Monday, March 9, 2015

[Actual Play Report] Fate Core: Swamp Meet

When you have a stomach bug, sometimes you miss some obvious opportunities when you’re running a game because you’re distracted </burnnotice>. It also means the session doesn’t take as long. This time, I drop hints about the possibility of a Big Apocalyptic Showdown, an old enemy seeks vengeance, and Rick Eagle accepts the best compel ever.

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?

Ajaz Gurt, "Relentless Nephilite"
Bill Stockburn, "Supernatural Scholar"
Rick Eagle, "Avenging Roadie"

Scott Specter, "Mean Motherfucking Servant of God"

Clayton Haycock James, "Marine Recon Biker"
Reward: 1 Refresh, 1 Skill Point, and an Experience (ala the Atomic Robo RPG). I added up all the rewards since we switched to Fate Core and the guys were due.


Scott knew he was dreaming. He’d dreamt variations on the scene before him for the last few days - the white obelisk stretched up behind the mirror-smooth reflecting pool while armageddon raged inside the water’s reflection. This time though, Lucy, the gang’s resident monster and alleged harbinger of the apocalypse, walked beside Scott. She mouthed “I’m sorry”, then pushed Scott into the hellish pool! Scott tried to break through the surface, but once he was underwater it was if he was trapped under ice. Just when his lungs cried for oxygen, just when Scott was beginning to doubt it was a dream this time, a helping hand thrust into the pool. The ex-con could just barely make out who it was through the roiling water: Nicodemus, leader of the Denarians.

Scott took the fallen angel’s hand - and woke up.


I’ve become enamored of asking a barrage of questions of my players when starting a session. It wakes everyone up and entertains them, plus it’s a good way for me to throw some of the GM load onto them.

Me: “Scott, where are you when you wake up?”
Scott: “San Antonio.”

Me: “Ajaz, why are you guys there?”
Ajaz: “I’m recuperating from my wounds last time.”
I took pains to describe the most grimy, ugliest Hacienda Courts motel yet.

Me: “Rick, why aren’t you with them?”
Rick: “My ‘new’ bike broke down after last game so I needed to stop and fix it.”
I reminded Rick he’d need to pick a new aspect for his cobbled-together bike at some point (we’ve since settled on “I Don’t Need No Instructions”).

Me: “Clay, did you decide what bike you took off Zarathos yet?”
Clay hadn’t decided, but he soon settled on a 1950s panhead bike, aspect TBD.

Me: “Bill, while Rick, Ajaz, and Scott were in Iowa fighting the Monster Squad, what were the rest of you guys doing?”
Bill: “Lake Champlain. There was a portal there like in that giant gator adventure, so boats and dynamite and sea monsters.”
What followed were enough improvised shared experiences from this didn’t-actually-happen hunt that it made me regret not running a sea monster session.
Me: “Did that experience make Bill reconsider his desire to get out of the monster hunting game?
Bill: “If anything, it cemented it!”

With that out of the way, it was back to Rick Eagle, sitting in the waiting area of a service center while some Louisiana bike shop guy hunted for the parts he needed. Rick had exhausted the shop’s supply of Highlights and had turned to his smartphone for entertainment when he saw an intriguing headline:

“A Giant Owl Killed My Husband!”

This wasn’t some crackpot website, either. This was on an actual news site with an accompanying video. Rick watched the shaky-cam cellphone footage. In it, a shouting woman in a nightgown swinging a broom and carrying a shotgun in her off hand battered a four-foot tall owl out of her front door. The owl had a massive wingspan, and was bent on ripping out the woman’s neck until she knocked it down onto the sidewalk and gave it the twelve gauge. The bird flailed and twitched, then flew off into the night sky, lost to the camera’s poor contrast.

If it was a hoax, it was a good hoax. Rick skimmed the article while I frantically consulted my random name generator. This session, instead of preparing a few NPC names ahead of time, I decided to use a random generator for every NPC. That way the players wouldn’t know who was important just because I had a prepared name for them. As it turned out, the gang never made it to the crime scene, so the specific events in the article didn’t matter. Rick shared it with the other hunters and called Scott.

Rick was in Dallas. The other guys were in San Antonio. The owl attack had been in Georgia. They were dithering a little bit about where to meet when I compelled Rick’s “Party Animal” aspect.

Rick would meet them in New Orleans.

Best. Compel. Ever.

Seriously, the rest of the session followed based on this one compel:

“Rick, because you are a Party Animal, it makes sense that you would want to rendezvous in New Orleans instead of somewhere that makes sense. This goes horribly wrong when… well, just imagine a Guy Ritchie-style quick-cut montage of hurricane, jambalaya, hurricane, gumbo, hurricane, beads, hurricane, boobs, hurricane, cops on horseback, hurricane, gators, hurricane, bake sale, hurricane, more cops… and that’s why you’re in the drunk tank. In Picayune, Mississippi. You’re not even in New Orleans anymore.”

Clay: “Those church bake sale pies weren’t gonna fuck themselves, were they?”

While the hunters tracked down their friend, Rick prepared to languish in Picayune’s jail. It wasn’t long before a stunningly beautiful deputy arrived and informed the former roadie that he was free to go. Rick took note of her nameplate (Summer), her slightly pointed ears, her half-assed equipment belt, and the piercing gazes she gave to the handful of other officers in the building that made them just sort of ignore her. Rick was suspicious, but he still tried to get her number. He failed (“Has the Will But Not the Skill”), and “Deputy Summer” ended up getting Rick’s instead.

Yup, Summer was one of the bad guys, and needed Rick in the wind so that her faction could hunt him and the other PCs down and kill them. At this point my thought was that Summer would be one of the Summer People, the fairy nation insulted by Ajaz, Tom, and Rick a few sessions ago. I ended up not needing so many NPCs, however, so she got silently retconned into the Stikini’s (the what?) humanoid form later.

Luckily for Rick, the gang arrived in Picayune and collected his compel-happy ass.

Dead Leaves

The game stalled out for a minute. The players had 2 leads, the murder in Georgia and Deputy Summer right here in Picayune. Were they related? Did fairies (since it was pretty obvious) and owls go together? The owl part of it reminded the gang of Pantagruel, the Denarian whose demonic form was tinged with owl...ness. The truth was that Prince Mandoag (formerly) of the Summer People was on a rip-roaring rampage of revenge against the hunters, Ajaz in particular, and seeing how he was exiled from the Summer People, had roped in some unsavory allies. The high-profile attack in Georgia wasn’t anything but bait, but then Rick’s bout of Olympic-sized debauchery put him on Summer’s radar. They tracked him to Mississippi and were waiting for the group to bunch up and drop their guard. Problem was, the gang was hanging around across the street from a police station, dithering over what to do next.

It was time for another murder.

Bill and Scott noticed the precinct mobilize towards downtown. The gang checked their various methods of eavesdropping on the police band - homicide at the Dead Leaves used bookstore off of Main Street. This was me effectively canceling the Georgia plot thread in favor of keeping the action close by.

The hunters pulled up well outside the police line and split up. Scott and Ajaz bluffed their way into the crime scene using faked BLACKBOX badges while Clay, Rick, and Bill went around back and waited for their friends to make them an opening.

The details were pretty straightforward, as far as this sort of thing went. A large animal smashed through the glass-paned front door, the clerk came around the counter to run, then got his chest ripped open for it. The animal (or whatever it was) ate the poor bastard’s heart. The mauling generally matched up with what the gang could find on the victim in Georgia. Scott sighed, downed some preemptive Maalox, and prepared to open his Sight.

Outside in the real world, though, Clay and Rick saw a vagrant stumble down the opposite end of the alley towards the bookstore. The old man produced a bottle and started trying to light the rag stuffed in the top. Clay instantly bumrushed (ahem) the man, with Rick two steps behind. It cost them some fate points to tackle the vagrant before he could light the molotov cocktail, but Rick wrestled the explosive away while Clay held him down. The poor guy tried to come clean - Clay is a scary guy - but he literally couldn’t remember anything after climbing up a nearby fire escape to get a better look at all the hubbub around the bookstore and finding a big-ass owl roosting up there. He remembered the owl’s eyes and then next thing he knew, he was on the ground with Clay about to feed him his remaining teeth.

Clay: “What kind of monster glamours somebody to burn the evidence?”
A smart monster!

Unbeknownst to Clay, the molotov was meant for Scott and Ajaz, who didn’t know how close they had come to being trapped in a burning bookstore.

Scott: “Head out the back, Ajaz, and keep those other guys out. I don’t want to see what any of you people look like on the inside.”

Once Scott had his Sight open, the spiritual and metaphysical attributes of the crime scene fell over the bookstore like a blanket of musty cobwebs. The clerk was literally hollowed out, gray and sunken body lying on the disused floor like trash. Torn pages from ancient tomes fluttered down like ash from a volcano, the remnants of whatever hopes and dreams the proprietor might have had for his sad little business. A great owl’s disembodied, heart-shaped face stared at Scott through the darkened doorway, the last thing the clerk had seen.

Scott opened the back door and I compelled his “Mean Motherfucking Servant of God” aspect. He hadn’t quite closed down his Sight when the door opened and Scott was staring eye to eye at a giant wolf.

“Stay out of it. This does not concern you,” the wolf warned in a deep monotone. Before Scott could even respond, the wolf bore him to the floor and bit savagely into Scott’s neck and shoulder. The wolf rolled +3 on the dice and Scott ended up taking a Moderate consequence as the creature ripped at his soul. Then his Sight closed and the wolf was gone.

From the perspective of the other hunters, Scott coined a new action verb: “Winchester”, as in “Scott opens the door, then suddenly winchesters back inside, slamming into a bookshelf.” The guys didn’t stick around for any invisible dire wolves or weird heart-eating owls. They got back to their bikes and pooled what they had learned, which in game terms meant Bill rolled Lore and got something stupid like a +8. The gang’s “Walking Encyclopedia of the Occult” determined that the owlish heart-eater was probably a stikini, a Seminole spirit or demon. Their humanoid form (the gang was reasonably sure this was Deputy Summer) would vomit up their internal organs, shapeshift into an owl, and go eat hearts. As for the wolf, Bill was reasonably sure it was an amorak, or possibly the Amorak - it was a rare creature and he wasn’t sure if it was a single entity or one of several. It was part of Inuit folklore, though, which meant it was way out of its territory. They knew it had to be powerful to take down Scott like it did, so for the time being the Amorak was their priority. Bill figured if it could talk to them, they could talk to it. He was gonna summon the thing.

Come For Me, Gmork

Summoning the Amorak was actually a really good move for getting to the bottom of things. It was dangerous, however, and not inclined to barter for anything but souls. The good news for me (at this point the stomach bug was getting to me) was that Prince Mandoag and his retinue would be close on the hunters’ heels, following the Amorak to a final confrontation. The PCs didn’t know it, but they would be picking the ground for the upcoming boss fight.

The hunters made their way deep into the Mississippi swamp at sunset and set up inside a protective circle ringed with Ewok-style booby traps. They were willing to risk nose-to-snout confrontation with an unknown Inuit demon as long as the thing wouldn’t be able to escape to harm anyone else. With their own souls as the bait, Bill began the summoning ritual. Snow started to fall inside the wards, then the muddy ground began to freeze. The sudden blizzard swirled to life, coalescing into the Amorak mere inches from Ajaz’ face.

It was surprisingly helpful. The Amorak told them it was allied with the disgraced and exiled Prince Mandoag in his nascent war against his own Summer People. The vendetta against the hunters was a prelude as far as it was concerned, petty vengeance for the mutilations the fairy prince received at Ajaz’s hands a while back (Ajaz cut off Mandoag’s arm and burned his neck and face outside the bounds of their duel). Still, souls were souls, and where was the Amorak’s payment for appearing before the hunters?

Bill told the Amorak it wasn’t getting any souls today, and it was in fact going to leave the mortal plane and not come back. The Amorak countered by pointing out several shapes prowling through the cypress trees towards them. Deputy Summer the stikini, Prince Mandoag, and his retinue had arrived. The gang was heavily outnumbered and Bill didn’t want the wolf in the fight. He asked it what it wanted in return for leaving the real world. I thought about it and decided this was a neat opportunity to tie into Bill’s arc about getting weary of the hunt. Bill wanted it to be over, one way or the other, and the Amorak could provide one nasty option that the other hunters would take pains to avoid.

“When it is time, Bill Stockburn, I will take your soul.”

It was a measured offer. Obviously not a great deal, but not an immediate one, which meant there was hope of finding a way out of it. Bill agreed. The Amorak bit him on the forearm, its teeth leaving a mark more spiritual than physical, then it vanished in a flurry of ice. The frozen ground started cracking and thawing instantly, creating “Stank-Ass Muck Everywhere” amidst the “Creeping Sunset Shadows”. One wolf down, with a fairy prince, a Seminole demon, and a bunch of mooks left to go…

But Before I Kill You…

Aren’t villainous monologues great? You get to explain the mystery to your players and get some pre-fight smacktalk in (because I tend to forget to have my villains banter during conflicts). Prince Mandoag stepped into view past the trees, the monstrous stikini owl perched on his left arm. Well, it was Mandoag’s new left arm, formed Groot-like from the living wood of the Summer Lodge that Rick Eagle had “accidentally” set ablaze. His neck and face were horribly burned from Ajaz’s flaming chain whip, his voice reduced to a Skeletoresque grating hiss as he called out for Ajaz’s blood. He offered to fight Ajaz one-on-one again, for old times’ sake, but the nephilim biker didn’t fall for the obvious trap.

Why all the owl murders? They were just bait, innocent lives sacrificed in bizarre public homicides to draw out the PCs. In a way, it was no different than the summoning spell Bill used to draw out the Amorak. Ajaz and Rick had cut off Mandoag’s arm, burned his face, and set his lodge on fire in the Nevernever. For his failures, the Prince was exiled from the Summer People. He wanted revenge on the PCs first, and then would make war on his own kind. To this end, he allied with the Amorak, the stikini, and the Anuk-Ite - the “Two-Faces” of the Sioux, several of whom were creeping closer through the swamp, prowling backwards in a strange gait. Grotesque faces peered from the backs of their heads and bone spurs protruded from their elbows and heels. They totally had paralyzing gaze attacks too, which I completely forgot about.

Mechanically speaking, there were six anuk-ite, with +3s in fighting stuff and able to take a single mild consequence each. Summer the stikini had +4 in mauling people, was +3 strong, and could fly, and honestly I didn’t have to think of more stats than that because Rick fucking Eagle, that’s why. Prince Mandoag had most of a character sheet from their last encounter, fleshed out here and there but the salient points were:

  • +4 Fight, +1 when using two weapons (his tomahawk and fairy leaf sword)
  • Able to make a selective zone attack when using his sword to cut portals through the Nevernever
  • +2 to Overcome grappling and strength-based obstacles when his Groot-arm can be brought to bear

Now You’re Thinking With Portals

Mandoag and Ajaz both had aspects or stunts that were speed-related, so they went first. Ajaz went for the disarm first (+2 to create advantages with his whip), but the Prince slashed a portal into the air and Ajaz’s whip hit nothing but Nevernever. He wasn’t going to take Mandoag’s weapons away from him so easily this time. The PCs were all bunched up in the single ritual circle zone, so Mandoag spent his action dashing in through the cypress trees. Now he’d have to weather the storm for a round before I could roll for his zone-wide assault, but he had friends with him.

Summer swooped low and slammed into Rick, grappling him with her talons, but the roadie reversed the grapple his very next turn and tried to swing the owl-monster into her fairy master! Scott, Bill, and Clay all laid into the anuk-ite with mixed success - Clay killed one outright by kicking it into one of their spike traps, Scott sliced one up real good with the Pontiff (his papal buzzsaw - long story), but Bill was wounded by the third even as he shattered its shoulder blade with his Judge.

Mandoag’s zone-wide stunt was a wake-up call. His dice were hot, and the PCs all ended up having to defend against a +8! The fairy prince leapt between tears in reality, swinging his tomahawk to deadly effect. Clay invoked enough aspects to dodge entirely, but every other PC took some sort of consequence.

The guys didn’t move out of the zone. Maybe it was too many other systems that penalize leaving melee combat, maybe they thought those hits were a fluke (it kind of was), I don’t know. I burned the rest of my GM fate points avoiding Scott’s Pontiff and more disarm attemps by Ajaz, but as the hunters were mopping up the anuk-ite Prince Mandoag got off another zone attack. It was an easier blow to avoid this time, but the PCs had corresponding fewer fate points. Bill took a Severe consequence and Rick and Ajaz both took lesser consequences. Summer used Rick’s consequences’ free invokes to try to stave off death, but Rick still managed to swing the stikini right onto Mandoag’s sword, killing her outright!

Mandoag’s dice and my gastrointestinal tract took a turn for the worse, and the fairy prince suffered a mild and moderate consequence as Clay and Ajaz bounced him off the cypress trees. Battered and bleeding, with his minions dead or in full retreat, Mandoag conceded. He slashed open an escape route back to Fairie, but Ajaz’s Glaive cut his sword from his hand just as he dove through. So… the villain escaped, but left a pretty powerful magical sword behind. Failing yet again was bad enough, and having his alliance with the Amorak placed in jeopardy was a heavy blow to his nascent war efforts, but losing his sword was an intolerable insult.

And Prince Mandoag never forgets an insult.

How to End With a Whimper

I wrapped the session so fast it was almost a freeze frame. There wasn’t any interference as the hunters made their way out of the swamp and left Mississippi behind them - their choice to summon the Amorak deep in the swamp saw to that. Mandoag’s sword basically grants the wielder the World Walker power (from the Dresden Files RPG). Mandoag could make portals accurately and quickly as a result of his aspects and stunts, but an untrained user would need to Create an Advantage, with all the action costs and chances for compels that come with that.

After I’d had a break and we’d ordered dinner, we handled the post-game. Prior to this session, I had gone back through all my writeups since we switched to Core. The players were due some advancement. I had handed out 1 Refresh at the start of the session, and I added a skill point and an Experience (Atomic Robo RPG) at the end. I’ve been running this campaign since 2010, since before my oldest daughter was born, and although we don’t play frequently, this was the 20th session. Did they want to keep the campaign going? Did we want to start towards a Big Apocalyptic Showdown? There were certainly some plot threads that I could tease into a story arc to that effect. I could also run monster hunting games pretty much forever. I just received my (totally awesome) copy of Monster of the Week - was there any interest in converting systems or starting a different campaign? Did I want to run something different?

We decided that we would head towards a Big Apocalyptic Showdown and we’d keep the game in Fate Core. Lucy and Bill’s fates could tie directly to the/an apocalypse. Scott’s told me he’d really like to see more Nicodemus, and the Denarians are easy to plug into any end-of-the-world storyline. I regret knocking out Clay’s nemesis so early on in the campaign, but if the apocalypse was being brough on by BLACKBOX, Clay’s ongoing one-man war with them would figure prominently. Ajaz’s baggage, a cabal of evil kabbalistic mages and their hitman golems, would more than likely be downplayed, and his player was okay with working on something else to replace them. As for Rick and Tom, well, Tom’s baggage is more Fairie than demonic apocalypse, and Rick’s connected himself to vengeful Nevernever factions through his recent... activities. Prince Mandoag could be a useful thorn in their side as they try to prevent the end of all things, or at least the destruction of all the Hacienda Courts locations in the continental United States.

A Finely Tuned Machine, More Or Less

The session took about 4-5 hours, including the requisite bullshitting time. I feel like I had the opposition tuned just about right, so back when I mentioned how I forgot the anuk-ites’ gaze attacks? I don’t regret it much. I do regret Prince Mandoag not slamming his Groot-arm into the muck and animating the cypress tress to attack. That would’ve been a cooler zone attack narration than simply Nightcrawlering his way around the map. Still, nothing really dragged and everyone took some lumps except for Clay. Fighting is his niche, so no problems there.

Keeping Track of Free Invokes and Boosts

One of the things I started doing this session that really helped my mental bandwidth was use different colored poker chips to represent who had free invokes (black), boosts (blue), or consequences (red) attached to them. It saved time and it made it very simple for everyone to see the resources available to them. I’ll definitely do that again.

The Horror Got Lost Along the Way

I like to say I run an action-horror campaign, but there hasn’t been much in the way of horror lately. My best shot was the Amorak, and although the players approached it with caution, it was the caution you’d approach a high CR monster in D&D. Scary because it’s proved itself to be mechanically powerful, not because it evokes fear or creeps you out. Sure, we started off on a pretty silly note, what with Rick Eagle’s crazy drunken rampage, but I wasn’t able to recover the tone. I never had anything dark enough to contrast with that amusement. I was thinking about ways to keep the players in that creepy, grimy mindset, and I think it’s all about description. It can never be a nice day outside. If it’s summer, it’s oppressively dry underneath a blinding sun. NPCs come on a scale between “streetwalker” and “carnie”, or they’re so plastic and fake the players can’t help but be suspicious. No more suburbs; just crumbling pavement, chain-link fences, bars that open at 11am, and barking stray dogs all the way. As Michael Sands writes in Monster of the Week, “make everything a threat”.