Sunday, 17 May 2015

Not Quite Review Corner: Invisible Inc (Klei)

Welcome to another installment, in which I'm going to talk about Klei Entertainment's stealthy roguelike, Invisible Inc. I just picked this up on Steam yesterday, and have been playing obsessively for the last few hours. I haven't beaten it yet (experienced level), but I am on what seems to be the final mission, and am playing through again with different characters to see if that has significant effect on my playthrough.

The story campaign is set in a William Gibson-esque cyberpunk world, and I'll go so far as to say that, unless you've been devouring cyberpunk for the last few years, many of the game concepts might confuse or irritate you. Corporations rule this dystopian world. Your rag-tag bunch of crooks and thieves has been a thorn in their side for far too long, so the corps decided to band together to take you out. Your organization is shattered, many of its members captured, and you're on the run with what's left of your super-powerful AI, Incognita. Your job is to stay alive, and find somewhere to house your AI before it degrades beyond recovery.

Incognita is one of the major gameplay elements. It's thanks to the AI that you can hack your way through the enemy defenses, and without hacking your team would be dead in the water, since the corp facilities are chock-full of security cameras, laser beams, security drones, combat drones and other, terrifying things. Plus, of course, security guards. So, so many security guards ... Your job, ultimately, is to keep Incognita alive, and the story missions revolve around you finding a new home for her, after the old one was blown up.

You begin play with two surviving agents, a small fund of credits, and not much else. The default agents are Decker, a thug with a handy-dandy invisibility cloak, and Internationale, a clever hacker who can rip systems apart wirelessly. Of the two, Internationale is probably the more useful, since Incognita needs Power to operate, and Internationale can steal that quickly and easily. There are other agents which you can unlock through play, or rescue from detention camps. Some are combat monsters, others stealthy thieves. Though each has a personality of sorts, it barely impinges on gameplay. Apart from individual character's special abilities, like Decker's chance to detect internet Daemons, each character is the same as another, increases abilities in the same way, and uses the same equipment. There are no character classes here. If you want Internationale to become a brawler, a brawler she shall be, and so on.

This is a turn-based stealth roguelike, with STEALTH writ in ten-foot high fiery letters. If stealth games frustrate you, on no account go anywhere near Invisible Inc. In many ways it's the polar opposite of XCom, despite both being turn-based strategy titles, because one of the draws of XCom is that you get to shoot, blow up and otherwise shred the things that anger you, whereas here you need to adapt to your environment, avoiding conflict if at all possible. Dishonored, another stealth title, also allowed the player to choose to blow off steam, and complete the mission, by killing everything in sight, waving a sword like Doug Fairbanks on amphetamines. Here, though, killing or indeed any aggressive action is tacitly forbidden. Each time a guard dies, or wakes up after you've knocked him unconscious, things get much more difficult, as the alarm bells start ringing and the surviving guards chase you down. At alarm level one, things are a little tricky, but at level six you might as well get in your coffin and call the undertaker.

This is a difficult game. I strongly recommend new players start at Beginner, and work your way up. Ordinarily the lowest rung of the difficulty ladder is for those who've never played this kind of game before, but this time, it's for everyone. Particularly since the game's stuffed full of concepts and terminology that aren't as clearly described as perhaps they could be. Again, it's a cyberpunk thing; especially when it comes to the hacking side of the game, you really need to be into the genre to get, say, Daemons, and how they can screw with your day. But it's also because there's a ton of stuff to take in, very little of which is going to be familiar to you.

For example: there's something called a Sound Bug on many of the levels. Presumably it's some kind of defensive mechanism, a type of trap. I have no idea what this thing does. It hasn't affected my game play - or at least, I haven't noticed it affecting my experience - but I know it's there, and I know it does something.  I've been ignoring it, which seems to work so far. I'd still like to know what it is.

Many of the game's concepts are deliberately video-gamish, which can be annoying. Case in point: if you hack some of the consoles on the level, you get the option to buy new programs or tools to help you out. Think about it: you've just hacked, as in gained illicit access, to their systems. You should have complete control, so why are you spending money, your own actual cash, to do stuff? Do Chinese hackers rip apart, I don't know, Amazon, say, just so they can purchase books on Kindle? Or here's another: many of the advanced weapons require ammo packs, one-time-use items, so they can be recharged. I assumed that meant if you wanted to reload during a mission, you had to have an ammo pack. Fine, but if I empty a weapon and then finish the mission, I can reload for free at home base, right? We have bullets stashed away at HQ, surely? No? I have to use the one-use-only item that cost me several hundred credits - again, my own money, because my hacker's a bit fuzzy on the whole stealing thing - to recharge? Damn. There is a story element that explains this - you're flying around on an escape jet, and didn't have a chance to bring supplies - but it still smacks of resource management shoehorned in to make the experience more difficult.

It's not as if you can get stuff easily. There is an in-game merchant, Monst3r, but he rarely has anything to sell, in story mode at least. You can buy things from corp machines, but there's no guarantee that the corp machine will have what you want, and of course you're dodging corp security all the time, so you can't hang around. That one-use-only item can't get replaced easily, so you have to be really, really careful, husbanding your resources.

It is basically Ironman by default, unless you're playing at Beginner level. Ironman, for those not familiar with the term, is a game concept which assumes that you cannot go back to a previous save, and play again. Every choice counts. At Beginner, you have the option of Rewinding, going back in time one turn, which you can do five times. You also have the option to restart the level, which is great when you thoroughly screw the pooch and are facing down a dozen enraged guards. At Experienced, you can no longer restart, nor can you go back to a previous save, and you only have three Rewinds. Thus, while not officially Ironman, Experienced forces you to play with no take-backs, and if the mission goes straight to hell, that's the entire campaign done and dusted, with all your people dead or in custody. You don't have the option to choose who goes on a mission. The game assumes everyone goes, so if you fail and your people are wiped, there's no way to recover. Ouch! I haven't dared try anything above Experienced yet. I think it might make me cry.

Is this a good strategy title? Hell yes. You will sweat over every single decision. When you manage a successful run, sneaking through the facility and stealing what you need to survive, escaping right under the enemy's nose, you'll feel like the hero of a heist movie. The roguelike aspect of it makes it feel a little as if the corp's architects drink a bucket of scotch for breakfast, lunch and dinner - seriously guys, corridors that go nowhere, what the hell - but it does mean that the maps have near infinite variety, which really keeps you on your toes.

Has it the same replayability as XCom? Well, it does have sandbox modes for you to tool around in, after the story mode's done. You could build up a team of hardened crooks and make the corps sweat blood, forever and ever and ever. XCom doesn't offer that, and its lack of new maps does make it feel same-y after a while. Even if a roguelike's maps look as if they were put together by Salvador Dali's cousin Sherman, at least they're different each time.

However there's not a lot of actual variety in the missions. Ultimately you go to a place, do a thing, and then run away. The thing you do can vary from hacking into a system, buying new stuff, capturing enemy personnel for the information in their heads and so on, but the mechanics of it never change significantly. Whenever you do a thing, alarm bells go off, making it that much more difficult to escape. No matter how you handle the capture of a corporate officer, for instance, in hope of stealing his data card, he always, always, always summons a high-level security guard to investigate. No matter how stealthy you have been, the alarm bells always go off, and the level of alarm always increases. It doesn't matter how clever you are, if you're still there when the alarm level reaches six - and it will get there eventually - you're borked. All this can make the game feel as if you're doing the same rote task, time and again, and it's mainly the adrenaline rush of avoiding the security systems that keeps you hooked.

Is it worth the money? It's currently going for $17.99 on Steam, and is also available on Mac and PS4. Not sure of the price tag on the other platforms, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's broadly comparable. At that price, it's a steal. Even if you fall out of love with it eventually, it will consume many hours of your time before that happens.

Do I recommend it? Yes, but with the great big caveat that you have to like stealth games, and must be big into cyberpunk as a setting. It is not a game for hotheads, and if you lose your temper easily, avoid like the plague.

But all that said, if you do love stealth, if you're familiar with cyberpunk as a setting, and if you're looking for a turn-based strategy title to take over where XCom left off, look no further. Klei has you covered.


Friday, 15 May 2015

Buried Treasure (Trail of Cthulhu)

... one day this Indian named Glode was out in his canoe. He had his little girl with him and when they got to a place where there is a point of land, he saw a ship sailing towards them. They were scared of strangers in those days, so he paddled to a cove and hid his canoe away in the woods. Then he climbed a tree. From there he could see everything that went on, and he watched that ship. It stopped, and the pirates on board took down the sails, lowered a rowboat, and four or five of them came ashore. They came straight to that point, chose a spot, and started digging. The captain gave the orders. After they got a trench dug deep enough, he sent two of them men to the boat for a big chest. After they had brought it up and put it down beside the hole he lined them all up and said, 'Have you got everything ready? Who's going to keep this money?' One of them says, 'Well, the other fellers don't say much. I'll look after it.'

'All right,' says the captain. 'You're to guard it for a hundred and fifty years,' and before the man realized what he had gotten himself into, the others grabbed him. They cut off his head then and put him in the hole with the chest. After that they drew a map, covered up the hole, and went away.

From Bluenose Ghosts, by Helen Creighton.  

Last time I talked about Captain Kidd, and touched briefly on the subject of buried treasure. Kidd is the only pirate known to have buried treasure, on Gardiner's Island, only to have it stolen out from under him by his so-called friend the Earl of Bellomont. Which neatly illustrates the central problem with buried treasure: once buried, any idiot can dig it up and claim it for his own. In the movies, this might inspire a pirate to design some really over-elaborate traps, but as can be seen from the Creighton extract, a real pirate hasn't got the time or patience for Oak Island-style miraculous engineering. Just put your basic corpse in your basic hole, and you're good to go.

Now, it's unlikely that many, if any, pirates actually did kill a victim and bury him, or her, with the loot, if only because it's unlikely that many pirates buried loot. Loot is for spending, not sticking in the ground. That said, it's probable that someone tried that trick. Superstition has followed in humanity's footsteps since we learned how to walk, and no matter how bad an idea might be, you can always find someone who thinks it's a genius scheme. Besides, in an RPG world, the rules are as you make them. Why shouldn't a pirate kill a sacrificial victim to create a guardian for his treasure?

The great thing about a story like this is that you can play it out almost anywhere along the East Coast of the United States as well as on any of the islands in the Caribbean. With a bit of tweaking you could probably also put it somewhere along the English or French coast, changing the pirates to smugglers. Or somewhere off the coast of Africa, or anywhere along the old Pirate Round. Or ... but you take the point. That said, in Trail of Cthulhu and Cthulhu games in general, one of the favorite settings is Lovecraftian New England, with its legend-haunted small towns like Dunwich and Arkham, quiet and forbidding. A pirate tale of buried gold and ghostly guardians is a natural fit, and could be an interesting beginning to a campaign, as well as a brilliant reason for the characters to get together in the first place. A group of treasure hunters who get too close to Innsmouth for comfort? Sold!

But what do you get when you cut off someone's head and bury them with the loot? Legend is cagy on the subject. The ghost is supposed to haunt the spot, with or without a head. It has significant power to defend its loot, but can only use that power against someone trying to steal it. Someone just walking by, without the slightest idea that Thomas Tew, or whoever it might have been, left a fortune there, won't be disturbed. Well, probably not, anyway; Creighton reports that several ghosts, tired of standing watch, started pestering passers-by to take the loot from them, and let them rest.

The tale is very similar to the barrow-dweller or hagbui of Norse folklore, and the story probably found its way to Canada via Scotland, which has an old history of conflict with Viking raiders. These creatures are often created from the corpse of a warrior, and left behind to guard loot. A draugr has incredible strength, but it can also move through solid rock, in mist form, and increase its size to that of a giant. Its stench is awful, far beyond the usual pungent decomposition stink, and its presence can sometimes be detected by the foxfire that glows at its burial place at night. Iron is potent against them; to prevent the dead returning, people sometimes pierced the corpses' feet with iron nails.

Buried treasure can't just be unearthed. There's rules to this sort of thing. Even if the ghost wants you to dig up the loot, it's bound by geas to defend it, so you might get attacked. Each treasure can be uncovered without risk so long as its ritual is carried out, and that ritual can vary from spilling the blood of a newborn, spilling the blood of twins, getting a hen and rooster to plough and seed the ground - no, really - and so on, and on. Each method is detailed by the pirates as they bury the loot, so if you want to know how to do it, better find a ouija board; or maybe someone helpfully wrote the ritual down somewhere. It's likely that a user of Goetic magic can think of ways past this barrier, or perhaps someone who knows the Saaamaaa Ritual can defuse the ghost's defenses.

When digging for treasure, you must go at night, and you must never, ever speak. Speaking gives the ghost power over you; until you speak, its abilities are limited, but once you speak, it can do as it pleases. Because of this, ghosts will usually try to trick you into speaking, using powers of illusion or suggestion to get you to say something. If you absolutely have to address a ghost, always invoke the power of God, as in 'In God's name, speak.' So long as you do that, its power is reduced.

If the ghost attains its full power, it can do a great deal. It has supernatural strength, and is capable of lifting or throwing great weights, far beyond the capacity of a normal human. It can summon other supernatural entities to help it. It can remove the treasure instantly, to another location, or deep underground where it can't be reached by digging. It will not hesitate to kill, but will not pursue a victim, so if the treasure hunters run away they won't suffer its further wrath. It's often armed, perhaps with sword, pistol or musket. Being a ghost, it probably can't be killed, and certainly not with conventional weapons.  

Of course, that all assumes that a ghost really is a ghost, and follows Occult rules. It could as easily be the Devil, or one of the many Black Dogs. In a Mythos tale, it could also be something from beyond the stars, or a vampirish mist, or a Deep One compelled to return to the spot each night by a magic-using pirate, or ... again, you get the point. Such creatures don't need to follow the usual ghostly rules.

With all that in mind, here's a treasure for you:

Rooster Island's Gold

You've dreamed three nights running, a sure sign that the dream is a true one, that there's treasure buried out on Rooster Island, one of the tiny, rocky outcrops between Plum Island and the mainland, perhaps an hour by boat from Innsmouth. According to the dream, there's a large, flat rock, the size of a dinner table, not far from an immense elm tree. Under that rock is the treasure, but in your dream you've seen a coal-black kitten playing on that rock, and you believe that kitten has some significance, though you aren't sure precisely what. You're convinced a fortune lies out there for the taking, but aren't sure of the specifics.

Library Use, Oral History or similar discovers that Rooster Island was thought to be where Billy 'Black Dog' Seavy hid the loot from his piratical adventures during and after the war of 1812. Seavy, a Massachusetts-born filibuster, captured twelve ships in all, before being run aground and shot off the coast of Cuba, in 1816. His most notorious exploit is the capture of the merchantman Belle, when he's supposed to have locked the crew and passengers below decks and set the ship on fire. Seavy's mentioned in several books on witchcraft, as a pirate captain who supposedly could command the wind and waves, drawing victims in by stealing the wind from their sails and putting it in his own, or using storms to drive them towards him. Seavy's supposed to have boasted, before being filled full of grapeshot in the summer of 1816, that only the Devil knew where his loot was hid, and the Devil was obliged to keep it for a hundred years, or until an angel came knocking on the Devil's door.

Occult, in combination with information gained from the dream, can work out that the best time to get the treasure is an hour after midnight, when certain constellations are overhead, since that's the time the dreamer thinks the dream takes place. The kitten, probably a kind of guardian, needs to be pacified in some way, before the dig can take place.

Cthulhu Mythos knows that the stones on Rooster Island have strange, malign symbols carved on them, that cultists sometimes use in their dreadful rituals of appeasement and summoning. Lights have been seen on Rooster Island at night, and it's thought that necromancers come to that spot to summon up dreadful creatures, as messengers to their dark gods. Some Innsmouth families regularly make pilgrimage to Rooster Island and other places like it, dotted up and down the coast, always returning to the same spot year after year, as if called there.

Friday, 8 May 2015

As I Sailed: Captain Kidd's Treasure

My name was Captain Kidd, as I sailed
My name was Captain Kidd, as I sailed
My name was Captain Kidd, and much wickedness I did, 
And God's laws I did forbid, as I sailed.

Some of you may have noticed that a silver bar, allegedly part of Captain Kidd's lost treasure, has been found in Madagascar. Several reports have it as 'buried treasure,' which isn't entirely accurate, since the silver has been recovered from a sunken ship. The 55kg bar was recovered from the wreck of what is thought to be Kidd's ship, the Adventure Galley, a 34-gun square rigger bought fresh from its Deptford launching in 1695 by Kidd, in order to track down pirates in the far-off Indies. The silver is currently in the possession of the Madagascar government; no doubt it will find its way into a museum at some point.

Kidd is a product of the tail end of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, and was one of its unluckiest specimens. He started his career in the Caribbean as an ordinary seaman, part of a pirate crew that mutinied, took control of the ship, and set sail for Nevis, where the governor promptly enlisted Kidd and his friends as protectors of the colony. As the colony had no money, Kidd got his wages by sacking the French colony at Marie-Galante, capturing French ships, and generally being a nuisance to enemies of the English crown. He was successful enough to earn a reputation as an adventurer in the Americas, and eventually married a wealthy New York widow; this marriage and his associations with New York are the reasons why so many American painters chose him as a subject of their craft. If he'd only stayed there, nobody would remember his name now, and he would have led a far happier life.

But Kidd was enlisted by the Governor of New York to track down pirates who were beginning to make a nuisance of themselves by sacking East Indiamen rather than enemies of the Crown. He purchased the Adventure Galley and made his way to what he must have thought was guaranteed success and fortune, only to find that there were no suitable targets in the Red Sea at all. Plagued by mishap - everything from cholera to mutiny - and desperate to avoid any appearance of piracy by attacking ships from nations not at war with England, Kidd tried at first to stick to the letter of the law. That didn't sit well with his crew, who were looking forward to a share of loot that, they soon realized, they were never going to see. Pushed to breaking point, Kidd tried to keep everyone happy by dabbling in piracy, hoping his investors back in London would protect him legally so long as he brought home the bacon. Even then Kidd had no luck, possibly because he was too timid a pirate, refusing easy, but illegal captures out of fear he'd swing at Tyburn.

His most successful venture was the capture of the Quedagh Merchant, an Armenian-owned vessel that technically was a legitimate prize, since its safe passage had been authorized by the French East India Company. However it was a very slim technicality, and Kidd worried that his explanations wouldn't hold water when he returned to London. It didn't help that, unbeknownst to Kidd, one of the major investors in the Merchant was a man who was on very good terms with the Grand Mogul, who could, and would, make things very hot for Kidd. 

Kidd took the Merchant as a prize, and together with that, another captured ship, and his Adventure Galley, made his way to St Mary's Island, where by chance he met with a much more successful pirate, Culliford, an old frenemy of Kidd who had robbed Kidd of his ship years before, when the two were privateers in the Caribbean. There's some dispute as to whether Kidd and Culliford discussed possible joint ventures, or whether Kidd wanted to capture Culliford but lacked the nerve to try it. Whichever way it went, the outcome is not in dispute: most of Kidd's crew mutinied, went over to Culliford, and left Kidd in the lurch with only two ships, the Galley and the Merchant.

Kidd, by this time thoroughly disheartened and pursued by an angry Mogul and his allies, decided to return to New York and discuss things with his friends there. He left the Galley behind, after stripping it of anything that might be useful to him, right down to the hinges. Then he burnt it.

For these reasons it seems unlikely that the silver bar found off Madagascar is actually Kidd's loot. He had plenty of time to search the Galley before he sank it, and it's not as if a 55kg bar is that easy to overlook. Accidents do happen - there's a recorded instance of a pirate crew throwing bar after bar of 'worthless tin' overboard not realizing it was actually silver, until someone who kept a bar as a souvenir found himself the luckiest man aboard  - but even someone with Kidd's luck oughtn't to have been quite as unfortunate as that.

His New York friends, while not precisely turning their backs on him, were less than welcoming. Not only was Kidd a fugitive from justice, he was poor; all the pirate gold he'd promised to bring back with him had turned out to be a fantasy. That kind of thing never goes down well in New York.  His most powerful ally, Governor Coote, Earl of Bellomont, an investor in the voyage, had every reason to betray Kidd; Bellomont was suspected of being involved in Kidd's turn to piracy, and could have faced a trial himself unless he found a scapegoat. That goat was the perennially unfortunate Kidd, who Bellomont arrested. Kidd's trial in London went about as well as could be expected, particularly since Kidd made one last attempt to prove his loyalty to his investors by not testifying against them at trial. His investors did not intercede on his behalf, and Kidd swung at Execution Dock as a pirate and murderer.

Kidd's lost treasure is one of those tales that grows in the telling. He's known to have left a cache of loot on Gardiner's Island, intended to be used as bribes to keep him clear of the hangman, but which Bellomont used as evidence against Kidd at trial. However this relatively modest pile is nothing compared to the vast sums he's supposed to have buried, here there and everywhere, across the wide, wide sea. Kidd's also the inspiration for at least two ghost stories, both fundamentally the same, in which a ragged seaman, soaked in salt water, wanders the roads, either in New England or old England, trying to make his way to his friends. He's spotted at roadside inns, where he pays his way in antique gold coins.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, you'd have to be simple to believe in Kidd's treasure. Leaving aside that he is, almost without question, the unluckiest brigand in the history of piracy, and never had the chance to amass a fortune, the vast majority of his loot from the Quedagh Merchant must have been taken from him when his crew mutinied and joined Culliford. He would have had very little left of the eight thousand pounds he's supposed to have taken from the Armenian merchant ship, and what little there was probably ended up in his Gardiner's Island cache, which Bellomont stole. However logic has little say in the matter when pirate gold is at stake, which is why fools have been digging holes at Oak Island for time out of mind.

From a Keeper's perspective, what can be done with the tragic tale of Captain Kidd?

As a Trail scenario he could make an excellent ghost, whether wandering the old roads of New England or standing guard over some forgotten cache of gold and silver. In a Bookhounds game he could be found at Execution Dock, whose location is now uncertain, but one possible spot is the Underground Station on the High Street. That could make for an interesting mix of modern and ancient, Kidd's lonely phantom looking on as the trains rush past. Or possibly Kidd decided to make one last confession before he swung, and that confession's found amongst a pile of worm-eaten papers, perhaps with a handy treasure map attached.

Buried treasure is a lure that's sucked in many an otherwise intelligent soul, who ought to have known better. Kidd's loot has a luster that defies description; people have ruined themselves looking for that chimera, digging up dirt from Canada to the Caribbean and beyond, looking for something that was never there to begin with. An interesting scenario could begin in much the same way, with the characters searching for Kidd's lost loot, only to find something more horrible and outre. The great thing about a scenario of this type is that it can take place almost anywhere; you could even make a case for some of it being hidden in New York City by Bellomont. Gardiner's Island is another fun spot for a scenario, particularly given its associations with piracy, the Revolution, and wealth. But you could also take a Kidd story to Madagascar, which as a location is filled with opportunity for sinister doings, violence, and other fun things.

Not having read Timewatch I can't be certain where a sad sack like Kidd would fit in, but it's tempting to think that his awful, awful luck was artificially produced. Or that the spectral figure seen wandering the roads of old New England is actually a manifestation of someone caught out of time.

That's it for me for now. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Patreon? Hmmmm

I want to discuss something with you.

Recently I've been looking at outlets for short fiction, and possibly also for GUMSHOE style scenarios. The GUMSHOE stuff would have to be under the open license, which means it couldn't be part of its regular settings like, say, Bookhounds. The short fiction is something I've been working on for a while, but finding a good outlet for short stories is as difficult now as it has always been.

Several people have recommended Patreon to me. I know a little about Patreon, but my suspicion has always been that platforms like Patreon are good for creators who already have an established following, not so much for those who are seeking to build one. Otherwise the site seems to be a good fit.

It occurred to me that you probably have some experience with Patreon, and sites like it. I wonder: what are your thoughts on the subject? Any recommendations? Suggestions, or things to avoid? Speak! I'm listening ...

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Rental Library (Bookhounds of London)

A while ago now I had cause to mention George Orwell's essay on running a book store. Among the topics covered was the store's rental library, something that was very common in Orwell's day but is extinct in ours. I wondered how it was organized, what its purpose was, how it was run. Wonder no more, for there is a book out there that reveals all: Ruth Brown Park's Book Stores and How To Run Them.

I had no idea this book existed until someone Tweeted about it, probably because the cover is so evocatively art deco. First published in 1929, copies of this can be had relatively cheap, and while it's not an absolute must-buy - the writing's a little dry, and as might be expected it dwells on the economics and accounting side of the business - any Keeper interested in running Bookhounds might at least see if it's available on inter-library loan. Naturally I turned to the Rental Library chapter first.

Few new book shop owners realize the importance of the rental library, it begins. Besides furnishing a source of steady income, remember always, a rental library brings people into your store. At first they come only to rent, but passing attractive displays on their way to the Rental Department, they eventually begin to buy,. And therein lies your opportunity. Make permanent buyers of former borrowers. Let people learn how delightful it is to own books, not merely to rent them. Create in them, through subtle sales talks, a desire to become book collectors, not transitory owners. You can do this if you exert real selling technique ...

Already I'm beginning to see why the Rental Department is extinct. The core assumption, judging by this piece, seems to be that people don't really know that they can buy books; that ownership is within their grasp. There's almost a subtle class war situation going on here, where a host of potential buyers, who previously thought that owning books was for the well-off, now realize how wonderful it could be to have a real, live book of their very own, to cuddle and play with and call George. In 1929, this might have been true. These days the written word doesn't have quite that same upper class cachet. People who want to own books just go out and buy them, and the ones who don't want to own books wouldn't care if Rental Departments opened up in all the Starbucks across the land.

George Orwell, since we're in his territory again, discusses this tendency at length in the essay Books vs Cigarettes. A couple of years ago a friend of mine, a newspaper editor, was firewatching with some factory workers, Orwell begins. They fell to talking about his newspaper, which most of them read and approved of, but when he asked them what they thought of the literary section, the answer he got was: "You don't think we read that stuff, do you? Why, half the time you're talking about books that cost twelve and sixpence! Chaps like us couldn't spend twelve and sixpence on a book." These, he said, were men who thought nothing of spending several pounds on a day trip to Blackpool. For the record, one pound in old currency is twenty shillings, and each shilling is twelve pence. Twelve and sixpence is twelve and a half shillings, or slightly over half a pound.

Orwell's essay concludes that, overall, reading is probably the cheapest recreation available, but it might not have appeared that way to the people doing the spending, because reading seems expensive when compared to everyday luxuries like cigarettes or beer. The individual pint or pack of coffin nails is relatively cheap compared to the price of an individual book, but when a year's spending is taken into consideration, you're likely to have bought, and spent more money on in aggregate, many more cigarettes or pints than you have books. Yet each cigarette or pint can only be consumed once, while a book lasts as long as need be.

Of course, says Park about the Rental Library, no definite choice of books for the renting department can be laid down, because the character of your patrons pays such an all-important part. However it has been found a good plan to have, first, the latest and most popular new fiction; second, the popular books of the past year, and the earlier books of authors whose present books are causing discussion; and third, non-fiction having wide popular appeal. 

The point always being to draw people in. Footfall is the life blood of retail. Remember what was said previously, about passing attractive displays on the way to the Rental Department. This is exactly the same kind of technique used in retail outlets all over the world; large chains, like Walmart,  have this down to a fine art. You put the things that you know the customers will want as far away as possible, so the customer has to walk past other things on the way to their destination. Those who walk past may stop, at those attractive displays, and those who stop might buy. I've previously spoken about shopping malls, and the practice of keeping key tenants far away from each other, so people have to walk from one to the other. The principle's the same. Only the scale is different.

As far as revenue's concerned - remember that source of steady income mentioned in the first paragraph - the retailer gets his cash up front. There's a deposit, refundable when the member decides he's had enough and wants to withdraw, and a small charge per week. Local competition would probably affect your decision as to deposits and rentals, Park diplomatically concludes. Some shops might choose not to demand a deposit, for fear of frightening off patrons. Orwell points out that theft is common in rental libraries, with the books being sold on at a small profit to other book shop libraries, but also says that the shop owner felt it was an acceptable loss, so long as Rentals kept drawing people into the store. 

Park starts talking about accounting at this point, and I shan't bore you with that, but she goes on to mention something I hadn't considered. Book wrappers should be of some distinctive design, with the name of your shop in clear relief. The more original and outstanding they can be, the more chance you have of saying to the public, "We have a rental department, and we can serve you."

You'd never persuade a shop owner now to produce their own line of dust jackets. The cost would frighten them half to death, but Park's writing about a time when paper's cheap and people's expectations are different. They'd demand dust jackets for their leather-bound darlings; only the pulps went about in horrid softcover.

From a Keeper's perspective, this is possibly the easiest prop ever invented. Want instant atmosphere? Photoshop a half-dozen dust jackets, wrap them around the books in your collection, and you're sorted. Or if you haven't got anything suitable, go to a second hand shop and buy a few of their cheapest old hardbacks. Let the players argue over the shop's logo, or how best to advertise. Oddly enough, this is exactly the sort of minutiae that many players love to get involved in, not unlike the Innsmouth House Players' inordinate fondness for period menus and food. You may even have to spend an entire session arguing over how best to design the jackets, but to be honest, if your players are quite that mad, good luck to you!

So there you have it: the Rental Department, in all its glory. What will it be to your bookshop? A constant trial and expense, with chancers nicking the books every other week? A source of revenue and advertising? What happens if a corpse turns up in an alleyway with one of your shop's books in his pocket? That attractive wrapper with the shop's name, address and logo on it might not seem like such a wonderful notion ...

That's all for now. Enjoy!

Friday, 24 April 2015

The Pulps (Bookhounds of London)

A while back now, I talked about the kinds of campaign that could be played in the Bookhounds game universe: Technicolor, Arabesque and Sordid, each of which could be played in a Pulp or Purist style. However, of all the settings, the best suited for a Pulp style of play has got to be Technicolor, with its emphasis on the garish and the glorious. This time out I want to talk about a particular aspect of Pulp, the costumed hero, and what role, if any, it might play in a Bookhounds setting.

The era of the Pulp magazines, particularly the 1920s and 1930s, introduced a different kind of protagonist to the reading public. In the Victorian era, heroes were bold, resolute, usually Christian, and always fought on the side of the angels. The Pulp era turns all this on its head. A Pulp hero can be an out-and-out villain, like the Eel, or the Spider, self-interested and vengeful. A Pulp protagonist doesn't have to have a name; many of the secret agents that infest the genre go by numbers, like Secret Agent X, or adopt a pseudonym, like Raffles, to disguise their true identity and protect their reputation. Sometimes, as with the Continental Op, there's really no need to hide the protagonist's identity at all, but he still doesn't have a name. There's often a hint of mystery and mysticism, particularly with the Yellow Peril masterminds, and frequently the hero has direct dealings with the occult and the minions of Hell, as with Jules de Grandin or Carnacki.

As far as backgrounds are concerned, there's a heavy emphasis on revenge, often for the death of a family member. Gone are the days when people got into the hero business because it was the right thing to do. Now it takes someone killing your father to get you involved. Coincidentally, this frees up the hero to do a lot of killing on his own account, without boring existential angst. Once upon a time, even Batman used to machine-gun his enemies to death, and seldom did an episode of Dick Tracey end without at least one or two people getting murdered before Tracey steps in and guns the villain down.

Many of the villains and heroes of Pulp are technologically skilled, or born in the new age of technology. Biggles couldn't be considered a science hero, but he wouldn't be a hero at all if he hadn't happened to be around when people were inventing aeroplanes. Meanwhile villains like Doctor Death manage to mix an intriguing blend of horror and technology, using science to create zombies as well as death rays.

What does all of this suggest for Bookhounds?

Well, there are several possibilities. The first has to do with the players themselves, particularly if one or more of them happen to be close to the edge, in terms of Sanity. Often insanity is seen as an affliction meant only to hinder the character's progress, but it could also serve as an interesting motivator. Imagine a character who, after a sudden shock, decides that the only way to put a stop to the nightmares that plague her every night is to get out there in a costume, and fight occult crime. That's pretty much the origin story for Wesley Dodds, aka the Sandman, but there's no reason your players can't steal an idea or two. Imagine a bookstore where the proprietor, sinking deeper and deeper into delusions, uses the store's cellar as a lab for forensic analysis, and mixing the sleep gas that he, as the Red Shadow, uses to help him fight the forces of evil.

This is probably best used for a character who's already on the way out. While the idea of a character acting as a costumed hero has a lot of potential, I can't help but think it clashes slightly with the Bookhounds downbeat economic horror ethos. But as a brief, bright spark of manic life just before the candle gutters out, the character as costumed vigilante could be very interesting.

Perhaps a better use for a Pulp character in a Bookhounds campaign is as mentor figure, or villain. It's often the case that a player wants to increase his character's knowledge in a particular discipline, perhaps Occult, or Magic, but lacks the resources. Alternatively the character might have the Occult at his disposal, but lacks information in Physics or Chemistry, or some other vital ability. A Carnacki type could be a useful instructor, or source of those extra points needed to put together a plan to stop the villain in her tracks once and for all.

As a villain, there's all kinds of possibilities. Many of the cults already familiar to the players are essentially pulp villain vehicles already, like the Hsieh-Tzu Fan or the Cult of the Black Pharaoh. It may need very little tweaking to turn these organizations, or their leaders, into true Pulp Technicolor villains. Or perhaps that mentor, so useful in former days, suffered a psychotic break, and is now the very villain the characters now have to defeat. Except here's an antagonist who really does know all the characters' weaknesses, and how to exploit them, since he's known them all for years. Who better placed to defeat you than the man who taught you everything you know?

Another possibility is as an NPC who needs the characters, but is unwilling to reveal his true identity to them, for whatever reason. This NPC might see the characters in the same way Fox Mulder does the Lone Gunmen. While this does have potential, it risks moving the focus from the characters to the mysterious, powerful NPC, which isn't ideal. The best thing in its favor is that it gives the characters a clear motivator to get involved: their NPC asks them to do something for him. Perhaps the best use of this kind of story is to have the powerful NPC overwhelmed by mysterious forces halfway through the adventure, and either killed or seemingly killed. That way the Lone Gunmen get promoted from sidekick to main character status. It could be a very interesting way to start a campaign: the employees of the shop discover that their bookseller employer was really the Red Shadow all along, and now he's vanished. What to do?

With all that in mind, to close out I'm going to outline the Red Shadow, the notorious vigilante who's been turning London on its ear for the last few years.

Red Shadow, aka Marcus / Melinda Dash

Abilities: Auction 4, Athletics 10, Disguise 8, Driving 10, Electrical Repair 4, Explosives 6, Fleeing 10

Specialties: Biology, Chemistry, Evidence Collection, Forensics, Occult

Combat: Health 7, Scuffling 12, Weapons 5.

Martial Art: If used in the campaign, Red Shadow is an expert in Baritsu (see Zoom Martial Arts)

Signature Weapon/Device: The Silencer, a short-range dart pistol operated by compressed air. Capable of delivering one shot before it has to be reloaded. Damage -2, but projectile is usually tipped with sleeping potion, Athletics Diff 7 or fall unconscious. Red Shadow rarely uses other potions, but does know how to make deadly projectiles capable of delivering +3 Damage, based on an obscure venom obtained from a South American plant, grown in the Shadow's own greenhouse.

Special Gimmick: Truth Serum. The Red Shadow concocts this from a recipe of his own creation, based on secrets uncovered from a medieval herbal manuscript. In game terms, acts as 3 point pool Intimidation, one target, as the target hallucinates strange and terrible mirages. While, strictly speaking, this doesn't guarantee that the target will tell the truth, it's a pretty good persuader.

Transport: The Red Shadow owns a finely tuned bright red sports car, capable of 100 miles per hour.

Appearance: When acting as the Red Shadow, wears sharply tailored formal attire, and a red leather Commedia dell'arte mask. Whether male or female, the Red Shadow is an adept cross-dresser.

Notes: The Red Shadow lost his two best friends on the same terrible day. The three of them had ventured, on a lark, to an old, abandoned house in the West End, rumored to be the most haunted spot in London. There they encountered a group of individuals, self-proclaimed occultists and wizards, who were carrying out a ritual in the cellars of that shunned place. One of them was immediately sacrificed, while the other two were imprisoned while the ritual was conducted. The Red Shadow and his friend managed to escape, but the wizards chased them down, and the Shadow's companion sacrificed his life so the Shadow could get away. Ever since that fateful night, Dash has used the nom de guerre Red Shadow to hide his identity, as he tracks down and kills the cultists who murdered his friends. The conspiracy, Dash has discovered, has roots sunk deep in London's best and brightest citizens; so far Dash has uncovered and dealt with two of his enemies, but the rest seem to be protected by none other than British Military Intelligence. Though cautious, Dash will not give up his chance at revenge, no matter who stands in Dash's way.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Junkhounds of London (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds)

This time out I want to talk about an optional addition to the Bookhounds character list: the Junkhound. I owe inspiration for this character type to George Orwell, particularly his essay Just Junk: But Who Could Resist It? I've had reason to mention Orwell before, and I highly recommend his short essays to anyone planning on running this game.

The Junk Shop probably exists on the same street as the characters' bookshop. They may well be neighbors, particularly since the kind of customer likely to wander into a junk shop is exactly the same kind of customer that might patronize the characters' establishment. If you should want to visit an example of the breed and happen to be visiting, or live in, London, I highly recommend The Junk Shop in Greenwich, which I used to visit often when I lived in South London. It's probably less dusty than those found in Orwell's day, and unlike Orwell's shop the owners of the Junk Shop are usually happy to make a sale. Otherwise it's a picture perfect example of the breed. American Pickers, for those of you trapped within the confines of the US of A, is also a pretty good example, except of course they seem to do most of their business long distance, where a junk shop relies on walk-in trade.

You can find almost anything in places like that; I can remember being tempted by a chunk of scrap from an American fighter, World War Two vintage, that someone had dug up out of a muddy field in Europe. My memory tells me it was probably a Curtiss Hawk or Warhawk, but the wretched thing was huge, perhaps three or four foot across, not the sort of piece you could put in a display case. Yet I could see it hanging above a mantlepiece, and was disappointed when, after going away to think about it for a while, I returned to find the scrap metal had sold to someone keener than I.

There will be some crossover between a bookshop and a junk shop. A junk shop is more likely to carry back issues of magazines, cheap publications, or books in bad condition. In the terms of the trade, its book stock is almost certainly disbound, remainder binding, or - worst of all - unsophisticated. Still, that shouldn't stop ambitious Bookhounds poaching from the Junkhound's stock, now and again. Equally a book shop may carry things of interest to the Junkhound, or the book scout may come back with news of an estate sale that has items of interest both to junk and book collectors.

While it may seem that the Antiquarian overlaps a bit with the Junkhound, there's one very important distinction to make. An Antiquarian is primarily interested in things of the past, collects items of historical interest, and generally is concerned about the condition of his stock. Not so the Junkhound. While the Junkhound has some love for history and things of historic importance, any item of scrap is grist for the Junkhound's mill. It doesn't matter to him how old it is, how decrepit, how valueless, or lacking in merit. The Junkhound stocks anything. If the Junkhound specializes in, say, pictures, as Orwell says one shop of his acquaintance did, those pictures will be from all possible artistic schools, of varying age, and the only thing they would have in common is a general lack of artistic talent. If ever you're going to find Dogs Playing Poker, it will be in a junk shop. Though there could be something valuable hiding away in the stacks of forgotten landscape artists and minor surrealists ... 

With all that in mind, I give you:


You live surrounded by other people's discarded valuables, and make your living from them. You  have a deep and abiding love for your charges, and spend days hunting down rumors of a complete set of whatever it might be, or a replacement chair, or even just a trove of scrap metal. You own either a shop front, or a yard, filled with what anyone else would see as scrap, but you see opportunity. You're a close relative of the rag and bone man, except you'd like to think of yourself as one step up on the social ladder, since you own your own premises, and a rag and bone man often does not. There's nothing you won't sell, but you can't often give an accurate history of the things you do sell. It's not as easy a life as bookselling, but you enjoy it, because with every new day comes a new item, something you may not have seen before; something you can turn to a tidy profit.

Occupational Abilities: Auction, Accounting, Assess Honesty, Bargain, Craft (often Carpentry, or something to do with metalwork), History, Oral History, The Knowledge

Credit Rating: 1 to 3

Possible Drives and General Abilities: The Junkhound isn't restricted as far as drives go, but Artistic Sensibility is probably the least likely. The one thing you can be sure of is that a Junkhound wouldn't know true art if it bit him on the leg. A Junkhound is quite likely to still rely on a horse and cart for transport, so Riding is a useful general ability. Abilities that allow the Junkhound to do minor repairs or reconditioning, like Electrical or Mechanical Repair, are also useful.

Special: Like the Bookseller, you own your own store or yard, and have the final word on anything to do with that establishment. Like the Antiquarian, you can, once per session, draw on your stock for something of minor interest. This item cannot be exceptionally valuable, be a weapon of greater than +0 damage, or supply a clue greater than a 0 point informational clue. However your greatest advantage lies in putting people - usually customers, or people who might be able to supply you with junk - at their ease. You have a raffish, disreputable charm that disarms people. You can use Oral History to activate contacts in the same way a Hobo can. These contacts can be from any Occupation, but your ability only works on those with Credit Rating 2 or lower. Those with higher Credit Rating don't want to know you.