game reports


I got plans for more than a wanted man
All around this chaos and madness
Can’t help feeling nothing more than sadness
Only choice to face it the best I can
When the war is over
Got to start again
Try to hold a trace of what it was
Back then
You and I we sent each other stories
Just a page I’m lost in all its glory
How can I go home and not get blown away

 

Our heroes have been betrayed, set up by an unscrupulous Johnson and framed for the attempted murder of the CEO of Oakheart Corporation. They have a history of trouble with Oakheart, and somehow it doesn’t surprise them that they were chosen to be the fall guys in Oakheart’s scheme to win its CEO a position on the ruling corporate council of New Horizon. Unfortunately for Oakheart, however, they made a small mistake: They failed to kill the group, and now the group want revenge.

But first they had to escape New Horizon. Their ship, HS Fortuna, had been sequestered somewhere in Havensport by Mr. Lao, the head of a criminal gang called the Goldsharks who were sympathetic to the PCs’ situation. From their safe house at the edge of Sai Kung the PCs had to find a way to get to the ship, and get out of New Horizon. After a night with little sleep they put in some calls to old friends, and confirmed what they had all suspected from the moment they saw their faces on the news: Their network in New Horizon had burnt to the ground. Friends had changed numbers, old allies were not answering calls, or took the phone only long enough to wish them good luck. Genji’s daughter had been picked up by the Sumiyoshi-kai, a well-placed Yakuza gang who had past, friendly dealings with the PCs, but when Genji put in a call to the gang’s maitre d’ Niwa san they proved suddenly very stubborn: they were holding his daughter “for her own protection” and would not release her until the PCs had resolved their conflict with the Oakheart Corporation. Lee, Jayden and Zenith encouraged Genji to let this go, pointing out that his daughter was much safer under the protection of the Sumiyoshis than she could ever be on the HS Fortuna, but it took some effort for Genji to recognize that their current situation was too precarious to admit family ties. All of them sat in their safe house, steaming with rage at Oakheart as they cycled through their contacts and found them all burnt.

Finally they found one contact they could rely on. Jayden put in a call to Koucha, the old troll shaman they had helped out by slaughtering a bunch of neo nazis, and received a positive response. They had done that job for free, and in return Koucha had promised that if every they really needed to hide he would bury them in the substrata of meta human life that thronged in the poorest parts of Sai Kung. When Jayden called him he proved true to his word, and offered to arrange an escort through hidden ways as far as Havensport, and to get in contact with Mr. Lao for them to organize a meeting. They packed up the few belongings they planned to take, jumped into Zenith’s van, and drove to the meeting point Koucha gave them.

They could not be on the road for long, though to their relief Zenith’s van had not been included in the multiple descriptions of them being broadcast on every media channel. They took quiet side streets and narrow alleys to the meeting point, a neglected auto parking spot under a huge multi lane highway flyover. Here Koucha waited for them as promised, accompanied by a couple of dour-looking Orc bodyguards. He greeted them warmly, accepting Jayden’s gift of stinky tofu warmly and sharing it with his guards. They drove their van into the shadows of the park and crouched behind it with Koucha, listening to the latest news. The contract on them had been opened up beyond the corporations that had issued it, so now every Shadowrunner in New Horizon who needed easy money would be thinking to jump them, and their old haunts had become officially death traps. They definitely needed to get out, before bounty hunters started squeezing their contacts for information and tracking down every trace of their unofficial lives.

Koucha had organized it all. They would be escorted by two of his orc guards to a canal some distance from their meeting point, where they would meet an agent sent by Mr. Lao. That agent would guide them up the canal in a boat and take them to their ship, where Mr. Lao himself would meet them to discuss whatever payment he had in mind for securing their ship and helping with their getaway. Koucha made his distaste for Mr. Lao clear, but also seemed sanguine about whatever possible price Mr. Lao would extract. “If he thought it was a price you couldn’t pay, he wouldn’t waste his time asking. Busy man, Lao.”

At this point they were not in a position to haggle. They secured their van, which Mr. Lao’s contacts would come and collect later, and set off with Koucha’s guides to take a circuitous, quiet route to the rendezvous. “Go well,” Koucha offered by way of farewell. “Remember vengeance can taste so sweet that it beguiles the senses and becomes a poison. Think carefully about it before you return.” Jayden shrugged and patted his knife, Genji sneered, and Adam Lee took in the sage advice with alacrity. With that final warning they set off.

Their path took them on winding routes through stormwater drains, old building sites, narrow alleys lined with crumbling and deserted shops, and ruined industrial estates. Occasionally they had to cross areas with more people, quiet shopping centres or markets where old women haggled over mouldering fruit stalls, but the orc guards guided them faultlessly away from the busiest and most crowded parts of Sai Kung. They marveled at the strange musty landscape they were led through: Here in New Horizon, one of the most densely-populated areas on earth, they had never guessed they could find so many silent cul-de-sacs and empty promenades. Koucha’s men knew this city with a care and detail that none of the group had ever been able to muster.

Those dusty by-ways and disused alleys were not enough to shield them from pursuit, though, and after an hour Jayden sensed it. Somewhere far above them an eagle screamed, and Jayden’s senses began to tingle. That beggar bundled up by the side of the road ahead – had he not seen that same guy just two kilometres back? And was that a shred of movement in the shadows ahead? In the nick of time he warned the others, and then the ambush was sprung. Six shadowrunners, two on an overhead gantry, two on the ground ahead, two rounding them off from behind, all armed with sub machine guns or shotguns. Jayden’s warning was enough for most of the group though, and they sprang into action before the trap could close. Genji opened fire on a gunman on the gantry while Adam Lee dived into cover inside an alleyway and Jayden surged forward to begin hacking at the group’s leader, a tough-looking orc in heavy armour. Their technomancer Heckerman hunkered down and began hacking smartgun links and cyberware while Zenith the rigger opened fire on the flanking gunmen.

The battle was short and brutal. They ganked the mage where he stood on the gantry, gunning him down before he could cause too much damage with his pain spells, and their leader failed to bring his shotgun to bear on anyone as he constantly fended off Jayden’s hacking, slashing savagery. When the two flanking gunmen fell the remaining gunman on the gantry fled, but Heckerman put a trail on him to make sure he would not bring reinforcements. A few questions to the boss confirmed their suspicions – this was a freelance team making a punt on a rumour, hoping to cash the reward, and no sign that they were being pursued by corporate security. They left the runners nursing their wounds and moved on, hustling now to get to Mr. Lao before they ran into more trouble.

After another hour they reached the canal where Lao’s contact waited for them, a grumpy old troll squatting down in the mist by a small boat. They climbed in, wished their orc guides farewell, and set off down river to their ship. On the river they felt the first threads of freedom, the silent banks drifting by slowly in the near-dawn light, empty of anyone who might be paying attention to their silent progress. Soon they reached the wider reaches of the harbour, and as the sun rose diffuse through New Horizon’s harbourside mists they alighted on a small dock, lifted up by heavily tattooed triad members to stand in a press of cheerful, gap-toothed men. Mr. Lao pushed through, swatting aside his men and greeting them warmly.

“If it isn’t the heroes of Sai Kung!” he proclaimed, arms wide, and gestured them through to a small shelter set up on the docks. Beyond them their ship HS Fortuna loomed tantalizingly in the mist, so near – just one more negotiation and she was theirs. Genji and Jayden glanced around casually, counting numbers, wondering if they could cut their way through, looked at each other and decided this time they did not have the numbers. Talk first…

They noticed Zha, Lao’s bodyguard, standing apart from the rest of the gangsters and looking out to sea. He was stoic about the whole affair, though this was not unusual from the stone-faced mage. He was talking with a man who was clearly out of place, a friendly looking man with a gentle smile and simple suit. The characters felt they recognized them and, seeing them stare, Lao enlightened them. “Yes yes..” he opened. “Here heroes, meet Doctor Guowei, the crazy old man was warned, but couldn’t help but come meet you.”

“Evening friends…” Doctor Guowei moved closer, looking nervous and out of place, his hands behind his back. He gave a tiny bow followed by a smile. “I am Chung Guowei, a pleasure to meet you all.”
Then it clicked, where they had seen this simple man before. In the news. He was one of the many crazy enough to be running for Council of Sai Kung. Doctor Chung Guowei, former professor of New Horizon University of Technology. If it were not enough that hew as NHUT faculty, they had heard stories of the social studies professor gone rogue, having connections with pro-metahuman terrorist cells and the Sai Kung triads.

They stood there blinking. Well… in some sense they, standing there on a dark dock at dawn, with Mr.Lao right next to them, were all outright evidence in support of those rumours. Dr. Guowei shared a drink with them, though there was little need for small talk – he already know their names and roles, likely informed by Mr. Lao, and although obviously nervous around men of violence and misdeeds he also had the confidence of a man who knew his path. Here on the docks at Sai Kung, a plan of subversion began to take shape. After a short while of small talk and discussion he thanked them all for their efforts, telling them that even though this meeting was very risky for him, he couldn’t help but risk it to meet those who were brave enough to declare outright war on the Oakhearts.

“It was about goddamn time,” said Mr.Lao, his golden cyberarm almost knocking the drink out of the good Doctor’s hand.

After a small while, the professor-politician bowed his goodbyes and left, accompanied the PCs noticed by a small squad of Lao’s most dangerous looking men. Then they turned to business. Mr.Lao explained to them that it would take a few hours before their boat was ready and Zenith’s van had been brought to the ship. He asked for details on the assassination attempt, dismissing any talk of a “setup” with a wave of his hand and a stern knowing look when they pressed him. Then he told them the simple facts of the matter: They were in a contract with the Sai Kung Golden Sharks from now. When they returned to New Horizon, they would be helping Sai Kung with its resistance to the rulers of New Horizon. “It is a simple contract,” he explained. “And when you return I will fulfill my part of the deal – we will fight the Oakhearts together!” He downed another shot of strong Chinese spirit and slapped a decidedly uncomfortable-looking Adam Lee on the back. “Life and business is nothing else but finding the enemies of your enemies, and sharing a drink with them!” He poured them all another. “So here, friends, let us drink. To the revolution, and the downfall of our enemies!”

They knocked back their last drink on New Horizon’s grubby shores, and prepared to board…

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So to all you feelers and fumblers
Waiting for the fireworks to start
Do it now–blow it up yourself
Unbutton the butcher in your heart
And if I don’t come home before midnight
And I can’t find the keyhole in the dark
You’ll know, you’ll know that I’ve been tempted
You’ll know, you’ll know we’re drifting apart
Everything’s on fire

 

For a week or two after they completed their bug hunt the characters rested, and spent some of their hard-earned nuyen. During this time a lot of things changed in New Horizon, and in particular the PCs discovered a new and disturbing force loose in the shadows of New Horizon: Electoral politics. To the extent that New Horizon had ever been ruled over by anyone, it was managed by a council of major corporations that made important decisions about basic municipal details like garbage collection and road rules, and stayed well clear of each other’s business deals and their shadier engagements with the city’s teeming populace. This council’s memberships were usually organized through backroom deals and money politics, but for some reason one of the CEOs had, when he resigned, thrown his position open to a popular election, based on the full suffrage of the people, and suddenly New Horizon’s shadowed lanes were alive with rumours and political debate. CEOs from a handful of smaller companies jostled for position, as did the leaders of the teamster’s union, a well-known gangster, some independent celebrities and a couple of genuine politicians. In the cramped and humid darkness of the lower levels of the city a new fever gripped the residents, as they tried to understand this strange and alien social landscape. Posters, graffiti, demonstrations, parties – a new vocabulary and a new style of interaction swept across the city. The PCs showed a particular interest because the Oakheart company was heavily involved in all the political machinations leading up to the election, and was running a candidate. Oakheart was the company that they had rescued a rich student from a few months earlier, and its vicious way of dealing with the student occupation of its labs had not endeared it to them. So it was that they found themselves sprawled in the dining room of their ship, HS Fortuna, whiling away their spare time shooting beers and watching this strange new process of “voting” and “canvassing” unfold on their large vid screen.

But if you’re not a politician politics doesn’t pay the bills, and eventually they started hunting for work again. They were contacted after a few weeks by Ibai Texeira, the man who had given them the train job and the smuggling job that got them their ship. It was unusual to be contacted directly by their Mr. Johnson, rather than having him go through their fixer Anansie, and perhaps in retrospect they should have taken that as a sign that the job was too hot – but they had grown to trust Texeira, and so they agreed to meet him.

Only fools trust a Johnson. Fools and dead shadowrunners.

The job was again quite simple, and urgent. A certain scientist named Lincoln Cheng had run away from his employer, carrying a large quantity of valuable research data, and his employer wanted him back. There was an open contract on this Dr. Cheng, but he had gone to ground and no one had found him in a few months. However, Ibai happened to have found out where he would be for a few hours from 4pm this afternoon, very precisely. He wanted the PCs to go in and get Cheng, and hand him over to Ibrahim, in exchange for 40,000 nuyen – half if Cheng was damaged. Ibai cut off their concerns about grabbing a scientist on the Lam by explaining that the data he was carrying was some kind of magically coded poison intended to preferentially kill the Awakened, and he would likely sell it off to finance his life on the run, so it was probably better that he didn’t get too far with it. Perhaps it was the easy money, or perhaps for a moment the thought of a targeted magical virus aimed at the Awakened got the better of them, but they did not ask a lot of questions they should have. They agreed to the job.

Knowledge is power, any decker could tell you that. Their decker wasn’t with them when they cut the deal. They only learned what Ibai wanted them to know – and what he didn’t want them to know could sink corporations.

Lincoln had rented a room in the Eolani Corporation building in the southern part of Sai Kung, from 4pm to 7pm. They had to get into the building and grab him while he was there, and it was 2pm already. There was a big catch though – the building was in front of a large park, and an election rally was being held in the park for the whole afternoon. They would have heavy security, and Ibai wanted Cheng dragged out with “minimum explosions”, as he put it, so they were going to need to find a way around the security in the area. Most of it would be standard New Horizon security services stuff but there might be some special teams on watch because a candidate in the elections was going to be giving a speech.

They shrugged. Stealthy jobs, done quickly and suddenly – that was there thing. No problem! They cut the deal and cut to the chase.

Their rigger Zenith took them to the Eolani building, actually a whole campus of mixed residential and office buildings separated from the park where the rally would be held by a wide road and a small orchard park. They dressed as labourers and got their decker, Jo, to set up a fake business and a fake call, a sudden vermin problem in the basement of the building where Cheng was meant to hide. By 3:50 pm they had their car parked in front of the building entrance and were unloading their gear – a medium crawler drone, their body armour and weapons. As they unloaded Jo explored their surroundings, and Zenith sat tight in the van, body slumped in his seat as he scanned the area in cold VR mode.

Jayden, Genji and Adam Lee would go inside dressed as vermin hunters, ride the elevator the 6th floor and set up in the maintenance room. On the way up Jo told that the rally was being held by Oakheart, and also informed them that she had found a bunch of high end security drones, packing heavy jamming equipment to deter hacking and heavily armed, probably in some sort of crowd security role for the rally. She traced them back to a subsidiary of Aztechnology, which was a bit strange, but not impossible to imagine – perhaps this area had a special security deal with one of Aztechnology’s security corps, or maybe Oakheart’s CEO had a deal with Aztechnology for help on the election – who knew how corps work? They donned armour in the maintenance room, set up the combat drone, and sent Zenith’s flyspy drone down the hallway towards Cheng’s room while Jo sought a map of the building. It was 3.52.

The drone showed them no threats, and Jo identified an empty room neighbouring the one Cheng was due to use. They moved quickly down the hall and slipped into the empty room, keeping the lights off. 3.53. Jo began looking for more information about the next room. The flyspy sat on the wall outside, watching the elevator. Had Cheng arrived already? They could not tell. Jo was in the surveillance cameras, but saw no one coming or going. 3.55.

They waited. While they waited, Genji idly switched his eyes to infrared and began scanning the neighbouring room. He found the heat signature of a person, sitting on the far side of the wall close enough to register, near the window. Was it Cheng? Or was he due to meet someone? They alerted Jo, who began scouting around for any signs of network activity from the room. 3.57.

They began to think it must be Cheng. Adam Lee decided to try getting him to open the door, in the hope that he would at least open it wide enough for the flyspy drone to slip through. He slipped into the hallway and knocked on the door, announced himself as a vermin inspector and asked if he could quickly check the room. His ruse did not work and the door did not open. 3.59.

They were sure now it must be Cheng. They discussed smashing their way through the walls, which were thin enough to allow a heat signature to show, but decided not to. Better to go through the door. Jo informed them that there did seem to be some kind of electronic activity in the room and … oh, well, he had a bomb rigged up to go off when the door opened. She could disarm it but would need a few minutes. 4.00.

They looked at each other, Jayden shrugged, and they decided to go through the front door. This Cheng was a scientist and Jayden was an adept, chances were Jayden would have him by the throat before he could react. Then they would negotiate or drag him out depending on the situation. There wasn’t much else for it, given the situation, and if he was waiting for people from a rival corp to come and start negotiating a transfer then they were going to need to act now, before his corp contact – and associated bodyguards – turned up. They moved into the hall, set the crawler drone with its rifle facing the door, Genji and Lee behind it, and Jayden readied himself to push the door open. 4.04.

Jo contacted them, the bomb was down. They nodded to each other and Jayden reached out, pushed the door open, and coiled up to spring through the door. As the door slid open Jo’s voice came breathless in their ears:

“TOO MANY CONNECTIONS. It’s a trap!”

4.05

The door swung open and Jayden surged through even as Jo spoke. Inside was a dimly lit room, bland corporate day decor, a desk in the far corner, stock posters on the wall, sterile bar, a long wide window sweeping along the whole wall facing the park. Jayden took it all in in a heart beat as he leaped forward at the position where he knew Cheng was.

Cheng was sitting tied to a chair, a gag over his mouth, gesturing madly at them with his eyes and grunting. Next to him on a stand was a large sniper rifle, barrel pointed through the window, some kind of trigger device linking it to the door. As Jayden surged through the door the rifle fired, the window shattered, and with his preternatural reflexes Jayden had a frozen moment as he flew through the air, where he saw that the gun had a perfect view of the speaker’s platform, where Lang Oakheart was just finishing her election speech. As he reached Cheng’s chair he knew she was already beginning to fall, the sniper’s bullet in her heart. He grabbed Cheng’s chair and began dragging it towards the door.

As he dragged the chair Cheng grunted and swore and twitched, and over his shoulder he could feel the security drone rising from where it had been hidden beneath the parapet of the window. He could already hear its autorifles whirring into action. Everyone cleared the doorway in a mad scramble as the drone opened fire, a full automatic roar that tore the door off its hinges and destroyed their drone where it sat vulnerable in the middle of the hallway. Lee, just out of sight of the door, was not targeted, and Jayden and Genji were able to scramble out of the way in time, but Jayden was still inside the room, covering Cheng with his armoured body.

Still 4.05. The room went silent, only Cheng’s grunts of terror and the smooth hum of the drone breaking the stillness. In their earphones Jo was yelling instructions at them but her voice was broken up by the sudden jamming interference from the drone, just hints of frightened orders coming through static: “… OUT … THEY … GA-…”

Genji looked wild-eyed through the door, saw the expression on Jayden’s face and started running for the stairs at the opposite end of the building. Adam Lee cast an armour spell on Jayden and moved as far from the doorway as he could. Jayden, grim and determined and carrying 40,000 nuyen worth of scientist, started dragging Cheng to the door. Behind him something clicked, and the drone’s missile housing opened.

Clicked again once, fired. The room erupted in fire but but by now Jayden was through the doorway, protected from the worst of the blast. The walls bulged, the whole hallway filled with dust, and Jayden and Cheng were hurled against the far wall. Jayden slipped to the floor, unconscious, to lie on top of Cheng.

4.06. Downstairs at the entryway Zenith had been rudely kicked out of his VR connection to the dying drone, just in time to hear the sound of an engine revving up in the trees about 30 metres ahead. Some sixth sense warned him that he was about to get rammed, so he reversed the van as fast as he could away from the door. By the time he was perhaps 30m back from the door a large, evil-looking grey van came hurtling out of the trees and hauled to a stop in front of the door, rear doors facing it. The doors opened and six heavily-armed men burst out, charging into the building at a rush. Zenith realized that this van was some kind of special armoured combat van, probably with a machine gun hidden in a roof mount, and he needed to clear it away if they were going to have any chance of getting out. He flipped the car into drive and gunned it forward, hitting the van with such power that it bounced into the air, rolled over and landed shattered on its side some distance from the door. Back in his place at the door he hit the comm link and told everyone that they had incoming troops.

Still 4.06. Upstairs Adam Lee cast an awaken spell on Jayden, who emerged from his comatose position and surged to his feet, knife in hand. He sliced Cheng free of the chair and he and Adam ran to the stairs where Genji waited for them, his pistols out. Zenith’s voice broke through the static to warn them of incoming soldiers, followed by Jo telling them the lift was moving. Everything Jo said came through a wall of static, and they had to guess some of her words, but she was delivering. She also told them more drones were coming, and they had to get out. They ran down the stairs. Jo jammed the lift to buy them time, working furiously through the jamming, and informed them calmly as they hurtled down the stairs that she had found a back room on the third floor with an unlocked door and emergency escape hatches in its balcony. Zenith gunned the van into a screaming reverse and hurtled around to the back of the building to park outside the room and wait. “THEY KNOW WHERE YOU ARE, THEY HAVE EYES ON YOU!” Jo yelled at them, then, “TOO MUCH OVERWATCH! GOD IS COMING!” and she was gone.

They hit the third floor, slamming and locking the room door behind them, Jayden standing right by it with knives out, ready for the soldiers. They had passed the elevator on level five at the far end of the hall, trapped between level 4 and level 5, but they were sure that with Jo gone those soldiers would be heading down for them. Adam and Genji scrambled to open the emergency hatch, for the first time in their lives fervently thanking their local ward office for insisting on emergency preparedness drills one Sunday morning every three months, and they began to climb down. As soon as they had Cheng through and the last of them was gone Jayden sprinted to the verandah and leapt down, landing with a smooth roll in the grass by the van three floors down. By the time Genji dragged Cheng into the van he already had his seat belt on.

4.08. They gunned it.

Aftermath of a betrayal

Somehow they made it out, the van screaming through confused and chaotic streets as people fled in the aftermath of the assassination. They left the troops eating their dust, and somehow their van had not registered with the drones so that by the time they cleared the area no one had triggered them, but it didn’t matter. Before they had even made it to their safe house their names were on all the news channels – the team of terrorists who had tried to assassinate Lang Oakheart. Their names, their faces, Jayden’s full real name from his legal national SIN, all appeared on the newscast. Cheng was incriminated too as a member of their gang. By the time they made it to their safe house they had already received a farewell message from Mr. Anansie, their regular fixer, and a contract had been declared on them – strangely, though, a contract that was currently a closed one restricted to a few corporations and not available to shadowrunners generally.

A corporate contract. Ibai Texeira had fragged them. The whole thing had been a set up. If they had acted a little slower, if Jayden had not been wearing Adam Lee’s armour, if they had all gone into the room together instead of trusting to Jayden’s adept instincts, the drone would have cut them all down as soon as the rifle had been fired. They had been expected to die in that room, and only the luck of the shadows had saved them.

They rested in the safe house, watched the news. Corporate police were hunting for them, but Lang Oakheart had somehow survived – a miracle. Lang Oakheart, the new telegenic and super-sophisticated face of Oakheart Industries, who had been struggling to be heard over the media power of the larger corporations, had been badly injured by the bullet but somehow – miraculously – the bullet had just missed her heart. Perhaps it was her patented Oakheart security dress? As the talking heads on the news marveled at her luck, the characters knew the truth: The shot had been intended to miss, because the whole thing was a set up. Lang would recover, her poll numbers radically improved, and would storm home to victory in the election on the back of her near-miss.

The PCs would just be collateral damage, roadkill on her path to victory. They had been burned.

By morning the calls had come in. Their old allies and friends saying a final farewell. “No hard feelings, friends, but you know …” Only their friends the Goldsharks in Sai Kung stuck by them – they received an early morning call from Mr. Lao to inform them that he had moved the HS Fortuna to a safe location, and they could come to it as soon as they wanted.

They were wanted, betrayed, on the run. They had to get to the Fortuna, and get New Horizon behind them.

At least until they could come back and get their revenge on every single person who betrayed them, starting with Ibai.

Hidden in their safe house in a rubbish dump in the worst part of Sai Kung, none of them could sleep. They began making lists.

They would be back.

 

And she will come from India with a love in her eyes
That say oh how my dark star will rise
In rented gear two thousand years we waited for a man
But with a whispered plea she’d die for us all tonight.
And she will come from India with a gun at her side,
Or she will come from Argentina
With her cemetery eyes that say
Oh, how my dark star will rise,

And she will rise.

Final confessional: Gunfire in the distance, occasional strange sounds, a young woman talking to the video in English that the mutants can barely understand because it is so ancient and rich with the accents of a different world. She is dark skinned, wearing a shroud of tattered cloth covering her hair, her teeth and skin perfect in a way that the mutants viewing the video cannot imagine – she is beautiful in the way all the ancients seem to have been. She is talking about being driven out of her home south of the river, of running out of London and then being corralled back in again – the viewers gasp, was this ravaged city they live in once called London? –  telling the phone that the world is ending, her refugee camp is under attack, they have broken through. As she talks, urgently, low and fast, her voice a stream of lyrical, barely comprehensible English from the Time That Was, they watch in appalled fascination. This is the whole world they never knew, failing before them, and this wonderful mysterious dark-skinned beauty their only tether to it.

She goes on. No one knows what’s going on or how it started, the monsters are everywhere. She knows she cannot last much longer, the city is infested with them and they are so strong, they hunt at night and in the day and the great ones are invincible. She will run, but maybe one day someone will survive, and will want to know what happened. She’s going to leave her phone here with the charger so maybe some survivor in the future can find it and see what happened. She looks urgently over her shoulder one more time, then at the camera with a look of such yearning and loss that it reaches through the phone, across time and into their hearts in the Ark. Then it snaps to darkness.

Fearful flight: Video taken running over rooftops, with fire exploding in the background and screaming down below. Shaking camera as someone runs, a woman’s voice screaming close to the camera. It’s the same woman’s rich and mellifluous voice, but now it’s panicked and yelling in between gasps and heavy breathing. The video might have started with the intent to document what was happening but she has already forgotten that mission as she yells to her friends and screams and pants. Her friends are yelling back and to each other, an indefinite number of other voices further away as they all run across the sloping, red-ochre tiles of the old city. At one point the camera stops and everything lurches as the woman looks down into a gap between houses, where things move and hiss. She steps back and jumps, just covering the distance with a clattering of tiles, then jerks the camera around to show a small group of other running and leaping over the gap. She turns the camera back but jerks it as from behind there is a sudden, blood-curdling yell and someone screaming “They got Johnny!” She gasps but has no time for tears, suddenly jerking the camera left and down behind a stone outcropping on the roof. The rooftops and streets around darken suddenly as a huge shadow sweeps over, roaring, and fire explodes in the street across the road. The shadow slides past with a kind of sinuous, threatening elegance, and from further away they hear other men yelling, screams and weapons fire. She starts up and runs again and suddenly the gunfire is closer. From almost on top of her they hear the heavy chatter of machine gun fire, rough male voices yelling “Down, come down!” then the camera cuts out as they clatter into a dark stairwell.

Mushroom cloud: A shaky video starts with a howling wind and rattling, then steadies, it’s resting on some kind of railing on a high tower. Far away the sky is erupting into a mushroom of smoke rising high into the azure blue of a perfect clear day. Stretching from the horizon to halfway towards the camera is the grey mass of a city, and there are millions of fires sprouting from various places in the middle of the city, smoke haze blanketing the lower parts of the sky below the mushroom cloud. A woman is talking, describing how they had to nuke the city to stop them. It’s the last stand, they’re doing it up and down the country, she says, and then shifts the camera right after a brief flash, to show a more distant cloud beginning to sprout on the horizon. As it rises, after a still moment, there is a distant roar, and then the back of the cloud lights up with a flash from over the horizon. “That’s Southampton, maybe more beyond. We didn’t have a choice.” Then the sound of crying as the wind washes gently by, and the two mushroom clouds rise slowly higher.

Urban horror: The same woman’s desperate sobbing in darkness, then the camera shifts and we are looking from behind a rubbish bin at a long street full of trapped cars. It’s twilight and many of the street lights are broken but the car lights are on and it’s possible to see silhouettes and movement in the light of the cars. People are running from the cars, moving between them, and grey men are leaping across the roofs, jumping onto people and dragging them down and ripping and tearing. Somewhere out of sight there is a deep roar and a much larger figure – familiar now to the mutants – leaps onto a car, screaming in rage. Its scream paralyzes people, who turn and collapse in horror and allow the grey men to catch them. The woman sobs and the camera shakes, then behind her we hear someone saying urgently, “Kara, we have to go! Come, come! Run!” Then the camera jerks and they run into darkness.

Oh when there’s no future
How can there be sin
We’re the flowers
In the dustbin
We’re the poison
In your human machine
We’re the future
Your future

God save the queen
We mean it man
There’s no future

No future
No future
No future for you

 

The Ark’s heroes have returned from pacifying the Doom Cult that they found to the northwest. Now their attention was fully focused on the last remaining aboveground threat, the Dark Castle that lay just to the west of the Ark, menacing and grim broken towers looming over their near horizon. But first they wanted to find Shellah, and investigate the strange black tablet she had shown them before. It must be charged by now …

She found them, however, before they could look, in an urgent haste. They were waiting in their sky temple perhaps an hour before service started, chatting and relaxing, when she appeared from down below in an unusual hurry, not even wearing her outer layer of ragged stinking clothes and in such an urgent rush that her usual caution and reticence was all but forgotten. She produced the black tablet without suspicion or fanfare and swiped a strange, arcane pattern across its face. The thing came to life, a vibrant brilliant screen festooned with bright icons across a background of pure grass and sky. She showed them one particular icon, a white triangle on a grey background, and pressed it. The screen changed, revealing a mosaic of squares with different pictures on them. She pressed the top left one, and they all jumped back in shock as the sound of one of the other bosses, Pieces, jumped out at them. Moments later they realized they were watching a recorded image, and relaxed.

The video had been secretly filmed by Shellah at a waste site near the Ark, maybe 200m away, that the Ark’s members use to discard rubbish and search for old remnants of the ancients. It was taken at sunset, with a pink sky and pink light reflecting off the dome of the ark. There were two bosses – Pieces and Jared – standing alone in a small hollow of the waste dump, the shadows of a few guards visible in the far edge of the video, just visible on the far side of the hollow. They were talking about a plot, and Shellah must have been filming the whole thing from a hiding place within earshot, her camera undetected amongst the junk.

PIECES: It’s gone on long enough yo. The hawks and the church are too much.

JARED: Agreed. Any more of this and she’ll own all the whole rotten bleachers. I’ve got trouble enough with my supplicants, I don’t need her rabble-rousing with her stupid revolution.

PIECES: No helping it now, the stupid bitch is in heat now, and we just gotta deal with the noise. Her gang ain’t the only problem though – she’s got fucking friends.

JARED: We could deal with that. Snag ‘em on a mission, take ‘em down and make everyone think it’s the Zone. We could –

PIECES: Don’t be stupid! If it fucks up, or even one of them escapes, we’re in deep shit. No, mate, we gotta act smart, not brutal. Get the punters to take her down for her own ambition, leave us smelling like roses after she’s gone. Gotta get her smart, mate.

JARED: Smart ain’t your strong point Pieces. Remember when you –

PIECES: Shut the fuck up about that, it’s ancient fucking history. Now listen, I’ve got a plan. We can fix this real smooth if we can set her up. You wanna hear?

JARED: Sure, what’s your bright idea, Pieces? Right now I’m thinking a knife in the dark, but if you got something better …

PIECES: Everyone knows she’s sniffing around the Elder, got in sweet with a Chronicler, right? But right now they all think she’s so sweet she can’t do nothing wrong, but if we turn that on her, she’ll look like the conniving bitch she is, and a crim to boot. We just gotta plant a little something on her to make it obvious.

JARED: How you gonna do that, Pieces? She’s fucking stitched up tight!

PIECES: Not so tight. Her fixer Monja owes me a big line, some shit I sorted out a while ago, been feeding me juice from inside her gang for a while now. Nobody knows. Not even you, you little shit.

JARED: How the fuck, Pieces?! That’s some smooth operating. Looks like I’m gonna have to shake down my gang and flush out your fixes, you little fucker.

PIECES: You won’t find them, pigshit. Now listen. We got an inside in the Vault, right? With Shenagler, the silly old idealist. He tells me he can smuggle out a few pieces of prime goods, small but valuable. A jar of antibiotics, some painkillers and a tattoo kit, he’ll hand them over to Monja right here tomorrow night. Then Monja takes them back and slips them into Bloody Jack’s room while she’s at church. A few hours later Shenagler leads a mob of Chroniclers over to Bloody Jack’s and demands to search the stuff, makes a right fuss about stolen shit. Then bang! Finds them after a bit of faffing around pretending to search, Bloody Jack’s as good as dead. It’ll get the stupid Chronicler she’s hanging with too. The rest of them probably will get away, but if any of them move to help her we can cut them down legitimate. You and me, we have a word with L’il Kim and see if we can’t all three push to break up her gang and have her friends exiled. Problem solved.

JARED: Sounds great to me Pieces. But what do you want me to do?

PIECES: Everyone knows about Bloody Jack and me, but they think you’re mostly out of it. I want you to step in and make my case. I’m gonna be doing one of my boys, nowhere to be seen, innocent as the driven snow. You gotta provide the muscle to make sure it works out – have your gang get there in time to make sure the search ain’t interrupted, have your men rile up the crowd when the time comes, get the mob up and at ‘em. It needs to look like it’s the real deal, not a set up by the guy everyone knows is Bloody Jack’s enemy. You do it, and we split her gang and her stuff. But I get the stalker, Lonnie, that’s the deal. I wanna find out if it’s a man or a woman. Not that it matters, once I’m done with it it’ll wish it had never been born. Had my eye on Lonnie for a while, that’s my personal treat from this little mission.

JARED: Alright then, so tomorrow night, sometime after church? Get my gang ready for some rabble-rousing and a bit of security for the Chroniclers. Hang Bloody Jack and her pet Chronicler out to dry, hand Lonnie over to you, exile the rest. Split the stuff.

PIECES: That’s right. Remember the man who’ll be making the case is Shenagler. Don’t fuck it up, okay?

JARED: I won’t, Pieces. But hey, how many Chroniclers have you got in your pocket, anyway?

PIECES: More than enough, man. More than enough. I’ll get to the Elder eventually, don’t you worry.

JARED: That’s heresy, you fucker.

They slapped hands, and scramble out of the hollow in two different directions. The video ended, to the sound of gentle sighs from the assembled group.

They all looked at each other. This video was taken yesterday, and Shellah had only just brought it to them, so time would be tight. They had to get something organized by the end of the church service or they would all be exiled … or worse. And Lonnie … They needed to act.

Breaking the Bosses

Their plan was simple. They would grab Monja when she slipped into Bloody Jack’s room, and offer her the choice of death or turning double agent. Then Monja and Shellah would take the stolen artifacts and hide them in Pieces’ room, somewhere where it looked obviously like he had been keeping them to himself. When the crowds came to Bloody Jack’s room she would open it for inspection, and then some of Bloody Jack’s contacts and gang in the crowd would begin demanding that Pieces room be searched. While everyone prepared their trap, Preacher gave a resounding speech in the church of the sky god about how they were all a community now, and they must have rules and that anyone who went against the common good was betraying all of them, working the gathered mutants in the church into a fever pitch of righteous anger about theft and breaking the rules. As the speech came to an end Pieces seized the moment to declare that he had evidence right now that one of the mutants had stolen from the Ark, and they must show the righteousness of Preacher’s ideas by holding this person responsible.

While Preacher preached the party moved into action. They ambushed Monja as she was in the act of placing the goods, and caught her hiding behind a curtain. She agreed to help rather than face the inevitable bloody end that her betrayal warranted, and accompanied Shellah to Pieces’ headquarters to bury the stolen goods in a suitably incriminating place. By the time the agitated crowd arrived at Bloody Jack’s quarters, led by Pieces, Jared and Shenagler, everything was ready. Bloody Jack blustered and played her part, but welcomed them in to search the quarters, where they found nothing. As the search came to its conclusion Shellah and Chang Chang began to yell in the background, and Chang Chang revealed the video recording. The entire over-agitated crowd then went to Pieces’ quarters, where they found the stolen goods exactly where Monja had placed them. Monja claimed to have had a change of heart and returned them to their original place in Pieces possession, and the trap was sprung.

Pieces and Jared tried to fight, but they had been caught red-handed. By the time full night was upon the Ark they were hanging from ropes outside the upper halls of the Ark, and their gangs had been broken up, the leaders exiled and the rest returned to lives of toil and insignificance. The Ark had gone from four gangs to two, and L’il Kim’s gang was now on the outer, weakened by her tacit submission to Pieces’ heretical plans. Bloody Jack and the group were in the ascendant, and their thoughts turned now to the last remaining task – reckoning with the Elder and the neglect of the Dawn Vault.

But before they did that there was one final threat to the Ark they needed to extinguish – the Dark Castle. They began their preparations.

Visions of the Apocalypse

Before they headed to the Castle, though, there was something else they needed to do – Shellah’s tablet. They realized that if she had been able to film Pieces’ and Jared’s conspiracy then whoever had owned that tablet in ancient times must have been able to film the world before … the old world. They wanted to look through all the other videos they had seen on that screen, and see what they could learn. Had this tablet’s owner filmed the apocalypse itself? Could they see what had really happened when the ancients’ world fell? They sought out Shellah on the higher steps of the bleachers, and sat with her to watch the videos on the tablet.

They were right. The previous owner of the tablet had filmed the apocalypse. They watched in horror as the world fell under a wave of fiery monsters, and its people were consumed by an army of Grey Men – and their gigantic cousins.

The things that ended the world were swarming in the tunnels beneath them.

The Dark Castle

They decided to tackle first the last of the aboveground threats, and the next day, flush with their victory over the bosses, they gathered their forces and headed west to the Dark Castle. The Dark Castle was a brooding hulk of shattered stone surrounded by solid high walls and a moat of foetid, rot-filled water, that could be accessed by a small gate on the riverside, or a bridge crossing the rotten moat from the west. They did not like the look of the river at this point at all – it was dark and stinking, it’s torpid surface occasionally disturbed by the splashings of large, unseen beasts. At the western edge the bridge was largely intact, though only wide enough for them to cross two abreast. The thick dark waters of the moat reached almost up to the bridge, and a fine oily mist hung over the still mire, giving off a dreadful smell. They were halfway across the bridge when a huge eel-like creature surged out of the water and grabbed Bloody Jack. It was followed by a second one that hit Chang Chang. These things had huge muscly tubular bodies, mouths that hinged open in four directions, and four beady, malicious eyes. Once they hit their targets they writhed and splashed and tried to drag them into the water, but fortunately both Chang Chang and Bloody Jack were able to stand their ground as Grimshaw and Bloody Jack’s gang members hacked into them. The beasts let go and slithered back into the water, only to attack again a moment later. This time, though, the group was ready, and managed to hack the eel creatures to death. They twitched and spasmed on the bridge, flooding it with a vile slick of greasy black blood, before they slid off and floated away into the mist. As the mutants stood on the bridge panting and checking their numbers, something grabbed the corpse of one of the eels from below and it sank under the bilious surface of the moat, which began to churn with the movements of a swarm of scavengers. Disgusted, the mutants ran across the bridge to the far side and the shelter of the entrance gate.

Already damaged after just one battle, they retreated into the shadows of the gateway and sat down to rest, eating grub and drinking clear water and recovering. The gate formed a tunnel stretching through the wall to a narrow pathway between the outer wall and a thinner, smaller inner wall that was broken and crumbling in many places. Once they had rested they went through this inner wall and into the inner courtyard, which was ringed with buildings. In the middle of the courtyard was the main tower, a crumbling wreck of white and brown masonry thronging with trash crows, huge evil-eyed raven creatures perched all atop the wall and looking silently down at them as they entered. The ruined main tower was surrounded by thick grass, but the northern side of the courtyard was paved, and on that paving lay a horror show of scattered bones and corpse parts. Mostly they were animal bones, but in amongst them lay many human bodies. At the foot of the tower on its southern side an intact car lay untouched in the long grass of the courtyard.

First they ducked into a ruined building immediately to the left of the gate through which they had entered, uncovering a functional blowtorch that could be used as a weapon and a jar of antidepressants. Then they moved to the western side of the courtyard, where a skeleton clothed in tattered red cloth lay in wild grass. From that body they recovered a polearm that Grimshaw declared would make a fine weapon. Then their attention turned to the car. They approached it, but as their gearhead attempted to move into the long grass it began to swirl and curl around his legs, trying to drag him in as the blades began to sweat acid. They grabbed him and dragged him out just in time, but realized that the car was surrounded by acid grass, a deadly hazard of the Zone. Fortunately Grimshaw had brought his scythe, the Law, which was perfect for cutting grass. Sweeping the wicked weapon ahead of him, he cut a safe path to the car, and once there their gearhead was able to drive it out safely.

All the while the Trash Crows stared silently down at them.

They decided to drive the car around to the north of the tower, with most of the group inside it, Bloody Jack on top, and two of the group walking behind. However as soon as they approached the butcher’s arena to the north of the tower the Trash Crows leapt into the air and began to dive bomb the group, targeting Bloody Jack and the people behind the car. They turned the car around and fled to the house at the gate of the compound. As they drove they attacked the crows, but nothing worked – there were so many, swarming thick and fast around them that they could not do any damage with sword or hammer. Only fire could work! Fortunately Chang Chang had the blowtorch! He turned it on and set the gas canister to fully open, flooding the swarm with fire as Preacher chanted and sang and encouraged the gang. The fire of Preacher’s words inspired Chang Chang to reckless abandon with the blowtorch, and soon he had turned the entire swarm to cinders. Safe!

They explored the rest of the outer rooms in the tower, and the bones on the north of the tower, finding various treasures of the Ancients: a broadsword, a semi automatic pistol, a compound bow, a shotgun, and a suit that offered almost perfect protection against the rot. They also found an ID card of some kind. Then they opened the door to the northernmost building, which they guessed must hold the treasure they sought.

As soon as they opened the door they were attacked by a gang of wild dogs, who had made their lair inside the shattered remnants of the western half of the building. The dogs attacked fast but were no match for the group, who cut them down quickly, leaving one wounded one to run away yelping in fear through a gap in the far wall of the building. Here they found the building was split into two halves; they had entered the western, crumbling half but the eastern half was intact and the door to it locked, protected by a small box with a single blinking red light on it. They touched the ID card to the box and the door slid open, dim lights flickering on in a long corridor. This corridor ran between two walls of glass, behind which lay the treasures they sought: Many gaudy gold and silver sceptres, crowns and tiaras embedded with a furious assortment of tacky gems. And there in the middle, on a mouldering cushion, lay the huge chunk of diamond known as the Koh-i-Noor. They smashed the glass, grabbed the Koh-i-Noor and as many of the gems and over-shiny settings as they could, and fled the Dark Tower.

They had the gem they had sought. Now it was time to have two conversations with two very different old men. They would return the Koh-i-Noor to the old man north of the Ark, in exchange for whatever secrets he knew; and they would finally demand an audience with the Elder.

Since they had broken the bosses and the Dark Castle their view of the landscape had changed. As they trudged home across the gentle grass slopes north of the Dark Castle they looked across the ruins to the distant Ark, and they all agreed: This is ours, it is no country for old men. Let us take it from them!

Another year has passed, and a chance to review the games I played and the great things I did in them, as well as to preview what I hope to play (and GM) in the year to come. This year was a relatively quiet one in gaming, actually, possibly because business travel for me interrupted a lot of gaming opportunities and possibly also because, by the standards of the two previous years, gaming has been a little bit low key in 2017. Besides a few minor side sessions, 2017 has been about playing in one major Shadowrun campaign, and running the new Mutant system. But playing, particularly, didn’t reach the heights of the previous two years. Here’s a brief review.

Undriel: The Gaelic high fantasy that floundered

I started the year playing a series of adventures in a world called Undriel, a classic fantasy setting with a Gaelic twist, which was run using a home-brew system our GM developed based on World of Darkness. I was officially very resistant to playing in World of Darkness rules, which I have had bad experiences with and really don’t like, and flat-out barred using the standard magic rules of e.g. Vampire: The Masquerade, which I think is a terrible system. The magic system we came up with was quite flexible, however, and I liked my character quite a lot: Xenobia the unwilling necromancer, a young noblewoman who was accidentally infected with necromantic powers by a dark ritual gone wrong. I enjoyed playing her as a creepy girl aiming to do good, but the system didn’t work as I expected (WoD, natch!) and for some reason this campaign floundered after about session 5 or 6, only 2 of which I joined for reasons of travel. I think in truth that all the players carefully avoided further participation in this because we all just did not like the system, and the Gaelic twist on the fantasy world meant we had to know too much detailed mythological background to figure out what was going on. So this campaign died in the arse somewhere around April, quite stillborn but sadly not especially mourned.

Shadowrun: Continuing the New Horizon campaign with magic

After Undriel failed a different GM stepped up, to run a short and low-demand Shadowrun campaign. This was a continuation of our excellent and wonderful New Horizon campaign, a classic cyberpunk setting run in Cyberpunk (which is an awful system). The New Horizon campaign was amazing, and featured probably my all time favourite PC, The Druid (aka Drew), a rifle-toting teenage girl with psychopathic tendencies, and we were all eager to run a continuation. The New Horizon campaign ended with our characters waking a dragon and bringing on the Awakening that heralds the opening of the sixth world, and the shift from Cyberpunk to Shadowrun. So our new, 2017 campaign was set 50 years or so later, in the ruins of New Horizon, in a world of magic and assault rifles and metahumans. This Shadowrun campaign has been a lot of fun, with nine sessions completed in the second half of 2017 and a lot of tense and fun adventures featuring a fairly tight-knit and well-functioning group. My character, Jayden, is a bit boring compared to Drew but he is a highly effective melee combatant and I have really enjoyed playing a character who is competent and completely comfortable in his world, without any of the psychological baggage that made Drew and Xenobia a little bit thorny for the other PCs to be around. Shadowrun New Horizon hasn’t had as many memorable moments as the original New Horizon Campaign, even though it’s run by the same GM, but this is partly by design: After a couple of high-tension high-stakes campaigns, he consulted with us and we all agreed we wanted something more low key and traditional, just a bunch of guys and girls running in the shadows and getting by as best they can. It’s been a good chance for us to explore Shadowrun pretty much as it’s written, in a Hong Kong-type setting with our GM’s flair for exceptional settings and tense scenarios but without the demands of an over-arching story. We’ve all been enjoying it and we expect it to continue into 2018.

Mutant Year Zero: A startling new system and a fun world

For the second half of the year I have been GMing a short campaign using the Mutant: Year Zero system by The Free League. As I stated in my review of the game, I have been really stunned to find this system which is light, highly playable and extremely flexible, and has made GMing fresh again for me. It’s a simple system that really finely balances risk and reward, and seems to have been really popular with my players. On balance over the past couple of years I think the game I ran that my players enjoyed the most was Flood, a post-apocalyptic waterworld setting run in Cyberpunk where the low-tech setting made the terrible system almost bearable, and I really really wish I had known about Mutant when I ran that campaign, because I think this system would have made it even better. Instead I’m running a campaign set in post-apocalyptic London, with the PCs doing nothing more really than exploring the area around their Ark and slowly uncovering things about the ancient world and the history of the Ark. I expect this to only run for one or two more sessions, but the players all seem to have been really enjoying it and they all really love the simplicity and elegance of the system. I can’t say that the Mutant campaign has been a masterpiece of GMing on my part but it has flowed smoothly and the system has inspired me enough that I (and I think my players too) really feel like I’m there, crouched around the trashcan fire after the fall of the world, when I break out those dice.

GMing in 2018: Coriolis and a real high fantasy campaign

Our other regular GM is moving away from Japan in mid-2018 and I am hoping to be able to take over the core GM role for our group for the foreseeable future, which I am hoping will give me the opportunity to run a long, detailed campaign of the type I haven’t run for years. After Mutant finishes I intend to stick with a similar system by the same company, Coriolis, and run a short campaign in that setting until I take receipt of the Forbidden Lands RPG, which is currently in production stage. That is Free League’s attempt to merge the system used in Mutant: Year Zero with a high fantasy setting, and everything I have seen in the reports on the kickstarter suggests it is going to be an awesome high fantasy system that – for the first time in years – makes me want to GM high fantasy.  I am hoping to take that and make it our group’s primary campaign setting for at least the next year and hopefully longer, running the kind of sprawling, 1st level-to-lordship fantasy campaign that historically has only really been possible in crappy systems like D&D. My whole group have been wanting to run a high fantasy campaign but we just can’t get into any of the current systems, and Forbidden Lands offers the real possibility of a setting and a system that finally work. So having played Coriolis to adapt to a richer version of the Mutant: Year Zero system, we will switch over to a full fantasy setting and get to grips with the kind of fantasy role-playing we’ve all been yearning for for years.

That’s my 2018 Big Plan!

Playing in 2018: Muskets and Magic

I have joined a second group which is running a GURPS-based muskets and magic setting. I haven’t started playing with them yet but I’m hoping it will prove to be an excellent addition to my gaming in the new year. I haven’t played GURPS before, it looks complex and fiddly but viable, but the setting will be very similar to the Compromise and Conceit setting I was GMing when I first started this blog. I’m hoping that will provide not just a refreshing setting and a chance to play in a world I only ever GMd in the past, but also a chance to meet new players, new GMing styles, and new ideas. Hopefully this will mean that 2018 brings with it a whole bunch of fresh new game worlds and experiences.

Real life in 2018: Less business, more exercise

I have been making adjustments to my work life in 2017, including scoring some big successes, and I am hoping that in 2018 I will do less business travel, spend more time in my home, and have more time for both gaming and blogging. This blog has taken some hits in 2017, with posting dropping down to fortnightly or even monthly at times, and I have been less enthusiastic about it at times than I would like. Next year will be 10 years since I started the blog, which has held together over that whole time, and I’m hoping that in 2018 I will be able to pick up the posting a bit and get back to where it was at a few years ago. I have also discovered a much better kickboxing gym in 2017, where I am slowly recovering my love of kickboxing, and I’m hoping that in 2018 I will be exercising more and regaining the fitness that drained away slowly over the past few years. So overall in 2018 I’m hoping for less exotic destinations in the real world, and more exotic destinations in my imaginary life – which is way more interesting, anyway, than traveling for work.

I hope you, my reader(s), who have patiently stuck by this blog over these past few years, will get to see more gaming reports and more interesting worlds in 2018, posted more regularly, and hopefully follow my players as they grow from first level adventurers to mighty heroes, in a fantasy world worth adventuring in. And I hope you too get to enjoy a rich and varied imaginary world in 2018, with large dice pools and mighty deeds. Bring it on!

Is this gonna be a stand up fight, or another bug hunt?

 

Months passed after our heroes captured their ship, and nothing happened. Lean times in New Horizon, first as they hunkered down to avoid attention after their last job, then as they waited out the repairs and reconfiguration of the HS Fortuna. Jayden and Genji moved into the ship and time stretched out, spent cleaning and training, money draining away – HS Fortuna was a great catch, but she cost money, a lot of money, and they were also maintaining a second base, which they called Firefly, a  hidden complex in a waste dump that they had designated as their safe house. Time passed, and money flew.

So it was that they took the first job they could get when they were ready to work again. Anansie set them up of course, a noodle meal at a stall set out in one of the bigger street markets of Sai Kung. They found the stall soon enough, an oasis of quiet and empty seats in a thronged night market, and sat down at an empty bench with a sleazy-looking man in a cheap suit. On the fringes of their noodle stall cold-eyed men stood watch, quietly steering potential customers away from the shop while they ate. Signs of a man working at the edge of the law, with more money than class. The kind of guy the characters needed to do business with.

His name was Yap Wei Man, one of those sleazy property magnates that thrive in Sai Kung like cockroaches behind a noodle stall. He flipped contracts, took over crumbling blocks and “relocated” their residents quickly to enable rapid renovations, dealt cheap rentals between slum lords the way a street dealer cuts low-grade cocaine to college kids, backed up by the same quality of muscle, muscle he could bring to bear with a grim, jaded patience on laggards, people who thought they had rights, families who couldn’t afford to see their whole pay packet squandered on greasy six-mat rooms but had to anyway. The kind of man they all hated.

The kind of man they had to do business with, because business was not good. Not for them, and not for Yap Wei Man, who had made an investment he wasn’t turning around. Pearl View Complex, a big ugly nightmare of interconnected tower blocks long since backslid into slums, coffin apartments and illegal extensions, the kind of tower block where tenants disappeared in a typhoon, where shady businesses took over the basement and the car park had long since been converted into a night market, or a drug market, or worse. These were the kinds of properties that Yap san flipped, but not Pearl View, because people were disappearing – well, he should clarify, more people than usual were disappearing – and tenants were starting to get queasy, moving out, missing the rent, and if yields dropped much more Yap san wouldn’t be able to flip it on, and then he’d be saddled with a loss, and worse still with the tedious task of daily managing rent collection and the desperate poor. No thank you, chummer, he did not need that. And so he needed a group of people who could do dirty jobs quietly, subtle people not afraid of deploying a bit of muscle, but able to keep it quiet. Anansie had recommended them – urgent jobs done subtly, he was told – and so here he was, their humble supplicant. He wanted them to go in, find out what was causing the disappearances, and stop it – all quietly enough that no one who might be looking in the direction of the property with a commercial eye would even notice. He offered them 3000 nuyen each, nothing if the job was not done quietly.

A room of one’s own …

They agreed, and set off to explore the complex. It was two separate blocks, the north eastern a more upmarket tower of actual apartments, mostly legally occupied, while the south western block was a nightmare of subdivided rooms, surreptitious hostels, businesses, and redivided spaces. The two were linked by a complex network of walkways, mostly ad hoc swing bridges of dubious design. The roof of the north eastern tower had turned into a kind of residents-only night market, the bottom two levels of the south eastern block had long since fallen into disrepair, abandoned by tenants and converted to darker, more subterranean uses.

They split up to explore the building and search for clues, and they soon found two. One part of the south western block had been taken over by a gang, the Ascendant Rats, who had slowly begun blocking off the hallways and entries to their part of the block. They had been dealing medical goods and medical care to the poorer members of the block, and seemed to have a good reputation, but about two weeks ago they had aggressively sealed up a lot of entrances to their part of the block, and stopped communicating with the rest of the block. Meanwhile down in the basement there was some new religious group that had moved in a few months ago, the Clarity of Unity. They had been painting art works around the building, and with a bit of careful mapping and thought Adam was able to confirm that yes, the art works were images of arcane power, that had been placed in the positions necessary to establish the Clarity of Unity’s home base as a magical lodge. Someone was working powerful magic in the basement.

First they visited the section held by the Ascendant Rats. They found it empty, and disturbingly so. The rooms were smeared with dried blood, holes in the walls, one room that had obviously been the scene of a vicious battle had a hole in the floor that fell through many levels below, into darkness. As they explored the dark, silent rooms they found strange new walls that had been erected, of smooth extruded concrete that held a faint astral presence. They also felt themselves watched, heard strange clicking sounds, like the voices of aliens – or spirits. In particular a malevolent, six-eyed shadow that they saw watching them from the end of a hallway, clicking menacingly. They retreated to the thriving life of the rooftop market and put in a call to Mr. Yap – he had a vermin problem, and they were willing to fix it, but it would cost him. He agreed – bring him proof, and he would give a hefty bonus. Details were not discussed, but an understanding was reached. They decided to examine the Clarity of Unity, though they were already sure what they would find.

First they visited them at the time of the evening meal, having heard that they ran a soup kitchen. They were welcomed into an old parking space at the ground level, that had been converted into a kind of open air church and food area. Benches were set out, and a big serving area where anyone who asked for it got a big hearty bowl of congee and some slabs of cheap chicken. The PCs did not eat any, and found themselves speaking to stony, closed faces as soon as they started asking questions about the Clarity of Unity’s purpose. Before the meal started an old, weary-looking man emerged, and the crowd began to whisper his name – “Rahman, Rahman.” He gave a short, strangely perfunctory speech about finding clarity in unity before retiring and leaving everyone to eat.

The PCs were not satisfied. They left, and worked their way through the basement to the area behind the Clarity of Unity kitchens. Soon enough they found it – a tunnel that did not match the structure of the building, leading down into fetid warm air. Down they went, heading deep beneath the original structure of the building into a warren of tunnels, all made of the same extruded, concrete-like substance they had seen above in the lair of the Ascendant Rats. They had found the vermin nest.

As they descended deeper into the nest they began to hear the sound of clicking and hissing, always a little way ahead, always fleeing. They were being led into a trap and they knew it – but that’s what they were being paid to do. They advanced slowly and steadily, Jayden in the lead, following the clicks. Somewhere far above, Jayden’s guardian spirit soared in the sky, heedless of barriers of stone or mud, lending him that strange and supernatural sense of danger that enabled him to walk into any trap already prepared. No one would surprise them while Jayden led the way. Behind walked Adam Lee, moving slowly, half his sense in the astral plane, watching for signs of the spirits they were sure would ambush them.

Eventually they found the centre of the nest, a huge cone-shaped cavern far beneath the apartment, shrouded in darkness and stifling with hot, stinking, moist air. Their commlink lights did not reach far enough to light the whole place, but they showed enough: a mound of earth and junk in the centre of the cavern; beyond it a hulking, shadowy structure rising into space; and around them strange pulsing blue sacks stuck to the wall. In the darkness Adam Lee stumbled into one and shrunk back in disgust; Jayden, unfazed by mere horror, stuck a knife in the thing and tore it open, revealing a living cat encapsulated in its pulsing blue goo. The slime fell out, the cat keening and dying as it slid off Jayden’s razor sharp knife. Adam stepped back in disgust and as he did his gaze chanced up, commlink lights reaching out to strike a similar glow from larger egg shapes – and up there, at the edge of vision, the silhouette of humans inside the eggs.

Adam screamed, John opened fire on the distant shape, and they all charged forward. In the half light they saw a horrid, pulsing thorax, a quiescent monster rising above it into the shadows. It was guarded by four strange humanoid creatures, men whose bodies had been hideously reshaped so that they had mandibles protruding from scaled faces, arms grotesquely distorted to protrude behind their backs, ending in wicked insectoid claws. One through a barrier of thin concretoid excretion around the queen and the rest attacked. Behind the queen Rahman stood, arms raised in ecstasy, droning some ancient wicked ritual to the insect gods.

The battle was brutal. From the walls enormous termites emerged, firing noxious spray or attacking with huge mandibles, trying to defend their queen. The queen herself began to stir, slowly waking from some long slumber and beginning to shake herself free of her egg sac, massive angel-like wings twitching. They realized that the cone-shaped cavern opened to a wide, sweeping tunnel that must reach up to the surface, and that the queen was going to escape into the city if they did not stop her. They fought desperately, trying to reach Rahman before he could complete the ritual of awakening, but the termites and transformed humans blocked them, and more kept emerging. John fell to the blows of the termites and Genji fought against a fog of confusion from the termites’ poisonous breath, the queen shook more, Rahman laughed in sick glee between the beats of his ritual … but at the last Jayden was able to push through the final guardian and hit Rahman with his full might, slicing and dicing in a whirl of super-fast knife blades, cutting both of Rahman’s arms and slicing through his spine, bringing his evil chant to a halt moments before its crescendo. He fell without even screaming, too badly hurt to do anything except gasp and bleed, and the queen collapsed back into senescence. Around them termite soldiers and mutated humans reverted to uncontrolled madness, the spirits inside them free. The characters, realizing their job was done but only madness would follow, fled, dragging John with them.

Minutes later, panting and exhausted, they emerged into the dim light of the Pearl View courtyard. They dumped John in the shadows of the tower and sagged against the wall, panting and cursing. The distant sound of shrieks and clicks faded as the termite spirits returned to their home plane, or killed each other, and somehow they knew that the queen would die. They had done it. The strange curse of Pearl View Complex was lifted, and just as its seedy owner had demanded, no one would know. Somewhere down below the encapsulated Ascendant Rats would wake up in their suddenly disenchanted sacks of insect pus, to be slaughtered and eaten by their enraged captors, but our heroes had no intention of going back in to rescue them. Jayden looked over at Adam Lee, pale and exhausted, leaning on the wall fighting off the sickness of too many spells, and saw him shake his head gently; looked at Genji, leaning panting over his sword, wiping ichor off his face, and heard him grunt a gentle “fuck it.” They had no spirit to fight. They retreated, and put in the call.

Below them a gang was eviscerated, a queen died, spirits slunk away to their own realm. Ahead of them money, and sleep.

All was right with their world.

 

 

Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down
We make a little history, baby
Every time you come around

Your face has fallen sad now
For you know the time is nigh
When I must remove your wings
And you, you must try to fly

Sly moves in the shadows, done quick and on a budget – that’s what our heroes specialize in. A month after their trainwreck, rested and recovered, they were approached by Anansie with another job from the same contact, Ibrahil “the terror” Tejero, who needed a job done on a day’s noticed. As usual it came with the promise of no violence and a good payday, bonuses for stealth and discretion, and as usual they did not believe for a moment that they could make the conditions. Satisfied with the minimum fee, they met the Terror at his most recent place of business, a rooftop garden over a soy-cheese business near the docks district. The Terror told them he needed them to infiltrate a ship leaving the next night from those same docks. He needed to know what its cargo was, and where it was going, and he wanted to find out with as little attention as possible being drawn to his inquiries. He had contacts in the dock-worker’s union, so he could arrange for them to get onto the ship inside a crate, and from there he simply wanted them to explore the ship, find its real cargo manifesto, and if possible plant a bug to film the cargo. There was a bonus for planting the bug, and an extra bonus for doing everything undetected, and no pay at all if they failed to get the real manifesto. The ship’s official destination was a research facility in the South China Sea, but the Terror did not believe that for a moment – no cargo ship heading for such a place would load stealthily in the middle of the night and head out before dawn. He expected it to change course midway, and he expected its cargo was extremely dubious. The PCs’ job was to find out what, why and where.

They asked questions, of course, and they made one point very clear: If they discovered the ship was carrying human traffic, or some other dubious cargo, they would take unilateral action and still get paid. The Terror assured them he had heard about their … how did he put it … unrealistic standards? … and had no problem with them taking unilateral action if necessary, though he would debate the details with them later. Satisfied their reputation preceded them, they agreed to the job.

The next night found them on the Sai Kung docks, nestled in the muggy darkness behind a pile of crates, watching the Piet Maijing. Behind them a dockworker waited impatiently for them to load into a crate, that would soon be lifted onto the Piet Maijing. The ship was a typical rust bucket mid-size cargo hauler in the South China Sea, the kind of ship that was ubiquitous around New Horizon. They could see the armed guards on the deck, obviously overpowered for a simple hauling mission, and the suspicious way they eyed the dock workers. The whole thing was definitely suspicious, and those guards did not endear themselves to the group with their behavior. The PCs crawled into their crate, and waited to be lifted into the hold.

Once on board they had to wait for the ship to cast off and head to open sea, which would take hours, so they decided to get some rest. Realizing that with rest he could cast almost any spell, Adam Lee wrought a mighty invocation that rendered the entire party invisible, then settled into a meditative pose while he waited for the ship to cast off[1]. The rest of them settled into a reverie, and they waited. The crate was lifted on board, swaying and clattering, and then after a few hours the ship broke away from the port and into the open sea. They rose, stretched their legs, and then settled to wait while Adam Lee ventured into the astral plane and searched the ship.

Perhaps he should have done it before they set off, because it became clear very quickly that the special cargo was astrally active, so it was either living creatures or magic creatures or magic items. Whatever this ship was doing was a disaster for someone. Still, they had to confirm the contents and Astral travel was not the best way to do it; they had to get to the bridge, so they set off. Under the veil of Adam’s spell getting to the bridge was easy – there was a brief moment of tension where someone heard something, but being invisible they just stopped and waited for the moment to pass. At the bridge they had to kill one man, but Jayden did it easily, and nobody saw it, so they stuffed the body into a chair, held it upright so the guards outside could see it, and waited patiently in the shadows, invisible and silent, until their technomage could dig out the manifest from a secured server buried at the back of the bridge. Once they had the details they slipped out of the bridge, dumped the body on the roof, and headed down to the hold to place the bug. By now the ship was steaming into open waters, New Horizon far behind and the sea sparkling in the starlight, distant ship’s lights twinkling on the horizon all around.

They did not pause to enjoy the sea air, instead moving at top speed through bulkheads and holds to the area where Adam Lee had seen the astrally active cargo. Here they found a strange problem: They met a wall of crates that seemed innocuous but was definitely designed to block off the area where the astrally active cargo could be found. They had to either go back and go around, or find a way through the crates. They chose the latter, breaking the locks on a crate and moving through. But now they decided to get crafty, and Adam Lee again went into the astral plane, pushing through the crate’s far wall to see what was on the other side. Here he found the cargo hold suddenly opened up, with the wall of crates stacked up right to the ceiling to make a blocking wall, but only a couple of crates on the floor of the cargo hold on the other side. These crates contained the astrally active cargo, and it seemed the solution was obvious: they would need to go into a crate at the top of the blocking wall, pass through, and place the camera they needed to place. The camera would then have a view of the whole cargo hold, and their job would be done: they could call in the rigger the Terror had organized for them, jump overboard and make a very large payday.

John was selected to do this, while Adam Lee maintained an astral overwatch. He climbed up through the crates and into the topmost crate nearest to the group, walked quickly through, opened the other crate door and placed the camera in a suitable position on the ceiling of the cargo hold. He was just about to retreat when he heard a voice from below.

“Oi chummer, give a lost boy a hand?”

It came from one of the crates. Everyone’s heart sank: Human cargo, or at least sentient, which meant they were going to have to go nuclear on the ship. The five of them against the entire complement of Aztlan mercs. Why did nothing ever go smoothly for them?

“Yes?” John hesitantly opened negotiations.

They soon discovered the truth of the situation. The ship was carrying a cargo of ghouls, mostly sentient but some savage, for research, but this particular ghoul was a plant, placed in the cargo to report in to his handlers and organize a raid on the ship. He had had his commlink taken from him but they could see it lying discarded in the cargo hold some distance from the crate. All they had to do was return his phone to him and let him and his fellows out. He would place a call to his handlers, a ship would come to get them, and they would rise up against their captors. The PCs did not even need to be involved – they could set things in motion then retreat to the ship’s helideck to wait for their rigger to come in and get them.

They thought briefly about the huge payoff they would lose by losing stealth, and by losing the camera in the hold; but they also thought they could negotiate for the possession of the ship. An easy deal. They brought the ghoul his phone, and unlocked his crate. Then, still invisible, they headed up to the helideck and waited for the battle to start.

It started with a thick mist that rolled in from all sides, enveloping the ship in a suddenly cloying, chilling white fog. Then the ship came in, first the roar of its engines and then a shadow looming out of the mist, then a hail on a hugely overpowered loud speaker:

“This is Captain Berberoka of the KRI Krugerrand, and you are MINE! You are slavers in violation of all standards of humanity and you will DIE. Put over and submit to a quiet death, or feel my WRATH.”

The ship broke from the mist as the Piet Maijing‘s guards rushed to defensive positions, a slim black dagger breaking through the white fog. The guards were too late, the Krugerrand slamming up against the bigger cargo ship with a horrendous grinding sound and a horde of angry meta-humans leaping onto the deck. Elves, trolls, dwarves, orks, ghouls, even faerie leapt across the railing and into battle, blasting magic and bullets with furious abandon as they stormed the deck. Aztlan guards, outnumbered and surprised, fell back on the deck to a brutal slaughter, the entire battle lasting just a few minutes before it was reduced to coups de grace, begging and all the bloody consequences of defending slavery. The PCs stood on the helideck, shooting and stabbing anyone who tried to escape and waiting for the Kruggerrand’s captain to find them. Eventually he came stomping up the stairs to the helideck, a grizzled old man with a brilliant shock of white hair, one cyberleg, an entire half of his face composed of sagging skin covered in old, poorly-done neon tattoos, lugging a huge shotgun and grimacing at the need to talk to strangers[2]. Then he started yelling at the PCs about their contribution to freedom, and they negotiated possession of the ship in exchange for their deeds. Hands were clasped, manly threats of pirately loyalty exchanged, and the Krugerrand departed with a new cargo of freed ghouls.

Our new ship, before recommissioning

They called the rigger in and turned the ship around, heading back to New Horizon. Of course they could not dock their stolen ship in Sai Kung, but the Terror was surprisingly happy at their sheepish report of their intervention. He got all the information he needed, and if everyone is dead then by definition the mission was done quietly. Fortunately he Knew a Guy who could launder their ship, though it would cost them – they would have to downgrade. And so it was that the PCs found themselves in possession of a 60m converted icebreaker[4], docked two weeks later in the Sai Kung docks, their new base of operations waiting to be converted to a fighting ship, capable of journeying over the open ocean and big enough to hold an A/V lifter and a couple of drones, as well as a nice collection of heavy weapons. They had made it!

Two weeks later they stood on the bow of their new ship, looking out over the flickering lights and neon splendour of a clear New Horizon night, and wondering – how are we going to pay for all this?

More jobs, done faster and dirtier. The shadows are a harsh mistress.


fn1: The way Shadowrun magic works, powerful spells cause strain, which is stun damage, but stun damage is recovered with short periods of complete rest. Invisibility on five people is a high force spell, meaning it causes a lot of stun, but once the spell is cast maintaining it is not difficult, and spell casters can recover stun damage while maintaining spells, so it was a wash: we all got invisibility, and our mage got to recover all the stun damage he took casting the spell. This is maybe the third or fourth time in seven sessions that our mage has absolutely aced it using a utility spell, which in Shadowrun are much less restricted than combat spells. His combat spells are second rate, but his use of healing, levitation and invisibility has absolutely killed it when we really needed it. His use of levitation in session 5 to lift a super powerful shaman out of cover where we could blow his brains out was a picture perfect use of a utility spell, and in this session his use of invisibility made an extremely challenging task easy, and is at the core of the huge rewards we won from this session. This session was all about Adam Lee, all the time.

fn2: This is Coyote, one of the main characters from our Cyberpunk campaign, living out the end of his days as leader of a meta-human rebellion operating from the free state of Maluku. I can’t wait to meet Drew![3]

fn3: Although I’ll be kind of disappointed if I do. This adventure is set years after the events Drew was part of, and she was furiously serious about dying in combat, so if she made it to actual old age she probably failed at life.

fn4: Although the cargo ship was maybe 200m long, we were only able to get a much smaller ship after laundering it. Through negotiation with our GM we bargained it to about 60m, and then we started googling shipping sites and looking for suitable vessels. At some point someone suggested the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior as a template, which triggered me to search the Sea Shepherd fleet. It’s perfect as a model for the kind of ships that an RPG group would use. They’re small, mobile ships designed to be able to survive on the open ocean (even the southern ocean) but versatile for littoral operations and able to dock anywhere; they’re designed for ship-to-ship raiding, to hold a small crew with a limited cargo, and one even has space for a small helicopter. They’re also robust, ex-ice breakers and the like, and have enough spare space that you could fit weapons if you liked (obviously the Sea Shepherds don’t). If you are aiming for a ship that isn’t straight up military, and don’t want to model it on a coast guard vessel, then the Sea Shepherd fleet is your perfect design. Also our GM told us that after the Awakening the Sea Shepherds went from protesting whaling to trying to protect swimmers from magically endowed and vengeful whales before they went out of business, so their ships are on the market and ready for us!

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