Sunday, 19 March 2023

A Race Against Time (GUMSHOE, RPG All)

Hitchcock is a cinematic genius, but one of my favorite Hitchcock moments is a little obscure.

In Torn Curtain Paul Newman plays actual honest-to-God rocket scientist Michael Armstrong, a man with a problem. He needs information that is trapped firmly in the head of another rocket scientist, a Russian, Gustav Lindt. In order to get that information Armstrong defects to the Soviets, and in a nail-biting confrontation with Lindt tries to lure the information out of the Russian in a race against the clock. 

The powers that be are on to Armstrong’s little game and are looking for him. The confrontation takes place at a university and the Soviets are searching room by room for the wily American. Meanwhile Armstrong tries the only gambit he has left; he engages Lindt in a mathematical challenge, trying to get Lindt to solve the problem that’s been haunting Armstrong for months by playing on Lindt’s intellectual arrogance.

It’s pretty much the only time I’ve seen a thrilling Physics equation.

But it brings me to my topic today. Plenty of settings have Chase rules of one kind or another. Those rules assume both actors in the scene are, well, actors. Intelligent creatures with a definite goal in mind. What happens when the race isn’t against a person, but the clock?

Night’s Black Agents solves a lot of problems by turning the situation into a Thrilling [whatever-it-may-be]. Infiltration, Interrogation, Digital Intrusion, you name it, you can Thrill with it. 7E CoC takes the position that you can solve most problems with challenges and dice mechanics. Other systems handle the chase in different ways, but the fundamental problem remains the same: while in other chases there is a tortoise and a hare, both of whom have goals and means of achieving them, in this situation it’s just the hare against inevitable doom, and doom lacks intelligence and motivation. It’s just doom. With a great big D. You can draw a silly mustache on it if you like, but it’s difficult to give faceless, voiceless Doom personality and without personality it’s difficult to really get invested.    

Puss In Boots: Last Wish. Doom with face & a voice.

Look at it this way. 

In an ordinary chase scene the character is competing with something or someone, and the end result is in doubt. That something or someone has personality, individuality, characteristics. Even if the chase is actually a race against the elements (skiing down a mountainside barely ahead of an avalanche, eg) the elements take on a form of personality precisely because the end result is in doubt. Humans assign human characteristics to things that directly affect or interest humans, and doubt is the element that creates the direct affect.

In a race against time the end result is not in doubt. 12 noon will arrive at 12 noon whether we want it to or not. We cannot make time go faster nor can we save a single second in a jar for future use. The question is not what the result will be. It’s whether or not a thing can be achieved before the time runs out. It’s the thing to be achieved, not time, which has personality and individuality.

Let’s start with basic principles.

To make a race against the clock interesting you, as DM, need to establish stakes early on and they need to be pretty big stakes. Life or death. Victory or ruin. Salvation or damnation. No milksop middle ground for you, my friend: it’s time to get paid or die trying.

Example: your character needs to get to a doctor’s office and bring that doctor, or at least some medicine, back to the isolated little hut on the prairie where your sick daughter lies dying. If you get there before time runs out, your daughter lives. If not … 

The example Hitchcock uses in Torn Curtain is much the same. Armstrong knows that time is running out and if he takes too long getting the information from Lindt then Armstrong will be arrested. It’s not in doubt whether Armstrong will get the information. What’s in doubt is whether or not he’ll do it before he gets arrested.

A similar problem arises later in the movie, when the heroes are escaping on what amounts to a fake bus. In Soviet Russia all transport is scrutinized and movement regulated, so the network the heroes use to escape has faked up an entire bus, complete with passengers, in order to transport people across country under the noses of the apparat. However, the fake bus’ progress is delayed by unforeseen circumstances which means – o dear! – the real bus, which is just behind the fake one, might catch up. The problem isn’t whether or not the bus will get to its destination. The problem is whether it will get there before its fakeness is exposed by the real bus. A chase scene, but without the chase.

As Director, it may be prudent to let the player set the stakes (or wager). That gives the player something to fight for, to bargain for. However, you should be wary of mismatched risk and reward. If the player’s willing to make that bet, they’d better be willing to put up some stakes for the reward they want.

You as Director need to set the challenges and I’d recommend limiting the number to three. Any more than that and you risk boring the group or, worse yet, winning by attrition. It’s one thing for luck to play a role, something else to call for die roll after die roll until someone finally rolls a 1, or exhausts their pools. 

It may also be a good idea to determine a midway condition, something that is neither success nor failure. Say you arrive with the doctor an hour after midnight, when things are at their worst. Your daughter isn’t dead, yet, but is fading fast. While she lies in critical condition and the doctor is otherwise engaged, the Devil pops up from a fiddle contest in Georgia and says, ‘if you want this to have a successful outcome, boy, have I got a deal for you.’ 

Victory with a cost, in other words. The character lost the race but doesn’t have to lose their wager, so long as they’re willing to pay the price. It’s the equivalent of rolling a messy success (7-10); the player gets what they want but there’s conditions attached.

Let’s put this into an example.

Say this is a School of Night clock challenge. In School of Night the players are occult experimenters in the days of Queen Elizabeth, scholars using their esoteric knowledge for the good of the Crown. A magical challenge sounds interesting.

The scholar is deep in wild, forbidding territory and is there for a purpose. They are threatened by faerie powers but they have a ritual to complete, and they have to make sure it’s done by dawn. If cock-crow comes and it’s not finished, someone they care about will die of a faerie-inspired illness. 

The characters set up a magic ward around their cauldron/ritual site to keep the bad spirits away and get to work. The ward will keep pretty much anything from attacking them directly but that doesn’t mean they can’t be spiritually attacked or frightened.

So the stakes are: get this done before dawn, or someone dies. After some discussion, a midway condition is reached: if the character doesn’t get it done by dawn the threatened person may yet live, but only if the threatened person accepts a changeling in place of their daughter. The threatened person won’t know about the switch, but the player will. 

The director sets three challenges:

Fear. The faerie powers do their best to frighten the character into abandoning the ritual & leaving the protected space. 

Desire. The faerie powers do their best to tempt the character into abandoning the ritual & leaving the protected space. 

Exhaustion. After so many hours awake the character is using their last reserves to get the job done. Will it be enough?

The precise mechanics of those challenges will depend on the system used. This is Gumshoe which is a pool plus dice mechanic, probably Magic, probably Saturn, and if there are multiple casters then they can all add into the pool. Difficulty might increase from challenge to challenge. 

There might be other ways of doing it. Say that, rather than a magical ritual, the character had to Carouse with faerie folk and keep everyone drinking and merry until dawn. There would still be three challenges. You might want to vary them a bit; Fear doesn’t fit too well with a drinking challenge. But the basics still stand. 

Point being, for all it doesn’t look like a chase, it’s still a chase. The difference being, in a traditional chase scene it’s you against a foe. 

Whereas in this chase it’s just the ticking clock against you.

Tick. Tick. Tick …


Sunday, 12 March 2023

Cauldron 3: The Long Term

Opening Scene. Bioshockfdfd

A man attacks flight crew with an improvised knife attempting to get access to the cockpit so he can crash the plane, all the while screaming that he’s a child of Dracula. Passengers subdue him and he’s arrested as soon as they land at Gatwick. That’s when the agents are called in, because not only is the attacker on a special, secret list (known Renfields), he was also attempting to crash the plane in Southwark in order to ‘destroy them all’. 

Destroy who? And why Southwark?

That’s how I’d start the Cauldron. 

Which begs a few questions, among them how I’d organize this multi-genre epic, and how I’d deal which changing story arcs bearing in mind this sprawling yarn takes in everything from Shakespeare to tomb-hunting shenanigans in Cairo. It’s vampires, vampires, all the way down, but what exactly is the thread holding all this together?

As described in the ground rules, there are four sections: prehistory, Elizabethan, 1930s, 1980s. The long-term plot revolves around a strangler cult that boils the remains of its victims in a cauldron, for divination purposes. This cult has been anti-vampire in the past but a takeover bid in the Roman era may or may not have permanently changed it to a vampire asset – that’s to be determined in play.

We won’t be playing in prehistory, or even Roman times for that matter, though we probably could; GUMSHOE is nothing if not versatile. From a timeline perspective, the action starts in School of Night. 

Not necessarily in a playtime perspective, though. The great thing about a multi-genre chronicle is you can begin whenever you like and move to whichever moment in history best suits the narrative. Which is why I’m starting with a potential plane crash in the 1980s. Start with action. You don’t get much more action than an abortive attack on a major metropolitan era, and it’d get even better if you followed it up with a vampire attack on the Renfield suicide bomber. No witnesses, after all. 

Imagine being on that plane. Passengers going crazy, the Renfield sweating blood and raving. Maybe only one player character is aboard and the other players have civilian characters for this brief scene – but what a scene it could be … After all, this is 1980-something, long before the security theatre we have now. Scans and searches were lax and best. You could still smoke on planes back then. All sorts of possibilities!  

The opening scenes of every narrative, whether we're talking about an RPG campaign, a novel or a film, serve to establish two things: setting, and stakes. The setting in this case is London, mostly in Southwark, with some stopovers in Cairo. The stakes? Control over the government, through divination, which allows the vampires to infiltrate the corridors of power by being the only one who know what the future holds. By predicting what's to come they can guide their allies and catspaws to success, and therefore glory. 

That means by the end of the opening scenes your players should know that there is a conspiracy, that it stretches back centuries, and that it revolves around divination through ritual murder.

Once those objectives are achieved, you as Director immediately switch genres to the next point on the plot graph, which is whatever you want it to be. For the sake of this example I'm going to say that the next point is School of Night, because I want to establish some backstory and the best way to do that is to let the players do the hard work for me. I want to get them involved in that mysterious revenger's tragedy written by Francis Harman, and the best way to get them to do that is to put them in a room with Harman. 

My objective, once the opening scenes have been dealt with, is to define some of the parameters of the Conspiracy. The best way to underline the stakes of the game is to make it clear from the outset that the enemy are powerful and aiming for high stakes. The best way to do that is to show the enemy doing exactly that, by having them take a shot at the Queen of England, Elizabeth I. It might be interesting to hint that this same group tried to cement Lady Jane Gray's claim to the throne, but that the 9 day's Queen was outmaneuvered by the members of the School of Night. Now those same conspirators are plotting to put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne, and it's up to the players to make sure that doesn't happen. 

Point being, the best way to establish that the enemy is powerful and aiming for high stakes is to show them exercising power and aiming for high stakes. It isn't enough to say that they're bad. They must be seen to be doing bad things, and scheming against the characters and the Crown. There's got to be murder, got to be a hideous soup boiling in that cauldron, and the best way to demonstrate this is to have it happen. Think of it in the same vein as the Bond villain demonstrating the power of the super laser (or whatever it may be) by blowing up a few preliminary targets. 

 Diamonds Are Forever

From this point forward the plot evolves through player action. You can have the bare bones outlined in your text, but whether or not the players win or lose determines how powerful the enemy are in the next segment. The Conspiracy might be a scattered and beaten force in the 1930s, or they might be nigh untouchable villains, and whether they are or are not will be determined by how well the players do in School of Night. 

OK, so far so good. But this is an evolving narrative so that means the characters are evolving too. Except where in a normal long-running game evolution is determined through experience (and the spending of experience points) that isn't as easy an option to model here, where the characters are changing from session to session. This week, Sir Henry in 1609, next week, Basil in 1930. How to deal with that?

Again, leave it to the players - but establish a framework for them to do so. In any game they're going to be earning experience points. Give them the option of doing one of two things with those points: giving their current character a boost, or spend the points on an artefact or benefit for another, future character.

Let's say Sir Henry ends the session with 3 points to spend. Sir Henry's player has the option of spending those points to increase Sir Henry's skill set or to use those points to benefit one of the other characters in that players' stable. This is especially useful if, in session Zero, that player either designed all their characters for all the sessions, or at least established a framework for future characters even if that framework is just a name and a few lines of backstory. That way the player knows, in advance, that there will be adventures featuring Basil the bookshop owner and therefore it might be handy to give Basil a boost to prepare him for the horrors to come. Or maybe Dorcas the Night's Black Agents spy, or Roger the Cairo tombhound. 

I'd allow the player to do this in one of two ways:
  • Lineage, or,
  • Item
By lineage, I'm allowing the player to say that Basil is a descendant of Sir Henry and therefore has some of Sir Henry's characteristics. Or maybe some family legend informs Basil's decisions. However it works, Basil gets that boost because Basil is descended from Sir Henry. Of course, only Basil benefits from this boost. If Basil dies, the boost is gone forever.

By item, I'm allowing the player to create an item that Basil can use, whether or not Basil is related to Sir Henry. A magic dagger, say, that Sir Henry crafts to destroy vampires and which Basil, not knowing the item's backstory, is using in the 1930s as a letter opener. The benefit still exists; Basil has a magic dagger which can kill vampires. The difference here being that items can go missing, be stolen, or be passed on. The dagger isn't unique to Basil so Basil can give it to someone else, or have a fellow player take it from his cooling corpse. But it can also be stolen by the enemy or destroyed in some other way. 

That's the first takeaway in a multi-genre game. Allow the players to establish a bridge between genres by letting them build that bridge with experience points. It could even be a pooled benefit. Say all the characters in School of Night collaborate to create a book that is passed down to the Bookhounds. There could be a lot of experience points invested in that book. But it is a book - it can be stolen or destroyed. Giving the players custody of an artefact like that, one which they created and have a personal stake in, is significantly better than letting them chase after the McGuffin of the week.

The second takeaway is one we've discussed before but which I'm going to reiterate here: find the points of commonality between the genres and play on those points.

Night's Black Agents is a spy game, full of intrigue and action. School of Nights can be a spy game, full of intrigue and action. Tombhounds has the potential to be a spy game (remember that sinister Nazi treasure hunter, Gottfried Frank) and is definitely full of intrigue and action. Bookhounds is full of intrigue and action, and even if the mouthfeel is a little different from the other games that's no bad thing. It's the commonality you're looking for, not the differences.

This can be reiterated by reminding the players of important locations significant in all of the iterations of the game: the Clink prison, London Bridge, the Devil. 

Let's say the Clink is one of those touchstones. There are several versions of that notorious prison (it burnt down more than once) and there's a museum there now. It's not immediately clear when that museum opened. If I was guessing I'd say probably in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but this is fiction; it can open in the 1980s if that's useful for your game. 

We've already established a timeline roughly corresponding to Prehistory, Elizabethan, 1930s, 1980s. Under the Four Things principle, we need Four Things that correspond to those four points in the chronicle history. So:

The Clink
  • Prehistory: when the cult was scattered by the Romans, one of the pieces of the Cauldron was buried here for safekeeping.
  • Elizabethan: Francis Harmon, a Catholic, spends some time here in jail and while at the Clink carries out rituals intended to evoke demons - but he evokes the Cauldron, instead.
  • 1930s: some relic or satanic remnant of Harmon's demonic ritual still haunts this spot, and the Conspiracy is determined to harness this for its own ends.
  • 1980s: the serial killer preying on people with his (her?) strangulation ritual seems to be using the Clink either as a base of operations or as the central locus for an occult experiment of some kind. Why?
Physical tags, The Clink:
  • Gloomy, the haunt of the desperate and the damned.
  • Violent. Things happen here - terrible things. 
  • Desolate. It's easy to lose your soul in the Clink - or your mind.
  • Vampires. Agents of the Conspiracy enjoy special benefits while at this location.

This is enough to establish the location. If it becomes a major crux of the campaign you'd need more, but you can establish that during play. You don't need to establish that at the start, and you really want to avoid doing more than the basics if you can because you don't want to waste work. Remember, the Clink isn't the only location in the chronicle; it's one of many, perhaps dozens, in this particular Building. You're going to be doing this for all of those locations. Don't obsess over one when there are plenty of others that could end up being just as important, or considerably more so.

With this, you can use the Clink at any point in your multi-genre chronicle and you already know enough about it to place the Clink anywhere in your timeline. It's the same location, evolving. It has different significance depending on when your players encounter it, but it's the same place, with the same long-term role in the ongoing plot. 

OK! I hope this was of use to you. With this you've got enough to build your own Cauldron, with its own plot arc and deepening, horrific mystery. 

Next time: something completely different.

Sunday, 5 March 2023

Cauldron 2: Going To The Devil (NBA, School of Night, Bookhounds, Tombhounds)

From Urban Adventurer

Last time I laid the groundwork for The Cauldron, a multi-genre RPG campaign using School of Night, Bookhounds, Tomb-Hounds, and Night’s Black Agents. This time out I want to populate the Building, putting some flesh on the campaign’s bones.

What is the Building? A refresher:

I'm going to suggest to you now, as GM to GM, that this conceit is the Building. It is the structure in which the action happens, and in which people meet the players, creating plot. It can be as large or small as you need it to be. Some games need entire planets. Some stories can play out within a single structure … The Building is that area in which you, as GM, expects plot to happen. For plot to happen, the GM needs to populate the Building, either with people or events with which the players can interact. It is player interaction, not NPC action, that makes plot.

In this instance the Building is mostly Southwark, London, with a detour in Cairo for Tomb-Hounds (and possibly Night’s Black Agents). It’s multi-genre which means it’s more than one time period. School is Elizabethan, Bookhounds and Tomb-Hounds 1930s, and Night’s Black Agents is modern day. However, the great thing about a location like Southwark, London, is that you can borrow some common elements that exist in all time periods – the London Bridge, say – and even if some of the places you want to use no longer exist in some time periods or have yet to be built in others, you can still factor in the location even if the specifics change.

Example: last time out I talked about the Devil, the playhouse used by the Children of Christ's Chapel players in the Elizabethan period, which becomes the Devil Tavern in the 1930s and is used by the Children of the Sphynx, and which could still exist as the Devil Pub in the modern day. Or the Devil’s Darling Cocktail Bar, if you’d rather. Whatever works for you at your table. 

An Elizabethan playhouse is obviously going to be very different from a cocktail bar. At least, I’d really like to think so, otherwise that cocktail bar must be a … special … place. But if the location remains the same then there’s at least one descriptor that can also remain the same, for continuity purposes if nothing else. That’s the tag that lets the players know, even if it’s not the playhouse they remember from before, it’s still the same location.

Which brings me right back to the Four Things principle.

Again, for reference:

Whenever designing OPFOR - or for that matter anything else, whether it's the town the adventurers start in, the organization they work for, or the theatre which they notice as a potential adventure location, design four highlight points and no more than four. The average player's attention span is short, and yours is not any better. You could go deep in the weeds and design twenty different things about the OPFOR, but who apart from you will ever know it? Even you won't, not really; in the heat of play you'll forget half your notes and curse yourself later when you realize you could have used the Thing, dammit, the THING, and never did. That's why you limit it to four. You can remember four things. So can the players.

Using the Four Things principle and bearing in mind as discussed last week that the Fourth Thing has always got to be vampires because this whole thing is vampires, vampires, all the way down, then the Third Thing has got to be the point of commonality. The one eternal verity. The constant, the descriptor that always applies no matter which setting we’re playing in this week.

Using the Devil as an example, then:

Devil Tavern & Playhouse (School of Night)

  • The Devil is owned and operated by Walter FitzHugh, an ex-soldier and Upright Man who has been on the fringes of the Vampire cult for many years but hasn’t quite managed Renfield status yet. Walter knows most of the toughs and cunning men in Southwark, though not always on friendly terms.
  • The Devil has been a playhouse for five years now and is known as a safe place. Folk who go to playhouses expect to get their purses pinched or their persons ruffled, but not at the Devil. Walter makes sure none of the usual troublemakers get in, and anyone caught causing trouble on the premises is given the boot, but good.
  • The shadows at the Devil are peculiar things. They seem to follow a person about, somehow, to flicker when there is no light and to remain solid when in bright light. Anyone who spends a lot of time in the Devil’s shadowy corners feels as if they’re being watched.
  • Vampires. The undead come and go at the Devil and use its back rooms as a slaughterhouse/dining area. The clothing and valuables of the dead are sold by Walter at various pawnbrokers about town, but never in Southwark. Walter’s too canny for that. As for the bodies … there’s always somewhere to sling a naked corpse, but many of them end up slung off London Bridge. 

Of those Four Things, the third thing – the shadows – is the constant. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the 1930s tavern, the cocktail bar or something else. Those shadows are always there. That’s what ties the players to the location, will make them think ‘yes, this is the Devil I remember – and, oh God! Wasn’t there something about a slaughter room? Is that still a thing?’ 

It might be – who knows? Because this isn’t the only version of the Devil. 

Devil Tavern (1930s, Bookhounds)

  • The Devil is well known among London’s bohemians and raffish set. If you want to find a Communist enjoying a pint and pie with his rough lad friends, or a well-known portrait artist chatting up his female acolytes, go to the Devil. They’ll be there.
  • The Devil has private rooms upstairs which it rents to its deserving customers. The Children of the Sphynx use it for their auctions but they’re not the only ones who use it. All sorts rent the space, from Satanists to ‘film entrepreneurs’ looking for a spot with privacy and lockable doors.
  •  The shadows at the Devil are peculiar things. They seem to follow a person about, somehow, to flicker when there is no light and to remain solid when in bright light. Anyone who spends a lot of time in the Devil’s shadowy corners feels as if they’re being watched.
  • Vampires. The Devil is protected against vampires by several banes and blocks put here by the Children of the Sphynx. However, anyone with Vampirology or Occult will notice that those banes and blocks are defective – perhaps deliberately so. 

Moreover, if you want to give the players a very deliberate hint that this location is the same as that, then you use that Third Thing as a descriptor.


Coffee Shop (Qahwa) on Tawfiq Square, Cairo

  • The owner, or qahwagi, is an amiable old soul who greets every foreigner in perfect, almost academic French which he claims he learned in Paris as a boy, when he was sent there by his father. He calls himself Mehedi Saleh and is believed to be Bedouin; many who frequent the coffee shop call him Father, or Old Father.
  • The tea served here is strong and sweet, and Mehedi claims to know a secret brew which can cure any illness. Many locals swear by it, and quite a few foreigners as well. Some say this has more to do with the tureen he brews it in, which is marked with occult sigils.
  • The shadows here are peculiar things. They seem to follow a person about, somehow, to flicker when there is no light and to remain solid when in bright light. Anyone who spends a lot of time in the coffee shop's shadowy corners feels as if they’re being watched.
  • Vampires. The sky above the coffee shop is haunted by bloodsuckers and witches at night; why do they gather here, of all places, and what terrible secrets do they gossip about when they think nobody is listening?
The protagonists may never have set foot in Mehedi's coffee shop before, yet the minute they notice the Third Thing they will be on their guard because they have seen this sign before. Moreover, having given them the Third Thing they will know there must be a Fourth Thing and it must be related to the vampires, because every other important plot location has had a Fourth Thing and it's always been vampires.

You might reasonably ask, what goes in this particular Building? Well, in no particular order:
  • London Bridge
  • The River Neckinger
  • The Strangulation Ritual
  • Execution Dock
  • The Colkins Family (in general)
  • Francis Harman
  • Harman's Play, A Season Of Blood (Revenger's Tragedy)
  • Sir Jacob Colkins
  • Douglas Colkins-Firth
  • The Clink
  • Tomb of Two Sisters, Egypt
  • Cairo
And probably others, but I hope you get the idea by now. These bits of the Building are the bits the players interact with, in their various genres and incarnations. That interaction creates plot. 

Don't be afraid to let plot change your ideas of where the long-term arc might go, always bearing in mind that wherever it does go vampires are standing at the other end of it. But the flavor of that ending? Can depend on actions taken in play. Did the players do something in Egypt that significantly changed the odds of success in the modern day? Then that's what happened. Did an unexpected death in the Elizabethan period mean that Harman's play, A Season Of Blood, became a lost text in the modern era, potentially changing an important clue trail? Then that's what happened.

OK. That’s enough to be getting on with. Using these principles, you should be able to populate your own Building with whatever you need in it.

Next step: building the long-term arc. 

Sunday, 26 February 2023

The Cauldron (RPG All)

A short while back I talked about genre mixing. I thought it would be fun to put those ideas into practice.

This multi-setting chronicle will start (chronologically at least) with School of Night, pass on to Bookhounds of London/Tombhounds of Egypt, and conclude with Night's Black Agents. 

Before I delve into the details, let's spend this week talking about setting.

The great thing about setting a story of whatever type in a city like London is, it's been there since forever ago and its history is well known. You shan't have to spend the first half-hour describing the basics; you can assume the players already know the basics. The same could be said about Paris, Berlin, Rome and a dozen other places I can think of. It's the kind of location where, even if the players don't know exactly what London is like, they can fake it. There's a pub and a Pret a Manger on every corner, Cockneys talk funny, there's an Underground. Sorted. 

School of Night is Elizabethan, Bookhounds and Tombhounds are 1930s games and Night's Black Agents can be any period but tends towards modern day. There's nothing that says you have to play the sessions in that order. You could start with Tombhounds, pass on to School of Night then Bookhounds then Nights. Or Nights, then Tombhounds, then School of Night, Bookhounds, and Nights again. The world is your crimson-tinged oyster. 

However, you do need a reasonably solid core at the heart of this whole thing. Some reliable touchstone that the players can refer back to, so they don't get lost in the alphabet soup. 

Let's set this primarily in Southwark, London. The assumption, since this refers back to Night's Black Agents in the end, is that this is primarily about vampires. It doesn't have to be. Night's has specific rules for a Cthulhu v spies vibe and as Director you can do as you like, but let's not think too far out of the box this time around. Vampires it is. Whether the players are dodging horrors in Cairo or arguing the finer points of literature and history with Shakespeare, it's all vampires, all the time. In the Four Things parlance, vampires are the Fourth Thing. 

What do we know about Southwark that's campaign-useful?

To the Wikipedias!

Recent excavation has revealed pre-Roman activity including evidence of early ploughing, burial mounds and ritual activity ... Southwark was mostly made up of a series of often marshy tidal islands in the Thames, with some of the waterways between these island formed by branches of the River Neckinger, a tributary of the Thames ... without London bridge there is unlikely to have been a settlement of any importance in the area ... For centuries London Bridge was the only Thames bridge ... Londinium was abandoned at the end of the Roman occupation in the early 5th century and both the city and its bridge collapsed in decay. The settlement at Southwark, like the main settlement of London to the north of the bridge, had been more or less abandoned ... Just west of the Bridge was the Liberty of the Clink manor, which was never controlled by the city, but was held under the Bishopric of Winchester's nominal authority. This lack of oversight helped the area became the entertainment district for London ... Southwark was also the location of several prisons ... In 1836 the first railway in the London area was created, the London and Greenwich Railway, originally terminating at Spa Road and later extended west to London Bridge ... Southwark was outside of the control of the City of London and was a haven for criminals and free traders, who would sell goods and conduct trades outside the regulation of the city's Livery Companies ...

That will do to be getting on with. 

There are all kinds of London legends that could be data-mined for this. I'm going to invent one for campaign purposes, but it would be as simple to borrow something from a source like Funk & Wagnalls or London Lore

Borrowing from the Wiki:

evidence of early ploughing, burial mounds and ritual activity. Burial mounds sounds useful, as does ritual activity. I'm going to assume that the site I intend to detail for campaign purposes was a burial mound at one point in the far-off times. Further, since this is marshy ground with lots of running water and that useful River Neckinger, I'm going to assume that this location was chosen deliberately as a kind of vampire defense system. That means one of the vampire banes/blocks of the setting ought to be water, whether the vampires themselves are traditional, alien or something else. 

The Neckinger allegedly got its name from hangings and hangmen. I'm going to assume that the tradition goes back much further than anyone realizes, that ritual killing by strangulation was a part of the location even way back in pre-history.

without London bridge there is unlikely to have been a settlement of any importance in the area. That suggests London Bridge as a key ritual location, something that can be used by megapolisomancers and magicians of all stripes. A kind of fane, perhaps? Something that can be drawn on for power.

the location of several prisons. The Clink covers the School of Night period, which is helpful.

Southwark was outside of the control of the City of London and was a haven for criminals and free traders. All kinds of benefits here and this is a situation that lasts a very long time. There are still remnants of it in the modern day - there's a reason why they set Only Fools and Horses in Southwark.

 OK, all that said, let's lay some ground rules. 

There are four big moments in the setting's history:

  • Prehistory - when the ritual area is first established, the first killings happen, the magic is evoked.
  • Elizabethan - when the first ritual plays are performed by a group I'm going to call the Children of Christ's Chapel.
  • 1930s - when the Children of the Sphynx establish their temple on old, tainted ground.
  • 1980s - when an Edom rocked by scandal has to deal with a new Strangler attempting to evoke old horrors.
In a time when Southwark was marsh and river, a group lost to history established a fane in a place protected against vampires.
  • There they sacrificed human victims by strangulation, boiling the remains in a cauldron which they then used for ritual, divination purposes.
  • They created an artefact, a cauldron, for this purpose. The cauldron was in several pieces and those pieces are lost to history.
  • The remains of this cult were put to flight and thought destroyed when Caesar first came to Britain. When Claudius completed the invasion that Caesar left undone, no remnant of the cult was discovered.
  • Vampires: the leaders of the cult either became vampires or were murdered by the earliest version of the vampire conspiracy.
When Southwark was a place you went to for entertainment, a boy's performing troupe, the Children of Christ's Chapel, became briefly famous.
  • The Children were nominally backed by a nobleman, Sir Jacob Colkins, a man of many investments particularly in the New World. 
  • Sir Jacob's antecedents are obscure. He claims to be able to trace his line to the conquest; his enemies say his grandfather was a gond farmer (or dung merchant) for the tanneries.
  • The Children performed plays written by Sir Jacob's creature, a scrivener named Francis Harman most famous for being accused of witchcraft - though he escaped punishment.
  • Vampires: The vampires used the Children's playhouse, the Devil, as a base of operations. In the past, it had been the ritual site where the Prehistory cultists carried out their human sacrifices.
The Children of the Sphynx establish a ritual site and a small occult press, which proves very popular amongst certain Bohemians.
  • The Children of the Sphynx first arise in the 1890s as a smallish rival to the Order of the Golden Dawn, but as an occult order they never amount to much. As a publishing house, they have more success.
  • The Devil Tavern, a rattletrap place with a peculiar history, is their unofficial base of operations. They meet here, sometimes hold auctions here.
  • One of the rituals - a requirement for entry - is strangulation. The Children describe it as 'a means of enhancing the mystery.' Failures merely fall unconscious, or even die; those who succeed see terrible visions.
  • Vampires: The Children are vampire hunters, and their most obscure - and valuable - texts are about hunting vampires.
1930s (Tombhounds).
In the early 1910s an archaeologist, Douglas Colkins-Firth, sets out on an expedition to find a lost tomb of great importance. He never returns, but some think he was on to a rich find and are determined to follow in his footsteps.
  • Judging by sketches and notes, Colkins-Firth was looking for evidence of a prehistoric cult whose rituals spread the length and breadth of Europe, but whose roots could be found in Egypt.
  • Colkins-Firth was one of the founding members of the Children of the Sphynx, and it was he who first developed the strangulation ritual which is the Children's signature.
  • One of the most dangerous seekers after the Colkins-Firth find is a Nazi, Gottfried Frank, who believes that Colkins-Firth was about to discover a powerful artefact when he went missing.
  • Vampires: Colkins-Firth had been corrupted by the vampires and was looking for a replacement cauldron; Frank is about to stumble onto the vampires and what he'll do when he finds them is anyone's guess. 
1980s (Night's Black Agents)
In the early days of Thatcherism an Edom reduced by internal scandals to a remnant of its former self is thrown into disarray when one of the Dukes is found dead by hanging in his apartments - and there's the possibility he was attempting some kind of ritual when he died.
  • The Duke isn't the only one to have gone this way, just the most high-profile. Scotland Yard thinks it may be a serial killer.
  • Edom is further rattled when it appears as though the death of the Duke - or something very like it - is the subject of an unfinished Hitchcock thriller, pages from which are found at one of the death scenes.
  • The Hitchcock thriller borrows heavily from an obscure play written by an Elizabethan playwright, Francis Harman, and a true-life killing (or possibly series of killings) that took place in the 1930s. How did Hitchcock get this material?
  • Vampires: It's all been about divination, storytelling, and the vampires think they're on the cusp of a breakthrough - but they don't know how to complete the ritual. A dead Hitchcock does them no good - but did he really die in April, 1980?
OK, that's the bare bones. Next week, it's time to talk about this old and creaky Building.


Sunday, 19 February 2023

The Recent Unpleasantness (Wizards - OGL)

The OGL.

Oh dear.

Ginni Di

Zee Bashew

Legal Eagle

I’m going to assume you’ve a base familiarity with the problem and not go over old ground. If not, talk to the Internet – it has Opinions and is not afraid to share them.

What fascinates me about this situation is, first, it’s beginning to sound a little like a constitutional law question where President Albert issues an Executive Order and everyone assumes it’s there forever, only for President Bluebottle to come along and tear up that Order replacing it with one of their own. Or just not replace it at all.

The assumption is that Executive Orders exist in perpetuity and some of the most famous ones – Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – have. More or less. But the outgoing President’s order can be torn up by the incoming at any time. Or by the next one. Or by the one after that. They give the appearance of solid, binding and enforceable statutory law whereas they are nothing of the kind, laws being the province of an entirely different body. They might last only so long as it takes snowfall to melt on a spring day.

See also the OGL, which basically took the form of a company pinky-swearing not to do a thing, and everyone assuming that the pinky-swear was a legally enforceable contract and How Very Dare You Do The Thing, Sir.

Second, I think this only can have happened in the age of the Internet.

As has been said many times before by wiser minds than mine, the whole point of the OGL and its predecessors was so Wizards could pass off scenario-writing duties to someone else. Scenarios are vital to the hobby but they don’t sell enough to make them viable product, particularly if we’re talking about paper versions.

Ask anyone who’s ever published physical – the Unspeakable Oath magazine springs to mind – how those razor-thin profit margins can make strong souls weep like children, particularly when advertisers vanish like a ferret up a drainpipe. Ask the newspaper industry how it feels about running those presses all day every day.

Wizards in its wisdom decided to give the scenario sales to small press outlets, and everyone was happy.

In the pre-Internet past, third-party scenario and supplement production led to product glut and the fabled bargain bin, the butt of so many Knights of the Dinner Table jokes. Many hours of someone’s blood, sweat and caffeine reduced to a $0.99 ‘please God buy this turkey’ junk sale box. As mentioned, there's a huge up-front cash investment when publishing physical, and a lot of would-be creators were forced out on cost grounds. There just weren't the buyers to support the hobbyist creators.

That's still the case, I suspect, for most producers of content. Ask all those streamers who put out Let’s Plays for 10 viewers at a time, or the folks on sites like DriveThru who sell maybe 20 copies of a book that might have taken them years to write. Such is publishing. The difference being that there isn't the huge up-front cost. There is a cost. It's just nothing like as substantial a cost as it used to be.

As a side note – going back to my days at the Escapist – I remember when the site was basically dead, most of the creators bar Yahtzee having moved on or been kicked out. There were a couple video content creators still kicking around the place like ghosts in a museum, none of them big names. They were being shuffled off to Buffalo, one after the other. I still had back-end access and used to poke around just to see what was what.

I recall one video content creator being given the heave-ho and complaining bitterly that it was thanks to the Libs, who had denied her bid for fame. Having back-end access, I looked at the hits per vid. Less than 20 on average, IIRC.

Content creation is not a fertile field that wants only a few seeds and water to grow beautiful flowers. It’s rocky, unforgiving soil. If you persevere, have talent and a bit of luck, you can make it – but there are no guarantees.

It is much easier than it was, and this is where I come back to the Internet.

Look at the production values in any of Ginni Di’s vids, or Legal Eagle’s, Zee Bashew, Game Knights. There was a time not so long ago when that kind of performance was basically out of reach for most, on cost grounds alone. You’d need to be a midsize production studio at least, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, before you could even think about doing that kind of work. You’d need Disney level resources to produce a Zee Bashew-style animation. Now someone can work from home on a relatively ordinary desktop setup and produce amazing stuff.

Don’t misunderstand me. What Creators do still takes talent, knowledge, effort. I know that I, for one, haven’t the chops to do what Ginni Di does. But it’s not nearly as expensive or difficult as it used to be, which creates two illusions:

1) The people who do this must be swimming in cash.

2) It’s easy.

I’m reasonably confident that Matt Mercer can pay his rent, or mortgage. I wouldn’t swear as to anyone else’s income. Just because it looks expensive doesn’t mean there’s been a sudden influx of millionaires in the RPG space. It just means that doing this isn’t as costly as it used to be.

Put it another way: there are plenty of creators who may seem to have cash in hand, and yet only be able to do what they do because their spouse has a good job with benefits.

Also, just because content creation doesn’t need a midsize studio any more doesn’t mean there are no studios. Command Zone, Loadingreadyrun, these are studios. They just aren’t traditional studios with network-level cash behind them. They’re small outlets which put out regular content and can afford to pay rent. They make a little look amazing. That’s as far as it goes.

Hell, I can write and self-publish a book, put it on Amazon in front of millions of readers, and pay almost nothing for the privilege beyond my time. That’s absolutely insane. It wouldn’t have been possible thirty years ago. I can put a complete scenario on DriveThru and pay nothing at all, and still collect income from it. If you’d told me thirty years back that this was possible, I’d have called you a liar.

But I’d lose on that book. Because while it seems easy to create content it is not easy to create quality content, nor is it easy to sell product in a crowded market. Not by a long shot. The job still wants editors, draft readers, maybe playtesters, decent art, publicity. Especially publicity. I have yet to meet a writer who’s any good at selling themselves; it’s an introvert’s craft, for the most part.

Or to put it another way, just because Ginni Di makes it look easy to put together a great video or YouTube series, without any apparent resources beyond her time and a dream, doesn’t mean it is. But that’s part of the illusion that the Internet has created.

Ironically this is the future that the folks who created the DotCom Bubble back in the late 90s foresaw and tried to cash in on, but they were too early for the tech and overfed by venture capitalists who, by rights, ought to have been in padded cells rather than throwing cash at the wall to see what sticks. Not unlike some recent venture capitalists I could name, who thought that giving millions to a cryptojackass who liked to play video games during business conferences was a good idea. Funny how venture capitalist seems to be another name for moron no matter which era we live in, but … I digress.

This brave new world has created Creators. If the Internet didn’t exist Matt Mercer would be a talented geek working in a $25/hour office job somewhere, playing D&D with his buddies on the weekend. Always assuming, of course, that D&D survived the collapse of TSR (the original, not New Coke) back in the 1990s. Loadingreadyrun, Command Zone, all of it would be impossible.

However, because the Internet created Creators we now live in a world where anyone, absolutely anyone, has a voice and a means of making themselves heard. To an unprecedented degree. Every day on Kickstarter I see projects that wouldn’t have made it through the submissions stage at an established company ask for $20K and get $2 million, or some equally absurd figure.

Understand, this is the part that’s unprecedented: Creators having their own voice, unfettered. Gone are the days when Cary Grant or Carole Lombard owed everything to the studio. You don’t have to be top of the food chain to have an opinion and be heard. The money situation isn’t unprecedented; control, over the work, the content, is. Having a means of being heard that doesn’t depend on the bosses in corporate is.

It’s worth bearing in mind, as a side note, that this situation kinda underlines the power of white privilege too. If this situation only affected creators who weren’t white, and only attracted complaint from non-white creators, this wouldn’t be a thing. You might hear it mentioned on a podcast. Maybe PowrDragn would be talking about it. There would be no instant takebacks from corporate, no sudden changes in tone or policy. Whereas now, folks have to wait a week for a response from corporate and that week becomes a substantive concern, worthy of ridicule and opprobrium and God alone knows how many thinkpieces on influential online news sites – or even the Actual In-Print Press. Imagine if you had to wait a week for forty acres and a mule. You’d be outraged, I’m sure.

It’s not as if this stuff never happens. Spelljammer: Adventures in Space – remember that? Or the whole business with New Coke TSR? Gee, that was news not so long ago. 2022. What a year.

Back on topic.

As far as the OGL is concerned it appears – at least, it appears to the madding crowd - as though Wizards took one look at the evolving situation, thought about the money they believed they’d thrown away when they gave scenario creation to the nerds, and tried to rake the cash back in. Only to discover that they were biting the hand that fed them. You don’t get to sell $50 game books unless you make the nerds happy, and they weren’t happy about this.

But I submit to you that the alleged motivation for doing this – the money – was illusionary from the beginning. Possibly on both sides. It’s been said – mostly by Wizards – that money was not the company’s primary concern. That this situation has less to do with cash than it does the changing market. Whether or not you believe that is up to you, but judging by the screams the Creators definitely believe it’s about the money.

Yet another side note (they breed like rabbits). It’s been suggested that the reason why Wizards wanted this switch was to protect their rights to the brand; they wanted to ensure they could step in and quash unacceptable use. I can see a case for that. It used to be said, if you were in the software business and Microsoft wanted to buy your company, you had two options. Take the money and run, or say no. If you said no, Microsoft would reverse-engineer your tech, and then steal the business right from under you.

I can see a case for arguing that if, say, Disney, wants to get into the RPG space, it doesn’t even have to reverse-engineer the tech; making it OGL or Creative Commons does all the hard work for them. It’s not as if anyone ever got rich fighting the House of Mouse. You can say that’s unlikely right now, and I’d agree with you. But the more visible Dungeons and Dragons gets, the more movies/TV shows/whatever are based on or reference Dungeons and Dragons, the more likely it is one of the bigger fish in the pond will take note. Then there will be trouble.

Back on topic.

The money.

You can make money doing content creation. Good money. But it’s not anything like as easy as it looks and just because someone, operating on a smallish budget, can put out good-looking content does not mean everyone’s a millionaire and there’s oceans of cash out there waiting to be redirected into your pocket. Or anyone’s pocket.

It’s still the same game as ever was. The production values are better, but don’t get fooled by a pretty outward show.

Anyhow, that’s enough bloviating from me. Have a good one!

Sunday, 12 February 2023

Final Thoughts - Serpentine

OK, so far I've talked about the basic shape of the chronicle and followed that up with a discussion of the kinds of scenarios that make up any chronicle, whether in this or a different system. I said there were three types: Foundational, Plot Specific and Climactic.

What exactly is a Foundational scenario?

A Foundational scenario does two things. 

  • They elaborate on the established Building and put some flesh on its bones. 
  • They also provide the initial clues which the characters will follow up on for later plot.
Let's go back to the first post and use the examples there for Foundational purposes.

The Strazzaruola are the other family business, the rivals, the no-goods. If a Strazzaruola did it, it must be wrong. Worse than wrong. You never met a Strazzaruola you didn't hate.

Four things:
  • The Strazzaruola run loan sharking in the Night Market and there are few stalls that don't owe them money or favors - often both.
  • Isabetta Strazzaruola is a sorceror, or at least everyone says she is. Dripping with corruption, no doubt.
  • Baldo Strazzaruola is a notorious duelist, when he's not drunk off his ass. Dangerous, certainly - but unpredictable when drunk.
  • Monstrosity: Several Strazzaruola are Drowned.

OK, so already there's some meat on the bones. We know the Strazzaruola are loan sharks; that must mean they have plenty of debtors, and some heavies to help them collect the debts. We know a little about Isabetta and Baldo, enough to put a little plot into them. The next step is to devise some Strazzaruola plot hooks that provide initial clues which can be followed up for later plot.

It'd also be helpful if that same scenario helped make the setting feel more alive, solid, real. If it helped create a situation in which the characters get to explore the world a little and see what's out there. 

Probably you've been to New York, or at least a major city. You know that feeling, when you stand on the street and realize that there's a whole world around you, teeming with life and stories of which you can only be the smallest part? It's easy to think, if you're sat alone at your desk, that the world is your desk and only your desk; that there's nothing more important than what you're doing, thinking, feeling right now. Being in a big city and just looking up shows you that you are, at best, the smallest part of a much larger story. That you and yours don't amount to a hill of beans, but that sometimes you can see a glimpse of the larger reality.


That's what you hope for in a foundational scenario: that the characters see the larger world and understand a small part of it, a fraction - but that's enough. For now.

If I was to take any of the Four Things to make a Foundation I'd pick one of the first three: the loan sharking, Isabetta, Baldo. The Fourth Thing, the Monstrous thing, is where the clues in that Foundational scenario lead.

In any scenario, even the simplest, there's the main hook, the main objective, possibly a Twist, and a conclusion. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, must-reads for anyone who wants to get into swords and sorcery, are very like this. Take Bazaar of the Bizarre as an example. There the heroes are hired by their sorcerous mentors to put an end to a nefarious threat. The main objective is that same threat. The Twist is that one of the heroes has been bamboozled by the threat. The story is about how that situation is resolved. It is as simple as it is possible to be, plotwise, and it's incredibly engaging, fun, and thrilling.

Foundation: Baldo's Triangle

Paulina the sword-swallower from Zavatera's Marvels is pissed off with Baldo. He's spending a lot of time with a mystery woman but he swears blind that isn't so. Paulina wants the heroes to check on Baldo's story.

Now, the heroes may want nothing to do with a Strazzaruola, but they want to stay in Paulina's good graces and they figure the best way to do that is to at least play along with Paulina. 

The truth is that Baldo's sister Isabetta's been plotting behind the scenes. She doesn't like how Baldo spends all his spare time with Paulina. Isabetta prefers it when Baldo is out making money for the family, collecting on debts and roughing up fools. Isabetta also doesn't like Paulina much. However, Isabetta hasn't been able to break Baldo's affection so she came up with a scheme that she thought was foolproof. Isabetta would make Baldo think, through sorcerous means, that she was Paulina. That way she could get Baldo to do what she wanted when she wanted. 

Trouble is, she hadn't accounted for Baldo's passionate nature. When Baldo has a little drink in him, he wants a good time. Isabetta, as Paulina, has found it harder and harder to keep Baldo from her bed.

Isabetta's doing all this by means of a peculiar little puppet that she keeps in her rooms. So long as she keeps that puppet, she can make Baldo think she's Paulina. If the heroes get hold of that puppet ...

The next step is to add the clues that lead to the Monstrous, which in this instance is the Drowned.

From the main book: the Drowned are humans who are puppetted and possessed by an underwater fungal hivemind somewhere in the city. They can instantly communicate with each other and use this hivemind communication to focus on and efficiently eliminate one enemy at a time. The Drowned seek to put themselves in positions of influence and power, all the better to promote the fungal intelligence’s inscrutable plans.

It wouldn't be helpful to have either Baldo or Isabetta as the Drowned, but there are plenty of other Strazzaruola. Let's say that Isabetta's maid and assistant, Sarafina, is a Drowned and she's been trying to recruit Baldo by infecting Baldo with wetlung. So far Isabetta's sorcery has kept Baldo, and the other senior Strazzaruola, safe. However, this new thing with Baldo and Isabetta gives Sarafina an opportunity to advance her plans - unless the heroes discover it and stop her. They might not like Baldo, but do they want him to become a monster?

We already know, because it's part of the Four Things of Sag Harbor, that the only time Sag Harbor feels clean is when it rains. "In downpours people come out to stand in the rain as if it were a crystal-clear waterfall, filling whatever containers they have with rainwater. It's the only way to guarantee freshwater supply." But maybe the Drowned don't care about that, or maybe there's something in the rainwater that they really don't like. So the one thing that gives Sarafina away is her reaction when it rains: she hides and doesn't try to collect the rainwater. Why is that, the heroes might wonder? Well ...

The main hook is the love triangle. The main plot objective is countering Isabetta's spell, which she cast on Baldo and is now regretting. The Twist is the Drowned, which in turn will lead to Plot Specific scenarios. It has the additional benefit of adding one of Sag Harbor's Four Things, which in turn helps develop the campaign's ongoing narrative. 

That's a Foundational scenario. 

Plot Specific scenarios function in much the same way. They have their main hook, the main objective, possibly a Twist, and a conclusion, the difference being that where a Foundational scenario hints at the greater world around it a Plot Specific scenario reveals definite things about that greater world and gives clues that lead to the Climactic scenario. 

The Climatic scenario is broadly along the same lines as its brethren, with this key difference: where before all attention was on the ordinary stuff of the setting - the meat and drink - and there were clues that led to Monstrous, now it's all Monstrous all the time. In Twilight Zone terminology, the eyeglasses have broken and now it's time to face the consequences. 

Time Enough At Last

If the Strazzaruola, say, were infected by Drowned before but not all of them had fallen, now all of them have fallen. If Rattakan were persecuting Zavatera's Marvels because Paulina was protecting those pesky orphans, now most if not all the orphans have died and Paulina may well be a Rattakan host, and so on. The adventurers have to deal with this situation as best they can, and how they choose to deal with it will determine whether or not this campaign ends on a high note, or a low.

What I'm getting at is a bit different from, say, Horror on the Orient Express, where the characters have been following a set path down a particular route, and while they may have made choices along the way the ultimate destination was always the same. The whole point behind the Building, and the Four Things technique, is that the players determine which elements of the setting they choose to engage with. In that sense it's more like Dracula Dossier or Armitage Files gameplay, in which there is a defined structure but the ultimate destination, and the route chosen to get there, is determined not by plot but by player engagement. 

The Building provides 'rooms' - encounters, NPCs, setting elements - and the Four Things helps you furnish those rooms. The players then decide for themselves which of the Four Things they engage with, and that in turn leads them to other rooms and more Four Things, and so on. 

Next week - something different!



Sunday, 5 February 2023

Floating the Dragon (Swords of the Serpentine)

 Sag Harbor

The swampside docks off the upriver end of the city are in the worst industrial section of town. This is the area where the unmentionable businesses are: the tanneries, the slaughterhouses, the nightsoil collections. It’s where sludge from dredging finds a temporary home, mostly because there’s a surreptitious market for people who want their enemies’ homes filled with the stuff ...

Night Markets

Daytime Sag Harbor is a sprawl of slums and unsavory neighborhoods. Nighttime Sag Harbor (at least along the edges of the District) is a riot of Night Markets. Every night when the sun goes down, the lanterns light and market tents pop up intertwined with the harbor docks and the sprawls of fishmongers, tanners, dyers, outlanders, and other lowlifes. Roving pubs pitch their tents and tap their kegs ...

Family Business

You may be a prestigious member of the ancient nobility, the merchant princes behind a major Mercanti guild, or even a close-knit family of commoners who have taken up a life of crime. For you, family is everything — and when family and friends get threatened by personal or political enemies, you turn to heroics to get your own back ...

Last time I populated the Building. Time to add some layers.

Broadly speaking there are three kinds of scenarios in any campaign: foundational, plot specific, and climactic.

Foundational scenarios are the groundwork. They elaborate on the established Building and put some flesh on its bones. They also provide the initial clues which the characters will follow up on for later plot. When I discussed Bookhounds games, and horror in general, many moons ago I said that "the first act [must] establish the setting, the characters and the overall mood of the game. Whether the players are veterans, novices or a mixture of the two, they've never played in this game world before, because it's your game world, fashioned out of your ideas and imagination. They don't know what to look forward to, or what to be worried about."

That's what a foundational scenario is. The first act. It doesn't have to include anything overtly Monstrous at this stage, because although this train is headed down Monstrous tracks this is just the first act. The establishing shot. The moment where the players get settled in to the story you're telling.

Remember that this is just as much foundational for the players as it is for you. They have only the sketchiest idea of who their characters are. Sure, they know the characters' stats and they have a more or less detailed backstory, but a character isn't defined by backstory. It's defined in play. Just like real life; character isn't about what people say, but what they do. You need to see what the characters do, before you know who they are.

Plot specific scenarios happen after the foundation is established. They usually involve some kind of plot specific quest, quest object, information or NPC. This is either a goal in its own right or it leads the investigators to a goal. Since this is a Monstrous game, a plot specific scenario will involve Monsters. It might be a reveal, a confrontation, an antagonist reaction. If this were a Night's Black Agents game then the plot-specific scenario would probably involve some kind of conspyramid reaction. In a Trail game the investigators would finally come face-to-face with the entity all those cultists have been chanting about, or find a copy of the Necronomicon.

By this point the players should already have a good idea of who their characters are, so you should be on the lookout for some character-specific reactions. Or take the trouble to create some. If you know that the duelist character is into himbos, then the antagonist for this scenario should be a himbo - that sort of thing. If you know a character is afraid of birds, then this is the time for birds. Note, I said character. It's a very different thing if the player is afraid of birds. Don't be that guy. 

Climactic scenarios often happen at the end of the arc and may or may not involve a big punch-up. In The Hobbit the arc ends with the Battle of the Five Armies. In video games, and Dungeons and Dragons, it usually ends with a boss battle. It doesn't have to be that way. A climactic scenario is a climax; it doesn't have to be a bloody one. Most horror games end in trauma, but it's a mental trauma not a physical one. The chief thing to bear in mind is that the central dilemma of the plot so far has to be resolved. 

In the first chapter of Telltale's Walking Dead, there is no clash of armies, no punch-up. The central dilemma has always been how to raise Clementine, the small child who's been the heart of the series up to that point. Therefore the climactic moment comes when Lee, the main character, resolves her plotline - in the quietest way possible, surrounded by the undead. 

That's the kind of climactic moment I like to shoot for, but seldom get. What happens, happens. But the point I'm getting at is the climactic moment can be as loud, as impactful, or as sinister as you make it. It's perfectly reasonable for the climactic moment to come when the characters realize everyone else in the Night Market is on the Rattakan's side, and they have to decide whether to join in and become one of them or leave the only home they've ever known. It's just as reasonable for a traumatic fight against birds end with the survivors sneaking away in their car. Or for a lone guest to leave the restaurant and stagger towards an uncertain future.

The last kind of scenario we need to talk about isn't really a scenario; it's a stopgap. It doesn't fit with the others, but it's necessary. This is the floating scenario. It can be boiled down to a floating scene rather than a full scenario, but the point is this: every so often events will shake out in a way you didn't plan for and you need some time to regroup. That's when you bring out the floating scenario. It doesn't have to fit with the rest. It just has to kill time while you try to resolve the problems caused by the unexpected bump in the road. 

Let's say for the sake of argument that you've been planning a punch-up with the big bad and the players unexpectedly resolve that conflict early by ambushing the big bad and smothering it while it's asleep. OK, not too heroic, but it gets the job done. Now you're short a big bad and you don't know how to get to a climactic scene when the climax you had planned came a wee bit prematurely. 

Time for the floating scenario. Perhaps at the end of that scenario you reveal that the actual big bad was something else altogether, or that the big bad the heroes slew was the real big bad's son, or that without the big bad some other terrible thing will happen so now the heroes have to do what the big bad would have done had it not been killed. But having the floating scenario available gives you the opportunity to regroup without having a nervous breakdown, and hopefully gives you time to sow the seeds for future climactic scenarios. 

The key thing to bear in mind about a floating scenario is, while it may be located in the plot area - Sag Harbor, in this case - it is not plot related. It's just something you have in your back pocket in case of accidents. A Night Market festival. An unexpected arrival, or departure. A disaster. An opportunity. Hidden treasure. Or maybe everyone gets stoned.

Cowboy Bebop

The ideal floating scenario is one which can be used in multiple situations, even different campaigns or settings, with only the most modest modifications.

Bookhounds, for example, has book auctions. Those appear to be specific to Bookhounds, but think about it: auctions can happen in any setting. You can have an auction in Dungeons and Dragons, or Swords of the Serpentine, or Dracula Dossier. If all you have to do to make an auction setting specific is to change a few names, and perhaps the McGuffin, it's the ideal floating scenario. You can put it just about anywhere and it performs the same function (killing time) while also giving the characters a new McGuffin to chase.  

OK, that's enough talking in the abstract. Next time out, some Foundational stuff.