Adventures in Darkness

When it comes to Kenneth Hite’s work, I don’t know why I continue to fool myself with the platitude, “Oh, that doesn’t sound quite for me. I’ll let that one go by.” Almost invariably, the work, whatever it is, crosses my consciousness still more times. And every time I encounter it, the idea appeals more and more.

And so it was when I listened to Hite’s interview on The Game’s the Thing. The episode was mostly about Night’s Black Agents — itself a game I thought I wouldn’t want, but have since reversed position — but host Ron Blessing brought up Adventures in Darkness, a super hero universe created in an alternate history where Lovecraft survived his cancer and developed a writing studio to populate the pages of a comic book line.

I’d read about Adventures in Darkness before and thought it was a little too off my usual topics to be interested. But when I hear people talk about it and share their enthusiasm, I get enthused too. Now my appetite is whetted and I’m thinking about snapping up the Mutants & Masterminds edition. But I know what would or will happen: I’d page through it and enjoy the prose, never putting the game material to work.

In the same episode, I had a similar reaction to the mention of Bubblegumshoe, a GUMSHOE iteration for teen mysteries. Totally not my thing, until Hite included John Bellairs‘ young adult occult mysteries as one of the sources. I think that’s the first time I’ve encountered someone in gaming wanting to draw on Bellairs’ oeuvre, which is a rather exciting prospect.[1]

[1] Until such time as a kindly reader reveals someone else has done it better, faster, earlier.

Monday Mashup: The Madness Conspiracy

With the confirmation from Sean Punch that the contract for a new version of The Madness Dossier in some form has been signed and the resurgence of Conspiracy X material in recent months, the thought occurs to me that the two worlds would interlock rather snugly.

AEGIS is a ready-made secret agency to drop in the place of Project Sandman. Its agents are already trained to cover up unknowable horrors. The Red King and its implications are right in their wheelhouse. In that way, the impending threat of History B slots right into the world of AEGIS.

For a more integrated presentation, the irruptors match up fairly well with the Atlanteans. They’re still wielders of incomprehensible, godlike technology from another time, only that other time is now sideways rather than forward.[1] Their objective is to reclaim their world, rather than ensure its existence. And like Captain Chronos and other inscrutable time travelers, that objective may be served by acts that work in harmony with AEGIS agents’ own as often as they hinder.

[1] And I write that lacking the full skinny on the Atlanteans, not having yet pored over The Extraterrestrials Sourcebook.

[Carrion Crown] The False Crypt

Carrion Crown: The Haunting of Harrowstone coverSession two of Carrion Crown continued this week after recapping and comparing of notes among the players. Annie (Grift), the Dan (Darius Carfax St. James), a Dan (Sir Horace Gunderson), Toby (Solis and his eidolon Gia) and Tyler (Alexandros Callimachi) were in attendance.

While Grift, Solis and Alexandros retired for sleep, meditation and devotions, respectively, Sir Horace and Darius busied themselves: one with the liquor cabinet, the other with Professor Lorrimor’s books — not the tomes destined for Leipstadt. Those were stowed in a secure place for the time being, despite Horace’s attempt to assume custodianship.

A shadowed presence made itself known to Darius, but proved itself invisible. Shadows lengthened, strange whispers carried through the halls and Darius found the house’s very architecture began to bend and twist as he wandered through it, seeking help. Eventually he and Horace met in a seemingly endless hallway with no doors save one at the very end, emitting green light through cracks in the jamb. Try as they might, Darius and Horace couldn’t escape the impossible hallway or the haunting whispers. In frustration, Darius flung the glowing green door open . . . and Grift was rudely awoken by the gibbering wreck of a bard slamming his bedroom door open, yanking the sheets up tight around his person in surprise.

“Are you, Kendra, currently menstruating?”
— Alexandros Callimachi, not fearing any spectre

The hubbub brought the rest of the house’s denizens into the hallway. Carfax St. James and Gunderson described their seeming shared hallucination to their compatriots, who began a cursory investigation of what may have caused the phenomena. Various techniques employed suggested no commonly detectable form magic had been employed. Kendra Lorrimor averred the house had no prior known history of hauntings in response to the inquisitor Alexandros’ curiously intimate line of questioning.[1]

Recalling that the professor’s journal mentioned a cache of ghost-hunting tools secreted in the Restlands, Grift proposed an immediate expedition to ferret them out, which was met with general positive approval. Concerned about the impropriety of burgling graves, or at least being perceived to do so, Callimachi countered that bobbing lights in the graveyard in the dead of night during a rainstorm wouldn’t score any points with the already troubled townsfolk of Ravengro, so the outing was postponed until the morning.[2]

“I wake and begin the 5:30 chant to Iomedae.”
“I wake for the 5:45 stabbing.”
— Alexandros and Sir Horace

Early risers like unsleeping Solis and Callimachi with his devotions to Iomedae found themselves waiting for the later risers. Eventually, sometime around mid-morning, everyone set off from the house. Grift and Darius split off to talk with Brother Grimbarrow at the temple of Pharasma about the prison fire and list of victims also mentioned in Lorrimor’s notes. Their decidedly different approaches to winning the dour brother’s favor managed to pay off, winning them access to the temple’s archives and services of Brother Aramis, custodian of same, whose cataloging practices were perhaps not up to Carfax St. James’ standards. The archivist set to work sifting through papers while Grift manipulated Aramis into hopping to in service of their cause.[3] Research yielded that Harrowstone was a prison destroyed by fire, and that a number of exceptionally dangerous prisoners had died in the conflagration, not named here for brevity, kept from escaping by the sacrifice of the prison governor and guards’ lives.

Meanwhile, in the cemetery, Alexandros, Horace, Solis and his serpentine eidolon located Lorrimor’s false crypt, a large but almost wholly unadorned mausoleum, save two gargoyles on the roof. While Callimachi and Gunderson considered possible means of entry, the eidolon Gia cut to the chase, nudging the lock to discover it only appeared to be locked.[4] The interior of the crypt was equally bare, its emptiness overseen by two stone angels. Stairs at the rear of the crypt led to a subterranean chamber, which Gia’s darksight revealed as clear of hazards.

“Suck it out! Suck it out!”
— any sensible person’s reaction to a venomous bite

The quartet found a simple stone sarcophagus in the lower chamber. Sir Horace set to work dislodging the lid while Solis and Alexandros provided moral support and well-meant advice. Inside the sarcophagus, they found the promised cache of ghost-hunting tools: enchanted arrows and bolts, potions and scrolls of yet unknown purpose. The thrill of the find distracted everyone but commonsense Gia from the approach of two large centipedes from the walls of the crypt. Callimachi took a heavy dose of venom from one while the eidoloon coiled around and dispatched the second. The inquisitor only stood and felt the venom’s numbing effect spread while the others finished off the remaining centipede — and continued to wait impatiently with a numb leg while Gunderson carefully inventoried their haul.[5]

Finally, they left the crypt and reconvened with Darius and Grift back at the Lorrimor home. Callimachi roused from his venom-induced stupor long enough to realize he himself was skilled in the healing arts, tended his bite wound, poured a stiff drink and wandered off to bed.[6] The rest of the group stayed up to compare notes and identify as many of the tools from the crypt as possible, assigning them to those people who could use them best.

[1] And really, that set precedent for Ghostbusters quotes of which I intended — and intend to continue! — to take full advantage.

[2] I was actually kind of concerned about this. Everyone else was super gung-ho to bust open the crypt right then and there. Being affiliated with a god and a presumed moral code of some kind, Callimachi would rather have talked directly with Brother Grimbarrow about investigating the cache of weapons. That got shot down real quick, so I rationalized that a false crypt with no actual grave inside as the professor’s writing suggested would be okay to burgle, particularly since it was in service to his daughter’s safety.

[3] That would backfire shortly, as Grift attempted to pocket an important document. Aramis had been whipped into being so attentive to their needs there was no good opportunity to do so. Grift settled for scribbled notes.

[4] And that was another strong indicator — after many successful Perception checks — that Gia might be the most effective character in the bunch.

[5] Two points of Dexterity damage, to be precise.

[6] AKA: “Oh yeah, I’ve got the Heal skill!”

Keeping Cthulhu Scary

Coming off of Should’ve Said, another engrossing recording with Kenneth Hite hails from Celesticon 2011: Keeping Cthulhu Scary. I believe this is a topic on which Hite sets forth regularly as a seminar-panel-thing as the name’s familiar, but this is the first time I’ve found a recording in which to partake.

I know people who resolutely insist up and down that Cthulhu and the fears it represents do not scare them. I don’t think those people are likely to be swayed because they have decided not to be, but when it comes to those who want to be scared, who willingly suspend their disbelief for the purposes of engaging with horror, I think there’s a lot in Hite’s discussion for writers and GMs to take advantage of.

Drama Points As An Indicator That I Should’ve Said

Catching up on some neglected listening material over the long weekend, I took in a Pelgrane Press seminar from Dragonmeet 2011, courtesy of Featuring Robin Laws, Kenneth Hite and Simon Rogers, the conversation centers on the many endeavors of Pelgrane Press and related topics. One digression in particular caught my interest: what the spending of points — GUMSHOE points in the context of the conversation, but easily widened to any mechanic where a player spends points to effect a change — signifies to the GM.

Robin suggests thinking of a player spending points as analogous to the improv game Should’ve Said. In the game, the audience or the referee or whomever can demand the players change a statement, usually to humorous effect. So in the course of a role-playing game with a drama point-like mechanic, when a player spends a point, they’re really saying, “Change up what you’re saying.”

With drama points, that change-up is probably to do with the player not being happy with what the GM’s saying: “Your character takes a blow to the head” or “You don’t find anything of interest in the warlock’s study.” If they’re spending points, they’re not happy about something. Outside of the immediate redress of “Oh, it was a glancing wound,” I think it’s a good mindset to take those spends as an opportunity to ramp up engagement by giving them exceptional carrots.

In retrospect, I find it easy to fall into a habit of being stingy with handing out exceptionally nice carrots. When I was running Scions of Time last year, I think part of the reason the players didn’t take advantage of the drama point mechanic, aside from the frequent lack of need for the mechanical benefits, was the gain was rarely terribly interesting. I was too afraid of action going way off the pathways I was prepared to follow.

In fact, I think Should’ve Said would offer a fun two-way exchange. Players spend points to get the GM to change what he’s saying. The GM hands out points to get the players to change what they’re saying. It’s a little like the Fate point economy with aspects and refreshes, I think, but Should’ve Said includes the ability to keep pushing. The player can spend another point, or more, and the GM can keep handing them out until they hear something they like.

[Carrion Crown] The Funeral

Carrion Crown: The Haunting of Harrowstone coverLast night we kicked off the Carrion Crown adventure path. Grift the chimney sweep-like waif, sonorous Darius Carfax St. James, Sir Horace Gunderson, travel worn Alexandros Callimachi and Solis, accompanied by his serpentine companion . . . thing,[1] gathered at the home of Professor Petros Lorrimor in Ravengro to pay last respects to the deceased and condolences to his daughter, Kendra.

The procession from Pharasma’s temple to the grave was interrupted by a mob of unruly peasants who didn’t take kindly to the notion of a “necromancer” being interred in their cemetery. The mourning party made short work of the lot.

After the funeral came the reading of the will, back at the Lorrimor house. Councilman Hearthmount, Ravengro’s closest thing to a solicitor read the professor’s will. Everything but a few items go to his daughter Kendra. The other five mourners each receive a unique token of the professor’s esteem, and two tasks: help Kendra get her household up and running, then transport a small set of dangerous tomes to the university at Lepidstadt[2], presumably to keep them out of the wrong hands.[3] Examining the casket of tomes revealed four volumes of diverse provenance, but all seeming to deal with dark, arcane matters. There was also a leaf from Lorrimor’s journal, seemingly the final entry, in which he mentioned traveling to a place called Harrowstone, a secret cabal known as the Whispering Way, a fire and a list of those who died in it at the temple of Pharasma.[4]

The characters’ appetites whetted with a little conflict and the prospect of mysteries to unravel, the session drew to a close.

[0] The resurrection of Actual Play Friday! May it carry on for some time to come.

[1] An oracle, a bard, a cad, an inquisitor and a summoner with an eidolon walk into a funeral . . .

[2] I think. Everyone kept saying “Lichenstadt,” but that doesn’t seem to be a place in Ustalav.

[3] Because there’s always a set of wrong hands.

[4] In short: plot hooks.

[Carrion Crown] Character Creation Comes the Inquisitor

After a suitable period of mourning for the prolapsed Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign, the group is embarking on a Pathfinder adventure path called Carrion Crown. Set in the region of Ustalav, I gather it’s fraught with undead and squicky things, as it calls on the tropes of gothic horror.

Wanting to make a monster hunting type, I opted to make an inquisitor, a “base” class from the Advanced Player’s Guide. I didn’t find as quite a robust guide to the class as I did when creating Kaye the joke-telling bard for Pathfinder Society, so I felt the familiar sense of being adrift in a sea of mechanics with no optimization paddle. No matter. There aren’t many choices to make at first level. He’s a ranged fighter, given his good Dexterity and a heavy crossbow. That’s enough for now.

Given the context of Ustalav and the campaign primer, he turned out to be the scion of a once-proud noble family from the region which has since fallen under the alluring sway of democracy, a group of city-states calling themselves the Palatinates. So I’m thinking he’s pretty resentful of the rabble that rose up, deposed his family and made him get a job of all things.

That’s not really a sustainable attitude, but I’m thinking it’ll soften over time.

I think we start playing next Wednesday. More as it comes.