Thursday, 29 October 2015

Brainstorming a Night's Black Agents campaign

Well, I'm currently ill in bed with man flu, and consequently left to my own devices for a change. It is the inevitability of living in European climates that winter brings with it illnesses of all kinds. Travelling on planes and trains where said diseases are at liberty to circulate in the human population only adds to the chances of being struck down. Still, it has given me some more opportunity to read the Zalozhniy Quartet, the first campaign book to be published for the Night's Black Agents RPG from Pelgrane Press, which has been somewhat eclipsed by the recent excitement over Kenneth Hite's Dracula Dossier.

I'm still not convinced by the Zalozhniy Quartet, but can't really put my finger on what it is. In many respects, the structure is one that appeals to me, as it does feel like a sandbox, my favourite type of RPG setting these days.There are some railroad plot elements in one of the chapters, and by that I mean the writer is making some big assumptions about what the PCs will do, which may or may not prove to be the case. I think the GM still has to do quite a bit of work on this campaign to ready it for use with experienced players, but by the looks of it, it does make use of all the different mechanics in NBA. What it is not is a complete set of adventures - much is left to the GM to decide what he wants it to be.

This, plus the fact that I'm currently reading Archangel, by Robert Harris, has got me thinking about writing an NBA campaign from scratch - eventually. Here I've taken some inspiration from the Transylvania Chronicles, which appeared in support of the old Dark Ages Vampire line in the 1990s, and which I still keep in fond hope I'll get to run it one day.

Essentially, this would be an episodic campaign, beginning in the 1940s, right after the end of WW2. Players would be working for the British secret intelligence services initially, but could go anywhere with it after that. The starting player characters would all have had wartime experience of some kind, for example with SOE or Royal Marine commandos, so I might work up some alternative background packages to the ones in the core rulebook, at least for 1940s agents. Some skills, like Digital Intrusion, would not be available, of course. The character sheet might end up looking like a hybrid between NBA and Trail of Cthulhu.

Each section of the plot would be separated by a number of years. Protagonists would age considerably over the course of the campaign, and some might need to be replaced eventually, if they get to retirement age of course.

I would anticipate at least five years between chapters, possibly more, so the campaign might need rules for how characters change during that time. For example, there should be opportunity to add more points to Network during downtime, as it is assumed agents would be working on other assignments that are not part of the focus of the campaign.

The opening chapter begins in London in 1947 but can travel in a number of directions after that...

In terms of possible backgrounds for characters, I may use the list from World War Cthulhu, but alter them for NBA. As most if not all agents in 1947 would have seen some kind of active service in WW2, this would work well.

Addendum - the core rules include a Martini Straight Up mode for agents that are still working for their parent agency. In addition, Double Tap has rules for generating WW2 era agents on page 118. This should suffice for agents in the late Forties and through the Fifties.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Cornish Conspiracy - an idea for yet another horror campaign

I'm still in the middle of running a Deadlands Noir sandbox campaign for my group, and beyond that, am also pondering The Zalozhniy Quartet for Night's Black Agents, of which more later. Hence, what follows should really be deemed as something that sits even further out in the universe of possible gaming concepts, especially as it is still relatively unformed.

Inspired by finishing Daphne Du Maurier's excellent Jamaica Inn, which I actually listened to on Audible, and having quite a bit of time to burn this week on planes and trains due to a trip out to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, I've come up with an idea for a new horror / mystery campaign. It has not a name as such yet.

Essentially, the game is set in Cornwall in the mid-18th century. It combines elements of the supernatural with gothic suspense. Timewise, I'm thinking here 1760s, with most, if not all of the action taking place west of the river Tamar. The player characters are all residents of Cornwall.

A few ideas for possible characters I've come up with so far:

  • A highwayman who masquerades as something else, possibly working in partnership with an NPC. He sneaks onto coaches and then robs the passengers before the coach stops at a pre-arranged rendezvous point.
  • A member of the Exeter town watch
  • A lady's maid, who is regularly used as a courier for her mistress, who may / may not be up to no good
  • A country doctor, freshly returned from military service in North America
  • An alchemist, hiding out in Cornwall on his brother's estate having been accused of nefarious crimes in London

These are just a few ideas. I'm pondering how you bring such a disparate group together, but I guess that is the purpose of the opening adventure. The rules would be Renaissance, which is a variant of Basic Roleplaying (BRP) and RuneQuest, with which we are relatively familiar.

As with my Deadlands campaign, I'm finding my favoured style of play is now what I call directed sandbox, driven by over-arching campaign themes, the actions and decisions of the players, and their existing ties to the environment, whatever that might be. Consequently, I'm sketching out the milieu for the adventures first, rather than the plot. Apart from Jamaica Inn itself, inspiration is coming from the recent UK TV series Poldark and the French film Brotherhood of the Wolf. People and places are springing unbidden onto the page. It is all coalescing into quite an entertaining mystery.

Renaissance requires that PCs are aligned with a faction (which replaces the cult in RQ as a sponsoring body), thus I'm currently brainstorming what that might be and how it could potentially draw together the disparate group mentioned above. It could well be a Masonic lodge in Exeter. It could be an influential individual, like the country doctor outlined above, or a businessman like Ross Poldark.

Further material on this if I stick with it. I might even post some of the protagonists on the blog.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Top 11 greatest Call of Cthulhu scenarios I've run

Here's a list of what constitute the best scenarios for Call of Cthulhu that I've run over the course of over 25 years now of being a Keeper. I am purposefully not going into great detail on each in order to avoid spoilers, so sadly can't comment too much on detail. In many cases I've run them more than once, and for beginners to Call of Cthulhu or indeed to first timers for tabletop role playing games generally. I've ranked them from tenth to first in order of enjoyment.

I note right from the off that all of these were published in the last century. It may be because I've actually run very little CoC since moving to Brighton and have spent most of my time as a player, the vast bulk of it playing d20 games. Several scenarios were also used in a campaign I ran at university in 1991-92 with a brand new group of players who had never picked up a polyhedral dice before. We huddled over them on wet Sunday afternoons in London after we'd run out of beer.

Most I have played multiple times, and this has frequently been because I reach for them when presenting the game to newbies or at short notice. This is because I know they work, that they entertain, and I can get back into them very quickly. Some are also good starting points for campaigns, providing a premise for investigators to get together in the first place.

11: The Garden of Earthly Delights - Michael LaBossiere, 1995

Part of a small trio of adventures that came out as Strange Aeons, set in different times and places. I've now run this adventure four times, including once online. It takes place in 16th century Spain on the eve of the death of King Philip II. The investigators are all members of the Inquisition, sent to a remote village in the Pyrenees to follow up on rumours of a virgin birth and the Second Coming. A Spanish player has noted that many NPCs are blessed with Latin American names - just don't play it with any European Spanish, as they'll scoff at the New World feel (or change the names)! English speakers will probably not notice...

10: The Secret of Castronegro - Mark Pettigrew and Sandy Petersen, 1983

A 1920s adventure, this originally appeared in the Cthulhu Companion, although I came across it in the third edition hardback that Games Workshop licensed. I have found this to be a good follow on adventure from The Haunting (see below). I think one of its strengths has to be its sandbox characteristics, along with the fact that it takes place in New Mexico rather than in Lovecraft's New England. I've just had so many enjoyably moments running this one, I had to include it. It takes a bit of a pounding from some critics, but to be honest, I don't feel much of the criticism is warranted. Kenneth Hite seems to like it, so that's got to be worth something.

9: The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island, Gary Pilkington, 1984

Released to support Grenadier's range of Cthulhu models, some of which I still own, this came in a slim, 'dungeon module' style format along with The House in the Woods (see below). It may be very hard to find now, as it was not released by Chaosium. Again, a traditional 1920s adventure, it starts with a missing person. It works extremely well as a sandbox, and comes with some natty black and white floor plans. This scenario yielded what has to be one of the most entertaining investigator deaths in my experience, triggered by a critical failure on a demolitions roll.

8: The Key and The Gate, Chris Hind, 1990

Published in an issue of White Wolf magazine, this is a classic era adventure in Arkham. It is very short and can be easily completed in an evening. It would also be quite a good introduction to the game, if you can lay your hands on it. To be honest, you could transplant this to the university town of your choice - it would work just was well in 1930s Oxford. It is probably not as enjoyable for very experienced players, as it includes some very common Mythos tropes, but for newer players dipping their toe in the water for the first time, very entertaining. It partly relies on the investigators taking decisions which they might not if being run by experienced players.

7: The Surrey Enigma, Marcus L. Rowland, 1985

The adventure that got me into CoC in the first place, this appeared in White Dwarf magazine. I love this one for a number of reasons, including the atmospheric, pre-war English rural setting of my grandparents' youth, when the village bobby used to ride around on his bike. There is very little I can add without spoiling the plot of this one, but if you can track down a copy of the magazine, well worth it. Unlike The Key and The Gate (above), this was very much written for experienced players, and includes some nice misdirections that can catch them out if they are too suspicious. One of the NPCs in this game later went on to be a long-running player character in our campaign when he was recruited into the party (an original investigator went insane).

6: The Edge of Darkness, Keith Herber, 1992

This now appears regularly as one of the introductory scenarios for the game and is an excellent adventure in its own right. It was published with both the 5th and 6th edition core rulebooks. Herber did a great job with it, and I've run it with both seasoned and new players. It can even serve as a follow on from The Haunting, and it can also be a good tool from bringing together a group of disparate 1920s investigators to begin an episodic campaign. At the time Chaosium was focusing on developing the Lovecraft Country setting, and Edge of Darkness would be an ideal way to kick off a Lovecraft Country campaign.

5: Death In The Post, uncredited, 1987

Part of the Green & Pleasant Land guide that Games Workshop published as a UK setting for British investigators, Death In The Post was a revelation for me, as it broke away from the location-based ideas of adventure design I'd been used to, pitting investigators against a shadowy enemy and a fast moving plot. It can be quite exciting, although it really needs a more experienced Keeper to run it: for example, I had to come up with the layout of an Oxfordshire manor house on the fly. This scenario feels more like an episode from the TV series Spooks (MI6 in the USA) than your traditional CoC investigation.

4: Puppet Shows and Shadow Plays, Adam Scott Glancy, 1997

Part of the original Delta Green setting book, this was written, I think, as a way to introduce players to the DG premise. Investigators are now leading the FBI investigation into disappearances along Route 66 in the American southwest. Brilliant in that it does not draw on traditional Mythos elements and accounts for the fact that the players ARE the ultimate authority in this scenario, with all that entails. It STILL managers to blow their minds. It can easily form the basis for an introduction to a domestic US DG campaign, and will probably even hold up if you moved it to 2015 rather than 1997. I've no idea whether it will be updated or even reprinted in the new DG offering. I hope so.

3: Uncle Timothy's Will, Keith Herber, 1990

Published in the original Blood Brothers adventure anthology, I include this just because it was enormous fun to run. I have even used it with a solo investigator and it worked incredibly well. It is worth considering if you have only one player. It can be completed in a single session. The premise is that of a traditional horror movie, and Mythos elements have been stripped out, but you could easily shove them back in. I suspect it may originally have been written by Herber as a Mythos adventure, but then tailored to meet the specifications of Blood Brothers. Lots of entertaining surprises in this one, but personally I think it is better with only a couple of investigators at most.

2: The Haunting, Sandy Peterson, 1983

One of the original introductory scenarios for the game, the first adventure I ever ran for CoC, and the only one that has forced my players to abandon the game because they were too terrified to continue. A brilliant showcase of the system for players who are used to dungeon bashes. It is small, self-contained, scary, and is still talked about today on Cthulhu podcasts (I think the Miskatonic University guys were discussing it only last month). Ordinarily, I'd still choose this one for new players, apart from the fact that my number one choice does an even better job.

1: The House in the Woods, Gary Pilkington, 1984

A work of genius, I've run this several times, normally for players less used to the setting or the game, and it has always gone off a treat. I just love the spooky atmosphere it portrays of 1920s backwoods New England, the hidden but ominous threat, the massive sense of the unknown. It appeared with the Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island (see above), and like that adventure, features lovely black and white floor plans for your Grenadier miniatures. There are similarities here with Edge of Darkness (also see above). I once ran this for friends at very short notice when a regular GM cancelled at the last moment. We generated characters, played the scenario to its conclusion, and had time to discuss it, within three hours. It is short, but it feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Every time I run this adventure, it ends the same way. And you could almost LARP it.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Night's Black Agents, or "Get to da chopper!"

This is just a quick summary of our recent one shot for Night's Black Agents. This was an exercise in getting a better feel for the Gumshoe system, and the additional rules crunch elements that come with it in its NBA guise. Consequently, the home brew scenario was converted from its origins as a d20 Modern game I was writing a couple of years ago. I may run it as a one-shot at a con at some point, but then again, I may just bin it in favour of something more interesting.

The premise of the adventure is that the player characters are part of a unit of mercenaries employed by the Parasol Corporation to fly to the island of Devil Ray Key in the Bahamas as a hurricane is approaching. Parasol is concerned that any US Coastguard clean up operation will discover Project Prospero, a top secret biological weapons research facility that it has been hiding from view without even the knowledge of the local government. The mercenary team of four characters must fly to the island and retrieve the research data from the servers in the lab, destroy the facility with explosives, and hopefully also bring back two research scientists who have been running the project, Professor Melluish and Doctor Grainger. Other personnel will be left to fend for themselves in the hurricane.

The team consisted of:

  • Major Mike Wohlraab, a mercenary from Zimbabwe
  • Steven Saluccio, an American intrusion and demolitions expert
  • Dana Stanilov, a Czech medic and back up pilot
  • Jezz Valovich, a Serbian hacker, now a US national

The group inserted by helicopter, flying under US Coastguard radar, into the teeth of the hurricane. Valovich took the opportunity during the journey to review the records of all the personnel at Project Prospero. He noticed that deletions had been made from Professor Melluish's file, and recovered some of the data, including notes that the Professor had requested a transfer off-island, and had ethical reservations about the nature of the research being carried out there.

The players' first port of call was the beach house shared by Professor Melluish and his daughter Tara (I expected they would go to the lab first, but there you go - players are never predictable). Saluccio was almost stabbed by Tara, who was hiding in the kitchen of the house. She said her father was back at the main research facility on the other side of the island and that she had not been able to raise anyone at the facility for some time. Valovich spotted something in the jungle with glowing blue eyes, watching them. It may be he thought this was someone wearing low light goggles.

The team exited the house (without searching it properly) and boarded the helicopter again, heading for the research facility. While questioning Tara, it became evident to Saluccio that there were inconsistencies in her story and that she might be hiding something. The agents agreed they would take Tara with them into the lab, not trusting her enough to leave her on their beloved helicopter.

Upon arrival at the facility the team restarted the emergency generator on the outside the lab (good use of Mechanics by Stanilov). It was obvious that the weather was deteriorating. A large hole in the fence was also patently obvious. It looked like something had burned its way through the fence from the inside. Saluccio's player declined to use Chemistry for a further clue here. Valovich seemed to think the hole was caused by one of the jeeps known to be in the compound (both were later accounted for in the garage).

With no sign of any of the personnel, the agents entered the ground floor of the lab and checked the offices and some of the residential space, without finding anyone.

Noticing the ubiquitous CCTV cameras, they headed back out into the storm to the security hut on the other side of the compound. Here they discovered a dead security guard, who had been half eaten (Stability tests!) Stanilov deduced (using Diagnosis) that the teeth marks were human. CCTV showed no activity in the main building. Valovich discovered that most of the last 36 hours of footage had been deliberately wiped. Using the guard's walkie talkie, they made contact with an unknown person who was hysterical. Use of Shrink by Valovich persuaded the individual to reveal their position in one of the guard towers along the perimeter fence.

Wohlraab decided to check the nearest tower, climbing up the ladder. He could tell that the towers would not last much longer in the howling wind. At the top of the ladder he was attacked by a savage humanoid creature with long talons, little hair, preternaturally long teeth, a tattered white lab coat, and red eyes. It clawed his face, but Wohlraab used his Breakfall cherry to drop safely to ground. The creature pursued but was shot several times with automatic fire. Although badly hurt, it was still getting up again after multiple gunshot wounds, which freaked the operatives out (Valovich was losing Stability quickly).

Howls from across the compound announced the arrival of four more creatures, whereupon the agents ran for the helicopter ("Get to da chopper!") Human Terrain told Valovich that this had been an ambush and the monsters were intelligent. The team got safely aboard, despite Athletics checks to see if anyone slipped on the wet grass, but one of the monsters managed to grab hold of the edge of the door as the chopper lifted off. Wohlraab shot it several times in the head at point blank range, whereupon it fell limply to earth. 

At this stage the other four creatures jumped on the dead one to tear it apart and devour the corpse. Valovich took this opportunity to spend Preparedness and produce some fragmentation grenades which he dropped on the feasting creatures, blowing two of them to kingdom come. The others staggered about in a daze, and were picked off by a relentless hail of small arms fire from the helicopter.

Another conversation via walkie talkie with the mysterious voice on the radio brought the team to the tower on the north side of the compound. Here they retrieved Doctor Grainger, who had been hiding in the tower. He was in bad shape mentally, and keen to get off the island. He claimed Melluish had been working on rogue bio-virus experiments without the knowledge of his colleagues or Parasol, and that Melluish had injected some of the personnel with it. The victims had turned into ravening beasts and began attacking other people at the facility. Grainger also claimed Melluish was one of the first victims. Most of this failed to get past Wohlraab's Bullshit Detector. Tara did not seem fazed by the news of her father's death, and indeed seemed very happy to see Grainger.

Despite Grainger's enthusiasm for a speedy exit, the group of mercenaries insisted on going back into the labs. Here they found the main computer room on the ground floor. Valovich hacked into the central server, and discovered all the research data, including obvious evidence that both Melluish and Grainger worked on a cutting edge biological weapon for the Parasol Corporation. In addition, it was discovered that Grainger had been having a romantic relationship with Tara behind Melluish's back, and that someone using Grainger's computer, had been secretly sending research results to another party off-island, using a small portable satellite dish near the lab. Valovich downloaded the data and wiped it from the server, while Saluccio wired the building with explosives. They decided against going to the basement level, thereby avoiding an encounter with a horde of rabid virus-infested monkeys, which I was quite looking forward to!

With less than 60 minutes before the hurricane made landfall, the team set further charges around the compound, and noticed two pairs of baleful blue eyes observing them from the edge of the jungle. These resolved themselves into two larger humanoid monsters, blessed with preternatural speed and which used acid vomit to burn through the fence. The mercenaries took one look at these and ran to the helicopter ("Get to da chopper - again!") Jumping aboard, they took off. The critters loped back into the jungle. 

Wohlraab confronted Grainger, and Notice revealed the scientist's eyes were turning yellow, at which point Wohlraab threw caution to the winds, and tossed Grainger out of the helicopter, whereupon he fell to his death (I should really have asked him to make a Stability test for this callous act). This prompted an attack from Tara, who pulled out a hidden syringe, and tried to stab Wohlraab with it. Luckily, Stanilov was quicker, and tasered the girl before she could inject Wohlraab with virus. With Tara restrained, Saluccio radio detonated the charges in the lab, blowing it to smithereens, and with it poor Professor Melluish, who was trapped in the lower level of the building by the aforesaid rabid monkeys!

Returning to the Florida coast, the group debated the ethics of providing the research data on the virus to Parasol. Wohlraab was for throwing it in the sea, but given that they had failed to rescue Grainger or Melluish, the rest of the operatives wanted their pay day...