(NOTE: I’m re-reading this blog post and watching myself try to write a normal actual play post and failing to filter out how odd and wrong everything is right now. Maybe because it feels surreal to be gaming right now. There is going to be a game soon when I turn to my friends and say something like, “See you next game; I hope we’re still gaming in a democracy-shaped republic.”)
Thunderspire Labyrinth offered the inspiration – the treasure-hunters chasing a group of shitty people (in this case human traffickers who sold people to ghouls for food and slavery). The shitty people ran into the ruins of a minotaur city, said to be cursed and devil-haunted – you know, the usual.
The module itself was a bit too much for me, so I distilled it down to 5 sets, grabbing names and details from the module as needed:
I wanted the players to know that there was more than one way in, so I made the goal of the first set: Decide how you want to enter Saruun Khel. The players were savvy. They watched the ravens flying around the gate, noticed that the older ravens refused to enter and only the younger ravens went in at all.
I’m not sure why a fantasy story about a beautiful city, full of bullish folk who worshipped labyrinthine choice and devils and demons falling to civil war because of the worship of a selfish liar full of secrets would appeal to me right now.
Drew made his Hunt roll to know the history of the place. His none-too-bright former gladiator knew the history of Saruun Khel because there was a gladitorial game based on the city’s civil war. Love it.
Sometimes Trophy Gold’s Hunt rolls call on the GM to say something the players find that is terrifying. Sometimes they find what they are looking for but still, run across something terrifying. It isn’t always a monster encounter.
When Revel was looking for a map of the city, I had to offer something terrifying.
“Here’s what is terrifying. This city was really beautiful. It was an architectural marvel, a flittering jewel in this mountain and now it is a flooded ruin. Now it is nothing but a dungeon to loot because of civil war.”
Yeah, it is obvious that shit is on my mind.
Griffons and Dragons
There was another cool moment where Revel charged a griffon. It was a dangerous move and Drew knew it. The actions of the other two characters entirely saved his ass. Rasei fired arrows at it and I had archery as a weakness of griffons – John had his character, Theoden do something so smart that I wrote it down as a new weakness. He used a spell to imitate a dragon call.
Of course griffons would be scared of dragons; it is the only predator above them on the food chain in the mountains. Those two actions, both utilizing weaknesses, dipped the griffon’s Endurance so that their roll defeated it.
I’d like to take this moment to say that describing a griffon dragging a goat up onto an 8 foot rock and eating it was fun. Giant eagle maw cracking bones and horns and hooves; the sound of it must be terrifying. That was a fun GM moment.
I knew there was a dragon in the Tomb Mountains but didn’t know if it was awake. Today I found out it was awake now. John’s character, Theoden, imitated a dragon-call to scare the griffon and then a few Hunt rolls demanded something terrifying.
Yup, dragon’s awake. What would wake up a dragon fast? A dragon-call. Mountain ranges aren’t big enough for two dragons.
I decided there was a scholar from the capital studying griffons in the peak.
The Big Score
Drew’s ex-gladiator said, “Where do minotaur store their taxes?”
The city is entirely flooded. The tombs are on hilltops, so they only have knee-deep water in them but the rest of the mountain is a big moongator tank. One can see the tops of towers and cathedral spires in the murky water. The players are thinking about ways to drain that water or freeze it and dig through the ice.
I had a panicked second – what would I do if they drained Saruun Khel?
It was a short second of panic. Here’s what I’d do.
In Trophy Gold you are saving up to get 50 gold and achieve your drive. What if they drained the minotaur city and defeated whatever was still guarding the city streets?
What if I just said, “Good job, you all achieve your Drives. Roll up new characters. You see a city just opened up called New Khel and adventurers are flocking to it. From this metropolis you can go delving in the underdeeps or along the surface of the dragon-haunted Tomb Mountains.”
Maybe they just do it. Maybe they’d just change the world a bit and we’d take some time to adventure in that changed world and see what treasures are worth hunting in it.
Maybe you can build something on the wreckage of a minotaur civil war.
Or maybe they’ll get eaten by the moongator, stalking the floodwaters, a moon-colored monster.
I used the above technique in the Thursday night Trophy Gold game and got a wonderful tale from Jesse. He told me about how his orphan pickpocket broke into a noble’s house and had to kill the noble in order to get out.
I loved it because it wasn’t a kill that made the world a better place (well, depending on the noble) and there was a touch of shame in it. This kid was a treasure-hunter because they had lived a tough life and this was the only clear vocation open to them.
Municipal Dungeon Delving in the fantasy city of Jaquays (pronounced Jake-Ways) in the wake of the Sorcerer-Kings, who have abandoned this world and have left their toxic labs, wyrd towers and feral pets all over the city-scape. More about the making of this game here.
I’ve been honored to play so much on the Actual Play channel, a place where I’ve made wonderful friends and played wondrous games.
Here’s where I’m keeping my ideas for the science-fantasy RPG, Troika!, and blog posts about our Friday night game. Link above (and in the tabs at the top of the page).
After years I’m getting together with old friends, Jeff and Storn, and playing an investigative D&D game set in the Domains of Dread from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft and countless other supplements from my gaming youth. It is an experiment and it is working for us. Storn graciously illustrates characters in the game and his art is a lovely way to commemorate the game.
I have a Threadless shop, all artists’ proceeds go to amazing causes. My hope is that my nerdery will make the world a better place somehow. Design examples and links to collections below:
I’m all over the place this week and thought I’d get the links all in one place in case you are on the road and need to hear me prattle on about games for a few hours but don’t have my cell phone number.
I was sincerely honored to be asked to co-host this podcast about Trophy games with Jason Cordova of Gauntlet fame. The podcast is about Trophy Gold and Dark (and more?) but many of the techniques discussed are usable all over the table and cool monsters are cool monsters. If Monsters from the World’s Birth sound interesting to you, check it.
Daniel and I are playing Cyberpunk A.W. using the Burned Over Zine rules with asynchronous video and I’m totally digging it. It is like video play-by-post. The link above is the playlist where you can find it all.
It is not often I’m gaming and think, “Shit, this feels new to me,” but this game is odd and new. I’m digging it and cyberpunk feels like the perfect genre for it. Daniel is a real-life nurse and he’s bringing to the table.
If folks would like, I could post when we get updates under the twitter hashtag #cyberpunknurse.
My favorite moment from last night’s Trophy Gold game or maybe just the moment that is lingering with me this afternoon as that session had plenty of amazing moments.
The group decided to walk into the Ghoul King’s Fort posing as emissaries from the queen. Aram, a disgraced courtesan, knows court and the queen. It was all very Star Warsy, putting on Stormtrooper armor and walking around the Death Stars with Chewie.
The fort was an ancient ruin in the middle of a lake; not many visitors. The guard went to tell the king. Near the gate was an altar, a place where people who are waiting could pray. The most prominent deity was the World-Eater, a kind of rough cylinder with a lamprey mouth, a vampire god the ghouls worship. On the altar are icons the locals put there, dragon-gods are the local pantheon so there’s the Five-Headed Empress and the Platinum Emperor.
There was some tension – would this ruse work? A good time to ask some questions.
What deities do your characters honor?
Aram stole the icon of the Platinum Emperor.
Esfa put an icon of a raven, the death deity he honors.
Revel remembered having to dress as gods and saints for gladiator fights during festival days. He remembered that the World-Eater helmet was uncomfortable.
Rasei, played by Jesse, wasn’t sure.
“Is there a trickster thief god?” he asked.
“Yes, the saint of thieves,” I said because putting the word saint with words I don’t associate with saint always pleases me. Saint of Axes, Saint of Ghouls, The Wizard-Saint, etc.
“Saint Hastad of the Pockets!” Anthony said with gusto, joining in.
“Also known as Old Hundred Hands,” I added, writing down, St. Hastad of the Pockets in my notebook.
And Jesse told us about how Hastad’s icon wasn’t put on the altar directly. Thieves hid the icon nearby. Rasei looked around the altar for the icon of St. Hastad and found it in the World-Eater’s mouth with blood on it.
Rasei cleaned it off and hid it under the altar.
Great moment of myth, ritual and fantasy.
Later that session Rasei was sneaking around the fort and knew he was being followed. It was a ghoul guard. Rasei ambushed him, killed him with his spear, driving him into an alcove. There on the window sill was an icon of St. Hastad.
Ask questions and use the answers. Encourage everyone at the table to join in.
We just finished up our Blades in the Dark – Bluecoats campaign (playlist embedded at the bottom of the post). We rocked 5 cases in 18 sessions – The Ghoul Case, the Wizard’s Jar Case, the Unity Case, Roric’s War and The Last Case. The cases touched on all of my favorite bits and pieces of Doskvol factions and history (except for The Foundation and Tangletown – missed those). I’m putting my BitD book on the shelf very satisfied (but definitely interested in getting back to Doskvol).
I wasn’t sure how to prep for a case when I first started. I knew I wanted concrete facts in the cases but what I found is with crime cases, like with any bit of world-building it helps to have white spots on the map and make peace with the fact that players are going to find bits of the case that I had never planned for. I wanted a shape to the case with hard and fast facts but with space for everyone, including me, to discover new things about the crime.
I knew I wanted each case to revolve around some part of Doskvol history. The Undying Emperor’s immortality, the Unity War, the lightning fence, Roric’s murder as a domino effect for the factions going to war and finally back to the Emperor.
The Ghoul Case
Here’s the brainstorming e-mail I first sent to players who weren’t in the game:
Friends who have walked the streets of Doskvol, In a few weeks I’m going to start GMing a streaming Blades game with a few friends (Stras and Lauren) in which they will be playing a Severosi Investigator and a Doskovol local Bluecoat who will be investigating a new drug hitting the market.
I’m not so much about the whodunnit as about having this drug end up touching the rich and the powerful in Doskovol.
Our inspirations are The Wire and True Detective. We’re using the awesome Bluecoats crew book in which the turf map is more of an investigative map.
I’d make this a forum post but I don’t want Lauren or Stras to see it.
Here’s my idea:
The drug allows the user to exit their body as a ghost and come back after a while. The first doses might just be a party trick and a fun recreational trip for rich folk.
But when they start to run out they’ll start cutting the stuff with waterd down leviathan’s blood because a quick scan would reveal that it is an unknown distillation of demon’s blood and hey, leviathans are demons so who cares? Demons are demons, right?
Wrong. Those trips will go very poorly, creating a tentacled monstrosity of a ghost. The mix only works if the 3 demons are from different affinities. The leviathans’ blood will fuck that balance right up.
This drug is based on the delicate chemical mix the Immortal Emperor used to sever his soul from his body and become immortal while still keeping his will. The first batches of the drug were potent because it was made from different demons, of different elemental affinities the emperor caged out the the world. Someone bled 3 different ancient, caged demons, mixed the blood, did some ectoplasmic process to it that when injected into a living human severs their ghost from their body while leaving the body intact.
The Emperor isn’t going to say what the drug is but wants to know who the fuck is taking it. The Master Warden, Lord Governor or one of the older families might know what it is and will try to take it to become immortal and eventually replace the emperor.
There was a batch years ago that hit the city and then disappeared (maybe Scurlock or the Dimmer Sisters have it now). This batch is to tie the whole thing to the Bluecoat character with a scoundrel background, whose 0 tier crew tried to get involved with this original shipment and got in way over their heads, leading to the gang getting destroyed.
The more recent batch will be from a Severosi supplier who grabbed the blood from 3 bound demons out in the world where only Severosi could go but 3 different kinds of demons could be bled in the city if someone was smart and connected enough to figure out how to get that blood.
Maybe Tycherosi blood could be used with more modern ectoplasmic brewing?
I’m thinking that I’ll link the Red Sash/Lampblack war will be about this drug.
Here’s the timeline:
847 years ago, the Immortal Emperor and his Whispers imprison every demon they can lay their swords to and perfect a formula to sever one’s soul from their body, leaving only their will.
They hide the formula in a place deep and dark, far from any settlement or city.
12 years ago, some asshole finds the formula but can barely make sense of it – heads towards civilization and it is a long trip.
10 years ago, the formula hits the streets of Doskovol and scoundrels decide it is a drug and try to sell it. Powerful underworld figures descend and snatch it up and kill any rumors of its existence.
Now, the Emperor has received evidence that the formula has hit the streets, that it is his based on his formula and decrees an Imperial Mandate in order to find all evidence of his drug, anyone who sold it and anyone who took it.
Am I over-thinking this?
Thoughts and suggestions appreciated.
Some of this got tossed or changed or ignored. the timeline more or less remained intact, give or take.
What I learned is that an investigative case is like any world-building. Having a foundation of prep can helpful but don’t forget to leave white space on the map. The players will look into leads and corners of the case that I never considered. Sometimes I’d realize that an NPC was tied into this mess later on. The details of the case, the direct whodunnit remains the same but some details can shift around.
This case was directly inspired from re-watching the first season of True Detective after the third season came out. I wanted my cases on Doskvol to be relevant to the current going’s on but also linked to bits of history. This one was linked to the Undying Emperor becoming immortal. The next one would be linked to putting up the lightning fence.
The Wizard’s Jar Case
I didn’t write a brainstorm e-mail for this one, which surprises me. I wonder if I just knew that Sean or John (who were included in the other brainstorming e-mails) might be called in to play a visiting Spirit Warden.
It was a weird case with an antagonist I really enjoyed. I wanted someone whose job was destroyed by the lightning fence in the same way that lampblacks were turned to crime by the coming of eletryc lights. What was Doskvol like before the fences went up?
John came in as a Spirit Warden; it felt like when FBI agents stopped by Baltimore PD in The Wire.
The founding family’s towers were already established in the last case; it was cool to think of them as where warding stones were kept, that the city huddled under those towers to keep them safe from ghosts and monsters that might saunter out of the Deathlands. But now we have the much more reliable Lightning Fence and the Ward-Keepers were rendered useless.
Also in this case I pulled in the Archive of Echoes, an easily forgettable line that both setting gurus, Stras and John had forgotten about.
Next up, the next big sign-post in Doskvol’s history – the Unity War, especially how the war ended, with the Queen of Skovlan and her consort being killed by an assassin.
Who was that assassin? Were they still alive? Who trained them?
The Unity Case
Here’s the pitch:
The Game’s Intro
The Lord Governor calls the team in because a colleague of his, retired military, has called in a favor. This lady was counter-insurgency during the Unity War and she was responsible for putting the spy in place who eventually ended the war by killing the King and Queen. She thought the assassin was dead but a few men were killed in a shoot-out last night and he thinks it was her killer.
The Who and the Why It, in fact, is her assassin. She’s in Doskvol because this is where the best Skov resistance is currently being mounted. Ulf Ironborn and the Grinders are the best Skov resistance fighters that are left (yeah, there isn’t much left). The shoot-out happened when she tried to meet Ulf and an attempt was made on Ulf’s life by the Billhooks and the assassin had to shoot his way out.
Why is this assassin trying to contact the resistance?
Because she has a secret. She has the Queen of Skovlan, the 9 year old daughter of the king and queen who they kept secret from the world during the war. They agreed to be killed so they could end the war and save their daughter to fight another day.
She is looking to drop the kid off with Ulf because the Ironborn’s dedication to the Skov throne is legendary.
The Handler is riddled with guilt. She is the only agent of her’s who survived the war and yeah, she ended the war but still, everyone else she put in harm’s way is dead. She’s a hot mess and honestly just wants to find her only surviving agent and allow her to retire to safety.
The Handler’s also a smart operator and can help them maneuver around the Imperial government if they decide to go that route (and if the handler doesn’t vice herself to death).
They can go to the bar and talk to the people who saw the shooting. It is a Skov bar and they managed to keep Ulf’s name out of the whole thing when the Bluecoats came through and did a half-ass job interrogating them.
They could also talk to the Billhooks, who are far more dangerous than the Lampblacks. They could also talk to the Billhook’s leader who is in Ironhook.
The assassin was a Crow’s Foot orphan, so her records are sketchy at best. Her kid-brother was Roric, so if they figure that out before she finds out that Lyssa killed Roric (clock will be ticking) they can stake out Lyssa and try to catch her that way.
She is a super-bad-ass spy-assassin, definitely taking inspiration from Killing Eve.
More of this stayed relevant and I had clocks in my notes. I made the queen a bit younger, toying with the idea of making her much older but in the end I’m glad she was young. There weren’t many children in this campaign.
Stras and Lauren really gave the assassin a wide berth, giving her a real mystique. Maybe it was something I did in describing her and her ability to do violence. I thought about giving her some arcane edge, some kind of weird ghost field shit, storing ghosts with relevant skills and memories in her head but I liked the idea of a highly trained killer. It kept the case grounded and kept a handle on the Whisper Effect.
What is the Whisper Effect?
The Whisper Effect is how Blades in the Dark games turn from gritty crime games to epic fantasy as the Whispers push harder on the boundaries of magic and arcane science in the setting. On one hand, I love it and after running a few campaigns in this system and setting, I think I’ve got a better handle on this stuff than I had in the past but gritty is fun too.
The Roric War
The Hive and the Unseen divvy up the gangs and crews of Doskvol in order to make war on one another. Roric’s death is often seen as the spark that lit this fire.
I’ve got a jamboard with the gangs who have been divvied up on either side and some clocks. I’m not clear why the Silver Nails would be on the Hive’s side – thinking on that. Could be the Hive realized they needed more muscle and threw a ton of money at them. Or maybe I’ll find it more interesting to keep them neutral and see who can successfully woo them.
The Skov gangs are still up for grabs. Neither side took them in because they didn’t want to have to smooth over the racism within their factions in order to get gangs to work with them.
The Red Sashes and the Lampblacks are sitting this out because they just finished up a costly war but as things get grim, each side will put terrible pressure on these gangs to join, especially as they each try to profit from the chaos.
I’m thinking that this might be the next case after the Unity Case – An Imperial Mandate to chill this war out after a fight in Gaddoc station led to important Imperial shipments being damaged and/or delayed.
I’m thinking that the Bluecoats tend towards neutral on this but there might be precincts bought to one side or the other as the war drags on. I’ll also add a map to the jamboard, maybe figure out which districts will be controlled by which side and which are total battle zones where foot soldiers are vying for control.
The Hive Successfully Court Lord Scurlock 6 part
They know they need someone to lead their arcane efforts if they are going to succeed; this will likely mean Scurlock is brought into the Hive as a full partner. Once he’s on board they can begin a long clock to try and figure out who the Unseen actually are.
The Lost Decimated 4 part The Foghounds Decimated 4 Part
Both are Tier 1 gangs and seen as weak links, easy targets for the other side.
Hive’s prized Dagger Isle galleon burned to the water line 8 part clock This is a bigger, more ambitious operation for the Unseen.
Unseen Safe House Uncovered 8 part clock This is the Hive’s ambitious operation.
First, a prominent building 4 part Second, a city block, 6 part Third, a district burns, 8 part
First to purchase an Iruvian War Hull
Hive 8 part Unseen 12 part
I figure this is an easier clock for the Hive because of their smuggling background. The Iruvians are curious to see their new tech in action.
Spirit Wardens are overwhelmed by all this death 6 part Feral ghosts hunting in the streets, what a mess.
Dividing up the gangs into two sides under the Unseen and the Hive was so easy it almost seemed as if John Harper designed the death of Roric to escalate to this all along, a testament to how much I enjoy taking Doskvol’s setting info (factions and their clocks) and making it my own.
As a case, it was a bit odd. I was asking them to be more street diplomats than investigators. If I were to do this one again I would’ve had the top brass putting more pressure on them to make fruitless arrests, the Doskvol version of “drugs on the table” from The Wire. As it was, they had a pass to pursue the case however they wanted.
The Last Case
A Floater in the Canal A dead cultist is pulled from the canal and when the Bluecoats find papers on the body that look like plans to assassinate the Undying Emperor; an Imperial Mandate is issued immediately and Inspector Maia Tui and Sergeant Drav Aran are called in.
It is a few weeks before the Undying Emperor is going to arrive in Doskvol to drum up support for his upcoming war in Iruvia. He sends the Captain of his Quicksilver Guard to watch over the case and make sure the cult is crushed.
On one hand, I want a stone-cold whodunnit. Stras has mentioned that he wanted a murder case and this is kinda a murder case.
The murder is a set-up. The conspiracy to kill the Undying Emperor is all throughout his Quicksilver Guard, including the Captain(inspired entirely by Sean’s upcoming supplement, Broken Crown).
The conspiracy discovered this cult and supported it in order to have the perfect red herring. The cult was supported by a very well-to-do family in Doskvol who want to see the Undying Emperor fall so they could divert attention from the actual conspiracy at work as they put together pieces they have worked at for generations into place.
The cultist was killed by an Imperial Whisper-Assassin and part of the conspiracy who scrubbed the ghost (or maybe just futzed with it to cause it to go incomprehensibly feral faster).
Can they uncover that this is a ruse? Can they uncover the conspiracy and see how far up it goes? Will they warn the Undying Emperor and keep to the status quo or will they let him die or will they help him get killed and change the world?
Dreams of Kotar Maia Tui took damage when she Attuned to a hand depression created by the Hand of Kotar during the current gang war. She took level 2 harm, Spirit Burns. I have no idea what that means. I have a vague idea that Kotar was kind of a Spellcasting Rogue/Grey Mouser-like pal of the Undying Emperor’s back when he was a powerful sorcerer.
I’m very tempted to have the healing of that wound bring about a vivid dream sequence in which Lauren and Stras play out a rollicking fantasy adventure about the then-mortal Undying Emperor and Kotar being played by Stras and Lauren – showing how the breaking of the world happened.
I’m not exactly sure how I’d do that. Thinking on that a bit.
I wrote this before Roric’s War ended and changed things or even folded some of these ideas into things that happened in that arc. I had this odd idea of stopping the game and playing some World of Dungeons with Stras and Lauren with Lauren as Kotar and Stras as the Undying Emperor but that felt wrong. Kotar and the Emperor ended up being a fairly short dream sequence, rather than hijacking a whole session using an entirely different rules set (a gambit I’m glad I didn’t use because it makes me distinctly uncomfortable).
The way the Last Case shook out was satisfying. In a way it was an odd choice. We didn’t end on a decision, more of a decision to walk towards making a decision. It was understated and I dig it.
The Real XP are the Friends You Made Along the Way
I’ve seen this cycle before, where online acquaintances become friends through gaming. It continues to be delightful and surprising. Lauren and Stras have become friends, dear friends and that is really nice.
It isn’t clear to me how gaming does that. Meeting with them every other week (give or take) during these past months has been amazing. It was a crazy year for me, the biggest shift of my adult life – moving from NYC to upstate with a huge career change. Meeting up with Stras and Lauren online as a kind of consistent social touchstone was important.
Gandalf in the Midfield
Stras and I were chatting between games and for some reason we ended up talking about soccer and playing midfield and gaming. Midfield is about doing a little bit of everything, about stepping up and making the big stop or big shot when needed but mostly supporting your fellow players and making them look good.
Without Stras’ system mastery this game would not have happened. Having a player who knows the system and the setting cold was a huge boon. Having Stras play the Doskvol-born cop and Lauren play the Severosi immigrant trying to figure out this corrupt, alien landscape was the way to go.
This isn’t even mentioning Stras’ OBS expertise that allowed the game to be streamed and recorded.
Playing cops is complicated. I can easily see how a Bluecoats campaign could used to say really shitty things behind the facade of fantasy.
Sometimes I’d have NPC’s say so.
I want the players to be able to have a shot at accomplishing whatever they attempt but what happens when the game goes beyond what can be done with a badge. I didn’t think they could change any real corruption within the system. The only reason it worked is because I think Lauren and Stras and I agreed on the politics of it all.
Streaming changes the dynamics of the game. I don’t want the game to change but it just does. We had a lovely dozen or so people who would join us in chat and that was really nice. They were engaged and into it. The last bit of the game was entirely changed by an amazing person in chat who deftly reminded me that a key death at the end of the campaign would’ve caused the bells at Bellweather Crematorium to ring. That wasn’t the only bit of lore chat remembered and reminded us about.
Once I couldn’t think of an entanglement and someone in our chat came up with an amazing idea. I like being able to model that kind of thing and hopefully, take some of the anxiety and mystique out of not coming up with a cool idea on command. It happens and it isn’t the end of the world. I am thrilled that not only the amazing and dynamic choices we all made were recorded but also the messy stuff, the mistakes and the occasional blanks. Gaming isn’t perfect and that is okay.