Sunday, 24 July 2016

A Lonely Vigil: Safehouses and their Keepers (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

I recently picked up The Anonymous Spy's Espionage Dictionary, and found this definition:

Safehouse: A house or apartment used for clandestine meetings between case officer and agent ... The person who lives in the safehouse ... is called the safehouse keeper. He is usually paid for the use of the safehouse. The safehouse keeper is a kind of support asset.

Support Asset: An agent who provides services to support an agent or case officer but does not necessarily provide intelligence information. Support agents may be safehouse keepers, couriers, live drops, etc.

It occurred to me that, in game, Directors and players alike often treat safehouses as disposable one-shots, somewhere to rest your head for a few hours before going on to the next thrilling chase scene or shootout. But in doing so we miss a chance to have some fun. A safehouse has a separate existence, and its keeper has her own concerns.

The main book says that 'ideally, a safe house also has several inobvious exits and good lines of site. Some spy agencies maintain houses or apartments complete with deep-cover minders who ask no questions, but provide alibis and explanations to curious neighbors. Others use heavily-travelled (but private) rooms in establishments like brothels, rehab clinics, or seedy hotels, trusting their agents to fit the pattern of anonymous visitors.'

Depending on the circumstances, those heavily-travelled (but private) rooms can throw up unexpected complications. In Spielberg's movie Munich, for example, the Israeli kill team have to bed down with PLO terrorists thanks to the machinations of their French criminal contact Louis. But the truth is the agent never really knows what to expect from these clandestine low-rent safehouses. Anything could go wrong. Their belongings could be stolen, their vehicles hijacked, and if they're quite so incautious as to use the wifi, well ...

Then again, what's good for the spy is good for his vampire opponent too. The Dracula Dossier points out that Dracula has several safehouses in London, and it's a safe bet that London isn't the only place Vlad keeps safehouses. Moreover while Dracula can afford well-stocked and protected safehouses, his minions probably have to settle for those same seedy and well-travelled  hovels that the protagonists might use.

It's one thing to be a Mossad agent unexpectedly having to share a cigarette and sleeping quarters with the PLO, something else again for a vampire hunter to discover the rehab clinic she's hiding in for the night is temporarily inhabited by one of the bloodsuckers she's been hunting. Or Renfields. Or people smugglers working within the Conspiracy. Or ... but you get the point.

As Director you could switch this around and make the safehouse the focus of the story, perhaps even setting an entire mini-campaign around a group of safehouse keepers. After all, if Christopher Eccleston can do it, I see no reason why a player character shouldn't have a go. If the Director goes that route I'd recommend setting the safe house somewhere evocative and useful; Bucharest, say. It's doable in London, but doesn't quite have that same zing. There's a lot of merit in setting this safehouse, as with Eccleston's, in a remote rural or semi-rural area, for added isolation; but it could work just as well in an urban or suburban setting.

With all that in mind, let's kick around some example safehouses and their keepers, for use in an ongoing campaign. For each example I'm going to include the Ability that leads to this safehouse, and I'm going to start with the ones used only by the desperate, without the backing of a larger agency.

Military Science: This military base, first built back in the 1960s, had family housing on site that nobody uses any more. The cash just isn't there for maintenance, the roof leaks, and the electricity supply's wonky at best. However the right Cover and some judicious palm greasing gets you in, and you can stay so long as you don't draw attention to yourself.

History: You can get to the catacombs via this sewer outfall or abandoned building. As for what's down there, that's an open question; but martyrs, resistance fighters and revolutionaries have bedded down with the bones of saints ever since the catacombs were first dug. Not a bad place to hide a cache, either. Just don't expect power cables, sanitation or a decent wifi signal.

High Society: You know Selena? Well she's seeing Riff Raff right now so she's in the States. Or maybe the Bahamas. Anyway, she's not here, and that's the important thing. You can crash at her apartment for a few days. Just remember to feed the plants and if someone comes by asking about a cocaine stash, you don't know anything.

Occult Studies: This Parapsychological Society has been going since the 1890s, with minor interruptions during the World Wars, and keeps an apartment in its headquarters for visiting scholars. It's just above the library. Perfect for late night research, even if it feels incredibly lonely up there with nobody else around.

Streetwise: The local mafia uses this love hotel as a drop-off for people and narcotics smugglers; it's very conveniently placed, so close to the border and to rail and road networks. It's within an hour's drive of the ocean too, perfect for that last-ditch escape across the Channel. Normally you're only allowed to stay for three hours maximum, but with your Streetwise you know the code the mafia uses to allow their people to stay longer. Don't stay too long, though; the neighbors aren't that pleasant, and if you overstay there's a good chance the mafia will turn up to ask who's hogging the safehouse.

On that note, a very brief list of Unusual Hotels: Transylvanian Castles courtesy of the Kálnoky Estate, complete with walks in the countryside and an exploration of Transylvanian life.  H2tel Rotterdam, a floating hotel in the heart of the city. Shakespeare & Co in Paris offers a Tumbleweed program where people can stay in the bookstore on very easy terms, and it's probably not the only independent bookstore in Europe to do so. Or for the adventurous seafaring soul, a trio of Napoleonic sea forts in the Solent. However as this isn't a travel blog, let's move on.

Tradecraft: When the Cold War was still a thing, these canal boats were often used by spies as temporary lodging; nobody gives them a second look, and people come and go all the time. The old signal used to be a boat sticker marred in a particular way; look for one of those and, if you can find one, that means the owner's agreeable to letting his boat be used as a meeting place, if you know the sign and countersign.

Urban Survival: There's a bunch of trust fund anarchists living in a squat in a pretty decent part of town. So long as you can spout a few political slogans and have plenty of weed you could stay there a few days, and nobody will ask questions.  

OK, so those are some potential safehouse ideas for the spy on the run. But say you're running an Edom campaign, or that for whatever reason your group hasn't been burnt yet by its home agency. In that event the safehouses are going to be less risky, and have their own keepers.

So what's a safehouse keeper like? Well, it's someone who the home agency deems 100% reliable, for whatever reason. This probably means that the keeper has strong ties with the home agency's country or, better yet, the home agency's government. However this doesn't mean the keeper's trusted with Top Secret intel. Far from it; the keeper's purpose is to provide a safe, quiet environment, not to play at being Jason Bourne. The keeper probably has Tradecraft and may also have ancillary skills like Electronic Surveillance and Notice. That way the keeper can work out when people have been sneaking around the safehouse, and conduct a basic sweep for electronic listening devices. Given that part of the keeper's duties is to keep the neighbors from asking questions, the keeper probably also has Flattery, Reassurance and similar interpersonal abilities.

That said, the keeper isn't a spy, nor should she be treated as a spy.  She's not a crack shot, or some kind of low-rent ninja. The best way to design one is to pick an already existing template, like Civilian, and add the necessary Abilities to upgrade her. Director's discretion as to the template, but it's unlikely that a former Spec Ops badass is going to settle into the relatively sedentary life of a safehouse keeper. A former cop, on the other hand, is perfectly reasonable.

Moreover the keeper's cover is long term, and mustn't be blown. If the agents leave corpses on the lawn, that's bound to attract comment. Equally if they use her wifi signal to host a hack of the host government's computers, and that hack is traced back to the safehouse, there will be repercussions. The whole point of the safehouse is anonymity; if the agents break that anonymity the home agency will not be pleased.

With all that in mind, consider the following Edom safehouse in Bucharest:

Edom maintains an apartment in Lipscani/Old Town. This section of Bucharest was long neglected; its beautiful businesses and houses were owned by the bourgeois, and after the Communists cleansed the place few wanted to move into the vacant buildings. For decades the only people willing to live there were gypsies, many of whom still live in the Old Town. In the early 2000s Lipscani changed from a run-down slum to a trendy, youth-oriented entertainment zone, making it more attractive to development. Too attractive, some would say. The rush to build and flagrant disrespect for the law contributed to, among other things, a disastrous fire at Club Collectiv which killed 27 and injured many more. The lack of maintenance and the ever-present threat of earthquakes means that many of the older buildings here have the Red Disc sign, indicating that the structure is at risk of collapse.

The keeper is Charlotte Nickel, one of the City of London's Masters of the Universe who moved into government work. Officially she's liaising with the Romanian Government; perhaps she's an economic advisor, a lobbyist for an NGO charity like Heal the Children, or a science advisor of some kind. However she's been on MI6's books for over a decade now, ever since she took a job in Dubai and agreed to pass on information to a Cambridge school friend working for the intelligence services. As far as Charlotte's concerned she's still working with MI6; she doesn't know anything about Edom. However Edom took her on board thanks to her mother's Romanian background. Charlotte's grandfather was a refugee who escaped the country after the abdication of King Michael I during the Communist takeover. That's why she wanted to move to Romania in the first place, and Edom smoothed the way for her.

Charlotte gets a regular stipend from Edom that more than covers the rent on this third floor Red Disc apartment, which overlooks Boulevard Brătianu. It has a balcony as well as a roof terrace, and is within walking distance of several popular nightspots. The apartment has all the mod cons and wifi, as well as a somewhat creaky elevator. 

Charlotte: Electronic Surveillance, Notice, Reassurance, Tradecraft; Civilian template, with personal defense training and Alertness Modifier 0.

That's it from me! Enjoy.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Hush Hush Houses (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

During the Second World War, the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, took over a number of English country houses to use as training bases. Called Hush Hush Houses by some - the need for secrecy was so great that not even the owners were told to what use their homes would be put - these country bases were used to train agents in every aspect of espionage, from wireless and demolition to small scale raiding.

Ring would have been such a house once upon a time, and Dracula Dossier Directors will know that Ring may, or may not, be active today. However I want to talk about a different use for the Hush Hush Houses, and tangentially about Eric Sykes and William Fairburn, who I've mentioned before.

Briefly: Sykes and Fairburn had both been in the Shanghai Municipal Police before the war, where they tangled with professional kidnappers and violent, gun-happy criminals. Their experiences inspired the 'shoot to live' policy which they passed on to their policemen, and later the SOE recruits. Among their training techniques was the Mystery House, which has been described as:

'... fitted out to look like the interior of a Chinese lodging house occupied by armed criminals. A trainee trod on floorboards which gave way under him as he entered a dimly lit room occupied by apparently harmless people who varied from mere lodgers to dope-fiends or stool pigeons. He had to take in the situation in a flash. Firecrackers, confetti, sticks and other physical objects were thrown at him. Anything like deliberate aim is a sheer impossibility.'

The SAS adopted this technique in its Kill Houses, which follow roughly the same pattern. Military training all over the world uses similar techniques, the biggest difference between modern and Sykes & Fairburn's Mystery Houses being the use of video screens rather than actual targets, which probably helps to cut down on accidents.

Their training influenced the construction of other ranges, like the one near Inverlair, in Scotland. Scottish hunting lodges and stately homes were often requisitioned by the SOE because of their remote, secluded locations; the neighbors never knew what was going on. The Inverlair range was like this:

'...the students were shown an elaborate little village, which lay at the foot of a steep bluff. At the top of a cliff a soldier stood beside a set of levers which looked somewhat like those in a railway safety box. The village we were informed was full of Germans. It was our business to kill them all. We were given two Colt .45 automatics already loaded, and two spare clips of ammunition apiece. Then one by one we were sent to attack each house in turn. The door of the first house sprang open in response to a brisk kick, and the signalman went into action. The houses were fully furnished and fully occupied. No sooner had a dummy, impelled by wires, leaped out of bed to tackle the intruder and been shot for his pains, than a trapdoor opened, men emerged from beneath tables, bottles and chairs came hurtling disconcertingly at the Gunman's head. Pistols blazing, one dispatched, as one hoped, all the occupants of the first house, and dashed to the second, where a fresh set of hazards presented itself.'

What does this mean for Edom agents, and E Squadron?

Well, Edom's bound to have at least one Kill House site for CQB training. There's bound to be a degree of role play involved too; the agents have to be able to deal with unusual situations involving SBAs or their minions. If Edom has a captive and compliant SBA on its roster it might use that SBA in training exercises; otherwise a human asset with superlative Shrink and Interrogation pools could substitute. As one SOE agent recalled, post-mission, the most frightening moment was 'The mock interrogation at Beaulieu'; what would Edom, with all the Grand Guignol special effects at its disposal, not do to assess the operational quality of its agents?

With that in mind I present two possible Kill Houses, one dating to the War, another to the 1970s.

Glen Eagles is the code name for Pitfour House, a hunting lodge in the Grampians. Built in the Scottish Baronial style, this property was requisitioned by the SOE early in the war, and has remained in Government hands ever since. The property is remote and inaccessible; the best way in is by air, via helicopter. In its day it was a training ground first for Polish commandos and bag and burn experts, until Edom acquired it in 1940. There's plenty of evidence of the former occupants, from graffiti on the walls to the marks of hobnail boots on the floors, as well as the old explosive ordinance testing grounds.

Cool: While still on Edom's books officially, nobody's paid attention to Glen Eagles since the 1970s. This quietly crumbling edifice is home to bats, birds and rats now, keeping lonely watch over a forgotten part of Edom's history. Potential clues to the 1940 mission or a series of 1970s interrogations can be found here, but any important files have long since been transferred elsewhere. The fake French street built adjacent to Glen Eagles, with its wonky wire-operated targets, are all that's left of the Kill House. Some old remnants of Edom weapons tech circa 1940 are rotting away here, possibly even a live round or two for those who like playing with out-of-date potentially lethal explosives. Poachers sometimes come here, but are put off by the poor quality of the game; it's almost as if something's blighted the land.

Warm: The old sweats of E Squadron remember Glen Eagles fondly. It might look a relic but it's been carefully looked after over the years, like a well-oiled rifle. You don't get assignment to Proserpine without going through the Glen Eagles Hell Course first, a grueling shootout and CQB combat zone in which unmodified recruits go up against Jacked assailants as well as remote-control targets. You have to be able to tell the civilians apart from the targets; slip up, and it's back to your unit. To outsiders and Google this appears to be a privately owned outward bound hotel resort, but it's always booked up. Poachers are most definitely not encouraged, and the groundskeepers are very enthusiastic about keeping unwanted people off the property.

Brinkley is a 1970s urban brutalist build on the outskirts of Manchester. It's always been government owned but has housed a variety of government offices and schemes; currently its main tenant is MoneyForce, an organization whose purpose is to help armed forces members with money management. Anyone with Architectural or Military Science knowledge will wonder about those preternaturally thick walls and peculiar sightlines; its almost as if an iceberg settled in a suburban district, its deepest secrets hidden deep below the earth.

Cool: Edom last made use of Brinkley back in the 1980s, and didn't remove traces of its CQB or interrogation chambers. The grey bureaucrats who work here never bother about the peculiar smells that keep floating up from the depths of the building, beyond occasionally complaining to the facilities management team. Clues involving the 1970s mole hunt can be found here, possibly even a bolt hole kept by one of the 1970s people, looking for a place to store emergency supplies or evidence where nobody will bother to look for it. A Sealed Coffin (minor item only) or Cryptic Lockbox (probably minor, but you never know) may be found here.

Warm: MoneyForce may be the name on the lease, but it's a cover for Edom's state of the art Kill House, also known as Piccadilly for its eerily accurate reproduction of a city street, all underground. Just above Piccadilly are the interrogation chambers, where recruits in training get a first-hand taste of what might happen to them if they ever get caught by the opposition. E Squadron recruits getting their first taste of Serum always start with a run at Piccadilly, with live ammunition. There's also a laser bullet range for non-military Edom assets; E Squadron calls it the Kiddie Pool. Any non-Edom personnel found on site wins a one-way ticket to Proserpine; Edom had one very nasty scare in the 1990s, and since then has become paranoid about Piccadilly's operational security. If Edom has a compliant SBA on its asset roster, this SBA can often be found here engaging in one-on-one training; known as Hades, this involves a Piccadilly run with the SBA as the opponent.

That's it for now! Enjoy.

Note on sources: much of this material is based on information obtained from an Annual Soane Lecture publication, Country Houses and Secret Agents, by Marcus Binney.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Not Quite Book Review Corner: 100 Deadly Skills (Night's Black Agents)

I used to buy books from Paladin Press, which means I must be on a watch list somewhere.

The thing is, if you're a writer there are any number of skills you need to know a little about, but don't need to become expert in. Sword fighting is the classic example. If ever you intend to write a fantasy epic, you need to know just enough about the pointy end of a sword to make a fight scene convincing. Yet at the same time you mustn't become a sword spod, because too much detail is as bad, if not worse, than none at all.

Trouble is, while there are any number of reliable sources out there willing and eager to tell you all about, say, money laundering or the difference between slander and libel, there are considerably fewer that will tell you what a car chase is like, or what happens in an autopsy. Still fewer in those pre-internet days when I bought from Paladin.

The trouble is that tricksy word 'reliable'. Too often, when seeking out this kind of material, you get the kind of drooling ninny who'd not be trusted with a crayon, never mind an edged weapon. The sort who likes to play at being the hard man by pretending that they know all about, say, unarmed combat, or how to live off the land, or what have you.

Even so, the problem persists: where to find that kind of information? Well, thanks to a timely post on the New York Times' book list, I think I've found one: 100 Deadly Skills, by Clint Emerson.

Emerson's a former Navy Seal with considerable field experience, and is exactly the kind of source I'd normally be wary of, for the reasons outlined above. However his writing style is refreshingly straightforward, for this kind of material. Moreover he doesn't strike me as the kind of fella who's compensating for something. It sounds like faint praise, but once you've read a few of the ones who are, you'll understand how important that is.

In fact the situation reminds me of Sabine Baring-Gould, who I've spoken favorably of before, for similar reasons. The two don't cover the same material - far, far from it - but Baring-Gould is remarkably clear, for a Victorian antiquarian, and that's a tremendous plus, particularly after you've tackled a few who aren't anything like as clear. The same applies to Emerson.

I'm not going to try to evaluate the advice Emerson offers. I'm not an expert in these things. The point is, you don't have to be an expert; you just have to be convincing, and this material is exactly that.

There were times, when reading it, that I'd slip into armchair critic mode. For example, there's a chapter on improvising a holster. When in-country, your Violent Nomad needs a lot of things that aren't easily obtained, and buying a holster at a gun store draws attention, assuming that the purchase is even possible. So the VN -sounds a bit like something out of Roald Dahl - has to make one, which in this instance means getting a wire clothes hanger and bending it into a holster shape that will slip neatly into the back of your jeans, clipped to your belt. It seems simple and practical; all very Blue Peter.

Yet throughout it all a treacherous voice in the back of my head whispered 'I haven't seen a wire coat hanger in years.' I guess you can still buy them? You must be able to, surely. I couldn't tell you where. Everyplace I've been to in the past decade sells those plastic things. Often the ones that bleed dye all over your clothes.

Why buy this book? Because it's entry-level Technothriller Monologue that will keep your character alive.

Technothriller Monologue in the main book is just used for Shooting. You rattle off a quick bit of cool-sounding patter, and get an in-game benefit, in this case a 4 point refresh of the Shooting pool. Deployed correctly, it boosts the cool factor of the scene, which makes your Director and fellow players happy bunnies. Well, happy gunbunnies. Plus, since you're going to be burning through points, that refresh is timely. Except it only applies to Shooting, not the other General abilities. Nuts!

However Double Tap expands the Monologue to pretty much every General ability in the game, so long as your pool is 8 points or more. Danger Zone for the Sense Trouble freaks, M4d Skillz for the crackers, Like Smoke for the Infiltrators and so on.

You're encouraged to develop a monologue in advance and write it down, since this kind of thing is difficult to come up with on the fly. But then you run into the problem outlined above: where do you get the background information you need to make this monologue work?

Ta-daa! And thank you Mr Emerson.

Let's try some examples:

Blending Agent Surveillance +8, 3-point refresh. 'Mobile surveillance at night? No problem. I rigged an improvised infrared light - easy really, all you need is a white light keychain LED and a bit of camera film - and zip-tied it to the underside of the target vehicle. You can't see it with the naked eye, but my smartphone's camera can pick it up just fine. He'll show up like a firefly, even if he turns all his lights off. Away we go!'

Danger Zone Sense Trouble +8, 3-point refresh. 'Too many coincidences. Sure, that guy could have been in the bodega just by accident, but I've led him a merry dance since then - the restaurant, the market, the museum - and each time I've seen him, at about the same distance away. Besides, his body language is all wrong for this neighborhood; he walks like he has nothing to fear, which says he's either secret police or a damn sight worse than the secret police.'

Calculated Risk Preparedness +8, 3-point refresh. 'When we stole this car a while back I stripped it out. The airbag's gone, for a start - you can get a rifle in the space where the airbag used to be, if you try - and I made full use of the voids in the car door panel, passenger side dash and under the seat cover. Fresh water, food, medkit, money, a laptop, mobile, a few weapons; it's all here, and without a full search nobody will ever know it's here.' [possibly add: 'Then I planted the car a few blocks away, just in case we needed it.' depending on circumstances, up to and including Cover's blown and it's time to leave the country sharpish.]

Like Smoke Athletics or Infiltration +8, 3-point refresh. Athletics: 'Got to get up that drainpipe, but that's why I bought extra bootlaces. A Prusik knot, the kind used by rock climbers, can only move up a rope or line; downward pressure causes it to lock into place. A few knots later, I have hand and footholds for an improvised climbing harness - and up I go.' Infiltration: 'They deployed tear gas, huh? I bet they think they've got me buffaloed. But that's why I carry this plastic jug, a sponge, and some tape. The sponge, when soaked with clean water, is a pretty good air filter. A little bit of DIY, tape the whole thing to my face, and I have a gas mask good enough to get through the room. By the time they come and get me, I'm long gone.'

Quick Change Disguise +8, 3-point refresh. 'People pay more attention to colors than to faces. The surveillance team has seen me in bright colors all this time; they probably aren't even looking for me any more, just the Hawaiian shirt. I'll duck into this restroom and switch to a simple white over denim combo. Job done; they won't even blink, as I walk right past.'

Or let's have a shot at some Gear Devil (Driving +8, 3 point refresh): 'Time for a reverse 180. Shifting into reverse, I drive backwards three car lengths at about 25mph, then shift to neutral and twist the wheel all the way left. Once she flips the full 180, back the wheel goes, and I floor it.'

There's also a string of improvised weapons, any of which could be whipped up by a player character in less time than it takes to type this sentence. For the most part I'd rate them at -1 damage, with the possible exceptions of the thing with the umbrella and the newspaper nail bat. Those may go as far as +0. Also, Jesus H. That would leave a welt.

Plus a bunch of handy tools and tricks, like how to defeat zip ties, pick locks, make an improvised flash bomb, shoot from a vehicle, trick fingerprint scanning software, and so on and on. Again, I don't claim to know whether any of this works. However it seems convincing, and makes for a cool scene. Those are the two factors you, as Player, need to take into consideration.

You want that action hero moment, because it gives you benefits and because it makes for a better scene.

Now, that's enough from me. See you next week!

Sunday, 3 July 2016


I don't usually talk politics here. This isn't the place for it. However as a Overseas Territory, colony or whatever else you care to call it, when the English tore up their passports, they tore up mine too, and I didn't get the admittedly small consolation of voting in the referendum. So it's been on my mind.

I deliberately use the word English, by the way. It sure as hell wasn't the United Kingdom that voted Leave. Though to be absolutely fair the Welsh also had their hands in this decision, bad cess to 'em.

Assuming Brexit goes ahead as planned, it's a good bet that the United Kingdom will cease to exist shortly thereafter, probably within ten years. So a child born today may only know the United Kingdom as a fading memory, like old episodes of Looney Tunes or Trapdoor.

Scotland will go, for a start. God alone knows what will happen to Northern Ireland; there's a certain logic in rejoining the rest of Ireland, but that's not a logic I expect anyone to actually adopt, for reasons which ought to be obvious. Wales will probably go as well, not because it's annoyed by the result but because the Welsh know opportunity when they see it. Though what happens after the door shuts behind them is anyone's guess.

But let's talk about the Crown Dependencies for a moment, places like Sark, the Isle of Man, Guernsey, Jersey; and also the Overseas Territories, which is a slightly longer list that includes Bermuda.

If you think we're sticking around, you're off your bloody head.

I can only speak for Bermuda, but I'm pretty sure that the question of Independence has arisen time and again for each of those Dependencies and Territories. In most cases I suspect it was a very short discussion. Small countries do not do well on the larger international stage. We need someone to speak for us, and so long as the United Kingdom remained a strong, reliable force, there was never any reason to take Independence seriously.

Well, there's reason enough now.

Don't be fooled by the Little Britain attitude that places like Gibraltar adopt. Small nations have a very finely tuned sense of self preservation; we can jump ship in a heartbeat. Gibraltar, for example, has Spain. Yes, the Gibraltarians are loath to accept Spain as their savior - very, very loath, as shown in the 2002 referendum -  but they'll eat tapas and like it if their only other option is leaving the EU. Though I note that they'd rather eat haggis, if given the opportunity. They say No now. Give them a taste of financial decline post-Brexit, and they'll say Maybe. Once they say Maybe, Yes is only a few more hard years away.

Tears will be shed, I don't doubt. Tears cost nothing, and dry quickly.

Now, Bermuda's relationship with the EU has always been more theoretic than practical. I've often wondered why, for example, there've never been EU challenges to our Immigration laws. I'd have thought that, given our relationship with the EU via the UK and given that freedom of movement for workers is such a cornerstone of the relationship, someone would have tried to argue by now that our fairly strict Immigration laws were trumped by EU membership. Yet the challenge never happened.

But that's a relatively minor drop in the ocean. Fact is, we've never had to think about Europe, really. For the average citizen it's somewhere we can't really afford to visit on holiday very often, and besides, the flight's hours and hours. That said, I've just spent the last few weeks performing Shakespeare with a would-be student who's down in the dumps because her preferred choice of university is probably off the menu now. So take that for what it's worth.

For the businessman Europe is more of an issue, but even then our attention's usually focused on North America, mainly because of geography and shared history. Not all of it creditable on our side; we sold cotton and guns in the Civil War, and booze during Prohibition, for a start. But shared history nonetheless, and besides, there's a reason why the motto's Whither the Fates Carry Us. We know full well that the best way to get along is to shape our course to the prevailing wind, particularly if there's money to be made.

So here's my prediction, for what it's worth. If Brexit goes ahead, and if it's as nasty as expected, then Bermuda will go independent within the decade. We may not care about Europe but the one argument against independence which always succeeded was that having a strong partner on the world stage was more important. If England drops rapidly into political chaos and financial turmoil, that argument no longer applies.

What happens after that is murky. We'd do well not to tie ourselves to Uncle Sam, but that's the more likely scenario. In my ideal over-the-rainbow wishful thinking we'd somehow get back into Europe, perhaps via Scotland. God alone knows how. There's a reason why it's called wishful thinking.

Independence is not something I ever thought would happen, but then I never thought the United Kingdom would implode. Yet here we are.

Sorry for being a downer this time out, but I needed to say that. It's been brewing ever since the referendum.

Normal service will resume next post.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Cedar Point and Wild Rides (BubbleGumshoe)

You're reading this in the Glorious Future, but it's coming to you from the Dim and Distant Past, specifically that same day that the UK decided to cut off its nose to spite its face, and also the day that my fellow countrymen said loud and clear that Gays Should Not Marry Or Have Civil Unions. Because my fellow Bermudans are a bunch of bigoted Christians, for the most part, who spend their lives with their heads up each other's butts.

But after last week's short post I thought it would be a good idea to put in some advance work rather than leave it all till Sunday. I also wanted to touch on BubbleGumshoe, the latest from Ken Hite, Emily Care Boss and Lisa Steele, in which you play as a teen detective solving mysteries. What better way to do that then a trip to the funfair?

I haven't much hands-on with BubbleGumshoe, so I may get some of the more intricate details wrong, but the basics are simple enough. The system is stripped-down Gumshoe, so if you've already played Trail or any of the other Gumshoe products, you know the core gameplay already. The big thing to bear in mind is, as a teen, you don't have nearly as many points in your pools as your adult counterparts, so you need to be careful about ability selection.

The other thing to bear in mind is that, since this really isn't a combat-oriented game, you'll be spending much less on fighting abilities than in other Gumshoe products. This can be huge; combat abilities are a significant point sink in, say, Night's Black Agents, such that a minimum of 20 General pool points ought to be sunk into each character's fighting abilities. But since that isn't the case here, you're free to design quirkier character types.

Relationships are much more important than martial arts. Who loves you, hates you, likes you? Using these relationships propels the drama, but it also gives you access to a host of abilities you otherwise wouldn't be able to use. Friends with a cop? Then Interrogate, Forensics, or Cop Talk become available. Or a host of other benefits; really, the only limit is the players' imagination. Mechanically this works much as Network does in Night's Black Agents, except that where Network cannot refresh, these Relationship pools can.

You're in this to solve mysteries - that's why you're a Sleuth, after all - but those mysteries needn't be as deadly as those you'd find in Night's Black Agents, or Trail. Finding a lost dog is a mystery. Discovering who's bullying your cousin is a mystery. Discovering who murdered the next door neighbor is very definitely a mystery, and so on and on.

While this isn't Trail, there is a Stability stat. Only this time it's called Cool, and losing Cool doesn't mean a quick trip to the nearest insane asylum. Instead it means that future tests or contests are more difficult, perhaps impossible, if you've totally lost it and are snot-crying at the least provocation. There's one interesting variation; since this game is based on relationships, you can channel negative Cool pools into creating a new Hate. This is a person, place or circumstance that, you now realize, you Hate. That restores your Cool, but creates a new negative Hate pool that the GM can use against you in future conflicts.

Incidentally if you were expecting some variation on the Pillars mechanic, first seen in Trail and later used, in one form or another, in most Gumshoe products, there isn't one here. Cool isn't as vital a stat as Stability is in Trail; losing it isn't as world-crushing as losing Stability, and you can't permanently lose, say, your faith in the Church, or your belief in the essential goodness of mankind. However Cool is very important in Social contests and Throwdowns, and therefore in Relationships, which are at the heart of the game.

This is the part that players familiar with Gumshoe but not as well read in teen drama may stumble over. Mechanically the contests are broadly similar to Thrilling Contests seen in Night's Black Agents. The terms of the conflict are defined, the players pump in General pool spends to adjust difficulty or to change the terms of the conflict to more favorable ones, and then dice are rolled. However the conflict isn't how to stake a bloodsucker while at the same time surviving a high-speed chase on the autobahn. The example given in the main book is of a bunch of teens confronting a rival at a party and humbling her by pushing an anti-drug message. Its a situational switch, not a mechanical one. That's the key thing to bear in mind.

The default setting is a small American town, but really, it doesn't have to be American. Small town life is small town life, wherever you go. It wouldn't be at all difficult to rearrange things to make this a small town in France, or a small island in the Caribbean. However it might be more challenging to set this in, say, London, or any large urban area.

Relationships are different in large cities. The social dynamic is different, and in a sense diminished. If your mom is the principal of the high school, for instance, and it's the only high school in town, that makes her a very important person within the social fabric. Less so, if she's one of several dozen in a sprawling urban metropolis.

Plus there's the issue of added violence, particularly in the States. The game isn't really equipped to handle guns or significant violence of any kind, but a mystery-based game set in a modern city probably has metal detectors in every high school, just because of gun violence. The knock-on involved in setting a game in the big city is significant, and can't be avoided or skirted round. That said, it shouldn't be impossible to set this in a city; just more difficult. 

Okay, that's all mechanical. What about scenario and campaign design? Well, that hasn't changed significantly from other Pelgrane products. Action is still divided up into Scenes, some of which are very important, or Core, while others are optional. The big difference here is the addition of a couple scene types: Dramatic, Pushback, and Throwdown.

A Dramatic scene is exactly what it sounds like. It's not about the plot. It's about the character. Which doesn't sound like much until you realize that, up till now, Gumshoe games have never been about character. It's always about gathering clues, putting them together, and figuring out what's going on. Character has always been secondary, but this time it's primary, and that means the problems you solve may not be about the plot at all. Maybe someone's Relationships are frayed, or there's some other moment of high tension that needs resolving. That's what a Dramatic scene is for. This is the soap opera moment, but soap operas have survived for as long as they have because, when played straight, a Dramatic scene hooks the audience and gets them to pay attention.

Pushback is a little like an Antagonist Reaction scene from, say, Trail. The difference here is that it's non-fatal. An authority figure of whatever type gets involved, and threatens the character in some way. Except rather than drag the character down a dark alley and rearrange their spinal cord, the authority figure threatens social punishment of some kind. Exactly what that punishment is will depend on the scene, and the authority figure making the threat.

A Throwdown is a heightened Dramatic scene. Here the character needs to engage in an extended social conflict of some kind, against an important rival. This is the major drama moment. I went into this in some detail above, so I'm not going to go over old ground here. Except to say that, played properly, a Throwdown can be a major moment in the game; but a Throwdown also has the potential to go off like a damp squib. This is one of those times when the GM needs to take care.

It reminds me, oddly enough, of the Wraith RPG, specifically the Harrowing sequences when the character's Shadow accumulates enough negative points to put the character through the wringer. A similar aesthetic applies here. The intent isn't to destroy anyone, or even to attack them directly. Instead it's all about indirect attacks, in which the character's brawn or weapon mastery matters less than the character's ability to deal with social issues. But in a Harrowing the GM is specifically advised to take lots of notes and prepare in advance, and the GM would be well advised to do the same here. It's not like a typical Antagonist Reaction, where you can throw a few mooks into the mix and see what happens. This needs to be crafted, or it won't work.

In fact, BubbleGumshoe has one other important commonality with Wraith: it's not for everyone.

Wraith's a brilliant RPG, but not all gamers are going to be thrilled with the idea of playing the dead, let alone having a Shadow persecute them at every turn. Players like to feel in control, to be powerful, and the underlying message of the Shadow mechanic is, no, you're weak, you're a failure, you're doomed. Whereas nearly everyone who ever sat at a gaming table and threw dice around has played Dungeons and Dragons, a game which implicitly tells you not only that you're powerful, but also that you're the Most Powerful, if not the Chosen One.

Now, it's not BubbleGumshoe's place to tell the player how powerful their character is, but it's implicit in the setting that they aren't the most powerful in the game world. They're teens, functioning in an adult setting. If they want access to adult skills, like Forensics or Cop Talk, they need to have an adult ally. That alone suggests significant weakness, and that's before you look at the Pushback and realize that there's a whole scene type devoted to making sure the players know they're small cogs in a much larger machine.

Plus, the essence of the Throwdown is social combat, which isn't something that all players will grok instinctively. Oddly enough, teens will, because social combat is a large part of their lives. But it becomes less of an obsession the older a person gets, and I wonder how may players will be able to put themselves back in their fourteen-year-old mindset. The example Throwdown, for instance, has the characters confront a fellow classmate about drug use. While reading it, I couldn't help but wonder, 'is this what teens would do? Or is this what adults would like to think teens would do?'

It's more about fulfilling a particular kind of fantasy than it is wish fulfillment. In this instance, the Kid Fantasy. You can be one of the Hardy Boys, or Nancy Drew, or even - if you want to go back far enough - Huck Finn. He's hardly a sleuth, but his fingerprints are all over this as the archetypal kid set adrift in an adult world. It hearkens back to the one time we all knew we were right and the world was wrong. There's a reason why this is a specifically kid fantasy, after all; only a kid could be quite so self righteous.

None of which is to say that BubbleGumshoe is a bad game. Like Wraith, it's brilliant in its own way. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it very well. The mechanics are polished to a mirror shine, and stripped to their bare essentials. The setting is fully realized and the Relationship mechanic plays right into the game's aesthetic. However it must be acknowledged that not everyone is going to want to play a teen detective, because it doesn't play into the wish fulfillment tropes that many gamers come to the table hoping to enjoy. Even in a zombie apocalypse game, where everyone's living off of tinned beans and paranoia, the players still get to prove that, when everything's gone to hell, they have what it takes to survive. Finding out what happened to somebody's bicycle doesn't have the same cachet.

Basically, it's the Marmite Effect. Some players are going to fall in love with the concept and never want to play anything else. These are the folks who have marmite on everything. Others will reject it outright, the ones who'd bury a jar of marmite at a crossroads with a stake through its dark heart. Most will fall inbetween, tolerating marmite because why not, but just as keen to get back to beating orcs, staking vampire spies, or whatever else the group usually does.

Okay, all that said, what about Cedar Point, I hear you ask?

Cedar Point is going to be the example I'll use to piece together a BubbleGumshoe scenario seed. I could go into a lot of detail here, but that's not what this is about. You do need to know a little about Cedar Point, though, so briefly:

This amusement park in Ohio, on the shores of Lake Eerie, is the second oldest such park in the United States. It's roller coaster heaven, with 17 coasters for the speed freaks out there, plus another 50-odd rides for those crazy people who don't like roller coasters. It also boasts all kinds of live shows for all ages, from Snoopy songs to Motown and fireworks displays. However for our purposes one of the most useful things about Cedar Point is that there's plenty of accommodation both on and off site. That means the characters can live somewhere else, and come to Cedar Point for, say, a week or two. Maybe it's a class trip, or a family vacation. But the point is that it takes the characters away from their usual haunts and puts them in a completely new situation, which can be great either for shaking up a game that's gone stale, or for introducing new players to the mechanics in a setting where failure can be forgotten as soon as everyone goes home.

There are two BubbleGumshoe settings that involve horror, or horror elements. Neither of them are anything like as bloodthirsty as Trail, never mind Call of Cthulhu or Night's Black Agents, but both have that weird Eerie Indiana crossed with R.L. Stein vibe. Either could be Lovecraftian, but Bellairs Falls is the more likely prospect.

This one has magic at its heart, but those of you shouting Wingardium Leviosa at the screen will be disappointed. I suspect one of the writers whispered 'quidditch' longingly, then two of the others screamed LAWSUIT, and that was that. In this setting, magic is eeeeevilllll, and those who practice it are likely to become Obsessed.

The other setting, Ruby Hollow, has ghosties, ghoulies and long-legged beasties (Good Lord, deliver us!), but this is a Scooby Doo setting, in which Traps are key.  This is one for the rubber mask crowd, complete with animal sidekicks for the mystery-busting sleuths.

Take all that together, and then consider that Cedar Point once boasted a Bluebeard's Palace funhouse, and we have the germ of a plot. Bluebeard, in case you aren't familiar with the name, is a very famous fictional mass murderer whose career and characteristics are loosely based on a real mass murderer. It's pretty easy to guess what the Cedar Point Bluebeard's Palace was all about. There's little left of it online, but this blog post features, among other things, period postcards and images that give you a good idea what it may have looked like. You could get away with a lot more then than you can today, and despite the period quaintness there's a hard edge to some of this stuff that's unnerving.

Since I'm going to be referring to two BubbleGumshoe settings, there will be two Crimes, two Culprits and two Hooks, all taking place at the same location.

Bluebeard's Return

No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher's dirty looks! Plus, for once, you're going out of town for some much-needed fun. It's off to Cedar Point, the world-famous Roller Coaster Capital! Sure, you won't be staying on site; in fact, your group (Church group, school group, family group, whichever) has block-booked at one of the cheaper, more rickety off-site hotels, Castaway Lodge, within sight of the much more fun purpose-built pirate hotel, Castaway Bay. But why worry about that? It's time to have some fun!

But wait up a second; what's that funky place on the Broadway? It looks like something grandpa might have enjoyed. Bluebeard's Palace? Well, I guess that big guy on the front of the building is Bluebeard, but what's it supposed to be, some kind of horror house? I dare you to go inside! Heck, I double dare you!

Crime: (Bellairs Falls) one of the group becomes obsessed with the odd postcards that float around Cedar Park, which seem to contain a kind of coded message. If you collect them all, maybe you'll be able to figure out the code? (Ruby Hollow): Jeez! That guy in the mummy costume looks really dead. What's up with that, and why is he following us around after we leave Bluebeard's Palace?

Culprit: (Bellairs Falls) The spirit of Bluebeard, trapped by magic in his old Palace looking for a way out. Or, for a less mystic ending, Packy Dunlop, the operator of Bluebeard's Palace, who offers big cash prizes to anyone who can break the code, but has rigged the game so nobody wins. (Ruby Hollow) The corpse of long-dead gunslinger Elmer McClintock, who wants a proper burial. Or, for a less gruesome twist, Packy Dunlop, the operator of the Palace, who uses the funhouse as a base of operations for a pack of pickpockets.

Hook: (Bellairs Falls) Those postcards really are weird; it's like you can almost see something moving in the images. (Ruby Hollow): Is that a mummy, a zombie, or what? Look out! IT'S MOVING!

In the examples given in the main rules, there would then be a Story and a short list of Clues for the characters to pick up. However I think you get the gist of it, and as it's now Sunday - time flies - and I have an afternoon matinee, that's all for now!

In brief: I recommend BubbleGumshoe wholeheartedly, with the caveat that the central concept is not to everyone's taste. But that's a minor cavil. Even if you never play it, the game's worth reading and possibly data mining for other projects.


Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Muscles From Brussels or Anywhere Else (Nights Black Agents)

My apologies for going dark on you! I'm acting in the outdoor Shakespeare, opening night's this week, and everything's just a little frantic. Taming of the Shrew, by all means come and see, but since most if not all of you live outside Bermuda I shan't be too upset if you don't. ;)

Anyway, as I have little time I shall quickly cover another character type for Night's Black Agents: the Muscle.

A probable ex-military type, the Muscle is often the star of modern espionage thrillers. Stephen Leather's Spider Shepherd, for instance, is ex-SAS, as is Andy McNab's Nick Stone, aka the dimwitted heavily armed movie camera. Even Jason Bourne is a variant on the theme, the brainwashed black program badass. So the Muscle ought to be the most popular character archetype, right?

Well, no.

The Muscle's problem closely parallels that of the Fighter in D&D (or AD&D, or spank the magic dragon, or whatever we're calling it now). It's the meat and potatoes of the game. Every group needs at least one, because every group will at some point encounter a situation that can only be solved with ultraviolence. But players generally don't want to be the one who just hits things and does nothing else.

AD&D solved this problem with prestige characters, and later iterations use what amounts to a series of perks, each designed to make the character type feel unique even if the base is straight fighter. Night's Black Agents does a broadly similar thing with the cherries system, martial arts and the combat maneuvers, and so long as the player is willing to learn those special rules and use them, this works. But I've noticed an inbuilt resistance to learning rules, particularly among adult gamers. Life, apparently, is too short for reading. It's not too short for watching trashy TV shows, I notice. But then I'm a cynical soul.

This is where props like the thriller action cards on Pelgrane's site come in handy. However props aren't the only solution to the problem, and the most effective is, oddly enough, background.

I've mentioned before that I prefer a one-sentence descriptor for characters these days. This is still the case with the Muscle. The difference being, that sentence needs to be pulled from something more interesting, more descriptive, than 'ex Special Forces veteran gone rogue.'

Consider two examples, drawn from the news. One concerns a Japanese finger sculptor who works for former Yakuza. The other is about former child soldiers now working as mercenaries for British PMC Aegis.

My point is this: the way to get past the snore-factor inherent in the Muscle character type is to think carefully about the Muscle's background. Any idiot can play an ex Spec Ops badass. But combat, war zones and conflict are world wide. People from all walks of life are drawn in, and marked forever. Imagine being the former criminal trying to make a good life for himself, his family, but indelibly scarred by his past. Imagine being the child soldier who now knows nothing but war, and can only make a living using the skills learned over years of psychotic conflict.

Nagi is a former Yakuza, one of the very few older sisters of the Kudo-kai, who came to Paris to start afresh, only to find that her criminal past still bars her from any meaningful career or family life.

Bai went from the battlegrounds of Sierra Leone to war-torn Iraq, and has two lifetimes' worth of bitter experience packed inside less than two decades; very little frightens him, except death itself.

Gotta go! Catch you all later.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Secure Correspondence (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Just a quick one this week, to give Night's Black Agents Directors a nifty new way to correspond with agents in the field.

This is based on Stephen Leather's book Black Ops. One of these days I'm going to have to do a Not Quite Book Review on Leather; he's a lot of fun. British, used to be a journo for the Daily Mirror, been writing novel length fiction (meow) since 1997, and he's good at it, in a mannered and clever kind of way. Stephen King once said of horror maestro James Herbert that Herbert's work had a 'raw urgency,' the kind that grabbed you by the lapels and screamed in your face. By that scale, Leather stands in your way and speaks both loudly and firm, but doesn't quite reach the same level of urgency.

From a Night's Black Agents perspective Leather's most useful quality is that he writes both spy fiction and horror. Black Ops is pure spy fiction, starring Leather's recurring not-Bond, 'Spider' Shepherd, former SAS and policeman turned spy. What I want to talk about today is a neat little trick used by some of the characters in that novel to communicate, and how easy it would be to use that trick in game.

Secure communication via email is always a problem. Experts say that email is by its very nature insecure. Companies like Lavabit or SilentCircle used to say they could secure their transmissions, but they don't make that claim any more. SilentCircle went so far as to smash its own servers rather than hand them over to the authorities. The metadata - who sent the email, when, and to whom - is always vulnerable, SilentCircle's CEO pointed out as the servers went silent.

But what if there was no metadata?

Black Ops' spy handler has a simple procedure. Create an email identity - let's say cushing1913 - on a service like outlook. Make sure both the handler and the agent knows the identity and the password. Then, when messages need to be delivered, create an email, but don't send it; save it to drafts instead. Alert the other party that there's a message, say by text message. The other party logs on to the email address, checks drafts, reads the message and then deletes it.

Nothing was ever sent, therefore there is no metadata. By saving it in drafts you don't even need to specify a receiving email addy. Theoretically the email client can be hacked, but so long as the sender and receiver promptly check and destroy messages as soon as they can, there's a very small window of opportunity for hackers to intercept messages.

I very much doubt it's foolproof, but it's a fascinating glimpse into workable tradecraft. One of Leather's greatest strength is that he bothers to find out how things work, and then weaves that knowledge into the narrative without being too obvious about it. No long lectures, no technobabble, just a quick but thought-provoking glimpse into a working system, and then on with the show.

From a Director's perspective the utility is obvious. Anyone can create an outlook identity. It costs no money and very little time to set one up. Once you've done that, cushing1913 - it might be Dracula Dossier's Harker, Hopkins, or someone else - can send messages to agents in the field in real time. It's the perfect means of sending scanned documents, like anything from the Hawkins Papers, to the players. Or bits of the Dossier itself, or instructions, or what-have-you.

It's ingenious, simple, and free. What's not to like?