Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Miller's Crossing

It's been ages since I last saw Miller's Crossing and I had forgotten just how good it was. It's my favourite Cohen Brothers film ever.

A huge amount of work obviously went into getting the movie to look and feel authentic. From cars to clothes to cornflakes package, everything is just right. The actors are all brilliant and I think that this was the movie that made me a Gabriel Byrne fan. I know I watched it for Albert Finney, who has possibly the best scene in the movie (and there are many great scenes there). Watch:

I hate Danny Boy with a passion, but in this context, it's beyond awesome.

You will need to listen and watch closely not to miss anything in Miller's Crossing. Characters cross and doublecross each other and if you rustle your bag of crisps at the wrong moment, you may be missing some important clue. It's enormous fun to watch it all resolve itself in the end.

As someone who learned English as a second language, I have to say that even after fifteen years of watching films in English, Miller's Crossing was a challenge. But I love accents and dialects, so that only adds to the appeal of it.

On my list of noir movies, Miller's Crossing is right there at the top.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Cthulhu Gaslight: Das Boot

Dramatis personae:
Daffyd (Dai) Ifans, retired soldier of the British Indian Army (Rifle Brigade), now part-time writer for a Socialist newspaper, with an interest in the East End
Catherine (Cat) Kincaid, journalist and daughter of a well-known scientist

The place: London
The time: April 1890

Last time, Cat and Dai were left with a handful of clues and the worrying feeling that things were far from over.

They decide to try and talk to Sir Reginald at the Anathaeum Club, but the club is very, very exclusive. Cat thinks she can get an invitation for Dai from a friend of hers, Sir Howard Kendrick, a well-known sculptor. Dai is not fond of the idea, but agrees and goes to buy himself some appropriate clothes. While those are in the making, he visits the Millenia Club where he and many other soldiers of the Rifle Brigade are members. He meets with Frank Ross, the partner of Malcom Grant, who is willing to talk about Malcolm. Ross cannot solve the mystery why Malcolm has sent the bullet to Dai of all people, but he does know that he was a technical genius with an interest in the occult that they shared. He offers to show Dai Malcolm's workshop.

click here for adventure

Cat has meanwhile been talking to Howard Kendrick, who agrees to write a letter of recommendation for Dai after worming much of the truth out of her. He warns her that there is no Sir Reginald. It's a alias of Sir Archibald Phillip Primrose, Earl of Rosebury, who owns the premises of the Savile Club and who has been involved in quite a few suspicious projects. Talking to him may well mean waking sleeping dogs.

Cat, Dai and Ross visit Malcolm's workshop later that day and find themselves in a room filled with models, blueprints and machines that are way ahead of their time, if not totally incomprehensible. One is striking in particular, looking like a zeppelin make from thin wires shot through with white strands. With a little searching, they turn up a book filled with notes and more sketches and a clear crystal that may fit into the zeppelin machine. The book mentions von Junzt, a name that sends shivers down Dai's back (he has had an encounter with the Nameless Cults before). Malcolm also had another workshop under the Savile Club, right where Cat was held hostage. Most disturbing is probably the detailed sketch of a submarine that, if the notes are to be believed, is in the last trial stage.

Ross tells them that he has been guarding the workshop for years now, afraid to either sell or destroy it. It's clear that the machines gathered here can be of great benefit, but also very dangerous if they fall into the wrong hands. Both Dai and Cat want to investigate further and Ross finally gives them the key to the workshop along with a pendant showing the sign of the Leopold's Society. He seems more than relieved at sharing the burden or rather at passing it on.

With the book, the crystal and the zeppelin machine, Cat and Dai take a cab to Dai's flat where he fits the crystal into the machine. Apart from a deep hum and a green shine from the crystal nothing happens, but they realise that the machine is only a small part of what is shown on the circuit diagram.

Dai would happily destroy the workshop and be done with it, but Cat insists upon investigating the Savile Club workshop. Since Dai understands that she will go alone if need be, he agrees but makes her promise that they will destroy the workshop if they find anything similar under the Savile Club. Dai doesn't trust the government or humanity in general one bit when it comes to such machines.

The iron door to the club's cellar opens nicely with the key Ross gave them. Like the workshop, the passage could be lit with electric light, but they rely on their lantern instead. The stairs lead down into a huge cavern and now they switch on the light. A looming shape in the dark turns out to be the submarine, moored to a dock and floating in one of London's many underground rivers. It's about the size of a railcar and when Dai, to Cat's horror, takes a look inside he finds that it's made for one person to operate. There are occult symbols all over the walls and it has clearly been abandoned for years.

When Dai is on his way back to the stairs, the water next to the submarine starts to froth. They don't wait to see what happens but run, slamming the door shut behind them, cutting off a deep sound like the howl of some huge animal. This has convinced Cat and they drive back to the workshop to destroy it, taking the zeppelin machine with them. However, they only find an empty room with an arc painted on one wall, in green paint with a sun on top and more occult symbols. They leave and Dai, who's carrying the zeppelin machine, watches in astonishment as it crumples in his hands, falling to pieces and turning into rust and ashes. Cat looks over his shoulder to see a figure pausing on the quay before jumping into the water. It's humpbacked, with a huge head and webbed fingers.

After a night of disturbing dreams, they meet again at their usual tea shop, Mason & Standers, to talk things over. The newspapers report a fire at the Savile Club that destroyed the building and took the life of Sir Archibald. A much smaller article notes that ex-soldier Frank Ross took his own life with arsenic. Dai find that less than convincing and says that Ross would have never chosen that method if he wanted to commit suicide. He also asks Cat if she would be interested in learning to shoot. She does own a gun, but she's the first to admit that she's not very good with it and that worries Dai.


This was a classic Cthulhu adventure: we saw nothing and we feared everything. We could have found out much more and things could have gotten much more dangerous, I guess, but we tiptoed around because the threat of what was hiding below the surface of things was more than enough to scare us to death.

As a player, I of course wanted to investigate the Savile Club. Dai would have been happy with just destroying the workshop, he was not about to draw attention to them by poking around under the nose of Sir Archibald and thus the government. It may have been different if he didn't have Cat to think about, but I doubt it. Cat however was much more adventurous and he wasn't about to let her go alone. Part of it probably is that Cat is twenty years younger than Dai, but he's also much more cynical when it comes to the British government.

We took the shooting lessons into a play by email because this will not only be about learning how to shoot a revolver. I suspect they will learn quite a few things about each other. Although they have known each other for some time now, Dai has only recently begun to talk about his time as a soldier at all and what they will do at the gun range will be revealing, I think. Not to mention the erotic subtext involved here. If you don't believe that teaching someone to shoot can be erotic, take a look at this. No, this is absolutely not what Cat's shooting lessons will look like, I can promise you - Victorian times, remember. But still, Dai is in love with her and despite his considerable self-control, I'm fairly sure it will show.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cthulhu Gaslight: East Enders

Cast of Characters:
Thomas Roquefort, American, archaeologist and adventurer, recently arrived in London after an expedition to Egypt
Richard George Thomas Lumley, second son of the Earl of Scarbrough
Jasper Burnside, physician and in the last two years something of a hermit. It's common knowledge that he has lost someone close and there are rumours aplenty for those willing to listen (he's my character)

After the audience, the group splits and heads towards home. All except Richard, who does a spot of breaking and entering.

On Monday, Thomas goes to visit his friend Neil, a librarian at the university. They haven't seen each other in a while and spend some time catching up until Thomas tells of his latest adventures and is met with disbelief and then fascination from Neil. It turns out Neil reads German and can be of some assistance with the book by Dümichen.

Jasper goes for a walk, investigates Cleopatra's Needle without any obvious results and then meets with Lady Catherine to do some research at the East End. He finds that Catherine is fairly comfortable with that seedy and dangerous part of town, more than he himself is for sure.

explore the East End

They find a street urchin that taken them on a tour to the murder sites, all of them out in the open and with no guarantee of privacy. But if someone trusts his luck and the disinterest of the people in anything happening in dark corners, it's entirely possible to get away with murder there.

On their way, they come across a crowd gathered around a speaker standing on a cart who is shouting about the murders and how no-one is interested in them. He says that the trail of the killer leads right to the Royal family and the government. People are only too glad to listen to him and there's a definite atmosphere of civil unrest that prompts Jasper and Lady Catherine to leave. Jasper asks about the man on their way through the crowd and finds out his name is George Lusk. By the time they are a few streets away, the meeting is broken up by the police.

At the Dravot's Head, a pub Catherine knows, Jasper inquires after Lusk and is told by the publican that he has no proof for his theories, but that he has quite a following among the people of the East End.

When they leave the pub, they hear whistles at a short distance and go in that direction to find a number of constables doing their best to keep people back from yet another murder scene. When Inspector Fox arrives, he allows Jasper and Catherine to go with him. The body is that of a woman and she has been murdered like all the others, her throat cut and, as Thomas predicted, her intestines removed or at least that's what Jasper thinks, it's hard to tell without a complete autopsy. He looks up and sees a black carriage shoot out of an alleyway. Fox and Lady Catherine give chase, Jasper goes into the alleyway. He finds some drops on blood on the cobblestones, but nothing more. There's a shot and a few minutes later, one of the constables comes to get Jasper, his services are needed.

Lady Catherine has been hit by some sort of throwing weapon, a curved blade that has buried itself in her back. She's losing a lot of blood and she's already unconscious, so Jasper does what he can for her. She's transported to a physician known to Jasper who lives near here and there Jasper can finally remove the weapon. He stays the night with her. In the morning, Fox comes to take him to the yard and Catherine is left with two constables guarding her.

Richard and Thomas had met at their club to talk things over during that evening and are now summoned to the Yard as well.


The plot thickens. The group spent much of the time apart from each other, but I suspect that things will be moving much faster when we meet at the Yard and compare.

Neil the librarian is a hilarious character that was created more or less on the spot between the GM and Thomas' player. He turned from merely a name into a lanky, red-haired Englishman with an overboarding and occasionally cringe worthy enthusiasm for the American way of life. It was like watching a bit of improvisation theatre. Well yes, good roleplaying always is, but I really enjoyed seeing this character emerge from just the concept of "is friends with Thomas because he likes the US".

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

To Scale

This is very cool - an animation that allows you to scroll through the scale of the universe, starting at human-sized and going very small or very big. Go play with it and learn stuff.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cthulhu Gaslight: An Audience

Cast of Characters:
Thomas Roquefort, American, archaeologist and adventurer, recently arrived in London after an expedition to Egypt
Richard George Thomas Lumley, second son of the Earl of Scarbrough
Jasper Burnside, physician and in the last two years something of a hermit. It's common knowledge that he has lost someone close and there are rumours aplenty for those willing to listen (he's my character)

Last time...

London, November 11th 1890, Sunday

Based on the organs removed from the previous victims, Thomas predicts at least one more murder and thinks that the killer will take the intestines Then he has all the organs that were traditionally removed to be put into canopic jars. He does some research at his own library and at the British Library and takes Richard with him. Not that Richard is very useful, he just manages to look dashing while being bored to tears. Cat, who does her own research at the British Library, is much more useful.

Together they discover that Cat's father has been following the footsteps of a German archaeologist, Johannes Dümichen. Dümichen is an experts on inscriptions at temples and tombs and has been doing extensive work at Heliopolis (the ancient city of Iunu) and at Hermopolis. His writings have been published by the Egyptian League, unfortunately in German, which neither Cat or Richard read very well.

They find out that the inscription left at the crime scenes was originally used by a cult who worshiped Thoth as an enemy of Ra, with Anubis and Apep as co-conspirators. The cult stems from Hermopolis (or Unu, as it was then called). A certain book is mentioned in connection with that cult, the Book of Secrets.

Jasper takes a look at the last victim, Maggie Coler. He finds that her throat was cut and that she must have bled out in minutes, so the killer did not intend her to suffer. Her stomach has been removed with some measure of expertise at least and a sharp knife, possibly a scalpel has been used. The murder required some time and physical strength. Although it is not really mentioned in the file, Jasper can tell that Maggie has worked as a prostitute. To his surprise, she has never had an abortion, but she has given birth at least once.

When they all meet at the club, they receive an invitation: the Duke of Clarence has granted them an audience. There's no time to dress for the occasion (Richard gleefully notices that he's the only one properly dressed) and they make their way to St James's Palace where they meet Cat and Sir Jeffrey. While they wait to be received, they notice a variety of Egyptian artifacts, including a sarcophagus.

The Duke is sitting on a sofa when they are let into the room and he's in visibly bad shape: pale, shaking and looking much, much older than his 26 years. Judging from the smell in the room and the small bottle on the table, Jasper assumes that he's addicted to laudanum. The Duke is given a few drops from the bottle by a servant and the effect is striking, he begins to look much more like the young, energetic man he should be. But he is still confused, almost disoriented and Jasper judges that effect to be permanent.

When they ask about Dr Laydon and what the Duke told him, the Duke cannot remember, but is gently coaxed into giving Laydon his permission to tell them. The Duke starts talking about Egypt and about Cleopatra's Needle. He tells them that the Needle is said to be cursed and that six men died bringing it to London. Although he says that he doesn't believe in the curse, he still speaks about it as if it were fact. There's supposed to have been a warning, but now it is too late and the god's wrath will befall them. The duke becomes agitated, gets up from the sofa and promptly collapses. Richard catches him and looks into his eyes - for a moment he feels like he is looking into an abyss.


Here's Richard's version of things.

Nothing much actually happened this time, but we learned a lot of important things. The scene with the Duke was nothing like I expected and definitely not what Jasper expected. He's outraged that the Duke is in this condition, both as a doctor and as a subject to the Queen - the man is second in line of succession, after all.

Richard has been gloriously useless for another session and yes, I mean that as a compliment. The character has been hiding whatever he's good at very well and even though he has not done anything useful so far, the player manages to do nothing with a lot of style.

Friday, April 13, 2012

poke, poke

Gorillas explore the strange UFO landed in their enclosure at Artis zoo. It may or may not be a Eurasian Woodcock, some kind of sandpiper anyway.

I love how the gorilla finally goes for the old solution: when in doubt, poke it with a stick.

via Birdchick

Thursday, April 12, 2012

7th Sea: Lighthouse

Characters are here

Last time...

Dear Isabel,

let me begin this letter by saying that I'm safe and not hurt. You'll know why and I'm sure you'll wish to yell at me for my recklessness by the time you read it. I could blame Don Ramon's influence, but the truth is that I enjoy this life of adventures and danger far more than I should. I'll try and be more careful and I will come back to you, like I always did.

With Logan, Don Ramon and Lucia preparing a distraction in case we'd get caught, Vestini, de Chevalier and I climbed over the wall of the chateau. People were merrymaking inside and we decided to break into the upper rooms since a balcony was within easy reach from the wall. De Chevalier managed the jump without problems, but Vestini and I had to stay perched on top of the wall for a bit longer when a man, clearly drunk, came out into the garden. He walked to the cliffs without seeing us and yelled for someone to Maria to come out to him. He used language I will not repeat here. The woman did follow him and while she had her back turned, we made our way to the balcony and into the room. We turned back just in time to see her push the man off the cliffs into the sea.

Unfortunately, we do not know who the man was and we can only guess that the woman was the fiancée of de Chevalier's late brother. There was nothing we could do about what we just had seen and so we decided to wait for de Chevalier's mother and used the time to look through the papers we found in the study. Remind me to ask de Chevalier to teach me how to pick locks. We found the names of the judge and the lawyer who were involved with declaring de Chevalier dead and his father insane and we also found that not much was left of the family's money.

After some time, the music downstairs ended and de Chevalier's mother came up to her room not long after that. Seeing her son was quite a shock, but he did his best to calm her - and to stay calm himself when we saw that she had been forced to play the cembalo until her fingers were bleeding for the entertainment of the scum who are holding her hostage. She told us that she did not know where her husband was held captive, but that a Castille mercenary called El Gato was coming every week or so to report and to receive new instructions.

Since we could not risk drawing attention to us at this moment, we were forced to leave her behind when we returned to our camp in the woods. There were some discussions about that, but in the end there is a time and place for revenge and it was not then and there.

The Eisen soldiers told us of a few places where El Gato could be hiding and the old lighthouse on the island just off the coast sounded most promising, so we decided to investigate it. That meant borrowing a boat. Vestini acquired one for us, although I'm not sure on what terms, he returned to the camp after was had obviously been a severe beating. Or maybe he just ran afoul of the husband or father of one of his many acquaintances.

After nightfall, we crossed the strait to the island and made our way to the lighthouse that is said to be haunted. We all felt some kind of presence and it grew stronger the nearer we came to the lighthouse. Ramon and I went ahead to investigate. I confess I felt more than a bit daunted, especially when flames suddenly roared up in the tower's windows, making it look for than ever like some kind of demon. I noticed however that the flames were caused by some mechanism and whenever someone steps on the paving stones that lead to the entrance, they light up. I also noted that the eerie feeling was only present when the wind blows from a certain direction.

Back with our friends, de Chevalier guessed that the feeling was caused by another mechanism that turns wind into vibrations too deep to hear, but still strong enough to be felt. We decided to explore the tower and shining a lantern through the entrance, the floor showed itself to be without footprints. Ramon and I jumped in and the floor gave way under us. We landed on some kind of smooth copper chute and for a moment, I was sure we were going to land on the sharp stones in the sea below the tower. Instead, the chute made a sharp turn and we found ourself floundering in water just too deep to stand. We had found the pirate's cave: the cave was big enough for a half-sunken three-master and some huts to our right with a jetty.

Unfortunately, there was movement in the water between ourselves and the jetty and all thought of some harmless explanation like fish or seals were squashed by the sight of several Sirens swimming towards us. I had never seen those creatures up close before and I had no wish to, but there was no way of evading them, so we fought. The blood lust of those monsters made it easier for us because when I injured my first one, the others tore it apart as soon as the blood started flowing. It was quite a fight and with hindsight, I would have liked to take a closer look at one of the corpses, but at the time we were both glad to be safely out of the water. We had killed five Sirens and had no way of knowing if there were any more.

In the meantime, the others had found a different way into the cave. We met them in a corner behind the huts and heard several voices coming from the biggest one. I will not repeat what exactly they were talking about, but de Chevalier immediately attacked upon hearing them mentioning his mother.

(to be continued)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Iron Sky

I've been waiting several years for this: seeing Iron Sky on the big screen. It was well worth the wait. The whole thing is hilarious and snarky and extremely well-designed, I loved the whole steampunkish look and all the little details the filmmakers obviously paid a lot of attention to. Watch the background when you go see that movie, there's a lot to see there.

A president totally not modeled after Sarah Palin, a Führer called Kortzfleisch (Schicklgruber, anyone?), an astronaut chosen for his looks, a ruthless Nazi officer and his (at first) naive bride to be. Recipe for disaster.

I think my favourite moment was the take off of the Götterdämmerung, the huge war machine the moon Nazis had been building for the last few decades. It looks awesome and you get impressive music with a choir singing in German. Then I realised that the dramatic choir was singing stuff like "machines come out of the earth", basically describing what went on on the screen.

Go see it. I mean, Nazis from space. How can you not?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Strange Beasts: Net Casting

Fillian scouts ahead of the party, leading his horse by the reins. He concentrates on tracks, bent branches and such and so he misses the shadow swaying in the breeze above. A loud rustling is the first sign that something's wrong and before he can react, his horse is on its side, kicking and screaming, caught in a net. A few strands catch on Fillian's clothes and armour and he becomes entangled as well. His screams bring the party running to help him and they find him struggling to free himself from the net, while he and the horse are hoisted up into the air by a long-legged spider busy wrapping the horse in layers of silk.

Net casting spiders are also known as ogre-faced spiders. Why, you ask?

Photo by Robert Whyte
How can this not turn up in some fantasy campaign with that name?

They are unusual because of their hunting technique. The spider will build a small net from fuzzy, very elastic silk that is not sticky, but will attach itself to prey like velcro. Or rather like some fluffy wool - if you have ever handled wool with hands that were even a bit roughed up, you know what I'm talking about.
It then holds the net between its first four legs and will wait for an insect to pass by. Because of its huge eyes, the spider has excellent night vision. The net is cast over the prey and then wrapped up quickly.
Rufous net-casting spider
photo by Wikki Will

For roleplaying purposes, it would be very hard to cut through the net because it is so extremely elastic, it can easily stretch to twice its size and more. It should burn nicely, but I don't know if that is the best course of action to free a party member caught in the web. During the day, the spider probably doesn't have such excellent vision, but at night it can spot prey even by starlight.

David Attenborough once again. The Net casting spider is shown from 2:00 onwards, making its web and catching a cricket.

Edit: I just came across another video with excellent slow motion of the catch and a very excited scientist. Here you can see the cricket touching a trip wire before the spider pounces on it.

Sources: Science Spider Friday

a list of Strange Beasts