Saturday, 30 May 2015

Some Housecleaning and Other Strangeness (Monte Cook Games)

First, a bit of news. The scenario I wrote for YSDC, The Long Con, has been nominated for a UK Game Expo award. As I write this, votes have either been cast or are being cast for this award; not sure which. If you're reading this, and can vote, please do! Hope all's well over in Birmingham, Paul!

Second, if you listen to the Plot Points podcast, there's a show coming up that you'll be veeeerry interested in. I don't know how much I can say about it now, so I shall say nothing, except stay tuned!

Recently the Plot Points folks have been talking about Monte Cook's The Strange RPG, which I reviewed for the Escapist, but the review never saw print. Rather than waste material, here's the column that never was. Enjoy!


System: The Strange
Creators: Bruce R. Cordell, Monte Cook
Publisher: Monte Cook Games

When I saw that RPGgeek had nominated The Strange in both its Game of the Year and Best Presentation categories for 2014, my first thought was, ‘bwuh? I’ve never heard of this one. Monte Cook I know – difficult not to, if you’ve ever been interested in Dungeons and Dragons - but this Bruce Cordell guy is new to me.  Oh, another Dungeons and Dragons alumnus, eh? Perhaps this is worth seeking out …’

Yes. Yes, it is.

The Strange assumes that aliens once created a communications and transport network, which humans now call the Strange, many billions of years ago. For whatever reason, that network was abandoned, and over the years has become chaotic and difficult to navigate. Among the many creatures living out there in the Strange are planetovores, creatures capable of devouring Earth, and which can get to Earth via the Strange, if a connection is created between their reality and ours.

However there is a defense network, of sorts. Stable, imaginary little islands in the Strange, called Recursions, form a buffer zone between us and the planetovores; a Warsaw Pact of sorts, where creatures of magic, weird science and pretty much anything else in between stand between us and destruction, merely by existing. These Recursions are essentially fictional, mostly created by human imagination, but the Strange gives them a kind of life. As far as each Recursion is concerned, it’s the reality, and we’re the fiction, though some Recursions have a better idea of the nature of the Strange than others.

The game assumes that each character is a member of the Estate, a quasi-governmental organization with the self-appointed task of keeping the Recursions more or less stable, thus staving off attack from those all-devouring planetovores, or even the inhabitants of those Recursions less inclined towards civilized interaction with fellow sentient beings.  After all, Recursions cover the entire scope of humanity’s imaginary worlds, and that means everything, from zombie apocalypses to world-conquering Nazis, ravaging Mongol hordes, immortal Pharaonic priest-kings, and so much more. It should come as no surprise that some of them want to invade our version of Earth, for reasons of their own.

However the Estate isn’t the only organization which knows about the Strange. The Office of Strategic Recursion is a nice, friendly agency which really just wants to get along with everyone, and weaponize whatever Strange technology it can pick up. The September Project may or may not be using the Strange to develop the next generation of quantum computers. The Circle of Liberty wants to use the Strange to get rid of governments worldwide. That just scratches the surface, and it doesn’t include the many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individuals who are also aware of it, and are busily exploring or harvesting its riches for their own benefit.

This, mind you, all in North America; what with all the dodgy physics and mystic forces floating around, if you wanted, say, a Torchwood-style group, or any other kind of Strange-exploiting organization elsewhere, no problem.

Character generation is a breeze, even for novices. Fill in the blanks: I am an adjective noun, who verbs. Or, I am a fast spinner, who solves mysteries. Fast means you have a tier tree linked to the attribute fast, spinner that you’re a character type who relies on bluff, manipulation and subterfuge, and solves mysteries gives you access to a tier tree that revolves around solving mysteries.  That, and a little bit of point spending on your three attributes of Might, Speed and Intellect, and you’re good to go. Shouldn’t take longer than half an hour, even if you’ve never played tabletop before in your life.

Mechanically, The Strange’s Cypher System is about as simple as you can get, and still involve random chance. Tasks range from Routine Difficulty, which doesn’t require a dice roll, to Impossible. That Difficulty setting determines the Target Number, which you have to roll equal to or greater than on a d20. The outcome is dependent on the character’s Might, Speed or Intellect – whichever is most appropriate to the task – with any special benefits, items or other modifiers factored in. Roll the dice and find out if you did it or not. As the character, you’re always going to be the one driving the action, and you’re going to be the one rolling dice. Conflicts between NPCs are decided by the Game Master, who decides which result would best fit the narrative and goes with that.

Simplicity is one of the things I really appreciate about The Strange. Sure, I loved First Edition Dungeons and Dragons when I was a teen, and had the time to master all of its arcane subsystems, tables, and charts. Those days are done. Now what I want out of a game is an intriguing core idea, and rules mechanics that are lucid enough for anyone to pick up without any difficulty.

That core idea is definitely intriguing. You can quite literally go anywhere, anywhen. The main book describes several different Recursions, including one based on a fantasy video game RPG, another on a dystopian world racked by nuclear war and inhabited by, among other things, hyperintelligent roaches, and yet another where Sherlock Holmes plays violin and waits for clients at 221B Baker Street, London. You can go to Shangri-La, Innsmouth Massachusetts, King Arthur’s Court, the Land of Oz, or anywhere else you fancy. It’s not difficult to see how the Game Master could design a whole raft of scenarios around this core concept. For those willing to dive right in and just go nuts, The Strange offers all kinds of pulp fun.

Its Dungeons and Dragons roots are pretty clear from the example scenario and scenario seeds in the main book. You are made aware of a potential problem by your employer and are sent out to investigate. You go into what amounts to a dungeon, whallop a few mooks, and perhaps negotiate your way past the tougher obstacles. There is a boss encounter of some kind, and after you deal with that, you go back and report to your employer. Job done, until next time, when your employer makes you aware of another potential problem, and the cycle begins anew. The game certainly doesn’t have to play that way – the rules are simple enough and the setting loose enough for any kind of play style - but those are the examples on offer: light on investigation, heavy on the action. I was particularly struck by one encounter, which could have come straight out of Grimtooth’s. You have to wonder where the bad guys get their contractors. There’s no Angie’s List for that sort of thing.

Do I recommend it? Sure, it’s a great little knockabout. The rules are simple enough that anyone can get to grips with them without too much effort, and the core concept’s strong enough to engage even the most jaded of players. Its malleability is one of its strengths. If your group is tired of horror, play fantasy. Tired of fantasy, play sci fi, and so on. The Recursion idea is pretty close to the old Ravenloft concept of the Mist, with little pockets of reality hidden away from each other behind a mysterious wall, which is great for changing up the setting when you feel the need.

Would I play it? Hum. As a break from a different system, yes. It’s perfect for that one or two session hiatus game, where you put your main campaign on hold for a while, so everyone can recharge their batteries, but The Strange’s malleability is a problem as well as a benefit. It can become so many things that it almost lacks an identity of its own. 

Oddly, it reminds me a little of Atlas’ horror title Unknown Armies, in that I feel the same way after reading The Strange as I did when I first read Atlas’ game. There are so many ideas here, a lot of them really great, but what do I do with them all? Monster of the week it, try to go for high concept, immerse in the fantasy aspect, something else? How do I pitch it to the players? Is this something for a particular kind of gamer, the way Wraith suits certain players and not others, or will anyone be able to get on board?

On the whole, these feel like minor worries rather than dealbreakers. It’s still a system I’d like to try. Wandering through the multiverse with an Estate gold badge, like some kind of modern day Wyatt Earp with all the potential layers of existence as my Tombstone, has a lot of appeal. I’d recommend The Strange to anyone who enjoys Dungeons and Dragons style monster bashing, with a touch of Torchwood, and just a little hint of X-Files. Enjoy!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Not Quite Review Corner: Invisible Inc (Klei)

Welcome to another installment, in which I'm going to talk about Klei Entertainment's stealthy roguelike, Invisible Inc. I just picked this up on Steam yesterday, and have been playing obsessively for the last few hours. I haven't beaten it yet (experienced level), but I am on what seems to be the final mission, and am playing through again with different characters to see if that has significant effect on my playthrough.

The story campaign is set in a William Gibson-esque cyberpunk world, and I'll go so far as to say that, unless you've been devouring cyberpunk for the last few years, many of the game concepts might confuse or irritate you. Corporations rule this dystopian world. Your rag-tag bunch of crooks and thieves has been a thorn in their side for far too long, so the corps decided to band together to take you out. Your organization is shattered, many of its members captured, and you're on the run with what's left of your super-powerful AI, Incognita. Your job is to stay alive, and find somewhere to house your AI before it degrades beyond recovery.

Incognita is one of the major gameplay elements. It's thanks to the AI that you can hack your way through the enemy defenses, and without hacking your team would be dead in the water, since the corp facilities are chock-full of security cameras, laser beams, security drones, combat drones and other, terrifying things. Plus, of course, security guards. So, so many security guards ... Your job, ultimately, is to keep Incognita alive, and the story missions revolve around you finding a new home for her, after the old one was blown up.

You begin play with two surviving agents, a small fund of credits, and not much else. The default agents are Decker, a thug with a handy-dandy invisibility cloak, and Internationale, a clever hacker who can rip systems apart wirelessly. Of the two, Internationale is probably the more useful, since Incognita needs Power to operate, and Internationale can steal that quickly and easily. There are other agents which you can unlock through play, or rescue from detention camps. Some are combat monsters, others stealthy thieves. Though each has a personality of sorts, it barely impinges on gameplay. Apart from individual character's special abilities, like Decker's chance to detect internet Daemons, each character is the same as another, increases abilities in the same way, and uses the same equipment. There are no character classes here. If you want Internationale to become a brawler, a brawler she shall be, and so on.

This is a turn-based stealth roguelike, with STEALTH writ in ten-foot high fiery letters. If stealth games frustrate you, on no account go anywhere near Invisible Inc. In many ways it's the polar opposite of XCom, despite both being turn-based strategy titles, because one of the draws of XCom is that you get to shoot, blow up and otherwise shred the things that anger you, whereas here you need to adapt to your environment, avoiding conflict if at all possible. Dishonored, another stealth title, also allowed the player to choose to blow off steam, and complete the mission, by killing everything in sight, waving a sword like Doug Fairbanks on amphetamines. Here, though, killing or indeed any aggressive action is tacitly forbidden. Each time a guard dies, or wakes up after you've knocked him unconscious, things get much more difficult, as the alarm bells start ringing and the surviving guards chase you down. At alarm level one, things are a little tricky, but at level six you might as well get in your coffin and call the undertaker.

This is a difficult game. I strongly recommend new players start at Beginner, and work your way up. Ordinarily the lowest rung of the difficulty ladder is for those who've never played this kind of game before, but this time, it's for everyone. Particularly since the game's stuffed full of concepts and terminology that aren't as clearly described as perhaps they could be. Again, it's a cyberpunk thing; especially when it comes to the hacking side of the game, you really need to be into the genre to get, say, Daemons, and how they can screw with your day. But it's also because there's a ton of stuff to take in, very little of which is going to be familiar to you.

For example: there's something called a Sound Bug on many of the levels. Presumably it's some kind of defensive mechanism, a type of trap. I have no idea what this thing does. It hasn't affected my game play - or at least, I haven't noticed it affecting my experience - but I know it's there, and I know it does something.  I've been ignoring it, which seems to work so far. I'd still like to know what it is.

Many of the game's concepts are deliberately video-gamish, which can be annoying. Case in point: if you hack some of the consoles on the level, you get the option to buy new programs or tools to help you out. Think about it: you've just hacked, as in gained illicit access, to their systems. You should have complete control, so why are you spending money, your own actual cash, to do stuff? Do Chinese hackers rip apart, I don't know, Amazon, say, just so they can purchase books on Kindle? Or here's another: many of the advanced weapons require ammo packs, one-time-use items, so they can be recharged. I assumed that meant if you wanted to reload during a mission, you had to have an ammo pack. Fine, but if I empty a weapon and then finish the mission, I can reload for free at home base, right? We have bullets stashed away at HQ, surely? No? I have to use the one-use-only item that cost me several hundred credits - again, my own money, because my hacker's a bit fuzzy on the whole stealing thing - to recharge? Damn. There is a story element that explains this - you're flying around on an escape jet, and didn't have a chance to bring supplies - but it still smacks of resource management shoehorned in to make the experience more difficult.

It's not as if you can get stuff easily. There is an in-game merchant, Monst3r, but he rarely has anything to sell, in story mode at least. You can buy things from corp machines, but there's no guarantee that the corp machine will have what you want, and of course you're dodging corp security all the time, so you can't hang around. That one-use-only item can't get replaced easily, so you have to be really, really careful, husbanding your resources.

It is basically Ironman by default, unless you're playing at Beginner level. Ironman, for those not familiar with the term, is a game concept which assumes that you cannot go back to a previous save, and play again. Every choice counts. At Beginner, you have the option of Rewinding, going back in time one turn, which you can do five times. You also have the option to restart the level, which is great when you thoroughly screw the pooch and are facing down a dozen enraged guards. At Experienced, you can no longer restart, nor can you go back to a previous save, and you only have three Rewinds. Thus, while not officially Ironman, Experienced forces you to play with no take-backs, and if the mission goes straight to hell, that's the entire campaign done and dusted, with all your people dead or in custody. You don't have the option to choose who goes on a mission. The game assumes everyone goes, so if you fail and your people are wiped, there's no way to recover. Ouch! I haven't dared try anything above Experienced yet. I think it might make me cry.

Is this a good strategy title? Hell yes. You will sweat over every single decision. When you manage a successful run, sneaking through the facility and stealing what you need to survive, escaping right under the enemy's nose, you'll feel like the hero of a heist movie. The roguelike aspect of it makes it feel a little as if the corp's architects drink a bucket of scotch for breakfast, lunch and dinner - seriously guys, corridors that go nowhere, what the hell - but it does mean that the maps have near infinite variety, which really keeps you on your toes.

Has it the same replayability as XCom? Well, it does have sandbox modes for you to tool around in, after the story mode's done. You could build up a team of hardened crooks and make the corps sweat blood, forever and ever and ever. XCom doesn't offer that, and its lack of new maps does make it feel same-y after a while. Even if a roguelike's maps look as if they were put together by Salvador Dali's cousin Sherman, at least they're different each time.

However there's not a lot of actual variety in the missions. Ultimately you go to a place, do a thing, and then run away. The thing you do can vary from hacking into a system, buying new stuff, capturing enemy personnel for the information in their heads and so on, but the mechanics of it never change significantly. Whenever you do a thing, alarm bells go off, making it that much more difficult to escape. No matter how you handle the capture of a corporate officer, for instance, in hope of stealing his data card, he always, always, always summons a high-level security guard to investigate. No matter how stealthy you have been, the alarm bells always go off, and the level of alarm always increases. It doesn't matter how clever you are, if you're still there when the alarm level reaches six - and it will get there eventually - you're borked. All this can make the game feel as if you're doing the same rote task, time and again, and it's mainly the adrenaline rush of avoiding the security systems that keeps you hooked.

Is it worth the money? It's currently going for $17.99 on Steam, and is also available on Mac and PS4. Not sure of the price tag on the other platforms, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's broadly comparable. At that price, it's a steal. Even if you fall out of love with it eventually, it will consume many hours of your time before that happens.

Do I recommend it? Yes, but with the great big caveat that you have to like stealth games, and must be big into cyberpunk as a setting. It is not a game for hotheads, and if you lose your temper easily, avoid like the plague.

But all that said, if you do love stealth, if you're familiar with cyberpunk as a setting, and if you're looking for a turn-based strategy title to take over where XCom left off, look no further. Klei has you covered.


Friday, 15 May 2015

Buried Treasure (Trail of Cthulhu)

... one day this Indian named Glode was out in his canoe. He had his little girl with him and when they got to a place where there is a point of land, he saw a ship sailing towards them. They were scared of strangers in those days, so he paddled to a cove and hid his canoe away in the woods. Then he climbed a tree. From there he could see everything that went on, and he watched that ship. It stopped, and the pirates on board took down the sails, lowered a rowboat, and four or five of them came ashore. They came straight to that point, chose a spot, and started digging. The captain gave the orders. After they got a trench dug deep enough, he sent two of them men to the boat for a big chest. After they had brought it up and put it down beside the hole he lined them all up and said, 'Have you got everything ready? Who's going to keep this money?' One of them says, 'Well, the other fellers don't say much. I'll look after it.'

'All right,' says the captain. 'You're to guard it for a hundred and fifty years,' and before the man realized what he had gotten himself into, the others grabbed him. They cut off his head then and put him in the hole with the chest. After that they drew a map, covered up the hole, and went away.

From Bluenose Ghosts, by Helen Creighton.  

Last time I talked about Captain Kidd, and touched briefly on the subject of buried treasure. Kidd is the only pirate known to have buried treasure, on Gardiner's Island, only to have it stolen out from under him by his so-called friend the Earl of Bellomont. Which neatly illustrates the central problem with buried treasure: once buried, any idiot can dig it up and claim it for his own. In the movies, this might inspire a pirate to design some really over-elaborate traps, but as can be seen from the Creighton extract, a real pirate hasn't got the time or patience for Oak Island-style miraculous engineering. Just put your basic corpse in your basic hole, and you're good to go.

Now, it's unlikely that many, if any, pirates actually did kill a victim and bury him, or her, with the loot, if only because it's unlikely that many pirates buried loot. Loot is for spending, not sticking in the ground. That said, it's probable that someone tried that trick. Superstition has followed in humanity's footsteps since we learned how to walk, and no matter how bad an idea might be, you can always find someone who thinks it's a genius scheme. Besides, in an RPG world, the rules are as you make them. Why shouldn't a pirate kill a sacrificial victim to create a guardian for his treasure?

The great thing about a story like this is that you can play it out almost anywhere along the East Coast of the United States as well as on any of the islands in the Caribbean. With a bit of tweaking you could probably also put it somewhere along the English or French coast, changing the pirates to smugglers. Or somewhere off the coast of Africa, or anywhere along the old Pirate Round. Or ... but you take the point. That said, in Trail of Cthulhu and Cthulhu games in general, one of the favorite settings is Lovecraftian New England, with its legend-haunted small towns like Dunwich and Arkham, quiet and forbidding. A pirate tale of buried gold and ghostly guardians is a natural fit, and could be an interesting beginning to a campaign, as well as a brilliant reason for the characters to get together in the first place. A group of treasure hunters who get too close to Innsmouth for comfort? Sold!

But what do you get when you cut off someone's head and bury them with the loot? Legend is cagy on the subject. The ghost is supposed to haunt the spot, with or without a head. It has significant power to defend its loot, but can only use that power against someone trying to steal it. Someone just walking by, without the slightest idea that Thomas Tew, or whoever it might have been, left a fortune there, won't be disturbed. Well, probably not, anyway; Creighton reports that several ghosts, tired of standing watch, started pestering passers-by to take the loot from them, and let them rest.

The tale is very similar to the barrow-dweller or hagbui of Norse folklore, and the story probably found its way to Canada via Scotland, which has an old history of conflict with Viking raiders. These creatures are often created from the corpse of a warrior, and left behind to guard loot. A draugr has incredible strength, but it can also move through solid rock, in mist form, and increase its size to that of a giant. Its stench is awful, far beyond the usual pungent decomposition stink, and its presence can sometimes be detected by the foxfire that glows at its burial place at night. Iron is potent against them; to prevent the dead returning, people sometimes pierced the corpses' feet with iron nails.

Buried treasure can't just be unearthed. There's rules to this sort of thing. Even if the ghost wants you to dig up the loot, it's bound by geas to defend it, so you might get attacked. Each treasure can be uncovered without risk so long as its ritual is carried out, and that ritual can vary from spilling the blood of a newborn, spilling the blood of twins, getting a hen and rooster to plough and seed the ground - no, really - and so on, and on. Each method is detailed by the pirates as they bury the loot, so if you want to know how to do it, better find a ouija board; or maybe someone helpfully wrote the ritual down somewhere. It's likely that a user of Goetic magic can think of ways past this barrier, or perhaps someone who knows the Saaamaaa Ritual can defuse the ghost's defenses.

When digging for treasure, you must go at night, and you must never, ever speak. Speaking gives the ghost power over you; until you speak, its abilities are limited, but once you speak, it can do as it pleases. Because of this, ghosts will usually try to trick you into speaking, using powers of illusion or suggestion to get you to say something. If you absolutely have to address a ghost, always invoke the power of God, as in 'In God's name, speak.' So long as you do that, its power is reduced.

If the ghost attains its full power, it can do a great deal. It has supernatural strength, and is capable of lifting or throwing great weights, far beyond the capacity of a normal human. It can summon other supernatural entities to help it. It can remove the treasure instantly, to another location, or deep underground where it can't be reached by digging. It will not hesitate to kill, but will not pursue a victim, so if the treasure hunters run away they won't suffer its further wrath. It's often armed, perhaps with sword, pistol or musket. Being a ghost, it probably can't be killed, and certainly not with conventional weapons.  

Of course, that all assumes that a ghost really is a ghost, and follows Occult rules. It could as easily be the Devil, or one of the many Black Dogs. In a Mythos tale, it could also be something from beyond the stars, or a vampirish mist, or a Deep One compelled to return to the spot each night by a magic-using pirate, or ... again, you get the point. Such creatures don't need to follow the usual ghostly rules.

With all that in mind, here's a treasure for you:

Rooster Island's Gold

You've dreamed three nights running, a sure sign that the dream is a true one, that there's treasure buried out on Rooster Island, one of the tiny, rocky outcrops between Plum Island and the mainland, perhaps an hour by boat from Innsmouth. According to the dream, there's a large, flat rock, the size of a dinner table, not far from an immense elm tree. Under that rock is the treasure, but in your dream you've seen a coal-black kitten playing on that rock, and you believe that kitten has some significance, though you aren't sure precisely what. You're convinced a fortune lies out there for the taking, but aren't sure of the specifics.

Library Use, Oral History or similar discovers that Rooster Island was thought to be where Billy 'Black Dog' Seavy hid the loot from his piratical adventures during and after the war of 1812. Seavy, a Massachusetts-born filibuster, captured twelve ships in all, before being run aground and shot off the coast of Cuba, in 1816. His most notorious exploit is the capture of the merchantman Belle, when he's supposed to have locked the crew and passengers below decks and set the ship on fire. Seavy's mentioned in several books on witchcraft, as a pirate captain who supposedly could command the wind and waves, drawing victims in by stealing the wind from their sails and putting it in his own, or using storms to drive them towards him. Seavy's supposed to have boasted, before being filled full of grapeshot in the summer of 1816, that only the Devil knew where his loot was hid, and the Devil was obliged to keep it for a hundred years, or until an angel came knocking on the Devil's door.

Occult, in combination with information gained from the dream, can work out that the best time to get the treasure is an hour after midnight, when certain constellations are overhead, since that's the time the dreamer thinks the dream takes place. The kitten, probably a kind of guardian, needs to be pacified in some way, before the dig can take place.

Cthulhu Mythos knows that the stones on Rooster Island have strange, malign symbols carved on them, that cultists sometimes use in their dreadful rituals of appeasement and summoning. Lights have been seen on Rooster Island at night, and it's thought that necromancers come to that spot to summon up dreadful creatures, as messengers to their dark gods. Some Innsmouth families regularly make pilgrimage to Rooster Island and other places like it, dotted up and down the coast, always returning to the same spot year after year, as if called there.

Friday, 8 May 2015

As I Sailed: Captain Kidd's Treasure

My name was Captain Kidd, as I sailed
My name was Captain Kidd, as I sailed
My name was Captain Kidd, and much wickedness I did, 
And God's laws I did forbid, as I sailed.

Some of you may have noticed that a silver bar, allegedly part of Captain Kidd's lost treasure, has been found in Madagascar. Several reports have it as 'buried treasure,' which isn't entirely accurate, since the silver has been recovered from a sunken ship. The 55kg bar was recovered from the wreck of what is thought to be Kidd's ship, the Adventure Galley, a 34-gun square rigger bought fresh from its Deptford launching in 1695 by Kidd, in order to track down pirates in the far-off Indies. The silver is currently in the possession of the Madagascar government; no doubt it will find its way into a museum at some point.

Kidd is a product of the tail end of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, and was one of its unluckiest specimens. He started his career in the Caribbean as an ordinary seaman, part of a pirate crew that mutinied, took control of the ship, and set sail for Nevis, where the governor promptly enlisted Kidd and his friends as protectors of the colony. As the colony had no money, Kidd got his wages by sacking the French colony at Marie-Galante, capturing French ships, and generally being a nuisance to enemies of the English crown. He was successful enough to earn a reputation as an adventurer in the Americas, and eventually married a wealthy New York widow; this marriage and his associations with New York are the reasons why so many American painters chose him as a subject of their craft. If he'd only stayed there, nobody would remember his name now, and he would have led a far happier life.

But Kidd was enlisted by the Governor of New York to track down pirates who were beginning to make a nuisance of themselves by sacking East Indiamen rather than enemies of the Crown. He purchased the Adventure Galley and made his way to what he must have thought was guaranteed success and fortune, only to find that there were no suitable targets in the Red Sea at all. Plagued by mishap - everything from cholera to mutiny - and desperate to avoid any appearance of piracy by attacking ships from nations not at war with England, Kidd tried at first to stick to the letter of the law. That didn't sit well with his crew, who were looking forward to a share of loot that, they soon realized, they were never going to see. Pushed to breaking point, Kidd tried to keep everyone happy by dabbling in piracy, hoping his investors back in London would protect him legally so long as he brought home the bacon. Even then Kidd had no luck, possibly because he was too timid a pirate, refusing easy, but illegal captures out of fear he'd swing at Tyburn.

His most successful venture was the capture of the Quedagh Merchant, an Armenian-owned vessel that technically was a legitimate prize, since its safe passage had been authorized by the French East India Company. However it was a very slim technicality, and Kidd worried that his explanations wouldn't hold water when he returned to London. It didn't help that, unbeknownst to Kidd, one of the major investors in the Merchant was a man who was on very good terms with the Grand Mogul, who could, and would, make things very hot for Kidd. 

Kidd took the Merchant as a prize, and together with that, another captured ship, and his Adventure Galley, made his way to St Mary's Island, where by chance he met with a much more successful pirate, Culliford, an old frenemy of Kidd who had robbed Kidd of his ship years before, when the two were privateers in the Caribbean. There's some dispute as to whether Kidd and Culliford discussed possible joint ventures, or whether Kidd wanted to capture Culliford but lacked the nerve to try it. Whichever way it went, the outcome is not in dispute: most of Kidd's crew mutinied, went over to Culliford, and left Kidd in the lurch with only two ships, the Galley and the Merchant.

Kidd, by this time thoroughly disheartened and pursued by an angry Mogul and his allies, decided to return to New York and discuss things with his friends there. He left the Galley behind, after stripping it of anything that might be useful to him, right down to the hinges. Then he burnt it.

For these reasons it seems unlikely that the silver bar found off Madagascar is actually Kidd's loot. He had plenty of time to search the Galley before he sank it, and it's not as if a 55kg bar is that easy to overlook. Accidents do happen - there's a recorded instance of a pirate crew throwing bar after bar of 'worthless tin' overboard not realizing it was actually silver, until someone who kept a bar as a souvenir found himself the luckiest man aboard  - but even someone with Kidd's luck oughtn't to have been quite as unfortunate as that.

His New York friends, while not precisely turning their backs on him, were less than welcoming. Not only was Kidd a fugitive from justice, he was poor; all the pirate gold he'd promised to bring back with him had turned out to be a fantasy. That kind of thing never goes down well in New York.  His most powerful ally, Governor Coote, Earl of Bellomont, an investor in the voyage, had every reason to betray Kidd; Bellomont was suspected of being involved in Kidd's turn to piracy, and could have faced a trial himself unless he found a scapegoat. That goat was the perennially unfortunate Kidd, who Bellomont arrested. Kidd's trial in London went about as well as could be expected, particularly since Kidd made one last attempt to prove his loyalty to his investors by not testifying against them at trial. His investors did not intercede on his behalf, and Kidd swung at Execution Dock as a pirate and murderer.

Kidd's lost treasure is one of those tales that grows in the telling. He's known to have left a cache of loot on Gardiner's Island, intended to be used as bribes to keep him clear of the hangman, but which Bellomont used as evidence against Kidd at trial. However this relatively modest pile is nothing compared to the vast sums he's supposed to have buried, here there and everywhere, across the wide, wide sea. Kidd's also the inspiration for at least two ghost stories, both fundamentally the same, in which a ragged seaman, soaked in salt water, wanders the roads, either in New England or old England, trying to make his way to his friends. He's spotted at roadside inns, where he pays his way in antique gold coins.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, you'd have to be simple to believe in Kidd's treasure. Leaving aside that he is, almost without question, the unluckiest brigand in the history of piracy, and never had the chance to amass a fortune, the vast majority of his loot from the Quedagh Merchant must have been taken from him when his crew mutinied and joined Culliford. He would have had very little left of the eight thousand pounds he's supposed to have taken from the Armenian merchant ship, and what little there was probably ended up in his Gardiner's Island cache, which Bellomont stole. However logic has little say in the matter when pirate gold is at stake, which is why fools have been digging holes at Oak Island for time out of mind.

From a Keeper's perspective, what can be done with the tragic tale of Captain Kidd?

As a Trail scenario he could make an excellent ghost, whether wandering the old roads of New England or standing guard over some forgotten cache of gold and silver. In a Bookhounds game he could be found at Execution Dock, whose location is now uncertain, but one possible spot is the Underground Station on the High Street. That could make for an interesting mix of modern and ancient, Kidd's lonely phantom looking on as the trains rush past. Or possibly Kidd decided to make one last confession before he swung, and that confession's found amongst a pile of worm-eaten papers, perhaps with a handy treasure map attached.

Buried treasure is a lure that's sucked in many an otherwise intelligent soul, who ought to have known better. Kidd's loot has a luster that defies description; people have ruined themselves looking for that chimera, digging up dirt from Canada to the Caribbean and beyond, looking for something that was never there to begin with. An interesting scenario could begin in much the same way, with the characters searching for Kidd's lost loot, only to find something more horrible and outre. The great thing about a scenario of this type is that it can take place almost anywhere; you could even make a case for some of it being hidden in New York City by Bellomont. Gardiner's Island is another fun spot for a scenario, particularly given its associations with piracy, the Revolution, and wealth. But you could also take a Kidd story to Madagascar, which as a location is filled with opportunity for sinister doings, violence, and other fun things.

Not having read Timewatch I can't be certain where a sad sack like Kidd would fit in, but it's tempting to think that his awful, awful luck was artificially produced. Or that the spectral figure seen wandering the roads of old New England is actually a manifestation of someone caught out of time.

That's it for me for now. Enjoy!