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!