Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Great War, Extra Credits and Soviet Ghosts

More of a catch-all, this time. For those of you with an interest in the Great War, or my Trail of Cthulhu supplement Dulce et Decorum Est (plug plug), should check out the Extra Credits series Extra History. Extra History is pretty much what it sounds like: a look at historical subjects, created by the same folks who do the video game commentary animated shorts. For the next few weeks Extra History will be tackling the Great War, and so far it's up to episode two. The first episode, all about the lead-up to the war, can be found here, and the second, about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, can be found here.

While I'm talking about totally unrelated things, I would be shockingly remiss if I didn't point the Night's Black Agents fans towards the work of photographer Rebecca Litchfield. Her collection of post-Soviet abandoned sites, including radar defense bases, train yards, military camps and other forgotten memories of the Soviet era is truly outstanding. Any Director worth his salt needs to look at these

Monday, 15 September 2014

Night's Black Agents: The Nature of Conspiracy

I really wish I had more opportunities to play this game face to face, as the Gods of Tabletop intended. It's an exceptionally fun system and a very intriguing world concept. One of the things I've been thinking about recently is the nature of the Conspyramid, the way in which the Vampire conspiracy is organized, and wondering how it can be manipulated to best serve the game.

For example, in the Double Tap expansion Kenneth Hite talks about alternate eras for the game, such as Victorian, World War Two or the Cold War, and that got me wondering: how many Directors sit down and work out what the Conspiracy's been up to? What are its long term goals? Have those goals changed over the course of time, and if so what did that mean for the nature of the Conspiracy?

Any organized group has a long term goal, though most of them these days frame it in the form of a mission statement. Why does this organization exist? What does it want to accomplish, and what is it prepared to do in order to achieve those goals? From there other questions flow, such as, what does it need in order to do what it wants to do, where does it get the capital to finance its activities, and what kind of personnel will it want to recruit?

The game presupposes four base types of opponent: supernatural, damned, alien and mutant. I'm going to consider each in turn.

Supernatural: vampires are the result of magical or other supernatural activities on Earth; spirits, ghosts, witchcraft and the like. OK, let's presuppose that, in this campaign, vampires are created by necromantic activity, and while their bodies need blood in order to survive, ghosts are like cocaine or narcotics to them. A Conspyramid in this kind of game could be formed in order to supply this cocaine to other vampires. It would be interested in historical sites and artifacts, but demand is going to far exceed supply, and where in the real world this imbalance is usually met by price increases, it also often creates alternate suppliers, bad product, and a desire to increase supply. The Conspiracy, in its early incarnation, might have been behind Europe's colonial era, hoping to expand supply by opening up new sources of production. When that didn't work out, it might have tried to foster wars - even the Great War - hoping that the new machines it created to harvest ghosts would increase supply radically. Perhaps that didn't work out; the machines might have created bad product, or the War might have created new competition in the market as alternate suppliers gain a foothold. The market crashes, the Conspiracy is weakened, and when the Second World War breaks out it discovers that its competition has new ideas about market share, and the Conspiracy isn't invited. Cue the Cold War, aka the Conspiracy Fights Back, leveraging its position in Europe's governments to crush alternate suppliers by poisoning the supply, forcing its competitors to toe the line, eventually absorbing most of them into the Conspiracy. Now it's the Modern Era, where the Conspiracy is on top again. It wants to strengthen its hold on supply, absorbing the last of the competition while at the same time establishing its dominance in new markets like Russia and China.

Mission statement: The premier supplier of Gray in the Western World.

Damned: Vampires are the work of Satan or other explicitly demonic creatures opposed to mankind and God. This is a tricky one, in that it presupposes first, an origin story that dates back to before recorded history and indeed before Man itself, and second, it strongly suggests that the Conspiracy is not independent. Instead it works for a Higher Power, though in this case it might be more apt to call it a Lower Power. Very well; then let's take the Antichrist as our motivator here, and presuppose that the Vampires are ultimately descended from the spirits described in Revelations: And I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.This Conspiracy is preparing for the day, as yet unknown, when the Final Battle will wash all creation in blood. In order to do so it has been preparing, protecting, and disseminating the seed from which the Antichrist will be born. This Conspiracy fosters the great migrations, like the flow of immigrants from the Old World to the Americas in the later Victorian period, in order to preserve that seed. It has great long lists in its archives of who begat who, and where; monasteries stuffed with genealogies, eventually replaced by think tanks with computer databases, all diligently recording everything its potential antichrists do. An orphan in Birmingham may be as important to the Conspiracy as a billionaire in Bombay. This kind of Conspiracy would be very interested in anything to do with genetics, and manipulation of embryos in the womb to promote or restrict certain characteristics. However with a religious outlook on life comes every religion's favorite game: the Schism. Somebody's going to have a preferred bloodline, and want to promote it above all others. Perhaps the Donovans who went to America in 1903 are the ones most likely to bring about the Apocalypse, or perhaps the sons of the Church the Pascuttis of Northern Italy have tried to stake their claim. The Conspiracy could have spent the last hundred years or more squabbling with itself, with rival factions happily slaughtering entire families in order to ensure that its favored bloodline makes it to the top. In that world, a disaster like the Titanic's sinking might have been manipulated in order to ensure that one specific person drowned at exactly the right moment. Meanwhile, that final War is coming, and there are vampires at top levels of the military in every government whose fingers have been itching on that trigger for more than half a century. What if someone decided 'kill them all, for Satan knows who is His'?

Mission statement: To protect and prepare the Chosen One.

Alien: Vampires are alien beings, or earthly beings who nevertheless follow different laws of physics. Let's presuppose in this instance that the vampires are truly alien, not earthly in any way. I'm going to steal an idea from Quatermass II - which I highly recommend - and suggest that the creatures fell from space, infected a certain percentage of the host population, and the infected then set about creating an environment in which the original creatures can live. That in turn suggests a definitive timetable: the vampires have a set date on which the original creatures are to arrive, and must meet their goal by that date. At the same time their goal requires a massive expenditure of energy and equipment, which means it can only be achieved by cannibalizing a nation state's worth of resources. In this world the government, probably more than one, has already been taken over, and the facilities are being built. This is a process that probably takes up all of the Cold War, and began earlier than that; say the creatures arrive shortly before or during World War Two, begin colonizing where they land, and start infecting useful humans as soon as possible. They spend the Cold War identifying suitable targets - any nation with the potential for a space program - and, once a target is identified, using that space program as the stepping stone for the Conspiracy's goals. The Director could have great fun with a V2 rocket spy one-off, in which the protagonists first identify potential aliens in the German weapons program, only to see those infected scientists snapped up by Russia and America. Was this unintentional, or were sympathizers in both governments trying to save their infected comrades in Germany? By the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Modern Era either the Conspiracy has subverted all of its chosen targets, or it has succeeded in most and failed in others. That second option in turn suggests that some nations are aware of the infection, though probably not cognizant of the Conspiracy's higher goals. Naturally they can't tell anyone; stating that an otherwise friendly nation is the tool of an alien conspiracy isn't something sane prime ministers do. Yet they will have their own intelligence apparatus on the lookout for possible infestation, in some cases perhaps sending kill teams to other countries to eliminate the threat. Even so, the Doomsday Clock is ticking; the Conspiracy is about to achieve its long term goal, unless someone does something. Like, for example, destroy all those facilities it's been building to house the aliens ...

Mission statement: We shall build Utopia.

Mutant: Vampires are earthly beings infected or changed by (or into) some freak of nature. Let's suppose that there is such a thing as a vampire gene, that it existed in the Classical world and that it spread West from there, only to be all but exterminated by the Black Death and the persecutions that followed. What with y pestis slaughtering untold millions in its first appearance in the early 1300s, then recurring again and again up to the early 1600s, followed by persecutions, witch burnings and the final vampire purges of the early 1700s, it seemed as if the mutant vampire was eradicated from the earth. Then, in the Victorian period, the few scattered remnants of the breed begin to reestablish themselves. The initial focus of this nascent Conspiracy is on survival; it never wants to come that close to extinction again. However it soon becomes obsessed with its origins. What is the vampire inheritance? Can it be promoted? Why is it so vulnerable to certain diseases, and can it be protected against them? Virologists and scientists in the colonies and darkest corners of the earth might be funded by this Conspiracy, desperate for knowledge. The Conspiracy might even start funding or infiltrating relief organizations like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, in hopes of learning more about itself by studying viruses and diseases across the globe. This Conspiracy also has the potential to become a colonizing power. Say it becomes aware of a strain of other mutations, like the Penangglan of Southeast Asia.It's going to want to study this variant to see how it evolved, and whether its mutation has any benefit to the Conspiracy. Naturally this doesn't bode well for the Penangglan. The protagonists could even be caught up in the hunt as potential, unwitting allies of the Conspiracy, in a bring-em-back-alive romp through, say, Vietnam and Cambodia; Platoon mixed with R-Point, except this time the CIA - or something that passes for the CIA - is pulling the strings. That could lead neatly into a Cold War game, as the Conspiracy starts pushing its genetics program, hoping to create the perfect mutation; one that is truly invulnerable to disease, and spreads much more quickly than in previous variants. This Conspiracy hopes for a breakthrough event in the Modern Era, one in which it can release a perfected bioweapon, ensuring its continued survival by eliminating the competition once and for all while at the same time promoting its own genetic superiority.

Mission statement: To ensure our survival and eventual triumph.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Trail of Cthulhu Mythos Expeditions: The Icy Tomb

By now you've probably heard that Mythos Expeditions is out, or soon to be out, depending on exactly where you live. I hope anyone who picks it up enjoys my contribution to that book, Lost on a Sea of Dreams. It was fun to write!

In honor of that Trail of Cthulhu supplement, as well as a tip of the hat to the recent discovery of the Franklin Expedition's lost ship, I thought I'd give you a taste of what's in Mythos Expeditions. This scenario seed is based on a real event, recorded in Mysteries of the Sea by Robert de la Croix.

In 1931 the Hudson's Bay Company sent out the Baychimo, a steel-hulled and thoroughly modern 1,300 ton ship, to collect furs. In October it got caught in pack ice and its captain, Cornwall, decided not to risk wintering aboard, preferring the safety of huts ashore. At the end of November a blizzard broke the Baychimo free of the ice and she drifted away, nobody knew where. Cornwall assumed she'd broken up in the ice. The crew were eventually rescued the following year, and reported the Baychimo lost, only to be told by the Hudson's Bay Company that the Baychimo had been spotted adrift many hundreds of miles to the east of her last known position.

A month later, de la Croix writes, in April 1932, a young explorer named Leslie Melvin also spotted the Baychimo. He succeeded in boarding her, and was astonished at the quantity of furs piled up in the hold. But as his position was more than 3,000 miles from his base at Nome in Alaska and he was badly off for equipment, possessing only two sleighs drawn by dogs, he could not salvage any of the cargo ...

Without going into too much detail, the Mythos Expeditions rules state that the protagonists have a Survival Pool, and these pool points represent a factor roughly analogous to a character's Stability. Yes, Survival represents food, medicine and trade goods, but it also represents morale, will to live, and any number of intangible factors as well. Loss of Survival operates in much the same way as loss of Stability; lose too much, go into negative Survival, and you suffer penalties to actions. Lose enough Survival, and the expedition disintegrates.   

In this scenario seed, the protagonists are playing the part of Leslie Melvin, except that where Melvin was acting on his own you, as Keeper, may have half a dozen characters to consider. It's reasonable to assume that each character contributes 2 Survival pool points, with no opportunity to hire extra bearers. That means, assuming a team of 6, that 12 Survival's on the table. Already you can see that Melvin, with his pool of 2, didn't have many options when he found the Baychimo. The group's going to be traveling via dog sled, probably two sleds per protagonist. They have minimal equipment - you don't want to take anything you don't need, though warm clothing's an absolute must - which would include at least one rifle, to scare off wildlife. The team isn't out looking for missing ships; it has its own objectives, and probably includes geologists, naturalists, explorers, and perhaps a photographer.

Terrain is the next thing to consider. This is the Arctic, so terrain is Bleak. That means +1 Survival loss per Travel Increment. The Travel Increment is an abstraction that basically says it takes X number of increments to get from point A to point B, and in each increment there's a chance of Survival pool loss. This chance is represented by what amounts to a damage roll for each travel increment, modified by terrain. If this damage roll represented travel along a beach, the damage would be modified by -3, so there's a decent chance that no actual Survival loss would accrue. That isn't the case here. Assuming maximum damage, an increment might cost the team 7 Survival which, even if the team started with 12 Survival, is a very significant loss. Melvin, with his starting pool of 2, would already be at -5, or Ragged, with all the appropriate penalties.

It is possible to refresh Survival while out in the wilderness. In this instance the most likely source of a refresh is an Investigative spend, probably Outdoorsman or Navigation, and there's a small chance of finding friendly Inuit. Theoretically the Investigative spend might refresh 1 or 2 points, while friendly Inuit could refresh 3 to 4 points. Finding the Baychimo could also refresh 3 to 4 points; Cornwall probably took most of the ship's supplies ashore when he abandoned ship, but there's bound to be something left behind.   

It's likely that one or two Challenge scenes will occur. Challenge scenes are those moments in a travel increment when something exciting and dangerous happens. As this is an Arctic expedition, any Challenge scene takes place in an extremely Cold environment, which means the character is treated as Hurt for the purposes of Difficulty and spends. Potential Challenges include frostbite, animal attack, an unexpected crevasse hidden by snow, and injury to the sled dogs. Assume a minimum Difficulty 5 for tests, modified to Difficulty 4 if the group has an Investigative ability that might assist, like Outdoorsman.

So far we've just talked about the expedition and Survival, without mentioning the Mythos element. In this instance the most likely Mythos element is Ithaqua, the Great Old One who stalks the Arctic wastes. Possibly in its Death Walker form, it may have torn the Baychimo free and made it drift to this point, either because Cornwall and his crew skinned something Ithaqua didn't want skinned, or because Ithaqua wants the ship for other purposes, perhaps as a floating temple for some kind of ritual. In the latter case, cultists could be drawn to the spot, preparing for the great ceremony to come. There are other intriguing possibilities; perhaps the protagonists find those strange and impossible pelts in the Baychimo's hold, or one of the Challenge scenes could have the protagonists huddle inside the derelict ship as Ithaqua batters it with storms.

The Keeper may prefer other options, if the players are already nodding their heads and muttering wisely about Ithaqua the instant Arctic exploration is mentioned. Ubb, the Father of Worms, is a unique Chthonian Yugg meant to haunt the Pacific, but that doesn't mean Ubb is the only massive sea worm out there. Suppose one haunts the Arctic waters, and has picked on the Baychimo as a target for whatever reason. Picture a scene in which the ice holding the ship at bay cracks under immense pressure, as the titanic creature lunges upward. It could pursue the protagonists in other Challenge scenes, as they try to escape across the ice. Why is it here? Well, Ubb is meant to be guarding the final resting place of a God; perhaps this entity is a guardian, and the Baychimo, by great misfortune, managed to drift too close to its location. When the investigators clambered aboard they earned the wrath of the Worm, not for anything they did, but because they're getting too close to the protected location. Maybe after they leave the Baychimo they find that forbidden spot ...

Hope that helps you Keepers out there! Have fun with Expeditions; I certainly did!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Bond and the Chase Scene: Night's Black Agents

Let's tackle something a little different this time and talk about chase scenes.

In Night's Black Agents the main book points out that they 'require more attention and creativity than other contests' and should be considered a major set-piece event, packed with thrills. That means the Director needs to prepare in advance, or at the very least have some notes for potential chases given the locale the agents are likely to be in. To discuss what that might mean for the Director, I'm taking two Bond chase scenes as examples and dissecting them, from a pure rules perspective.

Starting with Moonraker, take a look at the canal scene.

First: yes, it's incredibly camp. All the Moore Bonds were camp. That's part of the fun!

Second: there's no real reason for Bond to be using a gondola in this scene, but it's a cool thing to do, and it's an iconic Venetian symbol. When in doubt always do the cool thing ought to be the agent's motto, and the Director's too. It's been a long time since I've seen this movie, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Bond's gondolier is introduced as agent Blankorelli of the British Secret Service. IMDB has not seen fit to preserve his character's name for posterity.

The scene kicks off with an ambush moment, a really fantastic reveal. True, there's no reason why he should be popping out of that coffin with throwing knives when a silenced pistol would be more efficient, but screw efficiency; knives are the better cinematic option. The chase hasn't officially begun yet, so the usual prohibition on Weapons during a chase doesn't apply. Note how the NPC gondolier is his first target, even though Bond's a sitting duck. Not only does this give Bond a chance to fight back, it also knocks the gondolier - who otherwise might have tried to pilot the gondola - out of the running straight away. Always leave the agent in the driver's seat.

Initial Lead is probably very short - no more than 2, given that Bond's caught flat footed and the mooks are right next to him - and the operative ability is Piloting. This is a cramped chase - all those narrow, twisting canals - and Bond is probably the more maneuverable participant, so the starting Lead is bumped by minimum +1, up to 3. It might be more, but without handy gondola stats it's simpler to opt for the minimum. Given how quickly Bond moves to the Sudden Escape, those mooks probably didn't start with a fantastic Piloting pool.

A mook immediately opens up with an SMG, peppering the scenery but otherwise doing no damage. Bond's Hit Threshold would be 4, bumped up to 5 since this is an Attack During Chase. The mook used 3 pool points just to attack, but for once the chase difficulty doesn't go up, since the boat opening fire isn't one of the ones chasing Bond. Not yet, anyway. Nevertheless there's a cinematic failure moment when the funeral barge cruises under a low bridge, but that doesn't affect the chase scene itself since, after the initial reveal, the barge was out of the running anyway.

By 1.13 the chase begins in earnest, Bond in his tricked-out gondola versus two mooks in a much more conventional speedboat. Bond's going to jump to Lead 10 fairly quickly, so by this point it's reasonable to assume the initial contested chase roll went Bond's way. Lead is now 5.

More shooting, and again with an SMG, probably not the optimal weapon under the circumstances but what the heck, they're only mooks. At Lead 5, Bond is at Near range for combat purposes. Again, the mooks are spending 3 pool points just to shoot, Bond's Hit Threshold goes from 4 to 5, and the difficulty of the mooks' chase test bumps up by 1. Bond opts for an Evasive Maneuver, turning a sharp corner and increasing his Hit Threshold from 5 to 6. That costs him 2 Piloting. Given that he's probably a Gear Devil, he may opt for a 3-point refresh at some stage. The gondola takes some dramatic splash damage, but otherwise things are going Bond's way.

Again, it's reasonable to assume he wins the contested chase roll this round, possibly because the mooks opted to shoot, thus increasing their chase difficulty number. Lead is now 7. If the mooks try to shoot again, it'll be at Long range. Which they do, of course; they're mooks, and by now the only hope they have of getting Bond at all is with a lucky shot. Again, Bond's Hit Threshold goes from 4 to 5, and the mooks' chase test difficulty goes up by 1, in addition to all the other modifiers that will apply.

The mooks aren't providing much challenge, so it's time for the Director to throw in a Hazard: Bond's rapidly approaching a traffic stop, and the lights are against him. There's a potential Crash at stake, with a vehicle roughly equivalent of a motorcycle for damage modifier purposes. Assume a Difficulty 5 for that test; with modifier -3 that means only 2 Damage is at stake, but given the relative fragility of Bond's gondola it could change the chase significantly if he crashes. He doesn't, so the next in line - the mooks - do, probably because they exhausted their Piloting pool a while back and are running on hope and prayer right about now. Not that 2 Damage is going to do the mooks any harm, but it makes for a fun moment as the lovers drift off in their own little world while their gondolier goes down with the ship.

By this point Bond has hit more than 7 Lead, so it's time for the Sudden Escape. The gondola is clearly Q issue, but its gadgets haven't been fully described, and while there's no reason why Q - practical man that he is - would design a gondola capable of going on land in Venice, the lure of that Sudden Escape is too good to pass up. No doubt Gear Devil Bond uses those refreshed Piloting pool points to make the roll. The mooks despair, Bond drives merrily through the most famous public square in Venice, and the chase is over.

None of this is particularly rules-heavy or difficult to pull off. In the final analysis, the chase was just a few contested rolls, some shooting, one hazard and a sudden escape. What makes it memorable is its location, its vehicles, and the cool set pieces; the knife-throwing coffin man, the oblivious lovers, and the blatant Up Yours of that sudden escape. A chase doesn't have to be packed with stuff to be a good chase, but it does need to have those images, those WTF moments, to work as a scene. 

Now consider the ski scene in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Bond is trying to escape Blofeld's mountaintop fortress, but the guards spot him before he gets too far and an Athletics chase ensues. Technically this is a three group chase; Bond, mook group A, and mook group Blofeld. Beginning Lead is probably quite good, since Bond is the instigator and has had some time to prepare; call it 5. This is a normal chase, all groups are traveling at about the same speed, and by the look of things everyone's equally as good at Athletics, so there's no bonus to be had there. Brilliant chase scene music, by the way; just goes to show getting a good soundtrack is worth the trouble.

Technically the first shots fired (about 0.30) aren't part of the chase sequence, but were I Director I might say that the agent's difficulty increases by 1 for the next contested chase roll if the agent is under fire.  That allows the agent to rush off in a hail of bullets, without the tedious dice rolling (and possible early termination of the chase) that might accompany an actual attack.

Much activity ensues, and Blofeld is informed. At this point no actual chase action has taken place. Earlier I divided the mooks into two groups; they could as easily be kept as one big pool, but with Blofeld in the mix it makes more sense to have two groups. That way the major villain is still a major threat, while the other group of mooks might be knocked out of the running. It gives Bond someone he can beat, while at the same time introducing an antagonist that the Director would rather Bond didn't beat at this point in the plot.

It's 1.50 and now the chase is on. Each mook group has at least one armed man in the group. Now, in the gondola scene, when shooting took place there had to be an increased Firearms pool spend, the target's Hit Threshold went up by 1, and the Difficulty of the attacker's chase test went up by 1 in the attacking round. It could be argued that, since there's only one shooter, the shooter and only the shooter suffers the penalties that come with shooting; the other mooks in the group don't have the same penalty. I'd argue against that. Giving each mook separate die rolls only draws out what should be a quick, action-packed scene, and goes against the game principle of multiple pursuers. What if there had been ten mooks in the group? Will ten separate die rolls really be necessary? No; it's more sensible to treat the group as a group, with a common pool and common penalties.

So far, though plenty of shots have been fired, Bond hasn't been hit, but neither has there been any real change in Lead, suggesting that both Bond and the mooks have been succeeding their Athletics tests. By 1.35 we have the first of several Hazards, a jump sequence at night in snow-covered rocky terrain. This is a Falling Hazard, probably with minimum Athletics Difficulty 5, at considerable speed and height. Without sitting down to work out the actual speed plus height - which would be tedious, and again, this is meant to be a quick, action-packed scene - assume +2 damage for speed and height and a further +1 for the terrain, with no other applicable modifiers, so in total there's 8 (Difficulty 5+2+1) damage at stake. Certainly enough to splash a mook, and it probably wouldn't do Bond any good either. That Falling Hazard is soon followed by another Falling Hazard, higher this time, so call it 9 damage at stake.

The mooks are holding fire, and with good reason; everyone must be burning through Athletics. Bond might be able to blag a refresh from his Director, but the mooks haven't got that option. At about 1.55 Bond slips into the treeline, probably still at Lead 5; there's no reason to think anyone's been able to extend or reduce Lead dramatically. The change in terrain alters the chase conditions from normal to cramped, but nobody's more maneuverable than anyone else. Bond is probably hoping to provoke a Raise in his opponent's Difficulty numbers.

Then the mooks stop to coordinate, with flares and rockets. Bond's in trouble. In game terminology, this is best represented by mook group Blofeld, which so far has hung back out of the action, adding points from its relevant pools to mook group A. Effectively this provides mook group A with Athletics - and possibly other abilities, like Firearms - refresh. It allows the Director to account for a major villain's presence - Blofeld giving orders to the troops and organizing the attack - without actually bringing the villain face to face with the agent.

Bond's best chance now is to get mook group A to crash out early, so it's time to start provoking Raises. Bond opts to increase Difficulty by 1, from 4 to 5; he could have gone higher, but he hasn't had the pool refresh that the mooks just enjoyed. In fact they enjoyed it so much that, at 2.36, they Raise with gunfire, upping their chase sequence Difficulty from 5 to 6, upping Bond's Hit Threshold from 4 to 5, and spending 3 points from those refreshed Firearms pools to do it.

Bond is hit, but not out. He fails the chase sequence Difficulty test, goes arse over teakettle, and busts a ski. He also takes some Damage, and may even be less than 0 Health. Remember, the agents can go below 0 Health; mooks can't. Bond's probably at Hurt, so his Difficulty numbers, including opponent's Hit Thresholds, go up by 1; an effect neatly illustrated by his having to get away on one ski. Lead is also reduced, from 5 to 3.

Now, if Bond continues to Raise by snaking in and out of the treeline, his Difficulty goes up to 6 - his Hurt penalty plus the Raise - while the mooks' Difficulty stays at 5. Bond clearly thinks this is worth the risk, and he probably has the Athletics pool to back that bet up. What's more, by 3.10 he's back in Falling Hazard territory again, so Bond's Difficulty is actually 7 while the mooks' Difficulty is at 6. That's too much for the mooks, who lose a man in the trees. However we're close to the end of the sequence and the mooks are going to win this one, so while Bond made the Falling Hazard Athletics test he must have flubbed a contested chase roll at some point, bringing Lead from 3 to 1.

Another Falling Hazard at about 3.30 reduces mook group A to one man, but Bond's running out of luck, and also, it turns out, room to maneuver. The chase ends at 3.45 at the precipice, with Bond unable to go any further. In game, that last contested chase roll must have either ended in a draw, with the mook having the better roll, or Bond must have lost it. In any case, Lead drops to 0 or below. Hurt, and with his back to the metaphorical wall, he turns on the surviving mook, and the scene goes from Chase to Combat.

Again, nothing about this scene is particularly rules-heavy. It's mostly contested Athletics, with some Firearms, and the agent's making some clever use of the Raise mechanic. While there is a Hazard, it's the same Hazard each time. That doesn't have to be a problem. Multiple use of the same Hazard is acceptable, provided it's in keeping with the scene, and serves to increase dramatic tension. Besides, it wasn't over-used; ten Falling Hazards in a row would have been tedious, but there weren't that many of them, and the ones that did exist were mixed in with other events to break up the sequence. Bond didn't win the chase, but he had enough points left in his pool to quickly finish the Combat sequence, even taking his Hurt status into account. All in all, a success!

I hope this is of some help to you Directors out there. Have a good one!


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Worldbuilding on the Underground: Bookhounds of London

In order to build a believable environment for your players, don't concentrate on the fantastic and far-away. Create the things that you know they will see every day.

For example: in a fantasy environment, it's likely that there's some kind of deity belief system, with perhaps an organized priesthood and a number of significant churches. However there's no point, as Keeper, in trying to design the equivalent of Notre Dame straight away, not unless you want that to be the very first thing the characters see. It's more likely that, as a random bunch of ne'erdowells wandering the wilderness in search of fame and fortune, they'll encounter the local priests and churches first, or perhaps a few shrines. If those are the things they will see every day - probably have already seen, day in day out for as long as they've been alive - then design those first. Have a template in mind of the typical church or shrine, so you can describe one each time the characters march past it. Or, if you intend to set an encounter in a ruined or desecrated church, you can describe what's wrong, giving the characters an obvious clue as to what might happen next. In Christian iconography, for example, an inverted cross is an instantly recognizable symbol of evil; instantly recognizable in pop culture anyway, even if its actual meaning is something different. What, in your fantasy religion, carries the same metaphysical weight? Is it a color? A symbol? Perhaps a holy statue is turned so it faces, not the promised land, but the gates of Hell?

These are all things that build a world, and make it seem real to your players. Not places, or palaces, but the little things that they see every day. These things go to make up everything they have ever known up to that point. These are also the things which, when they are wrong or out of place, immediately warn them that something bad is about to happen, or has already happened.

Now let's talk about London's Underground.

London would be impossible without some kind of public transport. People couldn't move, couldn't work, without it. Yet the Undergound, in all its creaking, antiquated glory, is also one of the most reviled things in a Londoner's lexicography. It's always late, always running slow, always bust; maintenance works have thrown the system out of whack on a weekend AGAIN, and wouldn't you know it, some idiot has flung themselves under the train a few stops behind you, so now the whole system's shut down. Every Londoner has been on the Tube at some point, and most of them know at least a handful of stations like the back of their hand. Bank Station seems impenetrable to a novice, but talk to anyone who ever had to work in the City, and you'll find an expert in Bank's mysteries. Cannon Street, London Bridge, Waterloo, King's Cross; these are names to conjure by.

That means, in a Bookhounds campaign, that you as Keeper need to give some thought to what you want your Underground to be. You can find out the basics by research, but that doesn't tell you what your Tube in your world is like. The only one who can decide that is you.  

These are notes I've written about the trains I want to use in my campaign. They're very brief, intentionally so. There's no point going into exhaustive detail, not when it isn't going to be plot relevant. The idea here is to give a snapshot, not a novel's worth of information.


London diesel passenger train.

Wicker seats, gloomy interior, always smells of tobacco smoke and sweat.

Arabesque: occasionally strange and terrible things can be seen out the window; forgotten tube stations are the least of it.

Sordid: the train is haunted by a locked trunk, in which the headless torso of a murder victim is stored forever.

Technicolor: the seats run slick with blood some nights, blood that soaks into the floor and disappears as if it had never been.

Underground Station

Tube, new built (within last 20 years).

Style: modern, clean, well kept. Stale air, always, with occasional waft of something rotten.

Commuters: businessmen, little souls from Metroland in their respectable suits and ties.

Special: used to be a charnel pit on the site. Most of the bones were relocated, but not all. Very hush-hush when the place was first built, the papers only ever had one report.

Potential Magic: 1

These can be slotted in anywhere. Perhaps that station is the one the protagonists use to get to work every day. Perhaps they're traveling home late one night after a few beers, and catch that train with its haunted trunk. The point isn't to provide a complete adventure every time the protagonists catch a train, or go through the station; the point is to reinforce the game world, perhaps with that waft of rotten air just as they're about to board, or those terrible shadows glimpsed out the window as the train goes pounding past. Those little things are what the characters can expect to see, every single day. and with those things, they see the world you're building for them.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

I'm In London, What Should I Do?

I lived in London for several years, and in the UK for about ten years all told, so I know my England reasonably well. Many of you who end up playing, or being Keeper, in a Bookhounds game may not be so lucky. Then the fatal day arrives: by luck, or thanks to work commitments, you have a day or two to kill in London. What should you do? Are there things you could be spending your hard earned money on?

Yes, of course there are. Books are always worth spending dosh on, and there are some things worth looking out for. The Historical London A-Z is something you should definitely seek out, whether Keeper or player. It makes for an excellent prop, and since it's an accurate reproduction, you can add your own notes for extra authenticity. Anything Liza Picard writes is worth reading, and her London series is brilliant, but from a period perspective the best is her Victorian London. It's slightly out of period for a Bookhounds game, but you get a real sense of the City as it used to be, as well as a glimpse of what it was becoming. Finally, the Shire Library has an excellent series of short historical books, about everything from the London Underground to maps of pre-War London, and more. The A-Z and Picard's books can be found almost anywhere, but Shire Library's work is harder to find. The British Library has an excellent bookshop that stocks them, and many museums will have them too.

Speaking of Museums, by all means go to the British Museum if you like, but make sure to go early. It's on every tourist's must-do list, and London is flooded with tourists year round. However if you want something a little more London-specific I recommend three: the Museum of the City of London, the Docklands Museum, and the Geffrye. All are brilliant in their own way, but if you want to understand what makes London tick, you need to see the first two. The Docklands is, to my mind, slightly better, but that may be because it's never as crowded. The London Museum covers the whole nine yards, from prehistoric settlement to modern city, whereas the Docklands Museum just covers London's Docklands. The Geffrye is a design museum, and I admit this is on my must-do because I enjoy design, but its chief advantage is that it demonstrates how people would have lived, once upon a time, by showing you the rooms, furniture and accessories they would have lived in or owned. It is a little out of the way, so feel free to skip it if you're short on time or have no sense of direction and are afraid of getting lost!

As for things to do, go to a pub. It's not difficult to find one, and it is the quintessential English way of spending time, but if you're after a pub with a historic flavor, try one of the Sam Smith's. Samuel Smith's is a brewery chain that specializes in historic premises, and one of the best examples of a pub as it would have been in the 1930s is the Princess Louise, out near Cannon Street tube.  If you've just been to the British Museum, it's a stone's throw away. A little closer to the museum is another Sam Smith's, the Crown, useful if all you want is a pint after being crushed to death by Japanese tourists and English schoolchildren. Word of advice: nobody goes to a Sam Smith's for the food. It's not awful, just profoundly uninspired. Beer's good though, and pretty cheap for London. Oh, and the Crown's within easy walking distance of Forbidden Planet and the Orc's Nest, which you're probably going to want to visit at some point.

But you want something non alcoholic to do, I hear you ask. God knows why, but you do. In that event, I recommend the Thames Water Taxi. Not only is it a brilliant way of seeing the city, it also gives you a real sense of what London would have looked like to all those ships that once made it their home, when London was still a significant port. It's also an easy way to get to Greenwich, which is worth seeing in its own right, and not just for the Meridian. The park's a joy to walk round, and the weekend market's always busy. Besides if you've made it that far you can stop at the Old Brewery for a pint, always a worthwhile endeavor.  


Edit: I'm adding the London Transport Museum to the list, with a couple caveats. The chief caveat is, for the love of God, don't go on the weekend. The museum's brilliant, and I think you can guess what it's about from the name, but it's located at Covent Garden, which is an absolute nightmare on the weekends, particularly in the summer. While there is a nearby tube, you may find it easier on your sanity to go one station beyond, or stop one station prior, and walk the rest of the way.The place is absolutely swarming with people, worse than the British Museum by far, and the tube stop is like an ant mound after someone's pissed off the ants.

The other caveat is, I'm mainly recommending this for its bookstore. The museum's great - a little dry, perhaps, if trains and buses don't fill you with awe - but the bookstore's remarkably good, for a museum, and you don't have to go through the museum to get to the bookstore. There's also a good selection of period-reproduction posters, if you want to add that extra bit of authenticity to your gaming night.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Wolf Man: Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London

Let's talk about werewolves.

The difficulty with an established creature of myth is that most people believe they already know everything there is to know about the beast, and familiarity breeds contempt. Is a vampire really frightening any more? A zombie? Will your players groan in disappointment if a Deep One shows its fishy face? Ken Hite has tried to counteract this with his Writes About Stuff series, taking entities like Deep Ones and Shoggoths and demonstrating how they can be twisted to counteract that old bugbear, complacency.

The interesting thing about folklore is that it can be turned to almost any purpose. I highly recommend anything Sabine Baring-Gould writes, for two reasons: first, he has a wide breadth of knowledge, and second, he writes clearly, or at least as clearly as you can expect a Victorian antiquarian to write. In this instance I'm drawing heavily from The Book of Werewolves, (1865).

It is positively true that there are many to whom the sight of suffering causes genuine pleasure, and in whom the passion to kill or torture is as strong as any other passion ... Inherent cruelty may be obscured by after impressions, or may be kept under moral constraint; the person who is constitutionally a Nero may scarcely know his own nature, till by some accident the master passion becomes dominant, and sweeps all before it ... Gall tells of a violin player, who, being arrested, confessed to thirty-four murders, all of which he had committed, not from enmity or desire to rob, but solely because it afforded him an intense pleasure to kill ... I have seen an accomplished young woman of considerable refinement and of a highly strung nervous disposition, string flies with her needle on a piece of thread, and watch complacently their flutterings. Cruelty may remain latent till, by some accident, it is aroused, and then it will break forth in a devouring flame. It is the same with the passion for blood as with the passions of love and hate; we have no conception of the violence with which they can rage till circumstances occur which call them into action.

From this we get a picture of the kind of person who might become a werewolf. It isn't simply that they are bitten or somehow fall victim through some random act of chance; they are born that way, and might live their whole lives without succumbing to temptation. They were always werewolves, which means they were always sociopaths. They might be able to fake humanity, or they might be well trained enough for the wolf in them not to show. But if that inciting incident does occur, then heaven help anyone who gets in the werewolf's way.

Or, as the Duchess of Malfi has it:

One met the duke ’bout midnight in a lane        16
Behind Saint Mark’s church, with the leg of a man
Upon his shoulder; and he howl’d fearfully;
Said he was a wolf, only the difference
Was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside,        20
His on the inside

There are various means in folklore by which a person is meant to be able to transform. Deals with the devil, belts made of human skin, wolf capes, ointments made of human fat; any number of totems and devices, but there is nothing in Baring-Gould that suggests werewolves are supernaturally difficult to kill. Silver bullets are an invention of the 1940s and 1950s, when Lon Chaney Jr was busy carrying off damsels and paying too much attention to wandering gypsies. Stab them, cut them, shoot them, and they die like anything else. The chief danger of a werewolf isn't some kind of physical invulnerability. The problem is, it's incredibly intelligent, and utterly without mercy or fear. It will attack regardless of odds, but it can also plan, and reason.

Baring-Gould devotes a significant portion of his book to Gilles de Rais, aka Bluebeard, and it's worth talking about him here as well. He's one of those historical villains whose crimes seem to have been so shocking that they defy fiction; Hammer Horror leapt on the story of Erzabet Bathory and her life is the subject of any number of films, but while de Rais appears in fictional tales and anime it's often thanks to his Joan of Arc connection, and not his child murders, of which there were many. Certainly Hammer Horror never tried to turn his life story into a spookshow. Christopher Lee would probably have refused the part, if offered.

De Rais, former wartime companion of the Maid of Orleans, was a Marshal of France and possibly the most prestigious noble of his time, bar the King of France himself. If the tales are to be believed he was quite insane; at his confession during his trial he claimed that his crimes were 'in accordance with his own imagination and thought, following no man's counsel, but his own, solely for his pleasure and carnal delight, with no end in view.' Though there have been attempts, at the time and since, to link his murders with witchcraft, it is unlikely de Rais was motivated by Satanic promises. He dabbled in alchemy and had a magician on the payroll, but this was more to do with his crushing debt than his personal preferences.

There is no telling exactly how many met their death at his hands. Most of the bodies were burnt and the ashes disposed of; estimates vary from 200 to 600, of both sexes, most younger than 16. The children, peasants for the most part, would be lured to one of his estates with promises of money, food, or something similar, where he would sexually assault them and cut their throats, sever their limbs or otherwise butcher them. The multitude of corpses became a significant problem, since he was forever selling off his estates and castles; frequently he had to stage an emergency exhumation, carrying off the evidence under cover of nightfall before someone discovered it.

It wasn't the butchery in the end that did for him, but his intemperate nature. Despite being the richest man in France, he persisted in throwing money away. His two obsessions were a mystery play about Joan of Arc, with him in the starring role, and a Church of the Innocents which he established, including a tame Bishop, all of which he paid for but which Rome refused to recognize. The mystery play, created in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Siege of Orleans, was the real money pit; 140 speaking parts, 500 extras, 20,000 lines of verse, with elaborate staging and costumes. Take the costumes as one example: he insisted that each be made of new material, and were only to be worn once. Even the rags were made by creating an entirely new costume, then tearing it up with a dagger.

Nobody could afford extravagances like these, not even the richest spendthrift in France. He began selling his estates and possessions, a scandalous thing to do in 15th Century society. When he ran out of his own possessions he began selling other people's, defrauding his relatives, his wife, his children, to feed his addiction. What he couldn't get by fraud, he took, capturing at least two castles by siege and promptly selling them to pay his debts. It got to a point where the King of France himself issued an edict forbidding any citizen of France to buy anything whatsoever from Gilles de Rais, an act which killed his credit rating. It was a castle that did for him in the end, when he tried to repossess by force Saint-Etienne-de-Mer-Morte, which he had only recently sold to an ally of his enemy Jean V de Brueil. The fallout from this raid eventually brought him to the ecclesiastical court.

The wolf revealed, not as some kind of hero figure, but a bandit, a raider, preying on the weak and helpless.Serial killers of this type are often referred to either as werewolves or as vampires,and cannibalism is often a theme.

Taking all of the above into consideration, and using the three Bookhounds archetypes of Technicolor, Arabesque and Sordid, we can create several different kinds of werewolf.

Technicolor: Donovan McQuaid

McQuaid, former corporal 6th Bttn Prince of Wales' Leinsters, was born in Nova Scotia, son of Sergeant Robert McQuaid, and spent his early years traveling from camp to camp along with his mother and five siblings. At age 14 he tried to bluff his way into the Regiment when the Great War started, only to be handed over to his father who gave him 'the leathering of a lifetime,' he later declared. Two years later he went in, and spent the rest of the war 'neck deep in mud and blood.' He rose to the rank of Sergeant, was demoted after an incident involving a senior officer, and worked his way back to corporal before the war ended.

He dates his 'affliction' to this period, when he began using a bibliotheque bleu edition of the Cultes des Ghoules. Repeated trips to the Front had broken his nerve, and he tried a ritual intended to give him the courage of the wolf. He uses a belt made of human skin - he obtained it from German corpses and tanned it himself - to achieve this transformation, and when under the influence he felt 'mightier than Satan, and twice as bloodthirsty.' It awoke a thirst within him, one which has proved difficult to satisfy.

After the War, when the Regiment broke up in 1922, he moved to London and worked on the docks, eventually moving up to foreman. He married Mary, and they had two children, Robert and Diedre. But despite everything, despite the passage of time and his own well-trained nature, Donovan found himself drawn to the belt again and again. He couldn't bear to throw it away, not even when it began speaking to him in his father's voice.

At first he hoped that he might get away with just becoming a wolf, and not killing anyone. Then the bloodlust took over, and he tried mightily to turn it to what he saw as good ends, using his werewolf form to punish the wealthy 'who feed on the blood of the poor.' When that didn't work as he'd hoped and he found himself unemployed, he switched to moonlighting for the local gangs. They don't know his true nature; the gangs use him as a leg breaker and occasional assassin.

He's desperate for a way out, and needs someone who understands the occult better than he to work out how the curse can be broken. Perhaps there's a book out there than can help him ...

Abilities: Athletics 9 (14), Conceal 4, Driving 8, Electrical Repair 6, Firearms 8, Fleeing 6 (12), Health 9 (12), Scuffling 14 (18), Weapons 8. All stats in ( ) are wolf form statistics; any ability not in ( ), like Weapons, cannot be used in wolf form.

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness: +4

Weapon: +1 (bite)

Armor: -1 vs any (fur)

Stability Loss: +1

Appearance as wolf: Giant, muscular, with fur sloughing off in handfuls as if from some kind of disease, and a strange chemical stink (mustard gas, actually).

Arabesque  Lucy Ainsworth

Lucy is the second daughter of wealthy shipping magnate Peter Ainsworth. Her eldest sister is married to minor nobility, and lives in Kensington. She and her younger sister Elanor still live in the family home in Wimbledon; both parents are dead.

Since childhood, Lucy has nurtured a simmering hatred for her younger sister. Helen, the eldest, was able to escape the family home, but homely Lucy never had suitors, family fortune or no. There was something about Lucy's forbidding demeanor, passed on to her by her father, that put people off. Elanor on the other hand was pliant, pretty and cheerful, and had no difficulty attracting men. It was enough to make Lucy's blood boil.

The only thing that kept Lucy from going completely off the deep end was torture. It began with small animals, mice and such; Lucy used her taxidermy hobby as a cover for her activities, transforming her kills into elaborate and fantastic displays. She created fantasy landscapes with her mice as tiny knights, wooing damsels and challenging dragonish cats. Before long she had several large glass tanks full of her craftsmanship, decorating the ground floor of the family home. At first she confined it to her father's study, but the project grew and grew, until now there isn't a single room on the ground floor that lacks a study in quasi-medieval splendor. Pride of place is taken up by a Spanish Inquisition piece complete with purpose-built instruments of torture, using rats as the inquisitors.

It wasn't enough. More and more the men kept coming for Elanor, and Lucy would keep them away. She saw herself as the guardian of the house and its legacy. After all, if Papa was still alive, he wouldn't want the youngest married before her elder sister. There are standards of decorum. The family money is held in trust, and Helen's not foolish enough to come anywhere near Wimbledon these days. For all the outside world knows, the two sisters might be living together in secluded harmony.

Though Lucy would never admit it, taxidermy is no longer enough to keep her darker urges in check, and hasn't been for several years now. She has strange dreams in which she roams London like an avenging angel, tracking down Elanor's would-be lovers and dealing with them before they become a serious threat. This has extended to all young men who might, at some point, pay Elanor attention, from the milkman on. The mailman hasn't tried to deliver the post in some time, not that he dares tell his supervisor why. So far the black hound of Wimbledon Common hasn't attracted attention, but with each incident Lucy's restraint slips further and further.

The one thing Lucy hasn't really been paying attention to, oddly enough, is Elanor herself. Lucy's younger sister has a mind of her own, for all her pliant nature, and she's making a collar for the guard dog Lucy has become. One day she'll snap it around Lucy's hairy neck, and then things may change forever.

Abilities: Athletics 4 (12), Fleeing 4 (10), Filch 7, Health 5 (10), Scuffling 4 (12). All stats in ( ) are wolf form statistics; any ability not in ( ), like Filch, cannot be used in wolf form.

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness: +3

Weapon: +0 (bite)

Armor: -1 vs any (fur)

Stability Loss: +0

Appearance as wolf:  Jet black hound, similar in build to an Irish Wolfhound. Sleek and well cared for, but with a savage temper.

Sordid: Barton King

Barton King is a factory owner, a tanner, whose business is in the East End, out on the Isle of Dogs. The tannery has been struggling since the War; King made a lot of money back in 1914-18, but had no real head for business, and ended up wasting most of his profits on failed investment schemes. The factory has been in the red for the last few years, and there's talk it might go under.

However badly the factory might be doing, King sees himself as a captain of industry, frustrated in his efforts by lesser men. It wasn't his fault that none of his investments worked out, it was the jealousy of his rivals who intrigued against him and tricked him out of his rightful profits. He's a wolf, and the world is full of sheep. If the concept of the alpha male existed in the 1930s he'd enthusiastically self-identify as an alpha, the dominant male lording it over his domain.

The first rape took place three years ago. She was one of his workers, a woman he'd had his eye on for some time, and he followed her home one night, assaulting her in her flat. He saw it as taking what rightfully belonged to him, and if the girl killed herself, why, that was her own silly fault.

The second time it happened the woman had a boyfriend, and that was where things got complicated. King's alpha male side refused to back down even though he was clearly outmatched. King doesn't really understand what happened after the boyfriend intervened; King just remembers coming to in an alleyway, covered from head to foot in blood. The papers said a vicious murderer had slashed the two to death, and as far as King was concerned that was as good a story as any.

It's happened four times since then, each time to women that King's had his eye on, and as he's grown older, his targets get younger and younger. The last was only twelve, a girl without parents he'd seen hanging around the factory gates, begging. Those he sees as his rightful prey, but lately he's become excited by boys as well as girls. Boys put up more of a fight, and their flesh is as tender, if caught young enough.

He has one ally within the factory who knows his secret, George Means, a foreman. He brought Means in early in his career, when he was frightened of what he was becoming and wanted someone to help him understand it. Means passes himself off as a master of the occult, but really he's a sub-Crowley dilettante who knows very little about the Mythos. Means took the job as a sinecure, figuring he'd milk King for a few paydays and then scarper. Trouble is, King's feral side scares Means silly, and the last two times Means ended up helping King get his kill for fear of what might happen if he didn't. Now Means is involved up to his neck, and the day will come when he'll have to decide whether his fear of King is greater than his terror of the hangman's noose. 

Abilities: Athletics 8 (15), Fleeing 7 (12), Electrical Repair 5, Health 8 (15), Mechanical Repair 8, Scuffling 7 (14), Weapons 5. All stats in ( ) are wolf form statistics; any ability not in ( ), like Electrical Repair, cannot be used in wolf form.

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness: +3

Stealth: +1

Weapon: +1 (bite)

Armor: -2 vs any (fur)

Stability Loss: +1

Appearance as wolf: A shaggy hound with exaggerated sexual characteristics, and eyes that glow like hellfire.