Saturday, July 04, 2015

In the Grim Darkness of 2015 There Is Only (Edition) War

In a bold move that is quite uncharacteristic of a company that has made a business plan of biennial releases of nigh-identical rulesets, Games Workshop yesterday rebooted its Warhammer fantasy wargame as Warhammer: Age of Sigmar and the reaction has been fascinating. I'm used to seeing edition wars in role-playing game conversations -- well, in conversations about Dungeons and Dragons for the most part -- but GW gamers tend to grumble a bit about new editions then buy everything anyway; those that don't go and play older editions or other games and leave the discussion. This time, it's been a bit different.

Early on there were rumours that the game would be using circular bases as standard, although the square bases of the previous editions would remain legal. This seemed to be the worst news ever according to a lot of the online fans although I couldn't see that it would make much difference, but then I haven't played since about 1998 so I may have missed a particular subtlety.

The bulk of the rules for the new game were released yesterday and confirmed that yes, circular bases were in, so I imagine that there has been much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair around the world. The rules do seem to be somewhat incomplete; the basic game mechanics seem to be there and GW has released free rules updates for its existing model range for the new game, but there does seem to be a gap in terms of how the models work in the new game.

The Age of Sigmar boxed set -- the source of the free rules released today, it seems -- gives the rules for the miniatures included in the box and the expectation is that this is enough if you're using the contents of the box. Fair enough, that makes sense. If you want to use your orcs -- or Orruks™ now -- then you have rules for them, but how many units of orc boyz can you field? How many troll mobs can you bring to a battle? That bit isn't clear and it seems to be driving the fans insane.

My assumption is that at some point a standalone rulebook will be released and army building mechanics will be included and perhaps GW should have given some idea of how it would work, or provided a basic version; as it stands they've left players of older armies with just enough information that they know they haven't been abandoned but not enough to know how to play, and I can understand why that's frustrating, but perhaps not to the level of the frothing mania I've seen online in the past couple of days.

Perhaps the oddest revelation of the past few hours is that the rules contain stuff like this:



This sort of thing is common in board gaming -- "the player with the pointiest ears goes first" --and was also a frequent occurrence in the days when Warhammer was called Warhammer Fantasy Battle. These days there are remnants of this approach in the animosity rules for orcs or the way goblin fanatics work, but in general the sense of humour and fun has been ground out of GW games over the years so it is a surprise to see it return, and in a major release. It's been a nasty surprise for the same sort of people who think circular bases are the work of Satan Slaanesh, but it's a pleasant surprise for me, as I miss the days when ork vehicles really would go faster if you painted them red.

I find myself quite optimistic about this new edition of the game. The idea seems to be simpler rules and smaller and more affordable armies and as someone who got priced out of Warhammer in the previous century, that's a move I welcome. The release of free rules is something to be applauded even if everyone else has been doing it for a while and there is a certain level of bravery in such a sweeping reboot of the ruleset from such a conservative company, and I feel that should be encouraged.

Yes, it is a shame that the old setting is gone, but the game world GW has been pushing for the last couple of decades isn't the one in which I've been playing so I'm not too bothered. If I were a fan of the previous edition of the rules I could be miffed that they've been scrapped but if I were such a fan, there's nothing stopping me from playing an older edition.

This looks like a version of Warhammer that I can not only afford but that looks fun to play, and so I find myself interested in the game for the first time in a couple of decades. I don't know what GW's criteria for a successful launch are, but it works for me.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

It's All Gone a Bit Pete Tong

At the end of the previous session, the agents of the Special Operations Executive discovered that the German troops occupying the French village of Saint Cenreuf du Bois were all gathered in the village's restaurant, preparing the place for a party. I pointed out that with the Germans all in town the Decharette copper mine would be under only light guard, a suggestion that the players took to be unsubtle railroading, but the irony was that all my preparation had been focussed in another direction; as it turned out the players got themselves into enough trouble without any nudging from me.

They stopped off at the Decharette mansion on their way and convinced Claude Decharette to give them a note allowing them to inspect the mine; this document got them past the guard at the gate, although he did seem a bit suspicious about all the tools -- the agents had concealed firearms in their tool bags -- the group had brought along.

Using the sketched map they suspected had been left behind by the missing Lionel Malo -- the object of their secret mission -- they soon found a concealed passage from the upper level of the mine to a warren of natural tunnels that seemed to be in regular use. The team elected to avoid going anywhere near the Devil's Field or the mysterious wood nearby and so turned -- as far as they could tell without a dwarf in the party -- south, towards the village; their goal was to find an alternate entrance so they would not have to rely on the mine for future expeditions into the depths.

Some of the tunnels were too small for the bulky Mike McVeigh and that limited the team's explorations; one such place was a cave that they guessed was somewhere near the river, but since it was the first open area they had found since descending into the tunnels they decided that exploring it was worth the risk of splitting the party. Pierre-Yves Bertrand's small stature made him a good fit for the cockpit of a plane but also made him the best candidate to explore the cave; Fergus O'Brien crawled through on his hands and knees to support the French pilot while the rest of the team stayed in the tunnel.

The cave's muddy floor seemed to have been petrified or frozen somehow but no one had a sufficient Geology skill to understand whether that was unusual or what it could mean; on the plus side they did not need any points in Geology to spot the large and ominous hole in the centre of the cave floor. Bertrand looped a length of rope around his waist and made sure the rest of the team held on tight as he crawled over to the edge. Peering in he saw the darkness stretching out to an unknown depth; his lamp could not illuminate the bottom and he had no desire to throw anything down, for some reason.


Another passage led from the cave but the hole made the agents wary and the difficulty of getting into the cave in the first place put them off further exploration in that direction, so Bertrand returned to the tunnel from which he'd entered. Just as he got to the entrance a strange buzzing whine filled the air and everyone felt a great pressure from all around them; as the buzzing increased in intensity the bulbs in their lamps exploded, plunging the team into darkness, and the walls began to shake. O'Brien found that the matches he had brought -- while still dry -- would not light so he could not see part of the ceiling collapsing on Pierre-Yves, trapping the Frenchman's leg under rubble.

Oh dear.

They did well not to panic. Dodgy scientist Kirby Tinkerton lost it a little as all his fancy academic knowledge failed to provide an explanation for what was happening, but the rest of the team kept as calm as could be expected given the circumstances. Bertrand managed to direct his colleagues to his location and together they dug him out, by which time the buzzing and shaking had passed; O'Brien tried again to provide light and this time his matches worked, so he was able to put together a basic torch.

Flickering light was better than none and the agents decided to press on and explore further. Before their torch expired they discovered a small cave in which there was a door that seemed to lead to the surface; a heavy chain on the other side prevented the agents from leaving the caves through the door, but McVeigh peeked through and saw what looked like apple trees. With their light running out, the agents returned to the mines and emerged looking somewhat battered and bruised. The guard to whom they had spoken on the way in was surprised at their condition and asked if he should make a report; grumpy and tired, they told him to do what he liked.

Oh dear.

They knew that the Toulon family owned an orchard and so decided to head there in search of the cave exit, but found the front gates secured; leaving Tidelina to watch out for trouble, the rest of the agents scrambled over the wall. At first McVeigh wanted to sneak up to the Toulon house but suspecting that his comrades would scupper any attempt at stealth, he decided to walk up in the open; as expected he was spotted and Albert Toulon -- one of the partisans and uncle to Pierre -- came out of the house to confront him.

It turned out that the Toulons were not best pleased by the agents' treatment of young Pierre and would not have been happy to see them even if they weren't trespassing. McVeigh's attempts to justify the beating of Pierre as necessary for the war effort did not seem to convince the boy's uncle and he suggested that the agents leave; when McVeigh indicated that they would not do so, Albert went inside and slammed the door.

Bertrand, O'Brien, and Tinkerton sat down to watch the house while McVeigh searched the grounds for the cave entrance; he found it in a distant corner of the orchard, well hidden and far enough away from the house that it was possible that the Toulons could have no idea of its presence, but Bertrand was not convinced of their ignorance in the slightest and convinced the team to consider a direct assault on the house.

Their plans were interrupted as Tidelina spotted an approaching vehicle. A German Kübelwagen was coming up the road from the village, on its way to the mine perhaps, and so Tidelina whistled an alert; the Germans also seemed to hear the warning -- 02 on their Listen roll! -- and stopped, but by this time the Australian was well away so was unable to see what they were doing.

Everyone froze. A couple of minutes later the vehicle started up again and they heard it moving off into the distance so Bertrand sneaked up to the orchard gates for a better look; peeking under the gates he saw the distinctive jackboots of a German soldier pacing in the dirt and he reported this back to the rest of the team. With a soldier right outside the plan to break into the Toulon house by force was much less appealing so the agents decided to come back another day.

They decided to return to the Shunned House their rented accommodation via the Martin farm. There they told the Martins of the German patrol at the Toulon orchard and warned the partisans to be careful, and then things went a bit strange. McVeigh almost broke cover and told a wide-eyed Helena Martin about strange rural cults, monks living in caves underground, his suspicions that the Toulons were involved with such a cult, and that as such their loyalties did not lie with the partisan group.

It was quite clear to all that Helena thought that McVeigh was mad but she told him that she would think about what he had said and perhaps visit the Toulons to find out for herself what was going on; she also pointed out that if the Germans were indeed on their way then it would not look good if the agents were found clogging up her kitchen, and as this made a lot of sense, they left.

The agents split up, with Bertrand and O'Brien returning to their lodgings at the mansion and the rest of the team returning to the Shunned House their house in the village. There, McVeigh dreamed of himself and the rest of the agents dancing around a bonfire deep in the woods, but before he could experience more he was woken by a clattering sound on the roof of the house, like footsteps but also not. As he listened the clattering stopped and an odd piping started, increasing in volume and tempo as the piper on the roof played its strange song. Then the buzzing began.

Lights went out, windows cracked, and walls began to shake and the agents, fearing a repeat of the incident in the caves, chose to flee the house as the buzzing increased in volume. McVeigh and Tinkerton made it out first and spotted a hooved, faun-like figure on the roof, but Tidelina was slower on her feet and was just passing McVeigh's hidden weapons cache under the stairs as the buzzing set off the explosives inside.

BOOM.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Sensible Operations Executive

In this World War Cthulhu session, no non-player characters were tied to chairs and strangled, no elderly drunks were beaten into unconsciousness, no German soldiers were shot in the eye, and no one smashed up a wine cellar looking for secret tunnels. That's not to say that there weren't a couple of moments during which I wondered what the heck the players were, er, playing at, but on the whole they were being quite sedate and sensible.

Leon Ferrand was dead but his eager sidekick Pierre Toulon was still alive -- tied to a chair, of course -- and something needed to be done about him. After a brief discussion, the agents decided that Toulon was none too bright and was more or less Ferrand's puppet so with the -- alleged -- spy out of the picture, they felt it was safe enough to return young Pierre to the partisans. They decided to set off early in the morning to avoid being seen but forgot that Saint Cerneuf was in part a farming community; Pierre did not and tried to call for help from a passing farmer but was silenced by a threat from the volatile Fergus O'Brien.

The group arrived at the Martin farm where they handed Toulon over to the Martins and told them all about Leon being a spy for an unknown agency, and what they had done to end any potential threat from him. Helena and Jacques were shocked but seemed to accept the story and promised to deal with Toulon. The agents then took the opportunity to follow a couple of leads they'd picked up from Ferrand and asked the Martins about Giscard Bressan; it was clear that the subject made Jacques Martin uncomfortable and like hungry lions surrounding a wounded gazelle, the players focussed their attentions on him.

The agents decided to separate the Martins and see if they could break Jacques but then something interesting happened; the original plan was to leave dodgy scientist Kirby Tinkerton with Helena and Pierre -- who was still tied up -- while the rest went for a walk with Jacques, but Pierre-Yves Bertrand was overcome by a sudden wave of anxiety and refused to leave the Englishman alone. It seemed that the French pilot had a bad feeling about Helena Martin and was convinced that Kirby would be in significant danger if left alone with her.

With Bertrand and Tinkerton enjoying Helena's hospitality, Tidelina, O'Brien, and Mike McVeigh took Jacques for a morning walk around the fields and interrogated him about his relationship with Bressan and why he was keeping it from his wife. They all thought that Jacques and Giscard were secret lovers so were surprised -- and I think disappointed -- when Jacques revealed that they were nothing more than drinking buddies; unsatisfied, they pressed him for more and he confessed to having a criminal past and that it was possible that Bressan knew about it, but Jacques had been able to deflect his attention away from the topic whenever it had come up in conversation.

Upon their return to the farmhouse they discovered that not only had Bressan himself turned up but Albert Toulon had arrived and, surprised to see his nephew Pierre there and somewhat worse for wear, taken the boy home. The agents decided to go for another lap around the farm, this time with Bressan; he was a bit more forthcoming than Jacques and admitted that he was a black marketeer and smuggler man who could get things, so McVeigh made a tentative deal with him.

Then, after making sure Bressan was going to be at the Martin farm for the rest of the day, the agents broke into his house and stumbled upon some guns in a hidden cache; unable to help themselves they, er, helped themselves to the firearms. Now they had machine guns. Ho ho ho.

Although it was still early on Saturday the 19th of April, the agents decided to rest for the remainder of the day, and contacted London later that evening. They reported their activities and Bertrand made the bold claim that they had secured a potential landing site on the so-called Devil's Field; although the Decharette mansion overlooked the field, the pilot assured his superiors back in Britain that the agents controlled the building. In turn, London asked the agents to give the partisan group a task to test their loyalty and reliability, and told them to check in again on the 22nd.

How does one test the loyalty and reliability of partisans? Simple! By filling a suitcase with books that have had random words marked by an expert cryptographer so as to look like a secret message, then getting the partisans to deliver the suitcase to a priest in Cahors, a priest who has no idea that the suitcase is coming or what is contained within.

Okay.

With the plan in place, the agents retired for the evening. The next day they decided to go to church, in part to integrate themselves into the community and in part to see who didn't turn up, because non-attendance was a sure sign of cultist tendencies. If the tally of the villages led to any significant suspicions -- aside from those concerning poor Father Beaumarais, whose constant nervousness was a red flag to the paranoid players -- the agents did not act upon them.

Walking through the village after the service the agents spotted a couple of German vehicles parked outside the restaurant and a great deal of activity within. Sneaking over for a look, Bertrand and McVeigh saw a number of German soldiers moving furniture around at the direction of Oberstleutnant Klier, the officer in charge of operations at the former Decharette copper mine. It seemed that the Germans were getting ready for a party of some sort. It was O'Brien who first made the connection. It was the 20th of April. Adolf Hitler's birthday.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Inglourious Byakhees

(With thanks to +Andrew Scott for the pithy and punny title!)

Up to this point, the players had been cautious and had been noodling around, prodding at the mysteries of Saint Cerneuf, but avoiding bold moves, aside from the incident with the German soldiers. All that changed with this most recent session as they made the switch from cautious Call of Cthulhu investigators to ruthless military bastards.

We had left the player-characters interviewing Raimond Decharette about his missing wife and her connection to a local cult, and with Pierre-Yves Bertrand having suspicions about whether Raimond was in fact Reni's father, as he claimed to be. The team put aside their questions about the Decharette family tree and instead asked the old man whether he had a copy of The Revelations of Saint Serenus in his library, as they were certain that the book would help them uncover the truth about what was going on in the village.

Raimond did not have a copy but explained that he once did, and it was now part of the Decharette collection at the village library, so that's where the Special Operations Executive agents went next, half-expecting the book to be gone. Not only was the book still present -- the adventure as written is a bit unclear on whether the copy exists, but I got tired of wrestling with inconsistent vagaries in the text and decided that it did -- but so too were the diagrams missing from the copy they had inspected in Cahors. Fergus O'Brien suspected that the spiral drawings were part of some cypher as the pages were thinner than those in the rest of the book and they seemed designed to be laid over text in order to derive another meaning; as the Revelations were written in Latin and it would take up to two weeks to translate, the agents were not able to confirm O'Brien's suspicion at that time.

Based on the note they had found and assumed to have been written by the missing Lionel Malo, the agents were convinced that the Decharette mansion sat atop a network of tunnels, and so decided to return the next day to investigate. A suspicious draught in the mansion's wine cellar seemed to confirm their belief and so they started chipping away at the wall while Pierre-Yves kept watch. He spotted young Reni Decharette ambling out of the mysterious wood and across the Devil's Field towards the mansion, stopping at one point to examine something on the ground; Mike McVeigh later investigated the spot and found a small stone statue of a satyr or fawn, an item that he pocketed for later study.

Tidelina intercepted the young woman and kept her attentions away from the activity in the cellar by playing cards with her in the mansion's kitchen and winning her over with pleasant small talk. Meanwhile the rest of the team broke through the thick cellar wall to discover that the tunnel opening they had uncovered was just about big enough for a small dog to scramble through and so would be far too tight a squeeze for the average cultist.

Disappointed, the agents decided to switch back to their military mission and in the evening visited the Martin farm to make contact with their partisan allies. There they discovered that most of the group was elsewhere, with only Helena Martin and Leon Ferrand present and engaged in an argument over the group's activities. They listened for a while before announcing their arrival, and Ferrand took the opportunity to excuse himself and return to the village; the SOE agents questioned Helena about Leon as they found his strong advocacy of direct action against the Germans worrying, and their concerns weren't allayed by her answers.

As the rest of the group returned home, McVeigh attempted to follow Ferrand but lost him as they got closer to the village; McVeigh -- himself was a former spy -- took this as evidence of special training, and not a lucky stealth roll on my part. McVeigh decided to report his wild speculation discovery to the rest of the group and upon his return to The Shunned House their lodgings he spotted someone watching the building from the shadows. McVeigh captured the observer, dragged him into the house, and discovered him to be Pierre Toulon, another of the partisans.

Pierre told the SOE agents that Ferrand had asked him to watch them and make sure they could be trusted. This aggravated their paranoia even further and so they tied the young man to a chair and roughed him up a bit in order to get answers; Toulon stuck to his story and had nothing but praise for Ferrand, a man he saw as a great patriot. Unsatisfied, the agents decided to get their answers straight from the source.

A few minutes later at Ferrand's modest house, O'Brien sneaked around to watch the back door while McVeigh and Bertrand positioned themselves at the front. McVeigh knocked once and, when no response was forthcoming, knocked a second and louder time. At this second knock, the door opened just enough for Bertrand and McVeigh to see Ferrand peering out, and they sprang into action, barging the door open and sending the partisan to the ground. O'Brien was supposed to be listening out for just such an event but wasn't paying attention and had to be summoned by the other two once they were inside and had subdued Ferrand without the Irishman's assistance.

What followed was a tense hour or so of role-playing as they tied the partisan to a chair -- a bit of a running theme -- and interrogated him about his loyalties and his true plans. He was calm despite the discouraging nature of his situation and even attempted to turn the questioning back on to them: they justified their treatment of him by appealing to their suspicions that he was a double agent, but could their harsh treatment of a supposed ally not be seen as evidence that in fact they were the double agents?

This went down about as well as could be expected and when Ferrand made it clear that they would get no answers from him, McVeigh's frustrations got the better of him and he attempted to strangle the partisan.

The violent outburst was interrupted by the sound of movement upstairs and a muffled voice calling for Leon; the agents had searched the house as soon as they had entered and had found no other occupants so this latest development didn't so much as put them on edge as push them well over. Creeping upstairs they saw a bulky shape at a window, and they rushed to engage the figure; it turned out to be Ferrand's drunk uncle, who had climbed in the window after finding both the front and back doors locked and bolted by the player-characters. For the crime of interrupting their interrogation they beat the old man into unconsciousness and tied him to a bed.

Upon their return to the ground floor, a hoarse Ferrand relented somewhat and admitted that he did indeed have special training as a member of the French secret service but that he was out of the country during the invasion and so, lacking orders and with no desire to conduct a one-man infiltration of occupied Paris, he headed instead for Saint Cerneuf du Bois to stay with his uncle and perhaps help the local resistance forces. He also claimed that if there was a double agent in the partisan group then the SOE team should be looking toward Giscard Bressan, who -- in Leon's opinion -- lacked commitment to the cause and had a mysterious connection to Jacques Martin that neither man seemed keen to discuss.

The player-characters -- and indeed the players -- were torn. Ferrand's story was plausible but at the same time they were certain that he wasn't telling the whole truth. If they were to trust him and he turned out to be rotten then he could scupper their operation, but on the other hand, if he wasn't a double-agent then silencing him would not only rob the SOE and the partisans of a useful asset, but the real double-agent -- again, if there was one! -- would still be free to work against them.

This was a great, tense sequence as the player-characters walked out of the room to confer before coming back in to ask Ferrand a few more questions, then walking out again, and so on. For much of this time I didn't have to do anything but sit back and listen as the players discussed and argued and made their cases to each other for either executing Ferrand or letting him go, and even though I wasn't involved in the debate it was thrilling to watch.

In the end, after much discussion, they decided that the risk was too great and as O'Brien looked away, McVeigh strangled Ferrand.

They untied the unconscious uncle and then took Ferrand's body away to be dumped in the river, just as they had with the young German soldier. Their emotions strained and their bodies exhausted, the agents returned to their lodgings to rest but McVeigh found that his sleep was kept at bay by vivid dreams of trees, savage people clad in furs, and a stone knife being plunged into his chest as the people danced and sang and an icy wind howled.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Das Kapital

A summary of last week's World War Cthulhu game will be posted in the next couple of days. In the meantime please forgive me as I bring your attention to a couple of Things You Can Buy.

First up is volume four of Martin Eden's superhero soap opera The O Men. It's Claremont's X-Men mixed with Ellis' Excalibur and Morrison's Doom Patrol, although I seem to remember Martin telling me once that his biggest influence was Alpha Flight. Anyway, it's that sort of thing.

The series went on hiatus while Martin worked on the side project Spandex, about LGBT superheroes in Brighton, but over the past couple of years he's been producing a series of collected editions of the old comics, with the finale to appear in next year's volume five. I mention the release of volume four now because (a) I forgot to mention any of the previous volumes, and (b) I drew a single page in this book. A single page is not enough to earn me any portion of the sales from the book, so believe me when I say it's ace and if you like the description above, give it a try.

The other -- and last! -- bit of blatant salesmongering I need to do is to tell you all about the half price sale at Borderline Press; all books are half off cover price, including Zombre, in which I have one page. Once again I'm getting nothing from the sales of any of the Borderline books but publisher Phil is an old friend so please have a look.

That'll do! Nazis and tentacles next!

Friday, June 05, 2015

Shot Through the Eye/And You're to Blame/You Give Spies a Bad Name

When last we checked in with the agents of the Special Operations Executive they had handed over some of their identification papers to a group of young German soldiers. Their logic was that as undercover agents they didn't want to draw attention to themselves by causing trouble with the authorities, but upon reflection the team realised that not having identification would be worse in the longer term. As such they decided to find the German squad and ask for their papers back; with the persuasive Tidelina on their side the team had an excellent chance of convincing the young soldiers to return the documents.

Except what in fact happened was that Tidelina went for dinner and Pierre-Yves started snooping around the Germans' Kübelwagen, provoking the soldiers and leaving O'Brien to defuse the situation. As it turned out, this group of hotheaded young squaddies were immune to his Irish charm and drew their pistols.

McVeigh had sneaked off and fired a couple of shots in the air in an attempt to draw the Germans away; his plan worked to an extent as three of the five soldiers ran off to trace the source of the gunfire, but this left two drunk Germans waving their firearms in the faces of Bertrand and O'Brien.

Meanwhile, Tidelina and Tinkerton enjoyed their soup.

O'Brien made a break for it and the Oberschütze holding him at gunpoint hesitated, the French beer clouding his judgement. After a moment or two he came to a decision and ran off in pursuit of the Irishman, leaving Pierre-Yves and the last of the German soldiers to stare at each other, neither sure of what to do. A few tense seconds later they seemed to come to some kind of unspoken understanding and the pilot from Toulouse ran off while the soldier went after his commander.

O'Brien managed to evade his pursuer but in an attempt to double back he ended up running straight into the German and the resulting scuffle ended with Fergus shot in the shoulder and the Oberschütze taking a couple of bullets, one right in the eye. O'Brien stumbled off into the darkness, clutching his wound. and bumped into McVeigh, who had shaken off the other three soldiers; together they returned to the corpse of the German and retrieved their missing papers before pitching the body into the river and watching it float out of sight.

Tidelina and Tinkerton finished their dinner and on their way out of the restaurant, the scientist had a quick look at the soldiers' table; to his surprise he found Pierre-Yves' identification papers and a P08 pistol the Germans had left behind in their rush. Having been established during character generation as "a bit shifty", Tinkerton pocketed the lot.

To the north of the village Pierre-Yves had found his way to the Martin farm, where they team had hidden their supplies and radio. Upon announcing his arrival the French pilot heard sounds from within the house that suggested that the Martins were hiding something away. Helena and Jacques invited him in and as they chatted the latter locked and bolted the door behind Pierre-Yves. The players were convinced by this point that everyone in the village -- except perhaps for Raimond Decharette -- was a cultist, so Jacques' zealous security arrangements had everyone thinking that Pierre-Yves' time was up.

The Martins did not sacrifice Bertrand to a cosmic horror and in fact wished him well as he collected his gear and set off towards the Decharette mansion, where he intended to stash the radio. On the way back he spotted someone waving at him from the edge of the woods -- the spooky woods in which O'Brien and McVeigh had got lost soon after their parachute drop -- but could not make out any details and didn't feel like getting closer to that blighted place.

As the night drew on the team members arrived at the Shunned House their rented home and got some rest. They thought that given the evening's events it would be prudent to take turns standing watch and it was during his turn that McVeigh nodded off and had a strange dream in which a smart, bearded man opened the front door of the house and walked in, taking a seat next to him. This odd gentleman posed a series of vague questions to McVeigh and the former commando got the feeling that he was being tested; satisfied -- it seemed, anyway -- with McVeigh's answers the man got up and left the house and McVeigh woke to find himself having slept well into Pierre-Yves' shift.

The next morning the team split up and went off to their respective jobs. O'Brien and Bertrand stomped over to the Decharette mansion where they did a spot of gardening and some light repairs around the house; during their lunch break, Pierre-Yves used the radio to contact London but at first could only pick up what sounded like distant, echoing pan pipes. With a bit of tinkering -- and one or two firm thumps -- the Frenchman was able to banish the odd interference and made his report to SOE HQ. Later that afternoon O'Brien and Bertrand attempted to question their employer Raimond Decharette about local history but seemed to upset him so much by doing so that he retired to his room for the rest of the day.

Meanwhile McVeigh and Tinkerton went to the former Decharette copper mine. They arrived to see a small crowd gathered as a German officer talked about a missing soldier and asked the assembled workers to come forward if they had any information on the young man's whereabouts. After this the two SOE agents were given an introductory tour of the mine and McVeigh reckoned that the layout of the upper level matched that of the map they'd found. He also found where the mine's explosives were kept but while snooping about he was caught by a guard and marched to the the main office.

There McVeigh met the German officer from the morning assembly, an amiable fellow who introduced himself as Oberstleutnant Rupert Klier; despite Klier's charming exterior the encounter was tense as the German recognised that McVeigh's accent was a bit wonky, but the intervention of the mine's clerk and accountant -- and sort-of ally -- Louis Valoir diverted the German's suspicions and McVeigh was allowed to return to work without further investigation or discipline. Later in the day McVeigh approached Valoir with a request to be assigned to guard duty -- thinking that such a role would give him more freedom to explore -- and the clerk promised to do what he could, but that it would require Klier's agreement.

That night McVeigh received another nocturnal visit by the strange gentleman, who gave his name as Nicholas. He taught McVeigh a poem and told him to recite it in an old place, but only at night; by this point the players were convinced that "Nicholas" was Nyarlathotep, but they think every other NPC they meet is a Great Old One in disguise, so it's not a significant hypothesis.

The next morning the team decided to follow up on some leads and head to Cahors to investigate the cathedral library there. They found clues that confirmed that the missing German occultist Lional Malo -- their secret mission is to find him -- had been to the library and had been reading a book called The Revelations of Saint Serenus. They found the book and Tidelina spent some time reading it with the help of a young priest, only to discover that some pages had been torn out; the librarian remembered that the missing pages were some sort of chart or diagram and informed the team that there had been an attempted burglary soon after Malo's visit. The librarian suspected vandals had damaged the book; the agents suspected an occult conspiracy.

With their leads drying up the agents decided to try to question Raimond Decharette once more, this time with a bit more forcefulness. Raimond told them that his wife Maria had gone missing in 1925 but the team found this difficult to accept as Malo's notes suggested that he'd seen her involved with some sort of ritual in 1938; this wrecked whatever composure Raimond had left and he broke down, sobbing half in fear at something unknown and half in hope that his wife was still alive.

As the man weeped and the agents started to feel a bit awkward at making an old man cry in his own home, Pierre-Yves looked around for and found a photograph of the mysterious Maria; he noticed that while there was a pronounced resemblance between Maria and her daughter Reni, the strange young woman did not look at all like her father Raimond!

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.

Oops.

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.