Wednesday, August 27, 2014

[Actual Play Report] Fate Core: Everybody Hates Fairies

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 17th session following a brief previous game that was cut short due to snow.

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 make up their own clues, do some gardening, and crash a party.

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

Who Was There?

Ajaz Gurt, "Relentless Nephilite"

Tom Talloman, "Modern-Day Quixotic Knight"

Rick Eagle, "Avenging Roadie"
Reward: 1 Skill Point. All three PCs were either newer players or new characters, so it was nice to hand out a reward that would bridge the small gap between them and the established PCs.

NOW

Rusty Cross, PA - The crow glanced up from its perch on the dead dog in the middle of the road as the bikers roared through the fog-shrouded hills of western Pennsylvania. They had ably dodged the police for this session (my usual Overcome roll depending on what shenanigans they got up to last session) and were headed to a dying steel town, Rusty Cross, investigating the serial disappearance of several children that had stumped local authorities. One of the disappearances had a double murder linked to it, so the guys started at the Starlite trailer park on the outskirts of town.

Jinkies, It’s a Clue!

I had come up with a vague idea about the supernatural shenanigans for this session on the drive up to gaming, but I didn’t have enough solid clues or motives to fuel a full-on investigative scene. When that happens, make the players do the work! I gave them the freebie clues - the rough description of the missing boy, Dennis Brooks, age 6, and that both his parents were dead. The guys rolled some checks and I ruled that they could tell me a truth about the scene for every success they got, with success with style counting for another clue. They rolled well enough for three clues between them:

  • Dennis’ trailer was the closest to the school bus stop. I have to admit, I wasn’t able to really work this into the story, but it turned out okay because the other two clues wove a pretty neat tale.
  • The trailer was in excellent repair, especially compared to its neighbors. The grass was a little greener, the trailer didn’t have any rust on it, the windows were clean, and so on.
  • There was a distinctive rose bush growing outside the boy’s window. This was initially a weird clue, but the supernatural mechanics of what was going on all stemmed (ahem) from this clue. The rose bush clue really blossomed (ahem) into a unique hook. It planted the seeds of… something or other. Plant puns!

After some mundane and occult investigation, the PCs determined that the missing boy’s parents were likely killed defending their child. They also found traces of blood on a particularly lush rose bush outside the kid’s window. I don’t remember the exact steps they took here, but Tom figured out somehow that the bush acted like an anchor or waypoint between the mortal realm and the Nevernever, the spirit world. The bush had an exact counterpart in the Nevernever, and so portals and abilities that allowed passage from one realm to the next could use the bush as a consistent point of reference.

At this point, Tom suspected that fairies were involved. They had something going around that stole children and had some sort of link to the Nevernever. There was the blood on the rose bush, which made Tom think there was some sort of bargain involved. The clincher came when they looked up the intervals between each disappearance - three days - and then checked the ages of the kids - 3, 6, and 9. Fairies love threes, plus it put a time limit on their investigation: the last disappearance happened 2 days ago. The gang decided to cruise by the homes of the other missing children and see if they had rose bushes too.

In Which Rick’s Shady Past Inadvertently Discovers the Next Victim

The next place the guys hit was the home of Melissa Washington (age 3), a rowhouse on Rusty Cross’ south side. Sure enough, there was a rose bush in the front yard and the home was just a little bit better, a little bit cleaner, than the other homes on the street. Nobody was home, however, and there was enough traffic that the bikers didn’t want to try their hand at B&E. This was a first, actually - when Carter had been with the group, B&E was typically their first resort.

Rick took the lead and while he didn’t find out anything else about the Washington abduction, he did stumble upon a potential fourth victim, assuming the kidnapper wasn’t stopping at just three*. Lefty the friendly neighborhood pot dealer had a 12-year old boy. They decided to stake out his place that night after checking out the home of the 9-year old, Brenda Mitchell.

*The “fourth victim” thing was a little metagamey, because the three kids, each 3 years older than the last, and taken three days apart thing? I wanted that nice and obvious. Having only 2 kids go missing isn’t enough of a signal that something weird’s going on. Plus, I wanted the deadline of another potential victim to drive the PCs to action and potentially stop the abduction. Finally, I was making this up as I went. Breaking the pretty little formula in favor of more action and more tension was an easy decision.

My Dad Totally Owns a Dealership

The Mitchell household was a single-family home in the nicer part of Rusty Cross, for a relative value of “nice”. There was a minivan parked next to a pristine BMW in the driveway, and sure enough, there was a little side garden with a flourishing rose bush.

Tom knocked on the door and Mrs. Mitchell, a plump woman who wasn’t wearing the stress of her daughter’s abduction well, answered the door. That’s when Tom noticed the telltale signs of recent abuse on Mitchell and accepted the compel on “Modern-Day Quixotic Knight” to barge in and confront Mr. Mitchell. Tom grabbed up a bench from the foyer and broke it over the husband’s face. The circumstances of the compel were such that Mrs. Mitchell would try to call the police (averted by Ajaz and Rick), then the difficulty to get useful information from her would be higher. They still found out enough to piece together the general situation:

  • The rose bushes were symbols of some sort of vague contract or bargain for the usual “health, wealth, and happiness” stuff. The Mitchells received the bush from Mr. Mitchell’s mother as a wedding gift, and Mrs. Mitchell took care of the plant, which included watering it with just a little human blood every week or so. Yes, it was weird, but it seemed to work, so Mitchell kept performing the ritual upkeep and her family appeared to be prospering.
  • Mr. Mitchell started abusing his wife soon after Brenda went missing, and the group surmised that he was probably abusing Brenda prior to her abduction. There was no sign of a struggle, and so the gang’s working theory was that Brenda went willingly.
  • From this and the other clues, the hunters guessed that whatever was making the bargains seemed to be trying to “fix” things. Abducting Brenda out of an abusive situation, for example. They could only guess at Dennis Brooks’ plight, however, since his parents were dead, but dropping by Lefty’s house seemed more important than ever, since the monster probably wouldn’t approve of a kid living in a drug dealer’s house.


Every Rose Has Its Thorn

It was two minutes to midnight (ahem) when the three bikers tore into Lefty’s neighborhood. Every one of them had a great aspect to compel for rushing into action, so they just barreled through the front door. Ajaz made it up the stairs before Ma Lefty was able to bring her shotgun to bear (sometimes drug dealer wives are prepared for people to come busting into their homes in the middle of the night). Tom and Rick skidded to a halt and tried to talk their way out of some 12 gauge enemas while Ajaz was left on his own, upstairs, against an honest-to-goodness fairy prince.

The nephilite just kept on running. He tackled the fairy through the second-floor window and wound up on top as they slammed into the tall grass and weeds that made up Lefty’s backyard. Meanwhile, Tom and Rick managed to convince Lefty’s wife that her son was in danger (but not from them) and the weathered housewife tried her best to keep up with the two bikers as they smashed her back door off its hinges in their haste to get outside.

The fairy prince monologued. It said it was Mandoag, Prince of Roanoke and Knight of the Summer People, and that it was rescuing children in accordance with pacts laid down long ago. Ajaz’s player asked if they could just destroy the rose bush - Tom (with a Lore success) said only the people who lived there could break the deal in such a fashion. Prince Manchego was all too happy to elaborate on his recent activities. Dennis Brooks lived in (from the fairy’s point of view) squalor; the prince took him to the Summer People, who would see his every request fulfilled and given every opportunity he was denied in the mortal world. Brenda Mitchell was beaten by her father; now she was in a safe place. She wished to be taken away from her old life. Lefty’s son Sam lived among vice and ruination; it was only a matter of time before he fell victim to the system that would no doubt claim his parents.

This proved to be an interesting little dilemma for the players. Ajaz’s player loves Doctor Who and Torchwood, and apparently there was an episode where a very similar situation occurred where it was actually better for the kids to stay with the fairies. Plus, I’m using a fairly Dresden-verse interpretation of the fae, even if I’m not strictly using the Courts like they’re laid out. Fairies don’t lie - Prince Mandoag certainly thought he was doing right by the children. On the other hand, I have explicitly stated that I do not run good monsters. It is part of my social contract, as it were, and it wasn’t too hard to see how the prince’s intentions would break down if the children were left in the fairy realm for an extended period of time. All those myths about fairy food being bad for you, the fickleness of the fae, the variable nature of the Nevernever, it all spelled trouble for those kids. Finally, he took them from their parents. Good or bad, it wasn’t his place to do that.

Tom raised his sword. Mandoag challenged him to a duel to settle things right then and there, but Tom didn’t bite (he refused a compel on his chivalrous nature). It was too bad, because Mandoag had a pretty sweet stunt to get +2 Fighting when using his sword in single combat. With his situational bonus denied, Mandoag launched into a series of hit-and-run attacks, slicing open portals between worlds with his sword and attacking with an ornate tomahawk from unexpected directions. He was a fairly tough cookie until Ajaz ripped his sword from his grasp, and with a success with style, caught the blade with a flourish. Mandingo screamed in rage and focused on Ajaz, but he and Tom had bought enough time for Rick and Ma Lefty to get some shovels and destroy the rose bush. Wounded and disarmed, Prince Mandoag fled on foot, crashing through kiddie pools and through swingsets in a desperate attempt to get away. The PCs let him go; they had his sword, and they could use its worldwalking properties to cut open a portal to the fairy realm and get the children home.

I Like Big Balls

The hunters prepared ritual components for the trip into Fairie and (most importantly) the trip out, because they couldn’t count on having the prince’s sword. It was clearly valuable to the fairy, and might be a useful bargaining chip to get the kids away from the Summer People. They also did a little timeline math and figured that the youngest kid, Melissa, would have been subsisting on fairy food alone for over a week. She and Dennis would need immediate medical attention once they got back to the real world, so they planned out a landing spot close to Rusty Cross’ hospital for their return trip.

Ajaz slashed open reality and the three bikers stepped into a palace made of trees. Trunks arched like cathedral ceilings overhead and warm sunlight filtered down through dappled leaves. Behind them stood a rose garden with more than a dozen of the ritual bushes. Before them was an entryway into a fairy ball. Dancers whirled with inhuman grace and beauty, lovely smells wafted all around, yadda yadda yadda. They all made their will saves - where were the kids?

Brenda was dancing, caught up in the mad rush of movement. Dennis was scarfing down an impressive amount of ice cream at a long table cultivated from some sort of hedge. Finally, Melissa was happily sitting on the lap of a barely-dressed fairy princess with more than a little familial resemblance to their good friend Prince Manchester. Speaking of Prince Manny, he was approaching the trio of bikers with a complement of fairy guards behind him. This time the PCs opened with a simple deal: trade Mandoag’s sword and the chance to best Ajaz in a duel (since he was the one who had stolen the sword in the prior encounter) for the children and safe passage from the Summer People. I counted this as a compel on Mandoag - the deal wasn’t up to the fae’s usual standards of doublespeak and trickery, but he wanted his ancestral blade back and he wanted payback for being made a fool by mortals. Mandoag and Ajaz squared off on the ballroom floor, surrounded by the still-reveling fairies. Tom stood close by, ready to help any way he could, while Rick headed off into the crowd to convince the kids to come home.

Caught In a Mosh

I offered Ajaz’s player a choice inspired by Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy: Ajaz and Mandoag could fight unarmed (no way), with their own weapons (good for both of them, as they each had stunts with their signature gear), or they could fight with each other’s weapons (about as bad as fighting unarmed but with more damage). Ajaz gave the prince’s sword back to him and readied his flaming chain whip and the Glaive from Krull that he had taken from Pantagruel’s vault in a previous adventure. Mandoag started off strong - with his stunt for fighting with his sword in single combat in effect, he was rolling an effective Fight of +6. Ajaz had +2 to Create Advantage with his whip, however, and was able to disarm Mandoag’s sword - again. Tom tried to assist by Creating Advantages from the sidelines, creating a small but vocal group of fairy sympathizers who apparently weren’t fond of their prince, then shifting the crowd this way and that to help Ajaz out. It skirted the bounds of the duel but it wasn’t anything a fairy wouldn’t have done.

I was really pleased with the duel. Because Mandoag was extremely dangerous but only while he had his sword, it created more tactical choices for Ajaz instead of just throwing himself on a superior foe and burning fate points. Each combatant managed to disarm each other, and I believe Ajaz ended up unarmed against Mandoag wielding the nephilite’s own whip against him for a few rounds, but with Tom’s help from the sidelines Ajaz held Manchego at bay. Finally he got his whip back and the tide turned against the prince. Ajaz used the Glaive to cripple Mandoag’s arm and then he wrapped his flaming chain whip around the fairy’s neck.

Meanwhile, Rick introduced moshing to the fairy ball. His adventure in babysitting was basically a string of compels on his aspect “Collateral Damage, Inc.” He would spend his fate points to convince the kids to leave with him as soon as he got them from bungling things with the surrounding fairies. By the end of it, he’d gotten Brenda and Melissa on his side and was working on Dennis, but Mandoag’s sister, Princess Ilsin, was laid out after an inopportune foray into the mosh pit. There was food everywhere from when Rick had been thrown out of said mosh pit and landed on the buffet table… hedgerow… whatever. Half the fairies wanted to keep Rick there forever because they thought he was awesome, while half of them wanted to kill him.

He Sure Did

(Rick approaches Dennis, who wants to stay in Fairie and do whatever he wants)

  • Dennis: “What do you want?”
  • Rick: “I’m here to take you home.” (Notices Dennis’ WWE shirt) “You like wrestling? You know they don’t have wrestling here, right? Or TV at all.”
  • Dennis: (Looks concerned) “Yeah, I like wrestling. My dad really likes it too.”
  • Rick: “He sure did.”


Bust a Deal, Face the Wheel

Prince Mandoag, barely conscious, bleeding badly, and with terrible neck and facial burns, conceded the duel. It was at this point I noticed Ajaz was out of fate points. He was a “Relentless Nephilite”, and it made sense that he wouldn’t be satisfied with just calling off the fight. It all went wrong when Ajaz flung his Glaive at Mandoag, severing his already-crippled arm. This strike fell outside the bounds of the duel, and the Summer People were no longer obliged to give the hunters safe passage.

That’s when Rick fired his pyrotechnics into the verdant living roof overhead, setting the fairy ballroom ablaze with fire and thunder. Tom performed the return ritual as fast as he could, and the six humans barely escaped back onto a grassy median strip outside Rusty Cross Medical Center. Melissa and Dennis vomited up great gouts of steaming ectoplasm and could barely remain conscious. The hunters rushed the kids to the hospital and pretty much abandoned them to whatever fate child services had in store for them. Yay?

It wasn’t a feel-good win, but the hunters did get the children away from the fairies. Leaving them in Fairie would have been objectively bad for the kids. The fairies would lose interest and turn them out into the Nevernever, or they’d send them back to the real world without caring how long it’d been since they ate real food, or they’d end up allowing the kids to enter into ill-considered bargains. Even so, Dennis was an orphan now. Hopefully he had some family somewhere that were wrestling fans too. Brenda’s abusive situation wasn’t exactly fixed - smashing furniture over an abuser doesn’t make them stop abusing people. Finally, the hunters never did find out why Melissa Washington was abducted, which was great, because that meant I didn’t have to think of a reason. That was all we had time for, anyway, so I called the session and handed out a skill point.

Aftermath

For a mostly seat of the pants adventure where the initial clues were supplied by my players, I felt the session went pretty well. Everyone got spotlight moments, I don’t think the investigation proved too convoluted, and the conflicts were fairly meaty. Best of all, Prince Mandoag survived. I’ve got an organically occurring nemesis for the group, one with whom they can actually have banter. Such enemies are worth more than all the meticulously-plotted, specially-engineered, metaplot Big Bads in the world.

Mandoag, Prince of Roanoke and Knight of the Summer People

Fairie Prince
Never Forgets an Insult
Centuries of Experience

Fight +4
Wits, Speed, Lore, Notice +3
Menace, Balls +2
(other skills weren’t encountered during play)

+2 Fight when using his sword in single combat
May roll Fight to make a zone attack when wielding two weapons
Armor:2 unless struck by iron or other fae vulnerability

When the European settlers came to America, they changed the spiritual landscape as well as the physical one. The old fae Courts adapted to their new realms, blending with local folklore just as the Roanoke settlers disappeared into the Native American populace. Mandoag (Algonquin for “enemy”) is my poster child for this “new” style of fairy. I wanted to spice up the typical fae you see in Dresden Files and such, but didn’t want to tie them to alien abduction mythology like Supernatural did. So Mandoag had a leaf sword and a sweet tomahawk, dressed in buckskin and bronze armor, and at this point I realized if I gave him a white hooded cloak he’d just be a fairy version of the Assassin’s Creed III dude. Although most of the session was on the fly, I actually did have the idea for the prince formed beforehand. I knew I wanted a more Native American bent to my fairies, but my players would need some really obvious “typical” fairy clues. I ended up just throwing in some Native American trappings for now. I can mix in more mythology and folklore later, now that the fae faction has been introduced.