Bethan Is Tailed!

Photo by Vitor Fontes on Unsplash

Yeesh! It’s been two years since I last role-played the vampire Petit Louis and his little retinue. I would have thought maybe eight months ago, but checking the last writeup on Facebook, I find their Chicago adventure posted May 2022. One battle since  to play-test a new combat rule last July (see the Battle Bookmark), but no actual dive into characters and story. So here we go, from a doctor’s waiting room session, using HandiQuest cards with the GameMaster’s Apprentice Horror Deck and Dracula’s Get! (Bundle here.)

At the end of last adventure, Dane (bodyguard), Danile (driver), and Aaron (“techretary”) had hauled a wounded Louis out of a Chicago hotel to his limo, leaving Bethan (starlet) to distract the paparazzi while they fled. Bethan then left for the airport with all their luggage, where she bought the group tickets to Toronto as a smokescreen.

Bethan Alone!

For this new session, the GMA deck turned up a choice between a Basement and an Amusement Park as the group’s rendezvous point. Though the basement would have made an easier trip (Difficulty 6), the amusement park (Difficulty 7) sounded like a much better story, especially if abandoned! I asked the next card if it is, and “Yes.”

Okay, final destination settled. Now for the interim events.

My next card choice was between a graveyard (Difficulty 7) and a home (Difficulty 6). You can guess which one I picked. The travel catalyst on the next card said, “Hunters are Hunted,” which I took to mean that Bethan was being followed. Certainly the possibility would have occurred to her, so I made a Wits check, gambling her vocation to halve that 7. Fail 8. Bethan drove to a small country graveyard she knew of outside Princeton, Illinois, to see if she had pursuers. (I asked Alexa on my phone for a small town about 100 miles southwest of Chicago). She pulled over and cut her lights, keeping the engine running. And saw another vehicle do the same not far behind.

Spooked, she put the pedal to the metal, and they gave chase. I chose to use the combat rules to simulate the driving competition, using Bethan’s Grace d12, rationalizing it as drag race training for an old movie role. For the pursuers, I let the deck choose between a d10 or a d12, and it came up d10. (I made up a rule on the spot for letting the deck make that choice: turn up a card, and whichever result on the dice wheel was higher, that’s the die size I’d be using.) Bethan rolled an S11 (Success 11); they got an F8 (Fail 8). A failure and the lower roll! Sounds like they blew a tire! I thought it unlikely they’d wreck, but the next card said “Yes!” So much for those pursuers.

Next destination: Playground 7 or Underwater 6. The first best suited my amusement park theme, but she needed an opportunity to rest, and Underwater sounded like something out a spy movie she might have been in. Plus, living with a vampire makes a person resourceful. So Bethan had stashed some gear in a cave with an underwater entrance. The travel Catalyst came up “Lost!” Ugh. Apparently while ditching her pursuers, she made a wrong turn onto an off road.

(I’ve been there. On the way to a small convention in the 90’s, I took the wrong lane on an interstate that splits in St. Louis, and ended up driving for hours one night across the north of Missouri rather than the south. This was still the era of paper maps. I eventually realized the error and found my way south on county roads, but my oldest daughter was in the car and has never let me live it down.)

Next card had a “No!” among the odds, so chance no rest on this drive. Just wide open farmland, with no safe place to pull over. Ugh. Onward.

Next destination: Castle 4 or Undiscovered Land 4. Well, she was lost, after all, so it’s all undiscovered land to her. The Catalyst on the next card is “Moral Dilemna,” and the card after that has more “No” than “Yes” on both sides, so in HandiQuest terms this was an encounter rather than a battle, but one was “NO!” so she still couldn’t rest. I take this to mean that Bethan was driving through the night, wrestling with her conscience whether she should have gone back to shoot her pursuers after they wrecked. Whether she could bring herself to execute a helpless enemy if the time came. In the end, she decided that “What if’s” are a waste of energy, especially while lost in the night. So she found an upbeat play mix on the stereo and concentrated on her driving.

Onward to a Theater 2 or Base 4. I was starting to worry that Bethan was never going to have a chance to recover before her final destination, where there was definitely going to be some sort of fight (per the HandiQuest system), and a theater is also more suited to her history. So after driving nonstop all night, Bethan headed to a small-town theater where she had once stopped as part of a movie’s promotional campaign. She hoped to convince the owner that she was on an incognito solo trip, trying to escape media attention, and she needed a place to hide out and rest for a day.

Alas, that was not meant to be. Although the next card draw revealed an encounter, not a battle, it also had another “NO!,” so again no rest. (I was having some bad luck finding a place for her to rest up, to say the least!) I asked the deck why. It told me there’s a strike going on. I took this to mean a local church group was picketing the theater over some salacious movie. Bethan drove on.

(If I were hosting this adventure for another player or group, I’d invent much more detail for scenes like this, fleshing out the protestors, perhaps with their leader holding a conversation with our heroes, etc. But as a solo player, that was all sort of taking place as a looser narrative in my head.)

Next up, Archives 7 or Casino 6. Here at last my choice of lower number was a site that seemed to match up with Bethan’s history. Catalyst on the next card was “Being Followed,” which didn’t surprise her by this point. The next card, at last, was a safe encounter, allowing her to rest. So after a day and night of driving, she coasted into Las Vegas and took a room at the Palms, an off-the-strip casino where she was less likely to be recognized. (Per a Google search on my phone.)

Next up, the choices were an Expedition Site 4 or a House of Ill Repute 6. That 4 is really tempting, but trying to fit the expedition site into her adventure seemed a stretch. House of ill repute, on the other hand, matches up with the “Chicken Ranch” an hour outside the city. And given Hollywood’s more sordid side, I could imagine her knowing someone employed there.

Drawing a Catalyst for the journey, I found “Villain vs. Villain Fight.” Apparently, the vampire hunters dogging her heels and the paparazzi who equally intent on finding her ended up in a clash. Using the same “What’s their dice?” technique as before, I found the paparazzi d10 and hunters d12. I gave it one round of combat, just for flavor, as Bethan left, and lo and behold! The paparazzi were kicking ass!

And at last the abandoned amusement park came into view. The travel Catalyst turned up “Secret Orders Unsealed.” Hmm. It didn’t make much sense to me for there to be something in the glovebox or trunk she hadn’t opened until now. Instead, what came to mind was a tarot reading; I could imagine Bethan carrying a tarot deck in her purse, and in fearful anticipation of what may come next, she pulled into a rest stop to do a reading, laying cards in her frontseat.

I decided that if this roll came up successful, I’d award her a Boon for the supernatural drama. [If I were hosting this adventure for players, I certainly would’ve.] F8. Ugh. She was weakened even further, her nerves jittery and heart pounding, as she packed up the cards and drove into the park. I could only hope that Louis and the others arrived had before her. Thankfully, the next card said “Yes.”

So what would this final combat all about? Knowing that Bethan had been trailed by hunters all along, it was pretty obvious that they’d be the enemies in this fight. But how about some details? I checked the “Items” section of a new card, and read among them “Religious Icons” and “Prototype Tech.” Which made me imagine a group of priests backed by a Papal strike team with some sort of anti-vampire invention. What was that tech? Players in a regular adventure wouldn’t know, so I left it a mystery to myself. How many in the band? A pair of card draws gave me 4 priests and 6 fighters.

Louis being a badass vampire, and about half his retinue having some combat experience themselves, I decided to rank the priests as d10 and Difficulty 4, with the strike team members a tougher d12 and Difficulty 5. I would treat them all as “minor foes,” per the Game Host’s Guidebookmark, as I usually do for mass combats like this. Lots of foes means lots of excitement! While one die per means no bookkeeping.

Louis and Dane are Difficulty 5, the rest of the party just 4’s, but Danile and Bethan both possess a few attributes that had been raised by experience, though Bethan was still weakened by her journey. The Dracula’s Get sourcebookmark is based on the powers and weaknesses of Stoker’s Dracula, so Louis is repelled by holy items like those the priests were carrying. He directed his retinue to battle them while he kept the elite troops busy. Louis figured in a 4 on 4 fight, his servants would finish the priests pretty quickly and come to his aid.

I won’t go into all the details turn-by-turn here, just report that the priests managed to hold out for a full 8 turns, leaving Dane nearly dead on his feet, and the rest pretty wounded. Bethan held her own. Danile learned some new fighting moves, boosting a d8 Attribute to d10. Aaron proved nearly worthless, but he’d never been in a fight before.

Meanwhile, Louis found himself alone for the duration! He first turned to mist, resulting in one fighter mortally wounding another in a UV-laser crossfire. Recomposing, Louis spent the next several turns striking among them with Undead Speed, until a lazer shot grazed him and put that ability out of commission.  He turned to mist again, sized up the battlefield, and found only two of the strike force still standing. I risked his mesmerizing ability to control one of them, despite their undoubtedly strong will, and he succeeded! His new puppet shot the other one dead, then turned the gun on himself.

At the end, one priest had tried to escape, but Danile and Bethan mercilessly cut him down, to keep any information from reaching Vatican City.

Post Session Comments

When I first pitched to Larcenous Designs the idea of a bundle of Dracula’s Get! and a horror deck, I’d imagined a pairing with Demon Hunters. Not being a fan of slasher flicks, I hesitated at the regular Horror Deck‘s graphic design (especially that hockey mask). But I’m glad Nathan suggested this pairing. I fell in love with the Horror Deck during this playthrough: the abandoned amusement park alone was captivating!

As to why so long since last playing Louis et al., much of the reason is that the previous adventure left me at loose ends. I had no idea where they would hide out to recouperate and plan how to proceed. Did they have a retreat preprepared? That seemed likely, but where could be remote enough to keep a low profile, while also large enough to supply a Dracula-style vampire with blood? I set aside the question temporarily to work on publishing projects, and out of sight is out of mind, so two years went by.

Lately I’ve been taking my wife’s advice to work less, which has meant some time for solo play other than PC games on the Steam Deck. As you can see from my previous post, I’m starting to dig back through solo purchases I’ve made over the years, and with the subject of solo play, Louis has been on my mind again.

My plan hadn’t been to run Bethan alone, but upon reviewing the situation where I’d left off, it only made sense. Part of the fun of the previous session had been to get into the various humans’ heads, ending with Bethan debating with herself alone at the airport whether to stick with this vampire. Running her solo would give me a chance to explore her personality more fully. And I’m thrilled with the results.

Everything but that final battle occurred right there in the clinic waiting room. Even the battle’s setup. Eric Miller’s HandiQuest rules cards allow you to keep track of an adventure if you have to stop partway through. A GMA deck with pencil and scrap paper (or BNHP character card) is all you need, so it was easy to start up again later that evening at home.

I don’t expect it’ll be so long before the group’s next adventure. 🙂

 

“I Want to Save the World, but I’m Just a Level 1 Skeleton” solo RPG

Here’s something I’ve been wanting for months to give a go: I Want to Save the World but I’m Just a Level 1 Skeleton. A solo dungeon crawl RPG about your rise from grave to greatness. This weekend I finally carved out an honest-to-god mental health day, printed a PC sheet, and gave it a try.

It’s a hoot. Short enough for a read-through in maybe 10 minutes. Easy enough to catch the main concepts right off the bat. Random enough to change the flavor play to play. Mechanically insightful enough to please my design sensibilities. And tongue-in-cheek enough to amuse from the get-go.

I don’t normally journal solo RPG plays, but this one begged for a record of battle decisions, like fighting a stone giant who tosses boulders, by daringly talking trash while tossing handsful of chalk dust into his eyes. Eventually convinced him he was so tired from throwing those heavy stones, that he fell over and shattered.

I wouldn’t say this has the long-term legs of something like Four Against Darkness (even without 4AD’s ongoing supplemements) but honestly, this is a stand-out design in terms of ability dice choices and the narrative its action invites. I’m sincerely impressed with its core mechanics, and the elegant ramifications of its artifacts and overlord powers.

Definitely recommended for solo players! And the optional co-op and GM rules look promising, as well. I’ll certainly be giving this some more table time in the future.

photo of my desktop setup for the game
My tiny desktop setup with Gary Con XVI dice tray & Black Death Cinderskull dice by Black Oak Workshop

Jonesing for Journey

A few years ago, I bought a PS4 (to play Rock Band 4, a disappointment), and picked up a few other titles, including a couple of walking sims: Dear Esther & Journey.

Dear Esther is gorgeous and emotionally moving. It’s definitely worth playing through a couple of times.

Journey is Zen-like. The graphical design is truly lovely; the musical score is nothing short of remarkable. Playing the game on the PS4 was a wonderful experience, but I didn’t perceive any depth of play that would make it worth playing again.

Until the family got me a Steam Deck, and I tried out the PC version. Not only are there nuances and hidden secrets I had missed, but being connected to Steam online (something I’d used only for backups), I stumbled across another lone traveler making the same journey, and the experience bloomed into something deeper.

Journey is about struggle to reach a mountaintop, and the experience of sometimes coming across a companion to accompany in the struggle is heartwarming. That you’ve no idea who that person is in real life, where they’re located on the globe, what language they speak, makes it even more so. Communication is a simple chirrup, with no more meaning than “Hey!” It’s amazing just how much you can say with one simple sound.

As to my jonesing, at present I’ve achieved 13 of the 14 trophies. The 14th is “Don’t play the game for a week.” With every passing day, I find that more difficult to avoid. In part, it’s that in Journey I can fly much like in my real-world dreams. But mainly it’s how much I miss meeting newcomers, sojourning with them, and guiding them to hidden empowerments.

I miss the simple, nonjudgmental commonality of that online space, in a shared struggle with a stranger to reach a mountaintop. As one online commenter wrote, “To whomever it was who joined me in Journey last night making heart shapes in the sand, I love you!”

 

A Final Evening with Jim Ward

Let me open up even more than usual for a second.

In January, when Jennell Jaquays died, it rocked me more than a bit. I’ve interacted with her since late 1989, when I talked her into letting me write an entry for Citybook IV, a little dream of mine to be in the series. Later, we worked together daily on the Dragon Dice project at TSR, becoming the sort of chummy colleagues that make a point to visit when they’re in your neck of the woods. And more recently, she’d become an online resource for this aging cisgender heterosexual white guy looking to understand and ally with other people.

In early March, my friend Steve Maggi died and, well, I still haven’t recovered. Steve and I were part of a group of cohorts at GDW in the mid 1980’s, along with Steve Bryant and a couple of others. We met regularly after work, usually to watch Kids in the Hall over a bottle of something, to moan and joke about hassles of the job. I was a decade older than the rest, so it felt like an honor to hang with them. Maggi stayed in touch ever since, as our lives and geographic locations diverged. When this focal seizure condition began impeding my natural extroversion, forcing me into retirement, Maggi continued to text and call, keeping the connection alive, making sure his “Sensei” was okay. (I hated when he called me that, but it’s a precious memory now.)

Exactly one week after Maggi, my friend Jim Ward died. Jim had hired me at TSR, kept me occupied with fascinating projects, always believing in me, always treating me as an equal. When TSR flew the two of us to England to introduce Dragon Dice to TSR UK, he took me Business Class right beside him, though I later learned he’d been told to fly me Coach and knew he’d take heat from Lorraine when we returned. When we continued on to Germany for the Essen trade show, he introduced me to Mike Gray and Reiner Knizia over evening board games. It was like taking part in a heavyweight prize fight. Later Jim, Tim Brown, and I partnered as Fast Forward Games, making some long drives together to TennCon, where our investors were located.

Jim and I argued bitterly over Trump on Facebook, but we stayed friends, sharing gifts by mail and conversations by phone, meeting pretty much always when I traveled back from Nebraska.

As I struggled through the shock of his loss at Gary Con, I was also fielding daily IMs from a woman who despised him. Jim could be crass sometimes, and ignorant about changing social mores, but I knew the guy’s inner sweetness, remember the confused innocence in his voice as he once asked me, “Lester, am I sexist?”

So let me be clear: Jim Ward was one of the purest souls I’ve ever known. All the good you’ve read about him in his friends’ memorials are absolutely true. He was warm, nurturing, enthusiastic, funny, and loyal to a fault.

My final memories of Jim are from texting the day after the podcast below. That somehow I had that evening to share with him, along with Steve Sullivan and David Wise, is some comfort.

But I’m at all not okay. Jennell’s loss hurts; the losses of Maggi and Jim are devastating. I’m still flinching away from facing those. Writing this post has been hellish. But the interview is a memory I’ll cherish. And Jim deserves to be honored and celebrated. As does Maggi. And Jennell. The world is so much the richer for their having been here.

Enjoy the video.