Sunday, 16 October 2016

Not Quite Review Corner: Invisible, Inc (iPad)

I've mentioned Klei's Invisible, Inc before, but until now it's always been a PC and PS4 title. It recently popped up on the iStore for $4.99 and, as Hurricane Nicole bore down on the island, I thought it was as good a time as any to give it a whirl. I played this on iPad Air 32 GB, so not the most recent model; performance-wise, I have no complaints.

If you've already played this or read the previous review then you know the basics, but to briefly reiterate: this is a stealth turn-based strategy roguelike with cyberpunk elements, in which you play a team of highly trained corporate spies on the run, trying to find out why your agency got smashed by the corporations while at the same time saving your powerful Artificial Intelligence, Incognita. Think of it like Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents, except the enemies are powerful megacorps with private armies at their disposal, not vampires.

Its basic release in May 2015 gave you the game, several unlockable agents and hours of fun. The November 2015 DLC Contingency Plan gave you several more agents, a ton of new items and equipment, and increased gameplay considerably with two new custom missions and several extra basic missions. I've played Contingency Plan to death on PC; in fact as the iPad release surfaced I was already on Day 16 of an Endless Expert run, so my people were about as skilled and as tooled up as it is possible to be.

It came as a little bit of a shock to discover that the iPad release includes just basic game content. Oddly, when Contingency Plan came out I didn't think it added much to the game. It took this release to make me realize just how much the DLC brought to the experience. On iPad it seems a shorter, less fulfilling title without the DLC content. I also realized that, without the Contingency Plan stuff, a shorter game means less of a challenge since you never encounter any of the tougher enemies in campaign mode. You'd have to go to Endless for that. There are several new agents only available on Contingency Plan that won't be available here, and all the side missions I'd come to expect - retrieving drones, hacking software laboratories, retrieving Invisible's data, raiding power vaults - are gone.

I played through one story campaign in Expert on iPad, and it was a lot of fun. It might be shorter, and that may mean it's not as much fun as the expanded Contingency Plan version, but it's still one of the best turn-based games out there. I was sweating bullets by the end, using up all the toys I'd saved to get my people to the final scene, and more than once I was convinced I'd completely screwed myself and lost the game. Particularly since, as this was basic, I hadn't the time to get any of the really powerful toys, which meant that any enemy with better that Armor 1 could have my agents for breakfast spread over a nice bagel.

A few things struck me. First, this game kills batteries. One level used, on average, about 30% of my battery life. Two levels would have me reaching for my charger.  If I were going on a long journey or thought I wasn't going to be able to charge my device, I wouldn't touch this game. When the hurricane knocked my power out, for instance, I immediately stopped playing and didn't touch it again until power was restored.

At first I thought I would need a Wi-Fi connection to make this work which, since Hurricane Nicole was bearing down on me, would mean I couldn't play. Not so; it works fine offline. It takes a while to load. I'd guesstimate maybe a minute and a half, at most, between boot and play. Given the complexity of the title I'm not surprised.

I wouldn't try this on a phone. Things got very busy on my screen, and more than once I really couldn't tell what was going on without juggling the screen a few different directions and squinting. Moreover there are times when two enemies would sit on the same square and I really couldn't tell which was which; very annoying when those two enemies are hackable drones, but I only want to hack one of them. I dread to think what the experience would be like on a smaller screen.

I used finger rather than stylus as a control, and on reflection I really wish I used a stylus. Maybe it's just me, but I think that might have given me better control. That said, gameplay was smooth and I never once made a disastrous mistake through fat-fingering.

It's almost but not quite the same game on iOS as it is PC. There are some gameplay changes, and I noticed two which may have a significant effect on your experience:

First, enemy drones have slightly different behavior patterns when hacked. In the PC version hacked drones can open doors and, if armed, shoot things, but other than that they have no function. In the iOS version hacked drones can also manipulate switches and apparently gather items, though I didn't have many chances to test that last part.

Several levels depend on you doing certain things in certain areas. In the detention center level, for example, you have to hack a control panel, manipulate that panel to open the cell door, and then guide the prisoner out. Usually this means you have to send an agent in to the control panel, but if a drone can do that job it can change the way you deal with the level. You don't have to send an agent in, thus possibly alerting the captain of the guard. The drone can do all the really dangerous bits while your agents sit outside, probably distracting the captain by opening doors and running away, a cybernetic version of Knock, Knock, Ginger.

Moreover if they can gather items then they can empty safes, which would make bank robbery much easier. I didn't have many chances to test this theory, but it's worth trying.

Second, at least one and probably more items have changed slightly. I'm talking about the Invisibility Cloak, but I wouldn't be surprised if other items changed too and I didn't notice.

The Invisibility Cloak in the original came in three versions: Basic, Cloak II and Cloak III. Basic lasts for three or four squares of movement, I misremember which, and then fades. Cloak II lasts the full turn, and then fades. Cloak III lasts two full turns and then fades. You need to have a certain base level of Speed before you can use the advanced Cloaks, and even Basic needs a higher Speed than your agents usually start with.

In the iPad version all's the same, except for Cloak III. This time Cloak III only lasts for one turn, not two, but the kicker is that when activated it generates a small cloaking field around your agent, allowing you to make more than one friendly target invisible. They don't have to stay chained together either; once invisible no matter where they go they stay invisible for the rest of that turn or until they attack.

This came in very handy in the final encounter. Shalem and Monster were cut off from the rest of the group, and the enemy were closing in. Decker had Cloak III ready. He ran in through the enemy, activated it next to Shalem and Monster, and all three of them sprinted past the guards, Decker frantically gobbling Stims for extra move boost. They still needed a smoke bomb from Internationale on the next turn, otherwise the guards would have nailed them. But without that first turn of invisibility, the team would have failed right away.

Understand, these are only two changes I noticed. I'd bet there's others I didn't spot. That said the core game is basically the same as it was when Invisible, Inc first launched in 2015. Tweaked certainly, but not fundamentally altered.

Do I recommend this title? Yes. If you like turn-based strategy with roguelike elements and a high degree of stealth gameplay, this is a must-purchase. I'd warn you to watch your battery life, but apart from that, enjoy!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Haunted Doll's House (M.R. James)

I've been asked to contribute to a ghost story evening later this week and for inspiration I've turned to an old favorite: M.R. James' The Haunted Doll's House. It's been one of my favorites for so many years now I can't remember when or where I first read it, but I've read it many times since then.

It's not considered one of James' best. First published in 1923, it was intended as a gift of sorts for Queen Mary, to be added to her magnificent period doll's house built in the early 1920s and exhibited around the country as an example of superlative English craftsmanship. The house included a perfect replica library in 1:12 scale, with each book being an actual book, with a story, in miniature. James later included it in later collections of his work and it's been reprinted since elsewhere.

For me, what gives it juice is its combination of the peculiar with the mundane. There can be nothing so ordinary as a doll's house, yet this particular example is anything but ordinary. To my knowledge nobody's ever tried to replicate the haunted doll's house in fiction, though there are plenty of stories about ghastly toys, including dolls, of one kind or another. It's almost as unique as a story as it is an item.

I notice, as an aside, that more than a few people have built 'haunted doll's houses.' I approve!

There's a line early on that catches me every time, and if you haven't already read the story then I suggest you do so now as I'm about to enter into spoiler territory:

The curtains of the four-poster in the bedroom were closely drawn round all four sides of it, and he put his finger in between them and felt in the bed. He drew the finger back hastily, for it almost seemed to him as if something had – not stirred, perhaps, but yielded – in an odd live way as he pressed it. Then he put back the curtains, which ran on rods in the proper manner, and extracted from the bed a white-haired old gentleman in a long linen night-dress and cap, and laid him down by the rest. The tale was complete.

A lovely bit of sense-horror. There can be few people who haven't had something like that happen at some point in their lives: you reach out a hand, or it might be a foot, and come into contact with something you weren't expecting. In Bermuda, it's usually cockroaches. You might be sat in a chair at night, working on something, only to feel the faintest of touches, almost a brush, at your feet. Or you stretch half-asleep and your hand comes into contact with something furry. Not stirred, perhaps, but yielded - as in giving way, as though you were expecting to find something solid and instead met with something decidedly more fleshy.

There are aspects of that story which hook me yet, but puzzle me too. James repeats a motif again and again, of the clock striking one in the morning just before something dire happens. I don't think he picked that time at random. It can't be pure coincidence; no, James knew some bit of folklore tied to that hour. I don't know what it is and Funk & Wagnall's fails me this time. It may well have something to do with the death's watch beetle or some obscure piece of lore.

The idea of the story repeating itself, again and again, so that others can see it is one that appears in many ghost stories. James plays with it several times, most notably in the Mezzotint, but I've always had a soft spot for the Story of a Disappearance and a Reappearance, in which Punch and Judy play a prominent part. In that instance the repetition is meant as a message for a particular person, but in Doll's House the message, if there is one, is broadcast into the void.

I note that in that story too the one o'clock theme returns. One of these days I really must find out what James meant.

I've discussed hauntings here before, in the context of Trail and Bookhounds. I'm going to quote something from Seabrook's book on Haiti that I feel is relevant:

Obediently, like an animal, he slowly stood erect - and what I saw then, coupled with what I heard previously, or despite it, came as rather a sickening shock. The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it ... I remembered - and my mind seized the memory as a man sinking in water clutches a solid plank - the face of a dog I had once seen in the histological laboratory in Columbia. Its entire front brain had been removed in an experimental operation weeks before; it moved about, it was alive, but its eyes were like the eyes I now saw staring.

To my mind ghosts of this type are like the zombie, in that they lack anything like a motive force. They exist, and they go on existing, but without an animating will to direct it the ghost knocks about like a bull in a china shop, committing random acts of horror without the slightest redeeming element. In Disappearance the horrific Punch and Judy act is at least intended to warn a relative about the crime that saw his uncle killed. In Doll's House the specter is utterly without target or moral; the punishment, if punishment it is, was dealt with long ago and only the aftershocks remain, like the flash after a roll of titanic thunder.

When I discussed hauntings in Trail before, it was in the context of actual places. Yet this story shows that a Trail haunting could as easily be used with models, or toys. Some very beautiful working models, for example, were built as toys but architects use models too, as proof of concept. This applies to ships just as much as houses; the Queen's House in Greenwich, London, for example, has an excellent collection of period architectural ship models.

With all that in mind:

Doll's House (c.1778)

Strawberry Hill Gothic mansion house with attached chapel, and garden area in separate pull-out storage under the house. Includes period fixtures and fittings, and a dozen models including a man, a woman, a child, two grooms and several horses, among others. Slight damage to the roof and some scuff marks on the interior. No missing pieces. Model includes complete inventory of all fixtures, fittings and dolls, written by the original owner, a relative of General John Burgoyne. Projected value at auction: eighty pounds. 

An extra horse and carriage has been known to appear as part of the set, but only at night. Megapolisomancers often seek out models like these to use in their workings, but the only known attempt in this particular case to use the house as part of a ritual ended with the death of the participant. The last three owners of the house all sold it on at auction shortly after the death, or miscarriage, of a child. Interestingly, the extra horse and carriage has several models, all children, inside the carriage.

That's it for now!

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Blue Film Racket (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London)

I thought I'd go back to Bookhounds of London this week and its Sordid side in particular, borrowing from Fabian of the Yard to fashion a scenario idea.

"Vice is like mustard," says Fabian, "The more you eat of it, the more you need before you can taste anything at all. And for such clientele, there are the Secret Cinemas, and the particular, peculiar, plush-seated and dimly lit underworld ... The patrons pay five pounds. The room is dimly lit. Free drinks tinkle on a tray. Then the lights go out and a film show begins that would turn the censor purple if he knew. But he doesn't know. Usually the film is a 16-mm, smuggled in from the Continent, or photographed behind locked doors, to be shown in London's underworld cinemas. There are at least a dozen such secret studios in London today where films of this type can be seen."

Then moving to Fabian's jeremiad on Satanic practices:

"If sinful cinemas are not enough, there are practitioners of evil who will arrange to raise the Devil himself to be your sulphurous nocturnal playmate! The practice of Black Magic - of diabolical religious rites in the heart of London - is spreading steadily. There is more active Satan worship today than ever since the Dark Ages, when witches were publicly burned on Tower Hill ... Some firmly believe the world is a battleground between God and Satan, and if they declare themselves with the Devil, he will aid their success in life, and even a certain amount of comfort in Hell, with the chance of being reborn periodically as leaders of worldly wickedness. Others - perhaps the majority - attend a Black Mass to see a cheap thrill. They have heard of obscene ceremonies - naked girl priestesses - blood sacrifices of cats and goats - lewd flagellation and evil drums."

Now here's something interesting about a Temple of Satanism that Fabian alleges operated in his London:

"There is a house in Lancaster Gate that consists of one-room flatlets. The landlord and his wife occupy the ground floor and basement. Each room has a covered wash-bowl, a rather dispirited bed, a slot-meter gas fire, rickety table and two wooden chairs. The landlord's wife dabbles in spiritualism, sometimes holds private séances. Her husband is an amateur herbalist. Their flatlets are seldom taken for more than a few days. They are too dingy and untended to be comfortable. Guests come and go. Among them come and go the Satanists. Down in the cellar is a small doorway - probably at one time it was a fireplace. It leads through to the house whose walls adjoin it. The front door of this house faces onto an entirely different street. It is privately owned, and, from its cellar, stairs go up to an old-fashioned service lift-shaft, up which a spiral metal staircase ascends and stops at a sliding door, padded wit black felt. Beyond this door is a private Temple of Satanism!"

When I discussed Fabian before I mentioned I was unhappy with him as a factual source. I still am. There's just too much sensation-stirring here for Fabian to be believable. That said, an unreliable source has its uses so long as that source is of the era. I wouldn't touch Fabian if he'd been writing in the 1970s about the 1920s, but he wasn't. He was writing in the 1950s about the 1940s and 1930s. He talks in the voice of his time about the concerns of his time. If you write period fiction you need to capture that voice, and if that means reading a load of old whallop that's fine, so long as it's period whallop.

In Bookhounds of London there are at least two syndicates or societies that would get involved in the blue film trade: the Hsieh-Tzu Fan with its Soho stronghold, and Keirechires with its interest in sexual crime and pornography. I'm going to write this from the perspective of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan, and start with Brown Finger Johnny.

John Draper, aka Brown-Finger.
Athletics 4, Conceal 6, Electrical Repair 3, Fleeing 8, Health 5, Mechanical Repair 3
Academic specialty: Photography
Description: disheveled, always wears brown overcoat, persistent shaving cuts, fingers stained brown from film development chemicals and nicotine.
Notes: low-level subordinate of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan in charge of production and distribution of blue films.

Brown-Finger replaced Queenie Sutton as head of Soho's blue film racket a few years ago, when Queenie's place was raided by the police. Brown-Finger's supposed to be fantastically wealthy but you wouldn't know it to look at him. They say his continued success is due to friends on the Vice Squad, but he certainly has friends somewhere or one of the other racketeers would have claimed his territory long ago.

In the opening scene Brown-Finger approaches the protagonists with a proposition. He needs a new location for one of his secret cinemas. This is a completely new line for him, because the films he'll show aren't just porn; it's Satanic themed blue films. In the Devil's Bondage, New Flesh to the Altar, Her First Time, and more. All he needs is space. He'll provide the rest.

The protagonists either say yes or no at this point.

If they say no, then Brown-Finger gets his friends on the Vice Squad to pay the protagonists a visit. The Vice Squad cops search the place from top to bottom, making a mess and a lot of noise, scaring off customers. If by some chance the protagonists have anything in the shop worthy of the Vice Squad's attention then they may find themselves in gaol. Otherwise this is just a strong-arm attempt, and after the Vice Squad's paid the shop a visit Brown-Finger shows up. He's very sorry this happened, but he can offer a solution. Work with him, let him set up a cinema, and the Vice Squad problem will go away.

If they keep saying no then the Vice Squad start turning up at their homes as well, or stopping them in the street or in public. A few incidents like this and the shop will suffer a Reversal. Once the shop suffers a Reversal, assuming the protagonists still say no Brown-Finger will leave them alone. He has other prospects.

Should the protagonists still say no and follow up on Brown Finger's schemes, everything happens as per Yes except it happens to a rival book store. The protagonists can opt to help or hurt this store as they see fit.

If they say yes then Brown-Finger shows up with a van full of furniture - mostly leather chairs - some bottles of booze, and the film projector. The idea is to show these films for a small paying audience, maybe eight to ten at a time, three times a week. Brown-Finger pockets the cash, paying a small amount to the protagonists "for your trouble." Brown-Finger takes the lion's share. Brown-Finger doesn't need a lot of space to set this up. He could easily work in an attic or cellar, but if that isn't suitable then he's happy to draw the curtains in the main room and work there. He just needs privacy. Most of the time Brown-Finger won't be there; he sends an assistant, Sneery Harry, to run the projector, collect the cash and serve the drinks.

The clients are a mixed bag. They all have money; Brown-Finger wouldn't be interested if they didn't. Some are respectable middle-class types, whose reputations would be ruined if word of this were to get out. Some are much less respectable, but none of them are out-and-out criminals. A tight group of hard-core customers, the ones who come back week after week, want to become Satanists and think this is one way in.

The films are nasty stuff, and showcase plenty of S&M, gore and occultism. However there's a strong Mythos element too, and protagonists with Cthulhu Mythos may recognize some of the 'demons' as Mythos entities. Ghouls and Deep Ones make frequent appearances. At the Keeper's discretion these films may grant Cthulhu Mythos gains.

The films are all shot at the same location. The Knowledge and repeated viewing can work out where it could be, judging by clues left in the prints by careless editors and cameramen. However this only determines in which district - North, West, East, South, the City - the films were shot. Streetwise and Occult are needed after that to work out exactly where the temple is, and this phase of the investigation involves several visits to the seedier sides of London. Informants are likely to be Rough Lads, Prostitutes, Loungers, Beggars and Bright Young Things. Sneery Harry, if the protagonists lean on him, resists Intimidation - he knows Brown-Finger can hurt him far more than a bunch of booksellers ever could - but Flattery works wonders and Shadowing is Difficulty 4, or 3 if he's been drinking. This phase of the investigation will almost certainly involve an Antagonist Reaction from those 'demons' seen earlier, unless the protagonists are exceptionally discreet.

The final showdown is at the temple, which proves to be a well-disguised stronghold in the City. As described above, the actual entrance is via a block of 'flats' though the temple itself is in the building next door. The Satanists who stay in the flats are all cultists keeping watch over the place, and the two rooming house owners are senior members of the Satanist ring who may know some Mythos magic. Brown-Finger doesn't get involved in this side of the business; it's far above his pay grade. He shoots the films and makes sure they get an audience, but anything other than that is for actual members of Hsieh-Tzu Fan. Combat here is mostly with mooks, but if the protagonists want to avoid getting their heads kicked in they can get the police involved instead, as long as they can bypass the crooked members of the Vice Squad and get hard evidence about the porn ring. (He says with no double-entendre intended.)

If the protagonists do anything to seriously jeopardize this source of income, Hsieh-Tzu Fan will mark them down as enemies to be destroyed. Thus kicking off a whole new series of scenarios, I suspect.

That's it for this week! Talk soon.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Not Quite Review Corner: Batman (Telltale, iPad)

Batman took off as a video game property back in 2009, with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum. There had been Batman games before, but no company before Rocksteady succeeded so thoroughly in making the player feel like the Dark Knight, in an adventure exactly like one of the Caped Crusader's grimmer tales. Not quite Alan Moore, but a passable Alan Grant. It spawned a succession of solid sequels, most of which - even the bad ones - were well received commercially.

Back in 2012 Telltale Games, a company that made a decent living but no significant reputation with episodic adventure games, confounded all expectations with The Walking Dead, an adaptation of the comic series by Robert Kirkman. Like Arkham Asylum, The Walking Dead shot to everybody's Top Ten or Game of the Year lists on release. It also spawned a ton of sequels, most of which were solidly put together even when they didn't match the emotional pull of the first game. Since then Telltale parlayed its newfound glory into a string of impressive hits, not least of which was The Wolf Among Us, an adaptation of a hit DC Vertigo series, Fables.

It was only a matter of time before Telltale gave Batman the episodic game treatment, and once it did it was bound to come out for iPad just as its other titles have. It just did, and these last few days I've been giving the first episode, Realm of Shadows, a shot on my iPad Air.

There are two questions to answer here:

Does it work as a Batman title?

Does it work as an iPad game?

The short answers are Not Entirely, and Absolutely Not.

As a Batman title it flows well. It suffers from Too Many Characters syndrome, probably because it's trying to pump as much Batman cred as it can in a short play time. I finished the title in a little under two hours, in which time we met Harvey Dent aka Two Face - before his unfortunate accident - the Penguin, Catwoman, Carmine Falcone, Detective (not yet Commissioner) Gordon, Vicky Vale, and probably Scarecrow, though that last awaits confirmation. Fewer references would have made for a better plot. But there's a decent balance between action and thoughtful crime-solving, and it really benefits from focusing on Bruce Wayne rather than his caped alter ego.

As a brief aside: it's a mature title, but all that really means is occasionally Selina Kyle says 'shit.' Because maturity is all about the swearwords.

That said, the big problem is that if you know the series at all, any tension is immediately lost. Telltale has a habit of making you feel as though every choice you make in-game is important - even though it often isn't so - yet knowing who these people are and what happens to them robs all the decisions of any impact. You know that Harvey Dent will become Two Face, so you don't care whether or not you make nice with him; whatever you do he's still going to get his face melted and become a villain. Equally you know it doesn't matter whether you choose to help Commissioner Gordon or Vicky Vale, since both of them will be your ally. There's no chance that Gordon or Vale will turn on you, and it won't matter too much if you upset one by helping the other.

Spoiler territory: the best example of this is the Wayne problem. In the first episode it's revealed that Thomas and Martha Wayne may have been in cahoots with the crime bosses that run Gotham, Falcone in particular. As a plot twist it seems powerful: Batman gets his whole motivation, and the money he needs to fight crime, from his parents, and if they turn out to have feet of bloodstained clay then the whole thing's upended. But you know full well Telltale will never stick to that, and even if it was tempted DC would pull the plug. No; the Waynes will turn out to be the sainted martyrs they've always been. My money's on the Wayne Corporation executive who turns up briefly at the Dent fundraiser, and later at the Arkham Asylum ceremony.

Personally as far as long-term plot goes I predict something like this: Penguin set Falcone up for the fall, using Catwoman to do it. Either Penguin or Falcone brought Scarecrow on board - hence the peculiar psycho gas that turns up in the crime scene - for reasons as yet unknown, but probably unpleasant. Penguin seems to be the long-term opponent, but things could change.

Moreover there are very few opportunities to be Batman. There are moments when you leap into action, but the game's rigged so that you never really fail. In only one instance does a bad button press result in Game Over; usually it just means you're not quite as cool as the real thing. Telltale's strength is in emotional strife, not combat, and it shows.

Which is why it doesn't work as an iPad game either.

The iPad touchscreen controls just aren't precise enough to make for a really compelling combat sim. More often than not the button prompt will come up for the quicktime event, you'll stab the screen like a chimp on a caffeine high, and your response will be off or mistimed or whatever it may be. End result: just not as cool as the real thing, just not as cool as the real thing, just not as cool as the real thing. Again and again and again. I don't doubt this worked like magic on consoles, but the iPad doesn't respond well to the chimp stab treatment.

Dishearteningly, it doesn't matter what you do. You'll still win. Granted you'll feel like an idiot and the little Bat-meter at the bottom of the screen, which does nothing except shatter your ego, will not fill up. But you'll still win. For a game all about power wish fulfillment, it robs you of power while at the same time fulfilling no wishes.

Is it worth getting? Ehhh ... if you're a Batman completest, sure. If you're just looking for some iPad fun, pass. I'd recommend The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us over this any day of the week.

See you next Sunday!

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Tweety Bird and the Bug Zapper (Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired by two recent news articles about stun guns and birds of prey.

The number of stun guns seized by British border police has increased by 70% over the last year, according to a recent Guardian article. The devices, which are illegal in the United Kingdom, are often brought in by criminals seeking to avoid more serious gun possession charges, but are sometimes 'smuggled' by accident as tourists buy novelty items, like stun guns disguised as mobile phones, without thinking of the consequences.

Meanwhile Dutch police are training birds of prey to bring down drones, again according to a Guardian piece. The birds have been tested over the last few years and the tests have been successful. The trained eagles bring down the drones like featherless pigeons, and though less tasty than their usual prey the eagles have a 100% success rate and no injuries.

In Night's Black Agents the use of stun guns is not precisely discouraged, but not welcomed with open arms either. 'Whatever other effects they may have,' say the main rules, on page 62, 'Tasers also short-circuit combat scenes, and turn fights into one-shot beats. In other words, tasers are boring.'  Of course on that same page the authors also say 'they're invaluable investigative tools in those minor excursions that precede [the climactic confrontation].'

It's a tricky balance. The problem is mechanical. Guns and other weapons do damage directly to Health; lose enough of it, and you fall over. It's a mechanic that's served us well since the first Fighter met the first Orc in a ten by ten room. Stun guns ignore that whole system by not doing damage to Health at all, instead producing a specific effect instantaneously. At least D&D let you have a saving throw, but in NBA it's zap-crackle-thump. It's like giving all wizards the Fireball spell right from the start.

Theoretically the Thriller Combat rules negate this by giving the skilled combatant extra tools to play with. If Woody Allen with a stun gun goes up against Schwarzenegger, the mighty Governator can Jump In and then Disarm, or Extra Attacks, or whatever else will pound Allen into hamburger before he gets a zap off. If the Governator's MOS happens to be Hand to Hand all the better, though knowing him his MOS is probably Shooting. Allen can't do much about this since his Weapons pool is, if anything, -3. His Athletics may be even lower.

Arguably in these circumstances a taser makes fights more interesting, not boring, because it ups the stakes. Suddenly your martial arts expert who was breezing through the fight has to think about what happens next.

However I've yet to encounter a player whose mastery of the combat rules is up to that task. More often than not the player doesn't know everything her character is capable of, and there's an element of deer-in-headlights the minute it becomes a Contest. This shouldn't be an issue with experienced players, but you can hardly give a group access to everything up to and including Hellfire missiles and then say 'No! You can't use the stun guns till you're experienced!'

The stun gun problem becomes even more of a conundrum when you consider that the police carry tasers. The UK police often use them, as do the French, and while less common elsewhere in Europe many of the European police forces have them. It's pointless pretending the players wouldn't have access to tasers, not when the characters get a free Glock with their Weetabix every morning.

On the flip side, players using stun guns against, say, vampires should get short shrift, and not just because tasering Dracula and then pounding pointy bits of wood into the Vampire Lord's quivering flesh - paging Doctor Freud, I say again, paging Doctor Freud - lacks drama. Tasers work on human biology, and the whole point is that biology is no longer an issue for vampires.

But there's that mechanical problem again. In game Vampires have Health like the rest of us. Hit 'em, shoot 'em, stab 'em and eventually they fall down. It takes a lot of effort, but it can be done. So if they're vulnerable to weapons, what makes tasers any different?

In those circumstances the best defense is a good offense. Specifically, an offense that doesn't let the characters get a shot off. Vampires didn't get to where they are today by letting a bunch of jumped-up monkeys take command of the combat arena. Distortion, Temporal Distortion, Vampiric Speed, Apportation, all make tasers a bit irrelevant. Moreover I'd argue that any Regeneration or Strength ability means whatever effect a taser might have is immediately negated as soon as the ability kicks in. Get in, wash yourself in the blood of your enemies, rinse, repeat.

All that said, would I encourage taser use in my game? Well ... yes.

While I agree with the concern that tasers make hand to hand fights less cinematic, I'd say that concern is over-hyped. I'd also say that there are mechanical ways around the problem, like Regeneration, or by using Aberrance (possibly combined with Strength) to overcome the effect. Finally I'd argue that in certain styles of game - Dust, Mirror - a means of knocking people out without permanent injury is extremely useful, and in keeping with the genre.

In The Prisoner, for instance, Number Six is knocked unconscious all the time; usually by gas, but then the taser hadn't really been invented yet, not in its current form. In fact the trope's borrowing from a very old pulp concept, the Mickey Finn. Sam Spade gets knocked out often by the old Mickey, as do all the pulp heroes. Turning to video games for a moment, in nearly all the Stealth genre titles - Thief, Dishonored, Deus Ex - there's some kind of sleep mechanic. Corvo has his darts, Adam Jensen his silenced sleep pistol and rifle, Garret his cudgel, bow and peculiar arrows. Heck, even Hitman, a series all about the killing, allows Agent 47 to knock out targets non-lethally.

In fact Stealth titles tend to have a mechanic that Night's Black Agents lacks; a hand-to-hand nonlethal takedown without the taser. There's an implicit assumption that combat must be lethal, an assumption that, I suspect, goes right back to that Orc in his ten by ten room. Yet most Stealth titles give out achievements by the bucketful for 'clean hands' Infiltration. Killing is implicitly discouraged, either by some hit to your character's karma or, as with Invisible Inc, by substantially increasing the difficulty of the infiltration with each kill.

So yes, I would allow the taser. I would encourage nonlethal takedowns, as they fit the setting and the genre. I'd up the Infiltration difficulty with each kill, and I'd probably invent new Achievements to encourage clean hands infiltration too, something like this:

Like A Ghost: complete the infiltration and exfiltration of a guarded facility requiring Difficulty 5 or higher Infiltration, without killing any guards or civilians on site. Refresh 3 points Infiltration.

Now let's turn to Tweety Bird.

When I first read that article my mind immediately turned to thoughts of bats, giant or otherwise, taking down drones. And lo, my heart grew warm with loving feelings. However it then occurred to me that I don't often see players use drones, at least not as efficiently as they could.

Now, this might be a geographic issue. I live in Bermuda; there aren't many drones here. There are some, and they do excellent work, but the fad really hasn't taken off the way it has in the States or Europe. So my players don't think of them as an option.

However there are plenty of examples, particularly in recent video games, of drones being used in ways I've not yet seen tabletop players emulate. Say, in Tactical Fact Finding Benefits or improvised Cooperative moves like this:

Military Science / Human Terrain and Mechanics / Surveillance: use a drone to scout ahead and tag potential targets and infiltration routes. Note that the benefit implicitly acknowledges there's more than one way to get the same effect.

Mind you, it also acknowledges that, as Director, I'm never sure whether a drone used this way counts as a Mechanics or Surveillance spend. I can see a good argument for Piloting too, but that just makes things even more complicated. On the whole I'd lean towards Mechanics.

A drone could also be used to spray an area with some kind of aerosol-based bane. This would probably be a Cooperative Mechanics/Vampirology, with a potentially devastating effect: imagine the vampire, having hidden itself in some inaccessible spot, emerging from its coffin only to get a squirt of holy water or similar right in the face.

Of course there's the more direct approach. Drones threaten airports all the time, hence the Dutch eagles. A private jet coming in to land could find itself taken out by an explosives-packed drone sucked right up into the engine.

Playing with the concept, there are those simplified inflatable fish drones. Picture a stealth kill in a crowded place, or a party, with one of those babies. It would have to be a very simple lightweight payload, probably some kind of contact poison spray, but for sheer cinematics you can't beat a flying fish killer. The target will never see it coming.

Then there's drone hacking. The Dutch, as mentioned in the article, have tried this but apparently it isn't as efficient as eagle hitmen. That said, an agency with government money to burn - like, say, Edom - has probably cracked that problem. I'd rate a drone hack at Difficulty 4 for commercial models, and 8 for military drones. At least, I devoutly hope it's 8 given the armament those things carry.

That's enough for this week. Enjoy!

Edit: ordinarily I don't update these, but in a Tweet this afternoon Ken Hite was kind enough to say:

'Nonlethal takedown is just HtH against a mook (Player-Facing Combat); drones use Piloting or Driving, Agents pick'

So the drone question is resolved.

Not as convinced ref: nonlethal, as treating it as basic HtH against a mook doesn't really fulfil the choke-hold visual you get from Stealth titles, which is what I'm struggling towards. It's a bit like the Outside Xbox three-ways-to-play videos; I'm aiming for a full Andy, and coming up with Jane, at best. Possibly Mike if things really go pear-shaped.

I'm tempted to use the Called Shot rules, but that can get very expensive very quickly which would make it pointless in mook combats. Still, a Called Shot Throat (from behind, to fulfil the cinematic requirement) would silence the target.

I think, reluctantly, that calling it pure hand-to-hand is the most practical approach, even if it doesn't scratch the itch. Pure HtH with an obligatory bit of technothriller monologue would be even better.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Believe In Magic (Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists)

You probably noticed an article that's been floating around these past few days about skeletons in Spain. For those who haven't: divers discovered a bag of human remains off the coast of Alicante, and when the police got involved several other dump sites were discovered. All contained skeletal remains, some contained personal items as well, and DNA tests showed that the weathered bones from the first bundle had been buried in soil for decades before being disinterred and dumped at sea.

Naturally this sparked lurid theories about Santeria, because when you find bones in peculiar places naturally your first thought is 'witchcraft!' Oddly if you Google search skeleton and Alicante one of the first hits is Skeleton International, Removals and Storage but this has got to be someone's idea of a joke.

Also found with the remains were letters and photographs, including official documents from the Tax Authority. All three bags were found close together on the sea bed, and contained bones from several different people.

If the website Think Spain is to be believed - and I'm not sure it is - also found, but not mentioned by other news sources, is "a type of wooden pole, split down the middle which signifies the end of the road in certain areas of witchcraft, and a closed basket containing laurel leaves and a hermetically sealed container filled with a yellow-colored liquid."

All of which sounds a little lurid, which makes me suspicious; my usual attitude is 'if it sounds too good to be true, somebody's lying their arse clean off.'

That said, in folklore laurel's well known particularly in the Mediterranean for its purgative and purification properties. Sacred to Apollo, laurel "was believed to endow prophets with visions, and is associated with poetry partly because, as evergreen, it symbolizes immortality, and largely because its intoxicating properties are associated with poetic inspiration." (Funk and Wagnalls Folklore, Mythology and Legend). It can be used as a love charm, and has been used in tales to induce forgetfulness.

Funk and Wagnalls has this to say about bones: "the use of bones in divination is world-wide. Astragalomancy, divining by means of small bones, has given rise to several series of games: board games like pachisi [sic], dice games, jacks, etc." So you can thank diviners for your favorite RPG.

It also says "The Chinese have elaborate ceremonies to keep the physical soul out of their houses and contentedly in the tomb or sealed up in it. If the animal soul [which resides in the bones] has sufficient vitality, it will animate the skeleton or skull and commit horrid and revolting crimes - cannibalism, rape, etc - in the countryside." Bear that in mind next time you watch Mr Vampire.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying it doesn't have to be Santeria to be witchcraft of some kind. Laurel's forgetfulness combined with the tax returns and photographs could indicate someone's trying a novel way of managing their income tax burden. Or this is some kind of love charm, but personally I'm rooting for tax fraud. Love charms are so 14th Century.

It's difficult to judge this kind of thing from several thousand miles away and through another language; I doubt that the English-speaking sources have the whole story. I have some sympathy for the Santeria worshipper who says that this kind of thing doesn't happen in his religion. It must be wearing to know that every time a non-believer sees something vaguely like an episode of Buffy the non-believer turns to your religion, points a finger and calls it crazy.

That said, it does seem like a ritual attempt. It's the tax returns that really pique my interest. If it were organized crime or a serial killer trying to move evidence from an insecure body dump site to a more secure one, you'd think the only thing found would be the bones. Maybe some clothes or shoes. Paper, though, after thirty or forty years in the ground with a corpse and then an indeterminate time unprotected in the ocean; all due respect to CSI but you wouldn't be able to tell if it was tax returns or a Disneyland brochure. Which argues that the paperwork was a more recent addition to the dump, and tax returns are too easily traced for this to be an attempt to hide evidence. Criminals are often stupid, but you'd have to be an award-winning idiot to do something like that.

I'll offer one other supposition: whoever did this has access to a boat, but isn't an experienced boater. Someone who knew what they were doing wouldn't have dumped the bones anywhere near a spot where they'd be easily found. Someone who regularly went out to sea would know where divers congregated. It's not as if they roam like migrants across the ocean waves; if you're a dive school and you know a safe spot for lessons, you keep going back to that safe spot. It's only sense. You've got enough unknown variables with the students without adding to your troubles by going somewhere you don't know well.

With all that in mind, let's try some gamification:
  • Night's Black Agents: Some of the documents found with the bones can be traced to a low-level Conspiracy asset. The asset, a property developer, was riding high before the 2008 crash but suffered catastrophic losses when the market tanked. That's when the Conspiracy moved in; it needed a safe haven in this port town to cover its smuggling operation, and hid its money, equipment and special-build vampire havens among the property developers' asset list. The property developer has never liked this arrangement and has turned to witchcraft in hope of getting the bloodsuckers off its back. The witchcraft may or may not be genuine, but the fuss this discovery raises is about the blow the lid off the whole shebang.
  • Trail of Cthulhu: Transposing the action to the 1930s, the bones were put to rest during the Rif War as an attempt to use witchcraft to guarantee the safety of the witch's relatives, sent to Morocco as conscripts. This attracted the attention of a Deep One colony off the coast, which interpreted this as a ritual sacrifice intended to placate the Deep Ones. Now the fish-men are leaning on the witch's family like a kind of Mythos protection racket: keep providing the sacrifices and we'll keep your relatives safe with our magic powers.
  • Esoterrorists: The bones were put there by an Esoterrorist cell which is trying to provoke conflict between the authorities and worshippers of Santeria. The cell thinks that stirring up controversy with provocative headlines will make people fearful of witch-cults next door, which in turn will lead to a weakening of the Membrane. The bags of bones were just the start; the cell intends to stage a fake Santeria terror strike, perhaps some kind of ritual sacrifice gone wrong. The cell disguises itself as a reality TV show, and its camera crew always being in the right place at the right time is the first clue that something's up.
That's it for me. Enjoy!

Monday, 5 September 2016

So What is Tinman Working On? (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Fans of the Dracula Dossier know that Edom's Tinman, aka Duke Teman, a former Royal Navy and SBS vet who acts as Q to this vampire-obsessed intelligence agency, is working on all kinds of peculiar technology to assist agents in the field. The question is, what?

So for a brief glimpse behind the curtain:

VR Helmets, slang term: Cowls This concept is based on technology being developed for the US Navy. Each Cowl comes with an Augmented Video Display which acts as a heads-up display, or HUD, when activated. The HUD allows the user to access information real-time concerning the target and its surroundings. Due to its bulk and fragility, Tinman issues this only to Chaplains. In game terms the Cowl gives the user a dedicated 3 point pool in various Academic skills, the intent being to supplement a combat-trained specialist's knowledge bank with other, less deadly abilities, like Architecture, History, Geology and so on. Requesting this counts as a Difficulty 5 Bureaucracy test.

UAV Swarm, slang term: Batcatchers. This is two or more drones working autonomously together to complete a task. This way, one operator can command several different drones at once, each working together and sending their reports back to the operator. Batcatchers are most commonly deployed to search an area efficiently. Swarms have been used as scouts; when Edom moves a live SBA Container, it might deploy Batcatchers ahead of the unit carrying the Container. While Batcatcher sensors are not always sufficient to detect vampires, they're very good at picking up Renfields and less gifted OPFOR. Again, this is a Difficulty 5 Bureaucracy test.

Blunt Impact Projectile, slang term: Poppers. The intent of the original design was to reduce lethality while at the same time increasing stopping power. These large rounds, about the size of a golf ball and fired from a shotgun-like device, aren't supposed to penetrate; instead, on impact the soft nose collapses, spreading the kinetic blow across a larger area. A human target finds this very painful. Tinman realized that a BIP could be used to deliver a Vampire Block or Dread, say juniper, hemlock or rowan, reducing the enemy's effectiveness. Each round does +0 damage. The likelihood of death is minimal, and that's the point. While the intent when meeting an SBA in the field is usually to eliminate rather than capture, there are times when capture is the preferable option. In game, if hit by Poppers laced with an appropriate payload and reduced to 0 Health, a Vampire needs to make a Difficulty 4 Aberrance check. Failure means it loses the next 4 actions; this penalty can be bought off by paying 3 Aberrance per action. Some combat reports indicate that SBA ferocity has increased after being hit by Poppers. In game terms, on a natural 6 on the Aberrance test the SBA regains an amount of Aberrance equal to the amount of Health lost to Poppers that round, and automatically moves to the first combat rank if it wasn't already there. Getting Poppers is a Difficulty 4 Bureaucracy test.

Acoustic Batty: Slang Term Batfink, also Bogus. This scheme is based on an old 1960s CIA project, Acoustic Kitty. The intent was to surgically implant a receiver and microphone in a cat, then let it wander around picking up intel from the Soviets. The program went wrong almost from the start, and the CIA spent over $20 million trying to deal with Kitty's many problems. Finally when time came to put plan into action the test subject wandered across the street and was squashed flat by a taxicab. Tinman, always a sucker for a complicated and technical scheme, revived the program but with a different kind of test subject. So far Acoustic Batty is working just as well as you'd expect, and is not currently deployed. Tinman's considering a different approach. Bats die all the time; suppose agents were somehow able to smuggle a dead bat into somebody's lair, complete with mike and recorder/transmitter? Surely it would escape detection? So far nobody's been able to persuade Tinman that smuggling a fake dead bat, or even a real one, is a non-starter. Bureaucracy does not apply, as this isn't field-ready. Though if the Agents want to volunteer their services Tinman would be grateful ...

Operation Starshine, aka The Dead Goats Society. This is a scheme that has been bubbling away for decades, long before the current Tinman took the post. It's either based on or the inspiration for The Stargate Project run by the US Army at Fort Meade, depending on who you talk to. The intent of the project is to develop psychic warriors who can kill at a glance, hence the slang term Dead Goats Society. The project is based on known extra-sensory powers deployed by SBAs, the theory being that the Seward Serum, in combination with surgical and cybernetic enhancement, ought to be able to create people capable of extraordinary psychic abilities or to expand the potential of existing psychics. For a time Edom had a research project on the go at Reading University, UK, in cooperation with its Science and Technology Center, but this never came to anything and the project was eventually halted. The current Tinman returns to this line of research from time to time, but has never been able to make any significant advances.

Water Bottle Camera, aka Glug. See also Spondulick. Miniature cameras posing as something else have a long espionage history; the CIA used to use a tiny camera disguised as a packet of cigarettes in the 1960s. However with miniaturization and SD cards considerably more data and better pictures can be had, and Tinman often issues these mini-cams disguised as ordinary commercial water bottles to field agents. Fun fact: SBAs whose images don't show up on film or in mirrors also don't show up on the mini cam. Of course the agent won't know this until she gets a look at the data on the SD card. A variant of this is an SD card installed in a fake coin, aka Spondulick. Again, the CIA used a similar trick in the 1960s but Tinman reverted to this old standard because some SBAs are addicted to old currency, specifically gold coins. Using these makes transfer of important information from agent to handler much easier - in theory, anyway. Getting these is a Bureaucracy 3 test.

Data Recovery Stick / USB Delivery System, aka Idiot Stick. Tinman, working with Prince, has come up with two Edom-specific USB devices. The first is used for data recovery. Inexpert computer users think that once a file is deleted it's gone forever, but this isn't so. Tinman's USB comes with specially designed software to search the HD and recover specific files, using a selection of SBA-related keyword finders to gather the most relevant deleted files. In game terms, it gives the user a dedicated 2-point pool Data Recovery. The second device is a USB laden with keystroke logger malware, the intent being to covertly deliver this to the target so as to pick up passwords and other data. Sometimes this is as simple as scattering a bunch of USBs on site, or in someone's pocket; it's amazing what people are prepared to stick into their machines without a thought for what might happen next. In game terms this acts as a dedicated 2-point pool Digital Intrusion. Getting these is a Bureaucracy 4 test.

Mobile Camera Gun, aka Popcorn. This is a bulky device that resembles a paintball weapon, but it fires small motion-activated cameras. These have inbuilt batteries with a life of 10 hours, and broadcast via Wi-Fi to the user's computer. Range is relatively short, but the cameras can piggyback on existing unsecured wi fi networks. The cameras attach to whichever smooth surface they're fired at; theoretically the user could go round and retrieve them, but in practice they tend to be fire and forget devices. The intent is to cover an area with cameras to aid infiltration efforts, which is why they're shot from a weapon; the user could be in a building across the street and fire at the roof, or through an open window. Tinman fell in love with the idea after reading about it in a novel, but the working model is even more finicky that you might think. Weapons check difficulty 7 to successfully deploy, otherwise the cameras tend to break on impact or fall off the target. However once deployed the cameras count as a dedicated 2-point Infiltration pool so long as someone's monitoring the feed. Fun fact: as they're motion-sensitive the cameras can detect NBA movement even if the NBA is otherwise unseeable by cameras alone, but interpreting this data can be tricky as motion-sensitive can also mean 'the camera moved a little bit.' Bureaucracy difficulty 4 to obtain.

That's it for now. Enjoy!