Sunday, 25 September 2016

Not Quite Review Corner: Batman (Telltale, iPad)

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

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

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

There are two questions to answer here:

Does it work as a Batman title?

Does it work as an iPad game?

The short answers are Not Entirely, and Absolutely Not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next Sunday!

Sunday, 18 September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now let's turn to Tweety Bird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's enough for this week. Enjoy!

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

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

So the drone question is resolved.

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 5 September 2016

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

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

So for a brief glimpse behind the curtain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's it for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 28 August 2016

A Path With No Ending (Spilsbury, Trail, Bookhounds)

Following on last week's discussion about Sir Bernard Spilsbury's career, I'm going to give you a short scenario idea drawn from his experiences. This idea is written from a Bookhounds of London perspective, but could easily be used in Trail or Call of Cthulhu.

The following quote is from The Life of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, by Browne and Tullett.

Pamela [aged 9 and a half] had left her home in South Romford after lunch on the 18th [January 1939] to walk back to her school in Benhurst Avenue. Her stepmother watched her going along Southend Avenue towards a street called Coronation Drive, which leads to Benhurst Avenue past Elm Park Station on the District Railway. Two school friends waited for her in vain at the corner of the Avenue. Somewhere on the way, less than a quarter-hour's walk, the little girl had disappeared, in broad daylight. When she did not return to tea, and it was learned she had not reached the school, Mrs Coventry went to the police. The body was discovered early next morning.

It was naked, except for a cotton frock tied loosely around the neck, and doubled up, the knees being under the chin, tightly bound with black and green insulated wire and tarred string. Insulating tape covered the knots. Beneath the body was a rotting mattress. Rigor mortis was advanced, and there were the usual painful symptoms of strangulation, this time by hand. When Spilsbury began his examination, and straightened the limbs, the stub of a home-made cigarette fell out from between a thigh and the chest. He found a great number of small scratches and bruises on the head and body; a large bruise on the jaw was probably, he thought, caused by a blow, and another behind the left ear might be the result of a fall on a hard surface. The child had been criminally assaulted, and had evidently struggled with her assailant. She had died within an hour of her last meal, the dinner she had eaten at about one o'clock on the 18th.

Though the police did arrest someone in connection with the crime, the evidence was circumstantial. Although he possessed many of the items found at the scene - the wire, home-made cigarettes made with the same brand of tobacco - and a raincoat spotted with blood, the prosecution couldn't make a case. The blood couldn't be proved to be the same type as Pamela's, and the items were commonly available; thousands of people used that same brand of tobacco, the same roll-up papers, and owned that kind of wire. The accused was acquitted.

The scenario opens on a cold day in March, as the aftershocks of the case are dying out. The protagonist sits in the bookshop in the early morning, browsing the newspaper in a quiet moment. Her attention is drawn by the mention of Elm Park, and a nagging realization that, somewhere in the bookshop's collection, there's mention of that part of London in connection with a megapolisomantic working. What was it?

She goes in the back to find the book only to discover that, although the cover is still on the shelf, the contents have been skillfully removed and replaced with pages from another book of the right period. Someone's been stealing, and a quick survey of the shop's collection shows this isn't the only time. There are several books and pamphlets missing, all of them to do with London and megapolisomancy.

Core clue Forgery: whoever did this had some skill, but wasn't an expert. They knew enough about books to get replacement papers from the right period, and knew how to quickly and carefully exchange the contents. However anyone with real skill would have been more careful with the binding and stitching.

Core clue Locksmith or similar: the criminal wasn't able to get at the really valuable stuff, as that's [presumably] locked away. There's some scratches on the lockplate that show someone tried, but failed. All the stolen books were interesting, but not especially valuable even to a megapolisomancer. There wasn't enough in them to teach a person Magic, but perhaps in combination with more important texts someone could have tried a Megapolisomantic working of their own. 

Core clue Assess Honesty or similar: allows the protagonist to draw up a short list of people who might have had access to the books in question. Not all of them would have been easily available to the public; some were in back rooms, out of sight. However there are several people other than the player characters who might have had access, among them:

  1. The Favored Customer: There's always one. The customer who seems a friend, who spends a lot of money, or who brings in a lot of other customers. He might have been wandering in places other people wouldn't be allowed to go, but you'd think nothing of it, because he's that good a customer.
  2. The Nuisance Customer: Not the same thing, but it has the same effect. This pest cannot be kept to the public areas. For whatever reason he keeps wandering in the back rooms looking for prizes, and you keep chasing him out.
  3. The Business Rival: Every so often you're visited by this fellow, who comes to talk shop and discuss upcoming auctions. Sometimes you work together, sometimes you're deadly enemies, but you're both in the same trade so when he visits he gets a higher level of access than the standard customer.
  4. The Contact: This may be a catalogue agent, book scout or forger who regularly does business with the shop. Naturally he doesn't mingle with the ordinary customers, and he probably knows as much about the shop's stock as you do.
  5. The Delivery Men: Theoretically these hefty workers only lift and carry, but what if they do more? They're always here each week, bringing boxes to and fro. What if one of them decided to make a little extra on the side?
Core clue Forensics, Evidence Collection or similar: The protagonist is frozen in her tracks when she notices that, where the books used to be, there's a scattering of loose tobacco. It's easy to confirm that this brand is the same brand found by Spilsbury at the crime scene. Was the book thief involved in that crime too?

From there the scenario progresses. One of the above is indeed the book thief, and may be the killer too. The method of abduction relies on magic: the megapolisomancer creates what amounts to a small pocket out of time, in which the caster can do as he likes for as long as he can keep the magic going. Nobody will interrupt him; nobody notices he's even there. Of course, bending the city's power like that carries consequences of its own, which will result in peculiar events - perhaps random summonings or disappearances - in the place where the working occurred.

That's enough for this week. Enjoy!

Monday, 22 August 2016

Person of Interest: Sir Bernard Spilsbury (Trail, Call, Bookhounds)

I thought I'd try something different and kick of what I hope will be a semi-regular column here: Person of Interest. I'll discuss the biography and gamification of important historical people, and to start us off let's have a look at the life and career of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the Scalpel of Scotland Yard.

Spilsbury was born 1877 in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, to a sold, middle class family. His father was a chemist, and Bernard spent his early years watching his father in his laboratory, experimenting. However his family was trade and his grandmother, a very determined woman, saw no future in medicine or chemicals, insisting that Bernard's father go into business. He did so reluctantly, but made sure his son would be a doctor if he had anything to say about it.

Bernard was a solitary soul who best liked long walks, skating and other hobbies that he could enjoy by himself, without distractions. He was amenable to his father's wish that he become a doctor, and resisted his grandmother's insistence that he go into trade instead, as a draper. He was an older graduate, entering St Mary's Hospital Medical School at 23, and his contemporaries found him amiable but ordinary, certainly not marked out for greatness. He seems to have been one of those people who just got on with things, without drawing attention to himself, and was a born workaholic.

At St Mary's he fell in with some of the best and brightest pathologists of their day, who took Spilsbury under their wing once they saw that, in spite of his seeming plodding unimpressive nature, he was a prodigious worker. Soon he became Student Demonstrator of Pathology, eschewing competitions, prizes and fame for hour after hour after hour in the lab. In fact his dedication to his craft meant that he did not take on the other courses needed for a medical degree, so he graduated much later than many of his classmates.

He did so at just the right time. In years gone by the police force and public prosecutions had been a piecemeal operation, with different standards and practices applying in every county. Now things were being reorganized; there would be a central authority in charge of the police, and a Director of Public Prosecutions, under the supervision of the Attorney General. Scotland Yard, meanwhile, was being forced to update itself. Paris, New York, Berlin, Prague, all these had police laboratories; even some of the provincial British police forces had established ad-hoc relationships with private medical labs. Yet Scotland Yard had no police laboratory of its own. All this was to change, and quickly.

Then along came Crippen.

The 1910 Crippen case gripped the nation. He had murdered his wife, a stage performer, and taken up with his lover, stealing his wife's money and even clothes. Then, when suspected, the pair fled across the ocean, leaving the police to find the wife's remains in the cellar of his house. Not all of the corpse was recovered; head, limbs and skeleton were missing, but a piece of flesh remained. That flesh bore an old abdominal scar, which helped identify the remains as those of Cora Crippen. Spilsbury also found traces of scopolamine in the remains, which suggested that Crippen, a doctor himself, had used the drug to pacify Cora and make her easier to kill. The doctor and his lover were caught and returned to Britain, where Crippen was eventually hanged.

Yet it wasn't Spilsbury's medical ability - excellent though it was - that really made his reputation. It was his demeanor, as an expert witness. Well dressed, handsome, with a carnation in his button hole, he projected solid competence, an impression that was only reinforced by his detached yet determined attitude. Spilsbury would not be rattled by the prosecution, nor yet by the judge. "Here is a coming man," said spectators, and they were right.

From there Spilsbury went from strength to strength. He became the pathologist of choice for the prosecution, travelling across the country from murder site to murder site, gathering and recording evidence. No absent-minded professor he; Spilsbury was an avid record keeper and fastidious note taker. His index card collection eventually sold for several thousand pounds and is now in the Wellcome collection in London.

Spilsbury loved nothing better than to experiment and solve problems. After the Mahon case, for example, Spilsbury determined to carry out Mahon's autopsy himself, though this would normally be the prison's responsibility. Mahon had been double-hanged; the murderer had, at the last moment, tried to save himself, but instead fell backward rather than down, breaking his spine on the trapdoor as he fell, and then his neck. In most instances the autopsy would be fairly perfunctory, but Spilsbury insisted on a complete autopsy including examination of the brain, a portion of which he took away with him. It was the first judicial autopsy Spilsbury conducted but by no means the last, and eventually as a result of his examinations a recommendation was made to increase the drop by two inches on humanitarian grounds, the better to ensure a clean break of the neck.

Spilsbury also developed the Murder Bag, or collection of standard equipment to use in murder cases, and the Mahon case is the cause. This is what Spilsbury and his colleagues found at the murder site, a bungalow at the Crumbles, Eastbourne:

'On a rusty tenon saw, grease and a piece of flesh. Articles of female clothing, greasy and bloodstained, some with soot or coal-dust on them. On the cauldron-shaped coal-scuttle, two minute specks of blood. In the saucer near it, solidified fat. The two-gallon saucepan in the same fireplace was half-full of a reddish fluid, with a thick layer of grease on the surface; this contained a piece of boiled human flesh, the skin adhering to it. The metal fender was splashed with grease. There was more grease deposited in the second saucepan, and smeared in the bath and basin. In the hat-box, among soiled articles of clothing, were thirty-seven pieces of flesh, cut or sawn. All were human, and all apparently had been boiled. The big fiber trunk held four large pieces of human body, sawn apart, but not boiled. On one of those pieces, a left chest and shoulder, there was a bruise over the shoulder blade, the result of a blow inflicted before death, if only a few minutes before; it had been, in Spilsbury's opinion, a heavy blow. There was also in the trunk a biscuit tin containing various organs.' From The Life of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, 1952, by Douglas G Browne and E V Tullett.

Spilbury started work on the murder bag, full of equipment needed to properly collect and store remains, when he saw a detective using his bare hands to scoop the victim's boiled flesh into a bucket.

Spilsbury became Sir Bernard in 1923, one year before the Mahon case. He spent his entire career dissecting, studying, analyzing, and giving evidence in case after case. It's become fashionable now to downplay Spilsbury, to claim that his dogmatic and unyielding attitude on the stand led to miscarriages of justice. Just as in his university years, when he eschewed competitive examinations and prizes for ordinary lab work, in his working career he refused to engage in peer review, or to train students. Spilsbury preferred his own counsel.

Yet it must be remembered that Spilsbury did not get where he was through anything other than effort. He was and remained the persistent, meticulous workaholic who graduated late because, thanks to his dedication to pathology, he could not be bothered with distractions. He lived for the job, and never lied or prevaricated. He thought before he acted but, once he made his mind up, that was that.

It did not end well for him. He had three sons. Peter, the one following in his footsteps, became a house surgeon at St Thomas' in London. On the 13th September, 1940, the Hospital was bombed and Peter died, but the news didn't get to Spilsbury right away. He went to work as usual the next morning, performing post-mortems and giving evidence at the Coroner's Court. After finishing one case and while waiting for the other to start he went through the morning's post, only to discover a letter from a friend with condolences on the death of his son. Except the letter didn't say which son; Spilsbury had seen Alan earlier that day, so it might have been either Peter or Richard.

Eventually Spilsbury learned the truth. He was back at work the next day, but he was never the same again.

Alan, the eldest son, was a sickly soul, and Spilsbury was devoted to him. The two would spend each day together, at the Gower Street laboratory where Spilsbury worked. In November 1945 young Alan died of consumption.

By this point Spilsbury was in decline. A micromanager to the end he could not bear to have other people write his reports or fill in forms for him, yet he became increasingly incapable of doing the job himself. He took longer and longer to make decisions now, his tiring mind unable to do the work of former years.

His death was characteristic of the man. During Christmas 1947 he took care of his affairs, gave his staff their accustomed Christmas boxes, and completed his paperwork for the year. On December 17th he sent out his last post-mortem report, in time to catch the 530 post. He dined at his club, afterwards handing the key to his private cupboard back to the club steward because, he said, he no longer needed it. He went back to the Gower Street laboratory at 730, which he had kept exactly as it was since the death of Alan two years prior. At 830, one of his colleagues passed by the laboratory, smelt gas, and investigated. By then, Spilsbury was dead.

With all that in mind, let's talk gamification.

As his career spans several decades all of which are core for Call and Trail of Cthulhu, Spilsbury could easily appear in either setting. Some of his most famous cases are in the 1930s - Trail's favorite decade - but Spilsbury was already the most celebrated pathologist of his day long before 1930. Moreover unlike many specialists, who prefer staid laboratory work, Spilsbury travels all over the country, which means he can be encountered almost anywhere from John O'Groats to Land's End. He might even be encountered elsewhere within the Commonwealth; he's known to have worked in the Channel Islands, and a small amount of fictionalization could have him turn up, say, in Canada or further afield.

In Trail or Call, Spilsbury's most likely role is the expert, assisting in investigations without taking part himself. If the investigators have a medical background or any official standing, they might meet the great man himself. From a rules perspective Spilsbury's bound to have expert-level ratings in any medical or forensic discipline and, though his finances were relatively modest, thanks to his professional reputation his Credit Rating is very high. His library and note card collection would be a boon to any researcher, giving boosts to related medical or forensic abilities.

For investigators more likely to commit crimes than investigate them, Spilsbury is a very dangerous enemy. No matter how careful, clever, or resourceful the characters think they are, it's nearly impossible to outwit the Scalpel of Scotland Yard.

In a Bookhounds game, Spilsbury best fits a Sordid London setting. No amount of crime novel romanticism can disguise Spilsbury's grim and grisly world. Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers both based their crime fiction in part on Spilsbury's work, directly or indirectly. Yet their depictions are fairly bloodless, when compared to the gore, guts, and limbless torsos that made up Spilsbury's professional career. Spilsbury was no stranger to the variations of the human condition; suicide, accidental death, sexually motivated asphyxia, and a thousand other kinds of demise were his stock in trade.

If you wanted to go in an Esoterrorist direction, the obvious terror to link to Spilsbury is the Practice. This gestalt, described in The Book of Unremitting Horror, is a medical nightmare, a surgical team of the damned. If you were to link Spilsbury to it then one way would be to suggest that the Practice is haunting the site of Spilsbury's old lab at Gower Street. I'm guessing that the old lab is long gone, but it was probably part of what's now University Teaching Hospital. Maybe there's a cult of medical students seeking grim knowledge, or perhaps Spilsbury wants his index cards back from the Wellcome.

In any case, you've more than enough information now. I hope this was useful! Enjoy.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Stephen Leather, Spider and E Squadron (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

A short while back I said I'd have to discuss Stephen Leather's work someday, and rather than do that as a book review corner I thought it might be more interesting to discuss it in relation to the Increment, also known as E Squadron, one of the more persistent special forces tales.

Stephen Leather's a lot of fun to read. He's a UK former journalist turned novelist, whose main line is torn-from-the-headlines espionage. For horror gamers who aren't into spies and special forces hijinks, he also writes a series of supernaturals with his hero Jack Nightingale, former cop turned occultist who deals with Satanists and witchcraft.

Having read a few in the Nightingale series, in all honesty I don't like them much. The character's too much like a squeaky clean John Constantine which in turn reminds me too much of that damn TV show and then everything goes black and I wake up next to an empty case of Bushmills. Except that where Constantine as imagined by Moore, Delano and Ennis had a lot of charm, Nightingale lacks personality, to the point where you begin to wonder if he didn't pop along from central casting for the day.

Which to be fair is also a problem with Spider Shepherd, but then few people read spy novels for the clever and intriguing characters. We read them for the action and the intrigue, and Leather does deliver when it comes time to return to the land of cloak and dagger. Leather's very good at action, and believable scenes of murder and mayhem.

I suppose it's a fundamental split between horror and spy-fi. The one depends on character; in order to really feel invested in which character survives, you need to like those characters in the first place, and that means characters need to be interesting. Whereas a spy thriller depends on situation; you need to know the stakes are high, and that the action will keep coming. It would take a huge amount of self-deception to argue that Bourne or Bond are, in themselves, interesting characters, that the audience would enjoy watching what they might do on a long bank holiday weekend. No, we only care about Bourne or Bond when he's in a high-speed chase, disarming nukes, or shooting mooks. Not when he's down the pub with his mates, then off for a curry after.

Black Ops opens on a murder scene. A former US special forces turned private contractor is waiting for his target. The client has requested a 'suicide' by hanging, so Rob Tyler's waiting patiently, dressed in full forensic gear from head to toe to minimize trace evidence. It's that kind of detail that helps paint a scene; you can imagine a man, anonymous, wrapped from head to toe in protective clothing seen a thousand times in a thousand crime TV shows, just waiting for the chance to strike. This, you instinctively feel, is how assassins work. Not flashy, smooth-talking gamblers with a Walther PPK in a shoulder holster, but patient professionals lurking in ambush, dressed not for the casino but for business.

Black Ops links in with a long-rumored special section of British special forces: E Squadron, aka The Increment. While I don't think Leather ever explicitly says Shepherd's a member, a lot about his profile and CV suggests he might be or have been. Former SAS still in peak condition, in Black Ops Shepherd works for MI5 - though by the end this is in doubt - and handles all kinds of dubious duties on behalf of his boss, Charlotte Button. In the novel, he spends much of his time pretending to be a hit man in order to fool a Dutch millionaire who's trying to recruit killers to assassinate Putin.

Whereas the actual E Squadron's duties are, at best, unclear. Assuming it exists, which is itself an open question. If it does, then it's been suggested its duties involve offering military assistance to foreign powers, clandestine insertion and extraction of intelligence agents, and covert reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. It draws personnel from all elite branches of the British military, and so has a wide range of skills at its disposal. Pilots, sailors, CQB experts, you name it, the Increment has it. As for what it's been up to, it might have assassinated Princess Diana - an event Leather refers to - or Doctor David Kelly, and may have participated in other high-level killings. Or not. It certainly has personnel deployed in hot zones all over the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan, offers close protection for high value intelligence targets, and performs a host of other clandestine services as needed.

Black Ops illustrates two ways this could be implemented. In the Spider sections of the narrative, Shepherd's objective is to discourage the Dutch millionaire. Not because anyone at MI5 is in love with Putin, but because the most likely kill zone is in London during a summit and nobody needs the fall-out that an attempted assassination - or a successful one - would bring. In order to do that, Shepherd assumes the identity of an existing killer who, MI5 happens to know, is being clandestinely held in the Emirates. Meanwhile, in a separate section of the plot, another high-profile mercenary, Lex Harper, is tasked by Button to embarrass and then kill several highly placed members of the real IRA who are trying to buy very expensive rockets so they can shower London with HE. Embarrass, because Button doesn't want the other real IRA members to follow in their footsteps. To do this Harper pretends to be an arms dealer with a sideline in munitions swiped from the former Soviet Union. Stakes couldn't be higher, and the cloak-and-dagger is skillfully deployed.

While neither Harper nor Shepherd are part of E Squadron, a lot of what the characters do fits E Squadron's alleged remit: covert surveillance, intelligence gathering, quasi-military engagements, comfortable adoption of covert identities, the ability to operate clandestinely in unfamiliar territory or foreign soil. In addition to those fun things, the Increment's also alleged to have its own air section, equipped with a Puma helicopter and a C-130, and in all probability has a small flotilla too, or at least people capable of docking a boat and tying a reef knot. Which is all to the good since, if rumor is to be believed, every SIS station has a direct line to the SAS. You never know when, where, or in what circumstances, so best to be prepared for any eventuality.

In the Dracula Dossier there's also an E Squadron, but its duties seem much less far-reaching than those ascribed to the Increment. With that in mind, I suggest:

1) a new level 5 Bureaucracy test for Elvis, Hound, Nails and Tyler, Preparing the Ground. There will be times when the agents need caches of supplies (not necessarily weapons) placed ahead of time, trackers put on ships or other large vehicles, surveillance of a military or semi-military target, assistance in tracking a target, close protection (eg. on a visit to the Red Zone in Baghdad), or something similar. When that happens, it's E Squadron that carries out the task. Note that none of these things necessarily involve combat; more logistical support. In some instances, eg the close protection detail, having E Squadron on call might confer in-game benefits, say a free 1-point pool Intimidation. The exact nature of the benefit to be agreed between Director and Players. All this basically falls under Section 2027 in the Field Manual.

2) there are various existing Bureaucracy tests, eg Oakes Difficulty 3 assistance in cleaning up a crime scene, in which the source of the assistance is nebulous. It's reasonable to assume that the assistance comes from E Squadron, or at the very least that E Squadron arranges delivery of the assistance.

3) that E Squadron draws some of its membership from services like the RAF and Navy, and those personnel have Cherry level Piloting and Mechanics abilities. It's also reasonable to assume than any vehicle assigned to E Squadron (as opposed to stolen by) is Souped Up (p102, main book).

4) that E Squadron can supply vehicles as well as caches, and that those vehicles may be specially modified, eg with extra hidden compartments for those moments when you really need somewhere to hide an assault rifle. Duke Ian probably arranges this, either at level 5 Bureaucracy or possibly level 7 if the vehicle is suitably unusual or difficult to obtain.

5) that it's reasonable to assume E Squadron has access to its own transport, which probably includes helicopters, boats, a C-130 and several kinds of ground vehicle. Those vehicles are almost certainly modified, most likely with armor and bullet-resistant glass at the very least.

That's it from me! Enjoy.