Review: Seattle Sprawl Digital Box

I’m going to review Catalyst Lab’s “Seattle Sprawl Digital Box”, with a special focus on this product being a digital product. This review is based on a review copy provided by Catalyst Game Labs.

PRODUCT: Shadowrun: Seattle Sprawl Digital Box Set
AUTHORS: Raymond Croteau, Jason M. Hardy, James Meiers, O.C. Presley, Scott Schletz, R.J. Thomas, Malik Toms, Thomas Willoughby, CZ Wright, Russell Zimmerman
COMPANY: Catalyst Game Labs

A quick rundown of the content.

Included are three books (Ruling the Queen City, Emerald Shadows and Tangled Threads), a really nice and high-res map of Seattle, available both in PDF and PNG, a PDF of 24 NPC cards (2 pages per character), a small district-coded map of Seattle with Gang and POI information (spread over two PDFs), a PDF containing 11 “map cards” (intended for quick on-the-fly assembly of at-the-table combat maps) and the “Instruction Sheet”. The price point is 24.99$.

Introduction

Let me be up-front here: The price point is fair. Yes, it is more useful for players who are new to Shadowrun than to veterans, but this argument simply can’t be a deciding factor for a game that’s in its 5th edition but still retains a continuing core identity and does not reboot itself. Veterans of earlier editions will have to accept that they already know much of the background and history. Catering mostly to them would be abandoning newer players, which would be worse than repeating some information in my opinion. It falls on the developers and writers to present those known facts in an interesting and fresh way and mix them well with new information. And I do think that they generally succeeded here. But there are, sadly, some problems.

Most of them come from the smaller content coupled with the fact that it’s a digital product.

Overview (and Comments)

The map cards.

11 small map pieces that can be printed out and assembled to form a quick and dirty combat map for use at the table. But they are contained in a 55-page PDF in which each card repeats 5 times. This seems like a lazy carbon-copy of the physical product, for which such multiplication makes sense if you want to allow players to build maps with repeating pieces (malls and such). But when it’s a PDF, a single copy of each piece would be perfectly adequate. We can decide how many to print ourselves.

The other, and sadly worse, negative point is the quality: They are rather low-res and frustratingly tiny cards. Printing them out in their original size nets you with quite a bit of wasted paper but if you print them out larger, they don’t look particularly good.

It would have been a better idea to issue those as individual PNG files with a higher natural resolution and thus allow players to more easily “assemble” even in something as basic as Paint before printing, allowing for a better user experience.

Reference Map

The second complaint I’ll issue against the combined POI, Gang Information and District map. Those are basically four pages that were spread across two individual PDFs which could have easily been one. Again, it seems like those were two individual cardstock cards in the physical release and so this was imported into the digital release without some fiddling.

I have no issue with the information contained! It gives you a semi-street-map of Seattle, marks each district with a distinctive colour and then offers up short-form information about Gangs and POIs and in which district each of those can be found.

But the map itself is found on the 2nd page of the “Gang Card” PDF, and the POIs are on the separate “Map Reference Card” PDF. For ease of use on tablets I would have combined both into one “Quick Reference Map” PDF, lead with the Map and follow with POI and Gang info.

The Character Cards.

24 NPCs that can be quickly inserted into a game set in Seattle and which give a portrait, a quick background and full stats for each NPC. It’s a small, but really useful piece of content. They can also all be used as PCs so that you’re set for convention games or one-shots or visiting players. Really cool.

I’d actually suggest that Catalyst release collected sets of developed NPCs like this as regular mini-PDF/digital only content. 24 themed NPCs for a variety of situations (DocWagon Personnel, Wageslaves, Security, Organized Crime Members, Clubbers…) which are laid out in a way to facilitate use from a tablet as well as print-outs.

Two complaints I feel I have to state. One is a hefty dose of re-used art. And yes, I do realize that it clashes with my earlier comment about repeated content. But several portraits used for those cards were archetypes or prominent art pieces. I understand that the art budget would have probably been stretched by commissioning 24 new portraits, but at the same time, it did feel a bit cheap.

And there’s Kevin. Kevin, as per his illustration, is clearly either an Ork Poser or an Ork that’s otherwise pretty Human looking. But by his stats, he’s a simple Human. That one discrepancy felt like there was a change between the “character as-is” and “as he was when art notes were handed out”.

But apart from the seen before pictures and Kevin, I really dig that part. High marks.

The Seattle Map.

It’s gorgeous.

There really isn’t much I can say about it. It’s 4200px x 6000px and sized for 53.3cm x 76.2cm (21×30 inches) printing. It is devoid of markers or text of any kind, and it shows the Sprawl at night in nice black/red/blue contrasts.

And then there are the three books.

This box set gives us:
“Emerald Shadows”, a 90-page book about Seattle and its districts.
“Ruling the Queen City”, a 50-page book about the people and organizations vying for power.
“Tangled Threads”, a 30-page book of 8 locations and one short adventure.

Emerald Shadows

The book is the meat of this box. And I do adore the decisions that went into how to structure the book. After a cool short by Russel Zimmerman and a very short general overview about Seattle, you reach the ‘meat’ of the book: A district-by-district chaptered rundown of Seattle.

Each district chapter starts off by giving a short overview over the district in question, some demographic data and is then further broken down by information based on the following categories:

Special Occasions – Festivals, gatherings, conventions, local holidays
Crime Scene – Who controls local crime. Wo tries to get in. Who is on their way out.
Where to Shop – Famous and/or interesting shopping opportunities.
Where to Squat – Hotels, Hiding Spots and associated locales.
You Won’t Find This Elsewhere – Unique features of each district.
Opposition Report – What will try to interfere with runners in each district.
Help Wanted – Classified ad style and short-form run ideas geared to each district.

This includes Outremer, the islands included in the Metroplex area as well as the Ork Underground, which is in the process of being incorporated as a fully-fledged district.

The entries are all written by a fictional character and not as objective facts stated by a real-world author. The writing is then punctuated by Shadowtalk segments by Shadowrunners, giving more context, critiques or conflicting information.

On average, each district gets 5 pages of treatment (10 for the Outremer islands as a ‘whole’) so it’s not the most in-depth look at those districts, but it counteracts the short word-count with something much more important: Playability.

Coming from a GM’s perspective, almost every paragraph is filled with ideas for something to include in their own game. From people to places, from short encounters to multi-session runs.

>From a player’s perspective, each section gives just enough guidance and help to anchor a PC to the city with ties to something, or someone, that is ‘established’. And this is a great help to many players, especially those who are new to a game. It also helps players to get a picture of how society flows outside of the shadows, which is always a huge plus for me.

Would more word-count for each district have been bad? No. Of course not. In fact, I would again not be averse to digital mini-supplements for each district, fleshing them out some more. Adding more people, more locations, more rumours, more dynamics, more run ideas. But only because the way it was presented here showed that this is indeed a good way to create content for a city.

Ruling the Queen City

Opening with a short by Raymond Croteau, this 50-page book then starts with an intro chapter which throws a quick glance on the status quo of Seattle, follows this by explaining how it got to this status quo and closes with… A short discussion on how to traverse Seattle, how to get in via Land, Air and Water and how to get around in via walking, transit, driving, air and water. This short, 3 page, chapter doesn’t fit the rest of this book at all. Content-wise it fits much better into “Emerald Shadows”.

Apart from this bit, the book gives a nice and, again, at-table-play oriented view about current Seattle politics and the upcoming election, as well as the people and organizations involved in them. It sets up Seattle as the stage for some truly cut-throat politicking that is sure to create jobs for runners all across the spectrum. From gutter rats to edge runners. Fond memories of Super Tuesday raise their head here.

While it’s focused on politics and power plays, it does have the added benefit of fleshing out the motivations (obvious and hidden) of several Shadowrun key players when it comes to Seattle, which is a big bonus even for campaigns that don’t deal directly with the power struggle. Knowing what a particular group of people wants helps in creating stories focusing on or featuring said groups and their opposition.

A chapter about Knight Errant and how they operate in Seattle (coupled with a few paragraphs about Federal Agencies and the Correctional Service) as well as a chapter on the current state of policlubs and other organizations close this guide to Emerald City power plays. And for me, as someone who used Lone Star for almost 20 years now, even this short update on Knight Errant as the new main ‘police’ force was a great and informative read.

Tangent: I do have to note that there is at least one mention of the detestable “Stonecutter’s Guild” and the idea that there are worldwide metahuman racial cultures around that was introduced to Shadowrun 5. I vehemently disagreed with the idea when it was introduced, and I still do so now. This is pushing Shadowrun towards a silly and ridiculous notion of “worldwide dwarven conspiracy every dwarf on the planet belongs to and can get ostracized from by acting in anti-conspiracy ways” that has never been a part of Shadowrun and never should have been introduced. It does not make sense in the world as it was set up and developed since the first edition of the game. It’s effectively a step back towards silly, overtly fantasy “one race, one culture”, idiocy that both Shadowrun and Earthdawn always stood against.

Tangled Threads

30 pages of GM goodness split up into “Seattle Spots” and “Seattle Plots”

But again, sadly with some faults that could have been avoided if this product would have been re-created for its digital release a bit more. And again, it’s because of maps. Specifically, it’s about 5 full-page location maps. They all look great, and could be really great hand-outs/at-the-table resources, if they only had been included on their own, as high-res PNGs for either good quality printing or high-res digital display. Disappointing, really.

But, having said that, this book really is great. The seven locations offered up are a Corporate Housing Complex, a Conference & Recreation Center, a Critter Research Lab, a Magical Library, a Restaurant/Bar, an Executive Retreat, a Corporate Law Enforcement Facility/Jail and a Corporate Re-Education Camp.

All of those come with a thematically satisfying description, statted NPCs and hooks for runs.

You can quickly insert any of those into an already ongoing run or use them as the focal point of a run of their own. The included NPCs are a nice addition to any GMs repertoire as well.

Then we have Seattle Plots.

5 linked mini-adventures/runs split up into three plot points each, all under the dome of the currently ongoing Proposal 23 campaigning (Making the Ork Underground a fully-fledged district of Seattle).

I haven’t run it myself, so I can and will not speak about its merits as a mini-campaign. But from reading through it, it does give enough pointers and information to the GM so that creating a satisfying set of sessions based on its premise should pose no great problem. It also does something I’m strongly in favour of: It makes the PCs focal to a big change coming towards Seattle, setting up a struggle inside the city involving any and all power players. And giving a good reason for the PCs to remain involved, helping to shape Seattle for the future.

It also does something I also greatly favour: It discusses what to do /and what happens in-game for some time to come/ if the PCs take the unexpected way to end things. Even though this is a major plot of which I’m sure we’ll read more as time goes on, the writer gave the GM a set of guidelines how to progress with Seattle even if the PCs go against expectations. Kudos for this.

Verdict

Yes, I have my contentions with the product, mainly I’m not happy with how it was translated from physical to digital product. I’m also not a fan of the typos I found when reading through it all. Although, as this is a comp copy, it’s possible that those are fixed in the full release. And it’s always possible with PDFs, so I will not weigh this too strongly. But it does show that Shadowrun, as a line, still needs to get back on track after several of 5th edition’s early releases were editorial disappointments.

The content itself, though? Full marks. Apart from the points of contention I mentioned in the review, I can’t think of anything that would make me dislike it. It is a very good Seattle product that manages to use a low page-count for maximum effect: Making the city relatable and playable to GMs and Players both.

I can only hope that upcoming “Digital Box Set” products will receive some more TLC when it comes to their translation from physical to digital. But I’m happy with what the writers delivered.

Notice for Physical buyers: If you are reading this review and are considering buying the physical box, bump up the “Style” score by one, as most of my complaints will not bother you.

Make the game your own. Fuck parts of it up!


Dave Matthews Band – When the World Ends [Lyrics]

HH by dasTOK
“HH” by dasTOK

///An over-waist white tank-top worn over green, woolen leggings decorated with a pattern which looks suspiciously christmas like, in August. Short, almost cropped, blonde hair. Rimless glasses.///

Before we start, let me quote a short passage from the core rulebook of Dark Heresy 2nd Edition. Might be a weird choice, but bear with me here.

The single largest division of the Adeptus Terra present on Juno is the Adeptus Administratum, its headquarters located at the mighty Regis Chancellery near the centre of Vesuna Regis. This and numerous subsidiary locations house many millions of scribes, factors, and overseers, many of whom live out their lifetimes within a few metres of their ink-stained desks. Lord High Comptroller-General Avak Numinor leads the mission, and is responsible for cataloguing the sector’s resources so that proper tithe levels can be maintained for each world.

I’ll make it quick and painless: During the first sessions of play, blow that fucker up. The consequences for the sector will be immense, and it will create panic everywhere. But it will also create opportunities for your PCs.

So, how is this relevant to you, humble Urban, modern day, fantasy/horror GM?

Another quick and painless statement: Fuck something up, blow something up, muck something up in the world your game is set in, from the get go. Shake the whole world up to start with.

Why, though?
Well, many Urban Fantasy games have something along the lines of Vampire: The Masquerade’s… Masquerade.

Something that makes all the supernatural persons and beasties keep out of the eye of the mundane public. And, for 99% of gamepelay, this is utterly fine. Good, even. It gives a fig-leaf rationale for the whole “Why is the world like our real world even with all this supernatural stuff?” question.

But it also constrains many groups to keep their play at a lower level than might perhaps be preferred by the group. Don’t get me wrong, low-key games are great games. But being continuously punished and/or reprimanded for using the in-game powers of your characters can get annoying really damn quickly.

And sometimes, even GMs get into the “don’t rock the boat” mindset and can push the game towards a more mundane feel than they perhaps realize, through in and out of game, subtle and overt punitive actions against supernatural activities initiated by the PCs.

So, to break out of this, just wreck part of the setting. Perhaps don’t start with something connected to the central to the game’s premise, but chose something visible. Something with consequences and ramifications. The Dark Heresy example I posted is exactly this: It won’t end the setting, it won’t destroy the game’s premise (If you ask me, it will even enhance it.). But it’s something that’s visible. Something that your players will notice.

Here’s a warning, though. This WILL make the setting fully your own. Chances are, that you won’t be able to use further officially published setting material without some sort of re-tooling. But it will help you to get into the mindset of using the game as it was intended to be used: By you, for your group.

Let’s look at a specific example:
So, you’re running a game of Mage. You’ve talked about the premise and the scope of the game with your players, you’ve created characters and you know what will be important to them, later on. You cross all those things off the list of “stuff to blow up” and then look for something that will still resonate with your chronicle. Your game shall be one of dimensional travel and exploration of umbral realms. Mh. How about a large-scale, weird-effect explosion of the LHC? Let’s say that it was a Technocracy pet-project and that it went wrong with some sort of Paradox backlash. And the Paradox Spirit responsible was pissed off enough at the people doing it, that it decided to really piss in their cereal and let apparitions appear around it for a few weeks.

So now you have a major news report for the mundane population, something that is tearing down the veil which the Technocrats will have to work hard to fix, and something that has a good chance to come up in one of your sessions, from either side of the umbra. You just fucked with the setting. You shook up the status quo. And now your players come into it. And if you’re a good ST, they know that they too can, and are encouraged to!, change the setting if they can live with any consequences connected to it. And you yourself have a few less inhibitions to actually create world-affecting consequences. Because a setting should not be static. Your PCs should be able to change, affect, save, destroy or simply twist the world they live in. For new games, you will then be able to either start a new game in a yet un-fucked version of the setting, or start a new game in what has basically become a whole new setting for you all to play in. :)

Make the setting your own. Fuck parts of it up!

[Intermission] No post this weekend.

Clan Salubri by Z-GrimV

///Grungy, plaid shirt over wide-brimmed 70s style Jeans and open, un-tied leather boots.///

[This weekend was a head-ache filled one, so this post is a day late and really skirting the deadline. But my head isn't cooperating well the last few days, so I had to cut it all short. I had a nice outline for a post about mashing and mixing things up with both genre and tone, but... After the sixth try to put them into words, I just had to sigh and stop trying. They're all saved as drafts, so I hope that I'll be bale to re-visit them next weekend.

I'll try to get at least one day this week where I can sit down in a Starbucks in the afternoon or the evening, and let the atmosphere there help unlock some more parts of my brain. As well as collect more of those "caricatures via words".

So as a slight "Sorry!" you get two inspirational pictures (and, really, DO check out the artists of the pics I post. They might lead you to more and more cool art!) and two Nouvelle Vague songs instead of just one. ;)

And with that... I'm sorry. Really. :-/

Clan Salubri by Z-GrimV

That thing about the weather.


VNV Nation – Colours of Rain

Stay with Me by MissMorgue
“Stay with Me” by MissMorgue

///A Flowing, khaki-coloured skirt over tight-fit, desert-coloured cargo-pants. A black jeans jacket over a light-blue T-shirt. Long, black hair.///

Weather in any RPG is something that often gets overlooked. Sure, there are some old-school games which track adverse weather conditions to make the lives of the PCs that one bit more complicated. But weather can be so much more. Should be so much more.

There are many literally clichés that have to do with weather. It was a dark and stormy night…, indeed. But many of those were started for a reason. Certain weather conditions are evocative by themselves, without much auxiliary writer input. And especially these days, they can bring home certain emotional and intellectual responses that many other descriptions simply cannot do any more. How many people these days have never been in a truly deep, dark, fucking CREEPY forest? How many have not spent time outdoors, wide away from the nearest city’s lights? How many don’t know how downright satisfying a gulp of fresh, river water can be after more than a day of thirst? Sure, one can imagine those things. But they are… Abstract thoughts to many people.

But ask any deep-rooter city dweller about the last time they were in a really strong storm. The last time snow and/or ice shut down their part of the city. That one time the summer was so hot that the streets looked like in those post-apocalypse movies. Weather, these days, can bring some folks nearer to certain mind-states than one might imagine.

A great percentage of us will be able to imagine sitting alone at home at some point in our lives, looking outside a window when wind and rain made a wild spectacle outside. Just shutting out the lights, opening the window and… Look out. Experience it. Perhaps even, in that one moment, decide to get dressed and go out into the rain for a few moments.

And, similarly, even the most jaded “adults” will have a spot in their heart for those summer days when all is almost perfectly, peacefully, still. When you have some crickets or cicadas or [insert annoyingly loud local bug here] chirping in the distance, when the wind is so still that no leaves are moving, when the sun is so harsh that the shadows look like bold dividing lines between the dark and the light, the cool and the hot.

Or those days during the winter, when you step outside and hear that satisfying, solid “CRUNCH” of snow underfoot. And while it may be annoying to drive through, and while it may play hell with your company’s logistics, and while it might make shopping and other necessities harder… There’s still that one moment of a smile playing around your features.

At the same time, weather births smells. And smells bring memories. The smell of rain evaporating on hot concrete. The smell of crisp, cold, biting winter air. The smell of wet grass. The smell of certain perfumes at certain times in the year.

Then there’s also how some weather types are so contextual. When many people think of funerals, for example, they think of overcast, drizzly days. When people think of parties, they think of those not-to-hot-yet-sunny summer days. When people think of a vacation at the sea, they think of windy, clear-skied days. And so on.


While running an Urban Fantasy game, you can (and should!) play with all of those things. With the expectations, the memories and the emotional responses. They’re all connected and thus they can all be used to subtly manipulate your players. To immerse them a bit more into the story.

The same way that music can be used to create leading themes for specific actions and characters and situations (Bill Bailey’s “Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra” is a really good and damn funny way to learn about this, at the very basic introductory level.), so can weather.

Do go ahead. Set sad scenes to overcast, drizzling days. Let the characters triumph during a moment when the sun is high in the sky. Accentuate the monstrosity that is hunting innocents in the city by showing how easy it is to isolate people during a (snow?)storm even in a major urban centre.

At the same time, use contrast to accentuate scenes even more. Make it a peaceful, bright, sunny, summer’s day when a major tragedy happens/hits. Let the characters save the day during a shitty, gray, downtrodden day.

Use the weather like you would use music. Use it to accentuate, to contrast, to compliment and to disjoint.

When you accentuate and compliment, you can use the player’s own experiences with those types of weather help you build the mood. Describe the rain, describe all the reflections, the wetness, the smells, the rushing people, the sound of raindrops against windows and streets and walls. Describe the rustling of the leaves and the clasp of thunder in the distance. Let your players drink this in. They will feel themselves into that moment, and they will work with you from there.

When you contrast and disjoint… You do the same. But you do this to lull them into a false sense of security or fear. You won’t be able to do this often, so use it like you’d use a very fine, expensive, spice. But WHEN you use it, make sure to use it to its full effect. When the scene is being set, describe how the weather is like. Describe the details, the incidentals. Describe people reacting to it. And when your players are going with it, when they’re attuned to their own expectations, the full impact of the planned scene will hit that much harder.


The next time you are planning an impactful scene… Just think about the weather. Talk about the weather, even.
Let it help you. Use it to your, and your group’s, advantage. It’s a really quick and easy way of adding more immersion to your game.


Just a small bonus, this time.
This song is one of my all-time, most favourite songs, to this day.
And it’s a song I so deeply associate with autumn, that I can get a slight shiver of cold when I listen to it on a 32°C day in mid-July.
Listen to it. And “listen” to your thoughts and memories. What kind of weather do you associate with it?

VNV Nation – Beloved [Lyrics]

#0001

Justice never wavers
It is my single purpose
Relentless the pursuit
I will find you where you hide
Counting on your indecision
Deciding when to strike
Calculating movement
The senses of the chase

- VNV Nation / Retaliate

She checked her internal chrono again. The fifth time in the thirty seconds. The waiting started to irritate her. Bloody fuckers, someone should teach them proper punctuality. she thought, while unconsciously cycling cycling through her pistol’s ammunition reservoir. Even though she hadn’t intended to do this, it still brought a smile to her face. Enough matter for three-hundred shots of APDS or one-hundred flechette bursts. You just have to love Outremer technology.

Before she had the chance to tinker around with any other settings, the door she had been watching finally opened and vomited out two persons into the street. “Vomited”, because for a short time they were silhouetted by a bright light and surrounded by harsh, loud music. This only lasted for a few heartbeats until the door closed again.

During the few heartbeats that this lasted, her SAI had scanned and processed the faces of the two people now out on the street. Both were now framed in red rectangles. One flashing, the other muted. With a fierce grin, she stepped out of her hiding place and fluidly, and oh so calmly, put a bullet through the forehead of the one person framed by the muted red rectangle. She allowed herself the small pleasure of synchronizing the shot with the muffled beats from the establishment behind the two marked ones.

The other one had just enough time to reach for his own weapon before her pistol was firmly pressed to his temple and a sharp edged knife drew a small rivulet of blood from his neck, when she placed it there with vicious speed.

“Do. Not. Even. Think. About. It.”, she hissed into his ear. His eyes widened.
“Vi…”, before he could finish whatever he wanted to say, she thrust her knee into his groin, putting all her augmented strength behind it. He went down, vomiting and quickly falling unconscious.

“You slimy piece of shit. I will add this pair of boots to your crime-sheet.”, she spat out while looking down at him. Releasing the tension of the last few hours in a loud puff of air, she shook her head and opened a commline to her ship and sub-vocalized a short message: “I have two parcels to handle, one destined for cold storage, one for the locker. Acknowledge.” The answering click-click arrived mere seconds later, making her frown. She opened the line again. “Syl, I swear, if you are risking my ship, I will hurt you!” This time, the answer wasn’t a click on the commline. Instead, the area around her was illuminated in harsh, blinding light.

“Me, risking your precious Cœur-de-Lys? I’m not stupid, Vicky.” The grin in the other woman’s voice was hard to ignore. “But I thought that you’d perhaps need some clair support. Seeing as ‘risky’ is a more apt descriptor of your oh-em, y’know? So I brought the Mule.”

The Mule was a small, brutish, hauler craft. It was heavily armoured, heavily armed and very fast. At the same time, it was almost impossible to maneuver it in any way that could be described as ‘graceful’. And right now, it was circling around the gothic spires of Sigmus City, most probably giving some civilian flight controller a rage induced, apoplexy.

“It’s VICTORIA, Syl. Victoria. Not Vickie. You know that I hate that nickname.”, Victoria sighed into her mic, while tying up her still-alive prisoner. With a hint of desperation in her voice, she continues. “I put up with your other contractions all the damn time, so please… At least grace me with my proper name?”

With a loud crash, a cargo-container affixed to the the Mule by a thick strand of nanocables hit the street a few meters away from Victoria, just as she had finished her last sentence.

“Y’know that it’s hard for me. That stupid memus…”, Sly stopped herself. Took a deep breath. “Meme. Virus. The meme virus is being a bitch and refuses to clean out o’my system.”

Victoria huffed as she hauled the two bodies into the cotainer. Not with effort, thought. This was a huff of indignation. “Please!”, she snorted while looking up at the Mule, closing the container and punching it twice. “Yeah, you hate it when it forces you to say stuff like “clair support”, but you were calling me ‘Vicky’ waaaay before we met those prankster-psychos.”

With a snap, the nanocables went tight and the container was lifted up into the Mule’s open cargo compartment.

“Mh. Might be. Might’nt be. I plead innocence!”, Sly shouted, with a smile. A few moments later she sobered somewhat and continued, “I’ll meet you back at the spaceport. Don’t dawdle. …Vicky.”. With a laugh, she cut the connection and proceeded to turn the Mule into the right direction.

Victoria watched her friend fly away with tonight’s work.
Amateurs. I am working with a bunch of crazed amateurs.
She turned towards the city’s main streets and started walking towards the nearest Taxi-stand. And a smile grew on her face.
But they are my crazed amateurs.

#########

Outremer, n.
Anglic

1. The area to the galactic “north” as seen from the Sol System which hosts the mysterious ‘Communality’.

2. (former usage) Unexplored Space

3. (archaic) An area beyond the sea

#########

“The Communality”

A collection of humans and four alien races that was discovered one-hundred-and-seventy years ago.
How those humans reached the stars before the rest of humanity remains a secret.

The aliens of the Communality still remain the only sapient life humanity has encountered.

Cultural, political, technological and economical contact and exchange between current human space and the Communality is heavily restricted and guarded by the Communality itself. The humans residing in it present the diplomatic point-of-contact to humanity and refuse to side with or support any of the current factions.

Familiartiy breeds… Many things.


Covenant – Atlas [Lyrics]

Vermillion 3 by BaalKaos
“Vermillion 3″ by BaalKaos

///Feyishly thin and with straight, hard features. Wearing almost form-fitting clothes. Wearing them with class and with style, they add to her striking looks most advantageously. Making her look most captivating.///


The characters enter a room. Someone is sitting at the table, looking up at them. Smiling. STOP SCENE. FOCUS. ZOOM. RESUME SCENE.

The first thing that hits you is the smell. Strong tea. Sweet. Spicy. Mingled with the smell of “old”. Just a slight hint of mold.
You turn your heads to get a better look. The walls are cracked. Oh so slightly cracked. The wallpaper is starting to fall. Behind it, you catch a glimpse of a curious pattern.
The person at the table coughs politely. You look at them. They smile at you and take a sip of their tea. Their eyes close and they ingest the smell, savouring it. It’s now that you realize that you can’t really tell if that person is male or female. If they’re old or young. They’re just… A person. They sit at the table, sipping tea, smiling. They must be a person.

They cough politely. A raspy sound. But not unpleasant. As if someone was scratching… That itch you can’t quite reach inside your ear.

The smell of exotic spices grows stronger. Something is not right. Something does not make sense here. Your eyes dart toward something moving at the edge of your vision. The wallpaper. Now freely falling of the wall, now gives a clear view at that pattern you noticed earlier. It’s the stars. You’re looking at the stars. Unfiltered by atmosphere. Not weakened by light-pollution. You’re looking at the stars.

There is no room. There are no walls. No windows. No table. No… Person.

Another polite cough.

An ancient being looks back at you. Still clasping a mug of tea.

A voice, impossibly loud, yet not hurting you, chuckles a single question: “Where do you think you really are?”


##############

To make something seem really alien, it’s best to let it start out as mundanely as possible.
It also doesn’t hurt to retain some mundane icon, even when the weirdness has fully set in.

Entering a spirit’s sanctum and finding yourself in space is one thing.
Seeing that same spirit drinking tea while it chuckles at you in a friendly way? Not only did you just give that spirit something of an implied backstory, you also made it a very memorable scene because it wasn’t just simply “weird”. It actively provided the divider between “Weird” and “Mundane” for your players to grasp on.

Don’t make it the murder-addicted redcap. Make her the murder-addicted redcap who always listens to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” album, on a Mini-Disc player.
Don’t make it the hulking, ponderous grove-guardian. Make it the hulking, ponderous grove-guardian that likes to hum a particular set of notes which, when researched, turn out to be a very old drinking song from Imperial France.
Don’t make it the sensuous Vampire. Make him the sensuous Vampire who’s utterly brand-conscious and obsessed with twitter, make him follow some truly mundane, boring people.

You don’t have to have an immediate reason as to WHY. And you will be able to gloss over many of those as simple quirks. But sometimes you might just surprise yourself with a really great idea that connects with your game. And sometimes, more often than you’d think, your players will latch on to that and give you a few theories. Many of which will be golden.

Yes. Yes, this is partly one of the older GM tricks in the world.

But its other part is something that really helps to give Urban Fantasy games that particular “Our world, but… Off.” feeling that makes them really shine.

Neil Gaiman is a master of this. The Serial Killer convention? The old Slavic god who loves to play chess? The two Angelic&Demonic spies who love to feed ducks/drive vintage cars? Hell… Death? (Death! Not DEATH. Although, well, DEATH also qualifies.)

Making something supernatural being 100% “out there” has its uses, yes, of course. But when you mix something mundane and normal with the supernatural, you give it more texture. And you can reinforce your world’s/game’s themes with it. Amusingly enough, I still find Shadowrun to have the best example of this with Dunkelzahn. He was an ancient, great Dragon… Who hosted his own talk show (Wyrm Talk) and ran for the UCAS presidency. Those two things really helped drive home that, yes, he was a Dragon. But no, it was not just a Fantasy Setting Dragon in the future. Dunkelzahn was a MODERN dragon in the future. He interacted with it. He influenced the world around him, but was also influenced himself.

The next time you create or just describe a mystical/supernatural NPC, keep in mind to give it a truly mundane feature/tic/quirk/hobby. Something your players will have a chance to witness. Show them that the NPC isn’t just there because they meet it. It’s there because it exists in the world.

Sense of Loss. Sense of Dislocation.


Massive Attack – Dissolved Girl [Lyrics]


“City Lights” by Susan Coffey

///A tattoo made out of geometric forms and symbols, Triangles. Squares. Connected by Lines., drawn in light-red on sun-bathed skin, decorating the whole of the arm from shoulder to elbow, looking almost like scars, almost but not quite.///

There are times when the city the characters inhabit should be a strange, mystifying, haunting place. Not immediately dangerous, not scary, but… Strange.

They might have lived there their whole life, but one night they will find themselves in an area that’s alien to them. They are looking for someone. Or chasing someone. Or fleeing from someone. And they turn around a corner, and then another one. Or maybe they step out at a bus-stop they never used before. And they look around and… They feel that they don’t quite belong.

A sense of disorientation within the familiar should emerge. They know that they’re in the right place, yet… Still. Something isn’t quite right.

The buildings seem slightly off. The streets are strangely empty and the few pedestrians who still walk them avoid eye-contact, keeping to themselves. There is something about this district that lets the PCs question some established preconceptions.

  • Perhaps a long-ago shut-down school, with heavy chains on its gates, that still draws them towards it.
  • Perhaps a regional or national organization they haven’t dealt with as of yet has an office here, currently closed to the time, but with some windows still curiously lit.
  • Perhaps a cemetery looks slightly older and weirder than the ones they have driven past in the last few years.
  • Perhaps a store stands out, selling some obscure/arcane/occult/foreign pieces they would have never expected to find in a local shop.
  • Perhaps a building that looks strongly out of place, but they can’t quite put a finger on WHY.
  • Perhaps a historical location or building with connections to an important event in the regions past that they never heard before.


  • The City (and I will try to talk about the city as a quasi-NPC later…) should be large enough to hide something weird. Something strange. Or just something quirky. Something to be built up into a sub-plot later down the line, to spark the players creativity and curiosity.

    ///
    This is influenced by something that happened to me almost 15 years ago. I was pretty tired after a night out, and kind of slept through my bus-stop. When some kind passenger finally woke me, as they couldn’t remember me ever taking that bus so far, I half-panicked asked the driver where I could get out to catch the next best bus back. I got out at the station he indicated, but had to wait for 30 minutes for the next bus back, as it was after midnight on a work-day.

    And I wandered around a bit. It was autumn, and while not particularly cold, I preferred to move around. When I turned a corner, I didn’t believe my eyes: A WW2 bunker. Almost squarely inside city limits. Not 3km away from my home, not 2km away from my school. Standing there. Rotting away, stacked with “danger” signs. I explored a bit and nearly had a heart attack when a cop tapped me on the shoulder a few minutes in. I was listening to my walkman and hadn’t heard him approach. They were looking for someone and harshly reprimanded me to at least not go exploring a dangerous structure at night.

    The next day, I wanted to go there again, but couldn’t find it. Because I was so tired and panicked the night before, I misremembered the stop I got out at, and the area looked utterly different during the day. A few days later I asked my history teacher, and he gave me the address. Still, for a few days I actually had one of those “Did that really happen…?” thoughts going through my head.
    ///

    ##########################


    Godsmack – Serenity [Lyrics]


    “***” by invisigoth88

    ///Twins in matching black tops and burgundy skirts. Beautiful. Striking. Their hairstyle the only difference, yet it is enough to set them apart. Their smiles, when focused, melt the coldest heart.///

    It’s all too easy to concentrate on the weird creatures, insidious antagonists and otherworldly affairs. But it’s crucial to remember the personal side of it all. Even with a cosmic war being fought between two power-blocks inside the shadows of the world, there should be those moments where this all takes a harsh back-seat and the PCs innermost thoughts come to the fore-front. It doesn’t even have to be something as drastic as a Quiet in Mage.

    While modern RPG wisdom seems to strongly favor “skipping to the meaty bits”, I always like to give something that’s basically “downtime” its own place and focus. It helps to build the mood you and your group are going for.

    Troupe Style really shines here. Look at the PCs you are working with. Think of a personal, intimate moment for each of them. Then scribble down some NPCs for each of those moments and assigns behaviour, mood and goals to each of them. As succinctly as possible. Then build towards one of those moments as naturally as possible. (Alternatively, you could just reserve a session for a “A day in the life of…” session)

    Then give each of the non-focused players one of those NPCs to play and… Yeah. Play it out. Try to not to create rules-using moments and/or fudge the rules for a seamless experience. Don’t force anything. Let the situation develop. Don’t shy away from incorporating plot-hooks, -seeds, -advancements or -resolutions into those moments, either, if they fit the bill!

  • Perhaps one of them will be snowed in a diner during a heavy storm, and share a moment of interpersonal connection with total strangers. (Think Frasier)
  • Perhaps they spend an evening at their favourite coffee place and talk about books, coffee and music with some other regulars, baring some of their fears and anxieties in the process. (Think Friends. … And, well, also Frasier.)
  • Perhaps they’re having a fun night out and get to dance and drink and flirt and get some stress-relief that way. Meeting interesting people and interacting with others who want to dance away /something/.

  • Whatever fears or problems a character is experiencing, try to focus on them in a slow, dedicated session. For each player. The more comfortable the players are with each other, the looser the scenes can be and the deeper into characterization this can go. But you’ll be surprised how much you can learn about a characters motivations and goals even from “game-night buddies only” gamers if you give it a strict enough framework for them to fall back to.

    For me, games like Mage and Vampire (and even Shadowrun, to be honest…) always shined when the PCs got enough chances to interact with more than just the setting’s premise. Just think about it: Sometimes you sit at a Starbucks, scribbling some notes into your laptop or notebook, drinking some coffee, listening to the store’s or your own music and watching strangers, perhaps flirting, perhaps even striking a conversation. And those moments are often very… Personal. Very intimate. And they often help you to deal with some thoughts. Or just help to relax and focus and regain strength and purpose. Let the PCs experience those moments too, don’t just gloss over them. Don’t brush them away to get on with the action.

    ///
    The inspiration for this come, entwined, from two sources. A theoretical and a practical one. The theoretical one was that one Babylon 5 Episode where a space battle was being fought outside the station, but the episode focused on smaller stories inside the station. Just characters interacting with each other. … It was one of the more emotionally powerful episodes.
    And it led me to once do something similar during a Rogue Trader game three or four years ago. During a warp-storm, the PCs were each confined to their areas of the ship. And so I focused on each of them in turn, letting the other player’s be the “local” NPCs. The Rogue Trader had his ship-crew, the Enginseer had his engine-deck crew, the Navigator her entourage, the Void Master had the ship’s Armsmen with her. The session lasted about six hours, and we had more than one hour per PCs. And in this hour, they actually developed and advanced relationships with their underlings which lasted until the campaign’s end. It made the rest of the campaign so much better, as many NPCs evolved from “background figure” status to actors with their own emotional weight for the PCs. It really helped with immersion and involvement.

    If it can work in a 40k RPG, it will work in the Urban Fantasy/Horror game you’re running. ;)
    ///

    Matt’s bag of Urban Fantasy/Horror Inspirations, Ideas and Ideals.

    tl;dr: This thread will be filled with music, pictures and text snippets which mean to help people run games in the wider Urban Fantasy genre (which for me right now is oWoD, nWoD and Dresden Files when it comes to games owned and actively played) as well as/or at least giving already seasoned GMs some more food for thought.

    Right, let’s expand this short explanation.
    Because I’m preparing for a M20 chronicle in the, hopefully not too far off, future with players whom I consider worlds more familiar and mature than I ever was with any players when Mage was actually a new and current game, I’ve started preparing for it. One part are the, slowly growing, playlists I keep on Spotify and my own harddrive. (It’s sad how much of music which I’d love to have available fully online still aren’t cleared by their labels. And it’s doubtful they ever will be, too. *sighs*)

    Another part is a very slowly growing archive of pictures. Photographs I’ve taken myself, taken by friends as well as stuff that I find online. Most of it I will be able to attribute and credit properly. For some, even reverese GIS failed me.

    Yet another part are text snippets. During the last few weeks I found enough free time to visit several cities near me, sit down somewhere in their busiest parts and, well, take “textual caricatures” of people who struck me as impressive and memorable in some way. With a clear focus on “What a cool NPC I could craft out of them!”. I will continue doing so for the foreseeable future, and do so at various points in time (Morning, afternoons and nights) to get a really good, broad selection.

    And the final part is having general thoughts about the themes, moods and ideas I want to explore in that game. And as those often grow very broad, they sparked the idea of recording them in their full, broad state instead of just distilling them down for later use.

    Also, writing this stuff out in the open often helps me get some more focus. Feedback/Reflection by others often helps too, so if something strikes you, please comment on it.

    To bring some underlying biases and foundations to the forefront:
    Musically, I listen to a broad array of stuff. From avant-garde Jazz to Extreme Metal. But my most intimate focus is on various styles of “goth” music. Dead Can Dance, Depeche Mode, VNV Nation, Crüxshadows, Grauzone, New Order, Joy Division, Nitzer Ebb, Deine Lakaien, Sister of Mercy, Front 242.

    As you can see, it’s very much 80s/90s focused. And I admit, at times I’m stuck in those times. Which doesn’t mean that I’m already calcified. Far from it, thank the old gods. So expect more modern artists, too. But those acts were, and still are, formative to the moods and images and ideas and themes and scenes of the game I’m thinking about running.

    I was listening to “Winter Fish Testosterone” by Deine Lakaien on my trusty Walkman when walking, at night, across half the city which was covered in snow, to get to a Mage game, carrying nothing but the Mage 2nd Ed core book, a notebook, some pencils, d10s and a TPB issue of Sandman in my messenger back, dressed in black boots, black jeans, black shirt, black leather jacket, smelling of patchouli and grinning widely into the lamplight reflected by the snow because I’d get to see some cool people, two crushes and one best friend very soon, and we’d begin a Mage game set to last for three days. / I also had my very first, extremely intense, relationship pretty much underscored by going dancing twice a months to clubs playing New Order, Joy Division, The Cure, Nitzer Ebb, Goethe’s Erben and others, for over three years. … Such experiences really help forming you.

    And living in Germany, I can (and do!) still get to see all those bands live regularly, still visits clubs where they are played on heavy rotation, and can still dress in all-black, smelling faintly of patchouli while also being a responsible adult. So they stuck with me. Hard.

    If I ever start sounding like an authoritative asshole because of… Please disregard. That will be just my underlying experiences colouring my writing when I lose myself in it a bit too much.

    As this is a pretty “spur of the moment” decision, the first post I will make today will be on the shorter side. The next few will probably also remain slightly “thin”. But they should gain more “meat” with time, when I get more comfortable actually taking comprehensive notes for a change, instead of just relying on my brain. (Heh. Early 30s and it’s already starting to get problematic. )

    Nevertheless… I have no idea how much this will interest and/or help others. I hope that at least some people will get some use out of it.

    And if you like the music here, and do use spotify, consider subscribing to those playlists. They should start growing more and more the coming weeks.

    (I’m aware that most people here will probably now 90% of the music that I’m about to post. But still, even if you know the song, it might be nice to listen to it with a different frame of mind, which I’m hoping to achieve here, through the incidental media.)

    (Also: I, mostly, suggest to look at the picture and listening to the music at the same time, as I often chose them to compliment each other. If they’re independent, I’ll (hopefully!) remember to state so.)

    [GTA5][Rambling] On music and inspirations, and why they make a game for me.

    Hiring Tangerine Dream and DJ Shadow (and a few other greats!) to make the GTAV soundtrack was a stroke of goddamned genius by Rockstar. The score is one of the best action/thriller MOVIE scores I’ve ever listened to, even coming clones to Wang Chung’s “To Live And Die in L.A.”. It’s got that chilled, mellowed, 80s aesthetic of synths and sound textures mixed with the knowledge of what makes a track dynamic and when such moments need to be used.

    The psychological and emotional impact of the score on the game and the gameplay is /immense/.

    Especially in the missions where you’re playing as Micheal and he’s going all John McLane (I’m sure the animator had to watch Die Hard a few dozen times to get it THAT perfectly. Even the climbing, falling and jumping look just /right/!)

    The whole game is underscored not just but that beautiful and awesome music, but also by pulling just the right amount of blatant scene and/or theme-rips from successful movies. Fargo, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, To Live and Die in L.A., 48 Hours… ALL of them (and many more!) get a shout-out in this game. Some are obvious, some are subtle. But they’re all used to great effect. People who know these movies will know what it’s all about. And people who don’t know these movies (sad wretches that they are… ), will still feel the impact of a scene/moment done /RIGHT/.

    GTA5 has many flaws. Some because it’s by Rockstar. Some because it’s a game of our times and the current gamer-”core”-demographic. Some because of its almost blatant sexism that isn’t inverted as much as other tropes are. But the soundtrack and the use of “movie moments”? … They nailed it. And I think it’s a big part of why the game is the most successful selling piece of entertainment the history of video-gaming.

    (Don’t believe me?

    “In just its first three days after release, Grand Theft Auto 5 raked in more than $1 billion in sales. Compare that to this summer’s biggest blockbuster at the box office, Iron Man 3, which brought in “only” $372 million in its first weekend across the globe.”

    “The game’s publisher, Take Two, was quick to note that Grand Theft Auto 5′s mere three days needed to reach $1 billion in sales makes it the fastest selling property across all forms of entertainment. To put the games sales into context across other forms of entertainment, the global music industry sees less than $1.4 billion in record and song sales each month. In its first month of release, Grand Theft Auto 5 looks set to outsell the entire global music industry.”

    http://www.dailyfinance.com/2013/09/28/gta-5-sales-hit-1-billion/)

    [After Action Review] “Sword of the Stars – The Pit”

    (Let’s call this “After Action Review”, for reviews of games that aren’t really that fresh any more.)

    So, The Pit.
    Another RPG-lite Roguelike.

    I really didn’t like it.
    I tried all the classes, I tried all the difficulty levels and I tried to go as far as I could go.

    And after four days of heavy-duty play I have to say that this game has no /soul/. It also has a brutal, possibly game-destroying, RNG.

    Both of these combined make for a bland, frustrating experience.

    Oh, it starts out fun alright. You start to explore the first few levels and how the three classes differ from each other in stats, skills and item load-outs.

    And then, after a few re-starts, you realize that the RNG is just there to fuck you over. At times you can start a floor in a room with a locked door, not having picked up any lock-picks in the floors above, fail the roll to open the door… And end your game right then and there. Because it’s over for you and you have no chance to progress. This can happen before the fifth level down. Even on “Easy”. [EDIT: I've been made aware that you can destroy doors. This changes this point, slightly. But it raises another negative point: Doing this deprives you of XP. Which is fair, you failed the roll. But you're ALSO deprived of XP if you're unlucky enough to pick up a key. Gaining an apparent advantage should NOT penalize you, in my opinion.]

    On the other end of the scale, you can start a game, look through a few loot-containers (and slimes) and find heavy weapons with enough ammo and support items to carry you through the whole game.

    There is no consistency at all there.

    As to the “soul”-lessness, this is down to how it connects to the SOtS universe. It’s all over the place. It has some of the humour and whimsy of the original SOtS game, but it’s utterly disjointed. The facility you are visiting is a very old Suul’ka science facility. Abandoned for hundreds of years. But still filled with Sol Force rations and crazed Terrans who were used for experimentation. Even though, as par the game, Sol Force has NOT been a star-faring nation for “hundreds of years”, nor have the Suul’ka been abducting humans to experiment on them.

    And then there are the journal entries, which are written in a tone utterly disjointed from how the Suul’ka have been portrayed in the lore of SOtS. They’re written (and, in-game, auto-translated probably) as if by a teenage, human, TA who was dealt the job to document some experiment by his asshole-professor. Almost as if the facility was supposed to have been a Terran facility at some point in time, which was then changed during development, without going through the prior text assets.

    Compared to SOtS 2 it’s still a better game. It’s workable. It’s feature-complete and it doesn’t contain any game-stopping bugs.

    But when I compare it to its two biggest competitors (in my mind at least), it fails horribly.

    Those two games are The Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy. An older and a newer game.

    What those have which sets them apart from The Pit, is the sense of /progress/. With both of these game, you are constantly rewarded for progressing further into the game. Both games change themselves to adapt to your progress. You unlock new classes, new items, new things to find, changes in story and feel as well as in difficulty; and you change the probability of item drops in-game.

    Nothing of this is present in The Pit, which lives solely on it’s three classes and three difficulty settings.

    It’s just bland, overly random and, while good looking, not what it could be fidelity wise.

    Perhaps “Mind Games” changes this, but as of now?
    I really don’t want to spend any more money on this game. The base experience truly put me off.