Sunday, 30 April 2017

Top Cop (Mutant City Blues)

I've always had a soft spot for Pelgrane's superpower cop setting Mutant City Blues, but I could never make it work.

In my head it sounds like a cross between Powers and The Wire. Particularly The Wire; there are actors in that show - Michael K Williams, Seth Gilliam, Lance Reddick - that I have seen elsewhere, but have never seen give finer performances than in HBO's crime epic. I'd like to think their characters would feel right at home in Mutant City.

So with that in mind let's talk a little bit about what makes this setting function, and to do that we're going to spend some time dwelling on film noir.

In this kind of campaign, the city is just as important a character as any of the players. More so, because the city was there before them and will be there long after they are dead and dust. In The Wire we see small parts of that bigger picture, when McNulty and Bubbles school Shakima Greggs about Omar's cousin No Heart Anthony, or Prop Joe talks about how the house he lives in is one of the first available to black families in that neighborhood. These stories go straight to the long term history of the setting, hinting at a bigger universe that the individual characters are often blind to, so focused are they on their own problems.

At the same time we can also see where the city is going. The whole of Season Two is dedicated to that idea. In that season we see how the docks which once made Baltimore a premier port city, and which fired up the blue collar union workers that kept the docks running, are being beaten to death by forces beyond their control. No matter how bitterly they fight, their defeat is almost inevitable - and in fact they guarantee it by making alliances with drug kingpin the Greek, taking his money to fund a docks revival, but only ensuring that when the deal comes to light the union, last defender of the docks, gets shut down.

Every city has these stories. It's like watching the march of advancing armies, or following the spread of trade across a map. Superficially things seem the same, yet over time the changes become more and more apparent until finally all you can see are the changes. Oddly enough it may be more useful to use a different system, like Microscope, to plot out this city history, particularly if you're not too keen on doing a lot of research. [for an actual play version of Microscope, look here.] But the point is that there is a larger story playing out around the characters, and that story takes decades - centuries - to complete.

To give just one example, consider MV Empire Windrush, the ship that gave its name to an entire generation's emigration to the UK in general and London in particular. This shifting migration pattern is an event whose consequences can have far-reaching effects for your campaign; you could base an entire story arc around something like this. Or consider the Syrian refugee crisis now, and ask yourself how much more challenging it would be if even a tenth of the people incarcerated in holding camps or swept from crisis to crisis had super powers.

Which brings me to my next point: that in film noir the world is ambivalent, and often thoughtlessly cruel.

People we think of as heroes or protagonists seldom win outright. They may prevail, but there are casualties. Moreover the alleged heroes often lack heroic characteristics, or are so deadened by their experiences that they no longer care.

My go-to film, the one I point at as the perfect example of film noir, is On Dangerous Ground with Robert Ryan. There's one scene in particular that gets me again and again: this one, where Ryan's cop corners a stool pigeon early on in the film and makes him talk. That look on Ryan's face - disgust, anger, despair - is distilled cruelty, but it's difficult to say whether that cruelty's inherent in his character or something that's been stamped into him over time.

If you want your Mutant City game to stand out, that's the standard to aim for. The city, and by extension the game world, does not reward kindness. Soft hearts and do-gooders get ground up in this city, and well-meaning projects meant to make a difference sputter into nothingness, leaving only a sense of futility behind.

Again, The Wire Season Two: there isn't a single person in union boss Sobotka's crew who doesn't want what's best for the docks and the people who work there, yet everything they do only hastens the destruction of everything they care about. Even the gangsters don't get what they want; in Season One the Barksdale Crew is set up as the one to beat, yet over time the Barksdales crumble not because the cops win but because the Barksdales lose.

Yet finally, there is hope. Again I turn to On Dangerous Ground. About a half hour in Ryan's character is cornered by a co-worker, after Ryan's beaten yet another suspect half to death. "How do you do it?" Ryan screams. "How do you live with yourself?" To which the other cop replies, "I don't. I live with other people. This is a job like any other. I do it the best I can. It's never enough, but I still do it."

That's the payoff. The city is a main character, yes. It will be there after the characters have come along, absolutely. But if the characters surrender, if they let circumstance and misery grind them down until nothing's left, then they've lost. The battle isn't to control the city. It's to control themselves, to find some satisfaction in the work and in life. Otherwise the only thing they have to look forward to is nothingness.

I've not spent any time talking about super powers, even though this is a super powers game. That's because it isn't the powers that make this setting work. It's a police procedural first, a supers game second. You shouldn't worry too much about the super side of things; that will take care of itself. What you need to concern yourself with is the police procedural, and I hope this post will help you do that.

Enough from me this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Got You Where I Want You (GUMSHOE Night's Black Agents, all)

I've been reading Andy McDermott's Kingdom of Darkness, part of his epic spy vs ... actually, I'm not sure. Spy vs reality, maybe? Or action hero vs mundane life? Anyway, it's book 10 in an ongoing line featuring Yorkshireman ex-SAS crazy person Eddie Chase and his beautiful archaeologist wife Nina Wilde. They wander across the planet finding pretty much everything and exploding bad guys as they do it.

By everything, I mean everything. I just dropped into this series and apparently they've already found Excalibur, Atlantis, and Valhalla, among other things. Presumably these discoveries all got blown up shortly afterwards; everything else seems to have the life expectancy of a gnat's fart, so why should Valhalla be any different?

This isn't not quite book review corner, so I won't go into detail except to say this: Chase and Wilde face down theoretically immortal Nazis living in Argentina, who discovered just enough immortality juice back in 1942 to keep a dozen of them going, and are now looking for more juice. Apparently Alexander the Great's cook Andreas knew where it was, so it's off to find Alexander's tomb. And blow it up. Because reasons.

It's a fun read, absolutely not to be taken seriously, and I have to give credit to McDermott for having the imagination and effrontery to put all this in one book. Apart from anything else I think this may be the first time I've seen a Yorkshireman in the protagonist role since James Herriot, though I suspect if you presented Eddie Chase with a cow's backside he'd stick a grenade in it.

I see from his bio he's written for 2000AD. Why am I not surprised.

Anyone who can sneak Patrick McGoohan and Raiders of the Lost Ark references in the same novel is worthy of praise. There's some good action chase sequences too, even if the biggest chase liberally borrows from The Man With the Golden Gun - the novel, not the movie.

That, and McDermott isn't as predictable as other pulp spy writers; there's no telling who's going to live or die, with the exception of the two longstanding leads of course - and it's not clear from the start that even they have plot immunity, since Wilde is under sentence of death from one of their previous adventures.

So yes, I do recommend it to Night's Black Agents directors with the obvious caveat that this is as Pulp as pulp can possibly be, so if your instincts draw you more to the Le Carre side of the spectrum you'd better steer clear.

However there's a moment in the book that intrigued me and I thought it would be useful as an Ephemera piece.

In the narrative Nina and some colleagues are captured by the Nazis and dragged off to the Argentina compound, there to languish in durance vile until they reveal the location of the source of the Immortality Juice, which means solving an archaeological puzzle.

Capture is not something recommended by most GMs in any system. It tends to derail the game, and takes agency away from the players which emphatically is not what GUMSHOE is all about. The NBA main book makes this very clear:
Directors should get player buy-in at the beginning of the game; if capture isn't an option, then it simply isn't an option ... Here's our GUMSHOE promise: If you are captured, you will learn something you want to know ... And you will have a chance to escape.
I would add another item to that list:
As Director it is your job to make sure the characters have something to do if they are captured.
Players tend to think that if their character is captured then that character can't do anything. They rot in a jail cell. No scenes, no spotlight; there they sit, forever and ever and ever.

Here's the thing: the McDermott sequence is a perfect example of good capture because it allows for three things:
  1. The captives learn something about their captors, in this instance that they have the contents of cook Andreas' shrine and are on the lookout for the source of the Immortality Juice.
  2. The captives have a chance to escape, when Eddie Chase invades the compound.
  3. The captives have a puzzle to solve.
Granted it's not the most taxing puzzle in the world, but it's something to spend Investigative points on. It's an individual scene, which means characters can have the spotlight.

Players want agency, but agency isn't just about giving players the opportunity to roleplay. It's about giving those characters something to do. They're not just kicking their heels in a filler scene waiting for their chance to saw through the cell window's bars and break free.

In this particular instance not only do Nina and her companions have a puzzle but they also have an additional conundrum on top of that, because if they tell their captors what they know then their captors will probably kill them. So it's not just about spending that Investigative point to gain knowledge; it's also about bluffing or otherwise concealing what they know, just plausibly enough that their captors don't get bored and shoot them out of hand.

In short, it's Thrilling, which means as Director you could make a Thrilling sequence out of it.

Remember the Hitchcock film Torn Curtain, where there's a Thrilling sequence revolving around a Physics equation. The Thrilling mechanic's not just for car chases any more; you can make a Thrilling sequence out of almost anything, and that means you can invent one to fit into a capture scenario.

Any moment in which you can say 'this is a cat-and-mouse moment' has the potential to be Thrilling. Thrills depend on stakes, not action, and while you don't want to invent a Thrilling sequence every time one of the guards goes to the toilet there are times when a good Director makes Thrills happen.

There's one other important factor, which is:
As Director you should craft a capture scene as carefully as you would any other, but always remember a capture scene is Alternative, not Core.
What do I mean by this? Let's take a trip on the Orient Express, and find out.


In that venerable campaign there is an in-plot capture scene that cannot be avoided. The game literally cannot proceed without this scene, and there are other campaign elements in the capture scene which the players also may not appreciate.

I have yet to find a group of players that enjoy this scene. Even the players who accept railroading as a necessary plot element really have trouble with it. The scene boils down to the Keeper saying 'yeah, you're hosed. No, there's nothing you can do about it. Sucks to be you.'

The scenario in question even concludes with the line 'The investigators regain no Sanity for this scenario; after all, they have lost dismally.' Yeah, because the writer - and by extension, willing or otherwise, the Keeper - rigged the game, not because of any real failure on the players' part.

This is exactly the kind of agency-stripping plot device GUMSHOE was designed to avoid.

However with GUMSHOE I've noticed the reverse problem: that because Directors know capture scenes can be problematic, they don't detail those scenes. 'It's something you can do - if you're a complete and total weirdo - but we don't talk about it much.'

Capture has its uses. For one thing, it keeps characters alive in circumstances which might otherwise lead to a total party kill. Surrender means the characters live to fight another day. Okay, they have to find a way out of their jail cell, but that's a minor problem compared to crawling out of a bodybag.

For another, it's genre-appropriate. Even James Bond gets captured more than once, in the novels and the movies. Some of Bond's most iconic moments depend on capture scenes. 'Do you expect me to talk?' 'No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.' Ahh, the classics!

Third and last, it's a brilliant way to introduce clues that either the characters have failed to gather - and it happens, believe me - or that they need in future scenes. Sometimes players display a perverse genius for avoiding or forgetting clues, even Core ones. Sometimes they could use a little nudge to discover, say, a Bane, or the Conspiracy's next target. Let them glimpse the clue they need, or a handy map, while in captivity, and the problem solves itself.

This is something the Orient Express capture scene does well. It's dripping with atmosphere, the players get to learn dark secrets, and they have a problem to solve that isn't just about getting out of their jail cell. The difficulty is that, in GUMSHOE vernacular, it's a Core scene, so any good it might be doing is outweighed by the evil it did in stripping the players of agency in the first place.

So my advice is this: in any game of whatever type, recognize that capture is possible. Then design an Alternate scene around that possibility. Give it a little local color, perhaps think about how it could be made Thrilling, factor in some clues that you know the characters will appreciate. Try to come up with a few ways for the characters to plausibly escape. Then leave the scene alone until you need it.

This preserves player agency. The scene isn't Core, and the characters might go the entire game without realizing this Alternative exists, but like other Alternative scenes the capture moment allows the players to gather extra clues which they can use to their advantage.

And if they end up strapped to a table with a red-hot laser slowly snaking its way up to their unmentionables, so much the better.

That's it from me. Enjoy!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Person of Interest: Anna May Wong (GUMSHOE Trail, Bookhounds, One to One)

I first saw Anna May Wong in the silent British classic Piccadilly, where she plays the doomed love interest of the man who later is accused of her murder.

It's a brilliant performance, and a remarkably fun movie. At its heart it's nothing but a potboiler, set in seedy Soho clubland. Wong plays Shosho, a Chinese dishwasher in the Club kitchens who unexpectedly rockets to stardom thanks to her dancing skills, only to fall in love with the Club's owner, Wilmot. Wilmot's former lover Mabel confronts her rival in Shosho's apartment, and later the next day Shosho is found shot to death. Was it Wilmot, Mabel or someone else who killed the dancing star?

As a movie I highly recommend it first and foremost because it's a good film, and second because it's one of the few times Wong was allowed to act in a sympathetic role. As a Chinese American, she often played villain roles, and the rules of the day prevented her from ever having an on-screen kiss from a white actor, which meant she'd little chance of playing the romantic female lead.

Wong's family arrived in California in the 1850s. Her father was a prosperous laundry owner, and Wong was the second of his seven children, born in 1905 and raised in Los Angeles. It was just the right time; the moving picture business was taking its baby steps, and you couldn't walk two feet in Los Angeles at that time without seeing some poverty row film unit shooting reel for a knockabout comedy or crime drama. Wong soon became hooked on movies, spending lunch money on cinema tickets and following every film shoot she could, practicing the actors' moves when she went home.

Her parents were less than thrilled. Her father wanted her to marry a good Cantonese man and help with the family business, but Wong wanted to be a film star, and even as early as 9 years old she begged directors working in her neighborhood for film parts. Soon she was a jobbing extra, landing her first role in 1919's The Red Lantern.

By 1921 she'd dropped out of high school to pursue the dream, allowing herself ten years to make it big, or bust out.  In 1922 she landed her first film lead role, and never looked back.

However she never really fit in either. She wanted to be an American, a jazz baby, a flapper. She talked the talk and danced up a storm, but to her white contemporaries she would always be Chinese. That limited the roles she'd be offered, and it only got worse as the decade went on. Early cinema was an unregulated wonderland, but in the aftermath of the Fatty Arbuckle sex scandal Hollywood became more prudish - outwardly, anyway. This meant, among other things, not even the slightest hint of miscegenation. This cost Wong several lead parts, demoting her to gangster's moll or Dragon Lady instead.

If an Asian role was the lead, it wouldn't go to Wong; it would go to a white actress, as happened later in the 1930s with Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. Wong was bitterly disappointed to see the meaty star role go to someone who could legally kiss white lead Paul Muni, who was playing Asian character Wang Lung. Instead Wong, the only actual Asian in the cast, was offered the part of Lotus - the only unsympathetic role in a plot stuffed with Asian characters.

Incidentally for those of you shaking their head and muttering, 'God, they were so racist back then,' bear in mind that far too little has changed in the years since. We're still talking about whitewashing today, almost a century later. Asian actors working in Western film and television still have to fit a certain stereotype if they want to get parts. The only real difference is the stereotype has changed.

"We're the information givers," said Yale School of Acting graduate Pun Bandu in a 2017 article. "We're the geeks. We're the prostitutes. We're so tired of seeing ourselves in these roles."

Meanwhile back in the 1920s things weren't any better for Wong on the other side of the ocean. Chinese audiences resented her American behavior, and seethed at her public persona. Affairs with white men, like director Tod Browning - and he thirty nine years old to her tender sixteen? This wasn't the behavior of a good Chinese girl.

Frustrated at the lack of opportunity in her native California she upped sticks in the middle 1920s and went to Europe seeking her fortune. She did well in Germany with Schmutziges Geld and Pavement Butterfly, rubbing elbows with the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl. When she went across the water to England she starred on stage with Lawrence Olivier, and made Piccadilly, her last silent drama. Her first talkie was a British film, The Flame of Love (also known as Road to Dishonor) in which she finally got to kiss a white man on screen - only to have the scene cut for non-British audiences.

When Hollywood started poaching European talent in the early 1930s Wong came back to Los Angeles, only to find that things hadn't changed all that much while she'd been away. After playing a couple Dragon Lady roles she went back to Europe, only to find herself drawn to Los Angeles again at the prospect of a role in the 1937 adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's Pulitzer-winning novel about life in China prior to the Great War.

That ended in disappointment for Wong, who went to China on an extended tour only to discover that her Chinese critics were no more favorable than the American variety. To the Chinese Wong was a disgrace, a sexually charged scandal on legs. Friends with Dietrich? Then Wong must be a lesbian. Linked with older men? Then she must be a prostitute. The real problem was she was too American for Chinese audiences, and they let her know it. She eventually won over the Chinese press, but it was hard going - not that Wong was intimidated by hard going.

The war intervened, and Wong found herself in a string of patriotic B-pictures, always a heroine bashing the Japanese. She devoted herself, when not working, to war relief, sending as much money and support as possible to benefit Chinese refugees.

Later, the war over, Wong invested in real estate, and lived quietly with her surviving family. She had a minor post-war film role, in the 1949 noir B-picture Impact, and the lead in a TV detective series The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which was cancelled after a single season and sadly no longer exists in any format. She appeared in some documentary work and some TV roles in the 1950s, but no leads and no film work. Her last film appearance was in 1960's Portrait in Black in which she plays the maid, Tawny. She got a star on the Boardwalk in 1960, and died of a heart attack in 1961, at the age of 56.

So let's talk about gamification.

As a walk-on NPC Wong could appear in Call of Cthulhu, Trail, or any of the 1930s era settings. As she travels extensively she could as easily be part of a Dreamhounds game as Bookhounds, or be encountered en route to some exotic location, say on a cruise liner or a very famous train. She's equally at home in modest as well as luxurious circumstances, and speaks many languages.

Her main attraction to the Keeper is that she knows almost everyone, in the States and abroad. She's on first name terms with a wide variety of people, from media moguls and film directors to dancers, composers, stage managers, restauranteurs, and many more. She can be a very useful link between the player characters and the local Chinese community, which might not otherwise open its doors to interfering investigator types. She can introduce them to artists, directors, powerful men. She's hobnobbed with everyone from the Los Angeles elite to the rising stars of Hitler's Germany. She's worked with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Alfred Hitchcock, as well as innumerable forgotten B-actors and directors. You name it, she's done it, or been there and loved every minute.

Perhaps the most obvious setting for her to appear in is the One-to-One Dex Raymond adventures, set in 1930s Los Angeles. Wong could drift in and out of Dex's life, always on her way somewhere else hoping for her big role, always frustrated at her lack of opportunities.

There's nothing to indicate any occult or outré connections, but she took great pride in her Chinese origins and would be very knowledgeable about anything to do with Chinese history, particularly its theatrical traditions.

As a One-to-One Source her skills favor performance, language, dance and high society. She can open many doors for other people, even doors that would remain frustratingly closed to her. However she's also got a strong business sense, which means she could be helpful in Bargain tests, and her extensive knowledge of Chinese culture and history gives her some Art History or History bonuses when dealing with Chinese culture.

For that matter there are few who know the film business quite like she does; she was there, on the spot, when it was being born. Any scuttlebutt or juicy bit of gossip relating to times long past - who was sleeping with who, who made shady deals to get financing, who worked in Poverty Row but likes to pretend they didn't now they've made it - is grist to her mill.

That's it for now! Enjoy.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Forensic Architecture (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

A London-based firm, Forensic Architecture, will give evidence in a German court in a case concerning the shooting death of a victim of the National Socialist Underground terror group.

The dead man, Halit Yozgat, was killed with two shots to the head while working in an internet café he managed. A German espionage agent, Andreas Temme, happened to be in the café at the time, but claims that he paid up and left without noticing that Yozgat had been shot dead, his corpse lying behind the counter.

Forensic Architecture's role will be to demonstrate whether or not Temme's story - that he was there when shots were fired but did not hear them, nor did he notice the blood spatter or the body when he walked out - is credible. The alleged involvement of government agents or authorities in the so-called Bosphorus Serial Murders becomes much more believable if Temme's story is cracked by Forensic Architecture.   

So what is forensic architecture, the discipline and the organization?

At its base, forensic science deals with the application of scientific principles in uncovering evidence during the course of an investigation. There are many kinds of forensic disciplines - anthropology, entomology, accounting - but forensic architecture is a new idea.

Eyal Weizman is its creator. An architect by training, Israeli-born Weizman has led the European Research Council funded group Forensic Architecture since 2011. His team of lawyers, filmmakers, architects, scholars, designers and scientists have worked on investigations ranging from the use of arsenic, globally, to the role of the voice in law, shifting sunlight, and Mengele's skull. It tracked the Left-To-Die migrant boat, an incident which led to the death of sixty three people. It's modelled drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It's studied the Gaza conflict and attacks in Syria.

In its own words:
Forensic Architecture is ... an emergent field we have developed at Goldsmiths [University, London]. It refers to the production and presentation of architectural evidence - buildings and larger environments, and their media representations.
As contemporary conflicts increasingly take place within urban areas, homes and neighborhoods become targets and most civilian casualties occur within cities and buildings. Urban battlefields have become dense data and media environments, generating information that is shared on social and mainstream media. Many violations, undertaken within cities and buildings, are now caught on camera and are made available almost instantly. The premise of FA is that  analyzing IHL [International Humanitarian Law] and HR [Human Rights] violations must involve modelling dynamic events as they unfold in space and time and creating navigable 3D models of environments undergoing conflict, as well as the creation of filmic animations , and interactive cartographies on the urban or architectural scale.
Did a missile level that hospital? It can be virtually rebuilt, and the damage tracked in real time through the social media accounts of everyone who was inside at the time. Did a ship full of dying migrants drift through the Med? Its passage, and the passage of every other vessel that might or did in fact come into contact with it, can be traced.

This is the autopsy of the Urbis.

If you want to see Weizman in action, I recommend the documentary The Architecture of Violence, available on YouTube and prepared by Al Jazeera English. He's also the author of numerous books on forensics, and I'm tempted to seek them out.

But if we were to talk gamification, what role could Forensic Architecture, or a group like it, play?

In Night's Black Agents or Esoterrorists the Forensic Architecture team is an excellent source of player characters. Here you have a group of people from any number of disciplines and all walks of life, working together on some of the most esoteric - and fascinating - examinations of violence and its effect on the wider world. It's a no-brainer. 

Moreover it has an extensive history with human rights groups, NGOs and governments all over the planet. Today its people may be in Germany, tomorrow some war zone halfway across the planet, next week unpicking climate change data in the Canadian Arctic. Its people could be anywhere, at any time, and with excellent academic credentials. Player characters dream of that level of access and credibility.

In Dracula Dossier the options get even more interesting. As mentioned last week, the Edom Basic Field Manual posits the option that the characters work for Edom and the Dossier falls into the hands of a group that starts investigating or opposing Edom.
Who has the Dossier? Who's trying to break Edom? The answer to that question might change over the course of the campaign as the threat escalates ... Rogues ... a group of burned spies, ex criminals and shady black-ops types who have a grudge against vampires ... Rogues are an excellent starting Opposition, but once the player characters eliminate two or three of the original group ... have a bigger bad guy faction take the Dossier ... Non-State Actors ...
So in this version of events, a small group of Rogues - say, trying to investigate the activities of a neo-Nazi group only to discover there are bigger fish to fry - come into possession of the Dossier. They do what they can, but their limited resources and manpower mean they're knocked out of the game quickly. However despite Edom's best efforts the Dossier isn't recovered.

Then one of Edom's prior operations comes under close scrutiny from a suspiciously well-informed Forensic Architecture. According to the media Forensic Architecture was brought on board by relatives of someone who died in that operation. As Keeper, it shouldn't be difficult to find someone who fits that description. If anything you're usually spoilt for choice; civilian casualties are par for the course in the average op, and of course the bodybagged McGuffin doesn't have to be a civilian.

The question then becomes, does Forensic Architecture have the Dossier? If so, is it working on its own behalf, or is it being funded by one of the many Government or NGO factions it's worked with in the past? Its partner list is long and varied; any of them might be the front for a Conspiracy group. Heal The Children is an obvious choice, but as Keeper you can easily design your own fictional partner to infect Forensic Architecture.

Forensic Architecture doesn't have mooks at its disposal, though it's fair to say it knows a lot of people with unusual skill sets if it needs a helping hand. The problem isn't Forensic Architecture's material strength but its political muscle and visibility. If its people vanish in a puff of napalm, that's front page news internationally. If its people drop off the face of the earth, there are many groups out there who will want to know why, making Heat gain potentially intolerable for publicity-shy Edom.

As a Node, a group like Forensic Architecture is probably Level 3 or 4. It has international reach, and its skills and reputation mean it can easily cover up evidence of vampire activity. A Cleaning operation on an international scale; now there's something the Conspiracy would like to have in its pocket.

That's all for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Opposition (GUMSHOE all)

There's an interesting idea hidden in the back pages of Edom's Basic Field Manual: the Oppyramid. According to the manual the Oppyramid's a 'tiered menu of plot twists or enemy actions that the Director can throw in as needed. In this case, it models the action of the Opposition as it uses the stolen Dossier to bring down Edom.'

Regardless of which game you play, how often does it happen that the Opposition has goals, and actively pursues them?

More often than not the Opposition is static. It has a main location, and a presumed objective. Taking Masks of Nyarlathotep as an example, in the extreme there can be a huge network of Opposition cells and bases around the world, all working towards that objective. Yet when encountered those cells and bases never seem to have schemes on the go, or some vital task that they're performing for the organization. They exist to be destroyed and then provide clues which in turn let the characters go forward in the plot.

In many ways they resemble the Dungeons and Dragons games of yore. There is a Dungeon. You mighty heroes go down into the Dungeon, beat up the inhabitants, take their stuff - in this case, their clues - and, once finished, the heroes go on to the next Dungeon. Some Dungeons are harder than others, but the pattern is broadly the same for all.

What if you were to adapt the Oppyramid for other games, and give the enemy an active personality?

In order to attempt this let's go back to Bookhounds, and the setting previously discussed in which Stanley David Fentiman and his wealthy ally Sarah Montgomery are scheming towards different but related goals, as follows:

Here you have two antagonists with very different goals working together. One is motivated by grief and loss, the other by a lust for power and immortality. In each case the motives are human and understandable, but in order to achieve their goals both will have to steep themselves in Mythos knowledge.
Further for this to work there need to be stakes of some kind, a wager that the characters cannot afford to lose. In Dracula Dossier the continued existence of Edom is the stake. In Bookhounds the character's livelihood, and their store, is the stake, and therefore keeping track of its Credit Rating and thus its Windfalls and Reverses is going to be paramount.

In theory the continued existence of the world can be a stake, but that seems a little too metaphysical for a mystery game, and GUMSHOE is at its heart more mystery than horror. Which is not to say that there's no horror in Trail of Cthulhu, just that its attraction lies less in sloshing buckets of grue than it does the solving of puzzles that lead to the grue.

No, for this to work you need something tangible. Something the characters can perhaps afford to lose, but don't want to. In Dreamhounds of Paris this would be the spark of creative madness; again, something that the character can lose, but will fight to keep. For other games it might be heroic reputation, or more prosaically a chest full of shiny loot. Regardless of the setting, as Keeper you should be able to identify this thing; if you can't, you will need to rethink, as this indicates a significant campaign problem beyond the scope of this post.

Once you have that you need a group, organization or force that threatens the thing the characters don't want to lose. Exactly what this is shall depend greatly on the kind of game you're running, or the setting, and we're using Bookhounds as an example.

In Bookhounds there's the Ring, a loose group of booksellers and professional antique dealers determined to rig the auctions for their benefit. As a long-running set of antagonists the Ring's goals are directly in opposition to the player characters. If the Ring wants to rig all the auctions, the players' shop must suffer. Also, as it's a loose group of individuals rather than a disciplined organization the Oppyramid and its resources can vary considerably. One vendor might rely on the charm offensive, another on breaking bones, another on theft. That gives you all kinds of options to choose from.

But why have the Ring when you already have Fentiman and Montgomery? Because you're going to want to let the players have a few triumphs along the way, and if they keep beating Fentiman and Montgomery then they'll stop taking them seriously as antagonists. Better to save those two for those moments when a devastating, brutal takedown is called for.

So in this scenario the Ring acts as minor antagonists and appear mainly in the initial story arc. They help set the scene and give the players something to whet their appetites with before the main course. Later, when the Ring has been defeated, the characters can move on to meatier fare.

The Oppyramid is a layered series of responses from the opposition, starting low and ending high. So in the Edom files a Level One Response might be to break into or steal one of Edom's minor assets, and a Level Five is burn a key Edom site to the ground. Level Six assumes Edom has been utterly vanquished and that the players are all that is left, but for purposes of this example we don't need a Level Six. If it ever gets to that point in Bookhounds the characters are probably dead.

There are several different responses at each Layer, becoming fewer as the threat becomes more significant. So at Level One there might be half a dozen different responses, while at Five there are only one or two.

In this example we're using two sets of antagonists, one being the Ring and the other being Fentiman and Montgomery. Ideally we'd know a lot more about the powers and assets of both those sets of antagonists, but this is just an example so we're going to let that slide. However it should be remembered that knowing what the antagonists can bring to bear will help determine what they do at any given response level.

Since this is a layered example the Oppyramid will be as follows:

Level One (Ring): The Rumor Mill. Your enemies in the Ring spread malicious gossip about your Bookshop or a recent Windfall your shop enjoyed, telling everyone who'll listen that the shop sells forgeries. If this gets as far as the police, the shop will suffer a Reverse no matter what the outcome of the court case; mud sticks.

Level One (Ring): Friends in Need. An ally of the store - an NPC Occultist or Forger, say - is being persecuted by members of the Ring, who want the ally out of business or disgraced. The characters have to protect or lose their ally.

Level One (Ring): Petty Theft. One of the Ring pays a small-time Rough Lad to hang around the characters' shop and steal some of the merchandise. Nothing too valuable; the intent is to disrupt business rather than cause any real damage, though the Rough Lad may not be too cognizant of the finer details. The characters need to get this Rough Lad off the premises, preferably with diplomacy since force will only provoke the Rough Lad into gathering some of his friends for some real damage.

Level One (Ring): High Bidder. The Ring has suborned one of the auctioneers at an auction house the characters regularly attend, using this ally to ensure that the bids always go their way. The characters will need to deal with this auctioneer or suffer a penalty to their Auction pool every time they go to auctions here.

Level Two (Ring): The Seduction. One of the shop's most important regular clients is being wooed away by the Ring, with promises of special deals and hitherto unobtainable prizes. If this client is persuaded to change allegiance, the shop will suffer a Reverse.

Level Two (Ring): Awkward Squad. A member of the Ring with limited Mythos knowledge but unshakable self-confidence tries to use Magic against the characters, and it does not end well. An uncontrolled entity, Mythos or otherwise, is now causing chaos in the neighborhood, and it's up to the characters to do something about it. Thanks to the Ring's interference, it may be possible to redirect the entity against the Ring member who summoned it. This may be a Megapolisomantic event, if this kind of Magick is used in-game.

Level Two (Ring): High Stakes. The Ring sets out to persecute the characters at every Auction they attend. The characters suffer a 5 point loss from their Auction pool, so long as this is in effect. However this lockout can be broken if the characters persevere, and should they win even one auction the Ring pulls back and ends the lockout.

Level One (Montgomery): Discreet Enquiries. One of Montgomery's allies or assets starts making enquiries about the characters and their business. Can they be trusted? Are they as good as they say? Impressing this ally somehow will lead to a Windfall for the shop.

Level One (Fentiman): The Cad. A female ally of the characters, preferably one with Occult or Mythos knowledge, is brought nearly to ruin by Fentiman's romantic excesses. Now the bounder's run off with something of real value, and the ally wants it back. Failing here means the characters lose the ally.

Level Three (Ring): Payback. One of the Ring goes make-or-break, determined to ruin the characters or go bankrupt trying. This rogue Ring member will not stop until he or the characters are done for. The rest of the Ring, while sympathetic, will not risk career suicide over this feud. The rogue Ring member will attend every auction the characters attend, bidding against them at every opportunity. Three successive auction victories here dooms the Ring member.

Level Three (Ring): Poisoned Fruit. A Forger ally of the Ring creates a near perfect copy of a grimoire the characters either own, or desperately need. If the characters own it, then it's the most valuable grimoire in the shop. The Ring intends either to sell this fake to the characters, or to break in and replace the genuine article with this forgery. Once this is done, the Ring will use its contacts to 'prove' the characters deal in forged merchandise.

Level Two (Montgomery): Pass the Test. If the characters succeeded at the Level One Montgomery challenge then that ally comes to the characters to give them a valuable commission; success here means that Montgomery will trust them with more important things. If the characters failed then they become aware that the ally is making the same offer to a member of the Ring; if they move quickly, they can get the commission before the Ring member does.

Level Two (Fentiman): Deadly Current. Fentiman challenges an NPC Occultist or occult minded ally to a Megapolisomantic battle of wills over a bad review the ally gave to one of Fentiman's articles in an esoteric magazine. However Fentiman has real power on his side, and if the characters aren't proactive their ally may end up dead.

This could go on for some time, but there's no need to. Notice how the responses are layered; the Ring, as minor antagonists, get to Level Two responses before the major antagonists start their Level One. By the time the Ring's either breaking or broken by the characters, the major antagonists are warming up to a Level Two response, and so on.

Note that not all the Oppyramid entries are antagonistic. Montgomery in particular is relatively mild compared to the Ring. Not all antagonists need to resort to blood and thunder straight away; they should react according to their personality, power and goals, which opens up a wide range of responses. If, as with Montgomery, achieving goals means buying arcane grimoires, why would she open negotiations by attacking people? Far better to negotiate or bargain, to begin with. Later, when things get more intense, Montgomery can get brutal.

I hope this was useful! Next time something completely different.