Sunday, 30 May 2021

Go See This Now - Crime, Ghosts, and Enormous Balls

OK, you know the drill: this is where I recommend stuff for you to watch. So you're not as locked down as you were before; so you can go to the pub if you want. Will you? Methinks not. I suspect you're still in the market for entertainment, so have a shot at these. 

Assume this is on Netflix, unless I say otherwise.

Time To Hunt

2020, Korea, crime, action, thriller 

Small-time criminal Jun-seok leaves prison only to find that the loot he spent three year incarcerated over is effectively gone, as South Korea is economically devastated and it's now illegal to exchange the all-but-worthless Won for any other currency. He and his pals Jang-ho and Ki-hoon resolve to escape South Korea by knocking over a gambling house, since the house has stacks of US$ in its safe which they can use to relocate somewhere sunny and economically viable. So far so good, but they make a huge mistake; they steal the hard drives that contain the house's security footage, as a safety precaution Unfortunately for them the house could care less about the cash, but it cares a great deal about that footage as it contains evidence of their illicit doings. So psychopathic and extremely well-connected hitman Han is sent to kill them all. 

The Hunt Is On. 

Why see this? If you're a Night's Black Agents Director looking for inspiration, this is it. The Heist, followed by the extended Thrilling Chase. Plus some excellent gunfight and stuntwork moments, especially in the final crimsoned scenes on a deserted stretch of wasteland near the sea.


2020, India, action, horror, zombies, TV show


An Indian army detachment nominally sent to disperse terrorists, but actually there to wipe out some inconvenient protestors on behalf of a corrupt land developer, finds more than they bargain for when zombies start chasing them down. The risen dead are all members of an East India Company regiment whose commanding officer led them to damnation in search of loot. Now the living soldiers have to hide out in the old fort the dead soldiers used to occupy, hoping to hold out till dawn.  Zombies with guns? It's not going to go well for our heroes ...

A little cheesy but there are some great action scenes, and it's fun to see zombies used in a more imaginative way. Suchitra Pillai as Commander Tyagi is a standout.

The 9th Precinct 

2019, Taiwan, film, action, cop drama, undead

Street cop Chen Chia-Hao finds himself inducted into the 9th Precinct when his partner is shot dead in front of him, only to discover that dead isn't as dead as he thought. The 9th Precinct exists to police ghosts, and to resolve their situation as best as possible so they can move on or at least stop bothering the living. It's a nice mix between Beetlejuice's dark humor and a conventional cop drama, as the Precinct cops realize that the increased undead activity they're dealing with is actually linked to a vampiric entity that's manipulating them all to its own ends.

Great action scenes, unexpectedly funny in places, and the lead actors are very charismatic and fun to watch.  

Ladda Land

2011, Thai, film, ghosts, horror

Businessman Thee gets a promotion and decides it's time to move the family out to the suburbs. He has his eye on a magnificent detached house in Ladda Land, where everything is as perfect as can be. Except he soon discovers the neighbors are less than friendly, and his economic situation takes an unexpected downturn when his boss runs off with the company's funds. Economically trapped in a house he can't afford, Thee soon finds that his neighbors had good reason to be unfriendly - and that there was a lot about Ladda Land he didn't know before he bought a house there.

Remarkably chilling, and it has an elegant answer to the two classic questions: why don't you move away? and, given all the evidence, why do you think this place isn't haunted? Keepers need to watch this; some really brilliant scares, jump and otherwise.

Below Zero

2021, Spanish, film, crime, thriller

Cop and family man Martin has been transferred, and his first job at his new posting is to assist in a prisoner transport. Some of the cons in his truck are high-ranking mafia types, so the idea is to keep the whole process below the radar as much as possible. The truck and its escort will be moving through desolate, snowbound terrain at the crack of dawn, to avoid attention as well as traffic. Except someone knows, and that someone *really* wants to get his hands on one of the prisoners. Trouble begins when the escort is knocked out and the truck ambushed in the middle of nowhere, but things get much, much worse ...

Tense, but not a chase movie. Most of the action takes place inside the stalled transport truck, and if you'd told me ahead of time that this would be the perfect setting for what amounts to a locked room mystery I don't think I would have believed you. It almost makes me want to set a one-shot in one of those vans myself.

Pom Poko

1994, animated, film, Studio Ghibli

1960s Tokyo is expanding rapidly to meet the demand for suburban housing. This spells disaster for the tanuki, intelligent and supernaturally gifted raccoons who, up till now, have led peaceful lives in what was the countryside. Now their homes are under threat, either because those hills and fields are slated for development or because construction companies are illegally dumping construction waste onto whatever green spaces are left. It's time for all good tanuki to band together to fend off the humans, scaring the dickens out of those pesky construction workers with their shapeshifting powers.

OK, it's a Studio Ghibli, which means many of you will have heard of this one already. But have you watched it? Or is this something in your to-watch list, while more eye-catching fare like Porco Rosso and Spirited Away grab all the attention? If the latter, time to move this up in the queue. Brilliant ghost action; my favorite's the nupperibo scene, but there's plenty of options to pick from.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 23 May 2021

One Job Too Many (Mutant City Blues)

A quick recap from last post: 

Do they like the idea of being cogs in a mincing machine? A Pinkerton-style go-between, acting on behalf of less-than-innocent clients - perhaps even doing things that a more moral character would recoil at? ... Then their clients are going to be powerful, unscrupulous people who want what they want whether or not they deserve it, because in that kind of world nobody deserves anything. They only keep what they can take.

Do they like the idea of being the clever, morally centered Poirot, Marple, Monk or Rookie? ... Then their clients are going to be innocent people looking for something that rightfully belongs to them. No grey areas, only moral absolutes, and the adventure along the way involves solving puzzles, not playing several different gangs of crooks against each other and hoping to come out on top. In fact solving the puzzle is the only reason this kind of detective exists ... 

I'm going to go one step further and borrow a writing trick used by Agatha Christie: no matter which fictional portrayal you shoot for, write the first chapter and the last chapter first, and then fill in the blanks in the middle. 

Christie famously went so far as to write the last novels for Marple and Poirot years in advance - in the 1940s, decades before publication - sealing them in a bank vault until time came to publish them. She wanted to make sure she had the final chapters for their lives finished and ready for publication, so if she died in the Blitz there'd be definite endings for their narrative. 

From your perspective as Moderator, what this means is you set down how you think it may end and how you know it will begin, and then work out the bits in the middle. An RPG is slightly different from a murder mystery, in that it's always possible the crime won't get solved. Or at least, that it doesn't get solved the way you think it will be. 

In Night's Black Agents this final scene is sometimes called the Capstone, and is a climactic moment unto itself. It's an opportunity for the villain to prepare a final encounter, where the PCs prevail or die trying. In Mutant City Blues the PCs are less likely to die trying (this being a more heroic setting than NBA, with fewer fatalities), but they can still fail, and even dramatically fail. 

In a Mutant City Blues game it may be prudent to prepare two potential Capstones, loosely described as Villain At Bay and Villain Triumphant. Villain At Bay assumes the main antagonist's plot is basically foiled and they're on the run; Villain Triumphant assumes the main antagonist's plot is on the verge of success, and only a last-minute Hail Mary from the PCs will get this done.

So with that in mind the base outline is this: prep an opening scene, prep two potential Capstones, and then work out the middle bits. In this example I'm not going to work out the middle bits; that's up to you. I'm just going to prep the opening scene and two Capstones. I will include a 'what the PCs don't know' section in place of the middle bits.

In this example I'm going to draw up two mysteries, one for the clever and morally centered, and one for the cogs in the mincing machine.

Maltese Falcon opening

Let's start with the cogs.

In that kind of game there are plenty of fish bigger than you, and they all have agendas that don't necessarily agree with your own. In the Maltese Falcon, for example, Sam Spade has to dodge the district attorney and the detective in charge of the case, Dundy. This isn't because the DA and Dundy are bad people, necessarily; they're just not on Sam's side. 

In a regular MCB game, for example, the PCs may think Lucius Quade is on their side. Or they may give it no thought at all, and simply assume Quade isn't someone they have to worry about. In this kind of game, Lucius Quade definitely isn't on the PCs' side. That doesn't mean Quade's a bad person. He's just not a reliable ally, nor is he a neutral party. He has his own agenda, and he pursues it whether or not the PCs will get hurt as a result.

The same applies across the board, and applies double when actual law enforcement, whether federal or local, is involved.

Snatching Jimmy

The PCs are approached by a distraught father, Jamshid Mirwani, a restauranteur. He says his young son Jimmy has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers say they'll kill Jimmy if Jamshid doesn't pay them $400,000. Jamshid has an audio recording of the kidnappers torturing Jimmy, which he'll give the PCs. Jamshid is on bad terms with his ex-wife, May (formerly May Quade, Lucius' second ex-wife) but doesn't think she has anything to do with this. She'd never torture her own son. Would she?

Jamshid wants the PCs to act as his representatives, either to find Jimmy or to pay the ransom and get Jimmy back. Except Jamshid says he hasn't got $400,000; people always think because he married Quade's ex he must be loaded, but that just isn't so.

Villains Triumphant: This assumes either the kidnappers get paid or Jamshid gets his hands on the heroin somehow. The handoff takes place in a multi-storey car park in a neglected part of town famous for suicides and suicide attempts, sometimes called Jumper's Corner. After getting what they want the kidnappers will kill Jamshid as a warning to others, but they'll let Jimmy go. Jamshid's body will be dumped off the car park; it might look like a suicide at first, but he may have been blasted off the car park or influenced to jump.

Villains At Bay: This assumes Jamshid's shenanigans are revealed and the kidnappers traced before things get out of hand. Maybe May remembers seeing her errant husband with them, or can tell the PCs more about her ex's criminal past. Alternatively Jimmy, an emerging mutant himself with Dream powers, may contact the PCs remotely. This scene takes place at the kidnapper's safe house, a run-down biker bar with a lot of security cameras. 

What the PCs don't know: Jamshid is a drug dealer who was supposed to be arranging a shipment of heroin. The kidnappers are Jamshid's former business associates, a biker gang, and Jamshid ripped them off to the tune of $400,000. That's why they took Jamshid's kid. Jamshid didn't intend to rip them off, but the customs agent he thought he'd bribed demanded more money Jamshid didn't have. Currently the drugs are sitting in an impound depot, but if Jamshid could meet the customs agent's demands he could get the heroin, fulfil his promises to his former business partners, and get Jimmy back. The kidnappers are heightened (various combat-related abilities).

The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, starring Daffy as Duck Tracey

OK, now for those morally centered types.

The great thing about this kind of private investigator is you can fit one almost anywhere. You can't picture Miss Marple going head-to-head with Caspar Gutman; it wouldn't sell. Clean-cut teen sleuths straight out of BubbleGumshoe wouldn't last ten minutes in a film noir.  

But if the characters exist in a broadly moral world, in which certain things can be taken for granted - cops represent the law, right triumphs over wrong, people are basically good at heart - then you can have stories where someone who bakes cookies for a living gets mixed up in a murder case, and solves the crime. You could have a lot of fun with Mutant City BubbleGumshoe.

These stories tend to be murder mysteries, probably because the earliest versions - the Christies, the Sayers - were murder mysteries. You could have a burglary or an art forgery as the center of attention, but somehow there isn't the same zing. 

With that in mind:

The Missing Mandala

A mandala made of coral, gold, and turquoise, on loan from a British university museum, is stolen from an art gallery and an art student, Rachel Wu, murdered - presumably by the thieves. The owner of the gallery, Sandra Cohen, suspects it may have been a Chinese-backed heist-to-order, as the mandala was part of a collection of artefacts looted from China by the British in the 1800s. However, there's reason to think heightened criminals may have been involved. The university professor who delivered the mandala, Thomas Duncan, is very upset; this is the second time it's been targeted by thieves, and he only agreed to lend it on assurance that the gallery's security was top-notch.

The gallery was broken into shortly after 11 pm. The thieves clearly had detailed information about the gallery and came in via a skylight, bypassing security. There's not much to go on from the security cameras. What nobody can explain is why Rachel Wu was there at all. From the looks of things she interrupted the crooks as they were making their getaway, but although Rachel did work at the gallery there was no reason for her to be there at that time of night.

Rachel was a B-Category mutant (moving patterns on her skin that resemble cherry blossom tattoos) and was shot to death at close range - close enough for the weapon to leave powder burns. Whoever did it would have been spattered with gunpowder and minute drops of blood. 

Villain Triumphant. Thomas Duncan has managed to avoid detection and is on his way out of the country. This scene assumes the PCs catch up to him at the airport, as he's about to board his flight. He's sent the fake mandala by FedEx to his university address and still has the receipt on him. He won't be quick to cause trouble, not in an airport full of people, but he does have that pesky self-detonation power ...

Villain At Bay. The gun's been found where Thomas hid it, in a vent duct in Sandra Cohen's office. It has sufficient forensic evidence to link him to the killing. The forensic remains of his self-detonation in a locked gallery storeroom might give away his escape plan. Thomas is desperate to get away, but can't fly out. This scene may happen at a flop hotel, an interstate bus depot, train station or similar. 

What the PCs don't know: The mandala is a fake. Thomas had it made and delivered it to the gallery intending to steal it himself; he tried a similar stunt before, but it didn't work. His intent was to sell the real mandala and then cover up his crime with a phony robbery. The fly in the ointment was Rachel Wu. She noticed something was wrong with the mandala but rather than tell someone her suspicions she decided to inspect it closely after hours, to make sure she was right. She was, but she also caught Thomas in the act of 'stealing' the fake mandala. The gun was hers; she had a concealed carry permit. In the struggle she was accidentally shot and killed. In a panic, Thomas hid the weapon on-site.

Rachel has an uncle, Duncan Wu, who has low-level organized crime connections and who will actively involve himself in the investigation; Duncan's no criminal, but he looks suspicious enough to maybe fit the heist-to-order mold. 

Sandra Cohen is deep in debt and owes money to some less-than reputable characters, which may throw suspicion on her, but Sandra has nothing to do with Thomas' heist. 

As an out-of-towner with Dynamite powers Thomas had to register himself on arrival, so his abilities are a matter of record. His scheme was to use his inside knowledge to fake the theft (he insisted on learning everything there was to learn about the gallery's security system, and Sandra was happy to oblige) then explode, sending his particles off into the ether to reconstitute later.   

That's it for this week! Enjoy.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Private Investigations (Mutant City Blues)

The recent Mutant City Blues reboot offers the option of playing as a heightened private detective in this brave new world of superpowers and those who abuse them, and that got me thinking: just what is a private detective, anyway?

The oldest examples are crooks who went straight - sort of. Men like France's Eugène François Vidocq, a rakehell, soldier, convict, probable forger, duelist and martial artist who turned his life around and, in 1811, joined the cops. Later, when the Sûreté decided in 1833 that it didn't need recruits with a criminal history, Vidocq formed his own investigative agency, Le bureau des renseignements, made up mainly of ex-cons like himself. Larger than life and full of devilment, Vidocq became the subject of plays, books, gossip, and several films, from the silent era to modern day.

His English equivalent is Jonathon Wild, Thief-Taker General, who operated roughly a century before Vidocq but without the latter's successful career. Less a crook gone straight, more a crook gone even more crooked, this gang boss decided that, in the absence of a police force, he'd act as the police. This allowed Wild endless opportunities for bribe-taking, racketeering and bounty hunting. Wild would offer to find and return stolen goods, and then extract cash from the thieves and the putative owners, threatening to expose criminals or actually turning them over for the bounty on their heads. It all came crashing down when Londoners started taking corruption seriously, for the first and possibly last time, and Wild went to the gallows in 1725, later ending up on the dissection table. His skeleton is possibly the most famous one in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons.

In the United States the most famous private investigator is Allen Pinkerton, a cooper (maker of barrels) who by chance discovered a gang of counterfeiters, informed on them, and as a result became a Chicago police detective. From there he went from strength to strength, eventually becoming Lincoln's spymaster in the Civil War, a union buster and a terror to train robbers and bandits. The agency he founded still exists today, and became synonymous with private investigation - the Pinkertons.

The earliest fictional detectives tend to operate along these lines, albeit slightly more respectably. Poe's Auguste Dupin is a man born to money but now poor, a kind of gentleman detective who can operate in both the respectable and less-respectable realms because he belongs to both, by training and circumstance. He shares this quality with Sherlock Holmes, whose antecedents might be of the squirearchy but whose financial constraints lead him to make money the best way he can. 

Holmes' creator Conan Doyle was himself comfortably middle class, but spent his early life in straitened circumstances due to his father's alcoholism and spent much of his early career bouncing from failed job to failed job before finding a niche in fiction. Whereas Dashiell Hammett left school at age 13 to work, eventually becoming a Pinkerton himself and, later, a soldier, before ever committing a fiction, and Hammett's protagonists are fiercely independent fixers and private agents. His contemporary Raymond Chandler had a decidedly rosier early life, but again financial woes intervened and he turned to writing to solve his cash problems, creating fictional characters like Philip Marlowe, world-weary intermediaries between the rich and those who would prey on the rich.

    Big Sleep trailer. Sourced from Movieclips

Agatha Christie meanwhile had a conventional early life unmarked by the kind of financial and social hardships that created Hammett, and thus Hammett's Sam Spade. So her characters are themselves fairly conventional. Christie's Poirot operates in a world in which he can specialize in the detection of murder, and Miss Marple doesn't really have to earn a living at all but finds herself mixed up in murders regardless. Whereas Spade has to do what he can to get by, and will take, say, $200 if you offer him, say, $100 to find a mysterious missing objet d'art.

Already we can see a stylistic break. For Hammett's Spade, how is less important than who, and why is usually self-explanatory. There's no question about anybody's motive in the Maltese Falcon, nor are there exotic poisons and doubts about time of death. Floyd Thursby is shot to death, Miles Archer is shot to death, all out in the open rather than behind locked doors, and the central question isn't how or why they died but where the Falcon is right now, and who has it. 

Whereas Christie's Poirot, Dorothy Sayer's Sir Peter Wimsey and others of their type are obsessed with how and why, and less concerned about who. The Mysterious Affair at Styles features a wealthy woman poisoned with strychnine, and the central question becomes how that poison was obtained, whether or not people knew about the dead woman's altered will, and how the poison was administered. Novels like these care about who did it only because someone has to have done it; the prize for working out the puzzle is finding out who, but the puzzle is the point, not the murderer.

So a Hammett protagonist navigates an uncertain world of changing allegiances and lies, where a Christie protagonist lives in a fairly certain world where crime is more of a logical conundrum than an opaque mist of bluff and counter-bluff.  You'd never get a speech like Sam Spade's at the end of Maltese Falcon in a Christie novel. A Poirot never needs to explain himself, or examine his own motives, because Poirot knows his motives are pure. A Sam Spade knows his motives are anything but pure. Yet that speech is the bleeding heart of Maltese Falcon. There is no heart in The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

From these early beginnings come others, operating broadly along similar lines - the specialist, the clever amateur, the genius. Seldom are they former crooks, like Vidocq or Wild. More often they are former detectives, like Spade or Poirot. Very often they're neither of those things but happen to wind up near a murder regardless, whether they bake cookies for a living or have a famous detective for a father. The more respectable the author, the more likely it is the detective will be someone either respectable or formerly respectable but now in straitened circumstances. The crime is nearly always murder, and when it isn't murder to begin with it usually becomes murder by the third or fourth chapter. A far cry from The Maltese Falcon's snatch job gone wrong, Dupin's purloined letter, or Holmes' Beryl Cornet. Finding the McGuffin isn't anything like as important, in this kind of narrative, as unmasking the killer.

The world these fictions live in is quite nice, on the whole. Someone might threaten them or try to hurt them, but as a general rule folks are pleasant, innocent creatures and they're not at the mercy of circumstance. If anything, it's the detective's job to ensure the world remains pleasant for everyone, and when it isn't they step in to make it so.

Every so often someone like Walter Mosley comes along and the detective returns to his roots as a middleman in a larger, dangerous world. In that kind of fiction nobody's completely innocent, least of all the protagonist, and often the dividing line between success and failure is vanishingly slight. However the Mosley's of this world are the exception rather than the rule; in fiction, there are far more Marples than there are Easy Rawlins. 

Devil in a Blue Dress, from Sony Pictures

So after all that rambling, the central question: who or what is a private detective?

The private detective is a hired agent whose job is to help their client achieve a particular goal. A contractor. A middleman. It's not their job to build a legal case against a guilty party, but to build the case their client wants them to. Equally is it not their job to denounce anyone from a pulpit. They work for pay, like everyone else, and their day-to-day resembles more a researcher's than a gunslinger's.

When your detective is a man like Thief-Taker Wild the client is usually someone who wants to stifle potential scandal or avoid a criminal conviction, and will pay any amount of money to make sure the truth never comes out. When your detective is someone like Vidocq then the client is someone who has been failed by the authorities, possibly because of political shenanigans, and will pay any amount of money to get what they want - whether or not they deserve it. Dashiell Hammett's protagonist in The Glass Key, gambler and racketeer Ned Beaumont, is built along Vidocq's lines, as is Sam Spade of Maltese Falcon fame. Philip Marlowe leans more to Thief-Taker Wild, particularly in The Big Sleep.    

If your detective is someone like Allen Pinkerton then everyone's operating within the law, but the law is a very big tent and can include intimidation, beatings, political twisting and shady deeds. Immoral, but not necessarily illegal. Or, if illegal, the kind of illegality that is seldom prosecuted and almost never successfully prosecuted. Mosely's Easy Rawlins operates in this kind of world. 

If your detective is a Dupin, Holmes or Poirot then not only is everyone operating within the law but also the law has a decidedly moralistic tinge. Poirot can say, in all seriousness, that he disapproves of murder - and he does so because his creator disapproves of murder. In much the same sense someone might disapprove of opening a liquor store on Sunday, or of spanking children, or of sexual behavior. Murder is wrong and people who do wrong things are punished. Q.E.D. Most modern police procedurals - The Rookie, Law & Order, especially L&O SVU - fall in this category. There are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are supposed to win. 


If you're looking for strict realism in your game then you're probably going to want to lean towards the Pinkerton model. Vidocq and Thief-Taker Wild belong to an earlier age, when there is very little law to speak of and almost as little civil authority. Modern society couldn't survive without some kind of organized leadership. Someone's got to be the glue holding this rickety bucket together, after all, and it's not going to be the PCs - they're too busy getting into fights and looking out for Number One. 

There's a lot of talk about Invincible right now, for obvious reasons, and while I've not watched it through I have noticed something odd about the series - and perhaps it holds true for all modern superhero comics. In Invincible, there really isn't an organized leadership of any kind. Buildings blow up and civilians get vaporized, but there's no suggestion of a civil authority, no real government at all. It's almost as if the planet is just a pretty backdrop for selfish costumed jackasses who want to party. 

A private investigator has to operate within society's rules, a superhero doesn't. A private investigator has to worry about getting arrested, about keeping her nose clean and not getting caught doing something shady. If the PI doesn't worry about those things then the best they can hope for is to have their license pulled, at which point they're not a PI any more. The worst case is time in jail, if not the death penalty.

In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade spends a fair amount of time keeping the cops at bay, and calling his attorney to make sure he and his client don't get railroaded.

The same holds true for your PCs. In any private investigator game the cops, the civil authority, the mayor's office and whoever else are all going to get in the PI's face. This might be because the PI is holding onto explosive information that could embroil the city in scandal, or it might just be because the PI is a pain in the ass who doesn't play well with others. Which would explain why the character isn't working within the HCIU. Either way, one of the main antagonists in any PI game is going to be the city itself, whether or not the character has a decent relationship with the cops at the local precinct.

The Pinkerton-style world is a little different from the Miss Marple and Poirot model. In a Pinkerton world the authorities may actively work against the investigator, our of malevolence or protecting their own interests. At best the authorities passively block the investigator at every turn, or make things more difficult. There are constraints on what the PI can do, and the authorities enforce those constraints.

In the Poirot kind of fiction the investigator - who doesn't hold any kind of license and is the very definition of a free agent - can do as they like, because the authorities are assumed to be on their side. They share goals, because this is a moralistic world in which people who do bad things are punished, and the law is implicitly on the side of those who do good. Poirot might have a friendly or not-so-friendly rivalry with the detective in charge of the case, but Poirot's relationship with the law as an institution is always sound. 

Take The Rookie. Nathan Fillion's John Nolan is always going to be on the side of righteousness, because that's the essence of his character. If tempted, he will never eat the apple. Thus his relationship with the LAPD is always going to be good, even when (at the end of the second season) it appears to everyone as if Nolan's gone rogue. The Rookie's LAPD is always on the side of the angels, and Nolan is basically an angel at heart, so the LAPD will always back Nolan's play.

Fictions like the Rookie might ape Chandler and Hammett in some superficial respects - after all, they all take place in Los Angeles, the heartland of detective fiction in America - but they differ in fundamental ways, which you as Game Moderator should bear in mind. The most fundamental of which is that, in a Rookie fiction, bad guys are always punished by the righteous, while in a Hammett fiction bad guys may or may not be punished, and if they are it's seldom by the righteous. 

That in turn will determine the shape of your campaign going forward, which means it's a vital part of your Session Zero. What kind of fiction do your players lean towards? Do they like the idea of being cogs in a mincing machine? A Pinkerton-style go-between, acting on behalf of less-than-innocent clients - perhaps even doing things that a more moral character would recoil at? Falsifying evidence, theft, bearing false witness? Then their clients are going to be powerful, unscrupulous people who want what they want whether or not they deserve it, because in that kind of world nobody deserves anything. They only keep what they can take.


Do they like the idea of being the clever, morally centered Poirot, Marple, Monk or Rookie? The kind of person who, like Poirot, refuses to act on behalf of the unworthy 'because I do not like your face?' Then their clients are going to be innocent people looking for something that rightfully belongs to them. No grey areas, only moral absolutes, and the adventure along the way involves solving puzzles, not playing several different gangs of crooks against each other and hoping to come out on top. In fact solving the puzzle is the only reason this kind of detective exists. That's why Holmes examines cigarette ash and Miss Marple interrogates vacationers at a Caribbean getaway. It's implicit that the criminal is bad and must be punished, and because it's implicit nobody's going to be examining their motives or delve into psychological angst over them. That just leaves the locked-room question as the meat of the narrative.

Knives Out

Anyway, that's it for this week's discussion. Next week, some Mutant City Blues scenario seeds ...

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Fly With Me (Heist, Night's Black Agents)


  Frank Sinatra

Pelgrane Press' Resource Guide for Night's Black Agents posits some interesting dilemmas for those oh-so-confident Agents. Let's see what can be done if we put those puzzle pieces together, and plot out a Heist. 

For a heist, says the Guide, decide where the McGuffin is and who has it right now. I'm deliberately keeping the nature of the McGuffin vague so you, as Director, can do with it as you will. However I'm going to treat it as if it were vital medical supplies, like a replacement organ, because that fits neatly with the planned location for the heist: an airport.

An airport can be a quasi-fortress devoted to security theatre, but it doesn't absolutely have to be. In fact, in a Stakes game the airport ought to be something that fulfills that James Bond fantasy. One of the top ten airports in the world, in fact. Fortunately this is a reality in which humanity is devoted to top ten lists of all kinds, and can find out this information easily.

So the central conceit is this: a Conspiracy asset is flying the McGuffin out of Whichever airport to Destination X, and once it gets to X the McGuffin is effectively off-limits. So if the Agents want the McGuffin they'll have to get it during transport. That means they can hit it at its departure or its destination airport, but either way it has to be an airport.

There's some talk that in the future we'll be using drones to transport organs, but for the sake of this narrative I'm crossing drones off the list. This is a manned flight. 

A surgeon plus bodyguard(s) will accompany the McGuffin. Whether or not the surgeon actually is a surgeon is neither here nor there, for the purpose of the narrative; as far as the airport's concerned, she's a surgeon. Depending on the nature of the game the surgeon might actually be a necromancer, a mutant Renfield, some sort of alien botanist or what-have-you. Her beefy travelling companion is just a remarkably well-built anesthesiologist.  

The objective is to obtain the McGuffin without tipping off the surgeon and her bodyguard. This allows the Agents a vital hour or two to arrange their getaway. If the Agents succeed but the surgeon and bodyguard find out about it, then either Heat goes up by 3 or the Conspiracy immediately initiates a highly aggressive Conspyramid response. Or possibly both, why not. After all, you're the Director, not the Saint. 

So, going back to the Resource Guide:

  • Uncover the nature and history of the target item. OK, I'm keeping this vague for plot reasons, but we know it's portable, we know it's being kept in a reasonably secure environment, and we know there are enemy assets watching over it. We also know that those assets won't be in possession of the McGuffin for a period of time, while it's in transit.
  • Gather intel about the holding facility. I'm going to go into more detail, but for now just know that it's a major international airport.
  • Gather intel about the opposition. In addition to the surgeon and her bodyguard(s), there's airport personnel, airport security, and random passers-by who may or may not get involved. 
  • Acquiring whatever elements are needed for the Agents’ plan. That's up to the Agents, but likely disguises or Covers include government agents, government agents from a foreign power, airport staff, airport security, some kind of diplomatic VIP, surgical staff, medical couriers. 
The holding facility is an airport, and for the purpose of this post I'm going to assume it's the top rated airport in 2020: Changi, in Singapore.

via Business Insider

It's gorgeous, it's massive, and there are plenty of opportunities to intercept someone - or their baggage. Let's say the couriers arrive several hours before departure, perhaps even checking in to that transit hotel the video mentions or spending time in a lounge

The question then becomes, do the Agents engage the couriers directly? Palm them off with a fake? Do the Agents wait until the McGuffin has passed into the careful hands of airport staff? Will the agents be the airport staff? Do they somehow intercept the McGuffin while it's being transported aboard the plane? 

As for complications, let's have a competing team. This squad has been hired by someone with more money than God, who wants the McGuffin for reasons of his own. He might even be part of a competing Node, which would explain how he knew about all this.

His team is pretending to be airport security, and will fake an emergency to get close to (and remove) the McGuffin from the Agents just as soon as the Agents take possession.

In order to do that they'll need to surveil the Agents. This may mean someone's following them discreetly, or tracking them over security cameras. In a Mirror game, one of them might have suborned an Agent. Perhaps someone's phone picked up some unhelpful malware. Whatever it is, the Agents are being tracked and unless they're careful the competition will swoop in and snatch the prize.

That's the Heist. If the Agents are lucky they'll scoop the McGuffin and get out of Changi before the competition closes in. If not, well ... they'd better think of something quick!


Sunday, 2 May 2021

Ravenloft & Gothic (RPG D&D5E)


Dracula (1931), clip courtesy Fear: The Home Of Horror

I first encountered Strahd many moons ago, when I still played AD&D. Back then there was no Ravenloft, not as we've come to know the term; it was just a big bad sat up in his castle, a spider in his web - and what a web! Tomb of Horrors might have been more lethal - just - but you couldn't move two steps in Strahd's labyrinthine lair without encountering something hideous, murderous and downright nefarious. 

Which, as Tracy and Laura Hickman, progenitors of Ravenloft, admit was the whole point. 

“Our [adventuring] party turned the corner and there [the vampire] stood," recalls Tracy Hickman. "I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing here?’ He seemed out of place with the other standard monsters we were encountering. I thought, ‘You’re lost. You’re in the wrong place. You need to have your own adventure, setting, and story.’ That’s pretty much where it all started.”

That was Strahd, and Ravenloft: one big backstory for one bad man. A former hero who'd done the unthinkable, and would spend eternity paying for it. The apex predator, locked in a Walpurgisnacht of his own devising, just as securely imprisoned as any serial killer in a supermax yet free to roam within his prison and tear all the other inmates a new one. His white-hot rage is what keeps the ordinary folk of Barovia deeply embedded in the magical mist that forms Strahd's prison walls, and if you want to get out of this hellhole, you have to deal with Strahd. 

His impenetrable fortress was the dungeon the characters would have to navigate, in order to track Strahd down and put an end to his damned existence once and for all. Less a castle in the medieval sense, more Neuschwanstein, except the 6,000 tourists per day who visit the home of Wagner-fanatic Ludwig II don't have to worry about encountering rust monsters, giant spiders or 10-100 bats. Not unless they're prepared to pay extra for the special tour.

Then it grew. From a castle sprang a Manor, and from a Manor whole new lands filled with other Universal Monster-esque grotesques. You got yourself your basic Frankenstein's Monster, your basic Mummy, your basic Poe-inspired gothic giallo, and by that point things were migrating quickly over to 3rd and 3.5 editions. 

I was already on my way out the door. 

I'd been falling out of love with D&D for quite some time. It was too rulesy, too mathsy, it lacked the horror elements I enjoy playing with, and there were other systems that did it better. White Wolf, Chaosium, Pagan Publishing, those were the places I went to scratch that itch. 

Besides, D&D then and (possibly) now has never been a good system for mystery-style games. Ultimately the whole point of D&D - at that time, anyway - was to march into a 10x10 room, hit something, and steal its treasure. There's not much room for story in 'see Dick smack Kobold. Smack Kobold. Smack.' 

Things change. There's a new Ravenloft core book due this May, and I'm intrigued. 

For one thing, D&D isn't the whack-smash-thanks-for-the-cash game I remember. There can be mystery, the unravelling of a complex story, strong characters playing out narrative arcs. That makes for a meatier, more interesting game at the table. So far, so good.

For another, the Ravenloft design team seem to be leaning heavily into Gothic tropes, which is even better. 

Gothic literature often evokes memories of Stoker, Shelley, and Poe, but I like to think of it as the natural home of Le Fanu, Richard Marsh, (The Beetle!), Ludwig Flammenberg (The Necromancer), Arthur Machen, Gaston LeRoux and many, many others. The monster crowd. The steeped-in-sin congregation. The ones who delve into occult grimoires and hide out in ruined castles and dungeons, buried deep in the Black Forest. The Bad People.

Gothic is something entirely to itself, completely unlike other genres of supernatural fiction. There's a magnetic draw that fixes you in place and keeps you there. I suspect, if you were to put a gun to my head, I'd have to admit that one of the draws of this kind of story, for me anyway, is that there can be a hero character, central to the narrative.

You certainly don't get that in Lovecraft, or M.R. James, and you don't get it that often even in Stephen King. You get an Everyman, swept into the story by forces beyond their control. Their only hope of coming out the other end in one piece is to confront the horror, bearding the vampire in its den. Even then, victory is far from guaranteed. 

Which, let's be clear, has its own satisfaction. The reader can easily imagine themselves in the same situation, terrified out of their minds and looking for a way out. It's more difficult to picture yourself as Sir Lancelot swooping in to save the day, than it is to imagine you're schlubby author Ben Mears, who decides to go home for the summer and really regrets his life choices.

Salem's Lot

Still, there's something satisfying about being a genuine, bona-fide hero confronting dark and sinister forces. The Hero is the Hero, and the d&s v's are as Dark and Sinister as it is possible to be. The canvas is splattered with crimson and gold, and it's your job to turn this into a masterpiece, even if you die in the attempt.

Dragon's Lair (Cinematronics) - home of more of my quarters than I care to remember.

This is an idea that draws you in, and keeps you playing. Even when everything seems hopeless you can be the single spark raging against the dying of the light. It's why Night's Black Agents works so well; you too, it promises, can be James Bond or Jason Bourne, facing off against something far more powerful than a mere Blofeld. 

It's also why Swords of the Serpentine captures the imagination. The city of Eversink may be vast, its hidden face a thing of nightmares, but you - you're a free blade, a witty rogue, and you can beat anything Eversink has to throw at you.

It's why Ravenloft works. At least, I hope it's why Ravenloft works. Like everyone else, I'll find out in May.

Burying the lede! I'm also working on a couple of Ravenloft scenarios I intend to publish via DTRPG. Feel free to seek them out at your peril, once they launch. Not certain of the publish date. I want to look at the book first, obviously, and I'm not sure when that will arrive on-island. 

Working titles:     For The Sound Of His Horn (a haunting hunting party)

                             The Three Crows (terror lurks at a sinister coaching inn on the old Svalich road)

We'll see how that turns out. I'll let you know more when I post the scenarios. 

Talk soon!