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Friday 21 February 2020

Making it up as you go

Michael Cule: “You play to find out what the game is about. And the players will teach you what the game is about. They’ll ask questions that you never thought of, the questions you never thought needed an answer. That’s the sort of thing you need to be able to improvise about and turn on a dime, and stick something in, or make something up, that’s going to confirm and answer the questions you never thought were going to go into it.” 
Roger Bell-West: “Every time the players say let’s follow clue A rather than clue B or C, they’re saying this is the thing we’re interested in.”
Michael and Roger are talking there about improvising in investigative campaigns. My preferred style for running a game is improv, arguably because I’m too lazy to prep but also because I don’t think it’s the referee’s job to author a story and then herd the players through it.

My own improv is along the lines of seeing what the players are interested in and running with it. As a rule I don’t actually retcon what I’ve already decided is going on in an adventure, because that strikes me as unfair on the players. How can you uncover the truth if the facts themselves can be altered? Armistead Maupin famously retconned a key plot twist into Tales of the City when a reader wrote in while the stories were being serialized to point out that one of the characters' names had an unusual anagram. In retrospect it worked, but I'm not sure any of the rest of us should try it at home.

When I ran the Victorian scenario “Murder Your Darlings”, there was an opportunity I might have seized to change the whole story. The characters came across a twenty-year-old photograph taken in India of a woman who looked a lot like one of the maids currently working in the house of the murdered ex-major. Instead of taking it as evidence of the maid being the major’s illegitimate daughter (the result of his affair decades earlier with a family friend, who was the woman in the photograph) they jumped to the conclusion that she must be a naga or immortal shape-changing lamia. And I could have made it so. They wanted a supernatural explanation, so why not give them one? The risk in changing the plot with a significant retcon is that it can ripple out to invalidate other facts the characters have already uncovered. O, what a tangled web we weave…

Listening to Michael and Roger talking about The Armitage Files, I got to thinking about “The Unseen Hand” (last week’s scenario) and how you could run that, not as the ironic experiment in conspiracy theory it was designed to be, but as a flurry of happenstance, coincidence and enemy action from which the players could grab some threads and tug on them, and that would decide the real direction of the story.

The Tesla angle, for instance. ‘Nikola Tesla must be experimenting with AC vril power…’ one player might say excitedly. Personally I'm already heartily sick of "Tesla the sci-fi hero" stories (yawn) but OK, it’s a science fiction campaign based on Lovecraftian themes, so why not? The Tesla connection could let you fold in and embellish roughly contemporary stories such as Alpha the robot (pictured above) and his occasional acts of murderous rebellion. As the players’ investigations show you what they are hoping and fearing from the adventure, you can lay the rails just one step ahead of them. Little do they know that the investigation is going to be whatever they want it to be.

I’m still not sure about that level of “total improv”. It’s how a lot of Doctor Who writers seem to plot their stories, but once you notice that they’re ass-pulling on a regular basis, there’s not much incentive to care. Likewise, if players cotton on that you’re adapting the facts to fit whatever they say, disbelief isn’t so much suspended as thrown off the roof. So if you try it, do so sparingly – but, seeing as I did say you risk getting lynched if you play “The Unseen Hand” as written, nobody could blame you for chickening out and turning it into a seat-of-the-pants episode of cosmic weirdness instead.

Friday 14 February 2020

"The Unseen Hand" (scenario)

New York city, high summer of 1929. Traffic horns are blaring, the sidewalks shimmer in the heat, and the fire hydrants of Brooklyn are gushing over packs of laughing street kids. ‘Everybody can be rich,’ is a saying coined by John Jakob Raskob, VP of finance at DuPont and General Motors. Sure, the stock market took a wobble back in March, but that was quickly fixed by a $25 million injection of finance by “Sunshine Charley” Mitchell at the National City Bank.

The first colour talkie, On With The Show, is in theatres. On the radio you’re listening to Al Jolson, Helen Kane (‘boop-boop-a-doop’) and Rudy Vallée. On Broadway, Leslie Howard is starring in time-travel fantasy Berkeley Square. Characters might find themselves humming: "Ain't Misbehavin'", "The Japanese Sandman","Makin' Whoopee", and "Swanee". When you pick up your newspaper maybe you buy a pulp magazine too.

Find a pretext for the characters to be called to Long Island. Maybe they’re driving back from a party at Great Neck and witness an automobile accident. As first on the scene, they get a chance to talk to the chauffeur before he dies.

The owner of the automobile is William Fox. Also in the car but less seriously injured than Fox is Jacob L Rubenstein. The chauffeur, Joe Boyes, is critically injured and they have only minutes to speak to him. His voice is faint. They have to lean close hear what he’s muttering:

‘A yellow Duesenberg J been followin’ us since we left the Eagle’s Nest. Never liked a yellow auto–’

Alternatively, they could be visiting Nassau Hospital in Mineola when the casualties from the accident are brought in. In this case at least one of the characters will need to have some political or medical authority to get access to Fox. If they meet him at the hospital they obviously won’t get to hear Boyes’s dying words.

While sedated, Fox rambles on about how there’s a conspiracy to keep him out of ‘the Emporion’. ‘My money’s not good enough for ‘em? It’s green, ain’t it? It buys the same jewels an’ furs. But nah, they got this new thing, they want a monopoly on it. “Vril’s for old money; you just wait outside, Fuchs.”’

If they talk to Fox the next day, they find his accent distinctly less Brooklyn. He has been at pains to move beyond his early years as a newsboy, the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants (hence the ‘Fuchs’ name).

Things the characters can research:

The Eagle’s Nest is William Vanderbilt’s estate in Centerport, Long Island. Fox was at a dinner party there but left early.

The yellow Duesenberg belongs to John Dryden Kuser (32 years old). He was at the dinner party with his wife, Brooke (27 years) but the couple are soon to divorce and Kuser angrily dragged her away soon after Fox left. He was only following Fox’s car because he was drunk and had forgotten the way back to Manhattan. He saw the collision but drove on.

They can ask about vril at a museum or bookstore. They end up speaking to the inevitable old scholar (think: John Hurt) who says, ‘Second time I’ve been asked about that this month. I had a book, Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria, by William Scott-Elliot. No, that was the only copy…’ He looks up the person who bought it (or checked it out): ‘Daisy Farley.’ As for vril, he adds with a smile: ‘Ah, the supposed energy source of ancient Atlantis. The man or woman who controls that would hold our modern civilization in the palm of their hand. But remember what happened to Atlantis.’

An alternative lead to Daisey Farley could come from talking to Brooke Kuser at her Manhattan penthouse. She's throwing things angrily into a bag as the characters arrive and tells one of them to call her a cab. 'If you see my dirtball of a husband, that no-good creep, tell him Daisy Farley brought him a gold-leaf invite from Sunshine Charley himself. What did I do with it? I had my own little ticker tape parade.' She gestures at the window. 'If he wants it back, he can take a roll of Scotch tape for a walk down 5th Avenue.'

Daisy Farley (43 years) is Charles Mitchell’s personal secretary. She won’t reveal anything to them if questioned, but if they follow her she leads them to the New York Biltmore.

If they wait for any length of time in the Biltmore foyer, they may spot Nikola Tesla (73 years), who is a guest here. Tesla makes a habit of moving hotels every six months and leaving unpaid bills. A character who is widely read and/or technically minded may know that Tesla recently filed a patent for a VTOL aircraft.

At the Biltmore, a small bribe will be enough to find out that Miss Farley visited Charles Webster Leadbeater, who arrived a few days ago and is being kept in a suite at the expense of the National City Bank. He is expecting a delivery which the hotel staff have just been told to send on to the Merchants’ Exchange.

A classically educated character might spot that ‘emporion’ is Greek and could translate as ‘the Merchants’ Exchange’. A character with any knowledge of NYC will know that’s the main building of the National City Bank at 55 Wall Street. It is tastelessly pseudo-classical in style, so members of the Cryptonymphs (qv) jokingly refer to it as the Emporion.

Daisy Farley has also been in contact with a catering company, The Swell Affair, run by a minor socialite called Samuel Christie (38 years). The company is based in Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn. Recently they have been desperate to hire more waiters (a possible in for the investigators). None of the company’s staff will reveal anything about their clientele, but if the characters break in or otherwise contrive a look at the books, they’ll see they are catering a very big event at 55 Wall Street on July 27th.

The more the characters probe, the more they’ll encounter closed doors and people refusing to talk, saying, ‘It’s more than my job’s worth. They run everything.’

What’s really going on

A group of wealthy bankers and investors have formed a group they call the Cryptonymphs and are planning a lavish party to celebrate having averted, as they see it, a stock market crash in March. (The real crash, of course, will come in a few months, but nobody knows that.)

Fox wanted in but he’s new money, he’s in movies, he’s an immigrant, and he’s Jewish. Vanderbilt didn’t come out and say that in so many words, but when Fox pressed him about getting an invitation to the party he fobbed him off with some talk about it being for investors in a new enterprise. When pressed he plucked the word ‘vril’ out of thin air, having heard it mentioned when he and a few of the Cryptonymphs first encountered Charles Leadbeater in Australia.

A large crate is delivered to Leadbeater at the Biltmore and sent on to 55 Wall Street. If the characters manage a look inside, they’ll discover a mummy with exotic robes and a copper mask and jewellery. The mummy is a papier-mâché fake, designed by Leadbeater to look ‘Atlantean’, though you’d need to examine it in some detail to spot that. Anybody with knowledge of ancient history will see that the mummy's raiment does not correspond to any known civilization, and anyone with art criticism will recognize it as looking quite like a recent work by the sculptor Demétre Chiparus.

The party is fancy dress. The men wear women’s clothes, but as a parody worn over regular evening clothes rather than a serious attempt at cross-dressing – an Edwardian duchess’s skirt, Empire line shifts, deliberately clumsy make-up, etc. The women are mostly actresses and prostitutes, and they are dressed to look like (male) street kids: flat caps, baggy shorts, grubby undershirts, and so forth. The few wives and daughters who have been invited along are dressed in male evening wear, taking the fancy dress code more seriously than their husbands have. Prohibition is still in force, but you wouldn't know it from the way real champagne is flowing.

The highlight of the party is when Leadbeater brings on the mummy and uses ventriloquism to have it address the party-goers: ‘Cavort as you will, sybarites of a future age. Think you not that my people similarly disported themselves? Pleasure only was their goal. Flesh and wine their distraction. Gold and slaves the power with which they sought to comfort their desiccated souls. You are puppets only. In the timeless gaze of eternity, you are already dead, the fragile edifice of your civilization already crumbled to ruins. So make your music, quaff your wine, assuage your lusts. Look down from these windows on the teeming, toiling masses who labour to sustain your edifices of debauchery. For you too will lie soon enough, as my world of Atlantis lies, forgotten many fathoms deep.’

‘Pray now to the great gods in Kadath!’ continues Leadbeater in his own voice. ‘Let your chant reach them, miserable sinners, and perhaps they will send their servant through to this world to guide you for another year of frivolity.’

He gestures at the mummy and a group of masked, body-painted dancers step forth as a chant is taken up by the party-goers, led by Leadbeater himself.

After a few moments, the mummy comes to life. In fact it’s another of the dancers, who substituted for the fake mummy the guests saw as they arrived. He steps down and removes his mask, offering it to Charles Mitchell, as Leadbeater says, ‘A new lord of the sun is chosen! Hail him as he watches over your fortunes in the year ahead.’

Nonplayer characters
  • Charles Edwin “Sunshine Charley” Mitchell (53) chairman of National City Bank. 
  • John Jakob Raskob (50) vice-president of finance at DuPont and General Motors. 
  • William Fox (51) president of the Fox Film Corporation. 
  • William Kissam Vanderbilt II (52), millionaire socialite. 
  • Jacob L Rubenstein (31), treasurer of the Namquist Worsted Company. 
  • Charles Webster Leadbeater (75), celebrated occultist.


It’s expected that the characters will completely buy into the idea of a conspiracy and do something stupid to disrupt what is a silly and self-indulgent but harmless bit of fun. The idle rich may have strange tastes, but they’re not really trying to summon the Elder Gods via the corpse of a priest from Atlantis.

The inspiration came from Jon Ronson’s book Them: Adventures With Extremists, in particular the last chapter in which he infiltrates a Bilderberg Group ball alongside a bunch of conspiracy theorists who are (as the player-characters may be) utterly freaked out by the innocuous goings-on.

From there I got to thinking about how player-characters often accept in-game conspiracies without question, even though most role-players are smart enough to know that conspiracy theories are hogwash. Of course, you can argue that ‘it’s the genre, stupid’ but if left unchallenged that can only lead to lazy, repetitive adventures. This scenario is intended to shake up their assumptions (see also: the ending of Firewatch), and if anyone shoots first – well, maybe they’ll emerge from prison (or an asylum) in a few years’ time with a more thoughtful outlook.

One codicil to the genre justification for using conspiracy theories: Blake Snyder cautions against the use in stories of what he calls ‘double mumbo-jumbo’. That is, you can have one completely unlikely or even fantastical element in any story. That’s the reason the story is getting told. But you can’t then add another one, because having reset our model of reality once, it wrenches us out of the story to do so a second time. Aliens invade – and now King Arthur is here. No, stop it. Try harder.

OK, so a consequence of avoiding double mumbo-jumbo is the trope you see for example in The Amazing Spider-Man movies. There, the genetic splicing that gives Peter his powers also accounts for the Lizard, Electro and the Green Goblin – all affected by the research Norman Osborn has had done in an attempt to cure his own degenerative illness. And that’s good. It’s much better than trying to convince us that suddenly four different fields of super-science came to fruition. But it does tend to support a conspiracy theorist’s view of that world – if they said, ‘This is all down to Norman Osborn,’ they’d be partly right.

When we’re role-playing, we’re not creating fiction. Novels, plays, television and movies already do that much better. We’re creating cascades of events which can be viewed as a story, just the same way we recount anecdotes from the ‘story’ of our everyday life. To impose genre tropes on that strikes me as a sterile exercise, depriving the game of the kind of out-of-the-blue surprises that make truth stranger than fiction. I would rather see conspiracies emerge from players’ assumptions, therefore, than bake them into the structure of the game world. Still, some people enjoy those meta-discussions more than getting into character and ‘just playing’, and if that’s your group then I think you won’t be able to try out this scenario on them without the risk of getting lynched. But if you do run it, it'll be interesting to see what kind of complex confection the players spin out of just a few perfectly mundane occurrences. And in that process, perhaps, you'll get to experience how all conspiracy theories are formed.