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?