Monday, 26 December 2016

Not Quite Review Corner: The Walking Dead S3 (Telltale)

OK, in the spirit of 2016 the final post for the year - which is why this is up now rather than Sunday - will be a review of zombie apocalypse title Telltale Games' The Walking Dead Season 3, aka A New Frontier. This title is available on current generation consoles and PC as well as iPad; I played the iPad version of episodes one and two. Spoilers, especially for The Walking Dead Season Two, so bear that in mind in three, two, one ...


Telltale creates brilliant plots. You forgive its on-rails story beats because the characters and situations are interesting and the story's good. However Telltale has gone to the well once too often with Season Three, and no matter how good the story is veterans of the title will feel cheated.

Bear in mind: I loved Telltale's previous efforts. Like everyone else I fell in a big way for Clementine and Lee in Season One. When Clementine became the main character in Season Two I was on board, and enjoyed it from start to finish. However that was because in Season Two the story branched off; your decisions really mattered, because your decisions determined where Clementine would end up.

At the end of the last Season I went with Jane and ended up in Carver's old base. I could have gone to Wellington to live with other survivors, or gone with Kenny, or struck out on my own. This was a huge difference from Season One, where no matter what I did everyone's fates were set in stone and my decisions changed nothing.

Except my decisions in Season Two really changed nothing, because at the beginning of Season Three no matter what I decided Clementine's story is reset to zero again. No Kenny, no Jane, and no matter where I thought I left Clementine she's not there any more. Moreover there's no chance of either Kenny or Jane coming back in future episodes. All the work I put into Clementine's story counts for nothing.

Now she's second fiddle again, this time to series newcomer Javier, or Javi, a former pro baseball player who got booted for cheating and has deep-seated family issues. The story starts with Javi guiding part of his extended family away from the developing zombie madness, while his older brother David takes their bitten mother to the hospital. So far so Walking Dead, and to the game's credit Javi and his family are interesting, developed characters with distinct voices and personalities.

Frankly, if the game had concentrated on them and left Clementine out of it, I'd have enjoyed it more than I did. But Clementine's become an icon of the series now, not unlike Rick in The Walking Dead comic book and TV show, so nothing in Telltale's drama can happen unless Clementine is involved.

Her plot role is blurry. In the first Season, as Lee, you guided and protected Clementine, and she became the moral center of the story. In the second Season Clementine grew up and began taking charge of her own life, assuming a leadership role. In the third Season you don't really know if she's some kind of mentor to Javi, a millstone around his neck, or something else. Is Javi supposed to be another Lee? Is this a partnership of equals? Is she just here because Telltale couldn't write this thing without her?

Season Three reminds me, now I think on it, of 400 Days, the filler episode between Season One and Season Two. I wasn't expecting much from 400 Days, and I didn't get much. It was bite sized entertainment. Great storytelling - again, telling the tale is not Telltale's problem - but zero impact on the ongoing plot. You might or might not rescue X, Y or Z, and that means X, Y or Z might or might not show up for a very brief cameo moment in Season Two. In that cameo moment the character delivers one or two lines. Then the character vanishes, never to be seen again. Presumably they get eaten. Who knows? Who cares?

Mechanically this is the Telltale you remember, with the usual screen pokes and swipes to get you from A to B. If you've never played one of these before the system is so simple anyone can pick it up. If you're a series regular there's nothing new here.

Graphically I think iPad users were cheated. The resolution's not nearly as good as other platforms. Example: early on in the first episode Jane gives Clementine a small tattoo on her hand. I had no idea what that thing was. At first I thought Clem'd been bitten. It was only after I saw the same sequence in a YouTube video that I realized it was a tattoo. This isn't a huge problem, but it is annoying.

Sound effects are sparse. Big moments have their big bangs and zombie groans, but frequently the protagonists are moving through areas where there ought to be background noises - birds, wind in the trees - and it's just silent. The music's decent, but no standout moments so far.

Will I keep playing?

Ehhhhh ...

I'm not buying into the season pack deal, that's for certain. I might pick up the other episodes if they go on sale in a year's time. But I can't help thinking that no matter what I do, what I decide, this video game doesn't want me involved. My decisions don't matter. My input's irrelevant.

It's like a work meeting. You're expected to attend, perhaps even encouraged to contribute. But this is the kind of workplace that doesn't want to hear your ideas. Management has already decided what's going to happen. You're just window dressing in someone else's pretty picture.


Sunday, 25 December 2016

Cthulhu Confidential (Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane)

I own a boardgame I never play. It's called B-17: Queen of the Skies, an old Avalon Hill title from 1983. It's designed as a solo experience but you can, with some modification, enjoy it as a two-player game.

You fly a B-17 from an airfield in Britain to somewhere in Occupied Europe or Germany, in hope of bombing a strategic target back to the stone age. It kinda works. If you can throw yourself into the experience guiding a heavily armed flying colander, engines sputtering, crew bleeding out, all the way back to its home airfield after a raid is a lot of fun.

I stopped playing when I realized that, mechanically speaking, all I was doing was rolling D6s time and time again. I didn't choose my target: that was a D6 roll. I didn't choose where I was in the formation: that was a D6 roll. I didn't choose the weather: that was a D6 roll. I definitely did not choose when the flak opened up on me or enemy fighters attacked: that was a D6 roll. When the enemy attacked I chose which MG gunners fired back and when. That was it. Resolving what happened next was a D6 roll. What was hit, and how badly, was a D6 roll. And so on.

B-17 colored my opinion of solo and one-player games for decades to come. I stopped looking for one player fun. B-17 was, in a very real sense, why I got into RPGs in the first place: RPGs offered multiplayer, where several like-minded souls got together and invented adventures.

Along comes Cthulhu Confidential, the One-to-One experience. One Keeper, one Player.

Hmmmm, I think.


It's a lot of fun.

It's basically GUMSHOE, so if you're used to that system then you'll find little to puzzle you here. The investigative and general abilities are pretty much as you remember them. The only investigative ability that's in any way unusual is Inspiration, which has been used by GUMSHOE before but not often. Also, Health is gone, passing off some of its minor poison-resisting and other active test functions to Athletics. There's a new general ability, Devices, that replaces Mechanical and Electrical Repair. That's it. If you've ever played a GUMSHOE title before, you know what to expect.

For those of you who haven't, or who need a refresher: investigative abilities are used to gather clues. The core or really important clues are always given free. Investigative abilities are used for all the extra bits of information you may need either to make more sense of what's going on, or to give you some advantage. Investigative abilities never fail. You always get the information; it's what you do with it that counts.

General abilities are used when failure is a real possibility. Driving a car in a high-speed chase? You'll need to make a Driving test. Failure may mean you wreck your car, success may mean the enemy wrecks their car, and so on. General abilities aren't about getting information. They're about action, and the consequences of action. Also known as the Mother of Mercy Moment.

There are two new mechanics which will, I suspect, take some getting used to. One is the Push system. You start the game with four Pushes, and can gain more through play. Pushes are used in combination with investigative abilities, when the player wants to gain a specific extra advantage. Say your character has been dosed with a Mickey Finn. Spending a Push in combination with Chemistry allows your character to concoct a simple antidote, using only the contents of an ordinary medicine cabinet. A minor but important advantage, since succumbing to the Mickey probably doesn't end the story. Instead succumbing shapes the narrative in a particular way. With the Push, on the other hand, other options open up: you could fake unconsciousness, either to spring an ambush or to gather information while goons stand chatting over your 'sleeping' carcass. Or you could run away, or come up with another idea. In short, you have more choices with a Push than you have without one.

As a mechanic Pushes remind me strongly of Nights Black Agent's Cherries, and may have the same problem. Cherries are great but I've noticed players, particularly inexperienced players, sometimes forget to use them. This can lead to issues when a character who ought to have the advantage in an encounter doesn't use her general abilities to their best effect because she's forgotten she has Cherry freebies coming to her. The Keeper may want to remind the player about Pushes, especially first time players.

The other is the Challenge test system. In GUMSHOE up to this point a test is usually part of an extended sequence. Take combat: any one combat might involve several different consecutive rolls as the combatants dodge, shoot, engage in hand-to-hand, always chipping away at the target's Health stat. Even a fight with Mooks might want several different tests in the same scene. Now it's all one test, or Challenge, in which the active party - you, the player - have to roll equal to or greater than a specified Difficulty.

Sound familiar? Well, it ought to, but here's the rub: it's all one roll per Challenge. There's no 'OK, that didn't work, so let me try this,' or 'OK, he's hurt, now I'll press the advantage with my other general ability, or just keep going with this one.' Nope. All one roll. With one, two or possibly three D6.

Aha! Something new has been added!

Up to now general abilities were a kind of high-stakes poker match, in which the player wagers a certain number of points from his starting pool in hope that whatever is bet, plus a die roll, is enough to beat the Difficulty of the test. In One to One there are no pools. The player often only has one D6 at his disposal, with no modifiers, and the Challenge's Difficulty number is the X factor. Some Challenges are more consequential than others, so this X factor may change dramatically from Challenge to Challenge. It's a straight-up test, in which the result can be Advantage, Hold or Setback.

Gaining an Advantage is a success with extra benefits, probably conferring an Edge which can be used in future Challenges. A Hold is a no-harm-no-foul situation, in which you don't get exactly what you want but at least didn't get a penalty either. A Setback is a failure, probably accompanied by a problem of some kind.

You'll note I said problem, not Unqualified Failure, OMG, Your Character Is Dead, Dead, Dead. Like all GUMSHOE products One-to-One is all about the story, which means the scenario usually isn't written in such a way that a Challenge failure early on kills the story. A character can still die - messily, unpleasantly, weeping like a baby - but the scenario designer would prefer that this happens towards the end of the narrative. If the player deliberately orchestrates things such that death at the halfway point is the only logical consequence of the player's actions, c'est la vie. But it's unsporting, darn it, and not the hallmark of a true gentleperson.

Oh, and those Problems I mentioned? They're fun. O so very much fun. Problems have counterparts, Edges, but Keepers and Players may come to love Problems more.

Problems and Edges are story beats. Edges give you some kind of story benefit, usually in a specified scene or circumstance. Problems give you a story problem to overcome. Since Confidential is a Noir setting each character starts with a 'free' Problem, such as:

Heedless. You never met a warning you couldn't ignore. Take a -1 penalty on all Sense Trouble checks. Discard this when you gain your first Sense Trouble Setback.

So in other words, discard Heedless when you do something that almost certainly earns you another Problem. Cunning.

You can see why the player may come to love Problems. Edges are just temporary bennies, but Problems push you towards doing something, in narrative, to deal with your Problem. This in turn may lead to other story complications, and so on and on. Problems help shape the narrative, in other words. Edges simplify the narrative, and film noir has never been about simplifying anything.

Each time your character earns an Edge or a Problem you are given a card describing that Edge or Problem, which you keep until such time as it's expended or resolved. At that point, and only at that point, do you discard the card. This means you can still have Problem cards in your hand when the scenario ends, and that can lead to all kinds of long-term consequences depending on the nature of the Problem. Or short-term, if the Problem leads to the character's demise.

Incidentally for those Keepers out there thinking 'that sounds like a lot of cards,' yes, it does, and yes, it will be. Capital Color, one of three scenarios in Cthulhu Confidential, has 42 individual Problem cards unique to that scenario and 18 Edges, or 60 scenario-specific cards total. As Keeper when designing one of these scenarios you should bear in mind you'll need to come up with roughly the same number, not including generic Problems and Edges the character might earn through actions, and thus Challenges, not anticipated in the scenario's design.

It seems like a chore, but really isn't once you get the hang of it. These Challenges all have roughly the same structure, and there's a handy cheat sheet for working out how to scale an individual Challenge up or down. After you've done this once, probably sweating bullets over each Challenge, you'll find the next set of Challenges with their consequential Problems and Edges much easier to create.

"But what about the Mythos?" I hear you scream. "I want to be driven completely bonkers!" So you shall, with Mythos or horror-based Challenges. These work in broadly the same way as other Challenges, in that Edges can be earned and Setbacks leave you with a Problem that has to be dealt with before the scenario ends. Except that where most Problems can be resolved mechanically - like Heedless, which is discarded after earning a Sense Trouble setback - these Problems are usually dealt with narratively.

Take a scene in which you find the decapitated corpse of a young actress. This non-Mythos horror-based Challenge can lead to a Setback, earning not one but two Problems. The first is mechanical:

Decapitated Starlet. The image of Leona's head at your feet burns itself to the inside of your retinas. Whenever your mind wanders, a vivid memory of it assails your consciousness. -3 penalty on all General or Mental Challenges. Counter by Taking Time to submit to narcosynthesis under the care of a shrink.

The other can only be dealt with narratively:

Vengeful. If you find out who killed Leona, you will be compelled to avenge her, risks be damned.

Where Decapitated Starlet can be dealt with by the player without incurring further risks or Challenges, Vengeful sets the player up for a future Challenge. In this particular example it's presumed that the Challenge will occur at some point during the scenario, so there's no long-term mechanical consequences to complicate the character's life after the scenario concludes. There may be narrative consequences, but not mechanical.

Mythos Challenges are a little different. As with Decapitated Starlet a Mythos Challenge can, on a Setback roll, result in Problems and Extra Problems. These Mythos Problems can be dealt with by spending Mythos-based special Edges but, if not dealt with before the end of the scenario, the character may suffer significant narrative consequences that must be dealt with before any other unresolved Problems are dealt with.

For example, in a Challenge where your character discovers blasphemous, Mythos-inspired artwork, rolls a Setback, and earns this Problem:

Censorious. Mythos Shock. To maintain your sense that the painting hasn't affected you, you must take any measures, no matter how mad, to destroy it once its usefulness to the case has ended. It doesn't count as admitting anything if you set it on fire and never, ever think about it again.

The character must, if this Shock isn't countered by an Edge before the end of the scenario, destroy the painting. The potential narrative consequences are significant, but then so is permanent incarceration in a place with soft walls and crayons.

I've rabbited on long enough, particularly on this Sunday of all Sundays. So, scores on doors: should you get Cthulhu Confidential?

Keepers definitely should. It's a very interesting sourcebook with three complicated, compelling scenarios, each of which has its own intriguing Noir protagonist. There's more than enough here to help you design complex narratives of your own. You'll want the .pdf as well, even if you're a die-hard book lover, since you'll need all the Generic Problems and Edges for easy printing.

Players should think very carefully about this. If you're into collecting all things Cthulhu then yes, please. However over 180 pages of this 311 page book are scenarios, and unless you're the kind of fella who likes spoilers you may find this troublesome. That said, once you've played through one or more of the scenarios this stops being an issue, at which point you should rush to your friendly local whateveritmaybe and buy this book.

It's a lot of fun, is what I'm saying.


Sunday, 18 December 2016

Why Vampires? (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Only a short one this week, as my Sunday is packed. At some point before the New Year I want to talk about Cthulhu Confidential, which I'm reading through in fits and starts. Probably next week ...

Vampires exist. What can they do? Who do they own? Where is safe? How much is legend, and what is the truth?

Edom ... reminded MI6 that they already had the perfect asset for retaliation: a superhuman killer who had spent decades of his life at war with Islam. And Dracula was completely deniable - he was downright fictional!

Is that the whole story, I wonder?

At some point Edom had to justify its dark web of batty assets to its paymasters, and if all it had to offer was a killer or killers, I wonder if Edom would have been tapped for the job. After all, killers are ten a penny. Even after you've gone through the official channels and secured SAS wetworkers there's always chancers like the legendary Increment out there, never mind a huge pool of off-the-books talent scattered all over Europe.

Dracula's killing edge is better than most, but you don't need a sledgehammer to crack walnuts and more often than not the 'terrorist cells' you're trying to break are a bunch of kids led on by the promises of senior members. There will be times when the threat's more severe, the plot more complex, but when the plan is 'drive a truck through a crowd' you're not in Blofeld territory any more. In such a world, what's needed?

The same thing the Village always needs: Information.  

Awareness allows Clairvoyance, or psychic remote viewing. It can also allow the vampire to see through the eyes of any human that drank its blood. Infection, according to the main book, leads to Dominance. It can also lead to Plague, but presumably Edom's keeping that bit quiet; no need to introduce bioterror into an already volatile mix. Invisibility is better than planting a bug. The asset just walks in, gets the information, and walks out again. Magic opens up all sorts of intelligence-gathering possibilities. Vampires with psychic powers or which can attack through dreams allow for remote targeting of opfor targets. Possession allows a vampiric operative to attend a clandestine meeting as one of the invited guests. Voice Mimicry allows the user to convince others she's a friend - perfect for telephone conversations or Skype, assuming the vampire can be conventionally recorded or transmitted.

If I were Edom's bigwigs, I wouldn't talk up the wetworking, plausibly deniable or not. I'd present MI6 with at least one and preferably more than one enemy cell all wrapped up, each of them infiltrated and drained by my existing Vampire asset - if I have one. If I don't, I point out prior cases in which Vampires use their abilities to infiltrate intelligence networks, emphasize that Edom already has counterintel techniques to prevent this happening to British networks, and suggest that bringing these superlative intelligence-gatherers on board is the perfect way to get the one thing every intelligence network is starved for: information.

If my Jacks can adopt some or all of these attributes through Seward Serum, I might also point out that so long as I have a source of serum we don't need these temperamental and erratic SBAs when we can do the job in-house. Just help us secure that source of serum, and we do the rest.

Oh, and that Village we've been building in Wales? Don't worry about that. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Talk soon!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Not Quite Book Review Corner: The Ruins (Scott Smith)

I spent rather more time than I would have liked in hospital during my recent UK trip, but it gave me time to read a book I'd bought to entertain me on the flight: Scott Smith's The Ruins (2006). It was one of three I'd bought, the other two being a Michael Slade and a Jack Higgins. I don't look for aesthetic or intellectual entertainment when I fly; I want something interesting enough to make it worth my while turning pages, and that's it. It's different when you're comfortable, awake and alert, but those three things are not what flying is all about.

The Ruins was an unknown quantity. I didn't recognize the author. I later discovered he's the guy who wrote A Simple Plan (1993), a thriller I very much admire, but at the time the name Scott Smith plucked no forgotten strings of memory. The Ruins is his second, and to date he's only written two. The man does not believe in rushing things along.

He's an MFA Fine Arts who's got a few screenwriting credits behind him, and is currently working on Civil, a TV drama-cum-thriller-cum God Alone Knows in which nation-shattering violence breaks out after a hotly contested election. He seems to prefer obscurity; he's given few interviews and in those interviews he says little about how he works or what he's working on. He likes bookstores. So there's a plus.

The Ruins begins deep in Mexico's tourist heartland. Four Americans meet a German and three Greeks. The German has a problem; he and his brother fell out after the brother met a pretty archaeologist and the brother ran off to join her at some dig out in the boondocks. Now it's almost time for their flight home, and the brother hasn't come back. What, he asks the Americans, do they think he should do?

To them this all seems like a fantastic side adventure with a hint of illicit romance. Besides, going out to see some picturesque antiquities was on their To Do list, even if these particular antiquities seem to be a not very remarkable mine far from the comforts of civilization. So they pack a hearty picnic lunch, rent a taxi, and zoom off to the ruins. Ignoring the taxi driver's Borgo Pass-style warning - 'this place no good. Give me fifteen dollar, I take you somewhere better.' - they get off where they think the footpath to the ruins ought to be. There their problems begin.

The locals in the village nearby are as unfriendly as it is possible to be without actually shooting them. The locals pretend not to understand what they're talking about, and don't encourage them to stay. However by luck and some deductive reasoning they find the right footpath, which has been carefully camouflaged with leaves and brush. Following that path they find a pleasant hilltop covered with greenery and beautiful flowers, surrounded by a wide strip of what seems to be burnt out landscape, not unlike a moat cut out of the jungle. They can see what seems to be a tent at the top of the hill, presumably belonging to the archaeologists.

In short order the locals arrive, and they are not best pleased. Many of them are armed, and more are on the way. The leader seems to be about to let them go, but then one of the Americans accidentally sets foot on the flowery hillside. That contaminating foot is enough, and they're all ordered to climb the hill. No questions, no going back: climb.

Then things really get weird, but to go any further would involve major spoilers.

This, like Smith's previous novel, has also been made into a movie. While I have not seen that movie the trailer gives me no confidence whatsoever, and I'd avoid watching the film before reading the book as it might ruin things for you. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a pretty mixed rating, for what that's worth.

I like smart horror. By that I mean I like the characters to be strong characters who don't do anything dumb for reasons that are transparently plot related. Everyone has to behave in keeping with their character and everyone has to make reasonable decisions. Not necessarily correct decisions - in horror there aren't many of those - but reasonable according to the facts available at the time.

This is very smart horror. Even the locals, who might otherwise be faceless cyphers, are interesting, and behave very much in keeping with a group of people who've found themselves living next door to Satan's Left Buttock. Having found a way to keep the wicked emanations at bay they dedicate their lives to ensuring nobody goes near, and if somebody does, they make sure the unlucky wanderers never get out. Perfectly reasonable, under the circumstances. After all, we know what happens when you rely on the authorities to solve your problem for you.

Seldom have I read anything quite so much in the present tense. The only comparable I have is Andy McNab, and you know how I feel about him. Yet in this everything relentlessly flows from moment to moment, less like a narrative and more like a rising flood, carrying everything before it. Nothing in this novel happens without you silently witnessing it; there are no off-camera segues.

The antagonist is pleasingly Lovecraftian. By that I mean it is unknowable, alien, and malign. You get the sense that it's just biding its time up there on the hillside, waiting for the locals' guard to drop. It voraciously devours everything it can get - birds, animals, insects - and human targets are o-so-tasty, but perhaps a little large and feisty to be swarmed in a frontal assault. So it resorts to trickery and illusion to get the job done, luring them into dangerous situations where they can be picked off one by one.

Narratively it reminds me of John Wyndham and while some of you may be leaping towards a certain novel I'm actually thinking of the criticism levelled by Christopher Priest, who called Wyndham 'the master of the middle-class catastrophe.' The main characters are all nice college kids with money and all the nice things that money can buy. They've had good educations, they're smart, they can handle themselves in most situations and soon they'll be going off into the working world.

Here they are enjoying an exotic vacation. Here they are going off to rescue their friend's brother from a silly romantic misadventure. Here they are climbing a flower-covered hill, threatened with death if they try to come down again.

One of them thinks wistfully about her nice things, left in the hotel back in Cancun. Perhaps the maid will steal them.

It all speaks to a kind of invulnerability middle class Westerners think they enjoy. Nothing can seriously go wrong, not to them. After all, they're on vacation. They're having a good time. They just want to go out for the day, have a picnic, see some scenery and go home again. What's so difficult about that?

The other two books I bought for the trip are long gone. I don't believe in carrying excess baggage, and I brought too much stuff home with me to want to burden myself with even a fraction of a kilo's weight. I don't think the Harris even left Bermuda's airport; I dumped it for someone else to find, and same goes for the Slade. I believe in being a Johnny Appleseed of books, and English pubs are quite good places to spread the love.

I almost took the Smith to Dragonmeet to pass on to some unwitting host. I didn't. I almost passed it on some other way - after all, I had three days in London after Dragonmeet before getting on a plane.

It's with me now, on my desk in front of me.

You don't get rid of the good stuff.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Coffins, Caskets and Funerary Fantasies (Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu)

So the agents have cracked the locks, bypassed all security, and crept on silent feet down into the inner sanctum. Then the casket creaks open ...

But what kind of casket?

Ultraviolet, the British vampire drama from 1998, preferred the high-tech approach. Its caskets were more akin to the SBA containers found in the Edom Files: utilitarian high security delivery systems with very specific locking mechanisms. It addresses the one real fear a vampire has: its vulnerability. Penetrating that casket, short of a brick of C4, is not an option, and the electronic lock makes sure snoopers can't open it before the deadline. Unless, as Vaughan Rice (an excellent performance from Idris Elba) discovered, you can sabotage it.

The modern casket as sold by funeral directors is a very high-end affair. Costs can easily escalate into the thousands, if not tens of thousands. Almost anything you can think of, and some things you couldn't possibly imagine, are on offer. After all, the casket is the last purchase you'll ever make as a consumer, so why not make it the best?

The basic design, at least in the States, is broadly the same across the entire range. It's a wedge-shaped box, usually with some variation on a viewing port for the mourners at the wake. The surreal and rather captivating 1932 movie Vampyr features an interesting variation on that theme, with a glass panel in place rather than a movable lid. This allows for an unforgettable moment when the protagonist, who's been sealed up in the casket, stares up at the world from his prison, able to see everything through the glass but unable to do anything about it.

Of course, with cash comes customization. Do you want a state of the art sound system? Perhaps some kind of wireless connection, or a video display? Touchscreen embedded in the casket lid? Or perhaps you like the idea of a fake coffin with fake corpse; perfect for Halloween, but perhaps also perfect as a distraction for those pesky agents.

Then there are those famous Ghanaian artisans with their custom designs. Odd, yes, kitsch, definitely; but undeniably attractive, in their way. I can just picture a Conspiracy head settling down in one of these. Or perhaps ordering a replacement after the last one got blown up in a raid.

Whether or not the casket is airtight will determine the condition of the contents, over time. A wooden casket allows for air to pass through and fluids to drain out, enabling relatively clean skeletal remains. A sealed casket, on the other hand, promotes decay but, without a means of escape, creates corpse soup. Cracking one of these open is an exercise in human endurance; the smell is unforgettable.

Here in Bermuda because of space constraints we tend to bury members of the same family in the same hole. Technically I imagine funeral directors would prefer to call it a vault, but that conjures up images of New-Orleans style opulence that frankly does not describe the end product. It's a hole, with a limestone lid. The caskets are usually wood, allowing the contents and the boxes to decay over time. Cremation never really caught on down here, though there are some that offer the service. Burials at sea are also less common that you might expect.

Though we think of graveyards and funeral homes as the natural repository for caskets and coffins, this isn't always so. As mentioned in a previous post, during the Victorian period it was common for the poor to keep their dead with them in their homes, sometimes for days if not weeks on end, saving up enough money for the funeral. Some Victorians went so far as to keep their coffins with them always, waiting for the moment when they'd finally occupy them.

Thanks to their symbolic weight coffins, and other funerary memorabilia, are often used as art or furniture. The fabled Nothingness, or Cabaret du Neant in Paris, is an example of the type. There you'd be served your poison of choice atop a casket table, admiring the bones and skulls around you. I understand the Cabaret was recreated as part of Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic in New York, which I have never attended but find fascinating.

In Night's Black Agents or Trail, how might a coffin be used?

To begin with as a symbol, perhaps in the home or office of an important character. The Goth cameo is bound to have something elaborate and ebon in her apartment, while the Sculptor or Art Forecaster in the Dracula Dossier may well have a Ghanaian Fantasy Coffin in their workshop or office.

Then as an SBA place of rest. The 1890s vampire is bound to find something Gothic comforting, and have an elaborate casket set up in its refuge. More modern or sophisticated creatures may prefer something technological, along the lines of the Ultraviolet casket referred to earlier. Sound systems, touch screens and other creature comforts are bound to be important.

As a smuggler's hiding spot or an illicit burial device a coffin's unparalleled. You can pack just about anything in a casket, and people frequently do. My personal favorite is The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, though Tintin also has fond memories for me. It's worth bearing in mind that, particularly in the modern era but also to an extent in Trail's 1930s, the coffins themselves can have value. Sarcophagus lids in particular have long been prized by antiquities smugglers looking for a fat, if macabre profit. One such lid features prominently in a tale about the sinking of the Titanic.

Lastly, a coffin makes excellent set decoration. There's a reason why the Cabaret du Neant chose it as part of its ambience; a coffin's instantly recognizable, carries a ton of emotional weight, and allows for some interesting symbolic juxtapositions. Imagine if you will a cultist feast along the lines of Nyotaimori or Nataimori, except this time the naked body is presented in a coffin - presumably one with a removable lid, or perhaps even a transparent or glass lid. Or an Old West Ghost Town in which the inhabitants all wait quietly in their coffins, perhaps ceremoniously placed in the houses and businesses they occupied in life, waiting for the moment to emerge. Imagine a casket that moved of its own accord. A casket from which an ominous knocking sound could be heard, even when completely empty. A casket made of solid silver for a special client, that refuses to be buried.

That's it for today. Enjoy!

Travel Plans!

I try to update here once a week usually on Sundays. That hasn't always been so, but it's the goal. However for the next two weeks I shall be crazy busy in the UK, which means I won't have nearly as many opportunities to get online and talk to you.

I'll be at Dragonmeet this year, spending most of my time at the Pelgrane booth, so if you attend please drop by and say hi! No, I don't know precisely where the Pelgrane booth is, but my memory of UK cons is that they're very small in comparison with their US counterparts, so I don't think it'll be a struggle to find it.

I haven't been to US cons for a while because the cost is usually too high. It's close to a thousand dollars once you factor in air fare and hotels, and I can't afford it. However I'm in a better place financially than I've been for a while, so I'm seriously considering attending at least one US con next year. Gencon's the obvious choice, but I have fond memories of Atlanta's DragonCon. Plus Atlanta's much easier to get to than Indianapolis. Atlanta's a direct flight where Indy's at least one stopover, possibly two. We shall see ,,,

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Donner Party (Trail of Cthulhu)

I've been doing some Old West research, looking for things to plug into The Vendetta Run. It's surprising how unhelpful the internet can be; more often than not the articles that are best optimized for search engines are also junk pieces cribbing frantically from Wikipedia. While there is useful stuff out there, most of it's buried way back in the weeds.

But I did find some helpful stuff, and in so doing was reminded of the tragic fate of the Donner Party.

For those who don't know the story, a brief recap: the Donner-Reed Party was a group of would-be migrants trying to find a way to California in 1846. They were grossly misled by The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California, which suggested an alternate route from Fort Bridger, Green River Wyoming, to California via a mountain range and the Salt Lake Desert.

Theoretically this route is navigable, but not at the time of year the Donner-Reeds proposed to make the trip. By the time they finally got across the desert and the mountain range they had no chance of getting across the Sierra Nevadas before snowfall, and when they tried they were cut off, with no way forward and no way back.

Their options were few. Several of the party were too sick to travel. Those who were still healthy enough to go on had nowhere to go, at least not with their possessions; if they walked out with their clothes on their backs they might survive, and perhaps send help to the others. A party of 17 including women and children joined that Forlorn Hope, while the remainder stayed in a makeshift camp at Truckee Lake.

The Forlorn Hope soon ran into difficulties. Lost, snowblind and with little chance of finding their way to civilization, in desperation they began eating the corpses of those who fell. One macabre touch about the story I always find intriguing is that they took special care to label the dried-out meat they took, to ensure that nobody in the party mistakenly ate the flesh of a relative. About half the Hope ended up in the bellies of the other half before they finally found rescue.

Things were little better in the camp. Starvation and privation led them to do much as the Forlorn Hope had. All told, about half of the 89-strong group died in the Pass, and many of those who died were eaten. The full story can be had via Wikipedia here.

One curious footnote: many of the survivors preferred to pretend that they hadn't turned cannibal. They swore they found sustenance in other ways - the family dog, say. None of them outlived the stigma; all their lives they had to live with a ghoulish reputation. The last of the Donner Party survivors, one year old at the time, died in 1935.

The Lincoln Highway, constructed in 1913, traverses the Donner Pass. Though there are other highways today, in the Trail 1930s period the Lincoln would have been the only highway through the Pass. It's often described as one of the snowiest parts of the United States, and today it's a popular spot for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding.

With all that in mind, let's talk one-shot.

In the 1930s the Great Depression led to significant migration from Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl to California, where there was the hope of work and food. Many of these Okies went along Route 66, but not all. Suppose some of them went up the Lincoln, along the Donner Pass. What might they find there?

The opening scene would be the departure from their ruined farms, the hot blasts of dust storms screaming at their heals. If the Expedition rules are being used - and I recommend they are - then whatever else they have they haven't many supplies. A lot of what they carry will be useless but have strong sentimental value. Photographs, dining room sets, perhaps a piano - that sort of thing.

They might start from Colorado, Texas, New Mexico or Kansas in addition to Oklahoma. Some photographs from the period illustrate the awesome power of the dust storms; it's like watching the hand of an angry God smash down on the land. Not unlike the migrant period of the 1840s you could see the dust-drowned remains of cars and people's lives scattered by or on the roadside as you travelled. At least one of the scenes after the opener should involve the group trying to cope with the aftermath of a storm, trying to get their sand-choked cars going again.

Nobody wanted to see these migrants. It was the Depression; jobs were few, and the Okies soon got a bad and undeserved reputation as an army of thieves and bumpkins on the march. The next scene should be an encounter on the outskirts of some little burg, perhaps in Arizona, where the townsfolk are united in their loathing for the Okies and the police come out to make sure the Okies move on as quickly as possible. There's a potential for a supplies refresh here, but it requires delicate negotiation.

Since we started this in the Old West it seems only right to have at least one Old West scene. What we think of as Ghost Towns these days aren't, really; they're tourist traps with a cobwebbed aesthetic, where T-shirt stalls, geegaws and costumed guides lurk alongside history. But in the 1930s these places would have been almost completely abandoned.

Tombstone itself for example, where this digression started, had only 700 residents in 1900, a huge drop from its 10,000 heyday. Its famous courthouse with gallows next door was left to rot from 1931 until its conversion to a museum in the 1950s. Imagine driving through a near-deserted place like this with nothing but the clothes on your back. Maybe you can scavenge some tinned food left behind by some long-dead inhabitant 30 years ago. More likely you can get water from a forgotten well. but in any case the echo of gunfire and the taint of sulfur still hangs over the streets, and only the unwise go near the gallows at night.

From here we go to the final scenes. By this point everyone's on their last legs. What little supplies they had to start with have long since been used up. Maybe they have water. It's less likely they have food. Their few remaining cars struggle up the Lincoln Highway, trying to get through the Sierra Nevadas. It's getting dark.

Then the snow comes.

Those cars would have had very little left in them even before this point. Now everything freezes. One by one the vehicles grind to a halt and will not start again. If the group has a map they can work out where the nearest civilization is; a ski lodge perhaps, or some kind of roadhouse. But that's a long walk away, and they're tired, hungry and worn out. It might be better to wait by the cars; after all someone's bound to come along the highway soon.

Then they see the hunched shapes in the shadows, watching them, alive with eager, hellish anticipation.

Keeper's choice as to what these are. Ghosts of the Donner Party? Ghoulish remnants? Wendigo? Cold Ones? Whichever it may be they are hungry for hot, fresh meat, and here come the characters stumbling into their cold little corner of the world. Now it's a straight survival horror narrative and the only question is whether or not the characters will survive the night. Maybe they struggle through to that roadhouse, or maybe they huddle up in their stranded cars and make a last stand. Whichever it is they won't see a friendly human face till dawn.

So who will live to see that dawn?


Sunday, 6 November 2016

Wicked Bibles (Bookhounds of London)

In 1631 printers Barker and Lucas committed a grievous error when they reprinted the King James Bible omitting the word 'not' from the Commandment 'thou shalt not commit adultery'. This earned them censure both ordinary and Royal, as well as a trip to the Star Chamber and a hefty fine plus loss of their license to print. Most but not all of these so-called Wicked Bibles were immediately burnt, making surviving editions increasingly scarce, and valuable.

Which brings me to Lovejoy, a gentleman I've commented on before. The books are recommended reading for Bookhounds Keepers but the TV series is fun too, and this time out I have my eye on Season 5 Episode 12 Never Judge a Book by Its Cover. In that one Lovejoy offers to evaluate a potentially valuable bible for a pair of spinsters, only to discover that it might not be the find he thought at first.

So let's talk about a Bookhounds scenario idea: The Reward of his Wickedness, a reference to Judas who died on the Field of Blood.

The scenario opens with the characters in unfamiliar surroundings: Oxford, Cambridge or similar. They are there, if the shop is Credit Rating 3 or better, because they've been asked to evaluate a library, perhaps by one of the poorer Colleges or a scholar. If less than 3, then they are there because they've found out a dead scholar's library is about to be broken up, and they hope to snap up some bargains or at least materials out of which they can make a good forgery.

While there their attention is drawn to a pair of elderly spinsters, down to their last pennies. The old dears can't afford anyone famous or accredited, so they turn to the protagonists to help them. They have only one thing of any value: a Wicked Bible. Is it the genuine article and, if so, how much is it worth?

There's a complicating factor. The sisters' cousin, a C of E vicar but lately defrocked for dubious dealings - Keeper's choice as to what - is lurking on the sidelines. He claims that the Bible is his by rights, and if it's worth anything he intends to sue for possession. He approaches the characters early on, offering them a fat commission if they tell the sisters the Bible is worthless, so he can snap it up for cheap.

He knows a little Magic, possibly Idiosyncratic, but it's his long-dead great grandfather who was, in his day, the real sorcerer and owner of the Wicked Bible. This fellow, Joshua, was a contemporary of Von Juntz, and helped translate Von Juntz's works for the Bridewell 1845 edition.  Joshua died under mysterious circumstances in 1844, less than a year before the Bridewell edition saw print. His death is one of the reasons why the Bridewell edition is so badly translated. He's supposed to have left behind him an extensive library with several important Mythos texts including proofs of the Bridewell edition, but most scholars believe this library was broken up or lost soon after his passing.

The Wicked Bible turns out to be a Nineteenth Century fake, and therefore worth much less than the sisters think. It's cleverly done, and the spend to discover this is 2 points Forgery or 1 point Forgery 1 point History. However those who make this spend also discover there is an extra page in the Bible, and that illustration - not found in the original - shows Judas dying on the field of blood or Hakeldama, in Jerusalem.

However the Field looks remarkably like Joseph's country estate, as it would have been back in the 1840s. The big difference is that one building exists in the drawing that was not there in the 1840s; a decorative folly in the northwestern portion of the estate, overlooking an artificial lake. It might have been planned, but it was never built. History, Library Use (comparing contemporary maps with the existing estate), Flattery or Reassurance (talking to the sisters or possibly the cousin) discovers this.

The estate is now owned by a noveau riche family whose papa was a big name in manufacturing, and he guards his privileges jealously since the local powers that be have snubbed him at every turn. He hates the pack of 'em, and would cheerfully shoot foxes day and night rather than let anyone on his land. Consequently he keeps a large number of foresters, none local, who set traps for poachers and discourage hunters and ramblers from coming on the property. Getting to the site of the folly wants Stealth, Outdoorsman and Sense Trouble to avoid the worst of it. Alternately they may try to come to some arrangement either with the property owner or one of his foresters. The foresters can be bribed, but the owner responds only to appeals to his business sense; an understanding of Physics, Chemistry or Bargain is the best way to win him over.

Once they get to the site of the folly they discover that there is something there; it just isn't what they were expecting. Rather than the Hellenic temple shown on the drawing, the 'folly' is a cleverly built hidden tomb. It's made to blend in with the landscape and is covered by a layer of soil and shrubs, so if you didn't know it was there you'd never be able to find it.

Inside the tomb is old Joshua's secret library, where he intended to use necromantic arts to keep himself alive for eternity. However he wasn't as clever a sorcerer as he thought, and he never returned from the grave. He did leave behind a guardian, and it's Keeper's choice as to exactly what this gruesome creature is. If the cousin hasn't already been dealt with, then perhaps his gruesome corpse is the first and only warning the protagonists get that something wicked (and tentacled) this way comes.

As to what's in the secret library, it could be anything. Original Von Juntz, perhaps, or other valuable Mythos texts. Or maybe the library wasn't as preservative as Joshua intended, and the really valuable items have been destroyed by damp. It could even be that some clever pillager got there first and took the really good stuff, leaving the rest behind for fear of the guardian.

If that happened then there should be clues as to who that pillager was; it might have been the clerical cousin, if he's been dogging the characters' heels this entire time. But it could be more interesting to lay the crime on someone else, perhaps an already established rival or some nineteenth century tomb robber whose career can then be traced, leading the protagonists to the loot by a roundabout route.

Of course by the end of all this the characters may come away with a fantastic find. They then have to prove it's genuine, which means establishing some kind of provenance. Tricky, given the circumstances in which it came to them.

But, as always in Bookhounds, the trouble with finding treasures like these isn't so much how to get them, as what to do with them once you have them ... Which leads to a different scenario altogether.


Sunday, 30 October 2016

Chilling Locales 3 (Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterror)

I've discussed Metro-2, the Orient Express, Hotel Castel Dracula and other locales, but only in the context of Night's Black Agents. This time I'm going to expand the remit a little and talk about the relevance to other settings within the GUMSHOE milieu.

Hashima Island Or Battleship Island, if you'd rather. If you know this one then it's probably because you saw Skyfall, where it doubles as the mastermind's stronghold. Except not really, because the actual Hashima is far too unsafe to be used as a film set. Tourists are allowed on the island but only in small numbers and in controlled groups; you aren't allowed to walk unsupervised. Though as this camera view shows, drones can go where people can't.

It's a coal mine, and at one time this 16 acre island off the southern coast of Japan, near Nagasaki, was one of the most densely populated places in the world. Founded by Mitsubishi in 1889, it was finally abandoned in 1974 when coal ceased to be an  important part of the economy. It's now a UNESCO world heritage site.

It has a history of forced labor. Beginning in the 1930s and not ending until after the war, Koreans and Chinese were moved here in large numbers to toil in the underground mines. Many died, or killed themselves rather than continue to eke out an existence on Hell Island. It's a history most Japanese would prefer to gloss over, if not forget entirely.

Physically, it looks like Leviathan rose up out of the depths and stayed slumbering on the surface for so long that people decided to live on its back. In its day it boasted Japan's first concrete apartment blocks, to house the workers, and those blocks plus the sea walls lend it the appearance of a ship of war. It's constantly battered by the sea, which is why it's in such poor condition, and would have needed constant maintenance when it was a working mine. Thirty years of neglect means that if it were to be restored for people to visit safely, it would have to be completely rebuilt, and there's neither the cash nor the enthusiasm for that.

Since it was first established in 1889 it could appear in any of the Pelgrane settings, from Trail to Night's Black Agents.

A Trail game probably concentrates on the coal mines themselves, with its hints of Lovecraftain cyclopean entities hidden deep beneath the earth. Seawater constantly leaking into the mines meant that the workers often picked up skin infections, and there were cave-ins and toxic gases to contend with as well; perhaps the workers, in despair, turn to the Old Ones for salvation or revenge.

Esoterror could claim that the island was home to any number of strange entities, or that its history as a place of death means that a ritual performed here has a better chance of breaching the Membrane. Perhaps those drone flights are looking for something that people can't find, because the island's too dangerous to search?

Night's Black Agents would use the island's dangerous reputation as an excuse to keep people away, so experiments could go on without restriction. Or perhaps there are old wartime secrets hidden here that the outside world has long forgotten. If nothing else, an amphibious night raid on Battleship Island has an allure all its own!

The Plain of Jars, Laos This megalithic site has a history that stretches back to the Iron Age. Almost certainly originally intended as a burial site, these sandstone containers cluster all over the upland valleys and lower foothills of the central plain of the Xiangkhoang Plateau. Grave goods, statues of the Bhudda, burnt bones, ash and beads have been found in these Jars, and there are at least 90 sites where they can be found, each site containing between one and 400 Jars.

During the Secret War in the 1960s American bombers dropped thousands upon thousands of antipersonnel mines on the Plain to hinder North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao, and tens of thousands remain today, a hazard to anyone who wants to explore the site. Sightseeing can only take place over carefully marked paths; stepping away from the cleared zone could get you killed.

As to why the Nights Black Agents might want to go there: China or one of the other actors in the area may have been running a Jin-Gui operation in the Plain, which the bombing did its best to eradicate. Whether it was successful is something else again. Perhaps some of the jars were used to create Jin-Gui, by filling the jars with infected Telluric soil and using them to incubate new Jin-Gui.

Alternatively the NVA or Pathet Lao may have been running an anti-vampire operation of their own, and hid important data (or an item) in one or more of the Jars. Naturally the Jars in question are in the danger zones, and can only be reached by somehow bypassing or defusing a number of antipersonnel mines.

In Trail, the protagonists could be archaeologists. There was a significant exploration of the site in the 1930s; Madeline Colani literally wrote the book about the Plain. Perhaps the characters assist her, and discover something out there too horrifying to report. Do the Jars represent portals to another plane of existence? Will carrying out a cremation there call down entities, like Fire Vampires or Byakhee, which according to rituals long forgotten carry the souls of the devout to their reward?

Esoterrorists could use the Jars for all kinds of rituals. With all the gloom and death surrounding the site - never mind the explosives - there's plenty of Membrane-weakening influences to draw on.

Reception House, Kingstead Cemetery  This one's based on a recent Guardian article about a Grade II listed building at Margravine, Hammersmith. Kingstead is fictional, and features in the Dracula Dossier.

'Wretched as these people were,' says a contemporary chronicler (taken from Liza Picard), 'They would struggle to bury the dead without any assistance from the parish, for there is nothing the poor have a horror of as a pauper's funeral.' A funeral for an adult could cost as much as four pounds, an enormous sum for a working man never mind someone who hadn't worked in years. The problem was the body was often kept in the home for viewing, and stayed there until the family could afford internment. Often this might be a week or more. The natural process of decay meant this was untenable, so charitable institutions and workhouse medical staff began looking for a solution.

This small reception house is a stopgap. This octagon building with its slatted ventilation panels in the roof and trestles for the caskets could accommodate perhaps ten to fifteen coffins at a time, assuming it was packed full. People soon realized the reception house was too small, so larger mortuaries were built and the reception houses became obsolete.

The example at Kingstead dates to 1848, and is a fine example of mid-Victorian craftsmanship. Documentation kept at the church indicates that it was funded by a Doctor Kilpatrick, who at the time it was built was 35 years old; in 1894 he was a still-vigorous octogenarian, and involved tangentially in the Hampstead Horror. He was one of the first to bring the peculiar behavior of the children to the attention of the authorities and press, and led the search for the wayward children the first two nights. However he died of a heart attack the next day, and was buried in Kingstead.

In the world of the Dracula Dossier the Reception House can be many things: the  lair of a wayward SBA - the child, for example - a safe house used by Dracula's people, a dead drop used by Edom, perhaps even some kind of storage spot for items left behind by the Mysterious Monsignor or some similar shady character with a religious or mystic bent. If there's a Cult of Dracula, this could be one of their disguised temples. If Cool, then it was used by one of these agencies once upon a time, and perhaps it still holds significance for survivors of the 1970s mole hunt. There may even be a cache of something valuable in its dusty vault. On the other hand it could be Warm, and in that case probably still has an occupant of some kind. If a vampire, remember those ventilation ports in the roof; that could really frustrate would-be hunters, as their quarry turns to mist and vanishes through the vents.

Last but not least:

Kolmanskop  An abandoned German mining town in Namibia, left to the sands and its ghosts. Until 1954 it was still a working claim, complete with every possible luxury from a theatre and power station to a casino and skittles alley, not forgetting the all-important ice house. However its heyday was pre-Great War, when Namibia was still German; after the War de Beers staked its claim, and even today the diamond consortium keeps a museum at the Kolmanskop site. The town isn't the only ghost town in Namibia, but it is very photogenic and has appeared in television shows, movies and many haunting photographs.

It's interesting on several points. First, it's within what was the Sperrgebeit, a term the Germans coined to describe an area completely off limits, the intent being to surround the diamond fields by what amounted to an exclusion zone. Most of the Sperrgebeit has nothing to do with diamond mining per se, though some of it - like Kolmanskop - might have been a mine once upon a time. It's just considered useful to have a buffer zone around the valuable area, and it doesn't hurt that the buffer zone has become, in part, a nature reserve. You still need a permit to get in. Here's an Infiltration check  with a difference; just what is really hidden out there in the Sperrgebeit?

Second, since it is so remote and forsaken it's the perfect setting for all kinds of shenanigans. Does your NBA threat require an isolated area close to a rich supply of natural minerals - whatever your Unobtanium is this week - protected by all the personnel and weaponry a national government and wealthy benefactors can provide? Done and done. Is your NBA threat one of those, like the Perfectus, that has a prehistoric origin story with items and evidence left behind in some desolate spot? Done. Is there perhaps some evidence in a dusty Trail or Fear Itself tome that something truly unpleasant was dug out of Kolmanskop, hastening its decline? The journey alone could be worth a session of adventure. Probably best used in a 1970s or 80s game when Namibia still seethes with revolutionary fervor, and South African troops police the territory; this could be really interesting if combined with a Close Encounters aesthetic, as strange alien vessels swoop over the dunes.

Third, since it is so very photogenic it attracts all kinds of filmmakers, thrill seekers and other wanderers. This could include Esoterrorists, perhaps bent on creating the horror flick to end all horror flicks, or creating a meme spread via the internet - all those Ten Haunted Sites webpages and photograph albums - designed to cause dreams or visions of a desert wasteland, and the things that live there.

On that note, if you haven't already seen the 1992 film Dust Devil I highly recommend it, and though it doesn't feature Kolmanskop it's exactly the kind of setting where a story like Dust Devil could play out. South African Richard Stanley is the director and I've never been disappointed by any of his films. If you feel as I do after seeing Dust Devil I also recommend Hardware, a post-apocalypse killer robot tale, which again would not be out of place in a setting like Kolmanskop. The trailer's a bit rubbish - God knows why the distributor felt the need for the voice-over - but don't let that dissuade you. This is one seriously cool film, well worth seeking out on Halloween night.

That's it from me! Have a good Halloween folks, and talk soon.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Tombstone Showdowns and Pelgrane Day

I had it all worked out, and then it went wrong.

Pelgrane announced its first ever Pelgrane Day last Friday, and I immediately came up with a Cunning Scheme. I'm Premises Manager at the local dramatic society, and it has WiFi. If I can game on the actual stage, so much the better, but even if I can't there are plenty of other rooms in the building. We could livetweet the entire thing! Maybe even shoot some video, do a bit of recording, nothing fancy.

Filled with confidence and joie de vivre, I get the gang together: Max, Tach, Mary and Jym, who're currently journeying on the Orient Express - sanity dwindling away not in a trickle but by handfuls - and they leap on board. I pick for the evening Ken Hite's Vendetta Run, a fun survival horror setting perfect for a one-shot. I have two weeks to prepare. What could go wrong?

Well, we had a hurricane for one thing. The theatre cellar flooded, and then caught fire. Not as serious as it sounds, and nobody was hurt. However it did mean I was kept very very busy, and exhaustion set in. The theatre lost its WiFi connection, and thanks to one damn thing after another it still didn't have its WiFi connection by the time Friday rolled around. Never mind that I had much less time to prepare than I'd fondly imagined.

At one point I considered cancelling but decided against. The show would go on!

Not in the theatre, though; that was taken. We moved up into the office instead. The office is supposed to be haunted, though how much truth's in that is anyone's guess. Like just about every old building in Hamilton the theatre's supposed to have been a bordello back in the bad old days, but I've heard that story so many times about so many different places in Hamilton it must have been wall-to-wall shagging back before the Great War. But let's say one of the customers is still hanging around, why not. It's as good an excuse as any.

We started the session at 7pm with character creation, and were gaming before 8, carrying on till after midnight.

The characters are:
  • Hosanna (played by Tach), a dealer at the Bird Cage Theatre which hosts the world's longest ever poker game in its cellar.
  • Shallott (played by Mary), a medical type more than a little handy with a six-shooter.
  • Slim Bob (played by Jym), the worlds fattest demolition expert, with a deep, abiding love for chocolate.
  • Twitchy (played by Max), a Cowboy gunman and enforcer, weedy but a dead-eye shot.
I decided to set the game in Tombstone itself, rather than have the Earps chase the characters across half creation. There's plenty of information out there, and the Wikipedia page even has a period street map. It also allowed me to steal real-world locations, like the Bird Cage and the Courthouse, for important scenes.

I made a couple decisions I would later regret. First, I decided to do this with the lights off. LED tea lights are cheaply had, and I thought this would add atmosphere. It did, but the flip side was I had very little to photograph.

The red tea lights are for the Keeper, the others for the players. Note to self: if I do this again, more tea lights please. Mind you it could get expensive; down here those things cost about a buck a light. Which is still fairly cheap but if it's a buck a light here they're probably .10c in the States.

It did make things difficult to read. This is where tablets and phones come in handy. Plus Pelgrane is relatively rules-lite when compared to, say, D&D or other crunchy games, so you don't have to spend eye-straining minutes looking for something on your character sheet.

Speaking of, what would have made this even more fun is period character sheets, as have been made for Bookhounds, Dreamhounds and Trail. I know this is more of a fan project, but there's a few KWAS that provide alternate settings - Tombhounds, Vendetta, Moon Dust Men - and my artistic skills are negligible. Would that there were an easy way of setting up fun character sheets!

Another regrettable decision: music. I like using music in game, but I hadn't appreciated that recent iPlayer updates meant the interface had confusingly changed. Plus my battery seems a little feeble these days. Che sera sera; the music kinda worked, but not as I'd have liked. 

One other bit of prep I have to mention here: Time Life Books. My God those things were gorgeous in their day. The one you see in the photo is The Old West - Gamblers. I could not have done this without that book. Highly recommended, and you can often pick up those titles for silly money, especially in the States.

We started with a tremendous hangover. The characters wake up in their chosen hidey holes in Tombstone, having tied on a righteous one the night before. As Slim Bob awakens in his pharmacy and makes himself a cup of coffee out of last week's grind, dreaming of chocolate, Hosanna, Shallott and Twitchy - who were over in the Bird Cage - go looking for him. They find a bunch of Earps (Deuces, which term will mean nothing to those who haven't read Vendetta Run; think of them as mooks) and things soon turn grim.

Fortunately Slim Bob traps one of them under his enormous girth, but that still leaves a couple outside.

"I hear you're the best shot," says Twitchy to Lou Cooley. "I propose a gamble. I'm going to flick this here coin up in the air and if you can hit it in one try without missing ... Unless you're chicken."

"I'll hit that coin," says Jim, "And shoot you right between the eyes with the same bullet."

"I'd like to see that," says Twitchy, and hilarity ensues.

Fortunately for Twitchy he does not get perforated, but Shallott does, and with rounds that will not heal. It's always the way when someone plays the hero; someone else carries the can.

However after all the Earps are dispatched - their bodies mysteriously vanishing - the characters look in at the Bird Cage. There they meet Josiah, a miner, who extolls the virtues of the establishment.

"Are you married, Josiah?" says Hosanna.

"I don't like to talk about my personal pains and miseries," is the reply.

But with Josiah as a beard they sneak into the poker game, where Doc Holliday is supposed to be holding court. Twitchy, staying upstairs, notices a couple Earp hangers-on lurking on the other side of Allen Street, keeping an eye on the Bird Cage. However the group doesn't notice Warren Earp and a compadre sneak in the back of the Bird Cage and take up ambush positions.

Josiah, it seems, has a very interesting mine. "Hell is a place, ma'am, but it's also ... I'm sorry, I've lost my train ... you'll be going there soon, ma'am, real soon. What was I saying?"

A sinister figure appears at the other end of Allen Street, and storm clouds gather. Wyatt's on the way.

Shallott slips out and gathers a couple Cowboy helpers.

With Warren and his compadres blocking the escape route, and Wyatt plus helpers plus Doc come in the front door. However thanks to Preparedness and copious explosives this proves to be a poor life choice for the mooks.

"I wonder if I might try some Intimidation," says Slim Bob, as he "kinda rolls toward 'em."

In the gunfight that follows Shallott comes out more perforated than Swiss cheese, and pretty much everyone takes hits, but the Keeper gnashes his teeth in frustration. More mooks were needed, and Warren went down like a puling kid. All the Cowboy NPCs get killed, which is just as well really since if they hadn't been there to be bullet sponges the PCs would probably have died.

I could go through the rest of it shot for shot, but that would take a long time and half the fun of a gaming session is being there. Suffice to say that Twitchy got the death he'd been looking for and Slim Bob fared little better. Shallott crawled away with several bullet wounds that would never heal, and Hosanna beat the odds and achieved salvation.

Well done to all, and many thanks to Pelgrane for all the fun!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Not Quite Review Corner: Invisible, Inc (iPad)

I've mentioned Klei's Invisible, Inc before, but until now it's always been a PC and PS4 title. It recently popped up on the iStore for $4.99 and, as Hurricane Nicole bore down on the island, I thought it was as good a time as any to give it a whirl. I played this on iPad Air 32 GB, so not the most recent model; performance-wise, I have no complaints.

If you've already played this or read the previous review then you know the basics, but to briefly reiterate: this is a stealth turn-based strategy roguelike with cyberpunk elements, in which you play a team of highly trained corporate spies on the run, trying to find out why your agency got smashed by the corporations while at the same time saving your powerful Artificial Intelligence, Incognita. Think of it like Pelgrane's Night's Black Agents, except the enemies are powerful megacorps with private armies at their disposal, not vampires.

Its basic release in May 2015 gave you the game, several unlockable agents and hours of fun. The November 2015 DLC Contingency Plan gave you several more agents, a ton of new items and equipment, and increased gameplay considerably with two new custom missions and several extra basic missions. I've played Contingency Plan to death on PC; in fact as the iPad release surfaced I was already on Day 16 of an Endless Expert run, so my people were about as skilled and as tooled up as it is possible to be.

It came as a little bit of a shock to discover that the iPad release includes just basic game content. Oddly, when Contingency Plan came out I didn't think it added much to the game. It took this release to make me realize just how much the DLC brought to the experience. On iPad it seems a shorter, less fulfilling title without the DLC content. I also realized that, without the Contingency Plan stuff, a shorter game means less of a challenge since you never encounter any of the tougher enemies in campaign mode. You'd have to go to Endless for that. There are several new agents only available on Contingency Plan that won't be available here, and all the side missions I'd come to expect - retrieving drones, hacking software laboratories, retrieving Invisible's data, raiding power vaults - are gone.

I played through one story campaign in Expert on iPad, and it was a lot of fun. It might be shorter, and that may mean it's not as much fun as the expanded Contingency Plan version, but it's still one of the best turn-based games out there. I was sweating bullets by the end, using up all the toys I'd saved to get my people to the final scene, and more than once I was convinced I'd completely screwed myself and lost the game. Particularly since, as this was basic, I hadn't the time to get any of the really powerful toys, which meant that any enemy with better that Armor 1 could have my agents for breakfast spread over a nice bagel.

A few things struck me. First, this game kills batteries. One level used, on average, about 30% of my battery life. Two levels would have me reaching for my charger.  If I were going on a long journey or thought I wasn't going to be able to charge my device, I wouldn't touch this game. When the hurricane knocked my power out, for instance, I immediately stopped playing and didn't touch it again until power was restored.

At first I thought I would need a Wi-Fi connection to make this work which, since Hurricane Nicole was bearing down on me, would mean I couldn't play. Not so; it works fine offline. It takes a while to load. I'd guesstimate maybe a minute and a half, at most, between boot and play. Given the complexity of the title I'm not surprised.

I wouldn't try this on a phone. Things got very busy on my screen, and more than once I really couldn't tell what was going on without juggling the screen a few different directions and squinting. Moreover there are times when two enemies would sit on the same square and I really couldn't tell which was which; very annoying when those two enemies are hackable drones, but I only want to hack one of them. I dread to think what the experience would be like on a smaller screen.

I used finger rather than stylus as a control, and on reflection I really wish I used a stylus. Maybe it's just me, but I think that might have given me better control. That said, gameplay was smooth and I never once made a disastrous mistake through fat-fingering.

It's almost but not quite the same game on iOS as it is PC. There are some gameplay changes, and I noticed two which may have a significant effect on your experience:

First, enemy drones have slightly different behavior patterns when hacked. In the PC version hacked drones can open doors and, if armed, shoot things, but other than that they have no function. In the iOS version hacked drones can also manipulate switches and apparently gather items, though I didn't have many chances to test that last part.

Several levels depend on you doing certain things in certain areas. In the detention center level, for example, you have to hack a control panel, manipulate that panel to open the cell door, and then guide the prisoner out. Usually this means you have to send an agent in to the control panel, but if a drone can do that job it can change the way you deal with the level. You don't have to send an agent in, thus possibly alerting the captain of the guard. The drone can do all the really dangerous bits while your agents sit outside, probably distracting the captain by opening doors and running away, a cybernetic version of Knock, Knock, Ginger.

Moreover if they can gather items then they can empty safes, which would make bank robbery much easier. I didn't have many chances to test this theory, but it's worth trying.

Second, at least one and probably more items have changed slightly. I'm talking about the Invisibility Cloak, but I wouldn't be surprised if other items changed too and I didn't notice.

The Invisibility Cloak in the original came in three versions: Basic, Cloak II and Cloak III. Basic lasts for three or four squares of movement, I misremember which, and then fades. Cloak II lasts the full turn, and then fades. Cloak III lasts two full turns and then fades. You need to have a certain base level of Speed before you can use the advanced Cloaks, and even Basic needs a higher Speed than your agents usually start with.

In the iPad version all's the same, except for Cloak III. This time Cloak III only lasts for one turn, not two, but the kicker is that when activated it generates a small cloaking field around your agent, allowing you to make more than one friendly target invisible. They don't have to stay chained together either; once invisible no matter where they go they stay invisible for the rest of that turn or until they attack.

This came in very handy in the final encounter. Shalem and Monster were cut off from the rest of the group, and the enemy were closing in. Decker had Cloak III ready. He ran in through the enemy, activated it next to Shalem and Monster, and all three of them sprinted past the guards, Decker frantically gobbling Stims for extra move boost. They still needed a smoke bomb from Internationale on the next turn, otherwise the guards would have nailed them. But without that first turn of invisibility, the team would have failed right away.

Understand, these are only two changes I noticed. I'd bet there's others I didn't spot. That said the core game is basically the same as it was when Invisible, Inc first launched in 2015. Tweaked certainly, but not fundamentally altered.

Do I recommend this title? Yes. If you like turn-based strategy with roguelike elements and a high degree of stealth gameplay, this is a must-purchase. I'd warn you to watch your battery life, but apart from that, enjoy!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Haunted Doll's House (M.R. James)

I've been asked to contribute to a ghost story evening later this week and for inspiration I've turned to an old favorite: M.R. James' The Haunted Doll's House. It's been one of my favorites for so many years now I can't remember when or where I first read it, but I've read it many times since then.

It's not considered one of James' best. First published in 1923, it was intended as a gift of sorts for Queen Mary, to be added to her magnificent period doll's house built in the early 1920s and exhibited around the country as an example of superlative English craftsmanship. The house included a perfect replica library in 1:12 scale, with each book being an actual book, with a story, in miniature. James later included it in later collections of his work and it's been reprinted since elsewhere.

For me, what gives it juice is its combination of the peculiar with the mundane. There can be nothing so ordinary as a doll's house, yet this particular example is anything but ordinary. To my knowledge nobody's ever tried to replicate the haunted doll's house in fiction, though there are plenty of stories about ghastly toys, including dolls, of one kind or another. It's almost as unique as a story as it is an item.

I notice, as an aside, that more than a few people have built 'haunted doll's houses.' I approve!

There's a line early on that catches me every time, and if you haven't already read the story then I suggest you do so now as I'm about to enter into spoiler territory:

The curtains of the four-poster in the bedroom were closely drawn round all four sides of it, and he put his finger in between them and felt in the bed. He drew the finger back hastily, for it almost seemed to him as if something had – not stirred, perhaps, but yielded – in an odd live way as he pressed it. Then he put back the curtains, which ran on rods in the proper manner, and extracted from the bed a white-haired old gentleman in a long linen night-dress and cap, and laid him down by the rest. The tale was complete.

A lovely bit of sense-horror. There can be few people who haven't had something like that happen at some point in their lives: you reach out a hand, or it might be a foot, and come into contact with something you weren't expecting. In Bermuda, it's usually cockroaches. You might be sat in a chair at night, working on something, only to feel the faintest of touches, almost a brush, at your feet. Or you stretch half-asleep and your hand comes into contact with something furry. Not stirred, perhaps, but yielded - as in giving way, as though you were expecting to find something solid and instead met with something decidedly more fleshy.

There are aspects of that story which hook me yet, but puzzle me too. James repeats a motif again and again, of the clock striking one in the morning just before something dire happens. I don't think he picked that time at random. It can't be pure coincidence; no, James knew some bit of folklore tied to that hour. I don't know what it is and Funk & Wagnall's fails me this time. It may well have something to do with the death's watch beetle or some obscure piece of lore.

The idea of the story repeating itself, again and again, so that others can see it is one that appears in many ghost stories. James plays with it several times, most notably in the Mezzotint, but I've always had a soft spot for the Story of a Disappearance and a Reappearance, in which Punch and Judy play a prominent part. In that instance the repetition is meant as a message for a particular person, but in Doll's House the message, if there is one, is broadcast into the void.

I note that in that story too the one o'clock theme returns. One of these days I really must find out what James meant.

I've discussed hauntings here before, in the context of Trail and Bookhounds. I'm going to quote something from Seabrook's book on Haiti that I feel is relevant:

Obediently, like an animal, he slowly stood erect - and what I saw then, coupled with what I heard previously, or despite it, came as rather a sickening shock. The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it ... I remembered - and my mind seized the memory as a man sinking in water clutches a solid plank - the face of a dog I had once seen in the histological laboratory in Columbia. Its entire front brain had been removed in an experimental operation weeks before; it moved about, it was alive, but its eyes were like the eyes I now saw staring.

To my mind ghosts of this type are like the zombie, in that they lack anything like a motive force. They exist, and they go on existing, but without an animating will to direct it the ghost knocks about like a bull in a china shop, committing random acts of horror without the slightest redeeming element. In Disappearance the horrific Punch and Judy act is at least intended to warn a relative about the crime that saw his uncle killed. In Doll's House the specter is utterly without target or moral; the punishment, if punishment it is, was dealt with long ago and only the aftershocks remain, like the flash after a roll of titanic thunder.

When I discussed hauntings in Trail before, it was in the context of actual places. Yet this story shows that a Trail haunting could as easily be used with models, or toys. Some very beautiful working models, for example, were built as toys but architects use models too, as proof of concept. This applies to ships just as much as houses; the Queen's House in Greenwich, London, for example, has an excellent collection of period architectural ship models.

With all that in mind:

Doll's House (c.1778)

Strawberry Hill Gothic mansion house with attached chapel, and garden area in separate pull-out storage under the house. Includes period fixtures and fittings, and a dozen models including a man, a woman, a child, two grooms and several horses, among others. Slight damage to the roof and some scuff marks on the interior. No missing pieces. Model includes complete inventory of all fixtures, fittings and dolls, written by the original owner, a relative of General John Burgoyne. Projected value at auction: eighty pounds. 

An extra horse and carriage has been known to appear as part of the set, but only at night. Megapolisomancers often seek out models like these to use in their workings, but the only known attempt in this particular case to use the house as part of a ritual ended with the death of the participant. The last three owners of the house all sold it on at auction shortly after the death, or miscarriage, of a child. Interestingly, the extra horse and carriage has several models, all children, inside the carriage.

That's it for now!

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Blue Film Racket (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London)

I thought I'd go back to Bookhounds of London this week and its Sordid side in particular, borrowing from Fabian of the Yard to fashion a scenario idea.

"Vice is like mustard," says Fabian, "The more you eat of it, the more you need before you can taste anything at all. And for such clientele, there are the Secret Cinemas, and the particular, peculiar, plush-seated and dimly lit underworld ... The patrons pay five pounds. The room is dimly lit. Free drinks tinkle on a tray. Then the lights go out and a film show begins that would turn the censor purple if he knew. But he doesn't know. Usually the film is a 16-mm, smuggled in from the Continent, or photographed behind locked doors, to be shown in London's underworld cinemas. There are at least a dozen such secret studios in London today where films of this type can be seen."

Then moving to Fabian's jeremiad on Satanic practices:

"If sinful cinemas are not enough, there are practitioners of evil who will arrange to raise the Devil himself to be your sulphurous nocturnal playmate! The practice of Black Magic - of diabolical religious rites in the heart of London - is spreading steadily. There is more active Satan worship today than ever since the Dark Ages, when witches were publicly burned on Tower Hill ... Some firmly believe the world is a battleground between God and Satan, and if they declare themselves with the Devil, he will aid their success in life, and even a certain amount of comfort in Hell, with the chance of being reborn periodically as leaders of worldly wickedness. Others - perhaps the majority - attend a Black Mass to see a cheap thrill. They have heard of obscene ceremonies - naked girl priestesses - blood sacrifices of cats and goats - lewd flagellation and evil drums."

Now here's something interesting about a Temple of Satanism that Fabian alleges operated in his London:

"There is a house in Lancaster Gate that consists of one-room flatlets. The landlord and his wife occupy the ground floor and basement. Each room has a covered wash-bowl, a rather dispirited bed, a slot-meter gas fire, rickety table and two wooden chairs. The landlord's wife dabbles in spiritualism, sometimes holds private séances. Her husband is an amateur herbalist. Their flatlets are seldom taken for more than a few days. They are too dingy and untended to be comfortable. Guests come and go. Among them come and go the Satanists. Down in the cellar is a small doorway - probably at one time it was a fireplace. It leads through to the house whose walls adjoin it. The front door of this house faces onto an entirely different street. It is privately owned, and, from its cellar, stairs go up to an old-fashioned service lift-shaft, up which a spiral metal staircase ascends and stops at a sliding door, padded wit black felt. Beyond this door is a private Temple of Satanism!"

When I discussed Fabian before I mentioned I was unhappy with him as a factual source. I still am. There's just too much sensation-stirring here for Fabian to be believable. That said, an unreliable source has its uses so long as that source is of the era. I wouldn't touch Fabian if he'd been writing in the 1970s about the 1920s, but he wasn't. He was writing in the 1950s about the 1940s and 1930s. He talks in the voice of his time about the concerns of his time. If you write period fiction you need to capture that voice, and if that means reading a load of old whallop that's fine, so long as it's period whallop.

In Bookhounds of London there are at least two syndicates or societies that would get involved in the blue film trade: the Hsieh-Tzu Fan with its Soho stronghold, and Keirechires with its interest in sexual crime and pornography. I'm going to write this from the perspective of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan, and start with Brown Finger Johnny.

John Draper, aka Brown-Finger.
Athletics 4, Conceal 6, Electrical Repair 3, Fleeing 8, Health 5, Mechanical Repair 3
Academic specialty: Photography
Description: disheveled, always wears brown overcoat, persistent shaving cuts, fingers stained brown from film development chemicals and nicotine.
Notes: low-level subordinate of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan in charge of production and distribution of blue films.

Brown-Finger replaced Queenie Sutton as head of Soho's blue film racket a few years ago, when Queenie's place was raided by the police. Brown-Finger's supposed to be fantastically wealthy but you wouldn't know it to look at him. They say his continued success is due to friends on the Vice Squad, but he certainly has friends somewhere or one of the other racketeers would have claimed his territory long ago.

In the opening scene Brown-Finger approaches the protagonists with a proposition. He needs a new location for one of his secret cinemas. This is a completely new line for him, because the films he'll show aren't just porn; it's Satanic themed blue films. In the Devil's Bondage, New Flesh to the Altar, Her First Time, and more. All he needs is space. He'll provide the rest.

The protagonists either say yes or no at this point.

If they say no, then Brown-Finger gets his friends on the Vice Squad to pay the protagonists a visit. The Vice Squad cops search the place from top to bottom, making a mess and a lot of noise, scaring off customers. If by some chance the protagonists have anything in the shop worthy of the Vice Squad's attention then they may find themselves in gaol. Otherwise this is just a strong-arm attempt, and after the Vice Squad's paid the shop a visit Brown-Finger shows up. He's very sorry this happened, but he can offer a solution. Work with him, let him set up a cinema, and the Vice Squad problem will go away.

If they keep saying no then the Vice Squad start turning up at their homes as well, or stopping them in the street or in public. A few incidents like this and the shop will suffer a Reversal. Once the shop suffers a Reversal, assuming the protagonists still say no Brown-Finger will leave them alone. He has other prospects.

Should the protagonists still say no and follow up on Brown Finger's schemes, everything happens as per Yes except it happens to a rival book store. The protagonists can opt to help or hurt this store as they see fit.

If they say yes then Brown-Finger shows up with a van full of furniture - mostly leather chairs - some bottles of booze, and the film projector. The idea is to show these films for a small paying audience, maybe eight to ten at a time, three times a week. Brown-Finger pockets the cash, paying a small amount to the protagonists "for your trouble." Brown-Finger takes the lion's share. Brown-Finger doesn't need a lot of space to set this up. He could easily work in an attic or cellar, but if that isn't suitable then he's happy to draw the curtains in the main room and work there. He just needs privacy. Most of the time Brown-Finger won't be there; he sends an assistant, Sneery Harry, to run the projector, collect the cash and serve the drinks.

The clients are a mixed bag. They all have money; Brown-Finger wouldn't be interested if they didn't. Some are respectable middle-class types, whose reputations would be ruined if word of this were to get out. Some are much less respectable, but none of them are out-and-out criminals. A tight group of hard-core customers, the ones who come back week after week, want to become Satanists and think this is one way in.

The films are nasty stuff, and showcase plenty of S&M, gore and occultism. However there's a strong Mythos element too, and protagonists with Cthulhu Mythos may recognize some of the 'demons' as Mythos entities. Ghouls and Deep Ones make frequent appearances. At the Keeper's discretion these films may grant Cthulhu Mythos gains.

The films are all shot at the same location. The Knowledge and repeated viewing can work out where it could be, judging by clues left in the prints by careless editors and cameramen. However this only determines in which district - North, West, East, South, the City - the films were shot. Streetwise and Occult are needed after that to work out exactly where the temple is, and this phase of the investigation involves several visits to the seedier sides of London. Informants are likely to be Rough Lads, Prostitutes, Loungers, Beggars and Bright Young Things. Sneery Harry, if the protagonists lean on him, resists Intimidation - he knows Brown-Finger can hurt him far more than a bunch of booksellers ever could - but Flattery works wonders and Shadowing is Difficulty 4, or 3 if he's been drinking. This phase of the investigation will almost certainly involve an Antagonist Reaction from those 'demons' seen earlier, unless the protagonists are exceptionally discreet.

The final showdown is at the temple, which proves to be a well-disguised stronghold in the City. As described above, the actual entrance is via a block of 'flats' though the temple itself is in the building next door. The Satanists who stay in the flats are all cultists keeping watch over the place, and the two rooming house owners are senior members of the Satanist ring who may know some Mythos magic. Brown-Finger doesn't get involved in this side of the business; it's far above his pay grade. He shoots the films and makes sure they get an audience, but anything other than that is for actual members of Hsieh-Tzu Fan. Combat here is mostly with mooks, but if the protagonists want to avoid getting their heads kicked in they can get the police involved instead, as long as they can bypass the crooked members of the Vice Squad and get hard evidence about the porn ring. (He says with no double-entendre intended.)

If the protagonists do anything to seriously jeopardize this source of income, Hsieh-Tzu Fan will mark them down as enemies to be destroyed. Thus kicking off a whole new series of scenarios, I suspect.

That's it for this week! Talk soon.