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. 🙂

 

Playing the Oddball Options

For the past 20+ years, I’ve praised my friend Chuck Kallenbach for his part in Decipher’s Lord of the Rings TCG’s “noise” rule and 50/50 light/dark deck build. Someone brought the game up today, and I remembered what a pleasure it was play. To see in what ways different people addressed those in deck builds. I remember in particular a kick-ass band of dwarves deck a friend put together.

What I probably haven’t said is that I like to build decks that abuse the spirit of any TCG, mainly for the challenge of making an off-kilter deck work, partly just as recalcitrance, somewhat for surprise at the table.

In Thunder Castle’s Highlander, the build was “Casper, the Asthmatic Tax Accountant,” using every non-combat card I could to avoid an actual sword fight. (Thunder Castle’s members-only cards thwarted pretty much every deck that didn’t include them, making convention tournaments pointless, but this one was fun in casual play.)

In Chaosium’s Mythos it was “The Pass/Fail Education,” playing “Pass and End the Round” cards early each turn, to cycle through & find what I needed while leaving other players flat-footed. (Happily, Chaosium later printed a card to prevent that card’s abuse.) But my favorite build to play in that was “The Sorcerer John Henry,” based on the “Exploited Coal Miner” character. It used “Carter’s Clock” Item and “Create Time Warp” spell to return to the “Castle of the Great Ones on Kadath” during the battle phase each turn, so as to dump spell after spell on the table without Sanity loss. All because a friend remarked that it was nigh impossible to use magic to any effect in the game. This TSJH deck was a somewhat slow one get up and running, and it frequently lost to other decks for that reason, but when it had time to get the gears in place, it dominated the game.

 

In Vampire: The Eternal Struggle it was a friend’s deck I was in awe of, something he called “Little Princes,” built around a plethora of 1-point Caitiff cards, a buttload of political cards they got into play before anyone else had enough votes to stop them, and a hand grenade or two for when they got caught in a dark alley by an older vampire, to sacrifice their own lives so as to put the other into torpor.

In the Lord of the Rings TCG Chuck helped design, I built a deck I called “Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em,” eschewing other fellowship members, to run just Aragorn and Frodo as party hoppers dashing from elven haven to haven, drinking up the wine and smoking up the pipeweed, then ducking out when the duo’s pursuers arrived. For flavor, the deck also included some smoking Gimli cards and Gandalf cards (they certainly weren’t efficient for achieving victory conditions). The dark half of the deck was all Uruk Hai, again inefficient, just so I could call that part “old Red Eye.”

Since those days in the late 90’s early 00’s, with TSR’s demise and life in general dispersing colleagues and friends across the US, I’ve not played much face-to-face with trading card games, so there’s not been the impetus to deep dive into oddball options in newer ones. But for nostalgia’s sake, I’m not really interested in doing so.

Nowadays I’m more apt to play a solo RPG or board game, not necessarily by necessity, but because the solo field is fascinating. Fortunately, tonight I’ve come upon some solo player’s rules for playing Mythos this way, and it’s time to give it a try. I hope to find something similar for V:TES, because absent those old friends, I do amuse myself.

GMing GMless

Photo by Allec Gomes on Unsplash

It was probably the COVID lockdown that gave solo role-playing such a boost. Or maybe that’s just when I stumbled upon this facet of the tabletop RPG hobby. In any case, I’m enthralled. (I wish it were an option back in the 80s, when our board game group first stumbled upon Dungeons & Dragons, and one night a week just wasn’t enough to meet my need.)

So what is solo roleplay?

Imagine you’re jonesing to role-play a favorite character or two (like I was back then), but there’s no one available to run an adventure as GM. In solo play, often referred to as GMless play, you improvise an adventure by using an oracle—typically a deck of cards, my favorite being GMA—as a prompt.

“What do I hear at the door?” my character asks. I make a skill roll to see if they can manage to listen through its planks. They succeed. I turn up a GMA card, and in the sensory details section there’s the “ping-ping-ping of cooling metal.” Time to put on my GM hat to improvise what that means in terms of the unfolding story. I figure it’s the cooling armor of a knight just roasted by the fire-breathing dragon my character has been hunting. As player, I decide to throw open the door. As GM, I ask the deck, “Is the dragon still here?” If the deck says, “Yes,” it’s time for a fight. If “No,” my character presses onward cautiously, aware that the dragon must be somewhere close.

As you can see, I’m shifting back and forth between player’s seat and GM’s. Which makes the term “GMless” something of a misnomer. Even the word “solo,” given how much fun it can be to do this with friends, each playing a character, and each suggesting what that ping-ping-ping could mean.

But what about published adventures?

Maybe instead of pure improv, I’m dying to play a published adventure about a dragon, in which the book says exactly where the beast is, and what my character encounters along the way? How can I role-play my character’s reaction to that dungeon door, when I already know what’s waiting? How can I decide whether they’d take the time to check for a trap, when each moment risks another roll on a random encounters table, possibly bringing a band of goblins or giant beetle or something?

Let the oracle deck decide. Let’s say the published adventure has a pit trap here. As a GM I ask, “Does my character pause to check for traps? I think the odds are good that they would.” I turn up a card, and if the “Good odds” prompt says, “No,” they move on, triggering the trap. I can only hope their roll to not fall in succeeds.

Can I “Dual Wield” the two?

Once you realize that an oracle deck can serve either purpose, it’s pretty easy to swap hats mid-play. As in this example of my playing a published adventure.

The story opens with the PCs being asked to take on a scouting mission for a refugee camp plagued by undead. Their job is to find the source and destroy it. The book says that the refugee leader tells the PCs, “Unless you have a skill we need here in camp, you must take on this mission to earn your keep.” It’s assumed that the PCs take the mission, but the scene is something that I’d role-play through if running this for friends, so why not for myself?

I’m playing four characters: an archer, two soldiers, and a thief. I’m sure the first three, by nature, will gladly take on the mission. And I know the thief will try to talk his way out of it. But unless he goes, there’s no adventure.

My thief suggests, “I know how to read and write, so I could act as a scribe.” As GM I have to counter this, and I decide the refugee leader responds, “We don’t need a scribe. I can do that myself.” My thief says, “I’m a pretty good cook.” “We have plenty of cooks.” My thief, “Well, I can sing and tell some great stories to keep up morale!” “We don’t need stories of past deeds. We need a present end to this undead menace.”

My thief acquiesces, and the adventure continues.

Later, while the heroes are traveling across an enormous battlefield toward a pair of ruined towers that might hold a clue, a random encounter roll says “There’s a small scouting band of orcs and goblins on the horizon.”

I figure the two soldiers say, “We’re not here to fight orcs and goblins, so unless they attack, we should leave them alone.” But my archer has some elven blood in his lineage and despises the creatures, so he argues passionately, “I’m sworn to slay them on sight! Even if no one else will go with me, I must!” Knowing the thief, I figure he’ll hold his tongue to see which way the wind blows.

I’m ambivalent as to whether the two soldiers are willing to sidetrack to battle the orc and goblin band, knowing it’ll likely weaken the party, when they should be saving their strength for the undead mystery. So I draw a card, and the answer is “No, but…” As GM I think about what that might mean and decide the soldiers argue, “Let’s focus on solving this undead mystery first, and after that, if we’re still alive, we’ll help you track down those orcs and goblins.”

Back in player mode, I settle into the archer’s personality again and figure he’d acquiesce to that. If I weren’t certain, I’d have drawn another card to make his decision.

Onward they ride toward the mysterious towers, the archer seething at having left the orcs and goblins breathing. Right about now, another random encounter has a ghoul pop up from behind a bush. In character as both player and GM, I decide the archer is caught off guard, but allow the other three characters a roll for surprise. Because that’s what seems like the most fun!