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.