Sunday, 31 January 2016

Hacking Invisible Inc (Klei)

I was going to talk about something else this week, but I've been ambushed by Klei's stealth roguelike Invisible Inc. I don't know what to think about what just happened. I'm not even sure it happened. So I'm going to write about it here in hope I'll get a better understanding by explaining it.

Bear in mind that a large chunk of this post is going to be blocked out because it contains spoilers. I'm sorry about that, but there's no other way. Also, I'm not going to go over the gameplay, since I covered all that in Not Quite Review Corner.

This relates to the DLC release Contingency Plan.

I'm playing through on Expert, and have finished the midway extra mission, where the objective is to recover a McGuffin from the field to keep AI Incognita alive. Breathe a sigh of relief, since this is way more difficult than I had anticipated, and on to the missions after that.

The story adds a further 48 hours to your search, and requires you to recover an extra piece of special loot each mission before you can escape. So I'm already on a tight deadline, and now I have something else to worry about. Oh goody!

One of the next missions I tackled was a Cybernetics Lab, Sankaku, level 4 difficulty. The team that went in was Sharp, Banks (my starting team) and Shalem 11 (rescued). I don't know if that makes a difference or not, but I mention it for what it's worth.

Spoilers incoming!

Early in the mission I discover a special computer terminal. That terminal, Mother informs me, has information that the corps looted from Invisible Inc when we were raided. There are three terminals on the level, and I need to hack and download the data from all three to complete this side mission. Not a problem, I think to myself. So Shalem starts tackling the first, and Sharp and Banks go off looking for the other two.

Bear in mind, though this is early in the mission, it's taken me a couple turns to get to this point. I'm still on alarm level 0, mind you, but the point is that time has passed. It's been maybe 3 to 8 minutes since I booted the game. 

Shalem begins the hack. Sharp finds the second terminal soon afterward, and starts work on it. Then Mother tells me that, after I hack each terminal, she'll insert a worm onto Sankaku's systems. 

And then the game starts singing to me.

I nigh on flipped. I don't know what it was; some generic triumphal rock, I think, with cheers and so on. At first I thought I'd somehow left YouTube on and it was playing in the background. But that made no sense; remember, it had been several minutes since I booted the game, and if it was YouTube I would have expected it to kick in much sooner. 

Then I decide it's the game itself. I didn't recognize the music it was playing, and I convinced myself that this was because it was some work for hire stuff that Klei bought specially. OK, funny, heart attack over; Banks, go find the third terminal.

That's when I hear a voice stab from Valve's Team Fortress 2, the Soldier. I'm pretty sure he said Maggot! which is his favorite voice stab; it caught me completely off guard. Then the music changes to I'll Make A Man Out of You, from Disney's Mulan.

By this point I am utterly, utterly baffled. A work for hire might explain the earlier music, but persuading Disney to part with its tunes is no easy thing, and would probably cost more money than Klei has ever had. I know there's at least one YouTube short that mashes Valve's TF2 with that particular Mulan tune, and there may well be others for all I know, but this particular combination isn't one I recognize. 

I'm also laughing like a hyena on crack, but that's just by the by.

Once Banks cracks the third terminal and takes the data, the music stops. Down to business! Where's the cybernetics lab? Found it. Where's the exit? Found it! Job done?

No, of course it isn't bloody done, because with all this theme tune business I've completely forgotten the special loot. It's hidden way off in a corner of the map I can't easily get to, and now I'm on alarm level 4. Sod! Sod sod monkey bollocks, run run run!

OK, now I have the special loot and am making my way back. Shalem is moving very slowly because he's carrying a very heavy weapon, so he's back near the exit. Sharp and Banks are the ones out in the field, but they're about as far away from the exit as it is possible to be.

I hit alarm level 6.

The bloody game starts playing the Beatles, Hey Jude. 

Talk about take a sad song and make it better. 'Hey Jude, don't let me down'? You cheeky bastard. I'm dying over here. I've never had to play so skillfully to get my people to the exit, trying not to hack the big tank drone since it has a Validate daemon on it, which means if it goes down yet another guard will be summoned to the level and I'm up to my armpits in guards anyway ... it all gets very messy. I prefer not to kill the guards if I can help it but this time I was positively overjoyed to shoot one of the buggers.

Hey Jude follows me all the way to the exit, and my team extracts safely.

Once I'm out, I log off. That's when I discover that there really is a pop-up, a video player, and it has been playing in the background.

I don't know what to think. Was it Klei? Was it an accident? It wasn't YouTube, that much I do know, but as for the rest of it, I'm completely and utterly in the dark.

Let's say it was Klei. Well, it implies that Klei hacked my PC. Though hacked may be too strong a word, since if that is what happened, I'd bet money I gave Klei permission. Not that I'd know it. It'd be buried somewhere in the User Agreement, right next to the bit that talks about Germany's potato exports, since Klei knows full well nobody reads those things.

I don't know where it would stand legally. All it did was open a video player, which then played some music. I could do that myself if I liked. In fact, I am; as I type this I have Hey Jude playing in the background. 

If it was anyone else, I'd say it didn't happen. But this is Klei. The game is about hacking computers, and one of the achievements notoriously forces you to hack the game files to get the achievement. In fact until the DLC dropped it was the one achievement I didn't have, since I lack the skills and in any case didn't really want to mess with the game.

In short, if anyone would do this, Klei would. I'd bet anything on that. I don't know how I'd prove Klei did do it, mind you. Presumably if I went poking around in the game files I'd eventually find the code that set this up, but I don't know how to do that, and in any case doing so feels a little too much like telling the magician how the rabbit was pulled out of the hat. You don't want to do that. You go to a magic show to see magic, not to be an arse about the show.

So, Klei? If this was you, hat's off. An utterly brilliant idea, and it worked perfectly.

And if it wasn't you, I don't know what the hell happened.

Postscript: I don't know what to make of this, either. 

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Core Systems (GUMSHOE, all titles)

In any Keeper's life a little rain must fall. There will come a time when you have to introduce new players to a system unfamiliar to them. These would-be gamers may never have played tabletop before, or perhaps they have, but in a completely different system. How do you, as Keeper, ensure that these gamers have a good time, while also learning the basics of the system?

First, determine what is a core mechanic. Then ensure that this core mechanic is highlighted in the introductory game. You need to do this because, in future sessions, you're going to be spending a lot of time with that core mechanic, and you need to make sure that the players have a solid grasp of it.

Not only is this important for the obvious reasons, it's also important because you'll be introducing a lot of non-core mechanics later, and if you're going to do that successfully the players need to have a decent grasp of the basics. That way you don't spend half the session explaining things they ought already to have grasped.

So what is a core mechanic? In GUMSHOE, for instance, is clue finding a core mechanic?

I'd argue that it isn't, at least not always. Consider: in a typical GUMSHOE game, it ought to be possible to get through the entire session without picking up a single non-core clue. Of course it isn't as much fun playing that way, but if you can play without a mechanic and still successfully conclude the scenario, then I suggest that the mechanic can't be considered core.

But if clue finding isn't core, then what is? Well, that's going to depend on the system.

Take Trail of Cthulhu. There's one mechanic that the players will always use in every scenario. It's not Drives, or clue finding, though both of those things will come in handy. It's the Stability and Sanity pools. No matter what, the players will be spending from those pools in every single game. More importantly, there is a distinct difference between Stability and Sanity that goes right to the heart of the system. You can go into negative Stability, even end up with almost nothing, and by the beginning of the next scenario be just as hale and hearty as ever, psychologically speaking. But if you lose Sanity, it's not coming back.

Moreover Sanity is also linked to Pillars of Sanity, which can crumble under pressure. There are several techniques like Denial, Fainting and so on which the player can use to reduce Sanity loss. There are pools like Cthulhu Mythos that impact on Sanity. With Stability, becoming Blasted can result in mental illness, and so on. In sum, each of these pools, and their loss, has profound impact on how the game is played, on its tone, and on how the characters will progress.

The players need to understand these things. Therefore the Keeper needs to emphasize both these pools in the first adventure, and so has to ensure there are at least one or two Stability-shaking events. The Keeper also needs to ensure that the Pillars of Sanity come into it at some point, thus underlining their importance. So if a player's Pillar is the sanctity of the Catholic Church, for instance, then some kind of blasphemy against the Church in the first session is probably a good idea, since it invests that player. Also, with that player's reaction, the other players at the table begin to understand the importance of their own Pillars, and react accordingly.

None of this is to say that clue-finding isn't important to Trail. However the Keeper needs to ensure that the really important stuff gets dealt with first, and in this system Stability and Sanity are the really important mechanics. So you put them front and center, leaving the intricacies of other important mechanics for a later date.

Passing from Trail to Bookhounds of London, what's the core mechanic here? Is it Stability and Sanity again? Well, no. Both those pools are important, but neither of them are as important as the Auction and bookstore mechanics. Again, the thing to bear in mind here is how often a mechanic is used, and how it impacts on the tone of the campaign. In a Bookhounds game players will be going to auctions very regularly, perhaps even once per session. Their characters will always be concerned with what's going on at the shop, whether profits are up or down, or whether a patron's about to abandon them for another shop.

So you as Keeper need to ensure that, in the very first session, there's an auction. That the shop's future is threatened in some way by a financial calamity, which only the characters' actions can avert. Even better, that there's some kind of prize to shoot for, a rare and valuable text that they can slaver over and do their best to obtain.

So what about something completely different, like Night's Black Agents? The system is still GUMSHOE, and there's a Stability pool, though not Sanity. What's the core mechanic? Again, consider what your players will spend most of their time doing. This thing, whatever it is, must be the core mechanic. It will be the thing that creates the tone of the campaign.

It's not Stability. In fact, in all the Dracula Dossier sessions I've played so far, I haven't even asked for a Stability check. That's because when Stability-draining things happen, it's often when something else equally exiting is going on, and in the heat of the moment I let Stability slide in favor of something that keeps the badass action moment hot and messy.

In this case, the mechanics that have the strongest claim on being core are Heat and Thrilling Contests. Originally a chase scene mechanic, the Double Tap book expands Thrilling Contests to most of the General abilities, creating all kinds of possibilities. Thrilling chases on foot or in a car, thrilling surveillance contests, thrilling digital intrusion, thrilling infiltration, and so on. This is the kind of thing your agents will spend most of their time doing.

The Heat and Lead mechanics are fundamentally similar to Thrilling contests, which helps, but there's enough difference between the two that you really want to emphasize how important Heat is. So there needs to be that moment when the local authorities get involved, and the Keeper can point to the Heat the characters gained so far as the reason why.

Personally, I use red poker chips for Heat, putting them out in the middle of the table. Whenever Heat is gained, I add to the stack. That keeps everyone invested.

Two other mechanics that probably need a bit of special time are the Cover and Network pools. Again, these are pools that the characters will be referring to on a regular basis. More importantly these are also pools which don't refresh, making them very distinct from all the other General pools. Players can sometime overspend on General ability tests to ensure victory, but if they overspend here, they could be setting themselves up for disappointment later. They need to understand these mechanics, so you as Director need to ensure there's a moment in the opening scenario when these mechanics become important.

This is particularly so for players who are familiar with GUMSHOE, but not Night's Black Agents.  Look at it from their point of view: every other GUMSHOE game they have ever played has taught them that General pools refresh. Some not as easily as others, but they do refresh. Sanity in Trail is the only pool that doesn't, and in that instance there is never a chance to rebuild the pool. But there is a chance to rebuild Cover and Network; it takes time and is expensive, but it can be done. A player who has become used to the typical GUMSHOE game is bound to be a little confused.

A player who isn't confused is one who's having fun. And fun is the whole point of all of this.

So, in sum: understand the core mechanic, and emphasize it in the first session. The core mechanic is the one you'll be using all the time, that sets the tone, and has a profound impact on how the game is played. Once the players understand that mechanic, everything else will follow.

That's enough for now, I think. Good luck gaming!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, It's a Pirate's Life For Me (Night's Black Agents)

Spare a thought for former sniper Ray Tindall and his mates, arrested by the Indian authorities and currently spending what could be a very long while in jail. Tindall is one of six Britons working on behalf of anti-piracy organization AdvanFort, of a total of 35 crewmen of various nationalities sentenced on illegal weapons charges to five years hard time, in the MV Seaman Guard Ohio incident.

AdvanFort describes itself as "a leader in providing comprehensive maritime shipping solutions for the commercial shipping industry." There really is something about corporate speak that sucks the fun out of everything, up to and including adventure on the high seas. However its Frontline Tales from the High Seas is worth a look, even if the writing sometimes descends to Wascally Wabbit High Pulp.

The MV Seaman Guard Ohio is a private security ship. Operating off the African coast, an October 2013 storm brought the Ohio into Indian territorial waters. When the authorities searched Ohio, they found cashes of prohibited weapons that, according to the Indian government, the crew had no permits for. There is considerable dispute about this, and at one point the Madras High Court dropped all charges. However that doesn't seem to have satisfied the powers that be.

The crew spent nine months in jail before being bailed, and have been unable to leave India. It seems that their current dilemma is the result of some kind of legal gymnastics. After the High Court quashed the charges in 2015, it asked the sessions court to determine whether or not the weapons were part of the normal armament of the vessel. If they were, then the Ohio was exempt from India's Arms Act. Things seem to have gone south rather swiftly after that, and now the Ohio's crew face jail time again as a result of the sessions court ruling.

"The [court] ignored every one of their own Indian laws, every one of the international laws, and decided to prosecute and jail us," Tindall said. "There's no grounds for what they have done."

You might almost think that someone with influence in the Indian government was very upset with AdvanFort for some reason.

The area Tindall and his mates were supposed to be patrolling is  sometimes referred to as Pirate Alley, but more commonly known as the Gulf of Aden. It's not cheap to hire a company like AdvanFort to help keep your oil shipments safe; one source has it at $50,000 per journey. That's aside from incidental costs, like the increase in your insurance premiums for starters. India has a vested interest in the Gulf, as it gets $50 billion worth of imports and sends $60 billion worth of exports through the Gulf annually, quite apart from the massive oil tankers that go through the Gulf each month.

Although hiring outside security contractors is a generally accepted practice, it's not a practice everyone's happy with. Many of the people these contractors hire are ex military or special forces, and while they certainly know what to do when it all kicks off, some of them may not be as well behaved in port, which is why many port cities refuse to allow them to disembark with weapons.

Incidentally for those ships too small or insignificant to merit a personal bodyguard - private yachts, small freighters and the like - but also too foolhardy to do the easy thing and just not go to the Gulf,  standard practice is to ship with weapons aboard, often hidden so the customs people don't see them. And that's how you get a very cheap holiday in Somalia, the country you will never be able to leave. Not unless someone pays the ransom, anyway.

It used to be said that Soviet ships were bad news for pirates, because their crews tended not to give a tinker's cuss about customs regulations, or international law, and were often armed with AK-47s which make a very nasty mess out of your average pirate skiff. However this was in the bad old pre-Putin days; no doubt peace and love prevails now.

Piracy doesn't stop with kidnapping and ransom. To illustrate this, consider a very nasty case from China back in the late '90s. A 17,000 ton freighter, on its owners books as the Hai Sin, was sold to a scrapyard in Guangdong. The breakers searched the ship before taking her apart, and found a locked refrigeration cabinet in the hold that nobody had touched in years. When they cracked it open, the stench was like nothing on earth. Eventually, after searching through the slurry on the floor, they found ten skulls, but no personal effects of any kind. Forensic examination showed that the remains were Caucasian, with no signs of violence. Presumably the men had been herded into the refrigeration unit and left to die. The remains were never identified.

In this instance, the target was the ship itself. Whoever had taken it, whenever they'd taken it, had forged a completely new identity for her. Probably the paintwork had been changed and some minor work done to alter its appearance, while the paperwork was diligently forged. Then she was passed on from one syndicate to another, each of whom used her for whatever purpose they saw fit. All the while the original crew were still in the hold, long forgotten, until her last owner decided to make a few bucks by scrapping the Hai Sin.

Often the final fate of a ghost ship like this is some complicated insurance fraud. The rusty old bucket is loaded up with 'valuable' cargo and wrecked somewhere. When the Mary Celeste was still afloat, that crime was called barratry.

Or you could try a bit of sanctions-busting. When South Africa was still under apartheid, for example, one popular pastime was to smuggle South African crude in ships that did not legally exist. It reduces the risk to all concerned if the ship isn't really a ship, since if some interfering busybody does detain her in a foreign port the syndicate behind it all can cut its losses and let the law try to work out which clue, among the vast array of forged paperwork and shell companies, actually points to the ship's true owner.

What about human trafficking? With your own ship, you can deliver bodies anywhere they're needed. Chinese snakeheads have been known to use this technique very successfully. One of the more notorious escapades in this line is the Golden Venture, which wrecked off of Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, in June 1993. A total of 286 immigrants were rescued, detained, and mostly deported over the next few years. It wasn't until 1997 that President Clinton finally released the remaining 52. The Venture, renamed United Caribbean, ended up an artificial reef off the coast of Florida.


So what does all this mean for a Night's Black Agents Director?

For starters, it's an excellent backstory for a player character. I prefer not going into a lot of detail when it comes to character backstory, as it tends to get in the way. However I do have a section called In One Sentence, where the character's life so far is described in, wait for it ... one sentence. So in this instance it might be something like 'Ex Special Forces who worked for an anti-pirate security company in the Gulf, until his last mission aboard a ghost ship, which ended with the deaths of all his mates.' Blessedly simple, plus there's a touch of Alien crossed with Residential Evil, which has its points.

It's not a bad way to involve extra-governmental organizations, like Dracula Dossier's Edom. Many of the places that are currently affected by piracy, or involved in the piracy fight, are former British colonies, or places where terrorism festers. Edom might have many reasons either for having been there in the past, or for wanting to be there now.

It's an atmospheric means of introducing new clues, in interesting locales. Take the Hai Sin as an example: soon-to-be-scrapped freighter turns up in a foreign port, perhaps somewhere inaccessible to Western intelligence agencies, with a hold full of corpses. Except this time rather than have the bodies completely unidentifiable, leave something useful behind; the Edom flash, for example, or perhaps some other insignia. Now Edom's got to be curious: if it doesn't have any missing people on its books, who are these poor souls? Alternatively, is this all that's left of the team sent out on Operation Ulysses many years ago? What happened, who owns the ship, and where's the Conspiracy's hand in all of this? 

Here's another: Retrieve the Jack. A former Edom hard man, member of A Squadron, takes up with a marine security agency after leaving Edom. The agency may even be a very-off-the-books Edom asset in its own right, perhaps a means of keeping an eye on China's Room 452, or its jin-gui program. Then things go wrong when the Jack, along with his crewmates, is pitched into an Indian prison on trumped-up charges. It soon becomes clear that the Jack is undergoing special interrogation, and the Indian authorities are either cooperating willingly or being coerced. How to get the Jack back, without permanently souring relations with India?

That's all for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Forgotten London: The Pub (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London, Night's Black Agents)

'"What do you mean, forgotten?" I hear you ask. "There are pubs all over the place! Why only last night I drank myself stupid at the Dog and Phuc, the new Vietnamese gastropub on the corner. Surely you're mistaken!"

Yes, there are pubs in London. Quite a few of them in fact, but most if not all of them aren't pubs as someone drinking during the 1930s would have known the breed. Let's talk about some of the differences.

Most of the information I have on this subject comes from The English Pub, by Peter Haydon. 

Before the 1890s the pub was a very different animal. Each public house was an independent, owned by the same person who operated it. Each owner could buy beer from whoever he or she liked, and it was very common for pubs to brew their own beer on the premises. Each pub had its own character, no two being quite alike. The owner decided the style, and that meant a riot of differences, of color, of idiosyncrasy. There were also many more breweries active then than there are now, ensuring that there was plenty of choice in what you drank.

However by 1890 the economy was getting softer, and breweries were finding it much more difficult to make a living. In 1899 the bottom dropped out of the market altogether. Breweries went to the knacker's yard, selling their stock and property at bargain rates. People stopped building pubs. What was the point, after all? Nobody was going to invest money in a failing venture.

In 1890, for instance, there were 11,322 independent breweries operating throughout England. By 1900, there were only 6,420. The number of pubs that brewed on the premises also sharply reduced over the same period, from 12,417 in 1880 to 1,447 in 1914.

This didn't just mean financial ruin. It also meant that, if you intended to survive these apocalyptic times, you had to be smarter, more ruthless, and more efficient than your competition. You had to dominate your market. Northern breweries were the first to realize this, and they began buying up pubs left and right, claiming the market by claiming the supply chain. Then everyone else wanted to get in on the act, and before long the breweries went into a pub-buying frenzy.

This led in turn to a sudden spike in pub construction. Not so much in new pubs - those were still a drug on the market - but in refurbishing the existing ones. Look at it from the owner's point of view. You know the brewers are going to be knocking on everyone's door. Unless you're addicted to independence, and poverty, you want to sell, and for the best possible price. You need to convince the brewers that your pub is the very best in the locality, with plenty of thirsty customers. Which pub is the best? Why, the largest pub, of course. Does your pub really need a ballroom that can seat two hundred? Who the hell cares; the brewer's some damn silly Northerner who doesn't know the London market, and if you have that ballroom, the brewer will think you have the drinkers to go with it.

This is when we start seeing innovations like the Saloon Bar, the Public Bar, and a separate tap room. It's all space, and the fancier a place looks, the more likely it is that the buyer will pay top dollar. Do you have snugs, little hole-in-the-wall spots sealed off by frosted glass and wooden walls, so your drinkers can enjoy themselves in privacy? That's money in the bank. Do you have a cheaply furnished public bar for the plebs to get drunk in, and a more elegantly appointed saloon bar for those prepared to pay a little extra? That's money in the bank.

So down come the brewers and buy the publicans out. By the 1920s there are very few independents left, still fewer by the 1930s. However the grass isn't always greener on the other side. Those publicans within the brewery system are living in what amounts to indentured servitude. They owe everything to the brewer, from the beer in the cellars to the carpets on the floor, and the brewers make very sure the landlords will never get out from under that mountain of debt. After all, if they did, they might want their independence again, and that would never do.

George Orwell says as much in his essay The Clink, about an unsuccessful attempt to get thrown in prison. He spends a short time in a police court cell, where he meets, among others, a disgraced 'guv'nor.'

The florid, smart man was, it appeared, a public house guv'nor (it is a sign of how utterly the London publicans are in the claw of the brewers that they are always referred to as guv'nors, not landlords, being, in fact, no better than employees), & had embezzled the Christmas Club money. As usual, he was head over heels in debt to the brewers, and no doubt had taken some of the money in hopes of backing a winner ... the magistrates are hard on these cases - he did in fact, get four months later in the day. He was ruined for life, of course. The brewers would file bankruptcy proceedings and sell his stock and furniture, and he would never be given a pub license again.

Because the brewers own the pub, they can order things as they like. By the 1930s, this becomes a damage limitation exercise. The powers that be, which in the 1930s meant the educated middle to upper classes, have a down on pubs. They promote vice, distract the workers from their jobs, and generally are a haven for criminals. All those private little snugs, saloon bars and so forth; how is a constable supposed to police a place, if he can't see everything that's going on as soon as he walks in the door?

So the brewers bring in their in-house architects for yet another round of pub refurbishments. This time it isn't about money. It's about what we would now call branding, throwing out the old and replacing it with new. The same old new every time, in fact. After all, why go to all the trouble of coming up with a different design for each location, when you can use the same design for all of them?

However since this was very much the governing classes dictating to the governed, the 1930s designs were about creating pubs that the governing classes would like to drink in. Not that they ever would, of course. "It is all to the good that some of England's public houses should be reformed, reconditioned or improved, and made fit and decent places for refreshment and recreation of the people," said a Temperance advocate. 

This led to, among other things, an increase in the number of workingmen's clubs. In 1905 there were less than 7,000 clubs altogether; by 1935 there were well over 15,000, with a combined membership of half a million. The pubs were no longer independent, but the clubs were. They could buy whatever beer they liked, and decorate the place as they pleased. But while this may have been wonderful for the working classes, it meant that the pubs started losing customers, further contributing to an already weakened pub market.

It also led to an interesting innovation: the death of pub signs. In days gone by each pub needed an innovative and eye-catching sign, not just because its customers probably couldn't read, but also because a good sign is a form of advertising. People can say "go to the Swan, you'll never get a better pint," and everyone will know what and more importantly where the Swan is, by the lovingly decorated signage which may or may not actually be a carved Swan. However that only advertises the pub. It does not advertise the brewer, and by the 1930s it had become very important that people know the Swan, for example, is part of Fuller's, or Adnam's, or Theakston's. So the elaborate signage went on the scrapheap, replaced by signboards on the side of the building that said not only what the pub was called, but also which brewer owned it. So the drinker knows that, if he likes Fuller's or can't stand Adnam's, that he'd better go to or avoid the pubs that brewer owns.

Meanwhile the brewers began eating themselves alive. The last time the market went downhill, the brewers that survived did so because they bought up the pubs. Now there were no more pubs to buy, and the only way to stay competitive in a vicious market was to make sure there was as little competition as possible. In previous years brewery takeovers had fueled expansion, but by the 1930s they were the only way to keep the remaining breweries alive.  

So in your game, what does this mean?

It means the pub is always changing. If there's a rickety Victorian glamour palace at the corner, complete with snugs and saloon bars, it's under threat. If there's an actual independent pub in the neighborhood, it's practically the alcoholic equivalent of a unicorn, on the brink of utter extinction. No doubt the owner is being besieged by the brewers night and day, but old Charlie would never sell out. His thieving son Archie, on the other hand ... Meanwhile the dear old pub of yesteryear, with its original features and Victorian touches, could be gutted at any moment, to be replaced by fake Victoriana and horse brasses. The brewer's in complete control, until the brewer collapses under a mountain of debt, leaving confusion and chaos in its wake.

Remember, the pub is the center of the community's life. There's a reason why so many people have tried to control it over the years, from the brewers to the coppers to the blue-nosed temperance advocates who want everything to be clean-cut, British and manly. This is, after the church, the place where everyone goes. Think what it means, for example, to operate a Christmas Club, as Orwell's guv'nor did. It means you have hundreds of people coming in all the year round, contributing their pennies and shillings to the fund. It means you have regulars.

From your characters' perspective, it may be all about class. Are your Bookhounds hoping to claw their way to the upper reaches of the class system? Then you'll never see them in the public bar; rubbing shoulders with the ho-polloi is the last thing they'd want to do. Except if there's money in it, of course. At the same time the shop workers are either in the public bar or the workingmen's club on the corner, breathing fire and revolution, and voting Labour. Drinking in the right place shows where you consider yourself to be, in the scheme of things. Or where you would like to be.

Moreover people tend to congregate in the same pub, often for generations. If your pub happens to be on Fleet Street, as the Cheshire Cheese is, then it has been a newsman's haunt for many, many years, well known to literary men. So if your characters want to find a particular author, or newspaper editor, their best bet is to haunt the Cheese and wait for that person to come in. It'd be a Streetwise spend to work out which pub the person they want to see is most likely to go to. Where do the Radicals hang out? The Toshers? The medical men, the lawyers, the banker's clerks? Each group has a pub that it prefers to go to, and if the characters want to catch up with a particular person, they need to know which pub they go to.

Or say you want to play on a place's historic links. Going back to the Cheese again - an excellent pub, by the way, well worth a visit for the atmosphere alone, and Samuel Smith's does a good bitter too - there's its links with important figures like Dickens, its potential history as a brothel, and the alleged bones of murdered babies on display, all to play with.

This is a history that could be repeated again and again, in a time-spanning campaign. Something like the Dracula Dossier, for example, could feature repeated visits to the same pub over many decades, if not generations of spies. Say for the sake of discussion that the Cheshire Cheese is a meeting place for Edom in the 1890s. There's no reason why it couldn't have hosted many such meetings over the years, and feature in stories set in the 1940s, 1970s or current day. After all, the pub's still there, almost unchanging, over all that time.

As a closer, here's a brief scenario idea, suitable for Trail or Bookhounds.

The Unicorn is a pub of long standing in Blackfriar's, on Queen Victoria's Street, not far from the church of St-Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe and Blackfriar's Train and Tube station. It has links of long standing with the Worshipful Society of Apocatheries, one of the twelve great livery companies of London.  Opiferque Per Orbem Dicor and a golden unicorn has been its signage for as long as anyone can remember; both the motto - throughout the world I am called the bringer of help - and the unicorn are used by the Worshipful Society. Medical men and members of the Society frequently call on the Unicorn; you can often find the best surgeons and doctors in London enjoying a pint in the saloon.

One of its prize possession is a poem alleged to be the work of John Keats, though its authorship is disputed. Keats is known to have been an Apocathery, and it's thought that the poem was a gift to the daughter of the pub's then owner. Signed only with a K, the framed original, To A Friend, hangs in the saloon bar. 

The Unicorn is owned by the Brocklebury Brewery, Yorks, and the owners are contemplating a complete refurb. Out with the old, in with the new, and that includes the ancient signage and the alleged Keats. Then the accidents start happening; the architect, the architect's business partner, and two builders die, one after the other, each after visiting the Unicorn. Meanwhile the guv'nor's losing sleep; something's haunting the place, he claims, something that glistens black as midnight, and the strange tittering noise it makes is more than he can stand ...

Enjoy!

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Tally O: Fox Hunting (Bookhounds of London, Trail of Cthulhu)

If your campaign is set in the British Isles you're probably mainlining television programs like Downton Abbey, seeking inspiration. What did people look like, think like, want to be like? What sets a British location apart from, say, a French one, or a German? What habits, sports, hobbies are quintessentially British?

In that spirit, this time I'm going to talk about fox hunting. Most of the information I have comes from D.W.E. Brock's 1936 book, The ABC of Fox Hunting. He's writing at a time when the hunt, as he knew it, is already on its way into the history books. You can tell by the way he gnashes his teeth that he's well aware of this, and bitterly resents the influx of City men and other London fools who barely know how to ride, let alone what to do on the field.

In his day the hunts are organized by the Masters of Foxhounds Association, which lays down the boundaries of the hunt. The Edwardians would have run the hunt themselves, with the Master owning and funding the hounds; indeed, the whole shebang. In Brock's time the hunt is run more along Club lines, with Secretaries and Committees. The Master is appointed by the Club, and runs the pack accordingly. That, in fact, is one of the Club's chief troubles; it's no joke housing and feeding all those hounds, and finding a suitable Master is no easy task. If you, as an ordinary person, intend to ride with the hunt, you pay for your membership; or, if you're a guest, you pay a daily fee, sometimes called a cap. Collecting that cap is the bane of the Master's life, as it's very easy to ride off and not pay, a tactic that may appeal to some Bookhounds.

The size of the hunt depends on how often it intends to hunt. The fewer the days in the week that the hunt meets, the smaller the hunt, so there can be two, three, or four day hunts. Any one hunt is strictly forbidden from drawing a fox in any territory other than its own.

The character of the hunt will depend on its territory. A grassland hunt, pleasant to ride over, is the kind that most people are familiar with from books and television. There are also hunts on the moors, which involve smaller packs because of the difficulty of the ground. Hilly or mountainous terrain means no horses, but there's still a pack of hounds, with the huntsmen following on foot.

A hunt is something that requires a great deal of preparation. A hunt doesn't just blindly ride out and hope for the best; instead, over the course of the year, the Master and his people look for where the foxes are, and mark out their earths. There's a Damage Fund set aside for farmers, to bribe them and hopefully prevent them from shooting or poisoning animals who might raid their farms. In fact, farmers are encouraged to leave food out for foxes, when their holes are spotted.

'Anyone knowing of the the existence of a litter of cubs,' says Brock, 'will be doing the vixen a kindness by leaving food, such as rabbits, rats or the cleanings of poultry, somewhere about a hundred yards from her earth. On no account should butchers' meat be given, for, though the cubs will eat it readily enough, it is very liable to give them mange.'

Come the day, the huntsmen set out the night before to find the fox's earth, and any other hole it might use as a hiding place. Foxes are nocturnal, and prefer to be underground during the day, so by stopping up their holes at night the huntsmen are forcing the fox to remain above ground during the hunt. Then the business begins in earnest.

The hounds are carefully looked after, in preparation for this moment; indeed, a hound's age is expressed from the first time hound meets fox. So a 1932 dog wasn't born in 1932; it first hunted in that year . The hounds are all tattooed in the ear with a simple cypher, say BV VI. The first letters refer to the hunt, so BV might be Blackmore Vale. The numbers refer to the litter, so VI means that this dog is from litter number 6. Each hound will have a name based on its litter, so that litter 6 might have dogs called Whirligig, Whale, Walpole, Wrale and so on, all beginning with W.

These most definitely are not indoor pets, and want nothing more than to run like a brainless maniac all the live-long day. They love to eat raw meat, and are typically fed an entire carcass, which the pack devours whole. 'In a very short time the whole pack is covered from head to stern with blood.' The pack size is expressed in  couples, each couple being two hounds, so a pack size of 30 is actually 60 animals. Imagine having to care for that many crazy, hyper-energetic, bloodthirsty hounds. It's no wonder Clubs had difficulty finding Masters.

The hunt has a very idiosyncratic dress, which you may think you're familiar with, even if you're not. The typical Ratcatcher style used by ordinary members of most Clubs includes a bowler hat, strengthened for resisting blows to the head, a white hunting stock or neckerchief, a tweet sports coat (the Ratcatcher of the title), and breeches of almost any color except white. The overall aesthetic is plain and sober.

There are variations on that theme. The Black Coat is much like the Ratcatcher, except you wear a top hat, a black or dark grey cloth coat, and white or colored breeches. The Scarlet Coat, which is the style everyone recognizes, is much as the Ratcatcher, except the coat is red cloth, with brass buttons. Depending on the Hunt, these variant costumes may be insignia of rank.

You address a professional huntsman by their last name, so Harry Flashman would be just Flashman. If, on the other hand, you're addressing a whipper-in, you use their Christian name, so in this case, Harry. The whipper-in is the huntsman's assistant and has two very specific tasks. The first whipper-in opens gates, removes slip rails, stops road traffic and generally ensures that nothing interferes with the pack. The second whipper-in keeps track of the pack, hunts down strays, and when otherwise not needed will keep an eye out for that tricky fox.

When out in the field, the Master always goes first. The Master directs the hunt, so he has to be in a position to see everything that's going on. For everyone else, there's an etiquette system. When in with the field, you're never to ride too close behind someone else. You're supposed to shout Ware Hole! if you see something a horse might stumble over. You take your time at a fence or gap in the hedge, and on no account make the attempt if there's someone ahead of you; wait until that person is clear before trying the jump.

Most importantly, you have a duty to farmers. 'Always remember you are a guest of every single farmer whose land you cross. Do not willfully damage crops or ride over greens, cricket pitches, football grounds. Do not frighten their stock. Do not leave fences open.' This is the point at which, I strongly suspect, Brock was writing with gritted teeth, and breaking the point of his pen on every second word.

So what's likely to happen during a hunt? Here's some examples to lend flavor to a scene:

  1. A dog may be kicked and killed by an inexperienced horse, or rider.
  2. The hounds may find another fox and set out on a false line, or kill the fox too early.
  3. The hunt takes too long without result, and the hunters get bored.
  4. The field (riders) scatters or gets in the way of the hounds.
  5. The fox hides in unstopped ground.
  6. The fox takes the hunt near a scent spoiler (eg cattle) or near road, or rail.
  7. The hunt encounters a wire fence.
  8. A horse falls, or encounters a difficult ditch.
  9. The pack splits into two or more groups, or is lost from the Huntsman.
  10. The fox hides up a tree, curled on a branch, or somewhere else high, like a rooftop.
  11. The fox hides under a haystack. Remember, you're not supposed to inconvenience farmers.
  12. The fox hides in the furrow of a ploughed field.
  13. The fox hides in exposed drains, especially in a dry season. 
  14. Fox hides in marsh or bog, knowing that the hounds don't like going near water.
  15. The fox puts the hounds on the scent of another fox.
  16. The fox doubles back, and dodges straight through the hounds.
Brock estimates that in a typical hunt the fox is killed one time in five, and that, in its lifetime, the fox is far more likely to die by poison, gun or trap than by hounds.

In a GUMSHOE game, a hunt is probably best expressed as a Thrilling Chase, as per Night's Black Agents. However if you're not comfortable with that, a simple Fleeing vs Athletics or Riding contest will do as well. The Fox should get a large Fleeing pool, representing not so much its natural athletic ability as its raw cunning and trickery. Its stats ought to be based on the Wolf, so:

Abilities: Athletics 9, Fleeing 14/18/12 (young/mature/old) Health 3, Scuffling 8
Hit Threshold: 5 (Athletics plus small and fast)
Alertness: +3
Weapon: -1 (bite)

So why will your players get involved in a hunt? Well, in Bookhounds, it's most likely to be a social class issue. The characters are always scheming to increase their Credit Rating, to get more patrons, to rise up in the world. How better to express their social importance than by riding to hounds with the Blankshires? Plus, it's an excellent way to toady to your social betters, thus worming your way into the confidence of future patrons. London is remarkably close to the countryside at time of writing; in the 1930s country lanes and open fields would have been almost on the protagonists' doorstep. (That was the whole point of Metro-Land, after all). One quick road or rail journey, and they can be riding to hounds over the weekend.

In Trail, a hunt is an excellent way to set the scene. It gives the characters a grand overview of the area they're in, and also offers a brilliant chance to get the characters lost in some kind of ancient and long-forgotten wood, or near some evocative, haunting ruins. If the characters have somehow annoyed the local cultists, it's also a good way to maneuver them into an ambush. Finally it can be a dramatic means of introducing some kind of challenge or event, say, if the hunt were to encounter a mangled body, or signs of otherworldly activity. Imagine a hunt, for example, that finds itself within the sphere of influence of a Color Out Of Space.Wandering into that blighted landscape unexpected could lead to all sorts of complications ...

To close out, a bit of hunting slang to add flavor to a scene:

Babbler: A dog who 'talks' too much.
Blind (country): Before winter; that is, with the leaves still on the trees. This is a dangerous time to hunt, as accidents are more likely with decreased visibility.
Blow Away: The horn sounds to get the hounds out on the trail. This is a quick, pulsating noise.
Blow Out: The horn sounds to call the hounds back. This is a long and mournful call.
Check: The hounds are said to check when they temporarily lose the scent.
Covert: Woods.
Drag: The line of the fox, leading to his lair.
Feather: The dog raises stern and shows tail, suggesting it is on the scent.
Huic Holloa: A cheer.
Tally O!: I have seen the fox.
Tally Over!: I have seen the fox cross this ride.

I hope this was useful! Enjoy.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Auction Houses of London (Bookhounds)

So you want to run a Bookhounds of London campaign, and need to arrange an auction scene. Where's this taking place? Your players will want to know. If you're the kind of silver-tongued devil who can make this stuff up on the fly, no problem. However for those of you desperate for some historical examples, consider the following auction houses:

Puttick and Simpson. Not much is left online about this venerable auction house, first opened in 1794, closed in 1971. The scene shown in the engraving is its Leicester Square location, a wide open space, no permanent seating, lined with books of all kinds. At one end, close to the door, there's a podium. One wonders whether its proximity to the only exit was important for the auctioneer. In the middle of the room there's a wide section of boards set on two tables, presumably for display, which could be easily moved if needed. At the far end of the room there's a piano. Puttick and Simpson was famous for its sale of musical scores, so it's possible the piano was there in the spirit of try, before you buy. The internet also tells me that there was a Puttick and Simpson Limited at Montpelier Street London, since dissolved. It might not be the same one, of course, but let's say that it is, for the sake of discussion. That suggests that Puttick and Simpson moved from Leicester Square at some point. Judging by the list of old catalogs available for sale online, it seems to have moved more than once. In 1851 it was at 191 Piccadilly, while in 1897 it was at Leicester Square. My source, The Book-Hunter in London (1895, via Project Gutenberg), says that, after Sothebys, Puttick and Simpson was one of the premier book auction houses in London. It also says that the Leicester Square location was formerly the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds - in fact, he died there - and goes on to proclaim, 'in this age of iconoclasm it is pleasant to wander in the passages and rooms where all the wit, beauty and intellect of the latter part of the last century congregated; where Johnson and Boswell, Burke, Garrick, Goldsmith and Malone met in good fellowship.' Of course, it might have moved before the 1930s, but for the sake of your game it might be more interesting if it stays in Leicester Square.

Hodgson's. The source I have for this auction house is the 1895 book mentioned above, but the internet tells me there's a house clearance specialist operating out of Bristol with the same name, that first opened in 1918. The 1918 Hodgson's says it covers West London, which opens the situation up to all kinds of amusing slapstick scenes. I'm reasonably certain that the auctioneer Hodgson's mentioned by my source no longer exists, but the difficulty with a name like Hodgson is that it's one of the more common surnames in the UK, so searching for it is troublesome. The Book-Hunter in London says that Hodgson's Chancery Lane location 'was specially erected for the peculiar requirements of a book-auction house.' Whatever those may have been. Among other things, Hodgson used to host what were called trade dinner sales, where those in the trade would meet, enjoy a pleasant meal, and sell or buy as they saw fit. Apparently Hodgson used to clear fifty thousand pounds a time at these dinners, but the habit had died out by 1895, so presumably in the 1930s it's a distant memory. It does suggest possibilities, though, rather in the same style as a certain Burnt Auction. In 1895 the head of the firm was the founder's son, but by 1930 this may have changed. Incidentally, in the present day 115 Chancery Lane is occupied by a cocktail bar, Baranis. It describes itself as a Provencal-style cellar bar with a petanque court. It'd be interesting to see how much, if anything, of that Victorian structure 'specially erected' for a book auction house survives. Judging by Google, the frontage looks more or less original, but it's anyone's guess what's inside.

The Dorotheum. This is a Vienna-based auction house rather than a London firm, but it's the oldest in the world, so it deserves mention. The protagonists no doubt dream of one day going to something as prestigious as a Dorotheum auction. First established in 1707 by the Emperor Joseph I, it occupied its current premises in 1777, and has remained there ever since. Impossibly Baroque, immensely expensive; no doubt the protagonists are stealing its catalogs and forging its provenance in hope of boosting the price of their stock.

Phillip's, briefly Phillips de Pury, though that sad chapter in the firm's history post-dates the average Bookhounds game. First established in 1796 by one of Christie's clerks, this auction house puttered along until 1999, when it changed hands several times, engaged in disastrous business decisions, and was bought out by Bonham's. At the time of the average Bookhounds game, Phillip's is known as Phillips, Son and Neale. According to its website, Phillips had a 'reputation for strong regional sales rooms dotted about the British Isles,' which suggests that, if you as Keeper want an excuse for finding some obscure tome in, say, Scotland or Ireland, it could come into the game via Phillips, Son and Neale.

Sotheby's will be a familiar name to anyone who has a copy of the Dracula Dossier. Established in 1744, it began as a bookseller's but has since branched out into every conceivable art form. In the 1930s its principal lines, apart from books, would have been prints, coins, and medals, with a sideline in fine art. Its main rooms are at 34-35 New Bond Street, where it has lived since 1917. Though in the present day it has branches all over the world, in the 1930s its only location would have been London. It often arranges private sales when the seller wants to conduct business with the utmost discretion, as often happens when the seller would prefer the outside world not know how hard up for cash he is. One of its 1930s highlights is the sale of Baron Rothschild's paintings at one of the Rothschild residences in Piccadilly. This 1937 sale reached over £125,000, and was broadcast live by the BBC.

Taverns and Pubs. Many of the businesses mentioned here got their start by running auctions at their local pub.  Though a much less common practice in the 1930s as it would have been in the 18th Century, it's still quite possible, particularly for auctions taking place outside London. Without a dedicated auction house, any large sale taking place in the counties, say, has to locate itself in the largest and most convenient spot, and that will often be the local tavern. 

Book Fairs. The London Book Fair does not exist in the 1930s, but other Fairs do, most notably the Frankfurt Book Fair. The protagonists who operate a small book stall in, say, Spitalfields, probably won't be going to Frankfurt, but any book store owner with a Credit Rating of 3 or better will definitely want to be represented there. The Frankfurt event is a trade fair, where all kinds of innovations, new products, and other things of interest to booksellers are put on display. Exactly the kind of event that a Forger might want to attend, for example. 

That's it for the moment! It's also the last post this year. May 2016 be good to you, and best wishes to you all!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Not Quite Book Review Corner: Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

I've been reading Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, a relative newcomer to the scene. He's been writing for a while, but keeps dropping off the map, and so his publication list isn't that long. First published in 1988, then nothing until 1997, then a gap, then a gap, everywhere a gap gap, old Matt Ruff he had a farm, and so forth. My copy is an uncorrected proof. When published, it will be via Harper Collins, and is expected to be a February 2016 release.

The central idea is fascinating. Ruff takes the tropes of Lovecraft's Mythos, and re-imagines the stories with African American protagonists. The setting is 1950s America, heartland of noir fiction, and the collection of short, interconnected stories opens with the tale of Atticus Turner, off to Chicago with a copy of the Safe Negro Travel Guide in his pocket, hoping to find his father. Except his father's gone missing, and all the clues suggest that he's gone to Arkham, Massachusetts, home of Lovecraftian horror. It soon develops that Montrose Turner is mixed up with a peculiar Order of the Ancient Dawn, who are themselves very interested in Atticus since he might be a direct descendant of the founder of their Order.

Things, as you might expect, get very complicated from that point forward.

I mentioned interconnected stories earlier. It wouldn't be entirely fair to call this a short story collection, even though it is a collection of several short-ish stories. There is a common long-term plot, however, and the characters are all related either by blood or by bonds of friendship. So in the first story Montrose is a relatively minor support character, but in a later story he becomes the main protagonist. Childhood friends, cousins, Brothers from the local Lodge, may all appear as fleeting glimpses in one story, only to reappear later as main characters. The Braithwaite clan and its magical machinations make up the main antagonists, along with its allies and rivals in the alchemical Orders that seem to spring up like weeds across America.

In and of itself the concept would be intriguing, but by combining it with Lovecraft Ruff manages to hit a very particular and sensitive nerve. After all, this is Howard Phillips we're talking about, the man who gave us Cthulhu but also gave us the comic verse On The Creation of Niggers, as Ruff reminds us very early on.

Recently the World Fantasy Awards statuette hit the news again. It's been pointed out, particularly in recent years, that having an award of this type made in Lovecraft's image is sending, at best, a mixed message to the world at large, and fandom in particular. "This is something people of color, women, minorities, must deal with more often than most when striving to be the greatest they can possibly be in the arts," said award winner Nnedi Okorafor, on discovering Lovecraft's reputation after receiving her award. "The fact that many of the Elders we honor and need to learn from hate or hated us."

It's been announced that future awards will not bear Lovecraft's image. Noted Lovecraftian scholar S.T. Joshi has been particularly outspoken in his disgust at this decision. "Evidently this move was to placate the shrill whining of a handful of social justice warriors who believe that a 'vicious racist' like Lovecraft has no business being honored by such an award."

I lost a great deal of respect for S.T. Joshi after reading that piece.

There's no denying Lovecraft's hatred, of women, of African Americans, of pretty much everything and everyone except white Anglo Saxons and Gothic Revival architecture. He has created some very compelling art, worthy of study, worthy of approbation. That does not excuse the rest of it.

Perhaps it's time to admit that having his face on an award is exclusionary. That it sends a message, intentionally or not, and that message is an unpleasant one. 

Having touched on that nerve, however, Ruff lacks follow-through. There are many dark and complex scenes in these stories, but at the same time there's an undercurrent of light-heartedness that is at odds with horror. Frankly, there's more angst and despair in The Hobbit than there is in this book, and the main character of The Hobbit is a jolly little fellow whose sole ambition in life is to eat more dinners.

That's not to say the stories are bad. They're very cleverly done, and as a counterpoint to pure Lovecraft there's pleasure to be had in re imagining those stories with these protagonists. Even so, you have to go into this expecting that it won't be horror, as horror is usually understood. There's the suggestion of shoggoths off in the darkness, and weird things do happen, but these shoggoths have a low-fat label on the side with an encouraging nutritional message from the FDA.

An example, hopefully avoiding as many spoilers as possible: in one story, a character is told to choose whether or not to accept a benefit. That benefit, we discover, comes at someone else's expense, and that someone else is kept inside a large machine, apparently unconscious. We're told by the antagonist that this person is in a permanent coma thanks to a head injury, and feels no pain. What would make this really work would be if we didn't know whether the antagonist is telling the truth. Perhaps there is no coma, no head injury. Except as the reader we know that the antagonist is telling the truth. We saw that head injury in a previous episode, and from that we can infer the coma. Trouble is, knowing that undercuts the horror by removing the uncertainty. 

So would I recommend Lovecraft Country to Lovecraft fans, when it finally debuts? Yes. Just bear in mind, as I've said, that this is not a frightening collection. It has horrific scenes, and its depiction of historical events is all the more shocking because we know the truth of the matter. We also know that it didn't happen very long ago, in the grand scheme of things. For that alone it's worth reading. 

Even if it doesn't keep you awake at night, captivated by existential bleakness and despair.