Faking Foreshadowingby Ian Sokoliwski
Faking Foreshadowingby Ian Sokoliwski
Welcome to the sixth instalment of the column 'Winging It', a column discussing the promises and pitfalls of a more improvisational approach to GM'ing.
In this instalment, I want to discuss what may happen when players remember more of the background setting than the GM, making the game seem more 'real' to the players than the GM was even aware of. In addition, how integrating a small amount of pre-planned material can provide useful springboards for more improv and quick adaptations to the players and their actions.
Early on in my current Hunter: the Reckoning campaign, I used the NPC Hunters that the players met to provide hints, embellishments, and other 'flavour text' descriptions of the world they were in. Quite often these anecdotes were incorrect and contradictory, but they were mostly to just 'establish' the world the PC's were in, as well as the (potentially unstable) nature of their 'allies'.
For instance, the bulk of the information they saw on Hunter-net talked about vampires, lycanthropes, ghosts, and other standards of the supernatural. However, the first two other Hunters they met each had different theories (one was about alien invasions, another was about biological weapons experiments by various world governments).
The intent of all this disinformation was to provide the players with enough knowledge to 'know' that something was out there, but not having any sort of clear knowledge as to what the true nature of that 'something' really was.
During a recent game (a two-parter involving corpse-consuming ghouls and vampires, with the second part including the first 'bystander' and an encounter with non-Hunter supernatural investigators), I was reminded by the players of the fact that, while the characters were talking with an NPC Hunter (named Timothy), the NPC had off-handedly made the remark that the only real gains that the Imbued had made against the 'monsters' out there was in Las Vegas. Indeed, Timothy was pretty confident in Vegas being supernatural-free, and almost 'run' by the Imbued.
Now, I had pretty much forgotten this exchange. When I had Timothy say that, I was just coming up with spur-of-the-moment ideas for him to pepper his conversation with, like about which governments he thought were directing this war between genetic super-soldiers and such. Just background filler, not really to be trusted any more than any other information he was talking about.
However, the players seemed to grow attached to this idea; indeed, it seemed that, if Vegas could be made a haven against the dark (a bit of a florid term, I admit; my White Wolf Storyteller roots are showing...), then perhaps they have a real chance of clearing Winnipeg of the negative monster influence.
This was good. It was providing them (well, their characters) a reason to look beyond the obvious paranoia they were developing (discovering how many police officers and scientists were being influenced by monsters, that sort of thing), and think that their characters could have a real influence in the fictional world around them.
This is the kind of thing that can really bring a setting 'alive' to players, going beyond simple monster and setting descriptions, and adding in little anecdotal bits of information, totally off your head. Remembering all of them and documenting them for later use isn't even entirely necessary, as the players will remember (and remind the GM of) the ones that really caught their fancy. Plus, after it does appear that they have grabbed onto some small piece of atmosphere, if the GM then deals with that piece of information in-game, it will make the world seem even more alive and that the GM had a larger plan in mind all the time.
Whether or not the plan existed at all is completely irrelevant.
Of course, now that they have made mention of this piece of information, I intend to pay it off. Indeed, when thinking about the NPC's for this current game session, I immediately had an idea on how one of the characters (the aforementioned Bystander) could later lead them to make a journey to Las Vegas, to discover whether or not the tales Timothy told were actually true, or if something darker is happening.
And, of course, being a role-playing game, it is obvious that it will be something darker...
Now, this brings me to a recent change I've been making to the ongoing Hunter game. Until now, all the major and minor NPC's have been pretty much statistic-less. That is, I have not bothered creating character sheets for each of these characters (if I absolutely needed game stats for combat or some such, the back of most World of Darkness game books provides plenty of information on 'standard' characters from the various races, species, factions, and other organizations). With this game, since I decided that at the very least this Bystander would become a recurring character, I decided to create minimal character sheets.
In fact, I ended up creating a few, but just to fill out very specific roles. For example, the central vampire figure in the current session (a Nagaraja, expelled from the Shadowlands during the destruction of Enoch) now has a character sheet, but none of his assistants or disciples do. Ironically, I'm pretty certain that the PC's themselves will never actually face off against the Nagaraja. However, since the reason they were all there, doing their little evil deeds, was because of the main Nagaraja, I simply developed as much of his character as I needed to, and let the flow of the game itself determine how many and what type of assistants and disciples he would have. Essentially, the Nagarajas character sheet functioned both as a character sheet and as a quick plot-guide for the session.
For instance, the statistics I entered indicated that he was powerful enough to traverse from the real world into the Shadowlands (the land of the dead), but not so powerful that he would be able to return to Enoch (as it is hidden deep within the Shadowlands, and is extremely difficult to find, especially with the Great Maelstrom scouring the Shadowlands after the destruction of the city). He desperately wants to return (not so much as to rebuild any sort of power base or anything like that; more from a desire to get back to the only real home he has had in the past three centuries), and is trying to recreate the proper rituals to return (he has only seen these rituals, but has never been taught them himself).
So, this gave me the idea for his haven as being a source of experimentation as well as a place to create and house Ghoul assistants and one fellow newly-Embraced Nagaraja, all who could help him interact with this strange new world he finds himself in (as stated before, he has been outside of the real world for most of the past three hundred years, and has difficulty adapting).
This all led to the current session. Daniella, through the week hiding from the police, lost her previous job working in a restaurant (a common occurence in Hunter - fortunately Izzy was important enough at her mechanic job to - barely- hang on to it). So, we began the current game with her working at a gas station.
Generally, it is set up in the Hunter game that the PC's don't have their Second Sight ability active most of the time. For one thing, it burns them out of Conviction rather quickly, leaving them helpless in the face of real danger. Also, it ramps up the paranoia of the game, if they are constantly on the watch for the supernatural. So, I encourage down-time, and generally give them some sort of hint about when there may be any oddness around them.
(Of course, this isn't always the case. Countless times they would have walked past Wizards, Ghouls, and whatnot without even suspecting they were there. And, generally, if they were to walk into a crowded mall or similar gathering place, and just turn on the Second Sight, they will almost always come across something new, even if it is only bane-tainted products. So, the paranoia level is still pretty high in the game.)
As she is filling gas tanks, one particular truck catches her attention. It is very old, very beat-up, and the bed is filled with a variety of rusty and worn-out farm implements, some sharpened when they shouldn't necessarily be sharpened. The individual inside was very creepy looking as well. So, Daniella decides to activate her Second Sight, and spots that this fellow is some sort of vampiric servant.
The player decides that Daniella will strike up a conversation with the person, who's creepyness just intensifies. In fact, he offers to take her out on a date later, and she (to my extreme surprise) accepts, coming across as a bit trampy (a cunning plan of the player to throw the NPC and the GM off-kilter).
Later, Daniella informs Izzy, the other PC, of this interaction, and that she should meet her later that evening to go on this 'date' together with this servant, intending to learn who he is and what kind of supernatural nastiness he is involved in.
Needless to say, this is not how I thought the PC's would end up interacting with a Ghoul. However, bonus points to the players for making the GM laugh and have to recover quickly.
Meeting up with the servant later, he is delighted that Daniella has brought a friend, and offers them both industrial-grade homebrewed alcohol (brewed out of paint thinner and gasoline, judging by the smell), and drives them west of Winnipeg, out to a farmyard. Izzy is slightly affected by the alcohol (accidentally swallowing some due to the horrible suspension of the truck on the rough side roads), but they both see that the entire area surrounding the farmhouse is filled with a variety of ghosts and spirits, all seemingly chained or otherwise bound to trees and other objects, even the ground itself in places. The sound becomes overwhelming as they enter the yard, with the greatest concentrations of these beings around the house and barn.
The servant leads them into the barn, where another servant and what the PC's believe to be a vampire come out and lead them inside. It is clear that one or more of these people is trying to use some sort of mental powers on them, but their Second Sight is protecting them (this is probably why the bad guys aren't confused as to the PC's willingness to go inside - they just think that their mental mojo is working on the new 'subjects').
Inside, they see many, many bodies hanging from chains from the high ceiling in the barn, with a variety of restraints on the walls and ceiling obviously waiting for even more victims. It seems clear what the two servants and the vampire are wanting from the PC's. Thus, a fight breaks out.
Now, I haven't yet introduced the 'main' vampire of this scenario, just some of his underlings. I figure that the main Nagaraja is in the basement of the barn, and probably is not directly aware of the actions transpiring upstairs (he just knows they are procuring more food and are otherwise leaving him to his experiments). It isn't until one of the PC's and one of the servants crashes through the trap door into the basement, falling into a deep black watery pit, that he knows that a fight is going on.
This combat ends with the PC's managing to flee after having killed the two servants, but not the two vampires. They were clearly outmatched, but fortunate that the main vampire only tried to use mental abilities on them to prevent their escape.
Now, despite having created the character sheet for the main vampire, very little other prep work had been done by me for this battle. To figure out the general landscape of the barn and surroundings, I simply had them moving around a place that looked like a farm owned by my grandparents, so I knew what the basic layout of the barn itself would be, without having to tie myself down to hard and fast descriptions. Mostly, this would prevent the PC's from accidentally getting themselves trapped in a corner, unable to get out and guaranteeing their deaths at the enemies hands. Keeping the setting slightly mutable, I could allow plenty of menace while still giving them a chance to get out (although not unscathed - Daniella ended up losing an arm in the conflict. This is a running theme for her player, Sara, who has managed to have her PC's lose limbs in other previous games of mine as well).
After leaving post haste, they met up with their other Hunter ally, Joel (the NPC who was a former PC from a previous Hunter campaign). Fortunately, he had the Hunter ability to restore Daniellas' lost limb, and her Hunter abilities allowed her to recover fully from the rest of her injuries in only two weeks (as opposed to the six months of hospital care it would normally have taken). This gave the party a chance to plan out a strategy to better take out the 'nest' of vampires.
Here is where I decided to include the second well-defined NPC of the game, and a way to eventually lead to the Las Vegas storyline. I had created a Bystander (a person who is given the chance to become a Hunter but, because of not reacting to the immediate supernatural threat that could grant him abilities, forever loses that option) who was also a member of the Arcanum. Thus, this would be the first character the PC's would meet from one of the other factions of supernatural 'hunters' in the World of Darkness.
This Bystander, Devon, is an expert on ancient lost civilisations and a variety of arcane texts that refer obliquely to the Nagaraja (and even to the original and rebuilt cities of Enoch). He had been involved in an encounter with the main Nagaraja that the PC's had (briefly) encountered, one that had both sealed his Bystander status and had killed both of his parents and the rest of the Arcanum team with him. He managed to track the Nagaraja down to Winnipeg, determined to destroy him. Since this generally violated the principles of the Arcanum, he was working on his own.
Now, when creating this character, I decided that his Bystander status would make him easy to manipulate by other supernatural beings, ones that could grant him any sort of power. Thus empowered, he would feel more confident in acting as a 'hunter' (as opposed to Hunter), and could be tricked into carrying out deeds by these supernatural beings, to fulfil their agenda. This could eventually lead into some of my rough ideas for the Las Vegas end of this campaign.
At this point, however, he is still just an obsessed, inexperienced man, looking for some sort of vengeance. And would make an interesting ally of the PC's, if they can all be convinced to trust each other.
When tracking down supplies at a major hardware store, the PC's encounter Devon talking to a store employee about hunting and night-vision equipment. What catches their attention is the book that he is carrying. On its' cover are some of the same runes and symbols that Izzy had seen in the underground lair of the Nagaraja, surrounding the pool of black water.
The PC's end up pursuing Devon so intensely that, after he has made another stop to pick up weapons, upon confronting him in the parking lot of a hotel, Devon is convinced that the PC's are themselves working for the Nagaraja, and have been sent to kill him.
(Another ad-lib. In the past, most PC's in my games have been fairly polite when dealing with new potential allies. However, they got into Devons' face so fast and intensely, that it seemed more appropriate for him to think them the enemy. He will not tell them anything about who he is, except that he knows they are here to kill him and stop him from killing the Nagaraja; though obviously cowed and intimidated, he refuses to give up any information about how he knows who and what they are, or how he found the Nagaraja, or indeed who he works for.)
Eventually, after they get him up to his hotel room, they do manage to convince him that he is on his side. During the conversation, he even manages to mostly figure out that they are Imbued (while the world, even worldwide organizations with the resources and knowledge of the Arcanum, does not know about the existance of Hunters, his Bystander experience gives him enough insight to realize that these people are what he could have been had he not become a coward in the face of danger). He roughly tells them who the Nagaraja is, how he knows this, and a very small amount of information about the Arcanum (something completely new to the PC's).
Armed with a new ally, the PC's decide that the best way to take on the Nagaraja is simply to scout out the barn and farmhouse by day, learning all they can about it and anything it may be doing, and then to torch the entire place with gasoline. Again, I was totally following the lead of the players here - Joel and Devon could both make suggestions about using high-powered explosives, but would also concede that they didn't actually have any way to really make or acquire such products (although there was a spirited debate about using home-made napalm, a relatively simple recipe that I will not share here, that was ultimately decided against).
So, two weeks after their previous encounter here, the party broke into the house (after a surveillance determined nobody was awake and active). Again, I simply used a rough description of my grandparents' old farmhouse to base the design of this one, only much much creepier.
After silently killing one sleeping servant (I don't know why I was so surprised at this action, especially after what had happened to Daniella; I did bring up the 'inhumane' and 'unfair' nature of the action but ultimately went ahead an allowed it - it was more or less 'in character'), they searched through the basement, uncovering more of the magical symbols and evidence of another black pool under this house as well as the barn. There was enough information here that Devon could recognize to lead him to believe, and informed the PC's thus, that the Nagaraja was indeed trying to return to the lost city of Enoch...but how exactly, he couldn't say (not actually knowing anything about Dark Thaumaturgy and vampiric Rites).
This is also, however, where the weakness of a group of Hunters working with a non-Hunter came through. The main Nagaraja was able to temporarily gain control of Devons' mind, at least to gain information about what the PC's were doing and to try to thwart them. I kept it very nebulous and low-powered (the Nagaraja had a pretty low Humanity score, thus any actions taken during the day would be difficult for him to do - certainly Dominating someone from any sort of distance would be brief and easily-thwarted).
Searching the remainder of the house (and keeping a watchful eye on Devon, after removing his weapons), they were attacked by the other Nagaraja (who had been sleeping in the attic, and had been warned by the Elder; thus, he was able to jump down and take one of the party, Joel, by surprise). He fled, taking Joel with him into the basement, past the open doorway (taking some sunlight damage). When the rest of the party caught up with them, the Nagaraja had already consumed most of Joels' brain (in an effort to heal itself from the sunlight damage to better face the rest of the invaders).
Rather than engage in combat directly, the players decided that the PC's would shoot out the window in the room they were in (all the windows were taped up and boarded up in places), and use their abilities to keep the Nagaraja pinned in the room while the sunlight destroyed it.
Deciding they have learned all they could (and slightly upset about the death of a friend and favourite NPC), Izzy and Daniella decide that now is a good time to simply torch the house and barn, even though they hadn't managed to track down the other Nagaraja.
Now, I figured that was just as well - most likely, it would have crossed over into the Shadowlands already (after seeing its' home invaded and unable to do much about it after the death of the only servant and disciple it had on the premises); it was confused, tired, and frustrated, but ultimately not stupid.
At this point, I now have the first major recurring villian (he will definitely reappear - I'm not certain yet how or when, but he is too interesting, and too prominent in the lives of the PC's, to not get used again), and a new interesting (if deeply flawed and confused) ally. Devon won't appear in the next game (he will be going back to Boston to research the magical symbols some more, undoubtedly), but will be featured in the upcoming Las Vegas storyline. Most likely, he will appear a few times before that, just to create a sense of continuity with the character, and give the sense to the PC's that he is trustworthy, so the smack of his ultimate betrayal (something like that, anyway) will be that much more of a surprise.
Perhaps this will all have something to do with the never-fully-explained Rose Foundation (an enigmatic group that funds some Hunters - sometimes, and usually for never fully explained reasons, that has appeared in a couple Hunter books)...
So, even though the earlier offhand comments about Las Vegas did not directly impact on this session, it did lead to the inclusion of a character (Devon) who did. And the minimal preparation has created an interesting and enigmatic recurring villian, one who should make for interesting upcoming games (especially when it is ten minutes to game time, and I haven't had time to come up with the basic theme of the evenings' entertainment...).