Friday, April 21, 2017

Salty Seamen

Back at the end of January I did the most grognardy thing I've ever done and ran The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh using Labyrinth Lord. I did this because some friends had been nagging me suggesting that I run a game for them for years; I was reluctant because I'm nervous enough running games for my regular group -- I always assume they hate the games I run -- so being responsible for a group of new players' first experience of role-playing games was terrifying.

Truth be told, I don't think it was their actual first experience of rpgs; I suspect that at least one or two of them had a go at some point in their teens, but close enough.

Like me, Courtney had read the Dragonlance novels as a child and, like me, she was unaware at the time that they were connected to a game. Later on she became a bit of a fan of Final Fantasy XII -- my favourite of the series and one I wouldn't have played if Courtney hadn't told me how much fun it was -- and Skyrim. All in all, she had quite a bit of useful background.

Liam is a bit less geeky than Courtney but became a big fan of Baldur's Gate II after I circulated it among my friends, so he came to my game with a basic understanding of how D&D works. He also loves Dark Souls, so I should have killed his character off in some brutal fashion.

James expresses his geekiness through obscure electronic music and James Bond films, so he was perhaps the least familiar with the topoi of D&D but he was the only one who had played a tabletop rpg in recent years, having played Fiasco, although he considered it a party game rather than an rpg. I should ask him how that happened.

I selected Saltmarsh in part because they wanted Forgive Us but I thought it was a bit cruel for the first time out and I didn't want to put them off, and in part because I played D&D about three times before 2008 so I haven't been through any of the classics. Selfishness wins.

SPOILERS follow for an adventure released in 1981, in case you're the sort of deviant that hasn't played it.

We played over two days, one session in the evening and then, after a break for essentials like sleep and breakfast, a shorter session the next morning. We didn't do the second half of the adventure with the Boat of the Lizardmen™; we ran out of time and even if we hadn't, the player-characters' actions in the first half made it difficult to continue.

After exploring the house and discovering the caves below, they picked off a couple of sentries and got rid of Sanbalet and his gnoll hench-, er, gnolls. Then, instead of fighting the other thieves, the party went into business with them, taking over as heads of the smuggling ring! They then went back to Saltmarsh, told the town council that the smugglers had been driven off, and collected their reward for a job not well done. That's the kind of cynical, self-serving behaviour I expect from my usual group of immoral bastards veteran gamers, not newcomers. I wonder what that says about human nature?

They also thought everything was significant. For example, there's a book in the house's library, The Magical Properties of Gemstones, that is just a bit of loot to sell at a later date; the players decided that it was important and relevant and every time they found a jewel later in the adventure they would stop everything and ask if it was in the book and what its magical properties were.

That's not a problem; it shows they were engaging with the game and the setting details and that's a good thing, but it was also a bit odd, because I've had players fixate on insignificant details before but not to such an extent. Perhaps the players were trying extra hard because it was their first proper adventure, perhaps it was the influence of computer gaming, or perhaps it was something else. Perhaps I should have asked. Maybe I did. It was January and I have trouble remembering last week.

I do remember that they had fun -- so did I! -- and we'll probably do something similar next time I visit them in That London. If they want to stick with D&D, we may try D&D5; it's not my favourite but it does give low level characters a bit more oomph, wizards are a tad less rubbish, and it's easy to run. Sticking with D&D -- or fantasy at least -- would also give me a chance to try more of the classic adventures I've missed.

All that said, what I'd love to do is unleash Call of Cthulhu on them.

Iä!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Dracula Autopsy

Well then. Twenty-two sessions and almost a year later, my Dracula Dossier campaign is finished. Twenty-two sessions! I think that may be the longest campaign I've ever run; Rogue Trader ran for fifteen sessions, as did The Enemy Within II: Enemy Withiner, and while it did take about a year to play through Horror on the Orient Express back in 1998ish I'm almost certain that we didn't get twenty-two sessions out of it.

You can read individual session summaries here, but now that the game is done and I don't have to worry about spoiling anything for the players, I thought it would be good to have a look at some of the behind the scenes stuff.

Spoilers follow!

Breaking the Rules

The Dracula Dossier is written for Night's Black Agents, a Gumshoe variant, so of course I ran it with a patchwork of Call of Cthulhu, the new Delta Green rpg, Mongoose's RuneQuest II, some mechanics of my own design, and even a bit of Pendragon. I did this because I'm an idiot I kept banging my head against the NBA rules and couldn't make sense of them; it's not a complicated ruleset, but something about the game was not sinking in, so I went with something familiar, the Chaosium d100 system, albeit a hybrid version.

Given that it was such a Frankenstein of a ruleset I think it worked quite well, much better than if I'd used NBA, but as the campaign evolved it moved away from investigation and more towards action; towards the last third or so I did begin to wonder if Savage Worlds would have been a better choice.

Scot-Free

One niggling problem with my jerry-rigged rules was that I had nothing in place to model the agents' finances; I would have liked to have seen fewer private jets and more shady deals, with the player-characters having to work to get access to equipment and funds, but they operated with more or less infinite resources and that lacked drama.

I also don't think I made enough of the player-characters drawing heat from the authorities. I modified NBA's mechanics for tracking the agents' notoriety, but when they did get spotted by police, or got picked up on CCTV, and so on, I didn't push back hard enough, so I don't think the players ever felt like they were in trouble.

I think that perhaps building time limits into the campaign would help with this; yes, the agents can lie low for two weeks, but they need to raid the shipping company in the next two days, before the records are destroyed!

Modern Life Is (Mostly) Rubbish

One advantage of running a game set in the present day is that it's easy to research; most people know how the modern world works and it's easy to find out what you don't know; you can Google it!

The problem is that player-characters in a modern setting can Google things too, and that can suck the drama out of the game.

It seems churlish to ban the modern era as a setting for investigative games, but if you're going to be running DD in the present day be prepared for tech-savvy players. Look up how computer hacking works, and the sort of information and services that are available through computer networks. Can the player-characters mess around with the traffic lights in London? Can they access blueprints of the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest? Can they hack MI6's bank account?

These are tricky questions because it's difficult to know on the spot what the answers are. You can make something up about Generic Fantasy World #87 but if you start making things up about a world that's just like ours except it's got Dracula in it, you may get caught out.

One way to avoid the issue is to set the campaign in the dark pre-internet days, and there is some material in the book on setting the game in the 1970's, the 1940's, or the 1890's; in hindsight, I think I would have enjoyed a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy style game set during the Wilson/Heath era.

All that said, there was something quite fun about the players asking "can we do X?" and then everyone using our smartphones to find out.

Who Built the Pyramids?

This campaign was a pain in the neck -- ho ho -- to develop. The Director's Handbook is bursting with content -- it has hundreds of pages of characters, locations, objects, and organisations, not all of which will be used in even the most sprawling campaign -- but is somewhat lacking in practical advice of what to do with all the piles of stuff.

There's a brief example at the start of the book of a conspyramid -- the default NBA campaign structure -- with some of the DD specific elements slotted in, and there is a little bit of discussion on who Dracula is, but that's about it for gamemaster advice. Given how much content there is, I think there needs to be more and better guidance.

Each of the entries in the book gives suggested connections to the others, so it's possible to brute force your way through and then go back and populate your conspyramid, but it's not an efficient process. What I did in the end was use a random generation method -- a deck of cards was released as part of the campaign's Kickstarter -- to get the basic structure, then I filled the gaps with the bits that seemed most interesting from skimming the book. After that I went back and tinkered with the plan so that the connections made sense and there were no dead ends, and I was ready to go.

Except I wasn't because I had no idea how to start the campaign. There is zero advice on how to kick things off, beyond a short starting scenario lurking in the back of the book or a separate adventure released for Free RPG Day. Again, I made something up, borrowing from both.

What does Dracula want? No idea. We are given a number of candidates for who Dracula was in life, but almost no discussion at all of his possible goals, needs, and wants. We know what EDOM wants, or at least what it claims to want, but there's zilch -- not even a list of suggestions -- of what the main antagonist's motivations are. The best we get is some vague references to him hating Turks, and as I was sitting here in March 2016 trying to put a campaign together, that didn't seem anywhere near good enough.

As it turned out my players didn't seem interested in Dracula's goals, so perhaps it doesn't matter.

Excuse Me, Have You Seen Mr Dracula?

The Dracula Dossier looks like an investigative campaign but it plays almost like a hexcrawl, or maybe a pointcrawl. There are clues and connections everywhere and all lead in the end to Dracula, but some are more direct than others; this is what that conspyramid structure is supposed to illustrate.

In theory there are no dead ends in this kind of structure; if a line of investigation stalls and the players can't go any further "up" the conspyramid, they can always go sideways or down to find another route, and perhaps can return later to the original thread to pick it up again once they know more.

I didn't make this concept clear to my players and I think the campaign suffered a bit as a result. There were a couple of occasions where they felt like they'd exhausted a line of enquiry and I think they got frustrated; I felt like they were overlooking other paths when in truth they'd just forgotten, because there were so many threads to monitor.

In the last half of the campaign I started issuing index cards with notes on them, so the players could see what they'd discovered so far and where the gaps were, and I think that helped, but I think it would perhaps have been sensible to discuss the campaign structure with them before we began.

Super Nature

Where the book gives the option of a campaign element being mundane or something more eldritch, I almost always went with the latter. My version of Dracula's "wolf gypsies" were actual werewolves because why not? Bram Stoker's The Jewel of the Seven Stars is also a redacted mission report, so there's a mummy running around too -- the players didn't meet her -- because why not? Jack the Ripper's disembodied spirit is floating around London because why not?

At some point in preparing the campaign it went from The Bourne Identity to Hellboy and I thought that was good and appropriate, but I acknowledge that's not going to be for everyone; I know some of my players raised an eyebrow when things started getting a bit silly, but I think I got away with it and, after all, the Director's Handbook itself allowed the possibility.

On the other hand, the Director's Handbook didn't suggest that an immortal Rasputin was the head of Russia's secret vampire programme. That was all my fault. Nor did it suggest that Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is also a mission report and that Jekyll's potion is an early experimental use of Seward Serum. That's my fault too; yes, the dates don't quite match up but it's close enough.

They are lucky that I didn't make Dracula an avatar of Nyarlathotep.

Fangs for the Memories

I think I got a lot wrong in running DD. I was unused to the format of the campaign, I struggled without robust GM advice, and I made things more difficult by chucking out the intended rules system and using my own. All that said, I think it was a success; everyone had fun along the way and I think the players felt that they achieved something significant when they pinned Dracula down and defeated him.

The Dracula Dossier is not a great campaign out of the box -- I think it relies a little too much on quantity of content over utility, and on the central gimmick of Dracula being the biggest player handout ever -- but with a bit of work it can be a good one, and once it gets going it sort of runs itself. It kept me and my group entertained for half a year, and that's not bad at all.

Update! One of my players shares his thoughts on the campaign here.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Death Date With Dracula!

Dracula has just thrown the Red Line Corporate Solutions car into a ditch. He's not happy, probably because they've killed two of his three Brides. He promises to find and kill them in four days.

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.

Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.

Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.

Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

Sten is injured and Natasha is bleeding out on the tarmac, so the first order of business is to get them some medical attention; Dracula can wait.

Natasha cannot. She wants to get out of Europe and back home, where she can call on some back up. The others get her stable enough to travel and off they go, to Mother Russia.

The former assassin calls in some favours and the team acquires an abandoned and remote water mill in which to make its last stand; it is hoped that the water around the building will prove a barrier to Dracula and any vampiric minions he decides to send.

Wassermuehle Sythen01The team moves in and, lacking the time for a natural recovery, it turns to the dark arts in order to bring Natasha and Sten to fighting fitness. Goats are purchased and sacrificed, and rituals are enacted. The rituals are designed to take a week of preparation and rushing has unpredictable results; both Natasha and Sten wake up afterwards healed, but also covered in a layer of hircine fur.

Max calls on his contact at the Vatican, Archbishop Rodrigo Ortega, and explains the dire situation. He arranges for Ortega to visit the water mill and bless and sanctify the ground; Ortega consents -- he and Max are close -- but does not agree to be blindfolded on the journey to the site. Ortega should arrive the day before Dracula's arrival.

Natasha contacts her Uncle Ivan and requests weapons and other gear; this arrives over the next couple of days, but a requested light machine gun takes longer and is accompanied by four burly and taciturn Russians. They do not leave after making the delivery; Natasha doesn't get much out of them but is content that they are there to help.

It turns out the four are also vampires but the team gambles that they are not Dracula's vampires; the fact that the Russians seem to have undead agents does cause some disquiet but there's not enough time to worry, or look a vampiric gift horse in the, er, fangs.

Sten arranges the arrival of ten Russian swimwear models; he says that they are to provide a distraction, as Dracula has an eye for the ladies, but the others are not convinced by his reasoning. The models are given food, drink, and music and are told to have fun and ignore any loud explosions.

The team waits.

As night falls on the fourth of September, they hear the howling of wolves. Max and Sten inject themselves with some of the orange serum the team recovered from EDOM's base, hoping that the liquid's abilities will give them an advantage in the battle to come.

The team spots figures approaching from all directions; there are at least twenty. The shooting begins, as the Red Line team and its Russian allies use rifles to pick off the approaching figures; in response missiles twist out of the darkness. The mill is hit and begins to collapse, while the nearby outbuilding -- to which the team planned to fall back if necessary -- is almost flattened by another blast.

(Carmel's player rolls a d10 to see how many of the partying models inside the building are killed. He rolls a 10. Many jokes are made about how he never rolls high when he needs to.)

Four figures dressed head to toe in black combat gear drop out of the sky, landing without harm in the midst of the team's defences, and then it all goes to heck.

The team's plans and precautions seem to have little effect on the new arrivals. Throwing holy wafers and water at them does nothing, and ultraviolet spotlights do nothing, so the team resorts to brute force. And grenades. Lots of grenades.

One of the black-clad warriors reveals himself to be faster and stronger than the others, beheading one of the Russians with his bare hands; the team decides that this must be Dracula himself. They concentrate their attacks on him and leave the others to the Russians; he manages to hold off the entire team for a while before Carmel pierces his chest with a crossbow bolt and he crumbles to dust.

Dracula is dead!

The other vampires are still causing trouble so the team aids its Russian allies in cornering and eliminating them; as they are doing so a thick mist descends.

Dracula isn't dead.

The lord of the vampires proves to be more than a match for the team. He mesmerises Natasha and turns her against her colleagues; the assassin cannot resist the vampire's command and she shoots Sten. While that's happening, Dracula grabs Carmel and throws her through a wall, puncturing her lung; he then pursues Max and Sten, who have retreated downriver.

The vampire punches Max so hard that the German's nose is sheared right off, landing with a quiet splash in the river, to be carried away by the current; Max dives in after it and disappears from sight. Dracula turns on Sten, immobilises him with a choke hold, then starts munching away at his neck; the Red Line team is dismayed to see the vampire's wounds healing as he feeds.

A bloodied Max resurfaces a short distance away, out of Dracula's line of sight, and takes aim with his crossbow. Whether it's because the vampire is distracted, or because Max's accuracy is boosted by the EDOM serum, the bolt flies true; this time there is no skullduggery and the bolt pierces Dracula's heart.

A look of disbelief and surprise crosses the monster's face before he collapses to his knees, then to the ground. Max moves fast, beheading Dracula and then using white phosphorus grenades to incinerate both the body and the head. The ashes are then scattered at two different points of the river, just to be sure.

Dracula is dead.


Natasha calls Uncle Ivan and arranges for an evacuation; soon an unmarked helicopter arrives and the team is taken away to a Russian military base where, under a suspicious level of security, its members receive medical attention.

They are welcomed as "guests" of the Russian vampire programme, but it's clear that they will never be allowed to leave; even Natasha is a little affronted by her government's lack of gratitude but doesn't make a fuss. Sten decides to collaborate, while Carmel and Max plot escape, but that's all a story for another day.

Next: nothing! We're done! Dracula is defeated and the investigators get a sort of happy ending. Well, they are all alive, at least. I doubt we will return to see if Carmel and Max manage to get away from the Russians, and what Natasha and Sten do; once you've beaten Dracula, anything else is going to be a bit of an anticlimax.

That said, there will be at least one more Dracula Dossier post as I have some thoughts on the campaign from the GM's perspective, so look out for that in the next couple of days.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Gunfight at the Airbnb

The Red Line corporate Solutions team has killed and beheaded another of Dracula's Brides and is now making a run for it before Dracula finds out.

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.

Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.

Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.

Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

The team attempts to sneak across the border but is stopped for speeding by the Romanian police. Max offers the officer a €200 incentive, which is accepted, and the team is allowed to carry on.

Once over the border into Bulgaria, they head for the nearest hospital to get Sten patched up; while Sten is checked in, Max and Natasha wander downstairs to the hospital's waste incinerator and hand over another incentive to get a few minutes alone with the device. They burn Natasa Dobra's severed head and collect the ashes; Natasha then scatters the ashes in a nearby stream. Meanwhile Carmel finds a junkyard and makes off with a set of number plates in order to disguise the team's car.

While Sten recovers in hospital, the rest of the team rests in a rented cottage just outside of town. Days pass, during which each member of the team takes steps to change their appearance; although they have dropped off Interpol's wanted list thanks to intervention from EDOM, their pictures are being circulated in Romanian law enforcement circles.

The 25th of August rolls around and Sten discharges himself from hospital and joins his colleagues. He decides to test the serum recovered from EDOM's base on himself, and discovers that the liquid bestows certain special abilities, although nothing like those displayed by Carmel during the fight with Dobra.

The team decides to try to find Dracula using the same ritual it used to pinpoint Dobra's location, and spends the next few days preparing. It is believed that the spell can only locate objects, not people, and although there is some discussion over whether Dracula counts as a person given that he's been dead for 537 years, the team decided to focus the ritual on... the shirt he was wearing in Gibraltar.

On the 1st of September, they enact the ritual and locate the shirt in the InterContinental hotel in central Bucharest. Before they can narrow the location of the garment down any further, Natasha's perimeter alarm is tripped.

There is nothing on the cameras, but as vampires would not appear on camera, that does little to comfort the team. Natasha sticks a shirt on a stick and waves it past a window, attracting a burst of gunfire; noting the location of the shooter, the Russian lobs a grenade at the spot, while Carmel teleports to the cottage's shed. The anguished scream following the grenade's explosion suggests that it found its mark.

GNFOS-exercise In return, a missile takes out one corner of the cottage, exposing the team to attack, and a pitched gun battle ensues. Natasha is cut down as she sprints from the cottage to the shed, Max and Sten chuck grenades everywhere, and Carmel teleports into the cover of the trees and begins stalking the team's attackers.

Natasha crawls into the shed and performs hasty field surgery on herself to stem her blood loss, while Carmel incapacitates one would-be assassin with a stun gun; a second attacks her with his own shock weapon, and the two get into a brawl which continues without a clear victor -- despite the former Mossad agent's newfound supernatural edge -- until Carmel's first opponent shakes off the stun effect and enters the fray.

Outnumbered, Carmel drops a grenade at her feet and runs off into the trees; one of her opponents pursues but the other is slower to react and is blasted to bits by the explosion. Natasha pulls herself into a sitting position and although woozy from blood loss and pain, is lucid enough to pick off Carmel's pursuer with a precise rifle shot to the head.

No further shots are fired and silence falls. The team sends up its drone and the machine's infrared camera picks up five humanoid shapes moving away from the scene.

They waste no time, and recover what gear they can and pile it in their car, only to discover that the vehicle has been sabotaged and won't start. Natasha is too fragile for an escape on foot so the team takes a risk and calls for a taxi; while she waits, Carmel checks the bodies for identification and finds nothing of use, although a few of them have Romanian military tattoos. Max loots a suit of combat armour from the assassin that Natasha decapitated.

The cab arrives and the team clambers in before the driver can get a good look at the devastation; he drops them off back in town, where a car is rented and the team drives off into the countryside, taking random turns in order to shake off any potential pursuit.

No vehicles follow but Max spots a flock gaggle herd Lugosi colony of bats keeping pace with the car. He points it out to the others and Sten accelerates; the bats maintain their position, which should be impossible; Max shines an ultraviolet torch at the animals and they disperse, to the German's relief.

Sten spots a man standing in the road ahead and accelerates further; to his mind, the man is either an enemy or an idiot and deserves what he's going to get. The car hits the man going at about 120 miles an hour; or rather it would, but the man steps aside at the last second, grabs the vehicle, and flips it into the air.

(At this point, everyone checks their character sheets to make sure they are not playing Champions by accident.)

Sten does his best to lessen the damage, but British Intelligence Driving School didn't cover being thrown through the air by a vampire. The car rolls a few times before coming to a rest upside down; airbags and seatbelts prevent the worst of the damage, but Natasha's wounds reopen and she is bleeding out.

The man strides up to the car and tears the doors off, then drags the team members out of the vehicle, one by one; they are too dazed to put up much resistance. He lays them at the side of the road and fixes them with a red-eyed glare; it looks like he is struggling to control his anger.

"You have four days," he hisses, "Then I will come for you." Then he walks off into the night.

Next: boss fight!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Delta Green, No Relation

A while ago, Brian C asked for my thoughts on the new Delta Green role-playing game and the OSR not-Cthulhu game Silent Legions. Let's start with Delta Green.

Until Brian requested it, I wasn't going to review the game because I didn't think it would be fair to do so, for two reasons. The first is that it is not complete; as I type this post the rules are available as the Agent's Handbook, and as the title suggests, this is for players. There are rules for character generation, skills, and combat, but nothing on adversaries, magic, or the setting itself. I have a certain distaste for games that split the core rules across multiple books, but it's not a bad idea as such; even so it's worth mentioning that the full game is not available at this time.

The other reason I haven't reviewed the game is that I haven't played it. My current Dracula Dossier game uses the firearms rules from DGAH -- but is otherwise fifth edition Call of Cthulhu -- and I helped my friend Ben modify the rules for his Beyond the Mountains of Madness game, but I haven't used the rules as intended. I don't know if my review can be fair if I haven't played the game, but I'll do my best.

In order to maintain compatibility with older DG material, the new game uses a d100 based system. I was surprised to discover that it's not based on CoC, or even Chaosium's d100 ruleset, but rather it's a modification of Mongoose's RuneQuest 2/Legend with the sanity rules borrowed from -- of all places -- 2004's Unearthed Arcana for D&D3. This strikes me as a bit of a roundabout way of doing things when there's a CoC licence available, but I assume the designers had a good reason. Anyway, the important thing is that it's compatible with CoC and older DG material, albeit with a bit of shoving.

The general approach seems to be to tidy up and modernise CoC's rules; this was also the stated intent of the seventh edition of the venerable rpg, and I think DG is more successful in that regard than Chaosium's own effort, not least because it -- for the most part, anyway -- keeps things simple.

Where CoC7 is characterised by adding more rules -- improvement by way of elaboration -- DG goes more for standardisation and ironing out the weird spiky bits CoC built up over the years. One good example is the firearms rules; CoC has some wonky combat rules in general, and the mechanics for gunfights are probably the wonkiest of all, with all sorts of exceptions "spot rules" and fully-automatic gunfire looking more like Rifts than even the most pulpy Mythos tale.

DG strips this back to a simple mechanic based on at most two die rolls and optional modifiers. There is an argument that it's a bit bland as most weapons more powerful than a pistol will either kill outright or do 2d10 damage, but I will take that over the old clusterfudge of one-fifth chances, multiple fire rates, modified initiative steps, and so on. There are exceptions built into the DG shooting rules, but they make sense; instant kill attacks don't work on supernatural creatures, for example. Otherworldly entities break the rules of the game, which is quite fitting.

Another example is character generation, which in DG is based on packages with defined skill values, so there's none of the fiddly points spending of CoC; I quite like the fiddly points spending bit of character generation but I understand that not everyone agrees and I acknowledge that dumping it makes the process faster and smoother, although again there's a hint of blandness to it.

In general, most of the changes DG makes are in a similar vein but there are a couple of occasions where the game wanders off in the opposite direction; for example, the mechanics for acquiring equipment go on for nine pages complete with little coloured icons that are used only for this subsystem. I can see why the rules exist -- the designers want to model agents pulling in favours or diverting funds and resources, and so on; good thematic secret agenty type stuff -- but when most of the game seems to be aiming for simplicity, if not elegance, it's jarring to slam into a big steaming block of rules for buying a shotgun.

There are a few other odd decisions in there too; the examples of sanity loss include "being fired from one's job", which, yes, is stressful and can indeed have an effect on someone's mental health, but it's a bit weird to see that in a game of Lovecraftian horror, and with the same mechanical significance as "find a corpse". Then there's DG's replacement for the Cthulhu Mythos skill, which works in the same exact way as the original, but is called "Unnatural", a beige word that looks like a placeholder waiting for a more evocative term that never came.

It's not all amending and fixing what came before; DG adds a formal Pendragon-like home phase, in which agents can step away from the current mission and heal, rest both body and mind, research, train, or interact with the game's other main addition, the agents' bonds. These are people or organisations that are important to the character, and can help mitigate sanity loss, but at a cost; they are similar in function to pillars of sanity, one of the better ideas from Trail of Cthulhu. There is a bit of fiddliness and rules-for-the-sake-of-rules in the way bonds and sanity interact, but on the whole these are welcome additions to the game, and I'm a big fan of formal downtime mechanics in rpgs, so it's good to see them in DG.

All in all, I'm quite impressed by DGAH; I do miss some of the eldritch spikiness of CoC, and DG does lack personality, but perhaps that's fitting in a game about anonymous government agents. It seems to be a good game -- although bear in mind my two qualifications above -- but I can't recommend it for the simple reason that I don't think it's good value for money.

The cover price is $39.99 but for that you don't get a complete game; I have no idea how much the inevitable Handler's Handbook will be, but I suspect it will be a similar cost, if not more. What's worse is that DGAH feels padded; it's overwritten and the text size is huge. The book could be two-thirds of its current size without sacrificing anything important and it sort of looks like the only reason it's not is to justify the cover price. For all its faults, CoC7 is only $4 more expensive and you get a complete game, with rules, setting stuff, game-master guidance, and even a couple of adventures.

There is a quickstart pdf available that runs through the basic rules and has a much more sensible price of Pay What You Want. That, I recommend without reservation and, if you like it or you are swimming in piles of cash, then maybe get DGAH. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Female of the Species

There's no more certain way to drive certain segments of Warhammer 40,000 fandom into frothing rage than to mention female Space Marines. For some reason -- and you'll see people jumping backwards through hoops to provide in-universe justifications -- female Space Marines are Not Okay.

Well, they are fine by me.

In part that's because I try not to be a sexist bigot, but in part it's because of this painting:



(Image by John Richardson -- not the comedian, probably -- and borrowed from the Commodore Format Archive.)

The maniacs who go all wobbly at the idea of a female Space Marine are also the sorts of people who would never accept this image as evidence, not least because it's a few steps removed from canon -- it's an image illustrating a review of a computer game adaptation of a board game based on 40K -- but it was enough for me.

I can see at least one female Space Marine in there, probably two, and twenty-five years of all-male imagery from Games Workshop isn't going to erase that from my mind.

Rumour has it there is a major redesign on the way for GW's iconic Space Marines; the miniatures will get bigger, and the armour will be more ornate. That's all fine, but wouldn't it be nice if some of the models had female features?

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Gordon's Not Alive

The Red Line Corporate Solutions team is holed up in the British Embassy in Bucharest, plotting its next move. The original plan was to go after Sorin Lupu, a former high-ranking member of the Ruvari Szgany clan, in the hope that Lupin would lead the team to Dracula; that plan is abandoned as the team instead decides to return to the water pumping station from which Carmel was rescued.

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.

Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.

Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.

Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

Before they do so, Carmel meets up with her local contact Dacien Comenescu to find out what he has discovered about Natasa Dobra, a suspected Bride of Dracula. Carmel takes the rest of the team as backup and meets Comenescu at a local library.

Comenescu looks a bit battered and bruised, and suggests that there was some resistance to his acquisition of the files; Carmel doesn't ask for details and transfers the agreed €30,000 to Comenescu's account. Meanwhile, Natasha spots a man watching the meeting and moves to get a better view; Max comes in from the street -- leaving Sten in the car -- and also takes up position to watch the man.

Carmel's contact hands over a bundle of musty paperwork from the 1980's; everything is in Romanian, but Comenescu points to sections where Dobra's handwriting is visible. The team needs Dobra's handwriting to use in a ritual; the same rite was used to destroy the Rotterdam Bride and the team wants to use it against the other Brides, Dracula too if possible.

Comenescu leaves, and Carmel follows soon after. The mysterious watcher also leaves and the team decides not to pursue him. The Dobra files are distributed amongst the team members for safety, and then they head to the pumping station. On the way, they meet the surviving members of the EDOM strike team that accompanied them on the original mission; the EDOM agents are keen to rescue their former teammates Gordon and Sean, or recover their bodies if a rescue proves impossible.

RomPolAgentsA police car is parked outside the station, with a pair of alert-looking officers inside. Sten advocates chucking a grenade into the car but the team decides on a more subtle approach; Carl, the leader of the EDOM squad, is sent over to offer the police a bribe -- none of the Red Line team speaks Romanian -- and ask them to drive around the block for a few minutes. The attempt fails so the Red Line and EDOM teams wait for the shift to change before sending Carl to try again; this attempt also fails and the officers attempt to arrest Carl, but the Red Line team steps in and subdues them.

The teams enter the pumping station and explore, finding little changed since their last visit; none of the bodies have been cleared away and of a police investigation there is no sign. This is unusual but not unexpected; it's clear that Dracula's conspiracy has infiltrated the Romanian authorities and that the vampire's minions act with almost total freedom.

Nothing new is discovered, but the bodies of Gordon and Sean are found, torn to pieces. The EDOM team collects the remains and starts to leave; the Red Line team attempts to stop them but Carl explains that his mission is to recover the bodies of his comrades and he has done that, so he will not be staying. Carl and his squad leave, with Carmel muttering accusations of cowardice and incompetence at their backs.

With nothing else to find, the Red Line team also leaves the pumping station and, back at its temporary digs at the British Embassy, conducts some research into the Romanian special forces units that Dobra seems to be using as muscle. The only useful evidence that Carmel and Sten turn up is a series of payments made to the families of deceased members of those units; these payments are in excess of the usual compensation and pensions one would expect in such cases. The stipends have been authorised by the Ministry of National Defence, but the Red Line team cannot pin down anything that can lead them to Dobra or Dracula; even so, Sten does a bit of hacking and creative accounting and diverts some of the excess funds to the team's own accounts, to make up for the freezing of its assets and its dwindling cash.

The team then decides to try the finding ritual in Le Dragon Noire to locate Dobra; Natasha does not believe the spell will find living creatures -- although it is arguable if Dobra can be defined as such -- but Carmel recalls seeing dog tags around Dobra's neck when she had her close encounter, so the team decides to use those as the ritual's focus. After a few days of preparation, the ritual is enacted and Dobra -- or her dog tags at least -- is located, in the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest.

Palatul Parlamentului 1The team heads to the Palace and sneaks into the massive building; as the majority of the structure is unused, this proves to be an easy task for the former secret agents.

Lingering traces of the finding ritual lead them to an underground level in which they discover some sort of open plan governmental office; they feel that Dobra is in a room beyond the office, but there's no way to cross the area without being spotted, and no one feels like getting into a fight with civilians.

Instead, the team finds a massive cliché ventilation duct and uses it to crawl over the office and into the space above the room beyond; through a vent they see Natasa Dobra working at a desk, unaware of their presence. The team ambushes Dobra and seems to catch the alleged tactical genius by surprise; the team is in turn surprised when Carmel teleports across the room to take a position behind Dobra.

The confusion surrounding Carmel's new ability gives the vampire the space she needs to retaliate; she orders Carmel to step away -- which she does -- and then turns to Natasha and uses her dark powers to force the Russian to hide under the desk. Then she runs for the door.

Sten steps into the vampire's path and, recalling his rugby days at Cambridge, tackles her; he is not a weak man but Dobra is stronger and while Sten does slow her down, he suffers for it, breaking a few bones in the process. Max leaps in, stake in hand, and plunges it into the vampire's chest.

Max's player burns a lot of Luck points to make the strike accurate and Dobra hisses and splutters before falling still. As Carmel climbs up the wall and back into the air conditioning vent like some sort of spider -- again shocking her team-mates -- the others hack Dobra's head from her shoulders, and set fire to the corpse.

The fight was quick, but it has attracted attention in the office outside, and the Red Line team makes a swift exit the way it came; getting out proves to be much more difficult than getting in, and a couple of the team members are clipped by gunfire during the escape, but escape they do. Once clear of the Palace, the Red Line team bundles into its getaway vehicle and races to the border.

Next: Bulgarian bulletstorm!