Reflections on the Hunter the Vigil

Recently, as those who read my blog may have seen I played in a very enjoyable Hunter the Vigil game run by my friend Barry, previous IC write-ups can be found here:

In the game myself and three other players portrayed mortal members of an elite government agency known as the Vanguard Serial Crime Unit or VASCU for short, a sort of paranormal FBI style organisation introduced in the nWoD Slashers book who investigate serial crimes; after a prelude case where we discovered a mad woman using corpses to fertilise strange red plants in her basement although we were swiftly moved off the case and told that it had now fallen under the remit of Project VALKYRIE, an elite military organisation. Realising that it stunk of a cover up we uncovered a related case in the town of Greenvale where the connection had seemingly been overlooked and were able to get ourselves assigned to it, this lead to us being plunged into a small town of strange cults, odd red sacrificial tree circles, captive spirits and an urban legend known as the raincoat killer who stalked the streets of the town murdering at will whenever a heavy rain fell.
Originally the game was supposed to be part of our one-off Wednesday style of games however it overran by quite a bit, wrapping up at session five, I think the GM would be the first to admit that the one-off approach isn’t his preferred style and that (like most of us) he’s more used to running slightly longer campaigns; however the game was still very enjoyable and we achieved our objective (sort of) even if it was only by gunning down the leader of the cult (the local Sheriff George Woodman) and one of the characters (Agent Brockhurst) sacrificing himself against the urban legend killer whilst the rest of us escaped to call in a Project VALKYRIE clean up team. This might have seemed like an unsatisfying ending for some, however, as a fan of Cthulhu-esque games where the characters generally either die, go insane or escape by the skin of their teeth I was quite happy with it and the GM did a lovely little epilogue section for the player character that had died as his spirit moved into the afterlife.
After the game had finished we all had a little discussion, as we often do, about what had happened within the game and, given that it was an investigation scenario, how we had done in terms of unravelling it all.
There were a few interesting points raised in the discussion:
  • Certain parts of the plot were hinged around the players having access to certain powers/abilities when character sheets were altered late on in the character gen session so these abilities were no longer possessed it made the whole scenario a lot more difficult to unravel.
  • A couple of longer pauses (due to players RL schedules) between games made it more likely that odd little facts would be missed or forgotten despite myself taking fairly copious notes during the game sessions.
  • Some of the plot points were quite obvious to me on an OOC level, however, with my character not having the extensive knowledge of the world of darkness that I possess it was difficult to justify having certain knowledge IC or to make logical leaps without it seeming like OOC knowledge was being used.
  • Our characters were designed as stereotypes to facilitate jumping straight into the game; this worked fine during the first session but, as the game went on, the characters started to seem less real and more one-dimensional.
  • Because there was very little downtime, my own character (who had been severely injured at the end of session 3) was unable to participate to any great degree in the last two sessions.
  • Several aspects of the plot had to be jettisoned in order to bring the game to a satisfactory conclusion by the end of session 5.

Overall the game was very enjoyable and I had a great time playing the grizzled, haunted ex-cop shtick although it did highlight the fact that perhaps certain types of game or scenario are not as suited for one-off games as others. 

Trail of Cthulhu and Investigations in FATE

Those of you who have read more of this blog may have seen the IC write-ups of a Hunter: the Vigil game that I have been playing in recently (the write-ups of the two previous sessions are posted here and here); this game is being run by a friend of mine using the nWoD Hunter: the Vigil rules. In the game we are playing members of a supernatural serial-killer investigation unit composed of psychics known as VASCU; our party consists of a grizzled ex-cop whose party disappeared in a strange case that was swept under the carpet (this is my character), a bureau agent who squandered his family fortune seeking to find his father whom he believes kidnapped by cultists, a technical whizzkid and a wheelchair bound agent who was seriously injured pursuing a case.
The game was originally part of a proposed ‘one-off wednesday’ idea where, every other wednesday, a group of us would get together in the evening and run a one-off game (my thoughts on one-off games can be viewed in this blog post); so far we’ve had Judge Dredd (by Mongoose Publishing), a homebrew tron-esque game where we played ourselves in a strange future where a fantasy realm had intruded on our reality, a Star Trek based game and the Hunter game. The Hunter game is the first of our ‘one-offs’ that has been heavily investigation based (my Judge Dredd game touched on these themes but the investigating part of the game was fairly simple and fast paced); as a result, although it has been very entertaining to play, the game has already run into a second session and we are scheduled to play a third. Although the GM freely admits that he is more used to running campaigns that one-shot sessions and that this may have contributed to the length of the game, I started to wonder whether this was the only factor or whether there was something in the nature of investigative games that lead to them taking a great deal more time?
One of the more interesting investigation based games that I have read recently is Trail of Cthulhu by Kenneth Hite (a game I intend to review on my blog in the near future) and based on the GUMSHOE system by Robin D Laws (who also wrote the fast-paced and bizarrely wide-ranging hong-kong action movie game Feng-Shui, another of my favourites). One of the things I love about ToC is that it makes no qualms about it’s adaption of the popular Call of Cthulhu game to a different rules system and the designers obviously have a great deal of respect for the source material (both mythos fiction and previous RP materials). The introduction to ToC discusses what I consider to be one of the perennial problems with the investigative game; what might seem an obvious solution to the GM may seem baroque and incomprehensible to the players since they lack the GMs privileged knowledge about the backstory and have to find everything out the hard way, not only that, but in some systems a failed search or investigation roll on the dice can lead to you missing a vital clue and thus taking a lot longer to solve a mystery (assuming that you can solve it at all).

Now you might say that a good GM can always fudge things so that the players come across a clue or that something happens to advance the plot; however if this is not done subtly and with finesse then it can lead to the players feeling railroaded as though, no matter what they do, the mystery solution will reveal itself, IMO once the perception of risk or failure has disappeared completely from a game then a lot of players lose their impetus and drive.

So how does FATE fit into all this?

A valid question that you might be asking yourself by now; I feel that there are a number of mechanics and ideas that could be ported from Trail of Cthulhu across to either FATE core or Fate Accelerate Edition (FAE), some of these and my own ideas are listed below.
Occupations

In ToC the character all have occupations that help determine their skills and equipment; these could be ported across to FATE as either Aspects/High Concepts or (if a more complete overhaul including skills was desired) they could be used as templates to determine what sort of skills and stunts a starting character has.
For example: The Antiquarian occupation in ToC has the following skills – Architecture, Art History, Bargain, History, Languages, Law, Library Use, and any one Investigative ability. They also have a special ability where once per session they can discover a book that contains a clue to the current investigation or some relevant investigation.
This skill list could easily by imported, the Antiquarian label taken as a High Concept and the special ability changed into a Stunt.
Drives

Drives are a character’s main motivation in Trail of Cthulhu and include concepts such as Adventure, Antiquarianism, Arrogance, Artistic Sensitivity, Bad Luck and Curiosity (amongst others); these could also be ported across as Aspects into a FATE based game.
Skills/Abilities

Skills (or Abilities as they are known in ToC) are a lot more specific that they are in FATE, and are split into Investigative and General abilities; Investigative abilities are those that allow you to find information and clues, progressing towards solving the mystery and include such skills as Archaeology, Library Use and Occult, whereas General Abilities are your more generic RPG skills such as Athletics, Firearms and First Aid.
In ToC, possessing an appropriate Investigative Ability automatically allows you to detect an associated clue; for instance if their is a clue in a museum of antiquity or a ruin that possession of the Archaeology skill would automatically allow you to detect it’s presence. The game handily gives you simple descriptions of what the skill allows you to detect, in this case:

  • Tell how long something has been buried and date of its construction.
  • Identify artifacts by culture and usage.
  • Distinguish real artifacts from fakes.
  • Navigate inside ruins and catacombs, including finding secret doors and hidden construction.
  • Describe the customs of ancient or historical cultures.
  • Spot well-disguised graves and underground hiding places.

Gathering Clues

The game posits a simple and yet refreshing method of locating clues and progressing through a mystery/investigation plotline.

  1. Get your Investigator into a scene where relevant information can be gathered.
  2. Have the right ability to discover the clue.
  3. Tell the Keeper that you’re using it.
Assuming that this occurs then the GM will provide you with any clue that corresponds to your query. In each scene the GM designates a core clue that is required before the players can move on to the next scene (although their may be additional supplementary clues for the players to discover).
Gathering Additional Information

One of the most interesting ideas about the game in my mind is that players can ‘spend’ points based on their Investigative Abilities to gain additional information about the clues; this information is never required to progress in the game but provides extra flavour to the game.

Both the use of Investigative Abilities to automatically locate clues and the spending of ‘points’ to gain additional information regarding the clues are both concepts that I think would be easily convertable to the FATE system; clues can easily be given out related to the skills possessed by players (possibly excpanding the list to include more detailed investigative abilities as per To) and either an additional pool of investigation point can be added or the existing fate points can be used to gain additional info in a FATE based ToC-style game.
I’m planning to try a ToC style FATE game once it rolls round to my turn to GM in our ‘one-off Wednesdays’ again, i’ll post how it goes.

Hunter the Vigil: Session write-up 2 – Agent Frank Dublowski

Please note: This is a write-up from an IC perspective of my character in a game that I playing.

“We all met up early morning in the dining room at the Grand Deer hotel to look over what informations we’d managed to discover so far; Ms Oxford was buzzing around serving us breakfast so we took the opportunity to fill in some of the details that she’d provided us with last night. The middle-aged woman told us again about the Stuart family and various logging concerns owning most of the land hereabouts; I was mainly interested (given the strange plants we’d come across) in finding out who looked after the local park lands, Polly was able to give me the description of a Jim Green (an old man who was friend of hers and often stopped in at the hotel) who was the local forrester.

Deciding that it was about time we paid a courtesy call to the local law enforcement (since the case wasn’t yet officially ours until we proved a link between crimes occurring in more than one state, and it never hurts to have the boys at the front onside) we drove past the crumbling, mostly empty houses of a town that had obviously seen better days to the Sheriff’s office where the receptionist Thomas McClane seemed surprised we’d responded so quickly to the report of the death in the area. Like I said, it never hurts to have the local knowledge onside and getting justice it’s what’s important at the end of the day, so I plastered what I hoped was a sincere smile on my face and made nice with them, eventually getting introduced to the Deputy Sheriff, Emily Wyatt.

One thing that did strike me as odd as we were lead into the offices; the whole place was decked out as though it had recently housed the trappings of a large investigation and yet the whiteboard at the head of the room (which would normally be used to map suspects and connections) was completely blank.

Deputy Wyatt took us through to meet her boss, the Sheriff, he was an older man with a deep, puckered scar on one cheek (which our research told us was from a gardening accident some years ago); although initially suspicious of federal involvement, my attempt to ‘play nice’ seemed to win him over and he confessed to having known the victim of the murder, a young local girl called Anna who had been found on the parkland by Jim Green’s grandchildren. Apparently the two young children had told their father that they had seen an angel in the woods and, when they had taken him to the spot where they had seen the angel, Anna had been found strung up to a tree with rope.

The Sheriff agreed to take us to the murder scene and contact Jim Green so that he could meet us there for questioning, we were assured that, aside from the removal of the body, nothing had been tampered with and we had photos of the original position of the body that showed the woman kneeling infront of the tree with her hands tied above her head. As we headed down the forest tracks I contacted Agent Brockhurst and explained that the local Sheriff’s office were a little short on medical personnel and that i’d got permission from the Sheriff for him to autopsy the body; as I put the phone down I wondered if I had made the right decision, Brockhurst had the medical knowledge and ability but he was hardly a people person, least I knew when to play nice with others when I needed to, still there wasn’t time to worry about it too much, we needed to find out what was going on in this town.

Arriving at the crime scene we met up with Mr Green and I showed the Sheriff a sample of the red plant seeds that we had discovered; although he claimed not to have seen anything like it before, there was something in his look that made me think he wasn’t being completely honest with me. Mr Green was extremely interested in the seeds, saying that the barbs on them resembled the seeds of several desert grasses or shrubs whose seeds stuck into the hides of animals to distribute them, but that normally the desert plants were much larger than this. Investigating the tree that Anna had been tied to we found it surrounded by the stumps of several candles, initially I though this was a local tribute to the dead girl (not an uncommon site) however, reviews of the evidence and photos showed that they were probably there when she died; I sent a call through to Brockhurst to tell him that we may be looking at some sort of ritualistic crime.

I examined the tree and discovered a symbol found in it, it kind of looked like that old hippy sign only upside down, our technical specialist remarked that it looked like a tree and began trying to research it, although she was having trouble getting a signal out here in the middle of nowhere. Meanwhile, Ironside had been asking the Sheriff about Anna; it was the usual story that she worked locally at a diner, was a sweet girl and well-like by everybody, it’s funny how no-one has a bad word to say about the dead. She had no boyfriend but apparently was very close to a girl called Becky Ames who also lived in the town.

It had started to gently rain and the Sheriff made some offhand remark about the locals all “heading inside”, something about it struck me as odd and when I asked was told that there was a local legend about a killer in the 50s whom the locals had nicknamed the raincoat killed, apparently when it rained the killer stalked the streets with an axe and wearing a red raincoat. A few years ago i’d have blown this off as local superstition, but given what i’d seen during my years with VASCU and our roadside encounter with the red clad runner I set the whizzkid onto researching it, although all the information she was able to find (despite her patchy net connection) seemed to suggest that it was nothing more than a gruesome urban legend.

We were about to ask some more questions when the Sheriff had a strange called radio-ed through from the hospital, apparently Brockhurst had been performing the autopsy there and was now waving his gun at people; jumping into the car we made our way to the hospital as quickly as possible. Much as Agent Brockhurst might be a bit rough around the edges, I knew that he wasn’t the type to just point a gun at someone for no reason, something must have happened.”

Hunter the Vigil: Session write-up – Agent Frank Dublowski

Please note: This is a write-up from an IC perspective from my character in a game that I playing.

“Me and Brockhurst were just finishing up a case when the call came through from two other Agents (codename “Ironside” and “Courtney”); they’d tracked a criminal (some crazy woman who’d attached razorblades to her fingers and had cut up Courtney pretty good) to an old house in the Maine town of Rockwell. I’d vaguely read some of the material on the case, it had started with a spate of household pets going missing, then the body of a pet owner had been found bludgeoned to death, but there was no sign of the animal; a further two bodies had been discovered later with the same MO. Following the deaths the crime had been flagged as a ‘serial crime’ and had been bought to the attention of the VASCU serial crimes unit.

The woman’s name was Claire Rantham, a local eccentric, she had attacked agent Courtney when they had approached her and, with unexpected strength had tipped agent Ironside out of his wheelchair; when we arrived the damn place as surrounded by cats, hundreds of the bloody things. The other two agents were waiting in their van outside the old battered house, after a brief discussion me and Brockhurst agreed to take the back whilst Courtney took the front and Ironside managed communications from inside the van. Moving through the house in a systematic fashion we eventually made our way down to the cellar where we discovered a number of strange red plants that I couldn’t identify; with a sinking feeling I directed Brockhurst to slit open the strangely bulbous grow bags and, sure enough, the desiccated hand of a corpse toppled out.

A sudden noise from upstairs caused us to rush to a ladder leading up the attic; Brockhurst went up first, followed by Courtney while I covered them, we did not have to wait long as the crazed Ms Rantham launched herself at Brockhurst. Swinging himself round agent Brockhurst grappled the struggling woman and forced her to the ground where I tazered the bitch and, when she didn’t go down, applied the butt of a weapon to her chin and she finally lost consciousness so we could restrain her. Brockhurst searched the attic, discovering some red seeds that we took as evidence and Ironside began contacting the CDC as we took Ms Rantham back to VASCU headquarters for interrogation and questioning.

It was then that we were informed by our superiors that the military under project VALKYRIE would be taking over the case and that we would soon be re-assigned; this was bull and stank of a cover-up, just like what happened when my partner Jake had disappeared before I joined VASCU and I had been ordered to forget about it (like I ever would). None of us were happy about it and we resolved to find out as much as we could before our re-assignment, although our attempt to talk to Ms Rantham yielded nothing but the following cryptic words

“She’ll gather the family, those who weren’t loved will return to their mother, and if they come to hurt you, i’ll hurt them first.”

Brockhurst hit pay-dirt, one of his contacts on the forces clued him in on a murder with a very similar MO in the small town of Greenvale, we made the decision to travel their and takeover the investigation whilst Courtney dug up details on a Sheriff George Woodman, the territorial small town sheriff of Greenvale who apparently had suffered some sort of facial injury in an agricultural accident. On the way their Brockhurst talked a little about his father had been involved in some shady types and had disappeared one evening when he was young, apparently old Brock has blown his family fortune on trying to track down his father, instead finding only charlatans and fakes; it was clear that the attempted cover up was as offensive to him as it was to me, I told him about the operation that me and my partner Jake had been on for the Bureau when I had got knocked out and woke up to find my partner vanished and that it had been swept under the carpet, I had sworn not to rest till I found him and that i’d never let a case like that be taken away from me again.

We were driving through the thick forested hills of Maine, it reminded me of some of the strange forest flashes that I had glimpsed whilst handling the red leafed plants in the Rantham house, I was so lost in my reverie that I almost crashed when a person in a bright red jacket ran infront of my car, I was able to bring it safely to a stop and leapt out of the car, running after the person with Brockhurst sprinting after me, damn that boy can run. We eventually found our way to a transformer and some sort of maintenance hut, probably belonging to a local logging company according to Courtney’s research, and as we searched around it a ghastly face appeared at the window; smashing open the door and going in weapons drawn, we were surprised to find it empty but eventually had to return to the car.

A few miles down the road we pulled into the lakeside Grand Deer Hotel where we were met by the owner Polly Oxford who seemed surprised to receive so many visitors out of season; we booked some rooms and talked to Ms Oxford who prided herself on being something of a local expert, at our mention of plants she suggested we speak to a local tree surgeon called Forest Cason. Courtney did a bit more research online, discovering that all of the local land belongs to the Stuart Estate and that there was a local point of interest called the Muses gallery and then we all retired to our rooms.”