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. []

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.” []

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. []

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. []

Fearful Symmetries: Fireworks

Last Friday was Guy Fawkes Day in the UK. One of my players pointed it out to me1, and I told her that I knew about it, and had planned some explosions for the Fearful Symmetries game we had planned that night.

Because I had.

We picked up the game with our heroes having moved to a bolt-hole provided to them by Zuckerbastl to keep them out of Malvora sight. Emeric had recently learned how to change the appearance of his human guise2, and Izabela used her biomancy to change her appearance to that of a young man. Thus disguised, they decided to carefully try and pursue their path forward.

Emeric made the rounds of his network of contacts in disguise, bringing them word that he was going to be unavailable and out of sight for a time, and that it might be safer for everyone to distance themselves from him and thus avoid the worst of the Malvora attention. He also went to see Reverend Nicola at the chapel on Petrin’s Hill, to thank him for the blessing he had received3. The good Reverend offered to bless him again, which Emeric accepted.

Izabela, meantime, went back to Gold Lane to continue her investigation of the curse surrounding it, which seems to have become a bit of an obsession for her. She found that there were mystic anchor points to the spell around its perimeter, sunk deep in the ground, so she used her Sight to get a better idea of what sort of thing she was dealing with. I described a web of chains of various metals, inscribed with arcane symbols, rising from the anchor points into the air above the centre of Gold Lane, with smaller, finer chains leading to barbed hooks sunk into the flesh of the inhabitants. In the midst of the chains, hovering over middle of Gold Lane, was a giant humanoid, wrapped in the chains so as to be almost obscured. It had vast, shining wings stretching out from its shoulders, and a huge sword of fire4 – apparently, another angel tied into service.

Now, this hit her pretty hard with the mental stress, and she got to keep her Third Eye open an extra round to look at it some more. When she finally got her Third Eye closed, that’s when I had Kirchoff5 pop out of the shadows and hit her with his Incite Emotion power. This caught her pretty much blindsided, and she took another hefty hit in the brain, sufficient to inflict a consequence, before she even spotted him. At that point, though, she pulled the gloves off and blasted him with force. He took the hit, but it didn’t put him down, and he scarpered again.

She headed over to the Goblin’s Brewery for a bit of a rest and refreshment, which is where Emeric currently was, talking with Amadan, who seemed to be in good spirits, even buying food and drink for his guests, and hinting that he had the line on a wager that he was expecting to pay off. Emeric asked him to put the word out that he and Izabela had left town, but Amadan proposed that, instead, he would put the word out that the pair were hiding in the cellar of the house where Amadan had rooms, so that they could set up a trap.

This worked, sort of. Izabela wrapped the room in a ward that would prevent the fear abilities of the White Court from being effective, and they settled in to wait. Some time after midnight, the attack came, but it was indirect – the vampires set fire to the building. Emeric extinguished the fire with his pyromancy, and the pair of them went cautiously upstairs to see what they could see. When they got to the second floor, a grenado came flying in through the window.

Izabela swatted it back out and high over the city, where it exploded6, and they both went to the window to try and see where it had come from, and thus both were fired upon by the snipers set up across the street. These snipers, not wanting to face these folks head on, took off across the rooftops, escaping pretty quickly.

They’d had enough, now. They headed back across the river to the Malvora manor, where the guards were arrayed in the yard in front of the house. Not bothering with subtlety, Emeric set the house on fire, and Izabela threw a whirlwind into the guards to clear their way to the house.

I didn’t want to turn the hunt through the burning house for Lukrezia Malvora into a dungeon crawl, so I switched to a very narrative approach for this stage. They made their way through the place, shooing out the mortals, killing the vampires (about a dozen of them), and eventually finding Lukrezia’s bedroom. Lukrezia wasn’t there, but they found her hidden closet full of blackmail information, including a file on the Valdstejn family.

They were pretty much at loose ends at that point, so they went back to the basement to retrieve Kirchoff’s arm – which was, of course, missing. But Amadan had a surprise for them: he had caught them a White Court vampire, and had it strapped to a table.

And that’s where we left it.

  1. As if I needed to be told. I’ve read V for Vendetta! []
  2. By way of a stunt we cooked up and the expenditure of a point of Refresh. I knew he wouldn’t hang on to a Refresh Rate of 2 for long! []
  3. Which had proved very helpful against the Arkady. []
  4. I was going for a kinda Final Fantasy look to the whole thing, but not too obviously so. []
  5. Who I had elevated to Named NPC after he got away from her last session, albeit minus an arm. []
  6. See? Fireworks! []

Fearful Symmetries: Unpopular

Friday night was the latest session of my Fearful Symmetries campaign. We’ve reached a stage in the game where I had to do very little prep – just print out a sheet or two of stats that I might need. The city has solidified in our minds enough that I can pretty much improvise whatever unexpected scene the players may stick me with, and the foundation of the city creation method that we used means that I know what the different power blocs are up to, what schemes are being schemed, and what consequences are coming to bite the characters in their butts. It’s a nice place to be, GM-wise, because the game feels that much more alive and natural, running on instinct, with a real energy that comes from familiarity on the sides of both the players and the GM.

In short, the game is really starting to sing for me. And I think for the players, too1.

I broke from my normal practice of asking the players what they intended to do this session. I found that I had two or three levels of stuff ready for them down all of the avenues that they had previously expressed interest in, and two or three things waiting in the wings to jump them if they were too passive, or too easily found, or just looked bored2.

Things started off low-key, with Izabella doing some research on who Rudolf could have used to create the curse on Gold Lane, which gave me the opportunity to riff on some of the great, crazy folks that used to hang around Prague when Rudolf II was on the throne3. Unfortunately, none of them seemed like they were the kinds of power houses that could have woven the enduring, subtle, devastating curse. She decided that she was going to need to do some more research, trying to get access to some of Rudolf’s papers and things, so I mentioned that nobility of that time often kept their weird stuff in wunderkammers, museums of the strange and wondrous4.

Meanwhile, Emeric was worried that something nasty was going to move into the Stag Moat, now that the Arkady was gone. He scouted it out a little, but he’s not really an outdoorsman, so he didn’t trust the fact that he didn’t find anything really amiss there. Given the fact that he is still recovering from the damage he did to himself containing the fire there, I can’t really blame him. He talked Izabella into putting a warning ward on the area, set to signal her if something supernatural moved in5.

Emeric also had a conversation with the dapper little fellow who had given him and Izabella rings after they had wiped out the Red Court rebel Dregana. He said that his master offered Emeric his protection, in return for a pledge of fealty. Emeric passed on this, but did manage to get the name of this master: Valentinus. According to legend, Valentinus was an ancient Black Court vampire6, possibly the first of the Black Court. But not wanting to get tangled any more tightly in vampire politics, Emeric graciously declined the offer.

Izabella decided to try and scry on the (now empty) royal apartments in Prague Castle, to try and find any clue as to the location of Rudolf”s wunderkammer. After some snooping around, she detected some sort of magical emanation from within a section of wall. When she tried to walk through it, she was blasted across the room, and almost had her mind and soul shredded7. The unusually powerful ward was explained when the creature who had created it showed up: as far as Izabella could tell, it was an actual angel, named Asariel.

Asariel renewed the ward, and told Izabella that this doorway was forbidden her. He wasn’t very forthcoming about what his role was, or whether he was free or bound8, or even what was behind the door. The two things that he told her that she found even vaguely useful were that this doorway was forbidden her, and that the curse on Gold Lane was not of his doing.

I felt that I was neglecting Emeric at this point, so I threw in one of the background plots and had him wake in his rooms to find a living storm cloud trying to steal his sword, Beortning, one of the Dooms. He reacted badly to that, and more so when he found that he didn’t seem able to physically harm the thing. It turned into a good fight, with Emeric using a lot of things in the environment to deal with the storm cloud before getting his hands on the cast iron curtain rod and grounding the electrical storm through it.

By this time, his rooms were pretty much all in flames – not a big deal to him, being a fire giant, but his landlord wasn’t going to be pleased. He put out the fires and went and got Izabella to investigate the area to see if she could determine who had sent the storm spirit, but all she could tell him was that it had been summoned into the room, implying that the summoner had some sort of link to Emeric.

About this time, the city guard showed up, led by Rostov, a… well, friend isn’t the right word. A man with whom Emeric has a profitable financial and informational relationship. Rostov wasn’t his usual genially corrupt self, though, and gave Emeric a bit of a hard time, even levying a fine for disturbing the peace and having a careless fire – a pretty big deal in a city like Prague. The whole time, Rostov kept shooting looks at one of the other guardsmen, and Emeric noticed this fellow had very fancy boots, and was able to write him out a receipt for his fine in a fine, elegant hand, with no misspellings or blots.

Izabella was hanging around, veiled at the time, and she extended the veil around Emeric as they followed the guards back to their guardhouse. There, they split up as Emeric went to have a private word with Rostov, and Izabella decided to follow Kirchoff, the “guardsman” with the nice boots and good penmanship. Rostov told Emeric that word had come down to lean on Emeric from the mayor himself, though there was no indication why that might be.

Izabella uncovered a probable reason as she followed Kirchoff. He somehow penetrated her veil, and hit her with a wave of fear. When that didn’t work on her, he closed on her with blinding speed, and tried to choke her. Unfortunately, a couple of very powerful blasts of pure force tore his arm off and crushed his chest. He conceded at that point, slipping away into a storm sewer, but Izabella had seen enough to figure him for a White Court vampire, and therefor to decide that Malvora was behind this harassment.

She and Emeric gathered up the severed arm, and went to pay a call on Lukrezia Malvora at her estates in Hradcany. They were met at the gate by some rather unhelpful guards9, who eventually escorted them to the house, but said that the lady would not receive them if they were armed. The guard captain explained that, first of all, one just didn’t come armed into a lady’s home and presence and, secondly, that after the angry threats and accusations the pair had been making, there was no way he was going to let armed enemies anywhere near his charge, no matter what sorts of oaths they swore.

This was an interesting interaction, because the guards were, as far as the characters could tell, just ordinary guys doing their jobs. And they were courteous and professional about it, despite Emeric’s bluster and insults – they just refused to budge, and took all reasonable precautions in talking with these apparently deranged and well-armed lunatics. I wasn’t sure if Emeric was going to lay into them with his sword10, but he kept his cool, and they retired for the time being.

A quick conversation with Zuckerbastl, and they had a good safe-house to shelter them while they plot the downfall of House Malvora. What could possibly go wrong?

Three things came out of play that I want to mention:

  • I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important section of the spellcasting chapter in the rules is the sidebar on p270 of Your Story called When Not to Bother. The advice it gives is to not worry too much about the mechanics of casting a spell if it doesn’t add anything to the story or if there’s no real pressure. So, when Izabella casts a spell, we do a quick and dirty assessment of the complexity, come up with a couple of cool things to do to offset any Lore deficit, and declare the spell cast. Now, when things get tight, or when a spell becomes a serious part of the main narrative11, we’re still jumping through all the hoops, but mostly we just take it as read that she can cast most spells she can think up if she just takes the time.
  • When I told the players that Kirchoff conceded and slipped into the sewer, they stared at me. I explained again about how concessions work, and they said something like, “That’s what you mean when you say that we get to set the terms of being taken out if we concede? I thought it just meant we were taken prisoner or something!” Concessions are one of the most counter-intuitive things in the game, from the point of view of other RPGs. Now that they see how they work, and that Kirchoff’s got a couple of Fate Points now12, I could see the wheels start turning, and a new understanding emerging.
  • We whipped up a new stunt for Emeric to take in the game, one that lets him change the appearance of his Human Guise ability. It cost him a point of Refresh, but it lets him take on different appearances. I told him that if he tries to use it to impersonate someone or do something else strange, there’s probably going to be a roll involved, and possibly a Fate Point, depending on circumstances, and he was good with that. Looks like a functional – and not overpowered – stunt on a Supernatural Power.

So, that’s where things stand. Everyone had fun, and we’re looking forward to the next session.

  1. At least, I hope so. []
  2. Because sometimes, you need to send in the ninjas. []
  3. John Dee, Edward Kelley, Rabbi Loew, and Tycho Brahe, for example. 17th-century Prague rocks for gaming! []
  4. As discussed in this little adventure, by some guy I heard of once. []
  5. Complexity for this was up around 16 or so, given the size of the area and the lack of a threshold, and that only lasts a week or two and doesn’t prevent things from entering – just sounds the alarm. []
  6. One rumour Emeric had heard was that, one night, Valentinus was so pissed off at the Pharaoh, he personally killed the first-born sons of every family in the city. []
  7. She worked the scrying out as a kind of astral projection, giving it a pretty high complexity. That power ran up against a more powerful ward, and Izabelle ended up spending all her Fate Points in one desperate bid to keep from getting erased. []
  8. Though the name Asariel means “He Who is Bound by God.” []
  9. It was four in the morning, after all. Decent people don’t come calling at that time. []
  10. I thought of offering a compel at this point, but I don’t like compelling people to do villainous things. Problematic, sure, but not villainous. It’s a dick move. []
  11. Like her idea of raising Rudolf’s ghost to ask him what the hell he did to Gold Lane, for example. []
  12. He was just a standard White Court Vampire, no big deal, but now he’s The One That Got Away. Can you say Recurring Villain, boys and girls? I knew you could. []

Fearful Symmetries: Hunt’s End

Last Friday night was the latest installment of Fearful Symmetries. We wrapped up one of the man storylines, moved a couple others forward, and the characters brought about a fairly major change in the city. All in all, I felt they had really earned the Major Milestone I awarded at the end of the session.

Over the past few sessions, the characters had got themselves wrapped up in a few different storylines that could easily have led to a good climactic session – the whole Hunter thing, the Petrunas cult, the Gold Lane curse. They did some follow-up on everything, but the deadline on tracking down the fellow who had promised to kill Emeric after one month sort of took priority. So, that’s what they mainly focused on.

They had the name Konstantin Akrady to follow up on, and learned that the man who had threatened Emeric was most likely the Arkady, head of the clan. Konstantin was known to bring game to a butcher named Rostislav, in Hradcany, who had a very strong, but mute, assistant. That was enough to start with.

Izabella had heard of the Arkady clan, old horror stories coming out of northern Russia of shapeshifting bogeymen that had spread east, apparently devotees of the darkest aspects of the Wild Hunt and the Erlking, willing to hunt, kill, and eat anything that offered a challenge. That knowledge cheered them up immensely.

Emeric went to Rostislav’s butcher shop to try and get a line on Konstantin Arkady. Besides getting an oblique hint that he should come by the next day around dawn, he also found out that Evzen, the Petrunas cultist who had approached the characters for their help, had died in a fall. Further investigation revealed that Evzen was drunk and walking along the top of the Hunger Wall, when he fell and broke his back on a rock. Emeric recognized this as a traditional form of sacrifice to Thor, and he and Izabella decided that there must be some sort of infighting within the Petrunas cult that led to Evzen (and his progressive ideals) getting sent home to Thor.

The followed up on that a little bit, checking out the Chapel of St. Lawrence on Petrin Hill, and meeting Pastor Nicola, the priest. Emeric sensed that the pastor had a faith powerful enough to work miracles, but couldn’t decide if the man was what he appeared to be – a fairly tolerant Lutheran who turned a blind eye to the lingering papist tendencies of some of his congregation – or if he was secretly running a pagan cult1.

Well, they wound up meeting Konstantin outside of Rostislav’s butcher shop in the early hours of the morning, as he was dropping off a small cart of dressed deer, boar, and one human2. In the ensuing discussion, he offered to help the characters find and defeat the Arkady, as Konstantin planned to take his place. He promised that, if the pair helped him, the Arkady clan would stay out of the characters’ way, if they stayed out of clan business. The information he gave about the Arkady’s preferred tactics – that he would start whittling away at Emeric’s friends long before the month was up, that the Arkady had no problem running away to fight again later, that the optimum attack was always an ambush or trap – and about the Arkady’s weakness – blessed weapons – were enough to get the characters to agree.

This made me very happy, as they each swore to honour the bargain on their names and powers. The idea of the pair swearing an oath to a monster in order to defeat a bigger monster was something I had been hoping for. Not only does it help reinforce the themes of the game3, it gives me wonderful hooks to complicate the characters’ lives down the line.

So, preparations. Izabella whipped up a veil that would also mask her scent, both characters got their weapons blessed – Izabella at St. Vitus, Emeric at St. Lawrence4 – and Amadan gave them a vial of water gathered on the Hill of Sacrifice in the Fey lands under the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, which he said was for direst emergency only5. Then they used the blood Konstantin had given them to make their way through the Stag Moat, and across into the Mittelmarch and the hold of the Arkady.

Now, my whole plan with the Arkady was that he was a plot-device-level character. Even Konstantin, one of his minions, was statted out at -19 Refresh. Defeating him relied on being able to assemble enough information, leverage, and assistance to defeat his various protections and abilities. The way things worked out, Konstantin had asked the characters to strike at the Arkady, wounding him and causing him to retreat, whereupon Konstantin would use his shapeshifting to follow and finish him. That would replace the Arkady with Konstantin (the new Arkady), free Emeric from his deadline, and basically keep things more or less status quo in Prague.

Things didn’t quite work out that way.

The characters had prepared very well, and accepted a number of compels through the evening, so they had a fair number of Fate Points to burn on the final encounter. The Arkady, overconfident, gave them the first shot for free. Huge mistake. Trusting in his toughness and recovery, not knowing that Emeric had had Beortning blessed, he sucked up a 13-shift hit. Big brouhaha followed, as the Arkady tried to flee, shifting shape madly, but was kept from doing so by Konstantin6.

At this point, I thought that the characters would back off and let Konstantin settle things, but I should really have known better. They followed after the pair, keeping them from getting too far away, and doing more damage to the Arkady. I decided to change things up, seeing as the characters were more involved than I expected, and had the Arkady suddenly pull in all his power from the Mittelmarch demesne around them, as well as from the entire Arkady clan. Everything, including Emeric, but excluding the well-veiled Izabella, burst into flame and began to die as Arkday took on a powerful, monstrous form and prepared to unleash his fury on Emeric for forcing him to destroy his family.

But Izabella had roused the spirits of all the animals the Arkady had killed to harass him7, and Emeric pinned him to the ground with Beortning. As he shriveled and died, the forest kept burning around them.

Once he was ash, Emeric and Izabella started to try and make their way back to the Stag Moat. Faced with the terrible fire, and fearful that it might spread into Prague, Emeric exerted his pyromancy to maximum effect, spending the last of his Fate Points and taking much stress and consequences to suck all the fire into himself, quenching it instantly. They made their way back to the Stag Moat, and that’s where we called the game.

So, Clan Arkady is gone. That’s easily worth a Major Milestone. I also have some city advancement to do – this is going to change the nature and Aspect of Jeleni Prikop. I haven’t decided how, yet, but I’ve got some interesting ideas percolating.

And there’s still a number of things hanging over the characters’ heads, and only about five months left before the Battle of White Mountain and the occupation of Prague by Catholic forces. Plenty of good stories ahead.

  1. This is sort of an interesting phenomenon. I mean, they know that Nicola is the head of the Petrunas cult, because they decided that in the city creation. But they keep the information from the characters very well. I think they also suspect me of changing some of the minor aspects of the setting to keep the mystery and excitement alive. And they’re right to do so. []
  2. “For the pies,” he said. []
  3. Especially the theme Supernatural and Religious Gang Warfare. []
  4. And how could that come back to bite them? []
  5. They didn’t use this, and so still don’t really know what it does. []
  6. As promised by Konstantin, the other Arkady clansfolk stayed out of things. Emeric had been declared the Arkady’s prey, and so no one would interfere. []
  7. And paid to keep them under control by buying off a compel that they slip free to attack everyone. []

Fearful Symmetries: The Stag Moat

Friday night was the latest installment of the Fearful Symmetries game.

Emeric and Izabela decided to continue to focus on the person who stuck the knife in Izabela’s door. The only name they really had was Giaccomo Malvora, a White Court nobleman from Naples who was reputed to hunt Jeleni Prikop – the Stag Moat – for the remnants of Rudolf’s menageries that were said to run loose there.

So, they went snooping after Giaccomo Malvora.

Amadan warned them that what was going on looked like the power games that are played by followers of the Hunter, an aspect of the Erlking, and that the encounter the pair had had with the Erlking had marked them as rivals and targets. He also said that, if it was Giaccomo Malvora behind this, that his sister, Lukrezia, the head of the household, would not take kindly to it. Though coming to her attention was probably not a good idea – the Hussites who had thrown the Imperial emissaries out of the window a few months back had been spending some time in Lukrezia’s company, and look what that got everyone.

The plan the heroes came up with was to go into the Stag Moat and try and turn the tables on Giaccomo, or whoever it was hunting them.

This decision came after some substantial time debating, investigating, and preparing, and I’m always glad to see the players caring enough about the game that they do agonize a little over the options and mysteries. The upshot of things, though, is that they didn’t have enough solid information to unravel all the questions, and eventually opted to take action regardless. I’m even gladder when this happens, because nothing drags a game’s energy down like endless dithering and navel-gazing.

It’s a fine line to walk – as a GM, I’ve got to make sure that the mystery is intriguing enough that they puzzle at it, and that the stakes are high enough that they take it seriously. At the same time, I have to make sure that there’s enough time pressure that they are prompted to act, or that the stakes aren’t so high that they refuse to budge before exhausting every conceivable option. The ideal kind of feeling I want when the characters finally put a plan into motion is the essence of the scene in season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just as the gang heads out to face down Glory and rescue Dawn. They’ve done all they can reasonably do, and they just pray it’s enough*.

So, into the Stag Moat, with all their preparations.

Now, at this point, I wasn’t sure how this whole thing was going to go. I knew what was going on, and who was behind it, and so forth, but the characters hadn’t uncovered the full picture. When they headed into the Stag Moat, I needed to come up with a satisfying way to wrap up this immediate storyline, though I wanted to make sure there were enough dangling threads that they could eventually come back and find out the deeper secrets*. I decided to make it a gauntlet that they had to run, to prove themselves against the one who had challenged them. And, as all literary challenges must, it had three phases.

The first was a huge bowman in camouflage who almost got Izabela with a javelin-sized arrow. They managed to capture him alive, but he could give them little information, because his tongue had been cut out. They took his weapons and told him to leave the park, which he was only too happy to do.

The second was a larger pack of the nasty, warped hounds they had fought earlier. They wrapped these up fairly quickly, despite the fact that I had the hounds team up and attack in a coordinated manner, using maneuvers to try and bring down the characters. Izabela’s amazing roll on her whirlwind evocation kept them bouncing around in the air with no hope of escape while Emeric roasted them one by one.

Oh. There was also a deadfall trap that destroyed Izabela’s conjured horse, which slowed them down and bottled them up enough for the hounds to make their initial attack.

The last opponent was Giaccomo Malvora, who stalked the characters through the woods, using his Incite Emotion power to make them more and more nervous*. When they finally spotted him, they made very short work, with Izabela binding him up in the spirits of the animals he had killed, and Emeric unleashing the sword Beortning and using it to skewer the White Court Vampire, pinning him to the earth.

As they were questioning the poor, shrieking, burning fellow, another man showed up. He told the characters to let the vampire live, and things pretty much went downhill from there. Emeric got pissy when the fellow didn’t feel that he was in Emeric’s debt for letting the vampire live (the guy explained that it was for the sake of Emeric and Izabela that he made the suggestion), and Izabela got pissy when the man didn’t seem to want to help defend Prague.

The stranger told them that the hunt was over, and gave them each an old stone arrowhead on a leather thong as a trophy. He also told them that he was not the one who challenged them. Izabela asked for the name of the one who had, and was told it was Konstantin Arkady. When Emeric pushed the point of how he had let Giaccomo live as a favour to the man, he tore out the vampire’s heart and ate it, saying again that the favour was his advice to Emeric, not Emeric sparing the vampire.

At this point, Emeric threw the arrowhead on the ground, saying that if the man wasn’t going to honour his debts, then he wanted nothing from him. The stranger said, “That’s the third time you’ve insulted me. You’ve got one chance to take it back.” Emeric declined, and the fellow said, “You’ve got one month to kill me. If you don’t do it in that time, I will come and kill you.”

As a GM, I knew that things would come to a bad end. In fact, I had planned it. See, Emeric is very much the alpha-male, in the best Norse traditions. He never backs down or admits to losing an argument. If you want to put him in his place, you need to put him in his place. Physically. So, I know that whenever I throw another alpha-male into the mix, if that character isn’t instantly and obviously waaaay out of Emeric’s league (Odin) or outside of his circle (Zuckerbastl, Amiel), there will be a fight.

So this guy not showing any obvious power and interfering in Emeric’s life was guaranteed to get a fight going. I wasn’t sure if the fight was going to happen there or not – I was hoping not, but ready if it was going to happen – but I knew that this would generate an enmity that would need to be resolved.

And that enmity is one more tie into the game world for our characters’ emotions.

That’s pretty much where we left it. I gave the characters a significant milestone, and I look forward to seeing what they plan to do next. I know Izabela has had some interesting ideas about the curse on Gold Lane, and they now have the name Konstantin Arkady to look into. There’s still the dangling Petrunas Cult storyline hanging around*, too, and some other things I’ve got on the back burners.

Another fun game.


*Giles: We few, we happy few…
Spike: We band of buggered. Back

*Which I’m not going to talk about here. Back

*I basically cribbed the stats for Lara Raith, and made a couple minor changes on the fly to reflect that Giaccomo’s a hunter in 1620 Prague. And a dude. Back

*Well, not really hanging around, because things have been happening, but the characters don’t know about them, yet. Back

Fearful Symmetries: Complications

Last Friday was the latest episode of the Fearful Symmetries campaign. I did things a little differently than I often do in the game, trying to achieve a specific kind of effect. I don’t know how successful it was; we all had fun, but I felt that maybe I hadn’t provided enough focus and direction.

What was this big change? Well, we’ve been playing for several sessions, now, and the characters are having more of an impact on the setting. In the past couple of scenarios specifically, they managed to get themselves marked by doing a couple of impressive things: bringing the Wild Hunt back to the world for a night, and traveling to Asgard to talk to Odin. I figured that these things would leave a sort of mystical mark on them, making them a little more obvious and visible to others in Prague who could perceive such things.

So, what I did was look at the write-up we had done for Prague, and see who might be interested in such things. I found two specific groups and, rather than picking one, I decided to have both groups come sniffing around for different reasons, and with very different styles. And because some of the things unfolded over time, I wanted to give the players plenty of opportunity to pursue their characters’ agendas in the meantime.

Anway. We picked up pretty much immediately after the attack by the warped dogs on White Mountain, with the characters heading back down into Prague, keeping a sharp eye out for other attacks. Once Izabela was safely behind her wards, Emeric went to the Goblin’s Brewery, and had an interesting discussion with Amadan, where he learned that Amadan could tell that Emeric had been to the Mittelmarch and had a brush with the Erlking. I was glad of this opportunity to dump a little information on the characters about their current visible status, and so was grateful that Emeric had chosen to go talk to someone who would know about it. With this information, Izabela whipped up a specialized veil to mask their magical signatures, and they went about their business.

Emeric has been working on building up a network of contacts and information in the city, so he went on with that, spending some time with Captain Amiel and his men, keeping those ties tight. Izabela finally found another mortal practitioner in Prague: a down-on-his-luck alchemist named Aurelius. She also found the powerful curse on Gold Lane, and had a chat with Rabbi Cohen about it.

During this, Emeric spotted a falcon watching him from time to time. His Lore check told him it was a natural bird with some sort of enchantment on it, so he devised a cunning plan to capture it – which failed, unfortunately; it’s hard to catch a falcon in a city using your hands and a cloak.

The characters also got an invitation to meet with a young nobleman named Evzen, who revealed himself to be a member of the secret Petrunas cult that meets on Petrin’s Hill. He wanted the assistance of the pair to help lend credibility to the cult, setting it up as a viable and attractive alternative to Christianity in the current troubled times. Specifically, he wanted to know what they could tell him of the Dooms, and to open the Rainbow Bridge for him. Emeric was somewhat sympathetic to the man’s desires – Petrunas is a local cognate of Thor – but Izabela was very concerned that Evzen seemed to know so much about them, and wouldn’t agree to anything unless Evzen agreed to reveal the source of his information. In private conversation, she told Emeric that she was certainly willing to help the cult, despite her fairly devout Catholicism, but that she could not let the fact that someone knew who she was and that they had been to Asgard go uninvestigated.

Evzen was, however, bound by his oaths to the cult, and said he could not reveal the source of his information. He said that he would speak to his fellows, and see if a meeting could be arranged to satisfy Izabela’s concerns. He said he would contact them in a day or two.

The next day, Izabela went back to Gold Lane to study the curse there, and Emeric made the rounds of his contacts, looking for information on the dogs which had attacked them. He turned up some rumours of dangerous creatures in the local parks, especially Jeleni Prikop, and found someone who told him that there had been a number of disappearances around there, and that Giaccomo Malvora, a rather brash young Italian nobleman, was known to go hunting in the dangerous parks. Izabela told him later that the Malvoras were White Court Vampires who fed on fear.

Emeric also found himself watched by dogs that day. Not large, warped ones, but not the scruffy mongrels that frequented the streets of Prague, either. These were well-cared-for hunting beasts. He managed to snag a few hairs from one of them, and brought them to Izabela to try and find out who was sending the beasts to spy on them.

Izabela managed to reach back through the mystic link from the dog to a powerful, feral force that seemed as much beast as man. I hit the player with a compel at that point, suggesting that she use her Sight to get a real good look at whatever it was. She did so, and saw a powerful man wrapped in many animal skins, holding the leashes of a vast hunting pack, with a pile of animal carcasses behind him. Over them all was the shadow of the Erlking.

As she came out of her Sight-induced trance, there was a loud thud at the door of her rooms. When they opened up, they found a huge hunting knife driven deep into the wood of the door, and no one around. They took a few seconds for Izabela to weave a compass ritual around the knife, so it would lead them to the one who had wielded it, and then took to the streets. They were told on the street, when they asked, that a hawk had flown out of the building shortly before the characters came out, and they followed the pull of the knife down to the Vltava, where the trail was lost. They tried to cross the Charles Bridge and pick up the trail on the other side, but as they passed beneath the Old Town Tower, the mystical defenses that the Templars had placed there to ward the bridge against Saracen magic unwove the finding spell and turned the knife red-hot.

They went back down to the river’s edge and Izabela tried to speak to the ghosts there to find out what had happened – they assumed that the hawk was a shapeshifter who had flown into the river to rinse away any connection to the knife, but they wanted confirmation. The ghosts who appeared to Izabela were all fighting men armed with spears and shields, arrayed along the riverbank, and they would not answer her questions, saying that the Queen was the only one who could. Izabela asked to speak with the Queen, and face formed out of the waves and told Izabela that yes, a hawk had flown down into the water, and then flown away again.

Now, the characters are very concerned about this fellow looking for them, and also are starting to get concerned that they haven’t heard back from Evzen yet. I figured that was a good place to leave things, with them trying to think of a way to track down this shapeshifter with ties to the Erlking.

As I said, the session was a little muddled and unfocused, but I hope I haven’t confused things too much. We’ll find out next session.