Do you like apples?

This Sunday just been, June 9th, I wrecked my voice running D&D for strangers and friends at Cherry Moon in Bolton.

They set up a Dungeons and Dragons day, and I was one of the four idiots who volunteered to run a session.

I got a mixed experience group of five players, who rolled up a stealth and skirmish group with zero (nil) healers. They were all really lucky though…

The party was made up of…

A Human Rogue Criminal,
A Wood Elf Rogue Criminal,
A Fallen Aasimar Warlock Pirate,
A Half-Orc Barbarian,
A Tabaxi Monk

I gave the players a choice of using the standard point spread from the PHB, or rolling, and said that if their rolls we really shit, they could use the standard spread.

They all rolled. The two Rogues rolled really well, and the Warlock did pretty well. The Barbarian and Monk didn’t do well at all, and both defaulted to the standard spread.

Of the lot, the Aasimar could do one (1) point of healing. That’s enough to stop someone dying, and that’s it.

Annoyingly, no one came near dying…
I had three ideas for an introductory scenario:

1. Cult Extraction. Save brainwashed villagers from an evil cult and their encampment.

2. Raise the alarm. Get to the beacon and light it before the raiders do, and warn the neighbouring towns

3. Heist! That building holds a bottle of whisky that’s 200 years old and worth 20x that in gold. Steal it, and we all get paid

After knocking the ideas around with friends, I went with Raise the Alarm, as it’s the most straightforward. There was some concern about Murderhobos and capture the flag simplicity.

I might do Heist for the next one, as the arguments for that one were pretty compelling too (opens up a variety of skill uses, lots of options for players, forces them to participate, and not just kill things as they’re presented).

But anyways, I wrote a scenario based on Raise the Alarm: Beacon Hill.

We had to skip two encounters due to time considerations, but here’s the full text…

_____________________

Beacon Hill

The party are travelling with a trade caravan, and are being given free passage, food, and 30gp each to protect the caravan, it’s goods, livestock, hands and other passengers.
It is travelling North to Daggerfall.

The caravan leader is a Dwarf called Ulfgar Brawnanvil

It’s the late afternoon. Caravan plans to spend the night at Stoutbarrel Farm, a Halfling owned orchard and brewery.
The passengers may have heard of Stoutbarrel Cider.
Ulfgar has a deal with the Stoutbarrel’s – Room & board when passing through in exchange for cheap transport of cider barrels. The caravan hands are looking forward to the rest stop, and are starting to sing bawdy songs about apples.

The road to the farm runs through the orchard, and rows upon rows of apple trees stretch out all round the caravan. The smell of apple blossom hangs in the air. Fat bumble bees buzz happily in the branches. A light column of smoke wafts above the trees in the distance.

Check everyone’s Passive Perception. On a 14+ they notice…
A sheep carcass lies between the trees, off to the side.

The caravan rounds a bend, and the farm comes into view.
An apple cart lays on its side on the track. The bodies of a pony and two Halflings are being fed on by a pack of Hyenas.
One Hyena for each party member.
(combat)
50 XP Five Hyena

A pack of Hyena

(Actual play note: this was a nice intro combat. We used ranges (they were 120′ apart, movement and disadvantage. The Monk was pretty effective, using darts at their maximum range with disadvantage).

Check everyone’s Passive Perception. On a 12+ they see….
Beyond the Hyenas, the farm buildings have been toppled and burnt. In the distance between the party and the building, a lone Hyena stops feeding on fallen prey, and starts convulsing. It explodes in a shower of gore, leaving a full grown Gnoll stood there.
Note: Gnoll does not have any weapons or a shield, and only has its Bite Attack.
(combat)
100 XP One Gnoll

The Gnoll Ronseal Promise – Is what it says in the caption

(I used this encounter to illustrate what a Gnoll is, and why they’re bad. They killed it from range, but were suitably grossed out by its ‘birth’.
One of the Rogues, Badger, insisted on searching its corpse, so he found an embedded apple. The Warlock used Prestidigitation to clean it up, and suddenly they’re talking about it as though it’s an actual edible apple…)

Exploration of the farm
Investigation / Survival: Multiple Gnoll tracks. Over two dozen, hard to tell. They swept through the farm, killing and eating and burning, followed by packs of Hyena. No one survived. The tracks lead off in different directions. Some tracks appear to be skeletal.

Looting: If someone loots, roll lowest most basic table. Ulgar objects strongly to anyone looting “These were good people. My friends! You’ll afford them some dignity!”

(Yes, they wanted to loot the Halflings. No, Ulfgar didn’t let them. He doesn’t abide Murderhobos)

Ulfgar declares that the farm is not safe “There’s no shelter, no provisions, no defence. We move on to Smithy Barn. We can be there by nightfall, Gond willing.”

Smithy Barn is a nearby village, down the valley and across the river.

[Short Rest opportunity, if anyone needs minor healing or partial recharges]

(They didn’t at this stage, having ganked the hyenas and Gnoll at range)

It is surrounded by a low wooden wall, maybe 6’ high, with North and a South gate. Fields surround it.
The central structure is a large wooden barn, its doors open revealing a smith’s furnace and workshop. The villagers sit around it, drinking weak ale.
Alongside the barn is a wooden tower, 20’ high, with a large torch atop it.
Another 10 smaller buildings are scattered around the barn.

Villagers:
Blacksmith – Randall Hammerson
Blacksmith’s wife – Lureene Hammerson
Crofter – Glar Marsk
Farmer – Darvin Dundragon
Hunter – Shandri Buckman

The caravan files into the village, carts, horses, cattle and all, and the hands start closing the gates.
The activity disturbs the villagers
“Hoi! You can’t bring all of that in ‘ear! There’s no room, tether ‘em up outside!”
“There’s Gnolls out there, boy! We’ll tether the horses in here, or you’re waiting outside with them instead, you hear me”

The villagers mobilise in short order, bringing in livestock from outside, setting watches, locking the gates, and then lighting the beacon atop the tower. The beacon invokes The Lord’s Alliance, and summons help from nearby allied towns and Alliance Agents.

A bright yellow flame flares up as the tinder catches, and the beacon burns brightly within a minute, casting light across the small village.

The villagers look expectantly towards the nearby hill. After a few minutes they grow restless and disturbed.
“What’s keeping them?”
“Can’t they see it?”

A howl rises from the woods, followed by other howls, which then descend into yaps and barks. The sound seems to surround the village.

“No one’s coming.”
“We’re dead…”

“We need someone to go light the beacon, top of Beacon Hill..”

Eyes turn to the party.

Ulfgar immediately offers up their services – “They work for me, and I want to get out of here alive. Lads and lasses, you’re going up that hill and lighting that fire, or you don’t get paid, and we all die.”

Arguments – The party may not want to do it, in which case Ulfgar will steadfastly refuse to pay them, as they’re in breach of contract.
They may argue that they’d be better served defending the caravan and the village here, and maybe some of the locals would be best going – they know the land better, they know the way. If they try this, they need to persuade both Ulfgar and the villagers.
Ulfgar that they’d be able to protect him better than the villagers and to persuade two or more of the villagers that they should go instead. Obvious candidates are the Hunter and the Crofter. They will need convincing separately.

(The party tried to argue that this was above and beyond their contract, but Ulfgar argued them down. They then asserted that protecting the village was outside their remit. The villagers quickly had a whip round and rustled up 50gp, 5 goats and a bottle of alleged fine wine. The blacksmith offered to fix up some weapons and armour for them as well, if they wanted. This was enough for the party, who agreed to do the right thing)

Main path – assume that party will travel to Beacon Hill.

The Hunter will lay out the route they need to take
Take the North gate, follow the road to the bridge and cross the river (if you can’t get across the bridge, the only other crossing for two miles is the old rope bridge)
Once over the river, leave the road and cut through the woods to the hill. The road will be too open
The hill is steep and littered with rocks. You can follow main path up, but again it’s open and exposed. The rocks on the west side are an easy climb, and will offer you some cover
At the top, the beacon can be easily lit with a tinder kit or similar. You’ll have to climb the tower though…

The Bridge
The river runs fast along a narrow channel carved out of the bedrock. A slim stone bridge, wide enough to take a single cart, provides the sole crossing within sight.
A pack of Gnolls (at least 10, mixed types) have cornered a herd of cattle by the bridge, and are slaughtering and feasting on them.
Party could try to sneak past (difficult, especially if any are in metal armour)
Party could try to fight them (Deadly+ encounter. These Gnolls are fully equipped and in full health)
Take a different route

The Rope Bridge
Two miles upstream, an old rope bridge sways in the wind. The crossing is some 50’ wide here, with rapid waters 20’ below. Wet wooden boards
Moving at half speed across the bridge, one at a time, the passage is safe.
Moving any faster, or if two or more people are one the bridge at a time, and it will sway alarmingly, and everyone on the bridge must make an Acrobatics test, DC 10. On a fail, they fall prone must make a Dexterity save DC 10 to not fall off into the river below. Combat on the bridge has the same requirement.
Falling into the river inflicts 1d6+1 damage, and the character must swim to safety (DC 12 Athletics or take 1d6 damage from rocks and swallowing water).
20 XP each for crossing the bridge

Whilst the party are crossing, they are attacked by a Gnoll Hunter and two Gnoll Witherlings. Hard/Deadly encounter.
Gnoll Hunter 100xp
Gnoll Witherlings 50xp each
200 XP

A Gnoll Witherling, or a wet horse

(Kevin the Half Orc Barbarian took a beating in this encounter, taking an arrow, and falling off the bridge. Bran the Rogue and The Iron Paw (Tabaxi Monk) also took damage from the more traditional route of a Gnoll Witherling skeleton hitting them with a club)

Woods
As described, the road to Beacon Hill is an easy walk, but in the open and exposed. Anyone at the top of the hill will spot them coming, as would anyone in the bordering fields and woods.
The woods stretch from the road to the base of the hill, and offer some cover.

As they travel through the woods, the party pass rabbit snares, both full and empty.

Net Trap: Xanathar’s Guide pg 114
100 XP

Gnoll + pack of Hyenas. One Gnoll leading by default a pack of Hyena. Hyena do not follow its orders, instead will harry anything it engages. This is fine by the Gnoll.
150 XP

Climbing Beacon Hill
Ascending the steep rocky incline requires an Athletics DC 14 check. If anyone is struggling, a party member can climb ahead, and lower a rope to help pull up other characters.
Stealth
As the characters near the top of the hill, their route takes them within earshot of more Gnolls: A Gnoll Hunter patrols the area. They must stealth past it, or stealth kill it.
100 XP

Lighting the Beacon
At the top of the film, the party find the partially eaten bodies of the beacon watchers – guards charged with lighting the beacon should any others flare up.
Should anyone search the bodies and nearby packs, they will find 7gp and a Potion of Healing
The village of Smithy’s Barn and its lit beacon are clearly visible from the top.
When the characters get to the top, one must climb the beacon and light it. This is easy enough, and can be accomplished with a DC10 Athletics / Acrobatics roll, or a firebolt, or a flaming arrow.
The beacon catches quickly, and within two minutes is blazing brightly, shedding light across the hilltop.

(Bran, Kevin and The Iron Paw all argued the toss as to who needed the healing potion more. The Iron Paw had only 3hp, and kept insisting that someone else drank it. In the end I enforced the last encounter, and she finally drank it)
(The final encounter was a CR2 Gnoll Pack Leader, who rolled really badly, and was taken down by the party whaling on him. He finally fell when Badger the Rogue stabbed him through the heart)
(So we ended it with the beacon burning and the horns of the Lord’s Alliance sounding in the distance)

Once the beacon is lit
Once the beacon is lit, a few things happen.
The party can see the beacon in Smithy’s Barn, which is still blazing. A villager stands aside it, waving a lit torch, signalling you back.
A beacon on a neighboring hill lights, and another in the distance. Help should follow.
All Gnolls within sight of the beacon are aware it’s lit
The party must make a decision:
Defend the beacon against successive waves of Gnoll attacks
Return to Smithy’s Barn and assist their defence
Do something clever, like drive the Gnolls into the river
Run off

Gnoll Waves
200xp Two Gnolls
200 xp One Gnoll, One Gnoll Hunter
300xp One Gnoll, One Gnoll Flesh Gnawer
200 xp One Gnoll Hunter, Two Gnoll Witherlings
200 xp Four Gnoll Witherlings

A Gnoll Flesh Gnawer – not appearing in this film

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Ashen Stars and Space Psychopaths

Late last year I bought a physical copy of Ashen Stars, the space opera investigative game by Robin Laws, published by Pelgrane Press.
I had a surplus of money, and it’s a good game.
Brent.

This obviously resulted in me running a short game.

My group statted some characters, and I knocked up a quick mission brief.
The three PCs that ended up playing were:

Hamash, a Durugh Mapper and Wrench
KLC-CHK, a Kch-Thk Blood-redeemer, Chopper and StratCo
Dax Lego, a Human Techo and Gunnar

My briefing idea was fairly simple – stop an illegal gun running ring, and confiscate the contraband.
Here follows my session plans and notes.

Ashen Stars contract #1 – The Weapons Stash
The Contract: You’ve been hired Direct from the Combine, not up for open tender.
Criminal gangs across The Bleed have gained access to restricted Combine military weapons, possibly from The War. Find out who is selling these weapons, and stop them. Find the source of the weapons and return them directly to the Combine on Ossa One.

The Twist: The weapons have been salvaged from a war era crash site, where a Combine freighter and Mohilar warship collided.
The salvagers have raided the Combine wreckage, but have not been able to comprehend, much less approach, the Mohilar wreckage.

Backstory:

Wreckage located in the Scylla Outzone – both ships collided with a small moon (surrounded by other smaller moons. A moon cluster, or localised asteroid field. Moon orbits an Ashen Star. Interferes with long range scanners, communications and navigation, making the moon cluster difficult to spot, and difficult to navigate to.

Weapons are advanced Disruption Rifles and Grenades, same stats as normal, but can be overcharged to do +2 damage for d6 shots (rifles only, grenades at just badass).
An overcharged rifle has a chance of overheating and blowing up after each charged shot. If the damage rolled on the dice is a 6, the weapon explodes for +2 damage.

The Combine (or Lasers employed by the Combine) have tracked a group of Militants who used the illegal weapons during an insurrection on a mining community in the Quirinal Cluster.

They have directed the investigation to a grey market trading port on the Messina

Encounter 1: In Media Res – subduing the Militants

The lasers have the drop on the Militants, and gave them the sporting chance to surrender. The Militants went for their Disruptors.
Pew pew.

Leader = Bred Nougat.

Militants x3
Abilities: Athletics 6, Health 6, Preparedness 4, Scuffling 2,
Shooting 8
Scuffling Weapons/Damage: Fritz-Baton +1
Shooting Weapons/Damage: Disruption Pistol +1, Disruption
Grenades (3), Crick-Cracker, Distractor Beam.
Hit Threshold: 3
Typical Tech: Disguiser, Tether, Rosetta Chip; (Cybernetics) none; (Viroware) none
Alertness Modifier: -1
Stealth Modifier: +1
Savvy Modifier: -1


Interrogation of Militants

  • Interrogation – Gets the location of the Arms Dealers – Messina Station, near the edge of the Quirinal Cluster. They didn’t ask names, though. Smart, see. Needle in a haystack, innit.
  • Forensic Accounting – Trace the payment transaction through to a cash and loan terminal on Messina Station.
  • Respect – By feigning sympathy and respect for the Militants cause (something about water rights and marrying cousins, you’re not sure), the Militants get a bit more chatty and give you the name of a bar on Messina Station.

Encounter 2: Messina Station
The Lasers must find the weapons traders that the militants bought their weapons from.

Messina station is a crowded port, with minimal taxes, minimal security and maximum free trade. It considers itself a ‘grey port’, in that it doesn’t have any truck with super immoral trade. It reckons.

In the bustling port and market place, there are a number of people to speak to: Patrol Cops, Traders, Officials, Consumers, Drunks, Criminals, and the Homeless

  • Downside – Finding some ne’er do wells will give you a lead on non-combine approved arms trader – Go to The Jagger’s Arms Bar and ask for Scarewolf
  • Cop Talk – Lasers can find out that the local patrol walks past the Star Side port with their eyes closed, if you know what I mean. 1 Point Spend – The Patrol are on the take (obvs) and have been paid off by the Landlord of The Jagger’s Arms (A Balla called Omwi BarleyMalt). The main drive here is ‘this is our revenue stream, so don’t get involved, yeah’
  • Bullshit Detector – That is not a genuine [whatever the trader is selling], but that [other item] is, although it definitely did not have one previous owner. Will get a one time offer of a 25% discount if you do one.
  • Cybe Culture – Can be used to track down Scarewolf, and find out about his implants

Encounter 3: The Jagger’s Arms

The players may have been expecting a Mos Eisley-esque hive of scum and villainy. The Jagger’s Arms is a pleasant, if pretentious wine bar. Light piano plays in the corner. There is a mix of authentic wooden beams and neon. The drinks are all eye-wateringly expensive.

The barstaff on duty are:

Togud – a Tavak. Togud invites all new patrons to tell him a story of their travels or homeworld, and will surreptitiously knock a few credits off their first drink if they do. She is friendly, and dreams of one day travelling the stars, seeing the sights of the Bleed, and dispensing frontier justice, like her mother.
Togud is open to Flattery and Inspiration, and will happily share the stories of everyone else in the bar if so engaged.

Prch-Shk – a Kch-Thk. Prch-Shk takes food orders, and recommends everything “I know what you’re thinking… it sounds amazing. And it is!! I had three yesterday.” Also gives overly technical descriptions “It’s reptile ovulations, boiled, and then mixed with plant oil and tree resin. Mmmmm”.
Prch-Shk buys supplies in for The Jagger’s Arms, and often trades with the patrons that pass through. He can point out who trades in what, and how reasonable they are. He can be accessed with Downside and Negotiation and Reassurance.

Omwi Barleymalt – Omwi resides in the back office, and will only come out if specifically requested. He glides when he moves, and has an absolute absence of odour. He speaks circuitously, and will dodge any question that doesn’t pertain to the immediate services offered by his establishment. If anyone can use Forensic Accountancy on him, though, he’ll sing like a canary.

Scarewolf – An imposing, military build Cybe, sat in a booth at the back by himself. He is sipping a soda water with a slice of lemon. His eyes are constantly moving, tracking every patron as they move around the bar.

As the Lasers try to engage him, he’ll ask them who gave them his name. If they say ‘Bred Nougat’, then he’ll entertain them. Otherwise [Han Solo shooting Greedo.gif] pew pew….

Abilities: Athletics 8, Ground Craft 6, Health 6, Medic 6, Preparedness 6, Scuffling 6, Shooting 10, [Shipboard A] 10, [Shipboard B] 4
Scuffling Weapons/Damage: Claws +2 (Insureshield)
Shooting Weapons/Damage: Disruption Pistol +1, Arc Zapper, Aversionizer, Crick-Cracker, Beaconator, Distractor Beam, Stockholmer

Hit Threshold: 4 (5 with Deflector)
Typical Tech: (Comms) Personal Bluffer, Transmit Modder, Tether, Rosetta Chip; (Cybernetics) Autonomic Avenger, Amper, Berserker, Handgun, Internal Headset, Popclaws; (hand held) Espresser, Deflector, Holomask, Popper (2), (Viroware) Aggravator, Chameleon, Mr. Grey, Regenerate, Snakehisser, Scrambleface Ultra, Thirdeye
Alertness Modifier: +1
Stealth Modifier: +1
Savvy Modifier: +1

If the Lasers talk to Scarewolf, he’ll respond to Flattery, Negotiation and/or Respect.

If they have to fight him, then they need to use Interrogation, Intimidation and/or Law.

But what info does Scarewolf have? He’s a middle man. He deals on behalf of some dumb f*** scavengers who lucked into a big score. They have no idea what to do with the payload they got, so he stepped in, for a slice of the pie.

He picks the gear up from a dead drop site in an asteroid field in the Scylla OutZone – the Phorcus Field.

Scarewolf can provide to coordinates of the drop site, and contact the scavengers to arrange another load.

Anyone with Astronomy or History (Combine) will know that the Phorcus Field housed a profitable mining operation prior to The War, but was sripped bare by the opposing forces. Occasionally prospectors and scavengers will venture out there in the hopes of finding an untapped vein of ore, or usable mining equipment.

Encounter 4: The Trade on North Port

The party have negotiated an arms trade with Scarewolf. He has agreed to meet them in the North Port in three days.
Hamash followed him back to his ship, a Hauler called The Carmalita III. As Scarewolf prepped it for launch, Hamash planted Snails on the bridge, and phased out of the ship to escape.

The party are now waiting.
Scarewolf returns to the port a few hours ahead of their agreed rendezvous.

If the Lasers want to retrieve the Snails, they can either Infiltrate The Carmalita III, or they can defeat Scarewolf.

Scarewolf has the agreed goods – 20 prototype Combine Military Disruptor Rifles, stored in secured crates. He’ll pass the access codes over when he gets the other 2/3rds of his payment (13 BigCreds).

Info from the Snails – The data is clear all the time that Scarewolf is not on the bridge. Whenever he is present, the image becomes pixelated and the audio corrupts.

Astronomy will allow the Lasers to interpret the partial data from the Snails and map Scarewolf’s journey to the moon cluster in the Scylla OutZone. The finer detail is lost. The Lasers could attempt to use Bio Signatures and Energy Signatures to locate the Scavengers that Scarewolf mentioned.

If the Lasers gain access to The Carmalita III, they can use Data Retrieval to hack the navigation computer and extract the ships precise course.

If the Lasers fight and defeat Scarewolf, he will turn over the location of the Scavengers and the name of their leader (Jab Novak), under Interrogation

Encounter 5: The Scylla Outzone / Moon Cluster

The Lasers travel to an unnamed moon cluster in the Scylla OutZone. The moons orbit a visibly Ashen Star.

History – Combine will tell the Lasers that this area once held a series of profitable mining colonies, until the planets themselves where physically obliterated at the height of the Mohilar War. There are tales of Meson Shrapnel effects in the area, as well as the Ashen Stars phenomenon.

Energy Signatures will show that there are a number of baffling interferences in the energy signature readouts. There’s an ebb and flow to them. Some readings are dampened or entirely blocked, whereas others are returning 200% clarity.

If the Lasers have the precise coordinates of the Scavengers base, then they can fly straight there.

If they need to rely on Energy and Bio Signatures to find the base, a 1-point spend from either Energy Signatures or Bio Signatures, plus a Difficulty 6 Helm Control roll is required to successfully pilot the ship between the moons and scan the area for signs of life / activity.

When the Lasers find the Scavenger base, the Scavengers are not expecting them.

The Scavengers will challenge the Lasers as they disembark / become aware of them.

A relevant Interpersonal spend of 1+ will prevent immediate bloodshed.

They will suspiciously discuss trade with the Lasers, but will not allow them to enter the ruins in which they found the weapons cache.

They twitch a bit when they talk about the ruins.

If the Lasers try to get past them, or coerce them, then it will deteriorate into a fight.

The Scavenger Leader is a human called Jab Novak

There are at least 10 Scavengers.

Scavengers
Abilities: Athletics 10, Ground Craft 6, Health 3, Medic 4, Preparedness 4, Scuffling 8, Shooting 4, Systems Repair 4
Scuffling Weapons/Damage: Hand-held mining tech +1
Shooting Weapons/Damage: Disruption Pistol +1
Hit Threshold: 4
Typical Tech: Headset, Tether, Rosetta Chip; (Cybernetics) none; Espresser, Spacesuit; (Viroware) none
Alertness Modifier: +0
Stealth Modifier: +0
Savvy Modifier: +1


I didn’t write up a plan for the final session – I assumed that the players would resolve the scavenger issue with cunning and ingenuity.
Here’s what they did…

They landed, spoke to the scavengers and convinced them that they were interested in buying some illicit Disruption Rifles, and that Scarewolf had sent them.
They waited patiently for the scavengers to get back, and discussed what they were going to do next.
They realised that they didn’t actually have a plan. They couldn’t afford to buy the weapons, so things would go South as soon as the scavengers returned with the goods.
What to do, what to do…

So they decided to sneak around the camp and plant explosives on vital infrastructure.
Then they took off in their own ship and strafed the camp with fire from its onboard weapons. They also detonated the hidden explosive charges, effectively slaughtering the scavengers still in base camp.

The rest of the scavengers had gone down an old mine network to get the guns, so they followed them.
Inside they found the wreckage of a Combine warship from the Mohilar war, and something else.
Their brains hurt when they looked at it, and they had blackouts whenever they thought about it too hard – time would progress without their knowledge.
They were stood over the bodies of the last remaining scavengers (who were wearing blindfolds for some reason) then they’re back on their ship, then they’re in orbit, then they’re on their way to Ossa One.

What stands out the most to me about this short arc, is that the players went out of their way to avoid conflict, extending the length of each session so that they could explore every possible solution, and not just dispense the two fisted justice of frontier law.
Then in the last encounter, they visibly said ‘Fuck it’ and just killed everything.
Indiscriminately.

I mean, it worked…

Nazi Goth-Punks Fuck Off?

I think Vampire: the Masquerade was the first RPG I really cared about. I kidded myself that I really cared about Ars Magica, but I was only in love with my perception of the game, not the game itself. 
To be honest, I probably didn’t love V:tM, but I played it and ran it for long enough that it wore a big comfortable dent in my heart. 

I started University properly in ’96, and V:tM Revised came out in ’98. This means that I spent my first year and a half at Uni’ playing 2nd Ed and growing more and more frustrated with the groups Storyteller. He continually got the rules wrong, played favourites, and had story arcs that made no sense. 
I also spent some time watching another, more ‘mature’ group play. They focused on the story, didn’t use character sheets, and handwaved the rules. I wasn’t allowed to play, only watch, because I was “too immature and childish” (in truth I totally was, but being told that at the time was hard pill to swallow).
So when Revised came out, presenting a perfect onboarding opportunity, I bought it, and a shit ton of the supplements, read them thoroughly, and ran it and ran it and ran it. 

I was a shit storyteller to begin with. At first I thought a story would magically write itself. I thought that as long as we all knew the rules and had characters, then the magic would happen we’d all have Gothic-Punk fun. 
It took maybe three attempts at running a campaign before I started thinking about maybe prepping some set pieces and defining a world and I dunno having things that happen for a reason other than to move to the next encounter. 
For someone studying Creative Writing at degree level, I was surprisingly bad at narrative design. 

Now that I look back, I see that one of the things about Vampire: the Masquerade that captured my imagination was the dichotomy inherent in the setting: Gothic-Punk. Sadness and Anger. Ephemeral Beauty and Aggressive Utility. Romanticism and Ideology. Convention and Anarchy. 
You could do a lot with that. The main social conflict is already set up – controlling tradition, and its associated support and power, vs rebellious freedom, and the marvellous options it provides.
As a player, I enjoyed playing the monster; revelling in the bacchanal of vampiric life, flicking two fingers up at authority. 
As a Storyteller, I enjoyed telling stories in which new vampires struggled to hold onto themselves and their Humanity, whilst forging a new path, separate from the psychotic anarchists and the sociopathic status quo. 

I had a mix of players, and that was great. No one leant to any great extremes on the scale, and some enjoyed shifting their position on it as play progressed. 
Some wanted to play Vampire to be dark heroes in a darker world. Some to be tragic victims of their uncontrollable desires. Others to be monstrous weapons pointed at the heart of evil. Some wanted their characters to find that elusive balance and just be. Some wanted to supplant the cold inhuman predators at the top of the food chain. 

And then there’s the metaplot. 
The classic World of Darkness often assumed that the supernatural had a hand in most world events. It became an inevitability that every organisation would be run by a Camarilla, Technocracy, Glass Walker or similar conspiracy. Humans were never at the top. They were pawns or cattle. 
This was kind of fine. Nothing was kind of immediate. Sure, there were Sabbat vampires fighting with the Germans in WWII, but they were bad people. Nazis were the bad guys, and the Sabbat were the bad guys. They were both the bad guys. 

Then 9/11 happened, just as White Wolf were preparing to publish New York by night. 
They immediately delayed production and took a long hard look at what was happening in the world, what they were planning to publish, and how they interacted. 
In the end they published NYbN as originally planned, with references to the irl tragedy in the foreword. The book steered clear of the controversies of real world outrage, and the gameline did not suffer as a result. 

The publishers and gameline developers recognised the bad thing, considered it, and made an informed decision to avoid it. They were respectful, and no one was offended.

Cover art for New York by Night

All of this is to say: I have a few opinions and observations about the current controversy at White Wolf/Paradox and the new V5 edition
It’s worth noting that the last Vampire product I bought was the V20 edition. I’ve read Requiem properly, and skim read the V5 playtest rules. So I’m not basing any of this on a detailed read of the books in question. 
Yes, here’s my detailed opinion about something I’ve not read. I’m that guy…

  1. What the fuck, guys!? I mean, c’mon. Really?
  2. How can you fuck up an IP like this? 
  3. I really understand that, as a publisher trying to revive a previously insanely popular and relevant brand such as Vampire: the Masquerade, you want to keep as many people happy as possible, and to appeal to as broad a fanbase as you can. I understand that any bad press will negatively impact sales. Therefore WW will be doing everything they can to get in front of the problem, mitigate any damage, and repair any bridges. 
  4. I don’t think they’re neo-nazis. They might be edge-lords, but again I don’t think that even edge-lords as stupid enough to believe that they can revive the brand by targeting the cash rich, empathy low edge-lord demographic. They know that they need to shift a fuck ton of units, and are probably mortified that all this bad press is derailing the fairly expensive IP train before it pulls into money station.
  5. Reading the comments of Facebook and Twitter, responding to WW’s statement today and their earlier initial statement, I can see that a significant proportion of respondents are the absolute worst dregs of humanity, more concerned with getting their sweaty hands on the books they’ve paid for rather than how an actual living breathing human being may be feeling. 
  6. I find that I do not want to put myself in a place where I want to be associated with, or potentially interact with, these bottom feeding CHUDs, and therefore have no interest in V5 or the other WW owned properties like Mage, whereas previously I was cautiously excited.
  7. I am saddened by this, as some of the ideas I’ve seen in V5 look nifty. And I kind of wanted a set of the dice.
  8. A lot of the vitriol seems to be directed at named individuals. I find myself wondering how people know which individuals to attack. Has the author of the 1488 sidebar been identified? What about the author who wrote the section implying that suicide victims are weak willed? Do we know who they are? Who wrote the section on the atrocities being inflicted on Chechnya’s LGBTQ communities? I mean, the core book contributors are listed as: Developed, designed, and written by Kenneth Hite, Mark Rein-Hagen, Matthew Dawkins, Juhanna Peterson, Martin Ericsson, Karim Muammar, Karl Bergström, Jennifer Smith, Jason Andrew, and Jason Carl. I don’t see Kenneth Hite getting any shit, and he was the Lead Designer. 
  9. The original games attracted a wide range of players, including those that wanted an outlet to express their sexuality and/or play alternative orientations. If that’s an established section of your fanbase, why would you possibly want to alienate them with a half-cocked flirtation with extreme right wing ideology?

So, in summary: I don’t give a fuck if you have to wait an extra three weeks for your book. If this is the worst thing you can imagine happening to you, then maybe take a moment to reflect on how good a life you lead, and how you’re not being tortured in a death camp whilst some prick on the other side of the planet asserts that reference to your suffering and violation of your human rights makes a role-playing game better.
Also, if you want to check out a vampire game by Kenneth Hite that is really good but doesn’t have any moral or ethical questions hanging over it, then maybe pick up a copy of Night’s Black Agents from Pelgrane Press. 

Star Wars: Operation Triple Zero

We had a break in our normal scheduled game of Monster of the Week, so I ran a Star Wars one shot as a filler.
I don’t like or own (for Reasons) any of the FFG Star Wars books, and whilst I do have a copy of the Saga Edition rules, life is too short to stat up a bunch of characters for a one shot. 
Instead I used Star Worlds, a cut down Powered by the Apocalypse hack inspired by John Harper’s World of Dungeons. There’s an embedded file below that totally is not a malicious exe file. Scout’s honour…
I originally found it here, but seeing as it points to a G+community…

Star Worlds is an imperfect hack, and could do with another pass at editing, but it’s fun for a one shot. 
It’s got six base classes – Jedi, Soldier, Outlander, Scoundrel, Nobel and Droid (Droids are also a species) – and 15 distinct species. 
Each species gets some flavour, and some Skills. 
Every Class gets two Abilities as well.

Look, just read the rules. There are only 21 pages FFS.

Anyway, it’s a simplified ruleset, and lends itself to quick char gen and play. That it’s a one shot game as well, that means that I don’t need to care if the rules are rubbish or not. 

I’ve recently been accused of over preparing my RPG sessions, so to prove them wrong, I mocked up a mission briefing in Google Slides (embedded below as a converted PowerPoint deck). 

The Set-up
It is immediately after The Battle of Endor. The PCs are a Rebel Cell based on Coruscant. As word reaches them of the death of Palpatine, they hatch a plan to retake the Imperial Palace and loot  reclaim any treasures, knowledge, plans or objects of cultural importance that may lay within. 
Here’s the mission outline I wrote (remember, I do not overprep)

Entrance:
Blazing battle between Rebel forces and civilians, and the Imperial remnants at the main entrance. Team to enter via unmarked side entrance. “Intel is good, the codes shouldn’t have refreshed”
Entrance patrolled by Imperial spy droids and has automated defences.
Need to sneak past sentries [Guile] and disable defences [Acuity].

Leads to

Comms Room:
2 Stormtroopers
1 Imperial Agent (Officer)
Comms Room allows partial access to security systems for Palpatine’s quarters.
Camera’s show Stormtroopers attention is focused on external events.
No cameras in Palpatine’s private quarters or in the Throne Room.
Only visibility of corridors linking them

Leads to

Main Corridor:
A once ornate hallway, now stripped back to bare walls. Discolouration and dust show where pictures and decorations and finery stood for decades.
1 Protocol droid found walking in circles, its leg and head partially damaged.
C-3LR (reader, they shot and killed C-3LR on sight)

Protocol Droid curated The Emperor’s cultural archives – art, science, history, philosophy, music, particularly Opera. As news of the Emperor’s demise reached the palace, many of the officers deserted, and some took to looting,
The house guard prevented any loss, damaging the Curator in the process.

Leads to

Throne Room:
Ranking Imperial Officer sits on the Emperor’s Throne, flanked by other Officers and Civilian staff.
Civilians cower on one knee to the side.
Bodies of Stormtroopers and Officers lie on the floor, to one side.
3 Imperial Agents
1 Stormtrooper
Officers are addressing a screen – team can see other Imperial Officers at other locations.
Officer on Throne is barking “Hold Fast” “Brook no dissent” “Execute all traitors” “The Empire lives on” “This is an organisational change, nothing more”

Moff Vender La is attempting to assume command.
Revelation that codes to the palace were leaked to Rebels to draw them out following the expected triumph of the Empire at the Endor ambush.

Leads to

Palaptine’s Private Quarters:
2 Imperial Guards
2 Stormtroopers
Self Destruct Sequence
Loot
Celebration / medals / fireworks / making out with a Wookie

So how did they do?

They did OK. I fucked up a couple of times because I’ve never run a PbtA game before, and have no idea what is an easy encounter, what’s a challenge and what is suicidally insane. 
They took a fair amount of time gaining access to the palace. I kept trying to give them opportunities to dress up as Stormtroopers, which was their original plan, but they re-jigged the plan to be ‘walk brazenly into each room and shoot any imperials’.
It worked well enough. 

Between them they were playing a Human Scoundrel, a Trandoshan Soldier and an infiltration droid. 
They relied heavily on the infiltration droid to get close to the enemy and then strike them with a concealed blade or blaster. 

The droid was destroyed in the penultimate encounter. She fell down one of the seemingly bottomless shaft that Imperial architects are so fond of after failing an attack roll with a thermal detonator. 
She opted to self destruct on the way done, which I decided required a Spirit roll. Her player passed, but with a Problem, so I ruled that the act of self destruction momentarily overclocked her heuristic processor, and she achieved a state of pure understanding and enlightenment. And then blew up and crashed to the solid ground below.

The Scoundrel nearly died in Palpatine’s quarters, as a red robed Imperial Guard impaled him through a wall with a vibro spear.
Luckily, the Trandoshan Soldier opted to spend a Hero Point and use the Interceptor ability to take his human friend’s damage for him instead. He still had 10 out of 12 vitality.

By the time we got to the final encounter, we were one PC down and had run out of time, so I hand-waved the ending, which is a shame. 

Dungeons and Dragons: The Opposite of Fire two session catch up bonanza

It’s been [counts] many much time since I wrote about D&D. March. This year. So not a year yet. Some many much weeks. Multiple months. 5 months. Not even half a year. No time at all. Virtually yesterday, or so it seems.
What’s the rush?
Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Since I last wrote about The Opposite of Fire, we’ve had two whole sessions. They were great fun. You should have been there. Brilliant. Wondrous.

I think we left the last session with two separate groups of Cormyrian War Wizards teleporting into the ruins of Sember, as hordes of Kobolds poured out to surround our ‘heroes’.

I set up a fairly exciting* battle map using my trusty old Pathfinder dry wipe grid, some wooden building blocks, dry erase pens, a cut out grid map of a boat and some miscellaneous bits of scenery, hopefully depicting the lake shore, and the remains of a pathway leading into a ruined temple, with scattered remains of monuments and statues, shallow pools formed in the foundations of toppled monoliths, and a jetty built from the remains of a toppled monolith.

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Plenty of cover, plenty of height advantages, mixed terrain, lines of sight, and goals.
You may note two groups of three figures on the map. These are the War Wizards teleported in towards the end of the previous session. The group closest to the center, in the path of pillars leading to the temple, are the Wizards summoned when Jov (the Rogue) interfered with a magic ring he found in a pot of water suspended above a shrine. The second group, off to the side, are the group summoned when he activated Marlowe’s ring (which he stole in the previous session).
Whilst they are both Cormyrian War Wizards, the two groups have conflicting orders – The first group are responding to a standard distress call from Colonel Karlsson, and may also want to drag him in for being AWOL; the second group are Black Ops and are responding to a summon from Marlowe’s ring. They are fully aware of Marlowe’s mission to gank Karlsson.

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With all the Kobolds attacking, the players had a reasonable expectation that the heavily armed NPC wizards would make everything better again with some fireball driven deus ex machina.
Instead the Wizards spotted each other, and quickly secured a small section of the battlefield before debriefing each other and then debating union rules.
Who has authority? What are your orders? I am not at liberty to discuss my orders. What is your security clearance? Who is your CO? etc etc etc
Leaving the rest of the juicy battle to the players.

Because I’d had so much fun with the Kobold Inventor the previous session, I threw another one in, as well as a selection of Kobold Dragonshields, Kobold Sorcerers, Winged Kobolds, and regular Kobolds. The regular Kobolds died fairly quickly, as did the Winged Kobolds. The Sorcerers lasted a little longer, but were kind of boring. The Dragonshield put up a good fight against our Fighter, Regina of Fairfield, before falling.
But the real star of the show was the Kobold Inventor, who used cover to his advantage, and threw a sack of wasps at the party (they jokingly guessed ‘bees’, then howled in delight and horror when it was revealed to be wasps instead). When he finally died, a lone skunk escaped from the wreckage and ran off into the woods to great rejoicing from the party.
We also noted how fucking hard Tomgrir the Dwarven Cleric of the Forge is. Ant, his player, rolled really really well at character creation, so he’s rocking Str 19, Wis 20, Stm 18, stuff like that. With his warhammer and his +1 enchantment from the Forge, he’s dishing out more damage in hand to hand melee than the Fighter, is much harder to hit, has significantly more HP, and is more likely to hit as well. He’s a literal tank, with healing.
I will be upping the CR of any encounters he takes part in.

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After the battle, the players interacted with the War Wizards, who were primarily interested in:

  • Where is Colonel Karlsson?
  • Where is Captain Marlowe?
  • What happened to the crew of the Cerberus?
  • Who are you people and what are you doing in a war zone?

The War Wizards then spent some time trying to comprehend the answers they were being given…
“You’re transporting a corpse, through a war zone, down a river that stops about halfway to your destination, at a nearly impassable mountain range, and you just happened to hitch a ride with one of Cormyr’s best assassins, and you think this is plausible?”

By this time people had started asking about Marlowe, and where he was. The party last saw him trapped in a bamboo cage hung from the ruins’ ceiling, and were quite happy to leave him there.
Marlowe is no longer in the cage.
After a search, he is found, emerging from Karlsson’s quarters, machete in hand, in a state of visible shock.

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Marlowe, being iconic and batshit insane

The assembled War Wizards, primarily of the second contingent, surround Marlowe and take him into custody.
The party rush into Karlsson’s quarters to survey the damage, and find him dead on the floor. Their reaction: investigate (loot) Karlsson’s quarters.

The Horror

Karlsson, being dead, yet still maddeningly inspirational

I roll on the loot table, and roll well. They get 4 Art Objects, each worth 50gp, and some magic snacky items: A Dagger or Warning, an Amulet of Proof Against Detection, and a Cloak of Protection.
Somehow the party democratically decide that Jov is the most appropriate person to have the Dagger and Amulet, and Dio gets the Cloak (because he’s basically topless, and it stacks with his Dragon Scale AC).

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I am always gladdened by the fact that Giant Goat’s exist in D&D

We ended the session with the Party, Greynora, Matrice and the late Devon Harding catching a lift back to Cormyr with the first group of War Wizards.

For the next session, I took a different planning approach – I plotted out the session in a Google Doc, printed it out, and ran it from that.

Here’s the intended session. I’ve added notes in bold italics on how it actually played out.
It is worth noting that Jov’s player, Ken, couldn’t make it this session, so Jov snuck off into the city at the earliest possible opportunity. I intend to run Ken through the Downtime activities section in Xanathar’s Guide, specifically the Crime ones, next session.

Structure: Roleplay / Backstory / Plot foreshadowing > Funeral > Roleplay > Undead > Roleplay This bit makes no sense, yet seems like it should…

Party are assigned a member of the War Wizards, an overly enthusiastic 13yo apprentice wizard called Edgar Tenser (I didn’t want to be a Wizard, I wanted to be a Bard, but it’s the family business, and after Great Grandpapa invented the Disc…), to supervise and guide them whilst enjoying military hospitality. Edgar will be a doomed love interest for a recurring NPC**

I also need to introduce the current Queen, Raedra Obarskyr, and the possibility of plots against her. I did this somehow, yet cannot quite remember how…

Debrief: There’s some confusion as to who the party are and who they work for. Some assume that they were with Marlowe, others that they were with Karlsson, others that they are agents of the opposing faction of War Wizards. The explanation that they were trying to transport a body to Suzail is met with blank incomprehension.

There is also confusion as to what Dio and Tomgrir are doing. Are they deserters? Are they permanently assigned to the Harding party? Are the Hardings part of the Purple Dragon Knights?

Party are given basic quarters in a keep on the East wall of Suzail, although they are expected to find their own lodgings in short order. This presents a challenge, as the Hardings are effectively broke.

They are assigned a Liason – Edgar Tenser, an apprentice Wizard. Edgar is training to be a War Wizard, but at the moment is running errands and escorting possibly dangerous dissidents. Gosh. Edgar’s portrayal went from ‘Angus McDonald‘ to ‘frustrated adult surrogate’ within the first interaction. 

Shopping opportunity! Sell the art objects they looted from Karlsson’s quarters, and buy some cool shit…

Matrice has three objectives now that they’re in Suzail

  1. Inter Devon Harding in the Obarskyr Mausoleum (situated within the Grand Necropolis, outside Suzail), with some pomp and circumstance
  2. Arrange a suitable suitor for Greynora
  3. Arrange a suitable suitor for herself

Matrice employs Dio and Tomgrir to assist in Goal 1, and Regina and Vash to assist in Goals 2 and 3.

Dio & Tomgrir are asked to speak to the High Priest of the Necropolis and arrange the funeral: The High Priest, Talling Lowspire, is sympathetic, but it cannot be done. The Necropolis is still being rebuilt after suffering extensive damage during the war, and his schedule is absolutely chock full. His deputy, Franklin, is busy overseeing the restoration of the catacombs. After some persuasion, he acquisces to releasing a trainee Acolyte, Gallows, to conduct the ceremony. “After all, Lord Harding was hardly Royalty…”

Regina and Vash are asked to deliver letters to noble households across Suzail: They need to register as Adventurers to carry weapons and armour through Cormyr. They will be challenged by guard patrols and must produce documentation or face fine and/or arrest. Adventurers must apply for registration at the Royal bureaucracy.
The letters being delivered are letters of introduction, announcing Greynora and Matrice’s presence, eligibility and availability within Suzail.

So what actually went down? Reggie and Vash, both being blue-blooded nobles, instantly assumed that they had the right to carry weapons in Suzail, irregardless of the Adventurers Licence requirements. Guards tried to stop them. They blinked in incomprehension at these outlandish requirements. “But we’re Nobility – surely these ‘rules’ do not apply to us?” Edgar had to guarantee their passage and take responsibility for them before they were arrested, and thrown out of the city. No one challenged Dio and Tomgrir, because they’re obviously members of the Purple Dragon Knights, therefore legit. This aggrieved Reggie and Vash even more. 

The Funeral: a simple ceremony. No eulogies are read. Matrice lays a simple red rose on Devon’s coffin as it is sealed in the tomb. Greynora cries.

Reggie did deliver a eulogy, because she felt that it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t very good (Gemma rolled poorly on the Performance check), which was in fact perfect. 

As they walk out of the mausoleum, Matrice tells Greynora “Good news. Salor Bleth has invited us to dine with him and his son, Jasper, at the end week. They are both highly eligible, so this is a wonderful opportunity for us both. I would like you to practice to oration and dancing before then…”

Greynora pauses for a moment, and runs off into the Necropolis.

The Catacombs: Greynora runs into the ruins; a section of the Necropolis partially burnt and demolished by the recent war. Scaffolding and canvas sheets cover buildings and monuments as they undergo repairs.

Greynora’s tracks lead into a collapsed and down to the catacombs beneath.

The catacombs here are much older than the Mausoleum the party were just in.

The party moved through the catacombs, following Greynora’s tracks in the dust. They found murdered workers and craftsmen, and evidence of more people entering the deeper depths. They fought a Ghoul, a Shadow, and a couple of Crawling Claws, then found a room with Skeletons, Zombies, Cultists, and a Cult Fanatic. Greynora was hiding in the room, watching them. As the Cult Fanatic became aware of the party’s presence, he ordered his minions to attack whilst he fled in to a further room. Greynora followed him, with Vash in tow.
We ended the session there.

  • Shadow. MM 269. CR 0.5 (100xp)
  • Skeletons. MM 272. CR 0.25 (50xp)
  • Crawling Claw(s). MM 44. CR 0 (10xp)
  • Ghoul. MM 148. CR 1 (200xp)
  • Zombies. MM 316. CR 0.25 (50xp)
  • Cultists. MM 345. CR 0.125 (25xp)
  • Cult Fanatic. MM 345. CR 2 (450xp)
  • [REDACTED]. CR 5 (1,800xp)
  1. Encounter 1: Ghoul, Shadow, 2 Crawling Claws (320xp)
  2. Encounter 2: 5 Cultists, 2 Skeletons, 2 Zombies (325xp)
  3. Encounter 3: Cult Fanatic, Crawling Claw (460xp)
  4. Encounter 4: [REDACTED] (1,800xp)

2,905xp total
726xp each
Plus roleplay awards

The combat encounters within the catacombs went well, from my perspective. Vash rolled badly, and was reduced to 1 HP (again). Everyone else took some hits and handed out some damage. My only gripe would be that the combat was not that dynamic – the party formed a line and held it, the undead dutifully attacked the line. No one used movement or special abilities. It was OK.

The next session will pick up with the rest of the party following Greynora and Vash into the final chamber, and confronting the Cult Fanatic and [REDACTED].
We’ll then (hopefully) cut to Jov and establish what he’s been doing for the last week or so. Hijinks will no doubt ensue, as well as some uncomfortable anti-halfling racism.

That… that’s not a very good strapline to end on…

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*I think
**Ssssshhh the players do not know this yet…

Mage: The Awakening sessions 10 – 14 End of Season summary

I am well and truly behind on my ‘actual play’ blogging of Mage. Five sessions, including the finale, and two months behind. I ran ‘I Like Birds’ on the 14th May, and I’m writing this on the 24th July.
That’s pretty poor going. Not as far behind as I am with my D&D game, but I’m not looking to set records here…

What I’m going to do here is abandon the Start/Events/End format of previous posts (which was just a crutch to help me get back into writing again anyway) and talk about intentions, plans, and how the players pissed over it all.

I go into games with a set of intentions: a very rough plot outline, some key characters and interactions, some set pieces, and very little else. Sometimes I’ll plot out a detailed session – I did that in my most recent D&D session (and the fact that it’s a detailed, typed document means that I can re-use most of it as a blog post – win!), but find that open world games like World/Chronicles of Darkness find ways to confound that. Detailed session plans work well for Gumshoe games (because procedural clue gathering) and for settings where the GM informs the game world, as opposed to modern settings where players can pull up wikipedia articles, google street views, and draw on personal experience to inform the game world. In D&D, players are reliant on the DM to tell them what the local tavern is called and if it’s rough or not. In a game set in the real world, chances are that they can tell you.
Anyway, I digress. I sometimes produce detailed session plans. I have not been doing so for Mage.

For Mage: the Awakening I have tried to adopt a sandbox approach. I’ve tried to present options to explore, which the players can accept or reject. Kind of like mission selection in Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto. They could opt to follow a main plot line, do a number of side quests, or just dick around stealing shit.

In the first session, I tried presenting them with three different stories to investigate:

  1. Jon-Anthony bought a magical storm lamp from a carboot sale. The item is mildly haunted (they’ve still not bothered figuring out what to do about the ghost or what the haunted lamp does), and sold to them by witch hunters, who, fully aware of the magical nature of the lamp, were using it as bait to lure in wizards.
  2. A possible case of magical coercion involving an apprentice Mage and a local teenaged girl. This is the one they followed, and formed the backbone of the first 14 sessions.
  3. A local Mage tries to recruit them to reclaim a series of magical grimoires. They walked right passed the guy, and didn’t look at this job until a lull a few sessions later.

What I have come to understand is that my players like direction. They do well when they have a sense of purpose, a goal. The Donnal plot, and the Consilium politics plotline it opened up, gave them something to go at. Maybe not anything that is necessarily in their wheelhouse, but they gave it a good try…

So, as stated in the last entry, I expected the Cabal to regroup and follow the huge signs saying ‘plot resolution and end battle this way’.
Instead they went and checked on Tall Les. Tall Les is adjacent to the plot. He is in no way pivotal or essential. He is not a key player.
So, yeah, let’s check on him.

Tall Les
So, Tall Les was skipping town, or at least getting out of his house, when a bunch of Witch Hunters attacked him. They got the initial upper hand, but that quickly shifted as Tall Les transformed himself into grotesque battle form, tore them up, and made one guy’s heart explode. He then exited into the Shadow to avoid further pursuit.
The Cabal found the exploded heart guy in the bathtub. Jon-Anthony then stepped up: He summoned the dead hunter’s ghost and interrogated it, dissolved the corpse so there was no evidence, and banished the ghost afterwards.
Then, more hunters attacked – they’d been waiting outside for Tall Les to reappear or more Mages to turn up.
The Hunters flashbanged the bathroom, and took up tactical positions at the foot of the stairs. Donar lightning bolted one, which gave them pause for thought.
Then Jon-Anthony turned himself into a ghost, and walked around, immaterial and ethereal, and used Death to turn the Hunters into temporary corpses.
Which to everyone else, looked as though these mortals were just dropping dead for no reason.
This freaked the Hunters out somewhat.
Hopper used the opportunity to run down the stairs, do a fancy jump kick thing, and floor one of the remaining Hunters. Donar decided to forgo the lightning bolts and just shoulder barge one guy – this resulted in a Hunter falling backwards through a glass table, and a bookshelf falling on him.
In the ensuing chaos, Hopper grabbed a shotgun, the Cabal ran out the door, into their car, and were away.

Granny’s House
At this point, the Cabal did decide to take stock of the situation, regroup at home, then head of over to Granny’s farm.
Finally!
When they got there, they found Granny and her allies (Basically a farmhand called ‘Alice’ and many many spirits) tooling up for action. Granny seemed charged – her hair was floating, her fingers and feet talons – I tried to describe her like angry Yubaba from Spirited Away without saying ‘angry Yubaba from Spirited Away’.Yubaba

Granny gave the Cabal a choice: Side with the Consilium (and by association, the Golden Trinity), or side with her.
The Cabal all went ‘oh, no, we’re good’ and took the third option, which was to have a pint down the Winchester and wait for all this to blow over…

Winchester

The Cabal’s plan, in its entirety

So they ran out the house, piled into the Bentley, and drove off.
As they did, the house grew chicken legs, bees swarmed around, Alice transformed into a Werewolf, the river swelled and took humanoid form, animals and birds gathered on the edge of the farm, the clouds parted and the moon descended as a luminescent woman with a sword.
Winston floored it…

As they neared the end of the dirt road leading back to the village, two transit vans drove past. Winston pulled over to let them through, and collectively the Cabal scanned the passengers and contents…

Inside they identified:

  • Two misc thugs
  • Two members of the members of the Golden Trinity – Miranda and Jill
  • Tall Les
  • A Fire Elemental
  • An Ice Elemental (in separate vans)

They caught a fleeting glimpse of Tall Les as the van passed them – his face was streaming with tears.
It turns out that the presence of Tall Les was enough to spur them into action. Despite him never having done a thing for them, and generally being a wet blanket who always looked to other people to solve his problems, they regarded him as a friend, and someone they actually wanted to help.
Who’da thunk it. *(see footnote)

John Kelly identified and closed off a sympathetic link to Tall Les from another location, in an attempt to prevent any further (presumed) external control of Les. Dave, his player, rolled well, and slammed an iron door down on the connection.
Seconds later, the second transit van stopped, and a large ice golem got out.
FROZEN-ICE-MONSTER-570

There was a fight. To be honest, it didn’t last long against five Mages, two of which are Obrimos. The Bentley was wrecked, though.

With the car on its side with a broken axle, the Cabal reviewed their policy of non-intervention.
Basically, it was shot. They were in it now, they’d chosen a side, so they started walking back up towards the farm.
The farm itself was silent. They could see it in the distance, but could see no signs of battle, or of a farmhouse walking along with chicken legs.
Looking at it again with their Mage Sight, they realised that a giant magical dome sat over the farm, preventing sound and sight from escaping and alerting the mundane population.
As they crossed the boundary, they saw things as they were: the farm lay in ruins, some hundred feet or so away from where it should be. A Fire Elemental wrestled a River Spirit in a roiling cloud of scalding steam. Alice (presumably), in Werewolf battle form, fought the two handy lads – one armed with a Roman sword and shield, the other with a Celtic axe.
The Cabal kind of passively observed for a second, before deciding to assist Alice and the River Spirit. They tipped the scales in favour of their allies, without stepping into the combat zone. The Fire Elemental was extinguished, and the River Spirit returned to the river; the two thugs were killed, and Alice dragged one body off like a cat with a bird.

Moving on, they found Miranda’s body, swollen from bee stings and anaphylactic shock. Bees still swarmed around her.
The Cabal moved on.

Investigating the large tractor and storage barn to the side of the house, they found Donnal and Tall Les, locked in battle. Donnal had reshaped his body to something like a Bear and an Oak Tree – huge muscles, fur and bark, claws like branches; Les was giant like, with spindly limbs that he swung like clubs. With every blow he rained on Donnal, he sobbed and said how sorry he was.
The Cabal looked on in horror as Donnal pushed his master back, crushed him with a tractor, and then impaled him with slender wooden claws that shot from his hands.
This was not the Donnal they knew and had grown to be infuriated by.
As his life ebbed away, Les praised Donnal, told him how proud he was, and thanked him.
The Cabal left Donnal with Les, and went looking for Angela, Jill, and Granny, the pieces as yet unaccounted for.
Somehow, I can’t remember how, the Cabal ended up with Tall Les’s Soul Stone – a hip flask with sizeable dent in it. Maybe it was on Miranda’s corpse. Nevermind, the important thing is that the Cabal got hold of it.

John Kelly traced the influence on Tall Les, via his Soul Stone, back to an enclosed, small room, and the Cabal decided that the best thing to do would be to teleport directly to it. That’s fair enough. Cut to the chase – drop in on Angela or Jill, kick their ass(es) and save the day.
But they weren’t there – they dropped into a shed at the end of Granny’s garden, yards away from the destroyed chicken house and next to the pond that Donar and Hopper first emerged from.
A quick investigation roll augmented by Mage Sight suggested that Angela had vacated the position moments earlier, and couldn’t be far away (presuming she travelled by mundane means).

Surveying the wreckage around them, they heard sounds of battle from nearby, and found a hidden entrance beneath Granny’s house.
When the house was in its original position, this entrance would have been a hidden room. Now that the house has shifted a few metres to the left, it’s a hole in the ground, loosely covered by rubble.

The entrance becomes a brick lined passage, which becomes a rough hewn tunnel, before opening up into a large natural cavern.
It is immediately obvious that it’s here that Granny has established her Sanctum, and possibly a Demesne. In the centre of the cavern a tall stalagmite rises some 10 feet off the floor. Atop it sits a verdant green plant, like an ivy in bloom with a rose. A green glow emanates from it and illuminates the cavern. Patches of the cavern wall are embedded with large crystals that reflect and refract the green light. Humanoid images move inside them like holograms.

feature196a_cavernOfSouls

A bit like this, but more verdant, and with spooky crystals on the walls

On the other side of the cavern, Granny, Angela and Jill are locked in battle. Angela is clearly bolstering Jill with enchantments, Jill is using a knife to attack Granny, and Granny is defending herself with magic and a staff.
As is now par for the course with the Cabal, they take a few moments to take stock of the scene, and to discuss tactics, motives, consequences, and their own personal inclination.
They decide that Granny is splitting her attention between defence and casting an active spell. She is not fighting back against Angela and Jill, instead she is concentrating he attention on a swelling mound of earth at her feet.

Amazingly, the Cabal take action. They decide that if computer RPGs have ever taught them anything, it’s ‘take out the caster first’, so Donar lightening blasts Angela, Winston Blue confuses her, John Kelly curses Angela, Hopper punches Jill, and Jon-Anthony turns into a ghost.
Hopper pushes Jill into a pool of water and then freezes the water solid. She then decks Jill, who falls unconscious. Angela casts a ranged Curing spell on Jill, who wakes up and starts trying to free herself. Jon-Anthony then casts a horrific decomposition spell on Jill, causing her flesh to rot and slough off her bones. She falls unconscious again.
Winston, Donar and John Kelly harry Angela.
Meanwhile, Granny uses the cessation of hostilities against her to complete her spell – she opens a gateway to the Shadow and draws forth a powerful fertility spirit, which erupts from the earth mound, leaving a gaping portal behind it.

Eath mother

The Fertility Spirit summoned by Granny. It turns out that all fertility spirits are thirsty

Granny seems quite pleased with herself, and directs the manifest Earth Mother to attack Angela. Angela responds with a direct focused attack against Granny, which staggers her. In that moment of anger and confusion, she loses control of the spirit. Granny becomes hysterical, and falls into uncontrolled laughter. Everyone else braces themselves for Bad Things.

Except Winston Blue, who steps in front of the Earth Mother, and smiles.
Winston is very attractive already, and he’s bolstered his Presence with Mind magic. He’s magnetic, beautiful and sexy. I rule that fertility spirits are, by default, interested in sexy times.

I did not plan for Steve.

Stupid, sexy Steve.

sexy flanders

With the Earth Mother suitably distracted, Granny was able to regain control and banish the now extraneous spirit back to the Shadow.
Bit of an anti-climax.
But that’s ok. Jon-Anthony is creating drama on the other side of the cavern.

On the other side of the cavern, Jill is semi frozen in ice, and pretty beat up. Everytime she tries to heal herself, Jon-Anthony fucks her up some more, each time a little more than the last. She’s fading fast.
Matt, Jon-Anthony’s player, announces that he intends to harvest Jill’s soul as she finally dies. He’s not quite sure what he’ll do with it, but that’s a problem for another time. The first step is to extract the soul as Jill dies.
The other players are not particularly happy with this, but can’t do anything about it, bar administering basic first aid to Jill to stabilise her wounds (which are pretty horrific – she’s been struck by lightning, punch, frozen, and had her flesh magically rotted so that it sloughs off her bones. It’s an actual miracle that she isn’t actually dead yet).
To prevent this, Jon-Anthony opens a portal to Twilight – an ephemeral state half-way between the material world and the other non-material worlds – and draws Jill and Hopper into it. He uses the pool of water that they’re stood in as the boundaries of the gateway, and anyone inside it passes through to Twilight automatically. Jon-Anthony is in a Twilight state already.
Donar see’s Hopper and Jill fade into invisibility, and can see the magic of the gate with his Mage Sight, so dives in as well.

So no Jon-Anthony, Hopper and Donar, as well as the unconscious Jill, are in Twilight. There’s an awkward beat as Hopper and Donar take stock of their current condition. The fact that they can suddenly see and hear Jon-Anthony provides them with enough information to deduce that this is all his fault.
Hopper considers punching him.
Donar considers blasting him with lightning.
Neither of them are skilled enough in Spirit or Death to push themselves back into the material world, though, so are forced to talk to Jon-Anthony instead.

At this point I am rubbing my hands together, as it’s becoming clear that Jon-Anthony will be the ‘big bad’ at some point in the campaign, and I’m cool with that.

Hopper and Donar ask Jon-Anthony to make them solid again. Jon-Anthony suggests that being ghosts is so much safer, and everyone can exit this dangerous magical cavern without resistance, and then pass through another gate later to become solid again.
Hopper and Donar point out that the battle is now over – Angela has surrendered, Jill is unconscious, and Granny has put the Earth Mother back in her box. The door out is wide open. We’re cool. Let’s stop dicking about and start being solid again please.
Jon-Anthony reluctantly acquiesces to the request, and reopens the gateway, allowing all four to become material again.

As everyone starts to exit the cavern, Granny walks up to Angela and casually kills her with a Life spell – massive cancerous growths erupt out of and consume Angela and she dies quickly and painfully. Granny continues walking out of the cavern as nothing had happened.
The Cabal take a moment, then walk out after her.

At this point we start wrapping up the session. We’re playing Monster of the Week the following week, so I have to handwave a few things.

Granny has now withdrawn from the Consilium, and is no longer Hierarch. Two leading Councilors are dead, and a third is disgraced. There is now a very real power vacuum in local Mage society. The Cabal consider this for a moment, and choose to ignore it.
Winston Blue decides that an insane old witch is exactly the type of Mage he wants to learn from, and takes Granny as a Mentor. We’ll see how that pans out.

The new Hierarch of the Consilium is a very boring man called Mr Balding. He is round, and grey and wears brown suits. He has three rules that he immediately laid down to the Consilium:

  1. Don’t bother me
  2. Don’t cause any trouble
  3. Absolutely no Vampires

We’ve taken a break to play Monster of the Week now (which is brilliant, you should all play it immediately), and will be starting a new Mage story arc on 6th August. I’ll be moving the ruleset onto Mage: the Awakening Second Edition as we start. I may do a post about the character conversion process and the differences. Shortly, it’s both simpler and more complex, and 90% of the changes are for the better. I resisted moving to 2e for the longest time because I’d invested so heavily in the original (new) World of Darkness books, but I see now that I was wrong.


Collected Eels References

10 – I Like Birds
11 – End Times
12 – Bombs Away
13 – Your Lucky Day In Hell
14 – The Other Shoe


footnote

apparently i should have seen it. my players, since reading this, have been vociferous in their defence of and attachment to ‘Tall Les’.

they have asserted that the sentence “Despite him never having done a thing for them, … they regarded him as a friend” says more about me than it does about Tall Les or them.
Andy, who plays Donar, reminded me:

Well I can’t speak for the others but for my part I was recalling how you’d introduced him as “a friend” and subsequently was victimised and endangered by sinister political machinations
And volunteered a part of his very soul as collateral
I mean even if that hadn’t flagged him as “basically decent” he certainly was somebody who needed our help
Phil, who plays Hopper, backed him up with:
You told us we already knew him and he was a friend. I proceeded on the basis you weren’t a big fat liar
Steve, who plays Winton Blue, then chipped in with:
Re: Tall Les. I seem to remember you introducing him as; “a bit shit, but a mate”, with an implied addition of; “that person you wish you didn’t, a bit shit at parties, but you know him and he’s just a but rubbish rather than a bellend”. Plus we gave him his nickname.
which basically is me told.
good news, everybody. the players are paying more attention to the plot than i am…
good news

Mage Session 9: Prizefighter

Starting Point: Donnal, a teenaged apprentice Mage, has been challenged to a Duel Arcane by Miranda Peacock, an experienced and influential Mage, member of the Consilium Council and the powerful Cabal The Golden Trinity. If Donnal wins, all charges against him are dropped. If he loses, he loses his master, and will be reassigned to someone else if the Council’s choosing. It probably won’t be someone he likes…

Events

Donar immediately volunteered to be Donnal’s champion, mistakenly believing that a Duel Arcane might involve actual combat.

He quickly learnt that, no, it’s a match of magical power. Participating Mage’s choose two Arcana, one for attack, one for defense, and attempt to overwhelm the other, reducing their Willpower.

John Kelly stepped up, as the most magically proficient in the Cabal (Gnosis 3, Space 3, Fate 2).

As Hopper squared the circle (prepared the magical dueling area), John Kelly prepared himself… Cheating – using abilities, items and outside influences to improve your dueling capabilities – is strictly forbidden. However, it’s very hard to prove some interventions. John cast a good luck charm on himself using Fate 2, giving him the ‘9 Again’ benefit on a certain number of rolls. Normally in Mage, a single die showing ’10’ is counted as a success and rerolled: 10 Again. 9 Again allows a reroll on a 9 and a 10, increasing your chances of additional successes.

Bolstering in this manner is hard to detect and hard to prove.

John was also stocked to the gills on Mana, a magical resource that can be spent to add dice to magical dice pools, or to enhance magical effects.

What we’re saying here is that John went into the fight with lead shot in his gloves.

The first stage of any Duel Arcane is shit talking. Both combatants reel of magical lineages and accomplishments, and mock their opponents. The most cutting remarks win a bonus during the battle itself.

John won the shit talk stage, and then rolled badly, hardly denting Miranda, his opponent. In return, Miranda hit back with a solid blow.

It did not look good for John.

Then he decided to spend a point of Willpower (risky, because that’s the resource that your opponent depletes. The first to 0 Willpower loses), and rolls well.

Stupidly well.

With his Willpower expenditure and 9 Again enhancement, John scores 7 successes against Miranda, which instantly floors her. John wins. No one expects this.

I did not expect this.

As Storyteller, I’d tried to set this up as a close fight, but ultimately one they’d lose.

I let John’s player, Dave, load up on effects because I wanted him to have a chance, for the battle to last long enough, and for defeat to be close fought.

But no. Two rounds and he trounced her.

Oh well.

Still, this left me with a challenge.

The fight was supposed to demonstrate the inherent injustice in Mage society, and how the Golden Trinity cabal had corrupted the justice system to serve their own ends.

And their current goal was to usurp Granny and remove her from her, albeit unused, position of authority in the Consilium.

What I’d planned was a close battle, and defeat of the players, then the Golden Trinity pressing the letter of the law to strip Granny of all authority and magical assets. The players had already enforced a similar edict, so should be aware of how little of a shit the Consilium gave for ‘fairness’ in such matters.

But, my goals are The Golden Trinity’s goals are my goals. The Trinity want to antagonise Granny and goad her into an illegal act of aggression. It’s still possible, just a little harder.

Tall Les is still at large, so Angela, the defacto leader of the Trinity, issues a warrant for Tall Les’s arrest. Dead or alive, it’s all the same to me.

End Position: Granny rises to the bait, and squares off with Angela. Tall Les was her student, and she’ll throw everything else away before she sees him convicted of a crime be didn’t commit. Probably.

As the session ends, Granny has withdrawn from the Consilium and revoked her position within it. She exits the gathering warning all and sundry that any attempt to enforce Consilium law on her land or her people will be met with force.

Wait – That’s not how it ended… We had about 30 minutes of playtime left. I expected the Cabal to return home, regroup, discuss tactics and then attend to Granny.
Noooo.
They went straight to Tall Les’s instead. They were worried about him.

Arriving at Tall Les’s house in Tadcaster, they discovered signs of a struggle – They piece together that Les was packing in a hurry, and then was set upon. Some of the damage to the kitchen and hallway is horrific.
Then, in the bath, they find a dead body.
Outside the bathroom, they find a raven.

Winston Blue uses Mind to converse with the Raven, and they learn that Les used to feed it, and occasionally ride it. It tells them some details of the fight, and how Les fled to the other side.

Eels song: Prizefighter