GM-Free SHC Season 5: Full Session 1

This is our first full session of GM-Free modern roleplay. Our group is using materials I’ve assembled, tools that stand in for a GM. We plan to give this three sessions then evaluate, and if it seems worth continuing we will adopt any necessary changes.

The main mechanism of GM-Free is the Mythic GM Emulator.

An NPC’s general attitude and specifics can be generated using the NPC Emulator; while an Affiliation Table (cribbed off Wellstone City and heavily adapted) shows affiliation of NPCs encountered.

The Location Crafter has useful descriptions of actions and things.

I built a ‘monster draw’ from scratch, using it to provide adequate-level challenges along with some information about range. Then a lot of copying out of monster stats to collate a great many suitable monsters (and not-so-suitable). I also built a system for giving an idea of how a hostile mage is going to attack.

I assembled a lot of Mapping Cards, including chase cards, to help shift locations.

Finally, the “engine” of how this all works, other than discussion, are Risk Points, which each player sacrifices out of the character’s Action Points. Risk Points burnt to ‘tag’ a scene (think FATE) or ask for a question or description give the Instigator (the player currently minding the monsters) the points to themselves tag scenes.


In order that this report is not too long I’m going to assume you are somewhat familiar with the GME and just stick to how things worked and a context based write-up.


We open with our five Academy operatives still parked up off southern Waukegan, in a rapidly darkening January evening.

“Well, what was that about Paul?” Hitch asks, pushing himself off his 1973 Dodge Monaco station wagon, “What did the Judge tell you?”

“Umm… look Hitchcock, it’s late, I’m tired, any minute now it could snow, and even the “Holiday Inn” you were scaring me with earlier sounds adequate. Let’s get going!”

So saying Paul Birkby brushes a few stray sleet pellets off his expensive suit, slides back into his Aston Martin and guns the engine to a throaty rich-bastard burble.

Taking that as a signal to move, Sandi and Cliff break from their guard points: Sandi swinging a leg over her “Dave Shanahan Special” BMW motorcycle; Cliff hurrying back to his affordable used Ford Excursion SUV and settling back behind the wheel, next to Dan, who has stayed inside with the heater running.

Hitch shrugs: he’ll get back to the topic later.

[We did have some homework from last shakeout session, but the Judge’s thread for Paul was not something that could be filled in. Paul’s player DB has lost his character sheet (again!) and is too distracted to get into trying to figure out what mission the judge has given him.]

It’s a very short time later that the whole “get to shelter” nearly comes completely unstuck. Sandi’s bike elegantly slides to the icy berm as she heels it over. There’s no traffic at all ahead, just a line of blinking detour lights. Behind her, Paul, Cliff and Hitch brake gently, alert to trouble.

Suddenly some half-dozen enormous troll-snake-like beings appear grouped right around the four vehicles!

[Scene: Chaos 5, ‘Interrupt’. We want shelter, and the focus is ‘Move away from a thread’ so it looks like we are delayed. Someone has the idea this might be an exciting (!) nexus warning. ‘Is the nexus meter warning us?’ (Very unlikely) A: no. Follow-up question: ‘Is this some other monster?’ (Unlikely) A: yes. SM who is instigator, and therefore wants monsters, grins evilly and card-draws, plus a d20: our opponent is 5-6 CR10 Advanced Rogue Tulpas. The card is a diamond so the range is far, ideal for mages. They get to tag first (I would have tagged ‘traffic’ for Sandi). We agree that even though his player is instigator, Hitch can stay in the encounter. SM plays a risk point and tags the scene ‘no witnesses’ and as instigator uses two of the three points now available to tag the scene ‘night’ and ‘detour’. The Chase card for ‘Detour’ is laid down. I drop a point for ‘magic bullets’. SM suggests drive checks are in order.

Drive checks: Sandi natural 20, Hitch and Cliff roll 18 and Paul rolls 17. No problems stopping.

Neither mage tags the scene further so we move to the monster attack. Tulpas have Dimension Door so SM has them close the range by that means. We bicker for a moment that changing range costs 3 points and there’s only one point left in the kitty but I let that go in the interest of seeing a monster fight with all characters present.]

Round 1

“I’m dropping a Wall – just focus left!” Hitch yells, casting Wall of Force off right. With a heroic surge he casts Haste on himself. Up ahead he can see one Tulpa being shot to snakey-chips as Sandi opens up with both glamoured guns. Behind Sandi’s fireworks, Dan slides out of the SUV and over the bonnet throws Faith’s Fury onto the wounded troll. Then with a heroic surge, another one! The first looks staggered, the second annoyed.

[I strongly recommend average damage, as we are L15 and our spells/bullets use a lot of dice. Sandi’s average damage is 50 against these beasties, and Dan does 35 each spell.]

Cliff looks out of his window up into the grinning snake-jaw of a Tulpa, and slides back Dan’s way, reaching out his H&K G3 as he joins his portly comrade in cover – though directly under the gaze of two other Tulpas behind them!

In his expensive sports car Paul layers his expensive body with an expensive Stoneskin spell, and with a heroic surge throws Cone of Cold over the nearest Tulpa to his door. The wide blast catches two of them.

Round 2

[Time for Inits as we now need to know in what part of the round the Tulpas act. We are all ahead of them save for Dan who is the same, but 1 better Dex than they are. Good news for us!]

Sandi balances upright as her bike runs back towards Dan and Cliff: this time it’s the Tulpa looming over Cliff and Dan that is part-shredded by bullets. Behind her the Tulpa nearest the detour barrier falls as Paul moves away from his Aston Martin [tagging the scene so he has ‘room to move’] and Lightning Bolts the two he hit with the Cone. Then he throws a pile of Magic Missiles into the least-hurt Tulpa.

Nearest Hitch’s wagon, the third Tulpa is enveloped in Hitch’s fireball. Cliff charges around his SUV and under the reach of the wounded Tulpa on the other side, though he’s struck as he does so. He’s dropped his G3 and is swinging the fancy little silver hammer Old Man Hagen gave him. It feels a lot heavier than it looks as it smashes into the creature’s side.

[We really need to know what this does now! AL, Cliff’s player, has a thought that it might be similar to his favored melee weapon, a machete. A complex description is paid for and tells us it is Dangerously Heavy so we go with the Silver Hammer of Maxwell, +4, d10, but appears to be a light hammer or gavel made of silver.]

With another surge Cliff smashes the creature again. On the opposite side of his SUV Dan sends a Searing Light into each of the two wounded Tulpas, bringing one down! [He wastes an Action Point trying to get a good hit, they have very easy Touch AC.] But with a roar of insane commitment the remaining Tulpa in action hammers at Cliff, wounding him with each blow. [Cliff has taken 42 damage so far despite his DR, but has plenty of hp left. His elevated MAS means a save is not needed.]

Meanwhile the remaining pair, trapped behind Hitch’s Wall of Force, have not yet figured out that their heads actually reach over it. [This is a relatively tough test set by the instigator, they both fail miserably.]

Round 3

Hitch kills the remaining Tulpa with some empowered Magic Missiles, and with another surge Ice Storms the pair over the wall. They both take little damage from the effect.

With the breathing space, Paul buffs his Armani and moves back to the Aston Martin. Cliff hustles back from under his falling foe, picks up his G3 and checks it. Sandi moves further back to Dan, who has moved further away from possible squashing. She’s calling for more magic [I miscalculated; she has not run through all her magic bullets yet. I spend a needless point to re-up] and Dan powers her guns up.

The two puzzled Tulpas Dimension Door back into melee range!

Round 4

Hitch casts a double-encircle Wall of Fire around them. We have seen how deadly this is back against Ussher so call the fight there.

“The next question is, is there treasure?” Hitch wonders.

“You’re not going to get much off the cooked ones!” Cliff calls back from where he’s shifting the barricade.

“Worth a check old boy,” Paul drawls, “those blinking lights aren’t papier-mâché you know – someone set this up carefully!”

[Emulator question time: ‘Is there treasure?’ A: no. ‘Is there ID such as a phone or an amulet that could allow us to trace them?’ A: yes.

Scene is called ended.

A new thread is added: trace the source of the Tulpas.

A new thread is added: find a secure base (though this is more of a tweak to an existing thread).

No threads are closed.

Chaos has moved to 6.]

Coffee is keeping most of the team going in the early hours of the morning. They’ve done this many times before. Four of them are assembled in the single largest unit rented, still north of the scenic and ritzy Great Lakes Reserve – Lake Bluff area. Paul’s taken himself off to his own unit and is presumed sleeping.

Sandi Dan and Cliff are trying their own contacts, testing possibilities of a safe house.

“I know some girls that live up here, in the rich area,” Sandi suggests vaguely, then seeing Hitch’s sceptical look, adds “through work – one works part-time.” She tries Weldon’s line but either the number has changed or Weldon is out of range.

Dan tries his own church network, deciding that more official channels might be too public, but again there’s nothing the local pastor can offer.

Cliff gets the call-back he’s been waiting for. “What? Say again? So you’re saying you might be the one looking for work? OK…”

“Thanks for keeping me in the loop,” he snarls sarcastically as he ends the call.

[The Event for this scene is NPC negative, and we randomly find it is Cliff’s NPCs. He has very few and none named, but this is his current close-protection employment NPC. The event meaning is Create Business, so that is how we read it. Cliff is denied safehouse and is in danger of being out of work. He now has a personal Thread, ‘find a way to get my job back’.]

“I have it!” Hitch exclaims [34 on research means only an exceptionally difficult and obscure answer could have evaded him.] “It’s that bastard Liam Heaney!”


“You remember Sandi, he was the one that attacked us at Troll Bridge!”

“I know you keep calling it that, but I don’t think you ever told me you found out who it was. But hey! That’s great! So time for payback then?”

[In order to match research to a result we used the Affiliation table and draw an Ace of Diamonds, Liam Healey, the same mage that attacked Hitch and Sandi at Troll Bridge. This is a great match-up of materials to story.

Thread ‘get to shelter’ closed.

Thread ‘find the source of the Tulpas’ closed.

New thread ‘get Liam Healey’ opened.

Chaos is supposed to go somewhere but we lose track of it.]

Then Paul knocks and enters.

[We kind of rolled a new scene, as DB re-emerged from wherever he had been searching for his character sheet.

Event: ‘Move towards a thread’ which is excellent news. It must be the secure base thread (we agree). I chip in a point to imitate Paul’s trawling through his online resources, for a Description: ‘Helpfully Mighty’. 

We ask some Emulator questions, graduating from ‘abandoned military’ to ‘abandoned police station’ then I pay another 2 points for a random Scene Card from a Location deck. I deal out ‘Science Lab 2’ and suddenly we realize this could be the burned-out Vitae Labs down in Highland Park.

Scene closed.

Thread ‘locate a secure base’ is closed.

New thread ‘equip the base’ opens. Chaos is back to 5.]

Dan finishes his conversation and walks down the echoing tunnel, still smelling faintly of burned insulation, to the Greenhouse area of the sub-basement. Cunningly-concealed light ducts allowed Vitae to grow all kinds of things down here, but now the weeds have taken over.

“I got service out there, and I have a job for us.”

“You know Dan, we do kind of have a job.”

“My mom says she and pop are snowed in and need supplies. Do we have a vehicle tough enough to stand up to a blizzard?”

[Scene, based on another Location card is Greenhouse, where the team is fixing up basic living quarters in the down-powered ruin.

Event: NPC negative. Randomly chosen to be Dan’s NPC. Like Cliff Dan has very few NPCs though most have names. The random pick is his family, who live near downtown Chicago, probably south.

New thread: ‘help Dan’s family.’

We do an ‘equipment montage’ so later we can just pay a point and say we stocked it.

Now comes one of the stickiest questions we have not solved yet. How do we travel around, without just hand-waving it? I had an idea for it but that is not working.

We try an Emulator question: ‘Do we get there safely?’ A: no!

We use a Description rather than track through endless yes/no’s, and get ‘Cautiously Small’ so decide we left the SH41 and tracked through minor roads to avoid traffic jams in bad weather.

Now we go back to the Emulator: ‘Does this get us there safely?’ A: yes.

We relieve Dan’s parents, who are grateful but taken aback that the strange white foreign guy has come back and brought more whites with him.

Scene ends.

Thread ‘help Dan’s family’ is closed.

No new threads.

Chaos drops to 4.]

It’s desperately crowded in the Hewstone family home, though Dan and his folks are making the best of it. Mrs Dan (as Hitch calls her) has done her best to recall hot tea making. Members of the team are sprawled around, on their mobile phones or scribbling things down. There’s a lot of cross-chatter. Cliff makes himself heard.

“That’s sweet! So no further cause for concern? No, my problem’s resolved itself. I’ll get back to you if I have another…” Cliff raises his voice and hollers:

“All’s well on the job front! I still got a job!”

To further questioning Cliff explains that his training contractor has used its influence to help his Close Protection agency out of its problem. Threatened by a rain of fiery lawsuit, whoever was causing the problem has backed off and if Cliff was available he could actually report for duty.

[Cliff’s personal Thread ‘find a way to get my job back’ is closed. This happens simply because the Event is NPC Positive, randomized to Cliff’s training contact, and had the meaning ‘Vengeance of Legal Matters’.]

“I’ve talked to Whittler, my U-Spy guy,” Sandi chips in, “there’s no problem if we have money, we just need to head back through Skokie and pick up whatever.”

“Skokie, back in the north… hmmm, thing is luv, I’ve got plans downtown now we’re down here. I’m going to pull Jack’s legal papers and get a line on where his occult library is. Dan?”

“I’ve talked to a Catholic admin person, didn’t quite understand her accent, but she’s agreed I can talk to a monsignor or something and meet at St Mary’s.”

“Hmmm… swing onto the I90 then freeway it…”

“You don’t wanta do that son, freeway’s murdera this tima day. I c’n direct ya.”

“You’re quiet Paul, what have you found?”

“Oh! Ah, this may not be something we can talk about in front of Dan’s folks… or Dan.”

“I’m not your priest Paul – well I am in a way – but just lay it out for us!”

“Thing is, when Elliot was in tenure, and I was working on DARMA upgrades… I… took a backup.”

Paul explains further after the initial reaction is over. He put all of DARMA’s essentials on a hard drive, so that he could secretly research away from the campus. Then when his supposedly-secure apartment was broken into, he placed it in his attorney’s secure vault.

“I’ve spoken to old Sparce and he sounds as though the usual fifth of good whiskey will seal the deal. He’s invited me down to the Berkshire.”

“Right, right, sounds good. Expensive but good. So here’s the plan: Cliff, you’ll be loading the SUV up with plumbing and whatnot – you may as well buy those in Skokie when Sandi picks up the surveillance gear Paul writes up. Dan Paul and I will take the El and head into the city anonymously. We’ll link up tomorrow. But Cliff, Sandi: keep your phones on, and if we call, answer!”

[Scene closes. There are five separate threads, though they all fall under the general ‘set up the hidey hole’ thread we started once we moved in. Sandi is in charge of surveillance gear, Cliff in charge of hardware, Paul is getting a version of DARMA (the arcane database), Hitch is trying to get Jack’s old library, and Dan wants holy wards and supplies that come from the Catholic Church.

Chaos drops to 3.]

[Quick scenes follow: we start with the three heading into town.]

Hitch bumps into Desmond Harrington at the public records office. The Mancunian’s cheery greeting and offer to catch up is met with what can only be described as a brush-off.

[Event: NPC Action, we randomise Hitch of the three PCs involved, and get Desmond Harrington, his legal office contact from Newspaper days. But the meaning is ‘Mysterious Lies.’ This doesn’t sound as though it will help Hitch. I unhelpfully spend a point asking ‘Is Hitch being screwed?’ A: no.

Hitch’s Take10 means his legal probate research will take 3 hours. We move on to Paul.]

“Ah! Paul! How’s tricks? Here’s to crime!”

The two Brits raise a toast with expensive bourbon, one of several nay many that are quaffed on Paul’s account.

“I’ve brought the paperwork with me,” Leonard Sparce at last avers, stacking an impressive stack for Paul to sign and initial. “I’ll have our notary stamp it when I get back so it’s all tickety-boo, all righty? Well, here’s your dingus.”

Paul tucks the boxy hard drive away in his breast pocket. I should have disguised it as a box of chocolates, he thinks.

[This is from the NPC Emulator-driven attitude ‘Friendly Comfort’ and fully fits the initial NPC generated for Paul. From the initial profile we know the attorney likes to do business over a drink and climbs into Paul’s wallet big time while being helpful. And finally we move to Dan.]

Dan works his way round the famous white pillars and red brick to the little-used side where the campus has previously met and been helped by the priests. He finds an anonymously-dressed priest waiting for him in the doorway, preventing him from entering.

[Dan is Southern Baptist and on his own, we judge this to not be an easy encounter. Dan’s Cha check is pretty awful, though his rep is highest among us. Mind you being a well-known radio-show psychiatrist may not be a plus when approaching a priest.

Time to NPC Emulate: beginning with ‘peaceful’ attitude we move to ‘Hostile Combat’ with Focus ‘Flaws.’]

“I have a wee problem with ye coming to us out of the blue now.”

“Uh, what? I mean, We are doing God’s work father, no doubt.”

“Thing is laddie, we have more than one wee problem. Look out!”

[Running the Monster encounter I get 5-6 CR8 Urban Harpies swooping down at Dan. Their card is Heart, a SV range attack, and I see they have SQ Siren Song. Dan makes a Will SV and with 28 is in no danger no matter how many are helping.]

Round 1

Priest casts Bless, calls, “get in cover!”

The swooping harpies are within 30-40 feet. Dan wants to get closer so as to use his own SV effect Frightful Presence, but then sees they all pack pistols so sprints clumsily for the doorway, belly and bum waggling.

[And we leave the combat there.

Thread ‘outfit the base’ is still open but is well under way.

No other threads close.]

We still had around a quarter-hour but that was a good time to stop and get some initial feedback.

My own observation was that we need a different mechanism to move Regions. The basic idea of a gridded-off Chicago is good, because otherwise we could just ask ‘do we get into Ralph Hagen’s secret base?’ and skip all other action. Something along the lines we were doing in the road drive with a series of Emulator checks as we move will work I think.

We also need to review whether we should use risk points at all. Yes, they do add up and give the instigator a tool. No, they don’t work for completing a scene at all. If we keep using them, is the ration concept sane or is it encouraging us to waste APs? Is it balanced? I spent 9, DB spent 1. Don’t know how, he had two definite uses of them.

In places the scene comes to a halt and without a question (costing a point) there’s no forward momentum. Would it be better to just use everything as much as possible?

I do think risk points take care of a lot of GM-work such as minding equipment and re-upping ammo. But APs could do that just as well, if we broaden the d20 rules to include that. So, tentative tweak is drop the Risk points but use APs in a similar way for tagging a scene, so the instigator has a mechanism for tagging scenes for monsters/NPCs. Another suggestion is to keep risk points and the one that spent the most in a Scene gets to move the Location.

Other tools – Mapping Cards need a better means of integration. Waiving the cost but rationing down to one per player, would do. The suggestion in previous para would also work and sounds simple. If so the original concept of the Location Builder might be used with them in a stronger way, because that also feels disjointed. Its original concept offers a way of frustrating attempts to explore but also exit, return and find answers.

We have not tested Placing a Grid, which tends to slow fights down tremendously in exchange for better use of talents, feats and spells.


On the positive side, again the speed impressed me. Even moving all tools one player left after each scene did not slow the pace, certainly not more than one player constantly wandering off did. The fight was longest scene (naturally) and we then got through about five scenes, depending how you count the two at the motel that accidentally rolled into one and the separate PC threads at the end.

About andrewmclaren26

Weekly Roleplayer, Wargamer when I can
This entry was posted in SHC5: SHC GM-free, Sweet Hell Chicago and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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