Sunday, December 15, 2019

My first rules botch- Stratego

My mother has a battered set of Stratego, an older version released sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. A blue bomb piece was missing, but we usually compensated by making red remove a bomb as well. I was taught by my mom, and frequently played with my cousin Sharon while she babysat me as a young kid.

Stratego seeks to emulate Napoleonic Wars of attrition, featuring a constrained map where pieces move one square at a time and the main approach to your enemy is three two-square wide channels with impassable lakes or the board edge to the left and right.

The victory conditions in Stratego are simple- kill every piece your enemy has that can move (Flags and Bombs are immobile), or capture the enemy's flag.

Stratego is a meat grinder. The strength of pieces is known only to their player- and all pieces are rated on a 10-point scale for strength. In older versions, smaller numbers were stronger, much like AC in 2ed AD&D (Which I'll use here). You can only discover the strength of opposing forces by attacking- a risky venture as discovering that you just walked your 7 into your opponent's 2 means losing the 7. Ties result in both pieces dying in a Pyrrhic Victory.

My family generally played with the following understanding:

  • Scouts (9) can move and attack in the same turn
  • Bombs destroy any attacking piece that is not a Miner (8). When attacked by a Miner the Bomb is removed. Bombs are not removed upon killing attacking pieces.
  • Victorious attacking pieces advance into the square of the defeated piece
  • Victorious defending pieces do not advance into the square of a defeated attacking piece
  • Moving a non-scout piece to the far end of the board (similar to a pawn advancing in chess) allows you to rescue a formerly captured piece, which is placed on your starting side of the field. This may be done 3x per game, but each individual piece may only rescue once.

But, Sharon and I didn't read the rules closely enough, because there's this cool piece called the Spy.

At the top of the Stratego foodchain, you have the Marshall (1). The Marshall is a force of nature, capable of cutting down swathes of troops, only challenged by Bombs and the enemy Marshall in the absence of the Spy. 

The Spy is squishy, and dies to any attack, while also dying when attacking other pieces. But, if the Spy Attacks the Marshall first, the Marshall dies. At that point the Spy can just sit around body blocking, preventing Scouts from blazing across the battlefield and taking unprotected flags, or something I guess.

But Sharon and I didn't understand the rules that way. We'd unknowingly played with a much deadlier set of rules:

If the Spy Attacks, it wins (except against bombs). If the Spy is attacked, it dies.

This made a game that was already a stark look at attrition and added a game of monstrous glass cannon chicken into the mix as well. The spy could annihilate and cut through an opposing enemy army, but any scout could quickly end its reign. Attacking the wrong bait could cause the Spy to advance into the defeated piece's space and fall victim to a piece lying in wait.

Previously, the Spy was best used hidden, unobtrusively placed to sneak out and get the drop on the Marshall, a contingency to the piece in the game meant to be a force of destruction.

With our rule, what was an elegant and subtle duel became a frantic dance to find an opening that would allow for taking out one of the deadly duo, without losing half of your own in the process.

Now that I'm significantly older, I've played Stratego with both sets of rules. As far as screwing up rules go, the unintentional change we made to the Spy wasn't game-breaking, unlike the scores people who never ran auctions for unpurchased Monopoly properties (let alone the insanity of allowing free parking to accumulate a pool of money).

I'd say that this rules botch is a viable rules variant. It can overall speed the time a game of Stratego takes because of the rapid death experienced by armies as the deadly duo comes through town, and it simplifies the Spy's role by making its interactions with other pieces more universal. Highly suggested when playing with young kids looking for a more action-packed board game.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

My Players, and Working with them

Every gaming group is different. I do believe there is a spectrum that most people fall on between Thespian Method Actor and Hack N'Slash Munchkin. It's safe to say that a normal distribution is probably appropriate- most players appreciate a mix of both, and the populations of fanatics tapers down on either side.

That said, groups also differ on how they approach problems, how much they like to plan and prepare, and even on how much in-character banter they want to have.

So I'm going to talk a bit about my players, and how I adapt my games to run more smoothly with them.

As a Group:

  • Group preference is for text-based campaigns. When I floated using voice chat reaction was nearly unanimous that text was the preferred medium.
  • Pace of play is fairly slow and methodical- while not nearly as slow as PBP, it's still objectively on the slower side.
  • Every player is capable of not being in the spotlight. It is hard to overstate just how easy this makes things for me. Try as I might, occasionally someone gets injured and has to recuperate, a single PC dominates the screen time of a session, or someone gets stuck on overwatch outside while the stealthy party within aces things and no outside threats emerge. None of my players have ever raised this as an issue.
  • Engagement is generally high- this is aided strongly by the text format and the maturity of my players. It's highly unusual for people to be unaware of what's going on in game- largely sidestepping issues of having to catch people up on recent events because they went to go pee, or were stacking dice, they got bored because their PC had nothing to do, or had to help their roommate snap out of a flashback.
  • The group is Focused. Everyone is highly aligned on the group goal, and having their PC contribute to the mission. This group does a really good job of not deeply exploring what I consider to be roleplaying empty calories- wenching, asking what booze is available at the bar, etc.
  • The group thrives off preparation, planning, and executing their strategies. While willing to improvise when needed, they generally take a very methodical approach.
  • Pinebox as a campaign doesn't have a huge emphasis on Roleplay, with more focus on the tasks at hand for the PCs. That's not to say that the Players don't Roleplay their characters, it's that they've rolled with the pacing and campaign structure. This goes back to how focused they are.

Individually:

I'm going to use the PCs names as pseudonyms for my players to maintain their privacy.

Gaston is the newest player to join the group, currently playing the team doctor/demolitions expert. He's attentive and does a really good job playing up the generous/selfless nature of his character. Being last to the table and chargen, he filled in missing skills for the group, and has crushed it ever since, which isn't always easy in my games. I might encourage him to consider playing a face the next time a new campaign comes around.

Otto is one of my two players who have stuck around since Agency 17. Otto's instincts for combat tactics are among the best in the group- if he's thinking it's a good time for a retreat, it's probably time to get out of dodge. Otto frequently keeps me on my toes, oftentimes recalling old plot points, NPCs, or piecing things together from clues. He pays way more attention to things than he lets on.

Alex is a long-time IRL friend. His flexibility and overall competence has allowed him to fill numerous roles within the group- from skulk, to hacker, to combat heavy. It's really hard to single out things that make him such a good player, although I will say having the shared context of knowing him about a decade does make dumping specific things into the game much easier. For example, I knew he'd know what the Mirai Botnet was when I referenced it in-game.

Hassan has continually been the one stuck with the leadership role in the group since they participated in my Agency 17 campaign. I largely think this is due to his good executive function and capability to break problems down into actionable items. We have a rapport where he seems to just innately get how things function in my campaigns- which means that if he whips up a plan, there's a high chance his enemies are going to be in for a lot of pain.

Kujo has had the most PC deaths/injuries out of any of my players, a consequence of their preference for playing combat heavies. Kujo is starting to grow into being the closet thespian of the group, steadily improving their roleplaying and characters since their beginning losing their PC session 1 of Prohibition Mob. Kujo's often responsible for bringing a little bit of zaniness to things, helping bring humor and vibrancy to what's going on, all while being just as laser focused as the rest of the gang.

Accommodations :

Currently, we've been playing Pinebox for 122 weeks- 2.3 years. At this point we've settled into a steady rhythm, so it's not so much of active accommodations as it is continuing what already works.

  • I generally allow the players ample time to plot, plan, and discuss their next actions. Obviously this doesn't apply when combat's going on or they're on a crashing plane, but there are very few situations where they're rushed.
  • I put a large emphasis on allowing the players to decide how they want to pursue their goals. While the campaign has rails ("Your objective is to prevent Imprint Technology from being finalized"), those rails aren't very restrictive. As the plot demands I might throw constraints at them, but the onus is on them to decide what they're doing.
  • I do my best to telegraph information to my players when appropriate. They're playing badass operatives, they might just have a hunch that someone approaching them can throw down without needing to roll. Their planning habits also thrive off having information at hand.
  • I occasionally skip skill checks when it's obvious success would be trivial for their characters.
  • I stop play when it's clear that I'm getting gassed or need time to plan out ahead.
  • I allow the players to create unfair situations for their enemies and then curbstomp them.
  • I don't fudge results in combat, and the group has occasionally gotten caught with their pants down, wound up in an unfair situation, and almost got hosed because of it. ("Overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer.")
  • Enemies generally don't have good enough intel on the players to specifically plan for their individual capabilities.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Observations on GMing Mistakes and Momentum of Play

Some sessions are going to be less energetic than others. Maybe there's a person at the table having a difficult day. Maybe there's multiple players having difficult days. Outside of the external factors, campaigns will naturally ebb from high energy to low, as the story has its beats, rising actions, climaxes, and the fallout.

That said, if a GM mishandles things, it can completely grind a group's momentum to a crawl.

Preparation, usually the lack thereof:

It's on the GM to prepare enough that they can give the players avenues of action that they can take. This varies depending on genre, but if your players can't seem to come up with something to do, chances are there's not enough prep going into the campaign.

For a dungeon crawl game you should likely have an idea of the dungeon the group is going into, a sense of the denizens, or at least the capability to improv on the fly. For games not quite running on the Felltower wavelength, you really should be fleshing out factions, NPCs, and providing hooks.

It's entirely possible to have players who are looking for a quasi-sandbox experience who will hit that wall of not knowing what to do next- even if they are fully engaged actively trying to find a direction.

If your players seem interested in a hook you improvise the shit out of that hook, even if it's not necessarily what you had in mind, or anything you had planned. That interest, that desire to explore and check things out, that's the flicker of momentum starting. A hook meant to develop sessions later is probably better used now if players would otherwise be twiddling their thumbs.

Be practical about your preparation. You really don't need a full character sheet for most mooks or minor characters. It's often times safe to not have full character sheets even for important NPCs who can be reasonably expected to not participate in combat. It's perfectly fine to only lay out combat traits for combatants, and maybe note important social skills for a character who only serves as a merchant, informant, quest-giver, etc.

Furthermore, If players aren't going to interact with it, don't make it a big focus of your preparation. Having the players being adjacent to the most interesting thing going on in the campaign world is often a bad idea, unless that most interesting thing is invariably deadly (plague, mustard gas, swaths of destruction*, etc). It's pointless to make complex magic systems if your players don't want to interact with a byzantine magical system and instead wonder why their death spells get less DPS than an assault rifle. It's a bad idea to create a massive cosmology/pantheons of Gods if people are largely interested in playing secular or atheist characters.

Leave room to react, only the most linear of games allow for planning things out like a TV show. Games are volatile. Some settings allow for resurrections, some don't. It's not particularly fun to have to ass-pull or fudge something when the dice say that a critical (N)PC just ate a x4 damage headshot putting them well beyond -5xHP. Planning too far ahead isn't practical, especially if it's predicated off actions the players are *supposed* to take.

"I don't want to prep too much until I know what the PCs are doing"

So, this at first brush seems like a chicken or egg problem. GM doesn't want to over-invest in prepping in areas where it won't matter (good), but likely doesn't prep enough for the current situation (bad). I see it as coming from a few factors.

Lack of group direction/purpose. Everyone meets in a bar and then just randomly decide to join up together and form and adventuring crew? We've all heard this cliche, and it's a rotten way of starting a campaign unless you've got a good crew of thespians who want to hammer out why everyone's working together in-character for a session. I vastly prefer having strong purpose for the existence of a group of PCs. 

"You're part of the clandestine organization Agency 17, the existence of which is hidden even from the other 16 members of the US Intelligence Community."
"Prohibition has rocked 1920s New York City, leading to ample opportunities for criminal enterprises and their members to catapult themselves to wealth and infamy."
"You're a group of Augmented Humans hand-picked by an angel to fight off the forces of Hell."
This is almost entirely on the GM, right from campaign conception. Unless you're starting session 1 with a strong sense of what the PC purpose is, or an iron-clad** way of determining it through play, you're already behind the eight ball.

Related to overall group purpose there's Lack of Immediate direction. This usually results when players don't have paths, hooks, or things to do/react to. The players might be rip-roaring to do something, stacking dice and browsing on their phones while the group spins its wheels, but without something to actually *DO* it's pointless. This is almost always a result of not enough prep.

Players need information and context to make decisions. In a linear game, some of this can be taken away ("Your next mission is..."), but for many games players are going to be on the hook for choosing their next objective or goal, and they need a solid informational ground to stand on. They need to know the situation, the NPCs, the factions, maybe cultural or geographical details. It is explicitly the GM's job to provide these details.

Other Momentum Killers:

  • Allowing players to spin wheels too long, and/or rehash the same conversation multiple times while discussing plans
  • Not allowing players enough time to incubate and ruminate on plans
  • Not allowing players the capability to follow up on things they find intriguing
  • Allowing too much focus on extraneous BS (seducing wenches, drinking plans, trivial travel plan details, etc)
  • Specifically tailoring challenges so that a single player has a bad time (because once they clock out, risk of others doing the same goes up)
  • Being overly adversarial with players (Are you here to beat them or provide a fun experience?)
  • Not properly adjusting your campaign style to ensure it suits your players (grimdark campaign + players who just want to goof off = bad time)
  • Making or allowing others to make a player uncomfortable.
  • Not recognizing when things aren't working well and changing course/stopping

*A friend of mine knows someone whose Ranger's favored enemy type is Swaths
**Seriously, if you initial sessions happen and the group doesn't gel or establish a purpose, wrap things up cause you likely just scuttled the campaign right out of the gates.

Friday, April 19, 2019

My thoughts on the SJG/Bill Webb partnership

Like I imagine most of you do, I follow diverse types of people on social media. Two circles I tend to follow closely are GURPS content creators, and those interested in left-leaning politics.

One of my politically minded friends (who is an Exalted aficionado and kickass GM) replied to the following tweet:


https://twitter.com/dorkland/status/1117096486876086272

This obviously caught my attention. GURPS is by far my favorite RPG system, I run it, I play it, it has been my go-to for close to a decade now. I very much like a lot of what SJG does.

But stuff like this is troubling. I've been party to some discussions on the matter among my circles, and seen some of the various posts from those involved.

The central talking point was a single incident of harassment that took place in 2017, at PaizoCon. The victim in that circumstance clearly wants to be done on it and move on, a sentiment I heard expressed as a reason to let the matter drop.

Matt Finch, a partner at Frog God Games, wrote the official statement from Frog God Games:

https://forum.rpg.net/index.php?threads/rpg-industry-sexual-harassment-mentzer-abuse-and-what-do-we-do-about-it.817741/page-35#post-21452429

It's a very measured response, very carefully tailored to make it clear that Finch took the utmost care to be sensitive of the victim, while also very carefully avoiding implicating Webb or shaking the hornets' nest in any way. It's 'empathy' draped in the careful maneuvering of a lawyer seeking to reduce the exposure their client might present after screwing up. Finch is NOT unbiased/impartial, given that he's a frequent collaborator with and an employee of Webb. The conflict of interest there cannot be ignored.

Webb certainly could have attempted to rehabilitate himself- laying low, giving a genuine apology, demonstrating that he's learned from his mistake and changed how he behaves. Instead, his business partner blandly apologized on his behalf.

The line "Bill does deeply regret his actions, and understands that they were inappropriate and upsetting. " has all the sincerity of a defense attorney spinning things to his client's advantage.

The stoic silence, predicated on "Mr. Webb is also under instruction not to discuss this matter in public, in case peripheral details... might allow the identification of the person..." doesn't excuse that an apology could have been made by Webb. You don't have to discuss details to express remorse, and I suspect Bill only regrets that it blew up in his face in a very public fashion.

So it's one incident of harassment, the victim doesn't want it dredged up, Bill's business partner is convinced of his sincere regret, Bill is keeping his mouth shut, no problem, right?

I find the undercurrent beneath all of this frightening- where are the people saying that Bill's belligerent drunken behavior is being exaggerated, skewed, or is inaccurate? It seems very clear to me that Bill's public behavior is consistently toeing the line of how one should conduct themselves at conventions. I would not be surprised in the least to learn of undocumented/unreported incidents, most of which weren't severe enough on their own to present a problem, but as a pattern are very insidious.

I'm inclined to pay attention to that undercurrent.

Enter SJG and The Fantasy Trip. They're an older company, with a founder who is in his grey years, and let's be honest, they're very much a company that hasn't changed much over the years.

But they really should have seen this backlash coming. Times are changing, and with more mainstream attention zeroing in on Dungeons and Dragons and tabletop gaming in general, the behavior of your business partners isn't really something you get to be ignorant of.

Steve's response is pretty lame, more or less stating that people being mad about harassment is no reason to cut off a business deal. The olive branch of giving refunds is a little muted given that they're still putting people on the hook for fees and whatnot- wouldn't want their customers' moral fiber cutting into the business' financial ledgers, after all.

Phil Reed statements in this thread are the closest anyone has gotten to actually stating that Bill Webb's actions at Paizocon were truly egregious. Given even that, the statement is still too sterile to really paint SJG's response as anything but tone deaf at best.

The Tabletop community is still small, especially once you look at authors churning out RPG content. There's not many people who walk that walk professionally, and that contributes to the formation of an echo chamber. Maybe SJG didn't hear the rumors, the undercurrent, and was blindsided by the accusations, being trapped within the chamber. Maybe the other voices in the chamber are downplaying Webb's actions, and propping up Finch as a reputable source even though Finch's neutrality is disingenuous and deceptive.

That said, I'm not particularly sympathetic that SJG is feeling quite a bit of heat over this. They should have known better than to collaborate with someone who makes the spaces we nerds like to inhabit unsafe for some of the more vulnerable members we share it with. I hope that the wave of refund requests prompts them to rethink their business deals with FGG, and that they will pay more attention to these types of concerns in the future.

I'm certainly going to think hard before putting down money on the next Monster Hunters or Action PDF that tickles my fancy.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Pine Box Consulting: Session 1 (Dec 11, 2017)

I have recently tapped a friend to begin transcribing the Pine Box Consulting sessions, going through the Discord channel me and my players have used to play since Dec of 2017.

The Players:

Hassan: Formerly attached to Egyptian Intelligence, Hassan is an expert Intelligence Analyst, Interrogator, Pistolero, and dog person.

Kujo: Former LAPD, was kicked out of the force for having anger management issues and problems with proper escalation of force. The most combat heavy of the team.

Alex: Hacker and Sniper extraordinaire. Alex has a lot of illicit contacts, and his access to places he really shouldn't be poking around in would probably have landed him in jail for life if not for his PMC occupation.

Otto: Electronics whiz, tinker, and the other combat heavy for the team. Otto appreciates extreme sports, drones, and suffers from being Easy to Read.

Gaston: Gaston is a world-class surgeon and medical mind. He's also the team's primary demolitions expert.



It’s 8 in the morning on the first day of August and it’s soon to be scorching hot in Tampa, FL. Pine Box Consulting has called the group back from their Rest and Relaxation and they’re all ready to assign them their next job with one of the account executives, Angela Apolonia, being the one leading the briefing with the team. They’re all familiar with Tampa’s office, despite being in the armpit of the US, it’s also the largest in the state and it’s a common pit stop for people that are going to be dealing with affairs south of the border in Latin America.
The group convenes as Otto jumps into a chair into the conference room and immediately plops his recently dirtied shoes (dirt biking is always a hazard to welcome mats) onto the table while Hassan shows up promptly 15 minutes early with heavy messenger bag in tow. Kujo marches in about 5 minutes early to the meeting and, not finding a dark corner to lurk in, declines a seat; instead he leans against the doorway and pulls a cigar case from his pocket and chomps down on one of them in a bit of a ritual.
Promptly at 8am, Angela walks in with an armful of manila folders and a laptop bag slung over her shoulder. A quick headcount later and it’s immediately obvious that she’s displeased with the fact that several of the group are running late and passes out the folders. Barely a moment later Alex walks in, playing on his smartphone looking like a tourist before slumping into one of the chairs. The next second in walks the last of the group, Gaston, with his nose buried in a book until he gets to his seat where he places a bookmark in to mark his place and takes one of the distributed folders. In a show of disinterest, Otto ignores the folder given to him and instead pulls out his phone as well to start playing drag racing and asking how everyone else’s weekend went, the only people to respond being Kujo, telling him that he just went to the gym, and Hassan saying he went to a bar but was quickly bored by the poor conversationalists there (even the drunk ones) and that war criminals were more interesting.
Deciding to just get on with the briefing, Angela addresses the group while going through some rather sparse slides on PowerPoint. Their Rio branch had gotten a tip from some of their local contacts that a man wanted by the State of Israel was living in the area. The local contact, Hubert J. Makovich, was a British national and entrepreneur that moved to the area to try and capitalize on the Olympics. A few slides showing information on the man, his photo, his merchandising company, and his accounting records that show his very rapidly diminishing net worth and plummeting stock prices. He was hired to pose as a venture capitalist to server as HUMINT (Human Intelligence). Slides change from Hubert alone to distant photos of him shaking hands with investors.
Hubert has managed to survive in that position for years, despite being a known information security risk as the next few slides show with him in various stages of undress with a large amount of ladies that were previously featured in past slides in much more (formal) attire. Finally paying attention, Otto asks if someone is after Hubert. The only thing Otto got wrong was the tense as Angela explains that he was found dead almost a week ago, snatched by a local gang who then tortured him before disposing of him.
Kujo asks if Angela wants them to go over the local gang while Hassan snarks about him seeming like a pillar of the community, on the other hand, Alex is excited by what he managed to accomplish on his phone. Angela’s responds that they were prepared to write off Hubert until his last report caught some attention… Apparently, it’s not every day that a low-level asset manages to turn some heads in Mossad. She pauses for effect, to see how the group handles that bit of news.
Otto spins in his chair a bit while Hassan mentions that Mossad’s interests outside of the Middle East tend to be very limited and very focused while Kujo questions why the Mossad are outsourcing their kills, why aren’t the targets dead already.
Angela explains that they’d normally be all over Nazi fugitives but due to the political climate, it’s just too difficult for the Mossad to directly act. And while Kujo expresses delight and excitement at the prospect of delivering long overdue justice, Angela explains who they’ve found with the best picture they had of him, almost 20 years old back in the 1940s. Heinrich G√ľnther, a scientist specializing primarily in physics and biology, an impressive intellectual prodigy that eagerly participated in the science programs of the time and while most records past the end of WWII are scarce or non-existent, recent indications show that he made use of a Ratline out of Austria at war’s end. Hubert’s digging around landed him on some financial records that indicate that Heinrich is still alive in Rio de Janeiro.
Alex is now finally interested in what’s been going on and puts his phone away and begins to dig through the folder in front of him while Hassan inquires as to how a failed venture capitalist managed to get the attention of the good doctor. Angela has to admit that they have no idea of Hubert’s death was related to his findings or not, just that the company is interested in the Israeli bounty on Nazi war criminals.
Responding to Hassan’s question about their objective and the rules of engagement, they’re told the objective is to locate and then either lift or liquidate him. The mission isn’t sanctioned by the US Government so they will disavow all knowledge and the company’s propaganda team are already arranging stories of anti-fa hit squads coming out of Connecticut in case the Brazilian authorities become alerted to the team’s activities. Civilian casualties are to be minimized, but unless it’s a complete cock up then minor accidents may be overlooked.
Kujo jokes around it being similar to LAPD’s departmental policies while Hassen mentions he may have trouble fitting in as a college junior before the rest of the information unfolds. They’ve got a funeral home cover in Rio, but local politics keep them from truly establishing themselves in the area. The Funeral Director’s name is Robert Smith, a resident of the area for many years and quite reliable, but resources in the area are limited meaning that his armory and garage are more meager than what the company has Stateside, this means that the team will be sent out with their own bit of kit.
While most agree things will be fine if they can bring their own kit, Hassan makes a point to ask for their preference on Henrich’s condition. Despite being previously explained that they can bring him back alive or dead, bringing him back alive will be a rather large PR boost in finding and arresting a War Criminal. However, 90-some year-old men are also notoriously fragile and will be taken into account. Extraction will be tough so it’ll have to be secured on the team’s end once Henrich has been dealt with.
With some probing from Kujo, other than the photo from multiple decades ago and the financial records from recently, there’s no real clue to Heinrich’s location which is somewhat of a benefit as if it was known, then it would be likely that the Mossad would already be on their way. Instead it’s up to the team to be able to investigate the location and survive the violent environment in the Rio underworld.
There are no more questions, just folks confident that they can handle the job of locating and dealing with an old Nazi and climbing the Chriso Redentor despite the objections of some of the party.
The fight down is a sight-seeing tour plane that takes a 12-hour one way trip, looking any deeper reveals that it’s thinly veiled criminal enterprise that specializes in trafficking around customs and border patrols. Everyone has their bags packed and ready to go as a new companion shows up to flirt with a cute receptionist while the rest of the team discuss how shady their flight is and that it’s quite obviously not baking ingredients causing the white flecks all over another passenger’s luggage. Having failed with the receptionist, Salvador comes up to rain on the team’s parade by informing them that even if they managed to lift the smuggled cocaine, it wouldn’t be any good to use as blackmail materials as the South American cops are more likely to suicide them via beheading than capitulate with any attempts at blackmail.
Most are minorly dissuaded from attempting it, they start boarding the plane with Kujo asking if it’s a smoking flight. True to their reputation for customer service, the steward informs Kujo that he has no idea in rather colourful language and assuming the best, Kujo lights up a Churchill as he takes his seat. Otto, however, having stayed behind for a moment quickly grabs the rather obvious bag of cocaine while its own was distracted and immediately moves away and onto the plane and stows it away.
With the exception of Alex and Salvador, the rest of the group takes the time to relax and do their own thing. Alex decides to research what he can about Rio’s telecom systems and maps to be able to navigate his way around the Latin American city while Salvador attempts to find some form of “in-flight entertainment”. Unfortunately, the most entertainment available is Otto playing candy crush, listening to Skrillex too loudly through his earbuds, and attempting to sneak lines of coke in the airplane bathroom when he thinks that no one is looking. Otherwise it’s getting drunk with Kujo or reading a book.
It takes them quite a few hours before they manage to reach Brazil where the pilot points out Chriso Redento to fulfill it’s purpose as a tour plane and then after the rubbernecking out the windows is over, it swings around for a final approach for touch down. The pilot kicks the passengers off the plane with just long enough for them to grab all their luggage before he taxis it into a nearby hanger and while they group up and try to figure out their next step, the rest of the passengers from the tour plane get into a hired car and start to drive off before being immediately surrounded by police. They decide quickly to get the hell out of dodge and start to move away from the police presence as unobtrusively as they can when a van pulls up right next to them.
The driver tells them that the hearse broke down and that he had to take the backup vehicle. Grateful for any way to get away from the cops, the team piles in with Kujo calling out shotgun. It turns out the driver is Carl, sent for the group by Bob and that business is booming with funerals happening left and right. Rio is a mess, the government has had to deal with numerous corrupt scandals, that gang violence hasn’t been too affected by UPP, and that almost every cop is dirty. This may explain why Bob stayed back at the funeral home, the rather tasteful three story affair with a small graveyard in front.
Complementing and joking about their current digs, the team starts to offload their luggage into the house where they are greeted by Bob and a short woman in bloody medical scrubs. Bob is rather amused by the fact that it’s not everyday that he gets to play host to undertakers instead of corpses while the woman in introduced as Marigold, the pathologist that seems to do the reputable work as a side job when she’s actually the head of security and the only cleared field op they’ve got down there since Bob was deemed too important to lose in the field, especially as the previous funeral director was mailed back home to his family in pieces, a fate which Bob has managed to avoid so far. Still, with the long flight and the long day they offer to let the team get some rest before starting the briefing in the morning.
On the side, Alex speaks with Bob about what he can expect in terms of electronic support. There’s an old Pentium 3 sitting alongside a first-gen DSL modem that mildly horrifies and disgusts Alex before he learns that they also don’t have any radio support either and they mostly use cell phone service. It’s looking to be rather scant for the tech down here.
In the meantime, since they slept on the flight down, some of the group end up going out to the bar with Otto finding himself the center of popularity while Salvador finds an ex-girlfriend that dumped him after he was caught in a threesome with her sister and cousin. Gaston stays back at the funeral home and unpacks before asking Marigold if she needs some help with anything. Hassan attempts to lure others into a game of cards with Kujo begrudgingly joining in. Back in the bar, Salvador has managed to mollify the girl with the promise of a buying her a drink, trying to get him to buy her something from the top shelf. At the funeral home, Carl and the other lackey have joined the card game, Bob has opted out, and Marigold and Gaston share a moment over Hubert’s corpse.
Marigold explains that Hubert’s corpse wasn’t handled correctly by the local law enforcement and they had to even pay them a few grand to get the body delivered to them. Alex subverts local internet traffic for his own purposes as two medics note down the notable findings on Hubert’s body.
It appears that some of his initial wounds had time to partially heal, indicating that he’d been worked over for at least several days, he was missing fingernails from his left hand, he was missing one testicle, three ribs were broken, a lung was lacerated, a kneecap was busted from an source uncertain because the body had also been left out in the elements for at least a day and there are signs that some sort of scavenging animal had been having a good meal.
Police also refused to release his possessions and it’s unknown if his apartment was searched either. The report was sorely lacking in even the most basic details and the attack was written off as gang violence due to the location the body was found and didn’t bother to probe further, or at least any attempts to was overturned as it also appears that the report was rather poorly edited too. Some posit that it may have just be thugs, or it could have been trained interrogators, it could go either way depending on how they obvious took their time working him over. It could have been corrupt cops looking to make a quick buck or folks that have paid off the local police like Heinrich. Regardless of all the speculation, they decide that it may be a good idea to check out Hubert’s apartment and Bob lends the crew the van.
Hubert’s apartment looks rather squalid and obviously was most propped up to the funds coming in from Pine Box. Kujo heads inside to try to deal with the apartment door but trips and ends up with a used syringe protruding from his leg, getting it removed the best he can while Salvador “entertains” the neighbors. Gaston helps to treat Kujo quickly before they head back in, finding the apartment already tossed and trashed. Hassan digging into wreckage and extracting an intact hard drive from a wrecked computer.
The crew takes some time to do some crime scene reconstruction, Salvador joining in midway through adjusting his outfit. It becomes obvious that the tossing happened while Hubert was absent, there’s no blood, no signs of a violent encounter, and very obviously no signs of someone trying to clean up after themselves. Alex alerts the crew that they’ve got some company coming down the street checking out vehicles and Otto decides that means they need to get going. The company stops by a car, knocking out a window and grabbing a radio as the crew pack up. Alex gets the van going to the meeting spot, the gang banging the side of the van with a bat as he drives by, scoring a loud thump. Once around the block, the crew piles into the van with their findings.
The hard drive itself has three partitions, the OS, a Restore Partition, and an Encrypted partition. Alex makes sure to take a backup image of the hard drive before he starts attempting to decrypt the partition. It appears to be a bad install of tails that Hubert didn’t do quite right and back at the funeral home they explain what they found and that it looks like it would take a few days to crack the encryption. Alex attempts to think of ways to speed up decryption before finally deciding to head down into the basement with Kujo and Otto. They jury-rig an old scanner and camera to start taking and uploading pictures of pages they have found to attempt OCR on the drive. It takes an hour and a half to get Hubert’s book and rolodex uploaded and scanned.
With this new data, it takes only five minutes to crack the drive. Hubert was huge on computer security as he used Candi followed by his birth date as a password and while Salvador notes down Candi’s contact information, they find communications and financial records on the drive. At least some of which was Hubert contacting Heinrich and attempted to blackmail the old scientist. Apparently Hubert knew less than they would prefer, but the blackmail makes sense as Gaston’s financial forensics discovers that Hubert owed thousands to local gangs and a few Russians and his credit was so bad that even local banks wouldn’t lend him money.
Using this newfound information, the crew try to figure out how to use this to their advantage. Either baiting Heinrich into responding to more e-mails, finding the cop that altered the report. Maybe send him e-mails from another account to bait him into clicking a phishing link that would give away his location while they attempt to get information on the police reports. Though the fact that Heinrich may know that Hubert is dead could also explain the redacted police reports and tossed apartment. All the searching and talk of e-mail inspires them to check out the origin of the one that Hubert contacted Heinrich through, apparently it was an e-mail account from a company called Protroleum but it doesn’t appear that Heinrich is an official part of the company. The crew decide that might actually be worth a look as the session ends off.