Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Lamp That Tweets: Night's Black Agents

Here's a fun idea: why not put together a bug - total cost about $100, set up time maybe two hours - install it in a lamp, and then Tweet everything the bug overhears, in real time? That's what the creators of Conversnitch set out to do, and the resulting Twitter feed's been live for months. It's all part of an ongoing experiment to bring public surveillance into the wider conversation, by showing people just how easy it is to set up a surveillance feed. Some technical expertise required, naturally, but  once that hurdle's jumped anything's possible.

As a device, it achieves its objective. The only mild disappointment is that it relies on live workers to transcribe and Tweet the end result; it'd be so much more sinister if it was completely automated. Probably it could be automated, but doing so would certainly bump up the cost.

From a Night's Black Agents perspective, what does this device achieve?

As a piece of surveillance equipment, not much. Yes, it's neat, but it does little out of the ordinary. The main attraction here is the live Tweeting, broadcasting people's unconsidered conversations for all the world to see. As a device to give to the antagonists so they can overhear the protagonists' conversations, it's a bit of a bust.

But suppose that wasn't its purpose?

There are at least two possibilities here: the accidental Tweet, and the revenge Tweet.

In the accident version, the protagonists - or someone they care about - happens to be standing near one of these lamps when they say something indiscreet. It could be anything, and could have happened anywhere; that's the beauty of it.  The ones who set up the device, in this instance, would be artists and academics conducting an experiment, just as in the original example. They don't know what's so important about this particular conversation, but someone else does, and happens to discover the live Tweet stream. Cue chaos, as the protagonists' latest plan is revealed by an art project gone wrong.

The revenge Tweet has slightly more potential. In this example, the person who sets up the device isn't affiliated with the Conspiracy, but has reason to be pissed off with the protagonists. This person sets up the bug with an automated Tweet feature, and plants it somewhere useful. Then anything the protagonist says ends up on Twitter, constantly. There's no turning it off, or pressing pause; whatever's said ends up as 140 characters in a long stream of Tweets. Imagine the potential for chaos, as the protagonist's secrets and fears are plastered all over the internet. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Dark Ages Cthulhu: A New Jerusalem

A short while back, someone asked what they'd have to do in order to get a copy of A New Jerusalem, a Dark Ages scenario written for Hammercon a few years back. Well, now you know; all you have to do is ask!

If the Hammercon folks want me to take it down for whatever reason, down it comes; but I doubt they'll object. The scenario is here, and the pregens are here, here, here, here, here and also here!.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Hackers and Haunted Coke Machines: Night's Black Agents

There's a couple of articles I'm going to urge you to read, and one of them can be found at the New York Times. It discusses hacking and infiltration techniques, and leads off with an intriguing story about a Chinese takeaway menu.

Hackers discovered that their chosen target was a little too secure for comfort. Rather than bash their heads against a firewall, they decided on a watering hole trap: their malware infested the online takeaway menu of a nearby Chinese restaurant, popular with the target's staff. End result: the staff went online from their work machines, browsed the menu, and got an extra helping of virus with their sweet 'n sour. That gave the hackers a foothold into the system, and since one system is often connected to all the others, they soon were able to infect the entire network.

I'm going to go out on a limb - though not very far - and suggest that, as a plan of attack, Western military targets are probably very vulnerable to this kind of exploit. A security system is only as secure as its stupidest user, and you meet some real prize winners in the military. I can just picture a base's security network penetrated thanks to the squaddies' love of chips, curry and pizza. But that's by the way.

The article goes on to note that, in most cases, a watering hole tactic like this probably isn't necessary. Many companies sabotage their own security efforts, by bringing in Coke machines and other outside vendor equipment. Remember when I said earlier that one system is often connected to all the others? That's also the case with every single outside vendor's device. Gone are the days when a Coke machine was just a coin-operated snack dispenser; now they boast all kinds of sophisticated systems to let the supplier know when the machine's empty, broken, or otherwise needs maintenance. Except not too sophisticated, since they often run on older OS like Windows XP, or even have their security protocols switched off by default on installation. Yet the Coke machine - or more likely, projector, HVAC equipment and so on - is probably hooked up to the company's internal systems, even in instances where there's no good reason for the connection. Exploit the Coke machine, and you exploit the company.

Which, incidentally, leads straight back to a very old story, for here's an example of a Trojan that, actually and for true, relies on a Trojan Horse. But that's a joke for the classicists. 

This article sparked an unusual train of thought over at Gizmodo, where an editorial pounces on the use of the word 'adversary' by one of the Times' security experts and, by linking 'adversary' with Satan, suggests that this use of one particular word means that cybersecurity experts are obsessed with cursed objects. The discussion "takes on an air of almost Catholic exorcism," according to the editorial. I'm not going to delve too far into the Gizmodo piece, except to say that I think the writer makes far too much of a meal out of 'adversary,' taking it out of context to prove a rather oddball point.

But when taken in conjunction with the core concept of Night's Black Agents, we can really have some fun with the idea. Why not have haunted hackers? Why not have possessed vending machines, projectors serving the whims of Satan, and other mechanical invaders happily passing on data to their masters?

With that in mind, here are some stats for a possessing spirit:


Abilities: Digital Intrusion 8, Health 1
Special: Possession (mechanical), Hive Mind
Blocks: in a supernatural setting, holy symbols may act as a Block for the Creeper0741
Compulsion: Spread infection.
Notes: The Creeper0741 is a standard infiltration tool used by some Conspiracy-backed hackers. It can Possess anything that uses microchip technology; it cannot exist outside of a microchip. Often the hacker will carry around a small portable device with the Creeper installed, place the device against the object the hacker wishes to infect, wait a few moments and then leave, taking the device. The Creeper will have made the leap from the hacker's infecting item to the other device and, since it has the Hive Mind ability, so long as the hacker retains the original infecting item the hacker will be able to 'see' whatever the Creeper sees. The Creeper can infect as many devices as it has Digital Intrusion points. An individual Creeper is extremely weak and has no defenses, but of course as a spirit entity it cannot be damaged by bullets or knives. However an electrical overload will clean it out. Some hackers claim that 'free' Creepers exist out on the net which have grown exponentially, increasing its Digital Intrusion by leaps and bounds. Theoretically if a free Creeper were to be captured, any device it has infected will be brought under the captor's control. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

Trail of Cthulhu Disasters: It's All Gone A Bit Pete Tong

I've written at least one published scenario about a well-known disaster and there may be more on the way - he says, teasingly - so I thought I'd talk about how mass death and destruction can be incredibly useful to a Keeper.

There are all kinds of potential disasters: train wrecks, ship wrecks, plane wrecks, burning buildings, avalanches, earthquakes, volcanoes, plagues, as many as you can think of right now and more besides. Yet we don't pay the kind of attention to this sort of event that we used to. Many of us have forgotten just how close we are to disaster at all times, a fact I was reminded of the other day when re-reading Monty Egg detective stories.

There's a moment in one train-set tale when Monty tells the detective that he sat in the middle of the carriage, because that's where it's safest. That's true enough, but it's an old story: when trains crashed, the wooden carriages used to fold up like accordions, pressed on both ends by unbelievable force. If you were sat at the end of the accordion, you'd be mashed into paste. Monty Egg was a 1930s detective, and he knew enough about train wrecks to know what to do; but we've come a long way since then. Carriages aren't made of wood, and train wrecks are much less frequent than they would have been in the Victorian period, which gave rise to the lore that Monty's drawing on.

From a Keeper's perspective, there are many obvious advantages to a disaster story, among them the following:

  1. The crisis provides an immediate impetus for action. Players sat aboard a train might spend hours guessing and second-guessing the plot. Players sat aboard a train that is just about to crash know exactly what's going on.
  2. The crisis provides an immediate opportunity for heroism. Yes, the Titanic's sinking, but what do you do about it? Do you give up your lifebelt, or your seat in the rowboat? Do you help the third class passengers past the locked gate that is keeping them trapped below decks? Alternatively, do you as a male passenger put on a dress and try to escape drowning disguised as a woman?
  3. The setting is immediately established, and understandable. This last is particularly important: in a globe-trotting situation where the plotline is elaborate, peppered with double and triple-crosses, players can easily lose track of what's going on, or even where they are in the story. Not everyone knows what a thoroughly modern office building looks like, or what the difference is between a Japanese thoroughly modern building and a similar one in Los Angeles or Moscow. Yet if you set that building on fire and put the characters right in the middle of the mess, all becomes clear. Nobody's going to wonder about the security system, or even the building's layout. Their only concern is, where's the fire? And how can we get away from it?
  4. The crisis can be immediate, or it can be prolonged, or both. A plague is different from a train wreck; its effects last longer, and there is a lack of immediate action. Yet suppose a train wreck should occur in the middle of the wilderness. There is the immediate crash-bang of the event itself, but that is followed by some time - days, even weeks - with lack of food, medical supplies, or outside help. That sets up an escalating scale of challenges, all of which the protagonists will have to deal with.
    1. As an aside, remember the Orient Express, the byword in luxury train travel, caught in a snow drift for 10 days in 1929. As it happened, that event ended without incident - though it did inspire at least one novel - but it could have ended very differently. There are many different ways to plot a disaster; crashes and bangs are only one option.
  5. It provides the perfect opportunity and setting for a spectacular confrontation with the main antagonist, whoever that may be. It's one thing to chase down a mummy in the tombs of ancient Egypt; quite another to deal with the mummy and a sinking luxury liner at the same time. 
    1. The novel The Beetle features a spectacular train crash at its conclusion. Imagine for a moment a different-but-related scenario: say the protagonists are chasing a vampiric entity, and have cornered it - or so they believe - aboard the train. There is an unexpected wreck, and in the devastation it seems as if the main enemy is destroyed. But it has been spreading its contagion among the passengers, and now rather than deal with one 'adult' vampire the group has to contest with several fledgelings, all of whom want only to escape. Or perhaps they're too hungry to care about escape ...
  6.  It has a natural and understandable plot arc, with achievable goals. The initial goal is blindingly obvious - escape with your life - but that leads to other goals, all of which spring from the first. Saving innocent lives, finding out how the disaster occurred, preventing further disasters, surviving the aftermath of the disaster, all of these goals flow from the first incident and don't require a great deal of player buy-in to make sense. There's no meeting-mysterious-strangers-in-taverns here; it's all perfectly straightforward. Consider narratives like the Swiss Family Robinson, or Robinson Crusoe. The initial disaster isn't the whole of the story; it's only the prelude to a series of adventures based on the set-up that the disaster provided. Jules Verne's Mysterious Island takes a very similar idea and turns it almost otherworldly, by adding his techno-pirate Captain Nemo into the mix.
That's enough from me for now! Talk again soon.


Monday, 7 April 2014

Not Quite Book Review Corner: The Strain Hogan/Del Toro

This time out I'm going to be talking about the Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan vampire collaboration, The Strain, first of a trilogy. It's also going to become a TV series, allegedly, though since this is in development and it is Fox behind it, the deal may collapse under its own weight before it hits the small screen. Del Toro I assume you've heard of by now, if you've any interest in horror at all. Hogan is less well known, though if you're a fan of crime then you may have come across his novel-turned-movie The Town. I'm not sure how the two of them got together, though if I had to bet money I'd say it was thanks to a kindly publisher.

The novel is set in current day New York. A Boeing 777 has just landed at JFK and everything, right up to the landing itself, seems normal. Except soon after its last transmission everything goes dark, and when the authorities finally board they discover all the passengers and crew are - seemingly - dead. The CDC's Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather discovers a small number of survivors, including a rock star, a kid, a co-pilot and a tort attorney, all of whom are whisked off to safety while the dead are packed off to several nearby hospital morgues. Except those corpses don't stay there very long, and the survivors start exhibiting some very peculiar symptoms. Before you know it the dead are walking, and a wizened survivor of Nazi concentration camps appears telling anyone who'll listen that Vampires are invading the Big Apple.

So far, so very cinematic, and there are plenty of touches here that scream Del Toro. I'm not as familiar with Hogan's work as to be able to pick out his contributions from the rest of the text, but I'll go out on a limb and say he did the majority of the writing while Del Toro was the ideas man. There are moments that would look magnificent on screen, but have little or no narrative use, like the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse event that has no purpose other than to let people use the word Occult very knowledgeably. There's also an early cut-away to the International Space Station that exists for no other reason than to let the action be pictured from above by characters who will never be plot-relevant again. You can almost picture Del Toro looking down his nose at a production company's accountant and saying 'it is vital to my vision! Without it, there is no film!'

The central idea is almost too large for comfort. When Stephen King does the same thing with Salem's Lot about two thousand people are wiped out; an unimaginable tragedy, but a small one in the grand scheme of things. About as many died when the Titanic sank. The small scale also allows King to set up several main-character-development vignettes, and establish backgrounds for the dozens of minor players who are about to get caught up in events. You can't do the same thing when 8.4 million people potentially are at risk, and the City itself lacks life thanks in part to the impossibility of conveying the identity of all the different locations the novel touches on. It all becomes very blurred. You don't get the same sense of place, and as a writer there's a risk - which I suspect the creative team fell foul of - that you'll end up broad-brushing a few iconic scenes in the hope that the reader's seen enough TV shows to fill in the blanks. 

The motivation of the central antagonists is also a little shaky. We're told there are several elders operating behind the scenes, and that the one who's causing all the trouble is a rogue who doesn't play by the rules. We're also introduced to an elderly financier whose willingness to cheat death no matter the cost is the spark that sets off the fireworks display. Yet the financier lacks any kind of motivation or characterization, and I can't help wondering if we're not supposed to dislike him because Duh, Money Men Are Teh Evilz, and not because he's willing to get everyone killed so he can live forever. You have to wonder why he wants eternal life if, as seems entirely plausible, civilization will come crashing down soon afterwards and the piles of cash in his money bin are about to become worthless. Who wants to live forever as a pauper?

Why, for that matter, is the rogue master buying in? If the novel's central conceit is to be believed, it never needs the financier. The money man's sole purpose is to buy the rogue master a plane ticket and make sure his coffin gets on board the Boeing. But if that's so then anyone could have done what the financier does; not as efficiently, true, but who cares about efficiency when you can slaughter every one of the Boeing's passengers and crew in five seconds flat? And how did it pull off that trick? There's nothing in the novel that suggests it has that kind of power, apart from the inciting event, and you'd think that if it could just knock everyone out and kill them within seconds then the rest of Manhattan ought to be about ten minute's work. Yet clearly that isn't so. Again, I see the hand of Del Toro in that magnificent, cinematic moment when the CDC team boards the aircraft and finds everyone dead, lying there as if asleep; but although the scene looks good, it'd seem that neither Del Toro nor Hogan really knew what to do with the idea after it germinated.

Where this novel kicks off is in the initial investigative scenes, where Dr Goodweather and his team start putting the pieces together. Many of the subsequent action scenes are also very fun to read, and the vampire physiology - which I won't spoil here - is an intriguing mix of folklore and biological fantasy. This is also one of the novel's less solid conceits, since it means reconciling ideas like 'they can't cross water' with 'holy water and crucifixes are just superstitions, and it's all working like a disease, really.' The two philosophies don't work well together, and eventually the wizened concentration camp survivor has to fling up his hands and say, 'look, I don't know why it's so, I just know that it's so, okay?'

I'd recommend this novel to anyone looking for Night's Black Agents inspiration, particularly for those trying to get away from the usual vampire tropes. There's a lot of inspirational stuff here, and though in the end Del Toro seems not to be wearing any clothes, he does naked very well. There's an artistic brilliance in the idea, even if it does fall apart on closer inspection. Without knowing Hogan's style better than I do, I don't want to say that one thing or another is his fault or his idea, but were I Hogan I suspect I'd be closing my eyes to the problem and cashing a well-deserved paycheck. It is, at times, an excellent vampire novel and any horror fan will find things to like about it. Whether they like the finished product in its totality is something else again, but it's well worth a look at even so.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Faces in the Crowd: Monty Egg & Inspector Japp (Trail of Cthulhu)

From time to time it occurs to me that campaigns can benefit from borrowing fictional characters. Not the famous ones, necessarily; there's a danger of overkill if the protagonists suddenly realize they're dealing with Sherlock Holmes, for example. The non player character shouldn't overshadow the player characters, and someone of Holmes' reputation is bound to take up center stage. In my own scenarios I've borrowed real people, like Holmes' creator, but I've tried to keep them as advisers or background color. Anything else risks derailing the plot.

Yet there are times when a more obscure fiction could come in handy, and for this post I'm going to talk about two detectives: Dorothy Sayers' Monty Egg, and Agatha Christie's Inspector Japp.

Montague Egg is a commercial traveler, operating on behalf of wine merchants Plummet & Rose, Piccadilly. He's a young man, well mannered, and usually well - if not expensively - dressed. He served in the War, though there's no mention of any distinctions, and is unmarried. There's no suggestion of a romantic life; the closest Egg gets to that is in Maher-shalal-hasbaz, in which he comes to the rescue of a young woman. Like most fictional detectives, his personal life isn't nearly as important as his deductive ability, and Monty scores here by being both observant and, in his own field, very clever. In once case, Sleuths on the Scent, he picks out which, of all the people currently in the same pub as he, is the chemist suspect the police are looking for, because he knows how chemists will pour out small samples from a bottle. In The Poisoned Dow '08, he suspects the killer - a servant - from the start because the last time Egg called at the house the servant was rude to him, whereas on this occasion he's startlingly polite. He's the sort of person who knows a lot of little things, and is willing to put the work in. His characteristic habit is to quote from his favorite reading material, The Salesman's Handbook, which contains such gems as:

To serve the public is the aim of every salesman worth the name.

Don't trust to luck but be exact, and certify the smallest fact.

The salesman who will use his brains will spare himself a world of pains.

The salesman with the open eye sees commissions mount up high.

A commercial traveler, for those not familiar with the term, is a traveling salesman. He might own his own car, or travel by train; Egg has a car. He goes from place to place persuading customers to order his company's spirits, in an age long before the internet, and in Egg's case he usually targets individual buyers rather than trade orders. A commercial traveler, by necessity, knows everything there is to know about the roads, rails and pubs on his beat; he relies on them for his food and lodging.

In a Trail of Cthulhu game someone like Monty is both antagonist and potential ally. The characters are often up to no good, even if their intentions are noble; Monty, in his role as amateur sleuth, might work out what they've been up to. As an ally Monty has a wealth of information to offer, both about his clients and about his beat. He also knows a great many police officers, which might come in handy if the protagonists find themselves in need of official help.

Montague Egg

Abilities: Athletics 4, Conceal 4, Driving 5, Firearms 4, First Aid 3, Fleeing 5, Health 6, Scuffling 4, Weapons 5 [note: his combat scores reflect his Great War service; Egg never got into scuffles in any of his stories.]

Alertness: +1

Stealth: +0

Special: If he becomes an ally, he acts as a free 1 point pool Cop Talk, or Evidence Collection.

Inspector Japp is slightly more famous than Egg, but that's thanks to his association with world-famous detective Hercule Poirot. Japp has a career of his own, and the Keeper may find it useful to have a Scotland Yard policeman on call who everyone will recognize. Japp is a competent investigator in his own right, but Poirot deplores "his general lack of method," and Poirot's friend Hasting thinks Japp's "highest talent lay in the gentle art of seeking favors in the guise of conferring them!"

His television appearances are much more frequent than his fictional history would suggest. He appears in seven novels and a handful of short stories, whereas in Suchet's television series he's pretty much the only policeman Poirot knows. Christie spends very little time describing Japp - she spends very little time on any of her characters, really - but if we take Philip Jackson's Japp as a model then he's an older man, probably in his mid-to-late 30s or early 40s, in good physical condition. He doesn't often get into fights in the stories, but it's reasonable to think he can hold his own in a brawl. In the television series he's more of an action hero, and is often seen taking down a suspect or chasing after one. As an investigator he is thorough and has good instincts, though he will sometimes come to the wrong conclusion because, as Poirot would describe it, he accepts what he sees without question, when he ought to see with "the eyes of the mind" and work out what must have happened from the available facts.  He rises to the rank of Detective Chief Inspector, which means he ought to have significant authority, but it may be more sensible - from a game perspective - to keep him at lower rank, at least to start with.

As a policeman Japp's obvious use, to the Keeper, is as a potential antagonist. In The Many Deaths of Edward Bigsby, Detective Inspector Howard is a Japp-alike, capable of causing the protagonists a lot of trouble. But if they manage to win Howard over, he can be a tremendous help to them. At the same time, Japp isn't going to overshadow the protagonists. He's no deductive genius, nothing like as clever as Poirot. He's very energetic and determined, but if the protagonists try, they can out-think him. 

Detective Inspector James Harold Japp

Abilities: Athletics 6, Conceal 2, Disguise 2, Firearms 5, Fleeing 6, Health 8, Scuffling 8, Weapons 4

Alertness: +0

Stealth: +1

Special: If he becomes an ally, he acts as a free 1 point pool Cop Talk, or Forensics.