Sunday, 10 July 2016

Not Quite Book Review Corner: 100 Deadly Skills (Night's Black Agents)

I used to buy books from Paladin Press, which means I must be on a watch list somewhere.

The thing is, if you're a writer there are any number of skills you need to know a little about, but don't need to become expert in. Sword fighting is the classic example. If ever you intend to write a fantasy epic, you need to know just enough about the pointy end of a sword to make a fight scene convincing. Yet at the same time you mustn't become a sword spod, because too much detail is as bad, if not worse, than none at all.

Trouble is, while there are any number of reliable sources out there willing and eager to tell you all about, say, money laundering or the difference between slander and libel, there are considerably fewer that will tell you what a car chase is like, or what happens in an autopsy. Still fewer in those pre-internet days when I bought from Paladin.

The trouble is that tricksy word 'reliable'. Too often, when seeking out this kind of material, you get the kind of drooling ninny who'd not be trusted with a crayon, never mind an edged weapon. The sort who likes to play at being the hard man by pretending that they know all about, say, unarmed combat, or how to live off the land, or what have you.

Even so, the problem persists: where to find that kind of information? Well, thanks to a timely post on the New York Times' book list, I think I've found one: 100 Deadly Skills, by Clint Emerson.

Emerson's a former Navy Seal with considerable field experience, and is exactly the kind of source I'd normally be wary of, for the reasons outlined above. However his writing style is refreshingly straightforward, for this kind of material. Moreover he doesn't strike me as the kind of fella who's compensating for something. It sounds like faint praise, but once you've read a few of the ones who are, you'll understand how important that is.

In fact the situation reminds me of Sabine Baring-Gould, who I've spoken favorably of before, for similar reasons. The two don't cover the same material - far, far from it - but Baring-Gould is remarkably clear, for a Victorian antiquarian, and that's a tremendous plus, particularly after you've tackled a few who aren't anything like as clear. The same applies to Emerson.

I'm not going to try to evaluate the advice Emerson offers. I'm not an expert in these things. The point is, you don't have to be an expert; you just have to be convincing, and this material is exactly that.

There were times, when reading it, that I'd slip into armchair critic mode. For example, there's a chapter on improvising a holster. When in-country, your Violent Nomad needs a lot of things that aren't easily obtained, and buying a holster at a gun store draws attention, assuming that the purchase is even possible. So the VN -sounds a bit like something out of Roald Dahl - has to make one, which in this instance means getting a wire clothes hanger and bending it into a holster shape that will slip neatly into the back of your jeans, clipped to your belt. It seems simple and practical; all very Blue Peter.

Yet throughout it all a treacherous voice in the back of my head whispered 'I haven't seen a wire coat hanger in years.' I guess you can still buy them? You must be able to, surely. I couldn't tell you where. Everyplace I've been to in the past decade sells those plastic things. Often the ones that bleed dye all over your clothes.

Why buy this book? Because it's entry-level Technothriller Monologue that will keep your character alive.

Technothriller Monologue in the main book is just used for Shooting. You rattle off a quick bit of cool-sounding patter, and get an in-game benefit, in this case a 4 point refresh of the Shooting pool. Deployed correctly, it boosts the cool factor of the scene, which makes your Director and fellow players happy bunnies. Well, happy gunbunnies. Plus, since you're going to be burning through points, that refresh is timely. Except it only applies to Shooting, not the other General abilities. Nuts!

However Double Tap expands the Monologue to pretty much every General ability in the game, so long as your pool is 8 points or more. Danger Zone for the Sense Trouble freaks, M4d Skillz for the crackers, Like Smoke for the Infiltrators and so on.

You're encouraged to develop a monologue in advance and write it down, since this kind of thing is difficult to come up with on the fly. But then you run into the problem outlined above: where do you get the background information you need to make this monologue work?

Ta-daa! And thank you Mr Emerson.

Let's try some examples:

Blending Agent Surveillance +8, 3-point refresh. 'Mobile surveillance at night? No problem. I rigged an improvised infrared light - easy really, all you need is a white light keychain LED and a bit of camera film - and zip-tied it to the underside of the target vehicle. You can't see it with the naked eye, but my smartphone's camera can pick it up just fine. He'll show up like a firefly, even if he turns all his lights off. Away we go!'

Danger Zone Sense Trouble +8, 3-point refresh. 'Too many coincidences. Sure, that guy could have been in the bodega just by accident, but I've led him a merry dance since then - the restaurant, the market, the museum - and each time I've seen him, at about the same distance away. Besides, his body language is all wrong for this neighborhood; he walks like he has nothing to fear, which says he's either secret police or a damn sight worse than the secret police.'

Calculated Risk Preparedness +8, 3-point refresh. 'When we stole this car a while back I stripped it out. The airbag's gone, for a start - you can get a rifle in the space where the airbag used to be, if you try - and I made full use of the voids in the car door panel, passenger side dash and under the seat cover. Fresh water, food, medkit, money, a laptop, mobile, a few weapons; it's all here, and without a full search nobody will ever know it's here.' [possibly add: 'Then I planted the car a few blocks away, just in case we needed it.' depending on circumstances, up to and including Cover's blown and it's time to leave the country sharpish.]

Like Smoke Athletics or Infiltration +8, 3-point refresh. Athletics: 'Got to get up that drainpipe, but that's why I bought extra bootlaces. A Prusik knot, the kind used by rock climbers, can only move up a rope or line; downward pressure causes it to lock into place. A few knots later, I have hand and footholds for an improvised climbing harness - and up I go.' Infiltration: 'They deployed tear gas, huh? I bet they think they've got me buffaloed. But that's why I carry this plastic jug, a sponge, and some tape. The sponge, when soaked with clean water, is a pretty good air filter. A little bit of DIY, tape the whole thing to my face, and I have a gas mask good enough to get through the room. By the time they come and get me, I'm long gone.'

Quick Change Disguise +8, 3-point refresh. 'People pay more attention to colors than to faces. The surveillance team has seen me in bright colors all this time; they probably aren't even looking for me any more, just the Hawaiian shirt. I'll duck into this restroom and switch to a simple white over denim combo. Job done; they won't even blink, as I walk right past.'

Or let's have a shot at some Gear Devil (Driving +8, 3 point refresh): 'Time for a reverse 180. Shifting into reverse, I drive backwards three car lengths at about 25mph, then shift to neutral and twist the wheel all the way left. Once she flips the full 180, back the wheel goes, and I floor it.'

There's also a string of improvised weapons, any of which could be whipped up by a player character in less time than it takes to type this sentence. For the most part I'd rate them at -1 damage, with the possible exceptions of the thing with the umbrella and the newspaper nail bat. Those may go as far as +0. Also, Jesus H. That would leave a welt.

Plus a bunch of handy tools and tricks, like how to defeat zip ties, pick locks, make an improvised flash bomb, shoot from a vehicle, trick fingerprint scanning software, and so on and on. Again, I don't claim to know whether any of this works. However it seems convincing, and makes for a cool scene. Those are the two factors you, as Player, need to take into consideration.

You want that action hero moment, because it gives you benefits and because it makes for a better scene.

Now, that's enough from me. See you next week!

No comments:

Post a Comment