Hunter: The Vigil – War Stories

Last night was the latest installment of my Shadow Wars campaign, using Hunter: The Vigil modified rules. It was a wrap-up to the previous session which, due to one thing and another, ran long.

You may recall that I was not entirely pleased with the way things went with the previous session, because I had obscured the main plot behind some local scenery that the characters – and players – found to be more interesting than the plot itself. Because of that, and especially because that was the first session with a new player joining the group, I was sweating this session a little. I wanted to make sure that the players had definite avenues of inquiry to follow, with interesting things available down them, and a logical linking structure to lead them on.

This adventure, I was trying to get more of an X-Files vibe than the previous horror-movie feel of the previous episodes, what with the ties to the Martian in the group. This is the session when I started dropping some big-picture clues as to the overall campaign story; nothing big, yet, but a few little hints that the players and characters may or may not pick up on. So, that said, I knew I wanted this to end with a yoink: offering some answers and information, then having it snatched away at the last second, once the characters truly understand how much they want that information.

Yeah, it’s a brutally unfair, cheesy GM trick, but it’s also a powerful motivating factor in a story-driven game to ramp up the drive of the players and characters to uncover what’s actually going on, and to build in a real hate for the bad guys, even if they don’t know who or what they are, yet. I am unapologetic – it worked the way I wanted it to, engaging the players emotionally – but it’s something that you have to use very sparingly because, while a little frustration is a good way to bump up the intensity of the game, too much of it will kill everyone’s enjoyment.

So, after the cat attack, the characters retreated to the motel to nurse their wounds and do some more checking on things. The next morning, they went out to the riverside park where the little boy went missing, and managed to find some tracks that caught their eye: the trail of many, many cats moving in single file over the same ground repeatedly, with a small shoe print beside them. By quizzing one of the trees, they managed to follow it west, as the terrain got more and more rocky – this is the Canadian Shield, after all – and found that it led to a sort-of cave: a cleft in the granite that had been roofed over by tree roots and mosses, and that stank strongly of cat urine.

In they went, finding that it was full of bones that had been picked clean, ranging from mouse and shrew up to a small deer. None were older than about six months. The area was also full of cat droppings with the same glowing green crystals as they had found in the house. The fact that the cats were defecating in the same place they were eating seemed to weird the players out even more than a lot of the other things I’d been doing up to now.

Pushing farther back into the cave, they found that it curved down and developed a real roof overhead, and led to a metal door with strange markings on it. The Martian could read the sign, which said Weapons Research Lab. When she opened the DNA-coded lock, they found that the room beyond was empty except for a few tables and chairs with subtly-wrong proportions, and a ruggedized laptop sitting in the middle of the floor with a cable running up to a hole drilled in the stone ceiling. When the checked the laptop, they found that the webcam was taking photographs of them as the entered, and was transmitting them to an anonymous e-mailer in eastern Europe. They cut the cable to stop the transmission, and the computer started to format itself. An absolutely stellar roll by the group techie managed to salvage enough so that they could see that there was little on the laptop but the set-up to take and transmit the pictures and to format the drive if tampered with.

Assuming that someone would be coming to check on the transmission from the laptop, the group hid themselves in the trees around the area, waiting to ambush whoever showed up. After some time, the Martian decided to reveal herself to the rest of the group, which led to some fun roleplaying moments. I interrupted these with a meow off in the woods.

And then the adventure veered drastically from what I had planned. I was going to have the cats chase the group out of the forest, forcing them to retreat and force them on to the next stage of the adventure, because no one was going to come check on the laptop. But the Martian decided to try and contact the cats with her mental abilities, which was just too cool an idea to pass up.

In this manner, they figured out that the cats were a bio-weapon hive mind designed for covert infiltration and skirmishing, perpetuating themselves by adding more cats to the various units until they reached a critical mass. The logical capacity was provided by assimilating – read “eating” – the old woman and using her stolen higher thought capabilities as the organizing principle of their consciousness. The empathic link with the grandchild led to him being “partially assimilated,” and what that meant, they couldn’t tell. They got the name of the previous commander – I came up with the name Bel-Ruzzog on the spot, which is a crap name, but fit for a sort of Burroughs-ish feel – and then told the cats to stand down, which they took as the command to enter Covert Infiltration Mode, and they all started acting like normal cats again. Which, of course, further creeped the characters out.

So, the team tracked down the one member of the research company that the parents worked for that could be a Martian, and went to see him. They staked out his house, but no one arrived after work. Leaving a couple of people on watch, the rest went to necropsy the cat that they had killed.

This dissection discovered several new organs, including something wrapped around the brain, a parallel nervous system, and snake-like fangs with some strange glands attached to them. The crystals in the droppings proved to be high concentrations of a number of trace minerals coalesced into small, phosphorescent deposits.

Next morning, no one left the house they were watching to go to work, so they decided to try and talk their way inside. This didn’t work quite the way they had hoped, but they got in and discovered that Bel-Ruzzog was apparently being held captive in his home here, and that the people who were keeping him locked up had used some of the bio-weapon technology on some large dogs to create guard beasts.

These guard beasts dropped the two main combat powerhouses as they tried to get to Bel-Ruzzog’s cell, but some quick use of healing abilities revived one and some good shooting managed to put the animals down. And at about that time, the alarm console on the wall said:

Security breach

Sterilization procedures begin

30 seconds

They grabbed their fallen comrade and the security guard they had tied up upstairs, and got out of there. They weren’t able to free Bel-Ruzzog, and thirty seconds later, thermite charges in the basement incinerated everything and the house burned to the ground.

A few days later, cats in Pinawa all dropped dead at about the same moment. A day or so after that, the missing child was found in the bush, suffering from exposure and a high fever that doctors said looked very much like organ rejection, except he hadn’t had any organs transplanted. He recovered, and they all lived happily ever after.

And the Martian got another coded e-mail using Martian recognition codes, saying, “Condolences on Bel-Ruzzog,” and nothing else. As she had thought she was the last of her people left on earth, she’s a little grumpy now.

So, overall, I’d call the game a success. Everyone had fun, despite the nasty, unfair tactic I used at the end. I think I’ve redeemed the previous session in my mind.

And best thing heard at midnight last night, as five women leave my apartment: “Good night, Rick. Thanks for your pants.”

Sometimes, context just ruins things.

Hunter: The Vigil – War Stories

Saturday was the next episode of the Shadow Wars campaign for Hunter: The Vigil. We only had four of the five players show up for it – one was in Mexico – but we’re running this by quorum, so we play unless two or more players can’t make it.

Last episode was a spooky haunted house adventure, so I wanted to mix things up this time. I found a webpage from a Philadelphia police officer talking about finding a decapitated goat in a park, with speculation about whether it was some sort of Satanic ritual or a gang initiation. I liked the idea, even though I had used dead animals as the hook for the last episode, and decided to steal it. So, I saved a copy of the webpage and altered it to reflect Winnipeg rather than Philadelphia and printed it out. It even had a couple of pictures of the goat, lying in the snow, half-wrapped in a cardboard box, which was perfect.

I had already decided that I wanted the next adventure to take place in Assiniboine Park in the middle of winter (I’m sticking to real world dates, so the game date is the same as the real date). It was easy enough to change the place names and dates in the blog I was using, and I went looking online for a good map of the park, which again was easy to find. I also did some looking and found some pictures of the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden in winter, with the bronze statues covered with snow. They looked suitably creepy, so I printed a few of those out, too.*

The story I came up with was pretty simple. A member of the Mad Cowz gang, looking to move up in the hierarchy, found a magical spell on the Internet to summon and control a demon. He was killing animals, five of them over five nights, to create a big pentagram over the park. On the sixth night, he would go to the centre of the pentagram, carve a pentacle into his chest, and call the demon. This is where things were going to go wrong, because the demon would possess the summoner, transform the body into something fierce and nasty, and take over the gang.

The goat was the last of the sacrifices, and came to the attention of the characters only because it was weird enough to get a blog mention. One other, the sacrifice of a 12-foot boa constrictor, might also have made it, but that one wasn’t discovered by the police. What that meant was that the characters, though they didn’t know it yet, had about nine hours to track things down and put a stop to them.

They did a bunch of investigation, using mundane and not-so-mundane methods, but ran afoul of a bit of GM Omniscience Clue Syndrome. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about, right? It’s when the GM, who knows the solution to the mystery, lays out what he feels are useful and sufficient clues, but the players just don’t have the context to make them fit together into something useful. In this case, the hint was a little line in the blog about the goat being the latest in a rash of animal mutilations found in the park. The players seemed to skim right over it, so I had to do a little bit of finagling to get it noticed. That started them looking for the other sites.

With the sites spotted, and the information they had picked up from the Internet and talking to a contact in the Mad Cowz, they pieced things together in time to be waiting near the cricket pitch at moonrise, when the bad guys showed up and started trying to complete the ritual. I figured it would be a cool moment to have the leader possessed and transformed in the middle of the fight, so my plan was to have him complete the rituals after two rounds of combat, transform on the third round, and take things from there. Now, the demon stats I had put together were pretty nasty, so I figured that if the demon came through, the players would probably need to flee. This is not usually a safe assumption for PCs, but I had spent some effort in setting the whole campaign up to instill the idea that real supernatural creatures were scary-tough and deadly. I gave it slightly better than even odds that, if the demon showed, the characters would run after a round or two.

They didn’t need to. One kept the other gangbangers busy with kung-fu, while another used blunt-tipped arrows to drop the summoner on the second round. They managed to put down all but one of the bad guys, disable their cars, and the doctor lost a point of Morality for carving up the summoner’s chest to make sure the pentacle couldn’t be completed. I even tried to have one of the gangbangers complete the pentacle on his leader’s chest while the leader was unconscious, but he took an arrow to the head and that plan went south, too.

So, they wrapped things up successfully and scarpered before the police showed. A successful end.

The atmosphere wasn’t as horrific as the previous adventure, featuring more combat and only a few moments of creep factor, but I wanted a bit of a change of pace to let the fighter-types in the group have a chance to steal the spotlight, and that worked well. Everyone seemed to have fun.*

And now I have some ideas for the next game. I dropped a little continuity clue in this adventure, but I’m not entirely sure the players picked up on it. That’s okay, though. It just means I can keep building the connections.


*I’m starting to think this Internet thing just might catch on. At least for researching games. Back

*Despite Clint’s terrible dice luck in the early part of the game that caused him to say he hated the system. I think it redeemed itself when he started dropping the bad guys with some truly impressive bow shots. Back

Hidden Things

A while back, I promised my friends Penny and Clint that I would run a small game for just the two of them, something that we could pick up and play when other folks aren’t available. At the time, it was going to be The Phoenix Covenant, and I did a fair bit of work getting the campaign ready. Then I started burning out on D&D, and didn’t want to keep pushing on that particular campaign. So, I sent out a set of options for discussion, and we settled on playing Mage: The Awakening, influenced in part at least by the success of the first Hunter game I ran a couple of weeks ago.

This is the initial pitch for the Mage game, pulled from the list of pitches I sent:

Mage: The Awakening – The past is reluctant to give up it’s hidden secrets, even to one with the power of a wizard. But you search for traces of the occult history of the world, hidden in archaelogical digs, museum artifacts, urban legends, and strange pocket worlds and times. You will find not just the truth, but the TRUTH.

After some discussion, we decided to set the game in the early 20th century, during the height of archaeological exploration and at the beginning of the decline of secret societies like the Golden Dawn. The ideas I have in mind are a mix of Henry Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Warren Ellis‘s magnificent Planetary comic series. Basically, I want a mix of pulp and noir: the cinematic action, globe-trotting adventure, weird science and magic of pulp blended with the moral relativism, conspiracy, and paranoia of noir. After doing a little bit of research on the era, I picked 1910 as a starting year because of some things that I don’t want to talk about just yet – I know that at least one of the players reads this blog.

So, with those decisions made, I got to work on a wiki for the game. Since I discovered Obsidian Portal, this has become one of my must-do items when I’m building a campaign that’s going to follow an extended story arc, as opposed to episodic campaigns like the Hunter game.

My first idea for the game was just to use the published material for Boston that’s appeared in the Mage books, just back-dating it as necessary. I don’t feel the need to be absolutely accurate and faithful to reality in building a historical campaign: to me, evocation of the feel of the period is more important than strict historical veracity. That said, I try to at least pay lip-service to the truth, so certain elements were going to have to change. Just not all that many.

But this weekend, I read through Boston Unveiled, as opposed to just skimming it as I had done previously. The chapter on the history of the area convinced me that using the by-the-book political situation they posit in 1910 would be far more interesting to me than the one that currently holds sway in modern times. I started rewriting the Boston entry on the wiki, and changing the other entries for the major cabals and events. I’m still not quite done, but I think it’s going to be fun.

One of the things that I’ve realized is that I have to be careful with this campaign framework. It has real potential to devolve into a series of MacGuffin hunts, and that can get old. In order to try and avoid that, I’ve given the framework an overarching theme – the idea that the Bonehunters want to restore Atlantis and take the fight to the Exarchs in the Supernal Realm. This means that they’re going to be facing the Seers of the Throne, who make great Nazi-esque villains in a Mage game. It also means that some adventures and subplots are going to revolve around dealing with threats from the Seers and other opposition; not everything adventure is going to be about rushing off to the ruins of Crete to try and find the Minotaur Device at the heart of the Astral Labyrinth.

And, as I always try to do in small games, a fair bit of the agenda is going to be set by the players and the characters. I’m going to be throwing out a number of plot hooks and loose threads, and seeing what interests them, what they decide to pursue and what they decide to ignore. That will shape the flow of the game, as well.

As I work on the background, my players are reading up on the game and generating some ideas for their characters. I don’t want to get too locked into things until I know at least what their concepts are, but we’re getting very close to being able to start the game. Perhaps even before Christmas.

Oh. The name of the campaign is Scio Occultus Res, which is Latin for To Know Hidden Things.

The Future of My Gaming

The weekend before last, I ran three 4E D&D games on three nights in a row. I had fun at all three games, but it really wore me out, and got me thinking about what I want out of gaming currently and in the future.

I’ve been running nothng but D&D 4E for at least a year.

Now, I like the game, I enjoy running it, and I like all the games I’ve run. But I’m not running any of the other games I’m interested in, and I want to change that.

So, after mulling things over, and talking with a couple of my players, I sent out this announcement to all my players:

So, this weekend, I GMed three nights in a row – all D&D 4E – and I came to a realization.

I’m tired.

I like gaming, and I like GMing, and I like 4E, but I’ve been pretty immersed in them for some time, and I think I need to start scaling back. There are other things I’ve been neglecting for the D&D games, and I’d like to make some time for them again. I’m approaching a burn-out point, and I don’t want to reach it.

So. Here’s what’s gonna happen.

  • Post Tenebras Lux is going to wrap up after this adventure – I’m thinking 2-3 more sessions.
  • Development of The Phoenix Covenant is going on hold for a while.
  • The Hunter game is going to the top of the development queue, at least until we get a few sessions played and decide if we like it.
  • I’m going to start looking at other games for short mini-campaigns: runs aimed at 3-6 sessions, possibly using pregens, probably small groups of no more than four players. Things that are different from D&D. First up on this list is something from the Gumshoe line – Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, or Esoterrorists. Maybe resurrect the Century Club. Dogs in the Vineyard? Maybe…
  • Storm Point will continue as per usual, unless someone in that game has other ideas.

And there you have it. I want to thank everyone for playing in my games, and I hope you’ll be interested in some of the new things I’m planning on trying. I enjoy gaming with you all.

Responses were very supportive, which just goes to show that I’ve got a great bunch of players.

But now I want to talk in a little more detail about what I’m planning for the next several months:

  1. Post Tenebras Lux. I want to wrap this up before the end of October. The adventure I’m currently running will make a decent stopping point. I’ve learned a lot about running 4E from this game, and have enjoyed it, but it’s served its purpose, and can be honourably retired.
  2. Storm Point. This going to continue; it’s my low-maintenance game, very beer-and-pretzels, and one of the only opportunities I have for seeing some of the people in this game. It’s going to be my only D&D game for the forseeable future.
  3. Hunter: The Vigil. This is first up on the slate for development. I’ve got to finish up a couple of things for some of the characters, and put the last touches on the initial adventure, then it’s ready to run. I want to get one or two sessions done before Christmas. The problem is that I designed and grafted on what I thought at the time was a simple system for supernatural player abilities – it’s turned out to be a lot more complex and difficult implementing from the GM end than I had anticipated.
  4. GUMSHOE. I’ve been wanting to try this system for some time, but just haven’t had a lot of luck scheduling it. Now, I’m going to run an adventure or two, either Trail of Cthulhu or Mutant City Blues. If nothing else, I owe the good folks at Pelgrane Press a play report for the generous act of sending me a preview of Mutant City Blues some time ago. I’d like to get this started before the new year, but after the first Hunter session.
  5. Spirit of the Century. I just love this game to death and want to run more of it. I also want a chance to play, so I’m going to look at resurrecting our pick-up league and getting it running again. Hopefully early in the new year.
  6. Dogs in the Vineyard. I want to give this game a try sometime, but don’t know when I’ll be able to fit it in. Probably not before January or February.
  7. Other Games. There are a lot of other games out there I want to try out – Mouseguard, Starblazer Adventures, Thousand Suns, Don’t Rest Your Head, Cold City… we’ll have to wait and see if and how those can fit in.

Those are my plans. I will, of course, keep people up to date on the various games I run, and occasionally spout off on some idea or concept that gets stuck in my brain.

I hope you stick with it. It should be fun.

Busy Weekend

I spent this weekend working on preparing for various games that are going to be starting soon.

Hunter: The Vigil

First, I’ve almost finsihed knocking the Hunter: The Vigil campaign into shape. I’ve made more work for myself with this than I was intending; see, I did a co-operative world-building thing with the players, and we wound up with something a little farther off the core rules than I had expected. Far enough that I’ve had to create a free-form special powers system to support what I want to do. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it means that I have to do some extra work with each individual player to set up mechanics for their special abilities.

This is  a little harder and more time-consuming than I had expected. A large part of that comes from the fact that I’m not as familiar with the New World of Darkness system as I am with the old one, and I’m having to do some more reading to make sure I’m not creating more problems for myself than I’m solving. Another part of the delay is the fact that building the powers is enough work that I’ve been putting it off.

But I’m in the home stretch, now, almost done with the power, and with the initial adventure fleshed out. We’re starting the game in a version of Magical Winnipeg that we developed for the Dresden Files RPG Bleeding Alpha Playtest. As we created it for the Dresdenverse, it doesn’t have the dark, horrific aspect that Hunter does, so I’m tweaking things a little. Still, the setting is more in keeping with the power level and the desire for playing supernatural (or at least unusual) characters that the players indicated.

One of the things we did during character creation for this game is to have a sort of collectively-narrated shared prelude for the characters, bringing the group together for the first time. This weekend, I finally got that typed up and distributed. Here’s how the party met:

As Below, So Above

In the spring of 2009, a number of disappearing students at the University of Manitoba attracted the attention of several people who had interests in investigating supernatural occurrences. Izzy, lecturing on civil engineering at the University, knew two of the missing students, and Nicholas knew another – she was the lead singer in his band, Divine Comdey. Liv was the one who tied it together, tracking the information on her site, and that attracted the notice of Vivianne and Ellis.

They began investigating independently, with Vivianne infiltrating the University occult crowd. She found most of them to be posers, but discovered that one of the missing students was a member. She delivered that information to Liv, who had come to town to investigate things in person.

Liv tracked down Izzy and convinced her to give her access to the University computer systems. She found unusual plans for expansion and completion of the tunnels under the University, plans that didn’t make a lot of sense.

Meanwhile, Ellis was on the trail of some stolen rare earths, substances used in many geomantic rituals, from one of the science labs at the University. His investigations lead him to the dorm room of one of the missing students, where he meets Nicholas, who has come to see where they lead singer has disappeared to.

After they established that they are after the same things, they searched the room and find most of her belongings are gone, but discovered her phone in the pocket of a pair of jeans. They decided to take it to Liv, being familiar with her website and tech expertise.

The various investigators got together and compare their findings. Izzy’s interpretation of the building plans allowed Ellis to identify the shape of a sigil linked to earth magic, similar to the patterns used by Neolithic societies in their underground constructions. They were able to tie together information from the occult poseurs with the symbol, the missing rare earths, and their knowledge of the supernatural, determining that someone was planning to sacrifice “builders of stone and delvers of earth” – the engineering students – to power a geomantic rite that would shatter the floodway and flood downtown Winnipeg.

Arming themselves, they proceeded into the steam tunnels, looking for the centre of the ritual – an underground maintenance room beneath the administration building. Earth spirits, roused by the beginnings of the ritual, obscured the area with drifting dust and shifting shadows, distorting the distance and size of the area to make traversing the tunnels difficult. Members of the cult attacked the hunters physically, and the heroes were forced to fight their way into the ritual space.

One of the students had already been sacrificed, and Nicholas’s friend was next on the list when they burst in. In the ensuing battle, the villain managed to sacrifice the singer, and Nicholas killed him for it. They freed the other two sacrifices and fled the tunnels as the backlash from the interrupted ritual called in a deluge of river water to wash the place clean.

So, things are finally moving forward on that front. The first game will happen soon.

The Phoenix Covenant

Finished the map of the area around Stayyin Keep and Covenant, where the game is going to begin. You can see it on Obsidian Portal here. I’m not great with maps, and this one has a number of flaws that jump out at me as I look more closely at it, but all-in-all I’m satisfied with it. It’s got 13 locations marked on it for the party to explore, and about the same number of places that are only marked on my GM version that they may or may not find out during play. The entries of the marked locations are already up on the wiki.

Have I mentioned how much I love Obsidian Portal? I love them lots.

And that was my weekend.

Hunter: The Vigil Campaign Frameworks

Well, my players were fairly quick to respond to my questions about a new Hunter: The Vigil campaign. I got all their answers in, and looked them over.

Here’s a little secret about asking these sorts of questions before starting a new campaign: you gotta be ready to listen to the answers. The very act of asking the question tells the players that they’re going to get to call the shots on at least some of the campaign elements. If they aren’t – and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing for a GM to do all the work in designing a campaign – then don’t ask the questions.

However, if you do ask the questions, don’t expect any sort of unified voice to speak through them to map out the game for you. That’s the pr0blem with open-ended questions that have little context. You’ll get answers all over the map, and many of them will only tell you what the player doesn’t want, rather than what he or she does.

What it does give you is a look at the acceptable ranges for the parameters you questioned, and a very solid idea about what matters to the players.

So, what did I get from the responses?

  1. Everyone wants in, though there are scheduling concerns.
  2. Everyone’s okay with me ditching a lot of the World of Darkness canon about the various types of monsters (vampires, werewolves, faeries, etc.) and making stuff up.
  3. Everyone wants action in the game, though not necessarily a lot of combat.
  4. On a light-dark scale, the players tend toward a range near the middle, shading slightly to light. So, not a grim, gritty game, but not silly either. Some difficult moral and ethical choices, but those aren’t necessarily central to the game. A little bit of humour is good, but shouldn’t dominate the mood. And the characters should be heroic, though perhaps flawed.
  5. On a lethality scale, fairly lethal, with some qualifiers. The players tend to want normal humans to go down pretty easily, but the heroes and the supernatural threats should be tougher.
  6. On the supernatural scale, we got responses all over the board, with the compromise idea seeming to be that anything goes for the bad guys, but fairly limited supernatural resources for the player characters. This question is the one that gave the widest spread of answers, though, so I’m sort of postponing it.
  7. Campaign structure-wise, there were strong votes both for road trip style and stay put style. Pretty even split (as even as you can get with five answers), so I’m hoping we can work out a compromise.

Based on the responses, I came up with four rough frameworks of games that I would be willing to run, and sent them out to the players for their votes. Here’s how I envision the process to go:

  1. Everyone votes on the attached campaigns, giving me your first, second, and third choices. I will compile the responses, giving a first choice three points, a second choice two points, and a third choice one point. The choice with the most points becomes our campaign structure.
  2. Everyone gets one black ball vote. I would rather you didn’t use it, but I want to have the option there. If there is an option that you absolutely will not play in, black ball it. It gets taken out of the running. Again, I would rather that it didn’t get used, because of the way it can let one player scrap a campaign framework that everyone else loves before it’s fully fleshed out. On the other hand, I need to know if there’s something that is completely out of the question for one of the players. So, you have the black ball if you need it.
  3. Once we have determined the campaign framework, I would like to have two sessions to flesh out the campaign and create the characters. The first session will be a sort of round-robin Q&A to fill in the basics of campaign world, where we will take turns asking and answering questions to collaboratively add details and structure to the framework. The second session will be a group character creation session.
  4. When those two sessions are done, I will build the first story, looking to run 1-3 sessions. I will also set up a campaign wiki on Obsidian Portal and invite everyone to join it.
  5. When the adventure is done, I will schedule a game session.

Which begs the question of what the four campaign frameworks are, right? Well, here’s what I came up with.

There’s weirdness out there, and that’s what is all about. A popular website with the conspiracy and neopagan crowd, makes enough from memberships and advertising to finance a small cadre of investigators.

That’s you.

Maybe you’ve believed in this stuff all along, or maybe something happened to make
you believe. Or maybe you didn’t believe, and just needed the job.

Doesn’t matter. You’re all believers now.

Your job? Finding the truth about the weird things that get overlooked by the more conservative journalists and officials – the weird murders, the monster sightings, the alien abductions, the Elvis appearances, whatever. You check it out. And you bring the story back to post for the elite members of your site.

Setting: One city as home base, frequent travel to the sites of interest.

Mood: Moderately light, though the supernatural is a real threat, so not silly. Big on the creepy. Remember Freakylinks? That’s my inspiration.

Theme: Curiosity, discovery, horror. Seeing the things ignored by the mundane, and trying not to be eaten by them.

Supernatural Level: The supernatural is rare, but powerful. And very strange. You may have the opportunity to gain some supernatural abilities, but they will not be big-league stuff.

Conspiracy Level: Low to non-existent. Some people know stuff, and know other people who know stuff. As far as you can tell, you are the most cohesive and organized group out there. But you might be wrong.

Neighbourhood Watch

This used to be a good neighbourhood. People cared. Made their homes here, raised their kids here, built their lives here. Sure, it was never a rich neighbourhood, and it never got gentrified like some of the places around here, but it was a good place.

Not so much, anymore.

You’re not sure when things changed, but they’ve crossed the line some time in the past few years. The working-class families are still here, but there are more crack houses, more gangs, more crime. It just isn’t safe anymore.

But there’s more to it than just urban decay. At some point in the past few years, you’ve had a glimpse of the darkness that’s gathering, the monsters and secrets hidden behind the familiar façade. You’ve seen something evil lurking in the heart of your home.

And you are not, by God, going to let it go on.

Setting: One neighbourhood in a city. This is a very location-based framework, with little taking place outside the neighbourhood, and nothing taking place outside the city.

Mood: Grim but resolute. Moderately dark. About X-Files level. Big on the unknown and seething malevolence.

Theme: Redemption and reclamation. Steadfast heroism, the defense of the home, the salvaging of hope.

Supernatural Level: The supernatural is dark and threatening, even at low power levels. Any supernatural abilities you pick up – and opportunities to do so will be very rare – will require great sacrifice and mark you as suspect.

Conspiracy Level: At most, the compact level. Realistically, you might know two or three other people in the city that know about this kind of thing, and maybe one or two outside the city.

The Shadow Wars

Maybe it’s in your blood, or maybe it’s something that happened to you. Maybe it’s the result of long study, or strange pacts with mysterious beings. Whatever the source, you have the… let’s call it a gift… that makes you aware of the big picture, the secrets of the world.

You might call it magic, or enlightenment, or the tao. You might see it as strange luck or just really being in touch with your own body or soul. You may not even know if you’re still human at all. However you interpret it, you’ve found out that there are others like you.

And others that will do anything to destroy you.

Because, whether you knew it or not at the beginning, there’s a war going on between those who would destroy humanity and those who would save it. By virtue of your awareness, you’re drawn into this secret conflict, and you need to pick a side.

You’ve chosen humanity’s side.

Because, no matter how strange you may find your abilities, they’re positively mundane next to the creatures that hide in the darkness and seek to steal the light. Once you’ve seen them – and you have – there can be no question as to which side you’re on.

And the war needs you.

Setting: The battle can take you anywhere, from the great cities of Europe to the frozen Antarctic research station, from the caves of the Grand Canyon to the neon- lit alleys of Tokyo. Or you may take up residence in a place of importance, as defenders. Or in one of the Free Cities, home to intrigue and deceit. You get to call it.

Mood: Suspicion, fear, dedication to a cause, secrecy, paranoia. The stakes are high, and the matter is serious. If you fail, people die. Or worse. Think Casablanca or Sandbaggers or Ronin with supernatural elements.

Theme: The burden of power, the lure of the dark, questions of trust and honour. The price of victory. What will you sacrifice?

Supernatural Level: Moderately high. I have an idea for a system of narratively based supernatural powers for the PCs that can be as blatant or subtle as people want. Everyone will have the potential, and those who spend experience on it will get better at it, but I don’t think it will unbalance things if you decide not to focus on it for your character.

Conspiracy Level: Moderate to high. There are several different power groups on both sides of the war, and they can act as mentors, allies, enemies, or something in between.

Agents of Aegis

You are the grim wall between the creatures of the night and the unwitting mortals. As members of Aegis, you are an elite force of agents sent into hot spots to root out the evil. And burn it down. Then salt the earth. Then burn the earth some more.

Aegis does not fuck around.

On the upside, you get to travel the world, see exotic places, meet new people. On the downside, you mostly see the worst parts of it, and then cause an explosion.

On the upside, you get a bunch of neat toys: high tech tools, mystical rites, magical relics, ancient Egyptian potions, the works. On the downside, they’re often not enough.

On the upside, you have the backing of a powerful, wealthy, mysterious organization. On the downside, they’re likely to kill you if you step out of line.

Welcome to Aegis. Welcome to the last job you’ll ever have.

Setting: Globe-hopping adventure, baby!

Mood: Exciting and cinematic. Think James Bond vs. the things that go bump in the night. Hellboy, but less silly.

Theme: Good vs. Evil, the price of victory, the tough decisions about collateral damage.

Supernatural Level: Pretty high. Lots of big, scary monsters, lots of toys for the PCs.

Conspiracy Level: High. You’re working for the big boys, but you’re not the only big boys on the block.

So, there you have it. Four options, one of which will be further expanded and defined until it’s a playable game. I’ve only had two votes back, so far, so I don’t want to talk about which framework is the frontrunner for fear of skewing the responses from my players.

I’ll let you know which one they pick, and then what we do with it.

Hunter Redux: One Year Later

Last Friday, I ran my second of two playtests for Hunter: The Vigil. You can read about the previous playtest here.

We used the One Year Later quickstart adventure available for free at This used the same characters as the previous playtest we did (The Hunt), with some experience applied. We all liked this, because it meant that the players were able to grab the same character as last time and have a great deal of familiarity with it.

As for the adventure itself, it was about as good as the previous one. Looking at my original post, it seems I was quite hard on that adventure, and that wasn’t my real intention. Both The Hunt and One Year Later are written for very specific purposes, and they fulfill these admirably. They are good introductions to the kinds of things that you do in the game, they provide interesting and challenging scenes with a range of activities, and they show you how the rules work. And they are designed to run in a limited time.

The main problem we had with the scenarios was that we weren’t under the time constraints assumed in the writing. We had a whole evening to play, rather than just two or three hours. That made the adventures seem sparse and linear, lacking in opportunity to follow player choices in unusual directions. They are very much designed as demo scenarios, or convention scenarios, pulling in a bunch of people with minimal preparation and completing an adventure in a very tight time-frame.

One Year Later continued this trend, and it worked just as well. Sure, I had to tapdance a little bit when my players asked how they got the information that led them to the guy they’re following at the start of the adventure, or when they killed the only vector in the adventure for a critical piece of information, or when they decided to completely break away from the way the final encounter was scripted, but that’s fine. I was able to adapt and deal with that.

On the whole, my players liked the adventures, liked the pregenerated characters, liked the game. After the game, I asked them what they thought, and they were all pretty positive about the experience. Then I asked them if they would be interested in starting a new campaign.

They gave me a qualified yes.

See, we’ve already got a large number of campaigns running. Pretty much any given weekend, I’m either running or playing in one or two games. But they’re all Dungeons & Dragons. Nothing wrong with D&D, but nothing wrong with mixing it up, either. A little variety, like a modern horror game, is just the thing.

But scheduling is tough. We’re all adults, with family and work commitments. We’re already scheduled pretty tight.

So the suggestion (from Sandy) was to make it an episodic thing, more a series of mini-campaigns. Each episode would be three or four sessions, then we take a break while I build a new one and run that one in a couple of months.

That seemed a popular choice.

I sent out an e-mail message to the five players containing a number of questions I want them to answer, the first question being, “Are you in for the game?” Other questions cover things like setting of the campaign, level of lethality, level of supernatural, level of conspiracy, how much combat, etc. This should give me a solid basis to start constructing a campaign.

On my end, on the advice of one of the folks who commented on the last post*, I picked up some non-free .pdfs for Hunter. I got pretty much everything on this page, and I’ve been working through it, mining it for ideas. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself until I get the responses back from the questions I sent to the prospective players, but I’ve got some ideas percolating.

Oh, yeah. And I bought these dice, because I’m a great big geek.

I’ll let you know how things go.

*Named, suspiciously, Chuck. Could it be…?

Encounters vs. Scenes – RPG Terminology and Philosophy

I really started to notice it starting in 3E D&D, and it’s become even more prevalent in 4E. Adventures for D&D are breaking down to a collection of encounters. That’s the way the DMG addresses adventure creation, that’s the way the majority of the published adventures are written, and that’s the way I’ve been thinking about creating adventures.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, really. But it does encourage a specific type of thinking about adventure construction, and that in turn shapes the type of game play you get in that adventure.

Let’s start with some definitions of terms. According to the DMG:

An encounter is a single scene in an ongoing drama, when the player characters come up against something that impedes their progress.

p. 34

Also according to the DMG:

An adventure is just a series of encounters. How and why these encounters fit together – from the simplest to the most complex – is the framework for any adventure.

p. 94

For contrast, I’m going to be talking about White Wolf‘s SAS adventure structure. Here’s what they say about scenes in their SAS Guide pdf:

Each scene is built as a discrete game encounter (or a closely-tied collection of game encounters) for the troupe to play through.

p. 2

And here’s what they say about their adventures:

Think of a Storytelling Adventure System product (SAS) as a story kit…

The basic parts that make up most SAS stories are simple: Storyteller characters, scenes and some advice on how you can put them together.

p. 2

So much for contrast, huh? They both seem to say pretty much the same thing.

Except they don’t, really.

D&D focuses on encounters, challenges for the characters to face, things that cause them to struggle. Whether it’s a combat or non-combat encounter, it is a point of conflict.

White Wolf adventures focus on scenes, which may or may not contain conflict, but that are focused on moving the story ahead.

What difference does this make?

Well, after my last D&D game, the discussion of the high points were things like how tough a monster was, or what a cool combat that one encounter was.

After my last Hunter: The Vigil game, the discussion was about what a cool NPC the Rag Man was.

It’s a subtle but profound difference. By thinking about the basic building blocks of the game – encounters/scenes – differently, a different mindset is created during both adventure creation and play. In D&D, the focus is on challenges overcome. In World of Darkness games, the focus is on story progression.

Let me put it another way.

In most D&D games*, the idea of spending an entire session attending a party with minimal dice rolling and no combat would be seen as a very unconventional session. Not necessarily bad, but different from the normal adventure. Especially if they didn’t have a mechanically-governed objective in mind**.

In most World of Darkness games, the idea of spending an entire session prowling through the sewers killing monsters and looting their corpses would be seen as a very unconventional session. Again, it wouldn’t necessarily be bad, but it would almost certainly be a departure from the norm. Especially if success (whatever that means in context) was based on the number of monsters killed.

Now, there are a number of reasons why this is. We can talk about genre conventions, the differences in appropriateness of tropes between fantasy and horror, modern versus medieval setting, and target market for the games. But all these things are focused through the lens of adventure creation, and the way the designers have chosen to address the universal RPG question of, “What do I do with my character?”

D&D is a game about heroic pseudo-medieval fantasy adventure. World of Darkness games are about dark modern horror stories***. The designers have chosen the tools, including the philosophy behind the adventure creation, to focus on the ideas that they feel work best given their respective games. And in many ways, I feel, the difference between the two is encapsulated in the simple choice of encounter or scene to represent the basic building block of the adventure.

So why am I going on about this?****

Because I was running into a brick wall designing the next adventure for my Post Tenebras Lux campaign.

Part of the goal was moving away from what my players called the Fight Club design of adventures, giving them more options and more freedom to respond to different situations. So, I’ve got a fairly loose, open-ended kind of adventure set up, with a small adventure site and a fair bit of exploration and interaction surrounding it. I sat down and created the combat encounters, and the traps and skill challenge portions, for the adventure in an hour or so, then sat looking blankly at the connecting portions, trying to think how to make the adventure more than just a bunch of strung-together encounters.

So, what to do?

Well, I’m stealing from the SAS school of adventure design, along with my years of experience running other games*****. I’m putting together a bunch of NPC notes, notes on the locales, little roleplaying scenes that provide story information without conflict, and other things. I’m using a very loose flowchart of the the adventure to show how one thing may lead to another, and how different parts interrelate.

And then, I’m gonna play it by ear, and let the characters set the pace and direction.

I think this will give me what I’m looking for.

See, I needed to make the mental transition from encounter-based design to scene-based design to make this adventure what I wanted it to be. Once I did that, I was able to look at the whole setup in a very different way, and see what needed doing to produce the result I wanted.

I want to be very clear about something, though. I don’t think that scene-based design is intrinsically superior to encounter-based design. I don’t think that D&D is wrong about how they design their games and adventures. I don’t think White Wolf games are inherently superior, or that all games should follow their model of adventure design.

What I do think is that we, as GMs and players, need to be aware of the underlying assumptions and design philosophy inherent in the games we play if we want to be able to make them be the games we want. The design and the system is just the toolkit. What matters is that, when you sit down to game, you and your friends have fun.

That’s all.



*Yes, I am generalizing here and, therefor, lying to some degree. I know that some people have different play styles. And don’t worry; I’m going to generalize about White Wolf games in the next paragraph.

** This is one of the blessings and curses of the skill challenge rules in D&D. Now, you can have a whole skill challenge centered around making a good impression at a party, and everyone can roll their dice to do it.

***Another example of the impact of language: adventure vs. stories.

****Dude, I’m at about 750 words, and you’re just asking this now?

*****In trying to gain some mastery of the 4E rules, I’ve been cleaving very close to the party line with adventure creation, doing things by the book. This has meant ignoring some of the skills at improvising in the middle of a game, or building a very loose structure, that I’ve picked up in running things like Unknown Armies, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Amber Diceless RPG.

Hunter: The Vigil

Last Friday evening, I got some of my group together to run a one-shot of Hunter: The Vigil. This is White Wolf’s New World of Darkness version of Hunter: The Reckoning, which never really inspired much love in me. Hunter: The Vigil, on the other hand, really intrigued me once I bothered to take a look at it.

My main problem with the old game was that, instead of playing normal humans confronting the supernatural, you played normal humans with funky powers confronting the supernatural*. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but I felt it ignored a large area of interesting story by not letting one play a normal human thrust into a paranormal world.

Also, I found that the basic assumptions of the game really tried to force one to play a very specific type of game, with very specific types of characters and plots. Not enough freedom readily available in the basic design, is what I’m saying, though of course every game can be expanded beyond its core assumptions by a dedicated GM.


The new version of Hunter really did a lot to fix that. It provides a much more open matrix of story than the previous game, and is designed to allow the GM to pick the style of game he wants to run. It’ll readily support stories told in the vein of the Supernatural TV series, stuff out of Poltergeist: The Legacy and X-Files, and full-blown gun-bunny Delta Force raids on vampire nests. You can pick the level of play in a manner very reminiscent of Unknown Armies, choosing how much the characters know about the weird of the world and what resources they have at their disposal. There is also a very nice section at the end telling you how to build your own creatures, so you’re not tied into the standard World of Darkness mythology, which I think is a good thing**.

Well, of late, we’ve just been playing D&D, so I think we were all hungry for a non-fantasy, non-d20 game as a change of pace. I downloaded one of the quick-start adventures available from White Wolf – The Hunt. It uses the characters from the in-game fiction in the rulebook***, and picks up their story about a week after the events described in the fiction. I invited five of my group to play, and they all said yes, so we set a date, they picked characters, and we got to it.

Overall, it was a success.

There were a few hiccups, though, in part because this was a first run for all of us, and in part because the intro adventure is very bare bones without a lot of depth to it. Not surprising in an intro adventure, but it showed its holes when confronted by experienced players.

A couple of negatives really stood out to me (I’ll try to avoid spoilers):

  • The timeline for the “mystery” really railroads the characters. There were a couple of points where the adventure basically says, “This is all you can do. Now you have to wait for things to happen.” Sure, that’s very reflective of reality, especially in a police investigation, but I prefer more active avenues be available for players and characters to explore.
  • The main villain, who is given a fairly rich backstory, is barely onstage at all. There is little to no interaction set up in the adventure beyond trying to shoot him.
  • Far more engaging and compelling than the main character is a red herring introduced about midway through the adventure. This really sidetracked the investigation a fair bit.
  • The combat stats were not really well-balanced. Five PCs, three of them tough cops and one of them a gang leader with a bodyguard, could barely handle four stock, run-of-the-mill gang members. The relevant stats were too out of whack for the cops to have had much of a chance unless they pulled their guns. When they ran into some of the supernatural threats, it was even worse.

And now the positives:

  • The SAS structure was quite easy to follow and use on the fly.
  • There was an interesting mix of things to do in the adventure, giving pretty much everyone a chance to shine.
  • Some of the ideas were great, such as Rag Man.
  • The quick-start rules that came with the adventure were handy, easy to follow, and gave us all the basics.
  • The write-ups for each of the pre-gen characters were wonderfully complete and easy to use.
  • It was fun.

In the final analysis, it’s really that last point that makes all the difference, isn’t it?

We liked the game enough that we’re going to run another one-shot available for free from White Wolf: One Year Later. If that one goes well, I’m considering starting an ongoing campaign.

We’ll have to wait and see on that, though.

Final verdict? Hunter: The Vigil is a fun game.

*I freely admit that I am oversimplifying, and indeed may be downright wrong about this. I haven’t looked at the game since it came out in 1999, and that’s the impression I came away with after reading it. Or at least that’s what I remember my impression to be.

**Especially considering the long-running Vampire: The Masquerade campaign that ran in my group for somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten years. A lot of the backstory and basics of the World of Darkness got explored in that time. Granted, it was the old World of Darkness, but still.

***Which is one of the creepiest bits of in-game fiction I’ve read in a White Wolf product.