Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Retail Dinosaurs: The Shopping Mall (Night's Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Fear Itself)

Once upon a time you could guarantee that, come the zombie apocalypse, folks would naturally head to shopping malls. About five minutes after that, the survivors get remarkably good at shooting things in the head, which always surprises me; it's not an easy trick to pull off. However there may be a problem with that plan, if the apocalypse arrives right about now, as shopping malls are dying off.

The photographs in that link come from Seph Lawless' collection of urban decay artwork. The mall culture as we've come to know it, with its big boxes, anchor stores and chain outlets, got its start just after the Second World War. The concept really started catching on in the 1950s, when developers began making fully enclosed shopping spaces, rather than the open-air design that had been popular before the War. These behemoths took shopping to the suburbs; you didn't have to go all the way into the smoky, polluted city to scratch your retail itch any more. The mall became the new community hub, a place you'd go to just to hang out, or see friends. If you were a kid living out in the suburbs it started as an entertainment center, with its arcades and food court, then became a source of employment later on, when you needed cash for the summer. It was a part of everyday life.

But the retail environment has changed. Part of it is changing economic circumstances, with many of the mall's former customers being too cash-strapped to afford its goods, and many of the chains that serviced them - RadioShack, Blockbuster, Virgin - now out of business or on their way out. Particularly in America, where entire cities and suburbs can be dead on their feet, the mall has become a symbol of this overarching collapse of community narrative. Part of it is a change in retail habits, now that the internet has brought goods to everyone's doorstep, eliminating the need to get out of the house.

It can be a slow death. First just one or two shops shut, but the mall can't find replacement tenants, so they stay vacant. Then footfall patterns change, as people stop going to that section of the mall that housed those shops. Soon nearby stores or food outlets move on, seeking to avoid the blank spot, but it just expands. Nobody's taking care of those areas, so if the floor gets dirty, or windows broken, nobody fixes or cleans. Pretty soon the mall has a ratty, desperate look to it, and it will only get worse if, say, a serial murderer decides your now-quiet mall is the perfect place to stash a body or two. The slightest whiff of crime, and you might as well shutter the place now and save money.

This isn't a pattern unique to America. A mall I knew very well when I was a student in Reading offers a zombie experience now, and I don't doubt there are malls all over Europe - particularly in Spain and Greece, I'd bet - in similar straits, either dead or dying. When I posted the Escapist article, one of the commentators was kind enough to post a link to a dead Bangkok mall that's become a home for coy and exotic fish. Pick your country; there's bound to be at least one or two of these retail dinosaurs, still standing but dead on their feet.

What does this mean for Night's Black Agents, The Esoterrorists, and Fear Itself?

Well, both Night's Black Agents and The Esoterrorists rely on spycraft tropes, and an abandoned mall is perfect for a chase scene as well as a fun setting for an enemy base. Malls don't have to be centrally located; part of their charm, when the retail model still held sway, was that a developer could plant it out in the middle of the countryside and still expect people to drive there. That means an abandoned mall can be isolated, with any hope of rescue far, far away. If it's in the middle of a decaying suburb, then the Keeper has the option of a Silent Hill vibe, with the mall the centerpiece of an expanding network of dead buildings, the few humans left scurrying for cover when night falls.

Fear Itself has a slightly different aesthetic. It takes essentially the same game world as the Esoterrorists, but plunges ordinary people into the mincing machine rather than highly trained special agents. In that kind of setting the abandoned mall can be a kind of Castle Ravenloft, and the characters the equivalent of villagers huddled nervously in its shadow. In a one-off they'd head straight to the mall, but in a mini-campaign it may be better to have the characters skirt around its edges first, perhaps take on a few minor challenges in some of the houses roundabout before trying to penetrate to the heart of the mystery.

As far as mall design is concerned, the Keeper only needs to know the basics. There's usually a Food Court, a central location where several different fast food outlets serve everyone at once. Emphasis here is on 'everyone at once,' which means it needs to be cleaned easily and quickly. There's going to be a lot of tile and glass here, and probably a very bright, cheerful color scheme. The Food Court is likely to be central, in a large, open area.

The mall probably relied on one or more key tenants to provide revenue. These are the big boys, the nationwide chains, and they may occupy more than one floor of the mall, with internal connections via stairs, escalator and elevator. If there's more than one key tenant, the stores will be positioned as far apart as possible. That way people going to the mall have to walk from one anchor store to the other, which means they walk past the smaller stores and Food Court. Footfall is everything in retail.

Finally, there may be satellites. Technically these stores may not be an official part of the mall, but they're close enough for that not to matter to the customers. These standalone stores may or may not have their own parking areas, and may provide completely different, but complimentary, functions. I've noticed that gas stations are quite common in the UK; I don't know if the same applies in North America. Food outlets and cinemas are also likely.

So let's talk about Spring Creek Shopping Center.

Located in the suburbs surrounding a major city center, Spring Creek got its start as Indian Spring, an open-air mall built in 1947. As the city's industrial sector took off and people started relocating to the suburbs, the developers who owned Indian Spring soon discovered that their development was just too small to satisfy their expanding customer base. They started quietly buying up adjoining land, unveiling their new scheme, Spring Creek, in 1954. By 1957 it was a reality: a massive complex capable of satisfying pretty much any retail need a suburbanite could think of.

Problems began in 1961, when a partial collapse due to shoddy design caused the deaths of two people. Subsequent lawsuits and bad press were a significant knock on Spring Creek's profitability, and the original developers sold out to a management firm, Westbrook, in 1968. Westbrook decided significant renovations were needed, which finally completed in 1971.

During 1970, when the renovations were still ongoing and the mall part-shuttered, fledgeling horror director Bill O'Bannon shot his low-budget vampire movie, Scream Nocturna Scream, at Spring Creek. Many of its most memorable scenes were shot in one of Spring Creek's anchors, the department store retailer Von Moore. O'Bannon later went on to become a schlock horror icon, but died of a drug overdose while attending a horror convention, Fright Night Dallas, in 1981. 

Spring Creek's heyday came in the 1980s. There was money and lots of it, rolling in day by day. The mall expanded in 1982, and again in 1987, with the promised addition of a new anchor store and a dozen smaller outlets in its Galleria Wing. However the expansion was too large, even for the projected profits, and it didn't help that, in 1989, it was revealed that Westbrook's CFO had embezzled millions over the years before committing suicide - or possibly met death by misadventure during a sex act - on Christmas Eve, an event that became enshrined in local memory as Black Christmas.

It was all downhill from there. Lack of development money meant that the promised Galleria Wing was left unfinished, and the big box retailer decided not to move in after all. Spring Creek struggled through the 1990s hoping for a break, and never got one. The internet, and economic collapse in the 2000s, sealed its fate. Its customers were broke - the city's industrial sector was on its knees - and the ones that had money didn't need Spring Creek any more.

The defining event of the 2000s was the discovery, in 2006, that the serial killer who came to be known as the Hammer Killer had been stashing bodies in the abandoned Galleria Wing, relying on lack of maintenance to conceal his dump site. It was three months, and eight victims, before he was caught.

In 2008 Spring Creek shuttered for good. One or two of the satellite stores still operate, on reduced hours, but the main building has been locked up for years. There has been talk of knocking it down, perhaps replacing it with an open-air mall or park, but there's neither the money nor the will to get it done.

Now, Keeper: if you can't do something with that, there's no hope for you! Enjoy!

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Triumphs and Tragedies: Silent Hill

The other day I went digging in the basement for my Bill Hicks CDs, and discovered a cache of things long forgotten: the discs for Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3, arguably the best of Konami's Silent Hill horror series. Like any sensible person, I immediately installed Silent Hill 2 - my personal favorite - on my PC,  and was overjoyed to find it still worked. Kinda.

The save function is irretrievably borked. The console version only let you save at predetermined points in the game, an idea that sounds crazy but works really well in survival horror titles; the PC edition kept those old save points, but also allowed you to save in-game whenever you wanted. The save points are dead. Any attempt to use them doesn't crash the game, but doesn't create a usable save file either. Any attempt to use the in-game save option crashes the game completely.

Otherwise Silent Hill 2 seems to work well enough. It was never intended to run on a PC like mine; it's only a squidbrain standard box, but compared to the original specs it might as well be the starship Enterprise's holodeck. I seem to have the option of minimizing it to the desktop and getting on with my day, at least without causing its tiny brain to melt. Otherwise, if I want to do this - and assuming it won't implode halfway through - my only other option is a marathon non-stop session.

Which I may try.

Before I do, I wanted to talk briefly about the importance of atmosphere. When I first dove into James Sunderland's nightmare, I got as far as the bit where he recovers the radio - veterans will know what I mean - before being brave enough to tempt fate and hit the save button, hoping it would work better than the predetermined save points. Naturally, it didn't. However even playing that long, perhaps fifteen minutes in all, the player's given a crash course in what makes Silent Hill great: atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, with a side order of pure terror.

You start on the outskirts of a strange little holiday town, Silent Hill, where you spent the last happy days of your life before your wife died of a wasting illness. You think she's still in Silent Hill, so you make your way there. Except you can't get there the usual way as, for whatever reason, the roads are blocked; you have to walk. Through the thick, all-concealing fog. With no idea where you're going, or what it is that's making that horrible noise off in the distance.

Nothing like paranoia to make you paranoid.

There are no signs of life. Whatever happened here, happened quickly. Cars are left abandoned by the roadside, as if the owners just got out and vanished off the face of the earth. You get to town only to find that all the shops are shut, the houses abandoned. Some of the streets are sealed off with police warning tape, while one - a main boulevard - has collapsed altogether, making it impassible. The place might have been abandoned for months, and there are signs that properties have been boarded up and left to rot. Then you see something moving, off in the distance, and nasty looking bloodstains on the sidewalk seem to indicate recent activity of the very worst kind.

By that point I'm already wound up, and James doesn't want to avoid trouble; he wants to walk right towards it. In true nightmare logic, any attempt to wander in a different direction is met with warning tape and chasms, which in a tabletop session might seem like railroading, but somehow in a video game only enforces the otherworldly atmosphere. Of course you can't walk away from trouble. That's what being trapped in a dreamscape is all about.

It doesn't help that there's clearly something out there. I can hear it, but thanks to the fog, I can't see it. It's not human, whatever it is, and I can't help but think it intends me harm.

Some of this can be replicated in a tabletop session. I don't know if a Keeper can pull off the fog effect without an actual fog machine, or at least a darkened room. There's something about not being able to see trouble coming that puts people on edge, but it's a very sensual effect, and I don't think it can be recreated through imagination alone, at least not to all players equally and at the same time.

Sound effects, particularly these days, are not a problem. Tablets, smartphones and bluetooth enabled speakers can really screw with people's sense of reality. There are any number of wireless speakers out there small enough and loud enough to be hidden, and yet still be effective.

But to walk into a town and find nobody there, no sign of life whatsoever, that's the real kicker, and that's easy to pull off in a tabletop session. It can work in any number of ways; a Great War scenario in which you find the trenches completely abandoned is as effective as walking through empty London streets. Sometimes that event is nailed in actual history, while in other cases it can be just as illogical and insane as you like. Of course, waking up in a hospital bed after a disaster has wiped out humanity is a very popular trope; aside from 28 Days, The Walking Dead and Day of the Triffids both nicked the idea, and I don't for a moment think they were the only two to do so. In gaming, Portal pulls exactly the same trick, twice. Even Silent Hill does it, in the Room, fourth in the series and a big disappointment for me.

While the trope is cliched, the end result isn't; encountering a familiar environment, completely abandoned, is something that will chill pretty much anyone. It's a signifier not just that something has gone very badly wrong, but also that things will never be the same again. That's why it works so spectacularly in horror; the unspoken goal of a horror story is to return everything to a safe and normal end state which, of course, is impossible, and the empty, mocking streets and houses of Silent Hill know that only too well ...

edit: one unforeseen consequence of playing without a save function is that, when you die, you go back to the beginning, all progress lost! It's been so damn long since I played anything without an autosave function that I completely forgot this important bit of gaming history. Darn you, Pyramid Head! Time to take a break, I'm thinking.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Esoterrorism: Operation PARADE GROUND

This is a London-based modern day scenario outline.

The main ODE adversary is the Glistening, introduced and fully explored in the second edition main rules. I'm not going to reproduce that section here; for purposes of this outline all you need to know is that the Glistening is a spore-spread hive mind fungal infection, which overcomes its human host and turns the host into an unwilling servant. The infection is based around a sessile, an evolved version of the basic drone which becomes a kind of brain/mainframe for the infection. The sessile finds it very difficult to move or feed itself; its drones provide protection and food. Glistening infections can be very difficult to eradicate.

The main Esoterrorist adversary is a lowest tier cell, made up of Danny Seska (physicist/UFOlogist, exofetishist), Nakisha Welles (social media guru/electronics expert, attention seeker), and cell leader Petra Karra (black belt financial expert, dominant). Specialist skills include Driving, Astronomy, Data Retrieval (Seska), Electronic Surveillance, Flirting, Infiltration (Welles), and Athletics, Bullshit Detector, Scuffling, Forensic Accounting, Interrogation (Karra). This cell, codename EMPRESS, has discovered the location of the OV's London station, and is monitoring its movements, including any contact that the protagonists may have with Verity. At the start of the scenario it has no idea the Glistening infestation exists, but the Esoterrorists have in the past used Glistening infestations as spy networks; if EMPRESS finds out, through the player characters, where the Glistening is, an Esoterrorist heavy squad may move in to capture the sessile.

The Esoterrorist  heavy squad is comprised primarily of mercenaries (mostly Poles) hired for the job by Esoterrorist asset Leonid Constantinovich (sadist), aka Monkey, gun for hire. The mercenaries won't know what they're getting into; the Esoterrorists intend for the mercs to be infected by the Glistening as they collect the sessile, making them the first set of drones for the Esoterrorist's home grown fungal infection. For code purposes, this one-off cell is codename HANGED MAN. If the Glistening is not detected by EMPRESS, but EMPRESS draws too much attention to itself, then Monkey will be the one eliminating Seska and Welles - assuming Karra doesn't do that herself - and either extracting or eliminating Karra. If this happens there will be no Polish mercenaries; the mercs only get hired if there's a chance to capture a sessile.

The initial Glistening infestation was detected in 1978, during operation DANDY MAN. The Glistening was tracked to an 1960s-era East London tower block council housing development, Pegasus Point. Due to indiscriminate use of explosives, the veil-out involved claiming that defects in the prefab build contributed to structural weaknesses that led to partial collapse of the tower after a gas explosion. Five flats were destroyed and eight people killed, with another twenty two injuries. It was believed at the time that the infestation was completely contained.

Council building surveyor Thomas Whitborne had become infected during site inspections at Pegasus Point, before DANDY MAN took the sessile and its drones out. Whitborne brought the infection home to his wife Sandra and their two children; Sandra became the next sessile. However the Glistening knew this arrangement couldn't last, so it made sure Whitborne changed jobs, and joined the Goodbody Trust.

The Trust is a social housing initiative founded by American philanthropist George Goodbody in 1862. This housing association has over 25,000 properties all over London, many of them now historic or listed buildings, having been held by the Trust since the reign of Queen Victoria. Whitborne spread the infection to three Goodbody properties before he walked under a bus in 1983, his wife having worn herself out long before, and the children gone to mulch in the early 80s. Now five Goodbody social housing developments scattered across London are host to the Glistening, each with its own sessile and drones. From the OV's point of view, should it learn about it, this mass infestation in the heart of a major city is a potential disaster of the very worst kind.      

At the start of the scenario the OV is only aware of one Glistening outbreak in South London, and it can't be sure where the nest is based. Further investigation will establish the Whitborne link, and Whitborne is on the list of persons involved in DANDY MAN; the OV declared him infestation free, based on the report of one Nick Thomas, who left the OV under suspicious circumstances in 1979. [Whitborne got to Thomas, and the sessile controlling him, Sandra Whitborne, sent him into exile to die homeless in an Underground tunnel, thinking this was the best way to divert suspicion from the Whitborne infestation.] Thomas' section head was, at that time, a fairly junior OV staffer who has since risen to great heights. That staffer, now Sir Donald Soames, a senior civil servant in the Department for Communities and Local Government, will be very interested in anything the protagonists dig up. He may prove more of a hindrance than a blessing; DANDY MAN was a bit of a disaster, from a veil-out point of view, and nobody wants to see a repetition, least of all Sir Donald.


On a completely different note: it'd be really fun if there were to be an Esoterror supplement based on the Anarchist's Cookbook, a kind of how-to for the budding Esoterrorist. I think part of the problem I'm having is that everything's told from the point of view of the OV; it'd be interesting to see the story told from the perspective of the bad guys.

Anyway, hope you find the last few posts useful! I'll be banging on a different drum next time I post.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Esoterrorism and I

Well, I've read it, several times.


The Second Edition does have the benefit of expanded sections both on the OV and the Esoterrorists. Personally I could have done with even more information, as my main problem remains unanswered. I really don't have a clear idea who the Esoterrorists are, except that they're described as psychopaths, insane, misfits, rejects, power-mongers, megalomaniac, sociopaths; I get the impression none of them have ever hugged a kitten or played with a newborn baby, except possibly with barbecue tongs.

On the flip side the OV are the unsung heroes of civilization, and Verity, whether Mr or Ms, is always right. This does have one very definite advantage, in that the players no longer have to worry that the higher-ups are going to be backstabbing them, or that Verity's going to let them down in their moment of need. It also avoids the Mr Johnson trope so common in Cyberpunk and similar systems.

There's a lot that can be done within that stark good vs evil paradigm, but it can also feel a little stifling. There's a further risk that the game might devolve, under the logic 'we're the good guys and everything we do is right, therefore what we just did must have been right, since we're the good guys.' Some very strange and terrible things have occurred using similar lines of logic.

There's rules within the system for psych evals - I particularly like the suggested Operation Medulla Strange - which I would probably emphasize every other session, were I running a campaign rather than a one-shot. I think you'd also have to play up the organization as an organization, rather than have the players float off like little Yojimbos lone-gunning it through a host of evil dudes. Thankfully there's lots of new tweaks in the OV section that help the Keeper do that. 

The role of the Outer Dark Entities in all this is ripe for exploration. On more than one occasion the text makes it pretty clear that some ODE are actively seeking a way in through the Membrane, rather than passively waiting for the Esoterrorists to open the door. Several of the cells described in the second edition get their start this way. As the Outer Dark isn't fully described, the Keeper's free to make it just as foul as necessary. There's also one significant unanswered question: is there anything else out there, apart from the Outer Dark? There are some hints in the Factbook that suggest there might be other realms of reality, and the main text makes it clear that there are such things as psychics, mediums and other humans with extraordinary abilities who don't necessarily have contracts signed in blood with the ODE. What would it mean for the OV if it could be conclusively proved that there are realms other than the Outer Dark out there, which aren't necessarily malevolent or inimical to human life and civilization?

If I were to steal just one thing from another system and plug it into the Esoterrorists, it'd be the Conspyramid from Night's Black Agents. It would lend the Esoteric terrorists a structural backbone that could be incredibly useful, from a thematic perspective. It also allows the players a shot at some kind of victory, once they realize that there is an Esoterrorist endgame and it can be thwarted.

In that Conspyramid I'd put the Esoterrorist new recruits or potential recruits at the lowest rung. These are the folks identified by the higher-ups as having potential, and so are given tasks to see if they can do anything with that potential. These are also the folks most likely to be in this for what they see as good reasons. The ones who want to bring back the Good Old Days when Main Street USA was still a thing, to make it as if the Kennedy Assassination never happened, to assassinate Hitler, to bring back King Arthur; whatever their trigger is. Yes, they want Power, but very few people seek Power for its own sake; they seek it for what Power can do, or for whatever higher purpose they've set out for themselves.

A community activist might get into politics, for example, to reform the police force, and be stuffed full of good intentions; but after forty-odd years of politics, when that activist becomes the Mayor, Governor, State Senator, or even a Presidential nominee, those good intentions are often buried under layer after layer of other things, whatever those other things might be. Reforming the police, if it's even still on the priority list, is right down there next to take the dog for a walk.

If, as suggested in the comments thread of my previous post (hello Kelvin!), these Esoterrorists are freedom fighters in the style of the Invisibles, this lowest rung is also where they'd be. Of course, there'd also be plenty of would-be demon worshippers, occultists and loonies in this bunch too, just to keep things lively.

Then you get the next rung up, which would consist of recruiters, spotters, trainers and informers; the ones who don't really know what's going on, but who've had that idealistic exterior scuffed up. They're still working towards that so-called good end, but they're prepared to get their hands dirty to do it. These operatives, and any operative above this rung, are very likely to have had some kind of first-hand ODE experience, or even be working with an ODE. These are the folks who probably recruited the ones on the lowest rung, but they're also the ones keeping an eye on OV cells. These self-righteous OV want to stop us killing Hitler? Then we'd better make sure they never get the chance!

The next rung up is the heavy mob and the regional coordinators, the ones who move in when something bad needs dealing with, when a weakened Membrane needs a good kick in the slats, and who keep an eye on all those other cells out there. If a lower rung screws the proverbial pooch and has attracted OV attention, these are the folks who sanitize the survivors. These are also the psychologists, the wonks in white coats who work to capitalize on any weakening of the Membrane. Any idealism has left the building arm-in-arm with Elvis at this point; there's too much blood on these hands for all the perfume in Araby

Up one more rung are the planners, the higher authority, the folks who come up with Esoterror schemes in the first place, who pick the targets and provide the tools for the job. These are the ones who think they know what it's all about, the ones who believe they have everything under control. If there's a true Demonology out there, perhaps scribed by Satanic monks or babbling madmen, these are the folks who use it as their Bible. Using the Prisoner as a guideline, this is where the Village administrators lurk, the ones in that big room full of shiny toys, spying on everyone else. If any of these ever were idealists, they laugh at the idea now. Ultimate power is within their grasp, and who gives a tinker's cuss for Main Street USA? Burn it down and seed the earth with salt. There's a new order coming, and anyone who isn't part of it had better get out of the way.

Then there is the highest rung, that rules over all the rest. Again stealing a note from the Prisoner, this is what's behind the Green Door: if ever there's a Number Two, he or she is here. Perhaps it's a survivor from the earliest days, when Esoterror first got its start in the Victorian era (or before). Perhaps it's the ultimate power broker, who decides who wins or loses elections, or whether Communism or Capitalism is in this year. Perhaps it's Elvis, or a man in a monkey's mask. Who can say? There might, of course, be nobody there at all; the Esoterrorists could be pouring all their effort into an empty throne, their highest authority just another babbling idiot in a long line of idiots.

And beyond that?

The Outer Dark ...

Next up, the scenario outline I mentioned!

Friday, 16 January 2015

In Which the Writer Confesses he has a Problem with Esoterror

I haven't written, or tried to write, very much material for GUMSHOE's Esoterrorists modern horror RPG, now available for second edition. One of the reasons for this is that I have a problem with the Esoterrorists themselves. I don't understand them, so I find it difficult to write about them.

I should point out now that I haven't read the second edition; all I have is a .pdf of the first edition main book and some of the supplements, including James Semple's music, which is excellent. For all I know my problems are solved in that book. I hope they are. I'm going to pick up a copy this weekend and find out, but before I do I figured I'd better try to put my problem down in writing now, with my fragile brain as yet untainted.

The Esoterrorists and Night's Black Agents cover very similar ground. Both are modern horror systems, both rely heavily on spycraft tropes, and both tend more towards action than contemplation. You won't find a member of the Ordo Veritatis - the good guys, theoretically anyway - worrying about whether or not to sell a Mythos grimoire to pay rent, or strolling down Paris' side streets trying to avoid Breton's accusing gaze. No, a member of the OV is most likely to shoot first and ask questions later, then perform a veil-out, covering up the facts of the case.

But there is one significant difference between NBA and tE: NBA has an identifiable opponent. Even before I picked up the book, I knew enough about vampires to form some kind of opinion about them, and the main text has enough additional information that I never felt at a loss for what to do with these adversaries. Did I want mutant space vampires? Occult bloodsuckers? Satanic conspirators? Not a problem.

Whereas with the first edition of Esoterrorists I read the whole thing cover to cover three times, and still had no real idea who the Esoterrorists were. I mean, I get that they're evil dudes, and that there's a Membrane that's at stake, but 'evil dudes' is a pretty one-dimensional concept. Do they all have evil tattoos? Decoder rings? Is there some kind of yearly meeting of evil dudes, like the Bilderberg Group, or Comic Con?

I think part of the problem must be that I've never taken conspiracy theories very seriously. It's not that I think there are no conspiracies; sure, there are, but I don't think any of them are really as wide-reaching or omnicompetent as they're made out to be. More often than not they seem to be an excuse. People never want to believe that the world is actually as borked as it appears to be, by accident; someone's got to be in charge, dammit. The religious have an answer to that one, but I've never been religious, and I've no desire to start now. Though that does sound like a fun idea for a term paper. 'Organized religion as conspiracy theory. Discuss.' The Papacy alone'd be worth a few hundred thousand words.

It doesn't help that, in many ways, the Ordo Veritatis seems more a mirror image of the Esoterrorists group than its opponent. Both organizations seem to share a similar cell structure organization, both are well funded - though we never find out how, and someone's got to be paying for all those toys - and both have friends in high places in all the governments of the world. It all sounds a bit too much like the Prisoner's final episode, where Number 6 discovers who Number 1 has been all this time.

I think my dissatisfaction came to a head when I read the introduction to Operation Whirlwind Reaper, in the Factbook. You meet Ms Verity - the contact who gives you your marching orders - in a rice paddy in Myanmar, and after she's finished her speech all I could think was, 'It's a bloody good job Verity's plot-protected and can do no wrong, otherwise I've just been told to go into a disaster zone and shoot aid workers. There's a special hotel at the Hague for people who do that. I wonder, if I book in advance, can I reserve a room next to Slobo?'

There have been similar games that I've enjoyed without questioning the main concept. Mage's war against the Technocracy, for example, or Delta Green's continuing battle against the Greys, with a side order of cannibal Nazis. Yet this time I find myself uneasy. Is it that the players always take order from Mr or Ms Verity without question, and march off like little wind-up toys towards the plot? Well, probably not; Delta Green's A Cell operates on broadly the same principle, though there was never the same assumption of infallibility that there seems to be with Verity.

No, I think it really has to be the Esoterrorists themselves. For all that the concept ought to be an easy sell, they stubbornly refuse to come alive for me. Evil dudes is all they are, and I can't work with evil dudes.

This could just be a time when I need to push myself, embrace the madness. I'm going to have a look at second edition, and after I've done that, I'm going to write a synopsis of an Esoterrorists scenario, using whatever newfound understanding I will have come to possess. We'll see if that breaks the deadlock.  

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Not Quite Review Corner: Boom Beach (iOS, Android)

Boom Beach is something I hadn't heard of, even though it's been out for a year, until one of its cheerful adverts caught my eye. I've been playing this freemium app for about a week now, and the excitement hasn't begun to pall. It's one of my new obsessions, which I hope to pass on to you.

Boom Beach takes place in a massive archipelago, populated mostly by tiny villages. You command a mercenary band whose objective is to bring the archipelago under your control. Technically the game describes this as 'free the enslaved villages' but I can't help but notice that, as soon as the villagers are freed, they start paying you tribute, making this less about freeing the oppressed and more about 'new boss, same as the old boss'. In order to do this, you control an attacking force which you can send out via landing craft to the other islands, invading up the beach, smashing the enemy defenses, and blowing up the enemy's HQ. The HQ is the most important building on the map; destroy that and you've won the battle, but don't think for a moment that it'll be easy!

The cartoonish not-quite-Second-World-War visual aesthetic is a lot of fun, and though it's all about combat it's pretty bloodless, which means you don't have to worry about younger gamers getting an eyeful of viscera. Mechanically the controls are very simple. You have no direct control over your troops once they land, so they tend to head straight for the nearest target and shoot it up. Once battle begins, your main means of controlling the situation is from the gunboat offshore, which can fire flares to direct your troops where they need to be, use healing medkits to keep them upright, fire artillery shells on enemy positions to weaken them before the troops get there, and so on. The more experience you get, the more things the gunship can do, but it's powered by energy, which is refreshed only when your troops blow up buildings. This makes each battle an interesting mix of strategy versus utility. Do you send a flare to your troops sending them off to an undefended section of the map, so they can blow up buildings there, thus powering up the gunship which can fire off artillery at something dangerous? Do you head straight for the HQ, therefore not blowing up stuff, therefore not powering up the gunboat? Choices, choices ...

Your main NPC opponent is the Blackguard, a fiendish gang of ruffians dressed in Nazi black who run a series of bases all over the map. Destroy the base and the villagers who live there are free, free to give you all their money and send off tribute every few hours. Ahem. Your initial boss enemy is Hammerman, whose bases are very well defended, but the loot once you beat his pointy head in is phenomenal. Later you'll face off against more difficult boss enemies, but Hammerman's the NPC who'll dominate your early game experience.

Or you could just sally forth and destroy other players' bases, stealing their gold and raw materials. No damage is permanent, so if you blow up half a dozen of another player's buildings they all get rebuilt for no cost after the attack's over. You'll be very grateful for this when someone invades your base and reduces it to rubble!

Speaking of your own island, what if someone raids it, blowing up your HQ and stealing your stuff? You have a range of defensive options, such as the sniper tower, flamethrower, mines, machine gun nest, mortar, cannons and so forth. Again, the more experienced you become, the more options unlock, but each option needs raw materials both to build and upgrade it. The basic raw material is wood, used to build all the low-level gear. Then there's stone, then metal, each of which is progressively more difficult to obtain. Level one defensive buildings won't be able to cope with experienced attackers, so you need to keep upgrading constantly. In addition to the raw materials, each building takes time both to construct and upgrade; at the beginning this might be just ten minutes or so, but soon it's an hour, then two or three hours, and so on.

This is where the freemium bit comes in. The game's special currency is diamonds, which can be used both to buy raw materials and, more importantly, to speed up the building process. Spend diamonds, and that cannon which might take half a day to build is done in less time than it takes to type this sentence. Spend enough diamonds, and your entire base can be fully upgraded, ready to hold off even the most determined opponent.

While freemium is a problem for many people, I have to say I haven't found it to be so here. The big problem with freemium is that the developers often restrict the flow of the premium currency, making it difficult to proceed without spending money. The Simpsons Tapped Out is a prime example of this; it runs on doughnuts, which are almost impossible to find through gameplay, and since many buildings and important characters can only be unlocked by spending doughnuts, the player feels almost obliged to spend money. Not so here. Diamonds can be found in the wild, and can also be unlocked through completing achievements, making it relatively easy to collect a whole bunch without spending a dime.

Play style may also be a factor. This isn't a title you can sink hours at a stretch into; Boom Beach is something you pick up, play for fifteen or twenty minutes, then put down again. Perfect for a smoke break or a quick bash at lunch, but of course in the time in between, when you're not actively playing, you can be quietly upgrading your sniper tower, or whatever else needs doing. So long as you're happy with that, Boom Beach is for you, but if you demand hours at a time from your mobile app then you might get a little frustrated.

I'd recommend this to any gamer looking for a quick strategy experience. It's fun enough for a few minutes at a time, with just enough complexity in it to keep your brain working without overtaxing it. It's not for anyone looking for a complicated strategy experience, or who's hoping for a title that will occupy a lot of their time. It's also not for people who hate to lose. Your troops will get shot up, your base will be raided, your gold stolen, resources nicked. So what? It's only stuff, stuff you didn't pay for, and which you nicked off someone else. Don't get mad. Get even!

Incidentally if you should become a Boom Beach player and happen to come across a charming fellow called Spanky Burn, that's me. I love you, you love me, but stay orf moi laaaand!

Friday, 9 January 2015

Bookhounds, Night's Black Agents, Esoterrorists: Forgotten London, Crystal Palace

I'm going to kick the new year off with a discussion of one of London's long-forgotten landmarks. This material should be useful to any Keeper setting up a London-based campaign, and I'm also going to discuss its relevance to modern day gaming with Night's Black Agents and Esoterrorists. Night's Black Agents is something I've discussed before and should need no introduction. Esoterrorists, for those of you not familiar with the setting, is broadly the same kind of modern espionage-type RPG as NBA except that the main adversary is a terror group - the Esoterrorists of the title - whose goal is to break the membrane of modern life that protects us all, and make supernatural horror a reality. Not a million miles away, now I think on it, from the motivation that guides the Dreamhounds of Paris. But I digress.

The Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was only ever intended to last a few months. Part a demonstration of British talent, part an attempt to cock a snook at the French who were rather better at design, manufacture and sales than the British ever were, the Exhibition was born of a desire to show the world what the Empire could do, when it put its collective mind to it. Certainly there would be educational showpieces, of course there would be entertainment, but the real purpose of the Exhibition was to show off British design and inventive ingenuity, with over 100,000 exhibits provided by 17,000 exhibitors.

The Exhibition was divided into five types of display: raw materials, machinery, manufactures, fine arts, and miscellaneous. While British displays were naturally at the forefront, the Exhibition also housed displays from Russia, America, France, Italy, and Portugal, as well as examples from all over the colonies. "It is a marvelous, stirring, bewildering sight," Charlotte Bronte, a five time visitor, is supposed to have said. "A mixture of a genii palace and a mighty bazaar."

It was all housed rather at the last minute. Hyde Park was never the favorite destination, but as it turned out nothing else would do, so Hyde Park was chosen. Then there was a question of design, and though a competition was held to pick the best, none of the competitors really made the grade. With some creative fudging of the rules, the Committee finally decided on a glass design by Joseph Paxton, later Sir Joseph, head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire, who answered the objection that Hyde Park's trees would be damaged by extending the design so that the trees were completely enclosed. It is this monumental glass enclosure - 92,000 meters squared, 33 meters high at its tallest point, with 293,000 panes of glass -  that eventually gave the Crystal Palace its name.

The Exhibition closed in October, but it was felt that to demolish Paxton's Palace was a waste of a remarkable piece of design. The trouble was, what to do with it? It could hardly stay in Hyde Park. In 1852 the House of Commons finally decreed that it had to go, and shortly afterward the Crystal Palace Company formed, with Paxton's enthusiastic involvement, using subscriptions from investors to buy the Crystal Palace for 70,000 pounds cash in hand. It was moved to Sydenham Hill in Norwood, south London; a prodigious effort, when you consider all the panes of glass that had to be carefully removed and transported by teams of horses, unbroken, to their new home. Construction began in August 1852, and took two years to complete. This version of the Palace was considerably larger and taller - three storeys at its highest point - than the original, containing nearly twice as much space, using twice as much glass. Probably also twice as many leaks; no technology available at the time could make this massive greenhouse totally waterproof.

This time the intent was educational. The Palace's Illustrated Encyclopedia included ten Architectural Courts, each an elaborate reconstruction of ancient buildings and figures, designed according to the most modern - in 1854 - archaeological studies. Visit Pompei, or the Alhambra, the gorgeously decorated Temple of Karnac, or gothic Medieval splendor. When you're tired of that, see 33 examples of extinct animals, displayed as they would have been in life; but not dinosaurs, as they hadn't been discovered yet. Or visit the tropical animal display, with its jolly hippopotamus. Then of course there are Paxton's magnificent gardens. Any illustration of the Palace you care to look at is ablaze with greenery, hanging from every possible protrusion, or extending overhead. When you're tired of that buy a shawl, a memento, or even a piano, from one of the Palace's many vendors. Or admire some of the nude statues that the Church is in such an uproar about, panicked lest the public be ruined forever by seeing genitals on display. Visit one of Paxton's artificial lakes, reservoirs, rivers, cascades or fountains, all elaborately designed and operated via his Grand System, so elaborate and consuming it needed two massive water towers to function.

The biggest problem the Palace had was how to turn a profit. It was intended to be educational, but there's no money in that, and a building as large and elaborate as the Palace eats money morning, noon and night. Soon the Palace became known more for its special attractions and displays, like the Forester's Fetes that brought in tens of thousands to play at being Robin Hood's merry band, or conjurers, Punch and Judy, tightrope walkers, balloonists, cat shows, dog shows, wild menageries, and of course, music. This is an age before the Albert Hall, and the Palace became the preeminent venue for the largest concerts imaginable: the first performances in England of composers like Schubert and Handel, Schiller and Mendelssohn.     

But even then the Palace could not recoup enough money from ticket sales to pay off its debts. One of its biggest problems when it began was that it could not open on the Sabbath; the Lord's Day Observance Society forbade it, though many working people were busy six days in the week and could only attend on Sunday. The Palace overcame this obstacle in 1861, but by then it was more of a downmarket attraction, and its appeal began to fade. In 1911 its management finally declared bankruptcy. In 1914 the Earl of Plymouth bought it, to save it from developers, and it was eventually bought from the Earl by subscription, to save it for the nation. From 1920 onwards it was run by a board of trustees who restored it as best they could and opened it to the public again, with fireworks displays each Thursday. The Palace began to make a modest profit.

Then, in 1936, it caught fire. This had happened once before in 1866, destroying some of the architectural displays and the display of tropical animals; the hippo shrank like a well-roasted sausage. Insurance had been insufficient to cover the loss then, and that was only a relatively small portion of the Palace. In November 1936 the efforts of 400 firemen weren't enough to save the building; it was stuffed full of flammable materials, including old, dry wooden floors, and went up like the largest Bonfire Night in British history. Over 100,000 people came to watch. There was never any prospect of rebuilding it; it was grossly under-insured.

One of the enduring ghost stories that grew up around the Palace was the haunted train, full of long-dead passengers. The original is based on the pneumatic railway, built in 1864 as an experiment to prove the utility of an air-powered rail system. The pneumatic rail ran about 600 yards through the Park and cost  sixpence per journey. It was only in operation for a few months in 1864 before it shut down; remnants of the tunnel were found in 1992. In the 1930s a popular urban legend grew up around a woman's claim that she'd seen an abandoned carriage in the by then long-lost pneumatic tunnels, full of dessicated skeletons dressed in Victorian clothing. This ghost train later relocated, in popular imagination, to the Crystal Palace (High Level) railway station. This station opened in 1865 to service Crystal Palace traffic, but when the Palace burnt down people stopped using it. It was bombed during the war and temporarily closed, but didn't finally shut down until 1954. The ghost carriage was initially supposed to be Victorian, but local retelling now has it that the train was entombed there, with its passengers, during a tunnel collapse.     

Now, what does this mean for the Keepers out there?

The Bookhounds potential is easy to spot. The Palace is still there until 1936; the protagonists can visit it, explore it, wander in its gardens and gawp at its displays. Keepers using Megapolisomancy might make the architectural displays Megapolisomantic instruction manuals, models built in plaster by Victorian savants to instruct the sorcerers of the future how best to attune themselves to the workings of the city. The Palace itself might be one gigantic Megapolisomantic lever, or be inhabited by a paramental entity. Or perhaps one of the many different festivals and fetes might have something of interest to a bookseller, perhaps even be a book festival, like the famous Frankfurt Fair. Or the Palace could be the venue for a chase scene or similar; imagine running for your life through the gloomy Palace at night, with the Thursday fireworks outside going off like cannons. The great 1936 Fire could be the climax to the adventure, with the characters desperately trying to survive or pull something from the rubble while the impotent firefighters try their best to contain the blaze.

Night's Black Agents has at least two possible ways in. The first is via the Dracula Dossier, since it covers the period; it might even be good to stage a flashback scenario set while the Palace is still standing. Perhaps Dracula hid something at the Palace in the 1890s that he now wants to retrieve in the 1970s. The BBC stages an unsuccessful archaeological dig to find the pneumatic train tunnel in the 1970s; maybe it was getting too close to the truth, until Dracula threw a spanner in the works. However even without the Dossier there's still another obvious way in, and that's via the tunnels beneath the Palace.

Nobody really knows what happened to the pneumatic railway tunnel; it was probably destroyed by subsequent building works, but suppose for a moment that it survived. During the Second World War Crystal Palace became a hub for the manufacture of high tech equipment, while the underground tunnels nearby were used as bomb shelters. Suppose the pneumatic rail tunnel was requisitioned by the War Ministry for secret works, perhaps an underground manufacturing plant, a mission planning hub, or storage facility. The Government rarely gives things back once it takes them, and the intelligence services might have found an underground bolt-hole in South London useful after the war, again as a storage facility or manufacturing plant. Fast forward to the present day and it might as easily be abandoned as in use, but even if it has been abandoned Cold Warriors will remember it's there, and perhaps convert it for their own purposes.

Assuming it's a cold locale, then the tunnels are stuffed full of old tech and files from the war and beyond, up to about 1970-something when the project was abandoned for good. Among the aging machinery might be some Second World War era vampire hunting tools, or records of some very peculiar SOE missions. It might even be home to a deranged vampire or Renfield, who still thinks the war's on and is doing his best to bash the Boche from what he believes is the last bolthole in an occupied, bombed-out London.

A hot locale might be a privately run Tiger team, using it as a base of operations to monitor communications traffic, or to defend important installations at Canary Wharf, or even to infiltrate those same installations. Who knows who's really paying those hackers, and what the hackers' mission might be? Or it could be an off-the-books interrogation zone, with facilities fit to hold even the most difficult supernatural 'clients'. 'Sixpence to see the Palace' could become intel slang for the last trip a bloodsucker will ever take; but who's funding this little deathtrap, and for what purpose?

The Esoterrorists would go straight for that haunted train. It's the perfect excuse for all kinds of horror plots; for instance, the schemers could set it up so that schoolchildren's tales make it real, or that the dead aboard the train are coming back to seek the blood, or flesh, of the living. Though the High Level shut down the subway's still there, and is a Grade II listed structure, only occasionally open to visitors. It could be the perfect breeding ground for an Esoterrorist scheme. Maybe the terrorists are trying to create a new kind of monster, using the train as a template, which they'll send off into the underground network via the tunnels. Or the plot could have something to do with the parkland above, left vacant since the 1936 fire. All kinds of developers have stepped forward over the years with one scheme or another. Maybe the Esoterrorists see this as the perfect opportunity to build a Crystal Palace of their own, designed to collect and store the psychic energy they need to carry on their work.    

That's it for now! I hope you find this useful. Enjoy!