Friday, January 20, 2017

The Battle of Little Chef

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: a conspiracy uncovered!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Drac's Back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They choose to fight.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: egg and chips and guns.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Dare to Be Stupid

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

D&D types: experience points are hit points

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

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

Call of Cthulhu: professions instead of skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 02, 2017

Eternal Underachiever

2017 then. That's new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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