Sunday, 27 May 2018

Ripped from the Headlines - Zombies & [Ultra]Sonic Zap (RPG All)

A few more snippets from the big wide world!

Well here's a shocker. Last week I talked about zombie game design and this week Floridians were devoured in their hundreds in a zombie attack.

Lake Worth, Florida was the scene of gruesome zombie carnage on the 20th May, when an emergency alert revealed the shocking truth that Lake Worth's authorities were determined to conceal: living dead cannibals were on the rampage after a power outage early Sunday morning.

Presumably released from some necrotic science holding pen as a result of the power outage, these creatures flooded through Lake Worth in an unstoppable tide. According to the emergency notification, 7,380 customers had been affected by the 27 minute long power outage but "far less" had survived the subsequent zombie outbreak.

Ben Kerr, Lake Worth's public information officer, said "We are looking into reports that the [push notification] system mentioned zombies. I want to reiterate that Lake Worth has no zombie activity currently and apologize for the system message."

A likely story.

You may recall last year's story about an alleged sonic attack on US embassy employees in Cuba. Well, times change, and sonic attacks change with them. Now the latest intel points to China as the next place Evil Sonics Do Naughty Things To US Embassy Employees. A consulate employee in Guanzhou allegedly suffered brain injuries after encountering some form of sonic emanation.

"The [State] department is taking this very seriously," says Jinnie Lee, a US embassy spokeswoman. "The Chinese government is also investigating and taking appropriate measures."

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a Chinese port on the Pearl River, and has long been a foreign trade powerhouse, the gateway to China. You probably know it without knowing it - if you've ever eaten Cantonese, admired Canton porcelain, or drank a bottle of Zhujiang, you've enjoyed one of Guangzhou's exports. That said, Guangzhou isn't famous for sonic death rays - at least not yet.

Frankly, my money's on goldbricking embassy employees with an attack of the vapors, but you never know your luck. By now every embassy employee must know the 'symptoms' experienced by the folks in Cuba. It'd be the easiest thing in the world to complain about headaches and ask to be shipped home, or at least to a more congenial deployment, if you happen not to like where you are.

Speaking of China, here's another sonic story from the land of Kubla Khan. Chinese researchers have discovered a vulnerability in Siri and Alexa's programming. Voice activated devices can be activated and commanded at ultrasonic frequencies inaudible to humans.

The sky would seem to be the limit. Phones and tablets can be commanded to open a communication link with other devices. Car navigation software can be rerouted. All you'd need is a smartphone and a bit of extra software, and you can do as you like. It's called DolphinAttack, and it looks pretty alarming.

What's more, at the moment at least it'd be difficult to defend against an attack of this type. "Microphones' components themselves vary in type," says founder of NewDealDesign Gamil Amit, "But most use air pressures that cannot be blocked from ultrasound."

It's been suggested that the reason why the designers left this vulnerability in is to help the machines understand human speech. The more restrictions are placed on the system, the more likely it is to make mistakes. However it could also be intentional, to help these devices communicate with other devices without the annoying tweeps and burbs of yesteryear. This helps phones control other gadgets in the home or office, allowing for that semi-magical feeling of control. Of course, it's less magical if everyone's a wizard, Harry ...

Of course, as has been suggested by poster Johan over on the Dracula Dossier FB page, vampires can also communicate at ultrasonic frequencies. This could allow them to control electronic devices quietly and seamlessly. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; the agents and their human adversaries could also use this hack. I imagine it would be particularly effective at high-end locations, hotels and casinos. After all, in Macau when you arrive they give you a complimentary cell phone which  comes pre-loaded with maps, guides, discounts and offers. Imagine what else it could be pre-loaded with …

Remember, the weakest point in this whole arrangement is the internet of things. If you can break one door down, all the other doors are vulnerable to you.


Sunday, 20 May 2018

Small Town Zombie Chow - All Flesh Must Be Eaten

Perhaps it's just me, but as the heat intensifies with the onset of summer I feel the need for zombie goodness. I'm also a fan of Outside Xbox, which is how I came across this video:

Don't feel obliged to watch the whole thing if you don't want to. I post it because it sparked a train of thought: why is it in these zombie games towns never look like towns?

Sure, they have certain town-like attributes, but tell me truly: have you ever seen a small town in one of these games that doesn't look as if it were put together with Lego? People live here, work here, are born here, die here - and in a zombie apocalypse they're still dying here. Yet it's all oddly designed houses and suspiciously well-positioned radio towers as far as the eye can see. There's no sense of history, no real indication of what this place was like before the zoms came to zom everything up.

So this time out I'm going to draw on All Flesh Must Be Eaten ruleset by Eden, probably the best zombie survival game in print. My copy's the 2005 revised edition. I assume this is a game for Normals, in which the Basic Zombie (p146 main book) is the most common adversary. This means a player character with 50 build points can handle up to 10 zombies at a time. About 10% of the walking dead are improved versions of one kind or another, which get 10 extra Power points spent on them. That's the crunchy rule bit of this post.

I'm also going to draw on this article about the 27 most successful small business ideas for small towns. This is where I'm going to get my location inspiration. Finally I'm going to pick a town from this list of the prettiest small towns in Georgia, because why the hell not. Never kill yourself with work when someone else has already done it for you. Besides, I'm told there's a popular zombie series set in Georgia.

I'm reluctant to set this anywhere there's more than 4,000-odd people. That excludes a few towns on that list. So let's have a pop at Madison, Georgia. It even has a useful tourism website.

Named after an American President and incorporated in 1809, this township is Georgia's largest historic district. It avoided destruction during Sherman's march as one of its residents was a prominent pro-Union politician. This meant its antebellum plantations and homes survive in remarkable condition, luring tourists by the thousand.

This is a fictional version of Madison so let's not call it that. Let's call it Monroe, after Madison's successor. What's it like there? Well, Monroe has:
  • art galleries
  • museums
  • antebellum architecture
  • fancy restaurants & bars
  • Civil War memorabilia, including a statue donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
  • a farmers' market
  • antique shops
Plus other locations to be detailed. Already you should be getting a picture of Monroe, Georgia. You could probably name some of the streets if you tried, and some of the kinds of homebrew you can find on tap in the bar.

OK, time to add the zombies.

I'm not going to get too detailed here. There was an outbreak. It went about as well as you might expect. We are now two months in. Initial attempts at quarantine failed miserably, as did most federal and state bodies. While there probably is a federal or military presence somewhere, it's nowhere near Monroe. There is no state-wide power grid, but there are still plenty of generators and fuel for same. Communication is spotty, and almost entirely radio-based. Some landline telephones work, none of the mobile phones do. The internet is offline for good.

Human population of Monroe has shrunk to about 10% of pre-apocalypse numbers, split 50/50 between locals and non-locals. Assuming a pre-apocalypse count of 4,000, that means there are 400 people left alive scattered across a mostly rural or historic area something like 24 sq. km. large. Further assume that 10% of that 400 were in positions of some authority before this happened. State police, former members of a Federal organization like the CDC, local politicians - anyone who might reasonably be expected to lead and organize people. 

Now we come to those 27 small business ideas. I'm not going to go through all 27. That would break my brain and yours. However I am going to pick six, and see what a zombie apocalypse might do to them.

Coffee Shop & Bar: Before the apocalypse this place served coffee during the day and liquor after 4pm. Warm Discussions is near the farmer's market, just off the corner of Plum Street and S Main. A fire in the business next door shortly after the outbreak damaged the exterior, but the walls and roof are still sound - it's mostly smoke damage. Décor: exposed brick, brass & leather finishing. Location can be secured if the following entry points are dealt with: broken window front, main entrance, fire exit. Partially scavenged. Food & liquor on site in small quantities. Two Molotov cocktails on site. High velocity handgun on site with a dozen rounds. Location overrun by (Z=PCx5) basics plus one special with The Lunge, Teeth.
Bakery: Born and Bread in Monroe is a 1920s brick build on James Avenue within sight of Centennial Park. A firefight shattered most of the front windows but they have been boarded up. Bullet marks pock the exterior. Décor: glass, art deco, tile. Location has been secured. Location occupied by four survivors including one soldier, leader of the group. Food and liquor on site. Small stash of medicine on site. Three firearms, over a hundred rounds total, and three clubs on site. Group attitude: unwilling to trade unless materials to fix their radio are on offer. 

Food Truck: The Gourmet Machine specialized in BBQ with its signature Satan's Surprise mustard sauce. A firefight blew out its two front tires and it hit a wall on Bacon Street. If the tires were replaced the truck is in fair working condition and could be driven away. It would need further repair, but nothing too serious. Style: black & flame red exterior. Site has been secured, but it's a food truck - breaking in is not difficult. Location occupied by former CDC scientist, who is using it as a temporary base of operations after her last safe house was destroyed. Food on site, including plenty of Satan's Surprise. CDC medical equipment (travel bag) on site. One handgun and twelve rounds of ammunition on site. Survivor attitude: grateful for any assistance. Prefers authority figures.

Flower Shop: After all, it worked so well for Silent Hill. Pansy Petal was a family business run at the same location for over 15 years. The ground floor has been completely abandoned; there are survivors on the roof, growing vegetables. Décor: 90s chic, with a thick overlay of zombie destruction. Ground floor overrun by (Z=PCx4) basics. There is a means of getting up to the roof, but not through the flower shop; it can be done by going through the building next door. Food on site. Small supply of medicine on site. Location occupied by two survivors trying not to draw attention to themselves. One baseball bat on site. Survivor attitude: grateful for any assistance.

Bowling Alley: Splittsville is a 50s theme alley with vintage jukebox and pinball on site. The alley has been boarded up and is obviously being defended; it has working security cameras and a radio antennae on the roof. Décor: Happy Days, right down to signed posters and Fonzie for President chotchke. Food and liquor on site. Medicine on site. Power supply from portable generator runs security cameras & electric traps on the main doors. Location occupied by half a dozen survivors three of whom are cops. Two shotguns on site, 50 rounds. Three heavy handguns on site, 80 rounds. SMG on site, 50 rounds. Sword on site. Clubs on site. Group attitude: unwilling to cooperate, feels that its supplies are just enough to keep group safe without taking risks. Prepared to steal from others.

Pet Grooming and Boarding: Bark and Buzz Spa & Board is a very new business that, had the apocalypse not intervened, was due for Chapter 11 by the beginning of the next financial year. Décor: cheap and desperate. Paint, carpet, equipment all lowest possible standard. Lots of pet toys. Food on site, so long as you like eating dog chow. Radio on site. Pedal bike on site. Location overrun  by (Z=PCx7) basics plus one, the former owner, with Animal Cunning & Long-Term Memory.

So what did I do, exactly?

First, I picked a real-world location and copied some of its characteristics. This gives Monroe a lived-in feel. Then I borrowed some business ideas from a small business website. That gave me potential locations and some cues as to what those locations might be like. Then I searched online with terms like 'pet grooming store names' or 'bakery names'. There's any number of marketing sites out there which do this sort of thing all day long. After that I pencil in a few details about the occupants and the kind of gear that might be found on site. Nothing fancy. The folks at Splittsville might be major antagonists, or bumps in the road - no way to tell until the game starts and the players add their own flavor. For all I know the CDC researcher might end up the supreme villain. Or it might be one of those games where the actual antagonist is the situation, and the only thing the characters have to do is survive.


Sunday, 13 May 2018

Murder on a Cruise Ship: A Photographer's Lawsuit

In July 2017 Kristy Manzanares, 39, was found dead in her Princess Cruise Lines cruise ship cabin. Her husband was arrested and charged with murder; he's awaiting trial in Alaska in November 2018, since the crime took place in Alaskan waters.

That's not what I'm going to talk about. This post is about what happened next.

As part of the on-board investigation, one of the cruise ship's security detail demanded that a ship's photographer make record of the crime scene. Jean Luc Van Wyk, who only signed on to take happy snaps of smiling families, was directed to take 100 photos of the very bloody cabin where a woman had been beaten to death. [Pre-trial discovery indicates 541 pictures in total, which suggests Van Wyck didn't take them all.] The security agent told Van Wyk what to shoot, and not to shoot. I'm guessing Van Wyk objected, given what happens next, and the security agent told him to shut up and get on with it.

Van Wyk has filed a lawsuit for damages alleging post-traumatic stress, making claims of Jones Act negligence, general maritime law negligence, maintenance and cure, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. He wasn't up for photographing bloody crime scenes, and I for one don't blame him; it's hardly the sort of thing he expected to be asked to do. He must have been wondering, all the while he's snapping blood spatter, whether earlier in the cruise he'd caught some candids of Ms. Manzanares in happier, pre-murder times.

He filed that claim in a California court and the ship is Bermuda registry, so the cruise line's holding him to an agreement he signed on taking up the job: any and all disputes are to be arbitrated in Bermuda. Van Wyk would prefer to fight the claim in a California court, since he'd get more damages if he won a court case in California.

The latest word, as far as I can determine, is that a California judge told Van Wyk to go to arbitration.

Initial thoughts: why the hell the security guy didn't just borrow a camera and take his own photos? It's not as if Van Wyk had specialist forensic training; he's a happy snaps, let's-all-make-nice-for-the-camera shutterbug. The guard's shaky-cam couldn't have been any worse than Van Wyk's shaky-cam.

So what happens next to the security agent who caused all this mess? It's the one bit of the story I really want to know more about. Though I suppose if the cruise line is going to hang him from the yardarm it'll do it after the Van Wyk business settles, not before. Doing it before might look like an admission of guilt.

I see that according to this piece about security guard licensing the requirements for security personnel aboard a cruise ship may vary. Senior people will often, but not always, need to have law enforcement credentials. Your average guard need only be physically fit and proficient in English.

It's odd: you seldom see cruise liners in gaming or in mysteries any more. When liners were the only way to travel - broadly from the nineteenth century up till the jet age - there were any number of detective stories, romances, even ghost stories, set on liners. Charlie Chan had his murder cruise, Hercule Poirot set sail down the Nile, Wodehouse's idiots wooed and won, or lost, aboard queens of the sea. My favorite romantic comedy, The Lady Eve, begins with crooked gamblers aboard a cruise ship. These days whether it's a movie or a game when you do see cruise liners it usually means everyone on board is dead.

Which is a pity, because setting a scene aboard an ocean liner provides a complex yet artificial setting that can be adapted to any eventuality. Do you want to stage an elaborate heist? Imagine trying to crack a safe inside one of the luxury cabins, with all those cameras everywhere and thousands of potential witnesses on-site. Do you want to have a scene at a ski resort without all the fuss of actually going to a ski resort? Not a problem: there's a cruise ship that does that - or will do that. Luxury bars? Check. Casinos? Check. Elaborate theatres, robot bartenders, scuba diving, escape rooms? Not a problem.

Most of all, do you want an artificial setting where all the usual rules don't apply and the police presence is amateur hour at best? Cruise lines have you covered.

That's it for this week!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Forgotten London: The Tyburn Tree (London)

This post inspired by the YouTube channel Plainly Difficult.

So how can this be gamified?

There are a few things that can be played with:
  • The gallows themselves.
  • The location of the gallows.
  • The artifacts associated with the hangings eg broadsheets.
  • The psychic impact of the event.
The gallows are a folkloric gold mine. Most people with any interest in horror folklore know about the Hand of Glory, and how it can be used by sorcerers. The condemned on the way to the gallows were especially prized for their curative hands, both before and after the event. There would always be a congregation of sufferers gathered at the three-legged tree hoping for a stroke from the soon-to-be departed, and the hangman could often be bribed to let the chronically ill have a few minutes with the corpse after its last jig was done.

However it wasn't just the hands that were valuable. The gallows themselves were magically potent. Plainly Difficult notes that the permanent gallows Tyburn is famous for were eventually taken down because of persistent vandalism. People were taking great chunks out of the gallows because they believed the wood itself was magical after being watered with the blood of the condemned, a theme that recurs again and again in ghost stories. The wood could cure ague, toothache, and bring luck at cards. 

So, a story seed:

John Rann's Chair A pub in East London claims to have an antique chair made from wood taken from the gallows that took the life of Sixteen String Jack, hung in 1774 for his many crimes. It's said the chair was originally made at the instruction of one of London's most prominent gamblers, Samuel William Rowlinson, a regular at notorious gambling club Brook's. Rowlinson is supposed to have died of a heart attack while playing Hazard at Brook's. Two nights ago a pub regular died sitting in that chair while playing cards, and there's been talk of a curse. What's going on? 

The location of Tyburn Tree is slightly in doubt. It's popularly supposed to be at the junction of Oxford Street, Edgeware Road and Bayswater Road, there's reason to think it might actually have been at Connaught Square.  This Georgian landmark is very exclusive, and has a private shared garden park in which a party is held each year. 

So, a story seed:

The Unwelcome Corpse Each year, the night before the party, the heads of each Connaught Square household gather for a quiet ritual at which they 'hang' a corpse - usually a dummy, though in the early days it's said they obtained their corpses from medical schools - with the intent of keeping Tyburn Tree quiet for another year. This ritual has been going on for longer than anyone can remember, and deadly secrecy is essential since some of the country's most important citizens live at Connaught Square. They couldn't afford the scandal. However this year Connaught Square was horrified to find an actual corpse strangled at the very spot their ritual was to be carried out. Nobody knows who did it, or who the body belongs to. Can this scandal be hushed up? How did this happen, and why?

Bookhounds of London characters will be interested in the broadsheets. Printed cheap and sold for peanuts, surviving copies of these scurrilous rags can be very valuable to collectors. Often the condemned sold her life story to the highest bidder, and had the satisfaction of seeing it sold at the same moment her limbs twitched for the last time. Or perhaps it was a poem, a song, some kind of political pamphlet - but whatever it was, there's bound to be a market for it. Even the lies are valuable, and Lord knows there were plenty of lies to go around. When in need of copy, broadsheet sellers plagiarized old sheets and added just enough new detail to make it seem as if the current condemned actually did all those things. Sex & violence always sells, particularly when mixed with a healthy dose of punishment for the wicked.

Provenance A book scout fallen on hard times and sodden with drink keeps coming up with vintage Tyburn broadsheets, which sell for just enough to keep the scout sozzled. In almost every respect the sheets seem genuine; the right paper, subject material, historical details, even the ink. The one thing wrong about them is they seem too good. Nothing that's been around for two to three hundred years has any business being in this condition. It's as if they were printed yesterday. Where is the scout finding these broadsheets? Why does the scout keep going back to Tyburn?

A Tyburn execution was a popular event. A famous one drew crowds to watch the condemned on his two mile procession to the Tyburn Tree. Wealthy spectators had their own stands built, or rented rooms along the route at one of the many inns or houses, while the poorer mob stood in the heat or rain - and in Britain rain is more likely. The trip to the gallows might take as long as three hours, as the condemned's passage was constantly interrupted. The prisoner often stopped at an inn to have one last drink - after all, a drunken prisoner was a compliant one, particularly if someone thought to slip drugs in his drink. Sometimes the prisoner would be pelted with rotten vegetables, eggs and other things, if they were unpopular or their crimes particularly heinous. More likable condemned would be better treated, but they all came to the same place in the end. 

Traffic Violations The church of St Giles has a traffic problem. Three times in the last three months there's been a serious accident in the street outside its gates, and each time the driver or passenger of the vehicle involved swore the accident happened because the road was slick with what seemed to be blood. Loose talk links the accidents with Tyburn dead buried in the churchyard, and some parishoners are getting hysterical. What's really causing these accidents? Is it to do with Tyburn, or something else? [Esoterrorists Keepers take note: this could be a scheme to weaken the Membrane.]

That's it for this week!