Thursday, 24 December 2015

Deadlands Noir - Clowning Around

L to R: Deville, LeRalf, Prof Gordon...?
Following on from their meeting with the Black Hand, the detectives had another good night's sleep, before paying a visit to the offices of the Tombstone Epitaph. Here, they find Nate Braddock, the local editor, frantically typing and looking like he's not had much sleep recently. The Epitaph has a small, somewhat run down office in New Orleans and there was nobody else there at 9.30 in the morning.

Braddock had recently followed up a tip the detectives gave him to an old plantation in Jefferson County. Here he found no sign of the walking dead they battled in a previous episode, but he did spy on a ritual conducted on the grounds to summon the spirit of Baron Simone LeCroix. He tells the detectives that the ritual did not seem to be successful. He saw over a dozen people there, who arrived and left in expensive cars.

Braddock also confirms that Mike Braddock, author of the biography of LeCroix the detectives stole from Loyoal University, was his father. Braddock senior packed his bags and left New Orleans shortly after his book on LeCroix was published in 1911, never to be seen or heard from again. The elder Braddock was also a journalist, working for the Tombstone Epitaph in Louisiana.

Nate believes his father was threatened by the Red Sect. Nate is not able to shed a lot more light on LeCroix, apart from telling the detectives that it is still rumoured that LeCroix's daughter, Marie-Louise, was not killed, but is imprisoned somewhere in the city. He says some of the ongoing interest in the rail baron stems from fascination about his wealth, and whether his daughters got their hands on all of it when he vanished.

What are the secrets of the LeCroix family?

The detectives stop to buy some newspapers, and see in the Times Picayune that boxer Wayner 'The Battler' Barbeau has reached New York and given a press conference ahead of his upcoming fight with Lou Salica. The characters have $300 riding on the fight.

The detectives next return to the Emporium, to confront Daniel Cisek, its owner, who they last saw trying to break into the house of former Senator Cruzet the previous day. Cisek initially threatens them with a shotgun, but calms down enough to tell them he is also hunting for the masks. He wants to use one to communicate with a resident of the Hunting Grounds. He thinks the masks let users see into the Hunting Grounds and talk to lost souls there, but not actually travel within the spirit realm. Cisek believes that actual travel in the Hunting Grounds can only be achieved using a special formula of tobacco, concocted by Baron LeCroix. He says the secret of the tobacco, what it was made from and how, was lost with the Baron. He begs the detectives to let him borrow the mask they stole from Cruzet, and offers them $300. De Ville agrees to let him borrow the mask, once the detectives have finished with it.

Doc LeBoeuf is working on a theory about the use of asylums to make people vanish from public view, and remembers that the city still operates the old Isolation Hospital in Marigny Bywater, built originally to house the victims of major contagious disease outbreaks in New Orleans, including the Spanish flu in 1918-19. Now, as public health improves, it is used to detained lepers who have run away from the leper colony at Carville, 60 miles upriver from the city.

The Isolation Hospital, New Orleans

The detectives then decide to visit the hospital, a massive Victorian edifice which has seen better days. Pulling up outside, both De Ville and Prof Gordon think they see what looks like a clown's painted face staring at them from one of the fourth storey windows, but then it is gone again. Entering the hospital's vast and echoing precincts, they speak with the only nurse they can see - indeed, the only soul around. She seems deliberately obstructive and uncooperative, even when Doc LeBoeuf flashes his credentials at her. Eventually they are joined by a burly orderly who Gordon suspects is a man used to meting out violence.

A lengthy argument ensues, with the porter refusing to provide the detectives access to the handful of lepers he says are the only patients. Nor will he disclose the identities of the doctors supervising the hospital. It is only when LeBoeuf threatens to take up the matter with City Hall, that he finally agrees to let the detectives see the lepers.

The orderly takes the detectives through the large and rambling hospital, much of which seems to be dusty and neglected. There does not seem to be anyone there and much of it looks like it has not been inhabited for over a decade. Eventually they come across three patients wearing hooded gowns with hands wrapped in bandages. They seem to be clustered at one end of a long and echoing hallway. LeBoeuf tries to talk with them, but they initially shy away from him. Prof Gordon's cat McCavity (which he carries around with him always, as part of his patent scientist delusion) then reacts with fear as two more lepers approach the detectives from around the corner behind them.

LeBoeuf finally persuades one of the patients to lower his hood, whereupon he sees the man's features are strangely warped in a manner that has nothing to do with leprosy. It is then that he sees the face change, to one of a colourful and demonic clown (Fear checks all round). The lepers throw back their hoods, revealing bizarre blue or green or purple hair, also like clowns. Their grinning maws sport sharp teeth and they seem to grow in heigh right in front of the detectives.

With a cry, the orderly raises his baton and attacks Gordon...

GM note - We are making use of the Savage Worlds Adventure cards in this campaign. Each session, a player can opt to keep his card from the last session or draw a new one. If he played his card in the session, he draws a new one at the start of the next session. Two cards pertinent to the plot were played in this session - namely 'Enemy' and 'Battlefield Promotion', the latter coming right at the end.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Deadlands Noir - The Masks of Baron LeCroix

The following is a summary of Friday's game of Deadlands Noir. If you are interested in following the plot from the beginning, you will need to start reading with 'Looking for Lucy' as the campaign includes many overlapping plots and characters.

The detectives began the session visiting the Emporium, a fairly non-descript shop in Marigny-Bywater that sells voodoo artefacts. They spoke with the proprietor, Daniel Cisek, who again confirmed that he had not seen one of the tribal masks they were looking for, but intimated that there were several parties in New Orleans actively interested in acquiring them. He seemed to know that Mammy Martine herself was hunting for them already. He agreed to keep an eye out for any masks fitting the description and contact the detectives if he found one.

As they had yet to break into anywhere (the players seem fond of it), they next decided to visit Loyola University, more specifically the office of the late Father Joseph McNelis, where they knew a secret panel concealed a small library of occult works, some of which had already been looted in an earlier chapter by LeRalf. This proved to be relatively easy, with manitou-infested PI Lee Deville making use of the sonic lockpick obtained from slain hit man Jazzman James. McNelis had few works on voodoo to start with, but they did managed to obtain a 1911 biography of vanished houngan and founder of the Bayou Vermilion railroad Baron Simone LeCroix.

The book, written by Michael Braddock, looked to be largely based on hearsay and idle speculation, but did shed some light on a couple of new items of intelligence. Firstly, LeCroix, who came to New Orleans from Haiti, funded his railroad with an unknown source of wealth, rumoured to be either the proceeds of blockade running during the Civil War, or pirate loot. Secondly, although he did not found the Red Sect, he helped to make it into the dominant organised crime group in New Orleans before Prohibition gave the Black Hand a foot in the door. Thirdly, he wanted his daughter, Marie-Louise, to take control of Bayou Vermilion after his death. When he disappeared, she was quickly edged out by her sister (circa 1890), and also vanished from sight. The book speculates that one or both sisters were responsible for the Baron's disappearance, and that Laurelie 'Mammy' Martine may well have murdered her sister to take control of the Red Sect.

Doing the maths, the detectives worked out that Mammy Martine must be well over 70, although she looks much younger (55-60).

While relaxing for the evening in the Absinthe House with their beverages of preference, the detectives were approached by a pair of Black Hand thugs, who told them that Mike the Stick was aware of their visit to Mammy Martine, and wanted to see them. The mafia goons were fairly threatening in their manner, and one stubbed his cigarette out in Doc LeBoeuf's drink, almost prompting a fight, before a display of Prof Gordon's telekinesis device reminded them of who they were dealing with.

The next day the detectives trawled the newspapers for a high end interior decorator they could consult about a restoration project for LeRalf. Their real purpose was seeking information on any antique African masks that might be held privately in New Orleans by wealthier residents. This pointed them in the direction of the house of former Senator for Louisiana Byron Cruzet, sitting between Washington Avenue and Felicity Street in Uptown. The detectives now knew that the Cruzets collected African art and had a mask fitting the description of those they were hunting in a glass case.

The Cruzet mansion
Using their contacts, the detectives disguised themselves as engineers for the telephone company, sabotaged the line, and then bluffed their way into the house, as the Cruzets were away enjoying the cooler weather in the United States. De Ville and LeBoeuf cased the house from the inside, while Gordon stayed up a nearby telephone line. De Ville spotted the museum room where the mask was kept, and it was while he was 'checking' the line with Gordon that the latter spotted a man climbing over the wall into the back garden of the house. He warned De Ville of the intruder, who in turn warned the butler looking after the house, and used this distraction to enter the room with the mask. Quick use of the sonic lockpick allowed him to take the mask (although a Fear check was needed as the mask whispered to him in an unknown language) and replace it with another mask on display in the room.

Downstairs, LeBoeuf confronted the intruder who was in the process of climbing in a back window. This proved to be Cisek, the owner of the Emporium, who promptly fled. The elderly butler was advised to call the police, and Gordon posed as the dispatch officer on the other end of the line, ensuring no police were actually summoned.

Now equipped with the mask (which only seems to whisper to De Ville, and not the others), the detectives travelled to Prof Gordon's lab, where De Ville put the mask on (after his colleagues took the precaution of tying him into his chair). Looking through the eyes of the mask, De Ville could see that he seemed to be standing in a wooden canoe in the middle of a huge swamp, under a strange, kaleidoscopic sky, similar to the one he saw in the red church painting in Mammy Martine's house (see 'Meeting Mammy Martine'). De Ville has stashed the mask in a safety deposit box at the First Bank of the Confederacy in the Central Business District.

That evening, the detectives visited Sanzone's, the Sicilian restaurant controlled by the Black Hand, where they met with Mike the Stick. Although initially unhappy with them for visiting Mammy Martine, the Stick seemed more relaxed when Gordon told him of the shooting of Martine's son, Bon Bon Lescartier, in a previous episode. He seemed to know the square root of nothing about the masks, but given the Red Sect's interest in acquiring them, told the detectives he would be keen to obtain them himself. He accepted that they could borrow them first, but scoffed at any occult powers they might have.

Mike also went on to tell them that the Black Hand needed their services to make political fixer and campaign manager Harry Marburg disappear. Marburg helped to manage mayor Andrew McKendrew's surprise electoral success in 1934. Now, it seems Marburg has itchy feet and is about to be recruited to work for a possible electoral opponent of the mayor's in the run up to the 1938 contest, a candidate backed by Louisiana senator Huey 'The Kingfish' Long. The Black Hand has already tried to pay Marburg a 'visit' at his home, but it seems the political fixer has gone to ground for the time being. The Stick offers each detective $300 to find a permanent solution, which seems like a great deal of money compared to what they have been paid for previous assignments for the Black Hand.

De Ville fuzzily recalls meeting Marburg and speaking with him shortly before De Ville was shot and killed himself. This would have been in 1934. Private investigator Gavin Phillips was also present at that meeting. The Stick says he knows of Phillips but says he has not done any work for the Black Hand.

To be continued...

Monday, 14 December 2015

Deadlands Noir - Meeting Mammy Martine

This is really just a continuation of the summary from the last session of Deadlands Noir. Having dispatched Wayne Barbeau and Art Torobelli to New York in the custody of the Black Hand crime syndicate, the detectives returned their focus to the matter of Doc LeBoeuf's missing sister in law, Tammy Portunate.

LeBoeuf decided to send a letter to Mammy Martine, the New Orleans spiritualist and, as they have discovered, a feared bokkor and senior figure in the Red Sect crime organisation.

Mammy duly responded, sending a small boy to visit the detectives in their office. He duly went into a trance and invited them to tea the following day.

The detectives arrived for their date at Mammy's townhouse in the more affluent Uptown district, which they saw was being guarded by some Red Sect goons on the street. These gentlemen allowed the detectives in to see Mammy, although the characters also noted a huge black man on guard in the hallway of the house, who seemed to have no whites to his eyes.

While waiting for their host, De Ville and Gordon noticed an old Victorian era photo in the drawing room of a tall black man in a top hat posing with two small girls, twins, one of whom is obviously an albino. De Ville also saw a painting of a red church on an island in a swamp, under a kaleidoscopic sky. When he turned away from it, he thought he could see the reeds and the water moving, but it was all still once more when he returned his gaze.

Mammy bustled into the room. She comes across as a very refined and polite woman, with a touch of iron to her. She is very genteel, and looks about 55-60 years of age.

Mammy was very affable, asking after the welfare of the Doc's wife but professing no knowledge of the whereabouts of his sister in law Portunate. If she is trapped in the Hunting Grounds, the spirit realm of lost souls and demons, then Mammy reckons her physical form is dormant somewhere on the material plane. She needs to be awoken by locating her in the Hunting Grounds.

When questioned about how to get into the Hunting Grounds, Mammy says the only way she can think of is to use voodoo masks, which have the power to allow the wearer to see into the Hunting Grounds, and possibly even travel there (although she was not sure on the latter point). She summoned her huge bodyguard who showed the detectives an example of the masks. She claimed her family owned a number of them, although following a rift in the family, the rest have disappeared. Should the detectives be able to recover them for her, of course, she would be very grateful and would help them to see into the Hunting Grounds. She does not know where they might be found, but suggests they could still be in New Orleans, hidden from her.

Leaving Mammy's house, the detectives headed over to the Yellow Sign bookstore to consult with its new proprietor, Hetty Sanderson. Prof Gordon stopped on the way to buy her a sign for her shop saying "You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps." He is not sure whether this went down well or not.

Sanderson warned the detectives about working with Martine, whom she describes as devious and dangerous. She confirmed she had heard it might be possible to enter the Hunting Grounds using masks like the one they saw, but said the only person known to have achieved this for more than a couple of hours is Baron Simone LeCroix, a very powerful New Orleans bokkor who vanished back in the 1880s. He used some form of exotic tobacco in his ceremonies which she thinks could be part of his secret. She confirmed that Mammy Martine is his daughter.

Sanderson was at a loss regarding where African tribal masks could be found locally, but suggested the detectives check out the Emporium on Bienville Street, which stocks many of the supplies required by practitioners of voodoo in the city.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Deadlands Noir - Rescue of the Bayou Bantam

We last left our heroes, for now they are surely heroes, for none of them are still in the Novice rank, and indeed one has clawed his way to Heroic status, in the abandoned US Navy base in Algiers, New Orleans, where they were on the trail of missing boxer Wayne 'The Battler' Barbeau, aka the Bayou Bantam, the undefeated bantamweight. Barbeau had gone missing three days before a scheduled fight against Lou Salica in New York.

The detectives had followed the trail to the old naval base on the south bank of the Mississippi, where they had found Barbeau imprisoned in a reinforced cage in a warehouse, guarded by eight soldiers. The crew of a seaplane intended to smuggle Barbeau out of the city had already been overpowered when a huge mechanical man smashed his way through the rear wall of the warehouse, blasting away with a .30 calibre machine gun it had in place of a right arm.

All hell duly broke loose as the soldiers tried to get Barbeau out of the front of the warehouse, while being engaged by the robot and four mysterious men in black overalls who tackled the military men. The detectives decided to intervene, with Le Ralf blasting away with his tommy gun from behind a pile of crates, Lee De Ville joining in with his .45, and the crazed Professor Gordon lobbing knock out grenades, having already switched on his invisibility belt.

The turning point in the battle of the warehouse occurred when the robot, already badly damaged by gunfire from the soldiers (all wearing strange black trenchcoats), took a critical hit and blew up, taking several soldiers and some of its human allies with it. The fight continued for a little longer, but weapons malfunctions and the death of their officer left the soldiers in a tough corner.

It was at this juncture that Doc LeBoeuf intervened, calling on all the combatants to surrender, which most of them did. A couple of soldiers decided to fight on, but were quickly taken down.

Knowing that the explosion and shooting would bring the police down on them in short order, the detectives tied up their captives. Prof Gordon tried to gather up some of the ghost rock that had been littered around the warehouse in the wake of the explosion. The detectives also collected some of the reinforced trenchcoats, some more Hellstromme Hellfire pistols, and some of the goggles the black clad intruders had been wearing. These turned out to be Night Owl goggles (see page 16, Deadlands Noir).

The group decided to escape on foot with their captives and a shell shocked Barbeau, but saw a police car had already arrived at the main entrance. Gordon and LeBoeuf decided to brazen it out, leaving the other two detectives to meet them by the west gate to the base. Using an adventure card, Doc Leboeuf recognised one of the two patrolmen peering into the darkened base as a former patient of his. He and Gordon were hence able to bluff their way past the cops before reinforcements arrived and more difficult questions were asked.

Not yet ready to discuss medical problems in public!

Jumping into their cars, the detectives picked up the rest of the party and their three captives, and headed into the swamp to the west of the city, where they set up an interrogation centre in an abandoned farmstead. Here LeBoeuf got to work with his Intimidation score on the captives, using his black doctor's bag and medical instruments to make the men talk before any force needed to be applied. Just the suggestion of what he might do with an empty syringe seems to have been enough to get one young Irishman yapping.

This was Fergus, who, looking no more than 20, told LeBoeuf has was a member of a small Irish street gang called the Lazy Boys. Their leader, Mike MacGuire, had been approached by a private investigator (description meeting that of Gavin Phillips, the private dick who the detectives had seen watching the entrance to the Algiers naval station in the previous episode). Phillips - IF it was he - had hired them to attack the warehouse alongside the robot, which he'd kept in the back of a truck. Their remit was to  grab the Bayou Bantam and hand him over to Phillips while the robot kept the army busy. Phillips had also offered them the Hellfires and Night Owl goggles as part of their payment.

On the other side of the coin, the soldier who was interrogated rolled a 1 on his Spirit, and also sang like a canary. He was part of a special unit of troops from Area 51, a top secret Confederate military base in the New Mexico desert. Their mission had been to kidnap Barbeau, whom they had been told had deserted from an even more secret military unit composed of 'enhanced soldiers' that was training at Area 51. He also revealed a second team was standing by at Area 51 if his unit failed.
Doctor LeBoeuf will see you now...

The detectives decided to let their captives go - the Irish gangsters were left to make their own way home, while the soldier was tossed out of the car on the way back to the city. De Ville was reminded that he had worked with Phillips on a case not long before he was murdered. He is surprised at this recollection, because usually he would not consider working with Phillips, a competitor, someone whom he dislikes as a person, and is somewhat unethical in his methods. Death has made it difficult for him to recall the details of the case, however.

The detectives met up with Barbeau's trainer, Art Torobelli, who advised that they talk with Mike 'The Stick' Whelan, their mafia patron. At this meeting, at Sanzone's, the notorious mob hang out on Chartres Street, The Stick agreed that Barbeau needed to leave town, if he was to stay out of the hands of the government. He has arranged for some of his goons to smuggle Barbeau and Torobelli out of the Confederacy, to fight Salica in New York. After that, he proposes sending Barbeau to fight in Europe.

The detectives were duly paid their fee by Whelan, whereupon they have placed $100 of their money on the Bayou Bantam to beat Lou Salica.

Next: the detectives meet the notorious Mammy Martine, spiritualist to the rich and famous of the Big Easy

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

"Get to da chopper!" Again!

So I decided to run a game of Night's Black Agents at Dragonmeet this year: I chose to re-run my original Operation Blue Tempest one shot. I managed to garner four players, including James Semple, who is the composer of the official soundtracks for the various Gumshoe games published by Pelgrane Press. James was the only player who had any experience of Gumshoe before.

The premise of the adventure was exactly the same as before. Readers will want to refresh their memories about what happened last time I ran this, and what the mission objectives were.

I had generated two more PCs in case I ended up with a six man team for the mission, but ultimately they were:

  • Major Mike Wohlraab, a mercenary from Zimbabwe
  • Steven Saluccio, an American intrusion and demolitions expert
  • Jezz Valovich, a Serbian hacker, now a US national
  • Darius Templeton, an American fixer employer by the Parasol Corporation

The team flew in by helicopter as before, into the teeth of the storm. Valovich decided to use the helicopter's comms and his own equipment to listen for radio signals from the island, as they could see no lights on. They immediately picked up an encrypted transmission from the ground to a satellite, although it was being interrupted by the storm. Valovich identified the encryption as one generated by Chinese military software. The team decided to home in on the signal, roping into the jungle about 300 yards from the source. The helicopter was told to circle the island and stay in the air for the duration.

Major Mike Wohlraab
Progressing through the jungle, they came upon the source of the signal, a camouflaged satellite dish, of Chinese manufacture. A buried cable led them to the edge of the Parasol research compound. Here the group noted the large hole in the fence, but instead chose to approach the gate, where Saluccio picked the lock. Entering the compound, they investigated the guard hut next to the gate first, discovering the half-eaten body of a guard. This freaked them out, and they decided to put Wohlraab in the nearby watchtower to keep an eye on things with his binoculars, while the rest approach the garages.

NB - At this point Wohlraab commenced with a remarkable series of '1' results on his Sense Trouble, failing to notice vampire activity both inside and outside the perimeter fence. The weather conditions must have been horrendous!

Saluccio broke into the garage building, and investigated the two SUVs there, finding one unlocked with the keys in the ignition. At this point one of the vampires dropped onto him from the roof. Saluccio made his Stability roll, and managed to wound it with his knife before Templeton finished it off with his pistol. Templeton failed his Stability check at sight of the dead vampire in a guard's uniform.

Leaving the guard's walkie talkie, the group decided to make for the generator hut. Wohlraab rejoined them, though not before spotting activity in another tower. They decided not to approach the tower, but broke into the generator room, where they discovered a half crazed guard who almost shot Saluccio before Valovich rolled high on his Shrink and calmed him down. The guard explained the circumstances of the outbreak in the labs and that personnel were turning into vampires. He was able to give them details on the number of personnel on the base, allowing them to keep a running total of who was not accounted for. Valovich decided to medicate the guard (called 'Zach') to keep him calm.

At this point Templeton, who was on guard outside the generator, noticed two figures near the boat house. He started to approach them, which was when Wohlraab managed to get the generator up and running, thereby illuminating Templeton with the perimeter security lights. The two figures turned out to be more vampires, who had been chowing down on another guard. They immediately attacked. As with the previous game, charging at spec ops folk armed with assault rifles turned out to be suicidal for the vampires, although one of them managed to pull out a gun and shoot at the PCs, which freaked them out some more!
Steven Saluccio

Another vampire popped up on the roof of the lab, intending to jump onto Wohlraab while he was focused on the first targets, but it was seen and hit by Valovich (heavy use of Shooting pools in this scene). It used the skylight on the roof to escape back into the main building. Having secured the boat house and noted the presence of a speed boat (there was a discussion about whether they could potentially escape the hurricane in it, but Outdoor Survival told them otherwise), the team entered the main complex through a skylight and began conducting a room to room search of the ground floor.

At this point they heard someone calling for help, but decided to ignore it entirely, focusing on securing other parts of the complex, and hunting for the wounded vampire creature. This proved costly, as the cries were cut off abruptly. Eventually, they discovered the vampire devouring the luckless Professor Melluish, who had come out from hiding when the lights went back on. The last vampire was duly dispatched.

Note - for this game I moved the servers with the research data into the basement. The previous group had accessed the data on the ground floor, avoiding the lab level, and then destroyed the complex with C4.

Jezz Valovich

The team approached the elevator to the basement level cautiously. Saluccio went inside first, using the security card they had taken off Melluish. He decided to check the hatch on the top of the elevator and revealed a pack of 10 virus-infected monkeys clinging to the elevator cables at the top of the lift shaft (Stability check!) An opposed Athletics test allowed him to get a flash bang through the hatch before the monkeys could get to it. This bright light blinded them, allowing Saluccio and Wohlraab to wipe the primates out with burst fire (more Shooting points were burned).

The lab level was a cakewalk after that. The group accessed the servers, discovering the treachery of Doctor Grainger and his relationship with Tara Melluish. They also found that Melluish himself was being held on the island against his will by Parasol. Templeton denied all knowledge.

Note - At this point in the game the Templeton player went to answer a call of nature. The other players decided to see if they could drop a radio-armed bomb into Templeton's rucksack while he was busy helping with wiring up the basement with explosives. Valovich made a hard Filch check to do so. He and the rest of the team agreed on 'African cocktail' as the code phrase to detonate the explosive.

Darius Templeton
Leaving the bunker, they noted the storm was getting worse. The Parasol helicopter pilots contacted Valovich, asking permission to land, but were told to stay in the air at all costs. The group took both SUVs (hot wiring the other one) and drove out of the compound, detonating their charges in epic fashion as they left. 

They travelled with lights off, using their low light goggles. This was enough to spot the palm tree that had fallen across the trail on the way to the villa. Wohlraab jumped out and wired up the tree trunk with thermite. While he was working on it, he finally made a Sense Trouble check to see two glowing blue eyes peering at him from the jungle. These turned into a huge, super vampire, the size of a small car, which spat acid at the major, but failed to hit him. The major jumped over the bonnet of the SUV and detonated the explosives as the creature rushed him. This knocked it flying, but also wrote off the lead SUV.

Note - when I built this monster, which was a more mature version of the other vampires, being the first person infected, I made it a lot tougher, but also more vulnerable to fire than the more immature specimens. Hence the thermite took out about 75% of its health, and negated its other defences against bullets.

The vampire was still fighting, however, and got back to its feet, charged again, and jumped onto the roof of the disabled SUV. It spat again at Wohlraab, hitting him but not getting through his body armour. He also passed his Health check to see if he was infected by virus. It was at this point that Saluccio noted that the only person left in the damaged SUV was Templeton, who was trying to re-start the damaged engine. He yelled 'African cocktail into his mike, in the hopes that Valovich would detonate the bomb in Templeton's rucksack and kill the monster. Valovich bottled it, instead opting for a called shot to the monster's head, which, combined with a 6 on his damage roll, was enough to end it.

On the roof of the lab...

The team jumped into the undamaged SUV and proceeded at break neck speed to the Melluish villa. They contacted the helicopter, asking it to pick them up from the villa. Arriving at the villa, they burst in to find Tara and Doctor Grainger. The doctor yelled "Don't shoot!" whereupon Wohlraab hit him with a taser. Saluccio then jumped forward and clubbed Tara into unconsciousness!

Both survivors were fitted with restraints and had hoods pulled over their heads, before being escorted to the waiting chopper. The helicopter lifted off just in time, racing away ahead of the hurricane with about 30 minutes to spare. As the mercenaries began to relax, however, they heard the noise of Grainger breaking out of his restraints (Stability tests again!) By this stage the operatives' pools were getting low - Stability and Shooting were gone or virtually gone in some cases. Some shooting occurred inside the helicopter as the Grainger vampire got loose, but it ended with Wohlraab stabbing it through the eye with his combat knife, saying in an appropriately Austrian accent "An eye for an eye, motherf--ker." The vampire plunged out of the helicopter, whereupon Saluccio unilaterally tossed Tara out too (passing his Stability test to do so). The operatives then settled back to smoke cigars or file their fingernails with knives as the helicopter set course for Florida...

I really enjoyed running this game again, with a new set of players. It has been a great exercise in getting to know the NBA rules. There are still some areas I was a bit unsure of, but I'm becoming increasingly familiar with Gumshoe. This was my third game. I will definitely use Gumshoe again for future investigative games, and it still holds up for one shot horror scenarios like this. 

The players were very complementary of the system and got into character with their various personas, which were unashamedly based on action heroes from the movies. I found this provided an additional level of role playing fun which the players were more than happy to rise to. It was also worth moving the data servers into the basement, setting up the encounter with the monkeys. I deliberately kept the interiors vague, as I didn't want that stage of the adventure to turn into a room by room exploration game, which would have slowed the scenario down considerably. All in all, a great second outing for this scenario.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Dragonmeet 2015

I managed to make it along to Dragonmeet this year. It sits prominently in the calendar at the end of the year, and is recognised as one of the biggest gaming conventions on the UK schedule, although dwarfed somewhat these days by the likes of Salute, UK Games Expo and Games Workshop's Games Day. Dragonmeet currently takes place at the Ibis hotel in West Brompton, which is somewhat of a step down from the more salubrious environs of Kensington Town Hall.

I had been expecting a bigger venue, perhaps more geared towards the needs of conference goers, to have justified the move, but really, the Ibis disappoints. The quality of the con itself cannot be questioned, but I'm sure a superior venue could be sourced in London for the same or marginally higher cost. Perhaps I should volunteer for the organising committee?

The content of the event was excellent. I was there from shortly after the doors opened at Dragonmeet, to about 6.45, when the trading hall started to pack up. I say started - there was still plenty of activity, because many punters stayed on to play evening games.

I spent most of the afternoon running a game of Night's Black Agents, of which more in a future post, but the rest of the time was able to get a good idea of what is going on in the UK gaming scene. It was good to catch up with Rob Heinsoo on the progress of the 13th Age in Glorantha project, and James Raggi, who was there with his full range of products for Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

I managed to score a copy of Red & Pleasant Land which is indeed truly a gorgeous product and sets the bar for gaming books as literature, IMHO. I may post in the future on my first impressions of this game, but if you can get your hands on a print copy, do so before they go out of print and start trading on eBay for silly money. Not since Vornheim has something impressed me so much.

I also ran into the team spear-heading the re-launch of SLA Industries, a game I used to play a LOT in the 1990s. Apparently a 25th anniversary edition is in the pipeline which will include a re-write of the rules and re-imagining of the setting. It is being funded by the launch of the official SLA Industries miniatures and some T-shirts. Eventually, the plan is to re-publish the old supplements, plus start to add new material.

I also managed to get my hands on a copy of The Heart of the Wild for The One Ring. I love this range of books, particularly the atmospheric art. Heart details the Mirkwood campaign sandbox, providing more detail for the open campaign I am coming increasingly to prefer these days. As a group we have dabbled a bit in this setting, but I for one would like to return to it at some point, even if it means running it myself.

I purposely attended Dragonmeet with a small bag with limited room, as I didn't want to come away laden with games. I was particularly tempted by Mutant Zero from Mophidius which looks like an awesome post-apocalyptic RPG sandbox, including community mechanics for running your own base area. This means the PCs are less the wandering murder hobos of other settings and have a community they have to support and stand up for. It does look most intriguing.

Urban Shadows (Magpie Games) also grabbed me - this is a hack from Apocalypse World in which the PCs are mortals and monsters striving to acquire power and influence in an modern urban setting. It may sound like the World of Darkness meets Apocalypse world, but the game's creator Andy Madeiros insists the inspiration comes from Angel and The Dresden Files. Players are not restricted to vampires and werewolves however; there are three mortal archetypes, ghosts, fae, demon-possessed and others. The AW engine, with its focus on archetypes, helps to make each character more distinct. I'd be very interested to see how the game manages social politics rather than combat - characters trying to achieve their goals through their supernatural influence rather than brawling in the streets. Sadly Urban Shadows had sold out by the time I did my last fly past through the traders hall.

And so the end of another Dragonmeet. Will I go next year? Yes, if I can. Even if they keep the event at the Ibis, much as I detest it. On the way back to Sussex I found myself musing about the possibilities of a gaming con in Brighton, but I know full well that the organisers of these events rarely get time to actually enjoy them - they involve a titanic amount of blood and sweat to create and manage.

Monday, 30 November 2015

D&D Background: Tavern Brawl Veteran

You are a former tavern brawler; you made a living fighting in an organised tavern brawl league, where rival taverns send teams of thugs to fight against each other, either in the streets or in the taverns and inns of the realm. It is part sport, part gang violence, a past time for aggressive thugs and street loiterers, members of gangs, and the occasional bored adventurer.

A tavern will typically build an informal team of 'brawlers' who will take part in these fights. There are few rules, although use of weapons and magic is generally frowned upon, and can lead to the expulsion of a given establishment from a league.

There are many reasons for a team to be created - some are sponsored by criminals who wish to keep their henchmen busy or test out new recruits, other leagues help to determine beer prices, bragging rights or to settle old feuds and rivalries without too many people getting maimed.

Skill Proficiencies: Athletics, Intimidation

Distinguishing Marks

Tavern brawling is a hard life. While the beer is free, many former members of leagues carry the marks of their careers upon their bodies.

  1. One eye
  2. Missing 1d4 fingers
  3. Livid scar across face
  4. Team tattoos
  5. Broken nose
  6. Missing teeth
Feature: Tavern Born

You spent a lot of time in pubs, either fighting, relaxing between fights, or preparing for the next fight. You were a local hero for the regular patrons of your tavern. Not only can you usually out drink anyone else, you are very familiar with tavern culture and can negotiate a free beer, talk your way past bouncers, or be the first to sense when trouble is brewing. When necessary, you can also use your natural environment to blend in among the other tavern patrons.

Suggested Characteristics

Tavern brawlers can be dour and sinister, or the life and soul of the party. They are not necessarily natural born killers, but they are usually competitive in the extreme, and can get bored easily. A quiet tavern is one without a brawl. A tavern with a brawl is a more entertaining place to be.

 d8 Personality Traits

  1. I'm not afraid to use my fists - or other weapons - to speak for me.
  2. Good ale, and good friends, are what life is all about.
  3. I've taken brawling as far as it is going to get me - I'm ready for the big time.
  4. Organised violence is like any other commodity - it has a price. What have you got?
  5. Life can get too quiet if you let it: when things get boring, it is time to stir them up a bit.
  6. I find my best decisions are made after a few pints of Old Gorgruk's Finest.
  7. Don't make me angry; you won't like me when I'm angry.
  8. Just because I look like someone stamped all over me doesn't mean I can't be trusted.
d6 Ideals

  1. Community. Every tavern is a community - it is not about the building, it is about the people that drink there.
  2. Fairness.It may look like chaos, but there are still rules. Without rules, you have true chaos.
  3. Tradition.You have to stick to the traditions of your team, your league. It is what makes you.
  4. Might. Only the strongest are going home with the booze, lads.
  5. Greed. I'm sure your tavern has lovely beer, but let's see the colour of your gold.
  6. Live and let live.One season you could be stamping on his face, the next he's the one taking a bottle for you.
d6 Bond

  1.  My team may be scattered to the four corners of the realm, but that doesn't mean we can't look out for each other.
  2. A few landlords owe me favours, be it food or a roof for the night.
  3. I left organised brawling after I killed a man; his team mates all swore an oath of vengeance against me.
  4. My old manager still owes me for last season; when I catch up with him, there's going to be trouble.
  5. My twin brother and I used to brawl for the same team; now I'm out, but he still brawls for a living. Occasionally, we get mistaken for each other.
  6. Some landlords still try to lure me back into brawling, or offer me a job as a coach. Once in a while I'm tempted to take on a short term job.
d8 Flaw

  1. After a couple of ales, I'm ready to rumble.
  2. I'm simply not a team player, much as I've tried over the years. I've made a bad name for myself in professional tavern brawling circles as a result.
  3. I still see double after Bogri Ballcrusher stamped on my head at the Blue Unicorn.
  4. I can't take anyone who isn't built like a barn that seriously.
  5. After my last match, I swore an oath never to go into a tavern again.
  6. People are intimidated by my boyish good looks - maybe it's the scar tissue? I don't notice it myself, but others do.
  7. I don't mind dishing out a bit of violence for the sport's sake, but I'm not a killer.
  8. I had a short term career as a tavern brawl manager - until my team was beaten by some halflings. My infamy has spread far and wide. I may have to change my name...

Friday, 27 November 2015

D&D Background - Halfling Pickler

You come from a long and proud line of picklers of fine condiments. You are a halfling, of good stock, with the halfling's superior knowledge of food, particularly the fruits and vegetables of temperate climes.

You may be an independent trader, or part of a larger clan, supporting each other with information and business contacts. But pickling is your main trade - at home, family members work long hours to provide you with the small jars of condiments, both sweet and savoury, which you carry with you.

You like to think you have a brand now, that your name is synonymous with tasty sauces, relishes and jams. The children come out to beg you for free tastings when you enter villages. But your quest for new recipes, new substances to preserve, that is your real passion.

Skill Proficiencies: Medicine, Perception

Specialty Pickles

 Every pickler has his own specialist menu of pickles. Not for him your bog standard apple sauce or mint jam. No, the true servant of the art goes beyond these, into the realms of true esoterica of the jar.

  1. Deep fried beetles, marinaded in bull's blood
  2. Chilli so fiery it could kill you
  3. Reptile tongues
  4. Fermented goat saliva
  5. Minotaur sweetmeats
  6. Candied gorgon eyes

Feature: A Well-Developed Palate

A good pickler needs to have a grasp of what he is pickling. Hence, your knowledge of herbs and spices is legendary. You are a great cook, but can easily strike up a conversation with farmers and merchants about any food they are selling.  In addition, just by examining and maybe tasting an apple or a jar of dried prunes, you can sometimes tell where it was grown and when, and sometimes even by whom. Finally, when required, you can draw on your family network of fellow picklers for information - when you cross paths with them.

Suggested Characteristics

Picklers are merchants on the one hand, but also secretive, as they closely guard their recipes, often handed down over generations and won at great cost to their creators. A good pickler will be approachable and gregarious on the surface, but driven by insatiable greed for more culinary knowledge at another level.

d8 - Personality Trait

  1.  I am loyal to my customers, but only to those who fully appreciate me.
  2. I am devoted to my art, but money comes first.
  3. The world is a large place, and full of interesting things to pickle.
  4. My family has made me what I am - I owe them everything.
  5. Many people have not yet tasted the heights to which expert pickling can elevate their taste buds - I am determined to bring them enlightenment.
  6. I will not brook criticism of my pickles from oderous ignorami.
  7. The open road is the place to be; walls and roofs are a prison than can suffocate me.
  8. I have been cast out from my clan for deviating too far from accepted norms of food preservation and must find a way to redeem myself.

d6 Ideal

  1. Glory. To become recognised as one of the immortal High Picklers through perfecting my art.
  2. Freedom. To roam the world and taste new ingredients, that is true independence of spirit.
  3. People. With out people, there are no customers. Without customers, there is no pickling.
  4. Aspiration. Pickling is both profession and art - I must live up to its ancient ideals.
  5. Creativity. New recipes demand experimentation with new ingredients, but this is the true test of the master.
  6. Community. My fellow picklers are a ready source of help when times are hard; I must give back to them when I am able, sharing my good fortune with them.
d6 Bond

  1. My family has made me what I am - I owe them everything.
  2. I once poisoned a wealthy customer by mistake with an experimental recipe - his family still hunts me.
  3. I stole a recipe from my uncle once - he still doesn't know, but guilt drives me to make recompense.
  4. An evil monster has become a client of mine - I still sometimes meet him secretly to sell him spicy rat tails. 
  5. I once dreamed of an orchard with plums the size of fists. The vision stays with me still - I am sure it exists somewhere. Imagine the jam you could make!
  6. My comrades are more important than pickling - but only just.

d6 Flaw

  1. Pickling sometimes requires alcohol to preserve the food - sadly I've become too fond of it.
  2. My fondness for pickling has led to a fondness for baking too. I must keep my secret.
  3. I am a poor excuse for a pickler - I try to hold my own by buying others' pickles, and putting my own labels on them. The shame haunts me.
  4. Despite my success, I cannot make apple sauce, no matter how hard I try. It is becoming an obsession.
  5. I have an intolerance to sugar.
  6.  I quest obsessively for rare and exotic ingredients; nothing can divert me from my course. It has alienated my friends and family.

Monday, 23 November 2015

We play Manhattan Project

I finally managed to get around to giving The Manhattan Project from Minion Games a go last weekend. Indeed, it has taken two weekends to properly get under the skin of the game. We played with two players without the expansions - i.e. just the basic game.

The Manhattan Project is about racing to build atom and hydrogen bombs. It is a worker placement game. I didn't really understand what that was, but having played Lords of Waterdeep, I can now see the similarities between the two.

Players have a limited supply of workers. including general workers, scientists and engineers. These can complete tasks on a central board, as well as on buildings you control. In Waterdeep, the workers are clerics, fighters, wizards, etc. Unlike Waterdeep, Manhattan Project lets players keep most of their workers by recycling them back into your pool - however, this ends up being your sole action for the turn, so is not done without serious consideration. There are also contract workers that can be employed temporarily, but like the ronin in Shogun, go home once the job is done.

To win, the aim is to accumulate victory points, as in most eurogames. These are achieved by building and testing bombs and weaponising them by loading them onto bombers (for +5 VPs).

Buildings work slightly differently from Waterdeep - while they can be acquired from a limited menu of building cards that is regularly replenished, once you have a building - e.g. a university or a factory - you control it and nobody else can use it, unless they make use of the espionage option.

This latter provides you with the ability to add to your espionage capacity in the course of a game, letting you make use of other players' buildings. It can be an effective blocking action, as dropping a worker on another player's plutonium reactor, for example, can stop him for producing plutonium while that worker is in situe.

Another twist is the use of bombers and fighters. Bombers have dual uses - to conduct air strikes against other players' buildings and to carry A-bombs. It is important to note that at no point do the nuclear weapons actually get used in The Manhattan Project  - once a bomb is designed and built, and conceivably armed on a bomber, the VPs are scored and that's it. You're done.

Fighters are a protective shield against bombers, but once brushed aside by other fighters, it is possible for another player to punish you severely with air strikes.

In my case, I suffered dismally with a massive air strike which demolished my production capacity. It is very, very hard to conduct repairs in this game. It is expensive, and there is only one repair action, which, once occupied, is closed to you. A player can bomb your buildings and block the repair action, leaving you no option but to construct new plant. I had a lovely uranium mine put out of action this way.

Hence, it is critical that players keep tabs on their fighter screens and other players' fighter screens. After VPs, these are probably the most important factors on display. If you leave yourself vulnerable here, you will be punished and it will hurt you.

Overall, this game feels very similar to Waterdeep. Owners of Waterdeep probably don't need The Manhattan Project, unless they love worker placement games generally. I don't own Waterdeep as a physical game, nor any other similar worker placement games, so this does fit neatly into my collection. I also love playing Waterdeep, and enjoy Manhattan Project for similar reasons.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Book of the Month - The Axeman's Jazz

The Axeman's Jazz, by newcomer Ray Celestin, is a crime novel set in New Orleans in 1919. Given my interest in the Big Easy between the wars, as I continue to run a Deadlands Noir campaign there, this was a natural for me to pick up and read.

The tale is inspired by the real life murders of the so-called Axeman in New Orleans straight after the end of the First World War. The time is one where veterans are returning from a conflict abroad, and Prohibition looms on the horizon. Louisiana is a state with powerful racial divisions, where many people of mixed background struggle to make their way in society. At the same time, it is a place where musicians in particular can earn a good living, regardless of colour. New Orleans is still considered by the characters in the book as more tolerant than some of the other southern states.

While the Axeman murders were real, he was never caught, despite even leaving a letter for the police. The killer also inspired a jazz tune, by Joseph John Davilla, after he left a letter at one crime scene claiming that locals would only be safe "if a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned." This apparently created one of the biggest party nights in the history of the city as fearful citizens took this as an opportunity to get together to drink and dance.

The book looks at the case from three perspectives - that of a homicide detective assigned to the case, his former colleague - a bent cop who has just been released from prison up state, and finally a secretary working at the Pinkerton detective agency who decides to do some investigation of her own. Each approaches the killings from a different point of view, and uncovers facets of the case known only to them. Celestin obviously introduces his own take on the identity of the killer and why the victims were slain.

The plot is a complex one - because of the different lines of investigation, I did find myself flipping back and forth through the book, as the writer often leaves a character alone for three or four chapters, then jumps back to them. In addition, the real-life personality of Lewis Armstrong is introduced as a friend of Ida Davis, the Pinkerton secretary, who aids her in her search for the Axeman. His is a fourth perspective. At twenty years old, Armstrong was just getting established in 1919, and left New Orleans for Chicago a couple of years later.

The book was useful for me in helping to flesh out the character of the Big Easy at this time in its history. It was certainly a melting pot of races and cultures unlike any other in the United States, and both tolerant and intolerant in its own way. Many different communities rubbed shoulders, including the French Creoles and the newcomers like the Irish and Italians. In my Deadlands game I wondered whether I was over-egging the power and prevalence of the Black Hand Sicilian crime syndicate, or the emphasis they placed on Sicilian lineage for promotion to their highest ranks, but I think I have got it just about right. Their love of restaurants and barber shops as places for their foot soldiers to hang out in is right on the mark.

The Axeman's Jazz is a violent saga of carnage, exploitation and atrocity, with the titular Axeman just one of the personalities up to his elbows in gore. At one stage, for example, police torture a suspect to death in an old lunatic asylum and then incinerate his body, while at another a character is beaten to a pulp by a man he wrongly convicted. There is also a brutal gun battle between the mob and a pair of cops that is very reminiscent of the climax of LA Confidential. It is pretty visceral stuff.

I'm hoping to be returning to my New Orleans campaign soon, and I feel this novel has done much to help me with additional background colour and ideas. The city certainly sounds like an interesting place for RPGs and one I hope to visit someday in real life and perhaps in gaming (e.g. with Trail of Cthulhu).

Ironically, the last few chapters of The Axeman's Jazz take place during a freak storm which flooded large parts of the city with considerable loss of live, as levees intended to protect the town collapsed. At the time then mayor Martin Behrman told citizens that, thanks to his program of repairs and further infrastructure, this sort of disaster would never befall New Orleans again!

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...