Wednesday, December 10, 2014

[Actual Play Report] Fate Core: The Night Riders

In our 19th session, our stalwart monster-hunting biker gang helps out a frenemy, then stumbles across a rival biker gang... of monsters. MIRROR MATCH!

A bit of background: We started with the Dresden Files RPG, then converted over to Fate Core in January '13 when that Kickstarter took off. 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). You can find the last session writeup here.

Who Was There?

Only three players this time, so of course I threw a wolfman, three werewolves, two Black Court vampires, a mummy, a golem, and four Renfields at them. The smaller group made the session flow pretty smoothly, though. Everyone got spotlight time and there weren't too many aspects left untouched.
Ajaz Gurt, "Relentless Nephilite"
Rick Eagle, "Avenging Roadie"

Scott Specter, "Mean Motherfucking Servant of God"

Reward: 1 Experience (ala the Atomic Robo RPG). I'm borrowing Experiences from ARRPG, but they got a pretty lukewarm reception. Next game, I'll go over how versatile they are (because I really think they're a good way to inject some narrative control for players and start with extra free invocations).

NOW - Landis Springs, IA

“You got a lotta nerve comin’ back here after what you did last night.” The Hacienda Courts motel clerk could barely contain his rage. “Judy! Call Sheriff Brooks!”

Scott and Rick looked at each other, confused. “I’m sorry, is there a-”

“Where’s my son?!” shouted the clerk.

THEN - Detroit, MI

Last game, the secretive, never-decommissioned dregs of the MKULTRA program, BLACKBOX, sent a horrible mishmash-monster after the party. The gang survived and even got two of their long-standing rivals, agents Dana Fox and Patrick Roberts, to quit BLACKBOX and go to ground. Roberts had stopped in one place too long, though, and Fox reasoned that if her partner had stopped following their plan for dodging their former employers, something was wrong. She contacted the PCs and the gang agreed to meet her in Detroit.

This flashback served to tie up a loose end from last game, where a Wound Beetle (see Voidcallers, from the Fate Toolkit) had snuck onto Agent Roberts. It laid a few eggs and the extradimensional bugs had pretty much eaten the former agent’s aspects, leaving him an apathetic drone, sitting on his bed watching TV in the small walk-up above a pizza place.

He couldn’t even be arsed to go down for food. He had the pizza delivered.
Not even tomato sauce George Clooney could get him moving.


The wound beetles were suitably horrific - anything that eats the core of who you are is frightening - but the scene was more of a Bond intro than an adventure proper. I had thought about trying to milk a full session from the basic plot of “Roberts has wound beetles on him”, but in the end I felt it worked best as this prologue challenge. And challenging it was - even with Scott’s Sight open, the hunters were hard-pressed to find all the semi-transparent bugs. After the room was cleared, Fox took Roberts down to her car and gave the group a flash drive with what BLACKBOX cases she could scrape before she was locked out.

All in all, it was a nice prologue. It answered the mystery of “what do wound beetles eat if there aren’t wounds?” It tied up the loose end from last game. It turned Fox and Roberts, once rivals, into allies. Finally, the flash drive gave the party an easy source for leads. One of these leads, a string of disappearances down Highway 6 in Iowa, was what brought us up to:

NOW AGAIN - Landis Springs, IA

The angry motel clerk was actually the real clerk’s father. The real clerk, David Crabbe, got kidnapped by a bunch of bikers who were staying at the Hacienda Courts the night before. Daddy Crabbe figured the PCs were with the bad guys, since everyone riding a motorcycle is all part of the same gang. :P

Scott calmed Father Crabbe down and we shifted over to an investigation scene as the hunters picked through the rooms the bad guys had rented. Scenes like must point the PCs in a useful direction (doesn’t have to be the right direction, but it can’t stall out the game), and they may provide information about the threat the players face.

  • There were ten to a dozen bikers, spread across three motel rooms.
  • The bad guys were headed west on Highway 6. Rick found this out with some clever thinking - he basically created a trail of where they’d been using stolen souvenir shotglasses from other bars and motels strung along Highway 6 to the east. It’s what Rick did back in his roadie days.
  • David Crabbe didn’t go quietly. Scott found blood and signs of a struggle.

With the blood, Scott was able to get a tracking spell going, but before the gang could uncover anything else, Sheriff Brooks rolled up. This was a compel, and Scott made things go wrong when he Soulgazed the sheriff and ran for it. Brooks pissed himself (there’s precedent here with Scott’s soulgazes) and fell over, stunned. The gang had just earned themselves a Buford T. Justice.

From Dusk Till Dawn

The PCs found what little remained of David in the dirt cellar of a recently-abandoned farmhouse in Bakerville, the next town over. Some indiscriminate gore and bones, cracked for their marrow, were all that was left. It wasn’t enough to point the hunters at any specific kind of creature, either. Lots of things ate people. Scott found loads of motorcycle tracks crisscrossing the farm’s gravel driveway, and the gang figured that without a solid lead, the best thing to do would be to fortify the farmhouse and lay in wait in case the bikers returned. Of course they’d return, because that’s how you drive a story forward. All I had to do was figure out why the enemy bikers would come back.

While I worked on fleshing out the NPCs’ motivations to drive them towards a conflict, the hunters made a bomb out of the propane grill and buried it under the driveway. Rick Eagle climbed into the nearby barn’s hayloft with a rifle, ready to detonate his makeshift Claymore mine. Scott prayed as the evening went on and racked up a success with style on a Create Advantage roll, granting free invocations to both Ajaz and Rick on a “Blessed” aspect. Ajaz tried to hide the gang’s bikes.

It was still night, but only just, when Scott heard the motorcycles rolling up the side road like distant thunder. The exhausted hunter (he accepted an “Exhausted” aspect to keep watch through the night) roused Rick and Ajaz and they took up their ambush positions.

Monster Squad

A dozen figures on ten motorcycles rolled up the dusty driveway, their headlights cutting harsh shadows out of the pre-dawn darkness.

  • Four of them were actual bikers; they knew how to handle a motorcycle and they looked the part. The leader of this small pack of four was Leon Quist, a wolfman (that’s Crinos form for all you White Wolf people out there). His three companions - Maggie, Ginger, and Spoon - were all the typical “human into wolf” werewolves. The players didn’t know any of this, however.
  • The next four people were riding two to a bike. The farmer and his wife on one, then what looked like two college girls on the other. They were really unsteady. They weren’t great drivers because they were Renfields, and having your mind crushed into submission by a vampire doesn’t do wonders for your coordination.
  • A big slab-faced thug dressed up in Terminator leathers. “Mr. Thumps” was a jailbroken hitman golem, loyal to this gang of monsters. His ilk, and the conspiracy of dastardly kabbalistic mages that created them, were Ajaz’s special baggage.
  • A brown-skinned girl with a severe bob, wearing all sorts of ornate jewelry. As she drove out into the moonlight, her countenance shifted away into a dried corpse’s visage. I wanted a mummy for this gang, but it wasn’t until I found the Pathfinder entry on the huecuva and its Pirates-of-the-Carribbean-style flesh mask that it all clicked together for me. Sobekneferu was the only member who actually spotted the hunters, so she pulled up short.
  • Butch and Belle Havisham, husband and wife vampires, brought up the rear. They stopped alongside their mummy companion, which left them outside the blast radius of Rick’s IED.

Wolfman, mummy, dracula, and frankenstein. My only regret is that I couldn’t work a Creature From the Black Lagoon into the gang.

Wolfman’s Got Nards

Faced with 4:1 odds, the players buckled down to the business of ambushing. Rick’s improvised explosive proved more than sufficient to kill every single Renfield. Leon, the wolfman, was forced to use his once-per-scene regeneration stunt immediately as he was blown clear off his bike. Maggie and Spoon ducked most of the blast, but Ginger was knocked senseless and peppered with shrapnel. Mr. Thumps spread his arms wide to protect the mummy and vampires behind him. It was clear that he wasn’t hurt by normal attacks.

I had a few decisions to make. I was seriously worried that even with the Renfields gone and the wolves hurt, the PCs would go down if they had to take on all the bikers. I also didn’t want my session to consist of “meager investigation, drive to battlefield, have battle, get XP”. Plus, narratively, dawn was coming and the undead contingent didn’t feel the same comraderie that their living companions enjoyed. Sobekneferu (the mummy) and her two vampire companions turned and rode hard for the main road.

Scott tried really hard to keep Sobekneferu in the fight. As the only obvious undead, she was a prime target for his holy abilities, so he tried to reel her in with Datarius, a magic sword/chain combination he acquired from a previous heist. The blade hooked the mummy but only resulted in a boost. Sobekneferu was pulled from her bike and answered Scott’s attack by vomiting up a spray of carnivorous scarabs! Scott’s conviction proved stronger than the dark magic, however, and he dragged Sobekneferu off her motorcycle again! It took Mr. Thumps closing on Scott before the mummy could right her ride and skitter off in a spray of gravel.

Leon wolfed out and went after Rick Eagle in the barn. Rick retaliated by setting the barn on fire and jumping out the hayloft, then scrambling for the farmhouse. He burst inside to see Ginger laid out on the living room couch, Spoon trying to get her to eat chunks of ground beef pulled straight from the fridge and heal.

Rick shot Ginger in the head first. She was the easiest target. Spoon returned fire, opting for guns over claws and teeth. Bullets and deer slugs ripped through early 20th century plaster, shredding old wallpaper but hitting nothing. Rick ducked behind the fridge just as Leon, burned and pissed, crashed through the front door into the kitchen.

Downstairs, Ajaz had tried to use Stealth to set up a second ambush on the werewolves upstairs but Maggie, in wolf form, had sniffed him out. She crashed through a short basement window and went a few rounds with the nephilim, but neither one of them could gain the upper hand. Ajaz had a stunt for creating advantages with his flaming chain whip and he was keeping Maggie at bay while preventing her from leaving the basement to help her comrades. Maggie finally snuck a good roll in and leapt upon Ajaz, savaging him with tooth and claw to the tune of both a minor and moderate consequence. Ajaz’s rolls got just as swingy after that, and he managed to wrap Maggie up in the whip and then boost the flame, cooking the werewolf. It was a pretty brutal way to go out, especially when afterwards you don’t have burnt dog; you’ve got a charred naked girl.

Out in the driveway, the fight between Scott and Mr. Thumps was no less brutal. Scott brandished the Pontiff now, a holy-infused papal buzzsaw polearm. I keep forgetting Scott has all this crap (which means I keep forgetting to call him on stuff like “where are you storing the aforementioned papal buzzsaw”), and my bad guys suffer dearly for my oversight. Case in point: Mr. Thumps was reduced to Mr. Stumps in short order after failing to grapple Scott. Stumps retreated out to the yard between house and flaming barn and shot Scott with an MP-5K, which he pulled out from his malleable torso. Scott charged back in but Stumps hardened his body to stone, fending off the next blows from Scott’s arsenal. Scott Overcame Stumps’ shifted form, however, and still managed to bury the Pontiff in the golem’s face, destroying the scroll that kept him alive.

Smells Like Burnt Dog Hair (Sorry Venkman)

Mr. Stumps was part of the gravel driveway now. The Havishams and Sobekneferu were in the wind, their Renfields cooked up like Independence Day burgers. Ginger and Maggie were dead. That just left Spoon and Leon. There were smarter ways for them to fight at this point; run for the cornfields, use stealth and speed, make it a siege, draw things out until law enforcement arrived and changed the game or barring that, go to ground until nightfall. The problem was both wolfman and werewolf had aspects about their pack, and foolish or not, they weren’t going to leave their packmates behind. This went wrong when… well, it went wrong for everyone. Rick Eagle detonated the farmhouse’s gas stove, stunning Leon. Ajaz finally came up the stairs and wrapped his chain around Spoon, burning the poor guy to death like his packmate Maggie. Leon leapt upon Ajaz and sank fangs into his collar, adding a Severe consequence “Bit by the Wolfman” onto his Moderate and Minor. Scott plunged Datarius, the silver sword, into Leon’s back and the wolfman relinquished Ajaz with a howl. Ajaz wrapped that chain around Leon too, accounting for three of the four lycanthrope kills that evening.

An American Werewolf in America

I paused the game at that point and mentioned that there were enough interpretations of the werewolf myth that if Ajaz’s player wanted, we could deal with Ajaz turning into a werewolf. He loves wolves and tends to play anthropomorphic animals when they’re an option, but he eventually decided that he does play that type a lot, and he wanted to keep Ajaz as “just” a nephilim. Therefore, we chose to interpret the werewolf myth like this: Leon was an “alpha” wolfman, able to take human/wolf hybrid form and able to infect others. Maggie, Spoon, and Ginger nicely fit into the “beta” wolf category, able to shift from human to wolf but unable to infect others (important distinction, otherwise you get “everyone is a werewolf” problems). We decided killing the wolf that bit you could break the curse, Lon Cheney style. Therefore, Ajaz had already cured himself by killing Leon. Problem solved, problem staying solved, and we nailed down a nice bit of lore as a bonus.


The sun was up and it was time to track down the three remaining monster bikers. Scott spent a fate point to declare there was enough of Sobekneferu’s dusty innards remaining on Datarius’ blade that he could get a tracking spell going. Ajaz brought up one of the scarabs that the mummy had projected earlier in the battle, and Rick dumped the ingredients into a bottle of Vox vodka (the geometric bottle served to focus the spell).

Scott: “Once we’ve got it all mixed up, we take it and-”
Me: “You drink it. The whole bottle.”
Rick (with the aspect “Party Animal”): “Oooh, throw me under that bus!”

While Rick worked on the “tracking spell”, I compelled Ajaz’s injuries. They’d need to get him some medical attention, but the hunters opted for “truck stop bathroom” instead of “hospital”, so Ajaz’s Moderate consequence turned into “Feverish and Infected”. Scott was already “Exhausted” from his sleepless vigil, and Rick Eagle had just been awarded the aspect “Wasted”.

And that, my friends, is the story of how Ajaz, Scott, and Rick got up pulled over on the side of Highway 6 by a very angry Sheriff Brooks. Unfortunately for our determined lawman, he walked right into another mental whammy from Scott, pissed himself again, and the bikers (rather unsteadily) took off in pursuit of their quarry. Brooks recovered faster this time and ran for his cruiser to give chase.

We handled the pursuit as a standard Fate contest, which turned out to be slightly complicated due to multiple participants all trying to gain victories on each other. Everyone was rolling separately so tracking victories got kind of wonky, but we got through it and the extra complexity seemed to mask the fact that we were all just rolling Drive again and again. I’m extremely critical of chase mechanics, however, as they're one of my gaming holy grails. It probably worked fine and I’m being picky.

The hunters were sure the mummy and the two vampires were looking for shelter from the sun, but after they’d been following the tracking spell farther than the monsters could have possibly traveled since daybreak, they figured either the mummy split off or the vampires weren’t vampires or they had some kind of fancy protection from sunlight.

Also, it looks cool.
Turns out it wasn’t that fancy. The Havishams wore Nomex suits, biker leathers, gloves, dusters, and full helmets. They didn’t enjoy their vampiric abilities during the day but they could ride if their lives depended on it - and they did. The PCs caught up with the trio of creatures on Interstate 80. Ajaz used his Glaive to shred the vampires’ tire and both vamps ate it hard on Iowa asphalt. Rick continued after Sobekneferu as Sheriff Brooks skidded to a stop near the Havishams’ wreck.

The mummy cast her second-to-last spell and dark clouds swirled into existence, blotting out the sun and restoring the vampires’ mojo before Rick shot her off her bike. Sobekneferu (of course she referred to herself in the third person, and of course I was trying my best Skeletor/Cobra Commander voice) cursed Rick, using her last spell to reanimate the scarab he drank. Unfortunately for the beetle, it was no match for Rick’s well-pickled innards. She grabbed Rick’s bike next, stopping the roadie cold. Rick and Sobekneferu were in a one-on-one deathmatch, too far up the road for the other hunters to help. If the mummy got Rick grappled, she’d be able to use her superhuman strength to make attacks instead of her meager Fighting skill. Rick wasn’t having it, and with a fond farewell to his bike, he detonated the gas tank. Burning fuel sprayed over Sobekneferu, disrupting her invulnerability! Rick’s deer gun made short work of the millenia-old walking corpse after that.

A few hundred yards back, Sheriff Brooks got out of his car, raised his shotgun - and was immediately Dominated by Vampire Butch. The dude could not get a break. Belle Havisham saw how useful her husband’s mental whammy was and tried the same thing on Scott. Scott got hit hard but chose to continue the contest of wills on his action. The consequence Belle took from Scott’s mental attack fell in line perfectly with her Trouble aspect, “Immortality Ain’t What It Used to Be”, and the vampire fell victim to her own self-doubt and subconscious death wish. Belle hesitated and Scott lopped her head off with the sun-sword Archimandrite.

“Nooooo!” Butch screamed. He drew an olde-tyme Peacemaker and plugged Scott in the leg, but before the vampire could close on the felled hunter Ajaz wrapped his burning chain whip around him. Archimandrite claimed Butch’s head a moment later.

Sadly, there was no recourse the PCs could think of for healing Renfields. They shot the slavering sheriff with Butch’s revolver, hoping it would throw the law off their trail long enough for them to get out of Iowa.

But They Did Not Shoot the Deputy

With the monstrous bikers eradicated, it was time for the hunters to move on. I told everyone to mark down an Experience (stealing this advancement option from Atomic Robo RPG), and it seemed to me that the guys’ reaction fell somewhere between “nonplussed” and “wait, this is just an aspect?” The reception wasn’t as warm as I’d hoped, but I don’t think I explained things right. An Experience is like starting the game with an extra fate point, which at first glance seems like a copout to avoid actually raising anything on your character sheet. It is, kind of, but what I should have focused on is that Experiences are your way to make another mark on the game world. You can write contacts and places into the world. Say Rick Eagle took an Experience like “Dana Fox Owes Me Everything”. He’s going to call that favor in at some point, and tie himself more closely to the setting while giving me signals that he’d like to see more of the former BLACKBOX agents. I’m going to keep handing them out, at least for the next two sessions, and see how they go over with some extra explanation.

The final fight felt a lot less draggy than some other end-of-session conflicts I’ve run, and I think it’s because we played using Ryan Macklin’s advice on GM invocations. Also, I finally started granting fate points for consequences taken in combat. I’ve had a lot of Fate incarnations muddled up in my head, but man, that was a rule I wish I’d been using from the beginning.
Rules are hard.
Having that influx of FP really helps keep PCs feeling more competent and lessens the necessity of compels. When you don’t need to compel your players just to keep the fate points flowing, there’s less temptation to fall back on weak ones. That means that typically you can put more thought (and teeth!) into the compels that do happen.

A minor observation this session was that whenever a player attacked and succeeded with style, they always took the “reduce stress 1 point but apply a boost” option. I like that they do that, it shows they’re all thinking Fate-tactically, stockpiling those boosts to use on defense rolls or to pass to their teammates, but I’m wondering now if anyone else out there ever opts out of the boost?

I was also thinking about ways to spice up investigation scenes. We had three “stumbling around for clues” scenes in this session. The first one was with Roberts and the beetles; that went pretty well because I had the scene fleshed-out in my head the most. The second one was looking for clues at the Hacienda Courts, which needed to point the PCs towards the bad guys. The problem was we interrupted it with a compel about the sheriff showing up, so they got a direction but very little information. That divide got me thinking about FAE’s approaches, and how doing something Forcefully sometimes means you are not doing it Carefully, for example.

So, in keeping with the old software development adage of “on time, bug-free, and cheap - pick two”, I’m trying to find a way to apply that to investigation scenes.
Shaggy finds a clue.

  • Rule #1: There must be a way for the players to proceed, even if it’s not how they want.
  • Information - trying to find more clues (past the bare minimum needed to proceed) is the most obvious objective.
  • Time - focusing on time speeds up the investigation. In my head, this seems like a good secondary objective. The bad guys are probably going to kill again/acquire the thingy if you dally too long, or you might be discovered by the real cops if you’re loitering around a crime scene. “The trail goes cold” is a realistic outcome, but unsatisfying because it breaks rule #1.
  • Stealth - you don’t want the real cops to track you down because you left evidence all over the crime scene you were illegally investigating. In some campaigns, leaving no trace isn’t going to be something the PCs care about, and I’m not entirely sure if there’s a good third axis to balance this structure on when PCs don’t need to worry about how careful they’re being.

It’s not really that it needs a structure, but exercises this like help me figure out possible consequences for failure and additional benefits for success with style during investigations. Most important, if there aren’t any good consequences, don’t have the players roll. They spend the time and clean up after themselves and get the information.

Finally, while I was pleased with the various conflicts, we did run a loooong session (even granting that the prelude with Roberts was kind of a mini-session all its own). I’ve already got our particular Fate hack tuned pretty lethal (weapon values with hardly any armor, plus stress starts at 1 and maxes at 3 boxes), but I keep thinking how many exchanges do you need in a fight? When a guy takes 2 consequences and hasn’t done much more than stress to his opponent, do you need to roll out the rest of the battle? We’ve used our current damage system for about as long as we used the Dresden Files system before Core was released, so if I changed things up some I don’t think I’d get crucified for GM ADD. I just don’t know what I would change yet.

Next session won’t be for a while - we typically find it impossible to game over the holidays. I do have some thoughts on action vs. horror and running conflicts with single villains, but I’ll save those for a separate (and more concise) post.