Those Meddling Kids

Last summer, my heroes over at Evil Hat Productions released Bubblegumshoe. Unusually for Evil Hat, the game is based on Pelgrane Press‘s GUMSHOE system, rather than on Evil Hat‘s own Fate Core system1. It is2 a teen detective story game, drawing heavily on stuff like the Veronica Mars TV show, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and Three Investigators book series, Scooby Doo cartoons, and so on. You play kids who are trying to solve mysteries.

I got a couple of my friends3 to agree to giving it a try4, so over the winter, we played through a limited campaign. It was a single mystery spread over three sessions, with an intro session devoted to setting the game up. We had a lot of fun with it.

The Book

The physical book is a digest-sized volume, about the same size as the Fate Core rulebook. It’s 272 pages, on sturdy, glossy paper, with a lot of black-and-white art throughout, a clean and open layout, and wonderful little elements of marginalia5. There are the requisite chapters on the system mechanics, building characters, and such. There are also a few chapters on getting the right feel for a teen mystery game, and a number of different settings – with rules tweaks for many of them – allowing you to set your game in different environments.

One of the nicest features of the book is that it contains five example mystery spines – essentially outline examples of how to put together your own mystery. One of these then gets an in-depth write-up, showing you how to take a simple spine and flesh it out into an entire scenario. I found that looking at the spine and the fleshed-out version was really helpful in figuring out what kinds of things I needed to think about in building my own story.

The GUMSHOE Bits

If you’re not familiar with GUMSHOE6, it’s a system designed for investigatory games. It’s built to address the problem that running investigations in other games often encountered – a bad roll could derail the entire game, as they players then don’t get a clue that they need to solve the mystery. With GUMSHOE, you have a set of investigatory abilities and, if you say you’re using the right one in a situation where there’s a clue to be found, you find that clue7. For other things you try and do that aren’t directly gaining clues – running, jumping, climbing trees8 – there’s a very simple d6 system.

One of the big things with every GUMSHOE game is that the list of abilities is tweaked to match the setting and reinforce the themes. Bubblegumshoe‘s abilities are focused on the kinds of things that make sense for teenage sleuths. Some particular tweaks to the system that I liked:

  • Grownup Face replaces Cop Talk from a lot of other GUMSHOE games. It serves the same function – gives the character credibility and access with authority figures – but instead of letting you be taken seriously by police, it lets you be taken seriously by adults. Important for teenage detectives.
  • The Cool ability functions effectively as both Health and Stability in normal GUMSHOE games. You run out of Cool, you’re out for a while. This, along with some changes to the Fighting ability, does a great deal to minimize a potentially problematic element: it means that you don’t necessarily have to have teenagers beating each other to death in your game. It also reinforces teen drama tropes, by making embarrassment and social power plays effectively life-or-death9.
  • For investigative abilities, the list is very focused on what a teenager might reasonably have access to. So, you get a Photography ability, and you get a Reasearch ability, but you don’t get a Forensic Pathology ability. And to make sure that you can still have access to some of the more esoteric investigative abilities, the game gives you Relationships.

Relationships

Okay. So, your fifteen-year-old yearbook editor may be really good sussing out whether someone’s kind of out-of-place with the clique they’re hanging with, but not so much with running a license plate to see who a car is registered to. That makes sense. But it does impose some limits on the types of clues you can reasonably expect your players to be able to collect.

Well, similar to the Sources idea I talked about in Cthulhu ConfidentialBubblegumshoe gives each character a number of Relationships – people that they know and that are important in their lives. And these Relationships can have abilities that the characters don’t otherwise have access to. So, your character doesn’t have any hope of using forensic accounting to unravel the community centre’s finances, but her aunt is a CPA who can take a look at the books and give you some insight.

In Bubblegumshoe, though the Relationships serve the same mechanical function as Sources in Cthulhu Confidential, their roleplaying dimension tends to be more important. You need to spend time and effort10 maintaining your relationships. You need to keep your mom happy and not get kicked out of school. You need to diss your high school nemesis and back up your BFF.

This keeps things closer to the kinds of source material stories the game tries to emulate – real life11 often intrudes upon and complicates your cool mystery-solving efforts.

Combat

I mentioned earlier that Bubblegumshoe uses the Cool stat as both Health and Stability12. This alone does a fair amount to help turn combat non-lethal, which is, I think, a necessary element, both in modeling the source material and in making it more comfortable for adults to play this game13.

Now, there are ways to hurt other characters physically in the game. The Fighting stat lets you, well, fight. Note that, in keeping with most of the source material, most fights are bare-knuckle affairs, schoolyard scuffles. Pulling any kind of weapon is a huge deal, and is usually14 used as an intimidation tactic. Getting hurt is serious – there are four levels of health: fine, scuffed, injured, and dead. Without a weapon, it’s hard to get to injured, and really hard to get to dead. With a weapon, it’s a lot easier, but it takes some Cool and other ability spends to ramp up to being able to seriously imperil the life of another.

So, physical combat is fairly quick and dirty, with serious in-world penalties for doing it – suspension, grounding, criminal charges, law suits, etc. Social combat, on the other hand, gets it’s own mechanical subsystem.

Throwdowns

Social combat is the focus of most confrontations in this game. Shaming, frightening, or otherwise dominating your opponent15 is the equivalent to a big combat set piece in other games. Getting the quaterback to back down from a confrontation, or tricking the cheating popular girl into incriminating herself, or making the villain so angry he or she takes a swing at you – all of that comes down to a Throwdown.

The Throwdown system is a little bit involved, factoring in allies on both sides, who’s taking the lead, who’s on their home turf, and who has things to support their side of the combat. Taking hits reduces Cool, and running out means you lose – you get laughed at, or lose your temper, or say something stupid, or everyone just turns on you. There are techniques and strategies you can employ, just like in physical combat in most games16. It can turn pretty intense, which is what you’re looking for.

Settings

One thing I love about Fate Core is that it has good, structured methods for building your setting and game milieu at the start of play. Bubblegumshoe has incorporated that piece into the game, letting you and your players build the location and environment for your campaign, fully integrating the themes, places, and characters you want to see in play. The book leads you step-by-step through the things you need for your game, plus it gives you a lot of background discussion to help you make the decisions during play, and to understand what is and isn’t going to work.

And if you don’t want to do that, there’s a fully fleshed-out town already built and written up in the book: Drewsbury17. In addition to Drewsbury, the book has eight other settings, not as fully statted, but with enough background – and some rules tweaks – to show you how to use them with the basic setting building method to get a good start for the game. These include some paranormal elements, some science fiction elements18, dystopian societies, super heroes, and scouting. It gives you the tools to play everything from a Smallville-style game19 to a Lumberjanes scout troop to a Scooby Doo gang, complete with animal sidekick.

One last thing I want to point out about settings: there is an actual mechanic for modeling the bad part of town. Locations where your character isn’t supposed to go – because of age, because of gender, because of clique or social class or neighbourhood or whatever – get thresholds. This is a number of Cool points you have to pay to take part in a scene in that location. So, if you want to go into the Teacher Lounge at school, or the biker bar across the tracks, you need to pay a point or two of Cool, reflecting that you are out of your element and at risk. I just think this is a great little mechanic for getting players to worry about going places that their characters would worry about going.

Lester Bay

As I mentioned way back at the start of this post, I got a couple of friends together to try the game out. We wound up creating a small town on an island in the Queen Charlotte Strait of BC20 in the early 90s. My players decided they wanted to play younger characters – 13 years old – and that they wanted some supernatural elements in play.

Character and setting creation took a session, then I put all our notes into a setting bible21, and mapped out the mystery. The plan was for a three-session game, so I made a mystery that I thought we could get through in that time, revolving around the vandalism of a mural at the local community centre. Scheduling meant we needed to take a bit of an extended break over the Christmas season, but we got the three sessions in and finished the adventure. Everyone had fun.

That said, I learned some lessons that I think are useful, so I’m sharing them.

First, if you’re using some supernatural elements in the game, you need to be careful that they don’t overshadow the main mystery. My initial plan was that the mystery itself was mundane, but the created disharmony between the town folk and the nearby First Nations village caused some supernatural events. And the characters latched on to those elements as the focus of the investigation, because of course they did. They were far more interesting than somebody breaking a window and writing a slur on a mural. So, bad planning on my part. Distracting.

Second, make sure you and your players have a solid shared understanding of what it means to play kids. This was especially important because of playing such young characters. Teenagers just don’t have the freedom and agency that adults do, and are heavily constrained by society and parents and peers. That limits the ways the characters can deal with some standard RPG obstacles so, as a GM, you have to make sure there are ways for the characters to get clues that are appropriate for their age. And, as players, you have to remember just how frustrating it can be to have your options limited by your age, and how you used to get around that. So, a discussion of these types of expectations before we started playing would have been helpful.

Finally, and this applies to all investigative games, it’s easy to get caught up in the roleplaying but, as a GM, your focus must be on getting information to the characters. They can’t proceed without the information and, especially when their options are limited by the age of the characters, you need to make sure they always have something to do, some thread to follow.

Just my thoughts.

Conclusion

Bubblegumshoe rocks. It’s well-written, really evokes the source material, and is a great deal of fun to play. If you like teenage detectives and investigatory RPGs, this is a must-have. It gives you the flexibility to play light games or dark games, modern or historical or futuristic games, and to add in pretty much any element from YA media that interests you. The system is robust and simple, though the paradigm of GUMSHOE can take some getting used to if you’re coming from more traditional RPGs.

So, yeah. Get it. All the cool kids are already playing it.

 

  1. Though, to be honest, I think the niche of teen-hero-Fate-game is kind of already filled by The Young Centurions. []
  2. As it says on the cover. []
  3. Thanks, Chris and Sandy! []
  4. Talking my friends into playing games, even trying new ones, is not much of a challenge. What is more challenging is trying to fit another game into everyone’s schedules. []
  5. Not as dense and focused as the DFRPG marginalia, but it’s a nice visual touch to the design. []
  6. Shame on you! No, no. Sorry. No shaming here. But I think you should check it out. []
  7. That’s not a great explanation. It makes it sound like a guessing game, where the player just lists all his or her abilities, and when the right one comes up, the GM gives them a plot coupon. I talk in more detail about how the system works in general in this post. []
  8. As Eddie Izzard says. []
  9. Which is the way I remember them feeling in the long-ago time when I was a teenager. []
  10. That is, scene time during play. []
  11. You know what I mean. []
  12. Which is to say, as both HP and Sanity points. []
  13. The idea of running a game where having a modern teenage player character decide that the optimal strategy is to kill a rival is a little too close to some of the more horrific real-life news stories I’ve seen. I do not think I would play that game. []
  14. And most effectively. []
  15. Preferably, but not necessarily, in public. []
  16. In Bubblegumshoe, there are more techniques and strategies available in Throwdowns than in physical combat. []
  17. Drewsbury is good, but I found it to be a very American place. That’s not a bad thing, but keep it in mind if you’re planning to use it. []
  18. Gotta give a shout out to Veronica Base, Mars for the effort to use the name without violating IP law. []
  19. Though for that, I recommend digging up the Smallville RPGBut still. []
  20. That’s British Columbia, a province of Canada, for my non-Canadian readers. []
  21. I’m not sharing the setting bible. I thought about it, but I wrote up some stuff about one of the coastal First Nations groups that is the result of very light research, and I’m not comfortable sharing something that I, as a white dude, wrote about another racial/cultural group that I did that little research on. []

Hush! Hush! Cthulhu Fhtagn!

I just got a message from Pelgrane Press to confirm my shipping address for my Cthulhu Confidential preorder, the premiere book in Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE One-2-One line. I figure that means I should probably tell some people about the game.

The premise behind the line is pretty simple – adapt Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE line to make it really sing if you’re playing with just one GM and one player. I’m not going to talk too much about GUMSHOE itself1, but I do want to talk about the new system2 and some of the choices made.

What’s In The Book?

The book itself is 315 pages, so it’s a big, meaty volume. It’s got the same look and design as the Trail of Cthulhu line, with the greenish overall colour and the wonderful and evocative Jérôme Huguenin cover art. The authors are Robin D. Laws, Chris Spivey, and Ruth Tillman.

The actual game rules take up about 60 pages, and a lot of that is advice about how to run the game effectively – as is pointed out, running for one player is decidedly different that running for more than one. Even two players really lessens the intensity of focus that the GM and player require. Without a larger group for brainstorming and kibitzing, there’s no real downtime for the two folks sitting down to play this game. Both player and GM are always on.

After the rules come three sections, each focused on a different city, different PC, and different scenario. So, you’ve got Dex Raymond, the hardboiled L.A. detective; Vivian Sinclair, the determined N.Y.C. investigative reporter; and Langston Wright, the war veteran and scholar in Washington, D.C.

Wrapping up the book are the appendices, with reference material and hand-outs for playing and running GUMSHOE One-2-One.

Cards Everywhere

One of the conceits in the core GUMSHOE system is that you find the clues you need for the story to advance. That carries over into GUMSHOE One-2-One, as expected. What I hadn’t considered before reading this book is that, without the buffer of other players and characters, it gets much easier to stall the story3 through non-investigative things. Sure, if you search the garden, you find the strange footprints by the pond, but if you can’t climb over the wall into the garden, you can’t search the garden, right? In standard play, this is handled by the resilience of the group – if you can’t climb the wall, surely someone in the group has some points left in Athletics to get to the other side.

Same thing, but even more so, with combat. TPKs are a threat in any game, especially when combat is as deadly as it can be in GUMSHOE. But when there’s only one PC, it gets that much riskier – a single bad die roll, and everything is just done. Over.

On the other hand, if you just let the character succeed at everything, there’s no sense of risk and no sense of accomplishment in play. The chance of failure is what makes success mean something.

GUMSHOE One-2-One has completely redesigned the way General Abilities work to address this issue. While it still uses a d6 resolution, like GUMSHOE, it allows you to roll multiple dice4. There are two target numbers, representing two types of successful outcome: a Hold, which is  an okay or middling result, and an Advance, which is the best result. You need to roll higher to get an Advance than to get a Hold.

If you don’t roll at least high enough to get a Hold, you get a Setback5 – a problem that arises from whatever it was you just attempted.

And this is where the cards come in6. When you roll an Advantage, you often receive an Edge, which is a little bonus that you gain from being awesome. When you roll a Setback, you often receive a Problem, which is a little complication that you gain from not expressing you awesomeness through die rolls. Both these things are tracked using cards, telling you what type of Edge or Problem you now have, and how it affects the game. Sometimes, these things go away, like spending an Edge for the bonus it gives you or fixing the Problem narratively, but sometimes they stick around for a while.

Here’s the coolest thing about this system: most challenges have Edge and Problem cards specific to that challenge. There are some generic ones7, but mostly, the Edge or Problem you get is directly related to the challenge you just faced. And it’s a perfect way to keep the story advancing even if the challenge was too much for the character. Here’s an example:

Note that this is a combat challenge. If the character gets a Setback, he or she winds up not dead, but chained to an altar, which directs you to another scene. Also, if the character gains an extra problem (by rolling an extra die), he or she can wind up Clawed by Deep Ones, with that problem card.

So, as a case progresses, the player will have a shifting array of cards, tracking different Edges and Problems. Each chapter has a few pages of the collected cards for that scenario, ready for you to print out8 and cut up. That lets you get set-up and ready for the game pretty quickly.

The Sources

Another issue you have to deal with in converting GUMSHOE to a single player and single character system is the fact that it becomes problematic to make sure all the investigative abilities are covered. In normal GUMSHOE, each character can take a few, with a focus on a few specialties, to make sure you’ve got someone on the team with the ability find pretty much every clue. In the games I’ve run, it generally means that, at most, there are one or two investigative abilities that no one has put any points into.

With only a single character, you have the choice of either letting them have all the investigative abilities, so that each character is largely the same, mechanically speaking; of making sure that there are only clues for the investigative abilities that the character has; or giving the character access to investigative abilities that he or she doesn’t have through some other means.

Enter the sources.

Each character has a list of sources, with notes about what investigative abilities they provide, their personalities, and their relationship with the character. So, like a detective novel, part of play is the investigator going to talk to an interesting person who can help them with information or analysis. It turns finding a clue into an interactive roleplaying scene.

The Characters

The Cthulhu Confidential core book gives you three fully fleshed out characters to play, and the free download The Red Mist on the Pelgrane site gives you another one, along with a scenario for her. In addition, the appendices include the basic ability lists for ten more characters for other GUMSHOE genres, including Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Night’s Black Agents, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, The Gaean Reach, TimeWatch, and Bubblegumshoe.

There’s a short section on creating investigators so that players can play a non-pregen character, but it stresses that the pregens are specifically tuned for their scenarios9, so making big changes from the pregens may cause problems in play. Still, it’s got all the information you need to build a character from scratch.

The included characters are a more diverse lot than you see in most historical period gaming. You have Dex Raymond, who is a Sam Spade/Phillip Chandler type, the tough, white, male detective of the noir pulps. Then, you get Vivian Sinclair, who is a female investigative reporter. Third is Langston Wright, an African-American war veteran and scholar. In The Red Mist, you get Phyllis Oakley10, a female dealer in rare books.

Vivian and Langston also have information about how women and minorities were treated, both historically and in the pulps that inform this game. There is a discussion with each about scaling the types of treatments facing non-white, non-male11 characters, allowing the player and GM to set the level of horribleness of humanity that both are comfortable dealing with.

The Cities

Each of the three character chapters includes a write-up of the character’s home city. For Dex, that’s Los Angeles; for Viv, that’s New York; and for Langston, that’s Washington, D.C. These write-ups include the historical context – the 1930s for New York and LA, the 1940s for Washington. Also included are some maps, important locations, and important people.

And a fairly rich sprinkling of story hooks to build new scenarios.

More than a lot of game books, the cities in Cthulhu Confidential work almost like characters in and of themselves. I think this is a product of the tight focus on a single character for play in each of the cities, which lets the city write-up focus on a more coherent theme and presentation, rather than being written for wider appeal and purpose. Anyway, the result is a real feeling of immediacy for each of the cities.

The Scenarios

The Cthulhu Confidential core book comes with three scenarios, one for each of the three characters:

  • The Fathomless Sleep: How did fast-living society girl Helen Deakin come down with a case of catatonia? Her sultry sister pays you to find out. As Dex Raymond, you’ll explore a web of blackmail, dirty money, and weird mysticism in the city of fallen angels.
  • Fatal Frequencies: In the offices of the New York Herald, Sadie Cane seeks reporter Vivian Sinclair‘s help. Sadie’s fiancé, George Preston, disappeared three days after a murder in his apartment block. Can Viv uncover the truth about George, and will Sadie like what she finds?
  • Capitol Colour: Lynette Miller was a riveter. A few weeks ago, she got a new job: hush-hush, and highly paid. She’s a clever and resourceful young woman, and now she’s missing, and her father is heartbroken. Can Langston Wright unweave a web of deceit, face down racist cops and uncover the deeper conspiracy which endangers the war effort?

In addition, there’s a free downloadable adventure, The Red Mist, available on the Pelgrane site.

Each of these scenarios is focused specifically on the character for whom it was written. Though they can probably be run for the other characters12, I would want to go through them in detail, and make a number of changes to the Edges, Problems, and challenges to make sure they all still make sense for a different character.

Because of the way the new challenge system works with the cards, and because of the fact that there’s no real downtime for the GM to think about stuff will the players are talking to each other, I think it would be very difficult to run Cthulhu Confidential as an improvised investigation, the way The Armitage Files worked13. I also think that prepping a scenario is probably a bigger job for the GM than in Trail of Cthulhu, because of the need to more carefully design each challenge, especially coming up with Setbacks that don’t derail the game.

That’s why I think it’s so valuable to get these four14 complete scenarios with the game. Not only do they give you ready-to-play scenarios, but they also serve as solid models to pattern your own scenarios after.

Conclusions

I haven’t had a chance to try actually playing15Cthulhu Confidential scenario, so I don’t really know how all this works in play.

That said, I really like the way the game is built. The main changes to the system address problems that I didn’t know were problems until I saw the solutions, so that gives me confidence in the thinking and playtesting behind the game.

The characters, cities, and scenarios are all meaty, and look like a lot of fun. The book is well-written and physically attractive.

I say it’s a winner. I just need a guinea pig to help me try it out.

  1. I’ve already talked about Trail of Cthulhu here, and chronicled my Armitage Files campaign here. []
  2. Yeah, it really is a new system, though heavily based on the original GUMSHOE stuff. []
  3. And thus the game. []
  4. Assuming you have multiple dice in the ability you’re using. []
  5. I am very pleased that it’s called a Setback and not a Failure. []
  6. You were wondering, weren’t you? []
  7. And a whole host of generic Edge and Problem cards in the appendices. []
  8. Or photocopy, if you’re working with just the physical book and not the pdf. []
  9. Or vice-versa, I guess. []
  10. Who can be renamed Phillip Oakley. []
  11. And non-straight. []
  12. Or for an original character. []
  13. Though there’s an interesting article about running The Armitage Files using Cthulhu Confidential here. Still, the article says it’s not easy. []
  14. Actually five: with my preorder of Cthulhu Confidential, I got a pre-layout version of The House Up In The Hills, another Dex Raymond scenario. []
  15. Or running. []

Ashen Stars: The Witness of My Worth, Part 2

***Spoiler Warning***

I’m running the introductory scenario, The Witness of My Worth from the Ashen Stars rulebook. While some things always get changed when the scenario meets the players, I am running it pretty much straight out of the box. There will be spoilers in this post.

***You Have Been Warned***

About a week ago, we finally managed to schedule a session to finish our Ashen Stars play test1. I’d been trying to think how to flesh out the end of the adventure to fill in an entire session – we only had one or two scenes left – and threw together some combat encounters to use. As it turned out, I really didn’t need them.

The Lasers did some more speculating and discussing of the information they had so far, trying to figure out what was going on. They had a number of pieces of the overall puzzle – computer intrusion, rewriting of brains via the headsets, air clearing in a formerly polluted area, stuff like that. What they didn’t know was what was causing this – the Durugh, the Mohilar, someone2 else.

After going around in circles a few times, they remembered one of the basic tenets of GUMSHOE games – if you’re stuck, it means you need more information. They had one lead – a set of co-ordinates out in the ruined city that seemed to be at the centre of the strange occurrences. And so off they went.

I spent a little time this session describing things – coming up with descriptions of the surroundings, working a little harder to paint a picture of the world. I also worked harder at smoothing out the use of Investigative abilities in the game – trying to make them more transparent to the players. I had some pretty good success with the first part, but not so much with the second.

The problem with the Investigative abilities not being transparent was two-fold, I think. First, there was the simple fact that all of us – GM and players alike – were new to this game3.Now, that’s a problem that will arise with any new game, and it can correct itself after a few sessions. Familiarity and mastery will come.

The second issue was something that compounded the first one: the Investigative abilities in Ashen Stars are not intuitively named. Instead, they are named in keeping with the space opera setting. This is great as far as flavour goes, but it adds an extra level of learning between the players and mastery.

Anyway, our heroes made it to the site, and found that it was a museum devoted to Brian Hudd, native son of Ares-3, and hero of the Mohilar war. Something4 had restarted the computer that ran the museum, which immediately turned on the air scrubbers, resulting in the clear air around the building.

Investigating further, they found that the computer had achieved sentience, but had been damaged. All the records of the diplomatic, alliance-building Brian Hudd had be been lost, and only the records of Brian Hudd as a ruthless, cunning, and triumphant warrior remained. The building had also lost its holo facilities, so it was making do with reprogramming any sentients that happened by5 to refight Brian Hudd’s battles.

They found this out the hard way, when Returner-U directly interfaced with the museum computer, and was reprogrammed into Brian Hudd, fighting off the Mohilar6 and trying to reunite with his crew7. So, there was a desperate struggle with Returner-U, as Maxine managed to synthesize a viro deprogramming agent to cleanse Returner-U’s mind.

Once they had their Cybe compatriot back to his regular charming self8, the Lasers made their way down to the main computer room in the basement and tried to shut down the computer, only to find that it had a back-up version of itself recorded in the strange electrical activity in Ares-3’s atmosphere.

Now, this is all part of the scenario-as-written, to set up a very specific kind of climax to the adventure: one where the characters, in the best tradition of Captain Kirk, convince the AI that it is flawed and must destroy itself. But, I must admit, as I was giving the characters that last clue, I rebelled against it. It was a little too, well, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb9.

Okay, “dumb” is a little harsh. And there are alternative solutions offered in the scenario. Perhaps a less judgmental way of putting things was that the solution seemed to clash with the moderately gritty vision of the setting that our group shared.

Whatever the reason, as I said, I rebelled, especially once I started getting some of the clue out, and felt the resistance to it building in the group. So, I changed things slightly, and explained that, with the ability of the AI to exist in the atmosphere, there was no way to physically destroy it.

And then the group showed me again why I game with them. They convinced the AI to accept a download of the rest of Brian Hudd’s accomplishments, and persuaded it to keep working to clear the air of Ares-3. They even talked it into spreading itself through the ionosphere and reactivating other air scrubbers on the planet. And they convinced it to create a child AI that they could load into their ship’s computer.

“Now that’s a pilot episode,” was the response from the group.

We faded out on Aron telling the bartender on Ares-3 to be ready for the Combine to come calling. And that they didn’t need to rush into backing the Combine – they had the right to their independence.

The gang talked about how they’d consider playing more Ashen Stars10, but the more they talked about how they had enjoyed this session – specifically the last half of this session – the more I was convinced that this is not the game for this group. Why not? Because the bits they liked most were the bits where I had departed farthest from the game system.

They liked the setting, they liked the characters, they even liked parts of the scenario. But they didn’t like the idea of fiddling with the Investigative abilities, and then trying to figure out the mystery. The more we discussed things, the more certain I became that the game system is the thing they liked least about the whole play test.

This is not to say that Ashen Stars is a bad system – it’s not. I love it. I would need more practice to run it smoothly, and there are a few things about it that I find irritating, but the same is true of any system.

But not every system works for every game group. And this system does not work with these particular players. And so, I said that I would keep the game in my back-pocket, as it were, for possible future play11, but that I didn’t think we should keep going with it as a regular game.

Instead, I offered them a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game that Clint had suggested at one time: street-level superheroes in Gotham City. Everyone thought that was a splendid idea, so that’s what we’re doing. In discussing it, though, it became clear that there was not a common vision of such a game being shared among the group, so this coming Friday, we’re going to get together and use the Fate Core game creation rules to create our MHRPG setting12.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

  1. You can read about the first session here. []
  2. Or something. []
  3. I had run Trail of Cthulhu previously, and one of the players had played it, but we were all new to Ashen Stars. []
  4. They assumed the Ashen Star incident of a few days previous. []
  5. Using their headsets as the reprogramming vector. []
  6. That is, the other PCs. []
  7. That is, some random, reprogrammed Ares-3 inhabitants that I had statted up in case I needed a fight. []
  8. This is a bit of a joke. Returner-U has absolutely zero interpersonal skills. []
  9. Sorry, Robin. []
  10. Well, one player was not interested. He’s not a fan of investigative games. []
  11. Or conversion to a different space opera game system, maybe? []
  12. The Fate Core stuff is just so good for this. We can even create the aspects for everything, just call them distinctions to fit with the Cortex Plus rules. []

Ashen Stars: The Witness of My Worth, Part 1

***Spoiler Warning***

I’m running the introductory scenario, The Witness of My Worth from the Ashen Stars rulebook. While some things always get changed when the scenario meets the players, I am running it pretty much straight out of the box. There will be spoilers in this post.

***You Have Been Warned***

A little over two weeks ago1, instead of some sort of Valentine’s Day celebration, I had a group of friends over to play our first session of Ashen Stars, the space-opera GUMSHOE game from Pelgrane Press by Robin D. Laws2. We had done character creation by e-mail, which turned out to not be ideal, but we got through it, and I, at least, was excited to actually start playing.

Only one of my players3 had ever played a GUMSHOE game previously, so I spent the first bit of the session explaining the system. I think it’s a good thing I did; my explanation of how the Investigative abilities worked caused a couple of characters to rearrange some of their points. I also talked about the part that always messes up new GUMSHOE players: if you don’t know what you should do next, go get more information.

I also explained that I had the Ashen Stars soundtrack, All We Have Forgotten, loaded up on my computer, and that I would be using musical stings to end scenes when the characters had got all the information they could from a scene, as well as using the other tracks to provide thematic background music. Then I pretty much immediately forgot to do all that. Oh, I think I managed to pull in the proper track twice through the evening, and used a sting maybe once, but it turned out to be just one more thing for me to keep track of, and it got lost in the shuffle. With some practice, that might change.

I had also printed out Kevin Kulps 30-minute demo scenario, Stowaway, thinking that I might use it as a sort of trailer for the game, giving people a taste of how things worked before jumping into the actual investigation4. I discarded that idea, though, simply for reasons of time. We’d already spent over an hour with the introductory stuff5, and I really wanted to finish this scenario in one session6, so I decided not to use the short scenario, and jumped into the main scenario.

I had typed up a one-page hand-out for the players, outlining their mission from The Witness of My Worth, containing the main datapoints of their assignment, and I gave it to the bagger to read first. When she had read it and started passing it to the other players, I explained that this was a good time to start using some of their Investigative abilities to fill in background and detail on the contract – what their destination was like, what the legal complications might be, etc. They spent a little time doing that, getting a little more comfortable with the concepts behind GUMSHOE.

When they looked to have had enough of that, I jumped them into the Ares-3 system, and sprang the first little surprise on them: the ship immediately started plotting an automatic attack run on a nearby hauler. Returner-U managed to wrest control away from the computers before things went badly, and our Lasers were able to prevent an unprovoked attack by their ship on the unsuspecting hauler. They hailed the hauler, and found that they were heading to a settlement on the far side of the planet from the site of the EvBase.

Making their way down to the planet surface, the Lasers landed as near as they could get to the EvBase in the ruins of the capital city. They managed to bypass the fence of security pylons around the base, and even defuse the booby-trapped bomb on the door. Inside, they found the entire crew of the EvBase dead. They managed to reconstruct the sequence of death, determining that a group of the crew returned from outside and attacked those inside7.

Some of the records they unlocked from the main database led them to go and investigate  the settlement nearby. There, they found that the locals weren’t all that welcoming – though the Durugh arms merchants did offer a job to Arrud – and weren’t too forthcoming with information.

At this point, I found myself fretting about some of the false assumptions that the group was making, and the number of clues they weren’t picking up. You see, this was the first time I found myself running a published GUMSHOE adventure, being far more used to running the improvisational style of mystery found in The Armitage Files. Published adventures, I have found, lay out a much larger number – and a broader range – of clues, to make sure that the characters can always find the path forward. In improvised adventures, the GM can be more parsimonious with the clues created, because they are created at the intersection of the mystery’s background and the investigators’ actions.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that, even though the investigators didn’t uncover every clue in every scene, they still got all the core clues, and were able to move forward in the investigation, even if they were moving forward with false assumptions.

Still, at this point I realized that the Lasers didn’t have the clue to lead them on to the next stage of the investigation. And there didn’t seem to be much chance of them finding that required clue in the current scened. Fortunately, I turned the page, and saw that the answer was in the next scene.

So, I had a huge ground transport come lumbering down the avenue toward the bar, with a couple of people firing weapons out the windows. Our Lasers sprang into action, saving some bystanders and crippling the transport. Investigation of the driver and passenger showed that they had brain deformations similar to those found on some of the crew of the EvBase, along with burns along the points where their headsets touched flesh.

Data in the transport revealed a site where strange things were happening, the next bit of vital information to drive the investigation forward. They decided to head off there to see if they could get to the bottom of this strange thing that seemed to be reprogramming the brains of those who came into contact with it.

That was the point we decided to call it an evening, as it was getting late. I need to flesh out some of the end of the investigation to fill up an entire session, because there are only a couple of scenes left, and it could be wrapped up in a little more than an hour. That shouldn’t be too difficult, though.

I’m looking forward to the next session.

  1. I started writing this post the morning after the game. Honest, I did. But life kept intruding and keeping me from finishing it. I’ve changed that reference to when we played three four times now. []
  2. I think that’s a record for number of links in a single sentence on my blog. Yay! []
  3. Maybe two; I can’t remember if Fera had played in a Trail of Cthulhu one-shot. []
  4. I even worked out a way to tie it into the backstory for the characters that they had worked out. []
  5. Waiting for everyone to arrive, getting everyone fed and settled, going over the rules, talking about True Detective, talking about work, etc. []
  6. Spoiler: didn’t happen. []
  7. I really should have spent some more time prepping this section. The notes in the  adventure did not provide the sequence of death – specifically, who died when and where – and I was forced to reconstruct it on the fly logic-puzzle style. And there was some question about the timing of the bomb set on the door that I couldn’t immediately resolve, so I resorted to the old GM trick, “Yeah, that does seem odd, doesn’t it?” []

Ashen Stars: Recruitment

I seem to sort of wander backwards into running GUMSHOE games. What I mean by that is that I usually spend several weeks or months planning to run a campaign1, but with GUMSHOE games, I wind up running them after a casual conversation and a quick agreement, and then scramble to get the campaign ready to run. That happened when I ran the Armitage Files campaign, and it happened again with Ashen Stars.

In both cases, I had been talking the games up to various people, but not expecting to have a chance to run either any time soon. For Ashen Stars, I had offered to run a one-shot between earlier this month at a game night, but we opted for board games instead. Still, the group was interested enough in the pitch that I’ve agreed to run a mini-campaign, about four or five sessions, covering two to three cases, I’m guessing.

Because of timing and scheduling issues, I decided to do character generation via e-mail, basing my experience on the Trail of Cthulhu character creation process that I used for Armitage Files. I had been dreading running that character generation session, but it turned out to go quickly and easily and got everyone excited about the game, so I figured that this would go pretty easily, as well2.

It has not gone as smoothly as expected.

I’ve been trying to think about why that is. The first thing that came to mind is that this game, unlike ToC, deals with gear in some detail, and wading through the sections on cybernetic and viroware enhancements is a little daunting. But that led me to a number of other choice points in character creation that slowed things down and caused some confusion:

  • Roles. Unlike ToC, where you just pick a profession, AS uses the concept of roles to focus character concepts and ability selections. Roles are different than professions, in that it’s good to have all five roles covered to be an effective squad. Well, all ten, really, once you factor in both warpside3 and groundside4 roles. Actually, eleven roles, including the medic, which is both a warpside and groundside role. Sorting out who was going to take which role and what to do with the leftovers took some discussion.
  • Ship. You start with a ship, picked from a selection of eleven different classes, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Analyzing these and deciding between them was another choice-point that required discussion. And a vote.
  • Gear. As mentioned above, the shopping expedition took time. As part of getting gear and enhancements involves divvying up a pool of group money5 and then budgeting for upkeep for your own cyber or viro enhancements.
  • Personal arc. The personal arc is a beautiful idea for this kind of game, but it takes some time to put together. Especially because it’s a new idea for the gaming group. Fortunately, this is something that doesn’t need to happen right away, and it’s something that each player can do individually, with just a little input from me. The point is that it’s not something that requires group input and decisions.
  • The Bribe(TM). I gave the players six questions about their characters that they could answer or not. For each question they answered, I let them pick from a short list of stuff. Everyone got me their answers6 in quick order, but took their time picking out their rewards. Again, though, this is something that doesn’t require group discussion. Also, it’s completely my fault, and not part of the rules for the game. But it has introduced a delay.

Now, these points are not necessarily bad things. They do a lot to flesh out the characters and the setting, and the end result is going to be some very cool characters.

But.

They do not lend themselves well to creating characters by e-mail discussion. Maybe if I had thought to put up a forum to run character creation, it would have gone smoother and quicker, but I honestly doubt it.

Looking at things, I really should have done more to schedule a character creation session. There’s nothing like being face-to-face for group decision-making. And for explaining some of the more slippery concepts. And answering questions, voting, brainstorming…

There’s been some frustration from the players at what seems like far too much work to create a character. One of my players said to me last night, “I’m really looking forward to playing the game, but man, the character creation just blows.” I don’t think the character creation blows, but the way I managed it certainly does.

In addition to the frustration for the characters, I’ve found that I’ve had to do a lot more work on my end managing the whole process. Keeping everyone on the same phase of the process turned out to be important, as the stuff I sent out for those who were ahead of things turned out to be information overload for those who were on earlier phases. I had to build a spreadsheet and keep sending out updated versions to show people what abilities had been covered. And I think I’ve sent out about 15,000 words of explanation, lists, instructions, examples, and updates over the past three weeks.

Much of what I sent out was aimed at making things easier for the players: suggested gear and enhancement packages, short descriptions of the different ship classes, worked examples of personal arcs, new gear developed at player requests, etc. I don’t begrudge this at all, because it’ll help them have more fun. And besides, I did it to myself.

To help take some of the sting out of this process that has ballooned and morphed from quick-and-easy to long-and-tedious, I’m preparing extensive cheat-sheet packages for each character, with descriptions of their abilities and gear, and such. Hopefully, that will make the actual play move quickly and easily despite the new system, and soon character creation will be a distant memory.

The big lesson learned from all this? Not every game system has a character creation process suited to every type of situation. While I think that e-mail character creation would work fine for ToC or D&D, it does not work for Ashen Stars. And I wouldn’t even try it with Fate.

Despite all of the above points, we have all four characters at a playable state. We were going to have our first game last night, but real life intruded and we’ve had to delay it. But here’s the list of our doughty crew of Lasers:

  • Arón Santa-Ana: Human Stratco/Gunner/Chopper7
  • Furan Arrud: Durugh Hailer/Face/Mapper
  • Maxine Kemper: Human Medic/Wrench/Bagger
  • Returner-U: Cybe Pilot/Techo

Tough part is over folks. I promise. From here on out, it’s freelance police in space!

 

  1. Even a mini-campaign, like this one is going to be. []
  2. You see what’s coming, right? []
  3. Aboard the ship. []
  4. I don’t really need to explain this one, do I? []
  5. Some of which you probably want to save for an emergency fund to repair your ship or pay for maintenance if you wind up waiting a long time between contracts. []
  6. For all six questions, I might add. Everyone answered every question. []
  7. I don’t know if the Stratco/Gunner split is going to cause problems in play, but we’re going to try it out. If it’s a real problem, we’ll work something out. []

From the Armitage Files: The End

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

Last night was the final installment of my Armitage Files campaign. After nearly two-and-a-half years and twenty-three sessions, we reached the end of our story and the investigators faced their final challenge.

I think it ended well.

We picked things up in the moment after the last session ended, with our intrepid1 heroes opening the conference room door to find Cyrus Llanfer transformed into one of the crystal snowmen that mark the attention of Chaugnar Faugn. That threw everyone into high gear, and also some confusion. At some point along here, Crosby put together some pieces he had read about Nyarlathotep2 and realized that Kim Nak was probably a mask of Nyarlathotep, heralding the arrival of something bigger and more terrible – Chaugnar Faugn. Finally, a very stressed-out Moon got everyone moving by dint of being angrier than anyone else in the room – he grabbed Dyer to take them to see Danforth up at the asylum, because Roxy thought he might have an idea or two to share, and the rest of the Armitage group were sent to scrounge up whatever information they could find about what was going on or where Armitage himself was.

Now, I hadn’t expected the group to call on Danforth, but he seemed a good vector to start delivering the information the characters needed to clarify what was going on, so I was okay with that. They took Dyer’s car – and Dyer – because they didn’t think they could get permission to see Danforth otherwise, but when they arrived at the asylum, all the people in it had been turned to the crystal snowmen. By the time they had made it to Danforth’s room, Dyer was starting to crystallize3. He gave his notebook to Moon, and Moon shot him in the head to put him out of his misery.

Danforth was still alive; in fact, besides the characters, he was the only one in the asylum who was. His room was rimed with frost, and he was in restraints on the bed, but he seemed lucid and willing to co-operate. Crosby freed him, and Danforth grabbed something wrapped in a pillowcase from under the bed that he said would help protect them. Back in the car, Moon and Danforth had a little crazy-talk session4 that provided a little more insight into the nature of Chaugnar Faugn, how Nyarlathotep was preparing the way, and what might be done about it. He remembered the song they had used to cure Solis of his crystalline infection, and decided that that might be something they could use to buy a little time.

The next stop was Moon’s bookshop, where he had arranged to meet members of the Armitage Group who had gone to loot the rare book room at MU now that Llanfer was dead. Of course, the tcho-tchos knew all about the bookshop, so when our heroes arrived, they found a pile of professorial corpses and a sink full of burning books. They salvaged what they could from the sink and scarpered.

There followed a kind of muddied debate about what needed to be done next. They finally decided that they needed to get some audio equipment from the university – they settled on the cone-style megaphones, because they didn’t know if they’d be able to haul a generator for electronic amplification to wherever they needed to sing the song. That was the sticking point for them: they didn’t know where the song should be sung. As a creature outside of and only impinging on normal space-time, Chaugnar Faugn would only truly be vulnerable to the song at a specific place and time.

See, my thought for this5 was that the song should be sung at the Monument Creek dig where the first idol was unearthed. But Roxy suggested the Kingsport lighthouse they had visited last session, I changed my mind and made that the place/time. After all, it was already unstuck in time and space, and that had to put it “closer” to Chaugnar Faugn. Moon suggested the Monument Creek site, Roxy suggested the lighthouse, and they were stuck – not enough information to make an informed decision. They’ve learned enough of the system, though, that they knew what to do if they didn’t have enough information: go find some more. Moon pulled out his once-per-game ability as an Antiquarian to say that he had a book that should help them6 back at the shop, so they detoured to the shop, on high alert for tcho-tchos and other bad things.

In the shop, they found Austin Kittrell, sitting at Moon’s desk, reading the book he had come for. I tried for a little bit of banter, but Roxy was having none of that, and shot Kittrell a couple of times. It didn’t have the desired effect; he just took it and smiled. Moon grabbed the book from him, but then got backhanded across the room7 and knocked unconscious. Danforth lifted his hands and started chanting in a strange language, and the air got colder around him, so Crosby and Roxy grabbed the book and the unconscious Moon and started dragging him from the shop. The last thing they saw of Kittrell, he was punching his fist through Danforth’s chest. Danforth continued chanting, though without sound now that his lungs were mainly missing.

Crosby made it out of the shop with Moon, but Roxy slipped on the now-icy floor, and fell far enough behind to hear a wet explosion and a whistling cry of “Tekeli-li!”8 from the back room, then she was out and running to the car. They got in and tore away, Moon madly reading the recovered book9 and Crosby reading the salvaged books from the sink.

Eventually, they got the idea that they needed to get to the lighthouse and sing the song to stall Chaugnar Faugn’s arrival. They made their way back to Kingsport, and hauled Moon up the headland10, past the now-silent cabin, and to the huge pile of bones overlooking the pristine sea. Down below, small, dark figures frolicked in the water, and a twenty-foot tall crystal elephant snowman stood beside the bone pile.

I ran the song as a magical ritual, with no opposition just to simplify things. I decided they needed to get a total of 30 on their rolls, each roll representing a half-hour or so of singing time. After each roll, the characters had to make Health checks to keep singing, or have their voice give out. I put in a couple of trigger points where things would start happening – at 10, Roxy noticed that there was something huge making it’s way through the sea towards the headland11. At 20, the giant crystal idol woke up and started moving towards the investigators. At this point, Moon lost enough Stability to move him into the Blasted category, and he decided that, in his madness, he would sacrifice himself to the elder god in hopes of distracting it long enough for his companions to finish the song. I liked this idea, and gave him free rein. He said that, because he had seen outside the normal dimensions before, and because now he was insane, he could unfold his own timeline back to the first time he had killed a man – as a boy in Russia – and get Chaugnar Faugn to focus on him. I said okay, but took it a bit further, weaving it into a moment of extradimensional perception for all the characters, as they got to see Moon’s yeti-like multidimensional form consumed by a wall of probosces, eyes, mouths, and other organs.

I thought this was going to be the end of the whole thing, because I couldn’t show them that and not call for some hefty Stability checks, and I refuse to pull punches in a Cthulhu campaign endgame. But Roxy and Crosby made their checks and finished the song, forcing Chaugnar Faugn’s attention away from them. They then set fire to the bones12 and ran away – the flash of the fire drove off whatever was coming through the water to get Roxy, and a white ship sailed in to dock at the top of the headland, but they weren’t having none of that, and just ran like bunnies.

At this point, the players started acting like it was all over, so I used a reminder that there was still work to be done – I had another packet of papers show up on the car seat. This was a less-than-perfectly successful clue; things ground to a halt as the players read through the papers, looking for the clue that would show them where to go next, when the arrival of the papers was intended to be the clue. I reminded them that, according to their information, all the song had done was buy them some time to fix the real problem. Roxy started to get fixated on the mention of the Nophru-ka tablet in the papers, and started planning to go to New York13, but decided that she needed to find Armitage and stop him from killing Petrovich, also mentioned in the papers.

They also found Danforth’s pillow case in the car, and found inside a floor tile with an elder sign scratched on it. Crosby used his Cthulhu Mythos to figure out what it meant and how useful it could be, and he, too, wound up Blasted. That left Roxy essentially on her own.

She headed back to the university, and found one of the last members of the Armitage Group, Ashley, and got him to tell her about a bolt hole Armitage had set up in the last place anyone would look for him – the ruins of the Whateley farm in Dunwich. She persuaded Ashley to take her up there and distract Armitage while she crept around back with a shotgun. Ashely got Armitage talking, and he expressed genuine puzzlement and horror at what was happening, and no hint that he was deliberately causing it. At this point, Roxy popped up, asked him if he knew a Petrovich, Armitage started to say no, and she cut him in half with a shotgun blast.

This was the key event to end the threat. See, if Armitage died before he sent the documents back in time, then there would be no disruption of linear time to attract the attention of Chaugnar Faugn. The readjustment of time caused most of the big bad things that happened to undo, but being close enough to ground zero of the temporal reconfiguration, Roxy’s brain was shattered.

She found her consciousness floating in extradimensional space, with the voice of Fred Jahraus speaking to her. He offered to take her to live with them, because she had been kind to them. She would be, he explained, a pet. Roxy rejected that, even though Fred told her that her brain was too damaged to hold all of her now. She still decided to go back.

I finished with a quick epilogue. In the new timeline, bookseller Aaron Moon vanished one day, never to be seen again. Roxy Crane was found be her (restored) butler and housekeeper catatonic in bed – they think she suffered a stroke. Malcolm Crosby was hospitalized after a complete mental collapse, and never recovered. And August Solis, MD, still died in an explosion out in Montana.

I am very satisfied with the ending, especially the way each of the characters went out:

  • Moon, paranoid hoarder of information, gave himself to something that was the very epitome of entropy, destroying all he had learned, to buy the time to complete the ritual.
  • Crosby, who had been seeking real mystic knowledge for years, was destroyed and shattered once he found it.
  • Roxy, manipulator extraordinaire, faced the final challenge alone, with no one to help her, and no points to spend on ANYTHING. And then turned down an offer of (kinda) salvation.

It’s been a fun run, gang. As usual, the end of a campaign is a bittersweet thing if it works well. I’m sorry to see it end, but I recognize that ending on a high note is far better than devolving into boredom.

I want to thank a few people for this gaming experience:

  • Robin Laws for designing GUMSHOE andThe Armitage Files campaign.
  • Ken Hite for turning GUMSHOE into Trail of Cthulhu.
  • Simon Rogers at Pelgrane Press for publishing all this great stuff.
  • All you folks who have been following along with the campaign through the two-and-a-half years its been running.

But most of all, I want to thank my players for trusting me to run this kind of improvisational campaign, and going along with some of the weird and crazy ideas I’ve had through the run. Thanks to:

  • Michael as Aaron “Read ‘Em And Burn ‘Em” Moon.
  • Sandy as Roxy “Who Will I Be Today?” Crane.
  • Tom as Dr. August “Bleed On Everything” Solis and Malcolm “I’m Psychic!” Crosby.

It’s been a blast, folks.

 

 

  1. And significantly battered, by this point. []
  2. That is, he used his Cthulhu Mythos skill to find out about Nyarlathotep. []
  3. Confession time. I always try and remove anyone the characters can count on to save their bacon in the last act. Why? Because I think that the stars of the show, especially at the climax, should be the player characters. If it’s someone else who figures out the way to save the world, or who hands them the item they need, or whatever, then the PCs are relegated to simple plot devices, rather than the prime movers of the story. I mean, if the Armitage Group got back together with the investigators and said, “Right. Here are the steps to thwart Chaugnar Faugn. Do them in order, and everything will be fine,” it would be a pretty sucky ending, right? So, I let NPCs perform little services – provide some information, get them somewhere, deliver a clue – then clean them off the board so that the character only have themselves to rely on. They get to be the heroes. []
  4. That is, Moon used some of his Cthulhu Mythos. They’re not holding anything back, this session; they’re leaving it all out on the field. []
  5. To be clear, I had no plan coming into this session except one: I knew what one action would end the threat. Everything else that happened was me responding to character action, trying to provide them with the information they needed and keep the pressure on them. So, when they brought up the song, I thought that sounded like a good idea, and it became one of the things they needed to do. []
  6. He tried to say that he just had the information, but I held him to the rules that said he had an informational item back at the shop. []
  7. Down to -8 Health. Did I mention they came into this already kind of battered and spent? []
  8. Yup. Crazy Danforth summoned a shoggoth, which took out him, Kittrell, the bookshop, and all the buildings and people between the bookshop and the river. I figure, it’s the last session, time to pull out all the stops. I was a little disappointed that none of the characters looked back to see the thing, though. []
  9. After some First Aid spends to bring him back to consciousness and stop him dying. []
  10. Health checks all round to keep going in the face of exhaustion and exertion. []
  11. She’s been troubled for some time with dreams of a vast being waiting for her beneath the sea. []
  12. Well, to be fair, they threw dynamite into it, but I had the dynamite transform into a torch and ignite the bone-fire. []
  13. Which had nothing to do with what was going on. Curse my decision to give out more papers! They were nothing but a distraction! []

From the Armitage Files: Things Fall Apart

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

About a week ago, we had the penultimate1 session of our Armitage Files. As I was getting ready for the game, I had this idea for the game session – I would start the game five years in the future, after the heroes have failed to stop the great disaster that’s on the way. After all, the game has turned out to be about non-linear time and the possibility of time travel and multiple dimensions. So, that would give them two sessions to figure out some way to reach back in time to undo whatever happened, all the while playing in a post-Cthulhu-apocalyptic world.

Ultimately2, I decided against this. While it struck me as a neat dramatic trick, springing it on the players out of the blue seemed like too much of a hose-job: “Hey, guys, guess what. You failed the campaign, and I’m not even gonna tell you how. Know what you get to do for the last two sessions? Fix it and/or suffer!” They might have let me get away with it, if I had been able to make things cool enough3, but if I had blown it, there wasn’t enough time left in the campaign to correct for the problem. So, after some waffling, I wimped out.

What I decided to do instead was to increase the pressure. I wanted this session to be claustrophobic and tense, with the players losing ground whenever they dithered about anything. I decided that everything they did would lead them back to a the decay and undermining of their reality as the fabric of causality continued to unravel around them. In essence, I wanted the characters to reach the end of the session knowing that, one way or another, things were going to reach a head. They needed to know that, one way or another, everything was going to be decided very soon.

So, I turned the pressure up. It worked; at least, it worked from my end. For the players, well… maybe. See, everything I said in the previous paragraph? That’s all about mood. I wanted to build a mood of desperation and despair. What that means is that – from a player point of view – not a lot really happened. They were placed in fairly reactive roles4, didn’t get a lot of answers, and found themselves faced with a tightening circle of threat.

The reason I’m not sure how well it worked for the players is that a lot of the session involved the characters bickering. More than usual. So, I’m not sure how much of that was the fact that the characters were cracking under the pressure, and how much of it was that the players were frustrated and taking it out in character5. No one seemed terribly put out at the end of the evening, though, so I think I may have judged it right.

What actually happened in the game? Well, a few things, in a kind of mad, jumbled rush.

They went to pay a visit on Prof. Armitage6 at his home, but found the place empty. In the attic, they discovered a crystal snowman7 tucked into a bed and, in the basement, they found a trio of leg bones hidden in the coal. In the midst of examining the leg bones, a freshly awakened Armitage came down into the basement to investigate the noises that had wakened him. Upon investigation, our heroes found that the attic contained only boxes8 – there was no sign of the bedroom with the crystal snowman.

Looking out a window downstairs, they spotted a bonfire in a field out back, surrounded by oddly shaped shadows dancing frenetically to a weird, alien beat. When they called Armitage over to see it, it had vanished. At this point, they started telling everything to Armitage, who heard them out fairly calmly until they revealed that they had come to his house pretty much directly after discovering the bodies of Roxy’s housekeeper and butler, whereupon he essentially called them idiots and fled before whoever was following the investigators could find and kill him.

Not being idiots9, our heroes took their cue from him, and headed out to a little town to hole up until the morning, when they planned to take the fight to Kim Nak in Kingsport. The next day saw a flurry of telegrams, some trips to New York and Boston, and much plotting. They came up with a few interesting tidbits, foremost of which was that Kim Nak came to the US on papers that had a different name: Nar Ho Tep10. That gave them a bit of pause, and they began to rethink they’re head-on rush at Kim Nak because, as I said, they’re not idiots.

Somewhere along the way, they spotted Austin Kittrell on the streets of Kingsport and decided to try and follow him to figure out where he fit in11. Unfortunately, Crosby rolled pretty pathetically on his Shadowing roll, and wound up with Kittrell holding a gun to his head, mocking him a bit, and then prancing off.

I forget exactly where the idea came from – I think I answered some question about a place to overlook the Kingsport harbour with a description of the lighthouse and the nearby house12 on the promontory high above the town – but they became fixed on the idea of climbing up there for some reason. I decided to turn this into an opportunity for further clues and enlightenment about what was really going on – if they asked the right questions.

So, up they climbed, and the mist thickened around them. When they reached the house, it turned out to be an old log cabin rather than the larger Victorian mansion they had seen from below. The occupant came out, armed with a gun, and asked them who they were, but the investigators had been through so much crap in the past few days that, rather than answer the question, they threatened the fellow with their own weapons. Gunfire may or may not have ensued13, and the cabin vanished, so the intrepid climbers pushed on to the headland. There, they found a huge – and I mean huge, twelve feet tall, easily twenty feet across – pile of bones about where the lighthouse should have been. Looking down from that height, they saw that the site of the town was just wilderness. Then Kim Nak’s voice came out of the mists to taunt them.

There’s something a little gauche14 about having Nyarlathotep tease your investigators, but I was at a bit of a dead end15 with trying to get information into the hands of the players, so I wanted to drop some clues and this seemed like my last chance to try and give them a few options and insights into what’s going on16. I did my best, and think that they picked up on the important points.

The main thing they took away was the most important: Chaugnar Faugn, who is the self-aware facet of temporal entropy, is turning his attention to the world in this time and place because of the way time is being twisted out of linear order. Whether this is opening gaps that he can seep through into our reality, or the twisting of time is part of his attention and manifests him as it occurs is unclear17, but the effect is that potentiality of existence is being drained away, consumed by (or subsumed into) Chaugnar Faughn, leaving behind the crystal snowmen that look like elephantine humanoids.

It was around this time that the investigators decided they needed more help if they were to put this to bed, so they scurried back down the headland and zipped off back to Arkham to kick the collective butts of the Armitage Group and get them to pony up with some information and/or magic and/or guns. As they drove through the streets of Kingsport, they noticed few people but several of the large, human-sized crystal snowmen on the sidewalks.

Back in Arkham, a few of the Armitage Group assembled to hear out the investigators. Moon told them, essentially, that enough was enough and that he wanted everyone involved in this whole mess assembled that evening to answer some questions and plan an approach to the problem. He stressed that Armitage had better be one of the people in the room, and that there was no room for anyone to be playing silly buggers.

At which point, they heard a clatter outside the conference room where they were meeting. Opening the door, they saw Cyrus Llanfer had dropped a serving tray, complete with decanter and glasses.

Because a crystal snowman was bursting out of his flesh.

Aaaaaaand… SCENE!

Tune in next time for the end of the campaign. What’s gonna happen? I dunno! But it should be horrific!

 

 

  1. So, because we’re getting close to the end of this and the Feints & Gambits campaign, I wanted to know if there were more words in the ultimate – penultimate sequence. Turns out there are: ultimate, penultimate, antepenultimate, pre-antepenultimate. Apparently, after four, they decided that it just got silly. That’s right. After four. ‘Cause antepenultimate and pre-antepenultimate aren’t silly. At all. []
  2. There’s that word again. []
  3. If you make things cool enough for the players, you can get away with anything in a game. []
  4. Yes, I let them decide what they were doing, but then I’d throw something at them that derailed them and demanded a response. So, yeah, that meant that most of their actions were reactions. []
  5. I’m hoping it was more the first thing. []
  6. In keeping with the Armitage Group’s somewhat stodgy academic style, they’ve been asked to steer clear of Armitage so as not to risk giving him information that might allow him to fake the documents that have been appearing. []
  7. The evidence of Chaugnar Faughn’s attention, they have found. []
  8. And a dressmaker’s dummy, as all attics are required to contain. []
  9. Well, not complete idiots, anyway. []
  10. Yeah, that’s kinda blatant and heavy-handed, sure. But it’s the end of the campaign, and at this point, the revelations are coming fast and furious. And each revelation just leads the group to realize that they’re in even deeper trouble than they had thought. []
  11. Insert jokes about drugging and torturing him some more. []
  12. Drawing on a couple of HPL’s Kingsport stories: The Strange High House in the Mist andThe White Ship. []
  13. Which way are you betting? []
  14. Heh. []
  15. I had had two possible options for delivering information in mind when the gang climbed the promontory, but both got bypassed. What were they?

    Spoiler
    First, the guy in the cabin was a version of Basil Elton who, if the characters had spoken with him, could have answered some questions and explained some things. Second, if the gang had lit the pile of bones where the lighthouse should have been – that is, lit the bone-fire – it would have called in the White Ship, and the pilot of that vessel could have provided some answers and transport.

    Oh, well. []

  16. Whatisgoing on? Well, I’ve figured it out, subject to change based on the actions of the characters, but I’m not going to say anything yet. I’ll write about it in the final post on this campaign. []
  17. And really, it’s irrelevant. []

From the Armitage Files: Playing Defence

Bonus Warning

I try to keep this blog pretty inoffensive in terms of language and imagery. This session of The Armitage Files, though, took a bit of a surprising turn into a dark place. It was a wonderful bit of roleplaying on Sandy’s part that really stands out, and I’m going to talk about it below, but I warn you, it’s strong stuff. To give you the option not having those pictures in your head, I’m going to put the relevant section behind spoiler tags.

Read at Your Own Risk

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

Well, my players did not get back to me before the last session of The Armitage Files to let me know what they wanted to investigate, so that turned the evening into Opposition Action Time! I wanted to hit each of the characters separately, so I came up with a good threat for each of them, and went to town.

Aaron Moon, alone in his bookshop, had a disorienting moment of seeing his body from outside himself, and felt something trying to push its way into his consciousness. Being a paranoid who had read a lot of occult – and a few mythos – books, he immediately decided that something was trying to possess him1, and ran to the basement, where a rather high-difficulty Preparedness roll revealed that he had a protective circle of salt2 laid out on the bare floor. When that didn’t seem to work, he wracked his brain3 to figure something else out, and wound up carving a protective sigil into the flesh of his chest. This allowed him to hold off the possession attempt, and he hurried over to Roxy’s place to warn her about the attack. On his way out, he noticed that there were tiny crystals scattered along the trail he had taken from the shop down to the basement.

Roxy Crane, meanwhile, had been out trying to track down a lead on the mysterious Kim Nak, and spreading word that Charlie had been killed and there might be a reward for anyone who could help find the responsible culprits4. She was met on the street by Austin Kittrell5, who seemed quite chipper and eager to speak with her. He offered to buy her supper at a local club, and they retired there. In the midst of their conversation, with Kittrell dropping hints and asking leading questions showing that he had some knowledge of the kinds of things going on, he showed Roxy a drawing, asking if she recognized it. It was a quick, crude sketch of the crystal snowman that the gang has come to identify with Chaugnar Faugn. She confirmed that she recognized it, and asked him to destroy it, which he did. Then he asked her if she recognized another drawing, and showed her the symbol that had infected her mind in the Kingsport warehouse way back here.

Roxy had been dealing with strange, watery dreams ever since, and seeing the symbol again knocked her right into one of them, where she was swimming down into the depths, where a light awaited her, escorted by strange fish-frog-men. In this dream, I kicked in a little more horror6, I told her that her swimming was hampered somewhat by her advanced state of pregnancy. She fought off the lure of the depths and swam up to the surface instead, to find that a vast, beautiful and terrifying city was rising out of the sea.

Spoiler
She climbed up on top of a big, basalt mound, which continued to rise out of the water. I told her then that she felt the contractions starting. She grabbed a shard of obsidian and said, “I cut it out.”

“Okay,” I said, “you slice into your pulsing belly…”

“No, not that way. There’s all sorts of organs and things that I might damage cutting in that way. I know right where it’s coming out, so that’s where I’m going in to abort it.”

Things got pretty quiet at that point, and we all stared at her with shock and admiration. She’d taken the horrific moment I had created for her, and run with it to the next level, deepening the personal horror and nastiness of the situation. Which is what playing in a horror game is all about, in my opinion. So, that’s what she did.

She awoke, bloody and without coat, shoes, or handbag, in an alley in the predominantly black section of Arkham. It took some doing to find a bar where she could make a phone call to have her cousin come and get her.

Malcolm Crosby7 was headed over to Moon’s shop to do some research, seeing if he could learn more about tcho-tchos and/or Kim Nak, when he felt a little sting in his neck. Having heard the tales of the investigators’ run-ins with tcho-tchos and their poisoned weapons, he ran as fast as he could8 to a busy street to hail a cab. He had intended to have it take him to Moon’s shop, but when the player was reminded that they no longer had any tcho-tcho antidote and no one to make more, he changed his mind and went to the hospital. He made it there before passing out, and was able to give the dart to the doctor to help make the antidote.

Once everyone was back and safe, they repaired to Moon’s shop to work out a plan9. Some research and Cthulhu Mythos led them to make some connections between Chaugnar Faugn and some recent thought experiments by Danish theoretical physicists, implying that the attention of the Eater of Tomorrows collapsed the waveform of a person’s life and future into one of absolute entropy, thus killing the person, and extruding part of the Eater into the three observable dimensions as the crystalline snow men that they had witnessed before. They also discovered that tcho-tchos were the degenerate descendants of the miri-nigri, amphibious creatures created by Chaugnar Faugn in the ancient past.

The things that attracted Chaugnar Faugn’s attention included ritual sacrifices and worship, but it was also drawn by incidents of non-linear time, and that it increased the occurrence of such incidents as it collapsed possibilities into entropy, and surviving possibilities tended to expand into extremely improbable quantum events in the possibility vacuum thus created10. This led to some speculation about Moon’s irregular temporal perception and visions, and through there to the idea that the documents, coming as they seem to from the future, might be the cause of the very catastrophe they try to prevent.

And that’s when they started thinking that they needed to kill Armitage to prevent him ever sending the documents.

After some discussion, they decided that killing Armitage would be Plan B, with Plan A being to run away and hide for a bit, then come after Kim Nak with everything they had. To that end, Crosby decided to read A Discussion of Higher Dimensions, the single tome that they haven’t destroyed11, and that they obtained from Edwin Carsdale’s farm.

When they went to Roxy’s place to pick up her luggage and some money, they found that Roxy’s husband and wife butler/housekeeper team were dead in their bed12, their blood turned to a brittle, rusty solid in their veins.

And that’s where we left the game. I figure two more sessions to wrap things up.

  1. He was right about that. It was the Mind Exchange spell. []
  2. Here’s the way the exchange went.

    Moon: Okay. With my Occult skill, do I know what things can prevent possession? Like, a circle of salt, or silver, or things like that?

    Me: According to Occult, all that kind of stuff works, as does prayer, crosses, and other symbols.

    Moon: Great. I want to make a Preparedness roll to have a circle of salt in the basement.

    Me: Hmmm. I’m gonna set the difficulty of that one at 8. It’s kind of a weird request, and it’s very specific to this unexpected attack.

    Moon: Okay. I’ll spend some points, and I succeed!

    There follows a few rounds of repeated possession attempts as Moon staggers down to the basement and collapses into the circle of salt.

    Moon: There! Does the circle of salt help?

    Me: Nope. Not even a little bit.

    Moon: Bastard! []

  3. And Cthulhu Mythos. []
  4. She assumed Kim Nak was behind it, but with the overthrow of godfather Elio Marcuzzo, it could have been someone in the new mob hierarchy. []
  5. Last seen way back here, where he didn’t fare too well. []
  6. Drawing a bit on Alan Moore’s Neonomicon. []
  7. I forgot to mention something from last session. Along with the Tears of Azathoth, the gang found a red lacquered box that buzzed in the warehouse. Remembering the warnings about Moebius wasps and the dangers of opening the Red Box from the early documents they had read, our heroes decided to destroy it, burning it in Moon’s furnace. When they tossed it into the fire, it buzzed louder and the metal puzzle clasp that held it shut began to work itself open. Crosby reached into the fire and held the box closed until the buzzing stopped and the whole box was aflame, burning his hand terribly in the process. []
  8. Taking a few more blow-gun darts in the process. []
  9. Also, an objective. []
  10. This is, of course, all crap that I made up, trying to blend my feeble understanding of higher-dimensional physics and quantum theory with horrific ideas from the neighbourhood of the Cthulhu mythos. I think it sounds suitably plausible – certainly plausible enough for a Cthulhu game. []
  11. Yet. []
  12. Why am I picking on Roxy’s servants? Simple. She’s the only character that has created any NPCs around her – friends, family, servants, whatever. The other two tend to be brooding loners. []

From the Armitage Files: Azathoth Weeps

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

I’m really behind on this update for the Armitage Files campaign1. What’s finally prodded me to write the damned thing is the fact that the next session is this Saturday, and the players deserve a recap. It’s gonna be a quick one, though.

The game picked up pretty much where the last session left off, with the investigators deciding to go check out what the junk dealer had told them about a big bible he had sold to a local pastor. The gang was suspicious of that2, so they figured they’d pay him a visit and see if the bible was a valuable book that the linguist, Lars Fargerberg, might have been kidnapped for. The upshot of the investigation was that no, it was just a nice, old family bible that the pastor used to replace the water-damaged one he had been using.

I messed up a bit, at this point. See, the new character in the game is a parapsychologist, and his player asked me if he could make an Occult spend in the church to see if he could sense any psychic emanations or auras. I blinked at him a bit and said, “Sure.” Then I proceeded to spin a completely false psychic impression for him based on his character’s current emotional state – as played by the player. So, his nervousness and apprehension after starting to glimpse the horrible truth behind the world made him feel that there was some dark, evil stain on the church, a horrible foreboding that hinted at destruction and death.

He lapped it up. And he tried using the ability a couple more times during the adventure. Each time, I asked him for an Occult spend, and then lied to him about what he was sensing.

Why would I do such a thing? Isn’t it a huge dick move?

Yeah, it kinda is3. In my defense, it was the result of differing expectations of the metaphysics of the game. I was operating on the assumption that the player shared the standard understanding of in-game supernatural powers: it all stems from horrible mythos sources, and you only get access to it through reading mind-shattering tomes. So, when he asked to take a psychic reading on the church, I just assumed it was a roleplaying thing – he was playing Crosby as believing that he had these psychic powers.

Well, as the evening went on, it became more and more obvious to me that the player wasn’t operating on my assumptions. He figured that, since I had let him do what he had asked for, it was real information his character was getting. When I finally made that connection in my head, I told him what was going on, and apologized for screwing him over. I then talked about how the supernatural stuff usually works on Cthulhu games, and how I was sticking with that for my game. So, we sorted it out.

Anyway.

After no clues turned up at the church, and they exhausted all the investigation they could do about the red herring church psychic miasma4, the gang decided to go see the main crime boss in Kingsport: Elio Marcuzzo. Fargerberg had owed some money to the Marcuzzo family, so our heroes figured that they might have something to do with his disappearance. With Roxy’s criminal connections, it was pretty quick work to arrange a meeting, and Marcuzzo and company pointed5 to an Asian crime syndicate operating around the docks. They also told Roxy a little bit about Kim Nak6, who was sort of a bogeyman enforcer for the gang, reputed to use demon-possessed children to do his dirty work.

A little more investigation led the intrepid sleuths to a warehouse down by the docks. The doors were locked, and I think I put a couple little booby-traps in place7, but the place had no tcho-tchos or criminals or, indeed, any creatures in it. A safe in an upstairs office had a strange book in it – the much-sought-after Tears of Azathoth.

Moon almost convulsed with ecstasy at having finally got his hands on the book. They grabbed it and burned the warehouse down8 before running back to their hotel. At the hotel, they found that they hadn’t got away clean, after all: Roxy’s faithful driver, Charlie, had been killed and left in the car for them to find9. They abandoned that car, stole another one, and fled back to Arkham.

There followed much soul-searching and debate over what to do with Tears. Initial investigation showed that it was a very dangerous book10, and they finally decided to burn it. As soon as they had made that decision, the book vanished11.

And that’s where we left the game.

We are now on the last few stages of the campaign. I have three more sessions scheduled for the game, and plan to have things wrapped up by the end of June. We may wind up ending the game one session sooner or later, but I’m betting on three to bring things to a close. It’s been a tremendously fun game to run, and has really helped me stretch my GMing improvisation muscles. I’m going to be sorry to see it go.

But I’m eager to run something else, too.

  1. Lots of reasons, boiling down to me just not doing it when I should have. []
  2. Along with everything else. This is a Cthulhu game, after all. []
  3. Sorry, Tom. []
  4. Sorry, guys. []
  5. Rather obliquely; they’re not stupid, after all, and the investigators have come to the attention of the police on more than one occasion. []
  6. This is, as far as I know, not a real name in any Asian language. I wanted to convey the flavour of an indeterminate south-east Asian culture without drawing directly on any particular one. After all, I’m gonna add tcho-tchos to the mix, and that’s not a nice thing to do to any real culture. []
  7. It was a while ago. I can’t remember for certain. []
  8. Fire. They use it for everything. []
  9. What can I say? It’s a horror game. And sometimes the best way to scare and hurt the players is to mess with their favourite NPCs. []
  10. Though I’m starting to think I’m losing my touch. I don’t think Moon has failed a Stability check in the last three sessions. Gonna have to do something about that. []
  11. There’s a whole reason for this stemming from my interpretation of the write-up for Tears in the campaign book.
    Spoiler
    Basically, the book exists in potentia until certain things happen to bring it fully into existence. I extrapolated from that to give one of the characters visions of it previously, always snatching it away before he could read it. Once he finally had the thing in his hands, and decided not to read it, the Schroedinger’s Cat waveform of the book collapsed into the book’s non-existence. So, he wound up never having possessed it.
    []

From the Armitage Files: New Blood

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

It’s been a while since the last Armitage Files game. Even though I’ve only got three players, getting them together in this recent season of deadlines and illness and travel has been a bit of a challenge. But we managed to get together last Friday night and play1, and it was good to get back to the game.

We opened a little slow – last session, if you recall, one of the characters died, and the opening of this session was introducing the player’s new character to the group. This is always a bit delicate, especially in a game of horror and conspiracy, where the current characters have every reason to distrust newcomers. Fortunately, we had worked out the basics of the approach at the end of the previous session, and my players are all more than willing to meet me half-way to make the game happen2.

The idea was that the new character, a parapsychologist named Malcolm Crosby, had a book that he wanted to sell, and took it to Moon, the bookseller, to handle the sale for him. I asked what the book was, and got a request for a treatise on the weird automata that the gang had found in Emigrant. “Fat chance of that,” I explained, “Pick something else, you cheater.”3 The next request was, I believe, for The Tears of Azathoth, which is a big clue and MacGuffin in the campaign4. Again, I gently advised, “Stop trying to cheat, you cheating bastards!”

I suggested instead that the item in question not be a book, but a collection of letters from the Fox sisters. These would be quite valuable to collectors of spiritualist paraphernalia, and Moon’s expertise in authenticating such items and his contacts in that community would both be useful in getting top dollar for the letters.

There was some good character interaction between Moon and Crosby, and I played a little bit with Moon’s time-perception problem, and Moon called on Roxy to bring him a book he had left at her place with examples of the Fox sisters’ handwriting5, so they managed to all get together in one place a little quicker than I had feared.

Anyway. Moon did his authentication of the Fox letters, and spent a point on it, so I gave him something interesting – I told him that the letters seemed to be partial palimpsests, where portions of the page had been scraped down to remove what had been written there,and then something new had been written on the newly blank sections. He figured that he could recover some of the text that had been scraped off6, but that it would likely be a destructive process, ruining the chance of reselling the letters.

Moon explained this to Crosby, who was more intrigued by what might be hidden in the letters, quickly gave his consent, and Moon went to work. After a few hours7, Moon managed to piece together a few little snippets of text: “hotep,” “little glass snowmen,” “Cho-Cho,” and “ears of azat.” That was enough to get them all fired up8, and Moon and Roxy wound up telling Crosby all about all the weird stuff they’d been doing, and Crosby got all excited and wanted in on the investigations9.

Next day, Roxy went by Miskatonic University to talk to Dyer, with some plan to have Crosby granted faculty status there. Dyer explained that that’s not how things worked, and that MU was unlikely to give a position to a charlatan like a parapsychologist10, so that didn’t work out.

Then it was off to Kingsport11 to try and track down Lars Fargerberg, a linguist who might have a line on The Tears of Azathoth. The document they were following up on led them to a clip joint in a seedy part of town, where Moon and Crosby were rapidly divested of a point of Credit Rating each by the charming hostesses. Roxy, more worldly, found a contact there, and got some information on Fargerberg using a story about Moon having paid for a book from him that he never received.

They found that Fargerberg hadn’t been around lately, but that he had a room in one of the boarding houses nearby, though no one knew which. Roxy went to the police looking for more details, spinning the same story about Moon’s payment for a book, and Moon wound up primary suspect in Fargerberg’s strange disappearance12 and spent a few hours answering questions.

While he was being detained and Roxy was wrangling a lawyer for him, Crosby hit up the newspapers13 and found the original story about Fargerberg’s disappearance, along with his address. With Moon sprung, they went to talk to Fargerberg’s landlady, who told them that she had already cleaned out Fargerberg’s room, and that a junk man had carted off all of the linguist’s books.

They tracked down the junk man, and found that he had several of Fargergerg’s books still, but had sold off about half of them already. He seemed to be holding back some information about who he had sold various things to, but did admit that he had sold a big bible to the pastor of a nearby church, and that’s where the gang decided to head next.

But at that point, Moon’s player was succumbing to his nasty cold, and we called it a night. Hopefully it won’t be another two months before the next session.

  1. Though we ended a little early, thanks to the aforementioned illness. []
  2. Thanks for that, guys! []
  3. Okay, maybe I didn’t put it that way. []
  4. If it wasn’t Tears, then it was another big clue tome. Sometimes, my players think they’re being sneaky. []
  5. A very nice use of the profession’s special ability to have a handy item “in stock,” I thought. []
  6. Using book science! Also, GM fiat. []
  7. Which seemed much longer to Moon, thanks to his distorted temporal perception. []
  8. At this point, I started rapidly skimming the Wikipedia article on the Fox sisters, because I realized that I had just put a big story hook in front of the players without any idea what the actual story was. “All hook and no plot,” as one might say. I had visions of the group going haring off after the secrets of the Fox sisters, and me not having any idea what they might be. Fortunately, they decided to stick to the original plan. []
  9. Moon spent some time – well, quite a bit of time, actually – trying to talk Crosby out of getting involved. Great roleplaying, but man, don’t try so hard to kick the new character out of the party, dude! []
  10. I’m not sure exactly what she wanted to accomplish with this, beyond trying to get the same access to University resources that the late Dr. Solis had. []
  11. Lovely, lovely Kingsport. The gang has had such fun there. []
  12. After all, he was the first person they’d found with a motive, however fake, for wanting something bad to happen to the linguist. []
  13. Quote at this point: “I can’t believe it took us this long to look something up in the newspapers. Isn’t this a Chtulhu game?” []