Friday, October 23, 2015

Actual Play: Mana War

A Wild Kickstarter Appears!

Mana War is a deck of 50 standard-sized cards and two rules cards. Much like Spot It!, one of my favorite games to play around the house, Mana War includes multiple games to play with the deck. It's lightly themed along similar lines as the terrain in Magic: The Gathering, but each card is marked solely with one of five icons: fire, sun, earth, water, and a leaf. This means you don't have to read to understand the games, which is great if you want to play with little kids or really, really drunk people. In fact, one of the design goals is indeed to have a series of card games that one could play in a bar or at least introduce to players in such a venue.

The Games

I played Mana War and Mana Jungle with my 5-year old daughter. Before the Kickstarter's launch, I playtested Mana Lord.

Mana Lord is by far the standout game. The cards aren't complex and the game doesn't have a lot of rules, but there's plenty of strategy involved as you keep track of other players' hands and take hidden information into account. It's competitive without being directly adversarial.

Mana War was okay. For me, it devolved into "hope you draw the right card" rather than feeling like an actual game.

My daughter enjoyed Mana Jungle immensely, however. A lot of your success in a two-player game comes down to luck of the draw, because there are obvious optimal moves you can make. That said, the game was easy enough for my daughter to play after 1-2 coached turns (she whooped me). Seeing enough cards come up to present a move put smiles on her face every time, especially when she used her Fire cards to destroy my Leaf cards. More than two players would present more strategy, as you might find yourself making and breaking alliances as one player pulls ahead and makes themselves a target.

Finally, the designer plans on publishing additional games on his website, and the cards aren't tied down to a single game so tightly that you couldn't use them to track things in RPGs or other contexts. It's a useful deck, comes with many simple games, and won't break the bank.

Full disclosure: I was given a playtest copy and worked with the game's designer at my "real" job.

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).


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.


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.


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!

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”.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Four Color FAE is looking for playtesters

If you are willing and able to participate in playtesting the upcoming Four-Color FAE supplement - rules for running supers in Fate Accelerated - then please comment on this post. We will hook you up with a first draft of the rules, and look forward to hearing your comments in the Four-Color FAE community.

We're looking for any and all feedback on these rules from Fate/FAE GMs who are interested in superhero gaming. Convention pick-up games, one-shots, or even new or revamped campaigns are all great ways to test this material.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Tao of Fate: Creating Challenging Opponents

When Fate players are ready to throw down with the opposition, the question arises: how do you as the GM make such an encounter challenging? Here are the tools that I use to create and tune enemy NPCs to provide a suitable level of danger for the PCs.


I have three classes of NPC: "mooks", "named opponents", and "bosses". +Michael Moceri calls the middle group "lieutenants", which works as well.

General Guidelines

I generally present my NPCs' sheets to my players for inspection. I will leave off aspects or stunts which would reveal plot twists, but in general I've found that players who are on board with your program will go a long way toward producing an enjoyable combat, because you've set expectations up front about what their opponents are supposed to be like.

Number of Enemies

I populate a typical encounter with a number of NPCs between 2x and 2.5x the number of PCs. These will be brought into the fight in stages, between 1x and 1.5x the number of PCs at any given moment.

Michael Moceri's formula for a really tough fight, for N player characters, is N/2 bosses, about N named characters (or "lieutenants"), and between N and 2N mook units. This is between 2.5 and 3.5 the number of PCs.

Typically, you can use a 3:2:1 or 4:2:1 ratio of mook units to named opponents to bosses.

Mooks will make an appearance first, and named opponents or bosses will enter after that. This level of opposition gives a reasonably challenging fight and let the PCs move on without stopping to lick their wounds for too long.

You can use the Fate ladder to pick a specific number. Read down the ladder for a description of how hard the fight should feel ("Superb", "Good"). Divide the bonus (+5, +3) you see there by 2, and multiply by number of PCs in combat, and that's how many total NPCs (individuals or groups) you should plan for.

For example, a Superb challenge (+5) gives you about 2.5x (5/2) times as many NPCs as there are PCs. With four PCs, you'll have a total of 10 NPC units to bring in. You might decide this means 5 units of mooks, 3 named characters, and 2 boss characters. You might bring in 3 mook units and 2 named characters to start with, then add the others as combat progresses.


Well-designed opponents have aspects that mesh with the PC aspects, the scene aspects, and the story aspects. There should be a clear emotional investment in the conflict, and a clear payoff for winning.

Skills and Approaches

I typically run games using FAE, so my text will say "approach" here. You can substitute "highest combat skill" for Fate Core.

If the highest approach rating your PCs have is "N", I give tough bosses a peak approach of N+1, named opponents N+0 in their area of expertise, and mooks N-1. For starting PCs, this would be +4 for bosses, +3 for named characters, +2 for mooks.

I build bosses as fully realized Fate characters, with stunts, approaches, and so forth. Named opponents outside of focus will be at N-2, and mooks will be N-3.


Fights with named characters and bosses can feel "spikier" with some types of stunts, especially stunts that affect how the character does damage. For a smoother feeling in an attrition-style fight, go easy on assigning stunts.

Stress Boxes

The number and size of each NPC's stress boxes depend on their role:
  • Bosses and named characters get 3 stress boxes (1, 2, and 3) as a general rule.
  • Units of mooks have several (usually five) 1-point stress boxes.
  • Armored or tough mooks will get 2-point stress boxes, which helps them last longer against big attacks. They can still be knocked down with a bunch of 1-shift attacks.
Groups of mooks use the Hits and Overflow rules, allowing a single "unit" of NPCs to absorb incoming damage with multiple stress boxes in a single attack. Named and boss enemies use stress rules as normal.


I assign a full suite of Consequence slots to bosses and other named characters, but usually not more slots than a typical PC will have.

Consequences are double-edged for an NPC to have, because inflicting one gives a free invocation to the attacker. This helps fill the gaps at the end of the fight when the PCs' free invokes (or players' creativity levels) are running dry.

"Monster" Opponents

There are ways to create "monster" opponents that are tougher than even a typical boss.
  1. You can create a single creature with multiple body parts, each of which can take action, be damaged, and so on. A kraken and its left and right tentacles is a typical example. Do this if you want the players to make tactical choices about where to focus their fire. +Randy Oest does a great writeup of this approach here: Tiered Opponents in Fate.
  2. The scale rules from the Fate System Toolkit can give flat bonuses to attack, defense, damage, and armor.
  3. Such opponents can have stunts that break the rules in ways that PCs shouldn't, such as every attack being zone-wide.
NPC Actions: Create Advantage

One of the big values for mook units is their ability to create unopposed situation aspects for their higher-level allies. How often they do this will affect how competent, organized, and deadly the opposing force feels. Barbarian hordes, beastmen berserkers, or mindless bug swarms will do this less often, preferring to spam Attacks on the PCs. Organized military units, experienced fire-teams, or hive-mind creatures will support each other by creating situation aspects.

NPC Actions: Overcome

Whether your NPCs should be overcoming PC-created aspects is a matter of taste. In general, I will have an NPC roll Overcome if I can think of a logical reason, and a logical method, for them to do so.

NPC Actions: Attack

If you want a "war of attrition" feel from your enemy units, have them mostly use Attack - this will gradually chew through PC resources at first, but will make them less deadly to the party. Enemies that are using smart tactics will let the highest-level unit in play (a named character or boss) roll the Attack.

A good rule of thumb for reasonably smart enemies is to have half as many Attack actions from your NPCs as there are active NPCs. Other NPCs should be rolling Create Advantage or Overcome to support their allies.

NPC Actions: Defend

Typically, very high Defense rolls from your NPCs will be boring. Fate by its nature already encourages people to stack advantages and unleash big attacks. Forcing the players to do even more of this deprives them of a feeling of progress in the fight. Instead, letting them win a series of victories against lesser opponents gives them a sense of satisfaction.

Victory Conditions: Compels

Many interesting fights can end on a Compel - in either direction. For example, a boss who compels "Endless Waves of Mooks" to force a surrender from the PCs, or players who invoke "I Will Redeem My Brother" to make an evil brother NPC repent long enough to take him captive.

Victory Conditions: Concessions

Some genres, like four-color superhero games, make concessions the preferred way out of a combat.

I try to use concessions as character-establishing moments for new NPCs. For example, in my scifi game the PCs wanted to blow up an enemy power plant. The sub-commander assigned to take care of them showed up and started sniping. As a dedicated and loyal officer, she did a couple of almost-suicidal moves trying to take out the PCs.

They finally managed to knock her down far enough for her to be at risk. I offered a concession: "she bites down on a poison tooth, and manages to tell you that only her allies have the antidote". Since the person who had been fighting her had a moral code against unnecessary killing, they left her behind to be found and rescued, and left the scene with the generator destroyed. It conveyed the impression I wanted - someone who was doing her duty, and refused to be taken captive, but who didn't particularly want to die and felt a degree of trust in the PCs' motives.


Play with the four major slider bars you have: "number of actions", "peak skill", "damage capacity", and "tactical acumen". Customize your characters. Try new ways of building monsters. Go nuts. Don't be afraid to cheat.

Thanks for reading, and please leave feedback or opinions in the comments!

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.