Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Bookhounds of London: Buried Under The Floorboards

This shall be the last post of the year, so let's make it a ghostly one!

One of the tales in Lord Halifax's Ghost Book concerns an apparition that made its presence felt by planting ice-cold kisses on the lips of the unwary. This only occurred in a specific part of the house, and when the owner decided to renovate and turn the ghost room into a staircase, thus hopefully getting rid of the problem, he told the Clerk of Works to let him know if the work crew discovered anything unusual.

"[Having been told that the workmen have found something] Mr Thomas went down and learned that they had discovered a coffin between the joists of the floor in the room where Miss Tait had slept. From its appearance and from the fact that it had no screws but only nails, the coffin appeared to date from the 17th Century. It was firmly fastened to the joists by iron cramps, but owing to the shallowness of the space between the joists and the floor, there was no lid, the floor boards serving this purpose. There was no trace of any bones within the coffin, but it carried certain marks which suggested that it had once contained a body."

In a house close to where I live now, a former owner is interred underneath the front step. A little further distant is another house, one I worked on as a student, where bodies were found within touching distance of the wall's foundation. It's a tradition now long forgotten, but it wasn't that long ago that a family might choose to be buried on the family land, or within the house itself. Moreover, in a house with floorboards and cellars, there are plenty of ways of hiding things you'd rather not be found again.

Or there could be things living up there, down there, under there. I can hear rats running in the roof void as I type this. Of course, they might not be rats. I can't see them; I can't be sure. But they sound like rats ...

This crops up again and again, in ghost stories. In M.R. James' short story Number 13, for example, the floor boards have to be taken up in order to solve the mystery, and even then, much is left untold. Or take the J-Horror Dark Water; there, the mundane hiding place of the body is a significant part of the plot. Sometimes in fiction this hiding place is represented by whole secret passages and rooms, not unlike Clue, but the best kind of secret is one hidden right under the occupier's nose.

From a Keeper's perspective, the body under the floorboards is a handy McGuffin to have. It doesn't have to be a dusty manor house either; in a Bookhounds game, almost every house the characters will ever inhabit or investigate has wooden floorboards, a coal cellar, space up in the attic. Sometimes this space is truly abandoned. Think about all those houses in the UK, 1930s build or prior. That's at least a third, probably more, of all the housing in the country. Every one of them would have had a coal cellar, yet how often now do you find a house with its original cellar? They weren't magicked away; previous owners filled them in, but imagine what could be down there now.

A place like this could provide benefits, for those willing to seek them out. The Rough Magick sourcebook gives us the Magic ability, and says that some spots are powerful enough that a would-be magus, visiting it and studying carefully, might gain 1 point of Magic. This gain usually only happens once, on the first visit, but some Places of Power offer more; a potential gain of 1 point per year. Not all haunted spots would offer this benefit, but if anywhere is likely to, it will be that quiet, shunned room with the ghastly secret under the floorboards.

Now consider a Bookhounds era game, before the Blitz remodeled London. All those old houses, the near-Dickensian warrens, the churches and the estates, the pubs and the shops, centuries old some of them. Imagine what could so easily be hidden away, down in the dark.

As an example:

Thomas Drugg and Sons, Bakery

This family business, established 1872, is a thriving concern. The current Drugg, Albert, is a hard-working man in his late 30s, and his two brothers work with him in the shop while their married sister, Mrs Fuller, keeps the books. All of them grew up here, in the rooms above the bakery, but none of them live on the property now. Albert is the closest, at two streets away, while the rest are further on. Mrs Fuller is the furthest, living out in Metroland.

Some of the empty rooms are used as shop office space, but most of them are disused. Once, for a month or so about a decade back, the Druggs tried renting the space to a medical student, but that didn't last. Nobody's lived on the premises since then, and the few staff the Druggs bring in don't arrive before four in the morning. Nobody talks about what goes on inside, just before midnight. The Druggs don't like gossip.

Tucked away under the floorboards of one of the upper rooms is a dream diary, a small wooden box, and the skull of what might be a very large rat. The diary belonged to Alice, the Druggs' youngest sister, who went missing in 1902. The skull, knowledgable occultists will realize, belongs to a Rat Thing. The box contains soil, which analysis will confirm has certain characteristics that mark it out as not of Earthly origin.

At night, if anyone's foolish enough to stay, doors do not keep closed, and a mysterious white cat pads noiselessly from room to room. Stability 4 test (supernatural creature up close) to witness this phenomenon.

Magicians crave items like that dream diary, and the soil; they can help increase a sorcerer's power. Drugg and Sons grants 1 potential Magic on the first visit, provided that the visitor stays overnight.  But some say that places like Drugg and Sons are linked to other parts of London, in a great web that connects one psychic pool to another. Claim one, and you might be able to work out where some of the others are, as you trace the great psychic web across London.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Not Quite Review Corner: Telltale's Walking Dead, Season 2

This is going to be as spoiler free as I can make it. This title has been released on PC, console and iTunes; I played the iTunes version.

Telltale Games' point-and-click Walking Dead series came out of nowhere a few years back and stole gamers' hearts, the world over. A large part of that is thanks to series mainstay Clementine, the young girl that main character Lee adopts and tries to protect, in a journey across the zombie-infested South. After the first series ended, Telltale released 400 Days, a not-quite-standalone adventure with different characters, but what everyone wanted was a return to the main story.  Now, in the second series, we get our wish, and Clementine is in the starring role. The opening episode of this five part series is All That Remains.

To get the boring bits out of the way first, let's talk mechanics. Anyone who played the first season will have little problem here. There have been some minor improvements but, broadly speaking, the game's QTE sequences and puzzle solving are unchanged. Swipe the screen thus to avoid a zombie, click and swipe to complete an event, combine the right puzzle objects in the right order, and so on. Most of the time it works, and when it doesn't it's easy to go back a step and try again. I did notice an annoying crash bug early on, and it took over half a dozen log-on attempts to start the game. I attribute this to wireless internet signal strength; if I went into a room where the strength was 3 bar, no problem. If  it was 2 bar, it crashed on start up. However once the game began, it could cope with a 2 bar signal.

Story is where this series shines. Again, I shall try my best to avoid spoilers here. You start the game a few months after the conclusion of the previous series, and Clementine seems to be in safe hands. This brief moment of comfort soon vanishes, and Clem has to struggle through without a safety net. In fact, one of the two highlight moments of the first episode happens in the first few minutes; I don't even think the credits had finished rolling.

The second highlight moment, at least for me, takes place about half-way through. I shall say no more than that.

Story structure branches off at several pre-determined points in the narrative, and this is Telltale's big selling point: choices matter. All the decisions you made up to now, in Season 1 and 400 Days, factor into Season 2, for instance; though if you haven't played those games, Telltale can invent a backstory for you. All future decisions count, shaping the story towards whatever nebulous conclusion awaits in the final episode,  No Going Back. While intriguing, one of the chief complaints aimed at the series so far is that decisions don't seem to matter as much as Telltale would have you believe.The opening episode of Season 2 does little to allay those suspicions. If anything, from a story structure perspective the Telltale team played it very safe; there's little to differentiate it from Season 1's opening episode, A New Day.

That might be for the best. Series veterans may prefer a little change, but an opening episode is as much for the new players as it is the old lags. Newbies need a little tender loving care, if they're to keep on playing. Here's hoping things will get more complex, as the series develops.

I'd recommend this entire series to anyone who likes horror, and good storytelling. I find the iPad version ($4.99 on iTunes) particularly handy, despite some of the annoying start-up quirks. The QTEs are much less tedious to deal with; somehow the process makes more sense with a touchscreen.


Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Bookhounds of London: The Christmas Tradition

I used to play with a group that insisted on a Christmas adventure, each and every year. There's a lot of pleasure to be had in the bad jokes, and crazy plotlines, that come with trying to stuff Santa, presents, decorated trees and Lord alone knows what else into an ostensibly horrific situation. That said, there's as much to dislike as like, particularly if you're the sort that prefers to treat the game seriously. Shoggoths with their nose so bright guiding something's sleigh tonight might not be your thing, and if so, that's fine.

But there's still some fun to be had with the idea.  Christmas is also the season for ghost stories, as M.R. James and his friends knew full well. If ever you've wanted to torment your players with something inexplicable and elemental, now's the time to do it. There are also entities, like Krampus - the Christmas Devil - which really only have power at this time of year, and wouldn't suit any other kind of story. Or if you prefer a more pagan tale, there are any number of winter solstice stories to be told, whether inspired by religion or some more obscure, local festival. Besides, who is Father Christmas really? Is the whole idea of a festival devoted to indulgence and good cheer contemptible, as the Puritans believed? Is there something sinister hiding in those red robes?

With that in mind, I propose a Tale of Terror that starts with a narrative auction.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

You are at a house sale, where the contents of the library are being picked over by one or two knowledgeable rivals and the usual gaggle of nosy neighbors. Most of the collection is second-rate stuff, fit only for the shop's lending library or bargain bin, but there are one or two items that would fetch a decent price, or make a useful squiz. It's a chilly December day, and while it's not snowing yet, you don't like the look of those clouds. If it does start to come down, your car (or van) may not be able to handle the roads. The sooner you get on your way, the better. But there's a rumor going round of a special candle auction about to be held upstairs, and you notice that your knowledgeable rivals are headed up to participate. What's this all about? And why is this special auction being held in the Blue Room, the manor house's allegedly haunted bedroom?

1. Snow starts tumbling past the window as the auction begins. The candle is the only light in the room, and as it slowly flickers to its death the auctioneer brings out all kinds of odd rarities. With each new addition to the pile, the bids go up. But there is something outside, a large horned beast clutching a coal-black sack in its hands. It can barely be seen as the snow thickens, and the candlelight fades. Nobody believes you if you tell them what you saw; but if it gets into this darkening room, what will it do next?

2. The 'auctioneer' is a man of straw, dressed as Father Christmas, of all things. The candle flickers in the gloom, as your rivals start pawing the merchandise. A hat is placed at Christmas' feet, for bids to be placed, on an honor system. A side table is piled high with mince pies and ham, as well as some quite decent wine. But woe betide the bidder who takes, and leaves behind only a pittance in the hat, or nothing at all. Father Christmas is watching, and anyone who tries to cheat him will be tracked down and punished.

3. The goods up here are marginally better than the stuff downstairs, but not by much. The auction is presided over by one of the family who does his best to inject some enthusiasm into the proceedings, but it's a losing proposition. Funny thing, though; that mirror on the wall reflects an image of a room quite different from this. This room has a blazing fire, and Christmas cards and greenery hung all over, but the other is bare, almost austere. The same people are in the room, doing the same things, but there's one extra. As you watch, this extra man - or thing - drags one of the participants out of view. When it returns, there's a nasty red smear round its mouth. It seems to be eying other reflections.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Not Qute Book Review Corner: Patient Zero, Jonathan Maberry

Before I begin, I'm going to say up front that I liked Jonathan Maberry's Patient Zero. I'm saying that now, to balance out what's to come. I picked this up on the free shelf of my local store, and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys pulp horror with a modern twist. Night's Black Agents gamers may find it especially useful, particularly since it demonstrates exactly the kind of Vampyramid - and its collapse, as per Double Tap - that they'll be fighting against.

Maberry is a relatively new author. He's been a professional writer since 1978, but it wasn't until his 2006 Pine Deep series - the first of which earned him a Stoker (Best First Novel) Award - that his fiction really started to get noticed. He's also written a string of non fiction and comics stuff, but the book I'm concentrating on here is the first in his fantasy bioterrorism series. There are five in print so far, with two more known to be on the way in 2014 and 2015, and he's been publishing one of these a year since 2009's Patient Zero.

Patient Zero kicks off with an action-packed armed raid on a terror cell operating within the United States. In a pitched gun battle, series hero Joe Ledger puts two .45 calibre rounds into a suspicious crazy who tries to bite him. All seems well, and the corpses are taken off to the hospital for autopsy. Except all isn't well; that dead fella Ledger shot gets up again and starts eating people, causing an incident that eventually results in the death of everyone in the hospital, up to and including a substantial number of the Department of Military Intelligence's best agents. The DMI, anxious to get on top of this ASAP, starts recruiting new blood, and Ledger's top of its list of potential candidates.

Ledger - all together now, in the key of E - is a smart-mouthed maverick loose cannon who gets results. Before he's been on the job ten minutes he's offered a chance to become leader of DMI's new Echo Team - Bravo and Charlie being somewhat dead - so he promptly marches into the room, kicks seven shades out of all the other candidates, and promotes himself commander by virtue of being biggest kung-fu badass. From there, it's a crazy romp through a world of mad science, as the team tries to find out how terrorists got hold of the zombie virus, and to stop whatever mad scheme the terrorists have in mind.

It's pulp in the Sax Rohmer tradition, with the Fu Manchu role taken by super terrorist El Mujahid, and the sexpot Fah lo Suee played by his devious wife, Amirah, who devises the zombie virus. They have the help of self-made pharmaceutical billionaire Gault, who thinks he can use their cause to make a fortune for himself by selling anti-zombie meds to the US after the outbreak. Gault provides the technological expertise and capital, while the husband-and-wife team supplies the genius and the muscle. Will Gault and Amirah hoodwink her cuckolded husband, or is this all part of some greater scheme?

It all hangs together fairly well. It's a little too jingoistic for my taste, and while I'm not going to quarrel with the science, I do have to wonder why on earth Maberry thought it necessary to have a female SAS front-line combat officer as a major secondary character when the SAS famously doesn't accept female recruits. Well, I know why, I suppose; the SAS is the one British regiment American readers will recognize as being reliably badass, and therefore worthy to fight alongside Joe Ledger.  It just seems so silly.

I did enjoy this book, but I'm not sure I'd rush to pick up the rest of the series. If I did, it would have to be on sale; I'd hate to pay full price. In part that's because of the unpleasant itch at the back of my head, that maybe this really is just the Yellow Peril reskinned with a more acceptable - if that's the right word - enemy. But it's also because my heart sank when I realized that Maberry's been publishing one a year of these ever since Patient Zero.

Maybe he does write that fast. Some authors do; I can't remember if it was Raymond Chandler or his contemporary Hammett who said that a writer who doesn't publish a book a year isn't really trying, but whichever it was, the dictum stands. But I can't help feeling that this output is less Maberry's speed than it is the publisher's diktat, much as fantasy authors now seem always to have to write a trilogy rather than just one very good book. Trilogies sell, but more importantly they ensure an author's name is kept fresh, and the revenue stream keeps flowing. Liked Attack of the Killer Cliches? Then be sure to look out for Attack of the Cliche Killers, coming out next May!

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it does seem as if that's the only song the publishers know by heart. It means the story never ends, and anything like structure is thrown out the window. After all, if the story actually had a satisfactory conclusion then there'd be no reason to tune in next week and see how Doc Shadow managed to evade the clutches of Sinister Claw. It also means that plot points get reused, since there really isn't time to work out a new McGuffin or plan out a different style. Villains will come and never really go. 'How did you escape the exploding volcano, Doctor Devastation? Seems like your goose was cooked when the bombs went off.' 'Ah, thereby hangs a tale!'

No. There's precisely where the tale doesn't hang. It sags. It lies there, limp and deformed, bereft of purpose. It might have some superficial appeal, but who's going to remember it a month or so after they finish reading it?


Thursday, 28 November 2013

Night's Black Agents: Chilling Locales

Victory Games' James Bond RPG, one of the best spy games of its era, knew that if it was to capture the imaginations of the players it had to present itself as the perfect Bond experience. One of the ways it did that was by immersing itself in real world detail. The iconic Bond travels all over the planet, stays in the best hotels, is seen aboard the most luxurious ships, planes and trains; the players expected no less for their characters. The Thrilling Locations supplement did exactly that, and while I can't hope to achieve the same thing here, I thought it would be good fun to start the conversation by talking about hotels.

The best hotels offer sterling service, excellent kitchens, comfortable rooms, and convenient access to the best that the area has to offer. Some hotels have a gimmick, some have a reputation, but the key thing, from a Keeper's perspective, is that they stand out. The players need to capture an image of the place in their heads, to really get into the game. The best way to do that is to make the place memorable right from the start.

With that in mind, let's start with Hotel Castel Dracula. Located atop the craggy heights of Tihuţa Pass - which Stoker fans will know is the real name of the Borgo Pass - its views are second to none. Built in 1974 in a pseudo-medieval style, Castel Dracula was created with one object in mind: vampire tourism. Guests can visit Dracula's tomb, deep in the basement, and then adjourn upstairs to the restaurant, sampling local food washed down with Dracula's elixir. The Tihuţa Pass is perfect hiking for those who enjoy wandering in beautiful countryside, and for those who enjoy more lively festivities, there's annual Witches Parties and Halloween get-togethers. What more could a vampire ask for?

Yes, it's kitschy as hell, and definitely one for the younger crowd. But consider: if ever there was a place where a vampire could get his or her freak on, and not be noticed, it's somewhere like this. Supernatural or Damned bloodsuckers could be partying in the hidden basement, the one underneath Dracula's tomb. Or perhaps the place has deeper significance; maybe the location wasn't just picked for its connection to Stoker's novel. It could be hiding something genuinely evil behind a plastic facade. What was there before the hotel was built? Who owns it? Are there significant political or criminal connections? After all, Romania is the 9th most corrupt country in the EU; is the Hotel a front for some other organization, and if so, what?

For obvious reasons, a location like this best suits a Supernatural or Damned game, but Aliens and Mutants have their place too. Either group could be using the Hotel as a convenient base of operations. Romania's EU membership gives it a surprising amount of political reach, and its troops served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It's also part of the missile shield being put together by the US and the West. A group which wanted a voice in world affairs without appearing too obvious about it would do well to be on good terms with a government like Romania's.

Passing from the shadow of Dracula's castle, take a trip aboard the Orient Express. The name is synonymous with luxury, and the Orient Express Group has some of the finest hotels in the world. But it's best known for its very famous train, which still runs each week to Budapest, Istanbul, London, Paris, Prague, Venice and Vienna. In its heyday it was the train of spies and crime, as well as luxury travel, but now there are much faster trains, never mind planes, to get people where they want to go. It's more for the tourist than the traveler these days, and it's doubtful spies wander the train carriage corridors.

That said, vampires are nothing if not nostalgic. An entity that's been around for a hundred years or more might have been on the train for its original incarnation's inaugural run in 1883. Perhaps one ride a year, just to recapture the magic, is a habit the players will make a particular entity regret. But there could be a more practical reason for riding the train, particularly for a bagman or a fixer. A bagman knows that sometimes the best way to stay out of sight is to be visible. Walk as if you own the place; millionaires seldom get asked impertinent questions. A ride on the train could be the best way to get to Paris without being made, or it could also be a good spot for handing off the goods. A fixer who wants to hold a clandestine auction, say of some sensitive data with a very limited life span, might like the idea of holding a private auction aboard the Express. Its publicity is its own security; few will be willing to risk the notoriety that comes with an overt assault on the most famous train in the world. Picture a scene in that famous dining car, with the fixer sat in magnificent solitude at his own table, occasionally getting a text bid from one of the interested parties, perhaps in their own cabin, perhaps in the dining car, or perhaps somewhere else altogether. 

Or perhaps, since this is a train as famous for murder as it is for luxury travel, the Keeper could go the Polonium Cocktail route. Say an important contact - perhaps that fixer - walks off the train gravely ill, and checks himself into a hospital soon after. It's pretty clear he got a bad dose, and it was probably given him aboard the train, as several Orient Express staff are also sick, although none nearly as bad as the fixer. But who handed him the dose, and what happened to the goods he supposedly had on him? The mini flash drive's not at the hospital; could it be still on the train?

That's it for the moment, but I will return to this theme later. There are plenty of places out there perfect for a Night's Black Agents moment and, after all, your players deserve nothing but the best.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Not Quite Review Corner: XCOM Enemy Within

Yes, I write for the Escapist; no, this has nothing to do with the Escapist.

Firaxis' XCOM Enemy Within is conquering the gaming world, and with good reason. It's a fun title, a worthy successor to XCOM Enemy Unknown, and if you're a fan of strategy games it's well worth your time. That said, there's one big problem: bugs.

I'm not talking about the Sectoids, Thin Men and other aliens who've arrived on spaceships to enslave humanity. I'm talking about game breakers; bugs that crash the game, and destroy any chance of completing the level. I've just finished a round where I had to abandon mid-match, because the AI refused to believe I'd won. All the Sectoids had been shot, bar one, who happened to be standing next to a car when it exploded. Except the game didn't recognize the exploded Sectoid, and because it didn't the only other way to finish the match was to abort the mission, giving up all the rewards I'd fought for. It's also crashed to desktop at least four or five times for reasons unknown, and one particular EXALT mission has a nasty habit of not activating once you reach a certain checkpoint. Trouble is, if it doesn't activate then you can't complete, and as this is a story mission, not just some random match, you really don't want to abort. 

All of which will be very frustrating if, like me, you play Ironman, a game variant where every death is permanent and you can't restart from a previous save. At least three Ironman games had to be dropped because of that EXALT mission bug.

Now the bad part's out of the way, let me talk about the good.

XCOM, for those not familiar with the series, takes place in a near future Earth, which has been invaded by aliens. Nobody knows why they're here or how many of them are out there, and it's your job, as Commander of the elite special forces unit XCOM, to sort things out. You have at your disposal the best of the best, who'll research things for you, build things for you, and go out into the wide world and shoot things for you. The heart of the game is that last bit, where you guide your troops across the battlefield, looking for aliens to shoot and special rewards, like Meld, to collect.

Your first few missions are fairly simple, which is good news, as your base needs work and your soldiers are inexperienced numbskulls who can't hit the broad side of a barn. Over time, as you gather more materials, collect Meld to enhance your troops, autopsy the aliens you shoot, and level up your soldiers, you'll put together a crack force of hardened veterans, build a base filled with laboratories, workshops, and other useful gadgets, all in preparation for the endgame where you track down the alien base and destroy it.

You'll find yourself switching from tactical view to battlefield, eying up the best chances and making swift decisions. Do you intervene in India and stop an alien attack, or is it a better idea to wait and heal your troops? Nigeria, the USA and Japan are all screaming for help, and you have a satellite handy. Do you launch it and pacify one of those three, or save it in case of emergency? Russia's asking for materials from the UFO you just shot down, and promises aid to the project if you comply; is it a good idea, or do you need those materials more than Russia does?

As a tactical wargame experience, there's nothing as good as XCOM. When it works, it's the perfect squad-level game, and there's plenty of mission variety. The UFOs you shoot down need to be searched, alien attacks must be stopped before global panic spreads, the Council of Nations who signs the paychecks demands you do something dangerous in Canada, and so on. Enemy AI is extremely sharp, and will often outwit you if you're not careful. Plus there's an extraordinary variety of opposition out there, from human quislings EXALT to the savage Crysalids, Mutons, and psychic Sectoid Commanders. And that's just scratching the surface.

If it wasn't for the bugs ... I keep coming back to that, because the original game - though it had its faults - wasn't nearly as buggy as this. It's particularly aggravating in Ironman, where you can't take back a mistake. It's one thing to be stymied by your own stupidity, something else when the game smacks you in the face, potentially ruining hours of play.

Even with the bugs, it's getting a recommendation from me. Just don't play it on Ironman, at least not yet. Wait until it gets patched.

That's it for this installment! Next time, something for Night's Black Agents.

 PS: Since I wrote this, I've tried playing straight Classic, no Ironman. That seems to work fine. I haven't had a single crashout or experienced any major bugs. I'm beginning to wonder if this is something that only affects Ironman's save-every-turn function. In any case, I'm sure future patches will solve the problem. 

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Trail of Cthulhu Alternate History: Bookhounds and Bombings

Let's talk about Bookhounds of London, this time with the Irish in mind.

From the mid-1930s onwards, a man named Seán Russell, a very significant figure within the IRA Army Council, began planning a bombing campaign. It would later become known as the S-Plan, a series of targeted strikes, initially against custom houses within Norther Ireland, and later targets within Britain. Starting in January 1939, and continuing until March1940, around 300 explosions were set off in mail rooms, underground stations, railway station left-luggage rooms, and other targets. Not all of the devices were incendiary; several cinemas, for example, were targeted with tear gas and magnesium bombs, the intent being to panic and injure rather than kill. The most spectacular incident took place in Broadgate, Coventry, August 1939; over fifty people were wounded, and five killed. Historically the S-Plan is considered a bit of a bust, from an organization that had yet to really organize.

At much the same time, the German Abwehr (military intelligence) was taking an interest in Ireland. First contact was made in 1937, but nothing really came either of this or subsequent attempts to co-operate, though much consideration was given to supplying arms and munitions. The Germans had no love for the S-Plan; it didn't do nearly enough damage to military targets. In the end, after Operation Sea Lion was taken off the table, the Germans lost all interest in their Irish friends.    

From here I'm going to take a slightly different tack, and talk about the poet William Butler Yeats. Cthulhu players, and fans of Pagan's Golden Dawn campaign, will remember that Yeats was a significant figure within that occult organization;  he features prominently in Pagan's mini campaign, as a player-focused NPC support. He had a lifelong interest in the occult, was a member of the Ghost Club, a Hermetic scholar and a Theosophist. He was also a member of the IRA, in its earliest incarnation. Later in life, and particularly after the Great War, he began to revert to a more conservative and aristocratic type; he lost faith in democracy, and  distanced himself from the IRA. He began to drift towards fascism, expressing admiration both for Benito Mussolini and also O'Duffy's Blueshirts. He also experienced an unusual mid-life rejuvenation in 1934, courtesy of Eugen Steinach's vasoligature, an operation designed to reduce fatigue and the consequences of aging, while at the same time increasing sexual potency, through a form of vasectomy. Yeats died in January 1939, in France, where he was buried until 1948, at which point his friends were able to recover his remains and bury them in Sligo, as per Yeats' wishes.

With all that in mind, let's create a Trail NPC - possibly an antagonist, possibly an ally - who for the sake of this discussion will be Maurice / Mary Haire, Irish poet, playwright, mystic, sexual adventurer and radical.

Haire was born in 1865, and rose to prominence as a poet in the 1890s, with her Country of The Dead cycle, created during her association with the Rhymer's Club in London. Her exploits both public and private were the great scandal of the age, and led to her being arrested in 1894 and briefly imprisoned, an experience which would later form the basis of her epic Within the Walls of Troy. She's known to have been a member of the Dublin Hermetic Order from 1896 onwards, and formed a Ghost Circle in London in 1899, which she was the founding member and chair of until 1902, when there was a significant falling-out between her and the occultist Johnathon Haddo. The Circle survived until 1915, at which point it dissolved for lack of members, but by that time Haire was involved in other pursuits.

From 1924 onwards Haire became more and more enamored with the Fascist cause, seeing totalitarianism as the best way forward after the Great War demonstrated beyond doubt that democracy was a lost cause. She is vehemently anti-socialist; it is rumored, though by no means proved, that she was involved somehow in the assassination of socialist leader Gabriel Plenge, in Paris, 1928. She has visited Mussolini's Italy several times - a guest of honor at more than one Opera Nazionale Balilla event - and in 1934 visited Hitler's Germany for a surgical operation which, she claimed, extended her lifespan by at least ten years. Her social influence is still strong, despite her declining literary output, and she's involved in many different literary societies, occult groups and theaters in London, Paris and Dublin.

In a Bookhounds game, Haire is what a casino owner might describe as a whale; she spends money, and lots of it. Nobody's sure where that money's coming from. Certainly the rights to her many poems and plays must be worth a packet, but at the same time she's constantly embroiled in lawsuits, and is famous for making bad investments. Her political views are notorious, and she constantly claims that British Military Intelligence is "out to get her." It's less well known that she's very interested in calligraphy, papermaking, document analysis and forgery, and has many friends with a less than savory reputation.

It's up to the Keeper whether she's actually an Abwher asset, perhaps recruited during one of her many visits to Hitler's Germany, or an enthusiastic supporter of the IRA bombing campaign in London. Is she looking for someone capable of supplying forged documents, or a convenient safe house for illicit materials. Then there's that mysterious surgery in 1934, supposed to have rejuvenated her by a decade; what really happened over there, and was it mundane or mystical? Are Haire's mystical pursuits those of an enthusiastic amateur, or is she planning something more spectacular? Is she well versed in The Knowledge and, if so, why? Is it just something she's picked up over time, a skill she intends to use as part of a terrorist plot, or does she really intend something megapolisimantic?

Maurice / Mary Haire      Poet and literary genius, age mid-60s.
Stability 3, Sanity 7, Health 6
Athletics 2, Auction 12,  Drive 8, Espionage 8, Explosives 4, Firearms 4, Fleeing 9, Magic 14, Scuffling 4, Weapons 2

Alertness Modifier: +1 (deeply paranoid)
Stealth Modifier: -1

Investigative Specialties: Art, Library Use, Occult, The Knowledge
Potential Pool (if ally): 2, in any one of the above Specialties.

Three Things: Sexually liberated, and known for seeking the attention of younger lovers. Has a special fear of horses, brought on by an accident when she was a child. Enjoys drama, and constantly hints that she knows more than she's telling, whether she does or not.

Haire was in a relationship with the person the protagonists are trying to find more out about. It was years ago, and ended badly; Haire's exactly the kind of person to carry a grudge.

In an auction during which the protagonists were made to fight for whatever it was they were after, Haire is seen afterward slapping the face of the person the protagonists were bidding against. She seems in a towering rage, and shortly afterward the auctioneer is found dead. What was going on behind the scenes, and how is the auctioneer involved in all this?

Haire knows all about the S-Plan, but thinks it far too unambitious. She's using her contacts in Germany and Italy to supply her with materials, and is on the lookout for several occult texts, as well as a site she refers to as John Dee's Hidden Library. With those resources, and some dedicated occultists from her time with the Dublin branch of the Golden Dawn, at her disposal, she intends to bring London to its knees. The IRA is less than enthusiastic, but doesn't know what it can do to stop her, while the Abwher is alarmed at finding its intelligence asset suddenly co-opted by more esoteric groups within the SS. Moreover Haire herself is hardly the most stable of people. Nobody really knows why John Dee locked up his Hidden Library in 1594, with strict instructions that "my daughter Myfanwy not be mourned." There are no other records relating to this daughter, and many scholars believe she never existed; but those same scholars don't believe in the Hidden Library either. 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Batman Arkham Origins And Background In Your Campaign

I'm not going to bore you with my final conclusions about Batman: Arkham Origins. I agree wholeheartedly with Jim Sterling's review. The game has some good points, but all those good points are cribbed from Rocksteady; WB Montreal, if it wanted the gig, needed to show it could improve on Rocksteady's work, or at least make it feel different, and it failed abysmally. It even managed to make the fights and predator challenges dull, by giving you gadget upgrades that allow you to power through both without raising a sweat. If you really feel you have to, buy it on sale.

I've been playing Batman: Arkham Asylum again, to take the bad taste out of my mouth. One thing that struck me, as I happily chewed my way through Joker Teeth and riddles, was that, in Origins, I really missed the Riddler's constant chatter. If you've played Asylum then you know that, every fourth or fifth time you snatch a trophy or figure out a puzzle, the Riddler either taunts you - if you haven't solved enough - or goes into hysterics, as you get closer and closer to your goal. That really motivated me to get 100% completion; I wanted to make the Riddler cry. But it also helped that many of the riddles and interview tapes filled in back story for the universe, giving you, the player, a sense that there's a much larger world out there, even though the island itself is small. Origins has no riddles, and very few audio tapes. In fact, I've only found one, as part of a story quest; there may not be others. The Riddler - beg pardon, Enigma - says very little, only popping up to goad you once in a blue moon. That kills any motivation I might have had to get 100%. If the Riddler doesn't give a shit, why should I?

In tabletop, Keepers don't often give much thought to background detail. There are newspapers, radios, popular trends, social personalities; but if one turns up, it's because that person or event is plot specific. Seldom do you encounter any evidence that the world is larger than the adventure your characters happen to be on at the time. Is Hitler pontificating, or Mussolini making another threat? Are the Great Powers trying to negotiate another arms treaty? What's the League of Nations up to? For that matter, what's your neighbor up to? The answer is, not much; which is an opportunity missed.

You know you're going to use a newspaper article or a radio broadcast in your Trail scenario at some point, to convey information to the players. But why make it a generic Newspaper Article, like all the rest? Make it something from the gutter press, like Hearst's New York Journal, or Northcliff's Daily Mail; convey the information in that breathless You Need To Know style. And why that paper? Because it's the paper the character reads every day. It shouldn't just appear in that one scenario; it should pop up again and again. Vicious Murderer On The Loose! Tragedy In Times Square! Government Fails Again! Bribery At The Top! None of those stories have to be relevant to the game, but they're relevant to the game world; they establish the kind of environment the characters live in, and may shape how they feel about it.

The same goes for radio, film, and possibly television if your campaign's advanced that far. Has Hitler given yet another speech? How are things in Spain? Not only can this help develop the game world, it also can provide useful background for campaign events. Do you, as Keeper, intend to have German agents seeking ancient tomes in your Bookhounds campaign? Then Hitler's Nazi party had better be in the news, all the time. Will you go for an Egyptian Arabesque theme? Then the news segments that come on before the film starts ought always to be about yet more thrilling discoveries in the Valley of the Kings. Are strange foreigners exporting books from war-torn Madrid? Then news of the Civil War ought to be hitting the headlines, and so on.

But what about personalities? Again, the exact type will depend on the campaign, but again the characters should be meeting people all the time, who have nothing to do with the current adventure. Bookhound auctions are a great place for meeting odd dilettantes, defrocked priests, stage magicians, criminals; people who might bid, and even win an auction or two every so often. Here's old Eustace again, the characters ought to be saying; I wonder what he's up to? Or, is that mystery buyer acting on Lord So-and-So's behalf? I never could work out whether that chap Forsythe actually has Military Intelligence connections. Didn't I see her down at Club Hades the other night? By establishing these people, the Keeper's also establishing the kind of environment they inhabit and, by extension, the characters live in. Are all politicians corrupt? Then the characters had better meet some corrupt politicians. Is life utterly sordid? Then pornographers and sex scandals are the rule of thumb. Did you shoot for an Egyptian theme? Then socialite Lucy Quentin had best be wearing the latest Egyptian-style fashions. And there should be cats. Lots and lots of cats.

It becomes more problematic with a globe-trotting campaign, like Night's Black Agents. All of the above assumes a relatively static base, but someone who's in Athens one week and Moscow the next can't rely on getting a copy of the Daily News every day. Faces blur, like those of a crowd in airport departures; so many, all blending into one mass. What to do?

Well, there's a reason why James Bond's iconic drink is a vodka martini, shaken not stirred; why his firearm is a Walther PPK; why he drives a Bentley. Bond carries his world with him. His identity is firmly established by what he wears, smokes, eats, drives, uses. He exists in a bubble all his own, and so ought your players. Do they live on the ragged edge? Then all their safe houses are in the worst part of town. Do they love gambling? Then all the staff in every major casino knows them by sight, and will have their favorite drink on standby. It's no less than they'd do for any other whale, after all. Are they gun nuts? Then every arms dealer they ever meet knows them by reputation, if not by personal experience, just like Lazar knew Bond in The Man With The Golden Gun. Are they the sort of people with contacts everywhere? Then other fixers all over the globe know them, and treat them with respect. The outcome is different in each case but the motivating factor is the same: the character carries the world with him, and the world responds in kind.

I hope you found this useful! Next time, with luck, I'll have forgotten all about Origins and found something new to obsess over.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Not Quite First Impressions Corner: Batman Arkham Origins

To begin with: yes, I write for the Escapist, no, this has nothing to do with the Escapist, it's entirely my own thing, and no, this isn't a review. I've only been playing Batman Arkham Origins for about 4 hours on Hard difficulty; I've penetrated Penguin's lair, and am currently fighting Deathstroke.

If someone were to ask me, right now, whether or not this was a good buy, I'd have to say no. Wait for a sale.

I don't have that option - video games never go on sale down here, particularly console versions - and besides, I enjoyed the first two episodes, so I didn't mind shelling out for this one. The first two were made by Rocksteady; in 2009 Arkham Asylum put that studio on the map, and in 2010 Warner Brothers bought the studio.  City followed soon thereafter, and was a huge success. Then something odd happened. Though a sequel to City had been announced in 2012, there were mixed messages about its content - was it Silver Age, was Paul Dini attached as writer, who would voice Batman and the Joker? - and in February 2013 it was announced that Rocksteady would not be the developer this time out. Instead, Warner Brothers Montreal would be the folks in charge. Perhaps it was thanks to talent drain; a Rocksteady developer lamented in February 2012 that an unfriendly business climate at home was forcing UK developers abroad. Be that as it may, from Feb 2013 to its release that October, Montreal was in charge, and to my mind, it shows.

After four hours, I haven't seen anything here that I didn't see in City. The environment's the same, since every outdoors location so far - and again, it's only been four hours, so that could change - has come from City. That same covered mall which was sprinkled with mines and a pain in the Bat-side to sneak around in City, is where I just foiled Penguin's gun deal in Origins. The same environments and rooftops I glided around in City, I'm gliding around now. The only thing missing is that bloody great wall, and Strange's armed thugs; but if early gameplay teasers are any indication, SWAT will be playing the role of Strange's Tiger teams. No doubt as soon as they appear, so will the choppers I remember spying on me in City. At least the wall hasn't been built yet.

The interior locations are a change of pace. Blackgate didn't really stand out. I'm enjoying Penguin's floating casino, though it seems a little small for what it is, and I can't help thinking that the basic premise is much the same as Penguin's Museum base in City. There are signal jammers outside, so deal with them first. Bust in to Penguin's lair, find your way to the fight pit, have a big fight, have a mini boss fight, move on. The Electrocutioner first appears in Penguin's lair, and what a big bag of wind he turns out to be, but the character that wins my 'least enjoyable' award so far is Tracey, Penguin's secretary. I've heard better Mockney from Jamie Oliver. The writers didn't dare say Fuck, but Bugger's ok, is it? Numpty? Have the 1970's returned, and nobody's told me?

I don't think Tracey's from the books, but I haven't followed comics since I was in uni, so I can't be sure. I hope, if she is, she gets better treatment there. Her biography doesn't say one way or the other, which is a departure from the other games; Rocksteady was always pretty good about telling you who first appeared where, and when.

The boss fights are interesting, but really not significantly different from previous outings. Killer Croc, who you fight early on, has broadly the same tactics as the Titan-boosted thugs found in both previous titles and the minor boss Siamese twin goons seen in City. He's quicker, but that's about it. Stun him, hit him, and keep hitting him. There's a really annoying Hit A Repeatedly QTE half-way through; I hope you have strong thumbs. But the bigger problem in that fight is the camera, which whooshes around like a drunk on a spree. You don't see enough of the Electrocutioner in his first fight to really test his mettle. Deathstroke has a curious block-block-hit him thing going on, but if you remember Ra's al Ghul's fight in City, you'll see a lot of similarities. It doesn't take place in a dream zone, but other than that, it's a very familiar fight.

Speaking of fights, yes, they're just as you remember them, and just as fun to plow through. The upgrade system is very odd. You get experience, much as you did before - hit things, smash objects, do well in predator encounters - but before you can buy any fun combat upgrades, you have to buy all the armor upgrades first. I've just bought the Blade Takedown, which will help deal with those pesky knife-users, but I had to fully upgrade my close combat armor first. Other combat moves are specific to bullet resistant armor, which I haven't fully upgraded yet. I'm not sure what difference that system makes to gameplay, but it did make me feel as though I was being forced to upgrade the way the developers wanted me to, rather than as I wanted to.

Again, this is a first impressions, not a review. I will play through to the end - I may even tell you what I thought of it, once it's done - but so far, I'm not impressed. Arkham City felt completely different to Asylum, right out of the gate. Origins feels like City's warmed-up leftovers. That's not necessarily a bad thing - City was a brilliant game - but it's not great for WB Montreal that my initial thought, as soon as I see the outdoor environments, is 'hang on, Rocksteady was here first - and Rocksteady was better.'     

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Trail of Cthulhu Sordid London: Fabian of the Yard

Detective Inspector Robert Fabian, ex-Scotland Yard, author, and TV personality, is one of those sources you have to treat with caution. His book, London After Dark, is in my collection, and it's an entertaining read.  The difficulty is, Fabian's a relentless self-publicist intent on creating his own mythology, and you have to be cautious about taking his word as gospel. That said, anyone seeking source material for a Bookhounds of London game would do well to seek out a copy, particularly if they want to create a Sordid London setting. Endless data mining can be had, provided you're prepared to hold your nose when Fabian goes off on another tangent.

Bob Fabian started his police career in the early 1920s, and rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Detective Superintendent, and head of the Vice Squad. He's the eponymous pipe-smoking British hero, the kind of brains-and-brawn policeman that wouldn't have been out of place in an Agatha Christie novel. If he ever failed, you wouldn't know it by London After Dark; time after time, he collars the crook he's after, often in spectacular fashion. After retirement he turned his career into a television series, Fabian of the Yard, drawn from episodes of his career, bookended by appearances by Fabian himself, describing what happened in the real-life case. And what a career it must have been; everything from dope king Eddie Manning right through to Satanist enclaves and perverts in the 1950s. Fabian's the sort of detective who'll casually describe blacks as having the "brains of children" while at the same time displaying pictures of himself having a pint with his "colored" friends; who'll describe marihuana and cocaine in the most lurid terms imaginable; who'll casually link homosexuality with perversion and child molestation. He's a man of his times, no error, and very fond of the spotlight to boot. It's not as if he was the only one publishing his memoirs - Edward Greeno's War On The Underworld's well worth looking at, among others - but there's something slightly off-putting about Fabian's eagerness to be in the center of things. As a reader, you're left with the impression he'd let nothing stand in the way of a good story, which can be very worrying if you're relying on your source for factual accuracy.

As this is Trail of Cthulhu we're talking about, factual accuracy is the least of our worries. Let's get down to cases, and talk about two useful things to be drawn from Fabian's reminisces: night clubs, and young criminals.

"There are 295 registered clubs within one mile of Eros Statue in Piccadilly," says Fabian, "where music, dancing drinks and companions await the well-filled wallet. The job is to empty that wallet - whether they do it with pink champagne and satin-quilted walls; or by meth-and-ginger ale, marijuana cigarettes and tope-jumpy teenage girls who, for two pounds, would cuddle a baboon." Of course, if there are 295 registered clubs, there are bound to be plenty of unregistered ones too - Fabian claims to know of fifteen - none of them very expensive to set up or run. A single room, a few tables, some chairs, and girls; that's all a clubman needs. Then, much as now, a club could shut up in a week crushed by debt, or run for years with the efficiency and morals of a rat trap. Some were very inventive. "The Hell Club ... was installed with hidden lighting that changed color slowly, at a time when this was quite a novelty, and sank from pink to deep red and ghastly purple, and with various effects to make flickering shadows. I have no doubt that some of the patrons must have thought they had actually arrived!" Or there were the American clubs, like the 21 and the Be-Bop, with the exotic appeal of the foreign and unfamiliar. It was a toss-up which approach worked better, the no-expense-spared or the budget option; a club's appeal is ephemeral, and often depends as much on the mood of the moment as the decor or the head waiter.

From a Bookhounds point of view, the typical Club is in Westminster, and the contacts most often met there are barmen, bright young things, inspectors and bobbies (during a raid), prostitutes and gamblers. Gambling is illegal in London, as is prostitution, which - according to Fabian - led to a novel defense against the income tax brigade. Fabian alleged that, when asked, notorious women would declare without shame "I am a prostitute of London," at which point the income tax inspectors backed hurriedly away. The last thing they wanted to do was get involved. Gamblers had a different problem; when they lost, they were expected to pay up. Sometimes gamblers relied on the Gaming Act, which essentially said that debts arising from gambling were unenforceable. They hoped to brazen it out. But if their creditor has criminal connections, they might sell the debt on to a gang, which has its own means of debt collection.

 Now let's talk about criminals.

"'Pity you wasn't here last night, Mr. Fabian,' said the barman. 'You never seen such a mess as those villains made of that girl!'" They suspected her of being a nark, a police informant. The three walked into the bar, ordered three pints, and a bottle of brandy. They drank their beer, then poured the brandy into an empty pint pot. "'He goes across to this girl. Have a drink, Rabbit, he says, and tips it all over her. Face, hair, clothes - the lot! Ever get neat brandy in your eyes, Mr. Fabian? Well, she starts to scream, claws at her eyeballs. He just grins. He takes out his cigarette lighter and calmly sets her off like a Christmas pudding!"

 It's well known that the police and the criminals they chase, in period, seldom carry firearms. That doesn't stop violence; if anything, it becomes more inventive. Some of the worst offenders are children. They might wear makeshift armor, metal shields under their shirts that cover them from wrist to elbow, intended to protect their arms and wrists from knives, razors and chains. They always have some kind of sharp weapon, whether it's a set of rings with hooks embossed, or fish hooks sewn into their jacket sleeves and hat brims. If that sounds like something trivial, imagine having half a dozen fish hooks embedded in your face, then pulled out in one long scraping motion, just by a seeming casual brush-by. There isn't a criminal in London that goes unarmed, and the Keeper should assume each has the equivalent of a knife (-1) at the least. The only saving grace, when dealing with a professional crook, is that the pro is usually too careful to get mixed up in violence. They don't like prison, but it's never difficult to find an amateur - again, often children, or teens - willing to do something drastic for a nominal fee. "There are crazy young hoodlums of the underworld, hungry to make a reputation for being tough, who will slash your face for twenty five pounds, though they know they will be arrested within a very short time of doing it!"

But there are gunmen. "The true gunman is always slender, with agitated appearance, like a man who has been kept waiting. He is solitary. Also, he loves his gun. He cleans it frequently. When I arrested the gunman who did London's first daylight armed robbery of a jeweler's in Oxford Street, he was busy loading his gun in his bedroom. He had polished every cartridge until it glittered. If he hadn't been so particular his gun might have been loaded when we burst in." The true gunman always has grey eyes, according to Fabian; make of it what you will. The gunman knows that his natural prey - cashiers and clerks, perhaps carrying payroll - is also armed, but they couldn't hit a doorway at ten paces, and frequently don't bother to take care of their weapons. The true gunman doesn't fear them, but he'll be wary of shooting a policeman, not because he has a conscience but because he knows that, as soon as the deed's done, every single patrolman and officer - 16,000 men - will be after him, day and night. And after arrest, the hangman. 

I hope you found this useful! I may return to Fabian later; he's a fund of odd trivia, even if I wonder about his reliability as a source.


Thursday, 26 September 2013

Digital Intrusion (Nights Black Agents)

There are all kinds of techno toys on offer in Night's Black Agents, but - as the NSA has done its best to remind us - communications, electronic or otherwise, are very vulnerable to attack. This can have severe consequences for the Agents, but can also be used by them to good effect. What possibilities are there?

To begin with, telephonic communication is extremely vulnerable. There are several sophisticated gadgets that have been built for the sole purpose of intercepting and tracking phones and their data, but I'm only going to talk about a couple: the Kingfish, and Gossamer.

Kingfish is a small device, easily hidden in a suitcase, that can be operated wirelessly, with a Bluetooth-enabled PC.  According to Ars Technica, Kingfish "does not appear to enable interception of communications; instead, it can covertly gather unique identity codes and show connections between phones and numbers being dialed." It's the perfect device for keeping tabs on those pesky Agents; one call, and you're caught, and each call you make extends the net, until the user knows exactly who you've been talking to, and when. While it does not appear to be able to intercept communications, there are upgrades which may enable that functionality, as well as other upgrades that extend its range and allow it to home in on a selected telephone number. The chief attraction, from the Keeper's perspective, is its relative inexpensiveness compared to similar devices on the market. A price tag of $25,349 puts it well within range of a civilian, or criminal, group.

Gossamer is slightly less expensive, at $19,696. "It sends out a covert signal that tricks phones into handing over their unique codes," says Ars Technica, allowing it to identify users and home in on particular devices of interest. It''s also smaller than Kingfish, being about the size of a clunky walkie talkie. But the real sting in Gossamer's tail is its denial of service attack; it can overwhelm a target, preventing it from receiving or making calls. Ever wondered how you can stop the Agents from making that vital phone call? Wonder no more. 

In game, the Keeper should use devices like these as Electronic Surveillance or Digital Intrusion tools. In the event of a Contest, possession could reduce Difficulty, if the Keeper's feeling generous. Obtaining one should be very difficult; the devices mentioned here are at the cheap end of the spectrum, but more sophisticated systems can run into the hundreds of thousands. 

Of course, there are other ways of getting hold of data. Hacking's been popular ever since WarGames, but what if you lack the skills to do it yourself? Hire someone, of course, and there are plenty of someones out there. Kapersky Lab has been tracking groups like these for some time. Icefog's a tight-knit group that's been attacking government institutions, military contractors, maritime and ship-building groups, telecom operators, satellite operators, industrial and high technology companies and mass media, mainly in Japan and South Korea, since at least 2011. Shanghai-based Comment Crew have been going after US and Canadian targets since 2006. Hidden Lynx, another Chinese crew, has been active since 2009, and has hit targets in 15 regions across the globe. "Given the breadth and number of targets and regions involved, we infer that [Hidden Lynx] is most likely a professional hacker-for-hire operation that is contracted by clients to provide information," Symantec researchers claim. "They steal on demand, whatever their clients are interested in, hence the wide variety and range of targets."

But should you choose to hire mercenaries, there's always a risk you'll get burned. Does a bought hacker stay loyal? Are your own machines free of the organization's malware? If they're willing to sell anyone's data, then they certainly have their hooks in yours; after all, you never know when it will be strategically useful to sell on a former employer's information.

In game, the most likely employer for organizations like these is the Conspiracy, but it's up to the Keeper whether they've been subverted or not. A subverted group is likely to be small - Icefog numbers perhaps 10 in all, but Hidden Lynx has 100 - mainly because it's difficult to keep large groups of highly independent people, like hackers, quiet, without using force or significant economic resources. This is particularly the case with groups like Hidden Lynx and the Comment Crew, which may - or may not - have Chinese government connections.

And then, as this somewhat mournful NBC news blog points out, there are all the usual ways of tracking a person. Cameras read your license plate. Other security cameras dot your path in every major city, tracking your movements on foot. Social media users, and computer users in general, are always being monitored by someone, either for marketing or more sinister purposes. Each swipe of a fob to get you in and out of a building is traceable. Just by reading this blog, you're being watched by someone ... and it almost certainly isn't just me.

But what about email? Surely there are services out there that are uncrackable? Would that it were so, but in the wake of the Snowden affair it's become painfully obvious that there's no such thing as a secure email provider. Snowden's provider Lavabit shut down not long after the NSA story broke. It claimed it would rather not have the data than hand it over to the government. After Lavabit came SilentCircle, a company that had, until that point, offered a secure means of communication. Its CEO, Michael Janke, said he saw "the writing on the wall," and destroyed Silent Circle's servers. The problem was the data: by keeping it on the servers, it was constantly vulnerable to seizure. "It is always better to be safe than sorry," said Janke, "and with your safety we decided that the worst decision is always no decision." SilentCircle also pointed out that, even if the information within the email could somehow be kept secure, the metadata - who sent it, when, and to whom - is always vulnerable. The email protocols demand it, because without it nobody would ever be able to send a message. "Email as we know it with SMTP, POP3, and IMAP cannot be secure," said Janke.

I hope this gave the Keepers out there some useful information! Just remember, in the internet age, someone's always watching ... and you'll never know who. Until it's too late.