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Friday 23 February 2018

Roleplaying write-ups

I sometimes wonder whether game write-ups wouldn’t be a perfectly good way of communicating the essential ideas in a scenario. Published scenarios, after all, are a format that was really created just to sell books. They’re about as useful for running a game as reading the itinerary of somebody’s trip to Provence would be for having a similar vacation.

And in any case, just as in war few plans survive contact with the enemy, and in software development the design is bound to evolve once coding starts, no pre-written scenario can (or should) be run without adapting to what the players do. If they break it, then great – they’re the heroes; that’s what they’re there for.

With a write-up, you’re getting to see how one group of players tackled a situation. If it inspires the referee to come up with something for his or her group, that’s much better than a list of programmed encounters, because every scenario needs to be customized to fit what’s gone before in the campaign. You couldn’t just take a script written for Hill Street Blues, change the names, and insert it into NYPD Blue. In the same way, published scenarios are selling the promise of something that cannot work.

Here are a couple of write-ups of mine. One is in the form of a comics page for a Tekumel campaign I ran back in 1980. The characters had voyaged to the far side of the continent and found themselves in a deserted palace. They relaxed into unexpected luxury but had a rude awakening when a mechanical sentinel turned up at dawn. (That’s why one of the characters was still in just a tunic.) The “Eye” that explodes is an ancient technological device, probably the Eye of Frigid Breath or the Terrible Eye of Raging Power, given the way that Kinamru tries to use it.

The other write-up (below) is the finale of “The Night of the Jackals”, a published scenario for Cthulhu by Gaslight, though much altered to fit our party by referee Tim Savin. I’ve previously recounted the rest of the scenario. At the end we all got killed and came back to life as regenerating semi-immortals. That was pretty much it for my character, who’d been conceived as a Victorian aesthete, not a steampunk superhero, but this was how I processed that finale. A different player would have had a different experience and come up with a different account of it – but that’s the whole point.

The End of the Affair

‘What chance of a getting a drink now, do you suppose?’
‘Even the orchestra has packed up, but I did find this bottle of whisky rolling around. It’s blended, I’m afraid.’
‘Any port in a storm. By the way, aren’t you Dr Dakkar Singh?’
‘Quite enough of that for one night. Thanks. Well, bottoms up.’
Jaikara. And yes, I am Dakkar Singh.’
‘If we wedge these armchairs here, they won’t slide about too much. I say, I wouldn’t normally, you know, but under the circumstances… I have to ask. Weren’t you mixed up in that business in Hampstead back in the nineties? The soldiers being murdered?’
‘I’m quite sure the papers invented most of it. I do wonder if Stoker got hold of the story for his book. Not the vampire one; the Seven Stars I mean.’
‘A curse, wasn’t it? Mummies and a dreadful blood vengeance business? Look, I can see you’re reluctant, but in an hour it’ll be between you, me and Davy Jones.’
‘I suppose no harm can come of speaking about it now. I was looking into that business, the murders, for the uncle of a friend of mine. We were really just children then. Hardly the foggiest notion of how to conduct an investigation. Though, in our defence, I will say that we weren’t quite as unfailingly clueless as the police.’
‘The fellow in Hampstead who had the mummy – Hollingsworth? The papers said that he’d murdered his own former comrades in order to keep the thing for himself.’
‘Hollingsworth was a victim in the matter, for all that he brought it on himself. I don’t think we can blame him. A lot of otherwise sane men were driven close to something like madness. The real tragedy is that the fire claimed the life of his young son. He just didn’t care what they said about him after that, you see.’
‘How did the fire start?’
‘I wasn’t there for that part. What happened, the previous night the true murderer had called on Hollingsworth while I and my friends were with him. We knew him to have got away with dreadful crimes. He flaunted it in our faces. There was tension. Some of us entertained the possibility of physical violence…’
‘But nothing came of it. Hollingsworth spoke to the man and was persuaded to part with the mummy.’
‘Must have been a forceful sort of person, eh? Some people can do that. Don’t need threats or strength of arms. Their personality alone is enough to dominate others.’
‘That may be true. This man I speak of was a dirty dog without a scrap of principle. He had indeed resorted to violence and intimidation to achieve his ends. And his persuasive powers, far from being the honest result of strong character, were mesmeric and underhand. After he left, we determined to follow him.’
‘You and your friends, you mean?’
‘Benjamin Herzog was a good cross-country runner, a crack shot, and had picked up some sharp tracking skills from an uncle in the Pinkertons. He set off after the villain’s carriage on foot while I and my servant Edwards saddled a couple of horses and followed on a few minutes later.’
‘And your quarry didn’t notice you all filing along behind him?’
‘It was ten o’clock at night, with a thick fog, and they were electrifying the street lights that autumn so most of the old gas-lamps were out. Just as well, as Benjy had possibly had a couple of brandies earlier. He wasn’t on best form that night, put it that way. He told me that a couple of times he nearly ran into the carriage when it halted in the fog. I’d seen Benjy on longer runs than that without getting winded too.’
‘Out of breath, was he? Perhaps that wasn’t the brandy.’
‘Perhaps it wasn’t; we were all very jumpy that night. Anyway, we followed the carriage down to Camden Town where it turned off towards Islington. The roads became narrower and in poor repair. On a shabby terraced street near the Caledonian Road, the carriage dropped off two men and Benjy heard the words, “in the morning”.
‘The carriage went on. We assumed it was still carrying our man, and after a short time its progress in the direction of central London seemed to confirm that, so we returned to the terraced house. You see, we had long ago identified our suspect as having one very tall henchman, whom we called Mr Choker – he did the actual killing – and two other accomplices who he’d told the police were his cousins. The cousins were supposedly touring the country, and thus unavailable for interview by the police, but now we’d tracked them down. Or so we thought.’
‘You alerted the police as to their whereabouts?’
‘That was Edwards’ suggestion. I pooh-poohed it. On reflection it would have just got a lot of bobbies killed. Not that I knew that then, of course. I simply wanted – ’
‘Evidence. Plain facts. But there were no plain facts – not of a kind we could ever present in a court of law.  I had no inkling of that as I picked the lock. I suppose I should describe the house, shouldn’t I? Picture a seedy street north of King’s Cross. Steps lead up to darkened porches. These are dingy terraced houses with peeling paintwork, each occupied by several families or groups of day labourers, two or more people to a single uncarpeted room. The lock on my school tuck shop was far more robust.
‘Once inside, we heard voices from the lower ground floor. Benjy and I crept down the stairs – Edwards was outside watching the horses. I think now that I was as silent as a cat, but Benjy trod on a loose board. Maybe it was the other way round; this was nearly a quarter of a century ago. Luckily Benjy was always a quick thinker. He immediately coughed and began mumbling drunkenly as he launched himself loudly up the other flight to the first floor. I waited, then slipped down the rest of the way to the basement door. From inside came two voices speaking in a language I didn’t know. I try to remember it today, applying my knowledge now. Could it have been Arabic? Quite possibly it was a far older tongue. But time and the mind play tricks, as you know. Nothing I am telling you now is certifiably as it happened.’
‘I understand. But you don’t have to build a case, do you? I mean, this isn’t for a court of law. It’s just between the two of us.’
‘So it is. Certainly I wouldn’t trouble with niceties like evidence now. Back then – I really don’t know. Perhaps we hoped for documents that would prove a link between our suspect and these men. Not a confession, though. We already knew them to be fanatics who would stop at nothing. In spite of that I hadn’t brought a gun. In those days I still believed that to take up the sword meant to die by the sword. That and justice.’
‘Justice, eh? “Ruat caelum” and all that.’
‘I did say that we were tender in years and had not yet put away such childish things. I beckoned Edwards over and found that he had brought along a shotgun. He was Scandinavian, you know. Or possibly Austrian. A big man, though not as big as Choker. We waited till the pubs turned out, and when there were a few people roaming loudly in the street we descended to the lower ground floor room. There was silence inside. No light under the door. I picked the lock.
‘I don’t know if I made too much noise, or whether it was Benjy again, but both men inside were instantly awake. We had surprised them in their beds – well, their mats on the floor. Where you or I might keep a glass of water or a book to read, they had loaded revolvers. Pointed at us.
‘Edwards flung aside his shotgun and ran in. Benjy’s pistol appeared as though by a conjurer’s sleight-of-hand. I, noticing that the second man had fumbled his gun, ran over and aimed a wild punch. It was pretty dark, and I got a solid hit on empty air.
‘Edwards grappled his man, who fired several shots into the wall. Benjy couldn’t get a clear shot. Then the man I was standing over began to change. A veritable metamorphosis, I mean. His bald head separated into hard sliding plates. Spines like those of a stag beetle sprouted on his arms. His body reconfigured as he grew in stature, developing armoured growths like pauldrons. His face – well, I was glad of the poor light.
‘I think now it was a kind of accelerated pupation. Cell division can occur very rapidly if the energy is available. It took the passage of some years to be able to reflect on the experience with such calm detachment. At the time we simply lost our heads. Fright made us like puppets steered by an outside force. Benjy fled, yet I would have staked my life on him having the courage of Horatio. If I’d had my swordstick, perhaps I’d have skewered the creature as it lay there howling and changing. Or perhaps even then I didn’t think myself a killer. Edwards struggled with his man, but a bullet in the arm made him think better of staying. As he and I ran after Benjy, I snatched up the shotgun. At the top of the stairs, Benjy was in such a state that he no longer knew how to open the door. I turned, felt Edwards go by rather than saw him, then discharged both barrels into the stairwell. It did nothing to the creature. I’m not sure if I hit, but in any case its coleopteran armour looked impervious to firearms.
‘We got into the street – I think Edwards simply took the door clean off its hinges. But panic made us run the wrong way, away from the horses. The creature could see in the fog, and it was faster. Best if I draw a veil – ’
‘But what happened? How did you escape unscathed?’
‘Unscathed? I wouldn’t say that. Not unscathed at all. You know The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin – ’
‘No, of course you wouldn’t. Well, that’s the whisky. Now the black waters rise to embrace us. Drowning, they say, is like going to sleep. See the lifeboats there? Little sparks in the darkness. It could be a painting of human hope, eh?’
‘I might have got aboard one of those lifeboats, you know.’
‘Uh-huh. Me too.’
‘Only I was delayed on other business.’
‘As was I. We both had our appointment in Samarra, eh?’
‘Let’s talk of that in a moment. You were going to tell me about the fire.’
‘I wasn’t there for the fire. It was set, I understand, by Ailean Gris. Ironically he was the most perspicacious about our suspect. He unfairly got locked in jail over a weekend for taking direct action against the villain. His only mistake was that the action in question was not nearly bold enough.’
‘Why did he start a fire, though?’
‘Some vague sense. You could call it intuition. He and Tennyson Thurgood had been waiting all night for news from us. When no telegram arrived by breakfast they became agitated. Ailean presumably tried to destroy the mummy, unaware that no weapon in that house could so much as put a scratch on the adamantine crystal of its coffin.’
‘What I don’t understand, the one thing I could never account for… How are you here? Alive. When – ’
‘When you had Choker kill us?’
‘Ah. Well then, plain speaking now. In your final minutes.’
‘Perhaps I died that night, and all the years since then are a long moment’s dreaming. An Owl Creek Bridge experience. But you won’t be familiar with Ambrose Bierce either, Dr Ghul.’
‘Very fanciful. You are still a dreamer, Dr Dakkar Singh.’
‘Oh no, Ghul. That you did kill. My ideals now are as concrete as a million-ton iceberg. You’re welcome, incidentally. All it took was a little misinformation to a radio operator, and the captain fails to make a small course correction that would have carried us a hundred miles south of here.’
‘You didn’t – You wouldn’t doom a thousand innocents just to get me.’
‘The boy I was then would not have done. That’s what you killed. Decency flowers in the hearts of the young, but the old and rich and greedy snuff it out because they cannot bear to think that dreams are better than the meagre ration of reality they allow themselves. The future must not be shaped by those who remember a long past, but by those for whom the world is eternally remade fresh and clean in a new dawn. But I digress – an old weakness of mine. You want to know about that night.
‘As we ran from that house, with the Choker creature on our heels, in all that blind red panic one thing I do remember clearly. Benjy was just ahead of me and I wanted to call out to him and say: Benjy, you were right. For he had thought of killing you, Ghul, right there in Hollingsworth’s study. I saw it in his eyes. You saw it too. But I laid my hand on his shoulder and the moment was gone.’
‘You saved your friend from becoming like me, then. A murderer, as you would say.’
‘Murder? Hardly. He would merely have been putting you down like the vermin you are. He had realized something that I knew too, briefly, when I waited on that rooftop with my rifle for Choker. But I had forgotten it, and Benjy had not.’
‘And that was?’
‘That it was total war. I still imagined the world to be orderly and fair, protected by laws. I had a code that would not let me stoop to your level. And so we entered that basement room with lockpicks rather than a shotgun blast. It’s a mistake I have never made since that night. Now I never give the guilty a chance to surrender. Nor even the innocent, sometimes, as you can see by those lifeboats.’
‘A pretty tale. But you understand nothing after all if you think this ploy is even a minor inconvenience. See this body. It was already old and weak when I took it, and I tire of the pretence of being an Englishman. I look out there and I see a thousand mortal hosts waiting for me to take my pick. You may go down into the dark, but I will not.’
‘That was why you wanted the mummy, wasn’t it? For a long time I couldn’t figure that out. I had simply assumed you belonged to some ridiculous magical cult, but then my own researches uncovered certain facts about the epiphysis cerebri. The pineal gland. That was it, wasn’t it? You told us some fable about the mummy. In life I think he possessed an ability I would now term psionic – the ability to impress his thought patterns upon another’s brain, erasing their identity and imposing his own. And I think it was that gland you sought. By transplanting it into your own cranium, you acquired the power. A kind of immortality, I suppose, if you care only for the mind and not for the self inherent in the body.’
‘Mere transplantation! Can you really have supposed anything so crude as that? I thought you were an eminent biologist, Doctor. Rather I extracted certain proteins from the mummy’s pineal gland which, injected into my brain, promoted the development of those capabilities.’
‘Thank you, Doctor. I merely wanted confirmation that it was indeed a function of the brain. The blended whisky – I would have preferred an Islay – that was so the harsh taste would disguise the neuroinhibitory agent you’ve imbibed.’
‘You’re bluffing.’
‘Reach out. See if you can touch any of those minds you thought were yours for the taking. You can’t. You are locked in that body, Ghul, and that body is for the sea bed. That’s two thousand fathoms – as secure a prison as any crystalline sarcophagus.’
‘You’ll die too.’
‘I would happily do so, if necessary, in order to rid the world of you.’
‘Bah, Singh, you are still an idealist.’
‘I intend to leave the world better than I found it. I suppose that might count as idealism. And leave it I will, when the time comes, not prolong my life indefinitely as you would. It’s time to restore the world as it should be, not this travesty forced upon it by immortal golems who think they remember once being men.’
‘But we could both live. Forever. What if you could have a hundred lifetimes? What could you not achieve? Any one of those huddled masses in the lifeboats. Anybody at all. Think of it – whenever you feel the beat of death’s wing, you could reach out, find a new vessel, drop into the space they fill in the world.’
‘Here is my view of immortality: volvox must die as Leeuwenhoek saw it die because it had children and is no longer needed.’
‘What? I don’t understand. You’re mad.’
‘You called me an idealist. Perhaps you forgot, in the lazy luxury of thinking yourself immortal, that there is no more ruthless adversary than an idealist with only one life to lose. But in fact I have not chosen to waste my death entrapping you. As this ship carries you down into oblivion, I will already be on my way from here. There are others like you that I have to deal with, you see. That’s the road you set me on all those years ago, Ghul. Think of me as the scion of your depravity, a Cronus come to do the inevitable deed.’
‘How? How can you hope to escape? Already the water is lapping over the deck!’
‘I dabbled at poetry, in the days before you destroyed my innocence. And as a poet I had a soubriquet, which I have kept though now it serves me as nom de guerre. You know me as Dakkar Singh, but these days I go more usually by that other name. Nemo.’


  1. I liked that write-up. It feels like the basis of an issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

    1. It would be interesting to compare it to another group's write-up after playing the same scenario, but I wasn't able to find one online. I presume most referees running the scenario would play it as straight CoC, so the investigators would just get killed or go mad. We did go mad as well as becoming near-immortal, only we didn't handle that with SAN points, we just role-played it.

  2. Meanwhile, I'm eagerly awaiting March 28 so I can found out if I can, in fact, Brexit without breaking Britain. Since I'll be playing my PM as the sociopathic offspring of hate-sex between Donald Trump and Margaret Thatcher, that answer is probably a "No."

  3. Thatcher's take on Brexit may not have been as hardline as most people assume. She was at least a pragmatist and a grown-up, two qualities in short supply among Britain's current crop of politicians:

    (Good grief, am I really saying something even faintly positive about Thatcher? The End Times must surely be upon us.)

    Anyway, although I personally am a European federalist, Can You Brexit? is not designed as anti-Brexit propaganda. The player can successfully negotiate a range of outcomes, the instructive part being to see how your choices are restricted by party politics. In other words, to win one game (negotiating the UK's future) you have to also win another (staying in power).

    1. Hi Dave. The book came today. I'll reserve my final judgement as only part way through, but Eye of the Dragon, Heart of Ice, Avenger and Falcon have got a bit of competition, finally!

    2. Glad to hear it, Andy :-)