30 April 2007

Everything and Nothing

There have been a multitude of topics that I have wanted to write about of late, but I have managed to actually commit words on none but the actual play for the game I am running. And even there I am now a week behind.

The simple excuse? Tiredness. But I've always been tired; everything I have ever written (well, almost) has been written through tiredness. The difference this time is work, and specifically the type of work; I am processing XML files for a publishing firm, and this means that my days are spent looking endlessly at black text on a white background and adding, subtracting, or altering the contents as required. This is not only as dull as the muffled ring of a tuneless bell but it is killing for my eyes; thus whilst I love writing with a passion - even if I only ever manage to do it distractedly - it is possibly the last thing I want to do in my evenings and weekends (well, that and another hobby of mine: reading!). Images on screens are fine - I don't see any during the day and there is significant difference from text - but reading and writing are out. I swear I only managed to get the last summary of the WFRP game written up before the following session out of sheer bloody mindedness and because others, too, get discernible value from it.

In the last month I have started, planned and canned (or put on indefinite hold) posts about Life on Mars, my submission to the next generation of peer pressure in buying an Xbox360 (in intention, primarily, to beat drunken Scotsmen at cricket!) and the climactic stages of the cricket world cup, along with England's pathetic failures and coming transitions. What I most want to write is a piece on how violence is oft over-used in media - be it book, film or game. Not a decrying of violence, explosions and action, not a "videogames ate my baby!" nor "terminator films breed nazi killing machines!" but a viewpoint on how violence and combat are often the least interesting resolutions to dramatic conflict. Not that they are bad: that they are (very often) boring compared with some alternatives. I still plan this, and I might put the long weekend next weekend to good use yet.

My mind has been kept active thinking about things to write instead of writing them (and the idea loss as a result has been staggering), but mostly it has been shutting down all day. Trained monkey, reporting for duty!

On the plus side, this past weekend was top notch. Out with work folks on Thursday for a few more than planned, friend down from Up North on the Friday for a catch up, natter and beers, then a weekend just outside Bicester with nothing planned but lost of gaming. I wasn't even deterred by the fact it was Star Trek-inspired! I even (finally) saw a couple of episodes of Firefly; although I found the pilot episode a long way short of inspiring, it hinted at why everyone I know raves about it, and the actual episode we viewed thereafter had its moments. Visually it did not work for me; otherwise... it sorta did. Enough to make me seriously consider trying to blag the DVDs of someone long enough to watch it all, anyway.

And this coming week will be good, too; it's a two day working week for me (today just gone, and tomorrow). Wednesday and Thursday will be spent in Bristol and going to two gigs in two nights with a good friend, then there is a four day weekend as I have Friday off as well, and next Monday is a Bank Holiday. Hurrah! Hopefully some shenanigans involving shooting aliens (and Scotsmen, and possibly even Lawyers) in the face can be found, along with some time to write, and work on where Splitting Heirs is going... Oh, and book gown hire for my PhD graduation; bloody swindle of a price!

22 April 2007

Splitting Heirs: Session Four

Picking up where we left off: at the mining camp early in the morning after Pou’s son Gunter was taken into custody on suspicion of murder.

Pou and Captain Scharf had a quick conversation, with the former wanting the latter’s word that Gunter would be treated fairly. Scharf instructed his men to make a final round of inquiries – chiefly pertaining to any others in the camp who had arrived from wealthier backgrounds about 10 years or so ago – which turned up nothing more of value, so the group made ready and departed as one for Himmelfeuer itself. When they got back, Pou went first to find Herbert, wanting to ask why he’d had him followed; the latter had not yet opened the inn for the day, and when Pou knocked on the door he was shoo’ed away by his friend, who was claiming to have “company.”

There, they found that Lady FitzCarstein was preparing to leave, returning with her entourage – and Josephine, the Baron’s daughter – to her castle in light of the previous day’s events and accusations. Josephine was going to continue attempts at learning from Helena in matters of land management, whilst the departure had been hastened by the discomfort of Lady F’s priest, and teacher in the ways of Verena, Father Cantati. The father had caught word of the investigation into a child abuse scandal some years ago and was clearly shaken by continued presence in Himmelfeuer, fearing that the fact he knew the dead chandler at the centre of the old investigation might somehow implicate him. Before readying the wagon, Lady F had time to seek out the Ravenmeister to promise him the Stirland ravens she had promised him were on their way and to send word on of her return, her guest to be and other business, back to Drachenmalstein. She also had penned a false note warning of war to send as a ruse to the mercenaries controlling Brunnenhing’s lands. The bird man clearly wanted here to know that he was her friend, and informed her of raven traffic to and from the Bodendreck manor in the south – none of it to Himmelfeuer – and that one had been “intercepted” by a source of his, whom he identified as “The Rabbit”; Lady F made a request to know the contents of the intercepted letter as and when it was possible.

She also had some short minutes to discuss matters with Pou, including more wrangling on the nature, extent and purpose of his copper-ring wearing followers and revealing that Mörder’s envoy now recalled, Wolfgang Heibmann, was probably a vampire. This sent Pou into a fit, fearing that Gunter – who had appeared friendly with Heibmann when he was about – had fallen into the thrall of the creature.

Whilst Pou was talking to her Ladyship, Scharf was interrogating Gunter – very pleasantly, no thumbscrews in sight. As Pou had done, Scharf wanted to know about Gunter’s supposed meeting on the night of the killing and the deal he was trying to put together. Gunter told him what little he could – including how notes had been used to set up the meet, and a copper ring had been found inside one of them; Gunter does not know of the organisation, as Pou has deliberately kept him out of the loop. Reinhardt also asked about Manfred and how Gunter knew him, and why he reacted as he did when he’d met him at the inn the previous night. Gunter could shed little light on Manfred, other than he had not anticipated meeting him that night, and he was not – at least as far as Gunter knew – the contact he was supposed to have met the night of the murder. The prevailing suspicion was the same for both parties – Gunter and Scharf alike were convinced that Gunter was being set up as a fall guy for someone else’s ends. After letting Gunter go, and following him home to search for the posited copper ring – which was missing; Gunter cried theft, Scharf suspected he’d known about the coppers and made up the ring – Scharf left, watching the house for a few moments to see what Gunter did (get a horse and flee town to the south to lie low). Setting a man after him as a tail, Scharf went to find Herbert to inquire about Manfred and his part in all this: Herbert’s odd-job man seemed too involved, and had not still been in the mining camp that morning; people who travel alone at night are rarely ordinary and uninteresting. Herbert opened up to Scharf, saying he’d been meeting Manfred that morning when Pou had stopped by, then going on to say how Manfred had appeared in his inn some 5 years ago or so, been a good customer, and they’d got on well. After a week or more, Manfred was still around and asked after work, so Herbert gave him some; since then they have worked together, with Manfred doing the “dirty” jobs if needed – shaking people down for unpaid tabs, and the like. Herbert had not asked about Manfred’s past, but it was clear that this was a man who knew how to look after himself. He also revealed that Manfred does not always wait for instruction, but acts on instinct often enough; he had gone West after their meeting. Herbert did not say what for.

Scharf suspected a long-term infiltration plan, worried about who Manfred was really working for (or what his motives were if working for himself). It was then Pou appeared, fresh from his meeting with Lady F. When Reinhardt said he’d let Gunter go, and that he’d ridden off southwards, Pou went frenzied; this, to him, had confirmed his fear about Gunter and thralldom! He immediately went about getting a search party together, whilst a somewhat bemused Captain Scharf returned to the castle to talk to the Lady before her departure. In conversation Scharf mentioned his need to track Manfred, and Lady F mentioned how her departure might impact the carrying out of her plans to get Brunnenhing his land back. It was then it dawned on them: Brunnenhing had left earlier that day with “a few swords” to reclaim his manor; his manor lies to the West, and Manfred – who sometimes follows his instinct – had “gone West.” With some urgency plans were changed. Scharf, Lady FitzCarstein, Roderick (who knew the area better than any) and Josephine – who was keen as punch to be a part of this – would ride west, whilst the Lady sent the coach with her handmaid Jarla, Father Cantati, and the rest of her retainers back to Drachenmalstein.

Whilst Pou was off on a wild goose chase to the south, whipping up conspiracy amongst the coppers on the way, the westward bound party had no sign of Brunnenhing (whom they feared might be slain any moment), but word that he had passed through the villages they came to. They stopped in an inn overnight, where Jospehine showed just how little of a Lady she was, and where, the next morning, Lady F was awoken with news from Himmelfeuer: a child had been abducted. Deciding not to head back, when they reached his lands the next morning Lady FitzCarstein took to informing the peasants of, and recruiting them to aid, her plan [see session 3], whilst Scharf slipped away to have a closer look at the manor.

There was still no sign of Brunnenhing or Manfred, but closing with the buildings of the complex, Reinhardt did overhear mercenaries arguing in Tilean, before one rode off at some speed – a later conversation with Lady FitzCarstein suggested this might be a scout sent after receipt of her deceit, and that it would be better for them all if the scout never made it back alive. It also gave them hope that the plan to reclaim the manner may work, as the occupants seemed far from confident, happy or settled. But was the errant Lord still alive? The villagers all said he had been through, but he was somehow remaining forever “ahead” of his followers…

Pou, meanwhile, gave up his search after a day, after talking to enough people to get the impression his search was paranoid, and eating up too much time for nothing. He headed back to find Himmelfeuer in uproar over the abduction, and the guard – looking to make an example of a “suspect” to quell public worry… with Scharf out of town, Pou decided he must dig into this himself.

Theories, secrets and lies abound. Everyone has some, everyone wants some.

I feel there is more flow to the game every week, and while the changes in structure and design have changed the scale and moved the focus a little from the macro-events to the smaller happenings that make them up, things are still moving along and maintaining a decent turnover of dilemmas. Admittedly the level of charge in these dilemmas is lower than was the original intent, the stakes are that much smaller, but it still works. Everyone involved has enough personal buttons to push that the smaller scale is not an immediate death-knell for the concept and (I think) I’m managing to throw in enough personal-level choice and influence whilst progressing the “global” events. It’s a little slower than anticipated, but the sessions keep entertaining so it’s not a huge problem.

Only half of the sessions to date have involved dice, yet there has been drama, action and comedy, in and out of character. Pou is a naturally comic character, but without breaking the general, more serious, tone of the game; Lady FitzCarstein is the plotter – plans, ideas, hooks and politicking galore meaning there will always be something else happening for me to throw a spotlight on. Scharf is the driest, but that’s no complaint; he adds more grit and focus, though he has been the hardest to really engage with event hooks thus far (which is to say that I think I have provided him weaker hooks than the others, not that it is a fault with the character or player). Hopefully this will change as there is plenty of dramatic meat on his frame.

14 April 2007

Splitting Heirs: Session Three

This week saw session 3 play out. I think it was the best to date from a GMing point of view; certainly I feel that things came alive a little more this week with a few more fires lit and more individual events kicking off. Picking up a short while after we left it the session before, Pou and Reinhardt are back in Himmelfeuer, while Lady F is absent, overseeing the proper rites on the dead miner.


Returning with the messenger, Pou and Captain Scharf arrived back at the castle to find Werner and Herbert waiting for them. They claimed to have found items stolen during the recent thefts in the stables where Roderick (the messenger boy who had ridden in with news of the razing of Kleine Wolfenburg, and whom had since been accepted into Lady FitzCarstein's service) was working, and in the chambers of Lady F's maid, Jarla. A couple of items had also been recovered from Brunnenhing's quarters. None of the three had been taken into custody as Herbert claimed they were waiting for Scharf - who doubled up as the chief lawman as well as military leader - before making any decisions. They also gave a brief report on the theft and murder in the mining camp, which caused a little unease.

Practically disregarding Brunnenhing, Captain Scharf suggested Pou find the boy, while he went to search for the maid. He then planned to wait for the Lady to return and have her question her underlings herself, thus excusing him from the arduousness of an investigation. Scharf found Jarla heading for the Ravenmeister's tower - she said she had a missive to have him send on the Lady's behalf - and persuaded her to return to her chambers on the pretext of a threat to her safety, whereupon he locked her in, and snuffed out the blooming interest Jarla had been exhibiting in him of late. Pou, meanwhile, found Roderick hard at work at the stables, and decided that watching over him - and even mucking in with his tasks - was the best way to keep tabs on him until the Lady returned. Talking while he worked, Roderick gave Pou the impression of anything but a thief.

Lady FitzCarstein arrived back at the castle in late afternoon, and was met at once by Captain Scharf, then Pou, as she handed her horse into Roderick's care. Scharf outlined the situation to her Ladyship, who was most put out by the situation - specifically that people had been through her people's chambers whilst she was out, but also the inference that someone was seeking to divide the council and frame her people: Lady FitzCarstein did not believe for a second that either Jarla or Roderick were thieves, and indeed they both sincerely claimed no knowledge of the thefts or items. Jarla also revealed that she had been instructed by Herbert to take a shopping trip into Himmelfeuer itself, supposedly at the Lady's request; the strings were pulled, it seems. Annoyed, Lady F went to find her fellow councilmen, happening upon Werner first. She drilled him for information, and discovered that Herbert had been the instigator in the search and accusations; one of Herbert's associates, "Manfred", had apparently "seen" Roderick hiding items in the stable haystack, and Herbert had used this as a call to search the boy's rooms - sub-chambers of the quarters assigned to the Lady. Whilst there they had found more in both Roderick's chamber and Jarla's. Werner was keen to stress his role was merely ceding to Herbert's request on the back of the "evidence" presented.

One item not found amongst those recovered was the plaque stolen from the dead miner. It's lack, the different method at the scene, and the seemingly obvious set-up of Lady F's underlings, were solidifying thoughts that the miner's death was a murder using the thefts as a cover, rather than a burglary gone wrong. Captain Reinhardt Scharf was consolidating information about the dead miner; murmurings were that he had been a more "middle class" type a decade ago, but something had made him give up his lifestyle and give blood and sweat for the Barony in the mines, and this self-sacrifice had been part of the reasoning behind his being honoured - on top of sterling work itself. Asking around, it appeared the name caused a spark of memory in Werner - who promptly went off to investigate his inkling. When Scharf caught up with him later, Werner was able to spill some information that perhaps shed light on motive: the dead miner had, 10 years ago, been one of a number of names who had been suspected of involvement in child abuse. The then investigator had been building information on the covert ring and was beginning to have enough to snatch someone for "questioning" when the case was blown shut by the unexpected death of the central suspect - a chandler by the name of Leuchttern who was found in a crumpled heap at the bottom of his stairs, murdered; presumably by one of his apprentices, whom were thought to be amongst the victims of the abusers.

Pou, meanwhile, was busying himself in brothels; no, he was not taking advantage of the services, but searching for his bastard son, who was always suspect when anything untoward happened. His first stop netted him an opportunity to chat with Helmut von Schicksal - who told him Gunter was out of town, and said he'd be gone a couple of days. Pou spent an hour or two with Helmut, trying to figure the man out - von Schicksal claimed Gunter was helping him get closer to Josephine, as officially he was here to court the Baron's daughter. His accent contradicted his claimed origins, some other border principality to the south west, but could have been acquired as a student in the Empire. In any case, Pou decided to go ahead with his original plan - to head back down to the mining camp and start to get a handle on events there. Leaving after dark, he took his foreman, Jonn, with him for safety on the road and they were over half way there before anything of note occurred.

Jonn noticed something glinting off to the side of the paved road, reflecting the light from their lanterns. Cautious, Pou loaded his weapons and gestured for his companion to investigate the glint. In the hedgerow that lined the road - a busy route in daylight hours - a metallic item was causing the glint; knowing the road, the hedge was too thick for it to be a bandit's (or beastman's) weapon, and as Jonn closed on it, he pulled out a small metallic rectangle - the stolen plaque. As he returned and handed it to Pou the wind died, and the gunsmith heard what sounded like feet on the road; hooding the lanterns and looking back they noticed a figure on horseback vaguely visible on the horizon. The pair resolved to press on, then catch and observe their tail when he arrived at the camp; this they did, and it emerged they were being tracked by a lone, nondescript rider. By following him into the local inn Pou hoped to discover more about the rider, who seemed a little caught out by the fact the person he was tailing was seeking him out for chat, whilst Jonn was instructed to hire them a room for the night. The figure gave his name as "Daan" but Pou's deliberate slips of the tongue - calling him "Man" by "mistake" - went unnoticed, giving the impression that it may be Manfred, Herbert's man of the moment. Odder than the fact his good friend Herbert had an aide Pou did not know was the fact that he might be sending said man to spy on Pou!

A group of Scharf's men were also in the inn - they having stayed behind in the camp to question the various miners who knew the deceased. Pou tried to find out what they had found out but this particular group were a little in their cups and very lippy, their de facto leader rudely stating that they only reported to the Captain. As a result Pou had to turn to the local folks for information, but at this late hour there were slim pickings; he discovered, much like Scharf had, that something had happened about 10 years ago that marked the dead man out from the crowd, and of course, having found the plaque discarded, had confirmed the idea that the death was murder disguised as theft, not theft gone awry.

It was then things got interesting, as in walked Gunter. Not wanting to be seen by his errant offspring, Pou turned his back and sought to listen in. Gunter looked around for a seat, and ended up seated next to "Daan", slowly nursing a tankard of ale. Then the lone traveller leaned in towards Gunter and said something about "get out of town", and Pou's bastard son rose like a shot, downed his drink an turned to leave, whereupon Pou broke his silence, slapped his hand on Gunter's shoulder, and spooked his son further by forcibly getting him to join him in the room booked by Jonn for a drink or two and a little chat about what was going on. Gunter did not want to say much, and did not appreciate being strong-armed into opening up - clearly he was not only in some sort of trouble, but up to something behind his dad's back. A standoff, then; when he was prevented from leaving, Gunter drew his pistol and threatened Jonn, who was blocking the door. Pou also drew, holding aim at Gunter, who tried to break the pose by shoulder-charging Jonn (not really wanting to shoot his co-worker, and the threat not having been enough). It was a clumsy effort, though, and while he got past and half wrestled the door open, the burly foreman caught his arm, holding him fast. Pou then waded in, and Gunter was subdued; the paternal discipline was then ratcheted up as Gunter was tied to a chair. A heated exchange followed, again the younger man obstinate and snarling, giving little away beyond the fact he was apparently a suspect in the murder, but shouting loud enough to draw the attention of the four (half cut) guards downstairs, who banged on the door. Pou ignored them, so their sergeant kicked it in, and quickly appraised the situation.

Rolf, the sergeant, recognised the occupants - especially as Pou had been at their table earlier. It was, however, the first time they'd noticed Gunter, having been too wrapped up in their own words when he'd walked in downstairs. Gunter was tied to the chair and, by now, gagged. He went quiet and still as the door caved in, and when the guards demanded to know why he was tied to the chair Pou tried to put it down to a "fit", which the lawmen took as a sign of chaos taint ... forcing Pou to backtrack quickly. The gunsmith eventually managed to persuade the guard to give him a little time with his son before he was handed over. Now, with the added threat of incarceration, Gunter opened up a little to his father: he had been in the mining camp the night of the killing, because he was supposed to meet a contact about a "black book" sale; his contact never showed up, and Gunter swore he had no idea how or why he was being linked with the death - unless the dead man had been his contact (of which he was not sure; it had been covertly arranged). Pou handed his son into custody for the night, having been assured he would not be strung up on a whim, and the night passed without further incident.

Meanwhile back at the castle, Lady F was considering taking her leave and removing herself and her entourage back to Drachenmalstein after the insult of having her people and integrity questioned and violated. She received message from the Ravenmeister that her brother Jurgen had left Stirland heading south, and would arrive in a week or so. Before she went, however, she wished to seek out Brunnenhing - who had not yet left to try and reclaim his manor for lack of manpower; she had a plan, one that had been run past Captain Scharf first:

The ruse has two parts. The first is setting up an arc of campfires twenty miles from the castle to create columns of smoke, much like a large army might make when camped. The next is to send a column of peasants masquerading as refugees in plain sight past the castle heading North East - away from the fires. Two people will approach the castle - one a dwarf perhaps. They will bluff the people in the castle to the effect that an enemy army is on the march - several villages have fallen - they are killing any defenders and raising defences to the ground - and the refugees have no faith in the small castle holding out against them and so they won't stop - they just thought it common courtesy to give the mercenaries time to flee North too. The next night, move the campfires closer to the castle by five miles - and again the next night.

With luck the mercenaries might simply take their spoils and leave rather than face a seemingly overwhelming enemy. A group of militia can take command of the castle for Lord Brunnenhing, and await relief from Himmelfeuer. If the mercenaries stay put then nothing happens - and we are in no worse a position. If they send out scouts, then they can be captured and "never return" perhaps prompting the desired result. Anyway you look at it, it will cost some damp wood to create smoke, and a bit of peasant power.

Armed with this idea, and approval from Scharf she sought out lord Felix. After dead-batting his god-awful flirting, this time frankly and possibly finally, she offered her assistance. This offer extended not only to reclaiming his manor and lands, but also to attempting to persuade Josephine to agree to a marriage of convenience and even to attempting to restore his reputation and take on some of his land management issues, essentially setting herself up as a puppet behind the ineffective lord. She did not couch it it quite in those terms, and the lackwitted Brunnenhing did not see it as giving up his power, grateful as he was for the offer of help.

Next morning Pou decided to check on Gunter, and show him the plaque to see if it elicited any reaction. This merely interested Rolf and his men, who wondered what the councilor was doing with material evidence in a murder case - especially when he initially refused to hand it over. Gunter hadn't seen the thing before, indicating that, for once, he was probably not the guilty party. Shortly thereafter Captain Scharf made it to the mining camp, taking control of the situation and his new captive.


We left it there, with plenty lined up. I had hoped to end this session with the revelation of another plot seed, and also to get to the point where Lady F does decide to head back to her castle. The split, the extra cast and the increased politicking that distanced dealings infers will be interesting, but there are also a lot of seeds surrounding events that might happen in Drachenmalstein and Bardslaughter that I would love to see play out. On the other hand there is also plenty to get on with as things are, so if the return gets further delayed I wont be too unhappy. It was nice to really get things moving - everyone had their personal intrigues and hooks to go after: Pou had Gunter, Scharf the details of the murder and Lady F the fallout from having her people accused. Pou's scene with Gunter was probably the high point for me though - it got to the point where it really was "how far will you go?" but also encapsulated high farce in the exchange after the lawmen showed up at the door, with neither detracting from the other.

I've been pleased with the way the players have taken to it, too - though I'm still a touch unsure as to how well it is working for them. Each PC is chock full of hooks and buttons that I am able to push, prod or cast, and there has been a fluidity about how things have moved amongst the PCs and NPCs alike. I particularly like that the 6 characters making up the council are dominating the play - the PCs are happy to go to the NPC councilors, albeit not necessarily openly with all cards laid out, and these interactions are forming the central pivot of the game. Things might step up now too, as hopefully from this point we'll manage weekly rather than fortnightly games - this might help with any sense of plot or duration of the run; I started with the aim of doing an episodic structure and a short run, but things are moving slower than I anticipated in some ways and because the episodic nature has largely gone out the window as less than ideal with our short sessions any longer structure has also gone.

I don't plot in any more than a general sense. I take ideas to each session, and modify them and come up with new ones as and when the actions of PCs dictate it. While I do have overall ideas for the progress of the game, none of it is liable to stay as it is and pacing, direction and definition of events will all be determined by how the individual sessions play out. Despite the fact I have a full conflict web and a good idea of wants, weaknesses and motivations for all the NPCs, I never decide how they will react to any given situation in advance, and often don't know exactly how I'm tying them into a scene when they appear; I like this, it keeps me on my toes, reduces my prep time and frees me to use the NPCs to push PC buttons if appropriate whilst still giving me enough structure and information around which to construct events as and when I need to.

In short - I love GMing again!