Welcome back to this third and final instalment of the mini-season of SHC Season 5!
A d20 Modern campaign run by five players and no GM, using Emulators.
We last left our crew of L15 urban arcana characters in their secret base, which needs a lot of things finished to be a real base where people can live. It has mystical wards, but not much more.
Dan: AKA Dan ‘Steeleye’ Hewstone: ex-radio psychiatrist and now Acolyte of the faith
Cliff: ex-bouncer and now close-protection Bodyguard for the team
Hitch: AKA Joe Hitchcock: ex-journo and now powerful Arch-mage of the Mage style
Paul: AKA Paul Birkby: ex-white-collar crim and now powerful Arch-mage of the Technomage style
Sandi: ex-student and now Gunslinger of the Infiltrator style
Action Point: these frequently appear in the mechanics though this week I skip naming when they are spent. Each character receives a number at each new level. They can only be spent during play, not earned. They grant a small number of advantages depending somewhat on feats, but are principally used to improve dice rolls in skill checks and saves. Most characters began season five with around 60 APs. Assume many of the key saves this session saw an Action Point or two thrown in. As an added feature for GM-Free they can also be used to ‘tag’ a scene.
Descriptions: When I use this term I’m referring to Description tables from the Location Crafter.
Emulator: When I use this term on its own I am referring to the Mythic GME.
Scene: The team’s base. Still.
“Say Hitchie, are you like totally sure we have to go like right now?”
Hitch pauses in packing his bag, his face suffused with emotion.
“OK well Hitch then. Same question. ‘Cause like Paul’s written up this cool schematic and I got to start climbing and wiring. And Cliff’s just assembling the door gizmo thingy.”
“Thing is luv, I got a message from Unit 14, and it’s not all Nice Guy North; it’s also Mean Joe Green. They want a nexus fixed in the worst way.”
“Well OK… only I did think with Dan still hurt and Cliff a teenchy bit banged up we could lay-up and anyway I got this cool idea about how we get to Three Fish Island!”
Hitch sighs, but some of that babble did make sense. Especially to an Arch-mage well shy of the Arch-bit when it came to spells in hand.
“It’s Third Fish Island Sandi. This is not Dr. Suess: it’s January in Chicago. Who would be insane enough to ferry us out into the middle of a Great Lake in winter?”
Mechanics: Since the last session ended on an Interrupt, we needed to check some of the detail around it.
- Is this ‘flaring Nexus’ Hitch has learned of also on Third Fish Island, where a previous mission has already aimed us?
- Is this something we have to deal with right now given we did not have a complete handle on the time we had rested?
The answers to these questions were extraordinary yes; and yes. Chaos is 5 as this is the start of a new session.
Scene: The team’s base, in a spot where Sandi can get good reception.
“Uh h’lo Uhleesha, it’s Sandi here! …Yeah hi, right, like totally! …So I’m in town… Yeah you had a feeling I’d be here…”
The other four listen with half an ear as Sandi works around to her point.
“So Leesha, Uncle Barry still around? Remember when he took us ice-skating, it must be like three years back! I like need a favor from him so like if you can send me his number, that would be so awesome!”
At length, Sandi ends the call.
“Uncle Barry is Uhleesha’s last father-but-one, he’s a pretty cool guy, and he works on Team Shogren, the powerboat thing, you know. I don’t figure he’d have a powerboat but he could put us onto something and maybe take us out.”
“Uhleesha was one of your room-mates, right?” Hitch verifies.
“Yeah, like, the bigger one.” Sandi gestures as to cup-size.
“I wasn’t going to say…” Hitch murmurs tactfully.
“Oh she totally wouldn’t mind, she loves how she’s got it over us other two in that department.”
After a brief discussion on approach and needs, Dan prays for Sandi’s charm to increase and she makes the next call. The others listen in as she puts it on speaker. This is easy to follow. Barry knows a guy, and if we have money, he could be the right guy for an unscheduled boat trip out into the deadly waters.
“But since we’re looking at heading east to the shore tomorrow morning, we do get to rest after all. Cliff, Sandi: keep working!”
Mechanics: There are no Chaos events. We use the NPC Emulator to set Barry’s mood in this conversation given his current relationship with Sandi, then move to d20 mechanics for Sandi’s Charisma check (at +5 rather than +3 thanks to Dan). Sandi uses an action point to get DC14. This is enough to give us a contact. The NPC Emulator indicates it is a contact, and that he wants money. Chaos moves to 4 as this scene went the way we wanted. The spellcasters are given a chance to rest in a compromise on time. It’s not logical that a boat could appear ready to take us, so some time has to elapse anyway.
Scene: a deserted parking-lot off Tower Road, on the lake.
“That’s a fancier boat than I’d expected,” Paul remarks. He scans it anxiously, one might say paranoiacally, for signs of coastguard or police insignia. The clear grey light of morning betrays no such thing. And there’s only one man on the jetty, though any number could be hiding behind the nearby ‘Tower’ building, its smokestack an easy landmark.
“Team Shogren has some really rich guys, like sponsors, you know. I guess Uncle Barry knows a guy with a fancy boat,” Sandi replies vaguely, being too busy moving bags of gear from Cliff’s Ford Excursion over to the jetty. She’s wrapped up much heavier than usual, and her nose barely pokes out of her fur-lined hood.
“Hmmm… oh well, let’s front up Dan, you do the talking I’ll chip in where needed,” Hitch avers.
Dan’s bulk is even bulkier in his winter layers and as he follows the man’s tottering path to the jetty, Hitch can’t help a mental picture of the sweat being wiped and a ‘Sheeeit’ escaping, even though Dan has never ever sworn in his presence. He does note the boat, a handsome launch, might have come from the north, where the rich estates are, many of them locked up for the winter.
Since Dan has a bundle of high-denomination notes, and knows how to talk to a brother, the negotiations are swift and successful. He can’t help but suspect that this boat is stolen, but the insurance claim of some vastly wealthy person is something he’s willing to live with. Glancing over at Hitch as they clamber down onto the launch deck, he can see the Britisher thinks the same.
“Cliff! Make sure to move the car back to somewhere less obvious!”
“Roger that!” Cliff replies cheerfully. He’s loving the position of key driver and he’s still stoked from installing the hardware needed before they left. The SUV rolls into the anonymity of the main carpark and under the barren embrace of a snow-laden beech.
“Nice-looking family,” Hitch comments, looking at a smiling family on the cabin’s wall. Every face is many shades whiter than their pilot’s.
“Oh, uh, sure, well no mind that now, H’ep y’sel’ ta th’ drinks cab’net!”
Mechanics: very similar to the last scene. There are no Chaos events. We make assumptions that the NPC is willing to deal, Dan makes a diplomacy check aided by Hitch (like most of this family of rules there is no ‘haggle’ in d20 modern) and the only question left for the Emulator is:
Is our contact willing to pilot us? [Likely] A: Yes.
There’s some doubt about how far south we had to go but, like the uncertainty of time between Dan’s action against the Harpies and our final return to base, it’s the simplest explanation that is used. Since we have money, our contact can meet us more or less due east of where our base is, so a short drive for us. We have not moved grid-wise, so no need to test for an event.
Chaos is back to 5, since we did not quite get the Uncle Barry solution we originally wanted.
Scene: the icy waters off Third Fish Island
“Is this it?”
“Shu’nough, that what the compass an’ GPS say. On’y compass be acting crazy, an’ wind be pickin’ up, so man, you gots to getcha asses on that dinghy and I gots to get depth!”
“Into the boat kids!”
Hitch turns back to ‘Slick Willie’ as he’s decided to name this anonymous pilot.
“There’s a dock somewhere around the island – we’ll meet you there tomorrow!”
“Can do! I knows ya don’ wanna be here longer than ya haveta!”
With a last wave the little dinghy speeds up to a sandy shoaling beach and Cliff jumps out and runs it well up, careless of the outboard’s setting. It’s a piece of salvage now anyway.
Mechanics: This was just dealt with via the Emulator. No Chaos event. Did he find the dock? No. Did he pack a boat for landing? Yes. Will he agree to meet us? Yes.
Chaos drops to 4 since we got where we wanted and landing at the dock (where the Deep Ones’ human hybrid allies are bound to notice) is not necessary.
Scene: Third Fish Island
Exploration: I have prepared a hybrid of Location Crafter and Mapping Cards, coupled to a playing card deck mechanic, for exploring Third Fish Island. (Having a week to prep made this easy.) I had not been happy with Mapping Cards on their own. By creating a number of unique and common cards I have a system that offered a random exploration with good chances to interact with the inhabitants.
Mission reminder: This is a thread given by Judge Maynard. “Recruit the Deep Ones” to help break the barrier.
Other threads: Close down the Nexus activity.
The team, burdened by heavy clothing and various bags, makes its way off the sandy shore and up through stands of evergreens, mainly pine, the needles sliding underfoot. Snow was old-packed into any northern slope or hollow.
Sandi, in the lead with ‘toaster’ or Nexus-device, crouches into cover and signals Cliff forward.
Cliff weighs up the dangers of walking up to what looks like a lookout point, against the potential to spend the night walking through forest. He gives the thumbs-up and Sandi, shedding a layer of fur parka and a bag, weaves almost unseen up there. She gives a soft-called report, bringing the others up to the high ground to see what she has seen.
“That looks like some kind of ranking chief.”
“Actually Dan that would be a female,” Hitch explains. “I’ve done some background in this field and we could be looking at a Priestess.”
“Those others don’t look friendly.”
“They’d be her guard of honor. Brutes or maybe female Vestals, tough fighters either way.”
“So, we’ve caught our deep ones and now we just have to land them and cook them!”
“Not actually funny Cliff,” Paul snarks.
After some details from Hitch as to what the Priestess might bring down on them if negotiations go sour, Hitch and Dan buff themselves and set forth down the slope.
To the watching trio, it seems to take forever. But at length, the dynamic duo return and report.
“She’s given us the go-ahead!” Hitch announces jubilantly.
“I can only see God’s hand guiding us in this,” Dan agrees, “we can close the Nexus problem and it looks like that will sway her voice to our side for Deep Ones councils.”
“Whereabouts are we ‘going ahead’ to?” Paul asks acidulously. Cliff and Sandi muttering about ranges and damage from the G3 has frayed his patience.
“Down roughly opposite where we came from, there’s an old lighthouse. Apparently that’s where we have to sort something out,” Hitch explains cheerfully.
“To the lighthouse!” Paul sneers: even his cultural references have a barb in them.
Mechanics: exploration generated a chance of bad or good at DC13. The likelihood was that it was harmful but the Emulator disagreed. This meant that a Spot DC13 would provide an advantage. Success (it’s a take 1 for many in the party) moved us to a Description: Fortunately Warlike.
Since that ought to be Deep One related, I read possible deep ones out and we decided the logical one to meet was the Priestess (plus entourage). We were on a lookout, and the card drawn was a diamond meaning range, so the team had plenty of time to prep.
The scene then moved to a diplomacy session, though it probably should have been a new scene. The NPC Emulator gave us a current attitude off the norm, and d20 Diplomacy mechanics moved the priestess’ attitude to Friendly.
It was now time to learn what ‘Friendly’ actually meant. Returning to the NPC Emulator, now with Friendly as a base, we find her bearing is Prejudiced Discrimination. That sounds bad but I argued convincingly that this being an Advantage, means the priestess is discriminating enough to treat us different to all other humans and actually see us as useful.
So what is it that she wants us to do? The Description gives us ‘Rudely Glorious’ which suggests the abandoned lighthouse, and the Action gives us ‘Travel Liberty’ which means we can walk there without being attacked.
Chaos drops to 3.
Scene: approaching the lighthouse
Dan strides forward confidently, holding his cross-cane aggressively outthrust before him. A dozen or so grey-green foul beings launch themselves up out of the earth around the entrance, and he bellows:
“FEEL THE POWER OF GOD ALMIGHTY!!!”
Seven of the ghouls evaporate but the others mob Dan, who scuttles back unadroitly. Choking down a laugh Cliff hammers shots into two, dropping them, then a third that staggers and a fourth that falls as well. One remains unwounded, loping down and tearing at Dan’s coat. Hitch sprays Magic Missiles selectively into these two last, and they fall. Sandi has stood relaxed, coat open, side on, and as she expects, there is no call for her to produce her Glocks. Paul sniffs, rubs his nose’s tip with an ungloved hand, and hastily puts the hand pack in a fur-lined pocket.
Dan trudges back up to the lighthouse, poking at dead ghouls and making sure they really are dead.
“That was easy!”
“It could have been harder if we hadn’t met buried ghouls before. And of course we are pretty sure to spot this kind of thing. Well, kit ready, let’s get down there. No electricity and I gather there’s some kind of tunnels below ground. So let’s prep for darkness.”
Mechanics: since the things we did know about the lighthouse were that it does contain a route below ground, and that the Deep Ones want us there, it seemed best to roll descriptions again, as well as a Monster roll. There was no Chaos event.
The descriptions are: Slowly Empty; and Stop Nature.
We get quite excited thinking this could be a major league vampire, but I have not prepped a Vampire Lord (Note to self: prep Vampire Lord as a boss.) It seems undead-y, so when a monster roll comes up with a mere CR3, Dave, who is instigator this week, comes up with ghouls. I did forget to point out that Action Points used thus far could be used to boost the CR, but that came in later so was not wasted.
The descriptions also influence our choice for the level boss later.
The ‘buried’ ghouls are my own touch, they could just as easily have been pouring out of the lighthouse and adjunct building. Either way we did not feel in any danger, this is a no-xp encounter.
Chaos is back up to 4 though because it was an attack on us.
Scene: below ground under the lighthouse
Sandi is in the lead again, toaster creating a ruckus-in-miniature. The Nexus is close and as Hitch warned, it is off the charts. She nearly misses floating, ichorous tendril-like things slowly extending down from the roof just in range of her NVGs. She signals and pulls back, dropping the toaster lightly back into its satchel.
Then all present feel their minds being invaded! All save Paul shake off the gloatingly crepusculous mental attack and ready weapons. Paul’s nature is – just perhaps – slightly more akin to these spores from hell’s cesspit, and he readies a devastating attack on his fellows.
Cliff opens the ball with bursts from his G3, the final one collapsing one of the floating oozes into writhing tendrils, which crumble swiftly to dust. Hitch, with the benefit of the Darkvision he’s using, spots two more, and chills them down with a Cone of Cold: then holds, to see what they do. Dan also pauses – range attacks aren’t always his forte and besides, Sandi has yet to open up. Then he notices Paul’s spell – and it’s an attack on the team!
“Confusion take you all!”
No-one is affected – luckily! Sandi hasn’t even noticed and now the toaster is away she has two hands free. Glocks appear like magic and bullets, empowered by Hitch’s best enchantments, scour the other two oozes off the ceiling. Paul clutches his temples as the compulsion to get rid of his fellows is broken.
But Dan has also spotted more trouble: those were not the only ichorous fiends in the passage!
Four ichors drifting towards the team are bathed in a column of holy flame. Their tendrils thrash, but they bend their fiendish intelligences into the next attack.
But some miracle preserves everyone’s mind this time. Hitch glances sharply at his fellow-mage but can see Paul is back to ‘normal’ so casts Haste on Cliff; while beside him Paul throws a Cone of Cold that devastates the four oncoming oozes then hastes Sandi.
The extra speed granted allows Sandi to run in, blast with her Glocks and run out again as three of the four collapse behind her. Dan finishes the last one with a Searing beam of Light.
But before the team can congratulate one another on a job well done, their minds fill with Confusion!
Paul’s eyes narrow as he sees Sandi some thirty feet in front of him. “You think you’re sooo stealthy, you and your perky can-do personality! Try something a bit more conspicuous!”
Sandi’s form is bathed in coruscating sparkling dust, and she is brightly outlined as the Glitterdust settles.
“Oooh sparklies! Sparkly bullets, sparkly me! Cool!”
Dan, who alone is unaffected by the ensorcelment, has spotted where the fresh menace has appeared. It’s more of the same!
The latter fiery spell has a devastating effect on the three sluggish ichors. But none collapse and the team’s future teeters on the balance!
Hitch swivels around and drops a fireball on Dan, standing somewhat behind the others. The ground scorches right up to his toes. To his surprise, as the flames wash out, he sees Dan is still on his feet! But he has no time to consider a follow-up, because from beside him Paul fries him with a Lightning Bolt! Hitch jumps with the shock but staggers back to fighting stance – and this time, Paul is in his sights!
Dan knows enough about spells to be well aware that this is Trouble. He’s got time enough to give a quick prayer of thanks that Sandi and Cliff are wandering away, not joining the mayhem. He pulls Spell Immunity against Magic Missile up and then with a surge finishes the ichors off with another Flaming Wrath.
But the mages are now locked in a Mage Duel. Hitch maximizes his Magic Missile and Paul screams with the pain as the multiple bolts arc home. But he stays on his feet and ripostes with another Lightning Bolt! Hitch evades enough to avoid the worst of it, and readies his next attack: then Dan’s Dispell shatters the Confusions from them!
“Whoof! That was close! I’m dreadfully sorry Paul!”
“So am I…”
Hitch chooses to read reciprocity into the grudging drawl, and asks:
“Quick! Dan! Where are the other two?”
Hitch runs, thankful that his Darkvision was not stripped away, and Paul follows. Just in time! They briefly catch a glimpse of Sandi snuggled quite close up against Cliff, then she grabs for her guns:
And before the startled Cliff can react, his Confusion is also gone.
“All safe and well? We’ve taken a beating but we’re still all up, so let’s shut this mother down and get home!”
Mechanics: This mini-boss-fight comes from a relatively simple monster check, based partly on the previous “Stop Nature” description. There were three AP in the kitty and these were used to boost the card draw to CR10 from the 7. The options included Satanic Ichor, which seemed to fit best, so that was chosen. The d20 cross-roll was a 20, giving three groups of 3-4. This is a tough combination since teams can’t target more than one group at a time. The Ichors were immune to bullets but Sandi and Cliff use +4 Magic Bullets so not an issue. Their mind attacks were potentially deadly and very good work from Dan saved everyone.
Chaos is now 6.
Scene: The Nexus
Mechanics: The team closes the nexus. There is no chaos event so this is a non-event. Chaos drops to 5.
Scene: Audience with the Deep Ones
Mechanics: using the NPC Emulator heavily, with support from the Descriptions, we move from Cautious to Helpful via a Diplomacy check. Again, Dan leads and Hitch helps. I ask that this is double-checked off the NPC Emulator and we get Knowing Examination. We conclude that the Deep Ones did not just take Dan’s word for it that the Nexus was calmed: they went back and examined it. Over to the main event: result of negotiations. We make two paired rolls on Descriptions. First, Defiantly Creepy. Then, Befriend Allies. Awesome! The Deep Ones will continue to act in their own creepy way, but are now allied with us in our own mission.
Thread ‘Recruit the Deep Ones’ is closed.
Thread ‘Close the crazy Nexus’ is closed.
Chaos drops to 4.
Scene: The dock
“Nope. No-one on the horizon either.”
A feeling of desolation vast as the grey ice-flecked lake beyond fills the team. Trapped on Third Fish Island! Hitch kicks a bollard moodily.
“Slick Willie must have seen Coastguard or maybe Police were out after him. Either way he’s not going to come back any time soon. Bugger.”
Sandi’s native optimism bubbles up through her parka.
“Say! Let’s not be down about this! I bet if you geniuses got up into that Lighthouse you could rig something up to radio across!”
“Or increase our coverage to get to the shore… you’re right! Let’s get up there and rig a booster!”
It’s not long before Paul and Cliff have fashioned a rough and ready cellphone booster. Hitch is looking at his notepad thoughtfully.
“What? Oh… right! I’m going to see if I can get us a wire-walk into UC.”
“Why’s that Hitch?”
“My research points to Jack Deverick’s secret library being stashed in a lockup near there.”
“Going off half-hitch-cocked again? You know we need to get back first, rest up, collect Cliff’s car…”
“Alright, alright, let’s do it step by step. I’ll try Yelp for some fooderie, we’ll get across then sort things out. You ready?”
“If it’s wire-walk you are referring to, yes. If it’s another glimpse of Sandi enjoying the view with Cliff, no.”
It is not long before the Golden Arches on Green Bay Road has five sudden drop-in guests, all heavily kitted up for the winter as though they had been out on the lake shore. The short stocky one heads out quickly saying something about a car, and the lone woman heads after him. They arrive back in an aging SUV about ten minutes later. The other three bicker about who is picking up the tab, pay, and leave.
Mechanics: Chaos intervenes for the first time in the session. We get an Interrupt, just when we think we are about to chug back in triumph. The Event Focus is Moving Away from a Thread, and by the guidelines it is the current thread – i.e. we don’t get home. To double-check, we roll action and subject on the Emulator and get Betray Adversity. This is convincing enough – ‘Slick Willie’ has indeed fled the law and left us high and dry, and cold.
The ‘can we get cell coverage’ is handled via Emulator though I personally think a booster would be needed, so wrote it in.
Hitch has some unrevealed research, as to the whereabouts of Jack Deverick’s occult library, and does check at this point via the Emulator whether it is on 3rd Fish Island, but it is not.
Chaos rises to 5 since that was an Interrupt.
Epilogue: A secure lock-up compound
Sandi gives the all-clear and Hitch moves in swiftly, entering the lock-up alleys and choosing one in a very quick time. He waves his hand and the lock unsnaps. The others move up, open the lock-up and begin transferring boxes into Cliff’s SUV.
“And now… we have a campus!”
Mechanics: even though it’s getting late we add this scene on. Sandi makes an Open Locks roll – her other skills are Take 1 level for not being seen or heard in the night and away from people – and we agree this gets us into the lock-up. We don’t bother tagging the scene because it doesn’t matter, unless something happens, how big it is. It’s less secure than a Bank and more secure than unattended locked sheds. Hitch has a Knock spell capable of opening normal locks. We call the scene, allowing us to discuss xp.
Thread ‘Set up a secure base in Chicago’ is closed.
XP and Future Sessions
So far in the three-week trial we have avoided xp discussions. At this stage we take feedback and put some thoughts about how xp is gained on the table.
XP options vary from ‘just what you kill’ through ‘everyone gets the full xp of kills’ to ‘thread based – a major thread is a level’ and considering how the GM used to deal out xp we opt for the third option. This gives us a clear path of objectives and just as importantly, will not gear the season as a monster-hunting exercise.
All characters rise to L16. Dan has the worst problem because he is considering moving to Shadow Slayer – an odd choice but he’s taken some odd choices throughout – and was told he needs the Carpathians to instruct him. Hitch and Paul just stack on more Archmage; Cliff is looking at more Bodyguard and Sandi takes her first level of Gun Goddess (AKA Kowloon Gun God).
Overall, the group is satisfied with GM-Free play, if not willing to switch to this mode completely.
‘A lot better than I expected – because I thought it would suck’
‘Not as much fun as with a real GM, but bearable’
These are typical of the bottom end of approval, and with two players happy enough to repeat the exercise when the schedule allows, we’ll be seeing more of Cliff Dan Hitch Paul and Sandi in the future.
Keep an eye out – we’ll be back!