Sunday, 3 July 2022

Start At The End (RPG All)



It's no good starting out by thinking one is a heaven-born genius - some people are, but very few. No, one is a tradesman - a tradesman in a good honest trade. You must learn the technical skills, and then, within that trade, you can apply your own creative ideas; but you must submit to the discipline of form. Agatha Christie

I find it useful, when designing an RPG scenario, to follow Agatha Christie's advice. She was asked many times for writing advice over the years, and as with all advice your milage may vary. However, there's one bit I think is evergreen: start at the end, and work back.

Christie, when writing her murder mysteries, would start with the corpse. She'd plot out the murder from the moment poison met lip, or knife, back. Then she'd unravel the whole narrative from that point, and with that as a blueprint would find time to sit down and write the thing. She knew, from the first moment, where the story ended. What she needed to discover was where the story began, and how the detective - be it Poirot, Miss. Marple, Tommy and Tuppence or whoever it might be - enters the narrative and finds out what happened. 

In an RPG scenario your players might not be trying to unravel a murder but they are trying to unravel something. What that something is doesn't really matter. The essential point is this: whether it's a fantasy swords and sorcery smackfest or that chilling moment when Illithid meets brain, you know from the start where you want the story to go.

All you need to do is get there.

Let's say this is a Night's Black Agents story. We already know from the main book that there are, broadly speaking, nine kinds of story:

  • Destroy. The agents must destroy the local conspiracy apparat.
  • Flip. The agents must flip an asset to their side.
  • Heist. The agents must steal something
  • Hit. The agents must kill someone
  • Hunt. The agents must find someone.
  • Rescue. The agents must rescue someone.
  • Sneak. The agents must infiltrate a secure location.
  • Trace. The agents must find something, possibly something that went missing long ago.
  • Uncover. The agents must uncover a mystery.
We also know that any of those stories can be turned on their head, so for example a Reverse Hunt might be hiding someone from the Conspiracy.

For the sake of this example it doesn't really matter which of these narratives we use. One quick RNG generation later ... 9. The agents must uncover a mystery.

It goes without saying that in order for the agents to uncover a mystery the Director has to know what the mystery is. That's not what we're trying to accomplish. What we want to know is, how does this story end?

You see the same dynamic play out in film. Say this were a heist movie: Le Circle Rouge, for example.


Without giving away the plot, the story revolves around a heist but does not end with a heist scene. Few heist movies do. The heist is often a midway point, something that the characters have been working towards but not, ultimately, the point of the story. 

No, the point of the story is (not a spoiler) an imagined quote from the Buddha, presented as fact within the story's narrative:

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: "When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle."

That moment of confrontation is the point of the narrative. That is what the story strives towards.

So if you intend, say, a moment of confrontation at the end point of your narrative, then that moment of confrontation is what you must start with when plotting out your narrative. 

Let's say you've been using the Familiar Foe rules from Double Tap, p. 52:

You have done battle with a particular enemy before. Not a generic mook, not just one class of opposition, no matter how distinctive. A Familiar Foe is a named opponent, be they the “Wizard of Waziristan” or the “second Lieutenant of the Death’s Sword Brigade, Johannes Klonsveldt.”

Let's further say that this Familiar Foe is based on one of the Operatives found in the Resource Guide, p 16:

  • Name: Gavin Kroeger
  • Description: Mid-30s, sharp suit, sleek, energetic
  • Previous Patron: Major law firm or hedge fund (Goldman Sachs or similar)

Kroeger’s a legal troubleshooter for the conspiracy. His usual role is to move money around and engage in high-level corporate and legal machinations – buying politicians, fixing elections, bribing key officials, or using the conspiracy’s resources to forcibly acquire companies and assets useful to the vampires.

Therefore the final scene of this scenario is about a showdown with Kroeger. The agents are about to meet their Familiar Foe in the red circle.

You, as Director, already know about as much as is possible about Kroeger and can add extra details as needed. Perhaps he wasn't a Renfield before but is now, because the Conspiracy are considering him for full membership and want to see whether he can handle the pressure. Perhaps he's on the outs with another highly placed Conspiracy operative and is constantly having to defend himself against attacks from the rear. 

That moment, when the agents uncover the secret, isn't the end of the scenario. It will drive them towards the end. It's a stepping-stone towards that final scene.

But that final scene is where you start with. You want to round off the narrative with a moment where Foe meets Foe, and for that reason you want to know everything you can about that final moment. Once you know that, you can plot backwards from that point and work out, say, how the agents encounter the plot hook, or where the secret is kept, or who's guarding it.

You know who - Gavin Kroeger - and you know what you're striving towards. Now ask yourself some questions about that final scene.

Where is it taking place? Let's say Berlin, why not.

What does Kroeger want? Well, that depends on whether the secret is a good one or a poison pill. Let's say it's a poison pill. Let's say it's the equivalent of a Dracula Dossier Fraudulent Item, because Kroeger wants the agents to accept the item as real and pass it on to their contact. That way Kroeger finds out who or where that contact is, so they can be dealt with.

How does Kroeger get what he wants? Well, he has access to power appropriate to the narrative, along with assets and goals. Given Kroeger is who he is, he probably isn't dancing the Hulk Smash Polka across the city. No, he'll be calling in political favors, working behind the scenes, offering massive bounties to whichever mercenary can ... and so on.

With all that in mind:

The final scenes are an extended Heat/Chase sequence across Berlin, in which Kroeger puts every possible pressure on the agents but ultimately wants them to get away so he can find out who their contact is. It doesn't really matter what the secret is or where it is; however, for the purpose of this example let's say it's something hidden in the depths of Teufelsberg, which I've talked about before.

Already you can see, I hope, the structure being built. The end scene is that extended chase across Berlin, with Kroeger and his catspaws putting as much pressure as possible on the agents as they flee from whatever it is they found at Teufelsberg. However, they don't want to actually catch the agents, which means they'll hesitate at the last moment. That hesitation might be the clue the agents need to realize that the secret they've gone to such lengths to uncover is a poison pill.

At this point you'd want to flesh out the details of that final moment. Some Berlin details, for example, with variations depending on whether this is day or night and whether this is a guns-blazing car chase or a delicate cat-and-mouse Thrilling Infiltration moment. Prepare for either one; let the players choose which one they're going to go for. You'd want to know the resources Kroeger can call on, and if there are third parties in play like that backbiting Conspiracy higher-up then you want to know what that third party can bring to bear.

Once you know all those things then you work back. How did the agents get to Teufelsberg? What do they expect to find there, and what do they actually find there? How did they get clued in that there was something at Teufelsberg worth looking for? Did Bothans die to give them that information, and if so who were those unfortunate Bothans? 

Always remember, though, that you didn't start with Bothans. You started with that face-off between the Familiar Foe and the agents on the streets of Berlin - and then you wrote the scenario.

That's it for this week! Enjoy.


Sunday, 26 June 2022

Drowned Kingdom (Night's Black Agents)


Beyond the Poseidon Adventure

This week’s post is inspired by the Jumbo Floating Restaurant of Hong Kong, AKA Jumbo Kingdom. First floated back in 1976, she’s capsized under what can best be described as uncertain circumstances near the Paracel Islands, while on her way to … actually, nobody seems to know. 

Jumbo Kingdom was launched by billionaire businessman Stanley Ho Hung-sun, AKA the King of Gambling, back when he was a sprightly 50-year-old in search of new worlds to conquer. Stanley Ho was a significant investor in real estate and casinos across the Pacific, but he’s best known for his enterprises in Hong Kong and Macau. Along with Hong Kong tycoon Henry Fok, Macau gambler Yip Hon and his brother-in-law Teddy Yip, Ho was one of the consortium that made Macau the gambling empire it is today. In 1976 he’d have been on top of the world having seen off all rivals to become the leading light of the Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau which meant that in terms of financial pull and influence he was the de facto boss of Macau. 

Jumbo Kingdom was meant to be a floating Imperial Palace, and in its heyday it looked the part. Beautiful alfresco banquet hall up on the top deck, Dragon Court fine dining on the first deck, a culinary school where eager students learned from the best, exhibition halls, outdoor gardens – it had everything you could wish for, smack in the middle of Hong Kong’s famous Aberdeen harbor. You couldn’t dream up a more iconic Hong Kong landmark, floating in the middle of another iconic Hong Kong landmark. 

COVID definitely played its part in Jumbo Kingdom’s downfall but there’s probably another factor: the decline and death of Stanley Ho. By the end he did his best to distribute his assets among his family, but what with familial disputes, a stroke and other issues the Floating Kingdom’s boss wasn’t around to look after her. Ho died in 2020.  

By that point the Floating Kingdom was on a downward slide. It went through a renovation in 2003, sold off some of its assets, but by the end Jumbo Kingdom’s owners couldn’t even give her away for free. 

Nobody’s said why she was towed out to wherever it was she was being towed – a shipyard in Cambodia is the latest tidbit, which sounds awfully like ‘the knacker’s yard’ to me – but she capsized in deep water and while in theory she can be salvaged in practice it’s probably more than the Kingdom’s worth to refloat her.  

Presumably at least some of her fittings were still aboard as well as all of her fixtures, which means there’s a lot of cutlery, chairs and whatnot undergoing the Shakespearian full fathom five right about now. They’d have cleaned out most of the fittings and whatever was in the freezers, and no doubt the departing staff nicked a set of spoons or two, but a floating restaurant of that size – she could seat over 2,300 diners - would have had a ton of stuff aboard. It seems unlikely it was all offloaded before she was shipped off to Cambodia. 

However, one man’s disaster – gosh, I sure do hope she was insured – is another man’s interesting RPG location.  

There’s a lot of adventuring meat to be had in upending a ship, as The Poseidon Adventure (in its various incarnations) demonstrates all too well. You have all the glitter and glitz of, say, a luxurious superyacht, except it’s upside down and smashed to hell and gone. Anything could be aboard her.  

Absolutely anything.  

Kismet  

A super yacht known to belong to a Conspiracy asset has, through some mysterious set of circumstances, capsized somewhere in the Pacific. Details are sketchy. Location is uncertain. However, this is potentially the heist of the century if the agents can get there before anyone else does and make off with the prize. 

It doesn't have to be a super yacht, of course. It can as easily be a gigantic floating restaurant like Jumbo Kingdom, or a cruise liner. However, a super yacht has the advantage of being a contained location, which may be helpful to the Director. A floating restaurant gives the Director more rooms to play with but that might be more hindrance than help, depending on the story you want to tell.

This is, broadly, the plot of Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, novelist Paul Gallico’s sequel to the original Poseidon Adventure. In the sequel seagoing bandits show up to loot the capsized ship. Gallico died before he could finish the novel. The book’s a turkey, and the film adaptation is also a turkey. Mind you, even a turkey has its merits, when properly roasted and served with mashed potatoes and gravy. 

A Thrilling Infiltration scene follows, complicated by the Kismet’s capsizing and deteriorating weather conditions. Can the agents make it before the Conspiracy’s rescue team arrives? What’s aboard the Kismet? 

  • Option One: loot, glorious loot. Enough cash and art can be salvaged to make the agents very rich bandits. Of course, before they can loot the Kismet they’ll need to deal with the strange and hideous entities in the summoning pool. They weren’t expecting the Kismet to go belly-up, and they’re not happy about it. 
  • Option Two: banes. The Kismet was collecting special (possibly antique) anti-vampire equipment for study and secure disposal. If your campaign has a particular anti-vampire McGuffin, then this is where it is. The crew and stews are all drowned and gone, but wouldn’t you know it, that zombie serum is kicking in …  
  • Option Three: Coffins. The Kismet was transporting a Conspiracy bigwig, and that bigwig is particularly annoyed at this debacle. Also, hungry, Very hungry. There’s only so many survivors aboard, after all. Fortunately it looks as if someone ordered takeout … enter the agents, looking all tasty and full of vitamins.  
That's it for this week! Enjoy.

Sunday, 19 June 2022

The Legend (Night's Black Agents)

This week’s post is based on a recent article about a Russian spy who attempted to infiltrate the international criminal court (ICC) in the Netherlands, using the false identity of a Brazilian citizen that he had built up over more than a decade. 

A legend is basically exactly that. It’s the backstory, the plotline, the history that anyone who encounters the spy is meant to believe. The more elaborate the legend, the more believable it’s going to be – in theory, anyway. Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, the spy at the heart of this particular narrative, had a fairly elaborate backstory that covers everything from his dislike of fish to the crush he had on his high school teacher. Unfortunately, he wrote it all down. 

In a physical document. 

Which is now in the hands of the authorities.  

Oops. 

Probably the most famous legend of them all is the one used in 1943’s Operation Mincemeat. There the British went to great lengths to make it look as if the corpse they carefully planted for the Germans to find was in fact Captain (Acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines, assigned to Combined Operations Headquarters. They even went so far as to have someone else wear Martin’s uniform for several weeks, to give it that lived-in look, and made sure that love letters, a receipt for an engagement ring, and irate letters from his bank manager were all found on the corpse in addition to the fake military documents intended to foozle the Germans. 

There the intent was to make one man appear, in all ways, to be another. The most useful thing about this version of a legend is the subject doesn’t have to be alive to pull it off, though Operation Mincemeat’s planners were concerned that the body they used didn’t quite look fit enough to be a Marine nor did they have the luxury of time; they had to keep the body on ice but not frozen, and if they waited too long then decomposition would have given the game away. In the absolute ideal the stomach contents would also have matched the legend; the actual Martin died after eating bread crusts laced with rat poison. 

In Night’s Black Agents a legend is represented by the Cover ability. While this is usually shorthand for passports and driver’s licenses, in practice it’s everything from the subject’s pocket trash to their social media profile. Everything has to match and be plausible. Gone are the days when a prospective Jackal could steal a few passports and fake an identity using a dead man’s birth certificate. Now you have to really get creative, if you’re going to get close enough to take a shot at the head of state. 

I can spot an obvious use for Cover: an Achievement, as described in Double Tap. If you need reminding, an Achievement Refresh works like this:

  1. when an agent meets the criteria for an achievement
  2. and the player provides a colorful bit of roleplaying or hot-dogging
  3. the agent gets a 3-point refresh of whichever General ability seems most appropriate.

In this instance:

Mincemeat. The agent makes it look as if their current Cover identity died, and the corpse stands up under forensic investigation.

Of course, it’s a little different for the Conspiracy. If the vampires have access to mesmerism, necromancy or similar then they don’t have to fake being, say, ASM Gordon of the Green Jackets; they can actually be ASM Gordon, assuming such a person exists.   

However, any advantage gained through supernatural means can be countered by supernatural means. If the agents can deploy a block or blow someone’s cover by seeing what they look like in a mirror’s reflection, that’s a problem. 

So for the Conspiracy attempting to penetrate an enemy agency or some neutral organization with useful intel hidden away, it may be better to fake it with a legend than try to brute force it with a zombie.  

With all that in mind: 

Dead Man Walking 

The agents are alerted by a Network contact that an agent of [a foreign power – pick the one you like] has been caught trying to infiltrate the International Criminal Court. Though the authorities are convinced this is a relatively ordinary espionage attempt, there is evidence to suggest that the infiltrator is a Conspiracy operative.  

There are two questions to answer. First, is this person really a spy (time for a Thrilling Interrogation scene), and second, if they are, does this mean they work for the Conspiracy or someone else? Of course, there’s the added challenge of trying to find all this out while at the same time keeping out of a Dutch jail; after all, the agents are spies themselves and it wouldn’t do to get caught. 

  • Option One: yes, they are a spy, but no, they aren’t a Conspiracy asset. In fact, the whole point behind getting into the ICC is to make a play for a Conspiracy asset already embedded with the ICC. This asset knows what’s going on but is reluctant to make any overt play, since this might reveal their identity. From the Conspiracy asset’s perspective, the best outcome would be if the spy died and the agents were blamed for it. 
  • Option Two: yes, they are a spy, and yes, they are a Conspiracy asset. The Conspiracy realizes it’s all gone a bit Pete Tong and want to tie up loose ends. That means a heavy squad is on their way to deal with the situation. The spy thinks the heavy squad is there for a rescue attempt; there’s a chance to flip the spy once it becomes obvious that the heavy squad is there to kill them. 
  • Option Three: no, they aren’t a spy. They’re a corpse. The intent is to lure the agents out of hiding and feed them false intel, and it's up to the Director who's behind it. It could be the Conspiracy or another anti-vampire agency. Funny thing about that corpse; everything up to and including the pocket trash and stomach contents indicate the deceased is a Dutch journalist living in London. Except, if the agents dig a little deeper and check Forensic Pathology, they notice that judging by some background radiation information he spent his early years in Russia, probably Novosibirsk. How does a Dutch journalist manage that?

That’s it for this week. Enjoy!  

Sunday, 12 June 2022

On A Liar's Orders (Night's Black Agents)

This week’s post is inspired by a news article floating round the net recently about a pair of German ex-soldiers who tried to form a paramilitary outfit on the urging of a psychic. 

Achim Allweyer, 52, and Arend-Adolf Graess, 60, tried to set up a group of 100-150 ex-special forces to fight in Yemen. Their stated goal was to bring peace to the region, but they accepted there would have to be bloodshed and civilian deaths. All this because of ‘messages from a fortune teller that they understood as binding instructions for action.’ 

Which …  

I mean … 

Even accepting people are weird, how does this come up in any kind of conversation, polite or otherwise? 

You should have the benefit of remarkable energy; learn how to concentrate your efforts on a specified objective and pursue it through to the end. Be cooperative but not too easy-going with your family circle. Don't let anyone meddle in your private life, oh, and by the way, Yemen. 

They tried to peddle this scheme to the Saudis, thinking that if they had the Saudi bankroll they could afford to pay the troopers 40000 Euro a month. The Saudi government did not respond. 

The plan didn’t get very far and the two were arrested last year. This is hitting the news now because they’re going on trial.  

Which brings me round to Night’s Black Agents. 

If ever there was a setting where a psychic could somehow persuade ex-soldiers to form a paramilitary outfit, and be in any way successful, it’s Night’s Black Agents. If this were Dracula Dossier there’s even a handy-dandy candidate: Singleton, the Psychic. 

Imagine if you will a situation in which Singleton persuades former members of Edom’s E-Squadron that now’s the time to form a paramilitary squad ostensibly to help out in [insert war-torn hellhole here] but actually to hunt vampires. If you figure these ex-members are in their 60s now, then they were active in the 1980s, which is a good excuse to use some of the Edom Files scenarios as a kind of flashback moment. 

Edom must keep at least one eye on its former associates, not least because they might be going coo-coo for Coco-Puffs thanks to not getting regular supplies of serum any more. However, Edom’s alertness level probably depends on how powerful Edom is right now. If it’s just a handful of ageing spooks operating out of a decayed Ring, then maybe Edom’s eagle eye is just some geezer watching the obit columns. On the other hand if Edom is a power player then there’s probably a section of an office somewhere with half-a-dozen luckless saps watching every news feed they can get their hands on, praying for the day when the Boffin finally pops his clogs so they’ll have something interesting to report. 

In fact, it might be cool plot action if this was a punishment detail for spooks who got a bit too hands-on with the subject material. Like your player characters, for instance. ‘Until you learn how to conduct yourself in the field, you’re on the graveyard shift.’ 

Then the graveyard shift gets interesting … 

The Eagle has Landed And Is A Gooney Bird 

Through diligent Data Recovery/Human Terrain/Military Science/Research/something else, your agents discover that a pair of holdovers from Edom’s past are putting together a mercenary company. These two were among Edom’s finest back in the day; they’re Edom’s creakiest warriors now. Yet they’re not alone; someone’s giving them marching orders, but who? Does this new player have a supply of serum, and is that how this mysterious Mr. X is persuading these two soldiers back into the field? To which government are they appealing for funds, and why? 

Options: 

  • It’s the Psychic, working on his own. He thinks he has solid intel on a new, dangerous Conspiracy threat which nobody’s paying attention to. He’s managed to persuade the ex-soldiers to follow his lead by posing as a genuine psychic – or perhaps he really is a genuine psychic. Who can say? 
  • It’s the Conspiracy, working through a handy go-between. It might be the Psychic or it might be someone else, but the point from the Conspiracy’s perspective is to set up a bunch of useful throwaways that the Conspiracy can send on a one-time-only job. Perhaps the idea is to embarrass Edom, or the British Government, or whichever Government the mercs are reaching out to for funding. Or perhaps there’s a more specific target in mind. In this version the mercs have access to serum; no prizes for guessing how. 
  • It’s a rogue faction of Edom, or one of the other vampire-hunting organizations out there. They have intel on a specific and very real threat, and they want Government assistance to deal with it. However they can’t afford to be seen to be involved themselves, as it would embarrass their own Government. As luck would have it there are two useful stooges willing to suit up for one last rodeo if it means plunging a stake in Dracula’s heart. If this is rogue faction of Edom then whoever it is doesn’t agree with the direction mainstream Edom is taking, and want to throw a monkey-wrench in the works before things get out of hand. In this version the two ex-soldiers may become mentors for the PC agents, assuming the PCs are the sort who like derring-do, adventure, and things that go off bang! in the night. After all, who doesn’t love explosions?
That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Slains Tours (Night's Black Agents Dracula Dossier)


Footage from 714 Aberdeen

The ruined fortress of New Slains Castle overlooks the small village of Cruden Bay, on the northeast coast of Scotland. The castle was built in 1597, and extensively reconstructed in 1836. For most of its existence, it was the seat of the powerful earls of Erroll. The 20th earl sold the castle to the secretive shipping magnate Sir John Ellerman in 1913; he never lived there, but leased the property for a few years before allowing it to fall into ruin.

Bram Stoker visited Cruden Bay many times. One of his novels, The Mystery of the Sea, is set there, and there is a distinct resemblance between the ruined castle and Stoker’s description of Castle Dracula in the novel ... Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook p176

Silhouetted against an expanse of fields that were once the scene of a bloody slaughter of the Danes by the Scots, the ruins of Slains Castle casts an eerie shadow over a rocky coastline where, legend has it, the ghosts of shipwrecked sailors emerge from their watery graves once a year.

Now the dramatic fortress, which fired the imagination of horror writer Bram Stoker and is credited with being the true inspiration for Dracula's castle, is itself about to rise from the dead - to become a holiday home for tourists ... Guardian, 'Dracula's ruin' comes back from the dead

In 2004 it was reported that the Slains Partnership was preparing plans for the restoration of the building and conversion into 35 holiday apartments. In August 2007 the scheme was granted outline planning permission by Aberdeenshire Council, but the plans were put on hold in 2009 due to the Great Recession ... Wikipedia

What if it wasn't?

Alternatively, what if it wasn't the Great Recession that killed the conversion plan?

The architect behind the rebuild is extensively quoted in the article, and claims to intend to rebuild Slains much as it was in Stoker's day. The exterior would be meticulously preserved. The interior would be something else again of course, but you can't have everything.

If you're wondering why this comes to my mind now, it's because of another Guardian article, this one much more recent, talking about the author's walking tour around Cruden Bay.  It took him about five hours more or less, and he saw barely a soul. He ends up at the Kilmarnock Arms, a very pleasant hotel by all accounts. It's all part of the recent anniversary of the novel, which saw a record number of Draculas turn up at Whitby - but that's a whole 'nother story unto itself.

The Cool and Warm versions of Slains in the Handbook both suggest Edom involvement, but the Cool version presumes Edom abandoned ship some time past. The recent planned rebuild is discussed in a throwaway line, but not seriously explored.

Cruden Bay is much like Whitby, without the cliffs or Abbey. A small-ish seaside town, once known for fishing, now not much to look at. It survives largely on tourism and some runoff from North Sea Oil, and a significant portion of its current population are actually commuters from larger towns wanting somewhere a bit more rural and pleasant for the kiddies to grow up in. 

Its big landmark is the castle, and if that rebuild had taken off it would probably be the significant employer in Cruden Bay. Slains was meant to have 35 luxury holiday flats, after all; Kilmarnock only has 19 en-suite rooms, and while they look perfectly nice it'd be difficult to call them luxury. 

The castle's described as ruined, and while that's true the word ruin conjures up a desolate and picturesque crumbling monument, which isn't quite what Slains is. Slains lacks a roof and the interior's basically gone, but unlike Whitby Abbey the Germans didn't try to shell it flat back in the Great War. Visually Slains looks in relatively good condition. Like a house that's been abandoned for less than a century, which (broadly speaking) what Slains is. 

Incidentally I tried to find out more about the drowned sailors mentioned in the article, but came up short. The closest I could get was this piece from Lippincott's Monthly which talks about smugglers and a peculiar Monsieur saved from a wreck, but nothing about a ghostly crew that emerges from the depths at a particular time of year.

Let's take two suppositions.

In the first, Slains was rebuilt shortly before the recession. That meant its grand reopening fell flat and the investors lost their shirts, but the building's basically luxury residential with all the mod cons. It's just a little ... neglected. The roof leaks, housekeeping isn't all it could be, and the on-site restaurant wouldn't know a health and safety inspector if one bit the chef on the leg. Thirty-five luxury flats built to the highest standards, struggling to make a go of it as a glorified Air B&B. 

Meanwhile the locals that work there - of which there aren't as many as you'd think - are very unhappy but remarkably close-mouthed. It's as if they were terrified of something, but can't afford to leave.

In the second, the Slains rebuild was killed off but not by Edom. At least, not the current Edom. Elements within Edom influenced by the 1970s mole or whatever network that person left behind killed off the project, because the Conspiracy had plans for Slains and a rebuild didn't factor in. This is a one-hand-doesn't-know situation, where Edom proper has no idea what happened but Edom (Conspiracy influenced) did the deed.

Slains Rebuilt is nominally owned by a consortium of which the largest shareholder is a Trust based in Gibraltar. The Cruden Bay Trust is, through various cutouts, ultimately owned by Edom. Edom wanted to resurrect its vampire holding plan and thought that the most convenient front was a working hotel. There would be one set of rooms for the public and a hidden set for 'special guests'. This was largely influenced by Edom holdovers from the 1970s with one eye on Edom's history; after all, most of the anti-vampire blocks were already in place. Shame to waste them. Except the plan rather depended on the hotel being a working hotel, and it really isn't. 

For some, like Hound, this is actually a bonus. This faction of Edom uses Slains as a kind of stopover before you get to Proserpine, a secure location for the ones who need interrogating but don't need to have E-Squadron step on their neck a few times before they'll answer questions. The soft-spoken drug reliant interrogators operate from Slains. Dr. Sykes (Field Manual p84-5) is often here, as is the archivist Henry Poole (Field Manual p.90-91) as Slains makes an excellent backup archive. Edom has collected a ton of research material over the years, and it can't all fit in the Ring/Exeter/Carfax/Asylum.

Slains In Ruins is, like its rebuilt version, ultimately owned by The Cruden Bay Trust, which in turn is an Edom front. The difference is, the faction of Edom that runs Cruden Bay is heavily influenced (if not outright owned) by a section of Edom that was tainted by the 1970s mole. This agency within an agency knew that Edom wanted to resurrect Slains as an anti-vampire prison, and they weren't having it. Instead they wrecked the project and did everything they could to put a Red Room in Slains. Whether or not they succeeded is a matter for conjecture. 

What is certain is the ruins of Slains are a desolate, horrible place. Every so often a bloated pale victim of the sea is found floating near the ruins, and the people of Cruden Bay shake their heads. It's not the first time and won't be the last. All they can do is bury the poor soul discreetly, in the traditional manner, and hope they don't find their way out of the grave again. 

These drowned victims coincide with a visit from 'the Londoners.' It's a different set of Londoners each time but they always stay at the Kilmarnock and their rooms are always booked by the Cruden Bay Trust. After a few days they vanish, never to be seen again - but their bills are paid, their absence unremarked on. 

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 29 May 2022

The Die Is Cast: Interchangeable Scenes (RPG All)



James Bond, SPECTRE

There are moments in any RPG narrative where the heroes have has A Moment, whatever that moment may have been, and now need to transition from the Moment to wherever else in the narrative they need to be right now. Maybe they just overheard the bad guys explaining their plan and now need to get the hell out of there, as happens in SPECTRE. Maybe they need to get from their current location to a more useful location, say because somebody in the party died and they need to get to the temple for a resurrection or raise dead.

Maybe this, maybe that, maybe the other thing, but the point is they were Here, and now they need to be There. Right Now. 

Often this involves a chase scene, a dramatic interpersonal showdown, or something that, as Director, you may not have planned for - hence this post.

Many RPG campaigns, no matter the setting, explicitly plan for this moment. Horror on the Orient Express is designed so the ending scenario of the campaign is a race to [LOCATION HIDDEN] to prevent horrible things from happening to the world. Nights Black Agents has Extended Heat chases for exactly the same reason, always linking the agents to the ongoing threat whether they happen to be in Lisbon or Bern this week. 

However, you can't always plan for these moments. Players are unpredictable. They may invent the most peculiar moments and make them the Moment, for no better reason than it seemed like a good idea at the time. Then you, as Master of Ceremonies or whatever shiny hat you're wearing this week, have to pull a scene out of your capacious crevice. 

Or it may be that the players haven't invented a Moment at all, but instead they're stuck in a holding pattern waiting for a Moment that may never come. 


 Waiting for Godot, Harold Pinter (Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen)

What to do in moments like this? Or even Moments like this?

Cheat.

The great thing about many RPG systems, and I'm going to use Dungeons and Dragons as an example, is that the crunchier they are, the easier it is to cheat, since most of the narrative depends on die rolls. It's not exactly scripted, but it's easy to manipulate a situation so that it appears scripted because everything ultimately depends on whether or not a particular die roll hits a particular difficulty.

That means you can create interchangeable scenes. You take a prewritten sequence, slot it into the narrative, and boom! Instant plot, that looks as if it was made from scratch.

So in any given chase scene, for instance, it almost doesn't matter who's doing the chasing or where the action is taking place. What matters are the DCs scattered along the path, because the DCs determine whether a particular moment goes one way or the other. 

This is more difficult to pull off in player-facing systems where the emphasis isn't so much on hitting a particular number as it is leveraging a particular situation. In those circumstances the GM really does need to know what is going on in that specific scene, rather that rely on a set of generics to help them out of an awkward situation.

However, even then it can be done. Consider Night's Black Agents, with its various Thrilling scenes - chase scenes, infiltration, digital intrusion, and so on. These scenes ultimately depend on the agent hitting a particular sequence of difficulty numbers in more or less the right order. That means it doesn't matter who's the active party and who the subject, or where the scene is taking place. What matters is the sequence of difficulty numbers that the agents have to cope with.

Let's say this is Dungeons and Dragons, Ravenloft, using the Mordent setting.

Mordent is a ghost-ridden coastal community, vaguely Georgian in terms of technology and social mores. There are no cities; the biggest community is about the size of Whitby, Yorkshire. There's vast stretches of lonely moorland, isolated hamlets, spooky mansions on the hill, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are chewing chunks out of the scenery, that sort of thing.

So how shall we cheat?

To begin with, on that description we already know that most if not all scenes will take place in a moderately civilized but not urban area. This isn't Tolkein's Middle Earth; you won't find ancient dragons sitting on vast hoards of stolen dwarvish gold down some mountain hole or other. Nor is this Jack the Ripper's fog-shrouded London town, with sinister threats lurking down every dark alley - and there are more dark alleys than there are hot dinners. 

On the other hand, a coach racing down a lonely road trying to outrun a half-dozen highwaymen sounds perfectly in keeping with the aesthetic. Or a skiff out at sea trying to beat the storm and get back to harbor before being driven up on the rocks. 

So any DM wanting to organize a transition chase scene could assume that the available chase options are:
  • Small village (one-horse town).
  • Large community (more than one street and horse, but not a metropolis).
  • Open civilized countryside (ie. something with a road in it, but houses/inns are few and far between).
  • Open countryside (no road, probably a few treacherous bogs or a Hound of the Bonkervilles lurking down an abandoned tin mine shaft).
  • Coastline, shallow water.
You could get more complicated than that if you wanted to, but that should cover most options. 

Then you go through each line item, assign half a dozen obstacles or chase moments (is that a fallen tree trunk blocking the road ahead? What's the Jump DC?) and you're more than halfway there. 

So if the players manage to antagonize, say, a bunch of hellhounds and have to run for their lives, you already have most of the work prepped ahead of time. Or if they're at sea and need to beat that storm back to shore, bingo! One coastline shallow water chase coming up.

Exactly the same works for systems like Night's Black Agents. In fact it's easier, because the players announce ahead of time that they want, say, Thrilling Digital Intrusion scenes by giving their agents 8 pool points or more in Digital Intrusion. Knowing this, you can set aside a couple of Digital Intrusion sequences knowing full well it won't matter whether this sequence is meant for the casino in Monaco or the military base in Germany. Then, when the player announces they want to make a Digital Intrusion, you can slip one of your pre-prepared sequences in  and it will look as though the player's improvised moment is part of the narrative.

Systems like Dungeons and Dragons, which rely heavily on crunch, are particularly easy to manipulate this way because everything those systems do rely on one Difficulty Number or another. Social Interaction is a set of Difficulty Numbers, Stealth is a set of Difficulty Numbers, everything can be reduced to a set of DCs - and it doesn't matter who's making the roll or why, because what matters is someone will have to make a roll eventually.  

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between a player-facing system and a more traditional RPG. A player-facing RPG relies more on the player than it does the game mechanics; a traditional RPG relies on the mechanics rather than the player. Point being, if the game relies on mechanics then as DM you can manipulate the mechanics to make your life easier. Sometimes this can involve outright bullshit, like fudging die rolls behind a screen to produce one result or another, and that kind of thing is always a bad idea. 

But sometimes it can involve using the existing mechanics to your advantage, to save yourself work.

Let's say the players suddenly take it into their heads to interrogate the Master of the Guild of Bakers. God alone knows why. Maybe they want to know how he makes those delicious scones. Doesn't matter. What matters is whether the Master (or whoever the heroes have to talk to before they can get to the Master) is Friendly, Indifferent or Hostile, because that will determine their initial reaction to the heroes. 

Then that NPC will have character traits - ideals, bonds, flaws - which can be manipulated (through die rolls) to change their original rating of, say, Hostile, to Indifferent. At which point, having played the NPC like a Stradivarius, the PC then makes ... you guessed it ... a die roll to determine the outcome.

What this means is, it doesn't matter whether the Master is some critical path character who the heroes have to talk to in order to unravel the plot, or just some random nutbar who the PCs happened to take an interest in this week. Centaur or Goblin, doesn't matter. Alignment doesn't matter. Stats don't matter. 

You could just work up half a dozen profiles with Ideals, Bonds, Flaws and starting Interpersonal rating - Friendly, Indifferent, Hostile - and it will not matter whether you use a particular profile on the sinister vampire lord Strahd Von Whosavitch or Bingo the Wonder Dog. 

But it will look as though you planned it all along. 

That's it for this week! Enjoy.

Sunday, 22 May 2022

From Zero to Hero (Many Mansions)

Cthulhu is an infra-dimensional entity that has only a conceptual existence within the human “R-complex,” the brain stem and limbic system left over from our primordial reptilian ancestors. This is why he appears only in dreams, high-stress encounters (such as shipwrecks), and artistic impulses. He is attempting to create a critical mass of believers so that he may “emerge from R’lyeh” and open the eyes of all ... [p91, Trail of Cthulhu]

In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. John 14:2, KJB

Session zero, in any RPG ruleset, is about setting expectations. You need to be clear about what you hope to accomplish, and you want to encourage the players to be open about what they hope to achieve. Even in a mystery-solving setting like GUMSHOE, it helps to be as open as possible about the campaign and setting.

How open, I hear you ask?

Well, using Many Mansions as a guide and bearing in mind what's been said so far:

You need to tell the players about the world and its main features. That means you need to be up-front that this is Purist, set in Kingsport, with Cthulhu as the main Mythos threat. You can even quote that bit about Cthulhu being an infra-dimensional entity; it helps define expectations. You probably also want to talk about Mislow's Antiques, the Downtown Library and other important locations within your version of Kingsport. 

This will give the players some idea of what to expect, and where they might go when looking for clues. It also allows you to drop reminders about those locations if it seems, during play, that the investigators may have forgotten about Tredwell and his peculiar knowledge base. Those reminders can be useful 0-point clues in any session.

More importantly, it whets the appetite. The players know it's all about Cthulhu, and that's fine. You want them to anticipate that awful moment when they're face-to-face with the unspeakable. It also gives the players a clear route forward, which is always useful. Most of the GUMSHOE products explicitly say that the players are responsible for providing some of the thrills; they can't do that if they don't have at least some idea of where they're going.

Most importantly, this avoids player frustration. Yes, this is a mystery game. That does imply a certain amount of, well, mystery. But it doesn't mean the players have to wander around in a fog.

Think of Session Zero the same way you might the opening moments of Columbo. The idea isn't to hide the mystery. The idea is to make the parameters of the main threat plain, so you can watch the investigators slowly make their way towards that threat.


This doesn't mean you have to reveal absolutely everything. Notice I mention Purist, but not Dreamworld. That underlying layer is for you alone. Let the players fumble towards that hideous, Sanity-destroying reveal - in order to 'win' they must destroy themselves, and Kingsport, so the dreamer they inhabit can awake.

Session Zero is also the moment for you and the players to talk about their characters, and the group. How did they meet? Why do they stay together? What triumphs have they had, what tragedies? Do they have a favorite hangout? Do they want to add something to your base description of, say, Mislows?

This last can be especially useful. You might never have thought that Mislow was connected with the Profaci mob family of New York, but if one of the players likes that idea, add it in. Maybe you planned for Tredwell to be a comedy character, but the players prefer a Terrible Old Man version of Tredwell. When in doubt, go for the option that promises the most fun.

Always remember that this is about fun. Never fall so in love with your plot that you can't face the idea of changing it; no plan survives contact with the players. You might have all sorts of ideas, but if you can't bear someone else playing with the toys then you should write a novel, not an RPG campaign.

As this is about fun you need to think about safety tools, and to discuss any special rules that your campaign might use. 

Safety tools have been discussed so often that I hope I don't need to discuss them here, again; either you see the need, and don't need the speech, or you don't see the need, in which case nothing I say will persuade you. 

I will say that safety tools are as important, and possibly more important, in horror games like Trail than in any other RPG setting. You're going to want to know if body horror, say, is a complete no-go. You're going to need to know if player X likes the idea of romance (tragic, doomed, but, y'know, romance) or if player Y is going through tough times and doesn't need your commentary about [whatever it may be] adding to their troubles. Again, this is all about having fun at the table, even if that fun is eldritch and coated with a thin layer of grue. No fun = no table.

Special rules, particularly in Trail, is an important conversation. Trail and games like it dwell as much on mental corruption as physical hurt. If this were D&D the players would ultimately only have to worry about how many hit points they can afford to lose. With Trail you can be as healthy as a horse, and still get pounded. If the players aren't familiar with that concept now's the time to set them straight. It's also a good time to talk about their Sources of Stability as well as anything unique to their character that might affect the narrative.

The last thing to discuss in any Session Zero is the opening session of the campaign. The very first session is like troubleshooting a new product; you take it out on the road and see how it handles. Then you fix the things that broke. This is helpful for the obvious reasons, and also because, if you haven't played with some or all of these people before, you need to know what they're like. Anyone can say they're thus-and-so before the session. Only by playing with them will you find out what they're really all about. 

The first game should be something light, influenced if not driven by the players' ideas or requests. Perhaps it introduces the characters to a major asset - say, their first visit to Mislows, or maybe Tredwell has some ideas for the characters to chase up. The opposition should be interesting but not so challenging that the investigators end up in the hospital, or, worse, the morgue. So, a ghoul, say, but not a pack of ghouls. A ghost, but not a whole haunted house stuffed full of ghosts. Open with action, sure - but they almost never open a James Bond film by killing James Bond. Except that one time. And the other time. It doesn't happen often. 

Now! Time rushes on, the scene is set, you've done all you can do ... now it's time to DESTROY SOME SANITY!!!!


That's it! Enjoy. Next week, something completely different ...