Sunday, 30 August 2015

Not Quite Book Review Corner: The Book of Spies (NBA)

Silly, but entertaining, and with a very interesting plot hook. Which isn't something I was sure I was going to be able to say about Gayle Lynds' The Book of Spies. I picked it up mainly to data mine it for Night's Black Agents, and it's perfectly serviceable in that role. If you happen to be a Director and want some inspiration for your campaign, this is a good place to look for it, as it plays out much as you'd want a good RPG to: lots of travel to exotic locations, fun combat moments, and engaging villains. Just don't expect all of it to make sense.

The central hook is what lured me in, and that didn't disappoint. Rare book curator Eva Blake is drawn into a conspiracy surrounding the mysterious Library of Gold, once owned by Russian despot Ivan the Terrible, now thought lost to history. Eva's dead husband was a foremost expert on the mysterious library, but it seems his death isn't as kosher as first thought; not only is he alive, he's now the head librarian. But what's the connection between this most secretive of book clubs and Islamic terrorism?

Things I didn't like: oh, brother, it's a gimmick book. You know the type: Mysterious Clues have been left by Eva's long lost husband that, if pieced together, will lead to the Library itself. Mysterious clues like the tattoo on his head, or the ancient Latin code kept secret in Rome, or the annotations in the main McGuffin, Ivan's fabled Book of Spies. Piece together the picture formed by the moles on Washington's buttcheecks, as revealed to the righteous in the fabled naked Washington portrait painted by his secret lover, Andrew Jackson, and you too will receive a Wally Walrus decoder ring of your very own. I have so little patience for that kind of thing. It reminds me irresistibly of Calvin and Hobbes'  G.R.O.S.S., and while I enjoy that stuff when a kid and his stuffed tiger do it, I find I have less patience for it when grown adults try the same thing.

Plus, the clues can only be pieced together by his wife, which means that if his wife hadn't been conveniently dragged into the plot, nobody would have the slightest idea what the hell's going on. Added to that, there's no convincing reason why he should leave behind the clues he does, beyond a quick handwave, and there's one particular clue that, as far as I can see, he had absolutely no business knowing about. Poor plotting drives me mental.

There is a Mysterious Assassin With a Conscience. Kinda like a Hooker with a Heart of Gold, these fabled beasts only appear when the writer's up shit creek without a paddle. Naturally the main villain lies to the MAWC to get him to go after the book's heroes, and naturally the MAWC ends up turning against the main villain because the heroes seem so nice and righteous. Sweet jumping jellybeans, Batman, why the hell didn't you hire one of those assassins who don't have a conscience? Surely there are one or two of them left?

The plot is introduced when one of the conspirators has doubts, and meets with his old CIA buddy in a D.C. public park. He literally has just enough time to say, 'important clue concerning the nature of the McGuffin' before a sniper takes him out. I think the last time I saw that gag, Sax Rohmer was writing it. Life must get very frustrating for those poor snipers, who have to wait just long enough for the victim to say something significant before they can blow the victim's brains out.

So I don't recommend this book for its plot. You could drive a sixteen wheeler through the damn thing. No, I recommend it because of its McGuffin, the fabled Library of Gold, and the mysterious power brokers who own it. That whole set-up could be stolen wholesale by a Night's Black Agents Director. All you have to do is put Dracula in charge of the Library, and you're golden.

Plus, Lynds clearly seems at her most comfortable when talking about the Library, and other ancient sites. It's when her prose starts to come alive, and the character seem at their most human. Even the villains seem interesting, once they get to the Library and start sipping the brandy. Entire scenes could be taken from this book and transplanted into your campaign, and there's a very useful appendix where Lynds talks about the history behind the myth.

So on the whole, a qualified recommendation. It's worth bearing in mind that I did finish it, in spite of my vehement dislike of its structure and plotting. It's the kind of book you can probably devour in a few hours, or a long plane journey. In fact, it's exactly the sort of book you're likely to find in an airport newsagents, so if you should spot it, and it's going cheap, by all means give it a shot. Just don't expect too much from it beyod a few rollicking action scenes and a McGuffin so good, it really ought to have been in a better book.


Monday, 24 August 2015

Not Quite Review Corner: Walk Away (Fear the Walking Dead)

I didn't bother to see the whole thing, which is why this isn't a review. I got bored halfway through, when I realized that there was nothing on screen that I wanted to see.

Things I liked: one of the main settings is an LA public school. The US' crumbling school system has been a metaphor for disaster and mayhem since the 1990s. It's become iconic, and will probably stay that way regardless of how wonderful, or not so wonderful, the school system actually is. Making two teachers main characters is very symbolic; the people who are trying, and failing, to hold the school together will also be trying, and probably failing, to keep it together during the zombie apocalypse.

Nobody says anything. Really, why would you? Even if you've seen dead people walking, talking about it will get you nothing but a strait jacket and some calming medication. Strait jackets are notoriously problematic when trying to run away from zombies; the longer you stay out of one, the better it is for you.

 The acting is decent throughout, with some standout performances from the two leads. The bigger problem here isn't the performances, but the writing. None of the characters are really fleshed out, and many of them are just stock characters pulled out of central casting. Plus, since we're seeing all this from one family's perspective, we don't really get the city-wide feel this kind of television deserves. It almost needs to take a cue from all those old disaster movies, with their casts of thousands. Allowing the unfolding drama to be seen from different, unrelated perspectives would have made for much better television, and it's something that television could get away with much more easily than a movie length project. I didn't go so far as to see Ofelia and her family, which might have made a difference to me. But then, it seems as if we never meet them until the apocalypse is already well under way, which means we'll never see it unfold from their perspective,

Which brings me on to some of my dislikes. The show opens with Nick Clark, the drug addict son of one of the main characters, waking up after a binge to find that all of his friends are dead, and worse. My first thought: if habitual drug abuse is this good for you, I'm amazed more people don't take up heroin. The man's buffed, never seems to have missed a meal in his life, hair perfectly coiffed, skin unblemished - apart from one artful smudge of dirt on his cheek - and evenly tanned. I don't think we even see any track marks or scarring, though as mentioned I give up a the halfway point, so perhaps there's a reveal later.

This is emblematic of the show as a whole. It has good ideas, but never really executes any of them. Maybe it's lack of will, maybe it's pressure from above, but it's never as scary as it could be, nor as gripping. Going back to the dialogue: there's nothing here that hasn't been said a thousand times before, in a thousand thousand different made for TV movies. There isn't a single cast member who has anything interesting to say. The star-crossed lovers Alicia Clark and her boyfriend nameless zombie chow are a case in point: you've seen these two in any number of Hallmark specials. The only interesting relationship on screen is between the two first episode leads, Madison and Travis, and there just isn't enough there to keep me watching.

It feels remarkably slow moving. I suspect part of this is down to it being part of the Walking Dead continuity. We all know what's going to happen, and with that element of suspense gone, all we can do is wait for the rest of the characters to catch up. It's not interesting watching boring people spend an hour figuring out something you already knew about from the first minute of screen time. It's perfectly reasonable for them not to believe, or suspect, that zombies are lurking in the shadows, but because we already know that zombies are the whole point of the series, we get frustrated by their continued disbelief.

The zombie effects are good, and in some instances even imaginative. However - and again, this may be due to it being part of the Walking Dead continuity - we've been beaten over the head with excellent zombie effects for years now. It doesn't matter that they're a little more gooey and fresh than we're used to from the main series. They're still just zombies, and we have seen zombies. God, have we seen zombies. The makers needed something evocative to make them interesting again, and while the early, well-executed scene in the church almost filled that need, it was too short.

To sum up: Fear the Walking Dead is an interesting concept, but it doesn't fulfill its early promise. There needs to be something else here of interest besides the zombies, and there really isn't. 

Saturday, 22 August 2015

One Tiny Teaser (Fiction)

As I've said before, I'm running a Patreon, and every so often when I get new members I like to post new fiction. My original intent was to post this particular piece on the Patreon for free, but as it relates to a Pelgrane IP, I've agreed with Simon that it should go up on the Pelgrane site instead. You'll note that no actual IP terms are used, but you'll probably guess which IP it is.

With all that in mind, I'm posting a teaser here, so you'll know what to look forward to later. Not sure exactly when this is going up, but by the end of the month for definite.



       Dorcas wondered, not for the first time, what her West African mother would have said, if she knew her Cambridge graduate daughter was cleaning offices at Canary Wharf, the very job she had done for fifty years so Dorcas wouldn’t have to. Dorcas didn’t think the Glock hidden in her cleaning equipment would matter much to Mum. She was a straightforward woman. She wouldn’t have had time or patience for Dorcas’ specialized position.

      It was time for check-in. Dorcas took out her cheap mobile and typed in, hey baby. It was script three, and just as they’d practiced, Roy’s reply was hey, you. :) Simon, the loaner from Special Reconnaissance Regiment, was the one who’d designed it. He’d pointed out that blending in was key, and nobody looked twice at someone texting. There was always a risk that the messages would be intercepted, so the textspeak was bland. The key was in the timing. Once every half hour, on the half hour. So long as you stuck to script, the chance that someone was impersonating the sender was reduced to nil, or as close to nil as Simon could manage it. So long as the texts kept coming in, all was well. If the texts stopped coming, or Dorcas sent want coffee? then it was time to send in the cavalry.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Gunpowder Treason and Me (Trail of Cthulhu)

In case you were wondering, this is how I spend my spare time. Yes, that daring fellow in the bedsheet running around on the beach is me, at the reenactment of the 1775 Gunpowder Plot, which supplied the American army with gunpowder stolen from the British in Bermuda. I played Governor George Breuer, a hapless military man stymied by the Bermudians and his own lackluster government at every turn, who suffered the ultimate indignity of having his gunpowder stolen right from under his nose.

I ended up overboard, which given the heat was a welcome benefit, even if it meant my costume became see-through.

The plot came about because, during the War, the Continental Congress decided to embargo trade with any British colony still loyal to the Crown. Several prominent Bermudians became upset at this; America was a valuable trading partner, and without it the island colony would never prosper. How to persuade the Americans to break the embargo?

Well, there was that store of gunpowder that nobody was using. Originally stockpiled to defend the colony, there were no troops manning any of Bermuda's extensive fort network, so it had gone to rot in the attic of the House of Assembly before the Governor decided to build a store for it and move it there. What if the rebels were to come in and steal it, nudge nudge, wink wink?

The Americans, and Ben Franklin in particular, were having none of it. They hadn't the resources to waste on what might be a wild goose chase, and in any case, if the Bermudians wanted to benefit, Franklin felt they'd better have some skin in the game. Instead the Committee, as the gunpowder plotters styled themselves, were advised to steal the powder and bring it to the Americans if they wanted any kind of reward.

This they did, on a warm August night. The powder store had no windows, so they cut their way in through the roof. There were perhaps a hundred kegs, but twelve of those had obviously gone bad, so they left those behind. About forty percent of the remainder was found to be bad when they reached Washington's army, so in the end the grand conspiracy netted enough powder for about a thousand men, to fire one or two balls each.

Naturally this Saved America.

The Committee did very well for itself, financially speaking. Not only did it sell the powder at market price - a little over two hundred pounds total, or about $30,000 in today's money - it also persuaded the Americans to break the embargo and sell food to Bermuda at cut rates, on the grounds that the colony was starving thanks to lack of trade. Except it wasn't really starving, and in any case the Committee exaggerated the number of people on the island by about 5,000. The Committee sold on the excess food at a handsome profit.

So, a dashing tale of heroism.

The colonial period hasn't really been covered in gaming. There's been an installment of the Assassin's Creed series, a few titles like Sons of Liberty, and several board games, but it's not really hit the big time. Every so often the Cthulhu crowd suggests that, perhaps, it might be a good fit for a horror setting, but so far it hasn't really caught on. There may be as many games written for Parisien Surrealists as there are for those who want to see redcoats eaten by shoggoths.

My contribution to the pile has been Hell Fire, which sends the characters from the fleshpots of London to the colonies, trying to stop an outbreak of Ygolonac worship. Oddly enough, the climactic scenes of that scenario are set in Bermuda. Can't think why.

If this scenario were to be turned into a gaming supplement, it's a bit difficult to see who the characters would play. Characters tend to be underdogs, but it's pretty clear that the Committee aren't the underdogs in this scenario. If anyone is, it's Breuer, who has no troops, no allies, can't get the British government to listen to him when he repeatedly warns the folks at home about the danger, and has to constantly be on his guard against treachery.

Trouble is, playing the authority figure never really sits well with gamers either, not unless you're playing the Judge Dredd RPG. However that title's success may be due to the players being authority figures who shoot anything that moves and most things that don't, which makes for great catharsis. So were I to gamify this, I think I'd have to boost Breuer, and make him the villain of the piece, or at least the main opposition. Perhaps he was able to persuade the British to send him reinforcements, or perhaps he's a potent sorcerer in his own right, capable of defending the store all by himself. That gives the characters a respectable home-grown opposition.

Or perhaps there's a third figure in all this, a mysterious and powerful British spymaster, who's watching all this from afar. If this villain has infiltrated the Continental Congress, then he'd know about the Gunpowder Plot, but probably not be aware of the details. Perhaps he has secretly supplied Breuer with the reinforcements he'll need, or perhaps he's willing to let the plotters steal the powder, so long as he can track them down later and dispose of them. Maybe he's doing all this to expose a valuable American asset, say the player characters' contact with the Continental Congress. Or maybe he's hidden something in that powder which will backfire catastrophically when the rebels try to use it.

If you like a bit of sordid moneygrubbing with your supernatural tinged adventure - a maritime version of Bookhounds, with powder and shot taking the place of old tomes - then you could play it straight. The characters really are double-dealing smooth talking rogues, with their own ship, an experienced crew, and a yen for easy money. To the Continental Congress they're fellow lovers of liberty, while to the Crown they're loyal subjects, lying to everyone they meet and dodging the blockade in search of that last big score that will pay all debts. Will you die a rich man in your bed, or will the sea swallow your bones full fathom five?

That's it for now. Enjoy!