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.