Sunday, 20 November 2016

Coffins, Caskets and Funerary Fantasies (Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu)

So the agents have cracked the locks, bypassed all security, and crept on silent feet down into the inner sanctum. Then the casket creaks open ...

But what kind of casket?

Ultraviolet, the British vampire drama from 1998, preferred the high-tech approach. Its caskets were more akin to the SBA containers found in the Edom Files: utilitarian high security delivery systems with very specific locking mechanisms. It addresses the one real fear a vampire has: its vulnerability. Penetrating that casket, short of a brick of C4, is not an option, and the electronic lock makes sure snoopers can't open it before the deadline. Unless, as Vaughan Rice (an excellent performance from Idris Elba) discovered, you can sabotage it.

The modern casket as sold by funeral directors is a very high-end affair. Costs can easily escalate into the thousands, if not tens of thousands. Almost anything you can think of, and some things you couldn't possibly imagine, are on offer. After all, the casket is the last purchase you'll ever make as a consumer, so why not make it the best?

The basic design, at least in the States, is broadly the same across the entire range. It's a wedge-shaped box, usually with some variation on a viewing port for the mourners at the wake. The surreal and rather captivating 1932 movie Vampyr features an interesting variation on that theme, with a glass panel in place rather than a movable lid. This allows for an unforgettable moment when the protagonist, who's been sealed up in the casket, stares up at the world from his prison, able to see everything through the glass but unable to do anything about it.

Of course, with cash comes customization. Do you want a state of the art sound system? Perhaps some kind of wireless connection, or a video display? Touchscreen embedded in the casket lid? Or perhaps you like the idea of a fake coffin with fake corpse; perfect for Halloween, but perhaps also perfect as a distraction for those pesky agents.

Then there are those famous Ghanaian artisans with their custom designs. Odd, yes, kitsch, definitely; but undeniably attractive, in their way. I can just picture a Conspiracy head settling down in one of these. Or perhaps ordering a replacement after the last one got blown up in a raid.

Whether or not the casket is airtight will determine the condition of the contents, over time. A wooden casket allows for air to pass through and fluids to drain out, enabling relatively clean skeletal remains. A sealed casket, on the other hand, promotes decay but, without a means of escape, creates corpse soup. Cracking one of these open is an exercise in human endurance; the smell is unforgettable.

Here in Bermuda because of space constraints we tend to bury members of the same family in the same hole. Technically I imagine funeral directors would prefer to call it a vault, but that conjures up images of New-Orleans style opulence that frankly does not describe the end product. It's a hole, with a limestone lid. The caskets are usually wood, allowing the contents and the boxes to decay over time. Cremation never really caught on down here, though there are some that offer the service. Burials at sea are also less common that you might expect.

Though we think of graveyards and funeral homes as the natural repository for caskets and coffins, this isn't always so. As mentioned in a previous post, during the Victorian period it was common for the poor to keep their dead with them in their homes, sometimes for days if not weeks on end, saving up enough money for the funeral. Some Victorians went so far as to keep their coffins with them always, waiting for the moment when they'd finally occupy them.

Thanks to their symbolic weight coffins, and other funerary memorabilia, are often used as art or furniture. The fabled Nothingness, or Cabaret du Neant in Paris, is an example of the type. There you'd be served your poison of choice atop a casket table, admiring the bones and skulls around you. I understand the Cabaret was recreated as part of Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic in New York, which I have never attended but find fascinating.

In Night's Black Agents or Trail, how might a coffin be used?

To begin with as a symbol, perhaps in the home or office of an important character. The Goth cameo is bound to have something elaborate and ebon in her apartment, while the Sculptor or Art Forecaster in the Dracula Dossier may well have a Ghanaian Fantasy Coffin in their workshop or office.

Then as an SBA place of rest. The 1890s vampire is bound to find something Gothic comforting, and have an elaborate casket set up in its refuge. More modern or sophisticated creatures may prefer something technological, along the lines of the Ultraviolet casket referred to earlier. Sound systems, touch screens and other creature comforts are bound to be important.

As a smuggler's hiding spot or an illicit burial device a coffin's unparalleled. You can pack just about anything in a casket, and people frequently do. My personal favorite is The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, though Tintin also has fond memories for me. It's worth bearing in mind that, particularly in the modern era but also to an extent in Trail's 1930s, the coffins themselves can have value. Sarcophagus lids in particular have long been prized by antiquities smugglers looking for a fat, if macabre profit. One such lid features prominently in a tale about the sinking of the Titanic.

Lastly, a coffin makes excellent set decoration. There's a reason why the Cabaret du Neant chose it as part of its ambience; a coffin's instantly recognizable, carries a ton of emotional weight, and allows for some interesting symbolic juxtapositions. Imagine if you will a cultist feast along the lines of Nyotaimori or Nataimori, except this time the naked body is presented in a coffin - presumably one with a removable lid, or perhaps even a transparent or glass lid. Or an Old West Ghost Town in which the inhabitants all wait quietly in their coffins, perhaps ceremoniously placed in the houses and businesses they occupied in life, waiting for the moment to emerge. Imagine a casket that moved of its own accord. A casket from which an ominous knocking sound could be heard, even when completely empty. A casket made of solid silver for a special client, that refuses to be buried.

That's it for today. Enjoy!

Travel Plans!

I try to update here once a week usually on Sundays. That hasn't always been so, but it's the goal. However for the next two weeks I shall be crazy busy in the UK, which means I won't have nearly as many opportunities to get online and talk to you.

I'll be at Dragonmeet this year, spending most of my time at the Pelgrane booth, so if you attend please drop by and say hi! No, I don't know precisely where the Pelgrane booth is, but my memory of UK cons is that they're very small in comparison with their US counterparts, so I don't think it'll be a struggle to find it.

I haven't been to US cons for a while because the cost is usually too high. It's close to a thousand dollars once you factor in air fare and hotels, and I can't afford it. However I'm in a better place financially than I've been for a while, so I'm seriously considering attending at least one US con next year. Gencon's the obvious choice, but I have fond memories of Atlanta's DragonCon. Plus Atlanta's much easier to get to than Indianapolis. Atlanta's a direct flight where Indy's at least one stopover, possibly two. We shall see ,,,

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Donner Party (Trail of Cthulhu)

I've been doing some Old West research, looking for things to plug into The Vendetta Run. It's surprising how unhelpful the internet can be; more often than not the articles that are best optimized for search engines are also junk pieces cribbing frantically from Wikipedia. While there is useful stuff out there, most of it's buried way back in the weeds.

But I did find some helpful stuff, and in so doing was reminded of the tragic fate of the Donner Party.

For those who don't know the story, a brief recap: the Donner-Reed Party was a group of would-be migrants trying to find a way to California in 1846. They were grossly misled by The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California, which suggested an alternate route from Fort Bridger, Green River Wyoming, to California via a mountain range and the Salt Lake Desert.

Theoretically this route is navigable, but not at the time of year the Donner-Reeds proposed to make the trip. By the time they finally got across the desert and the mountain range they had no chance of getting across the Sierra Nevadas before snowfall, and when they tried they were cut off, with no way forward and no way back.

Their options were few. Several of the party were too sick to travel. Those who were still healthy enough to go on had nowhere to go, at least not with their possessions; if they walked out with their clothes on their backs they might survive, and perhaps send help to the others. A party of 17 including women and children joined that Forlorn Hope, while the remainder stayed in a makeshift camp at Truckee Lake.

The Forlorn Hope soon ran into difficulties. Lost, snowblind and with little chance of finding their way to civilization, in desperation they began eating the corpses of those who fell. One macabre touch about the story I always find intriguing is that they took special care to label the dried-out meat they took, to ensure that nobody in the party mistakenly ate the flesh of a relative. About half the Hope ended up in the bellies of the other half before they finally found rescue.

Things were little better in the camp. Starvation and privation led them to do much as the Forlorn Hope had. All told, about half of the 89-strong group died in the Pass, and many of those who died were eaten. The full story can be had via Wikipedia here.

One curious footnote: many of the survivors preferred to pretend that they hadn't turned cannibal. They swore they found sustenance in other ways - the family dog, say. None of them outlived the stigma; all their lives they had to live with a ghoulish reputation. The last of the Donner Party survivors, one year old at the time, died in 1935.

The Lincoln Highway, constructed in 1913, traverses the Donner Pass. Though there are other highways today, in the Trail 1930s period the Lincoln would have been the only highway through the Pass. It's often described as one of the snowiest parts of the United States, and today it's a popular spot for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding.

With all that in mind, let's talk one-shot.

In the 1930s the Great Depression led to significant migration from Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl to California, where there was the hope of work and food. Many of these Okies went along Route 66, but not all. Suppose some of them went up the Lincoln, along the Donner Pass. What might they find there?

The opening scene would be the departure from their ruined farms, the hot blasts of dust storms screaming at their heals. If the Expedition rules are being used - and I recommend they are - then whatever else they have they haven't many supplies. A lot of what they carry will be useless but have strong sentimental value. Photographs, dining room sets, perhaps a piano - that sort of thing.

They might start from Colorado, Texas, New Mexico or Kansas in addition to Oklahoma. Some photographs from the period illustrate the awesome power of the dust storms; it's like watching the hand of an angry God smash down on the land. Not unlike the migrant period of the 1840s you could see the dust-drowned remains of cars and people's lives scattered by or on the roadside as you travelled. At least one of the scenes after the opener should involve the group trying to cope with the aftermath of a storm, trying to get their sand-choked cars going again.

Nobody wanted to see these migrants. It was the Depression; jobs were few, and the Okies soon got a bad and undeserved reputation as an army of thieves and bumpkins on the march. The next scene should be an encounter on the outskirts of some little burg, perhaps in Arizona, where the townsfolk are united in their loathing for the Okies and the police come out to make sure the Okies move on as quickly as possible. There's a potential for a supplies refresh here, but it requires delicate negotiation.

Since we started this in the Old West it seems only right to have at least one Old West scene. What we think of as Ghost Towns these days aren't, really; they're tourist traps with a cobwebbed aesthetic, where T-shirt stalls, geegaws and costumed guides lurk alongside history. But in the 1930s these places would have been almost completely abandoned.

Tombstone itself for example, where this digression started, had only 700 residents in 1900, a huge drop from its 10,000 heyday. Its famous courthouse with gallows next door was left to rot from 1931 until its conversion to a museum in the 1950s. Imagine driving through a near-deserted place like this with nothing but the clothes on your back. Maybe you can scavenge some tinned food left behind by some long-dead inhabitant 30 years ago. More likely you can get water from a forgotten well. but in any case the echo of gunfire and the taint of sulfur still hangs over the streets, and only the unwise go near the gallows at night.

From here we go to the final scenes. By this point everyone's on their last legs. What little supplies they had to start with have long since been used up. Maybe they have water. It's less likely they have food. Their few remaining cars struggle up the Lincoln Highway, trying to get through the Sierra Nevadas. It's getting dark.

Then the snow comes.

Those cars would have had very little left in them even before this point. Now everything freezes. One by one the vehicles grind to a halt and will not start again. If the group has a map they can work out where the nearest civilization is; a ski lodge perhaps, or some kind of roadhouse. But that's a long walk away, and they're tired, hungry and worn out. It might be better to wait by the cars; after all someone's bound to come along the highway soon.

Then they see the hunched shapes in the shadows, watching them, alive with eager, hellish anticipation.

Keeper's choice as to what these are. Ghosts of the Donner Party? Ghoulish remnants? Wendigo? Cold Ones? Whichever it may be they are hungry for hot, fresh meat, and here come the characters stumbling into their cold little corner of the world. Now it's a straight survival horror narrative and the only question is whether or not the characters will survive the night. Maybe they struggle through to that roadhouse, or maybe they huddle up in their stranded cars and make a last stand. Whichever it is they won't see a friendly human face till dawn.

So who will live to see that dawn?


Sunday, 6 November 2016

Wicked Bibles (Bookhounds of London)

In 1631 printers Barker and Lucas committed a grievous error when they reprinted the King James Bible omitting the word 'not' from the Commandment 'thou shalt not commit adultery'. This earned them censure both ordinary and Royal, as well as a trip to the Star Chamber and a hefty fine plus loss of their license to print. Most but not all of these so-called Wicked Bibles were immediately burnt, making surviving editions increasingly scarce, and valuable.

Which brings me to Lovejoy, a gentleman I've commented on before. The books are recommended reading for Bookhounds Keepers but the TV series is fun too, and this time out I have my eye on Season 5 Episode 12 Never Judge a Book by Its Cover. In that one Lovejoy offers to evaluate a potentially valuable bible for a pair of spinsters, only to discover that it might not be the find he thought at first.

So let's talk about a Bookhounds scenario idea: The Reward of his Wickedness, a reference to Judas who died on the Field of Blood.

The scenario opens with the characters in unfamiliar surroundings: Oxford, Cambridge or similar. They are there, if the shop is Credit Rating 3 or better, because they've been asked to evaluate a library, perhaps by one of the poorer Colleges or a scholar. If less than 3, then they are there because they've found out a dead scholar's library is about to be broken up, and they hope to snap up some bargains or at least materials out of which they can make a good forgery.

While there their attention is drawn to a pair of elderly spinsters, down to their last pennies. The old dears can't afford anyone famous or accredited, so they turn to the protagonists to help them. They have only one thing of any value: a Wicked Bible. Is it the genuine article and, if so, how much is it worth?

There's a complicating factor. The sisters' cousin, a C of E vicar but lately defrocked for dubious dealings - Keeper's choice as to what - is lurking on the sidelines. He claims that the Bible is his by rights, and if it's worth anything he intends to sue for possession. He approaches the characters early on, offering them a fat commission if they tell the sisters the Bible is worthless, so he can snap it up for cheap.

He knows a little Magic, possibly Idiosyncratic, but it's his long-dead great grandfather who was, in his day, the real sorcerer and owner of the Wicked Bible. This fellow, Joshua, was a contemporary of Von Juntz, and helped translate Von Juntz's works for the Bridewell 1845 edition.  Joshua died under mysterious circumstances in 1844, less than a year before the Bridewell edition saw print. His death is one of the reasons why the Bridewell edition is so badly translated. He's supposed to have left behind him an extensive library with several important Mythos texts including proofs of the Bridewell edition, but most scholars believe this library was broken up or lost soon after his passing.

The Wicked Bible turns out to be a Nineteenth Century fake, and therefore worth much less than the sisters think. It's cleverly done, and the spend to discover this is 2 points Forgery or 1 point Forgery 1 point History. However those who make this spend also discover there is an extra page in the Bible, and that illustration - not found in the original - shows Judas dying on the field of blood or Hakeldama, in Jerusalem.

However the Field looks remarkably like Joseph's country estate, as it would have been back in the 1840s. The big difference is that one building exists in the drawing that was not there in the 1840s; a decorative folly in the northwestern portion of the estate, overlooking an artificial lake. It might have been planned, but it was never built. History, Library Use (comparing contemporary maps with the existing estate), Flattery or Reassurance (talking to the sisters or possibly the cousin) discovers this.

The estate is now owned by a noveau riche family whose papa was a big name in manufacturing, and he guards his privileges jealously since the local powers that be have snubbed him at every turn. He hates the pack of 'em, and would cheerfully shoot foxes day and night rather than let anyone on his land. Consequently he keeps a large number of foresters, none local, who set traps for poachers and discourage hunters and ramblers from coming on the property. Getting to the site of the folly wants Stealth, Outdoorsman and Sense Trouble to avoid the worst of it. Alternately they may try to come to some arrangement either with the property owner or one of his foresters. The foresters can be bribed, but the owner responds only to appeals to his business sense; an understanding of Physics, Chemistry or Bargain is the best way to win him over.

Once they get to the site of the folly they discover that there is something there; it just isn't what they were expecting. Rather than the Hellenic temple shown on the drawing, the 'folly' is a cleverly built hidden tomb. It's made to blend in with the landscape and is covered by a layer of soil and shrubs, so if you didn't know it was there you'd never be able to find it.

Inside the tomb is old Joshua's secret library, where he intended to use necromantic arts to keep himself alive for eternity. However he wasn't as clever a sorcerer as he thought, and he never returned from the grave. He did leave behind a guardian, and it's Keeper's choice as to exactly what this gruesome creature is. If the cousin hasn't already been dealt with, then perhaps his gruesome corpse is the first and only warning the protagonists get that something wicked (and tentacled) this way comes.

As to what's in the secret library, it could be anything. Original Von Juntz, perhaps, or other valuable Mythos texts. Or maybe the library wasn't as preservative as Joshua intended, and the really valuable items have been destroyed by damp. It could even be that some clever pillager got there first and took the really good stuff, leaving the rest behind for fear of the guardian.

If that happened then there should be clues as to who that pillager was; it might have been the clerical cousin, if he's been dogging the characters' heels this entire time. But it could be more interesting to lay the crime on someone else, perhaps an already established rival or some nineteenth century tomb robber whose career can then be traced, leading the protagonists to the loot by a roundabout route.

Of course by the end of all this the characters may come away with a fantastic find. They then have to prove it's genuine, which means establishing some kind of provenance. Tricky, given the circumstances in which it came to them.

But, as always in Bookhounds, the trouble with finding treasures like these isn't so much how to get them, as what to do with them once you have them ... Which leads to a different scenario altogether.


Sunday, 30 October 2016

Chilling Locales 3 (Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterror)

I've discussed Metro-2, the Orient Express, Hotel Castel Dracula and other locales, but only in the context of Night's Black Agents. This time I'm going to expand the remit a little and talk about the relevance to other settings within the GUMSHOE milieu.

Hashima Island Or Battleship Island, if you'd rather. If you know this one then it's probably because you saw Skyfall, where it doubles as the mastermind's stronghold. Except not really, because the actual Hashima is far too unsafe to be used as a film set. Tourists are allowed on the island but only in small numbers and in controlled groups; you aren't allowed to walk unsupervised. Though as this camera view shows, drones can go where people can't.

It's a coal mine, and at one time this 16 acre island off the southern coast of Japan, near Nagasaki, was one of the most densely populated places in the world. Founded by Mitsubishi in 1889, it was finally abandoned in 1974 when coal ceased to be an  important part of the economy. It's now a UNESCO world heritage site.

It has a history of forced labor. Beginning in the 1930s and not ending until after the war, Koreans and Chinese were moved here in large numbers to toil in the underground mines. Many died, or killed themselves rather than continue to eke out an existence on Hell Island. It's a history most Japanese would prefer to gloss over, if not forget entirely.

Physically, it looks like Leviathan rose up out of the depths and stayed slumbering on the surface for so long that people decided to live on its back. In its day it boasted Japan's first concrete apartment blocks, to house the workers, and those blocks plus the sea walls lend it the appearance of a ship of war. It's constantly battered by the sea, which is why it's in such poor condition, and would have needed constant maintenance when it was a working mine. Thirty years of neglect means that if it were to be restored for people to visit safely, it would have to be completely rebuilt, and there's neither the cash nor the enthusiasm for that.

Since it was first established in 1889 it could appear in any of the Pelgrane settings, from Trail to Night's Black Agents.

A Trail game probably concentrates on the coal mines themselves, with its hints of Lovecraftain cyclopean entities hidden deep beneath the earth. Seawater constantly leaking into the mines meant that the workers often picked up skin infections, and there were cave-ins and toxic gases to contend with as well; perhaps the workers, in despair, turn to the Old Ones for salvation or revenge.

Esoterror could claim that the island was home to any number of strange entities, or that its history as a place of death means that a ritual performed here has a better chance of breaching the Membrane. Perhaps those drone flights are looking for something that people can't find, because the island's too dangerous to search?

Night's Black Agents would use the island's dangerous reputation as an excuse to keep people away, so experiments could go on without restriction. Or perhaps there are old wartime secrets hidden here that the outside world has long forgotten. If nothing else, an amphibious night raid on Battleship Island has an allure all its own!

The Plain of Jars, Laos This megalithic site has a history that stretches back to the Iron Age. Almost certainly originally intended as a burial site, these sandstone containers cluster all over the upland valleys and lower foothills of the central plain of the Xiangkhoang Plateau. Grave goods, statues of the Bhudda, burnt bones, ash and beads have been found in these Jars, and there are at least 90 sites where they can be found, each site containing between one and 400 Jars.

During the Secret War in the 1960s American bombers dropped thousands upon thousands of antipersonnel mines on the Plain to hinder North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao, and tens of thousands remain today, a hazard to anyone who wants to explore the site. Sightseeing can only take place over carefully marked paths; stepping away from the cleared zone could get you killed.

As to why the Nights Black Agents might want to go there: China or one of the other actors in the area may have been running a Jin-Gui operation in the Plain, which the bombing did its best to eradicate. Whether it was successful is something else again. Perhaps some of the jars were used to create Jin-Gui, by filling the jars with infected Telluric soil and using them to incubate new Jin-Gui.

Alternatively the NVA or Pathet Lao may have been running an anti-vampire operation of their own, and hid important data (or an item) in one or more of the Jars. Naturally the Jars in question are in the danger zones, and can only be reached by somehow bypassing or defusing a number of antipersonnel mines.

In Trail, the protagonists could be archaeologists. There was a significant exploration of the site in the 1930s; Madeline Colani literally wrote the book about the Plain. Perhaps the characters assist her, and discover something out there too horrifying to report. Do the Jars represent portals to another plane of existence? Will carrying out a cremation there call down entities, like Fire Vampires or Byakhee, which according to rituals long forgotten carry the souls of the devout to their reward?

Esoterrorists could use the Jars for all kinds of rituals. With all the gloom and death surrounding the site - never mind the explosives - there's plenty of Membrane-weakening influences to draw on.

Reception House, Kingstead Cemetery  This one's based on a recent Guardian article about a Grade II listed building at Margravine, Hammersmith. Kingstead is fictional, and features in the Dracula Dossier.

'Wretched as these people were,' says a contemporary chronicler (taken from Liza Picard), 'They would struggle to bury the dead without any assistance from the parish, for there is nothing the poor have a horror of as a pauper's funeral.' A funeral for an adult could cost as much as four pounds, an enormous sum for a working man never mind someone who hadn't worked in years. The problem was the body was often kept in the home for viewing, and stayed there until the family could afford internment. Often this might be a week or more. The natural process of decay meant this was untenable, so charitable institutions and workhouse medical staff began looking for a solution.

This small reception house is a stopgap. This octagon building with its slatted ventilation panels in the roof and trestles for the caskets could accommodate perhaps ten to fifteen coffins at a time, assuming it was packed full. People soon realized the reception house was too small, so larger mortuaries were built and the reception houses became obsolete.

The example at Kingstead dates to 1848, and is a fine example of mid-Victorian craftsmanship. Documentation kept at the church indicates that it was funded by a Doctor Kilpatrick, who at the time it was built was 35 years old; in 1894 he was a still-vigorous octogenarian, and involved tangentially in the Hampstead Horror. He was one of the first to bring the peculiar behavior of the children to the attention of the authorities and press, and led the search for the wayward children the first two nights. However he died of a heart attack the next day, and was buried in Kingstead.

In the world of the Dracula Dossier the Reception House can be many things: the  lair of a wayward SBA - the child, for example - a safe house used by Dracula's people, a dead drop used by Edom, perhaps even some kind of storage spot for items left behind by the Mysterious Monsignor or some similar shady character with a religious or mystic bent. If there's a Cult of Dracula, this could be one of their disguised temples. If Cool, then it was used by one of these agencies once upon a time, and perhaps it still holds significance for survivors of the 1970s mole hunt. There may even be a cache of something valuable in its dusty vault. On the other hand it could be Warm, and in that case probably still has an occupant of some kind. If a vampire, remember those ventilation ports in the roof; that could really frustrate would-be hunters, as their quarry turns to mist and vanishes through the vents.

Last but not least:

Kolmanskop  An abandoned German mining town in Namibia, left to the sands and its ghosts. Until 1954 it was still a working claim, complete with every possible luxury from a theatre and power station to a casino and skittles alley, not forgetting the all-important ice house. However its heyday was pre-Great War, when Namibia was still German; after the War de Beers staked its claim, and even today the diamond consortium keeps a museum at the Kolmanskop site. The town isn't the only ghost town in Namibia, but it is very photogenic and has appeared in television shows, movies and many haunting photographs.

It's interesting on several points. First, it's within what was the Sperrgebeit, a term the Germans coined to describe an area completely off limits, the intent being to surround the diamond fields by what amounted to an exclusion zone. Most of the Sperrgebeit has nothing to do with diamond mining per se, though some of it - like Kolmanskop - might have been a mine once upon a time. It's just considered useful to have a buffer zone around the valuable area, and it doesn't hurt that the buffer zone has become, in part, a nature reserve. You still need a permit to get in. Here's an Infiltration check  with a difference; just what is really hidden out there in the Sperrgebeit?

Second, since it is so remote and forsaken it's the perfect setting for all kinds of shenanigans. Does your NBA threat require an isolated area close to a rich supply of natural minerals - whatever your Unobtanium is this week - protected by all the personnel and weaponry a national government and wealthy benefactors can provide? Done and done. Is your NBA threat one of those, like the Perfectus, that has a prehistoric origin story with items and evidence left behind in some desolate spot? Done. Is there perhaps some evidence in a dusty Trail or Fear Itself tome that something truly unpleasant was dug out of Kolmanskop, hastening its decline? The journey alone could be worth a session of adventure. Probably best used in a 1970s or 80s game when Namibia still seethes with revolutionary fervor, and South African troops police the territory; this could be really interesting if combined with a Close Encounters aesthetic, as strange alien vessels swoop over the dunes.

Third, since it is so very photogenic it attracts all kinds of filmmakers, thrill seekers and other wanderers. This could include Esoterrorists, perhaps bent on creating the horror flick to end all horror flicks, or creating a meme spread via the internet - all those Ten Haunted Sites webpages and photograph albums - designed to cause dreams or visions of a desert wasteland, and the things that live there.

On that note, if you haven't already seen the 1992 film Dust Devil I highly recommend it, and though it doesn't feature Kolmanskop it's exactly the kind of setting where a story like Dust Devil could play out. South African Richard Stanley is the director and I've never been disappointed by any of his films. If you feel as I do after seeing Dust Devil I also recommend Hardware, a post-apocalypse killer robot tale, which again would not be out of place in a setting like Kolmanskop. The trailer's a bit rubbish - God knows why the distributor felt the need for the voice-over - but don't let that dissuade you. This is one seriously cool film, well worth seeking out on Halloween night.

That's it from me! Have a good Halloween folks, and talk soon.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Tombstone Showdowns and Pelgrane Day

I had it all worked out, and then it went wrong.

Pelgrane announced its first ever Pelgrane Day last Friday, and I immediately came up with a Cunning Scheme. I'm Premises Manager at the local dramatic society, and it has WiFi. If I can game on the actual stage, so much the better, but even if I can't there are plenty of other rooms in the building. We could livetweet the entire thing! Maybe even shoot some video, do a bit of recording, nothing fancy.

Filled with confidence and joie de vivre, I get the gang together: Max, Tach, Mary and Jym, who're currently journeying on the Orient Express - sanity dwindling away not in a trickle but by handfuls - and they leap on board. I pick for the evening Ken Hite's Vendetta Run, a fun survival horror setting perfect for a one-shot. I have two weeks to prepare. What could go wrong?

Well, we had a hurricane for one thing. The theatre cellar flooded, and then caught fire. Not as serious as it sounds, and nobody was hurt. However it did mean I was kept very very busy, and exhaustion set in. The theatre lost its WiFi connection, and thanks to one damn thing after another it still didn't have its WiFi connection by the time Friday rolled around. Never mind that I had much less time to prepare than I'd fondly imagined.

At one point I considered cancelling but decided against. The show would go on!

Not in the theatre, though; that was taken. We moved up into the office instead. The office is supposed to be haunted, though how much truth's in that is anyone's guess. Like just about every old building in Hamilton the theatre's supposed to have been a bordello back in the bad old days, but I've heard that story so many times about so many different places in Hamilton it must have been wall-to-wall shagging back before the Great War. But let's say one of the customers is still hanging around, why not. It's as good an excuse as any.

We started the session at 7pm with character creation, and were gaming before 8, carrying on till after midnight.

The characters are:
  • Hosanna (played by Tach), a dealer at the Bird Cage Theatre which hosts the world's longest ever poker game in its cellar.
  • Shallott (played by Mary), a medical type more than a little handy with a six-shooter.
  • Slim Bob (played by Jym), the worlds fattest demolition expert, with a deep, abiding love for chocolate.
  • Twitchy (played by Max), a Cowboy gunman and enforcer, weedy but a dead-eye shot.
I decided to set the game in Tombstone itself, rather than have the Earps chase the characters across half creation. There's plenty of information out there, and the Wikipedia page even has a period street map. It also allowed me to steal real-world locations, like the Bird Cage and the Courthouse, for important scenes.

I made a couple decisions I would later regret. First, I decided to do this with the lights off. LED tea lights are cheaply had, and I thought this would add atmosphere. It did, but the flip side was I had very little to photograph.

The red tea lights are for the Keeper, the others for the players. Note to self: if I do this again, more tea lights please. Mind you it could get expensive; down here those things cost about a buck a light. Which is still fairly cheap but if it's a buck a light here they're probably .10c in the States.

It did make things difficult to read. This is where tablets and phones come in handy. Plus Pelgrane is relatively rules-lite when compared to, say, D&D or other crunchy games, so you don't have to spend eye-straining minutes looking for something on your character sheet.

Speaking of, what would have made this even more fun is period character sheets, as have been made for Bookhounds, Dreamhounds and Trail. I know this is more of a fan project, but there's a few KWAS that provide alternate settings - Tombhounds, Vendetta, Moon Dust Men - and my artistic skills are negligible. Would that there were an easy way of setting up fun character sheets!

Another regrettable decision: music. I like using music in game, but I hadn't appreciated that recent iPlayer updates meant the interface had confusingly changed. Plus my battery seems a little feeble these days. Che sera sera; the music kinda worked, but not as I'd have liked. 

One other bit of prep I have to mention here: Time Life Books. My God those things were gorgeous in their day. The one you see in the photo is The Old West - Gamblers. I could not have done this without that book. Highly recommended, and you can often pick up those titles for silly money, especially in the States.

We started with a tremendous hangover. The characters wake up in their chosen hidey holes in Tombstone, having tied on a righteous one the night before. As Slim Bob awakens in his pharmacy and makes himself a cup of coffee out of last week's grind, dreaming of chocolate, Hosanna, Shallott and Twitchy - who were over in the Bird Cage - go looking for him. They find a bunch of Earps (Deuces, which term will mean nothing to those who haven't read Vendetta Run; think of them as mooks) and things soon turn grim.

Fortunately Slim Bob traps one of them under his enormous girth, but that still leaves a couple outside.

"I hear you're the best shot," says Twitchy to Lou Cooley. "I propose a gamble. I'm going to flick this here coin up in the air and if you can hit it in one try without missing ... Unless you're chicken."

"I'll hit that coin," says Jim, "And shoot you right between the eyes with the same bullet."

"I'd like to see that," says Twitchy, and hilarity ensues.

Fortunately for Twitchy he does not get perforated, but Shallott does, and with rounds that will not heal. It's always the way when someone plays the hero; someone else carries the can.

However after all the Earps are dispatched - their bodies mysteriously vanishing - the characters look in at the Bird Cage. There they meet Josiah, a miner, who extolls the virtues of the establishment.

"Are you married, Josiah?" says Hosanna.

"I don't like to talk about my personal pains and miseries," is the reply.

But with Josiah as a beard they sneak into the poker game, where Doc Holliday is supposed to be holding court. Twitchy, staying upstairs, notices a couple Earp hangers-on lurking on the other side of Allen Street, keeping an eye on the Bird Cage. However the group doesn't notice Warren Earp and a compadre sneak in the back of the Bird Cage and take up ambush positions.

Josiah, it seems, has a very interesting mine. "Hell is a place, ma'am, but it's also ... I'm sorry, I've lost my train ... you'll be going there soon, ma'am, real soon. What was I saying?"

A sinister figure appears at the other end of Allen Street, and storm clouds gather. Wyatt's on the way.

Shallott slips out and gathers a couple Cowboy helpers.

With Warren and his compadres blocking the escape route, and Wyatt plus helpers plus Doc come in the front door. However thanks to Preparedness and copious explosives this proves to be a poor life choice for the mooks.

"I wonder if I might try some Intimidation," says Slim Bob, as he "kinda rolls toward 'em."

In the gunfight that follows Shallott comes out more perforated than Swiss cheese, and pretty much everyone takes hits, but the Keeper gnashes his teeth in frustration. More mooks were needed, and Warren went down like a puling kid. All the Cowboy NPCs get killed, which is just as well really since if they hadn't been there to be bullet sponges the PCs would probably have died.

I could go through the rest of it shot for shot, but that would take a long time and half the fun of a gaming session is being there. Suffice to say that Twitchy got the death he'd been looking for and Slim Bob fared little better. Shallott crawled away with several bullet wounds that would never heal, and Hosanna beat the odds and achieved salvation.

Well done to all, and many thanks to Pelgrane for all the fun!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Not Quite Review Corner: Invisible, Inc (iPad)

I've mentioned Klei's Invisible, Inc before, but until now it's always been a PC and PS4 title. It recently popped up on the iStore for $4.99 and, as Hurricane Nicole bore down on the island, I thought it was as good a time as any to give it a whirl. I played this on iPad Air 32 GB, so not the most recent model; performance-wise, I have no complaints.

If you've already played this or read the previous review then you know the basics, but to briefly reiterate: this is a stealth turn-based strategy roguelike with cyberpunk elements, in which you play a team of highly trained corporate spies on the run, trying to find out why your agency got smashed by the corporations while at the same time saving your powerful Artificial Intelligence, Incognita. Think of it like Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents, except the enemies are powerful megacorps with private armies at their disposal, not vampires.

Its basic release in May 2015 gave you the game, several unlockable agents and hours of fun. The November 2015 DLC Contingency Plan gave you several more agents, a ton of new items and equipment, and increased gameplay considerably with two new custom missions and several extra basic missions. I've played Contingency Plan to death on PC; in fact as the iPad release surfaced I was already on Day 16 of an Endless Expert run, so my people were about as skilled and as tooled up as it is possible to be.

It came as a little bit of a shock to discover that the iPad release includes just basic game content. Oddly, when Contingency Plan came out I didn't think it added much to the game. It took this release to make me realize just how much the DLC brought to the experience. On iPad it seems a shorter, less fulfilling title without the DLC content. I also realized that, without the Contingency Plan stuff, a shorter game means less of a challenge since you never encounter any of the tougher enemies in campaign mode. You'd have to go to Endless for that. There are several new agents only available on Contingency Plan that won't be available here, and all the side missions I'd come to expect - retrieving drones, hacking software laboratories, retrieving Invisible's data, raiding power vaults - are gone.

I played through one story campaign in Expert on iPad, and it was a lot of fun. It might be shorter, and that may mean it's not as much fun as the expanded Contingency Plan version, but it's still one of the best turn-based games out there. I was sweating bullets by the end, using up all the toys I'd saved to get my people to the final scene, and more than once I was convinced I'd completely screwed myself and lost the game. Particularly since, as this was basic, I hadn't the time to get any of the really powerful toys, which meant that any enemy with better that Armor 1 could have my agents for breakfast spread over a nice bagel.

A few things struck me. First, this game kills batteries. One level used, on average, about 30% of my battery life. Two levels would have me reaching for my charger.  If I were going on a long journey or thought I wasn't going to be able to charge my device, I wouldn't touch this game. When the hurricane knocked my power out, for instance, I immediately stopped playing and didn't touch it again until power was restored.

At first I thought I would need a Wi-Fi connection to make this work which, since Hurricane Nicole was bearing down on me, would mean I couldn't play. Not so; it works fine offline. It takes a while to load. I'd guesstimate maybe a minute and a half, at most, between boot and play. Given the complexity of the title I'm not surprised.

I wouldn't try this on a phone. Things got very busy on my screen, and more than once I really couldn't tell what was going on without juggling the screen a few different directions and squinting. Moreover there are times when two enemies would sit on the same square and I really couldn't tell which was which; very annoying when those two enemies are hackable drones, but I only want to hack one of them. I dread to think what the experience would be like on a smaller screen.

I used finger rather than stylus as a control, and on reflection I really wish I used a stylus. Maybe it's just me, but I think that might have given me better control. That said, gameplay was smooth and I never once made a disastrous mistake through fat-fingering.

It's almost but not quite the same game on iOS as it is PC. There are some gameplay changes, and I noticed two which may have a significant effect on your experience:

First, enemy drones have slightly different behavior patterns when hacked. In the PC version hacked drones can open doors and, if armed, shoot things, but other than that they have no function. In the iOS version hacked drones can also manipulate switches and apparently gather items, though I didn't have many chances to test that last part.

Several levels depend on you doing certain things in certain areas. In the detention center level, for example, you have to hack a control panel, manipulate that panel to open the cell door, and then guide the prisoner out. Usually this means you have to send an agent in to the control panel, but if a drone can do that job it can change the way you deal with the level. You don't have to send an agent in, thus possibly alerting the captain of the guard. The drone can do all the really dangerous bits while your agents sit outside, probably distracting the captain by opening doors and running away, a cybernetic version of Knock, Knock, Ginger.

Moreover if they can gather items then they can empty safes, which would make bank robbery much easier. I didn't have many chances to test this theory, but it's worth trying.

Second, at least one and probably more items have changed slightly. I'm talking about the Invisibility Cloak, but I wouldn't be surprised if other items changed too and I didn't notice.

The Invisibility Cloak in the original came in three versions: Basic, Cloak II and Cloak III. Basic lasts for three or four squares of movement, I misremember which, and then fades. Cloak II lasts the full turn, and then fades. Cloak III lasts two full turns and then fades. You need to have a certain base level of Speed before you can use the advanced Cloaks, and even Basic needs a higher Speed than your agents usually start with.

In the iPad version all's the same, except for Cloak III. This time Cloak III only lasts for one turn, not two, but the kicker is that when activated it generates a small cloaking field around your agent, allowing you to make more than one friendly target invisible. They don't have to stay chained together either; once invisible no matter where they go they stay invisible for the rest of that turn or until they attack.

This came in very handy in the final encounter. Shalem and Monster were cut off from the rest of the group, and the enemy were closing in. Decker had Cloak III ready. He ran in through the enemy, activated it next to Shalem and Monster, and all three of them sprinted past the guards, Decker frantically gobbling Stims for extra move boost. They still needed a smoke bomb from Internationale on the next turn, otherwise the guards would have nailed them. But without that first turn of invisibility, the team would have failed right away.

Understand, these are only two changes I noticed. I'd bet there's others I didn't spot. That said the core game is basically the same as it was when Invisible, Inc first launched in 2015. Tweaked certainly, but not fundamentally altered.

Do I recommend this title? Yes. If you like turn-based strategy with roguelike elements and a high degree of stealth gameplay, this is a must-purchase. I'd warn you to watch your battery life, but apart from that, enjoy!