Monday, March 30, 2015

Tradecraft Tuesdays: A New Wave of Espionage Film Franchises?

As a solid series of super-heroic films come pouring out of the DC & Marvel universes, a lesser noticed trend has been emerging: spy films.

True, there's never been a lull, really -- what with the continuous Bonds and the (relative) newcomers like Jason Bourne. However, I'm talking about the return of several espionage properties that hearken back to the Cold War heydey.

First up is SPECTRE, with Sam Mendes directing Bond once more. Appropriately enough, the film picks up from the prior film and begins building on the current Bond 'mythology' establish in the prior film. It looks promising, though decidedly more conspiracy-laden and less action-filled (in the trailer, at least).


Second is a surprising entry: The Man from U.N.C.L.E., with Napoleon Solo played by Henry "Superman" Caville and Ilya Kuryakin played by Armie "Hey, I Was The Lone Ranger" Hammer. Directed by Guy Ritchie, with promising scenes from the trailer that promise to provide both the action and the humor that I enjoyed in the old series, while bringing it a bit up to date with the modern filmgoing sensibilities.


Third is another property that kind of killed off the well-known leads to the setting, and built its own new mythology around the core concept of the original: a team of specialists. It's the return of the IMF in Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation. The action is at an appropriately ridiculous level of visual spectacle, with fun-sounding banter.




All in all, a promising collection.

However, to cap it all off, I'd like to say that I enjoyed Kingsman: The Secret Service as both a deconstruction and joyous reconstruction of the gentleman spy in the modern era. A lot of fun, a lot of action and humor, some shocks along the way, and Colin Firth revealed as a believable action star in much the same way that Liam Neeson revealed himself in Taken. Try it, if you haven't already.


Martial Arts Monday: Background

I grew up in the wake of Bruce Lee's death, in a deluge of HK martial arts films, U.S. martial arts films, and Philippine martial arts films.

I took up Karate, like several other folks in my age group, and continued a full year after the rest of them had stopped going to class.

My interest in martial arts (mostly Karate at the time, though I was exposed to a variety of them, through the aforementioned movies, and my late uncle who practiced -- among other things -- Tai Chi) was a bit of youthful exuberance mixed in with the seemingly mythical things going on on the big screen.

It was an eclectic mix -- a steady stream of rapidly decaying Bruce Lee films in the theaters (perhaps I'll explain the lagari system someday in this blog), occasional movie gems on one of the three local TV stations like Billy Jack. Or some of the classic kung fu films like Drunken Master or Snake in the Eagle's Shadow.

AD&D


And so, when I was introduced to AD&D, I gravitated toward the monk. I never really got to play it, though -- so put off was I by the barriers to progression at the higher levels. But if I had a chance to start off at a higher level, I'd have jumped at the opportunity.

I thought that the barehanded damage was cool -- but not as cool as being able to reduce falling damage (which really didn't happen that often in-game, but hey, I was willing to jump out of windows a lot just to use it). The ability to also have naturally good AC was also pretty neat, but I realized in practice that the DM never really penalized players with removing their plate armor, unless EVERYONE got their gear taken away, which would be great for the monk but pretty bad for everyone else -- especially the mages and their material components!

Champions

No big surprise then that when I played Champions and built my first character, I gravitated towards the ones with martial arts. My longest running, most experienced character was a martial artist, naturally.

I really loved the Ninja Hero supplement - all the various martial arts represented by different manuevers and a bit of history, and the ability to make your own martial arts. There was some abuse, but also some genuinely creative martial arts that appeared in Champions games, and even in some Star Hero campaigns (alien martial arts)!

So for Martial Arts Mondays (Metahuman Mondays was a stretch, and Mystara Mondays will probably become multiparters in the same week, and Game Mechanics Mondays require more rules referencing than I thought -- but it's still in there), I'll be taking on my interests in the arts of hand-to-hand combat as they were paralleled in comics, movies, and of course RPGs.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Filipino Fridays: Some Massacres in Philippine History

If you know something about the Philippines, you'd certainly know that it's a predominantly Catholic country in Asia. However, you might not know what we mean when we talk about the Moros.

According to Wikipedia:

The Moro people or Bangsamoro are a population of indigenous Muslims in the Philippines, forming the largest non-Catholic group in the country, and comprising about 5% of the total Philippine population.

You can imagine that there are tensions -- long-simmering, occasionally explosive tensions -- in the country. However, it's also source of rich cultural material, and an eminently mineable history of promises, betrayals, and conflict.

Something that you may wish to take a look at when tackling this kind of thing in your games is to research several key elements in our history and extrapolate them for your own use in your games. But be sensitive in your use -- these are people's lives, after all -- and the wounds may still be fresh in some families.

I offer this as a sort of reversal in the more positive posts on my beloved country -- we are, like every other country -- filled with agendas, personalities, and organisations always in conflict over scarce (or ridiculously valuable) resources.

Moro Insurgency in the Philippines [ Wikipedia ]

Details the emergence of the Moro Insurgency from the late 1960s to the present, with a sympathetic slant toward the Moros' plight. It talks about several key events and policies that led to the current situation.

A key event, still discussed to this day, is the Jabidah Massacre -- something that I'd long accepted as de facto history. A varying number of muslims, it's said, were recruited into the Philippine military to perform a secret mission. But when it was revealed to them that they'd be fomenting dissent in a nearby island against fellow muslims they refused, and were (allegedly?) killed to silence them. It has long been a rallying point for local muslim insurgent movements.

More recently, the Mampasano Massacre (clash, to some) involved members of the Philippine military entering ares controlled by MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) & BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) forces, intending to serve arrest warrants for high-ranking terrorists. In the ensuing clash, 44 members of the Philippine National Police's Special Action Force (PNP SAF) were surrounded, and -- after they'd surrendered -- were slaughtered.


Right now, the media narratives are talking about how the Jabidah Massacre might've been a hoax, and how the Mampasano Massacre might be a reverse Jabidah operation. It's hard to sort out true history from the shouting between camps.


Maguindanao Massacre [ Wikipedia ]

On the morning of November 23, 2009, in the town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao province, 58 victims were on their way to file a certificate of candidacy for Esmael Mangudadatu, were kidnapped and brutally killed. The people killed included Mangudadatu's wife, his two sisters, a large number of journalists, lawyers, aides, and motorists who were witnesses or were mistakenly identified as part of the convoy. They were killed because Mangudadatu was challenging the incumbent Mayor (Mayor Ampatuan) for his mayoral seat.

The case is still ongoing.



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Worldwatch Wednesday: Keeping the World Safe


Worldwatch Wednesdays are named after Worldwatch One, a reference found the movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. In the forseeable future, I want to dissect various organizations appearing in TV / Movies / Comics / Novels with the noble goal of saving the world (either wholesale, or one person at a time).

In the Buckaroo Banzai film alone, you can talk about the Banzai Institute, the Blue Blaze Irregulars (and their feared strike teams), and the Hong Kong Cavaliers!

You can go back to Doc Savage and his Fabulous Five, and shift to a modern take on distributed world-saving solutions with Global Frequency. Looking into espionage agencies that took on the heady task of saving the world from evil, we can cite U.N.C.L.E. and perhaps the 00 Section of the MI6 that James Bond belonged to. One might argue that TV shows like The Librarians and Warehouse 13 share similar organizations.

In RPGs, there are many, many iterations of this type of organization -- Bureau 13 from Stalking the Night Fantastic and F.R.E.E.Lancers from the Top Secret / S.I. supplement of the same name.

Worldwatch Wednesdays hopes to sneak a peek at each one of these, until they run out.

And so I leave you with the words of the Blue Blaze Irregulars:

"Treat us good, we'll treat you better.
Treat us bad, we'll treat you worse."


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tradecraft Tuesday: Night's Black Agents in Fading Suns?

There are, of course, intelligence agencies mentioned in the Fading Suns setting. The ones that initially hooked me were the Hidden Martyrs of House Li Halan -- faceless spies who put together a steady diet of intelligence for their masters.

But a recent re-watching of Brotherhood of the Wolf (and the brief reminder of the absurdist Hudson Hawk) reminded me of the possibilities of a Church-based intelligence agency.

Monica Bellucci (pictured above) portrayed a dangerous, ruthless character strongly hinted at being in the service of the Vatican, helping the protagonist along in his efforts to discover the secrets of the Brotherhood of the Wolf.

Why not something similar in Fading Suns?

There's no shortage of suspects, mystical, mutant, alien, or otherwise, in the setting that could take the place of the Vampire Conspiracy.

I plan to put together a mini-campaign for this, but I need to find a strong hook for the campaign. In the meantime, here's a snapshot of one of my notes for it from last year:


Because of the procedural-friendliness of Gumshoe systems, I was trying to figure out a kind of "monster of the week" approach, intertwined with a spooky X-files feel against a dark space opera campaign.

Perhaps with a bit more discipline, I'll be able to finish mini-document of it and post it online.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Echoes: Piacenza - Season 01 Episodes 04 (powered by D&D 5e)



Echoes 2.04 (September 20, 2014) - In Which A Mysterious Island is Investigated
Distretto di cultura, Piacenza: licensing office - afternoon
SIGNORA ROSALVA
I'm so sorry, but those are really the only mission choices we have this week.
VIATRIZ
Oh, but you are so connected, so informed--you're sure you don't have something special tucked away? Have I mentioned how that blouse brings out your eyes?
SIGNORA ROSALVA
All the time, and every time I believe you! You know I think the world of you personally, and your family name still has weight, especially in Cultura; alas, however dazzling my eyes may be, these are all we have available right now.
VIATRIZ
Please don't feel badly; it is not your fault we are an especially sizeable and multi-talented group, such that a 70 is really not sufficiently profitable for us.
SIGNORA ROSALVA
Shall I pencil you in for this 75,000 then?
VIATRIZ
(sighing)
It can't hurt. We'll just have to hope for a job that pays 90 or more next week.
Portinari residence - evening
CESARE
I have it!
VIATRIZ
What is it?
CESARE
It is a brazier, for a bird.
DOLCE
Is the bird a chicken? I hear those are tasty, but expensive. But so is duck, lately.
CESARE
It is not for a chicken! It's for calling a familiar--
DOLCE
Geese are familiar. But also pricey, nowadays.
CESARE
A familiar is not for cooking--!
VIATRIZ
Thank you for managing the cooking and cleaning, Dolce. Speaking of "pricey"...
(recounts her plight at the licensing office)
DOLCE
Well, speaking of job opportunities...
A back alley - earlier, that afternoon
GISELA
I am sorry I have been out of sight for so long, but as you can see--
(lowers her hood to show that, like Mara Conti, she has only flesh where her eyes would be)
As you can see, well, I cannot anymore.
DOLCE
Oh, but Gisela, how very distinctive!
GISELA
I am glad you see it that way.
DOLCE
We try and embrace our--distinctions. I myself grow a fishtail on occasion, and removing it--ugh, does not bear discussing. But how did you read my message?
GISELA
My sense of touch has grown exceptionally acute.
DOLCE
I'm sorry; should I not have embraced you?
GISELA
No, I no longer need to touch things to feel them; I sensed your sign on the wall as I passed by. A fishtail--Dolce, this may be even more fortuitous than I thought...
Portinari residence - evening
DOLCE
Five. Hundred. Thousand.
VIATRIZ
500,000?
DOLCE
500,000!
RINALDO
That would keep us more than solvent for a good while.
VIATRIZ
We're doing it.
VITTORIO
It would give us the time and grease money to help find our family members.
VIATRIZ
We're doing it, right?
CESARE
That would buy us a lot of components!
VIATRIZ
Tell me we're doing it! But I would not want anyone to feel unheard, or--
RINALDO
Of course not. But let's just be clear: what does "it" entail again?
DOLCE
We only have to--discreetly--make our way to one of these islands that they say have been appearing where Giustizia used to be, and create a map. Discreetly.
CESARE
But how can there be islands there? Unless the "islands" are just the upper topography of Giustizia, rising back to the surface. How would we possibly map anything with any degree of thoroughness in just two nights? Do they think--
VITTORIO
She did say a "rudimentary" map.
Cesare snorts.
DOLCE
I suspect this is something in the way of a preliminary survey--they will return for a more thorough investigation once we have given them a lay of the land.
VITTORIO
But why us?
DOLCE
Well, my friend rather specializes in putting talents and tasks together, and obviously it is not the sort of thing she could accomplish herself.
RINALDO
We should take into consideration it's likely to rain. But why "obviously" not?
DOLCE
Well, because she has no cartography skills. I did say "discreetly", right?
VIATRIZ
Which includes a caveat that we are never to return to said island?
CESARE
We will never what? Only two nights? What?
RINALDO
For 500,000. It's not as if we would ever have known the island was there.
VIATRIZ
So we're doing it, right? We must be doing it. You all know we should do it.
VITTORIO
We will need to engage the services of a boat. And get some rations--
DOLCE
You all discuss supplies; I will let her know we're taking the job.
the watering hole 'Haphazard' - night
Intimidating his way inside after Viatriz bribed her way inside, Vittorio sidles (as much as anyone at least eight feet tall can sidle) to the bar to keep a furtive eye on her. On a barstool, he finds what looks like a puddle of vomit, which then shimmers and transforms into a vaguely humanoid shape. Eyes migrate from around the gut area to the more-or-less head.
ANNUNZIATO
Hey there, handsome. Buy a lady a drink?
VITTORIO
(smelling something on the verge of rot, and feeling cold sliminess on his back)
Uh--sure. Bartender! Get me something stiff and strong.
ANNUNZIATO
Oh, I also want something stiff and strong.
At a table - meanwhile
TIZIANO
This is not the place for a beautiful girl like you.
VIATRIZ
But how can that be, when a handsome man like you is here already?
TIZIANO
Why are you here, Illeso? Looking to try something different?
VIATRIZ
Exactly, I want to borrow a ship-- I'm so sorry, I did not see you there. I am Via--
(after Tiziano's male compatriot once more vanishes from sight)
He has quite an interesting ability.
TIZIANO
That is Matt. What is the ship for?
VIATRIZ
To travel to the west of Cultura.
TIZIANO
There is nothing there but open sea.
VIATRIZ
Let us just say that I like open sea, so much so that I would like to travel there and stay for two nights, after which you would pick us up. There are five of us, except that one is very, very tall--eight feet or so--so consider us six.
TIZIANO
Ten thousand per head, twice for the big one. It should not be a problem for Illeso.
VIATRIZ
That is too much, and you know it, whether I am Illeso or not, which you can't be sure of. How about forty thousand? Half now, half after you bring us back.
TIZIANO
There is nothing there.
VIATRIZ
Then that would be forty thousand for only a quick trip out and back. It's very generous, since you and I know the best bounty this week is only sixty thousand.
TIZIANO
Fifty.
VIATRIZ
Forty-five, and that pays for you and your crew's absolute discretion, as well.
TIZIANO
Forty-five, and you stay here for the next hour.
VIATRIZ
Why, do you think you can flatter me enough that I will sleep with you?
TIZIANO
Yes. You are very intriguing, Illeso.
VIATRIZ
You don't know that. And I don't know if it will work, but you're welcome to try.
At the bar - a little later
ANNUNZIATO
Who's your friend, handsome?
VIATRIZ
(as Vito begins to stammer an answer)
So this is where you've been? Another woman? Again?!
Via slaps Vito. Not wanting trouble, Annunziato (almost literally) oozes away.
Canal system - Night
RINALDO
Why are you carrying that?
CESARE
(clutching a goopy lump of herbs and other components)
It's my familiar! I was in the middle of my ritual--
RINALDO
I told you, you didn't have to come; I'm just picking up some backup sumac.
CESARE
No! I am not leaving you again, or being left by you again, or whatever it is that happened, and no one is turning into some sort of amnesiac spider-person!
RINALDO
What--?
Rinaldo stops, arrested by the scent of reptile. A reptilian Cambiato--virtually unknown in Cultura--drifts by in a gondola. Spurred by his memory of the attack on Fierra and himself, Rinaldo promptly hauls Cesare into another gondola and begins trailing the Cambiato.
CESARE
What are we doing? Via said we have to be at the dock by four--and you're staring! It is not polite to stare at Cambiato-- do you know that person?
RINALDO
No. What is it doing here? It's not supposed to be here.
CESARE
Well, he's Piacenzan, isn't he? Or she? They can go where they want.
RINALDO
Gondolier, where is that boat heading?
GONDOLIER
That path would take them to the old visual arts enclave. It's wild there now.
After a while, their gondola eases up to a nearby dock, where a young woman is waiting.
RINALDO
Excuse me, didn't we pay for the whole boat?
GONDOLIER
Oh, I'm sorry, signor, I completely forgot! Scusi, signorina, it is my fault--
FIAMETTA
That's all right. I'm only heading for the arts enclave; another gondola will--
RINALDO
Well, it looks like we're heading there, too. You can come with us.
CESARE
(resigning himself, since Rinaldo is ignoring his meaningfully wide eyes)
Hello, signorina.
RINALDO
Are you going by yourself? It doesn't seem like a safe place to go alone.
FIAMETTA
(chuckling)
I am going home, after my workday. But thank you for your concern.
RINALDO
I apologize; I hope I did not cause offense.
FIAMETTA
Not at all; it can be a bit--unrestrained there, but also quite interesting, with all the creatives and such. Are you going for the exhibit? It is the great Giovanetta.
RINALDO
Is it? I have heard that--people are coming from all over, to see.
FIAMETTA
Well, that would be wonderful. She is my sister.
CesARE
Now we're going to an exhibit?!
(after Rinaldo just looks at him)
I mean, now! We're going to an exhibit! Hurray!
FIAMETTA
May I ask: what is that? Is it a sculpture?
CESARE
No, it is a bird. It's waiting to come out.
FIAMETTA
Oh, of course it is. I see it.
CESARE
You do?
FIAMETTA
Blank canvas begins empty--or full, yes? Either you chip away at it with color, to reveal what is there, waiting to be born, or you coax it out.
CESARE
Yes! Those are very important principles.
FIAMETTA
The exhibit opens at ten. May I invite you gentlemen?
RINALDO
Well, we have an early-morning appointment, so we may not be able to--
CESARE
But-- she was talking about the blank canvas, and you know, in my Manuale--
FIAMETTA
Oh, be careful!
Concerned since Cesare is gesturing as he speaks, Fiametta grabs at the familiar-summoning concoction, revealing that she has scaly hands. Noticing Cesare staring at them, she flushes.
CESARE
(embarrassed in turn)
We will go! We will be there, for your sister's gallery opening!
RINALDO
We will? But you were the one who--
(as Cesare glares at him)
I mean, we will go.
By this time, their original reptilian quarry has simply vanished.
They proceed to the exhibit space, where they meet the lavender-eyed, beautifully horse-headed Giovanetta, who mentions that the "great plant" in Cesare's native Finanza is rumored to have "different properties". She also urges Fiametta to take the pair to see the Wizard's Market, where, heedless of Rinaldo's hints that he may wish to exercise caution, Cesare buys no less than three five-sol-worth diamonds, at the bargain price of ten sol each.
Meanwhile, after the bar, Vito has proceeded to a nearby foodstuff seller, and managed to acquire victuals and waterskins at a goodly discount, notwithstanding Via's polite horror.
Dolce arrives back at home base and promptly leaves again, exasperated that nothing has been done about securing habitation, not even by Some Brothers who no doubt think they are well-equipped with bedrolls that are now at least two feet too short for them.
She makes it to the nearest affordable market literally seconds before closing, where she meets a very nice merchant named Serafin, who furnishes her with tents, bedrolls, and the like, including a wonderful tarp that folds and unfolds from a tiny, handheld square of material that miraculously holds everything purchased from Serafin's stall.
Having forgotten that this is the traders' market, she attempts to pay with her lens-less monocle that she once purchased at an estate sales, but Serafin declines, saying that it is too precious, and he trusts her to return and pay him back with something more equitable.
In the course of negotiations and the succeeding profuse thanks, Dolce also meets Serafin's friend and fellow merchant Roseldo, who looks very much like her old friend Gaetano, who looked stunningly like Dante di Sovrino. He does not give any sign of recognizing her.
Vicinity of drowned guistizia - morning
Aside from some minor squabbling over Vito's currently-increased height, and an altercation with a sea serpent thankfully cut short by Captain Tiziano's alacrity (and apparent ability to emit some form of lightning), the voyage to the mysterious island goes smoothly enough.
At Dolce's urging, Cesare takes his freshly-formed familar Occhi on its maiden flight, sending his consciousness along with the bird to determine whether this is, indeed, the island they are tasked to map. He discovers no less than eight newly-risen islands! Via and Dolce quickly confer and agree to report only three of the eight islands, creating a loophole for them to possibly investigate the others at some later date.
They make landfall. The shiny-faced Tiziano, Matt, and the rest of their crew depart, to return after two nights. Despite the allure of the buildings Cesare has already spied, the treasure-hunting crew responsibly sets up camp first--only to discover that they have pounded one of their tent pegs into the shell of an enormous crab, about half human height.
The crab proves to be one of dozens that were evidently slumbering under the sand until daylight, at which point they all begin swarming to the water, heedless of the crew standing right in their path. Cesare knocks three out with a Sleep spell, forming a bulwark that causes most of the crabs to detour around them. Vito flips stray crabs away with his Smaul.
Alas, the crabs are soon followed by a pair of gigantic turtles, which attack! With much frenzy and effort; many spells cast by wizard, druid, and bard; and multiple bites, claws, and one charging headbutt sustained by fighter and rogue, the beasts are eventually bested.
They become aware of a third turtle approaching, and quickly make themselves scarce. It lumbers on into the surf, where it begins to feast on the large crabs.
Panting, battered, and frazzled, the group presses on to investigate the ruins, hoping to find some treasure to add to their promised profits from this already-quite-hazardous endeavor. Luckily, Via notices some oddity about the two closest buildings; Cesare discerns that the apparent corals encrusting the walls are species that should not grow together; and Rinaldo identifies one of these 'coral' patterns as two mammoth snakes entwined around the edifices.
They creep away to rest, recover, and deliberate, in the course of which they hear the sound of other human voices, which before long seem to become engaged in combat. After some time, Rinaldo and Cesare gingerly step out of the tent for a look around, and they see the third turtle dragging an obviously dead human body. It settles down with it.
Dolce points out that the ruins are actually a bonus, not their actual mission, which, according to Cesare, they have already accomplished--he will be able to provide a more-than-satisfactory map as is. The crew agrees that their first priority should be to ensure their safety: first, they will eliminate the danger posed by the third turtle; second, they will reestablish a campsite in between the shells of the first two fallen turtles (in the hope that this will dissuade the crabs from approaching them); and third, they will reap the benefits of a longer, more rejuvenating rest period, after which they can decide how to proceed.
With experience (though not without another close scrape or two, regardless), they manage to dispatch the third turtle. Dolce begins to drag the poor corpse to the shore for a sea burial, which is how she spots the mangled body of a woman and the blue-skinned form of a man.
The man proves to be barely alive, and Rinaldo is able to bring him back from the brink. After a little while, the man is able to tell them that he is Elizando Amato, of Gran Lunga, and that he and his team were dispatched from a nearby boat to investigate the island.

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