Sunday, 22 May 2016

His Name Isn't Bond: Cover & Network (Night's Black Agents)

I've just finished reading Jeffery Deaver's take on British superspy James Bond, Carte Blanche. With this novel, 23 in the Bond series, Deaver updates the Bond mythology, reimagining Fleming's character in the 21st Century. Fleming's basic Bond is still here, complete with Bond's treasure of a Scot housemaid and the Vesper cocktail. Except this time Bond's shaken concoction with a slice of lemon peel gets a different name, Carte Blanche, and broadly speaking that's how the novel develops; Fleming's original, with a slightly different twist.

An example: CIA agent Felix Leiter appears in a support role, because that's how these things are done. At one point Leiter is threatened with death by crusher, his limbs dangling just that bit too close to the mangle. Instantly a Bond fan's mind turns to Live and Let Die where, in the novel, Leiter loses an arm and a leg, but still appears in later stories with prosthetic limbs. Will this be the moment, I wonder, when Deaver's Leiter gets his cyber upgrade? They're doing all kinds of things with artificial limbs these days ...

On the whole I enjoyed it, though I think there are too many changes here to satisfy a Bond purist, and there are elements of the story that make little or no sense. Take the support character Gregory Lamb, a British agent from MI6 sent to back up Bond. He has very little personality, appears only in a few scenes, and departs in a way that seems remarkably out of his established character; moreover, from the moment he arrives to the moment he departs he does nothing interesting, nor does he affect the plot in any way. I had to wonder whether Deaver really thought the character through, or whether he was hastily shoehorned in to solve a plot problem. Maybe someone won a place in the book through a charity lottery and Deaver didn't know what to do with him?

But this isn't a book review. I want to talk about a very cool scene about halfway through, and how it relates to Night's Black Agents.

The setting is Cape Town, South Africa. Bond is trying to pass himself off as a successful mercenary, to worm his way into the villains' confidence. He goes to the head villain's office, makes his pitch, and then says he has some pictures the head villain might be interested in. But Bond doesn't have those on him; they're back at Bond's office. Bond offers to email the .jpegs to the head villain, but the main henchman says no: go to your office, get them, and bring them back here.

Bond obediently does just that, and then the henchman says to the head villain: I don't trust this guy's story. Let's go to his supposed office, which I bet he doesn't have, and catch him in his lie. Which they do, only to find that Bond really does have an office, complete with staff, in this case South African police who Bond has brought on board thanks to what Night's Black Agents would call his Network contacts.

It's a brilliant scene, and immediately made me wonder how something similar could be achieved in Night's Black Agents.

To begin with, kudos to Deaver's Bond for actually having an honest to God cover identity. Usually he marches in under the name Bond, from Universal Export, and somehow nobody ever questions it. But let's consider this from a mechanical perspective, using Cover, Network and Preparedness.

Cover and Network are two pools that don't work the same way as other General pools. Both begin with high ratings that the player doesn't have to pay for - 10 Cover, 15 Network - and neither refresh. Instead the player has to buy them back with experience points.

Cover represents your agent's cover identities, and the stronger the investment, the stronger the cover. So if you invest 4 Cover points to create a pool in a particular identity, it's a pretty good cover. Whenever you do something that would test that Cover - cross a border, gain admission to restrictive areas - then you make a Difficulty test, usually 4, and you can spend from that newly created pool to bolster your chances. Failure means that something has gone wrong, but it's up to the Director what that means. [There is one Cherry that might affect Cover: if your Disguise rating is 8 or more you have Connected Cover, which means you can establish a cover identity that is both plausible and also related to your target in some way.]

Network is your pool of professional contacts, and like Cover the strength of each contact will depend on the amount of points spent on the contact. So in Carte Blanche, Felix Leiter is one of Bond's network contacts, in whom Bond's player probably put a lot of points bearing in mind how useful Leiter is to Bond. In the scene described above the leader of the South African police is also a Network contact, but one in whom Bond's player didn't put a lot of points, since this NPC challenges Bond in several different scenes and refuses to back him up at least once. Difficulty for Network tests depends on Heat; Heat is the amount of attention the authorities, usually the police, are paying to your character.

Preparedness is the game's equivalent to Monopoly's Get Out of Jail Free card. You use this ability whenever you see an opportunity to gain an advantage, or get out of a bad situation, explaining it away as a clever plan you thought of earlier but didn't mention until now.

So in this scene Bond blew a Cover check. Maybe he got overconfident and didn't spend points, only to have that magic number One turn up. What happens next?

The temptation on the Director's side is to turn this into a complete disaster, Han Solo style. That said, Deaver's solution to the problem shows that not every failure ends in failure. True, Bond failed the check. However the villains didn't draw weapons and gun him down on the spot, nor was his Cover completely blown. The failed roll merely meant they were suspicious, and decided to investigate further.

Now, from a game perspective, all the Director needs to say is, 'You're pretty sure [thanks to Tradecraft, Bullshit Detector or what have you] that they didn't believe your story, and will check on it.' If the player wants her character's Cover to hold up in future tests, she needs to do something about this. Otherwise the Difficulty in later scenes may be more than her Cover can handle, and that could be very bad if she happens to be behind enemy lines or in the major villain's lair at the time.

In game terms, I would suggest that unless the Cover is repaired all Difficulty tests for Cover checks go up by the amount of Heat that the group has generated. Which is about the time that the group may really regret stealing all those cars or blowing up those police stations, but that's just tough luck, really.

Bond's solution is a mixture of Preparedness, Reassurance and Network. This could be handled as a special Tactical Fact Finding Benefit, which for the purpose of this example I'm going to call The Big Store.

A Tactical Fact Finding Benefit relies on four attributes: the tactical ability needed to find the information, the action required, the circumstance under which the benefit comes into play, and the nature of the benefit.

In this instance the tactical ability can be Reassurance, which tends to be the con artist Investigative ability. I can see an argument for using Data Recovery as well, but Reassurance seems the obvious way to go.

The action required is this: the character creates an imaginary office, business or agency. This office exists in the virtual world on a 1 point spend plus a Difficulty 3 Digital Intrusion check, or in both virtual and reality on a 2 point spend plus a Difficulty 4 Preparedness check. In the virtual world it has a website, a history, possibly even a TripAdvisor rating if applicable. If it exists in the real world it also has an address and a small number of staff. If the target visits this Store, or just looks at it online, it seems in every way to be a genuine entity. The Director may wish to set limits on the Store, to avoid players claiming to own a huge multinational corporation that nobody ever heard of until five minutes ago. But that's up to the Director.

In Deaver's example, the office has a couple rooms and three or four staff. That's about right. So we're talking about a small operation, possibly a business like a diamond dealer's, a software developer, or small bed-and-breakfast hotel. There's nothing stopping a player from claiming to have a business somewhere other than the character's current location, so a character in Dublin can claim to own a pub in New York, no problem.

If the Store exists in the real world and the on-site staff are to be badasses in disguise, then there ought to be a Network spend to create those badassess. Otherwise they're regular civilians. Probably temps hired for the day, possibly criminals, but in any case they won't suddenly reveal themselves to be marksmen or Martial Artists. Nor will they fling themselves, lemming-style, in front of a bullet to save a character. If used as Mook Shields there probably ought to be a Stability penalty, since they really didn't deserve it.

The Big Store is used to bolster Cover. A grifter would use a Big Store to con a mark, using Cover to foster the mark's belief that the grifter really is who he says he is. The player's doing exactly the same thing.

So the benefit, which is the final point to consider, is this: the Difficulty for Cover tests in one scene is reduced by 3.

In context, going back to Bond, the scene plays like this:

Bond flubs his initial Cover check. He knows the villain is suspicious. So Bond establishes a Big Store, using Preparedness to make that possible since this is probably a 2 point spend situation. The reduced Difficulty is then used to make another Cover check in a new scene - remember, Difficulty increased by Heat and then reduces by the Store - and if this one succeeds, then the Difficulty of all future checks is no longer increased by the amount of Heat the group has generated. It drops back to 4, and Bond breaths a sigh of relief.

I hope that all makes sense! It's an expensive TFFB, so most players aren't going to try this every time they deal with an obnoxious bureaucrat at passport control. But for those moments when you're dealing with someone really important, like the major villain or a significant henchman, the Store can be the difference between a Cover that works, and a trip to the river with concrete shoes on your feet.

As far as Carte Blanche is concerned, if you're a Bond purist then you probably oughtn't to pick it up, as it may frustrate you. However there's plenty of fun to be had here, as well as some ideas for a Director to steal. I particularly recommend Bond's solution to a problem that Fleming never tackled: what to do if you capture, rather than kill, the villain. And no, that's not a spoiler. It's a Bond novel; you didn't think Bond was going to lose, did you? Deaver hasn't published any other Bond novels, but if he does, they may be worth seeking out.


Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Battleground of the Mind (Bookhounds of London)

In this ongoing series on Bookhounds campaign design, so far I've talked about the setting, why a bookstore should be either Spring or Winter, and what the first arc might look like. Now I want to take a step back and talk about another concept, borrowed in part from Ars Magica but also from Ken Hite's KWAS Mind Control: the Regio.

In Ars Magica, a Regio is a place of power. It draws its power from one of several possible spiritual sources: the Infernal, the Divine, Faerie, or Magic. More than one region is called a regiones, and in situations where multiple regiones are layered one on top of the other, a peculiar thing happens. Two people can stand in the same place at the same time, and yet be in two different versions of that same place.

Take a horror setting regiones, for example: a ruined castle. On the lowest level, which everyone can see, it is exactly that: a ruined castle. Faintly forbidding, and probably a bit nasty to hang around in for any length of time. It has a nasty reputation, and perhaps bad things happen there from time to time. But even with that, people who look at it see just the ruined castle.

At the next highest level, things change. It's still a ruined castle, but now the eerie quotient is raised. Strange noises, peculiar lights, odd weather effects, even unusual animals or ordinary animals that behave in an unusual way. Someone not in the regio, but looking at the castle from afar, would see none of these things. Someone near the castle, but not on that level, also does not see these things. However they don't see anyone on the next highest level either, nor do the people in the next highest level see them.

At the third level, things change still further. Now perhaps the castle is less ruined than it first appeared. It might not be completely rebuilt, but that tower where everyone says the old Baron used to torture his captives is intact. Also, the eerie effects increase in intensity, and achieve a kind of physicality not seen before. Old bloodstains become fresh blood. Faint moans become ear-piercing shrieks, and corpses which long ago went to dust have physical form. Moreover if there's any entity here capable of posing a physical threat, that entity exists and can harm people on this level of the regiones.

AD&D's Ravenloft setting played with a very similar concept, calling it a Sinkhole of Evil. As with the regiones, a Sinkhole exists on multiple levels of consciousness, but here the Sinkholes are Ranked in terms of the event that created them. A Sinkhole of Rank 1 can be created by intense emotions. A Rank 2 can be created by emotions and a particular evil event, say the spot where a murder occurred. A Rank 3 can be created by emotions and a prolonged event or series of events, such as a torture session that lasts several days. A Rank 4 can be created by emotions, prolonged activity and a remarkable event, such as the sacrifice of multiple people at an unholy chapel over a period of years. A Rank 5 is the most monstrous, the kind of thing reserved for battlefields where the hopes and youth of warring nations were sacrificed to no good end. The scarred landscape of the Somme or Passchendaele, in a game based in our world, could be a Rank 5 Sinkhole.

Leaping to the KWAS, Ken Hite suggests something interesting: a conflict of the mind, in which the players battle for control of the Superego, Ego, and Id. With each conquest the conqueror becomes bolder and more powerful, meaning that resistance to future conflicts is at a penalty. Here is a situation in which the evil is, quite literally, within. But like the regio, and like the Sinkhole, it exists on a completely different level: it's a fight that cannot be seen from the outside, which is being powered by something unspeakably evil, and which can do incredible damage all without being seen by anyone not directly involved in the situation.

With that I propose the overarching plot of the Bookhounds campaign: the return of the Comte d'Erlette, author of the Cultes des Ghoules, through the flesh of a player character.

The Comte laid plans for this long ago. Through his book - bound in human skin, one of the special volumes - he laid the seed. He's been waiting a very long time for someone to find it, touch it, even read it, and now he has that someone. There was a time when Etienne du Bourg was the target, but Etienne forestalled that plan by dying - and really, was his death an accident, or did Etienne decide suicide was the better way out? Since then, the Comte has waited patiently for the right candidate.

Along come the protagonists.

This shall be a battle of the minds, that takes place at intervals during the plot. In each instance the Comte goes after the geography of the mind, striking out at the Superego, Ego, and Id. If successful, the Comte gets a new body, and with it a new lease on life.

Exactly which player gets the dubious honor of becoming a target will depend largely on circumstance. Is there a protagonist who has paid special attention to the book? Then the choice is obvious. Otherwise it will be up to the Keeper to decide who's first on the list, but if, say, someone should have the bad manners to die before Mind Control can be achieved, then the Comte sighs and moves on to the next likely target.

To look at, each layer of the target's mind exactly resembles the Bookstore, du Bourg's. Except different somehow, in odd little ways. A level 1 might be slightly unusual, feature NPCs who no longer exist - because they died - or have doors that will not open. A level 2 has doors which do open, and the protagonists may devoutly wish that they did not. Strange and terrible creatures may stalk the halls. Odd landscapes may be seen out the windows. A level 3 is completely beyond the bounds of reality. There is no outside world in this scenario, and you cannot trust any door to lead where you think it ought to.

Movement from reality to the mental realm may be as easy as stepping from one room to the next. The target simply discovers that, when she emerges from the stockroom laden with books that a customer asked for, not only is the customer not there but neither is anyone else. That signals the start of a mental attack, but as to when it ends ... ah, there's the rub.

How to get the other players involved? Well there are two obvious ways. First, the target can create the other characters in her mind, using them as mental bodyguards. The other players take over the role of those bodyguards, and play them as usual. Perhaps they have slightly unusual appearances; someone she always thought had a fish-face, say, now really is a fish, in a much-patched suit and cheap cravat.. But fundamentally they are the same people with the same suite of abilities. This option allows the Keeper to use lethal force without troubling his conscience too much about whether a character lives or dies. A mental construct, after all, can die multiple times - theoretically, anyway.

The other option is to use magic. If the characters on the outside find their companion standing mute and apparently senseless, the victim of a mental attack, they can use, say, Idiosyncratic Magic to get into their friend's mindscape. From there the game plays out as normal, only without the multiple deaths. One is quite enough.

As to how this might play out, that will wait for future posts, I feel.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Battlefield 1 Reveal Trailer - Historical Jibber Jabber

It's rare I have something drop in from the mystic land of videogames that's so firmly in my wheelhouse as Battlefield 1, the latest iteration in the warfare FPS franchise from Electronic Arts. As I'm busy working on an Esoterror project - more later - I thought I'd use the trailer as a mental cleanser, popping in from time to time to give my thoughts on it when I want a break from the project.

Little is known about the game itself. It's set in the Great War. It's already been revealed that the Harlem Hellfighters, the black American (or perhaps that ought to be French, since the Americans wouldn't let them fight under the Stars and Stripes) regiment, will be a significant part of the game. Allegedly you'll be able to pilot tanks, planes and battleships as well as engage in ground combat. Not entirely sure why, since naval warfare really wasn't a thing in the Great War; everyone stayed home after Jutland. It might have been more interesting to give the players submarines. But what the hell.

With that in mind, the trailer:

First thought: the music's OK, but I would have preferred at least a nod to the tunes of the time rather than leap in with White Stripes. Eh, whatever.

0.08: trench warfare. Looking accurate so far.

0.09-11: desert warfare. Cool, the game's looking beyond the usual Trench Warfare stuff. Apparently that's a woman riding at the charge. Fair do. Not sure about the henna face tattoo; I thought that mehndi was more of a festivals/weddings tradition, than a 'let's stab people up and look good doing it' thing. Also, face tattoo? Is that what traditional mehndi's for?

0.14-0.17: back to the trenches again. Not sure when this is. I'm going to cross my fingers and say  1917-18. It's remarkable that everyone's striding around upright given the snipers, shrapnel and machine gun nests everywhere.

0.18-0.21: only one flyer used an all-red crate, and he didn't crash into what looks like a desert outcropping. Also, triplanes in the desert, what the hell. There was air warfare in the desert, but they used clapped-out hand-me-downs from the Western Front, not the latest and most modern kit. Plus I'm getting muddy about the timeline. If that's a tripe then this is probably 1917. So what's that remarkably intact building doing there? Why does everything look comparatively nice and not bombed to hell and gone?

0.25: Tanks? In the desert? Bullshit. Plus, if those are tanks, then this is 1918. They're working remarkably well, under the circumstances. The early tanks didn't like mud; God knows what those delicate little darlings would have made of sand, sand, sand as far as the eye can see. It's bad enough trying mechanized warfare in the desert in the present day. Those things would have gone two foot, coughed, and died.

0.034: I have absolutely no idea where we are. Italy? Maybe? It's the only explanation for why everything looks so green and verdant.

0.36: onwards, yeah, forget it. Not a clue. Most of it's trench warfare, some of it's sea warfare - again, that all came to a halt after Jutland - a chunk of it's air warfare, and I couldn't begin to tell when or where this is meant to be. Except there are tanks. So presumably 1918, Western Front. Except those are British tanks attacking what seems to be a British, or possibly American, position. Well done, lads. Medals for everyone. Historical note: the Germans did have tanks, but they never really got the chance to use them, except for one inconclusive little scrap in April 1918.

0.54-56: A zeppelin? What on earth for? Those things were a joke by 1918. You might as well send in Charlie Chaplin.

1.01: well, it's all over now, and I don't have to listen to that Godawful music. Thank Christ.

Impressions: it's traditional at this point to scream 'no gameplay' at the top of your voice, but in this case I think the criticism isn't as on-point as it could be. This is EA, after all, and Battlefield is one of its showcase warfare FPS titles. Unless someone screws up dramatically the gameplay will be solid but uninspired, because it is always solid but uninspired. Equally if there was anything really interesting it would be in the trailer, and it isn't. So nothing to look forward to, or to worry about.

It's just cinema, and not even very interesting cinema. It's unusual to see a Great War themed game, but there have been a few of those recently - Valiant Hearts, for instance - so it's not a complete shocker. I predict a bland and uninspiring single player experience tacked onto what is probably intended to be a multiplayer extravaganza that will last until the servers go dark. So maybe two years.

It's odd. There's been a bunch of multiplayer titles recently - Destiny, the Division, whatever that bloody silly mecha titans game was a year or two back - and all of them seem to be aiming for roughly the same market. Presumably someone out there is praying for a Team Fortress 2 success-level title, rather than the withered fruit that drops off the twig these days. But these things cost a fortune and if they're all leeching from the same customer base I don't know how the hell they're meant to make a profit.

Mind you, these are all made by the same small handful of AAA developers, and that might be the point. As the audience for Titanfall dwindles repurpose the servers for whatever Battlefield title is coming up the pipe, and that way you seldom have to worry about underutilized assets.  

Final verdict: historically wobbly justification for what's very likely to be Just Another Shooter. Collector's Edition pre-order at $220-odd (Jesus Wept), but that includes the statue and other gimmicks which nobody in their right mind needs, and you know in your heart that any DLC in the pre-order will eventually be released for everyone to buy sometime after launch. I note that the Desert War and Red Baron packs seem to be separate assets, so presumably if you just buy the core game you only play in the trenches.

Incidentally what the hell is it with pre-order rubbish? I liked feelies back in the day; the cloth map you got with Ultima III Exodus was part of the fun, and had in-game relevance. But the monkeys have taken over the zoo. Who needs yet another dust-bunny up on the mantelpiece, gawping down at the living room like a senile relative at a bar mitzvah? Just how stupid is the average consumer, anyway?

Don't answer that.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Tale of Terror, Vampire Style (Night's Black Agents)

I've been buried in an Esoterror project, so I didn't post anything last week. I know, I'm evil. But then, so is Esoterror, so I guess that works out in the end. More or less?

If you're a Call of Cthulhu fan from way back then you probably remember the Tales of Terror. The Tales are short adventure seeds, with three possible outcomes. The intent being to let the Keeper and players riff on the basic premise, and use one of the three outcomes as the core of the encounter. The old Unspeakable Oath used to print these fairly regularly, but I've no idea what's going on with the Oath these days. I know there's a podcast, but I don't really follow the site any more.

However one quick glance over there shows that it does still publish Tales every so often, so if you're still unclear as to the concept then here's an example written by S Cogswill.

With that in mind, let's tear something from the headlines and use that as a basis for a Night's Black Agents Tale of Terror.

Here's a good one: Pile Up On French Road After 'People Smugglers' Shot At In Police Chase.

"Belgian police opened fire during a cross-border chase with suspected people smugglers driving a car with a British number plate, resulting in a pile-up on a motorway in northern France.
At about 5am on Thursday, a lorry driver in Belgium called local police saying that smugglers had tried to get 17 people into his truck and that he and other drivers had been threatened with a knife, the French paper La Voix du Nord reported.

When police intervened, the suspects sped off by car, first hitting a Belgian police car, then heading on the motorway towards northern France."

For the rest of the article, click on the link.

From there we get to:

Possibility One: Botched Rescue. The so-called people smugglers are actually trying to save the seventeen 'smuggled' victims. These people were being held at a Conspiracy site in Belgium, for reasons the characters don't yet know - blood banks, biological agent testing, Satanic ritual, something else - and their rescuers did their best to get them across the border. However it all went wrong in the worst possible way, and the rescuers panicked and ran. It did not end well. Now there's seventeen people in a detention center who may, at any moment, be stolen back by the Conspiracy, never mind their two would-be rescuers currently in police custody. What next? Character Link: One of the rescuers is a character's Network contact, or even Solace.

Possibility Two: Node Fratricide. Two Nodes within the Conspyramid are fighting, as described in Double Tap. One of those Nodes is in the people smuggling business, and its rival tips off the police. The result is much messier than anyone predicted, because the people smugglers panicked and ran. Now the characters are in an excellent position to exploit the situation, either keeping pressure on the damaged people smuggling Node, or letting the people smugglers point the characters at the other Node, as revenge. Character Link: Either one of the police is a Network contact, or one of the people smugglers is an already established dramatically important character, possibly a foil for one of the player characters.

Possibility Three: Blown Op. Among the people being smuggled is an operative on the run, who was hoping that the smugglers would be able to get him/her across the border after the operative built up too much Heat. However increased police vigilance, thanks to the Heat, led to the car chase and subsequent disaster. Now the operative is in real trouble, and the only hope is that someone gets the operative out before the opposition catch up. Character Link: The characters are gathered as an ad-hoc rescue team, or possibly a snatch team unknowingly working for the opposition, by a friendly Asset Handler. This op needs to happen fast; in a few hours the operative will be moved from a holding cell to somewhere much more secure. In an Edom Files game, the operative is Edom and so are the rescuers.

Why do this? Well, because it's fun, obviously. But also because it serves a useful purpose. There are going to be times when the Director is at a loose end, or the plot seems temporarily derailed by circumstances beyond the Director's control. While waiting for inspiration, the Director can use a Tale of Terror as an easy bridging point between the current impasse and the next significant plot development.

Besides, they're easy to do. All you need is a good headline for inspiration, and from that come up with three reasons as to why those events will interest the characters. After that, let the players go nuts. They're probably going to go nuts anyway, so what the heck.

On that note, since the headlines have been so useful this week, let's have another:

Oil Tanker Washes Up on Liberia Beach with No Crew or Lifeboats

"An abandoned oil tanker has washed up on the shores of Liberia in west Africa, prompting an investigation - and speculation over the fate of the ship's crew.

The Tamaya 1, which is registered in Panama, ran aground on a beach near Robertsport earlier this week, apparently without a crew or lifeboats. On Thursday the Liberia national police and bureau of immigration inspected the ship, days after local residents first discovered it on the beach.

The 64-meter (210ft) tanker's last known position was on 21 April near Gambia and Senegal, according to shipping site Marine Traffic - well north of Liberia along the west African coast. The ship was en route to the Senegalese port of Dakar, according to the site."

Panama registers nearly 20% of the world's merchant fleet. Panama is an open registry, also known as a flag of convenience, and has been since the 1920s. If your ship is Panamanian registered, Panamanian laws apply; this is often done by ship owners to reduce costs, particularly labor, but also the cost of keeping up with environmental regulations. Critics claim open flag jurisdictions are hotbeds of crime and terrorism.

Liberia, the Land of the Free, is still suffering from the effects of the civil war, and rebel leader Charles Taylor's excesses. As of 2005 the constitutional republic is led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but it's an uphill struggle. Trial by ordeal is not uncommon in rural districts, and corruption is endemic at all levels of government.

With all that in mind:

Possibility One: Asset On The Run Perhaps it's one of Edom's SBA's, a Conspiracy entity gone rogue, or an escapee from one of the other interested parties' weapons programs. Whichever it is, it's loose, and is doing its best to stay free. A lot of very powerful (and peculiar) people are suddenly very interested in Liberia, and agents are being sent in to see what happened to that escaped asset. Character Link: The agents have faced this particular asset before, but now the tables have turned the asset may be more amenable to moral 'suasion. Or, a Network contact in Liberia is very worried about some of the stories coming in from the hinterlands, and asks for help.

Possibility Two: Stage One of the Master Plan. The Conspiracy is planning something big, really big. The Liberian operation is either a test run, or the first stage in what amounts to a vampiric coup, taking out the democratically elected government and replacing it with a catspaw. Why? Well, Liberia's asset-rich, but perhaps there's something else out there that the Conspiracy really can't do without. Works best with Mutant or Alien vampire types. Character Link: This is it. If the agents are ever going to find out what the Conspiracy is all about, Libera's the place to be.

Possibility Three: Panamanian Shenanigans The Conspiracy's Node in Panama is shipping dangerous materials across the globe, and this time something went very badly wrong. Now that Node is scrambling to cover up the mess, and has hired mercenaries, or a science team backed up by mercenaries, to deal with whatever-it-is that's loose in Liberia. Character Link: One of those mercenaries is a Network contact, possibly a Solace. Alternatively one of the people the mercenary team comes into conflict with is a Network contact or Solace.


Sunday, 24 April 2016

Not Quite Review Corner: Fallen London (Failbetter Games)

Welcome, delicious friend! I can see by the fetters on your ankles and the threadbare quality of your clothing that you are a recent arrival to our moonlit shores. Let me tell you about our famous, forsaken and Fallen London, in which you now reside. Pull up a chair - mind the weasel, he bites - and take some honey, if you please. You may be here some time.

Failbetter Games' Fallen London has been doing great business as a browser game, but this week it opened up for business on the App Store, for those of you with iPhones, iPads, and iMushroomWine. I was a big fan of it on browser, but I dropped out a while ago, so when it reappeared on the iStore I figured it was worth a return ticket to the Stygian Depths. Now here I am to tell you about it, like an explorer returned from savage shores.

Fallen London is a story game. You are a new-fledged inhabitant of this subterranean copy of London, a shadow of the magnificent city that was, dragged underground long ago by devils. Or possibly cats. Opinions vary. In any case, here you are, and the question is, what do you do about it? Vagrancy is a punishable offence, so to avoid prison you'd better find a place to live, which means better clothes, which means some kind of career ... and before you know it you're deeply mired in the plots, politics and tragedies of this Victorian Gothic, Steampunk-ish (heavy on the ish) nightmare realm.

It's entirely up to you what you do with your time. So far, to give you a taste, I've written a well-received book about mushroom cultivation, followed it up with a short story and a commissioned piece about the delights of honey, seduced a honey-sipping heiress (it did not end well), caught cats to learn their many secrets, and dealt decisively with two monster rats that had been terrorizing the populace and eating small children.

I prefer a sedate life, so I've taken up rooms above a bookstore - having paid for it with secrets won from the aforementioned cats - and currently wander the streets, humbugs in hand, looking for adventure, and inspiration for my next masterpiece. Also, I need wine. The 1882, if you please, for in secret I'm an amateur cracksman of the Raffles variety, and I'm on the track of a diamond as big as your head. I've hit a stumbling block; my contact demands payment if I'm to carry on in my quest, and will take nothing other than a crate of 30 bottles of the 1882. So far I've won 10, thanks to my honey-sipping heiress, and though I could buy the remaining 20, I prefer to get it for free if I can. The search continues.

It's a Dreamlands-style Gothic RPG, and Keepers looking for inspiration for their Arabesque Bookhounds games need look no further. Or just looking for a few minutes' diversion. It's the kind of thing that can easily drag you in and keep you there, mainly because the quality of writing is superb. This really is a winding, crafty, engrossing epic. The teaser I gave you doesn't cover the half of it, not even the smallest crumb, the slightest mite.

Pity about the mechanics, then, because they do their best to spoil what's otherwise an enjoyable experience.

You play by spending a series of action points, deciding which of the many plot threads to follow. It's usually one point per plot decision; sometimes a little more, but not much. You get 20 action points total, which refresh at one point per minute or so back up to 20. Though there are other important mechanics I'm going to focus on the action point system, because this - combined with its eternal desire to sync - is where Fallen London really lets itself down.

Everything has to sync with Failbetter's server. That means when you boot the app it takes about one to three minutes before you can do anything, as it checks for new images, new sounds, and so on. I'm not entirely sure why. If Failbetter was producing new content every hour on the hour it might make a little sense, but I'm pretty sure it isn't. So nine times out of ten the sync gets no new data, but that doesn't stop it eating one to three minutes worth of time before you can do anything fun.

My pet peeve is that it syncs for new sounds. I have this on my iPad, and one of the first things I do is mute the sound for nearly every game I own. This is because I play iPad games on the go, it being a mobile device and all, and I don't want it bleeping and burbling away when I'm, say, at the pub. It's not as if the sounds are absolutely integral to the experience, like Left4Dead, when the difference between you living and dying can depend on you picking up audio cues. It's just a nice-to-have, and it irks me that each time it boots the game spends thirty seconds or so trying to find new sounds that I will never, ever hear.

Moreover if your connection isn't that great - and mine isn't always, particularly when there's atmospheric interference - the game can quietly die behind that loading screen. Never syncing, it just tells you to wait. And wait. And wait. As I write this, the app has spent the last two hours syncing. Eventually it will realize something is wrong, and reboot. In its own sweet time. And then it will want to sync again.

Once in, the sync then interferes with the action point system. You see, the action point refresh doesn't depend on time passing, or at least not just on time passing. It also depends on that sync, I suspect because the home server and not the mobile device's internal clock tells it when the action points have refreshed. This may mean that ten minutes will go by, or longer, with no refresh, because the home server hasn't told the app that you have points to spend.

When I first downloaded the game, I had to work out a way to trick the system to get it to refresh action points. Since then things seem to have changed in the last update, for there is an actual, honest to Murgatroyd, Push This Button To Sync Your Progress button. Allelujah. It's a bit well-hidden, though. Hint: tap the candle icon, and you'll bring up a menu. That menu will lead you to the Promised Land. Better late than never, and no, I don't know how you're supposed to figure that out on your own.

Speaking of figuring things out on your own, how much cash does my character have? Not the foggiest. I know what I can afford, because a little Buy icon flashes up whenever I go to the shops and see something I might be able to purchase. But I never know how much is in my wallet, so I don't know how much I need to save or earn before I can buy the thing I want to buy. Or how much I will have left after I've bought something.

Here's an odd one. The other morning I sold some gear and purchased a mask. Then I went into town to get some work done, and while there I stopped to check my account. Mask? What mask? It's not in my inventory. Where can it ... oh. Not only is the mask not in my inventory, but the rubbish I sold to get the mask is back in my inventory. The thing must have forgotten to tell the home server what I did this morning, so now I have to do it all again.

Or my current home, my rooms above a bookshop which I had to interrogate cats to be able to afford. I was so pleased to purchase that key from the land agents, but despite purchasing it, I had no key in my inventory. It existed; a trip back to the land agents confirmed that, but the land agents wouldn't let me activate the key from there. I had to activate it in my inventory. But it wasn't in my inventory. I'm still not sure what happened, but I think that because I bought the key while I was in the middle of a story the app couldn't put the key in my inventory until I backed out of the story. Then it allowed me to take possession of the key I'd bought ten minutes earlier, and I could move in. Guess how I spent those lost ten minutes. No, the answer isn't "having fun."

I can just about understand why Failbetter wants the game to constantly link to the home server. It must make it easier to craft the ongoing story and update the plot threads, as well as keep track of the player base.

Even so, I'm having a lot of trouble understanding why Failbetter wanted the server, rather than the app, to handle most of the admin side of things. It adds a layer of frustration to the experience that almost makes me want to quit the game. After all, this is a text-based experience, with some basic random number generation mechanics. Surely the app could have handled most of this on its own, without screaming for mummy to tie its shoelaces every five minutes.

I can only think Failbetter preferred total control via server because this is what Failbetter is used to, but hosting most of the day-to-day on the mobile device rather than the server seems to me at least to have been the better option. Even if it meant having what amounts to two separate player groups, one on the server and one in the mobile space.  Better that than have the mobile space continually feel like the red-headed stepchild.

Frankly, if the story wasn't masterfully crafted, I'd have quit a long time ago. It's a testament to Failbetter's writing team that I want to fight past this dilemma, but the game badly needs a fix. Other games get past this with weekly updates. If it only sync'd with the server once a day, and did it automatically like a podcast update without waiting for me to activate the app, would that really be so bad?

Incidentally if you think I'm being harsh, trust me when I say I had a much harsher review all written, but that the recent update mollified me somewhat. Otherwise this piece would have involved much more swearing, and possibly a burnt building or two.

Honestly, I want you to play this game. When it works, it's the best kind of fun: engrossing, well-crafted, thoroughly entertaining. It's Flashman crossed with Sherlock Holmes and more than a dash of Doctor Moreau, with all the addled dreamscape a Dali or Brunel could wish for. Moreover it manages the rare trick of being a social game without pestering you for all your contact information, demanding money with menaces, or insisting that you invite friends to get the best experience. As a browser game, it's brilliant. But then, as a browser game it's got a direct connect; it doesn't have to sync with the mother ship every time it tries to use its brain.

It's just heartbreaking. If I didn't like Fallen London as much as I did, I wouldn't be as frustrated by the app. Things have improved since launch, but in spite of the improvements I would be very wary about recommending this title.

Wait a week. Possibly two. Then have a go.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Carnacki: The Find (Bookhounds)

Borrowing from the greats is a worthwhile endeavor, particularly if you're a Keeper looking for source material. William Hope Hodgson is definitely one of the greats, and his character Carnacki the Ghost-Finder is even contemporaneous (broadly, anyway) with a Bookhounds game. So this time out I'm going to steal from one of Hodgson's least loved stories: The Find.

The Find is about a suspected book forgery. A rare and valuable tome turns up, surprising the academic community since only one was supposed to exist, and that copy is safely tucked away in a museum. If genuine, this is an incredibly valuable find. Yet the Elizabethan author, Lord Welbeck, went to great lengths to make absolutely sure there was only one copy, and would only ever be one copy. Then the second copy is thoroughly checked, and proved beyond question to be a genuine item. So what happened?

The reason why this is thought to be the least interesting Carnacki story is because Carnacki's famous for ghost finding, and there are no ghosts in this one, nor even the least hint of the supernatural. However as a story it's well crafted, and it's hardly Hodgson's fault that his audience didn't want a Carnacki story without ghosts in it.

Spoilers ahoy:

The museum copy is the fake, and the 'unexpected find' is the museum copy. The faker reasoned that nobody would check the museum copy as closely as the new one, and switched his fraud for the museum's book. However the fun bit is in how he was able to make a convincing fake:

"I can only suppose that he must have come across a dummy copy of the Acrostics in some way or other, possibly in the bundle of books he says he picked up at the Bentloes' sale. The blank-paper dummy of the book would be made up by the printers and bookbinders so as to enable Lord Welbeck to see how the Acrostics would bind up and bulk. The method is common in the publishing trade, as you know. The binding may be an exact duplicate of what the finished article will be but the inside is nothing but blank paper of the same thickness and quality as that on which the book will be printed. In this way a publisher can see beforehand just how the book will look."

And so a scenario is born.

In the ongoing campaign design for Bookhounds, the characters finish the first arc by discovering a copy of Cultes des Ghoules. In fact they discover two, making them the luckiest occult book dealers in London. Surely this counts as a shop Windfall?

At which point you, as Keeper, step in with a third copy of Cultes. This copy has athropodermic binding, making it the rarest of the rare. Moreover this copy is in the hands of one of du Bourg's most hated rivals in the trade, and the rivals are loudly proclaiming the du Bourg books to be obvious fakes. After all, this is one of the rarest tomes out there, and now those liars at du Bourg's claim to have two? Absurd!

So the characters go from a potential Windfall to a Reverse, as the hated rivals blacken the shop's reputation. Of course, the rivals' copy is the fake, but it seems completely genuine. Made in period style, on period paper, and of course since we're stealing from Carnacki it is exactly what it seems to be, so far as binding and paper goes. Naturally this is because the rival got hold of a printer's copy of Cultes with blank pages. The rival then got a forger to come up with the text, using as close an approximation to period style and ink as possible. The exact nature of the text (and its source) is Keeper's choice; perhaps the hated rival borrowed from a Mythos tome, or perhaps it's just mumbo-jumbo, however convincing the exterior may be.

The anthropodermic binding is something the Comte d'Erlette did himself, and there's where the rival might come a cropper, because it will have to fake that. Unless the rival actually went out and murdered someone, bribed medical students or undertakers are the likely source of the binding material.

Why do this? Well, consider what happened at the end of the last arc. The players hopefully succeeded against significant odds, but it's going to be one of those successes that spills intestines and gore all over the shop. Someone's house probably burnt down. A character or two may have expired messily. What you need after an experience like that is a brief period of cool-down.

One scenario - and only one - in which nothing very awful happens is a good thing. It lets the characters take a breath, and lets the players regroup. The wounded have time to heal, and anyone who got packed off to an asylum has time to mend their fractured psyches. Maybe they even start planning for the future. But most importantly it lets people role-play and develop their characters in relative safety. That gives you levers to play with in future scenarios.

Also, from a game economy perspective, this particular scenario gives the Keeper a means of keeping cash flow under control. Theoretically the characters could sell the Cultes for a fortune, but not if everyone thinks that the du Bourg copies are fakes. Even if the rival's copy is shown to be a fraud, enough mud will have been slung to make the du Bourg editions seem dubious. So no Windfall for them, but if they play their cards right it isn't a Reverse.

So who is this hated rival? To be a successful rival it ought to have power equivalent to, if not greater than, du Bourg's. Taking the Winter and Spring tropes discussed earlier, this shop ought to be at least a Summer, possibly Autumn store. I wouldn't use either power level for a PC shop, but for a Keeper-controlled rival it's perfectly fine. Its Credit Rating ought to be one higher than du Bourg's, and its experts ought to be roughly on a par with the player characters. It may have appeared earlier in the campaign, but in any case it will be appearing with greater frequency in the upcoming arc. This scenario serves as its introduction, if it wasn't introduced earlier.

I'm not going to design a hated rival here. That's best left to you, since the rival ought to mirror the players' version of du Bourg's in many ways and thus, without knowing what the players did to make du Bourg's their own, designing the rival is a little pointless. In any case you already have enough to go on.

However since I'm probably going to be referring to the rival in future posts, rather than keep saying The Rival every so often as if this is a Mills & Boon bodice ripper, I'm going to call it Bentloes. Again, borrowing from Carnacki. And why not, after all?

That's it for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Hello, Vicar (Bookhounds of London, Trail of Cthulhu)

I've been mainlining the Merrily Watkins, Deliverance Consultant series by Phil Rickman. I've been a fan of his ever since discovering his horror novels, donkey's years ago, and I highly recommend them if you can find them. That may be difficult; I'm not sure any of them are in print any more. However the Watkins series is still going strong, and I now discover that ITV filmed a serial which will go worldwide release this year. That's a must-see for me, and I highly recommend it to you.

It occurred to me that, since for the last few weeks I've been discussing Bookhounds, it might be interesting to talk about the Church of England, particularly since those outside the UK may not fully appreciate its position within the social fabric.

Everyone knows this bit: once upon a time, King Henry VIII decided divorce was just the thing he needed, and since the Catholics weren't about to grant it he kicked them out of the country and invented what amounted to his own Church, with him at the head of it. That's the essential problem the Church was created to solve: not any complex theological issue, but instead who was in control. Was it to be the Pope, a foreign potentate who demanded loyalty both religious and, to an extent, secular, or the King, who would brook no equals, far less superiors?

This led to a series of conflicts, on several different fronts. Politically it brought the Kingdom into direct conflict with any Catholic monarch, such as when the King of Spain sent in the Armada when Elizabeth, Henry's daughter, was on the throne. The Protestant apostasy wasn't Spain's only reason for wanting to invade, but it certainly lent a piquant spice to the invasion. On the home front, the breakup of the Catholic estate and dispossession of its landholders, led to more than a few martyrdoms. Some of them were more dramatic than others, as with the visionary Holy Maid of Kent who became the only woman to have her head displayed on a spike on London Bridge. And then, of course, there were the traitors.

Guy Fawkes is by far the most famous, mainly because the celebration of his execution has become Bonfire Night, in which the fires and fireworks were originally meant to symbolize the infernal blazes, from which Papists came. Perhaps literally; one commentator warned of Papists tunneling 'from Oxford, Rome, Hell, to Westminster, and there to blow up, if possible, the better foundations of your houses, their liberties and privileges.'  Then of course there's the fictional Popish Plot, which saw 22 people executed, or the many other schemes both real and imagined, to burn down London, kill the monarch, and bring back Catholicism. This led in turn to legal persecution of Catholics, for as legal scholar William Blackstone pointed out, Catholics continued to put the Pope above the King. 'While they acknowledge a foreign power, superior to the sovereignty of the kingdom, they cannot complain if the laws of that kingdom will not treat them upon the footing of good subjects.' It's an attitude that, to a greatly modified extent, persists today; whenever the issue of a Catholic, or Catholic-friendly, monarch ascending to the throne is discussed, constitutional scholars crawl out of the woodwork to render their judgment on the issue.

By the 19th century this attitude had been much-modified. There was no question of martyrdom by that point, and nobody was expecting Catholic sappers to emerge triumphant from the bombed-out ruins of Westminster. But by that stage the Church was a worldwide institution, for wherever the Empire went, it went too. That legacy is also still with us today, for the C of E is an international Communion, which has led to problems within the faith. When the question of gay marriage arose, for example, even though the Church leaders in the UK adopted a liberal position, elements of the Communion outside the UK were, and remain, vigorously opposed.

Within the UK, the C of E operates on the parish structure.  Each church administers to a set parish within a set geographical region. Several parishes make a diocese, under the supervision of a Bishop. The Bishops make up the church leadership, and are ultimately under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and through him, the Crown.

These churches are social centers as much as they are religious institutions; particularly in rural areas, the church is the center of day to day life. This has led to some unusual problems, not the least of which is financial. The Church owns a tremendous estate: 16,000 buildings spread over 13,000 parishes, never mind the 43 cathedrals, with a remarkable number of them protected due to their architectural and historic significance. Over 43% of the Grade 1 listed buildings in the UK are churches, Grade 1 being the most important, don't-you-dare-modify-this-ever-ever-EVER classification. Imagine the kind of income you'd need to take care of an estate that size, and then reflect that it's done mostly by donations. You can begin to see why dwindling congregation size is such an important issue for the C of E.

In fiction of the Trail of Cthulhu period, whenever C of E churchmen are encountered it almost never seems to be in their capacity as vicar, dealing with a spiritual problem. They might be persecuted by supernatural entities in M R James, or a body might have turned up in the vicarage courtesy of Agatha Christie, or some muscular Christian might be presiding over a Wodehouse village fete. Whatever their role is, it's almost always a secular issue; even in the Stalls of Barchester, James' protagonist is in the soup because he murdered someone for their living. But it's left to Catholics like Father Brown to point out that someone "who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil," connecting his spiritual role with his role in the plot.

If you're looking for a free resource that may provide scenario inspiration, I recommend Sabine Baring-Gould. If you recognize the name it's almost certainly because of his book on werewolves, but Baring-Gould was a priest and antiquarian as well as a novelist, and his books on country life and the role of the village parson in the community are well worth a look.

Closing out, let's consider what role a C of E vicar might play in Bookhounds.

The church is almost certainly a relic of times past, updated more recently. There was a spate of church renovations in the Victorian and Edwardian period, tossing out many of the old pews, carvings and other relics in favor of a more open, modern church, and the characters are more likely to encounter this in London than they are in rural areas. The roof may leak and the bill for repairs may be heavy, but the congregation is likely to be enthusiastic and involved; this isn't yet the dwindling period of scanty congregations and empty donation platters.

The vicar is likely to be involved in many areas beyond what might be considered his spiritual remit. If the parish is populated mainly by the working class and the urban poor, for instance, the vicar will be at least interested in union politics and poor relief. However the vicar is very much of his class, and that is likely to mean middle or upper middle class. Consequently although he may sympathize with the working class, he is not of the working class, and that is likely to make a difference in the way he is treated as well as how he treats others.

The vicar is an educated man, and may even have been to Oxford. Though there are no female vicars in period there are plenty of female lay readers, some of whom may have led their churches in wartime, when the men were at the Front. Moreover C of E vicars are allowed to marry, and their spouses are often central figures in the local community. In period it's usually one vicar, one church; in the modern era, when pay packets are small as is the number of candidates, never mind the congregation, one vicar often serves multiple parishes.

However unless the vicar is very high church he's unlikely to be that interested in mysticism. C of E vicars tend towards practicality and liberalism, rather than ritual. In the typical Trail period the vicar is also likely to have served in the Commonwealth in some capacity, and that can mean anywhere from Africa to Asia and beyond. Perfect for picking up the odd bit of occult lore, or even texts and artifacts, particularly since many vicars tended towards antiquarianism.  

With all that in mind, consider:

The Church of St Clement, in East London, was originally built in 1088, burnt twice over the next few hundred years, and rebuilt each time. The current Church was built in 1789, and extensively modified in 1882. Bomb damage in the War scars the steeple, but the damage was never filled in. It's remarkable for its stained glass window depicting Clement's martyrdom, as well as a much more modern Wartime stained glass memorial dedicated to the RFC. During the war, the then lay reader, Winnifred Jones, was an enthusiastic backer of air power, and as a result of her fundraising and tireless effort the parish donated enough money and material to build five aircraft for No 59 Squadron RFC, now RAF. The current incumbent is Michael Cunliffe-Scott, a high churchman who wants to bring back many of the old rituals and near-Catholic practices, an attitude that puts him at odds with a substantial number of his congregation as well as his lay readers.

From a Megalapolisamantic point of view, St Clement is an interesting and potentially powerful lever. However the Bookhounds may be more interested in Cunliffe-Scott as a potential customer; he fancies himself an antiquarian and amateur ghost-hunter, in the style of Harry Price, and is a keen seeker after book bargains.

That's it for now! Enjoy.