Five desperate adventures to save the living from the hungry dead!

They are so old they cannot remember their names. They are pale, spindly things, with long fingers that scuttle like cave-spiders and hollow eyes. They are strong – immensely, inhumanly strong – but act like old, arthritic men, shuffling along painfully, conserving their strength for when they need it. They are fast – terrifying, breathtakingly fast – but they move slowly, cautiously, fearfully. Their fear outweighs their preternatural gifts; for centuries, survival and control have been their watchwords, their overriding goals. We must not die, they whisper in the dark, even though they can no longer recall what it is to live.

And if the world must die so they can live, so be it.

The Persephone Extraction is a campaign for Night’s Black Agents, combining ancient horrors from classical mythology with the modern terrors of conspiracy and bioterrorism. It includes the following adventures:

  • THE PERSEPHONE EXTRACTION (Emma Marlow): Someone’s framed the Agents for a murder that hasn’t happened – yet. Warring factions within the Conspiracy struggle for control of a biological weapon, and its designer holds the answers the Agents need. Can they find Morgane Le Corre before her pursuers track her down – and just who else is hunting her?
  • SLEEPING GIANTS (Will Plant): The trail leads through Moscow to a sealed city, where forbidden plagues slumber in a concrete tomb buried deep beneath the tundra. The Conspiracy are on their way here, to obtain more of the pathogen they need to implement their cryptic Pale Agenda. The Agents are all that stands between the vampires and the plague…
  • CLEAN-HEELED ACHILLES (Heather Albano): Mysterious disappearances and archaeological traces bring the Agents to Istanbul, where they must uncover the secrets of an ancient monastery – and descend into the Underworld to confront the living dead.
  • THE PALE AGENDA (Bill White): The Conspiracy intends to recruit an international drug smuggler as part of their plan to end the world – but that initiation gives the Agents a vitally needed entry vector into the vampires’ most cherished tool. Corporate intrigue meets occult rituals in Madrid…
  • THE PEOPLE OF ASH (Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan): The final assault on the Conspiracy takes the Agents to Greece. There, they must uncover the ancient lair of the vampire elders and destroy them, once and for all time. Their clandestine odyssey ends in darkness…

Status: In playtesting


Front cover_350Looking Glass: Hong Kong
is a “Low and Slow” city setting for many possible GUMSHOE games. This look at one of Asia’s most cramped and chaotic ports features the lay of the land, including markets and masses, and three unique backdrops for the main setting – a scenic or thematic element, or just somewhere to stage a fight scene. It also details Hong Kong’s factions, from organized crime all the way up to the The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and includes thirteen Hong Kong-flavoured adventure seeds. Use Looking Glass: Hong Kong in:

  • Night’s Black Agents as a modern-day equivalent to the role West Berlin plays in post-WW2 spy dramas – a speck of room to manoeuvre, just on the edge of an authoritarian state, with HK-themed alien, mutant, and damned vampires;
  • The Esoterrorists, as Esoterror operatives capitalize on on the city’s key fears of disease, and the dead;
  • Fear Itself, playing on the alienating effect of isolation within one of the most densely packed places on Earth;
  • Trail of Cthulhu, with extensive notes on Mythos locations and practices of an occult bent that would sit well in the backstory of any investigation.

This supplement exists in a world of instantaneous oceans of information, and holds plenty of rash generalizations, needed for game play and speed of familiarization. It’s not intended to be comprehensive; instead, it combines a few evocative details with broad-brush color. It is intended as a starter, a foundation for your own adventures, a framework on which to hang the fruits of your own research, similar to its sister title, Looking Glass: Mumbai.

Zip file contains PDF, EPUB and MOBI files.

Stock #: PELGN13D Author: Thomas McGrenery
Artist: Badger McInnes Pages: 20pg PDF

 

Buy it now

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!

                           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.

By Tom Abella

Introduction

Conventions are special. Home games with friends and the occasional new player are our bread and butter, but I’ve always considered Con games to be a time to go the extra mile for the players (people actually paid to get in, for crying out loud). In preparation for running Night’s Black Agents at a recent convention, I decided to create some extra special handouts for my players. Be warned: some mild spoilers for The Van Helsing Letter are up ahead. Fortunately, knowing the names of characters and locations won’t actually tell you whether they’re out to help, hinder, or help-then-hinder your team.

Dossiers

One thing I knew ahead of time was that my players would all be new to NBA (only one had played any GUMSHOE game before), and I wanted to make sure everyone had all the guidance they needed for the game. I made a lot of notes on how best to walk them through the rules, but I also went above and beyond in creating their character sheets–I’m sorry, their character dossiers.

dossier

Forget orange–manilla is the new black

I was able to get some tabbed folders online (I can neither condone nor police any readers who steal them from work), which offered a two-page layout. On the right side went their character sheets, followed by the one-sentence skill description from NBA (a great reference to have behind your character sheet).

player-notes

The success of GUMSHOE games can be measured by the amount of diligent note-taking by players. #hugesuccess

On the left side, I started with the two pages “Advice to Players” from the core rulebook, which helps to mentally set the stage for the players, and is short enough to read while everyone gets settled at the table. Behind those two pages went some additional reference sheets from the core rulebook – – guidance on skill modifiers and combat actions that I want everyone to have so we’re not getting bogged down during combat.

I added a few extra details for flavor. The pre-gens came with surnames, which I wrote on the folder tab and then used a black marker to “redact” their first names. I debated redacting unused skills and other text from the character sheets and advice section, but decided against it for practical reasons: if fewer players showed up, players would get extra points to add to their character. Plus, it’s good for players to know what others on the team can do. A less-menacing option would be to use a highlighter on those skills the player does have (once you open the door to the tabbed manilla folders, all kinds of office supplies start looking reasonable).

Altogether, the dossiers were a success with players, and also provided some extra scratch paper in a pinch.

Finding Faces

Most character sheets come with a blank spot for the character’s image, and I wasn’t going to leave those blank if I was making dossiers for the players. Fantasy and sci-fi settings have lots of art available online, but it can be a challenge to gather images of a group of characters who don’t look like they were cobbled together from a half-dozen sources. Modern settings don’t have that problem, particularly in games like NBA that are supposed to evoke spy thrillers (though I wouldn’t go so far as to grab Tom Cruise or Matt Damon – – look for familiar, not constraining). Between the background and skill set of each character, I was able to easily find headshots for everyone.

character-images

Three are nods to spy movies, two to TV shows, one to their character description, and two are Ciaran Hinds. His picture counts twice because my God, look how badass he is in b/w.

I went one step further and created another batch of known/potential NPCs, including a few extras not included in the scenario (no need to tip the players off that the secretary at the lab is a nameless NPC, plus it helps them remember the layout and people in a setting). I’ll admit here that I was a little tight on time, and my Google skills may have started to fail me.

npcs

Yes, a couple of these faces look familiar. Also, yes: Pierre Athanese was the best hit I could get from Googling ‘Friendly old French man’

Why stop at people? Next up were locations: a half-sheet printout for all the major locations they would possibly encounter in the game. I like how they set the mood and helped anchor the scenes, and in at least one instance they helped settle a question about the layout and design of a site.

athanor-and-heilberg

gsv-and-mine-entrance

schloss-glockenstein

Google image search was great for these, and anyone looking for more variety of creepy occult bookstores should just look up Ken Hite’s Tumblr.

There would be some traveling involved, so I thought a map of the region would be helpful. It turns out that Bing maps is much more handout-friendly than Google Maps:

map

Not pictured: garish primary-color lines and roadwork icons showing the state of central European highways.

One last batch was cars, which were also fun and helpful. It took a little agency away from the players, but they’re playing spies, and I figured the pickiest they could be would be to look for speed or maneuverability. Whichever they chose, I’d offer the cards face down and let them pick.

cars

Director’s choice of whether Top Gear references result in skill point refresh or immediate TPK

Actual Creation

All the handouts were made in Paint – – no special or expensive software. 96 pixels = 1 inch, and set it up with 0.5 inch margins all around. The font is Gill Sans, which can be found online for free (and ethically) without too much effort, and I lined up the words by eye (again, nothing fancy). Just make sure they’re a solid color against the background and you’ll be fine.

At the Table

The printouts work great for figuring out who is where (unfortunately, despite my best efforts, the players refused to split the party), and also great at trying to identify connections between conspirators. They also make for great character stand-ins to remind the players of who else is on their team (we found four large d6’s made for a solid base). Altogether, an easy way to add a little something special to your next NBA game.

You can download Tom’s handouts as a zip file here.

“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.

See P. XX

a Column About Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

Was it a whole ten years ago that Simon Rogers and I sat by ourselves at a small table on the far fringes of the Gen Con exhibit hall? It feels like only yesterday, that forlorn time when we had nothing to lure passersby but a stack of The Esoterrorists first edition and some Dying Earth books. Yes, it’s the tenth anniversary of GUMSHOE and although we were slow burners at first, the system has gradually inveigled its way into gaming’s collective consciousness. We could have no more humbling/ego inflating proof of that than Pelgrane’s amazing showing at this year’s ENnie Awards. I should count myself lucky that Simon, Cat, Ken and Gar left a few medals on the table for Feng Shui 2.

View from Pelgrane Gen Con booth, 10 years ago (Artist’s Rendering)

On such occasions, one’s thoughts naturally turn to think pieces, and Simon has asked me to look at ways in which GUMSHOE scenarios have changed since the early days.

To me the key innovation has to be the addition of Lead-In and Lead-Out lines to the scene headers. These immediately show the GM where the scene probably fits in the investigative sequence the players create as they wend their way through the mystery. For example:

Harp’s Place

Scene Type: Core

Lead-Ins: The Bait, What’s Up With Chuck

Lead-Outs: Irland is Missing, Dawley, The Water Commission

Although we sometimes also still do scene sequence diagrams, they only really work for very simple, more or less linear scenarios. The more possible ways through the investigation a scenario provides, the more tangled and confused the web of scene connections looks when expressed in diagram form. Instead of acting as a play aid, a diagram makes the scenario look more daunting than it really is. Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs put the information in front of GMs when they really need it—while they’re running the scenes.

From a scenario design standpoint, they encourage the writer to include multiple ways in and out of their scenes, giving players additional options and fighting linearity.

* * *

The other big change, Gar has pointed out, can be seen in the way Investigative point spends are treated. Some early scenarios went a bit off-model by requiring overly high spends for benefits. If you see a 3-point spend in an early adventure, you can almost always strike that out in exchange for a 2 or even a 1. Other early adventures sometimes get stingy by making only the core clues free, and charging for other information you don’t need. Since those first scenarios we have more consistently adopted the approach I have always used, which is to provide plenty of info for free and make the players separate the pertinent from the incidental.

Over the years we have also learned how emotionally invested players become when they choose to spend an investigative point. I initially conceived of investigative spends as just a grace note, a fun minor occurrence that would happen every now and again. No big deal. That thought underestimated the cognitive difficulty of letting go of a resource—any resource. Early scenarios allowed you to find out information in an especially cool way, or add dimension to your character, in exchange for spends. For example, in one of the Stunning Eldritch Tales adventures you can specify that you already know one of the key characters—but it’s up to the player to squeeze a concrete advantage out of that. It turns out that players want a bigger, clearer gain when they spend points. So in more recent scenarios you’ll see us moving more toward palpable game advantages, like bonuses to general ability tests, or being able to avoid a clearly undesirable plot outcome.

You’ll see this thought carried through into the simplified equivalent of investigative spends that appears in GUMSHOE One-2-One. In that iteration of the game they become scarcer resources, and must always deliver something strong when they are spent.

* * *

Roleplaying scenarios in general sometimes lapse into extended passages of background information that might be of interest to the GM while reading but has no likely way to come up in play, and will thus remain undiscovered by the players. GMs need enough information to run the scenario and understand the logic behind the actions of the supporting characters they’ll be playing, in case players hit them with unexpected questions. But when writing it can be tempting to just start spinning out details of the fictional world without finding a way to make them pay off at the table. Even in the early years I think we mostly caught and fixed such passages during the development phase. The Great Pelgrane who sits atop our London eyrie remains vigilant against them today, snapping up transgressors of this principle with his piercing beak.

Another factor I’ve been more cognizant of over the years: the possibility that GMs will over-interpret a throwaway line of in-world description. For example the tradecraft Ordo Veritatis agents use to conceal their identities isn’t mean to become an obstacle during play. Instead the GM should describe it as challenging without making it a genuine uninteresting additional hassle. But if I don’t come out and say this while writing, I can easily mislead the GM into making a big deal of what I regard as an atmospheric element. The general fix for issues like this is to break more readily from fictional world voice to speak directly, designer-to-GM about what I hope to help you make happen at the gaming table.

Other than that the changes to scenarios mostly come from the emulation of the new genres we take on. Ashen Stars required a look at the way investigation works in shows like “Star Trek” and “Firefly.” Likewise with Night’s Black Agents and contemporary spy thrillers like the Bourne Trilo… er, Quadrilogy I guess it now is.

With Cthulhu Confidential and The Yellow King on the horizon, we’ll continue to refine GUMSHOE for particular experiences. I look forward to seeing what our scenarios will look like in another ten years’ time.

“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, 2016 (Not Pictured: Dracula)

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)

The Siege of Belgrade, 1456. (Not Pictured: Dracula)

SPOILERS FOLLOW

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.

Mario Bava’s final film, 1977’s Shock, offers up exactly the dreamlike take on the psi-horror cycle of the period you’d hope for from him. Ultimately it goes in a more supernatural direction than more pseudoscience-oriented titles like Carrie, The Fury, Firestarter, or Scanners. That’s just one of the ways in which it prefigures Kubrick’s The Shining. Seven years after her first husband’s death, a woman moves her son and current husband into the old house. It doesn’t take long for the kid to turn into both a psychokinetic and psychosexual menace.

Psi-horror picked up in the 70s as the demon horror cycle initiated off by The Exorcist trailed off. The Omen can be seen as a transitional title, with a definitively demonic kid killing from a distance in a decidedly psionic way.

Our current demonic horror cycle, which has merged with the haunted house movie and is typified by the Paranormal Activity series, has now gone on longer than the original 70s wave. I keep wondering if a psi revival will follow it. Certainly attempts have been made, like Beyond the Black Rainbow, but so far they’ve been more about evoking retro influences than tapping into the current zeitgeist.

The most popular property to draw on this imagery lately has been “Orphan Black”, though it’s more on the thriller side of the fence than an example of pure horror.

For a psi-horror one-shot or limited series, I’d use Fear Itself, dropping the supernatural trappings of the Outer Dark for weird pseudoscience. The straight up version would have the group of ordinary people at first menaced by the TK or firestarting powers of a pint-sized GMC relative or charge. Then they have to get the kid to safety as the evil corporation or government research agency responsible for the forgotten experiment. You could steal some Night’s Black Agents mechanics for the ensuing chase scenes, especially if you then bring in elements of the spy genre, the way “Orphan Black” does.

Or you could start out that way, going for Bourne-meets-Scanners, with adult experimental subjects waking up to their new powers (borrowed from Mutant City Blues), then having to figure out who did this to them before they get captured and packed off to the vivisection lab.


Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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.

Mutant City Blues is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game by Robin D. Laws where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Free RPG Day 2016 front cover_350Released on Free RPG Day 2016 – now available through 13th Age Monthly!

The Dracula Dossier – The Van Helsing Letter

Just before he vanished, Abraham Van Helsing – doctor of medicine, doctor of law, and secret vampire hunter – wrote one last letter hinting at an unsolved case. Now, more than a century later, that letter is in your hands. But what is a hundred years to an immortal? The contents of that letter are as important – and as explosive – to the secret conspiracies of the vampires as they ever were.

Now it’s up to you to complete Van Helsing’s last mission. Can you help Dracula’s oldest enemy strike back from beyond the grave?

This scenario for up to six players is an introduction to both Night’s Black Agents – the GUMSHOE game of burned spies vs vampires – and the improvisational, player-driven investigative style of the epic Dracula Dossier campaign. Pregenerated Agents and handouts are included to launch the players into the mystery.

13th Age – Swords Against the Dead

You suffer the rudest of awakenings when zombies crash through the walls of the inn, and battle is joined. But where do these shambling menaces arise – the misnamed Isle of Sanctuary, the strangely silent tower of Xuthana, or the Cliff Graves of the Demon Coast? And who or what raised this army of restless undead?

Swords Against the Dead is a quick-start adventure for 13th Age, the d20 fantasy game of battle, treasure and epic story telling. Grab a pregenerated character, decide your One Unique Thing, and get ready to fight for your life!

If you missed out on Free RPG Day, this double dose of adventure is available as a bonus PDF download with the collected 13th Age Monthly Vol. 2.

 

Stock #: PEL13AN02
Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Artist: Victor Leza, Miguel Santos Pages: 40-page PDF

 

Blood_splatterImprovising telling but subtle details on the fly is tricky, especially if the players catch you off-guard. They’ve suddenly flown to Iceland to follow a lead you hadn’t prepared, and now you’re scrambling not only to get back ahead of the Agents, but also get a handle on where the overall campaign is now going. With all that to think about, atmosphere and description suffer, and your NPCs become bland stick figures who meet the PCs in, I dunno, an office or somewhere.

Using motifs – ideas that recur in different forms throughout the campaign – can help with this. It’s the classic “constraints breed creativity” trick  – if you’ve got to somehow associate Random Icelandic Dude with blood in the players’ minds, that’ll give you a starting point to riff from and get you off the blank page of the mind. Maybe he’s a farmer, and he’s just slaughtered a lamb when the PCs arrive. He’s a surgeon. He’s wobbling and pale because he donated blood this morning. He’s got ketchup on his face. Anything that suggests blood works.

There are two other benefits using motifs. Firstly, they’re a device to add a feeling of cohesion and consistency to a work. Used properly, they make a campaign with a lot of side trails, dead ends and random weirdness seem more like an actual polished story in retrospect. More importantly (from the rat-bastard GM point of view, as opposed to the lit critic in me), motifs are great for retroactive revelations. If, later in the campaign, you need to reveal that the Icelandic farmer is a minion of Dracula, you can retroactively decide that the blood on his hands was human blood from the hitch-hikers he killed! That bat beating against the window at Hillingham House wasn’t a bit of spooky atmospheric description – it was Dracula himself, spying on the Agents! Every motif can be a trapdoor. Everyone’s a suspect.

Use motifs as modifiers –  instead of coming up with a new NPC/Location/Object, take an existing one from the Director’s Handbook and work the motif into your description. Associate one or two themes with each major faction in your campaign. You might push the Dracula-Blood connection, and reserve Rats for Edom’s spies and thieves.

 

Major motifs lifted straight from the novel:

Blood

Associations: Vitality/health/strength/lifeforce, family & lineage, hearts, passion, wine (through Jesus Christ), stains (guilt), injuries (‘shedding blood’ as a badge of honour).

People:

  • Visible scrapes, bandaged wounds (“cut myself shaving this morning, you see”)
  • Red jewellery or clothing (“in the Whitby gloom, her red scarf looks like blood gushing from her pale neck”)
  • Small bloodstains on collar, cuffs or shoes (“one of the kids had a nosebleed – the washing machine didn’t get it all out”)
  • Eating a rare, bloody steak (“my doctor says it’s bad for me, but who wants to live forever”)
  • Breath smells metallic (“she’s beautiful, but her breath turns your stomach when she gets close to you”)
  • Phobia of blood (“It makes me feel faint – please don’t make that Medic roll in here.”)
  • Drinking red wine (“a rare vintage, laid down by my grandfather”)
  • Cuts themselves while talking to the Agents (“she gets so pissed at you she knocks her glass off the table with an angry gesture. As she’s picking up the pieces, she cuts her finger open on a jagged fragment.”)

Locations:

  • Bloodstains on the ground in or near the location (“looks like someone had a fight outside the office last night – the ground’s dark with dried blood that wasn’t washed away by the morning’s rains”)
  • Dark red walls (“you can almost hear the decorator saying it’ll make the room feel warm and cosy. It makes you feel like you’re inside a hunk of raw meat.”)
  • Red stains or marks. (“The old pipes spit out rusty, reddish water.)
  • Inherited property. (“It’s been in my family for generations. This place is in my blood.”)
  • Sound like a distant heartbeat (“some piece of machinery in the basement’s making this rhythmic hammering noise, thump thump thump thump, and the vibrations go right up your spine and echo in your ribcage”)
  • Nearby medical facility (“there’s a blood donation van parked in the car park of the community centre across the street”)

Objects: 

  • Reddish colours, stains or markings (“the diary’s written in dark red ink”)
  • Bloodsucking things nearby (“after wading through the leech-infested marsh, you find the buried box”)
  • Emotional reactions (“your blood runs cold when you look at the portrait”)
  • Inherited object (“to think that Quincey Harker once wielded this knife! It fires up your blood!”)
  • Evocative hiding place (“you find the diary inside an old winepress in an outbuilding”)

Bats and Rats

Associations: Filth and disease, nocturnal predators and scavengers, hiding in holes and caves, unclean animals, eating insects

People:

  • Rat-like features (“she’s got very prominent front teeth, like a rodent”)
  • Skulking demeanour (“he’s in a corner of the bar, so well hidden you nearly miss him.”)
  • Gnawing or scavenging (“he starts burrowing through the piles of reports and letters on his desk. It looks like this guy’s a total packrat.”)
  • Disconcertingly good night vision (“even though you’re hidden in the dark shadow of the hedge, he looks right at you and sniffs the air, like he can smell you”)
  • Pet rat or bat (“I found it in the garden this morning. Poor thing was starving. I’m feeding it with an eye-dropper.”)
  • Taste for cheese. (“It’s an excellent variety of Edom. I’m sorry, Edam.”)

Locations:

  • Visible mouse hole in the skirting board (“You can’t help but notice a small hole behind the desk, littered with chewed scraps of paper”)
  • Mouse droppings on a surface (“the kitchen hasn’t been cleaned in years. Mouse droppings and worse in the cabinets.”)
  • Scratching in the walls (“you try to sleep, but there’s a mouse running around the walls near your bed. It sounds like it’s trying to claw its way inside your skull.”)
  • Rats crawling over garbage. (“There’s a back door in a garbage-strewn alley. Rats look up at you with brazen curiosity as you pass, utterly unafraid of you.”)
  • Animal brought in to keep the rats down (positive spin: “a small terrier bounds into the room, something tiny and furry caught in its jaws. It shakes its head violently and there’s an audible snap a the rat’s neck breaks. The dog drops the body at your feet.” Negative: “a white cat, more like a furry rugby ball than anything else, snores lazily on the couch, ignoring the mice darting across the floor”).
  • Bats crashing into windows or beating against them is a classic, and always good for a jump scare. Players are a cowardly and superstitious lot.

Objects: 

  • Stored with rat poison (“you find the gun under the sink, behind some black bin bags and a box of rat poison”)
  • Unusual interest from bats (“as you leave the graveyard, you see a huge number of bats settling in the nearby tree. Suddenly, there’s a thump as one of them flies low and slams into your briefcase, as if it knows what’s inside.”)
  • Animal tooth marks on the object. (“The coffin’s been chewed by rats.”)
  • Animalistic decorations (“you can’t find a printer’s name or publisher on the book, suggesting it was privately printed. There’s a little symbol on the spine that might be stylised bat.”)
  • Evoke animal imagery when describing it. (“Thick grubby electrical wires, like a cluster of rat tails,run into a brass port on the underside of the machine.”)

Mirrors

Associations: Illusions, trickery and sleight of hand; deception; vanity and the ravages of age, espionage and double agents (‘wilderness of mirrors’), parallels and counter-examples, reversals.

People:

  • Seen first in a mirror (“he stops to look in his reflection in a shop window”)
  • Mirror shades (“the border guard is wearing mirrored sunglasses”)
  • Has a hand-mirror or very shiny surface to hand (“he has the annoying, childish habit of angling his watch face to catch rays of sunlight and bouncing them around the walls and into your eyes”)
  • Dopplegangers & duplicates (“you see an older, heavyset man with thick brows, wearing overalls. It’s only when you get closer that you realise it’s a different man. It’s not the Russian.”)
  • Mirroring body language (“she leans forward, copying your stance. Psych 101, creates a feeling of shared experience and promotes bonding and trust. Damnably effective when you look like she does, too.”)
  • Shadow duplicate of Agent (“The name’s Hayward. You must remember me. I was the year behind you at Cambridge, you know, and was on the Bucharest desk after you too. Our paths diverged after that, of course – I never left the Service.”)

Locations:

  • Prominent mirror in room (“the lobby’s huge, but the full-length mirror running down one wall makes it feel like you could meet an aircraft carrier here for coffee without inconveniencing anyone”)
  • Reflected or symmetrical structure (“her office is in the east wing, just across the quad. The only building is a copy of itself, so much so that when you look across the courtyard, you see three figures much like yourselves in the corridor opposite.”)
  • Still, reflective water (“The pond outside Carfax Abbey is long gone, but water pools on the Meath road in much the same place, reflecting the wintry skies.”)
  • Broken mirror or glass. (“The windows around the back are all cracked. Looking for a place to peer in, you’re momentarily arrested by the sight of your own reflected eye staring back at you.”)
  • Silvered or glassy surface. (“It’s art,” she says doubtfully.”The owners like it.”)
  • CCTV Cameras (“The security post has a bank of monitors showing all the feeds. You can see yourselves crouched in the corridor outside the post.”)

Objects:

  • Fake or duplicate item in same place (“he collects 19th century maps, so it’s only after sorting through a dozen Austro-Hungarian surveys of the mountains do you find the annotated version you seek.”)
  • Hidden behind a mirror (“searching the bathroom, you find a syringe behind the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet”)
  • Copy of original document (“the original files are gone, but you dig up a photocopy.”)
  • Wrapped in silver foil (“the inner crate is lined with some tin-foil-like substance, interleaved with swatches of ballistic cloth”)
  • Image of Agent or key NPC (“A sketch of your own face stares out at you from the first page. It must be a sketch of your great-grandmother. The resemblance is uncanny.”)

Other motifs from the novel: Revenants and the Un-Dead, Superstitions vs. Technology, Stories Told Indirectly

 

 

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