Monday, 3 December 2018

Trail of Cthulhu: Odd Goings On In Giza

Last time we left our stalwart investigators heading up towards the ancient plateau of Giza again, just as it seemed that British archaeologist Fletcher Norton was about to be jumped by a shadowy figure...

A quick reminder of who our investigators are:

  • Pearce Topless, a Dilettante with the drive of Arrogance, served unsuccessfully as a lieutenant in the Great War, now at something of a loose end
  • Humphrey Roade, formerly Military, now acting as butler and valet to the aforesaid Topless, Roade and Topless met in France in 1917. His Drive is Duty.
  • Filian Thrope, an Alienist from Ireland, he is the nephew of a nurse that Topless and Roade knew in France and a pioneer in trance therapy. His Drive is Arrogance.
  • Clark Fable, a British private investigator, he has been sent to Egypt to spy on Fraser Norton by the archaeologist's suspicious wife Lydia. His drive is Adventure.

Archaeologist Fletcher Norton is in the process of being attacked by a shadowy figure that has crept up on him in the darkness. Advancing across the desert sand come our heroes but it is Roade and Thrope who open fire as Topless realises he left his revolver in his luggage (failed Preparedness roll). The attacker flees and is clipped by a bullet from Roade.

"Bag that blighter Roade!"

Fable and Thrope advance on the fallen Norton, while Fable protects the girl Zita and Roade heads off in pursuit of the attacker - on his own, no less - across the causeway, switching on his flashlight as he goes (successful Preparedness check here).

The luckless Norton is found to have breathed his last and has been completely eviscerated in very short order, with his heart exposed and sliced open, Topless thinks by a claw. Bloody foot prints and viscera are everywhere, but Topless also notes some of them look like the prints of a large dog, but a bipedal one. Can a dog walk on two legs? He begins to get the shakes (missed Stability check) but Thrope steadies him (Psychoanalysis check). Topless is getting flashbacks to a ruined barn in France.

Fletcher Norton - not his day
On the other side of the causeway, Roade is scouting around for the fugitive, but to no avail. He does find a rock with some Egyptian hieroglyphs scrawled on it in fresh blood. He copies them down in his diary before returning to the others. It is too dark to track here.

Roade and Thrope carry the body of Norton back to the camp, while the others go on ahead to raise the camp and the alarm. The police are sent for and a hasty conclave is assembled, including the expedition leader Ronald Galloway and Will Mainwearing. Galloway is of the view that Norton was attacked by a wild animal.

Thrope and Fable retreat to a tent with the semi-hysterical Zita whom Thrope manages to hypnotise - they discover she was going to meet Norton in a romantic liaison and that she had no other designs beyond that. Thrope wanders off to ask Galloway if he can consult the archaeologist's reference library while Fable keeps an eye on the girl.

In Galloway's tent Thrope learns that Nitocris' name has been largely excised from most ancient Egyptian monuments, a sign that the Egyptians considered her guilty of heinous blasphemies. He also digs up a tale that claims Nitocris persuaded her brother the pharaoh to divulge many of the secrets of the cult of Osiris, for which the priests had him killed. Thrope also reads that according to some ancient legends, Nitocris was considered to be a sorceress of some power, who advanced the arts of mummification to a point where she could ensure her own immortality and rule an underground kingdom populated with ghouls (Library Use spend - 2 points).

Topless has a stiff brandy with Mainwearing, and persuades him to part with his - illegal - .303 rifle. Roade shows the hieroglyphs he copied to Mainwearing, who translates them as: "For the love of Nitocris, I do this."

Roade persuades Mainwearing to introduce him to Muharab, the overseer of the Egyptian labourers at the dig. Muharab admits to Roade that he and his men have been hearing some odd howls around the camp of late, which they attribute to the legendary ghouls of the desert places and not mere jackals.

Somewhere in this damned dig, someone has a glass of brandy...

Muharab assembles a posse of five men plus a Bedouin tracker to assist the investigators, and finds a machete for Fable. The group catches a couple of hours of rest to avoid challenging fatigue rolls from the GM. The Egyptians arrive, carrying digging implements. Some of them look worried. The sun is coming up over Egypt, so the team set out towards the causeway, leaving Zita in the camp.

The posse trudge across the desert, the rising sun behind them, heading down towards the Nile. They are able to now track bloody dog-like footprints across the rock. Eventually the trail leads them to a ridge of sand where the tracks stop. Despite further investigation, they can see nowhere the fugitive could have gone. The Egyptians get to work, and within a short time, a large stone door is revealed. It looks as if it once had writing on it, but this has been chiseled off.

As the investigators stand there pondering, they realise that Topless can see writing on the door, and although it is in hieroglyphics, he can read it: "Nitocris, Great Wife of Menthuophis, King of Upper and Lower Egypt." Cue a missed Stability roll and Topless loses a point of Sanity...

Next time: "I am dying Egypt, dying!"

Friday, 30 November 2018

Trail of Cthulhu: Four Chaps Go To Egypt

Last time we left our heroes, they were in France, breaking up a death cult at a British military hospital. We've moved forwards in time, to 1920, and the war is now over. Pearce Topless and Humphrey Roade have been de-mobbed. Anne Thrope has returned to her convent. Peace has descended on Europe - except in Russia, of course.

L to R: Roade, Fable and Topless
At a loose end, Topless, who now employs Roade as his butler, accepts the invitation of old army buddy Will Mainwearing, to visit him in Egypt. Mainwearing is now working on an archaeological dig in the shadow of the Third Pyramid, on the plateau of Giza. The duo book tickets to Alexandria aboard a liner and enjoy a cruise through the Mediterranean, during which they make the acquaintance of fellow passenger, Irish alienist and arch-mesmerist, Filian Thrope, none other than the nephew of their old friend  from the war, Anne Thrope.

Thrope is on his way to Giza as well, to meet with fellow mesmerist and expert in past life regression therapy, Doctor Freund. Thrope and Topless compare notes on what they know of the dig Mainwearing is on: they know the expedition is seeking the lost tomb of Nitocris, sister-wife of the pharaoh Menthuophis, who was killed by a conspiracy of Egyptian nobles at the end of the 6th dynasty, circa 2100 BC. Nitocris is notorious for having slain many of the nobles involved in that conspiracy against her brother/husband, by inviting them to a feast in an underground chamber and then drowning them by means of a secret conduit linking the chamber to the Nile.

Reaching Alexandria, the trio travel south together to Cairo. Roade cases the first class carriages for travelers he might be able to relieve of the burden of some of their wealth, but catches the eye of Clarke Fable. This dubious figure turns out of to be a private investigator, and Roade thinks better of any further larcenous activity.

Fable is in Egypt in the employ of Lydia Norton, an anxious house wife who suspects her new husband, Fletcher Norton, of cheating on her while he is away on an archaeological dig in Egypt. It turns out that Fletcher Norton is on the Galloway dig, the same one as Mainwearing.

The group reach Cairo and a taxi takes them up to Giza, where Topless, Thrope and Roade book into the rather lush Mena Hotel. Fable goes shopping for camping gear in Giza.

Topless catches the eye of a young woman with sultry Mediterranean good looks, who watches him from an upper gallery. He starts preening himself, but then notices a smartly-dressed young man enter the hotel lobby. He and the young woman greet each other and enjoy a drink together in the bar. Topless tries to listen in on their coversation, but can't get much from them.
On the trail of Nitocris

Fable has finished his shopping, and is preparing to head up to the Giza plateau when he recognises Fletcher Norton entering the hotel. He shadows him, and watches him drinking with the young woman and Topless making blatant efforts to eavesdrop (blowing a Shadowing roll).

Upstairs, Thrope has managed to find which room Dr Freund is staying in and goes to see him. He and the German mesmerist have a lengthy discussion about their shared area of expertise, and Thrope also admires Freund's collection of Egyptian bric a brac. It turns out Freund is doing quite a lot of lucrative work with tourists and expatriates in Cairo.

Downstairs, the couple in the bar finally say their farewells, with Fable following Norton outside, where the archaeologist gets back in his car. The detective decides to follow him in a taxi, piling his camping kit in the back. The car trundles up the long and dusty road in the direction of the pyramids. Norton goes back to the Galloway dig site, in the shadow of the pyramids. Fable unpacks his equipment and quietly starts pitching his tent in sight of Norton's tent. Nobody pays him any mind.

Back at the Mena Hotel, Topless has followed the young woman back to her room, which turns out to be Dr Freund's suite. There, she is introduced to Thrope as Zita, Freund's daughter. Topless just manages to avoid embarrassing himself.

Freund has patients to see, so suggests Zita show Thrope the pyramids and the Galloway dig. Thrope invites the two Englishmen to accompany them. All are shocked to find Zita can drive and takes them in Freund's car. Topless is still recovering from this - despite having seen female ambulance drivers at the front in France - as the vehicle wends its way to the pyramids.

The afternoon is spent admiring the pyramids and looking at the dig. Topless is reunited with his army chum Mainwearing and they also meet Norton in person and Ronald Galloway, professor of archaeology at Miskatonic University. Fable introduces himself as a journalist to Galloway, over from England. Enough Disguise points are spent to reinforce this fiction, and Galloway accepts his story, allowing him to stay in the camp and observe the dig.

Mainwearing privately admits that the expedition is making little progress in finding the lost tomb of Queen Nitocris. They suspect that she might have somehow extended the tomb complex around the Third Pyramid, but are not sure where.

Herr doktor Freund
Topless starts to get the strange sensation that he has been here before - the place all looks so familiar to him. Thrope offers to hypnotise him when Topless confides in the Irish alienist, but Topless refuses. Thrope tries anyway but fails (the player fluffing her roll completely). The tourists decide to return to Mena House for dinner, as the sun is going down.

After dinner, while they are sitting smoking cigars with Doctor Freund, Topless notices that Zita is missing; he goes in search of her, but to no avail. Freund seems unconcerned, but his car is missing. Roade bribes a few street urchins outside the hotel who tell him that the woman drove off in the direction of the pyramids. Topless, suspecting something is 'up', decides to take a taxi and follow her. Roade and Thrope tag along while Freund drinks himself into a stupor on cheap schnapps.

Up on the plateau, Fable is sitting outside his tent making coffee, and keeping an eye on Norton's tent, when he sees the archaeologist leave his tent and head off into the desert to the west of the encampment. He decides to follow (making an amazing Shadowing roll) and slips effortlessly out of the camp. He follows Norton to a crumbling causeway 10 minutes' walk from the camp, where the land peaks before it descends gradually towards the Nile. Norton pauses in the shadow of the causeway to light a cigarette. He seems to be waiting there.

At this point Fable makes his Sense Trouble roll, and sees a shadowy figure crawling across the top of the causeway. It crouches just above Norton. Before Fable can cry a warning, it pounces on Norton, who cries out. His cry is echoed by Zita, who is approaching on foot across the sand from the direction of Giza....

Next time: the demise of Fletcher Norton?

Friday, 16 November 2018

Generating a player character for Kuro

So I decided to roll up a character for Kuro the other night. For those who don't know Kuro, this is a cyberpunk RPG that was published by Cubicle 7, but now seems to have dropped off the radar a little, although it still seems to be receiving a degree of support from Cubicle 7. Kuro combines a number of themes I find particularly interesting, including the aforesaid near-future dystopian environment, an East Asian flavour and horror. It makes for an excellent package.

I do have some reservations about elements of the Kuro metaplot, as do others, but there's nothing to stop you from simply excising these altogether and stopping it from feeling too over the top, like Shadowrun or Victoriana. Some of that I feel is left to the individual GM and gaming group - you can take it or leave it, like having curry sauce on your katsu.

In this case I wanted to see whether I could come up with a player character that would match a miniature I own, one of the Marvel Heroclix, which I think is perfect for a game of Kuro.

Odori - street level scout

I started Odori by rolling for her core attributes and came up with:

Dexterity 3, Strength 1, Stamina 2, Reflexes 1, Intelligence 1, Perception 3, Charisma 3, Willpower 3

Odori is dexterous but her reflexes leave a lot to be desired. Using the above attributes there are a number of derived attributes which can then be calculated.

Hit points end up as 35, with a serious wound threshold of 12. Her defence score is 14 (not sure how good that is - only playing will tell), while her reaction bonus is 3. Like some other cyberpunk games I've played, there is also emphasis on actions per turn, but in this case Odori only gets 1. She can move 3 metres per action. On paper she looks a little under powered, but remember this is meant to be a horror game too - characters are not intended to be combat monsters like in Shadowrun.

I'm still rolling randomly for all this, but in reality you can chop and change quite a bit of the above to get the character you are after. I'm just sufficiently old school to like random character generation systems. I also come up with a random age (32), which means Odori was born back in 2014. Her kaiso (social status) is rolled as 1, so she is technically unemployed and making about 100k yen per month from benefits and some criminal activities.

I allocate her skill points between core skills (25 points) and specialties (20 points). This is much easier than Shadowrun or SLA Industries, in that you simply allocate the points. Specialties add bonuses to rolls.

Example: I take Melee Weapons 3, then add Swords +2, Daggers +1. I've spent six points, three from my core skill pool, three from the specialisation pool.

Other skills are as follows: Throwing Weapons 2 (Shuriken +1), Hand to Hand 2 (Martial Arts +2), Social Sciences 1 (Law +1), Athletics 3 (Climbing +2, Jumping +1, Running +1), Communications 2, Deception 3 (Lockpicking +1, Sleight of Hand +1, Sneaking +1), Drive 1, Survival 2 (Urban +1), Surveillance Systems 2 (Alarms +2, Intrusion +1), Microphotonics 1 (Data Hacking +1), Hardware 1.

There are a lot of skills in Kuro, so you need to come at it with a character concept, and then try to support that with your skill spend. You won't have enough points to be a jack of all trades. In this case I aimed for a streetwise B&E specialist who can also hold her own in a knife fight.

I add 2 points from my pools to Odori's contacts, going with Organised Crime 1 and Street 1. You have to specify these in more detail, so decide on Kuze Jun, a bainin Korean smuggler, and a social worker of some kind who works with street people.

I have a limit to the sort of equipment that Odori can own at campaign start so opt for something that matches my concept - always important to stay on target with character concept. She is armed with two wakizashi (Japanese short swords), four shuriken, and wears an Edge suit which gives her 5 protection (think of an advanced protective all in one used by speed freaks and motorcyclists).

Odori also owns a Rage & Bone guitar and a signed Shiro Bunshikawa t-shirt plus code clothes which will evince a positive reaction with other Sotoroku fans (this is a popular Tokyo underground band). She also has 10 doses of nIris drops (used to screen eyes from holographic advertising databases - 1 hour/dose) and a NeoPet talking cat (a synthetic robotic cat that can also speak, although not an advanced intelligence).

Kaiso acts as a curb on how much equipment a character can afford and also what sort of kit it is - some equipment is restricted according to your kaiso. For example, you can't have an android servant if you have less than kaiso 2, and even these are fairly basic types.

So there we have it, my first Kuro character. The process is pretty painless and you seem to end up with a fairly well-rounded character. The equipment list is not too over-powering and helps to inject a little more colour into what the PCs own. It is important to stay focused on your character concept, otherwise you can get lost in all the skills and technology, which some find overpowering in this sort of game.

Odori is ideal as a street level investigator and infiltration expert, also handy in a knife fight. I may return to Kuro in the future with another character.

Monday, 12 November 2018

A Distant Plain - observations after a five hour play through

We had a first shot at a multi-player game of A Distant Plain on Friday. This is the third volume in GMT's COIN (counter-insurgency) series, coming on the heels of Cuba Libre. Avid readers of this blog will know that I played through a few turns of Cuba Libre in solo mode and can read that again here.

A Distant Plain covers the war in Afghanistan between 2003-13, with the key factions being the Coalition forces (NATO), the Afghan government in Kabul, the Taliban and the Warlords, largely non-Pashtun drug lords, etc. It is a bigger and more sophisticated beast than Cuba Libre and takes longer to play. Unlike Cuba Libre, two factions are meant to be formally allied although with different victory objectives, namely the Afghan government and the Coalition. It is not possible for them to win as a team.

Instead of the US posture track in Cuba Libre, we have a Pakistan government posture which dictates the degree to which the Taliban can make use of their base areas in Pakistan. Also new is Lines of Communications, basically the main highways through the country, which can provide resources to the government but can also be hijacked by warlords and sabotaged by Taliban.

The game in full swing - Taliban rampage across Afghanistan

We played a full four player game, and this was largely a learning exercise for most of us. The system can take a bit of getting used to, and the strategic game can be frustrating, but then who ever said counter-insurgency warfare was easy?

Each player has a very different suite of actions and capabilities to choose from. I was playing the Coalition, and my two priorities were trying to reduce the foreign military in Afghanistan and increase support for the government around the country. This was quite difficult but I did not realise I could also close down bases rather than just reduce the amount of troops in-country.

The Coalition and the Government player share the same resource track as well, and it is possible for the Coalition player to reduce the Patronage score which the Afghan government needs to help it to meets its victory conditions. It is an interesting relationship, as I needed to cooperate with the Kabul government to keep the Taliban at bay, but I was also aware that Kabul was looking most likely to win, hence would have needed to reign him in to give myself a chance of victory.

A closer look - blue cubes are Afghan government army and police

All players were trying to get to grips with their various roles in the first couple of hours, but after that the game moved along at a fair clip. It is not a short game, and I get the impression that whereas Cuba Libre could be played in an evening, A Distant Plain requires a bit more than that.

I think the Coalition is a tough role to play in the game, despite having the best troops, air lifts and air strike capabilities. The victory conditions for the Coaltion means the fewer men you have on the board, the better for you, which flies in the face of most conventional military simulations.

We eventually called it a night a one in the morning, which was probably sensible. The Government was in sight of victory with the Taliban not far behind. I think it is fair to say I was coming last.

Green pieces = warlord troops and poppy farms in Balkh

I think A Distant Plain would benefit from playing via Vassal and there was some talk around the table of revisiting it in this format. Alternatively, I think, like Firefly, it is a game that really warrants the commit of a good six hours or so to play to an adequate conclusion.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Generating a new player character for The Laundry RPG

For those not in the know, The Laundry was a tabletop roleplaying game published by Cubicle 7 and based on the Laundry Files books of Charles Stross, a British science fiction writer. The stories tell the tale of a group of misfits working for the Laundry, a top secret UK counter intelligence agency that is tasked with protecting Britain - and the world - from various supernatural threats.

The stories, and the game, are a little more tongue in cheek than, say, Delta Green, and one of the biggest threats characters may face are the horrors of bureaucracy and inter-departmental politics which seem to crop up in any large organisation. The setting does have a typically British sheen to it, however, worthy of Ricky Gervais' The Office.

I'm exploring the core rules a little in the odd moment of spare time - work has been very busy of late, and as ever, I try to teach the rules to myself by first generating a player character. I find groups these days don't have the time for longer character generation sessions as we once did, hence like to have pregens, at least initially, when they are getting to grips with the system.

Hence, I sat down last night to create Harold Whitepole. Attributes are rolled in a similar way to Call of Cthulhu, on which The Laundry is based - it uses the same rules as Chaosium's BRP system, but with tweaks. The core attributes are the same, so I rolled and came up with:

Strength 14, Constitution 8, Power 8, Dexterity 11, Charisma 13, Intelligence 10, Size 16, Education 11.

This provides some derived attributes, as per CoC, including a +1d4 damage bonus for melee combat, a Dodge score of 22%, Sanity of 40, and 12 hit points. The Laundry gives him two additional derived attributes, a Major Wound Level of 6 and an XP bonus of +5%. The first measures whether or not he blacks out from serious physical injuries and the second aids him in learning from his experiences.

I also rolled for his age randomly, and came up with 24.

Based on Harold's attributes, I coloured in a bit of background for him, making him a big, cheerful chap, but a man out of shape, with a bit of a drinking problem (fond of too many beers with the lads) and a 40-a-day cigarette habit.

The Laundry approaches skills a little differently, and is more reminiscent of Cubicle 7's World War Cthulhu in that skills are determined by training and background packages. I rolled for Harold and came up with a Leader personality type, which gives me his first set of skills. This is then followed by his pre-Laundry background. I can see from his poor Education that he left school at 16. He was already coming to life in my eyes.

I decided to base Harold on some of the people I was at school with: privately educated but not very academic, Harold left school at 16 and has spent time in France, had a French girlfriend for a bit and also worked for a while at a major telecommunications firm, possibly in a job at Carphone Warehouse which his father secured for him.

Harold comes from an affluent background, his father is a successful lawyer and he has spent some time interning at his father's law firm. However, the law did not appeal to Harold, who preferred playing rugby and partying in London. His job at the Laundry has also been procured through family contacts. I gave Harold Dilettante as his background, which makes him Affluent in Laundry terms, although he's not been able to hold down a proper job to date. You can spend quite a few points on these skills.

A further batch of skills occur once you choose a department within the Laundry to work for, at least initially. I decided that Harold's father has got him a job in the Interdepartmental Liaison Group, where he has been working as an assistant liaison with the Home Office. A final basic training package comes at the end of the entire process, once the Laundry decides the character is needed for a stint 'in operations.'

His skill package now looks like this (operations training in parantheses):

Appraise 60%, Athletics (rugby forward) 45%, Bargain 25% Bureaucracy 35% (40%), Command 25%, Computer Use 15%, Etiquette 60%, Fast Talk 25%, Fine Manipulation Knowledge - Politics 35%, French 45%, English 75%, Perform - Act 25% (Drama GCSE perhaps), Persuade 45%, Sense 30%, Firearm - Shotgun 50% (killing pheasants), Firearm Pistol - 25%, Drive 45%, Research 70%, Pharmacy 26% (recreational drug habit which he is keeping to himself), Technology - Communications 40% (Carphone Warehouse job), Knowledge - Law 30% (internship with father's firm), Status 25%.

Seasoned CoC players will notice that the game has quite a few new skills - some are fairly self-evident, for example Research is like Library Use, but boosted to cover online research, government archives, and the Laundry's own internal resources, the dreaded Stacks. Status is actually the character's own standing within the organisation, and reflects his/her ability to get things done with other employees. "It is a combination of rank, political pull, favours owed and standing. A character with low Status is an anonymous drone..." I quite like this. No skills are allowed above 75% at character generation.

Some initial equipment is available for characters that cross 50% skill boundaries, another nice touch. In Harold's case, this gives him certification to carry a pistol on duty, even though his high score is in shotgun - the Laundry has decided he can handle himself around weapons of this nature.

So there you have it, my first Laundry character. The core rules contain some further pre-gens, plus some of the characters from the books who can easily be co-opted as player characters.