Sunday, 27 September 2020

Wicked Whitby (Dracula Dossier)

 Any Director who plans on a Dracula Dossier campaign probably has a Whitby moment in mind for their game. It's the one place you can guarantee the players will have heard of, it features in most of the traditional Dracula retellings, it's a spooky coastal town - what's not to love?

Here's some interesting Whitby folklore you may not be familiar with.

The Alum Smuggler. Once upon a time in the way-back-when, Pope Pius II (elected 1458) declared the alum trade in the West a papal monopoly and threatened dire punishment for anyone who dared infringe. Whitby infringed, earning itself the mother of all Papal curses.

Alum (potassium aluminum sulphate) is used, among other things, for fixing dyes. Alum is a naturally occurring substance that for many centuries was thought to be unique to Syria, but a clever Italian merchant living in Constantinople and making his fortune from dyes noticed that a certain plant seemed most abundant in areas where alum was found. When that merchant went home he found that same plant growing in Tolfa, near Rome. That merchant died a very rich man, and the Pope found himself a new source of filthy lucre.   

Along comes a thieving Englishman, Sir Thomas Chaloner. While visiting the Papal alum-works he realized that the mineral they were processing bore a striking resemblance to a substance he knew for certain could be found near Whitby. However Sir Thomas lacked the know-how to put his information to good use. Skilled craftsmen were needed, and the Pope jealously guarded his workers.

Sir Thomas came up with a plan.

He stuffed three workers' pockets with cash and promised much more if they'd come to England. Once he had them he found a ship bound for England and loaded up his cargo - large barrels, three of which were much heavier than the rest. Presumably once he was safely at sea he let his new employees out of their confinement. It would have been a very long trip for them otherwise.

Legend has it that when the Pope realized what had happened and that his lovely monopoly was about to go up in smoke, he issued a curse so detailed, so vile, so thorough in every respect that it defies reproduction. The curse of Ernulphus (Tristram Shandy, book III ch XI)  is said to be an approximation. 

Just a taster:

May he be cursed inwardly and outwardly!———May he be cursed in the hair of his head!——May he be cursed in his brains, and in his vertex” (that is a sad curse, quoth my father), “in his temples, in his forehead, in his ears, in his eye-brows, in his cheeks, in his jaw-bones, in his nostrils, in his fore-teeth and grinders, in his lips, in his throat, in his shoulders, in his wrists, in his arms, in his hands, in his fingers!

May he be damn’d in his mouth, in his breast, in his heart and purtenance, down to the very stomach!

May he be cursed in his reins, and in his groin” (God in heaven forbid! quoth my uncle Toby), “in his thighs, in his genitals” (my father shook his head), “and in his hips, and in his knees, his legs, and feet, and toe-nails!

It was so utterly abhorrent that, when a folklorist tried to get it typed up for a book he was writing in 1923, the typing school's headmaster promptly flung it back as far too outrageous for his female typists to gaze upon, never mind type up.

History does not record whether Sir Thomas exploded, but Whitby made a ton of money from the alum trade.

From Funk & Wagnall's Dictionary of Folklore:

Curse: a malediction; the wishing of evil upon a person; also, the effect of such wishing, and, loosely, any persistent evil. ... A curse invokes a power - divine, demonic or magical - against which the person cursed has no defense, unless he in some manner propitiates the power or brings to bear against it a stronger power. The curse is dangerous; it must alight, even after seven years ... it may affect later generations ... or, if laid upon an ancestor, all the relations of the person accursed. It may however return upon the head of the curser, or if sufficiently strong injure both curser and victim, or anyone who hears it. Some curses, a father's or the curse of the dying, are more potent than others ... curses are thus a kind of spoken magic, spells of evil wished upon others. With the loss of belief in the efficacy of magic, curses become either blasphemy - the fruitless and irreverent invocation of the gods - or a meaningless ritual unless performed by the divine being himself, since man cannot force his will upon the gods.

Man can't. On the other hand, the Pope might.

Wicked Whitby

Warm: You get a familiar thrill as you arrive in Whitby. It’s the starting gun, the gear shift from observation into action ... yet at night dread overcomes thrill and you begin to wonder what's hiding in the shadows. Why did Dracula come to Whitby? Was it Edom's trickery, or did Dracula know something you don't?

The Curse abides, and waits its moment. There are reasons why Whitby is economically stagnant, why so many here live on the poverty line, dependent on benefits; why the young leave, and the elderly die alone in cold beds. A casual visitor will not notice, but people living there can smell Whitby's decay, like an unburied corpse in a ditch, denied last sacrament. This is why rats fattened on blasphemy chatter to themselves in the basement of Billington & Sons, why evil creatures are drawn like moths to a flame, why the Madman howls in the graveyard, and unclaimed, bloodless corpses are found washed up by Whitby's tides. Nobody's been able to overcome the Curse; it is Whitby's despair and ruin.

Except Dracula, trained at the Scholomance, thinks he's found a way.

Not that he wants to reverse it for Whitby's benefit, o no. Dracula knows a curse can be turned against its sender, and the Prince of Darkness has enemies in the Vatican - the Enigmatic Monsignor for one - he would very much like to smite. A Papal curse can be turned against the Papacy. Dracula would love to see that happen.

The Satanic Cult is tasked with, among other things, making sure that it happens. 

The Harbour Watcher Family-owned transient hotel (page 257, main book). The Hesps (John, Judith, daughter Sarah and her partner Emily Poor) own and operate this very low-end lodging house. Foreigners often stay there for a night or two, economic migrants trafficked in only to be shuffled off somewhere else. The Hesps distrust strangers asking questions. Their role is to prepare the ground for the ritual to come, and to that end they conduct rituals and sacrifice in the quiet hours, incinerating their victims in the hotel's basement furnace.


Sunday, 20 September 2020

A Night On The Town (Swords of the Serpentine)


I've been watching Black Lagoon recently and am beginning to think that seinen anime like this is excellent viewing for Swords of Serpentine prep. Not because it's a fantasy setting - although a lot of what they get up to is basically fantasy with guns. It's because the action scenes are great fun to watch, and if you're a harried Game Master trying to think of something to throw at your bloodthirsty players then using something like this for inspiration is a good idea.

Also, from a purely Serpentine perspective, main character Rock pulls off a lot of interesting Sway attacks. 

Let's talk about One-Shots again.

OK, strong premise, start with action, clear goals. What else?

  • Strong Roleplaying Opportunities: A complex network of social and political connections helps define Swords of the Serpentine. Take advantage of that and give Heroes interesting and challenging supporting characters to interact with, both as allies and enemies. Center adventures around social and political needs, as well as traditional adventure hooks such as greed and vengeance.
  • A Plot and B Plot: The best adventures have both an A plot — the main goal of the adventure —and a B plot, a secondary plot thread that is likely unrelated. This might be about someone’s family, about personal growth, or about a foe or rival who keeps interfering. Having A and B plots allows you to shift the adventure focus from one plot to another any time play starts to slow down, and quite often the B plot can provide leads to help solve the A plot as well.
  • Change the World: It’s a one-shot, so encourage Heroes use their influence to literally change the world around them. Unbalance power structures, seize power, and bring about societal change for good or ill. Why not? In a game where influencing others is a core mechanic, affecting the world around you in permanent ways is a fun way to show off the game’s strengths.
Black Lagoon features a team of pirates and smugglers operating out of the fictional harbor city of Roanapur in Thailand, near the border of Cambodia. It's one of the world's grey areas, and if you're a gunman or bounty hunter looking to make a reputation as well as a fortune this is the place to be. A scar-pocked statue of the Buddha overlooks the harbor, lending a spurious air of virtue to a town otherwise devoted to vice. [any of this sounding familiar, Serpentine fans?]

The Black Lagoon team, when not on a mission, often drop in at the Yellow Flag bar, and as luck would have it chaos usually erupts around them. Incidentally in nautical terminology a yellow flag is a disease marker, warning anyone who gets too close that the port is rife with deadly infectious plagues. So without even setting foot in the place you already know what you're getting into.

That's the kind of moment I'm aiming for in this one-shot: the team is about to step ankle-deep in manure, and doesn't even know it.

Let's talk about roleplay. 

The best kind of roleplay comes from high stakes. These can be personal high stakes or a more general threat to the area. They can be the kind of high stakes that come from violence or the more intimate sort that arise from, say, a Sway attack on a character's personal beliefs. Point being, this needs to be Serious Business. You can get good roleplay from quiet, downtime moments, but this is rare and usually only seen when the player is already a good roleplayer and relishing the moment. Whereas high stakes can get even the mousy, quiet ones involved.

In improv, the key is to keep moving forward without letting your brain get in the way of your mouth. If you think, you lose control of the moment because you lose momentum. If you want to know what letting your mouth do the work looks like I recommend Canadian lunatics Loadingreadyrun, whose videos can be found pretty much everywhere video content dribbles forth from the quivering demonic buttocks that is the Internet. Critical Role's good for this too. I swear some of those people haven't used their brains in years, but their mouths work just fine.  

I joke, but kidding aside, I bet everyone reading this has had something like this happen in their day-to-day:

I need to think of something cool to say. I need to think of something cool to say. I have thought of a cool thing. I am saying the cool thing. Huh. That did not work the way I thought it would.

If you spend time thinking about what to say you are not listening to what's being said, or paying attention to what's happening around you. That takes you out of the moment, so by the time you finally come up with something to say you've lost the chance to say it.

The same applies here. If you think too much about what to do you'll lose the chance to do it. 

 So what you're aiming for is high stakes + no brain = ACTION. The minute a player says 'let's think about this' it is your job as Game Master to squish that with the biggest boots you have. Preferably hob-nailed, with something nasty already smeared on the sole.

Changing the world goes naturally with high stakes. Maybe the crime boss who rules this district is about to go down in a pool of blood. Maybe someone's takeover plans are about to be thwarted, or assisted. Maybe a landmark is about to get burnt down, blown up, or sink beneath the watery limits of Eversink. There's bound to be disruption and with disruption comes blowback. Maybe the crime boss goes down but her allies are out for blood, or maybe when that landmark vanished it left behind a nasty Corruption stain. Whatever it is, the city changes - and adapts.

A & B plots can be literally anything. The A plot is obvious, the B plot less so, because the B plot will depend to a certain extent on the characters involved. Whereas the A plot is a plot unto itself, and doesn't depend on the characters at all - though they will definitely become involved. 

Let's begin.

A Night On The Town

Your heroes have coin in their purses for the first time in a while, and want to have a good time. Traditionally they stop off at their favorite bar for cheap drinks before moving on somewhere more lubricating - get a buzz on, then have fun.

The first thing you do is ask them to describe their favorite cheap bar. They can even name it if they like. For purposes of this narrative it's going to be called the Yellow Flag, but you can call it whatever best suits. Get each player to describe one thing about the bar. It can be anything from their favorite drink to the color of the stains on the wall.

From the Game Master's perspective, the Yellow Flag is a bar at water level with two storeys above it and a cellar below that isn't completely waterlogged yet. The level immediately above is a gambling house. The level immediately above the gambling house is open to the elements after a fire, and is currently occupied by squatters trying to repair what's left of the roof. The cellar below is used by a cheap sculptor who makes funerary statues for the very poor, claiming the corpses' hair in exchange to make wigs. Think Rashomon the short story rather than the film. Consequently the available floor space down there that isn't covered by half-made statuary is devoted to wig-making, and what little space there is left is where the sculptor lives.  

There are almost certainly other aspects to this building but those can be described in play. Are there secret chambers below the cellar? Bridges that lead from the squatter's section to the building next door? Some secret slide that goes straight to the water from the gambling house, so they can slice up deadbeats and get rid of the remains easily? Sure, why not?

This is a bad night to be at the Yellow Flag. Earlier that night the McGuffin was stolen from Two Smiles (Gang Boss stats), one of the most dangerous criminals in the area. The McGuffin was supposed to be handed over to the thief's patron at the Yellow Flag. Trouble is, the patron's second-in-command betrayed the op and Two Smiles knows where & when the handover's supposed to take place.

Two Smiles is hopping mad. An example has to be set. The best example Two Smiles can think of is to kill everyone in the Yellow Flag and take back the McGuffin. Meanwhile the second-in-command wants to knife the patron and steal the McGuffin for themselves. 

The action begins when the thief (Burglar stats), sometimes called the Mortician on account of her somber dress, gets to the Yellow Flag. She's clearly worried; she's seen Two Smiles' people gathering outside and fears the worst. She stops at the bar and slides a package to the bartender while she gets a drink. (She might slip the package to the heroes if the group decides they know the Mortician personally.) The heroes don't know what the package is but they should get a chance to see it and guess that it's important. Then the Mortician goes to one of the private booths at the back of the bar, where someone is waiting for her. (She doesn't entirely trust her patron, which is why she's leaving the McGuffin with the bartender. Or maybe she didn't leave the McGuffing with the bartender, and it's all a clever fake-out for the benefit of witnesses. Whichever it is will be determined in play.)

Little does the Mortician know that Dancing Meg (Sorcerer's Apprentice stats) has already made her move. Her master and the Mortician's patron, Zuane the Herbalist, is dead, his eyes burnt to a cinder as well as whatever's left of the contents of his skull. His corpse still sits in the private booth, awaiting discovery. Dancing Meg is upstairs with a few Mercenary bodyguards, pretending to gamble while waiting for the kick-off. As soon as Dancing Meg knows that Zuane's corpse has been discovered (she's keeping an eye on a magical hand-mirror whose counterpart overlooks the private booth) she'll make her play.

What nobody appreciates is that Two Smiles is not playing around. He has plenty of mooks at his disposal as well as his favorite Duelist, Stefano the Undying (two near-mortal wounds so far, and he's not dead yet) but his opening gambit is to block off every conceivable ground floor exit with mooks and then fling bottle after bottle of alchemist's fire in at every window and door. Anyone who tries to run outside to fling themselves in the canal gets sliced to pieces. The McGuffin is proof against flames, and besides Stefano and a group of mooks have special protective gear that will defend them from the fire (effective Armor 4 against alchemists fire only). It's their job to go in and get the McGuffin. Two Smiles' mooks have bows and arrows (or firearms, if used) as well as swords, so anyone who tries to get out an upper storey window or across the squatters' bridge will have problems.

So: the place is on fire. Anyone who goes outside will be brutally murdered. Upstairs is the sorcerer's apprentice and some heavily armed Mercs who want to get downstairs and take the McGuffin, were it not for all those pesky flames. Meanwhile everyone else in the bar, the gamblers upstairs, and the squatters all have immediate quality-of-life concerns.

Objective: survive the night, with or without the McGuffin. There are effectively three factions: the Mortician, Two Smiles and his people, and Dancing Meg and her Mercs. All three will need to be dealt with somehow.

Complication: if the heroes get out of the Yellow Flag without the McGuffin whichever of the enemy factions that doesn't have it will be convinced the heroes have it, since they don't. So they'll chase down the heroes and try to get the McGuffin from them. It'll take a lot of convincing to get them to back off. 

B Plot: the (in)famous private detective Yalo the Unhinged (Foreign Spy stats) is also after the McGuffin. Yalo claims he's working on behalf of the McGuffin's actual owner.  He's sitting at the other end of the bar nursing a drink when the action starts, having followed Zuane to this location. Think of Yalo as a combination Inspector Clouseau and Inspector Zenigata with an unfortunate curse: once a day he falls madly in love with someone. Anyone. Like one of the heroes, perhaps. This condition is completely out of Yalo's control, always lasts a day and a night, and Yalo's desperate for a cure. It's because he's been promised one that he's after the McGuffin.


Sunday, 13 September 2020

Start With Action (Swords of the Serpentine)

 I've been looking forward to talking about Swords of the Serpentine for a very long time. It's on pre-order now; I participated in the playtest and have the Adventurer's Edition; I really want to see the final version.

I thought I'd talk about one-shot design this time out and use Swords as an example. 

A One-Shot is a simple adventure that theoretically can be slotted into any campaign or played as a one-off with disposable characters. It has no significance in a campaign's ongoing plot but can be modified to fit. An ideal one-off is short and simple enough to be played in one session of about 4 hours, more or less. Often the point of a one-off is to teach new players the rules, but it could as easily be used as a filler or special occasion scenario. In Night's Black Agents, The Van Helsing Letter is a one-off. 

Serpentine's Main Rules talk about one-shot construction and offers considerable advice, including:

  • Strong Premise: Pick an exciting and adventurous plot hook for the adventure.
  • Start with Action: Starting with a short action sequence immediately helps new players focus, and teaches them combat rules in just a few moments.
  • Clear Goals: Give the Heroes specific goals for the adventure. Whether that’s “find the idol,” “blackmail the noble,” “uncover the Sorcerer,” or “rob the treasury,” starting with a clear goal gives a one-shot momentum.
Going back to Van Helsing for a moment, and without spoiling too many plot points, that scenario begins with the agents going to a place to do a thing, only to be immediately interrupted by mooks who steal the McGuffin and run away, possibly setting the scene location on fire in the process. That is action. When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand, as Raymond Chandler would say. 

So what makes a premise strong? A premise is strong when it compels action. A knock on the door compels action, a gunshot is more compelling, and the building you're in going up in a blazing inferno is more compelling still. The premise has to make the players want to get up and do something immediately, because that thing, whatever it may be, is important enough to grab their attention and get them moving. 

The old first edition DMG said something about loot that's relevant here:

While it is possible to reduce treasure in these areas to some extent so as to prolong the period of lower costs, what kind of dragon hoard, for example, doesn't have gold and gems? It is simply more heroic for players to have their characters swaggering around with pouches full of gems and tossing out gold pieces than it is for them to have coppers. Heroic fantasy is made of fortunes and king's ransoms in loot gained most cleverly and bravely and lost in a twinkling by various means - thievery, gambling, debauchery, gift-giving, bribes, and so forth. The reality AD&D seeks to create through role-playing is that of the mythical heroes such as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Kothar, Elric and their ilk. When treasure is spoken of, it is more stirring when participants know it to be TREASURE!

You should apply the same philosophy to your Premise. It's got to be Big. It's got to be Four-Color. This is swords and sorcery, after all. If ever there was a genre where everything is larger than life, it's this one.

Whichever Goal your characters are trying to achieve, it ought to be no more than once sentence long. Devoting paragraphs to backstory and intricate diplomacy is not encouraged. Find the idol is great. Twenty paragraphs describing the idol, those who've sought it over the years, why it's important to an obscure sect of Outlander sorcerers and so on is an appalling waste of time and effort.

Finally, a one-shot needs only one major adversary, and at most one minor adversary. This isn't the time for complicating the narrative with side-plots. The minor adversary doesn't have to be daggers drawn with the characters; it could be a rival, or some troublesome incorruptible City Watchman. This character is there to be the irritant, the foil. not the nemesis. The Villain, on the other hand, is there to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and as bubblegum hasn't been invented yet he's a bit of a monomaniac.

Incidentally for those GMs looking for Serpentine setting-specific NPC naming conventions, I recommend this resource

With all that in mind:

Doting Mother

Premise: a Giant Scorpion brought into Eversink to guard sorcerer Tranquilo's tower escaped and is living somewhere in the Tangle, the poorest part of the Goddess Denari's eternal city. Rumor has it that when the scorpion did a bunk it carried off Tranquilo and the wizard's famous Grimoire, and there are plenty of would-be sorcerers who'd pay good money for that book. Besides, Tranquilo won't need it any more ...

Complication: a barbarian, Bloody-Ax Kang, is also after the scorpion, to prove his power and to make a trophy shield out of its carapace. Kang isn't much of a reader and will probably destroy the Grimoire if he finds it first. 

Goal: Recover the Grimoire.

Complication to be uncovered during play: the Scorpion's pregnant, which is why it ran off; it wants somewhere peaceful to give birth and raise its brood. It's carrying a number of juveniles on its back right now, some of which might be old enough to wander around on their own.

From wikipedia: The size of a brood varies by species, from three to over 100. Before giving birth, the female elevates the front of her body and positions her pedipalps and front legs under her to catch the young. The young emerge one by one from the genital opercula, expel the embryonic membrane, if any, and are placed on the mother's back where they remain until they have gone though at least one molt. The period before the first molt is called the pro-juvenile stage; the young are unable to feed or sting, but have suckers on their tarsi, used to hold on to their mother. This period lasts 5 to 25 days, depending on the species.

Secondary Goal to be uncovered during play: kill or otherwise deal with the Scorpion's brood, before they grow and become a real threat to the Tangle.

Start with Action: the characters hear screams and see something large and black scuttling over the highest points of the Tangle. Chase scene! Bloody-Ax also saw the whatever-it-was and is in hot pursuit. 

Ultimate Location? Well, that's up to the Game Master. I see it as some tumbledown slum near the Hospital (and all those tasty sick citizens) but the Tangle's a big place. She could be anywhere ...



Sunday, 6 September 2020

Psalm 109 (Bookhounds of London)

This post draws inspiration from M.R. James' tale, The Uncommon Prayer Book.

In that chilling spook story Psalm 109 features significantly, but is not described in detail. That Psalm, sometimes called the Iscariot Psalm, begs the Almighty to punish the petitioner's enemies. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him ... Let his posterity be cut off ... in the generation following their name be blotted out ... Extinction not just of the sinner but the sinner's heirs, so that the family is utterly destroyed.

The narrative is straightforward: an unscrupulous book scout discovers a potentially valuable find buried in an obscure estate in the country; its exact location isn't specified in the narrative. That book scout fakes up some duplicates, exchanges them for the originals, and is about to profit from his find when supernatural forces intervene.

The supernatural forces in this instance have to do with Oliver Cromwell. The woman who owned the prayer books - and who probably commissioned their publication - loathed Cromwell and all he stood for. She prayed, on the anniversary of Cromwell's birth, for his ruin, and the ruin of his heirs and their heirs. She wanted him to suffer right up to the moment of death and then burn in Hell eternally. Ever since then there has been a presence in the chapel, something that ensures the prayer books are always kept open to Psalm 109. The chapel doors may be locked, the windows barred, the books kept under cloth and closed - yet whenever the chapel's opened, there they are, open to Psalm 109, as if whatever is in there constantly prays for Cromwell's torment.

Whatever it is has a physical presence. ... with the feeling I have as there's someone settin' here - no, it's the other side, just within the screen - and looking' at me all the time I'm dustin' in the gallery and pews. This from the housekeeper, Mrs. Porter. But I never yet see nothin' worse than myself, as the sayin' goes, and I kindly hope I never may.  

A Cold Heart

In 1875 SS Schiller, a brand new German ocean liner and one of the largest of her era, sinks in a storm not far from the Isles of Scilly. She was en route from New York to Hamburg, and smacked up on a reef while blinded by thick fog. The captain tried to pull her off, but ripped the guts out of her in the process. Panic ensued as the passengers fought to get aboard the lifeboats. Captain Thomas tried to enforce order with pistol and sword, as Schiller was flung repeatedly up on the rocks by storm swells. Only two lifeboats launched, carrying 27 people in all. These made it safely to shore. Many of the women and children were herded into the Schiller's deck house to shelter while they awaited rescue, but by now the storm was all but unstoppable and the deck house was swept completely away along with all inside.  The remainder aboard ship hid where they could, most of them drowning or succumbing to hypothermia. 

Rescue was impossible until the following morning, due to storm conditions. In the end only 37 people survived; the 27 who made their escape in the boats, and a few others who managed to cling to the wreckage. The remaining crew and passengers, 335 souls, drowned.

Gamifying: Among the dead was American missionary and philanthropist Hanna Wilcox, on her way to Europe with two friends. All three drowned or succumbed to cold. However Wilcox's leather-bound prayer books, with her signature and annotations, survived. 

Though water damaged, the books are valuable as memorabilia of a famous wreck. There are always collectors interested in that kind of morbid ephemera. When the Bookhounds spot the prayer books at an auction, they soon realize their value. They may regret beating out the Ring this time as the prayer books have a peculiar history: they are haunted by three Cold Ones. [from the main book's description, Cold Ones can be transformed humans created at the whim of the Great Old One Ithaqua. It was the Old One that flung the Schiller on the rocks, and heard the despairing prayers of Wilcox and her friends.]

These entities have an all-encompassing hatred for stockholders and directors of the Transatlantic Steam Navigation Line, which owned the Schiller. They also don't like anyone who mistreats the Prayer Books. Their usual tactic is to get someone to bring the books within range of a target, so they can get to work. Which begs the question: did the Book Hounds buy the Prayer Books, or are they being manipulated into doing the Cold Ones' work for them?