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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?

Reading RuneQuest: Chapter II (Character Creation)

RuneQuest character creation was pretty startling for me way back when. Tunnels & Trolls and Dungeons & Dragons were close relatives — sure, you swap out Luck for Wisdom but that’s not a huge change. RuneQuest retained the 3d6 rolls and had a reasonable seven stats, but what’s the bit where the ability to work magic (Power) is a primary stat? And where’s the conversation about classes? The previous chapter did not warn us that there weren’t any classes.

Oh, and adventurers are assumed to be human. There’s a note that elves, dwarves, and dragonewts will be discussed in the section on monsters, which doesn’t make them sound much like playable races.

We also meet Rurik, our sample character. He’s really interesting. It’s clear simply from the explanation of his stats that he’s going to be both engaging in combat and casting spells. I distinctly remember reading this the first time and going “Whoa.”

Next, there’s a section on abilities. Combat abilities first, of course. The system for calculating these is pretty straightforward; add percentage points up based on how high the controlling stats are and you’re done. In another little sign that magic is pivotal to the world, Power figures into almost every ability. There are nine abilities total. This system wouldn’t look weird if it came out for the first time today; maybe a little fiddly but not out of the norm.

We then divert back to characteristics for a moment, with rules on increasing them. There’s a cute little bit in the ongoing saga of Rurik: “Thus we see that if Rurik had the money, he could put 4000 L towards bringing his STR up to 16, and another 15,000 L towards building his DEX up to 21. Where would our hero get this money? That’s what the rest of this book is all about.” And I thought the point of the game was either a radio play or simulation of life! It does make a good segue into equipment rules… no, sorry, that’s just starting equipment. You get a list of things, and there’s no discussion of shopping.

A parenthetical: for the first time, an insert from Wyrm’s Footnotes appears. It’s charmingly old school to run into these little random Q&A sections from the pages of Chaosium’s house magazine. More indie games need house magazines, not even totally kidding.

The total chapter length is eight pages, and two of those are character sheets. Hm, there’s something new there. The abilities appear to have base percentages, and presumably you add the calculated modifications to those? But in the text on abilities, there’s no mention of a base. The boxed text detailing Rurik’s abilities doesn’t give us any clues and there’s no sample character sheet for him, so who can say?

Reading RuneQuest: Chapter 1 (Introduction)

I started gaming back in the early 80s. By “gaming” I mean “reading roleplaying books and wondering what it’d be like to actually play,” with a hefty side order of “running through Tunnels & Trolls solitaire adventures.” Tunnels & Trolls was my first RPG. I think RuneQuest was my third? Hard to remember exactly.

Chaosium just reprinted that 1980 edition after a successful Kickstarter. I backed it. I know that when I read RuneQuest the first time around, the weird world of Glorantha didn’t bewilder me at all. This is more than I can say for any subsequent edition, even the lovely hardcover Guide to Glorantha. I figured, hey, that relatively slim book made sense to me back in the 80s, so let’s check it out again.

Now I’m gonna read it and see what I think.

The introduction is five pages. Page 1 is the obligatory explanation of the nature of fantasy role-playing games, a description of how to use the rules, and so on. As I recall, this is the first use of the improvisational radio theater metaphor. Stafford kind of waffles between saying that you’re simulating life and that you’re telling a story; alas, nothing here will settle that age-old debate.

The second page launches us into the Gloranthaness of it all. The page and a half of history is not at all weird. Gods fight, empires rise and fall, dragons breathe fire. Nothing about the whole bit where heroes venture into the spirit world in order to rewrite the cosmology; it’s just another mythos. I am not surprised that my adolescent self found this digestible. It’s cool history, too.

I’m pretty sure I mentally skipped over the next bit, where Stafford explains that Glorantha is a Bronze Age culture. I remember being really surprised to find out that Glorantha was short on iron and steel later on in life. There’s a picture of an elf with a bow on that page, which is nicely grounding if you don’t know he’s actually a plant. I don’t know if this edition gets into the elven plant issue or not. Time will tell.

And then we get a map — I loved and love maps — and the world is a “slightly bulging, squarish lozenge.” This is another thing that surprised me later in life. I am beginning to suspect that one reason I wasn’t weirded out by Glorantha at the time was that I skipped all the confusing parts. There’s a little hint about visiting the worlds of the gods here, but it’s pretty subtle and you’d never know how important that kind of thing is. What’s heroquesting?

Finally, there’s a nice timeline for the Lunar Empire and Dragon Pass which is just full of hints of weirdness. I was definitely skimming this. “War between hill peoples of Dragon Pass and Ducks.” “God-King of the Holy Country disappears and the Masters of Luck and Death fail to bring forth a new incarnation.” Yeah, it’s all there if you just open your eyes and see.

Next time: character generation. How weird could that be?