Hunter: The Vigil – War Stories

Last night was the latest installment of my Shadow Wars campaign, using Hunter: The Vigil modified rules. It was a wrap-up to the previous session which, due to one thing and another, ran long.

You may recall that I was not entirely pleased with the way things went with the previous session, because I had obscured the main plot behind some local scenery that the characters – and players – found to be more interesting than the plot itself. Because of that, and especially because that was the first session with a new player joining the group, I was sweating this session a little. I wanted to make sure that the players had definite avenues of inquiry to follow, with interesting things available down them, and a logical linking structure to lead them on.

This adventure, I was trying to get more of an X-Files vibe than the previous horror-movie feel of the previous episodes, what with the ties to the Martian in the group. This is the session when I started dropping some big-picture clues as to the overall campaign story; nothing big, yet, but a few little hints that the players and characters may or may not pick up on. So, that said, I knew I wanted this to end with a yoink: offering some answers and information, then having it snatched away at the last second, once the characters truly understand how much they want that information.

Yeah, it’s a brutally unfair, cheesy GM trick, but it’s also a powerful motivating factor in a story-driven game to ramp up the drive of the players and characters to uncover what’s actually going on, and to build in a real hate for the bad guys, even if they don’t know who or what they are, yet. I am unapologetic – it worked the way I wanted it to, engaging the players emotionally – but it’s something that you have to use very sparingly because, while a little frustration is a good way to bump up the intensity of the game, too much of it will kill everyone’s enjoyment.

So, after the cat attack, the characters retreated to the motel to nurse their wounds and do some more checking on things. The next morning, they went out to the riverside park where the little boy went missing, and managed to find some tracks that caught their eye: the trail of many, many cats moving in single file over the same ground repeatedly, with a small shoe print beside them. By quizzing one of the trees, they managed to follow it west, as the terrain got more and more rocky – this is the Canadian Shield, after all – and found that it led to a sort-of cave: a cleft in the granite that had been roofed over by tree roots and mosses, and that stank strongly of cat urine.

In they went, finding that it was full of bones that had been picked clean, ranging from mouse and shrew up to a small deer. None were older than about six months. The area was also full of cat droppings with the same glowing green crystals as they had found in the house. The fact that the cats were defecating in the same place they were eating seemed to weird the players out even more than a lot of the other things I’d been doing up to now.

Pushing farther back into the cave, they found that it curved down and developed a real roof overhead, and led to a metal door with strange markings on it. The Martian could read the sign, which said Weapons Research Lab. When she opened the DNA-coded lock, they found that the room beyond was empty except for a few tables and chairs with subtly-wrong proportions, and a ruggedized laptop sitting in the middle of the floor with a cable running up to a hole drilled in the stone ceiling. When the checked the laptop, they found that the webcam was taking photographs of them as the entered, and was transmitting them to an anonymous e-mailer in eastern Europe. They cut the cable to stop the transmission, and the computer started to format itself. An absolutely stellar roll by the group techie managed to salvage enough so that they could see that there was little on the laptop but the set-up to take and transmit the pictures and to format the drive if tampered with.

Assuming that someone would be coming to check on the transmission from the laptop, the group hid themselves in the trees around the area, waiting to ambush whoever showed up. After some time, the Martian decided to reveal herself to the rest of the group, which led to some fun roleplaying moments. I interrupted these with a meow off in the woods.

And then the adventure veered drastically from what I had planned. I was going to have the cats chase the group out of the forest, forcing them to retreat and force them on to the next stage of the adventure, because no one was going to come check on the laptop. But the Martian decided to try and contact the cats with her mental abilities, which was just too cool an idea to pass up.

In this manner, they figured out that the cats were a bio-weapon hive mind designed for covert infiltration and skirmishing, perpetuating themselves by adding more cats to the various units until they reached a critical mass. The logical capacity was provided by assimilating – read “eating” – the old woman and using her stolen higher thought capabilities as the organizing principle of their consciousness. The empathic link with the grandchild led to him being “partially assimilated,” and what that meant, they couldn’t tell. They got the name of the previous commander – I came up with the name Bel-Ruzzog on the spot, which is a crap name, but fit for a sort of Burroughs-ish feel – and then told the cats to stand down, which they took as the command to enter Covert Infiltration Mode, and they all started acting like normal cats again. Which, of course, further creeped the characters out.

So, the team tracked down the one member of the research company that the parents worked for that could be a Martian, and went to see him. They staked out his house, but no one arrived after work. Leaving a couple of people on watch, the rest went to necropsy the cat that they had killed.

This dissection discovered several new organs, including something wrapped around the brain, a parallel nervous system, and snake-like fangs with some strange glands attached to them. The crystals in the droppings proved to be high concentrations of a number of trace minerals coalesced into small, phosphorescent deposits.

Next morning, no one left the house they were watching to go to work, so they decided to try and talk their way inside. This didn’t work quite the way they had hoped, but they got in and discovered that Bel-Ruzzog was apparently being held captive in his home here, and that the people who were keeping him locked up had used some of the bio-weapon technology on some large dogs to create guard beasts.

These guard beasts dropped the two main combat powerhouses as they tried to get to Bel-Ruzzog’s cell, but some quick use of healing abilities revived one and some good shooting managed to put the animals down. And at about that time, the alarm console on the wall said:

Security breach

Sterilization procedures begin

30 seconds

They grabbed their fallen comrade and the security guard they had tied up upstairs, and got out of there. They weren’t able to free Bel-Ruzzog, and thirty seconds later, thermite charges in the basement incinerated everything and the house burned to the ground.

A few days later, cats in Pinawa all dropped dead at about the same moment. A day or so after that, the missing child was found in the bush, suffering from exposure and a high fever that doctors said looked very much like organ rejection, except he hadn’t had any organs transplanted. He recovered, and they all lived happily ever after.

And the Martian got another coded e-mail using Martian recognition codes, saying, “Condolences on Bel-Ruzzog,” and nothing else. As she had thought she was the last of her people left on earth, she’s a little grumpy now.

So, overall, I’d call the game a success. Everyone had fun, despite the nasty, unfair tactic I used at the end. I think I’ve redeemed the previous session in my mind.

And best thing heard at midnight last night, as five women leave my apartment: “Good night, Rick. Thanks for your pants.”

Sometimes, context just ruins things.

Hunter: The Vigil – War Stories

Friday night we had the latest episode of Hunter – Shadow Wars.

It didn’t go all that well.

The pace of the adventure lagged, and there was much flailing about by the players trying to find the plot, and a full helping of player frustration throughout. All of which was my fault.

I made two primary mistakes with this adventure. First, I left things a little too open – I gave only the vaguest sort of hook into it, no real direction other than pointing to a place where things may or may not have happened, and didn’t work hard enough to correct the problem in play. Second, I inadvertently stuck in a couple of big honking PLOT HERE signs that were not intended to be part of the scenario, and I couldn’t figure out a good way to tie them in, so the characters spent the bulk of the session chasing down red herrings.

Now, the red herring thing is not necessarily bad in an investigation game, but it led to me violating one of the objectives of this campaign: keep the stories one session long, and the adventures episodic. By the end of the evening, they had just got to the actual plot I had developed.

I stole the main idea for the scenario from a White Wolf .pdf called Host of the Clutter, which deals with a pack of feral, sort-of-possessed house cats as the main threat. I liked the idea of the cats as antagonist, but completely reworked the everything else to tie it into the style of game this is and the backstory of one of the characters. So, the game started with one of the characters (who is actually a martian – part of a covert invasion force gone native) getting a message to check out a report of disappearances and UFO sightings in a little town about 80 miles out of the city. She called up the rest of the group (including a new player – welcome to the game, Vicki!), they did a little bit of research to figure out that there had indeed been a few disappearances, but not the dozens that the report had indicated, nor could anyone confirm UFO sightings.

Out they went. As they drove out, I gave them some background on the town they were going to in order to set the scene.

Here’s where I ran into some problems. See, I grew up near this town, and know a fair bit about it. Some of the stuff I changed to make for better game material, but the main point I was trying to bring across is a phenomenon that’s occurring more and more in small towns in southern Manitoba, especially company towns. They’re dying.

Pinawa, the town I used as the setting, grew up to support a test plant for a nuclear reactor that Canada was manufacturing and selling. Now the plant has closed down, and most of the people who worked there have moved off to other reactors and other jobs, leaving behind a town with fewer and fewer families, and more and more retired people.  This is the vibe of the place that I wanted to capture; the town with fewer young people and more old people, a third of the (very nice) houses empty, thick forest spread through the town, deer so plentiful that they’re pests to the people who live there, deserted streets after dark, that sort of thing.

But you know what people latched on to, right? Something that was completely in my blind spot because of my familiarity with the area.

Yeah. Nuclear reactor.

Then when I mentioned another (relatively) nearby installation, Whiteshell Underground Research Laboratory (created to test the feasibility of storing nuclear waste in Canadian shield bedrock), they just couldn’t let go.

And who could blame them, really? These clues – unintentional as they were – were far more interesting than the actual clues about a missing child and an old woman dead in her home and partially eaten by her cats.

I tried to work the nuclear plant in, but had total imagination failure, and couldn’t come up with a way to connect it to the cat backstory that I didn’t want to change because of its connection to a character backstory. I kept looking for ways to drop some important clues in while the group was taking an illicit tour of the abandoned plant, but couldn’t come up with a way that wouldn’t invalidate the other clues and the story as it had already been exposed.

Of course, the next day, I had a dozen decent ideas. I just didn’t have them when I needed them.

So, the first three-quarters of the game wound up being a complete wild goose chase for the characters because I couldn’t figure out how to fix it on the fly. Don’t get me wrong; we had some fun and there was some great roleplaying and interaction, and nice building of atmosphere, but the plot did not advance.

Anyway, they finally made it to a place that I could throw the cats at them – the house of the woman who had died and been eaten by her cats. I put a few cats in the attic, and one of the characters got her face badly gouged when she stuck her head up there. Then, the cats fled, and they stayed at the house to do a little research, with one character outside keeping watch. The group found out a few things, such as the fact that the woman was the grandmother of the missing child, and that the child’s parents both worked for a Winnipeg-based cosmetics research company. The martian found a recognition sign on one of the company’s pages that indicated they were also doing weapon development for the invaders.

Which is about when I brought the cats back. A few dozen of them, moving in an organized manner through the woods, sending scouts ahead, crossing the open ground in small parties, and climbing the side of the house to creep into the attic. I tried to make the image unnatural and disturbing, and I think I pulled it off. When about twenty of the cats had made their way into the attic, the character on guard ran back in to warn the rest of the group, and they all got to face a blanket of snarling, spitting, strangely-organized feral house cats bent on shredding them. Individually, none of the cats were a real threat, but the numbers began to tell, and a couple of the group were pretty hurt by the time they chased off the swarm.

At that point, it was pretty late, so we called it a night. I’ve got to schedule the wrap-up session, soon.

And I’m going to make sure it’s more focused.

Hunter: The Vigil – War Stories

Saturday was the next episode of the Shadow Wars campaign for Hunter: The Vigil. We only had four of the five players show up for it – one was in Mexico – but we’re running this by quorum, so we play unless two or more players can’t make it.

Last episode was a spooky haunted house adventure, so I wanted to mix things up this time. I found a webpage from a Philadelphia police officer talking about finding a decapitated goat in a park, with speculation about whether it was some sort of Satanic ritual or a gang initiation. I liked the idea, even though I had used dead animals as the hook for the last episode, and decided to steal it. So, I saved a copy of the webpage and altered it to reflect Winnipeg rather than Philadelphia and printed it out. It even had a couple of pictures of the goat, lying in the snow, half-wrapped in a cardboard box, which was perfect.

I had already decided that I wanted the next adventure to take place in Assiniboine Park in the middle of winter (I’m sticking to real world dates, so the game date is the same as the real date). It was easy enough to change the place names and dates in the blog I was using, and I went looking online for a good map of the park, which again was easy to find. I also did some looking and found some pictures of the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden in winter, with the bronze statues covered with snow. They looked suitably creepy, so I printed a few of those out, too.*

The story I came up with was pretty simple. A member of the Mad Cowz gang, looking to move up in the hierarchy, found a magical spell on the Internet to summon and control a demon. He was killing animals, five of them over five nights, to create a big pentagram over the park. On the sixth night, he would go to the centre of the pentagram, carve a pentacle into his chest, and call the demon. This is where things were going to go wrong, because the demon would possess the summoner, transform the body into something fierce and nasty, and take over the gang.

The goat was the last of the sacrifices, and came to the attention of the characters only because it was weird enough to get a blog mention. One other, the sacrifice of a 12-foot boa constrictor, might also have made it, but that one wasn’t discovered by the police. What that meant was that the characters, though they didn’t know it yet, had about nine hours to track things down and put a stop to them.

They did a bunch of investigation, using mundane and not-so-mundane methods, but ran afoul of a bit of GM Omniscience Clue Syndrome. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about, right? It’s when the GM, who knows the solution to the mystery, lays out what he feels are useful and sufficient clues, but the players just don’t have the context to make them fit together into something useful. In this case, the hint was a little line in the blog about the goat being the latest in a rash of animal mutilations found in the park. The players seemed to skim right over it, so I had to do a little bit of finagling to get it noticed. That started them looking for the other sites.

With the sites spotted, and the information they had picked up from the Internet and talking to a contact in the Mad Cowz, they pieced things together in time to be waiting near the cricket pitch at moonrise, when the bad guys showed up and started trying to complete the ritual. I figured it would be a cool moment to have the leader possessed and transformed in the middle of the fight, so my plan was to have him complete the rituals after two rounds of combat, transform on the third round, and take things from there. Now, the demon stats I had put together were pretty nasty, so I figured that if the demon came through, the players would probably need to flee. This is not usually a safe assumption for PCs, but I had spent some effort in setting the whole campaign up to instill the idea that real supernatural creatures were scary-tough and deadly. I gave it slightly better than even odds that, if the demon showed, the characters would run after a round or two.

They didn’t need to. One kept the other gangbangers busy with kung-fu, while another used blunt-tipped arrows to drop the summoner on the second round. They managed to put down all but one of the bad guys, disable their cars, and the doctor lost a point of Morality for carving up the summoner’s chest to make sure the pentacle couldn’t be completed. I even tried to have one of the gangbangers complete the pentacle on his leader’s chest while the leader was unconscious, but he took an arrow to the head and that plan went south, too.

So, they wrapped things up successfully and scarpered before the police showed. A successful end.

The atmosphere wasn’t as horrific as the previous adventure, featuring more combat and only a few moments of creep factor, but I wanted a bit of a change of pace to let the fighter-types in the group have a chance to steal the spotlight, and that worked well. Everyone seemed to have fun.*

And now I have some ideas for the next game. I dropped a little continuity clue in this adventure, but I’m not entirely sure the players picked up on it. That’s okay, though. It just means I can keep building the connections.


*I’m starting to think this Internet thing just might catch on. At least for researching games. Back

*Despite Clint’s terrible dice luck in the early part of the game that caused him to say he hated the system. I think it redeemed itself when he started dropping the bad guys with some truly impressive bow shots. Back

Hunter: The Vigil – War Stories

Last night was Friday the 13th, and I felt it appropriate to have the inaugural game of my Hunter: The Vigil game. This game has been a long time coming, and that’s been my fault.

First off, I did a collaborative world-building thing with the players, and truth to tell, several of them weren’t very interested in that. I didn’t give them enough of a foundation to build on, so they all had very different ideas about what the game was going to be, and I had trouble getting them to talk about what was in their minds. I wound up assigning each player one question about the world to answer, and encouraged them to ask any of their own of the other players.

Because of the disparity of ideas about the game world, and some ham-fisted handling of them on my part, we wound up with a compromise setting that managed to please no one. No one was getting excited about the game. In fact, the people who were encouraging me the most to run the game were talking about how we should just ignore what had been decided.

Very discouraging for me. It’s hard to get pumped about running a game when no one really wants to play what you have all collaboratively created.

But we got past that.

The other big stumbling block was that they voted on a campaign frame that included a fairly free-form option to take special abilities. I worked out a basic system for this, but it was more a structure for the players to shape their ideas than it was a mechanic. I used the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck as a symbolic structure to tie people’s powers together: each player selected a card he or she liked, and came up with a symbolic interpretation of that card, and three tricks they could do in keeping with that symbology.

Now, I don’t know why I assumed that everyone would be familiar with the Tarot symbolism. I just did. Stupid, in retrospect, but there you have it. So, I got to spend some time explaining the various cards to different players, and talking about the flexibility of interpreting them.

It certainly worked to spark creativity. I got one alchemist, one shaman, one weapons specialist, one martian illusionist, and one nano-bot filled possibly artificial person. Now came the hard part – I had to make up mechanics for all the tricks they had come up with. That wound up being a bigger job than I had imagined, and I kept putting it off.

Because I was having more fun with other games, and doing less work. The Post Tenebras Lux game was working, and the Storm Point game was really going strong. Both took less effort, and had more enthusiastic reception.

And then I realized I was burning out on 4E. And I realized that this Hunter game could be something new and different for me, a chance to move away from the D&D mindset for a while. So, I wrapped up Post Tenebras Lux, which had always been meant to be a temporary game, and finished the work on Hunter – Shadow Wars.

As I said, it was a long time coming. But last night it arrived.

Things got off to a shaky start, as a couple of the players had lost parts of their characters (usually the mechanics of their special powers that I had worked so long on hammering out), and I had one of those “What’s the point?” moments that can hit a GM when they see all their hard work spiraling toward the drain. I almost chucked the whole thing right there to play a boardgame, instead.

Instead, I said, “Screw it.” It was Friday the 13th, I had the players gathered, and I wanted to run a horror game. I decided I would just wing it if things came up that people didn’t have mechanics for. And if it didn’t work, well, the campaign just turns into a one-shot.

The game was set in a slightly less Dresdenesque Magical Winnipeg, slanted more to the horror than to the modern fantasy adventure. To that end, I had done some wandering through weird sites on the Internet until I found this. I fell in love with that post, not least because of the borderline illiteracy of it. The story is, of course, pure crap, but it’s eminently gameable crap.

I tracked down some pictures of the house in question, got a Google satellite view of the neigbourhood, and even drove past twice, once in the daytime and once at night, to get a good feel for the place. Then I went to work.

I kept the story pretty much as written in the post, with a slight twist: I decided that the mother had killed the child while in a deep depression, and the father killed her when he found out, and tried to hide her body. When it became obvious that he wouldn’t be able to get away with it for long, he shot himself.

The adventure started with a weird local news story about a large number of mutilated animals in the area, which attracted our paranormal investigators quite nicely. They spent a significant amount of time gathering information before venturing to the house, and had some strong suspicions of what was going on by the time it got dark. They thought about waiting until the morning, but they figured that they might not find any trace of anything supernatural there during daylight hours. Also, they had noticed that the animals that were found mutilated were getting larger; this was of concern because it’s not unusual to see a large number of very young children wandering the streets there after dark in real life, and they might be the next victims.

So, they broke into the house and searched it for the ghostly anchors to destroy. I trotted out every creepy haunted house trope I could, mixed with the characters of the three spirits still trapped in the house. The mother, with fingers made of knives, would attack out of the walls, where her husband had tried to hide her dismembered body. The father, with his axe, did his best to scare the characters out of the house so as not to wake the mother to her murderous work. And the child’s spirit was still in the ice chest in the basement, shouting out freezing cold and abject terror to anyone who got near.

Mixed with that, I included a few time slip moments to show them bits and pieces of the story, and they were able to figure out that it was the mother’s ghost doing the killing and dismembering of the animals, and the father’s ghost who would hunt her down and bring her back. The extra attention and belief garnered by the Internet story, bolstered by the fact the fear the killings and sightings were producing, was making her stronger and able to range farther afield.

They found her paper-wrapped heart in the walls after a few terrible encounters with her, and pierced it with cold iron to sever the anchor. They found the child’s toy horse in the ice chest, amid a storm of ice and fear, and burned it to free him. When that was done, the father’s ghost appeared to them in the kitchen, said, “Thank you. Now I go,” and walked out the back door into Hell.

So we wrapped it up in one evening. And it worked. A couple of the players mentioned that they found the adventure creepy and disturbing, and the grounding in the familiar (Winnipeg, the weather, the abandoned house descriptions, etc.) made it actually scary at a couple of points.

I am so glad I ran it. I am so glad I didn’t just pitch the whole thing. I had so much fun.

There’s going to be a next adventure. Not sure just when, because we’re moving into holiday season, and social commitments start to pile up for all of us. But there’s going to be a next adventure. It’s going to be a one-night episode, too, because that worked, and it’s going to be set in Winnipeg, because that works.

Thanks to my players for bearing with me through the long lead up to this game. I hope you’re in for the next one, too.

Hunter: The Vigil Campaign Frameworks

Well, my players were fairly quick to respond to my questions about a new Hunter: The Vigil campaign. I got all their answers in, and looked them over.

Here’s a little secret about asking these sorts of questions before starting a new campaign: you gotta be ready to listen to the answers. The very act of asking the question tells the players that they’re going to get to call the shots on at least some of the campaign elements. If they aren’t – and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing for a GM to do all the work in designing a campaign – then don’t ask the questions.

However, if you do ask the questions, don’t expect any sort of unified voice to speak through them to map out the game for you. That’s the pr0blem with open-ended questions that have little context. You’ll get answers all over the map, and many of them will only tell you what the player doesn’t want, rather than what he or she does.

What it does give you is a look at the acceptable ranges for the parameters you questioned, and a very solid idea about what matters to the players.

So, what did I get from the responses?

  1. Everyone wants in, though there are scheduling concerns.
  2. Everyone’s okay with me ditching a lot of the World of Darkness canon about the various types of monsters (vampires, werewolves, faeries, etc.) and making stuff up.
  3. Everyone wants action in the game, though not necessarily a lot of combat.
  4. On a light-dark scale, the players tend toward a range near the middle, shading slightly to light. So, not a grim, gritty game, but not silly either. Some difficult moral and ethical choices, but those aren’t necessarily central to the game. A little bit of humour is good, but shouldn’t dominate the mood. And the characters should be heroic, though perhaps flawed.
  5. On a lethality scale, fairly lethal, with some qualifiers. The players tend to want normal humans to go down pretty easily, but the heroes and the supernatural threats should be tougher.
  6. On the supernatural scale, we got responses all over the board, with the compromise idea seeming to be that anything goes for the bad guys, but fairly limited supernatural resources for the player characters. This question is the one that gave the widest spread of answers, though, so I’m sort of postponing it.
  7. Campaign structure-wise, there were strong votes both for road trip style and stay put style. Pretty even split (as even as you can get with five answers), so I’m hoping we can work out a compromise.

Based on the responses, I came up with four rough frameworks of games that I would be willing to run, and sent them out to the players for their votes. Here’s how I envision the process to go:

  1. Everyone votes on the attached campaigns, giving me your first, second, and third choices. I will compile the responses, giving a first choice three points, a second choice two points, and a third choice one point. The choice with the most points becomes our campaign structure.
  2. Everyone gets one black ball vote. I would rather you didn’t use it, but I want to have the option there. If there is an option that you absolutely will not play in, black ball it. It gets taken out of the running. Again, I would rather that it didn’t get used, because of the way it can let one player scrap a campaign framework that everyone else loves before it’s fully fleshed out. On the other hand, I need to know if there’s something that is completely out of the question for one of the players. So, you have the black ball if you need it.
  3. Once we have determined the campaign framework, I would like to have two sessions to flesh out the campaign and create the characters. The first session will be a sort of round-robin Q&A to fill in the basics of campaign world, where we will take turns asking and answering questions to collaboratively add details and structure to the framework. The second session will be a group character creation session.
  4. When those two sessions are done, I will build the first story, looking to run 1-3 sessions. I will also set up a campaign wiki on Obsidian Portal and invite everyone to join it.
  5. When the adventure is done, I will schedule a game session.

Which begs the question of what the four campaign frameworks are, right? Well, here’s what I came up with.

There’s weirdness out there, and that’s what is all about. A popular website with the conspiracy and neopagan crowd, makes enough from memberships and advertising to finance a small cadre of investigators.

That’s you.

Maybe you’ve believed in this stuff all along, or maybe something happened to make
you believe. Or maybe you didn’t believe, and just needed the job.

Doesn’t matter. You’re all believers now.

Your job? Finding the truth about the weird things that get overlooked by the more conservative journalists and officials – the weird murders, the monster sightings, the alien abductions, the Elvis appearances, whatever. You check it out. And you bring the story back to post for the elite members of your site.

Setting: One city as home base, frequent travel to the sites of interest.

Mood: Moderately light, though the supernatural is a real threat, so not silly. Big on the creepy. Remember Freakylinks? That’s my inspiration.

Theme: Curiosity, discovery, horror. Seeing the things ignored by the mundane, and trying not to be eaten by them.

Supernatural Level: The supernatural is rare, but powerful. And very strange. You may have the opportunity to gain some supernatural abilities, but they will not be big-league stuff.

Conspiracy Level: Low to non-existent. Some people know stuff, and know other people who know stuff. As far as you can tell, you are the most cohesive and organized group out there. But you might be wrong.

Neighbourhood Watch

This used to be a good neighbourhood. People cared. Made their homes here, raised their kids here, built their lives here. Sure, it was never a rich neighbourhood, and it never got gentrified like some of the places around here, but it was a good place.

Not so much, anymore.

You’re not sure when things changed, but they’ve crossed the line some time in the past few years. The working-class families are still here, but there are more crack houses, more gangs, more crime. It just isn’t safe anymore.

But there’s more to it than just urban decay. At some point in the past few years, you’ve had a glimpse of the darkness that’s gathering, the monsters and secrets hidden behind the familiar façade. You’ve seen something evil lurking in the heart of your home.

And you are not, by God, going to let it go on.

Setting: One neighbourhood in a city. This is a very location-based framework, with little taking place outside the neighbourhood, and nothing taking place outside the city.

Mood: Grim but resolute. Moderately dark. About X-Files level. Big on the unknown and seething malevolence.

Theme: Redemption and reclamation. Steadfast heroism, the defense of the home, the salvaging of hope.

Supernatural Level: The supernatural is dark and threatening, even at low power levels. Any supernatural abilities you pick up – and opportunities to do so will be very rare – will require great sacrifice and mark you as suspect.

Conspiracy Level: At most, the compact level. Realistically, you might know two or three other people in the city that know about this kind of thing, and maybe one or two outside the city.

The Shadow Wars

Maybe it’s in your blood, or maybe it’s something that happened to you. Maybe it’s the result of long study, or strange pacts with mysterious beings. Whatever the source, you have the… let’s call it a gift… that makes you aware of the big picture, the secrets of the world.

You might call it magic, or enlightenment, or the tao. You might see it as strange luck or just really being in touch with your own body or soul. You may not even know if you’re still human at all. However you interpret it, you’ve found out that there are others like you.

And others that will do anything to destroy you.

Because, whether you knew it or not at the beginning, there’s a war going on between those who would destroy humanity and those who would save it. By virtue of your awareness, you’re drawn into this secret conflict, and you need to pick a side.

You’ve chosen humanity’s side.

Because, no matter how strange you may find your abilities, they’re positively mundane next to the creatures that hide in the darkness and seek to steal the light. Once you’ve seen them – and you have – there can be no question as to which side you’re on.

And the war needs you.

Setting: The battle can take you anywhere, from the great cities of Europe to the frozen Antarctic research station, from the caves of the Grand Canyon to the neon- lit alleys of Tokyo. Or you may take up residence in a place of importance, as defenders. Or in one of the Free Cities, home to intrigue and deceit. You get to call it.

Mood: Suspicion, fear, dedication to a cause, secrecy, paranoia. The stakes are high, and the matter is serious. If you fail, people die. Or worse. Think Casablanca or Sandbaggers or Ronin with supernatural elements.

Theme: The burden of power, the lure of the dark, questions of trust and honour. The price of victory. What will you sacrifice?

Supernatural Level: Moderately high. I have an idea for a system of narratively based supernatural powers for the PCs that can be as blatant or subtle as people want. Everyone will have the potential, and those who spend experience on it will get better at it, but I don’t think it will unbalance things if you decide not to focus on it for your character.

Conspiracy Level: Moderate to high. There are several different power groups on both sides of the war, and they can act as mentors, allies, enemies, or something in between.

Agents of Aegis

You are the grim wall between the creatures of the night and the unwitting mortals. As members of Aegis, you are an elite force of agents sent into hot spots to root out the evil. And burn it down. Then salt the earth. Then burn the earth some more.

Aegis does not fuck around.

On the upside, you get to travel the world, see exotic places, meet new people. On the downside, you mostly see the worst parts of it, and then cause an explosion.

On the upside, you get a bunch of neat toys: high tech tools, mystical rites, magical relics, ancient Egyptian potions, the works. On the downside, they’re often not enough.

On the upside, you have the backing of a powerful, wealthy, mysterious organization. On the downside, they’re likely to kill you if you step out of line.

Welcome to Aegis. Welcome to the last job you’ll ever have.

Setting: Globe-hopping adventure, baby!

Mood: Exciting and cinematic. Think James Bond vs. the things that go bump in the night. Hellboy, but less silly.

Theme: Good vs. Evil, the price of victory, the tough decisions about collateral damage.

Supernatural Level: Pretty high. Lots of big, scary monsters, lots of toys for the PCs.

Conspiracy Level: High. You’re working for the big boys, but you’re not the only big boys on the block.

So, there you have it. Four options, one of which will be further expanded and defined until it’s a playable game. I’ve only had two votes back, so far, so I don’t want to talk about which framework is the frontrunner for fear of skewing the responses from my players.

I’ll let you know which one they pick, and then what we do with it.

Hunter Redux: One Year Later

Last Friday, I ran my second of two playtests for Hunter: The Vigil. You can read about the previous playtest here.

We used the One Year Later quickstart adventure available for free at This used the same characters as the previous playtest we did (The Hunt), with some experience applied. We all liked this, because it meant that the players were able to grab the same character as last time and have a great deal of familiarity with it.

As for the adventure itself, it was about as good as the previous one. Looking at my original post, it seems I was quite hard on that adventure, and that wasn’t my real intention. Both The Hunt and One Year Later are written for very specific purposes, and they fulfill these admirably. They are good introductions to the kinds of things that you do in the game, they provide interesting and challenging scenes with a range of activities, and they show you how the rules work. And they are designed to run in a limited time.

The main problem we had with the scenarios was that we weren’t under the time constraints assumed in the writing. We had a whole evening to play, rather than just two or three hours. That made the adventures seem sparse and linear, lacking in opportunity to follow player choices in unusual directions. They are very much designed as demo scenarios, or convention scenarios, pulling in a bunch of people with minimal preparation and completing an adventure in a very tight time-frame.

One Year Later continued this trend, and it worked just as well. Sure, I had to tapdance a little bit when my players asked how they got the information that led them to the guy they’re following at the start of the adventure, or when they killed the only vector in the adventure for a critical piece of information, or when they decided to completely break away from the way the final encounter was scripted, but that’s fine. I was able to adapt and deal with that.

On the whole, my players liked the adventures, liked the pregenerated characters, liked the game. After the game, I asked them what they thought, and they were all pretty positive about the experience. Then I asked them if they would be interested in starting a new campaign.

They gave me a qualified yes.

See, we’ve already got a large number of campaigns running. Pretty much any given weekend, I’m either running or playing in one or two games. But they’re all Dungeons & Dragons. Nothing wrong with D&D, but nothing wrong with mixing it up, either. A little variety, like a modern horror game, is just the thing.

But scheduling is tough. We’re all adults, with family and work commitments. We’re already scheduled pretty tight.

So the suggestion (from Sandy) was to make it an episodic thing, more a series of mini-campaigns. Each episode would be three or four sessions, then we take a break while I build a new one and run that one in a couple of months.

That seemed a popular choice.

I sent out an e-mail message to the five players containing a number of questions I want them to answer, the first question being, “Are you in for the game?” Other questions cover things like setting of the campaign, level of lethality, level of supernatural, level of conspiracy, how much combat, etc. This should give me a solid basis to start constructing a campaign.

On my end, on the advice of one of the folks who commented on the last post*, I picked up some non-free .pdfs for Hunter. I got pretty much everything on this page, and I’ve been working through it, mining it for ideas. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself until I get the responses back from the questions I sent to the prospective players, but I’ve got some ideas percolating.

Oh, yeah. And I bought these dice, because I’m a great big geek.

I’ll let you know how things go.

*Named, suspiciously, Chuck. Could it be…?

Hunter: The Vigil

Last Friday evening, I got some of my group together to run a one-shot of Hunter: The Vigil. This is White Wolf’s New World of Darkness version of Hunter: The Reckoning, which never really inspired much love in me. Hunter: The Vigil, on the other hand, really intrigued me once I bothered to take a look at it.

My main problem with the old game was that, instead of playing normal humans confronting the supernatural, you played normal humans with funky powers confronting the supernatural*. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but I felt it ignored a large area of interesting story by not letting one play a normal human thrust into a paranormal world.

Also, I found that the basic assumptions of the game really tried to force one to play a very specific type of game, with very specific types of characters and plots. Not enough freedom readily available in the basic design, is what I’m saying, though of course every game can be expanded beyond its core assumptions by a dedicated GM.


The new version of Hunter really did a lot to fix that. It provides a much more open matrix of story than the previous game, and is designed to allow the GM to pick the style of game he wants to run. It’ll readily support stories told in the vein of the Supernatural TV series, stuff out of Poltergeist: The Legacy and X-Files, and full-blown gun-bunny Delta Force raids on vampire nests. You can pick the level of play in a manner very reminiscent of Unknown Armies, choosing how much the characters know about the weird of the world and what resources they have at their disposal. There is also a very nice section at the end telling you how to build your own creatures, so you’re not tied into the standard World of Darkness mythology, which I think is a good thing**.

Well, of late, we’ve just been playing D&D, so I think we were all hungry for a non-fantasy, non-d20 game as a change of pace. I downloaded one of the quick-start adventures available from White Wolf – The Hunt. It uses the characters from the in-game fiction in the rulebook***, and picks up their story about a week after the events described in the fiction. I invited five of my group to play, and they all said yes, so we set a date, they picked characters, and we got to it.

Overall, it was a success.

There were a few hiccups, though, in part because this was a first run for all of us, and in part because the intro adventure is very bare bones without a lot of depth to it. Not surprising in an intro adventure, but it showed its holes when confronted by experienced players.

A couple of negatives really stood out to me (I’ll try to avoid spoilers):

  • The timeline for the “mystery” really railroads the characters. There were a couple of points where the adventure basically says, “This is all you can do. Now you have to wait for things to happen.” Sure, that’s very reflective of reality, especially in a police investigation, but I prefer more active avenues be available for players and characters to explore.
  • The main villain, who is given a fairly rich backstory, is barely onstage at all. There is little to no interaction set up in the adventure beyond trying to shoot him.
  • Far more engaging and compelling than the main character is a red herring introduced about midway through the adventure. This really sidetracked the investigation a fair bit.
  • The combat stats were not really well-balanced. Five PCs, three of them tough cops and one of them a gang leader with a bodyguard, could barely handle four stock, run-of-the-mill gang members. The relevant stats were too out of whack for the cops to have had much of a chance unless they pulled their guns. When they ran into some of the supernatural threats, it was even worse.

And now the positives:

  • The SAS structure was quite easy to follow and use on the fly.
  • There was an interesting mix of things to do in the adventure, giving pretty much everyone a chance to shine.
  • Some of the ideas were great, such as Rag Man.
  • The quick-start rules that came with the adventure were handy, easy to follow, and gave us all the basics.
  • The write-ups for each of the pre-gen characters were wonderfully complete and easy to use.
  • It was fun.

In the final analysis, it’s really that last point that makes all the difference, isn’t it?

We liked the game enough that we’re going to run another one-shot available for free from White Wolf: One Year Later. If that one goes well, I’m considering starting an ongoing campaign.

We’ll have to wait and see on that, though.

Final verdict? Hunter: The Vigil is a fun game.

*I freely admit that I am oversimplifying, and indeed may be downright wrong about this. I haven’t looked at the game since it came out in 1999, and that’s the impression I came away with after reading it. Or at least that’s what I remember my impression to be.

**Especially considering the long-running Vampire: The Masquerade campaign that ran in my group for somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten years. A lot of the backstory and basics of the World of Darkness got explored in that time. Granted, it was the old World of Darkness, but still.

***Which is one of the creepiest bits of in-game fiction I’ve read in a White Wolf product.