Thursday, September 21, 2017

Remix of the Snow Witch

Last weekend I again endured the lottery that is Southern Rail and visited my friends Courtney, James, and Liam in That London. You remember them; they were the ones who strongarmed me into running them through The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh back in April.

Once again they had requested that we play "some D&D" and so in the days running up to my visit I pondered what adventure to run for them. I considered Barrowmaze, inspired by Mike Evans' recent delves, and I almost went with Eyes of the Stone Thief, as I don't know if I'll ever get that to the table otherwise.

(I pondered using the opportunity to run another playtest of CUFFS SHRIEK, but we also played Mansions of Madness and Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu over the weekend, so I think it would have been too much of an eldritch thing. Yes, that is a clue to the subject matter.)

In the end I decided that the most sensible thing to do with a couple of days until Play Day was to rewrite Fighting Fantasy gamebook Caverns of the Snow Witch. Which I did. On the train on the way up.

It didn't turn out too bad for a frenzied bit of last minute scribbling. The original caverns are quite linear, which is perhaps no surprise from a solo gamebook from 1984, so I Jaquayed them to make exploration more interesting. I switched some of the encounters around, or changed their context, added some new ideas and dropped others. The original SNOW WITCH is quite playful and talkative, at least in comparison to most gamebook villains, so I wrote her to emphasise that aspect and make her less of an End Boss; alas, while I wanted to include the bit where she forces YOU to play a sort of scissors-paper-stone game just for fun, I ran out of time and couldn't work out how to include it. Next time.

Highlights of the adventure included:
  • The player-characters discovering the footprints of a YETI and almost deciding to turn around and go home. This would be within ten minutes of starting play.

  • The player-characters deciding that a cauldron full of yellow liquid was a potion that turned people into YETIS, because it was impossible that it could be anything else. In fact, it was a potion of cold resistance but their idea is too good for me to not use somewhere.

  • The unexpected cheer that went up around the table when I semi-accidentally gave my Baldur's Gate II character John the Bastard a cameo as Generic Dwarf Prisoner #1.

  • Liam's thief finding a pair of spiderclimbing boots and using them to run onto the ceiling of caverns to shoot at SNOW CULTISTS, safe from reprisals...

  • ...until a summoned ICE DEMON flapped its stubby wings just enough to get within claw range of the thief's head...

  • ...leaving the other two adventurers -- once the ICE DEMON was killed -- with the interesting problem of how to loot recover their deceased comrade's corpse.
Last time I played with Courtney, Liam, and James, I noted how they seemed to think everything in the adventure was significant and it proved to be the case this time too. They seemed to regard the adventure as a closed system in which every item had a use and every encounter had a purpose; the SNOW WITCH's necklace had to be a key to unlocking something and couldn't be normal jewellery, for example. I don't think there's anything wrong with that approach but it's not how I design or run adventures, so I feel there was a bit of a clash there.

If there was a clash, it wasn't serious enough to ruin the game, and I think everyone enjoyed the adventure, even though the Snow Witch escaped and Liam lost his character just before the end; I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to killing off player-characters and as such I don't believe I'll ever be a true Old-School Gamemaster, but the players seemed to be made of sterner stuff. They were cautious and clever and didn't try to fight everything, and while they also didn't find every treasure or uncover every secret, the player-characters emerged from the caverns with a big pile of gold and other loot. I don't think they gained a level, but they got close.

As comfortable as they are with old-school gameplay, I don't think this group of friends is that fond of old-school rules. Labyrinth Lord is a fine game and I chose it because it was a close match for the type of thing they wanted to play, but during the game they expressed frustration that their characters were rubbish in various ways, or that only the thief could detect traps, or that sometimes they had to roll high and other times they had to roll low, and so on. I've shattered at least one tooth as a result of excessive gritting due to descending armour class, so I understand their discomfort.

As such, next time we play I think we will use a different ruleset, but I'm not sure what that will be. I think it should be something simple, that feels like D&D but maybe isn't D&D itself. D&D5 is a possibility, but it may be too fiddly for this group. I've also got my eye on The Black Hack, but I dislike the roll-low core mechanic so I'm pondering a hack -- The Black Hack² perhaps, or The Hacked Black Hack -- if I can make the maths work.

Any other suggestions -- not Torchbearer -- are welcome; I've got some time to look around as I won't be up in the glittering capital again for a couple of months at least. Also, if there's interest -- and if it's legal -- I may post my remix of Caverns of the Snow Witch, but it needs a bit of a tidy up first.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

When Good Games Go Bad

Here's a game design theory question for you: if you can break a game by playing it wrong, is that a fault of the game's design?

Last week I played New Angeles with my group. Pictured is your author -- centre, with the odd-shaped head -- struggling to deal with the intricacies of futuristic mega-corporate tomfoolery.



In New Angeles, players take on the role of mega-corporations in the cyberpunk -- but not Cyberpunk -- city of, er, New Angeles, and their job is to keep the city running while also making more profit than each other; one of the players may also be working for the government, trying to cause chaos in the city so that the Feds have an excuse to come in and kick the mega-corps out. It plays a bit like an evil neoliberal Pandemic, with various escalating threats, er, threatening the city, and the mega-corps coming up with plans to reduce said threat while also making a bit of cash.

We played it like Pandemic, working together to keep New Angeles out of trouble, which was great for the people of the city but a bit rubbish for the government mole, because there was no way to undermine all that good civic work without unmasking and then being locked out of the game by the other players, who have no reason to support any of the mole's proposals.

(There are a few other problems with the way New Angeles implements its traitor mechanic but this isn't a review of the game.)

We were playing it wrong. We weren't supposed to be so cooperative; we were supposed to be more selfish, allowing the city to suffer for profit, bribing or forcing other players to support our proposals if necessary. With everyone being a bastard to everyone else, the government traitor could work without standing out as a wrong'un.

It made for a rather flat experience, which is I suppose an incentive to not play the game in such a friendly and helpful manner, but that seems a bit passive to me; everything kept ticking along to the end, whereas you'd expect problems to be more apparent earlier on if you're getting a fundamental part of the game wrong. I was the traitor and I did note that I was powerless quite soon, but I assumed I was just being rubbish, because I am rubbish at most games.

Hence my question. If a game allows you to play it wrong without it being clear you're playing it wrong, is that bad game design? Or is it players being dense? Both? Neither?

We're going to try New Angeles again, with the benefit of knowing where we went wrong the first time. I'm sure it will be a better game the second time around, but I wonder if it will prompt any more interesting questions?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Comitatus


A filler image for Wormskin#7, coming soon. Again I'm messing around with colour, in an attempt to become a bit more confident with it.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Hashtag and Eggs

Oh okay then, let's have a look.


I'm not going to do one a day; no one wants to see that. Let's bash through the whole lot in one fat hit.

Here we go!

1. What published rpg do you wish you were playing right now?

What, right this moment? I'm okay thanks. I like games but I don't want to be playing every moment of every day, like some sort of...

Oh.

I want to play Mutant Year Zero. It's been sitting in my reading pile for a year or so but I haven't got it to the table yet.

2. What is an rpg you would like to see published?

I may write a longer blog post about this but I think it's fascinating that computer rpg series like Final Fantasy spit out a complete ruleset and setting every couple of years and then move on; would anyone buy or play these games if they were released as tabletop rpgs? I would be interested, at least.

3. How do you find out about new rpgs?

I don't follow any news sites or anything like that, so I tend to pick up on new releases when people get excited about them on Google+.

4. Which rpg have you played the most since August 2016?

I am a sad loser and I have logged everything I've played and because these things are true I can tell you that it was the Frankenstein patchwork d100 game I used to run The Dracula Dossier. Thirteen sessions in all.

5. Which rpg cover best captures the spirit of the game?

That's a great question. I can think of lots of covers I like but do they capture the spirit of the game? Fifth edition Call of Cthulhu has a wonderful cover but I don't think it's indicative of how the game plays, as such.

Of the games I own, I'm going to go with the second edition of Shadowrun; it's not the best image in the world -- the composition is a bit flat and that drain is given so much prominence that you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a main character -- but does a great job of showing what the game is about.

6. You can game every day for a week. Describe what you'd do!

Assuming I've done all the preparation and I'm ready to go, I'd probably try out a bunch of games and play a different one each day. Maybe two a day, one after lunch and one after dinner.

I know. Rock and roll.

7. What was your most impactful rpg session?


"Impactful" is a horrible word. Eurgh. Stop it.

Anyway, probably the most influential -- much better, see? -- session was the first time I played Call of Cthulhu. I'd played other rpgs before that, and it was Shadowrun that probably got me hooked, but that first CoC session was a profound and enlightening experience.

8. What is a good rpg to play for sessions of 2hrs or less?

"2hrs"?

Good gravy.

(Mental note: stop being an arse.)

Anyway, two hours doesn't seem long enough to get going, once you've taken into account making the tea and moaning about what the Tories have done this week, but I'd go for something quick and easy, like Fighting Fantasy. I imagine you could rattle through a lot of content in two hours with that game.

9. What is a good rpg to play for about 10 sessions?

Most campaigns I run last about ten to twelve sessions, so the easy answer is "any of them" but that's not very helpful.

There's a suggestion in 13th Age to run a campaign in which everyone gains a level with each session and characters have ten levels in that, so you get this focussed and neat sort of "zero to hero" thing. I don't know if that means 13th Age is a good rpg to play for about ten sessions, but I'd like to give it a try some time.

10. Where do you go for rpg reviews?

Reviews from R'lyeh is good, as is tenfootpole. Ramanan Sivaranjan knows what he's talking about, and I will always pay attention to what Patrick Stuart or Zak Smithsabbath like, although our tastes can often vary.

11. Which "dead game" would you like to see reborn?

TSR's Saga System -- the one with the cards -- was ahead of its time and had a lot going for it, but died when TSR did. I'd love to see a new version.

12. Which rpg has the most inspiring interior art?

Death is the New Pink or Troika! because Jeremy Duncan is a genius. So are Jez Gordon and Zak Sabbathsmith, but I don't think there's a published rpg out that features their work. Yet.

(I also have some pictures in DitNP but if you're looking at my stuff instead of JD's then You Are Doing It Wrong.)

13. Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

I was going to blog about this. Maybe I did. I'm old and can't remember everything. Hrm. It was when I was running The Enemy Within II: The Enemy Within and the Temple of Doom and I noticed that WFRP2 sort of expects you to build non-player-characters according to the same rules as player-characters and I remember thinking "no, I'm just going to do what I like" and made up the statistics.

It's sort of obvious and everyone else has probably been doing it for years but it had never occurred to me before and now I do it all the time.

14. Which rpg do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

I'm not sure how to answer this one because every open-ended game I've played has fallen apart at some point. I would imagine that the best sort of rpg for this kind of campaign would be something where characters don't change much in terms of power level; perhaps something like basic D&D, the Chaosium d100 rules, or Traveller.

15. Which rpg do you enjoy adapting the most?

I don't understand the question. Is this asking if I enjoy hacking games? If so, then I don't do it often because if I have to change a ruleset in order to run something then there's a good chance that there's already a different ruleset that's better suited to what I want to do.

That said, I am a big fan of the Chaosium d100 rules and I find them easy to tweak and modify, so maybe that's my answer.

16. Which rpg do you enjoy using as is?

See above. I'll drop rules if they make no sense or slow things down but for the most part I'm not much of a hacker. Fighting Fantasy and WFRP2 are both games that I run without changing much, if anything.

17. Which rpg have you owned the longest but not played?

Probably Lacuna Part 1: The Creation of the Mystery and the Girl from Blue City. I've had it since 2009 and I've never got around to playing it. I find it interesting and I'm excited to play it but I also find it a bit intimidating and all I can imagine is making a right mess of running it.

18. Which rpg have you played most in your life?

Ooh, crikey. I've played a lot of Pathfinder in recent years, and I played a stupid amount of Shadowrun when I was but a wee sprogling, but I reckon it's probably Call of Cthulhu. I've run three big-ish campaigns and have played double figure one-shots.

It may be Pathfinder because that takes ages to play, but I don't like it nearly as much as I like adore Call of Cthulhu and I would be sad if I have played it more often.

19. Which rpg features the best writing?

Small but Vicious Dog.

20. What is the best source for out of print rpgs?

I get mine from eBay because all the shops that used to sell ancient rpg books have closed down around here.

In the brief time during which I lived in Minnesota, the local Half Price Books was like a treasure trove of old rpg stuff, but I wasn't gaming at the time so I didn't pick anything up. Tsk.

21. Which rpg does the most with the least words?

Probably one of these twenty-four hour games or two-hundred word rpgs but I don't think I've read any of them.

Troika! is quite lean but also good. Let's go with that.

22. Which rpgs are the easiest for you to run?

I have no patience for fiddly games any more so I only run games that are easy to run. This is one reason I like 13th Age; for the players it's like AD&D in terms of complexity and options but for the GM it's more like Basic D&D.

The easiest for me is probably Call of Cthulhu because the d100 system is super simple to use, and almost everything is on the character sheet.

Then they ruined it by Pathfindering the seventh edition but I've already moaned about that.

23. Which rpg has the most jaw-dropping layout?

Rifts.

Oh, did you mean jaw-dropping in a good way?

24. Share a PWYW publisher that should be charging more.

I don't know of any PWYW publishers off the top of my head. Lamentations of the Flame Princess sometimes does it but it seems to work for James, so what do I know?

25. What is the best way to thank your GM?

I think it depends on the GM. I always appreciate it when the players tell me they enjoyed the game and would like to play more.

Alas, they tend to tell me this either (a) after the final session of the campaign, or (b) years after the game dribbled away into nothing because of -- I thought -- a lack of interest.

Fist-shaking bitterness and tearful self-doubt aside, it never hurts to just say "thank you, I had fun".

26. Which rpg provides the most useful resources?

What?

Does this mean the core rules, or anything published for it?

I use the d1000 mutation tables from Realms of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness whenever I can, but that's not an rpg.

27. What are your essential tools for good gaming?

Whahuh? These are getting vague and weird now.

A game and some people to play it. Anything else is optional. I mean, it doesn't even have to be a good game as long as you have good people.

I keep thinking of when I played Mutant Chronicles when I was seventeen and it was terrible so we drank whisky as we played and I was sick in a bush.

28. What film/series is the biggest source of quotes for your group?

We don't do quotes. Stupid comedy accents, on the other hand, we do a lot. Comedy German is a popular one.

(Sorry, Germany.)

29. What has been the best-run rpg Kickstarter that you have backed?

The standard for rpg Kickstarters seems to be set so low that "deliver what was promised and on time" is considered some sort of achievement, rather than basic competence. That said, the Mutant Year Zero people know what they are doing and the Hubris Kickstarter was run well.

30. What is an rpg genre-mashup you would most like to see?

I'm not a singer as I lack both the ability and the confidence, and it would probably be insufferable torture to watch in action, like a thousand Frozen Youtube videos in one, but I reckon there's potential in an rpg in which singing is used as some sort of resolution mechanic.

31. What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018?

That's a bit odd. Why not "the next twelve months" so it ties in with the next time everyone does this?

(Mental note: remember the first mental note.)

Anyway, the thing I'm most excited about is that there will be not one but two new editions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay coming out soon. One will be based on the first and second editions and the other will be based on the absurd high fantasy of Age of Sigmar; I'm keen to see both. I have no idea if they will be out in 2018 but let's say they will be just to end this on a positive note.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Knows How to Party

I drew this pointcrawl map for Mike Evans' Barbarians of the Ruined Earth role-playing game project.


I am trying not to hate it, as I tend to hate everything I create about five seconds after I finish it. I don't work in colour often, but I don't think this turned out too bad.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Killing Each Other Over Shrubbery

Up until last week, the last time I played Warhammer 40,000 was in 1997ish. I had a Genestealer Cult army and when the third edition of the game came out Genestealer Cults weren't supported, and I didn't have enough money to start a whole new army, so that was that.

(It didn't occur to me that I could just keep playing second edition. I was, in many ways, an idiot.)

I kept up with developments in the game and over the past couple of years I've been collecting and painting classic Eldar miniatures in order to build the army I always wanted but could never afford at the time.

Then a couple of months ago Games Workshop announced a new edition of 40K, one that applied some of the lessons learned from the Warhammer Fantasy Battle reboot. The rules seemed to be simpler, discarding much of the fiddly cruft that had built up, and then GW released five low cost army books that covered the entire range of miniatures.

I decided to give it a go -- it didn't hurt that the rules are free -- and roped Stuart in, because I was getting the Eldar book anyway and I knew it also included one of Stuart's armies; there's no point playing 40K if you don't have an opponent, after all.

Stuart's son Sebastian also wanted to get involved and so we ended up playing a three-way battle. I brought my vintage Eldar, while Stuart dusted off his Necrons, and Sebastian fielded a Dark Angels-Imperial Guard alliance.

It was a bit choppy, because even though the new rules are streamlined, the first play of a new game is always a bit wonky. We were all a bit rusty too; Stuart hadn't played 40K in a couple of years, I hadn't played in twenty, and Sebastian had never played at all!

Sebastian set up a nice desert village with a ruined Imperial factory complex on the western edge of the board; Stuart's Necrons deployed in the south-west corner, my Eldar took the south-east-ish corner, while the Imperial forces came in from the north-north-west-ish.

(I'm getting Metal Gear Solid V flashbacks looking at these pictures.)

We'd each chosen sixty power levels of troops, but I was worried from the start as both opposing armies outnumbered mine. I wasn't too concerned about the Imperial Guard because while they do travel in large numbers they are squishy and easy to kill -- apart from the tanks, but we'll get to that! -- but there also seemed to be an awful lot of Necrons and they didn't exist last time I played so I wasn't sure what to expect.

Power levels are one of the new ideas introduced with the eighth edition; while you can still select armies the old way, tinkering with details to get an exact points value, power levels are an off-the-shelf abstract approach that gives you a general idea of a unit's, er, power level, more suited for casual games like this one. It's quick and easy and I like it a lot.

The mission was to seize objectives -- the bushy green plants -- and hold them for as long as possible; we'd get a point for each objective we held at the end of a turn. I was lucky as three of the objectives had been placed almost in my deployment zone, and as a result I didn't need to advance much to get into a good position.

Not that I had an easy time of it, as Stuart sent his heavy floaty laser cannon dudes in on my left flank early on -- pictured above -- and this tussle lasted almost the entire game.

In the centre, my Guardian squad shuffled forward to claim an objective, but not too close, as Sebastian teleported a Terminator squad right in the middle of the table and I didn't fancy tangling with them.

I felt most exposed over on the right with a single Dreadnought holding the flank and two squads of Imperial Guard -- plus tank -- rolling forward. On the plus side, most of the Space Marines were over on Stuart's side of the table, well away from me and my space elves.

There was a brief wobble on the right as Sebastian sent both Guard units into hand-to-hand combat with my Dreadnought, but the war machine barbecued most of its opponents with its twin flamethrowers before they could get close.

A Space Marine character accompanying the Guardsmen made a nuisance of himself so I pulled the Dreadnought back and then mashed the Marine with concentrated missile launcher fire from my Dark Reapers. After that, Sebastian pulled away from his left flank -- my right -- and decided to concentrate on the battles in the centre and the Imperial factory in the west, where most of his Marines were deployed.

This is where the fighting was most brutal, as Stuart threw everything he could at the Guard tanks, to no effect; as it turned out we had made a mistake while writing down the tanks' statistics, and they weren't nearly as tough as we all thought. The Necrons were held up for so long trying to destroy the vehicles that it gave the Dark Angels enough time to get stuck in, including the heavy-weapon-toting Devastators who had up until then been jogging towards the fight instead of shooting.

With the Necrons fighting both Space Marines and indestructible tanks, and the Eldar being left alone to hoover up objectives on the other half of the table, we decided to halt the game on the fourth turn, rather than let it go on to the fifth.

The game ended with a narrow victory for the Eldar on nine objective points, with the Imperial alliance on eight, and the Necrons on seven. I think the placement of the objectives favoured me, as did Sebastian's decision to abandon his left flank and focus on the Necrons. Getting the tank rules wrong also had an effect, I'm sure!

Everyone had a great time, and all three of us want to play again. Stuart is thinking of rejigging his army and Sebastian is painting -- or rather is encouraging his father to paint -- more Terminators. I'm going to have a think about my army too; this time, I brought everything I had painted but I have lots of miniatures either gathering dust or soaking in Dettol so I have some options. My War Walker got blasted into bits early on and I don't think it fired a single shot, so I'm thinking of swapping it for a unit of troops to bulk up my numbers a bit, and I'm not sure about the Avatar; he's a bit of a beast but only killed one Necron in the entire battle, instead hanging back to provide a morale boost to the Guardians in the middle. It wasn't the best use of a fiery god of bloodshed.

On the other hand I'm happy with how the Guardians performed and with the Eldar being so light on numbers I liked having a big unit to anchor the middle of my line. I also enjoyed having the psychic phase to myself -- the Necrons don't have psykers and the Imperium didn't bring any -- so I'll field Warlocks again next time. The Wraithguard are brilliant and saw off Stuart's heavy floaty laser cannon dudes, so I'll be bringing them back, and I'll try to get more if I can find the miniatures for a decent price. The Dreadnought also did well and I have two more of them in the painting pile, so it's tempting to bring more for the next battle.

The game itself is not bad. It's a bit abstract and I did like the detail of second edition, but I suspect the game would have taken two days if we'd played using those rules! That said, I do like how the core rules are nice and simple with any complexity or exceptions -- and even then there aren't many -- restricted to the individual unit descriptions. It took us most of an afternoon to play four turns but we were learning the game and there were three of us, so I imagine both added to the time; the game itself seemed to run quite fast once we got going.

All in all, I think GW has done a good job with 40K8 and I'm keen to give it another try, but I need to get painting!

Update: Stuart has blogged about the battle here.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

It's About Time

When I was around seven or eight I would play Doctor Who in the playground at school. I would play the Doctor and my friend Louise Griffiths would play Mel. We'd make up adventures in which we'd run away from imaginary alien monsters and pretend to fall off cliffs. I'd like to think I was being clever and wise beyond my years but I can't manage that now, so I doubt I did it when I was seven.

The programme was more or less cancelled a year or so after that and didn't reappear until 2005 by which time I was twenty-five so I sort of missed that window in which I could have told the careers adviser that I wanted to be an actor, director, or writer so that I could work on Doctor Who.

I mean that; if the programme existed during those formative years I probably would have tried to get involved in it somehow. Oh well.

That's not a problem the youth of today have. Children watching it when it came back in 2005 are now going to be making their way in the world as young adults and I'm sure there are a few who have decided to become actors or writers or props people or composers because of their love of the programme, and that's brilliant.

What's not so brilliant is that the girls and young women who love Doctor Who and want to be actors because of it will never get to play the main role.

Oh, hang on.



I think the only thing I've seen Jodie Whittaker in is Attack the Block and I remember thinking she was good in that. Well, everyone and everything is good in that; it's ace, but that's beside the point.

I'm sure she'll be good in the role and I'm keen to see what this new Doctor Who will be like, but it doesn't matter what I think. What matters is that now is that a door has opened and non-male fans of the programme know that they can not only write for it, or direct it, or act in it, but they can also play the lead part.

That is, as the Ninth Doctor used to say, fantastic.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

LASERBEAR

This is an older one but I don't think I've posted it before and it seemed a shame to miss it out given that a theme seems to be developing.


This fine fellow was drawn for Fight On! #6 in 2009. Yikes.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Frostgreat!

Somehow, despite it being one of those hectic weeks where nothing seemed to be going right, Stuart and I played a game of Mordheim Frostgrave on Thursday. You can see Stuart's summary of the game here and I think he overstates the scale of my victory; I scraped a 4-2 win but I rather suspect it should have been 3-3 or 4-2 to Stuart, because:

  • Stuart misplaced one of his miniatures at some point during the first turn so wasn't playing with a full strength warband.
  • I misread the description of poison dart and KO'd Stuart's apprentice early on with a spell that doesn't cause damage! I did roll a critical hit with the attack so there's a wafer thin in-game justification, he says, convincing no one, not even himself.
  • Stuart's last surviving warband member -- and treasure carrier -- was killed by a wandering monster, rather than through any deliberate action on my part.

All in all, I think it was closer than the score or Stuart's account suggests and I suspect the next battle will be closer still now that we're both more used to the way the game works. I'm looking forward to that forthcoming skirmish as the first outing was great fun. You probably got that from the title of the post.

The mechanics are swingy, with lots of random events and tables, and that makes the game unpredictable. My orc barbarian -- one of the tougher types of henchman available -- charged into combat with one of Stuart's dogs -- one of the weakest types -- and managed to incapacitate himself, because the wide range of results on a d20 roll -- most miniatures wargames I've played use the less granular d6 -- lessened the impact of the barbarian's combat bonuses.

That's going to annoy some people but I like being surprised by the game, and it's not as if events are out of the players' control; for example, I lost an expensive warband member as a result of a post-game d20 injury roll but I wouldn't have made that roll if I hadn't thrown that character into danger in the first place.

I'm also fond of the wandering monster mechanic. It's an optional rule but I can't see myself playing without it, as it makes the city of Mordheim Frostgrave seem alive and it gives you something else to think about aside from what your opponent is doing; that clear run to the table edge could fill up with angry albino gorillas at any moment.

I also like that the game is about grabbing treasure, rather than killing off your opponent's warband. The latter is a valid tactic, but often not the best one; I found myself forced into doing so by Stuart's superior positioning, it felt desperate at the time, and I was lucky -- see above -- to pull it off. What's fun about going for the treasure is that it changes the tempo of the game; it starts off as a hectic scramble, but once the loot is acquired the game becomes more cagey as those carrying treasure are slower and less effective in combat. Furthermore, every gang member that makes it off the table with a treasure chest is one gang member you don't have available for the rest of the skirmish. As such there are distinct phases of play in a game of Mordheim Frostgrave and you have to keep them in mind when plotting your overall strategy.

There's a fair bit of complexity there, but it's all on the tactical side as the rules are super simple. Almost everything is resolved with an opposed d20 roll, characters have only a handful of statistics, and there are almost no special rules or exceptions. From my perspective it's a close to perfect mix; less maths and page-flipping, and more fighting and stealing!

My only real regret from the first game is that all of the treasure was at ground level -- aside from one chest that I suspected was an illusion created by Stuart's wizard -- so neither of us got to push anyone off a building!

As a result of the battle at the mausoleum Grotbag's gang has ended up with a big pile of gold, some spellbooks and a magic staff; the magic loot is, at this point, useless so will go into storage, and poor Snozzrot, the "mighty goblin sorcerer" took a dwarven axe to the face so most of the cash will go towards replacing him.

Grotbags herself is now a level three witch, having gained lots of experience points through frequent spellcasting during the skirmish. She is also getting on the Mordheim Frostgrave property ladder and is looking for headquarters for her warband. She's got her eye on an old wizard's laboratory, but the ruined First Metropolitan Bank of Mordheim Frostgrave also has fixer-upper potential.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mammon Returns

I was not expecting -- let alone intending -- to do this again so soon and it makes me feel a bit queasy, but here are some new things to buy if you have any money here in the middle of the month.

In the ancient past of 2011 I drew some pictures for JB's B/X Companion, a, um, companion volume to the classic Basic/Expert D&D rules. It was out of print for a long time -- only available as a pdf -- but there is now a limited number of physical copies back on sale.

More recent and available in pdf and print is Wormskin #6, which contains the adventure "The Baker's Dozen"; I drew the maps for the adventure and went over the top with lots of fiddly detail. Again.

Also recent and also available is Mike Evans' Death is the New Pink, an apocalypunk rpg based on the Into the Odd rules and influenced by Borderlands and Tank Girl. Mike is some sort of machine, pumping out a new project every other month, it seems. You can tell the pictures I drew for DitNP because they are the ones that aren't as good as the ones Jeremy Duncan drew. Gosh, he's good.

That's your lot for now. I've got some other bits and pieces in the works but they are nowhere near finished, so with any luck it will be a long time before you have to put up with another of these awful and desperate money-grabbing posts.

Friday, June 02, 2017

A Winner Is You

A few days ago I ran the first playtest of CUFFS SHRIEK, the -- long-gestating if not long-awaited -- follow up to Forgive Us. The players torpedoed the adventure but I came away with lots of ideas for improvements and tweaks; I hope to run at least one more test online in the next couple of weeks, but this isn't about that.

In the post-game discussion one of the players asked what the win condition for the adventure was, and I had no idea how to respond because I have never thought of role-playing games as having winners; indeed one of the key features of rpgs for me, the thing that distinguishes them from other types of game, is that there are no winners and losers.

That said, I know what he means; even if there's no winner as such the players are competing against the adventure in a way, so in that sense there is a way to win, even if it's just surviving the adventure or getting to the end of the story. Even so, the question caught me off-guard.

I think one big reason for that confusion is that I don't tend to play to win when I'm playing with other people, even if it is a competitive game. I'm much more happy engaging with the mechanics of the game and exploring them just because they are fun, rather than to win. I suspect this is a source of frustration for my gamer friends as I ignore the most optimum strategy and instead wander off to build a fun little mechanics engine in one corner of the board.

I suppose that means I lack the soul of a winner, I will never amount to anything, and if he were still alive, the Ultimate Warrior would be disappointed in me, but so it goes. Play on!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Being the Bad Guy (But Only If There's Profit to Be Made)

Bear with me, this does come together. Sort of.

Thought one. I like role-playing game mechanics that give players things to do that aren't "my character does this". I'm thinking of things like the winter phase in The One Ring or Pendragon, where we see what happens between adventures, or the domain management rules in D&D, or the way the player-characters' survivor community in Mutant: Year Zero works. This is stuff that affects the game world and the characters but isn't about playing the characters themselves.

Thought two. In cyberpunk games the setup tends to be player-characters versus the evil corporations. I can see why; the source fiction supports it, faceless corporations make good villains, as the real world shows us -- ooh, politics! -- and it's a fertile ground for adventure and conflict. What you don't tend to see is players as corporations. I'm sure there's a Shadowrun sourcebook for playing as a corporation, because there's a Shadowrun sourcebook for everything, but otherwise the only instances I can think of are the card game Netrunner, which puts one player in the role of the corporation, and the computer game Syndicate, in which the player takes the part of the COO of struggling Eurocorp, in a setting in which corporate disputes are resolved with minguns and rocket launchers.

You can see where I'm going with this. How about, instead of the usual cyberpunk setup, or even placing the player-characters as corporate agents, letting the players be the corporation itself? Let's take Syndicate as the basic structure, with the players taking control of a minor corporation's business affairs. We could split the gameplay into two main phases.

The first would be a "boardroom" -- for lack of a better word -- phase in which projects and research are funded, intelligence on rival organisations is gathered, and shareholders can demand certain actions. We could probably cannibalise Mutant: Year Zero's ark mechanics for this.

The second part of the game -- which I will call the "street" phase -- would be more traditional, with corporate agents -- the player-characters -- going out into the neon-drenched city to disrupt the schemes of other corporations by recruiting their employees, stealing their plans, and eliminating their agents. Perhaps there could be some sort of resource mechanic that puts a limit on the mission; once the situation on the ground becomes unprofitable the team is ordered to pull out, unless the players can convince the board to extend funding. Maybe that's too spreadsheety.


The end goal would be up to the players, but becoming the pre-eminent corporation is the obvious one. I wouldn't want to delve too much into the business side of things; the idea is to provide some background and structure for the adventures, not to spend half of every session going through an accurate simulation of corporate economics.

If your group isn't into cyberpunk -- I suspect at least one member of mine wouldn't go anywhere near this in that genre -- then the same kind of structure could be applied with ease to something like Eberron and its dragonmarked houses, or a colonial setting, whether it's the East India Company or the Eastern Galactic Arm Company.

Would anyone play this? The fact that Hostile Takeover: The Faceless Corporation RPG doesn't already exist suggests not, but I think it could be fun.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Frostgreen? Greengrave?

Over at his blog Stuart has been putting together some warbands for Mordheim Frostgrave. There are piles of random miniatures clogging up Brainsplurge Towers and I thought I could use them to put together a gang of my own, so Stuart loaned me the Mordheim Frostgrave rulebook.

The game seems to be quite anthropocentric so hardcore Mordheim Frostgrave players will probably tut into their beards, but here we go.

GROTBAGS' GANG



Mordheim Frostgrave doesn't do shamans as such, so Grotbags is a witch. She's searching the ruins of the Frozen City for the legendary Pink Windmill and the treasures it is said to contain. Grotbags is armed with a staff and a flint dagger, and her spells are absorb knowledge, brew potion, fast act, grenade, mud, plague of insects, poison dart, and raise zombie.

Grotbags' apprentice is Snozzrot, a "mighty goblin sorcerer". He carries a dagger and a bulky moon-headed staff that he claims makes him a more powerful spellcaster but probably just makes him an easier target.

Bazz, Chazz, Gazz, and Wazz are Snozzrot's thuggish cousins and used to spend all their time bullying him. Now that he's a "mighty goblin sorcerer" they are hanging around on the off chance he finds some treasure.

Robbo and Orkeye are supposed to provide long range support but are not averse to using goblins as target practice should the opportunity arise.

Choppa was encountered one day trying to head-butt a rock to death; Grotbags saw potential in the idiot barbarian and brought him on-side by promising unlimited rice pudding.

Fido is Grotbag's pet, er, "warhound" and just wants to play.

I have no idea how this will work in play. I suspect the barbarian and warhound are wastes of gold but barbarians are always fun and I couldn't resist that squig miniature. I've gone for area control and buffing magic, with only a couple of direct damage spells, and this may end up a mistake, but we'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Quiet Hordes

Back in January, Brian C asked me -- because I’m always banging on about how much I like Call of Cthulhu -- for my thoughts on both the new Delta Green role-playing game and Kevin Crawford’s Lovecraftian Silent Legions. I had a look at Delta Green in March and here’s the belated follow-up.

In terms of game mechanics Silent Legions is more or less B/X Call of Cthulhu, although you won’t see that stated anywhere in the book, for legal reasons probably. You’ve got character classes, levels, hit dice, saving throws, and all that classic D&D stuff, only transposed to a modern day horror setting, and with a sanity system bolted on. There is a skill system in there too, and it looks a bit like the one from Traveller, but I don't have a lot of experience with the venerable space game, so I may be way off.

It all looks quite robust but it does little for me. I didn’t grow up with D&D and I’m not one of these people that tries to use one ruleset to fit every genre -- says the person who used Call of Cthulhu to run a Night’s Black Agents campaign -- so there’s nothing here that grabs me and makes me want to play it. It’s not a bad set of rules but I can’t get my head around the idea of 6th level librarians as anything other than a joke, and you’re never going to win me over in the Space Year 2017 with odd artefacts like descending armour class.

It’s a matter of personal taste, it’s probably irrational, and may even be hypocritical; there’s nothing inherent to Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu that makes them any more suited to Lovecraftian gaming than classic D&D, and I’d probably feel different if I had more of a background in the game. I don't, so it all seems a bit odd to me.

I'll stop going on about it now because the rules of the game only take up about a quarter of the book; the bulk of the tome is all about designing a supernatural horror campaign. To be more precise, it's about building a supernatural horror sandbox campaign, and this is what led to me backing the Silent Legions Kickstarter back at the end of 2014. Crawford has picked up a lot of acclaim for his campaign design systems in other releases like Red Tide and Stars Without Number, so I wanted to see what he could do with an investigative horror rpg.

What we get is a big, multifarious toolkit for designing a Lovecraftian setting, complete with gods, cults, monsters, and even alternate planes. There are procedures for designing the region in which the campaign will be set -- this could be something on the scale of Arkham County, or it could be the entire globe if you want to go full Masks of Nyarlathotep -- and the individual locations within that region. There are tools for such fine grade details as individual non-player-characters and even specific scenes.

All of this is presented as dice tables so it is possible to generate an entire random Xhoandhora Mythos. You can even roll up eldritch names, like I just did there. You can of course just pick the bits you like.

This stuff is all gold and while I'm indifferent to the ruleset in Silent Legions, I want to try the campaign generation tools right now. I want to generate cults, their histories, and their plans, I want to design pantheons of gribbly space gods, and I want to populate a map with blighted towns and sinister woods. Then I want to plonk a group of player-characters in the middle of it all and see what happens.

Perhaps the best bit is that aside from a couple of details, this vast chunk of the book is not tied to any particular system and you could use it in any horror game. It screams to be used and its utility is vast, cyclopean even, and it's well worth getting, even if you have zero interest in playing a 6th level librarian.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Guarding the Galaxy Again

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is good. It's not so much a sequel but a companion piece so if you liked the first one you'll like this one, and if you thought the first one was lacking something then you may find it in this one.

Read on, safe from spoilers!


My only real criticism is that some of the character development is heavy handed. The intended theme seems to be that you don't always get on with those you love, and I could have got that on my own without it being stated in dialogue, let alone stated multiple times. There are a couple of occasions where characters drop everything to talk about their feelings and again while it's not bad as such, it is a bit clumsy.

(The film is quite sweary too, much more than I'd expect given its rating, and there are a couple of willy jokes. That's not a problem for me, but bear it in mind if you're going to take kids.)

Other than that, it's all gold. The central characters and their performances are as good as before, except this time Gamora gets something to do apart from looking pretty. Baby Groot is adorable, and Mantis even more so. Kurt Russell -- that's not a spoiler; he's in the very first shot -- is as wonderful as Kurt Russell always is, although I was disappointed that he didn't at any point wear an eye patch.

The plot isn't complex but there are enough moving parts to keep things interesting. There are multiple factions roaming about, getting in each other's way, and the main antagonist is compelling; they are not an outright villain, just someone who made the wrong choice in the past, and that gives them a bit of weight. It's one place where James Gunn doesn't stray into overwriting his characters' motivations; other writers -- (cough) George Lucas (cough) -- would have wrung every bit of melodrama out of the villain agonising over their choice, but Gunn just gets on with it, and it works well.

Just as the first film was, the second is funny, more overtly comedic than the rest of the Marvel oeuvre, and most of the jokes land. Drax and Mantis get most of the best lines, but there's also a nice extended routine about a character's name, and some good visual gags scattered through the film.

The film looks good, with bright, colourful, and varied visuals, maybe even more so than the first. Perhaps there are a few too many characters wearing some form of muted leather jacket but that aside it's never dull to look at. Music isn't used quite as well as in the first film, but there are a couple of superb sequences; the opening credits are joyous and if you don't break out into a big stupid grin during them, then you are dead inside. That bit is up there with The Lego Batman Movie and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in my book.

(I don't have a book.)

On the subject of credits, there are loads of mid-and-post-credits scenes in GotG2 so if you're into that sort of thing, stay right to the end. I'd say only one of them is "relevant" but they're all good fun.

I love the first GotG; it's a big, bold, colourful space adventure, a pitch perfect adaptation of a Saturday morning cartoon we never had. I didn't think they'd be able to capture that magic again so I was worried going into the cinema, but my worry was unfounded. The sometimes clumsy writing is a bit of a disappointment but otherwise Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is another triumph for Marvel.

If you do go and see it, please consider donating a little to help the creator of Rocket Raccoon pay for ongoing medical care.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Something Fell

Time for some gauche capitalist shilling.

The Weird That Befell Drigbolton is out! In truth, it came out a couple of weeks ago but I forgot all about it.

It's a Labyrinth Lord compatible adventure written by Gavin Norman and Greg Gorgonmilk, with art from Andrew Walter, and maps by me!

Here's the blurb:

Something fell. A sickly gloaming lit up the night like mock daylight, just for a moment, and then the hills trembled. Now, an alien entity lies brooding in a crater gouged out of the moor. Local folk are enraptured with the toothsome jelly exuded by this being, but are blind to the true nature of the events unfolding in their rustic little backwater.

The Weird That Befell Drigbolton is an investigative, event-based module for characters of 3rd to 5th level involving: a fallen star, frothing masses of pink jelly, manna fever, religious fervour, a warped manor house, psychedelic star-debris slowly twisting the nature of reality around it.


If you are so inclined, you can get the adventure at DriveThruRPG or RPG Now. I've never been clear on the difference -- if any -- between the two.

Right, that's enough tribute to the daemon lord of commerce. The usual guff will resume soon.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Salty Seamen

Back at the end of January I did the most grognardy thing I've ever done and ran The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh using Labyrinth Lord. I did this because some friends had been nagging me suggesting that I run a game for them for years; I was reluctant because I'm nervous enough running games for my regular group -- I always assume they hate the games I run -- so being responsible for a group of new players' first experience of role-playing games was terrifying.

Truth be told, I don't think it was their actual first experience of rpgs; I suspect that at least one or two of them had a go at some point in their teens, but close enough.

Like me, Courtney had read the Dragonlance novels as a child and, like me, she was unaware at the time that they were connected to a game. Later on she became a bit of a fan of Final Fantasy XII -- my favourite of the series and one I wouldn't have played if Courtney hadn't told me how much fun it was -- and Skyrim. All in all, she had quite a bit of useful background.

Liam is a bit less geeky than Courtney but became a big fan of Baldur's Gate II after I circulated it among my friends, so he came to my game with a basic understanding of how D&D works. He also loves Dark Souls, so I should have killed his character off in some brutal fashion.

James expresses his geekiness through obscure electronic music and James Bond films, so he was perhaps the least familiar with the topoi of D&D but he was the only one who had played a tabletop rpg in recent years, having played Fiasco, although he considered it a party game rather than an rpg. I should ask him how that happened.

I selected Saltmarsh in part because they wanted Forgive Us but I thought it was a bit cruel for the first time out and I didn't want to put them off, and in part because I played D&D about three times before 2008 so I haven't been through any of the classics. Selfishness wins.

SPOILERS follow for an adventure released in 1981, in case you're the sort of deviant that hasn't played it.

We played over two days, one session in the evening and then, after a break for essentials like sleep and breakfast, a shorter session the next morning. We didn't do the second half of the adventure with the Boat of the Lizardmen™; we ran out of time and even if we hadn't, the player-characters' actions in the first half made it difficult to continue.

After exploring the house and discovering the caves below, they picked off a couple of sentries and got rid of Sanbalet and his gnoll hench-, er, gnolls. Then, instead of fighting the other thieves, the party went into business with them, taking over as heads of the smuggling ring! They then went back to Saltmarsh, told the town council that the smugglers had been driven off, and collected their reward for a job not well done. That's the kind of cynical, self-serving behaviour I expect from my usual group of immoral bastards veteran gamers, not newcomers. I wonder what that says about human nature?

They also thought everything was significant. For example, there's a book in the house's library, The Magical Properties of Gemstones, that is just a bit of loot to sell at a later date; the players decided that it was important and relevant and every time they found a jewel later in the adventure they would stop everything and ask if it was in the book and what its magical properties were.

That's not a problem; it shows they were engaging with the game and the setting details and that's a good thing, but it was also a bit odd, because I've had players fixate on insignificant details before but not to such an extent. Perhaps the players were trying extra hard because it was their first proper adventure, perhaps it was the influence of computer gaming, or perhaps it was something else. Perhaps I should have asked. Maybe I did. It was January and I have trouble remembering last week.

I do remember that they had fun -- so did I! -- and we'll probably do something similar next time I visit them in That London. If they want to stick with D&D, we may try D&D5; it's not my favourite but it does give low level characters a bit more oomph, wizards are a tad less rubbish, and it's easy to run. Sticking with D&D -- or fantasy at least -- would also give me a chance to try more of the classic adventures I've missed.

All that said, what I'd love to do is unleash Call of Cthulhu on them.

Iä!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Dracula Autopsy

Well then. Twenty-two sessions and almost a year later, my Dracula Dossier campaign is finished. Twenty-two sessions! I think that may be the longest campaign I've ever run; Rogue Trader ran for fifteen sessions, as did The Enemy Within II: Enemy Withiner, and while it did take about a year to play through Horror on the Orient Express back in 1998ish I'm almost certain that we didn't get twenty-two sessions out of it.

You can read individual session summaries here, but now that the game is done and I don't have to worry about spoiling anything for the players, I thought it would be good to have a look at some of the behind the scenes stuff.

Spoilers follow!

Breaking the Rules

The Dracula Dossier is written for Night's Black Agents, a Gumshoe variant, so of course I ran it with a patchwork of Call of Cthulhu, the new Delta Green rpg, Mongoose's RuneQuest II, some mechanics of my own design, and even a bit of Pendragon. I did this because I'm an idiot I kept banging my head against the NBA rules and couldn't make sense of them; it's not a complicated ruleset, but something about the game was not sinking in, so I went with something familiar, the Chaosium d100 system, albeit a hybrid version.

Given that it was such a Frankenstein of a ruleset I think it worked quite well, much better than if I'd used NBA, but as the campaign evolved it moved away from investigation and more towards action; towards the last third or so I did begin to wonder if Savage Worlds would have been a better choice.

Scot-Free

One niggling problem with my jerry-rigged rules was that I had nothing in place to model the agents' finances; I would have liked to have seen fewer private jets and more shady deals, with the player-characters having to work to get access to equipment and funds, but they operated with more or less infinite resources and that lacked drama.

I also don't think I made enough of the player-characters drawing heat from the authorities. I modified NBA's mechanics for tracking the agents' notoriety, but when they did get spotted by police, or got picked up on CCTV, and so on, I didn't push back hard enough, so I don't think the players ever felt like they were in trouble.

I think that perhaps building time limits into the campaign would help with this; yes, the agents can lie low for two weeks, but they need to raid the shipping company in the next two days, before the records are destroyed!

Modern Life Is (Mostly) Rubbish

One advantage of running a game set in the present day is that it's easy to research; most people know how the modern world works and it's easy to find out what you don't know; you can Google it!

The problem is that player-characters in a modern setting can Google things too, and that can suck the drama out of the game.

It seems churlish to ban the modern era as a setting for investigative games, but if you're going to be running DD in the present day be prepared for tech-savvy players. Look up how computer hacking works, and the sort of information and services that are available through computer networks. Can the player-characters mess around with the traffic lights in London? Can they access blueprints of the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest? Can they hack MI6's bank account?

These are tricky questions because it's difficult to know on the spot what the answers are. You can make something up about Generic Fantasy World #87 but if you start making things up about a world that's just like ours except it's got Dracula in it, you may get caught out.

One way to avoid the issue is to set the campaign in the dark pre-internet days, and there is some material in the book on setting the game in the 1970's, the 1940's, or the 1890's; in hindsight, I think I would have enjoyed a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy style game set during the Wilson/Heath era.

All that said, there was something quite fun about the players asking "can we do X?" and then everyone using our smartphones to find out.

Who Built the Pyramids?

This campaign was a pain in the neck -- ho ho -- to develop. The Director's Handbook is bursting with content -- it has hundreds of pages of characters, locations, objects, and organisations, not all of which will be used in even the most sprawling campaign -- but is somewhat lacking in practical advice of what to do with all the piles of stuff.

There's a brief example at the start of the book of a conspyramid -- the default NBA campaign structure -- with some of the DD specific elements slotted in, and there is a little bit of discussion on who Dracula is, but that's about it for gamemaster advice. Given how much content there is, I think there needs to be more and better guidance.

Each of the entries in the book gives suggested connections to the others, so it's possible to brute force your way through and then go back and populate your conspyramid, but it's not an efficient process. What I did in the end was use a random generation method -- a deck of cards was released as part of the campaign's Kickstarter -- to get the basic structure, then I filled the gaps with the bits that seemed most interesting from skimming the book. After that I went back and tinkered with the plan so that the connections made sense and there were no dead ends, and I was ready to go.

Except I wasn't because I had no idea how to start the campaign. There is zero advice on how to kick things off, beyond a short starting scenario lurking in the back of the book or a separate adventure released for Free RPG Day. Again, I made something up, borrowing from both.

What does Dracula want? No idea. We are given a number of candidates for who Dracula was in life, but almost no discussion at all of his possible goals, needs, and wants. We know what EDOM wants, or at least what it claims to want, but there's zilch -- not even a list of suggestions -- of what the main antagonist's motivations are. The best we get is some vague references to him hating Turks, and as I was sitting here in March 2016 trying to put a campaign together, that didn't seem anywhere near good enough.

As it turned out my players didn't seem interested in Dracula's goals, so perhaps it doesn't matter.

Excuse Me, Have You Seen Mr Dracula?

The Dracula Dossier looks like an investigative campaign but it plays almost like a hexcrawl, or maybe a pointcrawl. There are clues and connections everywhere and all lead in the end to Dracula, but some are more direct than others; this is what that conspyramid structure is supposed to illustrate.

In theory there are no dead ends in this kind of structure; if a line of investigation stalls and the players can't go any further "up" the conspyramid, they can always go sideways or down to find another route, and perhaps can return later to the original thread to pick it up again once they know more.

I didn't make this concept clear to my players and I think the campaign suffered a bit as a result. There were a couple of occasions where they felt like they'd exhausted a line of enquiry and I think they got frustrated; I felt like they were overlooking other paths when in truth they'd just forgotten, because there were so many threads to monitor.

In the last half of the campaign I started issuing index cards with notes on them, so the players could see what they'd discovered so far and where the gaps were, and I think that helped, but I think it would perhaps have been sensible to discuss the campaign structure with them before we began.

Super Nature

Where the book gives the option of a campaign element being mundane or something more eldritch, I almost always went with the latter. My version of Dracula's "wolf gypsies" were actual werewolves because why not? Bram Stoker's The Jewel of the Seven Stars is also a redacted mission report, so there's a mummy running around too -- the players didn't meet her -- because why not? Jack the Ripper's disembodied spirit is floating around London because why not?

At some point in preparing the campaign it went from The Bourne Identity to Hellboy and I thought that was good and appropriate, but I acknowledge that's not going to be for everyone; I know some of my players raised an eyebrow when things started getting a bit silly, but I think I got away with it and, after all, the Director's Handbook itself allowed the possibility.

On the other hand, the Director's Handbook didn't suggest that an immortal Rasputin was the head of Russia's secret vampire programme. That was all my fault. Nor did it suggest that Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is also a mission report and that Jekyll's potion is an early experimental use of Seward Serum. That's my fault too; yes, the dates don't quite match up but it's close enough.

They are lucky that I didn't make Dracula an avatar of Nyarlathotep.

Fangs for the Memories

I think I got a lot wrong in running DD. I was unused to the format of the campaign, I struggled without robust GM advice, and I made things more difficult by chucking out the intended rules system and using my own. All that said, I think it was a success; everyone had fun along the way and I think the players felt that they achieved something significant when they pinned Dracula down and defeated him.

The Dracula Dossier is not a great campaign out of the box -- I think it relies a little too much on quantity of content over utility, and on the central gimmick of Dracula being the biggest player handout ever -- but with a bit of work it can be a good one, and once it gets going it sort of runs itself. It kept me and my group entertained for half a year, and that's not bad at all.

Update! One of my players shares his thoughts on the campaign here.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Death Date With Dracula!

Dracula has just thrown the Red Line Corporate Solutions car into a ditch. He's not happy, probably because they've killed two of his three Brides. He promises to find and kill them in four days.

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

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

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

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

Sten is injured and Natasha is bleeding out on the tarmac, so the first order of business is to get them some medical attention; Dracula can wait.

Natasha cannot. She wants to get out of Europe and back home, where she can call on some back up. The others get her stable enough to travel and off they go, to Mother Russia.

The former assassin calls in some favours and the team acquires an abandoned and remote water mill in which to make its last stand; it is hoped that the water around the building will prove a barrier to Dracula and any vampiric minions he decides to send.

Wassermuehle Sythen01The team moves in and, lacking the time for a natural recovery, it turns to the dark arts in order to bring Natasha and Sten to fighting fitness. Goats are purchased and sacrificed, and rituals are enacted. The rituals are designed to take a week of preparation and rushing has unpredictable results; both Natasha and Sten wake up afterwards healed, but also covered in a layer of hircine fur.

Max calls on his contact at the Vatican, Archbishop Rodrigo Ortega, and explains the dire situation. He arranges for Ortega to visit the water mill and bless and sanctify the ground; Ortega consents -- he and Max are close -- but does not agree to be blindfolded on the journey to the site. Ortega should arrive the day before Dracula's arrival.

Natasha contacts her Uncle Ivan and requests weapons and other gear; this arrives over the next couple of days, but a requested light machine gun takes longer and is accompanied by four burly and taciturn Russians. They do not leave after making the delivery; Natasha doesn't get much out of them but is content that they are there to help.

It turns out the four are also vampires but the team gambles that they are not Dracula's vampires; the fact that the Russians seem to have undead agents does cause some disquiet but there's not enough time to worry, or look a vampiric gift horse in the, er, fangs.

Sten arranges the arrival of ten Russian swimwear models; he says that they are to provide a distraction, as Dracula has an eye for the ladies, but the others are not convinced by his reasoning. The models are given food, drink, and music and are told to have fun and ignore any loud explosions.

The team waits.

As night falls on the fourth of September, they hear the howling of wolves. Max and Sten inject themselves with some of the orange serum the team recovered from EDOM's base, hoping that the liquid's abilities will give them an advantage in the battle to come.

The team spots figures approaching from all directions; there are at least twenty. The shooting begins, as the Red Line team and its Russian allies use rifles to pick off the approaching figures; in response missiles twist out of the darkness. The mill is hit and begins to collapse, while the nearby outbuilding -- to which the team planned to fall back if necessary -- is almost flattened by another blast.

(Carmel's player rolls a d10 to see how many of the partying models inside the building are killed. He rolls a 10. Many jokes are made about how he never rolls high when he needs to.)

Four figures dressed head to toe in black combat gear drop out of the sky, landing without harm in the midst of the team's defences, and then it all goes to heck.

The team's plans and precautions seem to have little effect on the new arrivals. Throwing holy wafers and water at them does nothing, and ultraviolet spotlights do nothing, so the team resorts to brute force. And grenades. Lots of grenades.

One of the black-clad warriors reveals himself to be faster and stronger than the others, beheading one of the Russians with his bare hands; the team decides that this must be Dracula himself. They concentrate their attacks on him and leave the others to the Russians; he manages to hold off the entire team for a while before Carmel pierces his chest with a crossbow bolt and he crumbles to dust.

Dracula is dead!

The other vampires are still causing trouble so the team aids its Russian allies in cornering and eliminating them; as they are doing so a thick mist descends.

Dracula isn't dead.

The lord of the vampires proves to be more than a match for the team. He mesmerises Natasha and turns her against her colleagues; the assassin cannot resist the vampire's command and she shoots Sten. While that's happening, Dracula grabs Carmel and throws her through a wall, puncturing her lung; he then pursues Max and Sten, who have retreated downriver.

The vampire punches Max so hard that the German's nose is sheared right off, landing with a quiet splash in the river, to be carried away by the current; Max dives in after it and disappears from sight. Dracula turns on Sten, immobilises him with a choke hold, then starts munching away at his neck; the Red Line team is dismayed to see the vampire's wounds healing as he feeds.

A bloodied Max resurfaces a short distance away, out of Dracula's line of sight, and takes aim with his crossbow. Whether it's because the vampire is distracted, or because Max's accuracy is boosted by the EDOM serum, the bolt flies true; this time there is no skullduggery and the bolt pierces Dracula's heart.

A look of disbelief and surprise crosses the monster's face before he collapses to his knees, then to the ground. Max moves fast, beheading Dracula and then using white phosphorus grenades to incinerate both the body and the head. The ashes are then scattered at two different points of the river, just to be sure.

Dracula is dead.


Natasha calls Uncle Ivan and arranges for an evacuation; soon an unmarked helicopter arrives and the team is taken away to a Russian military base where, under a suspicious level of security, its members receive medical attention.

They are welcomed as "guests" of the Russian vampire programme, but it's clear that they will never be allowed to leave; even Natasha is a little affronted by her government's lack of gratitude but doesn't make a fuss. Sten decides to collaborate, while Carmel and Max plot escape, but that's all a story for another day.

Next: nothing! We're done! Dracula is defeated and the investigators get a sort of happy ending. Well, they are all alive, at least. I doubt we will return to see if Carmel and Max manage to get away from the Russians, and what Natasha and Sten do; once you've beaten Dracula, anything else is going to be a bit of an anticlimax.

That said, there will be at least one more Dracula Dossier post as I have some thoughts on the campaign from the GM's perspective, so look out for that in the next couple of days.