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Friday, August 10, 2018

In Defense of a Hot Afternoon

In response to someone's blog post from 2009* claiming that "Never waste a hot afternoon" is a garbage line that makes no sense in the song "Nobody's Side" from the musical "Chess":

In "Chess", one of Florence's major conflicts is strung between her duty (to America, to her partner, her career), and her heart (which wants what it wants, come what may). She seems like she wants to prioritize her career and destiny ("There must be more I could achieve") over her heart/emotional life.

In "Nobody's Side" (lyrics, song), Florence recites a litany of hard rules and observations that she has developed, a set of mantras and trusims - sprinkled with cautionary and presumably hard-won cynicism - with which she lyrically surrounds herself at a time of stress; rules which she can repeat to herself for guidance, or just as likely (especially for those of us who have dealt with anxiety) to berate herself for perceived failures. The mantras cycle between:
  • love ("I don't want to let that go", "Take a little love where you can")
  • action ("Never stay too long in your bed")
  • enlightened self-interest ("Never make a promise or plan", "Never be the last to deceive")
  • suspicion ("Never be the first to believe")
  • dignity ("Never stay a minute too long")
  • trust ("Never take a stranger's advice")
  • independence ("Better learn to go it alone")
and counsel resilience in the face of:
  • betrayal ("Never let a friend fool you twice", "how the cracks begin to show", "No lover's ever faithful")
  • opposition ("Everybody's playing the game/ But nobody's rules are the same")
  • misfortune ("Don't forget the best will go wrong")
  • uncertainty ("There's nothing certain left to know") 
  • and temptation ("The one I should not think of").

Prioritizing her individual accomplishment and independence, Florence navigates between two competing drives, her heart, and her head (both of which are explicitly named and set in opposition to each other, per the line "Never lose your heart, use your head"), and aims to come out on top ("I've still a lot to prove").

From this critical perspective, "Never waste a hot afternoon" complements the line "Take a little love where you can", both of which are counter to "work/career", and more evocative of emotion and freedom. "Never waste a hot afternoon" is a sensory mantra, an appeal that evokes a sunny day outside, which one could easily "waste," either by staying indoors, doing unfulfilling work, or simply being lazy ("Never stay too long in your bed"). It's one of the few comforts she is allowing herself in this minefield of cautions and warnings: a reminder that one's work is not one's life, and that there must be some things one insists on keeping for oneself. Even if nobody is on nobody's side, Florence tries not to forget that she should, above all, be on her own side, even if it means focusing on something besides her career from time to time.

In the drafting of this response, I realize how much of my thoughts on the song, and on that line in particular, could be categorized as "reader response" critique informed, in no small part, by the sun-loving and avid runner I dated in college, who coincidentally included this song in a mix tape (never a good sign, I still maintain).

* What is wrong with me.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

DJ Wanted for Fallout: Nukeland

There is one conspicuous absence in the writing I've already done for the Nukeland setting: a music station.

Admittedly, Fallout didn't get in-game radio stations until Fallout 3, but every game since then has featured one or two stations which greatly enhance the mood of the setting, if only because the DJ tends to comment on and dramatize the impact your character is having on the world.

Modders have further augmented those stations with additional genre-appropriate music, or created entirely new stations, with varying degrees of genre appropriateness.
  • "Old World Radio" in particular created about 30 stations, 16 of which have their own DJs, while the remaining 14 or so are primarily radio dramas with no DJ (you can find their Patreon here). That said, several of the initial DJs are distinctive celebrity impersonations, in a way which approaches meta if you follow their development (there is ostensibly a synth Christopher Walken and a cybernetic "real" Christopher Walken).
  • WRVR was another favorite, which added entertaining adventuring companion Casey Kessler, voiced by VO actress Casey Mongillo, breathing life into an existing Fallout 4 location, the WRVR station.
Fallout 3 featured what I imagine to have been a broad spectrum of 50's music. New Vegas featured both classical Vegas and country tunes. Fallout 4 more or less echoed the Fallout 3 playlist, with the sex, satire, and nuclear-era symbology dials turned up a little, in addition to new setting-inspired music by Lynda Carter (who also voiced a mysterious entertainer in the game). Side question: does it count as filk if it is part of the official game?

A tabletop RPG is a hard place to emulate the auditory experience of a single-player RPG. More often than not, my own attempts to bring even ambient music to the gaming table have been divisive: the immersion benefits it may provide are outweighed by the distraction it causes other players. (I once played in a RuneQuest game during which the GM had the soundtrack of "Conan the Barbarian" on repeat for the entire session. I think it looped 5-6 times. That was a little much.)

Having a radio station still remains a cultural touchstone in a Fallout game, and I feel compelled to work on it, even it it never gets "air play". And, one or more DJs in the game setting can provide feedback to the players, acknowledging the impact of the things they have done, as well as providing plot hooks.

Nukeland is closer geographically to New Vegas than any of the other settings, but would the transmissions of Mr. New Vegas have reached as far as post-apocalyptic Oakland? And would it have resonated with post-apolcalyptic Nukelanders if it was heard?

Here are my thoughts on the possible music genres I would have to pick from:
  • Jazz, swing, and blues: The types of music featured in Fallout 3 and 4 would likely have as much (or more) sway in this area as in D.C. or Boston, as would R&B and blues rock. Oakland had a strong jazz/blues scene back in the day.
  • Folk music: The Kingston Trio folk band rose to prominence around the 1950's in the Bay Area. Proximity to Berkeley and its countercultural elements might have meant that folk and protest music would have remained one of the more popular genres in the greater Oakland area.
  • Chicano rock: The genre defined in part by Ritchie Valens had its roots in 1950's Southern California, but it could have been popular in the Bay Area of the time.
  • Country music: this would still have been as popular here as elsewhere in California, though Oakland wouldn't call for the same Western vibe that a game set in the Mojave/Vegas would.
  • Funk music: This genre came up in the 60's, and while the Fallout nuclear apocalypse doesn't happen until 2077*, the setting as established since Fallout 3 more or less freezes cultural progress (in America anyway) around the 1950's. As such, I wonder whether funk would be a valid direction to explore, or would it feel more like trying to jack a blaxploitation vibe.
  • Surf rock: Also coming up in the 60's, surf rock seems like it would be fun for a beachfront California setting, but like funk, it falls just outside of the genre time frame which seems to delimit other Fallout setting musical choices. And while the Bay Area has some fine surf spots, Oakland is on the Bay, and not the coastline.
  • Rap music: Rap is likely to come up in any discussion of Oakland music history, and it is an important artifact of the black experience in America, but aside from its anachronism, it feels cheap, like more than a stretch to include in a Fallout game set in a post-apocalyptic Oakland defined by 1950's Cold War culture. That said, I can imagine a character in the setting seizing onto the Beat poetry of the 1940's, developing it in a way that winds up evoking or inventing early rap, and putting it out on the airwaves, perhaps as social commentary, or simply sounding a "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."
  • Beat poetry: This format was very popular in cosmopolitan 1950's areas, particularly San Francisco and New York. In Fallout 4, the player can discover a crew of greaser power armor enthusiasts called the Atom Cats: laying around the Red Rocket fuel station they have made their home can be found holotapes of their poetry nights, which feel inspired by the Beat style. Not all stations in Fallout games need to follow the familiar DJ+music format: perhaps a wasteland resident could decide to use the airwaves for social commentary and artistic expression, either playing tapes of old Beat poetry readings, reciting classical poetry, or even writing and reciting their own work.
  • Industrial: This is a fairly modern genre of music, but one of the setting elements I added to Fallout: Nukeland is a guild of craftsfolk working out of Oakland industrial art school the Crucible. I'm spinning this group as an enigmatic, Goth-like, countercultural element prizing independence and freedom: a group such as this might have had the creativity and technical skill to develop a music tradition of their own, maybe combining industrial sounds with synthesizers, or simply creative remixing of sampled audio elements. A DJ for such a station might fill the shoes of a Three Dog, celebrating or critiquing the players' actions over the airwaves.
And what of Shi-Town across the Bay?
  • The Chinese-American residents of San Francisco's pre-war Chinatown would have had more freedom in the music they could consume than those living in Communist China, so scavengers looting old Chinatown would have had a chance to find old Chinese-American pop music holotapes. Chinese music of the day historically included folk music, symphonies, and Chinese-Western pop fusion. 
  • The Taiwanese Republic of China persisted in spite of Communism taking over mainland China, and evidence from Fallout 4 indicates it was free of Communist control several years before the Great War which destroyed the world. So, despite mainland crackdown on any music deemed anathema to the state, Taiwan's music scene would have continued (as it did in our own history) producing more Western-inspired pop music in addition to more traditional folk classics.
  • Pre-war ghouls surviving the destruction of San Francisco should likely include one or more Chinese-Americans, who would have held onto their beloved music of the day.
  • The Chinese soldiers and crew who settled in San Francisco and founding Shi-Town after piloting their nuclear submarine into the harbor would have been raised in Communist China on a diet of national and revolutionary music, other forms of pop music having been outlawed as "Yellow music". I can imagine a few members of the crew having smuggled contraband music onto their submarine, music which they would take with them when Shi-Town was being built. And as mentioned above, they could have found contraband Chinese music in the ruins of their new home, and a century of cultural drift might make them more tolerant of the music they were formerly encouraged to shun.
  • Chinese spies are established in the Fallout setting as having operated secret propaganda radio stations in America, like the People's Republic of America Radio in Fallout 3. China could have had similar propaganda operations running in the Bay Area. Imagine Shi-Town explorers locating and taking over such a radio station, repurposing it for their own needs, since the original mission of disrupting American faith in capitalism was no longer relevant.
  • That said, I'm currently handling Shi-Town as something close to The Institute, having been driven underground after The Enclave bombed the original Shi-Town, trying to rebuild in secret, seeing as they might be wary of the other factions who threaten to plunder their technological resources or otherwise take advantage of their current situation. But they did manage to drive out the beginnings of NCR attention, so perhaps they would be running a radio station as a sort of warning?
So I'm imagining the following options, though I am unsure whether the setting can handle more than one or two of them, simply for logistical purposes:
  • KJAZ: This Oakland station features jazz, swing, blues, and R&B. The DJ, Coniqua Cherry, is a twenty-something firebrand of a woman. The station broadcasts out of a pre-war Oakland station of the same name. 
  • KIND: This Oakland station features Chicano rock, blues rock, and other rock classics. The DJ, "Destiny Ventura" (Desideria Serafina Makisig Ventura), is a laconic and wry young Filipina/Latina-American who broadcasts out of an old radio station within The International, a fortified settlement between Lake Merritt and the old Fruitvale BART station.
  • KCRU: This Oakland station is broadcast from the Crucible, an industrial art enclave/co-op in West Oakland, not far from the tunnel to San Francisco. The station produces a variety of avant-garde radio plays, and a bizarrely haunting but compelling new type of music called "industrial" featuring synthesized tool noises. The DJ is a collective comprised of Snowball Nashville, Ravensdottir, and Max Sugar, who voice various radio dramas in addition to snarking about the music they play.
  • KSHI: This Shi-Town station plays Chinese swing and jazz pop music, sprinkled with older Chinese folk tunes; the show also includes snippets of national music from time to time, usually sarcastically, as the punchline to a joke. The DJ, Ma Ruogang, is an angry forty-something Chinese woman who broadcasts out of the ruins of an old Chinese propaganda station in San Francisco.
  • KVAULT 24: This radio station operates out of the top floor of Oakland's Tribune Building, under which resides Vault 24, a long-running control Vault which has been trading with the wasteland. DJ Gina Grasso is a Vault resident who plays an eclectic mix of jazz, swing, blues, and rock, and shares gossip about the surrounding wasteland that is exaggerated but more or less based on reality. 
(Side note: though music selection decisions made by the game developers were most probably intended to provide modern audiences with the feel of Cold War-era America (as it might be experienced in each game's region), I wonder at an unspoken implication that the production of music - new music - essentially stopped in Fallout's 1950's. I also thought briefly about the possibility that music distribution in Fallout's 1950's switched to a new, more fragile format which did not survive the apocalypse, leaving only the older, stable holotapes for the succeeding generations of humanity to discover, but that wouldn't be borne out by all the holotapes we find in Vault-Tec vaults, whose victims residents would have had full knowledge of the latest and greatest media technology, including PipBoy wrist computers, which rely on holotapes.)

* I almost talked myself out of including BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in Nukeland because it wasn't available in the 1950's, but tech and population management would have continued whether or not poodle skirts and jazz remained in fashion, so it makes sense that some sort of public transit would have evolved, and after some encouragement, I decided that a version of BART that emulated the subways of DC and Boston, but kept the current train routes and station locations, would not be inappropriate to the setting.


Friday, July 13, 2018

What and When is Fallout: Nukeland?

The Nukeland Area is located in old-world Oakland. The greater area is known as the Baylands, and includes Nukeland and Shi-Town (San Francisco), among other regions. The area is roughly 375 miles northwest of Shady Sands, seat of the New California Republic, and 400 miles north-northwest of the Boneyard, a prominent NCR town built on the ruins of old Los Angeles.

The Master and his army of Super Mutants (operating out of a secret Vault beneath the Boneyard) were destroyed in 2162 by unknown forces; the Enclave’s super mutant breeding facility at the Mariposa Military Base, just 150 miles east of Nukeland, was also destroyed in 2237, almost 40 years ago.

In the 2240s, tensions were high in San Francisco, as the Shi, descendants of Chinese submarine forces with advanced technology were being challenged by an influx of Hubologists who had settled at the Golden Gate Bridge. The Hubologists eventually perished in a space shuttle explosion, leaving the Shi unchallenged. Not long after, unknown forces stole a tanker from the Shi-Town harbor and destroyed the Enclave's offshore Poseidon Energy Oil Rig. Shi-Town itself was later nuked by remnants of the Enclave, who decided they had played a key role in the oil rig explosion.

By the 2270’s, the New California Republic had been expanding in all directions; their scouts and traders are beginning to poke around Nukeland and Shi-Town looking for expansion, scav, or trade potential.

2278: The territory of Nukeland has risen from the ashes of Old Oakland. The New California Republic is eager to absorb this territory, but they are overextended in the Mojave Desert. The Empire of Shi, built on the ruins of San Francisco, has one shot to claim Nukeland for its own before the NCR.

Note: mid-October 2281 is when “Fallout: New Vegas” begins, and late October 2287 is when “Fallout 4” begins.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Running Fallout: Nukeland

I prepared a lot of physical assets and other elements for the convention run of "Fallout: Nukeland".

I used Retrocalypse, a simple set of rules based on the Old School Hack: essentially a stripped down D&D retroclone reskinned for Fallout.

I was also considering Fate Core, a system which I have a lot of experienced running, and participated in some great discussions on how to port it. Another game designer had started a draft using Atomic Robo's system of Modes, Mega-Stunts, and Inventions. That was a few years ago, and by the time I started back into it, the designer had moved on to adapting Mantles from the Dresden Files Accelerated ruleset.

I ultimately went back to Retrocalypse, though, as I had created a number of props and tools to run it, chiefly printing a set of custom playing cards with the rules and some example monsters from the game.

I made 12 Archetypes for players to choose from. I wanted to make many more, but a good article recommended limiting character options to 10-12 for a convention. Each archetype had its own pick list of unique abilities. Players also roll for stats, and pick a Perk (another type of ability, many of which are based on perks in the video game series).

Retrocalypse was written with eight archetypes - I took four of them and added a spin:
  • NCR Citizen - Charmer - a citizen of the New California Republic, focused on trading and social skills
  • NCR Citizen - Scout - a veteran of the New California Republic army, more of a sniper 
  • Raider - Chemist - a retired raider who settled down, and now crafts and deals drugs to anyone with caps
  • Raider - Fixer - a retired raider focused on an all-around mercenary skill set
  • Tribal - Outsider - the setting's generic term for groups which either shun technology, are isolationist, or otherwise aren't 100% on board with what "civilization" is doing
  • Tribal - Settler - I reskinned the tribal archetype to create a generic "settler" archetype a la Fallout 4; someone helping reclaim the wasteland with industry and elbow grease
  • Vault Dweller - the generic Vault-resident-turned-wanderer, with more of a focus on combat
  • Vault Nerd - another Vault dweller, with more of a focus on science and engineering
And then I used the other four as listed:
  • Brotherhood of Steel Initiate - hoarders of technology with a sacred duty to keep the apocalypse from happening again (by making sure only they have the tech)
  • Follower of the Apocalypse - doctors, scientists, and other dreamers who are trying to build a better world by saving everyone
  • Ghoul - a person who survived a fatal dose of radiation and subsequently looks like a zombie
  • Super Mutant - a gigantic mutated human, a staple of the game setting
I then proceeded to flesh out the characters, leaving only a few things for players to customize at the table:
  1. For each archetype, I specifically chose a certain number of archetype abilities and Perks to suit the kind of character I wanted to have in the game. 
  2. I also made a list of "point buy" style stat lists and then distributed them among the archetypes, rather than rolling randomly as the game indicates. 
  3. I then added weapons, armor, and other equipment, as well as about 5 levels worth of advancements, but I left 2 Perks unspent. I wanted the characters to be experienced, but not warlords in their own right. I made sure one of their abilities was another injury box to soak damage.
  4. I printed out a and cut up a stack of notecards with established Perks, and gave players the option to pick from those, or pick another one of their remaining archetype abilities.
  5. I gave them all names, but explained that these were negotiable.
  6. I made tent cards for each archetype so players could keep track of each other.
Karma Points:
Retrocalypse uses Karma Points - essentially themed Fate point analogues - which could be spent for various generic mechanical benefits. There were also Good and Bad mechanical effects that a player could activate by spending the appropriate type of Karma. I made sure to emphasize that bad Karma was a reward for entertaining in-game evil, not for being a dick to the GM and other players. Anytime the character would do something cool and bad that merited twirling a moustache or a "you bastard!", that earned Bad Karma. Likewise, certain game actions or out-of-game amusement could earn Good Karma points.

I spent a great deal of effort making Good and Bad Karma points to use for the game:
  • about 50 craft bottlecaps (red for Good, and black for Bad) - 
  • printed Nuka Cola (red) and Nuka Dark (black) labels on glossy inkjet label sheets (which are hard to find in small numbers)
  • a sheet of epoxy stickers in the shape of convex disks
I assembled the Karma points by sticking the labels onto the bottlecaps, and then covering the label with the epoxy resin craft disk. Usually this method is used to create craft necklace pendants: artists clip out images or create their own, glue them to the bottlecap, seal them with the epoxy disks I mentioned, or pour in a mixture of clear resin, and then they attach jump rings and use them in a necklace, earrings, etc.. I didn't want to deal with pouring epoxy resin and waiting for it to dry, since I was making 50 of these, so expedience won out over quality.

Unfortunately, the smooth backs of the bottlecaps, when placed against the flexible and slightly concave epoxy resin disks, created a vacuum: bottlecaps stacked together tended to stick together, very strongly, and separating them occasionally pulled the label right off of the bottlecap along with the epoxy disk. If I did it again, I'd either use glossy paper and heavy adhesive to stick it to the bottlecap, rather than prepunched labels, and/or I would use liquid resin to seal the images.

Picture Tokens:
I printed a large number of 1-inch tokens on labels to represent the players and their opposition, with images taken liberally from Fallout wiki sites and other internet sources. These were adhered to a thin plastic backing used in binder covers; I then punched the tokens out using a 1-inch round die.

To store the tokens, I found a nice little bead supply box with small, stackable bead caddies that all screwed together. I was able to split up the tokens by opponent type (Raider, Mutant, Animal, Regular people, Mercs/Military, Brotherhood of Steel, etc.). 

Unfortunately, I either had really old labels with weak adhesive, or the thin plastic backing texture was not conducive to label adhesion: a lot of the labels pulled up at the edges. This may have been another case for a traditional adhesive.

Another mistake I made was trying to seal the inkjet-printed labels: when I left them out to dry, the edges of the label sheets curled up, and if I used too much fixative, it pooled up and totally fogged up the images near the center. Lightly-sealed labels were fine, but I had to reprint a lot, especially since these 1-inch round labels did not confirm to a standard Avery template.

I also took the player pieces from my Fallout board game, and used them for the players.

Using the Tokens:
One of the complications using the Retrocalypse game setting is they give you a cool countdown-style prop to coordinate when peoples' actions happen in the round. You could use a handful of action type cards for each player, so they can declare what they are doing - the GM can just run through the round one action type at a time. But the countdown prop is a nice visual. Unfortunately, this means players and GMs using a map need two sets of tokens: one for whatever game map is being used, and one for this countdown prop. I let the players use their 3-d miniatures on the game map, while I used the players' tokens to serve as their initiative counters. I did the opposite for the monsters: using their picture tokens on the game map, while tracking their initiatives on the countdown prop using colored generic game pawns and matching poker chips

GM Screen:
I created a series of cheat sheets (here and here) with the Retrocalypse rules, and inserted them in one of those four-panel, portrait-orientation customizable GM screens. I wish they were better made: they tend to break where they fold after prolonged use.

Fallout: Nukeland

I managed to run a game of "Fallout: Nukeland" at KublaCon 2018:
2278: The territory of Nukeland has risen from the ashes of Old Oakland. The New California Republic is eager to absorb this territory, but they are overextended in the Mojave Desert. The Empire of Shi, built on the ruins of San Francisco, has one shot to claim Nukeland for its own before the NCR. And then at the turn of the tide, a ragtag group of Wastelanders searching for a giant rabbit disrupts everything.  
Content Warning: the Fallout setting features themes of sexuality, drug use, violence, slavery, body horror, Cold War propaganda, racism, giant vermin, and unethical experimentation. Please know that many of these are likely going to come up in the game. We will be using the “Cut” and “Brake” mechanism as a safety tool, as well as the X-Card. 
I had a small group at first: of the six spots advertised, two showed up, and I let in a third auditor whose schedule had cleared to allow commitment to the full run. A fourth auditor showed up - a younger fellow - and he was cool enough that I felt comfortable handing him a character, too.

The final cast list:
  • "Mojo Supermax", Raider Chemist (man) - ruggedly handsome
  • Brotherhood Initiate Stoddard (man) - left the Brotherhood behind
  • “Dibs” Hoshi, Vault Nerd (woman) - loves comic books
  • William “Mr. Visionary” Langstrom, Ghoul (man) - smokes, sarcastic
The Initiate had been sent by the Brotherhood to get the lay of Nukeland and see what kind of job the Brotherhood had in store if they moved in: figured a Vault would be a good asset to reconnoiter, so he followed rumors of a Vault dweller-cum-trader.

The Vault Nerd was sent out by the Overseer to follow up on a missing trader, a Vault expatriate named Harvey.

The Raider Chemist was having a hard time getting the components he needed to create his drugs because Harvey was nowhere to be found, so he, too, was looking for the former Vault dweller. The three converged on Boxport, a settlement on Harvey's trading route, and a likely place to find someone who might know something. 

They later picked up Mr. Visionary, a stylish ghoul looking for adventure.

It ended up being SO open world weird. I had way too much plot for six hours, so I didn’t successfully outline the power struggle between NCR, Shi, independence, and chaos - not to my satisfaction, anyway. 

I started out way too hard - certainly too hard for the 2 players who started the game. A Mirelurk Queen, accompanied by a Mirelurk King running interference for her, attacked Boxport shortly after some strange tone made everybody's ears pop. The Vault Nerd blundered into the battle and got taken out by the creature's acid spray; the Initiate held his own; the Chemist found a safe spot in some nearby wreckage, and managed to stumble upon a secret Enclave genetic experimentation facility buried in the wreckage. They dragged the fallen Vault Nerd to safety, and began looking around.

They started ransacking the computer stations for information, learning of a failed genetic experiment on mutated beavers, river otters, and sea otters, which resulted in an insurrection which eventually drove the Enclave to abandon the site. They disarmed the sonic device agitating the local mirelurks. The players also found a stealth-suited Chinese scout (a member of the Shi, a San Francisco faction introduced in Fallout 2 which, in my setting, had been targeted by the Enclave and driven underground - the Enclave wiping out the Shi was a plot detail which the failed Van Buren game project was going to establish, which I took as inspiration). They recovered the stealth suit, as well as his notes about scouring Nukeland for a rare computer component for the Shi Emperor.

After the players left Boxport, they headed towards a raider-controlled where Harvey had been rumored to have gone, hoping to loot Highland Hospital for specific chemicals that some of his customers needed. 

On the way, they stopped by The Sarcophagus, a Ghoul settlement with a post-apocalyptic Egyptian theme (looted from the Egyptian exhibit in the convention center they were occupying). They encountered Mr. Visionary outside, who confirmed the rumors about Harvey heading into the raider-controlled area. He successfully petitioned to join the group, so they continued onward with their new pal.

En route, the players encountered representatives of the Shi (cloaked in stealth suits, though the Initiate noticed their outlines). Their leader parlayed with the players, who traded for information about the dead Shi scout; she then offered 750 caps continue their fallen comrade's mission to recover a computer component from any nearby military base.They decide to investigate further, and that side quest essentially ended the game.

After asking around, they found someone at another settlement called The International who could boat them over to Federal Island, where a Coast Guard facility (a plot element I had already set up) was rumored to include military-level computer hardware. The players helped the guy acquire more lead to line his boat hull so it could be safe from the radioactive Bay water.

When they reached the Coast Guard facility, they fought their way in looking for the computer component, only to find that it was currently installed in a functioning, self-aware, PAM-style forecasting AI that was lonely, suffering from insufficient information, but still knew true things about the world’s evolution after the bombs dropped (PAM is a forecasting robot in Fallout 4 which uses probability algorithms to help the Railroad operate). 

They dropped everything and dug into this facility, resolving to defend and fortify, then start feeding the AI better info, inadvertently setting out on an independent Nukeland. Had to narrate the fight with the BBEG, but it was fun! I dubbed them the "Federal Island Forecasters."

I gave out Nuka Cola caps and stickers at the end!

What I had planned:
I had set up four possible outcomes for the fate of Nukeland:
  • Shi control - the small but technologically advanced Shi successfully unite Nukeland under their banner, providing nominal protection from other threats.
  • NCR control - the lower-tech but massivee New California Republic are able to move in and absorb Nukeland into the rest of their holdings in California, providing nominal protection from other threats.
  • Independence - much like the same outcome in Fallout: New Vegas, the players cleverly unite and strengthen the various factions of Nukeland against the Shi, the NCR, and any other threats.
  • Chaos - the raider elements of the Nukeland area manage to seize control of the area and turn it into their terrible fiefdom.
I gave each outcome an Influence Track with a number of boxes based on how easy each faction could make a bid for subduing or incorporating Nukeland. Easiest was the NCR, followed by the Shi, then Independent Nukeland, then Raider-controlled Nukeland. I also gave each outcome a set of guidelines for the types of missions and resources it would need to take Nukeland: wooing settlements, recovering tech, bullying settlements, taking out critical elements of a rival faction, completing this or that fetch quest. These would escalate organically.

The players would be given plot hooks into each of the major factions, which would offer missions that would strengthen that faction's position in Nukeland; eventually the players would woo various settlements and smaller factions to one side or another, and each of these places had their own bonuses or penalties to the influence they provided for each major faction, depending on how aligned they would be. 

The first faction to fill up its Influence Track would trigger the endgame and determine the outcome.

But I had time for NONE of that in a six-hour convention game.

Careless Whispers

For my Curse of Strahd run, I'm recording terrible things to whisper to each of the characters based on their chosen backgrounds, flaws, etc.

Maybe they will come up during a fortune reading; maybe whispered by a fragment of a barely remembered god from beyond time and space; maybe it appears on a slip of paper pinned to a tree by a dagger.

What I wish I knew how to do easily is formulate terrible, Dread- or Apocalypse World-style leading questions.

Other thoughts:

There is a problematic element identified in the "Curse of Strahd" adventure: "mongrelfolk." I'm opting to rename them as "broken ones", but there are elements of their existence in the setting which I am finding hard to reframe.

The broken ones, in Ravenloft, are specifically one degenerate family, the Belviews: a degenerate community of lepers and worse (echoes of Dunwich, Lovecraft country) who lucked out when an angel visiting the land decided to cure them of all diseases. Unfortunately, this didn't fix the consequences of generations of inbreeding, and when the angel set about to try and fix that, too, the Belviews said they wanted animal traits, so they could be better than normal people. The angel, in his pity, indulged their request, and began conducting horrendous magical experiments which ultimately jumbled the Belviews into random assortments of beast traits.

These first-generation broken ones can theoretically be restored magically to their original (albeit inbred) human forms. However, the setting indicates that they also breed true somehow, and later-generation broken ones essentially can't be restored to any semblance of normality.

The setting depicts them all as being more or less infirm of mind, so the angel has locked most of them up, Bedlam-style, where they are mistreated by the few functional broken ones entrusted with their care.

What the setting doesn't seem to do is have any sort of salvation for the Belviews.

It also doesn't establish whether or not the Belviews fall under the "souls v. shells" proviso (by which 9 out of 10 humans in the setting are mirthless, irritable shells of people with no souls, who cannot sustain a vampire's thirst and are immediately detectable as such by vampires - also, death is no escape, as no souls can leave Ravenloft, and are instead reincarnated after a few decades).

So... are the Belviews a colony of mostly shells?

Are there any with actual souls, and if so, are the merely functional, or do they have the capacity for grace?

Are they what happens when a community just keeps begetting shells and shells, with no soul-bearing progeny?

Some thoughts on redeeming this element of the setting:

Is it at all possible that the corrupt angel's ministrations are bringing new souls into Ravenloft when these broken ones have children? Could they be a new vector of souls that can get slotted into the pool of reincarnated souls which cannot escape? This may be good for vampires in the setting, but is it drawing these souls from somewhere else? Would that absence be felt, and would something start investigating?

Can the broken ones be reviled for their appearance, but instead of being all infirm of mind and incapable of living in society, could they instead be useful or industrious in some way? Waiting for someone to disrupt the cycle of revulsion and help integrate them anew into Barovian society?

Part of the setting is that the angel's continued failures with the Belview family has ultimately corrupted him, so making the Belviews redeemable feels like it would take away from that element: that Ravenloft is so bad, and Strahd so manipulative, that even an angel gets its wings soiled and drawn into the swamp

Should there be/can there be any hope for the broken ones? I can do what I can to remove the racist baggage that "mongrel" brings, but the broken ones are still an isolated community of inbred degenerates (like other fiction would set in the American Appalachians) which are essentially irredeemable and anathema to civilization, even with magical help.

Maybe a sacrifice is in order... maybe if the angel can be convinced to sacrifice itself for the Belviews, it can end its suffering, and bestow the Belviews with a better chance of integrating into society?

During a discussion on Google Plus, a friend suggested that we break up the continuous slog of bleakness by making the broken ones more or less "pure" souls, relatively untainted by the curse of Ravenloft, and to make the Abbey-cum-sanitarium a legitimately comforting (albeit alien) place where the weakest of the Belviews are fostered by the Angel. I would need to work to weave that back in with the established corruption of the angel's nature and its tragic attempts to redeem the land by finding a way to placate Strahd's terrible and cursed obsession with Tatyana.

"Curse of Strahd", Episode 2

Our heroes are confronted with Count Strahd von Zarovich, who has ridden up in a black carriage and stepped out to address the group. His shadow toys with theirs as the Count plays the kind host. As he speaks, one by one, his keen eye falls on each of the four adventurers, even the arcane trickster hiding by the roadside. His gaze lingers longest on the gigantic young man - the barbarian folk hero - whose muscular frame is coupled with a charming innocence and, presumably, a pliable will.

Strahd presents his one rule: his beloved Tatyana is not to be touched. The adventurers, normally prone to sassy backtalk, take the opportunity to pump the vampire lord for information: "how are we to recognize your beloved and avoid her?" Rhapsodic, Strahd enumerates her beauty, while his gold-gowned consort in the carriage shifts uncomfortably, clearly distressed. The adventurers ask about the missing children, and Strahd admits knowing nothing. The group manages to connect the crest on Strahd's carriage to the crest on the liveries of the zombies they had just killed and pulled to the side of the road, and mentally prepare for the consequences of killing what must be some of Strahd's guards.

But the hammer never falls. Strahd bids them adieu and steps back into his carriage; the dour elf driving the carriage coaxes the horses around the party and swings the carriage back onto the road before heading back towards town. A raven alights on a nearby branch, and the trickster, resentful of authority, and assuming the raven to be an eye of Strahd's, looses an arrow in its direction, hitting the mark squarely. The wounded raven flies off, the arrow sticking awkwardly through its torso, and the adventurers mentally prepare for that, too, to become a problem for them later.

The adventurers, having survived the encounter, continue towards what they hope is a town. Soon the four espy a stranger rider coming their way, threading in and out of the treeline. This skeletal rider on a skeletal horse looks for a way out of the mist, its soul doomed forever to remain in Ravenloft. The Kelemvorite priest knows better than to wait for such an undead abomination to attack, and waits until it is in range to strike. A small black book falls out of the horses's pack as the pair continue to thread through the treeline. The priest, his foe in range, lands the first blow with a scythe of pure faith guided by his will. The storm sorcerer and the barbarian engage as well, and the rider is quickly defeated. The barbarian hopes to maybe tame the skeletal horse, but the priest is not sparing any undead today, and it, too, falls under the party's might and magic. The trickster, having snuck over to the dropped book, picks it up, opening its pages to find the rantings of a trapped soul, which quickly begin evaporating from the pages until the book is entirely blank.

The group continues onward, finding a dead body by the side of the road, torn by wolves: they are able to establish that it is not Tatyana based on Strahd's eloquent description. They remove a satin choker with a brass butterfly pendant: the only real clue as to her identity. The group, weary from having traveled all night, nevertheless bury the poor woman, leaving her pendant on a stick marking her grave (which the trickster swipes as soon as they start to leave). They continue on as the night slowly gives way to an overcast dawn.

They eventually reach the massive wall and gate into Barovia proper, fifty-foot walls buttressed by gigantic statues depicting knights in armor, their heads fallen into the weeds and roots below. The gate, rusty and dew-pocked, opens at their approach, and closes fast behind them as they continue through the tight, choking forest. A sharp stench of something dead beckons from the forest, but the crew is in no mood to chase down trouble, so they continue on, heedless of the dire warning that the dead body would have borne them. As the forest breaks into grasslands, a crystal river glitters a mile to the south, so the adventurers stride to its shores to refresh themselves and refill their waterskins. They hike back to the road and continue to a fog-shrouded village: Brovia.

As they reach the town's outer limits, they hear the crying of a woman from a nearby house. Suddenly, a broken arrow falls from the sky, as a familiar raven flies overhead and alights on a nearby rooftop, eyeing the group. As the trickster picks up his arrow, soaked with dried blood, the raven spreads its wings and taps the roof to make it clear that it knew what it was doing. The cleric, trained in some basic wizardry, magically mends the arrow, which the trickster returns to his quiver. Unsure what to do about the raven, they continue into town, to find the barricaded house from which the woman's crying is pouring. They let themselves in and find a commoner upstairs, cradling an uncomely doll and bemoaning her lost daughter, Gertruda. The group approaches gently and asks her what is the matter, and she explains that she had locked her daughter up in the house for years to protect her from that devil, Strahd, but innocent Gertruda broke out last week, and hasn't been seen since. Mary, the grieving mother, knows the devil has been whispering to her daughter through the boarded windows. The group manages to establish that Gertrude, too, is not a match for the Tatyana that Strahd described, and eventually leave the woman to her grief. The folk hero is the last to leave, conflicted about whether to comfort her or leave to save the missing children from his hometown.

The raven more or less leads the group to the center of town, as the morning-lit square begins to fill with Barovia's taciturn and glum villagers, starting their day. Slack-jawed, unexpressive, and somber, the villagers stop to stare at the newcomers, their clothing a muted tragedy of earthtones. One solitary baker out delivering bread – wearing a rich red vest, in stark contrast to the other villagers – gives them a friendly wave as he continues to his deliveries. Though the cleric knows of the Vistani and their language, he is unable to ascertain by sight whether the solitary cheerful fellow is one of that family. The raven beckons them to a tavern, The Blood on the Thorn, and they enter.

Immediately, they take in the measure of this once well-appointed tavern, now in disarray as of years of neglect. A silent, stocky barkeep solemnly polishes glasses; a trio of Vistani keep to themselves at a table, while a green-clad blonde fellow beckons the group of newcomers over to his table. Buying them a round of wine, the man introduces himself as Ismark the Lesser, then inadvertently alludes to his father's recent death. Having bought a round for the group, Ismark asks for their help with a problem: his adopted sister Ireena is in danger, and they may be able to help. The cleric immediately agrees, followed eventually by the rest of the group.

After finishing their wine, and a small breakfast of beet soup and bread, the four newcomers join Ismark and head to the mansion of Ismark Kolyanovich, their father, the deceased burgomaster of the town. The gate is barely hanging, the fence is torn and twisted, and the overgrown and neglected yard is matted and trampled at the base of the house, where hundreds of human and wolf tracks tell of a house constantly under siege, as do the myriad burn marks on the walls and the barricaded windows, from which shines not one single pane of glass. Ismark calls to Ireena to open the barricaded door, and after some deliberation, she does. The group sees a tan woman, hazel of eye, with curly raven hair, matching Strahd's description of Tatyana, and as she leans out the door to check for danger, they espy two small pricks at the base of her neck.


"Curse of Strahd", Episode 1

Finally ran Episode 1 of "Curse of Strahd" last night. After resolving remaining character questions and ability choices, here is what we have:
  • Folk hero barbarian, a smith's apprentice; comically misuses words trying to seem smart. 
  • Storm-pact Sorcerer, a charlatan, sarcastic, inappropriate; engaged to the folk hero's sister. 
  • Kelemvorite Cleric of the Grave, bookishformer Chauntean cleric drawn to the veil between life and death, and his owl familiar Astrid. 
  • Arcane Trickster with criminal ties and issues with authority. 
Each of them were residents of the town of Greenest, and proved themselves when the Cult of the Dragon attacked their town.

Still reeling from the Cult attack, the town is rebuilding, having lost almost all of its wealth to the cultists, and then the predatory bandits that fell on the town when it was vulnerable. Though a band of five heroes stood up for the town and destroyed the remaining vestiges of the Cult's infrastructure in the area, they had failed to return Greenest's stolen wealth, and after reporting back in, they disappeared completely. Some of the more cynical townsfolk wonder if the adventurers kept the riches looted from Greenest to retire somewhere.

The governor's seneschal finds that several children have gone missing in the past few days, and rounds up his irregulars to investigate. The Trickster is approached by his contact, who notes that this string of disappearances matches something that happened five years ago in Daggerford, and gives a description of the suspect in case they find him.

The four manage to talk a wagon out of the seneschal, citing the possibility of having to carry multiple children home; they were awarded a wagon that had been seized in a recent criminal investigation, but was currently befouled by a load of onions that had gone bad in the interim. They did their best to mitigate the smell, and rode off into the west following the tracks they hoped were correct.

Following the trail of children's footprints, adult footprints, and castoff waxy papers from an unusual taffy candy, the four draw got closer to the Wood of Sharp Teeth (coincidental name). Eventually a few of the trails become wolf tracks, and howling can be heard from the nearby forest. They leave the wagon behind and run/ride to the edge of the forest, where the barest echo of a child's scream draws them in. As they follow the tracks, howling coming from all sides, the fog drifted in, more and more dense, until they could barely see each other and their lights. The folk hero is quick to notice that the trees, fungus, moss, and the ground cover are all different somehow.

As the wolf howls echo in the distance, a lone raven call echoes from a new direction; the storm-pact sorcerer feels the slightest draw in that direction, so the group follows, ending up on a dank, soggy road flanked by dense, misty treelines. They follow the road, as the mist draws in behind them, closing off retreat. Soon, they come upon four disheveled people in dirty, torn livery, and before they get a chance to ask for directions, the Kelemvorite opens his eyes to the Veil, and though he is immediately choked by something inexplicable (it will eventually be revealed that even souls are trapped here in Ravenloft), he is instantly able to tell that the four liveried people are the walking dead.

As the group defends itself, an ornate black carriage drawn by two black horses comes upon them, piloted by a haughty elf coachman. As the last of the zombies fall, the coach parks across the road, its door disgorging an extremely wealthy and finely dressed man, pale of skin, with long raven hair.

"I am Count Strahd von Zarovich... welcome to Barovia."