Sunday, 26 June 2016

Cedar Point and Wild Rides (BubbleGumshoe)

You're reading this in the Glorious Future, but it's coming to you from the Dim and Distant Past, specifically that same day that the UK decided to cut off its nose to spite its face, and also the day that my fellow countrymen said loud and clear that Gays Should Not Marry Or Have Civil Unions. Because my fellow Bermudans are a bunch of bigoted Christians, for the most part, who spend their lives with their heads up each other's butts.

But after last week's short post I thought it would be a good idea to put in some advance work rather than leave it all till Sunday. I also wanted to touch on BubbleGumshoe, the latest from Ken Hite, Emily Care Boss and Lisa Steele, in which you play as a teen detective solving mysteries. What better way to do that then a trip to the funfair?

I haven't much hands-on with BubbleGumshoe, so I may get some of the more intricate details wrong, but the basics are simple enough. The system is stripped-down Gumshoe, so if you've already played Trail or any of the other Gumshoe products, you know the core gameplay already. The big thing to bear in mind is, as a teen, you don't have nearly as many points in your pools as your adult counterparts, so you need to be careful about ability selection.

The other thing to bear in mind is that, since this really isn't a combat-oriented game, you'll be spending much less on fighting abilities than in other Gumshoe products. This can be huge; combat abilities are a significant point sink in, say, Night's Black Agents, such that a minimum of 20 General pool points ought to be sunk into each character's fighting abilities. But since that isn't the case here, you're free to design quirkier character types.

Relationships are much more important than martial arts. Who loves you, hates you, likes you? Using these relationships propels the drama, but it also gives you access to a host of abilities you otherwise wouldn't be able to use. Friends with a cop? Then Interrogate, Forensics, or Cop Talk become available. Or a host of other benefits; really, the only limit is the players' imagination. Mechanically this works much as Network does in Night's Black Agents, except that where Network cannot refresh, these Relationship pools can.

You're in this to solve mysteries - that's why you're a Sleuth, after all - but those mysteries needn't be as deadly as those you'd find in Night's Black Agents, or Trail. Finding a lost dog is a mystery. Discovering who's bullying your cousin is a mystery. Discovering who murdered the next door neighbor is very definitely a mystery, and so on and on.

While this isn't Trail, there is a Stability stat. Only this time it's called Cool, and losing Cool doesn't mean a quick trip to the nearest insane asylum. Instead it means that future tests or contests are more difficult, perhaps impossible, if you've totally lost it and are snot-crying at the least provocation. There's one interesting variation; since this game is based on relationships, you can channel negative Cool pools into creating a new Hate. This is a person, place or circumstance that, you now realize, you Hate. That restores your Cool, but creates a new negative Hate pool that the GM can use against you in future conflicts.

Incidentally if you were expecting some variation on the Pillars mechanic, first seen in Trail and later used, in one form or another, in most Gumshoe products, there isn't one here. Cool isn't as vital a stat as Stability is in Trail; losing it isn't as world-crushing as losing Stability, and you can't permanently lose, say, your faith in the Church, or your belief in the essential goodness of mankind. However Cool is very important in Social contests and Throwdowns, and therefore in Relationships, which are at the heart of the game.

This is the part that players familiar with Gumshoe but not as well read in teen drama may stumble over. Mechanically the contests are broadly similar to Thrilling Contests seen in Night's Black Agents. The terms of the conflict are defined, the players pump in General pool spends to adjust difficulty or to change the terms of the conflict to more favorable ones, and then dice are rolled. However the conflict isn't how to stake a bloodsucker while at the same time surviving a high-speed chase on the autobahn. The example given in the main book is of a bunch of teens confronting a rival at a party and humbling her by pushing an anti-drug message. Its a situational switch, not a mechanical one. That's the key thing to bear in mind.

The default setting is a small American town, but really, it doesn't have to be American. Small town life is small town life, wherever you go. It wouldn't be at all difficult to rearrange things to make this a small town in France, or a small island in the Caribbean. However it might be more challenging to set this in, say, London, or any large urban area.

Relationships are different in large cities. The social dynamic is different, and in a sense diminished. If your mom is the principal of the high school, for instance, and it's the only high school in town, that makes her a very important person within the social fabric. Less so, if she's one of several dozen in a sprawling urban metropolis.

Plus there's the issue of added violence, particularly in the States. The game isn't really equipped to handle guns or significant violence of any kind, but a mystery-based game set in a modern city probably has metal detectors in every high school, just because of gun violence. The knock-on involved in setting a game in the big city is significant, and can't be avoided or skirted round. That said, it shouldn't be impossible to set this in a city; just more difficult. 

Okay, that's all mechanical. What about scenario and campaign design? Well, that hasn't changed significantly from other Pelgrane products. Action is still divided up into Scenes, some of which are very important, or Core, while others are optional. The big difference here is the addition of a couple scene types: Dramatic, Pushback, and Throwdown.

A Dramatic scene is exactly what it sounds like. It's not about the plot. It's about the character. Which doesn't sound like much until you realize that, up till now, Gumshoe games have never been about character. It's always about gathering clues, putting them together, and figuring out what's going on. Character has always been secondary, but this time it's primary, and that means the problems you solve may not be about the plot at all. Maybe someone's Relationships are frayed, or there's some other moment of high tension that needs resolving. That's what a Dramatic scene is for. This is the soap opera moment, but soap operas have survived for as long as they have because, when played straight, a Dramatic scene hooks the audience and gets them to pay attention.

Pushback is a little like an Antagonist Reaction scene from, say, Trail. The difference here is that it's non-fatal. An authority figure of whatever type gets involved, and threatens the character in some way. Except rather than drag the character down a dark alley and rearrange their spinal cord, the authority figure threatens social punishment of some kind. Exactly what that punishment is will depend on the scene, and the authority figure making the threat.

A Throwdown is a heightened Dramatic scene. Here the character needs to engage in an extended social conflict of some kind, against an important rival. This is the major drama moment. I went into this in some detail above, so I'm not going to go over old ground here. Except to say that, played properly, a Throwdown can be a major moment in the game; but a Throwdown also has the potential to go off like a damp squib. This is one of those times when the GM needs to take care.

It reminds me, oddly enough, of the Wraith RPG, specifically the Harrowing sequences when the character's Shadow accumulates enough negative points to put the character through the wringer. A similar aesthetic applies here. The intent isn't to destroy anyone, or even to attack them directly. Instead it's all about indirect attacks, in which the character's brawn or weapon mastery matters less than the character's ability to deal with social issues. But in a Harrowing the GM is specifically advised to take lots of notes and prepare in advance, and the GM would be well advised to do the same here. It's not like a typical Antagonist Reaction, where you can throw a few mooks into the mix and see what happens. This needs to be crafted, or it won't work.

In fact, BubbleGumshoe has one other important commonality with Wraith: it's not for everyone.

Wraith's a brilliant RPG, but not all gamers are going to be thrilled with the idea of playing the dead, let alone having a Shadow persecute them at every turn. Players like to feel in control, to be powerful, and the underlying message of the Shadow mechanic is, no, you're weak, you're a failure, you're doomed. Whereas nearly everyone who ever sat at a gaming table and threw dice around has played Dungeons and Dragons, a game which implicitly tells you not only that you're powerful, but also that you're the Most Powerful, if not the Chosen One.

Now, it's not BubbleGumshoe's place to tell the player how powerful their character is, but it's implicit in the setting that they aren't the most powerful in the game world. They're teens, functioning in an adult setting. If they want access to adult skills, like Forensics or Cop Talk, they need to have an adult ally. That alone suggests significant weakness, and that's before you look at the Pushback and realize that there's a whole scene type devoted to making sure the players know they're small cogs in a much larger machine.

Plus, the essence of the Throwdown is social combat, which isn't something that all players will grok instinctively. Oddly enough, teens will, because social combat is a large part of their lives. But it becomes less of an obsession the older a person gets, and I wonder how may players will be able to put themselves back in their fourteen-year-old mindset. The example Throwdown, for instance, has the characters confront a fellow classmate about drug use. While reading it, I couldn't help but wonder, 'is this what teens would do? Or is this what adults would like to think teens would do?'

It's more about fulfilling a particular kind of fantasy than it is wish fulfillment. In this instance, the Kid Fantasy. You can be one of the Hardy Boys, or Nancy Drew, or even - if you want to go back far enough - Huck Finn. He's hardly a sleuth, but his fingerprints are all over this as the archetypal kid set adrift in an adult world. It hearkens back to the one time we all knew we were right and the world was wrong. There's a reason why this is a specifically kid fantasy, after all; only a kid could be quite so self righteous.

None of which is to say that BubbleGumshoe is a bad game. Like Wraith, it's brilliant in its own way. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it very well. The mechanics are polished to a mirror shine, and stripped to their bare essentials. The setting is fully realized and the Relationship mechanic plays right into the game's aesthetic. However it must be acknowledged that not everyone is going to want to play a teen detective, because it doesn't play into the wish fulfillment tropes that many gamers come to the table hoping to enjoy. Even in a zombie apocalypse game, where everyone's living off of tinned beans and paranoia, the players still get to prove that, when everything's gone to hell, they have what it takes to survive. Finding out what happened to somebody's bicycle doesn't have the same cachet.

Basically, it's the Marmite Effect. Some players are going to fall in love with the concept and never want to play anything else. These are the folks who have marmite on everything. Others will reject it outright, the ones who'd bury a jar of marmite at a crossroads with a stake through its dark heart. Most will fall inbetween, tolerating marmite because why not, but just as keen to get back to beating orcs, staking vampire spies, or whatever else the group usually does.

Okay, all that said, what about Cedar Point, I hear you ask?

Cedar Point is going to be the example I'll use to piece together a BubbleGumshoe scenario seed. I could go into a lot of detail here, but that's not what this is about. You do need to know a little about Cedar Point, though, so briefly:

This amusement park in Ohio, on the shores of Lake Eerie, is the second oldest such park in the United States. It's roller coaster heaven, with 17 coasters for the speed freaks out there, plus another 50-odd rides for those crazy people who don't like roller coasters. It also boasts all kinds of live shows for all ages, from Snoopy songs to Motown and fireworks displays. However for our purposes one of the most useful things about Cedar Point is that there's plenty of accommodation both on and off site. That means the characters can live somewhere else, and come to Cedar Point for, say, a week or two. Maybe it's a class trip, or a family vacation. But the point is that it takes the characters away from their usual haunts and puts them in a completely new situation, which can be great either for shaking up a game that's gone stale, or for introducing new players to the mechanics in a setting where failure can be forgotten as soon as everyone goes home.

There are two BubbleGumshoe settings that involve horror, or horror elements. Neither of them are anything like as bloodthirsty as Trail, never mind Call of Cthulhu or Night's Black Agents, but both have that weird Eerie Indiana crossed with R.L. Stein vibe. Either could be Lovecraftian, but Bellairs Falls is the more likely prospect.

This one has magic at its heart, but those of you shouting Wingardium Leviosa at the screen will be disappointed. I suspect one of the writers whispered 'quidditch' longingly, then two of the others screamed LAWSUIT, and that was that. In this setting, magic is eeeeevilllll, and those who practice it are likely to become Obsessed.

The other setting, Ruby Hollow, has ghosties, ghoulies and long-legged beasties (Good Lord, deliver us!), but this is a Scooby Doo setting, in which Traps are key.  This is one for the rubber mask crowd, complete with animal sidekicks for the mystery-busting sleuths.

Take all that together, and then consider that Cedar Point once boasted a Bluebeard's Palace funhouse, and we have the germ of a plot. Bluebeard, in case you aren't familiar with the name, is a very famous fictional mass murderer whose career and characteristics are loosely based on a real mass murderer. It's pretty easy to guess what the Cedar Point Bluebeard's Palace was all about. There's little left of it online, but this blog post features, among other things, period postcards and images that give you a good idea what it may have looked like. You could get away with a lot more then than you can today, and despite the period quaintness there's a hard edge to some of this stuff that's unnerving.

Since I'm going to be referring to two BubbleGumshoe settings, there will be two Crimes, two Culprits and two Hooks, all taking place at the same location.

Bluebeard's Return

No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher's dirty looks! Plus, for once, you're going out of town for some much-needed fun. It's off to Cedar Point, the world-famous Roller Coaster Capital! Sure, you won't be staying on site; in fact, your group (Church group, school group, family group, whichever) has block-booked at one of the cheaper, more rickety off-site hotels, Castaway Lodge, within sight of the much more fun purpose-built pirate hotel, Castaway Bay. But why worry about that? It's time to have some fun!

But wait up a second; what's that funky place on the Broadway? It looks like something grandpa might have enjoyed. Bluebeard's Palace? Well, I guess that big guy on the front of the building is Bluebeard, but what's it supposed to be, some kind of horror house? I dare you to go inside! Heck, I double dare you!

Crime: (Bellairs Falls) one of the group becomes obsessed with the odd postcards that float around Cedar Park, which seem to contain a kind of coded message. If you collect them all, maybe you'll be able to figure out the code? (Ruby Hollow): Jeez! That guy in the mummy costume looks really dead. What's up with that, and why is he following us around after we leave Bluebeard's Palace?

Culprit: (Bellairs Falls) The spirit of Bluebeard, trapped by magic in his old Palace looking for a way out. Or, for a less mystic ending, Packy Dunlop, the operator of Bluebeard's Palace, who offers big cash prizes to anyone who can break the code, but has rigged the game so nobody wins. (Ruby Hollow) The corpse of long-dead gunslinger Elmer McClintock, who wants a proper burial. Or, for a less gruesome twist, Packy Dunlop, the operator of the Palace, who uses the funhouse as a base of operations for a pack of pickpockets.

Hook: (Bellairs Falls) Those postcards really are weird; it's like you can almost see something moving in the images. (Ruby Hollow): Is that a mummy, a zombie, or what? Look out! IT'S MOVING!

In the examples given in the main rules, there would then be a Story and a short list of Clues for the characters to pick up. However I think you get the gist of it, and as it's now Sunday - time flies - and I have an afternoon matinee, that's all for now!

In brief: I recommend BubbleGumshoe wholeheartedly, with the caveat that the central concept is not to everyone's taste. But that's a minor cavil. Even if you never play it, the game's worth reading and possibly data mining for other projects.


Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Muscles From Brussels or Anywhere Else (Nights Black Agents)

My apologies for going dark on you! I'm acting in the outdoor Shakespeare, opening night's this week, and everything's just a little frantic. Taming of the Shrew, by all means come and see, but since most if not all of you live outside Bermuda I shan't be too upset if you don't. ;)

Anyway, as I have little time I shall quickly cover another character type for Night's Black Agents: the Muscle.

A probable ex-military type, the Muscle is often the star of modern espionage thrillers. Stephen Leather's Spider Shepherd, for instance, is ex-SAS, as is Andy McNab's Nick Stone, aka the dimwitted heavily armed movie camera. Even Jason Bourne is a variant on the theme, the brainwashed black program badass. So the Muscle ought to be the most popular character archetype, right?

Well, no.

The Muscle's problem closely parallels that of the Fighter in D&D (or AD&D, or spank the magic dragon, or whatever we're calling it now). It's the meat and potatoes of the game. Every group needs at least one, because every group will at some point encounter a situation that can only be solved with ultraviolence. But players generally don't want to be the one who just hits things and does nothing else.

AD&D solved this problem with prestige characters, and later iterations use what amounts to a series of perks, each designed to make the character type feel unique even if the base is straight fighter. Night's Black Agents does a broadly similar thing with the cherries system, martial arts and the combat maneuvers, and so long as the player is willing to learn those special rules and use them, this works. But I've noticed an inbuilt resistance to learning rules, particularly among adult gamers. Life, apparently, is too short for reading. It's not too short for watching trashy TV shows, I notice. But then I'm a cynical soul.

This is where props like the thriller action cards on Pelgrane's site come in handy. However props aren't the only solution to the problem, and the most effective is, oddly enough, background.

I've mentioned before that I prefer a one-sentence descriptor for characters these days. This is still the case with the Muscle. The difference being, that sentence needs to be pulled from something more interesting, more descriptive, than 'ex Special Forces veteran gone rogue.'

Consider two examples, drawn from the news. One concerns a Japanese finger sculptor who works for former Yakuza. The other is about former child soldiers now working as mercenaries for British PMC Aegis.

My point is this: the way to get past the snore-factor inherent in the Muscle character type is to think carefully about the Muscle's background. Any idiot can play an ex Spec Ops badass. But combat, war zones and conflict are world wide. People from all walks of life are drawn in, and marked forever. Imagine being the former criminal trying to make a good life for himself, his family, but indelibly scarred by his past. Imagine being the child soldier who now knows nothing but war, and can only make a living using the skills learned over years of psychotic conflict.

Nagi is a former Yakuza, one of the very few older sisters of the Kudo-kai, who came to Paris to start afresh, only to find that her criminal past still bars her from any meaningful career or family life.

Bai went from the battlegrounds of Sierra Leone to war-torn Iraq, and has two lifetimes' worth of bitter experience packed inside less than two decades; very little frightens him, except death itself.

Gotta go! Catch you all later.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Secure Correspondence (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Just a quick one this week, to give Night's Black Agents Directors a nifty new way to correspond with agents in the field.

This is based on Stephen Leather's book Black Ops. One of these days I'm going to have to do a Not Quite Book Review on Leather; he's a lot of fun. British, used to be a journo for the Daily Mirror, been writing novel length fiction (meow) since 1997, and he's good at it, in a mannered and clever kind of way. Stephen King once said of horror maestro James Herbert that Herbert's work had a 'raw urgency,' the kind that grabbed you by the lapels and screamed in your face. By that scale, Leather stands in your way and speaks both loudly and firm, but doesn't quite reach the same level of urgency.

From a Night's Black Agents perspective Leather's most useful quality is that he writes both spy fiction and horror. Black Ops is pure spy fiction, starring Leather's recurring not-Bond, 'Spider' Shepherd, former SAS and policeman turned spy. What I want to talk about today is a neat little trick used by some of the characters in that novel to communicate, and how easy it would be to use that trick in game.

Secure communication via email is always a problem. Experts say that email is by its very nature insecure. Companies like Lavabit or SilentCircle used to say they could secure their transmissions, but they don't make that claim any more. SilentCircle went so far as to smash its own servers rather than hand them over to the authorities. The metadata - who sent the email, when, and to whom - is always vulnerable, SilentCircle's CEO pointed out as the servers went silent.

But what if there was no metadata?

Black Ops' spy handler has a simple procedure. Create an email identity - let's say cushing1913 - on a service like outlook. Make sure both the handler and the agent knows the identity and the password. Then, when messages need to be delivered, create an email, but don't send it; save it to drafts instead. Alert the other party that there's a message, say by text message. The other party logs on to the email address, checks drafts, reads the message and then deletes it.

Nothing was ever sent, therefore there is no metadata. By saving it in drafts you don't even need to specify a receiving email addy. Theoretically the email client can be hacked, but so long as the sender and receiver promptly check and destroy messages as soon as they can, there's a very small window of opportunity for hackers to intercept messages.

I very much doubt it's foolproof, but it's a fascinating glimpse into workable tradecraft. One of Leather's greatest strength is that he bothers to find out how things work, and then weaves that knowledge into the narrative without being too obvious about it. No long lectures, no technobabble, just a quick but thought-provoking glimpse into a working system, and then on with the show.

From a Director's perspective the utility is obvious. Anyone can create an outlook identity. It costs no money and very little time to set one up. Once you've done that, cushing1913 - it might be Dracula Dossier's Harker, Hopkins, or someone else - can send messages to agents in the field in real time. It's the perfect means of sending scanned documents, like anything from the Hawkins Papers, to the players. Or bits of the Dossier itself, or instructions, or what-have-you.

It's ingenious, simple, and free. What's not to like?