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Author: Bryant

Noir City 2018 Seattle

Seattle has a great film scene. It’s on par with San Francisco — no Alamo Drafthouse up here, but we have the Cinerama and SIFF is an excellent film society. I thought I was going to miss Eddie Mueller’s San Francisco based film noir festivals, but it turns out he runs a slightly abbreviated version of the festival up here every year.

It’s that time of year! This’ll be my third go-round at one version or another of this festival. Previous years have coincided with lapsed blogging, alas.

This year’s festival leans heavily into the classics. I am looking forward to watching The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon again. I’ve never seen Mildred Pierce or The Blue Dahlia. This should be awesome.

AirPods One Year In

Yep, they continue to be really great after a year of use. Apple hasn’t made progress on the wearable interface yet, alas. They’re still my favorite headphones ever. The unexpected benefit: they’re exactly what I need for using videoconferencing at work. Lightweight, live in my pocket, I don’t have to awkwardly carry them to a conference room when I’m talking to someone remotely. They’re just great.

Art and Games

My friend Pongo wrote an artist’s statement about Ingress. She speaks truth: I have worked with Pongo for over a year now and her ability to infuse the canvas of the game with story is inherently artistic.

I play for different reasons than she does. I’ve been coordinating the actions of teams for 20 years now, at first on AmberMUSH but soon thereafter in my professional career. I’m good at it. Ingress is a difficult but satisfying instance of that task, in a framework that requires me to think on several different layers (people, logistics, tactics, and on occasion grand strategy).

It’s really interesting to consider the game in artistic terms, though.

(“Hey, why did you pick up the blog again?” “Some of my friends are sufficiently artistic to make me feel bad about letting my writing go fallow.”)

GUMSHOE: Stanhopes

In 1857, a French photographer named René Dagron combined the hot new fad of microphotography and a 50 year old magnifying device called a Stanhope lens to come up with a simple inexpensive way of embedding tiny photographs into a wide range of gewgaws. Stanhope lenses are small enough to embed within rings, watch keys, pocket knives, charms, and so on. Dagron was also an entrepreneur: he ran a mail order business selling the things. Since they were cheap enough to market as souvenirs, they became fairly common fairly quickly.

The images are remarkably clear and detailed despite their tiny size. One could, hypothetically, put quite a bit of text in one of these. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Dagron refined his microphotography process to generate carrier pigeon messages. This usage didn’t require Stanhope lenses in reality. Who knows what might have happened in a slightly different time stream?

The fad was mostly over by World War I, but there are plenty of the things floating around during the 1930s era of Trail of Cthulhu. If you’re running a Night’s Black Agents game, you’ll be happy to know that Stanhopes still turn up all the time in the wild in 2018. Also fun: it’s not obvious when an object has a Stanhope embedded within it. The photographs are 1/10th of an inch in diameter and a mere quarter of an inch long; modern collectors often miss the presence of a Stanhope. This makes them awesome as unexpected surprises for an investigatory game.

Based on a few hours of Web surfing, I can’t find any evidence that anyone put a Stanhope into a book spine — but someone really should have. This is an easy Bookhounds of London hook. The book itself is something anodyne and unremarkable, but the spine contains images of a horrible crime. Who took them? Why were they preserved in this manner? What’s casting that terrifying shadow in the background?

For a conventional Trail of Cthulhu game, stick the same images in a more traditional Stanhope carrier. Want something more outré? Consider the pocket knife with a small glass aperture at one end. If you look into the glass aperture, what looks back out at you? The Stanhope brooch is the only path this creature has to reach the outer world, and it’s been trapped in there for decades. It will not be grateful to you.

Wait: this Stanhope shows a moving picture. Something strange. It’s the Dreamlands, or Carcosa if you’re into Hastur.

For Night’s Black Agents, a Stanhope would be a great way to introduce a picture of a prominent NPC. Who, of course, looks the same in the picture as he does now. Most photographic evidence of his earlier life was destroyed, but Stanhopes are easy to miss. Or you can go straight espionage, and have one contain microfilm as an information carrier. Also, since we’re talking vampires, I should note that there were plenty of Stanhopes built into crosses. One common cross had seven Stanhopes in it, each one depicting one of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Any vampire game ought to be able to do something useful with that.

Skill-wise, a Trail of Cthulhu character needs Art History or a Evidence Collection spend to notice one of these things. Craft could also work given the right specialty. Bookhounds could use Document Analysis. For Night’s Black Agents, a Notice spend can stand in for Evidence Collection. Art History remains preferable — give those PCs some payoff for all those years spent in museums.

There’s a book on these, which looks really interesting but I’m not sure about giving into temptation. It has pictures, though. Tempting.

Cold War Confession

Now it can finally be told: up till 2018, I hadn’t successfully read a Le Carré novel. I know this is awful. I love espionage thrillers, I love conspiratorial stuff, and I love great prose. Failing at Le Carré is a major hole in my cultural education. I have no idea what the blocker was. It’s not like I didn’t try often enough.

But the other week I read a review of Our Kind of Traitor and something about the topicality of a Russian vor looking to defect intrigued me, so I picked up yet another Le Carré book and gave it a swing. It was awesome. There’s lots of tension, it moves quickly, and the characterization is great. This is undoubtedly true of everything the man wrote, but this novel hooked me. Maybe because there’s less mystery? I wasn’t sure who was getting manipulated by who till a fairly late stage, but it’s not the kind of subtle obfuscated mystery that we get in the Karla trilogy. Either way I loved it. Bonus points for a cynical conclusion.

Speaking of which, I have now finished Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and am happily steaming through The Honorable Schoolboy. I see no obstacles from here to the horizon. I will no longer labor with this secret shame.

OrcaCon 2017: Review

OrcaCon ProgramSusan and I went up to OrcaCon for the weekend. It’s a local gaming convention in its second year, with an emphasis on diversity and creating a safe space for gaming. It ran Friday through Sunday, 1/13 through 1/15, at the Holiday Inn Downtown in Everett, WA. Rumor is that it had around 1,000 attendees. I am no good at judging crowd sizes but that sounds about right to me.

Check out the cool program book there! (Oooh, visual aids.) Not only was there an awesome map, but the back six pages or so were a Mutants & Masterminds quick-start. This is the most useful con program book I’ve ever seen.

If you are too busy to read through the thousand words or so that follow, my quick recommendation: this con is definitely a must if you’re in the Seattle area, and it’s worth some travel if you like really well-run regional gaming conventions.

Quick AirPods Thoughts

The basics: I like my AirPods. They were easy to pair, the sound is decent, and they’re secure in my ears. The case is cool and will fit nicely in my backpack. I am not an audiophile, so if you are maybe you want something better, but they’re fine for me. I’m not going to be a huge fan of pulling my phone out of my pocket to change the volume, but I think I can live with that.

The really interesting thing is how unobtrusive they are. I could possibly have one of these sitting in my ear all day; it wouldn’t cut off outside sound and it wouldn’t be annoying. If Siri was really awesome, this would be the at-hand personal assistant as described in Oath of Fealty, which would be kind of cool. Siri is not that awesome yet, however, and she’s not tuned for voice communication. Like, I should be able to say “Where is Susan?” and Siri should tell me where she is instead of making me peer at my screen. (We have Find my Friends, it’s not creepy.)

Anyhow, lightweight: that’s the cool bit about this device. They’re a wearable that fades into the background. Or maybe they’re a signpost on the way to that wearable.

Reading RuneQuest: Chapter 3 (Mechanics and Melee)

I got busy during the fall. What can I say? RuneQuest originally came out almost forty years ago so the extra few months won’t have hurt much.

The Mechanics and Melee chapter starts out pretty normally. You have time, including the concept of turns and melee rounds. There’s a note about how a real day should equal one game week, which is a bit of old school detail I always liked. You also have three scales of movement: daily movement, scenario movement, and of course melee movement. Then, like all good systems, it goes into encumbrance. Here we get all narrative: encumbrance (which has an abbreviation, as do all important elements of old school RPGs), is measured in “things.” Way simpler than pounds and ounces. The motivation for this is explained up front: “Ideally, an ENC rule for a role-playing game should read, ‘Characters may not carry more than they should be reasonably be expected to carry under normal conditions.'” That’s the plaint of a man who was tired of too many rules. I think I liked this a great deal at the time.

The rest of the chapter covers melee — the total is about three and a half pages, which is pretty concise. It’s pretty straight-forward, in the way one might expect from the author of that quote on encumberance. Hit rolls are a d100, affected by the opponent’s Defense. You can try and parry, which introduces the possibility of either attacker or defender’s weapon taking some damage.

Initiative, here called strike rank, is deterministic and based on weapon and stats. Strike ranks are also subunits of time during a combat round, in case someone wants to draw a new weapon or something. This is also where we start talking about magic in combat: there are attack spells and ways of enchanting weapons mid-combat, which is cool. Evocative sentence regarding enchantment: “This is because a character will normally immediately carve the appropriate focuses on the weapons the minute he obtains it.” There are hit locations, and some funky bits where each location has hit points but the character as a whole also has hit points. This is pleasingly deadly.

Overall this is different enough from D&D to be interesting. Like Tunnels & Trolls, the basics are similar but the implementation details were refreshingly new. RuneQuest was also way crunchier than Tunnels & Trolls, in a way I still find I like.

It is perhaps a bit optimistic to have called this chapter “Mechanics and Melee,” since chapter 4 is called “Combat Skills.” Next time: fumbles! Impaling! Criticals! And a tiny bit of world building.

2017 Campaigns 1 of 5: The Golden Pyramid

Nights Black Agents campaigns are built using a diagram which represents the classic conspiratorial pyramid structure. It’s called a Conspyramid. The mastermind squats at the top, with minions at various levels beneath. PCs discover the fringes of the conspiracy, and work their way up as the campaign goes on.

The following diagram is a satire. Who would believe that Peter Thiel is secretly influencing 4chan, or that Steve Bannon controls Breitbart News?