Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Little Tractor That Couldn't (Esoterrorists, Mutant City Blues)

Sometimes these things write themselves.

Pity the poor farmer whose tractor throws its final wobbly and insists on major repairs, as John Deere may hold that farmer to software ransom. For the full skinny take a look at this article in Vice, but the short version is: as John Deere has installed software on its tractors that can only be repaired at John Deere dealerships, desperate farmers in the US have turned to crackware brewed up by Ukrainian software pirates to keep their tractors free.

And they say there's nothing new under the sun.

I've discussed the potential of unusual hacking and infiltration techniques before. Everything has chipware in it. We are living in Cyberpunk 2020 (except with slightly fewer gun homicides) and we all Love The Computer, yes we do. But how many of you out there realized that tractors were also at the mercy of their manufacturer's chipware?

From John Deere's perspective there's an obvious attraction. Here you have a market that's utterly dependent on your product, but the purchasers insist on carrying out their own repairs rather than hasten to the dealership when there's a problem. Wouldn't life be so much easier, and more lucrative, if they'd just give up their annoying independent ways and become totally reliant on the dealerships?

Meanwhile the purchasers' fears are summed up neatly in the article itself: John Deere could just decide to shut down their tractor remotely and there's not a damn thing they could do about it. It's one thing to have to refer to the EULA when it's an app you bought for $0.99 that went screwy. It's something else again when the product in question costs north of $40,000 and is the only thing standing between you and economic ruin.

In step those nice Ukrainians with their free market dynamic and their oh-so-reasonably priced supplies. Incidentally, perhaps its just me but I had no idea tractors were so complicated. Payload files that program individual parts of the vehicle, allowing the owner to fine-tune the thing like Frankenstein tinkering with the Monster's limbs? Yikes. I in my naiveté figured all you had to do was turn the key, like a slightly more sophisticated Model T Ford.

While I have every sympathy with the farmers in this scenario, it does beg the question: just what might be coming in with that cracked software?

Picture this: some chancer in, oh, let's say Moscow why not, ensures that the crackware coming out of the Ukraine destined for the American Midwest is riddled with custom viruses. Then that same chancer says to Farmer Bob one day, pay me $10,000 in Bitcoin, or your tractor is kaput. Or just decides for a laugh to remote control a dozen tractors and start carving crop circles across Ohio.

Or shuts down the farming industry altogether. After all, once you let someone's hooky software into your industry, it's not just John Deere who can screw with your livelihood.

That's if you're content with ordinary hackers. The Creeper0741 virus I posited for Night's Black Agents could have a field day with this setup. Imagine one gigantic Hive Mind controlling every single tractor in the Midwest. In fact you don't need to do much imagining, since Stephen King's already done the heavy lifting for you.

So what can we do with this, say, from an Esoterrorists or Mutant City Blues perspective?

Well, Esoterrorists is straightforward. A terror cell, possibly with assistance from Ukrainian Esoterrorists, starts using software sourced from the other side of the Membrane to really mess with everyone's day.

The real trick is going to be misdirecting the players. Half of them will, as soon as they get the initial plot hook, suspect that the tractors are the source of the problem. So they are, but it's boring if they guess right away.

So your best bet here is to shoot for something a little more unusual. Say that software was designed to perform a particular magic ritual, but instead brought an Organ Grinder into being - part tractor, part killing machine from the Outer Dark. These things tend to hide in cities, but there are plenty of places across the rural Midwest where something like this could hide out for months, venturing out every so often to claim fresh kills. Often these things are traced by the magic rituals and grimoires used to summon it, but this time it can be tracked via the dodgy forums and black market sites used to disseminate the tainted software.

Or, if your group is comfortable with mature themes, this could be the Snuff Golem of their collective nightmares, perhaps created in collaboration with a farmers-only sex site. 'City folks just don't get it,' claims the site designers. Well, no, they don't - but then, who would? One interesting side note to a creation of this sort is that a tractor-based golem would presumably be less vulnerable to water damage than the standard variety. Not immune, just slightly better protected.

Mutant City Blues is a little different, and hopefully less horrifying.

Oddly enough there are no Powers that directly affect technology, which I can't help but feel is a missed opportunity. However re-writing the Quade Diagram to include them is beyond the scope of this piece.

Judging by the existing background material, it's unlikely that the Heightened Crimes Investigative Unit has a dedicated outpost in the farm belt. I'd have thought it more likely that there's, say, an HCIU representative attached to one of the existing police structures, say the state police or FBI.

What a lonely job that must be; nobody else who shares your duties or unique condition, a ton of paperwork - mostly useless, but it still has to get done - and every time some farmer puts in an insurance claim for dead cows lost to, say, force beams, you've got to rock up with your outdated forensics kit to prove that, no, it really wasn't force beams, so you can take a few zeroes off that claim, Farmer Bob.

Then somebody up and kills you. Wouldn't that just be the icing on the cake.

Ordinarily the police are very proactive about going after cop killers, but the staties and Feebs may not be so quick to get involved when it's the weirdo from the HCIU lying on a slab. So in come the big city boys to play Green Acres for a day, and hopefully avenge their fallen comrade.

Turns out the dead cop was onto something potentially very interesting, because someone seems to have found a way to make the Possession power work on tractors. Or at least so the cop claims in her notes, and it seems pretty clear that she was run over by something that must have been remarkably like a tractor. So who knows? Perhaps the Quade Diagram will have to be rewritten after all.


1) Actually it was the John  Deere rep, who's been trying to wean the locals off of their Ukrainian tech. He's been using software from the home office to mess with local farmers, and when the HCIU cop caught on he used that same software to make it look as if an illegally modified tractor ran her down. Now he's hoping nobody's a skilled enough computer user to work out who was really controlling the tractor that day.

2) Except no, it was the HCIU cop herself. She was desperate to get out of this dead-end assignment; desperate enough to invent a completely new Power variant, hoping that by doing so she's earn a transfer to somewhere where there's more Starbucks than cows per square mile. She used hooky Ukrainian software to do it, and thought it would add to the realism if she could engineer a near-miss incident with a rogue tractor. Except the miss wasn't nearly near enough, as it turned out.

3) But no again, it was a bunch of bored Mutated kids messing with the HCIU cop for kicks, because she kept interfering in their business. Problem is the joke went one step too far, and now the kids are doing their best imitation of Mizaru, Mikazaru and Mazaru, hoping against hope that nobody will ever trace that dodgy tractor control software back to them.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Art of the Deal (GUMSHOE all)

I've been playing Batman Arkham Underworld, a fun little clash of clans app that has you, as one of Gotham's would-be villains, storm the city with your thugs and hired supervillain. At first I thought I wouldn't like it, but I'm being sucked in. The Dead Rabbits will crush the Bat! Or words to that effect, anyway.

That's not what I'm going to talk about. There's an in-game mechanic whereby you can speed up the build time of a room or item, or just get more in-game currency, by watching video adverts. I'm interested in advertising in an amateur know-thy-enemy way, and I'm just as fascinated by advertising done poorly as I am by well-crafted attempts.

Make no mistake, this is bad, bad stuff.

It's not that the mechanic doesn't work. It does. I often set up a room to refurb in, say, a couple hours, turn on a few of the ads to get it done in a couple minutes, and then get on with my day. From a game perspective, I get what I want, and the game maker gets the ad revenue. So we both benefit, but as soon as I set up the ad view I walk away. I don't absorb the content, and that's because it's really poorly targeted.

The game must already know my age and gender, from the data already available on the device. I would be amazed if it only knew my age and gender. So why is it trying to sell me a match-three garden building game? Or a dating sim? Why, when it targets me with a spokesperson, does the ad use a girl who looks all of sixteen spouting a load of old wank about dragons?

Why advertise Facebook, at all? Surely everyone with a mobile device knows what Facebook is by now? Doesn't it come pre-loaded on Apple tablets and phones, and probably most if not all the Androids?

It's as if the game either doesn't know my age and gender - which is utter balls - or it doesn't care. I suspect the latter, but it means a lot of people are spending a ton of money to no purpose.

At least trying to sell games is understandable. All the games are either pay up front or freemium, which means they're heavy revenue earners. But even then the ad could do a better job selling me the product.

Take the story sims Episodes and Choices, both of which seem very similar in style and content. In each case the app tries to sell to me using romance ads. Why? Both apps also have mystery stories, danger stories, fantasy plots, and any of those would have been a better ad choice than romance.

Or take the Facebook ad. It makes perfect sense to sell me something that isn't a game. After all, there's a ton of products out there I might be interested in. Yet of all the products in all the world, it has to walk in with Facebook? Sure, Facebook's probably one of the few non-game vendors interested in putting ads on the Apple game store. But if this is how Zuckerberg's spending his ad buy, the guy's much, much stupider than I ever thought.

Somewhere west of Laramie there's a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl ... who knew how to sell cars. Advertising's an art, and I often think there are no artists in advertising any more. God knows what happened to Don Draper's grandkids, but they lost the knack of making sales when they went all-in on the internet. I'm constantly being told that advertisers are collecting everything up to and including shoe size and pet's sexual preference in order to better target me. So why do I feel as though I'm not being effectively targeted?

I first became interested in using adverts in-game when Cyberpunk 2020 was still a thing. Now there's a genre that believes in style over substance. Its Chromebooks were essentially lists of in-game stuff your character could buy, and as with any list of stuff in RPGs the whole point is to get better stats and improve your efficiency at in-game tasks. But the Chromebooks made it interesting by pitching each item with its in-game ad buy.

Want to buy clothes that boost your stats or which provide better armor? Sure, but you're not just buying a leather jacket with better SP. You're buying a Ruf Tread(tm) combo bodysuit and jacket. 'If it can stop a round and won't embarrass you to wear it, it's cool,' says a satisfied customer.

You have a need for speed? Try the Ares Combat Bike. It uses the patented Brennan cycles Gendarme chassis, making it one of the most durable cycles on the road. Maybe it comes with its own steer-roping girl ...

Ultimately it's all about world building. Cyberpunk sold itself that way because it wanted to create the kind of world cyberpunk could flourish in. It wouldn't feel the same if the Chromebooks were just a list of stats, and nothing else. Whereas the old D&D equipment guides were often just a long list of glaives, guisarmes, guisarme-glaives, glaive-guisarme-glaives, guisarme-guisarme-glaive-glaive, old MacDonald bought the farm, ee ai, ee ai, critical hit. It didn't try to sell the gamer on the game world because it assumed it didn't have to, in its first incarnation. Its subsequent iterations have become much more savvy.

I've touched on world-building using background noise before. However it's worth going a little further with the concept, because everything you do here helps your players envision the kind of world they're in, and therefore the kind of environment they can help you create.

Let's take Bookhounds of London as a starter, and add in a bit of Dorothy Sayers.

Sayers once worked in advertising, and used this as the background for her mystery Murder Must Advertise. In that story her detective Lord Peter Wimsey disguises himself as his alter ego Death Bredon and works at ad agency Pyms to uncover a dope ring. While there Bredon becomes fascinated by advertising and invents a campaign for Whifflets, a cigarette brand. The idea is this: each time you buy Whifflets you're given stamps. On their own they're worth little, but if you collect enough of them you can exchange them for free goods or services, anything from a tea set to a trip to Portsmouth. WIFFLE YOUR WAY AROUND BRITAIN screams advert banners on a bus.

'The only thing you cannot get by Whiffling is a coffin,' Sayers remarks. 'It is not admitted that any Whiffler could ever require such an article.'

This happens in 1933, if the novel's publication date can be considered the actual timeline. That means Bookhounds will get the full force of the campaign. So what do they smoke? Do they collect  Whifflet coupons? If so, what are they saving up to get? Can they use a Whifflet obsession to ingratiate themselves with an informant? Can they use Whifflet coupons as a Bargaining chip?

Expand that and see what happens: ask yourself what they drink, wear, drive, where they go on holiday, what's in the cinemas right now. Remember that you can make all this up as you go along, and consider that you're trying to enforce a particular aesthetic, be it Arabesque, Technicolor, or Sordid. So taking Sordid as an example:

A long line of cinemagoers eagerly await their chance to see Hitchcock's latest murder chiller, their blue clouds of Whifflet smoke snaking up into the iron sky. They stand not ten feet from the spot where a flusher was found frozen to death, next to a sewer grate, with a diamond in his hand. Billboards shriek every way you turn: Lovely Day for a Guinness, Are You Whiffling Too?, Nutrax for Nerves. Winter bites through your coat and down to your bones, and you light up in a reflex action to ward off the cold. One of the cinemagoers asks if you're going to save your Whifflet coupon ...

No fellow feeling here, no inquisitive stares at the spot where a man died. The only spark of human interest is in the Whifflet coupon: an extra touch of covetousness in a world drowning in greed.

Of course all that's before we even consider the possibilities of subliminal advertising, which would be perfect for a Night's Black Agents game. Imagine a world in which vampires and their crowd-controlling products and messages could only be detected with special sunglasses, or in which a particular targeted ad could drive your brainwashed black program badass nuts.

Subliminals also work very well in an Esoterror context, for much the same reason. Picture a world in which the videos in your YouTube feed propagate Membrane-shattering messages, or a shadowy media corporation uses hidden messages to influence a crucial presidential election. The newly elected president then goes on to enact policies and force through budgets that completely shatter what little protection the Membrane has, and so on.

But that's enough from me today. See you next week!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

McCybercrime (Mutant City Blues, Night's Black Agents)

According to the latest Europol serious crime threat assessment there are over 5,000 new gangs operating in Europe, most of them human traffickers or cybercriminals indulging in ransomware attacks.

The biggest spike is in polycrime groups, or organized crime operations that are involved in more than one criminal activity. However the Europol assessment warns that the greatest challenge threatening law enforcement is the increasing adaptation and deployment of technology.

Document fraud, money laundering and the online trade in illicit goods and services are the three key issues. Document fraud is linked to human trafficking and the increasing migrant problem, while the other two are more traditional criminal activities. While there's no direct correlation with terrorism, terrorist groups often work hand in hand with criminals, either for services or to fund operations.

What makes it all the more serious, the Europol assessment alleges, is that cybercrime is getting to the point where you don't need to be a sophisticated computer user to take advantage of the technology. This is the age of crime-as-a-service; you can buy everything you need online, without having to write a single line of code.

Tony Thompson in his book Gang Land says much the same:
Internet Relay Chat rooms - an untraceable form of instant messaging - are filled with hackers advertising their wares, from keystroke loggers and password cracking programs to stolen credit card numbers and banking details. The more you get into this world, the more amazing it gets. Back in the day, the only way to acquire this kind of detailed knowledge about how to be a successful criminal was to go to prison. Now, for those who know where to look, it's all available online.
Misha Glenny in his work McMafia says:
The era of the malicious virus that chewed up computer screens, destroyed your hard disk or directed you to vile pornographic websites is fast coming to a close. Those attacks were the work of so-called 'ego-hackers.' They were designed to make the computer users' life a misery, as projects that had taken months or years were destroyed for the sake of an adolescent giggle. Now viruses, Trojan horses, worms and other malware go largely unnoticed. The sun has set on the age of the ego-hacker and the dawn is rising on the age of the criminal hacker, or cracker
So how can this be gamified?

Games set in the modern day like Night's Black Agents, or even BubbleGumshoe, can make use of crackers and their made-to-order crime packages. In fact it may be even better suited to BubbleGumshoe than most Pelgrane titles, since that setting is all about the solving of crimes.

That said, there's one setting that's even more suited to crime-busting than BubbleGumshoe: Mutant City Blues, a game in which super-powered mutant cops chase down their criminal counterparts. 
Ever since the Sudden Mutation Event, people have been able to fly. Phase through walls. Read minds. Shoot bolts of energy from their fingertips. Walk into dreams.
As members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit, you and your fellow detectives solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. When a mutant power is used to kill, you catch the case. When it’s a mutant victim in the chalk outline, you get the call. And when it comes time for a fight, you deploy your own extraordinary abilities to even the odds.
 Mutant City Blues assumes, among other things, that the game takes place ten years from the current date. That allows you, as GM, to take advantage of current day technology and world events without worrying too much about pin-point accuracy.Technology will be recognizably similar to today, but updated, and the same goes for geopolitics, social trends, and other markers.

So if you assume that the inciting event, the Ghost Virus, happens right now, then however Donald Trump leaves office by the time the game starts he will have left office. There will still be a Russia, still be a China, a Europe. Brexit will be well under way, with significant effects for the UK and Europe. There will still be an internet, and probably still be some form of tablet, but perhaps there will be a rival to Apple and Samsung, and so on.

Which means that the age of the cracker will already have passed its zenith by the time the game starts.

What does that suggest? Well, probably that what we now call the darknet, accessed mainly by the techno-literate, is more available to the techno-dim. That setups we consider to be the province of sophisticated criminal networks are now available to those for whom Internet for Dummies is a must-read.

That probably includes a lot of mutants.

So with that in mind:

Cracker Firouz Kamkar, aka Marko in his online persona, has a lucrative sideline. He provides what amounts to the complete e-commerce package for would-be cyber criminals. They sign up, and he gives them a custom site with secure bitcoin or credit card checkout. Many of his clients are drug dealers, but a significant minority are criminally inclined mutants selling their specialized services to the highest bidder.

Except for his mutant clients Marko has a special package: ransomware. At any point Marko can seize control of the user's PC, site, bitcoin accounts, and all electronic communication the user may have made with clients. Marko then makes a very simple request: pay extra. A lot extra. Or I take all this and dump it in the laps of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit.

Marko, being a fourteen-year-old living in his parents' flat, doesn't see a problem with this. Why should he worry about a bunch of mutant losers? They deserve everything they get.

The mutant losers don't see it that way, and now a number of them are on the prowl looking for Marko. When several would-be crackers turn up dead in interesting and inventive ways, the HCIU discover a small crime wave right under their noses. Can they get to Marko before his mutant enemies do?

That's it for this week! Enjoy.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Ripped from the Headlines: Gibraltar Porn (GUMSHOE, Night's Black Agents)

I was going to post something else this week, but reality intervened.

This is a story some of you may not have seen, as it only seems to have popped up in a few minor news outlets. I know about it because my brother has an all encompassing interest in things to do with the British military, and it doesn't get more British military than being arrested on charges connected with child pornography while attempting to flee the country with the evidence.

Briefly: the airport in Gibraltar shut down for several hours on the 8th of February, during a dramatic stand-off between the British army and the Royal Gibraltar Police. Someone described as 'a serving member of the British military' was attempting to leave via transport plane, taking with him computer equipment allegedly containing evidence concerning a child pornography investigation. The RGP wanted to conduct its own investigation, the military said no, and the argument ended with the RGP driving onto the airport runway and blocking the departure of the plane. This shut down the airport for several hours while everything got sorted out.

On the last day of February three senior military officers - described as 'three key decision-makers in the MoD chain of command in Gibraltar' - were arrested in connection with the case and several MoD sites in Gibraltar were searched by the RGP, including the Royal Navy's HQ. The three officers were charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

The case is ongoing.

For those of you scratching your heads and wondering what the nelly:

Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, part of the Iberian Peninsula, and has been a British possession ever since its capture in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession. Its relationship with Spain has been fraught, and Madrid has often tried to exert control over this wayward little Rock. However in 1967, and again in 2002, Gibraltar rejected Spanish sovereignty and is in most respects a self-governing entity, though Britain still controls its foreign relations and defense. As has been discussed before, this may change post-Brexit, but for now Gibraltar remains the flag-waving Little Britain it's been for many decades.

Gibraltar hosts the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. It's an important SIGINT base, and monitors North African and Mediterranean traffic. During the War its civilian population was evacuated and Gibraltar became a fortress, facing off against Italy and Germany and cut off from resupply from home. [Hence the tunnels, of which more later.] Only Franco's reluctance to let foreign armies onto Spanish soil prevented a land invasion.

The RGP dates back to the 1830s, and is the oldest police force of the former Empire, outside Britain itself. It was formed by H. Morgan, an officer sent for the task by Sir Robert Peel himself, and until fairly recently it also provided the territory's only emergency ambulance service. Its organization is modelled on British Police standards, and as might be expected given the territory's geography it has a significant Marine section in addition to the usual compliment you'd expect of a modern police force.

The airport is one of the scariest in the world. It earns this title because the runway extends into the sea, which means take-off and landing is within a hair's breadth of a salt water bath. It dates back to the War and its continued existence is a sore spot with Spain, which since 1987 has grudgingly shared it with Gibraltar. Spain claims that when the airport was built it annexed several dozen hectares of land it had no right to, a land jump which has soured relations ever since. Or at least soured them further, given that the relationship was already strained. Only in 2006 did Spain finally allow air traffic between Spain and Gibraltar. Whenever sovereignty becomes an issue the airport is often the first flash point.

The dispute which ended in a dramatic airport arrest is territorial. The RGP claims it has primacy in any investigation into crimes committed in Gibraltar, and asserts this right under the 2006 Constitution. The MoD claims it has primacy in any investigation concerning military personnel, and when it tried to extract the soldier and the computer equipment allegedly containing child porn it ignored the RGP and its warrant, signed by the Chief Justice of Gibraltar.

The MoD says it was about to conduct its own investigation, in the UK. Naturally this would have avoided any unpleasant questions from civilian investigators, and the unspoken but strong suspicion is that the MoD would have covered everything up 'for the good of the Service.'

It's difficult to overstate how extraordinary it is, not simply that the RGP would physically intervene to stop a plane from taking off, but that it would dare to execute search warrants on MoD property. This is Gibraltar; you don't get more Little Britain than the Rock, and its military links with the UK are exceptionally strong. It's as if one of the Queen's Corgis bit Theresa May, but then Gibraltar may be feeling its oats. It voted overwhelmingly Remain in the Brexit referendum, and may not be quite so unthinkingly devoted to the Crown these days.

So to turn to gaming:

Gibraltar turns up in the Dracula Dossier scenario The Harker Intrusion, originally a free .pdf and now part of The Edom Files. In that scenario the alternate scene The Gibraltar Triangulation assumes that the agents follow up on clues which suggest Edom maintains some kind of outpost in the old WWII military tunnels at the Rock.

In their day these tunnels could accommodate a 16,000 strong garrison with enough food to last over a year, complete with a power plant, military hospital, a water distillation plant, and a vehicle maintenance workshop. Operation Tracer, a secret plan to provide a hidden observation post in Stay Behind Cave allowing the British to spy on German operations should Gibraltar every be captured by the Nazis, was also based in those tunnels.

Stay Behind Cave was supposed to be able to support a small team of observers for over seven years, but as Germany didn't invade the plan was never used. Stay Behind Cave was sealed off and forgotten until its rediscovery by cavers in 1997. It was the Gibraltar cave defenses in miniature, complete with a water tank and a bicycle-powered electric plant, and currently it's under the auspices of the Gibraltar Museum.

With some creative fudging there's no reason why Stay Behind Cave couldn't be the Harker Triangulation Edom outpost, either because your game takes place prior to 1997 or because the 1997 rediscovery never happened. Or perhaps the 1997 rediscovery was carefully managed and the Museum's in cahoots with Edom. You're the Director; do as you see fit.

The more interesting sideshow is the airport shutdown, with anxious military officers and angry RGP units on the prowl. Let's say for the sake of discussion that this incident happens on the same day the agents try to extract themselves after investigating the tunnels. This leaves them in the airport but unable to go anywhere, and if that Jack that's been pursuing them all this while is still active then now is the time for him to strike. Except that since this is a daylight raid he hasn't got his usual Seward Serum compliment of abilities, so he has to rely on military contacts. Posing as an MI6 agent, he orders the military to arrest and extract the agents, but the RGP don't go along with this scheme. Perhaps they believe the agents are somehow mixed up in the porn investigation, or perhaps they just don't like high-handed British military types interfering in local affairs.

For an added twist, suppose that this wasn't about child porn at all. Suppose that the whole thing is actually about extracting sensitive Edom data, and that the RGP are either Conspiracy controlled or that some senior RGP officials are trying to curry favor with a Conspiracy asset. Better yet if Edom is tainted by its association with Dracula then the RGP could be covering for an anti-vampire operation, and intervened not just to seize a hard drive or two but also to recover suspicious boxes of soil, or similar.

If, as Director, you're looking for a convenient base of operations for vampire hunters, and not sure where to place it, Gibraltar's not a bad spot. It has excellent links with Europe and the UK, including a strong shipping economy - perfect for Axel Logistics - and its corporate tax regime means it plays host to a number of offshore companies and wealthy banks, any one of which could be a front for one of the major players in the Great Game. Suppose the agents are being bankrolled by the Hildesheim Legacy or the Former Gehlen Org, operating through a convenient shell company. What could be more reasonable than a Gibraltar-based shell, particularly since it would let the vampire hunters spy on Edom's Gibraltar outpost?

Then the February incident takes on a different color. The Gibraltar shell could be taking direct action against a fleeing Edom asset, using its local connections to do so. The child porn allegations would be a convenient excuse, allowing the shell to mobilize Gibraltar assets sympathetic to its cause. And if, during the police sweeps of MoD bases, the shell's assets tag along for the ride extracting Edom data, how lucky for the shell - and unlucky for Edom.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Hitchcock & You (GUMSHOE, various)

As a film nut I often seek out interesting movie houses, film festivals and big screen entertainment, all the more because I don't get much chance to do so down here. I thought this time out I'd examine some classic cinema, and to give this a gaming twist I'd see which of these films is best suited to a Director/Keeper.

I'm going to concentrate on the films of British genius Alfred Hitchcock, whose big screen career stretches from the early days of silent film up to the 1970s. I may dwell on some of his slightly more obscure works, since I figure you've probably already seen Psycho at least once. I'm not going to consider films in which he wasn't the director, and if you're hoping I've somehow found one of his lost films, sorry, but no. I'm not that lucky.

Without further ado:

Sabotage (aka The Woman Alone). This 1936 drama stars Oskar Homolka as saboteur Karl Anton Verloc, Sylvia Sidney as his wife, John Loder as heroic detective Sergeant Ted Spencer, and child actor Desmond Tester as young Stevie. Karl is an agent for hire who agrees to carry out acts of sabotage in London. We first see him tampering with a power station, temporarily knocking it out. He's expecting a big reward for this but is disappointed to learn his bosses aren't best pleased, as his stunt did nothing except make London laugh when they wanted London terrified. This leads them to demand greater things of Verloc, and they supply him with a bomb which Verloc is supposed to plant at a train station. However Verloc gets nervous and, thinking he'll be suspected, he gives the disguised bomb to young Stevie to deliver instead. This kicks off one of the most suspenseful scenes in British cinema as Stevie, all unknowing, tries to get to his destination in time. We watch him get lost, get delayed, and all the while are screaming inside because at any moment the bomb could go off.
  • Bookhounds Keepers need to see this film for its accurate and fascinating portrayal of London in the 1930s, particularly the street scenes.
  • As an espionage thriller it's remarkable for three things: 
    • Its portrayal of its antiheroes as misanthropic, greedy men, which is a more accurate depiction of actual traitors and spies than usually seen on film.
    • Its portrayal of hero Ted Spencer, as a reminder of how we used to imagine the heroes of this kind of thriller. An archetype soon to be replaced by the likes of Michael Caine's Harry Palmer, Spencer is more a Bulldog Drummond type, but unlike the stock hero he abandons his principles pretty quickly when Mrs Verloc, the woman he loves, is in danger.
    • The bomb-maker, who has to be seen to be believed. 
The Lady Vanishes. This 1938 tale sees Margaret Lockwood as carefree dilettante Iris Henderson thrust headfirst into mystery and death aboard a luxury train that might as well be the Orient Express. She's travelling across Europe back to England so she can marry a blue-blooded idiot, but falls in with octogenarian Miss Froy, a charming old lady who vanishes mysteriously. Iris' attempts to find out what happened to her are frustrated when all her fellow passengers say they've never heard of or seen Miss Froy, and Iris is accused of making the whole thing up. Knife-wielding magicians and sinister bandaged men follow in quick succession, as Iris dodges assassins and soldiers in her search for the truth.
  • If you've ever wanted to run Horror on the Orient Express, this is the movie for you.
  • The first appearance of comedy stock British characters Charters and Caldicott, who appear in several other films including wartime espionage drama Night Train to Munich. A master-class in how to make supporting characters memorable.
Saboteur. A wartime drama which kicks off with the immolation of a bomber factory, and one of the most cold-blooded cinematic killings of all time. As the factory goes up in flames, two would-be heroes rush to the rescue. The villain passes one of them a fire extinguisher, which is immediately grabbed by his friend who rushes in to fight the blaze. Unfortunately for him the extinguisher's actually full of gasoline, and he dies in a ball of flame. Admittedly as an assassination it's a bit cheesy - how did the villain know to have a trick fire extinguisher on hand at that exact moment? - but as a piece of cinema it's undeniably effective. Which is emblematic of the movie as a whole; because it's filmed in 1942 when everyone's at their patriotic height - filming started two weeks after Pearl Harbor - there are any number of Truly Heroic Moments And Brave Speeches, but that doesn't prevent this being a brilliant film. The climax alone, atop the Statue of Liberty, is worth the price of admission. 
  • If Lady Vanishes is a master-class in making supporting characters memorable, this is a master-class in villainy. One character in particular, whose name I shan't mention as it might spoil his entrance - one of the best introductions of a major character I've ever seen - is superb. Charming, persuasive, and utterly ruthless, his defense of totalitarianism is chilling. Moreover for a wartime film about sabotage there isn't a racist Japanese or German stereotype in it, which is remarkable in and of itself.
    • As luck would have it I'm reading Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil, and thought this was worth repeating: 'The real horror of Himmler is not that he was unusual or unique but that he was in many ways quite ordinary, and that he could have lived out his life as a chicken farmer, a good neighbor with perhaps some antiquated ideas about people.'
  • Hitchcock's known for gorgeous set-pieces, but that moment atop Lady Liberty is undoubtedly one of his best. Better, I'd say, than a very similar moment in North By Northwest, though the latter film is more well known.
Torn Curtain. Paul Newman plays nuclear scientist Professor Armstrong in this 1966 drama, who plans to defect to the Soviets so he can continue research into an anti-ballistic missile defense system. Julie Andrews is his fiancĂ©, who has no idea he's about to defect until the scheme is well under way. When she discovers his plans she follows him to East Berlin, and has to decide whether she'll stay with him or return to the West. Except Armstrong's got a hidden agenda ... Cue a race to East Berlin with the police and security apparatus hot on their trail.  This isn't one of Hitchcock's best loved spy movies but it has a lot of charm, not least because it hews faithfully to reality as opposed to overblown espionage tropes. Hitchcock took inspiration from the Burgess & Maclean defections when he made this one, especially the fate of Maclean's wife who went behind the Iron Curtain with their three children a year after her husband defected.
  • Night's Black Agents Directors wondering what Dust mode looks like on film need look no further. One scene in particular, the murder of a security man, epitomizes the whole gruesome, exhausting business.
  • Ever wonder what it's like to create Thrilling Contest scenes that aren't car chases or acrobatic parkour leaps from rooftop to rooftop? See how you can have a theoretical physics Thrilling Contest, or a cat-and-mouse with two buses.
  • The race to the border is the very essence of an extended Heat contest, right up to the final moment when someone machine guns the plot.
  • Much like The Lady Vanishes the supporting characters are memorable and interesting in their own right. My hat's off to unnamed tetchy ballerina played by actual ballerina Tamara Toumanova; now there's someone you have to feel a little sorry for!
Topaz. On the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a French intelligence operative is asked by an American contact to investigate potential NATO leaks within the French government. In doing so he runs foul of Topaz, a French spy ring that's been funneling NATO military secrets to Moscow. He has to use every trick in the book in his search for the truth, and even then it might not be enough, as his shadowy opposite number Columbine, head of Topaz, is so well connected that not even the strongest evidence may be enough to get him arrested, never mind convicted. Frederick Stafford, a spy film veteran, plays the heroic French lead Andre Deveraux, and at the time critics blamed his performance for the film's poor box office. Having seen the film I don't agree; his performance wasn't stellar, but he's unfairly blamed. No, to my mind the larger problem is that an audience used to Bond level heroics can't get behind a spymaster who actually behaves like a spymaster - that is, he gets other people to do all the dirty work. So the action scenes and heroics belong to other actors, and Stafford shows up only when the big scenes are over and done. Even at the end - and there are several possible endings depending on which version of the end you watch - he isn't directly involved. All the big moments belong to other actors.
  • Night's Black Agents directors and players both need to watch this, to get a better understanding of Network. Deveraux is a master of this very important Ability; his agents and catspaws can be found all over the world, even in Castro's Cuba. It's thanks to them that he succeeds, and by that I mean it's often thanks to their shattered corpses, as it's a hard life being a Network contact. Deveraux's own Network pool is so exhausted that, by the end, he's recruiting family members, leading to a tense moment when one of them goes missing, presumed murdered.
    • If yours is a Dust game, this could be a useful way of keeping Agents alive. After all someone's got to risk themselves, and many players would rather it wasn't their character. However it does mean that the big action scenes end up going to Network contacts rather than the characters themselves; the Director may wish to impose Stability penalties, or let players play Network characters for that all-important moment when the enemy spy is bearded in his den, just before the vampire counterspies turn up and make steak tartare out of everyone.
    • In fact let me propose a device I'll call The Topaz Maneuver: If an Agent wants to create a Network contact but has no Network to spend, the Agent can spend Stability instead, provided that the Stability spend is permanent, just as Network spends are permanent. There is no refresh for Stability spent in this way; like Network, this lost Stability can only be bought back with experience spends.
  • It's also useful for a look at how Solaces can work. In this case Deveraux's Solace is his wife Nicole, who leaves him halfway through the film when he goes to Cuba to commune with his agent and mistress, Juanita de Cordoba. Here we have a legitimately frayed Solace relationship, and see one potential consequence - in this case that she may or may not go over to the enemy, wittingly or otherwise.  
That's it for this week! Enjoy.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ripped from the Headlines (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Just a quick one this week to highlight a few newspaper articles that intrigued me, and may prove useful to Night's Black Agents Directors.

First the inspired and somewhat quixotic theft of two million quid's worth of books. I really hope the thieves aren't going to cut the things apart for their illustrations. That would be a tragedy,  but as a heist it has all the hallmarks of greatness. Whoever carried it out knew the target's security measures and knew exactly what to steal; that takes planning as well as flair. Plus there's a decent chance this was a theft to order, and that sort of thing is meat & drink to a Night's Black Agents Director. A group of thieves and ne'er-do-wells are gathered by some shadowy well-heeled sociopath to steal a small fortune in unsellable manuscripts? You couldn't ask for a better start to the campaign.

Next, a Dracula Dossier connection: The Harker Scene-Painting Studio is about to be turned into flats. Bram Stoker, when he worked at the Lyceum, became great friends with Joseph Harker, a scene painter and theatrical chandler, hence Jonathon Harker the Dracula character. Harker's studio survived until the 1980s when it was bought by Flint's, another theatrical chandler which still manufactures the signature color Harker's Red. Now the Grade II listed building is to be sold off, and several of Harker's descendants visited the studio to find Joseph's scrawled name, along with those of several of his family who went into the family trade, carefully preserved on the studio wall.

As a Director you could do many things with this information. To begin with it adds a hidden layer of depth to Billie Harker, Lucy Blythe and J.Q. Harker if they happen to be part of this grand theatrical tradition. Billie in particular could do with a switch from law student to RADA grad, perhaps working as showrunner or scriptwriter for a BBC epic about horror movies. Perhaps Lucy Blythe's name is up on that wall with all the other Harkers, or maybe J.Q. wanted to make a switch from a military career to an artistic one only to be badgered into submission by his domineering father.

As a location it has all kinds of benefits. A Grade II listed building that's seen out Dracula, the original vampire hunters and all their progeny, preserving the history of the generations? Was some secret hid in those brick walls, or stored for safekeeping under the floorboards?

Even as a Cool site the grand backdrops on their massive frames loom overhead like memories blustering in an empty head, and the weight of history hangs heavy on visitors. Some of the names on the wall are recognizable as Edom cut-outs or friendlies. Is that peculiar stain all that's left of a pool of blood spilt decades ago, or an old Harker's Red accident? If anything's still here, it's at best a minor artefact, or even a fake; or perhaps the Conspiracy hid a red herring here for foolish spies to follow straight into a trap.

As a Warm site it's probably used as an Edom safehouse-cum-meeting place, nice and anonymous. People come and go all the time, and nobody remarks on it if a stranger arrives here to never be seen again. That unmarked white van isn't at all suspicious, not when dozens like it are here every week. Perhaps Edom keeps the studio active out of some sense of family history, or because Billie agreed to become an Edom asset only if it helped keep the business alive. Maybe there's a temporary holding cell somewhere in the basement for Renfields captured in the course of an operation, somewhere safe, secure and anonymous for short-term stays before being moved on to better accommodation elsewhere. Probably last used in the 1970s, but even so if those walls could talk ... It's also a great hiding place for old artefacts, like the 1890's Cryptic Lockbox, or Aytown's Photographic Studies. Perhaps Harker's cameo is hanging, long forgotten, not far from the framed section of the wall protecting all the family signatures.

Last up is the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The 45-year-old exile and gadabout was apparently sprayed in the face by an aerosol poison, while walking through an airport shopping concourse. The alleged assailants, two women, say they thought they were taking part in a comedy reality show. Their brief was to convince businessmen to close their eyes, at which point the two would spray them in the face with water. Except in Kim Jong-nam's case it wasn't just tap water, and he died shortly afterwards.

Let's say the women's story is accurate on its face. If so, kudos to their shadowy employers for coming up with a scheme that Bugs Bunny would have been proud of. This is the kind of lateral thinking I'd expect to see at the gaming table, but never in real life.

Also, it can be an instructive and frightening few minutes to research potential bioterroism agents that can be deployed via aerosol. "There is no vaccine or prophylactic immunotherapy available for human use." Oh goody. That'll help me sleep at night.

But from a Director's POV it does open up some interesting possibilities. Can Vampires deploy a spray agent to create Renfields? Or even just make a target more vulnerable to special abilities like Cloud Men's Minds or Mental Attack? Even a bog-standard hallucinogenic would be a reasonable attack agent, something to incapacitate without leaving significant traces for CSI to follow up later.

Of course, you'd have to come up with a scheme that allowed you the perfect shot. Simply breaking into someone's hotel room armed with a spray canister probably isn't going to get you what you want. Clocking someone in the face with a spritz of perfume would do it, especially in a crowded place where such an action might go without comment. A similar moment provided an inciting incident for a West Wing episode, in which POTUS secretary Debbie Fiderer thought she'd been spritzed by a couple sitting next to her at a public event.

"I thought they were guests of Leno's, but it turned out they weren't," Debbie says. "While they finished with the party ahead of us, I didn't even see the woman get in her bag and sffh! She spritzed right into my face." "You say this aerosol got on you?" the military doctor asks. Without waiting for a response, the doctor immediately shuts everything down and calls for a full decontamination process. And that's how you immobilize the White House for the evening. It's the sort of thing that might happen anywhere; in a restaurant, at a gala event, on the subway. Totally innocuous, totally deniable, and the ones who make the attack - if it is an attack - vanish into the crowd like ghosts.

Or you could go whole hog and spray an entire room or building with the stuff, like a Batman villain with zero restraint and a flair for the dramatic. But this only works if you don't mind the media fallout that will inevitably follow.

From a rules perspective, aerosol toxins are thoroughly covered in the main book, p78-9. If I had to put a number on it, I'd say whatever was used to dose Kim Jong-nam was a +6 damage aerosol attack agent. Almost all [toxins] will reliably kill or incapacitate all but the most dramatically robust of NPCs - human NPCs, that is, says Ken Hite. Too true, says Kim Jong-un.

Edit 21st Feb: I see the Malaysian Police are now saying that the women did know what was going on, and that there's been an attempted break-in at the morgue to steal the body. This is a story that just won't quit. In fact if someone in  Hollywood isn't already working on a comedy film treatment, they really should.

That's it for now! See you next week.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Campaign Design Vampire Style 3: Initial Arc & Pyramid (Night's Black Agents)

We've talked about power and goals as well as things the Keeper needs to know before plotting the campaign. Now we're at the point where we can start talking about the first arc and the Conspyramid that the characters will spend their - probably short - lives trying to dismantle. What happens next?

Going back to core principles, we need the opening act to be true to the overall mood. Now we know what that mood is: a slightly downbeat, gritty style of play in which the characters will be engaged in lots of infiltration, hacking, possibly assassination, probably theft, high-speed chases and a relatively small amount of combat.

Munich's a good example of this kind of film, as is Forsythe's Day of the Jackal or The Boys from Brazil. In fact Boys may be a better example than most, since despite its sci-fi conceit the plot ultimately revolves around a series of assassinations, with the protagonist having to work out why all this killing's necessary.

The next question that's going to be on the Director's mind is, how detailed does the Conspyramid need to be at this stage? After all, designing the vampire conspiracy is a large part of the central conceit of the campaign. Surely the Director needs to know what the conspiracy has at its disposal?

Well, yes and no. The Director needs to know who or what is at the top of the pyramid, giving all the orders. The Director also needs to know, in detail, what the agents will initially be dealing with. In order for this to happen the Director needs to have a firm idea of what's at the entry-level Conspyramid point, whichever point that happens to be.

To give an example: if the Director intends that the agents will first encounter a power at the Provincial level (3 on the Pyramid scale) then the Director needs to fully flesh out that power. What the Director does not necessarily need to do is fully flesh out the levels below that power or above it.

It would be handy to have a basic idea what those powers are, of course. The Director doesn't want to be in the unenviable position of handwaving everything and then furiously writing backstory between sessions.

But there is a degree of player freedom in Nights that we don't see in, say, Bookhounds. The agents are encouraged to take responsibility for their own thrills, remember. Be bold and seize the initiative say the Bucharest Rules in the main book.  Pick the most awesome alternative say the Cartagena Rules in Double Tap. Keep moving forward. Hack the exposition. Do something unexpected. Repeated again and again, like a mantra, is the tag line thrills are everybody's business.

In improv this is the 'yes, and' principle. Not rule; in improv there are no rules. The point being that when an actor in a scene throws out a potential line of action - 'how could you sleep with my wife!' - the response should never be 'but I didn't do that!' It should always accept the premise and work with it. 'I couldn't help it, I was drunk,' or 'I've loved her for years, it was a moment of weakness,' or even 'she loves it when I put on the clown costume' are acceptable responses. No never is.

So in a given scene if the agents fall foul of, say, the cops in Dubai and one of the agents suspects vampire involvement, that's not a moment the Director wants to squash. Instead that's the time to get the Renfielded Police Special Unit involved. Which creates a new Node that you will have to work into the pyramid somehow, or adds a layer of complication to an existing Node that you will have to integrate into the ongoing plot.

For that reason while the Director ought to have a basic idea of the pyramid structure it's always handy to leave a few connections vague, or even blank. Then you can fit things into the plot as and when required.

Incidentally if your response as Director is 'but that seems implausible; surely I need to know everything before the game starts,' I pose this question: just how plausible is the Bourne series, really? There are fifteen novels so far, only three of which were written by Ludlum, and that's before you consider the films. If you were to try to untangle that unholy mess you'd go stark staring mad

If plausibility was a benchmark nobody'd write spy fiction ever again. This is one of the main differences between spy fiction and mystery fiction: where in a whodunit the readers always want there to be a good solution to the puzzle, and get bent out of shape if you fudge things with the detective's unaccountable intuition or mysterious twins that weren't mentioned until the final chapter, in spy fiction you can get away with the implausible so long as it looks good on paper.

Bond himself has stolen pirate gold from a Caribbean dictator and crime lord, and foiled a raid on Fort Knox orchestrated by every single American crime syndicate plus veterans of the Red Ball Express, in the novels. In the movies he's done everything from space travel to kinky sex in a submarine. Does any of this sound plausible to you?   

So to go back to last week, we have four agents looking for an insert point. The insert point is a Node on the Pyramid. I'm not going to go over old ground, as I've discussed Nodes before. For a brief recap, all you need to remember is:

[a] Node should be treated no differently from a Villain, for the purposes of campaign design. A Node should have power to affect the plot. A Node has things it wants, things it's in charge of, things it's prepared to kill for. A Node has personality, and it's up to the Director what that personality ought to be.

I'm going to opt for a Level 3 Node insertion point, and use Bankhaus Klingemann, of Bonn, as the Node in question. I'm going to use Paris as a backdrop and plan for most of the initial action taking place there. Conspiracy asset Albert Ahrens controls the Paris branch of the Bankhaus, and we'll say for the sake of this discussion that I've designed the Paris branch thoroughly, including potential Antagonist Reactions and set-pieces. I already know that I have a hacker, two infiltration experts and a Wire Rat in the team, so I've given thought as to the potential Thrilling Scenes involving hacking, infiltration and probable reaction to those actions, from the authorities as well as the Conspiracy.

I'll say that the main scenes take place at a development conference, patterned after the dotSecurity conference. One of the attendees is Eric Klingemann, Lisle's family rival. I already know that Lisle wants to ease Eric out of the family business, because Eric has blackmail material on her. I also know, thanks to the overarching meta-plot, that there's a rivalry between the Conspiracy that Lisle sold her soul to, the European Mutant Vampires, and their Chinese rivals.

So here's the basic bones:

Lisle hires the agents, through a cut-out, to infiltrate the conference and steal vital data from her brother's heavily encrypted and protected personal computer. She knows that her bosses wouldn't approve of her taking out Eric because that draws too much attention to Bankhaus Klingemann, but she needs Eric out of the way and that Need is stronger than her Need to keep the vampires happy. She intends to murder Eric and make it look like the agents did it. She also intends to make it look as if the agents are in league with the Chinese mutant vampires. That way her bosses will think this was all part of the meta-plot, not a private quarrel between siblings.

Albert has a kill team on standby to finish the agents off as soon as Eric's out of the way. The intent is to have the agents plus a couple of Chinese Renfields all get killed by Albert's people, to make it look like the agents were caught with their Chinese paymasters by Albert's heroic countermeasures. Thus Bankhaus Klingemann's dynamic duo get what they want and keep their own hands seemingly clean.

From this point there could be all kinds of future developments. The Chinese mutant vampires, suitably outraged, might go after the agents next, only to attempt to recruit them as soon as they realize the agents were just patsies. The agents may go after Albert, and find all kinds of peculiar things in his Lisle-a-like dungeon. Or the agents may end up in Bonn, trying to plumb the depths of the Bankhaus Klingemann Node. From there they may discover that Bankhaus Klingemann's been funding some peculiar research laboratories all over Europe, working on some mysterious plant hybrid.

From there ... but you get the idea.

Enough! Next week, something completely different.