Thursday, November 20, 2014

[Actual Play Report] Fate Core: The Puzzle Monster

I've been running a Fate campaign about monster-hunting bikers for four years. We started with the Dresden Files RPG, then converted over to Fate Core in January '13 when that Kickstarter took off. This was our 18th session. You can find the last session writeup here.

A bit of background: I use the Dresden Files bestiary in most respects, but politically the supernatural world is more like the TV show Supernatural, with small nests or cells of monsters instead of secret nations like in Dresden (although there is room for some government conspiracy).

In this session, our heroes deal with some intraparty baggage, misplace some things, and fight a government frankenstein.

Who Was There?

Seven players, man. And as usual, this writeup is a few months late, but unlike usual, I’ll be talking less about plot and more about the metagame, balancing conflicts, and intraparty friction.

Ajaz Gurt, "Relentless Nephilite"
Bill Stockburn, "Supernatural Scholar"
Lucy Collins, "Goth Witch Antichrist"
Tom Talloman, "Modern-Day Quixotic Knight"
Rick Eagle, "Avenging Roadie"
Scott Specter, "Mean Motherfucking Servant of God"

Clayton Haycock James, "Marine Recon Biker"
Reward: 1 Skill Point. Everyone was there, so it was a prime opportunity to advance everyone at the same rate.

Science Fiction Double Feature

I had two goals for this session: I wanted to address any friction between Lucy Collins, her player, and the group, and then I wanted to introduce the next level of threats who were taking an interest in the PCs. I’m not sure I completely achieved the former goal, but man did we do the latter.

They’re All Gonna Laugh At You

The thing with Lucy is that as a character, she hasn’t been quite fitting in with the rest of the gang of hunters. Issue #1: Lucy’s an Antichrist witch in a gang full of monster hunters. Prior to this session, the in-character reasoning for the team-up was more of a probationary thing. Bill was letting Lucy stick around so if she went bad, they could deal with her. That’s nice and dramatic, but since we don’t play that often and with Lucy’s player as an uncommon attendee, the potential drama and chance for resolution quickly turned into stalled subplots and an ongoing shorthand “Lucy’s bad” vibe.

The second issue has more out-of-character ribbing behind it, and that’s Bad Car, the sentient evil (no, it’s misunderstood) Charger that Lucy drives. Lucy’s driving a car when everyone else is sticking with the original concept of monster-hunting bikers. Thing is, both Lucy’s player and I love the car. It is, however, a pretty constant butt of OOC chatter and it does nothing to help party cohesion.
Not your friend.

We didn’t really address Bad Car this time, but we did resolve Lucy’s status in the group. I told everyone before we started that part of the session would be doing what we needed to do to get Lucy into the group. In-character drama was fine, heated roleplay was great, whatever, I just wanted everyone on the same page so if things got rough it’d be awesome roleplaying and not nasty out-of-character drama.

I Swear It Was Just Here A Minute Ago

With that, we opened on the gang’s early morning routine in a desolate drive-in somewhere in West Virginia. Scott was out of Maalox because he’d been having nightmares about a shadowy figure watching him (this was all Scott’s player’s idea, but it tied into the session perfectly). Bad Car had driven off sometime during the night, leaving Lucy feeling isolated and vulnerable, especially with Clay continually asserting that Bad Car was gonna have to be put down before too long. Bill was up early, staring out over the dawn-lit hills, wondering how much longer he could keep up with the things he hunted. Finally, Ajaz couldn’t find the silver denarius containing the fallen angel Pantagruel (like the One Ring, these evil denarii have a habit of wandering off if they’re not being used). He accepted a delicious compel to keep that revelation a secret, and the gang drove to the nearest Waffle House to figure out what to do.

I unleashed my first new threat at breakfast. The players had taken down Pantagruel in their raid on Crowley-Lampkin’s magical vault a few sessions ago, but Bill still had the aspect “Denarians On My Trail”. Since Bill hadn’t changed his aspect, I interpreted it to mean I should upgrade from the Denarians’ librarian to Nicodemus himself. A black SUV rolled into the Waffle House parking lot accompanied by Dallas Junior Brown on a chopper (Dallas Junior Brown was a car thief the gang ran afoul of back in Austin, Texas), then Nicodemus Archleone, leader of the faction of fallen angels entombed within Judas’ thirty pieces of silver, walked through the Waffle House door. His demonic shadow writhed and coiled around him, ready to react if the PCs immediately attacked. And thusly, I handily explained Scott’s shadowy nightmare man.

In hindsight, using Nicodemus was a misstep because neither he nor the players were invested in each other. Nicodemus is great in the Dresden Files because Harry and him have gone at it multiple times. They’ve got history. Furthermore, Jim Butcher has lots of time to get the dialogue right and portray the menace effectively. Nicodemus just didn’t work for my group. Nicodemus wanted to recover Pantagruel’s coin and was willing to trade, but nobody was taking the bait. That was okay - Ajaz accepted another compel and Nicodemus casually let slip that Ajaz didn’t even have the coin, then turned to leave. He was just in time to catch a fusillade of rifle rounds as I unleashed my second threat!

Don’t Spit in That Cop’s Burger

The shots came from the “faces” of BLACKBOX for the PCs, Agents Dana Fox and Patrick Roberts. The agents and the hunters had enjoyed an antagonistic but not murderous rivalry over several previous sessions, and now BLACKBOX was on-site to abduct or kill Lucy. Nicodemus was a hell of a monkeywrench in their plans, so the agents called in their reinforcements and went straight from “kidnap supernatural things” to “shoot the fallen angel”. For his part, Nicodemus’ predatory instincts took over and he simply fled, taking to the sky on great shadowy wings and pointedly abandoning his mortal squires and Dallas Junior Brown.

Spirit of Vengeance

To this!
From this...
Remember how I said Nicodemus didn’t work because he didn’t have any history with the players? You can plop down a nasty stat block and have a battle, but there’s no guarantee your players are going to respect the villain. What’s more, in my experience the nastier the stat block, the less respect the players will have. Dallas Junior Brown wasn’t new and he wasn’t particularly nasty - a competent driver built off a gestalt of Nicolas Cage characters who was humiliated the last time the players ran into him. So when his head ignited with hellfire and he revealed he had accepted the denarius containing Zarathos, the fallen angel of vengeance, my players were impressed I managed to twist a minor NPC from a dozen games ago into the goddamn Ghost Rider.

Ajaz: “I’m jealous! I’m supposed to be the only one with a flaming chain whip!”

Clay: “He’s probably better with it than you, too.”
Sadly, he's still Nicolas Cage.

An Apocalypse Checklist

Lucy snuck out the back of the Waffle House. Bill followed her but ran into Agent Fox. Both of them drew down on each other in the time-honored John Woo tradition of their ancestors, but before either one opened fire, Fox told Bill why BLACKBOX was there. According to their data, Lucy was either purposefully or unwittingly involved in one of several “apocalypse checklists” and Fox and Roberts had been sent in advance of a strike team to try to handle Lucy’s extraction peacefully. Bill scoffed but lowered his weapon. Basically Fox had a partial list of events that supposedly would lead to some sort of disaster, and Lucy had accounted for three already. If it was accidental, Lucy had to be informed. If it was intentional, then she had to die.

This was one of the ways I wanted to spotlight Lucy’s character - if her comrades would stick by her even though she might kickstart the end of the world, then we could probably resolve whatever lesser in-character reservations people might have had. Considering we’d discussed how to bring Lucy into the group at the table before the session, now was the best time to toss this baggage at her. It also provided a future plot point in the form of taking an active role against BLACKBOX.

Bill and Lucy had it out. It was a good scene, and everyone got fate points for roleplaying and remembering stuff from past games. It basically boiled down to this: Lucy knew she had the potential to be bad, but so did everyone. She was trying to stay on the right path and she had been while she’d been with the gang, barring an unfortunate incident in Florida during her second session. For his part, Bill believed Lucy. They’d figure out whatever kind of ritual or magic or system Lucy was hooked into and stop it, and they’d do it together.

Undeath From Above

Between the Denarians, the squires, the PCs, and the apparent refusal of Fox and Roberts to assassinate Lucy Collins, things weren’t going too well for BLACKBOX.

They airdropped a monster onto the nearby strip mall from a Black Hawk helicopter. Said Black Hawk was subsequently sent careening into the nearby gas station, because destroying aircraft is something of a sadistic hobby for my players. Lucy conjured a great wind to blast the wall of flame away from the battlefield, throwing a veritable flood of fire down the main drag of the small West Virginia town and accidentally marking off yet another apocalypse checklist, the “flood of fire”.

Then the creature walked out of the blaze. Massively built, with too-large hands and a comically slabby face, the burns it suffered from the explosion healed in front of the gang’s eyes. It started to beeline right for Lucy and the rest of the PCs leapt to her defense!

More or less.
I was fairly proud of this monster. I’d been getting better at handling multiple-PC-on-single-monster battles, but prior to this session, they were all definitely straight conflicts. This BLACKBOX “prototype” presented more of a puzzle, because it was made in layers, with each layer requiring different abilities to defeat:

  1. Start with the corpse of a shapeshifter with a human brain hooked up. The shapeshifter’s abilities prevent rejection of the implants and allow it to change its shape within reason, although this is severely curtailed by the implants.
  2. Four Wound Beetles (see Fate Toolkit, Voidcallers chapter), for damage control. BLACKBOX thought it only added two.
  3. A Lazarus Eye (also Fate Toolkit, Voidcallers chapter), both for the initial resurrection and for the physical boosts the creature grants.
  4. Implanted armor plating, GPS, and ECM package.
  5. A Lightning Worm (again the Fate Toolkit, Voidcallers chapter) taser. Weapon:7, one shot only.
  6. Possessed by a demon to keep everything running smoothly, like middleware.

There Was a Firefight

From there on, pretty much everything was a giant battle. Clay steamrollered Nicodemus’ squires with Agent Roberts’ help while Rick, Ajaz, and Scott took on Zarathos/Dallas Junior Brown. Tom went right for the BLACKBOX strike team, ramping his bike up the helo wreckage to hit the roof of the strip mall the strike team was using for cover. Zarathos was forced to withdraw, so Clay went up to help Tom with the strike team while the remaining hunters went for the prototype.

The guys watched the monster regenerate their first barrage of attacks near-instantly. Scott opened his Sight, though, and saw the wound beetles “eating” the damage. He picked one off with a Create Advantage roll, and the battle against the creature became a strange tug of war between doing enough direct attacks to keep it from Lucy while striking the beetles (which, except for Scott, required Notice rolls to pinpoint). Meanwhile, Rick was setting up an explosive booby trap using his Pyrotechnician stunt, which led to the best compel ever:

The creature fired its taser at Lucy, missed, and hit the explosives instead. A few players bought off the ensuing compel to be caught within the blast radius, but most were down to dregs and ate the damage (Speed vs. a +6, the result of Rick’s previous Tools roll to create the bomb). Tom, who wasn’t caught in the blast, lopped the creature’s head off, destroying the brain and separating the Lazarus Eye. The prototype kept moving, powered by the possessing demon, although its movements were jerky and poorly-aimed now. Lucy and Bill teamed up for a ritual circle and exorcism next, which destroyed the demon and finally killed the monster.

It was a lengthy conflict (accounting for maybe 80% of the session time), but I felt it was an entertaining, well-balanced conflict for the following reasons:

  1. Three factions, not two: Having BLACKBOX, the Denarians, and the PCs all in the mix provided an easy way to apply more or less pressure during the conflict. If it’s a cakewalk for Clay to trounce the squires, then BLACKBOX can open up on him from the top of the strip mall. If Rick’s on the ropes against the creature, maybe Agent Roberts draws its attention with some suppressing fire, and so on.
  2. Target-rich environment: The battle didn’t turn into “everyone wail on this one boss” until the end, so it forced zone movement and threat analysis to deal with each enemy group.
  3. A decent zone map: Having a map down on the table helped a lot, and it was pretty easy breaking the strip mall, main street, Waffle House, gas station, and nearby woods into multiple zones. Using minis for a big fight like this helps conserve player’s mental bandwidth for creativity, not tracking positions.
  4. As per Ryan Macklin’s thoughts on boosts, we had a lot of boosts floating around and we just noted them as “boost”. In the future, I’d go one step further and probably plink down a counter or marker to keep track of them, almost like “Shaken” in Savage Worlds.
  5. Bikes! It’s ironic that in a game about monster-hunting bikers, the characters don’t do a lot of riding. The fight was spread out enough that Rick, Ajaz, Clay, and Tom all got some good motorcycle moments.
  6. Mystery captures attention: The prototype was something the guys had never seen before. Not only that, it was made of things they hadn’t seen before. Discovering what the thing did with Lore rolls and the Sight kept the players’ interest more than a fight against familiar creatures.

If I had to revamp the creature, the one thing I would make an allowance for is the action economy. The prototype’s skills weren’t terrifyingly high; there was a decent chance any of the PCs could avoid its attacks, but if it ever hit, it’d be throwing out Weapon:4 damage. My players assumed as much and spent fate points accordingly on defense rolls. Once they got the fight down to just them and the monster, the fight went like this:

The monster attacks and misses (at best gets a boost or forces its target to burn FP to dodge).
Seven PCs dogpile on the thing, layering Create Advantages and boosts and attacks.

I probably should have just had the thing take extra actions once it didn’t have any friends left, but I didn’t, so it didn’t feel as dangerous as I wanted. It did feel as tough as I wanted, however, so a partial victory there. What’s more, it felt tough without simply having an insanely high defense, which is lame if you’re a player and you wait for your turn to come up and you whiff because the GM wanted to drag out a fight scene. There weren’t many whiffs on the players’ part; the creature just had so many layered and varied defenses and consequence slots that it could take one hell of a beating.

Dude, Where’s My Bad Car?

After the battle, the gang remembered that Ajaz had lost Pantagruel’s coin and turned on him. Just then, Bad Car came cruising up the road and Ajaz found Pantagruel’s denarius in its trunk. No explanation for how it got there, but maybe Bad Car knew Nicodemus was coming and tried to hide the coin? Sure it did. Because cars that run on blood instead of gasoline are always nice.

Scott took the coin after that and drove off, swearing he’d put the denarius somewhere no one would ever find it.
Seriously. Those things are impossible.

Bill brought up his impending baggage - he was thinking about getting out of the hunt, but he couldn’t do it until this apocalypse thing was done and in the ground. There’d be something else after that, but he had to draw the line somewhere. Get out and maybe get a few years of rest before he shuffled off to that eternal one. I love Bill’s character, but I understood. My attempt with Nicodemus fell flat, so having an internal Trouble to garner fate points and drive the drama with Bill was a better choice than simply upgrading to more Denarians.

The group was okay with Lucy at last. Well, all except for Clay, because what this session taught me (in combination with other observations from other games) is that Clay’s player and Lucy’s player go at each other no matter what their characters are like. I was misconstruing how much of it was IC vs. OOC. It’s not a great situation, but 1) they’re friends, they do that, and 2) it’s not anything in my game causing it. Problem solved, as far as I’m willing to solve it.

One Wound Beetle! Two Wound Beetles! I Love Counting Wound Beetles!

In our post-credits scene, Fox and Roberts huddled close on the side of the highway, frantically hashing out a plan to ditch BLACKBOX and go to ground. Safehouses, burner phones, funds, identities, etc. Roberts didn’t notice the single surviving wound beetle slither up his pants leg.