The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

Thieves in the night rob you blind
With surgical precision
You can’t evade the eye in the sky
He got facial recognition
– Airbourne, Too Much Too Young Too Fast

London, May 2012

The meet with Hopkins begins on a bench in Hyde Park, and they walk and talk with her for some time, asking her questions about a wide range of topics which she answers to the best of her ability.

After extensive discussion, the team decides they’re better off taking her with them, and that the best thing to do is decamp to somewhere in rural Germany as they want to hole up somewhere where (most) of them speak the language, and which is in the Schengen Zone, for ease of uninspected travel. This second consideration rules out Russia, which is the other serious option. Lonely sits down on a park bench with his head in his hands for the moment, as one Hindrance is pushing him to leave Hopkins behind and another one is pushing him to take her with them (as a GM, I love it when that happens), but goes along with the plan.

It is at this point that Ritter spots an eight-person floating box around the team, apparently British-trained and definitely British-dressed. The team has a set of basic and unobtrusive signals for this sort of thing, so Ritter alerts the rest. Someone steps out from behind a van long enough to be sure Lonely sees him, then disappears again; it is Biggs, tipping him off.

Lonely, as a Londoner accustomed to dodging the police, leads them all to a service entrance to the Green Park Underground station. Any doubts they might have about Hopkins being a field agent are dissipated when they see how incompetent she is at evading pursuit; this slows them long enough for a pair of their pursuers to arrive at the service entrance, where they flash ID at an employee on his way to remonstrate with the intruders and are allowed past. However, Ritter finds a place to hide and the pursuers pass by in the darkness.

Lonely calls his aunt, who leaves her snack bar to come and pick the team up in her van. She brings sandwiches, and at Lonely’s request, drops them at a dodgy second-hand car dealer where they buy an old banger for cash.

Aware that they might be blown, have to cut and run, and never make it back to their safe house, Cartwright has been orbiting Hyde Park in a rental car and has the Dracula Dossier with him. The team drives to Devon, Kent being too obvious, where they use cash to buy passage on a small boat sailing to France. Once there, they make their way to a small rural train station and take a train to Germany, specifically Friedrichshafen.

They establish that Hopkins speaks pretty good Romanian, and Ritter reaches out to his Connections to get her a fake Romanian passport. They decide they could all do with some new clothes, as none of them has anything beyond what they’re standing up in, and go shopping.

Lonely calls Biggs on a burner phone and learns that all of the team, including Hopkins, are wanted for questioning on terrorism charges. Biggs was tasked by his boss with following Lonely and his colleagues, he knows another team was following Hopkins. He asks if you know what happened to Zhu Li-Wen, who has disappeared.

Smyth remembers that Li-Wen complained of someone following her, and suggests you return to Britain to capture and interrogate him; but a quick check of the papers online reveals that her disappearance is in the local newspapers so her tail has probably packed up and left, especially if he is the one who took her. Li-Wen previously left Cartwright another message saying a reporter from the Daily Mail has been asking about him…

GM Notes

SWADE PCs develop through five Ranks – Novice, Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic, Legendary – and the Conspyramid has six levels, so my current assumption is that the PCs will advance one level up the Conspyramid per Rank, then build to an assault on Dracula himself once they’re a few advances into Legendary, say 20 advances total. That means the campaign will be about 40 sessions long.

Smyth is getting frustrated at the lack of progress, but the others insist on avoiding all combat, and they are all focused on the wrong things. I will have to make things more obvious as they are clearly floundering, which is not the vampire spy thriller vibe I am going for.

They spent most of this session arguing over what kind of getaway car to use, where to get it from, and whether they could trust Hopkins. In the end I reverted to outright telling them that she is what she seems to be. I then had to point out that she could explain a lot of the cryptic annotations in the Dossier because she had written them; they had completely missed that.

The upside of all the fantastic prep work which has gone into this campaign is that the players can ask Hopkins what she meant by “NS building” and after a few seconds searching the PDF I can give them chapter and verse on it. The down side is that it is proving very hard for them to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Time to follow Raymond Chandler’s advice and have a Renfield come through the door with a gun in his hand.

“While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to coexistence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often.” – Philip Munz, Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad, and Robert J. Smith, When Zombies Attack!

Z+15: 19.5 million infected (31% of UK population, 0.28% of global population). Military units have suffered 10% casualties; standing orders are now to shoot the infected and looters on sight.

Befehl Ist Befehl!

“New orders, Flack. Take a team and sweep this area of Chigley. Search and destroy: Locate and eliminate all zombies, looters, and infected.”

This is not what I signed up for, Flack thinks. This will be a bloodbath. He pictures the most likely target; an unarmed civilian desperately looking for something to feed his kids, and not being too picky about who officially owns it. He’s going to struggle to hold that against them.

Flack is Rep 5, and is taking Grout, Featherby and Hopwood with him. I figure Sgt-Maj Grout should be Rep 4, while Privates Featherby and Hopwood, as cadets, should be Rep 3. All are armed with A-3s. This isn’t a standard scenario, so I figure things will go straight to combat with Gangers, Loners and zeds, but there will be Interaction with Sheeple which might or might not turn nasty.

PEF1: Sheeple

Rep 4, 3 (B-2), 3, 4 (A-3). Interaction: Pass same. Challenge to spot weapons.

The first group Flack and his fireteam encounter appear to be ordinary citizens doing nothing he wants to shoot them for. A couple of them are hiding what he suspects to be weapons, but he thinks, what the Hell, zombies everywhere and not enough troops left to cover things. Nobody else seems to have noticed, I’ll pretend I didn’t either.

PEF2: Loners

Rep 4 (A-3), 3 (A-3), 4 (A-3), 3 (B-2), 3 (B-2)

The second group are openly carrying firearms, and considering they can only have taken the rifles from dead soldiers, Flack is not interested in cutting them any slack. He gains the advantage and shouts “Open fire!”

Flack cuts down all three of his targets, while Grout and Hopwood force two to Duck Back, and Featherby makes holes in an innocent traffic sign. Flack administers the coup de grace to the fallen and orders Featherby to recover and carry the rifles. The two survivors fade away down an alley, lacking any interest in taking on superior forces with superior firepower.

Three zeds shamble into view on the team’s right flank, attracted by the gunfire. The team open fire on them, but this draws more zombies than it kills, and suddenly there are four of them.

“Fix bayonets… Charge!” orders Flack, and the fireteam does so, each making short work of their target.

PEF3: Gangers

Rep 4 (A-3), 3 (A-3), 4 (B-2), 3, 3, 3

While Flack and company are sorting out the mess, they are interrupted by half-a-dozen gangers in need of more weapons. The leader fires a burst at Flack and hits him, threatening to take him Out Of the Fight, but his body armour (and a Star Power die) mean he simply Ducks Back. Grout is forced to Duck Back, Featherby is also rendered Out Of the Fight, and Hopwood is killed outright. Grout recovers from Duck Back, but the Gangers lose their Will to Fight and retreat, obviously not realising how much damage they have done. Grout, as might be expected of a Sergeant Major, is more than happy to Carry On, but he deems it wiser to stay with the fallen than to pursue a gang which outnumbers him six to one into a built-up area. Fortunately, no more zombies come calling.

PEF4: Sheeple

Rep 4, 3 (B-2), 3. Interaction: Pass same.

While Grout is calling for extraction, a group of sheeple wander past, averting their eyes and ignoring Flack’s team as much as they can.

Bookkeeping

Flack failed this mission; he missed one of the targets, lost a soldier, and got one of the others shot up. Let’s call it a Raid (worth 2 IRD) commissioned by a Ganger (worth +3 IRD) for Rep dice purposes, and he also used a Star Power die, so Flack loses 8 IRD, wiping out the 7 IRD he had built up and leaving him with 1 DRD net. Them’s the breaks.

Flack: Rep 5 Loner. Peo 4, Sav 5. Nerves of Steel, Rage. A-3, Food x1, DRD 1, Lifetime Rep not calculated until end of month.

GM Notes

This isn’t one of the standard encounters in ATZ, but I feel it should be happening at about this point, and one of the joys of ATZ for me has always been the way non-standard missions emerge effortlessly from the story. The mission objective is to resolve all PEFs and eliminate any that aren’t Sheeple – Gangers are looting, Loners are acting suspiciously, and zeds are zeds.

Now, statistically, for a Settlement set up on a tabletop, there would be 18 buildings with 3.5 PEFs each and three for the initial setup; call it 66 PEFs. That’s more than I wanted to play with, so I reverted to the Battle Board approach and let one Board stand for the whole slaughter, reducing the whole thing to a more manageable 4 PEFs, resolved one after the other.

What do we learn from this? Don’t fight people with automatic weapons, and if you must, do it from cover – in game terms, you can’t be confident you will gain Advantage on the first turn, so if you can possibly do so, make sure you attack at night.

This session took an hour and a half to play over 6 turns, and used 4 zeds and 10 humans. I ran it on a Battle Board, as I say, but I forgot to take any pictures, so it’s back to Theatre of the Mind for you today!

“If it bleeds, we can kill it.” – Predator

Carpathian Mountains, April 2012

The PCs explain to the woman they’ve just encountered that they are private security contractors who were hired to extract a journalist investigating the monastery dig, did that, went to see their client just in time to see him murdered, and later noticed the journalist had been killed as well. They think they’re next, so they’re trying to figure out what’s going on.

It turns out the woman knew Olivia Liu, the journalist, and that Liu told her about the PCs, so she agrees to compare notes with them. This is beneficial to both sides, as the woman (“Call me Sternberg,”) learns about the Dracula Dossier and the party learns how to kill a vampire and some of their peculiar features. Sternberg explains that she and her comrades are part of the Sayaret Aluka (“Leech Reconnaissance Unit”), Israel’s covert vampire killers.

Smyth asks if there is any significance to the fact that they’re all women; Sternberg sidesteps the question.

The PCs agree to share the Dossier once they’ve finished retyping it into a word processor (it is proving remarkably resistant to being scanned or photocopied) and to stay in touch via electronic dead drop to minimise the risk of friendly fire incidents.

Sternberg tells them that there was a fight here previously between more of Sayaret Aluka and whoever was digging up the ruins, and her team is here watching in case anyone else shows up.

It’s at this point that the noise of an approaching helicopter is heard, and everyone takes cover. A squad of armed troops rappels out of the doors, led by Keritescu, who the PCs now know from Sternberg is a Renfield employed by Dracula’s crew.

Sternberg’s plan to watch the newcomers from hiding and see what they do goes south as Smyth opens fire, killing the pilot instantly. The copilot rolls a critical failure to gain control of the chopper, so it crashes onto the squad and explodes. A short but vicious firefight ensues, at the end of which Keritescu is in the wind, all but one of the troops is dead, Sayaret Aluka has lost another good woman, and the PCs have had several near-death experiences, saved only by their Bennies.

A brutal interrogation of the surviving opponent reveals his orders: Do whatever you’re told by a man you don’t know, and don’t see anything while you’re doing it. At the point of combat he had only been told to help recover an object of strategic significance from the ruins.

Of all people, Lonely recognises the shoulder patches: They’ve just offed a team from the Romanian Army’s 6th Special Operations Brigade; it seems Dracula has enough pull with the Romanian military to use their SF operators on missions. Neither the Brigade nor Count D himself can be expected to react well to this; time to get the Hell out of Dodge.

Back at their safe house in the UK, they find an invitation to a meeting in the email account Zhu Li-Wen has been using to contact Cartwright. It is signed “Hopkins”.

“That’s one of the people who annotated the Dossier,” says Cartwright. “I think we should go, don’t you?”

GM Notes

This is the point at which I had to decide which flavour of vampires I was using, and whether Sayaret Aluka had accurate information on them, because those two decisions determine what kind of stakes are in the M203s. This and the conversations between the Sayaret and the PCs also meant I had to largely rebuild the third Conspyramid, but it’s all the better for it. The recent flow of events meant it made more sense if Olivia Liu was connected to the Sayaret Aluka, so that’s how it always was now, and the players will never know otherwise.

I thought it was time to up the ante and also hint that there are three factions in play; enter Keritescu stage left with an armed Puma helicopter and a squad of Vulturii special forces operators. I’m pretty rusty on the full fat combat rules, and forgot a number of them, but I don’t think it would have changed the outcome. So far, I’m finding the Roll20 character sheets more trouble than they’re worth for running NPCs in combat, if that doesn’t change in the next couple of fights I’ll revert to paper character sheets and actual dice.

At first, the players thought MI6 had a tame vampire, but they are shifting to the view that the vampire conspiracy has a tame MI6. They also think that Sayaret Aluka are now their allies. They are not entirely correct on any of these points.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” – Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Z+14: 1.77 million infected.

Still mulling over the events at Winkstead Hall, Drew decides that what he really needs is a stiff drink. Preferably, several stiff drinks. So he heads off into downtown Wellchester in search of Luxury Items, namely strong spirits.

Setup: “I need a drink.”

As he’s crossing the road to his favourite cafe for breakfast (got to take on some ballast before you start the serious drinking), he encounters a sheeple, and while he is failing to impress him (1 DRD) a ganger walks up and waves his jacket pocket threateningly, in a manner intended to suggest it contains a gun. Drew’s not having this and punches him sharply in the nose. The ganger sits down on the tarmac unexpectedly, out of the fight.

“I haven’t got time for this,” Drew mutters, thinking of the paperwork he’ll have to fill in if he arrests the twat. He stalks off.

Entering the cafe, he finds armed soldiers asking to see his papers. His warrant card reassures them (1 IRD) and he is allowed entry. Inside, he finds a sheeple ready to take his order – and two zeds bursting out of the kitchen at the rear, attacking the waiter before anyone can do anything about it; they drag him to the floor and begin feasting.

TUrn 7: How did those zeds get in here?

The soldiers react before Drew does and hose down the dogpile indiscriminately with their SA-80s, before stepping up and administering a coup de grace to each combatant. They turn to look at Drew.

“You gotta problem with that?” one grinds out. Drew shakes his head. “Nope.” At least, not one he is willing to debate with one Glock 17 against two SA-80s.

“I’m hungry though, mind if I check the kitchen?”

“Knock yourself out.”

Drew rummages around, but finds nothing of interest and nothing immediately edible. He leaves while the soldiers are calling in their encounter.

Outside the next shop, a pair of sheeple are frozen in place, wondering about the gunshots. Drew reassures them the danger is over (1 IRD) and heads inside. There, he finds a zombie menacing two sheeple and decides to intervene; his rage gives him the edge over the other combatants, and he takes the zombie out in short order. Graciously accepting the sheeples’ thanks (1 IRD for Interaction), he searches the place and finds some Meds.

Oh well, if he wanted a drink, a pharmacy was probably the wrong place to go, and the way things are heading, the meds might be more use. Nodding to another potential customer as he leaves, he heads home; if he remembers correctly, there’s a beer getting warm there.

Bookkeeping

Drew succeeded in the mission objective, so gets another 5 IRD for that, and a net 1 IRD for Interactions, taking him to 11 IRD overall. He’ll probably be Rep 5 by the end of the month.

Drew: Rep 4 Star, Loner. People 4, Savvy 3. Rage, Resilient. IRD 11, P-1, Food x1, Meds x1, Lifetime Rep 0.

GM Notes

A more narrative report this time, rather than my usual rules-heavy, didactic approach. I’ve got off lightly so far in terms of rolling doubles for activation, which means everybody misses a turn, but that returned in force today, with almost 2/3 of the rolls being doubles.

Notice how much better things go for Drew, at Rep 4, than for Blackman, who is almost exactly the same except for being Rep 3; Rep 3 gives you a 25% chance of passing 2d6, Rep 4 roughly a 45% chance, and Rep 5 almost a 70% chance. This will become even more important once the guns come fully into play, as passing 2d6 on a shooting roll means all your shots hit.

This session lasted 12 turns and took just under an hour to play, requiring 5 humans and 2 zeds. Credits: Battlemat – Pinnacle Entertainment. Counters – THW.

“I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula

Shortly before leaving for Romania, the PCs learn that Olivia Liu has been found dead in Key West, and Zhu Li-Wen contacts Cartwright saying she thinks she is being followed. Cartwright decides someone has connected her to him, and the best thing he can do is leave her completely alone.

Their research into Iulia Vaduva the “trend forecaster” leads them to conclude that she is a vampire, and therefore best left alone until they know quite a bit more about the bloodsuckers. They also gather intelligence on all the surviving descendants of Jonathan and Mina Harker, and mull over what they might do with it.

Munich, April 2012

Lonely has finished reading the annotated Dracula Dossier and notes there are a number of ladies who bear investigating, so they decide not to fly directly to Bucharest but to stop over in Munich.

Here, they work through several key locations; the tomb of Countess Dolingen von Graz, the old Dead House (now a mortuary) and the Pinakothek Museums. Here, they learn that the Dead House was used by the Ahnenerbe for something called “Unternehmen Braun” in the 1930s and 1940s, and discover a retrospective exhibition of works by Francis Aytown, including a portrait they suspect is Count Dracula, another one they know is Countess Dolingen, and a collection of photos of the 1894 vampire hunters from which Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker are conspicuously absent. They spend lavishly in the gift shop to acquire copies, and a package arrives for Smyth from Vienna by overnight courier containing a selection of pistols and knives.

Bucharest, April 2012

CIA Head of Station Bucharest has been told by Cartwright’s contact Bewler to expect the team and treat them nicely; when they ask why he hushed up the murder of Al Qaeda In Rum operatives in Bucharest recently, he says it was because British Intelligence asked him to; if they want to know what was going on, they should ask E Squadron. But keep them away from him, because he has never seen people dismembered in such a brutal and bloody fashion as the AQIR group were.

The party leave him more convinced than ever that there is some part of British Intelligence with a vampire on the payroll. It hardly seems worthwhile talking to the local police.

Carpathian Mountains, April 2012

The group acquires a quadcopter drone and uses it to reconnoitre the monastery, where they find signs of a recent firefight.

Next, they stop off at the nearest village, posing as wealthy academics researching local folklore. Here they learn all sorts of legends, many of which they suspect are being made up on the spot specifically to part them from their cash, but do gain confirmation of what Liu told them about the place, and the arrival two months ago of mining company workers. They also learn that a group of foreign women arrived a while later, who spoke amongst themselves in a language the locals didn’t recognise; one of them wore a Star of David pendant. They drove off to the monastery, then there was some shooting; they haven’t come back.

“Bloody Mossad,” mutters Cartwright. “That’s all we need.”

They approach the monastery all the same, and Cartwright’s spidey sense starts tingling; he has Danger Sense. When he warns the others, a female voice asks who they are and what they want; Smyth suggests they get together so they can talk quietly, and a young woman with obvious military training steps partially out of cover, not quite aiming her M16/M203 combo at them.

Smyth notices the M203 grenade launcher has been modified to fire stakes.

GM Notes

Not a lot of action this week; they are deliberately avoiding that until they know what they’re up against and how to kill it, as I have telegraphed my intention to play the vampires to the full extent of both the rules and their own ruthless evil.

I wanted to introduce the PCs to the third conspyramid, as they have encountered nodes from the other two, and it did not seem likely that the excavations in Carpathia were still going on two months later. It did seem likely that somebody else might have twigged what was going on from Olivia Liu’s published articles, though; enter Sayaret Aluka, all-female Israeli vampire killers, stage left. Everything about them is a series of clues to the nature of the third pyramid and who is behind it; let’s see how long it takes the players to figure it out.

The purpose of introducing Sayaret Aluka is to address the issue they currently have of drowning in information and not knowing what to do or how to do it. Sayaret Aluka is an outfit which has been fighting vampires for some time, and once befriended, can offer helpful advice.

There is just so much stuff going on in this campaign! I could run it several times, easily. Normally, I would say the hard part is deciding which elements to use, but in the intended improvisational mode, the PCs decide that for me as we go along.

I’ve found it necessary to keep records of what each faction, and other key NPCs, are doing during each episode; who finds out about what, how, and what do they do about it. I’ll share that once there are no longer any spoilers.

Previously, on City of Thieves: Beta, Jadora, M’lud and The Warlock have freed Havda the Snow Sorceress from her curse, and have agreed to help her revenge herself on Vingtang the Sorcerer in exchange for a cut of his treasure. Now read on…

Havda doesn’t know where Vingtang is at the moment, but he often spoke of visiting Jalizar. Beta is a native, and we learn in flashback that she was a street rat, taken in by a Thieves’ Guild member called Manolis Tassidis, who backed the wrong side in the gang war which installed Jutarkos Six-Fingers as the Guildmaster, since when they have both been keeping a very low profile. Beta seeks out Manilos, who is living in the Sewers under Rats’ Nest, and he suggests three possible starting points for the search; the New Docks, if Vingtang has arrived recently; Greytowers, if he is in hiding; and House Tankara, as they are sorcery-adjacent and might know where he is.

They begin with House Tankara, which everyone knows is a front for the Alchemists of Gis. The Veiled Caravaneers on guard outside are deaf to their requests for entry until Jadora offers up the magic necklace used to curse Havda; this draws forth a flunky from inside, and after they demonstrate the necklace’s power by turning one of the guards into a large bird, they are granted an audience with the Ninth of Twelve, the current Legatus. He advises them that someone answering Vingtang’s description is frequenting the Black Dolphin’s Wake, a tavern in New Docks.

Off to the New Docks they trot, and arrive just in time to see a dispute over broken pottery escalate into mass murder as a burly man from one of the docked ships goes berserk, killing almost a dozen people before Beta and Jadora decide to intervene, bringing him down with pike thrusts and crossbow bolts while M’lud and the Warlock watch from a nearby tavern over beer and snacks.

Once the Watch has arrived and taken the murderer into custody, they enter the Black Dolphin’s Wake, which one or two of them have a Bad Feeling about, but this quickly passes and they order some beers. Talking to the clientele and the barkeep, they learn this incident is just the most recent of several, and all the killers seem to have eaten or drunk in the Black Dolphin’s Wake before murdering people. The barkeep also allows that Vingtang has recently become a regular.

GM Notes

I wasn’t on my best form for this session, but it seemed to work all the same. The questions about Manolis led to the players deciding where the PCs actually lived; Beta is in Brass Lanterns, Jadora is wherever her current employer is, M’lud is either in Tallbridges or the Exiles’ Quarter, and the Warlock is squatting in Greytowers. I shall work those into future episodes.

I asked the players whether they wanted a story arc, a sandbox, or just a big dungeon, and they settled on a story arc, and the obvious one is uncovering the big secret of Jalizar – the Jamhans. (It came out in 2012, so we’re well outside my self-imposed five year moratorium on spoilers.)

Looking at where we left off (agreeing to help Havda get her revenge) and where I want to go (pitting the PCs against the evil under the city), it immediately became clear that Vingtang, Havda’s ex, must be a Sewer Sorcerer. Following him would lead the party into the sewers, there to learn about the evils within. I see no reason why this campaign shouldn’t work as well under 5E as it did under SW Deluxe, hopefully better.

I started off thinking this would be a good excuse to create a megadungeon; the dungeon under Jalizar is four levels deep and potentially a mile on a side. Then I realised just how much work that would be, and I settled on adapting the SWADE supplement Distant Journeys (itself inspired, I think, by The One Ring and the Lord of the Rings’ Moria supplement) to cover their outbound and return trips to the site of interest, in this case Vingtang’s lair; it was easy enough to convert to 5E.

But after all that, I thought: Stuff it. I’ll run them through Whispers of the Dark Daeva and plonk Vingtang in the Daeva’s hideout with some sahuagin. I’ve recently expanded my D&D 5E collection to include the free basic rules, so I now have access to the standard NPCs on pages 162-164 of that document; obviously Vingtang is a mage, supported by Cultists both human and fishmen, and possibly sahuagin as well if I’m feeling mean.

I’ve started using Inspiration as a replacement for Bennies; I keep forgetting to award Bennies, but I miss them when we don’t have them. Having tried that in play, I now understand why you either have Inspiration or you don’t – it saves bookkeeping, keeping track of Bennies is a minor irritation.

It’ll be three weeks before we continue, due to player availability, so I should have time to sort myself out before the next session.

“Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.” – Tom Toro, cartoon in the New Yorker

Z+13: 1.77 million infected. First responders are at about 20% casualties and cease to function effectively. Other key organisations are in a similar state, and the economy breaks down. Food and other supplies are no longer being replenished reliably. News and other communications networks fail.

The presenter had exactly the sort of square-jawed, crewcut look the suits wanted to see up there on the podium, even if only over Zoom. He adjusted his square, horn-rimmed spectacles and began his pitch, speaking without notes.

“Gentlemen, as you are well aware, the situation is far from ideal. At the present rate of infection, the entire world population will be infected within the next two weeks. However, we began testing for ways to reverse the effects of the so-called ‘zombie virus’ almost immediately after the initial outbreak in Trumptonshire, UK, and although the initial tests were failures, earlier today we achieved a breakthrough. Testing continues round the clock, but so far those exposed to the antidote within 24 hours of infection appear to recover fully.”

A barrage of graphs and images fill the screen behind the speaker, seguing into a Gantt chart of the plan for which he sought approval.

“We are calling this ‘Project Lazarus’. Our proposal is to scale up production and develop a mass delivery system over the next eight days. On day nine, we will fly over major urban areas claimed by the ‘zombies’ and spray them with the Lazarus Agent. Zombies will die, and the newly infected – those who have not yet ‘turned’ – will recover. We will send Special Forces operators into the sprayed areas to confirm everything is going to plan. The call to action is this: Authorise our plan; detach suitable Air Force units to our control, ideally those equipped and trained for delivery of NBC agents starting on day eight; place suitable SF units at our disposal for reconnaissance on day nine.”

One of the suits objected. “We don’t have any units trained for delivery of NBC agents.” The speaker replied with a withering look that clearly said Sure, pal, if you say so.

It took a very long time to gain approval, mostly because of arguments over who to blame for the situation and who should take credit for the solution, but the speaker had been dealing with the government for a long time and had developed a sophisticated mathematical model for predicting the durations of such arguments, which he had factored into his plan, labelling it as something else.

As the speaker expected, the sitting government took the credit and the opposition took the blame. No matter, those positions would be reversed at the next election.

GM Notes

If you think this is going to improve matters, you do not know Pro-Corp or governments very well.

“There are vampires. They are real, they are of our time, and they are here, close by, stalking us as we sleep…” – Nicky Raven, Dracula

Vampires

Given their current lines of investigation, the party are likely to bump into a vampire soon. This means that I need to stat up vampires.

Fortunately, it will be some time before they meet the Man Himself, which gives me time to experiment with vampiric statblocks and the party time to gather information and experiment with tactics.

I began by selecting vampire powers from the Night’s Black Agents rulebook, and checking their game effects – inconsistencies in terminology and (to my mind) illogical sequencing made that job harder than it needed to be. Then, I started looking through the SWADE core rulebook to see what Edges, Hindrances, Powers and monstrous Special Abilities were the best fit. (And I was surprised how close you can get just using Edges, Hindrances and Powers; a PC vampire-a-like is entirely plausible. Not that I will allow that, but it makes Renfields easy to build.)

SWADE makes a distinction between game mechanics and trappings, which is handy for this; Summon Ally could be a magic spell, a psionic power, a Special Ability, or something else entirely. This means that I can give my vampires their abilities now, and decide later whether they are damned, supernatural, aliens or mutants, according to what best fits the storyline. (I have a favourite, but the players are already diverging from that line of thought despite my best efforts; who cares, so long as we’re having fun.)

One of my goals in statting up vampires is to make them easy to run, because they are complex beasts however you reskin them – the ‘Stoker build’, for example, has over 30 special abilities beyond its normal statblock. The way to handle this is to pick ways of implementing abilities that can be baked into a character sheet or statblock; Spider Climb, for example, could be implemented by giving vampires Claws, the Wall Walker Power, or the Wall Walker Special Ability; if you go with Claws, you can just say they have +2 on Athletics (climbing) rolls and add that onto the character sheet, whereas with either of the others you need to add an extra paragraph explaining what the ability does.

No, I’m not going to tell you the actual build. You never know who might be reading! Tell you what, if I remember I’ll put it in the retrospective along with the eventual conspiracy pyramids.

The Supernatural Crew

So far, I have only felt the need for vampires, Renfields, and ordinary humans or animals; there was a werewolf, but they sidestepped it by adroit tradecraft and never even knew it was there. However, one of the vampiric abilities allows the bloodsuckers to create lesser undead such as zombies, so I might need those as well.

This reflects my general approach to being a GM; I believe that ordinary humans (or other playable races, if any) are more than sufficient as adversaries. I might describe them as (say) orcs or sahuagin, but really, they’re people too, at least as far as the statblocks go.

Loose Ends

Finally, I need a way of pruning the leads that the PCs don’t follow up on, as experience teaches some plot threads will never be explored, and if you don’t prune them, they lie around forever causing confusion and indecision. My initial idea was to roll a d6 for each NPC they ignore in a session, and if that scores less than or equal to the number of sessions since they last interacted, said NPC is brutally slaughtered by vampiric agents. However, that means I have to track the number of sessions since that last interaction, so for the time being I’m going with any score of ‘1’ means the victim is dealt with.

“Things are bad. You see Police cars rolling through town but not stopping and just yesterday you walked by a National Guard checkpoint where they’ve quarantined part of the city. It’s not safe to be on the streets right now.” – All Things Zombie: Final Fade Out

Z+12: 1.77 million infected (3% of UK population, 0.03% of global population). First responders (‘blues and twos’) are about 15% infected.

Setup

Mission Two from Final Fade Out’s first month. Blackman must cross the board from section 9 to section 1 while looking for supplies. Along the way he may face muggers, zeds, the local equivalent of the National Guard, and ordinary people – this encounter has a special PEF resolution table, which I shall remember to use this time.

Blackman strolls onto the board along the pavement in section 9. PEFs appear in sections 1 and 2.

Turn 0 (Setup): Just another day in Bugtown…

Turns 1-2

For the first time, both sides roll the same to activate (2) so neither moves. I roll again; Blackman rolls 1 and activates, the PEFs roll 5 and do not. Blackman moves up 8″, just into section 5, planning to shop in sections 1 and 4 before moving off the board. He has no line of sight on any PEFs and none of them has moved, so that’s the turn.

Turn 3

Blackman rolls 1, the PEFs roll 3. In both cases this is below their Rep, so they activate, but the PEFs rolled higher, so they go first. Two pass 1d6 vs Rep so stary where they are, one passes 2d6 so moves closer – I move it up 8″ into section 4, but leave it inside the building so it doesn’t break cover.

Turns 4-5

Doubles again, so let’s call this an extra-long turn. When I roll again, the PEFs activate but Blackman doesn’t.

The PEF which started in section 1, then moved to section 4, closes on Blackman again, coming into view. I roll a die on the special PEF resolution table for this scenario, convert to EOD on the fly, and get one Rep 4 Sheeple; the Interaction goes badly and Blackman gets 1 Decreasing Rep d6. His luck is on form, I see.

The second PEF heaves into view and resolves as another Rep 4 Sheeple, which ignores Blackman. The third also closes, but is able to remain in cover, so remains a mystery for the moment.

Turn 5: Blackman vs Sheeple

Turn 6

Everyone activates, Blackman goes last. I remove the two Sheeple to avoid distorting my figure count. The PEF stays put. I decide to force the issue and do some shopping, so approach the building in sections 2 and 5. The PEF-on-approach is a zombie, which if I understand correctly appears 12″ to the left or right, putting it on the bottom edge of section 6. I guess just because I notice it on approach doesn’t mean it has to be between me and the building. As it’s not an immediate threat, I enter the Services building through the door in section 5; inside are the lurking PEF, plus three PEFs for the building. These turn out to be 2 separate zombies and two separate Sheeple. I decide Blackman enters, tries making small talk with the Sheeple, and then everyone is surprised by zombies bursting in from the back. He gets one IRD and one DRD for the Interaction, so that’s a wash.

Turn 7

Blackman rolls 1 for activation, the Sheeple roll 2, and the zeds 3. Zeds up first then, and nothing says they can’t fast move, so they do. I decide they will all go for the closest source of brains, which means the one outside hits Blackman from behind while he is watching in horror as the two inside fall on the Sheeple; one of each side falls, and the surviving zed starts feasting on the fallen sheeple. Blackman’s Rage attribute saves him again, and he sends his zed Out Of the Fight. As he is already in contact with it, I decide he can automatically kill it as per EOD page 10.

Turn 7: Mr Popular

Turn 8

Only Blackman activates; he strolls over to the surviving zed and engages it in melee, hoping to save the remaining sheeple. It’s close fought, but he succeeds, taking it OOF then auto-killing it. Sadly, the card I drew shows this as a Services building, so there are no items to loot – errr, sorry, buy. I clear the dead figures to avoid distorting the count (normally one would loot the bodies for Items, but this early in the outbreak that will get one talked about).

Turn 9

Again, only Blackman activates; he leaves the building, triggering another PEF, which is a lone Rep 5 ganger trying to rob him. Using the table on EOD page 46 shows this turns into a fight; in the melee, Blackman runs out of Rep before the ganger does, so the ganger wins and takes his wallet. Game over, man; encounter failed.

Bookkeeping

Blackman started the session with 2 IRD, which should actually have been 4 IRD because I forgot to add the 2 for the patron’s class; but picked up 6 DRD during the session, 5 for failing the encounter and one for blowing an Interaction. New total, 2 DRD.

Blackman: Rep 3 Sheeple. Peo 3, Sav 2. Bad Shot, Rage. Food x0, Luxury x1. DRD 2. Lifetime Rep not calculated until end of month.

GM Notes

I kept Arion’s counter to use as Blackman because, being a 5150 counter, it’s a different colour to the ATZ ones, making him easier to find. (The other counters are actually from the previous edition of ATZ, but they still work well enough and I can’t be bothered to tokenise the new ones.) I also turned the board sideways to fit the screen better.

This session took 80 minutes and used a maximum of 3 humans and 3 zombies; surprisingly, no law enforcement or National Guard personnel turned up. Credits: Battlemat – Pinnacle Entertainment. Counters – THW.

Since the rules are so similar to 5150, rather than continue with didactic posts I’ll shift to a more narrative style when using ATZ, unless something unusual comes up that I want to point out.

“Our toil must be in silence, and our efforts all in secret; for this enlightened age, when men believe not even what they see, the doubting of wise men would be his greatest strength.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula

Team Safehouse, March 2012

With one exception, the team spent March poring over the Dossier and doing some legwork. They investigated Billington & Son, Carter Patterson & Son, and the Hapgood family, and learned what happened to each. At first Exeter seemed like a dead end, but a lucky break led them to the corporate training facility owned by Grenley Estates.

In no particular order, they followed up on HMS Proserpine, the container ship Demeter, the Iron Guard, the Luftwaffe’s Baedeker Raids of 1942, the efficacy of rowan ash melee weapons against vampires, Al-Qaeda In Rum, and the UK Government’s Single Intelligence Account.

Investigations were somewhat hampered as the team matches the descriptions of people wanted for questioning in connection with two murders, multiple firearms offences, car theft, and dangerous driving.

Grenley Estates, March 2012

Posing as representatives of a German company planning on opening up a UK subsidiary, they visited Grenley Estates, formerly the home of Peter Hawkins. This seemed like a solid enough corporate setup, although Lonely noticed security was unexpectedly tight around the main house.

As they were leaving, though, they noticed what looked a lot like an infantry squad out exercising. Running exceptionally fast. Without any sign of fatigue. Reminding Lonely of the guy who kicked his way out of a BMW. So they left, wisely considering that three of them with no weapons were unlikely to be able to knock the place over, and if they did succeed, it would probably call down holy Hell on their heads.

Pulling together what they’ve found to date, they decided on a trip to Romania, to interview Inspector Angelescu and CIA Head of Station Bucharest about the deaths of some AQIR operatives which seem to have been hushed up. They might also visit the Carpathian monastery where a mining company is destroying an historic site. With a lot of human blood on hand.

GM Notes

Cartwright’s player couldn’t make this session, so Cartwright’s contribution was from Research rolls, made by me; Lonely’s player is actually reading the dossier, and spotted HMS Proserpine himself. Smyth’s player is also reading it. I’m pleased they’re putting in so much effort, I think it will be repaid handsomely. They have already put together that Operation EDOM exists and is somehow connected with British Intelligence, and theorise that it has tame vampires to do its bidding.

The writeup is relatively short, because 75% of the session was working through the leads and info they have acquired and trying to figure out what to with it. I leaned on Mythic and on-the-fly internet research here, which work well with this game, even if all the random tables do is suggest something you don’t like, because that itself often tells you what you should do.

I continue to be impressed by the thoroughness of this campaign. I had nothing prepared for Exeter, but once they decided on visiting, a quick turn to page 167 and there it was; the history, background material including multiple scenario hooks, what Grenley Estates looked like if it were innocent, and what they might find if it wasn’t, depending on what stage of the campaign they’re at when they visit. Exeter wasn’t part of any of the Conspyramids I’d prepared, but they were getting disheartened by that stage, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data, none of which seemed to be actionable intelligence; so once they’d decided to do something, namely visit Exeter, I cranked Exeter up a notch for the session and dropped it into one of the Conspyramids later. Truly, the game is intended to be run in a semi-improvisational way, and gives the GM all the support he needs to do that. I am quite prepared to rewrite the Conspyramids multiple times, and if necessary change the nature of the vampires on the fly, in the interests of collectively telling the best story we can.

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