Thursday, 20 April 2017

What's On Your Mind?

Way back in 2014, I created a short story game about telepaths living in a police state: in The Thought Police, each player takes on the role of a citizen of an oppressive state, only one of the characters is a telepath who can hear the other characters' thoughts. The game asks whether you can identify the telepath among you but also, if you can, what will you do about it? Turn them over to the authorities? Or protect them from the state's fury? I've since contributed an extended version of that game to an anthology project called The Imposters, which is currently being Kickstarted. The game itself has a history behind it that I've wanted to talk about for a while, so this seems like the perfect time to do so, as well as talking about The Imposters.

In The Thought Police, each player takes on the role of an ordinary citizen in an authoritarian state, going about their daily business: the twist is that there are telepaths among them who can read their every thought and the state takes action to oppress these telepaths as a matter of security. The inspiration for this came not from dystopian fiction but from the ways in which role-playing games are played at the table. Games mostly tend to be open, with all the players sharing what their characters are doing as they do it, but with the understanding that other players won't abuse their out-of-character knowledge to take in-character actions that they would otherwise have no reason to. Some other games are closed, with players secretly passing notes to their GM to secretly instruct them in what their characters are secretly up to, secretly.

During one of my game-design splurges, I wondered what a truly open game would look like, one with complete transparency, where you not only said what your character was doing, but explained and dissected their reasons for doing it. This kind of table-talk does occur in games which use stake setting, so that everybody is on the same page in regards to the motivations of the characters and what they expect to achieve in any conflict. For example, in espionage & conspiracy related games like Cold City and Hot War, it's not uncommon for characters to appear to want one outcome when they really want something completely different, but it's essential that this is communicated clearly before any dice are rolled in a conflict, to avoid unintended outcomes.

I began the game design with that simple premise, that any player could ask any other player what their character's thoughts and motivations were at any point in the game and that you had to answer honestly when asked. The next step was coming up with a story-telling framework that made sense of that one mechanic, something which would be supported and strengthened by this total openness over character agendas. Perversely, it seemed like the best story for this mechanic was one in which characters were encouraged or expected to keeps secrets: there would be no point in knowing what a character's true motivations were if they were as transparent as their actions. Therefore, something with secrecy and subterfuge, where a character might legitimately be thinking things that they didn't want the other characters to know.

For short games, I'm a fan of minimal exposition, so I like to to use familiar tropes as settings, with a statement like "This game is heroic fantasy" or "This game is gritty space opera." My favourite sort of elevator pitch is one that begins "It's like the modern world, but..." because then I know everyone instantly has a picture of what to expect. That's what I defaulted to when beginning the design of this game idea, so it already had that "contemporary but with a twist" shape in my mind. The criteria I had so far then were:

  • A game in which you could ask other players what their character's thoughts and motivations were at any time.
  • There had to be reasons for characters to keep secrets and/or want to unearth the secrets of others.
  • The setting would be pseudo-contemporary, with a twist that explained the above two points.
This suggested an element of conspiracy and paranoia, but I wanted to avoid something like spies on a secret mission and keep the game grounded in what the players were familiar with, so the paranoia had to be domestic, the kind of thing where neighbours spied on neighbours... a police state, in fact. That was the key that unlocked the design, the idea that the characters all lived in a fascistic state that curbed their human rights, which also felt like a hot topic for play: what would you do as a citizen of that state?

Setting a game in that situation wasn't sufficient though: what if everyone decided to play a 'good citizen' of the state? It would be pretty dull if none of the characters had anything to hide; also, what was the deal with always knowing what the other characters were thinking? Where did that fit in? Things clicked together quickly here and I realised that telepathy explained everything: the state had grown to protect its citizens from an internal threat to national and personal security. As it was, the players could hear the inner monologue of other characters, but what if one of the characters could also hear it?

From there, the design flowed quite naturally, with just a couple of elements put in place to encourage characters to strive to find and expose telepaths and one player-character randomly & secretly selected as a telepath before starting to play. I wrote the game up as a blog post, but even as I was doing so, I was thinking of ways to change the premises of the game to elicit other behaviours in play, e.g. what if the telepathy power was stronger? What if more than one character was a telepath? What if none of the players knew how many telepaths were in their group? I made a few notes to this effect in a book group discussion-style and appended them to the end of the blog post, but I kept meaning to come back to the idea and expand the game with suggestions for many changes to the rules, in an extended appendix that would be titled "The Thought Experiment."

By 2016, I still hadn't done that, when Josh T. Jordan asked for designers who wanted to contribute to
an anthology of games with a conspiracy theme, with one other requisite: that the designers themselves struggled with Imposter Syndrome, the feeling that they were just bluffing their way through and expected to be exposed as a fraud at any moment. That struck a chord: I have no idea how to design games, I just muddle through and make what I like, with the vague apprehension that some other people might like them too. It's actually somewhat reassuring that even other well-published designers like Josh struggle with this feeling of being an outsider and somehow not part of the club (oh my Bob, I don't even know the secret handshake! Is there a Club Song too?)

Anyway, The Thought Police with its appendix and The Imposters seemed like a good fit (or they were after some ruthless editing to the appendix to get it in under the word count allowed.) Instead of an appendix though, the alternative rules are scattered throughout the text as notes from a revolutionary underground seeking to change the narrative presented by the state, because I enjoy subverting my own texts. As of writing this, the Kickstarter is more than halfway to it's goal after just one week and that feels pretty good: perhaps not a cure for imposterdom, but certainly a treatment,

Friday, 17 February 2017

Sovereignty (Part Three)

More actual play from my dining room, as we continue with our short campaign of The 'Hood, despite being a man down.

The Cast: A Quick Reminder

  • Mr. Benson the Bastion: caught in the undercover war between a merciless FBI agent and a psychopathic rival gang boss, he has to question whose side he is on; played by Elaine.
  • Daddy Longlegs the Matriarch: his children have been caught in the cross-fire once too often, now he's getting down to business; played by Guy.
  • Vince the Shark: with business looking very bad, a stay in the hospital to recover from food poisoning seems like a holiday; played by the absence of Dan.

Before this session, Dan had let us know that he might not be able to make it, so we were prepared to have a possibly-final session without his character. During the week between sessions, I'd had some ideas for the way the story could develop, but I needed the players co-operation in these things, even if they didn't really know what they were co-operating with. I asked them some questions about NPCs in their backgrounds (The family of Mr. Benson's henchman Turk, the mother(s) of Daddy's children and Vince's family members) and sent them each a Love Letter for their character, reproduced below.

Another day but this one is not typical: we have arrived at the vote on rezoning in the 'hood, which the Cleaner had pushed Mr. Benson to fix for him so that his business interests were protected. The boss sends his last loyal lieutenant Mercer to go and keep an eye on the proceedings for him, to avoid any unpleasant surprises, while he considers the offers he has on the table from Taft and The Douche. Daddy also goes to the Council Hall seeking Officer MacCaffrey to settle some debts with him from their past dealings and also to pump him for more inside information: minutes later, the Council Chamber is rocked by a bomb blast! Patchwork is shocked; Daddy leaves her in the care of MacCaffrey as he heroically heads into the scene to help the survivors. One of the people he manages to get to safety is Mr. Benson's right-hand man Mercer.

Back at his crib, Mr. Benson catches up with Daddy, but their meeting in interrupted by a call on Daddy's phone: the number is Juliette's but the voice is The Douche's! The psycho-bastard has Juliette and is demanding "the drive" from Daddy in exchange for her: Daddy bluffs his way through, assuming the drive is something they might have picked up when they stole the computer gear and comics memorabilia from Frank's place, so he sets off to get it all back.

Isolated from his crew, Mr. Benson decides now is the time to sort things out with Turk and goes hunting for him; luckily, he finds out from Jo at the auto-repair shop that Turk had brought in his car for servicing and she gives him the address she has for him, which will take Mr. Benson out of the 'hood. Jo also lets slip that she's closing down and selling up after receiving a very generous offer from a 'Clearwater Holdings" to give up her lease on the property (she really ought to mention this to Daddy soon, as he is renting the space above the garage from her.) Mr. Benson wastes no time in hunting down his rogue crew member and arrives at a squalid apartment ready to settle things, but it isn't Turk he finds there at first: it's Sarah, Frank's supposed girlfriend, and she's wearing a wire!

Daddy arrives at the Pawn Shop and squeezes Brian for a description of the customer who bought the computer hardware he brought in the other day: he gets one that matches Samantha Lincoln, the drug-dealing daughter of the Councilman that Mr. Benson made a deal with, who was caught in an explosion just hours before. The day is turning into quite the errand for Daddy...

Having the drop on her, Mr. Benson milks Sarah for what she knows: it turns out she's an undercover cop who was using Frank as an informant, as he was allegedly close to The Douche. Turk comes back to the apartment in the middle of this and is forced to choose between his old boss and his new girlfriend who has been keeping some big secrets from him: Mr. Benson makes it an easy choice for him, but he begs his boss to leave Sarah to him...

Image result for police tapeDaddy calls the gang boss to update him on "the drive" and they both head to the Lincoln place to see about recovering it, but as there has recently been an attempt on the Councilman's life (which we still hadn't established was successful or not) the police are at the front door guarding his daughter. Mr. Benson uses his sway over the 'hood to talk his way past the cops, but Samantha is furious to see him, especially when he puts his foot in it by offering his sympathies for "her loss." She freaks out and accuses Mr. Benson of being the one behind the bombing, spilling what she knows about his business dealings with her father in front of the cops: they are left with no choice but to bring him down to the station, along with Samantha, to take statements. Daddy makes use of the distraction to look for the hardware, but all he finds is an exchange of messages between Samantha and her friend Brad about setting up a new office for their dirty work in the slum district at the other end of the boulevard.

Things keep going south for Mr. Benson at the police station: after being kept waiting in an interview room for 15 minutes, it's Detective Sarah Vasquez who finally shows up to grill him! Bearing a grudge after their last encounter at the seedy apartment with Turk, she pressures him over the death of Frank and his involvement with The Douche: his attempt to play it cool does not impress her though and she arrests him on a stack of trumped up charges! With no-one else to call, he rings Daddy to come and help him out.

Things are hotting up for Mr. Benson, so he calls Special Agent Taft and informs him that he has heard from The Douche: they agree to meet up at  an Indian restaurant in the Social Enterprises quarter within an hour to make the hand-over. Meanwhile, Daddy heads down to the Slums looking for Brad, but gets pointed back up the boulevard to where Brad ought to be peddling his wares... in  a car park at the back of the Social Enterprises quarter. Mr. Benson meets Taft inside and they make their exchange: Taft gets the info about The Douche's potential drug-dealing in the 'hood and the gang boss gets Taft's protection in the matter (so Elaine took -2 heat for her character, as offered in her Love Letter.) Outside in the car park, Daddy is done negotiating and talking: when he finds Brad, he breaks his arm and he and his son Norville carry the stricken drug dealer back to the slums to collect the hardware.

The negotiations with Special Agent Taft have not gone totally in Mr. Benson's favour: Taft makes it clear that he considers Benson to be in his pocket now, which does not sit well with the gang boss. After Taft leaves to arrange an operation to catch The Douche tonight at the Santa Monica Pier, Mr. Benson call's Juliette's number... The Douche answers. The gang boss wastes no time in selling out Taft, giving The Douche a 'friendly warning' about the operation heading his way...

With the hardware finally in his possession, Daddy and Norville head to the pier, but Daddy gets a strange feeling of deja vu just moments before the Burger Bar he was instructed to deliver the goods to blows up! The pier collapses around them, sending himself, Norville, a lot of tourists and several members of a tactical assault team into the flaming, churning water...

In the early hours of the morning, a weary Daddy drags himself to Mr. Benson's place, which is now manned by Turk once again: the gang boss has a talk with The Douche again, the latter now assured that Daddy never had "the drive" or he wouldn't have waited so long to deliver it, so he agrees to release Juliette. By the time he gets home, Juliette is waiting for Daddy on the corner, but the last 24 hours have made him very paranoid and he frisks her for a wire... just as her mother Thureau pulls up!

Mr. Benson is still concerned over "the drive" and thinks that perhaps Sarah might have it: Turk pleads with his boss to let him ask her (though he does have to take Norville with him after Daddy insists on his son getting some 'work experience' with Mr. Benson's crew.) Turk returns later to assure his boss that Sarah doesn't have it but she does know about it: Frank told her that the one person he had trusted his whole life was looking after it and Mr. Benson realises he still has Frank's Mom's number...

Back at the auto-repair shop, Thureau angrily helps Juliette to pack her cases, throwing possessions randomly into the back of her car: Daddy decides the best thing he can do for his daughter now is to protect her from The Douche and the danger in the 'hood, so he lets her go (and Guy takes Juliette's name from his payback box.) After this, he heads to the hospital to collect Patchwork, who has recovered from her shock and minor injury by now.

Phoning Frank's Mom leads to an emotional conversation for Mr. Benson and breaching the delicate subject of stuff her son might have sent to her recently sets her off into a diatribe about clearing his things out of the attic, including the big collection of comic books that were the only thing he cared about as a child. The dreadful penny drops for Mr. Benson: the drive is in the Captain America bust! He calls Daddy, who is just about to race back to the Pawn Shop when Patchwork tells him that she liked the bust so much that she bought it back off Brian and put it in her room: the one she shares with Juliette. They race indoors only to find the bedroom virtually stripped bare and we cut to a scene of Thureau and Juliette driving out of the 'hood, with a backseat piled with Juliette's belongings, and there, proudly sitting atop them, is the bust of Captain America...

This may or may not have been the final episode: obviously, a lot of things are left hanging in the plot above, so if we feel like it, we'll carry on playing to see what happens next.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Sovereignty (Part Two)

An Actual Play report for the second part of the face-to-face game of The 'Hood being hosted in my own dining room by me: sweet!

The Cast: A Quick Reminder
  • Vince the Shark: Sunday was not a good day for Vince, as he hospitalised one of his debtors, the business of the second burned down and his third was assassinated in Mr. Benson's penthouse; played by Dan.
  • Daddy Longlegs the Matriarch: Daddy managed to keep his head above water and even turned a small profit on the day, with the help of his kleptomaniac children; played by Guy.
  • Mr. Benson the Bastion: after having two bodies removed from his penthouse in one day and losing 2 out of 3 of his best lieutenants to a combination of injury and betrayal, what he'd like most is a restful night; played by Elaine.

Image result for santa monica night

That rest will have to come at another time; as the long summer evening slowly turns into night, Mr. Benson acts on the tip-off that the police are going to hit him later today, so he prepares to receive guests. Across the road from his building at the Big O Donut Restaurant, Daddy sidles up to his contact on the force, Officer MacCaffrey to see what he can learn about Frank's death in the restaurant fire, while not far away in his pawn shop, Vince studies the phone he stole from Frank.

The peace is broken by the abrupt appearance of a helicopter shining a spotlight at Mr. Benson's building while half-a-dozen cops spill out from their hiding place and a marked van screeches to a halt to disgorge half-a-dozen more! They crash in and try to take charge, but Mr. Benson is on his own turf with his accountant & personal assistant Mercer at his hand, so the attempt to shake him up is not very successful: Mr. Benson simply chats with a Special Agent Taft for an hour or two, convincing him that he is simply an honest businessman with nothing to hide. Taft invites the ruthless gang boss to a club at the beach front later on to discuss this whole affair with him, so Mr. Benson is reluctantly pried away from his beloved 'hood.

As this takes place, Vince is trying out the numbers on Frank's phone: he strikes out with Aqua, who hangs up on him, and The Douche, whose number is no longer in service,  but he finally gets a reply from Frank's Mom. She says that when she last spoke to her son, he was excited & nervous about meeting a girl called Sarah at the Santa Monica Pier. Vince deduces that Sarah is Aqua and, working with Daddy, they come up with a plan to trick her into trusting them: Daddy calls her from another phone and pretends to be a florist wanting her address for a delivery from a Frank Carter, saying there is a sealed message with it. She enthusiastically gives her details and awaits the delivery; the message will give her Vince's number, along with an instruction from 'Frank' to call that number if he's ever in deep trouble.

During the week between sessions, I created the graphic on the right and sent it to the whole group so they could be prepared to act on the information rather than me surprising them with it and waiting to see what they did. This also had the benefit of creating an impromptu prop at the table, as Dan was able to get out his actual phone and display the image on it. The flower delivery scheme came about as a result of the players using the Plan B move to get a guaranteed success from me, with the only down side being that it would take all night to put into motion, so they wouldn't get a response from Sarah until the following morning. Also noteworthy: throughout this, Vince never once let on to Daddy that he had Frank's phone. Another note: yes, I used the UK & Europe dating protocol of day/month/year instead of the American month/day/year arrangement, because it just made reading the information easier for all of us.

After the police leave his apartment, Mr. Benson heads off to his appointment with Taft: dropping his name at the door of the nightclub is enough to usher him through the VIP entrance to a private room that overlooks the dance floor, where Taft is awaiting him. The agent apologises for the inconvenience earlier, but a determined Mr. Benson squeezes him for more: Taft spills the beans on the operation, revealing that it was actually a blind to lure their real target out into the open. Taft paints a picture of a near-psychopathic master criminal, pulling strings from behind the scenes and targeting Mr. Benson's neighbourhood: they know next to nothing about him, other than that he calls himself The Douche. Giving his business card to Mr. Benson, he asks the gang boss to contact him if he receives any overtures or offers to take over any of his businesses, as it could be The Douche behind it, especially if it involves sudden, irrational violence.

As midnight passes, Vince decides it's never too early to be taking care of business, so he heads over to the shed behind the park where the drug users hang out, now dubbed the Junkie Yard, to shake down Gonzo for his money (as Vince still doesn't know that Gonzo was murdered earlier.) There's no answer to his gentle knocking, so he bursts in... on a charnel house. His feet slip in the gore that carpets the ground and trails up the walls as he takes in the sight of the brutally murdered junkies: stepping back calmly, he calls Daddy and asks him to bring a can of gas to the Junkie Yard... shortly thereafter, they stand before the blazing pyre of dead junkies, but Daddy can't shake the itchy feeling that, just maybe, despite his protestations of innocence, Vince might have had a hand in this...

I'm editorialising a bit there, there was no action or rules invoked relating to Guy's character's distrust of Dan's character, but this was definitely the session where players embraced the idea of not trusting each other's characters, even if they knew they were telling the truth.

Mr. Benson drives himself back to the 'hood... and gets T-Boned by another vehicle at the turn-off! The gang boss is able to walk away from the collision, but the other driver pulls an automatic weapon and sprays the tarmac with bullets! Mr. Benson pulls a weapon out of his wrecked car and fires back, injuring his opponent enough to enable his getaway; he considers finishing the shooter off, but he's in no position to take that kind of heat right now.

Elaine had expressed a desire for some cathartic violence in the game, so I threw this scene her way: hey, be careful what you wish for! It didn't do much except keep the pressure up on her character and provide another dangling thread to be picked up in the narrative later by anyone who wanted it: who sent that assassin after Mr. Benson? Was it The Douche? Or someone else with a grudge...?

Finally, the morning comes: Vince and Daddy pay an urgent call on Mr. Benson to ask him what the fuck is going on in the 'hood right now. They get around to sharing everything the know about Frank, The Douche and Sarah/Aqua, as well as the death of Gonzo and the other junkies, plus Ghost's involvement in the burning of the restaurant owned by Panos (Vince's other debtor) the previous morning. A palpable miasma of mistrust hangs in the air as Mr. Benson and Vince wonder who is trying to screw who over: to break the deadlock, the gang boss has Ghost brought from the hospital to answer some questions in front of everybody. Shortly after, a partly-crippled Ghost confesses to taking some side work from some guy calling himself The Douche and arranging to have the restaurant burned down: drawing the conclusion that he has no room for traitors in his organisation, Mr. Benson throws Ghost down the elevator shaft.

Image result for body in lift shaftThere was no way Ghost was going to be saved here: he was still down from Vince's attack on him in the previous session and no-one was going to help him, so it was a foregone conclusion that if Mr. Benson wanted him dead, then he was dead. Instead of making that the stake here, I offered Elaine a one-time deal to make this move: roll+brass and on a hit, her reputation as someone not to be crossed would spread through the 'hood, so she could erase a name in her payback box. On a 7-9 though, rumours of this murder would reach the ears of the police and she would take +1 heat. Elaine took that deal, got a hit on the roll and erased Mercer's name from her payback box: her remaining lieutenant would now be too fearful to ask her for any special favours, for a while at least.

At around this time, other plans kicked into motion: Daddy got a message from Officer MacCaffrey with the autopsy report on Frank's death (along with photos) which established that Frank was killed in the restaurant before the the fire was started. Vince got a call from Sarah, but he failed a few basic questions that convinced her that he didn't know Frank at all, so she hung up on him and didn't answer any more calls. Vince decided to collect his debts from Ghost by taking stuff from the dead ganger's house, but an active neighbourhood caught him red-handed trying to break in, so he spent the rest of the day extricating himself from that mess. Daddy decided to take his kids for lunch at the Santa Monica Pier and drop The Douche's name about to see if it meant anything: it apparently did, as the patrons of the diner he was eating in treated him like somebody trying to light their cigar with the lit fuse on a stick of dynamite, so he got nothing but ostracized.

Mr. Benson decided the time was right to clear his obligation to The Cleaner who had removed all evidence of Gonzo from his apartment: The Cleaner had expressed concern at a rezoning regulation that would harm a crematorium business in the 'hood that he had an interest in and expected the gang boss to make sure the vote went against the proposal. Mr Benson decided the best way to resolve this was to approach Councilman Lincoln, the father of Samantha the drug dealer, and perhaps use what he knew about the councilman's daughter as leverage against him. Lincoln did not take kindly to comments about his family however and Mr. Benson quickly changed the subject to the quality of life in the 'hood and the vital opportunities provided by the current slum district that was due to be demolished to make way for a much-needed shopping mall. They eventually settled on a deal where Mr. Benson would let go of some other property he had an interest in at 80% of it's value, providing a new location for the mall that would save the slum and the crematorium, along with other small businesses.

We ended with a desperate and harried Vince looking for shelter from Panos and his family, hoping to lie low at their place until the residents of the 'hood got past him trying to burgle from one of their own: this was a mixed blessing for Vince, as he did indeed join the family for dinner, but their Greek cuisine did not sit well in his stomach and he reacted badly to some of the ingredients.

Perhaps some slightly dishonest play here on my part, but Vince had 4 heat and only one debtor left alive, whom he owed payback too: the only way not to get him burned in this scene was to have him go down when he missed on his roll to lie low with Panos. On the upside, all three players gained enough experience for an advance during this session, though they all remain dangerously close to getting burned.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Sovereignty (Part One)

This is the first part of a three -part Actual Play report for the short campaign of The 'Hood taking place at my home with friends who live in the region, prompted by Guy "The Teaspoon" MacDonnell.

Taking place in a little-known district of Santa Monica, CA, the prime movers in our story are:

  • Vince the Shark: he's really a nice guy who only got into money lending as a way to help a relative with a tragic back-story, but now he has interests in businesses across the 'hood; played by Dan.
  • Daddy Longlegs the Matriarch: the father of many children, three of whom stay close by his side at all times, looking for any opportunities that arise; played by Guy.
  • Mr. Benson the Bastion: a tough mover and shaker who oversees the streets below from his penthouse, sending out his minions to shape the 'hood to his will; played by Elaine.
Some online discussions prior to the game had settled on the Santa Monica location and playbooks; I was quiet intrigued by the combination of Matriarch and Bastion, as it seems there was potential for conflict for dominance of the 'hood between those two archetypes.

Image result for santa monica

Our story opens at 2am on a Sunday morning in summer: Vince is in his pawn-shop negotiating a deal; Mr. Benson is dealing with an unlicensed trader who is tied to a chair in his penthouse apartment; Daddy is watching TV with his kids in their home above the auto-shop, while Patchwork, his youngest daughter, is watching the restaurant across the road burn down. The family heads across the road to see what's happening and are soon joined by Vince, as the restaurant is owned by one of his debtors, Panos. Patchwork and Vince both find a way into the burning building; Patchwork steals a stuffed fish in a glass case and turns it over to her father to sell later; Vince finds evidence of arson.

Vince and Daddy head along the boulevard to see Mr. Benson, who has just had his loyal henchman Turk dump some rubbish in the park; as the man with his finger on the pulse of the 'hood, they want to know what he knows about the restaurant fire. His accountant, Mercer, confirms that Panos had the restaurant insured (Vince breathes a sigh of relief)  but there is no confirmation on the whereabouts of Panos himself. Mr. Benson uses his contacts to see what he can learn about the fire and gets pointed towards an old storage shed at the back of the park where the junkies drop out, while Daddy tells Norville, his middle child, to watch the restaurant for any bodies being carried away.

Elaine and Guy both asked around for the answers to their questions: Elaine picked up one consequence, which was that she would have to go to the park herself to find out which junkie actually did the deed. Guy picked up two consequences and chose ' What you find isn't quite what you expected' and 'There are strings attached to acquiring it' so I had it that a body was brought out, but it was the ex-boyfriend of his oldest daughter, who was now dating Vince, and that Norville was arrested by the police, so Daddy would have to go and free him.

The local news team are covering the fire fighters tackling the restaurant blaze as Daddy & Vince return to the scene; Daddy finds his son in the back of a police car, but his protestations to the officer nearly get him tasered! Luckily, a quick thinking Vince directs the news crew to cover the breaking story and Daddy feigns a weak heart; while everyone is distracted, Vince sidles up to the other police officer, a man he knows on the force by the name of Washington, and simply bribes him to let Norville go.

Over at the park, Mr. Benson gets pointed towards the junkie who took some money to light up the restaurant by a blonde girl in a much patched military jacket; Mr. Benson clocks that she doesn't quite belong here and thinks she might actually live in the nice part of the 'hood, but with his target in his sights, he puts that aside for now. He leaves with little hassle, dragging the junkie Gonzo by one leg, either not knowing or not caring that this is another of Vince's debtors...

I had a lot of names of residents in the 'hood from the street planning stage of preparing for the game, so when the main characters started looking for people, those are the names I used: as Guy was taking his character's kids around with him pretty much everywhere he went, and Elaine kept sending her crew in & out on errands, that pretty much meant that Vince's debtors were the only ones free for me to throw into the mix. I did toss in a couple of other potential hooks though: the dead ex-boyfriend Frank was a deliberate ploy to stir things up between Dan & Guys' characters, as they were getting too pally and co-operative. Samantha, the up-market girl at the drug den, was more speculative: I just felt that by positioning a third party in that scene, rather than making it a direct confrontation between Mr. Benson and Gonzo, I was laying the groundwork for her to become more significant later. I had a vague idea that she might actually be dealing drugs in the 'hood, but I was open to other interpretations of her character.

Sunrise finds Panos the restaurant owner being greeted at his front door by Vince & Daddy: while he resents the shark's intrusion upon his home, he is happy to see Daddy and reluctantly invites them both in. They discuss the restaurant and Frank, the now dead ex-boyfriend of Juliette, who is the daughter of Daddy and current girlfriend of Vince: Panos informs them that Ghost, a member of Mr. Benson's crew, was around last week asking how much the restaurant was worth... at about the same time, Mr. Benson is learning from Gonzo that Ghost was the one who gave him the money to set light to the restaurant.

Ghost is also another of Vince's debtors, but unfortunately he is not at home right now, as Vince had only just broken his knee-cap that morning while collecting from him! Deciding once again to pool what they know, they head back up the boulevard to see Mr. Benson, but a rifle shot rings out across the street as they near his building...

Moments before this, Mr. Benson was holding Gonzo over the edge of his balcony, wringing every last drop of information from him, when his phone rang from an unlisted number: the stranger calling instructed him to put Gonzo down carefully, referring to him as a 'commodity', and began counting down as a red-laser dot appeared on Mr. Benson's chest. The gang boss responded by swinging Gonzo around in front of him as a human shield and started backing away into his penthouse: the stranger responded with a hearty laugh and the phrase "Fuck it," before sending a bullet through Gonzo's heart!

It actually took me a while to realise this, so we didn't act on it immediately, but this move on my part had threatened Mr. Benson's livelihood: someone had gone out in the 'hood and it wasn't his finger on the trigger! This complicated the character's life considerably, as we are about to see...

Given the shit-storm going down in his penthouse, Mr. Benson declines to invite Vince and Daddy inside, so neither side shares what they know about Ghost with the other. The gang boss orders his minion Turk to dump the body, but he rebels slightly, as this is the second time in 6 hours he's had to remove 'trash' from the penthouse. He unsubtly suggests that it's time he got a pay-rise, but Mr. Benson shuts him down hard, so Turk walks, leaving the body of Gonzo for his ex-boss to deal with. He calls up a cleaning service, but with limited access to his funds right now, he'll need to collect some ready cash fast and he'll still need to do an unspecified favour for the cleaner: he has until sunset to make things right.

With no help forthcoming, Daddy decides to go to Frank's place and help himself to the deceased man's property; he doesn't want Vince along, but the shark is not so easily shaken off and Daddy realises he has been followed when he sees Vince teaching his son Norville the correct practices for acting as a look-out. It's pretty much the same story inside the house: while Daddy ineffectually pokes at walls looking for a hidden safe, his daughter Patchwork takes a Captain America bust and Vince simply slides Frank's iPad into his pocket when no-one else is looking.

Not far away, a plan to make some money fast is being cooked up by Mr. Benson; he goes through his knowledge of the 'hood and recalls that the girl he saw in the park earlier is the daughter of a local councillor, so he thinks she might be good to shake down for a few bucks as insurance against him telling her daddy what she's been up to. Bluffing his way into their family home, it seems Samantha is ready for trouble and has a gun drawn on him, but he talks her down by dropping her dad's name into the conversation and assuring her that he is a 'legitimate business associate' of her father's. By applying a little more pressure, he gets her to give up her army coat, which is stuffed with rolls of money and wraps of cocaine, enough to pay off the cleaner and keep a little back for himself too...

As an aside, Guy covered his tracks so poorly that Dan quickly built up a load of debt that Daddy owed Vince, enough to cash it in and take a move from the Matriarch's playbook; Guy was amusingly horrified when Dan chose The Greatest Tragedy, with the rationale that he had hung around with Daddy's family so much that they called him 'Uncle Vince.' The practical upshot of this is that if any bad shit comes Vince's way, he can just have Juliette take the bullet for him!

Friday, 25 November 2016

This Old House (Part 3)

The third and final part in a series of short AP reports for the game of Blood & Water played as part of the Gauntlet Hangouts' Story Games Sunday.

Act Five:Brokering Bad

Three montages open this episode: Charlie going about his business with the weeping woman always standing at his shoulder, unseen by others; Manfred rehearsing with the band and cooking, as more and more of the band's followers succumb to necroherpes; and James murdering three more of the people on his revenge list, by the end of which his spiritual form is wreathed in coiling smoke and drifting sparks.

Image result for bonfireDue to staff shake-ups at Channel 5, Charlie is sent with Geoff the cameraman to film some local colour for the weather report and ends up at a new age ceremony intended to re-align the world's chakras after the bout of freak weather that has been experienced. He meets a woman there who can see the weeping woman, but he gets caught up in the ritual before he can speak to her further and we later see a viral video of him dancing naked around a bonfire.

Manfred concentrates on his real ambition, to run his own food-van business and finds a second-hand vehicle on Craig's list; the seller puts him under pressure to buy though, so Manfred turns to James for the cash. James gives him the money in exchange for Manfred flushing away the protective amulet that Charlie had acquired, which makes him uncomfortable whenever he is near it.

James has his own business to attend to, when Olivia's boss, the Bald Man, summons him to a meeting to discuss his situation and offers him a full partnership in his old firm if he will call off his vendetta against the surviving three conspirators; he gives James 24 hours to think about it. After a little spying & subterfuge, James establishes that the Bald Man is working for the conspirators, for reasons that are as yet unclear.

Charlie tracks down the woman from the new age event at a small museum/gallery/head-shop and she offers to intercede with the weeping woman for him; the spirit possesses the woman and demands that he right the imbalance he created when he dumped Brandi by text message. When he shows reluctance, the spirit changes tack and talks of gaining life instead; he agrees to this and the spirit leaves the woman's body, but the strain has been too much for her and she dies! Charlie calls 911 and ends up being interviewed by Detective Worth, the same one who had been investigating the murder of Skip Jackson! She knows there is something weird going on with the residents of the boarding house and presses Charlie for answers: he accepts her card and says he will call her if he has anything to tell her.

Image result for inside vaultWith his 24 hours up, James turns down the offer made by the Bald Man, but on a call to him, he finds that one of the conspirators has got a new proposal and has abducted Brandi and Madeleine as a desperate last resort to leverage him into calling off his vendetta. As James hunts them down, Charlie calls Detective Worth and all three housemates converge at the offices where the women are being held captive in a vault. As Detective Worth learns more than she wants to about the supernatural world and basically forces Charlie to agree to leave the city, James draws deep upon his supernatural powers, bursting open the vault in an orgy of destruction that rains debris onto his friends in the street and only just saves the lives of Brandi and Madeleine as he marks off yet another target on his list...

Final Act: Scratching That Itch

Things move quickly as James nears the completion of his goal whilst the NYPD move to protect the final two victims on his list, Ms. Brent and music investor Mr. Chalker: the latter was last seen heading into a VIP room at a gig attended by Manfred, Mr. Gorman the music promoter and Anyanka the mummy, who has helped seal the deal for Manfred's band. Charlie gets a call from Geoff at Channel 5 telling him to get into the studio and help cover the hot breaking story, while Manfred calls Mr. Gorman, who seems to be stuck inside a sarcophagus at the Museum of Natural History.

Acting on a tip-off/call for help by James, Charlie takes Geoff to the home of Ms. Brent, which is eerily quiet and dark; as James spies inside, Charlie knocks on the front door and rouses a child from bed who comes to answer it. Tragically, Ms. Brent has taken matters into her own hands, poisoning herself and her family rather than face James' wrath: the child is the ghost of her murdered son who closes the house around him in order to feel safe! Charlie frees them by embracing his destiny as a spirit guide and opening a door to the afterlife for the child to pass through; James is not deterred by this tragedy and finds out from Manfred that Mr. Chalker, the final name on his list, is at the Museum.

Image result for aztec maskManfred liberates Mr. Gorman from his sarcophagus and gets directed to the Aztec exhibit, where he last saw Anyanka and Mr. Brent heading to; in this recreation of an Aztec Temple, Anyanka is leading the praise of Chalchiuhtotlin, the God of Disease, to a kneeling congregation of band followers infected by necroherpes! As Charlie and James head up towards the museum, they see a crowd of a hundred more heading in, their skins covered in disfiguring sores, all chanting the name of Chalchiuhtotlin! They bust through a police cordon and enter the museum, where Mr. Brent is revealed as the avatar of Chalchiutotolin, who recognises James as the avatar of Xiuhtecuhtli, god of fire, and invites him to join him in bringing the True Faith to New York! Nothing will sway James from taking his revenge though and he slays Mr. Brent, just as Detective Worth enters; her attempt to perform an arrest is derailed when the spirit of the weeping woman returns, having found a wronged woman with a strong enough will to act! A possessed Detective Worth is fought by Charlie but James deals the final blow: having completed his business on Earth, a door to the afterlife opens for him and he draws the weeping woman's spirit through with him! Charlie also gets drawn into the doorway, but is saved at the last moment by Steve, his coyote spirit guide, who bounds through the door and closes it after him!

In some short epilogues taking place three months later, we see that Charlie has kept his promise to Detective Worth and left New York; now him and Manfred are touring the USA in Manfred's refurbished food van, bringing excellent street cuisine to the supernatural corners of the nation. Finally, in a cutaway to elsewhere, we see James alone at a desk, doing paperwork; his desk is surrounded by empty ones, which are surrounded by more empty ones and as our point of view rises directly above him, we see James dead centre in an endless office floor of empty desks...

The End

Many thanks to Daniel, David and Horst for playing: it was a very different experience for me GMing this game in a Hangout instead of at a tabletop, so I appreciate their patience and enthusiasm.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

This Old House (Part 2)

Part 2 in a series of short Actual Play reports for the game of Blood & Water being run through the Gauntlet Hangouts as part of Story Game Sunday.

Act 3: The Mourning After

Following their gig, Manfred skips the hedonistic after-party and goes home to cook, but the next morning, an urgent call from Jack, the lead guitarist for the band, summons him to the squat-like commune other members of the band use. Upon arrival, Manfred finds that Jack wants some assistance of an initmate, medical nature, after catching necroherpes from a night spent with Anyanka, the Meso-American mummified handmaiden, who simply followed the band out of the museum after their last practice. Manfred recommends some bean extract to relieve the itching, but it seems Brandi, Charlie's girlfriend, will be in need of it too, as she has also crashed at the band's place after the gig...

Meanwhile, back at the boarding house, Charlie tries to deal with the ghost of Skip Jackson, who doesn't seem aware of his condition, despite being a horrific apparition of violent and bloody death; all Skip is concerned with is his hair turning grey. Charlie convinces Skip to disguise himself so that he won't be recognised on the street until he has dyed his hair and foists him onto James, hoping that the two ghosts will strike up a rapport, softening the eventual blow when Skip learns the truth. As James escorts skip back to his apartment, Charlie takes Steve for a walk in Central Park, hoping to learn how to become a guide to the spirit world as Olivia suggested he might be. He learns that the venom of a South American snake is the express lane to gaining the insight he needs, so he heads to the Bronx Zoo.

James and Skip have some trouble at the latter's apartment, where a detective from the NYPD is poking around and becomes very confused when the horribly mauled but apparently alive Skip turns up: she leaves hastily to investigate Skip's 'death' and James just about manages to convince Skip that it's part of a surprise party being planned for him at Channel 5 to celebrate his years in the business, though he snuffs out all the electronics in the apartment to prevent Skip from finding out anymore.

Charlie meets Manfred at the Bronx Zoo but his initial plan to get into the reptile enclosure goes awry and he turns into the very snake he wants to get bitten by; he narrowly escapes the clutches of the zookeepers and escapes into the sewers, whereupon he has the brilliant idea of biting himself! Steve doesn't agree that this is such a good idea, but the deed is done and he receives a vision of Brandi telling him that to become a spirit guide, he must make amends with Skip Jackson.

Image result for weather new yorkAfter leaving Skip while he "goes out to get hair dye", James meets up with Charlie and Manfred and all of them head back to help Skip come to terms with what's happened to him; this is complicated by the presence of more officers from the NYPD. When James terrifies them into leaving, they shoot through the ghost and run, but one of the stray bullets hits Charlie in the shoulder. Breaking the news to Skip also doesn't go well, as the weather over New York is now tied into the meteorologist's moods and as he goes into denial, a storm whips up, threatening to blow the housemates away! Eventually they talk him down and he accepts his death, but asks them to take a message to Brandi: he is sorry for being an absentee father! Oops, it seems Charlie got the wrong end of the stick the other day and killed Skip for no reason...

Act 4: Fire & Loathing in New York

As Sunday evening rolls on, Manfred goes to speak to Olivia on his housemates' behalf and they find a way to overcome her inability to notice him: she explains about Charlie & Brandi's destinies and asks Manfred to intercede by killing Brandi! This is followed by an awkward Sunday night dinner, where James reads the report of Dr. Lithgow's death and the paper bursts into flame in his hands; Charlie becomes more concerned that James will be the cause of the fire he has seen in his visions, especially as he has now seen a flaming James over the charred remains of Manfred! James shrugs it off and sets off to seek out more of the people who conspired in his murder, while Manfred and Charlie head to one of the museum's storage rooms for band practice!

Image result for burning officeJames hunts down Mr. Wyman, an ex-colleague who profited from his death and waits for him to be alone in his office: when he confronts him, however, Mr. Wyman traps James in a circle of salt! Thinking he has the upper hand, he admits to killing James and says they picked him at random from some names in a hat, for reasons as yet unrevealed; James calls upon his newly-emergent fire powers and burns his way out of the office, killing Mr. Wyman in the process. He runs into Olivia outside the burning building, who once again tries to dissuade him from his course and asks him to meet her at midnight, where she will make one last attempt and, if she fails, she promises to leave him alone after that.

Over at band practice, Jack suggests that Anyanka should join the band and Manfred agrees to give her a try-out: it goes well and the rest of the band are excited, but Jack confesses to Manfred that Mr. Gorman, the promoter, was trying to squeeze Manfred out, so he suggests that Manfred finds Mr. Gorman and persuades him to change his mind, so that they can all sign the contract together. Also, Manfred had better keep that bean paste concoction coming, as now it seems that everyone involved with the band has caught a dose of necroherpes...

Charlie explores the museum basement looking for a way to protect Manfred from James and meets Madeleine, a junior museum technician: they strike up a rapport while cataloguing a collection of artifacts that have recently arrived from England. Not only does Charlie find a relic that should protect Manfred, he gets a date with Madeleine, despite not having officially broken up with Brandi yet or even told her about her dead dad, Skip.

Image result for mortuaryBack at the boarding house later that might, James reacts badly when he realises that he can't approach Manfred anymore. thanks to the relic he's wearing, provided by Charlie, but he has an important appointment with Olivia. She takes him to the NYPD morgue and explains the reasons behind the deaths of the people there: each of them was killed by someone, in some way, so she asks James whether she should wake them all up and let each of them have their own revenge? He reluctantly accepts that that would be a bad idea, but still refuses to let go of his own quest for vengeance, so Olivia presents him with the chance to sign a contract that will absolve her of responsibility for him: if he signs it though, he will never reach the afterlife and will be condemned to walk the Earth forever. He's not prepared to do that either, so he's stuck with the reaper in his life for now...

Finally, thinking over everything that has happened over the last few days, Charlie decides it's time to end things with Brandi... so he dumps her by text message. As soon as his thumb hits 'Send' though, he hears crying in the hallway outside his room and finds a woman in traditional Native American garb weeping in the corner; as she lifts her head and faces him, he sees that she is weeping tears of blood!

To be concluded!

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

This Old House

This is a short Actual Play report summarizing the first session of the online game of Blood & Water I am running via The Gauntlet Hangouts.

Image result for ghost manDramatis Personae

Our first three residents, who are all rooming in a low-rent New York boarding house, are:

James, a Ghost: a stockbroker killed by his own colleagues 20 years ago, the murder was covered up and he is determined to avenge himself.

Manfred, a Mummy: a passionate amateur chef (and drummer in a noise-drone band), he was caught intruding on the sacred rites of a South American cult and mummified as a punishment.

Charlie, a Skinwalker: a student who inherited his powers upon the death of his natural father, but he has little to no idea about what his nature and destiny.

In Episode 1, we also met:
  • Mr. Peabody, the elderly owner of the boarding house the residents live in.
  • Olivia, a Reaper who is trying to persuade James to pass over.
  • Dr. Lithgow, a friend of Mr. Peabody and a semi-retired doctor.
  • Brandi, Charlie's girlfriend, who is over-enthusiastic about his heritage.
  • Steve, a coyote.
  • Anyanka, a Meso-American handmaiden.
  • Skip Jackson, Channel 5's meteorologist, with whom Charlie is interning.
  • Mr. Gorman, a hipster music promoter.

Act 1: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

At Friday night dinner, Mr. Peabody reveals that he has rented out one of the other rooms in his house, so they are joined at the table by Olivia, a punk-styled reaper: this creates an awkward atmosphere, made more complex when it becomes clear that she cannot even perceive Manfred. A toast proposed by Mr. Peabody causes Charlie to have a vision of the boarding house burning down, which prompts Mr. Peabody to call a doctor.

Image result for south american mummyWhen Dr. Lithgow arrives, James recognises him as one of the investors in his old firm and avoids being seen; he persuades Charlie to help him steal the doctor's contact book, in the back of which he finds a list of names of the people he suspects conspired in his death, along with dates and amounts of money...

Brandi arrives as the doctor is leaving and insists on 'helping' Charlie with a vision quest to uncover more about what he saw at dinner, but Charlie puts more faith in his spirit guide, a coyote by the name of "The Smoke that Rises from the Water as the Sun Sets in the Valley of the Snake," but Charlie just calls him "Steve." Under the influence of psychedelics, he sees the fire emanating from Olivia's room, but an attempt to confront her is unproductive and leads to Brandi feeling jealous; as Charlie attempts to comfort her, he becomes so empathetic towards her that he accidentally shape-shifts into her form and isn't quite sure how to change back.

Meanwhile, Manfred goes to a rendezvous with Anyanka, a mummy at the American Museum of Natural History: after awkwardly waiting for a 9,000 year old bog-mummy to get out of her sarcophagus, Manfred finally gets some lovin', but also has to promise Anyanka that he will 'ask the Gods' about the state of the friends and family she had in her life.

Act 2: Band from TV

The next day, Charlie goes to Channel 5 for his internship but he is still in the shape of Brandi, so he pretends to be her and explains why he can't make it in today; Skip responds in a way that suggests he is already over familiar with Brandi, so a jealous and angry Charlie lures him into a supply closet before shape-shifting into the form of a bear and mauling him to death.

James goes to confront Dr. Lithgow over his the doctor's involvement in his death; the doctor tries to flee to a panic room in his house, but is pursued and scared to death. Something about this act of vengeance causes James to burn with unnatural flames though...

Image result for skinwalkerThat evening, Manfred's group are performing and he is met in the dressing rooms (toilets) afterwards by Mr. Gorman, a music promoter who thinks he can get the band some traction, but Manfred's refusal to shake his hand leads the promoter to think Manfred isn't a good team-player and he suggests to George, the lead guitarist, that they may want to think about a new drummer.

Meanwhile, during the after-party, Olivia approaches Charlie and angrily confronts him about some sort of 'altered destiny': he was destined to kill his girlfriend Brandi, but now the fates say that she will kill him! After he refuses to kill Brandi in order to put fate back on its course, Olivia pulls some paperwork out of her pocket and burns it, causing the mutilated ghost of Skip Jackson to appear!

To Be Continued