The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

There are three things I bought this month because I thought the OGL kerfuffle might cause them to be removed from play, so I thought I’d give you capsule reviews of them, because why not.

Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy Rules Tome

297 page PDF by Necrotic Gnome, available here for $20 at the time of writing but I’m not sure how long it will stay there.

This is essentially B/X D&D with the text clarified and tightened up, and a layout better suited to modern sensibilities. The world and its dog are playing D&D 5th Edition these days, so maybe I should compare it to that…

  • Everything is simpler, and the game relies on GM spot rulings at least as much as on the Rules As Written.
  • The game focuses more on player skill than on character stats.
  • There are only seven character classes, three of which are elves, dwarves and halflings. Demihumans have extra abilities, but humans can advance to higher levels.
  • There are only a few dozen spells, 6-12 per level and only 5-6 levels.

All of this means the game is about 1/3 the size of 5E. The one thing I would add from 5E is rolling with advantage/disadvantage, which is an extremely elegant mechanic. I’d also switch to ascending armour class, which is more intuitive.

I’d happily run this if I could find the players. Maybe later.

The Waking of Willowby Hall

32 page PDF by Ben “Questing Beast” Milton. Currently available here for $7.50.

This is an OSR adventure so I can’t say much without spoilers. I will say, though, that it looks like a lot of fun; the author says he specifically wrote it to maximise the opportunity for player shenanigans, and that is credible once you read it. Imagine taking Jack and the Beanstalk, Heat, and Dog Day Afternoon, throwing them into a blender, and then garnishing with PCs once you’d made a fairytale/heist-gone-wrong movie mashup. I have to try this one.

Cepheus Deluxe Enhanced Edition

219 page PDF by Stellagama Publishing. Currently available here for $10.

This is the clarified and tightened-up version of Cepheus Deluxe, with improved layout and colour art. Therefore, it’s essentially a simplified version of Cepheus Engine, which in turn is basically Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition with the serial numbers filed off.

Compared to most versions of Traveller – look, we can call it “2d6 OGL Sci-Fi” if you like, but we all know what we’re talking about – it gives players a lot more control over how their PCs turn out, the opportunity to give PCs ‘traits’ – equivalent to advantages, edges, feats or talents in other RPGs – and a simplified ship/vehicle combat system. Additionally, there’s no requirement for power plant fuel, which is more in line with current views of fusion power plants – that means ships have about 10-20% more tonnage available for payload – and no more sneaky jumping into empty hexes on the starmap; there has to be a star system at your destination.

Traveller’s weak spot as a game has always been character advancement. In this version, in big handfuls you get one experience point per session, and improving a skill costs 10 experience times the target level, with the design aim that a PC should increase one skill by one level each game year.

The most unique thing about the game is that all of the deck plans – one for each of the standard starships and small craft – are tail sitters, with the thrust axis at right angles to the deck plates. Probably more realistic, but not often seen.

I was originally drawn to Cepheus Deluxe because it trimmed out all the bits I didn’t like about Mongoose Traveller or the Cepheus Engine, and left me with something closer to the Classic Traveller I love. I am less enamoured of this version, because it’s heading back the other way; more complexity, more page count, less of the freebooting simplicity I like in a game. Maybe they will revamp Cepheus Light along similar lines; that would appeal to me more.

Coda

Every so often I flick through my Little Brown Books from the White Box D&D set I bought in 1977, or the Little Black Books from the boxed set of Traveller I bought the same year, and think: What the hell am I doing? Why am I not still running these with a couple of house rules? Man, the fun we had…

I think the real answer is that I miss being twenty-something and hanging out with all my twenty-something friends. That ain’t coming back whatever I play.

Previously, on The Dracula Dossier: Count Dracula has reached out to the team via Smyth’s sister Natalya. He wants to cut a deal. They are talking to him via personal ads in the New York Times. Bewler put an independent info broker in touch with them as part of the CIA’s attempt to find out what’s happening to US guns being stolen from Iraq. They followed the trail of the guns to an Odessa warehouse. While the rest of the team staked out the warehouse, Lonely went inside to sneak around. A vampire has just noticed him. Now read on…

Odessa, October 2012

The team thought they might have to leave the warehouse in a hurry, so Hopkins previously mapped out and compromised the traffic cameras in the area.

Lonely exits the warehouse through a trapped side door, avoiding the tripwire that sets off a gas grenade. The vampire walks through, unaffected – it doesn’t breathe, and as an Undead it’s immune to poison anyway. A swarm of rats mobs Lonely; he fights his way through them, and the pursuing vampire tramples on them but slips in the resulting gore. Lonely darts into the alley outside, caroming off a wall as bullets pockmark surfaces all around him; the vampire is gaining and throws a crate at him, which misses. Lonely tries to lose himself in a mob of drunken sailors, and Ritter breaks into the Lisky Bratva comms to confuse them with tales of a friendly fire mistake; Cartwright pulls up nearby and leans on the horn. Lonely hurdles a trench in the pavement; Smyth, who has been following close behind, supporting by shooting out streetlights, spends a Benny to ensure the hole contains a leaky gas main and shoots into it as the vampire leaps across, causing a satisfying explosion.

Everyone piles into the car – except Ritter, who has blended in with the drunken sailors and is going with them to the port – and Smyth pushes Cartwright out of the driving seat before flooring it. For a couple of minutes all seems well, then blue flashing lights appear in the mirrors – they had previously seen a police car parked near the warehouse. Dodging a slow-moving tourist bus which pulls out in front of him, Smyth takes a hard right down the Potemkin steps and heads down a narrow cobbled street towards a fountain at speeds some might think unsafe. A police helicopter and several more cars join the chase, with Lonely leaning out of the window yelling at pedestrians to jump clear while Cartwright discourages close pursuit by shooting at the cops. As they approach the seafront, their way is blocked by a swarm of taxis; Smyth closes his eyes, trusts to luck, and miraculously barrels through unscathed, before running over a pile of cardboard boxes and squeaking into the docks past an articulated lorry coming the other way, losing a wing mirror. Our Heroes pile out and run for the Russian navy motorboat which delivered them, where Ritter is waiting, having bluffed his way into the dockyard.

A sudden unexpected fog has rolled in – vampiric influence? – and the boatswain loses the pursuing militsiya boats among the cargo vessels and passenger liners. By dawn, they are disembarking on the west bank of the Dnister River opposite Mayaky. After an extended discussion, they decide to head for Debrecen, where some of the crates are going. Lonely boosts a car and they drive across Transnistria before ditching it in favour of a rental to cross the border into Romania, where they abandon the rental and buy a cheap second-hand car – Ritter has a particular fondness for this approach.

Transnistria and Southern Romania, October 2012

Driving north, they notice they are being followed by a Predator drone, and bail out when it launches a Hellfire missile which destroys the car utterly. They put their escape and evasion training to good use, meet at a prearranged rally point, and catch a train south before doubling back towards Bucharest.

On the way, they discover that the book Lonely stole from the warehouse is Gertrude Bell’s political diary, and as well as juicy 1920s gossip it contains the information that the Nigredo is buried with St John Philby in Beirut.

They pull into Bucharest North and ponder who attacked them and where to go next. The only people who knew where they were are Bewler, Caroll and Hopkins, so they reason one of those is probably the leak.

GM Notes

Unfortunately, Hopkins’ activities in Odessa triggered traps laid by PRINCE – one of the EDOM Dukes and a hotshot hacker – and though the PCs don’t know it yet, PRINCE won the ensuing contest of Hacking with five raises, so Hopkins’ computer is her bitch now and knows better than to tell anyone.

The chase in this session was run using the Narrative Action Chase Deck by Rune^Forge. As it was an experiment, I told the team up front that if the vampire won the chase, it would capture Lonely for interrogation and use him as bait to lure the rest of them to him. I found it helpful to draw the cards and roll for the enemy NPCs in advance. The consensus from the group was that it felt like a chase, but the dice rolls might have been a bit easy; we agreed to try it again later to see if that is a general thing or just the specifics of these chases. I think the high-octane thriller feel came from pairing the deck itself with the suggested obstacles in the Zalozhniy Quartet.

The Predator drone was courtesy of an extreme “yes” on the Mythic oracle.

It was also entirely possible that the session would end with several PCs captured by vampires. In this case, PRINCE would have redirected EDOM/NATO assets in the area to obliterate both sides, leaving the PCs to escape in the confusion. This is one reason why you need three factions, if the PCs get into too much trouble with one of them while working for the second, the third bursts through the door, guns blazing.

Run, run as fast as you can! You can’t catch me. I’m the Gingerbread Man!

Setup

I was about to pick up the dice to generate this week’s mission when I remembered The Truth About Hansel and Gretel by Hans Traxler, and thought: Yes, that is a suitable plot for shenanigans. So Hans and Grete Metzler engage our heroes(?) via Jenkins’ boss to murder Katharina Schraderin and steal her world-beating gingerbread recipe.

Characters

  • Gentleman Jenkins, honourable assassin.
  • Strangely Present, curious thief.

Mission: April 03 – 05

First, the PCs decide that Katharina must work from memory, so they must persuade her to tell them. Strangely suggests letting Katharina flee the city in exchange for the recipe, but Jenkins has taken money. Next, they look for a mage with elastic morals who can quietly ensorcel the recipe out of her.

Casing the joint, they find that Katharina lives alone in a two up two down house/shop on Market Street, and has an apprentice who comes in by day. Garo Jambazian does not offer a magic-using contact, saying they should be able to find one themselves.

Hanging out near the Artificer’s Guild, they see a young woman, Varvara Arabian, being escorted out, remonstrating with the Guild members for not letting her join “because I’m a girl”. She agrees to help for $100, and the following night they break into the shop. They make a noise opening the gate to the yard, drawing the baker out to close it (“That stupid wind again!”); they overpower, bind and gag her.

Varvara casts Lower Spirit on Katharina, then Boost Persuasion on Jenkins. Schraderin is remarkably resistant to interrogation (lots of aces on her greatly reduced Spirit rolls), suspecting “that Metzler and his sister put you up to this, didn’t they?”, and stating flatly “you shall never have the recipe!”, but eventually cracks when they threaten to torture her apprentice in front of her. She tells them the recipe, but it is full of comments like “then you add the powdered ginger until there’s enough of it, but first you add more sugar, oh and don’t forget the milk,” and it becomes clear that not even another baker could follow the instructions and get the same result. They decide this is not their problem, and Strangely walks Varvara home while Jenkins prepares to kill Katharina.

Unfortunately, Katharina proves to be a witch, and sends a Bolt into Jenkins’ groin before casting Boost Strength on herself to break her bonds. Alas, Jenkins seizes the initiative and stabs her brutally with both shortswords, ending her life.

“Do you think he’ll really kill that harmless old lady?” asks Varvara, several streets away.

“Nah, he’s smart enough to know we might need clarifications,” says Strangely, at about the time Katharina suffers her fourth Wound.

Later, the client demands a refund from Jambazian, saying the recipe doesn’t work. Jambazian declines; the Guild was paid to kill the woman and get the recipe, there was nothing in the contract about the recipe having to work…

GM Notes

This scenario made me think about the alleged origin of Russian salad. That would make a fine short scenario as well, but two culinary adventures back to back is too much; I’ll put one or two others in between them. It’s always a good sign when a campaign spins off adventure ideas.

I am going to need to track PC statblocks after all, as I don’t always want to ask them things about their characters. Oh well, it was worth a try.

For the establishment and inhabitants, I used a small bakery I know in Italy, which made describing it easy. The PCs technically succeeded, and got paid, but didn’t really figure out what was going on; them’s the breaks. They also made a new contact in Varvara, and it will be useful to them to have a novice wizard on the payroll.

I must say, what a pleasure it is to run a session where all the players are focused on the game, rather than arguing with me and each other about how to ‘fix’ the rules or what is ‘realistic’. I’d almost forgotten what that was like.

“You always say you don’t want anything for Christmas,” my son said, “But I’ve noticed that if I put scotch in front of you, you drink it.”

And right he is, so I left Christmas with two more bottles of single malt than when I entered. But I also used the money from my last editing commission to buy myself a few goodies…

Falkrest Abbey

This was reduced to $1, and one of the authors is someone whose past work I deem worthwhile, namely Giuseppe Rotondo (Gold and Glory and other games), so it was a no-brainer really.

It’s an OSR adventure for 1st-3rd level PCs, in which they explore a ruined abbey containing valuable items, monsters (including several types of undead) and chess puzzles. My intent is to use it in the City of Serpents campaign, but we’ll see how that goes.

Falkrest Abbey

One Shot in the Dark

I bought this for something like $1.50, as a way of putting something in the tip jar for Tale of the Manticore, a podcast I enjoy immensely.

It’s actually quite a nice little dungeon crawler, with ultralite rules and a randomly-generated three level dungeon to explore. Clearly inspired by BX D&D, but otherwise unrelated to that game or the podcast. Apparently works well as an introduction to the genre for children, though I haven’t tried that.

One Shot in the Dark

The Persephone Extraction

A campaign for Night’s Black Agents in five adventures; the main plotline is pleasingly close to Dracula’s plan in my own game so I shall adjust it to suit. Also comes with another adventure called The Mechanism.

Like all Pelgrane Press NBA adventures, this is well-researched, cunningly plotted, and uses a different type of vampire with new supernatural sidekicks. It was the most expensive purchase, at about $15, but also the largest; the group is currently averaging 1-2 sessions per adventure, so this should keep them going for 9 sessions or so, and it will lead on nicely from The Zalozhniy Quartet once I’ve tweaked it a bit.

The Persephone Extraction

Risk Mitigation

And then the news about WotC updating their Open Gaming Licence broke. The debate is still going on, and it’s mutating rapidly.

Whatever happens, I think there’s a significant risk some stuff I want will disappear, so as a contingency measure I looked over my wishlist and brought forward the purchase of three items: The Old School Essentials Rules Tome, The Waking of Willowby Hall, and Cepheus Deluxe Enhanced Edition. I don’t know when, or if, those will get reviewed or played; I’m just mitigating a risk.

I also backed up all my purchases to date on an external hard drive; companies have taken down their PDFs before, and even after they were reinstated, I didn’t get mine back. So now I have trust issues.

Previously, on The Dracula Dossier… The PCs robbed the Swiss Koernersbank and now have the Albedo. They don’t know what or where the Nigredo is, how to use them, or what they actually do. The UK surveillance state has kicked into high gear: Every police officer in the UK, every spook in Five Eyes, and some hotshot hacker called PRINCE are looking for them. Lonely’s contact Biggs has burned his bridges. Smyth’s long-lost sister Natalya has arrived in Marseilles and is making no attempt to hide. Now read on…

Marseilles, October 2012

Based on what they now know, the team draws up the org charts above (click to enlarge), and decides that Von Dolingen oversees finance and logistics, Varkony is ‘HR’ (or at least ‘blood supply’), Rojas is R&D, and Saint Armand is probably security. With CD and EDOM both actively hunting them, they have formally allied themselves with Lilith.

Smyth risks a short call from a phone box to Natalya; Dracula wants to cut a deal, but Smyth says he can’t trust her and she should send messages as personal ads in the New York Times. The first message says “My boss wants to be left alone. What do you want?”

Everyone decides Marseilles is getting too hot for comfort and bugs out. The PCs head for Beirut, as they’re not safe anywhere in the anglophone world, or the Russian Federation, and quite a bit of continental Europe is looking somewhat warm.

Cartwright’s CIA contact, Bewler, hooks them up with an indie info broker who is trying to find out what’s happening to US guns being stolen from Iraq; he knows they are being taken from Iraq to Odessa, but not where they go after that or who the end user is. The team are to follow the guns, find out where they are being stored, and what the next link in the supply chain is.

There is much debate about whether the team should take this commission or not, but in the end they agree to do so, partly because the info broker can put them in touch with someone who can get them in and out of Iraq quietly, partly because Bewler is about the only friend they have left and they don’t want to upset her.

Odessa, October 2012

With the help of several crates of vodka and cigarettes they persuade some Russian sailors to ferry them quietly into Odessa harbour in pursuit of a leaky old Turkish freighter they have been told is carrying the next shipment of guns. The US military has tagged these with concealed RFID chips.

All goes well until the team loses the gun-toting trucks in traffic and has to deduce where they went from first principles, but eventually they work this out. While the rest stake out the relevant warehouse, Lonely goes inside to sneak around, finding the missing guns, plus some stuff from the National Museum of Iraq and crates of food and blankets for Romania. His attention is drawn to an underground chamber where a vampire is remonstrating with one of the Turkish guys who brought the guns in. Clearly not liking what the Turk has to say, the vampire picks him up one-handed and breaks his neck.

The vampire suddenly turns, and stares straight at Lonely.

Roll credits.

GM Notes

I’m getting back into my stride after the holidays, and The Zalozhniy Quartet really is a nice set of connected scenarios. Like all of Pelgrane Press’ NBA adventures, whatever PCs try, they’ve got you covered, and I’m only using about a third of each one, which means they have significant replay value. Recommended.

As usual for this group, there were several arguments between players, but for the most part I leave them to sort themselves out; the youngest player is over 60 and they’ve all held management positions in large corporations, so they don’t need me to hold their hands. The contrast with City of Serpents, where the protagonists just protag, is stark and interesting, especially given that half the players are in both groups.

I love running the Dracula Dossier, but there are several aspects of it that are not fun for me, so when it ends I need to think carefully about what I do next.

“The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.”
– Charles Bowen

Setup

There’s a particular artefact I want the PCs to acquire early on, so let’s use the first mission to get hold of it.

The artefact is basically the D&D spell Word of Recall imbued in an object, which I used to great effect in an earlier campaign. The Stone of Recall can be ‘set’ to a particular waypoint, and if the bearer so wills it, he and any others who are touching the stone (or each other) are teleported to that location. This lets me ensure the party always gets back home at the end of a session, and can also present hard choices, because there are times when you have to leave RIGHT NOW but somebody is too far away to touch the Stone…

The Stone is currently in a sorcerer’s mansion; I’ll use the Lazy DM’s mansion lair for that, he can be an Advanced Mage with Basic Warrior guards and Basic Civilian servants. That sentence right there was the session prep, anything else the PCs wanted to know was either obvious or generated using the Mythic Game Master Emulator.

Characters

  • Gentleman Jenkins, honourable assassin.
  • Strangely Present, curious thief.

Mission: March 21-April 2

Jenkins’ boss, Garo Jambazian, orders him to steal an artefact being constructed for the Temple by the master wizard Melek Vosgrichian. He recruits Strangely to assist him, and the pair spend the next 10 days casing the joint, reasoning that the artefact is more likely to be usable just before the known delivery date.

With three nights to go, they execute their main plan: Having acquired a suitable drug from the apothecary Tsolag Gamess, they dope some meat and throw it over the wall of the wizard’s mansion to knock out the dogs, bribe a passing drunk to distract the watchman in the mansion’s guard tower by urinating on the wall and making a noise, then scoot over the wall, to find the dogs nosing at the tainted meat and a second guard attracted by their behaviour. They decamp at speed.

The next night, they break in through a window on the upper floor, and locate a secret door in the master bedroom just in time to escape through it when Jenkins accidentally rings the bell to summon a servant (critical failure). Descending the spiral stair behind the secret door, they emerge two floors below in a wizard’s laboratory, where Melek is waiting for them with his bodyguard, a clockwork automaton. A brief attempt at talking their way out of the situation fails, and the two intruders fall on Melek while the automaton whirrs towards them. Jenkins brutally cuts down the automaton (ridiculous number of aces on damage) and the pair bludgeon the wizard into surrender before escaping with their prize and a scroll which proves to be the instruction manual.

Even when the comrades learn of the Stone’s power, Jenkins feels obliged to hand it over to his boss. I did not see that coming.

GM Notes

The Dracula Dossier is a great deal of fun to run, but it’s also a lot of work to set up and record each session. City of Serpents is an experiment in just how little preparation I can get away with for each session, using The Return of the Lazy DM in earnest. The NPC names for this campaign are all Armenian, and I’m going for the loose adherence to rules and player shenanigans that characterised earlier campaigns rather than rigidly following the Rules As Written. Further, the PCs are responsible for their own character sheets and I’m not issuing them any detailed writeups; for my own convenience, I am tracking the Chaos Factor, Characters and Threads as per Mythic, although I’m not sure how much of Mythic I’ll use – Sharp Knives and Dark Streets has its own oracles.

Finally, taking a leaf from Five Leagues from the Borderlands, the PCs win the campaign when they defeat all three enemy Fronts. Since my SWADE campaigns typically last about 30 sessions, and there are three Portents for each Front, one of the Portents should become visible about every 3-4 sessions, and the campaign should finish towards the end of July; that gives me the summer holiday to work out what to do next.

It was a struggle to get back into the role of GM. I’ve become accustomed to more passive entertainment over the holidays. Hopefully I will perk up in time for the next session.

“Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.” – The Lost Boys

Basics

This campaign is based on Sharp Knives and Dark Streets, and uses the city map and setting rules from that. The Warrior God is Solis, as later I’m tempted to add Gold & Glory: Seven Deadly Dungeons; the sample dungeons could be scattered around the lands outside the city, defining the terrain around it.

For this campaign, PCs will gain one Advance per session at Novice Rank, one per two sessions at Seasoned, one per three sessions at Veteran, one per four sessions at Heroic, and one per five sessions at Legendary. Only those sessions a player attends count towards Advances. The thinking here is that this will extend the campaign and make it easier for new or infrequent players to catch up; the tradeoff is that I have to keep track of who was in each session.

Further, I’ve nerfed the New Powers Edge; it may only be taken once per Rank, and only grants one Power when taken. While I’m not as rabidly anti-Powers as some of the Usual Suspects, I do think Deluxe Edition did this better for the kind of low-magic, sword and sorcery game I prefer. So far all the PCs are thieves, but if any of them take Arcane Background I’ll worry about what Modifiers and Trappings are available, the ones in the SWADE rulebook are potentially very powerful.

Finally, rather than invest effort in Conspyramids (Night’s Black Agents) or Factions (Stars Without Number), I’m going to try out the idea of Fronts (Dungeon World and Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master).

Front 1: The Orc Nomads

For this Front I’m mashing up the Orc Lord from 13th Age and the OD&D wandering orcs with their wagon trains. They’re moving west towards Stormgate, and the Orc Lord likes cities. They burn.

  • Goal: Loot, pillage, and burn Stormgate.
  • First Grim Portent: Trade caravans go missing.
  • Second Grim Portent: Orc scouts appear near the city.
  • Third Grim Portent: Orc horde besieges the city.

Front 2: The Serpent Cult

These guys are in Sharp Knives and Dark Streets, and we may as well use the rumour that Prince Andar is connected to them. Is it true? Well, as they say, we play to find out. This is also an obvious connection to Gold & Glory: Seven Deadly Dungeons, which has a snake cult too.

  • Goal: Take over Stormgate and make the Serpent Cult the official religion.
  • First Grim Portent: Corrupt Prince Andar.
  • Second Grim Portent: Kill the King and Queen.
  • Third Grim Portent: Install Andar as puppet king.

Front 3: The Vampires

One of the players loves vampires, so here they are. The obvious candidate for a vampire is Lord Hedrid, described in the setting material as a hedonistic old goat famous for his parties. Obviously, I thought of The Lost Boys.

  • Goal: Sleep all day, party all night, never grow old, never die. This means neutralising the Temple of the Warrior and coming to some sort of arrangement with the Royal Family, so that neither interrupts the parties.
  • First Grim Portent: People start turning up dead, bitten and drained of blood.
  • Second Grim Portent: The Queen is turned into a vampire, and immediately turns the King. They are now both under vampire control.
  • Third Grim Portent: The Temple of the Warrior is dissolved and its priests exiled. Vampire city, baby.

Now, the orcs want to destroy the city, while both the serpent cult and the vampires want the city intact; so there’s an opportunity for the cult and the vamps to work together against the orcs.

Coda

That took a couple of hours to figure out, and gives me a framework to set individual adventures in; the hardest parts were the Grim Portents.

“Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.” – attrib. Mary Engelbreit

Thanks everyone for the kind comments on the 2022 end of year post, they are much appreciated.

I generally finish the year feeling grumpy and sorry for myself, then segue into a bout of brutal pragmatism and minimalism before setting off, refreshed, for a new year of gaming. The grumpy phase is lasting longer than usual this time, but let’s see if I can’t drag my carcass off the couch and do something productive…

2023 is the last year of babysitting before the youngest grandchildren start school. Once that happens my wife and I plan to travel extensively, so long as our health and money last. Continental mealtimes and unreliable internet access while travelling will mean I can only run group games in the winter, using the summer for solo games that can be played on the move while living out of carry-on luggage. This may also mean using Old School pencil and paper rather than software tools.

My post-pandemic play is characterised by short online sessions and unpredictable player attendance, which will drive a shift towards a West Marches style group campaign with self-contained episodic adventures, and towards me being a lot more picky about which players are invited to new campaigns. Longer term, I might move to simpler rules, possibly based on B/X D&D; the most likely candidates are Old School Essentials and Stars Without Number, for reasons I may elucidate later.

I also have goals outside gaming that I want to achieve; lose weight (doctor’s orders), brush up a foreign language or two, read everything in the tsundoku pile, play the videogames lurking in my Steam account, and get fit. I may post about progress towards those goals occasionally, but the key thing from a gaming perspective is I will have fewer gaming hours available and must perforce embrace minimal preparation, playing fewer games, and running fewer campaigns.

So, 2023 will be a year of transition to this new approach. I’ll pause solo play until I finish The Dracula Dossier, and use Sharp Knives and Dark Streets as an experiment in how little prep I can get away with.

On with the motley, then.

Lessons From 2022

“I stop fighting my inner demons. We’re on the same side now.” – Darynda Jones, Second Grave on the Left

Retirement: R+21 Months

I’ve realised a lot of things I previously found irritating, exciting, or hard to find time for don’t matter, and it’s OK to let them go. Maybe they don’t matter any more, as my life moves into the third act; maybe they never mattered, and I should’ve let them go earlier. While I was under the influence of what my wife calls ‘Post-Holiday Demotivation Disorder’, this briefly extended to the idea of dropping gaming altogether, but that didn’t last more than a few days. It never does.

Another realisation is that I’ve resisted running certain games or settings because they’re things my players are interested in, but I am not. Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat. In fact, I suspect not being able to find time for something is actually my subconscious telling me I don’t want to do it; so I won’t, at least in the gaming space, because hobbies are meant to be fun.

I’ve also accepted that my children are moving on from the gaming hobby we used to share, leaving me behind. Beyond a certain point, trying to involve them is not only ineffective but also embarrassing, and it would be best if I stopped before reaching that point.

Another harsh truth is that there is not enough overlap between what the Usual Suspects want to play and what I want to run for it to be worth trying to tempt them into a new campaign. It would’ve been nice to bow out on a high note, but c’est la vie.

One feels increasingly irrelevant.

Campaigns of 2022

As a player, I dabbled in a few sessions of D&D 5E, a few more of OD&D, a couple of sessions of SWADE Deadlands, and a session of 2d20 Dune; but the bulk of sessions used Genesys for Call of Cthulhu and The One Ring. Not a set of rules I especially like, but I’ve been playing with the Usual Suspects since the 1970s, and as I always say, who you play with matters more than what you play. This last couple of years, though, I’m starting to feel that our tastes in games have diverged to the point where another group might be more fun.

As a GM, I completed the Pirates of Drinax SWADE/Traveller mashup, started the Dracula Dossier SWADE/NBA mashup, and ran a session of… well, whatever the setting-free SF SWADE game is going to be called, assuming it keeps going; maybe I’ll move it back into the Dark Nebula, where it originally began. I also tried running a few sessions of D&D 5E using Beasts & Barbarians for the setting, which taught me that 5E is not for me and I’m ready to move on from B&B.

On the solo front, Arioniad season 5 (5150) and what I’m thinking of as the first season of 28 Months Later (ATZ/SWADE) both came to an end.

So, quite a busy year really, spread across 9 campaigns and 6 game engines. It looks like my resolution to focus on fewer games and fewer campaigns has been as successful as usual, which is to say, not very; I always try to restrict myself to 2-3 games and wind up here. Goodness only knows what would happen if I didn’t try to restrict myself.

The Annual Games Cull

This year, I’ve found myself enjoying solitaire games more than group ones. So many of the problems of group games – scheduling, arguments about rules and ‘realism’, differing tastes, time pressure both during and between sessions – simply don’t exist in the solitaire world, and the ‘technology’ has advanced dramatically during the pandemic to the point where other players and a GM are no longer really required. Or maybe I just need a new group.

As usual at this time of year, I’ve taken a long, hard look at what I’m playing, reading, and carrying around with me, and however excellent the products are, a lot of them will be – as Marie Kondo recommends – thanked for their service, and disposed of, or at least shifted to long-term archive.

The recurring theme for the past decade has been that the survivors of the annual cull are Savage Worlds, 5150 and All Things Zombie, and this year was no different. Other games call to me from time to time, but the benefits of changing are not worth the effort involved.

In a post-pandemic, post-retirement world, it’s unlikely I’ll play with minis again. For what I play now, VTT is more convenient. The Pile of Shame is all fully painted, but will it get used? I honestly don’t know. Back in the cupboard for now. It’s ironic that I didn’t get my act together on minis until the need for them evaporated. Story of my life, really.

Coda

Both solo and group games started to feel like a bit of a slog in the last quarter of the year, so I need to do something different for 2023, even if it’s only taking a break from gaming. It’s tempting to reboot the blog to do that, but I’m not sure that’s a good idea, and if I go ahead with it, I would rather make a clean break at the end of the current crop of campaigns, which will probably still be running in the summer. The year after next, my wife and I expect to be travelling from roughly May to November, so when we start that trip might be the best break point – there’s no real reason these things have to happen at year end.

As usual, I’m taking a couple of weeks off over the holiday season to spoil myself and others. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and I’ll see you on the other side, if spared.

“Bank robbery is an initiative of amateurs. True professionals establish a bank.” – Bertold Brecht

Previously, on the Dracula Dossier… The PCs are now allied with Lilith the vampire, AKA Lilly Solomon, who runs Sayaret Aluka. Harry St John Philby did something involving vampires in Saudi Arabia in 1931. His son Kim knew about it. Kim died but handed over “two parts of the key” to Shevlenko. Now they know where at least one of those parts is: A Swiss bank. Cue heist music…

Zurich, September 2012

Cartwright argues forcefully in favour of getting Lilith to Renfield one of the bank’s owners and getting her to make an unscheduled withdrawal on the party’s behalf, but Smyth argues equally forcefully that if they start doing that, they are no better than Dracula himself.

After a lengthy period of creating and discarding plans, they settle on pretending to be the cleaners. Dry-gulching the actual cleaners gets them all the props they need, and some smooth talking by Ritter gets them into the bank. The guard agrees to show them around, as they’re new, and when he sticks his head into the office to explain to his colleague, the team overpowers them with tasers, pepper spray and coshes. Lonely rolls a 33 (not bad on a d10) for gaining control of the alarm system and soon has it eating out of his hand. He then goes round ‘unlocking’ the other rooms they need access to – the server room, where Cartwright switches off the recording software and erases all the security footage, and the manager’s office where they believe the keys are kept. Unfortunately, with everyone else occupied, this leaves Lonely alone with the manager’s records and the keys to every safety deposit box in the vault. He emerges with an innocent expression, jingling slightly.

Meanwhile, using the cameras to scan the rest of the building reveals none other than Keritescu, known Renfield and Dracula associate, patrolling the basement. After a moment’s panic, and serious consideration of aborting the mission, they decide on a plan. While Ritter stays in the control office to field any calls from outside (and there are some, so it’s as well he did), Cartwright heads downstairs brandishing a vacuum cleaner and the guard’s passkeys, trying to explain himself in broken Swiss German with a French accent. Behind him, Smyth is concealing a pump action shotgun loaded with magnetised iron shot. Some way behind both of them is Lonely – the only team member Keritescu has seen to date – with a 2×4 bag and a number of keys.

In a stroke of outstanding luck for the team, Keritescu rolls a critical failure on his attempt to resist their scam and takes them for the cleaners. He continues his patrol while Lonely dives into the vault, unseen, and manages to open Philby’s box and four additional ones before Cartwright drags him out. Lonely then rolls a magnificent Stealth check and the team lose him completely, only to find him waiting for them in the van when they give up looking for him and come out.

They switch to a hijacked delivery van, and dump that in the delivery company’s parking lot before escaping into the night.

Marseilles, September 2012

Biggs calls Lonely to warn him that the UK surveillance state has shifted into high gear on them; every police station in the UK has their details via HOLMES2, the Five Eyes alliance is using ECHELON to look for them passively, and some hotshot hacker called PRINCE is looking for them actively.

Meanwhile, Hopkins says that Smyth’s ex-girlfriend Natalya, last seen with the suspected vampire Ida Varkony, has checked into a hotel in Marseilles using her real name, making no attempt to hide.

“It’s obviously a trap,” says Smyth. “But I’m probably going to walk right into it.”

GM Notes

A lot of highs and lows this session. The players came up with a brilliant idea, Renfield the bank’s owner and order her to rob it for them; then they decided that was a game-breaker for the future and less fun than a heist anyway, so came up with an in-character reason why they shouldn’t do it.

Then two of them spent half an hour arguing over who knew more about bank security and whether the in-game bank was properly designed or not. You get that sort of thing sometimes.

Lots of extreme dice rolls, too. Hopkins critically failed her attempt to spoof the alarm signals coming out of the bank, but then Lonely absolutely crushed the actual alarms so the crit fail didn’t come into play. They are absolutely terrified of Keritescu, but took a deep breath and tried to sneak past him – and the dice rewarded them by giving him a crit fail too, so he just wandered off.

Meanwhile, I have set up a table of which faction is doing what and when from 1466 AD to episode 42 or so. Each time they achieve a new Rank, the factions escalate one row on their response pyramids, and every session or two, each faction activates one of their responses for that row – the exact response depends on what the PCs have been up to, I pick the most logical one that hasn’t been used yet.

Anyway, that’s it for the Dracula Dossier until January. When they look through their loot, they’ll discover that they now have one of the parts of “the key”, and clues to the location of the second. This will lead them into The Zalozhniy Sanction, which is the Jason Bourne run-and-gun part of the adventure; Renfields and vampires and thugs, oh my.

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