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!