So, while Sleepless Nights starts in earnest sometime next spring after I come back from a five-month stint abroad, we managed to play a sort of prologue session last week. I wrote this primarily as an official record of the events of the adventure, but I tried my best to elucidate the decisions and blunders I made as GM, in the form of a running commentary in italics. Here’s what happened:
Sleepless Nights, Session 1: The Rite of the Wolf
- Time: August, ca. 2,500 BCE.
- Place: Somewhere in Central Europe, perhaps the Sudetes.
- Bairaz, youth of the Leubhamuntaz tribe: Bairaz has an inborn talent for magic, but has not decided whether to devote himself to it or to pursue membership in the tribe’s warrior society.
- Yentil the Crone, priestess of the wolf totem, ritual magician, and matchmaker of the tribe.
- Hruf, travelling coppersmith and regular visitor to the Leubhamuntaz lands; a giant, he is the strongest man in the known world.
- Kulanauzon, hound; a valued tribe member, like other hunting dogs.
A Village by a Lake
The Leubhamuntaz tribe inhabits a game-rich region in the foothills of a mountain range, their palisaded town built by the shore of a deep lake, their fields and pastures spread out in a sheltered valley. Thousands of years in the future, archeologist may classify their remains as part of the Corded Ware culture, but they identify themselves by their totem, the Wolf. Their priestess conducts ceremonies and has a personal connection to the totem by virtue of her magical talent, but the Wolf is primarily the guardian and master of the tribe’s warrior society, composed of selected men of the tribe who have proven their courage. They are in contact, trading and raiding, with other, related tribes, as well as the light-skinned seal-hunters who winter in the surrounding woods.
So, in Sleepless Nights, the players choose freely when their characters lived, before they became vampires, and we play each of these origin stories chronologically. I hadn’t thought about the player characters’ backgrounds stretching out into prehistory, but one of the players, and one of my oldest friends, knew I could not say no to his suggestion of a neolithic character. So the above is roughly the briefing I gave him, along with a budget of 125-175 points. Bairaz is his player character, while Yentil and Hruf are one-off characters two other players made specifically for this session. Kulanauzon, the dog, is one of three backup supporting characters for drop-in-players. I’ll discuss character creation for the campaign, including all three PC types, in more detail in a later post.
It’s autumn, and Hruf the giant has been visiting the village for a few days. He’s being housed in a shed by the chief’s longhouse, and Bairaz, a young hunter has been assigned as his chaperone. Hruf is a glamorous figure due to his great strength and especially his possession of the secret of copperworking, and Bairaz is duly entranced by his stories, and volunteers eagerly when Hruf suggests they try to find ore in the hills and refine it. Yentil, the matchmaker (yes, it’s a joke name, but I let it slide because none of my players speak Yiddish) is hoping to set him up with one of the local girls to bring new, strong blood into the tribe, and makes a visit late in the evening, ostensibly to hear about Hruf’s travels. Yentil correctly intuits (with the Empathy advantage) that Hruf is not a loner, but cannot consider settling down before he finds a reliable source of copper ore. She makes a note of the advantage to the tribe it would bring if such a source were found nearby, and discusses the surrounding hills in some detail.
The players (except Kulanauzon’s, who was running late) had a very nice bit of introductory freeform roleplaying here, all of them working details about their characters into the interaction in a very natural way. This threatened to go on impractically long, however, because I had only managed to schedule a four-hour session. I tried to move things along subtly without ruining the mood, but in retrospect, a more direct intervention to shift from in-character performance to an out-of-character summarizing stance would have been better. Still, it was enjoyable, and I was impressed with just how well Hruf’s player had read up on chalcolithic metallurgy.
The Dog Returns
Yentil retires, planning to rest well and use her dream-communication spells to study and perhaps influence Hruf tomorrow night. No such luck, as she is woken shortly by her young apprentice, Natilon: one of the tribe’s hounds has come to their hut, unaccompanied and visibly distressed, with its muzzle caked in blood. Yentil draws up a magic circle (see the magic house rules) and performs two spells with Natilon’s assistance: one to calm the animal and another to speak with it. It informs her that it was hunting with its human brother – not its master, as the dog considers itself a full pack member, rather than a subordinate, of the humans – when they encountered troubling strangers with an alien smell, and its hunting partner was wounded with an arrow. It had tried to drag the wounded man to the village, but its strength had run out.
Yentil has Natilon bring Bairaz and Hruf to her hut, thinking that Hruf might know something about these strangers, being a well-travelled man. The two agree to go out with Kulanauzon and bring the wounded man, Brenwanan, back immediately. They find him, unconscious but alive, but have a tense run-in with an odd-looking stranger with a white tunic, a shaved head, and an unusual leather garment on his chest and shoulders, adorned with copper plates. While the men, lacking a common language, try to assert themselves with bows at the ready and negotiate the stranger’s surrender, Kulanauzon, having recognized the stranger’s scent, sneaks up close. When the stranger, apparently giving up on the possibility of a diplomatic solution, turns to run, Kulanauzon runs him down and kills him. Bairaz grabs his leather pectoral and they make haste to avoid additional encounters with the strangers.
This was the first fight scene of the campaign, and a pretty good one, though it was over in one blow, or rather a bite: an All-Out Attack to the skull from behind. I tried out a couple of house rules for combat, some of which I’ll keep, but I’ll get back to that in another post. I also noticed I don’t really know how to adjudicate stealth in a turn-by-turn scene: how often should we roll, and what modifiers should I impose? I’ll have to check the existing rules and set up some guidelines.
Back at the village, Yentil treats the wounded man successfully, leaving him stable but still unconscious. Hruf and Bairaz inspect the arrow that hit him, and it’s entirely unfamiliar. The shaft is some kind of reed, and the arrowhead, which they first take for copper, is actually of some other, tougher metal. A geometric figure is engraved on it, and they show this to Yentil.
I had Yentil’s player roll Symbol Drawing at +4 to recognize the symbol on the arrowhead, and when she duly made the roll, I drew it on a piece of paper and showed them: a swastika.
Yentil recognizes the marking immediately: it is a forbidden sign, ancient, and absolutely an affront to the Wolf totem. She keeps the arrowhead, hiding it in a jar full of ashes to keep its malign power in check. All retire, Brenwanan and Kulanauzon staying in Yentil’s hut with her and Natilon.
Yentil is woken again, however, this time by a dream she knows to be a sending from the Wolf: in the dream, instead of Kulanauzon, it is the Wolf himself that comes into her hut, wounded by the terrible arrow. She wakes in terror, knowing that the strangers have come to destroy the tribe. She is flooded by memories of being initiated by her predecessor long years ago, entering the secret cave of the tribal totem, and drinking a magic potion there that gave her magical strength and awareness of the Wolf’s plans for the tribe. She immediately summons Hruf and Bairaz back to her hut: they must set out together to find these strangers and stop them.
Why would Yentil only enlist one young hunter and a visitor on such a mission, rather than waking the chief and having him send out all the men of the tribe? I was prepared for such an eventuality, but Yentil’s player made the call from a directorial stance, figuring that a party consisting of the player characters would lead to a more entertaining session. I think this was the right choice, and admirable, although I would never demand such a thing from a player.
The Journey to the Cave
Bairaz ties Yentil to Hruf’s back, and with Kulanauzon tracking, they head out. They pick up the scent and follow it for a while, but Yentil already knows the strangers are headed for the cave, which none of the others have ever been to. She knows a shorter route, though, and they make haste in order to ambush the intruders before they reach their destination.
Here, I gave the players a choice of how many Fatigue Points they would like to spend on the way: either 1, 2, or 3 points, in addition to points already lost to staying up late. They elected to only spend 1 point, and so they were not fast enough to overtake the intruders. Had they spent 2, I would have had the two parties arrive simultaneously, and for an expenditure of 3 points, the PCs would have been a little bit ahead, enough to set up a basic ambush. The players did not know the exact stakes of their decision when they made it, but I asked them in a manner that made it clear – I hope – that the choice was not inconsequential. If I had specified distances, times and travelling speeds ahead of time, such a choice might have arisen from the specific combination, but I rarely go into that kind of detail unless the players specifically request it. This way, I got another interesting decision point into the adventure without breaking the suspension of disbelief or stopping the game for rules lookups and calculations.
The party fail to overtake the strangers, and arrive at the cave with the alien scent already there. The entrance to the cave is located in a shallow gorge between two rough lines of cliffs, and the party approach from downwind. Bairaz helps Yentil down, and she keeps back while the men and the dog sneak up, ready for a fight. Bairaz fails to keep quiet, however, and they are seen before they see the first of the intruders: a large man hiding just inside the cave entrance, who looses an arrow at Bairaz but misses.
I had the players make a communal Tactics roll, which they failed, and individual Stealth rolls, which Bairaz also failed. Then I completely forgot about the rules for surprise and initiative, being so used to running fights in my other campaign, where every PC has Combat Reflexes.
The fight is on: Kulanauzon charges into the cave and sinks his teeth into the man, dressed like the one killed earlier but much bigger and stronger. The man draws a dagger but fails to stab Kulanauzon. Bairaz runs up with a spear and stabs him to death.
Here, I forgot about the rules for Pacifism: Reluctant Killer. Bairaz has this disadvantage, as does everyone who has not specifically been desensitized to lethal violence – a campaign-specific ruling, more on which when I write about character creation. I and the player decided after the fact, that in lieu of a penalty I should have imposed on his attack roll, he would have to roll on the Fright Check table after the fight, to represent the shock of having killed a man this way.
The party regroup before venturing into the cave, and fashion makeshift torches from pine twigs. Yentil produces a clay flask and bids Hruf drink it: it’s a magical strength potion. Hruf does, and his already exceptional strength is temporarily enhanced to a superhuman level.
Yentil’s player asked if she might have some useful potion with her, being that she has a fairly high level in Herb Lore. I had her specify the advantage in question (I am, of course, using my own Alchemy house rules here), and she chose a ST bonus, which I decided was a common enough kind of elixir that she could have one on a roll of 9 or less. In retrospect, that was quite a high probability, as the elixir represents more than a month of brewing for her, but I’m happy with the results nevertheless. This is how I usually approach such gear: characters are carrying whatever’s written down on the sheet, but for any given small item the character might reasonably have in her inventory, I’ll have the player roll randomly, often against whatever skill seems most relevant. My players have never abused this, and it’s saved us a lot of time writing down every tiny knick-knack. Hruf’s player rolled a 6 on the elixir, too, so his ST went from 16 to 22!
The cave begins as a narrow, winding passage that widens gradually and then opens into a chamber, lit only by the fires carried by the party. In the chamber, they face another stranger, and a confused fight ensues, with dropped torches, grappling on the ground, falling over one another and general chaos. A tall figure with a staff appears out of the shadows, and the party are suddenly blinded by a flash of impossible brightness, emanating from the man’s staff. He almost escapes, fighting off Kulanauzon with hands whose touch burns like flame, but the party manage to stop him and knock him unconscious.
Sufficiently satisfied that the intruders have been defeated, Yentil proceeds from the chamber to a further space, only accessible by crawling through a low passage, where she hears the voice of the Wolf, commanding her to put out the fires and to bring him a living man. Yentil leads Bairaz into the inner chamber, where the Wolf, with hands like a man’s but impossibly strong, grasps him, and sinks its teeth into his neck. Bairaz, knowing he is participating in a ritual of great significance, subdues his urge to escape and does not resist. Yentil chants as the Wolf feeds.
Hruf, listening to gruesome sucking sounds and the old witch’s trancelike chanting, blows a torch to life and, with copper axe in hand, forces himself through the passage. (I required FP expenditure and DX rolls at a penalty to make it through for Hruf, whereas the normal-sized characters could crawl freely, if uncomfortably.) Inside, he sees a monster like a thin, naked man with silver tufts of hair about his back and shoulders, holding Bairaz to his face like a wineskin and sucking. He is only momentarily overcome by terror, and attacks the monster. (I waived Reluctant Killer here, as the vampire was clearly enough a malevolent supernatural thing, not a human.) He manages to hit the monster in the face, and with his supernaturally enhanced strength, this is enough to knock it out. He kneels and chokes it for a while, but feeling no pulse, breath, or resistance, lets go and sets about getting Bairaz and Yentil out. The woman resists, and he coldly knocks her senseless. (Meanwhile, Kulanauzon, confused over the events and frightened of the sounds and smells, has sunk into nervous inactivity.)
After having pushed his companions out of the deeper chamber (they both took some extra injury from this) he returns to drag the monster out, tying its ankles to one of his own, as this is much more convenient than pushing. The monster wakes up, however, in the middle of being dragged (Recovery is an interesting advantage), and a claustrophobic tug-of-war ensues. Halfway inside the narrow tunnel, the monster can’t contort itself to reach Hruf with its teeth, but neither is strong enough to pull the other through entirely. Eventually, the monster shapeshifts into wolf form and manages to pull its legs out. Hruf stumbles away and almost gets out of the cave, as Kulanauzon puts up a fight and the monster stops to try and mind-control the dog. This fails, and the monster runs Hruf down in the passage a few steps away from the exit. Kulanauzon follows. The three fight fiercely, with the approaching dawn providing just enough light to keep the passage from total darkness.
I need to do something about darkness penalties. It’s just not believable to me that Vision rolls would be penalized the same as attack rolls: it can get pretty dark before you can’t see enough to take a swing at someone, but even the difference between sunlight and indoor lighting makes a difference for seeing fine detail. Attack rolls should take much more lenient penalties than Search rolls and Vision rolls versus Stealth.
The monster drags Hruf down and wounds him severely, but Kulanauzon manages to hurt and hamper it enough for Hruf to land a terrible blow with the axe: he cleaves the monster’s neck open at the throat, and as Bairaz’s blood splatters about from its thrashing body, he gets up and chops it in the neck repeatedly until the head comes off.
The rules in play in this fight were rubbing up against the limits of my own cognitive capacity as a GM, and while I managed to keep darkness, posture and grappling penalties straight, I forgot to penalize Hruf’s axe swings in close combat, and was inconsistent with shock penalties. I might house rule the latter away, along with some other combat rule complications, and halve the cost of High Pain Threshold. All in all, a great fight: the strength potion obviously made all the difference, as the wolf-form vampire and accidental vampire hunter were matched in ST; the wolf had much higher DX, but lower HT, wheras Hruf’s axe gave him a damage advantage. Kulanauzon played an important supporting role: his biting damage wasn’t enough to seriously threaten the monster, but by biting and holding on, he consistently gave the monster the choice of either suffering a -4 DX penalty for being grappled, or spending its turns on the Break Free maneuver.
The man and dog, wounded but victorious, carry out Yentil and the surviving intruder, both unconscious. The wolf-monster’s head, also carried outside, bursts into flame as the first rays of sunlight hit the valley. Hruf inspects the intruder and his staff, tipped with the foreign metal and inscribed with the forbidden sign. He is old, white-bearded but far from decrepit, and clad in a richly embroidered white tunic and a leather belt and pectoral set with metal plates and semi-precious stones. He ties the man to a tree and waits for him to recover. When he does, Hruf shows him the pile of ashes remaining from the monster’s head, and the stranger beams with joy when he undestands. He raises his hand and projects a healing ray of light that closes the wounds on Hruf’s body. Hruf, not sure what to think, goes back to the cave for the body of Bairaz. The stranger, meanwhile, left tied up next to Yentil, burns the unconscious woman to death with the same incinerating touch he used to fight Kulanauzon. Hruf, seeing the dead witch, takes the man’s staff and Bairaz’s body, and with Kulanauzon, starts off towards the lake to bury the dead young man by its shore. Whether he comes back for Yentil or returns to the village, and what happens to the old strange holy man, we do not know: the session, and the story, end here.
So, an eventful and fun session, and the campaign is off to a fine start! I decided to go heavy on the supernatural stuff and give the players a glimpse of one type of supernatural threat they might have to contend with as vampires. As usual, I didn’t have fully worked out stats for any of the NPCs, just some notes on their general ability level, exceptional skills, and supernatural powers. The old man had plenty more tricks up his sleeve than what we saw in this session, but he made very good use of a really cheap ability: his attack was just a 1d+1 Burning Attack with the Melee Attack limitation, but it allowed him to fight off the dog in close combat and do away with the vampire-worshipping witch. When he first burst out of the darkness, using weird powers, my players actually thought he was the vampire at first. Not a terrible guess, but no, light and fire are weapons of the enemy. The actual vampire, on the other hand, had no Vampirism abilities except Shapeshifting and Enslavement, to go along with his Magery and non-action-oriented spells. As we move on towards the modern era, magic and other supernatural powers will become more and more secret, but certainly they will be a constant presence in the campaign. I though it would be a nice contrast to first see a bit of the prehistoric past, when vampires were worshipped as much as persecuted, and mortals wielded mighty spells openly.