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Friday, 28 October 2016

"The Enemy of My Enemy" (supervillains scenario)

My gaming group has four Sunday specials a year, and this autumn equinox I decided to try a superpowers game based on the Champions rule set from the early '80s.

I'd recently watched The Hateful Eight (and let me just say right now there are spoilers ahead) so that was the germ of the scenario. The reason: disappointment. The Hateful Eight had a great premise, but it turned out Tarantino didn't have the plotting skill to make it work properly. It should have been eight people all with different conflicting agendas. Take the moment when Joe Gage poisons the coffee, and Tarantino actually stops the movie to say, "Ah, they were all talking so nobody except Daisy noticed the guy poison the coffee." But actually they were almost all in the one gang (I did warn you about spoilers) so they would have already had that plan with the coffee, and Tarantino was just wasting our time pretending it was some sort of fiendishly clever mystery. And he had three hours to tell the story. More than three hours! There should have been zillions of twists and turns, cunning plans, reversals of fortune, alliances being made and breaking down, secrets revealed. Instead, after all that, it's just: "Well, we're all members of the gang except for the old bloke, who we threatened so he'd keep quiet."

OK, flame off - but I wanted a scenario where everybody really did have their own agenda.Hence this. In the scenario, five players were supervillains and one was a non-superpowered hero who was caught in the blizzard as he arrived with a new prisoner. As superpowers were being damped for the first third of the scenario, it put the good guy in a relatively secure position. The others could have maybe taken him down if they all piled in together, but being supervillains they couldn't even agree on that.

Your version of the adventure will feature your own players' characters, but just for the record ours are listed on the handouts. I've made those a download so the players don't see them - although if you're going to be playing this then you should have already looked away, obviously.

There were also four NPC villains on the island: Muerte, Holocaust and Belladonna, who together comprised the "Death Squad", and a Doctor Doom type called the Iron Duke. Of those, only Belladonna showed up at the Vistor Centre.

Sycorax Island
Midway between New Zealand and Antarctica
Length 21 miles, Width 3.5 miles.
Highest elevation 1500 feet
Nearest land: the Auckland Islands (600 miles north-west), Melbourne 1500 miles north-east

The island is in two main pieces of plateau of around 150–200 m (490–660 ft) elevation to the north and south, joined by a narrow isthmus close to sea level. The high points include Mount Grimm on the north-east coastal ridge at 385 m (1,263 ft), and Mounts Storm and Kurtzberg in the south at 410 m (1,345 ft).The high security prison complex is just north of the centre of the island.


ACT ONE

Blizzard 
Severe storms building rapidly. (This coincides with NASA’s dark matter probe being activated in orbit above the island.)

Breakout 
There’s a power glitch to the prison, and minutes later a freak blizzard hits. The cell doors open and there's a mass breakout. The warden orders an evacuation. The escapees find two guards with their necks broken, and everyone else gone.

The escapees may not be aware at first that the power outage occurred before the blizzard. And only someone with technical knowledge will realize that the cell doors were designed to lock shut, not open – in other words, somebody planned this.

The nearest escape route is the hangar where the choppers are stored. That’s near to the Visitor Centre.

On their way to the Visitor Centre, the escapees may catch sight of the Monitor to the east, between here and the docks. Fortunately it is dormant.

They may also catch sight (just a glimpse through the snow) of a beam of light a couple of miles to the south.

The good guy arrives
As the Lucky Gentleman (a Clint Barton type, the only hero in the scenario and crucially not dependent on super-powers; he’s just highly skilled and at peak physical fitness) is incoming with Dr Megalo (think: the Hulk) in a chopper, he sees three choppers outbound through the blizzard.

Strong radio interference. There’s no chance of turning back now, and if he went down in the sea outside the island’s power-dampening zone then Megalo would have him for elevenses, so he goes in.

Dr Megalo notices flickers of Cerenkov radiation on the chopper’s metal frame. Connected with the altered time rate on the island, this tells him that cosmic forces are causing the storm – and that, although the NASA probe may have triggered it, there’s got to be something on the island itself attracting the flow of energy.

In fact all of the staff have evacuated except for two guards who were on patrol and are now stranded. (They’ll show up at the Visitor Centre.)

Visitor centre 
A slightly ironic term for the reception area where VIPs are met. In consists of a large foyer with store rooms, lavatories, a CCTV guardroom and a small cafe at the back.

The characters make their way to the visitor centre but there’s no chance of flying the single chopper that’s left in the hangar there. Along with the PCs, Belladonna is here. If nobody else notices, she’ll point out that they still don’t have their powers.

Then the Lucky Gentleman turns up with his prisoner.

No chance of using the chopper. Only other way off the island is the submarine but it’s in the sub pen two miles away.

CCTV Room
This is off the main reception/lounge area. Among other things, it gives a view of the docks on the north-east of the island showing that the ship has gone.

They get a closer view of the light beam that some of them may have spotted earlier. It’s like a searchlight in reverse – ie coming from above and scanning around on the ground.

There’s also a view of the submarine pen on the southern tip of the island. There’s an Ocular Deep 200 sub. It carries only two people, though only somebody who can drive a sub will know that.

The guards
Two prison guards turn up. They’re understandably nervous and they know that a shapechanger (Mr Veils) is in the group, so will voice concern that Lucky (whom they recognize; think Cap) might not be the real Gentleman. He can talk them round – especially if he points out that Veils probably can’t use his power at the moment – but they’ll need some convincing.

The guards’ names are Joe Braben and Kurt Orville.



ACT TWO

The blizzard abates – and with it the dampening effect. More importantly, everyone’s powers come back. (Milk that for dramatic effect.) It’s still very cold and blustery, but going outside is at least possible.

The beam of light is now fixed on a point one and a half miles south of the prison complex. (It has found its target, the serpent crown, and is dematerializing a way through the rock.)

The Monitor 
Unfortunately the lifting of the dampening field also reactivates the Monitor (think: the Destroyer). It will attack if they attempt to reach the submarine pen at the southern end of the island, which the region it’s currently patrolling: “Metahumans detected. Threat assessment pending. Maximum force authorized. Neutralize or eliminate.”



Escape routes
The wind is still too severe to risk taking a chopper up. In any case, the Lucky Gentleman’s chopper is the only one in the hangar and that will take a maximum of four people given the remaining fuel. There’s also the sub (if they saw it) but that only takes two people.

The Iron Duke and the Death Squad
Back up towards the prison complex there’s a wheelchair in the snow. It looks like the snow banked up to the point that the wheelchair user had to abandon it and drag himself on.

The tracks in the snow lead to the Vault. There lies the body of Wesley Wellington, the Iron Duke. It looks like he was heading towards the security swipe plate on the outer door but couldn’t reach it and died of exposure.

Optionally he could have a faint pulse if anybody with medical knowledge thinks to check. He could be brought round in the medical bay.

(The Iron Duke predicted that NASA’s dark matter probe would disrupt the weather as it passed directly over the island. He arranged the power outage, setting everyone else’s door to open ten minutes before his so they would all either kill each other or try to reach the docks, giving him free rein to go for his suit.)

It’s right about now that Muerte and Holocaust show up. Belladonna will side with them. Muerte gives the characters a chance to back off. He wants the contents of the Vault for himself. If they don’t leave, Muerte and his colleagues attack.

If the characters search Wesley Wellington’s body (they have to specify they are doing this) they will find a security card in his hand. It’s obviously homemade – a cut piece of plastic, a tape strip sellotaped on. But it works at Level One (highest) for 2-3 uses.

Entering the Vault
If they find the security card and enter the Vault, they can get the Iron Duke’s armour. It has to be fitted by hand (the auto-fit is linked to an implant only Wellington has) and using any power other than augmented STR requires an INT roll. If the character criticals an INT roll, they can then use the suit’s powers normally.

The medical bay
A character who is wounded can recover 1d6+1 Body points here.

ACT THREE

The beam of light from the sky (“it's like seeing where the rainbow ends”) is focused on the centre of the island. They can see that it’s fading now.

All the characters feel a very powerful intelligence scanning their mind. Ask them their Ego CV and let those who fail know that the intelligence might even be able to compel them if it chose. There’s a sense that the intelligence is growing in strength.

At the centre of the island
If they approach they see a shaft leading down into the rock. The beam fades completely.

The Serpent Crown is here and forming within it is a translucent humanoid form with bronze-like skin and glowing eyes. This is Nebulos. Centuries ago he was stripped of his crown and banished to the Negative Zone. Now NASA’s dark matter probe has opened up a gateway.

Nebulos is growing in strength as he materializes. Let him begin with a 20-point force field, 8d6 Energy Blast and 6d6 Mind Control and that increases by 3 points/1d6 every round.

He opens with a 5d6 Presence Attack, then proposes to make them his lieutenants in the conquest of this world.

It’s obvious that he is growing more solid and the glow from the crown stronger every second.

* * *

In our game, Belladonna tried to get the others to team up against the Lucky Gentleman but failed. During an argument she broke Dr Megalo's nose - for which, when he later transformed into his identity as the Shark, he ate her. One of the characters was a shapechanger called Mr Veils who variously passed himself off as Gary Brand (Holocaust), prison medical officer Dr William Sullivan, Wesley Wellington (the Iron Duke), and a prison guard. In the final confrontation, which against all odds involved all of the players despite an afternoon in which they had frequently split into three or four factions, the Lucky Gentleman went to grab Nebulos's crown, rolled a 3 on 3d6, and the bad guy faded back into the dark matter universe.


And incidentally, by a strange coincidence that in comics would surely presage the arrival of Galactus, there's currently a Kickstarter for a Champions supplement set in the Golden Age (ie the 1940s). I'm tempted to run a Minutemen scenario but I'm not sure that my players could cope with all the rapes, beatings, betrayals, murders, and toxic secrets. Oh, that's not how you see the Golden Age heroes? I'll get my cape...

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Scare monger

With Halloween coming up, maybe you’re looking for some pleasurable chills. Maybe a few shudders. Even an outright shriek or two? If so, here are a few suggestions to get a little cold grue into your life.

John Whitbourn's creepy short story "Waiting For A Bus" has been collected in various anthologies including The Year's Best Fantasy, has picked up a slew of awards, and even been dramatized on the radio. I was fortunate enough to hear it from the author's lips one dark autumn evening in the late 1980s, and I can still feel the finger of ice that ran down my spine as he read the fateful words --

Ah, but no spoilers. Read it for yourself right now here. And if your hair hasn’t gone stark white after that, you can delve into the other Binscombe Tales here.

If gamebooks are your poison, you can climb inside the skin of the Frankenstein story with my interactive version of the classic drama of hubris, dark secrets, murder, and toxic love-hate. Among other things you get to be the voice of Victor's conscience - although, like Tony Stark, he doesn't always listen.

You also get to see through the eyes of the monster. And if you’re thinking that doesn’t sound too scary – well, you’re probably thinking of the movies, all of which are jolly romps compared to the flesh-crawling horror of the genuine Frankenstein article.


Steve Ditko, probably the greatest artist in the history of comics, produced some of his best work (so far) for Warren's horror mags, Creepy and Eerie, in partnership with Archie Goodwin. Now Dark Horse have collected those masterpieces of the macabre into one beautiful hardcover book. It's right here if you think your nerves can take the strain.


A rising star in the firmament of fantastic fiction is Jason Arnopp, whose novel The Last Days of Jack Sparks has justly earned him comparison with the greats of the horror genre. It's a brilliant Bloody Mary of a story mixing black comedy, postmodern zing, eye-popping terror, poignant notes of regret, all told at a pace that won't let you put the book down.

I'd say Jack Sparks was the best modern horror story out there but - sorry, Jason, that accolade must go to... oh, none other than Jason Arnopp, for A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home. This personalized yarn is so effectively scary that it's probably not safe to read it when you're alone in the house. You can also send it to a friend and enjoy the twitchy, haunted look they'll carry around with them for the next few months.

Lastly, if you just want something sinister to watch, try the classic TV movie Schalcken the Painter, based on a J S Le Fanu story. That'll send you off to bed with an eye on the shadows.


Come back on Friday when we'll put the spooks aside and have a kick-ass roleplaying adventure involving supervillains: "The Enemy Of My Enemy".

Friday, 14 October 2016

The unquiet grave

Here's one I did earlier - thirty-two years earlier, as a matter of fact, in the July 1984 issue of White Dwarf. I used to write so much of the magazine in those days that I had to use pseudonyms or the contents page would have looked a bit repetitive. This piece appeared originally under the nom-de-plume 'Phil Holmes'; Phil because I was and am a huge admirer of Professor Barker, and Holmes because of the detective.

*  *  *
Lost on the barren moors of north of the Hourla Hills after nightfall, you have little hope of surviving to see another dawn. You have trudged through the freezing mud for hours but finally you stumble and sink to your knees, your iron will no longer a match for your weariness. You bow your head and compose yourself to meet your god. Your only regret is that you did not die in battle.

Through the closing haze of darkness you seem to see a light, and dully you turn your head to watch it approach. An old man stands before you holding a lantern aloft. When, in later years, you think back to this moment it seems that you recall vividly the look of quiet strength in his grey eyes, and the sound of his cloak as the gale snaps it around his frail body.

Beckoning you to follow, he turns and walks away. Somehow you find the strength to rise and stagger after him. Holding the bobbing lantern up to guide you, he leads the way to a small cottage where a welcoming light shines from latticed windows. A few more steps would take you to the cottage door, but your fatigue is too much and you pass out. Barely conscious, you sense yourself being lifted up and carried towards the cottage. As in a dream, you abstractly wonder at the strength in the old man’s arms. He takes you inside and lays you on a pallet beside the fire. Your last recollection is of thick fur blankets being drawn up around you.

It is noon before you awaken. At first you remember little, but as fragments and tatters of memory return from the previous night you are amazed to find yourself in a dusty, derelict cottage. There is no sign of your rescuer and there does not seem to have been a fire in the grate in the recent past. Outside, the bleak landscape lies bathed in cold, winter sunshine. You see smoke rising from beyond a wooded hill and head in that direction.

An hour’s walk brings you to the village of Hobvale where you quickly seek out an inn and treat yourself to an ample and warming repast. Then, sitting by the fire with a cup of mulled wine in your hand, you relate the events of the previous night to the innkeeper.

‘An extraordinary tale,’ he says, ‘but one which I have in fact heard once or twice before from other travellers like yourself. Some years ago an old monk called Alaric lived in a hermitage out on the moors. Anyone who came to his door would receive shelter, and he often went out with his lantern when a sudden storm or blizzard might have caught wayfarers unawares.’

‘Why, then, clearly this was he.’ You are on your feet at once. ‘Come man, I am no churl. Tell me where he lives now and I shall go to thank this monk and reward him for his kindness.’

The innkeeper shakes his head and waves you back to your chair. ‘Hah! I cannot think you would care to undertake the journey. He took in a stricken traveller some ten years past and then died himself when he braved the storm to fetch the man a doctor. He is buried up there on the moor.’
For thousands of years people have enjoyed ghost stories. A dip into the folklore and literature of any country will uncover dozens of variations on the theme. Unfortunately this rich vein of imaginative material is all too often reduced to absurdity by the need to frame everything in simple game-terms. How impoverished and inadequate the modern horrors of adventure gaming can seem when compared to the originals from which they were derived (Grendel, Dracula, the Green Knight, the Balrog, et al.)

The problem in part comes from trying to define things exactly, for this can also limit them. It would be very difficult to create anything like the story of Macbeth in a standard adventure, say. Banquo’s ghost would either have to be a genuine Dragon Warriors ghost with a 1d12 Fright Attack, or a figment of Macbeth’s guilt-ridden imagination, which could be established if the PCs have some way of detecting spirits or the undead when the ghost next shows. Storytelling allows ambiguity whereas games enforce the leaden certainty of binary logic.

I am not suggesting that creatures should not be defined at all in game-terms. But there should certainly be a shift away from a rules-and-stats approach which makes it all too easy to roll hosts of uninspired random encounters. There must be a sense of (and fear of ) the unknown when encountering fantastic creatures, particularly ghosts and undead. Player-characters should not think of such things as standard, nor should they ever feel that they or anyone else in the world knows very much about them.

To help deal with the problem, here is a new term for referees to use: revenant. A revenant is anyone who returns from the dead—whether in physical form, as an apparition, or as an ambiguous and undefined combination of the two. There is no one set of stats for all revenants, because they are not all of one nature; some you can fight, some you can banish with magic, but many can only be dealt with by discovering their particular weaknesses.

Alaric’s revenant could be thought of as a sort of ‘psychic residue’. It could not harm a character, nor be harmed. It could not be pigeonholed as a standard Dragon Warriors ghost, because it was not a conscious and reasoning entity, it was a part of this honourable man which did not fade from the world when his body died and his soul passed on. Revenants like this will appear in scenarios as a means of giving the characters clues to past events, assisting them, hindering endangering them or simply to create an eerie effect.

Revenants may be brought into existence when a person dies as a result of gross injustice, or with a task or duty still to complete. This is the nebulous and inconstant magic of the human psyche, there is no ‘Create Revenant’ spell!

If you left a companion to die then his revenant might pursue you with a view to evening up the score. Maybe he can only be laid to rest if you go back, find his body and give it a decent burial. Or maybe you will have to fight the revenant because it will only be satisfied by your death. Possibly the revenant will depart if you can merely fool it into thinking you are dead. Scenarios involving a revenant will thus often revolve around finding out what it wants and then accomplishing this with minimal unpleasantness to yourself!

Revenants are a useful way of keeping powerful PCs on their toes. The characters might be able to defeat ghosts and spectres with their hands tied behind them, but they will just have to rely on their wits when facing a revenant which inconveniently ignores all the usual tricks for dealing with undead.

Any powers that a revenant possesses should be counterbalanced by specific vulnerabilities. These could relate to the way the revenant arose, so if a person died in a fire, his her revenant could manifest itself in a form mutilated by horrible burns, becoming able to utilise flame-related attacks and being driven away with water.

When you’re devising a revenant, start by deciding on its ‘life’ history and how you’re going to bring it into the scenario, and only then work out its stats and powers (if any)—let your imagination take the lead and make the rules run to catch up!

Second, take great care in the way you play a revenant. Supposing you have a revenant which wants a character dead. It might make repeated attacks night after night, but it would not plan its attacks as would a human assassin. Revenants are isolated fragments of a psyche, and they lose their qualities of awe and strangeness if made to act like rational living beings.

Scenario Outlines

The High Priest of Nebr’volent
After discovering the pyramid of a wealthy dignitary of Ancient Kaikuhuru in Opalar, a high priest in times long past, the characters return home with a fortune in tomb treasures. Shortly afterwards, a succession of deaths among the NPCs who accompanied them alerts the player characters to the danger they are in. The next night, one of the PCs is visited in a dream by the high priest’s revenant. In the dream, the character finds himself running, parched and weary, across the desert sands. In the moonlight, he sees an oasis and heads for it. As he cups his hands to drink, however, his relief turns to dread—for reflected in the water he sees a terrible apparition standing behind him. It is the mummified corpse of the ancient, dressed in its priestly finery. It reaches for him with clawlike hands but he cannot move or turn to defend himself. The water in his hands turns to dust and he awakes in a cold sweat. The dream recurs every night, and each morning the character finds he is getting weaker. (In game terms, he is losing a Health Point every four nights.)

Consulting local sages, the player characters are told by the most well-read sorcerers and exorcists that someone must sit with the character while he sleeps and cast Hold Off The Dead the moment that it seems the dream is beginning. This course proves partially effective—it drives back the revenant until the next time the character goes to sleep—but the sorcerers are charging a great deal each time they are called on to cast the spell....

The other PCs probably realise it is their turn once the haunted character is dead, so they do everything possible to keep him alive.

In desperation, and after a gentle hint from the referee by way of local lore, the character goes down to the docks and seeks out a notorious sorcerer who lives there. This fellow consults his books, charts and astrological devices and then explains that the tomb was cursed. He tells the character that he has only one hope (choose the solution which fits best into your campaign):

1. (For long-term campaigns) The characters must gather together the priestly regalia they stole and return it to the tomb. The problems arising from this are that they possibly do not have enough cash to buy back some of the items, or a collector who bought one of the items refuses to part with it. Once they manage to get back all of the items and set off for the tomb, the haunted character loses no more Health Points—but he doesn’t recover the Health Points he’s already lost until all the items are safely back and the tomb sealed.

2. (For episodic campaigns) The sorcerer knows of a way to help the character fight back: he must go to sleep clutching a pile of salt in his left hand and an antique jade shortsword (provided by the sorcerer) tied to his right with a silk cord. When the revenant appears behind him in his dream he is able to throw the salt up into its face and then, with its gaze momentarily averted from the pool, he is freed from his paralysis and able to turn and fight it. This is a straight ‘physical’ battle; no spells can be used. The character and the revenant are closely matched, and neither has armour. The revenant wields a mace of mauve stone, so the character has an advantage in that his weapon can impale – and because of the silk cord he cannot lose his grip on it. If he defeats the revenant, he wakes to find he is back to full health. If he doesn’t defeat it then he never wakes up, and the next PC will have to pay the sorcerer for his services.

A Noble Knight
This is intended as a sub-plot to run alongside whatever main adventure the characters are on at the time. A number of strange events occur over a period of several days—e.g. a golden hawk leading the characters to a companion who has fallen in the hills and broken his leg, a lion which silently approaches when they are lost in the mountains at night and guides them to safety. Mention enough of these that the player-characters have a sense of something significant in the offing, but keep them busy enough with the main adventure that they don’t have time to analyse it all.

Eventually, while traversing a mountain pass, they are ambushed by bandits. Things look bad for a while until the sudden intervention of an armoured knight on horseback saves the day. The knight turns out to be an uncommunicative sort, though he does reveal his name (Helvelas) and seems very pious. He walks with a slight limp. At the next town the characters lose him, but he meets up with them when they continue their trek into the mountains in search of whatever tomb or treasure trove they are after. Helvelas accompanies them when they enter a cavern complex infested with monsters, and several times steps into melee to save a character’s life as the party fights on towards its objective.

Finally, after a pitched battle in the main cavern chamber, the characters look around to find Helvelas gone. But while gathering the treasure, they discover the corpse of a knight in the shadows under a shelf of rock to one side of the cave. Mystics with the party can tell that he died of a wasting infection— probably caught from the monsters when they took him prisoner. His left leg was broken. Although his armour was rusted over the years, the characters can still recognise the heraldic design on the breastplate. A golden eagle on a red sun—Helvelas’s coat of arms. His revenant has helped the adventurers reach his body so that they can administer the proper funeral rites.

Recommended sources
Films: The Fog; The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; High Plains Drifter; Rashomon; Don Giovanni.
Books: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M R James; Dracula by Bram Stoker; British Folktales and Legends by K Briggs; The Room in the Tower by E F Benson; The Bull and the Spear by Michael Moorcock

Not all of these are strictly concerned with revenants, but they are valuable as inspirational material.This article is also available in Magnum Opus's beautifully produced supplement In From The Cold - but good luck finding a copy of that.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Dark Lord - the board game



A big shout-out to Manvinder Singh Dev, creator of the Dark Lord board game! Jamie and I would love to play this.