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.