Monday, January 16, 2017

Drac's Back!

Oh come on, 2016 wasn't that long ago. You must remember this lot:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.

Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.

Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.

Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

The team is trying to investigate some ruins that may be what is left of Castle Dracula, but a vampire has just turned up and is trying to eat Natasha. The rest of the team is a short distance away, safe within a circle of crushed communion wafers.

Natasha brandishes her crucifix at the vampire, a short but athletic woman in what looks like special forces fatigues. Although the woman does retreat from the symbol, she doesn't seem bothered by it, let alone frightened, and this disconcerts Natasha.

The woman turns her back on the Russian -- also disconcerting; no one ever does that! -- and wanders over to the corpse of one of the guards the team killed in battle a few moments -- or two months, depending on how you look at it -- earlier. She kneels beside the body and manipulates something, but none of the investigators has a good view of what the newcomer is doing.

Natasha is about to join her colleagues in the holy circle but reconsiders when she realises that while the circle may protect them from supernatural harm, it also leaves them vulnerable to physical attacks.

Sure enough, the vampire stands and turns, readying the submachine gun she has recovered from the dead guard, and advances towards the group. They have not been idle, and have readied crossbows; they fire, hoping to pierce the monster's heart, but she turns into mist and the bolts pass through and on into the woods beyond.

Carmel has a -- literally -- bright idea and turns an ultraviolet torch -- borrowed from EDOM's headquarters -- on the vampire, remembering that the creatures' powers seem to be limited or negated in sunlight. Her hunch goes untested as the vampire fires a burst at the Israeli spy, shattering the torch; some of the debris wounds Carmel, lodging in her spine and causing her to lose feeling and strength in one arm.

(It wasn't long ago that Carmel lost an arm. Dark magic was used to restore the limb; perhaps this is the cost of meddling with such sorcery. Or perhaps it's a player with terrible luck.)

The vampire offers the team a choice: to return home, forget all about their quest, and live long, healthy lives; or to fight on and end up like Carmel.

They choose to fight.

Max, Natasha, and Sten surround the vampire, brandishing crosses and forcing her back. Max leaps in and tries to wrest the gun from her hands but is stymied by her unnatural strength; he does succeed in immobilising her enough for the others to approach with stakes at the ready. Natasha strikes and misses the vampire's heart but it seems enough to scare the creature, and she once again transforms into mist. This time she does not reappear.

Carmel is patched up and the team decides to press on, surmising that there must be something important among the ruins, to justify such security. A set of stone stairs winds around the edge of a shaft that drops down into the ground and the agents descend; perhaps expecting traps upon the stairs, they set up ropes and abseil down the central shaft instead. Show offs.

Max is first to descend and discovers a set of old metal doors emblazoned with the symbol of the Order of the Dragon; a similar image was seen in the cult temple in London and the recognition brings both hope that the investigators are on the right track, and fear at what may be lurking beyond.

Expecting an ambush, the team goes on the offensive and smashes through the door into a large chamber lined with stone sarcophagi, each adorned with carvings. With considerable caution, they examine and open each tomb, finding nothing of interest. They relax a little.

Carmel discovers a secret door and after a couple of minutes of poking and prodding, finds the mechanism to open it. Beyond is a short corridor and two more doors; one elaborate and old, and another simple but modern. The newer door appears to have some sort of seal around the edge, suggesting that it is airtight, and an electronic keypad glows in the darkness. This puzzles the agents but they reason that it does not look like the door to a tomb, and they are looking for a tomb, so they choose the older door.

Beyond is a stone chamber at the centre of which is a dais; upon that is another sarcophagus, larger and more grand than those in the main room, and with a single word carved in its side.


The team pauses to make a plan. A few moments later the agents take up positions around the tomb; Carmel and Sten get ready to remove the stone slab atop the sarcophagus, while Max and Natasha ready crucifixes and weapons. Carmel and Sten push and the lid flies off; before the pair can express surprise at their own strength, a vast furry shape bursts from the tomb.

It is some kind of huge grey bat, larger than a man, with long yellow fangs and hungry red eyes. Carmel, already fragile, cannot cope with this development and flees.

The bat-creature ignores the proferred holy symbols and shrugs off Natasha's attempts to stake it; once again the team ponders whether to fight or flee and once again the decision is made to engage in glorious battle. Max and Sten -- Carmel has by this point fled to the surface -- retreat while firing their guns, while Natasha persists in trying to drive a stake through the thing's heart. Bullet after bullet strikes the beast and still it does not slow its advance, so the team changes tack; Max and Natasha lob grenades at the thing while Sten slams the door shut, and all three run as fast as they can.

The explosion throws them to the floor, makes a mess of the fifteenth-century masonry, and even Carmel feels the ground rumble. All that remains of the bat-monster is heaps of gristle and bloody fur -- Natasha sneaks a sample -- and the tomb is ruined; if it held any clues they are now dust.

Max and Sten return to the surface to check on Carmel; she is reluctant to descend once more into the catacombs -- she has developed claustrophobia as a result of her encounter with the bat -- but clutching her father's Yom Kippur War medal gives her courage and she accompanies the other two back under ground.

With one hand still clutching the medal, Carmel bypasses the keypad on the newer door and it opens into a red tiled room much like the two the team discovered in London. Having now studied EDOM's files, the team suspects that these Red Rooms are used to boost a vampire's inherent powers and may even grant the monsters new abilities.

The investigators decide to destroy the catacombs and the able-bodied team members help Carmel rig enough explosives to do so, or at least seal them off. For once, no one minds if Carmel over-eggs the explosive pudding.

Back at their temporary base, the agents try their best to recover, wary of the next moves of EDOM and the vampires, and frustrated that Dracula's trail seems to have gone cold. They focus their attention on the gun-toting vampire and Carmel runs a sketch of the woman's face past her local contact Dacien Comenescu; he suggests that the sketch looks like Natasa Dobra, a notable member of Romania's Securitate, but the agency disbanded in 1991 and Dobra herself disappeared in 1988.

Carmel asks Comenescu to dig deeper and -- guessing that the Russians probably know a fair bit about the agency they helped set up -- asks Natasha to probe her contacts for information.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Dare to Be Stupid

Here are some game ideas that are probably stupid ideas but I never claimed to be a genius.

D&D types: experience points are hit points

Dump hit points; instead, all damage is taken from experience points, and if you lose enough experience points you can also lose levels. For example, a third level Lamentations of the Flame Princess fighter who drops to 3999 experience points becomes a second level fighter. There is no healing. To recover from your injuries, you have to go out and get more experience points.

To avoid starting with characters that are already dead, consider starting at second level, or maybe rolling hit points as normal to determine starting experience.

Call of Cthulhu: professions instead of skills

In the latter half of 2016 I was running a Dracula Dossier game using a variant of the Call of Cthulhu rules, and over the past couple of weeks I've been playing in a Call of Cthulhu game using a variant of the newish Delta Green rules; in both games we have put together a bespoke skill list rather than using the default skills, and that got me thinking about simplifying the process. Then I thought about how skills in 13th Age and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay work, about the weird random skills CoC non-player-characters sometimes get, and all of that led me to this.

All characters start with 55 SAN and 11 hit points. They then get 120 build points to spend on professions, hobbies, hit points, and Sanity. Professions are loose descriptions of what the character does, but not too loose; "professor of archaeology" is good, but "academic" is rubbish. Instead of having a list of skills, someone with "professor of archaeology" can do things that a professor of archaeology could do; they'll be good at history and geography, they probably know a bit about digging holes, and may know a bit about architecture and languages, but they are probably not going to know how to fly an F-15 Eagle.

That's what hobbies are for. These aren't the character's main profession but side interests, or previous jobs, and work in the same way. "Former soldier" is as valid as "member of snooker club" or "bakes on weekends".

There's going to be a bit of back-and-forth between player and GM about what is reasonable for a character to be able to do, but as long as everyone is sensible it should be fine.

I suggest limiting the main profession to a maximum of 80, and single hobbies to a maximum of 40. Starting SAN can be increased to a maximum of 99 by spending points at a one-to-one rate, and hit points can be increased to a maximum of 18 by exchanging five build points per hit point. If you want, you can sacrifice SAN and hit points, at the same rate, to gain build points; minimums are 3 hit points and 5 SAN.

(I did consider dropping hit points and SAN and having all damage -- physical or psychological -- apply to the character's hobby or profession scores, but perhaps that's a bit too abstract.)

Any: don't roll to hit, go straight to damage

I thought of this in terms of D&D type games but it could work with any game in which there are separate die rolls for hitting and damage. Instead of rolling to hit, just roll damage. Simple. It does mean that every attack hits but it also eliminates the disappointing naffness of rolling a 19 to hit then rolling 2 damage.

It could penalise some characters in some systems; for example, a fighter in LotFP loses one of their key advantages, the increase in attack bonus. If that sort of thing poses a problem, perhaps add the attack bonus to the damage roll, although that may be too much of an overcompensation in some systems.

Now I've put those stupid ideas into words they will perhaps exit my brain and leave space for something more useful. I haven't tested any of them-- I probably wouldn't have published them if I had -- so instead I release them to wreak havoc on someone else's game. Sorry.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Eternal Underachiever

 2017 then. That's new.

Back in December 2015 I outlined some plans -- or a wishlist, at least -- for 2016. Let's see how we got on.

Run The Dracula Dossier. I did that! It's not quite finished, but once everyone has returned from their Chrimble holidays in the next couple of weeks we'll crack on. A good start.

Run Eyes of the Stone Thief. Ah. Those wheels came off soon enough, eh? We haven't played 13th Age since August 2014, so this one hasn't happened.

Paint my eldar army so I can play some second edition Warhammer 40,000 with Stuart. I am slow but I did get some painting done and I have about 1000 points ready to go, but no battles have commenced. In 2016 Games Workshop released a brand new range of genestealer cultists and a new edition of Blood Bowl, so now I have even more distractions from my eldar, not that I painted any of that stuff either.

Read more. This was my unread book pile in December 2015:

December 2016's is much more sensible, but many of the same books remain, and that's not great:

Write more. There's been a bit of movement on this, but perhaps not the right kind of movement. Quiet at the back. I've gone from working on one follow-up to Forgive Us to working on about four, none of which are near completion. I did write a handful of monsters for Mike Evans' Hubris project but that was a small job that shouldn't have taken as long as it did.

Catch up on computer games. Oh dear. I did finish a couple of games off, but a combination of PlayStation Store and Steam sales, an itchy eBay finger, and the release of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian within weeks of each other has rather scuppered this plan, and my gaming list has got even bigger.

Play more and different games. I think I did okay. I played a lot of different games in 2016 -- more than sixty-one, so I have satisfied the meme -- and quite a few of those were new. I'll say I got this one.

That's two successes out of six, and if we're being generous two partial successes, so that's about 50%. That's not brilliant so I think I'll be a bit more modest for my 2017 goals.

Finish painting the eldar. Just that. It would be nice to get the genestealers and some Blood Bowl painted too, but I'm going to focus on the eldar and then see how I get on. Cue Games Workshop releasing umpteen new Blood Bowl teams and a new version of their epic system in 2017.

Write something, anything, by the beard of Zeus. It's possible that having four projects on the go means it's more likely that one will be completed, but it's also possible that I'll be spread too thin to finish any of them. One of the four -- Conqueror Worm is the tentative title -- is complete in note form and just needs to be turned into a publishable document; if I can do that at least I'll be happy, then we'll see what else I can pull off.

Play more more and different games. I've got Mutant Year Zero and its gaiden-prequel-spinoff Genlab Alpha and I know my group is keen to give them a try. I have borrowed a copy of Phoenix: Dawn Command and that will get played at some point. Stuart is keen to run some new role-playing games for us, and my group still has a stack of board games that we either haven't yet touched or haven't had a fair crack at. I also have more than a few computer games to play; on that subject...

Finish at least three computer games. I am an idiot and I keep buying sprawling rpgs that take hundreds of hours to complete but I don't have my eyes on anything for 2017 -- except Torment: Tides of Numenera, but I don't even know if my computer will run it -- so in theory I should be able to start catching up. Ha.

Read anything that's been hanging around in the book pile from 2016 or earlier. I'm somewhat confident about this one as I made a big dent in the reading pile in 2016. Which means, of course, that I'm somehow going to end up reading nothing, but let's try to be positive.

That's enough -- probably too much! -- to be getting on with. Check back in a year to see how I got on.

Don't stay away until then, mind you; I'll be blogging throughout the year so I hope there will be something of interest beyond popping back in December or January to see how I've failed to achieve anything.

Monday, December 19, 2016


I feel like I'm probably late to the party on this one -- it seems like the sort of thing Tim or Zak would have blogged about years ago -- but my new favourite TV programme is South Korea's The Genius.

It's sort of a hybrid of game show and reality TV, neither of which are the sort of thing I enjoy, and yet I can't stop watching The Genius, perhaps for the simple reason that it's about games, so it's a bit like watching a dysfunctional gaming group fragmenting as the weeks go on.

The premise is simple. Contestants enter a "house" and are addressed by a mysterious masked figure who has them play a game; the winner gets immunity from elimination, while the loser goes into a deathmatch and gets to pick their opponent from the other contestants. The loser of the deathmatch is eliminated, and so on it goes until there is one winner at the end of the series.

I gather that this is much like the format of stuff like Big Brother or I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! but the difference here -- aside from the fact that no one stays at the "house"; they all go away and return the next week -- is that the focus is on the games, not the who's-sleeping-with-whom downtime stuff.

The, er, genius bit is that while the games themselves have strict rules that cannot be broken, the contestants are free to manipulate things outside of those rules as they see fit. They make deals to give each other an easy win so they both go through to the next round. They form grand alliances to save as many people as possible. They, of course, betray each other all the time.

I probably shouldn't enjoy it, because it's a bit depressing how duplicitous almost everyone is, all for a cash prize that none of the contestants need because they are all celebrities to some extent; I am expecting hoping for some sort of "for charity" twist towards the end. Even so, it's glorious fun, in part because of all the twists and turns -- if the players aren't super clever bastards, the editing makes them look like they are -- and in part because it's about games, and I do love games.

Anyway, here's the first episode. Others can be found here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Boy Band Road Trip XV

I know I was excited about Final Fantasy Versus XIII but it's been so long since the game was announced that I don't remember why. Even so, now it's out -- and now called Final Fantasy XV -- and I have it.

I haven't got very far into the game; I'm only on the third of thirteen chapters, and it could all go to heck after this point, but I've also put in about forty hours, which tells you both a lot about my play style and about how much I'm enjoying it.

When I finish the game I may come back with some more thoughts, but here's what I think so far, in a format stolen from my old mate Andy.

The Good

The protagonists look like a rubbish boy band and they do come across as chumps but they also turn out early on to be quite endearing. It's a computer game so the acting isn't brilliant but there is a real sense of camaraderie in the party and because they convince me that they care about each other, I end up caring about them too. My favourite is Ignis, who cooks, drives, and is English, so I think is supposed to be the main character Noctis' butler. He has a wonderful habit of shouting about recipes, even when the party is supposed to be sneaking through the woods, trying to avoid mind flayers. As he's English he will probably turn out to be a traitor, but for now he's ace.

I like the setting more than I expected too. It's a sort of modern fantasy so everyone's dressed in normal clothes and they drive cars and they go to diners, but they are also carrying magic spears and the man flipping the burgers at the diner is also handing out monster-hunting quests and rumours about treasure. I think there's been a bit of grumbling about FFXV not being a traditional mediaeval fantasy setting, but it's not as if the series hasn't done similar things before; everyone loves FFVII and that starts with a train pulling into a station in an industrial city. It helps that the design is consistent; I like a patchwork fantasy world -- Titan is a mess of influences that shouldn't work, and I love it nonetheless -- but FFXV's world does have a certain verisimilitude.

The game blocks exploration at first but once a certain story point is reached early on you are free to roam. There's a bit of backlash against open world games these days and I can understand why, but I love to explore at my own pace and FFXV doesn't stop me from poking around in the corners of the map. I'm also happy with the region-based level scaling; in general, monsters get tougher the further away you get from the starting area and I much prefer that approach to something like Skyrim, in which the bandits that were level 4 last time you passed their cave are now level 16. In tabletop gaming terms, FFXV feels more like an old-school wilderness crawl than I would have expected from something so shiny and new; you can even run into creatures far outside of the usual level range for that area, the equivalent of the GM rolling the most unlikely result on her wandering monster table.

Oh, and the monsters fight each other! They need to be goaded into it but then you can sit back and watch them pummel each other, and you even get to keep the loot they drop. It's a little detail but it makes the world feel less artificial, and there's something fun about setting off a little bit of chaos in a system and watching it escalate.

The Bad

Menu-based combat seems to be out of fashion in rpgs these days, as there is a common perception that it requires no skill -- which anyone who's played Disgaea will tell you is ballcocks -- so in FFXV you have direct control over Noctis, and the idea is that you run about looking for openings, and dodge in and out of the fight. This works in something like Dark Souls because there's a sense of weight to the fighting and it makes a difference if you get hit. That's not the case in FFXV, in which combat feels light and soft, and there's no major benefit to being dynamic when you can just hold down the circle button until the enemies are dead. I fail to see how that requires more skill.

The Ugly

The protagonists are not, it turns out, members of a rubbish boy band, but they do look like a rubbish boy band, and while you can change their outfits, the small number of alternatives also look like what a rubbish boy band would wear. This game is crying out out for big bags of costumes like Final Fantasy X-2 had; I'm not a big fan of publishers selling frivolous extra content like outfits, but even I would consider paying 50p for something that's not some black trousers and a black jacket.

As you can see, there's far more Good, which is, er, good, because I was a bit wary going into the game. I haven't played all of the titles in the Final Fantasy series -- I haven't started IX yet and that's considered to be the best one -- but I am a bit of a fan. It's far too early to tell if XV will unseat my favourite, 2006's XII, but already it has a better story -- although that wouldn't be difficult -- and the gameplay is almost as much fun, aside from the terrible combat mechanics. We'll see how things progress as I put in more hours over the Chrimble break, but it's thumbs up so far.

Thursday, November 24, 2016


The Red Line Corporate Solutions team is looking for Castle Dracula somewhere in northern Romania. Alas, what it finds instead is a werewolf. Oops.

The team consists of:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.

Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.

Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.

Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

Natasha is some distance away, trying to talk sense into an unhinged Max. Sten is sat behind the wheel of the team's 4x4. All of which leaves Carmel facing the two young ruffians, one of which is now a "Ruff"-ian. Ho ho!

"Ruff", like a dog. No?

Anyway, there's a bit of a skirmish as Carmel tries to evade the monster, then Sten puts his foot down -- literally -- and smashes his car into the creature. Meanwhile the other thug begins to change and Max and Natasha scramble back to aid their colleagues.

The vehicle skids and swerves around as the werewolf clings to the bonnet and attempts to grab Sten. It manages to tear the driver's side door off the hinges -- quite a feat considering the vehicle is armoured -- and in response Sten points his MP5 at the monster's head, makes a smooth quip, then the gun jams. The creature seems to smile.

Meanwhile the rest of the team tackles the other monster, with Carmel finishing it off with a burst of gunfire.

Sten is forced to be creative and swings the vehicle in a wide arc, hoping the momentum is enough to shake the monster loose before it can eat him. It turns out to be more than enough as the werewolf spins through the air with a plaintive whine and crunches against a tree. It is quite dead, but the rest of the team makes sure by dousing the corpse with bottles of silver nitrate.

(They thought the silver nitrate would be useful against vampires. It wasn't.)

The lump of gore that was the other werewolf begins to bubble and hiss, as if it is boiling, then it clambers to what was its feet. A gurgling voice issues from the wreck of its throat and the team finds itself somehow in conversation with Dracula himself. This is all a bit too much for Carmel, who goes for a sit down.

Natasha seems to be oblivious to the gravity of the situation and attempts to bait the ancient vampire warlord but he seems resistant to her dubious charms and after a brief back-and forth -- during which he casts doubt on Sten's loyalty -- the Lord of the Vampires™ does whatever the equivalent of hanging up is when one is using magic to speak through a corpse. A rain storm sweeps in and the team decides to return to base, a rented cottage some miles away.

The rain seems to follow, and a quick look at weather satellite imagery seems to confirm that the torrential rain is indeed centred on the team. No one expected Dracula to be quite so petty.

Sten is not trusted to keep watch, which doesn't bother him as he gets a full night's rest while the others keep an eye out for further vampiric shenanigans. The next morning brings more rain but the investigators decide to press on and search for the castle. Carmel fumbles an attempt to hack some detailed satellite imagery of the Red Lake area, and suspects that she may have alerted the authorities, so the team decides on a more basic approach and starts canvassing local guides.

The search starts to resemble a weird sort of holiday as the investigators go on a number of cave tours but alas do not discover Dracula's secret underground fortress. The team feels the trail going cold and in desperation Carmel risks breaking cover and asks her contacts to look into the locations of any former SOE agents who would have been in Romania during EDOM's 1941 operation to enlist Dracula for the war effort. To everyone's surprise, a potential lead is uncovered, and to everyone's annoyance, he is back in London.

The investigators decide to try a telephone call and get what seems to be a doddery old gent somewhere in south Wales. He is not too helpful and seems confused at best -- "Is this about PPI?" -- but they suspect that he is more sharp than he is letting on and they keep pushing, until he lets slip that he needs some sort of password before he will say any more.

Sten calls his brother in MI6 and convinces him to dig out a suitable password, and the team rings the elderly agent again. It is an old code, but it checks out, and the old fellow confirms that he was on the 1941 mission. He claims that he doesn't remember many details from that time but gives the team a rough location for the castle as well as some landmarks to help pinpoint the exact spot on which it stood.

The team heads back to the Red Lake and follows the directions provided by the old agent until further progress is blocked by a tall wire fence. The investigators debate whether to cut a gap large enough for their 4x4 but in the end decide to proceed on foot; this proves to be a wise decision as they encounter -- but do not alert -- a pair of park wardens.

Silenced guns roar put-put-put and the two wardens are eliminated; a closer inspection of the corpses reveals that each is wearing body armour and is carrying a submachine gun, none of which is standard issue for the average Romanian park keeper.

The investigators advance until they reach a crag overlooking the lake; this, they were told, is the location of Castle Dracula. Sure enough, they spy ruins atop the higher ground, as well as more armed guards. A plan is formed.

While everyone else hides, Max sets up a campfire nearby and sets his mobile to play some good old-fashioned German party music. Then he too hides within sight of the fire. Natasha climbs a tree with a good view of the crag and sets up her rifle. Carmel listens in to the guards' radio chatter but with little success as she doesn't speak Romanian.

A couple of guards head into the woods to investigate Max's Europarty and as they approach the campfire, the team springs its trap. All goes as planned until the guards start teleporting.

A running gunfight ensues. Carmel, Max, and Sten assault the crag while Natasha attempts to provide covering fire, somewhat stymied by a teleporting park warden trying to remove her head; when her gun jams, the Russian resorts to a grenade to finish him off.

Natasha's colleagues gain the upper hand and soon eliminate the opposition atop the outcrop, although at least one of the guards is unaccounted for. The Russian assassin jogs back through the trees to rejoin the rest of the team as a chill fills the air and a thick fog rolls in from the lake; Carmel, Max, and Sten make a quick circle of holy water and broken communion wafers and stand within, weapons ready. They urge Natasha to hurry.

The Russian scrambles up the slope, crucifix in hand, as the fog thickens in front of her and forms into a short but athletic woman.

Next: There's a bat in mi dungeon, what am I gonna do?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Not So Grim and Perilous

Comics writer and professional Gavin Norman impersonator Kieron Gillen rambles here about the aesthetic of Warhammer, how the original Warhammer setting is probably racist, and how Games Workshop may not be the Evil Empire it is often portrayed as, and -- to be fair -- was for a good number of years.

It's worth reading, but the first bit jumped out at me because it's something I've been saying for years: yes, the Warhammer games are all about the GrimDark™ but that this is supposed to be funny, because, by gosh, how could it not be? It's so over the top that I cannot understand how anyone takes it seriously.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay characters are rat catchers and students pushed into fighting the legions of Chaos by bad luck and poor judgement. Is that not self-evidently funny? Both Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy Age Battle of Sigmar are full of puns and ridiculous names; one of the Space Marine primarchs -- the most super duper of the super duper genetic soldiers -- is called Lionel. You can stick a random 80's trash fantasy novel apostrophe in there but it's still not a name that evokes the image of a hardened killer of alien scum.

The other, more famous, KG sort of blames the Americans, which I don't think is quite fair, but the obfuscation of the essential joke at the heart of the Warhammers does seem to have gone hand in hand with Games Workshop's global success. I don't begrudge the world these less comedic versions of the franchises -- and as Coop says here, Games Workshop has done its fair share to move away from the humour -- because if what you like about 40K is that everything is festooned with skulls, then good for you.

I don't think I'm trying to make a point. What I'm not saying is that anyone is doing Warhammer wrong. I think what I am saying is that to me there's an essential humour at the heart of the game lines -- even more so in some of the spin-offs like Blood Bowl and WFRP -- and it always baffled me that few people seemed to recognise it, so it is good to see someone of Gillen's profile also pick up on it. It's simple validation, I suppose.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Jumping the Were-Shark

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team has run into a little bit of trouble in northern Romania. The team consists of:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.

Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.

Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.

Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

Sten is unconscious and Carmel is missing an arm. The team is miles away from anywhere and there's no telling if the would-be assassins are going to return. All in all it's been a bad day at the office.

One of the assassins' motorcycles is intact so Natasha wakes Carmel up, sticks her on the back, and then rides off in search of a petrol station and -- they hope -- some ice. Meanwhile Max wakes Sten and together they set about making the scene of the battle look more like a mundane car accident and less like a running gun fight with a black ops death squad.

Natasha's mission is successful and Carmel's severed arm is shoved into a cooler full of ice cubes; the Russian also thinks about stealing a car but she is the only customer the service station has seen all day and Carmel's serious injury means that there isn't time to wait for someone else to turn up.

Carmel is coherent enough to remember that she has a friend -- Dacien Comenescu -- who has been a local fixer for various intelligence agencies in the past. There is a hospital two hours away and Comenescu arranges for a -- discreet -- surgeon to meet Carmel there.

The team planned ahead and the van -- now lying upside down in a ditch -- has a small car in the back. Carmel rests as her colleagues wrestle the hatchback from the van; their luck is with them and aside from some dents and scratches, the car is in good working order. Carmel is driven to the hospital and is in surgery for three hours before her colleagues see her -- and her reattached arm -- again. There has been nerve damage and the arm will never quite be the same again, the surgeon says, but it could be much, much worse.

The team ponders its next move. Carmel is going to need to rest and recover but the hospital is not likely to be safe; Comenescu arranges for a nearby safe house and the group moves there. It will take some weeks for Carmel to recover, and her colleagues could do with some rest too, but even so everyone keeps busy. Vehicles and weapons are acquired from black market contacts and Max and Natasha begin study of Le Dragon Noir, to see if it is in fact a working tome of magic.

The plan is to use a healing ritual from the book to repair the lasting damage both Carmel and Sten have suffered and, after a week of preparation, the rituals begin. The first attempts come to nothing but Natasha refuses to give up and her persistence pays off as, days later, Carmel's flesh knits together and even the permanent nerve damage heals. The miracle does not come without a cost, and Carmel's mind snaps as she watches her arm regenerate before her eyes.

A day or so later, when Carmel returns to her senses, the team breaks cover to... visit a museum! With the confirmation that Le Dragon Noir is real and that its rituals work, the team decide to try a spell that -- the book promises -- will destroy any vampire. Among other things, it requires a sample of the vampire's handwriting, some of the creature's blood, and a handful of its home soil; as it turns out, many museums in Romania have letters or diaries written by local hero Vlad the Impaler.

(Assuming, of course, that Vlad the Impaler did in fact become Dracula.)

Sten visits the exhibit first to get a close look at the document and grab some pictures, then he gets to work on a forgery. The false document complete, Sten returns with the rest of the team and together -- after Max fakes a heart attack to distract museum staff -- they swap his forgery for the original.

Lacul; Rosu, RomaniaThe next stop is Dracula's castle. Putting together clues from the Dracula Dossier and the satellite imagery grabbed from EDOM's headquarters the team focusses on the Bicaz Gorge in the north-east of the country, and the Red Lake at its end. The lake is in a national park and the group is surprised to discover not a dark, gothic castle, but holidaymakers splashing about in boats and locals selling gifts and trinkets.

Max and Natasha ask around but no one seems to know anything about Castle Dracula; they are beginning to wonder if they are in the wrong place, when Carmel spots a pair of young thugs watching them from a nearby car. She reports the sighting to her colleagues and they convene to discuss their next move; suspecting that the pair are servants of Dracula, the team decides to spring a trap.

Everyone clambers into the group's car and they drive off along a wooded trail; sure enough the two youngsters follow in their own vehicle. The Red Line team pulls ahead just enough to lose sight of the pursuers for a couple of minutes and then uses the time to set up an ambush. Sten waits in the car while the rest of the team takes up scattered positions in the surrounding woods; the other car arrives and the occupants see Sten parked in the middle of the trail, so they bring their vehicle to a halt.

The rest of the team rushes into action. Natasha uses her riot foam gun to trap the occupants of the car while Carmel and Max provide cover. The youths are dragged from their vehicle, forced to their knees, and handcuffed; upon questioning they claim they are just going for an afternoon drive and are puzzled by the team's reaction. They remain calm, even cheerful, throughout the interrogation.

Perhaps their blasé attitude sets Max off, or perhaps the stresses of the past couple of months have taken their toll; whatever the cause, the German loses his cool and starts to beat one of the young men, pistol-whipping him again and again until Natasha is forced to drag Max away and talk him down.

Meanwhile, Carmel and Sten are surprised as the injured thug starts convulsing and shaking; surprise turns to concern when he gets to his feet, then to worry as he flexes his arms and snaps the handcuffs. Worry becomes horror as bristly grey hair begins to sprout from the man's skin, and his eerie smile distorts into a fanged maw.

Next: chomp!