Ashen Stars: The Witness of My Worth, Part 2

***Spoiler Warning***

I’m running the introductory scenario, The Witness of My Worth from the Ashen Stars rulebook. While some things always get changed when the scenario meets the players, I am running it pretty much straight out of the box. There will be spoilers in this post.

***You Have Been Warned***

About a week ago, we finally managed to schedule a session to finish our Ashen Stars play test1. I’d been trying to think how to flesh out the end of the adventure to fill in an entire session – we only had one or two scenes left – and threw together some combat encounters to use. As it turned out, I really didn’t need them.

The Lasers did some more speculating and discussing of the information they had so far, trying to figure out what was going on. They had a number of pieces of the overall puzzle – computer intrusion, rewriting of brains via the headsets, air clearing in a formerly polluted area, stuff like that. What they didn’t know was what was causing this – the Durugh, the Mohilar, someone2 else.

After going around in circles a few times, they remembered one of the basic tenets of GUMSHOE games – if you’re stuck, it means you need more information. They had one lead – a set of co-ordinates out in the ruined city that seemed to be at the centre of the strange occurrences. And so off they went.

I spent a little time this session describing things – coming up with descriptions of the surroundings, working a little harder to paint a picture of the world. I also worked harder at smoothing out the use of Investigative abilities in the game – trying to make them more transparent to the players. I had some pretty good success with the first part, but not so much with the second.

The problem with the Investigative abilities not being transparent was two-fold, I think. First, there was the simple fact that all of us – GM and players alike – were new to this game3.Now, that’s a problem that will arise with any new game, and it can correct itself after a few sessions. Familiarity and mastery will come.

The second issue was something that compounded the first one: the Investigative abilities in Ashen Stars are not intuitively named. Instead, they are named in keeping with the space opera setting. This is great as far as flavour goes, but it adds an extra level of learning between the players and mastery.

Anyway, our heroes made it to the site, and found that it was a museum devoted to Brian Hudd, native son of Ares-3, and hero of the Mohilar war. Something4 had restarted the computer that ran the museum, which immediately turned on the air scrubbers, resulting in the clear air around the building.

Investigating further, they found that the computer had achieved sentience, but had been damaged. All the records of the diplomatic, alliance-building Brian Hudd had be been lost, and only the records of Brian Hudd as a ruthless, cunning, and triumphant warrior remained. The building had also lost its holo facilities, so it was making do with reprogramming any sentients that happened by5 to refight Brian Hudd’s battles.

They found this out the hard way, when Returner-U directly interfaced with the museum computer, and was reprogrammed into Brian Hudd, fighting off the Mohilar6 and trying to reunite with his crew7. So, there was a desperate struggle with Returner-U, as Maxine managed to synthesize a viro deprogramming agent to cleanse Returner-U’s mind.

Once they had their Cybe compatriot back to his regular charming self8, the Lasers made their way down to the main computer room in the basement and tried to shut down the computer, only to find that it had a back-up version of itself recorded in the strange electrical activity in Ares-3’s atmosphere.

Now, this is all part of the scenario-as-written, to set up a very specific kind of climax to the adventure: one where the characters, in the best tradition of Captain Kirk, convince the AI that it is flawed and must destroy itself. But, I must admit, as I was giving the characters that last clue, I rebelled against it. It was a little too, well, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb9.

Okay, “dumb” is a little harsh. And there are alternative solutions offered in the scenario. Perhaps a less judgmental way of putting things was that the solution seemed to clash with the moderately gritty vision of the setting that our group shared.

Whatever the reason, as I said, I rebelled, especially once I started getting some of the clue out, and felt the resistance to it building in the group. So, I changed things slightly, and explained that, with the ability of the AI to exist in the atmosphere, there was no way to physically destroy it.

And then the group showed me again why I game with them. They convinced the AI to accept a download of the rest of Brian Hudd’s accomplishments, and persuaded it to keep working to clear the air of Ares-3. They even talked it into spreading itself through the ionosphere and reactivating other air scrubbers on the planet. And they convinced it to create a child AI that they could load into their ship’s computer.

“Now that’s a pilot episode,” was the response from the group.

We faded out on Aron telling the bartender on Ares-3 to be ready for the Combine to come calling. And that they didn’t need to rush into backing the Combine – they had the right to their independence.

The gang talked about how they’d consider playing more Ashen Stars10, but the more they talked about how they had enjoyed this session – specifically the last half of this session – the more I was convinced that this is not the game for this group. Why not? Because the bits they liked most were the bits where I had departed farthest from the game system.

They liked the setting, they liked the characters, they even liked parts of the scenario. But they didn’t like the idea of fiddling with the Investigative abilities, and then trying to figure out the mystery. The more we discussed things, the more certain I became that the game system is the thing they liked least about the whole play test.

This is not to say that Ashen Stars is a bad system – it’s not. I love it. I would need more practice to run it smoothly, and there are a few things about it that I find irritating, but the same is true of any system.

But not every system works for every game group. And this system does not work with these particular players. And so, I said that I would keep the game in my back-pocket, as it were, for possible future play11, but that I didn’t think we should keep going with it as a regular game.

Instead, I offered them a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game that Clint had suggested at one time: street-level superheroes in Gotham City. Everyone thought that was a splendid idea, so that’s what we’re doing. In discussing it, though, it became clear that there was not a common vision of such a game being shared among the group, so this coming Friday, we’re going to get together and use the Fate Core game creation rules to create our MHRPG setting12.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

  1. You can read about the first session here. []
  2. Or something. []
  3. I had run Trail of Cthulhu previously, and one of the players had played it, but we were all new to Ashen Stars. []
  4. They assumed the Ashen Star incident of a few days previous. []
  5. Using their headsets as the reprogramming vector. []
  6. That is, the other PCs. []
  7. That is, some random, reprogrammed Ares-3 inhabitants that I had statted up in case I needed a fight. []
  8. This is a bit of a joke. Returner-U has absolutely zero interpersonal skills. []
  9. Sorry, Robin. []
  10. Well, one player was not interested. He’s not a fan of investigative games. []
  11. Or conversion to a different space opera game system, maybe? []
  12. The Fate Core stuff is just so good for this. We can even create the aspects for everything, just call them distinctions to fit with the Cortex Plus rules. []

Ashen Stars: The Witness of My Worth, Part 1

***Spoiler Warning***

I’m running the introductory scenario, The Witness of My Worth from the Ashen Stars rulebook. While some things always get changed when the scenario meets the players, I am running it pretty much straight out of the box. There will be spoilers in this post.

***You Have Been Warned***

A little over two weeks ago1, instead of some sort of Valentine’s Day celebration, I had a group of friends over to play our first session of Ashen Stars, the space-opera GUMSHOE game from Pelgrane Press by Robin D. Laws2. We had done character creation by e-mail, which turned out to not be ideal, but we got through it, and I, at least, was excited to actually start playing.

Only one of my players3 had ever played a GUMSHOE game previously, so I spent the first bit of the session explaining the system. I think it’s a good thing I did; my explanation of how the Investigative abilities worked caused a couple of characters to rearrange some of their points. I also talked about the part that always messes up new GUMSHOE players: if you don’t know what you should do next, go get more information.

I also explained that I had the Ashen Stars soundtrack, All We Have Forgotten, loaded up on my computer, and that I would be using musical stings to end scenes when the characters had got all the information they could from a scene, as well as using the other tracks to provide thematic background music. Then I pretty much immediately forgot to do all that. Oh, I think I managed to pull in the proper track twice through the evening, and used a sting maybe once, but it turned out to be just one more thing for me to keep track of, and it got lost in the shuffle. With some practice, that might change.

I had also printed out Kevin Kulps 30-minute demo scenario, Stowaway, thinking that I might use it as a sort of trailer for the game, giving people a taste of how things worked before jumping into the actual investigation4. I discarded that idea, though, simply for reasons of time. We’d already spent over an hour with the introductory stuff5, and I really wanted to finish this scenario in one session6, so I decided not to use the short scenario, and jumped into the main scenario.

I had typed up a one-page hand-out for the players, outlining their mission from The Witness of My Worth, containing the main datapoints of their assignment, and I gave it to the bagger to read first. When she had read it and started passing it to the other players, I explained that this was a good time to start using some of their Investigative abilities to fill in background and detail on the contract – what their destination was like, what the legal complications might be, etc. They spent a little time doing that, getting a little more comfortable with the concepts behind GUMSHOE.

When they looked to have had enough of that, I jumped them into the Ares-3 system, and sprang the first little surprise on them: the ship immediately started plotting an automatic attack run on a nearby hauler. Returner-U managed to wrest control away from the computers before things went badly, and our Lasers were able to prevent an unprovoked attack by their ship on the unsuspecting hauler. They hailed the hauler, and found that they were heading to a settlement on the far side of the planet from the site of the EvBase.

Making their way down to the planet surface, the Lasers landed as near as they could get to the EvBase in the ruins of the capital city. They managed to bypass the fence of security pylons around the base, and even defuse the booby-trapped bomb on the door. Inside, they found the entire crew of the EvBase dead. They managed to reconstruct the sequence of death, determining that a group of the crew returned from outside and attacked those inside7.

Some of the records they unlocked from the main database led them to go and investigate  the settlement nearby. There, they found that the locals weren’t all that welcoming – though the Durugh arms merchants did offer a job to Arrud – and weren’t too forthcoming with information.

At this point, I found myself fretting about some of the false assumptions that the group was making, and the number of clues they weren’t picking up. You see, this was the first time I found myself running a published GUMSHOE adventure, being far more used to running the improvisational style of mystery found in The Armitage Files. Published adventures, I have found, lay out a much larger number – and a broader range – of clues, to make sure that the characters can always find the path forward. In improvised adventures, the GM can be more parsimonious with the clues created, because they are created at the intersection of the mystery’s background and the investigators’ actions.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that, even though the investigators didn’t uncover every clue in every scene, they still got all the core clues, and were able to move forward in the investigation, even if they were moving forward with false assumptions.

Still, at this point I realized that the Lasers didn’t have the clue to lead them on to the next stage of the investigation. And there didn’t seem to be much chance of them finding that required clue in the current scened. Fortunately, I turned the page, and saw that the answer was in the next scene.

So, I had a huge ground transport come lumbering down the avenue toward the bar, with a couple of people firing weapons out the windows. Our Lasers sprang into action, saving some bystanders and crippling the transport. Investigation of the driver and passenger showed that they had brain deformations similar to those found on some of the crew of the EvBase, along with burns along the points where their headsets touched flesh.

Data in the transport revealed a site where strange things were happening, the next bit of vital information to drive the investigation forward. They decided to head off there to see if they could get to the bottom of this strange thing that seemed to be reprogramming the brains of those who came into contact with it.

That was the point we decided to call it an evening, as it was getting late. I need to flesh out some of the end of the investigation to fill up an entire session, because there are only a couple of scenes left, and it could be wrapped up in a little more than an hour. That shouldn’t be too difficult, though.

I’m looking forward to the next session.

  1. I started writing this post the morning after the game. Honest, I did. But life kept intruding and keeping me from finishing it. I’ve changed that reference to when we played three four times now. []
  2. I think that’s a record for number of links in a single sentence on my blog. Yay! []
  3. Maybe two; I can’t remember if Fera had played in a Trail of Cthulhu one-shot. []
  4. I even worked out a way to tie it into the backstory for the characters that they had worked out. []
  5. Waiting for everyone to arrive, getting everyone fed and settled, going over the rules, talking about True Detective, talking about work, etc. []
  6. Spoiler: didn’t happen. []
  7. I really should have spent some more time prepping this section. The notes in the  adventure did not provide the sequence of death – specifically, who died when and where – and I was forced to reconstruct it on the fly logic-puzzle style. And there was some question about the timing of the bomb set on the door that I couldn’t immediately resolve, so I resorted to the old GM trick, “Yeah, that does seem odd, doesn’t it?” []

Ashen Stars: Recruitment

I seem to sort of wander backwards into running GUMSHOE games. What I mean by that is that I usually spend several weeks or months planning to run a campaign1, but with GUMSHOE games, I wind up running them after a casual conversation and a quick agreement, and then scramble to get the campaign ready to run. That happened when I ran the Armitage Files campaign, and it happened again with Ashen Stars.

In both cases, I had been talking the games up to various people, but not expecting to have a chance to run either any time soon. For Ashen Stars, I had offered to run a one-shot between earlier this month at a game night, but we opted for board games instead. Still, the group was interested enough in the pitch that I’ve agreed to run a mini-campaign, about four or five sessions, covering two to three cases, I’m guessing.

Because of timing and scheduling issues, I decided to do character generation via e-mail, basing my experience on the Trail of Cthulhu character creation process that I used for Armitage Files. I had been dreading running that character generation session, but it turned out to go quickly and easily and got everyone excited about the game, so I figured that this would go pretty easily, as well2.

It has not gone as smoothly as expected.

I’ve been trying to think about why that is. The first thing that came to mind is that this game, unlike ToC, deals with gear in some detail, and wading through the sections on cybernetic and viroware enhancements is a little daunting. But that led me to a number of other choice points in character creation that slowed things down and caused some confusion:

  • Roles. Unlike ToC, where you just pick a profession, AS uses the concept of roles to focus character concepts and ability selections. Roles are different than professions, in that it’s good to have all five roles covered to be an effective squad. Well, all ten, really, once you factor in both warpside3 and groundside4 roles. Actually, eleven roles, including the medic, which is both a warpside and groundside role. Sorting out who was going to take which role and what to do with the leftovers took some discussion.
  • Ship. You start with a ship, picked from a selection of eleven different classes, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Analyzing these and deciding between them was another choice-point that required discussion. And a vote.
  • Gear. As mentioned above, the shopping expedition took time. As part of getting gear and enhancements involves divvying up a pool of group money5 and then budgeting for upkeep for your own cyber or viro enhancements.
  • Personal arc. The personal arc is a beautiful idea for this kind of game, but it takes some time to put together. Especially because it’s a new idea for the gaming group. Fortunately, this is something that doesn’t need to happen right away, and it’s something that each player can do individually, with just a little input from me. The point is that it’s not something that requires group input and decisions.
  • The Bribe(TM). I gave the players six questions about their characters that they could answer or not. For each question they answered, I let them pick from a short list of stuff. Everyone got me their answers6 in quick order, but took their time picking out their rewards. Again, though, this is something that doesn’t require group discussion. Also, it’s completely my fault, and not part of the rules for the game. But it has introduced a delay.

Now, these points are not necessarily bad things. They do a lot to flesh out the characters and the setting, and the end result is going to be some very cool characters.

But.

They do not lend themselves well to creating characters by e-mail discussion. Maybe if I had thought to put up a forum to run character creation, it would have gone smoother and quicker, but I honestly doubt it.

Looking at things, I really should have done more to schedule a character creation session. There’s nothing like being face-to-face for group decision-making. And for explaining some of the more slippery concepts. And answering questions, voting, brainstorming…

There’s been some frustration from the players at what seems like far too much work to create a character. One of my players said to me last night, “I’m really looking forward to playing the game, but man, the character creation just blows.” I don’t think the character creation blows, but the way I managed it certainly does.

In addition to the frustration for the characters, I’ve found that I’ve had to do a lot more work on my end managing the whole process. Keeping everyone on the same phase of the process turned out to be important, as the stuff I sent out for those who were ahead of things turned out to be information overload for those who were on earlier phases. I had to build a spreadsheet and keep sending out updated versions to show people what abilities had been covered. And I think I’ve sent out about 15,000 words of explanation, lists, instructions, examples, and updates over the past three weeks.

Much of what I sent out was aimed at making things easier for the players: suggested gear and enhancement packages, short descriptions of the different ship classes, worked examples of personal arcs, new gear developed at player requests, etc. I don’t begrudge this at all, because it’ll help them have more fun. And besides, I did it to myself.

To help take some of the sting out of this process that has ballooned and morphed from quick-and-easy to long-and-tedious, I’m preparing extensive cheat-sheet packages for each character, with descriptions of their abilities and gear, and such. Hopefully, that will make the actual play move quickly and easily despite the new system, and soon character creation will be a distant memory.

The big lesson learned from all this? Not every game system has a character creation process suited to every type of situation. While I think that e-mail character creation would work fine for ToC or D&D, it does not work for Ashen Stars. And I wouldn’t even try it with Fate.

Despite all of the above points, we have all four characters at a playable state. We were going to have our first game last night, but real life intruded and we’ve had to delay it. But here’s the list of our doughty crew of Lasers:

  • Arón Santa-Ana: Human Stratco/Gunner/Chopper7
  • Furan Arrud: Durugh Hailer/Face/Mapper
  • Maxine Kemper: Human Medic/Wrench/Bagger
  • Returner-U: Cybe Pilot/Techo

Tough part is over folks. I promise. From here on out, it’s freelance police in space!

 

  1. Even a mini-campaign, like this one is going to be. []
  2. You see what’s coming, right? []
  3. Aboard the ship. []
  4. I don’t really need to explain this one, do I? []
  5. Some of which you probably want to save for an emergency fund to repair your ship or pay for maintenance if you wind up waiting a long time between contracts. []
  6. For all six questions, I might add. Everyone answered every question. []
  7. I don’t know if the Stratco/Gunner split is going to cause problems in play, but we’re going to try it out. If it’s a real problem, we’ll work something out. []

From the Armitage Files: The End

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

Last night was the final installment of my Armitage Files campaign. After nearly two-and-a-half years and twenty-three sessions, we reached the end of our story and the investigators faced their final challenge.

I think it ended well.

We picked things up in the moment after the last session ended, with our intrepid1 heroes opening the conference room door to find Cyrus Llanfer transformed into one of the crystal snowmen that mark the attention of Chaugnar Faugn. That threw everyone into high gear, and also some confusion. At some point along here, Crosby put together some pieces he had read about Nyarlathotep2 and realized that Kim Nak was probably a mask of Nyarlathotep, heralding the arrival of something bigger and more terrible – Chaugnar Faugn. Finally, a very stressed-out Moon got everyone moving by dint of being angrier than anyone else in the room – he grabbed Dyer to take them to see Danforth up at the asylum, because Roxy thought he might have an idea or two to share, and the rest of the Armitage group were sent to scrounge up whatever information they could find about what was going on or where Armitage himself was.

Now, I hadn’t expected the group to call on Danforth, but he seemed a good vector to start delivering the information the characters needed to clarify what was going on, so I was okay with that. They took Dyer’s car – and Dyer – because they didn’t think they could get permission to see Danforth otherwise, but when they arrived at the asylum, all the people in it had been turned to the crystal snowmen. By the time they had made it to Danforth’s room, Dyer was starting to crystallize3. He gave his notebook to Moon, and Moon shot him in the head to put him out of his misery.

Danforth was still alive; in fact, besides the characters, he was the only one in the asylum who was. His room was rimed with frost, and he was in restraints on the bed, but he seemed lucid and willing to co-operate. Crosby freed him, and Danforth grabbed something wrapped in a pillowcase from under the bed that he said would help protect them. Back in the car, Moon and Danforth had a little crazy-talk session4 that provided a little more insight into the nature of Chaugnar Faugn, how Nyarlathotep was preparing the way, and what might be done about it. He remembered the song they had used to cure Solis of his crystalline infection, and decided that that might be something they could use to buy a little time.

The next stop was Moon’s bookshop, where he had arranged to meet members of the Armitage Group who had gone to loot the rare book room at MU now that Llanfer was dead. Of course, the tcho-tchos knew all about the bookshop, so when our heroes arrived, they found a pile of professorial corpses and a sink full of burning books. They salvaged what they could from the sink and scarpered.

There followed a kind of muddied debate about what needed to be done next. They finally decided that they needed to get some audio equipment from the university – they settled on the cone-style megaphones, because they didn’t know if they’d be able to haul a generator for electronic amplification to wherever they needed to sing the song. That was the sticking point for them: they didn’t know where the song should be sung. As a creature outside of and only impinging on normal space-time, Chaugnar Faugn would only truly be vulnerable to the song at a specific place and time.

See, my thought for this5 was that the song should be sung at the Monument Creek dig where the first idol was unearthed. But Roxy suggested the Kingsport lighthouse they had visited last session, I changed my mind and made that the place/time. After all, it was already unstuck in time and space, and that had to put it “closer” to Chaugnar Faugn. Moon suggested the Monument Creek site, Roxy suggested the lighthouse, and they were stuck – not enough information to make an informed decision. They’ve learned enough of the system, though, that they knew what to do if they didn’t have enough information: go find some more. Moon pulled out his once-per-game ability as an Antiquarian to say that he had a book that should help them6 back at the shop, so they detoured to the shop, on high alert for tcho-tchos and other bad things.

In the shop, they found Austin Kittrell, sitting at Moon’s desk, reading the book he had come for. I tried for a little bit of banter, but Roxy was having none of that, and shot Kittrell a couple of times. It didn’t have the desired effect; he just took it and smiled. Moon grabbed the book from him, but then got backhanded across the room7 and knocked unconscious. Danforth lifted his hands and started chanting in a strange language, and the air got colder around him, so Crosby and Roxy grabbed the book and the unconscious Moon and started dragging him from the shop. The last thing they saw of Kittrell, he was punching his fist through Danforth’s chest. Danforth continued chanting, though without sound now that his lungs were mainly missing.

Crosby made it out of the shop with Moon, but Roxy slipped on the now-icy floor, and fell far enough behind to hear a wet explosion and a whistling cry of “Tekeli-li!”8 from the back room, then she was out and running to the car. They got in and tore away, Moon madly reading the recovered book9 and Crosby reading the salvaged books from the sink.

Eventually, they got the idea that they needed to get to the lighthouse and sing the song to stall Chaugnar Faugn’s arrival. They made their way back to Kingsport, and hauled Moon up the headland10, past the now-silent cabin, and to the huge pile of bones overlooking the pristine sea. Down below, small, dark figures frolicked in the water, and a twenty-foot tall crystal elephant snowman stood beside the bone pile.

I ran the song as a magical ritual, with no opposition just to simplify things. I decided they needed to get a total of 30 on their rolls, each roll representing a half-hour or so of singing time. After each roll, the characters had to make Health checks to keep singing, or have their voice give out. I put in a couple of trigger points where things would start happening – at 10, Roxy noticed that there was something huge making it’s way through the sea towards the headland11. At 20, the giant crystal idol woke up and started moving towards the investigators. At this point, Moon lost enough Stability to move him into the Blasted category, and he decided that, in his madness, he would sacrifice himself to the elder god in hopes of distracting it long enough for his companions to finish the song. I liked this idea, and gave him free rein. He said that, because he had seen outside the normal dimensions before, and because now he was insane, he could unfold his own timeline back to the first time he had killed a man – as a boy in Russia – and get Chaugnar Faugn to focus on him. I said okay, but took it a bit further, weaving it into a moment of extradimensional perception for all the characters, as they got to see Moon’s yeti-like multidimensional form consumed by a wall of probosces, eyes, mouths, and other organs.

I thought this was going to be the end of the whole thing, because I couldn’t show them that and not call for some hefty Stability checks, and I refuse to pull punches in a Cthulhu campaign endgame. But Roxy and Crosby made their checks and finished the song, forcing Chaugnar Faugn’s attention away from them. They then set fire to the bones12 and ran away – the flash of the fire drove off whatever was coming through the water to get Roxy, and a white ship sailed in to dock at the top of the headland, but they weren’t having none of that, and just ran like bunnies.

At this point, the players started acting like it was all over, so I used a reminder that there was still work to be done – I had another packet of papers show up on the car seat. This was a less-than-perfectly successful clue; things ground to a halt as the players read through the papers, looking for the clue that would show them where to go next, when the arrival of the papers was intended to be the clue. I reminded them that, according to their information, all the song had done was buy them some time to fix the real problem. Roxy started to get fixated on the mention of the Nophru-ka tablet in the papers, and started planning to go to New York13, but decided that she needed to find Armitage and stop him from killing Petrovich, also mentioned in the papers.

They also found Danforth’s pillow case in the car, and found inside a floor tile with an elder sign scratched on it. Crosby used his Cthulhu Mythos to figure out what it meant and how useful it could be, and he, too, wound up Blasted. That left Roxy essentially on her own.

She headed back to the university, and found one of the last members of the Armitage Group, Ashley, and got him to tell her about a bolt hole Armitage had set up in the last place anyone would look for him – the ruins of the Whateley farm in Dunwich. She persuaded Ashley to take her up there and distract Armitage while she crept around back with a shotgun. Ashely got Armitage talking, and he expressed genuine puzzlement and horror at what was happening, and no hint that he was deliberately causing it. At this point, Roxy popped up, asked him if he knew a Petrovich, Armitage started to say no, and she cut him in half with a shotgun blast.

This was the key event to end the threat. See, if Armitage died before he sent the documents back in time, then there would be no disruption of linear time to attract the attention of Chaugnar Faugn. The readjustment of time caused most of the big bad things that happened to undo, but being close enough to ground zero of the temporal reconfiguration, Roxy’s brain was shattered.

She found her consciousness floating in extradimensional space, with the voice of Fred Jahraus speaking to her. He offered to take her to live with them, because she had been kind to them. She would be, he explained, a pet. Roxy rejected that, even though Fred told her that her brain was too damaged to hold all of her now. She still decided to go back.

I finished with a quick epilogue. In the new timeline, bookseller Aaron Moon vanished one day, never to be seen again. Roxy Crane was found be her (restored) butler and housekeeper catatonic in bed – they think she suffered a stroke. Malcolm Crosby was hospitalized after a complete mental collapse, and never recovered. And August Solis, MD, still died in an explosion out in Montana.

I am very satisfied with the ending, especially the way each of the characters went out:

  • Moon, paranoid hoarder of information, gave himself to something that was the very epitome of entropy, destroying all he had learned, to buy the time to complete the ritual.
  • Crosby, who had been seeking real mystic knowledge for years, was destroyed and shattered once he found it.
  • Roxy, manipulator extraordinaire, faced the final challenge alone, with no one to help her, and no points to spend on ANYTHING. And then turned down an offer of (kinda) salvation.

It’s been a fun run, gang. As usual, the end of a campaign is a bittersweet thing if it works well. I’m sorry to see it end, but I recognize that ending on a high note is far better than devolving into boredom.

I want to thank a few people for this gaming experience:

  • Robin Laws for designing GUMSHOE andThe Armitage Files campaign.
  • Ken Hite for turning GUMSHOE into Trail of Cthulhu.
  • Simon Rogers at Pelgrane Press for publishing all this great stuff.
  • All you folks who have been following along with the campaign through the two-and-a-half years its been running.

But most of all, I want to thank my players for trusting me to run this kind of improvisational campaign, and going along with some of the weird and crazy ideas I’ve had through the run. Thanks to:

  • Michael as Aaron “Read ‘Em And Burn ‘Em” Moon.
  • Sandy as Roxy “Who Will I Be Today?” Crane.
  • Tom as Dr. August “Bleed On Everything” Solis and Malcolm “I’m Psychic!” Crosby.

It’s been a blast, folks.

 

 

  1. And significantly battered, by this point. []
  2. That is, he used his Cthulhu Mythos skill to find out about Nyarlathotep. []
  3. Confession time. I always try and remove anyone the characters can count on to save their bacon in the last act. Why? Because I think that the stars of the show, especially at the climax, should be the player characters. If it’s someone else who figures out the way to save the world, or who hands them the item they need, or whatever, then the PCs are relegated to simple plot devices, rather than the prime movers of the story. I mean, if the Armitage Group got back together with the investigators and said, “Right. Here are the steps to thwart Chaugnar Faugn. Do them in order, and everything will be fine,” it would be a pretty sucky ending, right? So, I let NPCs perform little services – provide some information, get them somewhere, deliver a clue – then clean them off the board so that the character only have themselves to rely on. They get to be the heroes. []
  4. That is, Moon used some of his Cthulhu Mythos. They’re not holding anything back, this session; they’re leaving it all out on the field. []
  5. To be clear, I had no plan coming into this session except one: I knew what one action would end the threat. Everything else that happened was me responding to character action, trying to provide them with the information they needed and keep the pressure on them. So, when they brought up the song, I thought that sounded like a good idea, and it became one of the things they needed to do. []
  6. He tried to say that he just had the information, but I held him to the rules that said he had an informational item back at the shop. []
  7. Down to -8 Health. Did I mention they came into this already kind of battered and spent? []
  8. Yup. Crazy Danforth summoned a shoggoth, which took out him, Kittrell, the bookshop, and all the buildings and people between the bookshop and the river. I figure, it’s the last session, time to pull out all the stops. I was a little disappointed that none of the characters looked back to see the thing, though. []
  9. After some First Aid spends to bring him back to consciousness and stop him dying. []
  10. Health checks all round to keep going in the face of exhaustion and exertion. []
  11. She’s been troubled for some time with dreams of a vast being waiting for her beneath the sea. []
  12. Well, to be fair, they threw dynamite into it, but I had the dynamite transform into a torch and ignite the bone-fire. []
  13. Which had nothing to do with what was going on. Curse my decision to give out more papers! They were nothing but a distraction! []

From the Armitage Files: Playing Defence

Bonus Warning

I try to keep this blog pretty inoffensive in terms of language and imagery. This session of The Armitage Files, though, took a bit of a surprising turn into a dark place. It was a wonderful bit of roleplaying on Sandy’s part that really stands out, and I’m going to talk about it below, but I warn you, it’s strong stuff. To give you the option not having those pictures in your head, I’m going to put the relevant section behind spoiler tags.

Read at Your Own Risk

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

Well, my players did not get back to me before the last session of The Armitage Files to let me know what they wanted to investigate, so that turned the evening into Opposition Action Time! I wanted to hit each of the characters separately, so I came up with a good threat for each of them, and went to town.

Aaron Moon, alone in his bookshop, had a disorienting moment of seeing his body from outside himself, and felt something trying to push its way into his consciousness. Being a paranoid who had read a lot of occult – and a few mythos – books, he immediately decided that something was trying to possess him1, and ran to the basement, where a rather high-difficulty Preparedness roll revealed that he had a protective circle of salt2 laid out on the bare floor. When that didn’t seem to work, he wracked his brain3 to figure something else out, and wound up carving a protective sigil into the flesh of his chest. This allowed him to hold off the possession attempt, and he hurried over to Roxy’s place to warn her about the attack. On his way out, he noticed that there were tiny crystals scattered along the trail he had taken from the shop down to the basement.

Roxy Crane, meanwhile, had been out trying to track down a lead on the mysterious Kim Nak, and spreading word that Charlie had been killed and there might be a reward for anyone who could help find the responsible culprits4. She was met on the street by Austin Kittrell5, who seemed quite chipper and eager to speak with her. He offered to buy her supper at a local club, and they retired there. In the midst of their conversation, with Kittrell dropping hints and asking leading questions showing that he had some knowledge of the kinds of things going on, he showed Roxy a drawing, asking if she recognized it. It was a quick, crude sketch of the crystal snowman that the gang has come to identify with Chaugnar Faugn. She confirmed that she recognized it, and asked him to destroy it, which he did. Then he asked her if she recognized another drawing, and showed her the symbol that had infected her mind in the Kingsport warehouse way back here.

Roxy had been dealing with strange, watery dreams ever since, and seeing the symbol again knocked her right into one of them, where she was swimming down into the depths, where a light awaited her, escorted by strange fish-frog-men. In this dream, I kicked in a little more horror6, I told her that her swimming was hampered somewhat by her advanced state of pregnancy. She fought off the lure of the depths and swam up to the surface instead, to find that a vast, beautiful and terrifying city was rising out of the sea.

Spoiler
She climbed up on top of a big, basalt mound, which continued to rise out of the water. I told her then that she felt the contractions starting. She grabbed a shard of obsidian and said, “I cut it out.”

“Okay,” I said, “you slice into your pulsing belly…”

“No, not that way. There’s all sorts of organs and things that I might damage cutting in that way. I know right where it’s coming out, so that’s where I’m going in to abort it.”

Things got pretty quiet at that point, and we all stared at her with shock and admiration. She’d taken the horrific moment I had created for her, and run with it to the next level, deepening the personal horror and nastiness of the situation. Which is what playing in a horror game is all about, in my opinion. So, that’s what she did.

She awoke, bloody and without coat, shoes, or handbag, in an alley in the predominantly black section of Arkham. It took some doing to find a bar where she could make a phone call to have her cousin come and get her.

Malcolm Crosby7 was headed over to Moon’s shop to do some research, seeing if he could learn more about tcho-tchos and/or Kim Nak, when he felt a little sting in his neck. Having heard the tales of the investigators’ run-ins with tcho-tchos and their poisoned weapons, he ran as fast as he could8 to a busy street to hail a cab. He had intended to have it take him to Moon’s shop, but when the player was reminded that they no longer had any tcho-tcho antidote and no one to make more, he changed his mind and went to the hospital. He made it there before passing out, and was able to give the dart to the doctor to help make the antidote.

Once everyone was back and safe, they repaired to Moon’s shop to work out a plan9. Some research and Cthulhu Mythos led them to make some connections between Chaugnar Faugn and some recent thought experiments by Danish theoretical physicists, implying that the attention of the Eater of Tomorrows collapsed the waveform of a person’s life and future into one of absolute entropy, thus killing the person, and extruding part of the Eater into the three observable dimensions as the crystalline snow men that they had witnessed before. They also discovered that tcho-tchos were the degenerate descendants of the miri-nigri, amphibious creatures created by Chaugnar Faugn in the ancient past.

The things that attracted Chaugnar Faugn’s attention included ritual sacrifices and worship, but it was also drawn by incidents of non-linear time, and that it increased the occurrence of such incidents as it collapsed possibilities into entropy, and surviving possibilities tended to expand into extremely improbable quantum events in the possibility vacuum thus created10. This led to some speculation about Moon’s irregular temporal perception and visions, and through there to the idea that the documents, coming as they seem to from the future, might be the cause of the very catastrophe they try to prevent.

And that’s when they started thinking that they needed to kill Armitage to prevent him ever sending the documents.

After some discussion, they decided that killing Armitage would be Plan B, with Plan A being to run away and hide for a bit, then come after Kim Nak with everything they had. To that end, Crosby decided to read A Discussion of Higher Dimensions, the single tome that they haven’t destroyed11, and that they obtained from Edwin Carsdale’s farm.

When they went to Roxy’s place to pick up her luggage and some money, they found that Roxy’s husband and wife butler/housekeeper team were dead in their bed12, their blood turned to a brittle, rusty solid in their veins.

And that’s where we left the game. I figure two more sessions to wrap things up.

  1. He was right about that. It was the Mind Exchange spell. []
  2. Here’s the way the exchange went.

    Moon: Okay. With my Occult skill, do I know what things can prevent possession? Like, a circle of salt, or silver, or things like that?

    Me: According to Occult, all that kind of stuff works, as does prayer, crosses, and other symbols.

    Moon: Great. I want to make a Preparedness roll to have a circle of salt in the basement.

    Me: Hmmm. I’m gonna set the difficulty of that one at 8. It’s kind of a weird request, and it’s very specific to this unexpected attack.

    Moon: Okay. I’ll spend some points, and I succeed!

    There follows a few rounds of repeated possession attempts as Moon staggers down to the basement and collapses into the circle of salt.

    Moon: There! Does the circle of salt help?

    Me: Nope. Not even a little bit.

    Moon: Bastard! []

  3. And Cthulhu Mythos. []
  4. She assumed Kim Nak was behind it, but with the overthrow of godfather Elio Marcuzzo, it could have been someone in the new mob hierarchy. []
  5. Last seen way back here, where he didn’t fare too well. []
  6. Drawing a bit on Alan Moore’s Neonomicon. []
  7. I forgot to mention something from last session. Along with the Tears of Azathoth, the gang found a red lacquered box that buzzed in the warehouse. Remembering the warnings about Moebius wasps and the dangers of opening the Red Box from the early documents they had read, our heroes decided to destroy it, burning it in Moon’s furnace. When they tossed it into the fire, it buzzed louder and the metal puzzle clasp that held it shut began to work itself open. Crosby reached into the fire and held the box closed until the buzzing stopped and the whole box was aflame, burning his hand terribly in the process. []
  8. Taking a few more blow-gun darts in the process. []
  9. Also, an objective. []
  10. This is, of course, all crap that I made up, trying to blend my feeble understanding of higher-dimensional physics and quantum theory with horrific ideas from the neighbourhood of the Cthulhu mythos. I think it sounds suitably plausible – certainly plausible enough for a Cthulhu game. []
  11. Yet. []
  12. Why am I picking on Roxy’s servants? Simple. She’s the only character that has created any NPCs around her – friends, family, servants, whatever. The other two tend to be brooding loners. []

From the Armitage Files: Azathoth Weeps

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

I’m really behind on this update for the Armitage Files campaign1. What’s finally prodded me to write the damned thing is the fact that the next session is this Saturday, and the players deserve a recap. It’s gonna be a quick one, though.

The game picked up pretty much where the last session left off, with the investigators deciding to go check out what the junk dealer had told them about a big bible he had sold to a local pastor. The gang was suspicious of that2, so they figured they’d pay him a visit and see if the bible was a valuable book that the linguist, Lars Fargerberg, might have been kidnapped for. The upshot of the investigation was that no, it was just a nice, old family bible that the pastor used to replace the water-damaged one he had been using.

I messed up a bit, at this point. See, the new character in the game is a parapsychologist, and his player asked me if he could make an Occult spend in the church to see if he could sense any psychic emanations or auras. I blinked at him a bit and said, “Sure.” Then I proceeded to spin a completely false psychic impression for him based on his character’s current emotional state – as played by the player. So, his nervousness and apprehension after starting to glimpse the horrible truth behind the world made him feel that there was some dark, evil stain on the church, a horrible foreboding that hinted at destruction and death.

He lapped it up. And he tried using the ability a couple more times during the adventure. Each time, I asked him for an Occult spend, and then lied to him about what he was sensing.

Why would I do such a thing? Isn’t it a huge dick move?

Yeah, it kinda is3. In my defense, it was the result of differing expectations of the metaphysics of the game. I was operating on the assumption that the player shared the standard understanding of in-game supernatural powers: it all stems from horrible mythos sources, and you only get access to it through reading mind-shattering tomes. So, when he asked to take a psychic reading on the church, I just assumed it was a roleplaying thing – he was playing Crosby as believing that he had these psychic powers.

Well, as the evening went on, it became more and more obvious to me that the player wasn’t operating on my assumptions. He figured that, since I had let him do what he had asked for, it was real information his character was getting. When I finally made that connection in my head, I told him what was going on, and apologized for screwing him over. I then talked about how the supernatural stuff usually works on Cthulhu games, and how I was sticking with that for my game. So, we sorted it out.

Anyway.

After no clues turned up at the church, and they exhausted all the investigation they could do about the red herring church psychic miasma4, the gang decided to go see the main crime boss in Kingsport: Elio Marcuzzo. Fargerberg had owed some money to the Marcuzzo family, so our heroes figured that they might have something to do with his disappearance. With Roxy’s criminal connections, it was pretty quick work to arrange a meeting, and Marcuzzo and company pointed5 to an Asian crime syndicate operating around the docks. They also told Roxy a little bit about Kim Nak6, who was sort of a bogeyman enforcer for the gang, reputed to use demon-possessed children to do his dirty work.

A little more investigation led the intrepid sleuths to a warehouse down by the docks. The doors were locked, and I think I put a couple little booby-traps in place7, but the place had no tcho-tchos or criminals or, indeed, any creatures in it. A safe in an upstairs office had a strange book in it – the much-sought-after Tears of Azathoth.

Moon almost convulsed with ecstasy at having finally got his hands on the book. They grabbed it and burned the warehouse down8 before running back to their hotel. At the hotel, they found that they hadn’t got away clean, after all: Roxy’s faithful driver, Charlie, had been killed and left in the car for them to find9. They abandoned that car, stole another one, and fled back to Arkham.

There followed much soul-searching and debate over what to do with Tears. Initial investigation showed that it was a very dangerous book10, and they finally decided to burn it. As soon as they had made that decision, the book vanished11.

And that’s where we left the game.

We are now on the last few stages of the campaign. I have three more sessions scheduled for the game, and plan to have things wrapped up by the end of June. We may wind up ending the game one session sooner or later, but I’m betting on three to bring things to a close. It’s been a tremendously fun game to run, and has really helped me stretch my GMing improvisation muscles. I’m going to be sorry to see it go.

But I’m eager to run something else, too.

  1. Lots of reasons, boiling down to me just not doing it when I should have. []
  2. Along with everything else. This is a Cthulhu game, after all. []
  3. Sorry, Tom. []
  4. Sorry, guys. []
  5. Rather obliquely; they’re not stupid, after all, and the investigators have come to the attention of the police on more than one occasion. []
  6. This is, as far as I know, not a real name in any Asian language. I wanted to convey the flavour of an indeterminate south-east Asian culture without drawing directly on any particular one. After all, I’m gonna add tcho-tchos to the mix, and that’s not a nice thing to do to any real culture. []
  7. It was a while ago. I can’t remember for certain. []
  8. Fire. They use it for everything. []
  9. What can I say? It’s a horror game. And sometimes the best way to scare and hurt the players is to mess with their favourite NPCs. []
  10. Though I’m starting to think I’m losing my touch. I don’t think Moon has failed a Stability check in the last three sessions. Gonna have to do something about that. []
  11. There’s a whole reason for this stemming from my interpretation of the write-up for Tears in the campaign book.
    Spoiler
    Basically, the book exists in potentia until certain things happen to bring it fully into existence. I extrapolated from that to give one of the characters visions of it previously, always snatching it away before he could read it. Once he finally had the thing in his hands, and decided not to read it, the Schroedinger’s Cat waveform of the book collapsed into the book’s non-existence. So, he wound up never having possessed it.
    []

From the Armitage Files: New Blood

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

It’s been a while since the last Armitage Files game. Even though I’ve only got three players, getting them together in this recent season of deadlines and illness and travel has been a bit of a challenge. But we managed to get together last Friday night and play1, and it was good to get back to the game.

We opened a little slow – last session, if you recall, one of the characters died, and the opening of this session was introducing the player’s new character to the group. This is always a bit delicate, especially in a game of horror and conspiracy, where the current characters have every reason to distrust newcomers. Fortunately, we had worked out the basics of the approach at the end of the previous session, and my players are all more than willing to meet me half-way to make the game happen2.

The idea was that the new character, a parapsychologist named Malcolm Crosby, had a book that he wanted to sell, and took it to Moon, the bookseller, to handle the sale for him. I asked what the book was, and got a request for a treatise on the weird automata that the gang had found in Emigrant. “Fat chance of that,” I explained, “Pick something else, you cheater.”3 The next request was, I believe, for The Tears of Azathoth, which is a big clue and MacGuffin in the campaign4. Again, I gently advised, “Stop trying to cheat, you cheating bastards!”

I suggested instead that the item in question not be a book, but a collection of letters from the Fox sisters. These would be quite valuable to collectors of spiritualist paraphernalia, and Moon’s expertise in authenticating such items and his contacts in that community would both be useful in getting top dollar for the letters.

There was some good character interaction between Moon and Crosby, and I played a little bit with Moon’s time-perception problem, and Moon called on Roxy to bring him a book he had left at her place with examples of the Fox sisters’ handwriting5, so they managed to all get together in one place a little quicker than I had feared.

Anyway. Moon did his authentication of the Fox letters, and spent a point on it, so I gave him something interesting – I told him that the letters seemed to be partial palimpsests, where portions of the page had been scraped down to remove what had been written there,and then something new had been written on the newly blank sections. He figured that he could recover some of the text that had been scraped off6, but that it would likely be a destructive process, ruining the chance of reselling the letters.

Moon explained this to Crosby, who was more intrigued by what might be hidden in the letters, quickly gave his consent, and Moon went to work. After a few hours7, Moon managed to piece together a few little snippets of text: “hotep,” “little glass snowmen,” “Cho-Cho,” and “ears of azat.” That was enough to get them all fired up8, and Moon and Roxy wound up telling Crosby all about all the weird stuff they’d been doing, and Crosby got all excited and wanted in on the investigations9.

Next day, Roxy went by Miskatonic University to talk to Dyer, with some plan to have Crosby granted faculty status there. Dyer explained that that’s not how things worked, and that MU was unlikely to give a position to a charlatan like a parapsychologist10, so that didn’t work out.

Then it was off to Kingsport11 to try and track down Lars Fargerberg, a linguist who might have a line on The Tears of Azathoth. The document they were following up on led them to a clip joint in a seedy part of town, where Moon and Crosby were rapidly divested of a point of Credit Rating each by the charming hostesses. Roxy, more worldly, found a contact there, and got some information on Fargerberg using a story about Moon having paid for a book from him that he never received.

They found that Fargerberg hadn’t been around lately, but that he had a room in one of the boarding houses nearby, though no one knew which. Roxy went to the police looking for more details, spinning the same story about Moon’s payment for a book, and Moon wound up primary suspect in Fargerberg’s strange disappearance12 and spent a few hours answering questions.

While he was being detained and Roxy was wrangling a lawyer for him, Crosby hit up the newspapers13 and found the original story about Fargerberg’s disappearance, along with his address. With Moon sprung, they went to talk to Fargerberg’s landlady, who told them that she had already cleaned out Fargerberg’s room, and that a junk man had carted off all of the linguist’s books.

They tracked down the junk man, and found that he had several of Fargergerg’s books still, but had sold off about half of them already. He seemed to be holding back some information about who he had sold various things to, but did admit that he had sold a big bible to the pastor of a nearby church, and that’s where the gang decided to head next.

But at that point, Moon’s player was succumbing to his nasty cold, and we called it a night. Hopefully it won’t be another two months before the next session.

  1. Though we ended a little early, thanks to the aforementioned illness. []
  2. Thanks for that, guys! []
  3. Okay, maybe I didn’t put it that way. []
  4. If it wasn’t Tears, then it was another big clue tome. Sometimes, my players think they’re being sneaky. []
  5. A very nice use of the profession’s special ability to have a handy item “in stock,” I thought. []
  6. Using book science! Also, GM fiat. []
  7. Which seemed much longer to Moon, thanks to his distorted temporal perception. []
  8. At this point, I started rapidly skimming the Wikipedia article on the Fox sisters, because I realized that I had just put a big story hook in front of the players without any idea what the actual story was. “All hook and no plot,” as one might say. I had visions of the group going haring off after the secrets of the Fox sisters, and me not having any idea what they might be. Fortunately, they decided to stick to the original plan. []
  9. Moon spent some time – well, quite a bit of time, actually – trying to talk Crosby out of getting involved. Great roleplaying, but man, don’t try so hard to kick the new character out of the party, dude! []
  10. I’m not sure exactly what she wanted to accomplish with this, beyond trying to get the same access to University resources that the late Dr. Solis had. []
  11. Lovely, lovely Kingsport. The gang has had such fun there. []
  12. After all, he was the first person they’d found with a motive, however fake, for wanting something bad to happen to the linguist. []
  13. Quote at this point: “I can’t believe it took us this long to look something up in the newspapers. Isn’t this a Chtulhu game?” []

From the Armitage Files: Sacrifice

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

Last Saturday night was the first Armitage Files game in about two months. I try to run my games with a session every three weeks, but we’re all busy people, and the holiday season tends to be difficult to schedule. So, obviously, it’s been a while, but we’ve got back to it.

In the week leading up to Saturday’s game, I asked the gang what they wanted to investigate this session, so that I would have a chance to do some prep work before the game. At the end of the last session, they had blown up a mine full of… strange creatures, and narrowly escaped the Donlands-Fuschack gang.

The group decided to continue with this investigation, trying to figure out how the fortune teller back in Emigrant fit into all of this. So, I went back to my original notes1 from the first time they visited Emigrant and fleshed things out so that there was something interesting for them to investigate.

As has become something of a tradition, we got together fairly early in the evening to dine on some very nice Indian food and talk a bit before starting the game. When we were ready to begin, we discovered that Moon was pretty badly hurt from the last session. As we were picking things up pretty much from where we had left off, the investigators decided that, before confronting the evil2 fortune teller, they should head back to a big city to let Moon spend some time in the hospital.

While Moon was convalescing3, Roxy and Solis did a little more digging on background for the fortune teller, finding nothing of any use. When Moon was back in fighting trim, they bought a shotgun and some dynamite, and went back to Emigrant.

They parked the car about a quarter mile outside of town, down the railroad tracks so they could follow them back and not get lost if they were in a hurry4. They then crept into town, to the fortune teller’s shop, and broke in to the back.

Their first concern when breaking into her shop – the upstairs of which was also her home – was finding a pair of men’s boots in the mudroom in back. They did a cursory examination of the kitchen and the shop’s back room5, finding nothing of real interest6. Solis was able to identify the range of patent medicines on the shelves, and even a fair bit of the herbal remedies, and determined that they were nothing out of the ordinary for a rural practitioner who billed herself as an apothecary.

They crept upstairs, through the little sitting room, and into the bedroom, where they found the fortune teller lying on the bed. This caused a few moments of panic, especially when it looked as if she wasn’t breathing, but just lying fully dressed on top of the bed clothes with her eyes open. Solis finally plucked up the nerve to examine her more closely, and was quite shocked to find that she appeared to be no more than clothes and skin draped over a padded armature.

Everyone got very nervous at that point, and Solis was going to make a closer examination, but at that point, she blinked, and everyone decided to get the hell away from her. Cue the mad scramble down the stairs. They paused to take a closer look in the kitchen, and found that it had no food in it, and no sign of having had food in it any time recent. They poked about a bit, looking for a cellar door7 until Moon realized that, in this style of house, there was probably no cellar. There would, however,  be crawlspaces both under the house and between the first and second floor.

So, of course, everyone ran back outside to look under the house. At this point, I just gave up and went with it.

They got the little wood lattice gate off the entry to the crawlspace and saw a number of oilcloth-wrapped bundles inside. Roxy volunteered to go in a haul one out, and it proved to be a bundle of siding boards. A second bundle turned out to be bricks. The players looked at me curiously for a bit, then said, “I don’t get it. What do these mean?” And I said, “These mean that there were left-over building materials that she’s storing safely in case the house needs repairs. That’s the kind of thing people keep in crawlspaces.”

They tried to figure out if I was lying for a little bit, then shrugged and Solis crawled in to make a better examination of the space. He found a mounded section of the earth floor, and used his knife to try and dig it up. The knife blade went through about an inch or so of loose dirt and then hit a piece of wood.

That’s when the tcho-tchos pushed aside the planks that were hiding their tunnel and leaped on Solis8. There were three of them, and one grabbed each of Solis’s arms, while the third – who had drenched his shirt in poison9 – wrapped his arms and legs around Solis’s head. The good doctor struggled gamely, but was pulled into the tunnel and only managed to get out a muffled yelp before the poison shirt rendered him unconscious.

At this point, I had to start juggling scene cuts to give everyone a chance to do stuff and be involved in what was going on. Some of the time-frame got a little skewed, but it worked in play, so I count it as a win. Of course, I can’t remember exactly when I cut between characters, so I’m just going to go character-by-character through their stories.

Moon immediately crawled under the house, and down the tunnel in pursuit of Solis. I decided to give the gang a chance to rescue Solis – in a suitably challenging and cinematic finale – so the tunnel ran under the street down a few buildings to a warehouse. Moon made his way there, shooting the tcho-tcho that had been left to ambush him, and popped up through a trapdoor10 into the warehouse.

Roxy, waiting by the fortune teller’s house, heard a car on the street and hid. It turned out to be the doctor they had previously met. He came into the back yard and started calling for the characters. This struck Roxy as suspicious enough that she struck the doctor with a brick11. Twice. And then stood and watched as he gasped to death on the sidewalk. Then she heard Moon’s gunshot, and ran down the street, finding the warehouse, and picking the lock on the front door to burst into the room.

Solis, meanwhile, had regained consciousness stripped naked and tied to the immense belly of a giant statue of an elephant-headed man. Yep, their old pal Chaugnar Faugn. Surrounding him were a dozen or two tcho-tchos, also naked, except for elephant-like masks. Some of these had the weird, fluid limbs of the things Moon and Roxy had faced down in the mine. Leading them was a large man wearing nothing but a full head mask that was a large version of the little crystal snow-man heads that they had learned was the effect of Chaugnar Faugn’s attention. This happy fellow started cutting on Solis, who managed a heroic Athletics roll to break the ropes tying him to the idol.

Which is when everyone else arrived.

Roxy managed to get the door open just in time to see Moon shoot down one of the kerosene lamps providing light in the building. The high priest12 started chanting to put the flames out, and the tcho-tchos started swarming Moon and Solis. Solis tried to run for the door, but he was still suffering from the hallucinatory effects of the poison. Moon, worried that the high priest was going to put out the flames, threw a stick of dynamite into them.

Moon fully expected to die, along with the tcho-tchos and the priest. He thought it would be a valiant rescue of Solis, sacrificing his life to end this threat and save his friend. Unfortunately, Solis blew his Fleeing roll, and had already been roughed up a fair bit. I checked the damage on a stick of dynamite, and rolled it on the table in front of everyone.

Moon survived. Solis was brought to exactly -12, and was dead.

So were the tcho-tchos and the high priest and the statue and the walls. Roxy was hurt, but she and Moon managed to get Solis’s body back to the car and out of town.

Now, I hadn’t planned on killing anybody that night. In fact, I tend to go out of my way to make sure that there are chances for the PCs to escape and survive – it just means losing, sometimes. That said, this is a horror game, and the mortality of player characters is an important trope. If there’s no chance of losing, there’s no tension and no horror. So, I let the die fall and determine the outcome fairly and openly.

We ended the session a little early. The last thing we did in play was to hold Solis’s funeral. I wanted to make sure that the event was memorable, and to send off a good character with the kind of finale he had earned. I asked13 each of the other players to deliver a short, in-character eulogy of Solis, and I provided one by Prof. Armitage to round things out.

Then we called an end to gaming and helped create the new investigator.

Oh, and I told them the outcome of their investigation. Russel Fuschack was killed a few days later trying to rob a bank on his own, without his partner. Half the population of Emigrant, Montana was found dead. Again, the players asked me what that meant, and I just shrugged. I know what it means, but I’m not giving away any information on this one. They may decide to follow it up.

So, that was the first PC death in my Armitage Files game. All-in-all, it worked out, though I’m going to miss Dr. August Solis. He was a fun guy to torment.

  1. By which I mean my scribbled diagrams. Of course, I had forgotten what all my shorthand meant by this time. []
  2. Allegedly. []
  3. With a revolver hidden in the hollowed-out Bible by his bedside. []
  4. What are the odds of that happening with this group? []
  5. Strangely – to me, anyway – they didn’t actually do any more than peek into the front room of the shop. []
  6. Though I think Roxy lifted her Tarot deck. Am I remembering that correctly, folks? []
  7. I don’t know why, but they were obsessed with finding a cellar. It all started with Roxy saying she wanted a peek in the fortune teller’s basement, and it was off and running. She tried explaining that it was just a figure of speech, that she didn’t know if the fortune teller had a basement, but everything seemed to start to revolve around how to get into this non-existent root cellar. []
  8. For this bit, I took the player into the kitchen, so that the other players were kept in the dark about what was happening. []
  9. I like tcho-tcho poison. It does whatever I need it to do, and the little guys aren’t afraid to put in on everything! []
  10. I had briefly considered making this come up in another crawlspace, but that just felt too mean. []
  11. See what I done there? []
  12. Of course that’s what he was. Didn’t I mention the full-head mask? []
  13. That’s a lie. I demanded. []

Night’s Black Agents

Last week, Pelgrane Press made their new GUMSHOE game, Night’s Black Agents, available for preorder. The preorder included a bare-bones-layout version of the game and, being a ravening GUMSHOE fanboy1, of course I had to grab it and spend the weekend reading it.

The premise of Night’s Black Agents is that a small group of ex-official spies – the PCs – working in the modern European intelligence underground stumble across evidence that a conspiracy of vampires2 exists and is now aware of them. To avoid the vampires killing them, the newly clued-in spies must destroy the conspiracy.

That’s the bare-bones, unmodified version of the game. One of the things I like about NBA is that it is eminently customizable, and Ken provides four different modes of play that you can mix and match to get the flavour of spy story that you prefer:

  • Burn Mode focuses on the emotional and social cost of being a spy. Think the Bourne series, or Alias.
  • Dust Mode is the default setting, a gritty thriller-style game, like Three Days of the Condor or Sandbaggers.
  • Mirror Mode is pure Le Carré paranoia and betrayal, where trust is a commodity and identity is fluid.
  • Stakes Mode focuses on the higher purpose that motivates the heroes, highlighting their drive and dedication to get the job done, as seen in James Bond films and Tom Clancy novels.

As I said, you can mix and match these modes to get the right balance for the story you want to tell. You can also decide if the story you’re telling is a thriller, adding in special Thriller Combat and Thriller Chase rules to up the level of action.

The core of the game is the GUMSHOE engine, which has been tweaked to emphasize covert operations rather than pure investigation. The Investigative Abilities see the addition of Human Terrain, Tradecraft, and Vampirology, and the General Abilities get Network, Cover, and Surveillance3. You can also buy some specialty packages that give you a bundle of Investigative and General Abilities – these don’t give you a point discount, but are useful for seeing what kinds of skills an agent would have if they specialized that way.

One interesting tweak4 to character creation is the MOS – Military Occupational Specialty. It lets you pick one General Ability and, once per session, automatically succeed with that ability. It’s an interesting idea, and I think it could lead to some neat metagame resource management. There’s a nice little sidebar that talks about using the MOSs of the team as keystones when the agents are planning an op.

The other major tweak to the system is providing something special – a Cherry – for almost any General Ability with a rating of 8+. These are either something you can do for free (hotwire a car with a Drive of 8+), extra points in Investigative Abilities (1 free point of Diagnosis with Medic 8+), or a new way to spend points from that ability (get an extra die of damage from an explosion for 3 points from Explosive Devices). For the lo-fi Dust Mode, a lot of these Cherries are off the table, but there are a few marked as being appropriate for that style of game.

This iteration of GUMSHOE uses Sources of Stability, but it prescribes what they are. Each agent gets three, one each of Symbol (a representation of an important ideal, like a flag), Solace (a person the agent seeks out for human contact), and Safety (a person and place the agent would flee to without thinking). These three categories are chose to highlight the isolation of being a spy, and also to give the GM some nice, concrete targets when time comes to gut-punch the agent.

There are also twelve Drives to choose from, specifically chosen to fit into the spy genre. These are things like Patriotism, Restoration, Atonement, and Nowhere Else to Go. A sidebar provides some ideas for adding personal arcs, an idea first seen in Ashen Stars. The information here is far less detailed and structured than in AS, if only because NBA does not mirror an ongoing TV serial as tightly as AS.

The rest of the rules are pretty standard GUMSHOE stuff, with the exception of the Thriller rules and Heat. Thriller rules are options for combat and chases that add a more cinematic, over-the-top feel to the game – stuff like extra attacks, called shots, parkour chases across the rooftops, things like that. The book states right up front the fact that adding these in, while making for more extravagant action, will add a layer of complexity to the normally very fast GUMSHOE rules. None of them is overly complicated, but they are more involved than the extremely simple and light base GUMSHOE rules for such things.

Heat is a mechanic to determine how much official notice the actions of the group attract. It’s a number that climbs with every dead body, every police chase, and every heist, and drops only with time or evasion. Heat is rolled during a session to see if the authorities take notice and get involved to complicate everyone’s lives. So, quiet spies are safer spies.

The gear section of the book lays out not only a fun laundry list of spy toys, but also a vampire-hunter’s arsenal. So, beside the comms laser and flash-bangs, you’ll find garlic and wooden bullets5. There are also details on how the agents can get all the good toys, considering they’re likely on the run and on a budget.

Following the gear section is a chapter on special tactics that the agents can use to represent their training. Things like Tactical Fact Finding, which uses Investigative Abilities to gain an advantage in a tactical situation6, or Tag-Team Tactics, which is pretty much what it says on the tin – using one ability to provide a benefit to someone else using a different ability. This chapter also includes a brief primer on Tradecraft and Asset Handling7, and finishes with a short section on Adversary Mapping, to help the group make those neat picture-and-string organized crime diagrams you see in TV and movies.

Next comes vampires. This is where I really fell in love with this game.

Ken Hite, as anyone who has read Trail of Cthulhu or his Suppressed Transmission column knows, is a master of providing a range of options for any single idea, whether it’s an interpretation of a Great Old One or a possible reason the Dogon people know so much about the star Sirius. Here, he turns that skill to vampires, providing a pantry-full of ingredients to let you build the flavour of vampire you like best for your game. There’s a range of origins, powers, weaknesses, and motivations that you can blend together into pretty much whatever kind of vampire you want. To show how it all fits together, he provides four examples of very different vampires ready to be dropped into your game.

I cannot stress enough how much I like this chapter, and this entire approach. One of the problems with using vampires as the main bad guys is that everyone knows all about them, and thus there is no real surprise about what they can do and what they can’t. This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that there are dozens – if not hundreds – of different vampire versions out there in the world of fiction8, and they all have different strengths and weaknesses. What this chapter does is leverage that fact, drawing on fiction and folklore to provide enough options that the agents will need to do a lot of field testing to make sure they know how to go up against the vampires. It brings uncertainty and fear back into the vampire equation, where it belongs.

Oh, and it makes it clear that vampires are monsters. They are not misunderstood. They feed on and kill humans, whether because they’re evil or because they are alien and indifferent to human suffering. They’re the bad guys, not the dangerous romantic leads.

After the four statted-up versions of vampires, the book provides stat blocks for a few related creatures: the lamia, the bhuta, the dhampir, stuff like that. Handy if you want to throw a supernatural enemy at the agents, but don’t want to go full-on vamp on them just yet.

The last few sections of the book deal with building the conspiracy and campaign. There’s a discussion of what vampires need to survive, what their agenda is, and how to put together a diagram of the conspiracy.

This is my one criticism of the book. While there is a discussion at a high level of vampire motivations and requirements in a conspiracy, and and a discussion of what kinds of things fit in at each level of the conspiracy, and a finished conspiracy diagram9, I would have liked to have seen an example of building that diagram – going from the raw material and thoughts to a concrete finished pyramid. Just a little more guidance here would have been very helpful.

There’s also a good section on quickly roughing-in cities for the game, coming up with the bare minimum to fit the place into your ongoing campaign, as well as a few roughed-in examples and one more detailed city laid out.

The advice that follows, about building stories and the overall campaign, and determining the conspiracy’s reactions to the agents, is meaty and solid. There’s good advice on how to pace things, how to structure things, how to plan, and how to improvise madly when your plan goes off the rails. All in all, a very useful section of the book.

The book ends with an introductory adventure. I don’t want to say too much about it, so as not to spoil things, but it’s got some nice twists, with desperation and paranoia baked right in. It does a good job not only of introducing the vampire conspiracy, but also of showcasing the cold, dark, desperate world that is the espionage underground of modern Europe.

Final thoughts? Of course I love the book. Now, you might dismiss my opinion because I’m an ardent Pelgrane and GUMSHOE fan, but I don’t like the games because I’m a fan. I’m a fan because of the great games.

Specifically, I like this book for a few reasons. First, it provides an interesting combination of genres – you don’t see vampire/spy stuff anywhere else that I know of. There’s not even a whole lot of vampire hunter stuff out there. Second, it makes vampires scary again. They are monsters, and they are horrific and powerful. Third, the structure of the campaign fits the kinds of things I like to do in games. It provides a finite story, of a length determined during play, with a built-in climax that does not guarantee agent success. And fourth, it has enough tools and dials that I can customize the feel of the game to what my players want. Whether we go over-the-top James Bond style, or down-and-dirty George Smiley style, the game has the tools to support and reinforce the feel we decide on. Hell, there are even options for adding weird powers for the heroes, or removing the vampires entirely.

If you like scary vampires, if you like espionage games, if you’re looking for a dark, modern game of horror investigation, I heartily recommend you pick up this book, if not now, then in March when the hardcover is released10. You’ll like it.

  1. Not to mention a ravening Ken Hite fanboy. []
  2. That almost works as a collective noun, doesn’t it? A conspiracy of vampires. Not quite, but getting close. []
  3. There also seem to be more cross-over skills, i.e., General Abilities that you can use as Investigative Abilities. []
  4. Which is not available in Dust Mode. Or rather, it is recommended that it not be available in Dust Mode. []
  5. Not that there’s any guarantee that these will work on the vampires in YOUR game. []
  6. Yeah, that’s kind of convoluted. Best I could boil it down, though. The book makes the use pretty clear, but it is a lengthy explanation. It’s a cool tweak, though. []
  7. Though I found myself wanting more information here. Fortunately, Wikipedia came to my rescue! []
  8. I want to note for the record that sparkling does not appear as one of the vampire powers/weaknesses. Just sayin’. []
  9. Called the Conspyramid. []
  10. I just couldn’t wait that long. []

From the Armitage Files: Ghost Town

**Potential Spoilers**

The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.

**You Have Been Warned**

Saturday night, we got together for the first Armitage Files session in more than three months1. The long gap between sessions meant that I had a very poor idea of what was going on in the game, and my players had even less of an idea. Thankfully, I was able to look at the blog post from the last session and get at least a bit of an idea about what was going on2.

We picked things up in Emigrant, Montana, and I let the players decide how to proceed. I knew that I had mentioned the ghost town of Aldridge at some point in the last session, but I couldn’t remember when, and the group didn’t seem to recall it at all. That meant I needed to get them that clue in order to move them on to the core of the mystery. So, when they started doing some research at the local paper, I fed in a story about the last of the inhabitants leaving Aldridge about a year and a half ago3. I also seeded in a few other clues that they haven’t followed up, yet, about Fuschacks and the fortune teller4, just to make sure there were enough options for them.

They headed off to Aldridge, a small mining town that dried up when the mining company – who owned the whole town – pulled out after the mine was worked out. It was just a single street with eight or ten buildings on either side, and a few other buildings scattered off the main street around the area. I got to play up the dry, blighted nature of the woods in the area, again reinforcing the sense of dread with real-world description of Montana in the ’30s. The ghost town feel of Aldridge – a town completely abandoned by its residents – accentuated the feeling.

The gang took a very methodical approach to investigating the town. They started at one end of the street, and broke into the back doors5 of each building in turn, searching from top to bottom. By late in the afternoon, they had finished one side, and started to talk about whether or not they would continue with the other side – meaning they would be in Aldridge after dark – or head back to Emigrant for the night – meaning they would never be sure that something hadn’t moved into the buildings they had already checked.

They decided to continue with the investigation and, around sunset, had made it to the company store/bar, where they found a heavy, new padlock on the back door. Roxy made short work of that, and hauled the door open. Solis was the only one who made his Sense Trouble check at that point, so he heard the simple string-and-pulley setup pulling the trigger of the shotgun behind the door, and pushed Roxy and Moon out of the way, taking the blast full in his chest6.

And that’s when I sent in the ninjas7.

Moon took a poisoned dart in the neck8, and Solis got sliced up some more9, but they managed to barricade themselves into the back store room, with the Tcho-Tchos on the outside, and started planning. Of course, the Tcho-Tchos were planning, too, and their plan involved some kerosene and matches, so the building was soon on fire.

There followed a mad scramble to the truck, only to find that all four tires had been slashed10. The general consensus at that point was, “Screw it!” so they drove off in it anyway.

It’s a forty-mile drive from Aldridge to Emigrant11, and after about ten miles, the tires were gone, and the driving was getting more and more difficult, speeding along rough dirt roads on the rims of the wheels into the dark. The investigators also started getting very nervous about the fact that they hadn’t checked the back of the truck before speeding off.

They pulled over to the side, and checked the back, discovering another elephant-headed Chaugnar Faugn statue hidden in the bundles. As they looked at it, they began to see the effects of Chaugnar Faugn’s attention – crystalline snowmen with conical protuberances appearing here and there. Moon started experiencing time slips again, so Solis blasted the thing with his shotgun, but it didn’t seem to stop the effects. Solis’s crystal shards in his forearm seemed to wake up, and others started feeling the effects12.

Roxy remembered the chant they had used previously to divert Chaugnar Faugn’s attention, and she and moon managed to use it again to stop the effects, but the entropic effects of the Eater of Tomorrows had reduced the truck to a rusted hulk, so they had to walk the rest of the way.

Through the dark.

With a severely wounded Solis.

And a forest fire behind them.

They made it back to town, with the help of the local doctor, and then took off the next morning to Billings to lie low and rest up before coming back. Also, more research, wherein they discovered that the mine in Aldridge seemed to have a missing level in it.

When they got back13, they saw that the whole town was burned, and about a ten-mile radius of the forest. They headed right up to the mine, where the headworks had also burned to the ground. There were a few ropes dangling down into the open shaft, set with conveniently spaced knots, so they figured they had discovered the right spot.

Solis elected to stay above to watch out, while Roxy went down to set the dynamite to collapse the mine opening, and Moon went with her to watch her back. Down in the mine, they ran into some strange creatures that looked like a cross between Tcho-Tchos and frogs14, who tried to stop them. One of them, with weird crystal extrusions, hit Moon with some strange time/dimension distortion again, whereupon Moon got a look at the five-dimensional form of Chaugnar Faugn15. They managed to set the charge and escape, though it was a near thing.

Up top, of course, the bank robbers had shown up, and stood  baffled outside the charred ruins of their hideout before spotting Solis up at the mine. The redoubtable Dr. Solis held off the ruffians with a trio of shotguns until Moon and Roxy made it back to the surface, whereupon Roxy yelled that the mine was going to blow at any minute. This, along with Roxy’s spend, got the robbers running back down to the town, followed by our heroes. There was another brief showdown in the main street as Solis barreled through the impromptu car-roadblock the gang set up, and the good guys ran off into the sunset as the collapsed.

And that’s where we left it. I’m going to try and schedule another game before Christmas, to make sure we don’t lose the momentum.

And also because I want to see what happens next.

  1. Last session was August 12, and this session was November 19. The reason for the long delay was a combination of my Ireland trip and some heavy day-job work upon my return. []
  2. The post wasn’t all that detailed, because I was running behind on the posts and needed to catch up, but it was better than nothing. []
  3. Maybe I was a bit heavy handed when I added a quote from the chief of the Emigrant police saying that the town was now good for nothing but a hideout for bank robbers. Too much? []
  4. I don’t know if they’re planning on following these up, but I made note of what they dug up, so that if they decide that’s the way they want to go, I’ve got better notes than last time. []
  5. In case anyone had followed them from Emigrant, they didn’t want their exact location to be readily apparent. []
  6. Dropped him from full Health into the negatives. Yay! []
  7. Ninjas in this game are the Tcho-Tchos. []
  8. Again. []
  9. Solis had made a Medicine spend the session before – or maybe the one before that, I can’t recall – to have produced three doses of Tcho-Tcho poison antitoxin. They were very glad to have it at this point. []
  10. Michael called it, having written down “The truck has been sabotaged” just before they made their dash, and revealing it when they got there. I say, if you’re going to leave the thing sitting where a Tcho-Tcho can reach it, yeah, it’s going to get sabotaged. Doesn’t matter what it is. []
  11. In my world. Dunno about in the real world. Don’t really care. []
  12. I went a little easy on the group with this one, not making them make Health checks or inflicting damage. They were already plenty beat up and in a bad place, and I didn’t intend this to be the climax of the session, so I just used the description of what was going on for jazz. []
  13. Loaded up with dynamite, of course. Because, in their minds, dynamite solves everything! []
  14. I don’t want to give away what these are to my players, but for the rest of you, here’s an explanation:

    Spoiler

    These are my take on the Miri Migri, the amphibious race created by Chaugnar Faugn, who bred with humans to produce Tcho-Tchos. I figured that, since CF was showing up so often in the game, it made sense to delve a little deeper into his specific mythology. The one with crystal extrusions was a sort-of priest, with the crystal structures showing his ties to CF.

    []
  15. Bastard failed not one Stability check the entire game! What’s up with that? []