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Winging It

The Plot Thickens

by Ian Sokoliwski
Jan 28,2005

 

The Plot Thickens

Welcome to the third installment of the column 'Winging It', my reflections and advice on a more free-form approach to GM'ing, primarily using my 'Hunter: the Reckoning' Campaign for source material.

Here we are at the first post-Prelude session. This is the game that, traditionally, should have the first 'real' adventure in it, and perhaps create the foundation for later conflicts and antagonists. However, as before, I am creating no real notes or story structure prior to each game session, just some vague ideas of possible encounters as well as leftover notes from a previous Campaign in the same world a few years before.

We left our intrepid heroines Izzy and Daniella walking back toward downtown Winnipeg from the alien-conspiracy theorist (and fellow Hunter) Frank (who may or may not have originally been intended to become part of their adventuring/hunting 'party'). The two of them were starting to discuss what had happened to them (becoming Hunters, seeing zombies, talking to Frank), and were planning on catching a bus back to Izzy's apartment. Getting to the bus stop, however, they come across an internet cafe.

The sign for the internet cafe has some more of the Hunter Code on it, indicating something about 'information' and 'sanctuary'. Still new to this, and not looking for more information, they decide to go in.

Now, to back up for a moment, one problem I knew that I would have with dispensing information to the players was the fact that neither character had their own computer. Thus, it might become problematical for them to discover Hunter.net (the internet site where various Hunters relay information to each other - not necessary for the game, but a handy resource on many levels, including as a source for further stories and adventures/encounters). I realized it might be a bit heavy-handed to have NPC's later introduce them to the resource, so I figured the less deus-ex-machina approach would be to have more Hunter Code point their way to computers and to the information itself. It is still fairly deus ex machina, but it would be easier for the players to overlook this information and thus miss it than if an NPC were to just tell them 'wow, you should check out this important website!'.

Great, I've got them in an internet cafe, but had no idea what to do with them there. So, I figured, if the Hunter Code is on the sign outside, at least one of the computer terminals inside would have the website address (in a version of the Hunter Code as well), as well as related addresses (on survival, bomb-building, wiccan practises, and a variety of other related and non-related information).

Now, rather than presenting all the information on Hunter.net as being really useful, I prefer the 'flavour text' approach from the rulebooks, where the actual entries are fairly rambling and borderline incoherent (like this column, perhaps), reflecting the variety of perspectives on the Hunt and the Imbuing by the various Hunters out there. Thus, Hunter.net is less a guideline on how to battle the supernatural and deal with their (the Hunters) new role in the world, it is more just an acknowledgement that the player characters are not completely alone, but that most of the people they are 'with' are, well, disturbed at the very least.

To further illustrate this point, I decide that another Hunter is already inside the cafe, and watching them. So, I introduce Timothy (an NPC), who comes over to them (seeing which website they are on) and introduces himself. They all get to talking, and Timothy reveals that, not only does he know Frank, but he also thinks that Frank is crazy.

Those zombies have nothing to do with aliens, Timothy assures them. It is, instead, all part of the United States' and Soviet Unions' experiments dating back to the '50's in biowarfare and genetic supersoldiers. He knows this because some men in dark suits, black sunglasses, and earphones told him this.

Now, I just threw this last bit in at the last moment to keep most Hunter explanations about their own abilities and the existance of the supernatural as free from religious overtones as possible, at least initially. I had liked how the players had responded (by running away) to the previous explanation (from Frank), and just wanted to continue to work with the similar ideas, hoping to keep the players on edge in much the same way.

Timothy dropped a piece of information about scouting out a particular warehouse he believes to be infested with supernaturals of some sort. He was very vague about it, and didn't want to approach it just yet, but mentioned it with the hope that Izzy and Daniella would be interested in scouting it out for more information. The reason for the descriptions being vague were twofold: first, the more I played out the character of Timothy, the less 'action oriented' he seemed to me, and was much more likely to instead want to acquire large amounts of data on a potential 'target' before deciding if it was something to be destroyed, helped, or otherwise dealt with, and this predeliction for foot-dragging would carry over into his descriptions.

Second, I had just dropped in the idea of the factory from a music video I had seen earlier in the day. Lots of paint peeling on the walls, rusting machinery, kind of a throwback to the gothier videos of around 1997.

Now, while discussing this with Timothy, they had also found a thread/message board on Hunter.net about other Winnipeg Hunters. Here, they found an entry about a particular Hunter wanting new Hunters to leave information so they could arrange to meet. Basically, it was an older, more experienced Hunter wanting to meet newer Hunters in the city, so he could inform them and help them.

Now, I have mentioned that I had run a previous Hunter Campaign a few years ago. In the last session of that Campaign, I left the fates of most of the Hunters a little vague (it involved storming a Vampire's compound, a Wayward turning on the team, and a group of Ghouls), basically to give the players of that game the opportunity to play different characters in the same Campaign if they wanted to.

As this session had ended a few years ago, I had been thinking about introducing a former member of that previous Campaign into this Campaign, as a mentor-figure to the new characters. I hadn't really decided which one would end up playing that role, however, until, during this particular game session, the PC's were on Hunter.net, and they saw the welcoming greeting/information.

So, the handle of the person from Hunter.net was GoreWhore. A fantastic name; I only wish I could take credit for it.

Listening to Timothy go on about his theories and about his 'target' location, Izzy posts a message asking for GoreWhore to leave a follow-up message, just to find a meeting place. Deciding they have had enough of this particular brand of crazy, Izzy and Daniella then decide to leave. They mumble something about taking Timothy's advice into account and looking into this warehouse, even going so far as to exchange contact information with Timothy in case they all need to get together, and then catch a cab.

Heading back downtown, and armed with the website address for Hunter.net, Izzy and Daniella decide to stop at a library to use their internet facilities.

I'm thinking that at this point, it has been nothing but dialogue in this game. The players seem happy about this, and I've been enjoying it (Timothy is a fun, if bewildered, kook to play), but I thought that it should be time to introduce a new supernatural element into the game, mostly to see how the players respond. So, upon entering the library, they see a ghost.

(I'll admit, I do tend to play a little fast and loose with the Second Sight abilities in Hunter. I'm aware that, if they haven't activated it, Hunters cannot automatically just 'see' what is supernatural and what is not. However, I also like the idea that something just seems 'odd' to them whenever they are around the supernatural, so they will unconciously turn on this Second Sight ability. Especially if it moves the story forward easily.)

A little girl is sitting up on top of a bookshelf, singing to herself and looking very sorrowful, occassionally pushing a book off the shelf. It is in a quiet, disused corner of the library, and the carpet is well-padded, so it doesn't seem to be attracting attention. To the people who can't see her, anyway.

Daniella decides to start talking to the girl. In fact, both Izzy and Daniella react in such a quiet and caring way that I decide to run with the idea that this is just a little girl, not some Malfean or Fomor or some other monster in a (vaguely) human guise. The little girl, Eliza, just wants the pocket watch her grandfather had given to her, but she cannot leave to get it.

This is a great example of how an idea can so easily change because of the players reactions using this free-form method of GM'ing. As I said, the players (through their characters) were so genuinely concerned and nice to this little girl, that I had to run with their reactions. It is quite possible that, had I created Eliza in advance, I would have been more restrictive in what her backstory was (probably making it needlessly complex, and having some ulterior motive to the whole thing). Instead, I go with the idea that she wants this physical object, but is somehow prevented from leaving the building to find it.

I decide that the girl had originally been murdered in a playground that was where this library currently is, and that her house had been just across the street. However, that had been back in 1915, and it now being 2004, there would be quite a bit of difficulty in locating this pocket watch.

Still, with them all being in a library, they were able to find a Manitoba Free Press (the original name of the Winnipeg Free Press, for those from Winnipeg) article from 1915 about the murder, and so they could trace some of her history. With the engraving on the watch, and knowing how old it was, they decided to (later) search antique stores and search out living relatives/ancestors to see about locating it.

No thoughts of just trying to exorcise or destroy this ghost. Just a couple of Hunters who are 'Hunters' in name only. I thought this was a great chain of events, and was happy to respond to their (rather unusual) style of gameplay.

Back to the original reason to be at the library. By the time they get around to logging on to Hunter.net, they have gotten a response from GoreWhore, and have set up a meeting that evening.

So, later that evening, Izzy and Daniella are waiting in a coffee shop in the Forks (a market and tourist attraction in Winnipeg). They feel fairly safe, as the sign on this coffee shop says, in Hunter Code, both 'sanctuary' and 'arsenal'.

Now, this was deliberate on my part. This particular coffee shop had featured prominently in my previous Hunter game, and I was happy to bring it into play in this Campaign as well.

So, in walks Joel. Now, in my previous Campaign, Joel, a player character, had been a skinny, geeky 16-year old kid, who's main claim to fame was an encyclopedic knowledge of zombie movies. Hence his coming up with the internet handle 'GoreWhore'.

(Well, that and, when he first encountered a Vampire in the previous Campaign, got himself a whole bunch of extra experience points by asking said Vampire 'Are you evil?' Nothing gets a character more XPs than making the GM laugh.)

Here he is, now an NPC, three years later and survivor of countless encounters with the supernatural. He is bigger, tougher, and there are gun-shaped bulges in his leather overcoat and he is carrying a large black duffel bag.

The danger of this type of character is that I would then be introducing the stereotype psycho 'Avenger' character, a type I wasn't too interested in having in this game (especially if he was to later interact with Eliza). However, as he is based on a previous PC, one that was much more interested in learning about the supernatural and helping them whenever possible, I decided to make his choice of clothing and equipment much more of a pragmatic one, rather than any sort of weapon-obsession or hunt-obsession. After being around for this long, he has simply learned that he HAS to have weapons on him at all times.

So, Joel, Izzy, and Daniella all meet. Following the lead of the players (who all seem to enjoy interacting with Joel, and react to him as the least crazy of all the Hunters they have met that day), I start to think that Joel may end up being part of their little group on a more regular basis than, say, Timothy or Frank.

True to TV and movie tradition, Joel doesn't tell the players too much about their new world and their real role in it, just dropping vague hints (although going over the idea that the zombies are pretty mindless, but that helping Eliza just might be the best thing to do, as she may 'move on' upon getting her pocket watch) but not talking about the whole encyclopedia or monster manual of H:tR beasties. Just easing them into it, I figure.

Now, Izzy and Daniella bring up the idea of the factory space, so I run with it, and Joel suggests they all scout out that warehouse and learn whatever they can learn. Joel introduces the player characters to Christine, the owner of the coffee shop and another Hunter (an NPC survivor of the previous Campaign, but a Hunter who, for reasons as yet not completely explained, will not be coming with them yet), and they all go into the locker in the back where they discover the meaning of the 'arsenal' symbol.

As much as I (as the GM) have been enjoying the idea of the players only ever talking to the supernatural, or using whatever makeshift weapons they can find just lying about, I decide to make a limited amount of weaponry available to them at this point. So, they open up this equipment locker to find various guns, knives, and pieces of surveillance equipment.

(There is even a beautifully crafted wooden sword, with the name 'Hank' carved into the blade. This is another throwback to the previous game, but has no real context to this game. Just an interesting piece of atmosphere, most likely a tribute to a fallen comrade. Even if that comrade was a bit of a jerk.)

Joel gives each of them a small handgun and a set of binoculars, as well as each of them getting a small plastic soda bottle. 'A makeshift silencer.' Whether that would actually work is problematic, but it just seemed to add the right touch of atmosphere.

Arriving at the factory space, they discover five zombie creatures. However, these differ from the ones encountered in the previous session as these seem partially stitched together. They also see a regular person who, through the 'Discern' ability, seems almost 'perfect'. This 'perfect' person seems to be stitching and rebuilding one of the zombies.

Joel knows enough to let them know about the different types of zombies (those 'naturally occurring' and those built by wizards), and about what a 'wizard' is. Sort of. He also makes it clear that the 'wizard' is probably far far out of their league. Plus, to differentiate Joel from the grim obsessed hunter that he looks like, he opens up his duffel bag and pulls out a laptop computer. It would seem that a large amount of what he carries is not weapons, but other hunt-related equipment, and he is still big on the idea of garnering information and just learning as much as he can about everything around him.

Here is where we leave the session for the night.

Now, as stated earlier, the idea of the factory space was more or less taken from a music video earlier in the evening. And, since the characters have virtually no power (a situation which really doesn't ever change dramatically for Hunter characters - it is more about them getting smarter, I find, rather than more powerful), using low-level antagonists (a simple ghost, a handful of zombies) seemed rather appropriate.

However, here is where sometimes the free-form approach can get particularily tricky. You see, I determined that they would see a bunch of zombies (they were watching through the skylight, so the zombies didn't see them), but, on the spot, I decided that the zombies should also look 'stitched together', just to visually differentiate them from the ones encountered earlier.

The problem with that, I realized after having said it, was that something had to have stitched them together in the first place. And, since they were just milling around with no clear agenda, they were probably in the location that they had originally been created in. So, I just threw in the 'wizard' to show them how they were being built.

And then immediately realized that there would be absolutely no way for them to be able to take out a wizard and five zombies. Not with their limited experience, abilities, and weapons, anyway.

Fortunately, since this method primarily depends on the players thinking their way through situations more than average heavily-scripted GM'ing methods requires, I will (in the next session) be able to let the players figure out how they are going to deal with this mess. I'm pretty sure they aren't going to just try and kill everything in sight, but perhaps try and acquire more information and set up a trap or something.

Also, I do not know why that wizard is building zombies. I do know he has a reason, and if the players try and find it, then I will provide it. I kind of hope that they do, because I would really like to know (myself) why that wizard is building zombies.

- Ian Sokoliwski
www.angelfire.com/comics/red_bee/

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