Monday, 30 April 2012

I'm Batman

I bought Arkham City when it came out, and played it to death. I didn't go as far as Perfect Knight; that seemed far too fiddly, but I did want to get all the Riddler challenges done and that I managed. Grinding his smug face in the dirt was very satisfying! Plus, unlike the previous game Arkham Asylum, there was a good reason to get the Riddler, since he kidnapped several innocent civilians and threatens to kill them unless you solve his puzzles. Along the way you, as Batman, have to figure out several hundred riddles, beat individual challenge rooms, and finally confront the green weasel in his lair. It's one of several potential side missions in which you track down leads to solve the mystery before it's too late, and while some of those (like Zsasz) are more acrobatic, the Riddler missions are about 50/50 brain power to gadget use.

I spent a chunk of Sunday playing it again, since an Xbox blowout reset the game. All the Riddler challenges reappeared, giving me a second chance to knock them down again. Tracking down those clues was a big part of the fun for me the first time around, and it's been just as enjoyable the second time running.

However it made me think about clues in detective-style settings. The classic of course is Holmes' inductive reasoning, as follows:

My eyes tell me that on the inside of [Watson's] left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant boot-slitting specimen of the London slavey.

Which is fine as far as it goes, but it relies on two assumptions. First, that the parallel cuts can only have been caused by a boot-scraper. That's something the modern reader has to take on faith, since few people now living really know what a Victorian era boot-scraper is or why it would cause parallel cuts as opposed to any other kind. However if there is any other way that parallel cuts of that type could have been caused, the boot-scraper theory is in danger of falling flat, which may mean the vile weather theory is flawed. Second, it assumes that a Doctor's boots can only have been scraped by his servant. That's likely, of course, but it's also possible they were scraped by the Doctor, his wife, or a third party - particularly since as a Doctor he's likely to be visiting other people's houses, and dealing with other people's servants. As it happens Holmes is right on the money, but it could easily have gone the other way.

Which is the big problem with fictional detectives. Agatha Christie alludes to this more than once, using her character Ariadne Oliver as a mouthpiece. Oliver is a detective story novelist, and frequently grouses at how stupid she was to make her main character a Finn when she knew almost nothing about them, but she also has a lot to say about the perils of clue creation. A novelist can make a blowpipe one foot long even though it really ought to be four and a half foot. A novelist can tell lies to help the plot along, by insisting that a clue is a clue when in fact it means nothing, or the opposite of its apparent meaning. Dorothy Sayers does much the same thing with her character Harriet Vane, particularly in Have His Carcase. In that novel Harriet is supposed to be working out a plot for her own mystery novel when she stumbles across an actual murder, and Harriet spends a lot of her writing time grumbling about getting the timetable right for the trains in her novel, for fear that any mistake will be picked up on by nitpicking readers.

The bigger problem is this: the reader expects a Clue to be a Clue, to have a definite meaning in and of itself. There can be no shades of grey. It's all part of a larger puzzle, and if the pieces are put together in the correct order then the puzzle can be solved. It's a genre convention that's wide open to parody since it assumes a kind of story structure that's almost impossible to envisage in real life. Real life is messy. Trains don't run on time. Blowpipes can be novelty sized. Mysteries can't be puzzled out through inductive reasoning alone, though inductive reasoning may certainly help.

In the Death Investigator's Handbook, it's all about procedure. Evaluating the crime scene isn't even the first point on the checklist; it's under section C, where A is about establishing the perimeter and B is about contacting the necessary responders. Examining the body doesn't happen until way, way down the checklist, where in a novel it would be the very first thing the detective looks at. I'm not even sure the word Clue is ever used in that book; I can't be certain since there isn't an index in my 1993 edition. It's all Evidence, and one piece of evidence in itself means nothing. It's the totality that means everything.

'What were the victim's activities, how was the victim selected as a target, and what was done to the victim are three areas of consideration. The significance of the scene, how it was selected and the evidence it has provided are other courses whch need to be developed . . .'

It's nice to pretend to be Batman for a while, but Batman is fiction, and the puzzles he faces aren't tied to reality in any meaningful way. That's not why they're there. They exist to provide an intellectual challenge in an artificial world. All Clues are like that. They provide a challenge, but they oughtn't to be taken too seriously.

After all, they're only make-believe.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Hauntings - The Final Word

In my previous posts I've described potential hauntings as spirits of place, half-forgotten memories of the past, and as creations of possession and obsession. This time I want to talk about a third potential haunting scenario: the otherworldly. As with the previous posts, examples are going to use the Gumshoe format, with the Bookhounds setting.

M.R. James is a literary exemplar I come back to again and again. His creations are my ideal when it comes to ghostly scenarios, mainly because he managed to combine the mundane world in which we all live with an otherworldly, menacing, half-glimpsed terror. In most of those instances the terror evoked was ultimately linked to some human event or tragedy; one of my favourite stores is The Haunted Doll's House, which is probably the most frightening example of that type. However those aren't the only ghosts M.R. James had to offer. Canon Alberic's Scrapbook features something completely other, something with eyes, of a fiery yellow, against which the pupils showed black and intense, and the exulting hate and thirst to destroy life which shone there, were the most horrifying features in the whole vision. There was intelligence of a kind in them -- intelligence beyond that of a beast, below that of a man.

In other words, a demon.

Cthulhu Mythos gaming has a love-hate relationship with more mundane belief systems. The feeling generally seems to be that if things like Cthulhu and the Old Ones exist then they clearly take precedence over anything else, and while this can lead to attempts to shoehorn the Mythos into human iconography (so Nyarlathotep, for one, is both Baron Samedi of Voudon fame and also Set and Thoth of the Egyptians, never mind the Green Man or witchcraft's Black Man or a host of other avatars) these attempts seem to leave a bad taste in many peoples' mouths. The Old Ones are the great alien unknowables, and their more human-friendly avatars are knowable by definition. The two concepts don't mix well.

At the same time, Mythos gaming also has a problem with magic. In a sense, it's the same problem. If the forces of the Mythos take precedence then presumably the rituals of so-called shamans and occultists have little or no effect. Either that, or they're somehow leeching power from Mythos sources. Otherwise humanity can, in theory, rival the entities of the Mythos, by accumulating power of their own to oppose the likes of Cthulhu. The odds are a bit low, since humanity clearly lacks the resources to be a real threat, but smuggling in the magical equivalent of a suitcase nuke is possible. The existential hopelessness is lessened somewhat by the knowledge that something can, in fact, be done to change things.

In the Rough Magicks suppliment Kenneth Hite discusses Lovecraftian magic, and says in part:

Attempting to fully define Lovecraftian magic would seem to be a simpler task. Indeed, we make just such an attempt later on in this book . . . But really, we’re all better off not knowing.

Which is perfectly reasonable, from a gaming perspective. A certain granularity is fine and fair do, but codifying everything such that each detail has its own defined remit is neither possible nor desirable. Even Dungeons and Dragons, a far more rules-heavy system, never achieved that; why, then, should Gumshoe? Better not to know. The lack of knowledge lends mystery which can only help make the incredible seem credible.

However he goes on to suggest several possible scenarios to describe magic: toxic pollution, Elder Thing technology gone wrong, a gift from Nyarlathotep or Yog-Sothoth, trans-dimensional energy manipulation, an aspect of Dreaming - take your pick. The intent being to allow the Keeper to decide what definition best fits their game, so that they can then explain magical influences and effects.

I'm going to go one step further and suggest that, when demons exist at all, they are creatures created by magic or from the same stuff that magic is made of. So if magic is toxic pollution, the after-effects of the energetic collision of the great elemental gods. Where their overwhelming forces meet their impenetrable fields, pieces of space-time come unstuck. Where this dimensional fallout lands, reality weakens and magic becomes possible then demons are also aspects of this toxic pollution. If magic is something else, then so too are demons.

Humans tend to like to see patterns so we codify things as much as possible. That's why we construct elaborate demonologies and try to force these entities to fit into our view of what the world, both seen and unseen, is. However for the purpose of this discussion that view is essentially wrong; there is no pattern here, and a demonology is as useless as a cotton candy slingshot. Demons don't need an Asmodeus figure in order to function; they don't have to be fallen angels, or any other human myth-construct. They exist because magic exists, and if somehow magic were to cease to exist then so too would they. They are as much part of the Mythos as Cthulhu is; they come from the same star-stuff.

Certain settings create magical systems unique to that environment, and Bookhounds is one of those. Bookhounds borrows a touch from Leiber and proposes Megapolisomancy, in which ritualists use the city as a sorcerous engine to accomplish magical effects. They draw on the polis itself to harm their enemies, or create an effect of their own devising. In a system of that sort it follows that demons are also creations of the city, unique to the city. In some cases they may be completely unique, while in others they may be modified versions of a pre-existing concept. Or to put it another way: the Yaoguai that exist in Chinatown may be rooted in Chinese mythology, but they are creations of the London megapolis and cannot be encountered outside of that environment. Something very like them might be found in Macao, but only very like, not precisely the same entities.

The question then becomes are these things created independently of human interference, or are they aspects of the city that arise as a consequence of ritual activity? Ultimately that decision has to be up to the Keeper, and will depend on the needs of the game. The paramental entities discussed in Bookhounds seem to be creatures created by the ritualists who raise them, but it doesn't follow that all such entities are raised by ritualists. Each city has its own soul, created almost unwittingly by the hundreds of millions of people who live, have lived and will live there. It is likely that this soul has many thousands of aspects, most of which go unnoticed by most people. Those few who have noticed that the Euston Underground tunnel has teeth or that the cracks in the pavement near St Pauls have a tendency to whisper odd fragments of lore probably are wise to keep that knowledge to themselves.

With that in mind, here's an example:

The King of the Cats

There is a folk-tale that always has the same ending, no matter how it begins: the self-proclaimed King of the Cats takes his kingdom from his recently deceased predecessor. Aarne-Thompson type 6070B is how it's known to folklorists, a neat classification that fails to encompass a megapolistic truth: there is a kind of Kingship, and it changes hands on an irregular basis.

Those who chronicle the City claim that in the past thirty years there have been four Kings. That is as far as modern chroniclers will go; no doubt there were Kings before the year 1890, but nobody can say with certainty what they were, or where. Most agree that they are cats, or at least look like cats. The first of the four was in North London, somewhere near Islington. Then the Kingship passed to an entity in East London, somewhere near the docks, circa 1912. Suddenly in 1915, possibly the result of an air raid, the Kingship passed to another North London creature, and after about ten years the Kingship passed once more, this time to a West End entity, somewhere near Soho.

There demonic creatures generally have little to do with people. They may be indifferent or cautious; few have been able to communicate with them, and of those who have managed it few are what anyone would call reliable witnesses. However when they have dealt with humans it usually ends badly for the human. They dislike wizards it would seem, possibly because rival megalopolisamancers disrupt the patterns that the Kings rely on.

They have been known to 'adopt' megapolisamancers. Or at least, there's one known example of a wizard who benefitted from a relationship with the East End King, and who for a time became first among his peers. However that individual didn't live more than a month after the Kingship passed in 1915, and whatever his secrets may have been, they apparently died with him. It seems that no bargain outlasts the Kingship, and when a new King takes the throne not only are all previous treaties moot but also the former friend becomes a hated foe. 

Game Statistics: Athletics 12, Health 9, Scuffling 9
Magic: 8-12 (this seems to vary, and may be linked to the phases of the moon)
Hit Threshold: 6 (small and fast)
Alertness Modifier: +0
Stealth Modifier: +2
Damage: +2 (claws)
Special: can only be harmed by a weapon made for the purpose in the area it haunts, from materials found in that area, and then enhanced by a megapolisamantic working in that area. So a knife made in Soho from metals scavenged in Soho and then enchanted in Soho could injure the current King, but wouldn't work on his successor. Of course, the current King would view attempting to make such a weapon as an act of war. Alternatively an event that significantly disrupts megalopolisomantic energies, such as a fire that engulfs an entire district or a zeppelin bombing raid that burns the docks, might do the trick, but an event of that magnitude is difficult to arrange.
Notes: Kings ignore humans most of the time, except when they engage in megalopolisomancy. Any attempt undertaken on their turf can attract their attention, and retribution, unless efforts are taken to mollify them beforehand.
Stability Modifier: +0
Description: While they may seem to be cats at first glance, Kings are physically marked out from their fellows. The King of 1890 had what appeared to be wings. The 1915 King was a split-foot. The 1925 King had extra ears, and the current King is supposed to have a vestigial second tail. Though mutations can occur naturally in an ordinary feline, care must be taken by any megalopolisamancer in case the mutation is more significant than it seems.   

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Cost of Doing Business

This isn't going to be a long post. I wanted to point you in this direction. It's from Mark Waid's ongoing blog, and he's talking about the cost of printing comic books.

Now, I don't read comics, and haven't for a while. However I find Waid's point particularly interesting because it ties in with arguments I've made in the past about ebooks. In particular this section:

"But here’s the big bite: at those print-run levels, that comic is costing you around a dollar a copy just to print. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. What’s that? You’ve decided to forego expensive color for cheaper black and white? You’d be surprised how little that lowers the cost. Printing, shipping, and various related charges--that’s where you’re spending more than half your income. More than half. Not on creative, not on marketing, not on advertising, not on all of that put together. On printing the damn thing. the printing industry continues to contract, the per-unit costs will--basic law of supply and demand--continue to escalate."

Now there are factors in comic book publishing that don't apply elsewhere in the book business, like the market being controlled by one distributor. That said, the cost of doing business is an issue that bedevils publishing generally, and ought to motivate small publishers - like the Unspeakable Oath people, like Rich Burlew - to switch to electronic. As Waid points out, when the printing industry contracts, as is happening now, the escalating costs will only push more small publishers out of the physical format market and into ebooks. Pelgrane puts most of its stuff out in .pdf format now; personally I give it two or three years before Miskatonic River does the same. I don't claim to have any inside knowledge there, but it's a prediction based on the state of the market and the likelihood that costs will only increase.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Bookhounds Books

I know I said I was going to talk about hauntings. In fact, I said I was going to do it a short while ago. However I was ambushed by a lot of work and one emergency project, which delayed things. The nice part is you should find out what the emergency project is by the end of this month; it's very April-specific. It does mean that you'll have to wait a little longer for the Hauntings post, as I can't devote my full attention to it just yet.

I thought I'd talk about books in Trail instead.

Bookhounds of London is one of those settings that wants a lot of input from the Keeper to make it really flow, if for no other reason than the Keeper doesn't have enough books available. Think about it: the characters track down and sell books for a living, and unless it's a very one-note game they can't be after the Necronomicon every week. The Trail main book has about seventeen Mythos tomes, and Bookhounds includes ten more occult tomes, seven Mythos books and guidelines for making more. No matter what style of game you run you're going to need some home-brewed books for your Hounds to chase after. Plus, unless you're the sort that only ever wants to play Arabesque, you're probably going to want to at least consider the various play styles each time you create a book, or an NPC. That means a little more effort on your part.

When faced with problems like these, I always go back to history for answers. There have been any number of odd beliefs, rituals, purges and persecutions in the few thousand years we've been recording our time on this planet. These can be mined for scenario information, and the big advanatage is it avoids repetition. I recently bought a copy of Gary Myers' House of the Worm, which I enjoyed, but it does repeat itself again and again. You could summarise most of the tales in that book: 'dude gets in over his head, dude dies or goes missing in weird and mysterious way.' Fun, but one-note, and the thing to bear in mind is we all have a one-note tendency. I know I use dream sequences a lot in my work. I tend to like spook stories as well, and use Gothic effects more often than not. It would be so very easy to rely on those same elements again and again, never experimenting, never going outside of my comfort zone. History forces the writer to look outside his front door, to see the world in all its varied glories. It forces experimentation with new settings, ideas, adversaries and conflicts.

In this instance I used some facts culled from Montague Summers and got translation help from Babelfish. This is what I came up with:

Ein Konto der Hexeraserei im Lindheim

An early modern Mysterious Manuscript for Trail of Cthulhu.

Edit: as luck would have it, this item is to be printed in the Unspeakable Oath, issue #21. I don't think that edition is out on general release yet, but I have received a .pdf contributor's copy. It would be unfair to Pagan to have this item here on the blog, and after discussion with the Oath's editorial staff I have agreed to remove the description. Once issue #21 is out I will link to it from here; for now, I hope you don't mind the inconvenience!

Summers is one of those authors who can be relied on for the weird and wonderful. I don't think I would rely on him as a historian, but I respect his mastery of the source material. In this particular instance I was using his book on witchcraft which tends to be easy to come by. In fact most of his books drift in and out of print, and while you're unlikely to find them in Barnes and Noble they're worth tracking down, as he's always good for a quote or two. Probably a foaming-at-the-mouth sort of quote, but nevertheless he's good value for money.

Witchcraft is a phenomena that, in Europe, seems to peak at about the same time as the major wars of religion are being fought, which probably isn't coincidental. Any number of firebrands and nutjobs are roaming around looking for a fight; these are people who, in their day, would have been the equivalent of a Bin Laden, but whose names and lives have been almost forgotten. The world was teetering on the brink of disaster (again), powerful kingdoms were busy toppling their neighbours' regimes (again) and innocents were being massacred in their thousands (again). There would have been many people like Geiss using the situation for their own benefit, taking advantage of the fact that what passed for central authority was weak and constant warfare had everyone on edge. He wouldn't have had to do much talking to convince his neighbours that the enemy walked among them; after all, panics, plagues and strife had been all they'd known since the days of their grandfather's grandfather. In conditions like those it was very easy to believe that they weren't safe yet, that there were those who followed heretical religions or who were plotting to do them harm.

Once you have that central idea, everything else is window dressing. I freely admit that Wikipedia has been good to me; it's allowed me to check names, places, and dates. But knowing what to look for is critical; knowing that the Great War of 1914-18 knocked out a lot of the old Grand Dutchies, that there is such a thing as an octavo, that people used maker's marks, all adds to the feeling of legitimacy. Arturo Pérez-Reverte Gutiérrez managed something with Club Dumas that Lovecraft never did: he made the Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows seem as if it were real, not by adding extra bookworms gnawing at the pages or more elaborate olde Englishe script, but by adding enough real data to the description of the Nine Gates and its all-important illustrations that it didn't strike a wrong note once. That's the kind of thing to aim for!

Now, I've talked too much. Next time I will discuss hauntings, I promise!