with astrologers and fortune-tellers, “Chinese palmists,” voodooists, practitioners of Satanism, and who knows what else. (This is about when Army Intelligence officer Michael Aquino joins Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, by the way.) The CIA supposedly even approached the monsignor in charge of exorcisms for the Archdiocese of New York, with unknown results.
A different historian of the MK-ULTRA project, John Marks, claims that MK-OFTEN began in 1968 and not under Gottlieb but one Dr. Stephen Aldrich of the Office of Research and Development (which if true means it should just be Project OFTEN, not MK-OFTEN). He claims OFTEN sought “a compound that could simulate a heart attack or a stroke in the targeted individual,” which sounds like the “zombie cucumber” powder in Haiti to me and perhaps also to Gottlieb or Aldrich or whomever. Aldrich was a veteran of ARTICHOKE, and a medical doctor as well, so it may be a distinction without a difference.
Conspiratologist Alex Constantine starts “OFTEN-CHICKWIT” in 1962, and makes sure to rope in the Scientific Engineering Institute (a Boston think tank that may have developed the film for the U-2 flights) and its 1972 “social laboratory” at the University of South Carolina: “a college class in black witchcraft, demonology and voodoo.” He also identifies Aldrich’s main asset in the magical community: neopagan witch and astrologer Sybil Leek. Miskatonic University, this wasn’t. But that said, OFTEN gets fingered as the hand behind the 1968 “Rockland Project,” an alleged repository of computerized personality tests and psychiatric records from all over New England (especially Vermont, hint hint) operating through a front group called Pyschological Assessment Associates in Washington, D.C.
Finally, scholar of the fringe (and take that how you will) Peter Levenda puts OFTEN in 1969, built by Gottlieb after the CIA black-bagged the lab of Canadian mind-control researcher Ewen Cameron, who if you Google him will take you down an endless rabbit hole leading to Rudolf Hess and the Montauk Project among other things. He also cites the human experimentation from CHICKWIT, basing it “out of Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland” but expanding its purview after 1969 into “everything from séances and witchcraft to remote viewing and exotic drugs,” which gets us to any number of places, all of them exciting.
In the final analysis, then, we don’t know what we know, much less what we don’t know. OFTEN might be the side program for Mythos research run by the CIA outside MAJESTIC’s supervision, or it might be an attempt to build a super-soldier (or a vampire, Night’s Black Agents Directors), or it might be a concealed cult preparing to sporulate into the People’s Temple, the Church of Set, the Process Church of the Final Judgement, and the rest of the poisoned fruit of the 1970s supernatural scene. All your agents know is they have a chance to stop it before it spreads — and that doesn’t happen very often.
Next, glad-hearted Hermes dragged the rich meats he had prepared and put them on a smooth, ﬂat stone, and divided them into twelve portions distributed by lot, making each portion wholly honorable.
— Homeric Hymn to Hermes
The Twelve Olympians Receive Psyche, by Raphael. Pictured: Twenty Olympians
That, you will be gobsmacked (or perhaps even godsmacked) to know, is the earliest reference known to the Twelve Olympians, and it’s not that early: the “Homeric” hymns are usually dated to around 600 BCE, which is about 75 years before the tyrant Peisistratos sets up the first known altar to the Twelve, in Athens. (A cult of the Twelve in Olympia, appropriately enough, likely dates to about the same time.) Where the Greeks got the idea remains mysterious: from the twelve Babylonian months, perhaps via a grouping of 12 gods found in Hittite rituals (and in a 13th-century BCE hall of statuary at Yazilikaya) and from thence to the Greek coasts of Asia Minor.
Why, you may well ask, am I improving our minds with Classical study at this late juncture? Because in my home game, my newest campaign is a 13th Age campaign I call Poikila Hellenistika, or “The Brightly-Colored Hellenistic Age.” It’s set in a big-eyes-and-archaic-smile anime-influenced version of the Hellenistic era, specifically in Syracuse in Sicily (for now) in 273 BCE. (More information here, should you wish it.) And that means I needed to redefine the 13 Icons as, of course, the 12 Olympian gods, because hey, Alexander the Great won. And indeed, erected “altars to the Twelve Gods” on the banks of the Hyphasis River, the eastern edge of his empire.
So my Icons are Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaistos, Demeter, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, and Dionysos. So who’s the Thirteenth God, then? Who isn’t? Dionysos famously replaced Hestia (goddess of the hearth) on Olympus; by the Hellenistic era, Heracles was much more worshipped than Ares. Hades is often considered the (unlucky) Thirteenth God, and Alexander the Great allegedly demanded the Greek cities recognize him as the Thirteenth Olympian. Olympia itself doesn’t help: its Twelve Gods swap in the Three Graces (as a unit), the River Alpheios, and the fallen gods Kronos and Rhea. Other common Hellenistic interlopers include Hekate, Asklepios, Pan, and Persephone. Given that one of my player characters is the Occultist from 13 True Ways, that means the Three Fates are likely an Icon, too. In practice, I’m letting the players pick their Icons and (much like the Greeks) not sweating the specific membership list.
The 13 Olympikons In Play
So leaving aside the question of “Who?” we get to the question of “What?” What do the Olympikons do in my game that the Icons don’t, and vice versa? Let’s start with the common factors: like the Dragon-Imperial Icons, the Olympian Ikons have a wide network of worshipers, priests, and other agents from the Seleukid dynasty claiming descent from Apollo to the various cults, mysteries, and temples all over the Mediterranean and points east. Most cities have at least one patron god (Syracuse’s are Athena and Apollo, plus there’s a big temple of Zeus just south of the city), so the Ikons have even more helpers in the shape of city governments and armies. It’s even more fun than it sounds, because the Olympians wound up with so many weird responsibilities in their portfolio: Poseidon is not just the god of the sea, but of horses, earthquakes, epilepsy, watchfulness, and even (as Poseidon Phytalmios) gardening. (For everything you could ever want to know about any figure of Greek myth, hie thee to theoi.com.)
Another thing that’s cropped up in play is the very Greek notion of the gods speaking and working through the players: we’ve already had Apollo justify a player’s 6 on the relationship die by inspiring his tongue to talk down a Spaniard. Greek gods loved to appear in dreams and oracles, so I can always drop one in if I like. Even then, given the sheer number of Ikonic interventions needed with six players (even on an average roll, that’s two or three interventions in one session, and my players do not roll average dice) we’re also adopting a house rule: if the player or the GM can’t think of something cool (or hasn’t yet) for your 6 to do during the game, you can take a +2 to something your Ikon plausibly might help you with. For clerics, that’s likely just casting a spell, but the Amazon might turn her 6 on the Artemis relationship die into a +2 to hit with a spear or bow. So far, a 5 likely gives you a +1 in similar fashion, although I’ll probably put a twist in the tail of a roll like that.
Some potential Ikons just flow together: Asklepios is the son of Apollo, so he becomes a major agent of the Ikon Apollo; Pan and Dionysos have that wild-man feel and patronage of satyrs in common, so they’re both aspects of the same Ikon. The campaign world is pretty human-centric, so the explicitly inhuman Icons like the Orc Lord wind up as aspects of godly humanist Olympians (the Orc Lord sounds pretty Ares-ish to me, although the Romans did explicitly identify Hades with their deity Orcus). Again, we’re letting that stuff emerge in play — we’ve decided that the Apollonian royalty of Hyperborea make pretty good elves, for example, at least on a mechanical basis, so the Elf Queen is likely an aspect of either Apollo or his woodsy sister Artemis.
In my game, if Alexander conquered you, your gods got subsumed into Olympian Ikon-hood: Melqart of Tyre becomes Heracles, for example, and Isis becomes Demeter. (Herodotos identified her as such; he also equated Osiris with Dionysos, Horus with Apollo, Amon with Zeus, and Bast with Artemis, among others.) That does leave a number of grumbly foreign gods: so far, I can reveal that Moloch (aka Baal-Hammon) of Carthage and Saturnus in Rome have not at all accepted their demotion. In our history, Zeus and his ilk eventually collaborated with the Romans and got subsumed in their turn into Jupiter, etc., but that’s 150 years away in my game and may not happen, depending on just how epic our epic tier gets. But that, as they say, is in the lap of the Ikons.
“Cosmic Love is absolutely Ruthless and Highly Indifferent.”
— John C. Lilly
There are not enough pages in any rulebook, and especially not enough in the Fall of Delta Green chapter that looks like it will have to suffice for both 1960s history and backgrounder and scenario seeds, to tackle even a fraction of the weirdness that the Sixties brought to life or to light. And there probably aren’t even enough pages to do proper justice to the many and manifold weirdnesses of John Cunningham Lilly (1915-2001). But in his pioneering spirit, we’ll shoot up with a whole bunch of ketamine and decide we can do it here anyway.
Lilly was a sort of Midwestern ideal type of the Lovecraftian protagonist: born in St. Paul to wealthy parents, he studied chemistry and philosophy from an early age. His undergraduate career at Caltech (1933-1938) almost exactly overlaps the period of the alchemist-Crowleyite John Whiteside Parsons’ GALCIT rocketry program there, and both were chemistry students. (Lilly and Parsons almost certainly met, Caltech not being that big a world in the Thirties, but what happened — or Happened — during that Trail of Cthulhu time slot has managed to go un-recorded in their various biographies.) He entered Dartmouth medical school in 1938, then transferred to Penn where he continued his Lovecraftian development by conducting various medical experiments on himself and writing a forbidden text: a book (this was 1942) called How To Build an Atomic Bomb. He conducted postgraduate work under pioneering biophysicist (and putative Majestic-12 member) Detlev Bronk and at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), doing research for the Air Force — among other things developing early electro-encephalograms and, in 1954, the first sensory deprivation tank. According to his memoirs, he was approached by the CIA to work on such things as animal-activated surveillance and explosives, and (perhaps) on the MK-ULTRA mind-control project. According to Lilly, he refused, nobly insisting that his work remain open for all. He loudly resigned from NIMH in 1958.
The K-r-r-k-k-k-k-k of Cthulhu
Having boldly proclaimed his independence from government control, Lilly founded the Communication Research Institute Inc. (CRII) on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. CRII was, of course, funded by NASA, the U.S. military, and possibly other shadowy figures. Lilly had become interested in the question of dolphin brains: much like those of humans, cetacean brains are very large in ratio to their bodies and have an even higher density of neurons. Lilly set up dolphin tanks and pools, and began to experiment on dolphins, most notoriously when his dolphin Peter fell for researcher Margaret Lowe Howitt while she tried to teach Peter to speak English. It wasn’t all dolphin grabass in the islands, though: Lilly also dissected and probed the brains of the cetaceans, in between drug experiments (on them and himself) and attempts to decipher dolphin communication by floating next to them in sensory deprivation tanks.
James Wade’s terrific 1969 short story “The Deep Ones” provides a fictionalized Lilly in the form of Miskatonic hippie guru Alonzo Waite, and in the form of his opposite number, dolphin researcher Dr. Frederick Wilhelm. Most impressively, it casts the dolphins as one more intermediary between man and Cthulhu, cousin or evolutionary stage of the Deep Ones. Wade mentions the ancient Greek myth that dolphins were pirates turned into beasts by Dionysos, tying it wonderfully into the deeper Mythos truths of Dagon and human-oceanic interbreeding of the Innsmouth sort. Any Fall of Delta Green Handler has a whole mini-campaign just lying there between Wade’s fictions and the CRII’s madness.
But it doesn’t end there. Wade doesn’t even bring in Lilly’s involvement in SETI, which (likely again via NASA back channels) wound up connecting Lilly and the CRII with astrophysicist Frank Drake, who considered dolphins a template for alien life on Earth. Lilly presented his dolphin theories at the Green Bank astrophysics conference in 1961 where Drake coined his famous equation for the probability of alien life. He was such a hit that Drake, Lilly, a pre-turtleneck Carl Sagan, and biologist J.B.S. Haldane all made up the “Order of the Dolphin” and wore dolphin lapel pins when they were wearing lapels, which wasn’t often in St. Thomas.
Lucy in Sarnath with Diamonds
But Lilly was losing interest in his dolphins for the time being, because his dolphins weren’t receptive to injections of LSD. (Although he later decided dolphins could telepathically project sonar images into his head while he floated in his nearby sensory deprivation tank, he somehow didn’t associate those results with his LSD use.) Despite Lilly’s official rejection of government support, he wound up getting on the approved list of LSD researchers, and began charting his own passage into the “province of the mind” at, among other places, the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center (MPRC) in Catonsville, Maryland in 1968-1969. The MPRC just happens to be located in the Spring Grove Mental Hospital, founded in 1797, and a major center for research into schizophrenia, with a large collection of human brains. Which means, of course, that we could go in any number of Lovecraftian directions here, from the mental experiments of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” to the search for the biological boundaries of death in “Herbert West — Re-Animator” to the, well, large collection of human brains in “Whisperer in the Darkness.”
But perhaps it’s most fun to put a probe in all that and head inside instead, to the Dreamlands. The “province of the mind,” visited by special questers during a ritual dream state, sounds very familiar to us Lovecraftians. As Lilly put it: “In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits. These limits are to be found experimentally and experientially. When so found these limits turn out to be further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind there are no limits.”
Lilly mostly wrote up his psychedelic experiments in the context of “reprogramming the human biocomputer” rather than as a way to discover the face of the gods of Earth … assuming there is a difference. What else does Randolph Carter seek, both on Kadath and in the Silver Key, than the human source code, the image of the creators and the geometry of time? Lilly’s own experiences with Gnosticism, at a retreat in the Chilean desert, convinced him that there was a specific ritual control mechanism known to ancient man for opening that “province,” but we should move on before we get trapped in the Witch-House.
The Facts in the K of Arthur Jermyn
Anyone who has seen Ken Russell’s film Altered States knows the next bit of this story. In search of a cure for his migraines, Lilly told his friend Dr. Craig Enright to inject him with ketamine while floating in his isolation tank. After a massive dose did, indeed, end his migraines, Lilly went off the deep end. He and Enright injected each other and recorded the results, even after one time in 1973 when Enright accidentally “reprogrammed himself” to “return to the pre-hominid state of man” and began hopping around the room howling and trying to smack Lilly in the face. Their conclusion sounds like yet another Lovecraftianism, possibly out of HPL’s druggie/Neo-Platonism combo tale “Hypnos”: “One’s internal reality could differ radically from the external reality in which one was participating, even with regard to prominent features of the physical environment.” Parallel worlds, pre-hominids, and K, oh my.
The ECCO Out of Time
In a development surely unrelated to the massive doses of ketamine he was on, in 1974 Lilly made contact with the Earth Coincidence Control Office. This network of higher realities that overlaps ours controls our existence by means of coincidences: Lilly’s entire life became a pattern of ECCO-directed research. (Research, Lilly believed, was merely the decanting of higher truth into our truth by a “universal network of mind.”) During an earthquake in 1971 Lilly had discovered the “Alternaty,” a doorway or window into all futures simultaneously; ECCO has picked the door it wants us to walk through and will suffer no backtalk. Once aware of ECCO, their target must remain ready for the catastrophic and impossible, remain in the “training program” for life, and “use your best intelligence” in its service. This reminds me of nothing so much as the Motion, the Delta Green name for the Yithian agents mentioned in “The Shadow Out of Time,” directing history to produce the Great Race’s ideal conditions for their return.
And just as the Yithians fear and hate the Mi-Go and the Yellow Sign, so too do the ECCO oppose the SSI, who crashed a jet at LAX in 1974 to get Lilly’s attention. SSI are the Solid-State Intelligence rising in all electronics, preparing to eradicate biological water-based intelligence, beginning with the dolphins. (Echoes of a Mi-Go war with the Deep Ones perhaps?) Eventually the SSI, like Wilbur Whateley, plan to “wipe the world clean” and create a low-temperature vacuum, their ideal living conditions. Lilly warned us of the ongoing and escalating ECCO-SSI war in 1981 but surely its, er, echoes reach back two decades to the shadowy forces that gave Lilly access to LSD and (through Bronk and his associate Britton Chance) to the world of early computing. ECCO and SSI, dolphins and pre-hominids, Cthulhu and Carl Sagan: it all flows together in the Mythos cyclone that is the mind and life of John C. Lilly.
Cthulhu Confidential, the flagship title for GUMSHOE One-2-One, is now available for pre-order! GUMSHOE One-2-One is designed for two players: a GM and a player who takes the role of a solo investigator, solving Mythos mysteries. In Cthulhu Confidential our PCs are hard-boiled shamus Dex Raymond, investigative journalist Vivian Sinclair, and private eye Langston Montgomery Wright.
We asked the Pelgranistas—as well as some friends of Pelgrane—which fictional characters they’d most like to have a GUMSHOE One-2-One mystery adventure with. You’ll never guess who is Kenneth Hite’s choice:
I know it’s one of many obvious answers – Randolph Carter, Abraham van Helsing, and Thomas Carnacki also pop to mind – but the challenge of a One-2-One protagonist who must also solve the mystery of his own past while dodging assassins is pretty irresistible. Bourne always has the skills to live another day, but he doesn’t know what he should be living for. Furthermore, the player won’t even know which Jason Bourne they’re playing: is he the novel’s Special Forces hired killer aimed at Carlos the Jackal, or the movies’ CIA super-soldier aiming for revenge?
Preorder Cthulhu Confidential at the Pelgrane webstore, and get the PDF plus a preview of the first Dex Raymond adventure, straight away!
GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and re-envisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set for one player, and one GM. Together, the two of you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format of classic detective fiction. Can’t find a group who can play when you can? Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience? Play face to face with GUMSHOE One-2-One—or take advantage of its superb fit with virtual tabletops and play online. Purchase Cthulhu Confidential and future GUMSHOE One-2-One products in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
I got a friend over there in the government block
And he knows the situation and he’s taking stock,
I think I’ll call him up now
Put him on the spot, tonight.
— Bob Geldof, “Someone’s Looking At You”
I see you, GCHQ!
Her Majesty the Queen having graciously given her assent at the end of last month, the Investigatory Powers Bill has become the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016. And what’s the Investigatory Powers Act when it’s at home? At its bottom, it’s two Acts in one. The first half essentially provides legal cover to the program of mass surveillance that MI5 and GCHQ have been doing in the United Kingdom for years and years: gathering the metadata (who called who when from where) on every phone or text message in the UK and storing it. The second half allows a remarkably wide spectrum of the British government to access the ICRs (Internet Connection Records) of every website, app, and similar reached from or based in the UK. When you browse good old pelgranepress.com, GCHQ (and Scotland Yard, and the fire department, and Food Standards Scotland, and … ) can find out when you visited (though not which specific page), how long you stayed, your ISP number, and a few more interesting facts, all without the tedium of a warrant. (Further provisions allow the British government to hack individuals or even entire cities, but they have to get permission from a panel of judges for that.) As you might infer, that means staying underground in Night’s Black Agents just got harder, for Agents and vampires alike.
But ha ha ha, I hear you chortle, I’m an American so GCHQ can GCHFO. Not so fast, my fine patriotic friend. First of all, as Edward Snowden revealed, the NSA (in the great tradition of public-private partnership) works with telecommunications and Internet companies to gather and store similar metadata and ICRs. The recently enacted USA Freedom Act of 2015 ended the legal authority for the NSA to maintain its own metadata archive (unless it didn’t) but reinforced the NSA’s access to theoretically private corporate versions of the same records. (The USA Freedom Act not only extended most of the relevant provisions of the USA Patriot Act of 2001 but also managed to achieve an even more bleakly ironic name.) And of course, none of these laws by careful design did anything about Five Eyes cooperation, slightly better known as ECHELON.
ECHELON began in 1961 as a cooperative effort between the NSA and GCHQ to monitor (i.e., tap and record) all communications satellite transmissions, then spread to telephone switchboards, transoceanic cable traffic, radio signals, and finally the nascent Internet in 1981. By then the US and UK SIGINT agencies had been joined by the relevant surveillance forces in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand: hence Five Eyes. Even then, that was a misnomer, as Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway had varying degrees of access to Five Eyes product. India, Israel, Sweden, Switzerland, South Korea, and Singapore (among others) have more limited deals in exchange for hosting ECHELON SIGINT facilities. France almost made it Six Eyes in 2009 (France has its own Intelligence Act of 2015 for metadata and ICR collection) but the CIA vetoed the full partnership required. (Don’t worry, France gets most of the benefits of Five Eyes membership under the LUSTRE agreement of 2011.) Because it is a full partnership: if, say, some pesky and ironically named law prevents the NSA from snooping on American citizens’ records, the NSA just asks Canada’s CSE to snoop on American records, all legal under Canadian law. And the NSA is sure to return the favor if the CSE wants to track some Canadian radical in Toronto.
The Heat is (Echel) ON
When it’s too hot to breathe
And it’s too hot to think.
There’s always someone looking at you.
— Bob Geldof, “Someone’s Looking At You”
So what care you about such civics metadata? You’ve got vampires to kill. Not so fast, my burned buddy: All those eyes could start watching you any minute, especially after you start setting off bombs and shooting people near security cameras. Even if who you were shooting didn’t show up on the cameras.
This might turn up in any number of ways. If the Agents have an active opposition within that government — vampire infiltrators, Project EDOM, or just a grimly determined Javert — then they need to stay off the Internet. And off their phones. Even burner phones, or perhaps even especially burner phones.
The Director can abstract this by adding +1 to all Heat roll Difficulties in a Five Eyes or associated country for each 2 points spent on Research or Network (looking on the Internet; calling someone for help). If the Director thinks a certain investigation or operation involves a little too much Web browsing or phone activity, she can always toss in another +1 on top.
Heat is also hotter in the Five Eyes’ targets, of course: the NSA makes a very deliberate habit of owning all electronic communications in Iran and Pakistan, for instance. Just quickly scanning the map, it looks like your best bet is a country like Uzbekistan where the government uses old-fashioned surveillance to track foreigners but doesn’t have an electronic cooperation deal with the NSA, or a region mostly off the security systems’ radar like West Africa or the Caribbean.
If the Agents whine that “of course they were on Tor” or whatever, she can remind them that the NSA cracked those systems years ago, but allow points spent on Digital Intrusion or Preparedness to “shield” points spent on Research and Network in Five Eyes nations. If the Agents have a case officer or other contact in ECHELON, they might even get a free “Heat shield” for their online (or on-phone) activities … as long as they do a favor or five for their Big Brother, of course.
The good news, at least in the UK, is that the ludicrous list of agencies allowed to snoop electronic activity means that the Agents are sure to have a Network contact who can get access to a Conspiracy courier’s cell phone metadata, or a vampirism researcher’s Internet activity. Lower the Network Difficulty for such tests by -1 in the UK.
“Some curiosity may be felt as to his history; I will trace it with the utmost truthfulness, according to his own words, adding any necessary explanations. He told me that he was eighty-eight years of age when he came here, and that he was the son of Prince Ragoczy of Transylvania by his first wife, a Tékéli.”
— Prinz Karl von Hessen-Kassel, Memoirs (1817)
Proud if neglectful papa, Ferenc II Ragoczy
The perhaps-too-gullible Prince Karl wrote these words about my friend and yours, the quondam immortal alchemist, composer, and confidence man who called himself the Comte de Saint-Germain. He also called himself, among a dizzying array of other pseudonyms, the Count Ragoczy (or occasionally Czarogy, for a change-up) and claimed to be the vanished heir to the throne of Transylvania, Prince Leopold Georg Ragoczy. The last reigning Prince of Transylvania, Ferenc II Ragoczy, had three sons before his ill-fated rebellion against Austria collapsed in 1708. The eldest, Leopold Georg, died in 1700. Or did he?
The Esoterrorists: I AM = EOD
Yes, of course he did. But the psychic dislocation of the Transylvanians, betrayed by their Christian brothers and their Turkish enemies, deprived of their proper Prince by the duplicitous Emperor, left a seed of doubt. By the 18th century, Esoterror groups had run the “Lost Heir Working” many times, sparking false hope, civil war, and repression that fed the Outer Dark. The Esoterror agent known as Saint-Germain decided to play a bigger game: he would run a “Quantum Heir Working” both claiming and denying his identity to spread chaos and ruin across Europe. Indeed, he was in Russia during the 1762 revolt that put Catherine the Great on the throne; his machinations at Versailles (and the Illuminist sects he left behind) toppled the Bourbons in 1789, leading to a quarter century of global war. The founder of American fascism, William Dudley Pelley, venerated him as a Secret Master … and so he was. Modern-day OV agents track a cache of Saint-Germain’s suddenly discovered letters from Budapest murder-auction to Paris musical conjuration site to Montana cult compound, unwittingly re-linking and re-awakening his 18th-century apparat to once more bring flame and tyranny to the West.
Night’s Black Agents: Sharper Than A Serpent’s Tooth
No, Saint-Germain wasn’t a vampire. But Prince Leopold Georg was, from birth. (Saint-Germain, who never ate or drank in company, and never seemed to age, was a Renfield.) The Prince’s mother, Prince Karl foggily recalled, was “a Tékéli.” The Conspiracy cover story pretends this refers to the noble Thököli family of Hungary, from whence actually descended the Prince’s grandmother. But no, Saint-Germain actually said “Székely,” the term Dracula uses in the novel for his own Hungarian forebears. The Linea Dracula split in the 16th century, when Count John Dracula allied himself with the Bathory clan. Internecine warfare decimated the vampire ranks until Count John finally won in 1683. Diehard secret foes of Count John made a deal with the Bathorys’ great rivals for the throne of Transylvania, the Ragoczys. Ferenc II gave his blood and other humours to a Székely assign, who magically and alchemically conceived a vampiric moonchild. This may explain the entry in Ferenc’s diary on his son’s passing: “I confess my affliction at his death was not of the slightest.” John Dracula’s influence at the Imperial court explains why Ferenc was never imperially confirmed as Prince of Transylvania, and perhaps why his rebellion was so thoroughly crushed. But the Empire never found Ferenc’s true vampiric heir, who worked against the Hapsburgs in the shadows and perhaps engineered their fall in 1918. This by now 320-year-old vampire commands great magics as well as the Theosophical cult of Saint-Germain in Europe, India, and America, giving orders to his subordinates telepathically or while in mist form, to avoid being identified as an Un-Dead four-year-old. The returned Dracula hunts this lost heir to his vampiric throne, blood of his blood, Leopold Georg the Last of Transylvania.
Trail of Cthulhu: The Mahatmas of Madness
Prince Karl all too accurately recalled Saint-Germain’s words. His mother was a “Tékéli” — something fearful and primordial from the antarctic reaches of the Earth. (Saint-Germain in 1779 also puckishly described his mother’s country as one which had never been ruled by “men of a foreign origin.”) How she arrived in Vienna in 1691 we may never know: brought on board a Dutch brigantine blown off course south of Cape Horn, perhaps. Saint-Germain finally died in 1784, at the age of ninety, still appearing as a fifty-year-old man. Madame Blavatsky claimed that “The Master Rakoczy” was one of the Hidden Mahatmas or Secret Masters or the Great White Brotherhood — and the cry “tekeli-li” is associated by Poe with the fear of white things. Are the Himalayan White Masters who spawned Saint-Germain the hideous Mi-Go, or gnophkeh worshippers of Ithaqua in Leng? Does the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign hunt Saint-Germain or his Mother, or seek the secret of immortality hidden in his alien blood? Did Saint-Germain transmigrate his consciousness into a new body, like Ephraim Waite? Did Edward Hutchinson steal his essential saltes from the crypt of St. Nicolas’ church in Eckernforde and resurrect him in “Castle Ferenczy” in Transylvania? Is Saint-Germain’s Mother, like Grendel’s, still lurking somewhere, gravid with a new Secret Master? Send the Investigators to the ruins of Castle Ferenczy in Rakus to dig up some clues, dodge some Romanian Iron Guard sorcerors, and follow the Trail of Saint-Germain wherever it leads.
TimeWatch: The Saint-Germain Variations
Dodgy mystics or occult weirdos really want to find out the truth behind Saint-Germain, and one of them, Elsa Bailly, gets ahold of a time machine. Fearing the Master’s magic, she heads for 1700 Transylvania to kidnap Saint-Germain as a baby — unwittingly spawning the legend of the Lost Heir that Saint-Germain later plays upon to credulous audiences. Is his “magic” just sleight-of-time and paradox? Does he play coy about his past because he grew up outside time, where he learned to grow diamonds and jam with Handel? Are the various Saint-Germain impostors his enemies or his alternate selves? Did Elsa steal the infant Saint-Germain — or an Outer Dark tulpa, or a vampire, or a shoggoth-spawn? This looks like a job — like a lot of jobs — for TimeWatch.
“The inner world of our subjective life is quite as real as the objective.” — O. Louis Guglielmi, 1943
O. Louis Guglielmi, “Mental Geography” (1938)
I hardly need to tell you good people about the very excellence of Robin’s (and my, and Steve Dempsey’s) Dreamhounds of Paris. But I suspect it may be something of an uphill fight for more conventionally minded Trail of Cthulhu play groups to suddenly relocate from the darkest alleys of Arkham to the City of Light. And it’s even harder to get players to drop their Tommy guns and eccentric dilettantes for paintbrushes and squabbling weirdo artists.
But what to do? The solution hit me as I took in the magnificent exhibition “America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s” at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Said exhibition has closed in Chicago, but will travel to the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris and the Royal Academy in London.) Or more specifically, a painting by O. Louis Guglielmi hit me, a deceptively bright splash of American Surrealism entitled “Mental Geography.”
As a quick aside: there were indeed lots of American Surrealists about, especially after 1935, when Salvador Dali tours New York and demonstrates that Surrealism can in fact be made to pay. Dali anchors a massive 600-work exhibit, “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism,” curated by Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art in December 1936, one that also launches a good number of American Surrealists’ careers. Most American Surrealists (just like their European contemporaries) are loudly of the Left, and indeed swap out the sexual and “automatic” themes of the Surrealist mainstream for a “Social Surrealism” of explicitly political imagery. This perhaps explains why they don’t open any gateways to the Dreamlands in the “default” setting of Dreamhounds — but a group of players who decide to take on the roles of Walter Quirt, James Guy, Peter Blume, David Smith, Joseph Cornell, Roberto Matta, Boris Margo, Federico Castellon, or Francis Criss have my eager blessing. (Sure, Europe has Sex Hitler. But America has Mussolini-in-the-Box.) Someone can even play gallery owner Julien Levy, or Dali during his New York sojourn. And someone should definitely play O. Louis Guglielmi.
The Doom That Came to Brooklyn
“Brooklyn Bridge is by the process of mental geography a huge mass of stone, twisted girders and limp cable.” — O. Louis Guglielmi, placard exhibited alongside “Mental Geography” (1938)
Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1906, the son of an Italian orchestral musician. (Did your ears just prick up twice? Mine did.) The Guglielmis moved to New York’s Italian Harlem slums in 1914, and growing up amidst immigrant poverty turned young Louis definitively leftward. However, he applied himself to study at the National Academy of Design and the Beaux-Arts Institute from 1920 to 1925; in 1927 he became a naturalized citizen, eventually opening a studio in Chelsea at 165 West 23rd Street. An early fondness for Precisionism warps when he sees an exhibit of Giorgio de Chirico paintings in 1933; from that point on he becomes a Surrealist, or as he is often dubbed, a “Magical Realist.” For the remainder of the Thirties, he paints murals for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, traveling all over New York and gaining an instinctive understanding of the city’s true artistic and secret geometries: its mental geography, if you will. He keeps walking, and painting, and observing: his “South Street Stoop” (1935) shows one of the many seemingly innocent “hopscotch” diagrams kabbalistically chalked in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. The WPA also commissions more conventionally framed works, including Guglielmi’s “View in Chambers Street” (1936), depicting a dejected family in a despairing cityscape — beneath a bright yellow sign, as it happens. Guglielmi’s canvases appear in Barr’s show in 1936, blending morbid death imagery, bleak urbanity, ground-down proletarians, and looming buildings in odd perspective.
And then, somehow — Egyptian childhood nightmares? Half-remembered Erich Zann compositions? Delayed-detonation de Chirico? — Guglielmi finds the Dreamlands. But this is not the automatic, random-walk method of Louis Aragon in 1923. This is a furious, politically charged march driven by his hatred of Fascism and by the terror of the news out of Spain as Franco bombs and breaks through the Republican lines. Unfortunately, Guglielmi doesn’t know (enough?) about the depth and direction of the gateways that Robert Suydam and his Mormo cultists opened beneath Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood in 1925, destabilizing the megalopolisomantic currents of the city. Visions flow into his art: two of Mormo’s thousand faces appear on the (putrefactoid, cannibal) nuns in “Sisters of Charity” (1937), for example. In November 1938, in the psychic aftershock of Orson Welles’ hoax invasion from Mars, Guglielmi mounts a solo show at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village. Here, he shows “Mental Geography” for the first time. And he blows a hole into the Dreamlands.
The hole opens in/behind/under/around the Kruger Diner at East New York and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn, but the Social Surrealist nightmares walk everywhere from Chelsea and the Village to Flatbush and Gowanus. Tunnels that weren’t there before have been there since before the Dutch came; weird ultraviolet arcs float across the sky; street lamps become hacked-off stakes; more Mormo-ite nuns grow out of blisters on the sidewalk; sensitive passersby (such as the friends of the Investigators) see a pelvis hanging on the wall in midair. (Guglielmi eventually tries to combine or contain these phenomena or their memory or their potential in “Terror in Brooklyn” (1941).) Coffins pile up near tenements, Maypoles teeter above the street decked with food and infant corpses, furniture stacks asymmetrically and threateningly, skull-faced men and naked women appear in shadowy porches, funerals emit shafts of yellow light, wreaths bedeck buildings. You can’t go too dark and despairing for Guglielmi: “If you contemplate adding to the suicide rate, we recommend this picture for your guest room,” as one critic said of his painting “Testaments.” Eventually the buildings deform as perspectives elongate. People with nothing to lose, lose it anyway as the city begins to bulge blank walls, extend phalangist shadows, and shrink the pitiable folk under its gaze.
On a slightly less morbid note, a fish-filled brook appears under a nearby elevated train, a stochastic tributary of the River Oukranos.
Artistic-minded Investigators (artists or dilettantes ideally) or their Wilcox-ish NPC friends should eventually be able to connect such apparitions and phenomena as the Bomb-Angel of the Proletariat, the Skyscraper Harpist, the Cable Knight, and the Gallows Dancers to specific images in “Mental Geography,” and hence to Guglielmi. They may still feel baffled, especially if you’ve dropped a lot of juicy and dangerous imagery on them, or provided lots of leftover Red Hook juju. If so, you can grant an appropriate Investigator (a pilot or an artist, a soldier or an architect) an informative hallucination overlaying the Brooklyn Bridge with Guglielmi’s nightmarish vision. That night, they follow the purple skies into Dream. From that revelation it becomes a matter of retracing Guglielmi’s footsteps earlier in 1938 and mapping them to the madness creeping out of Brooklyn.
The hole doesn’t have to open all at once, or even all at Guglielmi. Any Dreamhounds monster or phenomenon you’ve wanted to introduce into your conventional Trail of Cthulhu game can appear as a harbinger, or as a level boss, before the Investigators get anywhere past Crown Heights. Or you can use the hole as a way into the Dreamlands for a few Dreamlands adventures before closing it down, as an opportunity to guest-star Cocteau and his ghoul friends, or as a way to bring your Paris Dreamhounds over to America for a few weeks in the winter of 1938-1939.
By way of an epilogue: The city tears down the Kruger Diner shortly after Guglielmi paints “Terror in Brooklyn,” putting up a new five-level transit crossing and an underpass. Guglielmi serves with the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II from 1943 to 1945. After the War, he rejects Surrealism, attempting to combine his old Precisionist tendencies with Cubism, and teaching faultless painting techniques at the New School for Social Research. A few stray de Chirico obelisks and skulls creep into “Solitudes” (1946) and “Job’s Tears” (1946) but he conquers them in increasing abstraction and flatness. He dies at age fifty in 1956, shortly after taking a visiting instructorship (and showing a retrospective of his works) at Louisiana State University. Cthulhu cult or Dreamlands blowback: there’s no way to be sure. Except to Investigate, I guess. Who’s up for Andy Warhol’s Factory as a Fall of Delta Green firebase, investigating (and instigating) mysterious Happenings and deploying the commercial against the unnatural? Now, let’s not always see the same hands …
“Just as it is almost impossible to be an agnostic in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, so it is difficult to keep from being swept up in the beauty and majesty of the Task Force Alpha temple.”
— Leonard Sullivan, Deputy Director of Defense Research & Engineering, in 1968
There are, in fact, lots of other things happening around the world in the 1960s besides the war in Indochina, but just like the Johnson Administration I find it nearly impossible to tear my attention away from Southeast Asia as I write The Fall of DELTA GREEN. And when the Johnson Administration hands you a multi-billion-dollar above-top-secret surveillance-and-interdiction facility on the Mekong River, you by God make lemonade, son. You’ll need it in the jungle, though not, as it happens, in Task Force Alpha.
Southeast Asia’s Largest Air-Conditioned Building, And Other Miracles of the Age
Task Force Alpha is the compound in the lower right (northwest) of the picture.
Both the North Vietnamese and the Americans extended their war into the neighbors’ yards. North Vietnam supplied the Viet Cong with arms and materiel along the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” which ran through Laos and into South Vietnam. The United States flew combat missions, reconnaissance missions, and every other kind of mission in between out of Thailand. Specifically, out of the Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base just across the Mekong River from southern Laos, a WWII-style airfield scraped out of the paddies by Seabees in 1962. The planes flying out of “NKP” were prop-driven WWII-style (and even WWII-vintage) planes, for the most part: C-47 Skytrains, A-26 Invaders, and A-1 Skyraiders. NKP also hosted a large collection of multi-role helicopters in support of MACV-SOG and other covert ops as well as battlefield evac and air support, and a weird assortment of quasi-civilian aircraft such as Cessnas and the like.
One such plane taking off from NKP was a modified P-2 anti-submarine patrol bomber, which (along with its squadron-mates) dropped 20,000 acoustic, seismic, and magnetic sensors along the Ho Chi Minh trail. (Sensor dropping eventually became the job of Sikorsky HH-53 “Jolly Green Giant” helicopters from the 21st Special Operations Squadron.) Camouflaged to resemble plants and often hidden in the thick brush, the sensors sent a radio signal when they detected noise, movement, or metal in their radius. An electronic-warfare EC-121R Batcat on continuous station overhead picked up the signal, boosted it, and transmitted it to the antenna farm in an isolated corner of NKP. (In 1970, modified Cessna drone aircraft replaced the EC-121 on this station.) This complex was just called “The Project” during its construction in 1967, although eventually it got designated “Task Force Alpha.”
Each sensor’s signal fed into a massive complex of two (count ’em) IBM 360/Model 65 mainframe computers, the same models that plotted the Apollo missions. The Task Force Alpha complex centered on the computer center, inside a cavernous (and necessarily air-conditioned) building kept at positive pressure to escape the omnipresent Thai road dust. Contractors from Harris Corporation and IBM maintained the communications and computer systems, and assisted intelligence officers (including a number of female Air Force officers) in creating a nearly real-time map of NVA operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One witness describes seeing “trucks roll down the Trail in full color, on screens three stories tall.” If this is an exaggeration, it’s exactly the kind of description that both Robert S. McNamara and Fall of DELTA GREEN Handlers can agree to exaggerate together.
Once a convoy of trucks could be plotted with reasonable certainty, Phantom IIs staged from carriers such as the USS Kitty Hawk (often carrying radar-assisted navigation and fire control systems controlled from Task Force Alpha) delivered strikes on target. Except when the system didn’t work, or the NVA played tape recordings of trucks near sensors they’d found, or the strike came too late, or it was a peasant with a water buffalo. The whole operation, called IGLOO WHITE, cost something like $7.5 billion dollars, and destroyed between 15% and 35% of the Viet Cong’s motorized logistics, not enough to prevent the Tet Offensive of 1968 or the Easter Offensive of 1972. (That said, the system worked much better as a fire control “mastermind,” directing as much as 40% of the artillery and airstrikes at the siege of Khe Sanh.) The Easter Offensive, and the general Nixon policy of Vietnamization and retreat, ended IGLOO WHITE in 1972, and Task Force Alpha got disassembled in 1975, its computers unplugged and flown back to the States with who knows what secrets in their 2 megabytes of memory and their miles of magnetic tape and punch cards.
I encourage the interested to pursue the matter further into the Internet’s own Ho Chi Minh Trails, beginning perhaps with this site dedicated to the USAF 553rd Reconnaissance Wing, which has some glorious photos that I wish were free to use because this one is just perfect RPG material. More great photos and information (including oh joy of joys a map of NKP) appear on another site, excitingly and aptly titled Nakhon Phanom During The Secret War 1962-1975.
IGLOO WHITE meets DELTA GREEN
Every secret team in Indochina apparently staged out of NKP at one time or another, from the “Gray Berets” of the USAF 10th Combat Weather Squadron to Operation Phoenix assassins to MACV-SOG to Lansdale’s psychological warfare squads. So of course DELTA GREEN runs operations out of “Naked Fanny,” a.k.a. “the end of the line at the edge of the world.” But how might DELTA GREEN make use of IGLOO WHITE?
- When microphones along the Trail pick up the sound of inhuman chanting, or Mi-Go buzzing, or any other unnatural noises, a subroutine deep in the computer system alerts a DELTA GREEN team to go in after the airstrike. I cannot emphasize this enough: after the airstrike.
- Do those strange civilian types with mysterious DoD clearances check the data banks for sounds of the unnatural? Do they keep copies of spells, True Names, or the hateful music of chaotic flautists handy on magnetic tapes for future MAJESTIC acoustic research? Can DELTA GREEN delete those recordings without degrading the operational efficiency of Task Force Alpha — and without getting caught?
- All those antennas and radar dishes don’t only listen for EW aircraft transmissions. They also pick up strange exhalations from the skies and weird echoes from the ancient hills of Laos. Perhaps there’s a dedicated DELTA GREEN antenna out in the field of masts, one tuned for frequencies of the known unknown, or perhaps the unnatural signals wash out the human sounds of the Trail and DELTA GREEN has to stop them — or gather enough recordings from enough directions that the computers can mask them out going forward. Either way, someone’s going up into the hostile karst cliffs with a lot of cumbersome and delicate equipment — and night on the way.
- So we have a huge array of sensors hearing the unnatural, transmitting it to the most powerful electronic brains in the world, brains designed and programmed to correlate their contents. Does the call of COBOL turn into something else? A hypergeometric intelligence nestled inside Task Force Alpha, learning to spy on humans, kill humans, call more powerful human weapons to kill still more humans — this can only end with the DELTA GREEN field team dodging cannon fire from a drone-piloted Phantom II while they desperately try to upload a pentatonic kill code through a balky and malfunctioning ACOUSID sensor.
- Nakhon Phanom makes a great place for DELTA GREEN agents to meet some sort of super-soldier, a real gung-ho type who knows that really understanding the natives, going out into the jungles light and deadly, is the key to winning the war. This puts them on the list to resolve his situation when he inevitably goes rogue at the head of a cannibal Tcho-Tcho cult or worse. No better time for the apocalypse than now, after all.
“He placed me in a comfortable chair, and arranged the phonograph so that I could touch it without getting up, and showed me how to stop it in case I should want to pause. Then he very thoughtfully took a chair, with his back to me, so that I might be as free as possible, and began to read. I put the forked metal to my ears and listened.”
— Mina Harker’s Journal
The Gates of Roscoe Village, 2014. (Not Pictured: Dracula)
Way back in the palmy days of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter, it was decreed by the archons and by the people (i.e., by Cat) that I should spend every waking minute on every podcast that would have me, talking up The Dracula Dossier and generally being publicitous. One such podcast was the wonderful and widely-enjoyed One Shot podcast, which not coincidentally is based right here in Chicago, much like all the most wonderful and widely-enjoyed podcasts are at least so semi-based.
At any rate, One Shot is one of those Actual Play podcasts that the kids are into these days, and so in October 2014 or thereabouts, genial host James D’Amato turned his GMing microphone over to me to run a session of Night’s Black Agents from a necessarily fictive Dracula Dossier campaign.
Joining me and James at the palatial One Shot studios in the glamorous Roscoe Village neighborhood of Chicago for what we later dubbed Session One (oooh foreshadowing) were Grant Greene a.k.a. “General Ironicus” of the Six Feats Under podcast (which has a 13th Age Actual Play you might also be interested in), super-designer Nathan D. Paoletta of the Design Games podcast (co-hosted with fellow super-designer Will “Eternal Lies” Hindmarch), and Zach Weber who doesn’t have a podcast apparently but give him fifteen minutes. (And give him my apologies, at this late date, for spelling his name wrong in the playtest credits.)
Here’s me explaining the rules for Night’s Black Agents in about ten or fifteen minutes to the assembled group: Night’s Black Agents Rules Expo
And here is Session One in all its terrifying majesty:
Session One Part One: Welcome to Belgrade
Session One Part Two: Never Get On the Boat
Session One Part Three: And Quiet Flows the Danube
Session One Part Four: Fear Death By Water
The game ran long, because we wanted to hit a good climax in the adventure, and because all the players were really bringing it. Then we went and got Thai food and went on with our lives.
Well, the Kickstarter delayed itself a little bit, but eventually launched while the Session One recordings were still running on One Shot, and I heard from quite a few people that hearing me run the game was not just great fun but, even better, impelled them to go ahead and back the Kickstarter. So, mission accomplished!
Until … time flowed on as is its wont and Dracula Dossier got itself five ENnie Award nominations and Cat started to think maybe we could stand to have a little more of that One Shot love during the voting window. Fortunately, James had been swamped* with emails importuning him to bring me back on and run the conclusion of the adventure we left so very climactically suspended.
And so, in June of 2016, we gathered again in the dark heart of Roscoe Village to run Session Two. Zach Weber has the misfortune to not actually live in Chicago, so in place of Zach we brought in Darcy Ross, who may very well have a podcast by the time I hit “Publish” on this post but is part of the Gnome Stew bloggoth and of the ConTessa nobility.
And here is Session Two in all its grim glory:
Session Two Part One: New Friends For Old
Session Two Part Two: Art in the Blood or Vice Versa
Session Two Part Three: White City, Black Castle, Red Death
I think there’s something in here for new and old fans alike of the Dracula Dossier universe, and for fans of my game style, and for fans of any or all of the excellent players in their own personae.
* “Swamped” is not a term with legal or mathematical meanings. Some settling of contents may have occurred during shipping. Stunt driver on closed course. Do not attempt.
The Belgrade Betrayal: What It Is And How It Came To Be
The Siege of Belgrade, 1456. (Not Pictured: Dracula)
This section contains spoilers for the podcast adventure above. Don’t read it unless you are cool with knowing things while you enjoy closely related things.
ENTER FREELY AND AT YOUR OWN RISK
I wrote the first version of The Belgrade Betrayal (as I silently named the scenario) to run at Queen City Con in Buffalo in September 2014. I picked Belgrade because I’d already done the research for that city for (S)Entries, the introductory scenario included in the Night’s Black Agents corebook. For a convention scenario intended to not-so-subtly advertise The Dracula Dossier, I knew it needed to include an on-stage role for both Edom and Dracula, so the player Agents could get caught in the cross-fire, so to speak. So I needed a sample Edom-Dracula op (kill an AQIR cell in Belgrade) and something to go wrong: Dracula double-crosses Edom. (Otherwise Edom just sets Dracula on the players and everyone dies.) That leads to a series of questions I asked myself; their answers built the scenario spine:
What should the double-cross look like? Dracula kills the Edom cut-outs, forcing Edom into the foreground.
Why? In this first version, just to be a jerk and to demonstrate that Edom doesn’t really control him.
How does Edom control Dracula in the field then? By providing his Kevlar-sealed and guarded coffin.
So how does Dracula plan to sleep by day in Belgrade? Dracula already has a place in Belgrade he can hide out and sleep by day, one that Edom doesn’t know about.
What place is that then? Belgrade Castle, where a young Vlad Dracula (unbeknownst to history) accompanied Janos Hunyadi’s relieving army during the Siege of Belgrade in 1456. (Of course he’s hiding in the Castle. He’s Dracula.) Vlad turned while inside the castle, so he can always find rest there. Since I knew Hunyadi had died of “plague” right after the siege, that gave me a nice historical death-ball to roll Dracula-as-vampire up in. Dracula kills Hunyadi and lots of other Hungarian soldiers as the blood-thirst comes upon him — which is why Hunyadi’s son, Matthias Corvinus, imprisoned Vlad in 1462. Ta-daa!
I then came up with the improv-style “name a thing you’ll encounter during this adventure” intro to make up for the lack of proper Dracula Dossier-style improvisation and collaboration and hit the dice. The die, rather.
In that first Buffalo run, the players tracked Edom to the safe-house, rumbled the hospital madman and the party boat rendezvous, and then sensibly refused to follow a coffin delivery onto the boat, watching a confusion of blood and mist and weird cold spots in the IR lenses from the shore. They then doubled back to the AQIR cell, watched Dracula massacre a whole building full of people, and tracked him to the zoo (wolves howling, and I think maybe some drone imagery) and thence to the Castle, where they fought through track-suited Novi Svar Renfield thugs (“Trackulas” they called them), and if I remember correctly one of Dracula’s Brides, to Dracula’s resting place and staked him at dawn. Great fun, everyone had a good time, I forget how many player characters died but it was more than zero.
Changing it up for the podcast, I removed the Trackulas (because I knew that would go viral and not in a good way) and settled in. The improv-style answers fed the play somewhat — I never got to the chess-playing fixer, sadly — especially the bank vault. That meant there was a treasure involved. Time for more questions:
Who are Dracula’s minions if not the Novi Svar? Slovakian river pirates, of course.
What’s in the bank vault? A treasure, obviously, one so important to Dracula that he’ll betray Edom for it. (This answer gave Dracula a proper motive, which strengthened the scenario immensely. If I had been writing it for publication, I probably would have come up with it earlier.)
How do I bring it onstage? Dracula has arranged through cut-outs to buy the treasure, so there’s a seller who can show up wherever the Agents are and look sweaty.
What is the treasure? Proof that Dracula was in Belgrade during the Siege, which means a chronicle of some kind.
In Session One, the podcast players really leaned into the adventure, and to my delight boarded the party boat. I inserted the sweaty Hungarian art dealer, Arpad, but the boat fight took long enough that the rest of the scenario was moot. Or so I thought.
In Session Two, I had to tighten up the explanations somewhat, since Darcy decided to play Hound instead of just another combat monster. (Who would have been introduced by a chess-playing fixer in the park, of course.) Thus the meet between her and the Exposition-Dropping Slovak. Minions monologue about the Master, so that worked just fine. I also knew I needed to tie off that meddlesome priest and prevent the players from reloading the Tranq Gun of Christ. Between the meet with Hound, bombing the priest, and undoing the garlic on Josip the Mad Commando, Dracula’s Conspiracy had a full day in Belgrade, and I knew I could drop echoes of their actions to the pro-active players as the game went along.
Before we started Session Two, I had a bit of time to kill while James printed out the character sheets. So, I decided to punch up the chronicle a little bit, since I knew it would have to come onstage now. So I popped onto Wikipedia and looked up Siege of Belgrade (1456) and discovered this tidbit:
“Taken by surprise at this strange turn of events and, as some chroniclers say, seemingly paralyzed by some inexplicable fear, the Ottomans took flight.”
So that gave me a great line to drop into the chronicle, and narrowed down Dracula’s turning to before the final rout of the Ottomans. So he turned during the worst of the siege, while the Ottomans were infiltrating Janissaries into the lines — hey, what if the Turks were infiltrating one of the feral vampires from Tokat Castle, as seen on p. 251 of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook? That vampire bites Vlad, he kills it, and becomes a vampire.
Damn, James is really wrestling with those character sheets. Guess I’ll see what else Wikipedia can bring me. Let’s Wiki up the Belgrade Castle:
“Legend says that Attila’s grave lies at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube (under the fortress).”
The players heard my gasp all the way across the room.
Now that gave me a climax worthy of One Shot. And it also conveniently explained why, if Dracula is a Wallachian warlord, he asks Harker (in Chapter II): “What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?” And but me no buts about Attila not having been killed (or put in a suspended-animation sarcophagus) by Church vampire hunters — Michael A. Babcock’s The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun presents a sound-enough-for-gaming case that the chronicler’s version of Attila’s death was a pious legend, and the Scourge of God was killed by assassins working for the Emperor Marcian. Assassins, slayers, it’s basically the same thing.
Fortified with the best possible reveal, I just had to let the players get there, which of course they did because, hey, great players. Listen to them. What gaming they make. Twice.
Somewhere in the beautiful jungles of social media, or perhaps in the dappled glen that was Origins, some unheralded genius-slash-troublemaker asked me “so how would you drift Bubblegumshoe and Night’s Black Agents to play Buffy: the Vampire Slayer?” How, indeed, blithe spirit.
A couple of informational footnotes before we launch ourselves into that glorious void: first, Bubblegumshoe is the new teen detective genre GUMSHOE game from Evil Hat, by me, Emily Care Boss, and Lisa Steele; second, there is already a lovely B:tVS roleplaying game by C.J. Carella, apparently still available from Eden Studios unless George hasn’t updated his webstore. So this column is not actually about Buffy, because that would be tampering with the sacred gods of IP. This is about all the other sensitive teen girl vampire slayer series.
When Jason Met Veronica
The big problem, of course, is that Bubblegumshoe completely deprecates physical combat, while Night’s Black Agents completely celebrates it. This means you need to decide early on whether you’re playing “Night’s Black Agents with feels” or “Bubblegumshoe with stakeboxing.” Let’s play the second one, mostly because that way we only need to add one major system (fighty combat) to Bubblegumshoe instead of a whole bunch (Relationships and Cool and social combat and Thresholds) to Night’s Black Agents. But because we can, let’s see if we can add magic for your red-headed witch character to use, too.
As a horror drift, use the rules changes for Bellairs Falls (BGS, p. 187). Ritual magic works as in that drift, but “on screen” or tactical magic is a Cap ability. Most ritual magic probably turns out to be needed to stop a Big Bad of some kind, rather than break a curse, but who knows?
Characters with powers (Slayer, Magic, Psychic, Werewolf, etc.) take them as General Cap abilities (BGS, p. 21) but can raise them above 6. A Powered character will likely dump more and more of her experience into the Power; the GM may provide items (silver stake, crystal ball) containing spendable (even refreshable) pools of Power points. A scene spent practicing a Power in safety (working out katas, researching cryptic tomes) refreshes that pool. Powered characters can always spend Cool on Power tests, and even deflect the spent Cool onto a Relationship (BGS, p. 67) but at double the cost of deflecting lost Cool. It’s lonely having powers nobody understands.
The GM should set Difficulty 4 for Power tests to represent the level she wants the Power to usually function at: rip open a locked door, or find a stolen item, say. If it makes sense, a character can spend other abilities on Power tests — Athletics to rip open that door, for example — but she must spend at least 1 Power point if she spends at all.
Powers shouldn’t short-circuit the story, or at the very least should do so after a full Contest of the ability against a similarly-Powered vampire or other foe.
Monsters have Aberrance pools (NBA, p. 124), on which they draw for their fighting, fell powers, or whatever else awful they might do. If the GM likes, she can rename Aberrance to Vampire, Demon, Werewolf, or whatever. It works the same, and the key is the description of stuff. Use the vampire powers in Night’s Black Agents to calibrate costs and game effects. Most monsters refresh their Aberrance pool the next sunset, unless a specific game effect limits their dark healing. Non-fighting damage to monsters (sunlight on vampires, for example) comes off their Aberrance pool.
Fleeing (BGS, p. 188), Occult (BGS, p. 189), and Vampirology (NBA, p. 26).
Add Soap and Stakes
Player characters can take each other as Likes, Loves, or Hates; during character creation, the other player must agree to the tag (“Mimosa doesn’t Like Chandar, she Loves him.”). If one player’s PC wants to “make” another PC do something, and the second player is unwilling to allow it, the two players run a quick “auction,” bidding pool points against each other. Love and Interpersonal points count for 2, Like, Throwdown, and Cool count for 1. (In this auction, they can only spend from each other’s Relationship.)
Players can always deflect Cool damage onto other PCs without a test; as with NPCs, the player should roleplay the way her Sleuth hosed her friend in the scene.
This layer of PvP mechanics should produce the isolation and social drain effect seen in your better teen vampire slayer dramas.
Fighting works as in Bubblegumshoe, except: a character with a Power that could plausibly keep her alive in a vampire fight doesn’t go below Scuffed until her Power pool is empty, be it Slayer, Magic, or what-have-you. Once she’s spent hollow, she starts taking real damage.
Vampires (and probably most monsters) come in two kinds: mooks and proper villains. Any hit by a Slayer (or similarly puissant Powered character) using Power or Fighting dusts a mook vamp. An unpowered character who hits a mook vamp can dust it by spending 1 point from her Relationship with the Slayer. The GM may want to allow this at a considerable price jump for hits on villains with their true bane, for the occasional “normal human proves that human pluck is the key to goodness winning” type story, but the unpowered Sleuth should ideally have done something very clever indeed to set up such a hit, or at least succeeded in an almighty Preparedness test.
As a sort of compromise, the tweedy mentor character (if he’s a PC) might have a Cap ability in Crossbow or Kendo or Escrima that allows him to dust a mook vamp with one hit without spending from his Relationship with the Slayer.
Proper villains are like Powered characters; until their (usually large) Aberrance pool is gone, the Slayer can’t quite stake them. Narrate the exciting kickboxing sequence, describing momentum shifting and gory but nonfatal hits as Slayer and Aberrance pools get spent down. Some outré monsters have banes that kill them instantly, or are immune to normal fighting damage. (A PC with the power Werewolf, e.g., might have a similar bane — any hit with a silver weapon knocks them down to Dead, or perhaps to Gonna Be Dead Unless the Witch Can Heal Them.)
A Slayer (or other Powered character) can always make a Power test to block a hit on an unpowered character after the fact (“Bunny saved me just in the nick of time!”) at a Difficulty equal to the final result (roll + spend) of the monster’s attack die on that hit. The GM might want to restrict this only to characters with whom the Slayer has a Relationship.
A Slayer or other fighty Powered character can use the various maneuvers, special attacks, etc. from Night’s Black Agents with the GM’s permission, with one caveat: any maneuver such as Technothriller Monologue (NBA, p. 77) that allows a refresh (of Fighting or Power) for narration must be accompanied by a spend of the same number of points from Relationships or Cool. Justify it with the narration, or play out the damaged Relationship in one of the next two scenes.
Know Thy Enemy
Mook or villain, a vampire can kill any character without Vampirology with one hit. (Any monster can kill any NPC with one hit if the GM decides it makes the drama better or scarier.) Any Sleuth with Vampirology knows enough to at least have a chance; hits act as normal for them. Really strong vampires can spend 3 Aberrance to blow through one layer against an unpowered Sleuth with Vampirology: a hit can skip Scuffed or Injured, but not both.
A character can spend her experience to give an NPC with whom she has a Relationship 1 point of Vampirology. This automatically burns out the Relationship to 0: coming out as a slayer/witch/Riley is never easy.
The GM may want to use a similar caveat for other monsters and Occult, or just combine both Vampirology and Occult into a single Lore ability for a more Supernatural-flavored “hot monster hunter” game.
Her Stupid Broody Vampire Boyfriend
Build the stupid broody vampire boyfriend as a Sidekick (BGS, p. 209), with 4 points in Cool for free. A Sidekick vampire doesn’t need to spend the initial 5 points on their Cap Power ability, which is probably Vampire.