Thursday, May 19, 2016

B2 or Not B2?

I have some friends up in That London. I have known them for years; we all met at university and we stayed quite close even after my life went wonky for about a decade. They are good friends and I always have a space on their floor when I visit.

They live in one of the trendy parts of the glittering capital, but they are also a bit geeky, and as geek culture has become a bit trendy in recent years, it was perhaps inevitable that they would get sucked into gaming somehow. It was board games that got them; of course they have Cards Against Humanity, but they also have Settlers of Catan and Small World, and the mighty King of Tokyo, because everyone should own a copy of King of Tokyo.

I've been to Draughts with them a couple of times and taken the opportunity to push other games on them; it's only a matter of time before one of them gets Lords of Waterdeep. I feel no shame; games are great.

Now and then they've asked about role-playing games, and the subject came up again the other day as we tried to play Dark Souls over Google Hangouts. Don't ask.

One of my friends grew up reading Dragonlance novels but had never played Dungeons and Dragons; another -- her husband -- loves Baldur's Gate and Dark Souls and knows that these games are based on a common source; the third -- his childhood best friend -- has been playing Fiasco with another group of friends, but I don't think they are aware of the larger family tree of which that game is a branch.

They are all three primed and ready, even if they don't know it. Dragonlance Friend even has a copy of Labyrinth Lord that I bought for her a few years ago alongside Dragons of Despair; in hindsight not one of my better gift ideas.

One day soon, then, I will run a role-playing game for them. It will probably be some form of D&D, because it seems appropriate to start at the beginning -- although a big part of me wants to run Call of Cthulhu and "The Haunting" -- and if so, it will probably be Lamentations of the Flame Princess, because it's my favourite simple version of the game.

Ah, but what do I run for them? I do love LotFP, but I think I should start them with something more traditional, rather than Kult in the seventeenth century. You can't get more traditional than Keep on the Borderlands, but I'm after something that can be played to a decent conclusion in one afternoon or evening. I also know that lots of player-character deaths is traditional, but I'm also after something that they have a reasonable chance of completing without getting disgruntled. I want them to come back for more!

This is where my own experience isn't useful. I started with Shadowrun and Call of Cthulhu, and played almost everything other than D&D -- and Vampire; to this day I have not played any proper White Wolf games -- so I don't have the background to know what's a good adventure for beginners.

It's over to you, internet. Is there a good starting D&Dish adventure out there, one I can unleash on absolute beginners, albeit beginners with some familiarity with the general idea of role-playing games?

Monday, May 16, 2016

An Explosion in Belgravia

Red Line Corporate Solutions is a company formed by a group of former intelligence operatives who used to conduct covert missions for the highest bidder, but have somehow got involved in hunting Dracula. Yes, that Dracula, from the books and the films and the Castlevania series. It turns out that Bram Stoker's novel is not in fact a novel, but an edited record of an actual British operation to recruit a vampire! Egad!

The current Red Line roster consists of:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.
Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.
Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.
Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

Last time, the team roughed up an art dealer who had a collection of Dracula-related objects and a connection to a prominent London businessman. After resting, the team decides to pursue this lead and they research said businessman, one Geoff Berkeley. He is the head of an organisation called Blackrock, which appears to be a holding company with interests and shares in all sorts of businesses around the UK and beyond; the team digs deep but can find nothing illegal or suspicious about any of Blackrock's dealings, much to their general annoyance.

Carmel hacks the Blackrock email servers and downloads Berkeley's correspondence. She notices that he does have a personal email address, but it is hosted by Google and her attempts to hack the tech giant's systems come to nothing. Meanwhile, Natasha receives an encrypted email. She reads it with interest but does not tell her colleagues she has received it, let alone anything about its contents.

There is a tracking device attached to Berkeley's car and Carmel has hacked his mobile phone, so confident that they know where he is, the team decide to look into some of Blackrock's holdings; Natasha is most interested in a series of Blackrock-owned warehouses scattered across London and so they spend the morning driving around the city, looking for anything suspicious at any of the sites and, alas, finding nothing untoward at a first glance. Berkeley himself seems to be going about an average working day and isn't giving them any useful intelligence either, so the team's morale slips a little, until they have the bright idea of looking at historical tracking data from the businessman's mobile phone.

Upper Belgrave Street, Belgravia - DSC05404They look at the data for the previous evening, when Berkeley disappeared after being contacted by Aytown-Baptiste, and see that he drove to the fancy pants neighbourhood of Belgravia. Carmel accesses CCTV footage of the street and sees Berkeley's car stopping outside a house, and then the businessman entering said house. Other cars are seen to arrive later and the passengers enter the building; rolling the footage back, the Red Line team also see a number of visitors arriving just before Berkeley. Most of the details are obscured by poor video quality or too acute a viewing angle, but Max spots a number plate and notes the registration.

A somewhat unhinged conversation develops as the Red Line team decides what to do with a building that they are convinced is the home to a nest of vampires. For a short time, they consider blowing up the house, but in the end they decide to investigate, posing as cleaners. They rent a van and the necessary equipment, conceal their own gear in buckets and the like, then set off. They arrive at the house with plenty of daylight left and ring the doorbell. There is no answer.

Their nerve nearly fails them and they almost leave, but instead press on and Carmel unlocks the front door, whereupon the team rushes inside and begins exploring. They find that the house is for the most part empty; the kitchen appears to be in frequent use and is well stocked with food and utensils, and one bedroom upstairs appears to be in use by a woman with expensive tastes in clothing and perfume. Carmel notes with a shudder that there are no mirrors anywhere in the house.

Max and Sten investigate the cellar and find that there has been extensive expansion work below ground with tunnels branching off in three directions; they decide that this is a bit too much ground to cover by themselves, and they return to the ground floor to wait for Carmel and Natasha so the four can descend together. The team follow one corridor to some sort of storage room, and not one among them is surprised to find a number of elongated boxes large enough for an adult to lie within; they are also not surprised to find that the boxes contain soil. Carmel takes a sample while Max soaks the boxes in holy water and scatters communion wafers over the earth within.

Oxford - Jesus College - 0531Down another corridor they find an impressive wine cellar... and a secret door! This takes them into what looks like a large shower or wet room, except the only fixture is a single drain in the centre of the floor, and the tiles are all a deep blood red. It is not clear what purpose this room serves, but everyone has an idea, and Natasha fishes out some lumps of unidentified gristle when she investigates the drain.

The team returns to the foot of the cellar stairs and heads down the third corridor, which leads to a metal door decorated with the image of a stylised dragon. The door is locked and even when Carmel picks the lock, the door does not open; Natasha surprises herself when she ponders out loud that there may be some sort of magic involved. The team decides that brute force is the way forward and breaks out the C-4.

The first attempt does nothing and Max suspects that they used too little explosive, so a much larger amount is used for the second attempt. The door is blasted open but the explosion also manages to bring down some of the ceiling; Max and Sten avoid the worst of the collapse but Carmel is almost crushed under falling bricks. Natasha, having fled upstairs between the explosions, loses her footing as the house shakes and grazes an elbow.

As Max and Sten dig an unconscious Carmel from the rubble, she dreams of being surrounded by a thick grey fog. Her attention is drawn to a pair of burning red eyes staring at her from the mist and a faint voice whispering her -- real -- name. She feels a sharp pain and wakes with a scream, to find Max leaning over her and a syringe half full of adrenaline stuck in her chest.

Dragon order insigniaThe Red Line team has a brief rest but is aware that the explosions will bring attention and so time is running out. Once Carmel has caught her breath, the team continue on past the twisted metal door, into what seems to be some sort of underground church or temple. The room is dominated by a stone altar in its centre, and a large metal -- it looks like brass or bronze -- disc hanging on the far wall; the disc features an inverted pentagram and within the pentagram is another stylised dragon; Carmel suggests that the dragon is a symbol of Dracula himself.

The altar is well worn and is -- of course -- stained with what the team guesses is blood. Grooves in the surface seem to allow for liquid to run off to be collected, and Max begins to imagine that this is the place of worship for some sort of blood-drinking cult; his macabre theory is supported when the team finds thirteen crimson hooded robes in a cabinet in one corner of the room. The pentagram itself looks heavy and is attached to the wall, but Max spots what looks like some sort of concealed grille in the centre of the symbol and using the last nubbin of their C-4, Natasha blows it open. A pipe leads off into the distance and then curves upward, but the team decides that there is no time to explore further. They flee the house, taking four of the robes and one of the tiles from the red room with them.

They hear police sirens approaching but Sten -- at the wheel of their van -- gets them clear without being spotted. Natasha tunes into her police scanner and is surprised when she hears officers on the scene claiming that everything is normal and the reports of an explosion "must have been a car backfiring or something". The Russian then calls the police herself and requests that they have another look, even dropping the magic words "terrorist" and "Islamic State", but no action appears to be taken, and the team suspects that the police may be in on it, whatever "it" is.

They head home and spend the evening recovering and continuing to spy on Berkeley. He makes a number of calls and it's clear to the team that he is discussing the Belgravia infiltration with his conspirators. Natasha makes a mental note of the voices she hears through the phone tap, while Carmel tries to trace the numbers; most are blocked, but one appears to be that of Anton de Ville, CEO of London-based Axel Logistics. Meanwhile, Max traces the number plate he noted earlier to the Romanian embassy; with a sinking feeling he looks up the ambassador and matches him -- Andrei Popescu -- to one of the faces in the CCTV footage of the cult house.

Carmel sends images from the footage to her ex-husband, asking if he can identify any of them, and he confirms Popescu's identity. Arthur also indicates the presence of Jo Ramsay, the London head of the international charity Heal the Children, and media personality Jeremy Clarkson.

At last, the true evil is revealed!

Next: a night at the opera!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Stars Are Right(ish)

It's here!

It is three years late but it's here, and it's a pretty book, perhaps the fanciest English-language rulebook Call of Cthulhu has had in its lifetime. The new Chaosium has done a wonderful job of getting the new edition released after the long and painful delays caused -- or at least mismanaged -- by the old Chaosium. It's a great achievement, it will bring much good karma Chaosium's way, and I am certain that this edition will be popular with the fans.

But I won't be playing it.

Call of Cthulhu is my favourite role-playing game -- I may have mentioned that before -- and one of the things I love about it is its simplicity. It's a light ruleset and the Chaosium percentile system is quite intuitive so there's little in the way of calculation involved at the table.

My preferred edition -- fifth, from 1993 -- has 42 pages of rules. There are lots of pages of mind-warping spells, eldritch abominations, and blasphemous tomes, but all the actual game mechanics fit into those 42 pages.

The new edition covers the same ground in 130 pages, 16 of which are for resolving that most Lovecraftian of events: the car chase. There are two flowcharts used for combat resolution.

Call of Cthulhu is an old game and it hasn't changed much over the years, so it was getting a bit creaky and needed cleaning up; I don't think anyone would deny that, but the way it's been done in this new edition has turned it into a game that is not for me.

This isn't a review or even a recommendation; it's more of an explanation why, when I talk about Call of Cthulhu in the future, it won't be the seventh edition. I wish everyone involved all sorts of success, but I will be sticking to my clunky yet reliable 1993 copy.

I suppose that makes me a grognard!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Scourges of the Art World

Last time, the Red Line Corporate Solutions team arrived in London, following the trail of their sort-of-colleagues from Ibáñez Security Solutions, who had disappeared while investigating Dracula, who turns out to be real. Or was real in 1894, at least.

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team consists of:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.
Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.
Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.
Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

The team sends the samples of what they hope is paint -- scraped off the walls of the ruins of Dracula's former London residence -- off to a laboratory for analysis, then they research "Ring", which they believe to be a location linked to Dracula, the UK security services, or both. It turns out there are two such locations: The Rings, in Beaulieu in Hampshire, a training site for the Special Operations Executive during World War II; and Ring in Surrey, a less active wartime training site for the SOE, but also the traditional seat of the Lords Godalming over the years. Given the prominent presence of a Lord Godalming in Dracula, the team suspects this is the place.

They use Google Maps to scout the latter location -- they use Google a lot; it should perhaps be added as a skill -- but gain no useful intelligence via the public service. Turning to Lord Godalming they find that the current holder of the title is a William Peter Hinton, rather than the Holmwood they expect; they suspect that Bram Stoker changed the names of the principal actors in his mission report.

Although the old Hinton/Holmwood estate is a tantalising target, the Red Line team decides to gather more information before they attempt a physical approach. Instead they decide to follow the one solid lead they recovered from the Ibáñez team, a reference to someone or something called "Aytown-Baptiste" in London. Once again they turn to Google -- the company should perhaps be getting a share of the experience points! -- and discover an art dealer by that name; they decide to visit next morning.

In the meantime, Natasha heads off to a bar to get drunk, Sten and Max arrange some new accommodation for the team -- one can never be too paranoid careful when there are secret agents and vampires involved! -- and Carmel goes to meet her ex-husband for a meal.

Carmel's ex is Arthur Hepworth, a defence correspondent for The Grauniad; he and Carmel met while he was covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- and she was doing something shady for Mossad, no doubt -- but their marriage didn't survive the couple's return to the UK. That said, their friendship remains strong and the evening is a pleasant one, even after talk turns to business and Carmel asks him what he knows about both EDOM and Lord Godalming.

Arthur tells his ex-wife that he's never heard of EDOM, but that he will look into it; on the other hand, he is quite familiar with Hinton and has met the peer a number of times. He tells Carmel that Lord Godalming has a keen -- some would say aggressive -- interest in British defence, is a former soldier, and sits on the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. Carmel asks if Arthur can arrange a meeting with Lord Godalming, and he promises to do what he can.

Carmel almost returns to the wrong hideout until Max and Sten remember -- just in time -- they they need to tell her that they have moved to a new location. Somehow Natasha finds her way to the new digs, and the team rest.

The next day, Red Line Corporate Solutions visits the gallery and art dealership of Vivienne Aytown-Baptiste. Carmel and Natasha take the lead while Max and Sten stay out of sight. Aytown-Baptiste proves to be a tough customer and doesn't respond to their initial questions, and even remains impassive when Natasha loses patience and namedrops Dracula himself. Carmel and Natasha lock the door and prevent Vivienne from calling the police, then bundle her upstairs for further questioning.

Salzburg Haus der Natur - Goldmünzen SalzburgThings get a little chaotic, as Max and Sten enter the building but attempt to remain out of Aytown-Baptiste's sight, while the Carmel and Natasha take turns in roughing up questioning the artist and exploring the building; Carmel also takes the opportunity to conceal a few bugs around the place. Hidden in an attic they find a series of mysterious busts -- Vivienne claims they were sculpted by her mother -- and a crate full of old gold coins, most of which Natasha pockets. In a locked gallery on another floor they find a series of photographs that appear to be of the group of people who defeated Dracula in the nineteenth century; again the names are different to those in the novel. In the office safe Carmel discovers some ledgers that seem to track unofficial transactions made by the dealership; few details are given, but two names come up again and again: "Cemal Gusa" and "Geminii"; Carmel posits that the former is a Turkish name, but the significance of the second escapes them for now.

Despite Natasha's attempts at persuasion, Aytown-Baptiste refuses to talk so the team decide to let her go and track her. They develop a ruse in which Max and Sten -- neither of whom have been seen by Aytown-Baptiste -- pretend to be on the trail of Carmel and Natasha and scare them off, allowing Vivienne to be "rescued". The art dealer appears to be fooled but doesn't give much away, even as Max plays the Good Cop.

Aytown-Baptiste returns home, with Carmel and Natasha following close behind. Using a laser microphone Carmel spies on the artist as she makes a couple of phone calls to the police and her insurance company, as well as one to an unknown party, in which she describes the events of the day. The team manage to track this call to a Geoff Berkeley, a prominent London businessman, and race off to his house in Fulham only to find him already gone. Sten telephones Berkely's home in an attempt to discover the businessman's whereabouts but rather blunders the conversation with Mrs Berkeley; asking to speak to "the man of the house" doesn't work quite as well in 2014 as it did in 1944.

Max and Sten return to base while Carmel and Natasha hang about the Berkeley house, and as night falls, the latter pair spot the businessman's car returning from wherever it was he went in such a rush. Once she is sure she won't be seen, Carmel sneaks up and attaches a tracking device to the car, before fleeing into the night.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

We Step Through London, the Streets Holding Onto Us

Last time the assassins and spies private security consultants of Red Line Corporate Solutions went looking for some missing colleagues, bumped into a mysterious kill squad, then ran into what seemed to be a vampire, and fled screaming into the night. Later, they discovered that the cause of all this trouble seemed to be a copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula, covered in notes in various hands.

The central conceit of Pelgrane's The Dracula Dossier is that in 1894 the British government attempted to recruit a vampire, but that the operation went wrong. The case files were edited and then released as Dracula -- explaining why the novel comes across as a series of diary entries and letters -- but the original report has been discovered and released. Now it's up to the player-characters to investigate and find out how deep the conspiracy is, and whether Dracula is still a threat.

This is done through an audacious and somewhat daunting method; alongside the campaign book itself, Pelgrane has released an edition of Dracula bursting with annotations and new -- or rather, restored from earlier drafts and alternate editions -- content. As the player-characters find the document, the players are given the book and then are instructed to go away and read it and then tell the GM which leads and clues they wish to pursue; each clue points to a section of the campaign book, so in theory the GM can respond to the players' investigations with prepared content. It's ambitious and is no doubt the biggest and most unwieldy player handout ever, but it seems to be working out for us.

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team consists of:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.
Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.
Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.
Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

With the mysterious bundle of pages in hand, the Red Line team decides to head for London, the final destination of the missing members of Ibáñez Security Solutions. Before they go, they make sure that Katarina and Theodore of Ibáñez are safe, or as safe as they can be with a mysterious conspiracy at work and at least one vampire running about.

On the flight over to London, the team skim through the Dracula Dossier and do some internet research on the clues they uncover. Carmel goes a step further and tries to hack the British government's Defence Intelligence Fusion Centre to see what they know about the location of Castle Dracula, but not only does she fail to gather any useful intelligence, she also suspects that she may have tripped some sort of alarm.

The team lands in the evening of the 12th of May; Natasha takes Carmel to a dodgy East End boozer to meet her old friend Harry Noone, or "Hatchet Harry" as he's known in the London underworld, while Max and Sten organise accommodation. Harry is pleased to see the Russian and they spend some time reminiscing and drinking before they get to business. Natasha asks for guns and as it happens, Harry has just "acquired a box of shooters from some Albanians"; the details are worked out and Harry promises to send his son Shaun over with the delivery in the next few hours.

Soon enough, a lanky lad in his early twenties turns up at the team's local hideout and unloads a crate containing a few sub-machine guns, plenty of ammunition, and -- to Carmel and Natasha's delight -- some hand grenades that Harry threw in -- ho ho -- as a bonus.

The next morning the team looks for Carfax, which, according to the Dossier, was Dracula's London home in 1894, as well the nearby asylum run, in the book, by John Seward. Again and again the team is frustrated as it appears that there are no digital records of either Carfax or the asylum, so Max and Sten contact the local historical society and ask a lovely elderly woman named Doreen if she and her friends can dig up any information on either location. Later, Sten gets in touch with his brother -- an MI6 operative -- and asks him to find out what he can about the Gibraltar incident and EDOM, the latter a reference that crops up in the Dossier multiple times.

Plaistow High St - geograph.org.uk - 61612The team decides to visit the area in person. The novel gives the location of Carfax as Purfleet, but the Dossier notes claim that Plaistow is the actual location of both sites. They visit the local records office and Sten flashes his -- expired -- MI6 identification, which gets an enthusiastic response from the office manager; the team is allowed access to the files and they soon find the address of an asylum in the right area and time period, although the chief physician was James Sanders rather than John Seward.

At the address, the Red Line team finds a Victorian building with a small and inconspicuous sign stating that it is an NHS Haematology Research and Treatment Centre. They also note a high wall around the building and a manned guard post, both of which fuel their paranoia, although Max fixates on the "haematology" part of the sign and begins to see vampires around every corner.

A quick bit of online research -- and a little hacking -- by Carmel seems to suggest that the site is legitimate, and upon discovering that the facility stores and studies both rabies and malaria among other diseases, the team concedes that it is perhaps not too unusual for there to be guards posted. Even so, they resolve to return later for a closer look.

With the probable location of the asylum identified, the team spend some time narrowing down the spot on which Carfax stood to the quiet and not-unpleasant Harcourt Road. Max nips off to borrow or rent some surveying gear and upon his return wanders up and down the street with it until he discovers some sort of structure beneath his feet.

Meanwhile, Natasha has rented some digging equipment and, under the guise of local council employees, the Red Line team digs a hole right in the middle of the road. One of their mini drones is sent down and a large vaulted chamber is discovered, with passages stretching off into the darkness. As the team discusses their next move -- Max is not keen to descend -- Natasha grabs a rope and dives down the hole, only to get a bit tangled. The Russian twists in a slow, upside-down, circle as her colleagues climb down after her, trying their best not to laugh.

With a liberated Natasha in the lead, the team investigates the underground complex, picking their way along with considerable caution. Max in particular becomes more and more tense as they map out the chambers below Harcourt Road, but for the most part the dungeon ruins are empty of anything but rats and broken masonry. They do find a staircase and a door that opens -- after some tinkering from Carmel -- into a cellar flat; the flat is empty but both the cellar and front doors are in good repair, and it's clear that someone has been in to collect the post.

It seems that someone is using the flat as an entrance into the Carfax ruins, but why is beyond the team, and they push on and discover a crypt-like chamber with red walls. By this stage Max is quite keen to return to the surface, but they stay long enough for Carmel to scrape a bit of the pigment from the wall for later analysis. Everyone hopes it is not blood.

They attempt to exit via the hole in the street but they freeze when they note the flashing blue lights of the local constabulary. Creeping back to the flat, the team peeks down the street and spots two officers poking around the roadworks; a brief discussion follows in which the idea of gunning them down is floated, but in the end the team decides that a subtler approach is best. Through some deft rhetoric, the team's lack of a digging permit is shrugged off and the police officers are convinced to go on their way, although Carmel is a little disappointed that she didn't get to use her grenade.

Next time: what not to do in an art gallery.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Málaga Connection

Red Line Corporate Solutions is a company formed by a group of former intelligence operatives who now conduct covert missions for the highest bidder. Spies for hire, if you will. Current employees include:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.
Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.
Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.
Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

All of them have secrets, and all of them have seen or heard something that makes them think there's something strange going on in the criminal-slash-intelligence underworld of Europe.

These suspicions are confirmed on the 11th of May 2014 when Carmel receives an encrypted email from hopkins@xvccececcuu.xin. No one has heard of "Hopkins"; it's not a name any of their current or former contacts has used, but he or she seems to know both about the Red Line team and those strange events that the team have either witnessed or heard about. The email does just enough to grab their interest, then ends with:

If you want answers, find out what happened to Ibáñez Security Solutions.
- H

The Red Line team know of Ibáñez. They are in the same line of work and they have met at least three members of the ISS team at, er, "security consultant conferences" over the years. None of the Red Line team members can think of anything that strikes them as unusual about ISS, and a quick bit of online research turns up the names of the company's five registered employees, a business address in Málaga in Spain, and telephone numbers and social media contacts.

Carmel goes a bit further and hacks into the company's email server, and discovers that there is no activity at all for about the last two weeks. There is some discussion of a new job -- but no details on the job -- and then nothing. Carmel tries calling the ISS office and gets through to an answering machine.

The Red Line team decides to head to Málaga as soon as possible. While some of the team pack for the trip, the others sort out vehicles and lodging and make arrangements to land at a private airport just outside the Spanish city,. They leave their headquarters in Zurich and Sten has a bit of a wobble as he flies their plane south, but they arrive safe and sound in the late afternoon.

Malagueta panorámicaThe team settles in for the rest of the evening and plans their next move. As night falls, they head over to the ISS office, in an older residential area of the city, set back from the busy, tourist-filled coastal region. They stop a good distance away and Natasha sends in a small drone to sweep the building; through the video feed the Russian notes that there seems to be no activity, but all the windows are obscured by blinds or shutters, so there is no way to see within. The team decides to take a closer look, in person, and Natasha is sent in to scout around.

As she approaches, Natasha spots not one but two people watching the ISS building. One sits in a car with a good view of the building, while the other lurks in an alleyway towards the opposite end of the street. Natasha guesses that the person in the alleyway is a woman from their smallish build but the Russian cannot make out the figure in the car; she does note that it's not a new model and looks well-used.

Natasha reports back to the rest of the Red Line team, and a brief discussion follows as they work out the best approach. A number of options are discussed but in the end they go with Max's suggestion of ignoring the watchers for now, and finding a way into the ISS building from the back. Carmel and Natasha sneak through alleyways and scramble over garden walls and find their way to the back door; the Israeli notices that the building is fitted with a good quality alarm system, but that it has been deactivated. She muses over this as she picks the lock and Natasha signals to Max and Sten that they have gained entry.

Inside, all is dark and quiet. The team search the building and discover a couple of concealed safes; Carmel takes about an hour to crack the first, and the long, quiet wait makes the team more and more nervous. Soon after, Carmel stumbles into and smashes a couple of wine bottles and Max hears a car pulling away outside, so they abandon stealth in favour of speed, and the second safe is opened with a drill. Meanwhile, the rest of the team look for clues. A laptop is discovered that seems to be fresh from the shop and contains no useful data -- Carmel has a sinking feeling that it has been planted and that even turning it on has alerted someone to their presence -- and the office answering machine seems to have had all messages deleted, aside from one earlier that day -- from Carmel -- and one on the 9th, in which no message was left, but English and and Spanish voices can be heard in the background.

Grabbing the contents of both safes, the team hurry out the way they came and stop to check the street, confirming that the car they spotted earlier has gone, as has the figure in the alley. A quick look at the alley reveals that whoever stood there was wearing trainers, but nothing more. The Red Line team rush back to their rented accommodation and look over what they have found. They have a selection of car number plates, registered to different European nations, bundles of cash in a number of popular currencies, and a few passports of various different nationalities; they recognise three of the faces as belonging to members of Ibáñez Security Solutions, but two are unknown to the Red Line team. None of the names are familiar, and the team conclude that the passports are for cover identities

Carmel hacks into the local police database and turns up an accident report from the 7th mentioning one of the ISS employees, Theodore Britton, being involved in a serious car crash near the border with Gibraltar. According to the report, Britton was taken to the nearest hospital, St Bernard's, just across the border. Sten poses as Theodore's brother and calls the hospital, and although the receptionist is surprised -- and a little disgusted -- that it has taken him five days to check on his brother, he tells Sten that Theodore is out of danger and is in a recovery ward. The Red Line team decide not to wait and to head straight to Gibraltar.

As they get ready to leave, they notice that they are again being surveilled and this time catch the watcher, hitting them with a taser and bundling them into the car before heading south. Their captive is a woman, familiar from some of the fake passports, and they conclude that she is the fifth member of ISS. They bind her hands and feet with gaffer tape and wake her up; after a bit of panic and distrust, she is convinced to talk and confirms that she is Katarina Bloch, a member of the Ibáñez team.

Katarina tells them that her team was also contacted by "Hopkins" and that three of them -- the three the Red Line team know; Bernard Lonsdale, Jan de Witt, and Rachel Perkins -- went to London to meet with the new contact. They brought a package back with them and Bernard and Theodore locked themselves away to study it. After a couple of days, Bernard left the package with Theodore and took Jan and Rachel back to London; Theodore and Katarina were to provide support from the office. Nothing was heard from the London team until the 7th, when a pre-arranged panic signal -- "There's a 'things have gone wrong' signal and a 'things have gone really wrong' signal, and this was the latter." -- was sent. Katarina and Theodore cleared out; Katarina went into hiding with some local contacts, while Theodore decided Gibraltar would be safer as he is a British citizen, so went south.

Katarina knows Theodore is in hospital in Gibraltar but thinks that if someone is after their team, he is safer if she doesn't go there. She records a video message for her colleague and gives it to the Red Line team; they drop her off at the next town before rushing off into the night.

Gibraltar aerial view looking northwestThere is some trouble at the border as the Red Line car is stopped by the Spanish police. They are held up for about half an hour by the search but have left their weapons back in Málaga so there is nothing of interest to find; the police do discover a set of combat knives but Max is able to convince the officer that they are used for hunting. Soon enough they are at St Bernard's Hospital and Carmel steals a couple of white coats and some medical paraphernalia while Sten whips up some quick fake identification cards; the disguise isn't perfect, but it gets the team into the building outside visiting hours, and they go looking for Theodore.

They find him up on the seventh floor and convince him that they are friendly, but as he points to the two bulky plaster casts on his legs, they realise it won't be as easy as they thought to get him out. Carmel goes to fetch a wheelchair and then the lights go out.

Oh dear.

The Red Line team switch into high gear, bundle Theodore into the chair and head for the lifts. So flustered are they that they don't pay attention and are surprised when they stumble into a tactical combat unit.

A tense standoff turns into a brawl as the Red Line team attempt to disarm their opponents and force them to surrender. Things don't go so well, and Sten is downed in a spray of bullets. Max looks around for some way to escape and sees the hallway behind them filling with mist. Out of the mist steps a man with fierce red eyes.

Oh dear.

One of the combat squad members panics and fires a burst from his sub-machine gun. The bullets hit but don't faze the newcomer. With the unidentified special operations squad distracted by the new arrival the Red Line team make a break for the lifts, even though it brings them closer to the horror advancing down the corridor. They are lucky and the lift is there, so they clamber in and as the doors close with agonising slowness Max catches a glimpse of the man glancing their way, those burning red eyes tinged with curiosity.

The lift descends and the Red Line team hear the terrible sound of the combat unit upstairs being torn into pieces. As they flee the building and head to their car, there is a crash of glass from above and Natasha is lucky not to be hit by the shredded remains of one of the operatives. Max looks up and is certain he sees a large black bat flutter out of the broken seventh floor window.

They head to the nearby marina and Carmel helps them break in unnoticed. They steal the fastest boat they can find and speed back to Málaga as the sun rises. Theodore takes them to where he hid the package from London, and they dig up a box containing a large bundle of annotated pages. They can't quite believe their eyes as they look at the first page:

Dracula
by Bram Stoker



Next: to London!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Broken

Everything is broken. Everything is wrong. Except it isn't, and I know it isn't, but cold logic doesn't mean much when whatever this is, is happening. I feel a bit silly, because I know it's just chemicals, or worry, or something like that, and it shouldn't knock me down the way it has, but it has knocked me down, so I sort of have to accept it.

Is that defeatist? I don't know. It feels like it is, but at the same time, I know I'm at the mercy of forces beyond my immediate control.

I am rambling. I don't know what to say, but I needed to get some of this out of my head, and it's what blogs are for, after all. I don't like to write these personal posts, because it feels like self-promotion -- and how absurd is that feeling? -- and I'm so terrified of appearing arrogant or conceited that I always try to avoid talking about myself, but I do think that talking -- or at least writing, or typing, or whatever -- will help.

I'm not fishing for sympathy, and I am sincere when I say that I am sorry if what I'm writing here makes you uncomfortable, or isn't what you expect or want to see from me; as soon as this thing passes, then you'll see more of the content you're used to, I promise.

This will pass. It always does. Sometimes it goes away on its own, and sometimes I have to give it a kick and a shove, but it will pass.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Questing Again

It's official: I have no idea what Games Workshop is playing at.

It's produced a version of Warhammer Fantasy Battle that looks like it's fun to play. It's bringing Blood Bowl back. It's brought genestealer cults back, so now I'm about 75% less sad about my dad throwing out my old cult.

Today brings the news that Warhammer Quest is coming back.

There's been a recent change of management over at GW and the new bosses seem to have a fondness for, well, games. At this stage, I wouldn't be at all surprised if we see a new edition of Oi! Dat's My Leg! before the end of 2016.

Monday, March 28, 2016

On Your Nelly

First things first, I should mention that one of my friends was involved in the production of this game -- and voices a pompous sea bird -- and I've spent an afternoon playing Bomberman with both the creator of the game and Nelly Cootalot herself, or at least her inspiration and voice actor.

Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet is a comedic point and click adventure game about pirates. If you are now thinking "Gosh, that's a bit like deciding to be a sprinter and challenging Usain Bolt to a race your first time out" then that's a bit weird that we both thought of that, but you'd be correct. The shadow of Monkey Island looms large over this game -- now I'm imagining a Lovecraft pastiche; The Shadow Over Monkey Island -- but not only does the script acknowledge the influence, Nelly Cootalot is strong enough to stand up to and apart from its illustrious predecessor.

The writing for the most part is strong, and the characters' personalties come across well, helped in no small part by good voice acting throughout. Nelly herself is a charming protagonist; everyone seems to like her, and her cheerful approach to adventure is infectious. The main villains are a bit sketchy, and not in the appropriate sense of the word; I think they return from the original game in the series, but as I've not played that, their motivations and personalities seem a bit vague in this instalment. A new villain introduced in the middle section of the game comes across far better, although again his motivations and connection to the main plot are somewhat unclear. Still, it's Nelly and her friends who are most important and they are well-written and acted; aside from Nelly herself, I was most impressed by her sidekick Sebastian, voiced by Tom "Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior" Baker. To be honest, I was expecting someone of Sir Tom's prestige to sleepwalk through his role but he brings a lot of personality to Sebastian, even though he has one of those voices that means you can never quite forget the actor behind the character.

The game is funny, and there's a varied approach to the jokes, with plenty of references to films and games, a bit of witty wordplay, a dash of satire here and there, and at least one bit of smutty innuendo, although that last one doesn't land as well as it could have due to some clumsy back-pedalling. Some comments and reviews have claimed that the game is for children -- perhaps because of the art style -- but the latter joke suggests not, and some of the references are going to go right over the heads of most kids, unless they are showing Jack Nicholson films in primary schools these days.

The game looks good too. The trailers did look a bit ropey, with a flat animation style reminiscent of Flash or a cheap CBeebies programme, but the game looks much better in action. The character models look to be cel-shaded and that gives them a bit more weight, and they are for the most part well-animated; it is a bit of a shame that they don't tend to do anything when Nelly isn't interacting with them, but one has to remember that this isn't a multi-million pound game with a hundred-strong creative team behind it. That said, it's a pleasant surprise when you spot a character making a small movement or gesture that must have added time to the production schedule and is irrelevant to wider game, but helps to bring the character to life. It shows a dedication and craftsmanship that you don't often see in the aforementioned larger productions.

I did encounter a couple of graphical glitches; during one part of the Guttering Howls section Nelly walks in front of and through something she should be behind, and in the penultimate chapter the inventory panel goes a bit wonky, but is still usable. I also had a bit of trouble with the game's interface being slow to register what was under the pointer, although the mechanics worked as expected, so it wasn't a major issue. I played the game on Linux Mint 17.3 and I don't know if these glitches are in every port.

Heh, "port". Like sailors. Heh.

Nelly Cootalot's puzzles are varied and often require different approaches and techniques to solve; even when they are of the give-item-A-to-person-B sort, they are at least presented in novel ways so the game never gets dull. In terms of difficulty, the puzzles are if not simple, then logical, so you are never hunting for rogue pixels or throwing every item at every character, hoping for the best.

That said if there is a flaw in Nelly Cootalot -- and to be fair, it is the only thing I would consider a proper flaw -- it's the wider logic surrounding the puzzles. On a few occasions I worked out the solution to a problem, and had all the correct items in my inventory ready to go, but I couldn't apply said solution because I hadn't gone to talk to someone -- often in another location -- who was supposed to give me the idea I'd already had. This led to frustration and -- in one case near the end of the game -- a suspicion that there was a game-breaking bug. On the plus side, Sebastian is able to give hints about what to do next, and in at least one case this helped resolve the impasse, although in the latter instance I did end up roaming around clicking on everything and everyone until I spoke to the right person.

Creator Alasdair Beckett-King is a jolly nice fellow -- and is not bad at Bomberman -- but it turns out he's quite good at making computer games too. I had great fun playing Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet and although it is short -- it can be completed in about five hours or so, although getting the Steam achievements will take longer -- I think it is worth the £12 I paid for it. There are rough edges, and places where I feel Alasdair and his team could have done a tiny bit more, but what's here is good, and I hope the game is enough of a success that we see more from him.

If you like point and click adventure games, give this a try, because you'll probably like it. If you don't, give it a try anyway, as it's charming and funny and may change your mind.

Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet is available from loads of places, right now!