Sunday, 25 November 2018

Quick Change: Disguise (Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired by one of Wired's videos, featuring a former CIA boss talking about disguises.

Disguise is one of the most useful tools in a Night's Black Agent's character's kit, but the main book doesn't describe its use in Thrilling Chases. Double Tap does mention the quick change, but doesn't go into detail. Yet the quick change, as described here, is perfect for chases.

So let's talk about three ways in which a quick change can be used.

Swerve. A swerve is a single maneuver that has the potential to change the chase all at once … if either the pursuer or the runner has the higher Maneuver, or if both Maneuver ratings are the same, he can spend 3 points of the chase ability to force a high-risk swerve; all changes in Lead in the the Swerve round are double normal.

Suggested change: he can spend 3 points of the chase ability or 3 points Disguise. If the latter, the Director may ask for a Preparedness check, but is not obliged to.  

So in this version the pursuer or runner - more likely runner - opts for a quick change to throw the other party off. This increases Lead, if it works. The typical Lead change in a foot chase is 1 or 2; now it might be 2 or 4.

The Director is within rights to limit this kind of Swerve to agents with 8 or more in their Disguise pool.

Sudden Escape. If the runner has a lead of 7 or better, and wins the exchange of chase ability tests, she can attempt a Sudden Escape instead of changing the Lead. This is something completely outside the parameters of the chase … [and] requires a successful ability test of some kind. The Difficulty of the Sudden Escape test is always 1 higher than the previous Difficulty in the chase. 

So in this version the runner uses Disguise as the ability in the Sudden Escape test.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that a Disguise has to be elaborate. Often the best disguise is something that changes the profile of the runner quickly. Were you last seen bare-headed? Grab a hat, or pull up the hoodie. Last seen in red? Switch to brown, or black. No glasses? Then put on glasses, or sunglasses. Change tops. Baggy sports jackets are perfect for this kind of chase; not only are they memorable, you can wear something completely different underneath. Even changing your gait can help - remember what the Wired video had to say about American vs European stances.

As for new gear, if you have a chance to grab a wig, or new jacket, then by all means do - and this is one of the reasons why the runner always ought to have one eye on her surroundings. If ever there was a moment to dive into a clothes shop, now's the time.

Take this sequence from Baby Driver as your cue:

At about 1.40 he's dashing into the mall, which means two things: plenty of civilians to cloud the issue, and plenty of shops. By 1.50 he's in his first store, and grabbing a new jacket and hat comes soon after. The broken glasses are gone by 2.02. By 2.12 he has a whole new look and is out the door, and it works. That Lead bonus gets him to a car, which since he has the Grand Theft Auto perk is an easy steal, particularly since he used Thrilling Dialogue to grab a useful tool (refresh) on the way out of the electronics store. Several spectacularly failed Driving rolls later he's on foot again, but thanks to a gun-toting partner in crime there's a chance for a Sudden Escape.

I mentioned three ways to use the Disguise ability in a Chase. The Forsythe classic thriller Day of the Jackal has the nameless assassin changing disguises several times - the entire novel is one long Hot Lead chase sequence. One of my favorites comes towards the end, and is remarkably simple. They're looking for an able-bodied man, so the Jackal loses a leg. He also chews on cordite to make himself look ill, an old army trick. That, and a simple costume change plus the appropriate paperwork, gets him through the barricade to his chosen sniper position.

In some cases, agents can test other abilities to increase their Hot Lead … The Director must agree that such a test (possibly run as a full contest against a pool equal to 12 minus the current Hot Lead) might plausibly aid in the evasion of hot pursuit … Agents can also spend Hot Lead to … [do] things that aren't directly related to fleeing the country. (main book p91). Examples given include shopping, research and healing. Once Hot Lead is reduced to 0 the agents risk immediate confrontation with a serious threat - which is exactly what happens in Forsythe's story.

So what's the Jackal doing here? First, he's using Disguise to buy himself some Hot Lead. He immediately spends that Hot Lead to get a chance at the target, and takes his shot. As his Hot Lead is now 0, he faces that immediate confrontation.

Usually it's the agents dealing with Hot Lead, but it doesn't have to be that way. A chase of this sort could be very interesting to play out in an Edom game, with the agents as the pursuers just as Claude Lebel pursues the Jackal. The Conspiracy asset works his way to the target, using Disguises and tricks to throw off pursuit, hiding in plain sight. Then comes that fatal moment - it might be outside Number 10, or in Westminster Abbey - when the agents either snuff out the threat, or watch helplessly as the Conspiracy claims another victory.


Sunday, 18 November 2018

Forgotten London: The Devil Tavern (Bookhounds of London)

I talked about my purchases last week and now it's time to make use of one: London Cameos, by A.H. Blake, F.R. Hist.S., F.R.G.S.

The entry shows a bust of Apollo, but given the condition of the book I'm not going to reproduce that here. In any case you'd get very little from the photo - ultimately one bust looks very much like another, storied history or not.

The text is as follows:


Child's Bank, No. 1 Fleet Street, is old in history and rich in treasure. Here is one - the Head of Apollo, which was at the back end of the Jonson Room in the Devil Tavern, afterwards taken over and incorporated into the Bank [in 1787].

At this tavern the Royal Society used to hold its meetings, and Jonson collected together congenial spirits to those festive gatherings that Herrick, the one-time clergyman, celebrated in his well-known verse:

Welcome all who lead or follow
To the oracle of Apollo.

There is no doubt that here, as on Bankside, the wit combats took place between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, as we might say, in the presence of this bust.

Others who loved the tavern were Swift and Addison, and even Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Johnson's memorable visit was to honour the occasion of the publication of Mrs. Lennox's first novel, and he gave her a crown of laurel leaves and they kept it up till eight in the morning drinking cups of tea.

The full sign of the inn was 'The Devil and St Dunstan' and the host was the well-known Simon Wadloe, King of the Skinkers as Jonson called him.

Simon was succeeded by his widow, and then by his son John, and Pepys was mightily struck by the company of young men all in white which young Wadloe organized to greet Charles II on his entry into London at the Restoration.


The bust still exists, as does Child's Bank, and a plaque honouring the old Devil Tavern can be seen at Fleet Street. The blog Exploring London has more information, and mentions that among other notorious Londoners the Devil is linked to highwayman John Cottington, aka the Mull Sack.

Cottington, called the Mull Sack after his favorite tipple, robbed both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II in exile in his day. One of nineteen children of a bankrupt haberdasher who was so ruined he had to be buried by the parish, Mull Sack apprenticed as a chimney sweep before turning to a life of crime. Early in his career he married a transvestite by mistake, thinking her to be a young woman who wouldn't give up the goods before marriage. Apparently this turned his head, for soon after this he fell in with a group of fearful women calling themselves the women-shavers, whose idea of fun was to strip girls naked, shave every hair wheresoever it might be, and whip them soundly. This couldn't last forever, and the women-shavers had to flee the country, several of whom went to Barbados. [Having met some Bajans, I can well believe it.]

Mull Sack turned to a life of crime, first playing gigolo with the wife of a merchant, then when she died and the money ran out, turning pickpocket. This went reasonably well, but a botched attempt on Oliver Cromwell's purse persuaded him the time had come to take to the open road, which he did with aplomb. Sometimes solo, sometimes in company with another rogue or two, Mull Sack made the highways hot, and when not robbing carriages passed himself off as a well-to-do merchant. This is when he becomes associated with the Tavern.

He was briefly arrested and put on trial at Reading after a successful six thousand pound score, but managed through tricks and bribery to avoid penalty. Shortly after that he fled across the water with the help of his married lover, and made the acquaintance of Charles II, who he also robbed. However he obtained such secret information from this that he hoped to buy a pardon from Cromwell, and went back to England to tell all.

Unfortunately for Mull Sack the Protector was not favourably inclined, and the notorious bandit went to the gallows at Smithfield Rounds in 1655, at the age of 45.

A Skinker, incidentally, is someone who serves drink.

The name Devil Tavern is supposed to come from the pub's old sign, which showed the Saint pulling the Devil's nose with a pair of tongs. The precise origin is unclear; it may have come from St Dunstan-in-the-West, the nearby medieval church. If you've been following me for a while then you may remember me mentioning St Dunstan's in a different context - Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber. The murdering scoundrel hid the remains of his victims in the crypts of St Dunstan's, accessed by underground tunnel. Saint Dunstan is also the patron of goldsmiths, and at one time the area was full of them. It may be the pub's sign was designed to flatter them, and encourage trade.

Saint Dunstan himself is supposed to have taken his turn at the forge, tongs in hand, which is why he uses them to pull the Devil's nose. According to legend the Saint was asked to make a chalice, and agreed, but during the work realized that his client was the Devil himself. Dunstan took his tongs and put them in the fire, waiting till they were red-hot. Then he turned on the Devil and caught Satan's nose in his tongs, holding tight till he felt the Devil was vanquished. "These are the tricks of Devils, who try to trap us with their snares whenever they can. But if we remain firm in the service of Christ, we can easily defeat them with his help, and they will flee from us in confusion."

So with all that in mind, let's put together a Bookhounds scenario seed:

Teachings of Apollo

One of the Bookstore's regulars is a Shakespeare obsessive, whose dream it is to track down the lost play Cardenio. Though the regular is willing to pay any price - creating a Windfall for the shop and increasing its Credit Rating - to date the characters have not been able to obtain the item.

However according to a book scout (either NPC or character) a very disreputable character claims to know "how to make Apollo speak." This peculiar gentleman says he can conjure up spirits and make them talk, and proposes to use the bust of Apollo, now kept at Child's Bank, as a focus for his ritual. All he needs are some Comte d'Erlette pamphlets as payment, and blood soaked by a hanged man's blood as a material component, and he'll get Shakespeare's ghost to give up the goods.

Though peculiar, this wizard does know the ritual and can perform it as a demonstration should the characters wish. Going through this kind of ritual first-hand is fairly traumatic (3-point Stability check), but it is convincing, and the necromancer can produce other forgeries to show he's done this sort of thing before. Besides, he points out, is it really a forgery if it's Shakespeare's own play recounted by the man himself?

The characters will need to obtain the blood-soaked earth. This is more difficult than it used to be in the days when public hangings were held at Tyburn or Smithfield. However some investigative work, and possibly a bargain with ghouls, finds a suicide's hanged corpse that nobody else has discovered yet. It's another 3-point Stability check to gather the raw materials.

They also need those pamphlets. This bit's best left to the Keeper, but a raid on some private archive or, better yet, an auction in a particularly seedy establishment - some Soho den of vice, perhaps - solves that problem.

Then they need to get into the Bank where the bust of Apollo is kept. It's the oldest bank in England and holds the accounts of the great and good, so it's reasonably secure. Difficulty 5 tests needed either to sneak or bluff past security. They can either carry off the bust or conduct the ritual in the Bank. The latter might be the easier option; Difficulty 6 tests needed to get out of the building with a life-size head-and-shoulders marble bust. There may also be megapolisomantic benefits to leaving the bust where it is; it's current location is as close as it's possible to be to the old Devil Tavern, where Shakespeare and Jonson had those famous battles of wit.

The ritual begins (5-point Stability test) and all goes well at first. Whoever's on note-taking duty gets some golden material, not just from Shakespeare but from Jonson, Swift, Dr Johnson and other guests of The Devil. It all goes wrong halfway through when the shade of Mull Sack interferes. The desperate robber doesn't like the afterlife or being ignored in favour of some scribbling buffoon, and attempts to possess one of the group. The necromancer suffers a heart attack and drops dead, leaving the Bookhounds with a partial Shakespeare script, a ritual rapidly getting out of hand, and a vengeful highwayman who will not stay in the grave if he can help it.  Using the blood-soaked earth as a weapon against Mull Sack will get rid of him, but also waste some of the ritual component that the Bookhounds need to keep Shakespeare talking. Just how greedy are the Bookhounds? Will they risk all to get a complete Cardenio?


Sunday, 11 November 2018

London Booty

I'm back!

For the first time in my life I have jet lag. I can't blame the climate, as I had the same problem flying over as I did flying home. I have no idea how this happened. I've always been lag-free. I suppose this is one of those things that goes wrong with age, he says clutching a shawl around his shoulders and sipping tepid tea for fear of excess excitement.

This time out I thought I'd talk about the haul of books and DVDs brought home from faraway places. For those of you wondering what peculiar artifact this Digital Video Disc might be, it's a cinema format I find very useful, for two reasons. First, it's still the most reliable way to find odd, old, and cult cinema, and there are some temples where they might be found. Like Fopp in London within striking distance of the Orc's Nest, Music & Goods Exchange in Greenwich, and Timeslip on Trafalgar Road in Brighton. Second, it avoids the Foreigner Problem.

For those of you who don't have to put up with the Foreigner Problem, allow me to elucidate.

If you happen to live in a place like Bermuda, overseas vendors don't know what to do with you, but as you're a Foreigner they treat you like a peculiar, simple-headed soul. Someone who doesn't appreciate the good stuff. Someone whose first language probably isn't English. Someone you can overcharge for postage.

So if you're, say, an American service provider offering online movies, you certainly don't offer the full rate of programs to Foreigners. You short the bill, and if the series happens to be, say, Japanese anime, you offer subtitles in Spanish. Only Spanish. Because Spanish is what they speak in Foreign Parts. Portuguese would be better, but quel dommage! It's improved over the years, but this is what put me off online services for a very long time, and even now I'm dubious about a so-called service that can be withdrawn at the vendor's discretion. If I buy a movie, it's mine. It's not some peculiar form of rental.

So despite the climate being ruinous to discs, I still purchase DVDs. How ruinous, you ask? Our humid salt-laden air often kills DVDs within months. The outer skin of the disc separates ever so slightly, leaving the smallest of cavities, something you can't see with the naked eye. Then condensation builds up, the tiniest beads of water. Mold loves water. All it wants is water and darkness, and there's not much light inside a DVD case. When it's not mold, it's rust. I remember tape decks being much the same - you could see the rot spread, little greyish fingers of death. I've seen DVDs practically transparent, patched like a pinto pony. The lifespan of a disc depends on its quality. Your average HBO box set, manufactured by the lowest bidder, might die within a few months, maybe a year. A BFI high quality issue might last decades.

There are ways of solving the problem but I shan't go into them here. This isn't Technology Corner.

The list of books is short, but that only means I'm not including books bought as Christmas presents for other people. I'm not some animal.

London Cameos by A.H. Blake, Herbert Jenkins publisher, 1930. Purchased at Greenwich market.

Markets are very hit and miss. You can find treasures; more often you find junk. It's like prospecting for gold, with about the same success rate. "Surely there is no city in Europe that is as rapidly obliterating all the footsteps of the past as London," writes Blake. Just a moment there, Blake, old son, there's a Herman Goering on the line for you. Blake's done a brilliant job of collecting what amounts to a ton of scenario hooks - A Picturesque Inn, The Bell of Doom, to name but two of several score. I look forward to devouring them at my leisure.

Victorian and Edwardian Prisons by Trevor May, Shire Library, 2006. Purchased at the Museum of London Docklands.

I'm not going to spend much time describing this one. You can work it out from the title. However if you ever want source material for a UK game I highly recommend anything Shire publishes. It's always informative, packed with useful detail and evocative illustrations. Writers take note.

Folklore of Guernsey by Marie De Garis, originally published 1975, reprinted 2014 by La Societe Guernsesiaise. Bought in Guernsey.

You'd be forgiven for thinking, as you peruse the bookshelves, that nothing much happened in Guernsey until Hitler invaded. There's a few tomes on fishing and forts, then Whallop! Germany calling, and suddenly there's books by the dozen. Guernsey was the only part of Britain ever to be captured by the Nazis, and they left behind some calling cards, the odd gun emplacement, a well-stocked Occupation Museum. However I was surprised not to see more books about this dolmen-haunted island's history and folklore. The island's seen human habitation since before the birth of Christ and its archaeology is fascinating - yet so much of it has been dug up, used for building material or just thrown away to clear a farmer's field. I love books like this Folklore, and ate it up while waiting for Aurigny to wind up the rubber bands that power its aircraft's engines. I shall have to do something with this material.

Guernsey as it used to be, a tour of the town in Victorian times by George Hugo, originally published 1933, reprint 2017 Blue Ormer.

Yes, I shall definitely have to do something with this material.

Vampire the Masquerade by Ken Hite and others, World of Darkness. Bought at Orc's Nest, London.

I went over with one eye on this and another on The Fall of Delta Green, which no doubt made for a peculiar facial expression on my part, but thankfully I didn't have to see it myself. There was no way I was buying both. Leaving aside the cost - this one item makes up about a fifth of my book budget - there was no way both would fit in the suitcase, not with everything else that had to go in. Read it on the plane, need to read it again. Mechanically it's not a million miles away from the version I played at Uni, but there are significant differences. Culturally it's a whole other universe away. This is Vampire for the 21st Century, and it looks hellishly entertaining.

The Vampire, by Nick Groom, Yale Uni Press 2018.

Yes, it's a new history of your friend and mine. Yes, it's very, very good. Highly recommended. Am still reading. Go away. Shoo! Still reading … Depending on my Shoggee I might have to get someone this for Christmas.

Dogs of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, first published 2017, this edition 2018 Head of Zeus.

Adrian's been a mate since university, and he kindly gave me this. It's a near future dystopian sci-fi in which bioform weapons are used in place of robots, because the robots can't be trusted. Rex is a Good Dog, leader of his squad, but he's beginning to wonder whether he's really such a Good Dog after all, and if he's not, what to do about it. What fascinates me is that it's as much about international, human rights and war crimes law as it is Big Guns Go Bang; it takes a lawyer's mind to pull that one off.

The DVD list includes:

Lucky Luke 2009, French. I loved this Western gunslinger comedy comic when I was young. Can't wait to see the big screen adaptation.

A Private Function 1984, a British comedy of manners about a roast pig dinner gone awry.
Thief 1981, in which expert bandit James Caan wants to settle down, but the mob prefer him out on the streets working for them.

Arsenic and Old Lace 1944, and if you don't know what this is you should be ashamed of yourself. Fun fact - this is based on a 1941 stage play in which Boris Karloff played the monstrous Brewster played in the film by Roger Massey. The film was being shot at the same time Karloff thrilled audiences on Broadway.

Watership Down 1978, animated. I remember watching this when I was a kid. I have young nieces. I see no reason why their childhood shouldn't be blighted too. ;)

Big Trouble in Little China 1986, and how could any sane soul resist this film? I won't ask if you know it - but when was the last time you saw it?

The Monster Club 1981, a horror triple bill with Vincent Price, Donald Pleasance and John Carradine.

Ray Harryhausen, the Special Effects Titan 2011, documentary about the man who made stop motion movie magic possible, from Jason and his Argonauts to tentacled horrors tearing apart the Golden Gate bridge.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!