Who was there? Bill, Scott, Carter, Clay, Kathryn, and Lucy. It was a full house.
Reward: TBD. The tweaks I’ve made from DFRPG into Fate Core are sufficiently in flux that I don’t want to definitely say “oh, and then every session people get X”.
The Road So Far
It had been 5 months and a newborn daughter since I ran last (ending on a cliffhanger to boot), so I tried to spark the group’s memories with some good scenes from past sessions.
- Clay, smashing two salt shakers together inside a murderous spirit’s phantasmal ribcage
- Scott burning the face off of fairy temptresses in Hades
- Carter and Scott tag-teaming a Neanderthal demon’s skull as well as the possessed miner who found it
- Bill shooting everything from red court infecteds to denarians
- Clay keeping pace with a red court vamp in a rooftop chase
- “I used to be a smoker demon, then I took an arrow to the knee”
- Lucy summoning a junkyard golem, laying waste to the Orks of Hazzard
- Tanya, queen of the Enchanted Forest Trailer Park elves, burning to death in her trailer
I ended with a (slightly retconned) summary of the cliffhanger: Clay, Bill, and Scott (with non-sabotaged motorcycles this time) roared out of the Enchanted Forest trailer park just in time to see a park ranger Bronco and 2 black Suburbans skid to a halt. Elsewhere, Carter, Lucy, and Kathryn had lost all contact with their friends (being trapped inside elven woods will do that) but picked out the police sirens easily enough.
Front-Loading the Ass-Whooping
A few compels were all it took to get Clay, Bill, and Scott to turn the prospective chase scene into a firefight once they recognized two of the agents getting out of the rear Suburban. It was none other than Agents Fox and Roberts, BLACKBOX agents from the Stackhouse adventure. They had 6 other ATF agents with them as well as Ranger Rick, and the exact mix of BLACKBOX agents to unsuspecting ATF pawns was unknown.
This was our first conflict in Fate Core - not just Core, but with some tweaks I had implemented based on our DFRPG experiences added on top.
1. I used MHR-style initiative. Whoever claims the first action goes first, then they choose who goes next, until everyone has taken an action. Fate points could be spent to interrupt. Overall, this worked well and the group keyed into the basic tactics of not letting the bad guys claim an alpha strike. We did have some confusion when it came to Boosts, which only last 1 round... with this system, on whose action do they expire?
2. I ditched stress tracks, opting instead of allow 2 mild, 1 moderate, and 1 severe consequence, plus granting 1 boost and 1 advantage per scene for -2 stress each. It sounds fiddly to explain it in one sentence like that, but it honestly wasn’t fiddly to grasp. Using it, however, did prove confusing because there were so many other boosts and advantages being created. This particular system is getting dropped in favor of something a little simpler as soon as I figure out what it should be. It could be as simple as shortening stress tracks but keeping them around, or even inventing a “Trivial Consequence” that subtracts 2 stress but only lasts till the end of the scene.
3. Otherwise, we played it fairly straight. We kept DFRPG weapon and armor values. The ATF agents were almost mooks: they acted in groups, had Fair skills, would take no consequences, but only one could be taken out per action barring special cases like area and spray attacks. Fox and Roberts had the full suite of consequences, and their relevant skills were at Great or Good for the most part.
Kathryn created a particularly clever advantage and brandished her assault rifle, causing the ATF agents to all shoot at her. Their shots did nothing, as she had Bonney’s Bane in her coat pocket, an artifact that granted immunity to gunfire. Lucy crushed the park ranger up against his Bronco with her black Charger, Bad Car. Clay leapt off his bike and tackled Fox to the ground, tangling her in her web gear before Roberts, himself compelled on “Former Marine”, bumrushed Clay off his partner in an attempt to see who was really the better man.
At the end of the round, Prince Sweetwater and a few surviving elves exploded out of the burning trailer park in a jacked-up Ford. They were out for vengeance, but Lucy got there first. She rammed Bad Car into the Ford, killing 2 elves and sending Sweetwater tumbling into the brush. Bad Car was wrecked for the scene (Lucy’s cost to turn her failure into a success).
The fight got pretty chaotic once the elves arrived.
- Someone drove over both of Agent Fox’s legs and she conceded while she was still breathing.
- The ATF agents got mauled really badly with motorcycle slams, rock salt, and drive-by melee attacks. All survived save one, whom Kathryn simply shot through the face as he was calling in backup.
- The PCs survived without lasting consequence, which ironically was exactly what I didn’t want to happen in a fight against 8 armed feds. Might as well have used stress tracks.
- Sweetwater conceded before Lucy’s animated trees tore him limb from limb. He ran into the forest screaming, the evil foliage in hot pursuit.
- Agent Roberts and Clay had a proper knockdown dragout fight, but Clay finally cracked some of Roberts’ ribs and slammed him to the dirt. Roberts conceded, at the mercy of the bikers.
Carter grabbed Roberts’ cellphone, but his roll wasn’t good enough so we decided that he could get useful intel off of it as long as he didn’t realize BLACKBOX had other means of tracking the phone. Kathryn, Clay, and Scott took ATF vests and were about to hit the road when Scott’s bike wouldn’t start.
Hard to Start, Hard to Stop
One of the tweaks I made to the default Core setup was that everyone got a free Aspect for their bike. It could be something character related, like Carter’s “One For Every Day of the Week”, or in Scott’s case, it was “Hard to Start, Hard to Stop”, and I compelled that now. Three more ATF Suburbans crested the hill, silhouetted by the dawn’s early light. Clay, Bill, and Kathryn all accepted compels to stick with Scott and turn an easy escape into a chase. Carter and Lucy each accepted compels (for different reasons) to scatter, leaving their erstwhile comrades to the mercy of the feds.
I ran the chase part of the scene as a conflict (mostly). The pursued could, as their action, choose a difficulty to overcome, then dare the pursuers to follow. It worked okay, I guess. Players noted that it didn’t seem balanced without some similar option for pursuers to take. At any rate, the three Suburbans were slowly and gradually Taken Out over the course of a breakneck chase through the South Carolina backwoods. I believe all of them ended up doing A-Team-style plunges through guardrails.
While all that was going on, the denarian Pantagruel (Bill’s nemesis, with a human host of Alex Abel, Carter’s nemesis) was circling overhead, biding his time. Abel’s company, Crowley-Lampkin, had enough government contracts that it could guide law enforcement towards the PCs every now and again. Pantagruel didn’t know BLACKBOX had caught wind of anything - he just wanted the PCs locked up so he could go get Houdini’s Key from the evidence room of whatever backwater sherriff’s office they ended up in, then use the Key to open the gates of Hell. Simple, really - all he needed to do was get the Key back from Carter, who had acquired it during the Austin adventure.
Christmas morning for Pantagruel looked like Carter driving alone through the woods.
Carter and Pantagruel rolled Notice against Stealth, and we both spent all our fate points to try to outbid each other. Pantagruel had the better dice this time, though, and plucked Carter right off his bike! “‘Ello, Carter,” Pantagruel hissed as he climbed skyward. “Give me the key and I’ll drop you in a field. If not, I’ll drop you on the asphalt and sift through your entrails.” That was enough to place “Terrified” on Carter, but it wasn’t enough to get him to give up Houdini’s Key. Carter mostly lied his ass off - the funny thing about knowing your opponent is a compulsive liar is that they can trick you by telling the truth. Carter’s rapid-fire verbal assault was enough to give Pantagruel “A Moment of Doubt”, which Carter used to draw his pistol and blast away.
Lucy heard the shots and saw the denarian fly overhead. She also remembered my pre-game breakdown of my custom skill list, and how Lore was now used to create wards, summonings, and exorcisms. She started creating a ritual circle with the intent of summoning Pantagruel to her, which was good, because Pantagruel’s response to 9mm slugs to the groin was simply to let go of Carter. Carter grabbed Pantagruel for dear life just as Lucy’s summons took effect and dragged the denarian spiraling towards the road. Carter shot his nemesis a few more times and then, since he was penned in by a ritual circle, Lucy hit him with Bad Car and slammed him down a wooded slope.
That Song By Asia
If I had taken 5 minutes to stop and think, I would have ended the session there. We had finished out the cliffhanger well enough, but it was early enough that I got caught up in the heat of the moment and wanted to keep going. Plus, Kathryn had a load of Black Court nastiness in her backstory that I never got to use and her player was headed to college. I didn’t know if I’d get another chance. This is where the adventure went downhill. Aside from the overall metaplot about multiple antichrists, I was totally winging it from here on in, quickly burning through my remaining time with a group of increasingly-tired players.
If You Kill Me You Won’t Find the Treasure
So... Bill saw Pantagruel roll to a bloody halt in the road in his rear view mirrors. The demon was quickly surrounded, but before he got a few parting shots from Bill’s custom handgun Owlfucker Pantagruel shouted “If you kill me the girl dies!” It was enough to stay Bill’s hand (and besides, his player’s good for going along with Obvious Roads to Plot Development). Pantagruel spun a tale about how Lucy Collins wasn’t the only friggin’ antichrist. He’d been keeping tabs on a couple and the gang had managed to slaughter most of them so far. The BLACKBOX escapee from Stackhouse was one. Howl, the Neanderthal demon, was another. Now Pantagruel had lost contact with surveillance teams in Tampa when one of the potential antichrists had been taken by a Black Court vampire - a certain Dmitri Romanovich, whom Kathryn had tried unsuccessfully to kill several years earlier.
Anyway, there was this girl who didn’t even know what she was who was about to be eaten by a vampire, or worse, the vampire knew exactly what she was and was going to be milking her for antichrist blood. Bill’s insane Lore rolls indicated that you’d either end up with a Dracula or a Lilith, so the gang decided that Pantagruel’s tip was too dangerous to ignore.
Finding a kidnap victim and BCV could have been a session on its own. I knew I was pushing things as it was at this point, so I made the entire thing into a huge Challenge, even battling their way into Romanovich’s lair and taking down his Renfielded minions. The investigation, casing the old apartment block, and infiltrating the building all did work well done as a Challenge, but nothing felt like it had sufficient teeth. It felt appropriate to a young BCV maybe, not an Old World survivor like Romanovich was intended to be. It was weaksauce, except for three things:
1. The idea that Pantagruel was able to use the PCs as his proxy assassins rankled the group some I think (in a good way). Next time I don’t think anyone’s going to wait for that denarian to open his mouth before they fill him full of lead. Did he guess Lucy would kill Rosa? Why did he want Romanovich out of the picture? Did he have some sort of accord with the Red Court in Tampa? With this session, Pantagruel’s finally gone from “oh, he’s fun to beat up” to “I’m-a kill that sumbitch!”
2. Romanovich actually survived, albeit with the Extreme Consequence “Sunlight”.
3. Lucy “rescued” Rosa Salazar, the girl in question. It was just Lucy and Rosa, and Lucy was 2 points in sponsor debt and had no fate points. All I said was “You know, Lucy, Rosa’s competition,” and slid the fate point over. Lucy talked to Rosa, gained enough trust for the poor girl to come over to her, then stabbed her in the back of the neck with her ritual knife.
Thoughts on the Session
As I mentioned, I was generally pleased with the resolution of the cliffhanger portion but felt the vampire assault in Tampa was sloppy and tacked-on. What’s worse is that given the proper time and planning, it could have been really awesome. It definitely was a lesson in quitting while you’re ahead. I had Hollowpoint in my bag; we could’ve played a quick one-shot with that with the time we had left instead of charging forward heedless of the impending lackluster gaming. Honestly, a 5 minute break just to think things through would have helped.
Thoughts on the Conversion to Fate Core
This, I have to say, went much better than expected. We all cut down from 7 to 5 aspects, with 4 refresh and 2 free stunts. Everyone took the maximum of 5 stunts, which meant players were hungry for compels and it really worked well for the initial conflict and following chases. There were a few occasions where players paid a cost to turn failures into successes, and those choices definitely drove the story and opened up new conflict instead of being just disappointingly low rolls.
The conversion wasn’t just swapping DFRPG for Core, though. I had a custom skill list of 16 skills which all worked just fine. We ditched the pyramid although my replacement structure still reinforced the idea of more limited apex skills. Everyone got an aspect relating to their bike, and most importantly, we dumped stress tracks for tracking damage. Everyone could instead grant their opponent a boost, once per scene, for -2 damage, or grant an advantage for the same. I thought this would result in more visceral hits and possibly quicker resolution, but in practice several problems appeared:
- Boosts and advantages from strikes got tangled up with the boosts and advantages from normal actions. This was really confusing for me, and I expect doubly so for my group. What still has a free invocation on it? Am I still “Pinned” or “Tangled in my Web Gear”?
- Despite the theoretical desirability of having narrative weight pinned onto every single successful hit via aspects, in reality it’s actually fairly difficult to stay that creative that consistently. Sometimes my brain just wanted a break, but no, I had to figure out an aspect name for another 1-stress hit on a dude. If I’m going to keep implementing anything like this, I’m going to write up a cheatsheet full of potential wounds.
- Handling supernaturally tough enemies didn’t work out so well. Pantagruel and Romanovich were both supposed to be pretty tough; Supernatural Toughness in DFRPG terms. What I had done for Pantagruel was give him Armor:1, make his consequences 2 points more effective (so that a Mild reduced stress by 4, a Moderate reduced by 6, and so on), and give him an extra Mild and Moderate. Pantagruel just didn’t feel as tough, though. The players were actually disappointed in how I had modeled this, so when the table is unanimous like that it’s a good time to rethink toughness and damage.
Custom skill list worked fine. Potentially some hangups in how the skill prioritization structure was handled. I can go into more detail if people want, but honestly I felt it worked well enough for most cases.
I tempted Bill’s player into taking stunts. He traded his wall of fate points for overwhelming knowledge about every facet of the supernatural. In return, new Bill ended up being quite a bit more spry than old Bill. We all joked about hip replacement surgery.
Bike aspects were great. A free aspect is just enough detail to provide some flavor without going deeper into the fractal and trying to stat up differences in motorcycles.
The relative drop in refresh and aspects was fine as well. Everyone didn’t have a problem dropping aspects that just weren’t used much or combining them into single aspects, which was a good sign that 5 aspects IS a pretty good number.
Damage tweaks were a misstep. I don’t know whether introducing a “Trivial consequence” that lasts for a scene and subtracts 2 from incoming stress is a fix, or whether I should keep stress tracks, or keep stress tracks but start their default length at 0, or use 1 track for all damage types, or what. On top of that choice is how to model supernatural toughness and recovery. I was really against stress tracks when I was doing my conversion, but now that I’ve seen it in practice my position has been tempered significantly. Nevermind whole-hog revamps like “use Bulldogs’ damage model”, “use stress like HP”, and so on. It’s a case where there are too many options and I’m not familiar with enough of them to really know if one direction suits me and my group best.
For Next Time
I don’t want the seat of my pants to crash on takeoff again. I’ve done a lot with system over the course of the Fate Core kickstarter; I want to buckle down and prepare the setting more than I have been. Work up adventure seeds, cool opening scenes, plans for the bad guys, and so on.