Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Bundles of the Flame Princess

I'm not much of a promoter so excuse me as I blunder through this one; if it helps, it's for a good cause!

The latest Bundle of Holding, er, bundle is packed full of gribbly, blood-soaked, sanity-shredding Lamentations of the Flame Princess books. Er, pdfs. For the next five-and-a-bit days you can get excellent stuff like the LotFP rules and the wonderful Vornheim for the absurd price of $13; for another $13 you can also get the clever Scenic Dunnsmouth and the super England Upturn'd. You also get the best horror adventure set in 1625 Norwich, my own Forgive Us. All in all, you get about $100 worth of top quality gaming stuff for $26, which is a bit of a bargain.

(Yes, I am a bit biased because I did the pictures for three of the included books and wrote one of them, but even so I think it's an excellent deal.)

Ten percent of the proceeds go to the aforementioned good cause, the Myositis Association, so you can even feel good about buying adventures that will probably make your players cry.

Go and have a look at the horrors that await! They are good horrors!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Rotterdammerung

The Red Line team has followed a van full of earth -- possible the earth in which a vampire rests -- from an abandoned grave yard in Munich to the headquarters of HGD Shipping in Rotterdam. As the sun begins to rise, the private security consultants watch the building and ponder their next move.

The Red Line 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.

Carmel has hacked into the building's security cameras so the team has a good idea of the layout of the building and where the guards are. Alas, there are eight guards, four of which look more tooled up than the others, and there are no cameras on the top floor, which is where the Red Line team believes the crates of earth have been taken.

The team does not know what to do. Dawn approaches and people will soon start to arrive for work, so there is a time limit; on the other hand, if there is indeed a vampire in the building, day seems to be the best time to fight it. They have come prepared to sneak in, but they wonder if approaching from above via helicopter may be better, and at least one member of the team ponders destroying the building with explosives.

With time running out they decide to go with the original plan, such as it is, but Max does remember that he knows a helicopter pilot based in the city and drags poor Dennis Engels out of bed with a promise of vast heaps of cash; Engels is instructed to get his helicopter in the air and to pick the team up from the roof of the HGD building in twenty minutes.

Carmel disables the building's alarms then the team moves; they rush up to the rear of the building and Carmel unlocks the door. Once inside they move fast, with Carmel and Max each keeping an eye on the security video feed so they can track the guards, two of whom disappear from view as they head to the top floor. No one is enthused by this development.

Most of the guards are avoided and are left far below on the lower floors but fortune is not with the Red Line team and the alarm is raised; Carmel's video feed shows two of the tougher, better-equipped guards ready and waiting for the lift to arrive.

They stop the lift, pile out, then send it up, but not before Natasha rolls a grenade into the carriage. Max, Natasha, and Sten leg it up the stairs, hoping to catch the guards off-balance, while Carmel stays behind to leave an explosive surprise between floors ten and eleven for anyone pursuing via the stairs.

The guards above are armed only with tasers and batons, and also exhibit worrying levels of strength and speed; Carmel worries that they may not quite be human, but they respond as well to bursts of submachine gun fire as the average person and do not last long.

The Red Line team hurries to the top floor where progress is halted by a locked door; Carmel slaps some C-4 on the frame and -- because of a previous experience with explosives -- the rest of the team slopes to the floor below. This cautious approach proves to be prudent as Carmel once again uses a tad too much explosive and blows herself down the stairs, gaining a few bumps and bruises as a result.

Things get worse as the team explores the top floor of the HGD building and encounters an unnatural darkness; torches don't penetrate the inky shadow, and night vision goggles prove useless. The darkness seems almost tangible and not one of the team fancies exploring any further.

Natasha rolls another grenade into the room, hoping to break a window and allow the dawn sunlight to flood in. The sound of shattering glass seems to confirm that the first part of the plan works, but the darkness remains. Then a pair of arms emerge from the blackness and attempt to drag the Russian off.

One of the guards emerges from the blackness and engages the team in combat; he survives not much longer than the other two, but it's not much of a victory as he's followed by a beautiful woman with a savage and hungry look in her eyes and nasty, big, pointy teeth.

This new arrival shrugs off gunfire and grabs Sten, dragging him into the darkness; the others try not to hear his screams as the vampire's bite is not the gentle almost-kiss he expected, but a frenzied, animalistic tearing.

Natasha dives into the darkness after her colleague and Carmel runs off. The Russian finds herself blinded and unable to help Sten, who somehow manages to wriggle free of the vampire and fumble a crucifix into his hands; he is amazed but relieved to hear an anguished hiss as the monster retreats, and begins to crawl back in the direction of his colleagues' panicked shouts.

They decide that enough is enough and retreat to the roof, where they find Carmel laying down vast quantities of C-4, but no helicopter waiting; Max contacts Engels and is relieved to hear the latter confirm that he is on his way. The wait is tense as the team expects the vampire to emerge at any moment, and Natasha fears the worst when she hears a window smashing on the floor below; the monster does not appear, and soon the team bundles into Engels' helicopter.



Once the helicopter is at a safe distance the team allows Carmel to detonate her explosives and the top two floors of HGD Shipping are turned into rubble; everyone hopes that the vampire has gone the same way, but no one is convinced, not least because Sten writhes and moans and demands to be returned to "her". Carmel and Natasha consider shooting the Englishman, or at least chucking him out of the aircraft, but Max convinces them to spare their colleague.

The team escapes and heads back to their offices in Zurich, stopping off on the way to drop Sten at a private clinic for treatment; Sten's wounds are patched up but he has suffered permanent nerve damage and his reflexes are slowed as a result. Max is more concerned with Sten's spiritual health and arranges for an exorcist to visit the Englishman, but the ritual seems to have no effect on his strange condition.

Meanwhile, Carmel and Natasha visit Munich and meet with local groups of naïve young anarchists; they convince the activists that the grave yard is the site of nasty capitalist shenanigans. The anarchists are issued with water bombs full of holy water and are directed to soak the fenced area in the name of anti-globalisation; Carmel and Natasha hope this will be enough to spoil the ground and prevent the vampire -- if she survived the explosion -- from resting there.

Next: a new friend!

Monday, July 11, 2016

I Have a Medusa, and She is So Blue

When I was plugging Forgive Us I remember saying at least a couple of times that I wanted it to be a game book that was also an art book; looking back I can see that this claim was ridiculous because I was nowhere near. With Maze of the Blue Medusa, Zak S and Patrick Stuart have achieved what I could not.

I mean that literally too; the basic concept seems to have been "what if we turned one of Zak's super detailed paintings into a dungeon?" and that's what they've gone and done, the cheeky, talented blighters.

(In a fun self-referential twist, one of the dungeon's main entrances is a magical painting.)

In a way, MotBM is quite a traditional dungeon adventure; at a basic level it is a list of rooms and what's in them, but it's the "what's in them" bit that makes this worth playing. There's something interesting in every location -- even empty corridors or stairways have something to prod or explore -- and by "interesting" I don't mean "1d12 orcish Morris dancers" but rather things like a lantern that projects light from the future, or scattered clues hidden by some mysterious and unseen benefactor who has been through the dungeon before, or a floor map that's also the key to a high-level campaign in itself.

There are monsters, indeed there are a lot of monsters, but almost none of them exist as big jangling bags of experience points to be fought and killed; every creature wants something or has some relationship with another being or object in the maze, and many will talk to the player-characters about it.

The inmates, occupants, and visitors are arch, decadent, strange, or all three at once; there is plenty of odd magic-science and weird energy floating around the dungeon; and there is a general feel of decadence and entropy throughout. It's all characteristic of Patrick's adventure writing style, but it's also characteristic of Zak's; they work together well, and it's difficult to tell where the join is. One could say that the cannibal critics are an obvious Zak creation given his background in art but I would not be at all surprised to learn that they sprung from Patrick's imagination.

The book looks great, not only because it has 250 pages of Zak's artwork, but because of its clever but simple layout and organisation from Anton Khodakovsky. The original painting is sliced up into smaller, more manageable chunks and each double-page spread deals with one of those chunks; on the left you get the chunk in context with the neighbouring parts of the dungeon, then on the right there's another version of the same image with something approaching a traditional dungeon key. Below that, you get a summarised description of the room contents, then the next two or three pages expand that summary into greater detail.

Here's a typical spread:


Then the more detailed gubbins on the following page:


Each of the seven main sections of the dungeon is colour coded to match a little tab at the edge of the page so you can see at a glance which section of the book relates to which section. This is a simple and practical idea that I haven't seen often in game books; the fifth edition of Call of Cthulhu used it to indicate the main rules, and I have a vague memory of other Chaosium products from the same era -- Elric! perhaps? -- using it. What I like is that it's clever but that's secondary to being useful, and such an approach says good things about the designers.

If I had a criticism -- and I am struggling to find anything negative to say about this book -- it's that the writing is a bit wordier than I like; I would have combined the summary and the more detailed text into something shorter, so everything would fit into double-page spreads, but that's just me. Brevity is not always a good thing and you know, it's good writing; it's always fun to read -- not Small But Vicious Dog level fun, but more than good enough to keep the reader entertained for almost 300 pages of room descriptions -- and if I wrote as well as these two, I'd show it off too.

Maze of the Blue Medusa is fun to read, it looks wonderful, and it's designed to be useful; there are plenty of game books that fit into one of those categories, fewer that fit into two, and not many at all that fit into all three, let alone doing so while describing a setting that can provide months, if not years, of continuous play. This is a very good book and I cannot recommend it enough.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

München Bünchen

We were supposed to take a week off, but it turned out to be over a month! Oops.

Last time, half of the Red Line Corporate Solutions team was torturing the owner of an art gallery, while the other half was watching their faces appear on a BBC news report in connection with the murder of a prominent businessman. As you do.

The Red Line 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 decides that she's had enough of gallery owner Vivienne Aytown-Baptiste's lack of cooperation and shoots her in the head; Carmel has spent too long in the shadows to be shocked as she's splattered in blood and brains, but even so she is surprised at the Russian's sudden violence. They clean up and then leave to meet Max and Sten.

The team decides to leave the UK, at least until the police interest in them -- they suspect this to be prompted by the vampiric cult they uncovered in London -- wanes a little. They return to the small south coast airport at which they landed their plane to find that the police are already there; tuning into police communications, the Red Line team discovers that the authorities are conducting a search on their plane but that there's no indication that they expect the fugitives to be at the airport. Even so, the team decides to avoid a possible confrontation with the police and Carmel suggests stealing a boat from the nearby marina and nipping across the Channel to France.

They do so and arrive in France without any complications. There are some references to Munich in the Dossier so the team rents a car and drives to Germany. Max is happy to be home and he encourages his colleagues to relax a little and enjoy themselves; much beer is quaffed and many sausages are munched.

(With all this zipping across the map and long, hearty lunches, the game is starting to feel more like Lord of the Rings than Dracula!)

They go to the Alte Pinakothek to follow up one lead, but the trail seems to have gone cold. A trip to a local mausoleum also proves fruitless and the team is not confident of finding anything useful at the nearby cemetery -- where they suspect that a vampire is or was buried -- either.

Alter Nordfriedhof Muenchen St. Joseph-1 They search for the alleged vampire's tomb and find nothing, but they are puzzled by an area of the cemetery that has been fenced off. Signs indicate that the restricted area is patrolled by Overwatch Security, a group that is not known to the Red Line team, and an attempt to engage a pair of guards in conversation does not go far.

Even so, this is enough to make the team suspect there is something fishy going on. They research Overwatch and discover it to be a subsidiary of HGD Shipping, a company with a headquarters in Rotterdam and offices in London and Varna; the latter two locations are significant in Dracula and this is enough for the investigators to conclude that they are on the right track.

Natasha gains access to a neighbouring rooftop and spends a few hours watching the cemetery; she makes note of the security shift changes and is surprised by the large number of guards present at the site. She also sees evidence of some sort of excavation but cannot get a clear enough look from her vantage point to see what is occurring.

After a brief discussion the team decides that the best way to discover what is happening within the enclosure -- or at least to make a start -- is to interrogate some of the guards. They wait for another shift change and follow a pair of guards -- Gunther and Kristian -- as they head to a bar; there Max plies them with beer in the hope that they will be more open to questions.

This almost works as Gunther starts getting chatty; alas Kristian seems to have a higher tolerance to alcohol and cautions his colleague to keep quiet. Later, Kristian seems to suspect Max and bundles the sozzled Gunther out of the bar and takes him home. Max follows but is spotted and he and Kristian scuffle; the guard brings out a knife and Max is stabbed, but he turns the blade on his opponent and leaves him dead in the street. Max then grabs the semi-conscious Gunther and takes him to another bar, the sort where no one raises an eyebrow when someone stumbles in covered in bruises and cuts.

There, Max buys more drinks and gets the information the team needs. Once a month or so a lorry arrives at the cemetery enclosure and then boxes of earth -- from one specific area -- are loaded. Gunther doesn't know where the boxes go or why they require such security, but Max has his suspicions.

The team decides to wait for this lorry to turn up and so they spend a few weeks in Munich, resting -- there is more beer and sausage -- and taking turns to watch the cemetery. On the third of June 2014, the vehicle does indeed arrive; it displays the logo of Axel Logistics, a company Red Line has linked to the London conspiracy, and so they are certain they have found something significant. They follow the lorry to a freight yard, where the boxes are loaded on a train; Carmel sneaks in before the train departs and places a tracking device on one of the boxes.

Erasmusbrug seen from EuromastThey get in their car and drive through the night as they follow the tracker towards Rotterdam and the headquarters of HGD Shipping. The boxes arrive at the HGD building and are taken to an upper floor, where the tracking device is deactivated; there should be at least a couple of hours left in the battery, so the more paranoid members of the team begin to suspect that they have been found out.

As dawn approaches, the team sits in its car watching the HGD building from a distance, and ponders its next move.
Next: a hostile takeover!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Slügs!

Let's move on to something more pleasant. Sort of.

Tomorrow is Free RPG Day! For the first time I am, in a small way, involved; among the products being given away by participating shops is a monster book published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the publisher that doesn't do monster books, apart from this one and the other two. It's called Slügs! because all the monsters are slugs. I drew most of the slugs, and wrote a little bit about one of them.


(That's not one of mine. I wish I could do pictures like that!)

It would be brilliant if you pick up a copy of Slügs! tomorrow, but the idea behind the event is to get people into games shops to buy and play, and to build a community. When you do pop in, mention why you're there so the shop staff know what you're interested in and what to order in the future; at the very least they will know that Free RPG Day works and will be more open to participating in future.

Have a chat with the people there. Find out what they're playing, tell them what you're playing. Make some contacts, perhaps try a new game.

Buy something too, even if it's just some dice. You can never have too many dice, yes?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Britain Worst

I woke up this morning worried about my country.

For those not aware, next week we vote on whether the United Kingdom should remain part of the European Union or if it should leave. As of this morning, polls suggested a victory for the leave campaign; that's what had me worried.

The campaign has been a shameful mess, with both sides wailing and gnashing and scaremongering, drowning out those who would try to present the facts. Underneath everything there seems to be a deep-seated distrust of foreigners, whether it's "unelected" European bureaucrats or waves of refugees migrants. It's ugly, and it hasn't shown the British people, media, or politicians in a good light.

Yesterday, there was a ridiculous display as a failed politician -- supporting the leave campaign -- and a grumpy old musician -- representing the remain camp -- had a little naval engagement on the Thames. It was absurd and embarrassing, and seemed the perfect encapsulation of what a shambles the whole referendum has become.

Meanwhile, there's some sort of sporting tournament happening in France, and the good old English fans are chanting about leaving the EU during the matches, and then are smashing up French towns afterwards. Oh, and they're abusing refugee children in the street. Great job, lads.

I'm not one for feeling national pride; in fact I'm a bit distrustful of and uncomfortable around it, and I don't really identify with any country. It's just some dirt you live on, after all. That said, yesterday I did feel national shame.

Then today some wazzock shot and stabbed MP Jo Cox while she was meeting her constituents, shouting "Britain First" as he did it. In the coming days we will discover if the murderer is in fact connected to the subliterate hate group of that name, or if it's just a depressing coincidence. Either way, a woman was killed by stupid, ugly nationalism today.

I woke up this morning worried about my country. I go to bed tonight disgusted by it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Creep

On the left, the dwarf from 1995's original Warhammer Quest. On the right, the dwarf duardin™ fyreslayer™ from 2016's Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower.



Someone's been drinking his milk!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Things Go Wrong

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team is on the trail of vampires in London. As the sun rises, the team stands outside a warehouse belonging to a member of a vampire cult, waiting for the door mechanism to open.

The Red Line 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.

As the door rises, Natasha rolls underneath to catch an early look at the inside of the warehouse. The expected ambush does not occur, and the Russian skirts the edge of the building, looking for vampires or their minions, but sees nothing that suggests any immediate danger.

The only thing of interest in the warehouse -- at first glance, at least -- is a long crate, just the right size for a human to lie within. The Red Line team suspects that the female vampire they met in Covent Garden is in the box so they gather around, water pistols -- filled with holy water -- and knives at the ready. Max forces the lid off, and to the team's surprise, the female vampire is not sleeping within.

Instead, another vampire jumps out. Quite unlike the graceful and suave female vampire, he is a scruffy, feral looking thing, slashing at them with scraggly claws and growling like a wild animal. The team is plunged into a mêlée and they find that their holy water is having little effect, so they switch to knives, hacking and slashing at the savage monster; Max gets a close look at the thing as he struggles with it and to his horror spots that the vampire seems to have explosives strapped to its torso.

Max calls a retreat and one by one the Red Line operatives backtrack to the warehouse entrance. Sten covers his team-mates' retreat with his MP5 but it jams, leaving him defenceless as the berserk thing approaches; he decides to leg it. Carmel sets the door mechanism in motion and Sten ducks under just in time; alas, so does the vampire.

To the team's great disappointment, the morning sun does not set the thing alight and it continues to pursue them, so in desperation Natasha tries her taser. Carmel's eyes widen in horror and she snatches the weapon from the Russian's grasp, but just a touch too late, and the taser's prongs hit the vampire, dealing an electrical charge to both it and the explosives strapped to it.



The Red Line operatives throw themselves to safety at the last second, but Max finds himself covered in bits of Ramses, indicating that his dog was not so lucky. Worse, the vampire has survived. Worse still, its clothing has not.

It is Sten who saves the day as he ducks under the creature's swinging claws and stabs it in the heart with a stake. It grunts, its crimson eyes go wide, and it falls flat on its face.

The team catches its breath and tries to decide what to do next, knowing that the explosion is going to draw attention soon enough. They consider taking the body with them but, forced to hurry, they decide to take just the head; Natasha does the grisly deed and stashes the result in a bag. Then they run.

They spend some hours resting -- Carmel was wounded and drained in the fight -- and Sten is surprised to receive contact from his brother, who had gone off the grid some days earlier after following up some leads for Sten. It is clear that he is on edge, and he asks to meet Sten at their usual spot, the private members' bar at the Tate gallery.

Natasha sends a sample of the gold coins the team found in the Aytown-Baptiste gallery to some collectors and evaluators, along with a note asking if anyone else has been dealing in similar items of late. The Russian also sends the severed vampire head to a "friend".

The next morning, Sten meets with his brother, who looks anxious and dishevelled, and seems to be quite drunk already. He tells Sten that he has unearthed more about EDOM; it is part of MI6, is headed by an agent with the code name "D", and is involved in the assassinations of foreign nationals across Europe and the Middle East. These killings are not the clinical or covert murders one would expect of the secret services, but brutal, messy affairs apparently designed to send a message; most of the targets have been members of, or connected to, Islamic terrorist groups. No one in British intelligence talks about the organisation, and Sten is warned to stay away from it before his brother stumbles and sways his way out of the bar.

Max contacts his exorcist friend Archbishop Ortega again and gives the priest more detail on what the group is dealing with, stopping short of mentioning Dracula himself. Max asks Ortega if there is anyone in London who can and will bless the group's weapons; the priest is taken aback but trusts his friend and gives them the contact details of an Anglican deliverance minister, Peter Tomlinson. Ortega promises to contact Tomlinson and alert him to Max's arrival.

The team then ponder their next move. Some of them want to leave London, at least for a while, until things calm down, but others push for a strike against the vampire conspiracy; Sten suggests assassinating Jeremy Clarkson, for multiple reasons, not all of which are related to supernatural conspiracies. They lean towards heading to Germany to follow some leads, but agree to sleep on it and decide in the morning. Until then, the team splits, with Carmel and Natasha visiting Aytown-Baptiste again, and Max and Sten going to see Tomlinson.

Carmel and Natasha break into Aytown-Baptiste's flat and search it for clues, finding nothing of interest, although the artist does have a well read -- but shop-bought -- copy of Dracula. Carmel sets up a couple of bugs then the pair gets comfortable and waits for Aytown-Baptiste to return home from the gallery.

Lionel Fanthorpe 2013Meanwhile, Max and Sten visit Tomlinson, who turns out to be a jovial but eccentric fellow living in a house full of tribal masks, stuffed animals, and more than a few skulls, animal and human; "it's a hobby," he says, with a chuckle. Tomlinson offers them cake and tea, and seems a little disappointed when Max refuses, telling him that they are in a hurry.

To his credit, the priest does not seem too perturbed when Sten dumps a holdall full of bullets and knives on his coffee table. He does ask why anyone would want bullets blessed -- let alone so many -- and although Max is reluctant to divulge, Tomlinson is persuasive and soon gets the truth, although again Dracula is not mentioned by name. To Max and Sten's surprise, the priest accepts their story -- hinting that he has prior experience of malevolent supernatural beings -- and agrees to the blessing, on the condition that they do try some cake, because it's delicious.

Not far away, Vivienne Aytown-Baptiste returns home and is wrestled to the floor by Carmel and Natasha. They tie her to a chair and interrogate her, but once again Aytown-Baptiste resists their questioning, causing Natasha to lose her temper and escalate to waterboarding; when again the artist refuses to talk, Carmel's resolve -- and sanity -- falters, and she begins to wonder if there is more to Vivienne than it seems.

Mission accomplished and cake demolished, Max and Sten arrive at a hotel and book rooms for the team, having decided to change their base of operations once more; as Max arranges payment with the receptionist, his eye is drawn to a television in the lobby showing a BBC news report. Geoff Berkeley -- probable vampire cultist and somehow involved with Aytown-Baptiste -- has been found torn to pieces, and police are looking for four people to help with their enquiries.

As a contact number for the investigation appears, grainy images -- perhaps pulled from CCTV footage -- of Carmel, Max, Natasha, and Sten flash up on screen.



Carmel's player gives his account of the vampire fight over at his blog.

I must admit, my confidence took a bit of a knock this session as the Exploding Suicide Vampire™ killed off the entire party. It was a bit of an anticlimax to say the least; I felt the other players were angry and I felt disappointed, as we had a fair bit of momentum going and it seemed as if it had all gone to waste.

Then I remembered that according to the weird chimera of rules I've assembled for this game, the players were all due a dodge roll; each of them made this -- the dog didn't -- and as a result their characters weren't scattered across London after all!

I should have felt better at that point but the sick feeling I had at disappointing my friends was replaced by a sick feeling that I'd forgotten a crucial rule at a crucial time, and if I hadn't I could have saved everyone a lot of trouble.

Writing this summary three days later I feel much better, but it still nags at me. We're taking a week off -- not because my GMing is rubbish, but because everyone's bogging off on half-term holiday -- and that will give me time to get my act together, I hope.

Next: a European road trip!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Night at the Opera

Last time, the Red Line Corporate Solutions team uncovered a London-based vampire cult with a membership that includes prominent business figures, at least one ambassador, and television personality Jeremy Clarkson.

Red Line Corporate Solutions is:

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.

Carmel suspects that the cult is a descendant of a similar group mentioned in the pages of Dracula, but what it is up to evades the team; Carmel and Max go back and forth on the cult's purpose, its connection -- if any -- to the mysterious EDOM, and what the cult is doing with its vampire. Is the vampire in charge of the cult? Is the vampire the cult's prisoner? Is there more than one vampire involved? Is the vampire Dracula himself?

Max gets in contact with Rodriguez Ortega, an old family friend who is now a Catholic archbishop in South America, and starts some tentative enquiries about exorcism and related subjects; Ortega's response is cautious and he seems concerned about Max, but he also indicates a willingness to help.

Max also buys a dog. A Chihuahua is suggested, for reasons of concealability and portability, but in the end the German settles on a more sensible animal, that he then names "Ramses". Ramses' main job is to go nuts when a vampire is near.

Royal Opera House - Floral Hall - Bow Street - London - 240404The next day, Carmel heads to Covent Garden and the Royal Opera House to meet her ex-husband Arthur, who has some information for her. He tells Carmel that he has organised a meeting between her and Lord Godalming for the following afternoon, but also seems a bit evasive, as if he's not telling her everything. Carmel decides not to follow up on her feeling and together they enjoy a performance of Die Fledermaus.

(How could I resist?)

Arthur heads off to the bar during the interval, but doesn't return; Carmel investigates, but also alerts her colleagues, who are hanging about Covent Garden trying not to make a nuisance of themselves. Aside from Natasha, who tries to walk into the building without a ticket or even any sort of cover story; alas, the Russian's brazenness is not rewarded, and the doormen refuse her entry.

Carmel finds Arthur at the bar in the company of a tall, beautiful woman, who gives an exaggerated but graceful bow as Carmel enters the room, then withdraws into the crowd. A quick glance in the mirror behind the bar confirms her guess that the mysterious woman has no reflection, and Carmel rushes after her, pausing only to ascertain that Arthur seems to be in some sort of trance.

Carmel directs the rest of the team to gather at the main entrance to the Opera House as she follows the woman; the Israeli stumbles on the stairs and loses ground, but is confident that her colleagues will catch her quarry.

She bursts out into the street to find Max, Natasha, and Sten standing dumbfounded, just like Arthur, and the woman nowhere to be seen. A couple of rough prods and pokes later, the three come to their senses and report that they did see the woman emerge from the building, but before they could do anything she looked at them and then everything went blank.

Carmel returns to the bar to find Arthur a little woozy but otherwise fine. He thinks only a couple of minutes have passed since he left his seat and has no memory of the woman. Carmel has a quick glance at his neck and sees no indication of a vampire's bite, but is no longer sure she can trust her former husband.

They decide not to bother with the rest of the opera and instead go for a drink, at which point Carmel decides to find out what Arthur is hiding from her. After a bit of nudging, he confesses that when Carmel asked him about EDOM he was less than honest; he has indeed heard of the organisation but knows little about it, beyond that it is dangerous. He does know a freelance journalist -- Laurel Teague -- who specialises in exposing dodgy dealings in the intelligence and political spheres, and he suggests contacting her.

Carmel, Max, and Sten return to base, while Natasha sneaks off to get a crucifix tattooed on her neck. During the night Carmel sets up an automated mailbox that, unless she checks in every few days, will send everything the Red Line team has gathered so far to her ex-husband; she does not tell the rest of the team about this contingency plan.

The next day, Carmel and Natasha head to Westminster to meet Lord Godalming. They are greeted by his assistant Simon Quinlank, a slimy young man who seems familiar to Carmel, but she cannot recall where she has seen him before, and Natasha shows no signs of recognition. Quinlank escorts the pair to the office of William Hinton, Lord Godalming, who welcomes them and gets straight to business.

Carmel's cover story is that she is a representative of the Israeli government, in London to sell a joint defence project to the British, and this does seem to capture Hinton's interest. After some discussion, she manages to get Lord Godalming to agree to a more private meeting, and Natasha and Simon head to the canteen, where the latter makes awkward small talk to the nonplussed Russian.

Now that she has Hinton alone, Carmel changes the subject and asks questions about clandestine groups within the British intelligence structure; Hinton claims that such matters are beyond his knowledge and that Carmel should instead book a meeting with MI6 if that is her true interest. Tired of Hinton's evasiveness, Carmel produces photographs of the team that hunted Dracula in 1894 -- these are copies of those found in the art gallery a few days before -- including the then Lord Godalming. She also mentions EDOM and implies that Hinton's involvement with the group is known to her.

With that, Lord Godalming's commanding and imposing demeanour diminishes, and he agrees to look into the matter for Carmel. He takes some contact details and then sends a message to Quinlank; in the canteen, Simon's phone beeps and he tells Natasha that the meeting has concluded. He and Natasha return to Lord Godalming's office, where the peer puts on a show of enthusiasm about working with the Israeli government on their new project, and then Carmel and Natasha are shown out. On the way, Carmel remembers where she has seen Quinlank's face before; he was present at the cult meeting caught on CCTV.

Meanwhile, the team intercepts a telephone call between two cult members -- they think Geoff Berkeley and Anton DeVille -- in which they discuss moving "her", because "they are too close"; upon Carmel and Natasha's return to the group's base, the team put together a plan to observe and perhaps interrupt the cult's operation.

Natasha visits her old friend "Hatchet" Harry Noone and asks if he can procure a high-powered rifle; he does so but -- unknown to the Russian -- the transaction alerts the authorities. Once the rifle is acquired, the Red Line team heads to the area Berkeley and DeVille discussed -- one of Berkeley's warehouses -- and perch on a nearby rooftop.

Night falls, and an Axel Logistics -- DeVille's company -- van arrives. The warehouse door is opened, the van enters, and the door closes. About half an hour later, the sequence is reversed, and the van drives off into the night.

The team waits and watches the warehouse but there is no further activity. As the sun rises, they sneak over to the warehouse door and after a minute or two Carmel gets it open.

Next: things go wrong.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

B2 or Not B2?

I have some friends up in That London. I have known them for years; we all met at university and we stayed quite close even after my life went wonky for about a decade. They are good friends and I always have a space on their floor when I visit.

They live in one of the trendy parts of the glittering capital, but they are also a bit geeky, and as geek culture has become a bit trendy in recent years, it was perhaps inevitable that they would get sucked into gaming somehow. It was board games that got them; of course they have Cards Against Humanity, but they also have Settlers of Catan and Small World, and the mighty King of Tokyo, because everyone should own a copy of King of Tokyo.

I've been to Draughts with them a couple of times and taken the opportunity to push other games on them; it's only a matter of time before one of them gets Lords of Waterdeep. I feel no shame; games are great.

Now and then they've asked about role-playing games, and the subject came up again the other day as we tried to play Dark Souls over Google Hangouts. Don't ask.

One of my friends grew up reading Dragonlance novels but had never played Dungeons and Dragons; another -- her husband -- loves Baldur's Gate and Dark Souls and knows that these games are based on a common source; the third -- his childhood best friend -- has been playing Fiasco with another group of friends, but I don't think they are aware of the larger family tree of which that game is a branch.

They are all three primed and ready, even if they don't know it. Dragonlance Friend even has a copy of Labyrinth Lord that I bought for her a few years ago alongside Dragons of Despair; in hindsight not one of my better gift ideas.

One day soon, then, I will run a role-playing game for them. It will probably be some form of D&D, because it seems appropriate to start at the beginning -- although a big part of me wants to run Call of Cthulhu and "The Haunting" -- and if so, it will probably be Lamentations of the Flame Princess, because it's my favourite simple version of the game.

Ah, but what do I run for them? I do love LotFP, but I think I should start them with something more traditional, rather than Kult in the seventeenth century. You can't get more traditional than Keep on the Borderlands, but I'm after something that can be played to a decent conclusion in one afternoon or evening. I also know that lots of player-character deaths is traditional, but I'm also after something that they have a reasonable chance of completing without getting disgruntled. I want them to come back for more!

This is where my own experience isn't useful. I started with Shadowrun and Call of Cthulhu, and played almost everything other than D&D -- and Vampire; to this day I have not played any proper White Wolf games -- so I don't have the background to know what's a good adventure for beginners.

It's over to you, internet. Is there a good starting D&Dish adventure out there, one I can unleash on absolute beginners, albeit beginners with some familiarity with the general idea of role-playing games?