SHC GM-free explanation and session 1 : One door closes, another opens/Dan ties the knot


This page has been written to describe the system that my game group initially, and then myself in solo play, ended up using to create and enjoy a full season of tabletop RPG without a GM.


The system as it eventually ended up is described, first for group play and then for solo play. Each section works through how play without a GM functions.

Tools prepared and used are appended. Externally-available rules are simply referenced as outlinks.

The background to the season is included as another appendix (Appendix IV). I felt that I could not have soloed successfully without starting with an already-rich campaign. This affected the way I prepared tools for the season. It also affected my solo choices for character progression other than my own character Sandi.

With a group

Key points

  • A number of game-aid tools are deployed within the group, all players participating and rotating tool use.
  • One player, the “instigator,” sets the scene, the others support this with other aids.
  • Once the scene is fleshed out enough, the instigator can act as temporary GM to call for tests or set combat. Other broad decisions are made by all.
  • A number of resources for GM-free gaming are available at a low price and the one recommendation I can make is to take full advantage of this, experiment and blend to the balance you want yourself.

Tools for a group to use

  • Normal rules, which are used where a scene creates a contestable skill use, or fight;
  • Action points (often named fate points or hero points in other systems) extended to permit ‘tagging’ each scene with some characteristic;
  • The same expended points being made available to the instigator;
  • A reference chart for available monsters (“Monsters sheets”) adjudicated by the player whose turn it is to assist with monsters;
  • A table for NPC alignment (“Affiliation table”) where new NPCs are called in by the scene and adjudicated by the player whose turn it is to assist with NPCs;
  • 5-card Wizard stud, a card-based decision tree for handling NPC spell-casters;
  • Lair Raid draw, a method of deriving the nature and dangers of an NPC base;
  • A GM Emulator (GME) that uses a combination of group brainstorming, common sense and chance to generate scenes: adjudicated either by the instigator or another player;
  • The Universal NPC Emulator (UNE) for providing possible motivations and background for both known and unknown NPCs: adjudicated by the player whose turn it is to assist with NPCs;
  • The Location Crafter for providing additional scene information and often, additional depth to NPC purpose;
  • Mapping cards, including chase cards, to randomise terrain or assist with scene movement;
  • A grid map made by printing off a normal internet map tool and dividing the Greater Chicago area up into logical sectors using a ruler and pen.

Tool availability

The latter five tools are available very cheaply in PDF or in the case of printing a web map, probably for free. Of the five, we found the mapping cards the least useful and seldom used them, because they were designed for GM use. However an extended and specially-tweaked assembly of them proved ideal for exploring a previously-known location, so do not write them off.

The Affiliation chart is adapted off a commercial product named Wellstone City Adventure Deck, created by Silver Gryphon Games. It is a normal playing-card draw or cut, that results in a cross-reference (value by suit) for affiliation and background attitude. Each NPC faction or personality relates to the campaign setting. For example in our urban fantasy Chicago, one faction on the beneficial/somewhat beneficial side is the prosaic State Police; on the harmful/somewhat harmful side of that value is Homeland Security. They could appear in any modern US setting. But another faction is Unit 14 (police unit for arcane investigation) versus an Olympian (high-powered Wizard society) faction. See Appendix I.

Monsters sheets were laboriously cut-and-pasted out from normal rules/supplements onto powerpoint slides (they simplified two-column presentation) so they could be printed as a quick reference. I tried for at least 6 per CR value, more if some were distinctly nocturnal. I found it hard to come up with the highest-level monsters, where I was lucky to find two per level: and personality-level monsters harder still. Once again the web’s resources were helpful. I found “pet builds” of this or that vampire or wizard useful and adapted them. Initially I imagined that volume would make up for toughness but an early dry-run trial proved it would not. See Appendix I.

Wizard stud is a basic chance draw system for operating opposition spellcasters. Suit and value decide range, type of spell and level, and originally the number of rounds before the next spell. The last point is the weakest and I did not develop a tried-and-true solution. Eventually I ruled that the next spell would come at the next opportunity and left it at that. I have a theory that a value should determine the spellcaster’s next stance – for example making sure he/she has meatshields in front – but did not progress that theory. See Appendix III for an outlink to the draw.

Lair raid is a combined derivation of PCs in the raid, level of the lair owner if known, and card draws. It provides for dangers, nature of the lair, and hidden tricks – the “recording device” draw. When the game leaped back to the 1920s, the latter became redundant but I did not develop an alternative idea. The lair raid draw is described further, with an outlink, in Appendix III.

I also adapted a deployment aid from The Solo Wargaming Guide (William Sylvester, Precis Intermedia, 2013). This is described in the Solo section below. It affected moving around (see Appendix II) in solo play, and would probably have been needed in group play.

How the Group game works

The group works on a rotational basis per scene. Depending on how players prefer the load to be shared and how many players there are, there can be one instigator for general and specific scene management, and operators for GME, Location Crafter, UNE, Affiliation, and Monster generation. Someone with a free hand to shuffle cards and count action points is also handy to have. If the roles are shared out evenly, everyone’s attention is engaged: an advantage over most game sessions.

  1. In each scene, one player plays the instigator. His job is controlling the scene, pretty much like a normal GM, though he does not create the scene himself. He decides a lot about any monsters the scene set-up gives him, and uses action points to tag the scene in ways that favor the way he wants the scene to work.

1.1 All other players have some element they control: this shares the load and table-reading around. Don’t forget, it’s a co-operative exercise and everyone can have a say about what is logical.

1.2 Once the group, with Emulator help, has established the scene or event (see next), the instigator sets any remaining details in play, with help from other players managing game-aids. Cards can help decide range – Diamonds are long, Spades hand-gun range, Clubs melee range, Hearts mid-range depending on the SV the monsters use. Scene ‘tags’ can’t be just as the instigator desires. He has any points the characters have chipped in so far. If it is the first scene, then he has to make do with whatever the GME and Location Crafter will provide

2. The next player left from the instigator controls the Game-Master Emulator (GME). This beast has two major roles. It helps the group to set the scene, including drawing in NPCs, and will also answer any questions that aren’t obvious. Questions should be freely asked of the emulator, so long as play isn’t slowed down significantly. If the instigator prefers, running the GME can also fall to him.

3. The next player left manages the Location Crafter and any location cards: these are street, interior, general exterior, chase and ‘high-rise’ cards. Not all are used together and none may be needed. Any location cards will also include a Special, or some way of generating a Special. The special refers to the same feature on the Location Crafter. Cards that don’t fit the scene are designated “common” cards and generally act as filler. For example, more carpeted passage way in a high-rise hotel.

3.1 These cards really have one aspect only – what they say. Players or Instigator can add (‘tag’) further aspects.

3.2 The Location Crafter often helps decide quite a lot about an NPC, and their motivation, so can be managed by the player with the NPC Emulator if need be.

4. The next player left controls the Monsters tables, and the Affiliation table.

4.1 Monsters: in the generic sense this stack will include NPCs like beat cops or investigative journalists. Monsters that want to eat your face, or soul, will need stats, the others less so. This stack won’t be random, it will be a pick-list based on CR. A card and d20 table control monster CR and EL. At the instigator’s discretion spare points add to the d20 roll. One of the final versions of the card and d20 front chart of Monsters table is appended in Appendix I.

4.2 Affiliation Table: This is inspired by Wellstone City’s affiliation table but has been changed significantly for use in SHC. It gives a quick-start when NPC type monsters arise. It is appended in full, in Appendix I.

5. Finally, one player runs the NPC Emulator, for NPCs in play. This emulator will be needed in a big way for NPCs who just show up, and in a smaller way for NPCs that are known to the PCs and are brought in by the GME. For example, Joe Green of Unit 14 is a known quantity, and his interests and attitudes are known. Whereas Father Jack of St Mary’s is an unknown quantity and he may well have an entire agenda to run. This role can be run alongside the Location Crafter tables, or separately.

6. In the group game, points available to players are the characters’ AP. There is no limit. Each tag costs one point. Tags are:

  • Equipment montage: as a preliminary, each character contributes an AP to show they were equipped for the scene.
  • Scene aspect: not range, but other aspects such as cover, exits or absence of witnesses.
  • Character aspect, such as having packed a particular item.
  • Character SV or feats = Rules As Written.

6.1 These points act as a risk pool as the session progresses. As noted above the instigator may spend them to tag a scene, or increase the d20 monster roll.

6.2 The player spending the most action points in a scene gets to decide which thread to follow in the next, in the event a choice is needed.

7. Moving across geography needs risk. This is generated by referring to the grid-map and testing for an encounter using the GME. The risk of an encounter rises as the group moves close to the heart of danger. This very easily throws up an unscripted scene, which is handled as usual. Moving around is described in more detail in Appendix II.

Closing remarks on group play

My group undertook three full sessions of group play. During this time the guidelines changed very quickly and ended up very close to what I have described above. It may not be accurate to call what I’ve described “a system” because the process evolved over the games. It is more a collection of game aids that together make up for not having a GM.

Scene-by-scene action can be challenging for a group only used to linear plan-and-execute games. If possible, first try a scene-based game under a GM. If possible, first try a game where players can contribute to the setting.

My group of players did not hate the system but felt it was a last resort if no other games were available.


Key points

  • Decision-making and scene ending relies a lot more heavily on random chance in the solo version, because no-one has the role of instigator, and because there is no ‘pool of opinion’ on what the logic of a scene is.
  • A number of game-aid tools are deployed to be used as required. As the action intensifies, confusion can set in! Note-taking as to what aid produced what result is vital.
  • Each scene is set based on GME and other aids. In many cases patience is required to see where the aids are taking the scene.
  • Where character interaction or decisions are not predictable, the Wizard Stud or some other decision tree can take the place of players.
  • The campaign was very mature, and this permitted solo play to reflect characters’ style and general attitude. See Appendix IV.

How the solo game works

Since only one person is managing all tools, play is scene-based but should not be seen as a session-by-session progress. Instead, play can be divided off as time allows, keeping Chaos Level (see GME) running until there is a definite “chapter break”.

  1. Each scene is set using all necessary tools. Scenes can’t be ‘tagged’ using Action points so don’t hesitate to supplement the GME with other emulators and ask more questions if needed.
  2. If the scene throws up interaction – typically between PCs and NPCs – allow one character to ‘lead’ and one other to support. Don’t crowd the scene. That will give you a feel for how each character is doing, psychologically.
    2.1 Aids such as Location Crafter and UNE suggest what type of interaction is required.
    2.2 Action Points are not available to be used to tag a scene in the solo game; tagging a character as prepared with a particular item or enchantment (‘Equipment Flashback’); and paying for extra d6 in feats or SV as per rulebook, are still OK. The reason for this is because it is too easy to stack the deck against a scene when one player manipulates all point decisions.
    2.3 Action Points spent go towards raising the danger level of the next Monsters draw.
  3. Combat is managed either by simple range based activity, or by laying a grid down.
    3.1 Cards for range are usually already ‘on the board’ thanks to encounter draws. They allow quick decisions about what weapons or spells characters and NPCs can use.
    3.2 Where there is a need for “set dressing” such as pedestrians, cover and paths out, Mapping cards are laid out, typically in a four by four grid, typically face down. If the scene is a road, ensure the card backs connect from one side of the grid to another. Otherwise, just lay them at random.
    3.3 Then the characters can (randomly or logically) start on one card and flip as needed. Cards can also indicate a ‘path’ through a scene such as a road, and that allows opposition to move at the other end or block other cards. Those cards are flipped as monsters move onto them.
  4. The Mage Stud card draw really helps decide what spellcasters are doing, including PC spellcasters. Otherwise, character and monster equipment is usually plenty for deciding who shoots what with what.
  5. If the action is extended, Action Points can be spent as Equipment Flashback to prove a character actually has a desired piece of equipment. Otherwise, equipment montages (where each character contributes an AP) are great prior to a set scene such as Lair Raid.
  6. Moving across grids works the same as the group version, except that a deployment roll will also be needed to vary the danger of the movement. The reason for this is that otherwise, a solo player will always know the best/sneakiest route in or out.

The deployment roll

Partially in lieu of the instigator, 2d6, each distinguishable, are rolled on the first occasion an encounter occurs. The first d6 controls how the opposition has chosen the deploy its own commanders.

1-2: Entrenched around the BBEG’s own base. Meaning: movements around the center receive no extra chance of encounters, but movements into the center double the chances (i.e. two steps up per grid).

3-4: North-facing deployment. Meaning: movements south receive double chance of encounters (two steps per grid), but movements around or coastwise receive no extra chance.

5-6: Lakeshore-facing deployment. Meaning: movements along the shore (road or lake) receive double chance of encounters, but movements landward and from the west receive no extra chance.

The second roll determines how aware the opposition are of the party.

1: Defender begins to mobilize at the same time the party moves out. Meaning: instead of a d20 on monster table, there is a 50-50 chance that the maximum groups (i.e. like rolling a 20 on d20) are encountered.

2: Defender begins to mobilize 5 scenes after the party moves. Meaning: subtract 5 from all d20 rolls for monsters, until the sixth scene, then 50-50 as above.

3: Defender mobilizes 10 scenes after the party moves. Meaning: subtract 10 from all d20 monster rolls until scene 11, then add 5.

4: Defender mobilizes same day party moves, but is generally unaware. Meaning: this is neutral for d20 rolls.

5: Defender mobilizes 3 days after the party moves, and is unsure who they are or what doing until then. Meaning: Until the fourth dawn, no encounter that does not strike at the enemy’s strength can be higher than EL 18. Subtract 5 from d20 rolls, and count face cards as 10.

6: Defender mobilizes 5 days after the party moves, and is lethargic and divided until then. Meaning: Until the sixth dawn, no encounter that does not strike at the enemy’s strength can be higher than EL14. Subtract 10 from d20 rolls, and count face cards as 7.

These results are ‘reset’ when the party makes sanctuary or returns to its own base.

References: outlinks to products

Mythic Game-Master Emulator

Location Crafter

Universal NPC Emulator

Mapping cards

Conjectural roleplaying GME

Appendix I: Monsters and NPCs

Affiliation table
This table is used when an NPC is encountered and there is no clear affiliation.
If a Joker is drawn, draw twice more: the NPC is considered to be a double agent affiliated with both.
Card Spade/Heart Diamond/Club
2 The G Olympian faction
3 Cruther family of snitches Necromancer
4 Media Tail: re-draw
5 Known NPC Street gang
6 Catholic Church Wolfgang & Hearst
7 Unit 14 Olympian, including a major player
8 Carpathian Friendly Society Laundry team
9 Independent arcane power Independent power
10 Chicago PD Dirty cops
J Judges Americana Inc
Q State Police Homeland Security
K Genie Organized crime
A A Great Spirit The Summoner/Troll Mage
Suits: Spades are always beneficial; Hearts are somewhat beneficial; Diamonds are somewhat harmful; and Clubs are always harmful.

Encounter table: I built this along suggested-balance lines given a L15 party. It suggests the range and move of monsters if not obvious, as well as CR and number.

Encounter level table use: where the Emulator is not clear, a card deck can be cut and a d20 rolled. The  cut card decides the base CR.
Suits may indicate range and move: Clubs are close/melee; Spades are mid-range; Hearts are close/SV; and Diamonds are long/magic or missile.
Playing card face value and CR Description 20 on d20 17-19 on d20 7-16 on d20 1-6 on d20
A swarms 14 swarms 12 swarms 10 swarms a small mob of 7-9
2 mob or mobs three mobs of 5-6 a mob of 14-18 a mob of 10-12 a small mob of 7-9
3 mob or mobs three mobs of 5-6 a mob of 14-18 a mob of 10-12 a small mob of 7-9
4 many five groups of 3-4 two groups of 5-6 three groups of 3-4 9
5 many three groups of 5-6 10-12 two groups of 5-6 10
6 appx dozen two groups of 7-9 three groups of 5-6 three groups of 3-4 10-12
7 appx dozen three groups of 5-6 10-12 10 7-9
8 up to a dozen two groups of 5-6 three groups of 3-4 7-9 5-6
9 up to a dozen two groups of 7-9 two groups of 5-6 7-9 5
10 up to a dozen three groups of 3-4 7-9 5-6 4
J=11 up to 10 three groups of 3-4 5-6 4 3
Q=12 up to 10 5 4 3 2
K=13 several 4 4 2 1
Joker Boss

This monster table provides a fair spread of CR, but as PC levels rise, becomes too soft-serve. It can be adjusted (during group play) by adding points in play to the cut card’s face value; and (during solo play) for number in the active PC party (above 1). As the party grows in power it becomes necessary to add both (characters present) and (APs on table) to the card draw. I also adjust to what has occurred in the campaign by disallowing certain types. For example once Liam Heaney (the Troll Mage or Summoner Mage) was taken out of play, summoned monsters became far less likely.

Appendix II: Moving around

Scene-specific movement: In group play, no measuring should be needed. Characters are at whatever range the cards say they are, and can use spells or take normal moves to alter that. Special tactical moves may be obvious if the scene is tagged adequately: for example a manhole might be liftable to give access to a sewer; or a cellar door might be unlocked. Otherwise, the GME can be asked a question such as ‘is there an entrance to the basement here?’. But this slows play down considerably so is far from ideal. Tagging works better, because it gives the instigator points to work with. Another option is to use location cards, as under solo play below.

In solo play, location cards such as Chase Cards can be laid in a grid. If a card does not fit the scene it becomes ‘common’ – that is, it is an expected piece of terrain. Each grid should include a Special, which requires a roll under the Location Crafter rules.

Since the action takes place in a city, ‘up’ can be represented by another layer of location cards where needed. Use common sense: for example ‘up’ above a street scene would not include underground locations. Those do not need to be shuffled out of the deck; remember cards that do not fit become ‘expected’.

General movement: characters and monsters are moving around Chicago in a grid of 36 boxes (Notionally 3 deep and 6 wide, where width is the Lake shoreline and depth is the extent of urban development back to the Heights etc. but with an expanded Central City area of another 18 boxes).

Each time a thread or scene calls for a new area to be entered there is a chance of an encounter. The more grids crossed, the higher the chance.

In group play, the instigator will ask the GME ‘is there an encounter?’ with a modification of plus or minus one likelihood category for each grid crossed. So one grid is ‘somewhat likely’ and two grids is ‘likely’ and so on.

In solo play this also applies, except that the ‘enemy readiness’ alters likelihood. A movement that is ‘around’ the enemy deployment stays at 50-50 chance, but a movement ‘into’ the deployment steps immediately to ‘likely’ for one grid crossed and ‘near sure thing’ for two, and finally ‘has to be’ for three or more grids crossed.

Appendix III: Special stuff

There are (at time of writing) two special sets of rules. Both are designed to be run by the instigator, but can be shown openly with no loss of balance.

Five-card stud mage

This is a fair way to run an enemy mage without prepping a full stat block and spell schedule. Further testing suggests the ’rounds until next spell’ needs tweaking, probably by adding ‘points in play’ to whichever card is drawn there. Otherwise it seems to be working well.

Further comment: At the highest levels this approach still worked fine. This is partly because d20Modern stops at L5, so the number of spells to pick never became overwhelming. I did make one bad mistake with the original design, which is to include illusions as an option.

The Lair Raids draw

This is a working process for penetrating a lair, without needing to prep  it beforehand. The first playtest of it was one of the big ones, an Olympian lair, and it worked well.

Final comment: It worked OK for 1922, though could have been better. For example even if there is a recording, what use is it?

Both are stored as GoogleDocs:

Lair raids

5-card stud Mage draw.

Appendix IV: Background to the season – characters and character development choices

Season 4 saw the culmination of long research efforts into Greater Vampires. Hitch’s research skills were also brought out as part of this. Without specifically building it into a game plan, I saw Greater Vampires as very much in play. I researched and included a Vampire Lord as The Monk on the Monster Tables. (Having said that I also included Ash Locksley as well, and he did not get any play as fate would have it!) It was entirely by the chance of the scene setting that I saw a link back from the Lair Raid (where Maria is captured) to a time-jump and the Great Vampire Hunt aftermath.

By season five all of the characters had really distinct larger-than-life personas, so building that into solo play was easy. I found Paul especially fun, because he has always had that tension of passive-aggressive hostility with the others. His player channeled Avon from Blake’s Seven. Cliff and Dan were much harder and by and large I let the emulators do their roleplaying for me. I really liked how Dan’s arc worked out, as he progressed in the Witchhunter class and became a proto-Judge. Cliff on the other hand, I always felt that there was a pigeon that was about to come home to roost, but it did not. Some of this came out well, with Cliff nearly ‘leaving the band’ and Sandi’s loyalty to Cliff being tested.

The two mages heightened their strike power, both closing in on arch-mage levels. That simplified their growth path in solo play though when they began running out of increases, I thought Paul would probably take a non-standard list, and allowed some Pathfinder Modern spells; whereas I thought Hitch would need to make up for Dan. Dan’s role veered back and forth between ‘face’ and ‘cleric’ types, making it hard to see where he wanted to go. His wish to become a Slayer prompted some research into the many supplements for d20 Modern and of the few I pushed at the player, he preferred the Witchhunter. Cliff was if anything even harder to read. Prior to the season, the GM had given he and Sandi a paramilitary role, rescuing victims of the Boston Flood. That suggested he might continue with such classes. His player was not interested in suggesting a path, but some earlier in-game talk pushed me in the direction of Daredevil, which has more skill ranks per level than Cliff’s norm. I may have been completely wrong and Cliff should have become a Soldier then a prestige class off that. Just in terms of game mechanics, Cliff had been caught by the d20 Modern imbalance between fighter and mage strike-power. It’s nowhere near as bad as D&D3.x but it is very obvious. Cliff is well-nigh indestructible but unlikely to actually hit something hard enough to make it stop.

There are a number of broken elements to the season. Here are the two biggest!

  1. Never having studied d20 Modern magic, I missed the fact that illusions are not allowed. Paul becomes quite the specialist in them after NPC wizards use them against the Peers.
  2. I also failed to link the early Curse attack on the peers, where Dan saves everyone and points at Ralph Hagen, thus moving the plot to the Lair raid: and the later receipt of an artifact from Ralph Hagen. You can mentally hand-wave it by saying that the Artifact had the power of Weakness: this has the effect of a Curse on humans but affects undead etc. in a different way. But it’s still a fact the story does not bring out any link at all.

Appendix V: Archive of the campaign’s page

This is the background reference page for the d20 Moderns campaign named Sweet Hell Chicago. I do not run the campaign but the GM prefers to remain nameless so cannot be given the credit deserved. I edit (and sometimes pastiche) Hitch’s journal but do not write that either.

This page explains the campaign and displays the minis I’ve painted – or converted and painted – for the campaign.

We have a group of 7 if we all turn up, including the GM. The rules system is d20 Modern RPG pubished by WOTC.
Four of us bought rulebooks, and there are free supplements in PDF online, plus articles in DnD Wiki.

Chicago is the same as it is now, except that as my character would put it, “weird shit” happens. Undead, gremlins, deep ones, unholy power summoned by human sacrifice… in the first two seasons we saved the city a couple of times.

One of the great features of d20 Modern is the way Basic classes, which permit multiclassing without penalty, build to Advanced classes and then to Prestige classes if desired. It all has an organic feel to it, and allows characters to grow naturally.

Notes about the Academy
The Academy has a long and illustrious history of both saving humanity from the uncanny, and exploring the secret histories and powers of the world.

The Academy has many ranks and titles. However there are two key distinct ranks which concern the players.

The first is the rank of Assistant which will be the starting rank of player characters. The characters are expected to take direction and orders from senior ranks.

The second is the rank of Peer which allows greater autonomyrces and theoretically access to better resources. Peers are fully responsible for their actions, but earned the esteem of their fellow peers. In games terms it is expected that PCs would earn the rank of Peer between levels 4-8.

The paramount meeting of the Academy occurs in Europe where the Emeritii met to determine the future of this institution.

All characters start with the skill Knowledge (Academy) at rank 1. Further ranks will be given by the GM during the campaign. It will also be possible to raise this as your characters develop, but please run it by a GM first.

Members of the Academy always bear in mind the Objective Premiere of the organisation which is the defense of human life from the uncanny, and this includes its own members. This means that it is not only unacceptable, but punishable to kill or maim the guilty if they are human without proper sanction except in self-defence. Warrants need to be obtained in order to use lethal force in the name of the Academy.

Introductory Notes on the Season One Chicago Campus

Jack Deverick is chair of the Chicago Campus (and its only peer). He’s tall, well-tanned, and has an easy air about him. He appears to be physically fit, and you figure you could rely on him in a crisis. Eva Jurescsko is a young, dark haired women who runs reception. She is new in the job and appears to be efficient and quiet.

He would have approached you to apply to work for the Academy recently. There have been a number of tests which you have passed to one degree or another. You are invited the following Thursday to join the intake of 2008.

The office of the Chicago Campus are on the South Side, East 53rd Street, Hyde Park. – just down from the Ribs and Bibs. On the street a discreet sign says ‘Total Strategic Management Development’.

You are to be given a stipend of US $400 a month to work for the Academy. You won’t be giving up your day job anytime soon.

Why did you decide to sign up to the Academy and why do you want to stay?

At some point your character will have come in contact with the uncanny and to the awareness of the Academy and an offer would be made by the local contact for Academy. It is most likely that your contact point was with Jack Deverick (Head of the Chicago Campus) who is currently on the lookout for talent. Your character would have had a brush with the uncanny and the Academy provided answers.

Working for the academy is demanding and quite often life and sanity threatening on a regular basis. What’s going to make your character want to stick at it?

Some benefits from belonging to the Academy that a character might like:

 Full health and dental
 It offers some protection against the supernatural (well at least safety in numbers)
 Action and adventure that you don’t tend to get in a major metropolis
 The chance to learn about the secrets of the uncanny world
 Research and exploration of the secret powers is a key facet of the Academy so this suits Occult and Spiritual types

Resources at the beginning of the campaign are limited, however there is a promise of access to more powerful items from the vaults in distant Europe.

Cast, Season One



Caleb Season 1

Caleb Ryan is a senior at Lane Technical College Preparatory High School (Lane Tech), the “School of Champions”, on the north side of Chicago. He is a popular kid at the school, not least because of being star quarterback with the Lane Tech Indians. Caleb dreams of one day making it into the Bears (‘the greatest football in the world’) and spends as much of his summers at Soldier Field as he possibly can. His hero is Chicago Bears quarterback Rex Grossman, who he has stuck with through thick and thin.

In many ways, Caleb is the all-American boy – good-looking but not too good-looking, not poor but not rich either, not an egghead but not stupid. Where he does excel is on the football field. He’s quite quick but more than anything his sheer strength really stands out. Perhaps less obvious is a certain matter-of-fact bravery, and a sense of fair play that means he won’t turn away from a person in trouble – even if the trouble is something outside his points of reference. That characteristic probably owes more to his grandpa Morris, who was a union organiser back in the day, than to his dad, a real estate agent. His competitive spirit definitely comes from dad, though!

Caleb doesn’t have too many vices. He steers well clear of drugs, and isn’t a big drinker, especially compared to some of his team-mates. His main weakness is girls, and more often slightly older and a little exotic ones. Even here though, there’s something just slightly old-fashioned and easy-going about him – more a knight in shining armour than a pick-up artist. Comes a day when these characteristics combine to lead Caleb into a side of Chicago he’d never imagined and one that would change his life forever. Turns out there’s bigger battlefields than the football pitch . . .



Cliff Season 1

Hi! I’m Clifford but you can just call me Cliff. I won’t bore you all with all that childhood stuff except to say that I grew up in a charming little part of south-central LA. I liked it so much that I skipped town on the first gig going, the military. You may have noticed the nice, clean haircut already.

The training was hard but it had its moments. I learned a lot of things, including how stupid my fellow recruits could be. They also learned that picking on “shorty” is one thing, suicidal. Now that got me a bit of heat from the higher-ups and I figured that I’d leave after I’d done the training because I was likely to get posted to some rat-hole overseas.

So, after that I hopped around the country for a bit more than a year, taking in the sights, climbing, skiing and doing part-time work. That was how I ended up here, working as a bouncer in a busy little night-club. A reasonably clean one too.

One night, something real weird happened out back in the alley. It was one hell of an eye-opener and I don’t want to talk about it yet. If I ever see one of those things again, I’m taking it out as fast as I can, no question.

That whole mess was where one of these folk turned up to help and he decided afterwards that I had “something”. An extra job on the side is just what I need ’cause being a bouncer doesn’t pay all that well, y’know?



Dan Season 1

Dan “Steel Eye” Hewstone is slender but not overly tall, late 20s in appearance. He is quite talkative but softly spoken in a native Chicago accent.

Dan is well dressed but not outlandishly or posily so. He is more than jovial about being a psychiatrist especially as he is quite well known in his field. He is quite open to any invitation to socialize and is not out of place in a library (although you might think he wouldn’t stay quiet long enough to study!) He has a happy demeanour and is quite often overheard humming classical tunes when in public. Despite all this you have witnessed him stare down people who disagreed with his perspective.

Dan has been trained as a doctor but professes he doesn’t have the stomach for deep surgery, except for the sort carried out between the ears; Dan does perhaps give the impression of studying people a little too much but his knack with winning people over soon overcomes that. He admits to having a professional interest in the Academy’s workings.

Jess Campbell, a waitress originally from Joliet, prides herself in dispensing comfort with her coffee. Jess went to St Francis School for Girls and for a long time planned to become a Carmelite nun and maybe one day teach juniors at the school herself. However she changed her mind in her late teens when she rather brutally discovered the world was much weirder than the good sisters of St Francis ever imagined. She’s since decided a life of seclusion is not for her; she has to be involved in what she’s coming to see as the battle for the soul of Chicago. Jess’ faith has been shaken, but she still wants to believe. She hopes a life dedicated to the work of the Academy will give her the purpose she craves.

Despite a college education – Jess studied history and social science at CU – Jess waits tables at the Chicagoland Bar and Grill on East Vine in Cicero as it leaves her plenty of free time for volunteer work and her ‘real’ job. It’s a bit of a slog to get there from her lodging house in West Oak Park, but at least she’s living in a nice area.

Although not grim enough to really be a loner, Jess has few close friends. She finds it hard to relate to the visceral world of her peers and, timid catholic girl that she is, she’s never had a long-term boyfriend. Her closest friend is Mrs Emily Crane who owns the boarding house where she lives and who has taken on a grandmotherly role. Jess’ parents, Joe and Dora, still live in Joliet and never stop hoping their little girl will either marry someone or get herself to a nunnery before she’s no good for either.



Hitch Season 1

Joe Hitchcock is a friendly young man, in his early 20s. Fair haired, 5′ 7″-8″ tall, he seems a fit type, if a little light in body weight. Hitchcock’s IPod leads to external headphones, and he wears running shoes, jeans and a jacket with pockets at the right size for tucking his hands away.

Hitchcock assures you with a boyish smile, that you can call him Joe, or Hitch, or Alfie, he’s good with any of these names. This short statement reveals a British accent that Americans cannot immediately place. Hitchcock claims he is a junior reporter (very junior) with the ‘Chicago Reader’, where he writes articles of no great importance, and hardly any by-line. But maybe one day that will change. To those that ask him what he is doing associated to the Academy, Hitchcock jokes it gives him something to do on Saturday nights.



Paul Season 1

Paul Birkby is tall, dark and slender, standing a little under 6′ tall. You would put his age as mid- to late twenties; as with so many other personal details, he’s less than forthcoming. When he can be bothered talking at all – which isn’t much – he has a strong English accent, which other natives of England would place as “upper class, public school” material, and little discernible sense of humour.

Paul has expensive tastes in clothing and demonstrates a strong rapport and ability with all things electronic, as well as a decidedly cynical, world-weary demeanour. He tends to clam up completely when quizzed about why he’s even here, but you get a distinct impression that he feels he’s being forced to “slum it” and is only here as a favour to someone. He rarely accepts invitations to socialize; when he does, he will drink alcohol but only sparingly. He seems to prefer his own company and the surroundings of computer labs or a well-stocked reference library.


Sandi Maclaine is a cute 5’6 in her cross-trainers, age about 18, hair (in season one) red with blonde streaks, then bright red.

Like many a young woman from the lowest decile, Sandi is a curious mixture of streetwise and naivety. She has few illusions about what people will do but believes pretty much what she sees on TV soaps and gossip magazines. Her mom Candy and grandmom Ali are her role-models. She brings an upbeat, can-do attitude to everything.

Sandi has her own category on this blog, read more about her there!


Eva: Jack’s admin staff and part-time vampire slayer, Eva is a member of the Carpathian Society, who seem to be associates of the campus.


Eva Season 1

Tim Tang: Team leader of a third group of associates. Tim is a computer geek.

Tim Tang Season 1

Jolly Roger, owner of the Jolly Roger Gym

Jolly Roger

Tawney, Hitch’s ex-girlfriend.

Tawney Season 1

Cast, Season Two

We lost Jess fairly early in season one, to other commitments. Otherwise the same cast from Season One continued, strengthening their connections and skill sets. Jack, our peer, developed terminal illness.


Caleb Season 2

Caleb wrestled with doubts and eventually departed the campus.


Dan Season 2

During Season Two, Dan turned his newly-revived faith into a powerful weapon against evil, particularly undead. Season Two culminated in Dan bringing Paul back to life by tapping into the Spear of Longinus. Dan’s principal physical weapon is a Tazer.


During Season Two, Hitch honed both physical and arcane powers, acquiring an impressive array of subtle spells such as Knock and Invisibility and gaining familiarity with melee weapons such as the big broadsword he straps on when expecting to fight fiendish agents.


Paul Season 2

Season Two marked Paul’s mastery of technology and arcane power. Using his PDA, Paul summons spells, many quite lethal, to support the group, while he also has mastery of communication technology which helps the team surveille or prevents others doing the same.


Sandi Season 2

Sandi’s first tentative steps along the more stealthy path were taken in Season One, but Season Two saw not only a makeover but far better infiltration skills and the first step to being a real gunslinger girl.

Supporting Cast
Adele, Hitch’s new romantic interest.

Hitch’s girlfriend Adele

Adele appeared in the Third Fish Island story arc, as a TA for Prof Howard. Hitch asked her out the very first time he met her and by end of season they were ready to move in together.

Asher Loxley, thaumaturge and burlesque impresario.

Tawney’s employer Asher Loxley

Asher first appeared back in Season One by repute, but Hitch did not meet him until well into Season Two. Asher has the kind of blonde good looks and sophistication that Hitch can only grind his teeth in envy at.

Cast for the Great Vampire Hunt Begins

Cross, the party Scout

McKeevor, the ex-Sar’Major and enforcer

Roundtree, the party Mage and know-all

Ancestor Shen

Underwood, the party Medic and nay-sayer

Wilson, Slayer of all things evil

These stalwart fellows were pick-up characters for the 4-session mini-campaign that slotted in to illuminate how very dangerous a “true” vampire would be, were one to be still living. If you review the Spear of Longinus story arc at the end of Season Two, you will see that a mysterious Third Buyer was never identified. Hitch (strongly, and with very little evidence) believes the third buyer to be a true vampire. He would also like to find that Asher is one of the true vampire’s “Renfields” but we may never know!

Cast, Season Three

Caleb decided to resign his post as associate after a traumatic experience. He was replaced by Shen Lu, whose background remained obscure. Shen is a Chinese immigrant of conservative Confucian beliefs and demeanor, with some contacts in “Chinatown.”

Shen Lu began with fists of fury alone, but within a fairly short time Elliot provided him with a powerful Katana.


Shen Lu Season 3

Dan managed to find a cross-cane, and rose to lay preacher status. He very seldom falls back on his “psych” skills though his medical knowledge is still vital.


Dan Season 3

Hitch expanded his arcane armory to include fireball, but still occasionally found a shotgun better use.

Hitch Season 3

Sandi increased her already-good infiltration skills and became quite lethal with two Glocks.


Sandi Season 3

Supporting Cast
Elliot: Jack’s replacement, sent by the senior campus in Boston. Elliot is East Indian by extraction, with a cut-glass English accent.

Mr Elliot

Mr Richmond: a burly, no-nonsense enforcer type, sent to assist Mr Elliot.

Mr Richmond

Rose: The other surviving member of Tim Tang’s team, a good driver with Gunslinger/Fast abilities.


Rose Season 3

Cast, Season Four

Birkby Season 4

Paul Birkby brought a new gadget to the party for Season 4: his inventive and technical skills enabled him to create a “sonic screwdriver” that halts the undead. Of course, he also brought more arcane firepower too: Lightning Bolt seems a fave. Season 4 saw the culmination of long research efforts into Greater Vampires, in partnership with Hitch.

Cliff Season 4

Cliff’s unstoppability increased for Season 4: he not only is hard to put down, he can charge round obstacles and choose to take further temporary health in order to stay up.

Hitch Season 4

Dan’s spiritual abilities continued to strengthen. During Season 4, he was entrusted with the sacred Lance and Cup. Other than those, his equipment and look are the same as for Season 3.

Hitch’s arcane strike power – he favors Magic Missile and Fireball – is as prominent as his research expertise. Season 4 saw the culmination of long research efforts into Greater Vampires, in partnership with Birkby.

Sandi Season 4

Sandi brought more Infiltrator skills to Season 4. Locks and security systems need to be very good to keep her out. She can now climb, tumble and jump remarkably well. She also displayed more maturity and steadiness of character.

Solo session

Characters (all L16 under d20 Modern rules):

Paul BIRKBY: Technomage and archmage

CLIFF: Tough bodyguard

DAN ‘Steeleye’ Hewstone: Charismatic priest

Joe HITCHcock: Researcheriffic Archmage

SANDI Maclaine: Infiltrating Gun Goddess


Major thread 1: End the supernatural blockade

Major thread 2: Restore the Campus to its rightful place as chief arcane do-gooders

Major thread 3: Deal with the summoner, who appears to be a divine spellcaster or necromancer

Major thread 4: Deal with Ralph Hagen


Scene: the secure base

Last mini-season, the team secured a base in the Highland Park area north of metro Chicago. It is protected by divine wards, including a holy relic from St Mary’s.

Points on table: none.

Chaos: 5, the start default.

Rules in play: This session is run under the solo version of GM-free SHC rules.


The Voice

“Wow, our first call and it’s like, from God.”

“Dan, are you sure you aren’t just, hmm…”

“Do go on, old boy, that next word would be fascinating. Hallucinating? Ego-tripping? Deceived by Satan?”

“Huh, yeah, seems funny. Yeah. But if Dan calls it we ought to listen. Yep.”

“Thanks Cliff. Let me go over it again. This is not the first time a vision has guided us, but it’s the first time I’ve heard the Voice.”

“But it’s like, run four seasons now?”

“Dan doesn’t mean The Voice, Sandi, he means…”

“That small still voice that called to Samuel, that told Moses to remove his sandals.”

“Oh, God.”

“Beware Paul, lest you be taken in your sins. Yes Sandi, I heard the voice of God. He has told me, abandon vainglory. Throw down your self-esteeming goal.”

“And by that you mean?”

“We should drop our plan to restore the Campus. I don’t know why, though perhaps we are not the Peers to do it.”

“I’ll have to think about this Dan. I mean I respect you but I didn’t go o all the trouble of getting Jack’s library only to be told there’s no future for the Campus.”

What Hitch would have chosen had events not intervened will never be known. For the decision is taken out of his hands.


Because this is solo play, I start with an Emulator roll for Event Focus. I get ‘move away from a thread’. Since this is a new session, only the major threads are in play, though Dan does have a private thread. So do a couple of other characters. But the explanatory rolls tell me ‘take goal’. So it can’t be a non-goal. Using a d5 to decide which, I get the 2nd one, establish the campus.

Making this about a revelation is based on the relic Dan brought in. He has a track record of receiving visions. So this seems a simple enough way of inserting it.

Chaos rises to 6 since this has definitely weirded things up.


Scene: still the secure base.

Chaos check: Interrupt.

DAN works feverishly, literally. The entire team is stricken with a plague that seems divinely rooted. If his stamina gives out, they will die. He prays for blessings, and receives them. So this is not God turning his back!

Days go by, and the team drift back into the world of the living. Dan, many pounds slimmer, is resting by their stinking beds. He looks serene.

“Damnit! Way to make your point, big guy! All right, when I’m back on my feet we’ll not be restoring the campus.”

Dan wakes and looks squarely at Hitch.

“Oh you’ll have a job to do though Hitch! I need you to find out who could generate these symptoms, and then we need to move on them! But here’s a pointer: it isn’t the summoning mage!”


Chaos check is ‘interrupt’ so a whole new focus is rolled. The result is ‘move toward a thread’ and the explanation is ‘imitate illness’. I read this as a curse or similar arcane infliction.

A number of questions have to be posed of the Emulator of which the key is, Does this affect everyone? I give this 50-50 and Answer is 62, Yes.

Dan will need to spend a spread of AP to get his Fort checks, but he also has a number of spell options that will boost his ability.

Let’s take that as read.

Research is called for, and it makes sense to link research to Emulator questions. But this is what I actually did:

Q2: is the appearance of sickness divine? (unlikely)

A:48 yes

This was unexpected, I had been thinking of an arcane attack.

Q3: Can Dan cure it without help? (50-50)

A: 20 Yes

Aside from questions of stamina, Dan’s healing check will be a DC within his own powers. But finally this must be a move towards someone’s goal.

Q4: is this Dan’s own thread? (50-50)

A: 93 no.

So it’s got nothing to do with the Carpathians, a goal of Dan’s. Then, surely it’s the mysterious summoning mage, who could well be a necromancer?

Q5: is this the summoner mage? (has to be)

A: 100 no (note this 00 answer also requires an event to be generated later!)

Q6: is this someone like Ralph Hagen mimicking the summoner? (somewhat likely)

A: 42 yes

Q7: Can Dan tell this to the team? (very unlikely)

A: 32 yes

This may seem an odd question but I consider that Dan may be divinely handicapped and beside that is not known for his Spellcraft.

We now have a new clue thanks entirely to Dan. Ralph Hagen is in possession of a divine spell or Artefact that mimics divine curses and can get through divine wards. It does not require surging.

Chaos drops to 5 because the scene went very well for Dan.

Extra event focus, as Hitch researches (12) and is helped by Dan (19) allowing a DC34 library research.

Result 95: NPC positive. This is a tough one, but I’ve decided not to be random. This session has been all about Dan so let’s say this is a Dan NPC.

Dan ties the knot

“Mary, do you take Daniel Hewstone to be your lawfully wedded husband until death do you part?”

“I do.”

“I now declare you man and wife. And what God has joined let no man put asunder.”

Dan kisses Mary deeply, then turns to the others and beams, as Paul wanders off back to his DARMA rebuild and Sandi, swabbing the tears off her face, rushes to kiss bride and  groom.

The reverend Hasalmon Brown shakes hands all round, then finds time to slip away and change out of his Southern Baptist robes. He slips a wrist-mic on:

“It’s done. PapaDoc is go.”


Dan has a small number of NPCs, notably Mary the ME, and family. I call this a d4: Personal-Mary; Personal-family; Professional-clinical; and Professional-other. The result is 4, other. Time for an affiliation check, and we get Homeland Security! A couple of Emulator questions:

Q: Is this covert? (50-50)

A: 41 Yes.

Q: Is this a Southern Baptist? (Unlikely)

A: 13 Yes.

It’s time to turn to the NPC Emulator. We know the affiliation but we don’t know the tense and bearing of the approach. The NPC emulator gives me a friendly,  helpful contact whose focus is future action. I turn to the Location Crafter for more description, and in the process of finding that he is Jovially Strong and wants to Oppress Energy I get two more Event Focuses.

Focus 1 and 2 are rolled together and on the same principle that this is Dan’s session, I get Mary losing her job, but in a positive way. It seems logical to suppose that the good Reverend has used Mary as a trojan horse to get Dan lined up to strike against some source of energy (just as likely to be the Great Spirits as some evil Nexus).

End of session.

Remaining public threads:

Major thread 1: End the supernatural blockade

Major thread 2: Deal with the summoner, who appears to be a divine spellcaster or necromancer

Major thread 3: Deal with Ralph Hagen

Significant private threads: Dan will trigger ‘Oppress Energy’ at some time in the future.



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.

One Response to SHC GM-free explanation and session 1 : One door closes, another opens/Dan ties the knot

  1. Pingback: The Broken Land: fool’s gold | PartyBickering

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