for GURPS Voodoo
by David Moore
"Fairfax will tell you the same thing I have. We're not authorized to do things like this."
"Who is? Who makes the decisions?"
"Well, a committee would make a decision in a case like this."
"One man. You go high enough, you always come to one man. Who?"
-- Mr. Carter and Porter, Payback
Since Al Capone and Don Corleone, the criminal superboss has been a compelling force in the popular imagination. Daredevil, both as a lawyer and as a vigilante, struggles against the powerful and shadowy Kingpin while The Crow's Eric Draven discovers that his killers' orders ultimately originated with the cruel and incestuous Top Dollar; Keyser Soze slips out from under the police's noses in The Usual Suspects and the Mariachi hunts the drug lord Buco in Desperado.
There isn't a hustle, a racket or a hit that takes place where he doesn't see a piece. If you work the city -- drugs, girls, fraud, wetwork -- odds are you answer to somebody, and that guys answers to somebody too. But it all ends with him. Everyone knows it, but no one says anything about it; not if they value their skins. He's a stressed pronoun and a raised eyebrow. The police can't touch him, not that it'd do any good: he's got the DA and the judges in his pockets too. Sure, the feds went in once or twice, but all they ever got were his lieutenants. He always got away, only to resurface somewhere else. He's the top dog, the boss of bosses. The Man.
Of course, there's no such thing. Organized crime is an oxymoron; sure, there are gangs and outfits, but the idea of one guy being able to control every criminal in a city is ridiculous. It's a myth, an urban legend. An idea.
But then, ideas have power . . .
Il Capo tutta di Capo
"What happened to you and your girlfriend back there . . . I ordered that building cleared. Hell, nothing happens in this city without my say-so."
-- Top Dollar, The Crow
Like a Voodoo loa or Hermetic god, the Man is an idea, the belief in which is so deep and widespread that it has become real. Encountered individually it has the traits of a spirit, but this is a manifestation, an expression of the archetype given form. It appears in a city where the urban legend of a criminal mastermind or overlord has taken root. Building on that legend, the manifestation finds and assumes an influence over every criminal operation or gang it can, promoting the groups it has gained access to and squashing those that stay outside its influence, until it makes truth of the legend.
Although the idea is general, the manifestation is specific; he (or she!) will have a name, and a biography, although the details may be hazy and fantastic, and not consistent between tellings. The story may co-opt the name and details from the career of a real criminal or boss from the city's history, but this is a separate being, not a ghost. A few features are common to all such biographies: the Man is a foreigner or outsider who has either arisen only recently or been operating for an outlandishly (but not supernaturally) long time; he will defy physical description, with the possible exception of a single trademark feature such as a scar or tattoo; he will be a recluse that no one can recall meeting, although everyone has anecdotes about unfortunates who have done so; and he is known for a singular cunning, cruelty and determination -- everyone will know at least one story of a terrible punishment he has meted out, or a vengeance he has extracted.
For all that, the Man is sometimes, especially if he has been established a long time, a servant of the community. His patronage may extend to churches or schools, or charity groups. He may even enforce a kind of ethical code among his agents; for instance, declaring children, married women, or priests "off-limits." This, of course, is simply a more subtle form of control, making locals side with his organization over the police or invading gangs, but can still result in good; manifestations of the Man have been known to drive Corruptors and In-Betweeners out of a city, and to stamp out the more wantonly destructive crimes.
"Gather your soldiers. You're on for tomorrow night. No sweat."
"Is the Man in?"
"He's taking a meeting."
-- Grange and T-Bird, The Crow
One distinctive feature about the Man's organization is that he himself is never seen or heard from. His orders are given by his trusted lieutenant or mouthpiece, and his reach is felt in the contacts he has, the people he uses. These lieutenants, of course, are Initiates or Mediums who commune with the manifestation and channel it; the orders they pass on come to them by spiritual contact or are given directly through them, the spirit possessing his servant to speak to individual soldiers.
The strangest thing about these Initiates is that they don't realize it. Communications from the spirit are remembered as phone calls or passed messages, rather than dreams or visions. Rituals appear to both their performers and ignorant observers as phone calls (usually to other, lesser spirits, who execute the ritual's effects), bribes and deals; and they work as well as the rituals of Vodoun and Gnosticism because this, as far as the ritualist is concerned, is how things get done. Sacrifices to the Man and to the other spirits he uses are in the form of cash, drugs and the occasional spilling of blood; the tools of ritual magic are guns, phones, cash, dark glasses and suits, although superstitious symbols like crucifixes or luck charms may make their way into the lieutenant-Initiate's repertoire.
There may be a network of such lieutenants in the city, running separate crime rings and never meeting face-to-face; only the manifestation, taking reports from each lieutenant and giving orders in turn, knows everything that's going on. Or there may be just one lieutenant, running "his employer's" affairs. He becomes in truth what the Man is believed to be, albeit always thinking himself only a messenger and valued second-in-command.
The Man in the Shadow War
"King Willie says, 'Not only do I have to kill you, but I have to take your soul.' Voodoo magic, man. f***ing voodoo magic!"
-- Gold Tooth, Predator 2
As far as possible, the Man avoids the Shadow War. Arising from the belief systems of neither the Voodoo Societies nor the Lodges, he has no interest in either faction. An individual manifestation might have no objections to making temporary deals with either side, but generally speaking the Man finds that getting involved with their struggle is more trouble than it's worth. Nor is he a Corruptor, although he uses corruption to forward his goals. He was created out of a belief in a controlling force, and control implies ownership. The Man cherishes and jealously guards what's his, and what would be the point in controlling a decaying city? Most frustrating, the Man's agents and Initiates are often completely unaware of his nature, or even of their own powers, which seems to put them "beneath the radar" of more consciously-involved Initiates (see Ignorant Initiate, below).
None of this prevents him from becoming part of the War from time to time. Any of the major factions may seek to gain influence in a given criminal community. Warily eyeing the other groups as they do so, they may be completely unprepared to find this independent spirit power already entrenched and with no intentions to budge. Also, while the Man is not an active Corruptor, his actions -- violent crime, prostitution and drug-trading, among other things -- often further their goals nonetheless. A Corruptor spirit may move into a city where a manifestation of the Man is in place and operate for years without ever being noticed. Gradually, the manifestation may be subverted until he becomes a Corruptor himself, serving the enemies of humanity. Alternatively, the manifestation may find himself sharing his city with a Devourer In-Betweener (p.VO102), which is far more likely to result in a war to extinction; Devourers are highly territorial.
The Man in the Campaign
The obvious use for the Man is to make his syndicate a focus for an adventure or campaign. The players are police or private investigators, led by a case or bust onto the trail of the city's rumoured superboss; the ensuing investigation draws them into a citywide network of allegiances and pay-offs, but the Man himself remains elusive, always just beyond their reach. Meanwhile, threats, attacks, attempted bribes, or interference from corrupt cops or DA officials dog their steps. Federal agents from the DEA, Treasury, or the FBI's Organized Crime Task Force may claim jurisdiction over the case, causing friction with the PCs who are trying to get to the heart of the case before being pulled off it. Or the players could be feds themselves, clashing with local corruption and maverick cops while struggling with their unfamiliarity with the city.
Alternatively, the players could be criminals, knowingly or unknowingly the crime lord's employees or rivals. A plot to squash a rival group, cement control of a neighborhood or remove a troublesome official will hint at the extent of the Man's organization; as they discover more about who (and what) the crime boss is, they have to decide what they're going to do with the information. An interesting variant on this is to have one of the PCs as the boss's lieutenant-Initiate; the growing realization that his employer isn't strictly real, and that the orders he passes on are taken by spirits rather than living soldiers, can be a major source of horror in the story (think Tyler Durden in Fight Club). In any case, police or criminal games with the Man should avoid overt signs of the supernatural, at least to begin with. The superboss's information and influence should beggar the imagination, but not initially defy explanation.
Adventure Seed: A turf war between a Mafia family and a Chinese Triad is discovered to have been engineered by the two groups' seconds-in-command, hinting at them being agents of a common interest. They are found to be working for a mysterious crime lord, who hopes the war will weaken both families and pave the way for staging a take-over of the neighbourhood. He has promised the two seconds-in-command leading roles in the new order.
In an "aware" GURPS Voodoo campaign, with Initiates and In-Betweeners as PCs, the Man can work as one of several forces at work in a city. Vodoun Initiates from the Protectors or Loa Lords (pp.VO21-22), or Hermetics from the Schismatics (p.VO32), are frequently involved in the underworld and crime scenes, rooting out rival Initiates, Corruptors and In-Betweeners who exploit and feed off the people. Seek and ye shall find, of course; an Initiate looking for rival supernatural forces in a city may mistake traces of the Man for something else. Hunting him will be a frustrating search, though; his Initiates tend not to show up, and his organizations are excellent at evading that kind of attention. Much of the drama of the game will arise from misdirection. As in the "cops n' robbers" game suggested above, the PCs shouldn't initially realise what it is they're dealing with; while they will be quicker to suspect the supernatural, proof of this, and of the exact nature of the enemy, will be hard to pin down.
Whatever the structure of the campaign, the PCs' goal will generally be to oust the manifestation and his crime ring. This will be a difficult proposition; even if they have the resources to combat spirits, the Man is more than one spirit -- he is an idea, an archetype. Unless the legend itself can be squashed, another manifestation will form around the core of the story. The ideal would be to persuade the people of the city that the crime lord has been killed or arrested; but with escape being as simple as dematerializing, and no corpse to show, either of these would be a challenge. After destroying the manifestation itself, defeating the Man may involve the unsavory business of framing someone else and offering him up for the authorities or the morgue.
Adventure Seed: A PC vodounista is asked by residents from the projects to investigate an apparent haunting. Speaking to the ghost, the players discover that he'd been agitating to expose corruption in the local council when he'd been killed, apparently in a mugging, by local youths. Helping the ghost find rest will involve uncovering the conspiracy he believes led to his death; and their investigation suggests a shadowy figure, possibly with spiritual assistance, behind it all. Perhaps the Lodges are up to their old tricks?
"Did he say Keyser Soze? He saw Keyser Soze."
"He says he knows his face. He sees it when he closes his eyes."
"Ask him what this Devil looks like."
-- Metzheiser and Bodi, The Usual Suspects
ST 12; DX 11; IQ 14; HT 12.
Move/Dodge: 6/6; Will: 18; Alertness: 16; Fatigue: 25
ST 18; DX 12; IQ 16; HT 14.
Move/Dodge: 7/7; Will: 21; Alertness: 18; Fatigue: 50
ST 25; DX 13; IQ 18; HT 15.
Move/Dodge: 8/8; Will: 25; Alertness: 19; Fatigue: 70
When the Man materializes or appears in dreams, he always appears as a normal human, never overtly supernatural. Specifics like age, nationality, coloring, and sex vary between manifestations, although commonly they have a single highly distinctive feature -- like a scar or tattoo, a missing eye, or being obscenely overweight -- that is constant to a given manifestation. When he has to appear to a minor member of his organization or to the public, the Man may appear as a silhouette or shrouded figure, seen across a room or on a rooftop; this both saves on fatigue and helps to preserve his secrecy.
Special Powers: The Man is always uncannily aware of the power structures and hierarchies that surround him. By spending 2 fatigue and succeeding at a Quick Contest (the Man's Alertness versus the target's Will), he will know to whom someone answers or where his orders originated, even if the agent himself doesn't.
Effects of Possession: The Man possesses his servants only rarely, preferring to work indirectly through orders and messages; when he does need to take direct action, however, he prefers to possess an expendable agent as long as needed, and then abandon him to the authorities or rivals once he's finished. The Man never grants Spirit Warrior status; possession is always absolute, and the host never remembers the time he was controlled.
"We're associates of your business partner Marsellus Wallace. You remember your business partner, don't ya?"
-- Jules Winnfield, Pulp Fiction
Much of the regular work of the Man's syndicate is handled by living men and women. At the top of this network are the boss's prized seconds and lieutenants. Materialising to issue every order and receive every briefing, and providing all the spiritual support in person is tiring, so the crime lord coaxes his closest servants into Initiation, teaching them a form of ritual magic and giving them powers and advice. The lieutenants perform curses to remove rivals and blessings to promote their agents, or summon spirit "thugs" and "spies" to rough people up or gain information.
In spite of this, the lieutenant-Initiates never fully realize what they are. The Man's system of ritual magic, called Ritual Magic (Street Dealing) (M/VH), has Streetwise-12 as a prerequisite; its ritual tools are phone calls, coded phrases, cash and drug bribes and threats. The ritualist creates and maintains the illusion that all he is doing is mundane (see below), that his orders are being carried out by human agents and soldiers rather than spirits or his own ritual power. The Paths most often used are those of Luck, Protection or Spirit, although there is no technical limit on which Paths or Rituals may be learned and used.
Limitation: Ignorant Initiate -20%
This limitation, taken on the Initiation advantage (pp.VO58-63) and on any advantages taken with Initiation as a prerequisite, indicates that the Initiate doesn't know he has any power. He will usually not believe in spirits himself, and is fully capable of summoning and manipulating them while preserving this belief. Essentially, the character suffers from a severe Delusion (p.B32), without getting any extra points from it. The Initiate can buy and use any Ritual or Power, but must be able to rationalize it as a mundane act, most often through a human agent, although minor effects can be put down to strokes of luck. This limits what can be achieved and, more importantly, how quickly; achieving someone's death in a car-crash could be believed over a two-day period (contacting an agent to sabotage the car), but even a wildly successful ritual couldn't kill someone on the spot. It is effectively impossible for an ignorant Initiate to acquire Fourth Level or higher Initiation.
On the plus side, the Initiate's ignorance acts as a kind of defence against detection. Any of an Initiate's normal powers to detect a fellow Initiate, or to deduce an Initiate's involvement in an apparently coincidental event, is at 2 to detect an ignorant Initiate. In a city with several supernatural interests at work, this makes it likely that attention will be deflected to another group or faction.
An ignorant Initiate may eventually be persuaded of his powers; this should be roleplayed out, but the Initiate should be strongly resistant to acknowledging the truth. In this case, the limitation may be bought off with earned points, and both Powers and Rituals used normally. It is possible to continue using Ritual Magic (Street Dealing) after paying off the limitation.
The Man in other Settings and Systems
The idea of a crime lord being a spirit, totem, or archetype can, with a certain amount of adjustment, work in any modern or near-future setting with gothic or fantastic elements.
Shadowrun: While the magic of Shadowrun is flashier and more overt than the subtle powers of GURPS Voodoo, the urban setting of the game is very similar. In this game, the Man is not an individual spirit entity at all, but a totem. His lieutenants are shamanic conjurors, who invoke city spirits that manifest as gang members and informants. Alternatively, the Man is himself a Free City Spirit, with a network of lieutenant-shamans serving him.
The Man could begin play as the PCs' regular employer, a powerful and mysterious "Mr. Johnson" whose actions gradually reveal his plan to secure Seattle's underworld (or that of the game's local city) under his control.
Vampire, Werewolf, Mage: Another gothic horror game set in a largely urban setting, the World of Darkness games fit the concept well. The Man is an Umbrood spirit, granting his servants Fomori powers and Sorceror paths as he binds them tighter into his service. Alternatively, the "lieutenant" who is really in charge of it all is a Marauder mage and the Man is his avatar; his ignorance of his own powers constitutes his Quiet.
Vampire PCs might see him as a rival, or a threat to the Masquerade. Mages might see him as a potential enemy or danger to the people, or Technocrats might want to remove dangerous elements or rivals. Werewolves would likely see him as a Wyrm spirit or corruptor. In the World of Darkness, they might be right . . .
GURPS Psionics/Black Ops: The Man doesn't have to have a separate existence at all! The "lieutenant" is a powerful unconscious psychic with a Split Personality and a Compartmentalized Mind. The Man is his alternate personality, projecting itself out of him as a telepathic or psychokinetic illusion, manipulating events and spying on rivals, and appearing to him in dreams or as a voice over the phone.
The Company wants to find out who is manipulating the criminal community in the local city. Is it a Grey plot, or the work of the Lodge, or MIND? What, in the end, does the mysterious manipulator want? When they find out who it is, do they try and bring the "innocent" lieutenant in for counselling and training, or terminate him?
Article publication date: April 9, 2004
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