Monday, September 12, 2011

Game 03: Swagfest

Running this game was like starting all over again. I handed out the now-expected issue of The Shipping News, along with a "Player's Guide to the Eastern District" that I put together by extensive Copy + Paste from the Pirate's Guide to Freeport PDF. This is why I like to own both the PDF and print copy when possible. PDF always, print when possible. Print makes for easy reading, PDF makes for easy creation of player handouts.

The game picked up six years following the last game, with the players having a base of operations, having taken up residence at Zellara's former residence. They're squatters, and no one's interested in buying the property, even though it's now up for sale, having passed the years of escrow. Whenever someone comes around, Zellara scares them off, and so the place is known locally as being a haunted house. The Ghosts gang has to leave and enter at night, to maintain the illusion that the place is abandoned.

I started the game with a double-meditation to get into character. I'm a cinematic DM, and I run games like episodes of an ongoing television series. So I played "Southtown" by P.O.D., with the instructions to contemplate their characters' past six years. Near the end of the song, I gave a guided meditation of all the Ghosts except Ra'id (who had gone to prison) doing a heist - a smash and grab robbery. It goes bad, and guardsmen show up. I gave the impression of being trapped, and unable to find a way out, and ended it with Ra'id showing up silhouetted in a doorway, beckoning everyone to follow him.

I then played our Freeport opening credits theme, and allowed them to contemplate their characters in general.

The game proper began in the basement of the Ghost's house, where excavation is underway to build a basement. The game began with Hutch and Gar working on the basement. After the Ghosts took over 3 Lancet Street as their home, it became apparent it wasn't an ideal space for someone with Gar's line of work. The Alchemist's kit had to be taken down or set up at regular intervals, and stolen or smuggled goods sometimes jockeyed for space with the kitchen table. It became apparent at some point in the Ghosts' careers that a basement would be needed. To that end, floorboards were pried up, and digging began. It's taken six years for a few reasons:
1) They're teenagers. What teens do you know are that motivated to do back-breaking labor, even if it will ultimately benefit them?
2) They hit a very large rock and had to dig it out.
3) They hit clay and it slowed them down.
4) Everyone but Lucky and Tuck got too big to get into the crawlspace until they'd excavated further.
5) They can't remove the dirt very quickly without attracting attention (noise of excavation + piles of dirt just outside renders the Haunted House idea moot pretty quickly)

The hole is now big enough for a few bodies to dig, and Hutch is in there, throwing all of his considerable weight into the shovel falls. Hutch's shovel strikes stone: he strikes harder. A sound of stone grating on stone, and then silence, followed by a loud splash. The scent of effluvia: someone brings a lantern. Tuckery is lowered through the opening, the lantern illuminates a branch of Freeport's sewers, and with Gar shouting something about sewer gas, the halfling brawler is hastily pulled up. An alternate light source will be needed for further investigation, but in the meantime, there is a party to attend.

One of the things I love about my players is how much they've embraced playing the Ghosts as young men. Older and wiser heads would have put off a day of bacchanals and debauchery to properly close up the hole. The youths simply slap a loose board over it, and head out the door to deliver Gar's firework commission to the island they'll be launched from. Ra'id secures a ride with Dimetrios, a well known boatman on the Docks. The delivery goes smoothly, and all the characters are given a close up view of Drac's Folly, the lighthouse so much of the city's funds have been poured into. They notice missing stones on several of the levels, as though they are waiting for more masonry, but have continued building despite these gaps. Before they can quite the island, Ra'id finds himself face-to-face with Torsten Roth for the first time since he's been out of the Tombs. Ra'id counters Roth's snide dismissal of the Ghosts by asking "How is Dalloway's son doing?" to which Roth is somewhat perplexed and possibly shaken.

NOTE: In actual play, Shane/Ra'id had mistaken Roth for Walter Dalloway's father. Ra'id murdered Roth the night before. In later discussion with George/Gar, he suggested we employ a "reshoot" house rule, that players can yell "CUT!" for a scene where they blew something their character would clearly have known. We covered for it at the time, but have since employed the reshoot approach to making the narrative consistent. 

At this point, I inserted a "cut" scene, since Taylor/Hutch had elected not to accompany the other players to the island, and had been waiting their return very patiently. To reward him, and set up Swagfest, we gamed a conversation between Hutch and Finn, the crime boss of the Eastern District. Finn has invited Hutch and the Ghosts to join the Eastern District - to indicate their acceptance of the offer, their job during Swagfest was to protect Captain Jacob Lydon from assassination: Lydon owes Finn money, and is a likely candidate for Captain's Council. Finn wants Lydon to be in his debt, and know it. So the Ghosts are to do two things: protect him from other assailants, and then win the Rat's Race at Swagfest, so they can shake Lydon's hand with a specially treated glove. The glove would administer a poison Finn has the antidote for, permitting him to "rescue" Lydon and emphasize his relationship with the crimelord halfling.

Swagfest was originally a web enhancement from Green Ronin's "Focus on Freeport" series, called "Holiday in the Sun." The main modification I made to the adventure was to jettison the Aranea’s lair filled with cocooned festival-goers at the very end. My players know I'm moving along plot lines, and I don't want to stick random beasties in the game just for a bit of combat.

Swagfest is a Freeport festival, one of those excuses to party based in the history of a place. As stated in the adventure, Swagfest is "one of the city’s most important holidays. Celebrating the Great Raid of Sea Lords Drac and Francisco, in which the fleet of Freeport terrorized the maritime nations for three months and brought back loads of booty, Swagfest is a day long party that shuts the city down with revelry." The characters were made aware of two events, One Eyed Jack's Stand and The Rat's Run via this game's issue of The Shipping News.

The issue also included plot hooks in the form of advertisements and an article on a missing priest from the temple of Abadar: I messed up here, in my haste using the original text from The Freeport Trilogy, so that it says The Temple of Knowledge. But I'm trying to weave in the element of keys from some ad-libbed moments with the PCs, so it should have read "temple of Abadar."

To simulate the chaos and noise of a party like the one in "Holiday in the Sun," I cranked up my soundtrack, which was comprised of the following songs:
1. Throw Them Overboard - Abney Park
2. The Derelict - Abney Park
3. Aether Shanty - Abney Park
4. The Gaelic Reels - Carter Burwell, from the soundtrack to Rob Roy
5. The Blunt Reels - Capercaillie, from the soundtrack to Rob Roy
6. Lowlands Low - Bryan Ferry, from Rogue's Gallery
7. Rolling Sea - Eliza Carthy, from Rogue's Gallery
8. Boney was a Warrior - Jack Shit, from Rogue's Gallery
9. Good Ship Venus - Loudon Wainwright III, from Rogue's Gallery
10. Jericho - Subway to Sally
11. Mit Dans is all die Werit genesen by Corvus Corax
12. Gaudalier by Corvus Corax
13. Goigs de la Nostra Dona by Corvus Corax
14. Estuans Intrinsecus by Corvus Corax
15. Venus Vina Musica by Corvus Corax
16. Urmawi by Corvus Corax
17. Scotus by Corvus Corax
18. Villemann og Magnhild by In Extremo

I imagine Abney Park as the standard Pirate band, followed by a few "open mic" artists, with Subway to Sally, Corvus Corax, and In Extremo as a half-orc band. I got the idea to use Corvus Corax for this back when I was doing the steampunk Middle-Earth campaign. It works really well, and my decision to turn the music up forced us all to shout like one has to at a live event. If you're wondering where amplification comes from in a medieval/pirate setting, you need to revisit the Bard spells. A world of magic could produce music like this.

I then set the Ghosts loose in the party: they made perception rolls to check out who might be seeking to kill Captain Lydon: anything less than a full success, and I passed them one of the NPC cards of a pretty girl. These are young men, after all! This lead to some contacts made: Hutch met a belly dancer who works as a tavern maid at Kafe Ilkin, and Ra'id met Lexi, a courtesan at the Serenity House. Ra'id also spotted his ex, Vikki Tarjay across the crowd, but there was no altercation. Gar thought he saw a woman who was a dead ringer for his mother, and Tuck bumped into his girlfriend, Lilly. Lucky and Mokey had assumed a rooftop position to watch for trouble from above.

Both Hutch and Tuckery participated in One-Eyed Jack's stand, which Tuckery won by a small margin. Dimetrios was the competition in this event, having beaten all but Tuckery's score.

It was after that event that the assassin strikes. A cloaked and masked figure with a crossbow attempts to shoot Lydon. Hutch forces Lydon to the ground, while Mokey and Lucky give pursuit across the rooftops.
And here's where I made my big mistake.

I had grabbed the rooftop chase from The Edge of Anarchy, the same Paizo adventure-path-book I took the plot-points for "Game 02: Lamm's Little Lambs" from. I won't give away the details, but it's an expansion on the chase rules from the Pathfinder Game Master's Guide. It works great, but my explanation was rushed, and for whatever reason, I had placed all the PCs on the roof. This was a bad idea for several reasons, namely that not all these PCs belong on a rooftop. It was a less than stellar moment, but thankfully it all worked out more or less. I think it would have been better had I kept it to Mokey and Lucky and allowed the other players to game their own scenarios. Ah well. C'est la vie. Mokey ended up shooting the runner with his pistol, and so the Ghosts were able to turn the would-be-assassin over to Finn. Again, this was an error. I think Hutch wanted to interrogate the assassin, but I was railroading the game along, falling back into old habits that are based in goal-oriented-gaming. It was late, I was tired, and I wanted/needed to get more of the story out of the way before the next session. I think the only reason the chase ultimately worked was my kick-ass choice for chase music. Again, I included some anachronistic pop: "Trip Like I Do" by Filter, as remixed by Crystal Method. I then switched to "I'm Not Driving Anymore" by Rob Dougan and "24 Ghosts III" by Nine Inch Nails. Both worked nicely as chase music, though again, I wouldn't have used them outside this Freeport campaign. For whatever reason, these non-epic pieces are really working for this gritty crime story.

I've learned my lesson from that experience though, and had I to do it over again, would have cut the game short to pick it up for Part 2 of Swagfest.

However, at the time, we just soldiered on, with the finale being the Rat's Race, which Ra'id ran in. It was a touch and go affair a few times: Ra'id nearly got beaten out of the race, literally. The violence of the racers nearly crushed a child at the start, and only Tuckery's fast reflexes saved the boy, much to Lily's appreciation. Finally, when the rat entered Scurvytown, he made his way ahead of the other contestants, to follow the rat into an abandoned building. In the original adventure, this is where he'd have met the Aranea, but instead, Ra'id discovered a trap door with stairs leading down. He retrieves the rat, who strangely won't go any further beyond the stairs, and wins the race. The Ghosts deliver the hand-shake, and the poison. I finished with a "cut scene," wherein Ra'id discovers that the double-headed snake amulet is missing - stolen, from the Ghost's home.

My other regret in not extending this story to two sessions was the absence of Gar's excellent fireworks, which I included in the next issue of The Shipping News. I think it would also have been a chance to expand on character relations, which will continue to be a key in the upcoming games. Nevertheless, it was a good time, and decent "restart" of sorts to our campaign.