Feints & Gambits: Uptown, Downtown

Slowly catching up. Hopefully be up-to-date by the end of this coming weekend. Thanks for hanging in there.

The last Feints & Gambits game was a small one – we were in the grip of a minor blizzard, as well as illness and (I think) a choir performance, so I counted myself lucky to get quorum to run this game. And I really wanted to run it, just to finish off the storyline that I had intended to take one session, but which dragged out to three.

I had encouraged the players to discuss their plans for this session on the game forum, which they did1, so that I had an idea of what they were planning and so that we didn’t spend the first two hours of the game with the players rehashing everything to come up with a plan. Then, of course, with only half the players showing for the game, some of the plans fell by the wayside.

Still, they had two main objectives: first, to see if they could snatch Doyle, the head of Doyle Developments, the company behind the attempts to purchase the neighbourhood; and second, to see if they could calm down the hot-headed residents of the neighbourhood to prevent an escalation of violence. They stuck pretty close together this time out, maybe because they felt they had less of a safety net with the other characters offstage.

So, first up was an attempt to kidnap Doyle. Now, this plan struck me as a terrible idea – a group of street-level toughs trying to snatch one of the wealthiest men in Dublin – but I didn’t just want to tell them they couldn’t do it. Nor did I want to spank them with either his bodyguards or with the consequences of a successful kidnapping2.

This is something I want to talk about a little bit here. I was concerned about the players’ expectations and assumptions about the world, and their place in it. I was getting a little bit of a D&D-esque “We can do anything because we’re the PCs” vibe from some of the discussions, and that caused me to do some thinking about how I’m presenting things in the game. I think that I’m not communicating things all that clearly. See, I want to stick by the decisions that the characters made regarding power level; I was pretty clear at that point, that they were going to be only a little bit up the ladder from normal mortals. What I failed to explain was the source material conceit that the supernatural factors view getting mundane authorities investigating things to be the equivalent of trotting out the nuclear weapons.

What am I saying? I’m saying that there seemed to be a difference in understanding about consequences between myself and my players. That’s a dangerous thing to have in a game. It can quickly lead to a perception that the GM is being unfair and needlessly punitive. Or that the GM is being needlessly lax and straining credulity by the kinds of things he lets the players get away with.

I didn’t want Doyle to be safe to mess with just because he was mundane. In fact, I wanted just the opposite.

I decided to handle this by flagging the difficulty of grabbing him during their recon stage, trying to highlight the fact that taking him would be difficult, and would have real repercussions in the game. To that end, when they went looking for where Doyle lived, they found that he had a big house in the country, but also a penthouse in a city hotel. They called the house and found that he was in the city, so they staked out the hotel for a while. When they had had no sight of him for several hours, they realized that he was probably coming and going in a secure car through the underground car park, and that they’d have to flush him out if they wanted  to get a look at him and his security3.

Nate decided to hex the hotel’s security, and pumped enough power in it to take out the entire electrical system. That let the gang see Doyle and his escort leave the hotel and go to another. When Aleister tried to get in close to Doyle and see which room he was taking, he was backed off by several large, professional-looking bodyguards. They decided to head back to the first hotel and break into his penthouse to see if there was anything incriminating there.

Kate managed summon up the fading echo of a burglar to help them break in, and they searched the place, spending a fair bit of time going through the contents of the suite. They found nothing indicating Doyle’s involvement with the attempted land-grab, nor that he had supernatural connections, or indeed anything incriminating. They did find copies of deeds, papers of incorporation, and passport in his safe (along with some watches and cash), which they helped themselves to.

That’s when I told them the lights came back on, and they hung around a little longer. Then I had the elevator start up, and they decided to high-tail it out of there. Nate used a little earth evocation to drop the elevator a few feet4, and they scrambled down the fire stairs to the alley and escaped.

Back at The Hole in the Wall, Kate tried a divinatory ritual to help her piece together a full picture of Doyle’s company and its holdings. This took some time, but ended with a detailed chart of who did what all through the hierarchy of the various corporate entities, which they turned over to the reporter they’d been dealing with5. Facing Doyle’s inaccessibility, the group then decided to move on to their second objective.

This went a little more smoothly: they got the name of Shaina Sadiki from the reporter as someone respected in the Pakistani community in Dublin who might be able to help them calm things down. After talking their way into meeting her, they had to convince her that they were sincere in their desire for a non-violent solution, whereupon she invited them for family dinner to talk to her grandson, one of the main agitators among the young men in the neighbourhood.

They managed to convince him that violence was a bad idea, and told him that things should be resolved in a couple of weeks when the article the reporter was writing was published. The article came out sooner than expected, and wasn’t what they thought it would be. Instead of an attack on Doyle, it turned out to be the story of how, when he found out that there was violence being committed by employees – remote employees, to be sure, but employees nonetheless – he turned over all the information he had on things to the police and co-operated with the investigation. Instead of him being an evil land developer, he came across as an ethical, concerned businessman. Who also made some restitution to the area, and paid the hospital bills of the injured.

The group isn’t sure whether that’s just cover for getting caught, or if he was genuinely unaware and, frankly, neither am I right now. It’ll depend on what I need Doyle for in later games.

And that’s how we wrapped the storyline. I think everyone was glad to see it end. The dragging was my fault; in a group as large as this one, with a system that many of them are learning, I didn’t provide a clear enough forward direction, which left the group floundering around to try and latch on to anything that would move the story forward. I will keep that in mind for putting together the scenarios in future.

But there were no deaths, no tantrums, no meltdowns, so I’ll take is as a lesson learned and move on.

Now I have to schedule some more sessions.

  1. And I only had to bribe and threaten them a little bit. []
  2. Or a failed one. That would be bad, too. []
  3. Beyond the fact that he was obviously security-savvy enough to keep observers from seeing him come and go, of course. []
  4. Thank god for elevator brakes – he pumped the spell up pretty high. []
  5. I’m gonna have to stat her up, I think. At least give her a name. She’s turning into a regular contact. []

Feints & Gambits: Drinkin’ and Fightin’

Last night was the latest session of Feints & Gambits. We had almost a full house; only one of the players couldn’t make it.

Mindful of the scattered nature of the previous session, I tried to keep things more focused this session, without drawing in too many extraneous threads to confuse the main story. This worked better, and the characters pushed on through the game, running down the leads they had, and discovering more information. We didn’t finish the story up last night, mainly because the one thing the characters haven’t decided on is what counts as a win for them.

I’ve come to realize that this is an insanely important decision for the party to make. In a lot of games, the victory condition is kind of a default for the game: save the princess, slay the dragon, rip off the megacorp, arrest the supervillain, find the treasure, whatever. It’s built in to the scenario assumptions from the start, and the characters are hooked into wanting to pursue that objective1.

What I’ve been doing a lot in both the Dresden Files RPG and the Armitage Files campaign is letting the characters set their own agendas, and establish their own goals and victory conditions. With Fearful Symmetries and Armitage Files, the player groups are fairly small: two and three players, respectively. With double the number of players in Feints & Gambits, the decision process tends to involve a lot more discussion and debate before consensus is reached2, and heightens the planning paralysis potential of the game, which is to be avoided.

When we got to about 11:40 last night, the group was deep in a discussion about the best way to proceed, and had started circling back on their own arguments, losing both focus and momentum, so I suggested we call it a night and move the discussion to the forum for the three weeks until the next game, and they agreed.

So, what happened at the game itself? Well, first of all, Nate wasn’t there, as he had to go return the van he had acquired for that thing with the Guinness. Also, he had to explain the damage to it. Firinne and Aleister were still in pretty rough shape after having been bashed about by the thugs the night before, but Kate was looking after them. Mark had the papers he and Nate had stolen from the lawyer’s office, which they needed to examine. And Rogan showed up to say that she had spent the previous day trying to Aengous drunk to find out more about the Game the fey were playing3. Everyone regrouped at the Hole in the Wall to plan their next moves.

They pored over the maps of the neighbourhood that was being bought out, but were unable to discover any mystical significance to the sites that were being purchased. Kate spent a few hours sorting through the records from the lawyer’s office and discovered that New World Developments was owned, through a network of shell companies and holding companies and false fronts, by Doyle Developments, one of the biggest land development firms in Dublin.

With this information, Aleister called Robin, the friend who had inadvertently drawn him into this by asking Aleister to get him some pistols for self-defense. When Robin didn’t answer his phone, Aleister, Rogan, and Firinne went to find out what was up. At his place, they found a number of angry young Asian men who told them that Robin was in the hospital, having been beaten almost to death. They asked if Aleister had got them their guns yet4.

Deciding that something needed to be done about the thugs, Mark whipped up a tracking spell to find them. Kate made Aleister a healing potion to help with his broken ribs5, and they all headed out on the trail of the men who had beaten Robin.

They found them in a pub in northern Dublin, and Aleister confronted them. This, somewhat predictably, turned into a bar brawl, and we got to see what Aleister can do when he’s got some room to maneuver and someone to watch his back. Also, that Mark’s head is very hard. With the three thugs unconscious – one of them out on the street under a broken window – and beer raining down from a broken tap, Rogan and Firinne each lifted a wallet from one of the fallen toughs as everyone made good their escape through the escalating brawl6.

Aleister followed this up the next day with a phone call to the chief thug and made a rather chilling threat about what would happen if Aleister caught him south of the Liffey ever again7.

Meanwhile, the group decided to take the papers they had found linking New World with Doyle to a reporter friend of Aleister’s, hoping that the papers could apply some pressure without the gang having to tell the police where they got the records. I took the opportunity to give them a quick course in political leverage through the mouthpiece of the reporter: she asked if they had kept copies, and they sheepishly had to admit that they hadn’t, and then asked for a couple of hours to do that. She then explained that she’d have to verify the information on the papers independently before she could publish anything, and that would take a couple of weeks. They reluctantly agreed to that.

And Rogan went to one of her family lawyers to see what he could tell her about Doyle Development. The lawyer told her that the head was Sir Clifton St. John Doyle, a flash man-about-town, and a wealthy and clever developer. When she mentioned the papers, he pointed out that none of the information they had actually implicated Doyle in the violence, or any unethical behaviour. He also offered some ideas about why Doyle would be using such a convoluted front to buy up the property he wanted, including not wanting competitors to find out what he was doing and drive up the price. He couldn’t offer any other information about what might be going on, but he did offer to set up a meeting with Doyle in a day or two, and she took him up on that.

That’s about when things got tangled in a discussion about what the next steps should be and, after a bit, I called the evening to a close. I find it interesting that it’s taken them two sessions to come to grips with the idea that this problem might have no supernatural component to it at all, but that’s where they’ve arrived, and that’s good. I don’t want every story to be about the fey or other mystical nastiness, though obviously a certain number of them need to be.

And now they’ve got three weeks to figure out what to do next. I wonder what they’ll decide.

  1. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I hasten to point out. Sharply defined goals offer great motivation and a strong sense of accomplishment when the characters achieve them. It’s just not the only way to do things. []
  2. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. It creates the greatest amount of player buy-in, gives them the strong sense of being in control of their characters’ fates, and in general keeps up the collaborative story building that the game set-up encourages. But it does eat time at game sessions. []
  3. She quickly discovered that Aengous either didn’t get drunk, or that drunk was his default state, and he didn’t get drunker. She, even despite her shapeshifting ways, was not quite so lucky. []
  4. I did this to make it apparent that, while the characters were free to choose how they dealt with things, events are transpiring elsewhere, whether they’re aware of them or not, and that the situation is not under their control. Tensions are mounting in the community, and will eventually come to a head. []
  5. Based on the Reiki Healing spell in Your Story. []
  6. Well, Aleister didn’t escape so much as he called the guys he had just beaten up pedophiles who had molested his brother, and then stared down the rest of the crowd until they cleared a path to let him walk out. []
  7. When he made the call, I had a child answer the phone and call for his da. I was interested to see where Aleister would draw the line – would he, even implicitly, threaten the child to get the father to understand the seriousness of things? The answer was no. Aleister has scruples. []

Fearful Symmetries: RIP

My Fearful Symmetries campaign has come to an end.

Izabela’s player has decided that she doesn’t want to continue with the game. Seeing as it’s a two-player game, and the two players are husband and wife, that means the game stops.

What happened? Well, I mentioned last post that Izabela was probably going to be retiring, because her player and the magic system didn’t really click. Upon spending some time thinking about what other sort of character would be a good fit for the game, but less mechanically complex to play, Penny came up with a concept she really liked. Then she started thinking about building the characters and said, basically, “Ugh. That means that I’ll have to come up with Aspects.”

She took that as a good indicator that her dissatisfaction with the system went beyond the complexity of the magic system. And, given that she wasn’t enjoying the game, and didn’t like the way the system worked, she very rightly decided that she should bow out of the game.

Now, I happen to love the system, but I can see why she doesn’t. There’s a certain level of meta-thinking that goes on when using the Aspects and whatnot in the game: places where you have to stick your head above the character-immersion waterline and look over your Aspects and your Fate Point totals and create something new on the fly that will apply to a given situation. I think that, for some people, it quickly becomes transparent, and builds a very cinematic style to play. But if you don’t click with the system, you don’t click with it, and you never get to that point.

This is an important point that I have had to learn over and over through my gaming life: not every system is a good fit for every player, or for every game. Some players like more, or less, or different structures to the games they play, and if the rule system doesn’t fit for them, then every time they have to use it, it breaks them out of their happy gaming place, and frustrates them. When it gets too bad, they stop playing.

So, yeah. That’s that.

I want to thank Clint and Penny for playing. We had a good run: 15 sessions, nearly a year of play, and some good, memorable moments.

It’s been fun.

Fearful Symmetries: Unmasking

Friday night was the latest installment of my Fearful Symmetries campaign. It was a return to a more traditional style of session, after the experiment I tried last time. I didn’t have a lot of information about what the characters had planned for this session, so I could do very little prep, but things went pretty well, anyway1.

We started the game in the manner I usually do in these situations: I asked what the characters were up to, and improvised responses. The initial actions were pretty tame, but then they remembered that, very recently, lightning had come down out of the clear sky and almost killed Emeric, and that they still didn’t know why that had happened.

This led them up Petrin’s Hill, waiting for a storm, trying to figure out how they had angered the storm god Petrunas. Izabela was a little nervous about this, because she had taken a look at the hill with her Sight, and seen the giant slumbering in the earth, whom she assumed was Petrunas2, and she didn’t want to disturb him.

Of course, in response to dramatic necessity, they were attacked that night by a dozen cultists and a storm spirit similar to the one that had set fire to Emeric’s rooms previously. He knew how to deal with it, now, and dispatched it handily, while Izabela used her whirlwinds to keep the cultists from ganging up on them. A little interrogation yielded nothing but demands that Emeric surrender his sword, Beortning, which the cultists said had been forged from a stolen piece of Petrunas’s soul. Needless to say, Emeric declined to give up the blade.

Well, it was actually a little more dramatic than that. Emeric said something about how, if Petrunas wanted the sword, he should come and take it, then thrust it hilt-deep into the ground, which shook under his feet. And then he couldn’t pull the sword out again.

In the meantime, the veiled Izabela followed the fleeing cultists back to the rock where the characters thought at least one sacrifice had taken place, and heard them converse with the empty air. Her arcane senses showed her a faint shimmering above the rock, which could have been either a veil or the concealed end of a scrying, so she didn’t want to risk attacking, especially with Emeric still back at the camp, struggling to pull his sword free of the earth.

When Izabela returned, she used the Sight3 to check the situation out. She saw that the blade had pierced the thigh of the sleeping giant, who had twitched in his sleep, but that the reason the blade wouldn’t come free was that it was encased in a ghostly spindle of ice, marked with a rune.

With that knowledge, Emeric blasted fire through the sword while he pulled on it. A failed control roll saw the trees around them also catch fire4, but he managed to rip the blade free, and then sucked the fire back into himself, quenching it, and leaving a circle of charred ash where there used to be forest.

They were fed up with always being on the defensive, and Izabela summoned a spirit to find out who was behind the attacks. She was given a name: Nicola Thunderpriest.

This is an interesting artifact of the game. During city creation, the players decided that the priest at the church atop Petrin Hill was also secretly the leader of the Petrunas cult. However, in play, they kept that knowledge out of their characters’ awareness and, I think, began to wonder if it was still true – I was playing Nicola as a devout, if slightly worldly, priest who did his best to try and save Emeric’s soul when he discovered that Emeric was some sort of demon. I had built his character around the idea of a secret cult leader, so he had several True Faith powers, as well as sponsored magic, and a stunt or two that helped him with his masquerade.

With him unveiled, Emeric was enraged by the betrayal5, and went off to the church to exact his revenge.

I liked the way things were going. Emeric was angry at the betrayal, and deeply hurt, and just (I think) a little bit tempted to give up the sword if Nicola could convince him that the priest would be a better guardian for one of the Dooms. He terrorized the priest and the altar boys at the church until he found the parsonage out back, where he figured Nicola must be holing up.

So, Emeric and Izabela burst into the parsonage6 and opened the trapdoor that led to Nicola’s work room. What followed was the first fight where I think the characters really felt threatened. I had built Nicola as a -16 Refresh character, and given him a few Fate Points on top of that, so he was no slouch. Add to that the home-field advantage – both his ability to tap the Aspects of his home that he knew about, and the effect of his strengthened threshold – and he had a good chance of really doing some damage.

The characters fought cleverly, using maneuvers to remove a couple important tools and enchanted items, though Izabela took a pretty devastating blast of lightning. Then, they managed to subdue him as he tried to tear open the veil into the Mittlemarch and escape. They bound him, and went to find city guards to take him into custody7 for trial before an ecclesiastical court.

That taken care of, they Izabela turned her attention to the Gold Lane problem. With the knowledge that an angel had been bound into the curse, she decided to see if she could find any writings of John Dee or Edward Kelley that talked about their communing with angels. A little investigation revealed that Kelley had once lived in a house reputed to have been owned by Faust, so she and Emeric went their to see if she could find anything of value.

Their search of the premises yielded nothing of note, so Izabela tried to raise Faust’s ghost to see what he had to say. She was successful, and had an interesting conversation with the dead man, who revealed that he knew of nothing hidden in the house, but that there was a place he was unable to look: up the chimney. Glancing up there revealed that the flue was ringed with Enochian sigils, anchoring a veil. They unraveled that, and found a substantial quantity of gold, as well as some preserved human parts8.

The piece of information that Faust’s ghost gave them that was most useful was that he didn’t think that Kelley or Dee were able to bind angels, having little power themselves. The power was all resident in the shew stone that allowed their communion – Kelley had been working to twist that into a binding device, but Faust didn’t believe he had succeeded. That was enough to convince Izabela that she needed to find the shew stone and see what it could teach her.

That’s about where we left it, but there was one other game-affecting development. Izabela may be retiring to NPC status. Her player confided to me last night that she’s not having fun playing Izabela, and might like to try a different character. This wasn’t a huge surprise to me; I’ve been watching the player struggle with the character, and get frustrated with the spellcasting system9, from day one. So, we may be having a new character take the stage while Izabela devotes herself to research.

But that’s something for another day.

  1. And again, I credit the collaborative city creation for this. It gives me the framework I need to come up with plots and reactions on the fly. []
  2. It isn’t. []
  3. She’s gotten pretty good at avoiding the Mental Stress from using the Sight, which is in keeping with her character. []
  4. This was a night of terrible, terrible dice luck for the players. I almost felt bad for them. []
  5. Interestingly, he had traded in his Aspect related to anger for one related to building a network of information, favours, and influence just this last advancement. []
  6. Over the threshold, which severely impacted their supernatural abilities. []
  7. As luck would have it, there was a squad right handy, called by the the terrorized clergy. []
  8. Emeric thinks that they were being prepared to be sold as saintly relics to the unsuspecting. []
  9. There is no doubt in my mind that it’s the magic system that is the main culprit in the player’s dissatisfaction with this character. It’s not that the magic system is bad, but it is complex, and doesn’t have the kinds of support structures in it that let her use it with confidence. She likes immersive play, and finds that whenever she wants to use magic, she has to pull back from the character to fiddle around with the mechanics to build a spell, and she finds that jarring. Which is fair. Not every system is going to mesh well with every player. []

Feints & Gambits: Developments

Last Friday night was the latest installment of Feints & Gambits. Five of the players were able to make it, which gave us almost a full house.

While we had fun with the game, this session was a little more muddled and directionless than previous ones. The problem was that I had incorporated a technique I’ve been using to great effect in other, smaller games1, and it split the focus waaaay too much in this larger group. So much so that what I had intended to be another single-session adventure is going to stretch to two sessions2.

What I’ve been doing in the smaller games that I tried in this one is throwing out leads to multiple storylines, and seeing which ones appeal to the players. These threads often deal with consequences of their past actions, fallout from previous adventures, friends and enemies made, and that sort of thing. When I threw in a bit of a teaser about the Winter Squire letting one of the characters know that Winter was aware of the characters’ meddling, the players immediately started seeing if they could find out where the Squire hung his hat and apply a little pressure of their own. They also started trying to find out what the rules of the game between Summer and Winter were.

This play started to drag a bit, turning into the players making rolls and trying to unlock the exposition dump they needed to ask the next question3, so I decided to pull in one of the other threads for the game, having an old squad-mate of Aleister’s show up an ask him to get some handguns. A little investigation on this led to the discovery that there had been an escalation in violence against Asians in a neighbourhood in the South Dublin suburbs, with the locals of the opinion that it’s part of a plan to get the owners to sell off their homes and businesses to a developer.

In the midst of it all, Kate had had a chat with Mad Mary, and got a cryptic little prophecy that they’ve been trying to decipher, seeing where it applies4.

The violence in South Dublin seemed to be the more pressing concern – everyone figured that the Winter Court wasn’t going anywhere  – so they headed off on a two-pronged approach. One team would walk through the area disguised as young Pakistani men, while the other would try and break into the offices of the lawyers handling the offers to purchase to try and find out who was behind them.

I jumped back and forth between these two scenes, intercutting to try and keep everyone involved and interested. The bait team got jumped and quickly took out their attackers, but the police showed up, so they were unable to interrogate their prisoners. The burglary team got in and got the files, but left some pretty obvious evidence of their presence because of the necessity of using evocation to get through a couple of barriers.

That’s where we wrapped things up. We hadn’t got all that much done, but again that was a result of the way I had split the focus. If I want to keep a more episodic style of game, I need to present a more obvious path forward for the characters, rather than a myriad of possible options, none of which look better than the others5. I was very happy that they split the party the way they did; that’s usually a big mistake in roleplaying games, but works fine in DFRPG, due to the emphasis on narrative systems and the empowerment of players in determining when they’re in real danger.

Next time, though, I’m gonna run it a bit tighter.

  1. Like Fearful Symmetries and Armitage Files, for example. []
  2. I say this like it’s a problem, but it isn’t really. It’s just not what I had planned, and I had to choose my stopping point carefully so as to allow for the attendance or non-attendance of the various players next session. What I mean is that I had to stop somewhere that it was easy for characters to enter or exit play if the number of people who can make it next session changes. []
  3. This is an approach much used in video games, and it works well there. In a table-top roleplaying game, I want to encourage a more dynamic, interesting approach, where the characters actually do stuff to find things out, and I need to figure out how to advance that idea more in play. For example, instead of “I ask around to see what I can find out. Is that a Contacts roll?” I’d prefer to see something like, “Okay, well, Seamus down at the Cobblestone used to be in The Sunshine Boys. I’ll try and track him down so I can ask him about the Snow Birds.” []
  4. And I’m not telling. Not yet, anyway. []
  5. There’s a fine line between this and railroading. I want the characters to have freedom to choose what they want to do, and which approach they want to take, but I know the group likes some direction – they want there to be a story there for them to find, not just wander around hoping something interesting happens. And they don’t want to spend hours debating between options that look equally good or bad to them. So, providing a clear path forward, or maybe a couple that have very obvious pros and cons, gives them the support to make decisions and drive the story. []

Fearful Symmetries: Trial (In More Ways Than One)

This post has been delayed, because I’ve needed to do some thinking and formalizing the stuff I’m going to say here. The reason is that I tried something kind of new to me in the last session, inspired by reading games like Leverage RPG and Apocalypse World. It was an experiment in a different narrative structure to the adventure, breaking away from the start-middle-end assumption and defined events to something more free-form and collaborative.

What does that all mean? Well, basically, it means I ran this session as a flashback episode.

At the end of the previous session, we left things with our heroes about to descend on the house where, they were told, a cell of Catholic spies were based. They wanted to bring these spies in and thereby clear Emeric’s name of charges of espionage. In the time between that session and this past one, I had been thinking about the kind of game this has become, and how I wanted to provide a few more options for the characters, and how I didn’t really want this round-up of a spy network to be a kick-in-the-door-kill-the-bad-guys scenario1. On the other hand, the characters are good at that kind of thing, so I didn’t want to take that option totally off the table.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered a couple of off-hand comments that my players had made about not getting a lot of use out of their social skills, and about some of their goals – specifically, about wanting to become more involved in keeping Prague safe in the face of the impending arrival of the Catholic League. Both those things implied wanting to be more involved in the upper levels of society in the city, so I wanted to give them the opportunity to make that happen, too.

Apocalypse World offers some interesting perspective on creating scenarios: don’t do it. Play to find out what happens. And Leverage RPG allows the use of flashbacks to establish facts in the past for effect in the current game. And we’ve all seen and loved movies and TV shows that start in media res and then fill in the backstory as we go along2. I got this idea stuck in my head that it would be fun to do a game like that, giving a lot of the creative control over to the players to decide how they managed to get to their current situation, and then letting them use that stuff to get them out of it.

It was a big enough departure from the usual way we do things that I spent a lot of time agonizing about whether I should try this or not. Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place: I talked to my players about it3. They agreed that they’d be interested in trying it, but that they didn’t want to waste the evening if it turned out the approach crashed and burned. I thought about that, and said that I could build in some trap doors to abandon this approach in favour of our more traditional one if we felt it wasn’t working.

Based on that feedback, I went ahead and figured out what sort of structure this experiment was going to use, and how I wanted to incorporate the mechanics of the game into the story we were telling. My primary goals were:

  • Provide a way for the characters to begin interacting with the nobles of Prague.
  • Give them some use for their social abilities, ideally through some Social Conflict.
  • Let them write as much of the backstory as they wanted to.
  • Make sure we all had fun4.

I went for a pretty sparse set-up: the characters were standing before a council of nobles in the throne room of Prague Castle, being asked to account for themselves and prove that they were not spies. There were about two dozen nobles present, but I figured that there were really six key figures that they would have to sway to their side in order to gain their freedom, and that swaying was going to be accomplished using the Social Conflict rules.

To this mix, I added some minor rules for flashbacks. Specifically, I had a short list of key questions that the council wanted answered, and each time one was asked, it would trigger a flashback to provide the answer. In addition, players could call for a flashback if they wished to introduce an event or fact that would affect play. Each completed flashback would allow the players to put an Aspect on the scene, which they could tap in their attempts to influence the nobles.

We got off to a rocky start, mainly because I hadn’t explained my assumptions and expectations clearly enough to the players. The fact that I didn’t have any real expectations of what had happened between them learning about the spy ring and them having to account for it took a while to sink in – they kept wondering what I wanted them to do, and I kept waiting for them to take the freedom and run with it. We hashed that out in the first flashback episode, and after that we were rolling5.

In the flashbacks, we found6 that the characters had staked out the house in question, and that Izabela had gone off to follow one of the many men coming and going from it, seeing him meet with many servants of the noble houses and exchanging messages with them. Emeric, meanwhile, was spotted watching the house and pulled inside to answer questions, where he managed to convince the spies that he was working for a sympathetic party and had come to warn them to move house. As the last one was about to leave, he cold-cocked him to keep for interrogation.

The interrogation led to finding that at least one of the noble families was collaborating with the spies, and that there was evidence of this collaboration hidden in a cemetery near the now-burned-out Malvora manor. Izabela made a deal with another captured spy to let him leave the city in hopes that they might still be able to broker a deal with the Catholic League that would prevent the bloodshed she knows is coming7, which kind-of upset Emeric.

In helping the spy escape the city, she faked an explosion, which stirred up the guards. As Emeric is already being sought as a spy, they tried to disguise themselves as a housemaid bringing her drunk master home in a wheelbarrow to get across the Charles Bridge and retrieve the evidence. It kind of went south, and they wound up under arrest, but their friend Captain Amiel was in charge, and so they wound up in front of the nobles’ council with a chance to tell their story.

During their trial – the framing event for the flashbacks – they outed one of the collaborating nobles, swayed a couple of others, and intimidated another into shutting the hell up. In the end, they took the whole gang over to the cemetery, got the evidence, and proved their innocence, as well as making some powerful and valuable friends among the nobility.

So, how did things work overall? I’d call it a qualified success. Here are some things I learned, that you may want to consider if you decide to try this approach with your own group.

  • Be clear in your explanations about how this is going to work, and what the players’ options are. We almost had a complete train wreck forty minutes into play because I hadn’t been clear enough. Especially be clear about how much or how little you want to be defined during play. Which brings up the next point.
  • You’re asking your players to essentially set scenes for themselves, and then play through them. Give them some guidelines as to how much you are going to let them establish in the scene-setting portion, versus what questions will need to be answered through play. For example, “In this scene, we interrogate the captive and find out that he’s in league with a noble house and where the evidence is,” defines a lot of things that might be more fun to come out during play. If you’re not cool with that, let them know so that they can give you something like, “In this scene, we interrogate the captive to try and find the extent of the spy ring.” Everything else comes out of the questions they ask the captive and the answers he can be convinced to give8. If you make this clear to the players, you can avoid doing what I did, which was often saying, “That’s too much stuff. Let’s get back to the basics of the scene, and see what you can do in play.” Which is just another way of saying no to players, and that’s something I like to avoid.
  • Have some things in your back pocket to toss in if the players are coming up blank thanks to the choice paralysis. In my case, the questions from the nobles provided some guidance, but picking out two or three main flashback scenes that you’d like to see in the game and prepping them gives you some options if they get stuck.
  • Keep the flashbacks short. If they just play the adventure straight through in a so-called flashback, it’s not different than just playing the game normally. You can also throw them in out of chronological order, which is fun, but it requires that both you and the players keep more careful track of the other flashbacks, so you don’t wind up with a paradox.
  • Recognize that this approach is not going to work for some players, especially those that prefer an immersive play experience. Players have to pull back from their characters to set scenes, to call for flashbacks, and to decide what Aspects they get out of the flashbacks, as well as to keep track of the chronological weave you’re making – all the meta-thinking about playing the game instead of living through it as a character. A flashback structure demands more meta-thinking from players than the more traditional style of play.
  • I don’t think this approach is sustainable as a default game style. Maybe every now and then, as a change of pace, but too frequently and it would just get annoying and bland.

So, that was my big narrative structure experiment with the game. In the end it, it worked, but I’m certainly not planning on trying it again anytime soon. The bite-sized flashbacks of the Leverage RPG are easier to handle, less disruptive, and more in keeping with the genre, and I think I may allow similar things to take place in this game, but the longer, more elaborate, more gimmicky style that this was? No. It needs more work, and more polish, and more testing before I could say it’s a truly usable tool in my GM toolkit.

That said, many thanks to Clint and Penny for agreeing to try it with me. It was a fun experiment. And now we’ll return to our regularly-structured games.

At least until I get my next crazy idea.

  1. There’s nothing wrong with those, but there’s been quite a few of those in this campaign, and I wanted to offer some possibilities of different kinds of solutions. []
  2. Things like The Usual Suspects or Sunset Boulevard or the Nevada Day episodes of Studio 60 for example. []
  3. To be fair, I talked to one of my players about it, and she talked to the other player about it. This works because they are husband and wife. []
  4. Of course, this is the most important point of consideration. The only reason it’s listed last is because it should pretty much go without saying. []
  5. More or less, anyway. []
  6. Though not in the order I’m laying it out here. []
  7. I’ve decided that, though we’re going with most of the historical facts of the Thirty Years’ War as of 1620, the actions of the characters have a chance of changing how things happen, and she’s trying to do just that. []
  8. This is an application of the old writing principle of “Show, don’t tell.” []

Feints & Gambits: Drinks Run

Friday was the second session of our new Feints & Gambits campaign, using The Dresden Files RPG. We had a full house, which meant a total of seven of us1 crammed into the living room of my condo. We all fit, everyone had a seat, and it was cozy. Six players is, however, a pretty large group for DFRPG – at least, for me. There’s a lot to keep track of with all the characters. That said, we pulled it off and, if the focus wasn’t quite as equally spread as I might have hoped, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

I was a little stuck for an idea for this session’s adventure. See, while we have this great, full setting document, with tons of ideas and options, we don’t have enough play time invested in it yet for the adventures to occur spontaneously and organically. It’s going to come, as it has in the
Fearful Symmetries game, but it takes a little time to play in the setting and let the characters simmer in the stewpot of the city.

So, I decided to essentially try a random adventure creation thing. I’ve got a big list of all the Aspects in the game2, including all the theme, threat, location, face, and character Aspects. It’s in a simple numbered list, so I just rolled some dice to get a selection of Aspects to string into an adventure.

I wound up rolling about eight Aspects, and got the ones for our Lyric vs. Prosaic theme and its face, the blind bard O’Carolan, as well as Padraig Pearse’s ghost, the Guinness Brewery, the White Council Warden, South Dublin Suburbs, and an Aspect for each of two of the player characters3. Reading over the setting entries for these things, I cam up with the idea that, every midwinter, a bottle of the True Guinness has to be delivered to the ghost of Padraig Pearse at the General Post Office at midnight. I figured that, this year, O’Carolan was delivering it, but something would go wrong, and the PCs would need to step in. I couldn’t really work in the South Dublin Suburbs without making the adventure a little over-elaborate for a single evening, so I discarded it from my planning.

I looked at the two Aspects I had rolled for the PCs, and decided to use them to link the characters into the scenario in a little different way. See, in a lot of good stories, the hero gets drawn into the conflict against his will, by having something bad happen to him that he needs to respond to. Now, having something bad happen out-of-the-blue to a PC just to jumpstart a game is a little bit heavy-handed, in my opinion, and I don’t really like taking that element of control away from the player, even if the player’s cool with it4. But Aspects offer a wonderful way to set the hook in a way that the player accepts, and rewards him 0r her for letting you screw with the character: compels.

When the game started, I tossed a Fate Point to Nate’s player, and had the Warden come pay a visit and be rather cryptic and threatening. Nate was Spoiling For A Fight, so this was a good way to get him – and incidentally, his brother Mark – up and looking into things. One of the things the Warden said was that the brothers should help out around the place a little more, and I thought this might be enough to rope them into the plot. It really wasn’t, though, as the brothers focused on who this poncy bastard was and why he was coming into their shop and bugging them5. It did, however, get them moving and active, and over to the Silver Arm, where I was able to put the second PC Aspect into play.

I handed Firinne’s player a Fate Point6 and gave her a little scene where she bumped into someone in the crowded pub, who bumped someone else, who spilled a drink, which caused someone to slip, which knocked over a table, which fell on O’Carolan’s bag with a shattering sound and the smell of rich, heady Guinness. She stood there paralyzed for a second or two, long enough for Macha – the mistress of the house – and O’Carolan to haul her into the back room and tell her that she had to fix the situation.

They outlined the situation in broad terms, hinting that the breakage was no accident but was, in fact, a mystical attack launched through Firinne by those who opposed the delivery. Firinne immediately flashed back to the memory of the taunting note she left in the Snow Bird gang house when she recovered the Silver Arm, and figured that they must have used that as a sympathetic link to her7. She was told that she had to go see Aengus at the Guinness Brewery, pick something up from him, and deliver it to the General Post Office at midnight before midwinter. That gave her three days.

Leaving the pub, she ran into the O’Malley brothers coming to see what they could find out about their visitor, and recruited their help with the promise of beer. Before they headed off, though, they went into the pub and, talking to Macha, figured out that the fellow who had come to their shop had indeed been the White Council Warden for Ireland. They proceeded to drink more, long enough for Firinne to get impatient and call Kate8, Aleister, and Rogan to come help her, as well.

Eventually, they all got over to the Guinness Brewery, and found that they couldn’t get in, so they took the tour through the storehouse next door9. There, they managed to send a message to Aengus, who came and met them at a fish and chips stand across the street. They were watched by some members of the Snow Birds so, once they got the package – a clay bottle of beer – from Aengus and pledged to deliver it, they engineered an escape by blending in with a tourist crowd10 and using some of Firinne’s glamours.

What followed next was a chase through the streets of Dublin to the General Post Office. Our heroes stole bikes from a public rack to keep ahead of their pursuers, but Nate blew an Athletics check and wiped out. Mark fell back to help him11, and the two of them drove off the pursuing fey gang members, letting the rest of the group make it to a church near the GPO, where they went to ground.

So, we had the O’Malleys on the outside, kept away from the church by a mob of Snow Birds12, and the rest of the group inside the church, besieged by the fey gangsters. Plotting then took place.

At 11:54, Aleister rang the churchbells to disorient the Snow Birds, the O’Malleys showed up in a “borrowed” van to scatter the mob, Rogan shifter to her feline form and carried Firinne out into the back doors of the van, and everyone else piled in afterward for a high-speed jaunt, complete with bootlegger turn, over to the GPO. As most of the folks bailed out to escort Firinne inside to make the delivery, Nate threw up a very powerful wall of flame to keep the fey back, and Kate stayed with him as back-up.

Inside, the ghost of Padraig Pearse showed up, spoke briefly with them13, and drank the Guinness, which he said was part of the rules of the binding that held him here. After he had his yearly drink, he turned and walked away, and the group left to find the ranks of Snow Birds outside lined up and saluting them.

And that was the evening.

I’m pretty happy with the way things went. We got through the scenario in one evening, and everyone had fun. Firinne and the O’Malleys were definitely the spotlight characters this adventure, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll just have to make sure that the spotlight shines on a couple of the others next session.

I liked the compel mechanic to hook in the characters at the start of the evening, and had some good comments from the players about it, too, so that’s something I’m probably going to keep using.

One of my players asked me to post a recap of the game sessions on the Feints & Gambits forum, but I decided against it. Why? Because I would rather leave that open for the players to post their own recaps, stories about the fallout of the adventure, and stuff like that in order to earn the Bribe(TM) that I’ve offered.

Anyway, all in all, a good game, and a promising session for the first one with all the players present. Looking forward to the next one.

  1. Me and six players. []
  2. GMs: This can be an invaluable tool. I strongly encourage you to make one for your game. I keep finding new things I can use it for. []
  3. Full Aspect list: The Songs We Sing, Blind Bard, Ghost Judge of the Battle, Guinness For Strength!, Big Warden in a Little Pond, Ciad Mille Failte, Spoiling for a Fight (Nate O’Malley), It Was Like That When I Got Here! (Firinne O’Beara). []
  4. And there’s no guarantee that the player will be cool with it. []
  5. Also, using very impressive evocation control to burn a message on the wall of the back room from way on the other side of the store with no one noticing. []
  6. She actually cringed when I did that! It was great! []
  7. I hadn’t actually thought of that, but it sounded good, so it has become canon. []
  8. Who had been at the Long Library at Trinity College, where she sensed some necromantic magic. THAT’s not gonna be important later on, is it? []
  9. They also found that the Guinness buildings had a threshold, which disconcerted a couple of them. []
  10. Summoned by the expenditure of a Fate Point. []
  11. Thanks to his Me Fookin’ Brother Aspect. []
  12. I had originally had a more complicated plot, involving some twists and misdirection and a different main bad guy, but I let it go when I saw how this plotline was working, and how everyone was involved and interested. I can reuse the other idea in a later adventure, and even tie it back to this one. []
  13. He seeded in a few hints about other things and situations in Dublin, but though the gang caught one or two of them, they don’t really know what they mean. []

Fearful Symmetries: Homecoming

Last session of the Fearful Symmetries campaign was a little unfocused. I don’t think it was too much of a problem, overall, because they’d just completed a big storyline, ending the White Court influence in Prague. Thus, they spent this session looking around for their next short-term goal1.

They had a couple of pet projects on the go: Izabela wanted to keep trying to dismantle the curse on Gold Lane, and Emeric had decided to see if he could step into the power vacuum left by the departing Malvora clan. And I had some dangling plot threads to throw at them.

Now, one of the themes that I wanted to introduce was that the Emperor’s spies are everywhere. To layer that in, I wanted to establish some uncertainty in the players about some of the assumptions they were making about how things fit together. I started with the Malvoras.

During their raid on the Malvora manor, Emeric and Izabela had found a room full of documentation on the various noble families of Prague, including the Valdstejns2. They nabbed some of these files, though most of them were destroyed in the fire that was rapidly consuming the manor house.

As part of stepping into the power vacuum, Emeric and Izabela decided to return the documents to the various families in order to assure them that the blackmail they assumed the Malvoras were perpetrating was at an end. And that’s when they found out that there was no blackmail going on.

Time after time, when they brought the documents to those they concerned, they were faced by incomprehension and disbelief. Lukrezia Malvora had always been a charming, friendly, generous lady, with absolutely no political influence on others. There was no hint that blackmail had been part of her operation, and indeed, there was some regret that she was gone.

Emeric was dealing with some other stuff, at the same time. He had been somewhat shaken by the events in Mstetice the previous session, and was beginning to question his approach to staving off Ragnarok3. Add to that the fact that he got struck with lightning out of a clear sky4, and he was starting to feel a bit persecuted and depressed.

He went to Reverend Nicola at the Church of St. Lawrence up on Petrin’s Hill, whom he suspected of being a priest of Petrunas, looking for some spiritual guidance. He waited through evensong, then asked the Reverend for help. Nicola proved to be much as he always was: a compassionate Lutheran minister with an interest in local history and legend. When Emeric prodded him to admit that he worshipped the old gods, Nicola was honestly confused5, and when Emeric revealed himself in his true form, his main concern was to offer to save Emeric’s soul.

Still poking around to find out how the Malvora clan was manipulating things, Emeric went to see the Mayor, whom he knew was behind the attempt to arrest him with Kirchoff’s help. He disguised himself as a White Court vampire, and passed himself off as one of Lukrezia’s kin. When he met the mayor, he came on pretty strong, trying to assert the hold he believed Lukrezia had over the Mayor – which caused the Mayor to get a little testy, as he didn’t work for the Malvora. Following a bit of backpedalling, Emeric managed to find out that his arrest had been ordered because Lukrezia had convinced the Mayor that Emeric was a Papist spy.

Izabela and Emeric were starting to realize that the Malvora manipulation must have been more subtle and indirect than they had previously surmised. They also realized that, just because Malvora was gone, it didn’t mean they were safe from White Court machinations6.

We wrapped up with our heroes meeting with Captain Amiel, who told them that Emeric might be able to redeem himself if he were able to prove that he had only been pretending to be a spy in order to capture a Papist cell that Amiel’s men had located in Old Town. So, they’re suiting up to go raid the spies’ nest and clear Emeric’s name.

  1. Interesting to note that they’ve got some solid ideas about long-term goals. They’ve both decided that their characters – for their own reasons – want to keep Prague safe. []
  2. Which is Izabela’s family, for those of you following along at home. []
  3. His goal is to try and prevent the worst atrocities of humanity, and to help humans maintain hope. The actions of the soldiers and citizens in Mstetice, and the number of times he’s had to unsheathe Beortning is giving him a bit of a crisis of faith. []
  4. A 12-stress hit. The only reason he survived was because the spellcaster who whipped up the ritual didn’t know how tough Emeric really was. Emeric sucked up the blast, though it hurt him. []
  5. According to the setting document we created, Nicola does indeed worship Petrunas. However, because of the way I’ve been running things, they’re not sure whether I’ve changed that up, or if he’s just really good at hiding his secret identity. []
  6. Oh, and somewhere in there they remembered that they still had a White Court vampire strapped to a table in Amadan’s cellar, and went to kick him out of the city. []

Feints & Gambits: Armless

This past Saturday was the inaugural game session of my new Feints & Gambits DFRPG campaign. We’re running this game quorum-style, so that we play as long as three of the six players show up. For the first game, we had four players1.

I spent the first half-hour or so making sure everyone was up to speed on the game system, and answering any lingering questions about characters and mechanics. I’ve gotten pretty good at giving a condensed overview of the FATE system in about fifteen minutes; I expanded things here, because we’re looking at a long-term campaign, and I wanted to make sure that everyone had a decent grounding, so they understood their options.

First games of new campaigns are tricky things, I find. You need to take things easy as people get up to speed on the system and what their characters can do, but you also want some interesting stuff to happen so that the players get hooked and want to keep coming back. So, that means finding exciting action that is still fairly simple, mechanically speaking.

The collaborative city-building can really help get things rolling, because the players are already anxious and interested in playing in the setting they’ve built, and finding all the cool stuff they put there. And in finding all the neat little connections and secrets that have grown from the basic groundwork. There are already things they care about, and they already have some enemies and allies, thanks to the story phases of character creation, so really it’s just a matter of picking and choosing.

My objectives for this session was to give each of the four players a chance to do something interesting and special with their characters, and to wrap up the adventure in a single session2. When I build adventures like this, all I generally do is come up with the situation – who, what, where, and why – and then I expose one bit of the resulting situation to the characters3. After that, if I have a fairly solid idea of the situation, it’s pretty easy to properly adjudicate character actions and let them choose their own path to resolving the situation4.

The result, I find, is a fairly organic structure that responds properly to character actions, and leads to character-directed action, rather than set-piece encounters5.

That’s what I did this time.

Things started out with the characters showing up at The Silver Arm, the local supernatural pub, to find no music, and everyone being very quiet. Turns out that the pub’s sign6 had been stolen, and the owner, Macha MacRuad, was furious. She wouldn’t let anyone even talk about it in the pub.

That got everyone motivated to go find the sign. They managed to trace it to a house in a pretty run-down neighbourhood that was being used as a clubhouse by the Snowbirds, the Winter Court gang that hung around the Millennium Spire. Stealing the sign was apparently a new move in the ongoing games of one-upmanship between the fey courts. The Summer Court gang, the Sunshine Boys, were rumoured to be getting ready to snatch the arm themselves.

A little bit of scouting found them a way in, and Kate had a couple of good veiling potions for her and Rogan. Firinne was able to use her glamours to veil herself. That left Aleister, who wasn’t all that sneaky. He set himself up in a sniper’s nest across the street with a paintball gun, and acted as a distraction.

Things went pretty well at first, with Aleister drawing out most of the gang members and the other three sneaking in through an upstairs window, thanks to a convenient shed7. Things turned a little south when the gang used some pixies to find Aleister and he had to leg it out of there, and the folks inside the house found that there was still an ogre left on guard.

We got to some action here, though, interestingly, not a one of the characters tried to attack anyone. Aleister’s goal was not to beat anyone up, but to lure them away from the clubhouse to give the other three time to find the arm. The three inside knew they were completely outclassed by the ogre, so they just wanted to grab the arm8 and run like bunnies.

They all managed it, though Aleister was completely overwhelmed by the gang members9, and wound up conceding the fight – he had the gang members kick the crap out of him and dump him in the Liffey. Inside the house, the veiling the characters used kept the ogre from effectively targeting them, and then Kate threw a handful of iron filings into his face to keep him distracted. Rogan tripped him up with a chair, and Firinne swapped the lamp for a manikin’s arm that she had glamoured up to last for a few minutes10.

So, they got the sign back, got Aleister to the hospital, and called it a night.

Over all, I think the game went quite well, and everyone seemed to have a good time. It was fairly light, and everyone took to heart the dangers of violence11, but they’ve also made some interesting choices about the sides their on, and there’s going to be an ogre Snowbird looking for a certain witch with payback in mind.

Yeah, I call it a win.

  1. The holiday season always makes scheduling somewhat more challenging, what with everyone’s family commitments. []
  2. Though the repercussions are probably going to stretch out longer than that. []
  3. Of course, the bit I expose to them has to be something that impels them to take action. []
  4. This approach works far better in games where it’s simple to come up with stats and challenges on the fly – like DFRPG or Trail of Cthulhu – than ones where it’s more difficult or time-consuming, like D&D. []
  5. Though, to be fair, I usually put together a page or two of stats and notes that I can turn into interesting set-piece encounters on the fly, because those are fun and exciting sometimes. []
  6. A silver armoured arm and hand that hung outside above the door. []
  7. Placed by using a Burglary declaration while casing the building. []
  8. Which had been nailed to a block of wood and turned into a lamp. []
  9. Ganging up on someone and spending an exchange or two to use maneuvers to layer on the Aspects is a devastating tactic. []
  10. She also left a taunting note, being a trickster-style changeling herself. THAT’s not gonna come back to bite her, at all. Good use of a compel, I thought. []
  11. Especially at their power level. []

Fearful Symmetries: Kirchoff’s Fall

We picked up the Fearful Symmetries story this session with Emeric and Izabela interrogating the captive White Court vampire that Amadan had acquired for them. The prisoner knew that he’d been left to twist in the wind by Lukrezia Malvora and the rest of the family, and that his only hope of escaping with his life was to give his captors what they wanted. He bargained as well as he could, though his position was hardly one of strength, and secured the promise that, if the information he gave to Emeric and Izabela helped them catch up with Lukrezia, they would set him free, as long as he promised to leave the city and not come back.

He didn’t know where Lukrezia was, but he offered his best guesses, saying that the best bet was that she had gone to Mstetice, the little village where Marta1 lived.

Now, I had decided going in that, given the White Court predilection for complex plotting and working through intermediaries, that the end-game for the Malvora storyline was going to be all about hard choices and mitigating damage, rather than out-right success or failure. And to simulate that Lukrezia is more intelligent than I am, with a vast experience in messing with people, I cheated a little, planning-wise2. Basically, I worked out a few different plots that she could have in place, with the understanding that I would use whichever one seemed best when the characters caught up with things – and by best, I mean whichever one put the characters in the toughest position.

The basics of the thing were going to be the same: the White Court was going to do its level best to destroy Mstetice and everyone in it.

The simplest version of the plot was that the characters were going to be too late getting to Mstetice, and find that it had torn itself apart with rioting and murder. The players bypassed that by deciding to travel through the Mittelmarch3 in order to get to Mstetice in an hour or so, rather than in two days.

It was a little sloppy of me, but I hadn’t actually thought of them doing that4. I asked the players to give me five minutes, and came up with a simple sketch chart for the trip through the Mittelmarch – just a few nodes with single-word descriptions like Fork, Valley, River, Ridge, and the like, with some connecting lines and decision points.

As I said, it only took about five minutes to rough it out, and then I asked the characters how they were doing things. They found a place in Prague with similar enough resonance to Mstetice5, and Izabela opened a way to the Mittelmarch.

I improvised the actual encounters along the trail to Mstetice, which wound up being an interesting challenge for me. See, I based things on ideas from myths, legends, and fairy tales, but I needed to avoid using the actual fey, because the borders of Faerie have been closed by the Queens. So, I put some strange things in, and figured I’d worry about what they meant if the characters actually investigated and paid attention. In keeping with the mythic theme, I decided they needed to pass through three challenges6 to reach their destination. The path they chose took them to:

  • A stone table heaped with dried fruit and clay bottles. They didn’t eat anything there, but instead left offerings of their own. I told them to put the Aspect Sacrificed at the Stone Table on their sheets7.
  • An old ferryman who offered to take them across a river in return for their names. Emeric gave his name, but Izabela refused, and asked if she could give him something else. He asked for the secret that Odin had told her, and she refused that, as well, so they backtracked to a trail they had seen that led to a bridge over the entire canyon they were traveling in.
  • Spirits fighting a battle for possession of the bridge for their respective kings. The battle always ends with them all dead, then starts again if a living soul tries to cross the bridge, and the spirits try to persuade the newcomers to join their side and tip the balance. Emeric and Izabela tried reasoning with them, but had no luck8, so Izabela used her magic to distract and confuse them while the pair escaped.
  • A giant shrike and another horrific monster9 that attacked while Izabela was trying to open a way back to Mstetice. Emeric took care of the shrike in very short order – one strike – and so I had a big, undefined monster start moving through the trees toward them. They managed to get through to the mortal world in time, and then Emeric held the beast off while Izabela sealed the rift.

They returned on the hill overlooking the village, and saw a large military force camped a few miles beyond it. Fearing the worst, they rode down to the bridge, and spoke with the folk there, to find that it was a Catholic force, and that the town had agreed to surrender at dawn. Izabela and Emeric agreed that was probably the best course, and took some time to cast a locating spell to try and find Lukrezia again. The spell pointed them to the Erlking’s Throne, so they set out.

At the menhir, they had a moderately unsatisfying meeting with Lukrezia, where she promised to leave Prague, to harm none on her way back to Italy, and to never return. Izabela and Emeric then promised not to pursue her10. The power of the place was such that the oaths were bound very tightly around everyone involved.

And that’s when Lukrezia told them that Kirchoff had left her service when he was told that they were leaving Prague, preferring to stay and exact his own vengeance on Izabela for the loss of his arm. He was back in Mstetice.

By the time they got back to town, things had gone to hell. In an incident inspired in my mind by the Boston Massacre, the fear in the villagers and the soldiers had spilled over into violence, two dozen soldiers were dead, and the rest were slaughtering the villagers and razing the village.

We ran into some difficulty at that point, because I hadn’t described the scene clearly enough, and we had to go back and change some things as the characters tried to do things that they though should be possible, but that I thought were suicidal. It was frustrating for both sides, because they couldn’t tell what their options were and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t see the available options11. We solved part of the problem with a quick sketch map, showing why charging the bridge was a bad idea, but that there were other avenues of approach.

They got inside the village, and found the captain of the occupying force unwilling to listen to these two civilians who’d shown up out of nowhere after the villagers had – so he thought – engineered a trap for his men12. Things escalated, and again got a little frustrating, and again it was my fault.

See, Izabela and Emeric are very powerful. But an army unit of three- to four-hundred men was too much for even them. The only question was how many the pair would take with them. I kept trying to impress this on them, to show them that, even though they were tough and powerful, fighting the whole army here was suicide. And Clint finally said, “So, what, we’re just supposed to run away and let the rest of the village get slaughtered?”

Wow. Of course not. No, these are heroes. Heroes with a personal stake here. I stood there with my mouth open for a second, then handed them each a couple of Fate Points, and said, “No. You’re right. Sorry. But fighting the entire army is suicide. What are you going to do?” And then I stopped trying to tell them how they were going to fail, and helped them find a way to succeed13.

Kirchoff was, of course, hiding in the church steeple, and with a couple of muskets and a few grenadoes. They ran him down and killed him, cleansed the captain and the inquisitors of his influence, and negotiated a withdrawal from Mstetice for the Catholic forces14.

The heroes had saved about half the population of Mstetice, including Marta and her family, but the miller who was the de-facto mayor was dead, and so were a lot of other people. Very much a mixed victory for the pair. Still, it wrapped up the White Court storyline15, and took Kirchoff out of the picture, so I figured it was worth a Major Milestone.

Now I’m interested in what they plan to do next.

  1. Marta was the maid who had raised Izabela, and really the only member of her family in Prague that she cared about. []
  2. This is a basic technique that is advocated in Amber Diceless Roleplaying, to help you play the elder Amberites, who are smarter, sneakier, craftier, and better prepared than you will ever be. I call it cheating, because it’s a tactic designed to outflank the characters, no matter what they decide to do, removing their ability to cleverly counter or prevent the plot. As such, I use it very, very sparingly, because it’s not fair to rob the players of cool. I only really use it when I have a different sort of cool in mind for this particular game session. And I try not to be heavy-handed, even when I do use it. []
  3. Which is what the inhabitants of Bohemia in 1620 call the Nevernever. []
  4. Yeah, in retrospect, it’s a pretty obvious tactic, but sometimes you just miss stuff. []
  5. In New Town, which is actually fairly peaceful and prosperous under the mayor’s leadership, despite the shadow of war cast over Prague. Quite similar to the feeling in Mstetice. Though Amadan warned them to avoid the New Town Square, with the haunted clock. []
  6. They actually faced four challenges, but didn’t pass through the ferryman challenge, so that doesn’t count. []
  7. This is an idea that I’m playing with, based on reading a bunch of other games, including Leverage, Apocalypse World, and similar things. I didn’t know what the Aspect meant, but I wanted to leave a hook for myself to use later, once I figured out what it meant. []
  8. They were very simple spirits. []
  9. That I made up on the spot as the big, honking THREAT after the shrike proved unequal to the task. []
  10. Emeric threw in a promise of vengeance if she broke her vow, free of charge. He’s generous that way. []
  11. Miscommunication is the underlying problem of most difficulties I’ve ever encountered in gaming. After all, rpgs are entirely exercises in structured communication. []
  12. Weird, huh? There’s no trust anymore. []
  13. This is, I think, a very important lesson that I learned. If you want to run a heroic game, never penalize the characters for being heroic. Instead, look for ways to reward it. []
  14. I decided that, this early in the Thirty Years War, this kind of atrocity hadn’t become commonplace yet, and the captain was wracked with guilt for what he had allowed to happen. It both allowed me to get the army out of there and showed that there were reasonable, honourable men on both sides of the war. []
  15. For now, at least. []