Saturday, 28 February 2015

Mystery of the Mary Celeste (Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu)

The story of the Mary Celeste is one of those useful spine tingling tales that ghost story writers have relied on for over a century, to add that extra chill to a mystery ship story. Imagine finding a derelict, adrift at sea, all sails set and a meal cooling on the table. There's no sign of captain or crew, and the ship's log indicates that the voyage was an uneventful as any captain could wish for, right up to the presumed moment when everyone vanished. What happened? Was it an ordinary, tragic disaster at sea, or did something otherwordly happen to this ship's crew?

In the case of the Mary Celeste, most of what people think they know is, in fact, false. There was no meal cooling on the table. Much of the ship's contents were soaked with sea water, indicating a sudden event, though what that event was remains a subject for debate. Waterspouts and seaquakes, as well as more ordinary incidents, have been cited as possible causes. Several items were missing, including the ship's papers and navigation equipment, and there's evidence that the ship's boat was launched. There was no indication of sudden violence, despite the best efforts of Frederick Solly Flood, attorney general of Gibraltar and one of the chief officers of the court of inquiry into the incident, to persuade the court otherwise. In all likelihood the crew of the Mary Celeste abandoned the ship in fear of their lives, only to perish on the open sea. The ship they abandoned went on drifting with the wind and currents, before being intercepted by the Dei Gratia and brought to Gibraltar.

The real mystery isn't so much what happened, as why. The captain, Benjamin Briggs, was a very experienced sailor from a family of experienced sailors. His wife and daughter were aboard, as well as a crew of seven; two mates, a steward and four seamen. All were veteran seamen, and had good characters; one, the first mate, had sailed with Briggs before. There seems to be no good reason why a captain and crew as well prepared and capable as they should decide to abandon an apparently seaworthy ship and risk their lives in a lifeboat.

This was Briggs' first voyage with the Mary Celeste, which he and his brother had bought as a joint investment.  Briggs took her down to New York to pick up cargo, a hold full of denatured alcohol, which he intended to ship to Genoa. He departed harbor on November 7, 1872. The Dei Gratia would later discover the abandoned Mary Celeste on December 4th. There's no clear indication of what happened to her between the 7th and the 4th; the ship's log was one of the things missing, though the daily slate - where notes would have been taken each day, later to be transferred to the log - was still aboard. The slate indicated nothing untoward.

The tragic Mary Celeste became a ghost story, rather than a maritime disaster story, thanks in part to the efforts of fiction writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote and published one of his first stories, J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement, about the disaster. Much to his astonishment, people began repeating that story - involving murder on the high seas by a man intent on race war - as true, and soon others began inventing spook tales which, in turn, became accepted as the 'true account' of the tragedy of the Mary Celeste. Nothing was too outrageous or outre. Perhaps the crew were devoured by a giant octopus, perhaps aliens got them, perhaps the captain, in a burst of religious mania, murdered everyone aboard ... and so on.

The truth is probably more prosaic. It's possible that Briggs became convinced that his cargo was about to explode, or that the ship was about to sink. Both events would justify abandoning ship, and there's at least some evidence to support either theory. The sounding rod - a bit of iron with rope attached, used in the same way you'd use a dipstick in your car - was found on deck, as if dropped there in a hurry, and the hatches were open, possibly to air the hold out. The crew may not have intended to completely abandon the ship; they may have been attached to the Mary Celeste with a rope, which subsequently snapped.

Even so, it's surprising that Briggs left the Mary Celeste completely unmanned. After all, the ship contains what amounts to his life savings and hopes for the future; he'd have to be pretty convinced all was lost to abandon it completely. It would have been more in character to send most of the crew, and his wife and child, out in the boat, particularly if it were tied to the Mary Celeste, and stay aboard himself. Brigantines like the Mary Celeste aren't complicated to operate; the Dei Gratia got her to Gibraltar with a four man crew, and it would have been possible to keep her going with one man only. It would have been incredibly difficult and exhausting, but it could have been done. 'She was so sound and stout,' said Oliver Deveau, the Dei Gratia's first mate and the man who sailed Mary Celeste to Gibraltar, 'That I cannot think that if I had been on board I should have abandoned her. I should have considered her safer than an open boat unless she was on the rocks.' 

It would make more sense if Briggs stayed aboard, yet clearly he did not. It makes me wonder if he was out of commission at this point, perhaps having taken a blow to the head during the same incident that put the Mary Celeste in peril. The crew, lacking leadership and faced with what seemed to them to be extreme danger, might have launched the boat with him in it. Or perhaps he did stay aboard, only to see the ship's boat come adrift, or even capsize, taking his wife and daughter to the bottom. That might have been enough to make him throw himself overboard. Or that event, whatever it may have been, which put the Mary Celeste in jeopardy might have been so severe as to make staying aboard an impossibility. Threat of an exploding cargo would do that.

After the Mary Celeste was brought to Gibraltar, the inquiry into her abandonment very nearly became a one-man lynch mob. Flood, convinced that murder or mutiny was at the back of the mystery, was hell-bent on proving that the crew had met with foul play, and that the Dei Gratia's people were somehow behind it all. This theory met with a severe setback when scientific investigation proved beyond question that stains found on the ship, and on a sword discovered in Briggs' cabin, were not blood. Eventually the court decided to uphold the Dei Gratia's salvage claim, but awarded it a relative pittance of one-fifth the value of the Mary Celeste, including cargo. Probably this was because the court had made its own mind up and felt that there was still some merit in the piracy argument, though there was no evidence to support it. Just goes to show, when the judge hates you, you might as well stay as far away from the court as possible.

The Mary Celeste bounced from owner to owner for a while, before finally finding its way to Gilman C. Parker in 1884. She now had a reputation as an unlucky ship, and had regularly lost money on her cruises. Parker loaded her with a supposedly valuable cargo, insured that cargo with three different agencies, and took her down to Haiti, where she conveniently found her way onto a reef and went down. '[I] had no more intention of wrecking the vessel,' said Parker to a disbelieving New York court of inquiry, 'Than I did of cutting my own throat.'

Yet that valuable cargo proved, on inspection, to be dog collars, spoiled beer, and rotten fish, loaded by merchants who clearly expected a huge insurance payout. Parker was charged with barratry - damaging a vessel or its cargo through abandonment, illegal scuttling or theft - which carried the death penalty. In the end barratry was dropped, though other charges were brought against Parker and the merchants. In the one case that came to court the jury refused to deliver a verdict, as there were several counts pending against Parker and his accomplices, and it was unwilling to prejudice the case against Parker in those separate indictments by returning a guilty verdict, particularly since the barratry indictment might mean hanging. The insurers immediately requested a new trial, but the court, electing not to go through all that expensive mess again, persuaded all concerned to drop charges. The insurers wouldn't have to pay out, any money already paid would be returned with interest, and the accused would leave the court, free men.

In the aftermath, one of the accused went insane, another committed suicide, the rest went out of business, and Parker himself died within three month, destitute and with a ruined reputation. The Mary Celeste remains on that Haitian reef to this day.

If the aspiring Keeper wants to use this tale as a one-off, say for Fear Itself or Trail, and is looking for more information, I highly recommend Paul Begg's Mary Celeste: The Greatest Mystery of the Sea. If you already know Begg's name, then you're probably a Jack the Ripper fan.

Here's some potential treatments:

You're all members of the Mary Celeste crew. One of you becomes possessed by an unclean spirit, or perhaps just goes mad, and starts killing off crewmates one by one. Who's behind it? Is it some kind of shapeshifting demon? A ghost? Some invisible Cthulhuoid entity, running the crewman like a puppet?

Or alternatively, the Mary Celeste comes under attack by something otherwordly, or just overwhelmingly powerful; a giant octopus, say. Then it becomes a survival horror narrative, with crewmen trapped below decks or in cabins, trying to keep the monster at bay, while its questing tentacles probe at every weak spot. 

A Trail 1930s scenario could have the characters go to Haiti, perhaps to investigate something else, or even to shoot a film about the Mary Celeste. Maybe they're led there by evidence discovered in New York; perhaps one of the merchants, the insane one or the suicide, left some document behind that strongly hints at an occult angle to the Mary Celeste's wrecking. There they discover that whatever curse struck down the crew of the Mary Celeste is still very much active, and claiming more lives. Sorcerers ashore are trying to put a stop to it with their own magic, but whatever it is, it's far too powerful for them. Or perhaps those sorcerers have been salvaging bits from the Mary Celeste to use in their own spirit magic, only to discover that, whatever it is, it's much too dangerous to handle.

Once TimeWatch becomes available, there are other options. After all, the Mary Celeste story has already been the subject of at least one time traveler's adventures. Mysterious disappearances ought to be meat and drink to aspiring time agents.

That's it for the moment! I hope you find this useful. Enjoy!

Friday, 20 February 2015

Island Paradise (Night's Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Fear Itself)

There's a great New York Times article over here on the buying habits of the very, very rich, which I recommend you look at. It caught my eye at first because Bermuda's number one of the list of places to buy property, and it's always nice to see your home make the number one spot on any list. [he says, as he contemplates a mortgage that will never be affordable if he lives to be a thousand.]

For those of you who don't fancy skimming it, the article talks about how great it can be to buy an island of your very own. Imagine living on, say, Buck Island in the BVI, with its protected bay, house that can accommodate twenty, and its helicopter pad, for those days when you can't be bothered to sail in. The BVI's only a few hours out from the East Coast - you need to fly somewhere else first, then fly from there to the Virgin Islands - so theoretically you could go out in the morning, have lunch at your island paradise, and be back in New York before night falls. All of which is probably much easier to do if you have your own private jet, and if you can afford Buck Island's $25 million asking price, a private jet shouldn't be a problem for you.

As a location for a scenario, or even just a scene in a larger piece, a private island is perfect. It's far enough away from the mainland that the protagonists can't expect backup. It may be so far away that ordinary cellphone communication is impossible. In some parts of the world, like Greece, a private island can have been inhabited for centuries, if not millennia; who knows what kind of terrifying rituals took place at that haunted monastery, or castle? Or, in a modern twist, who knows why that luxury hotel was abandoned twenty years ago? The only way to find out is to go there and investigate ...

Looking at this from an RPG perspective, why would, say, the vampire Conspyracy or the Esoterrorists want an island?

Well, for one thing an island is very private. You can do almost anything out there, and nobody's ever going to know. Esoteric rituals, sacrifices, clandestine meetings of the higher-ups in the conspyramid, strange scientific experiments; it's perfect for all your security needs. Plus whichever governmental authority controls the comings and goings - in BVI, for instance, the ultimate authority is the Crown, represented by the island's Governor, and there's also an elected government led by a Premier - is probably going to bend over backwards to keep you happy. You're fabulously wealthy, after all; the local economy may significantly benefit from your continued patronage. This means that any nosy foreigners asking questions may meet with considerable local resistance, further keeping your island secrets secure.

Traditionally, an island stronghold has also been useful for resupply and smuggling. If you manage a fleet of ships or planes that perhaps don't have enough operational range to get from the mainland to their appointed destination, having an island depot capable of resupplying, even repairing, those vessels can be very handy. This was more of a problem in the days of sail and coal than it is in the modern era, but it's still something to bear in mind.

Smuggling has always been a popular island pastime. In Bermuda, for example, we smuggled cotton and guns during the American Civil War, and booze during Prohibition. As we're protected by the British flag, the American government didn't want to come in mob-handed, as it might otherwise have done.

Smuggling doesn't have to stop at trade goods. People smuggling has been a popular occupation for time out of mind. In the Mediterranean, refugees flow through Libya to Italy, often via the island of Lampedusa. Since then, people smugglers have adopted the reprehensible tactic of taking their customers up to the coast of Italy by boat, then abandoning the boat, knowing that the coast guard will have no choice but to save the refugees on board. Australia has maintained several island detention centers, to dissuade ocean-going migrants.

From a Keeper's perspective, a private island is an excellent setting for a stand-alone game, say Fear Itself. The characters arrive as guests, perhaps of an unknown patron - shades of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Please Avoid Ethnic Stereotypes - and fall victim to, say, zombies. Or Nazi zombies, why not. Or prehistoric creatures, revived for your pleasure. Or anything else, but the point behind an island locale is that it automatically creates the things you need for horror: isolation, unfamiliarity, lack of resources. Isolation is fairly obvious, as is lack of resources. Unfamiliarity is a little different, but in this instance it refers to the landscape and the circumstances. Unless the players are very familiar with boats and the nomadic lifestyle, they've probably never been in an environment like this. It's all very well in the brochures, and places where there's a well-trained staff to cater for your least whim. It's a bit different when there's no other humans for God alone knows how many miles in any direction. when the generator dies and you don't know how to fix it, when the winds kick up and the roof sounds as if it's about to take flight.

That's it for now! Happy island hopping.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A Whole Bunch Of Pandas (Night's Black Agents)

I'm not sure what the collective noun for Pandas is - herd? pod? murder? - but if cybersecurity outfit CrowdStrike is to be believed, there's a whole heck of a lot of them out there on the internet.

CrowdStrike released a report on hacking in 2014, naming the main players, and the most serious threats, on the global network. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority call themselves some kind of Panda; GOBLIN PANDA, VIXEN PANDA, PITTY PANDA, GOTHIC PANDA, PREDATOR PANDA, DYNAMITE PANDA, SPICY PANDA ... the list goes on. Presumably this indicates a Chinese origin, or at any rate some kind of Chinese connection. Some of them are certainly run by the Chinese government, or at least hired on a freelance basis by the authorities, but your guess is as good as mine as to who did what to whom.

The whole report is well worth reading, and plugging into your Night's Black Agents game. It is free to download, so there's no reason not to give it a bash.  I want to draw your attention to the Notable Activity section, from page 28 to 29, and the section on DerpTrolling. I'm going to quote that section in its entirety:

The hacking collective DerpTrolling made early 2014 media headlines after claiming a string of DDoS attacks on multiple gaming companies and online gaming servers. The group likely originated out of the Steam gaming community, where some of its suspected members engaged in early DDoS attacks on rival gaming clans and their servers. DerpTrolling’s antics were often childish and had no clear motive other than being “for the lulz” and to boost their own egos. For this reason, they cannot be classified as hacktivists. Despite their immaturity, the collective was able to consistently carry out DDoS attacks on targets of their choosing, and these attacks had a real-world effect on the victims within the gaming community.

The attacks were particularly noteworthy as their DDoS tool, dubbed the Gaben Laser Beam (GLB) after Gabe Newell, the creator of Half-Life and the Steam community, supposedly created an attack that exceeded 400 gbps of network traffic utilizing a NTP reflection attack. This suggested DerpTrolling possessed an above-average knowledge of network protocols. While NTP reflection is commonly known in the security community, most “script kiddies” or “skids” were not aware of some of these more advanced techniques involving amplification, which allows for fewer devices needed to pull off larger DDoS attacks.

DerpTrolling has reportedly had several run-ins with law enforcement, though it is unclear how much of this is verifiable versus a ploy to increase their notoriety. One supposed encounter resulted in the group going silent for several months before returning and carrying out lower-level attacks on the gaming community once again. Given the collective’s poor operational security practices, it is likely that the members are actively being tracked by law enforcement agencies and that they cannot continue to maintain high-profile attacks while evading capture.

Emphasis mine.

Let's consider what that means, from an RPG point of view. The Double Tap book gives the Keeper a list of Cameos, potential NPCs to be used as needed. Each NPC is described in three possible ways: as an Asset, a Clue, and In Play. The Cameo also includes the preferred Interpersonal method to win their cooperation.

Here we have an example of a Cameo that's all but built for gaming. Not only does this hacker have the skills a character might want to draw on, she also has a background that practically invites law enforcement involvement. As has been shown before, law enforcement is adept at turning former hackers against their friends in the collective; what could be easier, for a NBA spook, than to lean on a hacker informant for dirt on the Conspyracy?

With all that in mind:


Conceal 4, Digital Intrusion 7, Infiltration 3, Mechanics 3

Sarah, aka R33pc33p - a reference to her favorite fictional character, Reepicheep - is one of four founding members of the hacker group LOLchat, first created on the message boards for online multiplayer shooter LeftB3hind. The group self-identified as hacktivists, but was really more interested in causing grief in online gaming communities, 'for the lulz.' It specialized in DDoS attacks, carrying out several significant coups, among them taking the PSN offline for four days, in summer 2013. Shortly after that the LOLchat group went dark, and it was believed at the time that poor security practices led to their apprehension by law enforcement. LOLchat has since made a relatively quiet comeback in 2014, engaging in minor harassment. R33pc33p is now the most active member, and seems to have graduated from lulz to more significant criminal enterprises. Several Point of Sale malware kits are thought to have been created, and distributed, by R33pc33p. In person, Sarah is a skinny, pale brunette who likes to wear colorful clothes, particularly game-related merchandise and T-shirts. She rarely comes outside any more, preferring her online identity, though she is known to attend two major game conventions each year. (Intimidation, Cop Talk, Flattery, Data Recovery)

AS ASSET: Can provide custom malware kits; keeps records on every entity she's ever hacked, or done business with, including confidential files ripped from their systems; can help create false online identities.

AS CLUE: Is harassing a Conspyracy asset; is an informant for both the Conspyracy and law enforcement, and is having trouble telling them apart; has collected a ton of evidence and files on the target her handlers wanted her to go after, but is now holding that information to ransom; is participating in the same online competitive multiplayer game as a Conspyracy asset, either in a rival gaming clan, or in the asset's clan.

IN PLAY: Flamboyant, extravagant in action and in deed. Emulates her hero Reepicheep, in that she follows a code of honor. Never pays too close attention to anything, unless it's online competitive multiplayer, or creating malware tools. Get very excited if close to victory!  

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Marseille Option (Night's Black Agents)

Marseille, France: on Monday, heavily armed gangsters opened fire on a police car. Nobody was reported injured, and a response team - 100 special forces police - were dispatched to lock down and search the housing estate, Castellane, where the incident took place. A small cache of weapons, money and drugs is reported to have been found.

According to reports the occupants of the police car were Pierre-Marie Bourniquel, the departmental director of public security, and a police chief. They were inspecting the estate, a known narcotics hub, prior to the arrival of the Prime Minister, who was supposed to congratulate the city on its crime crackdown.

They fell foul of a small group of assailants armed with Kalashnikovs, who were searching the estate for members of a rival gang. One sniper apparently got a little too excited, and started firing at the police car when it showed up.

All of which goes to show just how quickly things can deteriorate, under the right circumstances. I very much doubt that the gangsters wanted to be hit by a special ops unit, 100 members strong. Equally I doubt that Marseille really wanted this kind of black eye just before the Prime Minister's visit.

However it does suggest an interesting possibility for Night's Black Agents: what would happen if, at the worst possible moment, completely unrelated events caused a sudden, massive increase in police presence on the streets?

The protagonists could make it work for them, perhaps even provoke the incident by sending the powers that be proof positive that, say, a terrorist cell, or mad bomber, is at work. Or they could opt for something a little more mundane, like rigging the traffic control so that it makes the streets impossible to navigate. That might make a Chase scene all that more difficult for the pursuers. Of course, it does mean you'll want to plan out your escape route in advance, but that's what Preparedness is for.

Of course, it could be something neither the protagonists nor the OPFOR anticipated: a completely random event, like a riot, gang shooting, fire, power station fire, train crash or other significant crisis. The police, emergency services, even the army could be called out. Spot checks, blockades, and other choke point hazards could end up blowing someone's Cover, and then all bets are off. This is less a chase scene moment and more a tense game of cat and mouse, as both sides try to navigate safely past the hazard towards the objective.

A third option could be to have it be something that the OPFOR provokes, possibly by accident. After all, in the Marseille example, the incident's sparked off by a handful of heavily armed dimwits, who happen to find the one thing they really shouldn't have shot at. Any other day, and it wouldn't have been a problem, or at least not as much of one.The Conspyracy has plenty of knuckleheads on its payroll; after all, someone has to do the heavy lifting. Maybe one of them got a little careless. The wrong kind of carelessness at the wrong time - say, when the protagonists are about to infiltrate an OPFOR facility - could make life difficult for everyone.

In game terms, the increase in public security caused by the Marseille Option is represented by Heat. Ordinarily the characters always have Heat 1, representing the fact that, just by existing and doing what they do, they attract some notice from the powers that be. In the event of a major special event, Heat automatically goes up by +1, so base Heat is 2. This represents the fact that the police, and possibly more than the police, are on high alert. They're not looking for the characters specifically, but anyone who looks even remotely dodgy is going to get their attention, because right now they're amped up and ready to go. The target doesn't matter so much any more, not when you're full of adrenaline and convinced you're about to get into a shooting war.

In any Chase scene where the Marseille Option is in effect, Difficulty is automatically going to increase. Again, this doesn't represent specific OPFOR action or police tactics; it just means that travel for everyone right now is a nightmare. Where Difficulty is usually 4, now it is 5, possibly more, depending on the circumstances. This applies equally for all involved in the chase.

If this is a Marseille Option that the protagonists deliberately caused, as cover for their own activity, then a Preparedness check, minimum Difficulty 4, reduces their Chase Difficulty by 2. So in those circumstances the OPFOR is at Difficulty 5 minimum, while the protagonists are Difficulty 3. The police, if they get involved, are either Difficulty 4, or 5. Difficulty 4, if the Option is something they have some control over, like a series of police blockades set up to catch a terrorist; Difficulty 5 if it's something they have no control over, like all the traffic lights in the city going wrong at the same time.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Forgotten Lore (Bookhounds of London)

In the wake of Ken Hite's recent KWAS, Goetia, I'd like to talk about grimoires. What are they, and what can a Keeper do with them?

A grimoire can best be described as a magic text, filled with occult secrets, intended to instruct the reader. Often the instruction contains information on how to cast a spell, to summon forth demons, angels or other spirits, and how to attain supernatural power. Supernatural power is a wide-ranging term, but it doesn't mean the ability to chuck fireballs about; it means the ability to find things, or do things, that the user otherwise cannot find or do. Often this means finding treasure, coercing someone to fall in love with you, or some other relatively mundane feat which the user desires, but cannot achieve himself. This is usually tailored to the customer's specific desires; for example, many military men, even in the Enlightenment, believed they could increase their martial skill through diabolic means, or attributed a rival's ability to the machinations of the Devil.

There are several things to bear in mind when considering grimoires, but the chief fact is this: people prefer to believe that the best kind of magic is exotic magic, from some foreign source. The West looks to the East for its magical inspiration, while the East looks to the West. This is one of the reasons why Hoodoo magic, for example, often draws on European sources for its mystic authority. The publisher William Delaurence, also known as De Laurence, of Chicago, cribbed much of his knowledge from authors like Levi and Waite, turning their work into his mail-order Book of Moses. Meanwhile Levi and Waite were getting their information from sources like the Kabbalah, and Levi happily prattles about an eternal knowledge that can be found 'the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvelous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practised at reception by all secret societies ...' 

Mystic isn't what you find next door. Mystic is what you find in far-off lands, where there are foreigners and strange, spicy foods. It's even better if your source is both foreign and old; age gives even the most crackbrained of philosophies a dignified patina.

Another thing to bear in mind is that grimoires are often banned, or at any rate frowned upon by the powers that be. Delaurence's work, for example, is still outlawed in Jamaica, even today. Sometimes this can lead to less-than-amusing instances of mistaken identity. Dungeons and Dragons, in the 1980s, was frequently condemned by hard right-wing and conservative Christian movements, and people like Patricia Pulling and Jack Chick tried to convince us all that the game's Satanic underpinnings led to suicide, and worse

The third thing to bear in mind is that you don't really need any kind of qualification, or experience, to write a grimoire. Anybody can do it, and with mass publishing, many hundreds of thousands have done it, often under assumed identities, occasionally under their own name. Delaurence knew that putting his own name on a book guaranteed a sale, such was the power of his reputation, but frequently the imagery used to promote his books is pseudo-Hindu, evocative of the mysterious East. Even today, it's not at all difficult to find many hundreds of small presses churning out occult text after text, most of them almost certainly rehashing the grimoires of old, much as Delaurence himself did.

What does this mean for Bookhounds of London?

To begin with, it means that, if the protagonists' shop becomes known for selling grimoires and odd incunabula, they are probably going to run foul of the law. Someone will make a complaint, probably some busybody who glanced in the window and saw something they didn't like. The police, even if they don't really believe in magic, are going to be very interested in the kind of shady customers who do, and who probably frequent the shop. The police may even begin to suspect that the characters are involved with pornography, or worse. As for the local church, while the Anglicans have always been a bit live-and-let-live, there's bound to be a firebrand out there somewhere willing to camp out on the characters' doorstep and accuse them of corrupting minds, or working in Satan's army.

It also means that there will be dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of self-published or small press authors, besieging the bookshop monthly. You sell this stuff, they say, so why not sell, or even publish, mine? Here, I have the authentic mysteries straight from the trackless jungles of Tibet, or the scorching deserts of India, the mysterious pyramids of Timbuctoo ... and so on. Some of them will actually know what they are talking about, but most won't. Lack of knowledge has never stopped an author yet.

Meanwhile the customers will be after texts that service their peculiar needs. It might be true love, promotion at work, hidden treasure - most likely along the lines of 'where did granny put the will' rather than heaps of gold, but treasure nonetheless - success at cards, success on the stage, or any one of the thousands of other desires that people come up with. If your shop is frequented by theatrical types, they will want a specific kind of grimoire. Bored housewives will want something else, and so on.   

Ah, but what about the true mysteries? After all, the Goetia KWAS isn't about fakers and cheesecloth ectoplasm; it presumes spirits can be summoned up.

To begin with, it's reasonable to assume that, most of the time, the Bookhounds will be selling on these texts, rather than using them. All kinds of ideas can flow from this. For example, what about the dissatisfied customer, the one who bought your forged grimoire, tried it, and found that it didn't work? That could result in something fairly mundane, like a Reversal in the shop's fortunes, as the bad press gets around. It could also have unforseen results, as with the customer who thought he was summoning up one demon, but in fact found himself summoning up something else altogether, thanks to a misprint or your Hounds' careless forger. In that event, the entity summoned up might want to return to the store, either to have a little bit of fun with the people responsible for its release, or because it needs something - the bits of its book that the Hounds didn't use in the forgery, for example.

It's also possible that the customer who successfully summons demons might want to use them against the Hounds, for whatever reason. Imagine the lovelorn suitor, passionately pursuing, say, the book scout, or owner of the shop. That customer might send a demon in to seal the deal. Or someone wanting more books might send demons to the shop as a persuader, either to get the Hounds to find the books for her, or to get the Hounds to lower their price. Or the collector who's trying to get hold of all published editions of a particular imprint, sending the Hounds to demon-haunted places in pursuit of his prize.

But suppose for a moment that the Hounds decide to summon some demons of their own? There might be many reasons for doing so, but one of the most likely is financial, to keep the shop going, or to engineer a Windfall.

Well, demons are notoriously unreliable fellows. They might stick around, haunting the book stacks. Or the same ritual that summoned them might have let lesser spirits in as well, things which could make life very tricky for the Hounds. When asked to exterminate these pests, the original demon might reply that it's not in the Pact for it to play rat-catcher, or it might acquiesce, for a fee, of course.

The chief thing to bear in mind is, whatever this spirit, fallen angel, or Cthulhoid remnant is, it has a personality, and it has goals. The summoner might see it as a tool, or a servant, but nothing could be further from the truth. A demon is an intelligent entity, and it knows what it's getting into when it responds to a summons. It's done this many thousands of times before, after all. Some demons are warlike, gnashing their teeth and stamping the ground, relying on intimidation and fear. Others are whining, flattering little toadies, promising everything, delivering very little. There may be smooth politicians, envious belchers of hate, careless gluttons, glamorous seducers, and thousands of other types among the demonic ranks.

If you rely on them, beware, for they are not and never will be your friend and ally.

God forbade it, indeed; but Faustus hath done it: for the vain pleasure of four-and-twenty years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with mine own blood: the date is expired; this is the time, and he will fetch me.

Read more at:
Copyright ©
 God forbade it indeed, but Faustus has done it. For the vain pleasure of four-and-twenty years has Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill in my own blood; the date is expired, this is the time, and he will fetch me ...
God forbade it, indeed; but Faustus hath done it: for the vain pleasure of four-and-twenty years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with mine own blood: the date is expired; this is the time, and he will fetch me.

Read more at:
Copyright ©
God forbade it, indeed; but Faustus hath done it: for the vain pleasure of four-and-twenty years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with mine own blood: the date is expired; this is the time, and he will fetch me.

Read more at:
Copyright ©

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Retail Dinosaurs: The Shopping Mall (Night's Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Fear Itself)

Once upon a time you could guarantee that, come the zombie apocalypse, folks would naturally head to shopping malls. About five minutes after that, the survivors get remarkably good at shooting things in the head, which always surprises me; it's not an easy trick to pull off. However there may be a problem with that plan, if the apocalypse arrives right about now, as shopping malls are dying off.

The photographs in that link come from Seph Lawless' collection of urban decay artwork. The mall culture as we've come to know it, with its big boxes, anchor stores and chain outlets, got its start just after the Second World War. The concept really started catching on in the 1950s, when developers began making fully enclosed shopping spaces, rather than the open-air design that had been popular before the War. These behemoths took shopping to the suburbs; you didn't have to go all the way into the smoky, polluted city to scratch your retail itch any more. The mall became the new community hub, a place you'd go to just to hang out, or see friends. If you were a kid living out in the suburbs it started as an entertainment center, with its arcades and food court, then became a source of employment later on, when you needed cash for the summer. It was a part of everyday life.

But the retail environment has changed. Part of it is changing economic circumstances, with many of the mall's former customers being too cash-strapped to afford its goods, and many of the chains that serviced them - RadioShack, Blockbuster, Virgin - now out of business or on their way out. Particularly in America, where entire cities and suburbs can be dead on their feet, the mall has become a symbol of this overarching collapse of community narrative. Part of it is a change in retail habits, now that the internet has brought goods to everyone's doorstep, eliminating the need to get out of the house.

It can be a slow death. First just one or two shops shut, but the mall can't find replacement tenants, so they stay vacant. Then footfall patterns change, as people stop going to that section of the mall that housed those shops. Soon nearby stores or food outlets move on, seeking to avoid the blank spot, but it just expands. Nobody's taking care of those areas, so if the floor gets dirty, or windows broken, nobody fixes or cleans. Pretty soon the mall has a ratty, desperate look to it, and it will only get worse if, say, a serial murderer decides your now-quiet mall is the perfect place to stash a body or two. The slightest whiff of crime, and you might as well shutter the place now and save money.

This isn't a pattern unique to America. A mall I knew very well when I was a student in Reading offers a zombie experience now, and I don't doubt there are malls all over Europe - particularly in Spain and Greece, I'd bet - in similar straits, either dead or dying. When I posted the Escapist article, one of the commentators was kind enough to post a link to a dead Bangkok mall that's become a home for coy and exotic fish. Pick your country; there's bound to be at least one or two of these retail dinosaurs, still standing but dead on their feet.

What does this mean for Night's Black Agents, The Esoterrorists, and Fear Itself?

Well, both Night's Black Agents and The Esoterrorists rely on spycraft tropes, and an abandoned mall is perfect for a chase scene as well as a fun setting for an enemy base. Malls don't have to be centrally located; part of their charm, when the retail model still held sway, was that a developer could plant it out in the middle of the countryside and still expect people to drive there. That means an abandoned mall can be isolated, with any hope of rescue far, far away. If it's in the middle of a decaying suburb, then the Keeper has the option of a Silent Hill vibe, with the mall the centerpiece of an expanding network of dead buildings, the few humans left scurrying for cover when night falls.

Fear Itself has a slightly different aesthetic. It takes essentially the same game world as the Esoterrorists, but plunges ordinary people into the mincing machine rather than highly trained special agents. In that kind of setting the abandoned mall can be a kind of Castle Ravenloft, and the characters the equivalent of villagers huddled nervously in its shadow. In a one-off they'd head straight to the mall, but in a mini-campaign it may be better to have the characters skirt around its edges first, perhaps take on a few minor challenges in some of the houses roundabout before trying to penetrate to the heart of the mystery.

As far as mall design is concerned, the Keeper only needs to know the basics. There's usually a Food Court, a central location where several different fast food outlets serve everyone at once. Emphasis here is on 'everyone at once,' which means it needs to be cleaned easily and quickly. There's going to be a lot of tile and glass here, and probably a very bright, cheerful color scheme. The Food Court is likely to be central, in a large, open area.

The mall probably relied on one or more key tenants to provide revenue. These are the big boys, the nationwide chains, and they may occupy more than one floor of the mall, with internal connections via stairs, escalator and elevator. If there's more than one key tenant, the stores will be positioned as far apart as possible. That way people going to the mall have to walk from one anchor store to the other, which means they walk past the smaller stores and Food Court. Footfall is everything in retail.

Finally, there may be satellites. Technically these stores may not be an official part of the mall, but they're close enough for that not to matter to the customers. These standalone stores may or may not have their own parking areas, and may provide completely different, but complimentary, functions. I've noticed that gas stations are quite common in the UK; I don't know if the same applies in North America. Food outlets and cinemas are also likely.

So let's talk about Spring Creek Shopping Center.

Located in the suburbs surrounding a major city center, Spring Creek got its start as Indian Spring, an open-air mall built in 1947. As the city's industrial sector took off and people started relocating to the suburbs, the developers who owned Indian Spring soon discovered that their development was just too small to satisfy their expanding customer base. They started quietly buying up adjoining land, unveiling their new scheme, Spring Creek, in 1954. By 1957 it was a reality: a massive complex capable of satisfying pretty much any retail need a suburbanite could think of.

Problems began in 1961, when a partial collapse due to shoddy design caused the deaths of two people. Subsequent lawsuits and bad press were a significant knock on Spring Creek's profitability, and the original developers sold out to a management firm, Westbrook, in 1968. Westbrook decided significant renovations were needed, which finally completed in 1971.

During 1970, when the renovations were still ongoing and the mall part-shuttered, fledgeling horror director Bill O'Bannon shot his low-budget vampire movie, Scream Nocturna Scream, at Spring Creek. Many of its most memorable scenes were shot in one of Spring Creek's anchors, the department store retailer Von Moore. O'Bannon later went on to become a schlock horror icon, but died of a drug overdose while attending a horror convention, Fright Night Dallas, in 1981. 

Spring Creek's heyday came in the 1980s. There was money and lots of it, rolling in day by day. The mall expanded in 1982, and again in 1987, with the promised addition of a new anchor store and a dozen smaller outlets in its Galleria Wing. However the expansion was too large, even for the projected profits, and it didn't help that, in 1989, it was revealed that Westbrook's CFO had embezzled millions over the years before committing suicide - or possibly met death by misadventure during a sex act - on Christmas Eve, an event that became enshrined in local memory as Black Christmas.

It was all downhill from there. Lack of development money meant that the promised Galleria Wing was left unfinished, and the big box retailer decided not to move in after all. Spring Creek struggled through the 1990s hoping for a break, and never got one. The internet, and economic collapse in the 2000s, sealed its fate. Its customers were broke - the city's industrial sector was on its knees - and the ones that had money didn't need Spring Creek any more.

The defining event of the 2000s was the discovery, in 2006, that the serial killer who came to be known as the Hammer Killer had been stashing bodies in the abandoned Galleria Wing, relying on lack of maintenance to conceal his dump site. It was three months, and eight victims, before he was caught.

In 2008 Spring Creek shuttered for good. One or two of the satellite stores still operate, on reduced hours, but the main building has been locked up for years. There has been talk of knocking it down, perhaps replacing it with an open-air mall or park, but there's neither the money nor the will to get it done.

Now, Keeper: if you can't do something with that, there's no hope for you! Enjoy!

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Triumphs and Tragedies: Silent Hill

The other day I went digging in the basement for my Bill Hicks CDs, and discovered a cache of things long forgotten: the discs for Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3, arguably the best of Konami's Silent Hill horror series. Like any sensible person, I immediately installed Silent Hill 2 - my personal favorite - on my PC,  and was overjoyed to find it still worked. Kinda.

The save function is irretrievably borked. The console version only let you save at predetermined points in the game, an idea that sounds crazy but works really well in survival horror titles; the PC edition kept those old save points, but also allowed you to save in-game whenever you wanted. The save points are dead. Any attempt to use them doesn't crash the game, but doesn't create a usable save file either. Any attempt to use the in-game save option crashes the game completely.

Otherwise Silent Hill 2 seems to work well enough. It was never intended to run on a PC like mine; it's only a squidbrain standard box, but compared to the original specs it might as well be the starship Enterprise's holodeck. I seem to have the option of minimizing it to the desktop and getting on with my day, at least without causing its tiny brain to melt. Otherwise, if I want to do this - and assuming it won't implode halfway through - my only other option is a marathon non-stop session.

Which I may try.

Before I do, I wanted to talk briefly about the importance of atmosphere. When I first dove into James Sunderland's nightmare, I got as far as the bit where he recovers the radio - veterans will know what I mean - before being brave enough to tempt fate and hit the save button, hoping it would work better than the predetermined save points. Naturally, it didn't. However even playing that long, perhaps fifteen minutes in all, the player's given a crash course in what makes Silent Hill great: atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, with a side order of pure terror.

You start on the outskirts of a strange little holiday town, Silent Hill, where you spent the last happy days of your life before your wife died of a wasting illness. You think she's still in Silent Hill, so you make your way there. Except you can't get there the usual way as, for whatever reason, the roads are blocked; you have to walk. Through the thick, all-concealing fog. With no idea where you're going, or what it is that's making that horrible noise off in the distance.

Nothing like paranoia to make you paranoid.

There are no signs of life. Whatever happened here, happened quickly. Cars are left abandoned by the roadside, as if the owners just got out and vanished off the face of the earth. You get to town only to find that all the shops are shut, the houses abandoned. Some of the streets are sealed off with police warning tape, while one - a main boulevard - has collapsed altogether, making it impassible. The place might have been abandoned for months, and there are signs that properties have been boarded up and left to rot. Then you see something moving, off in the distance, and nasty looking bloodstains on the sidewalk seem to indicate recent activity of the very worst kind.

By that point I'm already wound up, and James doesn't want to avoid trouble; he wants to walk right towards it. In true nightmare logic, any attempt to wander in a different direction is met with warning tape and chasms, which in a tabletop session might seem like railroading, but somehow in a video game only enforces the otherworldly atmosphere. Of course you can't walk away from trouble. That's what being trapped in a dreamscape is all about.

It doesn't help that there's clearly something out there. I can hear it, but thanks to the fog, I can't see it. It's not human, whatever it is, and I can't help but think it intends me harm.

Some of this can be replicated in a tabletop session. I don't know if a Keeper can pull off the fog effect without an actual fog machine, or at least a darkened room. There's something about not being able to see trouble coming that puts people on edge, but it's a very sensual effect, and I don't think it can be recreated through imagination alone, at least not to all players equally and at the same time.

Sound effects, particularly these days, are not a problem. Tablets, smartphones and bluetooth enabled speakers can really screw with people's sense of reality. There are any number of wireless speakers out there small enough and loud enough to be hidden, and yet still be effective.

But to walk into a town and find nobody there, no sign of life whatsoever, that's the real kicker, and that's easy to pull off in a tabletop session. It can work in any number of ways; a Great War scenario in which you find the trenches completely abandoned is as effective as walking through empty London streets. Sometimes that event is nailed in actual history, while in other cases it can be just as illogical and insane as you like. Of course, waking up in a hospital bed after a disaster has wiped out humanity is a very popular trope; aside from 28 Days, The Walking Dead and Day of the Triffids both nicked the idea, and I don't for a moment think they were the only two to do so. In gaming, Portal pulls exactly the same trick, twice. Even Silent Hill does it, in the Room, fourth in the series and a big disappointment for me.

While the trope is cliched, the end result isn't; encountering a familiar environment, completely abandoned, is something that will chill pretty much anyone. It's a signifier not just that something has gone very badly wrong, but also that things will never be the same again. That's why it works so spectacularly in horror; the unspoken goal of a horror story is to return everything to a safe and normal end state which, of course, is impossible, and the empty, mocking streets and houses of Silent Hill know that only too well ...

edit: one unforeseen consequence of playing without a save function is that, when you die, you go back to the beginning, all progress lost! It's been so damn long since I played anything without an autosave function that I completely forgot this important bit of gaming history. Darn you, Pyramid Head! Time to take a break, I'm thinking.