Saturday, 27 February 2021

Night's Black Agents: West End Girls (Blood Coda, Episode 2)

This is the SECOND part of my run through Blood Coda, part of The Edom Files from Pelgrane Press. Interested parties who want to follow the action are directed to the first part here for more on the player characters and the first chapter. This was meant to finish in a single evening's play, but is taking longer than expected.

The operation resumed with the sudden arrival of Willis at the safe house, to take more direct command of the mission. Muller had been scouring the centre of London for holy water, raiding church fonts, and has enough for about a litre in a plastic bottle. Varoutte had been to Mayfair to shop for expensive accessories ahead of his hot date with Romanian ballerina STELA LAHOVARY.

Willis confirmed that the team were likely facing vampires. The agents decided to equip themselves more thoroughly, with garlic, wooden stakes, UV torches and crucifixes. Willis said that he had information that ultra violet light might prevent vampires from using some of their powers. Staking them might immobilise them, but nobody in his 'department' has successfully tried that before. Hence, it is in the realm of the theoretical at the moment.

It was now lunchtime, so the operatives decided to head back to Covent Garden and check out the warehouse that HARVEY COLE, the ex-Army doorman at the Royal Opera House, had told them about. The agents noted that it was guarded by four men, who lurked out the front smoking and chatting, but they could see it was possible to sneak in the back using a fire escape.

Leaving Quentin to watch the front the rest of the team accessed the warehouse from the rear, and could see it was full of theatrical props, stage scenery and costumes. There were four more men inside the warehouse, and the agents also spotted some coffin-sized crates in among the rest of the equipment. Willis sneaked down into the warehouse and surprised two British thugs, who were Intimidated into surrendering, and tied up.

The same tactic worked a second time for two Romanian guards, who also turned out to have pistols on them. The agents locked the front door from the inside, and interrogated one Romanian guard. He said that he had not seen ILEANA DRAGOI, the leader of the Ballet Brasov, entering or leaving the warehouse, but he confirmed the strange crates, which were filled with soil, belonged to her. He and his colleagues are mainly employed moving scenery between the warehouse and the opera house. Varoutte thought the guard looked awfully pale and found that he had needle marks on his arms. The guard told the agents that the ballet's doctor, OLGA LUPAN, regularly extracts blood from the guards.

The boxes of soil were emptied on the floor on Willis' orders, and mixed with garlic to stop them from being of any use to undead.

The agents successfully escaped from the warehouse as the guards at the front became suspicious and tried to gain entry.

Next the agents headed over to the opera house itself. Henley spoke with Cole, who had just taken up station at the front door. He said that the Royal Ballet Company was performing this evening, and that the Ballet Brasov is scheduled to begin its run of The Strigoi tomorrow. He could not confirm whether any of the Brasov principals were still in the opera house.

Entering the opera house, the agents headed first for the room used by Ballet Brasov in the basement. On the way they spotted MARTIN PETRESCU, although he did not recognise them. Going into the room (using the excuse of a floral delivery), they found three Romanian seamstresses working on costumes. There was no sign of any ballet dancers. Apart from sewing machines and some medical equipment, the agents noticed an empty blood bag in a trash can. The seamstresses seemed healthy with no evidence of anaemia.

The agents did not loiter in the room, but headed for the main auditorium. On the way someone brushed past Henley and deposited a note in his pocket. It asked for an urgent meeting at pier 34 in the West India Company docks in the Isle of Dogs the following day. Henley believed this was done by a trained agent. In the auditorium they briefly watched the Royal Ballet Company warming up for their final performance.

The team returned to their safe house in Knightsbridge. Varoutte changed for his night out with Lahovary. He picked her up from her hotel and they dined out. Lahovary seemed quite genuine and pleased to be part of the Ballet Brasov, and happy to have escaped from Romania. She is a big fan of her boss Dragoi and full of praise for the other principal dancers. After dinner the couple returned to the hotel where they had drinks in the hotel bar. Here they were joined by another ballet dancer, Russian DARIA IVANOVNA. 

Ivanovna got into conversation with Varoutte and seemed to use some kind of mind control on him, seeking to get him to tell her who he really was, and why he was really interested in the Ballet Brasov. Luckily for the operation, Varoutte rolled a solid Stability test and resisted it. The ballerinas seemed happy with his mumbled excuse about his dubious criminal activities and his smuggling career.

Varoutte returned to the safe house having told the ballerinas he would attend the performance on the morrow. The next day the team tooled up with more equipment, including a cosh (Henley), stab vests, mirror shades (Henley), more surveillance equipment (Varoutte), ear plugs, and throat protectors. They drove to the docks in two vehicles. Henley was wired for sound. The weather was cold and misty. At the docks they bribed a security guard with £20 (!) to go get a cup of tea.

Henley went onto the quayside, shadowed by Willis and Muller. Here he met a Romanian man, who introduced himself as VASILE COSTIN. He showed Henley into a warehouse where there were two more boxes full of earth. He admitted he was a Romanian Securitate agent infiltrated into the ballet company, who had realised it was being run by a vampire. He said the four principals accompanying Dragoi were not themselves vampires, but fed from Dragoi's blood. Ivanovna is her favourite.

Henley and Costin walked back out of the warehouse, at which point they were shot at by a sniper on a speed boat on the river. Luckily he missed, and the two men sheltered in the warehouse as the boat - which had four men in it - sped off up the river. Varoutte managed to photograph it, but the visibility is poor. Costin asked the agents for asylum in the UK. He also told them that there were potentially more coffins left, and that he suspects Dragoi lairs in the basement of another building owned by the opera house, on Martlet Street in Covent Garden.

The session ended with the agents debating what to do next. They are planning to hand Costin over to RENTON at MI6, but have not done so yet.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Night's Black Agents: Blood Coda After Action Report (1)


This is a summary of last week's Night's Black Agents game with pertinent information to serve as a reminder for players. Spoiler alert: we are playing the adventure 'Blood Coda' which is in the Edom Files adventure supplement from Pelgrane Press. Don't read this if you think you might be in danger of playing in it in the future.

The setting is London, November 1971. The agents are part of a scratch team put together by an MI6 agent called Renton (played by Stephen Fry if they ever make the BBC mini-series).

Main characters: the players in our esoteric drama

  • Muller: a former East German spy who has now defected to the West and is having trouble finding his legs on 'civvie street'; more interested in the occasional work he does for MI6 [Ash]
  • Quentin: a doctor and pathologist who works for MI6 and is usually employed when there are medical problems that can't be brought to the attention of normal doctors (i.e. those who have not signed the Official Secrets Act) [Kel]
  • Varoutte: a Swiss-French art dealer and smuggler who has developed a nice line in moving black market antiquities across borders, now being blackmailed to assist the British [Stef]
  • Henley: an ex-British Army bomb disposal and demolitions expert who has spent more than his fair share of time in various global trouble spots in the 1960s [Manoj]

Our story begins in a seedy West End cafe in the autumn of 1971. The team has been assembled by RENTON their usual MI6 handler, although they have not previously worked together. They have crossed each other's paths over the years, but this will be the first time they will be working as a unit. With Renton is WILLIS, introduced as another MI6 man, but a stranger to the agents.

The mission is to surveil and check out the BALLET BRAZOV, a Romanian ballet company that has defected a couple of weeks earlier through Istanbul. MI5 has carried out routine screening of the company, which includes 25 dancers and around 18 support personnel. The company is led by a talented ballerina, ILLEANA DRAGOI. She is rated as one of Romania's top ballet dancers.  The defection of the company was managed and sponsored by the arts and culture secretary. MI6 believes MI5 has not done its job properly - intelligence received from their sources in Romania indicates there may be one or more spies from Romania's secret police (Securitate) in the company somewhere.

Dragoi is the daughter of another famous pre-war ballerina, Mihaela Cristescu, who danced for the national company before joining the anti-fascist resistance in the country during WW2. She disappeared in 1942 and is assumed to have been captured and killed by Romanian fascists. Her daughter is first heard of in 1959.

Renton stresses that this operation is unofficial: MI6 does not have the authority or the sanction to be conducting this enquiry, so the agents need to be circumspect.

Willis provided the agents with dossiers on the ballet company. This includes information on the four principal dancers, DARIA IVANOVNA, MARTIN PETRESCU, STELA LAHOVARY and DENIS BAICU. Of particular interest is that Ivanovna is the daughter of a minor Soviet liaison officer stationed in Romania in the 1960s. Lahovary is the newest addition to the key team of principal dancers. Also accompanying the ballet dancers is OLGA LUPAN who is their Russian-born doctor.

The dance company is staying at a somewhat down market hotel in Covent Garden, but rehearses at the Royal Opera House. Dancers travel on foot between the two locations, which are only a few hundred metres apart. Note that in 1971 Covent Garden still functions as a working fruit, veg and flower market serving London's hotels and restaurants. It is not the twee shopping district it became in the 1980s.

Contact with MI6 is to be maintained via a phone call to a front operation called the Red Van Company. Daily contact is required. The agents have rented short term accommodation in Knightsbridge. Varoutte has booked a room for himself in the ballet company's hotel, using his alias Matthieu Fabienne (level 2 Cover).

There was some discussion about using some Soviet surveillance equipment to bug the ballet dancers' rooms, but this has not yet been actioned. There was also discussion about leveraging Network to create a cleaner asset at the hotel but I don't believe that was actioned.

A plan was hatched to create a fake interview scenario for a British newspaper using a cover ID from a specialist ballet magazine. Quentin (IIRC) contacted a journalist called BARNABY SMYTHE at the Sunday Times to see if he could use fake Times credentials to secure the interview. Smythe told him that the Times had been invited to a reception at a location (the Flower Hall) next to the opera house that very evening which would feature a preview of the company's upcoming production of The Strigoi. This is an original ballet based on an old Romanian vampire legend created by  Dragoi herself. It is due to go on stage in 48 hours. Smythe lets the team use legitimate Times press credentials to get access to the event.

Quentin and Henley go along to the reception as a Times journalist and his photographer. Varoutte procures an invite through High Society skill (arriving under a level 2 Cover as James Knight IIRC). Muller uses his Disguise to get in as a waiter. At the reception Henley and Quentin meet QUENTIN WATSON, a Conservative party activist and formerly an aid to rising Tory star Margaret Thatcher, now Education Secretary under PM Edward Heath. Watson is organising the event for the ballet company and claims to have assisted in their defection from Istanbul. He also claims to be a big ballet fan, but Agent Quentin reckons otherwise (Bullshit Detector).

The reception is being attended by journalists, high flyers, the rich, the famous, and some minor MPs. Muller notices that there are MI5 agents in the room, but there is no sign of Eastern bloc spies as far as his trained eye can tell. A couple of short dances are staged by Russian ballerina Ivanovna, firstly with Petrescu and then with Baicu. Quentin marvels at the athleticism of Petrescu, given the man must be in his mid to late 30s, very old for a ballet principal. More disturbingly, at the climax of dance with Baicu, he seems to bite and feed off Ivanovna. While it looks like part of the dance, Quentin reckons otherwise and that real blood is involved. Henley notices that the dancers seem to have a mesmeric effect on the audience and even on himself, and that while he can tear his attention away, it is hard. Muller is totally mesmerised by the performance, but drops his tray of champagne glasses, bringing him out of the trance.

 After the dances the four principals enter, including Dragoi. Muller (IIRC) notices that Ivanovna beckons Dragoi to enter the building and that the Russian is wearing a scarf around her neck. Dragoi speaks with Watson who then introduces her to Varoutte. The Swiss spy finds her completely mesmerising and while he is able to resist, finds it difficult to recall what they actually speak about. He consoles himself by moving on to Ivanovna whom he finds responsive to his Genevois charms and they arrange to meet for dinner the following evening, at the reception of her hotel.

Muller uses his polished tray to look at the principals and realises that Dragoi's reflection does not show up. He shows Quentin and Henley. The soldier decides to take some photos of Dragoi at a distance and is quickly intercepted by Baicu who asks for his camera. Henley refuses, but Baicu snatches it out of his hands with super human speed and exposes the film. Henley gets cross, but Baicu simply hands him his camera back and orders him to leave the reception. Henley finds it impossible to resist and walks out of the building. Quentin goes after him. The reception begins to wind down soon after and Muller slips away, leaving the louche Varoutte to dawdle with the gorgeous Ivanovna for some minutes more.

Back at the safe house, Henley uses a Photography spend to recover his film, and the agents can see that Dragoi does not turn up in any photos. Quentin reports in to the Red Van Company, including his suspicions that one or more members of the company may be vampires. The response from Willis is that they want any alleged vampires taken 'alive' so to speak. There is surprisingly little scepticism about the existence of the undead on the streets of London.

The following day Henley uses his Network to create a former Army buddy, HARVEY COLE, a door manager at the opera house. He goes to see Cole for a couple of morning (!) beers (it is 1971 after all). Cole tells him that the ballet dancers rehearse at the opera house. They always arrive on foot from the hotel. He cannot recall seeing Dragoi arrive by the front entrance however although the other principals do. He confirms that there is no natural daylight in the main auditorium. He tells Henley that the company stores some of its scenery and costumes off site at a warehouse near Holborn (a five minute walk away) but that they also have a dedicated room in the basement of the opera house assigned to them for R&R and for seamstresses to work on costume repairs. Cole is usually on duty at the opera house from 16.30 until it closes.

Quentin goes to the British Library to do some background reading - he swots up on the Romanian legend of the Strigoi. He discovers that the Ballet Brazov traveled by sea from Turkey to the UK, bringing their stage equipment with them. On the topic of Watson, he discovers from 1970 newspapers that he was a rising star in the Conservative party and partly credited with helping to mobilise the Conservative youth wing in helping Edward Heath to his election victory. He has even been photographed with the PM. But it does seem that since then his career has become somewhat muted, indicating that he has fallen out of favour. He has been an adviser to Thatcher at the Department of Education, but now seems less involved.

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Holiday Read: A Sailor Of Austria

A Sailor of Austria is naval military fiction, with the unusual subject of the Habsburg navy during the First World War. If that was not a niche enough topic, it largely involves the submarine service of the Austrian navy, very much a junior player in World War One. Starting in 1915, this novel makes plain that the Austrians were running a tiny fleet of second rate submarines, attempting to keep the British and French navies from operating with impunity in the Adriatic Sea.

The main character in A Sailor of Austria is Otto Prohaska, a Czech officer in the Austrian fleet who is assigned to command a U-boat operating out of Pula and the Gulf of Kotor, in 1915. When he steps aboard, he has had less then 90 minutes of experience on submarines.

The challenges of the Austrian submarine service were many. With the Austrian surface fleet largely bottled up in Adriatic ports for most of the war, never risking a stand up fight with the Allies, it was down to the submarines to take the fight to the enemy. Austrian submarines were technologically inferior to their German counterparts. 

That said, the Austrian submarine fleet produced some propaganda coups for the empire early on in the war, especially when the army was taking some early defeats in Serbia and against the Russians in Galicia. Georg von Trapp, patron of the Trapp Family Singers, themselves the inspiration for the 1965 film The Sound of Music (played by Christopher Plummer), was, you guessed it, an Austrian submarine commander before he got into the family singing game. He was commander of the U-5 and U-14 and sank 14 Allied vessels. This included the French armoured cruiser Leon Gambetta and the Italian submarine Nereide.

The Germans managed to transport some of their U-boats to the Mediterranean by moving them in parts overland by rail, putting them together in Pula, and then using them in the Eastern Mediterranean. One of the key targets were the Allied ships moving between Suez and Gibraltar, carrying troops and supplies for the Western Front.

The Austrians and the Germans, although allies, had some cultural abrasion going on, particularly when you consider that the Austrian navy was staffed with a polyglot group of nationalities, including Hungarians, Croats, Czechs and Poles. 

When Italy entered the war against Austria in 1915 (with its eyes on Trieste), it declined to declare war on Germany initially, meaning that the German subs in the Adriatic were forced to re-flag as Austrian ones and carry an Austrian officer on board. This was done to avoid the possibility of a German crew torpedoing an Italian ship by mistake and potentially being prosecuted and hanged for piracy.

In the book, this still happens, of course, with a German U-boat carrying Prohaska as its token Austrian, sinking an Italian ammo ship before itself sinking off Corfu. The German crew is forced to evade Italian troops on the island, with Prohaska valiantly playing a rear guard role.

The novel covers Prohaska's career throughout the war, ending with the tragic demise of the empire as it folded in on itself ahead of the armistice in 1918. It is remarkable how fast the many nationalities turned on their Austrian masters once they could see Austria was on its knees. The empire seems to have largely been driven to total economic collapse rather than outright military defeat, its fall hastened by the onset of Spanish flu.

Prohaska is no apologist for the Habsburgs and the book is written in a colourful, slightly tongue in cheek style, with more than a touch of humour. For example, the submarine's visit to North Africa carrying an envoy and silver for a Sanussi revolt against the British and Italians, is entertainingly told, including the crew's efforts to get a white baby camel, a present from the leader of the Sanussi tribes to Emperor Franz-Josef, back to Austria in one piece.

This theatre of operations is not really written about much in English, even though the Royal Navy was an active participant. The British seem to have been largely concerned with protecting their convoys and in keeping the Austrians bottled up safely in the Adriatic. Towards the end of the war, the RN was involved in supporting amphibious landings up the Adriatic coast, with British and even US troops taking key cities like Split and Zadar. These were subsequently handed over to the new kingdom of Yugoslavia as part of the Versailles treaty settlement.

It is also important to remember that WW1 submarines were nowhere near as advanced as their WW2 successors. They had very limited speed, and needed to spend a lot of time on the surface, using their diesel engines to re-charge the electric motors they used when submerged. They seem to have experienced constant technical problems, at least in the Austrian fleet, and being on the surface made them vulnerable to air attack, especially once Allied planes started operating out of Italy.

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Monster of the Week - a playtest review

We managed to get a session of Monster of the Week away a few weeks ago. I'd been wanting to give the game a try, having already sampled it one year at Free RPG Day. I've been interested in Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games for some time now - namely those games which use Apocalypse World as their rules engine.

One of the reasons I reached for Monster of the Week this weekend is that it is something you can run at relatively short notice. Players can be sent their character 'play books' chosen from a list of key milieu tropes, make a few decisions - more of a box ticking exercise - and you can quickly end up with a new party within a very short time indeed.

Monster of the Week, in case you are not familiar with it, re-creates the monster hunting fiction of television drama of the last 30 years, with special reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the X-Files and Supernatural. Characters are 'professional' monster hunters.

Another aspect I enjoy is how the game encourages you to tie together the back stories of the various characters. We quickly established that Shi Guan, our Chosen hero, had fought the Monstrous Grimshaw in one of her first missions, but quickly realised Grimshaw could be a source for good. Grimshaw is quite a unique entity - a fae demon that looks more like a short, blond, sexually ambiguous individual, but with pointed teeth and a joy of battle.

It is this sort of interesting detail that Monster of the Week readily brings to the fore. Shi Guan was teamed up with the Divine, Solas, her mentor, along with an old training camp buddy and failed candidate for the role of Chosen, Beatrix 'Bea' Blair, the Spooky (psychic).

Hey presto, you have a group of heroes with a backstory. We know Shi Guan wields an ancestral katana, and is mentioned in a prophecy involving hordes of monsters. We know Grimshaw is preternaturally fast, with an alien 'second mouth' attack. We know Bea has a dark side motivated by rage, violence and pain. These are already becoming very interesting characters that you would expect to see in a TV show.

And so off to Gloucestershire....

I used the introductory adventure in the game as I wanted to explore the mechanics of the system. This took the group to a small village in the Cotswolds where there had been freak storms and poltergeist activity. The key was getting the players used to the various basic moves they could use, coupled with familiarising themselves with the unique moves on their playbooks (character sheets).

We had great fun. The system uses a 2d6 + attribute bonus core mechanic. Players have access to a range of basic moves plus specialist moves from their own character playbook. I should have provided them with a cheat sheet explaining all the basic moves in detail, as this would have saved explanation, and is something I will do routinely for PbtA games going forward.

One area I was in two minds about going into this was the Use Magic move, which gives every PC access to low level magic as a routine move; I was a bit concerned this would make them too powerful, on top of their other powers, but in the end it did not come in for any abuse and there is scope with every use of magic for it to backfire. It was mainly used for relatively routine tasks - e.g. dispelling a glamour, waking a character that had been magically put to sleep, or eavesdropping on a conversation.

I had only played in a couple of PbtA games previously, and never run one, so it took me a while to get my head around the mechanics, which are a little different from other RPGs I have played previously, but I think we got there in the end.

I think I'd be happy to reach for Monster of the Week again in the future when a game is needed at relatively short notice - who knows, maybe Shi Guan and her team will venture forth again?

Friday, 22 May 2020

The Scouring of the Shire

I've stopped counting the number of weeks I've been in lockdown for. Here in the UK we are technically still in lockdown of some kind, but exactly what remains a somewhat confusing proposition. Certainly any stroll along the seafront in Brighton will reveal a population that looks more like they are on a beach holiday than anything else!

But that's not what I'm here to write about. I am brainstorming a game about the Scouring of the Shire, based on the penultimate chapter of JRR Tolkien's Return of the King. I've been reading some interesting reviews of The Hunt For The Ring, which I'm tempted to buy. But it has also got me thinking about the drama in the Shire at the other end of the saga, when the hobbits return home to find their old stamping grounds have been ruined by 'Sharky'.

Many years ago, when I was about 17 or 18, I wrote a wargame about the War of the Jewels, in Tolkien's Silmarillion. I adapted a set of wargames rules for the Hundred Years War to create a map game that would allow me and my brother to wage war in Beleriand in the First Age of Middle-earth. We used pins to keep track of regiments of orcs, elves, dwarves and Edain (men). Our original plan was to wage all the epic campaigns from the book. In the end we only completed the first, Morgoth's initial sally just before the arrival of the Noldor.

It actually went off well: my brother commanded the hosts of Thingol of Menegroth and Denethor of Ossiriand, backed up by the sturdy dwarves of Mount Dolmed. The action again converged on Amon Ereb. I felt I might have over-egged the strength of the dwarf units, as they gutted my orc host, being almost impossible to defeat in open battle (although not numerous). But the outcome was similar to the book, and Morgoth was defeated. We found Karen Wynn Fonstad's Atlas of Middle-earth invaluable, especially the chapter on the Battles of Beleriand.

It showed just how much fun you could have with a sheet of hex paper and some map pins.

I'm now pondering something similar, but this time a mini game involving the four hobbits returning to the Shire. One player takes the hobbits, with the objective of liberating the population from Sharky. The other controls Sharky and his cohorts of half orcs and evil men.

While Frodo and his friends are seasoned warriors and adventurers, there are only four of them. Their success will be determined by where they go and how successful they are in raising the revolt. The hobbit player needs them to start and manage the uprising. 

Sharky, on the other hand, has his more reliable troops, limited magical power, and the less reliable hobbit 'shiriffs'. These latter can help him enforce his rule, but will be less reliable when confronted by Frodo and Sam, or indeed enough hobbits to outnumber them. They may melt away, or even join the fight against Sharky.

The game starts with the four hobbits parting from Gandalf in Bree (Gandalf actually sets off across the Barrow Downs to visit Tom Bombadil). Sharky disposes of his units randomly across the Shire. The game relies on hidden movement and intelligence, which is an important factor in this. The Good player must be able to raise enough rioters to bring down Sharky. Neither player can see what the other is doing and is reliant on rumours and scouts for intelligence.

The Good player starts off with only four hobbits, but builds his army as the game goes on. Time is essentially on his side. He also has four 'leaders' which also have regional bonuses when it comes to raising bands - e.g. Pippin has a bonus in Buckland. Sharky only has one, with Wormtongue possibly of some use as a scout and assassin. Thus the hobbits can out-order him 4:1, which should be more telling as the game goes on.

The hobbit player's objective is to capture Hobbiton, while keeping his total dead to a minimum. Sharky must hold Hobbiton and quell the revolt, ideally by killing all four leader hobbits.

That's really as far as I've got. The precise mechanics are still to be determined. I might raid ICE's Fellowship of the Ring for some of them. The whole thing could form the basis of a wargames campaign using Dragon Rampant, but I simply don't have enough hobbits for that at the moment, although I could probably muster Sharky's forces.

My Alexander the Great campaign will continue next week - it has not been discarded!