Constraining the Hellmouth

So yesterday’s post about what sort of group could work to suppress a Hellmouth conveniently had 12 power types. For a game with 4 players, I rolled: hellspawn, wizard, immortal, and dhampir.

WHERE?

Where shall we put the Hellmouth? I favor a rotting and abandoned urban core, surrounded by still-vibrant city, flanked by suburbs.

WHY ARE THEY HERE?

Each one needs a reason to be there. The Hellspawn is rejecting the role of demonic general, and escaped Hell, but cannot get much further away without depleting the precious energy stockpiled in her necroplasmic form. Sure, she can use the cloak and the chains for free, but healing or energy blasts or other tricks take energy. She stakes her claim to an old church built directly on top of the Hellmouth by grim Freemasons 150 years ago. It is warded and enchanted to suppress the energies, but some rogue agents of the order began using the barred portal as a door again to empower themselves, a few years back. That opened the Hellmouth just a crack. (Nobody knows they did this, and they’ll be coming back to do it again, so that can be an early storyline–they must be stopped.)

The wizard is part of an international consortium of supernatural criminals. His boss runs fights between supernatural monsters, there is heavy betting and the corpses are sold to magical researchers for ritual components and the like. He has been sent here because of the Hellmouth, with orders to manage as many live captures as he can. He doesn’t like this assignment, and has a soft spot for “civilians,” so it is only a matter of time before he goes rogue and consequences follow.

The immortal and the dhampir are connected. The dhampir is a scholar who was looking for a cure for cancer, and experimented with a “vampire serum.” The cancer went away, or rather became irrelevant, but now the scholar is half-vampire. He is searching for a cure, to become fully human (and healthy) again. In the meantime, he studies the energies of the Hellmouth and how they interact with the supernatural; perhaps their drawing powers could be used to draw the supernatural out of an infected person.

The immortal is his bodyguard. She has sworn off the Game, she does not seek out other immortals and behead them for their Quickening. (She will, of course, defend herself if others come calling.) She is with the dhampir because they partnered up some decades ago. She is an excellent monster hunter in her own right (impossible skill with a blade, regeneration, ability to blend in with the herd, centuries of experience) and she hopes supernatural energies can bring something good to the world (like the cure he’s after.) She hates vampires especially, and enjoys slitting them open.

WHY ARE THEY TOGETHER?

The dhampir and immortal are ideal live captures for the wizard. However, the wizard stubbornly decided they would be more useful as a source of lore and research, as they have a massive library hidden in a run down mansion in the urban blight. The wizard’s superiors need not know about that. And the hellspawn is generally regarded as the guardian of the hellmouth.

These ties are loose, so it is up to the first adventure to give them enough shared experience to want to work together. If it doesn’t work out, one or more people can make new characters that CAN play nice together.

WHO ELSE IS NEARBY?

Need some background context for them to tie into, also. These are potential allies, enemies, or contacts.

A nest of vampires is enslaved by an ancient demon that needs the Hellmouth to open. They do everything they can in that direction, but they aren’t well led and they aren’t well fed. They could be converted from threats to neutral, or potentially allies, by dealing with the demon.

A demon is part of a world-wide network of “travel agents” who manage sites of pilgrimage for evil wizards, scholars, and supernatural types. He manages a tidy little fortified way station to offer hospitality to those coming to see the Hellmouth. More or less neutral, great source of gossip, no big fan of the Hellmouth opening (and ending the balance) but also no great enemy of the forces of darkness; untrustworthy but interesting. Also a great source of monsters of the week, but could be miffed if they repeatedly off his clientele.

Various hellblade lairs in the ruins; pull inspiration from X Com’s chrysalids, Warhammer 40k hormagaunts, and Starcraft zerglings. Come up with a great run-and-slash stealthy predator for the urban core, make nests of a dozen or so each, and give the adventurers something to get rid of.

A local chapter house for the crusading inquisition. One burning fanatic who is determined to bag the Hellspawn, backed up by some tough guys with lore and weapons. Perhaps the immortal is an acquaintance, but they don’t know her deviance.

An unknown figure known as the Functionary holds court in several underground restaurants in the business district. He has some strange pull over the city, police, and press. Anger him, and things get hot. Serve him, and things go smooth. They have no direct experience with the Functionary, but he hires lawyers who know about supernatural issues to communicate with those who please or displease him.

WHAT KIND OF ADVENTURES?

So for the first adventure, a vampire biker gang comes into town and plans to take over the church for their new base. There are about 30 vampire bikers, and a cattle truck that has a minotaur in it. Maybe the Hellspawn can take them all, maybe not. This would be a good time to reach out for help; the wizard may be interested in capturing the minotaur, the dhampir and immortal may be interested in keeping the Hellmouth cleared off.

This could be handled with straight-up combat, but it could also be handled in other ways. Check along the back trail to see if these guys pissed anybody else off (yes, prepare a Romany circus they took the minotaur from who would be happy to help bring them down.) Maybe one or two redneck hunters are in their wake too.

The leader is easily provoked, a barely sane egomaniac. His second in command is more calculating, more cruel, and increasingly weary of following orders (also amenable to moving on if the leader is wiped out–without involving her.)

And, of course, the mixed bag of telling the Inquisition there’s a vampire nest. Maybe they clear it out, maybe they don’t, but then they have another data point that may help them figure out where the Hellmouth is. Best not to invite them into the Hellspawn’s home if you can avoid it. But an ambush elsewhere? Something to consider.

Subsequent adventures have lots of plot threads that can be braided.

  • Repo demon comes for the Hellspawn’s energy.
  • Wizard ships a live capture, but there’s a problem, and the wizard is blamed for the escape.
  • The city is going to demolish several blocks to put in a strip mall, including the church that holds the Hellmouth shut. Can they get the Functionary to stop it? Maybe he needs some favors in return. Maybe he started the process so they’d offer him their services.
  • The immortal has met lots of other immortals in the past. One shows up playing coy, but has a pair of immortals pursuing her. They cheat at the Game.
  • An idol gains the power to grant mutations to those who worship it, when the gang that stole it brings it in range of the Hellmouth energy. Figure out the source of the mutations and get the idol out of range (or destroy it.)
  • The wizard is assigned a partner. Can the partner be persuaded to join up, or will the partner wreck the balance?
  • The dhampir is offered a cure by a crossroads demon. Or, the cure is so gruesome–but is it worth it?
  • A club opens in the cheap mostly condemned area near the church. Lots of factions want to control what goes on there, mortal and otherwise. What kind of influence will the characters exert?
  • The Freemasons return with occult Knights Templar who are going to harvest more demonic energy to fuel success in their endeavors, and perhaps other esoteric power. But as they crack the seal just a bit, it degrades, and they might blow it open. How does the hellspawn react when they show up? The leader may tell her that she is a refugee because of what they did–and can undo. Try to force her to work for them. But they risk it all when they tamper with the seal, and others may do well to get involved.

Weave 2-3 of these together per session, and you’ve got a start to your campaign. Come up with more for them to do based on what they really like and dislike as it emerges in play.

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Perched on the Hellmouth

Buffy the Vampire Slayer has some fun ideas. In turning it into an RPG, the official response was to make Buffy the lone superhero surrounded by a gaggle of lesser mortals who have drama points so they matter to the story. That’s one approach.

A Hellmouth is a big enough threat to allow for a tougher crew to take on its threats, in my view. Let’s examine more “League of Extraordinary Monster Hunters” and less “Diva of Stabbing.” I think it would be great to take the premise of the show and staple on these possible power sets to all be in a group together.

First, the “normal” types who can have secret identities.

  • Slayer. One per generation, hunts vampires. Has a Watcher consultant.
  • Monster Hunter. Like the Winchesters or Belmonts. Armed with lore and weapons, they hunt monsters with brains and some brawn. The group’s “Batman.”
  • Dhampir. Half vampire, all angst. I’d probably treat it as an infection rather than a condition of birth.
  • Werewolf. Start out all chaotic needing help, gain magical talismans and special training to gain ever more control and usefulness as time goes on.
  • Wizard/Witch/Sorcerer/Mage/Magic User. So many flavors. Pick one or two. (For my game, NO TECHNO-PAGANS. I mean, what the hell?!?)
  • Ghost Whisperer. See ghosts, interact with them, help them find their rest. And play hell with the undead. This power of a medium could escalate to necromancy. Yay!
  • Ki Warrior. Dig deep into your Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and Tekken roots. Get some hard-core chi-manipulating tough guy with supernaturally juiced combat ability.
  • Immortal. “In the end, there can be only one!” What if the Prize is the ability to detach Hell from earth forever? Or what if it’s all a trick (like the Matrix)? Anyway, you’ve got swordplay and rapid healing and centuries of back story to play with.
  • Pacted. Like in the video game “Dishonored,” chosen by the Outsider and given powers. Just for fun. To see what happens. Or alternatively a witch type with powers from a demon.

On the flip side, have a seedy supernatural underculture of pimps, snitches, gangs, scholars, and Addams Family events. They have their own subculture to tend and from which to draw supplementary drama.

  • Pet Vampire. Daawwww, so cute with the fangs tucked in. (Like Angel or Spike.)
  • Hellspawn. Got out of Hell, rebelled against sponsoring demon, will run out of energy if forced to leave the ambiance of the Hellmouth. Must cope with repo demons.
  • Demon. If the world turns to Hell, it gets all boring. Stay close enough to the Hellmouth for the heat and energy, but do everything possible to keep it shut.

People who sell their stories must beware of copyright infringement, taking care to file the serial numbers off their inspirations. But you, at your game table? Go nuts, man. Have fun with it. Pick any four or so of these types and have a great time using the energies of the Hellmouth to draw an endless supply of monsters within slaying reach.

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Your Success is Your Failure

The good news is, players have agency in my game. Their choices matter.

The bad news is, I don’t really have any ways to protect the game as a whole from really bad player decisions.

What do I mean by “bad decisions”? Decisions that destroy bonds between characters and players. Decisions that kill long-standing characters and cut them loose from family, pets, and home. Decisions that ignore the adamant requests of other player characters and veer towards naked power for the individual at the cost of the rest of the world.

Here’s the story. At one point they fought an undead warband. The brute (like a big orc) named Aggro wanted the undead leader’s sword. Others told him to leave it alone, but he took it, and it merged with his arm; retractable, he could pop it out to fight then pull it back into himself. However, evil things and undead things recognized his kinship, and his arm radiated cold.

After adventuring like this for a while, the others told him he really needed to get rid of it before things got worse. They went on a quest to find a sage/oracle thing who might be able to help. They could only go in one at a time, so he went in alone and talked to the mysterious sage.

The sage oracle (looked kind of undead) told him it did not believe he was interested in lore, and told him that nothing was free–he would have to make a trade for anything he wanted. (Like, for example, getting rid of the sword.) What did he ask for?

The party told him to get rid of the sword. He did not. He asked the oracle thing to unlock the power of the sword, and he was ready to pay any price to do it. He stuck the sword in the magic pool, and it ripped his life out and made him undead, a fitting bearer for the blade. Also, the oracle turned out to be not only undead, but part of an army that was waiting for the undead to gain a powerful enough leader to rise again.

He sent one of his new minions (disguised as a pretty elf) to tell the rest of the group to leave. Because he knows they would kill him on sight if they saw what he became. Now he is a scourge against the living, a plague on the land, and they are the land’s protectors.

His mate and daughters? Discarded. The poison lizard he spared from death and raised up as a mount, getting a trainer for it? Gonna get its throat slit (since no one else wanted the thing around.) His alliance with the PCs and role in revitalizing the city? Chucked. The character he’s had for this game since last January, for about 16 sessions? Gone.

The player said, “Well, that’s what my character would do.” Which is the cheesiest cop-out ever. We are skilled at rationalizing, and we can come up with reasons to do all kinds of things. Would his character discard his friends, family, and future for a slaughter-choked warpath of necromantic energy? Really, that’s the only option you see? No, this was the player choosing a course of action that would alienate the other players, darken the game world, and destroy a character, for power he’s not even going to get to use (because I am NOT going to let him play his evil undead brute champion. He’s got no one to play WITH, because none of the other players want to wreck the world.)

Man… if he just wanted to play a new character, retirement to the hills with his mate’s clan was a viable option. Easy peasy, and he could have brought him back if he wanted to. This cut the tie, burned the bridge, and plowed salt in the fields.

He’s making a new character for next week.

I would really like to be able to get through to him so he would really understand that when he makes decisions that are seriously counter to where the other players are going, that focus on self-gratification/annihilation over group play, he’s jeopardizing my game and his place in it. (Enough dealing with fallout from PCs who go away really wears on the PCs who are left, and players get fed up. That threatens my game, if people don’t want to play anymore.) We have dealt with similar issues with other games in the past. I keep hoping the lesson will stick, but I have doubts.

The other players LIKED his character. They also do not want to deal with the consequences he has provoked, seemingly without a second thought. If he did think it through, he concluded that he just doesn’t care about the other players. If he thought that surely I’d let him play an undead champion, then… well he was wrong. If he thought the full necromantic energies of the sword could be unlocked and he’d be fine, then that’s wrong too. I guess this is where player skill comes in; one question is, what can I get away with? He is either not good at answering that question accurately, or he didn’t bother asking it.

But here’s the thing. I will continue to offer choices that include good ideas and bad ideas. I will continue to make it possible for players to choose to annihilate their characters and alienate the other players. I refuse to turn my game into bumper bowling where people can only make decisions I’ve pre-approved. Part of the game is risk, and part of playing well is getting a maximum reward for a minimum of risk. I won’t stop characters from jumping off cliffs, and I won’t tell them what outcome to expect when they bargain with creepy oracles. It is up to players to gauge whether the risk was worth it.

As for playing poorly? Well, there’s lots of second chances, but this most recent choice burned a lot of goodwill. I guess time will tell whether he can or wants to fit into the game world, or if he wants to play along until the next pointless character-wrecking swerve.

EDIT. A number of my clever G+ people think this is a great story for a character end, and a cool way to check out and try something new. So perhaps I’m unduly annoyed. We’ll see how the other players handle it–maybe I’ve overestimated how irritated they are too.

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Special Snowflake settings

Lately there has been some chatter about “special snowflake” settings in my online discussions. One question has been, is it better to have lots of setting-specific information on a setting that players can or must know to enjoy the game? Or, is it better to have a more generic and accessible setting where assumptions hold in general?

I’m already telegraphing my take on this. I think the question itself could be reframed for a more useful discussion. You can focus on whether a campaign is distinct and different, but I think a more valuable question is how much buy-in and education a campaign requires to effectively play in its bounds.

A typical game of Old School Hack has a very, very low expectation of what you need to play. The basics of your character on are on the sheet, and you help the GM make the world up as you go.

Compare that to, say, Tekumel. This site says “If you’ve never encountered Tékumel before, you’ve stumbled upon an entire world the equal of Tolkien’s Middle-earth in detail and wonder: thousands of years of history, entire languages, rich cultures, unique creatures, bloody conflicts and fascinating mysteries.”

Yeah, when I read that I get the feeling there’s no room for me to just make a human fighter and get started. I will need to marinate in the details of a culture, to get a sense of its worldview and its naming traditions and maybe a bit of its geography and neighbors before I can even play in the game. That does not appeal to me.

Both Games Workshop (Warhammer) and Jack Shear (World Between) found a middle ground. “It’s like Europe, yeah? But with a [fantasy/Gothic] spin!” So you can have a player come in and say, “We’re playing in The Empire (or Caligari) and it’s like Germany, with a few key differences.” But the player knows to go with a Germanic name, and has some stereotypes available.samesameEven within that subset, what Jack finds to be sufficient setting detail and what I find to be sufficient setting detail differ considerably. He goes for a paragraph per country, I want a couple pages. But a couple pages for an entire country, and a handful for that part of the world–that’s not too much to absorb just to get started. And most of that is for the GM rather than being required for the player.

At my game table I have people who are eager to show up for new things to get in on the ground floor. It is harder for them to get excited about joining games in progress, especially games that have been going on for years. There’s a lot of layered history, both in what PCs have done and in what they’ve learned in their various adventures. New people have routinely had significant time in the game session with more seasoned players explaining some back story to them. Explaining why everyone who had been playing a while sat back and raised their eyebrows when a name came up, or why they’d go to this NPC for help.

What is the answer? Well… I think the answer is to have a gaming life where there are entry level games available, and also room for veterans and bold new players to go into venerable and storied games.

I like the idea of Justin Alexander’s “Open Table” gaming. I also like having long-running campaigns with their own culture. I think the main point of conflict is when players and GMs expect different things, or if players don’t have the same assumptions.

I recommend having a low-investment open-table option for when you are luring new people in, or when your veterans want a break. Then have your more refined offerings, with higher investment and expectations, for when that makes more sense. The open table is a great way to de-mystify your game table for players, and also to vet players to see who might be up for more rigorous settings. An open table helps find new blood, and having depth beyond the initial simplicity helps keep a group’s interest.

Okay, I admit it. I put the gif in this post because I think it’s hypnotic, it may or may not have direct relevance to the post.

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What Did I Play in 2014?

I played 57 role playing game sessions in 2014. Not bad. Not bad at all. Let’s break it down.

Fantasy Masks. Adventures in Dweredell. 16 sessions.

Edge City Masks. Adventures with superpowers. 15 sessions.

Fictive Avengers. Adventures with Avengers. 10 sessions.

Axes and Anvils. Adventures with dwarves. 6 sessions.

I also played some outlier games.

  • InSpectres. Adventures in ghostbusting. 3 sessions.
  • Crumbling Epoch. Adventures with my OSRish fantasy heartbreaker. 2 sessions.
  • Grifton Play by Post. Role playing on G+ asynchronously with 1 player. 1 “session” story.
  • FAE Jedi. FATE style Star Wars play. 1 session.
  • Murderhobo Remix. Lightweight tongue-in-cheek dungeon crawler. 1 session.
  • There’s a Game in this Book. Ran a session in Vornheim. 1 session.
  • Lasers and Feelings. Adventures in SPAAAAACE. 1 session.

That’s 47 campaign games in 4 settings, and 10 sessions of one-off and short-term games. I like that balance.

My main group plays Fantasy Masks and Edge City. I have a secondary group that played Fictive Avengers this year. Axes and Anvils was a special case, as all the games were part of the December playtest. So when we look at 4 main campaigns, that’s across 2 groups and with a focused playtest as one option–not so terribly unfocused.

This right here is a notation about a great year of gaming. I am grateful–it has been a pip. I look forward to another great year of gaming.

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“Into the Odd” Player reference, equipment

As I’ve noodled with it a bit more, I’ve got my “Into the Odd” initial (potential) player reference started.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I’ve put some house ruling into this. The original game should not be judged based on what I’m doing at my table! I encourage you to get the original game!

Part of the reason I’m doing this is frustration with the game’s layout. Things you only need at generation are mixed in with things you need on an ongoing basis. Rules for combat are disconnected with where the weapons and their damage are listed. DM advice is worked in with what players need to know about the rules.

Also, I’m more explicitly aiming for a WWI technology feel. That means “pistol” and “rifle” could use a touch more differentiation for me. What is the magazine capacity? Reload times? How do you deal with the full auto action of something like the Browning M2? I am not assuming everyone is going to have a lot of knowledge to share baseline assumptions on this, so I’ve gone ahead and put in some more specific information on those.

This is a first stab at this kind of document, I expect it will fill out as we go (if in fact I ever go anywhere with it.)

Into the Odd player reference

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Thinking About “Into the Odd”

I like looking at minimalist dungeon crawl rule sets, though I seldom would play them. “Into the Odd” by Chris McDowall may be an exception; it does what I want it to do, for the most part. Here are the changes I’d make off the bat:

  • One person said ranged attacks would be a Dex check to hit. I like that.
  • I’d likely use the light, encumbrance, and move stuff from “Crumbling Epoch.”

The rules get out of the way and provide resolution mechanics without being cumbersome. Fighting is fast and lethal and doesn’t mess around with armor class. Gear generation is delightful. I want to try this out.

Into the Odd Front

Here’s one thing I want to add to the setting. I want to add a framework in which the arcanum makes sense.

I don’t really want it to be human magic, because humans are much more technologists than scientists; we are more invested as a group in “that” it works rather than “how” it works. A basic need in the scientific approach is that results can be replicated. So for a bunch of unique magical items, it may be reasonable to look further afield than humanity.

I also get a feel that the game is tied to the aesthetic of the Industrial Revolution weirded up, instead of the feudal age weirded up.

My solution to this (in my version) is diplomatic relations with the fey.

There were dozens of overlapping venn diagrams of fey groups and human geopolitical entities. Then one ruling council of humans and fey allowed their great ones to collaborate and figure out how to bring human industry and fey quirky magic together, and standardized a way to infuse unpredictable power into objects.

This had been done in preceding centuries. Toy makers both fey and human stumbled across or deliberately made magic with toys. Weapons crafted and plundered were a constant problem. But now there was a fusion of the technology and magic on an unprecedented level.

It was the very power of what came from that, named arcanum, that drove the races apart. The power mad among the fey and the humans ascended. The humans wanted the arcanum and the magic of the fey, and the fey wanted  unfettered access to souls, breeding, and feeding directly on the essence of humanity. Both sides sought to enslave the other, for their own safety and profit.

The resulting war was bitter and destroyed most of the gates between the human and fey worlds. Whole cities were brought down. This new technology rendered war far more destructive than it had ever been before, and most of the weapons were consumed in the fighting and scorched-earth tactics in its wake. Guardians and traps were left for spite.

There are still a few “treaty cities” that escaped the worst of the fighting; places where humans and fey managed to hold to treaties older than greed. Such realms between realms are places like Vornheim, the impossibly vast city in the fey realm that is heavily populated by humanity.

If the characters are going to go after arcana, then they have to either have a fence to turn that magic into cash, OR have a strong protective organization that keeps them from being targeted by brutal thieves fey or human. Vornheim would be a great place to look for alliances that could protect them from both human and fey enemies through diplomacy and factional relationships rather than force or stealth alone.

Another place to look might be the island of Selvestria, an island between the fey and human realms that focuses on trade and is protected by musketeers.

The campaign refocuses, though, away from where recovery and rebuilding thrive. The focus of the adventurers is the ruined and devastated, where arcana is most plentiful upon the corpses and within the guarded vaults beneath shattered landscapes.

One site of power that’s been contested by fey and humans for millennia is the Dwimmermount. The presence of azoth and wacky technology is a great fit for “Into the Odd.” Another great site is where the undead, an element of chaotic fey, is infecting a human burial ground in the Barrowmaze.

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