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?

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Booze, Glorious Booze (Night's Black Agents)

Sometimes this blog writes itself.

Have a look at this news item, about a 150 year old wine cache found in the secret recesses of a Czech castle. The liquid gold, when tested under the most stringent conditions, proved to be as magnificent and desirable as any aficionado could wish for. Recovered by the state in 1985, only now have the Czech authorities bothered to do anything with it. Just as well, really, since in the 80s they could never have tested it so carefully as they can today, with devices that can pour off a snifter without damaging the integrity of the cork, and therefore the contents. The last three bottles of the 1899 Chateau d'Yquem are part of this 133 bottle collection. Those bottles alone are probably worth over $10,000 each; the auction price for the entire collection is incalculable, particularly since they've been tested and proved drinkable. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.

So there's all that. Now what can we do with this from a Night's Black Agents point of view?

There are vampire connections of long standing with Czechoslovakia. F.W. Murnau used Orava Castle, now a museum, as a setting for Nosferatu. Archaeologists sometimes find vampire burials and, on one occasion, a vampires' graveyard just outside Prague. And of course once upon a time Czechoslovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which gave the world some of the most evocative vampire legends to date; the desecration of corpses was so widespread that the Empress Maria Theresa was forced to pass a law forbidding exhumation and destruction of the buried dead.

Now here we have a wine trove found under a castle, complete with jeweled catafalque containing the alleged remains of a saint. So let's turn this into a Tale of Terror, Vampire Style, and see what can be done with it.

Option One:  Time Bomb. The collection was laid down by Satanic disciples who made a deal with a vampire, possibly Orlok the Nosferatu, possibly Dracula himself if there's to be a Satanic Cult of Dracula connection. The best bottles in the collection are tainted with vampire blood, and the intent was to send these bottles to important and influential persons, turning them into Renfields. For whatever reason this plan did not mature; if this is Dracula, perhaps his disastrous adventures in England preempted the wine plot. So the cache stayed hidden, lost and forgotten, until its rediscovery in 1985. Now the plan's been reactivated, which is why the auction has been scheduled. Soon the wine will scatter across Europe, vanishing into the collections of the rich and famous. That's why it was so important to establish that the wine is drinkable; without that extra touch, the bombs might have stayed in bottle forever. Character Link: A person of interest, possibly a known Renfield or Node, is paying particular attention to this auction. The person of interest is very keen to ensure the auction goes ahead without a hitch, going so far as to rig the bidding to ensure that certain people win certain auctions. Why should that be?

Option Two: Mine, All Mine. The wine cache was laid down by a wealthy and well-connected family, which had a vampire in its bloodline. This vampire used the family as a beard, relying on its wealth and influence to keep the vampire hidden. Possibly this creature is a former Bride of Dracula, or something of similar importance. When things got too difficult the bloodsucker hid in the saint's box, or perhaps the family got tired of supporting a freeloader and made sure it couldn't do any further harm. However when the cache was discovered in 1985 the vampire got out, and soon began cementing its local influence in Czechoslovakia, establishing a small network of human agents. It knows about the Conspiracy but is not a part of it, yet; it sits enviously on the sidelines, waiting for an opportunity. The time is now, and the wine sale is part of a scheme to raise some serious cash for its small network, with the ultimate goal of using that cash to fund a terrorist attack whose purpose is to prove to the Conspiracy how useful the vampire is, and how great it would be if the Conspiracy took it in. If the Vampire is a Bride, there's not a little sexual jealousy mixed in; "it's been how many centuries, and you still haven't called?" Character Link: Elements within the Czech BIS (domestic security) bring in the characters, anonymously, to check out some of the bidders. The BIS use the excuse that the bidders are Russian mafia, but the main worry is that criminal elements may be using the auction for their own purposes. The BIS can't be seen to intervene directly, but freelancers are another thing entirely.

Option Three: The Sting. Edom, or a similar organization, is using this auction as a lure to catch a particular target. The target's fondness for excellent vintages is well-known, and the intent is to kidnap the target while she's in the Czech Republic, extract her to an interrogation site - Black Light, for instance - and squeeze her dry. Meanwhile her temporary replacement is seen to be at the auction, placing bids and behaving as if nothing is wrong. Later, of course, the replacement's plane will 'mysteriously crash' on its way home. Or, if this is a Mirror game in which people's loyalties flip, perhaps the target will be turned and brought back into play after the auction. Character Link: Perhaps the freelancers were brought in to manage the kidnap, and keep up pretenses for a vital few days while the interrogators do their work. Or perhaps the freelancers were the target's security detail, and only discover after the fact that their employer was switched out for a double. This could be an excellent reason why the characters got burned in the first place.

That's it for now! Enjoy.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

His Name Isn't Bond: Cover & Network (Night's Black Agents)

I've just finished reading Jeffery Deaver's take on British superspy James Bond, Carte Blanche. With this novel, 23 in the Bond series, Deaver updates the Bond mythology, reimagining Fleming's character in the 21st Century. Fleming's basic Bond is still here, complete with Bond's treasure of a Scot housemaid and the Vesper cocktail. Except this time Bond's shaken concoction with a slice of lemon peel gets a different name, Carte Blanche, and broadly speaking that's how the novel develops; Fleming's original, with a slightly different twist.

An example: CIA agent Felix Leiter appears in a support role, because that's how these things are done. At one point Leiter is threatened with death by crusher, his limbs dangling just that bit too close to the mangle. Instantly a Bond fan's mind turns to Live and Let Die where, in the novel, Leiter loses an arm and a leg, but still appears in later stories with prosthetic limbs. Will this be the moment, I wonder, when Deaver's Leiter gets his cyber upgrade? They're doing all kinds of things with artificial limbs these days ...

On the whole I enjoyed it, though I think there are too many changes here to satisfy a Bond purist, and there are elements of the story that make little or no sense. Take the support character Gregory Lamb, a British agent from MI6 sent to back up Bond. He has very little personality, appears only in a few scenes, and departs in a way that seems remarkably out of his established character; moreover, from the moment he arrives to the moment he departs he does nothing interesting, nor does he affect the plot in any way. I had to wonder whether Deaver really thought the character through, or whether he was hastily shoehorned in to solve a plot problem. Maybe someone won a place in the book through a charity lottery and Deaver didn't know what to do with him?

But this isn't a book review. I want to talk about a very cool scene about halfway through, and how it relates to Night's Black Agents.

The setting is Cape Town, South Africa. Bond is trying to pass himself off as a successful mercenary, to worm his way into the villains' confidence. He goes to the head villain's office, makes his pitch, and then says he has some pictures the head villain might be interested in. But Bond doesn't have those on him; they're back at Bond's office. Bond offers to email the .jpegs to the head villain, but the main henchman says no: go to your office, get them, and bring them back here.

Bond obediently does just that, and then the henchman says to the head villain: I don't trust this guy's story. Let's go to his supposed office, which I bet he doesn't have, and catch him in his lie. Which they do, only to find that Bond really does have an office, complete with staff, in this case South African police who Bond has brought on board thanks to what Night's Black Agents would call his Network contacts.

It's a brilliant scene, and immediately made me wonder how something similar could be achieved in Night's Black Agents.

To begin with, kudos to Deaver's Bond for actually having an honest to God cover identity. Usually he marches in under the name Bond, from Universal Export, and somehow nobody ever questions it. But let's consider this from a mechanical perspective, using Cover, Network and Preparedness.

Cover and Network are two pools that don't work the same way as other General pools. Both begin with high ratings that the player doesn't have to pay for - 10 Cover, 15 Network - and neither refresh. Instead the player has to buy them back with experience points.

Cover represents your agent's cover identities, and the stronger the investment, the stronger the cover. So if you invest 4 Cover points to create a pool in a particular identity, it's a pretty good cover. Whenever you do something that would test that Cover - cross a border, gain admission to restrictive areas - then you make a Difficulty test, usually 4, and you can spend from that newly created pool to bolster your chances. Failure means that something has gone wrong, but it's up to the Director what that means. [There is one Cherry that might affect Cover: if your Disguise rating is 8 or more you have Connected Cover, which means you can establish a cover identity that is both plausible and also related to your target in some way.]

Network is your pool of professional contacts, and like Cover the strength of each contact will depend on the amount of points spent on the contact. So in Carte Blanche, Felix Leiter is one of Bond's network contacts, in whom Bond's player probably put a lot of points bearing in mind how useful Leiter is to Bond. In the scene described above the leader of the South African police is also a Network contact, but one in whom Bond's player didn't put a lot of points, since this NPC challenges Bond in several different scenes and refuses to back him up at least once. Difficulty for Network tests depends on Heat; Heat is the amount of attention the authorities, usually the police, are paying to your character.

Preparedness is the game's equivalent to Monopoly's Get Out of Jail Free card. You use this ability whenever you see an opportunity to gain an advantage, or get out of a bad situation, explaining it away as a clever plan you thought of earlier but didn't mention until now.

So in this scene Bond blew a Cover check. Maybe he got overconfident and didn't spend points, only to have that magic number One turn up. What happens next?

The temptation on the Director's side is to turn this into a complete disaster, Han Solo style. That said, Deaver's solution to the problem shows that not every failure ends in failure. True, Bond failed the check. However the villains didn't draw weapons and gun him down on the spot, nor was his Cover completely blown. The failed roll merely meant they were suspicious, and decided to investigate further.

Now, from a game perspective, all the Director needs to say is, 'You're pretty sure [thanks to Tradecraft, Bullshit Detector or what have you] that they didn't believe your story, and will check on it.' If the player wants her character's Cover to hold up in future tests, she needs to do something about this. Otherwise the Difficulty in later scenes may be more than her Cover can handle, and that could be very bad if she happens to be behind enemy lines or in the major villain's lair at the time.

In game terms, I would suggest that unless the Cover is repaired all Difficulty tests for Cover checks go up by the amount of Heat that the group has generated. Which is about the time that the group may really regret stealing all those cars or blowing up those police stations, but that's just tough luck, really.

Bond's solution is a mixture of Preparedness, Reassurance and Network. This could be handled as a special Tactical Fact Finding Benefit, which for the purpose of this example I'm going to call The Big Store.

A Tactical Fact Finding Benefit relies on four attributes: the tactical ability needed to find the information, the action required, the circumstance under which the benefit comes into play, and the nature of the benefit.

In this instance the tactical ability can be Reassurance, which tends to be the con artist Investigative ability. I can see an argument for using Data Recovery as well, but Reassurance seems the obvious way to go.

The action required is this: the character creates an imaginary office, business or agency. This office exists in the virtual world on a 1 point spend plus a Difficulty 3 Digital Intrusion check, or in both virtual and reality on a 2 point spend plus a Difficulty 4 Preparedness check. In the virtual world it has a website, a history, possibly even a TripAdvisor rating if applicable. If it exists in the real world it also has an address and a small number of staff. If the target visits this Store, or just looks at it online, it seems in every way to be a genuine entity. The Director may wish to set limits on the Store, to avoid players claiming to own a huge multinational corporation that nobody ever heard of until five minutes ago. But that's up to the Director.

In Deaver's example, the office has a couple rooms and three or four staff. That's about right. So we're talking about a small operation, possibly a business like a diamond dealer's, a software developer, or small bed-and-breakfast hotel. There's nothing stopping a player from claiming to have a business somewhere other than the character's current location, so a character in Dublin can claim to own a pub in New York, no problem.

If the Store exists in the real world and the on-site staff are to be badasses in disguise, then there ought to be a Network spend to create those badassess. Otherwise they're regular civilians. Probably temps hired for the day, possibly criminals, but in any case they won't suddenly reveal themselves to be marksmen or Martial Artists. Nor will they fling themselves, lemming-style, in front of a bullet to save a character. If used as Mook Shields there probably ought to be a Stability penalty, since they really didn't deserve it.

The Big Store is used to bolster Cover. A grifter would use a Big Store to con a mark, using Cover to foster the mark's belief that the grifter really is who he says he is. The player's doing exactly the same thing.

So the benefit, which is the final point to consider, is this: the Difficulty for Cover tests in one scene is reduced by 3.

In context, going back to Bond, the scene plays like this:

Bond flubs his initial Cover check. He knows the villain is suspicious. So Bond establishes a Big Store, using Preparedness to make that possible since this is probably a 2 point spend situation. The reduced Difficulty is then used to make another Cover check in a new scene - remember, Difficulty increased by Heat and then reduces by the Store - and if this one succeeds, then the Difficulty of all future checks is no longer increased by the amount of Heat the group has generated. It drops back to 4, and Bond breaths a sigh of relief.

I hope that all makes sense! It's an expensive TFFB, so most players aren't going to try this every time they deal with an obnoxious bureaucrat at passport control. But for those moments when you're dealing with someone really important, like the major villain or a significant henchman, the Store can be the difference between a Cover that works, and a trip to the river with concrete shoes on your feet.

As far as Carte Blanche is concerned, if you're a Bond purist then you probably oughtn't to pick it up, as it may frustrate you. However there's plenty of fun to be had here, as well as some ideas for a Director to steal. I particularly recommend Bond's solution to a problem that Fleming never tackled: what to do if you capture, rather than kill, the villain. And no, that's not a spoiler. It's a Bond novel; you didn't think Bond was going to lose, did you? Deaver hasn't published any other Bond novels, but if he does, they may be worth seeking out.


Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Battleground of the Mind (Bookhounds of London)

In this ongoing series on Bookhounds campaign design, so far I've talked about the setting, why a bookstore should be either Spring or Winter, and what the first arc might look like. Now I want to take a step back and talk about another concept, borrowed in part from Ars Magica but also from Ken Hite's KWAS Mind Control: the Regio.

In Ars Magica, a Regio is a place of power. It draws its power from one of several possible spiritual sources: the Infernal, the Divine, Faerie, or Magic. More than one region is called a regiones, and in situations where multiple regiones are layered one on top of the other, a peculiar thing happens. Two people can stand in the same place at the same time, and yet be in two different versions of that same place.

Take a horror setting regiones, for example: a ruined castle. On the lowest level, which everyone can see, it is exactly that: a ruined castle. Faintly forbidding, and probably a bit nasty to hang around in for any length of time. It has a nasty reputation, and perhaps bad things happen there from time to time. But even with that, people who look at it see just the ruined castle.

At the next highest level, things change. It's still a ruined castle, but now the eerie quotient is raised. Strange noises, peculiar lights, odd weather effects, even unusual animals or ordinary animals that behave in an unusual way. Someone not in the regio, but looking at the castle from afar, would see none of these things. Someone near the castle, but not on that level, also does not see these things. However they don't see anyone on the next highest level either, nor do the people in the next highest level see them.

At the third level, things change still further. Now perhaps the castle is less ruined than it first appeared. It might not be completely rebuilt, but that tower where everyone says the old Baron used to torture his captives is intact. Also, the eerie effects increase in intensity, and achieve a kind of physicality not seen before. Old bloodstains become fresh blood. Faint moans become ear-piercing shrieks, and corpses which long ago went to dust have physical form. Moreover if there's any entity here capable of posing a physical threat, that entity exists and can harm people on this level of the regiones.

AD&D's Ravenloft setting played with a very similar concept, calling it a Sinkhole of Evil. As with the regiones, a Sinkhole exists on multiple levels of consciousness, but here the Sinkholes are Ranked in terms of the event that created them. A Sinkhole of Rank 1 can be created by intense emotions. A Rank 2 can be created by emotions and a particular evil event, say the spot where a murder occurred. A Rank 3 can be created by emotions and a prolonged event or series of events, such as a torture session that lasts several days. A Rank 4 can be created by emotions, prolonged activity and a remarkable event, such as the sacrifice of multiple people at an unholy chapel over a period of years. A Rank 5 is the most monstrous, the kind of thing reserved for battlefields where the hopes and youth of warring nations were sacrificed to no good end. The scarred landscape of the Somme or Passchendaele, in a game based in our world, could be a Rank 5 Sinkhole.

Leaping to the KWAS, Ken Hite suggests something interesting: a conflict of the mind, in which the players battle for control of the Superego, Ego, and Id. With each conquest the conqueror becomes bolder and more powerful, meaning that resistance to future conflicts is at a penalty. Here is a situation in which the evil is, quite literally, within. But like the regio, and like the Sinkhole, it exists on a completely different level: it's a fight that cannot be seen from the outside, which is being powered by something unspeakably evil, and which can do incredible damage all without being seen by anyone not directly involved in the situation.

With that I propose the overarching plot of the Bookhounds campaign: the return of the Comte d'Erlette, author of the Cultes des Ghoules, through the flesh of a player character.

The Comte laid plans for this long ago. Through his book - bound in human skin, one of the special volumes - he laid the seed. He's been waiting a very long time for someone to find it, touch it, even read it, and now he has that someone. There was a time when Etienne du Bourg was the target, but Etienne forestalled that plan by dying - and really, was his death an accident, or did Etienne decide suicide was the better way out? Since then, the Comte has waited patiently for the right candidate.

Along come the protagonists.

This shall be a battle of the minds, that takes place at intervals during the plot. In each instance the Comte goes after the geography of the mind, striking out at the Superego, Ego, and Id. If successful, the Comte gets a new body, and with it a new lease on life.

Exactly which player gets the dubious honor of becoming a target will depend largely on circumstance. Is there a protagonist who has paid special attention to the book? Then the choice is obvious. Otherwise it will be up to the Keeper to decide who's first on the list, but if, say, someone should have the bad manners to die before Mind Control can be achieved, then the Comte sighs and moves on to the next likely target.

To look at, each layer of the target's mind exactly resembles the Bookstore, du Bourg's. Except different somehow, in odd little ways. A level 1 might be slightly unusual, feature NPCs who no longer exist - because they died - or have doors that will not open. A level 2 has doors which do open, and the protagonists may devoutly wish that they did not. Strange and terrible creatures may stalk the halls. Odd landscapes may be seen out the windows. A level 3 is completely beyond the bounds of reality. There is no outside world in this scenario, and you cannot trust any door to lead where you think it ought to.

Movement from reality to the mental realm may be as easy as stepping from one room to the next. The target simply discovers that, when she emerges from the stockroom laden with books that a customer asked for, not only is the customer not there but neither is anyone else. That signals the start of a mental attack, but as to when it ends ... ah, there's the rub.

How to get the other players involved? Well there are two obvious ways. First, the target can create the other characters in her mind, using them as mental bodyguards. The other players take over the role of those bodyguards, and play them as usual. Perhaps they have slightly unusual appearances; someone she always thought had a fish-face, say, now really is a fish, in a much-patched suit and cheap cravat.. But fundamentally they are the same people with the same suite of abilities. This option allows the Keeper to use lethal force without troubling his conscience too much about whether a character lives or dies. A mental construct, after all, can die multiple times - theoretically, anyway.

The other option is to use magic. If the characters on the outside find their companion standing mute and apparently senseless, the victim of a mental attack, they can use, say, Idiosyncratic Magic to get into their friend's mindscape. From there the game plays out as normal, only without the multiple deaths. One is quite enough.

As to how this might play out, that will wait for future posts, I feel.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Battlefield 1 Reveal Trailer - Historical Jibber Jabber

It's rare I have something drop in from the mystic land of videogames that's so firmly in my wheelhouse as Battlefield 1, the latest iteration in the warfare FPS franchise from Electronic Arts. As I'm busy working on an Esoterror project - more later - I thought I'd use the trailer as a mental cleanser, popping in from time to time to give my thoughts on it when I want a break from the project.

Little is known about the game itself. It's set in the Great War. It's already been revealed that the Harlem Hellfighters, the black American (or perhaps that ought to be French, since the Americans wouldn't let them fight under the Stars and Stripes) regiment, will be a significant part of the game. Allegedly you'll be able to pilot tanks, planes and battleships as well as engage in ground combat. Not entirely sure why, since naval warfare really wasn't a thing in the Great War; everyone stayed home after Jutland. It might have been more interesting to give the players submarines. But what the hell.

With that in mind, the trailer:

First thought: the music's OK, but I would have preferred at least a nod to the tunes of the time rather than leap in with White Stripes. Eh, whatever.

0.08: trench warfare. Looking accurate so far.

0.09-11: desert warfare. Cool, the game's looking beyond the usual Trench Warfare stuff. Apparently that's a woman riding at the charge. Fair do. Not sure about the henna face tattoo; I thought that mehndi was more of a festivals/weddings tradition, than a 'let's stab people up and look good doing it' thing. Also, face tattoo? Is that what traditional mehndi's for?

0.14-0.17: back to the trenches again. Not sure when this is. I'm going to cross my fingers and say  1917-18. It's remarkable that everyone's striding around upright given the snipers, shrapnel and machine gun nests everywhere.

0.18-0.21: only one flyer used an all-red crate, and he didn't crash into what looks like a desert outcropping. Also, triplanes in the desert, what the hell. There was air warfare in the desert, but they used clapped-out hand-me-downs from the Western Front, not the latest and most modern kit. Plus I'm getting muddy about the timeline. If that's a tripe then this is probably 1917. So what's that remarkably intact building doing there? Why does everything look comparatively nice and not bombed to hell and gone?

0.25: Tanks? In the desert? Bullshit. Plus, if those are tanks, then this is 1918. They're working remarkably well, under the circumstances. The early tanks didn't like mud; God knows what those delicate little darlings would have made of sand, sand, sand as far as the eye can see. It's bad enough trying mechanized warfare in the desert in the present day. Those things would have gone two foot, coughed, and died.

0.034: I have absolutely no idea where we are. Italy? Maybe? It's the only explanation for why everything looks so green and verdant.

0.36: onwards, yeah, forget it. Not a clue. Most of it's trench warfare, some of it's sea warfare - again, that all came to a halt after Jutland - a chunk of it's air warfare, and I couldn't begin to tell when or where this is meant to be. Except there are tanks. So presumably 1918, Western Front. Except those are British tanks attacking what seems to be a British, or possibly American, position. Well done, lads. Medals for everyone. Historical note: the Germans did have tanks, but they never really got the chance to use them, except for one inconclusive little scrap in April 1918.

0.54-56: A zeppelin? What on earth for? Those things were a joke by 1918. You might as well send in Charlie Chaplin.

1.01: well, it's all over now, and I don't have to listen to that Godawful music. Thank Christ.

Impressions: it's traditional at this point to scream 'no gameplay' at the top of your voice, but in this case I think the criticism isn't as on-point as it could be. This is EA, after all, and Battlefield is one of its showcase warfare FPS titles. Unless someone screws up dramatically the gameplay will be solid but uninspired, because it is always solid but uninspired. Equally if there was anything really interesting it would be in the trailer, and it isn't. So nothing to look forward to, or to worry about.

It's just cinema, and not even very interesting cinema. It's unusual to see a Great War themed game, but there have been a few of those recently - Valiant Hearts, for instance - so it's not a complete shocker. I predict a bland and uninspiring single player experience tacked onto what is probably intended to be a multiplayer extravaganza that will last until the servers go dark. So maybe two years.

It's odd. There's been a bunch of multiplayer titles recently - Destiny, the Division, whatever that bloody silly mecha titans game was a year or two back - and all of them seem to be aiming for roughly the same market. Presumably someone out there is praying for a Team Fortress 2 success-level title, rather than the withered fruit that drops off the twig these days. But these things cost a fortune and if they're all leeching from the same customer base I don't know how the hell they're meant to make a profit.

Mind you, these are all made by the same small handful of AAA developers, and that might be the point. As the audience for Titanfall dwindles repurpose the servers for whatever Battlefield title is coming up the pipe, and that way you seldom have to worry about underutilized assets.  

Final verdict: historically wobbly justification for what's very likely to be Just Another Shooter. Collector's Edition pre-order at $220-odd (Jesus Wept), but that includes the statue and other gimmicks which nobody in their right mind needs, and you know in your heart that any DLC in the pre-order will eventually be released for everyone to buy sometime after launch. I note that the Desert War and Red Baron packs seem to be separate assets, so presumably if you just buy the core game you only play in the trenches.

Incidentally what the hell is it with pre-order rubbish? I liked feelies back in the day; the cloth map you got with Ultima III Exodus was part of the fun, and had in-game relevance. But the monkeys have taken over the zoo. Who needs yet another dust-bunny up on the mantelpiece, gawping down at the living room like a senile relative at a bar mitzvah? Just how stupid is the average consumer, anyway?

Don't answer that.