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.