Sunday, 19 November 2017

Not Quite Review Corner: City of Mist (Son of Oak)

City of Mist, a detective RPG with mythic elements, is a 2017 Kickstarter release from Son of Oak, lead designer and producer Amit Moshe's brainchild. Fans flocked to give Son of Oak over $100,000 when the studio went seeking crowdfunding, and now the legend has become reality, with print and PDF release. I didn't back the Kickstarter but I was intrigued by the concept, so I bought the PDF version.

Those of you already familiar with Apocalypse World and FATE will find much that's familiar here. The system is blessedly simple. At its very core is a dice mechanic: 2D6, 10+ is a definite success, 7-9 is a messy success, anything else is a fail. Modifiers can be added which affect success or the potential outcome, depending on a character's mythos or course of action - is the character affected by a Status modifier, Facing Danger, Hitting It With All She's Got? - and these modifiers vary to such a degree that it's almost impossible to describe them in one review. A Bastion Mythos, for example, means protection - but protection can mean unshakeable will, a magic shield, immunity from the law, fire resistance, or something else again. Regardless, they each affect the dice mechanic in the same way: 7-9 is a messy success, 10+ a success, anything else a fail, and what actually happens depends on the situation, taking all applicable modifiers into account.

However for the folks going 'hey, that sounds a lot like [fill in blank - Cthulhu Confidential was what I was reminded of]' yes, it does sound a lot like, because it is a lot like. The game's very player-facing, so only the players will ever roll dice, and the players will decide which modifiers apply as well, for the most part. The Master of Ceremonies - City's name for the GM, DM, Keeper, Director, etc - sets the scene and decides the plot, but rarely touches dice or gets directly involved in the mechanics of any scene.

The players are Rifts, or the Awakened. They might look like ordinary people, but at their core they have a touch, or more than a touch, of the uncanny about them. On these mean streets the myths and legends of old are new again; King Arthur might be flipping burgers in a Downtown diner, but he's still King Arthur at heart, and that means he can draw on his Mythos to get things done, if he has to. Exactly what that means is determined by the player during character creation, and is left largely up to the player. Whether this player prefers the Medieval version or something closer to Marion Zimmer Bradley, or something entirely different, is where this King may differ from all the others.

Each character balances Mythos against Logos, or the Legend against mundane Reality. Those fully in the grip of Reality are Sleepers, and have no idea that myths and legends walk the streets. Those with just a little myth about them are Touched, but mostly normal. Those with fifty-fifty myth versus reality are Borderline, while those mostly myth are Legendary. If they go one step further than Legendary, the story overtakes the person it inhabits, and the affected shell then becomes an Avatar.

Becoming an Avatar is a lot like completely blowing a Sanity check in Call of Cthulhu, or one of its many variants, except without the whole, y'know, going insane bit. Well, maybe a little bit insane. See, at that point you become the Mythos and start fulfilling your True Destiny, except now all humanity has been burnt away and you have Godlike powers. You may accomplish spectacular things - so long as the power lasts. However once you burn through your time as Avatar, that godlike power vanishes, and probably takes the character with it, though there's always a chance she might return later.

The Mythos can be almost anything. King Arthur is an obvious choice, but a player could as easily decide to base their character on Excalibur, Don Quixote, Jack the Ripper, a Poltergeist, or pretty much anything else. Any character, item or location from religion, fiction, fable, folklore or otherwise is up for grabs.

Your Mythos helps determine your powers, in a very loose way. The player determines exactly which powers apply, and presumably is guided by the core concept of the character. So someone who takes Don Quixote as a character idea then determines which themes, story tags and other add-ons apply, based on the core idea of Don Quixote. But since Don Quixote embodies many possible add-ons, and since this is ultimately player's choice, one Don Quixote may be very unlike another. Which, to be fair, fits the core concept of the setting nicely - the Mythos is always struggling to break free, and this can manifest in many different ways, thus creating many different potential Avatars.

You'll note that word 'presumably.' Because this game is so very player-facing, I can foresee situations in which a player's idea doesn't really match the story tags chosen for the character. There's enough flexibility here that this shouldn't matter, but that ultimately will depend on who's sitting at the table on the day.

As a side note, the MC should prepare for some friction if the player's chosen concept doesn't mesh with the other players. One player might find a beer-drinking trucker Jesus - after all, religion's on the table, don't forget - hilarious, while the person sitting next to Jesus might go into meltdown at the very idea. Know your players well enough before you start play that you may avoid these situations, is my advice to you.

So why doesn't anyone notice these legendary characters roaming the streets, making beanstalks grow up to the clouds and causing magical mayhem? That's thanks to the Mist, a reality-shaping McGuffin that prevents people from noticing the strangeness all around them. It permeates every element of the City, from the least sewer to the highest skyscraper. A clash between titans could appear, to Mist-addled Sleepers, like a gun battle. It's still a fight, and blood is shed, but it's a fight they understand. Or perhaps they get a very brief glimpse, and then their minds rewrite their recollection of events so everything's explained, or ignored.

Say some hideous event blows a hole in the City, drowning whole neighborhoods beneath a lake. To the Sleepers, that lake's always been there. The ruins in that lake are archaeological discoveries, not evidence of a recent disaster. The people that died when the City blew up didn't die in an explosion; they had heart attacks, or moved away, or never existed in the first place. Only those with a touch of Mythos about them suspect the truth, and even they don't know the half of it.

It's a detective game, but unlike Gumshoe there are no point pools to manage. Instead it's all handled by dice. A dice roll determines how many Clues you obtain, and exactly how you get those clues will depend on the means by which you went looking for them. Did you investigate a crime scene, gossip with the cops, perform some kind of magical ritual, something else? Whatever it may be, you then trade those Clues for answers, and each Clue gets you a guaranteed truthful answer from the MC to one question.

Say you accumulate 3 Clues after scoping out a graveyard. You might then ask, is there anyone in that graveyard who looks suspicious? The MC answers yes, there is; there's a lone figure in a trenchcoat who seems to be lying in wait. The next question is, does that person pose a threat? The MC answers yes, you can see the telltale bulge of a shotgun hidden underneath that trenchcoat. That leaves one Clue unspent, and one question yet to be answered.

Much like GUMSHOE, action is divided into Scenes. There's slightly less structure to the setup here than GUMSHOE fans are familiar with; there's no attempt to divide things up into a particular narrative, or organize things along a spine. Instead the game uses an Iceberg illustrative mechanic to describe story building. Those who see an iceberg know they're only looking at the very smallest part of it, the exposed tip - or, in a murder investigation, the dead body. But go deeper, and who knows what you'll find?

I rather like the Iceberg concept, though I suspect it's in part because it reminds me of a reverse Conspyramid from Night's Black Agents. Rather that build up to a tip, you sink down to a conclusion - but the base idea is the same.

OK, so all that's what the game is. Next question: how does it feel? And does it work?

It feels a little tricky, to be honest. There are some games that anyone can play, and there are some that depend very much on like-minded people with similar skill sets deciding to play. Dungeons and Dragons, for example, is a game everyone can get behind, regardless of experience or ability. The quiet player who doesn't like to roleplay and the exuberant talker can each have as much fun as the other, because the game has ways in which both can access the fun. Whereas Wraith is a game that, by virtue of its mechanics and setting, is only ever going to appeal to a certain kind of player. If not everyone at the table is into it, that will make things awkward for everyone. Which is not to say that Wraith is a bad game - it's one of my favorites - but I have to bear in mind that not every gaming group I'm in is going to be happy playing Wraith.

City of Mists is in the latter category. The quiet player is probably going to be intimidated by the setting and the core mechanic, since it requires such a heavy player investment, and relies on roleplay to really sing. Whereas the exuberant talker will leap on this with cries of joy, because the game actively rewards talking and roleplay. As MC, you need to bear in mind that not everyone at the table will be happy with City of Mist, and that may determine whether you decide to play at all.

The other big issue I have is that, as far as the setting's concerned, there's not a lot of there, there. With a concept as strong as this - new Legends rising from old stories - you'd expect the City to be as compelling, but a lot of the nitty-gritty is actually left up to the players and MC. I suppose this is unavoidable; anything this player-facing will depend heavily on player input, so the designers have to leave a lot unsaid. Plus it allows the MC to base the campaign's city on pretty much anything, from Prohibition era Chicago to modern day Monaco, Victorian Paris or anything in between. But it didn't light my imagination afire when it described the City in a series of Tropes like The Run-Down Apartment, The Public Park, The Ruin, or The Historic Residence.

I suppose my disappointment is partly down to the noir problem. I convinced myself this was a way of telling noir stories with a Mythic edge. I even convinced myself noir was in the title, or the subtitle, of the main book - which, of course, it isn't. Noir is mentioned in the Kickstarter pitch and it comes up a couple times in the main book, but there isn't, say, a chapter dedicated to film noir or any real exploration of what that style of storytelling might mean to the campaign.

See, if you aim for a noir style, then the City plays a major role. The setting - the situation - is larger than any of the characters. If the characters fail - and they frequently fail - then, more often than not, they are crushed and beaten by the situation. There's a reason why one of the most famous and oft-quoted lines in cinema is  'Forget it, Jake - it's Chinatown.' At that point Polanski bows to the central tenet of noir: the good guys don't triumph in the final reel, and anything resembling victory is spattered with blood.

But with City of Mist the setting can never be larger than the characters. By definition the characters are larger than life, in every possible sense. Moreover as embodiments of Mythos working towards Avatar status, failure seems remote. It can be a tragedy in the same sense that Macbeth is a tragedy, but Macbeth crushes dynasties and lays waste to everything around him, whereas Robert Mitchum, say, maybe punches a few goons before being gunned down. The scale's all wrong for noir. It's like trying to reshoot Casablanca with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead, and a few extra car chases and explosions.

There is a Campaign Book, and that may solve some of the issues I've mentioned, but as I've not seen it I can't comment. I would say that, if I was picking this up on a whim - which is exactly what I have done - I'd expect the main book to solve pretty much all my problems, and the add-on to give me even more stuff. I wouldn't want to go spending another $50-ish in the hope that the add-on fills holes found in the main book.

I feel as if I've spent a lot of time griping, so let's talk about the good stuff.

The interior layout is very good. I could have lived without quite so many 'coffee stains' on the pages, and I couldn't help but be reminded of a comment made by a blind gamer a while ago at YSDC, that these non-essential images may look great, but they play hell with PDF readers used by the sight-impaired. The artwork and imagery really helps sell the core idea, which is a plus.

The core idea is gorgeous. It reminds me very much of Vertigo back in the day, with the Sandman, Lucifer and the rest. For those going Fables, Fables, Fables, yes, I can see where you're coming from, but I was never that fond of Fables. It never clicked with me.

The designers are very generous with their content. There are two scenarios and plenty of downloads available, for free, on their site - no doubt thanks to cash-handy Kickstarter backers, but still, it's a welcome addition.

I said before that this is a game that will appeal to a particular group of people, but I'll also say this: if you happen to be in that group, this will become your favorite game. The concept and rules are so simple that anyone can understand them with minimal explanation, and once you're there, it's easy to fall in love with this big, bad City. It's also a pretty decent choice for someone's first tabletop RPG, in that the rules are so simple they won't intimidate novices, and the concept's so strong that everyone will have an idea of what they want to do five minutes after the MC explains the setting.

It's also not a bad choice for someone's first time behind the MC's screen. A lot of would-be Keepers, Dungeon Masters and world-builders charge in bull-headed looking for something unique, something they can make totally their own. They want to be master of all they survey, and it's just not good enough if all they survey is a couple of hamlets and some hapless hobbits. They want a grand canvas, worlds to save - or damn - and the highest possible stakes, for the greatest heroes ever known. City of Mist provides that grand canvas, with a system and setting robust enough for any idea to flourish. Whereas if that same neophyte decided Dungeons and Dragons, say, was the way to go, they'd have to become expert in a relatively complex system, and then decide what kind of story to tell within that system, and then decide whether they need any of the many extra mechanics Dungeons and Dragons supplies to make that story work, and then become masters of those extra mechanics ... and so on. It's a lot of effort, is what I'm getting at, and the great thing about City is, you, as MC, don't need to kill yourself with work to have a good time. The players will be doing a lot of that for you.

Do I recommend City of Mist? Yes, though not without reservations. Will I play it? Oh, yes. In fact there's a one-off I should be designing for some folks who are down for Christmas, and I think City is an excellent choice for them.

Is it for everyone? No - but if it's for you, then it's going to become a permanent part of your RPG landscape.

Enjoy!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Quick and Dirty: Almaty, Kazakhstan (Night's Black Agents)

Last week it was the most expensive city in the world, and this week it's the least: Almaty, formerly Verniy, the largest city in Kazakhstan, a former possession of the Soviet Union.

Almaty


                                     Night view of Almaty. Image sourced from WikiVisual.

Almaty can trace its past back to the Bronze Age, with artefacts, tumuli and other archaeological evidence of riches and sophisticated development. The Golden Man, now a Kazakhstan symbol, dates back to the 3rd or 4th Century BC, and was buried with over 4,000 gold adornments, warrior's equipment and other funerary goods signifying wealth and importance, but he, or she, is only one of many valuable finds.

During the Middle Ages Almaty grew in importance thanks to its strategic position on the Great Silk Road, linking the West with China's markets. Almaty even produced its own coins, with its own mint. The city's name is first mentioned in sources from this period, books published in the 13th  Century. There's some dispute as to the meaning of Almaty, but many scholars believe it refers to the apples which grow here so plentifully, and is usually taken to mean Apple Mountain, or Father of Apples. Due to the genetic diversity of the apples grown here, this region of Kazakhstan is thought to be the ancestral home of the fruit.

However when shipping routes overtook the Great Silk Road in importance as a means of getting to China, Almaty's influence and importance declined. There was considerable infighting up to the 18th Century, between ethnic Kazakhs and their neighbors, and between different Kazakh groups, all of which came to a head in the 19th Century when the Russians finally conquered the Kazakhs.

The Russians began their occupation with the construction of Fort Verniy, with much the same intent as the English had when they build castles in Wales: domination of an aggressive local population. Russian peasants and other migrants soon flocked to the village the fort protected, despite such disasters as an earthquake which levelled the place in 1887, and by the turn of the 20th Century Verniy was almost 30,000 strong, mostly ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.

With the 1918 Revolution came great changes. Verniy became a regional powerhouse, and changed its name to Alma-Ata. Rail and road links were soon built, and Alma-Ata became the central city of the Turkestan Autonomous Socialist Republic. For a brief moment it even attained transitory fame as one of the places Trotsky was sent to live in exile, before Trotsky finally found his way to Mexico City. However it was the Second World War that really saw Almaty grow. When vital industries and resources were withdrawn from the Front, many of them ended up in Almaty, provoking helter-skelter industrial growth and expansion. It became one of the Soviet Union's most important industrial cities as a result.

The years following the war saw further development, to the tune of 300,000 sq m year-on-year growth. Care had to be taken to build in such a way that earthquakes couldn't easily destroy the city, but apart from that the sky was the limit. Today it's known as a center of industrial, educational and ecological development - particularly the latter, and the current plan is to grow Almaty as a kind of ecological showpiece, or garden city. It's no longer the capital city of Kazakhstan - that honor went, in 1997, to Astana - but it's still the most important city in the state.

                                                            Image taken from Wikipedia.

Demographics

Over 1.5 million live in Almaty, which makes it roughly the same size as Philadelphia, Penn. Population density is very low, even in the cities; the capital, Astana, has about three quarter of a million people, making it only slightly larger than Seattle, Washington.

The vast majority - over 49% - of the country is between 25-54 years old. Living beyond 64 is common, and life expectancy is above 70, male and female.

Sunni Islam is the majority religion. About a quarter of the population are Russian Orthodox, and few other religions have much more than a toe-hold. The country considers itself secular and tolerant, though it's wary of proselytizers and extremist groups.

Literacy is over 95%, and unemployment is very low, less than 4%.

The country is over 60% ethnic Kazakh, with a substantial minority Russian population, and a scattering of other ethnic groups. Kazakh is the official language, though Russian is widely spoken, and is considered the language of business.


Conflict

Until fairly recently Kazakhstan spent a lot of money - comparatively speaking - on its air force, army and navy, but in 2016 spending dropped to less than 1% of the country's GDP. This coincides with a switch from a conscripted to a contract military; until now, military service was compulsory, with a 2 year contract from the age of 18. Kazakhstan has ongoing border issues with Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and China, which are being resolved diplomatically, more or less. Kazakhstan is a member of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, among other groups, though its human rights record is, to put it politely, spotty.

Kazakhstan's relations with Russia have been tested in recent years, thanks in part to disagreements between Putin and Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev - the only President independent Kazakhstan has ever known. President Nazarbayev is in his late 70s, and has received over 90% of the popular vote in recent elections. He and his cronies are known to be corrupt and authoritarian; it's anyone's guess what will happen when he resigns or dies. At time of writing he seems likely to cling to power with both hands, come what may. Many Russians think Kazakhstan is but an experiment, not a real independent nation, and are of the opinion that the experiment can be terminated at any time - most likely when President Nazarbayev dies.

Kazakhstan's relationship with the United States has been cordial since the 2001 terror attacks, and Kazakhstan has been a partner in the war against terror. However there has been considerable unease, particularly in China and Russia, about the possibility of the United States establishing air bases in Kazakhstan. So far, that possibility has yet to become more than theoretical.

Islamic fundamentalist groups are a significant problem, and Al-Qaeda is but one of a number of different organizations suspected to be operating in Kazakhstan. There have been several terror incidents, particularly in recent years. However the Kazakh government is not above using intimidation and terror tactics, particularly when it comes to silencing journalists. It has also been accused of assassination on at least one occasion.

The country is a conduit for drugs smuggling from Afghanistan to Europe, and a producer of cannabis on an industrial scale. Government interest in cracking down on drug smuggling is low. Opiate addiction is rife in Kazakhstan.


Backdrops

Big Almaty Lake, only a few kilometers north of the city, is a tectonic lake whose waters feed the Big Almaty River. It is part of a natural park, and hosts the Tien-Shan Astronomical Observatory.

Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Almaty is a city of fountains, boasting 125 fountains all told. The Oriental Fountain, part-pictured here, is based on the Chinese calendar, and is a popular stop for tourist walking tours. There are twelve animals all told in the Oriental Fountain

                                                      Image sourced from TripAdvisor.
                                               
The Almaty Television Tower, commonly called the Almaty Tower, is the tallest free-standing steel tubular structure in the world. It's designed to withstand earthquakes rated up to 10 on the Richter scale, and has two observation decks at its uppermost level, which are not open to the public.

                                                   Image sourced from WikiVisually.
Story Seeds

As part of its bid to be recognized as a major sporting center, Kazakh officials and wealthy friends of the government have put together a bid to host a major martial arts international tournament in Almaty. So far everything seems set for a publicity and sporting triumph - though many Western journalists are barred from attending, for various reasons. Several new venues for the tournament are being built for the occasion - and one Conspiracy front seems to be winning some of the best bids. Why is the Conspiracy so interested in building sports venues all of a sudden? Is this merely an attempt to hide or transfer ill-gotten funds, or is there something more important going on?

[This seed may change depending on whether your game is set pre or post 2015.] Almaty is/was in close competition with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. It's a very tense race, and every single International Olympic Committee vote is being courted assiduously. Some would argue, too assiduously; China's Room 452, its Vampire program, is known to have become involved in influencing the vote. Yet still Almaty remains a strong contender. Who, or what, is on its side? If this is post 2015, and Beijing is known to have won, then what happened to those 15 IOC committee members who didn't vote - and what kind of blowback can be expected on the losing side?

An Islamic militant attack in Almaty's financial district has the world on edge. So far it's just the usual suspects hitting the usual targets, but Tradecraft or similar knows that at least one organized group is gathering material - and explosives - for a hit on a major target. Yet those same sources seem to think the terrorists are after an archaeological site, not something more obviously political. The question is, why?

Thrilling Elements

  • The Zelyonni [Green] Bazaar and the flea market at Dostyk Avenue is the best place to pick up Soviet-era collectables, fake Gucci and Louis Vuitton, sweets, fruit and other items - and it's always packed out with bargain hunters, making it a difficult venue for a Chase scene.
  • Almaty's party central if you're a well-to-do and hedonistic Russian or Central Asian, and can afford to spend $100 a throw for a table. The rich and corrupt reel from nightclub to nightclub with wallets stuffed with cash - and, in some cases, their minders follow on behind to protect them from themselves.
  • Almaty is a city that remembers its heritage, whether Soviet or ancient. Plaques and memorials are everywhere in the older parts of the city, commemorating the artists, scientists and other famous citizens of the city.
  • Since the 2005 Venice Biennale, Almaty has become moderately famous as a home for video art. A swanky art gallery or less exclusive venue can house the latest in Almaty expressionism.
  • Many monuments dot Almaty's streets and parks, some of them less obvious than others. A group of tourists gather around the Beatles Monument at Park Kok-Tobe Mountain, a favorite park for locals and recent arrivals alike.
  • A group of old World War Two veterans gather at the Monument of Fame, looking for all the world like a gaggle of moth-eaten buzzards.
  • A hushed group of high-minded Russians move slowly through the Central State Museum, admiring the scientific exhibits in particular.
  • Cheerful tourists and locals settle in at a local outdoor eatery, for steaming bowls of beshbarmak - horse meat, noodles and soup.  

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Quick and Dirty: Luanda, Angola (Night's Black Agents)

In previous iterations of Quick & Dirty I've covered Kabul and Macao, and this time I thought I'd try something new. There's nothing people love more than lists, and every year someone puts together a list of the most expensive cities to live in. This time I'm going to tackle the #1 for 2017, Luanda in Angola, West Africa. Next time I'll tackle the least luxurious, so watch this space.

Luanda's a new entry at the #1 spot. Hong Kong has held that dubious honor last year, but this year it slipped to #2. Wonder why? Wonder no more.

Luanda

This Angolan port city on the West coast of southern Africa, formerly named São Paulo da Assunção de Loanda, is the most populous Portuguese-speaking capital city in the world, way ahead of Lisbon - the capital of Portugal - and the fifth most populous Portuguese-speaking city overall. Which just goes to show that Portugal, which also founded Macau, had an indelible mark on colonial history, despite being a minor player in the game.

                              Image sourced from Wikipedia and used under Creative Commons.

Luanda is a city in flux. It is undergoing major renovation, almost a sea change, thanks to its meteoric rise. Angola only achieved peace after decades of conflict in 2002, and since then Luanda has struggled to reestablish its position as a major export port. The struggle, it would seem, is nearly over, and its reward is an exponential increase in cost of living, among other things. It can cost upwards of $6,000 per month to rent a two bedroom unfurnished apartment in Luanda. A price tag around the $12,000 per month range is not uncommon. The president's daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is Africa's richest woman, having earned her cash thanks to her father's generosity; he gave her the state energy firm to manage. Meanwhile most Angolans get by on wages of $2 per day, scratching out an existence side by side with oil millionaires.

Luanda was founded in 1576 by Portuguese colonists as a slave trade center, and became one of Portugal's most important assets, supplying Brazil with countless slaves for its brazil-wood plantations, sugar plantations, and gold and diamond mines. At the outset Portugal didn't care much for expansion, preferring instead to build large forts to protect its assets. It saw Luanda as a bridgehead, a link in a supply chain that kept its far more valuable Brazilian colony fed, a human factory sending slave labor across the ocean.

This all came to an end in 1822, when Brazil gained independence. This massive disruption in Luanda's trade forced the colony to change its course. By 1836 slavery was abolished, and soon Luanda became a center for foreign shipping, sending palm and peanut oil, copal, timber, ivory, cotton, coffee, cocoa and many other products across the sea.

With this trade came wealth, and peaceful prosperity, interrupted briefly by overseas scuffles. During World War One, tensions between Portugal and Germany rose, particularly since Germany's African colony bordered Angola, but though there was fighting, and many Portuguese ships sunk by rampaging U-Boats, Luanda was never directly threatened. Portugal remained neutral during the Second World War, and inadvertently became a hub for fleeing refugees and espionage, but in so doing it ensured Luanda wouldn't be directly threatened during this conflict either. Even the Portuguese Colonial Wars in the 1960s and 70s between the military and emerging nationalist movements never harmed Luanda, and during the War for Independence, most of the guerrilla fighting took place in the countryside and wilderness of the Northern provinces.

There is one notable exception. In February 1961, at the start of the conflict, militants armed with machetes stormed police strongholds, apparently intending to free political prisoners. At least fifty and possibly several hundred militants were involved in these strikes, of whom somewhere between twenty to forty died. Several police constables were also killed, and during their funeral on the 5th of February tensions ran so high that riots broke out. Reports are unclear as to what happened next; some claim enraged white mobs slaughtered blacks in their hundreds, while others that only a handful were killed. One more attack on a police post took place on the 10th, but that was rebuffed by a strong police presence, and twenty two of the attackers were killed. 

Like many other conflicts of its time this civil war was, at least in part, a show of force between the US and the USSR, using an African battleground to play out international conflicts, but Rhodesia and South Africa also saw opportunities and crises in the Angolan conflict. Both those countries were ruled by white governments, and saw nothing but bad times brewing in a white colonial government overthrown by black nationalists.

                                            Portuguese paratroopers on patrol. (Wikipedia)

With the signing of the Alvor agreement in November 1975 came independence, and a very brief peace that was shattered almost immediately by rivalry between the nationalist factions. Over three hundred thousand people emigrated, fearful of what was to come.

The Marxist MPLA, backed by the USSR, had a bitter fight on its hands and, though it has won every election held so far, accusations of political corruption and vote rigging taint those victories. Again, South Africa intervened with support for the other two factions, FNLA and UNITA, and though President Reagan longed to send in the troops, Congress blocked his plans, fearing another Vietnam quagmire. The civil war finally came to an end in 2002, with the death of UNITA's Jonas Savimbi, a former MPLA guerilla fighter who became the darling of Washington D.C., met with Reagan and, at one time, surrounded Luanda with his troops.

Despite internal disputes and constant violence, the MPLA remains in control of the country. Its human rights and political record is less than pristine.  UNITA is still its strongest opponent.

Though conflict shook the country, Luanda rose above it all. The sudden departure of so many Portuguese in 1975 caused many problems, as skills and knowledge drained out of Angola's capital, and for a time Luanda knew difficulty. However Cuba sent support to its Marxist brethren, and before long the brain drain had been stemmed by Cuban technicians. However Luanda was still a colonial city, with colonial infrastructure, and an exponential increase in prosperity meant increasing immigration, with consequent pressure on its ageing infrastructure. 

It consists of seven districts: Ingombota, Kilamba Kiaxi, Maianga, Ngola Kiluanj, Rangel, Samba e Sambizanga. Growth has been so rampant that a satellite city has also been developed, Luanda Sul, with ever more high-rises and developments breaking ground all the time. The climate is hot and dry, with frequent fog, and a rainy March-April. 

Generally speaking Luanda can be divided into two parts: Baixa de Luanda (lower Luanda, the old city) and the Cidade Alta (upper city or the new part). The old city is still colonial, despite rampant development, with narrow streets and an old-world European atmosphere. The upper city is a mixture of poverty-stricken slums and fast-paced urban sprawl. Luanda is like a river swollen with flood water, overflowing its banks and drowning anything nearby. It grows with irresistible force, and anything next to it is either swept along for the ride or lost forever.

About a third of Angola lives in Luanda, mostly in desperate poverty. Safe drinking water and electricity is in short supply, and the roads are foul. However if you have money Luanda is a paradise - albeit an extremely expensive one. One of the odder consequences of this is a Portuguese resurgence; Portuguese nationals see Angola as a kind of El Dorado, and are flooding back to Luanda. 

This is thanks in large part to Angola's booming economy. Oil, gas, diamonds, bountiful agricultural resources, are all now able to be tapped thanks to the end of the civil war, and this has led to a skyrocketing growth in GDP. Oil in particular is a huge resource, accounting for 50% of GDP and 80% of government revenue, and earning Angola a place in OPEC. Much of this black gold goes to the US, but in recent years Angola has forged significant trade links with China.

                                  Image from the Guardian, photographer Matteo de Mayda

Population

Over six million, and growing all the time, which makes it two times as populous as Los Angeles and only slightly smaller than New York City.

There is a sizeable Portuguese emigrant population, and about three hundred thousand Europeans altogether. Brazilians and other Latin Americans are well represented, thanks to long historic links. A significant Chinese and Vietnamese presence has developed in recent years. 

The official and most widely used language is Portuguese, though there's also many Bantu language speakers.

Roughly half the population lives in abject poverty.

Roman Catholicism is by far the most prevalent religion, Protestantism a distant second, and every other religion a practical non-starter. 

About 48% of Angola is under the age of 14. About 46% are between 15 to 54. Very few live to see their 60s. Child mortality is very high.

About 70% of the population is literate.

Conflict

Despite the end of open conflict, tensions between the ruling MPLA and UNITA remain high. Ironically this meant, among other things, tension between MPLA and China, at least initially, because the MPLA was Soviet-backed, and China broke with the Soviet Union. As a consequence China supported UNITA against the MPLA. Those days are long gone, but it did contribute to some ill feeling initially between the two nations.

Instances of actual terrorism are rare, in Luanda. Those who venture out into the provinces are more at risk, particularly in the northern province of Cabinda. Cabinda city is considered relatively safe, but the countryside around it is not. Even without the risk of terrorist attack, land mines left over from the war are scattered everywhere. Similarly, the government discourages travel to and from any diamond-producing area; anyone who does so, and does not have the proper documentation, is subject to arrest and detention.

There have been many instances of past CIA involvement in Angolan affairs, and where the CIA goes the KGB - or these days the FIS - is sure to follow, if it wasn't already there lying in wait. Given the significant investment China has made in recent years, China's Ministry of State Security must have a presence in Luanda. Even if the old Cold War tensions have died down, Angola's prolific natural resources - and its oil supply in particular - make it a strategic ally, or target, of the highest importance.

The MPLA officially abandoned Marxist-Leninism in 1990, reverting to social democracy. Allegations of corruption, cronyism and bribery are commonplace. Arbitrary arrest, detention and torture are frequent, despite the MPLA hiring a public relations firm to clean up its image.

UNITA meanwhile took about 26% of the seats in the 2017 election, and remain a strong opposition. It began as a Maoist group, but has since evolved into a social conservative faction. It has significant support from the US Republican party; before that, thanks to its socialist dogma, it had a good working relationship with the People's Republic of China, which sold it guns and military supplies.


As a seaport, Luanda is a natural narcotics hub, and some of the cocaine that finds its way to Europe flows through this port. South Africa is also a beneficiary of Luanda's cocaine largesse.

Angola has an ongoing dispute with the Democratic Republic of Congo over borders. As an unintended consequence, a small number of refugees from Congo have ended up in Angola.

Angolans have long since learned to equate foreigners with wealth, particularly if they wear business attire. That makes them targets. This may range from on-the-spot fines from local police, to a swarm of beggars, to much, much worse. Wandering into the slums is a very bad idea, unless you are African, and preferably Bantu. Those on the streets without a notarized copy of their passport are likely to be harassed by the police.

Armed violence is likely, particularly against new arrivals. The Chinese, for example, are often targeted; robbery, rapes and assaults are common. The Roque Santiero market, the Rocha Pinto slum area, and any street connecting or near nightclubs and bars in the Isla do Cabo are particularly dangerous, especially at night. It is inadvisable to pull over on the roadway no matter what, as bandits often attack good Samaritans and the incautious alike. The airports are also a hot spot, as customs and immigration officials are corrupt and likely to slip narcotics or similar into baggage so they can make an 'arrest' - or more likely collect a bribe.

Companies that hire foreign workers ensure those workers are housed in properties that have 24 hour guard facilities, and post strict guidelines that those workers should adhere to if they wish to remain safe. This can result in a kind of hothouse environment, in which foreign workers live like rarified plants, completely disconnected from the city around them. Foreign workers rarely use local taxies; they are ferried to and from their jobs by company car. As a result, it is very unusual for anyone other than a local to use the local taxi service.

Backdrops

                          Panorama Hotel, now a squat occupied by homeless children. Photo by Matteo de Mayda

The former luxury modernist Panorama Hotel, with excellent views of the harbor, now a forgotten relic of times past. These days it's a squat lived in by the homeless, a place where rape, murder and crime are common. Only the truly gullible tourist would try to book a room here, perhaps lured by the hotel's former reputation.

The Iron Palace, or Palácio de Ferro, believed to have been built by Gustave Eiffel and intended to be shipped from Paris to Madagascar, but which ended up in Luanda instead when the ship carrying it ran aground close to the colony. The Portuguese claimed the building, and everything else aboard the ship, as salvage. In recent years it was neglected, but a renovation effort has turned it into a diamond museum.

Ship Graveyard, where half-stripped hulls of abandoned cargo vessels linger, thrashed by waves. Tourists going here should be wary, as assaults and daylight armed robbery are common, but if there's anywhere in Luanda where a past tragedy's secrets await discovery, this is it.

Three Hooks

With so much money flowing through Luanda, the rich and eager-to-be-rich are constantly coming and going, meeting with bigwigs in the government or petrochemical industries. One of these wants to hire the agents as bodyguards for her latest trip - but why is she so eager to go out into the countryside, where it's far more dangerous?

A Conspiracy bagman's schedule takes him to Luanda on a very regular basis, at least once every three months. Once he gets there, he drops off the radar; nobody's sure whether he's meeting with government officials, UNITA, terrorists, or someone not on the list of usual suspects. It's the agents' job to find out who the bagman's meeting, and why.

A prominent US politician and Republican bigwig visits Luanda on an 'information gathering' trip, and returns a changed man. His spectacular self-destruction when he returns is the talk of D.C., but the question is, what did he encounter out there that affected him so?

Thrilling Elements

The following elements are unique to Luanda:

  • A convoy of armored luxury cars sweeps through the streets, its occupants hidden behind tinted glass. Everyone else on the street scatters to make way.
  • Armed police saunter through, looking for gullible foreigners to harass. If the agents don't have notarized photostats of their passports, complete with a list of inoculations, they'll get on-the-spot fines. If they actually have their passports on them, those documents will likely be confiscated.
  • Political posters peel in the blazing sunshine, their bland-faced subjects staring empty-eyed out over the passing crowds.
  • Yet another abandoned high-rise project rusts, waiting for work to resume. Next to that, ground is being broken on a new project. Next to that, ramshackle buildings are being cleared to make way for a third development.
  • Music drifts out from a string of high-end bars and nightclubs, as the ultra-rich dance the night away.
  • A rooftop hotel bar overlooking the harbor, where the beautiful sit watching the sunset. A group of recently arrived Portuguese plan out their latest business conquest a few tables away.
  • The dazzling beachfront of the Cabo draws tourists and criminals alike - only a few hundred yards away, a couple is being robbed at gunpoint.
  • A thoroughly modern shopping center stuffed to the rafters with thoroughly modern wares, and air conditioned within an inch of its life. Were it not for the many Africans and Portuguese speakers, this could be London, or Paris.






Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Cracked & Crook'd Manse


For the last couple years some friends of mine and I gather together at Halloween to play games. Two of the faithful, Max and Tacha, are probably going to leave us soon for the wintry wild lands of Canada - pity them, do not judge them - so this is the last of these sessions we'll have as a group. I thought I'd share the result with you all.

The game is Cracked and Crook'd Manse, from Call of Cthulhu's Mansion of Madness collection, though I use Trail rules as the group's more familiar with that system. I created pregens, leaving only the name of the character up to the players, to speed up the session. We only had until 1am to finish, and I didn't want to spend half an hour on character design.

In my innocence I thought I could record the session and upload it here. Well, recording wasn't a problem. In fact, given the extremely primitive nature of my recording set-up, I think I did quite well. Uploading it is a completely different kettle of fish, and 3+ hours of audio just won't be doable on this system. Which is a terrible shame, I'm sure. I could probably work out how to post it via some other means, but I'm not up for learning how to podcast this late on a Sunday.

You'll just have to settle for the précis.

Cast of characters:

Scruffy, the Hobo - Max.
Stormageddon, the Wonder Dog, aka Sassy - Tacha
Hank the Bootlegger - Reuben
Kent, the Journalist - Jym
Annabelle, the Dilettante and Arthur Cornthwaite's sister - Mary

Spoilers for the scenario are inevitable, so be warned.

All of them arrive in the town of Gamwell, Mass., to find out what happened to Arthur Cornthwaite, missing millionare & archaeologist. Nobody knows where he's gone or how long he'll be away. His lawyers think there's nothing very wrong; his sister is deeply concerned. Hank and Sassy are there to look for Moses, Hank's business partner, who was last seen headed to the Cornthwaite estate. Scruffy. who knows nothing of any of this, is looking for a warm place to spend the night.

Hank and Sassy soon work out that the lawyer's office is the place to go. There they meet Annabelle, and thanks to some confusion on the lawyer's part, the lawyers think Hank and Annabelle know each other, which makes life easier for Hank. Annabelle soon leaves in search of her brother, and her beloved horse. Hank spends a little longer at the lawyer's office, and finds out that one of the last things Arthur Cornthwaite did before vanishing was buy a remarkable amount of salt, for reasons unknown. Hank and Sassy steal the keys to the estate, thanks to a quick distraction from Sassy, and they follow after Annabelle.

Meanwhile Scruffy takes his chance, and climbs over the fence to get to the estate, badly damaging his pants in the process. Now almost naked from the waist down, Scruffy needs new pants, and once he realizes nobody's home he breaks into the mansion. He finds the place decayed and abandoned, but after some searching finds the master bedroom, and Arthur's pants. Decent once more, he's surprised when Annabelle and Hank arrive, with Kent the journalist soon after.

Annabelle is shocked and appalled to discover her beloved horse has been eaten, and her family home is in near-ruin. For a moment it looks as if Scruffy might be to blame, but after a rocky start they join forces with the hobo to find out why the house is in such a state,

Much exploring now takes place, from top to bottom. In the attic they find evidence which suggests Arthur brought something awful back from his latest expedition. In the cellar, which is practically a swamp, they find further evidence that Arthur's last expedition did not go well at all, and they also find enough to suggest that Moses met his end here too. In every room, every corridor, there's further evidence of extensive damp and decay. Annabelle is distraught - her family's beautiful house, ruined!

They soon realize that the water's off, for reasons unknown, and putting two and two together they decide that the lack of water in the pipes, and the extensive water damage everywhere else, means something. That's why they go to the cellar, which means the creature, which was hiding in the cellar, needs to retreat. Sense Trouble tells Sassy that something large is in the walls, but the wonder dog doesn't realize just how bad the situation is.

Scruffy separates from the group, so the aggrieved creature has a chance to strike. Scruffy, in the parlor, is grabbed and swiftly hauled out through the window and up. In the process he suffers extensive Stability and Sanity losses. Fortunately for him the group comes to his rescue, with Sassy the wonder dog dragging him back from the brink.

Now they know something's up. They want to leave, but when they go to Annabelle's two seater they see a suspicious pool of 'water' around her car. When the journalist goes for his bicycle, which is outside the fenceline, the water flows ahead of him. They're trapped - or are they? Annabelle remembers that, as a good citizen of Massachusetts, she has a large bag of salt in the back of her car. If only they could get to it!

Unfortunately in the attempt Sassy gets that little bit too close to the horror, and her doggy mind goes spiraling off into the void. They retreat back into the mansion, for now, in search of other salt. They find Arthur's shotgun, and the shells he was filling with salt when he was snatched away. With the small amount of salt they've been able to salvage, they make one usable salt shell. Now's the time to strike.

They're able to escape the mansion again, and get to the salt in the back of the car. However Kent the journalist is snatched away, and dragged to the cellar, where the thing's vast bulk has relocated.

Annabelle grabs the bag of salt from her car and dashes back into the house to save Kent, scattering salt like a maddened flower girl at a salt wedding. She runs down into the cellar, not realizing that in doing so she'll become the world's first, and last, salt suicide bomber. The creature is just as surprised as she is, when Annabelle dives headlong into its mass carrying a lethal bag.

Everyone else was close behind her at the time of the unpleasantness. They needed to make a Fleeing Difficulty 6, since they were so very close to the center of what amounts to an erupting volcano. Only Scruffy, the crazed hobo, makes the roll. Annabelle and Kent were already half-dissolved and swimming in goo, so they weren't in the running, but Sassy and Hank go out in a blaze of glory.

Scruffy, sole survivor and character most likely to be blamed for the whole mess, resolves to get out of town before the Sherriff can catch up with him. "Scruffy lives to see another day!" Max crows.

Thus ends the tale of ... the Cracked and Crook'd Manse.

EDITS SO MANY EDITS WELL ACTUALLY JUST ONE EDIT - FOR NOW:

Thanks to a suggestion, I uploaded the file to Archive.org. It doesn't seem to have worked exactly as I'd like, and download doesn't function the way I thought it would. So changes will need to be made.

However it is there, and seems to be streamable, so the link is here.

Note: spoilers! Also the occasional naughty word.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Halloween (RPG All)

Tis the season, so let's talk about ghosts - or at least, about the day on which ghosts are celebrated. What exactly is Halloween?

It's a holiday now remembered for its place in the Christian calendar. Formerly celebrated in May, Halloween is the day before All Saints, also known as All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas. All Saints is celebrated each November 1st, and is, as you might expect, dedicated to all saints and martyrs known and unknown - which conveniently covers those gallant souls who perished somewhere forsaken and alone, as well as those more spectacularly martyred where everyone could see it happen. The festival was introduced by Pope Boniface IV in the 7th Century, probably to supplant a pagan ritual dedicated to the dead. Boniface's saint day is in May, which, when he first invented the festival, was also when All Saints was celebrated - May 13th, to be exact.

The date was changed by Gregory III to November 1st and has remained so to this day. It's not clear why Gregory felt the need to change the date. Gregory's time in the Papal seat is only a century after Boniface's. He was a great opponent of iconoclasm - the destruction of religious relics, on the grounds that idolizing relics is anathema - and was an enthusiastic builder, or rebuilder, of churches, shrines, and holy places. His changing the date may have had something to do with the changing emphasis of the church; up till now, its focus had been on the East, and the former Empire, but in Gregory's day the focus shifts to Northern Europe, Germany, and really anywhere Gregory could get support to help him against rampaging Muslims and Lombards. Since All Saints is ultimately an end-of-year festival, it may be that this shift in Papal focus, and climates, meant a shift in dates was prudent.

All Saints is followed by All Souls, on November 2nd. All Souls is when everyone who isn't a saint gets a place at the table. Many cultures have a similar point in their spiritual calendar, a day, or perhaps a festival, set aside for remembering the dead. For the Japanese, it is the Feast of Lanterns. China's fifteenth day in the seventh month of its lunar calendar is its Ghost Day, when the gates of Hell open and the living offer sacrifices to the wandering dead. In each case the day of remembrance is usually towards the end of the year, when crops have been harvested, new fields sown, and there is nothing to do but wait.

So technically Halloween, which in the West is celebrated on October 31st, is only the start of a three-day festival of the dead, and probably the least important of the three, but it's the one that's been drummed into us by commercial interests as being the only day worth remembering. However if you're worried about ghosts returning, the day you want to pay attention to is November 2nd, All Souls. For those Keepers setting their games in the 1920s and 30s, this is also when Catholic traditionalists will set out food and presents for the returned dead; I doubt it's something many Catholics in the United States do nowadays, though south of the border on the Dia de Muertos the ritual is still remembered.

Incidentally, Dia de Muertos was originally a summertime ritual - but as often happened, when Catholic Christianity took over, the date was changed to better reflect Catholic tradition. On the 31st children build altars to persuade dead children to return; on the 1st, the adult dead come back; and on the 2nd the living visit the dead in their tombs.

The trick-or-treat part of the celebration is a 1920s invention. There's always been a tradition of mummery or going about in fancy dress - ceremonial dress, really -  but sending kids out in costume to get candy by threatening the neighbors isn't really a thing until the later 1920s, and then only in big cities. The idea caught on, and it should hardly be a surprise that it did - just then. We think of the 1920s as the Roaring Twenties, the Bootlegger Era, and tend to forget that it was also the decade of the booster, the advertiser, and the Boom. If it could be sold, you could bet your bottom dollar they'd sell it. For them, Halloween was a gift from Heaven. Postcards, costumes, decorations, accessories, and best of all, candy, candy, candy, all yours at never-to-be-beaten prices. Rather like Christmas, Halloween was heavily kid-oriented, the purpose being to get children on board so they would nag their parents to buy things for them.

Give me a child until he is seven and I shall show you the man, Aristotle is supposed to have said. If only Aristotle knew what he was letting the rest of us in for. Soon trick-or-treat becomes part of accepted tradition, accepted because adults who remember it fondly support their children's habit, who then grow up to do the same.

So what does all this mean from a gaming perspective?

Well, among other things it strongly suggests that if your game is set in the Victorian period or earlier, there really isn't a Halloween as you know it today. There may be an extra service on the 31st, but that's about it. On the other hand, come the 1st, or better yet the 2nd, sparks begin to fly. The Keeper may choose to use this as set dressing - food for the dead laid out on the table, that sort of thing - or may decide to dig a little deeper.

This is the point at which I turn to some very good advice in Trail's book Rough Magicks, where Ken Hite says the Keeper should decide ahead of time what Magic really is. It might be spare energy left over from the creation of the Universe, or genetic inheritance from the Old Ones, or any of a dozen other things. Whichever Magic it may be, will determine to a great extent what ghosts are, which in turn affects Halloween and its attendant rituals.

Let's say that magic requires blood sacrifice as a means of providing your 'public key' to the cosmos. delivering DNA to Yog-Sothoth, and that sacrificing something other than yourself - babies, cattle - is like hacking the universe using someone else's account. So it's all about blood - the ritual's less important than the claret.

In this instance, a ghost is created by blood. It may even crave it, in vampiric fashion, but probably lacks the intelligence to set traps for it or otherwise get it directly. An excess of blood spilt - like a battlefield, or a gruesome murder - creates excess energy, by hacking the building blocks of the universe and then not doing anything with the power that results. A ghost is spoilt magic. It has no real human characteristics, but since it was created by humans it mimics them to an extent - borrowing human form, creating sounds, and so on.

In this version of events, the All Souls rituals - the feasts, candles, and such - are humanity's response to this spoilt magic. In order to give ghosts something to do, other than cause mischief in their relentless search for blood, humanity creates a magical ritual, which varies from place to place but always has the same intent: pacify or get rid of the dangerous dead.

Of course, as time goes by people become less observant. All Souls stops being the important date in the calendar; now it's Halloween, the 31st and not the 2nd, and now it's not about the dead at all, but about the living. Which would be fine if people stopped shedding blood, but instead they gush gore more enthusiastically than ever. Moreover they do it just at a moment, after the Great War, when a massive excess of bloodletting creates more specters than has been seen before. Humanity hacked reality, and then left reality's doors wide open. The 20th Century becomes the Century of Ghosts, as blood-hungry creatures roam the earth seeking just that little bit more, that drop, that gusher, which will slake their thirst - for a while.

Say you're running a different game, Night's Black Agents perhaps, or anything with a modern setting. In this kind of game ritual is often de-emphasized; it's less about Latin and incense, and more about doing cool things and looking cool while doing them.

At that point Halloween becomes more set dressing than ceremony. It really is about the parties, the costumes, the laughter and the free-flowing bacchanal. Depending on where you are - Italy, say - there may not be a Halloween at all, and All Souls is still the important date. Some locations may really play up the ghosts and goblins side of things. Whitby, for instance, has a Goth Weekend in the final days of October, and that's all thanks to Stoker and his charming fiend. If you're playing Dracula Dossier, and your agents want to visit Whitby, you'd be nuts not to take advantage of the local color.

That's it for this week! Enjoy.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Wire Rat - the Mulholland Option (Night's Black Agents)

Only a brief post this time. I spent a chunk of the day helping the local Gilbert & Sullivan society clear set from their latest production. There was a bad accident. Flesh torn off palms kind of accident, many stitches kind of accident. We're lucky it wasn't much worse.

Anyway, this week I want to talk about the Wire Rat archetype, which I suspect gets short shrift in many people's campaigns.

Technical experts, says the rulebook, As distinct from hackers, are almost always nuts and bolts electronic specialists, with a side of metal shop. Building bugs into innocuous objects is another wire rat specialty, as is general gadgeteering.

Which is fine, but doesn't really scream 'hero of the story.' More the sidekick, the comedy relief character. The backroom boffin with all the toys at their disposal, but none of the kick-ass. Not a very fair portrait, perhaps, but I've often thought it's one of the big reasons why I've never had a player willingly choose this archetype in any game I've run. The other big reason probably being that few people know much about the nuts and bolts of electronic surveillance, and may feel a bit intimidated by the archetype that seemingly does nothing but.

I'm struggling to think of many media versions of this kind of character, as the lead and not a companion or minor role. There's the Wizard. The FX movies. Lester Freamon off the Wire, though I'm not sure he counts as a lead as this is an ensemble show; really, everyone's a lead. But that's when the well runs dry. There are plenty of lead roles which use gadgetry in some form or other - Michael Westen off Burn Notice springs to mind - but usually it's an adjunct to their role, not the defining part of it, and when they need something complex done they turn to the expert rather than do it themselves. Whereas there are hundreds upon hundreds of Qs out there, or David Niven's character Cpl. Miller from Guns of Navarone; support roles who supply the hero with the tools they need, but who rarely appear on screen for longer than a few minutes at a time, and who never get the girl. Or, like Argo, do all the hard work in the first half of the film and then sit on the sidelines while the action man gets the job done.

Which brings me to John Mulholland, the CIA's favorite magician.

I'm not going to go into too much detail here, as I'm writing a long article about him for Genii and don't feel the need to drop spoilers, but briefly: Mulholland was a renowned stage magician asked to contribute his talents to a little project called MKULTRA. He wrote two training manuals for the CIA intended to teach their people stage magic techniques and tricks of the mentalist trade.

So what does this mean? Well, stage magicians are the premier gadgeteers of this or any other era. Their whole shtick is to make something seem as innocuous as it is possible to be, and yet create wonder. Maybe nobody wants to be the sidekick, but I guarantee everybody wants to be Penn and Teller. Moreover with Mulholland as an archetype you have the perfect excuse for stage magic in espionage; the man who builds, designs, stage manages, plans, and executes every conceivable trick in the book, all to fool the hardest audience in the world - the one that'll kill you if you get it wrong.

You'll notice that this reduces the role of electronic surveillance a little. It doesn't have to; bugs and those who are bugged is still a huge part of the archetype. But if that's all the player thinks the character can do, the player may not be in a hurry to play that role. Ultimately it's very passive. You plant the bug, and then you sit and wait, and wait, and wait. It's not something you do if you crave adrenaline-pumping action.

But a Houdini that can seemingly walk through walls? A charmer whose words lull you into a false sense of security? A specialist adept with the hold-out camera, or pistol, and whose pockets are full of trick coins? A technical genius who can make you think everything's normal, right up to the point when it's very clearly not? Now that's magic.

With all that in mind:

Darci
One sentence: A Parisian street artist whose deft hands and charming smile have fooled half the continent.

Investigative: Architecture 1, Bullshit Detector 2, Chemistry 1, Data Recovery 2, Electronic Surveillance 2, Flattery 1, Human Terrain 2, Languages 2, Notice 1, Negotiation 1, Reassurance 2, Research 1,  Tradecraft 1, Urban Survival 2

General: Athletics 8, Conceal 10, Cover 10, Digital Intrusion 2,  Disguise 3, Filch 8, Hand to Hand 10, Infiltration 8, Mechanics 12, Network 15, Preparedness 8, Sense Trouble 6, Surveillance 6

MOS: Conceal, for those moments when she really needs to make something disappear. Plus, what with Swiss Army Prep (Mechanics Cherry) and ordinary Preparedness, she's ready for just about any eventuality; after all, any performance can go wrong, and when it does, it's great to have a backup plan.

Finally, a scenario seed:

The same street artist has been sighted, either by witnesses or by security cameras, outside three different venues, all of which suffered mysterious break-ins. Twice the intrusion was so skillfully done that, had the perp not left a calling card - a print of The Surrealist, by Victor Brauner - on display at each scene. The victims are baffled; what was taken? Was this some kind of scam? Have their networks been infected with malware? Should the directors worry about blackmail material?

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Person of Interest: Institution M (Night's Black Agents)

Earlier this week the story of Werner Mauss' tax evasion conviction, and two hundred thousand euro fine, broke, and brought the shadowy Institution M back into the international spotlight again. Since he's exactly the sort of person your Night's Black Agents players are going to want to meet, he's this week's Person of Interest.

Mauss, born in Essen in 1940, became a private investigator in the 1960s, and soon started working with the German police and intelligence services exclusively. It's not clear how this happened. His website claims he was trained by a former member of the intelligence services, and that may have given him the contacts he needed to start working with the authorities. Otherwise it's difficult to fathom how an otherwise undistinguished former agronomist and vacuum cleaner salesman in his twenties got the attention of the powers that be. He'd enjoyed success working for insurance companies, but presumably he wasn't the only private investigator in Germany with a decent success record. Reading the site gives the impression that here is a man who is neither shy nor lacking in self-promotion skills, so a certain amount of bluff may have been involved.

He began as a police spy, infiltrating criminal gangs and filtering their secrets back to the police. He claims over 2,000 arrests all told thanks to his evidence, over a forty year career, everything from diamond thieves and tracking down barrels of stolen toxic waste, to the arrest of Red Army Faction fugitives and alleged police murderer Alfred Lecki, in Spain. However from the 1980s he began his South American work, and it is at this point that things get murky.

He started by helping Mannesmann AG in Columbia with troubles it was having over an oil pipeline, but Mann soon found himself negotiating the return of hostages from the ELN. The National Liberation Army -  Ejército de Liberación Nacional - has been fighting the Columbian government since 1964. Its more famous fraternal organization FARC gets all the attention, but the ELN is also a Communist group - Marxist, as distinct from FARC's brand of Marxist-Leninism - and the ELN is no laughing matter. It engages in attacks on infrastructure, like the pipeline, as well as extortion and kidnapping. At this moment it is estimated to have over two hundred people in captivity. The ELN calls it war taxes and retentions; the retentions - kidnappings - are used to encourage payment of the war taxes, or extortion.

Mauss successfully recovered retentions, which got the attention of the German government, at that time Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrat/Liberal coalition. Kohl needed a way to get German civilians back from the ELN, and Mauss was perfectly positioned to play intermediary. Soon Mauss became involved in a more ambitious project, aimed at brokering peace between the ELN and the government. From Germany's perspective this could be nothing but good news; finally the kidnappings and damage to German businesses would end.

The negotiations went reasonably well, but didn't prove as successful as everyone hoped. Moreover the Columbian government was becoming suspicious; was Mauss actually collaborating with the ELN to drive up ransoms, collecting his cut from the kidnappers for this service? He was arrested and jailed for nine months, before being cleared of all charges in 1998.

If he was being paid by the ELN, it was just one of a long list of clients. Mauss' personal fortune grew. His 40,000 acre estate, bought in the 1960s when land was probably a lot cheaper, has been built up into a fenced-off Disney World castle according to the German papers, complete with its own zoo, exotic animals, and the largest private riding hall in Germany. All of which seems reminiscent of a certain film, or possibly more than one.

The Panama Papers leak threw a little more light onto Mauss' world. He had been a busy man, helping the rich and powerful in their business dealings, and in the process built up substantial accounts in Luxembourg and the Bahamas, for which he paid no tax. Mauss claims this is because the funds were actually given him by Western intelligence agencies to help his fight against terrorism and organized crime, even Isis. He also promised a string of star witnesses at his trial, none of whom showed up - and one of whom had died five years prior. Even had all of them materialized, it would have been difficult to explain a slush fund in excess of $50 million whose stated purpose was to fund a Werner Mauss memorial museum after Institution M's demise.

Mauss claims his defense was hampered because so much of his work has to remain secret, covered in a blizzard of non disclosure agreements. All this may be so, but NDAs can also be used to cover up a mountain of bullshit, and in Mauss' case it's difficult to separate the man from the legend. Given the amounts discussed at his trial, his two year suspended sentence and fine seem remarkably lenient. The trial judge said Mauss' lifetime achievement was the reason why his sentence was so light. Clearly the judge couldn't tell the difference between Mauss, the man with $50 million in unexplained funds, and Institution M, the tireless crusader against crime.

So from a gamification perspective, what do we have?

A Night's Black Agents character, clearly. Possibly a mentor; Institution M seems an unlikely Solace. There's a certain murkiness about his whole career that just screams plant - but whose? After all, he buys that 40,000 acre estate in the 1960s, when he's just starting his private investigative career. Even in the 1960s, it's difficult to believe land was quite that cheap. A fictionalized version would have Institution M backed by some shadowy force - but whether it's Dracula or the KGB is an open question. It's easy to see why the Soviets, for example, might want an independent private investigator deeply embedded in the German intelligence apparat, particularly in the 1960s when the Cold War might get hot at any minute. Or the Americans. Or any number of foreign governments, but the Soviets or the Americans are the two most likely to have the funds and the hutzpah.

As a Node he's clearly at the National level at the very least. All those government contacts, in several different jurisdictions; all that foreign travel. He's not what you'd call a bruiser - his legend claims he's only ever fired a gun once in his entire career - but as an information gatherer he's unsurpassed. He's spent his entire career persuading people he can be trusted; someone like that can be more dangerous than an entire tank battalion, in the right circumstances. A Grima Wormtongue with significantly more panache.

It's tempting to write him into any number of stories. For example, Helmut Kohl's legacy has been tainted by the CDU donations scandal, in which cash donations to the party were swept under the rug. It's never been shown that Kohl actually took bribes or benefitted financially in any way, but it paved the way for Angela Merkel's rise. Someone had to be the go-between in the whole unsavory affair; it's not as if Kohl could attend to the matter himself. Suppose for a moment it was Mauss, a man who Kohl had come to know well at least by reputation, and perhaps personally. Or suppose that Mauss was a go-between for Karlheinz Schreiber, the arms dealer at the heart of the scandal, and that Mauss leaked the whole thing for reasons of his own, possibly to avoid prosecution, or to settle some kind of grudge. He could be fictionalized in all sorts of ways, is the point; the man who knows everybody's secrets, but who ensures nobody knows his. Did he use his go-between status to act as Kingmaker, and is now the man behind Merkel - or better yet, the Renfield behind Merkel? Did Germany's pre-war vampire project information find its way into his hands? What awful secrets does his German estate conceal? After all, 40,000 acres is a lot of ground - plenty of space to bury bodies if need be ...

That's it for this week. Enjoy!