Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Night's Black Answers - a player's response to my questions for #NightsBlackAgents

In my last post I shared a short list of questions I'd asked the players in my Night's Black Agents campaign in the hope of generating some backstory details I could plunder for drama and complications.

Tonight Rowan's player replied - and instead of just answering the questions she copied me into a folder containing documents... a briefing document, an after action interview, and others with more game-related stuff.

I was blown away at the response anyway and then she pointed out that the group her character infiltrated was  real one, and the dates given corresponded to a real event of the type she described.  She did ask me to redact the name of the group just in case...     So I have.   But here is the response I got tonight.  I feel a very lucky GM indeed to be receiving campaign handouts from my players.

PDF Version

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Night's Black Questions - quick backstory for #nightsblackagents characters

I'm a handful of adventures into my Night's Black Agents campaign and we're all getting a feel for the characters.    Having refreshed my exposure to the spy/thriller genre I've noticed that most protagonists have something lurking in their pasts that made a big impact on them.  

"He'd never been the same since Kiev"
"Look, about that time in Madrid... " / "Never mention that again."
"Miller dropped his hand, numb, this was too much like the failed extraction in Tokyo"
Her thoughts drifted back to the moonless night camped near Petra, and the whispers that became roars.

So, following on from my recent use of directed questions in my Fate campaign I've just forwarded the following mini questionnaire to my NBA players.   Knowing them I'm sure they'll provide some interesting backstory and plot-hooks from their previous lives...

The One That Ended Badly
Where was the mission?
What was the objective?
Was the objective accomplished?
Want went wrong?
Who died that shouldn't have?
Why is it hard for you to talk about?
Describe/name one other character from that mission - ally, enemy, bystander that might crop up again in the future

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Red Shift episode 4: Calais - Night's Black Agents play report

Rowan and Hans regrouped after a few days of downtime during which Hans reminisced with an old special forces buddy back in Sweden and Rowan enjoyed an illicit few days of romance and hot funky adulterous action with her (married) lover, a former colleague of hers.   He floated the idea of her coming back to the group, telling her how her expertise at making and running networks of agents would be useful in the increasingly fragmented Middle East.  She declined.

The new job in Calais sounded straightforward enough.   There were rumours of a human trafficking operation there, and a local resident named Bernard Masson had enough money and sense of civic duty to want it stopped.  He was willing to pay good money, very good money, for evidence of what was going on and could point the team  toward a couple of good leads - a haulage company and a local gangster, both of whom were likely to be involved.

Rowan and Hans set watch on the haulage company and saw the local gangster, Danglars, make contact with the manager there.   Rowan checked out inside the building using unsecured security cameras and Digital Intrusion but couldn't pick up any audio.   They followed Danglars back to the Indigo Nightclub in the centre of Calais.   Realising the place was a "cabaret bar" with lap-dancing, and that this might be a firm connection to the human trafficking they decided to return to the club that evening and make some sordid enquiries while posing as a couple looking to celebrate their anniversary in sleazy style.

Something special?  You need to speak to Maria, they were told.   Maria's a German woman and in charge of the other dancers.  She was unshockable and was happy to arrange for a number of girls to be provided for the couple a few nights hence.  Money changed hands, and Hans schmoozed club owner Blanchard who was slyly ogling Rowan on the dance floor.    A call from someone named Karolus interrupted Blanchard who despatched the lurking Danglars at once.

The team had planted a tracker on Danglars car... they decided... and a suitable Preparedness spend made it so.   They were not surprised to see the hoodlum return to Star Logistics, the haulage firm.  Parking up some distance away Rowan used her backdoor into the security cameras to see what was happening in the forecourt.   What was happening was the arrival of a truck from Hungary (according to the plates) which quickly disgorged a dozen frightened young women and a couple of men.   The watchers saw intimidation and violence used to get the new arrivals to stop complaining.    Then someone else got out of the truck, someone that the trafficking victims clearly didn't know had been in there.

Then the cameras went crazy.  Just as they had in Casablanca.   Cursing whatever damned jammers somebody was clearly selling these days Rowan left Hans watching the screens and went to take a look in person.  What she saw was a tall, patrician man with white hair and a neat beard receiving bows of respect from the locals.   She took a picture of him with her phone (she thinks) and then watched as the bearded man selected one of the women and took her inside.

Hans saw the external cameras suddenly clear up... but the internal one now went on the blink.  In between the static though he saw the woman... and only the woman... in the corridor inside the building.   Then something unseen slammed her against the wall and a curtain of blood flowed downward suddenly from her throat.    Hans made a Stability spend here to keep things together.

The session ended with the trafficked victims being shipped away in a new van, with Danglars the gangster driving somewhere that (according to the tracker) was in an industrial area to the west of the city, and with the bearded newcomer somewhere still on the premises at the haulage firm.   The cameras stopped screaming as something was placed within the rear of another of the firm's trucks.

The Saint's Hair?

Ethelflaeda was a pious woman, so they said.  Devoted to God and to his service.  And in those long ago days before the first millennium had come and emptily gone who was to say that the unorthodox methods of her worship were to be condemned?  They say she used to stand naked in the river in the heart of the night, in the coldest heart of the coldest night, and chant prayers to the Almighty.

She was a strong leader of the sisters under her rule and the abbey in the marshes, at Rum's Eg, flourished.   And she continued her private devotions in the heart of the night, in the river, in the only garments her God had given her.

History does not record what happened to her after her death, but the Church declared her a saint for her devotions and her leadership.

Eight hundred years later, a blink of the eye to some, a gravedigger named Mr Major was digging in the grounds of the abbey and discovered a coffin whose presence was previously unknown and unmarked.    What happened next is given in his own words (and spellings)

"Wee began the work with the pickax and shovell, witch is the proper tools for excavation. Wee came on a led coffin. I acquainted the Vicar of the discovery. I was to find if thare was any bones in it. If so, it was not to be removed. I tried by making a hole on the top. I thrusted my hand to the head of the coffin to find the scull. I found no bones but a scalp of feamial [female] hair as bright as any living ladies hair I have ever seen. There was 1 finger bone. It became dust immediately the air came to it. This is a Trew History of the hair and the coffin."

There was no body there, no bones, nor remains except for one finger bone which turned to dust as soon as the air (or sunlight) touched it.   But the occupant's hair remained, bizarrely (miraculously) preserved.   Traces of the scalp remain.

The scalp and hair are displayed now, a museum curiousity, and while tests have been carried out on the artefact they have revealed only an estimated date of around the first millennium for the person whose hair this was, and traces of pine resin in the hair (not native to the area) and evidence that her diet included fish.

Story Seeds
Ethelflaeda was a real person and I'm not going to slander her memory with bizarre and dark speculations.    However in the spirit of fiction and appropriating writhing grubs of history for cultivation into winged stories here are some ways this strange find at Romsey Abbey may be used in a Trail of Cthulhu setting.

Who was Ethelflaeda worshipping in her extreme and private devotions?   Naked river praying was not orthodox behaviour even in the early Saxon church (I wouldn't put anything past the more inventive Celts of the period, or any period really) so who was the recipient of her prayers?     The abbey was on the very edge of the marshes too which adds a fetid air to the whole proceedings.   My inclinations would be toward making her a devotee of Shub Niggurath, that writhing goddess of fertile and over-fertile life in all its forms, accepting the priestess as her servant and perhaps the prayers of Ethelflaeda's sisters, unknowingly offered in the wrong direction.   Fish came to the abbey and the area in abundance, and there were strange oils and resins in the preserved scalp that did not come from local vegetation.     Since no great harm seems to have been done to the area or its people then it is unlikely the goddess herself paid too close attention to the rites being undertaken, or perhaps too little time had passed by the time of Ethelflaeda's death for Shub Niggurath to stir herself and take notice.

But there were effects of course and as we know the the life force of the devotees of the unknowable gods hastes not from their charnel clay and in this case though the body itself decayed and departed without leaving a trace that mysteriously preserved grisly scalp still seethes with the earthbound soul of the priestess.     If it were to be taken from its museum case, what then?

Suppose a student of ancient lore looked deeply into the history of the area and saw past the official church interpretation of the matters.    The Romans had put down barbaric revels in the area around Rum's Eg long before the Saxons had come.    They had smashed votive stones and put worshippers to the sword in a way that the usually pragmatic legions avoided.   After the Romans withdrew the old ways resurfaced for a short time, old songs were song in the dank marshlands and when the strange lights moved on the damp trackways all other folk kept far away from them.   No wonder King Edgar wanted to build an abbey there, a counterpoint to the horrors beyond the fringe of civilisation.    But the old songs keep on being heard and voices answer.     The scholar of such things would read of Ethelflaeda's devotions and begin to wonder... and they would find the scalp so lovingly and reverently displayed,,, and they would wonder about that too.

It would be a matter of a few moments of daring to break the glass and take the rank thing, to squirrel it away in answer to a growing obsession or need.   And then that scholar would brood over it and keep on wondering.,, his dreams filled with images of burgeoning plant life and luxuriant rich vegetation.   Plants can be grafted onto living stems...     He would begin to hear the old songs raised at night time, in his dreams, in the voice of a woman calling across the centuries.   Plants can be grafted onto living stems...

Stealing a living stem would be harder than stealing the hair and scalp ever was.  A  living stem would struggle and scream as it was prepared, as the living... sap... flowed from the newly cleared graft site.

Oh but if the graft was to take.   What glorious new growth might there be?
Carved Corbel at Romsey Abbey depicting a female figure giving birth

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

School Hauntings

I saw an interesting article on the BBC news site today that was primarily focussed on the temporary closure of school in Kota Bharu, Malaysia following multiple sightings of an unexplained apparition.   There's even a photo which, showing an indistinct black shape which might be vaguely humanoid, is clear and incontrovertible proof of the supernatural (*coughs*).

The article then goes on to discuss other outbreaks of mass delusion/hallucination/hysteria at schools and posits some explanations for them.

Story Here

With my gamer/geek head on though I can't help but think that a boarding school environment could make for as good a pressure-cooker place of tension as any submarine or space station for an isolation horror game.

Maybe Hogwarts was a perfectly normal school with a particularly rich vein of shared delusion.   Or more interestingly maybe every perfectly normal school could be as dangerous and bizarre as Hogwarts given just a tiny push in the right direction and the right group of sensitive pupils.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Red Shift - Episode 3 - Night's Black Agents play report

Episode Three of RedShift was played out on Sunday evening, and while lighter on the action than the opening two episodes was still pretty intense and we got to see the Heat mechanics close up.

Mysterious Arab fellow
Valiant freelance agents Rowan and Hans ended last session in a private room just off the ER of Casablanca’s main hospital.   Hans’ face and neck had been badly torn up by the mysterious Arab man who had punched through the windshield of his car and tried to break Hans’ neck during a high speed chase… until Rowan had blown the attacker’s brains all over the car with a point blank shot to the head.    The stability loss from seeing the man rise to his feet in the rear view mirror was the first big use of the Stability rules in the campaign but perfectly justified I think.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Sundered Seven

In recent posts I've discussed the collaborative worldbuilding undertaken by myself and a couple of players new to Tabletop gaming and posted the questions I set them to outline the basics of the world, and the answers they came up with.

I'm attaching a link to the basic setting notes that resulted and hope they're an enjoyable read- we're adding more details as they come out in play of course so this was very much the first wide glance at the setting.   Every adventure has added more information of course as is inevitable, and now we know, for instance, why the abandoned city of Kalnathan is a haunt of ghouls and why the ageless librarians in the tower of that foul city do not venture into the windowless Westernmost tower of the library despite the wisdom that remains on those unlit shelves, and why books of magical lore disguised as collections of erotic poetry are so keenly sought by certain Orloi ladies.

Download PDF

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Earworms of Y'Golonac

This is an adventure outline I worked up for a Trail of Cthulhu one-shot that I had planned, set in modern day Leeds.

Y'golonac - by Finn
It's not fully polished and lacks game related statistics etc, and is a brief framework for an adventure that I think would suit the Purist rather than Pulp mode of play.    Keepers can of course change the location and details to suit their campaign, and with a little bit of finagling can make it suitable for multiple investigators rather than the single character I had created it for (one of my regular sessions is me and a single player).

It's quite open ended after the first set-up scene which exists basically to show the investigator someone who had gone a long way down a particularly dark path... and then to set their own feet on that same path.    There are hints in there of investigative avenues that Keepers can flesh out as they wish and a variety of sketched out NPCs that can become allies, adversaries or some combination of the two as things go on.

While suggestions are given for potential end points and solutions nothing is set in stone.   My own style would be to run this and see what paths the player's choices led them down and adapt accordingly.

I hope it is of interest and whether it is of use in its current format or not I hope it may perhaps spark an idea or two that you can use.

Download PDF

Outsourced Worldbuilding - Part Two

 Yesterday I posted some open-ended questions I gave to my two players for a new Fantasy Fate Core game, the purpose of the questions being to allow them to shape the world we'd be playing in.    They discussed things between them and sent back their answers as follows:

Image by Asafesh

How many years is it since the great capital city was abandoned?
120 years 
WHat led to the fall of the royal house.
What price do magicians have to pay for their magic?
Their eyesight 
How many of the noble houses of the realm fell into dark ways?   How did the others respond?
About 40%, the others are resisting more or less openly depending on their level of bravery. 
Why are priests shunned by wise folk?
Priests are not looked kindly upon by the powers that be, and so people don't want to associate with them and risk getting entangled. 
Which of the gods is still revered by the common folk and why?
A warm deity, often associated with harvest, mercy and peace 
Why is it hard to reach the elvish lands?
There is a large mountain range to cross to get there. 
What weapon is the weapon of the nobility?
Naginata-type of weapon  
What non-combat skill is a true nobleman or woman supposed to master?
They're supposed to have some kind of musical skill - whether that's singing or an instrument is not important (Though preferably both). 
What do people swear by when they really mean it.
By my mind, heart and hands (ordered by order of operation) 
Have the trolls gone for good or might they return some day?  Who or what defeated them last time?
They might be back. The royal family and their loyal supporters did.

That gave me a good starting point for defining the world -

Friday, April 15, 2016

Outsourced Worldbuilding

One of the things I loved the most about Fate Core when I first picked it up was the emphasis on collaborative world-building - the creation of Aspects for the setting and attaching Faces and Places that the players come up with in concert with the GM.

Image by Jessie Therrien

I do most of my roleplaying online these days using Roll20, Hangouts and/or Skype and two of my players were interested in starting up a Fantasy campaign using Fate.   While they're both seasoned veterans of PlayByPost and even some magnificent LARPS with casts of hundreds and spanning years in the forests of Europe they've never done Tabletop before.   I figured that sitting them down and trying to explain Aspects and some of the rulesey stuff about Fate (even the approachable Fate) might not be the best way to start, but I did want to involve them in the creation process so I hit upon a compromise idea that turned out to pay dividends.

I created a questionnaire for them with a few leading questions in there - not leading in the sense that I had particular outcomes in mind, but in the sense that they opened the door to a variety of tropes - and then I left it with them both to discuss between them.

It worked well, and I can recommend it as a great way to get the creativity going in a group even before sitting down together to play, with the beautiful bonus that everyone is invested in the results and knows the setting much better than if they'd simply been presented with a sheaf of pages of background material from the GM.

The questions are reproduced here.  In the next post I'll share some of the answers they came up with which formed the basis of the world we're now playing in.

How many years is it since the great capital city was abandoned?
What led to the fall of the royal house?
What price do magicians have to pay for their magic?
How many of the noble houses of the realm fell into dark ways?   How did the others respond?
Why are priests shunned by wise folk?
Which of the gods is still revered by the common folk and why?
Why is it hard to reach the elvish lands?
What weapon is the weapon of the nobility?
What non-combat skill is a true nobleman or woman supposed to master?
What do people swear by when they really mean it?
Have the trolls gone for good or might they return some day?  Who or what defeated them last time?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Thoughts in the Depths

A creature for Trail of Cthulhu.

The shunned tribal elders called it Giaouchatnhon when they discovered it’s lair deep within the caves in what is now Vietnam. They saw the effects it had on the first unfortunates to be exposed to it, infected by it, and they studied the results.

The victims grew ill, pale and weak. They began to suffer delusions and terrifying visions of worlds and lives utterly beyond their comprehension. The elders recorded the babbling of the victims, restrained them when they tried in their delirium to seek out dark hiding places of their own, and after the inevitable final moment when the doomed man or woman collapsed into greasy grey dust they sifted through the powdery remains and they found the slug-like larva and roasted it over a flame. 

The charred thing, ingested, would grant visions to the elder who consumed it and grant them knowledge and magical gifts that helped the elders cement their rule over the tribe. But power is never enough power. The elders sent more and more victims into the caves to expose them to the spores of Giaouchatnhon, to sicken them with alien flesh growing within them, to record their delirious cries and then to consume the thing that had slain them. The elders became priests of a sort, and they consumed the larvae more frequently, becoming themselves other than human. And inevitably their untainted neighbours eventually decided enough was enough. The elders and their followers were executed and the sacred caves became the forbidden caves, and the entrances were blocked with rocks and earth.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Red Shift - the story so far

(I'm copying a couple of posts I made at Google+ for the sake of completeness and to avoid the Empty Blog syndrome that conjures the demons Blokk and Lackspiration)

First session of Red Shift my new Night's Black Agents campaign has just finished and I have to hand it to +Pelgrane Press Ltd and +Kenneth Hite - the system worked so well we had a blast. Highlights included an inventive use of Reassurance (after first providing an imaginary threat that the subject needed Reassurance against... "Fucking Liam Neeson bullshit" as he commented afterward), a Thriler car chase through the crowded Medina streets of Marrakech, and a brief encounter with a mysterious Arabic gentleman who for some reason didn't show up on the hidden cameras our surveillance expert had planted around the Saadian Tombs.

The Roll20 Incident board idea I implemented worked well... and is now looking a whole lot busier.

Photo: First session of Red Shift my new Night's Black Agents campaign has just finished and I have to hand it to +Pelgrane Press Ltd and +Kenneth Hite - the system worked so well we had a blast. Highlights included an inventive use of Reassurance (after first providing an imaginary threat that the subject needed Reassurance against... "Fucking Liam Neeson bullshit" as he commented afterward), a Thriler car chase through the crowded Medina streets of Marrakech, and a brief encounter with a mysterious Arabic gentleman who for some reason didn't show up on the hidden cameras our surveillance expert had planted around the Saadian Tombs.

The Roll20 Incident board idea I implemented worked well... and is now looking a whole lot busier.

The second episode