Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Talkin' 'bout a Resolution

I don't do New Year resolutions because they're a bit naff and seem dishonest; if you're going to make a significant lifestyle change, why wait until the first of January? If it's worth doing, it's worth doing now, yes?

That said, here are some things I'd like to get done in 2016, but none are of the life-changing sort:

Run The Dracula Dossier. I love Dracula and the idea of mashing it up with a Bourne Identity style spy Eurothriller and making that the basis of a role-playing game is exciting. Alas, I am unconvinced by the Night's Black Agents ruleset and I am unimpressed by the minimal support given in The Dracula Dossier itself for running the thing, but I will persevere.

Run Eyes of the Stone Thief. I've been itching to get back to 13th Age for a long time, and this campaign looks like great fun.

Paint my eldar army so I can play some second edition Warhammer 40,000 with Stuart, although he will probably play necrons and necrons were a bit overpowered experimental in 40K2, so I'll be painting them only to send them to their deaths. Oh well.

Read more. This is my unread book pile as of right this second:

That doesn't include about a dozen larger-format books that won't go on the pile without collapsing it. I was starting to catch up, then Christmas happened.

Write more. Forgive Us came out a long time ago and people have asked for a follow-up. I've had some ideas but nothing has yet made it past both my own self-doubt and James Raggi's keen eye; I think we have something now, so I hope that will appear before June. Well, I hope it will appear before March, but let's be realistic.

Catch up on computer games. I have a rule that I don't get a new computer game until I've finished one, but that doesn't stop other people getting them for me and throwing the system out of whack. I've got my eyes on some upcoming releases so I need to clear the queue before they arrive. This would be easier if PlayStation trophies didn't sit there, glinting and taunting and implying that no, I haven't really finished the game, even if I did beat the final boss.

Play more and different games. I didn't quite manage fifty-one different games in 2015 but I got closeish. I'd like to try lots of different things in 2016; I have a number of unplayed games on my shelf and I know that the rest of my group is the same even worse, so this shouldn't be too difficult.

"Shouldn't be too difficult" I say, but some of those books have been in that teetering pile for over three years, and the eldar have been sitting in an undercoated state for about two. Oh dear.

But I shall be confident! I'll revisit this post this time next year and see how well I did. I bet you cannot wait.

Have a good New Year everyone. I don't do the party thing but for those who do, enjoy, and for those who don't, enjoy whatever it is you'll be doing.

I shall be reading.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Back in Black

Those of you looking forward to more of Guthrun's Viking Diary -- hello Mike! -- will have to be patient; our GM is taking bit of a break so we'll be returning to our longboat in a few weeks. Until then, Stuart has stepped in and has resumed his Deadlands Noir campaign and has summarised the most recent session in two parts here and here for those interested; I am playing Doctor Ross LeBoeuf, a character with zero combat ability but a knack for persuasion.

I am having great fun. The game is based on Savage Worlds, a system of which I am quite fond, and Stuart has done an excellent job of creating a vivid playground full of interesting options; the adventure with the supersoldier-turned-boxer that took up a couple of evenings of play was a side job quite unrelated to our characters and their goals, and I have no doubt that there are plenty more of these off-piste tangents hidden in the setting. Each of our characters does have what could be called a main plot that is there to be pursued should we so choose, but there's also a real sense that we can wander off and do anything we like; after a few years of packaged adventures -- some of which have been quite good, lest this be seen as an attack on the published campaign format -- it's quite refreshing to play in a game that seems to offer so much freedom.

I've wanted to run a game of this sort for a while. The last time I had any success with such a format was a bonkers Fighting Fantasy campaign that I made up as I went along in my teens; my Rogue Trader campaign was an attempt to do something similar but it collapsed for a number of reasons, and my Stardust Investigations Call of Cthulhu thing was supposed to be an open, player-led game, but I don't think I communicated that idea to the players, so that didn't work either.

One day I will try again - perhaps with Modiphius' post-apocalyptic Mutant Zero -- but for now I have a number of more structured but exciting campaigns to run, and I'm quite happy roaming around Stuart's alternate 1930's New Orleans.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Guthrun's Viking Diary, Part One

I don't know how we found the island, because Blind Skellig is blind. Snorgun says that he is touched by the gods but I don't see how that helps if Skellig doesn't have eyes.

There was a thing made of wood on the beach. The others called it an "effigy" but it looked like a witch to me. I don't like witches. They were afraid to go near it so I ran over and chopped it down with my axe. I found the axe when we killed Uncle Bjorn for the second time. The witch came to life but axes are good for chopping wood and lopping heads and it fell over.

The others saw a raven and tried to shoot it with their arrows. I didn't have any arrows and I was tired anyway, so I sat down and looked at the sea.

We found a village where everyone was frozen stiff and in the long hall there were skeletons covered in ice. They got up from the table and tried to eat us but we smashed them. Taavi said they weren't real but I smashed them so I don't know what he meant.

We went to the top of the hill in the middle of the island and from there we could see for miles. We saw some smoke rising from a village on the mainland and we also saw a longship sailing away from our island. Fat Erik said there was no one else up here so we didn't know who the others were.

We cleaned up the long hall. I lit a fire but the others said that was bad because of the ice god but I didn't see any ice god and I was cold.

I woke up in the night to see Snorgun and Taavi chasing a squirrel around the long hall. It was funny to watch them but then they told me to get up because they were going to follow it outside in the cold and that wasn't as funny.

Taavi must have good eyes from being half aelf, because he said he could follow the squirrel's tracks in the snow. We ended up back at the beach, close to an old ruined hut. There was a witch inside who tried to cast spells on us but Taavi set her on fire. She had lots of treasures. The others gave me a cloak that made me feel stronger but was too small for me so I tucked it in my belt.

The next morning we decided to go in our boat to the other island, but we bumped into the other longship on the way there. The men on the other boat looked like us, except they were covered in frost and when they looked at us we felt cold. We got closer and I jumped over to their boat to fight them. Snorgun came too. The frost men were angry like I sometimes am and their aim was not good so we killed them all except one. He told us that there were two other witches living on the mainland.

I don't like witches.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Last Night a d10 Saved My Life

I went to a birthday party a few days ago and it was awful. Well, to be fair, the party was fine but I went as a Plus One -- which is not to say that it was a Google-themed costume party -- and I didn't know anyone there. Some people are fine in that sort of situation, some people even thrive, but for me it was difficult, painful even.

I was a quiet child and while I had friends and I did spend time with them, I often preferred my own company, reading and drawing and using my toys to enact epic stories -- more often than not ripped off from Simon Furman's Transformers comics -- in which members of Action Force or the Rebel Alliance were recast as characters of my own making.

It will come as no surprise that I was bullied. Nothing too horrific but enough that it made an awkward and quiet child even more awkward and quiet, happier to stay in with a Fighting Fantasy gamebook rather than going out to play.

Things got better as I got older but it's fair to say that I have never quite overcome my social discomfort, as I showed at the aforementioned birthday party; even if I know you -- even if I know you well -- it's not uncommon for me to fumble and splutter through a conversation, like Hugh Grant with a head injury. Sometimes I just go quiet; I am not being unfriendly, I am just so scared of messing up that I mess up.

This doesn't happen with a game. I can sit around a dinner or pub table with a group and I will probably embarrass myself, but sit the same people around a board or role-playing game and something changes. That's not to say that a handful of dice is like Dumbo's magic feather and all of a sudden I'm sliding around the room gladhanding and hobnobbing, and it also doesn't mean that conversation is limited to the game, but the game becomes a sort of focus and that takes some of the pressure away; I don't have to entertain anyone or maintain their interest, because the game will carry that burden.

(And yes, I know there's no obligation to entertain anyone, but there's nothing rational about fear.)

When there's a game involved, the clumsiness and anxiety you would expect to see in me dissipate and I become more open and talkative; so much so that I have made good friends at the gaming table, and I even served as the best man at the wedding of one of them.

Perhaps it's a crutch. Perhaps I should try harder to deal with the anxiety because I can't lug a copy of Call of Cthulhu or Blood Bowl with me to every social gathering -- or can I? -- but perhaps it doesn't matter.

I don't know; I just wanted to get this out there. It's what blogs are for, after all.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

You're So Chuffing Special

Well well. Games Workshop has already surprised me once this year by producing a version of Warhammer Fantasy Battle with charm and character and -- most surprising of all -- a sensible price point. I thought that was a one-off and that the company would soon return to its predictable and unadventurous form, but it seems that I was quite wrong.

Back in the good old days Games Workshop produced all sorts of wonderful stuff but as time went on, more and more of the interesting games disappeared and the company began to focus its attentions on Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy Battle and, in later years, The Lord of the Rings. Some of those other games survived for a while as part of the so-called Specialist Games brand before that too shuffled off into oblivion.

The Specialist Games family included Blood Bowl -- one of the greatest board games ever created -- and Necromunda and Mordheim, two smaller-scale skirmish war games that I have never played but are always being discussed in glowing terms by those who have. The Specialist Games site also hosted the Dark Future rules as a free download for years after the game went out of print, a gesture that was so uncharacteristic of Games Workshop that it seemed like it could only be some sort of clerical error or cyber-vandalism.

Anyway, the point is that it was a sad day when the Specialist Games division disappeared.

Today, Games Workshop announced that it's setting up a new Specialist Design Studio and some of the upcoming titles include Blood Bowl and Necromunda. This has come as a bit of a surprise; even after the official announcement, it still feels like a hoax. Games Workshop said these games weren't worth supporting, that the cost was too much and the audience too small, and yet here we are.

I wonder if it's because this ponderous giant of an organisation that doesn't do market research and doesn't watch what its competitors are doing has at long last noticed that Fantasy Flight is making plenty of money republishing old Games Workshop board games and role-playing games, that Hawk Wargames is doing well with something that looks a lot like Space Marine, and that Mantic has had considerable success with more or less reviving the entire Specialist Games range?

Perhaps it's something more boring about maintaining copyrights and trademarks, or maybe there's someone new in charge who has a fondness for the old days. Perhaps the company is desperate and is trying anything to win back customers. Whatever the reasons behind the move, it's exciting news and I'll be watching this new studio with interest.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Die Drop Campaign Maps at the Whistle Stop Cafe

In 13th Age, the icons are the setting's powerful non-player characters. They are not the Drizzt types who go off and have adventures at the expense of the player-characters, rather they are the rulers and wizards that send the player-characters on quests, or that send agents of their own to thwart them. An icon could be an end-of-campaign boss, or an ally against one.

Each player-character gets a number of relationship points to allocate to the various icons, so Alice of Zengis could have a two point relationship with the Dwarf King, for example. Each relationship is also defined as positive, ambiguous, or negative; if Alice's relationship with the Dwarf King is negative, it suggests that she hates dwarves, or he has betrayed her, or umpteen other potential disagreements.

For each relationship point a character has they get a six-sided relationship die; these are used in a number of ways but one of the more common is to determine which icons are going to be involved in that session's adventure. Everyone rolls their dice and each die that comes up as a 5 or 6 means that the relevant icon has taken an interest in events; a 6 means that the player-character will receive some sort of benefit from their relationship, while a 5 means that the benefit has some sort of cost.

The benefit could be something as prosaic as a bag of cash, or it could be something more narrative based; perhaps the wraith recognises the player-character as an agent of the Lich King and so lets him pass untouched and unleveldrained. Negative relationships tend to suggest that the benefit comes at a cost to the icon; Alice may use her Dwarf King 6 to recall that she knows a secret entrance into a dwarven fort, for example, allowing the party to bypass the guards. Ambiguous relationships could go either way, depending on context.

When I run 13th Age I tend to ask for these rolls at the end of a session so that I have some time to tie them into next week's adventuring, but the other day I wondered about using them at the start of a campaign; I was also thinking about die drop tables and the combination of the two trains of thought has resulted in this hideous chimera.

First of all grab a map from somewhere. You don't want too much detail, as the dice will be telling you where to put things.

Then each player -- or the GM on the player's behalf, but I think it would be more fun to involve the players -- takes it in turns to roll their relationship dice on the map. You want to know which dice are associated with each icon; roll them in separate chunks or use different colours, or something like that. Each die's final position determines a location associated with the relevant icon.

A 6 indicates that the location is some sort of stronghold of the icon. It could be a literal stronghold, or it could just be a town where everyone thinks the Crusader is a swell guy. A 5 suggests that while the place is associated with an icon, there's something else going on; perhaps the location is a new fortress and the local area has not yet been tamed. A roll of 1 to 4 indicates that the location is associated with the icon, but that there is little of campaign-level interest there, although something may come up in an individual adventure.

A negative die probably indicates that the location has been abandoned, or is in fact associated with one of that icon's enemies, or something like that. An ambiguous die suggests that the icon's control and influence over that location is not absolute; perhaps it's been conquered and the locals aren't too happy with the new regime.

Then you do the same again for the next icon.

If dice from two -- or more! -- separate icons share the same space then things get even more interesting. Perhaps that location is held in an alliance between two icons, or perhaps it's the site of a conflict between them. Maybe their forces are fighting a guerilla war in the streets of a ruined city, or the location is a dungeon into which both icons are sending adventurers to look for a great treasure.

Carry on until all the player-characters have rolled all their icon dice and you have something like this.

Bosh! There's your campaign map. You know where the major points of interest are, now it's time to tidy it up and expand as desired. If you started with a blank map, you could put forests wherever Druid or Elf Queen dice landed, or mountain ranges wherever the Dwarf King or Orc Lord dice fell.

Like the relationship dice themselves, this should be easy enough to use outside 13th Age; all you need to do is define your important factions and then give your players a number of points to spend on positive, negative, and ambiguous relationships with those factions. I suggest using at least seven icons so that there's plenty of potential for complexity.

As ever, if you do give this a try, let me know how you get on!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Scarface Was a Good One

Remakes are weird. Cover versions of songs are accepted and often applauded but in film -- a few exceptions aside -- the words "remake" or "reboot" are more often than not greeted with an all-consuming dread. Remakes seem to be far more uncommon in the literary world, beyond retellings of the classics, but I could be wrong about that because I am rubbish at reading.

Unless you count new editions of rulebooks, remakes don't seem to be that common in tabletop games either. Yes, there are umpteen versions of Keep on the Borderlands, the D&D people do love to rehash the big name classics every so often, and I have seen a few bloggers dissecting various adventures and offering suggestions for improvement -- one of my favourite things Zak S has done was when he condensed the aforementioned Keep into two one page dungeons -- but I can't think of many instances of an actual full remake of a role-playing adventure.

At this point, I expect the comments to be full of the many rpg remakes I have overlooked in my ignorance. It's okay, I am prepared.

I considered it myself after I played the Pathfinder campaign adventure path Carrion Crown; it has a good central idea but the structure of the campaign adventure path ruins everything, so I thought it would be worth a rewrite. I put that project aside for boring mathematical reasons that aren't relevant right now because I want to look at King for a Day.

(Or KIIng for a Day. No, I don't know why.)

According to the notes by the author Jim Pinto, King for a Day started out as the AD&D2 campaign Night Below, but as he tinkered and tweaked the adventure ready for play, Pinto realised he was more or less rewriting the whole thing and decided to release it as a unique product.

I played Night Below once in 1998, I think. I remember playing a fighter with 10 or 11 in all his statistics and I remember our party getting ambushed by bandits as we crossed a river. I recall nothing else about the campaign, so perhaps that encounter ended in a TPK, or maybe we all decided it was naff and we'd play Shadowrun or Call of Cthulhu the next week. As such I can't make a full comparison between the original campaign and the remake, but from what I can tell -- see Charles' discussion of one element of Night Below here for an example -- King for a Day does feature more or less the same individual elements as the original campaign, arranged in a different order, with different connections between them and different consequences attached.

One notable difference is that King for a Day puts much more emphasis on events above ground; most of the book's 300ish pages consists of an exhaustive gazetteer of people, places, and plots in a remote rural valley, but the original campaign devoted only a third of its overall page count to its equivalent.

(This isn't a review as such, but the formatting of the gazetteer is strange because it's written as if it's a web page, with lots of hyperlinks; a location, for example, will have links -- complete with little icons -- to the people that can be found there and the plots that involve the place, but of course none of the hyperlinks work because, well, it's a book. The detail-obsessive part of me appreciates the structure of this even if in practical terms it is bonkers.)

Once events draw the player-characters underground, King for a Day seems to be in a rush; there is a handful of locations -- albeit a couple of them are vast -- and then BOOM! there's the climax and it's done. Again, this isn't a review, but the underground bits do feel a bit underwritten, in particular the finale; I don't know what happens at the end of Night Below but I hope it's a bit more of a meaty finish.

The end result of all of this is that the remake seems broad but shallow; I don't mean this as a complaint, because it would be churlish and inaccurate to claim that the huge amount of content Pinto has generated for the main, above ground, part of the campaign is in any way superficial. Rather it's an observation on the structure of the adventure; it is more of a sprawling rural sandbox with a small but significant jaunt underground, and as such is more or less a total inversion of the original.

That's what I find most interesting about King for a Day. It is still recognisable as Night Below -- even to someone like me who has little knowledge of the original -- but at the same time it's quite different and you could play both and still be surprised. Reluctant as I am to encourage remakes, the success of King for a Day as a proof of concept makes me wonder what else is possible; maybe that Carrion Crown rewrite isn't such a bad idea after all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Right then, first things first, I am involved in one of the stretch goals for Mike Evans' Kickstarter so I have an interest in seeing it succeed.

That said, it's heading into its third week and has around 95% of its funding It achieved its initial funding goal between drafts of this post; my maths skills are terrible but I think it will need to get to 175% in the next twelve days before I am activated or unlocked or whatever happens to me, and I don't know if there's enough time left for that.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that I recommend you back it with no expectation that you'll put in enough cash that it benefits me. That's as unbiased a recommendation as I can give.

Mike will probably hate me for saying so but he's a lovely bloke, and in my few brief chats with him about the Hubris project he has shown great enthusiasm that I am certain will show in the final product. He's been blogging about it for ages so you can go and read a couple of posts to see if it's the sort of thing you'll like.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Rolling in the Old World

My opponent has three dice and needs to roll fours, fives or sixes to hit my armies. Each six counts as a hit and allows him to roll another die.


No matter, I still have a good chance of scoring a couple of hits on my four dice.

This sort of thing is why, if you want to win at a board game, you choose me as your opponent.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Different Age

I am sorry it's been so quiet around here of late. Most of my gaming group has been jetting around Europe so I have been playing a few board games here and there, but I didn't think anyone needed to read about how bad I am at Netrunner or Blood Bowl.

Well okay, I managed to lose a Blood Bowl match against an orc team playing a passing game, that's how bad I am. Let's leave it there for now.

Well, except that I'm tempted by a vampire team as they seem like unpredictable fun, or maybe a dwarf team, because I've never tried them.


As the school term begins, the group returns to home base and so we met again last night for the first time in weeks to try the Dragon Age role-playing game by Green Ronin. I've had the quickstart rules and the first boxed set as pdfs for ages -- ho ho -- but it's taken a while for us to get around to playing.

I don't remember how I first encountered the game; although I consider Baldur's Gate II to be one of the greatest computer games of all time I lost track of Bioware's output some time after Neverwinter Nights, when I lacked hardware powerful enough to play any of their games. As such, I only started playing Dragon Age -- the digital version -- a few months ago and I haven't got very far, so I don't know it well enough to consider myself a fan and I don't know why I bought the tabletop version all that time ago.

Yet I did and I found a simple ruleset similar in many ways to old Red Box D&D but cleaned up and with some modern ideas like a stunt mechanic; that ticked all sorts of boxes for me and I went to my group with all sorts of enthusiasm but they weren't interested at the time.

Now in 2015, we as a group have developed a taste for something lighter and less complex for our fantasy gaming, and the recent release of the generic Fantasy AGE rules -- Dragon Age with the Dragon Age bits taken out -- brought the game back to our attention, so I dug out the files and we played the quickstart adventure yesterday.

It's good! Having played the game, it now reminds me less of Red Box D&D and more of Savage Worlds, except less wild and unpredictable; it's perhaps a little less fun as a result, but not to a significant extent, and I'm sure some people would prefer the consistency the AGE system brings. The stunt mechanic is a good example; there's an element of randomness in determining whether a stunt occurs -- like the Aces in Savage Worlds in some ways -- but then the player gets to decide how it manifests by spending points to buy special effects from a menu. It's a nice blend of unpredictability and control.

That blend is also present in the basic 3d6 task resolution mechanic; you know that 11 is the most common result on three dice so you can plan around that, but nothing is guaranteed and there's always the chance of a different outcome. This sort of thinking carries through into character generation too; we used the characters provided in the quickstart set but there are some semi-random elements when creating one's own character, so that the majority of elves -- for example -- will have similar traits but some will have more uncommon abilities.

I ran the game so I didn't get to play around with the options available to the others but they seemed to have fun; after the game there were some concerns that the characters may be too flat and samey, but that could be a perception based on the pre-generated set of beginning characters. As the gamemaster I found it easy to run with little in the way of book-keeping and my main difficulty was grappling with the layout of the adventure, and even that is a minor complaint.

Monsters are easy to run and I like the way that some creatures have unique stunts not available to player-characters -- I'm fond of these sorts of asymmetrical mechanics and I should write a post about it some day -- and it reminded me a little of the way monsters work in 13th Age, albeit not quite on the same bonkers scale. The statistic blocks are larger and more detailed than those of 13th Age and basic D&D, but didn't strike me as cumbersome in play, although I didn't need to make much use of them; perhaps that's a design flaw and they could be condensed even further. Monsters aside, I didn't need to engage with the rules much; it seemed to be a case of setting a task difficulty and letting the players get on with it, which is just the sort of hands-off approach I like. I imagine the proper rules go into more detail but I can't see heaps of complexity being added.

We treated the setting as a bit of a joke; we weren't having any of that "genlock" business so the adventure was populated by not-orcs, not-goblins, and not-wargs, as appropriate. To be fair Stuart did make use of a key setting concept when making a pivotal choice in the adventure, so we didn't treat the whole thing with contempt, but it's safe to say that the release of a setting-agnostic version of the rules is welcome.

The AGE system hasn't displaced 13th Age or LotFP as my favourite D&D-like fantasy rpg but I like it enough to be keen to give the rules another try. I've had some vague plans to return to Titan -- the setting of our D&D5 game from last year -- for some further adventures, and I had my eye on Savage Worlds for that, but based on last night's game I wonder if Fantasy AGE may not be a better choice. I look forward to finding out.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Infantry Squad of Extraordinary Gentlemen

One thing I like to do with my Sunday mornings is catch up with the latest content on Hardcore Gaming 101. I like the general structure of their historical approach and it's always interesting to see comparisons between the various versions of older games, from a time when it was possible that the same title could be quite different depending on what system was running it.

The site's writing isn't always that good, alas, and the way that most of the contributors are focussed so much on the US and Japanese markets that they are dismissive of the European gaming scene can be both sad -- almost everything is rubbish in comparison to the blessed NES -- and funny; the idea of using a joystick to play a game and pushing up to jump seems to drive some writers into paroxysms of confusion and fury for some reason.

Flaws aside the site is doing something no one else is and it's easy to get lost for hours reading about old games, then following links to other articles, then following even more links to even more articles, and oh look, it's three in the morning and you still have eight tabs open. Oops.

Even though the site has a nostalgic focus, there have been four decades or so of computer gaming and no one person has played everything so it's not difficult to discover something new on the site; for example, having never owned any of the erratically-numbered X-Boxes I would never have found out about the 360-exclusive Operation Darkness had I not been reading the site over breakfast.

It's a turn-based tactical combat game -- they tend to be called "tactical rpgs", probably because of the influence over the genre of Final Fantasy Tactics, but I think they're closer to football management sims -- set during an alternative World War II in which immortal werewolves fight for the Allies against the Axis forces and the vampire cult that aids them.

That would be enough for some developers, and I'm sure you could get a good game out of that, but it wasn't enough for Success Corporation, oh no. The rag-tag group of misfits put under the player's control in this game not only contains werewolves but also features pyrokinetic young women, Frankenstein's monster, Abraham Van Helsing's grand-daughter, a direct descendant of Sir Lancelot, Jack the Ripper Mêlée Specialist, and Herbert West, who is the team's field medic.

I don't even care what the game is like; the bonkers audacity of putting that cast in that setting is enough to win me over. In the past few days I've been planning a follow-up to the World War Cthulhu game I ran earlier in the year and I've also been thinking of running Pelgrane Press' upcoming Dracula Dossier at some point; as of this morning I'm now thinking of mixing the two together to see what happens.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Why I Gave My Soul to Cthulhu

I have posted about why Call of Cthulhu is my favourite role-playing game before but Charles’ project over at Dyvers has given me the opportunity to go into a bit more detail about why it is so ace and why everyone should give it a try.

Call of Cthulhu was an instant hit with my original gaming group. We played a lot of games back then, even if a lot of them were one-offs, but the most played were Shadowrun and Call of Cthulhu. The group formed around Shadowrun and our gamemaster Tim was a keen fan of the game, but aside from a couple of somewhat unsuccessful sessions I ran, Tim was also the only member of the group who had the enthusiasm to run it; the rest of us were content to play. By contrast Call of Cthulhu spread through our group like gonorrhoea in university freshers’ week. Every one of us tried running it at least once, often for multiple sessions, and this was a bunch of stinky teenagers who had never heard of HP Lovecraft. Well, I had but that’s because my mother had a vast horror library and I remembered the name from that, although I’d not read the books on which the name appeared.

I think that novelty was a big part of the game’s success in winning us over. Even then the game stood out as different and unknown. We’d been raised on Fighting Fantasy and Games Workshop and Knightmare so we knew about orcs and dragons and death traps and dungeons, everyone had seen Star Wars, and enough of us had seen enough dodgy 90’s anime to work out how cyberpunk was supposed to feel, but Call of Cthulhu was new. It was about normal people facing the supernatural, but not the vampires and werewolves of classic horror, rather the foes were strange unknowable things from beyond the stars that owed more to science fiction than the Gothic tradition.

It is a game with quite a different feel to almost anything else. Player-characters in Call of Cthulhu are not superheroes or barbarian kings or powerful wizards -- although the latter is a possible but probably unwanted character development -- but ordinary people. You do sometimes get the odd soldier or police officer but for the most part Call of Cthulhu characters are historians, doctors, priests, or librarians. Their skills are based on knowledge and observation rather than shooting or stabbing, and indeed shooting or stabbing is often the worst thing to do in the game, unless it’s shooting or stabbing another member of the party because they’ve gone insane and are coming at your character with a rusty claw hammer, their knuckles bloody, their eyes wild, and their lips flecked with foamy spittle.


With this emphasis on more cerebral skills the tone and pace of the game is different to others. The obstacles in the game are not for the most part physical -- although there are plenty of opportunities for climbing walls, picking locks, and, perhaps most of all, hiding -- but mental and social. It’s a game of investigation, of talking to the right people, of looking in the right places, and of knowing the right facts, and the payoff to all this -- the game’s equivalent of the treasure room or boss fight -- is the revelation of why uncle Oswald disappeared, or why farmer Dougal’s cattle are unwell, and so on, and that revelation is often one that is inimical to the player-characters.

There is something of a contradiction inherent in the game; it’s all about investigation, but it could be argued that the player-characters are often better off being unsuccessful in their investigations. I think this tension -- although it emulates the source material well -- is what gives Call of Cthulhu a reputation as a game in which it’s expected for characters to die or go mad, and I have seen that conception mutate into an assumption that the game is best played in a sort of humorous Paranoia way, with everyone trying to kill the player-characters off in the most gruesome way possible. I’m not some boring purist who thinks that such an approach damages the game’s stature and that it should only be approached in a serious and literary manner; it’s a valid way of playing, I’ve played it this way, and it’s great fun, but it’s not the only way to play.

For me Call of Cthulhu is about ultimate heroism. The characters are ordinary people, often academics, and are about as unsuited as possible to oppose the actions of alien deities and their servants, actions that are often apocalyptic in scope, and yet with all that stacked against them, they still try. If you were a glass half empty sort -- as I suspect Lovecraft himself was -- then this can seem like an exercise in futility and nihilism; why waste time and energy fighting a fight that cannot be won? I don’t see it that way; perhaps it is inevitable that the stars will become right and humanity will be obliterated either by itself or gribbly space gods, but in this place and in this time the player-characters can still save lives and keep the darkness at bay for one more day, even if they give their lives doing so. It’s a game in which every session can be a heroic last stand and there’s something great about that.

That’s not to say that it’s not dark. It’s the only role-playing game in which I’ve felt fear; my friend Paul wrote an adventure about a witch and towards the end as she advanced down a tunnel towards our characters, scraping a knife along the stone wall and hissing, with our rifle and shotgun blasts bouncing off her withered flesh, I must admit that I started to feel real panic. Paul’s description of what the witch did to our characters with that knife stayed with us for weeks after and made us shudder every time we remembered it. Although maybe that was just Paul. He’s an archaeologist now; I like to think his career choice was inspired by Call of Cthulhu.

It’s also the only game in which I’ve caused fear at the table. I still have fond memories of the players of my second and current group looking at me in shock and dread when I announced that they were being assaulted not by a tentacled horror from beyond the stars but a deranged human being with a fire axe. I’m sure it’s possible to scare players in any game but I have only ever seen it happen in Call of Cthulhu. Perhaps it’s because player-characters are so fragile; a Call of Cthulhu investigator doesn’t get stronger like a Dungeons & Dragons character does -- unless it’s the d20 version from 2001 but we don’t talk about that -- so that first level feel, that sense that any wrong step could spell the end for the character, never goes away. Games like RuneQuest or Stormbringer, though they share the same basic ruleset as Call of Cthulhu, allow characters to rise in power and strength; even Traveller, a game with no advancement mechanism as such, gives characters opportunities to gather power through accumulation of money, technology, and influence.

In Call of Cthulhu, money, technology, and influence are of little use against eldritch forces, and increasing one’s Photography skill from 67% to 72% will be of no use when a strange dog-human hybrid thing is chewing off the top of Professor Woodman’s skull. Investigators can arm themselves with mystical weapons and arcane spells, but all have significant drawbacks, and those drawbacks create interesting decision points in the game; casting Bulwark Against the Denizens of the Outer Dark may save your life, but if it fries your brain and leaves you insane, is it worth the cost?

I say yes, because if nothing else, it’s fun. It probably makes me a horrible person but one of the most fun aspects of the game for me is the collection of mental and physical injuries and disorders the player-characters pick up over the course of a campaign; if Father Bowden’s encounter with deep ones in a previous investigation has left him with a phobia of large bodies of water and the next adventure is set on the shores of a Norwegian lake, then that’s a recipe for a great evening of gaming. What Call of Cthulhu characters lack in +1 swords, gold pieces, and strongholds, they make up for with missing limbs and phobias; I know I sort of dismissed the suicidal mode of play above but even in more serious games there’s some pride to be had in a long list of ailments on one’s character sheet.

Call of Cthulhu is based on Chaosium’s d100 system in which most tests are a roll of percentile dice against a simple target number; if your Chemistry skill is 65% then you need to roll 65 or less on a d100 to identify the mysterious compound you just found. There are a few more wrinkles to the system -- although not many, as it’s a simplified version of the original d100 system as seen in RuneQuest and elsewhere -- but that’s more or less it; the complete rules of the game fit into 48 pages in my preferred edition and everything else is background or GM advice, making it one of the most coherent and comprehensive single-volume role-playing games I’ve seen. It is a simple game and with simplicity comes flexibility, so that it is not too difficult to take the game out of the assumed 1920’s setting and plonk it somewhere else.

The 1890’s and 1990’s -- or the modern day -- have been supported as core settings in most editions, but the only real differences in the game’s rules are that each era presents a different set of player-character skills and a different equipment list; this makes adaptation to any location or era a simple matter of doing a few minutes of research. There are few role-playing systems that are so flexible and easy to adapt.

At the time of writing I have just finished running a game in which my players are agents of the Special Operations Executive running about in Vichy France, but I have in the past run a campaign in which they’ve been supernatural investigators in modern Britain, as well as a sprawling pan-European campaign set in the classic 1920’s era. I have played in countless games, but one recent favourite has been Cthulhu Invictus, because who doesn’t want to play a Roman centurion battling the minions of the Mythos? Perhaps one day I’ll finish putting together my notes on a swinging 60’s superspies version of the game; I’m thinking it may be called The Shadow Over Portmeirion.

That campaign idea has been bubbling along since about 2002 but I will come back to it because I keep coming back to Call of Cthulhu, twenty years after I was introduced to it. No other game has held my interest and attention like Call of Cthulhu; in comparison I haven’t played Shadowrun in fifteen years, sorry Tim. The game is part of me now; I can run it almost without looking at the rules, and when I write adventures for other games, they always seem to be Call of Cthulhu investigations in disguise. It’s my favourite role-playing game by far, and I hope I’ve been able to convey at least some of what thrills and excites me about it, even two decades after my first investigator walked through the front door of that haunted house in Boston.

At some point soon this paragraph right here, the one you're reading right now, will disappear and in its place will be a list of links to other blogs that have taken part in the project. Look out for it!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mission Accomplished. Ish

Since everything had gone wrong, the agents of the Special Operations Executive decided to have one last go at finding the missing Lionel Malo before they attempted to escape Vichy France. They knew that the German occultist had been in the warren of caves beneath the valley and they also knew of an entrance to those caves on the land of the Toulon family; the agents did not have a good relationship with the Toulons and also suspected them of being cultists, so they didn't ask for permission and instead nipped over a wall towards the back of the orchard.

Mike McVeigh took the lead and peered into the dusk, searching for the hidden cave entrance he'd found the day before, with the rest of the agents following close behind, some less sneaky than others; Pierre-Yves Bertrand and Tidelina both blundered through the undergrowth but no one was alerted, or so it seemed.

McVeigh found the door and using some bolt cutters -- did they have bolt cutters in 1941? -- he'd borrowed from the Decharette mansion he broke through the chain holding the door closed. Before the group could enter the caves there was a howl from the trees behind them and a furry, hoofed figure leaped at McVeigh.

It looked half-human and half-goat, like the faun of classical myth, but with an alien, malevolent face, and the sight of it shook the agents' resolve; most held their ground but Fergus O'Brien's mind snapped and he started to howl and wail in response to the creature's own roars, while firing his rifle close to Kirby Tinkerton's ear and deafening the scientist. Oops.

Despite the panic -- caused more by O'Brien than the faun -- the agents focussed gunfire on the beast and after a worrying number of shots it fell to the ground. McVeigh beheaded the thing while the rest of the group attempted to calm the rifle-wielding O'Brien, so they were all occupied when another two of the horned monsters erupted from the bushes.

Tinkerton attempted to escape up a tree but lost his footing and fell into the path of a rampaging faun, but luck was on his side as the thing missed and ran head first into the trunk of the tree, stunning itself. Meanwhile McVeigh's patience had worn thin and he blasted the other faun with his MP 40; he emptied a third of a clip into the creature and converted it into a cloud of bloody chunks.

It was around this time that the agents decided that the Malo rescue mission was beyond their capabilities and they legged it; Tinkerton was the last to scramble across the wall and looking back, he saw dark shapes moving amongst the trees in pursuit. As the agents sprinted away from the orchard they almost ran into a German Kübelwagen coming the other way, no doubt to investigate the gunfire at the Toulon place; a few minutes later they heard bursts of automatic fire coming from the orchard and more than one of the agents expressed the view that the Nazis and the terrible goat things deserved each other.

They scrambled back to where they had concealed the Gestapo Kübelwagen and made ready to leave. While the others planned the escape route, McVeigh wandered off into the deeper woods and, once he'd made sure he was alone, he sang the song he'd been taught by the mysterious dapper chap from his dreams; McVeigh felt his vitality drain away, and he had a clear sense that something was coming to that spot, but there was no other immediate effect. Disappointed, he returned to the group.

They decided that crossing the demarcation line into occupied France and heading for a coastal town was too risky, so instead chose to drive the Kübelwagen south, over the Pyrenees and into neutral Spain; aside from a random German checkpoint and some rough terrain they made the trip intact and arrived in Madrid many days later, battered and exhausted. There the agents made contact with the SOE and arranged passage back to London.

Their superior -- codenamed N, which isn't suspicious at all -- was not pleased with the group's lack of success in either of its missions but acknowledged that it could have been worse, and they did at least have a faun's severed head to show for it. They were soon packed off to a secure location for debriefing and -- in O'Brien's case -- intensive psychoanalysis.

And that was that! Although one could argue that the players didn't do too well everyone seemed to have fun; we're going to take a break for a few weeks as various members of the group disappear for the summer, but World War Cthulhu has been enough of a hit that there will be at least one more mission for the agents of the SOE in the autumn.

I hear Norway is beautiful in September.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Hitting the Fan

With the explosive destruction of their house and the authorities due to arrive at any moment, it looked like the Special Operations Executive agents' cover was blown. Ho ho. Kirby Tinkerton and Mike McVeigh picked up the unconscious and wounded Tidelina and used back streets and alleyways to flee the village; meanwhile the sound of the explosion had woken Pierre-Yves Bertrand and Fergus O'Brien over at the Decharette mansion -- I was being kind -- and sensing trouble, they hopped on their cycles and rushed to the village. Surveying the destruction and seeing local gendarme -- and Nazi sympathiser -- Henri Jourdain flailing about in his nightshirt in an attempt to calm a situation well beyond his control, Bertrand and O'Brien moved on, satisfied at least that their comrades had not been arrested.

Assuming that they also had not perished in the explosion, O'Brien guessed that his fellow agents would either head to the mansion or the Martin farm; if it had been the former they would have crossed paths so chances were they were with the partisans. On the way to the Martin farm the two groups met and Tinkerton and McVeigh explained what had happened; as the agents crouched in a roadside ditch they discussed their next move.

They knew that events had escalated to the point that they wouldn't be able to avoid the authorities so they decided that they would turn themselves in and present a story that would divert attention away from them long enough for them to complete their missions. They came up with three options:

Option one: Blame the cultists. Although this was more or less the truth, and pitting the Nazis against the cultists would be an efficient solution to both problems, the agents realised that it would be difficult to convince the Germans of the existence of a cult, not least because they themselves had no evidence of such a thing.

Option two: Pretend to be Gestapo officers. Another dead end, as they had no way of disguising themselves as the German secret police, nor were they sure what they would do if they did.

Option three: Blame the whole thing on Kirby Tinkerton. The scientist had access to explosives through his job at the copper mine and had been seen there earlier in the day, so it would not be too implausible to suggest that he had stolen some TNT and had set it off by accident.

The third option seemed the best of the lot. They would claim that they had no idea what Sarkozy -- Tinkerton's alias -- was doing until it was too late and that he had died in the explosion, hoping that the authorities would not expend the time and resources needed to search the rubble for his body; to maintain the pretence he would hide at the Decharette mansion and McVeigh would provide him with a disguise.

With their plan decided the agents continued to the Martin farm. Helena Martin once again gave up her bed for Tidelina and while the Australian's wounds were cleaned and bound, the agents explained recent events to the the Martins. They also started making demands of the partisan couple; McVeigh pressed them on the status of the suitcase plan and Tinkerton ordered them to roam the countryside for components for home-made bombs, but Helena pointed out that as the agents had alienated or murdered most of the partisan group, there wasn't anyone left to run their errands. Pierre-Yves declared them to be useless and an embarrassment to France, which was perhaps not the best approach, and everyone took their grudges to bed.

During the night McVeigh dreamed again of the mysterious and suave gentleman, who asked if the spy had sang the song he'd been taught in one of their previous encounters. McVeigh admitted that he had not and the gentleman suggested that perhaps he should do so soon, as it could help the agents with their current predicament. With a tentative agreement from McVeigh, the gentleman left the Martin farmhouse and disappeared into the darkness.

Over an awkward breakfast, Tinkerton attempted to use his scientific training to explain how a satyr had used pan pipes to set off plastic explosives but the incongruity of it all was too much and all he got for all his theorising was some Sanity loss. Later McVeigh smuggled him into the Decharette mansion and he made himself as comfortable as possible in the house's dusty attic while Bertrand and O'Brien went into the village and presented themselves to the authorities; they were arrested and locked in a cell in the village's small police station, as was McVeigh when he arrived.

The agents were questioned by Oberstleutnant Klier, who took their identification papers and left to investigate further. He returned a few hours later to tell the prisoners -- with a heavy heart, it seemed -- that some colleagues of his would soon arrive in the village to take over the investigation.

Oh dear.

"I don't want to wait for the Gestapo to get here and execute us," said Bertrand, and the agents spent most of the night arguing over their next move. They were forced to admit that whatever they decided, their cover mission -- to set up a resistance network -- was beyond their ability to complete, and that left them with the question of whether they should continue to pursue their secret mission -- to find the missing occultist Lionel Malo -- or if they were better off legging it to the coast or the border with Spain.

After a long and heated discussion the agents decided to remain in jail and wait for a better opportunity to make their escape, and to then make one last attempt to find -- and rescue, if possible -- Malo. The choice made, they waited.

The next morning, Klier returned with three Gestapo officers, one a scarred wreck of a man with one eye, who introduced himself as Kriminalkomissar Wolfhelm Lucht and selected O'Brien for interrogation. Fergus was bundled into a chair and Lucht lowered himself -- pain evident on his mangled face -- into another; the two other officers took up a position by the door and Klier retreated to the corner of the small office, his discomfort clear.

Lucht picked holes in O'Brien's story but the Irishman manoeuvred well -- the points invested in his Fast Talk and Persuade skills were well spent -- and if he didn't convince the German, he at least seemed to impress him. Things seemed to be going as well as could be expected given the circumstances, until Lucht slapped the agent's identification papers on the table and asked why Fergus and his friends were carrying faked documents.

Oh dear.

O'Brien spun a story about unreliable Belgian bureaucracy, and after some thought Lucht nodded to his men. Bertrand and McVeigh were released from their cells and the three agents were marched to the door, the Gestapo officers behind them, weapons drawn; two more Gestapo officers waited outside, also with their guns at the ready. It was a bit tense.

Exhausted, unarmed, and surrounded by Germans with automatic weapons, the agents thought their time was up, but to their surprise Lucht indicated that they were free to go, although he'd be keeping their documents. Expecting bullet in their backs at any moment, the agents walked across the village square and out of town.

They returned to the Decharette mansion and kept their heads down as they made their plans. Tinkerton was given the team's radio and was sent running across the fields to the Martin farm, as they agents suspected that the mansion was no longer safe; they were proved correct when Bertrand spotted an occupied Kübelwagen parked not far from the house. They had to move.

As night fell, the agents made a break for it. Bertrand and O'Brien left through the back of the mansion and used the cover of the old monastery ruins to stay out of the view of the men in the Kübelwagen, while McVeigh stayed behind to provide a distraction. It almost worked too, until Bertrand and O'Brien became separated and the Frenchman disturbed a flock of birds, giving away his position.

One Gestapo officer raced across the fields to investigate; both the agents were well hidden and the German literally stumbled over Bertrand, but before he could act O'Brien took a shot with his rifle. The shot missed but it was enough to send the German diving for cover and he and Bertrand scuffled on the ground; he tried to knock Bertrand out but the Frenchman was taking no chances and blasted away with his pistol. As O'Brien scurried up in support, the mêlée ended with Bertrand blowing the top off the German's skull, sending blood and brain matter spattering into Fergus' eyes.

In hindsight, I should have called for a Sanity roll for that.

Meanwhile the other Gestapo officer and McVeigh stalked each other through the mansion gardens, a slow and stealthy contest in comparison to the frenzied scramble in the fields nearby. In the end it came down to luck; we've been using the expendable Luck mechanic from the upcoming seventh edition of Call of Cthulhu, a simple rule that states that a character can spend points from their Luck score to adjust a dice roll to turn it into a success. I don't remember if the rule allows points to be used to enforce a failure on an NPC's roll but it seemed like a reasonable request when the German rolled a 96 for his attack. That 96 became a 97, the MP40 jammed, and that was that for Gestapo Bloke #2.

The agents looted the bodies and concealed the Germans' vehicle in a nearby wood, then ran towards the Toulon orchard and the entrance to the caves in which they hoped they would find Lionel Malo. They were in a hurry; the Kübelwagen was equipped with a radio, suggesting that Lucht would be expecting an update from his men at some point. Time was running out.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

In the Grim Darkness of 2015 There Is Only (Edition) War

In a bold move that is quite uncharacteristic of a company that has made a business plan of biennial releases of nigh-identical rulesets, Games Workshop yesterday rebooted its Warhammer fantasy wargame as Warhammer: Age of Sigmar and the reaction has been fascinating. I'm used to seeing edition wars in role-playing game conversations -- well, in conversations about Dungeons and Dragons for the most part -- but GW gamers tend to grumble a bit about new editions then buy everything anyway; those that don't go and play older editions or other games and leave the discussion. This time it's been a bit different.

Early on there were rumours that the game would be using circular bases as standard, although the square bases of the previous editions would remain legal. This seemed to be the worst news ever according to a lot of the online fans although I couldn't see that it would make much difference, but then I haven't played since about 1998 so I may have missed a particular subtlety.

The bulk of the rules for the new game were released yesterday and confirmed that yes, circular bases were in, so I imagine that there has been much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair around the world. The rules do seem to be somewhat incomplete; the basic game mechanics seem to be there and GW has released free rules updates for its existing model range for the new game, but there does seem to be a gap in terms of how the models work in the new game.

With the Age of Sigmar boxed set the expectation seems to be that you have enough rules material to use the contents of the box; here are the rules for twenty chaos warriors because twenty chaos warriors came with the game. Fair enough, that makes sense. It gets more complicated once you look outside the box, at existing armies; if you want to use your orcs -- or Orruks™ as they are called now -- then you have rules for them, but how many units of orc boyz can you field? How many troll mobs can you bring to a battle? That bit isn't clear and it seems to be driving the fans insane.

My assumption is that at some point a standalone rulebook will be released and army building mechanics will be included, but perhaps GW should have given some idea of how it would work, or provided a basic version; as it stands they've left players of older armies with just enough information that they know they haven't been abandoned but not enough to know how to play the new game, and I can understand why that's frustrating, but perhaps not to the level of the frothing mania I've seen online in the past couple of days.

Perhaps the oddest revelation of the past few hours is that the rules contain stuff like this:

This sort of thing is common in board gaming -- "the player with the pointiest ears goes first" --and was also a frequent occurrence in the days when Warhammer was called Warhammer Fantasy Battle. These days there are remnants of this approach in the animosity rules for orcs or the way goblin fanatics work, but in general the sense of humour and fun has been ground out of GW games over the years so it is a surprise to see it return, and in a major release. It's been a nasty surprise for the same sort of people who think circular bases are the work of Satan Slaanesh, but it's a pleasant surprise for me, as I miss the days when ork vehicles really would go faster if you painted them red.

I find myself quite optimistic about this new edition of the game. The idea seems to be simpler rules and smaller and more affordable armies and as someone who got priced out of Warhammer in the previous century, that's a move I welcome. The release of free rules is something to be applauded even if everyone else has been doing it for a while and there is a certain level of bravery in such a sweeping reboot of the ruleset from such a conservative company, and I feel that should be encouraged.

Yes, it is a shame that the old setting is gone, but the game world GW has been pushing for the last couple of decades isn't the one in which I've been playing so I'm not too bothered. If I were a fan of the previous edition of the rules I could be miffed that they've been scrapped but if I were such an adherent, there's nothing stopping me from playing an older edition.

This looks like a version of Warhammer that I can not only afford but that looks fun to play, and so I find myself interested in the game for the first time in a couple of decades. I don't know what GW considers to be the criteria for a successful product launch, but it works for me.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

It's All Gone a Bit Pete Tong

At the end of the previous session, the agents of the Special Operations Executive discovered that the German troops occupying the French village of Saint Cenreuf du Bois were all gathered in the village's restaurant, preparing the place for a party. I pointed out that with the Germans all in town the Decharette copper mine would be under only light guard, a suggestion that the players took to be unsubtle railroading, but the irony was that all my preparation had been focussed in another direction; as it turned out the players got themselves into enough trouble without any nudging from me.

They stopped off at the Decharette mansion on their way and convinced Claude Decharette to give them a note allowing them to inspect the mine; this document got them past the guard at the gate, although he did seem a bit suspicious about all the tools -- the agents had concealed firearms in their tool bags -- the group had brought along.

Using the sketched map they suspected had been left behind by the missing Lionel Malo -- the object of their secret mission -- they soon found a concealed passage from the upper level of the mine to a warren of natural tunnels that seemed to be in regular use. The team elected to avoid going anywhere near the Devil's Field or the mysterious wood nearby and so turned -- as far as they could tell without a dwarf in the party -- south, towards the village; their goal was to find an alternate entrance so they would not have to rely on the mine for future expeditions into the depths.

Some of the tunnels were too small for the bulky Mike McVeigh and that limited the team's explorations; one such place was a cave that they guessed was somewhere near the river, but since it was the first open area they had found since descending into the tunnels they decided that exploring it was worth the risk of splitting the party. Pierre-Yves Bertrand's small stature made him a good fit for the cockpit of a plane but also made him the best candidate to explore the cave; Fergus O'Brien crawled through on his hands and knees to support the French pilot while the rest of the team stayed in the tunnel.

The cave's muddy floor seemed to have been petrified or frozen somehow but no one had a sufficient Geology skill to understand whether that was unusual or what it could mean; on the plus side they did not need any points in Geology to spot the large and ominous hole in the centre of the cave floor. Bertrand looped a length of rope around his waist and made sure the rest of the team held on tight as he crawled over to the edge. Peering in he saw the darkness stretching out to an unknown depth; his lamp could not illuminate the bottom and he had no desire to throw anything down, for some reason.

Another passage led from the cave but the hole made the agents wary and the difficulty of getting into the cave in the first place put them off further exploration in that direction, so Bertrand returned to the tunnel from which he'd entered. Just as he got to the entrance a strange buzzing whine filled the air and everyone felt a great pressure from all around them; as the buzzing increased in intensity the bulbs in their lamps exploded, plunging the team into darkness, and the walls began to shake. O'Brien found that the matches he had brought -- while still dry -- would not light so he could not see part of the ceiling collapsing on Pierre-Yves, trapping the Frenchman's leg under rubble.

Oh dear.

They did well not to panic. Dodgy scientist Kirby Tinkerton lost it a little as all his fancy academic knowledge failed to provide an explanation for what was happening, but the rest of the team kept as calm as could be expected given the circumstances. Bertrand managed to direct his colleagues to his location and together they dug him out, by which time the buzzing and shaking had passed; O'Brien tried again to provide light and this time his matches worked, so he was able to put together a basic torch.

Flickering light was better than none and the agents decided to press on and explore further. Before their torch expired they discovered a small cave in which there was a door that seemed to lead to the surface; a heavy chain on the other side prevented the agents from leaving the caves through the door, but McVeigh peeked through and saw what looked like apple trees. With their light running out, the agents returned to the mines and emerged looking somewhat battered and bruised. The guard to whom they had spoken on the way in was surprised at their condition and asked if he should make a report; grumpy and tired, they told him to do what he liked.

Oh dear.

They knew that the Toulon family owned an orchard and so decided to head there in search of the cave exit, but found the front gates secured; leaving Tidelina to watch out for trouble, the rest of the agents scrambled over the wall. At first McVeigh wanted to sneak up to the Toulon house but suspecting that his comrades would scupper any attempt at stealth, he decided to walk up in the open; as expected he was spotted and Albert Toulon -- one of the partisans and uncle to Pierre -- came out of the house to confront him.

It turned out that the Toulons were not best pleased by the agents' treatment of young Pierre and would not have been happy to see them even if they weren't trespassing. McVeigh's attempts to justify the beating of Pierre as necessary for the war effort did not seem to convince the boy's uncle and he suggested that the agents leave; when McVeigh indicated that they would not do so, Albert went inside and slammed the door.

Bertrand, O'Brien, and Tinkerton sat down to watch the house while McVeigh searched the grounds for the cave entrance; he found it in a distant corner of the orchard, well hidden and far enough away from the house that it was possible that the Toulons could have no idea of its presence, but Bertrand was not convinced of their ignorance in the slightest and convinced the team to consider a direct assault on the house.

Their plans were interrupted as Tidelina spotted an approaching vehicle. A German Kübelwagen was coming up the road from the village, on its way to the mine perhaps, and so Tidelina whistled an alert; the Germans also seemed to hear the warning -- 02 on their Listen roll! -- and stopped, but by this time the Australian was well away so was unable to see what they were doing.

Everyone froze. A couple of minutes later the vehicle started up again and they heard it moving off into the distance so Bertrand sneaked up to the orchard gates for a better look; peeking under the gates he saw the distinctive jackboots of a German soldier pacing in the dirt and he reported this back to the rest of the team. With a soldier right outside the plan to break into the Toulon house by force was much less appealing so the agents decided to come back another day.

They decided to return to the Shunned House their rented accommodation via the Martin farm. There they told the Martins of the German patrol at the Toulon orchard and warned the partisans to be careful, and then things went a bit strange. McVeigh almost broke cover and told a wide-eyed Helena Martin about strange rural cults, monks living in caves underground, his suspicions that the Toulons were involved with such a cult, and that as such their loyalties did not lie with the partisan group.

It was quite clear to all that Helena thought that McVeigh was mad but she told him that she would think about what he had said and perhaps visit the Toulons to find out for herself what was going on; she also pointed out that if the Germans were indeed on their way then it would not look good if the agents were found clogging up her kitchen, and as this made a lot of sense, they left.

The agents split up, with Bertrand and O'Brien returning to their lodgings at the mansion and the rest of the team returning to the Shunned House their house in the village. There, McVeigh dreamed of himself and the rest of the agents dancing around a bonfire deep in the woods, but before he could experience more he was woken by a clattering sound on the roof of the house, like footsteps but also not. As he listened the clattering stopped and an odd piping started, increasing in volume and tempo as the piper on the roof played its strange song. Then the buzzing began.

Lights went out, windows cracked, and walls began to shake and the agents, fearing a repeat of the incident in the caves, chose to flee the house as the buzzing increased in volume. McVeigh and Tinkerton made it out first and spotted a hooved, faun-like figure on the roof, but Tidelina was slower on her feet and was just passing McVeigh's hidden weapons cache under the stairs as the buzzing set off the explosives inside.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Sensible Operations Executive

In this World War Cthulhu session, no non-player characters were tied to chairs and strangled, no elderly drunks were beaten into unconsciousness, no German soldiers were shot in the eye, and no one smashed up a wine cellar looking for secret tunnels. That's not to say that there weren't a couple of moments during which I wondered what the heck the players were, er, playing at, but on the whole they were being quite sedate and sensible.

Leon Ferrand was dead but his eager sidekick Pierre Toulon was still alive -- tied to a chair, of course -- and something needed to be done about him. After a brief discussion, the agents decided that Toulon was none too bright and was more or less Ferrand's puppet so with the -- alleged -- spy out of the picture, they felt it was safe enough to return young Pierre to the partisans. They decided to set off early in the morning to avoid being seen but forgot that Saint Cerneuf was in part a farming community; Pierre did not and tried to call for help from a passing farmer but was silenced by a threat from the volatile Fergus O'Brien.

The group arrived at the Martin farm where they handed Toulon over to the Martins and told them all about Leon being a spy for an unknown agency, and what they had done to end any potential threat from him. Helena and Jacques were shocked but seemed to accept the story and promised to deal with Toulon. The agents then took the opportunity to follow a couple of leads they'd picked up from Ferrand and asked the Martins about Giscard Bressan; it was clear that the subject made Jacques Martin uncomfortable and like hungry lions surrounding a wounded gazelle, the players focussed their attentions on him.

The agents decided to separate the Martins and see if they could break Jacques but then something interesting happened; the original plan was to leave dodgy scientist Kirby Tinkerton with Helena and Pierre -- who was still tied up -- while the rest went for a walk with Jacques, but Pierre-Yves Bertrand was overcome by a sudden wave of anxiety and refused to leave the Englishman alone. It seemed that the French pilot had a bad feeling about Helena Martin and was convinced that Kirby would be in significant danger if left alone with her.

With Bertrand and Tinkerton enjoying Helena's hospitality, Tidelina, O'Brien, and Mike McVeigh took Jacques for a morning walk around the fields and interrogated him about his relationship with Bressan and why he was keeping it from his wife. They all thought that Jacques and Giscard were secret lovers so were surprised -- and I think disappointed -- when Jacques revealed that they were nothing more than drinking buddies; unsatisfied, they pressed him for more and he confessed to having a criminal past and that it was possible that Bressan knew about it, but Jacques had been able to deflect his attention away from the topic whenever it had come up in conversation.

Upon their return to the farmhouse they discovered that not only had Bressan himself turned up but Albert Toulon had arrived and, surprised to see his nephew Pierre there and somewhat worse for wear, taken the boy home. The agents decided to go for another lap around the farm, this time with Bressan; he was a bit more forthcoming than Jacques and admitted that he was a black marketeer and smuggler man who could get things, so McVeigh made a tentative deal with him.

Then, after making sure Bressan was going to be at the Martin farm for the rest of the day, the agents broke into his house and stumbled upon some guns in a hidden cache; unable to help themselves they, er, helped themselves to the firearms. Now they had machine guns. Ho ho ho.

Although it was still early on Saturday the 19th of April, the agents decided to rest for the remainder of the day, and contacted London later that evening. They reported their activities and Bertrand made the bold claim that they had secured a potential landing site on the so-called Devil's Field; although the Decharette mansion overlooked the field, the pilot assured his superiors back in Britain that the agents controlled the building. In turn, London asked the agents to give the partisan group a task to test their loyalty and reliability, and told them to check in again on the 22nd.

How does one test the loyalty and reliability of partisans? Simple! By filling a suitcase with books that have had random words marked by an expert cryptographer so as to look like a secret message, then getting the partisans to deliver the suitcase to a priest in Cahors, a priest who has no idea that the suitcase is coming or what is contained within.


With the plan in place, the agents retired for the evening. The next day they decided to go to church, in part to integrate themselves into the community and in part to see who didn't turn up, because non-attendance was a sure sign of cultist tendencies. If the tally of the villages led to any significant suspicions -- aside from those concerning poor Father Beaumarais, whose constant nervousness was a red flag to the paranoid players -- the agents did not act upon them.

Walking through the village after the service the agents spotted a couple of German vehicles parked outside the restaurant and a great deal of activity within. Sneaking over for a look, Bertrand and McVeigh saw a number of German soldiers moving furniture around at the direction of Oberstleutnant Klier, the officer in charge of operations at the former Decharette copper mine. It seemed that the Germans were getting ready for a party of some sort. It was O'Brien who first made the connection. It was the 20th of April. Adolf Hitler's birthday.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Inglourious Byakhees

(With thanks to +Andrew Scott for the pithy and punny title!)

Up to this point, the players had been cautious and had been noodling around, prodding at the mysteries of Saint Cerneuf, but avoiding bold moves, aside from the incident with the German soldiers. All that changed with this most recent session as they made the switch from cautious Call of Cthulhu investigators to ruthless military bastards.

We had left the player-characters interviewing Raimond Decharette about his missing wife and her connection to a local cult, and with Pierre-Yves Bertrand having suspicions about whether Raimond was in fact Reni's father, as he claimed to be. The team put aside their questions about the Decharette family tree and instead asked the old man whether he had a copy of The Revelations of Saint Serenus in his library, as they were certain that the book would help them uncover the truth about what was going on in the village.

Raimond did not have a copy but explained that he once did, and it was now part of the Decharette collection at the village library, so that's where the Special Operations Executive agents went next, half-expecting the book to be gone. Not only was the book still present -- the adventure as written is a bit unclear on whether the copy exists, but I got tired of wrestling with inconsistent vagaries in the text and decided that it did -- but so too were the diagrams missing from the copy they had inspected in Cahors. Fergus O'Brien suspected that the spiral drawings were part of some cypher as the pages were thinner than those in the rest of the book and they seemed designed to be laid over text in order to derive another meaning; as the Revelations were written in Latin and it would take up to two weeks to translate, the agents were not able to confirm O'Brien's suspicion at that time.

Based on the note they had found and assumed to have been written by the missing Lionel Malo, the agents were convinced that the Decharette mansion sat atop a network of tunnels, and so decided to return the next day to investigate. A suspicious draught in the mansion's wine cellar seemed to confirm their belief and so they started chipping away at the wall while Pierre-Yves kept watch. He spotted young Reni Decharette ambling out of the mysterious wood and across the Devil's Field towards the mansion, stopping at one point to examine something on the ground; Mike McVeigh later investigated the spot and found a small stone statue of a satyr or fawn, an item that he pocketed for later study.

Tidelina intercepted the young woman and kept her attentions away from the activity in the cellar by playing cards with her in the mansion's kitchen and winning her over with pleasant small talk. Meanwhile the rest of the team broke through the thick cellar wall to discover that the tunnel opening they had uncovered was just about big enough for a small dog to scramble through and so would be far too tight a squeeze for the average cultist.

Disappointed, the agents decided to switch back to their military mission and in the evening visited the Martin farm to make contact with their partisan allies. There they discovered that most of the group was elsewhere, with only Helena Martin and Leon Ferrand present and engaged in an argument over the group's activities. They listened for a while before announcing their arrival, and Ferrand took the opportunity to excuse himself and return to the village; the SOE agents questioned Helena about Leon as they found his strong advocacy of direct action against the Germans worrying, and their concerns weren't allayed by her answers.

As the rest of the group returned home, McVeigh attempted to follow Ferrand but lost him as they got closer to the village; McVeigh -- himself was a former spy -- took this as evidence of special training, and not a lucky stealth roll on my part. McVeigh decided to report his wild speculation discovery to the rest of the group and upon his return to The Shunned House their lodgings he spotted someone watching the building from the shadows. McVeigh captured the observer, dragged him into the house, and discovered him to be Pierre Toulon, another of the partisans.

Pierre told the SOE agents that Ferrand had asked him to watch them and make sure they could be trusted. This aggravated their paranoia even further and so they tied the young man to a chair and roughed him up a bit in order to get answers; Toulon stuck to his story and had nothing but praise for Ferrand, a man he saw as a great patriot. Unsatisfied, the agents decided to get their answers straight from the source.

A few minutes later at Ferrand's modest house, O'Brien sneaked around to watch the back door while McVeigh and Bertrand positioned themselves at the front. McVeigh knocked once and, when no response was forthcoming, knocked a second and louder time. At this second knock, the door opened just enough for Bertrand and McVeigh to see Ferrand peering out, and they sprang into action, barging the door open and sending the partisan to the ground. O'Brien was supposed to be listening out for just such an event but wasn't paying attention and had to be summoned by the other two once they were inside and had subdued Ferrand without the Irishman's assistance.

What followed was a tense hour or so of role-playing as they tied the partisan to a chair -- a bit of a running theme -- and interrogated him about his loyalties and his true plans. He was calm despite the discouraging nature of his situation and even attempted to turn the questioning back on to them: they justified their treatment of him by appealing to their suspicions that he was a double agent, but could their harsh treatment of a supposed ally not be seen as evidence that in fact they were the double agents?

This went down about as well as could be expected and when Ferrand made it clear that they would get no answers from him, McVeigh's frustrations got the better of him and he attempted to strangle the partisan.

The violent outburst was interrupted by the sound of movement upstairs and a muffled voice calling for Leon; the agents had searched the house as soon as they had entered and had found no other occupants so this latest development didn't so much as put them on edge as push them well over. Creeping upstairs they saw a bulky shape at a window, and they rushed to engage the figure; it turned out to be Ferrand's drunk uncle, who had climbed in the window after finding both the front and back doors locked and bolted by the player-characters. For the crime of interrupting their interrogation they beat the old man into unconsciousness and tied him to a bed.

Upon their return to the ground floor, a hoarse Ferrand relented somewhat and admitted that he did indeed have special training as a member of the French secret service but that he was out of the country during the invasion and so, lacking orders and with no desire to conduct a one-man infiltration of occupied Paris, he headed instead for Saint Cerneuf du Bois to stay with his uncle and perhaps help the local resistance forces. He also claimed that if there was a double agent in the partisan group then the SOE team should be looking toward Giscard Bressan, who -- in Leon's opinion -- lacked commitment to the cause and had a mysterious connection to Jacques Martin that neither man seemed keen to discuss.

The player-characters -- and indeed the players -- were torn. Ferrand's story was plausible but at the same time they were certain that he wasn't telling the whole truth. If they were to trust him and he turned out to be rotten then he could scupper their operation, but on the other hand, if he wasn't a double-agent then silencing him would not only rob the SOE and the partisans of a useful asset, but the real double-agent -- again, if there was one! -- would still be free to work against them.

This was a great, tense sequence as the player-characters walked out of the room to confer before coming back in to ask Ferrand a few more questions, then walking out again, and so on. For much of this time I didn't have to do anything but sit back and listen as the players discussed and argued and made their cases to each other for either executing Ferrand or letting him go, and even though I wasn't involved in the debate it was thrilling to watch.

In the end, after much discussion, they decided that the risk was too great and as O'Brien looked away, McVeigh strangled Ferrand.

They untied the unconscious uncle and then took Ferrand's body away to be dumped in the river, just as they had with the young German soldier. Their emotions strained and their bodies exhausted, the agents returned to their lodgings to rest but McVeigh found that his sleep was kept at bay by vivid dreams of trees, savage people clad in furs, and a stone knife being plunged into his chest as the people danced and sang and an icy wind howled.