Thursday, 30 October 2014

Rock Me Like a Hurricane (Trail of Cthulhu, Call of Cthulhu, All Flesh Must Be Eaten)

I've been out of action for over a week thanks to Hurricane Gonzalo, which hit us two weekends ago now. We lost power fairly quickly, but had it back within 24 hours. Telecommunication was more of a problem, as the pole went down during the storm and hasn't yet been replaced. We have a temp line coming in, but the least bit of bad weather will knock that out.

It occurs to me that a relatively small number of people have experienced a hurricane directly, and I thought I'd go over the sequence of events as they occur, with a discussion of what it might mean for a gaming group.

A hurricane is basically a high intensity tropical storm, with sustained winds of over 74 mph; a hurricane is categorized by the intensity of its winds, from 1 to 5. Gonzalo was a Cat 4 - sustained winds of over 130 mph - until it hit us, when it became a Cat 3, with something like 111 mph winds.

In the modern era, there's usually plenty of warning of a hurricane's approach. With Gonzalo, we first knew about it almost a week prior, when it was a tropical depression brewing down in the Caribbean. That gives you time to prepare, which in Bermuda usually means take in all the lawn furniture, move the boat - if you have one - to a safe anchorage in the lee of the projected storm winds, close up all the windows and put up shutters or plywood if need be, and lay in plenty of booze to keep you entertained.

Power's almost certain to go out, so you'll want candles or some other light source. I find candles slightly better than electric light sources, inasmuch as candles don't need to be recharged or use batteries. You don't know how long it will be before the lights come back on again, so you don't want to rely exclusively on a light source that consumes a lot of power or fuel. This also means you're likely to lose frozen food, so the day before the hit is the time to cook as much as possible. Stew's just as good cold as it is hot, after all, and bread or cakes will keep for a while. Expect to lose anything in the freezer or fridge. Lay in plenty of water, and run the taps as much as you can, filling buckets. Once the power goes, the only water you'll have to drink or cook with is the water you saved beforehand.

Briefly on the subject of cooking: the house I'm in uses gas, but a lot of people have switched to electric. That means you'll have no power to cook. There have been cases where people bring their BBQs inside the house to make burgers or what have you. That is a remarkably poor idea - almost Darwin Award worthy - but high risk of death by stupidity has never stopped anyone yet.

The storm will be making its presence felt for hours, if not days, before the hit, with cloudy skies and high winds. When it actually does hit, the chief difference you'll notice is in the intensity of the winds and the darkening sky. By that point you need to be indoors, in a solid structure. We build in stone here, nice thick walls, and most of our structures are low-lying. It's rare to see a building with more than one storey, and we seldom go in for large windows or walls of glass. This is why we seldom see catastrophic property damage here; no collapsed houses, and devastation is usually limited to trees and telephone poles. Bear in mind, Cat 3 is the same velocity as Katrina, which did such terrible damage to New Orleans. Historically there have been very few hurricane deaths here, and none during Gonzalo, though when it blew across the ocean and hit the UK it killed three people. However if you look at the cause of death and injury in the UK, it seems the majority were avoidable if only the victims had taken the storm seriously. All the dead were out and about, walking or driving somewhere; one man was repairing his van in 108mph winds. This is something people down here would never do.

The duration of the initial hit will probably be several hours, but there's usually no way to be certain. Hurricane behavior is, at best, erratic. However one phenomenon that is well known but which still takes people by surprise is the eye of the storm. This circular phenomena at the heart of the hurricane is marked by unnatural calm. All activity seems to have come to a complete stop, and were you to go outside and light a candle, you probably wouldn't see the flame flicker in the slightest as there's no breeze to trouble it. This is actually when the storm is at its most dangerous, because the calm lures people into a false sense of security. This is when many leave the safety of their homes and go out to have a look at the damage, even travel down to see their neighbors or check on the boat. However the eye is surrounded by a ring of winds called the eyewall, and this is where the storm is at its most intense. So long as you're in the eye itself, no problem, but the eye is constantly moving and you can never be sure when the eye will pass over and plunge you into the eyewall. If that happens when you're outside, you're probably dead; that, or very, very lucky to be alive. Gonzalo's eye lasted for somewhere between half to three quarters of an hour, and then the hurricane picked up again and hung on for a further four hours or so. It wasn't until one or two in the morning that the storm winds finally began to die away, as Gonzalo moved off shore.

The immediate aftermath of the storm is usually marked by good weather. In our case it's been very sunny, and though the first day or so was still quite humid, since Gonzalo the temperature has dropped significantly.

Clean-up is a top priority. As you can imagine, downed trees and telephone poles need to be cleared as soon as possible, so the roads can be used, and there's often a significant period where, thanks to power outages or damage, traffic signals are out. Airport clearance is also a priority, and after Gonzalo flights were going to and from a day or so after the hurricane hit. As I write this, there's still plenty of mess out there, but mess is all it is; you can drive wherever you want, and the airport's at capacity again.  

Now, that's what happens to us here in Bermuda. Hurricanes are something we know about and expect; they turn up once every few years, do some damage, and go away again. We're relatively safe, because we know what to do, and we've built out of stone because we recognize the damage that a hurricane can do to anything built out of anything less robust. It helped a great deal that, for many years, we could quarry limestone here rather than get supplies from overseas.

In other jurisdictions they do more damage, often for environmental or architectural reasons. When Georges, a Cat 2, hit Haiti in 1998, it killed 400 people and left over a hundred thousand homeless, largely because extensive deforestation created an environment in which mudslides were likely after heavy rain. In 1935 Jérémie - so called because that town was devastated - claimed more than 2,000 Haitian lives, most of whom were peasants living in wooden houses, often in river valleys prone to flooding. Florida's 1920 property boom was abruptly halted by the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 which plunged the state into an early economic Depression, just before the 1929 Great Depression kicked off. Again, few buildings in Miami at that time were built to withstand hurricane force winds. There were no building codes back then; Miami soon invented some, and became the first city in the US to implement a city-wide building code. Even now, hurricane mitigation construction is still a bit of an arcane science in Florida, which seems incredible when you consider how often the state is hit by storms.

From an RPG perspective, a hurricane is a great way to change the landscape of the scenario. Do your players rely on electronic communications and the internet? Tough; it's gone now. No knowing when it's coming back. For the next few hours, driving anywhere or even leaving the house you're in is impossible. The players are pinned in place, helpless. There's no calling the authorities now, no hope of a rescue. If you, as Keeper, want to deliver a short, sharp shock, now's the time. It doesn't have to stop there, of course; hurricane clean-up usually takes weeks, and the aftereffects can be felt for months. Suppose the storm uncovers something best left hidden? Maybe a predator that would normally have kept itself hidden now has to change its habits after the destruction of its hunting ground, or a long-forgotten temple or tomb is discovered during the clean-up.

To my mind this best suits a Trail or Call of Cthulhu one-shot, perhaps one in which a disparate group of strangers find themselves trapped for the night, with no way out. But if you were to play with the concept it might also make a good All Flesh Must Be Eaten kick-off. There was an interesting episode of Law & Order that assumed an anthrax outbreak had occurred after flooding in New Orleans wiped out some experimental laboratories. Suppose a similar incident released the zombie virus, and now your hurricane clean-up team has to deal not just with flooded out families and disaster relief, but also the walking dead? Imagine how difficult it would be to contain an outbreak like that.

All Flesh has a fun mechanic called Spreading the Love, which basically describes how the zombie virus infects people, creating more zombies. What if, in this instance that the prospective zombie has to be immersed, maybe even drowned, in the same tainted water that created the first batch? Going further, what if this encourages the creation of a special zombie type, whose only function is to carry this tainted water in its own bloated belly?

That's it for me, for now. Talk soon!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Fiction Corner: Behind You

I'm in the middle of a writing seminar led by sci fi author Tobias Buckell, and one of the assignments is to complete a short story. It's due in about eight days. I'm enjoying the process so far, and may well submit this one for publication at some point. I thought you might like to see the first five hundred words, just to get an idea of the process. The story's set in contemporary London, and the working title is Behind You. Enjoy!


The late evening tide of humanity washes past the Nando’s, which replaced the BBQ Hut, which replaced the Smoothie place, flowing towards the escalators, and Jen rides the tide, with only the faintest hint of Him at the back of her mind.
The escalator is broken - again - so Jen and the rest of the evening crowd struggle up the way a cruel God intended. The woman in front of Jen has a pull-case, and lacks the upper body strength to haul it easily upward. Jen bangs her ankle against it.
"Sorry," Jen says, but doesn’t feel.
No reply. The other woman’s lost in the great Canary Wharf shuffle, one more in the mix, going home.
Jen gets to the top and sees a tattered Metro, left behind by an earlier commuter, beckoning her from its hiding pace stuffed at the top of the escalator. She grabs it, hiding her face behind it, pretending to care about a Sudoku that someone else had already finished.
She glances at the board. Ten minutes till the next DLR train. Ten long, soul-sucking minutes.
The Sudoku is in pen, and whoever it was got it wrong.
The cartoon is one she'd seen before, but she idly looks at it again, begging for distraction, when the hairs on the back of her neck begin standing up. She shifts from foot to foot.
He is looking at her.
There’s no particular He, at least not that she can make out, but there’s no mistaking the feeling. The greasy eyes-on, the sensation of cold, slimy wetness. It’s one of the Hes. Which one?
Fat one, thin one, short one, tall? Some of them she knew from work, has seen in corridors, been in meetings with. None of them she could put a name to. The platform’s full of people. He could be any one of them.
Her pocket buzzes, and her heart sinks. A text. She fumbles in her pocket for the new phone, almost drops it, then angrily swipes through until she finds the screen she wants. It’s Simon. Of course it’s Simon. It wasn’t going to be anyone else.
Not after last weekend, she thinks, and texts back:
How do you tell someone you've met someone else? Jan hated it, hated the lies that became bigger lies, but the alternative was to look him in the eye and say ... what, exactly? Not boyfriend material? I like you, I just don't fancy you?
The hairs on the back of her neck are still up and twitching. The other He is looking at her.
"Train approaching. Mind The Gap."
The sudden rush to board, the frantic quest for seats followed by the equally frantic search for somewhere to stand. Jan found herself standing at the front of the car, looking into the rear of the next car, just as full as this one. Bored commuters packed in together, staring sightlessly at London, too clamped together to read a Metro.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of London: Ned Kelly's Skull

This post is inspired by a recent article concerning the fate of Australian bandit and folk hero Edward 'Ned' Kelly. I'm not going to recount Kelly's biography here - that's what Wikipedia's for - but, in brief, Kelly, after several minor brushes with the law, escalated to murdering policemen sent to arrest him, and started robbing banks. Their most memorable, and final, encounter was at the small town of Glenrowan, near Victoria, where Kelly and his friends, dressed in bullet-repelling armor, captured the entire town, thinking that police were due to arrive by train and that, if the gang acted quickly, they could derail that train. The pursuers were warned by a constable named Curnow before they reached the ambush point, and surrounded the gang at Mrs Jones' hotel, where Kelly and his men lay in wait along with most of the captured townsfolk. The resultant siege was bloody and violent, eventually ending when the hotel burnt down, but Kelly was taken hours before that. He'd been shot several times in the lower body, including once in the groin, but his armor protected his upper body and head. Kelly was hanged on November 11th, 1880.

Though the authorities tried to deny it, Kelly's body was taken for dissection, and his skull allegedly was given to phrenologists to examine, before being returned to the police who used it as a paperweight. The bodies of Kelly and his associates were exhumed in 1929 when building works took place at the gaol, and a skull alleged to be Kelly's was retrieved. However it's since been shown that the 1929 skull did not, in fact, belong to Kelly, which means it must have gone missing some time before. Nowadays there are several people who claim to have it, including a self-proclaimed witch. It might have been carried off by phrenologists, or it might have been buried somewhere else. Interestingly, the skull that was recovered in 1929 - and stolen in the 1970s, only to be returned in 2009 - probably belongs to Frederick Bailey Deeming, once thought to be a likely Jack the Ripper candidate.

From a Bookhounds perspective, there are at least three contemporary books that might turn up in London:

Sadlier, John, Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer, (1913)
Kenneally, J. J. The Inner History of the Kelly Gang, (1929)
Hare, Francis Augustus, The Last of the Bushrangers: An account of the capture of the Kelly Gang (1894)

In addition to these books there would have been scores of Kelly artifacts, from photographs to bits of armor and guns. Many of these - like the revolver belonging to one of Kelly's early targets, constable Fitzpatrick, which sold for $70,000 at auction in 2007 - are probably fakes.

With all that in mind, consider the following Trail (Tale) of Terror:

A bottom-feeding Book Scout, David / Dolores Veles, is working on behalf of an as yet unknown client, and is making a nuisance of himself. Veles is after Kelly memorabilia of any sort, but is particularly interested in three books, each of them ex libris Francis Brevor, an occultist and self-proclaimed Satanist who committed suicide in 1930. According to Veles, Brevor had copies of Sadlier, Kenneally and Hare's works, as well as a mysterious 'fourth item' which Veles is very reluctant to describe, but for which Veles is prepared to pay an astronomical sum. The fourth item, kept in a special oak box, is Ned Kelly's skull, which Brevor supposedly took from a phrenologist enemy in 1896. Nobody knows where the fourth item is, though Veles suspects that annotations in the three books from Brevor's library might hold the key.

1. Veles is working on behalf of a particularly ghoulish client, who wants to grind Kelly's skull to powder and ingest it, in a potion of his own concoction. He thinks he will consume Kelly's essence that way, gaining special powers as a result. However the skull, it transpires, isn't Kelly's at all, and the client will be most upset at this deception. The client won't believe Veles when he protests he knows nothing about the fraud, and he probably won't believe the protagonists either.

2. The skull was brought out to London by a phrenologist who believed he was actually stealing Deeming's remains. He intended to use the skull as part of a ritual to evoke Jack the Ripper, which spirit he intended to use as part of a long-running scheme to reopen the Eye of Byatis (see further Whitechapel Black Letter, in the main book). When he discovered the skull was actually Kelly's he was most upset, and sold it to Brevor, an expatriate Australian for whom it had sentimental value. The problem is, the phrenologist's botched Byatis ritual has inadvertently linked Kelly's ghost to the Eye, causing the skull to be a kind of focal point, leeching London's malignant spirit and causing whoever might be its current owner no end of trouble. Veles' client has heard of this Byatis artifact and thinks it can help him in his own studies, but nothing could be further from the truth, as Kelly's twisted ghost will be only too happy to demonstrate. 

3. Veles is actually working for Brevor, who's been dead for years. Except not really; Brevor faked his death to escape immolation at the hands of a particularly powerful rival. Now Brevor thinks he has a chance to revenge himself against his enemy and lure him into a trap. But first, the bait: Kelly's skull, which Brevor claimed, untruthfully, had special powers. With Veles out there spreading rumors and buying up Kelly artifacts, Brevor thinks it's only a matter of time before his rival shows up in person, eager to get that skull. Then the fun will begin! Of course, some innocent Bookhounds might get caught in the crossfire, but who cares about them?