Fearful Symmetries: The Erlking and the Eaters

Last night was the latest installment of the Fearful Symmetries game. When we had left our heroes, they were planning a little expedition to look at a farm that had been ravaged by… something. Something that the locals claimed were monsters. They got directions from the villagers at Mstetice, which told them to head through the forest to the standing stone, and bear right.

The mention of the standing stone caught the attention of both the characters – one of the things they were doing while outside the walls of Prague was scouting for places of power with an eye to denying them to the invading armies. A standing stone in the middle of a forest certainly sounded like it was worth checking out, at least in passing.

I had, of course, decided that the stone was a place of power. Trying to decide what kind of power, I thought about the place and the scene I wanted to set, and about the kinds of characters in the campaign, and the themes and such, and came up with the thought that it was tied to a power of the hunt. This naturally led me to the Erlking. The problem with using the Erlking is that the Queens had closed the gates of Faerie, so it struck me as a little problematic, considering the events already established in the setting, to involve the Erlking. Even though he’s technically wyldfae, beholden to neither court, I figure he’s still part of the fey structure, and bound at least somewhat by the strictures of the Queens and the Mothers.

But I also wanted to start laying in one of the ideas about magic that I think make a setting interesting – the concepts of wild magic, in this case. Now, I’m not talking here about D&D-style wild magic; I’m talking about magic that is older than mankind and completely unable to be tamed by anyone, the magic that represents the concepts of free will and lack of constraint that allow mortals to choose, rather than being bound to their natures and fates. It’s a concept that’s expressed beautifully in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry*, through the use of the Wild Hunt as a thread in the tapestry of the world that even the Weaver cannot control.

So, I decided that, as a representative or facet of that power, the Erlking is chafing at the way the closing of the gates of Faerie have curtailed his activities. This stone, which is set in a place of wild magic, is one of his sacred places – The Erlking’s Throne. Given that basis, I tracked down a good image of a standing stone in a forest on the internet, came up with a few Aspects, and wrote up a short description of what sort of sponsored magic the site would provide. I also figured it was a good bet that Izabela would use the Sight to examine the stone*, so I wrote up a description of the Throne as seen through the Sight.

Sure enough, I got her to look at the Throne through the Sight, and it took her a couple of turns to close her third eye, so her brain got beat up a little bit. No consequences, but a couple of unpleasant Stress hits. What she saw made her nervous enough about the nature of the power here that she decided to leave it be, and she and Emeric would continue on their own to find whatever had been raiding the farms in the area.

To that end, she decided to see if there were any ghosts in the area that could tell her anything. She very carefully walked out of the area of lifelessness around the Throne, and did a little ritual to call up the ghosts.

That’s when I offered her a compel to use some of the power from the Throne, and she took it.

I had decided that the only ghosts in the area were animal ghosts, and that without using the power of the Throne, she wouldn’t be able to communicate with them. But she used the power, and so she could, and found out that the things killing folks and destroying farms were indeed monsters, and one smelled like Emeric. She also found out that using the power here had opened the door for the Hunter.

And so the Erlking showed up. Also a mass of goblins and hounds. He offered a pact to our heroes, essentially offering sponsored magic if they desired it. Neither of them took him up on it, so he made sure they knew that, even without a pact, they could come to this site and use the power here freely. And every time they did, his Hunt would be loosed in the world for a night. Starting with tonight. Out of consideration for the service done to him by opening the door, he gave them until sunset to leave the wood. After that, he said, everything in the wood was either part of the Hunt, or it was prey.

Somewhat shaken by the encounter, the characters made good time out of the forest to the farms, finding a scene of terrible slaughter, but nothing in the way of corpses. Also hundreds of crows. Izabela tried call up ghosts to question about the attack, but found that there were no ghosts here, which gave her pause. Emeric decided to question the crows*, and they told him that one of his kin – a fire giant* – was with a group of monsters, and they had done this. The crows agreed to tell the pair where the monsters were in exchange for killing them and leaving the bodies for the crows.

Izabela and Emeric spent some time preparing for the confrontation, dropping some Aspects on themselves, like Limbered Up and Giant-Killer, and Izabela veiled them, and off they went. They came unseen upon the camp, but didn’t spot the two sentinels watching the approach. Which was fine; the sentinels didn’t spot them, either. They found a group of half a dozen rough-looking men sitting around a fire eating, a few small tents set up, and one very large pavilion.

And so they rushed to attack.

The fight was fairly long, but lots of cool things happened. After the first round, most of the men – actually ghouls – were on fire and trapped in a whirlwind, and the fire giant was in play with his massive hammer. He wiped out the veil with his fire magic, but that left him with a severe mental consequence from trying to control that much power. Everyone was working hard to layer on Aspects, and moving around doing interesting things, with ghouls trying to hamstring the heroes and leaping down on them from on top of the pavilion, but the heroes prevailed. They weren’t unscathed, though; Izabela had to retreat and veil at one point because her stress tracks were pretty much filled up, and she had used up her minor and moderate consequences.

But the ghouls were dead, and the fire giant was dead, and the crows were paid. A good night’s sleep, and they were able to head back to Mstetice and then to Prague. They brought along the fire giant’s hammer, because they could tell it was an item of evil power, and they’re looking for a way to destroy it, or at least get it out of circulation permanently. I decided that was a good place to leave things for the night.

As we shut down, my players started asking about enchanted items, so we had a talk about what they could do, and how to get them, and so on. I had decided when play started that I wasn’t going to push the idea of enchanted items until the players asked about them – there’s enough stuff to learn without adding that complexity at the start of things. We are all gaining familiarity with and mastery of the system, which pleases me. I had given the players a significant milestone, so they have the opportunity now to shuffle their enchanted item/focus item slots around, and they may do so.

All in all, a good game.


*If you haven’t read this series, you should. Back

*And if she decided not to, she’s got a couple of Aspects I could compel to persuade her. Back

*Invoking his Raised in Legend Aspect, saying that speaking to birds is well-represented in Norse mythology, and Emeric had learned the trick in his youth. I liked that idea. Back

*Not in the book, so I started with an Ogre, and tweaked it until it looked fire-giantish. Back

Fearful Symmetries: The Shadow of War

Last night was the latest Fearful Symmetries session. To prepare for it, I had asked last session for the players to send me some idea of what they wanted their characters to do in Prague. I got a nice, high-level list of goals that I intended to use to plan the next scenario.

Unfortunately, as I worked on the scenario, I found that I was having to make more assumptions about what the characters were doing and would do than I was comfortable with. The goals I had, while useful for planning the larger story arcs of the campaign, weren’t as useful for putting together an individual scenario – at least, not this early in the campaign, when I haven’t really got a firm grip on what the characters are like, yet, and therefor can’t properly judge or predict their actions and attitudes. I need to be more familiar with them before I can do that, and that will only come as we play.

So, I sent out another e-mail message, asking for a list of two or three specific things they would like their characters to do over the next couple of weeks. They (almost immediately) sent back a nice list of specific things they wanted to do. And at this point, I want to mention that neither of them had any trouble coming up with stuff for their characters to do that was important to them; part of this is that I’ve got creative players that really get into their characters, but another big part of this is the collaborative city creation process. There are built-in hooks, threats, and storylines that both the players and characters are interested in and have some connection to. I know, I’ve said it before, but I’m surprised and pleased anew each time a situation comes up where the groundwork we laid during city and character creation comes back to make play that much better.


With their lists in hand, I looked things over, picked a few of the things that seemed most likely to come up during play, and started fleshing them out. I followed the advice in Your Story to do this – well, sort of, anyway. I looked at the items that I had picked off their lists one by one, and looked at the master Aspect list I had put together for the game, pulling out and listing the character and setting Aspects that tied most directly into the chosen situations, and making connections between them. I even found a cool little app for my new iPad called Idea Sketch that let me sketch out the scenario ideas in flowchart form, the way I prefer when planning scenarios.

With three or four scenario ideas fleshed out, and enough material to improvise if the players decided to go with one of the items on their lists that I hadn’t fleshed out, I felt comfortable letting the players set their direction and choose their goals in a very sandbox style. I just made sure I had a few stock antagonists statted up in addition to the stats for the fleshed-out scenarios.

When we got together to play, I spent a little time tidying up loose ends from the previous session, which also served as providing a recap for the players, and then asked them what they wanted to do. After a few little pieces of business they wanted to take care of, they decided to head out to visit Marta, the maid who had virtually raised Izabela after the death of her mother. They had found out, back in the very first session, that Marta had got too old to work, and gone off to a nearby village to live with her son.

So, we’re talking June, 1620, near Prague. The city is under constant threat, the lands around it are being picked clean by the Bohemian foragers trying to supply the army, as well as skirmishers and saboteurs from the Catholic forces, and bandits preying on everyone. One of the threats we came up with for the setting is that bands of near-feral shapeshifters, ghouls, and other monsters are using the cover of the war to rampage through the countryside, letting the various human armies take the blame for the atrocities they’re committing. But I didn’t want to bring them into it, just yet – I wanted at least one session where the horrors had a completely human source.

After some discussion about hiring horses, and the expense, the characters decided to use magical mounts: Emric has a Spirit of War trapped in a ring that takes horse form, and Izabela used her ectomancy to conjure a horse from ectoplasm. Izabela then used the money she would have spent on hiring a horse on putting together a care package for Marta. Then, at dawn, they set out down the road to visit the old woman.

I had told them that Marta lived about thirty miles from Prague – a long day’s ride – past another village on the same road. As they rode out, I described the lands around them, and how there were fewer people than there should be in the fields, and how they started giving way to abandoned farms and fallow fields, and things like that. Then I threw in a little encounter with Captain Amiel, the swiss mercenary they had met previously, and his company of men.

The Captain was once again polite and friendly, and strongly urged them to return to the city, saying that there were bandits and skirmishers out in the lands around Prague, and that the roads weren’t safe, as he and his men were confined in their patrol to no more than five miles from the city walls. When it became obvious that Izabela and Emric would not be persuaded from their journey, he wished them luck, and let them pass on their way. Emric promised to visit the Captain at the Gored Ox to buy him a drink when he returned.

As the characters continued on their way, the abandoned farms changed to burned-out farms, and the fallow fields turned to scorched earth. I mentioned a cloud of circling crows in the distance as a piece of colour, but the characters decided to go investigate it. I had originally planned to have them beset by bandits on the road, woefully outnumbered, so that they had to flee, and I’d get a neat chase scene, so I thought I’d give them a glimpse of what the bandits had done to a nearby farm to prove they meant business.

They found the farm with the main buildings burnt and the animals slaughtered in the yard. The fact that the animals were slain rather than taken led the characters to the conclusion that this was done by bandits rather than soldiers, which was the point I had wanted to make. They found the family dead inside the house, which had had the door nailed shut before the roof was fired, and one young boy who had fled the slaughter and hidden down the privy hole had passed out and drowned after being down there several hours.

Again, the point was to show the horrors of war, and to drive home the fact that these things were done by normal humans. I figured that, after seeing this, the bandits would be more frightening when encountered on the road.

But the characters were deeply offended by what had happened, and wanted to hunt down the bandits, which I hadn’t prepared for. Izabela used magic to speak with the ghosts of the family to find out what had happened, and found a piece of a horseshoe to use in a finding spell. Emric scouted around and found tracks, so between the two of them, they were able to follow the trail, first to an old campsite, and then to the farmstead where the bandits had set up housekeeping.

Now, in this system, a dozen armed men with armour riding at you across the field means that you’re in trouble, pretty much no matter how powerful you are. But preparation and surprise are amazing equalizers, so finding the bandits at their leisure, unmounted, and spread between the house and the barn, and having the time to veil themselves, meant that what would have been an overwhelming force in an open battle became a much more manageable target.

They scouted the area under a veil, which Izabela is getting quite good at casting, figuring out where everyone was, and taking out one of the sentries. Then, Emric used his pyromancy to cause the fire in the fireplace to flare up suddenly, giving them the opportunity to climb in through the window and be among the men in the house before anyone knew what was happening. The burst of fire, plus the burning grass outside the window from the fallout Emric took when he failed his control roll, kept people distracted long enough for them to kick in the bedroom door and find the bandit leader.

I was pleased that the players had read my post about combat in this system, and it showed in the fight that followed. They worked together, using their skills and the environment to put Aspects on the targets, setting them up for killing blows. Aside from being more mechanically successful, it also made the fight much more cinematic, with people throwing tankards around, tripping each other, getting pinned under the furniture, and swept up in whirlwinds. They kept the bandits from effectively ganging up on them, and took them on in small groups, which they could easily handle.

After they had killed the bandits, they realized they couldn’t make the next village before dark, so they cleaned out the barn, found a wagon, loaded it with the food, valuables, weapons, and armour the bandits had acquired, and settled in for the night. Izabela set a ward around the barn, and they spent a moderately restful night under cover.

Next morning, they made it to a village that had been fortified by sealing all the ways into town with barricades, and setting large carts in the roads to act as gates. The knight commanding the village refused to let them in when the characters wouldn’t answer his question about whether they were Catholic or Protestant, so the players went on their way to Marta’s village somewhat miffed.

Marta’s village had a better natural defensible position, being on the far side of a small river from the road, with a single bridge crossing just before the millpond. The constructed defenses were much fewer, consisting of a ring of stakes and a big wagon in the middle of the bridge. Izabela let the guards know she had come to see Marta and, once they had verified her identity, they were invited inside. Izabela had her nice little reunion with Marta, and she and Emric gave the food and weapons they had taken from the bandits to the village to help them defend themselves. The miller, who was the de-facto mayor of the village, called it a miracle, and opened a keg of ale to host an impromptu street party.

The characters decided to stay around for a day or so, helping the villagers improve their defenses, and get some idea of what was going on in the surrounding area. They heard more stories of looted and destroyed farms and, as they gained the villagers’ trust, these tales got more elaborate and grim, leading Izabela to conclude that werewolves or ghouls may be responsible for at least some of the attacks. When they asked directions to the nearest farm that had been so hit, the directions included reference to a standing stone at a forest crossroad, which caught Emric’s ear, as he has been wanting to scout the area for places of power that could be put to Prague’s defense.

They decided to head off to investigate both the standing stone and the farm, and that’s where we left it last night. I’ve got a few weeks to flesh out the next stage of the adventure, and I’m going to take advantage of it.

I’m still really enjoying running the system, and am constantly impressed with how easy it is to whip up stats for something on the fly. It gives me a great deal of freedom in setting up scenarios, and allows me to give a great deal of freedom to the characters in terms of setting their own agendas and choosing the direction of the campaign. It’s very gratifying.

That said, the complexities of the spellcasting system are still somewhat daunting in play. Handling spellcasting still takes more time than handling pretty much anything else. I think that spellcasting  is going to have to be the subject of my next post about the system. And it will probably take more than one post to cover.

But we’re having fun, and are all anxious for the next game.

Fearful Symmetries: Blood Hunt

Last Friday was the latest episode of Fearful Symmetries. We had ended last session with a cliff-hanger of sorts, our heroes down in the tunnels under Old Town, surrounded by a swarm of Red Court Vampires led by a Black Court Vampire. I wasn’t sure at the time which way things would go – if I wanted to lay the whole vampire plotline out so soon, or if I should try and keep it at arm’s length for a little longer.

During the time between sessions, I did some thinking about it, and decided that I didn’t want to expose everything vampire-related just yet; that, I believe, would have made the vampire plotline central for some time in the game, and I didn’t want to dictate the focus for the foreseeable future to the players, preferring to let them find what they care about most in the game.

So, when I opened up the session, I did it with talking. The characters got to have a rather tense conversation with the Black Court woman, during which they gave the name of the Red Court Vampire who was stepping over the line. There were veiled threats, implied promises, and some less-veiled threats, but in the end, Emric, Izabela, and Marco made it back to the surface safely.

At which point I was a little stuck. The story had reached a point where it could conceivably end, though not in a very satisfying manner. The main focus of the characters as they talked about what to do next seemed to be to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, and kill any Red Court Vampires they found above ground. I didn’t want to degenerate into just having the characters wait around for stuff to happen, so I decided to make stuff happen right away. I killed Marko.

Time for me to spill a dirty little secret about my GMing. I hate sending an NPC along with the PCs into a dangerous situation. For one thing, it’s too easy to use the NPC has the mouth-of-plot, which can undermine the choices of the players. For another, players can come to rely on the NPC too much, which makes it very easy for the GM to use the character as his own PC. And the third (and most telling) thing is that I’ve already got enough stuff to keep track of without having to worry about the NPC spear carrier.

Balanced with this is my desire to establish NPCs in the setting that the characters have a real connection with, for good or ill. That means fleshed-out NPCs with characters that are consistent and sensible, and that continue through the campaign, so that the relationships can build and change.

Emric had already made a good, solid connection with Marko, and I think he liked him a fair bit – certainly, he respected the man for being brave enough to go with him into the lair of a vampire. I weighed things in my head, and decided that killing Marko would be a good impetus to get Emric pushing to get rid of the rogue Red Court Vampires. To make the threat come home to both the characters, I had Marko killed and left outside the rooms Emric was renting for him to find.

It got the players moving, alright. Izabela whipped up a divinatory ritual, and saw how Marko was killed by two women who looked very much like a couple of prostitutes that used to work for Zuckerbastl. She also went back to the brothel (burned to the ground the night after they had visited), and conjured up the ghosts of the people who had died there to get some information about Dregana, the woman who had been running it. After that, she started trying to figure out how to find where Dregana was hiding (and also to take care of the children of one of the women who had died in the fire).

In the meantime, Emric took Marko’s body to Zuckerbastl, letting him know what had happened. Zuckerbastl was grateful, and he and Emric bonded a little, before Emric went off to try and find someone who could help him find Dregana’s hiding spot. He rousted Amadan from his rooms, and convinced him to use his resources to locate her. After a stroll through the parks in Hradcany, they retired to the Goblin’s Brewery, where Amadan revealed the address of Dregana’s house.

Off went our heroes, a good hour or two before sunset.

The fight here didn’t go as easily for the characters as the previous invasion. The bad guys were waiting for them, but no mortals were really a match for either of them. In fact, in the confusing muddle of the fight, Izabela blew the head of what seemed to be an ordinary (non-infected, non-ensorceled, non-enthralled) human mercenary, and is now quite upset over what might be a First Law violation. The warped dogs were much easier to deal with.

It was the nest of four Red Court Vampires, newly turned to help Dregana now that her support from the tunnels had been cut off, that really caused a problem for the characters. The vampires used maneuvers and group tactics to gang up on the characters, and proved to be a significant threat. Still, in the end, through co-operation and a good use of Aspects, they managed to eliminate the four vampires and finally confront Dregana. The fight with her was relatively brief, leaving her lying on the ground with all three consequences used up, pleading for her life. And Emric ran her through.

Leaving the house, they were met by a small man with coppery-red skin of indeterminate age, who thanked them, and said that his master was pleased that they were able to do this favour for each other. He gave them each a ring as a token of his master’s esteem, bowed, and went away. The characters think he probably represented the vampire king in the tunnels that they have heard about, but never met.

And so our heroes retired to lick their wounds, and plan for a new day. I gave them a significant milestone at the end of this session, and asked them to start thinking about what their goals are in Prague, so that I can tailor the later scenarios to them. All in all, we were all happy with the way the session went, and the way the campaign seems to be going.

Meta-game-wise, we’re all getting more familiar with the system, and things are flowing more smoothly when it comes to mechanics. I made up a cheat-sheet for Izabela that helps us handle her spellcasting abilities in a more timely fashion during play, and it worked pretty well – well enough that I’m making one for Emric, as well.

Now I wait to see what sorts of goals my players send me, and then I make a new scenario.

Fearful Symmetries: Court of Thieves

Last night was the second session of Fearful Symmetries. The previous session, the characters had learned that the King of Thieves in Old Town, Zuckerbastl, was keeping a monster that he used to keep his prostitutes in line. Judging from the prostitute that had attacked them, they figured that the monster was a Red Court Vampire.

So, they decided to go see Zuckerbastl, and find out if it was true.

When I was fleshing out Zuckerbastl, I had initially planned to make him the suave, dashing King of Thieves stereotype that seems so popular in stories, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that was a cop-out. What I did instead was make him someone try to act with the same kind of panache, but not really have his heart in it, so that the brutal, vicious mind underneath kept peeking through.

When the characters showed up at his warehouse (directed by the prostitute who had attacked them), Izabela was concealed behind a veil, and Emric tried to lurk (rather unsuccessfully) in the shadows in order to see who came and went for a while before approaching. That didn’t work out exactly as planned, because of a low Stealth score and bad roll on Emric’s behalf. He got approached and half-threatened, half-invited inside after he said that he was there to see Zuckerbastl and showed them the token he had from the thief he had helped earlier.

Confession time. I hadn’t really done a lot of prep work for this session; most of my game-prep time over the past three weeks had been eaten up with getting ready for the Armitage Files game and typing up our Setting Bible. What that meant was that, while I knew they had to find a link to get them from Zuckerbastl to the Red Court Vampire who was behind the disappearances the characters were investigating, I hadn’t actually figured out what that link should be. I decided to wait and see if the characters could point me in a reasonable direction during play.

Also, I lost one of the pages of my notes, with a bunch of stats I had put together just in case*.

There followed an audience with the King of Thieves, in his warehouse court. Emric presented himself to Zuckerbastl, while Izabela remained concealed behind her veil. Emric found the thief he had aided earlier tied to a pillar, severely beaten, but when he told his story (which corroborated the thief’s own tale), the man was released and restored to his position. Izabela used her magic to check if there were any vampires present, and found a few of Zuckerbastl’s thugs showed the influence of the addictive saliva, but no Red Court Vampires or Infected.

Well, in the ensuing discussions, our heroes managed to convince Zuckerbastl that he couldn’t trust some of his men. Emric was given a purse of coin, thanked, and dismissed, after Zuckerbastl got rid of most of his other men. Emric left, but Izabela hung back invisibly to watch Zuckerbastl give tell Marko (the thief who had been tied to the pillar) to round up some hard boys and burn “her” out, because “she” must be behind it. They then sealed off the maze through the warehouse crates to Zuckerbastl’s court, with Zuckerbastl on the inside alone and Marko hitting the streets to do his job. Izabela was on top of the piles of crates, watching everything.

With the party split, and Zuckerbastl (for all intents and purposes) alone, I figured it was a good time for a vampire attack.

I sent in a single full Red Court Vampire, creeping across the ceiling, wanting to get close enough to Zuckerbastl to get him with its saliva. Izabela spotted it, though, and lit it up with a nice evocation*, which let Zuckerbastl also see it. The vamp tried to swoop down on Zuckerbastl, but got tangled in the ropes and pulleys used to move the crates around*, and Zuckerbastl ran for a blunderbuss.

Another quick Spirit evocation later*, Zuckerbastl and Marko were back in the fight, and things didn’t go well for the vampire after that.

Faced with this rescue, Zuckerbastl gave up the name of the woman who he figured must be behind the vanishing prostitutes and the vampirism – Dregana, who had poached some of Zuckerbastl’s girls and opened up her own brothel. Izabela, Marko, and Emric decided to go pay her a visit the next day, just after dawn.

In the meantime, Izabela did a divination on the blood of the dead vampire, determining that it was probably a few decades old, and was originally a young, Greek man named Demetrios.

Next day, with Izabela once again heavily veiled, they went to the brothel, and broke into the back, finding a number of Red Court Infected and a couple of full vampires. They killed most of them, but one of the infected escaped down in the cellar, and our heroes gave chase. We wrapped up the evening on a bit of a cliffhanger: our heroes chased the fleeing infected thug right into a whole gang of Red Court Vampires, with a Black Court Vampire among them.

Fade to black.

Couple of observations:

  • I talked a little bit before the game about how combat works in the system, the value of maneuvers, and the different paradigm of what happens during a fight from other games like D&D. I think that really helped make the fight scenes work better for the players, but I’ve got to remember the same advice I gave them, and have the bad guys use more maneuvers and such, rather than just going for the attack.
  • Spellcasting is the most complex part of the game, and we’re all still trying to get a handle on it. Looking at the rulebooks this morning, I see a couple of errors I made, and judgment calls that probably should have gone a different way. Still, play proceeded fairly quickly, and a lot of interesting things got done.
  • One of the things I messed up was veils. I forgot that they make it harder to see out as well as in, unless they are specifically constructed to be one-way transparent (extra complexity).
  • Another was that I messed up the way you can use skills during preparing a thaumaturgy spell to tag the spell with a temporary Aspect that you can use to boost your Lore skill for free when comparing it to the complexity of the spell.
  • I need to make a big list of period names to assign to random NPCs. Especially Czech and Slavic names, but also some German, Italian, French, etc.
  • Ditto Prague street names.

All of that is just the learning curve of any new system, though. We all had fun, and we’re looking forward to the next session.

Oh, and I’ve built the preliminary wiki on Obsidian Portal. So far, it’s just got the stuff from the Setting Bible and a few minor additions from the play sessions, but it’s there. Enjoy.

*Which page of notes I have just found. Timing.

*Spirit evocation maneuver, sticking it with the Aspect Lit Up Like a Christmas Tree.

*Bad, bad Athletics roll as it tried to sprint.

*Sending a mental message to Emric that Zuckerbastl was under attack by a vampire.

Fearful Symmetries: Background

I had a bit of an eye-opener these past couple of weeks. I’ve been working on typing up the notes and brainstorming we did for creating Prague in 1620 for the Fearful Symmetries game, and the sheer amount of material that came out of those discussions is a little daunting.

We spent about four hours doing the city creation. I’ve got over 20 pages of material from that time.

It’s a little overwhelming, and also, I think, a wonderful testament to the ease and value of the city creation process in DFRPG. Also, to the very creative and enthusiastic players I’ve got.

Now, I’m going to link in the .pdf of our setting bible, but I want to talk about some of the things we did with it, first.

1. Transparency

One of the things I was wary about with collaborative setting construction is the fact that the players know a lot of the big secrets and threats of the campaign right from the get-go. I’m changing my mind about this. I was, I now consider, wrong to worry. Maybe it’s just my players, but they don’t seem to have much of a problem keeping player knowledge separate from character knowledge, especially (and this is a key point) if they know how cool it will be when their characters find stuff out.

Yeah, the players know that the Sedlec Ossuary is a hotly-contested piece of real estate between a cabal of necromancers and some gypsy clans dedicated to the mysteries of Osiris and Anubis. And they think that’s a cool thing to have – after all, they came up with the idea. But their characters don’t know, and the details are left up to me as GM to flesh out, so they get the pleasure of having their characters drawn into the battle unawares, and can still be surprised by some of the twists and turns.

I wanted to see if being completely open during the city creation heightened or lessened the interest level: if the players knew all the big secrets, would that mean the game wasn’t interesting for them. Well, we’ve only played one session so far, but I’m coming down firmly on the side of it heightening interest. And a lot of that has to do with the next point.

2. Investment

Wow. Getting the players to decide what goes into the mix in the city, who the main bad guys are, what the power structure is like, and what places are important: golden. I sat back and let them do most of the fleshing out of things during city creation, adding (as I recall) one theme, the suggestion of a few locations, and some brainstorming on appropriate Aspects. The rest is all them.

This does more than just take a lot of the burden for setting creation off the GM; it also makes sure that the elements of the setting are all things the players think are interesting, that they care about. That they want to have as part of their characters’ story. Now, both my players made characters newly-come (or returned) to Prague, so they are not hooked right in to the current situation, but because the players built the current situation, there are numerous things to hook them (both characters and players) into the stories. Things that allow for quick emotional investment right off the hop.

What this means for a GM is that, as long as you use the elements of the setting that the players have created and link them to the characters (and Your Story has a whole chapter on how to do that using Aspects), you’re pretty much guaranteed to come up with a basis for a scenario that will capture the attention and interest of your players.

3. Dramatic License

No one in my group is an expert on the Thirty Years’ War. We’ve done some cursory research, and Clint knows a lot about pretty much everything, but we’re not going for complete historical accuracy in the setting. Of course we aren’t – it’s a fantasy game. So, we’ve played a little fast and loose with both history and geography. Some examples:

  • I couldn’t find the name of the Lord Mayor of Prague in 1620 – there may not have been one, for all I know. So, I made up the name, taking the first name from one Mayor listed on Wikipedia and the last name from another.
  • Zuckerbastl was the name of the man running the thieves in Hradcany around 1610. We wanted a King of Thieves for Old Town in 1620, so we transplanted him.
  • I couldn’t find any real geographic information about White Mountain, where an important battle takes place in November 1620, so I just made it all up.
  • I get frustrated trying to use all the proper diacritical marks in the proper Czech and Slavic names, so I’m ignoring them.

The idea, of course, is to create a gameable setting with the flavour of the time and place you want. And that’s what we did. So, for any real experts on the Thirty Years’ War, or 17th-century Prague, or any native speakers of the language, there are lots of grievous errors and things that we just out-and-out changed. No offense is intended. It’s just a game.

We also deviate a bit from the Dresden Files canon. We’re using it as a starting place, but we’re trying to establish what the milieu would have been like in 1620 Bohemia. So, I’ve been re-reading The War Hound and the World’s Pain by Michael Moorcock, which is the only fantasy novel set during the Thirty Years’ War that I know of, and I’ve decided that, instead of the Nevernever (which name doesn’t quite fit the feel of the time period), we’ll have the Mittelmarch, the lands on the borders of Heaven and Hell. Still works the same, but different name for a different time and place.

4. Filling in the Blanks

We did a lot of brainstorming at the city creation session, and I took notes and filled out the city sheets, but there were still some holes, or pieces that didn’t fit quite right with other pieces. As I’ve been typing up the setting bible, I’ve been doing a little bit of polishing, elaborating on some bits and making minor changes to others in order to make the whole thing work together.

I’ve also been looking at the areas we hadn’t touched upon, and thinking about how they can work into the game if I need them to. Really, the primary focus is going to be – really, must be – on the stuff the players came up with, but it’s always good as a GM to have a couple of surprising ideas in your back pocket in case you need them. But I’m keeping my mouth shut about what they are.

And there you have it.

So, here’s the setting bible.

I’m working on incorporating the setting bible into a wiki on Obsidian Portal, so I’ll post a link to that in the sidebar when it’s ready.

This Friday is our second session, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Fearful Symmetries: The Beginnings

It’s been pretty quiet around here for the past week or so. There’s a reason for that.

You may remember I posted some time ago about the new campaign I was starting called Scio Occultus Res. It was meant to be a two-person game using the Mage: The Awakening rules, and I wanted to get things rolling before Christmas. That didn’t happen. What with things being busy, the preparations dragged on and on, and the shiny wore off the idea for the players. So, last week, I kind of forced the issue, and said, “If you get me your player backgrounds by Friday, I will have a game ready for you to play on Saturday.”

They considered, and said that they weren’t all that interested anymore, but still wanted to game this weekend.

Now, I was happy to just have the game out of limbo, even if it was just for it to be cast into the outer darkness. I sent them a list of the game systems that I could have ready for Saturday, and asked them to pick one ASAP, to give me some prep time. They picked The Dresden Files RPG*. And that meant I got to put some of the things I’d been talking about here into practice.

We talked about power level, and the kinds of characters they wanted to play and the stories they wanted to tell, and fixed on Submerged. As things went on, though, I saw they were feeling more and more constrained by that power level – the ideas that had come up in discussing the game meant dealing with mythic, epic kinds of stories and characters, so I decided to give them two extra Refresh, for a starting total of 12*.

And then we talked setting. I had, many years ago, proposed a sort of loose campaign outline for a modern supernatural adventure game that I had called Fearful Symmetries, that focused on a small band of powerful heroes holding the forces of darkness at bay. They liked that idea, but thought it would be more fun in a historical context. The proposed time periods were eventually whittled down to the Thirty Years’ War. We talked about whether to make the setting a single city or a larger area: the Holy Roman Empire, or even all of Europe. We settled, thanks to a little nudging on my part, on Prague in 1620.

Why Prague? Three real reasons:

  1. This was where the spark that started the Thirty Years’ War was struck, and featured prominently in the war, especially in the early years.
  2. Prague is chock full of all sorts of creepy, mysterious, mythical, and just plain weird stuff.
  3. I had already done a fair bit of research on the city when I wrote this several years ago.

Why 1620? Because it’s early in the war, and late in the year the Battle of White Mountain will see the breaking of the Bohemian army and the occupation of the city by the Catholic coalition, which offers some very gameable moments. You’ll see when I get around to posting the setting document.

So, Friday night, we got together early, had some pizza, and ran through the city creation process for Prague. And it was fantastic.

I want to stress at this point that we did minimal research. I read a little in Wikipedia about the Thirty Years’ War, and had done the research on Prague years ago (and on a period ten years earlier than we were setting the game), but really we just wanted to use as much of the actual background as was fun – just the bits that were interesting, flavourful, and gameable. Same thing with the actual geography of the city.

Here’s a quote from the Character Creation chapter of Your Story:

As you create the characters and the world they inhabit, you have begun play.

They’re right. We brainstormed themes and threats, came up with thirteen different locations and their themes and threats, faces for everything, Aspects ditto, and a good, solid idea of the movers and shakers and the status quo. And the whole time, we were having a blast suggesting things, and elaborating on each other’s contributions, and riffing on ideas that seemed to spring from everyone at once. We were constantly amazed at how cool the city was becoming, and got more and more excited as things went on.

And then we built the characters. I built one along with the players, both because there were just two of them, and because I find it handy to have an NPC in the game that the characters have a good connection with. It gives them a starting point when they go out look for contacts and information. I created a 17th-century version of Amadan, because I think he’s an interesting archetype and a useful role to have available in the game. The other characters are:

  • Isabella Valdstejn, a Seasoned Wizard of the White Council, returning to Prague to attend the funeral of her father, who had sent her away forty years ago when he remarried.
  • Emric Sordason, the Rebellious Son of Surtr, bearing his fire giant father’s sword, which is fated to bring about Ragnarok.

By then, it was late and we called it a night.

I spent Saturday afternoon preparing a simple scenario for that night. Wanting to get away from the more rigid adventure structure encouraged by D&D, I took some solid advice from the indie gaming world. I had first read it in Dogs in the Vineyard*, and it was reiterated in the Building Scenarios chapter of Your Story: build a situation that forces conflict, and let the players figure out how to handle it. Don’t have a preconceived notion of how things are going to be resolved – don’t chart the whole course of the story.

Now, the chapter also strongly recommends tying in the Aspects of the characters but, being an idiot, I hadn’t made a list of them the night before. That meant I needed to build something that they could encounter pretty much at my whim, and I’d need to trust my players to follow up the dangling thread. They’re helpful players, and excited about the game, so I didn’t think it would be much of a problem. That evening, we spent the first little while putting the finishing touches on the characters, and discussing how some of the mechanics work, and then we got down to play.

I let the players set the first couple of scenes, with them meeting in Prague after not having seen each other for some time, having dinner in Isabella’s rooms, and talking. The next day, they went out to her family estate for her father’s funeral, and we did a little more character-building roleplaying along the way. On the way back, I decided to stage a little scene to drive home the situation in Prague. Their character was stopped and searched by a patrol from the city, who questioned them closely concerning their accents and business in city. One of the threats we came up with in the city-building session, you see, was The Emperor’s Spies are Everywhere. Isabella’s story checked out, as did Emric’s offer to buy the squad a drink, so they went on their way without further incident, but the scene helped to establish the mood.

It did more than that, though. I decided to make the squad a group of Swiss mercenaries, and played up their professionalism and attention to both courtesy and detail, thinking that it would lay a good groundwork for contrast when I brought a more brutish group of mercenaries on stage. The captain turned out to be so much fun to play, being polite and clever and completely civilized and businesslike, and he made such a good impression on the players, that I’ve made a note to flesh him out and use him further in the game.

That evening, as Emric was returning to his rooms, he spotted a disturbance in one of the twisting alleys where Old Town and New Town meet. Investigating, he found two rough men holding down a third and trying to pour something from a bottle into the mouth of their victim. He chased them off, and received a token from the man he had saved, saying that Zuckerbastl’s boys owed him a favour. Zuckerbastl is the local King of Thieves, so his favour can come in handy.

The next day, Emric and Isabella began investigating, and found that, even in the frightened city, the disappearances from Old Town were starting to make people talk, and say that Zuckerbastl was losing his grip on things. Our valiant heroes decided to go trolling through Old Town at night, Emric acting slightly drunk, and Isabella concealed behind a veil. They didn’t see anything untoward until Emric was propositioned by a prostitute. One of the bits of information they had picked up was that the disappearances had started with a number of prostitutes, so he paid his money and went up to her room, with Isabella unseen along for the ride.

In the room, Emric questioned the girl – Danika – and shared some wine with her. When he started asking about the disappearances and Zuckerbastl, she said she’d give him information in return for a kiss. He agreed, and this proved to be a mistake.

I told him he now had the Aspect Befuddled, and wanted to do whatever Danika told him to. More than anything, though, he wanted to kiss her again. Before he could, though, Isabella revealed herself to pull Danika off of him, but instead got flung across the room for her pains. Catching her breath, she used a Spirit Evocation to clear Emric’s mind, and Emric picked up the washstand and smashed Danika into a wall, knocking her out. He checked to see if she was still alive, and found her eyes to be completely black.

At this point, the bouncer from downstairs came in, and was not inclined to listen to reason. Isabella used her magic to knock the bed into his legs, dumping him on the ground, and Emric disarmed him and threatened him into submission. They tied him up, and went back to investigating Danika, who was healing very quickly and starting to stir. The signs all pointed to the fact that she was Red Court Infected. She confirmed this, and claimed that Zuckerbastl had a monster in his court that he used to control the girls.

The pair were left with a difficult choice, now: do they kill Danika, or do they let her go free? They know there is no cure for Red Court Vampirism, even at this stage, and the only way she can keep from becoming a monster is to discipline herself forever. They were quite torn, especially Emric, who saw many similarities between their situations. In the end, they decided to take her to St. Vitus Rotunda, one of the oldest churches in Prague, where they knew the clergy had some idea of the supernatural. The priest there told them that they knew how to handle this, and had a convent in Romania set up for cloistering the infected and helping them fight their disease.

Again, it had got late, so we left the game there, with Isabella and Emric planning to pay a visit to Zuckerbastl and find out what’s up.

All in all, I was very pleased with the way the game went, and impressed as hell that the game system (and, of course, my enthusiastic players) could get the whole setting built and running in less than a week. The setting we’ve come up with is rich and detailed, with many, many hooks for stories and adventures. Once I get it typed up, I’ll post the setting document somewhere on the site, along with the characters when my players send me copies.

Kudos to Evil Hat for making the game so fast and fun to set up and run.

And just one further note:

We’re playing DFRPG, and you can, too!


*Which I had just preordered, so I had the latest, greatest pre-printing pdfs to work from. Back

*Let’s call that level Sunk to the Knees in the Muddy Bottom. Back

*Always a killer source for good advice in running a game. Any game. Back