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