Thursday, June 9, 2016

Divinely Empowered Animal Allies

Here’s a GURPSDay gift for everyone!

Dungeon Fantasy 5: Allies is a pretty great book if you’re looking to get some back-up with a little less independence than if you went shopping in Dungeon Fantasy 15: Henchmen. Specifically, it offers up three sets of options: Summonable animal allies for Druids, humanoid divine servitors for Clerics and Holy Warriors (with nature themed options for Druids), and Familiars for any spell-caster. Each group has its own characteristics, and it gives several templates very flavorful options.

Screenshot 2016-06-09 at 10.47.18 AM.png
Poké Ball not included
Characters with (Un)Holy Might also have the option of taking an animal companion instead of a divine servitor. It’s treated as a summoned friend instead of a random summoned creature, but your holy hound is otherwise identical to an ordinary animal. In other words, boring! This post establishes rules for making your furry friend a true gift from above, and provides three templates to really establish how different they are from an ordinary animal.

First, we apply the following template, which represents the special restrictions inherent to spirits on the mortal plane:

Divine Beast: One -10 point disadvantage which should either be the same as the moral code for Holy Might OR Social Stigma (Excommunicated) [-10]; Dependency (Sanctity; Very Common; Constantly) [-25]; Unnatural Features 1 (Varies depending on divine nature) [-1]. [-36]

Class changes to Servitor of Good OR Demon, and becomes vulnerable to Banishment.

Then, apply one of three mutually exclusive templates below. All templates are 62 points including the Divine Beast meta-trait. This raises the value of most animals to 125, or 75% of a starting PC’s value. They are generally bought as Ally (Divine Beast; Built on 75%; 12 or less; PM, -10%; Summonable, +100%) [12] or (15 or less) [18].

Bears, Great Cats, Insect Swarms, and Timber Wolves will become 100% allies (Available on a 12 or less for 19 points, 15 or less for 29 points. Wolverines become 50% allies (12 or less for 8 points, 15 or less for 12 point).

Without further ado, I present your three Divine Beast upgrades


A spectral animal companion is only barely tied to this world. It is surrounded by a bright nimbus of light, is always capable of attacking insubstantial foes, and can invoke a supernatural sense of fear in enemies without affecting allies (alternately, use the Awe or Confusion tables from Powers as appropriate).

Basically, this
Once per day it may become insubstantial, taking gear (but not riders) weighing up to light encumbrance with it, for up to ten minutes. While insubstantial it additionally may chose to turn itself and its gear invisible to the material world at the cost of 1 FP per minute. This does not hide it from other insubstantial creatures or threats on the Astral Plane.

Spectral: Blessed (Ghost Weapon) [15]; Divine Beast [-36]; Illumination [1]; Insubstantiality (Can Carry Objects (Light Encumbrance +20%, Limited Use 1/day -40%, Maximum Duration 10 Minutes -50%) [24]; Invisibility (Light encumbrance +20%, Costs 1 FP per minute -5%, Limited use 1/day -40%, Maximum Duration 10 minutes -50%, Must be Insubstantial -10%, Switchable +10%) [10] Terror (Selective Area +20%) [48]

Travel Spirit

This animal companion is intended to serve as a means of conveyance to fight spiritual battles. It is fast, completely tireless, surprisingly strong, a skilled acrobat, has a natural sense of direction, and can even run across thin air if spurred to half of its full movement. If skills overlap with those already on template, combine the point totals and readjust. Note that this template is restricted to animals potentially suited for riding. Use one of the appropriate templates below.

Travel Spirit (Boar, Great Cat, Stallion): Absolute Direction [5]; Divine Beast [-36]; Doesn’t Sleep [20]; Enhanced Move (Ground) 1 [20]; Lifting St +10 (No Fine Manipulators -40%, SM+1 -10%); Walk on Air (Must move at least half move -20%) [16]; Acrobatics +1 [8]; Jumping SX+2 [4]; Mount DX+2 [8]

Hound/Timber Wolf: As above, but change Lifting St +10 to Lifting St +8 (No Fine Manipulators -40%, SM+0 -0%)

Giant Eagle: SM+1 (3 points saved on base ST); Enhanced Air Move +1.5 [30]; Doesn’t Sleep [20]; Remove Quirk: Fatigues  easily under loads [-1]; Lifting ST +14 (SM+1 -10%) [38]; Aerobatics +1 [2]; Mount DX+2 [8]

What could go wrong?
Shark: Amphibious [10]; Doesn’t Breathe (Gills -50%, Affects Others +50%) [20]; Doesn’t Sleep [20]; Increased Air Move [4]; Flight (Cannot Hover -15%) [34]; Aerobatics DX-1 [2]; Aquabatics +1 [1]; Flight HT+0 [2]; Mount +2 [3]

This enhancement allows the (Un)Holy shark to swim and fly equally well, with a move of 16 in both mediums. It cannot hover in flight and must move at least 4 yards each second. It can breathe air, and can grant its rider the ability to breathe underwater.


If your animal decides it needs a manservant, that's not on me
Wise animal companions have an IQ of 11, +2 to Will, and unchanged Perception. They can speak perfectly in their native tongue, are fully literate (but may have trouble turning pages), and blessed with both Common Sense and the ability to meditate and receive otherworldly guidance. The last ability gives them +1 to reaction from followers of your religion. However, Wise animal companions will demand to be treated with all the respect granted to the fully sentient, and resent being treated as dumb animals.

Wise: IQ+5 [100]; Will-3 [-15]; Perception -5 [-25]; Blessed [10]; Common Sense [10]; Divine Beast [-36]; Increase Native Language to Spoken (Native)/Written (Native) [+4]; Remove Cannot Speak [15]; Quirk: Refuses to be treated as ordinary beast [-1]

The Last Word:

I think all of these lenses are fun and a nice boon for players look for a hybrid between an animal companion and a divine servitor. The Spectral lens is a nice combination of flavorful and potent options for both combat and exploration. The travel spirit turns eagles, boars and great cats into viable mounts. Since stallions are already built to be mounts, they become terrifyingly fast. Flying sharks are just straight terrifying.

Mechanically, the Wise lens has the least going for it, as it does little but turn the animal into a full-blown NPC. GMs should emphasize the ability to use good tactics and show helpful initiative. Common Sense and Blessed lets the Wise animal serve as a direct conduit to the GM advice, which can be helpful for a character (or player!) that lacks wisdom themselves.

All in all I’m very fond of this concept, and I could see throwing together a few more lens options in the future.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Feedback for GMs and Players

In my offline DnD group, we recently wrapped up a 6 month campaign. It was a great ride, with a lot of action, intrigue, fun background, and player impact. It was even more impressive because it was our DM’s first try at the big chair. He put in a massive amount of elbow grease into both his world-building and his session-running skills, and he introduced a feedback mechanism that I found I found intriguing and haven't seen elsewhere.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Here's how it works. After play is finished, the GM holds as many of the players as possible. Then they ask each player to give them the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from the session they just played.

The Good: Specifically, this is what the GM did that worked the best. It could be a fun fight, a great plot twist or game mechanic that was introduced, or a fun and well-acted NPC. Or it could be how a table issue from last time was fixed, or how the GM handled having more or fewer players than expected. Just tell the GM what you liked about how they handled the session. If someone else has made some praise that you agree with you can back them up on it, or you can choose something else that was fun to talk about. Hold off on praising the other players for just now.

The Bad: Now it's time for constructive criticism. If the GM needed to brush up on some rules, if the pacing was weird, if someone got unfairly hosed, now is the time to talk about. I would say it’s occasionally fair to bring up other players here, if someone was grossly disruptive. Ultimately, that's on the GM to police. The important thing is that complaints are about specific things the GM can address. Again, you can choose to endorse or reword previous complaints if you want, or come up with another one.

This might be a slightly more accurate title
The Ugly: What about the players?! Give credit where it's due your one of your fellow players for something awesome and/or hilarious they did in character. There are just two rules: Don't vote for yourself, and don't repeat other player’s Ugly moments. If someone has praised Bob for the way he saved the party with a well-timed fireball, throw it out to Amy for RPing how shocked she was that Bob from Accounting was actually a wizard. Or maybe how Bob passed the fireball off to the police officer as “swamp gas” later in the session.

Player Moments: Our traditional follow-up, where the GM gives credit to each of the players in turn for something cool they did. This can reinforce Ugly moments that the player might have been awarded, but we usually used this for a more measured assessment of the best parts of how everyone played. In particular, this lets the GM talk up something good that a newer or quieter player did very well that the other players might not have noticed.


This is a great example of how sandwich feedback works. What's the sandwich method? Simply put, when you give feedback you start with positive notes, then cover criticism and things that should be done differently, then finish up with more positive feedback. Talk about cool stuff the GM did, talk about what the GM could have done better, talk about something cool another player did. Done wrong, it comes across as insincere and unable to get to the point. Done right it places a fair amount of emphasis on the both the good and bad. Play with good people and they should have no trouble doing it right.

It also forces players to think about and discuss GMing issues and the actions of other players. By putting everyone on the spot, it forces players to articulate both what they liked and didn’t like about the sessions. Conflict-avoidant players have a socially-mandated “excuse” to voice concerns and malcontents are forced to acknowledge what they do like about the game. The GM gets a chance to acknowledge and respond to player concerns. And everyone’s forced to think about how hard it is to get GMing “right”.

So, how does this work in practice? Quite nicely in my experience. We did this with a really large group (7-9 players on a typical day), and the large size worked to our advantage for once, as it was easy to identify which Good and Bad nominations were widely agreed with and which were just individual preference. It also led to players keeping an eye out for good moments to award an Ugly to another player. Scaling it down to a small party (say four players or less), I would encourage players to bring up any Good or Bad moments on their mind.

What are the downsides? Well for one thing it eats up time. If a lot of players have a tightly defined amount of time to play in, you might be better off just playing instead. And the focus on what the GM can do to make the player experience better is going to wear on some GMs.

The Ugly and the MVP

I know some GURPS GMs like Peter Dell'Orto and Christopher Rice have their players decide on an MVP who wins a CP bounty to encourage good play. How would that interact with awarding players Ugly moments? Well, I wouldn't recommend turning The Ugly into MVP nominations. The latter tend towards consensus, while the whole point of the way the former is constructed is to recognize multiple players.

One possibility is to hand out MVP after the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This reminds everyone of the cool stuff that happened during the session. But that might turn Ugly moments into defacto MVP nominations. I  think it's a better idea to award the MVP first, and then reserve The Ugly for funny bits and great roleplaying by all the players, and awesome stuff that players who weren't MVP did.

The Last Word

So, should you start recognizing the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly at your table? That's ultimately up to you. It absolutely requires a GM that is attentive and interested in player feedback. If you feel like your table already has a good feedback culture, you definitely don’t need to start a new ritual. But I'd strongly recommend this tool for a GM who is new or feels that they need to level-grind their Session Running skill.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Everyday Carry for PCs


When new players start to build a character in GURPS, one of the first questions they usually ask is "what skills should I take?". The GURPS community is all over that, usually with a link to two excellent list of "everyman" skills prepared by the estimable Dr. Kromm, one being for adventurers and one being for normal people in the modern world. And they really are great. But in my experience one of the next questions that new players ask is "what gear should I take?". I don't feel like we've done as well at answering that systematically.

That's partly because the question is really, really hard to answer generically. A Dungeon Fantasy hack and slash, an Old Western action one-shot, and a campaign about Ultra-Tech TL11 galaxy-trotting tourists have hugely different technology available and very different player goals. There's no one gear list, and all the decisions are subject to non-obvious facts about the technological and social context. So there's not much common ground.

For this post, what I'm going to be doing is adopting the principles behind Everyday Carry, or EDC. Everyday Carry is a philosophy based on knowing what you need and always having it on you. It emphasizes preparedness, self-sufficiency, and keeping vital gear close to hand. The terminology is mostly used by engineers, survivalists/preppers, and the kind of gun owner that uses the word "tactical" like punctuation. The underlying philosophy is practiced every old janitor or grandmother you know that always seems to have whatever you need in their bag. In short, it's an excellent lens to look at a PC's equipment lens through.

In the list below, I'm going to go through eleven needs that most PCs eventually wind up having. You don't need to carry gear to meet all of them, but you should have a good reason to skip addressing any of them. Finally, I'm going to address genre-or role specific equipment that might be essential in the right game or that one person in the party should be carrying.

The Big Eleven

1. Weapons: Tabletop RPGs have their origins in mass combat simulators. Even GURPS started off as an arena fighting game called Man to Man. The point is that most games are going to be somewhere on a sliding scale between “combat is the majority of every session” to “combat occurs every few sessions”. Even if you’re supposed to be a non-combatant or spell-caster, make sure that you have some way to usefully deal damage.

So what kind of weapon should you be carrying? That's far outside the scope of this article (but might be something I'll touch on down the road). So let's just consider stopping power vs wearability. Stopping power matters because the ultimate point of combat is to kill or incapacitate enemies, not to annoy them. It's hard to say how much stopping power is "enough", but as a rule of thumb, you don't want to be putting out much less damage than you're facing. Wearability matters for logistical reasons (can you climb over a wall with that?), social ones (Will the guards let you through the wall's gate with that?), and concealment (will the guards find that when they pat you down?). Balance according to campaign needs and your role in the party.

2. Light Source: Caves, basements, or outside at night. Eventually, your character is going to need to worry about seeing the nose in front of his face. At low Tech Levels you'll need to carry a candle, torch, or lantern and this category will overlap heavily with fire-making, below. In modern times you can substitute a flashlight.
"Revved up like a Deuce/Another runner in the night"

Some characters may have the natural ability to see in the dark, or simulate such though magic or high technology. That's a massive advantage, because they can sneak in the darkness without giving away their position, and stage fights so that enemies suffer lighting penalties while they do not. However, bright light may still be useful to blind enemies, signal allies, or ward off animals and supernatural threats. Get creative.

3. Communication: In low-tech societies, communication mostly occurs face to face, or through letters, and this category doesn’t have much to it. You should still give a thought to signalling. Carry a whistle can communicate that you’re in trouble to your party members, or maybe use a signalling mirror or smoke signals to convey messages over long distances.

If you have access to instantaneous communication at a distance via magic or technology, things change fast. If all of the PCs are in constant communication, scouting and coordination can reach amazing levels. And then you can contact friends, allies, and authority figures to really mess with your GM. AND in a TL8+ setting, you can access the internet for essentially any information you might need, on the fly. If you can buy a phone or radio, do so. And strongly consider a laptop if your character is at all research oriented.

4. Tools: Potentially the most varied category. Specialists might carry lockpicks and other thieves tools, a mechanics toolbox, a sonic screwdriver, or anything else to take technology apart and put it back together again. Any character can benefit from carrying a small knife or a multitool, and historically some variation on such has been one of the single most common items in anyone's pockets. A blade or a simple tools can be very useful for many things, including as a weapon of last-resort.
Occasionally mightier than the sword

5. Record-keeping: You can fulfill this need by carrying pencil and paper. Or carry some chalk if you fancy writing on walls. This allows your character to make notes and give or leave notes for NPCs. If you’ve ever hunted for something to write down a phone number on, you know how important this is. But at higher Tech Levels you can really have fun with this. Cameras can take pictures of people, activities, and documents which can be used to blackmail NPCs or bring them to justice. Video and audio recording can do that even better, and computer storage can let you copy reams of data without an NPC realizing anything. But at the very least, you want pen(cil) and paper.

6. Food and Water:
You want enough of this so that when the GM asks "did you eat?" you can say "yes", and not worry about it. How much is enough is going to vary depending on the setting. In a real rough and ready setting, you may want to give consideration to water purification and line and snares to catch food, while in a purely urban game you can live on fast-food and the occasional protein bar. Just don't be the idiot that starves when the GM asks if everyone remembered to buy rations.

7. Fire-making: In my experience, most PCs are going to need to light something on fire at some point in their life. In GURPS, fire-lighting equipment is considered part of Personal Basics, but make sure you've got this covered on your sheet. Flint or magnifying glasses work, matches or lighters are better. Of course if you're the Human Torch or a fire wizard, you might not have to worry about this.

8. First-Aid: Yeah, your party may have a dedicated healer. That doesn't mean you can ignore this. What if they get taken out? As a rule of thumb, more than half of the party should have the skill and hopefully the equipment to provide basic healing. This can be some loose bandages, a wand of cure light wounds, or a full-on crash kit for a specialist. The form doesn’t matter, as long as you keep your fellow PCs from dying.

9. Another Weapon: Yup. Combat is such a huge part of so many campaigns that we’re doubling down. Your PC should be carrying more than one weapon, and the second should fill a need that the primary one doesn’t. If you’re an archer or a pistolero, get a blade. If you carry an axe, pick up a sling. Or get something that exploits a different monster weakness (see below).
Included in High Tech!

Concealability is also very important here. The difference between a successful PC prison escape and an embarrassing failure is in the number of PCs that can steal or smuggle in a weapon. If your first two weapons aren't concealable, get a third that really is.

10. Money: Money is magic. Money buys everything above, and more besides. At some point, the GM is going to force to you to fork over your hard earned treasure to buy incidental goods and services, or bribe an NPC. Make sure you have liquid funds on you to do that. In small and large denominations, if your GM is a stickler about that.

11. Personal touches: You're playing a character, not a block of stats. Gear is just as much a valid way to express personality as anything else on your character sheet. A religious icon, a love letter, a deck of cards (which can see a lot of use, incidentally) or flask or pack of cigarettes can all tell you something about a character. A small item or two doesn't have to cost much or weigh you down, but it says a lot.

Other things to consider:

Grenades & Area Denial Attacks:
This is a broad category, including everything from explosives and grenades to smoke bombs to jars of grease to caltrops and bags of ball bearings. There are two defining characteristics: The first is that all of these are intended to attack a large number of foes by killing or injuring them, distracting them, or inconveniencing them. As such, they can alter the course of a fight, with huge payouts if placed correctly. The second is that the mindset behind them is distinctly non-civilian. If you're carrying these around, you're either entiring openly hostile territory or terminally paranoid.

Rope: A lot of old-school RPG players have a rope fetish that would make a shibari expert blush. It’s useful stuff if your PCs need to do any mountain climbing, prisoner restraining, or lashing stuff together. However contra Samwise Gamgee, it's not something that every PC needs. Duct tape can fill the last two needs in a modern setting, and handcuffs will work even better for prisoners.
The "combat ready package" for holy water. 

Monster Weaknesses: Garlic, holy water, silver bullets, cold iron knives. If you're fighting monsters with specific weaknesses of this kind, you should be packing, and preferably in a combat ready package.

Shelter: This is so close to the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs of needs that it's often hand-waved. But if you're going into rough country on foot or hoof, you'll want a way to keep the rain out and body heat in. This is going to be bulky, so look for good equipment to save on weight.

Navigation: Maps are great. PCs in modern and ultra-tech settings might be able to rely on their smartphones, but in other circumstances you're going to want some solid paper maps, and maybe some compasses and or even more advanced navigational gear if you're really going exploring.

Tracking and Surveillance:
 For PCs in the world of espionage and mysteries, it can be seriously useful to have a whole host of tiny electronic devices that record and broadcast location, audio, and video information. But don't forget that hacking a bad guy's cellphone can get you most of that. In a fantasy setting this might be replaced by a scrying pool or Magic 8-Ball. 

The Last Word:

I should emphasize at this point that I'm not offering a complete list of everything you should carry. If your GM is handing out useful exotic equipment, or you have a need for certain bits of gear or MacGuffins, then you should by all means carry them, even if it means leaving behind something listed here. The specific case trumps the general advice.

Likewise, I'm not saying that a character with a gear list that doesn't check off all (or any) of these boxes can't be useful and effective. Jackie Chan always seems to get by with just his fists and a lot of improvised weapons after all, and you may very well have an interesting and effective character concept that would never carry a weapon. What I'm providing here is a list of needs that you should think about filling, or think about why your character doesn't seem to want. Ultimately, the story is about the characters you bring to the table, and the gear is at the bottom of the character sheet for a reason.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

This technically counts for GURPSday, darn it

Prohibition Mobsters Recap.


Sam Licari: Capo-in-charge of the Soldati D’ombra. A wise-talker and money maker. Sam would rather be talking to people or drinking scotch and working over an accounts book than getting his hands dirty.
Tony Calabrese: Made Man of the Soldati. Veteran of the Great War, may be hiding any number of guns under that trenchcoat of his. A fighter at heart, gang warfare is just another battlefield to him.
Rosseana “Red” Biancardi: High-ranking member of the Soldati, despite being a teenage girl. Brought up in the mob life, she really does see the mafia as a family, which she defends with extreme prejudice. Equally capable of dressing up in a ballgown or breaking someone's kneecaps with a bat.
Vinnie Gambino: Trusted affiliate of the Soldati. Likes gambling, pickpocketing, fine cigars, burglary, garrotes, and more gambling. What teenage orphan wouldn’t?


Teddy Katz: Sam’s brother-in-law and frequent partner in crime. Teddy’s tastes run to fast cars and driving away from big explosions.
Jack Benedetto Jr: Red’s boyfriend, a college boy mob-scion turned “fixer” for the DiGlados.
Vivian: Secretary and mistress to Kyle DiGlado, former secretary to Senator Larson of Vermont.
Pumpkin: Once a shot-caller in the Grave Men hitman group, now on the run from Polat Atalar and being sheltered by the Soldati, along with her bodyguard Tex.
Ben Kincaid: Kincaid came to New York with a small fortune in his pocket and dreams of assassinating his way to the top of an Italian crime family. Now the Kincaid Outfit is recognized player and ever the PCs acknowledge Ben as the boss.
Justin Grant:  Formerly of the Baker Gang, until he betrayed them to the Soldati D’Ombra for money and power. He probably won’t do that to us. Unless someone offers him enough.


Fritz Austerlitz: Nephew of a certain German attache. Comes off as impossibly hot headed and vain.
Lennard: Fritz’s Polish adopted brother and minder. Seems surprisingly decent.
Polat Atalar: Turkish assassin currently gunning for a position as the fifth horseman. Notable kills Three-Fingered Moran, the entire Grave Men gang, and (nearly) Tony.

Last Time on Prohibition Mobsters: The group went wedding shopping for a chance to talk to Germans Fritz and Lennard, and stole a note off of him.

The game opens with the reading of the note that Jack Jr caught Fritz trying to pass in the store. It reads “Muriel Gladstone” and lists a Brooklyn address. Tony and Vinnie go to pick up Sam before investigating. The address turns out to be a graveyard, and “Muriel Gladstone” turns out to be a woman who died twenty years ago

Hidden behind her headstone is a package, containing a pistol, ammunition, and letters with directions to kill three people:
  • Jack Jr
  • Pumpkin
  • Chester Malone, a new name who turns out to be a massively important money launderer who recently fled Chicago

Examination of the directions reveal that the intel is pretty bad. They have Jack confused with his late father, for instance. But they seem to get that Pumpkin is dangerous and surrounded by dangerous people. Also, Muriel’s coffin has been filled with equipment (explosives) to get the job done.

We go back to Senga’s and call in Pumpkin, Kyle DiGlado’s secretary/mistress Vivian, and Justin, Sam’s new henchmen of questionable loyalty. Sam proposes altering the documents to lead the assassin into a trap, but this is voted down as too likely to fail. Justin proposes land mines, and Sam suggests that the landmine be placed in the coffin that the assassin will be digging up. This is met with general approval. It’s decided that Tony and Teddy will go set the trap, while the rest of everyone present (minus Pumpkin and her bodyguard Tex) will go look into Malone.

Tony and Teddy make quick work of digging up Muriel’s grave, stealing the rifle and binoculars left for Polat in the coffin. They rig both the explosives left for Polat in the coffin and some that Teddy just had lying around to blow as soon as the lid is lifted. There’s discussion of putting surveillance on the grave, but we decide that this would tie up too many resources, as we don’t know how long it will take for Polat or someone else to drop by.

As luck would have it, the bellboy at the swanky hotel Malone is staying at is an old Soldati associate on friendly terms with Vinnie. He’s happy to take us up to see the man, where he’s attending a late night wedding reception. Vinnie is under-dressed for this crowd, but Sam peacocks happily in his $10k suit, and makes a good impression on Malone. He ushers his wife Francine away while the men talk (with all parties pretending that she’s the vapid party girl she poses as), and explains his situation.

Malone was forced to flee Chicago after his friend, the Don of the Nelson family, was shot. This happened after a few months of finding that their old governmental connections were no longer taking their calls. Malone used Unpleasant Methods to acquire some numbers books (still in Chicago) and information that led him to believe a clique of Old World, Old Money families from Germany and Italy were collaborating to take over business of getting around the American Prohibition. Acquiring senators is simply incidental for them.

No, not that gangster named Malone
Sam suggests that maybe these old European families are more interested in political power than a little booze money, as backed by everything he’s seen in New York. Some theorizing suggests that if these Europeans are worming their way into Chicago and New York, Washington is also a likely target for its political power. It’s decided that Malone will make for the capital, both to investigate proceedings there and to dodge the assassins on his trail. He asks Sam to fetch his papers. These might be vital to the mystery, but he was forced to leave them behind in Chicago, which is too hot for him to return to.

At this point, the GM is gauging player consent for a week’s timeskip. Most of the players are on board, but I actually had time-sensitive plans, so I lay them out to everyone, and get permission to take things slow.

The plan Sam outlines to the other members of the crew turns on two things 1: Polat’s elimination of the Grave Men has turned the crime world upside down in roughly the same way that stealing all of the world’s nukes in the 1980s would do. Everything is chaos right now. 2. Several months ago (game and real time), Old Man Sal Costello was released from prison. His organization had splintered into the warring Vespucci, Zambito, and Bonanno families. He took over the Bonnano faction shortly after release, and even though the Vespucci and Zambito both hate him, most people agree that he’ll probably bring them in line soon enough. That would be enough to put him in the same weight class as the DiGlado family, which is a sight more powerful than any other group in the city.

As it happens, we’re allied with the DiGlados, and of course we have independent reasons to not want our competitors to outgrow us. So here comes the plan: The Soldati will ally with the Zambitos against the Vespucci, hastening to wipe them out while Old Man Costello and everyone else is tied down with post-Grave Men chaos. The Zambitos will be given the lion’s share of the spoils, and the Soldati D’Ombra make a tidy profit for themselves while blocking a rival’s main avenue for growth.

The next day, after Malone leaves for Washington, Sam calls a hasty meeting with George Costello, the head of the Zambito family and son of the Old Man. The entire crew sits down for lunch, but Sam does most of the talking. The initial proposal doesn’t go smoothly (George actually thinks that Sam is trying to shake him down at first), but then they get down to dickering over the details.

  • Sam wants to take only a few properties outright, and collect a 15% consideration from the Zambitos on the Vespucci territory they take. George is worried that leaves him open to backstabbing later, if the Soldati claims they’ve been shortchanged. Sam assures him that the main reason he’s doing things this way is to cock block George’s father without coming into direct conflict with him. (And gets a solid success on Diplomacy here)
  • George is worried about the Old Man hitting him while he spars with the Vespuccis. Sam knows that the Zambitos have been continually hassled by the Kincaid Outfit, so he promises arrange a temporary truce, for at least a few weeks. George wants to bump that up to a few months, but Sam slaps him down.

That’s good enough to get George’s backing, if Kincaid personally assures him he’ll lay off for a few weeks. So the crew scurries off to get that. As a matter of fact, Kincaid has just received a massive bill for $60k in weregild for wrongful deaths, from one Chester Malone. Looks like Chester Malone calling Kincaid a bastard last night wasn’t just an accurate observation, but a real sign of bad blood.

Regardless, Kincaid is happy to take a break from beating up on the Zambitos, after taking a few seconds to remember that feud was even a thing. The PCs are concerned, and are blaming the boss’s blond moment on everything from stress to cocaine. Justin (who’s been tagging along) points out that the Zambitos probably just aren’t big enough to worry him. The group decides to put it behind them for now.

And with that, some time is allowed to pass as the Zambito-Vespucci feud heats up. After a couple of days, the bomb in Muriel’s tomb goes off. And the victims are... Fritz and Lennard. They must have gotten spooked by the missing note and tried to check on their dead drop. The party is perfectly happy to see Fritz dead, and not put off by the fact that Lennard survived, albeit with crippling injuries. And as a final bonus, the newspaper gives us a name: Gerhardt Austerliz, grieving uncle and German attache.

To quote the GM: "Lennard has more in common with the Black Knight than most people now"


  • A decent portion of the plot and play time of this session was driven by me deciding there was a lot of plot we should attend to in what could have been a timeskip. It takes some innovative GMing to deal with that kind of plot derailing.
  • This was an incredibly Sam-centric session, because we spent most of the time on two conversations that were essentially boss to boss discussions. The norms in this group tend to lead to a lot of sessions where one or two characters are the only ones onscreen for a few hours at a time, which makes for some interesting sessions. It definitely takes mature players to make it viable.
  • Note player initiative. There’s been no real prompting to go after Old Man Costello, but it’s been something I’ve been itching to do for a while because of what I think are solid strategic reasons. I may be wrong, but at least I’m proactively wrong.
  • Also, note the benefits of having all the PCs brainstorm. My initial idea on what to do with the orders to Polat was awful. Setting a booby trap was easier and more elegant.
  • Incidentally, while I was explaining my plan to set the Zambitos against the Vespuccis, Mac proposed that we fake an attack by Polat on Old Man Costello, to give him something else to worry about and make our enemies fight each other. If we can figure out a trademark or signature that would frame him, that’s an excellent plan.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Prohibition Mobsters: The Story So Far

Prohibition Mobsters is a campaign I’ve been playing in since July 2015. It’s set in 1921, near the beginning of the Prohibition, and as the name suggests, all of the PCs are Mobsters. Specifically, our cast of PCs looks like this.

Player Characters:

Salvatore “Sam” Licari (me): A wise-talker and money maker. Sam would rather be drinking and talking to people or drinking and working over an accounts book than getting his hands dirty. He joins the Barberinis after pissing off one Three-Fingered Jack Moran (Sam gave Moran's kid acute lead poisoning), looking for protection, and drags along his Jewish brother in law Teddy Katz. Teddy’s a simple man that likes fast cars and big explosions.

Rosseana “Red” Biancardi (Peter): A teenaged girl, Red is the younger sister of Leone Biancardi, a Barberini Capo/glorified accountant in charge of the prostitutes. She’s probably the most idealistic PC, really buying into the idea of the Family as a family, one that protects it from outsiders. Of course she’s also bull-headed, foul-tempered, and a has a bevvy of friends in odd places. Equally capable of dressing up in a ballgown or breaking someone's kneecaps with a bat.

Antonio “Tony” Calabrese (Josh): A sergeant in the Great War, Tony looks like a skinny kid in a trenchcoat, and is way too fond of the BAR he smuggled out of the service. But he’s a deadly shootist and leg-breaker. Aside from the temper issues and blood-lust, he’s probably the most moral PC after Red. He was hired on by the Barberinis as a merc, and the Mob War is just another war to him.

Vincenzio “Vinnie” Gambino (Mac): A teenage orphan and thug. Vinnie’s the classic thief of the group, with the best knack for sneakery and thieving, plus the standard leg-breaking. Has a knack for getting into poker games with people he needs to talk to. Likes the fast life, but has a bit of a death wish. He’s been a junior associate of the Barberinis for a few years at the start of the campaign.

Isaac Walker (Simon): A private eye originally based out of D.C. who joins up significantly down the road in the campaign. He’s a blue-collar type with a keen mind, highly flexible ethics, and a quick hand on his pistol.
Not exactly

Campaign Assumptions
I’ll identify a few “genre rules” of the campaign, as follows.

Grow or Die: The game is about amassing power, money, and territory. All of the NPC factions are doing it, and if the players don’t look out for their interests and seize growth opportunities where they find them, they can expect to find themselves constantly outgunned. Conversely, taking charge and going out of the way to set up your own sources of money and power is rewarded.

There's No Percentage in Good or Evil: The PCs are all bad people. However, they're not sacrificing babies for lulz or picking fights with other PCs. Civilian deaths are avoided if possible, but the PCs have killed innocents. Basically, the PCs do bad things for money and personal security, but the focus of the "camera" is on the results, not lingering on the PCs more stomach-turning work.

Fairs Are For Tourists:  Actions have consequences, for good and ill. If you send in the muscle on a social infiltration mission, and they’re alone and surrounded after screwing everything up, they’re going to die. On the other hand, if you’re careful to set up an ambush with overwhelming firepower and no way for the enemy to call for backup, the results can be downright anticlimactic. Play smart or die.

It’s a Big Bell Curve: The PCs are quite competent. We started out at 150 points, and after nearly a year of play we’re currently at about 260. Which means that everyone is very, very good at their role. The majority of crooks aren’t anywhere near that good, which has benefits (when thugs are shooting at us from a default), and drawbacks (when it’s impossible to find good foot soldiers). On the other hand, some of the NPCs are way more dangerous than the PCs, and playing games much above our heads.

Plots Within Plots: Branching off from the above, there’s a lot going on in the setting that the PCs aren’t aware of, or have some idea about but can’t confirm anything. We don’t know why the freshman senator from Vermont brought in mercenaries to kill the Senator from New York, but he’s a useful occasional ally.

11 Months of Play Later...

So, after much throat clearing, let’s recap the last year of plot-heavy play. I’ll note that this is essentially a retelling of the summary you can find here, from the GM’s perspective, extended a little further into the future.

Humble Beginnings

The game starts with the PCs as a newly formed crew working for the Barberini Family, reporting to capo Jack Benedetto. Jack knows what he’s doing, but the Barberini family is small, lacks territory, lacks muscle, and most importantly lacks a stable source of booze to sell to thirsty civilians.

The boss, Michael Barberini is well-respected, but is essentially a peace-time consigliere in boss’s clothing. Most of the other families respect him personally. But consensus is that the family will probably go under in a year or two. His Underboss is his brother Harold, who is a hotheaded thug. His consigliere is a creepy Russian named Gustav, who is scarily competent and working with Michael for unknown purposes.

The first few sessions are spent trouble-shooting for the Jack and the rest of the Barberinis. We lose a PC (Bruno, a triggerman run by Tony’s player) in the very first session to a bad attempt to infiltrate a rival distillery, things are good otherwise. We steal booze, trash rival establishments, cross swords with Sam's nemesis, Three-Fingered Moran. We quickly establish our base at Senga’s, a diner/speakeasy/brothel run by a Barberini associate of the same name.
Senga's, in a nutshell

Eventually, Moran proves to be too troublesome to ignore. Jack and Gustav the Consigliere comes up with a plan to kidnap and murder a Pinkerton agent and Moran’s girlfriend/stalking victim, a Broadway starlet. After we frame Moran for the murder of the two of them, he's arrested as the “criminal of the century” and we can move onto other plots. Incidentally, a series of comical events leads to war hero Tony acquiring intrepid reporter Rachel Xercotti as a girlfriend. Yes she's aware of his day job. Yes, we have a hell of a time keeping her from learning all the details.

Making Waves

Alas, we can't take credit for imprisoning Moran without trashing our work, so the Barberinis don't scoop up much of his turf at all. Instead, the PCs come up with up with a plan to hook up with Greggory Hanscombe, the mastermind behind the bank robbing Danger Fiends that we had met previously. The plan is to rob a bank, take the money from that and use it to set up a Caribbean rum connection. This should patch the consistent problems the Barberinis have had with meeting the public's ever-growing thirst for illegal booze.

This takes some serious prep work. We steal information on the security company, find a safecracker, strike a deal with an air pilot to avoid the revenuer ships, meet up with Esteban, leader of the Puerto Rican Chupacabra gang, help Esteban kill his rebellious cousin Jesus, and make a last minute effort to shut off the communications of the security company after our deadline is moved up.

All of this works, and it still doesn't save us from complications. One of Hanscombe’s crew turns out to be Moran's niece Pixie, who shoots Sam before he kills her. The gunshots attract police, and killing them breaks Hanscombe’s squeaky clean reputation for nonviolence. Still, we avoided having to deal with the scary private security company, and managed to get away clean.

Basically what the Danger Fiend heist looked like.
Not pictured: Sam getting shot by a girl

Besides oodles of cash, it turns out that Hanscombe was stealing new Treasury plates, suitable for making counterfeit bills. We should be getting royalties on those going forward. There is much rejoicing, the booze starts with pouring in from Puerto Rico, Sam becomes an official Made Man, and everyone has some downtime.

Then Three-Fingered Moran escapes from prison, reclaims his kingdom, and seals the deal by gunning down Michael Barberini and Jack Benedetto. Michael dead, Jack in a coma. Harold takes over, and Gustav disappears (he never got on with Harold anyways). This is a problem, because now three of the best Barberini players are out of the picture, and Harold turns out to be very bad at being the Boss and very good at pissing people off. The ongoing collapse of the Barberinis speeds up considerably, and Jack Moran is sitting pretty as the fugitive psychopathic Robin Hood of the Irish immigrant community.

A Coup is Fun For Me and You

Enter Ben Kincaid. A conman who pissed off some people on the East Coast, and then made a lot of money and pissed off more people in California. He had recently taken over the Lucchese family with poison and high priced hit men (The Grave Men). And he has an offer for the crew. Kill Harold, and bring the Barberini remnants under his banner. Sam will be made a capo, Tony a Made Man, and the group will be taxed lighter than most groups answering to the Kincaid Outfit. The crew is amenable. After being brought to meet Kyle DiGlados, boss of what is by far the most powerful crime family in New York, and receiving his blessing for the arrangement, the crew is even more amenable.

Pictured: The crew takes the generous deal

First, the group wins the support of Leone, the Barberini accounts manager and Red's brother. So we have control of the money, if we want to risk just stealing everything. Then we plot to frame Harold for the attempted murder of Jack, still in the coma. Trying to kill a popular capo to secure his rule is both plausible and fatally embarrassing for Harold. Alas, while Sam is visiting Jack's room to set this up, he discovers a bomb under Jack's bed. Sam books it, the room explodes, and the hospital burns down. It's Jack on Jack crime as Moran makes his return known, in a big way.

The crew regroups, make some speeches, and attempt to get Sam appointed as Jack's successor. Harold blocks this, but burns a lot of political capital in doing so. So the group falls back on Plan B: Killing Harold and his two pet capos, while faking attacks on on Sam and Lester (a quiet, neutral capo who handles distribution of booze). Teddy rigs Sam's car to blow right after he bails out of it, Vinnie lucks out and apparently stops an actual attempt on Lester's life by parties unknown, and then joins Red and Tony. They mow down Harold and his entourage while they meet with a small Irish gang, making egregious use of grenades and automatic rifles. It's a one-sided massacre.
We weren't even pretending to fight fair that time

In the chaos after Harold's death, Sam calls together the Barberini family remnants, proposes to incorporate them under Kincaid's banner. This is met with considerable resistance, but a lot of persuasion, promises of security and relative autonomy (including light taxation), and a timely poisoning of an assassin by Kincaid get most of the Barberinis on board.

So the crew is charge of things, with Kincaid mostly keeping to his promise to stay hands-off. Immediate priorities are retaking lost territory, smoothing over feathers that Harold ruffled, and hunting for Three-Fingered Moran.

Of course there are distractions. Marge, Harold's widow, hires a mob lawyer named Marco Santos to find out what happened to her inheritance. Meanwhile, a Pinkerton Agent named Jarvis Lord appears to tell us that his people aren't buying our framing of Moran for the murder of a Pinkerton, and they want the blood of Gustav and whoever else was involved. Of course Gustav is in the wind and the other people involved are the PCs, so we tell him to scram. He warns us that he had helped Moran bomb a hospital to get to kill off Jack for his part in the murder and he'd be happy to do it again.

The next day, Senga’s is raided by Jarvis and the police. Senga is arrested, contraband is seized, and an arrest warrant is put out for Leone. Attempts to cow Marco are unsuccessful. He's a canny mob lawyer, under police guard, and a personal friend of Tom Langford, the fantastically corrupt Mayor of New York City. So we break into his office, and find papers that would ruin him and seriously embarrass Hizzonner. We come back to negotiate with Marco. Threats are made on both sides, Marco shoots himself in the leg and is all set to have the PCs arrested for it and have Senga killed, Sam threatens to bring down the Mayor, and they settle on Marco dropping the case and leaving town, with the crew returning the papers to Langford with apologies. Jarvis Lord also stops hassling us, as Gustav is in hiding and Kyle DiGlado vouches for us.

Yet More Assassinations

While all of this is going on, the hunt for Moran continues. We follow one false lead, which turns out to be the aftermath of a shootout between the DiGlados and allies of Gustav (yeah, turns out he’s still around). We run into Jack Benedetto Jr, the college-age son of our old capo. He’s looking into his father’s death with surprising competence, but gets snapped up by the DiGlados for Unknown Purposes before Sam can hire him. Regardless, we track down Moran to an old steamship in New York Harbor, and find out that he’s shipping down to Washington with New York Senator Cedric O’Brien. Yup, Moran has a senator in his pocket.

So we go down to Washington DC and run into Petey, son of Red’s Irish friend in New York,  and Doyle, the son’s friend. They agree to put us in contact with Fat Tony, a local money launderer that wants Moran dead. Unfortunately, Petey sells us out to Moran. We make it out, Petey is killed in an explosion in the crossfire, and we kill off the survivors at our hotel, and then telegram the boat. As far as Moran is concerned, we’re dead.

Sam goes to Capitol Hill to get more details on what party Cedric O’Brien is hosting when he gets to Washington. He runs into and hires Isaac Walker, the new PC. Then one Senator Larson, just elected from Vermont, calls him in for a meeting by name. It turns out he’s a friend of DiGlado, and he reveals that he’s plotting to murder Senator O’Brien, for reasons unrelated to the Moran situation, and is amenable to some cooperation. His secretary, Vivian, puts us in contact with the merc team, and they’re willing to give us some covering fire with the massive rifle they’re sniping at Senator O’Brien with.

The Mauser T-Gewehr: For tanks, or really annoying rivals

The entire crew, including Isaac, gets on the boat with one trick or another. Unfortunately, some last minute confusion over the plan means that we don’t get on with killing Moran until O’Brien is dead and all hell breaks loose. We manage to take out his guards and pin him down (not before Isaac gets a near-fatal headshot), when his last guard turns traitor, shoots him dead and swims away to safety. Our mission done, we GTFO, get Isaac to a vet that’s willing to branch out when we shove money at him, and leave the city.

The PCs Become the Establishment

With Moran dead, we move on his territory. Doyle is brought up from Washington to serve as a capo that the Irish population will be more ready to accept, but a sort of rump gang called “Kelly’s Killer’s” pops up to protect the surviving Moran loyalists. Meanwhile, a certain independent  large distillery has been resisting Doyle’s attempts to take it over. It’s also around this time that the crew renames the former Barberini family to the “Soldati D’ombra”, or Shadow Soldiers. Hey, it makes for good PR. There’s a good time skip of three months or so here, during which the Soldati solidify their position, everyone buys nice things with their newfound wealth, and Red starts dating Jack Jr.

With the timeskip completed, the crew plans a new heist: impersonating police to stage a raid and take most of their booze, distilling equipment, and lose cash. In the process of research for this however, we discover that the operation running this distillery also has a second location in Yonkers where the counterfeiting presses that we stole from the bank are set up. Which explains why we haven’t been getting any kickbacks from that since Michael and Jack died. We promptly decide to steal both.

Our disguises were a little better than this

It takes some prep work, including a run in with Wushu, an Asian launderer/criminal fence named Wushu, who sends Sam a bill for the police uniforms we stole from him. But we do a good job on prep work, and the “police raid” on the distillery goes off without a hitch. We walk off with a large amount of liquor, and some distilling gear that we’re sending down to Puerto Rico to improve their operation. Then we go to Yonkers to steal the counterfeiting plates. Turns out, we’re the second visitors tonight. The first visitor is mopping up the killing of everyone there for reasons unknown, and has no interest in the counterfeiting equipment. Sam asks for a phone number, which he gets, and then loads up the counterfeiting plates. Everyone kicks themselves after realizing that the assassin was the same guy who killed Moran in DC.
Shortly thereafter, pursuing DiGlado goals brings us in conflict with the Baker Gang, a smallish crew dealing mostly in booze. What should be a simple request for information turns into a shakedown, which fails and turns into a hostage crisis. The crew has to pay ransom to get Isaac back alive. The crew plans to double-cross the Bakers during this and the Bakers plan to do the same to us. I takes Vinnie quietly eliminating a machine gun placement and Sam quickly buying out and flipping Justin Grant, a greedy and ambitious Baker man, to avert catastrophe. Instead we "only" see one minion crippled and Tony put in the hospital by our recurring Assassin enemy. On the bright side, the attack on a made man gives the Soldati an excuse to wipe the Baker gang off the face of the earth, Justin is folded into the operation, and the influx of new cash is used to expand the Soldati D'ombra's thinning ranks.

I paid points for Justin as an ally. He's still about as trustworthy as gas station sushi 

Crooks Turned Spy Catchers

With that done, we’re called in by DiGlado and Kincaid. With Senator O’Brien dead, there’s a lot of interest in who will win the special election to replace him. We’re supposed to make sure that things go smoothly for whoever the DiGlados wind up picking. To that end, we need to figure out who is killing off key politicians in what looks like hostile action. This takes a lot of detective work, but we eventually find evidence that the same people rigged the election for O’Brien. Specifically, we find that we’re looking for a fast-talking German of noble background, and one Polat Atalar, a turkish gunman who had previously worked with the Danger Fiends and the Grave men before both decided he was too unstable, and the same gunman who killed Moran and shot Tony.

Our digging isn’t consequence free. Pumpkin, a dangerous woman who is one of the leaders of the Grave Men, starts digging into Polat and his employer. Polat responds by exterminating the Grave Men, all highly competent assassins, one by one. Pumpkin and her bodyguard Tex come to us for shelter. We’re able to use information from them to get a rumor about a German diplomatic attache (promptly nicknamed Von Hitler by the players), and an encounter with his nephew, Fritz Austerlitz, and Fritz’s minder Lennard. Fritz is a nasty piece of work that’s probably going to leave someone dead and several people pregnant before he’s forced to return to Europe, but Lennard is an adopted member of the family, and decent enough. As we interact with them, the city’s underworld starts to tear itself apart. The Grave Men had kept a strange sort of nuclear peace with their contracts to kill certain crooks if they got out of line, and with them out of the way, everyone starts working on old grudges. The Barberinis are spared the worst of it, but Kincaid and Doyle both lose underlings.

And that’s where we leave off before our most recent session. In case it’s not obvious, there’s been a hell of a lot of plot over the last year, and I had to do a fair amount of pruning for space.