Monday, 11 December 2017

Stoker: First Blood - The Attack of the Damned

This is a summary of a game of Night's Black Agents which I refereed this month. I'm posting this because I was not able to find any report of an actual play of the Stoker: First Blood adventure from the Edom Files collection. This contains SPOILERS. Do not read if you think you might be playing this scenario. If you are planning to umpire it, of course, it could be useful, as I will finish up with some observations.

Within the Devil's Cave, Ottoman Bulgaria, 1877

A resident of the Devil's Cave?
If you have not read the previous events and the summary of the player characters involved, go do it now. We left our heroes exploring the Devil's Cave, or Iblis Magara as it is known by the Circassian locals. They were distracted by the discovery of a sinkhole when they were rushed by two creatures, attacking from up the passage they had just come up.

Two evil looking humanoids, clad in wretched, blood-stained rags, with long claws and sharp teeth, they were unkempt and obviously dead, with large wounds on their necks, probably from a blade of some description. They attacked Vambery and Forbes, raking Forbes badly before the two men turned to grapple with them.

Vambery was completely unarmed, and staggered away, grappling for the tattered Koran he had on his person. Forbes opened fired with his pistol, hitting one of the ghouls but not stopping it. As he ducked and dived, two more ghouls appeared from deeper in the caves and charged. Stoker saw them coming and drawing both his pistols, opened fire on them, but again, they seemed relatively impervious to gunfire. The bullets were punching holes in them, and they were obviously feeling the impact, but still they came on.

One of the first pair of ghouls now climbed up the wall and along the ceiling, seemingly oblivious to the slippery limestone surface, and dropped down onto Forbes. Luckily for him, while it knocked him to the ground, the ghoul hurt itself too [bad rolling by the GM] and this delayed it enough for Forbes to shoot it in the chest, point blank. The ghoul howled in pain and began trying to savage the journalist's neck, whereupon he shot it in the head and it expired on top of him. A small victory for the press in the Balkans!

The manacled Turkish prisoner, Amanoglu, found all this too much to bear [failed Stability check] and sprang into the sinkhole, disappearing from sight with a scream. Crosse got off a shot with his rifle, to little good, and then grappled with the creatures. He was quickly savaged by the thing's evil looking claws and passed out, toppling backwards into the sinkhole.

Vambery was now on his knees, brandishing the Koran in one hand and the prayer beads in the other. He pressed the beads against the undead monstrosity, but sadly to no avail. Stoker, now badly hurt and finding it difficult to stay conscious, turned and dropped into the sinkhole rather than face the horrors any longer. With this Vambery and Forbes decided to follow their companions and also jumped in as yet another ghoul loomed out of the shadows.

Hitting the water, they were quickly swept along by an underground stream. In what seemed like a matter of only minutes, during which some of our heroes panicked from claustrophobia and a sense of drowning, the stream spewed the adventurers out via a waterfall into a small mountain lake. There was no sign of Amanoglu who, weighed down with his iron manacles, must have drowned under the mountain somewhere. Crosse was in a bad way, as was Stoker. Vambery managed to bring Stoker round, and he worked on Crosse, but it was obvious that the geologist needed rest and had lost a lot of blood. Stoker himself was not much better.

Looking out, they saw they were on the side of a mountain, facing northwest towards the Danube plain. Orchards with peach trees led down to a small village dominated by a large mansion built in the Ottoman style and a cemetary. Apart from the odd goat and chicken, nothing was moving in the afternoon sunshine. In the far distance they could see the road to Tirnova.

The Village of Arbanasi

The first order of the day was to get the wounded down the hill to the village and seek help. An old man was spotted asleep in the shade of a tomb in the graveyard. He turned out to be some kind of servant and brought them to the large house they had seen. It was obvious from the distance that the building and suffered some minor damage, possibly from an earthquake.

The player characters met the chief eunuch in charge of the household, who introduced himself as Hasan. He and his trio of eunuch assistants welcomed the foreigners and installed them in the first floor of the house which overlooked a central gallery. They brought them water, coffee and food and the men washed and dressed their wounds and sought to recover. The eunuchs explained that the house belonged to Ekim Dal, but that the local governor disappeared mysteriously last year during the Bulgarian rebellion. Now it is managed by his widow, who is currently resting, but is expected to join them for dinner. Having already encountered the undead once today, the adventurers immediately became suspicious. A quick check of the rooms they had access to revealed an absence of mirrors too.

Vambery and Stoker decided it was time to nose around. By this stage Crosse had passed out from his wounds. Vambery had a stroll around the village looking for horses or a cart they could use to escape Arbanasi before nightfall, as the village was more than 10 miles on foot in rugged mountain terrain from Tirnova. There was hardly a soul left in the village, most having already fled south. Vambery discovered a small mosque, little more than one room, within which he found an ancient imam, at least 90 years old. The man was kneeling on the floor muttering to himself about 'the lady'. He seemed out of sorts. Vambery also noticed that all the religious symbols had been stripped from the mosque.

Returning to the mansion, Vambery investigated the library in the house. Here he found evidence that the ruined fortress they could see across the valley had been used by a medieval Bulgarian clan called the Brotherhood of the Dragon in the 15th century. A book in Bulgarian also told of a strange 'blood curse' that emerged from the ground in the area, and mentioned the Devil's Cave as one potential location of such a hazard. Vambery also now heard the faint sound of a baby crying somewhere in the house.

Upon further investigation, the sound of the baby seemed to be coming from the seraglio within the house, which was off limits to the men. The entrance to the seraglio was locked but Forbes was able to pick the lock and gain ingress. He stole through the rooms and spotted a woman sitting by the window with an infant of about two: she was signing to it in a language that was not Bulgarian or Turkish. Forbes retreated unseen and repeated some of the words she was using to Vambery, who identified it as Romanian.

It was now approaching evening. A young serving girl was setting the table downstairs for dinner...for six people. The sun was beginning to go down behind the mountains...

Next: The Mistress of Arbanasi appears...and the dreadful conclusion of our epic tale!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Actual play Night's Black Agents - Stoker: First Blood

The following is a summary of an actual play session of Night's Black Agents using the Stoker - First Blood adventure contained in the Edom Files collection from Pelgrane Press. It is jam packed with spoilers - you have been warned.

The Cast:

Major George Stoker - an Irish doctor and army officer, on assignment to the Red Crescent military hospital at Shipka, Bulgaria

Armin Vambery - a Hungarian linguist and author, an expert on the Near East and Central Asia and a trusted friend of the Turkish authorities

Archibald Forbes - a British journalist and seeker of truth

Andrew Crosse - a British geologist hoping to extend his knowledge of the little-known Bulgarian geological corpus

The Road to the Devil

Major George Stoker MD
The year is 1877. The place is Constantinople. The team is assembled by Osman Hamdi Bey, a Turkish 'government official' with a taste for Western painting, who wants them to investigate rumours of a possible atrocity carried out by Bulgarian nationalists against Turkish civilians in the Balkan Mountains. Following an unsuccessful revolt by Bulgarians against Turkish rule the previous year, Russia is mobilising to invade Bulgaria and liberate it from the Ottomans. The British government does not want to see Russia extending its influence around the Black Sea and potentially gaining control over the Bosphorous. Both the British and the Turks want some evidence of Bulgarian atrocities to offset the anti-Ottoman coverage in the British newspapers. Enter the player characters, who are considered more credible than the Turks.

The group takes a train from Constantinople to the village of Hermanli where they rendezvous with bashi bazouk Turkish light cavalry led by Demir Akinji. The Turks have with them a prisoner who knows the way to the cave where a massacre is said to have taken place. A hard ride takes them on to Jeni Zagra, during which Vambery suffers horribly keeping up with the Turks and has to be treated for saddle sores by Stoker. The Irishman forms a dim view of the Turks whom he reckons are not to be trusted in a stand up fight.

At Jeni Zagra Vambery and Stoker speak with the prisoner, Kerem Amanoglu; in exchange for food he tells them he is a deserter from the Turkish army. His unit was ambushed and almost wiped out by Bulgarian rebels south of Tirnova a few months previously. He sought refuge in a cave in the mountains where he saw the bodies of men slain by the Bulgarians, six in total. He fled in terror and was later captured by the Turkish army and charged with desertion.

Over dinner Akinji advises the foreigners to take the Shipka pass road, as he fears the shorter route over the rugged Hainkoi pass may lead them into contact with Bulgarian rebels. He says these Bulgarians are evil, cursed men, beyond the gaze of God. When they are slain, he claims, their flesh burns from their bones. He calls them the Dragon Brothers. Forbes says he thinks the Turkish soldier is exaggerating and at the very least has no experience of such things. Stoker posts sentries at the inn they are staying at, but it is an uneventful night.

The next day the British decide to take Akinji's advice and ride to Shipka. It is a hard ride but they cope with it better than the previous day. At Shipka they find a large Turkish encampment. Stoker reports in at the military hospital and Vambery speaks with refugees fleeing south through the pass. They tell him that many peasants are fleeing from Tirnova south through the Hankoi pass or seeking refuge at the estate of the local Turkish aristocrat, Ekim Dal, which lies south of Tirnova. The characters manage to acquire weapons from the Turks - Stoker equips himself with two revolvers while Crosse arms himself with a Peabody-Martini and makes some flares. Sadly nobody trusts Vambery with a gun.

The next day the travelers head south to Tirnova, which they reach in a day. Here they hear the sound of the Russian guns pounding the Turkish fortresses on the Danube. There is a small unit of surly Turkish soldiers occupying a fort. Vambery notices that there are few Muslims left in the town, and that they are mainly Circassians, not Turks (exiled from Russia 15 years earlier). Many seem to be packing up and getting ready to leave.

Staying at the local hostelry, called the House of Mustafa, Vambery chats with some of the Circassians who are still there. They tell him local landholder Ekim Dal has disappeared during the recent Bulgarian revolt along with some of his men. Vambery also learns Dal was at loggerheads with his wife who now remains at the family estate in Arbanasi, as she had not borne him a child. The locals have heard of the cave that Amanoglu visited - it is called the Devil's Cave and is thought to be cursed.

The Devil's Cave

The next day Amanoglu leads the group, accompanied by their Turkish escorts, into the foothills south of Tirnova, where he shows them to the entrance of the Devil's Cave, called by the locals Iblis Magara. Crosse goes in first and Stoker insists on bringing along Amanoglu, who is still manacled. The Turkish soldiers prudently elect to stay outside. Crosse notes the stalactites and stalagmites around the cave mouth that seem to form the teeth of a huge mouth, and the fact that there seems to have been some seismic activity in the cave recently. He also notes some odd circular red marble rings in the floor. There are no signs of any bodies.

Several tunnels lead off from the cave, from one of which there is something of a breeze blowing. Vambery finds some wooden beads in a shallow depression which he correctly identifies as Muslim prayer beads while Crosse uncovers a battered and bloodstained copy of the Koran, which he gives to Vambery. The Hungarian smells a strong odour of fresh blood but cannot find its source.

One of the tunnels leading off to the south east is investigated - only to find it ends at a sharp 18 metre drop to a narrower passage below, from which the breeze is coming. Vambery hears footsteps coming from the main cave behind them, but when our stalwarts retrace their steps they find nobody.

Baffled, the explorers head down a second tunnel which leads upwards into another cave. Here Stoker and Crosse find a sinkhole which they establish drops 25 metres to water below. Crosse drops a rock down into the water to calculate the depth of the drop accurately. Vambery and Forbes are bringing up the rear, but are intent on the others, and do not hear the creatures sneaking up behind them.

With swift steps, the undead are upon them...

Next: The Attack of the Damned!

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Survival horror in the Star Wars universe

Episode I faces off against Episode VII?
Due to work commitments I've not been able to get any regular gaming done over the last couple of months. It is the penalty of trying to build your own business empire that the usual nine to five work metrics go straight out of the window, and most of your creative energy ends up being poured into work. At that point, you tend to want to become the beneficiary of the creative energies of others when it comes to gaming.

I've been getting my roleplaying when and where I can, usually parachuting in as and when the rare opportunity presents itself. I've consequently ended up playing a bit of D6 Star Wars recently. But it's been a funny old game, and not something you'd expect from Star Wars; then again, you makes of it what you will. And that's not to say that it's not been fun, because it has.

Survival horror? In Star Wars?

Why survival horror? In this case it seems the characters have all stumbled onto an Imperial black research project in the Astaroth system. It is two years since the Rebel Alliance destroyed the Death Star and the rebels are now on the run from the Empire. The bulk of the plot has been driven by an urgent need to stay alive and escape from a perilous situation.

I'm playing Gendar, a cyborg pirate who was working under the now false assumption that the rest of his crew, and their pirate vessel the Amber Scar, had been captured (more of that in a future post). Gendar was making a run for it, to Tatooine, when his ship collided with an asteroid field that was not meant to be there.

In this case it was the remains of an Imperial research facility in orbit around the planet Astaroth. It had just recently been destroyed by, as someone senior tried to cover their tracks. Gendar and some other random arrivals, including a Force sensitive Ithklur called KwiKwae, a Mandalorean mercenary called Dell Nova and a fugitive Imperial librarian from Coruscant called Wilhelmina, had to explore the ruined base in an effort to locate transport, supplies and oxygen without becoming totally irradiated. In the process we picked up a survivor, an Imperial scientist called Klarin Estovar, and discovered that the facility was infested with nanites that were able to operate as semi-intelligent swarms in zero-G and homed in on power sources.

I've not been able to play on a regular basis, but suffice to say, the plot has moved on, with an Imperial shuttle being used to transport the group to the planet's surface, where they have located a crashed Old Republic cruiser, itself also infested with nanites.

The Poseidon spaaace!

The game has taken a turn to classic survival horror, with the characters searching the ship level by level, hunted by various nanotech creations, including the animated bodies of dead crew, risen from cryogenic pods. In terms of feel, it is a mash up between The Poseidon Adventure and Aliens.
Estovar with her little nanite buddies

We've now discovered this ship has been down here on Astaroth for over 60 years, from before the time of the Clone Wars. Estovar is the progenitor of some kind of forbidden technology project that she has been working on with another scientist, Doctor Severin (now dead in a fight that I missed).

Estovar betrayed the group and was killed in a fight with the characters - actually knifed in the guts by Gendar. I say killed - she was saved by the damned ethical Ithklur and the timely application of bacta tanks (and is now in a coma). Plus apparently Estovar may know something about Dell Nova's missing wife. Heck, Gendar just wants to get out of here alive. It's survival horror right? Coming out in one piece is the primary objective.

Next up: escaping from the ruined ship before its reactors went critical, with a Jedi, yes a Jedi hermit, determined to keep us from getting off the planet because she was afraid we were infected with nanites. She has been on Astaroth since the cruiser belly-landed here, working to stop Estovar from exporting her evil creations to the rest of the galaxy.

Luckily Helena Volt, the said Jedi, has been persuaded - with some difficulty - that the group is actually trustworthy enough to be allowed off-planet. This was negotiated because Volt wanted off Astaroth and we had a shuttle. She can't fly.

Things have moved on a little since the departure from Astaroth, and it remains to be seen whether the survival horror nature of the game will change, now we're away. We shall have to see. It's been fun so far. Finally, here's a bit of Cthuloid survival antics courtesy of The Force Awakens:

Friday, 17 November 2017

Book of the Month: London Falling by Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell was not a name I was familiar with before London Falling. Yet he is quite an established writer in the science fiction arena, working across a range of media, including comics and television.

London Falling is the first of a series of novels about a team of London police officers who have been granted an insight into the supernatural world around them and a wider occult conspiracy that wraps the capital in its folds.

Cornell is already well-known in the Doctor Who fraternity. I've never been a huge Doctor Who fan, other than during the Tom Baker era. Once Baker handed the baton on to Peter Davison I lost interest, as I felt Davison was a cad and a fool (an impression reinforced somewhat having met him in the flesh). Cornell wrote an early Doctor Who novel and the screen plays for a number of Doctor Who episodes as well as episodes of the BBC's Robin Hood series which aired in 2006-2007. Heck, he's even written for DC Comics and Marvel. His experience of writing screen plays for UK medical dramas has stood him in good stead for this exercise.

Cornell is a pretty prolific writer then, but he's got a good grasp of the dark underbelly of British criminal society (there's plenty of true crime on British TV and in the newspapers to draw from) and his portrayal of the politics and procedures that beset the Metropolitan Police comes across as extremely authentic.

In London Falling four police officers with very different personal backgrounds become involved in a terrifying urban fantasy as part of an undercover operation to capture a notorious London underworld figure. Two of them are actually working as undercover officers within the organisation in question, while another is coordinating the whole thing (Operation Goodfellow, if I remember correctly). When things all go horribly wrong, they end up as part of a spin off operation, Operation Toto, which starts looking into the more unexplained aspects of the case.

It is tough to go into more detail about the plot without spoiling it, but from the first chapter you are caught up in a gritty and fast-moving story that goes on to encompass ghosts, demons, witches, familiars, human sacrifice and magic. And Premiership football! And beer, lots of beer.

Those who have read Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere will like London Falling, although I would say it is a little darker and shocking than Neverwhere, straying into the realm of horror more than once. Indeed, it feels a little more like Alan Moore's From Hell at times. If I was pinned down, I'd say it is almost as if Gaiman and Moore collaborated on something.

But this is also a book about London - the capital is the backdrop for a quest that takes the team into the depths of urbanomancy, the magic of places and of people (hence the echoes of From Hell). Players of Unknown Armies will be familiar with some of this, and I was regularly reminded of UA throughout the book.

I would heartily recommend the audio book if you can lay hands on it, as the narration by Damian Lynch is just fantastic. He gets the accents precisely right and really makes the characters jump off the page. It makes such a difference when a narrator is retained who can carry off different character accents.

London Falling is also the first in a series of novels collected under the moniker of the Shadow Police, and is followed by The Severed Streets, which came out in 2014. I will it.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Phoenix Dawn Command - first thoughts

I had the opportunity last night to play in my first game of Phoenix Dawn Command, an interesting exercise accompanied by fantastic cake from my friend Kelvin, who also ran the game. It was accompanied by the usual gigantic mugs of team from host Ash.

PDC, as I shall refer to it, as a new game from Keith Baker, most widely known as the creator of the Eberron campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, which I believe emerged in about 2003 as the first campaign setting to be published after the launch of the 3rd edition of the game.

PDC is one of what I believe will be the next generation of RPGs, combining aspects of traditional pen and paper RPGs, with elements of successful card games like Magic the Gathering and board games. It seems to me as if the current boom in board gaming is bringing more people into the RPG hobby, at least a recent article in the New Yorker argues thus. And the outcome is likely to be more games like PDC.

This is no bad thing. PDC recognises that we have less time and shorter attention spans than we used to. It is competing against other forms of gaming entertainment. Emulation, therefore, is one ingredient of possible success.

The game's setting is very redolent of Exalted, in that the players are epic heroes who have returned at a time of need, when a crumbling empire faces crisis. They are possessed of superhuman powers and, more importantly, the ability to reincarnate. Each character, like in the 1980s RPG Paranoia, can reincarnate six times before they move on to a new arc in their existence. There is something of Buddhism in all this. Ultimately, you are out to save the world, but can die/sacrifice yourself with less punitive consequences than, say, in D&D.

Each character  - I think they are called Phoenixes - reincarnates the next day if slain, and they come back more powerful than ever. Rather than levelling up through experience to improve the abilities of your character, you need to die for this to happen. In addition, and more originally, the manner of your death can help to shape the abilities you return with.

The game relies on hands of cards you draw from your own personal deck. A character is partly defined by this, and it is a good way of moderating and expanding the power of PCs. Having played Faith already, I can appreciate this mechanic, and am considering something similar for my own home brew Viscounts & Vagabonds game, on which I plan to do more work over Christmas when things get a bit quieter.

PDC brings with it some interesting elements - specifying particular features/aspects of a combat in advance allows characters to then utilise these to gain an additional advantage, which I like, and may incorporate into the swashbuckling aspects of V&V. There are no combat grids here either, rather a list of things that define the battle - a water barrel for example - and it is up to the players to find a way to use these to gain bonuses. Once used, that particular feature cannot be re-employed in the battle..

There is no character sheet either, again an interesting design innovation that Faith also explores. Instead, players use a number of cards sitting in front of them, plus some counters. It does have me wondering whether the character sheet has had its day. Again, something else to add to the mix for V&V!

Do I have any criticisms of PDC? Overall I think it is a solid game and enjoyed playing it. The setting, perhaps, is almost too redolent of Exalted to be called completely original, and indeed you could easily transpose PDC rules into the Exalted setting. There is little to separate the Solars and the Phoenixes.

The emphasis of seeking an heroic death has one flaw, which is that once a character is killed, it will take until the following dawn for them to return. In the meantime, they can possess another character as a sort of advisory spirit, providing them with a limited amount of aid, and allowing the player to continue to participate, rather than go off to make the next batch of tea. BUT, if your scenario is written to be completed in a single day, then that player is left with a reduced role for that session regardless. It is probably less bitter than seeing your D&D character of five years' play die, but still, if you can only advance through death, it is a factor that needs to be considered, and is probably best addressed in scenario and encounter design.

Finally, there is the mental jump players need to make from thinking as normal player characters, to being true heroes. This is similar to a group moving from playing D&D to something more meaty like King Arthur Pendragon. PDC is about the creation of heroic legends, not a glorified fantasy Delta Force. Players have an instinct for self-preservation which, in my case, has been ingrained by over 30 years of playing RPGs. It is difficult to shake this instinct and GMs with more seasoned groups will need to be aware of this and coach their players towards these roleplaying goals.

Overall, I liked PDC and would play it again. There is a bit of a learning curve to grapple with, even for experienced gamers, but this is less to do with the complexity of the game than in its revolutionary aspects. I myself am grateful for the steer it has given me in my own thinking about my homebrew RPG.