Monday, March 27, 2017

Gunfight at the Airbnb

The Red Line corporate Solutions team has killed and beheaded another of Dracula's Brides and is now making a run for it before Dracula finds out.

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 attempts to sneak across the border but is stopped for speeding by the Romanian police. Max offers the officer a €200 incentive, which is accepted, and the team is allowed to carry on.

Once over the border into Bulgaria, they head for the nearest hospital to get Sten patched up; while Sten is checked in, Max and Natasha wander downstairs to the hospital's waste incinerator and hand over another incentive to get a few minutes alone with the device. They burn Natasa Dobra's severed head and collect the ashes; Natasha then scatters the ashes in a nearby stream. Meanwhile Carmel finds a junkyard and makes off with a set of number plates in order to disguise the team's car.

While Sten recovers in hospital, the rest of the team rests in a rented cottage just outside of town. Days pass, during which each member of the team takes steps to change their appearance; although they have dropped off Interpol's wanted list thanks to intervention from EDOM, their pictures are being circulated in Romanian law enforcement circles.

The 25th of August rolls around and Sten discharges himself from hospital and joins his colleagues. He decides to test the serum recovered from EDOM's base on himself, and discovers that the liquid bestows certain special abilities, although nothing like those displayed by Carmel during the fight with Dobra.

The team decides to try to find Dracula using the same ritual it used to pinpoint Dobra's location, and spends the next few days preparing. It is believed that the spell can only locate objects, not people, and although there is some discussion over whether Dracula counts as a person given that he's been dead for 537 years, the team decided to focus the ritual on... the shirt he was wearing in Gibraltar.

On the 1st of September, they enact the ritual and locate the shirt in the InterContinental hotel in central Bucharest. Before they can narrow the location of the garment down any further, Natasha's perimeter alarm is tripped.

There is nothing on the cameras, but as vampires would not appear on camera, that does little to comfort the team. Natasha sticks a shirt on a stick and waves it past a window, attracting a burst of gunfire; noting the location of the shooter, the Russian lobs a grenade at the spot, while Carmel teleports to the cottage's shed. The anguished scream following the grenade's explosion suggests that it found its mark.

GNFOS-exercise In return, a missile takes out one corner of the cottage, exposing the team to attack, and a pitched gun battle ensues. Natasha is cut down as she sprints from the cottage to the shed, Max and Sten chuck grenades everywhere, and Carmel teleports into the cover of the trees and begins stalking the team's attackers.

Natasha crawls into the shed and performs hasty field surgery on herself to stem her blood loss, while Carmel incapacitates one would-be assassin with a stun gun; a second attacks her with his own shock weapon, and the two get into a brawl which continues without a clear victor -- despite the former Mossad agent's newfound supernatural edge -- until Carmel's first opponent shakes off the stun effect and enters the fray.

Outnumbered, Carmel drops a grenade at her feet and runs off into the trees; one of her opponents pursues but the other is slower to react and is blasted to bits by the explosion. Natasha pulls herself into a sitting position and although woozy from blood loss and pain, is lucid enough to pick off Carmel's pursuer with a precise rifle shot to the head.

No further shots are fired and silence falls. The team sends up its drone and the machine's infrared camera picks up five humanoid shapes moving away from the scene.

They waste no time, and recover what gear they can and pile it in their car, only to discover that the vehicle has been sabotaged and won't start. Natasha is too fragile for an escape on foot so the team takes a risk and calls for a taxi; while she waits, Carmel checks the bodies for identification and finds nothing of use, although a few of them have Romanian military tattoos. Max loots a suit of combat armour from the assassin that Natasha decapitated.

The cab arrives and the team clambers in before the driver can get a good look at the devastation; he drops them off back in town, where a car is rented and the team drives off into the countryside, taking random turns in order to shake off any potential pursuit.

No vehicles follow but Max spots a flock gaggle herd Lugosi colony of bats keeping pace with the car. He points it out to the others and Sten accelerates; the bats maintain their position, which should be impossible; Max shines an ultraviolet torch at the animals and they disperse, to the German's relief.

Sten spots a man standing in the road ahead and accelerates further; to his mind, the man is either an enemy or an idiot and deserves what he's going to get. The car hits the man going at about 120 miles an hour; or rather it would, but the man steps aside at the last second, grabs the vehicle, and flips it into the air.

(At this point, everyone checks their character sheets to make sure they are not playing Champions by accident.)

Sten does his best to lessen the damage, but British Intelligence Driving School didn't cover being thrown through the air by a vampire. The car rolls a few times before coming to a rest upside down; airbags and seatbelts prevent the worst of the damage, but Natasha's wounds reopen and she is bleeding out.

The man strides up to the car and tears the doors off, then drags the team members out of the vehicle, one by one; they are too dazed to put up much resistance. He lays them at the side of the road and fixes them with a red-eyed glare; it looks like he is struggling to control his anger.

"You have four days," he hisses, "Then I will come for you." Then he walks off into the night.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Delta Green, No Relation

A while ago, Brian C asked for my thoughts on the new Delta Green role-playing game and the OSR not-Cthulhu game Silent Legions. Let's start with Delta Green.

Until Brian requested it, I wasn't going to review the game because I didn't think it would be fair to do so, for two reasons. The first is that it is not complete; as I type this post the rules are available as the Agent's Handbook, and as the title suggests, this is for players. There are rules for character generation, skills, and combat, but nothing on adversaries, magic, or the setting itself. I have a certain distaste for games that split the core rules across multiple books, but it's not a bad idea as such; even so it's worth mentioning that the full game is not available at this time.

The other reason I haven't reviewed the game is that I haven't played it. My current Dracula Dossier game uses the firearms rules from DGAH -- but is otherwise fifth edition Call of Cthulhu -- and I helped my friend Ben modify the rules for his Beyond the Mountains of Madness game, but I haven't used the rules as intended. I don't know if my review can be fair if I haven't played the game, but I'll do my best.

In order to maintain compatibility with older DG material, the new game uses a d100 based system. I was surprised to discover that it's not based on CoC, or even Chaosium's d100 ruleset, but rather it's a modification of Mongoose's RuneQuest 2/Legend with the sanity rules borrowed from -- of all places -- 2004's Unearthed Arcana for D&D3. This strikes me as a bit of a roundabout way of doing things when there's a CoC licence available, but I assume the designers had a good reason. Anyway, the important thing is that it's compatible with CoC and older DG material, albeit with a bit of shoving.

The general approach seems to be to tidy up and modernise CoC's rules; this was also the stated intent of the seventh edition of the venerable rpg, and I think DG is more successful in that regard than Chaosium's own effort, not least because it -- for the most part, anyway -- keeps things simple.

Where CoC7 is characterised by adding more rules -- improvement by way of elaboration -- DG goes more for standardisation and ironing out the weird spiky bits CoC built up over the years. One good example is the firearms rules; CoC has some wonky combat rules in general, and the mechanics for gunfights are probably the wonkiest of all, with all sorts of exceptions "spot rules" and fully-automatic gunfire looking more like Rifts than even the most pulpy Mythos tale.

DG strips this back to a simple mechanic based on at most two die rolls and optional modifiers. There is an argument that it's a bit bland as most weapons more powerful than a pistol will either kill outright or do 2d10 damage, but I will take that over the old clusterfudge of one-fifth chances, multiple fire rates, modified initiative steps, and so on. There are exceptions built into the DG shooting rules, but they make sense; instant kill attacks don't work on supernatural creatures, for example. Otherworldly entities break the rules of the game, which is quite fitting.

Another example is character generation, which in DG is based on packages with defined skill values, so there's none of the fiddly points spending of CoC; I quite like the fiddly points spending bit of character generation but I understand that not everyone agrees and I acknowledge that dumping it makes the process faster and smoother, although again there's a hint of blandness to it.

In general, most of the changes DG makes are in a similar vein but there are a couple of occasions where the game wanders off in the opposite direction; for example, the mechanics for acquiring equipment go on for nine pages complete with little coloured icons that are used only for this subsystem. I can see why the rules exist -- the designers want to model agents pulling in favours or diverting funds and resources, and so on; good thematic secret agenty type stuff -- but when most of the game seems to be aiming for simplicity, if not elegance, it's jarring to slam into a big steaming block of rules for buying a shotgun.

There are a few other odd decisions in there too; the examples of sanity loss include "being fired from one's job", which, yes, is stressful and can indeed have an effect on someone's mental health, but it's a bit weird to see that in a game of Lovecraftian horror, and with the same mechanical significance as "find a corpse". Then there's DG's replacement for the Cthulhu Mythos skill, which works in the same exact way as the original, but is called "Unnatural", a beige word that looks like a placeholder waiting for a more evocative term that never came.

It's not all amending and fixing what came before; DG adds a formal Pendragon-like home phase, in which agents can step away from the current mission and heal, rest both body and mind, research, train, or interact with the game's other main addition, the agents' bonds. These are people or organisations that are important to the character, and can help mitigate sanity loss, but at a cost; they are similar in function to pillars of sanity, one of the better ideas from Trail of Cthulhu. There is a bit of fiddliness and rules-for-the-sake-of-rules in the way bonds and sanity interact, but on the whole these are welcome additions to the game, and I'm a big fan of formal downtime mechanics in rpgs, so it's good to see them in DG.

All in all, I'm quite impressed by DGAH; I do miss some of the eldritch spikiness of CoC, and DG does lack personality, but perhaps that's fitting in a game about anonymous government agents. It seems to be a good game -- although bear in mind my two qualifications above -- but I can't recommend it for the simple reason that I don't think it's good value for money.

The cover price is $39.99 but for that you don't get a complete game; I have no idea how much the inevitable Handler's Handbook will be, but I suspect it will be a similar cost, if not more. What's worse is that DGAH feels padded; it's overwritten and the text size is huge. The book could be two-thirds of its current size without sacrificing anything important and it sort of looks like the only reason it's not is to justify the cover price. For all its faults, CoC7 is only $4 more expensive and you get a complete game, with rules, setting stuff, game-master guidance, and even a couple of adventures.

There is a quickstart pdf available that runs through the basic rules and has a much more sensible price of Pay What You Want. That, I recommend without reservation and, if you like it or you are swimming in piles of cash, then maybe get DGAH. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Female of the Species

There's no more certain way to drive certain segments of Warhammer 40,000 fandom into frothing rage than to mention female Space Marines. For some reason -- and you'll see people jumping backwards through hoops to provide in-universe justifications -- female Space Marines are Not Okay.

Well, they are fine by me.

In part that's because I try not to be a sexist bigot, but in part it's because of this painting:



(Image by John Richardson -- not the comedian, probably -- and borrowed from the Commodore Format Archive.)

The maniacs who go all wobbly at the idea of a female Space Marine are also the sorts of people who would never accept this image as evidence, not least because it's a few steps removed from canon -- it's an image illustrating a review of a computer game adaptation of a board game based on 40K -- but it was enough for me.

I can see at least one female Space Marine in there, probably two, and twenty-five years of all-male imagery from Games Workshop isn't going to erase that from my mind.

Rumour has it there is a major redesign on the way for GW's iconic Space Marines; the miniatures will get bigger, and the armour will be more ornate. That's all fine, but wouldn't it be nice if some of the models had female features?

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Gordon's Not Alive

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team is holed up in the British Embassy in Bucharest, plotting its next move. The original plan was to go after Sorin Lupu, a former high-ranking member of the Ruvari Szgany clan, in the hope that Lupin would lead the team to Dracula; that plan is abandoned as the team instead decides to return to the water pumping station from which Carmel was rescued.

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.

Before they do so, Carmel meets up with her local contact Dacien Comenescu to find out what he has discovered about Natasa Dobra, a suspected Bride of Dracula. Carmel takes the rest of the team as backup and meets Comenescu at a local library.

Comenescu looks a bit battered and bruised, and suggests that there was some resistance to his acquisition of the files; Carmel doesn't ask for details and transfers the agreed €30,000 to Comenescu's account. Meanwhile, Natasha spots a man watching the meeting and moves to get a better view; Max comes in from the street -- leaving Sten in the car -- and also takes up position to watch the man.

Carmel's contact hands over a bundle of musty paperwork from the 1980's; everything is in Romanian, but Comenescu points to sections where Dobra's handwriting is visible. The team needs Dobra's handwriting to use in a ritual; the same rite was used to destroy the Rotterdam Bride and the team wants to use it against the other Brides, Dracula too if possible.

Comenescu leaves, and Carmel follows soon after. The mysterious watcher also leaves and the team decides not to pursue him. The Dobra files are distributed amongst the team members for safety, and then they head to the pumping station. On the way, they meet the surviving members of the EDOM strike team that accompanied them on the original mission; the EDOM agents are keen to rescue their former teammates Gordon and Sean, or recover their bodies if a rescue proves impossible.

RomPolAgentsA police car is parked outside the station, with a pair of alert-looking officers inside. Sten advocates chucking a grenade into the car but the team decides on a more subtle approach; Carl, the leader of the EDOM squad, is sent over to offer the police a bribe -- none of the Red Line team speaks Romanian -- and ask them to drive around the block for a few minutes. The attempt fails so the Red Line and EDOM teams wait for the shift to change before sending Carl to try again; this attempt also fails and the officers attempt to arrest Carl, but the Red Line team steps in and subdues them.

The teams enter the pumping station and explore, finding little changed since their last visit; none of the bodies have been cleared away and of a police investigation there is no sign. This is unusual but not unexpected; it's clear that Dracula's conspiracy has infiltrated the Romanian authorities and that the vampire's minions act with almost total freedom.

Nothing new is discovered, but the bodies of Gordon and Sean are found, torn to pieces. The EDOM team collects the remains and starts to leave; the Red Line team attempts to stop them but Carl explains that his mission is to recover the bodies of his comrades and he has done that, so he will not be staying. Carl and his squad leave, with Carmel muttering accusations of cowardice and incompetence at their backs.

With nothing else to find, the Red Line team also leaves the pumping station and, back at its temporary digs at the British Embassy, conducts some research into the Romanian special forces units that Dobra seems to be using as muscle. The only useful evidence that Carmel and Sten turn up is a series of payments made to the families of deceased members of those units; these payments are in excess of the usual compensation and pensions one would expect in such cases. The stipends have been authorised by the Ministry of National Defence, but the Red Line team cannot pin down anything that can lead them to Dobra or Dracula; even so, Sten does a bit of hacking and creative accounting and diverts some of the excess funds to the team's own accounts, to make up for the freezing of its assets and its dwindling cash.

The team then decides to try the finding ritual in Le Dragon Noire to locate Dobra; Natasha does not believe the spell will find living creatures -- although it is arguable if Dobra can be defined as such -- but Carmel recalls seeing dog tags around Dobra's neck when she had her close encounter, so the team decides to use those as the ritual's focus. After a few days of preparation, the ritual is enacted and Dobra -- or her dog tags at least -- is located, in the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest.

Palatul Parlamentului 1The team heads to the Palace and sneaks into the massive building; as the majority of the structure is unused, this proves to be an easy task for the former secret agents.

Lingering traces of the finding ritual lead them to an underground level in which they discover some sort of open plan governmental office; they feel that Dobra is in a room beyond the office, but there's no way to cross the area without being spotted, and no one feels like getting into a fight with civilians.

Instead, the team finds a massive cliché ventilation duct and uses it to crawl over the office and into the space above the room beyond; through a vent they see Natasa Dobra working at a desk, unaware of their presence. The team ambushes Dobra and seems to catch the alleged tactical genius by surprise; the team is in turn surprised when Carmel teleports across the room to take a position behind Dobra.

The confusion surrounding Carmel's new ability gives the vampire the space she needs to retaliate; she orders Carmel to step away -- which she does -- and then turns to Natasha and uses her dark powers to force the Russian to hide under the desk. Then she runs for the door.

Sten steps into the vampire's path and, recalling his rugby days at Cambridge, tackles her; he is not a weak man but Dobra is stronger and while Sten does slow her down, he suffers for it, breaking a few bones in the process. Max leaps in, stake in hand, and plunges it into the vampire's chest.

Max's player burns a lot of Luck points to make the strike accurate and Dobra hisses and splutters before falling still. As Carmel climbs up the wall and back into the air conditioning vent like some sort of spider -- again shocking her team-mates -- the others hack Dobra's head from her shoulders, and set fire to the corpse.

The fight was quick, but it has attracted attention in the office outside, and the Red Line team makes a swift exit the way it came; getting out proves to be much more difficult than getting in, and a couple of the team members are clipped by gunfire during the escape, but escape they do. Once clear of the Palace, the Red Line team bundles into its getaway vehicle and races to the border.

Next: Bulgarian bulletstorm!