Sunday, 11 November 2018

London Booty

I'm back!

For the first time in my life I have jet lag. I can't blame the climate, as I had the same problem flying over as I did flying home. I have no idea how this happened. I've always been lag-free. I suppose this is one of those things that goes wrong with age, he says clutching a shawl around his shoulders and sipping tepid tea for fear of excess excitement.

This time out I thought I'd talk about the haul of books and DVDs brought home from faraway places. For those of you wondering what peculiar artifact this Digital Video Disc might be, it's a cinema format I find very useful, for two reasons. First, it's still the most reliable way to find odd, old, and cult cinema, and there are some temples where they might be found. Like Fopp in London within striking distance of the Orc's Nest, Music & Goods Exchange in Greenwich, and Timeslip on Trafalgar Road in Brighton. Second, it avoids the Foreigner Problem.

For those of you who don't have to put up with the Foreigner Problem, allow me to elucidate.

If you happen to live in a place like Bermuda, overseas vendors don't know what to do with you, but as you're a Foreigner they treat you like a peculiar, simple-headed soul. Someone who doesn't appreciate the good stuff. Someone whose first language probably isn't English. Someone you can overcharge for postage.

So if you're, say, an American service provider offering online movies, you certainly don't offer the full rate of programs to Foreigners. You short the bill, and if the series happens to be, say, Japanese anime, you offer subtitles in Spanish. Only Spanish. Because Spanish is what they speak in Foreign Parts. Portuguese would be better, but quel dommage! It's improved over the years, but this is what put me off online services for a very long time, and even now I'm dubious about a so-called service that can be withdrawn at the vendor's discretion. If I buy a movie, it's mine. It's not some peculiar form of rental.

So despite the climate being ruinous to discs, I still purchase DVDs. How ruinous, you ask? Our humid salt-laden air often kills DVDs within months. The outer skin of the disc separates ever so slightly, leaving the smallest of cavities, something you can't see with the naked eye. Then condensation builds up, the tiniest beads of water. Mold loves water. All it wants is water and darkness, and there's not much light inside a DVD case. When it's not mold, it's rust. I remember tape decks being much the same - you could see the rot spread, little greyish fingers of death. I've seen DVDs practically transparent, patched like a pinto pony. The lifespan of a disc depends on its quality. Your average HBO box set, manufactured by the lowest bidder, might die within a few months, maybe a year. A BFI high quality issue might last decades.

There are ways of solving the problem but I shan't go into them here. This isn't Technology Corner.

The list of books is short, but that only means I'm not including books bought as Christmas presents for other people. I'm not some animal.

London Cameos by A.H. Blake, Herbert Jenkins publisher, 1930. Purchased at Greenwich market.

Markets are very hit and miss. You can find treasures; more often you find junk. It's like prospecting for gold, with about the same success rate. "Surely there is no city in Europe that is as rapidly obliterating all the footsteps of the past as London," writes Blake. Just a moment there, Blake, old son, there's a Herman Goering on the line for you. Blake's done a brilliant job of collecting what amounts to a ton of scenario hooks - A Picturesque Inn, The Bell of Doom, to name but two of several score. I look forward to devouring them at my leisure.

Victorian and Edwardian Prisons by Trevor May, Shire Library, 2006. Purchased at the Museum of London Docklands.

I'm not going to spend much time describing this one. You can work it out from the title. However if you ever want source material for a UK game I highly recommend anything Shire publishes. It's always informative, packed with useful detail and evocative illustrations. Writers take note.

Folklore of Guernsey by Marie De Garis, originally published 1975, reprinted 2014 by La Societe Guernsesiaise. Bought in Guernsey.

You'd be forgiven for thinking, as you peruse the bookshelves, that nothing much happened in Guernsey until Hitler invaded. There's a few tomes on fishing and forts, then Whallop! Germany calling, and suddenly there's books by the dozen. Guernsey was the only part of Britain ever to be captured by the Nazis, and they left behind some calling cards, the odd gun emplacement, a well-stocked Occupation Museum. However I was surprised not to see more books about this dolmen-haunted island's history and folklore. The island's seen human habitation since before the birth of Christ and its archaeology is fascinating - yet so much of it has been dug up, used for building material or just thrown away to clear a farmer's field. I love books like this Folklore, and ate it up while waiting for Aurigny to wind up the rubber bands that power its aircraft's engines. I shall have to do something with this material.

Guernsey as it used to be, a tour of the town in Victorian times by George Hugo, originally published 1933, reprint 2017 Blue Ormer.

Yes, I shall definitely have to do something with this material.

Vampire the Masquerade by Ken Hite and others, World of Darkness. Bought at Orc's Nest, London.

I went over with one eye on this and another on The Fall of Delta Green, which no doubt made for a peculiar facial expression on my part, but thankfully I didn't have to see it myself. There was no way I was buying both. Leaving aside the cost - this one item makes up about a fifth of my book budget - there was no way both would fit in the suitcase, not with everything else that had to go in. Read it on the plane, need to read it again. Mechanically it's not a million miles away from the version I played at Uni, but there are significant differences. Culturally it's a whole other universe away. This is Vampire for the 21st Century, and it looks hellishly entertaining.

The Vampire, by Nick Groom, Yale Uni Press 2018.

Yes, it's a new history of your friend and mine. Yes, it's very, very good. Highly recommended. Am still reading. Go away. Shoo! Still reading … Depending on my Shoggee I might have to get someone this for Christmas.

Dogs of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, first published 2017, this edition 2018 Head of Zeus.

Adrian's been a mate since university, and he kindly gave me this. It's a near future dystopian sci-fi in which bioform weapons are used in place of robots, because the robots can't be trusted. Rex is a Good Dog, leader of his squad, but he's beginning to wonder whether he's really such a Good Dog after all, and if he's not, what to do about it. What fascinates me is that it's as much about international, human rights and war crimes law as it is Big Guns Go Bang; it takes a lawyer's mind to pull that one off.

The DVD list includes:

Lucky Luke 2009, French. I loved this Western gunslinger comedy comic when I was young. Can't wait to see the big screen adaptation.

A Private Function 1984, a British comedy of manners about a roast pig dinner gone awry.
Thief 1981, in which expert bandit James Caan wants to settle down, but the mob prefer him out on the streets working for them.

Arsenic and Old Lace 1944, and if you don't know what this is you should be ashamed of yourself. Fun fact - this is based on a 1941 stage play in which Boris Karloff played the monstrous Brewster played in the film by Roger Massey. The film was being shot at the same time Karloff thrilled audiences on Broadway.

Watership Down 1978, animated. I remember watching this when I was a kid. I have young nieces. I see no reason why their childhood shouldn't be blighted too. ;)

Big Trouble in Little China 1986, and how could any sane soul resist this film? I won't ask if you know it - but when was the last time you saw it?

The Monster Club 1981, a horror triple bill with Vincent Price, Donald Pleasance and John Carradine.

Ray Harryhausen, the Special Effects Titan 2011, documentary about the man who made stop motion movie magic possible, from Jason and his Argonauts to tentacled horrors tearing apart the Golden Gate bridge.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 21 October 2018

A Very British Coup (Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired by Tilar Mazzeo's history of Paris' Ritz, The Hotel on the Place Vendome, a story of the hotel between the Wars and during the Occupation. I enjoyed it but don't recommend it as a purchase, which is ironic since not only did I snag this as a freebie from the 'take me' shelf of my local charity, it's a version with the author's signature plate on the flyleaf. So someone else felt the same way.

I don't recommend it as a purchase because it sells itself as more than it is. Life, death, betrayal at the Hotel Ritz! The questions you are asking are more treacherous than you think. This book about the Hotel Ritz and the story of the occupation, you should not write it … Yet what's between the covers is a mannered and at times pleasant history of a famous hotel. Rich people doing rich things and pretending to be more interesting than they are, as though money can buy you a personality. There's little to quicken the pulse or excite the imagination. It's useful as a history, if you plan to set a session there, and worth borrowing from the library or buying second hand, but don't rush out to get it.

However there is one incident after the War that intrigues me enough to borrow for a Dracula Dossier story seed.

In 1936 Edward Windsor abdicated so he could marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. During the war the two royal Nazi sympathizers went to live in Bermuda (gee, thanks ever so, gosh what an honor). After the War they returned to Europe and settled in Paris for a time, because Edward had his sights on the throne again and wanted to be close enough to London to dash over whenever necessary.

His brother George IV was sickly, and his successor Elizabeth was barely 18, saddled with a Greek princeling husband that none of the British establishment cared for, not least because they suspected he might be a Greek bearing gifts, in the form of ne'er-do-well relatives. Under ordinary circumstances Edward didn't have a chance at the throne, but these were not ordinary circumstances. It was felt in certain circles that Edward had a shot, so long as he behaved himself.

Edward had a reputation for sexual adventures. His liaison with Wallis was only the last in a string of unfortunate dalliances. If Edward hoped to replace Elizabeth when her father died, on no account could he be linked with any kind of scandal, particularly sexual scandal.

In steps Wallis. The great love affair had cooled by this point. She didn't precisely hate him, but the marriage was more a convenience than anything else. In 1951 when Edward rushed to his dying brother's bedside, she embarked on a romance that sank Edward's chances altogether.

American socialite Jimmy Donahue, close friend of the Windsors, Woolworth heir and flamboyant homosexual, was the one who drove the wedge in. His friend Barbara Hutton, herself a Woolworth heir, frequent divorcee and, at the time, Princess Troubetzkoy, provided the safe haven at her grand suite at the Ritz. While Edward was in Paris Jimmy and Wallis were discreet, but once Edward left …

 That weekend, when the Duke was in London, things in the nightclubs on Montmarte escalated at last into some very public dirty dancing - and into a weeklong fling that took Wallis and Jimmy from one hot spot or another across the capital by night and found them in the afternoons cavorting in delicto at the Ritz, in the lavish suite lent to him for the purpose of some privacy by his millionaire cousin. "I knew it was physical," Barbara Hutton's personal secretary, Mona Eldridge, later admitted … And once the affair was out in the open anyhow, the Duchess made a display of it.

By the time the Duke returned to Paris on June 9, 1951, he stood no chance of usurping Elizabeth. When her father died on February 6, 1952, the princess became Queen Elizabeth II.

All that's the history, However if you're running a Dracula Dossier game then you have the option of giving history some fangs. Where did Edom stand in the succession debate? Did Dracula have any interest? What about personalities like the Legacies, particularly Lord Godalming - did the then heir have a dog in that fight? What exactly is Jimmy's role in this - what was it about Wallis that persuaded him to change preference?

Option 1: Edom Skullduggery. There are powerful interests in London that want to see Edward on the throne, but Edom sees this as an unmitigated disaster. Those same London interests are in bed with Dracula's Satanic Cult, and see Edward as their chance for the ultimate advancement. With his patronage, the Satanic Cult will put its catspaws into positions of utmost sensitivity and importance. Edom can't permit that, so it sends a team - possibly including an SBA - with one goal in mind: sink Edward's chances, but don't kill anyone or do anything that might reveal Edom's hand in this. Edom plays Cupid, using Dracula's own weapons of seduction to do it.

Option 2: Dracula's Spite.  Edom wants Edward on the throne. It knows Edward is biddable, and can be persuaded to double Edom's budget, advance its Dukes to high positions in the establishment, and generally make Edom a force to be reckoned with. Dracula, or possibly the remnants of his Conspiracy if the great bloodsucker is indisposed, does not like this idea one bit. Moreover George IV is going in and out of his sickbed like an indecisive corpse - will he or won't he finally die? As it turns out the Conspiracy has two agendas: first, keep George alive until his brother can be dealt with. Second, sink Edward - and the best way to do that is through Wallis.

Option 3: Outside Influences. Jimmy Donahue is the dark horse in this scenario. Erzabet Bathory is the catalyst. This could also work as a sequel to the Carmilla Sanction from Edom Files, assuming Carmilla got away. It would need to be quick work; as written the Carmilla Sanction takes place in 1948, and Wallis' big romance is in 1951. Bathory is fascinated by Jimmy, and Jimmy's money. A liaison with him could refresh her empty coffers, and he is a pretty little thing. Such a pity he's gay, but under Erzabet's influence anything is possible. Trouble is, Erzabet's tinkering sets Jimmy along an entirely different path, and things spiral out of control when a sexually liberated and vampire-influenced Woolworth heir goes on a mad Dionysian spree across Paris. A suspicious Edom sends some minders over, just in case this turns out to be one of Dracula's ploys. The remnants of Dracula's war-torn Conspiracy is also interested in what's going on, because they know vampire activity when they see it but they don't know who's behind it all. Cue a Pink Panther-esque romp across Paris, as everyone joins in the chase from nightspot to hotspot to bedroom, all trying to find out what's going on.  


London Bound

A quick bit of housekeeping. For the past I'm not sure how long, I've been keeping to a schedule of once-a-week posts, published on Sunday. For the next two weeks, that's going to change.

I'm going to the UK, part business part pleasure. I'll be in London, Leeds and Guernsey for a bit, before returning to London again on the 5th, departing the 8th. I can't resist Blackheath fireworks!

That means I shan't be posting for the next two Sundays. After that, back to the regularly scheduled programming!

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Holywell Horror (Bookhounds of London)

Image taken from Wikipeida

I haven't had as much time to work on this as usual, as I've been assisting backstage at the local Gilbert & Sullivan's production of Annie. Set break was today and I'm exhausted. So here's a short scenario seed, set in the lustful, vice-ridden streets of old London town. 

Specifically Holywell Street.

Located on the edge of Fleet Street, Holywell was originally a nest of radicals, free-thinkers and pamphleteers. However after a crackdown in the early 1800s the free-thinkers decided to turn their talents to more profitable endeavors, and thus began Holywell's new life as the hub of London's porn industry. Hundreds crammed this narrow thoroughfare overtopped by gloomy timber-framed houses, eager for a chance to purview such classics as The Seducing Cardinal, The Lustful Turk, An Experimental Lecture by Captain Spanker, and 1880's limited print run extravaganza The Story of a Dildoe

'Three young American ladies resolve to purchase a dildoe for their mutual satisfaction …' and hijinks ensue. 

This couldn't go on. Under the guise of public improvements, in 1901 Holywell Street was demolished altogether. Aldwych took its place.

In Bookhounds, the group most likely to be interested in ephemera from Holywell's golden age is the Keirecheires, a Y'Golonac cult that had its start in 1894, when Holywell was still at its height. In the 1930s its London branch is centered around the University of London, in Bloomsbury. 

Which leads us to:

The Holywell Horror

Bloomsbury has its fads, but the current one really is peculiar. A persistent rumor has it that a rare, limited edition was purchased by one of Bloomsbury's most notorious talents. No less a luminary than Lytton Strachey (NB: died 1932) read passages from it aloud for the amusement of a literary party. Now all the truly fashionable people want a copy, but there are two problems. First, nobody can recall what the book's title is. Second, according to the story it was bought at a little place on Holywell Street - but that can't be right, surely?

Option One: The Fake-Out. The book doesn't exist. The rumor was put about by a young artist, Duncan Quoin, who wanted to make his boyfriend jealous. The boyfriend is a scandalous soul who's never out of trouble, and who loves rare books and Lytton Strachey in equal proportion. Unfortunately for Duncan, in order to create the rumor he used an Idiosyncratic ritual cribbed from a Keirecheires friend to start it, and now the more senior members are livid. Revealing secrets is very bad form - someone's going to pay for this.

Option Two: The Little Shop on the Nonexistent Corner.  Three members of the Keirecheires who have fond memories of the old days decided to recreate a little bit of Holywell using Megapolisomancy, on the theory that nothing in London is truly forgotten, least of all London's most notorious street. They did so using a gas lamp specially installed for the purpose and imbued with all the talent at their disposal, hiding their work by blackmail and bribery - tracing this at the Council level will be tricky but not impossible. The intent was the lamp would light the way for anyone who knew the right magical phrase. That isn't what happened. The lamp lets anyone in, whether they know the phrase or not, so long as they go at a certain time of night - eleven-fifteen precisely. Whatever's bought in this shadow-copy of Holywell Street never lasts long in the outside world, but it leaves a lasting impression. People are beginning to talk, which means more people are being let in on the secret. That can only lead to trouble.  

Option Three: Fatal Forgery. A forger, Richard Addison, has been creating Holywell specialties for his own amusement, and to pass off on so-called sophisticates. A Keirecheires sorcerer took offense, and put a curse on the cunning man: unless Addison creates a perfect copy of a particular limited edition, Stories of the Parisienne Night, in four months, the forger will become the feature course in a particularly lurid literary party. Addison is at his wit's end; he's never seen a copy of Stories, so how is he to forge it? His search is driving him down obscure and awful lines of inquiry, and Y'Golonac already has its fingers in his psyche. It's only a matter of time before something breaks - and if everyone's lucky Addison will be the only victim.


Sunday, 7 October 2018

Black Crows (Night's Black Agents)

Black Crows, a terrorist-theme drama created by Dubai-based MBC Group, tells the story of civilians sucked into the orbit of ISIS and forced to participate in terrorist operations. Most of the commentary I've read so far says it focuses on women's stories, but I'm now seven episodes in and if by 'women's stories' you mean 'women get approximately a third of the screen time' then yes, these are women's stories. Mind you, the whole thing is 24 half-hour episodes long so there's time yet.

It's an oddly compelling narrative. The ISIS top brass are portrayed as scheming, cheating, ultimately irreligious hypocrites, from the religious leader who uses a mirror to spy on women bathing, to the children's brigade boss who abuses his authority to have sex with the boys under his care. Even the Emir in charge, probably the most faithful and sincere of the lot and determined to die for the cause, sooner rather than later, has skeletons in his closet. In that respect it's not unlike HBO's Rome, or Deadwood, where even the best have feet of clay. The difference being these are actively evil people with no redeeming characteristics, rather than ambitious would-be Caesars.

Typical of this is a Mufti moment spread over episodes 5 and 6. The Mufti goes to a factory owner making hallucinogenic drugs for sale to unbelievers. The factory boss offers the Mufti a bribe so the Mufti will issue a fatwa that allows him to sell his drugs to Muslims. The Mufti accepts the bribe and then makes a deal with the religious leader. The Mufti will report the bribe to the Emir. The Emir will insist the religious leader kill the factory owner. The religious leader will say he's worried about the dead man's wives, children, and the factory, which might under new ownership sell to Muslims anyway. The Mufti expects the religious leader to insist the Mufti take over the factory, but in the heat of the moment the religious leader takes the factory for himself, earning the Mufti's displeasure.

It's all dealt with in pretty much that way. "I am doing something wicked. Help me do this wicked thing." "I shall! Praise God!" [betrayal.] "Curse you!" It lacks Rome's subtlety, but it has an energy and conviction you don't often see.

By the way, don't think of the above as a spoiler. The plot races from point to point. Faces come and go, plot points come and go. When an episode is only 30 minutes long and you've a lot to do, things like subtlety and character development are sacrificed.

The new intake is a mix of idiots, the deluded and the desperate, from the wife who murdered her philandering husband and fled with the children, to the two high school dropouts who think being Call of Duty champions makes them ideal candidates for martyrdom. Some are sincere, like the surgeon who thinks he's doing what his dying father would have wanted. Sprinkled in the mix are double agents trying to spy on this ISIS cell.

One of the main recurring faces is Abu Omar, a religious teacher who has volunteered so he can find his daughter, who he believes has been inducted into this ISIS camp. He's the narrator who kicks off the action in the first episode, and he sometimes bookends episodes with wise commentary on what happened or is about to happen. He's clearly meant to be the conscience of the series, the one who preaches truth while everyone else lies. He's not your typical hero, being stout and well past the age when parkour is an option, but this is a battle for souls, and for that you need a genuine man of God.

The cast of thousands is a problem. I honestly couldn't tell you who half the cast are, because they never appear on screen for much more than 60 seconds at a time before yielding the spotlight to someone else. Only the most eccentric characters stick in the mind; everyone else blurs. Is that the former dancer? The prisoner? The officer? The this, that, other, tinker, tailor, soldier, martyr? I thought he was dead - no, that was someone who looked like him for 30 seconds two episodes ago. That severed head dropped dramatically on the floor - whose was it?

But then I'm not watching this the way it's supposed to be watched. I'm seeing one, maybe two episodes at a stretch, and I'm meant to be binging the entire series - twelve hours worth of content.

Saudi-owned MBC Group is the world's first private free-to-air Arabic language television network. It specializes in family-friendly material, which means its most extreme content is mid-range action movies and tv shows like Bones, Supernatural and Divergent. Black Crows is a significant departure from its usual lineup, and its anti-extremist polemic is partly the result of extended cooperation with the US State Department.

It's not subtle. When not delivering a very clear message about corrupt extremist groups, it's bathing in gore. But it has a very specific audience in mind: Arabs during Ramadan.

Ramadan is an annual month-long religious observance, one of the five pillars of Islam, in which the faithful are enjoined to refrain from eating, drinking, and sinful behavior of any kind from sunrise to sunset. It's a time for reflection, good deeds and charity - and watching television. Musalal like these are consumed by an eager viewing public who, after sunset, break fast and binge-watch the latest prime-time goodness. No doubt if I had waited the entire day thinking about the last episode I'd watched, or binged several episodes in one go, I'd have a much better idea who was who. It would also help my understanding of the rapid-fire plot.

Yet even though I'm not the audience and am finding it a struggle to watch, I respect Black Crows. It's an Arabic story told by Arabs - less about Islam, more about a civil war fostered by extreme distress. Abu Omar makes this very clear many times; ISIS does not represent Islam.

It has its flaws. The action takes place in an Iraqi ISIS stronghold, yet the story skips over why Iraq and Syria became ideal nurseries for this kind of militancy. Nor does it really explore why people are attracted to ISIS's message. It's difficult to deny the criticism that this is a polemic intended in part to please the US State Department and flatter Western, particularly Hollywood, watchers.

I mentioned Deadwood and Rome. The one thing Al Swearengen and Julius Caesar have in common is that they're both long dead. It's easier to be detached about them, to present a subtle dissection of their flaws and achievements. Perhaps that was always impossible for Black Crows, just as it would have been impossible to make Apocalypse Now, Platoon or The Deer Hunter in 1970. The actors in Black Crow are still getting death threats; one of the major expenses for the producers was security, to stop their shoot being blown up or their people assassinated.

I'd recommend this to anyone interested in current events, but Dracula Dossier and Night's Black Agents Directors may find it useful. Particularly if you think of this ISIS cell as a Node; this is how a Node functions, and falls apart.


Sunday, 30 September 2018

Neuf a la Banque - Gambling (Night's Black Agents)

Gambling (General Ability): You are conversant with the rules and etiquette of  all forms of gambling … but can you have fun doing it?

Doctor No's opening scene is the first time James Bond appears on the big screen. He'd been the hero of several novels before the movie's debut in 1962, as well as a television series. This was Connery's first shot at the role, and he made it iconic.

Most Night's Black Agents players take Gambling for the cherry, Luck of the Devil. It's certainly useful - exchange any die roll, yours or your enemies, for one you like better. However it'd be a lot more fun if gambling were more central to the plot. Or even the focus of a Thrilling contest; after all, most of the plot of Casino Royale is about an extended gambling contest. Where Bond goes, let your agents follow.

But where does Bond go, exactly?

In the novels gambling has two main uses. Bond uses his talents to expose cheats, like Goldfinger and Sir Hugo Drax at the start of Moonraker. In each case Bond is brought in by a third party to expose the cheater. In Moonraker M brings Bond to his club, Blades, to confront Drax quietly and discreetly. M knows Sir Hugo is cheating and can't understand his motives, but appreciates that someone as important to Britain's nuclear missile program as Sir Hugo can't be exposed to scandal. In Goldfinger, while on a stopover in Miami Bond is asked by a passing acquaintance - someone Bond met during Casino Royale, but only briefly - to help expose Auric Goldfinger's cheating methods. Bond agrees, and only later discovers that Goldfinger is also a gold smuggler HM Government's got its eyes on.

In each case the scene has several elements:

First, it happens right at the beginning of the novel. This allows Bond to meet the antagonist of the novel early, form an opinion of him, get a good look at his methods and his tricks. Any character flaws or incipient megalomania is on display early on. Moreover there's no chance of bringing the whole thing to a premature conclusion with a bullet. A casino or member's club is basically neutral territory and even if Bond were so inclined violence is not an option.

It's also very cinematic. Serious gamblers bent over an immaculate table, either wagering or watching someone else wager. The theatre of the casino, of each bid, raise and re-raise. The exotic unfamiliarity of things like the shoe - that leathery bag used when the cards are dealt. Baccarat's simple enough that after seeing a hand or two you get the gist - two cards dealt, high card wins, face cards don't matter. Which is why her eight falls to Bond's nine even though both had face cards in their deal. So you don't have to spend five minutes before the scene explaining how baccarat works, even though it's more complex than I described - you can just deal cards. Blackjack has the same appeal; if you can count to 21, you know how to play blackjack. Poker's become so ubiquitous most people can follow along, though the intricacies of play are daunting for new players. Which is probably why four of a kind features so often in movie card games; much easier to show four aces winning than wonder whether a straight beats a flush. Anyone familiar with a card deck knows four of a kind is the best you can hope for, and will presume it's a good hand without being told.

Compare that with the Bond backgammon scene in Octopussy. I can tell you now, first, double sixes are next to no use in backgammon except under certain specific circumstances. Second, anyone so reliant on crooked dice as Kemal Khan would have been kicked out of the club years ago. There's just no way that would not have been spotted by the club's manager, and private members clubs are very, very sensitive about their reputation. Cheats get kicked out double quick, and the clubs that don't kick out cheats are the ones nobody in their right mind joins.

Finally, scenes like these allows the protagonist - the agent - a chance to seize the spotlight. Bond dominates that Doctor No scene, and it reveals a lot of his character in very economic bite-sized bits. No monologues, no dancing up and down in front of the camera - just cool, collected play. You don't even see his face for a full minute, in a two minute forty seven second clip.

So from a Director's perspective what all that says is, first, pick a game that everyone at the table at least knows something about. Blackjack, poker - anything the Director thinks the players are familiar enough with that someone at the table might get off some Thrilling dialogue. If the Director and at least one agent knows the difference between a running game and a blocking game, about covering blots and a lover's leap, then by all means use backgammon. Otherwise steer well clear of games you don't know.

Second, the major antagonist can show up, and that includes everyone from the head of a Tier Three Node to Dracula himself. After all, just as the agents can't leap across the table and stab Dracula in front of all these pesky witnesses and security, so too is Dracula prevented from causing a total party wipe. This is a good moment for everyone to strut their stuff and show how cool they are, not to wet the table felt with blood.

Third, if the Director intends for some important Conspiracy henchman to play a major role, like Oddjob or Khan's bodyguard Gobinda, then that henchman must also be in the scene alongside the major antagonist. The henchman ought to do at least one cool thing, or threaten the agents in some way, as Gobinda does when he crushes the crooked dice in his fist.

Double Tap introduces some new Gambling clues and new cherries, All In and Everybody's Got A Tell, but doesn't include Gambling in the list of potential Thrilling Contests. I think more can be done with this general ability, so here's my advice to you.

Step One: Establish Stakes. This is never about the chips on the table. It's about people. In Doctor No, the card sequence leads to a seduction scene. In Goldfinger, Moonraker the novel and Octopussy the film, the gambling sequence is all about cracking the opponent by exposing weakness - cheating, every time. In Octopussy the stakes are even higher, since by using the Fabergé egg - the MacGuffin everyone's chasing - as collateral, Bond leverages Khan into a position where he can be beaten.

So what's the stakes? In Doctor No, 1 point Flirting. In Goldfinger, Moonraker and Octopossy, 1 point Intimidation, Notice or similar. The agent is buying pool points in an Investigative ability with his victory at the tables, and spending it immediately in play. The player sets the wager, in other words, and that wager can be anything. Need a sportscar for that chase scene you just know is coming? Some Streetwise so you can broker a deal with those Triads? Flirting to impress that minor royalty so you can leverage a ticket to that exclusive ball? Get it through Gambling.

Ultimately what counts as a stake is up to the agent and Director on the day. However I recommend that stakes be calculated in terms of Investigative pool points. A stake is worth either 1 pool point in an Investigative ability, or the equivalent benefit in ordinary items. Ordinary is defined in context as something that is useful but not the equivalent of a Bane, Block or similar advantage against supernatural foes. Higher stakes are worth more points. Anything gained at the table must be spent during the scenario; it cannot be saved for future scenarios.

I can see an argument for allowing Cover or Network points to be won at the table. Pools of this type are strictly temporary - the equivalent of meeting a Sylvia Trench at Baccarat and leveraging that into a Network contact, or spreading the rumor that the agent is a high-stakes gambler from, say, China who just blew into town for the night. The Cover or Network contact gained in this way is strictly temporary, and will not last longer than the scenario unless actual experience points are used to build up that Cover or Network contact.

Step Two: Establish Difficulty. The higher the stakes, the higher the difficulty. Difficulty 5 gets a pool point. Difficulty 6 gets 2 pool points or extraordinary equipment, like a Bane or Block. More extravagant stakes mean higher difficulty numbers, but ultimately the limit is Director's discretion.

Point being, none of this is essential so you needn't worry about denying agents access to core clues. The agent is looking for extras, and ought to be prepared to pay for those extras.

The pool point, or whatever it is, ought to be spent as quickly as possible. No saving this up for future scenarios - cash in those chips now. This is to discourage players who might otherwise stack up on extra points by repeated trips to the table. Also, it's in keeping with the genre. Bond doesn't wait till the end of Doctor No to sleep with Sylvia Trench, nor does he leave Auric Goldfinger to fleece his unfortunate victim unmolested.

Step Three: Establish Consequences. In Bond's world there are always consequences. When he beats Goldfinger's card cheat, Goldfinger responds by painting Jill to death. Kemal Khan responds to losing at backgammon by threatening Bond. Bond's victory over Sir Hugo Drax means he stands out later when M assigns him to look into suspicious events at Sir Hugo's research facility. So what happens to the agent when the agent wins at the tables?

Either 1 point Heat gain or a Level One Antagonist Reaction, Director's choice as to which. Ideally Heat gain occurs when the agent is not pitted against a Conspiracy asset, and Antagonist Reaction occurs when the agent beats a Conspiracy target.

This happens whenever an agent wins one of these contests. What happens when the agent loses?

Ultimately that depends on the stakes involved. In contests where only 1 pool point was at stake, there should be no consequences - beyond the Gambling pool points spent, of course. Loss of pool points, and a certain amount of embarrassment, is enough.

However in situations where 2 pool points or some other form of extraordinary benefit was sought, consequences should be the same whether the agent wins or loses. That means 2 points Heat gain or a Level Two Antagonist Reaction, whichever the Director deems suitable.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 23 September 2018

A Nation State Robbing Banks: 80 Million and a Spelling Error (Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired in part by Kento Bento's video about the biggest bank heist in modern history:

You may remember me mentioning this bank heist before, back in 2016 when not all the facts were in.

A couple quick points before I dive into Lazarus. Night's Black Agents Directors and agents wondering if Human Terrain is useful, wonder no more. Think about how cleverly this whole thing had to be coordinated: the thieves knew if they hit this particular bank on this particular day, and then transferred the stolen money to a bank in the Philippines, they'd be in the clear. Bangladesh, being Muslim majority, had its weekend on Friday and Saturday. The hack starts Friday. They come in on Sunday to sort out their problems, but they can't talk to their colleagues in New York because, on Sunday, their Christian colleagues are all off for the day. Monday works, but the bank in the Philippines, where the money is sent, is celebrating Chinese New Year, so it can't be contacted. That was fiendishly clever timing on someone's part.

Two, you may remember me mentioning a missing IT expert in the previous post. That expert, Tanveer Hassan Zoha, did turn up eventually. Detectives found him wandering near the airport and took him home, six days after he went missing. The IT expert claimed he could discover the identity of some of the culprits, and went with special police to the Bangladesh bank to have a look at the bank's records. Two days after that he was abducted from an auto rickshaw, and his family claimed the police were no help finding him. As far as I can determine his abductors were not caught. If he ever issued a public statement about his abduction, he didn't make it in an English language publication, as far as I know.

Bangladesh Airport connects to Hong Kong via Cathay Dragon, and Hong Kong is only a ferry ride away from Macau. That's where the alleged thieves went - it was a stopping point on their journey to North Korea, according to Kento Bento.

Which brings me to Lazarus Group, an entity that has been committing cybercrime since the early 2000s. Its earliest known attacks targeted South Korea, and it's alleged that the group has links to the North Korean government. This is difficult to prove, and might be a fake-out to throw blame on a believable straw man. That said, if anyone's going to think it's a good idea to back a group of crooks on a cybercrime spree, it's the dictator who may have poisoned his half-brother at an airport shopping concourse.

Lazarus has hit banks before, but banks aren't its only focus. It likes to hit South Korean targets, and allegedly was responsible for the Sony hack in 2014. The group demanded Sony withdraw its film The Interview, a comedy about an attempt on Kim Jong-un's life.

The Interview had so-so reviews and according to IMDB lost a ton of money - budget $44 million, worldwide gross something in the region of $12 million. Sony pulled the film from theatres in December 2014, allowing only a limited independent cinema release, and that after President Obama criticized Sony for giving in to terrorist threats.

Cybercrime experts Kaspersky Labs analyzed the Bangladesh hack, and give Kaspersky praise because it has nailed down the perfect hacking mini-scenario for Night's Black Agents Directors.

Initial Compromise. A single system inside the bank is breached with remotely accessible vulnerable code, perhaps through a webserver or a watering hole on a seemingly trustworthy website. The premise is simple: find a site you know the target visits, like a Chinese takeaway. The security on that site is bound to be less robust than the target's IT. Break it, infect it, wait for your target to visit - and the mouse takes the cheese. Snap!

Foothold Established. The group establishes persistent backdoors so they can come and go as they like.

Internal Reconnaissance.  The groups spends days, weeks, learning the network and identifying useful resources, like a backup server with vital information or an email server that can let the hackers into anything connected to that server. With the Bangladesh hack, Lazarus was particularly interested in SWIFT authentication, so it went after any server that might contain SWIFT authorization codes as well as IT admin systems.

Deliver and Steal. The great hack begins. Presumably followed by a scene Kaspersky does not mention, tentatively titled RUN AWAY!

This is the perfect breakdown for scenes in a game. What's more, they don't have to be about Digital Intrusion and nothing else. Human Terrain, Surveillance, Infiltration, Electronic Surveillance, potentially Flattery, Bureaucracy - all these will be useful, particularly in the early stages of the hack.

I see this as a potential Thrilling Digital Intrusion contest, starting with the initial compromise and moving through to final execution. The technothriller dialogue opportunities, particularly in the Initial Compromise or Internal Reconnaissance, are fascinating. It's a reminder that a Thrilling Contest doesn't have to be over in a few minutes. This one takes months - though at the table on the day the whole thing might take an hour's game time at most.

As for North Korea, well … it'd make a hell of a Node.