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:
Sterilization procedures begin
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.