Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Disney, Esoterror, and You: The Haunted Mansion (Esoterrorists)

I've been thinking about this ever since seeing some very evocative photographs over on the Long-Forgotten blog. The blog's creator is a long-time fan of the Haunted Mansion, and was lucky enough to be one of the first kids to ride it when it opened back in 1969. There aren't many people I envy, but I admit I'd have loved to have been on that ride. Imagine seeing it for the first time, so fresh you could smell the paint; or more likely, the brimstone!

For those of you who haven't been lucky enough to visit the original attraction, the Haunted Mansion (First Edition) is part of the California park. The next version opened in 1971 in Florida, and is, broadly speaking, a copy of the original, though longer and more elaborate. Since then there have been other versions of the Mansion opened in Disney's other parks, but they tend to diverge significantly from the California concept. The Hong Kong version, for example, doesn't bother too much with ghosts and spooks, since that doesn't really fit with local lore.  If you're wondering what the ride looks like, take a wander over to YouTube.

As you can probably guess, the Mansion isn't really a Mansion at all; it's one huge elevator, leading down into the bowels of the earth. From there, you go on the ride, and your spooktacular tour begins. It really was a stroke of genius on someone's part, to mount a separate speaker system in each of the Doombuggies. Not only does it mean the Voice is coming from behind the guest, it also means that each guest has their own guided tour, making the experience seem more intimate.

There was a lot of discussion in the planning stages as to what, exactly, the Haunted Mansion was supposed to be. Was it meant to be scary? Funny? Ought it to incorporate existing Disney characters, like the Headless Horseman, or the spooks from Mickey's 1937 short Lonesome Ghosts? Ought it to be a ride, or a walk-through attraction?

Disney himself was adamant that the experience fit his personal vision, and that did not include anything that might detract from the park as he conceived it. His park was Mainstream USA, clean and neat; Disney didn't see a tumbledown shack as part of his grand conceit. That nixed much of the imagineers' first concepts, and meant that the Haunted Mansion as we know it became a rather clean and pleasant looking place, from the outside anyway.

As for the scare-vs-funny divide, the final decision was to split the difference. Rather than have a completely scary or completely funny experience, all the macabre thrills are put up-front, in the first few minutes of the tour. Later, in all scenes after the gypsy Madame Leota summons up the spectral inhabitants, the scenes are skewed towards comic relief. The final word is had by a character called Little Leota, based in part on cemetery arrangement hostesses seen in 1965's The Loved One. 'Hurry back! Hurry back! Be sure to bring your death certificate, if you decide to join us. We're just dying to have you.'

I do wonder what Disney does if someone decides to join the Mansion, perhaps by having their ashes scattered over the ride. Human nature being what it is, someone must have tried by now. If I were Disney, I'd be tempted to offer it as an ultra-private perk only available to special guests, say, members of Club 33. There will be people out there willing to pay over the odds for those bragging rights. 'Come visit me when I'm gone, I'll be in the Graveyard with the Grim Grinning Ghosts!'

The security's pretty tight - some of them even carry firearms, though it's very doubtful you'd ever see them if you visit the park - and for good reason. Millions of people pour through each park each month. With those people come the usual assortment of shoplifters, petty thieves and other ne'er-do-wells but, more to the point, with that massive crowd comes an equally massive crowd management problem. Disney's goal has always been to function like clockwork. Nothing is allowed to go wrong, and if by some chance it does, the problem can't last long. Achieving that kind of smooth functioning demands tight control over everything that happens on the premises.

Disney has its own lore. Yes, among it is the ashes-in-the-Mansion bit. Yes, there's the occasional ghost story. There's also one about someone having a heart attack on the Mansion ride because it was so scary. Now, I very much doubt that anyone was actually frightened to death by the Mansion, but it raises an interesting point. What does happen when someone dies at the park?

Again, life is like that: people die all the time, often on vacation, and the Mansion's been going for nearly fifty years. Odds are pretty fair that, of the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people who've poured through the LA Mansion day in, day out since 1969, someone's had a life-threatening incident. What happens next? There's probably a clinic in the park somewhere. Is there a morgue?

Walt's ghost is supposed to haunt the LA park, and while technically that myth focuses on his apartment, one of the Mansion myths is that Disney used to live there. This one springs from the Mansion's long build time. It took eight years from initial announcement till opening day in 1969 for the attraction to complete, and rumor had it this was in part because the Mansion wasn't intended as an attraction at all. It was a ruse; Disney wanted somewhere he could live in peace, without being distracted by visitors all the time. Or perhaps Disney's frozen corpse is kept safe in the park, and though that particular legend is tied to the Pirates ride, we know where Disney would really rather be ...

Or here's a good one: whose hearse is that outside the Mansion? It's not Brigham Young's ... could it be someone else's final carriage ride? After all, it was a working hearse at one time, which would make it possibly the only part of the Mansion that's actually come into contact with a dead body at some point in its career.

Now with all that in mind, let's leave reality behind for a moment, and talk about how this can be used in an RPG scenario. While the Esoterrorists are the most obvious bad actors in this story, there's really no reason why this couldn't also be a Fear Itself setting.

Assuming Esoterrorists, then the cell is almost certainly made up of Submissives for the most part, led by either a Dominant or an Attention Seeker. If an Attention Seeker, then one interesting concept would be a rogue Imagineer determined to restore the Mansion to its intended, spooky glory. A Dominant could be a park supervisor, perhaps one who's been working with Disney for many years. Someone who's been there since the Mansion opened in 1969 is probably facing retirement by now, if they haven't already retired; perhaps that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Or the group could as easily have nothing to do with the park; they could be uber-fans of the Mansion, or Disney-obsessed folklorists, conspiracy nuts, what have you.

As for the rumor, what about this:

Every year, at Halloween, if you're lucky, you'll find the Mansion as it was meant to be. Only a few people each year get to visit it, and of those few, only a handful get out alive. Imagineer Ken Anderson had great plans for the Mansion, but Disney nixed 'em; now, each year on Halloween, Anderson gets his revenge ...

The great thing about this scheme is that Anderson's original concept drawings still exist, and are easily found. The internal schematics show it as Anderson originally designed the attraction, as a walk-through exhibit, perhaps with Tiki Magic. We also have excellent exterior elevations by Sam McKim, showing the old, dilapidated New Orleans mansion as it was originally conceived. The Keeper almost doesn't have to do the work at all; the whole thing could be an improv romp, with these drawings as the impetus. Blogger HBG2 really has outdone himself with Long-Forgotten. Kudos!

On that note, let me bring this tour to a close. I hope you enjoyed your visit! Remember to tip your guide. Unpleasant things may happen if you don't ...

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Haw Haw (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London)

Lord Haw Haw, like Tokyo Rose, was a propaganda broadcaster during the Second World War, who each night told the people of Britain that the war was a hopeless cause, and that Nazi victory was inevitable. There were several broadcasters who wore the Haw Haw mantle, but the one I'm interested in is William Joyce, who presents a unique opportunity for a Trail or Bookhounds Keeper. Theoretically he could also show up in a Night's Black Agents game, particularly if, in your Dracula Dossier, you're running the 1940s campaign. That's the great thing about the radio; it doesn't matter where you are. You don't have to find it. It will find you.

However from a Bookhounds perspective, the bit you're interested in is Joyce's pre-war career.

Though born in New York to Irish immigrants, Joyce's parents soon returned home to Galway, Ireland, where he spent his youth, and where he is now buried. Following what he claimed was an assassination attempt when he was fifteen, Joyce and his family went to England. Though he attempted to get into the army, he had to lie about his age to do it, and was soon found out. Denied entry to the military, he went back to school, and attended Birkbeck College at the University of London, hoping to go from there into officer training. While he was there he fell in with the British Fascists, thus beginning what was to become a lifelong obsession.

He was an enthusiastic campaigner from the first, and not just as a talking head. Front-line clashes with the political opposition were common in those days, and Joyce had his face slashed open in a brawl with Communist agitators. He claimed ever afterward that his attacker was a Jew. However for all his faults one thing Joyce didn't lack was physical courage, and he soon had a reputation as a brawler.

It was an age of street battles. Cable Street is the most notorious, with Stockton-on-Tees a close second. People fought with whatever they could get their hands on; it might be a chair leg, a chamber pot, or a thrown potato with a razor blade stuck in it. Confrontations tended to be violent and bloody, but with few, if any, fatalities. Joyce was in the thick of it. It was the kind of thing he enjoyed.

His great talent was for public speaking. He could electrify an audience, and soon became one of the British Union of Fascists' leading speakers. Under Sir Oswold Mosley, Joyce soon rose to great heights in the BUF, standing for Parliament under the Fascist banner, and ran the West Sussex branch of the party. Youth groups, rallies, public events, Blackshirt marches; Joyce turned West Sussex into a Fascist stronghold.

He maintained this position until 1937. He had hoped that, come the revolution, Mosley would make him Viceroy of India, but events turned out differently. The 1937 elections had been the party's goal, and it spent time and effort grooming candidates, only for its major political supporter, Lord Rothermere, to withdraw funding. Without its most influential backer, the BUF had to tell its supporters to abstain, and fight for fascism in the next election. Little did Mosley know what was to come; war would interrupt the electoral process, and there would be no election till 1945.

Without a victory in 1937, and lacking a big-money patron, Mosley had to cut back on BUF expenditure. One of those fired in the ensuing cuts was Joyce, who found himself at a loose end. Though he tried to stay in politics, and split with his former friend Mosley, by 1939 it was very clear to him that, if he stayed in Britain, he would be arrested and interned. Joyce and his wife fled to Germany, where they stayed for the duration. At war's end Joyce was tried and hung as a traitor, for his Haw Haw broadcasts. He was 39 years old.

From a Keeper's point of view, Joyce's main use is as an antagonist, though, in a Bookhounds setting, he could conceivably also be a patron. Any campaign involving Radicals could easily have Joyce as a prime mover, and if there genuinely are Nazi agents roaming around London looking for occult tomes, Joyce is bound to be assisting them.

There's no suggestion that Joyce was superstitious in any way, or believed in the occult, but a fictionalized version could easily turn him into a kind of Svengali figure, using his (Mythos inspired) hypnotic voice to sway crowds. Theoretically he could even be an avatar, or dupe, of Nyarlathotep, since the Old One likes causing chaos and disaster and Joyce is in a prime position to do it.

On one famous occasion Sherlock Holmes himself tackled the Fascists, tracking down and defeating a fictionalized Haw Haw. That suggests a potential Dust Thing connection. Suppose the Dust Things decided to oppose Joyce and his Fascist friends, perhaps because of a book burning that Joyce organized. What better way to get the protagonists to act as their allies against Joyce, than to recruit Sherlock Holmes himself, and get Holmes to lead the protagonists into battle? Best suited to an Arabesque style game, but - particularly if one of the protagonists is deluded into thinking he or she is Holmes - it could be an excellent roleplay opportunity for gamers who enjoy a bit of Baker Street sleuthing with their Mythos madness.      

With all that in mind, William Joyce:

Athletics 10, Driving 4, Electrical Repair 6, Explosives 2, Firearms 6, Fleeing 6, Health 8, Mechanical Repair 4, Scuffling 9, Weapons 8. In a Pulp game, assuming use of Hypnosis, then Joyce has Hypnosis 5/15, the number after the slash representing the bonus he might get as a Mythos-powered Svengali figure.

Alertness Modifier: +1
Stealth Modifier: 0

Damage: -2 (fist), -1 (knife, thrown brick or razor blade), +0 (handgun)

Special: Joyce can summon Radicals (Bookhounds page 55) to do his bidding. He can command the allegiance of up to 20 Radicals at a time, perhaps sending them on missions or using them as bodyguards. Radicals tend to have few useful General abilities, but are handy to have around when you want someone beaten up or knifed. This is in addition to any forces he may have at his disposal as a Nazi spy or Mythos agent, assuming he is one. 

Monday, 16 November 2015

Exercising the Mind

A while back I talked about finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places. As a result, I wrote a mini scenario based around a restaurant in Athens, the To Treno. As you're probably aware by now, I also write short fiction, and I thought I'd use this time to demonstrate one way of structuring and creating short fiction.

Again I'm going to use one of the Guardian's Top Ten lists. This time it's ten of the best hidden bars in New York, which I'm going to use as a jumping-off point. There are all kinds of options here - I particularly like the Blind Barber - but I think I'm going to go with the No Name in Brooklyn. It has a lot of things I find attractive, particularly that anonymous door, the atmosphere, and that it's open all hours so it gets an eclectic crowd. You can just picture it on, say, a Monday night after the restaurants shut down, and there's no civilians on the streets, just the parade of night workers and after hours people who keep the city running. It works, as a setting, for the tale I want to tell.

Now, a short story usually has to be something around four to seven thousand words. Seven's actually a little high. Most of the outlets I've submitted for so far have insisted on a four thousand word cut-off. What that means is you need to get in there quick. You haven't got time to waste on establishing shots and sentences that go nowhere but look pretty. The focus has to be on getting the most done in the least amount of time.

What do you really need? Well, you need at least one protagonist. Supporting characters can be useful, but aren't essential. You need the setting, which we've already established is going to either be the No Name, or be very like the No Name. Then you need a problem, something to spur the protagonist to action. That action will drive the story forward.

What's the best kind of protagonist for this sort of story? Well, bars need bartenders. This person could be a talented mixologist, the kind of person who wins awards and acclaim. He could be a flair bartender, the sort you might have seen in the movies.It can be fascinating to watch; I dread to think how many bottles are sacrificed to the floor paving in order make a talent like that.

Designing a character can be relatively simple. In fact we've discussed this before, when I talked about villain design, and campaign planning. The same tactics that work there, work here. We don't have as much time here to flesh out every least detail, so rather than answer every possible question I intend to focus on the basics:

  • What is the character’s name, age, ethnicity and gender?
  • Name three physical attributes.
  • What is a problem the character faces?
  • What is a secret the character hopes nobody finds out about?
Since I've been on a bit of a Dracula Dossier kick, I think this time the protagonist will be Romanian, a recent arrival in the US. Female, early twenties, and since the Dossier's kind enough to give some name options, she'll be Timea Barbu.

Tall, muscular, and dark hair that she secretly hates, for physical attributes. She's tried dye jobs, but they never work the way she'd like.

Her problem is that one of her least favorite customers has come in the wrong door of the bar. See below for more information about that.

Her secret is that she hopes nobody finds out she's a vampire hunter. She's trying to get out of the life, which is why she left Romania and why she's working as a bartender now.

That brings us to the problem that the character faces, which I alluded to earlier. That problem will spur her to action, which in turn drives the plot. Now, one of the simpler ways of structuring this kind of story is by giving her what amounts to a series of problems, each of which feeds into the other, in the same way that one scene feeds into another in a Night's Black Agents game. The point being that her initial action moves her forward by further complicating the initial problem. Each attempt she makes to solve her difficulty drives her further and further into the plot.

Generally speaking, you can allow for up to three steps in a short story. The initial obstacle, and her proposed solution, drives us to the second obstacle, which in turn leads to a proposed solution. That solution drives us to the third obstacle, and resolution. Obviously in a longer story you can develop this further, but this is short fiction, and we don't have the time for that.

As a rule of thumb, you can perhaps allow as much as a thousand words to establish the setting and the initial problem. The next thousand can deal with her first proposed solution, and so on. Since we've got a cap of about four thousand words, there's only so many times you can get away with that before you run out of words.

With that in mind, the structure is:

  • Initial thousand establishes the bar, Timea, and the problem.
    • The No Name has two doors, each of which is marked only by an antique knocker, no sign. The difference is that one door is used exclusively by normals, ordinary humans. The other is used exclusively by the spirits, undead, and other unnaturals, also out for a good time. So long as they all stick to their own doors, normals can't 'see' specials, and vice versa. Tonight, one of the normals has decided to break the rules. Well, decided probably isn't the best way of putting it; he's drunk as two skunks, and managed to find the wrong door handle by accident.
      • Proposed solution: get him out the door, quick. Unfortunately one of the specials spots him, and decides to keep him in the bar, as a kind of mascot. Or maybe a snack.
    • OK, if Timea can't get the normal out of the bar, she needs to keep the special occupied. If he's not paying attention to the normal because Timea's putting on a show, then maybe the normal can slip out. Or maybe Timea's bar-back can help out by getting the normal outside.  
      • That didn't go so well. Sure, the special's attention is occupied, but so is the normal, which means he isn't leaving. Plus the bar-back, a Penanggalan, scares him silly. Normal's beginning to sober up, which could be very bad for everyone.
    • New plan. Keep the normal drinking, or he'll sober up, and if he sobers up he'll start to question what he's seeing. Also, keep the special drinking, because that way the special won't have the wherewithal to do anything drastic.
      • Ah, nuts. The normal's settling down, after the Penanggalan scare, but the special's just getting belligerent. 
    • Final option. It's closing time, folks. Timea offers to walk the normal home. At least that way the special won't eat him. Except the special really, really wants to eat him ...
      • Resolution! One way or the other ...
There you have it! Once this story is finished it will appear on my Patreon. If I can finish it before the 20th, it will appear this month; if not, then it will appear next month, and something else will fill the slot.

I hope you found this entertaining!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Nodes, Glorious Nodes pt 2: Unusual Suspects (Night's Black Agents)

When designing a Node, one of the questions the Director has to ask is what role this Node has in the ongoing conspiracy. Another question, well worth asking, is how can the Director make this Node unusual? Jaded players will soon become weary with the Too Big To Fail Evil Bank scenario, or the Subverted Paramilitary Force. Some Node types will seem so obvious that they might as well have We Are Extremely Naughty tattooed on their employees' foreheads. Also, they'll have too many Capital Letters, but that's a different problem altogether. The question is, how to come out of left field and surprise the players with something new and interesting?

With that in mind, let's discuss some Node concepts that might just catch your players off-guard.

  • The Biker Gang. While this is a close cousin of the paramilitary force, it does have some characteristics of its own well worth addressing. Take Putin's furry friends the Night Wolves, for example. These cheerful Cossacks take it as an article of faith that wherever they go, they take Russia with them. They're big fans of Stalin, have ridden with Putin himself, and have fought in the Crimea. In short, it's as much a political organization as it is a biker movement, and with 5,000 members in the fold, it has a fair amount of clout. Or consider that well-known glee club, the Hell's Angels. It's got chapters all over the world, and its membership has been accused of involvement in narcotics smuggling, as well as violent crimes too numerous to mention. In short, a Conspiracy-led biker gang has all kinds of potential benefits. It can be used as muscle, to smuggle goods across borders, as political activists, or just as good old-fashioned first with the most cavalry. 
  • Food suppliers. There's a lot of money in milk, as Parmalat proved. This Italian dairy products supplier managed to burn through eight billion Euro in a complex financial fraud and money laundering scheme, before its castle in the sky crumbled. At one point it claimed it had an account with four billion tucked away in the Caymans, a fiction that soon unraveled. In the Conspiracy, a front like this could be used to cover up all kinds of financial tricks. Or you could hit the headlines the old fashioned way, by selling tainted product. In 2013 it was revealed that many meat suppliers in Europe had been selling horse meat and calling it beef. One of the companies, a French supplier named Spanghero, had been getting its 'beef' direct from Romania, which opens up all kinds of intriguing possibilities. Leaving aside whether or not you happen to like horsemeat, the bigger issue was that horses, particularly race horses, can be given medication like Phenylbutazone which can lead to fatal liver degeneration in humans, when combined with other medication. Why should vampires taint the human food chain? For all sorts of reasons, not least of which might be improving the taste, but this plot point might work better with Mutant or Alien vampire types. 
  • Cleaners. Nobody cleans their own property any more; they outsource. Whether it's a high-end corporation buying itself some peace of mind, or a domestic service that handles individual tenancies, there's a lot of people out there who'd rather pay someone else to dust than lift a finger. But in so doing they invite strangers into their homes or place of work, strangers with no loyalty to them, just to the paycheck. How better to insert spies into someone's organization? Or to disguise a forensic clean-up operation, tasked with making potential crime scenes go away? Probably best left as a low-level Node, but an extremely useful one in a pinch. Concepts allied with the Cleaners include car and limo rental services, as well as more formal outfits like domestic service trainers
  • Construction companies. If you think there's money in milk, you should see the bottom line of companies like McAlpine's. Not only are there fortunes to be made, those fortunes can be made all over the world. Need a hospital here, a road network there? Not a problem. Plus, since a typical international construction chain will work for just about anyone, the company's well used to dealing diplomatically with all sorts of people. This is another Node that can make large amounts of money seem legitimate, or just bury it in paper losses incurred abroad. However its main use is in building things. Want a hidden vault, an underground bunker under your decaying mansion, or just to make an inconvenient archaeological site disappear? Get the builders in, and you'll soon see your problems vanish under a ton of concrete.
That's it for the moment. I hope you found this useful! Enjoy.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Hated Volunteer (Night's Black Agents)

I've been digging around some ideas for Night's Black Agents scenarios, delving into the murkier waters of offensive counter intelligence. Counter Intelligence, for the purposes of this discussion, is the frustration of attempts by Foreign Intelligence Services (FIS) to penetrate home defenses, sometimes referred to as Defensive Counter Intelligence. Of course, once the attack has been dealt with the option exists to go on the offensive, and turn those enemy units against the FIS that sent them. 

In the course of that investigation I came across this interesting quote:

'The Soviet operational officer, having seen a great deal of the ugly face of communism, very frequently feels the utmost repulsion to those who sell themselves to it willingly. And when a GRU or KGB officer decides to break with his criminal organization, something which fortunately happens quite often, the first thing he will do is try to expose the hated volunteer.'

That lends itself to some interesting possibilities. 

Consider what happens when a Conspiracy asset decides it has had enough. That might happen for any number of reasons, but when it happens, that asset is going to be in a position to burn a number of FIS assets. The assets it is most likely to burn first are, by the logic of the above quote, the hated volunteers, the ones who walked into this hoping to become vampires.

Let's take a Level Three Node, which means it's at the provincial level. A racket within a larger mafia, a company, merchant bank, brokerage, university and so on. Let's say for the sake of this discussion that it's a university, which has been co-opted by the Conspiracy for its research. It doesn't matter whether that research is pharmaceutical, medical, or archaeological. All that matters is that the research it carries out is of great interest to the Conspiracy.

Now, the Head of Research and whatever Boards govern the university are completely penetrated. They'd have to be, to avoid embarrassing leaks. But within the organization there are going to be dozens of support staff, postgraduate students, professors and researchers, all of whom probably suspect that something's off, but who don't necessarily know the true state of affairs.

It's from that pool of support staff I intend to draw the Hated Volunteer. That person - there may be more than one - has discovered the true nature of the Conspiracy, and wants in. The Volunteer has participated in Conspiracy activity willingly, whether it's helping human traffickers move 'research subjects', conducting Satanic rituals, or something equally depraved.

Assume that the Head of Research is having second thoughts about her involvement with the project. Her love of research, she realizes, has become tainted by the Conspiracy's crass short-sightedness. She wants out, and she wants to take her research findings with her.

That asset is going to want to secure her position within her new home, whether that's Edom or some other agency. In order to do that, she's going to be throwing as much of the Conspiracy under the proverbial bus as she can manage, but the very first to go are going to be those Volunteers. These are people within her own department, her colleagues, people she may have spent a lot of time with. But she hates them, because they willingly involved themselves in corruption. Note that the asset was probably a Volunteer herself at some point, but the irony doesn't occur to her; or if it does, she doesn't care. 

Now pitch your players in, and see what develops. The characters need to separate fact from fiction; are these people being served up on a platter actually part of the Conspiracy, and if so, what's their function? Are they being fed a poison pill, sweeping up a few low-level conspirators while the Conspiracy uses the goodwill generated by the defecting asset to slip in disinformation? Can the defecting asset be protected against retaliation, and transferred to a new, safe location?

Consider the example scenario in the main book, (S)Entries. That scenario assumes that a Canadian NATO officer and logistics expert, Brigadier-General Lennart, has collected data on his laptop which somebody wants. One question worth asking is, why did Lennart do that? 

Note that none of the information below is part of the scenario as written, and very little of it will count as a spoiler, since the information about Lennart is part of the characters' briefing at the start of the scenario.

Say Lennart is actually a Conspiracy asset, and has been using his position within NATO to assist the Conspiracy. Say he did this because he was pushed, rather than volunteered; maybe he was bribed, or threatened. Now he wants out, and is coming up for retirement. He's already contacted a security service that he thinks will help him escape, and has pushed forward his flight date to frustrate Conspiracy countermeasures. 

However in order to prove his bona fides, Lennart had to betray a number of Conspiracy assets within his Node; those Hated Volunteers, people he might have brought into the Conspiracy himself but who took to it like a duck to water. Perhaps his aide, Captain Sebring, is one such. 

This could complicate the characters' lives considerably. If they were brought in by the Conspiracy, wittingly or otherwise, to complete the mission, then the Hated Volunteers might help them get away with it. If they were hired by a third party, it might be that same security agency that Lennart went to hoping for rescue. The agency couldn't bring itself to trust Lennart, but it does trust Lennart's data, and it's willing to sacrifice a few deniable assets to get it. In that scenario, the characters could easily end up burned by the agency that hired them, and also in the bad books of the Conspiracy, which thinks the characters were probably involved in the uprooting of its Hated Volunteers. Of course, it was actually the shadowy third party that did that, but why should the Conspiracy believe it?

That's enough for now. Enjoy!

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Not Quite Review Corner: Til Morning's Light (iOS, Android)

As it's Halloween, and I have a busy day ahead, I'm just going to pop in for a moment or two and tell you about this moderately spooky title: Til Morning's Light, a puzzle adventure game by WayForward, distributed by Amazon's game section, available for iOS and Android.

It's the perennial problem. You want to go all Silent Hill, but you've got young spawn in the house, and you're not convinced that the sexual subtext of Pyramid Head and the Nurses will really go down well either with the sproglets, or your disapproving in-laws. How to best introduce them to the genre? Well, you could do a lot worse than try out this $2.99 title.

You play as Erica, a teen bullied into spending the night in a spooky old house. Now you can't get out, and monsters are crawling out of the woodwork to eat you alive. Maybe, just maybe, there's a way out around here somewhere. If you don't die trying to find it.

Expect to think your way through a lot of puzzles, find a bunch of keys, and beat up some nasty bosses along the way. There's plenty of folks in the house determined to add you to their ghost collection, and none of them are pushovers.

Let's talk about challenges. The puzzles are pretty standard stuff; find quest objects, use them in a certain way - make a stew, repair a phonograph, fix a clock, hold down a pressure pad - and you unlock keys, items or other things that will make your life easier. None of them are brain breakers, some of them are moderately challenging. Usually the clues needed to decypher the puzzle are near the puzzle bits, and, if you get frustrated, you can use the coins you've been picking up along the way to solve the puzzle for you.

Which is a good thing, because otherwise there really isn't all that much use for the gold and silver Erica snaffles up like a currency-mad truffle pig. Sure, there's an in-game shop you can use, but I didn't find the items in it that important. I ended up with about 7,000 in my pocket by the end, and no idea what to spend it on.

Combat is fairly straightforward. Poke or swipe the screen at just the right time, and you hit. Miss, and the enemy takes a swing at you. Very few of the combat moments were that challenging, but then I've been doing this for a while. Younger gamers may need help getting past the bigger fights.

You start the game with just a flashlight, but later on you can pick up more deadly weapons, like crowbars, hammers, axes and so on. They can only be found in certain places, and you can only carry one at a time. This is important, because some of those weapons are also used to force through locked doors, dig up items, or otherwise get to areas you don't immediately have access to. At the start, the item and the important weapon are usually close to each other, so there's no real problem. Later, after you've been swapping out weapons time and again, you'll start to ask yourself the important questions. 'OK, this is a hammer door. Now, where did I drop that hammer? O GOD! Over there? Really???' Off you trot, through room after cleared room to get the tool you need.

I get the impression the developer might have wanted the game to be more challenging, but cut elements out. For instance, there's a game mechanic that allows you to turn clues over, take a look at the back, or zoom in and out, the inference being that there might be hidden information that will help the player solve the puzzle. Except not really, since it almost never becomes relevant to play, and after a while you forget about the mechanic altogether.  You can also turn the flashlight on and off, implying that there might be significant differences in gameplay depending on whether or not you have light, but that never really developed.

The story's entertaining. The boss characters are just well drawn enough to be interesting, making each defeat a satisfying victory. The atmosphere's spooky, without going into The Shining territory. Erica's a lot of fun to spend time with. She starts out scared for her life - who wouldn't be, really? - but develops into someone determined to see this thing through, even if it kills her. Not the most original of plotlines, but voice actor Stephanie Sheh lends Erica a lot of personality the character badly needs. There's a downbeat coda to the ending that I found really satisfactory, and it has the impact it does because of Stephanie's portrayal. But that verges on spoiler territory ...

Speaking of death, yes, you might go down in a blaze of glory, but it doesn't make a great deal of difference to your game. You lose no items, or progress. Most importantly, for a game with its eye on the younger market, there's no gore to speak of.

The boss fights are fun, without being frustrating. My personal favorite is the second one in, Constance, whose special attack forces Erica to attend her tea party and chat with the ghostly guests. Spend too long in that chat, and you join them forever ...

At a price tag of just under three bucks, you'll probably get about four to six hours of fun if you play it yourself. Someone not as used to gaming may take longer to get through all the challenges. As an introductory title, it has a lot to recommend it. It has all the elements of horror - the spooky house, the ghosts - without actually being horrifying.

On the whole, two thumbs up!

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Time After Time (all RPG titles)

I've been watching a lot of Mad Men recently. This drama, set in the 1960s, does an excellent job of portraying all the little details that make up a world, and it's not just in the obvious points, like male/female relations, or the cars and houses. No, it's in the little things, like the constant cigarette smoking, the way the office completely clears out for lunch, and the perfect dress sense of characters like Don Draper or Joan Harris. A host of little details, swarming together, to create a cohesive whole.

It made me think of the efforts Keepers go through to create a cohesive imaginary campaign world. Mad Men, as with all period pieces, has to show you the time as well as place where everything's happening. However it's always a particular window in time that it wants you to look through. There's no point in pretending that Mad Men is a complete, cohesive and entirely accurate portrayal of the sixties. Instead it selects the kind of sixties it wants you to know about and shows that, because that particular kind of history best suits the story it intends to tell.

The same applies in scenario and campaign structure. If your game is set in the 1920s, it needs to reflect that era. Same for the 1930s, the Victorian period, or indeed for any other period you, as Keeper, intend to portray. But the window that you let the players look through needs to reflect the story you intend to tell.

Let's consider the 1920s for a moment. What kind of period touches make up that decade?

To begin with, there's the Great War. The world's just this minute climbing out of an earth-shattering crisis, one which smashed great nations to dust, and then, mere months later, a plague breaks out that kills something in the region of 100 million people. Those events in combination make everything seem fragile, and contribute to a devil-may-care youth culture determined to have a good time regardless of how awful the world is. Then there's a sweeping rise in transport and communications, linking the furthest reaches of the planet. The automobile reaches its ascendancy, with new roads snaking across the planet, and architects like le Corbusier propose cutting through the great cities of Europe to make way for the car. Psychiatrists like Freud are becoming incredibly popular, even if their work isn't fully understood by the millions of people who swear by psychiatry. In the United States there's the question of Prohibition, and with it a completely new culture in which Federal law enforcement agencies suddenly appear, in great numbers, all over the country, determined to enforce an unpopular new law.

No doubt you can think of many other touches. The point then becomes, which of these touches best suits the story the Keeper intends to tell?

Is it an Innsmouth-style tale of corruption from within, with the ultimate reveal that we are all somehow infected by strange and terrible genetic putrefaction? Then the Keeper will want to concentrate on medical issues, perhaps linking the Spanish Flu, sleeping sickness and all other plagues that sweep through the population to this Mythos decay. The psychiatrists may be fighting a losing battle against the horrors that are hard-coded into the psyche. There could be a dozen different threads, but whatever they are, or become, the Keeper needs to emphasize them again and again in the background details. The characters travel to a decayed New England town, and note among other things that the people living there all suffer from a particular disease. Another outbreak of plague occurs in a far-off land that the characters suspect is a hotbed of Mythos activity. An outbreak of suicides among psychiatrists in, say, New York, suggests that terrible horrors are overwhelming those unlucky souls who try to delve further into the murky recesses of the mind.

Perhaps it's all about the vastness of the machine, and the unknowable Nyarlathotep-inspired creations that we unwittingly construct each day, with our new technology. Then the background details should all be about construction, new developments, architectural marvels, scientific advancement, all leading, of course, to an inevitable and tragic conclusion. Or perhaps its about the destruction of old values and their replacement with new, corrupt ideals. Then the characters could be broken refugees from the Old World, fleeing a land devastated by war, only to discover new tendrils of the Mythos in all these fancy innovations their new home expects them to adopt. Changing hairstyles, attitudes, a lack of respect for religion, the modern whirl and rush, all of these could be signs of Mythos activity.

You take that part of history that works for the story, and you bend it to your liking. Then you show it to the players.

Say you wanted to run a Victorian period game. That's a time of great political upheaval masked by apparent tranquility at the top. You've got revolutionaries brewing up political doctrines, or just ordinary explosives, to be used in acts of terror to support their goals. Small wars are kicking off all over the planet, leaving destruction in their wake. Religion is a much more important part of their lives than it is today, but it's a religion of rules and patterns, a little elderly and creaky. Spiritualism and mediumship are fast becoming more attractive, as an alternative to religion. Scholars like Mayhew are beginning to pay attention to the poor, and to tell the world how the poor live. Massive tidal waves of immigration are sweeping across the Old Country, flowing to the New. People are writing things down, in massive tomes that can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about public decorum, how to behave, how to cook, how to dress, what to see if you're abroad. Indeed, what you know and how you demonstrate your knowledge mark you out as an educated gentleman, or lady; a slip here, a misplaced haitch there, and you damn yourself in the eyes of everyone.

So perhaps you want a story in which the forces of the Mythos are crushing out spirituality and replacing it with ennui and despair. In that case emphasizing the spiritual decay of the church and the rise of corrupting spiritualism is key; the Fox sisters as outriders for Nyarlathotep, or the Cottingley Fairy photographs as inspired by Hastur. Or a story in which strange forces of destruction toil away in the darkness while the world goes by in blissful ignorance. In that event, play up the terrorists, the small wars, the limbless veterans begging in the gutter for their daily bread. Again, you take those aspects of the period that best support your story, and emphasize them.

If you're reading this and reminded of a previous column, Murder Most Foul, there's a reason for that. Both ideas use the same principle. In order to create a broad canvas in which the characters operate, you take relevant details and seed the canvas with them. In Murder, I suggested that a clue found in a newspaper report be juxtaposed with other information which helps build the world in which the characters live.

... it can be something like: ‘buried on page 12, underneath a photo array showing exactly where the Battersea Torso Killer hacked up his victim, you find …’ Or alternatively something like ‘the radio announcer is describing the crowd outside Birmingham Prison, where baby killer Victor Parsons is about to be hung, as the jingle of the doorbell announces the entry of a customer.’ ...

These are throwaway details, yes, but the fact remains that it's when you throw them out, and in what context, that helps build your campaign world. Continuous reinforcement will create the kind of world you want to operate in, without the characters being buried in text dumps and historical research.  

I hope you find this useful. Enjoy!