Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Vault (2017, dir Dan Bush)

This is going to be the last post for the year, and I want to round off 2017 by taking a failed idea and playing with it: The Vault, a recent horror release. A desperate band of robbers try to take millions from what ought to be an easy target, only to discover that this vault is the last one they ought to have broken into.

It's not good. It's not truly awful either, though that's mainly down to the three leads. Taryn Manning's good as the crazed, strung-out robber, Francesca Eastwood keeps the plot moving forward as the clued-in, grounded one, and James Franco as the bank manager with a secret is the rock holding all this together.

There are several problems here. The first is the plot, which is bloody awful from about the midway point onwards. If you can't guess what's going to happen next, you haven't seen many horror films since, say, 1970. It explains too much, which is a ridiculous mistake to make. Even the music conspires against it, being the same collection of bland, obvious TA-DAAH! horror stings you can buy for $0.99 from a sound effects collection.  The only standout is Crimson and Clover, a 1968 single, and I couldn't tell you why it's there.

Well, maybe I can. While looking up this song's Wiki entry I notice that it's also featured on the Bates Motel series, Sons of Anarchy, In Plain Sight, crime drama Blood Ties (which went to Cannes), and a few other 2000-era film & television references. I suspect it's become one of those go-to songs that sound editors desperate for something vaguely spooky and evocative reach for. I'm guessing it's cheap, too.

I fell asleep sporadically for the last 40-odd minutes of the film, which meant I stopped keeping track of who was doing what to whom - not that it mattered much. It was obvious who was going to live to see the final reel and who was not.

I knew absolutely nothing about this film before deciding to see it, not even the trailer. However the puff line accompanying the Netflix entry reminded me of a much better film, R-Point, a K-horror war movie in which an army unit is sent to rescue a group of soldiers lost behind enemy lines, only to find that very little is as it seems.

It's the phone message that caught me. R-Point starts when the Korean top brass hears a radio SOS, from soldiers who've been dead for months - or are they? Whereas in The Vault everything goes to hell for the robbers when someone calls the police, again and again and again - but who is it?

Kim Newman, in his review for Empire, says that The Vault is 'too timid to go all-out weird,' which definitely is not R-Point's problem. That one's weird almost from the get-go. If you're looking for a horror film to round out your year, R-Point is the one I'd heartily recommend.

However I started this by saying I wanted to play with The Vault, so with that in mind, let's start playing. Assume this is a one-shot, say for Fear Itself. What happens next?

There are some things The Vault gets very right. One is anchoring the nasty in a particular mismatched time period, in this case the 1980s. There aren't many 2017-period tags until about ten minutes in, and everything looked suitably pastel and old-fashioned, so at the start I was almost convinced the film was set in the 1980s. That allows a Keeper to start laying pipe with period-specific material. If ever you're going to use music in the background, now's the time. If the session is set in the 2000s, the players are going to get freaked if all they get on the radio or TV is period material. You can swipe old radio stings and other audio from YouTube and similar places, but the key here is to keep it subtle at first, with something that might not be noticed - like one of those radio stings. Then hit them with something obviously out of place later.

The players, in a one-off, can be a mix of robbers and hostages. This is one of those hotbeds of suspicion concepts that's crying out for a Trust mechanic of some kind, which is the one thing Fear Itself lacks, but it shouldn't be difficult to import one from another source - say, Night's Black Agents.

In R-Point, one of the earliest scares comes when the platoon takes a photo of the group early on, only to discover later that one of the people in that photo wasn't really there at all. That's what you should be aiming for with this scenario seed. Imagine what it would be like to go into the vault with a five-person crew, only to discover later that there were only four of you all along. At least one of the team ought to be on the Enemy's side, but what that means exactly is up to the Keeper. Has this person been suborned, or were they always this way?

With all that in mind, let's have a scenario seed:

This bank is being robbed. Armed thieves have locked the place down, taken the customers and tellers hostage, and are making their way to the vault. Except there isn't any money there, and the cops are closing in ...

1) The Bank never existed in the first place. There was a Bank in that location back in 1983, but during a botched robbery someone set off an explosion that took out everyone inside, and the building's been vacant ever since. Only the most desperate homeless live in that eerie, bombed-out structure. The robbers are from out of town, which is why they don't know that - or at least, most of them don't know that, though their man on the inside might. Once inside, the robbers can't leave; the only way out is through the vault, but it's anyone's guess as to where that door leads.

2) The Bank's vault safeguards something incredibly dangerous, like the Devil, or impossibly valuable, like a jar with someone's soul in it. One of the robbers knows this, and has persuaded the others to help him get in there. What the other robbers and bank staff don't appreciate is, the closer the robbers get to their goal, the more elaborate and deadly the defenses become. Doors become hungry mouths, electrical cords reach out and strangle, and the wall of Most Valuable Employee pictures just gets longer and longer with each death.

3) The security cameras see everything, everywhere, and record every move. Some of the footage is from the 1980s, some from the 1990s, some from the 2000s - but that doesn't matter. Some is from a bank in San Francisco, some from San Antonio, and some from Paris, France - but that doesn't matter. This is an amalgam of robberies, faithfully recorded by all the cameras, and the feed is playing into the Security Room, where it's all spliced together. Who is in that room? Why are these five robbers and a handful of customers and tellers trapped here, and how will it end?

That's it for 2017. See you soon!

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Foreigner (2017, director Martin Campbell)

Stephen Leather's a damn good writer, and when I noticed a film based on his 1992 thriller The Chinaman was due for release in 2017, I made it my business to seek it out. So on the same weekend as a certain Jedi-related movie's debut, I was curled up with The Foreigner, starring Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan and Katie Leung, among others.

Frankly, I was amazed.

It's a fairly strong, if simple plot. You come in thinking this is a revenge story, and it is. Chan's humble but determined Quan, a London restauranteur who lost his daughter in an IRA bombing, wants the names of the bombers. He doesn't care about anything else; the politics of the situation are meaningless to him. He just wants to get to the people who hurt his family, a motive anyone can understand and empathize with.

The sticky layers of complication become apparent when Quan crosses the water to Ireland, and meets Brosnan's Liam Hennessy, Irish deputy minister and former terrorist who's been mucking about in dodgy dealing for his own political ends. He wants pardons for former IRA people now in UK custody, because if he's seen to be the man who secured those pardons then his political future is assured. He has a plan to leverage the UK government's assistance, but this scheme is swiftly hijacked, and before long he's battling to stay afloat in treacherous political waters. Quan's arrival doesn't make things easier for him; just when he needs to be in political action, he has to hide in his farmhouse to avoid Quan's deadly bomb attacks. Pressure mounts. He can't afford to be distracted, but Quan dogs his heels every step of the way, with one and only one demand: give me the names of the bombers.

For those Night's Black Agents aficionados out there wondering what kind of game this is, it's Dust, all the way. Treachery hangs over the plot like a thundercloud, before the storm breaks with a crack and a bang. The novel was written in 1992, so I was prepared for a few plot-related creaks and groans; after all, more than twenty years have passed. Technology, and politics, have changed. However there was nothing about the plot I could fault for its realism, or tactics. The combat and action scenes are well-paced and serve the plot, as opposed to being never-ending vehicles for glamor shots. The firefights are exactly the kind of pyrotechnic madhouse you'd expect from an actual gun battle, as opposed to the blood-soaked heroism of, say, a Stallone or Schwarzenegger film.

Moreover it's a revelation to see Jackie Chan, of all people, play against type. He's usually the happy-go-lucky indestructible warrior. You know he's broken every single bone in his body, and yet he always comes out smiling. Not this time. You believe he is that damaged sexagenarian, short of breath, devoid of hope, who just wants one thing: revenge. There's one moment when Chan has to perform emergency surgery on himself after being shot, and to be honest I wasn't sure whether the scarred torso was Chan's or his character's. If any actor working today might actually have a body as marred as that in real life, it's Jackie Chan.

This film's been compared, unfairly in my opinion, to the Taken series, because revenge is the motivating factor in each case. Frankly, I'm not seeing it, and Chan's the reason why. He's not an action hero. Liam Neeson is. You never really believe Neeson is under any threat in the Taken films; he's the good guy, they're the bad guys, and we all know who wins in that situation.

But Jackie Chan isn't the good guy here. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find an actual action hero good guy in this film. Everyone lies, betrays, tortures, kills to get what they want, the British government as well as the Irish terrorists. Quan's the least morally complicated character in the film, but that's because he doesn't want much. He doesn't have Hennessy's ambition or some cause to follow. His needs are simple, and his anger terrible to behold.  

I'd recommend this film to anyone who enjoys espionage thrillers, and in particular to players and Directors contemplating another trip into Night's Black Agents territory. Perhaps after supporting a certain Dracula Dossier Humble Bundle? You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Patreon Charges & Kingshowe

I think there's crossover between this blog and my Patreon, so I'm going to post this message here as well as there.

If you weren't already in the loop, I publish short fiction and RPG material at a Patreon once a month. The series I've been working on is an English folk horror series, Kingshowe, set in the 1920s in a new build suburb not far from London. I've been posting the Patreon for close to two years, but I've only been working on Kingshowe for a year.

The message is as follows:

I thought I would have to cancel this Patreon. As you're aware by now, Patreon was about to make changes to its charge system that would have made small donations, like the $1 and $2 you send my way, unfeasible. I wouldn't blame you if you all left.

However Patreon changed its mind. The new charge system will not be implemented, which means small donations are still viable. That's good to hear.

That said, it's time to bring the Kingshowe series to a close. I started Kingshowe to see if I could carry through on a single theme, creating a series as opposed to individual stories. I could, and did, for a full year. I may return to Kingshowe in future installments, but for the moment I consider the experiment successfully concluded.

With that in mind, the next episode will feature the start of the novel I'm currently working on: Witches' Brew.

See you soon!

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Not Quite Book Review Corner: The Spy Who Couldn't Spell

Not a lot of time again this week, so I'll be brief.

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee's account of Brian Regan's epic pre-9/11 espionage spree is a confounding, astounding account of America's bungler, the spy who didn't know when to come in out of the rain. On the one hand, it's a chilling tale: had Regan succeeded, it would have been the most significant espionage effort ever carried out against the United States. On the other, it's a cartoonish cascade of errors that ends the way you'd expect, as Regan stumbles from blunder to blunder in search of a payout, like a drunk weaving his way through Vegas and coming out the other end in his birthday suit.

It's often said - but perhaps not often enough - that spies aren't the action heroes seen  on the big screen or in four-color novels, blowing up installations, gunning down mooks and seducing beautiful people. Your actual honest-to-Fleming espionage asset is a bitter, disaffected soul who has a need - it might be money, sex, validation, or a dozen other things - that can be used to get them to open up. Such a one was Brian Patrick Regan, a former USAF Master Sergeant and signals intelligence specialist, who decided to sell America's secrets to the highest bidder because he wanted money, and to prove he wasn't an idiot.

Regan comes across as a very familiar type, as I'm sure he would to most of you reading this. He's the one gamer at the table who always has to be right, even when he's wrong - and he's frequently wrong. He doesn't care enough to do the work, but wants to be rewarded nonetheless. Plagued by dyslexia, his spelling is atrocious, but if it was just his spelling that was at fault his story would end differently. He can't manage his finances. He spends money as if it was water, juggling a mountain of debt by bouncing it from credit card to credit card, and his wife and kids are making expensive trips to her home country, Sweden, each year. He's the guy with the plan, but funnily enough his plans never come to anything, either because he doesn't follow through or because it was a lousy plan to begin with.

One day he decides he's had enough. Ball players and celebrities get millions of dollars for what they do - why should he be any different? He has something he can sell, and he needs the money. Thanks to his job he has access to reams of sensitive information any foreign government would be delighted to purchase. Russia's the obvious client, but approaching Russia directly is a fool's errand - he'd be caught straight away. So he decides to sell to Libya instead, thinking that by doing business with the Libyans he will eventually get to the Russians.

He gathers material by the simple expedient of photocopying it, and before long he has stacks of paperwork stuffed in his desk, in his filing cabinet, wherever it will fit. He sends a coded message to the Libyans: if you want to buy what I have to sell, contact me.

That coded message is sent straight to the FBI by an informant in the Libyan consulate.

From there things go from bad to worse, but the tale isn't about how it was done so much as by who, and why. The maddeningly complex and amateurish tradecraft methods Regan uses are bound to fail. What makes it interesting is Regan, the shmoe. The reader watches him fly off on a fool's errand to the Libyan consulate in Switzerland, walking in the door and demanding to speak to someone in charge because he has secrets to sell. Naturally the Libyans throw him out; they don't think anyone so stupid as to say he's a spy can possibly be a spy. Then we see Regan carry his bags and binders full of secrets out to the back of beyond, burying it in several different caches like Captain Kidd with his pirate gold. Half the story takes place after his inevitable arrest, when in one last spasm of hubris he tries to bargain for a lower sentence by holding the US government to ransom, saying that he won't reveal the location of his caches unless they make a deal.

In a way, Bhattacharjee is to be commended for making the story as interesting as it is. In different hands it would have been less a comic opera, more a squeaky fart in an elevator. By the end the reader actually feels a little sorry for Regan, hapless jackass though he may be. Personally I would have liked more about his wife and children, who were the real losers here - but I suspect they may not have been willing to cooperate. After all, Regan ruined their lives as much as he did his own, and shaking off that stigma must be a lifelong effort.

From a Night's Black Agents or Dracula Dossier perspective, what can be done to gamify the material? The most obvious approach is to have Regan approach a Conspiracy asset in his efforts to find a path to the Russians. This might work better in a Dracula Dossier game, where Romania plays a larger role in the narrative. The Conspiracy may be just as mistrustful as the Libyans in its dealings with Regan, but then it does have means of finding out information that other agencies lack. A few nips of blood and mind control later, and they'd know for certain whether Regan's the real deal or a disinformation asset.

Or one of Regan's infamous data dumps could still be out there, moldering in a duffel bag buried in the wilderness. Maybe Regan tries to use it to bargain for more privileges, or maybe the Conspiracy goes looking for it because it contains information vital to its cause. Does Regan know more about the vampires than he's willing to say? Is the FBI using Regan's data dump in some complicated sting operation?

Highly recommended to espionage enthusiasts, particularly if they enjoy a bit of cryptography - though personally I found Regan's code less engrossing than I suspect Bhattacharjee thought the reader would.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Luck Ambassador (RPG Scenario Seed, Macau)

I haven't had two seconds to think about it, so the Benson / One-to-One bit will have to wait. Another idea presents itself. A while ago I discussed Halloween, and mentioned in passing the Chinese festival of the dead. This week I want to delve into that in more depth, with a scenario seed.

According to Funk & Wagnalls Standard Folklore Dictionary, the Seventh [moon], the Moon of Hungry Ghosts, is the Autumn moon. The festival ... lasts from the 15th to the 30th of the month. On this day food is prepared for the ghosts who have no descendants to care for them, and therefore are always hungry. Lotus-flower lamps are carried through the streets, or at dusk candles are stuck into tiny boats and floated down the streams.

There's the key: these ghosts don't have anyone to look after them. There are other festivals - the Tenth Moon also has a festival of the dead - but those ghosts are well cared for. Because hungry ghosts lack descendants, or have descendants who don't care about them, they never receive offerings, and are always starving, so when the gates of Hell gape wide in the Seventh month there's a real risk of harm - unless those ghosts are propitiated.

The festival has Bhuddist overtones, but at its core it is Chinese. Many hungry ghost stories arise because of mistreatment, either of the living or the dead. So, for example, when a rich man who has to leave on business instructs his wife to feed a hungry monk, and that wife instead withholds the food or punishes the monk, she becomes a hungry ghost when she dies.

These ghosts can, if not taken care of, cause bad luck, or attach themselves to people who are not their descendants. That's why people offer so many bribes, of food or other things - they don't want ghosts hitching along for the ride. Similarly during a live performance, say of opera - and there are many performances during the festival - the first row of seats is traditionally left unoccupied, so the ghosts can have them. The boats and lotus lamps are to help the ghosts find their way home again at the end of the festival. The ghosts are said to have found their way back to Hell when the lamps go out, and the boats carry them home.

The most common image is that of a ghost with a sack for a belly and a needle-thin neck. The belly signifies constant hunger; the needle neck, how difficult - impossible, even - it is for the ghost to find and eat food. Generally speaking there are three types of hungry ghost: those with no money, those with a little, and those with great wealth. The ones with great wealth are the rulers of ghosts, who live off of things lost or forgotten; the ones with little or no wealth are scavengers, sometimes with mouths so decayed that they can no longer eat, but yet are driven by insatiable need. Naturally there are far more of the latter than there are of the former.

From there I'm going to pivot to a podcast: Adam Ruins Everything with Professor Natasha Dow Schull. It's about gambling, and how casinos use slot machines to encourage gambling addicts. I can't call myself a huge fan of Adam - I don't watch the show and I only occasionally listen to the podcasts - but I'm always intrigued by his argument.

In that podcast, Professor Schull points out that slot machines, particularly cloud-based machines, can be rigged and re-rigged pretty much at the casino's whim, adjusting odds and changing the game on the fly to suit the intended audience. The main protection against this, in the States at least, relies on a law that prohibits the changing of a game's odds while the game is being played.

Of course, Macau doesn't have to play by those rules. It can switch up whatever it likes whenever it likes, and it has plenty of slot machines. Which is where the Luck Ambassador comes in. This Ambassador is employed by the casino to help a player out, which in turn encourages the player to stay. Helping can involve any of a number of different bennies, and although human helpers have been used in the past, with a virtual game system like a cloud-based slot machine, the Ambassador can be completely subsumed in the game's subroutines.

So here you have a slot machine that knows exactly who you are. It's tracked you from the moment you checked in at the hotel, and can continue to track you via the courtesy smartphone that the hotel gave you, or through your guest card, or any number of different ways. It can switch up the odds as it sees fit, to keep you playing. It can judge your tolerance for loss, and keep you pumped up for as long as your money holds out.

Now imagine if that machine was haunted - say, by hungry ghosts.

With that in mind, here are three options:

1) A Ghost King has taken over the casino. It sends its lesser minions from slot to slot, gobbling up cash which the King uses to fund its ever-lavish lifestyle. The trouble is, in its overwhelming greed it has overextended itself, and is causing player deaths in its helter-skelter attempt to keep the money flowing. The casino hires a Tao master to bring things to a head, and this master - actually more of an acolyte with excellent PR - brings the characters on board. As helpers. Or cannon fodder ...

2) A Conspiracy asset has taken over this Macau casino, and is slaving hungry ghosts to its slot machines in order to keep the money flowing. Unfortunately for the Conspiracy asset, the people it hired to keep the ghosts in line aren't as necromantically skilled as they pretend to be. Ghosts are escaping into the wider world, and that can only attract the wrong sort of attention.

3) For a Fear Itself vibe, imagine a slot machine that knows you - that can follow you around. It can migrate from console to console; after all, it's in the cloud, not in the circuitboard. You see it in one casino, then another. You might try to leave the casino, do something else, but now it's on every device you see or touch. What's more, there's a face floating behind the game - a broken face, with a needle-thin neck, and it wants everything you have.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

E.F. Benson and Ken's Mind Control (Trail of Cthulhu)

I'm a huge ghost story fan, and some of the best - the classics of the genre - were created by a relatively small group of Victorian and Edwardian era spookwriters.  M.R. James, E.G. Swain, Violent Hunt - her Tiger Skin is one of my favorites - Sheridan Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, Lafcaido Hearn, and a host of other cobwebbed creators. At about this time of year, when the weather gets colder, I like to reread some of the stories in my collection, and sometimes I get inspired by them.

Which brings me to E.F. Benson, and The Room In The Tower. Have a read of that - it's free. I recommend his short story collection - my copy's The Collected Ghost Stories edited by Richard Dalby - and while I can't say every one's a winner, I can say that when they win, they win big. Particular favorites include And the Dead Spake, The Shootings Of Achnaleish, The Bus Conductor, and The Outcast, the last of which is very similar in tone to The Room In The Tower.

E.F. Benson is the fifth child born to a family determined to win awards for Most Gothic as well as Overachiever. The father, headmaster of Wellington College when E.F. was born, and later Archbishop of Canterbury, was by all accounts a terrifying man. Among other things, he founded the Ghost Society at Trinity College, Cambridge, dedicated to psychical research. His wife Mary, or Minnie, was one of the cleverest women in Europe, according to British Prime Minister Gladstone. After her husband's death in 1896, she moved in with close friend Lucy Tait. Judging by some of E.F.'s stories, it's tempting to cast Minnie as a bit of a bloodsucker herself; so many of his stories feature predatory women, particularly mothers and wives.

Of the six Benson children, two died young, and none of the survivors had children of their own. E.F.'s sister Margaret, a ferocious intellect, was one of the first women admitted at Oxford and the first to be granted the opportunity to conduct archaeological expeditions in Egypt. Like her mother, she preferred the company of women. She died in the Priory after suffering a mental breakdown. Brother Alfred Christopher is best known for writing Land of Hope and Glory, but also wrote ghost stories, and suffered from manic depression. Brother Robert Hugh, appointed a Church of England priest, recanted, and eventually became a Catholic priest, while at the same time writing ghost stories and ground-breaking dystopian science fiction about the Antichrist in a world on the brink of war between the forces of Marxism, the Japanese Empire, and the American Republic. He died at the relatively young age of 42, in 1914, just as the Great War was about to start.

E.F. Benson meanwhile survived into his 70s, and died of throat cancer in the opening years of the Second World War. He very nearly wrote one novel for each year of his life, not including short stories or short story collections, or his non-fiction - over thirty published - or his autobiographical pieces. Best known for comic Mapp and Lucia these days, in his lifetime he was known as a superlative spook-story author. H.P. Lovecraft admired his stories, saying his work had "singular power" and was "lethally potent in its relentless atmosphere of doom."

Having read The Room In The Tower, what pointers does it have for vampire design?

First, the vampire is unquestionably evil, with a strong suggestion of Satanic influence. That whole business about being buried in an unmarked suicide's grave is a Christian trope of long standing, as is the postscript about a corpse that will not lie quiet in sanctified ground. But there's more to it than that; after all, here is a vampire who knows, while she still lives, that she'll become a vampire.

This suggests either that becoming a vampire is a matter of will, or that someone can deliberately damn themselves with the intent of becoming a vampire. I lean towards the former, because the narrator of the story says he's been having the vampire dream since he was sixteen years old. She's been grooming him all that while, and at the time the dreams began she was still alive. So she must have become aware of him at some point when he was sixteen - when he and her son were at school together - and decided he was her meat.

Ferocious personality she must have had.

Blood is a significant part of the narrative, but it appears in unusual places. The portrait leaves bloodstains on the hands of whoever touches it, the vampire's coffin is filled with blood, there's a bloody mark on the victim's shoulder - but there's no suggestion of an actual wound. It's as if whatever the vampire touches, or the vampire uses, leaves a gory trail, and implies heavily that, when the vampire isn't wandering abroad, it literally bathes in blood, like Countess Bathory..

Though the vampire has a physical presence, it's an insubstantial, almost psychic substance. It leaves behind a part of its shroud, when it vanishes into nothingness. There is an awful smell where it has been, but no footmarks, no evidence of tampering with the window or door. Moreover unlike many other vampire tales - including those by Benson himself - there is no moment of catharsis, with the destruction of the vampire. It is tempting to assume that Julia Stone is dealt with when her coffin is exhumed, but there's no reason in the narrative to think this was her undoing. For all the reader knows, she still may be wandering abroad, seeking prey. Certainly nobody ever finds her corpse.

However there is a strong presumption of a sense of place: that room in the Tower where she committed suicide, that patch of unconsecrated ground just outside the house where Julia Stone of evil memory is buried. Perhaps Julia Stone's powers grow weaker the further she is from her place of power. Perhaps whatever part of her still exists in the physical world is somewhere in that house - or perhaps she left many tokens, like that portrait, behind, as a kind of marker.

I rather like this as a kind of vampire template, but when designing something along these lines I'd lean heavily on Ken Hite's Zoom: Mind Control, since that seems to best model this creature's style of attack. This is a psychic or spiritual battle rather than a physical one; the scenario mechanics should reflect that.

This assumes a conventional scenario with more than one player character. In fact, a story like this seems better suited for Cthulhu One-to-One - but that's a subject I want to return to later.

The great thing about the Mind Control option is that it allows the scenario to play out over several scenes, possibly spread over several years. This is, after all, a battle for the soul, not a fight for territory. Moreover unlike the conventional, stakeable vampire, this time out the opponent can't easily be destroyed by applying garlic, sunlight or some other bane. The only way you win this time is by beating it on its own terms - which means overcoming its ferocious will.

Without going into tremendous detail - after all, that's in the Zoom - the Shadow Plays section of the Zoom seem best suited for this kind of scenario. In that, the struggle between the dominating force and the subject is played out over some form of mental battleground, with defenders or defenses made up of parts of the subject's psyche. The zone's defenders are constructed by using the subject's total Stability rating as Health statistics, and the subject's total General pool to work out statistics. So if the General pool is 60 and the Stability pool is 6, then in theory the subject could create 10 different defenders, each with an 6-point rating in a useful General ability, but could only assign 6 Health total between all of those defenders.

In the Zoom, the Shadow Play section assumes that the defenders are mooks of some sort - gunmen, thugs, whatever. In this kind of scenario I'd suggest that the defenders could be anything. A strong door, a meaningful symbol of some sort - particularly one related to a Source of Stability - all of these things could be assigned defensive roles and given a Health rating based on the subject's Stability.

The Zoom also states that the mental battleground is divided into three zones, the Superego, Ego, and Id, and that the Health budget will increase for the Ego and Id. The budget is multiplied by 2 for Ego targets, and 4 for Id, so in the 6 Stability example the Health budget would be 12 and 24, respectively.

So in this instance the vampire spends its time reducing the subject's defenses to zero in a series of nightmares, targeting the Superego, Ego, and Id. Once those defenses are destroyed, the subject dies, and becomes a vampire in turn. During the day the investigators may find signs of the vampire's presence - blood stains, clumps of grave dirt or scraps of shroud, awful charnel smells, perhaps claw marks on the windowsill or footmarks on the floor.

However these physical marks also point to a weakness - the vampire depends on certain physical anchors in order to survive. That coffin filled with  blood, the portrait on the wall, perhaps a particular room in a house or a grimoire in the library; the vampire needs all of these things, and if they are destroyed then its offensive capability is damaged.

Its offensive capability is determined by adding up the total of its General abilities, with Health as its Health stat. So using the Vampire example in Trail as a baseline, its offensive pool is 28, and its Health is 7, with its offensive pool refreshing in every scene. An offensive attack doesn't have to be a straight fang-to-the-throat; it can as easily be a sense of overwhelming dread, or a particular phrase - 'Jack will show you to your room. I have given you the room in the tower.' In a mental or nightmare attack, these blows to the psyche are just as crippling as a physical punch to the throat.

That said, these nightmare attacks might also reveal more than the vampire intended. After all, the narrator of the story knows what is coming because he has been here before; he has experienced the same nightmare for many years, and is very familiar with the room in the tower. Thus when he encounters it in the real world for the first time, he knows what to expect next - and that proves to be the vampire's undoing. So too can the Keeper drop clues in the nightmare realm as to the importance of certain things to the vampire - its place of rest, that grimoire in the library, the portrait. If those things are destroyed, then its offensive pool dwindles; exactly how important this is depends on the vampire, and its particular weaknesses.

When designing this kind of vampire the Keeper ought to be as creative as possible. Sure, a coffin filled with blood is an evocative image, but when dealing with vampires the players expect to find coffins, blood-filled or otherwise. What about a doll's house, designed exactly like the vampire's own place of power? Or a greasy deck of playing cards that the vampire used in life? A horse-and-carriage, or a railway carriage? An apple orchard? The possibilities are limitless.

Anyway, as I've now got to cook a turkey I shall leave it at this point - but Cthulhu One-to-One is the next stop.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Not Quite Review Corner: City of Mist (Son of Oak)

City of Mist, a detective RPG with mythic elements, is a 2017 Kickstarter release from Son of Oak, lead designer and producer Amit Moshe's brainchild. Fans flocked to give Son of Oak over $100,000 when the studio went seeking crowdfunding, and now the legend has become reality, with print and PDF release. I didn't back the Kickstarter but I was intrigued by the concept, so I bought the PDF version.

Those of you already familiar with Apocalypse World and FATE will find much that's familiar here. The system is blessedly simple. At its very core is a dice mechanic: 2D6, 10+ is a definite success, 7-9 is a messy success, anything else is a fail. Modifiers can be added which affect success or the potential outcome, depending on a character's mythos or course of action - is the character affected by a Status modifier, Facing Danger, Hitting It With All She's Got? - and these modifiers vary to such a degree that it's almost impossible to describe them in one review. A Bastion Mythos, for example, means protection - but protection can mean unshakeable will, a magic shield, immunity from the law, fire resistance, or something else again. Regardless, they each affect the dice mechanic in the same way: 7-9 is a messy success, 10+ a success, anything else a fail, and what actually happens depends on the situation, taking all applicable modifiers into account.

However for the folks going 'hey, that sounds a lot like [fill in blank - Cthulhu Confidential was what I was reminded of]' yes, it does sound a lot like, because it is a lot like. The game's very player-facing, so only the players will ever roll dice, and the players will decide which modifiers apply as well, for the most part. The Master of Ceremonies - City's name for the GM, DM, Keeper, Director, etc - sets the scene and decides the plot, but rarely touches dice or gets directly involved in the mechanics of any scene.

The players are Rifts, or the Awakened. They might look like ordinary people, but at their core they have a touch, or more than a touch, of the uncanny about them. On these mean streets the myths and legends of old are new again; King Arthur might be flipping burgers in a Downtown diner, but he's still King Arthur at heart, and that means he can draw on his Mythos to get things done, if he has to. Exactly what that means is determined by the player during character creation, and is left largely up to the player. Whether this player prefers the Medieval version or something closer to Marion Zimmer Bradley, or something entirely different, is where this King may differ from all the others.

Each character balances Mythos against Logos, or the Legend against mundane Reality. Those fully in the grip of Reality are Sleepers, and have no idea that myths and legends walk the streets. Those with just a little myth about them are Touched, but mostly normal. Those with fifty-fifty myth versus reality are Borderline, while those mostly myth are Legendary. If they go one step further than Legendary, the story overtakes the person it inhabits, and the affected shell then becomes an Avatar.

Becoming an Avatar is a lot like completely blowing a Sanity check in Call of Cthulhu, or one of its many variants, except without the whole, y'know, going insane bit. Well, maybe a little bit insane. See, at that point you become the Mythos and start fulfilling your True Destiny, except now all humanity has been burnt away and you have Godlike powers. You may accomplish spectacular things - so long as the power lasts. However once you burn through your time as Avatar, that godlike power vanishes, and probably takes the character with it, though there's always a chance she might return later.

The Mythos can be almost anything. King Arthur is an obvious choice, but a player could as easily decide to base their character on Excalibur, Don Quixote, Jack the Ripper, a Poltergeist, or pretty much anything else. Any character, item or location from religion, fiction, fable, folklore or otherwise is up for grabs.

Your Mythos helps determine your powers, in a very loose way. The player determines exactly which powers apply, and presumably is guided by the core concept of the character. So someone who takes Don Quixote as a character idea then determines which themes, story tags and other add-ons apply, based on the core idea of Don Quixote. But since Don Quixote embodies many possible add-ons, and since this is ultimately player's choice, one Don Quixote may be very unlike another. Which, to be fair, fits the core concept of the setting nicely - the Mythos is always struggling to break free, and this can manifest in many different ways, thus creating many different potential Avatars.

You'll note that word 'presumably.' Because this game is so very player-facing, I can foresee situations in which a player's idea doesn't really match the story tags chosen for the character. There's enough flexibility here that this shouldn't matter, but that ultimately will depend on who's sitting at the table on the day.

As a side note, the MC should prepare for some friction if the player's chosen concept doesn't mesh with the other players. One player might find a beer-drinking trucker Jesus - after all, religion's on the table, don't forget - hilarious, while the person sitting next to Jesus might go into meltdown at the very idea. Know your players well enough before you start play that you may avoid these situations, is my advice to you.

So why doesn't anyone notice these legendary characters roaming the streets, making beanstalks grow up to the clouds and causing magical mayhem? That's thanks to the Mist, a reality-shaping McGuffin that prevents people from noticing the strangeness all around them. It permeates every element of the City, from the least sewer to the highest skyscraper. A clash between titans could appear, to Mist-addled Sleepers, like a gun battle. It's still a fight, and blood is shed, but it's a fight they understand. Or perhaps they get a very brief glimpse, and then their minds rewrite their recollection of events so everything's explained, or ignored.

Say some hideous event blows a hole in the City, drowning whole neighborhoods beneath a lake. To the Sleepers, that lake's always been there. The ruins in that lake are archaeological discoveries, not evidence of a recent disaster. The people that died when the City blew up didn't die in an explosion; they had heart attacks, or moved away, or never existed in the first place. Only those with a touch of Mythos about them suspect the truth, and even they don't know the half of it.

It's a detective game, but unlike Gumshoe there are no point pools to manage. Instead it's all handled by dice. A dice roll determines how many Clues you obtain, and exactly how you get those clues will depend on the means by which you went looking for them. Did you investigate a crime scene, gossip with the cops, perform some kind of magical ritual, something else? Whatever it may be, you then trade those Clues for answers, and each Clue gets you a guaranteed truthful answer from the MC to one question.

Say you accumulate 3 Clues after scoping out a graveyard. You might then ask, is there anyone in that graveyard who looks suspicious? The MC answers yes, there is; there's a lone figure in a trenchcoat who seems to be lying in wait. The next question is, does that person pose a threat? The MC answers yes, you can see the telltale bulge of a shotgun hidden underneath that trenchcoat. That leaves one Clue unspent, and one question yet to be answered.

Much like GUMSHOE, action is divided into Scenes. There's slightly less structure to the setup here than GUMSHOE fans are familiar with; there's no attempt to divide things up into a particular narrative, or organize things along a spine. Instead the game uses an Iceberg illustrative mechanic to describe story building. Those who see an iceberg know they're only looking at the very smallest part of it, the exposed tip - or, in a murder investigation, the dead body. But go deeper, and who knows what you'll find?

I rather like the Iceberg concept, though I suspect it's in part because it reminds me of a reverse Conspyramid from Night's Black Agents. Rather that build up to a tip, you sink down to a conclusion - but the base idea is the same.

OK, so all that's what the game is. Next question: how does it feel? And does it work?

It feels a little tricky, to be honest. There are some games that anyone can play, and there are some that depend very much on like-minded people with similar skill sets deciding to play. Dungeons and Dragons, for example, is a game everyone can get behind, regardless of experience or ability. The quiet player who doesn't like to roleplay and the exuberant talker can each have as much fun as the other, because the game has ways in which both can access the fun. Whereas Wraith is a game that, by virtue of its mechanics and setting, is only ever going to appeal to a certain kind of player. If not everyone at the table is into it, that will make things awkward for everyone. Which is not to say that Wraith is a bad game - it's one of my favorites - but I have to bear in mind that not every gaming group I'm in is going to be happy playing Wraith.

City of Mists is in the latter category. The quiet player is probably going to be intimidated by the setting and the core mechanic, since it requires such a heavy player investment, and relies on roleplay to really sing. Whereas the exuberant talker will leap on this with cries of joy, because the game actively rewards talking and roleplay. As MC, you need to bear in mind that not everyone at the table will be happy with City of Mist, and that may determine whether you decide to play at all.

The other big issue I have is that, as far as the setting's concerned, there's not a lot of there, there. With a concept as strong as this - new Legends rising from old stories - you'd expect the City to be as compelling, but a lot of the nitty-gritty is actually left up to the players and MC. I suppose this is unavoidable; anything this player-facing will depend heavily on player input, so the designers have to leave a lot unsaid. Plus it allows the MC to base the campaign's city on pretty much anything, from Prohibition era Chicago to modern day Monaco, Victorian Paris or anything in between. But it didn't light my imagination afire when it described the City in a series of Tropes like The Run-Down Apartment, The Public Park, The Ruin, or The Historic Residence.

I suppose my disappointment is partly down to the noir problem. I convinced myself this was a way of telling noir stories with a Mythic edge. I even convinced myself noir was in the title, or the subtitle, of the main book - which, of course, it isn't. Noir is mentioned in the Kickstarter pitch and it comes up a couple times in the main book, but there isn't, say, a chapter dedicated to film noir or any real exploration of what that style of storytelling might mean to the campaign.

See, if you aim for a noir style, then the City plays a major role. The setting - the situation - is larger than any of the characters. If the characters fail - and they frequently fail - then, more often than not, they are crushed and beaten by the situation. There's a reason why one of the most famous and oft-quoted lines in cinema is  'Forget it, Jake - it's Chinatown.' At that point Polanski bows to the central tenet of noir: the good guys don't triumph in the final reel, and anything resembling victory is spattered with blood.

But with City of Mist the setting can never be larger than the characters. By definition the characters are larger than life, in every possible sense. Moreover as embodiments of Mythos working towards Avatar status, failure seems remote. It can be a tragedy in the same sense that Macbeth is a tragedy, but Macbeth crushes dynasties and lays waste to everything around him, whereas Robert Mitchum, say, maybe punches a few goons before being gunned down. The scale's all wrong for noir. It's like trying to reshoot Casablanca with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead, and a few extra car chases and explosions.

There is a Campaign Book, and that may solve some of the issues I've mentioned, but as I've not seen it I can't comment. I would say that, if I was picking this up on a whim - which is exactly what I have done - I'd expect the main book to solve pretty much all my problems, and the add-on to give me even more stuff. I wouldn't want to go spending another $50-ish in the hope that the add-on fills holes found in the main book.

I feel as if I've spent a lot of time griping, so let's talk about the good stuff.

The interior layout is very good. I could have lived without quite so many 'coffee stains' on the pages, and I couldn't help but be reminded of a comment made by a blind gamer a while ago at YSDC, that these non-essential images may look great, but they play hell with PDF readers used by the sight-impaired. The artwork and imagery really helps sell the core idea, which is a plus.

The core idea is gorgeous. It reminds me very much of Vertigo back in the day, with the Sandman, Lucifer and the rest. For those going Fables, Fables, Fables, yes, I can see where you're coming from, but I was never that fond of Fables. It never clicked with me.

The designers are very generous with their content. There are two scenarios and plenty of downloads available, for free, on their site - no doubt thanks to cash-handy Kickstarter backers, but still, it's a welcome addition.

I said before that this is a game that will appeal to a particular group of people, but I'll also say this: if you happen to be in that group, this will become your favorite game. The concept and rules are so simple that anyone can understand them with minimal explanation, and once you're there, it's easy to fall in love with this big, bad City. It's also a pretty decent choice for someone's first tabletop RPG, in that the rules are so simple they won't intimidate novices, and the concept's so strong that everyone will have an idea of what they want to do five minutes after the MC explains the setting.

It's also not a bad choice for someone's first time behind the MC's screen. A lot of would-be Keepers, Dungeon Masters and world-builders charge in bull-headed looking for something unique, something they can make totally their own. They want to be master of all they survey, and it's just not good enough if all they survey is a couple of hamlets and some hapless hobbits. They want a grand canvas, worlds to save - or damn - and the highest possible stakes, for the greatest heroes ever known. City of Mist provides that grand canvas, with a system and setting robust enough for any idea to flourish. Whereas if that same neophyte decided Dungeons and Dragons, say, was the way to go, they'd have to become expert in a relatively complex system, and then decide what kind of story to tell within that system, and then decide whether they need any of the many extra mechanics Dungeons and Dragons supplies to make that story work, and then become masters of those extra mechanics ... and so on. It's a lot of effort, is what I'm getting at, and the great thing about City is, you, as MC, don't need to kill yourself with work to have a good time. The players will be doing a lot of that for you.

Do I recommend City of Mist? Yes, though not without reservations. Will I play it? Oh, yes. In fact there's a one-off I should be designing for some folks who are down for Christmas, and I think City is an excellent choice for them.

Is it for everyone? No - but if it's for you, then it's going to become a permanent part of your RPG landscape.


Sunday, 12 November 2017

Quick and Dirty: Almaty, Kazakhstan (Night's Black Agents)

Last week it was the most expensive city in the world, and this week it's the least: Almaty, formerly Verniy, the largest city in Kazakhstan, a former possession of the Soviet Union.


                                     Night view of Almaty. Image sourced from WikiVisual.

Almaty can trace its past back to the Bronze Age, with artefacts, tumuli and other archaeological evidence of riches and sophisticated development. The Golden Man, now a Kazakhstan symbol, dates back to the 3rd or 4th Century BC, and was buried with over 4,000 gold adornments, warrior's equipment and other funerary goods signifying wealth and importance, but he, or she, is only one of many valuable finds.

During the Middle Ages Almaty grew in importance thanks to its strategic position on the Great Silk Road, linking the West with China's markets. Almaty even produced its own coins, with its own mint. The city's name is first mentioned in sources from this period, books published in the 13th  Century. There's some dispute as to the meaning of Almaty, but many scholars believe it refers to the apples which grow here so plentifully, and is usually taken to mean Apple Mountain, or Father of Apples. Due to the genetic diversity of the apples grown here, this region of Kazakhstan is thought to be the ancestral home of the fruit.

However when shipping routes overtook the Great Silk Road in importance as a means of getting to China, Almaty's influence and importance declined. There was considerable infighting up to the 18th Century, between ethnic Kazakhs and their neighbors, and between different Kazakh groups, all of which came to a head in the 19th Century when the Russians finally conquered the Kazakhs.

The Russians began their occupation with the construction of Fort Verniy, with much the same intent as the English had when they build castles in Wales: domination of an aggressive local population. Russian peasants and other migrants soon flocked to the village the fort protected, despite such disasters as an earthquake which levelled the place in 1887, and by the turn of the 20th Century Verniy was almost 30,000 strong, mostly ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.

With the 1918 Revolution came great changes. Verniy became a regional powerhouse, and changed its name to Alma-Ata. Rail and road links were soon built, and Alma-Ata became the central city of the Turkestan Autonomous Socialist Republic. For a brief moment it even attained transitory fame as one of the places Trotsky was sent to live in exile, before Trotsky finally found his way to Mexico City. However it was the Second World War that really saw Almaty grow. When vital industries and resources were withdrawn from the Front, many of them ended up in Almaty, provoking helter-skelter industrial growth and expansion. It became one of the Soviet Union's most important industrial cities as a result.

The years following the war saw further development, to the tune of 300,000 sq m year-on-year growth. Care had to be taken to build in such a way that earthquakes couldn't easily destroy the city, but apart from that the sky was the limit. Today it's known as a center of industrial, educational and ecological development - particularly the latter, and the current plan is to grow Almaty as a kind of ecological showpiece, or garden city. It's no longer the capital city of Kazakhstan - that honor went, in 1997, to Astana - but it's still the most important city in the state.

                                                            Image taken from Wikipedia.


Over 1.5 million live in Almaty, which makes it roughly the same size as Philadelphia, Penn. Population density is very low, even in the cities; the capital, Astana, has about three quarter of a million people, making it only slightly larger than Seattle, Washington.

The vast majority - over 49% - of the country is between 25-54 years old. Living beyond 64 is common, and life expectancy is above 70, male and female.

Sunni Islam is the majority religion. About a quarter of the population are Russian Orthodox, and few other religions have much more than a toe-hold. The country considers itself secular and tolerant, though it's wary of proselytizers and extremist groups.

Literacy is over 95%, and unemployment is very low, less than 4%.

The country is over 60% ethnic Kazakh, with a substantial minority Russian population, and a scattering of other ethnic groups. Kazakh is the official language, though Russian is widely spoken, and is considered the language of business.


Until fairly recently Kazakhstan spent a lot of money - comparatively speaking - on its air force, army and navy, but in 2016 spending dropped to less than 1% of the country's GDP. This coincides with a switch from a conscripted to a contract military; until now, military service was compulsory, with a 2 year contract from the age of 18. Kazakhstan has ongoing border issues with Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and China, which are being resolved diplomatically, more or less. Kazakhstan is a member of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, among other groups, though its human rights record is, to put it politely, spotty.

Kazakhstan's relations with Russia have been tested in recent years, thanks in part to disagreements between Putin and Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev - the only President independent Kazakhstan has ever known. President Nazarbayev is in his late 70s, and has received over 90% of the popular vote in recent elections. He and his cronies are known to be corrupt and authoritarian; it's anyone's guess what will happen when he resigns or dies. At time of writing he seems likely to cling to power with both hands, come what may. Many Russians think Kazakhstan is but an experiment, not a real independent nation, and are of the opinion that the experiment can be terminated at any time - most likely when President Nazarbayev dies.

Kazakhstan's relationship with the United States has been cordial since the 2001 terror attacks, and Kazakhstan has been a partner in the war against terror. However there has been considerable unease, particularly in China and Russia, about the possibility of the United States establishing air bases in Kazakhstan. So far, that possibility has yet to become more than theoretical.

Islamic fundamentalist groups are a significant problem, and Al-Qaeda is but one of a number of different organizations suspected to be operating in Kazakhstan. There have been several terror incidents, particularly in recent years. However the Kazakh government is not above using intimidation and terror tactics, particularly when it comes to silencing journalists. It has also been accused of assassination on at least one occasion.

The country is a conduit for drugs smuggling from Afghanistan to Europe, and a producer of cannabis on an industrial scale. Government interest in cracking down on drug smuggling is low. Opiate addiction is rife in Kazakhstan.


Big Almaty Lake, only a few kilometers north of the city, is a tectonic lake whose waters feed the Big Almaty River. It is part of a natural park, and hosts the Tien-Shan Astronomical Observatory.

Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Almaty is a city of fountains, boasting 125 fountains all told. The Oriental Fountain, part-pictured here, is based on the Chinese calendar, and is a popular stop for tourist walking tours. There are twelve animals all told in the Oriental Fountain

                                                      Image sourced from TripAdvisor.
The Almaty Television Tower, commonly called the Almaty Tower, is the tallest free-standing steel tubular structure in the world. It's designed to withstand earthquakes rated up to 10 on the Richter scale, and has two observation decks at its uppermost level, which are not open to the public.

                                                   Image sourced from WikiVisually.
Story Seeds

As part of its bid to be recognized as a major sporting center, Kazakh officials and wealthy friends of the government have put together a bid to host a major martial arts international tournament in Almaty. So far everything seems set for a publicity and sporting triumph - though many Western journalists are barred from attending, for various reasons. Several new venues for the tournament are being built for the occasion - and one Conspiracy front seems to be winning some of the best bids. Why is the Conspiracy so interested in building sports venues all of a sudden? Is this merely an attempt to hide or transfer ill-gotten funds, or is there something more important going on?

[This seed may change depending on whether your game is set pre or post 2015.] Almaty is/was in close competition with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. It's a very tense race, and every single International Olympic Committee vote is being courted assiduously. Some would argue, too assiduously; China's Room 452, its Vampire program, is known to have become involved in influencing the vote. Yet still Almaty remains a strong contender. Who, or what, is on its side? If this is post 2015, and Beijing is known to have won, then what happened to those 15 IOC committee members who didn't vote - and what kind of blowback can be expected on the losing side?

An Islamic militant attack in Almaty's financial district has the world on edge. So far it's just the usual suspects hitting the usual targets, but Tradecraft or similar knows that at least one organized group is gathering material - and explosives - for a hit on a major target. Yet those same sources seem to think the terrorists are after an archaeological site, not something more obviously political. The question is, why?

Thrilling Elements

  • The Zelyonni [Green] Bazaar and the flea market at Dostyk Avenue is the best place to pick up Soviet-era collectables, fake Gucci and Louis Vuitton, sweets, fruit and other items - and it's always packed out with bargain hunters, making it a difficult venue for a Chase scene.
  • Almaty's party central if you're a well-to-do and hedonistic Russian or Central Asian, and can afford to spend $100 a throw for a table. The rich and corrupt reel from nightclub to nightclub with wallets stuffed with cash - and, in some cases, their minders follow on behind to protect them from themselves.
  • Almaty is a city that remembers its heritage, whether Soviet or ancient. Plaques and memorials are everywhere in the older parts of the city, commemorating the artists, scientists and other famous citizens of the city.
  • Since the 2005 Venice Biennale, Almaty has become moderately famous as a home for video art. A swanky art gallery or less exclusive venue can house the latest in Almaty expressionism.
  • Many monuments dot Almaty's streets and parks, some of them less obvious than others. A group of tourists gather around the Beatles Monument at Park Kok-Tobe Mountain, a favorite park for locals and recent arrivals alike.
  • A group of old World War Two veterans gather at the Monument of Fame, looking for all the world like a gaggle of moth-eaten buzzards.
  • A hushed group of high-minded Russians move slowly through the Central State Museum, admiring the scientific exhibits in particular.
  • Cheerful tourists and locals settle in at a local outdoor eatery, for steaming bowls of beshbarmak - horse meat, noodles and soup.  

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Quick and Dirty: Luanda, Angola (Night's Black Agents)

In previous iterations of Quick & Dirty I've covered Kabul and Macao, and this time I thought I'd try something new. There's nothing people love more than lists, and every year someone puts together a list of the most expensive cities to live in. This time I'm going to tackle the #1 for 2017, Luanda in Angola, West Africa. Next time I'll tackle the least luxurious, so watch this space.

Luanda's a new entry at the #1 spot. Hong Kong has held that dubious honor last year, but this year it slipped to #2. Wonder why? Wonder no more.


This Angolan port city on the West coast of southern Africa, formerly named São Paulo da Assunção de Loanda, is the most populous Portuguese-speaking capital city in the world, way ahead of Lisbon - the capital of Portugal - and the fifth most populous Portuguese-speaking city overall. Which just goes to show that Portugal, which also founded Macau, had an indelible mark on colonial history, despite being a minor player in the game.

                              Image sourced from Wikipedia and used under Creative Commons.

Luanda is a city in flux. It is undergoing major renovation, almost a sea change, thanks to its meteoric rise. Angola only achieved peace after decades of conflict in 2002, and since then Luanda has struggled to reestablish its position as a major export port. The struggle, it would seem, is nearly over, and its reward is an exponential increase in cost of living, among other things. It can cost upwards of $6,000 per month to rent a two bedroom unfurnished apartment in Luanda. A price tag around the $12,000 per month range is not uncommon. The president's daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is Africa's richest woman, having earned her cash thanks to her father's generosity; he gave her the state energy firm to manage. Meanwhile most Angolans get by on wages of $2 per day, scratching out an existence side by side with oil millionaires.

Luanda was founded in 1576 by Portuguese colonists as a slave trade center, and became one of Portugal's most important assets, supplying Brazil with countless slaves for its brazil-wood plantations, sugar plantations, and gold and diamond mines. At the outset Portugal didn't care much for expansion, preferring instead to build large forts to protect its assets. It saw Luanda as a bridgehead, a link in a supply chain that kept its far more valuable Brazilian colony fed, a human factory sending slave labor across the ocean.

This all came to an end in 1822, when Brazil gained independence. This massive disruption in Luanda's trade forced the colony to change its course. By 1836 slavery was abolished, and soon Luanda became a center for foreign shipping, sending palm and peanut oil, copal, timber, ivory, cotton, coffee, cocoa and many other products across the sea.

With this trade came wealth, and peaceful prosperity, interrupted briefly by overseas scuffles. During World War One, tensions between Portugal and Germany rose, particularly since Germany's African colony bordered Angola, but though there was fighting, and many Portuguese ships sunk by rampaging U-Boats, Luanda was never directly threatened. Portugal remained neutral during the Second World War, and inadvertently became a hub for fleeing refugees and espionage, but in so doing it ensured Luanda wouldn't be directly threatened during this conflict either. Even the Portuguese Colonial Wars in the 1960s and 70s between the military and emerging nationalist movements never harmed Luanda, and during the War for Independence, most of the guerrilla fighting took place in the countryside and wilderness of the Northern provinces.

There is one notable exception. In February 1961, at the start of the conflict, militants armed with machetes stormed police strongholds, apparently intending to free political prisoners. At least fifty and possibly several hundred militants were involved in these strikes, of whom somewhere between twenty to forty died. Several police constables were also killed, and during their funeral on the 5th of February tensions ran so high that riots broke out. Reports are unclear as to what happened next; some claim enraged white mobs slaughtered blacks in their hundreds, while others that only a handful were killed. One more attack on a police post took place on the 10th, but that was rebuffed by a strong police presence, and twenty two of the attackers were killed. 

Like many other conflicts of its time this civil war was, at least in part, a show of force between the US and the USSR, using an African battleground to play out international conflicts, but Rhodesia and South Africa also saw opportunities and crises in the Angolan conflict. Both those countries were ruled by white governments, and saw nothing but bad times brewing in a white colonial government overthrown by black nationalists.

                                            Portuguese paratroopers on patrol. (Wikipedia)

With the signing of the Alvor agreement in November 1975 came independence, and a very brief peace that was shattered almost immediately by rivalry between the nationalist factions. Over three hundred thousand people emigrated, fearful of what was to come.

The Marxist MPLA, backed by the USSR, had a bitter fight on its hands and, though it has won every election held so far, accusations of political corruption and vote rigging taint those victories. Again, South Africa intervened with support for the other two factions, FNLA and UNITA, and though President Reagan longed to send in the troops, Congress blocked his plans, fearing another Vietnam quagmire. The civil war finally came to an end in 2002, with the death of UNITA's Jonas Savimbi, a former MPLA guerilla fighter who became the darling of Washington D.C., met with Reagan and, at one time, surrounded Luanda with his troops.

Despite internal disputes and constant violence, the MPLA remains in control of the country. Its human rights and political record is less than pristine.  UNITA is still its strongest opponent.

Though conflict shook the country, Luanda rose above it all. The sudden departure of so many Portuguese in 1975 caused many problems, as skills and knowledge drained out of Angola's capital, and for a time Luanda knew difficulty. However Cuba sent support to its Marxist brethren, and before long the brain drain had been stemmed by Cuban technicians. However Luanda was still a colonial city, with colonial infrastructure, and an exponential increase in prosperity meant increasing immigration, with consequent pressure on its ageing infrastructure. 

It consists of seven districts: Ingombota, Kilamba Kiaxi, Maianga, Ngola Kiluanj, Rangel, Samba e Sambizanga. Growth has been so rampant that a satellite city has also been developed, Luanda Sul, with ever more high-rises and developments breaking ground all the time. The climate is hot and dry, with frequent fog, and a rainy March-April. 

Generally speaking Luanda can be divided into two parts: Baixa de Luanda (lower Luanda, the old city) and the Cidade Alta (upper city or the new part). The old city is still colonial, despite rampant development, with narrow streets and an old-world European atmosphere. The upper city is a mixture of poverty-stricken slums and fast-paced urban sprawl. Luanda is like a river swollen with flood water, overflowing its banks and drowning anything nearby. It grows with irresistible force, and anything next to it is either swept along for the ride or lost forever.

About a third of Angola lives in Luanda, mostly in desperate poverty. Safe drinking water and electricity is in short supply, and the roads are foul. However if you have money Luanda is a paradise - albeit an extremely expensive one. One of the odder consequences of this is a Portuguese resurgence; Portuguese nationals see Angola as a kind of El Dorado, and are flooding back to Luanda. 

This is thanks in large part to Angola's booming economy. Oil, gas, diamonds, bountiful agricultural resources, are all now able to be tapped thanks to the end of the civil war, and this has led to a skyrocketing growth in GDP. Oil in particular is a huge resource, accounting for 50% of GDP and 80% of government revenue, and earning Angola a place in OPEC. Much of this black gold goes to the US, but in recent years Angola has forged significant trade links with China.

                                  Image from the Guardian, photographer Matteo de Mayda


Over six million, and growing all the time, which makes it two times as populous as Los Angeles and only slightly smaller than New York City.

There is a sizeable Portuguese emigrant population, and about three hundred thousand Europeans altogether. Brazilians and other Latin Americans are well represented, thanks to long historic links. A significant Chinese and Vietnamese presence has developed in recent years. 

The official and most widely used language is Portuguese, though there's also many Bantu language speakers.

Roughly half the population lives in abject poverty.

Roman Catholicism is by far the most prevalent religion, Protestantism a distant second, and every other religion a practical non-starter. 

About 48% of Angola is under the age of 14. About 46% are between 15 to 54. Very few live to see their 60s. Child mortality is very high.

About 70% of the population is literate.


Despite the end of open conflict, tensions between the ruling MPLA and UNITA remain high. Ironically this meant, among other things, tension between MPLA and China, at least initially, because the MPLA was Soviet-backed, and China broke with the Soviet Union. As a consequence China supported UNITA against the MPLA. Those days are long gone, but it did contribute to some ill feeling initially between the two nations.

Instances of actual terrorism are rare, in Luanda. Those who venture out into the provinces are more at risk, particularly in the northern province of Cabinda. Cabinda city is considered relatively safe, but the countryside around it is not. Even without the risk of terrorist attack, land mines left over from the war are scattered everywhere. Similarly, the government discourages travel to and from any diamond-producing area; anyone who does so, and does not have the proper documentation, is subject to arrest and detention.

There have been many instances of past CIA involvement in Angolan affairs, and where the CIA goes the KGB - or these days the FIS - is sure to follow, if it wasn't already there lying in wait. Given the significant investment China has made in recent years, China's Ministry of State Security must have a presence in Luanda. Even if the old Cold War tensions have died down, Angola's prolific natural resources - and its oil supply in particular - make it a strategic ally, or target, of the highest importance.

The MPLA officially abandoned Marxist-Leninism in 1990, reverting to social democracy. Allegations of corruption, cronyism and bribery are commonplace. Arbitrary arrest, detention and torture are frequent, despite the MPLA hiring a public relations firm to clean up its image.

UNITA meanwhile took about 26% of the seats in the 2017 election, and remain a strong opposition. It began as a Maoist group, but has since evolved into a social conservative faction. It has significant support from the US Republican party; before that, thanks to its socialist dogma, it had a good working relationship with the People's Republic of China, which sold it guns and military supplies.

As a seaport, Luanda is a natural narcotics hub, and some of the cocaine that finds its way to Europe flows through this port. South Africa is also a beneficiary of Luanda's cocaine largesse.

Angola has an ongoing dispute with the Democratic Republic of Congo over borders. As an unintended consequence, a small number of refugees from Congo have ended up in Angola.

Angolans have long since learned to equate foreigners with wealth, particularly if they wear business attire. That makes them targets. This may range from on-the-spot fines from local police, to a swarm of beggars, to much, much worse. Wandering into the slums is a very bad idea, unless you are African, and preferably Bantu. Those on the streets without a notarized copy of their passport are likely to be harassed by the police.

Armed violence is likely, particularly against new arrivals. The Chinese, for example, are often targeted; robbery, rapes and assaults are common. The Roque Santiero market, the Rocha Pinto slum area, and any street connecting or near nightclubs and bars in the Isla do Cabo are particularly dangerous, especially at night. It is inadvisable to pull over on the roadway no matter what, as bandits often attack good Samaritans and the incautious alike. The airports are also a hot spot, as customs and immigration officials are corrupt and likely to slip narcotics or similar into baggage so they can make an 'arrest' - or more likely collect a bribe.

Companies that hire foreign workers ensure those workers are housed in properties that have 24 hour guard facilities, and post strict guidelines that those workers should adhere to if they wish to remain safe. This can result in a kind of hothouse environment, in which foreign workers live like rarified plants, completely disconnected from the city around them. Foreign workers rarely use local taxies; they are ferried to and from their jobs by company car. As a result, it is very unusual for anyone other than a local to use the local taxi service.


                          Panorama Hotel, now a squat occupied by homeless children. Photo by Matteo de Mayda

The former luxury modernist Panorama Hotel, with excellent views of the harbor, now a forgotten relic of times past. These days it's a squat lived in by the homeless, a place where rape, murder and crime are common. Only the truly gullible tourist would try to book a room here, perhaps lured by the hotel's former reputation.

The Iron Palace, or Palácio de Ferro, believed to have been built by Gustave Eiffel and intended to be shipped from Paris to Madagascar, but which ended up in Luanda instead when the ship carrying it ran aground close to the colony. The Portuguese claimed the building, and everything else aboard the ship, as salvage. In recent years it was neglected, but a renovation effort has turned it into a diamond museum.

Ship Graveyard, where half-stripped hulls of abandoned cargo vessels linger, thrashed by waves. Tourists going here should be wary, as assaults and daylight armed robbery are common, but if there's anywhere in Luanda where a past tragedy's secrets await discovery, this is it.

Three Hooks

With so much money flowing through Luanda, the rich and eager-to-be-rich are constantly coming and going, meeting with bigwigs in the government or petrochemical industries. One of these wants to hire the agents as bodyguards for her latest trip - but why is she so eager to go out into the countryside, where it's far more dangerous?

A Conspiracy bagman's schedule takes him to Luanda on a very regular basis, at least once every three months. Once he gets there, he drops off the radar; nobody's sure whether he's meeting with government officials, UNITA, terrorists, or someone not on the list of usual suspects. It's the agents' job to find out who the bagman's meeting, and why.

A prominent US politician and Republican bigwig visits Luanda on an 'information gathering' trip, and returns a changed man. His spectacular self-destruction when he returns is the talk of D.C., but the question is, what did he encounter out there that affected him so?

Thrilling Elements

The following elements are unique to Luanda:

  • A convoy of armored luxury cars sweeps through the streets, its occupants hidden behind tinted glass. Everyone else on the street scatters to make way.
  • Armed police saunter through, looking for gullible foreigners to harass. If the agents don't have notarized photostats of their passports, complete with a list of inoculations, they'll get on-the-spot fines. If they actually have their passports on them, those documents will likely be confiscated.
  • Political posters peel in the blazing sunshine, their bland-faced subjects staring empty-eyed out over the passing crowds.
  • Yet another abandoned high-rise project rusts, waiting for work to resume. Next to that, ground is being broken on a new project. Next to that, ramshackle buildings are being cleared to make way for a third development.
  • Music drifts out from a string of high-end bars and nightclubs, as the ultra-rich dance the night away.
  • A rooftop hotel bar overlooking the harbor, where the beautiful sit watching the sunset. A group of recently arrived Portuguese plan out their latest business conquest a few tables away.
  • The dazzling beachfront of the Cabo draws tourists and criminals alike - only a few hundred yards away, a couple is being robbed at gunpoint.
  • A thoroughly modern shopping center stuffed to the rafters with thoroughly modern wares, and air conditioned within an inch of its life. Were it not for the many Africans and Portuguese speakers, this could be London, or Paris.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Cracked & Crook'd Manse

For the last couple years some friends of mine and I gather together at Halloween to play games. Two of the faithful, Max and Tacha, are probably going to leave us soon for the wintry wild lands of Canada - pity them, do not judge them - so this is the last of these sessions we'll have as a group. I thought I'd share the result with you all.

The game is Cracked and Crook'd Manse, from Call of Cthulhu's Mansion of Madness collection, though I use Trail rules as the group's more familiar with that system. I created pregens, leaving only the name of the character up to the players, to speed up the session. We only had until 1am to finish, and I didn't want to spend half an hour on character design.

In my innocence I thought I could record the session and upload it here. Well, recording wasn't a problem. In fact, given the extremely primitive nature of my recording set-up, I think I did quite well. Uploading it is a completely different kettle of fish, and 3+ hours of audio just won't be doable on this system. Which is a terrible shame, I'm sure. I could probably work out how to post it via some other means, but I'm not up for learning how to podcast this late on a Sunday.

You'll just have to settle for the précis.

Cast of characters:

Scruffy, the Hobo - Max.
Stormageddon, the Wonder Dog, aka Sassy - Tacha
Hank the Bootlegger - Reuben
Kent, the Journalist - Jym
Annabelle, the Dilettante and Arthur Cornthwaite's sister - Mary

Spoilers for the scenario are inevitable, so be warned.

All of them arrive in the town of Gamwell, Mass., to find out what happened to Arthur Cornthwaite, missing millionare & archaeologist. Nobody knows where he's gone or how long he'll be away. His lawyers think there's nothing very wrong; his sister is deeply concerned. Hank and Sassy are there to look for Moses, Hank's business partner, who was last seen headed to the Cornthwaite estate. Scruffy. who knows nothing of any of this, is looking for a warm place to spend the night.

Hank and Sassy soon work out that the lawyer's office is the place to go. There they meet Annabelle, and thanks to some confusion on the lawyer's part, the lawyers think Hank and Annabelle know each other, which makes life easier for Hank. Annabelle soon leaves in search of her brother, and her beloved horse. Hank spends a little longer at the lawyer's office, and finds out that one of the last things Arthur Cornthwaite did before vanishing was buy a remarkable amount of salt, for reasons unknown. Hank and Sassy steal the keys to the estate, thanks to a quick distraction from Sassy, and they follow after Annabelle.

Meanwhile Scruffy takes his chance, and climbs over the fence to get to the estate, badly damaging his pants in the process. Now almost naked from the waist down, Scruffy needs new pants, and once he realizes nobody's home he breaks into the mansion. He finds the place decayed and abandoned, but after some searching finds the master bedroom, and Arthur's pants. Decent once more, he's surprised when Annabelle and Hank arrive, with Kent the journalist soon after.

Annabelle is shocked and appalled to discover her beloved horse has been eaten, and her family home is in near-ruin. For a moment it looks as if Scruffy might be to blame, but after a rocky start they join forces with the hobo to find out why the house is in such a state,

Much exploring now takes place, from top to bottom. In the attic they find evidence which suggests Arthur brought something awful back from his latest expedition. In the cellar, which is practically a swamp, they find further evidence that Arthur's last expedition did not go well at all, and they also find enough to suggest that Moses met his end here too. In every room, every corridor, there's further evidence of extensive damp and decay. Annabelle is distraught - her family's beautiful house, ruined!

They soon realize that the water's off, for reasons unknown, and putting two and two together they decide that the lack of water in the pipes, and the extensive water damage everywhere else, means something. That's why they go to the cellar, which means the creature, which was hiding in the cellar, needs to retreat. Sense Trouble tells Sassy that something large is in the walls, but the wonder dog doesn't realize just how bad the situation is.

Scruffy separates from the group, so the aggrieved creature has a chance to strike. Scruffy, in the parlor, is grabbed and swiftly hauled out through the window and up. In the process he suffers extensive Stability and Sanity losses. Fortunately for him the group comes to his rescue, with Sassy the wonder dog dragging him back from the brink.

Now they know something's up. They want to leave, but when they go to Annabelle's two seater they see a suspicious pool of 'water' around her car. When the journalist goes for his bicycle, which is outside the fenceline, the water flows ahead of him. They're trapped - or are they? Annabelle remembers that, as a good citizen of Massachusetts, she has a large bag of salt in the back of her car. If only they could get to it!

Unfortunately in the attempt Sassy gets that little bit too close to the horror, and her doggy mind goes spiraling off into the void. They retreat back into the mansion, for now, in search of other salt. They find Arthur's shotgun, and the shells he was filling with salt when he was snatched away. With the small amount of salt they've been able to salvage, they make one usable salt shell. Now's the time to strike.

They're able to escape the mansion again, and get to the salt in the back of the car. However Kent the journalist is snatched away, and dragged to the cellar, where the thing's vast bulk has relocated.

Annabelle grabs the bag of salt from her car and dashes back into the house to save Kent, scattering salt like a maddened flower girl at a salt wedding. She runs down into the cellar, not realizing that in doing so she'll become the world's first, and last, salt suicide bomber. The creature is just as surprised as she is, when Annabelle dives headlong into its mass carrying a lethal bag.

Everyone else was close behind her at the time of the unpleasantness. They needed to make a Fleeing Difficulty 6, since they were so very close to the center of what amounts to an erupting volcano. Only Scruffy, the crazed hobo, makes the roll. Annabelle and Kent were already half-dissolved and swimming in goo, so they weren't in the running, but Sassy and Hank go out in a blaze of glory.

Scruffy, sole survivor and character most likely to be blamed for the whole mess, resolves to get out of town before the Sherriff can catch up with him. "Scruffy lives to see another day!" Max crows.

Thus ends the tale of ... the Cracked and Crook'd Manse.


Thanks to a suggestion, I uploaded the file to It doesn't seem to have worked exactly as I'd like, and download doesn't function the way I thought it would. So changes will need to be made.

However it is there, and seems to be streamable, so the link is here.

Note: spoilers! Also the occasional naughty word.