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.

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