Monday, October 27, 2014

The Kray as the Hounds of Tindalos

"Through angled space they lope and slither, furtive yet unswerving in their course, aye, and unappeasable; for they are the Hunters from Beyond, concerning that which but little there be that wise men and sages of olden-time dated to set down for men less wise and prudent then they to read.  For even to know them is to have their gaunt and slinking shapes to haunt thy dreams; and even to dream of them is to, as Eibon sayeth, to lure them hither."
"The Necronomicon:  The Dee Translation" -- Lin Carter 

There are many monsters, organizations, or places in The Strange with strong Lovecraftian overtones.   This is part of my motivation for using Delta Green as an inspiration from some of my home campaign Earth.   These similarities are also useful as a way to generate story ideas centered around creatures from the Strange.  To illustrate this I will show you how to use stories of the Hounds of Tindalos as the basis for an adventure focusing on the Kray.

The Hounds of Tindalos are creatures that operate outside our dimensions.   They often hunt down people who have (intentionally or not) stepped outside the bounds of their own dimension.  This may be a traveler between dimensions or someone who simply (?) saw through the barriers of time and space to some remote location.  Once they pick up the scent of someone moving or seeing through the barriers of dimensions, they begin to hunt them down.

The applications to The Strange are clear.  Various recursions are separated from each other by oceans of the Strange itself.  This is similar to the space between dimensions in which the Hounds of Tindalos roam.  This function serves an interesting approach to using the Kray in your adventures.  Their background indicates that the Betrayer allowed the Kray into Ardeyn for some reason -- from where?  There are hints that the Kray may be native to The Strange itself.  A great deal of mystery remains in the motivation for the Kray.

Adventure Idea

"Bewarest thou, then, the of the Liou drug that dissolves all barriers of time and space and permitteth the to peer Beyond, that thou imbibest of it not so freely that though needs must fall prey to the cosmic hungers of the Hounds of Tindalos."
"The Necronomicon: The John Dee Translation."  -- Lin Carter

In this section I will illustrate how you can use stories related to the Hounds of Tindalos to write stories featuring the Kray and featuring key elements of The Strange core setting.  This adventure might fit very nicely into the beginning of The Dark Spiral campaign with a little adaptation.

The PCs learn of a person who was torn apart in bright daylight with several witnesses.  Clearly this event has gotten a lot of attention.  Some media outlets have put this in the bin of "spontaneous combustion"  -- though people knowledgable in The Strange worry that there is more to it.  Some research into the background of the victim reveals that he had been using a new street drug (Dark Spiral?  the Liao drug? or the infamous Black Lotus?).    The drug had allowed him to see into The Strange -- where he caught the notice of the Kray.  This was the equivalent of "pinging" the network -- at least for the Kray.

The players then look into who else may have caught the attention of the Kray.  All of the other people with whom the victim shared the drug have been killed -- though none so dramatically as being torn apart by invisible attackers.  Other were killed in their sleep or simply have not been seen lately (maybe they fled town when they say into The Strange) except for one.  The players have to find and then talk to this last remaining user of the drug.  This is an opportunity for a social encounter as the players seek to find out what the drug user knows, if they have encountered these creatures, what the creatures look like (when not entirely invisible), etc?  The players may even recover the remaining sample of the drug.

You may even have the Kray attack the user while the players are present (just the sort of thing that happens in similar fiction).  You should play up how the Kray flicker in-and-out of phase and move in strange non-linear bursts as they pass between dimensions/recursions.  You can scale this encounter to your group with a combination of Kray Scurriers and Drones (Strange Core pg. 276).

This can serve as the basis for a larger campaign -- who supplied the drug?  Did they want to bring the Krey to Earth?  Did this encounter alert the Krey to the existence of the players?  Are the players the next on the list for elimination?  

This little example illustrates how to tie the Kray together into a single session with an investigation, social, and combat encounter.  If you enjoy session seeds like this, please comment.  Enjoy and stay off the wacky Liao.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

September Project NPCs Part I

Building on the notion of using AIM as a model for the September Project (SP), I want to offer a few examples of NPCs built from this inspiration.  For today, I will provide a simple NPC to serve as the initial series of guards a team is likely to cross when infiltrating a SP installation.  Remember that the theme is "corporate science."  To an un-quickened (or uninformed) eye, everything should look at least close to normal -- until it doesn't.

SP Desk Staff (level 3)

Photo: Michael Coghlan

Narrative description

The office building opens into a brightly lit foyer.  Occupying the center of this foyer is a large, circular security desk.  All visitors are expected to check in -- and the prevalence of cameras suggests that bypassing the desk may garner unwanted attention.  As you approach the desk, a security agent in a nice dark suit looks up at you.  You see past his forced smile to see a blue glow deep in his eyes.  Clearly they are waiting for you to check in.

Exceptional abilities

One may expect to see 3-5 of these agents at a reception desk.  Remember to use options for group attacks if you choose.

The SP Desk Staff have been augmented to increase their ability to notice anything that may represent a threat to the facility.  While a level 3 NPC, SP Desk Staff are level 4 with regards to perception and seeing through lies or disguises.

Possibly unbeknownst to the SP Desk Staff themselves, they have also been augmented in various ways.  The first is that all that they see or hear is recorded.  This could prove quite important if the SP needs to review the tapes later to see who entered the building.  These augmentations provide a convenient redundancy in case the lobby cameras are circumvented.  The embedded cameras may also be equipped with various improvements like heat sensors.

If threatened, the SP Desk Staff reveal their other major augmentation.  Their eyes dilate (indicating that their programing is taking over) and they reach towards the threat revealing a taser (level 4 -- stunning taser) embedded in his palm.  Each SP Desk Staff has a single use taser in one hand.

GM Intrusion

Wyoming National Guard

The SP Desk Staff is concerned that no one make it past them.  They need to buy some time for the more powerful security teams to arrive.  Any SP Desk Staff near the desk can activate an alarm.  Simultaneous with the alarm, dispensers emerge from the ceiling to spray what looks like fire retardant foam covering everything (and everyone) within 30 feet of the desk.  The foam quickly hardens.  Anyone seeking to move -- whether to actually change locations or even to take an aggressive action -- must overcome a level 5 might challenge to break free of the foam.

Next up -- who shows up when the alarms sound?

An extended treatment on adapting "fronts" for Cypher games

The audio segments for Strange Encounters are necessarily limited.  Given the format and timing, there is only so much information I can provide for each segment.  Where appropriate I will expand on the explanations in the audio segments in posts like this.

For now, I wanted to expand on the use of "fronts" for Cypher System games.

CarbonNYC -- David Goehring

For a quick review, fronts are a strategy for developing adversaries for RPGs.  The keys are to create one or more groups for the players to face.  For each group, the GM must define:

  • The Impulse -- the motive for the group, long-term goals, etc.
  • Grim Portents -- how the world reflects the progress of the group towards its goals
  • Impending Doom -- what the implications would be for failing to stop this front 
This approach to planning has a number of advantages.  The key is that it balances sandbox-style freedom for the PCs with a defined narrative arc (which GMs tend to like).  Frankly, this may be considered the illusion of a sandbox because the structure of the fronts are deterministic to an extent (they define what will happen but for the work of the PCs).  The agency for the PCs comes in choosing which front to tackle when.  

The agency involved in choosing which front to tackle is a key strength of this approach.  This is why I recommend having at least two fronts in play at any given time (in the campaign, not necessarily in any specific session).  If you only have one front, the narrative will seem to be like a railroad.  The players will more-or-less be forced to confront a specific threat -- though they may have more or less flexibility in how to confront the adversary depending on how you design the campaign.  With more than one front, the PCs will always have a choice of which front to address -- preserving their agency.  With two fronts, the structure will look a lot like a tradition plot/subplot structure for many genre television seasons.  More than three may fronts may get too complex -- but I  have never actually tried this out.

The core book for The Strange provides many possible option for fronts -- providing some of the details you will need out of the box.  If the PCs are operatives of the Estate, they may face several fronts on Earth (one could spread fronts across recursions, but I will keep it to Earth for simplicity sake in this illustration):  the September Project, the Circle of Liberty, and the OSR.  We can treat each of these as a front with its impulse defined by the basic setting material.  

The grim portents and impending doom of each front will be the key creative work for the GM.  You should start with the impending doom.  For each front, consider what the world would look like if they front had its way.  You can then walk the doom back a step to imagine a set-piece, final showdown between the PCs and the front.  

Let's take the example of the OSR -- to avoid spoiling the nature of the September Project and the Circle of Liberty from the core book.  I will make something up for the OSR that is unrelated to a the core setting -- hopefully avoiding stepping on or spoiling anyone's campaign.  My impending doom for the OSR would be a police state empowered by advanced technology brought back by recursion exploration of OSR agents (possibly in concert with another actor in a different recursion).  The OSR becomes the power-behind-the-throne for this ascendent police state armed with psychic monitoring equipment (from Atom Nocturne?), bionic agents (from Ruk?), and mechanical leviathans (from the Graveyard of the Machine God?).  Between the surveillance potential of the psychic equipment, the manpower of the bionic agents, and the siege power of the leviathans -- nothing can stand in their way.  

But the PCs won't let them get that far -- will they?

Inspired by the final confrontation in Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier (very light spoilers), I envision a final showdown between the PCs and the OSR agents.  The PCs have to fight across multiple levels -- possibly running along the back of a mechanical leviathan -- to prevent the full activation of leviathan (activation could render this a full level 10 threat -- or simply too big for stats) and the connection of the leviathan into the OSR surveillance network.  

To define the grim portents, we can walk the narrative back even further.  The collection of tools from various recursions makes the grim portents simple.  Each of the components could represent a phase of the narrative.  The first phase of the campaign is small scale and would be invisible to the PCs if they do not actively engage (possibly because they are dealing with a separate front).  In this phase, the OSR agents are traveling to Ruk and contacting a potential supplier for biological implants for their agents.  If the PCs do not interact with this front in the first phase, the front advances and the first grim portents for this front begin to emerge.  From this point, OSR agents are likely to exhibit the implants they acquired in phase 1 (conveniently increasing the level of the threats for now more advanced PCs).  The OSR may also be linked to bio-mechanical breakthroughs reported in the press (PC investigation is likely required to link the breakthroughs to the OSR).  

If the players start to investigate these breakthroughs or otherwise confront the OSR, they will find that the OSR is sending agents to Atom Nocturne.  Here the PCs could face the threat and see the results of the existing relationship with Ruk and try to prevent the importation of Atom Nocturne psychic tech (or a bathtub full of psychics -- whatever you like).  This would bring the PCs directly into the narratives front despite their attention to other matters in phase 1.  This also presents the world as a breathing, evolving world that develops independent of the PCs actions.

If the PCs thwart the OSRs plans in Atom Nocturne, you can pull the psychic surveillance from the finale.  This gives the players a sense that they have affected the outcome.  If they fail, the front proceeds.  The grim portent may be an increase in government efforts to eliminate opposition.  At first, this could be an unprecedented series of surgical strikes against terrorist leaders.  Less publicly, the government may be going after potential sources of opposition -- including the Estate itself.

The final phase is the OSR efforts in the Graveyard of the Machine God.  You will want to vary the nature of the mission.  If the visit to Atom Nocturne had a strong investigative and social feel, you will want to make the mission to the Graveyard of the Machine God a different tone.  This may be a setting where something more like the exploration of tombs or a special ops approach makes more sense.  Again, if the PCs thwart the OSR -- they determine elements missing from the final confrontation.  If the PCs prevent the recovery of the leviathan, the OSR does not have a leviathan to activate and may have to fall back on the factory activation of bio-implants as their endgame.  It is essential that each phase feel different but have narrative linkages to convince players that these are all parts of a greater plan.

And in that way, you have accidentally developed a campaign.  Of course, you want to do 2-3 of these.  That may seem like overkill.  Why develop a full OSR campaign if the players could simply focus on the September Project?  There are several reasons, actually.  First, this creates the sense of agency and dynamism as the various fronts proceed.  Second, anything you do not use can simply be saved for another time.  Maybe the players deal with the September Project but now you have plans for a long arc to follow where the players have to catch up to the now advanced plot of the OSR.  You may even have to make the Circle of Liberty climax the campaign climax, but you still have extensive notes on this OSR front for the next campaign.  

In all, I find this to be a great way to organize the development of a campaign around narrative.  This is not the sort of mechanic I have discussed before that affect die rolls and the like.  This is a macro-level development mechanic but one I think you will find very useful.  

For a more develop version of the "front" approach, you should consult the Apocalypse World RPG (warning:  elements of this RPG are decidedly NSFW) or the related Dungeon World RPG -- a fantasy counterpart.  

Please tell me what you think.  Does this inspire you?  Do you like longer treatments like this or TL;DR?  

Friday, October 3, 2014

The September Project as AIM

Many of the antagonists central to the core Strange setting represent groups rather than the weird individual creatures for which Numenera is known.  There is an opportunity in these groups to develop a closely knit theme for the groups that help you develop distinctive units within the group -- while maintaining the group theme.  To illustrate this point, I will start with the September Project.

The September Project represents a high-tech threat on Strange Earth.  They develop technologies that potentially destabilize Earth or alert planetevores to its presence (tasty, tasty presence).  Based on this place within Strange Earth, the distinctive flavor for the September Project is corporate science.  This builds on the concern people have with faceless scientists performing unethical or dangerous research.  Your goal in developing September Project encounters would be to populate the scene with villains that fit this theme.  One possible source of inspiration stands out:  AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics).

by Ryan Harris (

In the Marvel comic universe, AIM fills a similar story niche as a villainous corporate science organization.  Most famous for their "bee-hive" helmets, AIM creates dangerous technology -- often for sale to the highest bidder.  Some hints about how to build the September Project come from a careful consideration of what makes AIM distinctive.  One of the elements is the setting in which AIM operates -- high tech labs.  You don't see many beehive helmets wandering down the streets of the Marvel universe.  Instead, this organization is often squirreled away in its labs.  Although, the players may seek to disrupt their efforts to deliver, demonstrate, or see their products.  This means that AIM stories -- and, if you choose, the September Project -- often take place within the specific environment of a high tech lab.

The image also emphasizes the sense that the AIM workers are uniform.  Each of the members is well-equipped but uniformly dressed.  This emphasizes the corporate element of the organization -- as distinct from, say, a lone mad scientist.  This also fits with the theme of the September Project.

AIM also possess a strict hierarchy.  Individual scientists work within teams.  The teams are connected to a clear hierarchy -- leading to the "Scientist Supreme."  Over the years, there have been others structures of their leadership bit the specifics are not important to AIM as an inspiration for the September Project.

Of course, you can ignore the bee-hive look or the giant head in a floating chair if you like :).

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Strange Encounter Preview -- Dungeon World "Fronts" Adapted to the Cypher System

I am working on several potential Strange Encounter segments focusing on mechanics you might want to borrow from other systems.  This mechanic can involve a detailed discussion -- and is part of the motivation to supplement the GM Intrusion segments with a blog.  While I work on a (much) fuller treatment, I wanted to give you a hint of the topic with this excellent blog from Sly Flourish on adapting the "front" approach to planning in Dungeons and Dragons.

As always, initial reactions and comments are appreciated.  This is opportunity to shape the coverage as I develop the segment and more detailed blog post.  Does anyone have experience with this mechanic/approach?