In the 13th Age Facebook group, a new GM asked for good examples of PC backgrounds. I offered some, but couldn’t help also giving advice on what makes a good background. (It’s one of my favorite mechanics in the game.) I said that a good background doesn’t just outline your character’s backstory in three or four brief sentences, and provide a bonus you can add to a wide variety of checks—a good background also gives the GM story hooks for an adventure or even an entire campaign.

For this column, I’m going to take an example of a good PC background, and talk about how I’d turn it into an adventure! The background is, “Former sailor on the Imperial frigate Intrepid, which was sunk in battle against the Revenant, flagship of the Lich King’s Pale Fleet under the command of the lich admiral Vertinor (+4)”.

Before we dive in (ha!) I want to mention that If any part of the background conflicted with a non-negotiable element of my campaign, it would be completely reasonable for me to ask the player to change that detail. For example, if it were important to me that my version of the Dragon Empire strongly resembled ancient Carthage, I would ask the player to change it to something like “the warship Adherbal“.

Breaking Down the Background

I’ll put on my (nautical) GM hat and think about the elements of this background.

The Imperial navy. The game tells us that the Dragon Empire has a navy, but its presence in a PC’s background brings it—and the theme of seafaring adventure—to my table. I can have the heroes explore the Midland Sea, search for sunken or buried treasure, hunt a traitor in the navy’s upper ranks, fight sea battles, battle sea monsters, and more.

The frigate Intrepid.Wikipedia tells me that a frigate is “a lighter galley-type warship with oars, sails and a light armament, built for speed and maneuverability” that originated in the late Middle Ages. This tells me something about the composition of the navy, and the technology level of sailing vessels (and maybe other things) in my campaign world. To help bring the world to life, I can research what other kinds of ships were used in fleets of that era and include them in the game. It also gives me a template for the kinds of names those ships might have.

Sunk in battle. This background cites a specific naval battle that occurred in the past, where the Emperor’s navy was one of the combatants. I ask the player how long ago this happened, and how large the battle was. She says it was a major sea battle that happened about ten years ago. Both sides had heavy casualties, but the Emperor managed to prevail with the help of air support from the dragons of Axis. There’s also a specific sunken wreck somewhere at the bottom of the Midland Sea. Did something valuable go down with it? What monsters might inhabit the wreck? What are the Intrepid‘s survivors up to these days?

The Revenant, flagship of the Lich King’s Pale Fleet. Okay, so the Lich King has a navy of his own! This is a big change from how he’s presented in the core book: the book describes the island of Necropolis as “dormant” thanks to rituals performed at tombs on the island’s outer ring by the Gravekeepers of the Empire, and it says if those rituals aren’t performed, “the undead swarm through the ocean and emerge onto land all around the Midland Sea.” Giving the Lich King actual ships puts him more on a level with the Emperor as an earthly ruler to be reckoned with. It also raises the possibility of ships crewed by the undead occasionally putting in at Shadowport.

The lich admiral Vertinor. This is fantastic! I now have a villain who one of the PCs hates. He—or his minions—could be recurring foes, showing up anywhere on the coasts of the Midland Sea. Are you headed to the island of Omen in search of an artifact? One of Vertinor’s ships is right behind you—or maybe they got there first. Negotiating a peace treaty with the sahuagin? Vertinor shows up on behalf of the Lich King to offer them a better deal.

I think I want Vertinor to stick around for a while, so I’m going to make him a high-tier monster using the stats for the Lich Count in the 13th Age Bestiary. If the heroes manage to kill him, their next and final target might be the Lich King himself!

The Lich KingThe Lich Admiral Vertinor

Double strength 8th level spoiler (undead)
Initiative: +11

Touch of the grave +13 vs. AC—50 cold damage, and the target is dazed (hard save ends, 16+)

Natural even hit: The target is weakened instead of dazed (hard save ends, 16+)
Miss: 25 cold damage.

R: Shadow rays +12 vs. PD (2 attacks)—35 negative energy damage

Natural 16+: The target is encased in shadows (save ends). While under the effect, it’s weakened and takes 10 ongoing cold damage.

R: Empowered fireball +12 vs. PD (1d3 + 1 nearby creatures in a group)—35 fire damage, and 10 ongoing fire damage

Natural even hit: The target takes 20 ongoing fire damage instead of 10.
Miss: 15 fire damage, and 5 ongoing fire damage.
Limited use: 2/battle.

C: Look upon your doom +13 vs. MD (up to 3 nearby enemies)—Vertinor gains a fear aura against the target until the end of the battle

Fear aura: While engaged with this creature, if the target has 48 hp or fewer, it’s dazed (–4 attack) and does not add the escalation die to its attacks.

Thank you for the best ten years of your life: When Vertinor scores a critical hit, the target loses a death save until the end of the battle (effectively, it now dies after failing three death saves, and the effect is cumulative). In addition, the crit range of attacks by Vertinor against the target expands by the escalation die and he heals 40 hit points.

Immortality: When Vertinor drops to 0 hit points, his lifeless body turns to seawater but he does not die. He begins to reform near the item that contains his soul—a blue gemstone set in a silver necklace—taking a number of days to regain its full strength equal to his level. If the gemstone has been destroyed, Vertinor dies when he drops to 0 hit points.

AC 24
PD 18
MD 22
HP 240

Let’s Make an Adventure!

I have all the elements of a fun adventure that’s powerfully relevant to one of the PCs; now it’s just a matter of assembling them. Let’s see…a sunken ship connected to the Emperor implies sunken treasure that includes a true magic item connected to the Emperor. Looking at Loot Harder, I think the melee weapon of Imperial Might fits well—let’s make it the Sea Axe of Imperial Might, a weapon wielded by the Intrepid’s captain. A search for sunken treasure suggests fights with various sea-themed monsters, so I’ll go through the books and build appropriate battles. A recurring villain with a connection to the wreck adds urgency and variety if he’s also after the treasure. The villain is undead, which means his minions probably don’t have to breathe, so they can just walk around on the seafloor.

Here are three possible approaches to an adventure based on this one background:

Wreck of the Intrepid: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with a dagger in his back that bears the symbol of the Lich King. In his dying moments he gives the PC a map of the Midland Sea that shows the location of the Intrepid. “He’s after the Sea Axe,” he wheezes before passing away. The GM tells the player what her character knows about the Axe, including that it was a symbol of the Intrepid’s honor, to be kept out of enemy hands at all cost. “He” can only refer to Vertinor. The adventure is a race to get to the Intrepid first, with challenges that include figuring out how to reach the ship, an underwater hazard montage (see Book of the Underworld for hazard montages), and battles with gigantic sea creatures and the undead.

Skulls of Shadowport: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with news that a group of treasure hunters has located the wreck of the Intrepid and recovered the Sea Axe of Imperial Might. The Sea Axe is now in Shadowport, and it already has a buyer—Vertinor is on his way there in the Revenant to purchase it as a trophy of his victory over the Intrepid. The PCs must get to Shadowport and prevent it from falling into the hands of the hated lich admiral! The adventure is a city scenario with challenges that include an investigative montage to learn who has the Sea Axe and where it is (see Crown of Axis for investigative montages), navigating the city’s criminal underworld, and battles with thieves, smugglers, pirates, and the undead—plus other monsters that lurk in Shadowport’s dark alleys and docks.

Reclaim the Sea Axe: A former shipmate of the PC’s turns up on her doorstep with news that Vertinor’s minions located the wreck of the Intrepid and recovered the Sea Axe of Imperial Might. It now hangs on the lich admiral’s wall as a trophy of his victory. This adventure is a heist caper where the PCs must devise a plan to get the Sea Axe back: either steal it from the lich admiral’s cabin aboard the Revenant, steal it from his manse on Necropolis, or steal it when the lich admiral is traveling, away from the usual protections provided by his ship or Necropolis. Be ready to work up battles and hazards appropriate to the plan! (See this column on how to quickly and easily adapt a monster to a different location or role.)

I could also run this as a series of three adventures, with the Sea Axe continually being snatched from the heroes’ grasp at the last moment until they finally seize it for themselves. Their eventual triumph will be that much sweeter for the delay!

“Wade Says” icon by Regina Legaspi.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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This idea was suggested to me by the Chatty DM, although in doing due diligence I found that Rob already mentioned it in a Rob says sidebar in the 13th Age GM’s Screen & Resource Book. So, the first piece of useful, actionable advice in this article is “go read the Resource Book in detail, there’s great stuff there.”

And the second piece is “steal stuff from great GMs, but do it as an easily referenceable blog post as opposed to a twitter post or a sidebar, so people can link back to it and you get all the credit.”

The third bit:

A Campaign Win is the opposite of a Campaign Loss (13th Age, p. 166) – the penalty that the players incur when their characters choose to Flee. The heroes escape and survive, but at the cost of some horrible story-based setback. The village burns, the villain finds the relic they seek, some ally of the heroes get eaten. Campaign Wins, then, are story-based triumphs – the heroes rescue a prisoner who turns out to be a presumed-dead friend; the sun breaks through the clouds, weakening the undead host; the characters find a magical item they’ve long sought. Campaign Wins and Losses should always be orthogonal to the main story – they’re wrinkles, serendipities, complications, moments of grace or horror. In general, it’s best to have the players suggest options for a win or loss, and the GM then picks the most fitting suggestion. In a campaign, let the player save up wins and losses for a few sessions, so wins and losses can be applied to the most fitting unanswered questions.

The GM awards the players a Campaign Win when recurring villains escape automatically a fight that they’re about to lose. The heroes can’t stop the bad guys escaping, but they do get a Win in recompense. Just like Fleeing, not every fight can be escaped – the villains can run away the first time you beat them, but that just means you need to track them to their lair and defeat them there!

The players might also get a win from:

  • Playing Into The GM’s Hands by willingly putting their characters at a disadvantage. Of course I drink the wine – just because this guy’s called Petros the Poisoner doesn’t mean I’m going to insult him by refusing the goblet he offered me!
  • Pressing On when they’ve already had at least four major fights since their last full-heal-up and have significantly depleted their resources. In this case, roll a d6 at the start of each fight. On a 1, the characters earn a Campaign Win. The range of success increases by 1 for each fight (so, roll a 1-2 on the second fight, 1-3 on the third fight and so on).

Encourage the players to use Wins and Losses to spotlight stuff that interest them. A player who suggests a Campaign Win might result in the discovery of an ancient dwarven mine might be signalling they want a dungeon crawl – or that they want to do a spot of domain management, where they oversee the process of re-opening the mine, while a Campaign Loss targeting that village of sympathetic non-player characters might imply that the player wants some meaty tragic roleplaying scenes. After all, the real campaign win is finding out exactly what excites your players…

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Well, 2020 is over, finally!!, as is January 2021, which looked horribly like it was going the way of 2020 for a while. COVID-19 vaccines are starting to be distributed, and hopefully life will return to something resembling normalcy over the coming months. However, there’s nothing normal about our newest pre-order, The Fall of DELTA GREEN campaign The Borellus Connection, coming in at a mighty 416 pages. Pre-order now, and get Looking Glass: Saigon 1968 as a bonus download, along with the pre-layout PDF.

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Current News: B****t

As some of you may know, the UK crashed out of the European Union on December 31st. Previously, under the old customs rules, Pelgrane’s EU customers received their shipments tax and duty paid, because we made the supply under UK VAT rules. There was no VAT due because of the UK’s zero-rate tax on books

What we know so far is:

  • We now need to attach customs declarations to EU shipments in the same way we already do to all non-EU countries;
  • EU orders will be subject to VAT at the destination’s rates (as already applies to non-EU shipments). The average EU VAT rate on books is approximately 7%, or £2.80 on a £40 book;
  • Customs charges will be payable.

I’d hoped by this point to know exactly how this will impact us here at Pelgrane, but despite regular discussions with our UK fulfilment company, there are still too many unknowns to make changes. We would prefer all our customers – EU, and internationally – not to have to pay additional customs charges and fees on their Pelgrane books, and are running the numbers on that at the moment. This may mean we’ll need to increase our EU and international shipping rates to send packages “delivery duty paid”, meaning nothing else is due on receipt – if that does end up being the case, we’ll give you plenty of notice.

Other News: New website progress

Our wonderful website guru Dan has been busily coding away at our very swish-looking website, catapulting our capabilities from the early 2000s into the 2020s. We’re now at the point where we’re testing it internally, hoping to clear out as many of the bugs as we can before launch.

There’s been some chat recently over on our Discord channel (invite’s here if you’re not already signed up) about how we could make it more searchable, with suggestions including tag search clouds for easy access to our article back catalogue. If there’s anything you’d love to see in our new website, comment here!

NEW: The Borellus Connection

New this month is the pre-order for a globe-spanning campaign for The Fall of DELTA GREEN. Pre-order now, and get the pre-layout PDF straight away to keep you going – AND you get Looking Glass: Saigon 1968 as a bonus download! The Borellus Connection features eight linked operations, each one playable as a standalone investigation, or as part of an epic hunt for an infamous enemy, using the heroin trade and the BNDD as a narrative spine. It’s a hefty tome (416 pages at the moment, and counting…) and to wrangle it into a physically liftable format, we’ve been forced to hack chunks of it out. Handlers can find these chunks under the the “FINEST EFFECTS” tag, which is not recommended for players – contains many spoilers!

Ken and I are buried deep in cartography research; Gareth is pulling together indices of NPCs, spells, and three-letter acronyms; and Jen McCleary has finished a first draft layout in glorious 1960s technicolour (you can see a very small sample in the pre-layout PDF, and redacted below). She’s now working on the interior art, featuring more of the same double-page splashes as the core The Fall of DELTA GREEN book.

 

NEW: Looking Glass: Saigon 1968

This “low and slow” writeup of the Vietnamese “Pearl of the Orient” features all the locations, sources, backdrops, power players and story seeds you need to run any GUMSHOE game in 1968 Saigon. It’s particularly useful for The Fall of DELTA GREEN, but it also features hooks for TimeWatch, Night’s Black Agents and The Esoterrorists. Get it free as a bonus download when you pre-order The Borellus Connection!

Work in progress update: 13th Age

Rob’s gone through each of the current 13th Age works in progress in his latest blog post. Wade Rockett’s introductory adventure, Crown of Axis, is first up, and will be available at the start of March.

Work in progress update: Swords of the Serpentine

I’m sorry to say that there’s not much of an update on this. Art and cartography are 75% finished, but we’ve hit some speedbumps with artists ghosting and dropping out, team members getting COVID, and the inevitable slowdown of work over the holiday season, which has pushed back our release date. We’re ramping back up to speed again, and hoping to get the book to print, and the PDF out to pre-orderers, in early March.

The art we’ve got so far is glorious, full of action and colour, and I feel really captures the high drama and excitement of the setting. This piece by Simone Bannach has particularly intrigued me – I’m fascinated to know the background of the mysterious redhead who could best iconic duellist Gadric in swordplay, and it’s triggered so many cool character ideas.

Work in progress update: The Yellow King Bestiary

Copyediting is finished, and we’re now working on additional development and art direction for this compendium of Carcosan creatures, which writer Monica Valentinelli described as the scariest game content she’s ever written. Look out for a pre-order for this in the coming months!

Work in progress update: Black Star Magic

Copyediting is finished on this magic book and collection of new adventures for the four settings of The Yellow King RPG, and cover and interior art are well underway.

 

 

In part one I described how Crown of Axis began with an invitation to write the next big introductory adventure for 13th Age, and my idea to set it in the Emperor’s city of Axis. I just had to convince Rob Heinsoo this was a good idea!

First, I read everything ever written about Axis in 13th Age. The game’s “your Dragon Empire will vary” approach meant that I was free to present one possible interpretation of the city, but I wanted to make sure I had a good understanding of, and feel for, what had come before. I was also aware that a GM might not have 13 True Ways (which contains the most extensive writeup of Axis to date), so I would need to figure out what background information was important enough to include within my limited page count. Brief descriptions of the various neighborhoods were vital: PCs might travel anywhere in the city, and I had to equip the GM with enough information to handle the basics. Some of it was important to making players feel like Axis is a place: the tastes, the sounds, the smells, and how people there live their lives. I wanted to invite players to sample the street foods, play wargames in the taverns of Garrison, and cheer on gladiators in the arenas.

I wrote a detailed, bulleted outline with a rough map of a key adventuring location and sent it to Rob and J-M DeFoggi, the project’s developer, for review. I knew they would come back with incisive questions, as well as comments about things I may have overlooked or not fully thought through.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll share some issues (large and small) that I needed to work through before the outline was approved:

  • The outline included real-world historical people and institutions as placeholders for fictional ones, and the longer those placeholders stick around the harder it will be to create the fictional versions.
  • Nothing prevents the PCs from going straight from the situation in the beginning of the adventure to the final battle, ignoring everything in between.
  • Why doesn’t [BAD GUY] simply do [OBVIOUS THING]?
  • The design needs to account for the possibility that the PCs will fail in the end.
  • Some players will want their characters to fight in the arenas as gladiators, so the GM needs tools to handle that.
  • The PCs spend much of the adventure solving a mystery, and there aren’t investigative rules in 13th Age. It would be great if there were an elegant mechanic to handle those parts that feels like it belongs in 13th Age.

In the end, I wrote eight drafts of the outline before Rob gave me the go-ahead to write the adventure. This was great because even though plenty of details would change during the design phase, my foundation was rock-solid. However, I struggled at the beginning: this was the biggest RPG writing project I’d ever taken on, and my anxious perfectionist brain became overwhelmed. The solution was to schedule weekly Skype discussions with J-M where I’d share the status of the draft and we’d work together to solve any design and plot problems that came up. That’s where most of the solutions to the challenges above came from. It’s the closest I’ve ever worked with a developer on an RPG project, and it was incredibly helpful.

The final draft kicked off the development phase, a back-and-forth process where J-M ensured that my design matched the desired play experience, and he checked my math and mechanics. He also asked me to write a handful of art orders: descriptions of people, items, or locations for an artist to illustrate. From there it went to the editor, Trisha DeFoggi, and from there to layout. Which is where we are as of this writing!

I hope these posts are helpful to anyone who’s interested in becoming an RPG designer, or just wants to know how the RPG sausage gets made—and I hope you enjoy playing Crown of Axis when it comes out!

 

“Wade Says” icon by Regina Legaspi.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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So, you’ve been bitten by the werewolf. Infected by the zombie virus. Snacked on by Dracula. Discovered that your grandmother came from Innsmouth, or that you were conceived in the Outer Dark. You’re a monster, and soon you’re going to succumb to the darkness in you and turn on your comrades.

Up until then, though, you can use your supernatural abilities to help your friends. You’re doomed, but maybe they’re not…

Monster Rules

The following rules apply to player characters turned monsters.

  • Dark Gifts: You can spend Stability as Aberrance at a 2-for-1 rate. If the monster you’re connected to has an Aberrance-fuelled power, then you can access that power by spending Aberrance. For example, an Ovvashii can use Aberrance to compel a victim to reveal secrets to it – if you’re tainted by an Ovvashii, maybe you can use this dark gift to question creatures of the Outer Dark!
  • More Than Human: You can also spend Stability to temporarily boost any of your Abilities or any of your Modifiers (Armour, Damage, Awareness and so on) – but you’re limited by the scores of the connected monster. So, if you’ve been infected by a werewolf (Damage Modifier +2), you can spend Stability to boost your Damage Modifier for one attack, to a maximum of +2.
  • Dark Insight: You gain a new Investigative Ability, Dark Insight, giving you, well, insight into the intentions and inhuman motivations of the monster. It’s not at all reliable, but can give you some inkling of the monster’s next target, its weaknesses, or its origin.
  • Degeneration: When you start Losing It (Stability -1 to -5), you gain a Stigma – a permanent and visible sign of your inhuman nature. This can result in changes to your character’s statistics – maybe your hands become claws, giving you a Damage Modifier. When you’re Shattered, you gain a second Stigma. Finally, when reduced to -12 Stability, you become a monster.
  • No Redemption: You gain only half the benefit from Shrink spends – and if you spend Stability for Dark Gifts or More Than Human, you must also reduce your Rank by the same amount.

A Monster From The Start

If the GM allows it, you can declare at the start of a campaign that your character is monstrous. You start with Dark Insight. Typically, being monstrous is a restricted concept, just like psychics. You don’t know what your monstrous nature is at the start of the campaign, and the GM is encouraged to mislead you with red herrings and cryptic allusions.

New Monsters

Both of these monsters work as potential connections for tainted investigators.

Paternals

Paternals are semi-parasitic creatures from the Outer Dark. They bind themselves to human anchors to keep themselves on this side of the Membrane. Once attached, Paternals protect their mortal anchors for the rest of the mortal’s life, defending the mortal against external threats, and only moving on only when it becomes clear that the mortal is dying of natural causes. The trouble is that the Paternal’s definition of “threat” is malign and erratic – your neighbour bought a new set of garden shears? Clearly, the neighbour’s plotting to murder you – better kill him first! Paternal Anchors find themselves at the epicentre of a spate of unexplained deaths, brutal murders, and supernatural weirdness. Moving to a new home provides a few months of relief, but sooner or later, the Paternal will find its anchor again…

(Some anchors have tried living alone in the wilderness, which works for a while – but eventually, the Paternal gets bored of having nothing but small animals to eviscerate, and starts roaming further and further afield…)

Paternals are almost invisible, appearing only as a shadow or stain. When actively attacking, the Paternal manifests as a vaguely male figure, shrouded in dark mist – imagine a statue of a Greek god made of boiling smoke.

When it’s time to take a new anchor, the Paternal looks for a young child, especially one that’s in danger. It then saves that child from peril, impressing itself onto it and detaching from the previous anchor – who it then sees as a potential threat that must be destroyed. Horribly, Paternals do seem to have some degree of genuine affection for their anchors, and never attack them if they have any other recourse.

Abilities: Aberrance 10, Health 12, Scuffling 16

Hit Threshold: 5

Armour: None, but most attacks go right through the Paternal’s shadowy form. A Paternal can only be injured after it manifests.

Awareness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: +2

Damage Modifier: By telekinetic weapon or +2 (when manifest)

Telekinesis: A Paternal can spend Aberrance to fuel Telekinesis, as per the psychic gift (Fear Itself, p. 76). Paternals use this power to eliminate perceived threats.

Manifest: Normally, a Paternal is immaterial and mostly invisible. It can spend 1 Aberrance to become solid and visible for a round, allowing it to use its Scuffling.

Monstrous Strength: When manifest, the Paternal can spend 2 Aberrance to perform feats of incredible strength, like throwing a car or smashing through a wall.

The Unkind

The Unkind are almost human. Their ancestors were human. To be precise, their ancestors were all members of the Church of the High Rock in 19th century Massachusetts. The crazed preacher, Henry Sparrow, somehow tore a hole in the Membrane, cursing the members of the congregation assembled in the chapel on that fateful night. They became attuned to the Outer Dark, able to slip across the Membrane to the other side much more easily than normal humans. Worse, over time, the curse would transform them into creatures of unremitting horror.

Most of the congregation fled after Sparrow’s ritual. However, the curse is heritable, and their descendants are all doomed to fall through the Membrane to the Outer Dark, or become monstrous on this side of reality. Some of Sparrows’ followers have given into their corruption and worship the lords of the Outer Dark; they now seek out their lost cousins so they can bring them into the service of the horrors.

‘Mature’ Unkind – those who have crossed over enough times for their monstrous genetic heritage to come to the fore – are spindly, spidery things, with skin like yellowing paper and far too many joints. Their teeth migrate back down their mouths and throats, with replacement teeth sprouting in the gums – an Unkind might grin with seven or eight circles of sharp, sharp teeth. They also develop a third eye, located in the throat; this eye can see places where the Membrane is thin.

Abilities: Aberrance 6, Health 6, Scuffling 8

Hit Threshold: 4

Armour: None.

Awareness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: +1

Damage Modifier: By weapon or Bite +1

Slip: An Unkind can spend 1 Aberrance to slip through the Membrane into the Outskirts of the Outer Dark, a parallel realm that looks like a shadowy, desolate, monster-haunted version of our reality. If the Unkind spends 3 Aberrance instead, it can open a small tear, allowing it to transport up to five other people.

Spy: An Unkind can look from the Outskirts into the ‘normal’ world, or vice versa, by opening its third eye. This costs one Aberrance.


Fear Itself 2nd Edition is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the Creatures of Unremitting Horror from the Outer Dark? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

by Kevin Kulp

Want to set a Swords of the Serpentine game outside of Eversink? See Page XX will periodically give you starting ideas for alternate game settings, including Allegiance information. This month we’ll look at Joining, the small town I’m using to test future rules for non-human heroes. I wanted a setting that starts low-powered but which can ramp upwards in complexity and population, and which starts small and cozy but can easily accommodate a more cosmopolitan population as the game progresses.

Player Pitch: The Town of Joining

Massive, ancient trees stretching straight up to the sky. Dappled green sunlight. Burbling icy streams. Peaceful hollows of mossy rocks where silence sits and comfortably waits to be broken. A surprising quantity of ruins. Hints of an ancient metropolis. Inexplicable strangers. And rumors of ghost worlds between the trees.

Joining is a small town hidden deep in a vast and mighty forest known as the Cathedral Woods. The trees here are similar in size to the giant sequoias of Northern California, and the town of Joining is small, fewer than a thousand people. Its people feed themselves through hunting, fishing, and organized foraging, alongside the help of foreign caravan leaders who arrive with trade goods from larger cities far away and leave with Joining’s rare plants, mushrooms, and herbal poisons. Joining is a great place to grow up, and should be a place of deep and serene peace.

But.

But there are hints of oddness. Ancient and feral forest gods; druids who lair within the forest; wardens who patrol the area and discourage exploration; occasional glimpses of other worlds from between trees; far too many crumbled unexplained ruins; monsters emerging from the forest that have no right to be there; and hints through family heirlooms that Joining was once an extraordinarily rich town, with no hint of how that was or why it stopped.

This is where you grew up. You’re becoming an adult, the town is starting to feel small, and no one is answering your questions.

Welcome to Joining.

Interesting Features

Before beginning play, ask each player to specify an additional interesting feature of the town. This can be a location, a person, or an occurrence such as a holiday. Starting interesting features include:

  • Instead of naming streets, individual trees are named.
  • Buildings are built both on the ground and in the trees on carefully-balanced platforms that don’t hurt the trees themselves. The most prestigious (and safest) architecture is that highest up the trees. Ramps, ladders, bridges, and hoists give access to elevated buildings.
  • Rumors have always persisted of ghost-lights flickering between trees; wildly distant places are said to be visible in the pale and shuddering light. This hasn’t been proven to anyone’s satisfaction.
  • There’s a monthly tradition named Door Day, the night of each month’s new moon, when lovers anonymously leave small and unexpected presents outside the door of their intended. This often fuels romantic speculation.
  • Everyone looks forward to the summer festival of games, feasts, competition, dancing, and celebration. Apprentices are chosen during the summer festival.
  • The Grove of Arches is near Joining, and is a flower-filled forest grove so beautiful and quiet it inevitably feels holy.
  • Every few years a stranger comes to town looking for The Inn (always pronounced with capital letters.) When they see the actual inn, with all four rooms for rent, they inevitably go away dissatisfied. Someone is spreading rumors that reality can’t match.
  • There’s been a feud going on between the Tavish family (most of whom serve as guards and hunters) and the Daunton family (proponents of the old gods, and traditional foragers) that’s lasted seven generations now. Each side claims the other side started it, but it’s erupted in bloodshed a dozen times or more. Each family often strives to elect a mayor of their own blood.
  • It’s believed that somewhere out there in the woods are terrifying, deadly shapeshifters who stalk humans as prey. Don’t get caught alone in the forest.
  • Ruins are everywhere, crumbling stone edifices that speak of a time no one can remember. One particularly large set of stone foundations exists a mile upriver and is considered taboo and bad luck to discuss, although is sometimes referred to as Old Joining by the elderly. The hunters don’t follow prey into its boundaries.

Available Allegiances

  • Town government – specifically the mayor, an elderly and non-nonsense pragmatist who’s focused on keeping her town safe. An ally here means you have a trusted role in the town infrastructure; an enemy here means the mayor considers you a dangerous bother they’d be better off without.
  • Townsfolk An ally here means you’re a popular citizen of Joining; an enemy here means that locals consider you a bad influence or from the wrong sort of family.
  • Local sheriff and deputy, who spend most of their time dealing with drunkenness and an occasional monster. An ally here means the sheriff trusts you and will give you the benefit of the doubt; an enemy here means the sheriff goes out of her way to pin crimes on you.
  • Wardens (and possibly the supposed druids who watch the woods), mysterious figures glimpsed in the trees. An ally here means you are a warden yourself (possibly secretly) or are privy to their secrets; an enemy here means the wardens consider you a threat to Joining, possibly for asking the wrong sort of questions.
  • Outsiders (including hedge witches, tinkers, and traders who come to town). An ally here means you have a reputation outside of Joining as a good person to namedrop or contact; an enemy here means you once treated an outsider cruelly, and word has spread.
  • Church of the new gods, led by a charismatic young Tavish man who left Joining and came back from the city as an ordained minister. An ally here means you’re an active member of the congregation; an enemy here means they consider you a heretic or heathen, perhaps because of something they think you or your family has done, or because you espouse another religion.
  • The Tavish family (former mercenaries who lead most of Joining’s professional hunters). An ally here means the Tavishes trust you and think you keep their best interests in mind; an enemy here means the Tavishes think you’re a lackey of the Daunton family.
  • The Daunton family (proponents of the old gods who lead many of the foragers combing the forest for plants and food). An ally here means the Dauntons trust you and think you keep their best interests in mind; an enemy here means the Dauntons think you’re a stooge of the Tavish family.

Note that I’ve only included eight allegiances instead of the normal 12, as befits the feel of a smaller town. GMs should feel free to add their own or to change what’s here. Also note that “new gods” and “old gods” are completely undefined, other than a suspicion that the old gods are those of the forest, of nature, and of whatever it is that makes Joining particularly unique (see below).

GM Pitch: The Town of Joining

Warning: this section contains spoilers! If there’s any chance your GM will use Joining, please don’t read this. You’ll spoil some fun secrets.

Almost no one who still lives there knows it, but until 300 years ago Old Joining was one of the most famous cities in a half-dozen worlds. Driven by magical rules no one understands, each week portals in the nearby trees would open up to a specific different site in both this world and others. Adventurers, travelers, and traders used Joining to travel between realities or across their own world; they’d have a week to pass through the doorways from their own location to Joining, then they’d stay at The Inn of Arches until a magical portal opened up to their intended destination.

Back then, Old Joining (just named Joining at the time) was a metropolitan center of fantastic magic and culture. It was a joining (hence the name), a melting pot where important and interesting people from some 50 different locations across at least six worlds met, mingled, and exchanged information. Often times monsters would come through those gateways between trees, and when they did the elite wardens and their powerful druidic allies would destroy them, imprison them (crumbling prisons which still exist today) or send them back to where they came from.

No one is sure what caused the gateways to stop working and the city of Old Joining’s inhabitants to be ripped out of our world. Probably either a Tavish or a Daunton is responsible, and the other family tried to stop them and only made things worse. Perhaps some sort of magical anchor-stone was stolen that linked the many worlds and places together (a stone that now is somewhere around Joining today, although no one realizes its significance); perhaps a petulant god was offended; perhaps blood was spilled in a sacred place. Regardless, everyone in the city at the time – and almost every single object that wasn’t stone – was swept away into another place of your choosing. Faerie? Hell? A tropical island? Another huge city? It’s up to you. The gates winked out that night and haven’t consistently returned, and only people outside of the city at the time survived to found the current town. Led by religious extremists in the aftermath of the disaster, they didn’t make their tale public knowledge. The truth of the matter is now hidden or taboo. The Heroes will have to find out the secret gradually as they adventure, and then decide what to do about it.

Restore or fix whatever made the nexus of worlds possible, and the gates between worlds will open up again once more, resuming their schedule of one week per location before shifting. Alternatively (or additionally), the city of Old Joining (or whatever it has turned into!) might return if the Heroes can find a way to bring it back. The tiny town of Joining may find itself a gradual or sudden metropolis, and their world might change spectacularly as Joining becomes a center of commerce and adventure once again.

Structuring a Campaign Around Joining

Swords of the Serpentine campaigns are structured in series, a finite arc of adventures that’s treated like short stories in an anthology or a season of television. Series are usually 6-12 adventures long.

In Series One, the Heroes get to know Joining; perhaps they’re fledgling heroes still in their teens, or more competent heroes who have come to the town in search of something indefinable. They uncover clues about the town’s rich past, meet the wardens and druids, uncover ancient prisons, and learn some secrets about what used to be here. At the end of the series they might restore the nexus, and the gates between worlds are once again open.

In Series Two, complexity ramps up as people and creatures discover the gates have returned. Political factions form as Joining grows, and more Allegiances become possible. Internal and external threats develop from people who demand the town return to its old ways, something that may no longer be possible. Perhaps the heroes delve through the gates themselves, examining other places on this world and other planes of existence. In doing so they learn the fate of Old Joining and learn they can bring it back – if they want.

Future series may focus on Joining becoming one of the most important locations on multiple worlds; powerful external factions trying to seize it by force, invading through the gates; the cross-cultural growth coming from Joining’s unique role; and how the Heroes’ once-simple friends and enemies in Joining adapt to fit this new reality.

And of course, you may decide to transition your campaign to a different setting! If so, it’s as simple as the Heroes walking through a doorway between worlds—a doorway they made possible.

 


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, to be published in 2021. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

The CougherIt’s rarely a good idea to mix immediate real-world awfulness with supernatural threats. Killer clowns are funny, but we’re not going to argue the Esoterrorists are behind QANON, even though it’s an obvious set-up. Hitler wasn’t mind-controlled by vampires or the Cthulhu Mythos. So, the existence of these pandemic-themed monsters for Fear Itself or The Esoterrorists shouldn’t be taken to imply that Covid-19 comes from the Outer Dark. However, if you’re running games in the present day (or better yet, you’re reading this from the future and considering running a game set in that brief, awful historical period of the pandemic), then here are some monsters that play off the zeitgeist.

The Cougher

Coughers are messengers and couriers for the forces of the Outer Dark, able to slip through into our reality and lope along at speed, hurrying through the streets to make contact with some deranged cultists or to some other seepage of unremitting horror. They manifest as almost human figures, gangly-limbed and hunch-backed, clad in filthy overcoats, their faces half-hidden behind a cloth mask that never quite seems to fit right.

They’re named for their hideous wracking, wheezing coughs, which they use to scare people out of their way. The cough is so ghastly, so full of spittle and slime, that one’s instinctive reaction is to step back and give way. Packs of coughers use their echoing hacking coughs to communicate, calling to one another across the night air.

They also use these bellowing coughs to hunt. A series of precisely times coughs can separate a victim from the crowd and herd it towards the rest of the cougher pack. Such attacks are rare – coughers are much more likely to be encountered alone – but not unheard-of. Chasing down a courier-cougher can provide useful information about local Outer Dark activity.

Abilities: Aberrance 6, Athletics 4, Fleeing 8, Health 6, Scuffling 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Armour: 1-point (Thick overcoat of flesh)

Awareness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +0 (-2 if you know about the coughing)

Damage Modifier: -2 or by weapon

Cough: By spending 1 Aberrance, the Cougher can cough loudly. Anyone nearby must make a Stability test (Difficulty 6); those who fail must move away from the Cougher for a number of rounds equal to the margin of failure.

Portal: By spending 2 Aberrance, the Cougher can open a portal to the Outer Dark. It can only do this when unobserved.

All That Remains

  • Medicine: That cough sounds… impossibly awful. Someone with lungs that clogged wouldn’t be moving that quickly.
  • Streetwise: All the witnesses agree that they heard a lot of coughing the night she died.
  • Occult Studies: Three break-ins at occult bookstores – all closed because of the pandemic -, three witnesses who report lots of coughing. And I don’t believe in co-incidences.

Room Raiders

Room Raiders are the latest manifestation of creatures like the Sisterites (Book of Unremitting Horror, p. 105). They haunt public Zoom calls, Discord servers and other video conferences. Initially, they look like a bland human face with a perfectly ordinary background – a cluttered home office, maybe, or a bedroom, or just a blank wall.

Then they latch onto a victim. They might send their victim a friend request, or just stalk them across other public zooms, lurking in the audience. In each conversation, the Room Raider’s background changes subtly, moving closer and closer to that of the victim. The wall behind them suddenly matches the colour of your wall. Now they’ve got the same book-case as you… and the same books. And now the same poster.

(Using virtual backgrounds doesn’t defeat the Room Raider. They can see through them.)

If the Room Raider’s background ever perfectly matches the victim, then the monster strikes. It can pull the victim from their home into the Room Raider’s copy, to be devoured at the creature’s leisure. The Room Raider then starts trawling for its next meal. Often, their lairs are crammed with dozens of previous backgrounds, stacked like stage sets from previous productions.

Room Raiders usually nest in abandoned buildings, near places where they can piggyback on an open wifi connection. They’re remarkably good at making facsimile objects out of trash and their sticky, resinous spittle – what looks like a perfect copy of your home office might be a pile of stacked milk cartons painted to resemble your bookshelves, a desk made out of a sheet of cardboard, and that lamp’s made from the gnawed bones of a previous victim.

A Room Raider can easily be thwarted by making changes to your background – even an errant coffee cup is enough to break the spell. Typically, the creatures gain access to a victim’s webcam so they can monitor the room for changes and pick their moment to strike…

In the ghastly flesh, a Room Raider looks like a squat, long-limbed lizard-thing with a grotesquely oversized mouth in its stomach, but it’s human from the shoulders up. It’s got four arms – two vestigial limbs next to the mouth that end in human hands, for typing, and two longer arms that end in long curved claws, for killing.

Abilities: Aberrance 8, Athletics 3, Health 10, Scuffling 8

Hit Threshold: 3

Armour: None

Awareness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: +0

Damage Modifier: -2 (claw)

Digital Intrusion: At the cost of 2 Aberrance, the Room Raider can psychically infiltrate a computer with which it has an active video connection.

Grab: At the cost of 1 Aberrance, the Room Raider can pull a victim from one perfectly matched room to another. The victim may attempt a Contest of Sense Trouble vs Aberrance to end the call before being pulled through the screen.

All That Remains

  • Photography: Hey, that rando’s got the same photo as the guy who vanished.
  • Computer Use: Ok, I didn’t approve any new contacts on skype. I’ve been hacked!
  • Research: Look, I always check out people’s bookshelves behind them, and that guy has a copy of the Necronomicon too! Just like yours!

 

Isolation Beasts

Isolation Beasts are gigantic; they’re shambling horrors the size of a building, covered in rank, matted hair and dragging their slimy, misshapen limbs behind them. Such monsters can’t exist in our reality except under very exceptional circumstances. An Isolation Beast can survive the psychic pressure of a single witness, maybe two, but it cannot bear to be seen by crowds. This is not shyness – it’s the crushing pressure of our reality asserting itself on a thing that shouldn’t exist.

Historically, Isolation Beasts have lurked in the wilderness, giving rise to legends of giants or yetis, preying lone travellers and small groups. Now that the streets are empty and everyone’s staying indoors, the beasts can risk shambling into the cities for the first time in centuries without fear of being observed.

Isolation Beasts are so huge that aftermath of their attacks look more like disasters than anything else – car crashes, building collapses, gas explosions. They find houses where people live alone, then smash them open and eat the juicy contents. They’re also talented mimics; if a beast fixates on a dwelling with multiple inhabitants, it lurks outside, whispering through the walls in the voices of the occupants, sowing dissent and strife until one of them walks outside – then chomp!

And if one person looks outside – who’s going to believe them when they say that there’s a sloth the size of a double-decker bus lurking in the garden?

Abilities: Aberrance 10, Athletics 8, Health 40, Scuffling 12

Hit Threshold: 2

Armour: 4-point (Fur)

Awareness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +1

Damage Modifier: +3

All That Remains

  • Outdoor Survival: This isn’t a crater – it’s a footprint!
  • Investigative Procedure: The earthquake stopped when that car came around the corner. Why?
  • Trivia: Ok, the victim took the time to write spiny norman in his own blood. That’s… certainly a thing.

Fear Itself 2nd Edition is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the Creatures of Unremitting Horror from the Outer Dark? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The Old Guard (Netflix) – when you put ALL the points into Regeneration (connected: Messiah Complex)

Maybe you were already on this path when the Sudden Mutation Event happened, or perhaps your newfound superhuman abilities gave you a life you never expected. More likely, you got into this line of work because you needed something from it: more money than you could ever make through conventional employment. A fresh start, away from the mistakes of the past. A chance to really cut loose with your powers.

You’re a mercenary. A soldier of fortune.

Of course, when it comes to mutant powers, the notion of marketable abilities is a lot wider than it used to be. Anyone can be trained to use a gun. Walking through walls, that’s a different matter. Unsurprisingly, private military contractors were among the first to recruit and offer “special talent services” to clients.

‘Super-mercs’ have a somewhat better reputation than conventional soldiers-of-fortune, as their talents have a wider range of application. A biotech company might, for example, trumpet their hiring of a super-merc with plant communication and plant control who can safely locate and retrieve rare orchids from disputed jungles in South America, or have a mutant with read minds and lightning decisions spearhead their negotiations with disgruntled locals. That said, most super-merc missions come to down to “there’s the hard target, go work your mutant magic and eliminate it”…

Creating Your Mercenary

Pick one of the templates below to get started.

Personal Security

8 investigative, 48 general

You put yourself between the target and the bullet

Investigative: Ballistics, Bullshit Detector, Community Relations, Cop Talk, Criminology, Influence Detection, Intimidation, Streetwise

General: Athletics 6, Composure 4, Driving 6, Health 6, Medic 4, Preparedness 4, Scuffling 4, Sense Trouble 6, Shooting 4, Surveillance 4

Trainer

8 Investigative, 40 General

Ready to turn militias and regular security into elite fighting forces

Investigative: Anamorphology, Anthropology, Community Relations, Forensic Psychology, Interrogation, Intimidation, Languages, Streetwise

General: Athletics 4, Computer 6, Driving 4, Health 4, Mechanics 2, Medic 4, Preparedness 4, Scuffling 4, Shooting 6, Surveillance 4

Special Operations

6 Investigative, 48 General

A very particular set of skills

Investigative: Explosive Devices, Impersonate, Intimidation, Photography, Research, Traffic Analysis

General: Athletics 6, Computer 6, Driving 4, Health 4, Infiltration 6, Mechanics 2, Medic 4, Preparedness 4, Scuffling 4, Shooting 6, Surveillance 4

Counter-Insurgency

10 Investigative, 36 General

Identifies and analyses threats

Investigative: Anthropology, Architecture, Community Relations, Forensic Accounting, History, Languages, Law, Negotiation, Streetwise, Traffic Analysis

General: Composure 6, Health 4, Mechanics 2, Preparedness 4, Scuffling 4, Sense Trouble 6, Shooting 4, Surveillance 6

 Technical Specialist

10 Investigative, 36 General

Network security and counter-bugging

Investigative: Architecture, Cryptography, Data Retrieval, Electronic Surveillance,  Energy Residue Analysis, Evidence Collection, Explosive Devices, Photography, Research, Traffic Analysis

General: Composure 4, Driving 4 Health 4, Mechanics 6, Preparedness 6, Scuffling 4, Sense Trouble 2, Shooting 2, Surveillance 4

 Ex-Civilian

Alternatively, you can play a regular civilian who developed mutant powers and got recruited into the shadow world of private military operations. You’ve got 60 General Points  to spend with no restrictions, but start with a -1 Stress Penalty in the category of your choice, reflecting your comparative unfamiliarity with military life.

 Desirable Powers

Article 18 powers – abilities that pose a danger to national security like Teleportation, or abilities that endanger large numbers of people like Radiation Projection – are especially sought after by PMCs. Of course, picking a power that makes you a walking national security threat means you (or your employer) will need to deal with government scrutiny – and paints a big target on your head.

Potent combat abilities like the various Blasts or covert action powers like Invisibility, Flight or Nondescript are more generally useful for mercs. Some powers that are of extremely limited utility for Mutant City cops come into their own in merc games – the cops rarely need Gills or Earth Control, but one can easily imagine an action thriller involving submarine sabotage, or see the utility of a mutant who can easily create defensive structures or clear rubble from roads.

Rules Changes

Consider borrowing the Thriller Combat rules from Night’s Black Agents. Some of them, like chases, are already part of the Mutant City Blues rules, but mercenary operations tend to involve a lot more fistfights and suppressive fire.

Make liberal use of Stress cards like “Hair Trigger”, “Flashbacks”, “Maverick” and “Wracking Guilt” to emphasise the questionable morality of the soldier-of-fortune lifestyle.

Mercenary Companies

Some sample employers for the player characters…

Betula Security Consultants (Mutant City Blues, p. 141) is a private security company that hires a considerable number of mutants. Betula’s operations are almost entirely domestic, specialising in corporate and personal security, not military work overseas. That said, some shareholders are pushing Betula to compete by offering a more professional and respectable alternative to Genestorm.

Genestorm: Genestorm’s the best known of the ‘mutant merc’ companies – or at least, the most notorious. The company sells itself as having ‘heroes for hire’, goobering its employees up by giving them flamboyant uniforms and superhero names. Of course, in the field it’s all camo gear and proper callsigns. Genestorm hires its mutants out to virtually any client, so it does a lot of business with autocrats, warlords and especially rapacious corporations. A cross between Blackwater and the World Wrestling Federation, with less ethics than either – but at least they pay well.

Heliopolis National Guard: The armed wing of the Heliopolitan separatist movement, the HNG intends to fund the establishment of a mutant-only state through mercenary contracts. They also undertake ‘humanitarian’ missions for groups and states near the planned mutant state in Somalia, in the hopes of establishing a buffer zone of friendly nations around Heliopolis. The legal standing of the HNG is questionable, and some have pushed for it to be declared a terrorist organisation.

Mutant Foreign Legion: The MFL was founded by a group of mutants whose lives were completely disrupted when their powers manifested. Now, the company is a place where mutants can begin again; new recruits are given new names and passports (the MFL has an arrangement with Malta) and a fresh start. The MFL’s under severe financial strain, and its mercenary teams are unusually underequipped and undergunned for their missions.

Greenman Group: A long-established Private Military Contractor, Greenman Group is in the process of hiring more mutants. The Group is extremely discreet, to the degree that they prefer their mutant hires keep their powers secret even from clients unless absolutely necessary.

Adventures

At least initially, present mercenary adventures as tactical challenges. The mercenaries might be hired to…

  • Kidnap a scientist from a rival corporation
  • Secure a mine or pipeline in an unstable region
  • Find out who’s been blackmailing a company executive and recover the incriminating evidence
  • Retake the boss’ superyacht after it’s overrun by pirates
  • Defeat the mutant-led insurgents

 Night’s Black Mutants

For a full-on mercenary campaign, lift the structure of Night’s Black Agents wholesale. The player characters sign on with a mercenary company, run a few missions – then discover their employers are even more corrupt and shady than they thought, and have to go on the run while fighting their way up the Conspyramid. Maybe the mercenary company is conducting experiments on mutants, or only hiring mutants to harvest powered organs for transplant…


Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game originally written by Robin D. Laws, and developed and extended by Gareth-Ryder Hanrahan, where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

 

Spooky maskWhen running a most improvised scenario (either something as ambitious as the Dracula Dossier or just riffing off a paragraph or two of notes), One Useful Trick is to have a copy of the investigative ability list for your game to hand, and check off abilities as you call for them or the players use them. That lets you see at a glance which abilities you haven’t yet used in play.

Then, look for opportunities to bring in other abilities. Treat it as a prompt, a challenge – “what’s the easiest narrative route in the game from this moment to the action hinging on Art History or Pharmacy or Flirting?”

Often, in improv play, you fall back on the sort of scenes that you’re most comfortable with; I can riff mysterious murders, spooky locations and sieges off the top of my head, but need to remind myself to do interpersonal scenes, crowds, or car chases.

Prompting yourself to bring in abilities you don’t instinctively default to is a great way to vary the scenes in your game. The players in my current Night’s Black Agents game, for example, are much more comfortable hanging back and observing, either by blending into the crowd, perching on rooftops, or getting full value out of all those points invested in Data Retrieval, Electronic Surveillance and Digital Intrusion. Tracking the abilities used reminds me in the heat of play to put in more interpersonal scenes, forcing them to use messy touch-feely abilities like Reassurance or Intimidation.

A neglected ability doesn’t have to be central to the game, of course. If you’re trying to bring in, say, Astronomy, you could just mention that the characters knows offhand that tonight will be a moonless and especially dark night; often, reminding players that they have a particular ability will start them thinking about ways to use those assets.

Don’t neglect General Abilities, either. If no-one’s used Cover or Disguise in a while, try to drop in some obstacles that require those abilities.

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