Friday, March 22, 2013

[Campaign Analysis] The Veil of Isis; or, "Exorcisms for everybody!"


Back in the murky mists of the mid-Nineties, while browsing the back shelves of my not-so-friendly local game store, I came across a book for Call of Cthulhu called The Golden Dawn. What struck me immediately about this book was that it wasn't published by Chaosium, but rather this other company called Pagan Publishing. I hadn't heard of Pagan before, being unfamiliar with The Unspeakable Oath and this being maybe a year before Delta Green came out, but I had heard of the Golden Dawn, mostly in a playground-rumory sort of way connected, of course, to its most infamous member, Aleister Crowley. Based on the connotations of the publisher's name and the perceived infamy of the book's subject matter, I immediately dropped the requisite ducats and took the book home to read that night.

What I found within was tremendously disappointing, although this had nothing to do with the quality of the book's contents, but rather its failure to live up to my adolescent expectations. Where I had been envisioning a sourcebook on some kind of sinister diabolical society headed by the Great Beast himself, I instead found a late-Victorian occult study group dedicated to astral travel and the pursuit of enlightenment. What was all this New Age crap? And it turned out that Crowley, still a callow youth at the time, only joined the Dawn towards the end of its tenure and was overall a minor figure in the organization (although he did play a significant role in the group's fracturing).

Of course, callow and young as I was at the time, I failed to recognize the reverberating occult significance that the Dawn continues to have to this day, and my own let-down expectations clouded my ability to see the possibilities of the Dawn as it was intended in the sourcebook: an overarching society for intrepid Investigators to belong to, a propelling force to justify their continued investigations into the occult and macabre. With hindsight, I can see the Golden Dawn as a sort of dry run for Delta Green, a different attempt by Pagan to create a justifaction for an extended campaign of horror investigation.

My last CoC campaign was cast more in the classic mode, with average folks getting swept up in events of the Mythos. As I wrote in that analysis, I was left after the campaign with a feeling of ambivalence towards this mode of play outside of the one-shot or mini-campaign. I resolved that any future CoC campaigns would need to be built around a framework; indeed, I see looking over that analysis that I even mentioned the Golden Dawn framework as one possibility.

I hadn't planned to run Cthulhu as my first campaign of the year, but when that Great Old One comes a'knocking, it's not really my place to not answer the call, as it were. The old memory of the Golden Dawn sourcebook, combined with the recent re-release of Cthulhu by Gaslight provided unexpected inspiration, and shortly after the winter holidays I convened my intrepid group for a journey into the occult backrooms of fog-swept London. After nine sessions, we wrapped things up, having seen the deaths/insanities/mind-exchanges of several PCs over the course of six years of game time. And so, with another campaign in the can, it is time once again to analyze "[w]hat worked, what didn't. Expectations going in and how those expectations morphed and changed over the course of the campaign."

It's always struck me that Cthulhu by Gaslight is a bit ill-named, as it is nominally set at the end of the of 19th century, a time when gas lighting was rapidly being replaced by electric. Aside from that quibbling literalism, the fin de sielce years were also set distinctly apart from the earlier Victorian era in other crucial ways, as the 20th century came rushing on. It's a forward-looking decade, with many of the innovations, controversies, and man-made disasters of the first few decades of the oncoming century taking root at the end of the then-current. As a result, a campaign set in 1890s is bound to have several startlingly "modern" resonances, not at all what one normally associates with the phrase "Victorian". To help my group understand this crucial difference, over the course of the campaign I made posts to a Scrapbook on our Obsidian Portal page, sharing images that I felt were indicative of the disinct tenor of the times, particularly if the images selected helped contribute to the occult and/or horrific atmosphere we were attempting to build.

Much like how the default time period of Gaslight might tweak expectations somewhat, so too does the premise behind The Golden Dawn. As mentioned above, the book is meant to provide a framework for occult Investigators to work within, as well as a ready pool of replacement PCs. But the nature of the historical Golden Dawn, with its focus on systematizing occult and esoteric lore of the previous three centuries, adds an interesting twist to standard Mythos-based investigations. The campaign featured the PCs engaging in lots of pentagram-drawing, Tarot card-reading, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) astral-projecting. One of the adventures ended quite suddenly when a PC was able to use her magic wand to paralyze the bad guy before he could get off so much as a single Mythos spell!

In fact, the presence of the Mythos was decidedly down-played in this campaign. No Mythos tomes were consulted or read, and there were only two opportunities in the whole of the campaign to even do so. Only one PC ended the campaign with any sort of Cthulhu Mythos skill, and this was solely owing to a couple bouts of Temporary Insanity. Mythos creatures were encountered, yes, but only in a secondary manner, most of the bad guys being of the more "sorcerous" and all-too-human variety.

I have to say that, although it leant the campaign an unexpected flavor, I quite liked the effect. One of the great dooms of Cthulhu gaming is the dreaded "Mythos book club," in which PCs collect libraries of these supposedly ultra-rare tomes and pass the books around, boning up on Azathoth and Nyarlathotep in between gunning down byakhees and tcho-tchos (tcho-tchoi?). I quite like that the Mythos, through a combination of setting elements and PC action (or inaction in some cases) remained a shadowy, half-glimpsed and half-guessed-at force, just as it is in Lovecraft. The PCs indisputably saw some pretty messed up stuff, but the worst was always lurking just out of sight. During the first session, they held the door shut against a terrible Thing that was trying to batter its way into a shunned room in which W. B. Yeats was performing a pentragram ritual to seal a Gate to the astral plane. They never saw what lurked on the other side, for the completion of the ritual banished the Thing, but when they opened the door there were deep impressions in the ancient oak, as if whatever had been pounding had possessed the strength of many men... Classic stuff. Or the final session, which had the PCs fleeing from a long-forgotten chapel in the woods, the screams of their hired help echoing behind them, glances over the shoulder only revealing a dozen ropy, branch-like tentacles swaying above the church roof...

Empowering the PCs with non-Mythos magic provided lots of opportunities for surprises that still felt perfectly at home in a CoC campaign. For instance, I have to say my favorite moment of the campaign occurred when one of the PCs popped bodily out of the astral plane vomiting blood, landing on the parlor rug of a most shocked Florence Farr, who was in the middle of having tea with George Bernard Shaw. Absolutely fantastic.

Despite my youthful disillusionment with Crowley's lack of presence in the Dawn, I must say that when he did show up (as limited as it was), he made quite an impression. His appearance in the final adventure really added to the experience and stood as an excellent example of how, when running a historically-based campaign, a GM can turn the PCs' historical expectations against them.

As for the Order itself, I was left with slightly mixed feelings. On the one hand, as intended the Order provided a nice framework upon which to hang occult investigations as well as serve up replacement PCs that didn't need much to bring them up to speed. And, as I outlined above, the occult focus of the Order changed the tenor of the Cthulhu campaign experience in an unexpected but welcome way. On the other hand, with the Order being an actual historical fact, I often found myself wondering how much to include of the real-life drama that suffused the organization. The Golden Dawn was subject to some pretty serious internal drama, but I was wary of focusing too much on that, lest the campaign turn into a sideshow of the PCs watching various NPCs bicker. The PCs did get involved to a certain extent, choosing up sides in the factionalism and all, but in the end things focused on the investigations immediately facing the group and the NPCs faded into the background. This was only good and proper, but it did leave me wondering why one would bother with using a real-life historical organization if most of it is going to turn into so much background set dressing. I suppose that's maybe one reason why Delta Green, despite serving much the same purpose as The Golden Dawn, succeeded to such a greater degree. It's easier with a fictional organization to keep things more PC-focused.

Still and all, I was left much more satisfied with this CoC outing than the last one, and I intend to stick to my resolution for all future Cthulhu campaigns to feature some kind of structure to bind the Investigators together. This need not always be a formal organization. My next Cthulhu campaign will, most likely, be Horror on the Orient Express (as I suspect is the case for many Keepers). For that much-anticipated effort, the requisite bond will be formed from the fact that at least two and possibly three of the PCs playing through Orient Express will be PCs who survived the Golden Dawn campaign! They were all young enough that, in advancing the time by 30 years, they will end up in their late 50s or early 60s, a properly Lovecraftian age for investigators to be sure. I'll make sure that any other PCs are tied to our ex-Dawn members and away we go. Opportunities for replacement Investigators will hopefully present themselves organically as the campaign progresses.

On a meta-game note, this campaign marked a couple firsts (or at least firsts in recent memory) for my GMing bag of tricks. To begin with, I made use of background music for the first time in many years. I experimented with multi-media gaming back in the 90s, but, lacking access to a stereo remote or CD disc changer, the technological limits at the time were just too cumbersome. I realized, prior to starting this campaign, that what with the tablets and the bluetooth speakers and the what-nots, seamlessly incorporating music into a session was bound to be much, much easier. I decided to give it a try. My players were a bit skeptical initially, but quickly got sucked in by the magic and now I don't think they'll ever let me run anything without background music! Oh dear.

The other thing I did was finally realize my pipe dream of recording all the sessions to be posted as an Actual Play. Things turned out really well in that regard, and the finished product can be streamed or downloaded from the campaign's Obsidian Portal page.


Speaking of Obsidian Portal, I've been using the site to coordinate campaigns for a while now, but this campaign really cemented my enthusiasm for the site's potential. In addition to the Scrapbook and the usual scheduling and snack coordinating, we used the Forums to blue book in between sessions. The wiki provided a perfect venue to disseminate information about house rules, the Order itself, and a bit of campaign history. I even consulted with the players to plot their London homes on a map of the city!

One thing I should mention that didn't work out too well in terms of trying to add new tricks to my bag: separating players. Ever since I had a situation where the highlight of a campaign occurred when all save one player had been ordered out of the room in the name of "realism" ("If your character's not there to witness this, neither should you be!"), I've made it a point to put trust in my players' ability to keep their out-of-game knowledge separate in the name of everyone getting a chance to at least be an appreciative audience for in-game events. The opening scenario of the campaign suggested separating the players at one point, and I decided, after many years, to give the tactic a try once again. It turned out to be as pointless and anti-climactic as I remembered, and so that was, for the most part, the end of separating players from the table for the foreseeable future.

In the end, I'm incredibly pleased that I was able to finally return to The Golden Dawn and run such a fun campaign with the material presented therein. Gaslight was, once upon a time, my favorite period for Cthulhu gaming, and this campaign helped me to remember why. Onward to the Orient Express!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

[Rifts:2112] Cihuateteo Stats for BRP

Art by Lucas Graciano
Following up on my last post, here are some Basic Roleplaying stats I cooked up for the cihuateteo and the "wild vampire" (also known as the chupacabra by locals, a reflection of a folk memory of a pre-Rifts myth).

Cihuateteo 
(based on the template in GURPS Horror and the BRP Vampire)


STR 3D6x2 (20-22)
CON 3D6x2 (20-22)
SIZ 2D6+6 (13)
INT 2D6+6 (13)
DEX 3D6 (10-11)
APP 2D6 (7)

Move: 12
Hit Points: 16-17
Damage Bonus: +1D6
Armor: None
SAN loss: 1/1D6


Skills
Dodge 50%, Etiquette 50%, Fly 90%, Hide 70%, Insight 60%, Jump 75%, Language (usually Mexican or American) 50%, Listen 60%, Persuade 60%, Sense 75%, Spot 75%, Stealth 80%, Track 75%.

Attacks 
Bite: 50%, 1D4+half-db (bleeding) + Blood Drain (see below)
Claw: 50%, 1D4+db (bleeding)
Grapple: 75%, special
Steal Life: POW vs. POW (special; see below)

A cihuateteo can make one bite and two claw attacks per round, or it may attempt a single claw and a hypnotic gaze attack. If it succeeds in both claw attacks and a bite attack, it will grapple its target and drain their blood temporarily each round until the target is incapacitated. It cannot attempt to Dodge during a round it bites. Claw attacks can be made even when the cihuateteo is dematerialized, but it must materialize to deliver a bite attack.

Powers

Blood Drain: A cihuateteo that successfully bites and damages a target can drain 1D6 STR from that target for each subsequent round it is able to stay attached to the target, using normal grappling rules. If the target has lost all his or her STR, the cihuateteo can choose instead to drain CON from the victim. At 0 CON, the victim dies. Providing that the victim has not died, these characteristic points are not permanently lost and regenerate at the rate of 1 point per day of relative rest, or twice that long if the character is not resting. If more than one characteristic is drained, alternate recovery each day to recover 1 point of STR, then 1 point of CON, etc. Power points regenerate normally.


A cihuateteo uses Blood Drain to recoup its own power points - being undead it has no POW characteristic of its own. STR and CON drained are transferred by the bloodsucker at the rate of 1 POW point per 3 STR or CON points devoured.

(Note that the cihuateteo prefer to suck the blood of infants, despite their smaller STR and CON scores - this is partly because infants can't resist nearly as effectively as adults, and partly due to the cihuateteo's own demented and demoniacal motivations.)

Fly: Cihuateteos can fly at a rate of 24.

Hypnotic Gaze: If the cihuateteo overcomes a target's POW with its current power points on the Resistance Table, the target is hypnotized, and can be made to follow simple instructions. If these instructions are self-destructive, at the start of a round the character can attempt an Idea roll to snap out of it.

Immaterial: The cihuateteo is a malignant spirit and is naturally immaterial like a Ghost. They must materialize to feed and to manipulate solid objects. This costs 1 point of POW per minute. While immaterial, the cihuateteo can only be harmed by its weaknesses (see below), magic, psionics, or other immaterial creatures. Unlike the Intangibility power, the immaterial cihuateteo may not move through solid objects at will. They may do so by expending one point of POW per point of SIZ per round.


Night Sight: Cihuateteos have a natural ability similar to the Super Senses of Dark Vision, Infrared Vision, and Night Vision at a level equal to half (rounded down) of the fiend's current power points.

Regeneration: Unless it is damaged through one of the traditional means (see below), a cihuateteo will regenerate 1D3 HP per combat round, even if reduced to zero or fewer hit points. If it is in direct sunlight, it cannot regenerate damage and must heal normally. Damage caused by a source of weakness  does not regenerate, and heals at the normal rate.


Shape Shifting: The cihuateteo can transform itself into a rattlesnake at a cost of 3 power points. The power is identical to Change Form. Use the physical statistics for a Venomous Snake for the cihuateteo's abilities while in this form.

Steal Life: A cihuateteo can opt to drain POW via seduction rather than blood drain. To attempt this, the cihuateteo must have succeeded in a grapple attack against the target (or touched an incapacitated or unaware target), and on the subsequent round can attempt a resistance roll of its current POW versus the target's current POW. Armor does not protect against this attack. If the cihuateteo succeeds, it drains 1D3 POW from the target, which is transferred directly to the creature's current POW total. The cihuateteo must remain in contact with the target each round to continue this drain, and must succeed with a resistance roll each combat round while it attempts this power. The victim will recover these lost power points normally.

However, if the victim is ever reduced to a POW score of 0, he transforms into a "wild vampire." Being of little further use to the cihuateteo, they are usually either killed outright through blood drain, or else used as fodder or turned loose into the wild. As they have no natural POW score, wild vampires are especially susceptible to the hypnotic gaze of the cihuateteo and are often used as pawns in their schemes.


Weaknesses

Blood Thirst: As creatures with no natural POW, cihuateteos must expend a point of POW every morning or collapse, the malignant spirits forced to return to the otherworld. Additionally, every hour of exposure to sunlight forces the cihuateteo to spend a point of POW. Under normal circumstances, a cihuateteo will have an effective POW score of 2D6+6. If the cihuateteo reaches a POW score of 1 or 2, all of its rolls are considered Difficult due to its weakness and the roaring thirst that consumes it.


Daylight: In addition to needing to expend POW to move around in sunlight, the cihuateteo cannot regenerate, shape change, or use its hypnotic gaze. While out in sunlight, all skill rolls are considered Difficult. For this reason, cihuateteos are traditionally nocturnal.

Decapitation: A materialized cihuateteo who has been decapitated is dead, will not regenerate, and can never rise from the dead.

Fire: Cihuateteos take double damage from fire, whether issued through a power or an environmental effect. Materialized cihuateteos are considered to be flammable, if a character attempts to set one afire using a torch, power, or weapon. A cihuateteo reduced to zero hit points solely through fire damage is dead, will not regenerate, and can never rise from the dead.


Stakes: If a wooden stake or arrow is driven through a cihuateteo's heart and causes at least 1 point of damage, it will immediately materialize (if it is not already) and become transfixed, unable to move or use any of its powers or skills. A strike to the heart occurs whenever a wooden weapon achieves an impaling or critical result on a Difficult attack. For example, someone shooting a cihuateteo with a bow skill of 80% must achieve an impale success on a roll of 40%. In this case, a roll of 01 through 08 will succeed in staking the vampire through the heart. A traditional wooden stake does 1D3+db and has 6 HP, with a base chance of 15%.

Wild Vampires, aka Chupacabras
(based on the BRP Ghoul)

Once a cihuateteo reduces one of her slaves to zero POW, the former human becomes a creature not quite mortal, not quite undead. These pathetic specimens enjoy greater freedom of movement and suffer fewer weaknesses than their undead mistresses, but they too lack a POW score and must steal from the living to sustain their unholy existence. The process of transforming into a chupacabra reduces the poor soul to a state of bestial temperament with little guiding intelligence. Their grip on the world of the living is extremely tenuous, and a wild vampire that goes too long without feeding will eventually crumble to grave dust.


Chupacabras gain POW by consuming corpses, at the rate of 1 point of POW per 3 SIZ points devoured. As creatures with no natural POW, wild vampires must expend a point of POW every morning or collapse. If this happens, the chupacabra's animated corpse will rapidly decompose and it will be dead. Additionally, every hour of exposure to sunlight forces the chupacabra to spend a point of POW. Under normal circumstances, a wild vampire will have 1D6+6 power points stored.


STR 4D6 (14)
CON 3D6 (10-11)
SIZ 2D6+6 (13)
INT 2D6 (7)
DEX 3D6 (10-11)
APP 2D6 (7)

Move: 8
Hit Points: 12
Damage Bonus: +1D4
Armor: None (may wear armor)
SAN loss: 1/1D4


Skills 
Climb 60%, Dodge 45%, Grapple 50%, Hide 35%, Jump 50%, Listen 60%, Sense 40%, Spot 50%, Stealth 60%


Attacks 
Claw 30%, 1D6+db (bleeding)
Bite 30%, 1D6+db (bleeding)
Howl 100%, special (see below)

Powers 

Howl: Wild vampires use a blood-chilling howl in combat against anyone in relatively close proximity (half the creature’s CON in meters). When a chupacabra howls, make a resistance roll of its current POW versus each target’s INT. If more than one wild vampire howls, use only the total of the creature with the highest POW for the resistance roll. If a target is overcome, he or she becomes stunned until all howling stops. If a character resists the howl’s effects, he or she must try again on the next round. A character that successfully resists for five successive combat rounds becomes immune to its effects for a period of time at the GM’s discretion (weeks, months, years, or even permanently, or until the character has forgotten the how the howl sounds). The chupacabra's howl costs 1 power point to use. The magic spells of Countermagic and Resist Magic do not protect against this howling attack.


Super Sense (Night Vision): Number of levels equal to half (rounded down) the chupacabra's INT.






Friday, March 8, 2013

[Rifts:2112] My Take on the Vampire Kingdoms

Art by E. M. Gist
When I first set out upon what was to become my Rifts:2112 project, I imagined that the Vampire Kingdoms were going to be one of the few canonical locations that I didn't monkey with too much. I had fond memories of running Rifts campaigns set in Mexico and the Pecos Empire, and although I remembered there were some rather silly elements of the setting, I figured those could be smoothed away without changing too much.

Then I opened the sourcebook. It had been a while, and I'd quite forgotten just how gonzo it all was.

Now, unlike the total trainwreck of the Rifts Europe sourcebooks, I do still find a certain charm in the Vampire Kingdoms' presentation. If I was interested in running a Rifts campaign using the setting as-written, I don't think I'd monkey around at all with the contents of that book. It's got a wonderfully goofy Hammer Horror take on vampires with a slightly spicy Mexican flavoring sprinkled on top. But, as my take on Rifts is meant to be somewhat more "realistic" (or, at least as realistic as you can get in a setting where mechs and dragons slug it out on a regular basis), the more I read through World Book One: Vampire Kingdoms, the more I realized I wanted to do something of an overhaul.

The core concept would remain the same, of course: Most of the former country of Mexico is overrun by vampires, who have set up various city-states where they rule as lords over herds of mortal cattle. These kingdoms are located in central and southern Mexico, while the northern deserts are largely home to ravening "wild vampire" packs. Because of these wild vampires acting as a buffer zone, the human settlements and emergent nations of the north dismiss the rumors of more sophisticated vampire kingdoms in Mexico.

What I wanted to change was the way vampires were presented, both in terms of flavor and game mechanics. As I mentioned above, vampires in the Rifts setting owe a lot to the Universal Studios/Hammer Horror vampire archetype by way of D&D: they are repelled by garlic and holy symbols, they can't cross running water, they must sleep in the soil of their homeland, sunlight and holy water cause them damage, they can transform into bats, wolves, and mist, and so on. In fact, there are some elements that are taken to even greater extremes. For example, the whole "running water is damaging to vampires" thing gets interpreted as "any water in motion is damaging to vampires" and so we get water guns and water cannons as an effective tool in the vampire hunter's arsenal!

This is all pretty goofy stuff, but the other element that bothered me is that the vampires were the first to get the old "alien intelligence" treatment. Long-time Rifts fans know this one well. The canonical world of Rifts is overrun with these quasi-Lovecraftian troublemakers, to the point of ridiculousness even by Rifts standards. Even during my most rabid of Rifts fanboy days, the idea that vampires were puppets of a Great Old One chafed my hide.

So I was definitely going to drop the whole "alien intelligence" thing and downplay the cartoony vampire vibe all along. But, ironically, it was the cover of the revised edition of Worldbook One that got me thinking about taking it a little further. One of the things I really enjoyed about my re-imagining of Rifts Europe was getting the opportunity to emphasize the original culture of the area a little more than what the canonical material did. As I indicated above, Vampire Kingdoms actually did a better job of giving a "south of the border" feel to the setting, and clearly, with the revised cover, Palladium's trying to emphasize the connection even more strongly. But why then continue to mess around with vampires derived from European folklore? Why not take a look at native Mexican vampire legends?

Some browsing through Wikipedia and GURPS Horror gave me my answer: the cihuateteo. A creepy-as-shit female vampiric spirit that steals children away from mothers and men away from their families. In appearance, they're somewhat like a Japanese ghost, what with the long, loose black hair and billowing white robes. And they can fly. I immediately got a mental image of a trio of cihuateteos silhouetted against the disc of the full moon as they fly through the night. Like I said, creepy.

GURPS Horror categorizes monsters by the primary fear they represent, and puts vampires under "Fear of Taint". The idea is that vampires represent corruption of something that a society holds dear: "This fear is not precisely that of disease or of the unnatural per se, but something between the two. Corruption, decay, unwholesomeness...any rot that spreads is a taint."

I got to thinking. In a post-apocalyptic world, familial bonds and new babies would become incredibly important to survivors trying to rebuild. The cihuateteo, as corruptor of these values, as the rot that spreads through the family and community, literally born of the community's efforts to increase their numbers, then becomes the perfect taint to haunt post-apocalyptic Mexico!

This also fits in nicely with the established Rifts canon that regional legends are actually folk memories from ancient times when magic was more common and supernatural creatures actually existed. And so, with the return of magic to the Earth, the strange energies that created the cihuateteo in long-forgotten times of yore have returned.

The only real problem with this scheme is that it leaves me wondering what to do about wild vampires. In the original Rifts canon, you've got three levels of vampire: master, secondary, and wild. Master vampires create secondary vampires, secondaries create wild vampires. Each type of vampire is further and further removed from humanity, so a master vamp can pass and act pretty much as human whereas a wild vampire both looks and acts monstrous. It's the monstrous, feral nature of the wild vampire population of northern Mexico that leads the Coalition and other human factions to dismiss the rumors of sophisticated vampire kingdoms further south.

Thinking about how to work wild vampires into the cihuateteo story, I began to think about the part of their legend in which they seduce and "debase" men. Clearly, they're stealing babies for the good eats, but the men they keep alive for their other unsavory appetites. But what does prolonged exposure to undead carnality do to a man? Why, it begins to rob him of his very humanity, of course, eventually reducing him to a slavering ghoul, not quite mortal, not quite undead. At this point, the ghoul-man is turned away from the cihuateteo's company and banished to the wilderness. This means that what most "northerners" think of as a vampire is actually an exiled ghoul-servant instead!

So here's how I'd sum up all the above information as a description of the Rifts:2112 Vampire Kingdoms:

The cihuateteo phenomenon is, for reasons yet unknown, strongest in central and southern Mexico, with cases being increasingly rare the further one travels north or south until, once across the Rio Grande or Panama Channel, there are no native incidents of cihuateteos appearing at all. In the benighted lands of los Reinos de los Vampiros, however, communities live in terror of their undead overlords. Any woman who dies in childbirth, if not properly disposed of in a roaring bonfire, will return as a cihuateteo and join others of her kind. The cihuateteo, once risen, stalks mortal prey, stealing away infants to feast upon and grown men to debase with their unholy lust.

Most of these vampiras will operate alone or in small "covens" of 2-5 members, but in some cities to the south, a ruling caste of cihuateteos hold court over docile human populations who have never known life outside the macabre social structure imposed by their undead overlords. These "domesticated" humans know only lives of grinding poverty and fear. Their overlords do not care for their subjects' well-being; in fact, the cihuateteo are well-known for their hatred of pregnant women, and will sometimes even attack pregnant members of their own herd in a blind rage. As for the health of their population, this too matters little. After all, if a woman dies in childbirth, she joins their ranks! As long as their "herd" is kept large enough to produce enough young to feed on and men to take into their dark harems, the Vampire Queens are content.

Out in the country, away from the vampire cities, people try to get along as best they can. But a single cihuateteo can wreak havoc on a nascent community, stealing away both men and babies and leaving the survivors facing a doubtful future, their family lives torn apart, their available workforce much reduced.

When a cihuateto has sated herself on a mortal man, she turns him away into the wilderness. This usually occurs once the man has become a debased and feral specimen, a ghoul who has been warped by prolonged exposure to the creature of darkness. He has forgotten his true self and become little better than an animal. He has also acquired some of the traits of his undead lover, a severe sensitivity to sunlight and a taste for the raw flesh of sentient creatures among them, as well as nearly supernatural strength and endurance. Yet they remain mortal; despite what the cheap pamphlets peddled in El Paso and Juarez may claim, "vampires" are no more susceptible to garlic or holy water than you or I. A stake to the heart will kill them, of course, but so will a couple bullets to the head or an axe to the neck.

Intrepid vampire hunters penetrating further south into old Mexico, however, will begin to encounter genuine supernatural threats in the form of the dreaded cihuateteo. These creatures are possessed of many strange powers, but not many are well known outside the Vampire Kingdoms. With the deathly pallor of a corpse, the fiendish lady vampires seek to satiate their uncontrollable appetite for blood, preferably feasting on the blood of infants and young children. It is said that the cihuateteo can shapeshift into rattlesnakes (leading many communities in Mexico to kill all rattlers on sight, often nailing the carcasses up in a grizzly display meant to warn off any nearby vampiras. Their ability to fly without any apparent means of lift or propulsion is well-documented. Although they are able to operate during the day as well as they do at night, they prefer the darkness, for sunlight causes them excrutiating pain and will eventually kill them. Fire kills them a lot faster, and most experienced vampire hunters like Doc Reid and his Rangers are well-supplied with flame-throwers and fire magic. Like classic vampires of pre-Rifts lore, the cihuateteo can also be laid low with a well-aimed stake to the heart, and so flame-throwers are often supplemented with a bandelier of sharpened sticks or, even better, a quiver of wooden crossbow bolts - engaging a cihuateteo at range is preferable, as they are supernaturally strong and can paralyze mortal victims with their chilling touch.
For the "wild vampires" of northern Mexico, I plan to use Ghoul stats from Call of Cthulhu. I'll post BRP stats for cihuateteo shortly.

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Monday, March 4, 2013

When to Throw the Investigators a Life Vest; or, Ending the Cycle of Failure


Reading an article by Mark Morrison over on the Orient Express Writers blog the other day, I came across an interesting idea in reference to a phenomenon one encounters in investigative games like Call of Cthulhu. The phrase was "cycle of failure" and it got me thinking. We're all familiar with the "death spiral" effect common to many games, or even CoC's "sanity spiral", but the idea of the "failure spiral" is one of player mechanics rather than game mechanics. It's what happens when something goes wrong in the brain trust: a clue is missed or misinterpreted, a red herring (or even a throwaway NPC or scene) is seized upon with unwonted focus to the exclusion of the core clues, one of the players takes the lead in the investigation but then leads it in a totally wrong direction, and so forth.

This is a problem that can afflict any investigative-style game, even those like the Gumshoe system games that give core clues away for free, because it's a problem of player psychology and interaction. Things can get derailed on the smallest pretext, and then the failures of investigation that result from that initial failure begin to multipy, creating a vicious cycle of frustration - the players legitmately think they're on the right track, but they can't figure out why they're not making any progress.

I've had this come up a couple times in my current Cthulhu by Gaslight campaign. Once with a red herring that led to an hour's worth of pointless wandering through a perfectly benign (and clue-free) limestone cave complex, and then last night, where an important piece of the puzzle was missed because the group somehow got it into their heads that they needed to talk to a certain doctor and not the doctor's coachman. Due to the nature of the clue, the doctor was unaware of the coachman's value and was unable to nudge the group in the right direction, and so much spinning of wheels ensued, despite my subtle attempts to steer them back towards the coachman.

Because they're doing a playtest under a deadline, Mr. Morrison explicitly tells his group if they're entering a cycle of failure. Perfectly understandable under the circumstances, but I do wonder: what's an allowable amount of failure-cycling in a given session being run under "normal" conditions? I mean, what's a mystery without a good red herring, right? And then there's the additional complication of player autonomy. I'm a firm believer that players have a right to fall flat on their faces, particularly if it's through their own actions. But it can be tough to watch a group get sucked into that cycle, and at a certain point the question arises: is it ever okay, as a GM, to come in with a heavy hand (either via a convenient NPC or even just OOC) and steer the players back in the right direction?

I'll admit that I have resorted to allied NPCs or the ever-popular "Everyone make an Idea roll!" bailout to provide nudges in the past, particularly if it's a case of the group simply missing a single puzzle piece. This is generally welcomed by the players, or at least I've never had any complaints of railroading or robbing player agency.

I'm curious if anyone out in the readership has ever wielded a stronger hand in the manner of Mr. Morrison's playtest group, perhaps stopping everything to correct the players' course and put an end to the cycle of failure? Conversely, are there readers out there who view any type of GM intervention in a failure spiral as tantamount to quantum ogres in a sandbox? I'm all for allowing for failure as a viable option, but it's never fun when that failure comes as the result of a vicious and avoidable cycle, in my opinion.
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