Monday, 24 August 2015

Not Quite Review Corner: Walk Away (Fear the Walking Dead)

I didn't bother to see the whole thing, which is why this isn't a review. I got bored halfway through, when I realized that there was nothing on screen that I wanted to see.

Things I liked: one of the main settings is an LA public school. The US' crumbling school system has been a metaphor for disaster and mayhem since the 1990s. It's become iconic, and will probably stay that way regardless of how wonderful, or not so wonderful, the school system actually is. Making two teachers main characters is very symbolic; the people who are trying, and failing, to hold the school together will also be trying, and probably failing, to keep it together during the zombie apocalypse.

Nobody says anything. Really, why would you? Even if you've seen dead people walking, talking about it will get you nothing but a strait jacket and some calming medication. Strait jackets are notoriously problematic when trying to run away from zombies; the longer you stay out of one, the better it is for you.

 The acting is decent throughout, with some standout performances from the two leads. The bigger problem here isn't the performances, but the writing. None of the characters are really fleshed out, and many of them are just stock characters pulled out of central casting. Plus, since we're seeing all this from one family's perspective, we don't really get the city-wide feel this kind of television deserves. It almost needs to take a cue from all those old disaster movies, with their casts of thousands. Allowing the unfolding drama to be seen from different, unrelated perspectives would have made for much better television, and it's something that television could get away with much more easily than a movie length project. I didn't go so far as to see Ofelia and her family, which might have made a difference to me. But then, it seems as if we never meet them until the apocalypse is already well under way, which means we'll never see it unfold from their perspective,

Which brings me on to some of my dislikes. The show opens with Nick Clark, the drug addict son of one of the main characters, waking up after a binge to find that all of his friends are dead, and worse. My first thought: if habitual drug abuse is this good for you, I'm amazed more people don't take up heroin. The man's buffed, never seems to have missed a meal in his life, hair perfectly coiffed, skin unblemished - apart from one artful smudge of dirt on his cheek - and evenly tanned. I don't think we even see any track marks or scarring, though as mentioned I give up a the halfway point, so perhaps there's a reveal later.

This is emblematic of the show as a whole. It has good ideas, but never really executes any of them. Maybe it's lack of will, maybe it's pressure from above, but it's never as scary as it could be, nor as gripping. Going back to the dialogue: there's nothing here that hasn't been said a thousand times before, in a thousand thousand different made for TV movies. There isn't a single cast member who has anything interesting to say. The star-crossed lovers Alicia Clark and her boyfriend nameless zombie chow are a case in point: you've seen these two in any number of Hallmark specials. The only interesting relationship on screen is between the two first episode leads, Madison and Travis, and there just isn't enough there to keep me watching.

It feels remarkably slow moving. I suspect part of this is down to it being part of the Walking Dead continuity. We all know what's going to happen, and with that element of suspense gone, all we can do is wait for the rest of the characters to catch up. It's not interesting watching boring people spend an hour figuring out something you already knew about from the first minute of screen time. It's perfectly reasonable for them not to believe, or suspect, that zombies are lurking in the shadows, but because we already know that zombies are the whole point of the series, we get frustrated by their continued disbelief.

The zombie effects are good, and in some instances even imaginative. However - and again, this may be due to it being part of the Walking Dead continuity - we've been beaten over the head with excellent zombie effects for years now. It doesn't matter that they're a little more gooey and fresh than we're used to from the main series. They're still just zombies, and we have seen zombies. God, have we seen zombies. The makers needed something evocative to make them interesting again, and while the early, well-executed scene in the church almost filled that need, it was too short.

To sum up: Fear the Walking Dead is an interesting concept, but it doesn't fulfill its early promise. There needs to be something else here of interest besides the zombies, and there really isn't. 


Saturday, 22 August 2015

One Tiny Teaser (Fiction)

As I've said before, I'm running a Patreon, and every so often when I get new members I like to post new fiction. My original intent was to post this particular piece on the Patreon for free, but as it relates to a Pelgrane IP, I've agreed with Simon that it should go up on the Pelgrane site instead. You'll note that no actual IP terms are used, but you'll probably guess which IP it is.

With all that in mind, I'm posting a teaser here, so you'll know what to look forward to later. Not sure exactly when this is going up, but by the end of the month for definite.

Enjoy!

**


       Dorcas wondered, not for the first time, what her West African mother would have said, if she knew her Cambridge graduate daughter was cleaning offices at Canary Wharf, the very job she had done for fifty years so Dorcas wouldn’t have to. Dorcas didn’t think the Glock hidden in her cleaning equipment would matter much to Mum. She was a straightforward woman. She wouldn’t have had time or patience for Dorcas’ specialized position.


      It was time for check-in. Dorcas took out her cheap mobile and typed in, hey baby. It was script three, and just as they’d practiced, Roy’s reply was hey, you. :) Simon, the loaner from Special Reconnaissance Regiment, was the one who’d designed it. He’d pointed out that blending in was key, and nobody looked twice at someone texting. There was always a risk that the messages would be intercepted, so the textspeak was bland. The key was in the timing. Once every half hour, on the half hour. So long as you stuck to script, the chance that someone was impersonating the sender was reduced to nil, or as close to nil as Simon could manage it. So long as the texts kept coming in, all was well. If the texts stopped coming, or Dorcas sent want coffee? then it was time to send in the cavalry.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Gunpowder Treason and Me (Trail of Cthulhu)

In case you were wondering, this is how I spend my spare time. Yes, that daring fellow in the bedsheet running around on the beach is me, at the reenactment of the 1775 Gunpowder Plot, which supplied the American army with gunpowder stolen from the British in Bermuda. I played Governor George Breuer, a hapless military man stymied by the Bermudians and his own lackluster government at every turn, who suffered the ultimate indignity of having his gunpowder stolen right from under his nose.


I ended up overboard, which given the heat was a welcome benefit, even if it meant my costume became see-through.

The plot came about because, during the War, the Continental Congress decided to embargo trade with any British colony still loyal to the Crown. Several prominent Bermudians became upset at this; America was a valuable trading partner, and without it the island colony would never prosper. How to persuade the Americans to break the embargo?

Well, there was that store of gunpowder that nobody was using. Originally stockpiled to defend the colony, there were no troops manning any of Bermuda's extensive fort network, so it had gone to rot in the attic of the House of Assembly before the Governor decided to build a store for it and move it there. What if the rebels were to come in and steal it, nudge nudge, wink wink?

The Americans, and Ben Franklin in particular, were having none of it. They hadn't the resources to waste on what might be a wild goose chase, and in any case, if the Bermudians wanted to benefit, Franklin felt they'd better have some skin in the game. Instead the Committee, as the gunpowder plotters styled themselves, were advised to steal the powder and bring it to the Americans if they wanted any kind of reward.

This they did, on a warm August night. The powder store had no windows, so they cut their way in through the roof. There were perhaps a hundred kegs, but twelve of those had obviously gone bad, so they left those behind. About forty percent of the remainder was found to be bad when they reached Washington's army, so in the end the grand conspiracy netted enough powder for about a thousand men, to fire one or two balls each.

Naturally this Saved America.

The Committee did very well for itself, financially speaking. Not only did it sell the powder at market price - a little over two hundred pounds total, or about $30,000 in today's money - it also persuaded the Americans to break the embargo and sell food to Bermuda at cut rates, on the grounds that the colony was starving thanks to lack of trade. Except it wasn't really starving, and in any case the Committee exaggerated the number of people on the island by about 5,000. The Committee sold on the excess food at a handsome profit.

So, a dashing tale of heroism.

The colonial period hasn't really been covered in gaming. There's been an installment of the Assassin's Creed series, a few titles like Sons of Liberty, and several board games, but it's not really hit the big time. Every so often the Cthulhu crowd suggests that, perhaps, it might be a good fit for a horror setting, but so far it hasn't really caught on. There may be as many games written for Parisien Surrealists as there are for those who want to see redcoats eaten by shoggoths.

My contribution to the pile has been Hell Fire, which sends the characters from the fleshpots of London to the colonies, trying to stop an outbreak of Ygolonac worship. Oddly enough, the climactic scenes of that scenario are set in Bermuda. Can't think why.

If this scenario were to be turned into a gaming supplement, it's a bit difficult to see who the characters would play. Characters tend to be underdogs, but it's pretty clear that the Committee aren't the underdogs in this scenario. If anyone is, it's Breuer, who has no troops, no allies, can't get the British government to listen to him when he repeatedly warns the folks at home about the danger, and has to constantly be on his guard against treachery.

Trouble is, playing the authority figure never really sits well with gamers either, not unless you're playing the Judge Dredd RPG. However that title's success may be due to the players being authority figures who shoot anything that moves and most things that don't, which makes for great catharsis. So were I to gamify this, I think I'd have to boost Breuer, and make him the villain of the piece, or at least the main opposition. Perhaps he was able to persuade the British to send him reinforcements, or perhaps he's a potent sorcerer in his own right, capable of defending the store all by himself. That gives the characters a respectable home-grown opposition.

Or perhaps there's a third figure in all this, a mysterious and powerful British spymaster, who's watching all this from afar. If this villain has infiltrated the Continental Congress, then he'd know about the Gunpowder Plot, but probably not be aware of the details. Perhaps he has secretly supplied Breuer with the reinforcements he'll need, or perhaps he's willing to let the plotters steal the powder, so long as he can track them down later and dispose of them. Maybe he's doing all this to expose a valuable American asset, say the player characters' contact with the Continental Congress. Or maybe he's hidden something in that powder which will backfire catastrophically when the rebels try to use it.

If you like a bit of sordid moneygrubbing with your supernatural tinged adventure - a maritime version of Bookhounds, with powder and shot taking the place of old tomes - then you could play it straight. The characters really are double-dealing smooth talking rogues, with their own ship, an experienced crew, and a yen for easy money. To the Continental Congress they're fellow lovers of liberty, while to the Crown they're loyal subjects, lying to everyone they meet and dodging the blockade in search of that last big score that will pay all debts. Will you die a rich man in your bed, or will the sea swallow your bones full fathom five?

That's it for now. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Graves and Circuses: Whitby (Night's Black Agents)

It's no joke, trying to find Dracula's last resting place. According to this Guardian article, tour guides in Whitby, the town most closely associated with the Count, are forever being pestered by visitors eager to see his grave. One went so far as to fake a tombstone and place it strategically, along his favorite walk. A local vicar picked a tomb with an unreadable inscription, and told anyone who cared to ask that this was, in fact, Dracula's own.

As devotees of the Dracula Dossier will know, Whitby is a potential location in the campaign. Really, it had to be; a Dracula-centric story that ignored Whitby would be impossible. The protagonists can try to track down Dracula's resting place, which as scholars of the novel will know is suicide George Canon's grave. However since there's more than one possibility, including at least two fakes, finding it may not be a simple task. In the Dossier, Archaeology is the operative ability, but it might be interesting to throw in something more unusual.

Asking the tour guides probably isn't the best way to go, since few of them are as interested in accuracy as they are in prompt payment. However asking around the local pubs - Streetwise, Oral History, possibly Cop Talk under the right circumstances - leads the protagonists to Melania, a woman who came for the Goth festival four years ago, and never left.

NAME: Melania, aka Janet Proctor
ROLE: vampire expert, possible Renfield
DESCRIPTION: late 30s early 40s, heavy makeup, cyber/futurist dress sense with lots of brass and goggles, heavy rings (-1 damage)

INNOCENT: Melania's an IT guru, and during the day she freelances for local business in Whitby, helping them with their IT problems and fixing or designing their websites. When out and about on business she abandons the Goth look, though she still wears what could best be described as Romantic Business attire. She came to Whitby years ago for the Goth Festival, and fell in love with the place. She was already a devotee of all things Dracula and vampire-related, and the lure of being able to live in the most famous vampire landmark town was too much to resist. She attends the Festival religiously every year, and helps run it. An amateur artist, she usually has a trader's stall during the Festival.

There is very little she doesn't know about Dracula, or Stoker. She hasn't got the free time to organize a walking tour of her own, but she advises those who do. She's also a collector, and may have in her possession a minor item or a fake, but probably not a major item. Likely candidates include a Cameo, Spirit Board, or Vampire Hunting Kit. Her most prized possession is a second edition of Stoker's classic; if she finds out that the characters have the first edition, she'll do pretty much anything to get it.

ASSET: Edom placed her in Whitby as a lamplighter, to keep a watchful eye out for anyone who might come following the Edom trail. Her role isn't to interfere, but to misdirect, and to alert higher authority. One word from her, and a pair of Jacks will make their unobtrusive way to Whitby to deal with the problem. If there is a dead drop at Dracula's grave, Melania's the one who planted it.

MINION: Dracula remembers his time in Whitby all too well, and his memories are not fond ones. He put Melania here some time ago, to check on Edom assets within Whitby, and to determine if his old enemies are preparing anything significant here. So far, Melania's reports have been reassuringly undramatic, but Dracula's still deeply suspicious of the place. In this incarnation, Melania may be a Renfield, given unholy powers by her vampiric masters. This version may have more potent items than mere fakes or minor artifacts; Renfield's Journal, say, or a genuine Spirit Board. This Melania loathes Goths and the whole subculture, and would love nothing better than to switch back to severe business attire, Canary Wharf style, but when in deep cover in Rome, you do as the Romans do.

INVESTIGATIVE ABILITIES: History, Flirting, Electronic Surveillance, Data Recovery, Notice, Traffic Analysis

GENERAL ABILITIES: Cover, Digital Intrusion, Hand to Hand, Surveillance

ALERTNESS MODIFIER: +0 or as Renfield

STEALTH MODIFIER:    +0 or as Renfield

That same Guardian article also claims that Stoker went to Whitby because his patron, Henry Irving, once operated a circus there. It's the first I've heard of it, and I have to wonder if the writer wasn't making that bit up. Irving would have been running the Lyceum from 1878 onwards, in partnership with Ellen Terry. If he had the time to dash down to Whitby to play circus ringmaster, he wouldn't have needed a Stoker to be his business manager. He did spend much of his very early career with stock companies all over the north of England and Scotland, so perhaps that's where the story comes from. That would have been in the 1850s and 60s, when Irving was a very young man. He would have gone to London by the middle 60s, and from that point on he'd have spent most of his time there.

But say for a moment that Irving did go to Whitby as a member of a stock company. He might easily have interacted with Dr Merryweather as he was building his Earthquake Device, or done business with the early incarnation of Billington and Sons; probably just Billington, at that point. His ghost is supposed to haunt the Garrick Club, but if there was a compelling reason for his spirit to return to Whitby - perhaps he did encounter something there that he told Stoker about, inspiring the Irishman to follow in his hero's footsteps - then he might be seen there, particularly if the suicide's grave is disturbed. The theatre he performed in could still stand; Whitby's practically overrun with relics of the past, so one theatre more or less wouldn't make much odds. Suppose for a moment that this same theatre decides, perhaps as part of the run-up to a Dracula anniversary or as some festival, to perform Dracula. Perhaps his lead actor will be possessed by a very familiar spirit; Irving never played the Count in life, but Stoker was very keen on seeing him try. This could be Irving's last chance to play the role of a lifetime!

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Not Quite Review Corner: The Dracula Dossier (Night's Black Agents)

I backed this Kickstarter to physical copy level, but the copies have yet to arrive, so this review is based on the .pdfs alone.

If Ken Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan are, at this moment, incarcerated in rooms with very soft furnishings, and only given crayons to write with, the Dracula Dossier is the cause. This improvisational Night's Black Agents campaign setting, complete with the unredacted print copy of Stoker's first edition Dracula and a massive Director's Handbook, is beyond huge. It's one thing to write up Stoker's Dracula with little 'Dracula's a great big meanie' notes in the margins; after all, Stoker's done the heavy lifting there. It's something else altogether to take that text, all those marginal notes, and a hundred other things besides, turning it all into a 364-page document complete with supporting characters, locations, rival agencies, and Dracula's many possible conspyramids and plots. I'll give you my conclusion right up front: if you have any interest in the Night's Black Agents setting whatsoever, this is a must-buy.

The unredacted copy of Stoker's Dracula is as complete as any vampire aficionado could wish for. By complete, I mean it includes absolutely everything, including appearances from Kate Reed, curious journalist who some of you may recall from Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series; Inspector Cotford, unlucky official investigator into the De Ville menace; and Francis Aytown, damned artist and photographer who stumbles into horror and cannot stumble out again. All these characters were part of Stoker's original concept but, for one reason or another, were removed from the final text. An author's caprice, or the hidden machinations of a government agency determined to hide the truth?

Interspersed with the text are notes from previous owners of the book, who used it as a guide when carrying out their own vampire investigations. Some of these notes may contain vital clues, while others may be false leads, mistakes or other red herrings. Which is which? That's for you to find out, but bear in mind that every last one of those notes, no matter how trivial they may seem, has an explanation written down in the Director's Handbook. In fact, they have more than one ...

Hence my not-entirely joking quip at the beginning of this screed. Just as an exercise in collating data, never mind the purpose, this thing is a massive undertaking. If you're any kind of student of Stoker, you'll find layer upon layer of meaning here, and each layer translates to yet another node, or character, location, item, plot thread. Imagine trying to put all that together, yourself. Then be grateful someone else did it for you.

The Handbook takes all that information and runs wild with it. Sixty four different supporting characters, half a dozen detailed vampire-hunting official agencies, locations galore, sinister side plots, hideous monsters like Erzabet Bathory, Lilith and Count Orlok, Nodes glorious Nodes, side trips to Hong Kong, Argentina and elsewhere, random establishing shots, objects mystical and mundane, four detailed capstones, plus ... but you get the idea. There's a whole lot of plus going on.

What makes this unique is that each and every one of those possible locations, nodes, characters, items and so on are discussed in several different ways. First, if the thing in question has no immediate link to the Conspiracy one way or the other. Second, if it is an asset, belonging to one of the spy agencies tasked with finding and recruiting, or killing, vampires. Third, if it has fallen to Dracula, and is now part of his Conspyramid. If it's an item or a location, then the text may also discuss options, such as is it genuine, is it a major or minor item, is it a fake? Is this location Hot, as in a really important place, or Cold?

Should you go to Carfax, for example, there are several different ways the Director could play it, many different items or supporting characters you might find there, and many different consequences. What this means in play is that the characters can never be sure what they're going to discover, nor can they take anything for granted. It also means that the Director can play this several times, maybe with the same group, and it will never play out the same way twice.

Which leads me straight to my only caveat: this probably isn't suitable for neophyte Directors.

It's not that it isn't great. It so very much is, but there's so much going on here that, if you haven't got a few years under your belt, you may find it intimidating. Its improvisational nature means that it lacks the structure a new Director may need to get going.

Let me compare it, for a moment, to Horror on the Orient Express, and say why I'd recommend the latest edition of Horror to new Keepers.

Horror is huge. There's tons of things to do, a mountain of stuff to read, and at first glance it seems intimidating. However it has solid internal structure; the Keeper always knows where the campaign is, in the narrative, and can easily determine what's going to happen next. The latest edition in particular is very newbie-friendly, and while there's a lot to absorb, it's not impossible to digest. It would definitely be a challenge for a new Keeper, but it would be a challenge that could be overcome.

I'm not sure the same could be said for the Dossier. Its improvisational nature - which I endorse and enjoy very much - and the metric ton of stuff in it, means that it's very easy to get lost in its labyrinthine innards. For a Director who's had a few years of gaming, this will not be a problem. However as someone who indulges in improv theater from time to time, I can tell you that confidence is key. As an actor, even if you're playing a weak character, you need to be utterly confident in yourself and your ability to play a weak character. That's the only way to convince, and entertain, your audience.

I wonder whether a new Director would be confident enough to pull this off. Or whether one mistake - and there's really no such thing as a mistake in improv, but try telling a new actor that - will lead to two, and then more, as the Director gets more and more nervous.

That is my only caveat, and to be honest, I'd recommend a new Director buy this even if that Director never plays it as written. It's a masterclass in how the game is constructed, and how it can be played.

At the moment it's not available, but Pelgrane lists it as Printing, which means it should be on sale very soon. Meanwhile, let me offer my personal thanks, not to the authors - though they deserve every plaudit - but to my fellow Kickstarter backers. Thanks to your funding, something wonderful has been created.

Now let's make our players' lives a vampire-haunted misery!


Thursday, 16 July 2015

Skulls, Nosferatu, and Film Legend: Murnau's Skull (Night's Black Agents)

By now many of you will have heard that legendary silent film director F.W. Murnau's skull has been stolen from its resting place in Stahnsdorf, Germany. 'Satanists' have been blamed, which is a convenient short form for 'half-witted jackass.'

Murnau, director of such classics as Nosferatu, Faust, The Last Laugh and The Haunted Castle, was one of the preeminent figures of the German Expressionist film movement. Though he worked until his death in a car accident in 1931, producing over twenty features, Nosferatu, made in 1922, is by far his best remembered film.

Based on Dracula, but made without seeking permission from Stoker's widow, Nosferatu achieved notoriety thanks to the eerie, and rather ghoulish portrayal of the vampire, Orlok, by Max Schreck. Schreck, an actor more familiar with comic roles, managed to create a vivid, otherworldly vampire in Orlok, one that stuck in the public imagination long after the film was burnt by the widow Stoker for copyright infringement. Though most copies went to the bonfire, a version survived, smuggled and passed on by generations of film buffs and collectors.

The company that made Nosferatu, Prana Films, did not survive Stoker's holocaust. However Murnau was made of tougher stuff. In the war, he'd fought as a pilot, surviving eight crashes; what was a mere financial setback compared to that? He went across the water to start a new career in Hollywood, becoming one of the first recipients of the then newly-created Oscars, for his 1927 film Sunrise, often hailed by critics as the greatest film of all time. His early death in 1931 robbed us of a great talent.

As far as the robbery goes, the police have yet to recover the skull. Droplets of wax at the site have led to speculation that the skull was stolen for ritual purposes. Frankly, this is rubbish. Possibly it was stolen by would-be occultists, but as a rule, skulls aren't particularly useful in ritual magic. However they make excellent set dressing, so it's entirely possible that someone with a flair for the dramatic decided that Murnau's skull would make an excellent adornment for whatever it might be they have planned. Mind you, that could apply as equally to a death metal band as to spotty teenage Satanists. Incidentally, without scientific examination one skull looks very much like another to the untrained observer; I would expect a few Murnau fakes to turn up, over time.

Regular readers will recall that this isn't the first time skulls have come up. However the missing skull in that instance was probably stolen by phrenologists hoping to learn more from the shape and bumps on the skull, and phrenology has long been exploded as a pseudoscience.

All that said, who in the Night's Black Agents world would want Murnau's skull, and to what purpose?

A collector might want it, someone with a love of early silent cinema. Owning a piece of Murnau would be like catnip for a truly deranged completist. Expect the lair of someone such as this to be full of movie memorabilia, from posters to autographs to original prints. Perhaps several of Murnau's lost films, like Four Devils, could be found in this person's vaults. This role could as easily suit a Renfield, or a mortal, as one of the Undead. As a twist, perhaps the ultimate collector is insulted that someone else stole Murnau's skull, and is out for revenge.

A necromancer might want it, to summon up the ghost of Murnau himself. This might be done to learn more about the silent film era, or about Nosferatu itself. Perhaps this person thinks that Schreck wasn't the main actor at all; it's long been rumored that Nosferatu was played by an actual vampire. A vampire hunter might see this as a means of tracking down prey he's been seeking for a very long time. An alternate version would have a necromantic film lover put the whole gang back together, all the cast and as many crew as can be unearthed.

Or:

  • Perhaps a would-be vampire hunter thinks that dust from Murnau's bones would make a great bane, for a certain kind of vampire. 
  • The Conspiracy may have found a way to resurrect the dead, and one of them thinks that Murnau would make an excellent subject. 
  • Someone hoping to please a Conspiracy asset may have dug it up as the ultimate gift for her beloved. 
  • Perhaps Murnau himself became a vampire, and his early death was a cover; if his secret's been discovered, someone might have dug down to see what really is hidden in Murnau's grave. 
  • Perhaps the ghost - or the something else - of Greta Garbo decided to unearth it, to make a companion piece with the Murnau death mask that Garbo kept with her. 
  • Ordinary would-be occultists, or kids, dug it up, and now they're the target of a very annoyed Conspiracy asset who doesn't like having his idol's grave disturbed.
That's it for now. Enjoy!