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.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

B2 or Not B2?

I have some friends up in That London. I have known them for years; we all met at university and we stayed quite close even after my life went wonky for about a decade. They are good friends and I always have a space on their floor when I visit.

They live in one of the trendy parts of the glittering capital, but they are also a bit geeky, and as geek culture has become a bit trendy in recent years, it was perhaps inevitable that they would get sucked into gaming somehow. It was board games that got them; of course they have Cards Against Humanity, but they also have Settlers of Catan and Small World, and the mighty King of Tokyo, because everyone should own a copy of King of Tokyo.

I've been to Draughts with them a couple of times and taken the opportunity to push other games on them; it's only a matter of time before one of them gets Lords of Waterdeep. I feel no shame; games are great.

Now and then they've asked about role-playing games, and the subject came up again the other day as we tried to play Dark Souls over Google Hangouts. Don't ask.

One of my friends grew up reading Dragonlance novels but had never played Dungeons and Dragons; another -- her husband -- loves Baldur's Gate and Dark Souls and knows that these games are based on a common source; the third -- his childhood best friend -- has been playing Fiasco with another group of friends, but I don't think they are aware of the larger family tree of which that game is a branch.

They are all three primed and ready, even if they don't know it. Dragonlance Friend even has a copy of Labyrinth Lord that I bought for her a few years ago alongside Dragons of Despair; in hindsight not one of my better gift ideas.

One day soon, then, I will run a role-playing game for them. It will probably be some form of D&D, because it seems appropriate to start at the beginning -- although a big part of me wants to run Call of Cthulhu and "The Haunting" -- and if so, it will probably be Lamentations of the Flame Princess, because it's my favourite simple version of the game.

Ah, but what do I run for them? I do love LotFP, but I think I should start them with something more traditional, rather than Kult in the seventeenth century. You can't get more traditional than Keep on the Borderlands, but I'm after something that can be played to a decent conclusion in one afternoon or evening. I also know that lots of player-character deaths is traditional, but I'm also after something that they have a reasonable chance of completing without getting disgruntled. I want them to come back for more!

This is where my own experience isn't useful. I started with Shadowrun and Call of Cthulhu, and played almost everything other than D&D -- and Vampire; to this day I have not played any proper White Wolf games -- so I don't have the background to know what's a good adventure for beginners.

It's over to you, internet. Is there a good starting D&Dish adventure out there, one I can unleash on absolute beginners, albeit beginners with some familiarity with the general idea of role-playing games?

Monday, May 16, 2016

An Explosion in Belgravia

Red Line Corporate Solutions is a company formed by a group of former intelligence operatives who used to conduct covert missions for the highest bidder, but have somehow got involved in hunting Dracula. Yes, that Dracula, from the books and the films and the Castlevania series. It turns out that Bram Stoker's novel is not in fact a novel, but an edited record of an actual British operation to recruit a vampire! Egad!

The current Red Line roster 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.

Last time, the team roughed up an art dealer who had a collection of Dracula-related objects and a connection to a prominent London businessman. After resting, the team decides to pursue this lead and they research said businessman, one Geoff Berkeley. He is the head of an organisation called Blackrock, which appears to be a holding company with interests and shares in all sorts of businesses around the UK and beyond; the team digs deep but can find nothing illegal or suspicious about any of Blackrock's dealings, much to their general annoyance.

Carmel hacks the Blackrock email servers and downloads Berkeley's correspondence. She notices that he does have a personal email address, but it is hosted by Google and her attempts to hack the tech giant's systems come to nothing. Meanwhile, Natasha receives an encrypted email. She reads it with interest but does not tell her colleagues she has received it, let alone anything about its contents.

There is a tracking device attached to Berkeley's car and Carmel has hacked his mobile phone, so confident that they know where he is, the team decide to look into some of Blackrock's holdings; Natasha is most interested in a series of Blackrock-owned warehouses scattered across London and so they spend the morning driving around the city, looking for anything suspicious at any of the sites and, alas, finding nothing untoward at a first glance. Berkeley himself seems to be going about an average working day and isn't giving them any useful intelligence either, so the team's morale slips a little, until they have the bright idea of looking at historical tracking data from the businessman's mobile phone.

Upper Belgrave Street, Belgravia - DSC05404They look at the data for the previous evening, when Berkeley disappeared after being contacted by Aytown-Baptiste, and see that he drove to the fancy pants neighbourhood of Belgravia. Carmel accesses CCTV footage of the street and sees Berkeley's car stopping outside a house, and then the businessman entering said house. Other cars are seen to arrive later and the passengers enter the building; rolling the footage back, the Red Line team also see a number of visitors arriving just before Berkeley. Most of the details are obscured by poor video quality or too acute a viewing angle, but Max spots a number plate and notes the registration.

A somewhat unhinged conversation develops as the Red Line team decides what to do with a building that they are convinced is the home to a nest of vampires. For a short time, they consider blowing up the house, but in the end they decide to investigate, posing as cleaners. They rent a van and the necessary equipment, conceal their own gear in buckets and the like, then set off. They arrive at the house with plenty of daylight left and ring the doorbell. There is no answer.

Their nerve nearly fails them and they almost leave, but instead press on and Carmel unlocks the front door, whereupon the team rushes inside and begins exploring. They find that the house is for the most part empty; the kitchen appears to be in frequent use and is well stocked with food and utensils, and one bedroom upstairs appears to be in use by a woman with expensive tastes in clothing and perfume. Carmel notes with a shudder that there are no mirrors anywhere in the house.

Max and Sten investigate the cellar and find that there has been extensive expansion work below ground with tunnels branching off in three directions; they decide that this is a bit too much ground to cover by themselves, and they return to the ground floor to wait for Carmel and Natasha so the four can descend together. The team follow one corridor to some sort of storage room, and not one among them is surprised to find a number of elongated boxes large enough for an adult to lie within; they are also not surprised to find that the boxes contain soil. Carmel takes a sample while Max soaks the boxes in holy water and scatters communion wafers over the earth within.

Oxford - Jesus College - 0531Down another corridor they find an impressive wine cellar... and a secret door! This takes them into what looks like a large shower or wet room, except the only fixture is a single drain in the centre of the floor, and the tiles are all a deep blood red. It is not clear what purpose this room serves, but everyone has an idea, and Natasha fishes out some lumps of unidentified gristle when she investigates the drain.

The team returns to the foot of the cellar stairs and heads down the third corridor, which leads to a metal door decorated with the image of a stylised dragon. The door is locked and even when Carmel picks the lock, the door does not open; Natasha surprises herself when she ponders out loud that there may be some sort of magic involved. The team decides that brute force is the way forward and breaks out the C-4.

The first attempt does nothing and Max suspects that they used too little explosive, so a much larger amount is used for the second attempt. The door is blasted open but the explosion also manages to bring down some of the ceiling; Max and Sten avoid the worst of the collapse but Carmel is almost crushed under falling bricks. Natasha, having fled upstairs between the explosions, loses her footing as the house shakes and grazes an elbow.

As Max and Sten dig an unconscious Carmel from the rubble, she dreams of being surrounded by a thick grey fog. Her attention is drawn to a pair of burning red eyes staring at her from the mist and a faint voice whispering her -- real -- name. She feels a sharp pain and wakes with a scream, to find Max leaning over her and a syringe half full of adrenaline stuck in her chest.

Dragon order insigniaThe Red Line team has a brief rest but is aware that the explosions will bring attention and so time is running out. Once Carmel has caught her breath, the team continue on past the twisted metal door, into what seems to be some sort of underground church or temple. The room is dominated by a stone altar in its centre, and a large metal -- it looks like brass or bronze -- disc hanging on the far wall; the disc features an inverted pentagram and within the pentagram is another stylised dragon; Carmel suggests that the dragon is a symbol of Dracula himself.

The altar is well worn and is -- of course -- stained with what the team guesses is blood. Grooves in the surface seem to allow for liquid to run off to be collected, and Max begins to imagine that this is the place of worship for some sort of blood-drinking cult; his macabre theory is supported when the team finds thirteen crimson hooded robes in a cabinet in one corner of the room. The pentagram itself looks heavy and is attached to the wall, but Max spots what looks like some sort of concealed grille in the centre of the symbol and using the last nubbin of their C-4, Natasha blows it open. A pipe leads off into the distance and then curves upward, but the team decides that there is no time to explore further. They flee the house, taking four of the robes and one of the tiles from the red room with them.

They hear police sirens approaching but Sten -- at the wheel of their van -- gets them clear without being spotted. Natasha tunes into her police scanner and is surprised when she hears officers on the scene claiming that everything is normal and the reports of an explosion "must have been a car backfiring or something". The Russian then calls the police herself and requests that they have another look, even dropping the magic words "terrorist" and "Islamic State", but no action appears to be taken, and the team suspects that the police may be in on it, whatever "it" is.

They head home and spend the evening recovering and continuing to spy on Berkeley. He makes a number of calls and it's clear to the team that he is discussing the Belgravia infiltration with his conspirators. Natasha makes a mental note of the voices she hears through the phone tap, while Carmel tries to trace the numbers; most are blocked, but one appears to be that of Anton de Ville, CEO of London-based Axel Logistics. Meanwhile, Max traces the number plate he noted earlier to the Romanian embassy; with a sinking feeling he looks up the ambassador and matches him -- Andrei Popescu -- to one of the faces in the CCTV footage of the cult house.

Carmel sends images from the footage to her ex-husband, asking if he can identify any of them, and he confirms Popescu's identity. Arthur also indicates the presence of Jo Ramsay, the London head of the international charity Heal the Children, and media personality Jeremy Clarkson.

At last, the true evil is revealed!

Next: a night at the opera!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Stars Are Right(ish)

It's here!

It is three years late but it's here, and it's a pretty book, perhaps the fanciest English-language rulebook Call of Cthulhu has had in its lifetime. The new Chaosium has done a wonderful job of getting the new edition released after the long and painful delays caused -- or at least mismanaged -- by the old Chaosium. It's a great achievement, it will bring much good karma Chaosium's way, and I am certain that this edition will be popular with the fans.

But I won't be playing it.

Call of Cthulhu is my favourite role-playing game -- I may have mentioned that before -- and one of the things I love about it is its simplicity. It's a light ruleset and the Chaosium percentile system is quite intuitive so there's little in the way of calculation involved at the table.

My preferred edition -- fifth, from 1993 -- has 42 pages of rules. There are lots of pages of mind-warping spells, eldritch abominations, and blasphemous tomes, but all the actual game mechanics fit into those 42 pages.

The new edition covers the same ground in 130 pages, 16 of which are for resolving that most Lovecraftian of events: the car chase. There are two flowcharts used for combat resolution.

Call of Cthulhu is an old game and it hasn't changed much over the years, so it was getting a bit creaky and needed cleaning up; I don't think anyone would deny that, but the way it's been done in this new edition has turned it into a game that is not for me.

This isn't a review or even a recommendation; it's more of an explanation why, when I talk about Call of Cthulhu in the future, it won't be the seventh edition. I wish everyone involved all sorts of success, but I will be sticking to my clunky yet reliable 1993 copy.

I suppose that makes me a grognard!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Scourges of the Art World

Last time, the Red Line Corporate Solutions team arrived in London, following the trail of their sort-of-colleagues from Ibáñez Security Solutions, who had disappeared while investigating Dracula, who turns out to be real. Or was real in 1894, at least.

The Red Line Corporate Solutions 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 sends the samples of what they hope is paint -- scraped off the walls of the ruins of Dracula's former London residence -- off to a laboratory for analysis, then they research "Ring", which they believe to be a location linked to Dracula, the UK security services, or both. It turns out there are two such locations: The Rings, in Beaulieu in Hampshire, a training site for the Special Operations Executive during World War II; and Ring in Surrey, a less active wartime training site for the SOE, but also the traditional seat of the Lords Godalming over the years. Given the prominent presence of a Lord Godalming in Dracula, the team suspects this is the place.

They use Google Maps to scout the latter location -- they use Google a lot; it should perhaps be added as a skill -- but gain no useful intelligence via the public service. Turning to Lord Godalming they find that the current holder of the title is a William Peter Hinton, rather than the Holmwood they expect; they suspect that Bram Stoker changed the names of the principal actors in his mission report.

Although the old Hinton/Holmwood estate is a tantalising target, the Red Line team decides to gather more information before they attempt a physical approach. Instead they decide to follow the one solid lead they recovered from the Ibáñez team, a reference to someone or something called "Aytown-Baptiste" in London. Once again they turn to Google -- the company should perhaps be getting a share of the experience points! -- and discover an art dealer by that name; they decide to visit next morning.

In the meantime, Natasha heads off to a bar to get drunk, Sten and Max arrange some new accommodation for the team -- one can never be too paranoid careful when there are secret agents and vampires involved! -- and Carmel goes to meet her ex-husband for a meal.

Carmel's ex is Arthur Hepworth, a defence correspondent for The Grauniad; he and Carmel met while he was covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- and she was doing something shady for Mossad, no doubt -- but their marriage didn't survive the couple's return to the UK. That said, their friendship remains strong and the evening is a pleasant one, even after talk turns to business and Carmel asks him what he knows about both EDOM and Lord Godalming.

Arthur tells his ex-wife that he's never heard of EDOM, but that he will look into it; on the other hand, he is quite familiar with Hinton and has met the peer a number of times. He tells Carmel that Lord Godalming has a keen -- some would say aggressive -- interest in British defence, is a former soldier, and sits on the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. Carmel asks if Arthur can arrange a meeting with Lord Godalming, and he promises to do what he can.

Carmel almost returns to the wrong hideout until Max and Sten remember -- just in time -- they they need to tell her that they have moved to a new location. Somehow Natasha finds her way to the new digs, and the team rest.

The next day, Red Line Corporate Solutions visits the gallery and art dealership of Vivienne Aytown-Baptiste. Carmel and Natasha take the lead while Max and Sten stay out of sight. Aytown-Baptiste proves to be a tough customer and doesn't respond to their initial questions, and even remains impassive when Natasha loses patience and namedrops Dracula himself. Carmel and Natasha lock the door and prevent Vivienne from calling the police, then bundle her upstairs for further questioning.

Salzburg Haus der Natur - Goldmünzen SalzburgThings get a little chaotic, as Max and Sten enter the building but attempt to remain out of Aytown-Baptiste's sight, while the Carmel and Natasha take turns in roughing up questioning the artist and exploring the building; Carmel also takes the opportunity to conceal a few bugs around the place. Hidden in an attic they find a series of mysterious busts -- Vivienne claims they were sculpted by her mother -- and a crate full of old gold coins, most of which Natasha pockets. In a locked gallery on another floor they find a series of photographs that appear to be of the group of people who defeated Dracula in the nineteenth century; again the names are different to those in the novel. In the office safe Carmel discovers some ledgers that seem to track unofficial transactions made by the dealership; few details are given, but two names come up again and again: "Cemal Gusa" and "Geminii"; Carmel posits that the former is a Turkish name, but the significance of the second escapes them for now.

Despite Natasha's attempts at persuasion, Aytown-Baptiste refuses to talk so the team decide to let her go and track her. They develop a ruse in which Max and Sten -- neither of whom have been seen by Aytown-Baptiste -- pretend to be on the trail of Carmel and Natasha and scare them off, allowing Vivienne to be "rescued". The art dealer appears to be fooled but doesn't give much away, even as Max plays the Good Cop.

Aytown-Baptiste returns home, with Carmel and Natasha following close behind. Using a laser microphone Carmel spies on the artist as she makes a couple of phone calls to the police and her insurance company, as well as one to an unknown party, in which she describes the events of the day. The team manage to track this call to a Geoff Berkeley, a prominent London businessman, and race off to his house in Fulham only to find him already gone. Sten telephones Berkely's home in an attempt to discover the businessman's whereabouts but rather blunders the conversation with Mrs Berkeley; asking to speak to "the man of the house" doesn't work quite as well in 2014 as it did in 1944.

Max and Sten return to base while Carmel and Natasha hang about the Berkeley house, and as night falls, the latter pair spot the businessman's car returning from wherever it was he went in such a rush. Once she is sure she won't be seen, Carmel sneaks up and attaches a tracking device to the car, before fleeing into the night.

Next: blowing up Belgravia!

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

We Step Through London, the Streets Holding Onto Us

Last time the assassins and spies private security consultants of Red Line Corporate Solutions went looking for some missing colleagues, bumped into a mysterious kill squad, then ran into what seemed to be a vampire, and fled screaming into the night. Later, they discovered that the cause of all this trouble seemed to be a copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula, covered in notes in various hands.

The central conceit of Pelgrane's The Dracula Dossier is that in 1894 the British government attempted to recruit a vampire, but that the operation went wrong. The case files were edited and then released as Dracula -- explaining why the novel comes across as a series of diary entries and letters -- but the original report has been discovered and released. Now it's up to the player-characters to investigate and find out how deep the conspiracy is, and whether Dracula is still a threat.

This is done through an audacious and somewhat daunting method; alongside the campaign book itself, Pelgrane has released an edition of Dracula bursting with annotations and new -- or rather, restored from earlier drafts and alternate editions -- content. As the player-characters find the document, the players are given the book and then are instructed to go away and read it and then tell the GM which leads and clues they wish to pursue; each clue points to a section of the campaign book, so in theory the GM can respond to the players' investigations with prepared content. It's ambitious and is no doubt the biggest and most unwieldy player handout ever, but it seems to be working out for us.

The Red Line Corporate Solutions 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.

With the mysterious bundle of pages in hand, the Red Line team decides to head for London, the final destination of the missing members of Ibáñez Security Solutions. Before they go, they make sure that Katarina and Theodore of Ibáñez are safe, or as safe as they can be with a mysterious conspiracy at work and at least one vampire running about.

On the flight over to London, the team skim through the Dracula Dossier and do some internet research on the clues they uncover. Carmel goes a step further and tries to hack the British government's Defence Intelligence Fusion Centre to see what they know about the location of Castle Dracula, but not only does she fail to gather any useful intelligence, she also suspects that she may have tripped some sort of alarm.

The team lands in the evening of the 12th of May; Natasha takes Carmel to a dodgy East End boozer to meet her old friend Harry Noone, or "Hatchet Harry" as he's known in the London underworld, while Max and Sten organise accommodation. Harry is pleased to see the Russian and they spend some time reminiscing and drinking before they get to business. Natasha asks for guns and as it happens, Harry has just "acquired a box of shooters from some Albanians"; the details are worked out and Harry promises to send his son Shaun over with the delivery in the next few hours.

Soon enough, a lanky lad in his early twenties turns up at the team's local hideout and unloads a crate containing a few sub-machine guns, plenty of ammunition, and -- to Carmel and Natasha's delight -- some hand grenades that Harry threw in -- ho ho -- as a bonus.

The next morning the team looks for Carfax, which, according to the Dossier, was Dracula's London home in 1894, as well the nearby asylum run, in the book, by John Seward. Again and again the team is frustrated as it appears that there are no digital records of either Carfax or the asylum, so Max and Sten contact the local historical society and ask a lovely elderly woman named Doreen if she and her friends can dig up any information on either location. Later, Sten gets in touch with his brother -- an MI6 operative -- and asks him to find out what he can about the Gibraltar incident and EDOM, the latter a reference that crops up in the Dossier multiple times.

Plaistow High St - - 61612The team decides to visit the area in person. The novel gives the location of Carfax as Purfleet, but the Dossier notes claim that Plaistow is the actual location of both sites. They visit the local records office and Sten flashes his -- expired -- MI6 identification, which gets an enthusiastic response from the office manager; the team is allowed access to the files and they soon find the address of an asylum in the right area and time period, although the chief physician was James Sanders rather than John Seward.

At the address, the Red Line team finds a Victorian building with a small and inconspicuous sign stating that it is an NHS Haematology Research and Treatment Centre. They also note a high wall around the building and a manned guard post, both of which fuel their paranoia, although Max fixates on the "haematology" part of the sign and begins to see vampires around every corner.

A quick bit of online research -- and a little hacking -- by Carmel seems to suggest that the site is legitimate, and upon discovering that the facility stores and studies both rabies and malaria among other diseases, the team concedes that it is perhaps not too unusual for there to be guards posted. Even so, they resolve to return later for a closer look.

With the probable location of the asylum identified, the team spend some time narrowing down the spot on which Carfax stood to the quiet and not-unpleasant Harcourt Road. Max nips off to borrow or rent some surveying gear and upon his return wanders up and down the street with it until he discovers some sort of structure beneath his feet.

Meanwhile, Natasha has rented some digging equipment and, under the guise of local council employees, the Red Line team digs a hole right in the middle of the road. One of their mini drones is sent down and a large vaulted chamber is discovered, with passages stretching off into the darkness. As the team discusses their next move -- Max is not keen to descend -- Natasha grabs a rope and dives down the hole, only to get a bit tangled. The Russian twists in a slow, upside-down, circle as her colleagues climb down after her, trying their best not to laugh.

With a liberated Natasha in the lead, the team investigates the underground complex, picking their way along with considerable caution. Max in particular becomes more and more tense as they map out the chambers below Harcourt Road, but for the most part the dungeon ruins are empty of anything but rats and broken masonry. They do find a staircase and a door that opens -- after some tinkering from Carmel -- into a cellar flat; the flat is empty but both the cellar and front doors are in good repair, and it's clear that someone has been in to collect the post.

It seems that someone is using the flat as an entrance into the Carfax ruins, but why is beyond the team, and they push on and discover a crypt-like chamber with red walls. By this stage Max is quite keen to return to the surface, but they stay long enough for Carmel to scrape a bit of the pigment from the wall for later analysis. Everyone hopes it is not blood.

They attempt to exit via the hole in the street but they freeze when they note the flashing blue lights of the local constabulary. Creeping back to the flat, the team peeks down the street and spots two officers poking around the roadworks; a brief discussion follows in which the idea of gunning them down is floated, but in the end the team decides that a subtler approach is best. Through some deft rhetoric, the team's lack of a digging permit is shrugged off and the police officers are convinced to go on their way, although Carmel is a little disappointed that she didn't get to use her grenade.

Next time: what not to do in an art gallery.