Saturday, 28 May 2016

Old School vampire hunting

They seek him here, they seek him there...
We're currently in the middle of playing the Dracula Dossier campaign, but instead of using Night's Black Agents, we're using a hybrid system of Basic Roleplaying / Call of Cthulhu with some of the NBA mechanics, like trust and sources of stability. We're calling it Night's BRP Agents, but it still very much an old school system, firmly founded on Call of Cthulhu, which has changed little since it was first printed in 1981.

It is not Savage Worlds, where players have recourse to bennies to preserve their characters, plus an injury table that can save their bacon. Nor is it Dungeons and Dragons, in its current iteration, with characters able to make a series of saving throws to keep themselves alive as they lie bleeding out on the floor. Nor is it NBA, where players have recourse to a Health pool and scope to go into negative Health as well in order to stay in the game. The opportunities for a total party kill (TPK) are few in these games, although it it still possible to lose a character if you are extremely unlucky and we have lost them using these systems. Not so Night's BRP Agents.

While our characters are well-equipped, former agents of government intelligence organisations, with a wide range of contacts, the ability to hack into protected databases and acquire sniper rifles on the black market, they are still physically fragile. Call of Cthulhu and indeed RuneQuest, its progenitor, were written at a time when high levels of character fatality were frequent and tolerable. I remember routinely allocation TWO PCs to players in my Cthulhu games, largely because character death was to be expected and frequently occurred. At school -  in the 1980s - we routinely played multiple characters, creating bigger, 10 character parties, again because we expected to lose adventurers.

In last night's game, our team walked into an ambush set by a London-based vampire cult they are currently investigating (although I'm coming to the conclusion that the cult's links to main villain Count Dracula may be spurious, given the seeming lack of members of the intelligence community in its ranks). We raided a warehouse in day light hoping to put an end to at least one vampire, only to find him very much ready for us, seemingly immune to sunlight and, oh yes, wearing a suicide vest.

In the course of a one-sided combat, our Russian assassin character Natasha fired a taser at the vampire, only to send a high voltage electric charge through the suicide vest. Efforts to prevent this by my Israeli demolitions expert failed, and the vest exploded. At this point, the whole team was bunched around the vampire, trying to stop it with everything from holy water to silver knives. Technically, we should all have been dead, and we would have had a campaign-ending total party kill in all its glorious, blood-soaked horror. The GM kindly allowed us Dodge rolls to save ourselves, and the campaign continues. The vampire died shortly after as our British agent, Sten, impaled it with a stake, so at least we've found a way to stop them!

The system we're using has the advantage of making the agents feel vulnerable, particularly now we have realised just how dangerous the undead are in this campaign. However, it also means we could die quite quickly. There is little recourse when something goes badly wrong. My character, Carmel Shaked, is already becoming more unhinged as her Sanity gradually declines, and injuries from the fight with the vampire and a blow to the head earlier in the campaign have left her decidedly fragile. I fear it will soon be time for me to start work on a replacement character. Her ex-husband, a London-based journalist, might be one option, although he does not have much useful tradecraft experience. Another might be one of the surviving members of Ibanez Security in Malaga, who have gone to ground after most of their group went missing in England.

In summary, playing old school systems does bring with it character risk. That element of danger is not danger unless characters die. I think there is a general consensus that we want to continue with a campaign we've invested several evenings in, but I'm not going to be surprised if we lose one or more of our team in the course of it!

Here's a quick trailer for Ultraviolet, the awesome TV series co-starring Jack Davenport and Idris Elba, sadly cancelled after just one season. Although there is only fleeting reference to it in the trailer, there is a warehouse and locked box scene in this that is just mind blowing. Watch it if you are planning to indulge in some Dracula Dossier:

I'm off on holiday to Serbia and Croatia next week. There never seems to be a convenient time to go on holiday. Hence, with illness and just generally being busy, I've not had a proper break since last August, and I'm starting to feel it. I am also looking forward to some hotter weather than Sussex can provide at the moment. I am taking some interesting reading with me, including Barbarians of Lemuria and Dread. I am also taking Monster of the Week, which is part of the 'Powered by the Apocalypse Engine' series of games, started with Apocalypse World. I'm intrigued by these and wish to investigate further. I may even cook up a scenario for Barbarians if I have time to scribble.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Kickstarter, zombies and me

Now on Kickstarter!
I've had somewhat of a chequered experience with Kickstarter over the years. I backed the Shadowrun Online project years ago (July 2012 - Cliffhanger Productions). Now I don't have the time to spend playing it - life seems too short somehow to waste in on a PC game. Since then I've backed some other projects, like Shadows of Esterren and Deadlands Noir, both of which were successful.

I became disgruntled with the Hillfolk kickstarter from Pelgrane Press, which saw fit to begin distributing the game at GenCon before backers had received their copies. This, I feel, was a mistake. Consequently, I avoided backing the Dracula Dossier, although by the looks of it they did not require my help.

Horrors of War, by Adam Scott Glancy, proved the final straw for me. The fact that Mr Glancy had time to focus on the new edition of Delta Green while his HoW project was gamely missing its deadlines has rankled with me. Hence, I decided to swear off Kickstarter in 2016, and have successfully avoided supporting a number of projects, including the aforesaid Delta Green and as well as the new Conan RPG from Modiphius.

However, this has all now changed with the launch of the Red Markets kickstarter this month. Red Markets is being written by Caleb Stokes of Hebanon Games. He ran the gruelling actual play Delta Green scenario God's Teeth on Roleplaying Public Radio (RPPR) which you can still listen to. I have also bought his systemless No Security with a view to running something from that in Trail of Cthulhu. His Lover In The Ice is apparently going to be included in the new Delta Green game.

Caleb's scenarios tap into a disturbing undercurrent of human evil. His characters are seemingly more frightening and loathsome than the monsters they serve. He also brings to his work a level of cynicism and world weariness I quite enjoy. I think being a teacher helps!

For some time now my RPG collection has been lacking a post-apocalyptic game. I do own a copy of Atomic Highway, which I might try out at some point, but Red Markets has been intriguing. I have been following its development on RPPR over the past year, and it has been enjoyable to hear it evolve in regular updates.

Red Markets is essentially a game about people trying to survive and make a living in a zombie infested wilderness. The environment is one where civilization has walled itself off from the zombie menace - e.g. the quarantine in place on the British Isles in 28 Days Later - but many people have been left to survive in enclaves. These individuals would like to buy their way out of their predicament, so must try to earn the money by carrying out missions in the wastelands for others. It does sound like a synergy between Mad Max and The Walking Dead.

Some years back I caught the zombie bug after playing Resident Evil mercilessly. I also picked up a copy of All Flesh Must Be Eaten, but there I stumbled. I saw I could easily run a special forces scenario where a team has to break into a research facility as in the computer game (players of my recent Night's Black Agents one shot will recognise the influences of Resident Evil and Dino Crisis), but it was hard to put together an idea of what a typical AFMBE would look like. Running a campaign where characters have to survive the start of an outbreak was 'sandboxy', for sure, but I still feared it could become too boring or 'samey'. Perhaps I was wrong. I've been fiddling with a Tour of Darkness mini-campaign for Savage Worlds over the last couple of years that might well have suffered from the same, but actually is proving quite intriguing.

Red Markets, however, sounds as if it will bring many established principles of recent RPG design to the cooking pot: GMs have the flexibility to concentrate on the elements they want, be it combat, interpersonal relationships, the bottom line, or all of it together. Players take a role in designing their enclave, just as in games like The Dresden Files, where they determine the nature of the metropolis the PCs dwell in, or Ars Magica with the covenant design system.

The rules are layered, in that it is possible to add more crunch should you so wish. But the clincher for me is that there are more objectives here than simple survival and scavenging, which has been the focus of many post-apocalyptic RPGs. Somehow there is more of a sense of purpose for parties.

While I am looking forward to seeing the new Delta Green and Conan games, Red Market remains one of my most anticipated new RPGs of the year. You can back it here.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Adding flesh to the Dracula Dossier characters

Carmel takes digital intrusion to the next level.
So our Dracula Dossier campaign continues apace, with the team of spies still in London and poking around looking for clues as to what happened to three members of Ibanez Security who disappeared suddenly, following up leads from the dossier (which can't seemingly be copied).

The last session saw some very satisfying use of the Contacts mechanic, with our British agent, Sten Brodrington, leaning on his brother, still active at Vauxhall Bridge, for information on the Edom Project. Carmel Shaked, my ex-Mossad infiltrator, was busy buttering up her ex-husband, who is the defence correspondent of The Guardian newspaper.

I have always been a big fan of using contacts in role playing games. For players, it allows you to develop something of a backstory. Characters are not lone gunmen, wandering into town. In games like Pendragon and Shadowrun, there was scope to build and develop connections with NPCs, some of them of your own devising. Burning Wheel takes this even further, with its Circles mechanic, simulating a wider network of contacts, but also both positive and negative relationships with individuals or organisations within the broader game milieu.

In my Deadlands Noir campaign I drew extensively on one player character's comatose wife (a Savage Worlds drawback), incorporating her and her sister into a more sinister sub-plot involving a bound demon and a cabal of misguided occultists.

In many games, relationships, even when added to the character profile, rarely come into play, particularly if the game is based on a published scenario which has little or no bearing on the characters' relationships. Consider most Call of Cthulhu scenarios, where a friend or relative is frequently used to draw the investigators into the plot, only to disappear / die / retreat to a safe distance while the investigators get on with the mystery. Yet how much more interesting would the game get if each investigator had to map out their personal relationships in detail, and all the action were to take place in the same town where their loved ones dwell?

Trail of Cthulhu uses its sources of stability mechanic as a means both to allow investigators to restore Stability, but also to potentially assail what they stand for and care about, making the horror all the more personal. We are using a similar mechanic in our game, but here my character has named her ex-husband as a source of stability first, and now as a Contact, a senior journalist who might have information about the Edom conspiracy.

Now it could have been easy for me to simply add a relative as a source of stability who lived safely back in Israel (my character is an ex-Mossad black bagger who used to steal money from the PLO's Swiss bank accounts), but I wanted to combine the reason she left Mossad with a source of stability and a potential contact she could make use of in London.

Hence we now have Arthur Hepworth, a journalist Carmel met in Israel when he was covering the Palestinian situation in 2007. She was part of the team that was keeping tabs on foreign journalists, and this was how they initially met. Her main drive in the campaign is Transparency, inspired by her short and tempestuous relationship with Hepworth, and which led to her finally turning her back on Mossad and going private with Redline Corporate Solutions in Switzerland. In the era of Edward Snowden and the Panama Papers, I thought this would be a good drive for an ex-Mossad hacker (I've also been partly inspired by Lisbeth Sallander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).

I've decided Carmel has a relatively harmonious relationship with Hepworth, whom she still holds a candle for. He has remarried and is living in Balham with his wife and two small children. Unfortunately for him, the team has become interested in the current Lord Godalming, William Turner-Hinton, who sits on the UK's Joint Committee on National Security Strategy. Carmel wants an introduction to him. His great-grandfather, we suspect, was involved in potentially scuppering the original Dracula plot in 1894, and his family's old home was used for training an SOE mission to Romania in 1940.

It has been fun to gradually fill in some of Carmel's background as the game has progressed, rather than having to come up with it all in advance. Leaving parts of your character's background or network of connections blank, and then filling them in later, seems like a good idea. It provides the characters with additional sources of help and information, but also brings NPCs into the game who have significance for your character.

Sten Brodrington's player has invented a brother who works at MI6, and who has dug into the encounter we had in Gibraltar the previous week with what we suspect was an SAS kill team (since declared dead in a 'training accident'). Brodrington senior is now fearing for his life and planning to go on an extended holiday.

So, as the plot thickens, so does the web of interpersonal relationships which seems to be providing the game with an additional layer of drama and role playing opportunities. That can't be bad!

"I hear the Gobi desert is nice this time of year..."

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

On the trail of Dracula

We are continuing with The Dracula Dossier during our Friday evening sessions, using a combination of Night's Black Agents and Call of Cthulhu. A full summary of the session can be found here for those who are interested. I have no idea to what degree there are spoilers contained therein, as I suspect the plot can play out in a multiplicity of ways.

Dracula Dossier is a very ambitious project, for both players and GM. It features the biggest handout of any RPG, an unredacted copy of Dracula by Bram Stoker. I am already fairly familiar with the book, and am now re-reading this version, which has been 'unredacted' with plenty of new material by Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan. The conceit here is that Stoker was aware of some kind of plot involving British intelligence and vampires, and published some of it as a novel. The unredacted version has fallen into the hands of our characters, a group of unsavoury ex-spies, who are now following up leads in London.

There is much to digest in this book, and new sub-plots that don't exist in the original, but which start to point towards high level British government conspiracy in the sunset of the Victorian age. Did they invite Dracula to England, and why? Was Johnathan Harker not a naive lawyer by instead a British agent?

As a player, one is faced with a myriad of different lines of enquiry, and it can be quite bewildering. You need a group that is dedicated and prepared to put the time towards going through the book. This may in itself be a stumbling block for some people.

Like all great books, Dracula is one of those literary works which reveals more to you from the perspective of time. I first read it as a teenager in Austria, and then again in my early twenties. Reading it now in my forties, I am finding it a different experience entirely. In some respects, the horror seems more chilling than it did.

On an only slightly related note, I have been listening to the excellent and profoundly disturbing God's Teeth Delta Green actual play adventure on Roleplaying Public Radio, which has now migrated to new servers having been offline for a while due to hosting issues. God's Teeth was run by the remarkable Caleb Stokes of Hebanon Games, I believe. He is currently working on the post-apocalyptic zombie RPG Red Markets, which I have more than a passing interest in.