Sunday, 16 September 2018

Mossad 101

A short while back I recommended a Spanish TV show, Money Heist, to all Night's Black Agents players and Directors. I have something else for you: Mossad 101, an Israeli sypcraft action drama that's been on Netflix since October 2016 and has had a second series release.

The plot features a disparate group of would-be spies who have volunteered for Mossad training, and are put though a grueling series of tests to see whether they have what it takes. Their supervisor, Yona Harari, is a former field agent whose last mission went very bloodily wrong, and in the process two and a half million Euro went missing. The trainees include the wife of the agent who died on that mission, and she suspects Yona knows a lot more than he's telling about that cock-up, and the missing money.

The idea's intriguing, but what really makes it work - and I don't think the producers realized this while they were making it - is a Satanic mix of reality television and spycraft. Because the trainees are being eliminated at a fairly rapid rate, the show has all the evil appeal of an Apprentice or Big Brother with the added draw of slick espionage techniques that border on stage magic. The number of times I was convinced that I had seen X, when it was actually Y with a dash of Z … Penn and Teller would be fooled.

It helps enormously that the actors are all enthusiastic and good at their jobs. There's a lot of people on stage in the first half-dozen episodes, and it would have killed the series stone dead if any of them had been boring. As it is, you'll have a favorite within the first ten minutes of episode one, and then have your heart broken when they get booted.

Which makes the second season an odd duck, because it ditches the reality television idea that made the first season so entertaining. The second season revolves around that same botched operation and the missing millions, but now there are more dead agents, training doesn't seem to be a priority any more, and there are three new characters, taken from one episode in the first season, who basically are the trainees except they're not Mossad, they're criminals. It's not a bad plot; it's very engaging, but it feels as if the writing team either lost its way or was told 'you have to write a traditional spy thriller. No, I don't care. Traditional. With terrorists, drugs, money laundering, the whole bit. Training spies? That's so last season.'

I reiterate: the second season isn't bad. It obviously had more money spent on it, for a start. From a player and Director's POV it's very Dusty, guns kill, and there are plenty of ideas to steal for your campaign or agent. Plus, it's really great to see something set in Kiev rather than the usual suspects, and again, Directors, if you want a city to use in your campaign, here you are. However ditching the central idea that made the first series so much fun to watch feels like a mistake.

It reminded me, oddly enough, of Fauda, another Israeli spy drama that I tried to watch but stopped after the first episode. Fauda's slick and engaging, but I didn't care about any of the characters and didn't know enough about them to want to learn more. That, and it felt like a sausage factory, with female characters getting less than 1% of screen time, and always in a support role. That just killed the show for me. I might go back to it - Fauda's well-executed - but if I do it will be in spite of its flaws, not because I'm intrigued.

Last time I did this I wrote up an achievement, and I'm going to do the same this time.

Yona and Abi. Using only Interpersonal skills like Flattery or similar, plant a surveillance device disguised as jewelry on a person. Just slipping it into their pocket without them seeing doesn't count; they have to see, but not suspect.


Sunday, 9 September 2018

Quick and Dirty: Abu Dhabi (Night's Black Agents)

Image of 1909 Abu Dhabi castle taken from Berlin Museum collection. 

Abu Dhabi

While there is archaeological evidence of previous settlement, going back as far as the 3rd Millenium BC, the city formally began its existence in the 16th Century. A nomadic group settled there on the freshwater spring at Abu Dhabi island. The name literally means Father of the Gazelle, and probably refers to the Dhabi gazelle that once was plentiful in the area. Depending on where you are, you either pronounce Abu as Bu (on the western coast of the city) or Abu (eastern section). 

The Al Nahyan, a branch of House Al-Falahi, were the first to settle at the spring and have since become the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. Current male members of Al Nahyan number about 200, and as has been the custom for many years the identities of female members are not known. Their family has contributed government ministers and high officials to the UAE; Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan is the current head, chair of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Supreme Commander of the Union Defence Force, Emir of Abu Dhabi, and President of the UAE. Current estimates suggest the family is worth in excess of $150 billion.

For many years the city was best known for its pearl fishing, but in the 19th Century Britain increased its influence over the region, strengthening its hold once oil was discovered. This led to a partnership with BP which resulted in the discovery and development of the region's major oil fields. Even to this day relations between the UAE and Britain remain strong, though Britain formally withdrew from the region in 1968, a few years ahead of the founding of the UAE in 1971. Some Brexiteers lean heavily on this friendship as a prop for the Brexit argument, saying that withdrawal can lead to even closer ties with the UAE. 

This cuts both ways. For many decades wealthy UAE buyers have been snapping up British assets and property in London, and race their high-performance supercars through Mayfair, once Ramadan's over and done. This historically has led to some friction, but by and large the British are content to overlook the problem so long as money keeps rolling in.


1.8 million, just a little less than Houston, Texas.

The whole of the UAE is slightly smaller than Maine, with 6 million population. Dubai, the most populous city in the UAE, is home to over 3 million, which means that the citizens of these two cities make up more than 80% of the total population of the UAE.

When Abu Dhabi was originally planned out in the 1960s, it was only intended to house 40,000 people.

Immigrants make up more than 80% of the total population. South Asians are the largest immigrant group, including Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani workers. Arabic is the official language, but there's a significant number of English speakers as well as Hindi and Urdu.

Islam is the official religion. There's a very small scattering of Christians and other religious groups, including Hindu and Bhuddist.

Life expectancy is somewhere around 77 for males and over 80 for females.


The UAE cushioned itself against the 2010 outbreak of the Arab Spring by doing what it does best: throwing money at the problem. At the same time it began a vocal campaign for political reform in other Arab countries, though the UAE itself remains largely as it was before the Spring, from a political perspective. The UAE was also one of the first to join the coalition against ISIS. Intelligence sharing between the UAE and Western governments, particularly the US, has traditionally been strong.

It's not always smooth sailing. In 1999 the CIA was tipped that Osama Bin Laden was attending a falcon hunt in Pakistan, and among the honored gathering was Sheikh Kalifa bin Zayed al Nahayan himself, along with Sheikh Maktoum, leader of Dubai. The CIA debated whether assassinating Bin Laden, perhaps by missile strike, was worth the risk; it was doable, but when potential collateral damage includes a political ally and the heads of two of the royal families of the UAE, it takes considerable political will to pull the trigger. In the end, it was beyond the CIA.

Which is Abu Dhabi and the UAE in a nutshell. Allies, yes, but with a hard desert-dwelling Bedouin core and a love of the past combined with strong religious sentiment. Tradition comes first, and it's not unknown for UAE capitalists to stave off feelings of religious-inspired guilt by backing hard-core Islamic fundamentalist groups. In much the same spirit, Irish American groups once sent cash to the IRA; it meant they were involved in the struggle, even though they never saw the explosive results.

Explosive results of any sort are something the average citizen only sees on television. Abu Dhabi is by far the safest city on the planet. Assault, robbery and muggings are almost unknown. Cyber crime is increasing, with two out of five citizens falling victim - or about 800,000 of Abu Dhabi's 1.8 million. Terrorist attacks in Abu Dhabi are almost unheard of, though there are exceptions. In 2014, a Romanian-American teacher of English, Ibolya Ryan, was stabbed to death by an attacker who later went on to try to plant a bomb at a doctor's house. The attacker was arrested and executed.

Capital punishment (by firing squad) has been meted out to citizens and foreign nationals. It is rare for women to suffer the ultimate penalty, but it has happened; the terrorist who killed Ibolya Ryan, Alaa Bader al-Hashemi, was one such. Death is the penalty for the following crimes: treason, espionage, murder, successfully inciting the suicide of a person afflicted with total lack of free will or reason, arson resulting in death, indecent assault resulting in death, importing nuclear substances/waste, adultery, apostacy, blasphemy, perjury which results in wrongful execution, rape, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, terrorism, sodomy, homosexuality, drug trafficking, and joining the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Death penalty cases are often but not always commuted to life sentences.

The UAE is a founder member of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, contributing both troops and cash to the cause.

Terror attacks tend to be rare and extremely limited in scope. Abu Dhabi doesn't see anything like the constant bombings that rocked Kabul, and this is in part because it enjoys the protection of an extremely well-provided police force. Agents take note: these cops drive sportscars, so don't count on your wheel artist to save you when it all goes south. Abu Dhabi is rapidly deploying project Oyoon, blanketing the city with facial recognition cameras; the project should be complete within the next two years. Areas frequented by tourists will get top priority. In game terminology, any Heat-gaining activity increases Heat by 1 extra point, or 2 if the activity is overtly violent. Once Oyoon deploys, Heat gain may increase still further at the Director's discretion.


Image taken from

Ferrari World. Opened to the public in 2010, this is the world's only indoor race car theme park. Among its many attractions is the world's fastest roller coaster, the Formula Rossa, one of five coasters at the park. As you might expect from a Ferrari-branded resort, the park is a petrolhead's idea of heaven, and naturally includes the opportunity to drive a Ferrari.

Image taken from

Sheikh Zayed Mosque. This is the third largest mosque in the world and the largest in the UAE, capable of holding up to 40,000 worshippers. It was finally completed in 2007, three years after the Sheikh's death, and is his final resting place. Its library and collection of artefacts is extensive and includes items of considerable antiquity. As the country's holiest site the UAE is sensitive about the mosque's image; both Selena Gomez and Rihanna have been criticized for taking pictures with the mosque in the background, because their poses (in Gomez's case, an ankle was showing) were considered provocative.

Image taken from

Emirates Palace. This hotel, completed in 2005, includes 22 residential suites, 92 suites, and 394 residences. It is the third most expensive hotel ever built, and second to none in terms of luxury. "Think about coffee," hotel GM Willy Optekamp told the New York Times. "We serve coffee on a silver tray with rose petals, crystallized sugar, a linen napkin, marzipan croissants, a bottle of imported water and the coffee. The ladies get a rose."  Costs range from $625 a night to $13,000. There are six ruler's suites on the top floor, to be used only by royalty travelling from other Persian Gulf countries. A special Arc de Triumph-style entrance is reserved for their motorcades. 

Three Hooks

A Conspiracy asset with a very interesting laptop is staying at the Emirates for a few days, to help facilitate a deal with minor royalty. The contents of that laptop could be absolutely invaluable - if the agents can somehow smuggle themselves into the hotel, get to the highly secure $13,000-a-night suite, and grab the laptop's contents without anybody realizing what's going on.

An IMCTC exercise 'accidentally' uncovered a Hellenistic-era archaeological site in the desert, not far from Abu Dhabi. Just how does a counter-terrorist organization manage to stumble across an archaeological site? Why have the artifacts been taken to a secure location in Abu Dhabi, to be kept under lock and key? 

One English expat, who may have been out in the sun too long, swears blind he once saw a facility in the desert devoted to growing Indian workers - or what he thinks were intended to look like Indian workers - from seeds, later to be shipped into Abu Dhabi in colorful decorated trucks. He's probably mental, but if anyone might be interested in growing people wholesale, it's the Conspiracy …

Thrilling Elements
  • Fast cars. Fast cars. Fast cars. The most expensive, tricked-out, high-tech vehicles congregate in Abu Dhabi like desert wanderers at an oasis.
  • A tourist is scolded by a citizen for indecent behavior, and clearly doesn't understand what's going on - the language barrier is a factor.
  • Heat and humidity smash you flat. Nothing can prepare a first-time visitor, and nothing can save them except air conditioning. 
  • An unexpected rain or windstorm blows through, temporarily clearing the streets and bringing some much-needed cool air.
  • Few cities are as pedestrian-unfriendly as Abu Dhabi. This is a city built to worship the car, and those foolish enough to try to walk through it take their lives in their hands.
  • Though public drunkenness is frowned on, Abu Dhabi boasts some of the swankiest liquor palaces in the UAE, catering to every conceivable taste.  
  • Try not to scream when the waiter hands you the bill. As you might expect, the cost of living in Abu Dhabi is extremely high; expect to pay considerably more for pretty much anything and everything.
  • A trip to the beach is a treat - a very expensive treat. The private beach clubs can set you back something in the region of Dhs150 to 450 a visit. 

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Forgotten London:The Strand, St Clement's Danes Church

Image taken from British Museum Collection

The inspiration for this post comes from Steve Roud's London Lore.

The spot where St Clement Danes Church in the Strand now stands has had a church on it since the tenth century, but the current church is a Wren rebuilt after bombing damage during the Second World War. It's allegedly the church from the children's rhyme: oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements. But why is it called Danes Church?

Allegedly this is because a Danish King is buried there. According to chronicles, Harold son of Cnut the Great reigned officially for three years; he spent more time as regent, but was opposed in his bid to wear the crown by his two brothers. When he died he was buried at Westminster, but his half brother Hardicanutus, angry because his mother had been usurped by Harold's, dug up the corpse and flung it in the Thames. 'where it was by a fisherman taken up and buried in this churchyard.'

Harold was only in his early 20s when he died. According to legend his death was divine retribution for taking the town of Sandwich from the monks of Christchurch. Though there are other Kings of the period who died as young or younger, usually it was on the point of a murderer's poniard. In Harold's case it was a mysterious illness that laid him low at Oxford.

Harold was one of the first royals to be buried at Westminster, and at the time nobody really understood why. It's thought a royal residence was nearby, but the Abbey may have had particular significance for the Danes, which might explain why Hardicanutus was so keen to get him out.

From 1862 until the later 1920s there was a school nearby, St Clement Danes School, built on land purchased by the churchwardens. It moved twice, eventually ending up in Hertfordshire.

From 1919 onwards there has been a yearly event, initiated by Reverend William Pennington-Bickford, at which oranges and lemons are handed out to boys and girls of the parish.

Sir Christopher Wren's 15th century design was extensively remodeled by the Luftwaffe on May 10th, 1941. Bombs gutted the interior, burnt its organ, and flung the famous bells to the ground. In the 1950s after a fundraising drive from the RAF the church was rebuilt, and since then it has become the RAF's most honored Central Church.

With all that in mind, what could be done with this setting either in Bookhounds or Dracula Dossier?

The temptation with Bookhounds is to either go Arabesque or Sordid. Technicolor could work, but those two directions seem more fruitful.

In Arabesque St Clement Danes becomes the Eternal Flame. The Blitz wasn't the first time the church surrendered to overwhelming blaze. One alternate link to the Danes has it that a party of Danes burnt the church that stood on the site before they were killed, and that's why it is known as the Danes church. No matter whether it's day or night, there is always a burning flame at St Clement Danes - it might be a candle, a bonfire, or an unexplained glow from the stained glass windows. On one special night each year the Rector closes the doors for a sermon to be read to the flames themselves, to keep the church from burning in the coming year. It's said the repentant Danes gather to worship there, one night only. Those who somehow manage to overhear what's said at that sermon gain 1 point The Knowledge or 1 point Magic, in exchange for 2 points Stability. Stability lost in this way cannot be refreshed for one month; it takes time for those memories to fade.

In Sordid the old rhyme Oranges and Lemons plays a part. The children of the parish are encouraged the play the game, in which the final lines are here is a candle to light you to bed, and here is a chopper to chop off your head. Folklorists don't know exactly what the rhyme means; it has an old an murky history, and different versions have circulated since at least the 1700s. The churchwardens have a particular reason for wanting this game played. It allows them to randomly select a child to sacrifice, to ensure the protection of the church. This doesn't happen every year; it only happens when the previous sacrifice fails, at which point the child selected by random ballot - effectively - is killed in a staged accident. The parish always buries that child free of charge, and the body is swiftly taken into a hidden vault where it is interred in a special coffin with a glass lid. So long as the sacrifice holds, the body remains intact - preserved. The minute it starts to rot the protection fails, so the churchwardens have to go looking for another sacrifice. This practice ends after the 1941 bombing, which destroys both the church and the last few churchwardens who know the ritual. A protagonist who assists in this year's sacrifice will be taught many odd tricks of Megapolisomancy, adding 1 point Magic to their pool.

St Clement Danes isn't mentioned in the Dossier and to my knowledge there is no immediate vampire connection - though with these old churches, who knows? However that 1941 bombing looks fruitful, particularly when you consider Edom can never have been entirely sure Dracula's influence was driven from London in the 1890s. There's that Satanic Cult after all, never mind any vampiric by-blows that might have been lurking in the shadows. Along comes the Blitz and everybody's plans are upset, including the Cult's, and many a vampire haven must have gone up in smoke.

I'm particularly lured by an old war film. The Small Back Room, which tells the story of a disaffected scientist, one of the back room boffins, who thinks wartime research is being completely misapplied.

This sounds like a job for Tinman.

Plot core: It's 1941. Edom has become aware of a small pocket of Dracula-inspired resistance in London. Possible suspects include the Servants, Satanic Cult, a Feral, Lucy, or similar. At about the same time German bombers start dropping particularly unpleasant booby-trap bombs during the Blitz, and while these bombs kill people they're also clearly intended to kill vampires. Edom's task is to find a way to deal with these booby-trapped bombs while at the same time trace the lingering elements of Dracula's initial Conspyramid to its lair. Investigative scenes include other booby-trap sites, a bombed-out London where black marketeers trade in questionable, Satanic curios, a former hideout of the Cult now bombed to rubble, all leading up to the climactic moment at the heart of the May raid, where the last remnants of Dracula's by-blow are traced to St Clement Danes. They hide in that church because they've been able to deconsecrate it, using child sacrifice - here is a chopper to chop off your head - as the catalyst. Surely, the Dracula remnant reasons, nobody will think to look for me in a church? At which point the whole church is bombed to blazes, and the characters have to deal with escaping vampires or similar while at the same time defusing the booby-trapped bombs before they take out innocent civilians.

As for the question of why should the Germans want to kill vampires, at least two possibilities arise: the Germans don't want the British to get an edge on their own vampire program, and second, Dracula's using his influence in Germany to wipe out some disloyal former allies. Or something else entirely, of course …


Sunday, 26 August 2018

Who Are We Fighting? (Bookhounds of London)

When I wrote last week about the start of a new Ars Magica game, I was reminded that once upon a time I designed a store for Bookhounds of London using Ars Magica as an example. Thus began du Bourg's, a genteel and gently decaying establishment devoted to the sale of incunabula of all kinds.

This time I'd like to talk a little more about adversary design, using du Bourg's as an example.

Du Bourgs, like the covenant in Ars Magica, is a settled, established location. It has a history, institutional memory, roots in the community. Unlike a traveling band of murder hobos, a bookstore can't solve all its problems by sneaking away in the dead of night to begin a new life somewhere else. It has to deal with its enemies as they arise, and will probably have to deal with them more than once.

The big difference between antagonists like these and the band of orcs a bunch of murder hobos meet once, stab to death, and never think about again, is that these are recurring threats. Over the course of a campaign the investigators must expect to deal with these threats, but not necessarily defeat them.

It's useful to divide these antagonists into groups, as follows:

Minor Recurring (Normal)

Major Recurring (Normal)

Minor Recurring (Thematic)

Major Recurring (Thematic)

In any game the Minor players are going to outnumber the Major ones by a factor of at least two or three to one.

Notice I've divided the groups into Normal and Thematic. Every setting is going to differ slightly in its definition of Normal; Swords-and-Sorcery Normal is not the same thing as Victorian Paris Normal. However in broad terms all Normals are alike, just as happy families are all alike.

Consider: every setting, whether it's science fiction, horror, historic, or wildly ahistoric, has a few elements in common. There is some form of Authority - it might be legitimate or illegitimate, but it's there. There will be agents of the Authority who are sent out to enforce its will, collect taxes, and do all the other things that make society function smoothly. There is some form of Anti Authority, whether actively criminal, like the Mafia, or closer to the freedom fighter model. Or, like the Triads, the Anti Authority can be both criminal and freedom fighter at the same time. The Anti Authority will also have its agents, sent out to enforce its will.

The exact nature of these groups depend on the setting. In a post-apocalypse setting where the planet is just recovering from some major catastrophe, like a zombie outbreak, Anti-Authority probably outnumbers Authority. In a feudal setting there will be very fierce competition to set one faction or another up as the Authority. Equally there will be different kinds of Authority within the setting - a religious Authority, say, and a non-religious one.

In every setting there is weather, there are other intelligent creatures, there is disease, there is decay. There is the urbis, there is wilderness. You can probably think of a few yourself without too much effort. The point being all these things can be Minor or Major Recurring antagonists.

The Dragonriders of Pern series posits that a major recurring antagonist is Thread, a microfilament spore that rains down from the sky, effectively making the weather a major recurring antagonist. Alan Hyder's Vampires Overhead destroys the planet with giant vampire bats from space that devour us all, leaving only a few humans alive - and those humans become the recurring antagonists, predating Walking Dead by more than a century. Wyndham's Kraken Wakes turns the oceans of the world into recurring antagonists, and so on.

You can make anything you like a recurring Normal antagonist. They don't all have to be at daggers drawn with the players - they just have to come back again and again, and oppose the players' schemes.

The other type of recurring antagonist is Thematic. This differs from the Normal in that a Thematic antagonist reflects the Theme of the campaign. In Night's Black Agents the Thematic antagonists are the vampires, ghosts, Renfields and other damnable creatures of the night. In Call of Cthulhu the Thematic antagonists are cults, ghouls, Deep Ones and other elements of the Mythos. It's not simply that in a horror game you have horror things - it's that the antagonist fits the core activity of the setting. The Nodes and Mooks that work so well in Nights Black Agents are completely out of place in Cthulhu, just as Cthulhu is out of place in a slasher flick.

So let's go back to du Bourg's, and think about those antagonists.

Normal, Minor:
  • That One Weird Customer. Maybe it's the smell, his lack of respect for personal boundaries, or his obsession with a particular genre or author, but it drives the characters nuts. He just won't go away; perhaps he's protected by Mister Bourg, or perhaps he's rather more familiar with the locks and bolts on the doors than he ought to be.
  • The Water Pipes. They knock, they leak, they freeze, they burst. Nothing anyone can say to Mister Bourg gets the place re-plumbed; it's a maze of old pipes and patch repairs everywhere you look. Is your section flooded again? Better call the plumber.
  • The Rival Book Scout. How does he always get to the latest sale or trove of rare books before you do? Is the man psychic? Whether he is or isn't, he's the reason du Bourg's hasn't had a Windfall by now.
Normal, Major:
  • The Rival Store. It's not quite as old as du Bourg's, and hasn't got its storied history. What it does have is staff that know what they're doing, premises that aren't crumbling to bits, and prices that are better than du Bourg's. Some of our oldest customers are being tempted away - and that has got to stop.
Notice what's happening here. None of these antagonists need a gun to threaten the characters. What they do is complicate the players' lives in ways they can't easily anticipate or thwart. That, and they all play into the greater theme of the campaign. I could have had a local criminal group as an antagonist, but the whole point of Bookhounds is sale and retail. It makes more sense if the antagonists reflect that.

On to Thematic, Minor:
  • Maher-shalal-hash-baz, the cat. This is a minor Mythos entity that takes the form of a cat. Exactly how that happens is up to the Keeper, but for the purpose of this example I'm going to assume the redoubtable hunter was taken over by Brood of Elihort, and occasionally drops a few spidery white creatures in darker corners of the building. The Brood are building something, and this time it's not a man-homunculus; it's some kind of device, or living machine. What purpose does it serve - and why is it here?
  • Dust Things have infested the sole remaining copy of D'Erlette's Ghoules and they want someone to find this long-lost book. They keep trying to possess customers and older staff members in an attempt to get them to reveal the location of the book, but it never works. Their possessed victims blurt out some occult gibberish and collapse, expelling the Dust Things.
  • Diana Wisbee, a member of the Fraternity of the Inner Light who keeps trying to persuade the bookshop to let her hold seances and talks on occultism. If the players let her, something goes wrong - perhaps she annoys the Brood, or summons up actual ghosts, or just gets horribly drunk and starts talking nonsense. If the players don't let her, she keeps coming back again and again, trying to get them to change their mind.  
Thematic, Major:
  • M. Etienne du Bourg, founder and alchemical experimenter, really does wander down in the basement. This mummified lich still has some interest in the business - that's why he insists on the yearly meeting - but books aren't his primary concern any more. He doesn't mean anyone any harm, but his experiments need supplies and might have unforeseeable consequences. Do the investigators help or hinder his research? What will he do in response? 
Notice I'm not adding stat blocks to any of these, or assigning them abilities. Whether Normal or Thematic, these aren't killers nor are they necessarily in direct opposition to the players. Leaky pipes aren't going to leap out in the dead of night, knife in hand, to stab someone to death. 

No, what they will do is spill water all over that squizz someone's been working on. Or make a particular room uninhabitable. Or make that wooden floor just slippery enough that someone falls. Or … 

See, the things that people remember about their day-to-day lives aren't the number of times they kissed their spouse goodbye in the morning, or smiled at a stranger. No. They remember when the car wouldn't start, or they missed the bus, or a co-worker stabbed them in the back. It's the way we're wired; we remember slights more than we do favors.

The job of an antagonist is to keep rubbing away at that old injury. The One Weird Customer turns up at the least opportune moment. The pipes don't burst on a nice sunny day when there's plenty of time to deal with the problem and a dozen plumbers practically on the doorstep asking for work. No, they burst when the shop's busy as hell, in the depths of winter, when you can't get a plumber for love nor money. Rubbing away, rubbing away - until the moment something breaks.

After all, the whole point of an antagonist is to break things. It's the players' job to fix them.


Sunday, 19 August 2018

Welcome to the Covenant (Ars Magica)

Some friends of mine have been agitating for a new ongoing game, and I offered several options. Only one was fantasy, and that was the one they jumped for. Ars Magica 3rd ed shall be my new RPG home for the next however many number of Seasons.

I loved this game when I was in uni. I know the game's had other editions since, but it's the edition closest to my heart. It's beautifully designed, the artwork's evocative - I mean, just look at that cover for a start - the rules are fairly straightforward, but most importantly there's a flavor of gaming here to suit every palate.

The biggest drawback is that it wants a lot of record keeping - fairly mathsy record keeping at that. If you're not prepared to keep clear notes, heaven help you. In D&D you can often fudge it, but in this if you don't keep track of what you're up to each season, you are asking for trouble.

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure: this is troupe-style roleplay set at the tail end of the High Medieval period. The third Crusade has come and gone, and gunpowder hasn't yet burnt down the feudal world. The great plagues and famines have yet to devastate the continent, but it's only a matter of decades rather than centuries before the Black Death claims the lives of millions. Speaking of:

Did I mention how much I love this setting? 

The game presumes magic exists, and achieved its greatest heights during the classical and Roman period, when the Cult of Mercury spread the rituals and, more importantly, scrolls and proto-grimoires, of the wisest Magi far and wide. Your main characters are heirs to that magical tradition, who have become part of the Order of Hermes to further the study of magic.

However this isn't a story about wizards. It's a story about people who band together, forming a covenant or magical community. Everyone in that community is a potential character, from the lowliest Grog to the more powerful Companions to the Wizards in their ivory towers. The idea being that you, as a group, chart the course of that community from its birth in Spring to its eventual Winter, and possibly beyond. This will take years. It may take centuries, and over that period you can expect characters to come and go. The covenant, if all goes well, survives. 

A covenant begins in Spring, bursting with hope and enthusiasm but lacking resources. Not unlike the first time you leave home and go to university, or get your first job, or whatever might happen. Some covenants sputter and die at this point, but those that survive pass on to a glorious Summer, when their power is at its height. Then comes Autumn, when ambitions mellow and things settle into a quiet routine. After that comes Winter, when the rot sets in and power fractures. 

The writers captured this chronology in the Four Seasons books in which a covenant's cycles are charted over the course of four campaign arcs. Not coincidentally named after Shakespearian plays, it starts with Midsummer Night's Dream, in which a starting covenant struggles against the odds. The Tempest cements their rise with a challenge that seems linked to the very origins of the Order. A Winter's Tale plots the fall from Autumn to Winter, while Twelfth Night offers the possibility of redemption through glorious death. 

This Saturday is the first session, when the players design their covenant and create their first characters. They're all experienced gamers but none of them know the system. So what happens next?

Well ...

Here's a few tips for those starting their first game, whatever the system.

1) KEEP CALM. You know this system. Maybe the others have played this before, maybe not. Whatever else happens, you know for a certainty they've never played *your* game. Take a breath, don't lose your cool, be prepared to explain everything at least six times … and keep calm.

2) BRING EVERYTHING. Maybe it's different for you folks, but my guys prefer analog. They don't want it in .pdf; they want the actual thing. If there are six people at your table, yes, they will all want character sheets - but they'll also want a character generation cheat sheet, a spell list, or just something to read while they wait for the slower folks to get their heads straight. The great thing about .pdfs is you can print the bits you need and ignore the rest. Have extra character sheets, extra Virtues and Flaws sections, and some background material people can read.

3) SMILE, FOR PITY'S SAKE. Everyone knows this is meant to be fun, but this is as much about your performance as it is about the game. If you look worried, they get worried. Being a good keeper/DM/whatever is as much about reading the room as it is knowing the rules. Smile. Crack jokes. Be at ease. It'll kill their nerves and keep the session rolling.

4) BE GENTLE. It's their first time, after all. Remember what I said about repeating things six times? Make that twelve. Or however many times it takes for the message to get across.

5) START SIMPLE, GET COMPLEX. I started character generation with Grogs. They're the cannon fodder, the red shirts, the expendables. Yet they use exactly the same character generation system as everyone else, which means they're perfect for getting the players' feet wet. Once they'd done a few Grogs  they could move on to something more complicated. If this was D&D, I'd start at first level. Sure, it's tempting to give everyone levels and magic items so they can wallop dragons, but if this is everyone's very first game, never ever start above first level. To you it's all so simple, but to them it's incredibly intimidating. There's all these new terms, strange dice, a long list of abilities and characteristics to keep track of - and that's before they go anywhere near the dungeon or swing a sword in anger. On that note: no dragons. Goblins, yes. Giant rats, yes. Maybe a wolf if you're feeling daring. Anything capable of causing a full party wipe in one attack round should be nowhere near this adventure. Dragons come later. Complexity comes later.

Right now they've created Grogs and are halfway through Wizards. Next time it's covenant design, and the first small scenario.

So far we have:

Taleh Ex Miscellanea, clever but not spontaneous, a witch of the old school.

Brun de Avilla, a mountain of a man whose scars from past torture prevent him speaking.

An unnamed wizard of Verditius, a cunning vintner and inventive genius.

An unnamed archer (jeez, mate, really?) whose excellent armaments hint at an unsavory past.

Diego, a farmer and animal husbandman, whose drinking lets him down time and again.

An unnamed bear Bjornaer, whose master still pursues him after all this time.

Another cunning archer, Ella, a mercenary who had one brush too many with bad luck.

An unnamed Merinita magus, extremely intelligent and charismatic, a master of arts.

Everyone's having fun. That's the most important thing, after all.


Sunday, 12 August 2018

Playing With Real Toys: The Raketa Graveyard (Night's Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Timewatch)

Once upon a time in the former Soviet Union, someone junked the future.

All images for this post taken from Urbanghosts.

The Raketa series of hydrofoil riverboats were based on 1940s era designs, and you can see modernist and deco influences in these sleek rivercraft. Capable of 70km/hr cruising speed and built to carry 60-70 passengers, they were meant to be the river transport of the future. Built from the 1950s through to the 1970s and made available for export, they plied the Volga for many years. A few were sent to China, Cambodia, and Europe, but the vast majority stayed within the USSR. There are some survivors, but not many, and those that are still commercially viable have often been modified with new engines or had their hydrofoils removed.

The ship graveyard in the photograph is part of the closed city of Zayozorsk, Murmansk Oblast. Originally intended as a base for a nuclear submarine fleet, this administrative district, also known as Zayozyorny and Severomorsk-7, can only be accessed by those with the appropriate clearance, much like the satellite launch site Vostochny, discussed previously. Unlike Vostochny, there's little reason to think Zayozorsk has much of a future. A little under 12,000 people live there now, according to the most recent census. Like similar urbanizations of its type the closed city is nominally self-governing and exists as an urban core with an outer layer of more or less rural territory. This decayed shell with its rotting shipyards and disused railway lines is where somebody decided to dump the remains of the Raketa fleet. 

As a game location it has many advantages. It's a closed city, which means the characters will have to sneak in somehow with forged papers (or real ones obtained through devious means), or trespass. Anything could be going on there, from secret scientific experiments to Area-51 style storage for those things the Russian government would prefer to forget about. The people who still live there may know all kinds of things about what happened in Zayozorsk back in the day - or they might not be people at all. Innsmouth on the Volga? The last colony of an alien race? Vampires? 

Thrilling elements:

  • A group of dispirited soldiers nominally on patrol wander by. They may not notice much, but tangling with them only alerts the central authorities. 
  • Bored locals kick a football around next to one of the abandoned Raketa.
  • A sudden clatter comes from an abandoned building next to the ship graveyard. Did part of the roof cave in, or is someone watching?
  • Shadows cluster around an abandoned Raketa, and the last glimmer of daylight gleams off its remaining windows.
  • A murder of crows perched on a Raketa glare at human trespassers, and will not willingly move. They stare haughtily at any interloper.
  • A small group of homeless see the agents and make a run for it. What did they leave behind in their camp?
  • For one brief moment it almost seems as though that Raketa is brand new, untouched by time, as though it just launched. Passengers can be seen smiling and chattering among themselves, and the captain sits proudly at the bow. Then the image is gone, but its afterglow lingers in your mind.
  • Judging by the markings on that abandoned ship someone's been using this one as a place to store goods. Who was that someone affiliated with - Edom, the Russian mob, someone else? Is there anything left in the cache?  
Then the Scenario Seed:

Keyhole satellite data, elint and humint all suggest that something peculiar's happening at Zayozorsk, and it's centered on the ship graveyard. Russia's government pretends ignorance, but leaks from the Ministry of Internal Affairs suggest it's very keen to track down anyone related to engineer-shipbuilder and father of the ground effect vehicle Rostislav Alexeyev. Those who look into the matter further discover that most of his living relatives mysteriously vanished over the last two years, but two distant relations living in the West survive. 

Those who look closer at Zayozorsk discover that all transport to and from the closed city has been halted, and the embargo is being enforced by armed troops. 

Someone - a Network contact, perhaps - who claims to be in contact with someone inside Zayozorsk reaches out to the characters. This contact says his friend in Zayozorsk is asking for supplies, most of them medical but some scientific. Analysis shows the equipment could be used for all kinds of things, but is most likely intended to help restructure or rebuild a hydrofoil. What possible purpose could that serve?

Timewatch: the Zayozorsk contact is trying to rebuild, not just a hydrofoil, but the forward-facing Soviet Union of her youth. This time traveler is sick and tired of modern Russia, and seeks to remodel her vision of the Soviet Union on modernist principles exemplified by the Raketa. She feels this era, when Soviet technological advances were at their height and the world trembled at the feet of the USSR (at least as she remembers it), is the world she wants to live in. To that end she's been collecting everything to do with the Raketa and the man who designed them. She's built a kind of gestalt-brain out of Rostislav's relations, and using the equipment she has on hand she's rebuilt a test case Raketa to take her away from the present and into an alternate reality. The people who live in Zayozorsk are broadly on her side; they don't relish being ignored by Putin's Russia and want to return to the good old days when they had meaningful jobs and Zayozorsk had a future. The only thing holding Putin back is the thought that the rebels might have nukes; nobody has a clear idea what was still stored at that old sub base. It's Timewatch's job to ensure this gestalt alternate-reality machine never launches.

Esoterrorists: A cell has been busily at work trying to create a quasi-religion based on Soviet era futurist technology. People have been sneaking into Zayozorsk from all over, at first to see this grand new design and later to help build it. The town has been reinvigorated, and not necessarily in a good way - people are disappearing, perhaps having crossed over into the new reality, perhaps not. The cell hopes that all this futurist worship will weaken the Membrane sufficiently to let them breach reality's walls and bring their own version of the future through. The Russians will move in at any moment to cleanse the town, but if they put a foot wrong they might puncture the Membrane more efficiently than the Esoterrorists themselves. Putin's champing at the bit, but Ordo sympathizers within Russia's establishment would rather Ordo Veritatis went in first; that way if something does go badly wrong, it's not their fault.  

Night's Black Agents: A breakaway Conspiracy node has been working on its own project. This Node thinks Soviet-era futurism is the key to an important Conspiracy goal, but the higher levels of the Conspiracy disagree and have, until now, quashed all investigation along these lines. The Node thinks it knows better than the higher-ups, and has funded a low-level Facility to carry out test work. All this is very much off-book, and the Node hoped nobody would ever find out about it before the Node was ready to unveil its triumph. In a shocking turn of events that surprises nobody except those in charge of the Node, someone did find out. They leaked. Now all kinds of people are taking an interest, from Putin's Russia to the agents, and possibly other government-sponsored anti-vampire programs. The Node wants to clean up the Facility before anyone finds it, but the scientist in charge just won't quit despite all the red warning lights and alarms. It's a race against time to get any useful data from the project before wetworks teams move in.  


Sunday, 5 August 2018

You Must Pay The Penalty (RPG All)

Sometimes characters fail, and that's okay.

What's not okay is the binary choice system we, as Keepers/Directors or what-have-you, put ourselves in by insisting that failure = extreme penalty, usually health damage or catastrophic plot damage.

I've often thought this is a holdover from the earliest RPGs, where assuming THACO is X and the character rolls something less than X, the character misses. There isn't a middle ground. Hit, or miss, with the possibility of critical miss or critical hit.

The recent Pelgrane One-2-One systems make different assumptions. It's very difficult to out-and-out fail a roll. The character usually has 2D6 for any test, where a result of 3 or less is a Setback, 8 or less is a Hold and above 8 is an Advance. So the character's only likely to get a Setback around 8% of the time. Whereas the character's very likely either to succeed (perhaps with some complications) or win extra benefits, so long as the die roll is unmodified.

This is in no small part because having the character fail in a One-2-One in any scene other than the climactic ones is boring. Lovecraft didn't end Innsmouth at the part where Roger Olmstead makes a break for it out his hotel window, slips, and falls to his doom. Neither should the Keeper end a story before the character at least understands what's going on and what's at stake.

It's different in a combat-heavy system, where the plot can be irrelevant and the only real criteria for success is how many levels a character gets. In any game where the plot takes second or third place to contests, whether or not a character out-and-out fails a contest is extremely important, because those contests are the only means the character has of influencing the shape of the game in any significant way.

In a game where plot is more important than contests, the character has other ways of changing the shape of the game. The character can create plot, or solve the existing plot, and while this can involve contests it doesn't have to. The character who gets blackmail information on an important NPC and uses that information to force the NPC to do a certain thing, is just as successful as the character who draws her sword and wins a contest, forcing the NPC to do a certain thing. Both these courses of action assume that having the NPC do a thing is as important, if not more so, than getting levels or gathering treasure. However one method involved little or no contests, whereas the other was nothing but contest.

In a plot-focused game there has to be some kind of penalty for those moments when the character fails a test. The question is, what kind of penalty should it be?

I handle failure by ramping up the consequences but keeping the chain going, and I announce the consequences in advance. So:

Player: Okay, now's my chance. I tie together several blankets and, using them as an impromptu rope, escape out of my hospital room to the ground below.

Director: You can do that, but be warned: if you fail this roll, the nurse will come in the room while you're escaping and scream, alerting everyone.

Player: Fine. [rolls, fails]

Director: You reached the ground but now everyone knows what happened and where you are. Security is on its way.

Now, I could have said that failure means the character slips, falls, and injures herself. However it's usually more interesting to impose a story consequence in a story-driven game. Health loss is only an interesting consequence if this is the kind of game where a lot of combat happens, because in those systems health is more important than any other stat. In story-driven games health is rarely the most important stat.

In the above example failure didn't injure the character but it did impose story consequences, thus continuing the chain of events. If the test succeeded the character could probably escape unnoticed. Now the character has to find a solution to the story problem, which is that security will recapture the character unless the player does something to prevent it.

Moreover I warned the player ahead of time. That's important for two reasons: first, it raises tension. The player knows even before the die is cast that there's a significant penalty for failure. Second, by establishing consequences ahead of time the Keeper avoids seeming wishy-washy. Failure has to be failure, not a reason to create more tests until the character finally passes one. Oh, you failed that test? Um. Well, we can have another test … and another … and you're really bad at this, but let's have another test

The swashbuckling game 7th Sea tried something similar in its death mechanic, by insisting that player characters never died outright in a fight. Instead they became Helpless, and could only be Killed by a deliberate act. This encouraged players to do reckless things in combat - which is the point of a swashbuckling game, after all - secure in the knowledge that, while there might be consequences, they would not necessarily be character-ending ones. Moreover if there was a chance your character could die, that possibility would be flagged by the obvious presence of a Villain capable of taking that deliberate act.

Ultimately this was because 7th Sea valued story over combat, but still wanted a fair amount of combat. The setting was very Douglas Fairbanks, after all, and you can't have that kind of story without at least one sabre duel in some dramatic setting.

Bear in mind there probably weren't any safety nets or guide ropes on set. That's all Fairbanks.

This should be ringing a chord with, say, Night's Black Agents Directors. After all, those games also involve significant combat or chase scenes with potentially fatal consequences for those involved. At the same time the Director probably doesn't want to kill the characters midway through the scenario.

But if you can't or don't want to kill them, there has to be something else you can do. In any game there's usually something, but the Director has to be creative.

For example:

At the end of a Thrilling Chase scene across the rooftops of Paris, the agent fails a roll and the enemy gets away. Rather than have the agent who failed the roll tumble to the ground, the Director rules that the agent made the leap but didn't quite get to the rooftop. Instead they landed on the balcony below, taking 1D6 damage. In addition, the Director rules that for the remainder of this scene and the next scene the agent has the Hurt condition, and takes penalties to physical action contests, to reflect sprains, bruises and possibly broken glass injuries sustained during the fall. 

If the agent was trying to get away instead, the Director rules that the agent tumbles into an occupied apartment and the enemy does not follow, not wanting to get caught by the police. Or maybe there's a Bane there, if the pursuer is a Vampire. The agent suffers the same damage and Hurt condition as above, and also gains 1 extra Heat. The agent gained 1 Heat anyway just for being in a chase; now the total is 2. Also, the agent now has to deal with the situation the agent tumbled into - whatever it may be. 

In both examples there is a penalty and it's a serious penalty, but it does not kill the character or end the session prematurely.

The point to bear in mind is this: in any system, no matter the setting or mechanics, there is always an option that does not involve character death. In Night's Black Agents a character can increase Heat, lose Stability, or suffer penalties to future die rolls to name just three potential consequences. A character can also be Captured, or bitten by a vampire, or lose important equipment or evidence. Say an agent obtains an important Block or Bane only to drop it in the Seine. What happens next?

There is always the possibility of failure, and when a character fails that character must pay the penalty. However it's up to you, as the Daffy of this scenario, as to what that penalty should be.