Tuesday, March 31, 2015

[Actual Play Report] Fate Core: I Fought The Law

Two sessions in as many months! I am on a roll! The campaign begins its downward spiral towards its Big Apocalyptic Showdown in earnest, the gang officially makes domestic terrorist status, and Bill finds "Race Together" written on his Starbucks cup.

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?


Bill Stockburn, "Supernatural Scholar"



Scott Specter, "Mean Motherfucking Servant of God"


Clayton Haycock James, "Marine Recon Biker"
Reward: 1 Skill Point and an Experience (ala the Atomic Robo RPG).

THEN

Scott sat at the end of a black glass table set for a formal dinner. At the opposite end, Bill was eating a perfectly-cooked steak. All around them, the landscape was blasted nuclear wasteland. Okay, so it was another apocalypse dream. Good times. Behind Bill stood Nicodemus Archleone, leader of the Denarians (30 fallen angels tied to Judas’ ancient payday). He had cut the top of Bill’s skull off like Ray Liotta in Hannibal, and was picking through his brain with fingers made of shadowy tendrils. As the demon king worked, an aura of normalcy radiated from Bill, washing out the wasteland with sunshine, blue sky, and green grass.


“Oh, there it is,” Nicodemus said. He pulled a pink glob from Bill’s head and Scott woke up.

NOW

Scott woke to a drizzling gray North Carolina morning. He, Clay, and Bill had spent the night in the shadow of the worn and ragged Gravedigger monster truck museum, and in the pre-dawn rain the massive vehicle reminded Scott of a sad titan, an old elephant trudging the same paths in its dusty cage.

Scott woke his brothers and told them about his dream, and what he thought it meant. They had to travel towards Washington, DC. He feared Nicodemus was searching for something to bring about the end of the world, and it was possible the answer was inside Bill’s mind. Everybody started this session off with their A-game, roleplaying-wise. Scott took to the spotlight here perfectly, and asked Bill for a soulgaze. Soulgazes are from Dresden Files, and when someone with the Sight looks directly into another’s eyes for the first time, they can see into that person. The flipside is, that person gets to see into them as well.

Bill stood in the center of a darkened monster truck arena. Inhuman monsters, rows upon rows of ghosts, demons, and freaks, shouted with rage from the stands. Behind the old hunter, Gravedigger was a great metal beast, pacing back and forth, pounding tire-fists into old jalopies and roaring with each hit. Folsom Prison Blues played over the arena’s sound system. Finally, standing with an olde-tymey radio microphone in his hand, a battered, molting, broken-winged Pantagruel (the Denarian whose presence Bill thought he cast out long ago) painfully got to its feet and twisted its serrated beak into a smile.

Just When I Thought I Was Out…

The gang had dealt with Pantagruel a few sessions back, and I was looking for ways to “upgrade” their Denarian enemy to Nicodemus in a way that felt natural. I made a poor attempt during the Puzzle Monster session, and after that I talked with Scott’s player about better ways to bring in Nicodemus. What I decided on for this game was inspired by Scott’s suggestion that Nicodemus is looking for something only Bill knows. The best/worst way for that to happen would be if there was a shadow of Pantagruel left in Bill’s mind, much like Lash and Harry Dresden. I get a favorite villain back in a way that doesn’t undo the group’s victory, and it’s a stepping stone for bringing in Nicodemus to boot.

Enough background - Scott hit Pantagruel’s “leftovers” with as much will as he could muster, trying to force the thing into submission. Instead, he dealt a moderate consequence to Bill. Back in the real world, Bill flinched at Scott’s touch and Clay almost pulled his friends apart, but stayed his hand.

“Fool!” Pantagruel cawed. “I am he and we are one!”

The Left Hand of God

Bill didn’t see any of this, because in a soulgaze you don’t share the experience, you get a drink from the other person’s mental fire hose. Every time Scott has soulgazed anything, they’ve been pants-wettingly terrified. What did they see when they looked into the ex-con’s soul?

The best part was, I didn’t have to think about it. I told Bill to tell the group what he saw: Darkness, save for Scott and someone else. This second figure was blue-white light, painful to do more than glance at, and was resting its hand on Scott’s shoulder as if to guide him? To reassure him? Both? Everything? Bill’s consequence was “Terrified”. He was too close to the fire. He was licking the fork and eyeing the electric socket.

Scott abandoned force and tried his wits. He had a pretty good handle on Pantagruel’s personality, since they’d tangled with the demon on many occasions, and he hit so many of the Denarian’s aspects I gave Scott a boost for roleplaying and considered simply compelling Pantagruel based on Scott’s arguments alone.

  • “Whatever else you are, you’re a spirit of knowledge, and the end of the world means the end of everything you could learn” hit Denarian Librarian.
  • “If Nicodemus gets what he wants, you’ll never get another shot at him” handled both Starscream Syndrome and Older Than the Stars and Just as Cocky.

God himself wanted Scott to win this little exchange. He rolled a +6 just as Pantagruel rolled a -4 on the dice, and the owl-thing sucked up a Severe consequence. He immediately conceded, agreeing to help the hunters by opening his hidden knowledge to Bill. I didn’t want to lose my chance at an inevitable betrayal by fighting until Pantagruel was Taken Out. This way, the game would once again be afoot once Panties recovered from his Severe consequence.

Scott concentrated and broke off the soulgaze. From Bill’s perspective, he felt great owl talons grasp his shoulders, and then buffeting wings pulled him away from Scott. He came to on the muddy ground, rain soaking into his clothes and forbidden knowledge soaking into his memories.

No More Secrets

“What does Nicodemus want?” was Bill’s first question. I thought about it and decided to set the difficulty at +8. It wasn’t unreasonably high for someone with a Great Lore skill, a handful of fate points to spend, and the option to succeed at a cost, but Bill didn’t need any of that crap. He just rolled a +4 on the dice.

This session I discovered how wonderful it can be when you tell your campaign secrets to your players. There’s certainly a time and place for secrets, but when Bill rocked that +8 result I decided I was out of fucks to give. What good is a backstory if you never get to tell anyone? I opened up to everyone and noted places where the details were fuzzy, and my players helped me fill in the blanks. I’d say I had half of the story written down for a while, another 25% was invented the morning of the game, and the rest was collaboration.

It came down to this: “He who ends this world begins the next.” It’s kind of an Unknown Armies way of looking at things. Nicodemus thinks if he wipes out the world, he either becomes the next God or he gets another shot at the title or something like that. It’s never been about simple destruction. How would he even know that, though? From there, we went to Pantagruel’s direct memories and said he found an ancient pre-Mayan stone tablet with an inscription alluding to the rewards for ending the world. Scott’s follow-up question was on point: How does that information even get into this world if it’s about what happens outside the world?

As it turns out, there was an actual Black Box from beyond the Outer Gates. It’s the namesake of BLACKBOX, and I flashed back to Pantagruel frantically scouring the Library at Alexandria in the days before Nicodemus burned it to the ground. Was it Pandora’s Box? Could be. Something worse? Probably. Whatever it was, chances were good the hunters could find it at BLACKBOX’s home office in Chantilly, Virginia.

Make Everything a Threat

“Make everything a threat” is advice from Michael Sands’ excellent Monster of the Week, and it dovetails with something I was trying this session. I’ve had a problem with the tone in my games. Most of the time I shoot for action-horror and the horror just gets washed out by table talk and balls-out action. Last session, I decided that I’d start describing things in more detail but those details would be bleaker. I didn’t have any illusions about scaring my players, but I could at least try to foster an atmosphere of dread.

I poured it on during the drive to Virginia, and found it easy to focus on the most negative things the hunters would see. Angry drivers stuck in their cages as the bikes roared past. Bleary-eyed jacked-up truckers barreling their rigs down the road, heedless of anything but their timesheets. Multi-tasking corporate douchebags trying to check their email, conference call, drink coffee, and drive - in that order. Fast food served up in greasy bags by equally greasy teenagers with sullen, dead eyes. The rain eventually relented and a weak sun shone through the bruised clouds as the gang got closer.

At this point, Bill’s player actually noticed my descriptions and I cheered on the inside. Scott said it was probably because of how the PCs would see the “civilized” world. Only the outlaw is truly free, that sort of thing. I didn’t dissuade them - Scott’s explanation was more awesome than “I just wanted to make the world seem a little more grimdark”.

BLACKBOX’s home office was just one corner building in one of the many monolithic planned government office parks in the area. They’re like arcologies, meticulously engineered monuments to bureaucracy, parking lots, Panera Bread, and Starbucks. The hunters would need disguises. Clay boosted some clothes from a dry cleaners and the trio of bikers started their recon.

The Walking Dead

There weren’t many homeless people in this area of Chantilly, but there was a homeless vet pacing the median outside BLACKBOX as the complex geared up for the lunch rush. The weird thing was, Clay recognized the guy. Compelled to investigate further and feeling increasingly uneasy, Clay asked the guy what unit he was with. The homeless man was in the same company as Clay back in Afghanistan - the same company that was wiped out by a murderous neuromancer.

The last time Clay had seen the homeless guy, he was screaming with the effort of holding his rifle away from his own mouth. He died in Afghanistan, just like every other Marine in Clay’s company. Clay didn’t think the undead panhandler made him as he walked shakily back to Bill and Scott (actually, the guy did see through Clay’s cover; it was part of the compel) and explained what he’d seen. Scott figured the vet was a lookout, while Bill came up with too many possible types of undead to be certain about what the man was exactly. The PCs decided to move from recon to infiltration.

Race Together

Bill failed the Burglary roll to sneak past the parking lot guard (yet another of Clay’s reanimated former comrades), and I gave him the choice between being discovered or being kept out of the facility. Bill decided he didn’t have a window of opportunity to sneak in, so he wound up at a Starbucks. Because Bill was “Last of the Gunslingers”, kind of old-fashioned, definitely old, completely unfamiliar with Starbucks, and likely somewhat of a closet racist, it made sense that he would be completely dumbfounded and freeze up when he found “Race Together” written on his coffee cup. This went wrong when Bill completely missed the “police” car “rounding up” the “homeless vet” outside. In actuality, BLACKBOX was collecting their minion’s surveillance report, which would put a time limit on the whole operation.

As luck would have it, Scott and Clay weren’t planning on sticking around anyway. They handily kidnapped two BLACKBOX office drones (Brent and Brett) on their way to their car for lunch, picked up a coffee-less Bill outside the Starbucks, and tore ass out of there.
It's either that, or talk about racism. Kidnapping it is!

Achievement Unlocked: Domestic Terrorist

Brent (married, two kids) and Brett (I am Jack’s IKEA and Amazon unattached bachelorhood) thought it was a training exercise at first. When they were dissuaded of that, they continued to be convinced that they were the good guys. They weren’t aware of anything BLACKBOX did besides hunt down supernatural threats, hold meetings, and enforce a stringent decontamination policy. Hell, weren’t they on the same side as the PCs? Brett took a little more work, but Clay and Scott convinced both men that the horror stories were true. BLACKBOX prioritized monsters over people’s lives. They airdropped engineered creatures on civilian populations - on their own people, even. They reanimated the dead to use as lookouts -

“Jerry? The parking lot guy?” Brett asked. “He seems a little slow, but I figured who wouldn’t be, sitting in that booth all day-”

“I saw him die, Brett!” Clay shouted.

The thing was, even knowing about the supernatural gave Clay and Scott more credibility than they would have had if they were trying to convince “muggles”. Brent and Brett knew monsters were real, so what the hunters were saying didn’t actually sound like something crazy people would say. The gang convinced the BLACKBOX employees their bosses were the bad guys, then used that pang of betrayal to get Brent and Brett to help smuggle them into the home office later that afternoon.

BLACKBOX was a relatively small agency. The hunters knew about the home office and one other location - a containment facility in Bolton, South Dakota. Using Brent and Brett’s credentials as a base, Scott whipped up some decent forged IDs. They’d go in as operatives from the containment facility delivering artifacts recovered in the area. Apparently creatures went to South Dakota, but magic items could be taken to either site for research.

Miraculously, the following things did not happen:

  • Nobody at BLACKBOX saw through Brent and Brett’s cover story of a “training exercise” explaining away their earlier abduction.
  • Nobody recognized Clay, Scott, or Bill from their earlier run-ins with the agency (they bought off a compel).
  • Nobody spotted their fake IDs.

Top notch.

Not Without Incident

Gary, Brent’s supervisor, accompanied Clay, Bill, and Scott downstairs to check in their bag of artifacts (the PCs’ arsenal, sent down separately) with the quartermaster. They passed through a bizarre magical decontamination process, turned in their (burner) cell phones and any other devices, and arrived at a large underground room that was part target range and part dojo. The quartermaster was already admiring the Pontiff when the trio of hunters entered. A second BLACKBOX security goon was setting up a camcorder.

“You’ve successfully used these items before, so we’ll send in the test subject, you demonstrate the artifacts, and we’ll record and scan the footage before we attempt any further tests,” the quartermaster explained. It was a gimme, me handing the PCs their weaponry again, but I didn’t want to take their stuff and I didn’t want to bog the game down with the guys fighting to retain their equipment. Besides, it wasn’t about their gear - it was about the test subject.

I think the players knew it was coming at this point, but sure enough, another one of Clay’s reanimated comrades was shoved through a sliding metal door at the far end of the testing room. It was clear this was not this guy’s first time at the range, either. Puckered scars and mangled sutures barely did the job of holding him together as he shambled closer.

It was too much for Clayton Haycock James, and he hungrily accepted the compel on “Wrecked as a Soldier”. Clay approached the walking dead and caught the twinkle of recognition. Behind him, the quartermaster and his cameraman rolled their hands, motioning the hunters to hurry up.

“Sarge?” the man whispered through mismatched lips.

Clay’s next words were to the BLACKBOX people, even though he stared into his former friend’s face. “This man’s name is Private William Tanner. He had a wife and a baby daughter.”

The next round, there were two dead BLACKBOX employees and I knew I had made my players angry at my villains.

With Great Vengeance and Furious Anger

What happens when PCs conduct investigations.
In my last writeup, I grumbled a little bit about losing that sense of horror in what was ostensibly an action-horror game. Fuck that. Instilling righteous anger in your players is vastly more satisfying than a creepy atmosphere or rising tension. Fact is, sometimes motherfuckers deserve to get choked. Hell, I was running BLACKBOX and I still wanted to see them get choked. There was this violent cooperative catharsis happening at the table as the hunters went Weapon X on the BLACKBOX security team sent to round them up and then headed into the archives to search for information about the “pandora’s box” Pantagruel had hinted at.

The Purple Man

With another stupid, stupid, ridiculously high roll, Bill and Scott (Clay was busy making people regret their career choices) discovered that BLACKBOX did indeed acquire a mysterious “black box” back when they were part of MKULTRA. They broke it down to make stuff like actual truth serums, telepathy drugs, and (in one ominous case) a sentient brainwashing bacteria strain intended for use on Communist nations. This last project, codenamed SUBLIME (yes, that Sublime), managed to break containment. With Pantagruel’s knowledge filling in the redacted portions of the files, the hunters learned that SUBLIME infected one of the telepathy booster test subjects, Zebediah Killgrave (yes, that Killgrave). The infected man used his newfound dark powers to take over that branch of MKULTRA and keep it secret through its parent group’s declassification, eventually becoming Director of what would become BLACKBOX.

Out of the Frying Pan

The hunters had a target - Director Killgrave - and they had a location: Bolton, South Dakota. What they needed was an escape plan. Bill took Prince Mandoag’s fairy sword (acquired last session) and sliced a portal to the Nevernever just as BLACKBOX reinforcements burst into the archives room. Bill, Scott, and Clay dove through the tear in reality while bullets whipped past. With an effort of will, Bill forced the portal shut-

And we ended the session there.


Homework

The Nevernever matches up with our world thematically, not geographically. What kind of awful place matches up with BLACKBOX’s Chantilly offices? Post in the comments and if I use your idea I’ll give you an imaginary cookie!