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

Friday night we had the latest episode of Hunter – Shadow Wars.

It didn’t go all that well.

The pace of the adventure lagged, and there was much flailing about by the players trying to find the plot, and a full helping of player frustration throughout. All of which was my fault.

I made two primary mistakes with this adventure. First, I left things a little too open – I gave only the vaguest sort of hook into it, no real direction other than pointing to a place where things may or may not have happened, and didn’t work hard enough to correct the problem in play. Second, I inadvertently stuck in a couple of big honking PLOT HERE signs that were not intended to be part of the scenario, and I couldn’t figure out a good way to tie them in, so the characters spent the bulk of the session chasing down red herrings.

Now, the red herring thing is not necessarily bad in an investigation game, but it led to me violating one of the objectives of this campaign: keep the stories one session long, and the adventures episodic. By the end of the evening, they had just got to the actual plot I had developed.

I stole the main idea for the scenario from a White Wolf .pdf called Host of the Clutter, which deals with a pack of feral, sort-of-possessed house cats as the main threat. I liked the idea of the cats as antagonist, but completely reworked the everything else to tie it into the style of game this is and the backstory of one of the characters. So, the game started with one of the characters (who is actually a martian – part of a covert invasion force gone native) getting a message to check out a report of disappearances and UFO sightings in a little town about 80 miles out of the city. She called up the rest of the group (including a new player – welcome to the game, Vicki!), they did a little bit of research to figure out that there had indeed been a few disappearances, but not the dozens that the report had indicated, nor could anyone confirm UFO sightings.

Out they went. As they drove out, I gave them some background on the town they were going to in order to set the scene.

Here’s where I ran into some problems. See, I grew up near this town, and know a fair bit about it. Some of the stuff I changed to make for better game material, but the main point I was trying to bring across is a phenomenon that’s occurring more and more in small towns in southern Manitoba, especially company towns. They’re dying.

Pinawa, the town I used as the setting, grew up to support a test plant for a nuclear reactor that Canada was manufacturing and selling. Now the plant has closed down, and most of the people who worked there have moved off to other reactors and other jobs, leaving behind a town with fewer and fewer families, and more and more retired people.  This is the vibe of the place that I wanted to capture; the town with fewer young people and more old people, a third of the (very nice) houses empty, thick forest spread through the town, deer so plentiful that they’re pests to the people who live there, deserted streets after dark, that sort of thing.

But you know what people latched on to, right? Something that was completely in my blind spot because of my familiarity with the area.

Yeah. Nuclear reactor.

Then when I mentioned another (relatively) nearby installation, Whiteshell Underground Research Laboratory (created to test the feasibility of storing nuclear waste in Canadian shield bedrock), they just couldn’t let go.

And who could blame them, really? These clues – unintentional as they were – were far more interesting than the actual clues about a missing child and an old woman dead in her home and partially eaten by her cats.

I tried to work the nuclear plant in, but had total imagination failure, and couldn’t come up with a way to connect it to the cat backstory that I didn’t want to change because of its connection to a character backstory. I kept looking for ways to drop some important clues in while the group was taking an illicit tour of the abandoned plant, but couldn’t come up with a way that wouldn’t invalidate the other clues and the story as it had already been exposed.

Of course, the next day, I had a dozen decent ideas. I just didn’t have them when I needed them.

So, the first three-quarters of the game wound up being a complete wild goose chase for the characters because I couldn’t figure out how to fix it on the fly. Don’t get me wrong; we had some fun and there was some great roleplaying and interaction, and nice building of atmosphere, but the plot did not advance.

Anyway, they finally made it to a place that I could throw the cats at them – the house of the woman who had died and been eaten by her cats. I put a few cats in the attic, and one of the characters got her face badly gouged when she stuck her head up there. Then, the cats fled, and they stayed at the house to do a little research, with one character outside keeping watch. The group found out a few things, such as the fact that the woman was the grandmother of the missing child, and that the child’s parents both worked for a Winnipeg-based cosmetics research company. The martian found a recognition sign on one of the company’s pages that indicated they were also doing weapon development for the invaders.

Which is about when I brought the cats back. A few dozen of them, moving in an organized manner through the woods, sending scouts ahead, crossing the open ground in small parties, and climbing the side of the house to creep into the attic. I tried to make the image unnatural and disturbing, and I think I pulled it off. When about twenty of the cats had made their way into the attic, the character on guard ran back in to warn the rest of the group, and they all got to face a blanket of snarling, spitting, strangely-organized feral house cats bent on shredding them. Individually, none of the cats were a real threat, but the numbers began to tell, and a couple of the group were pretty hurt by the time they chased off the swarm.

At that point, it was pretty late, so we called it a night. I’ve got to schedule the wrap-up session, soon.

And I’m going to make sure it’s more focused.

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.

Hunter: The Vigil – War Stories

Last night was Friday the 13th, and I felt it appropriate to have the inaugural game of my Hunter: The Vigil game. This game has been a long time coming, and that’s been my fault.

First off, I did a collaborative world-building thing with the players, and truth to tell, several of them weren’t very interested in that. I didn’t give them enough of a foundation to build on, so they all had very different ideas about what the game was going to be, and I had trouble getting them to talk about what was in their minds. I wound up assigning each player one question about the world to answer, and encouraged them to ask any of their own of the other players.

Because of the disparity of ideas about the game world, and some ham-fisted handling of them on my part, we wound up with a compromise setting that managed to please no one. No one was getting excited about the game. In fact, the people who were encouraging me the most to run the game were talking about how we should just ignore what had been decided.

Very discouraging for me. It’s hard to get pumped about running a game when no one really wants to play what you have all collaboratively created.

But we got past that.

The other big stumbling block was that they voted on a campaign frame that included a fairly free-form option to take special abilities. I worked out a basic system for this, but it was more a structure for the players to shape their ideas than it was a mechanic. I used the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck as a symbolic structure to tie people’s powers together: each player selected a card he or she liked, and came up with a symbolic interpretation of that card, and three tricks they could do in keeping with that symbology.

Now, I don’t know why I assumed that everyone would be familiar with the Tarot symbolism. I just did. Stupid, in retrospect, but there you have it. So, I got to spend some time explaining the various cards to different players, and talking about the flexibility of interpreting them.

It certainly worked to spark creativity. I got one alchemist, one shaman, one weapons specialist, one martian illusionist, and one nano-bot filled possibly artificial person. Now came the hard part – I had to make up mechanics for all the tricks they had come up with. That wound up being a bigger job than I had imagined, and I kept putting it off.

Because I was having more fun with other games, and doing less work. The Post Tenebras Lux game was working, and the Storm Point game was really going strong. Both took less effort, and had more enthusiastic reception.

And then I realized I was burning out on 4E. And I realized that this Hunter game could be something new and different for me, a chance to move away from the D&D mindset for a while. So, I wrapped up Post Tenebras Lux, which had always been meant to be a temporary game, and finished the work on Hunter – Shadow Wars.

As I said, it was a long time coming. But last night it arrived.

Things got off to a shaky start, as a couple of the players had lost parts of their characters (usually the mechanics of their special powers that I had worked so long on hammering out), and I had one of those “What’s the point?” moments that can hit a GM when they see all their hard work spiraling toward the drain. I almost chucked the whole thing right there to play a boardgame, instead.

Instead, I said, “Screw it.” It was Friday the 13th, I had the players gathered, and I wanted to run a horror game. I decided I would just wing it if things came up that people didn’t have mechanics for. And if it didn’t work, well, the campaign just turns into a one-shot.

The game was set in a slightly less Dresdenesque Magical Winnipeg, slanted more to the horror than to the modern fantasy adventure. To that end, I had done some wandering through weird sites on the Internet until I found this. I fell in love with that post, not least because of the borderline illiteracy of it. The story is, of course, pure crap, but it’s eminently gameable crap.

I tracked down some pictures of the house in question, got a Google satellite view of the neigbourhood, and even drove past twice, once in the daytime and once at night, to get a good feel for the place. Then I went to work.

I kept the story pretty much as written in the post, with a slight twist: I decided that the mother had killed the child while in a deep depression, and the father killed her when he found out, and tried to hide her body. When it became obvious that he wouldn’t be able to get away with it for long, he shot himself.

The adventure started with a weird local news story about a large number of mutilated animals in the area, which attracted our paranormal investigators quite nicely. They spent a significant amount of time gathering information before venturing to the house, and had some strong suspicions of what was going on by the time it got dark. They thought about waiting until the morning, but they figured that they might not find any trace of anything supernatural there during daylight hours. Also, they had noticed that the animals that were found mutilated were getting larger; this was of concern because it’s not unusual to see a large number of very young children wandering the streets there after dark in real life, and they might be the next victims.

So, they broke into the house and searched it for the ghostly anchors to destroy. I trotted out every creepy haunted house trope I could, mixed with the characters of the three spirits still trapped in the house. The mother, with fingers made of knives, would attack out of the walls, where her husband had tried to hide her dismembered body. The father, with his axe, did his best to scare the characters out of the house so as not to wake the mother to her murderous work. And the child’s spirit was still in the ice chest in the basement, shouting out freezing cold and abject terror to anyone who got near.

Mixed with that, I included a few time slip moments to show them bits and pieces of the story, and they were able to figure out that it was the mother’s ghost doing the killing and dismembering of the animals, and the father’s ghost who would hunt her down and bring her back. The extra attention and belief garnered by the Internet story, bolstered by the fact the fear the killings and sightings were producing, was making her stronger and able to range farther afield.

They found her paper-wrapped heart in the walls after a few terrible encounters with her, and pierced it with cold iron to sever the anchor. They found the child’s toy horse in the ice chest, amid a storm of ice and fear, and burned it to free him. When that was done, the father’s ghost appeared to them in the kitchen, said, “Thank you. Now I go,” and walked out the back door into Hell.

So we wrapped it up in one evening. And it worked. A couple of the players mentioned that they found the adventure creepy and disturbing, and the grounding in the familiar (Winnipeg, the weather, the abandoned house descriptions, etc.) made it actually scary at a couple of points.

I am so glad I ran it. I am so glad I didn’t just pitch the whole thing. I had so much fun.

There’s going to be a next adventure. Not sure just when, because we’re moving into holiday season, and social commitments start to pile up for all of us. But there’s going to be a next adventure. It’s going to be a one-night episode, too, because that worked, and it’s going to be set in Winnipeg, because that works.

Thanks to my players for bearing with me through the long lead up to this game. I hope you’re in for the next one, too.

System and Setting

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes up a game the past few weeks, thanks to my intended change in gaming habits. It’s got me examining that age-old balance in RPGs – system and setting. As I examine games that I might like to run, I look at both aspects, and I’ve been exploring the relationship between the two.

So, for the purpose of clarity in the following article, let me lay out my definitions:

System is the combination of mechanics that allow the modeling of the game world in play.

Setting is the fictional world of the game, including the campaign world and all the assumptions that go into it.

Essentially, I’m saying that the system is the set of tools that allow you to participate in the setting. Forgotten Realms is a setting, and D&D 4E is the system you use to play there.

We good? Good.

As I look at games to play, I’m struck by the observation that games tend to fall into two camps with regards to system and setting. One camp ties the system and the setting tightly together, so that the system reinforces the feel of the setting, and the setting pulls the necessary system elements into the game. Here, I’m thinking of games like Unknown Armies, Don’t Rest Your Head, and Polaris.

The other camp tends to divorce system from setting, so that the system can handle pretty much any aspect of any setting, and the setting uses only those aspects of the system that it needs to. Games in this category are things like GURPS, Basic Roleplaying, and d20 Modern. Now, I’ve chosen those three games specifically because they are at the extreme of this camp – they are essentially generic systems.

There seem to be real advantages to both ways of doing things. In the first group, you have games that are very rich in flavour, mood, and theme by default. You can feel the postmodern horror in Unknown Armies everytime you have to make a terrible sacrifice to power your magic. You feel the desperation and lurking insanity everytime you count up the dice colours in Don’t Rest Your Head. You feel the doomed fate of your characters with everything you do in Polaris. This is stuff that’s really lacking in the other camp without building a lot of specialist mechanics in, which, of course, moves you more into this category.

On the other side of the street, you tend to get systems that fade out of the spotlight and let you concentrate on the roleplaying. You can adapt the systems quickly and easily to pretty much anything you want to do, and your players won’t have to learn a new set of rules. This gives a fair bit of flexibility, and can emphasize the storytelling aspects of what you’re doing. But it can also limit the ability to mechanically implement creative ideas, both as a GM and as a player, that may require separate mechanics to produce.

Let’s look at an example I’ve currently been working on. I’m starting an episodic Hunter: The Vigil game, but I involved the players in the worldbuilding part of setting the game up. The result of that was a world where a lot of the specialized H:TV systems didn’t fit anymore. So, I developed a new framework for granting minor supernatural powers and/or special abilities to the characters, one that I planned to be fairly loose and rules-light. I wound up having to create different mechanics for about twenty different things that the players wanted to be able to do. This game of H:TV isn’t going to much resemble the default play style put forward in the book.

Now, that’s not bad, and that’s not necessarily good, but it involved a fair bit of effort on my part and negotiation with the players. It also illustrates both categories of game I cited above: World of Darkness is fairly setting-light, building a more generic system at the sacrifice of specificity of setting. the Hunter: The Vigil book provides specialized mechanics to integrate more closely with the setting. I wound up stripping several of those specific examples away and building new ones based on the generic stuff.

What’s my point?

My point is that I’m in a bit of a quandary. I want to run a number of one-shots over the next several months. Some are specific tightly-bound system-and-setting games, while some are just ideas that I need to put a system to. My buddy Clint put together a great three-shot game using OpenQuest, but he had to build some specific mechanics in to make the game do what he wanted. I’m not sure that the system is robust enough, or models things in the right ways, for some of the setting ideas I have. Another great generic system I like, FATE, could handle some ideas better, but I find it to walk a very fine balance between rules-heavy and rules-light – combat, specifically, doesn’t always have the tactical feel that many of my players like, and many settings would benefit from. And for the games where I’ve already got a system, there’s the problem of getting the group to learn the new rules.

So, anyone out there got any suggestions or comments? If you were going to run a game based on the movie The Prophecy, for example, what would you use?