Friday, 4 October 2019

Night's Black Agents: The Carmilla Sanction (part 3)

The hunt for Carmilla...
Vienna, April 1948, and the city has been closed off mysteriously by Soviet occupation forces. Inside the city an Edom hit squad is on the trail of 17th century Austrian vampire Carmilla Karnstein. Having sneaked into the city, the Edom unit is now seeking out the lookalike ghouls that Countess Karnstein has seeded in Vienna, while also suspecting a mole tipped her off to their initial assault on her castle in Styria.

The agents entered the central district of Vienna, which was shared by the four Allied powers, in an effort to locate the Bulgarian Carmilla lookalike, Alma Cril. Upon approaching the townhouse where she lived, they heard professional level piano music. The door was opened by a man with a Hungarian accent, introducing himself as George, who it turned out was co-habiting with Cril. He was obviously a concert pianist.

The house was littered with expensive art and artefacts, some of which looked like it was in the process of being packed up. Fox identified these as possible looted art that was destined for sale on the black market. George told the agents - who posed as variety journalists - that Cril was asleep and regularly slept late, not rising until after lunchtime.

Cril was eventually rousted out and thought she was being interviewed by the 'journalists' until O'Reilly lost patience, knocked George out, and subjected Cril to more direct questioning. Her answers were similar to those provided by di Pietri, and again she expressed an interest in getting out of the city and asked directly for a British passport in exchange for her cooperation. She was able to also tell the Edom team that another of the girls was working under the name Lara Clim at the Kommandatura, the Allied headquarters in Vienna, and only 20 minutes' walk away.

Cril exhibited the same reactions to a crucifix as di Pietri and also did not show up clearly in O'Reilly's shaving mirror. Fox was able to sit down and create some false papers for the couple which could get them out of Vienna and into the British sector in Austria.

On the streets of Vienna - 1948

The team now decided to head over to the Kommandatura where they bluffed their way in using their British electrician papers. Cril had told them that Lara Clim was working for the French legation on the second floor of the building. They managed to approach her and persuade her to show them where the main junction boxes were in the basement before again starting to interrogate her. She managed to use her mesmerism power against both O'Reilly and Blake, succeeding in making O'Reilly leave the generator room. Blake proved more resistant and forced the girl into a corner with his crucifix.

Fox went after O'Reilly into the corridor outside, and managed to slap him back to his senses. As the Irishman was recovering they both spotted another girl who looked like Clim approaching them down the corridor. She produced a pair of automatic pistols and ran at them with supernatural speed while firing the guns. Fox was winged although not seriously hurt. O'Reilly managed to shoot the girl with his crossbow, but she kept coming.

Hoffmann ducked out into the corridor and also started shooting at the girl, hitting her in the head and killing her. But behind him Blake was having trouble restraining Clim, who threw him across the room and into a wall. Blake returned to the attack and IIRC killed Clim, but may have just knocked her out. Fox retrieved ID papers from the dead girl with the gun-fu, who turned out to be the Ukrainian nurse, Clar-mila Vilsen.

The Kommandatura - Allied occupation headquarters in Vienna

Anyway, the agents quickly cut the power in the building and split up, sneaking out using either their Infiltration abilities or their electrician cover identities. Heat was already up to 3, so the target numbers were beginning to get hefty.

Having escaped from the Kommandatura, the Edom agents headed back to the Soviet sector. It was getting dark. They drove towards the house of Carmalli di Pietri. There was no sign of her Soviet lover, so it was a simple matter to pick her up, blindfold her and drive over to their safe house. The agents were planning to use her as bait to attract Carmilla, although they told her they were going to get her out of Vienna.

It was at this point that Hoffmann noticed they were being followed by another car. He drove down a blind alley so that the team could stage an ambush, cutting off the other car when it tried to follow them. They suspected it might be Carmilla. However, three men got out of the vehicle and drew pistols while the driver tried to reverse back into the agents' car. O'Reilly, Blake and Hoffmann jumped out and started shooting at the car (O'Reilly had handcuffed di Pietri to the car door to stop her leaving), which was riddled with bullets. The driver was hit and killed and the car flipped over in the alley. The three surviving strangers ran down the alley and started shooting at the agents' car.

O'Reilly burns through his Shooting pool....
Fox, still in the car, was shining his flashlight down the alley as the bullets started whizzing past. He looked up into the driver's mirror as he heard the sound of something breaking in the back, and realised di Pietri was not showing up in the mirror at all. It wasn't di Pietri after all..."It's her, it's her," Fox started screaming.

The vampire Carmilla grabbed Fox by the back on his neck and pulled him into the back of the car. Fox was overwhelmed by the chill spreading through his body from her icy hand. Outside, Hoffman managed to toss a grenade down the alley, killing one of the three remaining attackers. The other two concentrated their fire on the car, hitting Fox. Smoke filled the alleyway, along with flying bullets.

Realising Fox was in trouble, O'Reilly fired indiscriminately into the car, and also hit Fox. Blake threw a knife with unerring accuracy and hit Carmilla in the eye, blinding her. She screamed with rage and pain, but this allowed the barely conscious Fox to throw himself out of the car as she had lost her grip on him. Which was lucky, because Hoffmann and O'Reilly both immediately tossed grenades into the vehicle. The second explosion triggered the fuel tanks, turning it into an inferno and torching the 300 year old vampire in the process.

The burning wreck also blocked the alley, allowing the agents to retreat after Blake had provide some first aid on Fox. The Edom team escaped on foot before a Russian patrol showed up (Heat to 4 at this point).

After that it was a simple process to lie up overnight in their safe house and escape from the city through the sewer tunnels the following morning. Their mission was accomplished and Carmilla Karnstein was no more.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Night's Black Agents: The Carmilla Sanction (part 2)

Soviet checkpoint, Vienna, 1948
Continuing on from where we left off two weeks ago, the Edom agents had just raided Schloss Karnstein in the Styrian Alps, killing two vampires and a number of the ghoul retainers of the 17th century vampire Carmilla Karnstein. Suspecting a mole within Edom, they reported back to Edom headquarters, telling Jetheth, their handler, that they were hunting for Carmilla in the British occupation zone near Salzburg. In reality, they prepared to get into the Soviet sector and make for Vienna, where the Romanian forger Popescu lived.

Staying at a nearby gasthof, the agents recuperated and Fox worked on their van to conceal their weapons and ammo preparatory to making a bid across the border into Soviet Austria. They also heard from their landlord that the Russians had closed off the entire city of Vienna to outside traffic.

Using their cover identities which centred around Blake and Hoffman's identities as a doctor and his assistant from Medicins Sans Frontieres, the agents slipped through a Russian checkpoint, although they did stop to question the soldiers about why Vienna had been closed. Being just privates, the border guards had no idea and anyway, had orders not to chin wag with anyone not in the Red Army.

Note - Medicins Sans Frontieres was founded in Paris in 1971, so the likelihood is the covers used here would have been International Red Cross, especially as Blake and Hoffman's cover was as Swiss medical personnel.

Proceeding towards Vienna, the agents stopped to place a call to a Russian army officer and black marketeer, Yuri Griginski, a British SIS asset who operated in the Soviet zone in Vienna. He told them how to get in through one of his smuggling routes down a large drain pipe near the Danube. He also arranged for a safe house in the Russian zone and transport.

Note - technically the agents breached Edom's instructions here by accessing an MI6 resource, but I reckoned Griginski was likely also a personal contact of Hoffmann's (codename Moth) and would not necessarily check this with SIS HQ in Vienna. SIS was oblivious of the Edom mission in Austria.

Once into the Soviet zone, the agents staked out the apartment belonging to Popescu. They searched it and found much of his forging materials and documents, including passport photos of several girls who could have met Carmilla's description. They were all oddly slightly out of focus, but obviously different people.

Hoffmann keeping an eye on the Popescu flat

Once Popescu arrived home, well after curfew, he was confronted by the agents and interrogated, revealing that Carmilla had instructed him to create the passes and identities for the girls, who visited him in 1946 to collect them. He knew Carmilla was a vampire, and lived in fear of her, but had only dealt with her through one of her agents (the bald ghoul killed by Hoffmann at Schloss Karnstein). He had created papers for 10 girls over the period 1945-46.

O'Reilly forced Popescu to reveal he kept the details of the girls in his client book, which he retrieved for them from his desk, but just as he did, he was hit by a rifle bullet fired from across the street and killed almost instantly. This forced the agents to evacuate the building at speed (having shot out the lights) before a Russian patrol turned up.

Fox and O'Reilly found the Popescu diary was written in a personal code, but managed to begin to decipher it and located some of Carmilla's girls, namely a Bulgarian actress called Alma Cril in the central zone of Vienna (shared by the occupation powers), a Tyrolese Italian called Carmalli di Pietri who lived in the Soviet sector, a local Austrian girl called Carmilla Liebfels who lived in the British sector and a Ukrainian named Clar-mila Vilsen who had been granted the identity of a nurse but seemed to have no address.

The team decided to pay a visit to di Pietri the following morning and observed a smartly dressed man leaving her abode with a briefcase and getting into a jeep driven by a Russian soldier. Fox bluffed his way into the house pretending to be a local Viennese aristocrat fallen on hard times, after which the other agents broke into the house with guns out and masks on.

Not many mirrors in this house.

By interrogating di Pietri, they found she was living with a senior Russian diplomat who worked with the Soviet legation in the centre of the city. She had been told to remain in place but had no contact with either Carmilla or the other girls, some of whom she had met at the schloss in 1946. She did not know where they lived although she had seen a few in the city since then. However, more interestingly, she admitted she was also working for US intelligence and passing information about her lover to an agent called Robert Verboelen at the American legation.

Di Pietri did show up in O'Reilly's shaving mirror, but was always slightly out of focus. She also demonstrated an obvious fear of Blake's crucifix. She told the agents she wanted to get out of Vienna and return to the Tyrol and her family. The agents decided to leave her in place and proceed to the central zone of the city to visit the abode of the Bulgarian Alma Cril. Fox took some of the headed note paper from the Soviet legation he found in the house and Hoffmann procured a list of names of prominent Russian administrative officials from di Pietri.

Next time - trouble at the Kommandatura...

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Night's Black Agents: The Carmilla Sanction (part 1)

I returned to Night's Black Agents and Gumshoe last night, with a short mini-campaign from the pages of the Edom Files.

This is the second adventure in the Edom Files - I have run the first already, and you can read about it here. Luckily I'm playing with a group that has completed the Dracula Dosser campaign already, so is quite familiar with Edom and its background.

As discussed in the Dracula Dossier, Edom is a covert organisation that sits within MI6 and is tasked with countering the threat of the undead to national security. In the campaign we played, Edom ended up as adversaries of the player characters - although they could have been allies.

In the Carmilla Sanction, the PCs are members of an Edom hit squad tasked with tracking down and slaying the vampire Carmilla Karnstein in Austria in 1948. It is right after WW2, and Austria is still divided up between the Allied powers. Southern Austria is under British occupation.

We generated characters specifically for this mission and they are:

  • Sean O'Reilly, code name Wolf, a former military policeman, his drive is Mystery
  • Code name Fox, nobody knows his real name, he is a master forger and works for Edom because he has nowhere else to go
  • Jeff Hoffmann, code name Moth, he is a demolitions expert and an Austrian native, his drive is Collector
  • Nathan Blake, code name Owl, he is an MI6 assassin, his drive is Slayer
The team are a seasoned wetworks unit, part of Edom, sent to Austria in April 1948 under the cover of being electrical engineers, ostensibly dispatched to help restore the power in the British sector. In reality, their target is the Schloss Karnstein and its owner, Carmilla Karnstein, a vampire Edom believes has been lurking around Central Europe since the early 1700s.

The PCs had to scale the Leichenberg mountain in Styria in order to approach the schloss covertly, descending the mountain in an effort to surprise the castle's inhabitants during daylight. There were a number of things that could have gone wrong on the climb, as only one of them (Hoffmann) was an experienced mountaineer, and two were out of shape with no Athletics pools to speak of (Fox had not trained for this sort of work).

As it was, the group avoided alerting the castle's inhabitants, and bought themselves more time by bivouacking on the mountain overnight in order to launch their attack at dawn the next day. This they succeeded in doing, roping across to the castle's roof and gaining access to the fourth floor through a window.

Schloss Karnstein

Initial investigation found the castle seemingly deserted, but the agents soon encountered some of Carmilla's servants on the third floor of the central wing of the castle. While Hoffmann sought to overpower one of the men and use him as a shield against a second, Blake was surprised by a third who stabbed him in the back before O'Reilly could shoot him with his crossbow. Fox sought to grapple with him but found the servant to be unusually strong.

IIRC one of the servants had his neck broken and another was stabbed to death with a kukri. It was all very bloody, needless to say, but the alarm was not raised, which was the important thing, and Blake's knife wound was successfully treated. The third man was aggressively interrogated by Hoffmann (including the removal of a finger), and provided additional information on some of the other inhabitants of the castle and the news that his mistress had left the day before, before he too was ruthlessly executed by the agents.

The team explored the south wing of the castle and discovered evidence that it had been lived in about three years before. Clues included six beds in a dormitory with sheets still on them, graffiti carved into bed posts, empty food cans, dresses and clippings of brown hair. Strangely, they also found a tattoo machine with some dried dark ink still in it.

Over the main stair case in the castle they saw a painting of Carmilla which Fox reckoned to be from the 1690s. He took a few photos of it. In the master bedroom the agents successfully surprised and killed a vampire that looked like a middle-aged woman, who was sleeping in a four poster bed covered in grave soil. Blake presciently opened the curtains to the bedroom beforehand, allowing sunlight to stream in before the sleeping vampire was attacked and beheaded with a kukri.

In the fireplace of the master bedroom Fox discovered the burned remains of grey passports of the sort used to move between the Allied sectors in Vienna. He could not identify whom they were intended for, but he recognised them as very good forgeries, the handiwork of a Romanian forger who he knows lives in Vienna called Popescu.

Proceeding downstairs to the castle chapel, the group surprised and killed another servant coming upstairs armed with a shotgun. Hoffmann took the weapon. Reaching the chapel, they stormed in to find it devoid of Christian symbols and with strange designs painted on the walls, some of them in dried blood. A large and intricate pyramid of human bones sat on the altar. Hoffmann recognised this as a site for the practise of advanced witchcraft.

Before they could explore further, the dark skinned woman clinging to the ceiling dropped on them. She prepared her blowpipe to shoot at Blake, but was shot in the face by Hoffmann. While the blast from his shotgun did little damage to the woman, who cackled evilly, it did destroy her blowpipe. Before she could act further, however, Blake attacked with his kukri and successfully beheaded her.

With two vampires down, the team moved to the front of the castle. The shooting had alerted two more servants who were leading horses out of the stables. They mounted these and began riding hell for leather towards the castle. They seemed to be brandishing whips. They rode into a hail of automatic weapons fire from Blake, Hoffmann and O'Reilly who downed a horse and shot down both the servants. One of the horses kept coming, seemingly possessed of a berserk rage, but Hoffmann finished it off with a grenade. The group reckons it had been infected with vampire blood at some stage.

Blake considers whether vampire hunting is all it is cracked up to be.

With the shooting over, the three agents turned to find the hapless Fox with a tall, gaunt man dressed in 18th century costume, most of it black. He was holding a relatively modern automatic pistol against Fox's head. He ordered the agents to drop their weapons in German. As they complied, Blake reached for one of his throwing knives, and with a career-defining throw, landed it in one of the man's eye sockets, killing him instantly. It turned out he was not a vampire.

Further searching of the premises revealed no sign of Carmilla, other than evidence that a black sports car, an Alfa Romeo, which had been stored in one of the garages, had been driven away recently. Fox suspected that Carmilla might have been tipped off about the attack somehow.

The team now checked in with Edom on the long range radio from the castle, explaining that Carmilla was still active, but the castle was sanitised. They said they were going to search the immediate locale for her. In reality, they began to make preparations to get into the Soviet sector. A truck was found in the garage, and keys on one of the dead servants. With the sun setting over Styria, they headed east.

To be continued...

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Battlefleet Gothic: don't bring escorts to a cruiser fight

Multiple contacts! Incoming!
Battlefleet Gothic are my go to rules for deep space fleet combat. They are an old set of rules, no longer in production from Games Workshop, although there are rumours of a re-launch in the wake of the success of the likes of Blood Bowl and Necromunda.

I've not played a lot of BFG, but enough to appreciate its systems. I've also acquired quite a few Necron warships. But I've not played since around 2010. An opportunity arose to get the fleet out for a foray against a Chaos fleet at Dice Saloon.

We decided on 1000 points, which is a good number for players who are relatively unfamiliar with the system to get a good battle done inside four hours. I could not find my cruisers and my tomb ship, so opted for almost 1000 points of escorts in the form of Jackal and Dirge raiders, backed up with one Scythe-class light cruiser, a couple of re-rolls. This was a decision forced on me by circumstances, but it would prove to be an interesting exercise.

The Chaos opposition brought three escorts, two cruisers and the mother of all battle barges to the table. We opted for a suprise attack scenario with the Chaos fleet in close orbit around a sun, screened by some of the hyper-heated gas clouds around the star. The Necrons launched their attack on a broad front.

Necron raiders approaching a gas cloud. Locked on target.

I managed to destroy two escorts, but was still getting my head around the special orders and really only started to make proper use of the unique Necron Brace for Impact qualities after about turn 3. By that stage I'd lost a few of my raiders.

The mother of all Chaos battle barges shrugs off hits...

I wanted to try to focus my attack on the battle barge, which was by far the largest Chaos ship present, but reckoned without its considerable shields. I made only one real hit on it all game, although the raiders were adept at staying in its baffles and shooting at it repeatedly with lighting arcs.

Necrons try to swarm the barge...
I had one opportunity to bring almost my entire fleet's firepower to bear on the battle barge, but failed to do any serious damage due to some amazingly bad dice rolling. The cruisers had longer range weapons than mine, and while the Necrons had the edge in maneuverability, they could reach out and blow my robots out of the sky with their lances.

In retrospect, I should probably have gone after one of the cruisers, as they were lighter targets. I considerably overestimated the ability of my raiders to damage the battle barge. It was too much of a beast. I also should have made more use of special orders than I did, as these are what make the Necrons a lot more deadlier. My cruiser escaped to fight another day on turn 8 despite repeated attacks from bombers, which goes to show you how tough even a light Shroud-class is. IIRC it survived three waves of bombers intact.

I really missed having my Scythes, the Necron heavy cruisers. I shall redouble my efforts to find them - they have got to be around here somewhere....

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Star Trek Adventures: A Play Test Review

So we wrapped up our Star Trek Adventures mini campaign this week. We were using the adventure which comes with the boxed starter set for the game, published by Modiphius. Star Trek Adventures uses the 2d20 Modiphius house rules system, which they seem to now be grafting onto a range of licenses. The starter set comes with pre-generated characters, a rules digest, some nice floor plans and some counters for the crew of the ship and their adversaries.

We had five players taking part in the adventure, which stretched across 6-8 sessions but could probably be played in a shorter time, as this group is happy to make even the most routine of encounters stretch over a couple of hours. There's no bad thing in that, but some groups which are more focused will probably play through this adventure in a shorter time span.

I was a relative Star Trek newbie and started watching the first couple of series of Star Trek - the Next Generation while we were playing the game in an effort to familiarise myself with the background. But our GM and most of the other players were well versed in the canon, which was lucky. I played Lieutenant Commander Liang Zhang, the Chinese helmswoman / con of the USS Armstrong, which was dispatched to deal with a distress call from a Federation research vessel, uncomfortably close to the Neutral Zone.

You need to be a dab hand with the phaser in this game.

The introductory adventure is a good one, featuring a range of roleplaying and combat encounters, and which gradually introduces the GM and players to the rules systems and to the 2d20 system generally. For example, the away team quickly gets caught up in a battle with Romulans early on in the adventure, which helps players to get their heads around the combat rules.

I found the combat rules as played a little too abstract for my tastes, as they are even more light than Dungeons & Dragons. The game uses the somewhat quaint approach of players deciding among themselves who gets to go next, with the bad guys alternating with the crew, and it still feels a little odd to me. IIRC the third edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, from Fantasy Flight Games, used something similar. It tends to result in a standard turn order, with occasional changes when it suits the players. Encounter areas are divided into zones which regulate weapon ranges and movement.

It is a very simple system at its essence, with an additional layer of crunch in the form of special abilities which allow crew members to provide each other with re-rolls, extra actions, and so forth. Additional dice can be gained through using Values and Determination points. Damage is a little more involved, as it requires these black, proprietary dice (don't they love those in RPGs these days?), with special Star Trek symbols which can have special effects, or do nothing at all.

Space battles can quickly turn into TPKs.
The space combat system, on the other hand, is a mess. Neither the GM nor a couple of seasoned wargamers around the table, myself included, could get our heads around it. I suggested some sort of flowchart might be required. There isn't one, though, but maybe Modiphius might want to look at one for the next edition, if they can hold onto the license. We stumbled through an encounter with a pair of Romulan cruisers, but a resolution was only achieved by winging it a little. It looked to me that further work would be needed before we got to the bottom of the system.

Every science fiction game which involves starship combat needs a system to resolve what can be a vital part of the plot. After all, mess up here and you could quickly find yourself in campaign ending, total party kill territory. I recall d20 Star Wars simply grafted its tactical combat system into space, itself raided from third edition D&D, but that did not look satisfactory by a long stretch. I've done some reading of the starship combat system for Ashen Stars, but again, this looks highly convoluted. Star Trek is no different. For some reason games designers start to inject massive levels of unnecessary complexity into a separate rules system which is only occasionally going to be used.

On the upside, the starter set comes with a nice radial map which allows for combat between ships to be tracked around a planet, possibly with multiple moons and maybe an asteroid field. A lot of encounters in Star Trek take place in the vicinity of planets, so I can see how this makes sense. Usually only 2-3 ships will be involved. There are no hordes of fighters in this universe.

As helmsman my character was particularly useful during a space battle with a Romulan cruiser, but I did feel that she was out of her depth in many other situations. We had several firefights on ships, space stations and planets with frequently tough and well-equipped opposition, and my character was less valuable than, say, the medical officer. All I could really do was snipe away with my poxy phaser and hope for the best.

The crew of the Armstrong busy 'interacting' with new friends.

Star Trek characters are not routinely equipped with the sort of hardware that, say, Judge Dredd can call on. Perhaps this is the fault of the setting, but certainly, I noticed that our security officer, who was a blue alien that carried some kind of traditional melee weapon, was killing bad guys quicker by thumping them with it, than the rest of the away team kitted out with phasers.

Ultimately, phasers are pants in this game - you are better served by hitting the bad guys with rocks. We did forget at times to use the aiming rules, which might have made them more effective. But still, I was rolling 4D for my damage, versus a security officer who was rolling 6D by hitting things with a glorified spatula.

It may be that Star Trek Adventures should be less combat focused than perhaps the starter adventure would indicate. Watching ST:NG on Netflix, my impression was that in many episodes violence is either never resorted to, or if so, only reluctantly. In the RPG it happens regularly. Maybe players just want to work off some latent aggression by shooting things rather than seeking to talk to them? Maybe after the first couple of attempts to negotiate lead to conceding initiative to the opposition, the temptation is to shoot first and ask questions later?

It always helps to have a muscly, blue security officer to kill stuff.

We were aided by the fact that the ship's NPC captain was not interested in micro-managing the away team. Our on-site PC commander, the first officer, was more inclined to enforce some level of civility on the part of the crew, and in most cases we tried to keep phasers on stun, although it was noticeable that in the climactic encounter, when we could have used stealth and diplomacy to resolve the situation, we went in with phasers blazing and killed everything we could. Perhaps we'd had enough of the opposition, which had been running us ragged for weeks.

The actual core rules for Star Trek Adventures is badly written. It takes a long time to find what you need in it, we all found it hard to get our heads around some of the many moving parts the game has. I'm not sure whether this is the fault of the 2d20 system, or the fact that there are several additional systems grafted on to it to provide the flavour of the setting...but I was finding that each time we returned to the table, we were either re-learning things, forgetting things, or simply missing things altogether.

Would I play 2d20 again? Yes, I think so. I think the core mechanic is a good one (I believe it is going to be used for the next edition of Achtung Cthulhu), but the presentation of the rest of the game needs work, especially as far as Star Trek Adventures is concerned. I think you could run a good Star Trek game with this, and it would feel like Star Trek, but it would need adventures that challenged other aspects of the characters other than their combat skills. Too many RPGs are still firmly rooted in their wargames origins, and combat still takes up too much of the bandwidth in my view. Rarely does a session seem to go by without someone trying to kill something. Star Trek feels like it has the potential to support a good scenario where a phaser is never actually used, but it would require adventure designers and indeed players to step up to that plate.