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Author Topic: The Commission (Black Chamber Reimagining)  (Read 12727 times)
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« on: September 13, 2012, 05:29:57 AM »

Out of Character

Yeah, yeah, I know, I already have two other topics at the top of this forum, but while I was trying to come up with martial arts styles, this just hit me and I wanted to get it up where someone could see it before it all got buried in my hard drive.

I'm envisioning this running on a slightly-modified version of Night's Black Agents, which itself uses the GUMSHOE system. The Storyteller system might work as well, but probably more for less action-oriented games.

Some of the more obvious inspirations are Night's Black Agents, Men in Black, The Laundry series, HP Lovecraft and company, the World of Darkness, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy and other le Carré novels, the Bourne series , and supernatural espionage novels like Tim Powers' Declare.

Hope you all enjoy. As always, comments, however brief, are appreciated.

The Black Chamber is an ultra-secretive intelligence agency run primarily by the United States but which also extends its tendrils into Great Britain and other NATO member nations. Its purview: occult intelligence, OCCINTEL, which encompasses the paranormal, supernatural, and extraterrestrial, the lines between the three often blurry.

Ostensibly aimed at protecting humanity (but mainly the West) from horrors and dangers most cannot imagine, but it often seeks to exploit those very same horrors whenever possible for use in its own games of espionage cat-and-mouse.

Officially, nobody knows about the Black Chamber. Not any head of state, not any general, not any chief of staff, not any head of the CIA or MI6. Nobody. Those who do discover it face one of three fates: conscription, brainwashing, or (quite often) assassination.

Headed by the Directors, none of whom have ever been seen in person and who may or may not even be human.

Chamber policy-makers appear to be totally unencumbered by concern for morality, ethics, the sanctity of human life, or any notions of fair play that extend beyond the shadowiest corner of the intelligence community.

Black Chamber agents are recruited from a variety of places: most have backgrounds in the CIA, FBI, NSA, armed forces, etc. A few of the oldest members even served in the OSS back during World War II, while some might’ve been approached civilians. There are rumors that the Chamber even extends offers to criminals facing heavy sentences.

Chamber employees (and associated personnel) essentially sign over their entire lives, giving up any rights to their own bodies, minds, and even souls. And no, their oaths aren’t necessarily terminated just because they are.

Agents are routinely subjected to all manner of dangerous, unethical, and/or experimental treatments and procedures to enhance their potential, with or without their knowledge or consent. Implantations, psychological reprogramming, transplants, injections, exotic chemotherapies, induced possession, and even stranger procedures are conducted by Chamber medics.

The Black Chamber makes use of strange technologies based on quasi-scientific principles, captured occult lore, and reverse-engineered artifacts. However, that kind of tech is expensive and finicky, so most agents go into the field armed most with mundane weapons and equipment.

Very cannibalistically, the Black Chamber has a nasty habit of trying to assassinate its own people under-the-table, often for suspect or unspecified reasons. Human agents are rarely used; inhuman entities or experimental “living weapons” are much more common. Surprisingly, a number of those who survive such attempts are allowed to carry on without any more official interference, raising the disturbing possibility that such actions are merely field tests or training exercises.

Chamber possesses a significant number of Nazi scientists and occultists acquired in the wake of World War II, most of who did not have to be too aggressively coerced into cooperating.

Black Chamber also employs a number of paranormal, supernatural, and extraterrestrial entities as “advisors” or, much more rarely because of their predictability, as field operatives.

Major facilities and bases are mostly located inside the United States and Great Britain, but the Black Chamber maintains numerous smaller safehouses throughout Europe, with a few also in Canada, Australia, and Japan.

Primary antagonist is the 17th Directorate, the USSR equivalent to the Black Chamber. They are, if such a thing is even possible, even more reckless, not to mention ruthless, than the Chamber itself. One of the major differences between the two agencies is the Directorate’s staunch atheism, which stands in strange contrast to their unhealthy fascination with apotheosis. While they lag behind in technology, they have access to more Old World occult. Many of their field operatives, especially paramilitary and post-human agents, wear distinctive, color-coded gas masks.

The Black Chamber also battles paranormal, supernatural, and extraterrestrial threats, especially those that analysts consider existential threats to the human race…or worse, to democracy.

Also on the Chamber’s rogue’s gallery are the so-called Illuminati: a blanket term referring to any human organization, institution, or cult that engages in OCCINTEL, typically unaffiliated with (and often hostile to) any quasi-national agency.
« Last Edit: March 01, 2013, 11:07:04 PM by Superbright » Logged


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« Reply #1 on: September 13, 2012, 01:10:37 PM »

Sounds like fun.  How does the Black Chamber get funding?  If government high-ups don't know about them (I'm curious why you made that decision?) then how do they get the dough to buy the secret underground bunkers, containment facilities, occult tech, specialists etc etc that I can only imagine they must utilize?  Are they somehow stealing from defense budgets without anyone noticing?  I can't imagine private citizens could be involved - surely that would be a far larger security risk than letting those with top security clearance in government office in on things.  Presumably they're not hawking off occult artifacts and experimental tech - unless you go the hokey MiB/Transformers route and have regular technology be reverse-engineered alien stuff or whatnot.
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« Reply #2 on: September 14, 2012, 09:20:55 PM »

I am so stoked about Night's Black Agents, you guys, you just have no idea. I've been following Ken Hite's interviews on the subject and it is all very intriguing!
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« Reply #3 on: September 17, 2012, 07:59:41 AM »

Steerpike: I want to leave that intentionally vague. I came off a little too strong with the "Nobody knows about the Black Chamber". People know about it, but nobody really knows what it does: just that if they don't want unnamed horrors chewing up democracy and capitalism and everything they hold dear, they'll make sure there's an invisible clause in every appropriations bill and not ask too many questions when they come asking to borrow their toys. They also steal the majority of the weird tech they use, or get it in exchange for payments they'd rather not talk about.

LC: Oh my God, so am I! I was never the hugest fan of GUMSHOE until I snagged the [REDACTED] Edition and now I can't wait for the full one!
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« Reply #4 on: September 22, 2012, 09:12:33 PM »

The government talent pool seems like a natural mechanism for securing political influence without exposing the Chamber to the world: many recruits retain their official positions and perform only one or two specific tasks for the Chamber in addition to their standard duties, while their secrecy is secured through psychic blocks and geases. In this case the Black Chamber is diffused through official organisations - a kind of institutional 'possession' - rather than existing in parallel.

Do most Chamber agents know that they are agents? Were they offered a choice? Are some of them ghosts/zombies?

What specific kinds of paranormal/supernatural threats exist? Is this an "all-myths are true" situation, where operatives can expect to face vampires, werewolves, demons and cthulhus, or will the setting focus on more exotic and original threats? Is there a monolithic "Secret History of the World" that is revealed to new recruits in a 10-page primer or are all the weird phenomena disparate and unfamiliar? If human beings saw a paranormal phenomenon, would they believe it? (a common shortcut in 'secret world' design is to make the paranormal incomprehensible to mundanes) Is the Black Chamber younger than the (20th) century or older than the (second) millennium? How has the containment of unworldly threats been challenged by the proliferation of easy-access digital media?

Quite apart from the in-setting knowledge of the Directors' natures, do you know who and what they are? Are they willing comrades, reluctant allies, or fractious schemers bound by utmost necessity? Do they have ulterior designs beyond the defense of mundane reality? Would they rather destroy the Strange or control it? Do they have any idea what they're up against? Are they competent at all?
« Last Edit: September 22, 2012, 10:30:11 PM by Exegesis » Logged

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« Reply #5 on: September 23, 2012, 01:21:58 AM »

Exegesis

The government talent pool seems like a natural mechanism for securing political influence without exposing the Chamber to the world: many recruits retain their official positions and perform only one or two specific tasks for the Chamber in addition to their standard duties, while their secrecy is secured through psychic blocks and geases. In this case the Black Chamber is diffused through official organisations - a kind of institutional 'possession' - rather than existing in parallel.

Thanks, Exegesis! That is an amazing way of explaining how an organization like the Black Chamber manages to say a near-total secret, though I’m not quite sure if it’s one I’d adopt entirely.

What I think I’ll do is make it a two-tiered layout. At the first level, you have the sort of agents you described, ones who work for other branches of the government in addition to the Chamber. They have ‘handlers’ (who they may or may not ever meet in person) who show up irregularly to deliver them their orders: there is often little to no explanation or context given for the things they are asked to do. If they cooperate, they are given a bonus and their lives are made to run just a little bit smoother, if only for a moment. If they refuse or fail too dramatically, the best they can hope for is an intensive brainwashing instead of an untraceable death. If their handlers think they might have leaked any of the information they’ve been given, that threat extends to those closest to them. If these auxiliaries maintain a record of success, they can expect to be ‘promoted’ to the next tier, though it is something few would wish for if they knew what it entailed. At this level are your ‘career’ agents, those who’ve seen enough that they’re in it for life. Here you find the majority of the Chamber’s analysts, scientists, occultists, policy-makers, and veteran field assets. They’re a hard-bitten lot and all of them bear scars, physical and metal, from their experiences, not to mention the Chamber’s tinkering. The benefit is that they’re seen as significantly less disposable, though in the grand scheme of things that doesn’t amount to much. They can also count of much more backup, fancier toys to play with, and a more complete intel.

Exegesis

Do most Chamber agents know that they are agents? Were they offered a choice? Are some of them ghosts/zombies?

Yes, though they don’t always know just what it is that the Black Chamber does. While the initial offer of employment is always posed as a question, the reality of it is that once the Chamber headhunters approach a potential recruit, they rarely have much say in the matter. While such treatments are far too unsafe to apply to actual agents (yeah, let that sink in), the headhunters are fond of psycho-programming or geases that induce brain aneurisms or heart attacks if the subject mentions a certain word or phrase, something that they often bring up if the recruit seems reluctant to accept their offer. As such, those who do refuse to work for the Black Chamber rarely last very long.

And yes, the Chamber does employ zombies and ghosts, among others, but these aren’t really intended to be player characters. Written into every agent’s contract is the stipulation that their superiors have free reign to use their bodies and/or spirits after their deaths and yes, Chamber interrogators have discovered the means to effectively torture ghosts.

And because this is the early Cold War, the age of uninhibited scientific advancement, there’s a good chance of scientists engaging in breeding programs to hybridize humans with ghouls, Deep Ones, vampires, etc. and then raise the resulting offspring to be potential assets.

Exegesis

What specific kinds of paranormal/supernatural threats exist? Is this an "all-myths are true" situation, where operatives can expect to face vampires, werewolves, demons and cthulhus, or will the setting focus on more exotic and original threats? Is there a monolithic "Secret History of the World" that is revealed to new recruits in a 10-page primer or are all the weird phenomena disparate and unfamiliar? If human beings saw a paranormal phenomenon, would they believe it? (a common shortcut in 'secret world' design is to make the paranormal incomprehensible to mundanes) Is the Black Chamber younger than the (20th) century or older than the (second) millennium? How has the containment of unworldly threats been challenged by the proliferation of easy-access digital media?

Hm, that’s actually a question I’ve been struggling with. The Chamber deals with an enormous range of threats, so I’m uncertain how much detail I should go into on all of them. In broad strokes, the Chamber normally divides entities into one of three categories: PARA, SUPER, and EXTRA. You have entities that roughly fit the descriptions of vampires, werewolves, and other traditional monsters, though the specific details are often very different and almost never universal. There are aliens, which I’m envisioning as ancient astronauts-meets-H.P. Lovecraft, utilizing unimaginably-advanced sciences and otherworldly sorcery more than just straight sci-fi. My aim is to make even seemingly-cliché threats more unique and exotic; I’m just not sure where to start. While Chamber agents are given dossiers on the threats they are expected to face, how they all fit into some larger picture is something that not even the analysts have entirely worked-out, and it is not uncommon for this information to be paradoxical or contradictory.

The Black Chamber was officially founded sometime around the First World War, didn’t really metastasize into the organization it is today until the start of the Cold War, but has its roots in purloined occultism and secret societies going back much further. It didn’t so much grow out of these groups as the founders ruthlessly cannibalized them, along with any other scraps they could get their hands on. Following World War II, with the huge influx of occult and scientific research following the fall of the Third Reich, the Chamber’s knowledge and capabilities grew exponentially; it was also around this time that its policies took a much more ambiguous tone.

And I can’t believe I didn’t mention this: the setting is the early 60’s, so information technology isn’t anything remotely approaching what it is today.

Exegesis

Quite apart from the in-setting knowledge of the Directors' natures, do you know who and what they are? Are they willing comrades, reluctant allies, or fractious schemers bound by utmost necessity? Do they have ulterior designs beyond the defense of mundane reality? Would they rather destroy the Strange or control it? Do they have any idea what they're up against? Are they competent at all?

Sort of. They’re all human, or they once were. They maintain a sense of civility amongst themselves, but they each have their own plans and agendas. They know what they’re up against, at least in a broad sense. They do not so much wish to defend reality as they aim to protect their little corner of it: if they thought they could contain an incursion that left the Warsaw Pact a swirling, shrieking hellscape and devoured the minds of every one of Chairman Mao’s subjects, they’d hardly seek to contain it. As it currently stands though, such apocalyptic events don’t differentiate between East and West. If they can capture, salvage, or reverse-engineer some occult artifact or alien technourgy, they will, both for use against other supernatural threats and their opposite-numbers on the other side of the Iron Curtain. That’s one of the pettiest aspects of the Black Chamber: their policy is to go to great lengths to sabotage and undercut their rivals, especially the 17th Directorate, even if limited cooperation or just a ceasefire would be the better plan.

That answer your questions?
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« Reply #6 on: September 23, 2012, 03:00:55 AM »

Yup. And it's prompted more.

How much latitude can player characters expect when executing their superiors' directives? In metagame terms, how free are the players to dictate the course of mission-based objectives? How high/low in the Black Chamber hierarchy can PCs expect to progress? What is the life-expectancy of the average career agent? What about field agents? How often are they or their loved ones threatened when they are not actively pursuing the Black Chamber's agenda? Do agents develop a meaningful community from which they can draw a sense of camaraderie and reward?

Does the Black Chamber itself (specifically the Directors) uphold Western capitalist principles, or is its opposition to communism purely an accident of geography? Are there any Illuminati with influence approaching that of the Chamber or the 17th Directorate?

Is there a "most common" kind of P/S/E phenomenon that serves as a prolific and recurring threat? If P/S/E threats have existed for millennia, how did humanity combat/contain/placate the more pernicious instances (cthulhus; ancient astronauts) before the advent of modern technology?

Where does the name "Black Chamber" come from? Is it an actual chamber?

If so, what's in it?
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« Reply #7 on: September 23, 2012, 04:40:01 AM »

Exegesis

How much latitude can player characters expect when executing their superiors' directives? In metagame terms, how free are the players to dictate the course of mission-based objectives? How high/low in the Black Chamber hierarchy can PCs expect to progress?

Career agents are given significant latitude in completing their missions. Directives usually take the form of simple commands, so as long as the agents stay within the general parameters (e.g. limiting collateral damage, avoiding witnesses, not identifying themselves as Westerners), the higher-ups rarely bother to micromanage. However, if they make a critical failure, such as sparing a target they were supposed to assassinate or causing a public spectacle, then the Chamber is all too happy to get involved.

I’m envisioning player progress stopping somewhere just below the Deputy Directors; they’d have subordinates, but not calling the shots in a broad, long-term way.

Exegesis

What is the life-expectancy of the average career agent? What about field agents?

Career agents actually have fairly long life-expectancies, provided they don’t to anything to get themselves marked for liquidation. The Black Chamber sees every asset, every additional person who must know of its existence, who’ve received their enhancements, as an investment, so they don’t want them dying before they’ve reaped the benefits. While they may get to reanimate an agent’s corpse and harvest their ghost for ectoplasm, neither is as useful to the Directors as a living, breathing agent. With access to bleeding-edge technologies and all sorts of strange magics, it’s possible for agents to recover from otherwise-fatal injuries after weeks, even days, of intensive treatment. When the Chamber wants you alive, they’ll keep you alive. In-office rumors circulate about agent’s who’ve been immolated, dismembered, or decapitated…only to be seen again with no visible injuries. Of course, such experimental treatments come with a price: agents have been known to develop exotic cancers and alien maladies, but far more common side-effects are the psychological disorders. Dying is, after all, an extremely traumatic experience. Affiliated personnel, well, they’re rarely as lucky.

Exegesis

How often are they or their loved ones threatened when they are not actively pursuing the Black Chamber's agenda? Do agents develop a meaningful community from which they can draw a sense of camaraderie and reward?

By the Chamber itself, not often. Studies have shown that the effectiveness of threatening assets or their loved ones exponentially decreases after the first instance. Just knowing what the agency is capable of is usually more than enough to squash any thoughts of defecting or going public.

Of course, if the agents make a personal enemy in the Directorate, they may find themselves threatened by them or their proxy agencies. The 17th Directorate shows even less concern for human life than the Black Chamber, if such a thing is possible, so while assassinations on the Chamber’s home turf may be rare, they are always serious.

The most imminent threat is from the entities the Chamber combats and/or exploits. While agents are encouraged to maintain a family to create a semblance of normality and foster a healthy mental state, they are also warned that, should their extra-normal enemies discover them, their spouses, friends, and children can and will be used against them. And, should they be compromised, they are a mess the agents are expected to clean up themselves.

There is a thriving, if paranoid and macabre, office culture within the Black Chamber. It’s a mix of patriotism, professional pride, and ‘us against the world’ brotherhood. They have their own slang and jargon (which I still have to develop). In the event of an agent’s death or transmutation, his or her fellows will often take care of any surviving loved ones. Chamber policy indirectly encourages this behavior, of only because marrying your best friend’s widow limits the likelihood of a leak.

Exegesis

Does the Black Chamber itself (specifically the Directors) uphold Western capitalist principles, or is its opposition to communism purely an accident of geography?

That varies from Director to Director, but their subordinates get the impression that they cling to democracy and capitalism as broad cultural memes rather than their underlying principles: e.g. the Directors’ apparent disregard for civil liberties, personal freedom, human dignity, etc. The West is their base of power; to lose that, or to see it fall under an oppressive regime they have influence in, is simply unacceptable. Part of it is also driven by apparently-personal grudges against the equally-shadowy leaders of their Communist opposites.

The rest to come soon (as they require a lot more thought put into them) and I might flesh some of these out more later.
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« Reply #8 on: September 23, 2012, 05:30:55 AM »

Some substantial and compelling responses. The more I read the more I want to see.
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« Reply #9 on: September 23, 2012, 01:54:14 PM »

Exegesis

Are there any Illuminati with influence approaching that of the Chamber or the 17th Directorate?

After they uncovered evidence that several Illuminati groups had manipulated both the Axis and Allied Powers with the intent of causing an apocalyptic war, the Black Chamber spearheaded an enormous purge of the United States government. Under the pretext of fighting Communist infiltration, suspected Illuminati were rounded up, taken to secret detention facilities in the Northwestern US, interrogated using the most cutting-edge techniques, and summarily liquidated.
While the Illuminati cannot hope to match any of the governmental agencies in terms of raw funding, logistics, or manpower, they are still a serious threat. They are more agile, streamlined, their leadership often decentralized to the point that it is impossible to ‘pull them up by the root’ and destroy them wholesale. While the sheer variety of occult they have access to often pale in comparison to the Chamber or Directorate, they usually possess a much better understanding of what they’re working with, In modern times, most maintain the façade of an exclusive political party, fraternity, corporation, religious movement, think tank, etc.

Sometime soon, I’ll give a more complete breakdown for them, but here’s a few of possible names to whet your appetite: the Bavarian Philosophers, the Tūllab, the Thulist Catholic Church, the Underhill Institute, the Argentinian Expats.

And as an aside here, I’m thinking there’d be more than just the Black Chamber and the 17th Directorate. Maoist China’s definitely got an agency of its own, probably with a disproportionately-heavy emphasis on collective-psionics and gestalt phenomena, as well as a total rejection of anything ‘traditional’. Japan and Israel probably have their own agencies as well, both nominal allies of the Black Chamber, though this partnership is a perpetually-strained one.

Exegesis

If P/S/E threats have existed for millennia, how did humanity combat/contain/placate the more pernicious instances (cthulhus; ancient astronauts) before the advent of modern technology?

There have been organizations like the Black Chamber throughout human history, though they were usually far more limited in range and capability. There are records in the Chamber archives to suggest that at the height of its expansion, Rome had a special wing of its Legion devoted to waging invisible war against the unnatural forces it encountered; this includes the various pseudo-human cultures described in classical bestiaries, such as the Cynocephali and Anthropophagi. Most great empires that came after had similar secret organizations. Like their ultimate successors, they often utilized the occult as a weapon against the occult, though usually in a far more limited way. The ugly truth of pre-modern OCCINTEL was that entities that they could not destroy outright were either offered some sort of appeasement or simply avoided altogether. These societies were (obviously) successful at keeping humanity as a whole from being wiped out: what really sets the Black Chamber and its ilk apart is the extent to which they exploit and reverse-engineer the occult for their own purposes.

Exegesis

Where does the name "Black Chamber" come from? Is it an actual chamber?

If so, what's in it?

Haha, I’m glad my idea-poaching isn’t as obvious as I’d feared it would be.

I got the name Black Chamber from The Laundry Files, where it’s the ultra-shady, morally-bankrupt American antagonist to the plucky, extraordinarily-British Laundry. In turn, Charles Stross borrowed the nickname of a defunct WWI-era intelligence service, the Cipher Bureau. The French term cabinet noir refers to an office where intercepted mail is read, which I think is a totally mundane agenda for any group with such a menacing name.

But now you’ve got me thinking. Maybe there is an actual ‘Black Chamber’ hidden in the labyrinthine bowels of Washington DC, an invisible room built with strange geometries. Maybe it’s where the Directors or their proxies gather. I’ll have to give the idea more thought.

I'm still working on your last question.

I was also curious if you had any questions/comments about the sort of experiments and procedures the Chamber conducts on its agents. While the mention was brief, I'm planning on it being a fairly important aspect of the setting. In metagame terms, they'd both provide characters with limited supernatural powers and provide an explanation for abilities well in excess of human norms. Think Jason Bourne on vampire blood.
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« Reply #10 on: September 23, 2012, 02:42:26 PM »

Quote

The Black Chamber also battles paranormal, supernatural, and extraterrestrial threats, especially those that analysts consider existential threats to the human race…or worse, to democracy.
I'd be interested in hearing more about any sub-groups or specializations in the Black Chamber, if you're looking for something else to write about it.

Quote

Of course, such experimental treatments come with a price: agents have been known to develop exotic cancers and alien maladies, but far more common side-effects are the psychological disorders.
That's a cute detail.
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« Reply #11 on: September 23, 2012, 10:20:24 PM »

When an agent is resurrected, do they remember being dead (as distinct from the dying process)? Are there any significant advantages/disadvantages to experiencing death? Can a person be brought back to life after their soul has been tortured? If so, does it change them in horrifying ways? Does liquidation refer to ectoplasmic harvest?

Does the Chamber ever use children or the mentally infirm? If so, to what end? Does it ever recruit from the Illuminati? What special toys did the Nazi scientists bring to the table? Do any of them have divided allegiances?

Even though the Chamber doesn't use psycho-programming to ensure agent secrecy (so you claim), what kinds of psycho-programming might they apply to agents? Do agents get to choose how/when they are "enhanced"? Do such enhancements make them more/less subject to P/S/E attention? Do any of these enhancements have minds of their own? Do these enhancements ever "accidentally" transform agents into monsters? Are potential risks disclosed beforehand? How does an enhanced agent measure up against a typical P/S/E threat, mano-a-mano?

How does the Chamber keep surveillance on its agents? Who watches the watchers?

Are there any ancient pseudo-human cultures at large today? How has the P/S/E rogues gallery (particularly the cthulhus, and deities if they exist) responded to the advent of atomic power? Are any of them taking concrete steps to prevent/instigate nuclear war?

Is a Black Chamber contract written on A) paper B) stone C) human skin D) the agent's own soul? Is it a spiritually binding contract or simply a formality? Are there any P/S/E entities that recognise the legitimacy of such a contract?

Have there been any profound cosmological revelations in the past 60 years?
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« Reply #12 on: September 23, 2012, 10:35:09 PM »

I'll answer all of them when I can get to a computer , but damn, Exegesis, you know exactly the right sort of questions to ask.
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« Reply #13 on: September 23, 2012, 10:41:43 PM »

Glad they're of use.
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« Reply #14 on: September 23, 2012, 10:43:00 PM »

Also, for the sake of brevity and because P/S/E would be incredibly clunky to say, the Chamber uses the term ENE (extra-normal entity) as the broadest possible term for all PARA, SUPER, and EXTRA they encounter. In-office terms include Strangers, Outsiders, Others, Ennie (used as a name, a la 'Jerry'), and the esoteric TTSNB (pronounced tits-nab), short for “Things That Should Not Be”.
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