The Alexandrian

This review originally appeared in the December 2000 issue of Games Unplugged.

Orkworld - John WickIn 1997 Legend of the Five Rings, designed by John Wick, won the prestigious Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year.

In 1999 7th Sea, designed by John Wick, won the prestigious Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year.

In 2000 Orkworld, designed by John Wick, was released at GenCon.

And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make a really strong case for giving the award to John Wick one more time.

The system itself is nothing which is going to send shockwaves to the foundations of gaming: A simple dice pool system lies at the heart of it, and is spun off with some interesting, and at times highly effective, extrapolations for combat. The resolution mechanic itself is a nice refinement of its predecessors, providing a smooth modeling of skill and ability. The combat system, for its part, maintains a simple flow while keeping in touch with the game’s inherent pace and spirit.

In other words, its well done – but nothing to get excited about. Orkworld’s game system, however, serves merely as the foundation for the material which really makes the game shine: The orks themselves.

Wick refers to his book as an “anthropological study of a race that never existed”. The concept of an “anthropological game” – a game which focuses on the intricacies of an alien culture, revealing its hidden complexities of daily life so that a common roleplayer will become equipped with the tools necessary to step into the shoes of someone truly from another world – is a lofty goal, worthy of commendation merely for the attempt. It’s one thing to say “look at these characters who are not like human beings at all”. It is quite another to show us to how to play one.

Does Wick succeed? Most definitely. In over 250 pages of setting information, the orkish culture is detailed down to the finest points – from religion to food to sex to love to politics to war to mythology to philosophy to magic… It’s all here in sumptuous detail. And Wick’s great talent offers an assurance that every page is kept interesting and entertaining. Instead of bogging you down as you might expect, the wealth of minute detail is carefully chosen and presented so that it is a liberation, not a limitation.

Orkworld is not flawless by any means: There are a number of unfortunate lay-out and typographical errors throughout the book. A couple of the combat rules have minor holes. Although the orks themselves are laid out in wondrous detail, the rest of the World of Ghurtha suffers from a certain scantness of detail.

But putting the nitpicks aside, there is little doubt that you will find your $25 richly rewarded when you finish this book. Indeed, the reading experience itself is worth the cost of admission – and you won’t have even begun to see the dividends which the book will provide to your gaming experience.

Grade: A

Writers: John Wick
Publisher: Wicked Press
Price: $25.00
Page Count: 304
Product Code: WP10001

After the initial appearance of a review, Games Unplugged would run a short recap of the review in subsequent issues.

Recap/Tagline: In 1997, John Wick’s Legend of the Five Rings won the Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year. In 1999, John Wick’s 7th Sea won the Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year. And with the release of Orkworld at GenCon this year, John Wick has made a strong case for winning the prestigious reward yet a third time.

Orkworld is an “anthropological game” – a game which focuses on the intricacies of an alien culture, revealing its hidden complexities of daily life so that a common roleplayer can truly step into the shoes of someone form another world. This lofty goal is accomplished through a wealth of entertaining detail – ranging from religion to food to sex to love to politics to war to mythology to philosophy to magic and more. All of this is supported by a solid dice pool system, which puts the finishing cap on an inescapable conclusion: You should buy this game.

 

Eternal Lies – Malta

June 22nd, 2015

Go to Eternal Lies: The Alexandrian Remix

Eternal Lies - Malta

Campaign NotesDioramaProps Packet

A key thing to note for Malta in the Alexandrian Remix: This is the primary location for learning that the Rift of the Maw only opens under a new moon in a cloudless sky. In the adventure as written, this information is frequently accompanied by people also telling you that the Rift of the Maw is located in a mountain. If you want the remix to work the way it’s supposed to, it’s really important that you DON’T mention anything about a mountain in Malta. In the remix, nobody in Malta knows where the Rift is (and, in fact, quite a few people would like to figure it out).

Beyond that, you won’t find a lot of big, glaring changes in the Malta location. What the remix mostly does is beef up the clues to make the location a little more robust.

NECTAR TRADE: The most notable way I accomplished this was to add an active Nectar trade to Malta. In the published campaign, Montgomery Donovan is keeping Nectar off the streets of Malta in order to keep the local authorities off his back. I decided to go a different direction because (a) it gives the PCs a different avenue for cracking the local cult; (b) it makes Bangkok the only cult location where you can’t find Nectar on the streets (which thematically strengthens Savitree’s cautious isolationism); and (c) I had a couple of cool ideas for what the local Nectar trade might look like (which is where the Parkies and the Faldetta Peaches come from in the remix).

SIR GODFREY WELLES: Conversely, I dialed back the amount of information that Sir Godfrey Welles can provide. He’s got enough to point the PCs in the right direction (and a few wrong directions), but I’ve stripped him of his encyclopedic knowledge of what’s happening.

CATACOMBS: The other major change can be found in the catacombs beneath Malta. There’s some extra flavor down there, but if the PCs are being guided by Sir Godfrey they’re no longer at risk of running into booby traps. I’ve also added a robust mechanical structure for PCs who end up stumbling around blindly in the catacombs. (This also gives the PCs a more active way of finding Sir Godfrey, although he’s still most likely to pop up as a friendly and unexpected ally.)

DONOVAN’S TOWNHOUSE: In the original campaign there’s a discrepancy between the map of Donovan’s townhouse and the description of the townhouse. I’ve changed the map key to fix that.

PROP NOTES

Nectar Shipping Schedule: As noted in the PDF, you’ll need to shift the dates on this prop depending on when the PCs actually arrive in Malta. I’ve included a Word document of the prop and the necessary font so that you can do that.

Donovan’s Spell to Open the Sky: Note that this reference sheet can’t be used interchangeably with other locations where this spell can be gained throughout the campaign. (This copy includes notes in Donovan’s handwriting and particular to how he discovered it.)

Eternal Lies - Arriving in Malta

Tagline: In 32 slim pages Three Days to Kill manages to not only present a really gut-wrenching, fast-paced, creative adventure, but also conjures into existence a highly entertaining, evocative, and believable slice of a fantasy world.

Three Days to KillI’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks reading really bad fantasy modules. It is difficult to describe to you the truly excruciating pain of this experience. Instead, I shall endeavor to demonstrate by way of example:

“The characters are in Boringtown. There is a bar, a temple, and an armory.”

“The characters are in Moronsburg. There is a bar, a temple, and a general store.”

“The characters are in Clicheville. There is a bar, a temple, and a blacksmith. The mayor approaches them….”

“At the bottom of the farmer’s well there is a secret door which has not been opened in centuries. On the other side of the door is a labyrinth containing giant spiders and goblins. Kill them.”

“The abandoned mansion on the top of the hill has become home to a bunch of necromancers and a couple of ghosts. Kill them.”

“The PCs wander around the desert enjoying random encounters until they stumble across a lost pyramid. There they watch two mummies fight over conflicts which existed thousands of years ago (and about which the PCs know nothing). When the fight is over (make sure that the PCs don’t take part in any way) the PCs get to go home.”

Oy.

Between painfully artificial settings, a mind-numbing lack of originality, and stunningly awful “plots”, these so-called “adventures” have earned their designers an eternity upon the racks of the Nine Circles of Hell.

(On the plus side, I think actually playing through these scenarios counts as a form of penance. The equivalent of saying fifty Hail Mary’s or something of that nature.)

(The funny thing is that you think I’m kidding. Outside of those satiric town names, though, I’m not – these things actually exist. They’re out there and they’re waiting for you. Be afraid. Be very afraid.)

There were days when I felt like giving in to a nascent Oedipal Complex… and by that I mean stabbing my eyes out with pins to take the sight of these monstrosities away from me.

But through the good graces of providence, a copy of John Tynes’ excellent Three Days to Kill fell into my hands, and thus I was saved from a truly horrific fate.

PRODUCTION NOTES

Before we begin:

John Tynes is a roleplaying designer and writer of immense talents: He was one of the founders of Pagan Publishing. He was a co-author of Delta Green. With Greg Stolze he designed the award winning Unknown Armies for Atlas Games. Last year Hogshead Publishing’s New Style line published his amazingly evocative Puppetland and the startlingly innovative Power Kill.

With Three Days to Kill Tynes has taken advantage of WotC’s D20 Trademark License and Open Gaming License (see the Open Gaming Foundation for more details on both of these programs) to produce a module for the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This is the lead-off product in Atlas Games’ new Penumbra line of products. Over the next few months you can expect to see more support material for D&D3 released through this imprint.

Three Days to Kill is designed for a party of 1st to 3rd level PCs.

And now on with the show:

THE SETTING

Warning: This review will contain spoilers for Three Days to Kill. Players who may end up playing in this module are encouraged to stop reading now. Proceed at your own risk.

Three Days to Kill is set in the Deeps, a valley nestled within a mountain range. At the heart of this valley, located on the shores of Shadow Lake, is Deeptown.

And as quickly as that we have come to the first major strength of Three Days to Kill: Deeptown is a generic fantasy city. It has been specifically designed to slip seamlessly into any DM’s campaign world.

The minute you attempt something like this you’ve placed yourself in dangerous territory: If you make the town too specific, then its usefulness as a generic setting is lost. If you make the town too generic, however, you end up with the triteness of “there is a bar, a temple, and a blacksmith”.

Tynes, however, deftly avoids these pitfalls. On the one hand Deeptown is imminently generic – any DM with a mountain range can slap the town into place. On the other hand, Deeptown is also developed very specifically – it exists for a purpose, the people living there have their own character and culture, and the whole place has a dynamic quality which makes it not only a potential setting for Three Days to Kill, but many other adventures. Despite the fact that Deeptown can be placed almost anywhere in the DM’s campaign world, it has been craftily designed so that – no matter what world you place it in – it will seem as if always belonged there.

So what is Deeptown? Deeptown is a small city located on the shores of Shadow Lake, a way-point on the east-west trade routes that pass through the Deeps. The mountainous terrain of this trade route makes it easy for bandits to prey on caravans, and, in fact, any number of bandit gangs roam the hills. This helps make Deeptown particularly attractive for young adventures and other assorted muscle looking for jobs as guards (or opportunities as thieves, as the case may be).

There are six bandit lords in the area (although, as Tynes points out, “calling them ‘lords’ gives them too much credit, really — they’re just competent thugs”). The two largest groups are controlled by the bandits Modus and Lucien.

Deeptown itself is technically ruled over by the Town Council, but in truth it is the Trade Circle – the local guild of commerce – which rules the city from behind the scenes. In other words, even the law in Deeptown is governed by the corruption of the all-mighty dollar.

This leaves only one major power group left to consider: Religion. In Deeptown the two most significant religious groups are the Holy Order (dedicated to the preservation of life) and the Sect of Sixty (a group of diabolists). (Both of these groups – while having their structure and general role in Deeptown life laid out in the module – are left purposely vague in all the right places to that you can plug in whatever gods you like. For example, the Holy Order might worship Athena and the Sect of Sixty Hades. On the other hand, the Holy Order might revere Adaire, Goddess of Light and Purity; while the Sect of Sixty might practice foul sacrifices to Cthulhu. It’s all up to you.)

Basically the setting information in Three Days to Kill can be summed up like this: A solid, interesting foundation. For a 32 page module a surprising amount of detail is included, giving the setting a life and reality of its own through the expert application of a handful of deft brush strokes – all the while maintaining an openness and flexibility which will make its use simplicity itself.

THE PLOT

Modus and Lucien, the two premiere Bandit Lords, have long hoped to turn “legitimate” (within a broad enough definition of that word). They hope to use their strength in order to convince the Trade Circle to ally with them – essentially moving into the protection rackets (expensive Trade Circle permits would be sold, and caravans which purchased them would be spared from the attention of Modus and Lucien). In the interest of seeing this day come to pass, Modus and Lucien agreed to a pact – stating that neither would enter into a deal with the Trade Circle without the other.

Lucien, however, is no longer willing to wait. He has made a secret alliance with the Sect of Sixty. Lucien wants to use the Sect to use their supernatural powers to help him crush Modus, while the Sect wants to use Lucien to help them gain a foothold over the taxation of trade routes (when his day of power comes).

Modus, although hazy on the exact details of the alliance Lucien is planning, knows that his would-be ally is up to something. Of course, he’d prefer it if Lucien was not allowed to be up to anything…

…and that’s where the PCs come in.

One way or another the PCs are attending the Festival of Plenty (a night of debauchery and infamy which is thrown annually in Deeptown by the Sect of Sixty). Several ways of getting them to Deeptown and into the Festival are given, as are a number of ways of having them prove their worth during the course of the festival. One way or another, however, they come to the attention of Modus’ men – at which point they are approached for The Job.

The Job is this: Modus knows that Lucien is meeting with his mysterious allies at a villa north of Deeptown known as Trail’s End. He wants the PCs to crash the party, screw up the meeting, and make Lucien look foolish and unreliable to his would-be supporters. The PCs, of course, will be well paid for their troubles.

So the PCs head north. On the way to Trail’s End they discover signs of orc activity in the region (which is connected to a coming of age rite), but it isn’t until they reach Trail’s End that the adventure really kicks into overdrive: You see, the villa is packed full of Sect cultists and bandits.

And if the PCs rush the front door of the villa, they’re going to be annihilated.

Three Days to Kill is, in fact, a rather ingenious scenario for bringing the gameplay of computer games like Tenchu and Thief: The Dark Project — which emphasize stealth and cunning over brute strength – into the traditional roleplaying realm of D&D. (Tynes actually uses the analogy Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six – but that requires a larger genre shift in my opinion.) The PCs are given weapons, magical items, and a situation which allows them to scout their enemy, plan a strategy, and then carry out a covert operation.

Done right this can be a lot of fun. Done wrong this is going to be nothing more than a hackfest. Either way you should get a good dose of fun before it’s all said and done. Basically its going to play out something like this:

The PCs are going to take out the bandits and the Sect henchman. As they do so, the Sect acolytes are going to fall back to a secluded room inside the villa. In this room is the Bone Mirror – a mystic artifact of great evil which allows them to start gating low-level minions of Hell into the villa.

As the minions of Hell swarm over the villa – and the PCs fight valiantly to reach and shut off the source of the Hellspawn – the remaining bandits will flee… as they do so the orcs (remember them form the trek north?) will come over the top of the hill and charge the villa as well.

Hellspawn on one side. Orcs on the other. Bandits and PCs trapped in the middle. What’s a hero to do?

Smash the Bone Mirror and fight for their lives, of course!

But we’re not done yet!

When the shattered pieces of the Bone Mirror come to rest they begin to bleed. “The blood wells up from the mirror and oozes out of the bones.” At first it merely trickles, but “then the blood comes faster, coating the floor around the shards, and begins to expand rapidly. Tendrils shoot out across the floor and begin running up the walls. As the blood spreads, it transforms the surfaces of the room. The floor bulges, and bones, flesh, and faces to begin to form. The effect spreads rapidly, accompanied by the screams of the damned.” As the process begins to effect the acolytes and orcs who still remain alive, these poor creatures begin to cry out: “He Who Walks is coming! The coming is at hand!”

The shards of the Bone Mirror transform the Trail’s End villa into the Bone Church – an outpost of Hell; a “pulsing, living, screaming conglomeration of bodies”. The PCs and the remnants of their opponents are forced to flee before the birth of this diabolic power.

And thus Three Days to Kill comes to an end: The PCs have, indeed, succeeded at their primary mission (breaking up the alliance between Lucien and the Sect of Sixty) – at least for now – but only by unleashing the seeds of future adventure: The mystery and threat of the Bone Church, the future of the Bandit Lords of the Deeps, the PCs relationship with Lucien and Modus, the evolving politics of Deeptown. Whether you decide to carry these seeds through to new adventures, or merely choose to have the PCs join the next caravan out of the Deeps, is entirely up to you. Three Days to Kill works equally well as a stand-alone adventure or as the germination point of an entire campaign.

CONCLUSION

Three Days to Kill is one of the best damn modules I’ve ever plunked down my cold, hard cash for. It’s one of those great gaming products that makes you instantly eager to call up your gaming group, roll up some characters, and get down to some serious roleplaying.

In 32 slim pages it manages to not only present a really gut-wrenching, fast-paced, creative adventure, but also conjures into existence a highly entertaining, evocative, and believable slice of a fantasy world.

Three Days to Kill is an exciting product.

And recommendations don’t come much higher than that.

Style: 4
Substance: 5

Author: John Tynes
Company/Publisher: Atlas Games (Penumbra)
Cost: $8.95
Page Count: 32
ISBN: 0-887801-94-4

Originally Posted: 2000/10/29

This represents a major turning point in my life. At this point, as I’d indicated in my review of Tomb of Horrors, I hadn’t played D&D in nearly a decade. 3rd Edition had perked my interest, but I wasn’t really planning to do much of anything with it. Until I picked up Three Days to Kill at GenCon. And, as I said in the review, Three Days to Kill was exciting. It was one of those products that just kind of screams, “Play me!”

So I ended up taking over as GM for what was my regular gaming group at the time. And from that point forward, 3rd Edition would dominate my reviews, my personal gaming, and my freelance writing.

Three Days to Kill generated a lot of buzz when it first came out because it was one of two third party modules available at GenCon when the Player’s Handbook launched. These days it seems to have become something of an unsung classic, though, with fewer people being aware of its existence. I heartily recommend snagging a copy for yourself and running it ASAP.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

 

Go to Eternal Lies: The Alexandrian Remix

Eternal Lies - The Obelisk of Axum - The Cathedral of Tsion Maryam

Campaign NotesProps Packet

The Obelisk of Axum is the second of the original of the original scenarios that I’ve incorporated into Eternal Lies. Like the Severn Valley, it was developed as an organic response to the choices made by my original players. And there are two distinct roots that underlie its origins:

First, in the original campaign there is an oblique reference to the Obelisk of Axum is used to justify why the archaeologist Bartolo Acuna has returned to Africa thirteen years after the failed expedition he led which the PCs are investigating just in time for the PCs to question him directly. (It’s also one of the key indications that the campaign was not originally designed to be begin in 1937, since by March 1937 the Obelisk was already back in Rome. With the travel times involved, you’d have to start your campaign on January 1st and hope the PCs bee-line for Ethiopia.)

As I’ve discussed previously, part of my work on the remix involved beefing up the mythological references to Gol-Goroth, the God of the Black Stone. The Black Stone itself is frequently described as an obelisk, and I thought it would be effective to have the Obelisk of Axum related to it (and, by extension, to Gol-Goroth). So I beefed up Acuna’s discussion of the Obelisk, using it as an opportunity to begin establishing Gol-Goroth in the minds of the players.

I hadn’t anticipated that the players would hear Acuna’s interest in the Obelisk and conclude that they should also be interested in it, prompting them to mount an expedition to Axum.

The second point of orign for this scenario is the odd route that my players had taken to get to this point: They followed the anticipated trajectory of New York to Savannah to Los Angeles. But then, after turning up enough information to learn of the cult’s expedition to Ethiopia in 1924, they decided that the cult’s drug-running activities in Los Angeles were too dangerous for them to tackle directly. As a result, they booked a flight to Ethiopia and skipped town without procuring any of the other leads.

This was something of a problem because Ethiopia is the only locale in the campaign which is structurally a dead-end. (Which makes sense because the cult was active there 10 years ago, but isn’t now. So there are no fresh leads to follow up.) While it was certainly possible for the PCs to investigate Ethiopia and then, without any further leads, simply return to Los Angeles, I knew that had the potential to be frustrating for them.

However, I’d already decided that Savitree Sirikhan had been mounting a series of expeditions. I decided that I would have her “anti-Investigators” (which I would shortly redub the Emporium of Bangkok Antiquities) active in Ethiopia. Once they crossed paths with the PCs, they would drop leads that would point back towards Bangkok, which had already been turned into a secondary hub that would put their investigation back on track (so to speak). I was playing around with the idea of having the Emporium also investigating Ayers’ decade-old expedition, but when the PCs decided to pursue the Obelisk of Axum I realized that it was the Obelisk itself which had brought the Emporium there.

USING THE SCENARIO

Fortunately, if you’re using the remix, you won’t need to have your players follow that precise sequence of events. I’ve incorporated clues pointing to the Obelisk of Axum into both the Ethiopia and Bangkok material. You can also strengthen these ties by increasing the activity of the Emporium of Bangkok Antiquities during the Ethiopia locale and having them attract the PCs’ attention. A few options might include:

  • They kidnap or murder Acuna, interrogating him for information about the Obelisk. (If this happens shortly after the PCs question him, they might become suspects.)
  • They decide to investigate the Dallol dig site. (Which they may have learned of from Acuna.)
  • If the PCs are already well-known to the cult and it’s possible for Sirikhan to know they’ve gone to Ethiopia, she might telegram instructions to the Emporium members to put them under surveillance or have them killed.

More detailed notes on how to integrate the Emporium’s active investigations into the campaign can be found in my description of the Severn Valley.

PROP NOTES

The Obelisk of Axum shares the poster map used for Ethiopia. The various photos of the Northern Obelisk Field and so forth are designed so that they can be added to the Ethiopian diorama as the PCs explore Axum.

USING THE OBELISK OF AXUM AS AN INDEPENDENT SCENARIO

Unlike the Severn Valley, it can’t be trivially broken out of the campaign and  run independently. (As designed, it really lacks any sort of conclusion: The PCs come to Axum, poke around, learn some stuff (that’s mostly meaningful in terms of the larger events of the campaign).

If you wanted to run it as an independent scenario, you’d probably want to have a stronger conclusion focused on the Obelisk itself in some way. Did Frumentius remove something from the Obelisk during its destruction? If so, the PCs might need to race the Emporium of Bangkok Antiquities to retrieve it.

Or the EBA might already have it, in which case the scenario becomes about them triggering something horrible with the Obelisk itself. Maybe one of them enters the Obelisk and is horribly transformed by it. (You could pull some of the lore books form the Los Angeles cult concerning Gol-Goroth and his obelisks to help establish some of this conceptually.)

Of course, you’ll also need to figure out some sort of independent hook for getting the PCs involved. Maybe they’ve been hired by the Italian government to prep the Obelisk for looting and, when they arrive onsite, they find the EBA already ensconced?

Eternal Lies - Obelisk of Axum

Go to 2.3 Malta

Don’t prep plots, prep situations.

That’s a maxim I first started preaching on the Alexandrian back in 2009. And one of the key things I talked about in Don’t Prep Plots is that you want to focus your prep on developing toolboxes instead of contingencies. Prepping contingencies catches you in the Choose Your Own Adventure trap, where you waste a lot of time trying to second-guess your players and developing mutually contradictory material for every possible choice they might make.

I’ve seen a lot of GMs, both before and after I wrote Don’t Prep Plots, discover the virtues of this lesson. And what frequently happens is that they begin applying the lesson at the macro-level of their scenario design, but continue making the same old mistakes at the micro-level. This is ironic, because it’s actually the micro-level stuff that is frequently the biggest and most useless time sink.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Eternal Lies lately, so I’m going to use it as an example of what I’m talking about.

SPOILERS FOR ETERNAL LIES

St. Luke's Hospital - Malta

In Malta, the PCs find a hospital where two boys are being held by cultists and fed a “treatment” regime which is actually making them sicker. The published adventure anticipates that the PCs might try to rescue the boys and this happens:

Leaving the Hospital Superbissima is not especially difficult if the PCs are just visitors or patients. An Investigator may use Medicine or Disguise (Difficulty 5) to pose as another Investigator’s doctor and authorize the transport of the character to another hospital. (This probably requires the authorizing Investigator to sign a few forms.) A bit of Reassurance convinces hospital clerks that a patient feels fine and is ready to depart. A Reassurance spend convinces a clerk to the point that he or she doesn’t even write a suspicious note in anyone’s file or form much of a memory of the character — good for anonymity, if they need it.

The real challenge to escaping from the hospital appears under two other circumstances: when Donovan’s guards are there, watching who comes and goes, and when the Investigators have patients with them that are under Dr. Solazzio’s “special care.”

(Note that Investigators in the hospital as patients can get dosed with Nectar or put under Dr. Solazzio’s care for two broad reasons: either the cult recognizes them as enemies and decides to make use of the PCs’ vulnerability, perhaps to draw out their comrades, or you as Keeper decide that Dr. Solazzio’s attentions fall on them for purely dramatic reasons such as for pacing or exposition.)

If the Investigators attempt to slip out in pursuit of Donovan or while his guards are in the hospital, see the scene Malta 4,”Pursuing Donovan,” p. 232, for stats on those guards. They take immediate note of strange behavior in their vicinity.

If the Investigators try to get Alexi or Monte (or both) out of the hospital, they have to get around some nurses and orderlies and go through the security staff. (They may even have to get through Donovan’s own guards, if they time their escape poorly.) This is not all that hard to do, really; it’s just hard to do anonymously. Waving guns around or making a total of a 2-point Intimidation spend is brutish enough to clear a gap through the hospital staff. Getting Alexi and/or Monte out of the hospital likely leads to a citywide manhunt for the boys and their “kidnappers,” with both crooked and legit police on the search for the Investigators.

Thus the Investigators may want to wear surgical masks or Disguises, since even a simple disguise (Difficulty 4 or 5) at least renders a character unidentifiable to witnesses who might be called upon, in this era without security cameras, to assert that “yes, that’s the one who carried that boy out of the hospital.” A surgical mask gives any character a dedicated pool point of Disguise within the hospital. A doctor’s white coast grants an additional pool point of Disguise. Either or both gives you a good reason for some NPCs to make lazy assumptions (“Just another surgeon, I guess”) or obstructive assumptions (“Excuse me, doctor, can you help me?”) about the character, depending on the success of the attempt. NPCs might challenge a disguise if the Investigators draw attention to themselves or interact with an NPC. Not all interactions call for the Difficulty 7 test befitting proper impersonation. In this context, it’s easier (Difficulty 5 or 6) to impersonate “a doctor” than it is to impersonate a particular Doctor (Difficulty 7). A Medicine spend might count as a point toward a Disguise roll if, for example, an Investigator wants to portray a visiting specialist (“Didn’t you get my telegram?”).

All disguises are temporary affairs, anyway, buying just enough time to take action, stymie the opposition, or delay consequences for recklessness or failure.

Once the Investigators get out onto the street, they must have somewhere to take the rescued boys (though see “The Knight”). Thus the situation gets more complicated. You may want to call for a Stealth or Shadowing test (Difficulty 5 close to the hospital, Difficulty 4 after that) to describe the Investigators’ attempted escape from the scene of their rescue. Alternately, they may try simply Fleeing the scene until they can make a single Stealth test to hide.

If the Investigators have devised a whole scheme for rescuing the boys and getting them free of the cult (perhaps involving fake papers and a ship out of Malta), let them explore it. If it proves to be too much of a distraction from the job at hand, gloss over details or assume that the characters succeed rather than testing for every damn task. Securing papers for the boys might just require a Law or Streetwise spend among the right contacts, for example, and getting the boys to safety might simply involve flying them out in the Winston-Rogers plane to Sicily and then sorting out the rest of it between Locales. If the logistics of a complicated rescue seem to be spoiling the players’ good feeling for doing the right thing, make things easier on the players (even if things stay complicated for the characters between scenes).

You can immediately see that there is a ton of verbiage being dedicated to specific plans that the PCs may or may not actually come up with. What I’m suggesting is that the prep for this should look something more like this:

ESCAPING THE HOSPITAL

There are two exits from the Hospital Superbissimia: The front door and a side entrance used by employees. There are tall windows in the patient wards, but many of these are not designed to be opened.

NURSES: Collectively, the nurses of the Hospital Superbissima benefit from Awareness +2 to notice investigators snooping around areas they don’t have permission to be in or any other suspicious activity happening in the hospital.

HOSPITAL SECURITY: Security around the hospital is surprisingly tight. In addition to two guards in the lobby, a guard is also found at the nurse’s desk on each floor of the building.

[Insert a stat block for the hospital security guards here.]

DONOVAN’S GUARDS: If Donovan is on the premises, his guards are stationed at the entrance to the third-floor Intensive Care Ward and will respond immediately to anything they view as strange or suspicious.

[Repeat the stat block for Donovan’s guards here for easy reference.]

GETTING THE BOYS OUT: Getting Alexi and/or Monte out of the hospital, this likely leads to a citywide manhunt for the boys and their “kidnappers,” with both the crooked and legit police on the search for the investigators. Securing a place of refuge where people can’t spot the boys and report them may be difficult. Getting them out of the country may require securing (or falsifying) legal papers.

SIDEBAR: Remember that the Knight may already be watching the investigators at this point. If they get into trouble in the hospital, he’s likely to step in and help them out. Or at least offer them a place of refuge.

ON THE USE OF TOOLS

And that’s pretty much it. What’s the distinction here, beyond a greatly reduced word count (and, thus, work load)?

As the GM, note that if your players were to propose any of the escape plans proposed in the original text, you should be able to look at the tools provided in the second description and figure out what the result or response will be. More importantly, if the players propose some completely different plan (calling in a bomb threat, rappelling through the windows at night, taking hostages, casting a spell to escape with the kids to another dimension, etc.) you should also be able to pick up the tools (the layout of the hospital, the nurses, the security guards) and figure out what will happen.

While prepping the adventure, you don’t need to think to yourself, “What will happen if my players decide to disguise themselves as doctors? Well, I guess they’d make a Disguise check. I better write that down!” Not only because it’s self-evident, but because there are at least a half dozen other possibilities for what they might do. Whatever work you’re putting into trying to figure out the myriad tactics the PCs might employ in a particular tactical situation, you’d be far better off making your toolbox larger and more interesting.

PREPPING YOUR TOOLBOX

But what constitutes the difference between a tool and a contingency? For example, isn’t prepping this information about the hospital dependent on the PCs going to hospital? Doesn’t that make the whole thing a contingency? And even if we lay that concern aside, how do we actually identify what the useful tools are? I mean, the bad guy might have a collection of early Picasso paintings. How do I know whether to prep the Picasso collection or the alarm system on his windows?

I find this generally boils down to two questions.

First: What will the PCs be interested in? Not what they’re going to do, but what they’ll be interested in. Where their focus will be. (In a mystery scenario this is relatively easy to predict because it usually equates to wherever the clues are pointing them.) It’s possible to get pedantic and argue that “being interested” constitutes an action, but I think the distinction being sought here is generally pretty clear.

Second: What the NPCs’ plans? These can be specific to the events of the scenario (“they want to blow up Woodheim”) and possibly even specific to the PCs (but not specific to the actions of the PCs) if their current plan is aimed at the PCs (like Lex Luthor obtaining kryptonite to deal with Superman). But most of the plans you’ll be looking at will actually be a lot more general and long-standing than that.

The hospital scenario is an example of this: The cult doesn’t want the boys to escape. What precautions are they taking to prevent that from happening?

Similarly, if you were designing a mansion for a mob boss you’d ask questions like: What type of security system does he have? What does he enjoy doing at home? What does his daily schedule look like?

If the mob boss is currently planning to assassinate the head of the local Triads, then you’d start asking yourself questions like: Who does he hire to do that? If things go bad, what resources does he have to protect himself?

All of these questions will guide you towards creating either the long-standing status quo or the current trajectory of action that the PCs are going to be thrusting themselves into. And what you want to focus on is that situation which exists without the PCs and let your players worry about the thrust.

Which, I suppose, ultimately brings us full circle:

Don’t prep plots, prep situations.

FURTHER READING
The Railroading Manifesto
Node-Based Scenario Design
Gamemastery 101

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