Sunday, 29 September 2019

The D Pill - Moscow Rules (Night's Black Agents)

Only time for a quick post this week.

I'm reading Antonio & Jonna Mendez's The Moscow Rules, about the difficulties and triumphs of running a spy network in Moscow during the Cold War. You may remember Antonio Mendez from the movie Argo:

You may remember his wife Jonna from a post I put together a short while back about disguises:

This isn't a review, so I'm not going to say much about the book, except that I recommend it wholeheartedly.

One of the stories it tells is that of Russian diplomat turned CIA asset Aleksandr Dmitryevich, who died by suicide after being taken by the KGB. He used what was called an L-Pill to do it, hidden in his pen.

It occurred to me that Night's Black Agents, and the assets they run, face a peculiar dilemma in their line of work. An L-Pill, or in this instance a D-Pill, is no guarantee.

The whole point of killing yourself in these unhappy circumstances is to avoid interrogation. However in a world where vampires exist, death is no defense at all. Whether Damned, Supernatural, Mutant or Alien, there's every possibility that a dead agent can be revived, or their soul preserved through necromantic or alien scientific means. So they can be interrogated - perhaps forever.

This is something that's bound to prey on the minds of Network contacts. A player character is probably happy to take that risk, but a Network asset doesn't have to be so self-sacrificing. That person would probably like a way out, if the worst happens. The problem is, how to achieve that?

Polluting the body, perhaps with a substance like Polonium, which in theory ought to render the victim a form of immunity from vampire attack. No bloodsucker is going to want to tap that glowing keg. However there are two obvious problems here. The first is that a substance with that level of lethality is difficult to manufacture, transport, and use. In the case of polonium, even standing near the substance is enough to leave potentially lethal traces.

The second is, it doesn't kill you quickly enough. There's no point rendering yourself immune to vampire attack, if you leave yourself wide open to conventional interrogation.

Using a conventional poison in combination with vampiric banes or blocks, perhaps by eating garlic every day in anticipation of the final event. That's probably going to have complications unique to that particular bane - 'why does Natasha always smell like garlic pizza?' However it does rely on accurate Vampirology. If garlic doesn't actually work, then all that pizza smell was for nothing.

It may also be that the concept of a D-Pill negates the bane. Suicide is a sin. Holy water used in combination with a D-Pill probably won't work, since the sin negates the water. It might be catastrophic in certain circumstances, particularly with Supernatural or Damned vampires. If you end up in Hell, there's a decent chance your former enemies can visit you in your eternal torment, and, as Hellblazer's Ric the Vic discovered, easily break you.

Dying in such a way as to reduce the possibility of necromantic or scientific revival. They can't put your brain in a jar if you go up in a glorious napalm fireball. While this has some merit, it lacks the convenience of a D-Pill. It depends on specific circumstances to work, where the L-Pill's utility comes from being able to use it wherever, whenever.  Dmitryevich had already been captured, stripped all but naked, and was being forced to write his confession when he got his hands on his L-Pill. 

No, the plain fact of the matter seems to be that a conventional D-Pill is out of reach, without accurate Vampirology and a convenient, ingestible Block or Bane. However there is one possibility, and while it won't negate revival, it might provide a certain comfort. 

Use a radioactive tracer. That way, at least your allies will be able to find your body. Heck, there's a decent chance you may be able to spread the substance to your attacker, giving your allies a chance to find whoever did you in before they can give away vital intel to your enemies. 

It's not a D-Pill, but it's better than nothing.


Sunday, 22 September 2019

The Dead Don't Die - I Wish They Would

Recently Hurricane Humberto breezed past the island, and when that sort of thing happens I download a horror film and break out the beer. This time, I figured I'd try something different, and went for Jim Jarmusch's comedic zombie apocalypse feature,  The Dead Don't Die.

Starring a ton of people, set in an unmemorable little town called Centerville, featuring everyone's favorite ghoul.

If you don't want spoilers, stop reading now. I didn't like it. I didn't laugh once. Make of that what you will.

Now, on with the show.

Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny and Adam Driver are cops in a town that makes no sense. Centerville's big enough to have three cops, a juvenile correctional facility, a diner, a motel, a cemetery, a funeral parlor, a gas station-cum-memorabilia-store, and a hardware store. Nobody actually lives there, or if they do, you couldn't tell it from this movie.

There's one point, where Murray and Driver are in the squad car headed back to home base, and they're discussing whether or not to warn people the zombies are coming. They decide warning people is a good idea. Then Driver says, "You know, we passed by Farmer Miller's place, back there. Should we go warn him?" To which Murray replies, "No, Miller's an asshole." Which is fine so far as it goes, except, as they're delivering this witty banter, they're passing by half a dozen other houses, all of which presumably have people living in them who might like to know about the impending apocalypse. I guess those folks were assholes too.

Into this town pour an assortment of misfits, including, but not limited to, a woodlands hermit (Tom Waits), Selena Gomez and a pair of hipster sidekicks, passing through, Tilda Swinton in the Kill Bill funeral director role, Iggy Pop and Sara Driver as coffee-obsessed zombies, and, and, and, and … oh dear God, there are too many warm bodies in this movie about dead bodies.

This is the film's besetting sin. With so many people doing so many things, nobody, bar Murry and Driver, gets more than two minutes' screen time, much of which is wasted. I lost track of the number of times I said to myself, 'you could cut that line. And that line. This entire bit of business could be cut. Why are we spending any time in the JDC? None of these characters are relevant to the plot or doing anything interesting. They're just reacting to what's on the TV screen - any other cast member could do what they're doing. Cut this. Cut that. Cut the other thing." All of which makes the film feel bloated, and given the damn mess is 1 hour 44 minutes long in an industry that's tending towards two hour films, that's an achievement.

Frankly, towards the end I began to wonder whether the whole thing wasn't some misguided scheme on Jarmusch's part, to give fifty or sixty of his actor friends a paycheck and, for the kids, something to put in their showreel.

The actor I feel sorriest for is Chloe Sevigny, who's the third wheel in the cop shop and never gets to do anything cool, or have any big scenes. I hoped there'd be at least one defining moment before the inevitable, but I guess there wasn't enough time to shoehorn that in. Plenty of time to shove in another dead-on-arrival George Romero reference, though.

None of the actors seemed to be having any fun. Their whole shtick was deadpan delivery, so I suppose that's a partial explanation. But Tilda Swinton really seemed to revel in it, and so did Iggy Pop, where Tom Waits drifted, disconnected, and Murray just looked bored, most of the time. He was much more engaged in Zombieland. Waits was more fun to watch in Buster Scruggs. What the hell went wrong on the way to … wherever this is supposed to be?

That's the central problem. This is a film that doesn't know where, or what, it wants to be. It tells a few jokes, and shuffles off the stage. But a comedian that wants her career to last more than five minutes doesn't tell a few disconnected giggles and hope for the best. That comedian puts together a whole routine, and polishes it to a mirror shine. Till they can tell it in their sleep. This film is unpolished. It's a bloody mess.

So, bottom line: if you like Jarmusch's work and are prepared to sit through a flatulent, overcooked garbage pile featuring just about every single indie film maven you can think of, and others whose names you can't quite remember but are sure were great in that thing with the stuff, then by all means, see The Dead Don't Die.

Otherwise, avoid like the plague.

Side note: I see Hurricane Jerry's due to visit Bermuda next week. I wonder what I'll rent?

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Assassins (Shaun Hutson)

I forgot I had this.

When I was living in the UK, the first time around - so, late 80s early 90s - I loved the tattered horror paperbacks that seemed to spawn, unasked and unannounced, in second hand shops. This was roundabout the era of the British Horror Writer, folks like James Herbert, Clive Barker, Graham Masterson (The Mirror enthralled me, and I cannot for the life of me tell you why), and, of course, Shaun Hutson. I'm not sure what it was about the 80s that brought their particular style to prominence, but there were a couple things you could absolutely guarantee would be part of any novel any of these people wrote: gore, in large quantities, and sex, in not quite so large quantities. So basically squirting bodily fluids, and squirting bodily fluids.

Assassins is very much in that category. There's a moment in it when a zombie gets a blowjob, and I think I can safely say this scene sums up the story - maggots and all.

Hutson's an author after my own heart. "I have to get money … basically, that's how it works. Someone says 'here's an obscene amount of money, Shaun, would you like to go and write a book,' and then the Muse descends with incredible speed .. I do get writer's block every morning, at ten o'clock when I get into the office. I'd love to sit here now and say 'I go into the office at ten, then I drive my Ferrari for an hour, go write another chapter, then go off to Bermuda and do the first draft. But one doesn't. One clears off into the office, sits there - and I stare at a blank screen sometimes for two hours at a time - until something clicks into place. That's how you have to do it."

I don't know how much I'd like his stuff now. It's been a while since the 80s. I loved different things. Re-reading Assassins was a guilty pleasure, but it's a bit like re-reading Rats or The Mirror, both of which I enjoyed at the time, but would probably feel a bit meh about now. Which doesn't entirely make sense. Sure, they're trashy, but then so are most horror films - particularly if they're about zombies - and I still watch those.

Must admit, what I don't understand is how they made a film out of Slugs, but not this.

Still, if you were wondering what Hutson's style is like - now you know.

Gore isn't something you see a lot of in tabletop. Gunshots, yes, messy deaths, o Lord yes, explosions, Why Yes I Would Like Another. But I suspect if you tried something like this you'd get banned from the table:

Where there should have been a mouth there was just a gaping hole which seemed to stretch from the remains of his nose to the point of his chin. It was surrounded by wisps of grey hair and strands of rotten flesh which hung down like obscene raffia curtains over the gaping maw. The lips were little more than pieces of shriveled flesh which slid back to expel a blast of air so foul that Adam almost passed out. And, from the center of that reeking hole, a tongue emerged. Blackened and covered with thick yellow sputum which dripped like mouldering pus, it writhed like a bloated worm with a life of its own, twisting and turning in that putrescent gap, flicking in and out …

For starters, too many things are Like Something Else. For another, words are jammed together that make no sense together - mouldering pus, for instance.

But I have to admit, there's something there which grabs my attention. There's a quote about James Herbert which fits: Herbert doesn't just Go There, he Goes There, sets it on fire, and sells hotdogs.

I've been Keeper, Director, and what-have-you for more horror games than I care to count, but I can only think of one time I really got under the players' skin, in the same way writers like Hutson and Herbert do. That was the time I had a victim cut to bits and flushed down the toilet, except it didn't quite work, so the bathroom flooded. Happy days of youth, I suppose.

As with all gaming advice, I preface this with a 'check with your players before you do it' mantra. That said, if everyone's on board, (remember Consent, folks), then my advice for creating horror at the table has nothing to do with vampires, things that go bump in the night, or even atmosphere.

No, my advice is this: be prepared to Go There, set it on fire, and sell hotdogs.

Do I recommend this book? Christ Almighty, no. It's bloody awful, not least because the zombie assassins - the whole reason the book exists - vanish about halfway through and don't turn up again till the climax. Instead Hutson tells the story of the Sharon Tate murders, again. And again. The characters are two dimensional and utterly pointless, and the whole thing's about as engaging as Hammer Horror at its worst. Hutson basically takes Get Carter (complete with 'avenge dead brother' plot), Charlie Manson and Graham Ingels, jams it all together, and adds some softcore porn. There's nothing remotely complex about it.


There's something worth learning from the bad as well as the good.

I see Assassins has been reprinted again and again, and can be had right now, in paperback, for less than the price of a pint in London. Even Foyles has it in stock. So there must be something to it, mustn't there? Hutson's published an average of one novel a year since 1982. That's a success story a lot of us would kill for.

Here's my takeaway. First, that the author only ever writes for an audience of one.

You can try to please everyone, and sometimes succeed. After all, Robert W. Chambers made an entire career out of pleasing a particular audience, and deliberately changed both style and subject matter when he felt the audience wanted something else. He wrote The King In Yellow.

Now, without visiting Wikipedia, name six other novels he wrote. The man churned out well over a hundred, and at least a score of them were turned into movies. It shouldn't be that difficult.

(If you managed it, well done, Ken Hite.)

Therein lies the problem. Most writers who try to please an audience churn out bland mush. Popular mush, sometimes. Dan Brown's rolling in lucre, after all. But mush is still mush, and unless you like the same damn thing every damn day, you're going to get bored writing it. Perhaps not bored spending the money, if you're making Dan Brown paychecks. But that would only carry me so far, and I suspect the same can be said of many of you.

Write to please yourself, and to hell with anyone else.

The second is, stop worrying about art, or the muse. I very much doubt Huston cares one bit about what I think of Assassins, or anything else he writes. He cares about the blank page, and he knows the only way to fill that blank page is to sit in front of the keyboard and make something happen.

Stephen King has, in the course of a long and successful career, said many things, but his writing advice is solid. I want to draw your attention to two from King.


You have to stay faithful to what you're working on.


I recognize terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrify the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify, I will horrify, and if I find I cannot horrify, I will go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.

Hutson ticks both boxes. Faithful to the subject, and gross-out almost every time, because he cannot terrify and only occasionally horrifies. Not that he cares. He's still writing. He's been sitting behind that keyboard for a very long time; he's not going to quit now.

So next time you're behind the GM screen, and you've the complete attention of a group of wide-eyed horror groupies, remember:

Go There.

Set It On Fire.

Sell Hot Dogs.


Sunday, 8 September 2019

Royal Flush (Night's Black Agents)

Ian Fleming's Casino Royale is his first Bond novel, and sets the scene for everything else. In it, neophyte 00 Bond has to beat the treasurer of a French union at cards. The union boss, Le Chiffre, is thought to be connected to Soviet intelligence, and the idea is to flip Le Chiffre by bankrupting him, then offer to bail him out of his financial troubles. In exchange, Le Chiffre betrays his Soviet masters. The 2006 movie changes this up a bit by making it terrorists, not Soviets, but otherwise the plot remains broadly the same.

This can be adapted to Night's Black Agents, and to do this I'm going to draw on a recent article about princelings. Deutsche Bank had to pay out $16 million in fines, thanks in part to its habit of hiring functionally useless, politically connected princelings from China and Russia. It doesn't matter that these little darlings are "a liability to the reputation of the program, if not the firm." Daddy says, so kiddie gets.

Now imagine what might happen if kiddie works for a Node. Probably a Level 3 at the least; you don't send princelings off to work for a downtown sleazepit. Naturally nobody's going to put this walking disaster in charge of anything important. They get a nice office, a secretary, a high-flying title, and are firewalled out of anything truly important. Except, darn the luck, being both nosy and bored is a bad combination, and the princeling gets hold of … the McGuffin. In this instance the McGuffin is probably data, which means it can be stuffed in the cloud or on a data stick.

The bored princeling then decides to take a vacation, and jets off to, say, Macau, for a nice, relaxing time at the tables.

The agents get wind of this, through unusual channels. Tradecraft or Traffic Analysis notices a sudden uptick in activity from the affected Node, as the powers that be realize what's happened. In a supernatural or similar game, Occult Studies indicate very dark portents gathering around Macau. High Society knows the princeling works for the Node, and also knows where the princeling is now - social media's a very useful tool. Negotiation hears whispers on the grapevine about the McGuffin, and how someone (naming no names) wants to use it to raise capital fast, to cover their debts at the table.

Opening Scene - Bad Feng Shui

The princeling is staying at a high end suite at the Venetian, and if the agents want to get close to the princeling they'll need to find a way in. A high-roller Cover or some form of disguise is needed. Disguising as casino employees may not be an option, unless the agents can convincingly pose as Chinese, or possibly a high-end prostitute. The Venetian doesn't employ that many Western staff, and those who are there all know each other reasonably well, by sight at least. That means disguising as Western staff increases Difficulty for tests by 1.

Failure in this instance doesn't mean the agents are kicked out of the Venetian. It means the agents attract the attention of the Triads, and gain 1 Heat. The Heat gain represents interest from Chinese military intelligence, not the police. The Macau police have very little interest in interfering with anything that happens at the Venetian. They know what's good for them. Agents prepared to spend at least 2 Streetwise can claim prior friendship with the Sun Yee On, which smooths the path, and the Director has the option of granting a Network contact.

The scene opens on the Cotai Water Jet from Hong Kong. The journey is smooth and luxurious. Passengers chatter among themselves, and oo and ahh at the traditional Chinese junks that the TurboJet speeds past - uncomfortably close, enough to set the junks bobbing in the backwash. Streetwise or Tradecraft (0 point) picks out a few obvious bad characters - Triads, grifters, probable low-level Chinese Military Intelligence assets. None of them have Conspiracy links, so far as the agents are aware. Think Casablanca, without the air of desperation.

1 point spend High Society recognizes the mark, or 1 point Streetwise realizes there is a mark but not who he is. The princeling may not realize the danger, but daddy does, and he sent a high-powered Hong Kong lawyer, Grenville Egan, an Australian who's lived and practiced in Hong Kong for more than 40 years. Egan's a criminal defense lawyer, semi retired, brought back into service in a last-ditch attempt to save the princeling's life. Egan doesn't know anything about the Conspiracy or the McGuffin; he knows the McGuffin exists, and it's his job to use it to bargain for the princeling's life. However the Conspiracy isn't having that, so a Hong Kong Node hired (X=N, where N is the number of agents) Triad to whisk Egan off to a quiet hotel room, far from the Venetian, where he'll be kept incommunicado until this mess is done. One Triad has a taser, the others knives. They intend to ambush Egan as he gets off the TurboJet, and hustle him into a waiting limo.

The agents don't have to intervene, but if they do then they get Egan's support for the rest of the scenario.

Treat Egan as a civilian with 3 points Law, 3 points Bureaucracy, 2 points Negotiation. The Triads are thugs, one has a taser, and one is a gym rat with 8 Weapons (cleaver). Overt violence here buys the agents 1 extra Heat; China doesn't like brawls on the doorstep of the Venetian, particularly brawls involving Westerners and high-flying Hong Kong lawyers.

The Rules of the Game

Macau casinos are relatively relaxed. You still have to dress like you belong in the High Roller lounges, but everywhere else is more accepting of casual attire and smoking. The Hong Kong dollar is the only currency accepted on the gaming floor. Drunkenness is frowned on.

Anyone with Streetwise realizes several of the security detail are Triads, as are some of the pit bosses.

The Venetian offers a wide variety of games of chance, from Caribbean stud to fan tan, but the princeling only plays at the high roller baccarat tables.

The princeling has courtiers. A local Triad boss, who operates one of Macau's many tourist concessions, realizes how connected the princeling is, and has made it his business to make sure the princeling isn't bothered by petty nuisances like, say, the agents. At any one time the princeling has at least two Triad bodyguards and seductive/handsome arm candy (civilian, but with 8 Athletics and 10 Hand-to-Hand). The bodyguards stay outside the princeling's door whenever the princeling retires to the luxury suite. Nothing but the best for daddy's little angel.

The Triad boss is from a different group than the ones which ambush Egan. The two groups have no formal contact, so the Triads the Conspiracy hired have no easy way to get this Macau group to lay off.

Ways to Get Close

Use Egan as an intermediary.

Gamble head-to-head with the princeling until the princeling is broke, at which point the princeling will agree to anything.

Persuade the Triad boss whose bodyguards are keeping the princeling safe that the princeling isn't worth protecting. This will require a Streetwise or Network spend.

Cunning plans, eg. slip something into the princeling's drink to make the princeling appear drunk. Rich or not, the casino bosses won't tolerate drunks on the casino floor.

Rope in a powerful third party. This can include supernatural entities; after all, someone's in charge of Macau, and it might not be the Conspiracy.

Where's the McGuffin?

Possible locations include:

In the safe inside the luxury suite.

Hidden in the luxury suite.

On the princeling's person.

Downloaded onto the hotel complimentary smartphone. No, the princeling really isn't bright at all.

Stolen by the seductive/handsome arm candy.

Held by the Triad boss for safekeeping; he doesn't know what it is.

The princeling knows the McGuffin is important, but doesn't know how important. So the princeling will take a little effort to hide it, but isn't clever or determined enough to really take trouble to hide it.

What will the OPFOR Do?

The Conspiracy is mad as hell, and there's no way the princeling's getting out of this alive (unless the agents protect the princeling, that is). However the McGuffin complicates matters. The Conspiracy doesn't want that McGuffin to slip though its cold, dead fingers, so, like the agents, the Conspiracy needs to secure the McGuffin before it can deal with the princeling.

Also, the Conspiracy would rather not cause a major incident in a world-famous tourist destination.

If the Conspiracy has access to abilities like mental attacks or mesmerizing, its first target is the arm candy. The Conspiracy then gets the arm candy to lure the princeling somewhere useful - a late night gondola ride, say, that ends with an unfortunate drowning. Shapeshifting into the eye candy, blood magic to make the princeling sick enough to call the hotel's doctor (calling Doctor Killpatient …) - whatever works. The Conspiracy can afford to be subtle, but it can't hang around in Macau forever, so its primary goal will be to get the McGuffin quickly, kill the princeling, and then get out.

Conspiracy assets on the ground include at least one supernatural assassin of vampire quality or similar, and (X=N) Triad thugs from Hong Kong, one of whom is an expert (6 pool) at Infiltration.  He'll need to be, since the princeling is just vampire-aware enough to put blocks on his hotel door and windows; no turning into mist and sneaking under the door.

If the Conspiracy has no strong Nodes in Hong Kong, the supernatural assassin may be hired help rather than someone directly connected to the Conspiracy. This means the assassin will be more concerned about their own skin than about completion of the mission, so Intimidation or Negotiation has at least a slim chance of success.

The OPFOR knows it must get the McGuffin at all costs, and is willing to let the agents, and even the princeling, live, if it means the McGuffin returns to the Conspiracy.

That's it for this week! Sorry about the missed post last week; I didn't get internet back till Weds, and by that point it seemed sensible to let it slide rather than post late.