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? []

Ashen Stars

I finally had a chance to finish reading the Ashen Stars pdf that I got with the Stellar Nursery preorder.

I have to admit, going in, I was hesitant. It’s another GUMSHOE game, which was originally billed very much as a system for mystery games, like police procedurals. And Esoterrorists and Mutant City Blues both lean heavily on that sort of idea. I didn’t know if playing space cops was going to be different enough to be interesting.

But Trail of Cthulhu works so well, that I figured  was worth looking at. I mean, Pelgrane Press and Robin Laws turn out good books, so I had little to lose.

Ashen Stars goes so far beyond cops in space that I’m almost embarrassed that that’s what I thought at first. See, Robin Laws made a realization that had escaped me: most space opera stories, as shown in shows like Star Trek and Firefly and their ilk, are about mysteries. Not necessarily in the traditional whodunit sense, but in the sense that the stories start with a problem that requires the characters to acquire and interpret information to solve.

It’s this realization that makes Ashen Stars really work. The default setup, where the characters play freelance police1, gives it the cops in space premise, but the sample missions and discussion of setting, episodes, themes, and genre show off the range and breadth of the source material. The setting provided is interesting, gameable material, but the game could be used to replicate pretty much any space opera setting: Star Trek, Firefly, Andromeda, Mass Effect, the Vorkosigan books, all of that is doable with minor tweaks. Pretty much any story from those sources can be reproduced easily using Ashen Stars.

Aside from the setting material, the game provides some nice tweaks to the basic ruleset. Space opera needs aliens2, so there are rules for different alien species, with different benefits and drawbacks for them. The skill set has been adjusted in keeping with the setting, adding Investigative skills like Energy Signatures. And there are, of course, spaceships.

The ships are interesting. There are several different classes of ship, with different strengths and weaknesses, and the group gets to pick one for their crew to use at the start play. To support the ships, there’s a set of space combat rules that look amazing.

One of the problems with spaceship combat in RPGs is that, while the situation tends to involve everyone, often there isn’t something for everyone to do. Those without shipboard skills ted to wait around for the spacey guys to save the day. Ashen Stars avoids this through a combination of almost-classes that make sure everyone has something to do both groundside and warpside3, and the tactical rules of space combat.

I haven’t played through it, yet, so I can’t vouch for how they work in play, but there is an extensive example in an appendix of the book4 that is quite illuminating.

In case you can’t tell, I love this game. I wish I had time in the schedule to start a new campaign, or even just for a playtest5, but that’s not gonna happen until one of the current games wraps up. But this is going on a short list for the next campaign.

I do have two quibbles with the game, and those are very much personal preferences as to tone. First, the name for the freelance police teams in the game are called Lazers – Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but the name and the acronym are just a little too cute for my taste6. Second, a lot of the examples deal with mind-controlling viruses, artificial intelligences run amok, and god-like intelligences acting like six-year-olds. These things, to my mind, should be used more sparingly than they seem to be in the rules. But the beautiful thing about an RPG is that they can be in the game you run.

So, neither of those are anything but personal preference, and they’re not big issues. They certainly don’t come close to outweighing the very cool things in the game. Aside from the things I mentioned above, some of the best bits in the game include:

  • The Bogey Conundrum – the strange effect that prevents people from remembering too much about the enemy aliens that almost wiped out the utopian galactic government five years ago.
  • The nice addition of genetic engineering and cybernetics to the more vanilla space opera setting.
  • The vas mal, who used to be gods, and are now a player character alien race.
  • The ex-enemy alien durugh, who switched sides to help win the last war, but no one remembers how.
  • The ideas of personal arcs for each character, which gives the GM a great way to build in subplots and spotlight scenes for the characters.

The part I like best, though, has got to be the discussion of genre and intended feel of the game. I’m going to quote here from the book:

The Ashen Stars setting is designed to feel like a contemporary space opera property. In other words, it feels like a reboot of something older.

Today’s popular shows and TV series tend to be remakes of classic properties from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Reboots tend to bend the original material they’re teeing off from in one of two directions. They either:

  • shoot for campy nostalgia, referencing the tropes of the original in a winking, yet loving, manner
  • adopt an edgy, revisionist take on the source material, making it gritty, tough, and more adult-themed

Ashen Stars focuses on the second approach. Think of its post-war malaise as the new grim plot device that justifies the reboot’s darker tone. The earlier Ashen Stars that never was would have been optimistic, and in retrospect maybe a little campy by comparison. Yet at the heart of the dark version is the affection the audience feels for this artifact of a quainter time.

That, to me, is an amazing focus for the tone of a game.

Look. Just go buy it, okay? It’s worth it, and then some.

  1. Thank you, Sam & Max! []
  2. You may wish to point out that Firefly had no aliens in it. I would like to remind you about the Reapers, and ask you if you really think that’s true. Just because they’re human doesn’t mean they aren’t alien. []
  3. This is the term the game uses for “in space.” []
  4. This is something that I wish more games would do – explanatory examples are extremely helpful, especially for games with new ideas. This is why I played Fiasco and haven’t tried How We Came To Live Here. []
  5. I also want to find time for a playtest of Smallville, a Leverage campaign, a new D&D campaign, and a few others. What can I say? I’m a gamewhore. []
  6. This from a man who has a superhero character named S.P.E.C.-T.E.R. Obviously, my house is pretty glassy for me to be throwing stones. []

From the Armitage Files: Monument Creek

**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 latest episode in my Armitage Files game. This story was the one I had the most trouble with sorting out from the material in the files. I was worried about staying true to what the documents said, but also working things in a manner that made sense, considering the larger things going on in the background.

Am I being cryptic? Kind of. See, while I put that spoiler warning up at the top of this post, that’s there so that others playing the game will realize that reading the post might give things away. But I really don’t want to reveal any of the metaplot to my players, even inadvertently. And I know at least two of them read my blog.

So, by way of explanation, I’m going to present a theory that my players have come up with, and show how it makes things difficult. I’m not saying their theory is correct; I’m not saying it’s not. It just happens to fit some of the pieces they’ve uncovered, and it can be used to illustrate what I’m talking about.

The players think the mysterious documents the Armitage Group have received are being sent back in time from the future, though they don’t know exactly from when, and they don’t who is sending them. This, they say, explains why the writing is admittedly that of Henry Armitage, but no one remembers the incidents or investigations mentioned in them.

Let’s assume that’s true. If the documents talk about, say, a mysterious item being transported in a truck to the hospital, and the players decide to follow that particular clue up, I need to figure out when the incident happens, what leads up to it, and what stage things are at right now. And if I want the characters to get involved and the players to enjoy themselves, I have to figure out something cool and interesting to be going on right now that also makes sense given what the documents say is going to happen in the future.

See the kind of thing I’m talking about?

What I’m saying is that it took me a couple of reworkings to get the spine of what’s going on in this particular investigation, and I scrapped a couple of very nice, interesting ideas along the way just because they didn’t fit the metastructure constraints quite properly. Oh, I probably could have got away with a little fudging, but that feels too much like cheating.

But that’s okay. I came up with a final (sort of) version that I was happy with, and it worked pretty well last night.

As a general observation, I am amazed at how easy it’s getting to improvise scenes and clues. I really thought that the investigative structure wouldn’t lend itself well to this style of play, but it actually does. I haven’t gone the whole way to improvisation that they talk about in the book, where the actual secrets behind everything are decided upon during play, but figuring out where to put clues in order to let the characters drive the actual scenes turns out to be very intuitive. And by keeping a list of the investigative skills of each character (or asking to take a look at a sheet every now and then when you need to make a judgment call) makes the rules mostly transparent. The only times I cracked a book last night was looking at a list of the skills or trying to find a particular name.

Enough of me blathering about running the game. Let’s get to what happened in the game.

This session, the characters decided to follow up an account in the second document, talking about a mysterious car and truck delivering a strange item to the hospital, and Temporary Operative Olsen still being on an army base. They located the hospital from a reference to Crown Hill, but the nearest army base they knew of was Fort Devens, 150 miles away. As for Olsen, they had no idea.

Given that they have a doctor, a con woman, and a bookseller who had been bitten badly by a rat-thing in the group, they decided on a combined approach to the hospital, with Aaron Moon checking in to have the nasty wound on his leg examined, and Dr. Solis and his lovely (if vapid) assistant Twyla Petty (again played by wealthy con woman Roxy Crane) asking to examine patient files in order to do a demographic study of illness and injury in rural Massachusetts.

The patient files showed a number of military men being treated for minor injuries over the past couple of weeks, which led Solis and Roxy to dig a little deeper and discover that the army was in the process of clearing ground and laying foundations for a new base out at Monument Creek, about 25 miles from Arkham. With no infirmary in place, the Lieutenant in charge of the work detail made arrangements with the local hospital for treatment of his men.

Aaron had a nasty night. He hadn’t been sleeping well since having to kill the rat-thing a few days ago, compounded with the nasty things he read in The Book of the Voice giving him nightmares. This night was no different, with a dream of waking to find the hospital a ruin around him. Then, when he awoke for real, he somehow lost four and a half hours between looking at the clock beside his bed and walking down the corridor to the nurse’s station.

These events disturbed him a great deal and, when his companions returned to the hospital in the morning, they went to look at one of the rooms in the hospital that Aaron had seen in his dream. It was occupied by an elderly woman far gone with senile dementia, and they found no clues as to the source of the dream or the lost time. Still, Aaron agreed to stay in the hospital another night, mainly to give Roxy and Solis time to break into the administration office to look for anything interesting.

They didn’t find anything in the office, but Aaron did find an old grocery sack with the remains of someone’s lunch in it in a trash can near the loading dock. The bag was marked Olsen’s Family Market. And in the morgue, Roxy and Solis found a record of a young private killed by a falling tree, whose postmortem exam revealed strange calciferous tumours on his soft tissues. The body had already been released, so they couldn’t examine it first hand.

The next day, they went to the county office, and found out that the military was indeed building a new base out at Monument Creek, so named because of the neolithic mounds and standing stones near the source of the creek. They decided that they needed to go out and take a look at the base (and maybe the mounds and standing stones), but first went to Olsen’s Family Market to check it out. They spoke to Olaf Olsen, the owner and proprietor, and found him a genial but thoroughly mundane fellow.

So, out to Monument Creek, with camping equipment, firearms, medical kit, tracing paper, charcoal, binoculars, and bird books. They set up camp on a hill overlooking the military base under construction, and were invited down to dine with Lieutenant Bennet, who was in charge of the construction project. There they found out that Fort Devens, which is primarily a recruitment and training base, needed to expand its facilities, and it was decided to open a new base to handle the increased recruitment. Aaron knew that Fort Devens also based three divisions of military intelligence, so he was suspicious. But he also knew that Lt. Bennet’s father had written a book about the native beliefs of the Southwest tribes, so he managed to make a more personal connection with the Lieutenant.

And Roxy was the only woman around for miles.

They also learned that the base had their supplies trucked in from Arkham, which led them to the conclusion that the fresh produce was probably delivered from Olsen’s Family Market.

They retired back to their campsite, determined to head upstream in the morning to check out the standing stones that the creek was named for. Their rest was disturbed, however, by a sergeant sent from the camp asking for Dr. Solis to come see to a medical emergency.

This turned out to be a private who was pale, clammy, and severely disoriented. Dr. Solis’s examination found that he seemed to be suffering from severe anemia, and had a hard lump under his skin near his appendix. The young man responded strangely to Solis’s questions and actions, seeming to answer questions that hadn’t been asked, or answering in the wrong order. Blood drawn looked almost blue, and quite watery.

During the examination, the doctor noticed that one of the man’s ears seemed to be deformed, with some sort of ribbed growth within the cartilage stretching and distending the shape of it. As he watched, the ribs seemed to extend, stretching the skin and cartilage of the ear even further. When he touched it with a probe, the taut skin split.

While the doctor was asking the sergeant for details of when the illness had come on, the man died.

Aaron and Roxy, looking around, found some strange crystals in the mud on the man’s boots – things that looked like tiny, strange snow men, with two faceted spheres attached to each other, and a long, thin spike ending in a weird starburst jutting from the smaller sphere at right angles to the rest of the thing. A small fringe of spikes also ran down each side of the smaller sphere. The largest of the crystals was about twice the size of a grain of rice, and most were significantly smaller.

Talking to the Lieutenant and the dead man’s squadmate, the characters could find no explanation for the strange illness, nor the tiny crystals. The body was removed and would be sent to the hospital for an autopsy the next morning, and the Lieutenant warned about possible infection or influenza in the camp.

And that’s where we left things last night.

This is the first investigation that’s stretched into two nights, which is fine, because now I get to spend a little time fleshing out the back nine, as it were. I asked the players to think about what they’re planning to do next, and to let me know what their thoughts are. Sure, the game works as an improvised scenario, but if I have a couple of weeks to think up cool stuff to slip in when appropriate, why shouldn’t I take advantage of it?

Anyway, another fun game, with some nice creepy in it. Still fairly low-key, but that’s the way I like the horror campaigns. Keep the mythos strange, incomprehensible, and at a distance as long as possible, so it stays frightening.

Next game is scheduled in two weeks’ time. I’m looking forward to it.

From the Armitage Files: The Helping Hands

**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**

At the end of last session, I gave my players the first two document hand-outs for the campaign, and asked them to discuss them via e-mail and come up with a couple of potential avenues of investigation that I could develop for this session. I provided a few clues to answer some of their questions, also via e-mail.

Now, I had struggled over whether or not to do that. After all, one of the main focuses of the GUMSHOE system is finding clues. I worried that providing clues outside of the game was essentially stealing thunder from the game session, and might undermine actual play. In the end, I decided to go with it for a few reasons:

  1. Some questions were things that they would just know about things, through skills like Oral History or Streetwise, and it seemed silly to wait until the game session to give them that information.
  2. Some of the questions they were asking just closed of blind alleys for them, avenues of investigation that were both uninteresting* and unproductive.
  3. I wanted them to be fully invested in the adventure during the session, and I didn’t want them suddenly deciding to jump to some other avenue of investigation that I hadn’t considered and prepared. That means making sure they have enough information to be happy with the choice they made.

It seemed to work fairly well, and they picked two threads that they wanted to chase down in the session. I worked out what was going on with both of them, so that whichever one they felt like going after, I had an idea of what they would find.

Without giving away too much of what’s going on in the meta-structure of the campaign, I do want to say that determining what’s going on was a little trickier than I had expected. There’s a question of where in the narrative the characters come in that really needs careful consideration, and I had to rework one of the investigation spines I was building a couple of times to make it work the way I needed it to, given all the other information that I have about the big picture. That’s kind of vague, I know, but my players read this blog, and I don’t want to say too much about the overarching campaign secrets.

For games like this one and Fearful Symmetries, I’ve been using a fairly different method of creating adventures than I do with things like D&D. In D&D, there’s a lot of fairly careful balancing of combat encounters that goes into building an adventures, but the emphasis in both GUMSHOE and DFRPG is more narratively-centred, and the stats are far easier to improvise on the spot, so I find that it’s easier to shape the encounter to what I need on the fly. That means that the entire adventure structure can be looser, and more free-form and character-driven*.

What I do in these games is essentially build a relational mind map of the situation. I put the various elements that I know are part of the situation in circles on a blank piece of paper – the various NPCs, organizations, items, events that I want to have happen, etc. Then I connect them with lines and arrows labeled by the relationship between the various elements. So, I may have an arrow from one NPC to another marked Wants to kill and another arrow back labeled Wants to avoid. As I map out the relationships this way, I add more elements that are needed in other circles, mapping in their relationships as needed, until I have a solid idea of what the entire situation is, and what will happen without player character involvement. Then I look for places where I can let the characters see an edge of the situation to hook them in*.

In play, I look for ways to subtly (or not so subtly, in some cases) show a link from the element the characters get interested in to one or more other elements in the structure. As they explore this situational map, I keep thinking about responses, both from the elements the characters are interacting with, and from other elements that may be affected by the interaction, and trot those out as appropriate. These responses can be anything from cutting and running to sending some guys to explain why the characters don’t want to be poking around any more.

So far, it’s been working pretty well, and I’m enjoying both the reduced prep time* and the way I’m finding my way back to improvisational GMing.

So, when we got together for last night’s game, the characters decided to chase down a certain encyclopaedia salesman (named Philip or Philips) who may or may not have witnessed the sacrifice of a hobo by a charitable organization called The Helping Hands.

Aaron did some library legwork, finding first of all which encyclopaedia companies had salesmen in the area, and then sent them telegrams, asking for the contact information of the salesmen, and found one named Phil Hughes. The gang sent him a letter asking for him to call on Roxy, who posed as Twyla Petty, a pretty young ladder-climber who had inherited a pile from her father and was looking to better her mind in order to attract the right kind of husband. They seeded the hotel suite they rented with a number of Masonic items, because according to the documents, Phil has a real distrust and fear of the Freemasons, and they figured that this will be the first stage in setting him up for a follow-up meeting where they gain his trust and get him to help them*.

Well, it kinda worked. Phil was distrustful of the Freemasons, but he also revealed to Roxy that he was, in fact, a member of The Helping Hands, and very proud of the charitable work they do. After the appointment, they followed Phil back to the rooming house where he stays in Arkham, and then followed him around the rest of his four-day stay in town. Nothing suspicious.

So, they turned their attention to The Helping Hands, got a list of the local chapter officers, scoped out the chapter house both in Arkham and in Kingsport, and staked out the Arkham chapter house during a bi-weekly meeting. When that wrapped up with nothing suspicious, they decided to break into the building to see if they could find anything incriminating.

There was nothing out of the ordinary inside, until they found a hidden fire safe in the floor of the office. A low, raspy voice, coming out of the darkness, told them to leave it alone and get out. There followed a good several minutes of creepiness, with the group debating what to do in hushed whispers, shining their flashlight around in futile attempts to find the speaker, and a horrible moment for them when they heard little scuttling feet above them, and looked up to see a trap door into the attic.

And then something small and nasty dashed out of the darkness and sliced the back of Roxy’s stocking.

Dr. Solis, rather affronted and indignant at this sort of treatment, convinced the others that they definitely needed to open the safe now. Everyone had taken at least a couple of points of Stability loss by this time, and then the voice from the shadows said, “I know who you are.”

That was about the last straw. Roxy made a Locksmith spend to open the safe quickly, and they found inside a few bundles of cash, a deed to the building they were in and a farm outside of town, and a large hand-written ledger book with The Book of the Voice written on the title page. The thing in the darkness said, “You have sealed your doom.”

Roxy had had enough of this, and leaped across the room to turn on the electric lights, catching the thing by surprise. Aaron was looking in the wrong direction, but Roxy and Solis both saw this. Stability checks for them, and Roxy wound up Shaken. The thing vanished into a hole in a corner, and Aaron decided they had to burn the building down, so they did.

They retreated to Aaron’s shop to drink a great deal and examine the book. Here are the stats I came up with for it:

The Book of the Voice is a large ledger filled with the handwritten dictation of the Emissary, the revealed wisdom of the Voice. The Helping Hands keep it in a locked fire safe in the floor of the chapter house office. Most of it is a litany of promises from the Voice to the faithful, reinforcing their sense of entitlement and amorality. Sprinkled in among this are observations about the signs of the advent of the return of the Great Ones and what will follow.

Resource Tome: +1 Cthulhu Mythos, 1 dedicated pool point for questions about the end of the world, the outer gods, and witches.

Magic Potential: 1

Spells:Invocation of the Emissary (Contact Rat-Thing)

Aaron decided to take the next couple of days to pore over the book, while Roxy and Solis went to investigate the farm – the Armitage document claimed that the sacrifice of the hobo took place in a barn. When they got to the farm, Solis went to look at the buildings while Roxy waited in the car on the main road, across the mostly-barren fields.

Now that the party was split, I decided to unload on them. Roxy, waiting on the road, saw a plume of dust coming down the road toward her. It resolved itself into a truck full of large burly men, and she decided not to wait around to see what they wanted, taking off across the field toward the barn where Solis had gone. On foot, of course, with the axe-handle-wielding farmhands hot on her heels.

Solis, meanwhile, had found a patch of disturbed earth in the barn that was thick with maggots. Digging in a little, he found the flayed forearm of a man, just as he felt the double barrels of a shotgun press to the base of his skull.

And Aaron started hearing a horribly familiar voice calling his name in his rooms above his bookstore. And then the rat-thing attacked.

I tried to run the ensuing scenes the way you would see them in a movie, jumping from focus to focus, and that worked fairly well at first, but then Aaron killed the rat-thing with his first shot the second it exposed itself, and things focused on the farm for the rest of the climactic scene, with Solis and Roxy eventually shooting and killing most of their attackers, though there was a good bit with Solis and one of the thugs wrestling on the ground over the shotgun, trying to force the barrel towards each others’ face, until Roxy pistol-whipped the bad guy into submission.

At this point, I had no idea where the adventure would go, but Roxy decided to make a substantial Cop Talk spend to get word to the right people on the police force to investigate the farm and check for the bodies in the barn. The police came to arrest the Helping Hands officers, finding one missing, but taking the other two into custody. They hanged themselves in their cells over the next couple of days.

Aaron burned the body of the rat-thing, along with The Book of the Voice*, though not until he had learned enough from it to get the Cthulhu Mythos point and spend an experience point on getting a point of Magic.

And that’s where we left it. I’ve got one scenario spine still in my notebook, and have asked the players to decide between this session and the next if they want to pursue that one, or something else.

All in all, a good game, I thought.

 
 
 

*To me, at least. Back

*I like D&D. I run D&D. D&D is fun. But no matter how much you like apples, you’ll get bored of them if they’re all you ever eat. And yes, D&D can be as rich and story-centric as any roleplaying game, but the mechanical complexity of combat means that during prep, the GM spends a substantial portion of time building the right balance and mix of opponents for combat encounters. Back

*In The Armitage Files, the hook is built into the campaign, with the mysterious documents making strange references, so that part is easy. Back

*All of which is focused on building evocative, interesting story elements, rather than number crunching. Back

*Yeah, they’ve been watching a lot of Leverage. Back

*For a bibliophile, he spends a lot of time burning books. Back

From the Armitage Files

Last Friday night I ran my first session of the Armitage Files campaign for Trail of Cthulhu. It was also my first time running ToC, or any GUMSHOE game, and I have to admit that I was a little anxious about it.

As I mentioned back here, the Armitage Files campaign is largely improvisational, and very much player-directed. I tend to do a fair bit of prep work before a game, building myself a nice, comfortable set of notes for play. Once I’ve got the notes, I don’t mind if I have to deviate from them, or if I decide in play that the something I came up with earlier doesn’t fit, but I like to have that depth of preparation to give me the raw material for improvisation.

Given that this was my first attempt at a ToC game, and that I was not as familiar with the system as I might have liked, I didn’t want to just jump into the main campaign. Instead, I fleshed out a complete, if short, adventure as a sort of intro. I figured that would give me some more experience building scenarios and running the game before I waded deeper into the campaign waters.

The main set-up of the campaign is that the characters are called in by Armitage and his friends to investigate a strange series of documents that have started showing up. So, I wanted the intro adventure to give the characters a reason to interact with at least a couple of the major recurring NPCs from the Armitage Inquiry campaign frame. Roxy’s backstory had her looking into a suppressed report concerning the Miskatonic University expedition to Antarctica, and Aaron is a dealer in rare books, so I figured that this would give me a couple of threads to tie those characters into the plot. Dr. Solis, being a friend of the other two and a member of MU’s School of Medicine, could provide necessary introductions and open some professional doors, metaphorically speaking*.

To that end, I had an orderly from the sanitarium show up at Aaron’s shop, offering to sell him a strange manuscript. He claimed it was a journal written by someone attached to the university, and offered a page as a sample for Aaron to examine. They arranged to meet the next evening, but the fellow didn’t show.

Because, of course, he was dead.

I built the scenario around a standard MacGuffin setup, deciding that the book in question was a journal written for therapeutic reasons by Danforth, one of the survivors of the Dyer-Lake expedition to Antarctica in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. It had been stolen by an orderly after hearing Danforth’s alienist talk about how valuable the contents were to his treatment and misunderstanding the reference. The orderly then offered it around to several dealers in odd books, leaving some of the loose pages with prospective buyers to examine.

I created the journal as a full resource tome by the guidelines in the ToC rulebook, reasoning that this would be a valuable item for the characters to use throughout the campaign, and a good way to introduce some Cthulhu Mythos knowledge to the characters. Here’s the write-up of the book:

Danforth’s Journal

Danforth’s experiences and readings have given him a mad insight into the proto-history of the earth. He has combined his memories of the Antarctic expedition with his reading of the Necronomicon and other forbidden texts, syncretizing a fairly accurate – if rambling and obtuse – understanding of the Mythos, which he has written into his journal.

The book is a small, bound journal of 300 pages, with green leather binding, filled with cramped, rushed script and odd diagrams. Several pages have been torn out and replaced at different places in the book, and other notes have been penciled in over top of the ink writing.

Resource Tome: +1 Cthulhu Mythos, 2 dedicated pool points for questions about Antarctica, proto-history, and the nature of time.

Magic Potential: 1

Spells: Constructing the Star-Stones of Mnar (Elder Sign), Dho-Hna Formula, Fabrication of a Compound for Examination of Non-Linear Time (Compound Liao)

Having created the book and the basic set-up, I mapped out who the interested parties would be, keeping one eye on the Scenario Spine Worksheet in the campaign book. Given that I wanted some conflict (at least potentially) in the adventure, I created a wealthy lumber magnate with an interest in the occult and a lack of morals who was also offered the journal, and a few others (including Cyrus Llanfer at the Orne Library) for the characters to investigate. I made the orderly’s death the result of a drunken, joking use of the Dho-Hna Formula, which happened to be incomplete because of the page that had been left with Aaron. The incomplete spell let the cold and layered time of the polar city overlay the viewer, reducing him (and his wife) into freeze-dried mummies in seconds.

Meanwhile, the lumber magnate had sent some men around to get the journal before anyone else could buy it. They were ready to buy, but were determined to get the book. Finding the orderly dead, they took the journal and snuck back out. They then burgled another bookshop (whose owner had tipped his hand to the lumber magnate by telling him he might have a very interesting book to sell him in a few days) where a page had been left, stealing enough other books that the owner figured that these books were the real target and that the page had just been snatched up because it was in with the receipts inside the safe.

And, of course, Dyer was desperate to get the book back before too many people found out about what happened on the expedition, and the alienist wanted it back for his research.

I actually fleshed out about eight full scenes, with all the clues that the characters might find and where they would lead. I created a hand-out of the journal page, and a list of names of people that the orderly had approached about the book for the characters to find on his corpse. I even worked in some names that occur later in the campaign, laying the foundation for those adventures down the road. And then I set the characters loose on the adventure.

Turns out it’s a whole lot easier to improvise in the system than I feared. I thought that my lack of familiarity with the different skills and how they work would be a real detriment, but it turned out to not really be the case. Here’s what I found:

  • Having a solid idea of what’s going on behind the scenes is vital, but once you’ve created the answer to the mystery and the way things fit, it’s very easy to see what clues may exist and what scenes are going to come up.
  • The skills all say what they do right on the tin, so it’s not hard to determine if there’s something in a scene that a skill might find when the player asks.
  • The focus of the game, the structure of the rules, and the nature of the mechanics all focus on one thing: getting the clues into the hands of the characters. This outlook is incredibly helpful to the GM running the game, because it causes one to always look for a way to give a clue to the players.
  • It takes a while for everyone to get into the swing of the way investigative abilities differ from general ones, and when you should make a spend or not, and stuff like that, but not a very long while. Things were flowing very smoothly and quickly by about half-way through the evening.
  • Going back to the first point above, improvising and changing scenes came very easily for a couple of reasons: one, I knew the shape of the whole thing, so it was easy to come up with appropriate reactions. Two, the mechanical lightness of the system really encourages roleplaying and talking as solutions.

All in all, I’m very pleased with the way the game went, and had a lot of fun. I’m feeling a lot more confident about the campaign.

And how did things go for our intrepid heroes? Pretty well. They managed to really upset Danforth and his alienist, talk their way around the thugs that the lumber magnate was going to have threaten them for the journal page, and completely missed what could have been an exciting climax as lumber magnate tried the (incomplete) Dho-Hna Formula himself, leaving behind another freezer mummy. But they made a good contact in Dyer*, recovered the journal after the death of the lumber magnate by the expedient of Aaron approaching the lawyers about helping to liquidate the magante’s library, and then burned the book.

Yep, you heard me. They burned the book. This marvelous resource tome I had created for them.

In character, it was a good choice, and I didn’t want to penalize them for it or try to talk them out of it. So, I’ve decided that this makes Dyer a staunch ally for them, one that will go to the mat for them if needed later in the campaign.

It was pretty late by the time we wrapped up, but I really wanted to get the first two Armitage documents into the players’ hands that evening, so they can start giving me ideas of what they’re going to investigate, and I can start building the spines I need to run that. So, I glossed over the intro material, gave them the print-outs, and sent them home. This morning, I sent out a more detailed background on what’s going on, along with a request that they start discussing what references in the documents pique their interest most. Once I have an idea of what they’re twigging on in the documents, I can create the structure I need to be able to run the adventures in the same sort of loose, player-driven fashion that I did in the intro scenario.

I’m looking forward to it.

 
 
 

*Because Roxy can handle opening the literal ones. Back

*That is, after they got over their initial theory that he was killing everyone who knew about the journal. Back

Armitage Files: Characters

Last Friday night, I got my three players together to create characters for the Armitage Files campaign I’m starting. This was our first time through the GUMSHOE character creation process, and I was anticipating a few problems, but things went very smoothly. Turns out that character creation is not as difficult as it first seems, as long as you have a good idea of what sort of character you’re planning on playing and are willing to discuss things with the other players.

I’m going to come right out and say that having a good, strong character concept is vital to making the process go smoothly. I was worried that players who hadn’t read the character creation rules would be floundering when it came to picking skills, but that turned out not to be the case. One player hadn’t read the rules, but she had a solid, strong concept that she wanted to play, and we were able to map it to the profession, drive, and skills that worked for her very easily.

When time came for picking investigative skills, all three characters worked together to make sure that they got everything covered. But more importantly, they made sure things were covered in a way that made sense for their characters. The only investigative skill that got left out was Physics, so I just won’t make any clues that rely on that skill.

So, who are the characters?

  • Roxy Crane, a thief and scam artist whose family has amassed a large enough fortune to give her access to the upper class.
  • Aaron Moon, who runs an antique bookshop, does manuscript and book restorations, and never ever produces forgeries. Well, hardly ever.
  • Dr. August Solis, on the Miskatonic University faculty of medicine, who has had occasion to assist the officials with a bizarre case or two.

I wanted the characters to have some history together, so I stole the novel-writing idea from FATE games, and had them each create a story, then add themselves into the stories created by the other two players. I put a couple of restrictions on the stories, to reflect the fact that I wanted them to have no Cthulhu Mythos knowledge or encounters, no magic, and no overt supernatural encounters in their past. Weird stuff was okay, but nothing that couldn’t be traced back to human agencies. Here are the novels they came up with:

Doctor Solis, with his strong background in forensics and chemistry, is approached by the Arkham Police to consult on the mysterious disappearance of a local occultist. Solis follows leads and discovers a disfigured body which he attempts to examine but is denied the opportunity by the police department. Solis catches sight of the corpse’s hand and sees a ring with an occult design. He is referred to Aaron Moon who believes it to be a stylized Baphomet symbol. Aaron runs into Roxy, describing the body and ring, which she recognizes to be a local hood hired by a local book collector. The cops pick him up after an ‘anonymous’ tip.

Aaron Moon goes to Boston to confer on a recently discover personal library that contained several Andalusian – Judaic tomes. He discovered that the centre-piece of the collection was in fact a forgery and the owner accused Moon of switching the forgery for the original. Hearing the heated argument, just down the hall from the big party, Roxy sneaks in and distracts the owner so Aaron can flee. Doctor Solis uses his skills in forensics and chemistry to help Aaron prove his innocence to his clients.

Roxy had accidentally made the acquaintance of a young man who worked for the US Survey Department , at a local speakeasy. Returning to his apartment, they find his door ajar and documents stolen – the documents Roxy was going to nick – from an Antarctic expedition. Roxy approaches Dr. Solis at Miskatonic University to seek his expertise in Languages as a way of determining the potential value of the mysterious expedition documents. The documents are mentioned over drinks in the faculty lounge. Moon overhears and tells them that he had recently been asked to “quietly” assess some expedition documents. He tells Roxy where the gentlemen in question are staying…

So, there’s our cast of characters. I’m looking at next Friday night to run the first session.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Armitage, What Have You Gotten Us Into?

Y0u may remember some previous posts I did about Trail of Ctuhulhu, from Pelgrane Press. If not, check out the links to see what I’m talking about.

Anyway, after my friend ran a playtest of the system, I decided I really wanted to try running it. While I was waffling over whether or not I would actually do so, Pelgrane Press published The Armitage Files. As is fitting for a Cthulhu product, it pushed me over the edge*. I ordered the print and pdf bundle from IPR, downloaded the files, and got to reading.

Normally, I do my best to avoid spoilers in published adventures. Here, I don’t really need to try; the product is less a complete campaign than a wonderful set of building blocks to put together your own campaign using some great props and a loose framework.

Here’s the basic set-up: mysterious documents, in Henry Armitage’s own handwriting, start appearing in unlikely places around Arkham. Armitage has no memory of writing them, nor of the events, people, places, etc. they describe. The other members of the Armitage Inquiry insiders have various theories, ranging from good ol’ Henry being nuts to the documents being letters from the future. With their general scholarly bent and understanding of researcher bias, they decide to bring in some outsiders to investigate these documents, and to find out what’s going on.

Enter the PCs.

The content in the books is of three different types: the documents themselves, a selection of raw materials for scenarios, and instructions on what to do with them.

  • The Documents. These are beautiful, and are designed by Sarah Wroot. They take the form of hand-written notes on lined paper, much of it stained with… stuff, and some clippings, photographs, etc. tacked on. Large pieces of the text are crossed out, stained over, or otherwise almost illegible, so each document comes with a transcription of the text – more for the GM than the players, I’m thinking. Information-wise, the documents each contain several references to people, places, organizations, items, and events, many of them only vaguely explained, and with links between the different references more hinted at than spelled out.
  • The Raw Materials. There’s a chapter each for people, organizations, places, and tomes and magic. Each one identifies most of the references in the documents – a few are deliberately left out to allow the GM to design something appropriate to his or her campaign – in a few different versions. For example, each NPC has three different settings: sinister, innocuous, and stalwart. The GM chooses which role the NPC is going to fill, and uses that version. In addition, each NPC has three extra names and quirks to allow the GM to use the same set of stats for multiple different anthropologists or whatever.
  • The Instructions. The basic instructions are simple: let the players direct the flow of the investigation by picking out the references that they care about in the documents, and then use the building blocks to put together a scenario for them on the fly. There are lots of examples and instructions as to how to do that, along with a few sample spines for some of the documents and a rough (empty) outline of scenario structure.

I have to say that I find the approach to be a little intimidating. I’ve played in exactly one session of Trail of Cthulhu, and haven’t run it at all. While I generally don’t have much trouble running improvised scenarios, it’s not my main comfort zone, and I prefer to have a bit of a structure to fall back on; really, I like to do my improvising ahead of time ;).

But that’s not my main worry. My main worry is that I don’t have a firm enough grasp of the GUMSHOE system to come up with appropriate clues for the range of investigative abilities on the fly. Not yet, anyway.

That said, I’m intrigued by the set-up. I like the idea of player-directed investigation and a freer kind of campaign and adventure construction than I’ve seen so far in GUMSHOE. And I’ve got three players who are eager to play. So, I’m gonna give it a try, but I’m doing a couple of things to help me along.

First off, I’m going to run an introductory scenario – just a short, one-evening thing – to give us all some more familiarity with the system, to build ties and relationships between the characters, and to establish their Mythos cred so that it makes sense for Armitage and his buddies to call them in.

Second, I’m going to write up a few different scenario versions for the first couple of documents, so that I’ve got more of a plan going, giving me the opportunity to concentrate on setting the mood and getting the system right before I start flying without a net.

Last night, before my two players decided we should add a third, I got together with them and talked about expectations for the game. Trail of Cthulhu has two main modes: Purist and Pulp. However, this is not really a binary state, nor even a bipolar continuum; there are a number of different factors that go into each of those words, and I wanted to make sure I had a shared understanding with my players about what we all expected from the game. So, I asked them the following questions:

How do you want this weighted between action and investigation/interaction? Do you want to expect a combat or two every session, or would you prefer that combat be more rare (and potentially deadly)? Would you like chase scenes, harrowing escapes, swinging over chasms on ropes? Or would you like to have research, interrogation, puzzling over mystical clues, and creeping through darkened corridors? Indiana Jones or Sherlock Holmes? Realistically, there’s going to be opportunities for all these things, but I’d like to know which you want more, so I can focus on that area, and use the others for adventure seasoning, as it were.

They came down weighted towards the investigation/interaction end of the scale, but wanting there to be some combat, chases, and other action scenes. About 80% Purist.

How deadly do you want things? Pulp or Purist? If you’re facing down a gang of cultists, do you want to be able to plow through them with only your fists and your moxie, or do you want to have to flee because their numbers will quickly overwhelm you despite the fact you have Tommy gun? Somewhere in the middle?

Here, they had a difference of opinion. One said, “I don’t like my characters to die, especially not from a random thug with a pistol.” The other said, “I want to be afraid when confronting a six-year-old with a stick.” In the end, they agreed that, while death of characters should be a risk, it shouldn’t be omnipresent. The don’t want to worry about being killed in a random mugging, but want to have to run away from the mob of cultists with knives. So, I’m calling it about 60% Purist.

How bleak do you want things? Lovecraft’s empty, meaningless cosmos, or Derleth’s opposing forces fighting for humanity?

This one was easy. They want the Lovecraftian bleakness, but they don’t want absolute hopelessness, or else what motivation does their character have? Call it 90% Purist.

Do you want things centred in New England, or do you want some travel? If so, how much? Globetrotting troubleshooters, or daytripping specialists?

Again, pretty easy. They want to remain based in Arkham, and have many of the investigations centred there, but also want the opportunity to travel to weird, exotic locations and risk death there. Again, call it around 80% Purist.

After we had settled that, I explained my views on a Cthulhu campaign. See, in my mind, this is a horror game. That means that bad things happen, and that the main characters, while not powerless, are overmatched. They need to have that in mind during play, that they are risking their characters whenever they interact with something that’s not totally mundane. While it’s fine in a one-shot to drop a horde of monsters on a party, in a campaign setting, the primary antagonists should be humans, and monsters should be rarely glimpsed, and absolutely terrifying when encountered. Facing a single Deep One should be enough to shatter the common mortal, both body and mind. That said, the PCs will not be common mortals. Their trials against the more mundane forces of the mythos will give them the tools they need to survive, if not necessarily triumph.

Also, I warned them that I may not stick strictly to the canon when it comes to the mythos elements. They all have some familiarity with the standard Lovecraftian monsters and tropes from reading the stories and playing Call of Cthulhu. I don’t want them relying on that during play, because it undermines the alienness and horror of the mythos. I’ve told them that most of the big tropes – the Necronomicon, Cthulhu himself, etc. – will still be reliable, but the Deep Ones and Flying Polyps may not behave the way they expect, or have the motivations and weaknesses they remember.

And they agreed to all of this.

So, within the next couple of weeks, we’re going to get together and do character creation. I’ll let you know how that goes.

*Yes, I know that’s a lame joke. No, I’m not going to apologize. Back

Trail of Cthulhu Playtest

This past Saturday evening, my friend Michael ran a playtest of Trail of Cthulhu, from Pelgrane Press, written by Ken Hite. I talked a little bit about reading the game way back here, but this is the first time I’ve played it.

One of the big things standing in the way of running a playtest of the game is the character creation system. It’s complex enough, with enough choices the players need to make at every step, that it requires a pretty solid understanding of the rules before building characters. And, in a playtest, you can’t count on the players to read any of the rules. So, that means pregenerated characters, which takes more time for the GM. Also, the points you get for investigative abilities are based on the number of characters in the game, so if you’re doing pregens, you need to know how many people will be playing – in my experience, not always possible with a playtest or one-shot.

In short, I’ve always thought that Pelgrane Press could do themselves a big favour by posting some pregens for their GUMSHOE games – ideally, complete parties of two, three, four, and five characters. It certainly would have got me playing the games a lot sooner.

This need has been met for ToC by an introductory scenario available for download on their site: The Murderer of Thomas Fell. While the characters are specifically for the scenario, they can certainly be used in other adventures.

Now, I’m not going to give you a bunch of spoilers – we played the game, we sort-of-solved the mystery, and we kinda-won – which is par for the course in a Purist Cthulhu game. We all had fun and liked both the system and the story. After the game, we had a bit of a discussion about it, and came up with these thoughts:

  • The game really demands a fair bit of input from players to keep it from devolving into a story being read to you by the Keeper. Specifically, the players need to develop familiarity with their abilities – especially the investigative abilities – and how to use them in the scenes. Otherwise, it can become a case of the Keeper asking, “Okay, who’s got Accounting? There’s an Accounting clue here.” Now, this will come with practice, both the input from the players in the correct circumstances (“I use Accounting to look through the papers in his business desk to see if there’s anything hinky.”) and the way the Keeper deals with it.
  • Combat is fast and can be surprisingly deadly. Especially for humans. The bad things are always tougher than you. And this is as it should be. There was a wonderful feeling of panic in the one real combat we had in the game.
  • The lightness of the rules really lets roleplaying shine through. Even with the pregens, pretty much everything that happened was the result of character personality interacting with the situation. The ending of the adventure was pretty much entirely dictated by the emotions of the characters, with very little in the way of dice rolling or use of rules. And I found that ending to be immensely satisfying, dramatically speaking.
  • Specialization among the characters is key. While the spend mechanic means that the person with the highest rating in a skill can only outdo the others a limited amount of time, it’s good to have at least one relevant investigative ability at a higher level than the others in the group have. My character had only a couple of irrelevant ones at high levels, and he didn’t get to find as many clues, etc. Which is okay in a single session, but would get tiring over time in a campaign.
  • The scene mechanic – letting the players know when the characters have got all the available clues from a scene and telling them to move on – was something that I thought would be awkward and artificial in play, but really worked very nicely. The first time Michael used it, it was a little disorienting and surprising, but then it just worked very smoothly.

All in all, a fun game and a big success. Thanks to Michael for beating me to running the game, and to Sandy, Jen, Fera, and Tom for playing with us.

Now I just need to convince Michael to run a campaign…

Mutant City Blues – Initial Look

So, Simon Rogers over at Pelgrane Press did a nice thing: he sent me an early draft of Mutant City Blues, an upcoming GUMSHOE game. The idea (floated to him by the inestimable Fred Hicks, of Evil Hat fame) is for me to take a look at it, give it a try, and talk about it on my blog here.

Well, that was more than a month ago, and I’m just getting around to it now. I got distracted by the shinies of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, and it just kept me from giving Mutant City Blues the attention it deserves.

Mea culpa.

Now I’ve finished a read-through, and I want to talk about my initial thoughts on the game. I plan to run a playtest in the next couple of weeks, though summer vacation time is upon us, and that means it’s a little harder to nail down enough players. I’m working on it, though.

Anyway.

Mutant City Blues is another GUMSHOE game, one that I think I’ll actually be able to get my players to try. Why not the other GUMSHOE games? Because they’re all horror games*, and horror doesn’t rank high on the list of styles my players enjoy**. Fair enough.

Mutant City Blues, though, is a superhero police procedural. If you’ve ever read the comic book Powers, or Alan Moore’s wonderful Top 10, you have a good starting basis for the world. Superpowers are more common than in Powers, and less common than in Top 10, but the feel and style are pretty similar. The setting also has hints of influence from sources like the Wild Cards novel series, Marvel Comics style mutant social issues, police procedurals in the vein of Michael Connelly or Ed McBain, and, of course, the ever-popular CSI and Law and Order TV series.

It’s a pretty rich background, and more space is devoted to it than any of the other GUMSHOE books to date. There are in-depth discussion of how super powers interact with the world of law enforcement, and with society in general, that help to give what could be a very flighty game a solid, grounded feel. In particular, the sections on how super-powered police officers fit in with the rest of the force really shine.

On the super power front, this game takes a very different approach from anything else I’ve seen. First of all, everyone has the same origin: a flu-like virus referred to as SME (Sudden Mutation Event). So, no magic rings, no alien babies saved from doomed planets, no radioactive arachnid incidents, etc. You get a bad cold as a mysterious virus rewrites your DNA, then you can tie people up with your hair.

You also don’t have free rein to pick your powers separately; they are arranged in a special diagram, showing the links between different powers, and the drawbacks generally associated with them. You get a certain number of points, pick one power you want from the chart, then have to spend more points as you move around the chart from that initial choice to take other powers. For extra points, you can skip over intervening powers, but every step costs points. Some of the powers are drawbacks; you can’t skip over them, but at least they don’t cost you any points. They show the types of problems normally associated with the kinds of powers you have.

So, let’s say I want to have super-speed and lightning-fast decision making. I can do that, but I wind up with a tendency to attention deficit disorder, because that drawback is between the two powers I want. I also am very unlikely to be able to command fish, which is way over on the other side of the chart, and it would cost a lot of points to move over there.

This may rankle some players. It sets arbitrary limits on what power groups you can reasonably have, and it can be a little difficult to figure out at first glance. The thing that I find interesting is that the system has been worked out, not so much to balance things, but to simulate the game-world idea that super powers tend to occur together, and that scientists are starting to understand which types are more commonly found together. It creates verisimilitude in the setting, and only incidentally balances the characters.

Very strangely for a superhero game, powers are not really balanced against each other, and this is deliberate. After all, in real life, people are not point-balanced, so why should RPG characters be?***

There’s also a sidebar that talks about what you should do if you don’t want to use the primary game-world conceits of grouped powers, a single origin, and little to no power balance, which is nice.

The largest section of the book (72 pages in the draft I have) is the listing of super powers and explanations of how they work. There’s a nice wide variety, and there are some that can be used as investigative skills, allowing you to find clues, as well as the more common powers that work like generals skills.

I haven’t talked about investigative skills and general skills, have I? Well, I mentioned how the GUMSHOE system works in this post, but maybe a little more detail is in order.

GUMSHOE is pretty focused and optimized for investigative games. It’s all about finding the clues and trying to interpret them.

Notice that I didn’t say “trying to find the clues.”

If there’s a clue available, and you’ve got the right skill to find it, you find it. Period. No rolling, no chance of failure. All you have to do is use the right skill.

That makes sense, right? I mean, the drama in CSI is not about whether or not Hodges is going to be able to identify the gritty white powder on the duct tape holding the victim’s mouth shut. The drama is about how Grissom interprets it and what he does about it.

Same thing here.

Finding clues takes investigative skills. These are pretty granular, with technical ones like Evidence Gathering and Fingerprinting, and interpersonal ones like Flattery and Flirting. You get a fair number of points to buy investigative skills; the number of points you get is based on the number of players in the game, and is balanced to make sure that you can cover all (or at least most) of the investigative skills no matter what size the group. So, you get more points if there are only two players than if there are six.

General skills are things that don’t get you clues. Things like Scuffling and Driving. These work more the way skills work in other games, with rolls and a chance of failure.

Super powers come in both flavours, which is where this little digression started.

So. 213 total pages. 72 pages of super powers. 61 pages of world background. 15 pages of tips for GMs and players. 19 pages for the introductory adventure. 2 pages for the table of contents. That leaves 44 pages of GUMSHOE rules, including character creation, system, lists and explanations for skills, and super powered combat. GUMSHOE is a pretty lean system.

And what do I think of it?

So far, I’m pretty intrigued. The setting and system really appeal to me, and I think I’ll have better luck floating a superhero police procedural game to (most of) my players than a horror game of any stripe. Now, I’ve got to send out the call for my testers and run the intro scenario.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

* As an aside, I think that the system fits very nicely with horror games. Horror games, in general, seem to mesh really well with mystery and investigation modes of play.

**My friend, Michael, just got back from Spain, and he’s a big Cthulhu fan, so I should be able to talk him into playing in a Trail of Cthulhu playtest.

***That’s actually a much deeper argument for another day, having to do with player perceptions of fairness and entitlement rather than anything that is intrinsic to an RPG in and of itself. But, as I say, for another day.