Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Designer's Notes: The Department of Occult Defense

Even longer than "It's a Trap!" (I wrote the first draft in April 2013), "The Department of Occult Defense" was rejected twice (for both Pyramid #3/59: Conspiracies and Pyramid #3/58: Urban Fantasy II), but finally ended up in this month's Pyramid (Pyramid #3/73: Monster Hunters II) after a good long while in the stew point. I wrote it fairly quick (less than 16 hours) and revised it even faster (self-revision took about 7 hours and Beth smacked it around for a couple of days). Overall, about 27 man-hours of total work. I worried at first that it felt too derivative, but my various peer-reviewers seemed to really like it and Antoni Ten Monros (one of the "mirrors" I judge my work by) raved about it. Hell, PK liked it too so I knew I was probably over-thinking it. Overall, I was rather proud of how it turned out, the sheer amount of puns per page should be enough to make anyone groan in pain. I'm especially happy about that Beatles reference. I actually didn't have to worry about much getting cut (thanks, Steven!), but I did end up doing some cutting of my own.

Expanded SGP Classifications
I couldn't put in all all the critters from the books - so here is a expanded chart of the current monsters for Monster Hunters.

Ghost (GURPS Monster Hunters 3: The Enemy, p. 4): a "typical" ghost with a FP of 20 is Class 3, while a "boss" ghost with a FP of 100 (or more!) is Class 5
Feral Vampire (GURPS Monster Hunters 3: The Enemy, p. 10): Class 3
Spell Casting Demon (GURPS Monster Hunters 3: The Enemy, p. 19):: Class 4
Skin-Changer (GURPS Monster Hunters 3: The Enemy, p. 21): Class 4
Albino Alligator (GURPS Monster Hunters 3: The Enemy, p. 23): Class 3
Lycanthrope Pack (GURPS Monster Hunters 3: The Enemy, p. 24):Class 4
Changeling (Pyramid #3/45: Monsters, p. 25): Class 3
Goblin (Pyramid #3/45: Monsters, p. 25): Class 1, Goblin Swarms are class 2
Ogre (Pyramid #3/45: Monsters, p. 26): Class 3
Redcap (Pyramid #3/45: Monsters, p. 27): Class 3 or if in a "bully-boy gang" Class 4
Unseelie (Pyramid #3/45: Monsters, p. 28): Class 3
Yuki onna (Pyramid #3/45: Monsters, p. 29): Class 3; Class 4 or even 5 if you're fighting them in the snow or during a blizzard!

The Prometheus Treatment
I created a "super-solider" formula as a optional meta-trait for inhumans to spend their points on, but ended up scrapping the whole thing and kept only a singular bioenhancement upgrade. I decided the meta-trait wouldn't work at all (it made the line between inhumans and experiments blur too much) , but I did keep the powers for it:

6, 12, 18, 24, or 27 points
You can go a long time without eating, drinking, or breathing. See the chart below for details, at level 5 you no longer require air, food, or drink! You’re are essentially a closed biological circuit.

Level      Drinks/Meals Required        Suffocation FP Loss     Brain Damage/Death   
1             2/3 as much                             2/3 seconds                    2 min./4 min.
2             1/3 as much                             1/3 seconds                    3 min./6 min.
3             5% as much                             1/20 seconds                  40 min./80 min.
4             1% as much                             1/100 seconds                200 min./400 min.
5             None!                                      None!                             None!

Statistics: Levels one through four are Reduced Consumption (Bioaugmentation, -10%; Includes Air, +200%) [5.8/level]. Level five is Doesn’t Breathe (Bioaugmentation, -10%) [18] and Doesn’t Eat or Drink (Bioaugmentation, -10%) [9].

Enhanced Synapses
14, 50, 77, 104, or 131 points
Your mind perceives the world in slow motion. The first level of this ability functionally identically to Danger Sense (p. B00), allowing you to make an IQ plus Bioaugmentation Talent to detect ambushes, surprise attacks, etc. Level two functions identically to Enhanced Time Sense (p. B52), but costs you 1 FP every minute the ability is active. Every level thereafter gives the character a +1 bonus to Active Defenses, up to a +3 bonus at level five. At level 5, you no longer need to spend FP to keep Enhanced Time Sense active; it now becomes a passive ability.

Statistics: Level one is Danger Sense (Bioaugmentation, -10%) [14]. Level two adds Enhanced Time Sense (Bioaugmentation, -10%; Costs Fatigue, 1 FP, -10%) [36]. Level three and higher adds Defense Bonus meta-trait (Bioaugmentation, -10%) [27] per level. Level five removes Cost Fatigue from Enhanced Time Sense for, 5 points.

Gecko Eyes
6 points/level
You can focus your eyes independently like a gecko or chameleon.  An Aim (p. 364) or Evaluate (p. 364) maneuver normally applies to a single target. Each level allows your maneuver to apply to one additional target. You can only track targets that you can detect. Anyone who sees your eyes must make a Per-4 roll to notice their independent movement.

Statistics: Enhanced Tracking (Bioaugmentation, -10%; Low Signature, +10%; Multiple Lock-Ons, +20%) [6/level].

Bonus Post Publication Material
Hunting monsters and urban fantasy in general are my proverbial wheelhouse. This is the kind of stuff I like to run, write, and read. It is by no means the only genre...but it's a favorite. So when I asked some of the other authors about how they might use the DOD in their articles...well, I got a bit more than I bargained for (in a totally good way). Here are a few ideas straight from the authors themselves on how to use all of the material (except for HANS' excellent article - I asked and he would have liked to, but he was just too busy) from their article alongside my own.

The Dude and the Orchid (by W. A. Frick & Christopher R. Rice)
The Shadow War is over for the Department of Occult Defense. The bad guys won. The world got blown all to hell and not a single damned person noticed what really happened. It wasn't a sudden slide toward the end, a world on fire and burning. No, to anyone watching from the outside, this was a banal - almost casual - march into the end. Almost as if by-the-numbers of some unseen checklist.
        It all began with the assassination of President Burris in 2010. The assassins, identified in the media as a shadowy satanic cult, became the pretext for an anti-cult task-force, which became the excuse for a nation-wide witch hunt. This kind of thing should naturally have fallen to the DOD, but they were stone-walled out of the investigation.
        Then in 2015, the twin hurricanes Bonnie & Clyde ravaged the eastern seaboard, providing cover for a gill-man invasion which stripped the coast of many small towns and waterfront communities. The DOD's response was a failure; they just didn't have to manpower to deal with multiple incursions. As the hurricanes and their fallout provided an early impetus for the formation of the NERCC, the DOD saw its funding cut and its cases forwarded to a new group: the anti-cult task-force, which had been absorbed and set up as the NERCC's "Occult and Religious Counter-Intelligence Division" (ORCID).
         Finally, things hit a head in the summer of 2024. Multiple outbreaks of the deadly and disfiguring Tolliver's Disease helped to ignite decades of tension into mass civil unrest across the country. Even as the NERCC commandeered National Guard and local SWAT forces to help keep order, it became clear to the DOD that something -else- was happening underneath the TD outbreaks - a genetically engineered hemorrhagic fever that turned the victim into a blood-soaked nightmare of screaming and teeth. XT44, nicknamed the Xipe Totec by Department scientists because of the way the skin of the infected peels off like paper, was causing zombie outbreaks across the nation, and DOD teams couldn't keep up.
         ORCID stepped in, taking control of DOD containment and cleanup efforts with full support of federal and local authorities. At the same time as the so-called "Permanent Emergency" dawned on America, and the Provisional Government took its first iron grip, the DOD was quietly decommissioned. Both it and the HPLD were disbanded; some of the more loyal -human- members of the department were taken in by ORCID, but most of the HPLD had their "honorary humanity" revoked - and were targeted by ORCID strike teams. Those who escaped this Night of Long Knives were driven underground; some were snapped up by a mysterious black-bag group named Project: Persephone and never heard from again.
         Since then, ORCID brass has been quietly bringing back some of the old models - especially the Judas Initiative - because it's hard to fight the Good Fight without the same weapons as the Enemy. Sometimes the tried and true are the best tactics - and bringing your own monster to fight off other monsters is just good sense. It's taken them a bit of time, but they've managed to get some Old Blood back into the fight ... some pined for the good old days of monster hunting on the government dime, some were just bored, and some were idealistic, rejoining ORCID with the intent to staunch the proverbial bleeding.

The Jude Revelation (by David L. Pulver)
This adventure seed takes place in the same university where the rogue monster squad Venatio ("the Faculty") operates, and connects it with the Department of Occult Defense. Josh Tryabank (age 22) is a brilliant mathematical and aspiring literary scholar. An intuitive mathematician, he has a dual major in Mathematics (specializing in cryptology and cryptoanalysis) and English Literature (an expert scholar in the burgeoning field of H.P. Lovecraft studies). These twin talents have led him to come dangerously close to exposing the existence of the secrets of the Department of Occult Defense!                 "Fungi from Yuggoth" is a sequence of 36 esoteric sonnets written by H.P. Lovecraft in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Less well known than his stories, they were published in Weird Tales and other small press magazines frequented by his circle of correspondents.
         Tryabank has recently subjected several poems in the Fungi from Yuggoth to exhaustive computer cryptoanalysis. He has uncovered a buried code in several of the latter poems which he believes reveals a second secret "Understory" within the poems. He has only cracked a portion of it, but there are references to a werewolves, the Brothers Grimm, and some sort of entity called "Jude" who may be a vampire, but, in a bizarre twist unusual in 1930s literature, one who is on the side of humanity!. Indeed, the "understory" is presented in epistolary format as a series of "directives"
to a network of informers and agents scattered across the United States. In particular, they are charged with finding - and recruiting - supernatural beings who, like Jude, might be willing to work as allies for humanity!
         Tryabank believes this coded "understory" to be an elaborate playful literary joke that was conducted between Lovecraft and his inside circle, such as Robert Howard and August Derleth.  He notes the use of more "traditional" elements such as werewolves and vampires,  which Lovecraft would not include in his more serious ruminations on "cosmic horror." He has analyzed about 22 of the poems, and using them has circulated a rough draft of the paper amongst a few interested faculty members. When he completes computer analysis of the rest of the poems, he hopes to publish a full paper entitled "The Jude Conspiracy: A Hidden Understory in H.P. Lovecraft's Fungi from Yuggoth" in appropriate academic venues, to be followed by an annotated edition of the poems. T
          That's still a few weeks away. So far, he has yet to finish the analysis of the final poems ... when he does, he'll discover that,  much as in Lovecraft's classic story The Shadow over Innsmouth, there is evidence that the government is aware of the existence of monsters, and t hat the Lovecraft in the story is working for them. He will uncover the name "Jude Initiative." Of course, he'll still believe this is just a story - an elaborate prank much like the way some in Lovecraft's circle would write disguised versions of the fellow authors as protagonists into some of their stories, or borrow categories from one another.

Adventure Seeds
Tryabank's faculty advisor in the English department of  the university is Professor Clarence Adams ... who is secretly a member of the monster hunter group Venatio, and whose special interest is stalking vampires and werewolves. While Adams' particular specialty is Poe, he is naturally also familiar with Lovecraft and has been very interested in Tryabank's work.
            Initially interested in Tyrabank's work for its literary merit, he has noted certain references in it that refer to things only someone familiar with the real supernatural would know. Adams has shown Tryabank's draft work to his Ventatio colleague Zoe Zoolittle, a scholar of cryptozoological outbreaks, who has confirmed that the 1929 werewolf outbreak alluded to in the "Yuggoth Understory" was in fact something that really happened.
            So far, the Venatio members are still unaware of any connection to the government, but they do  suspect from the documents he has uncoded so far that Lovecraft had secret knowledge of monsters and was recruiting a network of monsters and monster hunters. (The early letters date from the very beginnings of the DOD). Of course, they also realize Tryabank might have attracted other attention... and so Adams is keeping a close eye on his student to see if anyone else shows unusual interest in his story...
            Adams, as a scholar of vampirism, knows that many of these monsters are
immortal: perhaps some of the creatures, like this Jude fellow, are still around.... monsters Venatio can hunt!
             However, Tryabank's researches - and his use of the university's high-end computer systems for literary cryptoanalysis - has have come to the attention of others beyond the Faculty. These include a few individuals who recruit talented young mathematicians to work in the National Security Agency and the like. A routine report on Tryabank's work made its way through various Homeland Security and NSA channels to the Department of Occult Defense's Intelligence and Psyops division. They were appalled at the hints in this report that suggested their secret origin of their agency could be exposed! 
            They are considering sending a team - perhaps a group of PCs - to investigate and determine how much Tryabank really knows - perhaps either to scare him off  (with the team's monsters) or  recruit him to the organization.
            What the DOD team won't be excepting is the existence of Venatio on campus who are also watching the young researcher. If any 'monsters'  and their handlers show up on campus displaying an undue interest in Tryabank, Venatio may attack and attempt to capture them - leading to a confrontation between the DOD team and the university's own monster hunters. While Venatio are certainly no match for the DOD's huge resources, and would not deliberately risk exposure if they knew the truth,  they could a lot of damage to one of the Judge Initiative monster-human teams if they mistook it for a group of supernatural predators stalking Tryabank and attempted to trap and exterminate them!

The Above, The Below, and What Lies Beyond (by J. Edward Tremlett)
It’s just conceivable that, in their quest to protect ordinary humanity from those things that seek to prey upon it, the operatives of the Department of Occult Defense may encounter the “Baldies,” and, through them, The Above. Dealing with such a menace will bring its own risks and rewards, of course. But a further, stunning revelation awaits those who look into the DOD’s files, and make certain unsettling connections with some papers the group’s original Director left behind. The trail might go something like this...
  • At some point in the adventure, the PCs get their hands on some of the eggs, and bring them back to be studied. Some weak-willed researchers might spend too long with them and begin to suffer hallucinations and sleep deprivation. If they’re lucky, they’ll die. If not, dead neighbors’ bodies rotting in the basement, shrieking at the sky, and sudden hair and tooth loss may follow. But hopefully the PCs get some answers before a stricken researcher comes in to work early to blow up the lab for The Above.
  • The geological structure of the black basalt eggs will match records of samples brought back from Sir Charles Throckmore-Addington’s long-discredited 1894 expedition to Tibet. However, a call to the British Museum for confirmation reveals that the rock samples were put into “special conservation” sometime in the 1930’s. Anyone with some experience with that museum will know that means the samples were quietly and permanently removed from the collection. If pressed, the rather-rigid individual on the other end will only offer that “Her Majesty requested them, and I may not say anything else on the matter.” (i.e. the British Government took the samples for secret reasons.)
  • That dead end may seem to spell doom for this line of inquiry, but looking over the story that Throckmore-Addington told of the Lost Plateau of Durtro may trigger the memory of anyone familiar with Director Lovecraft’s fictional output. It almost sounds like the mythical Plateau of Leng, which was also purported to lay in central Asia, as well as the “Dreamlands.”
  • Knowing that some of what Director Lovecraft wrote of was simply coded allegories for what really goes on in the twilight world, someone might want to access the Director’s personal records, which have been sealed up since he left the DOD in 1936. Doing so will require going to Director Grimm for permission, and he’ll most likely crawl up the PCs’ behinds with large and uncomfortable flashlight before allowing them to have access to that level of information. If they convince him that the “Baldies” are a serious enough threat that any intel they have should be utilized, he may yet relent; if that fails, there may be other, sneakier ways to gain access, but they better not get caught.
  • Director Lovecraft’s records are sealed up in a vault in the HPLD’s base in Chicago. It’s on the 12th floor – known as “Below” – along with a number of other, super-secret things, records, and entities that have been sealed away for all time. Going there for an official look means having to talk to Asst. Director Ladon, and run a gauntlet of his best psychics and mentalists, just to make sure they aren’t up to no good. Sneaking in requires other means, and may require a whole separate adventure just to find the long-forgotten, third way into their underground headquarters via the abandoned tenth floor. 
  • Once inside the vault, the PCs learn that Director Lovecraft was very interested in Throckmore-Addington’s 1894 expedition to the Lost Plateau of Durtro. In fact, he has three boxes devoted to it. On top of them is an envelope with a faded letter from a Colonel Alan L. Stewart from some outfit called GHOSTTRAIN. It confirms (in affected, British-spelled prose) that all materials were “collected for your research, and all records here expunged.” It also thanks the DOD for its “advise in dealing with that beastly business in the (REDACTED) Valley,” and looks forward to more transatlantic joint ventures. 
  • Box one includes all the missing rock samples from the British Museum, including the black basalt samples in question. Some of them look suspiciously like smashed eggs. Thankfully, whatever malefic influence they had is long gone. There’s also samples of strange, precious stones and common rocks that match nowhere else on Earth. A ruby the size of a man’s fist lies at the bottom of the box; looking at it too long causes nightmares of falling through an endless void towards some abhorrent, shapeless thing at the center of the universe.
  • Box two included all the notebooks filled, sketchbooks illustrated, and photographs taken during the expedition. It’s all normal Tibetan steppes until they reach the two, tall, bonelike spires of black basalt that mark the entrance to Durtro. Past that, the landscape is filled with the fossilized skeletons of beasts both familiar and strange, and then they arrive at the sunken monastery of what is claimed to be the Fifth School of Tibetan Buddhism, but whose eyeless, hairless, and toothless adherents practice a strange, brutal asceticism that bears little resemblance to it. The swirling script the monks use to write with, the rows of black eggs along the walls, and the bone and brown feather windchimes all bear an eerie resemblance to what was found in the warrens. At the bottom of the pile is a photograph of a man being hacked to pieces for sky burial: he’s clearly alive, in spite of being in several parts, and laughing at his plight.
  • Box three is Throckmore-Addington’s journal of the trip, and the very expurgated version that he eventually published. All the truly gruesome and outlandish things that he saw at the monastery were left out, along with mentions of strange creatures that were following them through the plateau, and the horrible fates a number of his native porters suffered if they got too far from the campfire. Whatever killed them stripped them to the bone within seconds, leaving steaming skeletons seeping with deadly poison. And by the time they’d returned from the monastery, heading for home, those skeletons had turned to stone. But more intriguing are Director Lovecraft’s notes, stuck in relevant pages, speaking of “Nightgaunts,” “ghasts,” “Gorgons,” “the High Priest Not to Be Described,” and other such things.

Along with the boxes are notes written by Director Lovecraft. In them, he wonders if perhaps the lost plateau of Durtro wasn’t what he saw when he thought of Leng, all those years ago. He speculates that the bone spires are a gateway to a realm of dreams, much like the Dreamlands, and that the realm beyond might lead to more wondrous and terrible sights, and entities. He also surmises that the spires aren’t always there, and may even move from place to place, which is why the second expedition failed to find them. But what, then, is The Above? Is it a reflection of Yog Sothoth? Or something less powerful, but no less terrible? He posits that this sky god the monks wanted to rise and join with would cause untold damage if it ever got into our world, and hopes that Throckmore-Addington’s entrance and exit didn’t tempt it into our direction. More research is needed, clearly, and perhaps a journey to Tibet may be called for, if only to learn how those closest to this crossover between one world and another handle such a threat. 
           Hopefully, that will give the PCs the direction needed to learn more about The Above, and where to find a way to shut it down in our world. As for what that may entail, and what other adventures this could lead to, the GM is encouraged to do whatever they’d like, so long as their Monster Hunter game doesn’t suddenly turn into the Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath (unless the players are cool with that sort of a deviation from a Monster Hunter campaign).

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the insights into the writing of your article, as well as the additional material. I think my own initial article took about the same time to write - about three days or so, including polishing it. (The short addenda took about three hours.) Interesting that both Edward and I went with the Lovecraft connection (for my part, I'd been reading more Lovecraft material lately - I just finished S.T. Joshi's fascinating if sometimes overwhelming I Am Providence biography).