Saturday, 14 November 2015

Visitant: Inside Job

It was a cold night. Frost was settling on the ground, glinting where the security lights touched it. Rounding the corner of his rooftop patrol, Geertz paused and stared dutifully around, scanning the grounds with naked eye, then thermal goggles. Nothing, as usual. The last group of protestors had been nine months ago. Still, they had to stay watchful. Seeing Thompson and his Alsatian making a counter-circuit below, he waved a habitual ‘nothing’, then turned and paced away. The outer wall was three hundred yards away and ten feet high; a fence topped with razorwire separated the car parks and grounds from the compound itself. It would take an intruder several minutes to make the crossing, let alone get inside, and that was plenty of time for the guard patrols to spot them. Nobody was breaking in, not after that business four years ago.

Nobody human, anyway.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Not in London

Another part of my sluggish attempts to appropriate cross-link my blogs.

I wrote about setting scenarios outside London (more generally, outside the major city of the region), and thought it was broad enough to cross-link here.

Looking back, it's a bit brief. For example, I dismissed the idea of exploring London, and I think there's something to that: if you're actually engaged in a scenario, in-character tourism is likely to limit itself to a few major landmarks. I know there's a glamour about the city for some people (Americans in particular, I suspect) but most of it is just, y'know, streets and things.

But an obvious flipside is familiarity-tourism. If players are familiar with London, then they may well get a lot of enjoyment from immersion, and so being able to wander through familiar districts or simply get the appropriate Tube lines can be a source of pleasure. And having those things handwaved might dispel the sense of immersion.

You have to weigh this sort of thing up. Broadly speaking, I think a scenario aimed at creating a Being In London experience does need to concern itself with verisimilitude. Cthulhu by Gaslight and suchlike games tend to fit into this category. However, a scenario that's set in London as a generic default doesn't, really. If London is simply a convenient place to nominally be, and all the action happens in named locations, then it's fair enough for the GM to skimp on it.

I think it's still true, though, that the smaller the settlement, the more significant each person and place becomes. In a hamlet, each of the six residents is significant, and the presence of a bridal shop is notable. In a city, there's going to be a bridal shop somewhere, so why not here? And we have to take it as read that there are far more NPCs in the place than players can possibly interact with, almost all of whom are irrelevant in the extreme.

And I do still plan to get back to that scenario, and rewrite it completely as a setting book with a couple of scenarios built in...

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Good Neighbours: Visitants and other abhumans

Depending on the campaign design, visitants may encounter a range of other inhuman entities. Although it’s designed for a science fiction setting, Visitant can in theory be combined with any World of Darkness game, and it would be silly not to discuss the possibility.

As creatures living in the shadows, visitants are relatively likely to encounter other such beings. Aside from any philosophical or moral factors, there is often pragmatic reason for dealing between the groups: all are keen to preserve their anonymity, all have unusual goals to accomplish, and all have unusual capabilities. The exact relations between the groups could vary dramatically. Here are some suggestions for handling encounters with the two most straightforward abhumans, the werewolves and vampires.

One point to be established in a campaign is how easily abhumans can detect one another. The argument can be made that superhuman senses should reveal the true nature of each species. On the other hand, this ruling might sabotage any chance of subterfuge plots. In particular it will tend to penalise ansaid, whose shapeshifting is an important power.


Scientific explanations for werewolves can be advanced, and there is certainly no barrier to them in a setting which includes shapeshifting ansaid. However, it isn’t necessary at all to offer such an explanation, and attempting to do so may simply create new problems, or undermine the immersion of the game. Not everything needs a concrete explanation, even in science fiction.

Some possible explanations already used in science fiction include:

  • Werewolves are a separate species from humans. They are somewhat akin to ansaid, having highly malleable tissue controlled by the endocrine system. Though they are far less mutable than ansaid, their more defined forms have evolved to grant specific physical advantages – speech and intellect in humanoid form, speed and agility in wolf form, and raw power in the intermediate forms.
  • Werewolves are multidimensional beings. They do not actually change form, but shift between certain aspects of their multiversal self. Whether they are truly alien, or results of a strange evolutionary accident, is unknown.
  • Werewolves are human, but affected by an alien symbiote passed on through bloodline or bite. The symbiote permeates the werewolf’s body, and can cause immense physical changes either through chemical stimulation, or through overlaying aspects of itself onto this reality. As the results are largely beneficial to the host, natural selection has favoured the werewolves.

Visitants are not a natural part of Earth’s ecosystem, but neither are they unnatural beings. In general, there is no specific cause for enmity nor alliance between the two. Visitants on a scientific mission may well find common ground with a werewolf pack: the werewolves can provide invaluable data, while a visitant may have ways to overcome problems the werewolves find challenging. Visitants with a political or corporate interest in Earth may be keen to help preserve its ecosystems.

On the other hand, predatory or exploitative visitants may find the werewolves to be an implacable enemy. Those seeking to learn about the Earth, or to prepare it for galactic contact, may be judged dangerous. Because a visitant is a loose cannon, even simply hiding amongst humanity may cause problems for a local pack. There are many reasons why werewolves might wish to eliminate them. There is also past history: previous bad experiences with visitants, or with a particular species, may prejudice werewolves against them, and vice versa.


There are scientific explanations for vampires advanced in various stories, typically based on either a virus, a parasite or a transmissible genetic factor. Vampires have also been presented as non-human entities, but this is largely incompatible with the traditional White Wolf settings, though not impossible to work around. If the human-to-vampire transformation were restricted to particular families, they could easily be reskinned as an alien colony who ended up on Earth millennia ago and have learned to live amongst humans, either humanoid to begin with or made so through technology. Such a premise would tend to be better for vampire antagonists than for vampire protagonists.

Some vampires lose interest in visitants as soon as they realise they are not viable prey. However, matters are more complicated. A visitant is potentially a powerful and neutral actor, not allied with nor under the sway of any vampire faction. As such, wise vampires may look for ways to strike a bargain and gain the support of the visitant. Visitants are unaffected by many things harmful to vampires, and have the capability to obtain, arrange or learn things useful to a vampire ally. For their own part, vampires can assist in protecting the visitant’s identity. As a real, if lapsed, human being, a vampire can often deal with matters where a visitant would risk exposure.

As vampires prey on humanity, many have no particular issue with visitants who would do the same, but do resent the competition. The sea-change threatened by alien infiltrators, or by admission into a galactic fold, is highly unsettling to the vampiric society that relies on stability and rules from the shadows. As such, peaceful and well-meaning visitants may well encounter more hostility than creatures who actively hunt humans.

For visitants, there is no particular mystique to vampires. If the visitant knows about them at all, they are simply part of the planet’s ecosystem. Their unusual capabilities make them formidable, but not necessarily a greater threat than a human, since disclosure is the great fear. They have some scientific interest, but not necessarily more than other native species.

Due to the radical differences in their evolution, vampires cannot feed on most visitants.

  • The blood of ansaid is distasteful and useless.
  • The volatile blood of mosas attacks vampire tissue, inflicting Bashing damage and the Nauseated Tilt or Nauseous Condition.
  • Shekt skinsuits have a small reservoir of artificial human blood, providing up to 1 unit of vitae for a vampire, and the vampire must make a suitable perception roll to detect that something is wrong with their prey.
  • Ytaleh host-bodies provide blood as normal.

Playing with Traveller worldbuilding

1e7m comparison Uranus Neptune Sirius B Earth Venus

As mentioned previously, I have for a while been considering running some Traveller, in a very desultory way, and started playing with the world-creation tools.

There are a number of potential "issues" with Traveller world creation. While I've spotted some of these myself, they're backed up to some extent by comments from others around the Net. As so often, this is an impressions-in-progress sort of post, and whether apparent "issues" actually end up being a problem is yet to be seen. Things that seem weird from one point of view may work perfectly well in play, and things that seem arbitrary may let you build a perfectly reasonable universe.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

My feat are killing me

Henceforth a long, rambly exposition around the topic of feats.

So for whatever reason I've been messing around with a lot of D&D 5e chargen recently. I've put together about 20 different characters for various reasons, ranging from "this idea entertains me" to "I wonder if this is mechanically possible".

For example, I started wondering how feasible it is in 5e to make single-class parties. That is to say, parties composed entirely of characters from one class, with no multiclassing permitted. Because subclasses grant certain odd capabilities, this isn't quite as mad as it sounds. You can't make a party that replicates the classic Fighter Thief Wizard Cleric pattern, but you can arrange them in other ways.

Friday, 6 November 2015

On the Night-Wind: a ghoulish game

For those who care about such things, this post will contain massive spoilers for a story written a century ago.

Listening back to the archives of HP Podcraft recently, I was struck by a certain turn of phrase in the story that inspired me. Let me cite.

Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid.

And somehow this filled me with the desire to do a game where you play mocking and friendly ghouls. There's a sense of hidden richness in that brief couple of sentences. Plus, funereal is cool set-dressing, as Vampire knew full well.

The Premise

So, drawing loosely on the collected works of Lovecraft, the premise is that you are all ghouls: dog-faced, rubbery, meeping, corpse-munching, tunnel-dwelling ghouls. By night, you ride the night-wind seeking not-very fresh bodies, adrenaline rushes, and the cheap thrill of scaring jocks at popular makeout spots. By day, you retreat through myriad secret ways to a moonlight realm that lies somewhere over there, wherein lie the catacombs of Nephren-Ka and the tombs of Neb and many other cities of the dead, which though once part of the waking world have drifted by degrees into the nightlands. Here you rollick and play and feast and rest awaiting the next excursion.

Being mocking and friendly ghouls, of course, you are no monsters. You eat dead people, but they don't mind. In fact, you take a benevolent interest in the affairs of mortals - you were one once, after all. And so, in your midnight revels, you keep a friendly eye out for your human neighbours, and take steps to guard your shared world against some of the more strange and terrible things that the universe holds. There are many secrets known to the ghouls, things buried with the dead or secrets whispered by the ancient things of the world.

Astute readers may notice that this bears a certain resemblance to Necromancers, and this is entirely true. For some reason I quite like the idea of combining friendly, benevolent adventurers with a gothic horror aesthetic. This is all compatible stuff really, settingwise, although arguably some necromancer concepts (like summoning armies of the dead) might not work in a fairly-strictly Lovecraftian 'verse.

I'm still trying to work out what system I'd like to run this in. There's a certain argument for FATE, except that I don't really have any confidence in my ability to run a successful FATE game and my players didn't seem particularly sold on the system. BRP is too swingy for lighthearted adventure. Either way, I'd better hold off any further work until I find out whether my players are actually interested.