Thursday, February 23, 2017

Enter the Matrix

I was going to post a review of the new Delta Green, in response to a reader request, but that will now happen in a few days because I've been distracted by something.

Over at the Tower of Zenopus, Blacksteel has been struggling with erratic game attendance, with players dropping in and out all over the place, and campaigns sputtering to a halt. I'm sure this isn't anything new and happens to all gaming groups at some point, but what I did find interesting was Blacksteel's solution.

You can go over and have a look, but I'll summarise. How it works is you put together a matrix of games and players, like so:

Players PresentWe Play
Alice, Bob, CharlieShadowrun
Alice, CharlieCall of Cthulhu
Alice, BobFeng Shui
Bob, CharlieRuneQuest

The idea is that ongoing campaigns remain viable because the players most interested in that game will be there for that game; you shouldn't get games that conk out through a lack of interest.

Henrik Bothe plate spinning On the other hand, what you've got here, more or less, is multiple campaigns running at once; that could be a problem if your game requires a lot of preparation, but it's alleviated somewhat if there are multiple gamemasters in the group. Another potential problem is that it may be difficult to keep track of progress in campaigns; were we hunting the slavers in Shadowrun or RuneQuest? Good notes and recaps would be more important than ever.

All that said, I like the idea. Although it is disruptive in the sense that you could be playing Shadowrun for two weeks, then Feng Shui for one, then Shadowrun again for a week, then RuneQuest, it's less disruptive in the sense that you won't get people dropping in and out of the campaign.

I don't think there's anything wrong with a West Marches style drop in and drop out game -- and I'd love to play in one some time -- but I do think it lends itself to more broad and shallow style play; with this sort of approach you can start to go into depth with plots and backgrounds and non-player-characters and tie them into the player-characters, because you know the players will be around to engage with them.

The other big advantage is that it offers up a bit of variety. You're not playing one game for big monolithic chunks of time, but rather playing lots of different things; it lets you try new games as they come out, and if they prove popular, perhaps put them into the regular rotation. My original gaming group sort of ran along these lines -- although it wasn't planned -- and so I played a lot of different games in my youth; I do miss that variety sometimes.

My current group is for the most part quite stable in terms of attendance and participation, and it's not a big group, so I don't know if this would work for us. We tend to play one or two hefty campaigns a year, with some shorter games in between; although there are regular absences they tend to be far apart enough that it probably wouldn't be practical to run alternate campaign or campaigns in those gaps. Instead, we tend to break out our ever expanding board game collections.

Even so, there's something about this model that I cannot help but find compelling. Perhaps there is a way to make it work with my group. We'll see.

Right! Delta Green next!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Pump It Up

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team has enjoyed a scuffle with some vampiric minions in Bucharest. Red Line has emerged victorious, but not without cost; Carmel has been captured and is being fed upon by one of Dracula’s Brides!

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.

Each member of the team has been equipped with a tracking device so Carmel’s colleagues know where she is but they suspect that she is in the hands of Natasa Dobra; Dobra has caused them trouble in the past and they are not certain they can mount a rescue without help. The question is where they can get that assistance; they are on the wanted lists of most European law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and there’s some reluctance to get the Americans or Russians involved.

The team decides to approach EDOM. It is safe to say that the relationship between the Red Line team and EDOM is strained; both sides have double-crossed each other, Natasha and EDOM agent Hound have something of a personality clash, and the Red Line team broke into EDOM’s base and stole its stuff.

All that said, EDOM is in the business of hunting vampires and the Red Line team has a big long list of the monsters’ names and locations, so there is some basis for negotiation. The team calls Hound and they discuss terms; in exchange for the vampire kill list, Hound agrees to provide an EDOM hit squad to aid in the rescue of Carmel, and the Red Line team consents to Hound’s request to meet afterwards, should they survive.

Kempton Water Works - - 31048 An hour or so later the team meets Hound’s operatives -- six tough-looking Brits -- in a park in Bucharest. Together the two groups follow Carmel’s tracker to a blocky, concrete building on the outskirts of the city; it appears to be a water pumping station, but the team is suspicious.

Natasha and a couple of the EDOM squad members snipe the building’s guards and Sten picks the lock on the main gate, before doing the same to the building’s front door. Billy and “Wiggles” from the EDOM squad are left to keep watch while everyone else goes inside. A quick sweep of the building reveals nothing unusual or suspicious, but nor is Carmel found; the tracking signal suggests that she is below ground, so her colleagues and their EDOM allies descend into what looks like a maintenance tunnel.

Carmel wakes up alone in a damp concrete room. It looks like the same room in which Natasa Dobra did… something to her, but Carmel cannot be certain. There are no windows, only one metal door; it is locked and Carmel has been stripped of her gear so has no tools with which to pick the lock; she tries instead to break the door down, and to her considerable surprise, Carmel smashes the door off its hinges. Weird. A concrete corridor stretches out ahead of her into the darkness.

Carmel’s colleagues also find themselves traversing a dungeon labyrinth maze network of indistinguishable concrete corridors, leaving a member of the EDOM squad on watch at each intersection as they get zero in on Carmel’s signal. A metal door bars further progress and the signal seems to be coming from beyond; again Sten picks the lock and Max enters alongside EDOM squad leader Carl.

Beyond the door is a small square room and on the floor is a woman lying in a pool of blood. Carl looks to Max and the German nods; the woman has her back to them but it looks like Carmel and she is wearing Carmel's clothes. As Carl covers him, Max approaches and kneels by his colleague.

It is not Carmel.

Things get a bit chaotic. Carl opens fire and turns Not-Carmel's head into mush, and Sean is dragged off into the darkness by an unseen foe; Sten mutters something about "ablative armour". Grenades are thrown and shots are fired, at nothing in particular.

Carmel hears the commotion and heads in the direction of the gunfire and screaming; she climbs a set of slippery stairs and is winged by a burst of gunfire from a twitchy EDOM agent, but shrugs off the injury. Weird.

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team is reunited but before anyone can get carried away with hugs, another EDOM agent is pulled screaming into the dark; Max pursues and follows a long smear of blood back the way Carmel came, down some steps his Israeli colleague avoided on her way up, and into some sort of underground reservoir.

All is still as Max awaits his colleagues and the two surviving EDOM agents, Carl and Jenny. A metal catwalk crosses the centre of the room and joins a similar walkway that runs around the chamber's edge. Below, dark water shimmers in the light of the team's torches. There is no sign of the missing EDOM operative.

The team splits and edges around the walkway, while Carl and Jenny cover the entrance; no one trusts the central bridge. It is when they are about halfway across that they are ambushed by burly soldier-types, who seem to appear from nowhere!

The Red Line team makes short work of its assailants, but Carl and Jenny are not quite as successful and take a bit of a beating before they subdue their opponents. Max goes around and beheads each of the attackers while his colleagues search the room. It appears to be a dead end, unless there's something in the water...

Given the injuries suffered by the team and its allies -- although Natasha notes Carmel seems to have recovered from her wounds in record time -- the decision is made to withdraw; there's no sign of Natasa Dobra, but Carmel has been rescued, and that's good enough.

The Red Line team is invited to return to base with the EDOM squad for medical attention; this base turns out to be the British Embassy in Bucharest, where they are met by Hound. It seems that relations have thawed in the aftermath of Carmel's rescue and Hound is more open to answering the team's questions; among other things, she confirms that members of Ibáñez Security Solutions are guests of EDOM at HMS Proserpine. Although Hound does not answer every question -- "You don't have the clearance for that." -- there is a feeling that EDOM is genuine about working with the Red Line team.

Hound excuses herself, warning the team that it should not attempt to leave the Embassy, and leaves. The Embassy is probably as safe a safehouse as they will find, so they decide to stay put for at least a short time and ponder their next move.

Carmel's local contact Dacien Comenescu checks in and confirms that -- after a little bit of undefined "trouble" -- he has found some of Natasa Dobra's old Securitate files; the two arrange to meet in the next few days.

Hound told the team that one of the methods EDOM uses to contact Dracula is by passing messages through the so-called "Wolf Gypsies"; the group is secretive and has proven difficult to infiltrate, but after some research the Red Line team uncovers an article, written by an investigative journalist named Cristine Barbu, that profiles a former elder of the clan, Sorin Lupu.

Barbu is Romanian but spends most of her time in London or New York, neither of which look like realistic destinations at this time. Lupu is not only in Bucharest but has made himself into something of a public figure, despite the general Romanian dislike of the Romani people; the Red Line team decides to pay Lupu a visit.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Bucharest Beatdown

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team has killed one of Dracula's Brides. Probably. Maybe.

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.

Buoyed by the apparent success of the vampire destruction ritual, the team plans to do the same to the other Brides; the problem is that the spell requires samples of the target vampire's blood and handwriting, and some of the earth from the vampire's grave. They don't even have the name of the London vampire, let alone any of the necessary ritual components, and it's possible that she has been either captured or killed by EDOM, so it's decided to focus on the Romanian Bride, Natasa Dobra.

Vineyards in Piemonte, Italy Before they do anything else they need to rest so they head to Carmel's sanctuary, a vineyard in Italy. The peaceful, familiar surroundings calm Carmel's troubled mind and everyone gets a chance to recover from their recent adventures.

During the week Carmel discovers that Red Line Corporate Solutions has been closed down as part of ongoing investigations into the team following its attack on the charity Heal the Children in London; Carmel arranges for some assets to be transferred to the Virgin Islands, but even so it looks like the team will have to rely on the funds stolen from EDOM for a while.

Carmel also discovers a message in one of her dead drop email accounts from her Mossad days; it seems to be from Hound, the EDOM operative the team met in Moscow, and it appears to be a request for a meeting.

The team is suspicious and a face to face meeting is rejected; instead, Carmel suggests a telephone call, and Hound agrees. They set up an elaborate -- and they hope, untraceable -- system involving bouncing the connection around the world and putting two physical telephones together, mouthpiece to earpiece, in a room in Shanghai, and they make the call.

It does not go well. The EDOM agent suggests that the team joins her organisation, gaining official sanction -- and funding! -- and as a result making the unwanted attention from Europe's law enforcement and intelligence agencies go away. A bullish Natasha acts as spokesperson for Red Line and alternates between outright rejection of Hound's offer and making implausible demands; the rest of the team follows the Russian's lead, with only Sten staying quiet.

In the end, all the two parties can agree on is an exchange of information; The Red Line team hands over half of the names from the Heal the Children's secret vampire list while Hound reveals the name of the London Bride -- Dominique -- and the location of Dracula. He is in Bucharest, claims Hound, but she is not confident of the team's chances in a direct assault.

A few days later the team sets off on a long drive to Bucharest; at the Romanian border the team is stopped by police who take a little too long to check Carmel's fake passport, but nothing comes of it and the journey continues.

In Bucharest, the team finds the local branch of Heal the Children, a small administrative office with only four staff, and puts it under observation for a few unproductive hours before Sten calls off the surveillance; there is a feeling that if Dracula is indeed in the capital, the team has little time to waste.

Carmel gets in touch with her local contact Dacien Comenescu, who expresses surprise that she is not deep in hiding given the hunt for her and her colleagues. Nonetheless he agrees to help Carmel -- an offer of €30,000 helps! -- and look for old Securitate files on Natasa Dobra, although he is not confident; most of the old documents were destroyed or hidden during the 1989 revolution, but it is possible that the Americans or Russians may have recovered something.

Communist Romania apartment blocks

Upon Carmel's return from the meeting, the rest of the team informs her that they have located Dobra's elderly father living on the fourth floor of an old Communist era block of flats. The hope is that he may have a sample of Natasa's writing in an old birthday or Christmas card, or something similar. The team heads to the flats; Max keeps watch outside, Sten stays in the car, and Carmel and Natasha enter the building. The Russian kicks the door in and pushes the old man to the ground; she gags him and ties him up while Carmel searches the flat.

Downstairs, Max spots four burly men rush into the building and warns Carmel and Natasha, then he and Sten pursue but find that the men have already made quick progress up the stairs. Carmel climbs out on to the flat's balcony and hides just outside the window, while Natasha takes up position in the corridor, ready to shoot.

The men come into the corridor and Natasha opens fire, spraying them with bullets, but they keep coming. Two rush at the, er, Russian, while the other two enter the flat.

Natasha doesn't fancy a fight with bulletproof opponents and clips a rope to the window sill behind her, then backflips out the window. Carmel, it seems, forgot to bring her climbing gear and after a brief glimpse over the edge to gauge the drop, hunkers down and prepares for a fight.

One of the men leans out the window and opens fire on the dangling Natasha, giving her a serious injury; aware of her precarious position she swings backwards, drops a couple of metres, and smashes her way through the third floor window.

Max and Sten make it to the fourth floor and open fire on the two men at the other end of the corridor, peering down at Natasha's escape route. Once again the gunfire seems to have little effect, then one of the men vanishes and reappears right next to Max!

Inside the flat, Carmel lobs a grenade at the other two men and although they survive the blast -- Dobra Senior does not -- they do at least seem a little battered and ragged as a result. Before Carmel can celebrate her relative success, one of the pair disappears then reappears on the balcony.

Frenzied mêlée breaks out but for once the Red Line team seems to have the advantage. Tasers seem more effective than guns and soon the men are subdued; a furious Sten takes the opportunity to hack the head off one of them with his combat knife.

Alas, this has all come too late for Carmel, who is grabbed by her opponent and teleported away. She comes to her senses in the back of a van speeding through traffic and manages to alert her colleagues by radio before she is thumped into unconsciousness.

The others pile into their car and Sten tries to pursue the van but the other driver proves to know Bucharest's streets better than the Brit. Sten can only swear as he gets stuck in traffic and the van zooms out of sight.

Carmel wakes up in a concrete room, tied to a chair. Four guards in military gear stand watch and with them is Natasa Dobra. Dobra doesn't say a word over the next few minutes as she kicks Carmel around the room, stopping only when the Israeli is near death.

Then the vampire bares her fangs and drinks deep.

Next: Pumpin'!

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Holy Waterboarding, Batman!

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team is on the run with a couple of dead(ish) vampires!

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.

Having captured a couple of vampires, it becomes apparent that the team has no plan beyond "capture a couple of vampires"; the British authorities are looking for the team, but it's not going to be easy to escape the UK with two headless corpses in hand luggage.

A number of possibilities are mooted. Sten wants a frontal assault and suggests a raid on EDOM's offshore facility HMS Proserpine, but the others are not keen. Carmel suggests a yacht off the coast of Montenegro, but this is deemed too ostentatious and expensive; even so, the general idea of using a boat as a hiding place is appealing and the team buys an old trawler in -- thanks to some persuasion from Natasha -- Russia.

Before the team leaves the country, Sten receives a call from his brother Bren, an employee of MI6. Bren warns his brother that after the raid on Heal the Children, the British law enforcement and intelligence agencies are on high alert and are looking for the Red Line team. He tells Sten to be careful and that he should keep his head down, and then hangs up. Sten relays the message to the rest of the team.

(Another member of the team receives a similar message from one of their contacts, but chooses not to pass this on to their colleagues. Even so it is clear that things are moving in the shadows.)

Rusty Kisses from RussiaOnce in Russia they settle into their new temporary -- leaky and rusty too -- home. The vampire corpses are encased in blocks of cement with the necks and hearts accessible; the blocks are then chained and bolted to the trawler's thick metal bulkheads.

Max is selected to re-attach the vampires' severed heads. He strips down to the bare minimum of gear so that if he is dominated by the undead the others won't have to contend with a fully armed killer, then he descends into the hold with the heads; the rest of the team monitors the situation over radio, having decided that cameras are a bit pointless.

The heads do not re-attach as expected. The team wonders if it is because it is mid afternoon and the vampires' powers are inactive; this proves to be quite correct as sunset brings the sound of anguished screaming and rattling chains from the hold. Max descends.

The team interrogates the Trumans and, finding the pair resistant to questioning, moves on to threats and torture, including the creative approach of using waterboarding the vampires using holy water.

Two things become clear: George and Mary Truman may be monsters, but they also truly love each other; and they are near the bottom tier of the vampire conspiracy and know almost nothing useful.

The Trumans are beheaded again and the team ponders what to do next. An email is sent to "Hopkins" -- the mysterious individual that started all this -- and the also-mysterious "King Arthur" -- who gave the team more hints later on -- detailing the team's discoveries and achievements so far -- including the break up of the London cult and the elimination of Heal the Children's leadership -- and asking for advice and suggestions.

While waiting for a response the team decides to try something risky. Ever since the incident in Rotterdam Sten has had some sort of strange psychic connection to the vampire -- suspected to be one of Dracula's Brides -- encountered there. In Dracula the original EDOM agents were able to track the vampire through his connection to "Mina" so it's decided to try the same with Sten.

They locate a nearby hypnotist -- a swaggering lothario named Dmitri -- and Natasha and Sten visit. Dmitri puts Sten in a trance and Natasha ushers him out of the room so she can question her colleague. It appears that a connection is made and Sten reports that the vampire is somewhere dark, but that he can hear a great deal of traffic, like that of a city centre.

It seems that the vampire is semi-conscious and as it is day time, Natasha suspects that the creature is resting in her coffin. She decides to wait -- Dmitri is being paid by the hour so doesn't mind -- and when Sten reports that the vampire has woken, Natasha is able to determine when sunset is at the monster's location. Further questions lead Natasha to conclude that the vampire is somewhere in eastern Europe, probably Romania.

Sten opens his eyes and it becomes apparent that now the vampire is awake, the connection goes both ways. Sten looks around the room but it is not Sten that sees.

Natasha brings Dmitri back in to break Sten's trance and, she hopes, the connection to the vampire. The Russian also turns a gun on her countryman when he asks for payment, so he dives out a window and runs off; he doesn't need mystical powers to know when he's in trouble!

The team thinks the Rotterdam vampire may be -- or rather may have been -- the Countess Dollingen of Graz, so the decision is made to break cover and head for Austria to find a sample of her handwriting; this will be used as an ingredient in a ritual -- from the spell book Le Dragon Noir -- to undo her immortality and destroy her.

Before they leave Russia, the team drops the two cement-clad vampires into the river, with GPS locators attached. The heads are locked in a box and hidden at another nearby location.

Graz Austria pano from SchlossbergAware of potential pursuit, the team flies to Hungary then drives across the border into Austria and on to Graz. They find a museum that purports to hold a letter written by the Countess and Carmel attempts to half-inch the document.

Carmel's player rolls 00.

Rudi, an out-of-shape but observant security guard -- indeed the only security guard on duty this afternoon -- spots Carmel's theft and confronts her. The team legs it, with Max smashing poor Rudi out of the way and into unconsciousness. Schlafen Sie, Rudi.

The team makes a rapid exit from Austria -- and mainland Europe -- and heads to a small island in the Adriatic, where the ritual is prepared. A few days later, the spell is cast; everyone in the team feels their vitality being drained and Sten is in agony as he feels as if something deep within is being torn and twisted. Everyone is brought near to unconsciousness as the spell takes its toll, but then there is a great release of energy and Sten feels -- for the first time in weeks -- free.

They don't know for certain, but they may have killed one of Dracula's Brides.

Next: one down, two to go.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Charity Begins at Gunpoint

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team has invaded the London headquarters of Heal the Children!

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 run up the stairs to the top floor, pausing for a peek at the other floors on the way; the building seems to be made up of generic modern offices and there are no overt signs of a grand vampire conspiracy. This is puzzling.

Still, they continue to the top floor, which contains a board room and what appears to be the CEO's office; in the office, an agitated man talks on the telephone, probably to the police. The team rushes in and subdues the man, but not before he can complete his phone call.

Carmel attempts to hack into a computer in the board room while Natasha grabs a laptop from the office. Max hears police sirens in the distance and the team cuts short its search and drags the man back to the garage downstairs, where he is bundled into the van.

Sten takes the wheel and takes the van out of the Heal the Children garage, just about scraping under the rising door. A police car blocks the team's exit, with another approaching, but Sten accelerates, using the weight of the van to smash the vehicle out of the way. The van pulls away, but the police are in pursuit.

Metropolitan police BMW 3 seriesCarmel hacks into the police dispatch system -- crippling her 4G data allowance for the month -- and creates false records indicating that the situation at Heal the Children is escalating; the idea is that the police will direct some of the pursuing vehicles to return to the charity's headquarters. The plan works and two of the three pursuing vehicles pull away and head back the way they came.

Natasha kicks open the back door of the van and opens fire on the remaining police car. The Russian assassin's shots are accurate and the driver loses control of his car, crashing into the central reservation. Natasha doesn't bother to see if anyone has survived the crash, and returns to her seat.

Some time and distance later, when the team is certain that it has evaded pursuit, the van is dumped, a car is stolen, and the captive -- a Patrick St George -- is stuffed into the boot. They drive on and drop in on Natasha's friend "Hatchet" Harry in London's east end, but he is not able to provide a secure hiding place; there is a brief discussion about whether Harry has been compromised, but the team decides to move on for now.

They drive to a quiet bit of Epping Forest and drag St George out of the boot. Carmel hacks the laptop while the others interrogate the captive. He claims to be the acting head of Heal the Children while CEO Jo Ramsay is in police custody -- arranged by the investigators as part of a deal with EDOM --and after a bit of persuasion -- he is shown the heads of the vampires the van was transporting -- St George explains what he knows about the organisation.

It is a legitimate charity, he says, but it's also a cover for a horrific kind of vampire tourism. With access to Romanian orphanages, the charity can send vampires over to the country to feed without fear of discovery or persecution, as all official records are controlled by Heal the Children. All the charity requires in return is regular donations to continue its good work; not all the donors are vampires, St George explains, but all the vampires on the books are donors. The team estimates that Heal the Children is working with just under a hundred vampires.

Sten is disgusted and furious, and Max forces St George to dig his own shallow grave before killing him. Meanwhile Carmel discovers that her ex-husband Arthur Hepworth has been receiving small but significant payments from Heal the Children; at first she wonders if perhaps he has written stories about the charity, but a quick internet search turns up no such articles. Carmel feels sick.

Carmel has been uploading the data the team has collected to a private server and has set it to send the information to a number of recipients should Carmel not send an all-clear message at regular intervals. Although she is not yet convinced of Hepworth's association with the vampire conspiracy, Carmel takes him off the mailing list for now, just in case.

Natasha scans the donor list and selects a family living in Chiswick; George, Mary, and Scott Truman. The Heal the Children secret files suggest that the Trumans are vampires and the team decides to pay them a visit.

The next day they disguise themselves as gas workers investigating a potential leak and approach the Truman house, Carmel and Natasha at the front, with Max and Sten sneaking around to the back garden. Mary answers the door but is reluctant to admit the team; her husband George comes to the door and is convinced enough by the team's cover story that he gathers his family to leave the house.

Carmel and Natasha spring into action, pushing the Trumans back into their home and brandishing firearms, while Max kicks the back door in. The Trumans prove to be softer than other vampires the team has encountered and George is soon gunned down in his kitchen while Mary cowers in the living room; their son Scott escapes during the fight, scrambling over the garden wall. George is beheaded but as the team moves in to do the same to Mary, she somehow takes control of Natasha and Sten and orders them to handcuff Max.

A scuffle breaks out but outnumbered as he is, Max manages to avoid the attacks of his team-mates until Carmel is able to shoot Mary in the head, which has the happy side-effect of ending her domination of Natasha and Sten.

With sirens approaching, the team gathers up the remains of the two vampires and escapes into the afternoon sun.

Next: interrogation with the vampires!

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Battle of Little Chef

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team is recovering somewhere in north-eastern Romania, after a traumatic experience involving a giant bat.

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.

While everyone waits for the Call of Cthulhu healing rules to kick in their bumps and bruises to heal -- aided by some more dark magic, which reverses most of Carmel's injuries -- they engage in some research, in an attempt to pick up Dracula's trail once again.

The team thinks the tough militaristic vampire encountered at the ruins may be Natasa Dobra; Dobra was a superstar of the Romanian secret police and was tipped to run the organisation one day, but she disappeared in 1988 and the organisation was disbanded in 1991, although successor agencies still exist.

The werewolves had -- before they changed -- distinctive matching tattoos; Carmel's contact Dacien Comenescu sends over an Interpol file that identifies the design as the clan marking of the Ruvari Szgany, a Roma group involved in various low level criminal enterprises across Europe. The file explains that the Roma community in Romania is subjected to considerable racial discrimination, but that the Ruvari Szgany are despised in particular, and even other clans will tend to avoid them. Interpol has found it difficult to gather intelligence on the group as a result; the only way to join the clan is to be born or married into it.

Brigada 6 Operaţii Speciale «Mihai Viteazul» Some of the guards at the ruins also had tattoos and these are traced to military organisations; the 1st Battalion of the Romanian Special Forces and the 528th Reconnaissance Battalion -- also a special operations group -- are identified.

A reference to "Geminii" in the files of the London art dealer Vivienne Aytown-Baptiste -- the one Natasha executed -- leads the team to a branch of the Romanian mafia, one specialising in stolen cars. Further probing of this connection leads to the gang's rivals, thought to be a front for the Chinese Triads.

Another name in the Aytown-Baptiste's files is Cemal Gusa, a "legitimate businessman" who is known to travel between Asia and Romania on a regular basis; a bit of prodding turns up a number of aliases, suspected involvement in the smuggling of opiates, and a possible connection to a Romanian al Qaida cell.

At this point, the investigators begin to worry about how far this thing goes. No one feels like a trip to Afghanistan or Turkmenistan, or of taking on al Qaida or the Triads, but it's almost certain that Dracula is aware of the team's presence in Romania, so the investigators decide to return to the United Kingdom. They have one link between Romania and the UK; the charity Heal the Children.

The head of the organisation, Jo Ramsay, was identified as a member of the London vampire cult, and through a deal with EDOM --  the investigators reneged on their part -- Ramsay has been arrested on some sort of probably-fabricated charge.

Carmel does some digital digging and discovers suspicious details in the charity's accounts. Numbers don't match up, and names appear on and disappear from lists. Most suspicious of all, the organisation seems to be booking a lot of cargo flights to and from London, but what kind of cargo is being transported by a charity that runs orphanages?

Carmel finds the next scheduled cargo flight and the team decides to race back to London to meet it at the other end, but in all the excitement it seems that the team's plane was left in Saint Petersburg. Oops. Some telephone calls and a few liquidised company assets later, the team is on a rented plane back to the United Kingdom.

The company entrusted to transfer Heal the Children's cargo from the plane to the charity headquarters is Axel Logistics, a group the team has encountered before, so the van is easy to spot and follow.

Little Chef at Smithaleigh - - 1375234 The vehicle stops at a Little Chef and the occupants pop in for a spot of lunch; Carmel and Natasha follow. Inside, the two former agents attempt to engage the Axel employees in conversation while sneaking a sleeping drug into their coffees. It's an espionage classic and it works, as the pair slumps into their egg and chips after a few minutes. The slumbering Axel employees are bundled into the van and it's driven off, with Max and Sten following. No one pays the bill.

The little convoy gets off the motorway and a remote spot is found where the van's back can be opened and investigated. Inside, amongst a number of parcels, are three long wooden boxes; not coffins, but of the right size and shape for a human to lie within.

The boxes are checked for traps and then one by one are dragged out of the van into the sunlight, where they are opened. Within each is a sleeping person; a man, a woman, and a child. Each is staked and beheaded, the bodies chucked into a nearby pond and the heads gathered and stuffed into a bag; Natasha takes blood samples. The two sleeping Axel employees are bundled into the boot of one of the team's rented car along with some food and water, and the car is abandoned.

Sten suggests that the team completes the delivery to Heal the Children; that way they get in without raising any suspicion. The rest of the team agrees but Carmel -- having developed acute claustrophobia as a result of the giant bat incident -- refuses to be boxed up and insists on driving; everyone else clambers into a box.

Carmel drives the van to the Heal the Children headquarters, a nondescript square building in a nondescript industrial estate, and is waved into the garage by security. She makes small talk as six overall-clad employees carry -- with suspicious ease, as if they are stronger than normal -- the boxes to a goods lift.

The team attacks. Max, Natasha, and Sten kick the lids off their boxes and gun down their porters, while Carmel takes out the security guard. One man makes it to the goods lift and jabs the buttons in a frantic attempt to escape but is shot by Max; just in time the team stops the lift doors from closing.

Natasha spots a couple of security cameras and shoots them, hoping that it's not too late to do so, while the others drag the rest of the corpses into the goods lift, place a couple of primed grenades beneath one of them, and then send the lift on its way.

As the lift ascends, the team scrambles up the stairs.

Next: a conspiracy uncovered!

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.

Next: egg and chips and guns.

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.