Feints & Gambits: Nicked

Well. I have to say that this last session of Feints & Gambits did not go in the direction I had envisioned.

A large part of the reason for that was my fault – I hadn’t prepared well enough for the game to have a really solid idea of where the session was headed, looking to follow the players’ lead and fill in detail on the fly. That approach had a couple of problems: first, it was a large group, and that led to a lot of debate and discussion of strategy, which slowed down play and made for some very passive choices. Second, I tried to link in a couple of different threads, one1 of which I should have dropped, which led to muddying the water and confusing the objectives.

For games like The Dresden Files RPG, I don’t design adventures, as such. What I do is create situations, where I know the movers and shakers, what their goals are, and what actions they will take if confronted with opposition. I put together a page or two of stats for the opposition2, and draw a little map of the situation, showing the relationship between the various people, places, and agendas.

While building the situation, I look for ways for the characters to become aware of at least an edge of what’s going on – a hook to draw them in. The game usually starts with me running the hook scene3, and then I sit back and take my lead from the what the characters do.

That’s my normal process, and it works pretty well – usually. This last session, though, I hadn’t done enough preparation. I had all the elements of the situation, and knew the overarching goals of the main NPCs involved, but I hadn’t given enough thought to how they were connected. I was trusting to the interplay between the characters and myself to flesh that out, the way it happens in the Armitage Files game. But that game is more focused, with a stated overall goal, and only three players. Feints & Gambits does not have, and has not manifested, an overarching plotline to focus things, and the larger number of players diffuses the focus.

Anyway, I went into the game knowing that the focus was going to be Padraig Pearse’s ghost. Two of the hook scenes pointed to him4, suggesting that he was up to something, and that it was taking place at the GPO. The group saddled up and decided to break into the GPO after hours to scope the place out.

This is where the wheels came off.

See, my plan was that Pearse, who had almost been destroyed in his last encounter with the party, wanted them safely busy ghosthunting at the GPO while he raided the Guinness Brewery for more of the True Guinness, seeing as he wasn’t going to be given a bottle this year as tribute for acting as the judge of the Easter battle for the fey5. So, I planted a couple of clues at the GPO to show them that they were on a wild goose chase: no sign of any ghosts around, a carton of milk that psychometry told them had been deliberately soured by a ghost, and a couple of things the group didn’t uncover.

Well, I misjudged the clues. They weren’t enough to make the characters suspicious of the whole set-up, and they were spending a lot of time dithering around in the employees’ kitchen of the GPO, so I upped the stakes, and had the police show up, thinking this would drive them into the upper floors and out through the roof access, giving me a chance to seed a few clues along the way. I even threw Gene Hunt into the mix, to give them a little extra motivation to scarper.

Didn’t work.

I put Hunt and a squad of Gardai between the characters and their exit on the main floor, so they hid, trusting to their veil to keep them hidden from the search. It worked, but the cops were still between them and the way they came in. Aleister made a break for it past the police, leaving the veil in an attempt to draw the police off. This was a noble try, but we’re talking about one of the most historically important buildings in Dublin having been broken into. The cops are gonna be on the scene for a while.

To make things a little more interesting, I put a few squad cars out front with armed officers waiting6, but Aleister had no real problem getting past them. Because I was feeling surly, and because of the tip about the terrorists, I had the armed officers make a Discipline check to keep from shooting at Aleister as he ran into the crowd, and they failed miserably7. So, some gunfire into the bystanders who had gathered to see what was going on, and a couple of spectators hit.

Meanwhile, inside, Kate pulled the fire alarm and lit a garbage can on fire. The rest of the group headed upstairs, but stopped when they noticed a scattering of iron nails across the floor by the stairs. Nate cleared those out of the way with a little evoked magnetism8, and they headed on up with Firinne’s faerie veil intact, though Kate was still back in the kitchen and outside of the veil.

Hunt found her, and arrested her. Rogan decided to come down and try to talk to Hunt – whom she thinks is the Black Cat, a mortal who works to keep the mystical elements in Dublin from running rough-shod over the mundanes9. She also wound up cuffed and stuck in the back of a patrol car.

Outside, Aleister, agonizing over the bystanders shot in his escape10, ditched his jacket and cap and came back to administer first aid. Hunt came out and spotted him, and asked if he’d be willing to answer some questions at the station – he is under the impression that Aleister works for Rogan. Aleister declined, but put his hand on Hunt’s shoulder, and thereby gave him an excuse to arrest Aleister for assault.

So, Hunt, being used to dealing with a corrupt system and wealthy families getting away with whatever they want, is being cagey. He’s got each of the three folks he’s arrested at a different police jail, with the paperwork lost, and no sign of a solicitor.

The other three folks made it up and out of the GPO with very little trouble, and scampered away into the night.

To wrap things up, I decided an exposition dump was needed to drive home the fact that the thing had been a trap. While Nate, early the next morning, was watching the GPO11, Aengus showed up, looking like he’d lost a bar brawl12. He filled Nate in on the fact that Pearse had shown up at the Brewery and taken not just one bottle of the True Guinness, but five of them.

So. As I say, not the way I expected things to go. Next game, I’ve got a much more solid idea of how things fit together, so it should be more focused, as we head into the beginning of the through-line of plot that will lead to the culmination of the game. Actual culmination won’t be for at least six months, yet, but it’s coming.

  1. At least one. []
  2. Sometimes. Lots of time, in games like DFRPG and Trail of Cthulhu, it’s really easy to improvise the stats I need. But for the big names and the “boss fights,” I like to have put some thought in before hand. []
  3. Or scenes. I find that, with my group, if I want to make sure the gang saddles up and involves themselves with the situation, it’s a good idea to plant seeds with a couple of the characters. []
  4. The third hook scene I probably should have dropped. It was tied to the Malleus Maleficarum trying to recruit Aleister, and I didn’t have a good connection between that and the plot for the session. I mean, the scene was good for developing Aleister’s character, and it introduced the Malleus into play, but it didn’t contribute to the current storyline, and may have distracted from it. Oh, well. []
  5. This is because all the ghosts in Dublin were freed by the death curse of a necromancer a few sessions ago. []
  6. I had decided, when I sent the police in, that they had been tipped off that there were dangerous CIRA terrorists breaking into the GPO. That justified the extra firepower. []
  7. -4 is -4, dudes. []
  8. Which pinned Firinne to the wall for a few seconds, too; she was carrying all of Aleister’s guns, because he didn’t want to get caught with them. []
  9. It was established in the setting creation that Hunt is clued in, but they have no real evidence that he’s the Black Cat. All they’ve got is rumour. []
  10. Compelled both his I Am Thy Shield and his It Should Have Been Me aspects. Yeah, I can be a bastard. []
  11. I think he was hoping Pearse would show so he could blast him to oblivion. []
  12. Yes, it is possible, because he’s probably not the Dagda at all! []

Central Canada Comic Con 2011

This weekend is Central Canada Comic Con, and once again, I will be there with the good folks from Imagine Games and Hobbies running demos of board and card games on Saturday and Sunday. I’ve made my selection and packed my bags1, so it’s just a matter of hauling them down to the convention centre Saturday morning and setting up.

Last year, I tried the sign-up thing for running the games, and it was a complete bust. The few people who did sign up for a game didn’t show, and I deferred demoing games for interested folks because it was almost time for a game that never happened. So, this year, it’s catch-as-catch-can; come find me in the gaming area, and if I’m not running a game for someone else, I’ll set you up.

Here’s what I’m bringing with me:

  • Legend of Driz’zt
  • Conquest of Nerath
  • Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space
  • Deluxe Illuminati
  • Elder Sign
  • Mansions ofMadness
  • Berzerker Halflings From the Dungeon of Dragons
  • Cthulhu Dice
  • Zombie Dice
  • Fury of Dracula
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Carcassonne
  • Chrononauts
  • Fiasco

In addition, I’m going to bring along the Leverage RPG and The Dresden Files RPG, and am ready to demo either one. These take a little more time, though, so I recommend you get to me by early afternoon if you want to try either of those. And if you can supply a full roster of players (3-5 for Leverage, 3-7 for DFRPG), that’ll make it far more certain that you get to play. Figure three hours for either of those.

So, if you’re at C4, and you’re interested in gaming, come see me, whether to play or just talk about games.

I’ll be there.

  1. I’ll try and get a picture of them up – my bags are awesome! []

Feints & Gambits: Too Long a Sacrifice

We had a full house for the first time since adding the new player, which meant we had eight people crowded into my living room. It was a little tight, but turned out to be workable. And it was nice to see how the dynamic with the full group worked.

When we had left the last session, the characters had just followed rumours of Padraig Pearse’s ghost right up to the gates of Kilmainham Gaol. I backtracked a day or so to bring the two characters who hadn’t been at the last game up to speed and involved. This was pretty easy to do, as I had originally planned to have one of the characters hooked into the plot from the start, but had to change that last session when he couldn’t make it.

Now, the O’Malley boys are good Irish lads with a reputation for being involved in some strange things. This led an acquaintance of theirs to approach them with a job offer – well, the offer of an offer, really. He told them that he was helping out another man – a patriot1 – who wanted people with a certain kind of knowledge to help him help the Republic. Nothing violent. Honest.

When it came out that the meet was supposed to be at Kilmainham Gaol after dark, the boys got a little nervous. They had heard some unsettling things about the Gaol, and the suffering and death that had occurred there over the years left Mark with little doubt that the place was steeped in some rich negative juju. Still, they figured they better go see what was going on so that they could put a stop to it if needed. And, as they showed up at the Gaol, they noticed the rest of the characters skulking in Rogan’s car in an alleyway2.

The two groups spent a few minutes bringing each other up to speed, then came up with a simple plan. The O’Malley boys would go in first, as they had an invitation, and they would create a distraction3, allowing the rest of the gang to follow them in.

Inside the Gaol, Mark and Nate met with Sean Miller, a few of his companions, and around a hundred or so ghosts, including Padraig Pearse. Miller wanted some protection from the fey4 so he could use his ghostly army to free Ireland from the English5. Mark startled Miller by putting him in a magic circle briefly, at which point Nate was tired of playing things carefully, so he started insulting the Pearse6.

At that point, I decided the distraction was occurring, so I cut to the outside group, and reported the gunshots, explosions, and flashes of fire coming from inside7. They all came running in.

Now, this was a big group – seven players – for running a large combat. I had been wondering how I would do it, and decided to go to a very loose, cinematic structure. Everyone got a turn, and we went round in an arbitrary order, letting people do stuff and deal with the consequences on their turn. This was easier than tracking initiative for the characters and the bad guys and going strictly by that and by the standard measure of a round. Instead, I let each character do about as much as would be shown in a single cut from an action movie fight scene of similar magnitude. Basically, they could each do one meaningful (cool) thing on their turn, and whatever other stuff got them to the place where they could do that cool thing.

I also let the initial part of the combat – the bit where Nate and Mark were alone amidst a horde of ghosts and several mortals with submachine guns – happen off-screen8. I had them back-to-back in the middle of the mess when the rest came through the doors, Mark holding off the ghosts with a shield while Nate blasted them with fire. To reflect that they had been holding off massive odds for several seconds, I had them each take a 2-shift and a 3-shift Mental Stress hit.

The fight was a lot of fun. I think pretty much everyone got a good chance to have some spotlight time doing neat stuff. Some notable moments:

  • Aleister running into the press of ghosts and immediately shooting Sean Miller between the eyes9.
  • Kate’s Ghost-Freeze potion that took all the (non-Pearse) ghosts out of the fight right at the start.
  • Safire using her aspect Relatives Everywhere to know one of the prison guard ghosts that Pearse called in as reinforcements, and talking him into keeping the guards out of the fight.
  • Mark using the Ghost Dust he had prepared as a fist-load to punch right through Padraig Pearse’s head.
  • Nate’s mad, desperate wrestling match with one of the living opponents in the midst of slippery fire-extinguisher foam.
  • Firinne taking a video of said desperate wrestling match and uploading it because it was funny.
  • Rogan, broken leg and all10, leaping into the fray and tearing the head off her opponent.

In the midst of this row11, Miller dragged himself off. Aleister12, Safire, Rogan, and Mark tracked him to the courtyard where the 1916 executions had taken place. He made a feeble attempt to fight them off, but really had no hope. Safire grabbed the ghost stone, and Mark took a look at Miller with the Sight to see if he was being controlled in any way.

He saw that Miller was covered in blood, with blood running off his hands, but under his torn flesh, he shone like burnished gold that was hard as steel. And he felt a huge, intimidating presence behind him. One player-on-player compel later, Mark turned around to see a huge humanoid figure that seemed to be made of fire wrapped in chains. And it spoke Mark’s true name perfectly13.

That’s when the sirens sounded, forcing the characters to run off before fully dealing with Miller. After all, he had conceded, so he got to get away.

In the aftermath, Mark told the rest of the group about his vision, saying that he thought he had seen the Martyr Ghost, the living embodiment of Kilmainham Gaol’s crucible-like property of burning away everything but the idea that drives a person. Rogan thought that this might be something useful for her to try, until it was pointed out to her that what Mark had seen of Miller suggested that he had undergone this purification.

And as for the ghost stone, the group destroyed it and delivered the fragments to Elga, who told Firinne that Winter was in her debt.

Because nothing bad can come of that, right?

The last thing we did that evening was I asked all the players to take some time over the next several weeks and to send me an e-mail outlining what her character would like to accomplish in the game. This will allow me to work a few more personalized hooks into the campaign, and start pulling a storyline14 for the overall campaign together.

And that’s where we left it.

  1. Full disclosure. I’m a little uneasy about writing about how I use the Troubles in the game. I mean, they are a big part of the history of Ireland and Dublin, but I’m just a Canadian prairie boy who has no real insight into them, no matter how much research I’ve done. And using them for entertainment might offend some people, which I don’t want to do. Suffice to say that I intend no offense, and am using the Troubles as a fodder for collaborative fiction. All people, situations, and events are used in a fictitious manner. []
  2. Yay! All the characters together, and less than half an hour into play! []
  3. Nate is especially good at providing distractions. Fiery, catastrophic distractions. []
  4. The Winter Warlord, Elga, was looking to get the ghost stone he was using back from him. []
  5. Step three: Profit! []
  6. Who was already predisposed to not like Nate, after Nate had used cleansing fire to clean the ghosts out of the GPO. []
  7. These are the standard signals that Nate has started a distraction. []
  8. With the players’ consent. That’s important to note. []
  9. So he thought. Miller actually took an Extreme Consequence (Eye Shot Out) and then conceded. []
  10. Which I completely forgot to compel during the fight. Stupid! []
  11. Miss Kerrigan fainted, her cheeks at the same time as red as a rose. []
  12. Who was the recipient of our first player-on-player compel bidding war. Two other players each offered him a compel on a different aspect – one to stay and help Nate, Kate, and Firinne, and one to go after Miller. This was an excellent way to dramatize the kind of internal struggle that we see so often in fiction but so seldom in roleplaying. It was pretty much the high point of the game for me, and I think for Aleister’s player, too. []
  13. Cue Epic (+7) mental assault as Mark tried to close his third eye. It took him a Fate Point, but he pulled it off. []
  14. As in an emergent campaign storyline, for those following along at home. []

Feints & Gambits: Beer Bash

Friday night was the latest Feints & Gambits session. I had four players for this one, and by Thursday, I had no idea what the scenario was going to be, but I wanted it to be quick enough to run in a single session, but still fun. I mentioned this on Twitter, and got this reply from @HarriedWizard:

@Neal_Rick Look up my “Last Call” case file. Pretty good stuff there.

I’d been avoiding drawing too heavily on the source material for scenarios, because most of the players have read the entire series. Also, as the game is set in Dublin, it takes some tweaking to make the (very American) stories fit the city we had created for play.

But this story was about beer, and if I can’t work a story about beer into a game set in Dublin, I’ve got no business running games at all.So, I yanked the basic premise of the story1 and the complication2, and twisted them around a little.

First off, I decided to go for a very Irish3 replacement for the football game, and made it a hurling match, held at Croke Park. Then I had to decide on the beer. The first instinct was to make it Guinness, but Guinness has a very special place in this game, and I didn’t want to mess with that. I decided it was a microbrew, called Forth Ale. And I had to change the villain behind the plot – well, I didn’t have to, but I wanted to make things a little different from the story as to involved parties and motivation, and I had a great candidate in the offing.

Amadán na Briona, the Fool of the Forth. This is a nasty legend of a powerful, cruel, trickster faerie, who is known for driving mortals mad on a whim. He’s also the ancestor of Firinne, our changeling player character4. This is a departure from what the characters seem most preoccupied with, right now, which is the whole ghosts-are-free thing they caused, but I did that very deliberately for a few reasons:

  • First, during city creation and character creation, fey politics and game-playing was, far and away, the most prevalent element that came up, and I don’t want it to fall by the wayside.
  • Second, I want to make the point that the freed ghosts are causing problems on top of all the regular problems the characters deal with.
  • Third, I didn’t want to get in a rut with a whole bunch of ghost stories. They tend to lose their impact if grouped too close together.

Now, Amadán is someone I want to be scary, mysterious, and too powerful for the characters to go after head-on, so that meant I needed to give him some catspaws, and that easily fell to the Snowbirds, the Winter Court street gang. I was working that stuff out, when it occurred to me that, if I kept using Winter as the antagonists, Summer would come across as too much the good guys. Besides, making the Sunshine Boys (the Summer Court gang) the bad guys here would keep the group guessing a little longer.

I also wanted a different climax from the story5. I thought it would be fun to have the characters actually helping the Snowbirds destroy the beer, fighting against the Sunshine Boys.

So, with this fleshed out, we started Friday evening with a bar brawl6 at Cohen’s which is the pub that Aleister lives above. I decided I wanted to give him a chance to use some of the combat skills he’s invested in, so I had him hear the beginning of the brawl, rather than just see the aftermath. He waded into the fray, and managed to save the life of the barman, though he got beat up a bit in the process.

He also managed to call the other characters for help in the middle of the fight, which I thought was pretty groovy. They showed up in the aftermath, of course, when the bar was surrounded by police. Kate wrapped herself in a veil and went in to check on Aleister, while Mark and Rogan went chasing off after some young fellows who were watching the bar wearing Sunshine Boys colours. The fey gentlemen in question weren’t very forthcoming with information until Rogan shifted to smilodon form, knocked them into a dark alley, and sat on them. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much in the way of information to give, but Mark managed to exact the promise of a service from them in exchange for letting them go.

One thing they did mention was that whatever was going on must have been big, because the Black Cat was involved. Rogan had heard of the Black Cat, a sort of boogeyman the fey used to scare each other. He was supposedly a nasty that showed up when mortals were being messed with and slapped down anyone taking advantage of the poor, magicless folk.

Inside the bar, Aleister answered some questions from the police, and met Inspector Gene Hunt7, who had taken charge of this case. Mark recognized him when he left, and filled in the rest of the gang on his reputation as quite possibly the hardest and most cunning copper in Dublin, and someone to steer well-clear of. Rogan began suspecting that he might be the Black Cat.

Once the police had cleared out, the group cheerfully violated the crime scene and began snooping around. They quickly discovered the enchantment, and tracked it to the beer, and then found a single unbroken bottle of Forth Ale that had rolled under the bar. Mark looked at it with the Sight, and got a good look at the nightmares that had been poured into the bottle. He also saw that the label said, instead of Forth Ale, A. na Briona, and worked out what that meant.

Snooping in the pub’s office turned up a flyer, advertising Forth Ale, and showing that the brewer (whose name, address, contact information, etc., was nowhere t be found) had provided ten cases as free samples to Cohen’s, and was planning on distributing thousands of free samples at Croke Park the next day at the hurling match. With the kind of thing that had happened at Cohen’s, and what Mark had seen in the bottle, they decided that would be a very bad idea.

They split into two teams, then. Aleister and Rogan went to tell Inspector Hunt about the threat, while Mark and Kate went out to Croke Park to see if they could forestall things before the game the next day. Rogan and Aleister tried to play on Rogan’s family name and her position in society, which did not sit well with the good Inspector, so he made things difficult for them – right up to the moment Rogan decided he couldn’t push her around, and shut him down. He backed off at that point8, and said he’d look into things. At that point, Rogan and Aleister headed out to Croke Park to meet up with the others.

The others had found the loading doors at the park, which was apparently being watched by mysterious figures in the shadows. As they were trying to decide what to do about that, there came a tapping at the car window, and a pixie in Snowbird colours asked if they were there to get the beer, too. Mark arranged with the pixie that the rest of the Snowbirds hiding off in the darkness would charge the building when Mark approached it to draw out the defenders. At this point, Rogan and Aleister showed up9, and everybody decided to head for the doors at once.

Well, a swarm of pixies came in out of the dark, while the loading doors started rolling up and an army of leprechauns came storming out. Other fey from both sides came crashing together, a total of 150 to 200 faeries, and the characters decided that maybe they were a little outmatched to fight their way through. Mark and Kate collaborated on a fast thaumaturgical veil10 and group slipped through the melee to get inside, where four semi trailers were parked, each marked with Forth Ale signs.

Cowering down behind the trailers, Mark worked a ritual with the bottle he still had from Cohen’s, and shattered all the bottles in the trailers. Unfortunately, that pretty much gave away the fact that the characters were there, and everyone turned on them. Aleister and Rogan held off the angry Summer fey while Kate used a potion to dissolve the locked door into the stadium itself. As people started escaping, Aleister shot one faerie dressed in silver armour through the eye, prompting another to challenge him to single combat. Before Aleister could reply, Mark filled the air with shrieking, grasping spirits11, letting everyone make a clean getaway.

That’s where we left it. I’m pretty happy with the session; it’s left some interesting questions to be answered, and I managed to do a little better than usual at keeping the Fate Points flowing. All in all, fun stuff.

So, thanks again to @HarriedWizard for pointing me in this direction. I owe you one.

  1. Beer that makes people go nuts. []
  2. The beer is going to be distributed at a football game. []
  3. At least, as “very Irish” as a Canadian boy who’s never been to Ireland can get. []
  4. Firinne wasn’t at the game, and I’m interested to hear what her reaction to this is. []
  5. Go read the story if you want to know what that is. []
  6. We pretty much had to, because Nate wasn’t there. It’s become traditional to have a bar brawl when his bar-brawl-loving character isn’t with the group. []
  7. Yeah, he’s patterned after the character from the UK TV series Life on Mars. It’s just such a good character, we decided to use him. []
  8. But this is Gene Hunt. He’s keeping score. []
  9. Thanks to a Fate Point spend from Rogan, invoking her Right Place, Right Time aspect. []
  10. They’re getting pretty good at working together. []
  11. Basically the Whirlwind spell, modified to use Spirit instead of Air. []

Feints & Gambits: The Chain Hound of Pussy’s Leap

Last Friday was the latest session of my Feints & Gambits campaign. I had four players, and had planned to make this session much more focused, with a clear objective and a problem that could be solved in one evening, as a contrast to the longer, more sandboxy style of the last couple of scenarios. At the same time, I didn’t want to make things too straightforward; that always smacks of railroading.

This can be a fine balance to strike in a game like The Dresden Files RPG. To be faithful to the source material, you need an element of mystery and investigation, but this creates the hazard that the group will flail around looking for the plot coupon that lets them progress. If the coupon is too obvious, then they feel led around by the nose, which can make them obstreperous. Telling the group, “You need more information. How do you get it?” can result in them trying the same things, but doing them harder1. And, when they run out of easy ideas, they can fall back on the old standby of divinatory magic2. This can make mysteries and investigations both frustrating and boring for the players.

Now, when I run a game with a wide-open mystery, I try and make every path a path forward, but the value of forward changes with the path. So, with the whole Easter plot, any avenue of investigation would lead them in to the main plot, but from different angles. Thus, they followed the thirteen black iron daggers, and found the necromancer cult, instead of following the threats from the fey and finding the ghostly battle, but in either case they wound up dealing with the ghosts of the Easter Uprising, and the plot to take control of them. That said, it gets hard to tell in a game like that if you’re actually making progress towards anything really important, because you don’t know what the end-goal is.

So, this session, I wanted something that had a very definite goal, and a short trip from finding out about it to resolving it. I came up with several options, most of them reflecting some part of the changed nature of Dublin now that all the ghosts had been loosed. One in particular really got me thinking and planning, but I quickly realized that it would work best as a longer arc, so I’m saving that for later. In the end, I went with a quick note that one of the players had sent to me immediately after the setting creation session back last October. Here’s what she sent me:

Chained Hound

Location: Dublin – Pussy’s Leap, Templeogue area: The large black canine which walked his area created the sound of jangling chains with each step it took.

Now, I have to say, one of the things that attracted me to this hook was that there was a black dog at a place called Pussy’s Leap, but that’s just me. A bigger factor was that I wanted to throw in a good, old-fashioned monster hunt, where the folk didn’t need to be terribly worried about bystanders and could just cut loose. But I also wanted to tie this in to the new Aspect on Dublin, All the Ghosts are Free. To that end, I tweaked things a bit from the standard black dog stories, building a new backstory3 and a hook into the story for the characters.

There was another thing I wanted to try out this session. I haven’t been happy with the lack of flow in the Fate Point economy – mainly, I haven’t been happy with how rarely I compel the characters, and thus hand out Fate Points. This has led to the characters valuing Fate Points very highly, and hoarding them when they can. They are reluctant to spend them. As Fate Points are a currency of cool in the game, this means that the characters haven’t been as cool as they could be, all tying back to my infrequent compels4. I’ve told the players to let me know when they are compelling themselves, but my group seems to think it’s a bit gauche to have to ask for Fate Points just because they’re roleplaying, so that doesn’t happen a lot.

Then Ryan Macklin posted about player-on-player compels on his blog, and I thought, “Wow. That’s a great idea. Clean, simple, and engaging. I wonder if it’ll actually work with my group.” And the best way to find out if it would work was to try it. I put a big glass goblet full of the poker chips I use for Fate Points in the middle of the coffee table in front of the players, and outlined some simple rules:

  1. Any player can take a Fate Point from the goblet to compel an Aspect on any other player at any time.
  2. Players facing a compel from another player may decline it if they choose without buying it off5.
  3. Any player may call foul6 on any compel, which then must be retracted.
  4. GM compels must still be bought off with a Fate Point.

To get the game rolling, I ran a short scene for each of the characters. This was to deal with a couple of things that had come up after the last session, during advancement, and to start slow in order to give people a chance to try the new compel structure. So, we had:

  • The Warden of Ireland visiting Mark O’Malley, who now has almost everything he needs to be a full-on Wizard7, to offer him apprenticeship with one of the White Council. Mark, who really wanted to be a full Wizard, turned it down when it was explained that he would be leaving Dublin and be under the supervision and tutelage of his master for six or seven years.
  • Nate being accosted by a Snowbird8 in the market on Moore Street, and blasting him when he wouldn’t back down. Then running away, because Constable Fergus was coming.
  • Firinne being evicted from her apartment, and conning the garda enforcing the eviction into taking her to a shelter and getting her permission to stay there for a couple of weeks.
  • Rogan’s mother coming to visit, to express how much the family misses her, and couldn’t she have been more careful with that necromancer, and her second cousin, who only had a little of the blood, had noticed a lot of ghosts gathering in St. Stephen’s Green, and could Rogan perhaps do her job and look into, please?

There were several compels handed back and forth during these scenes, and it made me pretty happy about the whole thing. And then, having the plot in hand, they gathered together to go look into the ghosts gathering in St. Stephen’s Green.

The ghosts were, of course, gathering around the Fountain of the Fates, and Mark whipped up a ritual to allow the group to see them. It was a disparate group, with clothes from the past 150 years or so, though many of them were wearing high boots and carrying rods and creels. Rogan drew upon her Bloodline of Power Aspect to force them to recognize her and speak with her. She got the story that they were fleeing to the Fates for sanctuary after being chased away from Pussy’s Leap by a big black spectral dog covered in clanking chains.

The gang then trucked off to Pussy’s Landing in Templeogue to track down and stop this ghost dog. Nate asked what he knew about ghosts, and I gave him the basic run-down about how they were not the actual spirits of people, but more like echoes or stains left behind after death, and that one needed to make them acknowledge you to be able to affect them9, or else confront them in the Nevernever. They came up with the idea to use Firinne as bait, glamoured to look like a fisherman, while Rogan, Nate, and Mark followed her unseen along the paths near Pussy’s Leap.

And so we wound up with Firinne getting jumped by chain hound, Mark opening a portal into the Nevernever swamp adjacent to Pussy’s Leap to get everyone in and focusing on the hound10, and they started piling on.

I described the thing as looking like a giant of a man that had been twisted into a doglike shape by the chains wrapping around him, which trailed off into the darkness, and also reached out to tangle our heroes up. Viewing the thing with The Sight showed something strange: it was a ghost, but there were tattered remnants of a real, human soul, now long-destroyed, clinging to it. They tried to bring it’s human mind to the forefront, damping down its savage nature, and got it to scream out the name, “Caitlyn!” but couldn’t get anything more coherent from it.

The struggle was interesting to me, because I had made the thing up with a -15 Refresh cost, to pit against four characters who are effectively at Up To The Waist power level. I figured it would be a tough fight, though not all that threatening, but the group used the two secret weapons in the DFRPG: surprise and teamwork. They layered something in the order of five or six different maneuvers on the thing, and then Nate, once he was assured that the creature didn’t count as a human for the purposes of the Laws of Magic, dropped a mystic nuke on it, with about ten or twelves shifts of power.

I liked this, and stole a couple of his shifts for some pure-flavour fallout, blasting the Nevernever environment, and giving everyone some instant sunburn, while eradicating the hound.

Our heroes then ran like bunnies, because they heard other things moving through the Nevernever swamp towards them, and they didn’t sound happy.

That’s where we left it. Over all, I’m happy with the session, though I was interested to see that the player-on-player compels pretty much dried up once the group started in on the plot. Hopefully, that will change as people get more familiar with the mechanic, and see it as a way to stock up on Fate Points when they’re running low.

Looking at the actual events, it doesn’t look as if much happened this session, but it still ran later than usual. This was due in part to the introduction of the new compels, the amount of socializing we did, and the initial scattered nature of the beginning of the game as I did the individual scenes. Much as I enjoy these individual scenes, I think I need to cut back on them.

Still, I’ve got a few loose threads from this session, and some other ideas, forming a rich base for the next scenario.

 

 

  1. Whatever that means. “You don’t find anything under the bed.” “I look harder.” “Sigh.” []
  2. Want a good tip to keep divination magic from overwhelming investigation? Make the the spellcaster be very specific about what the ritual is looking for, and how it’s going about it. It forces the group to view divination as just one more investigatory tool, rather than the magic solve-it button. “I use divination to find out who killed the ogre.” “Cool. How?” “Ummm… How about if I take blood from one of the wounds and use it’s connection to the murder weapon to lead me to that?” “Awesome! How complex are you making this?” Like that. Now, the spell can get them some valuable information, but doesn’t short-circuit the mystery. And other investigatory skills are still valuable. []
  3. Which I’m not going to mention here, because the group failed to uncover it, and some parts of it may have consequences. []
  4. It also means that I’m not giving the players the kinds of character problems they took Aspects to get, which means, for example, Rogan doesn’t have any problems keeping her beast nature in check, and Firinne is remarkably restrained for a trickster changeling. []
  5. I added this mainly to make the player-on-player compels less threatening, and so encourage them to take place. []
  6. We call this the “Dick Move!” rule. []
  7. Lacking only Wizard’s Constitution. []
  8. That’s the gang of minor Winter fey led by Baglock. []
  9. Strangely, he did not ask how to make ghosts acknowledge you at this time… []
  10. This is the moment that Nate asked, “So, about getting ghosts to acknowledge us…” It’s all in the timing. []

Feints & Gambits: Easter Morning

Friday night, we wrapped up the necromancer storyline in the Feints & Gambits game. This is, in part, what prompted my last post about being taken out; I wanted to lay the groundwork to be able to explain – both to my players and to other readers of this blog – some of the decisions I made during play1. Which is not to say I feel the need to defend these decisions; quite the contrary, my players seemed to really like the way the game went. But the decisions made, and the reasons behind them, can help to reinforce tone and style of play, and I want to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to that.

We had a full roster of players, and hence characters, this session, and I have to thank the folks who were missing last time for the easy way they brought themselves back into play. I appreciate the co-operation.

The gang was still at Kate’s place, with the necromancer cultist that they had taken from the ceremony at Trinity College Chapel. He seemed to be essentially catatonic, and Nate’s use of The Sight had shown that he was severely damaged in the soul, with his self shrinking away to nothing.  Mark and Kate decided that they were going to try and create a ritual to bring him back.  I warned them that the difficulty was going to be very high for this, citing as an example the fact that the base Complexity of a death spell is up over 20, and they were essentially trying to heal someone from one of those. They were not dissuaded, which pleased me2, and pretty much everyone in the group got into preparing the spell3, which they decided to set at Complexity 25. Which is big. Very big.

While the group was working together to come up with all the various Aspects to make up the Lore deficit, I was doing some scrambling. See, Mark and Kate wanted to cast the spell together, figuring that should give them some sort of advantage. I agreed, and then spent a frantic few minutes leafing through the rulebook to find out how co-operative casting works in the system.

I didn’t find any rules for it4.

So, rather than slow the game down, or say no to what I thought was a reasonable request, I ruled that they could each gather power to cast the spell, and it would all go into the pot to power it. But if either of them failed their control roll, all the power gathered by both of them would become uncontrolled. They thought this was reasonable, and went ahead with casting the spell.

Of course, after the game, I checked the rules when I had a little more leisure, and found the rules for co-operative thaumaturgy on page 272 of Your Story.5 The upshot is that they’re pretty much what I came up with at the moment, which is good for two reasons: first, it means I don’t have to change the way I did it this time if the characters try it again, and second, it means I’ve internalized the mindset behind the rules well enough to be able to trust my instincts with them.

So, anyway, they managed the spell6, and pulled the poor little necromancer cultist’s soul back up into the light. It was at this point that I did the actual math for how many shifts they would have needed, and saw that 26 would have been a complete success. I decided that they offset all the damage done to his soul, except for the extreme Mental consequence he had taken. I thought this was a good way to reflect the impact on his mind and soul of the trauma he had gone through in this little ordeal.

The characters were able to talk to him, but he was extremely distrustful – hell, he’d just woken up in a room full of strangers, wearing nothing but a cheap rayon robe, and the people he was with looked suspiciously like the folks who he remembered shooting at his friends. Add to this the extreme Mental consequence I had decided on, which was that he had basically become a sociopath due to the damage done to his soul, and he played up the victim angle, begged to be let free, and said he didn’t remember anything. He also swore he had no involvement with paganism, satanism, new age, or magic of any sort. Eventually, they dropped him off in downtown Dublin, with Aleister urging him to go to a church and pray for his soul7.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew was back at Trinity, breaking into the guy’s dorm room. They cracked the ward on the door, and the door itself was child’s play. Inside, they found that their poor little cultist might not have been totally honest with them: the walls were black, and had a poster of Aleister Crowley on one, and a day-glo qabbalistic tree of life painted on another. There was even a little shrine with black candles and a fake skull on it. A search turned up a small stash of ecstasy and a journal written in Enochian script, which none of the characters could read.

When they tried the redial on his room phone, they heard the ringing in a nearby room, and went to investigate, finding another warded door. Instead of disabling this ward, Mark decided to see if the ward was designed to warn the caster when it was broken. It was, so he worked up a little ritual to let his toy compass point him back to the caster. This worked, though I mentioned that small drops of peaty water were starting to form under the plastic of the compass. Off they hurried to track down the necromancer and see what should be done.

At this point, there was some lively discussion about what they were going to do with the necromancer when they finally caught up to him. Or her8. After seeing what he had done to his cultists when they were in danger of being caught, the gang were rightfully wary of him. They knew he needed to be eliminated, but also knew that, if he saw them coming, they didn’t stand a chance. They settled on the idea of finding him for reconnaissance, then setting up an ambush where they would be able to put him down with minimal risk9.

Here’s where I got to drag the plot back around to the Easter Uprising ghost battle storyline I had originally envisioned for this scenario. The compass led them to the street in front of the GPO10, where a crowd had gathered around a taped-off crime scene. Under cover of Firinne’s glamour, Aleister and Mark made their way into the crowd, trying to home in on the necromancer.

They found him. The description I gave started with, “Y’know, the guy might as well have a sign around his neck that says ‘I’m an evil necromancer.'” From there, I went on to describe his slicked-back dark hair, his pointy beard, his silver jewelry, his walking stick, and all the other trappings11 that screamed bad guy.

They retreated back to the group by the car, and Kate decided that she wanted to look at the scene with The Sight. I pulled the player aside and gave her a rundown on seeing the necromancer in all his dark power, drawing up some sort of energy from the screaming ghostly form lying within the bloodstain inside the crime scene tape. I also told her about the intricate silver and bronze chain that lay broken around the GPO, and the massed ranks of angry ghosts within, led by Padraig Pearse. Then I kicked her in the brain with a Superb attack, because I figured that was a pretty intense scene to have viewed with her third eye. She, of course, beat that difficulty handily12.

And then Kate was off, charging into the crowd to stop the necromancer from doing whatever it was he was doing. The rest of the gang, who were still planning on doing this quietly and out of sight, tried to stop her. Nate flattened her with some gravity evocation, but she yelled at Aleister that they had to stop the necromancer right now! Aleister and Rogan took her at her word, and charged into the crowd, while Firinne distracted the cops and Mark and Nate and Kate all tried spinning magic against the necromancer.

The fight ended with Rogan savaging the necromancer in her smilodon form, but that didn’t quite kill him. He had taken a lot of consequences – offset by his magical preparations, to a degree, but not completely – and had done some damage of his own, but it was time for him to concede13.

Looking at the logic of the situation, the only way I could have had him escape would have been to let him magic himself away, but I didn’t think that would work very well – breaching the Nevernever is thaumaturgy, which takes some time, and Mark specializes in transport magic, so it wouldn’t be a guarantee that he could get away. Besides, the group had worked hard to track this guy down, and were responding heroically – albeit out of desperation – so I didn’t want to take away a victory so cheaply.

That left the death curse.

The necromancer, choking on his own blood, laughed up into Rogan’s tiger face, and said, “I free them all!” Then he died. The ghosts in the GPO began solidifying, and some hasty Lore checks showed that the pulse of power from the dying necromancer had broken any and all bindings on ghosts within Dublin. With the coming of the Easter Week fey game of pitting the ghosts of the Easter Uprising against each other for their sport, the ghosts within the GPO were already pretty solid, and angry, and started setting up defensive positions. Nate didn’t like the look of that, so he used spiritual fire to burn them all out of the building14. Only Padraig Pearse, fortified by his midwinter bottle of True Guinness, survived, and he did not look pleased.

So, that’s where we left things. The necromancer cult at Trinity is no more. All the ghosts in Dublin are free to do as they will. And the Easter Week fey games are spoiled. I imagine that there will be some repercussions from each of these things. And I also figured the efforts were worth a Major Milestone.

Next, I think, I will throw something easier and more direct at them. I’ve got a lot of ghosts suddenly loose to haunt things and cause trouble, after all.

Oh, and for those who are interested in what was actually going on with the necromancer and his plots, check the spoiler tag below. My players are free to do so, as well, but keep in mind that your characters will not know the stuff you read there. But the plot is done, and the plotter is dead, so it’s not going to have a lot of effect on the rest of the game. I’ll leave that to the consequences of your actions.

Spoiler

Dr. Aidan Blackwood was the head necromancer. He had a cult of followers, drawn mainly from the students at the university, devoted to unlocking the ancient dark magics neglected by the modern new age practitioners. He wanted, specifically, to chain the angry ghosts of Dublin to his will, granting him enough power and influence in the mystical world to expand his influence over the rest of the island, and maybe even beyond. Ghosts bound to your will, aside from being power sources, are just useful.

To join his little cult, each member had to undergo a lengthy initiation ritual, which was also a thaumaturgic ritual that tagged them with a death spell that could be triggered quickly. This was how Blackwood managed to transform his cultists from living students into bog mummies so quickly – the preliminary work had been done, and he needed only to trigger it.

Anyway, he didn’t want to risk himself being front-and-centre in this little plot, because if things went badly, the ghosts would tear him apart. So he got the senior member of his cult, grad student Grania Maguire, to take the lead in the whole thing. She would be at the GPO, enacting the main ritual, while the little coven of thirteen (down to ten, after the interference of the PCs) did a supporting ritual in the Trinity College Chapel to gather energy and funnel it to her.

Oh. And part of the ritual was having a prime number of cultists in the power-generation, so once they lost three members, three more had to sit out, leaving seven to conduct the ritual, and three to stand guard. That’s why there were seven at the altar in robes and three hiding in the pews with guns.

And, of course, when our heroes disrupted the (very powerful) ritual at the chapel, the main ritual at the GPO collapsed, but not before Grania had managed to shatter the fey chains binding the GPO ghosts. The power slapped her down, and the ghosts tore her apart. Hence, the crime scene. Blackwood was doing his best to suck up the death-residue of the ritual – along with what was left of Grania’s power – when he met with a toothy end.

And that’s the background story. Not a lot of it came out explicitly during play, but I thought some folks might be interested in how things fit together.

  1. When I was studying Education at University, this was referred to as a “teachable moment.” []
  2. Heroes are people who risk everything when it’s important enough. []
  3. I outline my thinking on this way back here. []
  4. Wait for it… []
  5. Told you to wait for it. []
  6. And I resisted the urge to try and compel a failure once the gathered power topped 20 shifts. It was tough to resist, but it would have been such a dick move. []
  7. He didn’t. He went out the back way. Sorry, Aleister. []
  8. But it turned out to be him. []
  9. To that end, Aleister picked stopped by his place to pick up a sniper rifle. []
  10. Quite near the scarred paving where Nate had made his wall of fire back around Christmas time. []
  11. This was because I had forgotten the description I had come up with for the man in the setting document, which was very non-necromancery. But that’s okay; nobody called me on it, so I win. []
  12. So I don’t want to hear any more about your crappy dice luck, you hear me? []
  13. And this is where it ties into that last post on being taken out. []
  14. An evocation up around 9 shifts of power, as I recall. []

Losing It: Being Taken Out in The Dresden Files RPG

So, here’s a quote from Your Story:

If the damage exceeds the character’s stress track, or occupied boxes “push” the stress off the right side of the stress track, the character is taken out, meaning the character has decisively lost the conflict. His fate is in the hands of the opponent, who may decide how the character loses.

I found this really interesting, from a GM point of view, and I’ve been looking at it in play for some time now. I even played with the idea in Night Fears, where I set the default condition for the characters being taken out by Mental Stress to be that they flee the haunted house.

It was this last thing that prompted me to start thinking about this post – I saw some comments somewhere online1 talking about how Mental consequences represent deep psychological trauma, and that using to represent scared kids was out of scope. And that is, indeed, how the rulebook describes Mental Stress and consequences, on page 217 of Your Story. Based on the logic applied there, getting taken out by Mental Stress means your mind is broken. And, further, that getting taken out by Physical Stress means you’re dead. And getting taken out by Social Stress means you get ostracized.

But I look back at that quote, and I think about all the other things it could mean.

Now, in most RPGs, losing all your hit points2 means you’re dead. Games with Sanity systems have you go insane if you lose all your Sanity points. This makes it very easy to view being taken out in DFRPG in the same way, but really, that’s pretty limiting. Sure, the game has a pretty deadly conflict system, but it’s also cinematic. It’s designed to represent the kinds of things you see in the books – conflicts that have real consequences, and the threat of terrible things happening, but don’t always lead to death. Sometimes, it’s more interesting for the character to get taken hostage, or stuck with the cheque at the restaurant, or – for example – scared out of the haunted house.

I find it tough to remember this in play, though. It is a very different outlook from most other games3, and one that takes some getting used to. As GM, I have to make sure that I show the broad range options inherent in the idea of being taken out, so that the players will absorb the idea that Stress is not the same as hit points, and that losing a fight doesn’t necessarily mean dying.

What it comes down to is that the Stress tracks and consequences and being taken out mean whatever you want them to mean in the current situation. That’s right. They’re situational. Want a drinking contest? Physical, with consequences representing greater degrees of drunkenness and when you’re taken out, you pass out. Want to steal the crowd from a rival busker? Social, with the consequences representing lost tips, and when you’re taken out, your guitar strings break. Want to try and stay the night in the haunted house4? Mental, with consequences showing how scared you are, and when you’re taken out, you bolt.

So, how do we get the players contributing their own creativity to it? We all know that players hate losing conflicts. It makes them feel that the whole game has gone to hell, and that’s a valid sentiment in a lot of RPGs. But if they don’t lose some conflicts in DFRPG, they won’t learn how to do so in interesting and creative ways. I think that, to make it work, you can do a few things:

  • Talk to them about it. This is always the best first step in helping to change attitudes and behaviours in a game. Use a little communication to lay out expectations and options, and make sure that everyone knows what’s available.
  • Throw them into some low-stakes conflicts. So often, conflicts in games are life and death situations. Toss in some contests that are interesting, but without much on the line. That way, win or lose, you can show alternate results for being taken out. And, if they happen to lose, they don’t mind so much.
  • Bigfoot them. Throw some opposition at them that they just can’t overcome. Yeah, in other games, that’s a big no-no, but in a game like this, where losing a fight doesn’t always mean dying, it’s not as big a dick move5.
  • Teach them to concede by having NPCs concede. Show them what it looks like, and how it can be cool, and how it can earn them some extra Fate Points. Teach by example.
  • Teach them to concede by having NPCs prey mercilessly on their consequences. This is the stick to point 4’s carrot. Let the characters know that consequences can be a big deal, and they’ll be more apt to concede – and snag any extra Fate Points – than to risk having everyone for the next two sessions punching them in their cracked ribs.
  • Compel them. Compel them to concede a contest if that works with their Aspects. If they’ve already sucked up a consequence, point out how they get more Fate Points for that.
  • Reward the behaviour you want to see more of. Positive reinforcement works. This means you really need to be sure that you have a cool idea of what failure looks like in the situation, where losing is as interesting – or even more interesting – than winning.
  • Never, ever, ever screw them over. Sure, when a character is taken out or concedes, he or she loses the conflict. But they own the defeat scene. Even if the opponent gets to determine how they’re taken out, get the player’s input and buy-in. Negotiate a scene that will make everyone else jealous they didn’t take a blast of fire to the face. Because if you screw over a character with this, even once, you can lose the trust of the whole group for the rest of the campaign, and you can write this little bit of the system off. It’s too big a risk. Don’t do it6.

The key to it all, of course, is using both success and failure to advance the story you’re telling in the game. When you set up a conflict, think about what the consequences mean in context – a footrace is a Physical conflict, for example, but it’s unlike to result in a broken arm or pierced lung, and taken out probably just means losing the race or collapsing in exhaustion. You can even scale the severity of the consequences – maybe even a severe consequence from a drinking contest is erased after a day of rest. Make the consequences fit the conflict, and that includes adjusting recovery times if appropriate.

Also think about interesting ways to fail, both for the PCs and the NPCs. Maybe look at little subplots that can give a character the spotlight for a little bit if they lose, or that kick off new B storylines in the background. If someone goes to the hospital, maybe they encounter something strange there, or if someone is outmaneuvered socially and lose their job, they might get an interesting – and dangerous – offer of new employment. Make some of your ideas specific to the current scene, but try and keep a few more generic ideas in your back pocket for when the players surprise you.

Just remember that the cool of the failure must at least equal the direness of the situation it puts the character (or party) in. With enough cool layered on it, the players will go along with pretty much anything. Because they’re looking for cool in the game – that’s why we all play.

Help them find it somewhere they didn’t expect – on the losing side.

  1. I don’t remember where, and I wouldn’t point to it if I did. My objective here is not to argue. The comment just helped crystallize some thoughts about the system and the way I was using it that I want to write about. Honestly, the fact that I saw those comments almost made me not want to post this; authors of any sort, but especially game authors, really have no call telling people how they’re supposed engage with what they write. But it gave me the basics of my premise here, and it highlighted an outlook I’ve seen – and shared – in play, so I figure I should disclose that. There. I think that’s enough whining about that. []
  2. Or filling up your wound levels, or whatever that game equivalent is. []
  3. Except maybe Toon, where you fall down if you lose all your hit points. []
  4. Yeah, I keep coming back to that. What can I say? I think it shows off how to model these things pretty well, if I do say so myself. []
  5. Note that it is still something of a dick move – there’s no getting away from that. But if you make the outcome cool enough, no one will mind. So, that’s what you need to do. []
  6. And if you do it unintentionally, own up, apologize, and explain what you were trying to do. You’re human, and your players will understand if you screw up. But once you’ve apologized and explained, make it right, preferably with input from your players. That should earn you a pass on the mistake. []

Feints & Gambits: Holy Saturday

Friday night was the latest installment of the Feints & Gambits Dresden Files RPG campaign I’m running, set in Dublin. We picked up right where we had left off the previous session, the early evening of Holy Saturday, with the gang hauling the half-bog-mummified young necromancer they had saved from his rooms in Trinity College back to The Hole in the Wall1, which is the gang’s default base of operations.

The cast for the adventure changed slightly, with two of the folks who were at the previous game unable to make it, and the player who had missed the last game attending this time. This necessitated a little fast narrative footwork, and we decided that Aleister had gone off to tap his contacts about what might be going on, and Mark needing to have a little lie-down after his valiant exertions keeping the death spell from killing the boy they had rescued. And we brought Nate in with a cast on his arm on which a rude word had been written2.

Faced with a young man half-way to being a bog-mummy, Nate decided to see if he could try to cleanse him of the evil magical influences, using his evocation of the spiritual nature of water to wash away the watery necromancy used on the boy. I decided this was an interesting idea, and asked him how he’d do it. He put the boy3 in the bathtub, and used his evocation to wrench the bad water out of him, replacing it with good water. The first two attempts went poorly, because he didn’t use enough power. The third attempt4 resulted in an explosion of peaty bog water in the bathroom5, which left the boy’s body floating in a tub of clean, pure water.

The boy’s unbreathing body.

Some quick CPR followed, which got his heart going again, and cleared his lungs of water, and got him sorta-stabilized. The brown stain was gone from his skin and, while still pretty much emaciated, he no longer looked shriveled. They brought him into a hospital emergency room and ditched him there once the doctors got to him, thus avoiding unpleasant conversations with the authorities – both mundane and magical. It was nice to see how the idea of a First Law violation, even by accident, got the group moving to set things right. The Warden, while he gets bad-mouthed a lot by the group, has obviously made a strong point about his power.

Then it was back to Trinity to try and find the nine other wannabe necromancers, and possibly the big bad guy behind them. It being Holy Saturday, a night traditionally associated with the absence of divinity in magical symbolism, they figured that whatever necromantic ritual was being tried would happen tonight, and probably in one of the chapels. Kate remembered that the main chapel had some historically significant people interred in it6, so they went there.

Outside the chapel7, Firinne glamoured Rogan to invisibility, and Rogan shifted to her smilodon form to creep in and do recon8. The others followed along behind her. They found seven of the young cultists chanting around the altar, waving knives and wearing black robes.

There ensued a nice little brawl, with Rogan disrupting the ritual, Nate disarming the cultists with a little magnetic evocation, Firinne shooting down the two guarding cultists crouched down in the pews9, and Kate summoning a spiritual aspect of the Great Mother to protect the altar. This last little bit of magic revealed a mystical whirlpool in the air, leading up and away to somewhere else, but the spirit broke the connection, which caused all the cultists who were still up and around to collapse like puppets with their strings cut.

The gang grabbed one of the cultists and scarpered before the police arrived to investigate the gunshots, and took him back to Kate’s flat near the College. Her home has the strongest wards they know of – at least, of the places they have access to – and they were worried that the black cloud they had encountered twice before might try to follow the cultist to tie up that loose end. Just before they reached her place, midnight arrived, and Holy Saturday turned into Easter Sunday. At that moment, Kate felt a massive snapping of mystical tension, as if a huge magical rubber band had been stretched tight and then cut. She didn’t know what it meant, but it added one more layer of worry10.

Back at Kate’s place, Nate used The Sight to try and assess what was up with their new prisoner. He saw him as a deep, dark emptiness in the shape of a man, with a tiny figure, far away in the depths, desperately waving its arms as it drifted deeper into the void. He also took a peek at the other characters there, and I gave him a quick image of each of them: Firinne as an elfin figure, Rogan as a human straining to hold back a snarling sabertooth11, Kate as being surrounded by the spirits of her female ancestors. There was some discussion about him looking out the window at the city, but after I cautioned him about the dangers of looking at a city with over a thousand years of history, violence, death, and fey games, he decided that he’d prefer it if his brain remained inside his head.

It was around midnight in the real world by then, and we’d reached a reasonable stopping point, so we called the game. All in all, it went pretty well, especially considering I had no idea what direction the players were going to go, so I had done no extra prep after the last session.

We’ll see what happens next game.

 

  1. The alternative bookshop/tattoo parlour owned by, and sometimes even operated by, Mark and Nate O’Malley []
  2. This was an interesting development that I was pleased to see the game could handle in an interesting and entertaining fashion. Nate’s player pulled me aside when we were going to reintroduce him to the group. I had asked him what he had been doing that kept him out of the action last game, and he wanted to clear some stuff he was working on offstage and writing up as fiction on the forum. He explained the background of what he was doing to me, and asked if he could start with a cast on his arm. I gave him the option of having a cast on the arm that was just jazz, with no game impact, or actually taking the Broken Arm moderate consequence, for which I would give him two Fate Points. He opted for the latter, and it came back to cause him some problems in game, which was nice. I also said he had to decide what his brother would have written on the cast, because Mark would certainly have written something. He thought for a second, and told me the rude word that was written on the cast, and added that Mark, a pretty good Thaumaturgist, would also have turned the cast bright pink and made sure that nothing else could be written on it to cover up his handiwork. []
  3. I keep using the word “boy” to describe the victim. The guy’s about twenty – a college student – but that makes him a boy to the majority of the players in this game. With one notable exception, we’re all old. []
  4. Third time is, after all, the charm. []
  5. “Well, I want to be gentle about it.” “If you wanted to be gentle, you wouldn’t be using evocation.” “Oh. Damn.” []
  6. I’ve got zero idea whether or not this is true, but it was a good way to give them a clue about where on campus things might be happening. []
  7. I’ve got to pause here to recommend the iPad and Google image search as invaluable tools for setting the mood and location in modern games. Sixty seconds of searching, and I was able to show the players a picture of the front of the chapel at night. If I’d known that’s where things would have been happening before the game, I could even have eliminated that little lag time. []
  8. They checked for a threshold first, and found that the normal barrier posed by consecrated ground was gone – all part of the Holy Saturday thing. []
  9. She didn’t want to kill them, so I let her incapacitate them without killing. Part of me thinks that this might reduce the threat factor of guns in the game – I want guns to be scary – but the rules do say that, when someone is taken out, the victor gets to decide what exactly that means. Also, she bought the Guns skill up to Great, so it feels kinda prickish to not let her use it. []
  10. This is, to me, an important part of the game world. I throw out a number of threads for the characters to follow and, wherever they go, they find adventure. But the other threads and plotlines don’t go away, and they don’t wait for PC involvement. If you ignore something, it still progresses. What she sensed was another plotline happening elsewhere. []
  11. Very reminiscent of the Strength card of the Major Arcana, now I think of it. Note to self: look at Tarot decks for visions using The Sight. []

Feints & Gambits: Easter Weekend

Friday night was the latest session of my Feints & Gambits campaign. It’s been some time since the last one, so it was good to get back to the game. We had almost a full house, too; only one of the players couldn’t make it.

It being Good Friday, and the game being set in Dublin, there seemed only one storyline that I could use for the centrepiece of this adventure – the refighting of the Easter Uprising by the fey courts, using ghosts and faeries as soldiers, with the ghost of Padraig Pearse acting as judge. The fey courts use this as part of the game they play for control of Ireland, and the group has run into the edge of this thing previously, and, well, it was Easter weekend.

So, rather than use my master list of Aspects to generate the structure of the scenario, I pulled out the Aspects related to the main story and mapped out their relationship. Then I rolled a few more random Aspects to give the characters a way in to the situation.

At the start of the session, I decided I wanted to have a quick scene with each character to give them a hook into the scenario. I had worked out a few of them before play, but swapped a couple of them around and came up with new ones on the fly to fit things a little better, and to make sure that each character got the spotlight for a few minutes1. The scenes I came up with were:

  • A fey messenger warning Aleister that Baglock wanted him to keep out of it, without telling him what “it” was.
  • Kate returning to her flat to find an unsigned note warning her to be careful with her ectomancy, because she was close to violating a Law of Magic.
  • Macha warning Mark that, because the group had involved themselves in the Game previously, they might get tangled in it during Easter Week.
  • Rogan got a prophecy from Mad Mary, saying that someone was trying to change the rules of the game, and it might be the end for an unspecified “him.”
  • Firinne got a call from one of her business contacts, who had someone wanting to buy thirteen black iron athames.

The main thing I was wanting to accomplish with these scenes was to hint that something big was going down, and let the fact that it was Easter point them towards stuff to investigate. After all, they had built stuff during setting creation that tied into the whole thing.

But I misjudged. Thirteen black iron ritual knives was just too sinister for them to just let them go. Firinne was very concerned that they could be used to nasty effect2, and roped in Kate and Mark to help with that. They were able to give some general answers as to what such things would be used for, but weren’t able to get specific. However, all the general things tended to sound rather… unpleasant, so everyone agreed that they needed to figure out what was going on.

Firinne used her glamours to disguise thirteen empty beer bottles as the knives, and Mark put a tracking spell on the box that held them. Rogan decided to accompany Firinne as backup to deliver them to her contact, who worked out of a dance club called Jesus Murphy3. The knives were delivered and payment accepted, but Rogan got a whiff of something odd with her supernatural sense of smell. She followed the odour, which was that of death, to a trio of young women dancing on the floor of the club.

Suspecting they were undead, she wanted to interrogate them, but not in the middle of a dance club. So, she started a fist fight4 in order to get the bouncers to toss all five – Rogan, Firinne, and the three suspected zombies – out, where they could settle things in private. This worked marvelously, but the follow-up didn’t go the way they had planned.

See, Firinne isn’t much of a fighter. She carries a gun for when she absolutely needs it, but prefers not to pull it. Rogan is a combat monster, but only in her smilodon form. And these three scrappy young women proceeded to mop the pavement with our heroines. They got to experience first-hand the hard lesson Aleister learned in the first game: numbers are a big advantage, especially when they use teamwork.

Rogan finally shifted her form, which freaked their targets out, and then everything went black and cold. A deep voice spoke out of the blackness, threatening and taunting Rogan and Firinne, and filling Firinne’s lungs with peaty bog water. Our heroines took the better part of valour, and scampered back to the waiting car.

This is the point where I had the others show up – Firinne had called them between getting booted from the club and the fight starting outside. With the numbers so bolstered, they went back to see what was going on, and found three bog-mummies – very much inanimate – that had been living humans shortly before. Rogan had had some inkling during the fight that the women weren’t undead5, but that the smell had been the taint of death, rather than actual death – more a metaphyiscal thing.

This, coupled with Kate’s use of The Sight on the scene and her sense of necromantic energies at Trinity College some months previous, led the group to decide that there was, indeed, some big necromantic badness in the offing. Some investigation and lurking back at the club6 revealed that the fake knives were still there, and they concluded that the women they had fought had, in fact, been there to pick up the knives. Come dawn, Firinne refreshed her glamour, and Mark his tracking spell, and they went to get a little sleep.

So, on Saturday, a day associated with the triumph of death and the absence of god in Christianity, the daggers moved. The gang followed them to Trinity College, where they saw ten obvious students divvying them up and heading off. One of the students kept the box and the extra three knives, and that’s the one they followed back to his dorm room. When they tried to bully him into talking to them, they found a very powerful ward set up in his doorway and, when they pressed the case, the darkness and cold came back, and their target started gurgling and gasping.

Kate used a magic dissolving potion to pull the ward down, and they snatched the boy out of his room. He was already turning brown and withering, with brown, peaty water pouring from his mouth. Mark almost blew a brain gasket, but managed to interfere enough with the incoming spell to break it and save the boy’s life. The group bundled him up and took him off somewhere safe to recover before the bad juju came back.

And that’s where we left it. The investigation is going in a different direction than I had anticipated, and leading up to a very different climax, but it should still be a good one. Next session should finish it off.

  1. The random rolls I had done pre-game to select character Aspects to use to hook the characters had pulled up Aspects for the same characters for the last few games, and I wanted to spread things around a little more. []
  2. In some ways, she’s one of the more responsible and cautious characters in the group, which is odd for a trickster changeling. Obviously, I need to compel her trickster nature a little harder. []
  3. It got named this way: Firinne asked what the club was called, and I turned it back on her, saying she had invented the contact and where he was located, so she’d have to come up with the name. She responded something along the lines of, “Jesus Murphy, now I have to come up with the name of the club, too?” And thus it was named. []
  4. The group seems to love them some bar brawls. []
  5. You can get quite a good sniff of someone if they’ve got you in a hair-pulling headlock. []
  6. Also some magic and some breaking and entering, but don’t tell anyone. []

Night Fears

So, this happened.

Long ago, in the before time1, I wrote some RPG stuff for pay. I’m not sure if Fred Hicks recalled that2 – I had used it as a selling point to get in on the Dresden Files bleeding alpha playtest, but that was a long time ago – or if he was asking me primarily as a courtesy because of all the stuff I’ve written about DFRPG on this blog, but he asked me if I’d consider writing one of their free one-shots.

I had to think about it for a while. There are reasons I stopped writing for the industry, but the main two were that it ate up a lot of time and creativity that I could be funneling into my home games (or even work), and that the people I respected and trusted as editors and publishers weren’t looking to buy the kinds of stuff I wanted to write3 and I didn’t want to work with the people who were buying it.

This was going to be a short scenario, though, and I already knew the folks at Evil Hat were good, professional folks, so I said yes, and pitched them some ideas. Night Fears was one of them4, though not the top option on the list. It was, in fact, number two.

The one Fred and I liked best was a court trial, where the bulk of the action would take place in flashbacks, allowing the characters to build the backstory dynamically as the trial proceeded. I thought it was a cool idea, and could make for some great storytelling, but it was kind of daunting, so I decided to test the concept in my Fearful Symmetries game. After playing, I was reluctantly forced to admit that it would take way too much work to hash it into a pick-up-and-play form that anyone could run at a convention or evening of play.

So, we fell back on the Night Fears idea. I liked this one because it let me work a standard haunted house horror scenario into a DFRPG world, and to focus on being scared, rather than on being hurt5. It also let me cobble together an interesting group of young teens to tackle the problem – I’m really happy with the characters as they turned out, and I think they’re good enough to lift out of the scenario for other teen-centric one-shots.

The other thing I think is important about these characters is that they’re set at Feet in the Water level, the lowest power level in the game. I’ve got a bit of thing about games with sliding power scales – I like to see if they work as well at the lower end as at the higher end. And by “work as well as,” I generally mean they can tell stories that are just as interesting, just as threatening, and just as heroic. I took the low power scale here as a challenge to myself, to put together something that would be as fun to play as dueling Submerged wizards6.

Hopefully, I succeeded. You’ll have to let me know.

Anyway.

The whole experience of working with Evil Hat has been awesome. Matthew Gandy has taken his place in my list of top editors7 to work with – he asked the right questions, called me on my flaws, and just generally dragged the stuff I’d written up to a higher level. Thanks, Matthew.

Fred Hicks is just magic. I mean, you’ve seen his layout stuff – he does an amazing job of making his books look both classy and fun, which is a bit of a balancing act, in my mind. Beyond that, he is great to work with, very communicative, supportive, and (maybe most importantly for freelancers) quick to pay. He went above and beyond keeping me in the loop on where things stood with the book, sending me art previews and layout previews. It’s great to feel so involved in a project.

And Kathy Schad is an amazing artist. I don’t know enough about art to discuss her stuff intelligently, so I will just say that she made the stuff in my head look better than I imagined it could. Check out her site.

One of the coolest things about this project happened today, when I got to follow Ruben Smith-Zempel’s tweets as he pulled the map in the book together in an amazingly short time. It’s a great map, and I can’t believe how quick he was with it.

That’s about enough of me prattling on about the scenario. I’ll shut up now. But I encourage you to go check it out – it’s free, after all – and let me know if you run it. I’d love to hear your war stories.

  1. Which is to say, back in the heady days of Unknown Armies and D&D 3.x. []
  2. Though possibly Chad Underkoffler remembers some of our shared credits on UA stuff. []
  3. Though the ever-charming Dr. Michelle Nephew encouraged me to write a card game for Atlas when they stopped doing the d20 stuff. I really wish I could have figured out how to do that. []
  4. It was originally called Dare, but I changed that when it was suggested that I follow the Dresden Files naming pattern. []
  5. Don’t get me wrong; the characters can get hurt bad in the scenario, but that’s not the primary focus. []
  6. The other thing about the low power level is that the characters are very simple to play, so it’s a good scenario to spring on newbies, even if it doesn’t show off the magic system. []
  7. The other three names on that list are John Tynes, Greg Stolze, and Michelle Nephew. []