Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Vault (2017, dir Dan Bush)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's it for 2017. See you soon!

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Foreigner (2017, director Martin Campbell)

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

Frankly, I was amazed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Patreon Charges & Kingshowe

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

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

The message is as follows:

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

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

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

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

See you soon!

Sunday, 10 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Luck Ambassador (RPG Scenario Seed, Macau)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With that in mind, here are three options:

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

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

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