Monday, December 19, 2016


I feel like I'm probably late to the party on this one -- it seems like the sort of thing Tim or Zak would have blogged about years ago -- but my new favourite TV programme is South Korea's The Genius.

It's sort of a hybrid of game show and reality TV, neither of which are the sort of thing I enjoy, and yet I can't stop watching The Genius, perhaps for the simple reason that it's about games, so it's a bit like watching a dysfunctional gaming group fragmenting as the weeks go on.

The premise is simple. Contestants enter a "house" and are addressed by a mysterious masked figure who has them play a game; the winner gets immunity from elimination, while the loser goes into a deathmatch and gets to pick their opponent from the other contestants. The loser of the deathmatch is eliminated, and so on it goes until there is one winner at the end of the series.

I gather that this is much like the format of stuff like Big Brother or I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! but the difference here -- aside from the fact that no one stays at the "house"; they all go away and return the next week -- is that the focus is on the games, not the who's-sleeping-with-whom downtime stuff.

The, er, genius bit is that while the games themselves have strict rules that cannot be broken, the contestants are free to manipulate things outside of those rules as they see fit. They make deals to give each other an easy win so they both go through to the next round. They form grand alliances to save as many people as possible. They, of course, betray each other all the time.

I probably shouldn't enjoy it, because it's a bit depressing how duplicitous almost everyone is, all for a cash prize that none of the contestants need because they are all celebrities to some extent; I am expecting hoping for some sort of "for charity" twist towards the end. Even so, it's glorious fun, in part because of all the twists and turns -- if the players aren't super clever bastards, the editing makes them look like they are -- and in part because it's about games, and I do love games.

Anyway, here's the first episode. Others can be found here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Boy Band Road Trip XV

I know I was excited about Final Fantasy Versus XIII but it's been so long since the game was announced that I don't remember why. Even so, now it's out -- and now called Final Fantasy XV -- and I have it.

I haven't got very far into the game; I'm only on the third of thirteen chapters, and it could all go to heck after this point, but I've also put in about forty hours, which tells you both a lot about my play style and about how much I'm enjoying it.

When I finish the game I may come back with some more thoughts, but here's what I think so far, in a format stolen from my old mate Andy.

The Good

The protagonists look like a rubbish boy band and they do come across as chumps but they also turn out early on to be quite endearing. It's a computer game so the acting isn't brilliant but there is a real sense of camaraderie in the party and because they convince me that they care about each other, I end up caring about them too. My favourite is Ignis, who cooks, drives, and is English, so I think is supposed to be the main character Noctis' butler. He has a wonderful habit of shouting about recipes, even when the party is supposed to be sneaking through the woods, trying to avoid mind flayers. As he's English he will probably turn out to be a traitor, but for now he's ace.

I like the setting more than I expected too. It's a sort of modern fantasy so everyone's dressed in normal clothes and they drive cars and they go to diners, but they are also carrying magic spears and the man flipping the burgers at the diner is also handing out monster-hunting quests and rumours about treasure. I think there's been a bit of grumbling about FFXV not being a traditional mediaeval fantasy setting, but it's not as if the series hasn't done similar things before; everyone loves FFVII and that starts with a train pulling into a station in an industrial city. It helps that the design is consistent; I like a patchwork fantasy world -- Titan is a mess of influences that shouldn't work, and I love it nonetheless -- but FFXV's world does have a certain verisimilitude.

The game blocks exploration at first but once a certain story point is reached early on you are free to roam. There's a bit of backlash against open world games these days and I can understand why, but I love to explore at my own pace and FFXV doesn't stop me from poking around in the corners of the map. I'm also happy with the region-based level scaling; in general, monsters get tougher the further away you get from the starting area and I much prefer that approach to something like Skyrim, in which the bandits that were level 4 last time you passed their cave are now level 16. In tabletop gaming terms, FFXV feels more like an old-school wilderness crawl than I would have expected from something so shiny and new; you can even run into creatures far outside of the usual level range for that area, the equivalent of the GM rolling the most unlikely result on her wandering monster table.

Oh, and the monsters fight each other! They need to be goaded into it but then you can sit back and watch them pummel each other, and you even get to keep the loot they drop. It's a little detail but it makes the world feel less artificial, and there's something fun about setting off a little bit of chaos in a system and watching it escalate.

The Bad

Menu-based combat seems to be out of fashion in rpgs these days, as there is a common perception that it requires no skill -- which anyone who's played Disgaea will tell you is ballcocks -- so in FFXV you have direct control over Noctis, and the idea is that you run about looking for openings, and dodge in and out of the fight. This works in something like Dark Souls because there's a sense of weight to the fighting and it makes a difference if you get hit. That's not the case in FFXV, in which combat feels light and soft, and there's no major benefit to being dynamic when you can just hold down the circle button until the enemies are dead. I fail to see how that requires more skill.

The Ugly

The protagonists are not, it turns out, members of a rubbish boy band, but they do look like a rubbish boy band, and while you can change their outfits, the small number of alternatives also look like what a rubbish boy band would wear. This game is crying out out for big bags of costumes like Final Fantasy X-2 had; I'm not a big fan of publishers selling frivolous extra content like outfits, but even I would consider paying 50p for something that's not some black trousers and a black jacket.

As you can see, there's far more Good, which is, er, good, because I was a bit wary going into the game. I haven't played all of the titles in the Final Fantasy series -- I haven't started IX yet and that's considered to be the best one -- but I am a bit of a fan. It's far too early to tell if XV will unseat my favourite, 2006's XII, but already it has a better story -- although that wouldn't be difficult -- and the gameplay is almost as much fun, aside from the terrible combat mechanics. We'll see how things progress as I put in more hours over the Chrimble break, but it's thumbs up so far.

Thursday, November 24, 2016


The Red Line Corporate Solutions team is looking for Castle Dracula somewhere in northern Romania. Alas, what it finds instead is a werewolf. Oops.

The team consists of:

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

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

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

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

Natasha is some distance away, trying to talk sense into an unhinged Max. Sten is sat behind the wheel of the team's 4x4. All of which leaves Carmel facing the two young ruffians, one of which is now a "Ruff"-ian. Ho ho!

"Ruff", like a dog. No?

Anyway, there's a bit of a skirmish as Carmel tries to evade the monster, then Sten puts his foot down -- literally -- and smashes his car into the creature. Meanwhile the other thug begins to change and Max and Natasha scramble back to aid their colleagues.

The vehicle skids and swerves around as the werewolf clings to the bonnet and attempts to grab Sten. It manages to tear the driver's side door off the hinges -- quite a feat considering the vehicle is armoured -- and in response Sten points his MP5 at the monster's head, makes a smooth quip, then the gun jams. The creature seems to smile.

Meanwhile the rest of the team tackles the other monster, with Carmel finishing it off with a burst of gunfire.

Sten is forced to be creative and swings the vehicle in a wide arc, hoping the momentum is enough to shake the monster loose before it can eat him. It turns out to be more than enough as the werewolf spins through the air with a plaintive whine and crunches against a tree. It is quite dead, but the rest of the team makes sure by dousing the corpse with bottles of silver nitrate.

(They thought the silver nitrate would be useful against vampires. It wasn't.)

The lump of gore that was the other werewolf begins to bubble and hiss, as if it is boiling, then it clambers to what was its feet. A gurgling voice issues from the wreck of its throat and the team finds itself somehow in conversation with Dracula himself. This is all a bit too much for Carmel, who goes for a sit down.

Natasha seems to be oblivious to the gravity of the situation and attempts to bait the ancient vampire warlord but he seems resistant to her dubious charms and after a brief back-and forth -- during which he casts doubt on Sten's loyalty -- the Lord of the Vampires™ does whatever the equivalent of hanging up is when one is using magic to speak through a corpse. A rain storm sweeps in and the team decides to return to base, a rented cottage some miles away.

The rain seems to follow, and a quick look at weather satellite imagery seems to confirm that the torrential rain is indeed centred on the team. No one expected Dracula to be quite so petty.

Sten is not trusted to keep watch, which doesn't bother him as he gets a full night's rest while the others keep an eye out for further vampiric shenanigans. The next morning brings more rain but the investigators decide to press on and search for the castle. Carmel fumbles an attempt to hack some detailed satellite imagery of the Red Lake area, and suspects that she may have alerted the authorities, so the team decides on a more basic approach and starts canvassing local guides.

The search starts to resemble a weird sort of holiday as the investigators go on a number of cave tours but alas do not discover Dracula's secret underground fortress. The team feels the trail going cold and in desperation Carmel risks breaking cover and asks her contacts to look into the locations of any former SOE agents who would have been in Romania during EDOM's 1941 operation to enlist Dracula for the war effort. To everyone's surprise, a potential lead is uncovered, and to everyone's annoyance, he is back in London.

The investigators decide to try a telephone call and get what seems to be a doddery old gent somewhere in south Wales. He is not too helpful and seems confused at best -- "Is this about PPI?" -- but they suspect that he is more sharp than he is letting on and they keep pushing, until he lets slip that he needs some sort of password before he will say any more.

Sten calls his brother in MI6 and convinces him to dig out a suitable password, and the team rings the elderly agent again. It is an old code, but it checks out, and the old fellow confirms that he was on the 1941 mission. He claims that he doesn't remember many details from that time but gives the team a rough location for the castle as well as some landmarks to help pinpoint the exact spot on which it stood.

The team heads back to the Red Lake and follows the directions provided by the old agent until further progress is blocked by a tall wire fence. The investigators debate whether to cut a gap large enough for their 4x4 but in the end decide to proceed on foot; this proves to be a wise decision as they encounter -- but do not alert -- a pair of park wardens.

Silenced guns roar put-put-put and the two wardens are eliminated; a closer inspection of the corpses reveals that each is wearing body armour and is carrying a submachine gun, none of which is standard issue for the average Romanian park keeper.

The investigators advance until they reach a crag overlooking the lake; this, they were told, is the location of Castle Dracula. Sure enough, they spy ruins atop the higher ground, as well as more armed guards. A plan is formed.

While everyone else hides, Max sets up a campfire nearby and sets his mobile to play some good old-fashioned German party music. Then he too hides within sight of the fire. Natasha climbs a tree with a good view of the crag and sets up her rifle. Carmel listens in to the guards' radio chatter but with little success as she doesn't speak Romanian.

A couple of guards head into the woods to investigate Max's Europarty and as they approach the campfire, the team springs its trap. All goes as planned until the guards start teleporting.

A running gunfight ensues. Carmel, Max, and Sten assault the crag while Natasha attempts to provide covering fire, somewhat stymied by a teleporting park warden trying to remove her head; when her gun jams, the Russian resorts to a grenade to finish him off.

Natasha's colleagues gain the upper hand and soon eliminate the opposition atop the outcrop, although at least one of the guards is unaccounted for. The Russian assassin jogs back through the trees to rejoin the rest of the team as a chill fills the air and a thick fog rolls in from the lake; Carmel, Max, and Sten make a quick circle of holy water and broken communion wafers and stand within, weapons ready. They urge Natasha to hurry.

The Russian scrambles up the slope, crucifix in hand, as the fog thickens in front of her and forms into a short but athletic woman.

Next: There's a bat in mi dungeon, what am I gonna do?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Not So Grim and Perilous

Comics writer and professional Gavin Norman impersonator Kieron Gillen rambles here about the aesthetic of Warhammer, how the original Warhammer setting is probably racist, and how Games Workshop may not be the Evil Empire it is often portrayed as, and -- to be fair -- was for a good number of years.

It's worth reading, but the first bit jumped out at me because it's something I've been saying for years: yes, the Warhammer games are all about the GrimDark™ but that this is supposed to be funny, because, by gosh, how could it not be? It's so over the top that I cannot understand how anyone takes it seriously.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay characters are rat catchers and students pushed into fighting the legions of Chaos by bad luck and poor judgement. Is that not self-evidently funny? Both Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy Age Battle of Sigmar are full of puns and ridiculous names; one of the Space Marine primarchs -- the most super duper of the super duper genetic soldiers -- is called Lionel. You can stick a random 80's trash fantasy novel apostrophe in there but it's still not a name that evokes the image of a hardened killer of alien scum.

The other, more famous, KG sort of blames the Americans, which I don't think is quite fair, but the obfuscation of the essential joke at the heart of the Warhammers does seem to have gone hand in hand with Games Workshop's global success. I don't begrudge the world these less comedic versions of the franchises -- and as Coop says here, Games Workshop has done its fair share to move away from the humour -- because if what you like about 40K is that everything is festooned with skulls, then good for you.

I don't think I'm trying to make a point. What I'm not saying is that anyone is doing Warhammer wrong. I think what I am saying is that to me there's an essential humour at the heart of the game lines -- even more so in some of the spin-offs like Blood Bowl and WFRP -- and it always baffled me that few people seemed to recognise it, so it is good to see someone of Gillen's profile also pick up on it. It's simple validation, I suppose.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Jumping the Were-Shark

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team has run into a little bit of trouble in northern Romania. The team consists of:

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

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

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

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

Sten is unconscious and Carmel is missing an arm. The team is miles away from anywhere and there's no telling if the would-be assassins are going to return. All in all it's been a bad day at the office.

One of the assassins' motorcycles is intact so Natasha wakes Carmel up, sticks her on the back, and then rides off in search of a petrol station and -- they hope -- some ice. Meanwhile Max wakes Sten and together they set about making the scene of the battle look more like a mundane car accident and less like a running gun fight with a black ops death squad.

Natasha's mission is successful and Carmel's severed arm is shoved into a cooler full of ice cubes; the Russian also thinks about stealing a car but she is the only customer the service station has seen all day and Carmel's serious injury means that there isn't time to wait for someone else to turn up.

Carmel is coherent enough to remember that she has a friend -- Dacien Comenescu -- who has been a local fixer for various intelligence agencies in the past. There is a hospital two hours away and Comenescu arranges for a -- discreet -- surgeon to meet Carmel there.

The team planned ahead and the van -- now lying upside down in a ditch -- has a small car in the back. Carmel rests as her colleagues wrestle the hatchback from the van; their luck is with them and aside from some dents and scratches, the car is in good working order. Carmel is driven to the hospital and is in surgery for three hours before her colleagues see her -- and her reattached arm -- again. There has been nerve damage and the arm will never quite be the same again, the surgeon says, but it could be much, much worse.

The team ponders its next move. Carmel is going to need to rest and recover but the hospital is not likely to be safe; Comenescu arranges for a nearby safe house and the group moves there. It will take some weeks for Carmel to recover, and her colleagues could do with some rest too, but even so everyone keeps busy. Vehicles and weapons are acquired from black market contacts and Max and Natasha begin study of Le Dragon Noir, to see if it is in fact a working tome of magic.

The plan is to use a healing ritual from the book to repair the lasting damage both Carmel and Sten have suffered and, after a week of preparation, the rituals begin. The first attempts come to nothing but Natasha refuses to give up and her persistence pays off as, days later, Carmel's flesh knits together and even the permanent nerve damage heals. The miracle does not come without a cost, and Carmel's mind snaps as she watches her arm regenerate before her eyes.

A day or so later, when Carmel returns to her senses, the team breaks cover to... visit a museum! With the confirmation that Le Dragon Noir is real and that its rituals work, the team decide to try a spell that -- the book promises -- will destroy any vampire. Among other things, it requires a sample of the vampire's handwriting, some of the creature's blood, and a handful of its home soil; as it turns out, many museums in Romania have letters or diaries written by local hero Vlad the Impaler.

(Assuming, of course, that Vlad the Impaler did in fact become Dracula.)

Sten visits the exhibit first to get a close look at the document and grab some pictures, then he gets to work on a forgery. The false document complete, Sten returns with the rest of the team and together -- after Max fakes a heart attack to distract museum staff -- they swap his forgery for the original.

Lacul; Rosu, RomaniaThe next stop is Dracula's castle. Putting together clues from the Dracula Dossier and the satellite imagery grabbed from EDOM's headquarters the team focusses on the Bicaz Gorge in the north-east of the country, and the Red Lake at its end. The lake is in a national park and the group is surprised to discover not a dark, gothic castle, but holidaymakers splashing about in boats and locals selling gifts and trinkets.

Max and Natasha ask around but no one seems to know anything about Castle Dracula; they are beginning to wonder if they are in the wrong place, when Carmel spots a pair of young thugs watching them from a nearby car. She reports the sighting to her colleagues and they convene to discuss their next move; suspecting that the pair are servants of Dracula, the team decides to spring a trap.

Everyone clambers into the group's car and they drive off along a wooded trail; sure enough the two youngsters follow in their own vehicle. The Red Line team pulls ahead just enough to lose sight of the pursuers for a couple of minutes and then uses the time to set up an ambush. Sten waits in the car while the rest of the team takes up scattered positions in the surrounding woods; the other car arrives and the occupants see Sten parked in the middle of the trail, so they bring their vehicle to a halt.

The rest of the team rushes into action. Natasha uses her riot foam gun to trap the occupants of the car while Carmel and Max provide cover. The youths are dragged from their vehicle, forced to their knees, and handcuffed; upon questioning they claim they are just going for an afternoon drive and are puzzled by the team's reaction. They remain calm, even cheerful, throughout the interrogation.

Perhaps their blasé attitude sets Max off, or perhaps the stresses of the past couple of months have taken their toll; whatever the cause, the German loses his cool and starts to beat one of the young men, pistol-whipping him again and again until Natasha is forced to drag Max away and talk him down.

Meanwhile, Carmel and Sten are surprised as the injured thug starts convulsing and shaking; surprise turns to concern when he gets to his feet, then to worry as he flexes his arms and snaps the handcuffs. Worry becomes horror as bristly grey hair begins to sprout from the man's skin, and his eerie smile distorts into a fanged maw.

Next: chomp!

Friday, November 04, 2016

Bring Me the Head of Jeremy Clarkson!

Like buses, these updates are.

Last time, the Red Line Corporate Solutions team infiltrated Ring, the headquarters of MI6 offshoot EDOM, and escaped with bags full of loot and data. The team consists of:

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

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

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

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

The team holes up in a dacha just outside Saint Petersburg -- courtesy of Natasha's "Uncle Ivan" -- and the next few weeks consist of long days going through the heaps of data acquired from Ring.

Among other juicy details, the Red Line team discovers the codenames of the EDOM Dukes, and a rough idea of their individual roles and responsibilities within the organisation. EDOM's section chief is referred to as "D", a codename that causes Carmel to be suspicious -- or perhaps paranoid is more apt -- of EDOM's true loyalties.

EDOM's goals and standard operating procedures are detailed, and at least two other locations -- a remote house in Cornwall, and an HMS Proserpine in the North Sea -- are mentioned; the latter in relation to the still-missing members of Ibáñez Security Solutions, who appear to be imprisoned there. The team decides against attempting a rescue, a decision that causes Max some discomfort.

EDOM's field guide to fighting vampires proves useful, confirming some suspicions the team have about the monsters, and providing new information on their weaknesses. The advice on Dracula himself is less useful; EDOM suggests that its agents, if they encounter Dracula, should make a run for it!

Sten is packed off to a local clinic -- also laid on by Natasha's generous uncle -- to make sure that the wounds he suffered in Rotterdam are healing; while he's there the doctors conduct tests on the Englishman's blood and find it to be normal, if a little light on red cells.

The old, strange leather-bound book is written in a number of languages, only some of which the team can translate, so a couple of students are borrowed from Saint Petersburg State University and paid a big stack of cash to stay at the dacha, translate the book, and keep quiet about what they are doing.

All this research proceeds to the team satisfaction for a few weeks until Sten receives a telephone call from an unknown number. The caller introduces herself as Hound -- one of the Dukes of EDOM -- and congratulates the team on their success; she claims that EDOM is quite impressed with the way the team infiltrated Ring, and requests a meeting. It becomes clear that EDOM has at least a rough idea of where the Red Line team is hiding so the team decides that it has nothing to lose and agrees to meet in Moscow in a couple of days.

Moscow, church of Three SaintsMax and Sten arrive at a church in Russia's capital, while Carmel waits nearby in a car, ready to pick them up if things go wrong, and Natasha watches through her rifle's scope from a rooftop. Hound turns out to be a beautiful woman -- who does have a reflection, Max notes -- and Sten, the old womaniser, finds his resolve weakening.

Once again Hound congratulates the team but Max rejects her flattery and demands to know what she wants. The Duke tells him that EDOM is happy to let the team keep the money and kit stolen from Ring, and even the data -- a brief attempt at blackmail results in a laugh from Hound; "who would believe it?" -- but that they want the book back.

"Which book?" Max asks, which prompts a raised eyebrow from Hound, but she confirms that it is the leather-bound book that EDOM wants. She claims it is useless to Max and his friends but that it is precious to EDOM, for sentimental reasons. None of the team is convinced.

Max makes a deal; if EDOM bust the London cult -- he gives her the names of the members -- and present evidence that the vampire in charge is dead, then the book will be returned. Hound agrees to the terms but also makes it clear that the entire Red Line team could be dead if she wished it; it's at that point that Natasha sees the EDOM snipers she didn't spot earlier.

The team returns to the dacha, whereupon Carmel discovers that the security cameras at the house have been tampered with; nothing is missing and the students and house staff report no intruders, but even so the group decides to move to another location. "Uncle Ivan"'s resources are limited and the second hideout is not as fancy as the first, but it will do.

Sten does not sleep well in the new location, and has frightening dreams of mist and a familiar female voice calling to him; he wakes feeling not at all refreshed.

The students announce that the translation has been completed; the book is called Le Dragon Noir and appears to be a genuine fifteenth-century grimoire. It is rare but famous in occult circles and is supposed to be one of King Solomon's spellbooks, concerned with the summoning and binding of demons. Natasha has a good look and decides that she will try to cast at least one of the spells, but before that she takes the two students for a walk in the woods, to clear their heads after the long days of study. She returns alone.

Carmel keeps an eye on the news over the next few days and notices that the members of the London vampire cult all get into some sort of trouble; some have fatal accidents -- poor Simon Quinlank stumbles in front of a bus -- some are forced into retirement, and some -- Jeremy Clarkson is implicated in sexual crimes -- are arrested. Soon after the group receives an email containing a single attachment; a photograph of a chair in some sort of concrete room. The chair has manacles attached and the chains are taut, even though the chair appears to be empty; it seems as if EDOM has caught a vampire.

The team decides to take a risk and double cross EDOM; Natasha contacts Hound and claims that the book will be delivered in a week, rather than right now. Then the team packs up, rents a small truck, and starts a long cross country drive to Romania.

Romanian CountrysideAll is well for a couple of days but -- just after crossing into Romania -- the team spots a number of vehicles in pursuit. Two motorcycles -- each carrying a passenger in addition to the rider -- rush past and a pair of heavy four-by-fours moves up behind the truck.

The motorcyclists return, brandishing submachine guns, and a tense moving battle ensues. Sten's reactions are slowed due to the nerve damage he suffered at the hands teeth of the Rotterdam vampire, but his driving skills remain sharp, and he is able to keep the truck on the road while his companions fight back. The motorcyclists are soon despatched but the off-roaders turn out to be armoured and one seems to have a driver at least as skilled as Sten.

The cars ram the truck, the truck rams the cars, and something of a stalemate develops, until one of the car's passengers fires a grenade into the truck's cabin. It turns out to only be a gas grenade but Sten is not fast enough to don a mask and he falls unconsciousness, just the opening his opposite number needs to ram the truck once more, flipping it over.

The truck rolls and tumbles and while most of the Red Line team escape with minor injuries, Carmel is crushed by part of the truck's cabin and her forearm is sheared right off!

With Carmel bleeding out and Sten unconscious, Max and Natasha fear that their time is up as the pair spot the cars stopping and their -- armed -- occupants disembarking. Max and Natasha decide to go out fighting and lob grenades at their opponents; Max's is a standard fragmentation grenade that scatters some of the approaching assassins, but the bloodthirsty Russian uses a white phosphorus charge and shows no sympathy as her opponents burn and scream.

The cars speed off as their drivers see that the day has gone against them, but the Red Line team find it difficult to feel triumphant. They are stranded in northern Romania without transport and -- although Natasha stabilises her -- Carmel is in a critical condition.

Next: Roman(ian) Holiday.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Lords of the Ring

Crikey, it's been a while since I've done one of these! As happens every year we have a bit of a summer hiatus as everyone goes off on various holidays, then we played a bunch of board games until we could get everyone around a table again, at which point Stuart ran a super Vietnam War Savage Worlds game, so it's only in the past couple of weeks that we've got back to the Dracula Dossier. It's been so long that you've probably forgotten who's who:

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

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

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

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

Last time, the Red Line agents consultants encountered -- via email -- a mysterious informant named "King Arthur", who suggested that they investigate a place called Ring. The location has come up in their prior researches and they suspect it to be the headquarters of EDOM. What EDOM is no one is quite certain, but it seems to be part of MI6 and has something to do with the vampire conspiracy; Max thinks EDOM may be some sort of immortality cult, perhaps with some connection to the group the team ran into in London. What is certain is that Ring is a lion's den type situation -- even if there is more than one lion roaming about -- but the Red Line team knows that there are answers to be found there.

Favours are called in, bribes are paid, passports are faked, and after a few days the team finds itself in Surrey, overlooking the Ring. At the centre of an overgrown and ragged estate sits a modest country house, not quite a mansion, but large enough to hold all sorts of secrets; Carmel notes an advanced communications array on the roof of the house, and knows that this is not a normal National Trust property.

Armed guards patrol the grounds, some with dogs, and the team also spots a hawk's mews, suggesting that EDOM makes use of trained attack birds. The grounds also contain an apiary but no one deems it likely that they will need to face combat-trained bees.

After a couple of days of observation the team has a rough idea of the number of personnel at the site but too many questions remain and an infiltration seems inevitable. A number of plans are mooted, including posing as firefighters, posing as inspectors, or Sten crashing a light aircraft into the building; this latter plan is not greeted with enthusiasm by the Englishman, not least because no one can explain what is supposed to happen after he's crashed.

In the end it's decided to keep things simple and sneak in during the night. A river has been split and redirected to flow around the estate, hence the name, and so the team decides to approach by boat; the idea is that it will make pursuit more difficult should things go wrong, as no watercraft are evident at the site. A quiet Zodiac boat is rented and Max is picked to stay with it, as he has a tendency towards clumsiness, not the best trait for a stealth mission.

How ironic it is then that the other three stumble into a series of leghold traps as they make their way to the house, although they avoid any serious injury.

This is the worst luck they face as they infiltrate the grounds and, through a combination of stealth and the liberal application of tranquiliser rounds and gas grenades, subdue the opposition. Somehow the team manages to explore most of the house without raising any sort of alarm and not only discovers what looks to be EDOM's operations centre -- complete with hard drives packed full of juicy data -- but also an underground medical facility and a vault stuffed with cash of various denominations, faked travel documents, and a mysterious leather -- or is it? -- bound book. The agents thieves private security contractors grab everything they can.

The team also capture two men who -- unlike the rest of the personnel present -- seem to be identified only by code names; the team's researches have uncovered references to so-called "Dukes" of EDOM, some sort of higher echelon within the organisation, and there is a brief discussion about whether it's worth taking the pair away, but it is decided that the hard drives are a more efficient -- not to mention safer -- source of data.

Natasha is intrigued by an entire wing of the house that is closed off; a brief look turns up rooms full of dust sheets and broken furniture, but the Russian is unconvinced that all is as it seems and wants to explore further. Max has joined the rest of the team by this time and he and Carmel urge Natasha to abandon the search; they have gained plenty already and every further minute spent in the house is a further chance that something will go wrong. A reluctant Natasha agrees and the team flees the house.

They cannot quite believe their luck. The team has infiltrated EDOM's base and gathered all sorts of useful data and resources, and seems to have done it without being discovered. It is decided that the best thing to do is lie low for a while and go through the loot, so Natasha calls her "Uncle Ivan" and soon the team is heading for a quiet dacha just outside Saint Petersburg.

Next: research, Russia, and a road trip!

Less-Than-Three Harpsichords

Friday, October 07, 2016

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Enter Six Hard Nailed Mercenaries for Hire

I shouldn't be even thinking about this right now. In a couple of weeks, we'll be restarting our Dracula Dossier campaign, and after that I'm supposed to be running Phoenix: Dawn Command, and at some point I should run Genlab Alpha since I backed the Kickstarter, and I've got a Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure part-written that seems to be sprawling out of control, and...


I was up in That London a couple of weeks ago to visit friends and we tried to play the remastered Chaos Engine, except Steam was being silly and the controllers went wonky and made an already difficult game even more tricky and...


The Chaos Engine is ace, a Gauntletish two-player shoot-em-up with a steampunk aesthetic before steampunk was a thing, and as we played we wondered why no one had done anything with it. James suggested a film adaptation, but I thought it would make for a good campaign setting. Have a look:

I imagine that a Chaos Engine campaign would be similar to Pool of Radiance, Big Rubble for RuneQuest, or Games Workshop's much-missed Mordheim, with a dash of Escape From New York and a healthy smearing of Roadside Picnic. Baron Fortesque's experiment has led to London being evacuated -- with the government moved to Birmingham or Oxford or something -- and left as an urban waste packed full of monsters and weird science gone wrong. Her Majesty's armed forces have established a somewhat secure perimeter around the city and there is much adventure to be had in nipping across the border into the Chaos Zone and exploring the former capital.

The abandonment of London would probably be swift, with much left behind, so adventurers could be employed to recover an aristocrat's belongings from his Mayfair residence, now occupied by psychotic mutant dinosaurs. Perhaps they hear about a bank vault that was never emptied during the evacuation, and must race to crack open the vault before other treasure hunters -- or worse -- get there.

People would have been left behind too, so the player-characters could be asked to enter London to find a missing family member, or at least discover if they still live. Perhaps Uncle Alf is still alive, but has been transformed into a mindless brute; is there a way to reverse his mutation? What of Baron Fortesque? Many would be interested in his rescue, or indeed capture.

The Chaos Engine is trying to extend its area of influence by installing "nodes" that act as relays for whatever weird energies the Engine is producing, transforming the area and mutating its inhabitants; in a more military-themed adventure, the player-characters could be tasked to find and destroy these devices in order to push back the Engine's effect, but perhaps there are other rogue scientists who would pay for the technology's covert recovery.

Baron Fortesque's mansion would be the tentpole dungeon of the campaign, a manor house twisted by the Engine's power into a strange multidimensional labyrinth, at its heart the Chaos Engine itself, a huge boss monster made of brass and steam that squirts out homicidal robots and time-tossed energy beings.

(The Engine has one further secret that those who completed the original game will know, but I won't spoil it here.)

I'm not sure what system I would use to run The Chaos Engine. A mashup of the Doctor Who and Primeval rpgs could work, but given the pulpy adventure feel Savage Worlds looks like the best fit; there's even a Victorian era monster hunting sourcebook available in Rippers. There's some work to be done; adventures need to be written and the monsters require an overhaul, as in the original game they just run around and shoot, and differ only in visual design and how many bullets they absorb.

Getting The Chaos Engine ready to run would not be a great deal of work but it would be a significant amount, and as I mentioned above I have loads of other projects on the go. That said, there's something compelling about the idea, compelling enough that it buzzed around in my head for days and prompted this post, so perhaps I will return to the strange alternate 1893 in a future brainsplurge.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

You've Got Mail

The Red Line team has fought and probably defeated a vampire in Rotterdam, but not without cost. The team consists of:

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

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

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

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

Sten is in a private clinic in Zurich, recovering from his mauling at the hands teeth of the Rotterdam vampire, and Max, concerned for Sten's soul, is sitting at his bedside. Meanwhile Carmel and Natasha are in Munich, keeping an eye on the abandoned grave yard in which -- they believe -- lies the vampire's original tomb.

Carmel receives an email from "King Arthur" congratulating the team on their actions in Rotterdam and offering to work with them, while Natasha receives a hefty chunk of cash from "a private collector" for the vampire head she acquired in London; both women claim that they have no idea who their mysterious contacts are.

After a week or so Max and Sten arrive in Munich and the team gets together to plan their next move. There is some brief discussion of returning to Rotterdam to make sure there are no loose ends at the HGD Shipping headquarters, or, as Max puts it, to "level the whole building"; the team decides that this is perhaps too extravagant and besides, perhaps Carmel cannot be trusted with the quantity of explosives necessary to do the job.

Instead the team decides to focus on working out what is going on in the Munich grave yard; they don't fancy a direct confrontation with the security guards at the site, so devise a plan to have the local police raid the cemetery and clear out the opposition. Natasha obtains a sizeable quantity of cocaine and Sten takes some of it to the grave yard to give the police some evidence to find.

The plan is simple: Sten is to stay out of sight and fling a holdall packed with drugs over the fence into the secure area, then leg it and wait for the police to arrive.

Alas, Sten's player rolls 00, so things do not go to plan and Sten is chased away by guards who are not as quick on their feet as they could be, because they are too busy laughing.

20150331최광모77Natasha tries next, using a drone to drop the drugs off in a corner of the site, but -- perhaps because of Sten's earlier shenanigans -- the guards have their eyes peeled and spot the machine.

At the same time, the team tries again to chuck Sten's holdall over the fence and this attempt -- with most of the guards distracted by the drone -- is a success.

The second part of the plan goes a bit better. The police are called and when the first officers are rebuffed by the site's guards, events escalate and soon there is quite a mêlée; the guards are arrested and stuffed into vans and the site is locked down.

The Red Line team waits a couple of hours to allow things to calm down and then approaches the site with Max in the lead, flashing his old but valid BND identification to get past the officers on watch.  The team discovers the remains of the Dolingen tomb mentioned in the Dracula Dossier, but there appears to be nothing of use to be found there. It seems that all the team's effort has been wasted.

Somewhat demoralised, the team moves on to another lead: "King Arthur" seems to know something of what's going on and although Carmel is convinced that it is a trap, her colleagues arrange a meeting with the mysterious correspondent. Max and Carmel arrive at the meeting point, an outdoor cafe, while Natasha and Sten watch over the scene from nearby.

A middle-aged, athletic man approaches Carmel and Max and identifies himself as their contact. Their discussion is hesitant and lacking in detail but Carmel and Max are convinced that "King Arthur" has important information on the vampire conspiracy, and so they attempt to negotiate some sort of deal. He agrees to meet them again once he has checked some things out and leaves, but not before a tracking device is planted on him and his coffee cup is pocketed.

The team follow the man for the rest of the day as he spends some time seeing the sights of Munich, stops for an evening meal, and then heads to a hotel. Carmel receives another email from "King Arthur", expressing a desire for further conversation, but she is also monitoring the man's hotel internet connection and detects no use at the time the email is sent.

BND Logo neuMeanwhile, Max has passed the man's fingerprints to his former colleagues in the BND and calls in a couple of favours in order to get a quick turnaround; the man turns out to be Dieter Gross, a former German army officer with connections to the British military via NATO. His record is clean and he doesn't appear to have been involved in anything shady, although his post-military career as an "adviser" raises a few eyebrows amongst the Red Line "security consultants".

The team is convinced that Gross is not "King Arthur" and confronts the latter, albeit via email. "King Arthur" admits that Gross is an agent but keeps his or her own identity secret; the emails bounce back and forth as this new contact is probed for information but it is clear that whoever they are, they have their own reasons for getting involved and their assistance does not come without a price. "King Arthur" wants Carmel and the team to fight the vampire conspiracy; the team wants "King Arthur" to hand over some useful information on how to fight the vampires. The response is just one word:


They know that word. Ring is the supposed site of headquarters of EDOM, the MI6 division that seems to be somehow involved with the vampires. It looks like the team is going back to England.

Next: a trip to Surrey!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Bundles of the Flame Princess

I'm not much of a promoter so excuse me as I blunder through this one; if it helps, it's for a good cause!

The latest Bundle of Holding, er, bundle is packed full of gribbly, blood-soaked, sanity-shredding Lamentations of the Flame Princess books. Er, pdfs. For the next five-and-a-bit days you can get excellent stuff like the LotFP rules and the wonderful Vornheim for the absurd price of $13; for another $13 you can also get the clever Scenic Dunnsmouth and the super England Upturn'd. You also get the best horror adventure set in 1625 Norwich, my own Forgive Us. All in all, you get about $100 worth of top quality gaming stuff for $26, which is a bit of a bargain.

(Yes, I am a bit biased because I did the pictures for three of the included books and wrote one of them, but even so I think it's an excellent deal.)

Ten percent of the proceeds go to the aforementioned good cause, the Myositis Association, so you can even feel good about buying adventures that will probably make your players cry.

Go and have a look at the horrors that await! They are good horrors!

Sunday, July 24, 2016


The Red Line team has followed a van full of earth -- possible the earth in which a vampire rests -- from an abandoned grave yard in Munich to the headquarters of HGD Shipping in Rotterdam. As the sun begins to rise, the private security consultants watch the building and ponder their next move.

The Red Line team consists of:

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

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

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

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

Carmel has hacked into the building's security cameras so the team has a good idea of the layout of the building and where the guards are. Alas, there are eight guards, four of which look more tooled up than the others, and there are no cameras on the top floor, which is where the Red Line team believes the crates of earth have been taken.

The team does not know what to do. Dawn approaches and people will soon start to arrive for work, so there is a time limit; on the other hand, if there is indeed a vampire in the building, day seems to be the best time to fight it. They have come prepared to sneak in, but they wonder if approaching from above via helicopter may be better, and at least one member of the team ponders destroying the building with explosives.

With time running out they decide to go with the original plan, such as it is, but Max does remember that he knows a helicopter pilot based in the city and drags poor Dennis Engels out of bed with a promise of vast heaps of cash; Engels is instructed to get his helicopter in the air and to pick the team up from the roof of the HGD building in twenty minutes.

Carmel disables the building's alarms then the team moves; they rush up to the rear of the building and Carmel unlocks the door. Once inside they move fast, with Carmel and Max each keeping an eye on the security video feed so they can track the guards, two of whom disappear from view as they head to the top floor. No one is enthused by this development.

Most of the guards are avoided and are left far below on the lower floors but fortune is not with the Red Line team and the alarm is raised; Carmel's video feed shows two of the tougher, better-equipped guards ready and waiting for the lift to arrive.

They stop the lift, pile out, then send it up, but not before Natasha rolls a grenade into the carriage. Max, Natasha, and Sten leg it up the stairs, hoping to catch the guards off-balance, while Carmel stays behind to leave an explosive surprise between floors ten and eleven for anyone pursuing via the stairs.

The guards above are armed only with tasers and batons, and also exhibit worrying levels of strength and speed; Carmel worries that they may not quite be human, but they respond as well to bursts of submachine gun fire as the average person and do not last long.

The Red Line team hurries to the top floor where progress is halted by a locked door; Carmel slaps some C-4 on the frame and -- because of a previous experience with explosives -- the rest of the team slopes to the floor below. This cautious approach proves to be prudent as Carmel once again uses a tad too much explosive and blows herself down the stairs, gaining a few bumps and bruises as a result.

Things get worse as the team explores the top floor of the HGD building and encounters an unnatural darkness; torches don't penetrate the inky shadow, and night vision goggles prove useless. The darkness seems almost tangible and not one of the team fancies exploring any further.

Natasha rolls another grenade into the room, hoping to break a window and allow the dawn sunlight to flood in. The sound of shattering glass seems to confirm that the first part of the plan works, but the darkness remains. Then a pair of arms emerge from the blackness and attempt to drag the Russian off.

One of the guards emerges from the blackness and engages the team in combat; he survives not much longer than the other two, but it's not much of a victory as he's followed by a beautiful woman with a savage and hungry look in her eyes and nasty, big, pointy teeth.

This new arrival shrugs off gunfire and grabs Sten, dragging him into the darkness; the others try not to hear his screams as the vampire's bite is not the gentle almost-kiss he expected, but a frenzied, animalistic tearing.

Natasha dives into the darkness after her colleague and Carmel runs off. The Russian finds herself blinded and unable to help Sten, who somehow manages to wriggle free of the vampire and fumble a crucifix into his hands; he is amazed but relieved to hear an anguished hiss as the monster retreats, and begins to crawl back in the direction of his colleagues' panicked shouts.

They decide that enough is enough and retreat to the roof, where they find Carmel laying down vast quantities of C-4, but no helicopter waiting; Max contacts Engels and is relieved to hear the latter confirm that he is on his way. The wait is tense as the team expects the vampire to emerge at any moment, and Natasha fears the worst when she hears a window smashing on the floor below; the monster does not appear, and soon the team bundles into Engels' helicopter.

Once the helicopter is at a safe distance the team allows Carmel to detonate her explosives and the top two floors of HGD Shipping are turned into rubble; everyone hopes that the vampire has gone the same way, but no one is convinced, not least because Sten writhes and moans and demands to be returned to "her". Carmel and Natasha consider shooting the Englishman, or at least chucking him out of the aircraft, but Max convinces them to spare their colleague.

The team escapes and heads back to their offices in Zurich, stopping off on the way to drop Sten at a private clinic for treatment; Sten's wounds are patched up but he has suffered permanent nerve damage and his reflexes are slowed as a result. Max is more concerned with Sten's spiritual health and arranges for an exorcist to visit the Englishman, but the ritual seems to have no effect on his strange condition.

Meanwhile, Carmel and Natasha visit Munich and meet with local groups of naïve young anarchists; they convince the activists that the grave yard is the site of nasty capitalist shenanigans. The anarchists are issued with water bombs full of holy water and are directed to soak the fenced area in the name of anti-globalisation; Carmel and Natasha hope this will be enough to spoil the ground and prevent the vampire -- if she survived the explosion -- from resting there.

Next: a new friend! Maybe.

Monday, July 11, 2016

I Have a Medusa, and She is So Blue

When I was plugging Forgive Us I remember saying at least a couple of times that I wanted it to be a game book that was also an art book; looking back I can see that this claim was ridiculous because I was nowhere near. With Maze of the Blue Medusa, Zak S and Patrick Stuart have achieved what I could not.

I mean that literally too; the basic concept seems to have been "what if we turned one of Zak's super detailed paintings into a dungeon?" and that's what they've gone and done, the cheeky, talented blighters.

(In a fun self-referential twist, one of the dungeon's main entrances is a magical painting.)

In a way, MotBM is quite a traditional dungeon adventure; at a basic level it is a list of rooms and what's in them, but it's the "what's in them" bit that makes this worth playing. There's something interesting in every location -- even empty corridors or stairways have something to prod or explore -- and by "interesting" I don't mean "1d12 orcish Morris dancers" but rather things like a lantern that projects light from the future, or scattered clues hidden by some mysterious and unseen benefactor who has been through the dungeon before, or a floor map that's also the key to a high-level campaign in itself.

There are monsters, indeed there are a lot of monsters, but almost none of them exist as big jangling bags of experience points to be fought and killed; every creature wants something or has some relationship with another being or object in the maze, and many will talk to the player-characters about it.

The inmates, occupants, and visitors are arch, decadent, strange, or all three at once; there is plenty of odd magic-science and weird energy floating around the dungeon; and there is a general feel of decadence and entropy throughout. It's all characteristic of Patrick's adventure writing style, but it's also characteristic of Zak's; they work together well, and it's difficult to tell where the join is. One could say that the cannibal critics are an obvious Zak creation given his background in art but I would not be at all surprised to learn that they sprung from Patrick's imagination.

The book looks great, not only because it has 250 pages of Zak's artwork, but because of its clever but simple layout and organisation from Anton Khodakovsky. The original painting is sliced up into smaller, more manageable chunks and each double-page spread deals with one of those chunks; on the left you get the chunk in context with the neighbouring parts of the dungeon, then on the right there's another version of the same image with something approaching a traditional dungeon key. Below that, you get a summarised description of the room contents, then the next two or three pages expand that summary into greater detail.

Here's a typical spread:

Then the more detailed gubbins on the following page:

Each of the seven main sections of the dungeon is colour coded to match a little tab at the edge of the page so you can see at a glance which section of the book relates to which section. This is a simple and practical idea that I haven't seen often in game books; the fifth edition of Call of Cthulhu used it to indicate the main rules, and I have a vague memory of other Chaosium products from the same era -- Elric! perhaps? -- using it. What I like is that it's clever but that's secondary to being useful, and such an approach says good things about the designers.

If I had a criticism -- and I am struggling to find anything negative to say about this book -- it's that the writing is a bit wordier than I like; I would have combined the summary and the more detailed text into something shorter, so everything would fit into double-page spreads, but that's just me. Brevity is not always a good thing and you know, it's good writing; it's always fun to read -- not Small But Vicious Dog level fun, but more than good enough to keep the reader entertained for almost 300 pages of room descriptions -- and if I wrote as well as these two, I'd show it off too.

Maze of the Blue Medusa is fun to read, it looks wonderful, and it's designed to be useful; there are plenty of game books that fit into one of those categories, fewer that fit into two, and not many at all that fit into all three, let alone doing so while describing a setting that can provide months, if not years, of continuous play. This is a very good book and I cannot recommend it enough.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

München Bünchen

We were supposed to take a week off, but it turned out to be over a month! Oops.

Last time, half of the Red Line Corporate Solutions team was torturing the owner of an art gallery, while the other half was watching their faces appear on a BBC news report in connection with the murder of a prominent businessman. As you do.

The Red Line team consists of:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.
Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.
Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.
Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

Natasha decides that she's had enough of gallery owner Vivienne Aytown-Baptiste's lack of cooperation and shoots her in the head; Carmel has spent too long in the shadows to be shocked as she's splattered in blood and brains, but even so she is surprised at the Russian's sudden violence. They clean up and then leave to meet Max and Sten.

The team decides to leave the UK, at least until the police interest in them -- they suspect this to be prompted by the vampiric cult they uncovered in London -- wanes a little. They return to the small south coast airport at which they landed their plane to find that the police are already there; tuning into police communications, the Red Line team discovers that the authorities are conducting a search on their plane but that there's no indication that they expect the fugitives to be at the airport. Even so, the team decides to avoid a possible confrontation with the police and Carmel suggests stealing a boat from the nearby marina and nipping across the Channel to France.

They do so and arrive in France without any complications. There are some references to Munich in the Dossier so the team rents a car and drives to Germany. Max is happy to be home and he encourages his colleagues to relax a little and enjoy themselves; much beer is quaffed and many sausages are munched.

(With all this zipping across the map and long, hearty lunches, the game is starting to feel more like Lord of the Rings than Dracula!)

They go to the Alte Pinakothek to follow up one lead, but the trail seems to have gone cold. A trip to a local mausoleum also proves fruitless and the team is not confident of finding anything useful at the nearby cemetery -- where they suspect that a vampire is or was buried -- either.

Alter Nordfriedhof Muenchen St. Joseph-1 They search for the alleged vampire's tomb and find nothing, but they are puzzled by an area of the cemetery that has been fenced off. Signs indicate that the restricted area is patrolled by Overwatch Security, a group that is not known to the Red Line team, and an attempt to engage a pair of guards in conversation does not go far.

Even so, this is enough to make the team suspect there is something fishy going on. They research Overwatch and discover it to be a subsidiary of HGD Shipping, a company with a headquarters in Rotterdam and offices in London and Varna; the latter two locations are significant in Dracula and this is enough for the investigators to conclude that they are on the right track.

Natasha gains access to a neighbouring rooftop and spends a few hours watching the cemetery; she makes note of the security shift changes and is surprised by the large number of guards present at the site. She also sees evidence of some sort of excavation but cannot get a clear enough look from her vantage point to see what is occurring.

After a brief discussion the team decides that the best way to discover what is happening within the enclosure -- or at least to make a start -- is to interrogate some of the guards. They wait for another shift change and follow a pair of guards -- Gunther and Kristian -- as they head to a bar; there Max plies them with beer in the hope that they will be more open to questions.

This almost works as Gunther starts getting chatty; alas Kristian seems to have a higher tolerance to alcohol and cautions his colleague to keep quiet. Later, Kristian seems to suspect Max and bundles the sozzled Gunther out of the bar and takes him home. Max follows but is spotted and he and Kristian scuffle; the guard brings out a knife and Max is stabbed, but he turns the blade on his opponent and leaves him dead in the street. Max then grabs the semi-conscious Gunther and takes him to another bar, the sort where no one raises an eyebrow when someone stumbles in covered in bruises and cuts.

There, Max buys more drinks and gets the information the team needs. Once a month or so a lorry arrives at the cemetery enclosure and then boxes of earth -- from one specific area -- are loaded. Gunther doesn't know where the boxes go or why they require such security, but Max has his suspicions.

The team decides to wait for this lorry to turn up and so they spend a few weeks in Munich, resting -- there is more beer and sausage -- and taking turns to watch the cemetery. On the third of June 2014, the vehicle does indeed arrive; it displays the logo of Axel Logistics, a company Red Line has linked to the London conspiracy, and so they are certain they have found something significant. They follow the lorry to a freight yard, where the boxes are loaded on a train; Carmel sneaks in before the train departs and places a tracking device on one of the boxes.

Erasmusbrug seen from EuromastThey get in their car and drive through the night as they follow the tracker towards Rotterdam and the headquarters of HGD Shipping. The boxes arrive at the HGD building and are taken to an upper floor, where the tracking device is deactivated; there should be at least a couple of hours left in the battery, so the more paranoid members of the team begin to suspect that they have been found out.

As dawn approaches, the team sits in its car watching the HGD building from a distance, and ponders its next move.
Next: a hostile takeover!

Friday, June 17, 2016


Let's move on to something more pleasant. Sort of.

Tomorrow is Free RPG Day! For the first time I am, in a small way, involved; among the products being given away by participating shops is a monster book published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the publisher that doesn't do monster books, apart from this one and the other two. It's called Slügs! because all the monsters are slugs. I drew most of the slugs, and wrote a little bit about one of them.

(That's not one of mine. I wish I could do pictures like that!)

It would be brilliant if you pick up a copy of Slügs! tomorrow, but the idea behind the event is to get people into games shops to buy and play, and to build a community. When you do pop in, mention why you're there so the shop staff know what you're interested in and what to order in the future; at the very least they will know that Free RPG Day works and will be more open to participating in future.

Have a chat with the people there. Find out what they're playing, tell them what you're playing. Make some contacts, perhaps try a new game.

Buy something too, even if it's just some dice. You can never have too many dice, yes?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Britain Worst

I woke up this morning worried about my country.

For those not aware, next week we vote on whether the United Kingdom should remain part of the European Union or if it should leave. As of this morning, polls suggested a victory for the leave campaign; that's what had me worried.

The campaign has been a shameful mess, with both sides wailing and gnashing and scaremongering, drowning out those who would try to present the facts. Underneath everything there seems to be a deep-seated distrust of foreigners, whether it's "unelected" European bureaucrats or waves of refugees migrants. It's ugly, and it hasn't shown the British people, media, or politicians in a good light.

Yesterday, there was a ridiculous display as a failed politician -- supporting the leave campaign -- and a grumpy old musician -- representing the remain camp -- had a little naval engagement on the Thames. It was absurd and embarrassing, and seemed the perfect encapsulation of what a shambles the whole referendum has become.

Meanwhile, there's some sort of sporting tournament happening in France, and the good old English fans are chanting about leaving the EU during the matches, and then are smashing up French towns afterwards. Oh, and they're abusing refugee children in the street. Great job, lads.

I'm not one for feeling national pride; in fact I'm a bit distrustful of and uncomfortable around it, and I don't really identify with any country. It's just some dirt you live on, after all. That said, yesterday I did feel national shame.

Then today some wazzock shot and stabbed MP Jo Cox while she was meeting her constituents, shouting "Britain First" as he did it. In the coming days we will discover if the murderer is in fact connected to the subliterate hate group of that name, or if it's just a depressing coincidence. Either way, a woman was killed by stupid, ugly nationalism today.

I woke up this morning worried about my country. I go to bed tonight disgusted by it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


On the left, the dwarf from 1995's original Warhammer Quest. On the right, the dwarf duardin™ fyreslayer™ from 2016's Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower.

Someone's been drinking his milk!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Things Go Wrong

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team is on the trail of vampires in London. As the sun rises, the team stands outside a warehouse belonging to a member of a vampire cult, waiting for the door mechanism to open.

The Red Line team consists of:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.
Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.
Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.
Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

As the door rises, Natasha rolls underneath to catch an early look at the inside of the warehouse. The expected ambush does not occur, and the Russian skirts the edge of the building, looking for vampires or their minions, but sees nothing that suggests any immediate danger.

The only thing of interest in the warehouse -- at first glance, at least -- is a long crate, just the right size for a human to lie within. The Red Line team suspects that the female vampire they met in Covent Garden is in the box so they gather around, water pistols -- filled with holy water -- and knives at the ready. Max forces the lid off, and to the team's surprise, the female vampire is not sleeping within.

Instead, another vampire jumps out. Quite unlike the graceful and suave female vampire, he is a scruffy, feral looking thing, slashing at them with scraggly claws and growling like a wild animal. The team is plunged into a mêlée and they find that their holy water is having little effect, so they switch to knives, hacking and slashing at the savage monster; Max gets a close look at the thing as he struggles with it and to his horror spots that the vampire seems to have explosives strapped to its torso.

Max calls a retreat and one by one the Red Line operatives backtrack to the warehouse entrance. Sten covers his team-mates' retreat with his MP5 but it jams, leaving him defenceless as the berserk thing approaches; he decides to leg it. Carmel sets the door mechanism in motion and Sten ducks under just in time; alas, so does the vampire.

To the team's great disappointment, the morning sun does not set the thing alight and it continues to pursue them, so in desperation Natasha tries her taser. Carmel's eyes widen in horror and she snatches the weapon from the Russian's grasp, but just a touch too late, and the taser's prongs hit the vampire, dealing an electrical charge to both it and the explosives strapped to it.

The Red Line operatives throw themselves to safety at the last second, but Max finds himself covered in bits of Ramses, indicating that his dog was not so lucky. Worse, the vampire has survived. Worse still, its clothing has not.

It is Sten who saves the day as he ducks under the creature's swinging claws and stabs it in the heart with a stake. It grunts, its crimson eyes go wide, and it falls flat on its face.

The team catches its breath and tries to decide what to do next, knowing that the explosion is going to draw attention soon enough. They consider taking the body with them but, forced to hurry, they decide to take just the head; Natasha does the grisly deed and stashes the result in a bag. Then they run.

They spend some hours resting -- Carmel was wounded and drained in the fight -- and Sten is surprised to receive contact from his brother, who had gone off the grid some days earlier after following up some leads for Sten. It is clear that he is on edge, and he asks to meet Sten at their usual spot, the private members' bar at the Tate gallery.

Natasha sends a sample of the gold coins the team found in the Aytown-Baptiste gallery to some collectors and evaluators, along with a note asking if anyone else has been dealing in similar items of late. The Russian also sends the severed vampire head to a "friend".

The next morning, Sten meets with his brother, who looks anxious and dishevelled, and seems to be quite drunk already. He tells Sten that he has unearthed more about EDOM; it is part of MI6, is headed by an agent with the code name "D", and is involved in the assassinations of foreign nationals across Europe and the Middle East. These killings are not the clinical or covert murders one would expect of the secret services, but brutal, messy affairs apparently designed to send a message; most of the targets have been members of, or connected to, Islamic terrorist groups. No one in British intelligence talks about the organisation, and Sten is warned to stay away from it before his brother stumbles and sways his way out of the bar.

Max contacts his exorcist friend Archbishop Ortega again and gives the priest more detail on what the group is dealing with, stopping short of mentioning Dracula himself. Max asks Ortega if there is anyone in London who can and will bless the group's weapons; the priest is taken aback but trusts his friend and gives them the contact details of an Anglican deliverance minister, Peter Tomlinson. Ortega promises to contact Tomlinson and alert him to Max's arrival.

The team then ponder their next move. Some of them want to leave London, at least for a while, until things calm down, but others push for a strike against the vampire conspiracy; Sten suggests assassinating Jeremy Clarkson, for multiple reasons, not all of which are related to supernatural conspiracies. They lean towards heading to Germany to follow some leads, but agree to sleep on it and decide in the morning. Until then, the team splits, with Carmel and Natasha visiting Aytown-Baptiste again, and Max and Sten going to see Tomlinson.

Carmel and Natasha break into Aytown-Baptiste's flat and search it for clues, finding nothing of interest, although the artist does have a well read -- but shop-bought -- copy of Dracula. Carmel sets up a couple of bugs then the pair gets comfortable and waits for Aytown-Baptiste to return home from the gallery.

Lionel Fanthorpe 2013Meanwhile, Max and Sten visit Tomlinson, who turns out to be a jovial but eccentric fellow living in a house full of tribal masks, stuffed animals, and more than a few skulls, animal and human; "it's a hobby," he says, with a chuckle. Tomlinson offers them cake and tea, and seems a little disappointed when Max refuses, telling him that they are in a hurry.

To his credit, the priest does not seem too perturbed when Sten dumps a holdall full of bullets and knives on his coffee table. He does ask why anyone would want bullets blessed -- let alone so many -- and although Max is reluctant to divulge, Tomlinson is persuasive and soon gets the truth, although again Dracula is not mentioned by name. To Max and Sten's surprise, the priest accepts their story -- hinting that he has prior experience of malevolent supernatural beings -- and agrees to the blessing, on the condition that they do try some cake, because it's delicious.

Not far away, Vivienne Aytown-Baptiste returns home and is wrestled to the floor by Carmel and Natasha. They tie her to a chair and interrogate her, but once again Aytown-Baptiste resists their questioning, causing Natasha to lose her temper and escalate to waterboarding; when again the artist refuses to talk, Carmel's resolve -- and sanity -- falters, and she begins to wonder if there is more to Vivienne than it seems.

Mission accomplished and cake demolished, Max and Sten arrive at a hotel and book rooms for the team, having decided to change their base of operations once more; as Max arranges payment with the receptionist, his eye is drawn to a television in the lobby showing a BBC news report. Geoff Berkeley -- probable vampire cultist and somehow involved with Aytown-Baptiste -- has been found torn to pieces, and police are looking for four people to help with their enquiries.

As a contact number for the investigation appears, grainy images -- perhaps pulled from CCTV footage -- of Carmel, Max, Natasha, and Sten flash up on screen.

Carmel's player gives his account of the vampire fight over at his blog.

I must admit, my confidence took a bit of a knock this session as the Exploding Suicide Vampire™ killed off the entire party. It was a bit of an anticlimax to say the least; I felt the other players were angry and I felt disappointed, as we had a fair bit of momentum going and it seemed as if it had all gone to waste.

Then I remembered that according to the weird chimera of rules I've assembled for this game, the players were all due a dodge roll; each of them made this -- the dog didn't -- and as a result their characters weren't scattered across London after all!

I should have felt better at that point but the sick feeling I had at disappointing my friends was replaced by a sick feeling that I'd forgotten a crucial rule at a crucial time, and if I hadn't I could have saved everyone a lot of trouble.

Writing this summary three days later I feel much better, but it still nags at me. We're taking a week off -- not because my GMing is rubbish, but because everyone's bogging off on half-term holiday -- and that will give me time to get my act together, I hope.

Next: a European road trip!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Night at the Opera

Last time, the Red Line Corporate Solutions team uncovered a London-based vampire cult with a membership that includes prominent business figures, at least one ambassador, and television personality Jeremy Clarkson.

Red Line Corporate Solutions is:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.
Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.
Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.
Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

Carmel suspects that the cult is a descendant of a similar group mentioned in the pages of Dracula, but what it is up to evades the team; Carmel and Max go back and forth on the cult's purpose, its connection -- if any -- to the mysterious EDOM, and what the cult is doing with its vampire. Is the vampire in charge of the cult? Is the vampire the cult's prisoner? Is there more than one vampire involved? Is the vampire Dracula himself?

Max gets in contact with Rodriguez Ortega, an old family friend who is now a Catholic archbishop in South America, and starts some tentative enquiries about exorcism and related subjects; Ortega's response is cautious and he seems concerned about Max, but he also indicates a willingness to help.

Max also buys a dog. A Chihuahua is suggested, for reasons of concealability and portability, but in the end the German settles on a more sensible animal, that he then names "Ramses". Ramses' main job is to go nuts when a vampire is near.

Royal Opera House - Floral Hall - Bow Street - London - 240404The next day, Carmel heads to Covent Garden and the Royal Opera House to meet her ex-husband Arthur, who has some information for her. He tells Carmel that he has organised a meeting between her and Lord Godalming for the following afternoon, but also seems a bit evasive, as if he's not telling her everything. Carmel decides not to follow up on her feeling and together they enjoy a performance of Die Fledermaus.

(How could I resist?)

Arthur heads off to the bar during the interval, but doesn't return; Carmel investigates, but also alerts her colleagues, who are hanging about Covent Garden trying not to make a nuisance of themselves. Aside from Natasha, who tries to walk into the building without a ticket or even any sort of cover story; alas, the Russian's brazenness is not rewarded, and the doormen refuse her entry.

Carmel finds Arthur at the bar in the company of a tall, beautiful woman, who gives an exaggerated but graceful bow as Carmel enters the room, then withdraws into the crowd. A quick glance in the mirror behind the bar confirms her guess that the mysterious woman has no reflection, and Carmel rushes after her, pausing only to ascertain that Arthur seems to be in some sort of trance.

Carmel directs the rest of the team to gather at the main entrance to the Opera House as she follows the woman; the Israeli stumbles on the stairs and loses ground, but is confident that her colleagues will catch her quarry.

She bursts out into the street to find Max, Natasha, and Sten standing dumbfounded, just like Arthur, and the woman nowhere to be seen. A couple of rough prods and pokes later, the three come to their senses and report that they did see the woman emerge from the building, but before they could do anything she looked at them and then everything went blank.

Carmel returns to the bar to find Arthur a little woozy but otherwise fine. He thinks only a couple of minutes have passed since he left his seat and has no memory of the woman. Carmel has a quick glance at his neck and sees no indication of a vampire's bite, but is no longer sure she can trust her former husband.

They decide not to bother with the rest of the opera and instead go for a drink, at which point Carmel decides to find out what Arthur is hiding from her. After a bit of nudging, he confesses that when Carmel asked him about EDOM he was less than honest; he has indeed heard of the organisation but knows little about it, beyond that it is dangerous. He does know a freelance journalist -- Laurel Teague -- who specialises in exposing dodgy dealings in the intelligence and political spheres, and he suggests contacting her.

Carmel, Max, and Sten return to base, while Natasha sneaks off to get a crucifix tattooed on her neck. During the night Carmel sets up an automated mailbox that, unless she checks in every few days, will send everything the Red Line team has gathered so far to her ex-husband; she does not tell the rest of the team about this contingency plan.

The next day, Carmel and Natasha head to Westminster to meet Lord Godalming. They are greeted by his assistant Simon Quinlank, a slimy young man who seems familiar to Carmel, but she cannot recall where she has seen him before, and Natasha shows no signs of recognition. Quinlank escorts the pair to the office of William Hinton, Lord Godalming, who welcomes them and gets straight to business.

Carmel's cover story is that she is a representative of the Israeli government, in London to sell a joint defence project to the British, and this does seem to capture Hinton's interest. After some discussion, she manages to get Lord Godalming to agree to a more private meeting, and Natasha and Simon head to the canteen, where the latter makes awkward small talk to the nonplussed Russian.

Now that she has Hinton alone, Carmel changes the subject and asks questions about clandestine groups within the British intelligence structure; Hinton claims that such matters are beyond his knowledge and that Carmel should instead book a meeting with MI6 if that is her true interest. Tired of Hinton's evasiveness, Carmel produces photographs of the team that hunted Dracula in 1894 -- these are copies of those found in the art gallery a few days before -- including the then Lord Godalming. She also mentions EDOM and implies that Hinton's involvement with the group is known to her.

With that, Lord Godalming's commanding and imposing demeanour diminishes, and he agrees to look into the matter for Carmel. He takes some contact details and then sends a message to Quinlank; in the canteen, Simon's phone beeps and he tells Natasha that the meeting has concluded. He and Natasha return to Lord Godalming's office, where the peer puts on a show of enthusiasm about working with the Israeli government on their new project, and then Carmel and Natasha are shown out. On the way, Carmel remembers where she has seen Quinlank's face before; he was present at the cult meeting caught on CCTV.

Meanwhile, the team intercepts a telephone call between two cult members -- they think Geoff Berkeley and Anton DeVille -- in which they discuss moving "her", because "they are too close"; upon Carmel and Natasha's return to the group's base, the team put together a plan to observe and perhaps interrupt the cult's operation.

Natasha visits her old friend "Hatchet" Harry Noone and asks if he can procure a high-powered rifle; he does so but -- unknown to the Russian -- the transaction alerts the authorities. Once the rifle is acquired, the Red Line team heads to the area Berkeley and DeVille discussed -- one of Berkeley's warehouses -- and perch on a nearby rooftop.

Night falls, and an Axel Logistics -- DeVille's company -- van arrives. The warehouse door is opened, the van enters, and the door closes. About half an hour later, the sequence is reversed, and the van drives off into the night.

The team waits and watches the warehouse but there is no further activity. As the sun rises, they sneak over to the warehouse door and after a minute or two Carmel gets it open.

Next: things go wrong.