Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Actual Play: Fate Core (Highway to Hell)

I've been running a Fate campaign about monster-hunting bikers for a year or two now. We started with the Dresden Files RPG, then converted over to Fate Core when that Kickstarter took off. This was our 15th session, and effectively a season 2 finale.

A bit of background: I use the Dresden Files bestiary in most respects, but politically the supernatural world is more like the TV show Supernatural, with small nests or cells of monsters instead of secret nations like in Dresden (although there is room for some government conspiracy).

In this session, our heroes start to use and then completely ignore John Rogers' excellent Crimeworld supplement from the Fate Core Worlds in Shadow book, we bring in every character any player has played in the campaign, and I kill a PC.
Pretty much.

The "serious business" name for the campaign is "Highway to Hell", but my group just calls it Dresdenatural.  Here we go.

Session 15 - The Windy City (Season Finale)

Reward: Phat Lewt (and lots of it!)
Who was there?
Scott Specter, "Mean Motherfucking Servant of God".
Carter Mews, "Arcane Acquisitions Expert".
Clayton Haycock James, "Marine Recon Biker".
Ajaz Gurt, "Relentless Nephilite".
Rick Eagle, "Avenging Roadie".



THE ROAD SO FAR

Last time, the gang captured Magog’s denarius and acquired up-to-date intel on their nemesis, the denarian Pantagruel, and the corporate offices of Crowley-Lampkin he was currently using as his base of operations. It was time to put down the demon and rip off his vault full of magical artifacts. The only snag was that the gang had Magog’s denarius in hand. I set up this session to open with a hard choice - do they take the time to properly secure the denarius but potentially lose their intelligence advantage against the vault’s defenses, or do they go straight to Chicago but carry the cursed coin with them?

As it turns out, Bill Stockburn’s player canceled at the last minute. It was disappointing, as Bill used to be host to Pantagruel and I really wanted him there to face down his nemesis, but you play the hand you’re dealt. I decided that the group entrusted the denarius’ removal to Bill, allowing them to hit Crowley-Lampkin immediately without the temptation of a fallen angel hovering over them.

The All or Nothing Box

The gang planned the heist / assassination in their usual spot - a threadbare room at the Hacienda Courts motel chain outside Chicago. They were calling all their contacts, cashing in all their favors, and holding nothing back. Going in with nothing less than their full resources would be foolhardy.

Luckily, we had a new player! Rick Eagle was a roadie for a metal band that was slaughtered by a demon. As the most likely suspect, Rick Eagle (SCREECH!) traded his old life for vengeance and righteous monster-slaying mayhem, teaming up with Scott and Clay to take down his band’s killer. Rick didn’t bring a lot of occult experience to the gang (“Has the Will But Not the Skill”), but as a roadie, he was an expert pyrotechnician and all around handyman.

Someone knocked at the door. Jimmy Pale Wolf stood there, six-packs in both hands. This was my replacement for our normal round of Create Advantage rolls - every player character we ever had or any suitable NPC contact on friendly terms could be called in to help on the job. A few of the help would be compels due to reliability issues, and all of them would require a cut of the take. That said, however, each contact or favor called in could cover parts of the heist that would be time-consuming or boring to have a PC handle.

Little by little, the motel room started to get pretty crowded:
  • Jimmy Pale Wolf, “Shaman Vigilante”. Jimmy’s player was an intermittent attendee but our schedules were such that he only ever played Jimmy once, back in the second session.
  • Kathryn Bryant, “Hot Slice of P.I.”. Kathryn’s player was at college, but Kathryn had been a valuable member of the gang, and more recently, possessed Bonney’s Bane, a magic bullet that made her immune to gunfire.
  • Joseph “Josey” Wales, “High Plains Drifter”. Carter’s player, Scott’s player, and I visited our friend in Austin, and I ran a session for those three guys. Josey was our Austinite friend’s character, a shooter somewhere between Michael Biehn in Tombstone and Norman Reedus in the Walking Dead.
  • Lucy Collins showed up next, and the “Goth Witch Antichrist” was the first helper for whom I offered compels. This wasn’t because of Lucy herself - Lucy was more or less a team player, in the same way Wolverine is a team player when he’s with the X-Men. No, the compel was for Bad Car, the evil black Charger Lucy half-stole, half-created from their run-in with some backwoods hillbilly orks.
Next up were a few NPC contacts:
  • Carter tracked down Warfield and got in touch with the former Crowley-Lampkin thug. The gang helped Warfield escape from a corrupt SWAT team back in Vegas in return for him cluing them in on Houdini’s Key, which they swiped from under Pantagruel’s nose in Austin. Warfield was down with giving his former employers a black eye.
  • Finally, Clay called up the Scooby Gang, a group of junior monster hunters who had encountered the PCs in Kansas City and again in Louisiana - Fred Bundy, Sonny Falco, and their pet Black Shuck. This was another opportunity for compels, as Fred and Sonny were only borderline competent, but they did have a van. Vans are great for carrying lots of stuff, such as the contents of magical vaults.
Next, we went over what the PCs actually knew about Crowley-Lampkin’s security, the vault contents, and Pantagruel. I had written up the loot on 3x5 index cards and placed them picture-side-up in front of everyone. Carter took point on the Overcome roll, aided by a few created advantages or boosts. They decided to use Jimmy Pale Wolf’s’ occult knowledge here as well, and were able to identify roughly a third to half of the items. The gang figured they wouldn’t be able to bring all of the artifacts with them. There was a rowboat and a guillotine, for example. Furthermore, they didn’t want some of the items left in anyone’s hands. The plastic candy bowl, for example, or the Shroud of Lazarus. Rick Eagle could handle demolitions work, claiming it was easier than pyrotechnics. When you did pyro for rock shows, you didn’t want to actually blow anything up.

I Don’t Think This is a Brains Kind of Operation

The players entered their planning stage. We were all pretty gun-shy when it came to planning in RPGs after some real time-wasters, so the group was fairly efficient at tossing out overcomplicated but safe plans, focusing on plans that were simple, loud, and dumb.

They decided to split the party.

Kathryn and Warfield would handle Crowley-Lampkin’s lobby and any initial security response from inside the building, then Warfield would move outside to assist Lucy and Bad Car with the frightfully entertaining but dangerous task of holding off the inevitable police response. Clay, Scott, and Ajaz would head up the executive elevator, lock it down, and try to kill Pantagruel in his office. Josey would be in position on a neighboring building with a .50 caliber rifle, covering the windows in case Pantagruel attempted to simply break through the glass and fly away. As a secondary role, Josey would keep police helicopters out of the area.

That left Carter and Rick Eagle to hit the 13th floor where the vault was. Because Crowley-Lampkin had a team on site to research the growing number of artifacts, the vault was open during daytime hours. A few human guards, a very sophisticated cloud-based video surveillance system, and a few magical traps protected the treasure. Stealth wasn’t really on the table, so Rick decided he could bring a few barrels of explosives up with them to destroy any magical items they couldn’t take with them or decided were a threat.

Finally, the Scooby Gang would be waiting in their van, ready to transport the loot to a safe location. The PCs didn’t really trust them with anything else, and there would be gang members in the van during the escape, to make sure Fred and Sonny didn’t doublecross them.

A Plan is Just a List of Things That Don’t Happen

The plan relied on speed and violence, which are two areas the gang excelled at. Additionally, I didn’t want to compel too much at this point, because it was honestly a pretty good plan, and took the group’s weaknesses into account as much as their strengths. Besides, I like heists, and why would I want to stomp all over this one right as it started? So the gang took the lobby and split up like clockwork. There was no attempt at stealth, so Pantagruel and his top henchmen were immediately alerted. The denarian immediately started gathering magical power (Creating Advantages for the inevitable throwdown or potential escape) and started packing a large duffel with books and a laptop and some other files. The PCs hadn’t even made it to his floor yet and Pantagruel, thanks to his “Starscream Syndrome” aspect, already had one foot out the door.

When the elevator door opened onto Pantagruel’s library and office floor, two men bull-rushed their way into the car! Mr. Rosdower and Mr. Troy were Pantagruel’s youngest but most combat-capable henchmen, and they turned the elevator car into a mess of elbows and headbutts. Unfortunately, they got the elevator car carrying Clayton Haycock James, and Clayton Haycock James wasn’t fazed by elbows. Scott locked down the elevator once Clay got the two assailants out into the library floor. It was a close match until Clay and Ajaz managed to land some consequences, then the free invocations turned the tables against Rosdower and Troy. The PCs left the henchmen unconscious and battered but breathing and went to corner Pantagruel.

Upstairs, Carter and Rick Eagle opened their elevator doors onto a pair of security guards who clearly weren’t expecting two bikers hiding behind a hand-cart full of explosives. The presence of the pyrotechnics made the guards hesitate long enough for Rick and Carter to bum rush them and, despite some surprisingly good rolls on the unnamed minions’ part, knock them the hell out. The thief and the roadie figured the vault itself would have protection as well, so Carter climbed up into the ventilation shafts while Rick rolled the explosives down the corridor towards the vault. As part of his reaction to heavily-armed monster hunters blowing through his corporate headquarters, Pantagruel sat his most experienced henchman on the vault. Mr. Ransom should have been accompanied by Mr. Bale, but since the PCs had locked down both elevators, Bale was relegated to using the stairs and wouldn’t arrive for a while. That left Ransom on his own, who noticed Carter sneaking through the vents. A brief but furious firefight ensued, with Carter falling out of the ceiling and Rick once again using explosives as cover, but I compelled everyone to run out of ammo. The gunfight turned into a fistfight, which turned into an odd sort of standoff with everyone kind of sitting down, exhausted, and thinking real hard about the life choices they had made that got them into this whole mess. Rick Eagle broke up the quasi-professional moment of understanding between Carter and Ransom by knocking Ransom out. Carter and Rick high-fived and Carter got to work cracking the vault door.

D.A.R.E. To Keep Kids Off Denarii

One level below the fracas at the vault, Clay, Scott, and Ajaz were prowling through Pantagruel/Alex Abel’s library. Step one: force Pantagruel to take his denarian form by setting off the fire suppression system. They had thought ahead and were all wearing firefighter-style SCBA masks, because any fire suppression system meant to work in a library would probably work by smothering the oxygen, not spraying water everywhere, and a lack of oxygen would more than likely flush the demon out.

Sure enough, the hunters heard Josey Wales’ radio chatter confirming Pantagruel about to burst through his office windows and escape. Several .50 caliber rifle rounds tore through the library level a moment later, narrowly missing our heroes but forcing Pantagruel back inside and right into their path. The denarian unloaded a terrifying lightning blast powered by his stored advantages, dealing Severe consequences to Scott and Ajaz but only a Mild to Clay - between dumb luck, some fate points, and some well-chosen stunts, Clay fought through the sizzling energy and buried a trinitite shiv in Pantagruel’s belly. After his alpha strike, the demonic librarian was on the ropes against the party’s three close combat experts. They traded hits but Pantagruel was taking on consequences like the Titantic took on water. Ajaz was a “Relentless Nephilite”, Scott was a “Mean Motherfucking Servant of God”, and Clay “Fights Like an Engine”. There was no way they would let Pantagruel live, but… Scott was also “Driven By Redemption”. He might let Alex Abel go, if the CEO gave up Pantagruel’s coin.

Pantagruel’s feathers sloughed off and he shifted back into a battered and limping human. The denarius bounced along the floor and rolled right at Ajaz. I miscalculated here - I knew Scott wouldn’t pick it up and Clay was too paranoid, so I figured Ajaz would be the weakest link, but I forgot what he was good at. Ajaz wasn’t bad in a fight, but he had willpower out the ass and even had a special stunt, “Defiance”, that gave him a +2 against supernatural coercion and fear. He was the perfect party member to pick up the coin. Also, he never really touched it, since he always wore fireproof gloves when handling his flaming whip. Score one for the good guys!

We essentially negotiated Alex Abel’s concession from combat. He was losing his company and his denarius, and was crossing over into the Nevernever courtesy of the one magic item they let him keep - ruby slippers. The fact that the area around Crowley-Lampkin’s vault connected with the Nevernever via an insanely dangerous ur-dungeon colloquially known as Undermountain was not lost on the players. Abel was trading certain death by monster hunter for an uncertain but very likely death on the other side, and the PCs were okay with that.

Kill Things and Take Their Stuff

Outside, Kathryn, Lucy, and Warfield were up to a three or four GTA wanted level. The gang didn’t have much time before their hired help would have to bail. Scott, Clay, and Ajaz met up with Carter and Rick in the vault, and I revealed all the artifacts I had prepared for the session - including the final intrusion countermeasure. Hydra’s teeth, planted in the tasteful interior landscaping around the vault and adjacent office space, erupted out into giggling, gibbering skeleton warriors!
Why are skeletons always the most jovial of the undead? I blame Army of Darkness.
I treated the onrushing skeletal horde as a round-by-round Overcome action against an ongoing difficulty of 2. Characters could choose to attack the horde (destroying a skeleton on a success and two with success with style), defend another character (destroying 1 skeleton on a success with style but otherwise stopping harm from coming to someone else regardless), or take another action (like help Carter crack the vault, set the explosive charges, load up loot, or create advantages to help the heavy hitters take down the horde). Failure typically meant taking stress equal to the margin of failure. Mechanically, this worked really great, and I’d totally use it again for a Challenge-type situation with a little more bite to it than a simple set of three rolls, but where a conflict against mooks wouldn’t call for fully-opposed rolls. The gang also protected Mr. Ransom from the skeletons, earning the now-former henchman’s professional respect. They’d part without animosity, even if they wouldn’t be exchanging Christmas cards.
Rick Eagle does good work.

With Rick Eagle’s explosives in place and the desirable artifacts packed up, the gang headed back to the elevators and down to the Scooby Gang’s van. The NPCs running police interference scattered as Josie Wales covered their escape from his rooftop, then the Texan gunslinger used a wingsuit of all things to glide to safety. The gang divided up the take in the back of the van, got back to their bikes, and scattered. They would meet back up later after the heat died down, which gave me the perfect window of opportunity to kill Carter Mews.

Get Carter

A bit of backstory for the overly dramatic previous sentence: Carter’s player had been thinking about a new character for a while, and we had talked it over together. This session was a great breakpoint to switch characters - Alex Abel and Crowley-Lampkin were primarily Carter’s nemeses and they were now going to be relegated to background threats after the thrashing they just received.

Carter split off from the gang to secure his take at one of his Chicago safe houses. He had just about finished when he heard the light scratch of slippers on concrete behind him. Alex Abel stepped out of the shadows, gun in hand and worse for wear, ruby slippers twinkling on his feet. The former CEO knew Carter’s old safe houses and made it out of the Nevernever just in time for a brief monologue and some murder.

Carter spun, his own pistol raised, and both men shot each other. As Abel lay dead beside him, Carter felt his spirit slipping away, pulled from his body by supernatural forces. Carter woke up in a noose with an angry sunset blazing behind him. He was trapped inside the painting he had stolen from Nick Van Owen’s house in session 12! The eldritch artwork acted like a phylactery, trapping the soul of the owner should that person die. Carter’s meager thanks (after all, he WAS still in a noose) was cut short as a spectral centaur flickered into unlife before the gallows. The creature’s face was covered by a luchador mask, and ribbons festooned his biceps in the style of the Ultimate Warrior. This was a compel I’d been waiting to drop ever since Carter stole the gold from some centaurs in Hades, preventing them from crossing the River Styx. He had subsequently paid off all but one during a battle with some backwoods orks. This last luchador ghost centaur had refused Carter’s payment, opting for the slow burn of vengeance instead of paradise.

His quarry was a ghost now, same as him, and trapped in a gallows to boot. Justice would be served.
Use your imagination for the horse half. You're welcome.

Season Finale

Well, that’s pretty much it. We actually played this session 3 months ago, and the recap was compiled over several weeks as my memory got hazier. Ajaz Gurt’s currently the keeper (but not wielder) of Pantagruel’s coin. Crowley-Lampkin is in the wind, its supernatural collection destroyed or stolen, and its mundane dealings under intense federal scrutiny following the discovery of a dead CEO in a storage unit outside Chicago next to a notorious thief. Although the gang gave away a lot of the stolen items to their allies as part of their take, their collective power level’s jumped up thanks to the artifacts they decided to keep. Project BLACKBOX will be hunting the PCs more seriously now, since Crowley-Lampkin and BLACKBOX had several backdoor government contracts in place. The Denarians are still a threat as well - perhaps a greater one than ever, since the gang took out two of their number within a few days. Ajaz Gurt learned of an ancient conspiracy seeking the destruction of all nephilim - they killed his parents, and will no doubt come for him in due time. Finally, Carter’s player’s new character brings new enemies to the table as well.