Monday, April 15, 2013

[Actual Play] Monster of the Week: There's Been A Murder (Of Crows)


Since late 2012, I've been hosting a Run Club every week at Saturday GUGS. The idea being that everybody who signs up for it takes a turn at GMing with a different pair of one-shots being run every week. I'll discuss that in a bit more detail in a later post; we're coming to the end of our first 'season' of Run Club, so I'll be doing some reflection on what's worked, what hasn't and what we might try doing in future endeavours. Right now though, I'm going to tell you what happened in this weekend's session, when my turn at being GM finally came round.

I initially planned to run Kuro - a really neat looking game, set in 2046 Japan, which is a cross between cyberpunk and J-Horror - but by this time last week I was still reading my way though the corebook and didn't feel prepared enough. So, I chose to run an old favourite instead: Monster of the Week.

This time round, I decided I'd set the game in Glasgow and set it up as an urban fantasy take on Tartan Noir in the tradition of Taggart and Rebus. I offered a variety of different playbooks which I thought would suit for that setting, and had the players frame their characters as part of an elite team of monster hunters affiliated with the Glaswegian police. I'd thrown in the new Sidekick playbook by the game's designer Mike Sands as well, figuring that it could work as the Lewis to somebody else's Inspector Morse, or even the assistant to the team's civilian consultant on the weird and occult (like, say, Peter Bishop Fringe is to Walter in Fringe). Alas, nobody picked that one up, though I dare say a couple of the players were tempted by it.

The Cast
Max Dunbar (the Professional, played by Heather): Max is a detective in his late 30s, but with the looks of someone in his mid-20s. He dresses in nice suits and wears a leather jacket. He also wears a flak vest under the jacket when entering dangerous situations. He also has a bit of a hero complex.

Liam Stewart (the Flake, played by Elliot): 18 years old, on work experience at the police station as an admin assistant. He's Max's nephew, so he likes to follow him around when not otherwise busy, get involved in cases, and generally get himself into trouble. Smart, but casual dresser.

Blake (the Monstrous, played by Martin): A vampire of about 200 years in age, but looks to be about 25. Your typical gothy vamp, dressed in a long leather jacket, boots and a dark aura. He got involved with Max after successfully working together with him on a case, unofficially. He also happens to be Liam's many times great-grandfather.

The agency that Heather came up with was the Ministry for the Observation and Neutralisation of Supernatural Terrors Endangering the Realm, or MONSTER for short. (Acronym courtesy of Elliot, thank you Elliot!) We decided it was a Recognised Authority with access to Weird Tech Gadgets, which was On-Call 24/7, and had some Interdepartmental Rivalry going on with the local CID. Heather also gave her character the Mobility move, which gave her a van which was kitted out with Surveillance Gear and had an Armour Rating of 1. Unfortunately, it was also quite temperamental.

The Scenario
Play begins with Detective Dunbar being called out by his superintendant - DCS Mullin - to a crime scene in the Hillhead area of Glasgow. He calls up Blake and tells him to meet him at the crime scene. We also contrived a way for Liam to find out about the crime and make his way there. So, the gang all show up at the crime scene, earning snorts of derision from the detective in charge of the scene, DI Peter Naismith. Naismith is soon called out to investigate another murder elsewhere though, leaving the team to their own devices.

The victim was found in a lane late that night, having suffered an electrical burn to the back, and his body had been torn apart. A quick investigation of the body reveals that the wounds covering the victim's body were the result of him having been fed upon by a flock of birds. The highest concentration of wounds is around the pineal gland which, according to ancient lore, is where the soul resides. This leads the team to the conclusion that the monster they are after wanted to consume the victim's soul.

Dunbar uses a weird tech gadget which we'll call the Scryoscope - a camcorder with dials akin to the Day/Hour/Minute selectors on the MiB neuralisers - to try and get more detail on what exactly happened to the victim. After a partial success on a Use Magic roll, I decide the camera only 'rewinds' an hour into the past and that part of the scene is obscured by electro-magnetic interference commonly caused by supernatural entities. This is enough, however, for them to witness Hayes running into the lane, being struck down by what appeared to be lightning, and then devoured by a flock of strange crow-like creatures each with three glowing red eyes. They are also able to barely make out a figure in a hoodie standing at the opening to the lane.

Blake recalls an old story he heard about creatures like this, they spread like a plague through a town and by the time an exorcist had been called out to cleanse the area of the evil presence, the town had been massacred and no trace was found of the bird-things responsible for the killings. If they can't stop what's happening right now, there's a good chance they could overrun Glasgow and perhaps spread even further than that.

Using a feather left behind by one of the creatures, Blake tries to get a vision of where they had gone. He gets an image of a derelict local church and sees the hooded figure walking towards it. However, the figure seems to sense him watching, and turns to look at him. This reveals it to be a young woman with oily black eyes. She then turns around and starts heading away from the church.

The gang pile into the van and head out to the church Blake saw in his vision, hoping to catch the young woman, or at least pick up her trail. Liam is told to stay in the van while the other two went on to investigate the church, but as the character has the Contrary move, he opts to secretly head inside after them. While investigating the derelict church, Blake and Dunbar look up with their flashlights to find a flock of the bird-things observing them from the rafters. Blake uses magic to communicate with the creatures, which identify themselves as the Convocation. When asked what they want, they simply say: 'to feast'. They then look at Blake, noting that his soul is dark and that dark souls are the best ones.

Combat ensues, and the two investigators soon flee, with Dunbar blasting a few of them with his shotgun, while Blake sets the church alight on their way out. Unbeknownst to them, Liam is still trapped inside. They soon discover that he had not stayed in the van as he was instructed, and it doesn't take long for them to figure out where he’s gone. The flames are spreading fast though, and there is no way to go in after him. Meanwhile, inside the burning church, Liam flees from the remaining bird-things and makes his way to the church cellar, where he hides from the flames.

The fire department soon show up and put out the blaze, and Blake enthrals one of the firemen to find Liam and bring him directly back to them, to avoid the potential complications of his being discovered and taken to hospital. Liam, thinking the fireman - with his strange, blank expression - has been possessed by the Convocation, makes quite a bit of noise as he is delivered to Blake and Dunbar, who take him off the fireman's hands and make a sharp exit.

While in transit, they get a call on the radio informing them of another murder matching the MO of Donald Hayes. This time the attack occurred outside a club, in front of witnesses queuing to get in. The victim is another student, by the name of Jim Carrol. Using the Scryoscope, Dunbar sees the queue recoil away from the young woman in the hoodie as she approaches Carrol, reaching out her palm and firing a lightning blast that knocks him down, before unleashing a flock of the Convocation from her palm to feed upon his body.

Dunbar addresses the crowd of onlookers and asks who saw what happened. Several of them put their hands up. Then he asks if any of them knew the victim. They all put their hands down, but one man backs away out of the crowd and turns to run. Dunbar is too quick though, and tackles him to the ground.
The young man's name is Alec Jordan, and he's a flatmate of Carrol's. He was afraid that Carrol had done something 'daft' and that he'd be in trouble for associating with him. He also reveals that he and Carrol both used to share a flat with Hayes. Liam does a search for the woman's likeness with facial recognition software linked to Facebook, and finds a page dedicated to the girl. Her name is Susan Simmons, and she disappeared in early November after being checked out from the hospital. Dunbar follows this up by checking police and hospital records, and finds out that Susan was being treated for smoke inhalation after the block of flats she was staying at went on fire. She recovered, but unfortunately she had been pregnant at the time, and she lost her child in a miscarriage. The block of flats was the same one where Jordan and Carrol had shared a flat with Hayes.

Believing that Jordan might be next on the Convocation's menu, Dunbar escorts him to the van. Meanwhile, Blake has a run-in with DI Naismith, who has linked him to the murder of a young woman at another club, which he had been called away to investigate. Blake resolves this issue by dominating Naismith and ordering him to go and replace any evidence linking him to the murder with evidence that implicates Naismith himself, and makes him believe he actually committed the crime.

Back at the van, Dunbar has just put Jordan inside the van, and is about to get in the driver's seat when Susan Simmons appears in the street ahead. She slices open her palm, and aims it toward the van. The Convocation pours forth from the slit in her palm and Dunbar ducks out of the way as they crash through the windscreen of the van. With Jordan trapped inside, they make short work of pecking him to death. The flock then come out of the van and start circling again.

Dunbar tries to reason with Simmons, but it becomes clear that Susan is no longer in residence, the Convocation having completely overwhelmed her personality. And now that they have completed their 'contract' with her, they will continue to feast indiscriminately. Realising that he can't allow this to happen, Dunbar opens fire on the Convocation. Blake returns to provide backup, with the Convocation circling around Simmons to shield her. With the aid of magical fire from Blake, they're able to reduce the Convocation's numbers and even set Simmons herself aflame. For extra measure, Liam sneaks up behind her and stabs her in the back with his butterfly knife.

Simmons burns up into ash, which falls in a pile before the team's eyes, leaving behind a single member of the Convocation, which flies away and disappears in a flash of light. The threat having been taken care of, Dunbar returns Liam to his mother, and Blake disappears into the night. Dunbar later hears reports of Naismith's confession to the murder, much to his surprise. The Convocation's killing spree ends with Jordan, but Dunbar can't help but feel that they'll be back, and that next time they'll be after him and his team...

Reflections
Overall, the game went well and people had fun. I did make a slight deviation from my prepared scenario; the Convocation's lair was actually supposed to be the burnt-out shell of Simmons' old home, but I'd forgotten about that and defaulted to the old church from my original write-up of the scenario. It still worked, but the derelict block of flats would have made a bit more sense, story-wise. The Convocation are a monster which I adapted from the Fear Mythos. My version is a little bit different from the original, but I'd been interested in running a scenario with them as a monster for a while.

Comment was made by Elliot about how the game was good for one-shots, but the experience system might need to be altered for use in a campaign. I have a feeling part of this is because I asked for rolls a bit more than was perhaps necessary, falling back on habits learned from running more traditional systems. I'm hoping to test the system out in campaign conditions over the summer, either with Monster of the Week, or with the original Apocalypse World system. Depends on who I can get to play in it, and whether I want to try out one of the many other systems I've acquired since Christmas instead. We'll see what happens.

Anyway, that's all for now, see ya later folks!