BPRD: The Celestial Legion

Printouts of the character sheet and biography for Sparky, Nikola Tesla's electrical golem.

Sifting through more stuff in the wake of purging empty boxes, I came across a trove of materials from convention games I’ve run over the years: several Ghostbusters scenarios from Carnages past, Unknown Armies‘ archetypal Jailbreak, and this particular gem, The Celestial Legion. It’s a Hellboy/B.P.R.D. adventure I wrote back when I was getting around to more conventions in New England than Carnage. Forgive me, purists, because it was written using mainly Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy film as inspiration, because that was my first real experience with the character. Only in the case of my conception of the B.P.R.D, most of the team members are weirdos like Sparky here — the Russian werebear assassin, the psychic supermodel — plus the much put-upon token normal agent, whose most-used piece of gear was the clicker gadget on his belt to track the collateral damage tally.

The sharp-eyed may note that the player materials I make are heavily patterned after the sample characters in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel role-playing games: short bio, some notes to guide how the character might act and look at things, and a full character sheet on another page. In this case, it was because I ran the game using Cinematic Unisystem and may have borrowed more than a few pieces of art from the sample character spreads for character portraits. (Sparky’s particular portrait is a work called Creacion del golem by Gabos on DeviantArt.com.)

I still feel proud of The Celestial Legion for being one of the more robustly documented adventures I’ve written, but I think the second and third acts need work. As is my bad habit, I came up with a great concept, detailed how it all kicks off and then the detailing and robustness of what might happen trails off as the narrative progresses. The more I think about it now, the more I realize I can’t tell you what the climax of the adventure is, or how it pays off the prior scenes.

No Soul Left Behind, No Goal Unreached

Imagine you are a simple educator, working in a struggling charter school. Further, imagine you are unexpectedly possessed by a demon from Hell. This psychic invader grants you amazing powers — impossible beauty, transmutation of matter, laser eyes, any number of possibilities — but at the same time, demands that you commit all kinds of evil with those powers. So naturally, being a mostly decent person, you appease the demon as best as possible by concocting ridiculously grandiose acts of largely hollow villainy that also happen to benefit the struggling school in which you are deeply invested.

Congratulations! You’ve just devised a character for No Soul Left Behind, the campaign  for Greg Stolze’s Better Angels role-playing game. Written by Caleb Stokes, author of the No Security horror scenarios, No Soul Left Behind is currently raising funds on Kickstarter. The material is written, playtested and edited, so the money goes toward book design and publishing.

If you’re not sure whether this mix of infernal villainy and public education is up your alley, check out the actual play recordings of the playtest campaign, run by Caleb for the Role Playing Public Radio crew. They’re pretty spectacular, featuring a debate team turned cult of personality, a grackle cannon and a sinister horse with laser eyes.

Wardens of the Rosy Cross

Through a sufficiently skewed lens, the Rosicrucians of WitchCraft can be the jailers of Creation, locked in with the inmates. Think about it. They’re one of the major adherents of the belief system that there is a single Creator responsible for the nine sephiroth. Only the Creator’s gone off somewhere, leaving Kether vacant.

At the same time, the Rosicrucians are very concerned with protecting Malkuth from the depredations of the Mad Gods, beings from outside Creation entirely. Sure, the Mad Gods look like appalling transgressions of fleshcrafted nightmare and what they do to their mortal worshipers is no less pleasant, but in a well-built prison of the mind, wouldn’t it be sensible to turn the imprisoned’s very senses against them?

With such a decisive command of the laws behind the universe, particularly any number of angels and other spirits, it doesn’t take too much to start wondering just how in charge the Rosicrucians really are — and whom they truly serve.

Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum

Originally published in 1652, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum was a monster of a book that collected alchemical works from the likes of John Dee, Edward Kelley and Elias Ashmole. Now it’s to be reprinted by Ouroboros Press in a corrected edition based off the original errata sheets.[1]

It looks to be full of neat content good for waving around as an alchemist’s handbook or wizard’s grimoire. As a “stout octavo” edition, I can only hope it’s as good for the party’s occult expert or resident potion-stirrer thwacking a nincompoop about the cranium as putting out small fires.

[1] Tying it to role-playing games in an unexpected way.

The Lance of Longinus

While on Red Ice Radio a couple years ago, Jerry E. Smith presented an interesting idea for the power behind the Lance of Longinus, the storied weapon that pierced the side of Jesus while he was crucified. Rather than having exceptional properties bestowed by God or another non-human agency — though Jerry also related some of the lore that claimed the lance had a pretty interesting past before it entered the hands of Longinus — Jerry suggested that the spear became a receptacle for humanity’s thoughts and dreams. As the stories around the lance grew, so did its powers.

In particular, the story of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion stood out for me. As Smith related it, Maurice’s all-Christian legion refused to obey the Roman emperor Maximian’s orders, as they would contravene the legionares’ Christian values. They suffered multiple rounds of decimation — killing one man in ten — before the surviving members of the legion were all executed. By Smith’s theory, this act of martyrdom further empowered the Lance of Longinus, which already had an affinity for Christianity by serving a role in the crucifixion.

After the martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion, the lance’s became a boulder of sacrifice and duty-sympathetic mystic might rolling downhill. When Constantine later acquired the Spear of Destiny, he took a pro-Christian position, later converting himself. This seeming property of the spear puts a slight spin on Hitler’s acquisition of the Hofburg spear during World War II. Maybe it was part of an overall delusion that his cause was just and right, or maybe he was playing keepaway, denying a resource from enemies who could make better use of it by securing it in a facility designed to dampen and negate its mind-changing abilities.

You can read more about Jerry Smith’s book on the subject, Secrets of the Holy Lance: The Spear of Destiny in History & Legend, and then order it from Adventures Unlimited Press.

[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] The Unexplained

I’ve awaited The Unexplained for years now, since I first heard about it at OGC in 2006. Back then, Brad Younie called it Strange World. He pitched it as a paranormal investigation game, for running games along the lines of television shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State. This past February, I had the chance to not only play two Unexplained adventures run by Brad, but pick up my own copy of the book at TotalCon.

My primary interest in The Unexplained was as a go-to source for paranormal phenomena and their packaging for use in role-playing games. Powered as it is by FUDGE, I knew it would be easy to ignore the mechanical material while harvesting the ideas and information for use in my own campaigns and adventures. Paranormal investigation is something I’ve followed for a while, mostly in the form of podcasts like The Paracast and EERIE Radio, so the idea of a one-stop shop for role-play ready material really appealed to me. I was also interested in what ways The Unexplained would recommend running paranormal investigation games, as one of the hallmarks of the field in real life is the ever-hanging question of whether or not there’s any validity to the phenomena people experience.

Continue reading

Weird Wars: The Troll Under the Bridge

A couple weeks back, I made the trek down to Rutland for a friend’s Weird Wars one-shot. While not my first foray into “historical event plus supernatural or otherwise bizarre oddities” — perhaps the most notable being Crashing a Conference at Wewelsburg at TotalCon in February — this was my first outing with Savage Worlds, which, quite frankly, I was not psyched about. Savage Worlds is one of those systems for which some people really drink the Kool-Aid, particularly over at RPG.net: “Bloo bloo bloo, fast, furious and fun, bloo bloo bloo.” I found it difficult to believe any generic, multipurpose system could be so amazingly better than any other without a heaping helping of personal taste to shift the bias — and still do. Having now gotten two play sessions under my belt, I’ve got no complaints about Savage Worlds, but I don’t buy it’s so exceptionally better or faster than any other generic system of comparable complexity, a la Unisystem.

The set up for game cast the players as the only members of an airborne infantry platoon that actually landed where they meant to after parachuting into occupied France in World War II. At first, there was much fun with missing leg bags, questions over which of the available characters we’d chosen had useful items, like a map or a compass, and the timely arrival of a German patrol. The GM’s love for Band of Brothers really shone through here.

It was a very light, off the cuff evening, with forays into the extreme silliness that role-playing games engender so well. After seeing Nazis snarfled by a troll living under the village bridge, we got the low-down on the story from Madame d’Exposition, elderly keeper of tidbits useful to motley gaggles of itinerant adventurers: troll wakes up periodically; troll peckish for goats; once troll gets goats, it goes back into hibernation. A quick trip out to a local farm yielded the two worst goats twenty American dollars can buy in wartorn France: Herve and Rupaul. They sated the troll, but not before we got in some more Nazi-bashing. My mechanical engineer from Brooklyn got a solid eight to his body count, mainly by playing Bowling for Nazis with grenades. Simple and very straightforward, but immensely entertaining along the way, thanks to everyone having a good sense of humor about them.

I’ll leave you with a bon mot that came up in play as the bruiser of the group attempted to drag two goats to their resting place in the troll’s digestive tract: “Caber tossing‘s for pussies. They don’t kick!”

Adventuring Adventurers of Adventure

I didn’t think this GURPS Cabal adventure would capture my imagination like it did. I got in two and a half good hours of writing last night at Muddy Waters, scribbling down initial thoughts and setting details. That flip through the book last week not only refreshed my memory, but somehow got my brain willing to play with the Cabal setting in a way it didn’t want to back in the summer of . . . 2006?

Conversely, I’m having a harder time thinking about the Ghostbusters adventure. I thought I had a solid premise that tied in nicely with this year’s theme at Carnage, but either I’m not feeling it, or my brain’s just more interested in Cabal at the moment. And I can’t fault it; doing something substantive with Cabal has been a goal since I swiped a character or two for Mage: The Suppressed Transmission. I think I need to take a similar dive into the source material for Ghostbusters. Not the movie; I’ve got that memorized. I’m talking about the original box set from West End Games. They got something very, very right with that game and its presentation. Always go back to the source when you need rejuvenation.

Speaking of going back to the source, I pulled the chocks out from my notion of running an old school dungeon crawl for International Traditional Gaming Week. I have four interested players, a system by the name of Labyrinth Lord and the castle of a certain mad archmage. This should be good.

Reading Labyrinth Lord is weird, though. I came to role-playing games post-third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The differences between that version of the game and the one Labyrinth Lord emulates are staggering. Ten minute turns when poking around the dungeon? Random encounters being built in to the GM’s plans? And the old chestnut of races as classes? What madness is this?

[TotalCon 2010] The Unexplained: Spirits Among the Ruins

This, regrettably, is where Saturday unraveled for me. Back when I preregistered, I hadn’t considered the effect of scheduling three investigation-heavy role-playing games in a row. It got rather tedious to go through the steps of investigation three games in a row. Considering the last two adventures had been rather inconclusive, I was subconsciously looking forward to something more concrete and action-oriented. I’ll know better next time I’m planning my convention playing schedule.

I thought Spirits Among the Ruins was going to be my favorite of the weekend, too. The premise centered on a mysterious, possibly pre-Columbian lithic site in New Hampshire. I’ve always had a thing for Stonehenge and other mysterious arrangements of rocks for uncertain purposes. So I loved the idea of an ancient astronomical observatory with its very own set of ghostly presences.

Continue reading

Are You Ready to Join the Cabal?

Before tonight, I thought one of GURPS Cabal‘s biggest drawbacks, to a person like myself, who likes to run games in locales he knows personally — namely, New England and northern America — was its entirely understandable Eurocentrism. Given the Cabal allegedly grew out of pharaonic Egypt and the setting itself was devised as a roiling pot of the major monsters and horror tropes of today, which also descend from European and Near Eastern sources, that kind of focus can’t really be avoided. Emphasizing the focus, in fact, is, or was, because that’s what Kenneth Hite did, the right thing to do.

But it did leave me feeling intimidated for a long time, lacking the deep knowledge of history and occultism that Cabal exudes. A Tuesday night brainstorming session at the coffee shop, though, produced a list of potential settings in which to run for Carnage. Given this year’s horror theme, Cabal made the list, but as an afterthought. I didn’t think I’d be any more confident about running something there than before.

However, I just took a flip through the book for the first time in quite a while. The historical references are as dizzying and dismaying as ever — saying more about my own education than anything else, I think — but I did find one plot seed reassuring in its proximity to home: Martense College,1 one of the Cabal’s “black schools,” calls upstate New York home.2 A hundred miles or two to the north and east would put it right in my stomping grounds. Picture it: a small, prestigious liberal arts college about forty-five minutes south of Burlington harbors power-mad faculty, would-be wizards and the heirs to the world’s magically-derived fortunes.

I can see the game as a clash of cultures: the refined Hermetic theory of the Cabal versus rough and rural mysticism, the kind that gave rise to Lavinia Whately’s bastard son. Plus, stone chambers leading to Faerie and crashed reptoid astronauts protecting the last of their nursemaids fit right into the Cabal’s lunatic cosmology.

1 A reference to the Martense family, I bet.

2 Where “upstate” refers to any point north of New York City.