Sunday, 17 March 2019

An Unusual Butcher (Trail of Cthulhu)

… it is held that, if necessary, a zombi can be turned into an animal, slaughtered, and the meat sold in the market, whence drives the assertion often met with among Haitian peasants in documenting belief that they have not only seen zombi but have bought their flesh. This, it is thought, can be distinguished by the fact that such meat will spoil much more readily than ordinary meat. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore.

… the word is American-commercial-synthetic, like Nabisco, Delco, Socony. It stands for the Haitian-American Sugar Company - an immense factory plant, dominated by a huge chimney, with clanging machinery, steam whistles, freight cars. It is like a chunk of Hoboken. William Seabrook, The Magic Island.

Historically, to be a cook, to prepare food for others, was always to identify oneself with the degraded and debauched. Antony Bourdain, Typhoid Mary.

In 1928 Charles Souther, from Skowhegan, Maine, was appointed manager of the Hasco plant in Haiti. It was a new adventure for him. The American occupation was in full swing, and Haiti was under the control of the USMC, but there were still echoes of rebellion up in the hills. Souther, never a courageous man, stuck with his own in Port-a-Prince as much as he could. He was afraid of the Haitians, even the sophisticated men and women who had lived in France, and preferred the company of fellow Americans. He did not expect to stay long in Haiti. Ambition drove him, and this post would be a step up the ladder to success. He hoped, if he did well, to secure a better post Stateside.

One of the problems he encountered was how best to staff his house. His wife was not up to the task, and they suffered for months, especially with food. No cook could satisfy them, and burnt, cold, ruined dinners thoroughly spoilt the Souther's digestions for the first few months of their stay. They tried to bring someone over from Maine, but couldn't find anyone willing to make the trip.

Then they found Antoine Baussan, an answer to a prayer. Classically educated in the Escoffier school, he could also turn out respectable American fare, like corn chowder and baked beans. It was love at first bite.

They ignored warnings from their Haitian neighbors. What did it matter to the Southers that Baussan had a bad reputation? When it came to lobster rolls and brown bread, Charles didn't care if it was prepared by the Devil himself. Moreover he was coming to love some of Baussan's Haitian dishes, particularly a curried stew that he called Chevre de Montagne a la Toussel, or Mountain Goat prepared as Baussan had done for a particularly famous wedding feast. Souther couldn't get enough of it, and his wife was growing fat.

When time came for Souther to move on, he found it impossible to part with Baussan. He arranged for the Haitian to come with him back to Maine, and Baussan was happy to oblige. In fact, he said he was looking forward to it.

Unfortunately Mrs. Souther was struck down by a devastating malady soon after their return. Charles was thrown into depression, relieved only by the devoted attentions of Antoine, who cooked up all his wife's favorite dishes to ease her pain. The doctors could do nothing for her; at least Baussan was trying to help.

When his wife passed, Souther was thrown into a frenzy of despair. He stopped seeing his friends, stopped going to his clubs, gave up work almost completely. After several weeks without word or sign of him, his friends and work colleagues finally descended on his house, alarmed at lack of contact.

Souther was not there. Nobody could say where, or when, he went. His devoted cook Baussan had vanished too. However alarm reached new heights when it was discovered that the family vault had been desecrated, and that Mrs. Souther's body was missing. What was more, it seemed as if the vault had been broken open from the inside.

As it had the hallmarks of a kidnapping case, the Federal authorities were called in. Bureau of Investigation agents began to suspect Baussan's involvement; the man's background was, at best, suspect, and it was thought he might be a Socialist agitator, inspired by European radicals. It was suggested that German Haitians had drawn Baussan into their conspiracies during the War, and that Baussan was on some kind of one-man revenge crusade.

Reports from Haiti that suggested Baussan was a devotee of sinister cults were discounted as fantasy.

Tracking Down Baussan

The investigators can be brought in independently by Souther's family and friends, as experts hired by the Bureau, or some other excuse as the Keeper desires.

The question for the investigators is, where did Baussan go next?

  • Historic Maine. Baussan went to the Watch Hill Inn, Rhode Island, beloved of Hollywood stars and well-heeled industrialists. He's become an institution, training several intelligent men and women in his particular style. Moreover he's attained spiritual guru status, and become increasingly attached to Douglas Fairbanks, who relies on Baussan's advice to kick-start his failing film career. There's talk Fairbanks might persuade Baussan to come with him to California.
  • High Seas. Baussan is one of the senior chefs aboard the USS Leviathan, formerly Germany's Vaterland, a luxury liner that cruises between New York and Europe, carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers but never making a cent's profit. It couldn't sell alcohol during Prohibition, and by the time it got permission the Great Depression knocked the guts out of the cruise market. More often than not she sails at half capacity, at best. For whatever reason she has great difficulty keeping crew; people just seem to vanish. Sailors are notorious for jumping ship in foreign ports, but this is becoming a serious problem.
  • East Coast Hotspots. Baussan goes up and down the East Coast, working for wealthy families and hotels, but never staying long in any one place. Bad luck haunts him. There was that nasty incident in Florida where the son of the house went instantly insane, on getting a peek inside the walk-in freezer. Or that time in New York, where all the family died in a matter of hours, except the youngest daughter, who was bedridden with some kind of intestinal parasite for weeks. Where Baussan goes, trouble follows, and only his habit of continually crossing state lines looking for work has kept him out of the reach of the authorities - so far.  

That's it for this week. Enjoy!


Sunday, 10 March 2019

Page XX (Gumshoe All)

I hope you've enjoyed the two Page XX strips I've created over the past months. Getaway and Nothing Is Forever both charge Night's Black Agents' Chase rules with fun ideas and a scenario to use them in, so if you haven't already beat feet to Pelgrane's site, please do!

Those were fun to write, and I've been given the opportunity to create more in the same vein. Cat asked if I could come up with articles for different systems - Esoterrorists, Trail, Bookhounds, that sort of thing. It's probably a good idea to steer clear of Mutant City Blues, since that's probably going to get reworked, and tho I love Swords of the Serpentine to death, since it's not out yet I can't touch it. Same goes for Yellow King, with the added complication that Robin's currently putting out some really cool stuff for it on Page XX anyway, so probably best avoid that one.

I thought it'd be interesting to ask you which you'd like to see. Is there a setting for which you'd like me to write a short scenario? It can't be longer than 1400 words, so don't get your hopes up.

Post answers in the comment field below! It'd be even better if you specified, say, a location, or an era. Esoterrorists in the 60s, say, or Trail in the American Midwest.

Of all Pelgrane's supplements, it should come as no surprise that Bookhounds and Night's Black Agents are my two favorites. I love Dreamhounds of Paris, but have yet to play a session in that setting. Same goes for TimeWatch; it's a brilliant idea that deserves more love, but I have yet to sit at a table with actual, living players, and run a session. Trail's great, but I'm a Call of Cthulhu guy from way back, so to my taste the setting needs a little something. The rules are better than CoC, but it needs maybe a little salt, more pepper, some garlic - something to make it savory.

However I'll entertain pretty much any suggestion you make - and note I said entertain, not promise to do something with it.


Random thoughts:
  •  a Trail scenario in which Bonnie and Clyde's Death Car haunts the back roads of Bienville Parish, Louisiana.  
  • an Esoterrorists scenario set in Toronto, Canada, in which immigrants from Hong Kong claim they're being stalked by a car with a Chinese number plate - one with only the number 4, the death 
  • a Bookhounds scenario in which the characters are asked by a wealthy eccentic, who may be a vampire, to prove the authenticity of his recent purchase.
  • a Dreamhounds scenario in which a nightmare posing as a publican bottles artist's souls.
Or anything, really - pitch me!

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Universal Aunts (Trail, Call of Cthulhu, Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired by Lucy Lethbridge's book Servants, which I'm reading for research purposes. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting period information on the Victorian era, the 1920s and 30s.

Lady-help is a catchall term for an unmarried woman without financial resources, who works as a kind of servant but isn't really from the same social class as a servant. Consequently they balance precariously between the group they feel they belong to, the middle classes, while at the same time not having the same claim to membership of that group as the people they work for. Lethbridge describes this as 'living on a social mezzanine floor, between one world and another.'

Often they do not, or cannot, perform the same tasks as a servant, having not been taught the necessary skills. Nor did they want to be taught. That's the whole point of being a lady; you don't have to do manual or domestic labor. So in practice the lady-help is a paid companion or quasi-governess, someone who can be set administrative tasks, like managing a diary or arranging train tickets and hotel stays, but who has no practical function, like laundry or cooking. Agatha Christie often makes use of the lady-help. Hildegarde Schmidt and Mary Debenham, who appear in her novel Murder on the Orient Express, are examples of the type.

In the Victorian and early Edwardian period, the lady-help's a bit vulnerable, particularly since they lack the money and the opportunity to save that guarantees a modest comfort in retirement. Again, going back to Agatha Christie, this is why legacies gifted in the master or mistress' will are so important. However for those not lucky enough to get a legacy, the best they can hope for is to live on charity - or, more likely, slowly starve on charity.

Things change in the 1920s. There are fewer men, thus fewer opportunities for marriage. Moreover the declining economy means families need cash, however they can get it. Unmarried daughters must work. At the same time, there's an innate horror in letting social standards slip. The middle class must remain the middle class; there can be no question of blurring the line between servant and master. Then there is the war, which among other things taught a whole generation of middle class women new skills, and confidence.

Enter new temporary employment agencies, like Universal Aunts.

'Britain's first personal service bureau' opened in 1921, on Sloane Street. Its founder, Gertie Maclean, wanted to create a venture "which will, I hope, fulfil my search for an opportunity to use my time and intelligence. I would hope too, that other like-minded ladies can become involved." They did, and soon Universal Aunts had a full catalogue of women capable of performing any task. Women with Zoological Society certificates, expert researchers fluent in many languages, women who knew about physics, spiritualism and foreign missions, who were qualified car and boat mechanics, and pilots.

Women who would make excellent investigators in any period horror game, especially Trail and Call of Cthulhu.

These kinds of agencies turn up in fiction now and again. Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey owned and operated an agency like this, with Joan Murchison, former secretary with a background in stock broking, as its founder member. However it wasn't until Servants that I realized this was an actual, historical event, not some backstory invented by a mystery writer. It opens up a range of options for the Keeper, or even the Night's Black Agents director. Consider:

  • The agency can be a source of information. You can justify any skill set you care to name - Archaeology, Accounting, History, Library Use, Bureaucracy, High Society, Surveillance - and the agency can meet that need. So if the investigators pick up an interesting doodad, and don't know what it is or what it does, ask Universal Aunts to look into the problem. Or need someone followed, or something looked into.
  • The agency can be an employer or patron, for female investigators. That former Dilettante who lost all her family money in the great Crash can find a new sense of purpose, and employment, with Universal Aunts. It might work even better with a group of all female investigators.
  • It can be a clue dispenser. Are the investigators getting bogged down in minutiae, or lost in the weeds? Universal Aunts might point them in the right direction, albeit indirectly. Say the investigators are having trouble tracking down Stanley Fentiman, or they want to know why he was kicked out of his old College, or what he's been up to recently. Universal Aunts may know, because one of its members knows Fentiman, or used to work with him, or has connections with the College that chucked him out. Or Universal Aunts may come to the investigators and ask their help with Fentiman, thus giving the investigators a clue as to his whereabouts or plans. 
  • It can be a training facility. If the investigator needs to brush up on her Latin, History, Vampirology, or whatever it may be, there's bound to be an Aunt who knows all about it, and can help.
  • It can be an occult investigative agency. This is similar to the employer or patron option, above, except that it exists to combat occult threats. It hides this mission under some discreet front, but imagine a Universal Aunts founded, not by Gertie Maclean, but by Wilhemina Murray. Or Dion Fortune, or anyone with occult interests. Universal Aunts wouldn't be up there with Delta Green, sending out hit squads to eliminate threats, but there's all kinds of trouble it could get up to. That mysterious Count, for example, with his business interests in Whitby - no doubt the Aunts have crossed swords with him before. 
The best thing about Universal Aunts, of course, is that it still exists. Anything For Anyone At Any Time is one heck of a motto to live up to for over a hundred years, but Universal Aunts has managed it. 'Universal Aunts still endeavors to rise to any challenge.' I bet it does! This means it can be a resource in Call, Trail, and Night's Black Agents; plausible in any era. 

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Celebrity Bodyguards (Night's Black Agents)

So who wants to keep the world safe for pop stars and billionaire's daughters?

The Night's Black Agents main book suggests a number of different agent archetypes, from your basic thug (the Muscle), to your thug with pyromaniac tendencies (Bag and Burner), and other assorted nutjobs. It also gives you carte blanche to create your own variant agent - and it occurs to me that the celebrity bodyguard is a flexible enough archetype to fit in with the amateur Van Helsings that normally populate the vampire spy genre.

Why play as this kind of agent? Well, this is the character archetype that has literally seen and done it all, from high-speed chases in the dead of night, to getting the client's wayward child out of some downtown sleaze pit, to keeping the press at bay during a red carpet event. Tonight Monaco, tomorrow Macau, or anywhere in between. You can justify pretty much any Jason Statham moment you care to name. If that's not a reason to do it this way, I don't know what is.

Much of the information for this piece is taken from this article found on careersinmusic.com.

So what exactly is a celebrity bodyguard? Well, they're personal protection agents tasked with keeping the target both secure, and happy. That last bit's important. Most bodyguards just want to keep the target secure. Happiness is far down the list of priorities. These folks don't just have to worry about physical harm to the target; they have to think about keeping the target safe from embarrassment, from legal issues, from publicity. They have to be able to think about, and act on, several different things at once, very few of which will have anything to do with someone pointing a gun at their target's head.

"Statistically speaking," says a bodyguard speaking anonymously to Cosmopolitan writer Peggy Truong,"The client is much more likely to trip over a wire backstage and suffer a sprained ankle than get descended upon by snipers." So Notice seems a likely core ability.

They need to have good people skills. They'll be interacting with people at all walks of life, from highest to lowest. '“Tip every valet like you’re having a love affair with them,”' suggests Richard Davis, 'So they keep the area free for celebrity security and the client never has to wait for parking. Treat restaurant staff right and tip them right. These people know their workplaces and if anything’s out of the ordinary. “Everybody should be part of your team.”'

In game terms, that suggests High Society and Flattery are core abilities. Intimidation probably is too, but perhaps not as important as you might think, given the nature of the profession.

The paycheck's solid, at $100/hour minimum, and you can pull down as much as $500K/annum, depending on skills and seniority. If ever an agent is going to start with Excessive Funds or special gear, this one will - but that's the Director's call. Someone in this line of work is probably at the top of their game, in terms of skillset, so they were most likely senior law enforcement or had military experience before they took up the role. Any abilities that would apply to one of those archetypes also applies here.

With all that in mind the likely beginning stat block for a celebrity bodyguard is:

Bullshit Detector 1, Flattery 1, High Society 1, Intimidation 1, Notice 2

Possible alternates include Military Science, Languages (all that travel), Negotiation.

Moving on to General abilities, while most ex-military types would probably have high scores in abilities like Shooting or Hand-to-Hand, the celebrity bodyguard really isn't that type. They're much more likely to encounter paparazzi and stalkers than snipers or assassins. With that in mind:

Athletics or Driving 8, Sense Trouble 4, Shooting or Hand-to-Hand 6.

As always, the one sentence:

Christine Pham: Photogenic former cop turned celebrity bodyguard, who made the mistake of opening the package she'd been tasked to deliver.

Finally, a hook:

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems.

An Instagram post to hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide causes problems, when it transpires that the expensive jewelry bought at an exclusive Parisienne couturier is of interest to the Conspiracy. In a Dracula Dossier setting this might be one of the many rings, cameos or other items significant to Dracula or Edom; otherwise, pick your McGuffin as you see fit, Director. Now the immensely wealthy celebrity has to be protected against more than the usual stalker, as Renfields and Conspiracy-connected con men and burglars descend upon the client. Then the client's daughter goes missing, and it's anyone's guess as to whether this is to do with the McGuffin, or the client's jealous ex. Or perhaps the daughter just took an illicit stroll ...  

Enjoy!

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Vampire Rats (Night's Black Agents)

I'm a big fan of Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series and its hero, PC Peter Grant. However, living where I do means I can't always pick the latest up on release. I recently devoured Lies Sleeping, in which Peter and his two nemeses, former colleague Leslie and the Faceless Man, have their Good, the Bad and the Ugly showdown. I'm not going to talk about that, except to say go read the damn thing already what the hell are you waiting for? What I'd like to talk about is a very brief non-spoilery throwaway gag.

Nightingale and Frank Caffrey dealt with a vampire nest in Neasden. Curiously these turned out to be infected rats …

That's such a good idea it deserves to be stolen. There's even a small precedent:

"I heard a commotion one day in the yard,” he said, “and there was a young turkey thrashing about the yard with two rats hanging to its neck. I ran into the yard and drove them away and found that they had sunk their teeth into the back of the turkey’s neck and had been sucking the blood. The turkey was strong, but the wounds poisoned it, and swelled its head and I had to kill it. The worst of it is, these rats won’t be poisoned, for they refuse to eat raw meat or cheese that has been fixed for them."

Also, a very fun movie, Mulberry Street. I had a DVD copy but it rotted. I shall have to get another one somehow.

In Night's Black Agents rats get group stats, which increase in stacks of 10. For every 10 rats added to the horde, its Health, Athletics and Damage all go up. Otherwise its ability pools and damage are fairly unremarkable. It works best in large numbers, which is why Steven King wanted to use them in Salem's Lot, but was persuaded against it because it was felt the scene was too gruesome. "I had them swarming all over him like a writhing, furry carpet," says King, "Biting and chewing, and when he tries to scream a warning to his companions upstairs, one of them scurries into his open mouth and squirms as it gnaws out his tongue." King was drawing on a similar moment in Stoker's Dracula, where a horde of flesh-chewing rats are neatly disposed of by Godalming's dogs.

To make this work in-game, the Director needs to answer an important question. Did this happen by accident or design?

If accident, then there must be something that caused this. Perhaps the strange pathogen that created vampires first came from rats, and some of the breed still carry the strain. Or the chemicals got out of the vat, the rats ate a vampire in its coffin and gained some of its powers, what have you. The key thing here is that to understand, and beat, the pack, the agents will need to discover what the accident was, which itself is at least one or two scenes' worth of investigative work. If they don't do this, then the likelihood is they won't exterminate the threat. No matter how much damage they do, one or two of the infected will escape, to carry the infection to another pack.

Once the agents understand the accident, they can devise some kind of cure, perhaps by introducing an antigen of some kind to the wider population. Then the rats solve the problem themselves, by passing the McGuffin on to the rest of the pack. Or perhaps they just spray holy water on anything that moves and most things that don't.

If it was by design, then there has to have been a purpose. Perhaps the vampires intended to use the rats as emergency blood packs, spies, assassins, saboteurs. A magical strain of vampires might give these rat packs to favored human servants as animal familiars; after all, the whole point behind the fabled witch's mark is that the familiar sucked blood from its master at that point. Whatever that purpose may be, the agents need to understand it so they can beat the rats, or work up some kind of defense. If you know that rat saboteurs might come after the cables and wiring in your safehouse, put down lots of rat poison laced with vampire banes. If you know that these rats are magical familiars, then you also know that blooding the witch will cause them to run away in terror.

Next question: how powerful are these meant to be? Answer being, not very. These are minor antagonists at best, not boss monsters. I'd recommend treating them like inferior Renfields, so where Renfields get 12 points to add to abilities, vampire rats get only 4, no  bonus to alertness, +1 melee damage, no free powers, one other power, aberrance starts at 3 and goes up by 1 for every 10 extra rats in the pack. Feats of Strength probably aren't an option, but otherwise pick the one you like the look of. Vulnerable to the same banes and blocks as the vampire that created them, and if that means they explode in daylight, well, now you have kamikaze exploding vampire rats to worry about.

Lucky you!

Sunday, 10 February 2019

High Seas Booty - SuperYachts (Night's Black Agents)

By now you've probably seen the silly season news piece about Picassos getting dinged by champagne corks. In case you haven't, here's the article.

Briefly, people with more money than sense own very large luxury craft. Those ships are bespoke and fitted with pretty much anything you can imagine and more besides. Among the pretty shinies put on board to make everything seem less of a waste of money, time and art, is art. Except the kind of people who buy these things are not the kind best suited to take care of them, and end result is a lot of collateral damage caused by hyperactive kids, flying champagne corks and the like.

God alone knows what living in a salt-impregnated waterborne environment will do to the poor artwork, but that's just by-the-bye.

I've discussed super yachts before, but to repeat:

Though luxury yachts have been around since the 19th Century, the number of super yachts has spiked since the 1990s and the rise of the mega rich. There’s no set rule for what is or is not a super yacht, but generally they have to be more than 45 meters long. That's for your ordinary rich person. The 100-meter gigayachts tend to be the exclusive preserve of Russian oligarchs and Gulf royalty.


They always have a permanent crew and luxurious accommodation capable of handling many guests. They can accommodate as many as they like while in port, but at sea  they're limited to 12 passengers unless they have specific permits saying otherwise. They have at least four decks above the waterline and two below. They are built to commission, which means no two superyachts are alike.  This one might have a gym, pool and sauna, and that one might have a working medical lab, a movie theatre, or massage parlor. It all depends on what the owner wants.
The industry is very gendered. As a general rule the deck crew will be exclusively male, and below decks crew exclusively female. This also means there is a strict age limit for female crew - "late 30s, and you're off," says one yacht captain
The biggest risk – and least recognized, at least by their owners – is cybercrime. The yacht’s Wi-Fi network is typically designed to be very strong; the owners like to be permanently connected. This means a super yacht’s network extends over a very large area, which lets people in the ship moored next door, or on shore, infiltrate it. Since most of the ship’s systems are interconnected a good hack team can get everything from the security camera feed to control over the navigation systems. Those with Data Analysis or using Digital Intrusion as an investigative ability know this as a 0-point clue. It bears repeating - the weakest link is always the internet of things. If you can crack any one device on that yacht, odds are it's connected to every other thing. It doesn't matter whether it's a projector, a fish tank, or the toilet. Once you're in, you're in.

For a Night's Black Agents Director, no setting is more appropriate than a super yacht, not even a high-end casino - unless it's Casino de Monte-Carlo. Introduce high-end art into the mix and you have the perfect ingredients for a caper. The art in question can be anything; what's art to one man is trash to another. This fellow might collect Picassos, but his neighbor the director of Hong Kong horror film gorefests keeps peculiar medical texts, and the Saudi princeling has a thing for 19th century anthropodermic bibliopegy - books bound in human skin. That's before you consider what an actual vampire might decide to collect.

With that in mind:

Breaching the Mingyun.

The Chinese e-commerce billionaire Jack Wei recently purchased, at private auction, a McGuffin. The precise nature of the McGuffin is up to the Director. A Dracula Dossier McGuffin, for example, might be Le Dragon Noir or the Portrait of Dracula. In a game with Perfectus Petri, it might be an alien stone. Whatever it is, it's of incredible significance and potency - and it's just sitting out there on his yacht, the Mingyun. Most of the time the yacht's on the move, but for a few days in July it will definitely be in Hong Kong, as Jack's current paramour, Jian Yan, a prominent actress, will be attending HKIFF, the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

The agents' task is to locate, infiltrate, and retrieve the McGuffin before the Mingyun leaves port.

Variant 1: It's all a bluff. 'Jack Wei' is actually a vampire hunter, bent on revenge. He's borrowed the real Jack Wei's identity and put about the McGuffin story to lure a bloodsucker to him, and capture it for interrogation. However the vampires are a little more cunning than the hunter gives them credit for. The Conspiracy hired the agents through a cut-out, intending to send them in first as sacrificial lambs. The agents' real purpose is to trip all the booby traps, exhaust the opposition, and then the vampires will move in and exterminate whatever survives. Possible OPFOR: Soldiers (mercs hired by Jack Wei), bodyguards (ditto), Jack Wei (vampire hunter, treat as improved soldier or special forces, Chow Yun Fat type), boat crew (civilians), young paralegal working for the real Jack Wei's lawyers sent to serve a cease and desist, and boy did she pick the wrong night to do it (civilian), vampires (eek!).

Variant 2: Jack Wei is a vampire enthusiast, who collects all things to do with vampire legends and lore. The vast majority of his collection is worthless tchotchke but for once he's got something genuine, and he wants to know just exactly what it is. His yacht's laboratory is equipped with the finest scientific gear money can buy, and he's in Hong Kong on a secret mission to bring aboard an expert in Vampirology to test the item. Unluckily for him his expert has been Renfielded, and the expert's job is to retrieve the artefact without undue fuss. The expert's been given a reasonably accurate forged copy to switch with the real thing, and has a small but well-funded hit team on shore to help him escape, if things go south. Neither the Renfield nor Jack Wei are expecting the agents to show up … Possible OPFOR:  Soldiers (very well equipped mercs hired by the Renfield, including expert drivers/snipers equipped with speedy cars, or jetskis, to make the getaway), bodyguards (Jack Wei's people), Jack Wei (civilian with occult interests), boat crew (civilians), Renfield Expert.

Variant 3: Jack Wei is enthralled by a Vampire, possibly a Jin Gui, who lives on the yacht full-time. The McGuffin is the creature's present, which Jack Wei hopes is sufficiently enthralling that the Vampire forgets all about Jack Wei's new born child, Jian Yan's daughter. The Vampire recently expressed a desire for something new on the menu, and the child is it. Jian Yan vehemently disagrees, and has been keeping her daughter's birth a secret; all through the pregnancy the Vampire insisted on keeping the actress aboard, feeding Jian Yan special diets, tailored aromatherapy and the like, all to make the little dumpling that much sweeter. Jian Yan's desperately pretending she hasn't given birth yet, though only last night the dumpling arrived - and is currently hidden on Jack Wei's yacht, because Jian Yan couldn't think of a way to smuggle her daughter ashore. It was Jian Yan who hired the agents through a cut-out; she's hoping they'll solve her problem, with extreme violence. Possible OPFOR: Bodyguards (notionally Jack Wei's people, actually Renfields under the Vampire's control), Jack Wei (terrified civilian under the bootheel), Jian Yan (civilian trying to get out alive with her daughter), boat crew (civilians). Plus Vampire (eek!).

Enjoy!  

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Banes: Running Water (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

"Come,' he said, 'Come, we must see and act. Devils or no devils, and all the devils at once, it matters not; we fight him all the same." Van Helsing, Dracula.

Vampires are bound by certain fundamental truths, and one of them is that they can't cross running water. Why not? What's so special about a babbling brook that you can't find in, say, a puddle?

In folklore, running water is a potent bane against all sorts of things. It stops witches, ghosts and devils dead in their tracks. It also has curative powers, and can heal someone stricken by elf-shot, but the wary spit on the earth before crossing bridges at night, to avoid the attention of evil things. In Scotland, crossing the right kind of river with silver coin created a cure for children struck by witches' curses. Stones taken from running brooks and rubbed against affected limbs cure aches and pains. If your cow gives bad milk, have it drink from a south-running stream; that will make its milk sweet again. Gold and silver water - that is, water taken from a running brook and bottled with gold and silver coins - is a cure for a wide variety of ailments.

So running water isn't just a block. It has magical powers beyond vampires, when used correctly. The stones used to cure aches have to be gathered in a certain way, at a certain time. The gold and silver coins and the water they are sprinkled or bottled with have to be treated just so. Holy water has similar powers, which is why in the past people would, say, keep the water left in the baptismal font for later use as a cure-all, and also why the church would put the font under lock and key - to prevent people using the water for magic.

Part of this can be traced back to legends surrounding fords, ferrymen, and river crossings. When there is no public infrastructure to speak of, and the only way across a river is by a ford, river crossings take on huge importance. Many famous battles end up being fought next to fords for precisely this reason; if the only way to your objective is across a river, then you want to capture that ford. For much the same reason, you often find inns and coach houses near fords and bridges. Also, murderers, like infamous Illinois innkeeper Isaiah Luna Potts who, in folklore, slaughtered many a traveler at Pott's Inn.

For that matter there are plenty of ghostly legends about ferry crossings. Charon, Wade, Vati, Anti - there's no shortage of psychopomp ferrymen willing to carry heroes, the dead, even Gods to their final reward. Water drawn from a ford 'where the dead and living cross' was thought to have miraculous curative powers, and could break any infernal curse.

All of which goes to show that, when Van Helsing says Dracula has difficulty crossing rivers, it's not because Dracula has a water allergy. It's because rivers are extremely important and powerful in their own right, and no thing of evil can easily get past one. Moreover a cunning man can use the river's power to his own advantage, accessing its magic to cure and protect.

In Night's Black Agents terminology, the running water bit works best with Satanic or Supernatural vampires. It's more difficult to make work with Mutant and Alien types, if the assumption is that the undead are a recent phenomenon. Even if they've been here since ancient times, it's risky making running water a bane. It looks a little too much like the Wicked Witch of the West, or the Triffids.


There are ways of getting round the problem. Seawater, for example, is known to have a bad effect on plants, so you could argue that a vampire type that derives from some form of plant life or fungus might hesitate if seawater became an issue. However it's going to get silly if an agent threatens a vampire with a bucket of water. Even a hose looks daft, as the Triffids discovered back in the 1960s. As the folklore shows, this trope works best if the water itself holds power, not if the vampire is weak against water attacks.

Say running water marks the boundary between the living and the dead, and so is constantly infested with ghosts, which is why vampires don't like going near water. In gaming terms, it costs them Aberrance to go anywhere near running water and fend off the ghosts, so the weaker ones don't do it at all, and the stronger ones only try with reluctance. Again, that's a supernatural trope, not a biological or quasi-scientific one - the tropes that best suit Mutant or Alien vampires.

So when using running water as a block, bear this in mind: the running water probably gets its power from the same magic - or whatever it may be - that works on Vampires. Say your version is the Telluric kind found in the Dracula Dossier, or the Ancient Stones in the main book. Telluric Vampires get that way thanks to bacteria which fed on telluric energies and were expelled from the earth, probably by volcanic activity. The Ancient Stones are alien variants who spread the contagion by completely replacing a human's blood with alien matter.

In both cases the Vampires are created by some kind of microscopic or microbial contamination. Water can be a transmitting vector, carrying the essence of the vampire, presumably because there's some kind of contaminating source. We already know that volcanoes have a significant effect on river flow, and it's not impossible that a bit of alien stone found its way into a river. Perhaps after a battle some conquering tribe flung the alien stone, which they perceived to be a foreign God, into the river to drown it. Or it was hidden there to protect it.

Either way, the mixture of water plus contaminating element could really mess with Vampires. The Telluric bacteria might have an adverse effect on a Vampire's metabolism when combined with rushing water. Or it might confuse the Vampire's senses and reduce its ability to make Aberrance spends. The microbes and bits of stone from an Alien Stone vampire might have a similar effect on a Perfectus Petri, or alternatively it might be such a draw to the vampire that it has to study the phenomenon, even at the expense of self preservation - meaning it stands there till dawn, and then explodes.

Equally, drinking from that stream or mixing it with other materials - gold and silver, say - will have some effect on living creatures. Exactly what that effect may be is up to the Director.

Or it may be an indication of trouble to come.

Say most rivers don't have this effect on Alien Stone vampires, which is likely if the river draws its power from a chunk of Alien Stone. Well, if this one does, then it follows that there must be some Alien Stone around here somewhere. Where, exactly, and what effect has it had on the surrounding wildlife?

Alternatively, with Telluric vampires, if rivers suddenly have this block effect on vampires, and if this is related to recent volcanic eruptions that spewed bacteria into the atmosphere, then what else has happened? Does this mean a new vampire threat waxes in some forgotten, blighted land? If the river effect fades, presumably because the bacterial matter has been washed into the sea, then does this mean the vampires are on the run - or does it just mean that running water no longer blocks them as once it did?

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 27 January 2019

See This Now: Kingdom


Sweet Jumping Zombie Jebus.

Here's my dilemma: I really can't tell you a damn thing about this series beyond the bare bones, because there are so many good moments in this six part Korean historical zombie apocalypse drama that, if I were to spoil even one, you'd hate me forever.

When the trailers for this first hit, a lot of the comments section thought it was Last Train to Busan but with swords and funny hats. It really isn't. Really. REALLY. But I can't spoil, can't spoil, mustn't spoil …

Hokay. Take a breath.

The King is dead.

That leaves the Kingdom caught between two factions. The Crown Prince, played by Ju Ji-hoon, is the presumptive heir, but he's also the son of a concubine, so if any legitimate progeny happens to swagger onto the scene, his standing is shaky. The current Queen, Kim Hye-Jun, is pregnant, with a month to go. If her child's a boy, as hoped, then she and her family are set for life. But if the King's death becomes common knowledge then the Crown Prince gets the throne, and then it won't matter if she has quintuplets.

If only there was some way to bring the King back to a semblance of life, even just for a month or so. Luckily for the Queen and her scheming father, the Chief Councilor, masterfully played by Ryoo Seung-Ryong, there's a renowned physician who's supposed to be able to fix anything. The doctor knows of a plant that resurrects the dead, and tries it out on the King's rapidly decomposing corpse.

Which poses a significant problem for all concerned, when the King comes back to life with a ravening desire for human flesh. Fortunately he falls unconscious during the day, but at night his  ceaseless quest for meat really puts a strain on the kayfabe. Bodies start piling up, most of which are disposed of quietly. People start to suspect. The Crown Prince begins an investigation, fearing the worst.

Then everything starts to go wrong.

The series is written by Kim Eun-hee, who's been working on Korean television dramas since 2010. This is the first time her work's featured outside Korea, as far as I can tell. The series is based on her webcomic Land of the Gods, published with YLAB back in 2014. I don't doubt someone is negotiating for the foreign language rights as I type this, and I'd be amazed if it wasn't in graphic novel form in a dozen different languages by Christmas 2019. Mind you, I'm so out of touch with that sort of thing, for all I know it already is.

Set in the Joseon period, when the country is on the brink of destruction due to internal strife, this series really shines with its thorough and detailed depiction of an advanced society about to boil over. Kings, princes, nobles - their squabbles are weakening the Kingdom to the point of destruction. At over $1.7 million per episode, you'd like to think it was as near perfect as human hands can make it - and it is. My only mild quibble is with the subtitles. People say gosh and goodness a lot. I do not think that is what they are actually saying.

My personal fave character is the Prince's sidekick,  played by Kim Sang-Ho, a cross between Porthos and Aramis - mostly Porthos. There's nobody you'd rather have at your back in a time of crisis, and this definitely qualifies. He plays off well against the Prince, a mix of d'Artagnan and Athos, mostly d'Artagnan. However there's plenty to choose from, and it's a fantastic ensemble cast with no weak players - though given the subject, I wouldn't get attached to any of them if I were you.

Yes, there are only six episodes in the first series. Take heart. There will be more. Especially if you tell Netflix how much you love the first season!

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Ghost Train (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)


If you live in the UK and find yourself aboard an empty train, travelling from nowhere to nowhere at all, there's a good chance you're aboard one of its infamous ghost trains.

They run from station to station, almost unacknowledged by National Rail. Often there are no ticket machines, or ticket sellers that recognize the line. "You must be mistaken," say the people behind the service desk. "There's no such route." Except there is.

These trains exist because, in modern Britain, it's much more sensible to keep a train line active than to close it altogether, even if in order to do so you run only one train, every so often, without passengers. Nobody knows how many of these trains there are, not even the people paid to run the railways. "The department doesn’t hold a definitive list of these low-frequency routes," says Andrew Scott, one of the Department of Transport’s press officers. "We don’t use the terminology of ghost train – there’s no formally agreed definition of what would constitute one."

Sometimes called Parliamentary Trains, these passenger trains exist because it's far too expensive and cumbersome to shut the line down. First there'd have to be a transport appraisal, then a notice in the press, then a consultation period in which any member of the public can object, public meetings, more submissions … Much simpler, really, just to run a train down the line every so often and call it quits. Particularly if there's even a remote chance you might want to use the line again.

It used to be much easier to cut networks, and in the 1960s an axe went through National Rail, under the direction of Richard Beeching. However as objections grew to this drastic slimming of the lines, more and more roadblocks were put on the process, and by the 1970s it became prohibitively difficult to close a rail line. Which leads to the situation we have now, where trains run to no useful purpose. It's sometimes called closure by stealth, where the railway runs a line into the ground and then uses its lack of use as a reason for closing it permanently.

The term Parliamentary Train is Victorian, and originally referred to cheap trains that ran on less popular routes. The idea was, train travel benefited everyone, but not everyone could afford it, and some routes were useful but uneconomical to run. By Act of Parliament it was decreed that cheap trains between less popular destinations be built, allowing everyone no matter their bank balance to ride the rails. These were among the first to go when Beeching swung his axe, since these lines were uneconomical to run from the moment they were built - which was the whole reason for building them in the first place.

If you want to know more, head over here. The folks at Parliamentary Ghost Stations have tracked down these remnants of former glory so you don't have to.

Now we've talked about the real thing, let's talk scenarios.

What we've got: trains that run from station to station without any people on board, bar a few enthusiasts. They run at peculiar times of day and usually aren't announced, or even recognized, at the stations they service. So far as I can determine they don't run at night, though it would be fun if they did. There are some that run fairly late in the day - at 4pm, say - but not after dark. They appear all over the country, some even servicing London stations, where you'd think there'd be demand for almost any increase in public transportation.

Now for the Dracula Dossier:

Satan's Journey

Human Terrain/High Society: There's an unexpectedly high volume of chatter in the Department for Transport about the summary sacking of several Network Rail personnel. Normally this would get the unions in an uproar, but for once they're being quiet as mice. There's talk of improper use of government funds, but that's just a smokescreen. There was supposed to be a DfT inquiry, but the person meant to lead it got kicked upstairs and the inquiry's on what looks like permanent hold. The MP of the constituency affected was interested, but she died suddenly and her district's embroiled in a messy by-election. Whatever went wrong, the talk is all about something called a Black Train -whatever that may be.

Bureaucracy: The sacking of three Network Rail personnel has caused headaches for the stations affected. It was the manager of one of those stations that raised the initial complaint - something about homeless living on board one of the trains. However since the original complaint escalated rather messily, the station manager's fighting for his job, and by all accounts he's losing.

Occult: There's long been talk of some kind of Black Train, delivering victims to their final destination, and it's rumored that the whole thing is part of a Conspiracy scheme to keep vampires well supplied with victims. Nobody knows how it's supposed to work, or who's involved, but Dracula's Satanic Cult is meant to be behind it.

The Awful Truth
Back in the 1960s the defunct connection that became the Black Train was a rural line running from a major station out into the countryside, built originally in the 1870s at the request - whim, really - of a landed aristocrat who wanted a train line running close to his estate. That aristocrat's family later fell in with the Satanic Cult, and was enthusiastically involved in human sacrifice and hideous ritual magic. The train became their means of delivering necessary supplies, cult members and ritual sacrifices to the estate. However this all came to an end shortly after Dracula's departure from England, when the embryonic Edom rolled-up some of Dracula's weaker allies. Edom was helped by a suspicious fire that gutted the aristocrat's estate, killing the immediate family and leaving the remaining assets in the hands of distant cousins. What happens next depends on whether the line was left alone, run by Edom, or is still part of the Conspiracy.

Left alone: the scandalized cousins did their best to avoid public humiliation, and largely succeeded. Apart from some very unpleasant stories finding their way into local folklore and history books, the whole thing was hushed up. Most of the land was sold, except for the portion with the burnt-out ruins of the manor house. Nobody's ever tried to do anything with it, but it has become a magnet for some very peculiar people. The Madman (p121, DD) is one such, who keeps riding the rails regularly and howling at the manor when the train passes by. That was what got the station manager involved, but what he, and the DfT, didn't know is that there's a cobwebbed Edom directive which specifies anyone showing interest in that train line be forcibly discouraged. Edom being a traditionalist institution, nobody thought to ask why several people's lives had to be ruined to keep a train line out of the news.

Edom Involvement: As above, except the land was bought from the cousins by Edom. At the time it was just to keep it out of the hands of the remnants of the Cult, but thanks to its ritual associations the ride past the manor does very peculiar things to Renfields, and the effect seems to vary from subject to subject. So rather than shut it down, Edom decided to use it as a mobile enhanced interrogation suite. The 1960s Beeching Axe was a tremendous benefit for Edom, who got exclusive access to a now empty train. It got a lot of use in the 1970s, less in the 1980s, and by the 1990s the Black Line was pretty much obsolete. However it recently saw use again, and the rather messy result got the attention of the station manager. Now Edom's fighting a rearguard action to keep their dirty laundry out of the public eye.

Conspiracy Involvement: As above, except the land was bought by Conspiracy cutouts. Nothing was done with it until the 1970s, when the manor house and grounds were opened up to ritual use again. It saw off-again, on-again use through the 1980s, and in the 1990s a senior figure within the Satanic Cult adopted it as her favored ritual site. However a recent scandal involving [insert useful character here, perhaps the Madman or the Silent Servants] got more attention than the Satanic Cult likes, and now it's trying to cover its tracks.

Enjoy!

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Night Eats The World - Protagonist Design


The Night Eats the World, a 2018 indie horror release starring Anders Danielsen Lie as zombie holocaust survivor Ben, and directed, in a first-time feature length effort, by Dominique Rocher, is an entertaining way to spend an hour thirty minutes, with a very misleading trailer. You'd think this was action, action, action, chock-full of tense thrills, and it really isn't. If anything, it's zombie-lite; you rarely see the walking dead, which combined with an intelligent monster design makes the ravening ghouls much more threatening this time out. It's more a bleak, character-driven drama about loneliness and dealing with trauma, which works on its own terms and draws you into its claustrophobic Paris apartment building.

It didn't work for me, though, and it's because I really have no sympathy with the protagonist.

Ben is a misanthropic music lover who wants to get his cassette tapes back from his ex-girlfriend. The ex has moved out of wherever she and Ben lived, and inadvertently packed Ben's stuff among her belongings. When he goes to her new apartment, he finds her place packed with partygoers and an inconvenient current boyfriend, a reminder of Ben's sexual failures. Ben wants his tapes, but party comes first, and she's more interested in being hostess than solving Ben's problems. So Ben gets mopey, and drunk, and more drunk, until finally she pushed him off into an office where all the boxes are. He finds the tapes, but is incapable of moving at this point so he passes out and misses all the zombie action.

This is the first ten minutes or so of the film. He spends the next hour twenty surviving on his lonesome and realizing how much he misses having people to talk to.

As a slow-burn tragedy it works, but because I thought Ben an unlikeable, miserable prick at the start, and didn't have much reason to change my mind for most of the narrative, I wasn't too invested in his adventures. I know people like Ben. You know full well that if you were silly enough to sit next to Ben at this party one of two things would happen: he'd get drunk and say nothing at all, or he'd get drunk and say something unpleasant about his former girlfriend, or the party, or life in general. Either way, about as attractive as a slug excreting into your beer.

Which meant I spent more time picking apart the film than I did enjoying it. I mean, how many times can you pull the 'it was all a dream' trick, anyway? Damn, that must be the best fire alarm in the history of fire alarms, to go off now when there's no AC mains supply. Those batteries really held out. Does Paris not have some municipal code that mandates the blocking of fireplace flues? Why, in God's name, are you using YOUR ONLY SHOTGUN to prop open a door while you make a stealth run through a zombie-infested street?

See, if I actually liked Ben, or found something to admire in him, I wouldn't even think about these little things. Well, I might grouse about the number of times 'it's all a dream' gets used as an excuse for plot bullshit.  I see the film's based on a novel by 'Pit Argamen' aka Martin Page, and I'm really hoping the novel has more depth. It feels as though it might be a story with plenty of internal monologue, which is always tricky to do on the big screen.

If you're going to spend any amount of time with a fictional character, it's important - vital, even - to find something likeable about them. Dirty Harry has plenty of flaws, and you probably wouldn't want to live in the same apartment building as him, but he does have bravery, and compassion for the victims of violent crime. That was enough for five films, even though the character was paper-thin and two-dimensional at the end of it - and didn't have that many dimensions at the beginning either.

All of which got me thinking protagonists, and RPG characters.

I don't listen to every RPG podcast nor do I watch every Twitch stream - there aren't enough hours in the day. However I've listened to and seen enough of them to ask myself how I'd design an entertaining character. If Ben's failing is that he's not attractive in any way, then what makes a character attractive and therefore worth spending an hour thirty with - or a dozen or so RPG sessions?

The Deadly Sins get a lot of love, but the Virtues aren't nearly as appreciated. Chastity, Temperance. Charity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility - these are the things that make a character interesting, and each Virtue has modifiers that further elaborate the core tenets of the virtue. Some RPG systems lean heavily on this. Vampire presses the Humanity button repeatedly to make up for the evil nature of its protagonists, and Humanity is part of Temperance. However it's true across the board, whether explicitly part of the system or not. Persistence, making an effort - all part of Diligence. Forgiveness, Compassion, Bravery - Patience, Kindness, Humility.

To give you the longer version:

Chastity (purity, abstinence)
Temperance (humanity, equanimity)
Charity (will, benevolence, generosity)
Diligence (persistence, effortfulness, ethics)
Patience (forgiveness, mercy)
Kindness (satisfaction, compassion)
Humility (bravery, modesty, reverence/deference)

If there is to be anything likeable in a character, they ought to demonstrate at least one of these qualities. Nobody has to be a saint-in-training, but then you don't have to be a saint to be brave, or show forgiveness, or abstain from getting rat-arsed and falling into a self-pitying, boozy stupor when the zombie apocalypse shows up.

Gumshoe uses the Drives mechanic to give characters motivation, and these Drives can be tied to Virtues to make characters more interesting. A Drive without some kind of foundation is meaningless, but a Drive with a foundation in Virtue has meaning.

Using Nights Black Agents as a template: Altruism and Atonement are fairly obvious. Altruism springs from Temperance, perhaps Charity. Someone becomes altruistic because they have great humanity, benevolence, generosity. Atonement can have the same source, but comes at that source from a different perspective - one dark event that leads the character to seek atonement through humanity, or generosity. Comradeship from Humility, bravery, even reverence, in this case submission to the legitimate order of a superior. Mystery from Diligence, with its focus on persistence and effort. Nowhere Else To Go from Kindness, with compassion. Patriotism is Humility wrapped up in the flag. So on and so on, with odd ones like I Never Left, Programming and Collector linked to hidden Virtues, part of the cover story.

This doesn't have to be a ton of work. Remember the one sentence rule. Going back to an old post about hacking, I designed a character:

Kayo

One sentence: Former Nollywood actor and con artist shooting for the big leagues.

To make things interesting, add:

Virtue: Diligence (persistence). Kayo loves a challenge, and makes sure every hack he undertakes is carried out to the very best of his ability.

Adding that Virtue not only makes the character more interesting, it also adds extra roleplay hooks. By playing this Virtue, the Director gets extra ways to dig into Kayo's story, creating new plot paths designed with this Virtue in mind.

Enjoy!

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Go See This Now: Train to Busan & Seoul Station





Let's kick the new year off with some quality zombie horror. 

Many of you will know about Train to Busan, the runaway horror film by South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho, released after a rapturous reception at Cannes 2016. You may not know about Seoul Station, the animated feature-length prequel released a month later. Both are very worthy of your time, particularly if you enjoy zombie apocalypses, and nail-biting action.

Train to Busan opens on a quiet, eerie note. A farmer's truck pulls up at an official stop. He's angry as hell, and wants to know why, for the umpteenth time, he's being stopped. Is it foot and mouth? No, the officials reassure him, it's just a minor industrial accident. One quick spray of disinfectant and he'll be on his way. Unappeased, the farmer drives off, but being distracted by his phone he fails to spot a deer on the road, and runs it over. Even more annoyed now, he leaves the animal to welter in its blood - and so does not see it get up on its feet again.

It's one of the most original openings for this kind of story I've ever seen, and really set the pace for the first act, and the film as a whole. Normal, normal, normal … what the hell?!? Followed by screaming.

The action shifts to working dad Seok-woo, played by Gong Yoo. He's a fund manager, an absentee father, and a fairly important cog in a larger machine with a phone full of useful contacts, and clients who rely on him to get the job done. He's snowed under with work, so when his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) insists she be allowed to visit her mother in Busan, Seok-woo is resistant. He's in the middle of divorcing Su-an's mother, and the settlement's not going smoothly. However he's completely mucked up Su-an's birthday so far, having failed to go to her recital and bought her a Wii without remembering he'd already bought her one for Children's Day, so under pressure of parental guilt agrees to take her to Busan, by train.

This is day one of the zombie plague, and everything's about to go to hell.

If I had to choose one word to sum up Train to Busan, it's Trust. Seok-woo is completely untrustworthy, though he'd probably argue he's a stand-up guy. He works hard to provide for his daughter and elderly mother. Always finish what you start, is his motto. Yet this is the same man who calls his less wealthy and influential clients Lemmings, and keeps a special list in his phone's address book for Lemmings who might be useful. He calls one of those Lemmings later in the film, asking for a favour, offering hot stock tips if the Lemming will help him out of a jam. Just look out for yourself, don't try to help people, he tells his daughter. 

This is why mommy left you, she tearfully replies.

I won't go any further than that, because talking plot from this point forward would constitute massive spoilers. I will say that it averages over 1.2 kills a minute with a 118 minute runtime, yet shows surprisingly little gore. The action scenes are believable, the characters are smart and motivated - very, very motivated - and you won't want your favorites to die.  

Seoul Station starts in a very similar, low-key way. A homeless man staggers through the heart of Seoul, obviously injured. Though people see him, they don't bother to help - he's homeless, not worth their time. The man collapses in the train station as it's closing for the night, and only one of his fellow homeless tries to do anything to help him.

Of course, by the time he finally gets his injured buddy a bed for the night and some medical attention, it's already far too late …

The action switches to Hye-sun (Shim Eun-kyung), a young runaway who recently escaped a life of prostitution and his now living with her deadbeat boyfriend, Ki-woong (Lee Joon). Since Ki-woong's far too lazy to get a real job, he wants her to go back to prostitution so they can afford to lie around all day drinking, and he can go to the computer lounge whenever he likes. They have a screaming argument about this, and he kicks her out, but not before placing an advert online.

Her father Suk-gyu (Ryo Seung-ryong) sees this advert, flips out, and makes contact with Ki-woong. The young idiot thinks he can swindle the old man, not realizing that he's her father, not a customer. They meet. Threatening to beat the shit out of Ki-woong, Suk-gyu demands to see his daughter. Ki-woong explains that he doesn't know where she is, but thinks she might have gone back to the apartment.

By this time the zombie apocalypse is well underway. Will Suk-gyu find his daughter, before the whole world goes to hell?

If Busan was Trust, the one word for this film is Faith. Both religious faith, and faith in society as a whole. It is severely misplaced. There's nothing here for anyone, society is shit, and if you think there's a way out, you're wrong. But maybe, if you run far enough, fast enough …

The film nails this point very early on. In that opening sequence, two earnest young men discuss universal healthcare. It's a must, says one - society needs it. We need it. His friend agrees, but when the homeless man staggers past, clearly needing medical help, the two turn away as soon as they realize he's homeless. He stinks. Someone like him doesn't deserve help. 

As with Busan, this film is surprisingly gore-free, given the subject, and very brutal. Not, perhaps, as brutal as Busan, but you just can't kill as many people in 72 minutes as you can in 118.

One point worth mentioning: although this is a prequel, it's not really attached to the original in any meaningful way. It's very much its own film. I did wonder if Seoul Station would spend any time talking about the mysterious industrial accident that starts this all off, but that's not mentioned nor is it really what this film is about. Seoul Station focuses with laser-like intensity on Hye-sun, Suk-gyu and Ki-woong, and whether or not the two men will finally rescue Hye-sun. 

It's a remarkably intelligent film, just as Busan was before it. If a character opens a car door window, you can bet that this window will become important, even if it's fifteen minutes later. The characters are smart, motivated and do their very best to survive. 

I highly recommend Yeon Sang-ho's work. I've only seen a few of his films, but every time I've been amazed by his talent, his eye for a dramatic scene, and his action sequences. If you liked these two, you should check out King of Pigs or The Fake, both of which are quality animated films. 

Happy New Year!