The Archmage BANISHES them.

The Crusader CONQUERS them.

The Great Gold Wyrm DEFIES them.

The Diabolist SUMMONS them.

When the world cracks open and the demons attack, what will YOU do?

The Book of Demons takes an in-depth look at the Abyssal enemies of the 13th Age – the demonic hordes whose eternal struggle to shatter reality causes hellholes, dimensional breaches, and other, even weirder assaults on the world.

For Players:

  • Master the forbidden arts of the demonologist class
  • Claim demon-tainted magic items (or be claimed by them…)
  • Discover how to seal a hellhole and save the world

For Game Masters:

  • Five detailed hellholes, and advice on making your own
  • Secrets of the Crusader and the Diabolist
  • Demons! Demons! Demons!

Status: In development

(Cover art by Melissa Gay)

My current project (ONE of my current projects, so many current projects) is the (provisionally-titled) Book of Ages, for 13th Age. It’s mostly a grab bag of “cool stuff from previous Ages” – monsters, magic, feats, legends, adventure seeds – but here’s one of the early sections, discussing persnickety world-building questions and assumptions. 

* * *

Twelve Ages have passed since the foundation of the Empire and the reign of the Wizard King… but what’s an Age? And how long is that exactly? These questions are of comparatively little importance in a regular 13th Age campaign compared to “what’s that scaly firebreathing monster-snake over there” and “how long is it, roughly, because if it’s a Huge monster we’re screwed”, but in a book all about Ages we must at least briefly define our terms.

What is an Age?

An Age is a period of history that, in retrospect, has a discernible arc or overriding influence. Ages are book-ended by catastrophes. So, the First Age was dominated by the founding of the Empire in the aftermath of the Wizard King’s defeat, and ended when the giants razed Axis. The Sixth Age’s defining influence was the spread of lycanthropy among the aristocracy; like other Ages, it began and ended in catastrophe.

That isn’t to say, of course, that there isn’t tumult and catastrophe at times other than the start and end of Ages. Every peril that threatens the Empire is hailed by doom-sayers as the turning of the 13th Age. You don’t know that the world is falling apart when you’re trying to survive in the middle of it.

Who Defines An Age?

The historians and chroniclers in the court of the Archmage in Horizon are responsible for declaring the beginning of a new Age. This usually happens retrospectively – “clearly”, they might say, “the defeat of the Sea Raiders a generation ago marked a great change in the affairs of the Empire, so we have decided that the 11th Age ended at the Battle of the Redwater and we are now in the first century of the 12th Age”. At times, ambitious Emperors have pressured the sages into prematurely declaring the start of a new Age, but such hubris is punished by history – and anyway, only sages, historians, dungeon-crawling adventurous archaeologists and long-lived elves really care that much about when precisely an Age begins.

How Long Is An Age?

It varies. Recent Ages are all a few hundred years long. Earlier Ages might have been much longer, for the further back you go in the history of the Dragon Empire, the more uncertain things become. (All those catastrophes play havoc with proper record-keeping, after all.) So, Ages last as long as the Gamemaster needs. If you like an absurdly ancient Empire, then maybe the first Age lasted ten thousand years. If you want something faster and more chaotic, then Ages might last scarcely a century, and some of the earlier Ages might be entirely fraudulent. (“Historians!”, shouts the barbarian king who’s just claimed the throne, “insert another Age, and relate to me tales from that era about how my ancestors ruled the Empire, and how I am therefore reclaiming my rightful inheritance from a usurper and now, as it might appear, a bloody-handed mass murderer.”)

Do Ages Mean Anything?

Now that’s an interesting question. How much mystical significance does an Age have? The catastrophe that ends an Age usually results in the death, diminishment or transformation of one or more Icons; it’s unheard-of for two Ages to have exactly the same roster of Icons.

Of course, that implies other questions, like: is an Icon simply a powerful or influential individual, or are they somehow an embodiment/reflection/wellspring of mystical power? Does the appearance of the Priestess in the 13th Age mean that divine magic will become more powerful?  Does the loss of the Oracle mean that it’s now harder – or even impossible – to see the future? If an Age is defined by its Icons, then are there a limited number of Iconic “slots” available? If there are always 13 Icons, no more and no less, and the existence of an Icon has mystical significance, then the goal of every sinister conspiracy and cult might be to eliminate an existing Icon to elevate their own champion. If the Orc Lord dies in battle, and the Lizard Queen takes his place, then will orcs become weak and fearful, and lizard-folk become stronger and fiercer in their stead?

An interesting variant assumes that the number of an Age determines how many Iconic ‘slots’ there are. So, in the First Age there was only one Icon, two in the Second, three in the Third and so forth. The Great Gold Wyrm was the first Icon; in the Second Age, the dwarves defeat the giants and the Dwarf King ascends to Iconic status. In the third, the Four Dragons arrive, drawn by the wealth of the underground kingdom. In the fourth, the Elf Queen binds the Green, making the Four into the Three and marking her as an Icon…

Alternatively, Icons might be purely a measure of  local praxis – the Emperor’s an icon in the Empire, but has no reach beyond it, and if you follow the Koru trail up north, then local potentates like the Frostjack, the Living Glacier or the Hobgoblin Chieftain take on Iconic roles. In that interpretation, a player could even take Icon-style relationships with these smaller-scale Icons that would only work when in that Icon’s zone of influence. There still might be a Grandmaster of Flowers in some hidden monastery where she trains monks, and she works as an Icon when you’re adventuring near that holy mountain, but she doesn’t have the Empire-wide reach of her forebears.

Another possibility is that some forms of magic might be possible in one Age, but not in others. There might be Ages when all arcane magic just stopped working for centuries, until the world turned again. There might be Ages when other forms of magical power (psionics, maybe) worked, but they stopped when the Age changed, leaving behind only a few impossible relics and the memories of wonder.

Some astoundingly potent rituals and spells might be restricted to once-per-Age, just as resurrection is once-per-lifetime, more or less.

Does Everyone Agree on the Ages?

No.

Even if you assume that the turning of an Age is marked with completely obvious and unambiguous signs and portents, even if giant letters of fire appear in the sky saying ‘NOW TURN TO THE NEXT AGE’ when the time is at hand, some people are going to argue. The Elves might refuse to acknowledge that the 12th Age ever ended; historians might argue over whether Horizon was built in the 3rd or the 4th Age, or if it was actually built in the 18th and is moving backwards in time (because the Archmage, that’s why.) Not only will the ordering of the Ages vary from campaign to campaign, but there can be plenty of disagreement and ambiguity within a campaign too. After all, an Age is just the high-fantasy way of saying “once upon a time…”

03-ashen-starscoverThere are a lot of books in the pipeline right now, but none of them are quite cooked yet, so here’s a little bit of whimsy before the cannon of self-promotion is brought to bear on this space. As you know, Bob, Icons are a lovely little mechanic from 13th Age that model the player characters’ relationships with various powerful individuals/factions – the Archmage, the Emperor, the Lich King and so forth. (There’ll be lots of new – or rather, old – Icons in the upcoming Book of Ages, but I said I’d save the self-promotion).

We’ve adapted Icons to other GUMSHOE games before – here’s Ken talking about Icons in Night’s Black Agents, and in the Dracula Dossier, and in Trail of Cthulhu, and now that I think about it I should really do a set for Cthulhu City (more self-promotion – for shame!). They work especially well, though, in the wild and vasty space of the Bleed in Ashen Stars.

Quick rules reminder. Each player gets three Relationship dice to allocate among the Icons. Relationships can be positive, negative or conflicted. At the start of each session, everyone rolls their Icon Relationships (d6s); a 6 indicates that that Icon is going to get worked into the adventure somehow in a way that benefits the player, and a 5 means that things are complicated and messy. And, given this is Ashen Stars, a spend from an appropriate Investigative Ability like Cybe Culture gives a re-roll for the matching relationship.

Rasal, The Practitioner

Coordinator of the Combine’s reconstruction and redevelopment projects, Rasal embodies the distant, technocratic civilisation in its efforts to reclaim the Bleed. Rasal makes little effort to hide his distaste for the rough, chaotic region, and makes as many trips back to the safety of the Proper as he can. Whenever he returns, though, he brings vast resources – both financial and technological – to help solve the problems of these war-torn stars.

Allies: The Viceroy, the Princess in Exile, the Merchant       

Enemies: The Rebel, The Transer

Judy Coyle, The Viceroy

The commander of Ossa One, the Special Legate to the Far Settlements is in charge of keeping law and order in the Bleed. She’s responsible for licensing Laser crews, as well as commanding the Combine naval forces in the region. Coyle must balance her loyalty to her distant superiors in the Ministry of Settlement to the needs of the local worlds.

Allies: The Practitioner, Grand Arbiter Koket, the Merchant

Enemies: The Master of the Plunderbund, The Seeker, the Rebel

 Azela Shaw, The Rebel of the Bleedinsect

The most outspoken of the Bleedists, Shaw is a former naval officer who now rejects Combine control of the region. She’s proved to be a formidable organiser, rallying the disparate groups and worlds that oppose the Combine into an ad hoc alliance. Coyle claims that Shaw’s rumoured criminal connections taint the whole alliance, but Shaw’s allies dismiss such claims as Combine mudslinging.

Allies: The Healer, the Merchant, The Transer

Enemies: The Viceroy, the Practitioner, the Connoisseur

The Master of the Plunderbund

The Plunderbund is a syndicate of criminal gangs, pirates, thieves, unscrupulous mercenaries and shady corporations – a shadow economy, even a shadow government, slithering into the gaps left by the shattered Combine. The Plunderbund, for all its many faults, gets things done – if you need something, they can get it for you, but at a high price. The mysterious Master of the Plunderbund is an elusive figure, and may be the figurehead for a ring of crime lords.

Allies: The Rebel, The Princess in Exile, the Connoisseur

Enemies: The Viceroy, The Merchant, Grand Arbiter Koket

Klaadarr, The Seeker

The stagnant, sterile Combine is a secular realm, devoid of spirituality. The Bleed, though, is afire with mystic revelation and revitalized nufaiths. New religions – or resurrected old ones – boil across the stars, finding eager converts and fanatical followers on worlds desperate for something to believe in now that the Combine is gone. Into this tumult comes the Seeker, an alien prophet of all Nufaiths and none, who claims that that God can be found in the Bleed. Listen to him – he’s right.

Allies: The Transer, the Healer

Enemies:  The Meddler, the Pracitioner

Anacar Inatuy, The Merchant

Inatuy and her corporate allies made their fortune in the Bleed in the chaotic years after the war. There is still unimaginable wealth to be made out here, in the wild frontier, as long as they can thread a course between the stultifying control of the Combine and the apocalyptic chaos of a galaxy without law or justice. Of course, moral ambiguity is very much within the Merchant’s wheelhouse.

Inatuy is merely the most visible member of a cabal of corporate magnates and industrialists; the Connoisseur remains aloof from this cabal, and while he may be wealthier than any one of them individually, they vastly outmatch him as a group.

Allies: The Pracitioner, The Rebel, the Princess in Exile

Enemies: The Healer, The Connoisseur, the Transer, the Master of the Plunderbund

02_ashenstar_BallaStarwind, The Healer (Balla)

Starwind led an exodus of Balla artists, scientists and adventurers out of Combine space to settle in the Bleed. Her movement seeks to channel Balla emotional energy into healing and remaking the galaxy, instead of suppressing it. Her followers – the Chorus – have the potential to accomplish wonders, but might equally drag the Bleed down with them into madness.

Allies: The Transer, the Viceroy, the Seeker

Enemies: The Master of the Plunderbund, the Rebel

Grand Arbiter Koket (Tavak)

Koket is a legend back in the Combine – a decorated general, an accomplished philosopher, and a legal scholar who helped shape the decisions of the Combine Bench for decades. He was rumoured to be a candidate for Chief Justice, but instead chose to travel to the Bleed instead. While semi-retired, he retains his status as a judge, and serves as arbiter or investigator in especially complex or controversial cases.

Allies: The Viceroy, the Practitioner, the Transer

Enemies: The Master of the Plunderbund, the Princess in Exile

Krtch-Ick, The Connoisseur (Kch-thk)

Krtch-Ick is an immensely wealthy Kch-thk; he made his fortune back during the Mohilar War in dubious circumstances, and moved to the Bleed to evade Combine jurisdiction. He collects all manner of things – new foodstuffs, alien artefacts, “interesting people”, wrecked starships, military hardware. Whole planets, on occasion.

He owns corporations too –  among his assets is the Freedom Egg, a Bleed-wide media conglomerate that broadcasts news and entertainment across the region. Krtch-Ick’s word can shape opinion throughout the Bleed, so rumours that he’s becoming more unstable with each reincarnation worry the authorities.

Allies: The Rebel, the Seeker, the Master of the Plunderbund

Enemies: The Merchant, the Viceroy

Ukshqnza, The Princess in Exile (Durugh)

The death of martyred King Ukshqa and the Mohilar War transformed Durugh society. The old police state hierarchy collapsed, leaving their civilisation in a state of near-anarchy. Princess Ukshqnza was one of the few members of the king’s immediate family who escaped the chaos. She fled to the Bleed with an entourage of loyalists – not to mention several warships, a large portion of the Durugh state coffers, and (allegedly) a complete copy of the fabled Silent Gallery, the archive of Durugh espionage and blackmail. While the Durugh are now part of the Combine and Ukshqnza has no official standing, many Durugh see her as their ruler in exile, and the Combine look warily at her as a rallying symbol for Durugh separatists in the Bleed. At the same time, her combination of military force and unmatched intelligence-gathering capabilities make her a vital ally to Combine forces trying to keep order in wild space.

Allies: The Practitioner, the Master of the Plunderbund, the Meddler

Enemies: Grand Arbiter Koket, the Transer

Remaker, The Transer (Cybe)

The military records that might have identified who Remaker was before she was transformed were lost in the war. She emerged onto the political scene in the Bleed full-formed like Athena, as the champion of a wide-ranging coalition of cybe veterans. Remaker’s allies include mercenary legions and charitable foundations, cybe researchers and prophets, raiders and lasers alike – wherever one finds cybes, there too are her followers. Her avowed goal is to establish an independent cybe state in the Bleed; rumours connect her to illegal experimentation in creating new cybes, and some claim that her secret aim is to transform the entire population of the Bleed into her mind-slaves.

Allies: The Rebel, The Healer, the Seeker

Enemies: The Viceroy, The Practitioner

The Meddler (Vas Mal)02_ashenstar_vasmal2

The mysterious Meddler is a Vas Mal who retained considerably more of his cosmic awareness than the rest of his kind. He can, it seems, see the future, and can also see the temporal nexuses and pressure points that can change that future if poked in just the right way. The Meddler manipulates events and individuals to bring about those changes.

Allies: The Seeker, the Princess in Exile

Enemies: The Master of the Plunderbund, the Practitioner, the Connoisseur, the Merchant

The Ashen Shadow (Mohilar)

And they are still out there, moving in the dark places between the stars. Their recent defeat stripped away much of their power and has shown them they are not invincible. They must work in secret, through agents and intermediaries – until the stars turn dark, and the Mohilar can return…

Allies: None

Enemies: All

Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Cthulhu City485px-Cthulhu_sketch_by_Lovecraft is written, if not finished, and the final book is overstuffed with Mythos gribbles and haunted architecture. There are so many cults and sorcerers lurking in there, not to mention weird Yithian machines, that I had to remove certain blasphemous tomes and cryptic relics to the virtual pages of page XX. Consider these a taster of horrors of come.

The Upton Papers

Type: Tome

Physical Description: A hand-written diary, coupled with several folders of official documents bound in red ribbon. The papers may be found in a patent-leather briefcase that might even show signs of water damage.

Supposed History: These papers belonged to the late Francis Upton, the previous Mayor of Great Arkham. Upton died when his car plunged off the Garrison Street bridge into the Miskatonic river, and these papers were presumably lost with him. However, if someone recovered them from the water, or snatched them from the car before it mysteriously swerved, then Upton’s secrets might have survived his death…

Major Item: If genuine, the Upton Papers contain Francis Upton’s notes and personal observations about the city council and the secret rulers of Great Arkham. If Upton was, as he claimed to be, a reformer and enemy of corruption, then the papers document the activities of the Church of the Conciliator and the Necromantic Cabal in reasserting control of the city council after the fall of the Gilman House regime in 1925. Upton names several councillors and key figures as servants of the Mythos. If Upton trusted Federal Agent Vorsht, then the last paper is a letter to Vorsht asking for a full investigation of the city council. Combine this letter with Cop Talk or Bureaucracy to gain Vorsht as an ally.

Alternatively, if Upton was actually a cultist himself, then the papers shed new light on his death. Was he the victim of some internal feud within the cult? Did Vorsht or the Armitage Inquiry assassinate Upton? Or was his supposed death in the icy waters of the river merely a step towards some other mode of existence?

In either case, reading the Papers gives +1 Cthulhu Mythos and +1 Sentinel Hill Knowledge at the cost of a 3-point Stability Loss. Readers may also have recurring dreams of Upton’s death, which leave a lingering feeling of culpability after waking.

Minor Item: The papers are genuine, but there’s no sign of Upton’s diary. The documents in the folder all relate to a property deal involving several of the councillors, perhaps related the Olmstead Dam, the Dig in Salamander Fields, or the expansion of the city west into Billington’s Woods. Law detects irregularities in the documents; someone was covering up the true purpose of the property development.

Fraudulent: The papers are forgeries, as Craft can determine. They contain damning accusations about the private affairs of one of the councillors, like Arthur Diamond or Elanor Brack. Put these papers into the hands of an unscrupulous yellow newshawk from Newspaper Row, and they could do serious damage – even after death, Mayor Upton’s word counts for a great deal in Arkham.

 

The Ashpool Plates

Type: A series of twelve photographs taken by scandalous avant-garde photographer Edith Ashpool of Kingsport.

Physical Description: The first photographs in the series show Kingsport Harbour, and appear to have been taken from the deck of a yacht or other small vessel. A man, naked except for an ornate mask, stands by the railing in the foreground of each of the photographs, framing the background with his gestures. He waves goodbye in the early photos, points at elements of interests in others.

Other photographs show seascapes and coastlines around the north coast, near Kingsport Lighthouse. Several humanoid figures can be seen on the rocks at the foot of the cliffs, climbing in and out of the water. The later pictures in the series show a bizarre shoreline on some alien sea, with two moons clearly visible in the sky. The final picture appears to depict the yacht approaching a jetty of carved stone, where another figure wearing some sort of elaborate headdress awaits the boat’s arrival.

Supposed History: Ashpool claimed to have taken the photographs from the deck of the Hecate, a yacht owned by Ashpool’s rumoured lover Sauducismis “Saul” Waite, a cousin of former mayor Ephraim Waite. She exhibited the photographs in a small gallery in Kingsport; Art History or Kingsport District Knowledge recalls stories that there was a second, ‘inner’ set of photographs that could only be viewed on payment of an unspecified fee.

The police raided the Gallery two days after it opened; initially, they claimed that several gallery patrons including Ashpool had shown symptoms of typhoid and so the gallery had to be closed as a public health hazard. Later, it was made known that the ‘inner’ exhibition contained degrading and illegal pornographic images.

Major Item: The Ashpool Plates are a form of magical communication. Looking at the photographs in sequence, ideally while using a mind-expanding drug, puts the observer into a trance in which there is a psychic overlap between the observer and the masked man. Without the second set of photographs, the communication is one-way: the user is aware of another presence in the psychic landscape (presumably, whatever entity is represented by the figure wearing a headdress) and can “send” but not “receive” thoughts. The Ashpool Plates can be used to call for aid from whatever that entity is, and such entreaties will receive a response.

Of course, wise investigators may wish to know what they’re dealing with before entering into supernatural bargains. Ashpool is still in police custody in Fort Hutchison, but Saul Waite’s family connections protected him from any repercussions. The investigators could also try identifying the naked man, who clearly isn’t Saul.

Minor Item: A Cthulhu Mythos, Occult or Magic spend confirms that the photographs document the performance of a magical ritual. Replicating the gestures made by the masked man while following the course of the Hecate opens a sea-gate off the shore of Kingsport.

Fraudulent: The later photographs were faked in a special-effects shop at AKLO Pictures, one of Great Arkham’s movie studios. Ashpool was employed as a designer on an upcoming movie, but while on set, she managed to convince a vulnerable young starlet to pose for a series of compromising photographs. To protect their investment in the actress, studio bosses bribed the police to shut Ashpool down.

 

Wonders of the Invisible City

Type: Tome

Physical Description: 110 pages, cheaply bound and badly typeset. Printed in 1862. This is a second-hand copy; according to the flyleaf, it was owned at some point by a “M. Daniels” – perhaps Milton Daniels, the Union Boss?

Supposed History: Wonders of the Invisible City is a printed transcript of a series of sermons or lectures that were allegedly given by Reverend Shrewsbury, a pastor who lived in Arkham in the 1740s and 1750s. While there is plenty of evidence to attest that Shrewsbury quarrelled with Joseph Curwen and other merchants and civic leaders, and even spoke out against their “Godless ways” from the pulpit, there is no proof that this book contains an accurate transcript of Shrewsbury’s words.

Major Item: The book contains a litany of accusations against the founders of Arkham, mentioning Curwen, Orne and Hutchinson by name, but also insinuating that several other families were in league with devils. It describes “certaine works” that were carried out in the dead of night by Curwen and his allies; Architecture or Astronomy guesses that the description is of a detailed survey of the land around Arkham, focusing on key magical sites like the Wooded Isle, Sump Marsh and the Chinese Garden.

The book also describes Shrewsbury’s encounters with strange “travellers” who revealed to him a “vision of a monstrous Pandemonium-to-come”. The description in the text of the mannerisms of these stranger is eerily close to those of the player characters – is some cross-temporal encounter with Reverend Shrewsbury in their future? Handwritten marginal notes in this section appear to be written in code, and might contain a spell or instructions for achieving such a prodigy.

Minor Item: The book is less specific about the misdeeds of Arkham’s founders, but a close reading with Archaelogy or History can reveal the precise location of Curwen’s missing farm in Salamander Fields. Marginal notes suggest that a previous owner of this book came to the same conclusion and may even have carried out a search for the buried ruins.

Fraudulent: Occult or History confirms that most of the text is copied from Philip’s Thaumaturgical Prodigies in the New England Canaan, and has little new information of relevance.

 

confidential2Cthulhu Confidential, the flagship title for GUMSHOE One-2-One, is now available for pre-order! GUMSHOE One-2-One is designed for two players: a GM and a player who takes the role of a solo investigator, solving Mythos mysteries. In Cthulhu Confidential our PCs are hard-boiled shamus Dex Raymond, investigative journalist Vivian Sinclair, and private eye Langston Montgomery Wright.

We asked the Pelgranistas—as well as some friends of Pelgrane—which fictional characters they’d most like to have a GUMSHOE One-2-One mystery adventure with. This is Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan‘s choice:

Holistic Detective Dirk Gentlygar-and-dirk_400

 

Dirk’s holistic approach to deduction – that all things are fundamentally interconnected – would be a marvellous stress-test both for the GUMSHOE rules and for the unfortunate GM tasked with running a mystery for a character who is determined to investigate every case by pursuing seemingly unrelated clues on the grounds that they will turn out to be related on some level to the matter at hand. The most circuitous route to solving a mystery is, obviously, the most thorough and comprehensive, and if that route somehow involve repeated trips to a beach bar in Barbados, well, clearly that’s an argument for turning this into a live-action game and playing on location. Commitment to one’s art and all, you understand. Has to be done. Cheers!

Preorder Cthulhu Confidential at the Pelgrane webstore, and get the PDF plus a preview of the first Dex Raymond adventure, straight away!

———————————–

GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and re-envisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set for one player, and one GM. Together, the two of you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format of classic detective fiction. Can’t find a group who can play when you can? Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience? Play face to face with GUMSHOE One-2-One—or take advantage of its superb fit with virtual tabletops and play online. Purchase Cthulhu Confidential and future GUMSHOE One-2-One products in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

further-alarums_front-cover_350More random tables for your player characters’ between-adventure mini-stories—this time for heroes connected to the Great Gold Wyrm, High Druid, Lich King, Orc Lord, Priestess, Prince of Shadows, and the Three. Each mini-story includes a reward, a temporary background, or a temporary contact; plus a question or two that will help players contribute to the campaign. By Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan.

Further Alarums – Downtime for Seven Icons is the eleventh installment of the second 13th Age Monthly subscription. You can buy it as a stand-alone PDF, or purchase the collected Volume 2 to get all 12 issues plus the 2016 Free RPG Day adventure Swords Against the Dead!.


Stock #: PEL13AM25D Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Artist: Rich Longmore Type: 17-page PDF

Buy now

 

 

 

The Land Beyond The Forest

dossier_draculaThe old woman confirms that she is, indeed, Mina Harker. She’s kept herself alive with vampire blood for more than a century, for if she dies while Dracula lives, she’ll become his Un-Dead slave. She contemplated ending her own life in 1940, before Edom could bring Him back, but she could not be sure if the operation would succeed and so clung to another few years – which turned into another whole lifetime, maybe more.

She knows about the check on Dracula, and suspects that it is connected to the work of Professor Van Helsing. He and dear John Seward moved to Germany after the events of 1894, and she suspects that John was still in love with sweet Lucy. Katherine Reed died in Germany in 1910, a supposed suicide. On killing vampires, she knows that the key is that the vampire must be weighted down with memories of its mortal life, or else carried over that threshold of eternity by another soul. It was not the knife that destroyed Dracula – it was brave Quincey Morris, whose death dragged the Count down into the afterlife.

Of course, the knife helped – and she gives the Agents a box containing her husband’s Kukri and Morris’ bowie knife.

Brussels. In a dark room, the agents learn that the Catholic Church has been funding a project began by Van Helsing in the early years of the 20th century, a countermeasure that has kept Dracula in check for a century. The countermeasure is based in…

Munich. In an underground complex near the Deadhouse, the agents are met by the old men who run Undertaking Brown, Van Helsing’s countermeasure. She rests her, in her rooms, as she has done for more than a hundred years. The keepers caution the Agents not to address her by her old name – she is Alraune now. She yearns to destroy Dracula, and she has the power to do so,, but they cannot risk letting her attack the Count in his place of power in Romania – the Count has too many allies and servants there. If Alraune were left off the leash, she would charge into Romania and be destroyed before she reached the mysterious Castle Dracula – wherever that is. Instead, she keeps Dracula from extending his reach beyond Romania; whenever he rattles the bars of his prison cell, Alraune is drawn to his presence and forces him to withdraw.

Lately, though, she has not been herself, and Undertaking Brown fear that the countermeasure is breaking down. The Agents explain that Dracula’s allies were trying to disrupt the link between Kate Reed’s ghost and Lucy Westenra. Now that the Hillingham Working is done, there shouldn’t be any more attacks of that sort.

Finally, the agents are allowed in to speak with Alraune. Thanks to his new psychic powers, Fitzy is able to see the spirit of Kate Reed, bound to her friend and ensuring that Dracula has no hold over the vampiric Lucy. “Alraune” demands that the Agents set her free, so she can hunt down and destroy Dracula; in this case, the enemy of their enemy is definitely not their friend, and talking to “Alraune” is like being trapped in a room with a hungry tiger. Still, they arrange to have her brought to the borders of Romania – if they can lure Dracula close to her, maybe she can be released to destroy her quarry without running into whatever traps and barriers the Count has prepared for her.

Romania. McAllister’s player quickly sketches out the farm (which turns out to be a farm with a newly installed CCTV system attached to a derelict church next to a graveyard near running water, because give a player an inch and they’ll take a precision-engineered anti-vampire stronghold), and spends Preparedness to ensure that he’s pre-arranged an emergency strategy with his family (if bad guys come, head thataway). Baptiste takes up position with a sniper rifle, Elgin sneaks in to recon the place, Fitzy finds a foxhole. There’s a dozen bad guys, including Elvis and several Edom Jacks.

McAllister drives up the long, winding laneway to his farm. Elvis comes out to meet him, and gets about five words into a monologue (“You’ve made the right decision-“) before the first grenade gets thrown. It explodes at his feet, and battle is joined. The Agents initially hold their own – Elgin manages to lock three Edom soldiers in a barn, giving the team some valuable breathing space, Fitzy proves a dab hand with lobbing grenades, and Baptiste grabs a Night’s Black Agents convention rules reference and quickly masters the sniping rules to considerable effect. Then countersniping takes its toll, Elgin ends up in a close-quarters knife fight with a Serum-using jack (by close quarters, I mean “rolling around in the mud at the bottom of the farm’s well”), and McAllister takes several bad hits. Elgin survives only by using his own dose of Seward Serum.

The Farmhouse Battle

The Farmhouse Battle

Fortunately, McAllister’s extended family show up, and it turns out that marrying into a clan of faintly sinister Romanian partisans has its advantages. The team retreat into the graveyard under Uncle Grigori’s covering fire, just in time for Dracula to show up – fortunately, on the far side of the running stream. Nonetheless, Fitzy tries hiding behind the fallen spire of the old church, figuring that if a crucifix is good, a six-foot-tall iron cross is better.

The Count threatens them again. “That one,“ he says, pointing at Fitzy, “has power. That one” – Elgin – “has a connection to Reed. You will bring me the bitch ghost, or you will all die. There is no escape. You think killing these men will stop me! I will raise up my whole country against you!”

The Count vanishes into the mist, and the wolves close in.

The next morning finds the Agents in a mountain cabin with several of McAllister’s relatives (“they heal you with old peasant cures. Also, because it’s the 21st century and Romania isn’t a land of racist stereotypes, one cousin is an army medic”). When the Agents (bar Elgin, who decides to lurk inside out of the sunshine to protect his pool of Seward Serum points) emerge, they find the hillside is littered with the bodies of dozens of wolves. Overhead, a huge storm rages across the countryside, and they hear rumours of gangs of Ruvari Szgany and other criminal groups causing havoc all across the country. The Romanian armed forces are on alert, including the forces at the nearby air force base, which the Agents suspect are agents of Dracula.

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Looking for the Castle

After a brief detour to collect the ghost engine buried by the Edom commandoes in 1940, the team go looking for Castle Dracula. They’ve already worked out that the castle can’t be any of the ‘real’ candidates like Bran or Hunedora, but it’s only when Elgin tries putting the brooch back on that they realise the truth: Castle Dracula is in the land of the dead. It’s in that spiritual subduction zone between life and death. It’s everywhere in Transylvania, in the blood and the soil of that troubled land.

As they walk through the forest, the air grows chill. The shadows lengthen, and the pale sunlight that sometimes breaks through the rainclouds seems to slow and weirdly congeal. And then, on the ridge ahead, they see the castle.

McAllister’s family are unwilling to cross the threshold, so the four Agents enter. The gatehouse and courtyard are empty, but there are signs of life, and an old man (one of the Silent Servants) opens a side door for them. The Servant indicates that the Master will come to them at nightfall, and shows them up to a dining room where meals have been prepared for them. There’s also a circle of candles, like the circle in Singleton’s house. Clearly, Dracula intends for Fitzy to complete the psychic’s plan and tear Kate Reed’s ghost from Lucy Westenra’s body, turning “Alraune” from a weapon aimed at Dracula’s heart back into one of his Brides.

After a few nervous minutes, McAllister and Baptiste go exploring. They find the library, the room where Harker stayed… and the room that leads to that vertiginous drop, the sheer wall that leads down to Dracula’s lair. It’s still daylight. Dracula should be sleeping down there… and they’ve got stakes, and the knives given to them by Mina Harker. Why not end him now?

In the banqueting room, Fitzy assembles the old Ghost Engine, while Elgin contacts the Undertaking Brown handlers and relays the location of the breach into the land of the dead – gambling that if Alraune knows where Dracula is, she can go there directly and take the King down. All the Agents need to do is occupy the Count until Alraune arrives.

Even though the pair of spies have ropes and climbing gear, the climb down the wall is still nerve-wrecking for Baptiste and McAllister. The castle walls betray them, with seemingly solid stones crumbling when touched, and ropes tangling and twisting at the worst moments. Still, they make it down and discover a huge chamber in the depths. Searching, they discover several coffins, including one huge sarcophagus made of stone. Engraved on it is the legend

DRACULA

They open the coffin.

It’s empty.

In the distance, a gate clang open, and wolves pour into the room.

Upstairs… “Did you not read the Irishman’s book? Did you forget I can walk abroad during the day if I choose?”

“Without your powers,” points out Elgin.

“And when that sun sinks beyond those trees,” says Dracula, pointing out the window at the setting sun, “I shall have the power to destroy your souls, unless you serve me. Call the ghost, and I shall set you free.”

Fitzy has, by now, assembled a circle of crucifixes around himself and the ghost engine. “You can’t touch me.”

“You think THOSE will stop me? Here, in my place of power? Look – the sun dies. The powers of darkness rule now.” He steps past the line of crosses and lifts Fitzy by the throat. “Summon Reed NOW or I dash your brains out on the floor!”

Fitzy, in a moment of beautiful confusion, responds “summon who?” His player had forgotten that Kate is Katherine Reed (the group had been referring to her as Kate).  Dracula, in a spasm of fury, hurls Fitzy across the room. Elgin uses his Seward Serum-granted speed and darts forward, grabs a sword from above the mantelpiece, and runs Dracula through.

The Count responds by taking down another sword, and driving it through Elgin’s chest. The thief dies.

“SUMMON HER!” he roars at Fitzy. Fitzy switches on the ghost engine, which shakes the whole castle and sends it falling to Hell.

Baptiste and McAllister, having escaped the wolves by climbing back up the wall, burst into the room. McAllister, for the second time, shoots Dracula in the face with silver. Baptiste, having injected himself with the second dose of Seward Serum recovered from the hospital in Edinburgh, slashes at the Count with Harker’s kukri. McAllister stabs with the Bowie knife. Dracula’s still a fearsome foe, but he spent much of his Aberrance on raising up wolves and storms across Romania, and he’s felt the bite of these knives before. He knows, too, that he doesn’t need this fight – the intruders are trapped in his castle. He can retreat, heal, and then destroy them one by one. He begins to turn to mist…

All through the fight, Fitzy’s used his talent to be a beacon. He’s summoning “Alraune” all right, but not into the binding circle of candles. Lucy Westerna crosses the Romanian border as a golden hurricane, a cloud of mist racing against the wind. Battered and wounded by Dracula’s occult defences, she has almost no strength left when she descends on the castle… but Dracula’s weakened too. The two mist-forms entwine, entangle, like drowning figures they fall through the floor, through the foundations of the castle… beyond the final threshold of death.

As the castle collapses, the surviving Agents stagger across the courtyard, and find themselves climbing a steep slope in a grey and mournful land. They stumble blindly up, out of the land of the dead. For a moment, they glimpse a fourth figure. Was it a dark-haired woman, pointing the way back to the light?

And then it’s strong rough hands, woollen blankets thrown across shoulders, the smell of sweat and cigarettes and garlic, as McAllister’s family finds them and brings them home.

CODA 1: A newspaper report relates how Ms. Ellen Mowbray, a long-term resident of a retirement home in Malvern Hills, vanished on the night of Dracula’s death. Other reports and rumblings from the clandestine world talk about a series of mysterious murders, said to be almost… vampiric. Someone’s cleaning house inside Edom.

CODA 2: Nearly a year later, a youngish man with a jaunty cravat knocks on the door of the stately home at Ring, ancestral seat of the Holmwood family. “The name’s Fitz,” he says, and there’s an unearthly light in his eyes. “I think you’ve got an opening for me.”

We Ask No Proofs, We Ask None To Believe Us: Fifteen hours of play over two days was an intense but immensely rewarding experience. I certainly had a fantastic time running it, and I believe the players enjoyed themselves. My thanks to all of them, especially Shane and Andy who both came over from the UK for the convention. Also, thanks go to Gaelcon (especially Janet) for organising everything and coping with a novel game setup. 

Running the game over the Halloween weekend added extra weight to the ghostly elements of the whole affair. The encounter with Cotford’s ghost was one of my favourite scenes in the whole campaign. Having only five sessions meant I was able to stick to a strong theme throughout; something to experiment with in future longcon games, perhaps. 

The following image, taken the following evening on Halloween  neatly sums up both my exhaustion and elation after running the game.

VAMPIRES!

VAMPIRES!

< Session 4 – The Prime of Miss Ellen Mowbray

The Prime of Ms. Ellen Mowbray

Confronting_the_count_inks_350A terrifying, elemental storm strikes Osmond Singleton’s mansion. The windows shudder as the wind hammers at them. The power goes out as lightning blasts transformers all over South London. Nearby, three members of the team – McAllister (who managed to dodge the MI5 street teams that were crawling all over Westminster), Fitzy (who’s still slipping in and out of reality, and isn’t sure if he’s still playing the role of Alfred Singleton or not…), and Elgin (who saw the Edom team clean up the mess at Hillingham and exit stage right) meet back at the pub recommended by Rev. Rogers. The last member of the quartet, Baptiste, is still locked inside the mansion, hiding inside a wardrobe as Dracula’s wrath roars around the city.

For a brief time, it looks as though the holy wafers, garlic and other supernatural blocks placed at every door might be enough to thwart the Vampire King.

Then one of the ancient yew trees surrounding the house is uprooted by the wind and topples through an upstairs window, shattering the seals.

Dracula coalesces out of the mist. Singleton pleads for his life, promising that he will complete the ritual tomorrow night, that he’ll bind the girl, but he just needs time. It is too late. The Count’s patience is exhausted – Singleton is only the first to die as the Count rampages through the house. Baptiste flees in the confusion and meets up with the rest of the team.

After fortifying the room against natural and supernatural threats, they discuss options – it’s clear that they’ve done some serious damage to whatever was going on, but they’re not sure what Dracula’s plan is, or what Edom’s involvement is. Hopkins told them that Edom was trying to bring Dracula back to England and that she was trying to stop this, but Dracula’s already in London, so what’s going on? What was the point of the ritual at Hillingham, and why were the ghosts of Lucy Westenra and Kate Reed being raised from the dead? (Also, they’re talking about ghosts now, not just vampires, which is a whole other White Wolf sourcebook of weird. Also, Baptiste stole several documents from Singleton, including Hawkins Paper 20, implying that psychic talents may also be in play.)

The discussion is interrupted by a scuttling noise from the roof. They quickly work out that it’s the Child Vampire run by Edom, CALIBAN. The barriers and crucifixes keep him out, and they switch to secure electronic means (WhatsApp) to continue their conversation, but Edom’s on the way. Soon, the front door of the pub is smashed down by MI5, and the team exit via the back, blowing Urban Survival and Surveillance MOSes to escape the dragnet.

They consider going to another safe house, but en route spot a military land rover with a familiar face in the back seat. It’s Oakes, the Edom Duke they spotted at Whitby. When he spots them approaching, he lunges forward and garrottes his driver into unconsciousness, then calls out over the radio that this sector is clear – clearly, he’s willing to talk to the Agents.

Plotting the Conspiracy

Plotting the Conspiracy

Oakes explains that he believes Edom has been compromised by Dracula, and has been since the 70s. There’s some force that keeps Dracula in check, some barrier that restricts his ability to act and keeps him trapped in Romania, and Oakes fears that elements in Edom are trying to dismantle that safeguard. He leaked information to Hopkins because he wanted to preserve his position in Edom – but it looks as though he wasn’t careful enough, as Whitby was a trap for his allies. He suspects he’ll soon be arrested or killed, too. He does offer some assistance – the team loot military radios with Edom encryption, giving them some material for Traffic Analysis, and also gives them the address of someone who might be able to help them more. It’s a retirement home in Malvern Hills, and their contact there is Ellen Mowbray.

The team fake an assault on Oakes, to make it look like they took him prisoner, and then head to Rev. Roger’s flat to hide for the night. The choirmaster has gone on a hasty holiday, but leaves contact details for some senior figures at the Archdiocese of Mechellen-Brussels who know more about the Un-Dead.

Next morning, they decide to gather more information about vampires. Step one is collecting the staked corpse of Inspector Cotford from its coffin at Coldfall Woods, and loading him into the Reverend’s car. They also collect the jet brooch from Elgin’s courier. The plan is to work out how to kill a vampire (Cotford’s corpse implies that a dead vampire doesn’t turn to dust, so what did happen when Quincey and Harker stabbed Dracula all those years ago.) Investigation of Cotford’s corpse is less than illuminating, so they head to an hypnotist that Baptiste knows from his MI6 days – she’s a therapist who specialises in PTSD, but has also been involved in debriefing assets and other unusual cases. Elgin’s brooch seems connected to Dracula, Elgin suspects he’s connected to the ghost of Katherine Reed, and recovered documents bear out the usefulness of hypnosis, so… it’s worth a shot.

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At the therapists, Baptiste and Elgin head upstairs, while the other two (three, counting Cotford’s corpse) wait in the car.

Elgin takes out the brooch and puts it on at the moment of sunset. The world seems to darken; the setting sun leaves a bloody smear on the sky. The lights of London recede, leaving the medical centre (and its car park) alone in a seemingly infinite darkness. It is similar to the effects of the ghost engine at Hillingham, but more pronounced.

Under hypnosis, Elgin makes contact with Kate Reed’s ghost – and finds himself in the body of a woman again. He looks in a mirror, and there’s no reflection. He’s seeing through Lucy’s eyes – and she’s still alive, or Un-Dead at least! He can tell that she’s in Munich.

Outside, the activation of the brooch has called up another ghost. Over the radio comes a sepulchral voice – “Singleton? Is that you? Let me in, you damned fool. Open the carriage and let me in!”

The ghost of inspector Cotford has returned, and he wants his body back. When the pair refuse, the ghost attacks the car. Tyres pop, bulbs explode, the electrical system burns out, the windscreen shatters, but they keep the stake in the corpse’s heart and drive the ghost away with crucifixes and garlic. Putting that horrific encounter together with Oakes’ account of Edom’s past activities, they guess that Edom used a ghost engine in 1940 to resurrect Dracula. It seems that slaying a vampire’s body is only a temporary measure – its ghost can be brought back to reinhabit the husk again.

When the brooch is removed and normal reality reassert itself, McAllister gets a phone call. Caller ID says its Sarita, his Romanian wife, but the voice on the other end is English and mocking. “Call me Elvis. I’ve got your family here, and quite a fucking collection of power tools. This drill, for instance. Unless you’re here by midnight tomorrow, this drill is going through her skull. Understand?”

Another council of war, and frantic checking of flight times. They decide that they can cross the country yet again, visit Oakes’ contact, and then fly to Brussels and drive onto Munich and then finally Bucharest before the midnight deadline. It’s risky, and means leaving McAllister’s wife in Edom/Dracula’s clutches, but they want to assemble all the allies they can manage.

They arrive at the retirement home before dawn, and sneak into the room. There’s an old, old woman sleeping there, and they wake her.

“Mina Harker, I presume.”

Elgin's Notes

Elgin’s Notes

You Know This Because You Are Psychic: Fitzy was supposed to be a one-session temporary character, but the player decided to come back for the remaining two sessions, so I hastily wrote Psychic 2 as an investigative ability on his character sheet, justifying it as a result of Fitzy channelling the spirit of Alfred Singleton during the Hillingham Working. His actual abilities were never explored until the end of the adventure, but even just having it on his sheet justified having an out-of-work actor running around on a par with ex-spies and ex-soldiers. (Admittedly, Fitzy also had absurdly high scores in Weapons and Athletics as well as Disguise – stage fighting, of course, darling.)

Parallel Trails: You can never be quite sure in an improvised campaign which clue the players are going to follow next. Often, you end up throwing out the same lead several times in different forms. For example, the importance of Exeter as an Edom base got brought up dozen times in the first four sessions, and I was sure they’d check it out at least once on their many road trips, but they never got there. The Unredacted dossier hinted at Exeter; I mentioned it when they were discussing Harker; they saw Oakes and Hound driving back to Exeter; there was radio traffic in the Edinburgh hospital pointing there and so on.

Similarly, I dropped a bunch of leads to Munich – Elgin stole the brooch there, his psychic visions pointed there, various documents pointed there. I also intended for Reverend Roger’s connections in the church to point the Agents there. Given the pressures of time, the Brussels link was a mistake – I should have just had Rogers’ allies be based in Munich all the time, and dropped the Brussels element entirely.

In a longer campaign, I could have fleshed out Brussels into a full adventure, or at least a full encounter, as opposed to the stilted “Hello. I am Catholic Vampire Hunter Priest. There is nothing in Brussels other than me saying ‘go to Munich’” scene we got in the final session.

The GM in Repose

The GM in Repose

The Crook: The phone call to McAllister threatening his family is an absolute cliché, but it works. Pacing can be an issue in an improvised campaign; the Vampyramid helps by prompting escalating responses, but with only one session to go, I needed to force a confrontation, and this was a simple and effective way to do it. A full campaign could deploy something more subtle than this ‘crook’ (a shepherd’s crook is basically a hook that drags you forcibly along), but a convention game or one-shot needs a weapon like this in the GM’s back pocket. 

< Session 3 – Street Theatre

The Land Beyond The Forest – Session 5 >

Street Theatre

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Hawkes & Fitzy

The team retreats from Singleton’s house. They decide that they need some spiritual assistance, and contact a Network ally of theirs, Revered Rogers (any resemblance to Simon Rogers of Pelgrane is purely deliberate). Rogers meets them in a private room at a nearby pub, and brings along a bag of crucifixes along with two potential allies (and our second two temporary player characters – a Metropolitan Police detective names Hawkes and an actor called Fitzy.

(Elgin’s player missed half this session; the thief hid in Singleton’s house until he was able to escape and rejoin the rest of the group. He also had a weird vision-flash when he broke the circle of blue candles – he was in the body of a woman, dressed in modern-day clothes, and there was a man shouting at her in German.

A Message From Beyond

A Message From Beyond

When he recovered, he found he was holding a copy of Hawkins Paper 14, on which he’d circled several key words.)

Hawkes had discovered the Met’s extensive files on vampire-like attacks, dating back to the 1890s. She’d also discovered that officers who looked too deeply into any of these incidents tended to get transferred to dead-end jobs. Fitzy, meanwhile, was a former regular at Singleton’s decadent parties who had fled to Reverend Rogers after a troubling spiritual encounter with the occultist. Furthermore, Singleton just contacted Fitzy again, offering him a role in a ‘dramaturgical ceremony’ tonight (“the role of a lifetime, dear boy”).

After a lengthy discussion of options, the team decide to start by checking out Coldfall Woods. They quickly uncover a ruined cellar in some waste ground that matches the spot on an old map of London they found with the Dossier in Whitby. Exploring, they meet Richard Crinn (the Madman, DH p. 121), who Hawkes recognises as a known junkie. He rants about the three girls – one dead, one alive, one un-dead, and other cryptic nonsense, but the team are more interested in finding out what’s behind an Architecturally-suspicious wall than sifting through Crinn’s babblings. Hawkes calls some local social workers to take Crinn away, and warns them that he might be violent by night.

After some poking at bricks, the team smashes through the wall and finds a mysterious upright coffin and an even-more-mysterious partial skeleton entombed in concrete. Fitzy starts pulling bits of the skeleton out of the concrete, and has a psychic flash of the Norman Shaw building (DH p. 193).

The team drags the coffin out into the daylight, and – stakes and crucifixes in hand – open it. Inside, they discover the already-staked corpse of Inspector Cotford. A close examination finds that his throat has been torn open, and stuffed into the wound are several items: Cotford’s wedding ring, some photographs of his family, and a collection of teeth wrenched from a child’s mouth. They reseal the coffin and hide it again.

Fitzy gets some more details from Singleton about the arrangements for the evening. Fitzy will be playing Alfred Singleton, Osman Singleton’s putative grandfather. Enchanted by the idea of playing a sorcerer, Fitzy puts on his robe and wizard hat.

McAllister prepares some silver bullets and the team load up with crucifixes, holy water, and other counter-vampire measures.

Elgin contacts an ally in Germany and arranges for the mysterious brooch to be couriered to England.

Suspecting that the Norman Shaw buildings are central to Dracula’s plans (mainly because they’re central on the map), McAllister and Hawkes head there. Elgin heads to Hillingham;  Baptiste accompanies Fitzy back to Singleton’s. While Singleton and Fitzy argue over how to portray the original, Baptiste sneaks into the Psychic’s study and starts looting handfuls of clues.

At Hillingham, Elgin manages to get into the tent containing the mysterious machine and examines it. It consists of a portable generator, a computer console, and a contraption that consists of a jackhammer-like pillar of solid engraved silver, covered in occult runes. Elgin’s able to access some files on the computer console – they resemble heat maps, or images from ground penetrating radar. They seem to show parts of London as they were in the past, including ghostly tracks where people gathered. Zooming out, it looks like Edom have used the machine at other places around London, but there’s a big DO NOT USE sign on the map near Kingstead Ceremony.

Despite Fitzy’s increasing nervousness, he gets dressed in Alfred Singleton’s old suit and gets on the bus. (He also takes the drugs offered by Singleton.) He meets other actors playing the roles of Kate Reed, Lucy Westenra, Mrs. Westenra, Quincey Harker and other characters from the novel.

At Westminster, McAllister and Hawkes find the entrance to a maintenance tunnel, and hear spectral whispers in the darkness. Before they can investigate, Hawkes spots a man she knows to be an MI5 Agent (DH p. 122) watching them. The pair lay a trap for the Security Service office, and manage to ambush him.

The… performance? Ceremony? Séance? begins again. The machine starts up again, hammering the ground. Vibrating the old walls of Hillingham. The actors somehow become more like the characters they’re portraying, and seem almost possessed. The “scene” is the 17th of April – just after the death of Lucy Westenra (p. 202 of Unredacted for those reading along at home). As Single – as Fitzy approaches the door, he sees the other actor, the man standing next to him playing Cotford, change so he more closely resembles the corpse they found in the sealed coffin earlier that day.

At Singleton’s house, the blue flame returns. Baptiste witnesses another séance, but this time, the ghost in the circle is alternately a beautiful blonde woman or a hideous skeleton – it’s the spirit of Lucy Westenra!

At the Norman Shaw buildings, Hawkes and McAllister question the captured MI5 Agent, who’s clearly running security for Edom. They ask him if it was the Child Vampire who killed Dr. John, and he laughs at them. The Master is at hand – and mist starts to pour down from street level, coagulating into the shape of a tall man…

Fitzy tries to change the script (at this point, we were literally putting on a performance of Page 202 of Unredacted), but the psychic pressure is intense, and changing a single word requires a tremendous effort of will. In Singleton’s house, there’s a wrenching sensation as Lucy’s vampiric ghost becomes more and more manifest. The blue flames of the candles are now these blazing blue columns of fire, impossibly tall.

Under the Norman Shaw buildings, Hawkes and McAllister face down Count Dracula. McAllister fires a blessed silver bullet at the Count, injuring him, but it’s nowhere near enough to stop the vampire. He advances on the pair. Crucifixes hold him at bay; he snarls in fury and snaps the downed MI5 Agent’s neck with a casual gesture, like a man kicking a dog. “You will suffer for this insolence. Your families are mine! Your friends, mine! Your country, mine!”

Just before the actor playing Quincey Morris can announce that Lucy is dead, Elgin shoots the machine, knocking it out of phase. Fitzy collapses; everyone at Hillingham goes silent, apart from the actress playing Lucy. She just starts screaming and screaming, this banshee keen that doesn’t stop.

DraculaAnd back at Singleton’s mansion, the summoning circle is empty. The blue flames have all gone out. Baptiste listens from his hiding place as Osman Singleton orders his remaining followers to bar all the doors and windows and bring up the garlic from the cellar. “We have failed HIM, and he will not forgive. Bar the doors and pray, and we might survive the night!”

 

Spiritual Subduction Zones and other weirdness: I wanted a twist on the both the regular damned vampires and the telluric-bacteria vamps presented in the Director’s Handbook, but I also knew that the campaign works best if you can preserve the earth-tremor connection to Dracula. What I came up with was a breed of vampire that exists on a spiritual borderland between life and death.

A subduction zone is a geological term – it’s the place where one continental plate slips beneath another, causing earthquakes. This setup posits that the physical and the spiritual, life and death, are like continental plates, usually moving in parallel with one another, but in certain places, life can slip beneath death, opening a route to some spiritual underworld. This subduction, this violation of normal reality, causes both psychic and physical feedback that manifests in many ways, including earthquakes.

Vampires are spirits that have crawled out of such a subduction zone. They shouldn’t be alive, so reality keeps trying to drag them back down into that spiritual underworld. Vampires drink blood to cling to life. Staking or beheading a vampire isn’t enough to kill it, as they’re unquiet ghosts inhabiting a body. The only way to kill it is to carry its soul into the underworld, usually by weighing it down with other ghosts. That’s why the vampire Cotford was buried with tokens reminding him of his family – their ghosts would carry his spirit down into the afterworld. That’s why grave goods work.

Certain vibrations can also create artificial subduction zones; resonate the old stones of a building or the bedrock of a region at the right frequency, and it pushes the physical a little into the spiritual realm. That’s why, for example, hauntings are associated with running water. The mundane explanation is that people mistake the gurgling of some buried river or the drip of some leaky pipe for ghostly sounds, but what’s really going on is that the vibrations caused by the running water happen to resonate at the right frequency to push that site into the spiritual realm a little, allowing ghosts to form. 

Edom doesn’t have earthquake machines – they can make earthquakes, but that’s not their real purpose. They’ve got ghost engines, machines that resonate at the right frequency to create subduction zones. They used one of these to resurrect Dracula in 1940 – they opened a subduction zone, and Dracula’s spirit was able to crawl out of the spiritual realm and back into his body. (He was carried down into Hell by the ghost of Quincey Morris; if none of the company had died there, then no amount of physical damage would have stopped Dracula from returning the next night. Edom had to pull him out of Hell in 1940 to bring him back.)

Ghost engines can also be used to call up ghosts, or at least create conditions where ghosts are almost certain to manifest, as the team saw at Hillingham.

< Session 2 – There Was An Explosion Adjacent To A Helicopter

The Prime of Miss Ellen Mowbray – Session 4 >

 

There Was An Explosion Adjacent To A Helicopter

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Hawkins Paper 28

Session 2 brings in our first temporary player – a Medic named Dr. John McTavish, a former British army medic now working as a doctor in the Edinburgh hospital where Edom brought Hopkins. The team follow the Edom convoy to the edge of the city, then call to Dr. John’s flat to recruit him. Traffic Analysis warns them that an air-ambulance helicopter was on its way, implying Edom is preparing to move Hopkins by air.

The plan – infiltrate the hospital, recover Hopkins. Aided by Dr. John’s credentials and various disguises, the team make it to the secure upper floor. Hopkins’ room is guarded by two Prosperine ratings – Edom’s special forces. McAllister heads upstairs to secure the helicopter, while the other three try various approaches to bluff their way past the guards. It doesn’t go especially well – things go from “hi, we’re here to prep the patient for transit” to “ok, now the second guard’s trying to strangle you with a towel” in about ten minutes of game time. Upstairs, luck isn’t on the agents’ side earlier: McAllister tries to covertly take out the guards watching the helicopter with a silenced pistol, rolls really badly for damage, and decides to escalate to grenades.

On the bright side, the ensuing fire alarm and mass evacuation of the hospital means that the close-quarters knife/syringe/fistfight in the linen closet downstairs goes unnoticed, even after someone pulled a gun. By the end, Elgin and Dr. John are both still alive and the other pair were unconscious, but no-one is unscathed. Elgin picks up a pair of mysterious syringes (Seward Serum) from the downed guards while Baptiste escapes with the unconscious Hopkins. A quick examination of her chart shows that she’d lost a great deal of blood through a neck wound (said neck wound has tooth marks consistent with a bite from a child). There’s also a woman’s corpse of roughly the same age and appearance as Hopkins, suggesting Edom intends on faking her death.

Baptiste & Dr. John

Baptiste & Dr. John

The team exfiltrates hastily – wait, no, Preparedness 8. The team exfiltrates along a carefully planned back route to a service yard where McAllister has parked another hire car. They flee the city, heading for a safe house belonging to John in Falkirk. There, they wake and question Hopkins, who tells them that she was working with a source inside Edom. She knows that Edom somehow reactivated Dracula in 1940, but that he was kept trapped in Romania by some countermeasure (“held in check”, to be precise). Edom was working to weaken this countermeasure, and her analysis suggested that Edom was ready to bring Dracula across into Whitby by ship. Her plan had been to recruit the agents, then take a fishing trawler out to intercept and destroy Dracula while he was still helpless in his coffin. Clearly, someone fed her bad intel to lay a trap for her and other enemies of Dracula.

If a vampire had bitten her, then it’s possible that it can read her thoughts, just like Mina and Dracula. The agents decide that even with anti-vampire precautions, Hopkins is a liability as long as the child vampire was still out there. They load the car with garlic, sedated Hopkins and cross the country again, heading for some old army buddies of McAllister. They stash Hopkins there, making sure that she had no idea where in the country she is and hence (they hope) unable to relay any added information to Edom’s child vampire.

They swap cars yet again, and arrive in London in a borrowed landrover. McAllister and Elgin pretends to be journalists for an occult magazine, and flatter Osmond Singleton into inviting them to his house for an interview. John and Baptiste watch the occultist’s South London mansion from outside.

The door’s opened by a beautiful blonde girl, who invites them in. Singleton’s in the middle of a sordid party, but his ego can’t resist talking about himself and psychogeography at length. While McAllister endures a lengthy monologue on Singleton’s Blood and Soil: an Occult Exhumation of Romania, Elgin sneaks upstairs…

Outside, things get strange. A parade of drugged-up party-goers troop out of the house and onto a waiting minibus, where they change into costumes. Specifically, late Victorian formal wear for some, and servants’ costumes for others. Baptiste tails the bus as it drives to the ruins of Hillingham, the now-derelict house once home to the Westenra family. The party has become a weird masquerade, with the drugged actors swarming through the graffiti-covered walls of the old mansion, apparently taking on the roles of various people from the Dracula novel. At the same time, a weird thruuum thruuum vibration rolls through the ground – coming, Baptiste discovers, from a large plastic camouflage tent in the back garden of the house. The party-goers are studiously ignoring the anachronistic tent as they take on more and more of the qualities of the characters they’re portraying. The air seems thicker, the light… slower.

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Back at Singleton’s, the occultist ushers McAllister out. Mist has descended on the garden of Singleton’s house. From outside, McAllister sees a weird blue light suddenly flare in one of the upstairs rooms.

And upstairs, Elgin finds that very room, drawn by same weird hypnotic thruuum thruuum sound that seems to echo through the house without a discernible source. In the room is a circle of candles, blazing with blue flames. In the centre of the circle is the ghost of a dark-haired woman in Victorian costume. She silently mouths HELP ME at the thief. He blows out the candles, breaking the circle –

– At Hillingham, the noise goes thruuum thruuum THUNK, and engineers in the tent yelp in alarm as everything goes wrong. The spell over the masquerade is broken –

And in the garden at Singleton’s house, McAllister finds the corpse of Dr. John McTavish. His throat has been torn out and his back snapped by some tremendous force…

A Few Notes on Directing: Let’s pull the curtain back on a few incidents and talk running games.

Not-so-silent takedown: In a movie, taking out the guards at the helicopter would almost certainly have been a quick scene of competent assassination – thwip thwip of a silenced pistol, and two bodies crumple. But it was our first fight, some of the players were new to GUMSHOE, and poor McAllister rolled so badly on the damage rolls (two ones) that I ruled that one guard survived and was able to fire back.

Too much uncertainty in a roleplaying game, especially in a spy thriller where the odds are massively against the group, is paralysing. If doing anything carries the risk of catastrophic failure, then players tend to turtle up and do as little as possible. Conversely, if the Gamemaster is too forgiving and everything happens in  accordance with the rules of a Bond-esque thriller where the heroes are flawless and infallible, the game gets boring. Total competence and total incompetence are both boring.

Night’s Black Agents addresses this by offering the players the opportunity to buy moments of perfection: you’ve got a once-per-game auto-success in one ability (your Military Occupation Speciality), you can spend lots of General Ability points to beat any reasonable difficulty, and you can spend Investigative Ability points if you can justify how your Art History helps you beat up a mafia goon (“I hit him with the marble bust of famed oil painter Gionanni Bellini (1430-1520)”).

When the players don’t buy that infallibility, though, let the dice fall where they may.

Calibrating to the group: In the fight downstairs, Dr. John spent points of Pharmacy to have prepped some sedative syringes, and assumed that these would work in a cinematic fashion – jam it into a bad guy, bad guy falls down. Baptiste’s player, though a) already told me he’d prefer a somewhat realistic, Dust-style game and b) is a paramedic in real life, so knows what would be available in a hospital pharmacy. We agreed to downgrade the effect of the sedatives to “it makes them drowsy and uncoordinated”, which translated to attack penalties and health checks instead of an instant takedown. John still got to save the day with medical trickery, as the agents would likely have lost a two-on-two fight with the bad guys, but it meant the victory was a little more suited to the desired vibe of the game. (It’s much easier, obviously, to ramp up into high-octane weirdness and action later in a campaign than it is to ramp down into gritty Smiley-esque paranoia, so start your game in the lowest gear your group will tolerate and switch up over time.

Heat in the background: Heat is a wonderful mechanic to remind the players of the consequences of their actions and to force them to act covertly, but it almost always works better as a sauce instead of the main course. I could have included, say, a car chase or a fight with the police as the PCs try to escape Edinburgh having just blown up a helicopter on the roof of a busy central hospital, but it wouldn’t have advanced the story. Instead, I let them get away with a few tests and Urban Survival spends. 

Having agents captured or attacked by the bad guys is fun; having agents arrested or shot by ordinary cops only works in a very long game. (If an agent had gotten arrested in this campaign, I’d have brought in Oakes or some other Edom officer to whisk them away from the police and back into the clandestine arena.)

Everything’s a lead: The players picked Singleton to investigate based on the annotations in the Dossier, plus identifying him as the likely author of Hawkins Paper 28. I had assumed they’d actually go in search of the Retired MI5 Computer Boffin (DH, p. 99), as I trailed his name in the phone, the post-its and in conversation with Hopkins. Equally, I’d dropped references to Exeter and Carfax as likely Edom bases. In the Dracula Dossier, though, everything’s designed to eventually funnel back to Drac, so I wasn’t worried when the Agents fixated on the Psychic (DH, p. 96). Plus, he’s a fun NPC to play as a grotesque.

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