Archive for Roleplaying Games

Working up a gameworld

I’ve been working on the setting for a Burning Wheel campaign I’m about to run and, honestly, creating the map has been just as fun all on its own. I thought I’d share some progress shots here, given that I may post a bit about the game just to get this old website moving again. This is all made using a free online map making tool called Inkarnate, and is nowhere near as cool as you can get when using it to its fullest extent.

First, the basic map:



I started off with a more or less random coastline, then added in the big island. I knew I wanted some hard geographic limits to the gameworld, hence the mountains right off the bat.

Next, fine tuning the landscape:


I added a bay/gulf thing and more mountains for flavor, then added rivers and finally forests alternating pine and leafy varieties. Yes, I know they have scientific names. No, I’m not using them.

Finally, and this took the longest, adding human kingdoms. Settlements, fortresses, roads, and farmland round it all out.


Night’s Black Agents, Session Three

So here we go, session three. In which: Shit. Gets. Weird. (Which was one of the more entertaining in-character scenes I’ve been party to.)

It’s still the same night as we left off. The agents haven’t slept, but they’re super spy badasses. They can sleep when they’re dead. The group decides that, if they’re going to take the Russian alive, they’ll need some better equipment. Better guns, tasers, that sort of thing. We decide there’s a BASTION equipment cache they can raid… only, they don’t make the roll. So somebody got there first and cleaned it out. Other BASTION agents on the run? The enemy? The question may never be answered. A regular preparedness roll gets them a couple of tasers anyway, but their weapons are still limited to their one captured SMG and pistols.

Elena cuddles up with her technology and dives into some Data Recovery on all the hard drives and laptops they made off with. While she does that, Barney borrows Quin’s car to take Toby’s corpse to a medical school for examination. Quin, being the forger extraordinaire that he is, whips up some documentation that shows Toby is a new donation. Despite the fact that the body is arriving via the trunk of a muscle car and not an ambulance, Barney pulls it off like everything is normal, getting a gurney and rolling Toby into an examination room. He spends the rest of the night finding that the infestation of parasites not only resides in Toby’s brain, but in his digestive tract as well. The examination also shows that the anti-parasite drugs did indeed do what they were intended to do. Toby’s death was the result of the parasites releasing a massive dose of toxins as they died. He takes some samples of the dead parasites, but will have to find a specialist to properly identify them.

While those two do their thing, the others follow up on the Russian. Donald has a corporate contact, Albert Ying, who fixes them up with some empty office space in a building near the Trans Global highrise. With some preparedness they have a laser microphone, but sweeping the offices facing them only picks up a couple of late night suits doing normal office work. Finally, around sunrise, the Russian appears. He leaves the office building on foot and starts walking down the street. Gwen decides to make like an early morning jogger and go after him, taser ready. Quin takes her car and makes sure he’s out of sight but close enough to help if needed. Donald mans the Office, watching the Trans Global building for any sign of enemy backup.

The moment approaches. Gwen reaches for her concealed taser… and the Russian gets a phone call. Gwen hangs back, pretending she needs to stop and tie her show while she listens. He speaks in Russian, of course, but luckily she knows that language. “Da?” says the Russian. “Good, good. You’re sure it’s them? Then you’re go. Take them out.”

This is cause for alarm, so Gwen drops back and ducks into a coffee shop that’s just opening its doors for the early crowd. She gets on her phone and calls Elena, telling the hacker the safehouse might be compromised. Elena doesn’t waste any time. She grabs what she can carry and leaves through the fire escape (the safehouse is on an upper floor). Hoodie up, portable game device securely in hand, Elena circles around and comes at the safehouse from across the street to see what’s going on. What she finds is two nondescript black vans parked near the safehouse, men in black tactical gear with SMGs rushing inside. Through a window she sees one of them stop and talk to Vic, who doesn’t look particularly alarmed at his place being raided. Elena heads for the Office by foot and public transportation.

Gwen also calls Barney who, elbow deep in an autopsy, is rather annoyed at having to answer his cell. He notes the warning, finishes his autopsy, and incinerates the body before also heading to the Office.

Meanwhile, Gwen and the others reacquire the Russian. A bit more wary now, they decide to see where he’s going instead of just grabbing him. He catches a bus to a park, and spends about a half hour in the park while the agents slowly circle. They catch sight of him leaving, peeling bloodied latex gloves from his hands and placing them in a ziplock. Curious, Gwen investigates the park while Quin follows the Russian to his next destination. It turns out to be a soup kitchen, which the Russian opens for the morning with a set of keys.

In the park, Gwen finds a body. It looks like a drifter or homeless type, which meshes disturbingly with the Russian’s last stop. The corpse has had its guts torn out (as in, they’re missing completely), but shows little other damage. She calls the police, anonymously reporting the body as a murder victim.

Quin fits some surveillance cameras to watch the front of the soup kitchen as well as the back alley, picks up Gwen, and heads back to the Office (which has suddenly become the agent’s new safehouse).

Now that the group is together again, they all share their findings. Elena managed to scrape up some disturbing intel before she was forced to abandon the safehouse. Intel like a list of codenames that resolve to real names, many crossed off. A hit list of BASTION agents, and the PCs are on it. From what Donald can tell (he knows the code names), it’s a list of BASTION’s West Coast operatives. Not including the PCs, it seems there only around twelve others who haven’t been hit yet. Elena puts word out over BASTION channels, as many as she can find, that the entire operation is compromised. All agents are to go to ground. Trust no one.

And on that note, the agents get a response to their meeting request. In a few days time they’re to meet at an upscale hotel with agent Turner (who, they verify, is on the list but not crossed off). Trap? Of course it is. Or at least, that’s how they’re gonna play it until they know otherwise. List or no, they’re going to follow their own advice. Trust no one.

The Russian stays in the soup kitchen the entire day. A steady stream of homeless types go in and out, and the agents verify that each one who goes in also comes back out. No one goes missing, and their thoughts turn to parasites. They were in Toby’s digestive tract as well as his brain, after all. Barney wants to examine the corpse the Russian left in the park, but since it’s already in police custody Elena has an idea. She hacks into the coroner’s computer system and red flags that particular case. High priority, must be done ASAP. Then they just wait for the ME to do his thing.

When the Russian leaves, he closes up for the day, and the agents decide to follow him some more. He takes the bus back to the Trans Global building and goes inside. Spends the entire day in there, and around the end of the day the ME report comes back. The body looks like an animal attack, though there are possible tool marks or other striations on the bone that don’t look like they’re from animal teeth. Also, there was a head injury that may have been the cause of death, though it looks consistent with the victim having fallen and hit their head on a rock.

Just around sunrise the Russian comes out again. He takes the bus to a different park, leaves another body, and opens up his soup kitchen. But this time the camera in the alley out back catches him stepping out to have a phone conversation. “Yes? Hmm. How soon? Who do we have available? Meh, they’ll do. I’ll have him bagged and turned in a couple of days. Call you when it’s done.”

The agents decide to snatch him before whatever he’s got planned goes down. They let him get back to the Trans Global building, prepping to put their plan into motion when he leaves for the bus stop the next morning. Quin “liberates” a nondescript van for them to use. Barney puts together a tranquilizer cocktail that could put down a horse (but leaves a good percentage chance of not killing the guy). They also find someplace to take him that isn’t the Office: The Seattle Underground.

Morning comes. The Russian heads for the bus stop. A van speeds up the street and screeches to a halt beside him. The door slides open, and two agents jump out. Barney and Gwen are the go-to people for this sort of work. Quin is the getaway driver, while Donald and Elena stay at HQ. At first they try to just drag him into the van – once they’re away they can knock him around, sedate him, whatever. But the Russian is fast. Two attacks per turn fast. He knocks aside Barney’s attempts to grab him and breaks the agent’s nose. Gwen kidney-shots him, but he doesn’t seem to care. Barney slams the syringe into the Russian’s neck and pushes down the plunger. The Russian staggers, but stays up enough to hit Barney in the face again. From the driver’s seat of the van, Quin looks back at the fight and tries to get a clear shot with a silenced pistol. Gwen pummels the Russian from behind again, but he’s got his sights locked on Barney, who takes out the Russian’s knee with a called shot. Only the Russian stays up. He aims to permanently ruin our soap opera doctor’s good looks, but Gwen has had enough of this shit. She uses the Jump In maneuver and slams the taser against the base of the Russian’s neck (with a critical hit, no less), dropping him like a sack of potatoes. They throw him in the van, and as it speeds off they slap two sets of handcuffs onto his wrists and tase him again for good measure. They also strip him down to nothing, tossing his clothes in a dumpster and cloning his phone before tossing it in the bed of a passing pickup truck. He didn’t have a wallet.

Gwen and a very unhappy Barney are dropped off with the Russian at the underground lair. They secure the Russian to a chair and set the scene. Bright lights, tarps on the floor, Gwen with the group’s only SMG, and Barney with some medical equipment. Quin goes to ditch the van. On the way back he picks up a burger for Donald, gives Elena the cloned phone to play with, and picks up a few things for Barney (including a bonesaw).

Barney examines the Russian. His muscles seem denser than normal, and his ribs seem to be suffering some sort of additional growth or calcification. Among his myriad tattoos and battle scars, something stands out. He has a small circular scar at the base of his skull – the same place they found an injection site on Toby.

The moment the Russian wakes up he starts straining against his handcuffs. Barney opens the interrogation by showing the Russian the anti-parasite medication, and explaining what it did to Toby. “It was a slow, painful, unpleasant death,” Barney lies. “And we kinda liked him. You? Not so much.”

They have the Russian’s attention. Barney fills a syringe with anti-parasite drugs and starts asking questions. The Russian, despite Barney’s threats, doesn’t seem to be taking this seriously.

“We know all about those little parasites. You’ve got ’em too, don’t you? Just like Toby.”

“Nyet, no.” There’s a little chuckle and a smirk. “Not like him.”

“No, you’re not. You’re special, aren’t you? More than just a pawn.”

“Is perk of job.”

“Yeah?” Gwen jumps in. “Aside from headworms, what other perks do you get?”

“Good vacation.”

Quin shows up to add a little more gravity to the situation. “Hey doc, I got the bone saw.”

“Who do you work for?” Barney demands.

“The boss.”

“Who’s the boss, comrade?”

“Guy who pays me.”

“What’s with the bodies in the parks?”

Ah, now there’s something else in the Russian’s eyes.

Gwen again, “You putting them in the soup, Boris?”

“Soup?” the Russian looks confused for a moment. “Ah, soup kitchen. No, no. Don’t waste it on the soup,” he licks his lips a little, clearly getting across what happened to those entrails.

“I gave you a chance,” Barney sighs and wields the syringe. “Looks like we’re going to have to do this the hard way. We’ll start with just a little and go from there.” He injects the Russian with a fraction of the amount of the anti-parasite drug that killed Toby. The second the injection is complete, the Russian’s eyes roll up in his head. He convulses once, then goes limp.

This is a surprise to the agents. They had Toby going on this stuff for twenty four hours before he died. No way that small amount was enough to kill the Russian. Barney moves in to make sure, scalpel in hand, carefully checking their captive’s pulse as Gwen and Quin cover him. There’s no pulse. The Russian seems dead. And then…

Then shit gets weird. Four long, thin spines poke through the Russian’s abdomen from sternum to groin. Each one splits into two, pulling in opposite directions, and with a sickening crack the Russian’s rib cage flies open. Something small and slick explodes from his abdomen, wetly smacking onto the tarp before hurriedly wriggling away. Que pandemonium and a lot of WTF?! Barney throws his scalpel at it, Quin fires wildly and misses, and then Gwen shreds it with her SMG. Shocked silence follows.

The general consensus is What The Fuck Just Happened. Gwen looks back at the Russian’s corpse. “Are we sure he – it – is dead?”

Quin fires a few rounds into the corpse just to make sure, sending it toppling backwards onto the ground. A few stability checks shows that Gwen is shocked and surprised but somehow alright with all this, Barney can handle it thanks to a couple of spent points, and Quin is losing his shit after a failed roll. He asks someone to please take his weapon. Gwen obliges, gingerly removing the pistol from the freaked out agent’s hands.

“Huh. Looks like a facehugger,” Barney muses. “I want to bag this stuff up and preserve it.”

Gwen seeks reassurance. “Doc, tell me there’s an explanation for that. There’s something in the rainforests or jungles or something like that, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure. Go get the bags.”

“I’m not touching that thing!”

“Hey. Focus. Stay on mission and follow orders, soldier.”

This provides a measure of familiarity for Gwen, who goes to find some bags. Meanwhile, Quin is still freaking out. References to the Alien movie abound. He realizes that anyone could have one of those things inside them. Paranoia: engaged.

Barney inspects the Russian’s corpse. “Yeah, probably. That’s why we’re not going to let you have a gun for a while, kay?”

The inside of the body shows that the rib cage was definitely overgrown to help provide protection for the larger parasite. A lot of the internal organs are gone, but the lungs and heart remain. There also seem to be a number of small holes in the spinal column. This, Barney figures, warrants a full autopsy. But here, where it’s safe. He always wanted a secret lair. All he needs now is some equipment, and he thinks he has a few contacts that could swing that.

They bag the mess as best they can. Quin secures the entrances so that only the agents can get in – or out – of the room, and plants a security camera inside to watch the remains. You know, just in case.

On the way back, Gwen calls in to HQ to explain the situation. Donald can’t quite believe what he’s hearing. “Burst out of his chest? They’re Trans Global, not Weyland-Yutani.”

Still, he has no reason to doubt what three fellow agents are telling him, especially since they made sure to take pictures of everything.

The session ends with some research. Donald has contacts in the State Department that forward him the visa applications for Russians working for Trans Global. Donald’s State Department contact is Andreas Perkins. Perkins owes Donald for “that thing in Istanbul”. Sure enough, their Russian was an actual employee of the company – an “acquisitions manager” by the name of Alexi Chernov. Elena finds text messages on his cell phone relating to several ops (in safely generic language), including one “at the warehouse”, which could very well have been their first encounter. She also pulls out a lot of phone numbers, most to burner phones, but one that goes to an internal Trans Global number. It’s in the building they’ve been watching, and belongs to an executive in charge of Trans Global’s West Coast US operations. His name is Varga Petho, Hungarian by way of Russia. They have their next rung up the ladder. Donald also gets his contact to alert him of any new visa applications from the company, specifically any with the job title of acquisitions manager. If a replacement comes in, the agents are likely to know. Oh, and Donald plays shrink to recover some stability. There, there. There, there.

Thus ends the first Operation. Experience points are given out, and plans are made. Next session: Barney wants to build a secret lab in the underground to study whatever the hell it is they just killed. The others are on board with this idea. Elena plans a cyberattack on Trans Global, and the meeting with Agent Turner will take place. Now more than ever they think it’s a trap.

Night’s Black Agents, Session Two

The agents decided they wanted to know where their turncoat contact was getting his orders. All Toby could tell them was that the commands came from the bluetooth earpiece he’d been wearing. They still had it, so Elena did her thing and found out that the earpiece was set to pick up a non standard frequency. She decided to set up an array of burner cell phones, all programmed to pick up the frequency and dropped at various locations throughout the city, and used them to triangulate the source of the signal. Nobody else did much during the day – they all just laid low in the safe house and waited for word to come back. If they were being targeted they wanted to play it low and slow. Luckily for them, the contact I picked (Vic), didn’t end up turned. In fact, they were very lucky. Vic only had two points in his pool, and I rolled a one. Maybe next session…

Word comes back from Barney’s contact, Reese, who was analyzing Toby’s blood samples at the lab. Turns out Toby has certain toxins in his blood stream that are markers for parasitic infection, though there were no parasites present in the blood samples themselves. Without having one to look at Reese couldn’t say what species it is. There was also a virus present in the blood, one the lab wasn’t able to identify. Since Barney had only said the samples were from a patient, Reese offers to call the CDC for help identifying the virus. Barney talks him out of it, but Reese says he’ll keep the blood samples frozen in the lab in case they’re needed later.

Armed with this new knowledge, Barney decides to take Toby to a hospital for a closer look. Barney uses a cover identity as Dr. Bill Reynor to enter the hospital late at night, and Quin comes along as Chet Walters, a highway patrolman, which allows him to both take Toby in handcuffed and also wear a gun without worrying about it being noticed. Both covers work perfectly, and the two have some hospital space to themselves. It takes the entire night to do a full set of tests on Toby, and in the end Barney finds the parasites – they’re in Toby’s brain. He knows of parasites that are able to alter the behavior of their hosts, and absent any other drugs from the blood sample analysis he starts to get a bad feeling that somebody’s engineered one to work on humans. Before they leave the hospital Barney grabs a bunch of broad spectrum anti-parasiticals to try and treat Toby.

Meanwhile, Elena hears back from her contact in North Dakota, “Frank81”. He gets her the surveillance footage, but there’s not much to see. The quality is crap, and their suspect seems to stay mostly out of sight. Frank81 also notes that he’s seen the guy around from time to time, but not since the message was sent to the agents. Unless they want to pack up and go to North Dakota, it looks like a dead end.

At this point in the game bogs down a little and things start to careen off in some rather wild directions. Rather than check out the gangs that I’d set up as leads in the last session, the group starts to do odd things like dig deeper into their parent conspiracy, including “Mr. Grey”, the guy who recruited all of them. So I let them use their investigative skills to dig up some information (I’m not the kind of GM who just says no – if the players want to do something I let them and adapt, or gently nudge them back in the right direction). They find out not much about the conspiracy aside from the fact that it’s cell-based, which they already knew. They did find out Mr Grey is really Carl Weller, a reclusive rich guy who donates to various charities, political candidates and PACs across party lines, and seems to have ties to the intelligence community, though they can’t say for sure who or where. They try to figure out where he’s at, but I pointedly let them know that he has multiple places of residence in multiple countries, and nobody’s really sure where he is at any given moment. There is no “Weller Industries” either, all his money seems to come from a tangled web of shell companies and offshore accounts. At this point they seem to be angling for a jump way up to the top of the ladder, skipping their immediate troubles and going to “the boss” to find out what’s going on. They research which charities he donated to recently and if any of them are having any big events he would likely show up to. Sure, there’s on in Boston a week from now.

Unwilling to wait a week, the group finally relents and starts looking at more immediate concerns. To see just how compromised their conspiracy is they put out a fake message saying they survived an attack and have important information about who’s after them. They request a meet with someone higher up the food chain, in person. While they wait for that to resolve into something interesting they decide to chase down the signal that Elena triangulated.

Turns out it’s being broadcast from the top of a two story building near the docks. Thanks to public records they know the bottom floor is filled with a real estate company and a shipping company’s offices, the top floor is currently empty. There’s also a nice big antenna on the roof. The agents do a little surveillance and note that there are closed circuit security cameras covering every angle. Since that would make any night time approach a little trickier, they opt for a broad daylight operation. Using disguise, they make themselves up to be a painting crew and walk right in the front door. Quin plays lookout in a stolen van he made up to look like it’s from a fictitious painting company. Barney stays at the safehouse with Toby, monitoring his condition. The agents head up the stairs, as if they’re renovating the empty offices up there, but go all the way to the roof. Nobody on the first floor pays them any notice.

Once on the roof a little architectural knowledge lets them know which office the feed to the antenna comes from. A helpfully labelled junction box tells them it’s coming from the one used by the shipping company, Trans Global Shipping. Elena installs a remote controlled device in the junction box that will cut the feed to the antenna, so if they run into somebody else with an earpiece they can just cut the signal at the source.

On the street below, Quin gets made. The tattooed Russian gangster he nearly ran over at the warehouse ambush walks around the corner and heads to the building the agents are in. It’s obvious he sees the van, and whether he recognizes Quin or just knows a stakeout when he sees one, the cat is out of the bag. Quin lets the group know and then leaves, heading around the block as casually as possible. The agents abandon their more bulky items – ladders and tarps, etc – and leave. They don’t run into anyone on the way out, but Elena does stop to plant a surveillance camera (via preparedness) across the street, pointed roughly at the front of the building.

That night, the agents monitor the camera feed at the safehouse while Quin and Donald sit in a generic sedan (courtesy of Quin’s gone in sixty seconds skillset) across the street from the building. They watch a rented moving truck pull up, and under the direction of the tattooed Russian a group of men begin loading computer and other equipment. They know they’ve been made, so they’re moving shop. Quin makes his surveillance roll and follows the truck to a fairly nondescript storage facility. There it unloads the equipment and leaves. They follow the Russian to a high-rise building downtown, a building also owned by Trans Global Shipping. But the Russian and his helpers go inside via a locked door, and Donald and Quin opt not to break in to follow.

Knowing that they’ve just found a treasure trove of potential intelligence, the agents called Elena and Gwen in to assist before it can be moved. Breaking into the storage unit, Elena’s knowledge of computers and electronics allowed them to quickly remove hard drives and other data storage devices. On their way out, Elena left a message on a forum for local Seattle ne’er-do-wells letting them know there was an open storage unit with electronics in it. With any luck that would sow a little confusion.

While the rest of the agents are gone, Barney runs into trouble. After roughly 24 hours of anti-parasitical treatment, Toby goes into cardiac arrest. Despite Barney’s efforts, he succumbs and dies.

Once the others return, Elena digs into Trans Global Shipping and finds it’s owned by a wealthy Russian named Victor Malekov, and that it has some questionable ties to an international aide organization (which I’ve somewhat sarcastically named Bleeding Heart International until I can come up with a better name).

Next session: An autopsy on Toby, dealing with the tattooed Russian, and a response to the bait message. Also, Gwen hopes to shoot something. Possibly the tattooed Russian.

And Now For Something Completely Different

I often run tabletop roleplaying games on the weekend. I just started a Night’s Black Agents game, which is a spy thriller with a supernatural conspiracy element. Since I spent last week prepping and not writing on Goyle Country, I figured I’d share a writeup of the session.


It all started during the Cold War. The government was so worried about the possibility of a Soviet invasion of the continental United States that they developed Operation BASTION, a stay behind outfit that positioned groups of intelligence agents throughout the country. They were equipped with civilian cover identities, secret stockpiles of weapons and equipment, and anonymous bank accounts filled with cash. They had one directive: should the enemy conquer the United States, they were to immediately launch a guerrilla insurgency, rally the populace, and resist by any means necessary. But the CIA, so paranoid of Soviet infiltration, buried BASTION deep. As the Cold War ground on, fewer and fewer people even realized the operation existed. And once the Berlin Wall came down, BASTION itself began erasing any evidence of their existence. Forgotten by the government that had once relied on them as a last ditch defense, the agents of BASTION leveraged those secret bank accounts with their mountains of untraceable cash. They sold their stockpiles of equipment on the black market to make even more money, and in the end they all maneuvered themselves into positions of wealth, power, and comfort.

Those grey haired agents of BASTION would have died happy, had something not changed. Underground though they were, some of them had kept abreast of the goings on of the intelligence community. Sometime in the early 00’s, they realized something was going on. The Cold War may have ended, but a Shadow War was being fought. What’s more, it looked like the CIA was losing. Worse, it was being suborned, eaten from the inside out by some dark conspiracy that seemed bent on taking control of the government.

By the time BASTION roused themselves to action it was almost too late. Too old to be effective footsoldiers themselves they went recruiting. Carefully vetting candidates in all branches of the intelligence community and even the armed forces, they started building their own conspiracy. Recruits were convinced that BASTION was a legitimate government agency, an ultra secret black ops outfit dedicated to protecting the US from threats it couldn’t see. It had the virtue of being mostly true. Every agent brought in was scrubbed – their ties to their former employers were cut and references to them eliminated as much as possible. They were then given civilian cover identities, and when BASTION called with a mission they answered.

Our agents are:

Barney (played by Jim): the medic and interrogation expert. He’s got “soap opera doctor” looks. Formerly of the CIA. His drive is “altruism”. Gotta keep the bad guys from hurting the innocents, no matter the cost.
Elena (played by Gaite): the hacker. She’s brown skinned, lightly built, and is a fan of hoodies. Formerly of the NSA. Her drive might actually be a bit of a problem. It’s “transparency”.
Gwen (played by Audrey): the assassin and infiltrator. Of Nordic descent: tall, blond and deadly. Formerly military special forces. Her drive is “comradship”.
Quin (played by Derek): the document forger and wheelman. He’s a lanky, spiky haired, tattooed adrenaline junkie. Formerly of the CIA. His drive is “thrill seeker”.
Donald (played by Jeff): the handler/analyst/guy in charge. Annapolis graduate, he’s a fairly typical spy. Former CIA, of course. His drive is “patriotism”.

The scene opens with the agents gathering for a late night meeting at a functional, if currently empty, warehouse in Seattle. Que the obligatory rainstorm. They’d received the order through usual coded signals on internet message boards. With the exception of Quin they all arrived more or less discretely – getting out of a taxi a few blocks away, walking from a bus stop, etc. Quin? Quin brought his muscle car and parked right outside. Knowing they were supposed to meet a contact from BASTION, the group gathers in the warehouse’s office on the second floor. As soon as they turn on the lights a camera blinks to life. Not long after they hear a helicopter buzz overhead – alarmingly odd at this time of night, in the rain, and at such a low altitude. With a good idea that something’s wrong they head back downstairs, only to run into their contact.

The man is setting off bullshit detectors left and right. They ask him if he was followed, he says no. He’s distracted, keeps glancing at the door, and when they ask about the helicopter he tries to play it off as a news chopper that must’ve been on its way to cover a story. When Quin presses him, calling him out on his lies, the man breaks and says “they” made him do it. He pulls a gun from inside his raincoat, and the agents leap into action.

They want to take him alive, knowing that if they’ve been set up this man is their best chance at getting answers. Gwen, who’d gotten her 9mm pistol ready the moment their contact started acting shady, fires off a round that flies right by the side of her target’s head. We called this a support move, since she was trying to distract him. It works, and as he flinches away Barney goes in for the hand to hand disarm. The gun goes off, but the shot is wild and no one is hit. With the turncoat agent disarmed and held in an armlock, Donald notes the wireless earpiece he’s wearing. Removing it, Donald puts it in his own ear to hear a monotone voice directing the contact to “kill everyone in the room”.

They have no time to plan past that. The door the agents entered through swings open, and a man with a submachine gun looks in. Reacting quickly, Gwen opens up on the door to provide covering fire. She and the others fall back towards the door on the other side of the warehouse as the main loading bay doors ratchet open, revealing the headlights of a van and a group of armed men. The trap is well and truly sprung.

Barney takes cover behind a conveniently placed crate, their contact still restrained. Gwen finds cover as best she can and reloads while Quin opens fire on the mooks rushing in through the loading doors. Donald and Elena reach their exit, only to find that another mook with a submachine gun is coming through. Donald drops him with a few well placed shots. The two of them each take cover to either side of the door. Outside in the dark and rain are two more mooks, both with submachine guns. The mooks open fire, hitting the brick walls of the warehouse and missing the agents. Donald returns fire while Elena throws a knife(?!). The blade doesn’t hurt anybody, but it does surprise their assailants.

Meanwhile, as Gwen alternately fires at the mook in the door and the ones coming through the loading bay doors, Barney’s hostage wiggles free. The traitor tries to make a run for it, only to have Barney shoot him in the leg (called shot for the win!). Quin gets a devious idea. Popping off the occasional round just to keep the enemy’s head down, he locates a forklift and proceeds to rig it so that it will drive straight ahead unmanned. He then sends it towards the wall along the side of the building where Donald and Elena are having their firefight.

As it trundles along, Elena has decided that bringing a knife to an automatic weapon fight is a recipe for disaster. Having brought no gun of her own, she uses an athletics roll to duck outside and grab the submachine gun from the first mook they killed. She then uses it to gun down one of the two mooks outside. Shortly after, the forklift hits the wall and barrels out into the rain, right towards the remaining mook. He makes a break for it, fearing that someone is going to use the forklift to run him over. Elena and Donald emerge from the building and gun him down while he’s in the open.

With an exit cleared, the group makes a firing retreat. They’ve thinned the ranks of the main assault wave, but there are more coming. Once everyone is outside, Barney hauling along their injured turncoat, the group realizes their only getaway vehicle is on the other side of the building. Quin volunteers to go get it, and as the others hunker down and defend their new position he makes an infiltration roll to sneak around to where he left his car. There are three mooks on that side of the building, but they seem more occupied with a bald man who’s yelling at them in Russian to notice Quin. He sneaks into his car, fires it up, revs the engine, and guns it for the mooks. They scatter, and he floors it to drift around the corner and reach his comrades.

The problem is soon apparent. A muscle car will not fit five agents and a hostage. To make matters worse, the helicopter is coming back, and now it has a spotlight. Quin volunteers to lead the helicopter on a wild chase, giving the others a chance at escaping. He knows a guy, Vic, who can put them up in a safe house. If they all get away they’ll meet there. The agents agree, and after throwing their captive in the trunk Barney slides into the passenger seat. Quin’s muscle car, peppered with bullet holes, roars off into the night, helicopter in tow. The rest of the group falls back into a maze of stacked shipping containers, and after a chained infiltration test they manage to evade their pursuers. Donald, Gwen, and Elena emerge onto city streets several blocks away from the action. They hoof it to Gwen’s SUV, which they take to Vic and the safehouse.

Meanwhile, Quin is having way too much fun. He leads the helicopter in an area where, thanks to a combination of weather and terrain, it has to get low to maintain visual contact. Barney takes the opportunity to shoot at it, trying to kill the pilot. He misses, but succeeds in blowing out the searchlight. Once that’s gone, the helicopter gives up the chase, unable to effectively track the car thanks to the storm. After tooling around town for a while to make sure they weren’t still being followed, Quin and Barney arrive at the safe house. Barney does his thing and patches up Gwen, who took enough damage to get her to 1 point of health while she was flanked in the warehouse. This is cinematic health, of course, so she’s not really all that injured.

Now the investigation begins. They question the turncoat, Toby, who explains he was black bagged in front of his apartment one morning. Once in a van he was injected with something – he doesn’t know what – and was unconscious for an unknown amount of time. When he woke up, he found that he had the overwhelming compulsion to obey commands given to him by the monotone voice. Barney looks Toby over and finds a puncture wound to the back of the man’s neck, and evidence of restraints on his wrists. He also notes that while the man has been shot and should probably be going into shock, his heart rate is up and his body temperature is elevated. Odd. Using his medical kit, Barney takes several vials of blood (careful not to take too much, since he was bleeding from a leg wound shortly before). As a doctor he has a contact, Reese, at a local lab who can analyse the blood for any drugs or chemicals. With some persuading, he gets Reese to agree to meet him the lab even though it’s close to the middle of the night. He and Quin take Gwen’s SUV, and with no trouble drop off the blood.

Meanwhile, Elena is doing her thing. She tracks the message that brought them to the warehouse back to a cybercafe in Bismark, ND (I have no idea if there are cybercafes in Bismark, North Dakota, but let’s roll with it). As luck and some network points would have it, she knows a guy (Frank81) who uses that cafe as a base of caffeinated operations when he’s on a hacking job. So she asks him to get her the security camera footage for the time the message was posted, and maybe even eyeball the guy who posted it, if he gets the opportunity. That outsourced, she turns to the submachine gun she picked up from the fight. The serial numbers have been filed off, but Gwen manages to take it apart and they find some other numbers stamped on the various parts. Trying to track those back to the manufacturer hits a firewall, and she doesn’t feel like taking the time to get around it. Instead, they take a different tack. Once Barney is back, they get him to lift fingerprints off the ammunition that was loaded in the magazine. She then digitizes them (using her smartphone). A quick hack into the police database later, and they’ve matched the prints to a downtown Seattle gang called The Mayhem.

This is interesting for two reasons: one, they’re not Russian. Two, the bald Russian yelling at the mooks was from a dock-side gang (this thanks to Quin recalling his tattoos and Gwen having streetwise). Three, the Russians and the Mayhem don’t like each other. So why did they seem to be working together at the warehouse ambush? How did they even know to set it up? If they could get to a member of BASTION (the now captive Toby), it’s possible they could have targeted the agents one by one. So why get them in a group before attacking? Donald is of the opinion that this is a sloppy, amateur operation. Which would make sense if these were gang members, but why use amateurs to take on pros?

After a little traffic analysis, Elena finds out something somewhat more ominous – there’s no new chatter from BASTION in any of the usual places. Has their counter-conspiracy run into dire trouble?

Next time: what do you do with a Manchurian Candidate ally, blood test results, cybercafe video footage, and they’re not out of the woods just yet.

What a Fiasco!

Following along with the previous blog post (and almost completely ignoring the fact that I skipped one last week), I’ll be talking about what is pretty much a pure storytelling game. So far as roleplaying games go, it has almost zero dice mechanic. What it does have is actually trading dice around. You roll two or three times the entire game.

Imagine those movies where they’ve got a plan, and it all seems so simple… and then it all goes horribly, entertainingly wrong. That’s Fiasco!, the game. I find this a great concept for a roleplaying game, as some of the most memorable moments in tabletop gaming is when the plan you spent hours in real time coming up with goes completely off the rails. With all that planning gone you have to react, improvise, and make do with what you’ve got. Makes you wonder why you bother planning at all, sometimes.

I’ve read somewhere that Fiasco(!) is really more controlled improvisational acting than it is a roleplaying game. I think I agree with that assessment. You don’t make characters in this game. You create relationships between blank templates, add objects and needs that inform those relationships, and figure out who everybody is afterward. It’s actually a pretty fun process, and at the end of it you actually have a pretty good idea who your character is and what drives them. You then have scenes, like in a movie, because that’s essentially what you’re doing – building that movie where everything goes gloriously wrong.

The game is broken up into two phases. Everybody gets two scenes in phase one. A fun part of the game is that you can either set up a scene, or choose to resolve it. If you set it up, you decide who’s in it (other than you) and where it’s at, etch. The other players vote whether this goes well or poorly for your character as the scene is in motion. You and those involved then get to improvise how it goes the way it goes. If you resolve, everybody else gets to set up the scene for you, and you decide how it goes before the scene even begins. Kinda cool.

Then comes the hand basket bound for hell, and everybody climbs on it. It’s call the tilt, which you roll randomly for. It introduce two chaotic elements that help everything devolve into self destruction (if the game isn’t already well on it’s way there anyway). Each player gets two more scenes, and then there are rolls to determine how things eventually pan out for your character. And that’s it.

As a storytelling mechanic, it’s absolutely brilliant. The random mix of relationships, needs, objects, locations, etc. interact with the players in some pretty great ways. My group had a blast when we played a scenario called “Boomtown”, set in a small town in the wild west. There was a madam who controlled the town from her mansion, a sheriff who wanted to clean the place up, a toady of a deputy, a family that was about to lose their ranch, a crazy ass plan to get the mortgage papers, glorious self destruction, and a giant explosion at the end.

The great thing is we could play the same scenario again and come up with a completely different story. We’re planning on playing another playset soon. This one will be Gangster London, which sounds like it will be just as entertaining. When we get around to playing it I’ll have to post a rundown of the story we come up with.

You can find Fiasco! at Bully Pulpit Games:

Storytelling and Roleplaying Games

All right, since I’m still new to this blogging thing this may ramble a bit. (And get long-winded, apparently.)

I was introduced to the concept of roleplaying games in college, and I’ve loved them ever since. I’ve played a number of different systems and settings, all of which have different levels of crunch and fluff. For those who are unfamiliar with the terms, crunch refers to rules and how to play the game. Fluff is setting, flavor, and the little details that make up a world. Games which are setting agnostic or allow players to create their own worlds are low on fluff. Games which are flexible and have few rules can probably be said to be low on crunch – such games are often termed “rules light”, and I’ve seen them called storytelling games.

Storytelling games tend to try and invest the players with more direct control over the narrative flow of the game. I find the term “storytelling” interesting because all roleplaying games are, to a certain extent, about cooperatively telling a story. No two games will ever turn out the same, even if you have the same scenario and the same characters (different players, of course… I don’t know any GM that would run the same scenario twice with the same players). That’s part of the problem with prewritten scenarios that make assumptions about steps along the path from beginning to end, and expect the players to follow.

As I see it, there are a couple of ways to tell a story when you’re running a roleplaying game. There’s the prewritten way of doing things, where you have a definite idea of how the story should go and expect your players to follow the correct path. If they don’t, they fail. Whether this failure means they die, don’t get the macguffin, or don’t rescue the princess, they cannot accomplish their stated goal. Which is not to say they “lose” – players should never “lose”, even if all of their characters die. Some GMs seek to mitigate this by putting the game “on rails”, overtly guiding the players towards the correct path.

Games like this tend to be more like watching a movie or playing a game. Yes yes, RPGs are games – I mean more like video games. There is a predetermined end, and you’ll either get to it or you’ll fail. That’s not to say that this type of game is bad – as a friend of mine likes to say, being on rails is fine so long as the scenery is good and the train is going to awesome town. I mean, you enjoy movies and video games even though you’re only going to get to one place at the end (deliberately ignoring video games with multiple endings here).

In this type of game it’s all about the journey. It’s about character interaction, or those awesome moments where your character gets to do something cool and hog the spotlight, if only for a moment. You’re not really shaping the story so much as you’re unveiling it bit by bit. How you uncover it might change, but the bit uncovered is always the same. Storytelling in this sort of game is more combative – you have to overcome each obstacle in order to get to the next, and only then are you given the next bit of story. In a sense, it’s the group against the GM. It’s more frustrating for the GM to run when the players go off the rails, especially if the GM isn’t as flexible or able to think on their feet. That’s not to say that this sort of game can’t be fun, or that every game run with a non storytelling system must be played that way.

Which brings us to the other way of running a game, but it with a storytelling system or otherwise. This sort of game, as mentioned previously, attempts to give players more control over the narrative flow. The GM reacts to what the players do – if they decide the plot is going a certain way, the GM follows and builds a story around that. I like those sorts of games, and it’s how I usually run them when I’m GMing. This doesn’t mean that you don’t place obstacles that the players need to overcome. Those are still there – but in this mode of play, you can reward them for creatively bypassing those obstacles. There is no “wrong path”, and even if they fail to overcome an obstacle that failure still leads them onward in the story, albeit in a different branch. Sort of like a choose your own adventure.

The systems used to do this are varied, and I played one recently that sought to minimize the use of dice rolling. The idea behind this was that if the players had to roll, there was a chance they could fail that roll and thus fail to overcome the obstacle. I’m not sure what I think about that. A certain level of chance is necessary, the potential to fail needs to be real. In most good stories everything doesn’t go perfectly well for the antagonists – they face challenges, and sometimes they fail. It leads to tension and character building moments. I think maybe the game system was trying to make it easier for less adaptive GMs to go along with what the players were doing. As I was playing this particular game and not GMing it, I found that it provided a wealth of roleplaying and party interaction opportunities. But the GM was frustrated when it came to actual conflict, and I think the rest of us were as well. There was just no good way to do it without a certain level of crunch. Maybe we just weren’t used to that style of game.

I guess my point is even non “storytelling” systems can still be storytelling games. It’s all in how you handle it.