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.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Bookhounds: Arc and Introduction

I've already spent several posts talking about the story arc and the initial scenarios in a campaign, and I don't intend to repeat myself here. Instead let's dive right in and talk about specifics for this campaign.

Bookhounds is all about trade. The characters will be buying and selling books, and trying not to die or be driven mad while doing so. They will attend book auctions - they may even host some auctions of their own - and they will be dealing with the hideous unappeasable monster that is the British Public, as they try to get customers in the door. The arc needs to reflect this, and the initial scenarios should be designed so as to show the players how things are done in this new world.

Also, this being a Technicolor landscape, the initial scenarios need to play up to the Hammer Horror stereotypes. So let's add a bit to the mix and say that the scenarios ought to draw inspiration from Hammer's films, and as there are so many of those I'm going to arbitrarily select from this top ten list and see what happens next.

Let's start with Demons of the Mind, shall we?

In that one a worried father, convinced his children will go insane, locks them away in his house and brings in a doctor, played by Patrick Magee, to take care of them. Meanwhile strange, inexplicable murders take place near the house. Are one of the children - both of the children, perhaps - responsible? Is some other force at work? The childrens' mother, now dead, was a hopeless homicidal lunatic, which is why the father's so sure his son and daughter will go the same way. The Cultes des Ghoules is all about necromantic communion, and here we have the beginnings of a plot, since there's at least one copy of that book hidden somewhere in du Bourg's.

Now, as covered in previous posts, the first session of a new campaign ought to start low key. The objective is to introduce the characters to the world and its mechanics, and then plunge them into situations in which their new knowledge will help them get out alive again. So the very first scenario ought to be all about du Bourg's, since this location will become the most important aspect of the ongoing narrative. This scenario will also introduce the main antagonist for the first arc: Rupert Hardy, Baron Stavesham.

The Baronetcy of Stavesham goes back to 1086, and has its manor in Monmouthshire. It has its share of black sheep and rakehells, but the current Baron is supposed to be a thoroughly ordinary fellow with an unfortunate past. His wife Susannah, a great beauty, died in a train wreck in 1917, leaving him to bring up two children: Eric and Anna, both now in their late teens. Nobody has seen either child in some time; their father, it is said, has unusual views on parenting. This fact would require a 1 point pool spend, Keeper's choice as to which: the very best alienists have been summoned to his house in Piccadilly to treat his children, in conditions of closest secrecy, but nothing has worked.

Clearly something odd is going on. The movie that is this arc's inspiration uses incest and buckets of blood, but as Keeper you may choose to go in a different direction. The whole thing's available on YouTube if you want to watch it.

This arc assumes that the father, Rupert Hardy, wants any information that might help cure his children's alleged condition. Whether that condition really exists or not is up for debate. However in order to get that information he'll go to any lengths, and that includes necromancy, to talk with his dead wife. Hence the Cultes des Ghoules, and his interest in du Bourg's.

I see this arc ending with a shattering conclusion to Hardy's story, and revelations as to the true nature of the affliction that dogs his son and daughter. Probably there will be several deaths in that family; maybe the endgame goes the full Usher and the final shot is of Hardy's burning London townhouse, with all the family inside. However Hardy's story ends, the Bookhounds finish with a copy of Cultes des Ghoules. The job of the next arc will be to decide what they want to do with it.

So assuming a three to four scenario first arc, I see the campaign going something like this:

First scenario introduces the characters, du Bourg's, and its day to day routine. If the Keeper intends to use any optional rules, like Idiosyncratic Magic or Megapolisomancy, those rules ought also to be introduced or at least hinted at here. Stakes should be low, but significant enough that the characters need to display a little ingenuity. In displaying ingenuity they probably also play up their characters' quirks and motivation - their Drives - which can only help future sessions. When I say low key, I mean something like this incident borrowed from Lutyens and Rubenstein: there's a big seasonal event about to take place, perhaps a Christmas party for the staff and important customers (hence why Hardy attends), but the weather's so atrocious that all the arrangements (and dinner preparations) are thrown into chaos. The characters need to step in to prevent disaster. In order to get the Auction ability involved, why not make it one of those trade dinners that were so popular with antiquarian bookstores once upon a time?

Second scenario develops on the first. Any optional rules introduced then need to be at the forefront now. If there's Idiosyncratic Magic, the characters need to start using it. If you intend for characters to have Magic pools, they need to start gaining points. At least one of du Bourg's significant secrets needs to be developed and possibly dealt with. Say the truth behind Mash, or what's really up in the closed-off rooms. Clues to the location of the Cultes des Ghoules need to be developed, but there ought to be no pay-off yet; the book will not be found until the third scenario. At least one or two NPCs will end up dead, though possibly not in or around du Bourg's. After all, there's still Hardy's London  townhouse and those two crazy kids to consider.

Third scenario unravels Hardy's plot. The true nature of the crazy kids is revealed, as well as the real reason why Hardy's after the Cultes. That almost certainly ends in death for several people, possibly even a PC if the players have been incautious. Now's the time to find that copy of Cultes, but naturally there's a price to be paid for that as well, probably in blood. No doubt that mummified body in the basement of du Bourg's has a secret or two to reveal. After all, this is all about necromancy, and who better to deliver the final revelations than a man long dead?

Fourth scenario concludes Hardy's plot. Whatever's up with the crazy kids, their nut of a father, and the whatever-it-is that's murdering people left and right, now's the time to bring it to a halt. Maybe it ends with some terrifying ritual straight out of Cultes, or maybe with one final rant from whichever madman is behind this scheme. Then comes the bloodletting, and since this is Technicolor there ought to be a lot of blood to let: servants, passers-by, policemen, doctors, and so on. Theoretically you could dispense with the fourth scenario and have it all happen in the third, but it may be more satisfying - and less confusing - to let Hardy's final conflagration have its own scenario.

At the end of it all the characters will be battered, bruised, but hopefully unbowed, and have their own copy of the Cultes des Ghoules. They also know a lot about du Bourg's, and have some power of their own, either through the optional rules or because they've been reading Mythos texts.

The question is, what happens next?

Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Bookstore, Winter or Spring (Bookhounds of London)

It seems like a long time since I've touched on Bookhounds of London, so for a change of pace in the next few posts I'm going to design a mini campaign for Bookhounds. Of the three potential campaign types, Sordid, Arabesque or Technicolor, I'm going to go for Technicolor. It's not my favorite; I prefer Arabesque, but I see this as a challenge rather than an indulgence.

Technicolor is B-movie stuff, and when I touched on it in a previous post I used the Hammer Horror Satanic Rites of Dracula as an example. Hammer had a love-hate relationship with the British censor; its box office success depended on gore and sex, not necessarily in that order, and to get people's attention it had to push the censors just about as far as it could. If nothing else, public spats with the censor were good publicity, and its films always seemed to find an audience even when, as happened in the later 1960s, it started recycling sets, costumes, even scenes from film to film.

So a Technicolor style game probably ought to concentrate on the immediate viscera. There must be ichor, and in quantity. If ever you've wanted to play around with zombies or alien beings, now's the time to do so. Mummies roaming the Underground, Vampires haunting Westminster, ghouls lurking in the seven great cemeteries of London; these are all concepts that would suit a Technicolor game.

A Technicolor game is also exactly the place you'd expect to find spooky, cobweb-drenched mansions and forgotten crypts, so let's start talking about the Bookstore itself, since you'll be spending a lot of time in its shadowy confines.

The Bookstore is the scenario hub. The characters all devote themselves to its wellbeing. Without the money they earn each month, they'd be out on the street. But it may be more than that. The characters may be, or become, psychologically dependent on the place. Institutionalized, in the same way long term convicts become so used to their prisons that they can't bear to leave.

But how to design it? Let's take some inspiration from another game altogether: Ars Magica.

Ars Magica is one of my all-time passions, but it's been a long time since I had a chance to play. One of the things that attracted me to that system was its emphasis on troupe-style gaming, and its willingness to make the wizard's Covenant, the place where they all lived, a vibrant part of the setting. Too often a castle is just a castle, but the Covenant was always more than that. In all the games I played and many of the ones I ran, the Covenant was as much a character as any of the actual players' characters. That's exactly the kind of atmosphere I want in this Bookstore.

In Ars, the Covenant can be in Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter; that is, it can be just starting out, in the height of its powers, just beginning to show signs of age, and in near terminal decay. The decision to set the game in one particular season determines the tone of the campaign. But Ars isn't a horror game, so it can utilize the hope and confidence that comes with being at the height of your powers in Summer, or the preening arrogance of Autumn. Bookhounds is a horror game, and therefore doesn't suit either Summer or Autumn play types. I'm going to suggest that, in Bookhounds, the store is always either in Spring or Winter, never any other season.

What does this mean? Well, in Spring, you're just starting out. Like any new business, the store could collapse at any moment, for any number of reasons. 'The challenges are many, and the dull moments few,' says Ars about its Covenants. 'But if the trials and tests can be survived, the rewards are great.' This is a good style of game for new players to the system. It allows them to explore the setting and the rules without interference. It also means they have few resources. The shop's Credit Rating is probably low, and it has almost no important customers.

Whereas in Winter the Bookstore has seen out many decades, and may be on its last legs. It got its start long ago, possibly as early as the 1700s. If its walls could talk, they would scream, no doubt. This is the kind of place that has odd traditions, forgotten corners, and very dangerous secrets. It's probably on its way out, and may not survive to see 1940. But if it does go, it will be in a blaze of malignant glory. This is the kind of game for experienced players who know Bookhounds, and are happy to play with some of its concepts.

Now we come to the nuts and bolts. What ought this Bookstore be like?

Well, what does any store have? It has stock. It has an entrance, and probably more than one exit. It has furnishings and fittings. It has staff. It may or may not have a delivery van of some kind.  As this is a Bookstore it probably has a lending library. It may have a sideline that is not its main business but which earns a little money, like selling greeting cards, stamps, or other ephemera.

Perhaps most importantly it has character, a concept that's difficult to define but easy to spot. It's the difference between a Barnes and Noble, in which one store is always much like another, or a corner book barn, which is unique unto itself.

A Spring Bookstore doesn't have much of anything. There probably aren't any staff, except for the player characters. It won't have much stock, and its furnishings and fittings are second hand at best. I'm going to say that a Spring Bookstore has, at most, three things about it that are unique and interesting details worthy of description. Also, it probably doesn't have anything really weird about it. Weirdness is the kind of thing that grows over time, not unlike dry rot, and the whole point of a Spring game is that the store hasn't been open long.  Whereas a Winter Bookstore will have five things, since it's been around for decades if not a century or so. It will have many things that are odd about it. Probably also dry rot, but that's another topic altogether.

Ideally you'd get the players to cooperate here and think of a few of these details for themselves. In this example, I'm going to do all that groundwork. I'm also going to posit a Winter Bookstore, since that sounds more interesting to me.

This store has been around for many decades. Let's assume it was founded in 1803, by a French exile, Etienne du Bourg. He fled France during the Revolution, and spent some time in London working for Bonham's before branching out on his own. When he started his bookstore he returned to France several times, secretly, and brought back his own extensive collection of incunabula, which became the stock of his store. Though the store is now run by his thoroughly English heirs, it still retains the old name, du Bourg's. This is all borrowed (a little) from Madame Tussaud's, but what the heck. It works.

The building is classic Georgian architecture with all the Palladian neo-classic frippery that implies. This doesn't mean the business has a lot of money behind it. Its Credit Rating might be low, representing years of mismanagement and bad debts. The structure may look impressive, but be a leaky, damp pit in summer and a freezer in winter. Rats in the basement, mice in the closets, bats in the attic. All the joys of imminent financial disaster, wrapped in a cloak of genteel refinement.

So, about those five things:

History: M Etienne du Bourg, the founder of the business, took a leaf out of Jeremy Bentham's book and had himself mummified after his death in 1833. Unlike Bentham, du Bourg didn't mind so much about the cadaverous appearance of his mummified head, so his corpse - currently enshrined in his alchemical laboratory in the basement of the building - still has all its original parts. By tradition, the owners of the business meet once a year in the laboratory, on du Bourg's birthday. At that time the financial returns of the previous year are read out, and presented to the assembly for approval. The assembled drink to the health of the business and its founder, and the meeting concludes. By tradition the staff and invited guests can attend, but in recent years only the business' owner(s) have gone to the meeting. People do say that M du Bourg wanders his laboratory at night conducting experiments, but nobody's ever proved this one way or the other.

Stock: When M du Bourg recovered his library from Europe he brought with him his extensive collection of the works of Francois Honore-Balfour, Comte d'Erlette, including many rare pamphlets, autographed correspondence, and, of course, Cultes des Ghoules. According to the shop's records du Bourg had three copies of that book, including one described as 'in Cordwain binding,' which it has been alleged is a coded reference to one of the three bound in human skin by Honore-Balfour himself. Over the years many of these items have sold to collectors, while others have gone missing. Only one of the Cultes is supposed to have been sold, at auction in 1870, but nobody knows where the other two are. Legend has it that du Bourg hid the rest of his collection before his death, and successive generations have done their best to find it in hope of rescuing the business with a big sale.

Monster: Ever since its opening du Bourg's has always had a cat, and by tradition this has been a ginger tom, always with the name Maher-shalal-hashbaz. Cat after cat has made mincemeat out of the generations of rats and mice that infest du Bourg's. Recently people have noticed that the latest Mash is just a little more feisty and enthusiastic than its illustrious forbears. In fact it's a Mythos entity, or controlled by a Mythos entity, Keeper's choice as to which. Perhaps its friendly with some ghouls who live nearby and feed it sweetmeats when they visit to have a nosey through the library, or perhaps its a minion of Bast with powers of its own. It has no particular allegiance to the staff or shop, but it's not going to destroy its home on a whim. As to what Mash actually is, well, spoilt for choice really. Perhaps he's king of the cats or some shapechanged thing out of Ken Hite's Writes About Stuff series. Power level relatively low, no more that Health 8 and say 3 to 6 Magic.

Shop: Though the building is large, in recent years the management has stopped using some of the upper floor rooms because of damp problems. At least, that's the excuse management have offered for why several upper floor rooms are permanently locked. But locked they are, and it's more than anyone's job is worth to open them again. Odd noises are heard up there at times, and at night people have reported seeing lights in those deserted rooms. Perhaps it's the secret meeting place of some kind of cult, or perhaps it's haunted. Perhaps it once was the meeting place of a cult, and that's why it's haunted. The only way to know for sure is to go and see.

Staff: Most of the staff are probably player characters, but du Bourg's has been around for a long time. Long enough to accumulate some very curious hangers-on; ancient, crumbling wrecks who dodder from room to room like something out of Titus Groan. Perhaps they know a little Idiosyncratic Magic, or perhaps they just drink all the tea and eat all the biscuits. However Mister Bourg, as he is known, is by far the most senior, and the keeper of all the shop's traditions. Though he may not be the Bourg that actually owns the shop - that role ought to be reserved for a player - he certainly behaves as though he is, and he knows everything there is to know about the place. In the first few sessions he ought to be a fount of knowledge, if not the voice of the Keeper, but as time goes on and the players start showing signs of independence, he'll probably become a minor villain of sorts. If the players decide to sack him, the shops Credit Rating immediately drops by 1, and they'll have earned an enemy for life. Such as it is; someone as aged as Mister Bourg surely can't live that much longer? 

That's enough to be getting on with. By now you should have a clear idea of what du Bourg's is like, how it operates, and the kind of stories it can generate. Note that I've deliberately not mentioned its location. It could be anywhere in London. That's for the Keeper and players to decide for themselves. I've also not gone too deeply into subjects like the bookshop stock or its Credit Rating. Again, that's something best decided by Keeper and players together.


Sunday, 20 March 2016

80 Million and a Spelling Error: Hacking (Night's Black Agents)

When I was just starting out as a low level employee for a financial institution I shall not name, a senior staff member was caught with his fingers in the electronic till. He rigged the system so that, every so often, dormant accounts or trust funds would deposit a trifling amount of money in his personal account. It was never much more than a few dollars, even cents, at a time, but spread over many accounts and over a long period of time those small sums added up to one big payout. He was caught when he went to lunch one day and forgot to lock his machine. Someone came into his office to drop something off, noticed the suspicious activity on his monitor, and passed it on to the higher-ups. It became a police matter very soon after that.

I was reminded of him when I read about the $80 million heist carried out electronically via the Bangladesh Bank. His scheme wasn't original, but it paid off big time, and he would have gotten clean away had he not made a very simple mistake, the kind of error we all make every day. Not quite cautious enough, not quite careful or suspicious enough, and it's game over. It's stories like these that have me paying cash rather than electronic POS whenever I can.

If you haven't already read this one: sophisticated criminals ripped off the central bank of Bangladesh, breaching its systems and then sending requests for money transfer to the US Fed, where Bangladesh Bank had billions stored. Several transfers took place, only for the whole thing to come crashing to a halt when someone misspelled the word Foundation as Fandation on one of the request forms. If that request had gone through the gang - and given the level of preparation it probably was a gang - would have made off with at least a billion, and probably more, since there's no reason to think they would have stopped until Bangladesh's accounts were empty. An IT expert who publicly voiced suspicion that apathetic bank officials had, at the very least, contributed to the caper through their negligence has gone missing. The bank's governor resigned; apparently his employees failed to tell him what had happened, and he only found out about the heist when it hit the papers. Though the bank has said it expects to recover some of the money it seems likely that the bandits will make a clean getaway. Most of it went to casinos in the Philippines, presumably so it could be efficiently laundered, and as a consequence the Philippines may once again be blacklisted by the Money Laundering Task Force. This is all the more important for the Philippines because there are elections coming in May; this kind of news is the last thing the ruling Liberal party needs. At least $30 million in cash ended up in the hands of an ethnic Chinese in Manila, but as for the rest, it could be anywhere.

So what does this story tell us about what it takes to be a hacker in Night's Black Agents?

To begin with, as discussed in last week's post on black baggers, you have to know a lot about human nature and how organizations work. Whoever did this had to know how Bangladesh Bank operated. They probably studied the habits of bank employees for some time before making a move, both in the real world and via keylogger virus or similar on their work machines. They knew when to strike, and how, for maximum impact.

This has been the case since time immemorial, which in computer terms goes back all the way to last week Tuesday. I have on my bookshelf Secrets of a Super Hacker by someone writing under the pseudonym Knightmare. It's hopelessly out of date from a technical perspective - if ever I want to know how to cut up an 8 inch floppy, Knightmare has me covered - but its lessons on interpersonal interaction and information finding are still very relevant. One chapter's devoted to social engineering, another to reverse social engineering, and he spends a remarkable amount of time discussing the joys of dumpster diving and how information found in the trash can help you pillage companies' accounts.

Speaking of, I wonder what Bangladesh Bank did with its trash. Even today banks generate so much paper, reams of physical data. You'd like to think it was all shredded, pulped or otherwise rendered unreadable. But maybe not; after all, Kapersky Labs has a very beautiful interactive map that claims Bangladesh is, at time of writing, the 41st most attacked country in the world. These things don't happen by chance. That same map says Russia is #1 - not an award to be proud of, hope those nuclear silos are doing just fine - Vietnam is #3, the US is #2, and most of Europe seems to be hovering in the 10s and 20s. Apart from Norway, Sweden and Finland, which are #133, #87 and #149. Come on, guys, Finland's not that bad. I know some great Finns. Don't be shy. Bear in mind this is real time data, so by the time you read this everything will have changed, with the possible exception of the top 2.

Incidentally, Kapersky, I notice Bermuda doesn't even feature on the map. Way to hurt my feelings, fellas.

So we're looking at Bureaucracy, Human Terrain, and probably Reassurance to reflect social engineering, and Urban Survival for those dumpster diving expeditions. The hacker is an urban animal; no hiking through the piney woods and living off fresh caught fish or beef jerky for this bunch. A decent Infiltration pool might also be helpful, for breaking into installations and making off with the contents of the shredder. With enough dedication almost anything can be pieced back together. It isn't about whether it can be done, but rather if it's worth the effort. Research is a must, as is Traffic Analysis. Depending on whether or not the hacker makes a dishonest crust by, say, fleecing banks in Bangladesh, or catching those who do, points in Streetwise or Criminology might be in order.

While the hacker is probably the least athletically inclined of all the Night's Black Agents types, it would be a very foolish player who didn't put some points in self defense. However pools in Mechanics and Surveillance are more likely. You're the one who watches, not the one who goes in with a cosh and a black bag.

With all that in mind, consider this example:


One sentence: Former Nollywood actor and con artist shooting for the big leagues.

Investigative: Accounting 1, Bureaucracy 1, Bullshit Detector 3, Cryptography 1, Data Recovery 2, Electronic Surveillance 2, Human Terrain 2, High Society 1, Research 1, Traffic Analysis 1, Reassurance 2, Languages 2, Streetwise 1, Urban Survival 1

General: Athletics 8, Cover 10, Digital Intrusion 15, Disguise 6, Health 8, Infiltration 10, Mechanics 4, Network 15, Shooting 8 (base 14, with special weapons training), Stability 7, Surveillance 5, Sense Trouble 1.

MOS: Digital Intrusion (silly not to, really).

Cherries: Athletics (Parkour), Digital Intrusion (cracker's cryptid), Infiltration (open sesame), with special weapons training in the AK47. I picture this as an actor's conceit, for when Kayo decides to relive his glory days in Mafia Soldiers or the like.

As has become traditional, let's end this with a scenario seed:

A not for profit has announced a competition, the Shreddathon Challenge, to see who can be the first to piece together five sets of shredded documents, with $50,000 going to the winner. One team, the Hatfall Brigade, was coming very close to this goal with its specially designed computer program, but just as the final pieces were coming together three of the five programmers were brutally murdered, and the program was stolen. Shortly afterward the hacking community discovers that the not for profit hosting the challenge only ever existed in cyberspace; its backers have disappeared. What happened to the team, and what was the Shreddathon Challenge really all about?

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Breaking and Entering: Hatton Garden & Black Baggers (Night's Black Agents)

In the wake of the famous Hatton Garden heist, let's talk about infiltration and the role of the Black Bagger in Night's Black Agents.

For those not familiar with what journalists are calling the Crime of the Century, in brief: in April 2015 a gang of career criminals and pensioners made off with, at minimum, a little over $20 million in jewels, gold and other valuables in a clever and meticulously planned raid on an underground safety deposit facility at Hatton Garden, well known as a center of London's jewelry trade. The burglary took place over Easter bank holiday weekend, when the neighborhood was basically shut down, bar a few CCTV and passers-by. They got in via a lift shaft, drilled through into the vault, and carried the loot off in wheelie bins. It wasn't until five days had passed that the police got involved - though they were aware the alarm had been triggered long before -  by which time it was far too late to do anything about it.

It's worth noting that although estimates are a minimum of $20 million, the actual total could be in excess of $280 million. Most of the depositors went to Hatton Garden because they thought it was safe, but more importantly, discreet; anything could have been down in the vault, and probably was. The security company that managed the vault has since gone out of business. Neighbors heard the drilling, but thought it was roadworks, and while the police did get an automatic alarm, it was given a low priority grade which meant nobody was dispatched to see what was going on.

All in all, a triumph of Britishness over efficiency, while the criminals themselves, also impeccably British, have since been collared and are in the dock.

So, what do you need to be an infiltration expert?

To begin with, technical knowledge. It takes skill to operate a drill. A decent Mechanics pool is a must, in addition to Infiltration, and Architecture is a good pick. Reasonable physical health is also advisable, though you wouldn't know it from the Hatton Garden criminals, who all seem to be on death's door for one reason or another. That means Athletics, though possibly not on the scale of The Amazing Yen.

Extensive planning is crucial, which means a fair sized Preparedness pool for those moments when everything seems to be going wrong on a scale not usually seen outside of Invisible Inc. Or you could just go mad and actually plan out a scheme from soup to nuts. Not something I'd recommend, but it takes all sorts.

More important, though, seems to be an understanding of human nature and how organizations work. The Hatton Garden raid took place at exactly the right time, and there's every reason to think the missing Basil might be an ex-policeman, which might explain how the crooks could be so confident that there would be no immediate response to the alarm. That suggests Urban Survival, Bureaucracy and Human Terrain, in addition to the expected Streetwise.

Criminals of this sort are often described as charming, which isn't that surprising if you think about it. Much like hacking or detective work, infiltration often requires significant social engineering. You need to be able to talk your way to the target, or to information that gets you closer to the target. That in turn suggests Flattery, Flirting, Reassurance, and possibly also Disguise, though that last isn't strictly necessary.

Where the Hatton Garden mob seems to have let itself down is in its lack of Electronic Surveillance knowledge. The thieves all sat around in the pub yakking about the crime, and the police listened in. CCTV footage was carefully examined for each least hint of the robbery, which allowed the police to work out who did what when. That, and overconfidence, is why they're in the dock now. Except of course for Basil, that alleged ex-policeman, who probably also knew how the police would go about tracking the criminals down.

With that in mind, here's an example of the kind of Bagger build I'm talking about:


One sentence: A former Flying Squad operative who became a little too fond of the high life.

Investigative: Architecture 3, Bureaucracy 2, Cop Talk 1, Data Recovery 1, Electronic Surveillance 2, Flattery 2, Human Terrain 2, Interrogation 1, Law 1, Photography 2, Reassurance 2, Streetwise 1, Tradecraft 2, Urban Survival 1

General: Athletics 14, Conceal 2, Cover 10, Digital Intrusion 2, Gambling 10, Health 8, Infiltration 8, Mechanics 10, Network 15, Preparedness 8, Stability 8, Shooting 6, Weapons 4.

MOS: Infiltration. The cherries Swiss Army Prep (Mechanics), Luck of the Devil (Gambling) and In the Nick of Time (Preparedness) work well together, creating a situation in which Basil has a plan for everything, even when there is no plan.

Let's close off with a scenario seed.

The papers are calling it the Crime of the Century. Sophisticated thieves have broken into a safety deposit vault and made off with the contents, which happen to include something the Conspiracy is very interested in and would rather not have lost. Heat is rising, as assassins and police converge on every possible hiding place, port of departure, and haven. All the usual criminal safe houses are off limits, and the body count is rising rapidly. Everyone wants to know what happened to the loot, and until that question gets an answer corpses will keep piling up.

One of the black baggers reaches out to your protagonists through a trusted contact. This thief wants safe passage out of the city, and is willing to pay a high price. Can they get the black bagger out alive, when the undead and the cops are breathing down everyone's neck? And what really did happen to that artefact the crooks are supposed to have stolen, anyway?

That's it for now. Enjoy!