Friday, November 25, 2016

Incantations Episode 6 - Design Diary 1

We've got some new stuff to talk about on Incantations. Monte Cook published a design diary and we go over the details he included.

Show Notes

Segment One - Dev Diary 1 (The Careful Gaze of the Grigori)
  • Invisible Sun Design Diary 1: Stats -- link

Follow us at: @drscottrobinson and @tex_red on Twitter.

We can be contacted via email at

You can also get in touch with us on the Invisible Sun G+ community.

Music in the episode was drawn from the song "Beyond" by Wes Otis and Plate Mail Games. It is available at DriveThruRPG.

Invisible Sun is the intellectual property of Monte Cook Games.
Subscribe: iTunes | Google Play | RSS

Friday, November 18, 2016

Steganography and the Invisible Sun Kickstarter ARG

When the Invisible Sun Kickstarter was started there was an alternate reality game (ARG) that ran along with it. We're going to be talking about the ARG when episode 7 hits the interwebs, but in the lead up to that I had bit of related research that merited a bit more detail. If you're looking for a way to hide information from your players, or the spies in the van outside your window, give this a read.


I was looking for a way to hide information in a way that my tech savvy players might be able to figure out for the Invisible Sun lead up campaign that I'm running. During my research, I stumbled upon a technique that I thought might reveal some additional information hidden in the images that were pulled from the caches that were found in the Kickstarter ARG. For reference, the images I've been looking at are From the Changery and Wrong Cat from the memory sticks in the caches. You can follow along by downloading those images, just right click the links or the images and download them.

From the Changery Wrong Cat

There's a discipline called steganography which is the practice of concealing messages/information in nonsecret text or data. Both of the images have information that's been hidden in the form of white text on a transparent background. That is a form of steganography that's pretty simple and straight forward. That's a pretty good way to hide information for a wide audience if you want the information to be discovered. It's not readily apparent, but with a little bit of work, or happenstance, that information will be discovered.

You can go deeper, however.

One thing I discovered is that you can append bytes after the end chunk of a PNG file without corrupting it. If you pop either image open in a tool like HxD you'll see the opening chunk of the PNG, the starting chunk (IHDR) and at the very end the closing chunk (IEND). You can totally type whatever you want in at the end there without disturbing the rest of the file. I took a look at the recovered image files with this in mind which unfortunately revealed no additional information at the end of the file.

Digging through the byte data of the file did reveal some interesting metadata that Adobe Photoshop had dropped in. Creation dates, modified dates, the tool that was used (Adobe on a Mac), layer names (Have you found a solid door?), change logs (looks like it was converted to a PNG on a Windows machine), dimensions. Lots of fun stuff you can infer the history of the file from. Unfortunately, nothing terribly useful once again.

<xmp:CreatorTool>Adobe Photoshop CC 2015 (Macintosh)</xmp:CreatorTool>
<rdf:li xml:lang="x-default">Words in White</rdf:li>
<photoshop:LayerName>Have you found a solid door? </photoshop:LayerName>
<photoshop:LayerText>Have you found a solid door? </photoshop:LayerText>

Neat, right?

What if there was more data?

Since you can dump data at the end of a PNG file, you can basically put anything you want there. Take the following image for example (right click the image or this link and download it).

This Wrong Cat contains more secrets

At first blush, nothing seems terribly odd about the image. If you double click it the image will open up in whatever program you view images with. This is where things start to get a bit odd if you care about image quality and how it relates to file size. The image is only about 200x250 pixels and shouldn't be nearly a megabyte in size. If you open the file up in HxD you'll see the standard PNG header at the beginning, but if you go to the very end you'll see some really odd plain text that reads "you_found_me" along with some PK and IEND characters. What you're seeing here are PKZip file headers, PKZip being the file format that's used to compress files.

The other way to pull all of the data out of the image is to open the image file up with a compression tool, like 7-Zip. Start up 7-Zip, then navigate to the directory you saved the image to and open the image. Normally, this would just open the image up in your image viewing program, but 7-Zip will simply open up the compressed file that's hanging out in there. Now you can just pull the data out of the image and do what you want with it.

There are two ways to extract the data that's in the file. First off, you can find the beginning of the zip file by searching for "PK". You'll find that header at offset 00003B30. Then you can copy everything from that point to the end of the file, including the "PK" characters you located. Once you've copied everything hit File > New and paste all of the data in the new file you've created in HxD and save it as a ".zip". Now you've got a clean zipped file that you can open up with a simple double click.

Yeah, it's not a way to hide information from players at the table. It's also not a great way to hide data if you want anyone to be able to find it. However, if you're running an ARG in which solving puzzles might take days or weeks, and your players like to mess with things in hex editors, then this might be something you want to look into.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Incantations Episode 5 -- The Green Sun and Secret Keeping Techniques of the Alchemists

This time on Incantations we wander back down the Path of Suns to the Green sun. After talking about the verdant expanses we talk about secret keeping techniques of alchemists and how they might be useful in our Invisible Sun campaigns.

Show Notes

Segment One - The Green Sun (The Careful Gaze of the Grigori)
  • The Green Sun -- link
  • The Parliament of Trees -- link (wiki), link2 (DC Wikia)

Segment Two - Secret Keeping Techniques of the Alchemists (A Distant Light Pierces the Mist)

  • The Secrets of Alchemy -- link
  • Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine -- link
  • The Ninth Gate (movie) -- link

Follow us at: @drscottrobinson and @tex_red on Twitter.

We can be contacted via email at

You can also get in touch with us on the Invisible Sun G+ community.

Music in the episode was drawn from the song "Beyond" by Wes Otis and Plate Mail Games. It is available at DriveThruRPG.

Invisible Sun is the intellectual property of Monte Cook Games.
Subscribe: iTunes | Google Play | RSS

Friday, November 4, 2016

Dadaism in the Visual Arts for Invisible Sun

While the podcast is a fun way to talk about Invisible Sun, there are many topics that call for a discussion centered on visual elements.  This is particularly true for a game that is closely tied to Surrealism -- which is chiefly, though not exclusively, known as a tradition in the visual arts.

Before I can introduce Surrealist visual arts, some background is necessary.  It is useful to take a step back to one of the immediate predecessors of Surrealism to chart the emergence of some of the key themes that will eventually shape Surrealism.  In this post, I want to discuss Dadism as a visual art tradition that paved the way for Surrealism.

The Historical Context of Dadaism

Dadaism emerges as an artistic tradition associated with a specific group of artists in the shadow of World War I in Europe.  I shouldn't need to go in to great detail to convince you that World War I was terrible for Europe.  The death toll was staggering and concentrated in a period of time unprecedented in human history.  This was an event that could not be ignored by those living amid the battlefields and graveyards of the war.  

To some artists, World War I represented not just an exercise in poor judgment or bad luck.  The violence expressed in the war had to stem from deep within the traditions that fueled, or at least tolerated, this level of violence.  It was no longer the case that human history would inevitably march forward towards peace and prosperity for all.  The artists who would eventually become the Dadaists sought to use art to expose the contradictions, biases, and essential inhumanity built into the dominant cultures of the time (the cultures that just fought the great war). 

Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimer Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919)  by Hannah Hoch
In this potent political environment, several artists organized events to gather like-minded artists.  One of the most famous of the events specifically linked to the Dadaist art movement was the creation of Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.

The Mechanical Head: The Spirit of Our Age (1920) by Raoul Hausmann

The Ideology of Dadaism

The Dadaist gatherings were often characterized as anarchic as they saw the violence of the recent war as deeply embedded in the culture and society.  The only solution was to expose the violent tendencies embedded in these cultures and reveal the often unseen or invisible tendencies that led to violence.  This was expressed, in part, as an attack on sources of authority ranging from legal/political authorities to artistic authorities who declared what qualified as art and what sorts of art should be praised.  

The Dadaists involved artists from a range of traditions including painting, sculpture, and theater but I will focus on those pieces most easily displayed here -- mostly painting and sculpture.

Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp

Examples of Dadaist Visual Arts

I have sprinkled this post with several examples of Dadaist art.  I won't dive into any of them in great detail but they represent the variety of styles associated with the tradition.  The first piece (by Hannah Hoch) illustrates the use of collage to juxtapose images and words in startling combinations.  Here the juxtaposition is intended to expose patterns that can be concealed in the original source material.  

The second piece (by Raoul Hausmann) illustrates the use of sculpture to express the disjointed nature of modern identity (rather than a beautiful classical sculpture, by comparison) and an awkward reliance of science (notice the measurement tools).  Science was one of the many institutions and sources of authority that the Dadaist brought into question.  After all, it was advanced in science and technology that allowed the armies of WWI to so efficiently kill so many people -- including the use of chemical weapons.

The third image (by Duchamp - one of the movement's most famous figures) efficiently expresses the anti-authoritarian approach of the Dadaist artists.  Duchamp illustrates the subjectivity of art by sculpting the most mundane - and, to some, borderline offensive -- subject he could imagine, a urinal.  He saw this as raising questions about what counts as art and who decides.  He wanted to get as far away from classical sculpture as possible to raise the question.  It raises an interesting question.  Is this the opposite of art?  Can art even have an opposite?

The final example illustrates the use of re-appropriation and a direct engagement of the artist and audience.  This piece by Man Ray is another sculpture that uses an image (an eye) cut out from a photo.  The piece included the instructions to use different speeds for the metronome to see how the movement of the eye affected how the image affected the viewer (engaging directly the role of the audience in "using" the art).  The instructions further demanded that the viewer destroy the piece when they were done.  This, again, brought into question the relationship between the viewer and the art piece. It also illustrates the preoccupation with contradictions (the "indestructible" or "to be destroyed").
Indestructible Object (or Object to be Destroyed) (1923) Man Ray

The Transition to Surrealist Visual Arts

The artists who called themselves Dadaists would lay the foundation on which the Surrealist movement would build their own work and their own perspectives.  The Surrealists would maintain the anti-authoritarian approach of the Dadaists and the disregard of established standards of artistry.  To this, they would add specific techniques to avoid the corruption they saw as residing within reason and conscious thought itself.

Typical Disclaimer 

I am not an art historian and this is a short blog post.  My discussion is simplistic, partial, and otherwise limited.  I have tried to avoid being outright "wrong".  I hope this is a useful starting point for any more in-depth investigations you want to conduct to follow-up.  If someone more expert than myself would like correct any errors or expand on these topics, I encourage them to do so.  I would love to learn more on the topic as well.