Thursday, May 21, 2015

Tripped Over an Angry Donkey

To my surprise and relief, the agents of the SOE did not blow anything up. Nor did they kidnap anyone, there were no Mexican stand-offs, and there were no embarrassing blunders.

Well, there was one, but we'll get to that.

While the partisan Jacques Martin was a charming host, his wife Helena was somewhat less welcoming, perhaps as a result of the disagreement between the agents and the partisans in the previous session. Over breakfast she ordered them to (a) find jobs, (b) find somewhere to live, and (c) get all the incriminating secret agent gear out of her pig shed.

As a result, this session consisted of lots of running about town, meeting non-player-characters, and arranging boring things like buying vegetables and furniture.

Tidelina was just about well enough to join the rest of the team on their travels but her mangled arm and pallid complexion generated a lot of attention and more than a few questions; put on the spot the Australian solicitor spun an elaborate tale about a country walk and the unexpected appearance of an angry Spanish donkey. You could argue that this was an unconvincing story but as a solicitor, Tidelina's Fast Talk skill is at 99% and you can't argue with statistics.

O'Brien and Bertrand met Raimond, the head of the Decharette family and owner of the local copper mine. An amiable sort of fellow, he offered them jobs as general workers around the mansion, as most of his staff had fled the conflict. While gardening the two agents took the opportunity to search the nearby monastery ruins, convinced that there was a secret tunnel somewhere leading to a blasphemous cult temple. No temple was discovered but they did find a strange and unnatural cold spot in one part of the old building that was more or less intact and being used as a garden shed; while inside Fergus was sure that he could hear a howling in the stone walls but McVeigh could hear no such thing.

The team later visited the town's church and discovered some odd iconography inside, including an ostentatious painting depicted the temptation of Christ relocated to one of the hills overlooking Saint-Cerneuf, and with the town's previous priest as Jesus. Some wonky editing in the book made it unclear who was playing Satan in the painting, or who was immortalised as a statue just above the church door. Oh dear.

The friendly but nervous priest Beaumarais told them some of the history behind the painting -- including the financial irregularities and mysterious disappearance of his predecessor -- and they assumed that his agitation was a sign of him concealing his cult affiliation, leading to a bizarre scene in which McVeigh attempted to convince the poor old man to tell the "truth" by revealing that prancing about in hooded robes and chanting were common springtime activities in Belgium -- from where the group claimed to originate -- so he had nothing to hide from them.

Earlier, the team had discovered that one of the houses in town was available to rent as the owner had
vanished some years before; by this point the players were certain that all the town's inhabitants were either members of the still-unconfirmed cult or had disappeared, probably at the hands of said cult, an impression not countered by the discovery of the ransacked remains of an occult library in the loft. Aside from the worm-ridden books, a wonky kitchen table, and a musty armchair, the house was a bit bare so -- fearing Helena's wrath if they returned to the farm -- the agents stayed in the town's dilapidated hotel.

It was there that they made a breakthrough in their secret secret mission to find the missing German occultist Lionel Malo. Sneaking about after hours McVeigh discovered that Malo had stayed at the hotel and as luck -- or rather a Luck roll -- would have it, O'Brien and Tinkerton were staying in the same room as he had years before. The group's first search turned up nothing more than a few rat traps under the beds but by the morning light and with a bit more focus to their searching they found an envelope taped to the back of the room's greasy mirror. Inside was a note written by Malo and going into some detail on an apparent cult ritual and his last hours in the town.

They had more fortune later that day while shopping for supplies. Suspicious scientist Tinkerton was browsing the second-hand section of the town's general shop, and stumbled upon an old suitcase and a camera, the latter of which Tidelina identified as being about ten years old and of German manufacture. Neither item was conclusive evidence of Malo's presence but they were unusual enough for the group to buy them and later -- back at what the players were already calling "the Shunned House" -- they examined them in more detail; in the suitcase McVeigh discovered a hidden compartment -- his spy training helped him recognise it as a professional job -- in which was a map of some sort of tunnel network, with notes in German, including a reference to a "secret entrance".

The agents were convinced that they had found a map of the local copper mine and that the answers to the entire mystery would be found there. The only potential problem was that the mine had been commandeered by the German army and earlier in the day some of the group's identification papers had been confiscated by some suspicious soldiers.


Saturday, May 09, 2015

Mission Improbable

The names and backgrounds -- some now amended -- of the player-characters are here. They work for the Special Operations Executive and their secret mission is to set up a partisan network in a rural area of Vichy France; their secret secret mission is to find a missing German occultist, last seen in the area in 1938.

When I saw that the adventure begins with a parachute drop, I knew things were not going to go well. I did not expect the campaign to almost unravel no less than three times in the first session!

Tidelina Swiftraider -- she seems to have wandered in from Star Wars -- stumbled as she jumped from the Halifax bomber and her parachute failed to open, then her backup parachute also failed. As she plummeted towards France, commando Mike McVeigh attempted to reach her and activate her parachute but also failed to release it in time. With a stomach-turning crunch, Tidelina landed in France, much faster and much harder than she had planned.

That is probably the quickest fatality I have seen in any game and it seemed a touch unfair, so I ruled instead that she was incapacitated with all sorts of broken and punctured bits, and she lost a few Strength points. I also thought it would be more interesting -- as in it would give me more opportunities to make things difficult for the players -- if they also had to deal with an injured member of the team on top of their main mission, their secret mission, and the tensions already brewing between them.

It was not the best start to the mission, but at least it couldn't get worse! Except it did! Fergus O'Brien found himself in some strange turbulence that seemed to slow his descent, as if he was falling through treacle, not air, and he drifted away from the landing zone towards some woods. He crashed through the trees and although not injured he was overcome by a strange panic and started running; in his confused state, the Irishman didn't realise he was heading deeper into the woods.

While the rest of the team met up with their partisan contacts and attempted to make Tidelina comfortable, the ever-helpful McVeigh crashed into the trees in search of O'Brien and also became lost, stumbling into the remains of a camp site; it had been wrecked by some sort of explosion and the campers -- a group of German soldiers -- seemed to have been squashed by some great pressure. McVeigh's mind snapped at that point and he blanked out.

O'Brien meanwhile ran into an enormous wolf that stared at him with bright yellow eyes before bounding off into the darkness. After another five minutes or so of aimless wandering, O'Brien blundered back out into the field to be told that he'd been gone for over twenty minutes. About half an hour later, and with the partisans getting more and more anxious to move on, McVeigh ran out of the woods and fainted in the grass.

Those with keen ears could hear, floating on the wind, the sound of a head thumping on a desk in London, again and again.

Eager to leave before they were spotted, the partisans took the team to a nearby farm and the leader, Jacques Martin, led them to an old pig shed in which some rough beds had been set up. He would return to the landing zone to remove evidence of the agents' arrival, and then would meet with them the next day for a proper briefing. Until then, it was best for them not to leave the shed.

Of course, players being players, they tried to leave the shed and got into a brawl with the burly partisan assigned to guard them. He fled to the farmhouse to fetch the others and a standoff ensued; after some tense negotiations between the partisans and the agents, the latter group agreed to return to the shed and rest if they could be allowed a brief exploration of the farm to assess its defendability. That done, both groups retired, regarding each other with narrowed, suspicious eyes, and with weapons close at hand.

During the night, O'Brien and McVeigh dreamed of endless spirals; for O'Brien this was strange and unsettling, but for McVeigh it was terrifying and he realised that his experience in the woods had left him with a fear of getting lost.

The next morning, Jacques Martin opened the door to the pig shed with a broad grin on his face; it seems the tensions of the night before had gone. His wife Helena was nowhere near as warm towards the new arrivals but she was at least welcoming, providing a meal that while not unusual was a touch extravagant considering that, well, there was a war on. The fine spread did little to make the agents any less suspicious of the partisans.

Martin answered the agents' questions and gave them some tips on getting around Saint-Cerneuf and fitting in. He told them that the local hotel owner was not to be trusted, that the mayor was "a puppet of the Fascists", and that the local gendarme was desperate to make a name for himself. Martin's brother-in-law Louis was also present for the breakfast meeting and indicated that he could get jobs for the SOE agents at the local copper mine as he was chief administrator there. During the meal, one of the less friendly partisans from the night before turned up outside and got into a brief argument with Jacques but Martin told the agents that it was nothing significant and was none of their concern. Again, this did little to allay their suspicions.

Later, Tidelina was moved to the farmhouse in the hopes of speeding her recovery while the rest of the team went exploring; Kirby Tinkerton and McVeigh went to the mine to sign up as labourers while Pierre-Yves Bertrand and O'Brien decided to look around for good potential sites for future parachute or aircraft landings.

Tinkerton and McVeigh met Louis again at the copper mine and he fabricated some documents confirming their employment but they were interrupted by the arrival of Claude Decharette, the son of the mine owner, who engaged them in conversation about their origins and mining experience, an impromptu interview that McVeigh just about managed to scrape through with his basic French.

Meanwhile, O'Brien and Bertrand scouted out an area near their original landing zone; to the French pilot's expert eyes there was no good place to set up a landing strip as everything was either too cramped, too hilly, or in plain view of a nearby mansion. While out and about they also investigated a strange patch of land where nothing seemed to grow, mentioned in their briefing as "the Devil's Field", and the remains of an old monastery. These explorations brought them closer to the mansion so they decided to introduce themselves to the occupants.

The door was opened by a beautiful young woman who introduced herself as Reni Decharette. The agents asked about working at the mansion, perhaps in the kitchens or gardens, and Reni took their names and promised to ask her father later in the day. During the conversation the young woman seemed to be listening to something the two agents couldn't hear but they couldn't work out what was going on and decided not to pursue the issue. They asked if they could return the next day to find out Monsieur Decharette's answer to their request for work -- although Bertrand seemed more keen on seeing Reni again -- and the odd young woman agreed.

Next time the agents of the SOE will... well I don't know what they're going to do, but the partisans want them out of their cow shed so they should go looking for somewhere to stay, but they'll probably instead spend the session trying to blow up a German patrol or kidnap Reni or something.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

'Allo 'Allo

It is April 1941. The world is at war. In the United Kingdom, the Special Operations Executive plans an operation to make contact with partisans in Vichy France and build a resistance network to fight against the Germans. A few weeks before the operation is due to begin, new orders arrive; no one knows from where the orders came, and attempts to trace them to their source stumble into a tangle of bureaucracy, but they seem legitimate. The new orders specify that the group already attached to the mission is to be replaced by a new team of agents:

Fergus O'Brien, a former Gardai detective from Cork and current espionage specialist, blackmailed into working for the SOE.

"Kirby Tinkerton", a multidisciplinary English scientist who somehow found his way into the diplomatic service with the outbreak of hostilities, and is driven by a desire to learn blasphemous secrets.

Mike McVeigh, from Newry, near the border of the two Irelands. A spy before the war, and commando during the conflict, McVeigh feels a duty to defend the realm from threats both mundane and supernatural.

Pierre-Yves Bertrand, a pilot and radio operator from Toulouse, who desires nothing more than freeing his beloved France from the Nazi menace.

Tidelina Swiftraider, an Australian solicitor who travelled across the world to join the European conflict as a guerilla fighter.

In about a week this motley band will parachute into Vichy France. Will their mission succeed? Will they be gunned down by Nazis? Will they be gunned down by each other? We will find out soon enough.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Eyes to See You

I always liked the way that Earthdawn explained its dungeons as apocalypse shelters now overrun by the same soul-eating monsters from which the former inhabitants were hiding. I'm not one of those people who demands a rational explanation for everything in a fantasy world -- sometimes fantasy should be allowed to be fantasy -- but I appreciated the effort.

In 13th Age some dungeons are alive. They are like parasites or cancers, burrowing up from some unknown underworld and breaking out on the surface to spew monsters into the world; the fact that some have what look like wooden doors -- but aren't -- and are populated by what look like kobolds or goblins -- but aren't -- is all part of their strange and inexplicable nature. The dungeons just are. It's sort of the opposite approach to Earthdawn; "a wizard did it" on a greater scale, with a bit of Lovecraft chucked in for added gribbly flavour.

The average living dungeon erupts into the surface world and aside from some regeneration of damage or perhaps a small rearrangement of its internal structure it stays as it is, a violent idiot spitting out monsters until some adventurers delve into it and destroy its heart.

The Stone Thief is different. It is intelligent, it bears grudges, it moves, and it is hungry. It pops up to devour a castle, a town, or even another dungeon, and then digs back into the ground to appear somewhere else, often thousands of miles away. What a great idea.

Spoilers follow.

Eyes of the Stone Thief is a mid to high level campaign for 13th Age that was I believe pitched as "what if Moby Dick were a dungeon?"; the bulk of the 360 pages is devoted to a description of the dungeon itself while the rest of the book discusses the kind of campaign you can construct around it, complete with ideas for sidequests, hunting the dungeon, and multiple solutions to the apocalyptic threat it poses.

It's a big book but it's not as intimidating as I thought it would be, because it's written with a light touch and plenty of wit, and it is well organised. Monster statistics are included in the area in which they appear, which does increase the page count when they turn up in multiple sections but I imagine will be quite handy at the table, and each part of the complex is illustrated with an excerpt from the larger dungeon map so it's always clear which text is referring to which section. Well almost; there are a couple of places where it seems that smaller subsections were supposed to be labelled and the labels are missing, but it's not too difficult to match the picture and text.

I can imagine that the maps will be a sticking point for some players as they tend to show the general arrangement of the most important locations on that level, rather than showing each and every room and corridor; for those who prefer mapping out every five-foot square there will be some work required to translate the dungeon to that style of play. I don't think it would be an insurmountable task but as a result the dungeon has less out-of-the-book utility for players of that stripe.

On the plus side, the focus on the important locations means that a lot of work has gone into making each of them interesting and exciting. Of course, some areas are better than others but not one of them is dull and some of them are so good that it's frustrating knowing that the players will have to fight and puzzle their way through umpteen levels before they get to them.

Here are some examples. If you're going to play -- and I know my group reads the blog -- stop reading now.

Early on -- although the dungeon can rearrange its own levels -- there's the Gauntlet, a patchwork of monsters and traps, including a minotaur that's both immortal and in agony because the magic sword stuck in its heart can kill death itself, a lava jumping puzzle, and a suicidal medusa at the centre of a maze with invisible walls. Great fun.

Later on there's part of a swallowed library, complete with undead librarians that are polite and helpful unless the adventurers are noisy, killer books that have what is more or less a paralysis ability but one that's protrayed in a fun metagamey way, and a sneaky WFRP reference.

Nearby there's an ancient dwarf dungeon that's been assimilated by the Thief, and it's so old that it's presented in the AD&D1 adventure format, complete with a Futura typeface, boxed text, and Russ Nicholson art.

Later still the adventurers may discover a saw shau sagwa shugaw sguhaw fish person temple at the heart of which is an incomplete demonic ritual; if the player-characters finish the ceremony it opens a gateway to hell in the guts of the dungeon and that could be helpful in defeating the Stone Thief, but on the other hand they are opening a gateway to hell. What the campaign may lack in left-right choices it makes up for it with lots of moral decisions like this one.

There are plenty of factions within the dungeon too, including a cult that worships the dungeon and wants to guide it to apotheosis, an orc army sent to capture the dungeon but that decided to live within it instead, a witch who allowed the dungeon to devour her mansion so she could study it from within, and of course the Stone Thief itself. All are dangerous -- even the friendly ones -- and all have their own plans and goals, some of which clash with each other, creating plenty of opportunity for sneaky players to create alliances and engage in all sorts of political intrigue backstabbing, and that's before the influence of 13th Age's icons is taken into account. In short, there is plenty for the players to do within the dungeon even when they're bored of killing things.

(Ha ha ha. They will never get bored of killing things.)

Eyes of the Stone Thief is quite different from any other megadungeon I've seen but then a traditional approach wouldn't have been the best example of what makes 13th Age different from other Dungeons and Dragons variants.That said there's nothing revolutionary here, nothing that will make you think "all dungeons should be like this forever", but what you do get is a lot of well-written content, well organised, and with lots of good ideas; almost every section has some room or monster or trap that makes me want to unleash it on my players right this second, and if that's not a sign of a good adventure, I don't know what is.

It also features a manticore that thinks it's a cow. You can't go wrong with that.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Water Polo?

Brighton has a reputation for being one of the more liberal and progressive places in the country. Well, it probably has more of a reputation for being full of web designers and artisan coffee shops nowadays but we do have the country's only Green MP -- for the next month at least -- so close enough.

It's a bit strange then that our local newspaper, The Argus, is a vile pamphlet full of hatred directed at the Gypsies/foreigners/Muslims/drug addicts who are plotting to destroy the peace and happiness of our town, plus football news.

The Argus is also known for the somewhat surreal turn taken by some of its advertising boards. Here are a couple of recent highlights:

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Unpronounceable

Saw shau sagwa shugaw sguhaw fish people.

I suppose it could have been worse; it could have been the evil manta ray things.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

It's All Black

Despite many attempts I have never warmed to Deadlands. I like Westerns, and I like supernatural Westerns -- High Plains Drifter is ace and Preacher is one of my favourite comics of all time -- and I have a fondness for multi-genre kitchen sink games, and I love Savage Worlds, so I should like Deadlands but it's never clicked for me. Big, perplexed shrug.

As such I wasn't too interested when Pinnacle Entertainment Group cranked the game world's clock forward a few decades for Deadlands Noir, but Stuart was interested and a good thing too as we've played a couple of sessions in the past two weeks and it's been great fun.

Stuart was not impressed with the published campaign for the game so he chucked it out and instead wrote something a bit more freeform and situation-based that saw us playing as employees of a struggling private detective agency tasked with finding a New Orleans socialite's lost poodle. From that humble start we uncovered a Mafia interest in the case, borrowed some money from said criminal organisation without asking them first, kidnapped a spy, recovered an experimental weapon, shopped said spy to his enemies, blamed the missing money on that poor spy, and -- most crucial of all -- found the lost dog.

Oh, and there were some zombies too.

The walking dead aside, the game has captured the noir feel, with multiple factions all vying for the prize and our hapless detectives -- most of whom seem to have no useful detective skills, and proved unable to shoot guns or drive cars with any success -- in the middle, doing everything they can to come out of the mess with something in their favour and as few bullet holes as possible.

It has been big heaps of fun so far; how much of that is hardcoded into Deadlands Noir and how much is a result of Stuart's adventure design I don't know but I feel none of the ambivalence I've felt to Noir's older cousin. I am already looking forward to my next visit to this strange and dangerous alternate New Orleans.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Hero's Heart

A few weeks ago James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess put out a call for magic items to include in his long-awaited referee's book. As an infrequent contributor to the LotFP canon I felt I had to have a go but alas my item wasn't picked, so here it is for you to use as you wish.

The Hero's Heart

This is the heart of a great hero -- or at least someone notable for great deeds if not great moral virtue -- dried or pickled in strange herbs and unguents and enchanted by an evil witch. To unlock its magic the whole heart must be eaten, then three things happen: first of all, the diner is ill in a most messy and violent manner and must save against Poison or be bed-ridden for 1d6 days.

After this the character will feel rejuvenated and full of confidence and will be able to perform one superhuman feat. For example:
  1. Convincing a powerful and hostile army to flee.
  2. Returning from death.
  3. Leaping a tall building in a single bound.
  4. Solving an impossible puzzle.
  5. Swimming while towing a warship.
  6. Reading another being’s mind.
Unknown to the character, they have six months in which to perform this feat or the power dissipates and is wasted.

The third thing that happens is that after six months -- whether the feat is performed or not -- powerful spirits will appear to kill the character and take their heart -- not always in that order -- back to the witch so that another Hero’s Heart can be created. These spirits should be difficult, if not impossible, to defeat.

Unless the character has access to some sort of miraculous power, that is.