Sunday, 21 May 2017

Tumulus Tumult (Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists)

While researching for a project I'm working on for my Patreon short story page, (me? subtlety? never!), I found an interesting item on Wikipedia. The topic was tumulus, aka barrow mounds, and call me crazy but I had no idea people were still building those.

Yet they are. In 2015 a group of enthusiasts built a Long Barrow outside the village of All Cannings, aiming to sell space as a crematoria memorial. Pay a small fee and your relative can stay forever in a purpose-built chalk mound, designed in the traditional style.

Moreover it's not the only company to have colonized this niche in the market. Shortly after the All Cannings experiment - all its spaces were quickly snapped up - the owners of Soulton Hall announced their intention to construct a similar barrow on their property. As with the All Cannings barrow the intent is to provide a spectacular funerary experience, and since Soulton Hall already hosts weddings and provides short term holiday rentals I can picture a unique kind of all-inclusive experience; marriage, wedding anniversaries, death and burial all in the same location.

Frankly it's all a little creepy, in the best folk horror traditions. I can imagine Hammer Horror in its heyday making something memorable with this idea, probably with Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing in the lead. Nigel Kneale would have to write it, of course. Not that I think for a moment this is what the Sacred Stones designers intend, but it's impossible to contemplate something like this without remembering the Wicker Man, or the Stone Tape.

I'm also amazed it took this long for someone to build a new barrow. I'd have thought someone inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century or someone in the folk-horror infused 1970s would have had a go. Though possibly someone did but decided not to use it as a public cemetery. It does sound like the perfect Folly, now that I think of it, though traditional Folly-builders preferred Classical motifs.

So what can be done to gamify this?

Night's Black Agents: This is clearly a Node. The only question is who's using it? As a sanctuary almost any kind of vampire could be lurking in those urns. Damned or Supernatural vampires probably positioned the barrow very carefully for mystic architectural purposes; no doubt a ley line flows through the site, or the stars line up perfectly at a certain time of year. It could also be a communications or resupply point, as with the Dracula Dossier's Red Rooms. Alien or Mutant vampires are probably using the site to disguise some other kind of activity; maybe the floor rolls away to reveal some kind of laboratory, or the excavated remains of the alien craft that brought them here so long ago. Or there's always acoustics to play with; the barrow might be designed for its acoustic properties, the better to create an infrasound effect intended to [fill in the blank, but it's not going to be good news]. My go-to would be that the barrow's infrasound helps weaken the barrier between our existence and wherever it is vampires come from, allowing the vampire-thing to possess a human host.

Trail of Cthulhu/Bookhounds: Much depends on when the barrow is built. Assuming a kind of Arts and Crafts project then this could easily be happening in the 1930s, which opens up possibilities for Bookhounds Keepers. Perhaps there's a sociopath out there collecting every book or paper she can to do with Neolithic burial practices, the better to refine her long-term goal of creating a new home for an Entity from beyond the stars. Or perhaps some wealthy scholar is trying to realize the ultimate passion project, but his ideals are being perverted by one of his assistants. Or even the design itself, unintended, pulls something across the void. What would building a barrow in or around London - tricky thought that may be - do for its Megapolisomancy? Could it be part of a larger design to drawn power from the city in order to create [a power store? a special Lever? a place where Megapolisomancers can cast without spending their own power?] What would you have to do to build a barrow like this within London - and would it have to be a traditional barrow, or could you do this with other materials? Bones, say? Even if you do have to use traditional materials that could be a story in itself, as the stones are laboriously transported, in secret, to the construction site. Or maybe the construction site is in plain view - at the Crystal Palace, say, as part of the architectural exhibits.

Esoterrorists: Now here's a question: is the mound intended to weaken the Membrane, or is it something the Ordo built to cover up or bury something it didn't want the rest of the world to see? A funerary burial mound - all spaces already bought and paid for, of course - could be the perfect prison/tomb for something the good guys can't kill but don't want roaming around. Or perhaps this is a mystic interrogation/holding facility for captured Esoterrorists. Cue the ultimate jail break, as their colleagues close in, guns and monsters at the ready. Or if this is intended to weaken the Membrane, then was it built with that purpose in mind or is it being manipulated by outside forces? Maybe one of the burials is actually a kind of Trojan Funeral, intended to sneak something into the mound that will corrupt its mystical energies into something malign. Or, in the best Phil Rickman tradition, the mound could be the plaything of a rich dabbler in mystic arts, intended either to reawaken something foul that once ravaged this site or to channel mystic energies for some hideous purpose.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Playing With Real Toys: Halles Saint-Géry, Brussels (Night's Black Agents, GUMSHOE)

Let's try something new.

I've handled Chilling Locations in the past. I want to expand the concept. Every so often I'm going to post a Real Toys segment, in which I'll take a real world location and write it up as an RPG scene, including a description, thrilling elements, and a potential short plot. Not unlike the bit I wrote for To Treno in Athens, in fact.

So let's start with Halles Saint-Géry in Brussels.

Halles Saint-Géry is a covered market in the heart of Brussels. Saint-Géry was formerly an island on the river Senne, but over time the river was subsumed into the city proper and by 1870 Saint-Géry was an island no longer.

Saint-Géry is named for Saint Gaugericus, who built a chapel on the island in 560 AD. This chapel was replaced by a Gothic church, which in turn was razed during Brussels' flirtation with French Revolutionary ideals and replaced by an open air market. The covered market, completed in 1882, stands in that same spot once occupied by Saint Gaugericus' chapel.

The market hasn't been a market for some time. These days Saint-Géry is better known as a hive of nightclubs and bars, and Halles Saint-Géry is a coffee shop during the day and a bar at night. However on the first Sunday of each month it transforms into a vintage market, where you can get everything from rare vinyl to pianos and furniture.

As Saint-Géry chapel was built by a saint and is known to have housed some of the relics of another Saint, Gudula - her body was, for a time, kept in veneration at Saint Gaugericus' chapel - in a Damned or Supernatural game the Director may rule that sufficient sanctity remains to prevent vampires from freely wandering Saint-Géry, or perhaps from entering Halles Saint-Géry. Though Saint Gudula's relics were moved, the Director may also rule that something was secretly kept back by the clergy at Saint Gaugericus, and which is now interred somewhere at Halles Saint-Géry; possibly underneath the fountain which marked the center of the old open market, and which still exists at the heart of Halles Saint-Géry. Again, this is likely to have significant implications for Damned vampires.

To begin with, a thrilling element list:
  • A group of drunken tourists travel unsteadily from the bar to their table, laden with beer.
  • A server moves through the crowd dexterously balancing a tray filled with hot coffee.
  • Architecturally significant metal balustrade mezzanine balcony over the main floor of the market.
  • A beautiful fountain and obelisk, dating back to 1767, at the center of the market, marking where the old chapel used to stand.
  • Art installations along the mezzanine, or tucked away in one of the side rooms.     
  • (Nighttime) An enthusiastic DJ pumps out electronica to the delight of a happy, buzzed crowd.
  • (Vintage Market) Bargains of all kinds on every side, from clothes to statuary.
  • Sunlight slips through the clouded panes of the glass ceiling, as evening falls.
  • A group of young locals passionately argue the politics of the day, over an ever-growing pile of empty beer glasses.
  • Renfields or Damned vampires sweat blood just being here, on the spot where saints once walked, making them much easier to pick out in a crowd.  
  • For a brief moment - perhaps just a trick of the light - a shadow assumes the form of a man in a bishop's mitre, right hand raised in benediction; the traditional depiction of Saint Gaugericus.        
Then the Scene:

An Underworld or Government contact - possibly a Network contact - asks or pays the agents to provide security for a meeting at Halles Saint-Géry. The Contact can't afford to use the usual people, or his own staff, because the Contact thinks they have been compromised; the agents, the Contact hopes, are free of vampiric influence.

The Contact intends to meet clandestinely with someone on the other side who says they have vital information about the Conspiracy. This is true, though whether it's because the Conspiracy agent wants to betray the vampires or because this is yet another example of Node fratricide is something the agents may never know.

The meeting is to take place at a time when Halles Saint-Géry is very busy, so this might happen at night when the DJ is pumping out tunes, or during one of the Sunday vintage market days. The meeting point is at the mezzanine, just opposite the obelisk.

Unfortunately for the Conspiracy agent his defection is known to his vampire masters, and assassins are on standby.

The exact nature of the assassination depends on the style of the campaign. In Dust games the assassins have replaced one of the servers - either a barman or one of the coffee shop baristas - with one of their own. This person has been instructed to dose the Conspiracy agent with Polonium, and if successful the Conspiracy agent will die after a few agonizing days.

The agents and their Contact may also be poisoned just through their proximity to the target, though much less severely. The Contact is very ill for a day or two, and the agents must make a Difficulty 6 Health check. Minor effect is +0 damage, Major is +2 damage, always bearing in mind this assumes close proximity to the Polonium, not ingesting it. Somehow swallowing the poison - did someone volunteer to act as taster? Silly ass - means Minor effect of +2 damage and Major +6.

There's a Sense Trouble test Difficulty 6, reduced to Difficulty 3 if the agent making the test spends a point of Chemistry, to detect the Polonium poison before the Conspiracy agent drinks it.

Any Chase scenes involving the assassin start at 2 Lead, as the assassin is right next to the target.

In more action-heavy games the assassin uses a pistol crossbow, firing from the other side of the Hall while standing on the opposite mezzanine. The bolt is tipped with Cyanide, which will be fatal to the intended target and will force agents to make Difficulty 5 Health checks, Minor effect being -1 damage, Major being +3 damage. The Cyanide tip damage is separate from the bolt, which does +0 damage.

The assassin can be spotted before she makes her move, if the agents make a Difficulty 6 Sense Trouble. If the agent spends a point of Tradecraft or Streetwise this can be reduced to Difficulty 3; in-game, the agent recognizes the assassin from a previous encounter, or some half-remembered intel dossier.

Any Chase scene involving the assassin starts at Lead 5, as the assassin starts the chase on the mezzanine opposite.

That's it for now. Enjoy!



Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Magic of Cinema (Bermuda International Film Festival)

The Bermuda International Film Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. I don't often get a chance to enjoy the movies on offer, and this year wasn't an exception, but I did make an effort to see the independent short films. Monday's lineup called itself Dead? Undead? Don't Know ...? which should give you a great big clue as to the theme.

No, it was not banana cream pies. Shame on you. Shame on us all.

So this time out I thought I'd give a short review of each so that if you come into close contact with one of these snaggle-toothed orphan children you know what to expect.

As part of the audience choice short film awards we were invited to vote for our favorites, on a score from 1 (snail vomit) to 4 (cinema gold). I present you with my votes as I remember them, and why.

Alfred J Hemlock (Australia, director Edward Lyons, who also co-wrote the screenplay). Emily (Renaye Loryman) is comprehensively dumped by the side of the road by her jackass boyfriend, and wishes she were dead. Enter Alfred J Hemlock (Tristan Mckinnon), demon and king of the road, who offers her a chance to get the death she craves.

Had I seen the trailer before seeing the film I wouldn't have been so disappointed - and I would still have been disappointed. See, I was half-hoping that, what with its name being Alfred J Hemlock, I was about to see a Hitchcock-style chiller. The man's name was Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock after all; the connection seemed obvious to me. Alas we were presented instead with someone's substandard Johnny Depp impression. Only 14 minutes long, but a substantial wasted chunk of those 14 minutes is devoted to a silly chase montage. Plus, Oh Susannah? Why? You're in Australia for God's sake; if you're going to go cheesy, you might just as well sing Waltzing Matilda. At least that has a ghost story in it.

Score: 2, and that only because the SFX are reasonable, though we don't get too many SFX moments.

A Family of Ghosts (Canada, dir Shannon Kohli). A turn of the last century tale in which a privileged young woman's ghostly grandparents frustrate her love life. The ghosts take against her music teacher suitor and do their best to force him away, but is this what's best for her? With Kacey Rohl as Abigail, Jordan Burtchett as Thomas, and Mary Black, Gwyneth Walsh, Alec Willows and Chris Button as both sets of grandparents.

Interesting, well thought-out and charmingly shot on historic location, all for about a thousand Canadian smackers according to IMDB. It rather resembles the love child of a museum and an amateur dramatics society. I enjoyed it, but I wonder how long it will stick around in my brain before it vanishes into the void. Charming yes, but there's not a lot of there there. In many ways it reminds me of those period dramas the BBC used to do, and which Canadian TV now produces excellent examples of. High production values, but nothing to really sink your teeth into. Plus, not sure why ghost dog got a screen credit; he didn't even poop on anyone's shoes.

Score: 3, as the production values are high even if the story is insubstantial.

Ernie (US, dir Hadley Hillel). Ernie (Gary Gorland), disappointed in life, resolves to commit suicide, only to find himself bonding with the neighbor's kid upstairs thanks to a hole in the ceiling of Ernie's apartment. Undoubtedly the most stylized film of the bunch, devotees of Jan Svankmajer's animation will find a lot to love in the meticulous cardboard-build set and properties. Every single thing, whatever it may be, is made either of cardboard or paper, giving the film an otherworldly quality.

Judging by the little I can see of Hillel's previous work online, I'm guessing Hillel has a mild - maybe not so mild - obsession with misfit loners, such as our protagonist Ernie. The relationship between Ernie and the child, who save each other, is perfectly realized and well thought out.

My difficulty is plot-related. We start with a heavily narrated portion, perhaps 4 out of the film's 17 minute total, describing Ernie's early life, his hatred of Swedish meatballs, his father's failing meatball business, the climactic fiery destruction of his meatball stand - and fire assumes a special significance when the entire set is cardboard and paper.

Yet after the burnt-out remains are dealt with we fast forward about sixty years to the point where Ernie's on the brink of suicide. It's a huge leap, and I felt as though I'd wasted my time paying attention to the meatball stand, the father, the narrator or anything to do with the sequence when I realized it would never be referred to again. Sure, it gave Ernie backstory, but the audience didn't need Ernie's backstory. The director could have cut that entire bit out and the film still would have made perfect sense. Hell, the director ought to have cut that entire sequence out; it just delays the start of the narrative. I note this film won a Tacoma Film Festival award. I'm guessing that's thanks to its charming set design, not its storytelling.

Score: 2, as I bitterly resent the wasted prologue.

Memento Mori (UK, dir Scott James Bassett). A young woman (Alexandra Roach) goes on a blind date, and gets a marriage proposal from someone rather like death (Joel Fry). Game of Thrones fans will recognize Fry as one of the minor recurring characters from Season 5, Hizdahr zo Loraq. Alexandra Roach hasn't quite got the same fantasy cred, but she's got a lot of UK TV appearances to her name.

This one impressed me, largely because of the meticulous set dressing - and yes I know that sounds like faint praise, but if you'd seen it you'd say the same I wager. There's something about that atmosphere-drenched setting that makes anything seem possible. But if I were handing out acting awards they'd all go to Fry, whose charismatic performance steals the show. There's something about him that reminds me of Toshiro Mifune; I think it's a combination of that deep voice and his scraggle beard. Give this actor larger roles, please; I'd love to see what he can do.

The ending's predictable but the journey to get there is compact, well designed and cleverly plotted. Unlike many of the other films on this list, none of its 19 minutes are wasted. Fry's alien attitude makes him feel far more like an otherworldly being than Alfred J Hemlock, and though I haven't spent much time talking about Roach's performance trust me when I say that it's very good - just not as memorable as Fry's.

Score: 4. All the 4.

Lost Souls (France/UK, dir Fabrice Pierre, who also wrote the script). A depressed taxi driver (Dean Christie) finds help from an unexpected customer (Sophie Delora Jones). Not much supernatural in this one; it is what it says on the tin. Methinks it scraped into the supernatural section on account of its title.

A whopping 26 minutes long, and unlike Memento Mori at least half of that run time is wasted. Plus the grand climax is Dean Christie telling Sophie Jones why his character's so fucked up, in a scene that lasts about a minute and a half of screen time.

As a drama it works inasmuch as I understand why the main character needs help and I can see how he gets there, but my problem with the plot is the main character does nothing. He picks people up in his cab, they chat, they leave, he goes on to the next customer. At no point does he take positive action to resolve any of his problems, until finally he's prodded into action by his last fare of the night, a prostitute who needs to go to hospital but who nevertheless has time to talk Christie down from the metaphorical window ledge.

I don't even know why Jones' character needs to go to hospital. It's suggested that a customer beat her up, but there's not much on show to demonstrate that. Frankly, she's only there to drop a few words of wisdom in Christie's ear, and to hell with any problems her character might have, whether it's a black eye or a bust appendix.

This one desperately needed a severe edit, and I can't help but notice Fabrice Pierre is listed as director, screenwriter and one of the two producers. This is someone who couldn't bear to kill his darlings, so his darlings killed him instead.

Score: 1. And may those snails puke forever and ever, amen.

Anyway, trust you enjoyed this departure from the norm. If you get a chance to see Memento Mori or A Family of Ghosts, please do. Ernie also has my begrudging recommendation, on grounds of style alone; it looks gorgeous even if the prologue annoys the hell out of me. Avoid the other two like the plague, unless you've a tolerance for time wasters.

Later this Sunday I'm going to see The Night Watchmen - the executive producer's Bermudian, which is why it's showing down here on what's called Bermovie Day - so this post may get an update, but probably not a Sunday update unless it's truly inspiring. Which it might be, I don't know.

The Night Watchmen (2017, dir Mitchell Altieri). Three inept night watchmen, aided by a young rookie and a fearless tabloid journalist - ye Gods, I'm not making this up, it's how the producers bill the wretched thing, and since when are tabloid journalists fearless? - fight an epic battle to save their lives. A mistaken warehouse delivery unleashes a horde of hungry vampires. These unlikely heroes must not only save themselves but also stop the scourge that threatens to take over the city of Baltimore.

Judging by the trailer this is one part Salem's Lot to nine parts 28 Days Later. How good is it? Well ...

It's as dumb as a dead donkey, but it's funny.

Blimpo the clown and his entire clown posse get wiped out while on a trip to Romania, in a mysterious bat-related incident. The group is shipped back home to Baltimore and most are sent to the morgue, apart from Blimpo who gets relocated because the morgue and the newspaper offices next door - on Stoker Street and yes I did see what you did there movie - have similar addresses. Someone cracks open the coffin to steal Blimpo's clown nose, and it's all downhill from there.

Not to be seen by those suffering from coulrophobia. No, no, pass, trust me.

The film gets a bit tired of itself at the midway mark, and all of the really good jokes are in the first half. There are some brilliant moments; my personal favorite is when Blimpo, as Clown King, summons his killer clowns from the morgue next door by standing at the window and blowing his little clown horn. There's a recurring gag about corpses voiding their bowels which crops up every time they stake a vampire, and believe me when I say the heroes do that a lot. But it loses its grip once the situation is established and the heroes have to decide what to do.

The acting's decent, the SFX are high quality amateur stuff, and the plot bangs along quickly for the most part. It's a tribute to the trio of amateurs who came together to make it that it works, mostly. It's never going to win an Oscar but it deserves and will probably get a distribution deal. Which is all an aspiring film maker can hope for, really.

If you get a chance, give it a go.

Have a good one!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Top Cop (Mutant City Blues)

I've always had a soft spot for Pelgrane's superpower cop setting Mutant City Blues, but I could never make it work.

In my head it sounds like a cross between Powers and The Wire. Particularly The Wire; there are actors in that show - Michael K Williams, Seth Gilliam, Lance Reddick - that I have seen elsewhere, but have never seen give finer performances than in HBO's crime epic. I'd like to think their characters would feel right at home in Mutant City.

So with that in mind let's talk a little bit about what makes this setting function, and to do that we're going to spend some time dwelling on film noir.

In this kind of campaign, the city is just as important a character as any of the players. More so, because the city was there before them and will be there long after they are dead and dust. In The Wire we see small parts of that bigger picture, when McNulty and Bubbles school Shakima Greggs about Omar's cousin No Heart Anthony, or Prop Joe talks about how the house he lives in is one of the first available to black families in that neighborhood. These stories go straight to the long term history of the setting, hinting at a bigger universe that the individual characters are often blind to, so focused are they on their own problems.

At the same time we can also see where the city is going. The whole of Season Two is dedicated to that idea. In that season we see how the docks which once made Baltimore a premier port city, and which fired up the blue collar union workers that kept the docks running, are being beaten to death by forces beyond their control. No matter how bitterly they fight, their defeat is almost inevitable - and in fact they guarantee it by making alliances with drug kingpin the Greek, taking his money to fund a docks revival, but only ensuring that when the deal comes to light the union, last defender of the docks, gets shut down.

Every city has these stories. It's like watching the march of advancing armies, or following the spread of trade across a map. Superficially things seem the same, yet over time the changes become more and more apparent until finally all you can see are the changes. Oddly enough it may be more useful to use a different system, like Microscope, to plot out this city history, particularly if you're not too keen on doing a lot of research. [for an actual play version of Microscope, look here.] But the point is that there is a larger story playing out around the characters, and that story takes decades - centuries - to complete.

To give just one example, consider MV Empire Windrush, the ship that gave its name to an entire generation's emigration to the UK in general and London in particular. This shifting migration pattern is an event whose consequences can have far-reaching effects for your campaign; you could base an entire story arc around something like this. Or consider the Syrian refugee crisis now, and ask yourself how much more challenging it would be if even a tenth of the people incarcerated in holding camps or swept from crisis to crisis had super powers.

Which brings me to my next point: that in film noir the world is ambivalent, and often thoughtlessly cruel.

People we think of as heroes or protagonists seldom win outright. They may prevail, but there are casualties. Moreover the alleged heroes often lack heroic characteristics, or are so deadened by their experiences that they no longer care.

My go-to film, the one I point at as the perfect example of film noir, is On Dangerous Ground with Robert Ryan. There's one scene in particular that gets me again and again: this one, where Ryan's cop corners a stool pigeon early on in the film and makes him talk. That look on Ryan's face - disgust, anger, despair - is distilled cruelty, but it's difficult to say whether that cruelty's inherent in his character or something that's been stamped into him over time.

If you want your Mutant City game to stand out, that's the standard to aim for. The city, and by extension the game world, does not reward kindness. Soft hearts and do-gooders get ground up in this city, and well-meaning projects meant to make a difference sputter into nothingness, leaving only a sense of futility behind.

Again, The Wire Season Two: there isn't a single person in union boss Sobotka's crew who doesn't want what's best for the docks and the people who work there, yet everything they do only hastens the destruction of everything they care about. Even the gangsters don't get what they want; in Season One the Barksdale Crew is set up as the one to beat, yet over time the Barksdales crumble not because the cops win but because the Barksdales lose.

Yet finally, there is hope. Again I turn to On Dangerous Ground. About a half hour in Ryan's character is cornered by a co-worker, after Ryan's beaten yet another suspect half to death. "How do you do it?" Ryan screams. "How do you live with yourself?" To which the other cop replies, "I don't. I live with other people. This is a job like any other. I do it the best I can. It's never enough, but I still do it."

That's the payoff. The city is a main character, yes. It will be there after the characters have come along, absolutely. But if the characters surrender, if they let circumstance and misery grind them down until nothing's left, then they've lost. The battle isn't to control the city. It's to control themselves, to find some satisfaction in the work and in life. Otherwise the only thing they have to look forward to is nothingness.

I've not spent any time talking about super powers, even though this is a super powers game. That's because it isn't the powers that make this setting work. It's a police procedural first, a supers game second. You shouldn't worry too much about the super side of things; that will take care of itself. What you need to concern yourself with is the police procedural, and I hope this post will help you do that.

Enough from me this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Got You Where I Want You (GUMSHOE Night's Black Agents, all)

I've been reading Andy McDermott's Kingdom of Darkness, part of his epic spy vs ... actually, I'm not sure. Spy vs reality, maybe? Or action hero vs mundane life? Anyway, it's book 10 in an ongoing line featuring Yorkshireman ex-SAS crazy person Eddie Chase and his beautiful archaeologist wife Nina Wilde. They wander across the planet finding pretty much everything and exploding bad guys as they do it.

By everything, I mean everything. I just dropped into this series and apparently they've already found Excalibur, Atlantis, and Valhalla, among other things. Presumably these discoveries all got blown up shortly afterwards; everything else seems to have the life expectancy of a gnat's fart, so why should Valhalla be any different?

This isn't not quite book review corner, so I won't go into detail except to say this: Chase and Wilde face down theoretically immortal Nazis living in Argentina, who discovered just enough immortality juice back in 1942 to keep a dozen of them going, and are now looking for more juice. Apparently Alexander the Great's cook Andreas knew where it was, so it's off to find Alexander's tomb. And blow it up. Because reasons.

It's a fun read, absolutely not to be taken seriously, and I have to give credit to McDermott for having the imagination and effrontery to put all this in one book. Apart from anything else I think this may be the first time I've seen a Yorkshireman in the protagonist role since James Herriot, though I suspect if you presented Eddie Chase with a cow's backside he'd stick a grenade in it.

I see from his bio he's written for 2000AD. Why am I not surprised.

Anyone who can sneak Patrick McGoohan and Raiders of the Lost Ark references in the same novel is worthy of praise. There's some good action chase sequences too, even if the biggest chase liberally borrows from The Man With the Golden Gun - the novel, not the movie.

That, and McDermott isn't as predictable as other pulp spy writers; there's no telling who's going to live or die, with the exception of the two longstanding leads of course - and it's not clear from the start that even they have plot immunity, since Wilde is under sentence of death from one of their previous adventures.

So yes, I do recommend it to Night's Black Agents directors with the obvious caveat that this is as Pulp as pulp can possibly be, so if your instincts draw you more to the Le Carre side of the spectrum you'd better steer clear.

However there's a moment in the book that intrigued me and I thought it would be useful as an Ephemera piece.

In the narrative Nina and some colleagues are captured by the Nazis and dragged off to the Argentina compound, there to languish in durance vile until they reveal the location of the source of the Immortality Juice, which means solving an archaeological puzzle.

Capture is not something recommended by most GMs in any system. It tends to derail the game, and takes agency away from the players which emphatically is not what GUMSHOE is all about. The NBA main book makes this very clear:
Directors should get player buy-in at the beginning of the game; if capture isn't an option, then it simply isn't an option ... Here's our GUMSHOE promise: If you are captured, you will learn something you want to know ... And you will have a chance to escape.
I would add another item to that list:
As Director it is your job to make sure the characters have something to do if they are captured.
Players tend to think that if their character is captured then that character can't do anything. They rot in a jail cell. No scenes, no spotlight; there they sit, forever and ever and ever.

Here's the thing: the McDermott sequence is a perfect example of good capture because it allows for three things:
  1. The captives learn something about their captors, in this instance that they have the contents of cook Andreas' shrine and are on the lookout for the source of the Immortality Juice.
  2. The captives have a chance to escape, when Eddie Chase invades the compound.
  3. The captives have a puzzle to solve.
Granted it's not the most taxing puzzle in the world, but it's something to spend Investigative points on. It's an individual scene, which means characters can have the spotlight.

Players want agency, but agency isn't just about giving players the opportunity to roleplay. It's about giving those characters something to do. They're not just kicking their heels in a filler scene waiting for their chance to saw through the cell window's bars and break free.

In this particular instance not only do Nina and her companions have a puzzle but they also have an additional conundrum on top of that, because if they tell their captors what they know then their captors will probably kill them. So it's not just about spending that Investigative point to gain knowledge; it's also about bluffing or otherwise concealing what they know, just plausibly enough that their captors don't get bored and shoot them out of hand.

In short, it's Thrilling, which means as Director you could make a Thrilling sequence out of it.

Remember the Hitchcock film Torn Curtain, where there's a Thrilling sequence revolving around a Physics equation. The Thrilling mechanic's not just for car chases any more; you can make a Thrilling sequence out of almost anything, and that means you can invent one to fit into a capture scenario.

Any moment in which you can say 'this is a cat-and-mouse moment' has the potential to be Thrilling. Thrills depend on stakes, not action, and while you don't want to invent a Thrilling sequence every time one of the guards goes to the toilet there are times when a good Director makes Thrills happen.

There's one other important factor, which is:
As Director you should craft a capture scene as carefully as you would any other, but always remember a capture scene is Alternative, not Core.
What do I mean by this? Let's take a trip on the Orient Express, and find out.

VERY MILD SPOILERS AHOY.

In that venerable campaign there is an in-plot capture scene that cannot be avoided. The game literally cannot proceed without this scene, and there are other campaign elements in the capture scene which the players also may not appreciate.

I have yet to find a group of players that enjoy this scene. Even the players who accept railroading as a necessary plot element really have trouble with it. The scene boils down to the Keeper saying 'yeah, you're hosed. No, there's nothing you can do about it. Sucks to be you.'

The scenario in question even concludes with the line 'The investigators regain no Sanity for this scenario; after all, they have lost dismally.' Yeah, because the writer - and by extension, willing or otherwise, the Keeper - rigged the game, not because of any real failure on the players' part.

This is exactly the kind of agency-stripping plot device GUMSHOE was designed to avoid.

However with GUMSHOE I've noticed the reverse problem: that because Directors know capture scenes can be problematic, they don't detail those scenes. 'It's something you can do - if you're a complete and total weirdo - but we don't talk about it much.'

Capture has its uses. For one thing, it keeps characters alive in circumstances which might otherwise lead to a total party kill. Surrender means the characters live to fight another day. Okay, they have to find a way out of their jail cell, but that's a minor problem compared to crawling out of a bodybag.

For another, it's genre-appropriate. Even James Bond gets captured more than once, in the novels and the movies. Some of Bond's most iconic moments depend on capture scenes. 'Do you expect me to talk?' 'No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.' Ahh, the classics!

Third and last, it's a brilliant way to introduce clues that either the characters have failed to gather - and it happens, believe me - or that they need in future scenes. Sometimes players display a perverse genius for avoiding or forgetting clues, even Core ones. Sometimes they could use a little nudge to discover, say, a Bane, or the Conspiracy's next target. Let them glimpse the clue they need, or a handy map, while in captivity, and the problem solves itself.

This is something the Orient Express capture scene does well. It's dripping with atmosphere, the players get to learn dark secrets, and they have a problem to solve that isn't just about getting out of their jail cell. The difficulty is that, in GUMSHOE vernacular, it's a Core scene, so any good it might be doing is outweighed by the evil it did in stripping the players of agency in the first place.

So my advice is this: in any game of whatever type, recognize that capture is possible. Then design an Alternate scene around that possibility. Give it a little local color, perhaps think about how it could be made Thrilling, factor in some clues that you know the characters will appreciate. Try to come up with a few ways for the characters to plausibly escape. Then leave the scene alone until you need it.

This preserves player agency. The scene isn't Core, and the characters might go the entire game without realizing this Alternative exists, but like other Alternative scenes the capture moment allows the players to gather extra clues which they can use to their advantage.

And if they end up strapped to a table with a red-hot laser slowly snaking its way up to their unmentionables, so much the better.

That's it from me. Enjoy!




Sunday, 16 April 2017

Person of Interest: Anna May Wong (GUMSHOE Trail, Bookhounds, One to One)

I first saw Anna May Wong in the silent British classic Piccadilly, where she plays the doomed love interest of the man who later is accused of her murder.

It's a brilliant performance, and a remarkably fun movie. At its heart it's nothing but a potboiler, set in seedy Soho clubland. Wong plays Shosho, a Chinese dishwasher in the Club kitchens who unexpectedly rockets to stardom thanks to her dancing skills, only to fall in love with the Club's owner, Wilmot. Wilmot's former lover Mabel confronts her rival in Shosho's apartment, and later the next day Shosho is found shot to death. Was it Wilmot, Mabel or someone else who killed the dancing star?

As a movie I highly recommend it first and foremost because it's a good film, and second because it's one of the few times Wong was allowed to act in a sympathetic role. As a Chinese American, she often played villain roles, and the rules of the day prevented her from ever having an on-screen kiss from a white actor, which meant she'd little chance of playing the romantic female lead.

Wong's family arrived in California in the 1850s. Her father was a prosperous laundry owner, and Wong was the second of his seven children, born in 1905 and raised in Los Angeles. It was just the right time; the moving picture business was taking its baby steps, and you couldn't walk two feet in Los Angeles at that time without seeing some poverty row film unit shooting reel for a knockabout comedy or crime drama. Wong soon became hooked on movies, spending lunch money on cinema tickets and following every film shoot she could, practicing the actors' moves when she went home.

Her parents were less than thrilled. Her father wanted her to marry a good Cantonese man and help with the family business, but Wong wanted to be a film star, and even as early as 9 years old she begged directors working in her neighborhood for film parts. Soon she was a jobbing extra, landing her first role in 1919's The Red Lantern.

By 1921 she'd dropped out of high school to pursue the dream, allowing herself ten years to make it big, or bust out.  In 1922 she landed her first film lead role, and never looked back.

However she never really fit in either. She wanted to be an American, a jazz baby, a flapper. She talked the talk and danced up a storm, but to her white contemporaries she would always be Chinese. That limited the roles she'd be offered, and it only got worse as the decade went on. Early cinema was an unregulated wonderland, but in the aftermath of the Fatty Arbuckle sex scandal Hollywood became more prudish - outwardly, anyway. This meant, among other things, not even the slightest hint of miscegenation. This cost Wong several lead parts, demoting her to gangster's moll or Dragon Lady instead.

If an Asian role was the lead, it wouldn't go to Wong; it would go to a white actress, as happened later in the 1930s with Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. Wong was bitterly disappointed to see the meaty star role go to someone who could legally kiss white lead Paul Muni, who was playing Asian character Wang Lung. Instead Wong, the only actual Asian in the cast, was offered the part of Lotus - the only unsympathetic role in a plot stuffed with Asian characters.

Incidentally for those of you shaking their head and muttering, 'God, they were so racist back then,' bear in mind that far too little has changed in the years since. We're still talking about whitewashing today, almost a century later. Asian actors working in Western film and television still have to fit a certain stereotype if they want to get parts. The only real difference is the stereotype has changed.

"We're the information givers," said Yale School of Acting graduate Pun Bandu in a 2017 article. "We're the geeks. We're the prostitutes. We're so tired of seeing ourselves in these roles."

Meanwhile back in the 1920s things weren't any better for Wong on the other side of the ocean. Chinese audiences resented her American behavior, and seethed at her public persona. Affairs with white men, like director Tod Browning - and he thirty nine years old to her tender sixteen? This wasn't the behavior of a good Chinese girl.

Frustrated at the lack of opportunity in her native California she upped sticks in the middle 1920s and went to Europe seeking her fortune. She did well in Germany with Schmutziges Geld and Pavement Butterfly, rubbing elbows with the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl. When she went across the water to England she starred on stage with Lawrence Olivier, and made Piccadilly, her last silent drama. Her first talkie was a British film, The Flame of Love (also known as Road to Dishonor) in which she finally got to kiss a white man on screen - only to have the scene cut for non-British audiences.

When Hollywood started poaching European talent in the early 1930s Wong came back to Los Angeles, only to find that things hadn't changed all that much while she'd been away. After playing a couple Dragon Lady roles she went back to Europe, only to find herself drawn to Los Angeles again at the prospect of a role in the 1937 adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's Pulitzer-winning novel about life in China prior to the Great War.

That ended in disappointment for Wong, who went to China on an extended tour only to discover that her Chinese critics were no more favorable than the American variety. To the Chinese Wong was a disgrace, a sexually charged scandal on legs. Friends with Dietrich? Then Wong must be a lesbian. Linked with older men? Then she must be a prostitute. The real problem was she was too American for Chinese audiences, and they let her know it. She eventually won over the Chinese press, but it was hard going - not that Wong was intimidated by hard going.

The war intervened, and Wong found herself in a string of patriotic B-pictures, always a heroine bashing the Japanese. She devoted herself, when not working, to war relief, sending as much money and support as possible to benefit Chinese refugees.

Later, the war over, Wong invested in real estate, and lived quietly with her surviving family. She had a minor post-war film role, in the 1949 noir B-picture Impact, and the lead in a TV detective series The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which was cancelled after a single season and sadly no longer exists in any format. She appeared in some documentary work and some TV roles in the 1950s, but no leads and no film work. Her last film appearance was in 1960's Portrait in Black in which she plays the maid, Tawny. She got a star on the Boardwalk in 1960, and died of a heart attack in 1961, at the age of 56.

So let's talk about gamification.

As a walk-on NPC Wong could appear in Call of Cthulhu, Trail, or any of the 1930s era settings. As she travels extensively she could as easily be part of a Dreamhounds game as Bookhounds, or be encountered en route to some exotic location, say on a cruise liner or a very famous train. She's equally at home in modest as well as luxurious circumstances, and speaks many languages.

Her main attraction to the Keeper is that she knows almost everyone, in the States and abroad. She's on first name terms with a wide variety of people, from media moguls and film directors to dancers, composers, stage managers, restauranteurs, and many more. She can be a very useful link between the player characters and the local Chinese community, which might not otherwise open its doors to interfering investigator types. She can introduce them to artists, directors, powerful men. She's hobnobbed with everyone from the Los Angeles elite to the rising stars of Hitler's Germany. She's worked with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Alfred Hitchcock, as well as innumerable forgotten B-actors and directors. You name it, she's done it, or been there and loved every minute.

Perhaps the most obvious setting for her to appear in is the One-to-One Dex Raymond adventures, set in 1930s Los Angeles. Wong could drift in and out of Dex's life, always on her way somewhere else hoping for her big role, always frustrated at her lack of opportunities.

There's nothing to indicate any occult or outré connections, but she took great pride in her Chinese origins and would be very knowledgeable about anything to do with Chinese history, particularly its theatrical traditions.

As a One-to-One Source her skills favor performance, language, dance and high society. She can open many doors for other people, even doors that would remain frustratingly closed to her. However she's also got a strong business sense, which means she could be helpful in Bargain tests, and her extensive knowledge of Chinese culture and history gives her some Art History or History bonuses when dealing with Chinese culture.

For that matter there are few who know the film business quite like she does; she was there, on the spot, when it was being born. Any scuttlebutt or juicy bit of gossip relating to times long past - who was sleeping with who, who made shady deals to get financing, who worked in Poverty Row but likes to pretend they didn't now they've made it - is grist to her mill.

That's it for now! Enjoy.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Forensic Architecture (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

A London-based firm, Forensic Architecture, will give evidence in a German court in a case concerning the shooting death of a victim of the National Socialist Underground terror group.

The dead man, Halit Yozgat, was killed with two shots to the head while working in an internet café he managed. A German espionage agent, Andreas Temme, happened to be in the café at the time, but claims that he paid up and left without noticing that Yozgat had been shot dead, his corpse lying behind the counter.

Forensic Architecture's role will be to demonstrate whether or not Temme's story - that he was there when shots were fired but did not hear them, nor did he notice the blood spatter or the body when he walked out - is credible. The alleged involvement of government agents or authorities in the so-called Bosphorus Serial Murders becomes much more believable if Temme's story is cracked by Forensic Architecture.   

So what is forensic architecture, the discipline and the organization?

At its base, forensic science deals with the application of scientific principles in uncovering evidence during the course of an investigation. There are many kinds of forensic disciplines - anthropology, entomology, accounting - but forensic architecture is a new idea.

Eyal Weizman is its creator. An architect by training, Israeli-born Weizman has led the European Research Council funded group Forensic Architecture since 2011. His team of lawyers, filmmakers, architects, scholars, designers and scientists have worked on investigations ranging from the use of arsenic, globally, to the role of the voice in law, shifting sunlight, and Mengele's skull. It tracked the Left-To-Die migrant boat, an incident which led to the death of sixty three people. It's modelled drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It's studied the Gaza conflict and attacks in Syria.

In its own words:
Forensic Architecture is ... an emergent field we have developed at Goldsmiths [University, London]. It refers to the production and presentation of architectural evidence - buildings and larger environments, and their media representations.
As contemporary conflicts increasingly take place within urban areas, homes and neighborhoods become targets and most civilian casualties occur within cities and buildings. Urban battlefields have become dense data and media environments, generating information that is shared on social and mainstream media. Many violations, undertaken within cities and buildings, are now caught on camera and are made available almost instantly. The premise of FA is that  analyzing IHL [International Humanitarian Law] and HR [Human Rights] violations must involve modelling dynamic events as they unfold in space and time and creating navigable 3D models of environments undergoing conflict, as well as the creation of filmic animations , and interactive cartographies on the urban or architectural scale.
Did a missile level that hospital? It can be virtually rebuilt, and the damage tracked in real time through the social media accounts of everyone who was inside at the time. Did a ship full of dying migrants drift through the Med? Its passage, and the passage of every other vessel that might or did in fact come into contact with it, can be traced.

This is the autopsy of the Urbis.

If you want to see Weizman in action, I recommend the documentary The Architecture of Violence, available on YouTube and prepared by Al Jazeera English. He's also the author of numerous books on forensics, and I'm tempted to seek them out.

But if we were to talk gamification, what role could Forensic Architecture, or a group like it, play?

In Night's Black Agents or Esoterrorists the Forensic Architecture team is an excellent source of player characters. Here you have a group of people from any number of disciplines and all walks of life, working together on some of the most esoteric - and fascinating - examinations of violence and its effect on the wider world. It's a no-brainer. 

Moreover it has an extensive history with human rights groups, NGOs and governments all over the planet. Today its people may be in Germany, tomorrow some war zone halfway across the planet, next week unpicking climate change data in the Canadian Arctic. Its people could be anywhere, at any time, and with excellent academic credentials. Player characters dream of that level of access and credibility.

In Dracula Dossier the options get even more interesting. As mentioned last week, the Edom Basic Field Manual posits the option that the characters work for Edom and the Dossier falls into the hands of a group that starts investigating or opposing Edom.
Who has the Dossier? Who's trying to break Edom? The answer to that question might change over the course of the campaign as the threat escalates ... Rogues ... a group of burned spies, ex criminals and shady black-ops types who have a grudge against vampires ... Rogues are an excellent starting Opposition, but once the player characters eliminate two or three of the original group ... have a bigger bad guy faction take the Dossier ... Non-State Actors ...
So in this version of events, a small group of Rogues - say, trying to investigate the activities of a neo-Nazi group only to discover there are bigger fish to fry - come into possession of the Dossier. They do what they can, but their limited resources and manpower mean they're knocked out of the game quickly. However despite Edom's best efforts the Dossier isn't recovered.

Then one of Edom's prior operations comes under close scrutiny from a suspiciously well-informed Forensic Architecture. According to the media Forensic Architecture was brought on board by relatives of someone who died in that operation. As Keeper, it shouldn't be difficult to find someone who fits that description. If anything you're usually spoilt for choice; civilian casualties are par for the course in the average op, and of course the bodybagged McGuffin doesn't have to be a civilian.

The question then becomes, does Forensic Architecture have the Dossier? If so, is it working on its own behalf, or is it being funded by one of the many Government or NGO factions it's worked with in the past? Its partner list is long and varied; any of them might be the front for a Conspiracy group. Heal The Children is an obvious choice, but as Keeper you can easily design your own fictional partner to infect Forensic Architecture.

Forensic Architecture doesn't have mooks at its disposal, though it's fair to say it knows a lot of people with unusual skill sets if it needs a helping hand. The problem isn't Forensic Architecture's material strength but its political muscle and visibility. If its people vanish in a puff of napalm, that's front page news internationally. If its people drop off the face of the earth, there are many groups out there who will want to know why, making Heat gain potentially intolerable for publicity-shy Edom.

As a Node, a group like Forensic Architecture is probably Level 3 or 4. It has international reach, and its skills and reputation mean it can easily cover up evidence of vampire activity. A Cleaning operation on an international scale; now there's something the Conspiracy would like to have in its pocket.

That's all for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Opposition (GUMSHOE all)

There's an interesting idea hidden in the back pages of Edom's Basic Field Manual: the Oppyramid. According to the manual the Oppyramid's a 'tiered menu of plot twists or enemy actions that the Director can throw in as needed. In this case, it models the action of the Opposition as it uses the stolen Dossier to bring down Edom.'

Regardless of which game you play, how often does it happen that the Opposition has goals, and actively pursues them?

More often than not the Opposition is static. It has a main location, and a presumed objective. Taking Masks of Nyarlathotep as an example, in the extreme there can be a huge network of Opposition cells and bases around the world, all working towards that objective. Yet when encountered those cells and bases never seem to have schemes on the go, or some vital task that they're performing for the organization. They exist to be destroyed and then provide clues which in turn let the characters go forward in the plot.

In many ways they resemble the Dungeons and Dragons games of yore. There is a Dungeon. You mighty heroes go down into the Dungeon, beat up the inhabitants, take their stuff - in this case, their clues - and, once finished, the heroes go on to the next Dungeon. Some Dungeons are harder than others, but the pattern is broadly the same for all.

What if you were to adapt the Oppyramid for other games, and give the enemy an active personality?

In order to attempt this let's go back to Bookhounds, and the setting previously discussed in which Stanley David Fentiman and his wealthy ally Sarah Montgomery are scheming towards different but related goals, as follows:

Here you have two antagonists with very different goals working together. One is motivated by grief and loss, the other by a lust for power and immortality. In each case the motives are human and understandable, but in order to achieve their goals both will have to steep themselves in Mythos knowledge.
Further for this to work there need to be stakes of some kind, a wager that the characters cannot afford to lose. In Dracula Dossier the continued existence of Edom is the stake. In Bookhounds the character's livelihood, and their store, is the stake, and therefore keeping track of its Credit Rating and thus its Windfalls and Reverses is going to be paramount.

In theory the continued existence of the world can be a stake, but that seems a little too metaphysical for a mystery game, and GUMSHOE is at its heart more mystery than horror. Which is not to say that there's no horror in Trail of Cthulhu, just that its attraction lies less in sloshing buckets of grue than it does the solving of puzzles that lead to the grue.

No, for this to work you need something tangible. Something the characters can perhaps afford to lose, but don't want to. In Dreamhounds of Paris this would be the spark of creative madness; again, something that the character can lose, but will fight to keep. For other games it might be heroic reputation, or more prosaically a chest full of shiny loot. Regardless of the setting, as Keeper you should be able to identify this thing; if you can't, you will need to rethink, as this indicates a significant campaign problem beyond the scope of this post.

Once you have that you need a group, organization or force that threatens the thing the characters don't want to lose. Exactly what this is shall depend greatly on the kind of game you're running, or the setting, and we're using Bookhounds as an example.

In Bookhounds there's the Ring, a loose group of booksellers and professional antique dealers determined to rig the auctions for their benefit. As a long-running set of antagonists the Ring's goals are directly in opposition to the player characters. If the Ring wants to rig all the auctions, the players' shop must suffer. Also, as it's a loose group of individuals rather than a disciplined organization the Oppyramid and its resources can vary considerably. One vendor might rely on the charm offensive, another on breaking bones, another on theft. That gives you all kinds of options to choose from.

But why have the Ring when you already have Fentiman and Montgomery? Because you're going to want to let the players have a few triumphs along the way, and if they keep beating Fentiman and Montgomery then they'll stop taking them seriously as antagonists. Better to save those two for those moments when a devastating, brutal takedown is called for.

So in this scenario the Ring acts as minor antagonists and appear mainly in the initial story arc. They help set the scene and give the players something to whet their appetites with before the main course. Later, when the Ring has been defeated, the characters can move on to meatier fare.

The Oppyramid is a layered series of responses from the opposition, starting low and ending high. So in the Edom files a Level One Response might be to break into or steal one of Edom's minor assets, and a Level Five is burn a key Edom site to the ground. Level Six assumes Edom has been utterly vanquished and that the players are all that is left, but for purposes of this example we don't need a Level Six. If it ever gets to that point in Bookhounds the characters are probably dead.

There are several different responses at each Layer, becoming fewer as the threat becomes more significant. So at Level One there might be half a dozen different responses, while at Five there are only one or two.

In this example we're using two sets of antagonists, one being the Ring and the other being Fentiman and Montgomery. Ideally we'd know a lot more about the powers and assets of both those sets of antagonists, but this is just an example so we're going to let that slide. However it should be remembered that knowing what the antagonists can bring to bear will help determine what they do at any given response level.

Since this is a layered example the Oppyramid will be as follows:

Level One (Ring): The Rumor Mill. Your enemies in the Ring spread malicious gossip about your Bookshop or a recent Windfall your shop enjoyed, telling everyone who'll listen that the shop sells forgeries. If this gets as far as the police, the shop will suffer a Reverse no matter what the outcome of the court case; mud sticks.

Level One (Ring): Friends in Need. An ally of the store - an NPC Occultist or Forger, say - is being persecuted by members of the Ring, who want the ally out of business or disgraced. The characters have to protect or lose their ally.

Level One (Ring): Petty Theft. One of the Ring pays a small-time Rough Lad to hang around the characters' shop and steal some of the merchandise. Nothing too valuable; the intent is to disrupt business rather than cause any real damage, though the Rough Lad may not be too cognizant of the finer details. The characters need to get this Rough Lad off the premises, preferably with diplomacy since force will only provoke the Rough Lad into gathering some of his friends for some real damage.

Level One (Ring): High Bidder. The Ring has suborned one of the auctioneers at an auction house the characters regularly attend, using this ally to ensure that the bids always go their way. The characters will need to deal with this auctioneer or suffer a penalty to their Auction pool every time they go to auctions here.

Level Two (Ring): The Seduction. One of the shop's most important regular clients is being wooed away by the Ring, with promises of special deals and hitherto unobtainable prizes. If this client is persuaded to change allegiance, the shop will suffer a Reverse.

Level Two (Ring): Awkward Squad. A member of the Ring with limited Mythos knowledge but unshakable self-confidence tries to use Magic against the characters, and it does not end well. An uncontrolled entity, Mythos or otherwise, is now causing chaos in the neighborhood, and it's up to the characters to do something about it. Thanks to the Ring's interference, it may be possible to redirect the entity against the Ring member who summoned it. This may be a Megapolisomantic event, if this kind of Magick is used in-game.

Level Two (Ring): High Stakes. The Ring sets out to persecute the characters at every Auction they attend. The characters suffer a 5 point loss from their Auction pool, so long as this is in effect. However this lockout can be broken if the characters persevere, and should they win even one auction the Ring pulls back and ends the lockout.

Level One (Montgomery): Discreet Enquiries. One of Montgomery's allies or assets starts making enquiries about the characters and their business. Can they be trusted? Are they as good as they say? Impressing this ally somehow will lead to a Windfall for the shop.

Level One (Fentiman): The Cad. A female ally of the characters, preferably one with Occult or Mythos knowledge, is brought nearly to ruin by Fentiman's romantic excesses. Now the bounder's run off with something of real value, and the ally wants it back. Failing here means the characters lose the ally.

Level Three (Ring): Payback. One of the Ring goes make-or-break, determined to ruin the characters or go bankrupt trying. This rogue Ring member will not stop until he or the characters are done for. The rest of the Ring, while sympathetic, will not risk career suicide over this feud. The rogue Ring member will attend every auction the characters attend, bidding against them at every opportunity. Three successive auction victories here dooms the Ring member.

Level Three (Ring): Poisoned Fruit. A Forger ally of the Ring creates a near perfect copy of a grimoire the characters either own, or desperately need. If the characters own it, then it's the most valuable grimoire in the shop. The Ring intends either to sell this fake to the characters, or to break in and replace the genuine article with this forgery. Once this is done, the Ring will use its contacts to 'prove' the characters deal in forged merchandise.

Level Two (Montgomery): Pass the Test. If the characters succeeded at the Level One Montgomery challenge then that ally comes to the characters to give them a valuable commission; success here means that Montgomery will trust them with more important things. If the characters failed then they become aware that the ally is making the same offer to a member of the Ring; if they move quickly, they can get the commission before the Ring member does.

Level Two (Fentiman): Deadly Current. Fentiman challenges an NPC Occultist or occult minded ally to a Megapolisomantic battle of wills over a bad review the ally gave to one of Fentiman's articles in an esoteric magazine. However Fentiman has real power on his side, and if the characters aren't proactive their ally may end up dead.

This could go on for some time, but there's no need to. Notice how the responses are layered; the Ring, as minor antagonists, get to Level Two responses before the major antagonists start their Level One. By the time the Ring's either breaking or broken by the characters, the major antagonists are warming up to a Level Two response, and so on.

Note that not all the Oppyramid entries are antagonistic. Montgomery in particular is relatively mild compared to the Ring. Not all antagonists need to resort to blood and thunder straight away; they should react according to their personality, power and goals, which opens up a wide range of responses. If, as with Montgomery, achieving goals means buying arcane grimoires, why would she open negotiations by attacking people? Far better to negotiate or bargain, to begin with. Later, when things get more intense, Montgomery can get brutal.

I hope this was useful! Next time something completely different.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Little Tractor That Couldn't (Esoterrorists, Mutant City Blues)

Sometimes these things write themselves.

Pity the poor farmer whose tractor throws its final wobbly and insists on major repairs, as John Deere may hold that farmer to software ransom. For the full skinny take a look at this article in Vice, but the short version is: as John Deere has installed software on its tractors that can only be repaired at John Deere dealerships, desperate farmers in the US have turned to crackware brewed up by Ukrainian software pirates to keep their tractors free.

And they say there's nothing new under the sun.

I've discussed the potential of unusual hacking and infiltration techniques before. Everything has chipware in it. We are living in Cyberpunk 2020 (except with slightly fewer gun homicides) and we all Love The Computer, yes we do. But how many of you out there realized that tractors were also at the mercy of their manufacturer's chipware?

From John Deere's perspective there's an obvious attraction. Here you have a market that's utterly dependent on your product, but the purchasers insist on carrying out their own repairs rather than hasten to the dealership when there's a problem. Wouldn't life be so much easier, and more lucrative, if they'd just give up their annoying independent ways and become totally reliant on the dealerships?

Meanwhile the purchasers' fears are summed up neatly in the article itself: John Deere could just decide to shut down their tractor remotely and there's not a damn thing they could do about it. It's one thing to have to refer to the EULA when it's an app you bought for $0.99 that went screwy. It's something else again when the product in question costs north of $40,000 and is the only thing standing between you and economic ruin.

In step those nice Ukrainians with their free market dynamic and their oh-so-reasonably priced supplies. Incidentally, perhaps its just me but I had no idea tractors were so complicated. Payload files that program individual parts of the vehicle, allowing the owner to fine-tune the thing like Frankenstein tinkering with the Monster's limbs? Yikes. I in my naiveté figured all you had to do was turn the key, like a slightly more sophisticated Model T Ford.

While I have every sympathy with the farmers in this scenario, it does beg the question: just what might be coming in with that cracked software?

Picture this: some chancer in, oh, let's say Moscow why not, ensures that the crackware coming out of the Ukraine destined for the American Midwest is riddled with custom viruses. Then that same chancer says to Farmer Bob one day, pay me $10,000 in Bitcoin, or your tractor is kaput. Or just decides for a laugh to remote control a dozen tractors and start carving crop circles across Ohio.

Or shuts down the farming industry altogether. After all, once you let someone's hooky software into your industry, it's not just John Deere who can screw with your livelihood.

That's if you're content with ordinary hackers. The Creeper0741 virus I posited for Night's Black Agents could have a field day with this setup. Imagine one gigantic Hive Mind controlling every single tractor in the Midwest. In fact you don't need to do much imagining, since Stephen King's already done the heavy lifting for you.

So what can we do with this, say, from an Esoterrorists or Mutant City Blues perspective?

Well, Esoterrorists is straightforward. A terror cell, possibly with assistance from Ukrainian Esoterrorists, starts using software sourced from the other side of the Membrane to really mess with everyone's day.

The real trick is going to be misdirecting the players. Half of them will, as soon as they get the initial plot hook, suspect that the tractors are the source of the problem. So they are, but it's boring if they guess right away.

So your best bet here is to shoot for something a little more unusual. Say that software was designed to perform a particular magic ritual, but instead brought an Organ Grinder into being - part tractor, part killing machine from the Outer Dark. These things tend to hide in cities, but there are plenty of places across the rural Midwest where something like this could hide out for months, venturing out every so often to claim fresh kills. Often these things are traced by the magic rituals and grimoires used to summon it, but this time it can be tracked via the dodgy forums and black market sites used to disseminate the tainted software.

Or, if your group is comfortable with mature themes, this could be the Snuff Golem of their collective nightmares, perhaps created in collaboration with a farmers-only sex site. 'City folks just don't get it,' claims the site designers. Well, no, they don't - but then, who would? One interesting side note to a creation of this sort is that a tractor-based golem would presumably be less vulnerable to water damage than the standard variety. Not immune, just slightly better protected.

Mutant City Blues is a little different, and hopefully less horrifying.

Oddly enough there are no Powers that directly affect technology, which I can't help but feel is a missed opportunity. However re-writing the Quade Diagram to include them is beyond the scope of this piece.

Judging by the existing background material, it's unlikely that the Heightened Crimes Investigative Unit has a dedicated outpost in the farm belt. I'd have thought it more likely that there's, say, an HCIU representative attached to one of the existing police structures, say the state police or FBI.

What a lonely job that must be; nobody else who shares your duties or unique condition, a ton of paperwork - mostly useless, but it still has to get done - and every time some farmer puts in an insurance claim for dead cows lost to, say, force beams, you've got to rock up with your outdated forensics kit to prove that, no, it really wasn't force beams, so you can take a few zeroes off that claim, Farmer Bob.

Then somebody up and kills you. Wouldn't that just be the icing on the cake.

Ordinarily the police are very proactive about going after cop killers, but the staties and Feebs may not be so quick to get involved when it's the weirdo from the HCIU lying on a slab. So in come the big city boys to play Green Acres for a day, and hopefully avenge their fallen comrade.

Turns out the dead cop was onto something potentially very interesting, because someone seems to have found a way to make the Possession power work on tractors. Or at least so the cop claims in her notes, and it seems pretty clear that she was run over by something that must have been remarkably like a tractor. So who knows? Perhaps the Quade Diagram will have to be rewritten after all.

Possibilities:

1) Actually it was the John  Deere rep, who's been trying to wean the locals off of their Ukrainian tech. He's been using software from the home office to mess with local farmers, and when the HCIU cop caught on he used that same software to make it look as if an illegally modified tractor ran her down. Now he's hoping nobody's a skilled enough computer user to work out who was really controlling the tractor that day.

2) Except no, it was the HCIU cop herself. She was desperate to get out of this dead-end assignment; desperate enough to invent a completely new Power variant, hoping that by doing so she's earn a transfer to somewhere where there's more Starbucks than cows per square mile. She used hooky Ukrainian software to do it, and thought it would add to the realism if she could engineer a near-miss incident with a rogue tractor. Except the miss wasn't nearly near enough, as it turned out.

3) But no again, it was a bunch of bored Mutated kids messing with the HCIU cop for kicks, because she kept interfering in their business. Problem is the joke went one step too far, and now the kids are doing their best imitation of Mizaru, Mikazaru and Mazaru, hoping against hope that nobody will ever trace that dodgy tractor control software back to them.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Art of the Deal (GUMSHOE all)

I've been playing Batman Arkham Underworld, a fun little clash of clans app that has you, as one of Gotham's would-be villains, storm the city with your thugs and hired supervillain. At first I thought I wouldn't like it, but I'm being sucked in. The Dead Rabbits will crush the Bat! Or words to that effect, anyway.

That's not what I'm going to talk about. There's an in-game mechanic whereby you can speed up the build time of a room or item, or just get more in-game currency, by watching video adverts. I'm interested in advertising in an amateur know-thy-enemy way, and I'm just as fascinated by advertising done poorly as I am by well-crafted attempts.

Make no mistake, this is bad, bad stuff.

It's not that the mechanic doesn't work. It does. I often set up a room to refurb in, say, a couple hours, turn on a few of the ads to get it done in a couple minutes, and then get on with my day. From a game perspective, I get what I want, and the game maker gets the ad revenue. So we both benefit, but as soon as I set up the ad view I walk away. I don't absorb the content, and that's because it's really poorly targeted.

The game must already know my age and gender, from the data already available on the device. I would be amazed if it only knew my age and gender. So why is it trying to sell me a match-three garden building game? Or a dating sim? Why, when it targets me with a spokesperson, does the ad use a girl who looks all of sixteen spouting a load of old wank about dragons?

Why advertise Facebook, at all? Surely everyone with a mobile device knows what Facebook is by now? Doesn't it come pre-loaded on Apple tablets and phones, and probably most if not all the Androids?

It's as if the game either doesn't know my age and gender - which is utter balls - or it doesn't care. I suspect the latter, but it means a lot of people are spending a ton of money to no purpose.

At least trying to sell games is understandable. All the games are either pay up front or freemium, which means they're heavy revenue earners. But even then the ad could do a better job selling me the product.

Take the story sims Episodes and Choices, both of which seem very similar in style and content. In each case the app tries to sell to me using romance ads. Why? Both apps also have mystery stories, danger stories, fantasy plots, and any of those would have been a better ad choice than romance.

Or take the Facebook ad. It makes perfect sense to sell me something that isn't a game. After all, there's a ton of products out there I might be interested in. Yet of all the products in all the world, it has to walk in with Facebook? Sure, Facebook's probably one of the few non-game vendors interested in putting ads on the Apple game store. But if this is how Zuckerberg's spending his ad buy, the guy's much, much stupider than I ever thought.

Somewhere west of Laramie there's a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl ... who knew how to sell cars. Advertising's an art, and I often think there are no artists in advertising any more. God knows what happened to Don Draper's grandkids, but they lost the knack of making sales when they went all-in on the internet. I'm constantly being told that advertisers are collecting everything up to and including shoe size and pet's sexual preference in order to better target me. So why do I feel as though I'm not being effectively targeted?

I first became interested in using adverts in-game when Cyberpunk 2020 was still a thing. Now there's a genre that believes in style over substance. Its Chromebooks were essentially lists of in-game stuff your character could buy, and as with any list of stuff in RPGs the whole point is to get better stats and improve your efficiency at in-game tasks. But the Chromebooks made it interesting by pitching each item with its in-game ad buy.

Want to buy clothes that boost your stats or which provide better armor? Sure, but you're not just buying a leather jacket with better SP. You're buying a Ruf Tread(tm) combo bodysuit and jacket. 'If it can stop a round and won't embarrass you to wear it, it's cool,' says a satisfied customer.

You have a need for speed? Try the Ares Combat Bike. It uses the patented Brennan cycles Gendarme chassis, making it one of the most durable cycles on the road. Maybe it comes with its own steer-roping girl ...

Ultimately it's all about world building. Cyberpunk sold itself that way because it wanted to create the kind of world cyberpunk could flourish in. It wouldn't feel the same if the Chromebooks were just a list of stats, and nothing else. Whereas the old D&D equipment guides were often just a long list of glaives, guisarmes, guisarme-glaives, glaive-guisarme-glaives, guisarme-guisarme-glaive-glaive, old MacDonald bought the farm, ee ai, ee ai, critical hit. It didn't try to sell the gamer on the game world because it assumed it didn't have to, in its first incarnation. Its subsequent iterations have become much more savvy.

I've touched on world-building using background noise before. However it's worth going a little further with the concept, because everything you do here helps your players envision the kind of world they're in, and therefore the kind of environment they can help you create.

Let's take Bookhounds of London as a starter, and add in a bit of Dorothy Sayers.

Sayers once worked in advertising, and used this as the background for her mystery Murder Must Advertise. In that story her detective Lord Peter Wimsey disguises himself as his alter ego Death Bredon and works at ad agency Pyms to uncover a dope ring. While there Bredon becomes fascinated by advertising and invents a campaign for Whifflets, a cigarette brand. The idea is this: each time you buy Whifflets you're given stamps. On their own they're worth little, but if you collect enough of them you can exchange them for free goods or services, anything from a tea set to a trip to Portsmouth. WIFFLE YOUR WAY AROUND BRITAIN screams advert banners on a bus.

'The only thing you cannot get by Whiffling is a coffin,' Sayers remarks. 'It is not admitted that any Whiffler could ever require such an article.'

This happens in 1933, if the novel's publication date can be considered the actual timeline. That means Bookhounds will get the full force of the campaign. So what do they smoke? Do they collect  Whifflet coupons? If so, what are they saving up to get? Can they use a Whifflet obsession to ingratiate themselves with an informant? Can they use Whifflet coupons as a Bargaining chip?

Expand that and see what happens: ask yourself what they drink, wear, drive, where they go on holiday, what's in the cinemas right now. Remember that you can make all this up as you go along, and consider that you're trying to enforce a particular aesthetic, be it Arabesque, Technicolor, or Sordid. So taking Sordid as an example:

A long line of cinemagoers eagerly await their chance to see Hitchcock's latest murder chiller, their blue clouds of Whifflet smoke snaking up into the iron sky. They stand not ten feet from the spot where a flusher was found frozen to death, next to a sewer grate, with a diamond in his hand. Billboards shriek every way you turn: Lovely Day for a Guinness, Are You Whiffling Too?, Nutrax for Nerves. Winter bites through your coat and down to your bones, and you light up in a reflex action to ward off the cold. One of the cinemagoers asks if you're going to save your Whifflet coupon ...

No fellow feeling here, no inquisitive stares at the spot where a man died. The only spark of human interest is in the Whifflet coupon: an extra touch of covetousness in a world drowning in greed.

Of course all that's before we even consider the possibilities of subliminal advertising, which would be perfect for a Night's Black Agents game. Imagine a world in which vampires and their crowd-controlling products and messages could only be detected with special sunglasses, or in which a particular targeted ad could drive your brainwashed black program badass nuts.

Subliminals also work very well in an Esoterror context, for much the same reason. Picture a world in which the videos in your YouTube feed propagate Membrane-shattering messages, or a shadowy media corporation uses hidden messages to influence a crucial presidential election. The newly elected president then goes on to enact policies and force through budgets that completely shatter what little protection the Membrane has, and so on.

But that's enough from me today. See you next week!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

McCybercrime (Mutant City Blues, Night's Black Agents)

According to the latest Europol serious crime threat assessment there are over 5,000 new gangs operating in Europe, most of them human traffickers or cybercriminals indulging in ransomware attacks.

The biggest spike is in polycrime groups, or organized crime operations that are involved in more than one criminal activity. However the Europol assessment warns that the greatest challenge threatening law enforcement is the increasing adaptation and deployment of technology.

Document fraud, money laundering and the online trade in illicit goods and services are the three key issues. Document fraud is linked to human trafficking and the increasing migrant problem, while the other two are more traditional criminal activities. While there's no direct correlation with terrorism, terrorist groups often work hand in hand with criminals, either for services or to fund operations.

What makes it all the more serious, the Europol assessment alleges, is that cybercrime is getting to the point where you don't need to be a sophisticated computer user to take advantage of the technology. This is the age of crime-as-a-service; you can buy everything you need online, without having to write a single line of code.

Tony Thompson in his book Gang Land says much the same:
Internet Relay Chat rooms - an untraceable form of instant messaging - are filled with hackers advertising their wares, from keystroke loggers and password cracking programs to stolen credit card numbers and banking details. The more you get into this world, the more amazing it gets. Back in the day, the only way to acquire this kind of detailed knowledge about how to be a successful criminal was to go to prison. Now, for those who know where to look, it's all available online.
Misha Glenny in his work McMafia says:
The era of the malicious virus that chewed up computer screens, destroyed your hard disk or directed you to vile pornographic websites is fast coming to a close. Those attacks were the work of so-called 'ego-hackers.' They were designed to make the computer users' life a misery, as projects that had taken months or years were destroyed for the sake of an adolescent giggle. Now viruses, Trojan horses, worms and other malware go largely unnoticed. The sun has set on the age of the ego-hacker and the dawn is rising on the age of the criminal hacker, or cracker
So how can this be gamified?

Games set in the modern day like Night's Black Agents, or even BubbleGumshoe, can make use of crackers and their made-to-order crime packages. In fact it may be even better suited to BubbleGumshoe than most Pelgrane titles, since that setting is all about the solving of crimes.

That said, there's one setting that's even more suited to crime-busting than BubbleGumshoe: Mutant City Blues, a game in which super-powered mutant cops chase down their criminal counterparts. 
Ever since the Sudden Mutation Event, people have been able to fly. Phase through walls. Read minds. Shoot bolts of energy from their fingertips. Walk into dreams.
As members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit, you and your fellow detectives solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. When a mutant power is used to kill, you catch the case. When it’s a mutant victim in the chalk outline, you get the call. And when it comes time for a fight, you deploy your own extraordinary abilities to even the odds.
 Mutant City Blues assumes, among other things, that the game takes place ten years from the current date. That allows you, as GM, to take advantage of current day technology and world events without worrying too much about pin-point accuracy.Technology will be recognizably similar to today, but updated, and the same goes for geopolitics, social trends, and other markers.

So if you assume that the inciting event, the Ghost Virus, happens right now, then however Donald Trump leaves office by the time the game starts he will have left office. There will still be a Russia, still be a China, a Europe. Brexit will be well under way, with significant effects for the UK and Europe. There will still be an internet, and probably still be some form of tablet, but perhaps there will be a rival to Apple and Samsung, and so on.

Which means that the age of the cracker will already have passed its zenith by the time the game starts.

What does that suggest? Well, probably that what we now call the darknet, accessed mainly by the techno-literate, is more available to the techno-dim. That setups we consider to be the province of sophisticated criminal networks are now available to those for whom Internet for Dummies is a must-read.

That probably includes a lot of mutants.

So with that in mind:

Cracker Firouz Kamkar, aka Marko in his online persona, has a lucrative sideline. He provides what amounts to the complete e-commerce package for would-be cyber criminals. They sign up, and he gives them a custom site with secure bitcoin or credit card checkout. Many of his clients are drug dealers, but a significant minority are criminally inclined mutants selling their specialized services to the highest bidder.

Except for his mutant clients Marko has a special package: ransomware. At any point Marko can seize control of the user's PC, site, bitcoin accounts, and all electronic communication the user may have made with clients. Marko then makes a very simple request: pay extra. A lot extra. Or I take all this and dump it in the laps of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit.

Marko, being a fourteen-year-old living in his parents' flat, doesn't see a problem with this. Why should he worry about a bunch of mutant losers? They deserve everything they get.

The mutant losers don't see it that way, and now a number of them are on the prowl looking for Marko. When several would-be crackers turn up dead in interesting and inventive ways, the HCIU discover a small crime wave right under their noses. Can they get to Marko before his mutant enemies do?

That's it for this week! Enjoy.